Mort meets Death in Pratchett's fourth novel.

Top Fantasy Novels: Mort

A key element in many fantasy novels is larger-than-life characters. They could be gods, heroes, dark lords, or anthropomorphic representations of concepts. Such as Death. Terry Pratchett plays with all in his satirical Discworld series, but Death is by far and away his greatest success. It’s not unfair to say that Pratchett’s characterisation of Death is one of the reasons Mort is one of my top fantasy novels.


Death looks like the Grim Reaper we all recognise, the frightening skeleton in a black robe carrying a scythe. And in earlier novels he was closer to that stereotype. He had a cruel sense of humour and was doing his best to manoeuvre the wizard Rincewind into mortal peril. But in Mort, Pratchett expanded Death’s character by leaps and bounds, making him much more likeable, perhaps more hapless, and infinitely funnier. Now he’s simply performing an existential duty. He isn’t killing anyone. He’s just doing the job we gave him, which he’s very good at, and trying to understand people, which he isn’t good at.

Pratchett combines humour and an innocent curiosity to create a loveable character. Yes, fantasy and science fiction is filled with inhuman characters trying to understand humanity. But Pratchett does it so well you don’t mind the stereotype. So you enjoy watching him surround himself with the simulacra of life, a house and a horse and even human companions, without understanding any of them. And that’s where Mort comes in.

But at least the way was clear now. When you step off a cliff, your life takes a very definite direction.

Mort is Death’s new apprentice, just as hapless as his master but young and naive to boot. The plot comes from the hormonal mercy Mort grants to a princess due to die, the consequences of which are universe-shattering in scope. Despite that scale, Mort isn’t much more than a coming-of-age story, a fantasy bildungsroman, if you will. It’s a little simple, a little rough around the edges. But I find that makes the novel quite sweet and personal. Pratchett’s later works have the polish of a master craftsman with clever ideas and even intricate plots. But Mort is simpler fare with a story we can all identify. It’s also filled with Pratchett’s trademark wit, which makes this both a loveable and funny book.

As one man, the assembled company stopped talking and stared at him with the honest rural stare that suggests that for two pins they’ll hit you around the head with a shovel and bury your body under a compost heap at full moon.

I could write plenty about Terry Pratchett’s style of humour (and I did, a little, when I reviewed Pratchett’s Nome Trilogy). But the humour isn’t what makes this a great fantasy novel. It’s Pratchett’s inventiveness that does that. As mentioned before, Pratchett likes to indulge in all the tropes of fantasy, and play and lampoon them in clever ways. I enjoyed the idea that magical rites could be performed with very little but professional prestige is the motivator behind the pomp and ceremony. I also liked the way Pratchett incorporated the idea of morphogenetics, ludicrous in real life but fascinating “science” for a fantasy novel. And, of course, the way Ankh-Morpork reflects every major city is always insightful and hilarious.

Scientists have calculated that the chances of something so patently absurd actually existing are millions to one.
But magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.

In short, Mort is the Discworld novel for a fantasy lover that hasn’t read Discworld. And, if you’ve read Discworld but not Mort, hop to it; you’re missing out! In the meantime, do you think this deserves to be one of my top fantasy novels? Or can you think of a better candidate? Let me know in the comments!

George R. R. Martin's Game of Thones is one of the most famous fantasy series.

Top Fantasy Novels: A Game of Thrones

Surprise, surprise, eh? Seems we can’t get away from Game of Thrones no matter where we go. But there’s a reason for that: it’s a very good fantasy novel.

The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words.

George R. R. Martin does a brilliant job with his characters. Ned, Jon, Tyrion, Cersei, Daenerys, Arya (and so many, many more), all very different and all very complicated. Evil characters have redeeming features, good characters do evil things. Martin does an excellent job of keeping you hooked as characters you hate prosper and characters you love stumble into doom.

Because there are no happy endings in Westeros.

Why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?

One of the reasons A Game of Thrones has attracted so much attention is that it is a fantasy novel like no other. It is brutal, it is coarse, it is harsh and it has no remorse. Martin doesn’t tip-toe around the truth of the story. Characters have sex, get hurt, get maimed, and die. Love that character? They’re going to die. Hate that character? Well, they’ll probably die too; everybody does. In this way the novel is very fair: nobody gets what they want. Especially the reader.

A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep his edge.

The reader doesn’t get an easy ride, either. There’s no summarisation or recaps or clues to help the reader along. Which is great; too many fantasy novels spoon-feed their world to the reader. But A Game of Thrones has a lot of characters, intrigues, histories and storylines to keep track of. You’ve got to pay attention to this book. But whilst that can make for a reading experience that requires a lot of work, it makes too for a rich and realistic world. You could believe this was all true, if it weren’t for the magic.

Winter is coming.

But even the magic itself seems realistic. Because, while there’s a hint of it in the prologue, there isn’t much magic at all in this novel. Like so many great lies, 99% of the novel feels true so, when the 1% finally arrives, it’s so much easier to swallow. It’s masterfully done and a pleasure to experience.

You wear your honour like a suit of armour…you think it keeps you safe, but all it does is weigh you down…

And that is where I think the true strength of A Game of Thrones lies. It feels very real, even when it’s telling you about impossible things. Martin does a marvellous job of selling a fantasy novel as almost a historical drama and fills it with compelling character and constant heartache to make sure you can’t stop reading. I’m certainly addicted to this fantasy series. Are you?

John Howe's beautiful cover to Robin Hobb's Assassin's Quest

Top Fantasy Books: Assassin’s Quest

Quests seem as integral to the fantasy genre as eggs are to cake. But while I know at least one person who bakes without eggs, Robin Hobb didn’t break with tradition with her Farseer trilogy. But not only did she save the quest for the last book of the trilogy, it doesn’t feel like a stereotypical fantasy quest at all. That’s just one of the reasons it’s one of my top fantasy novels.

I healed. Not completely. A scar is never the same as good flesh, but it stops the bleeding.

So here’s the premise of this quest: Red Ships are raiding the Six Duchies and King Verity has disappeared trying to find help. Our hero, Fitz and the titular assassin, sets out on a quest to find his king.

So far so humdrum, right? But this is Robin Hobb. It’s never so emotionally straightforward.

You see, Fitz went through a truly traumatic ordeal in the second book. He was abandoned, betrayed and broken. And, by the time Assassin’s Quest begins, he’s still pretty broken inside. He’s a mess of a man. In fact, he doesn’t even want to be a man anymore, let alone get involved in the affairs of the realm again. He’d be safer if he just stayed away.

But Fitz is too damn loyal. It’s like he can’t help himself. So, despite how scared and broken he is, he has to find his king. He doesn’t want to defeat a great evil or save the realm. He very much wants to go home. But he goes all the same. It’s fascinating and admirable and even moving in places.

You are confusing plumbing and love again.

That loyalty is one of the reasons Fitz works so well as a character, because a lot of the time he’s being grumpy and mopey. The other reason is his interactions with the others characters; Hobb has a marvellous ability for drawing complicated relationships. For example, Fitz and the Fool are closer than brothers and yet they fight and they argue. Fitz doesn’t always understand the Fool and sometimes he’s even put off and repelled by his friend’s odd behaviour. But that doesn’t stop their relationship being one of the sweetest and strongest I’ve ever read.

Those relationships are the core to the book and the series as a whole. Whilst there is a grand plot this book, perhaps more than the others, is driven by Fitz. His unstinting and self-flagellating loyalty to his king, his queen and his friends. His faltering friendship with the minstrel Starling. His bond with his wolf Nighteyes. The physical and mental scars he bears, his terrors and his fears. Everything he does is motivated by these relationships and makes this a very personal and emotional book.

It is only cold stone, carved so well as to appear alive.

This extends to the dragons of Assassin’s Quest. Dragons and fantasy novels go hand-in-hand but Hobb’s take on them in this novel is unlike any I’ve come across before. Hers are made a stone, a strange mix between art, weaponry and self-sacrifice. They’re carved using magic and animated with memories, emotions and eventually life-essence of the carver. It’s a fantastic idea on its own but what takes it from fantastic to sublime is how well it fits with Fitz’s story of sacrifice. It’s a clear example of the plot being driven by the characters and I just love it.

Truth is often much larger than facts.

So, yes, there’s a quest but, no, it’s not like the quests you’ve seen in other fantasy novels. And while you’ll have to read the first two books to get the most out of this one, when you do you’ll understand why Assassin’s Quest is one of my top fantasy books. And I suspect it will be one of yours too.

Or will it? Let me know what you think of Assassin’s Quest or which novels you think should be one of my top fantasy books!

KDP Pricing Support can't help you price your ebook.

KDP Pricing Support Gets It Wrong

Amazon have unveiled a new tool for indie authors. KDP Pricing Support seeks to compare your ebook to similar offerings in the Amazon store and use that comparison to find the best price point for your book. The purpose behind KDP Pricing Support is to maximise author earnings, something most authors will appreciate. But I think it’s almost useless.

Let’s look at Amazon’s suggestions for my short story You Are Just A Guest, which comes in at just over 5,000 words. It’s priced at $0.99, which I think is pretty reasonable; (what I hope is) a solid and entertaining piece of writing costs the same as a single chocolate bar. But KDP Pricing Support thinks I should charge $2.99 for a short story.

Amazon isn’t alone in that opinion; Dean Wesley Smith concurs. And if we think about it, selling a 5,000 word story for $2.99 means I make $0.06 a word. Consider that, at the low end, Analog pays $0.07 a word and Asimov’s $0.08 a word and I’m doing pretty well for a new author! And the way Amazon’s royalty structure works, I’d have to sell six copies at $0.99 to make the same as just one copy at $2.99.

So this is a done deal, right? Time to hike the price! But hang on a moment. Don’t we need to consider what the reader is willing to pay?

Let’s consider Analog and Asimov magazines, which sell for circa $3.50 a copy and contain a lot more than a single story. Let’s consider that the best selling paperback on Amazon is just shy of $7.80. Let’s consider that, while you make $0.06 a word on a $2.99 sale price, most short stories tend to sell to a magazine just once. It is not reasonable to ask a reader to fork out $2.99 for a single short story.

But KDP Pricing Support can’t tell you that, because the best earning point is $2.99, where the sales and royalties are high enough to earn more than at $0.99. From a data perspective, it’s the best idea for my short story.

But I doubt readers would agree.

Marvel have given Mjolnir to a new, female Thor.

Is a Female Thor a Good Idea?

Here’s something new: Asgardian god and Chris Hemsworth lookalike Thor is being replaced by a woman.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is a first for comics. Not that Thor is getting replaced; when you go on holiday someone fills in for you and superheroes are no exception. Iron Man, Spider-man, even Superman. And Batman’s given up the cowl so many times the Batcave has a revolving door. But all of these temporary replacements have been of the same gender; no woman ever stepped into Batman’s shoes. I think this is a great story opportunity and I might have to pick up an issue. That said, I’m not convinced this is such a big step.

That sentiment wasn’t helped by another Marvel announcement, just a day later, that Sam Wilson, a black character, will also take over as Captain America. Another minority (as comics defines them, i.e. anything other than white male) gets a turn in the limelight. Two in as many days. It would be easy to accuse Marvel of tokenism, of shouting “look, we’ve got women and black guys in our comics!” until they’ve got our money. Then they can bring back the old white guys.

Because the status quo is king in comics. Man-Thor and Steve Rogers will come back sooner or later and these two characters will be relegated back to second string.

But here’s the thing: this is still a positive move.

I wrote a blog about what’s wrong with women in comics in which I said that comics are rightly called juvenile and backwards until they give women the respect they deserve. Since then we’ve heard David Goyer, the screenwriter behind The Dark Knight and Man of Steel, calling She-Hulk a porn star and a male power/sex fantasy. We’ve also seen the Internet pour vitriol on Janelle Asselin for criticising the hyper-sexualised teenager on the cover to Teen Titans #1. I was beginning to think there wasn’t much hope for comics.

But even if this is tokenism, and even if it only lasts, say, six months, two of the three core members of the Avengers aren’t white guys. That’s six months of representation, six months of diversity, six months of different perspectives for comics readers.

A lot of commentators have been saying it would have been better to create new heroes than hijack existing ones. That has to be a long-term goal, but let’s not overlook the power in a six-month gimmick. When it’s all over everything will look the same as it always did. But the publicity can draw in new readers that might have previously been put off by the white male spandex brigade. And, hopefully, Marvel will have shown existing readers that a female Thor is just as good as a male Thor.

And readers will have shown Marvel that there’s an appetite for “minority” superheroes that can be fed with new, permanent characters.

What do you think of the female Thor? Is it tokenism, a waste of time, or can’t you wait for the first issue? Let me know in the comments.


6 Social Media Tools Every Writer Should Know About

This post is prompted by a conversation I was having with my dad, who runs Magic at Events. We were talking about whether it’s best to schedule Twitter updates or not and he pointed out that there’s no way of knowing when the best time for a tweet is. When I pointed out that there are some sites that can figure it out for you, he asked me “how do you know about this stuff?” And my answer was “someone told me”. And then I realised I’d been told about a lot of stuff and I should really pass on that knowledge. So here’s 6 Social Media Tools That I Think Are Cool And You Might Too.

Don’t get me wrong here. The purpose of this post is not to say “I use Twitter/Facebook/etc and so should you”. Some social media sites aren’t for everyone. This is strictly about tools; stuff you can use for a specific purpose other than networking.


Put aside the networking aspect and Twitter becomes a fantastic search engine. It’s great for gauging mood, measuring conversation or getting real-time updates. Most of the time you’ll probably use Google, but I recommend making Twitter your secondary search engine. I’ve found links, blogs and people full of information on subjects where Google had let me down. Set up a dummy account and start searching!


I’ve already written about whether or not scheduling social media posts is a good idea but, if you’re convinced, this is the tool to do it with. You can link it to Facebook, Twitter, Google+ Pages, LinkedIn and The advantage to Buffer is you don’t have to pick a time for each update. You pick your posting times in advance and drop updates into a queue. You can still specify a certain time for an individual update if you want to. Otherwise you can sit back and let Buffer post for you!


The service that sparked this post. Say you want to schedule your posts but you don’t know when to do so. Tweriod can help you out. It only works with Twitter at the moment but it will analyse your followers and tell you at what times your posts have the greatest potential for reaching them.

Google Alerts

Not quite social media, perhaps, but a good tool all the same. A Google Alert will send you an email when it indexes something matching a search term. Say you want to keep your ear to the ground regarding Branwell Bronte. Set up a Google Alert and, instead of having to search every day, Google will send you an email as and when something is posted.


The next level from Google Alerts, Mention can perform the same service but will trawl blogs, Facebook, Twitter and so on as well. It was suggested to me as a way of keeping track of people who post links to your website; that way you can thank them accordingly! That’s a great use for this tool but it’s a good way of keeping up to date on a certain topic, too.

An RSS Reader

Instead of visiting a dozen different sites to keep up with news on those things you like, download one RSS reader and read all those blogs in one place. Personally I recommend Flipboard but there’s plenty of choice out there.

Do you agree that these are handy tools? Do you disagree? Have I missed any out? Let me know in the comments!


Writing Lessons from Short Stories

Anyone who has met me or frequented this site has probably guessed that brevity is not my greatest strength. I have a habit of over-thinking things, which means I like to dig down deep into ideas and places and people, clawing beyond the foundations into the bitter, dark, twisted, glowing dirt in the underbelly of their existence…

I forget where I was going with this.

So, I prefer writing novels, where I can dig down deep. Not many of my short pieces survive. That said, being forced to write something outside of my comfort zone always improves my writing, and I suspect you could use it to improve yours too.

Try to Cut Everything

You Are Just A Guest used to weigh in at 8,000 words. A critical eye reduced that down to 5,000 by cutting redundant scenes and extraneous description that slowed down the narrative. Now I couldn’t tell you what I cut because I can’t remember it; it wasn’t pulling it’s weight.

But every character, scene, even sentence needs to have a good reason two good reasons three good reasons for being there. If it can’t, then it’s got to go.

Giving Clues to the Reader

You’ve not got a lot of room for deep and exhaustive characterisation, description or backstory. But skipping that will leave you with two faceless dialogue puppets in a white room; who cares about that? But you can do a lot with a little.

For instance, the narrator for The Homeless Hero had a falling out with her mother over something that happened in their past. Most readers probably know all about it except I never once explained it. I used a few lines scattered throughout the story and let the reader put it together. They fill in all the blanks, giving me room in my word count for the story.

It’s a Great Place to Experiment

Before writing The Homeless Hero I had never written from a female perspective before. The notion scared me a little bit. I was worried I’d end up writing a man in a woman’s body or, perhaps worse, a stereotype or a cliche; something nobody would believe in.

But a short story is a much smaller environment and so it’s ideally suited to experimentation. Trying my hand at a female perspective boosted my confidence and helped me explore places and thoughts I can use again in the future.

You can get my short stories from Amazon now, as well as all other major ebook stores.

What have you learnt from short stories?


5 Blogs Every Indie Writer Should Read

So you’ve picked your RSS reader (maybe off the back of my recommendation). What do you fill it with? It’s true that us writerly types like to have lots to read, but the truth is there are so many blogs out there it’s hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. Well here are five blogs that I think can help a writer of any stripe.

Lindsay Buroker

If you’re planning to self-publish your work, Lindsay’s blog is required reading. She writes unflinchingly about her experiences of self-publishing: what’s worked for her and why, what didn’t work, and what lessons she’s learned. Start reading now.

The Passive Voice

If you’re looking for news about books and publishing you can’t go wrong here. This blog is a great aggregator of other stories and a great way of keeping your ear to the ground. There’s a strong pro-Amazon bias though, so watch out for that; it can be a bit over the top sometimes.


This probably seems like an odd one, but the Buffer team blogs about things like time management, life hacks and online marketing; all things a modern writer needs to know about.

Writing Excuses

This one’s actually a podcast but since they’re basically audio blogs it counts, right? Hosted by four writers of different stripes, they discuss an aspect of writing each week from their unique perspectives. Both entertaining and illuminating, I’m an avid listener and I’m sure you will be too.

Good E-Reader

While this blog has a terrible anti-indie bias, I can’t fault it for being an excellent resource of news surrounding ebooks and ereaders. As this is the foundation of income for the majority of indies, it’s good to know what’s happening in that world.

Update: Michael Kozlowski, the primary writer for Good E-Reader, has been uploading posts that express sexist and inflammatory viewpoints. I don’t know whether this is deliberate controversy to increase visits or whether he truly holds these disappointing beliefs. Either way, it’s not behaviour I can condone. I have removed the link to the site and will endeavour to find a suitable replacement.

I’m always looking for new blogs to read, so please do let me know what your recommendations are in the comments!


Writing Lessons from Calvin & Hobbes

I love Calvin & Hobbes. I was introduced to it at, I believe, the age of 11. Up until that point I’d read strips like Garfield and, to a lesser extent, Peanuts. Calvin & Hobbes was a revelation. Funny and thoughtful and with a beauty that never faded over time, it stands as one of my favourite pieces of both writing and art. Where else can you be thinking about the nature of existence one moment and Tyrannosaurs in F-16s the next? Bill Watterson was a master of the page and there are so many lessons to be gleaned from the strip it’s tough to fit them all in.

Stick to Your Vision

Calvin & Hobbes has a purity I haven’t seen anywhere else. It’s got one true, singular voice that never seems to deviate. That isn’t to say that it hits only one note, tells only one joke or explores only one idea. But it never deviates from its heart. There are a hundred different pressures to make changes to our art, be it pressures of marketability, pressures from fans or even pressures from ourselves. But sticking to our singular vision will produce a purer, better piece of art than trying to make something that is everything.

Dictate Your Medium

When Watterson felt constricted by his medium, he changed it. Papers could cut panels out of his Sunday strips if they so chose, forcing him to waste them on throwaway jokes. So he made changes. Papers could no longer cut up his strip. They were free to stop running his strip (and some did), but he wasn’t willing to let his art suffer because of artificial limitations.

The advent of ereaders, tablets and print-on-demand means writers have greater control over their medium than ever before. Whether the writer wants to create a very traditional work or wants something that incorporates video, audio, even toy with the nature of the page itself (perhaps in the vein of House of Leaves), we can manipulate the medium to fit the art, rather than the other way around.

Create Your Own Rules

The nature of Hobbes reality was a constant question for many readers; is he a stuffed toy that comes to life when no-one but Calvin is looking or is it all in Calvin’s head? Watterson refused to provide a solid answer. He decided the world he created had room for both a stuffed Hobbes and a “real” Hobbes.

As with any industry there are certain rules that writers have to follow. But there are plenty of “rules” that we can ignore. Many felt that the ambiguous nature of Hobbes could confuse and potentially alienate readers; as a rule, one should avoid confusing the reader. But the strip’s popularity goes to show that Watterson was right to ignore that rule.

Leave Them Wanting More

Calvin & Hobbes ran from 1985 to 1995 and when Bill Watterson finished the last strip some people thought he was mad. Calvin & Hobbes were still riding a wave of popularity and there were no signs of that wave crashing against a shore any time soon. But Watterson decided it was time. He knew that running the strip too long would leave it tired and that fans would lose interest eventually. Better to finish on a high. Better to leave the audience wanting more.

It’s always tempting to revisit characters and settings, both for our own pleasure and to satisfy reader demand. There’s a fine line to tread between exploring more creative opportunities in a creative property and milking it dry.

Contrast Your Characters

Perhaps the most important reason that Calvin & Hobbes worked was the central relationship between the two main characters. Calvin and Hobbes are different in many fundamental ways, which offers great opportunity for discussion, disagreement and dynamism. Conflict is the heart of any story, which can’t exist if all the characters think the same.

That said, Calvin and Hobbes had a solid foundation of love and trust despite their differences. Conflict creates a story, but their friendship allowed people to bring the characters into their hearts and made the strip beloved to millions of people.

And, to end, here’s my favourite Calvin & Hobbes strip. I laughed so hard I nearly passed out.

The funniest Calvin & Hobbes strip. Ever.

What’s your favourite strip?


Is Scheduling Social Media Posts a Bad Idea?

Ever had three updates to post to your social media account but you don’t want to post them all at once? Or got an update for a specific date or time in the future? You’re not the only one, judging by the army of scheduling services like Buffer, Hootsuite and SocialOomph. These are services, often free, where you can set a post to publish at a specific time on a specific date. Handy, right? But wait; there’s a few things to bear in mind before you start scheduling.

You’re Not Online to Engage With Your Audience

If you’re posting good content, people will respond to it. Only you’re not there for the conversation. While your Friends, Fans and Followers (FFFs) are trying to talk to you, you’re off doing something else, leaving their responses going ignored.

Some People Don’t Like Scheduled Posts

There’s an argument that if a piece of software is posting the content then your profile isn’t too far removed from a bot. Whether or not you agree with this is irrelevant; the fact is that some people believe it and scheduling your posts may mean they stop being an FFF.

Scheduling Can Run Afoul of Current Events

Worse than ignoring your FFFs is a scheduled post hitting the Internet at a bad time. Take the example of Kim Kardashian, who posted condolences to the victims of the Boston marathon bomb but obviously forgot to switch off her scheduled posts. 24 minutes after get best wishes, she sent a tweet promoting her mother’s appearance on TV. The backlash got nasty.

Looks grim, huh? Maybe this scheduling lark isn’t the best idea. But there’s two sides to every coin, and plenty of good things about scheduling.

Catch Your Followers When They’re Online

If someone tweets and no-one’s online to see it, does it still make a noise? No. Posting something when none of your FFFs are online is completely pointless. Scheduling it for when they are means you don’t have to remember it for hours only to get distracted and forget what time you were going to post and damn is that the time shoot I’ve totally missed it and now I’ll have to wait some more and so on and so on.

Avoid Spamming Your Followers’ Feeds

You’re scrolling through your feed and suddenly it’s taken over by one user who’s posted thirty-seven updates all at once. How annoying. Let’s skip all those. Not good, right? You don’t want to be that guy. Spreading updates over the day avoids flooding your FFFs’ feeds.

Increase Your Exposure

The flip side of that coin is that if you’re dumping all your updates at, say, 6pm, anyone who checks in at 5pm won’t see them. Spreading your updates over the day increases exposure.

Do you schedule your social media posts? Or do you think it’s a terrible idea? Let me know in the comments.