The cover to Claudia Gray's Star Wars: Lost Stars.

Star Wars: Lost Stars review

If Lost Stars by Claudia Gray is an indicator of the new Star Wars expanded universe, then I think we could be looking at something pretty cool.

I was a big fan of the old Star Wars EU. But when Disney bought Lucasfilm, they wiped the slate clean. No more Corran Horn, Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, Dash Rendar, Galen Marek, Ysanne Isard, or Grand Admiral Thrawn. The Star Wars EU had decades to build up success and history. There was a lot to live up to.

Lost Stars is a YA novel about two lovers, Thane and Ciena, both in the service of the Empire. Thane defects to the Rebellion. Cue tragic romance. I won’t lie, I really wasn’t sure about it. Could a couple of unknown, star-crossed lovers shoe-horned into the original trilogy really compare with the Thrawn trilogy?

Spoiler: it can’t. But it’s still good.

But by ending the war now, before it truly begins, the Death Star will save more lives than it took.

I wasn’t sure a YA tragic romance was a good fit for Star Wars, but actually the tone is almost perfect. That has something to do with what Lucas made, and something to do with Gray’s writing. She gets the feel of Star Wars. She captures that brisk sense of adventure so well you feel you could be reading a novelisation of deleted scenes. Almost

And the best thing Lost Stars offers is its fresh perspective. Thane and Ciena rationalise Alderaan as a necessary evil, a space opera Hiroshima. And the destruction of the Death Star is a terrorist act, a war crime that slaughters thousands of good officers. And these contrary viewpoints work well because Gray isn’t writing villains or ciphers. She’s writing complicated characters. Thane is a cynic, sure that no government is perfect, content to work with the one in place until he can no longer abide its methodology. Ciena is an idealist, seeing the order and the stability the Empire has to offer.

And who is this General Calrissian? Thane decided not to ask that question out loud. If the Rebel Alliance was happy turning over its two most critical missions of all time to a bunch of brand-new generals, okay, fine.

I’m always sceptical when a writer tries to weave new characters into an existing story. It smacks of a retcon. Why did we never see this guy? Why did they never mention her? But Gray pulls this off well. Thane and Ciena aren’t big players, and the only movie characters they meet are minor. Tarkin, Mon Mothma, Captain/Admiral Piet, and even they only have brief appearances. These cameos offer little glimpses and expansions to their characters and, by not leaning on the main cast of the trilogy, Gray builds a sense of a much vaster galaxy.

This also allows Thane to question who the Rebel heroes are, since he never sees them involved in any real military efforts, yet they always seem to be in charge. It’s funny, and a nice nod to the fact that both Thane and Ciena suffer from the same illness of Luke, Leia, Han and co.: they’re often in situations they don’t belong for the sake of the plot. Thane obviously becomes an X-wing pilot but is given ground assault duties. Ciena is a deck officer but gets sent out in TIE fighters. But this is Star Wars. Our heroes can’t be constrained by realism. Which is why a con man and a gas miner was allowed to lead the greatest Rebellion offensive of all time.

Sometimes we’re loyal to more than one thing. When there’s a conflict, we have to choose which loyalty to honor.

The biggest problem with Lost Stars is that it’s trying to serve two masters: the story and the hype. Released in the lead-up to The Force Awakens, the cover is splashed with promises of exclusive content that ties into the new film and never-before-scenes from the Original Trilogy. Thane and Ciena don’t just find themselves in situations they don’t belong. They find themselves shoe-horned into events. Events conspire, contort even, to bring both into contact with Alderaan, Yavin, Cloud City, Endor. And in order to fit all that in and get some post-Jedi events, the plot takes big jumps through time. Sometimes it feels like Thane and Ciena’s Greatest Hits, and the final showdown seems a bit rushed, slotted in with very little explanation at all.

Which is a bit sad, because there’s a good story in here. And if Gray had been given a bit more space and fewer marketing boxes to tick, there was the potential for a deeper, more meaningful telling to match a deep and meaningful tale. The story between set pieces shows a war more devastating than anything the films portrayed, and the galaxy she created was big enough that Thane and Ciena didn’t have to be at every movie battle. Personally I think it would have been stronger for it.

Lost Stars doesn’t always navigate its way around the Original Trilogy perfectly, but it’s an enjoyable story, well-written, with strong characters. Being YA it doesn’t have the heft of the Thrawn trilogy, but it’s got the fast-paced adventure Star Wars is known for. I’d readily pick up a sequel.

A Kindle ereader leant against paperbacks

Amazon’s latest Kindle Paperwhite Promotion is a Little Odd

Amazon are running a promotion: buy a Kindle Paperwhite and get a free book. Sounds good, I thought. Perhaps they’ll offer a credit, or that the Kindle might even arrive with the book preloaded. But no. Bizarrely, the book that Amazon are offering to go alongside your shiny new ereader is a hardback.

Isn’t that a bit like giving you a free CD when you buy an iPod?

Waterstones logo

Mourning the Waterstones that Never Was

Four years ago I predicted that Waterstones were working on an ereader, and since then I’ve looked forward to an integrated nirvana of a bookshop that sold books irrespective of format. But now Waterstones are shutting down their ebook store and handing their customers over to a Kobo. And I’m mourning the lost opportunity.

The ebook market has three major players in my country: Amazon, Apple and Kobo. Apple doesn’t offer ereaders. Kobo is in bed with WHSmith, a high street chain that hasn’t been known for books for at least ten years. That left Amazon with the edge. Unless Waterstones entered the market.

Waterstones is the UK’s biggest high street bookseller. If you’re buying a book in the real world, chances are you’re buying it from Waterstones. I believe they could have had a real edge in the UK ebook market. Humanity is a fan of the one-stop shop. That’s a part of why Amazon is such a success. And Waterstones could have out-done Amazon at its own game.

Here’s where my dream comes in. You wander into a Waterstones. You’re looking for a gift, so you browse the aisles. Ooh, the new Robin Hobb is out. The shelf has a QR code on it, which you can scan with your Waterstones app. Want to buy the ebook? A few taps and it’s in your library. Right, back to this gift. You browse a bit until, aha, this one’s perfect. It looks so good you want a copy for yourself. Get to the till and the staff assistant tells you this is part of a deal; you can get the ebook at half price. Sounds like a great deal. She offers you another code to scan with your phone. Moments later you walk out with a gift and two new ebooks.

This is a scenario off the top of my head; I’m sure there’s plenty more that could be done. But it serves to show that Waterstones could have helped tackle show-rooming (where people browse the shelves and then order from Amazon) as well as offering great deals and convenience to readers.

Now I’m not saying Waterstones could have toppled Amazon; I’m not daft. But Waterstones had the perfect chance to compete and innovate. Instead they paid lip service to an ebook store, sold an incompatible ereader, and wondered why they didn’t see a success.

And it’s the reader who loses out. Less competition equals stagnation. The ebook vs paperback war is nearing an end, and I think it’s safe to say co-existence will be the outcome. The winner of this “war” will be the person who sells that co-existence along with convenience.

Because readers just want to read books.

Draft cover for The Unquiet Sword by James T Kelly

Announcing The Unquiet Sword

Sometimes it feels like readers have been asking for the sequel to The Fey Man since release day. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that people are so eager to continue with the story! Either I’ve managed to create a compelling and immersive tale, or that cliffhanger really hung the cliff :-D Well the wait is almost over.

The Unquiet Sword is almost here.

Releasing on 8th October 2016, The Unquiet Sword picks up where The Fey Man left off. It’s available for preorder now from the following vendors:

Kobo | Apple iBookstore | Barnes & Noble

Amazon doesn’t permit a preorder period of longer than three months, but subscribers to my mailing list will know as soon as the Amazon preorder goes live!

I can’t wait to see what you think of The Unquiet Sword!

P.S. I forgot to mention the preorder price is just 0.99!

Title card for Let's Build The Fey Man YouTube series

How #feymanlego Became a Thing

“How hard can it be?” I can’t seem to stop asking this question. It leaves me tackling projects I’m not entirely equipped or prepared to handle, but honestly? I kind of enjoy it. So when I started getting back into Lego, I started to wonder what a Fey Man Lego set would look like. And then I thought I could record myself building it and sharing it online. And before I knew it, I had a webcam and a pile of Lego and no idea what I was doing.

Of course I wasn’t exactly blazing a trail. Customised Lego is not something new, ranging from “kit-bashing” (putting different pieces together to create something new) through altering or painting existing pieces to sculpting entire new pieces (and even selling them). So the first step was research. I read blogs, watched videos, and slowly built a picture of what I could and could not achieve by myself.

I thought the webcam would be difficult to find, but the first one I found happened to be the one recommended by nearly everyone. I also happened to find it when it was on sale! The Logitech C920 is small and puts out a good picture. I recorded a few test videos with it, customising a minifigure using paints. The videos looked okay, but the minifigure didn’t and the sound wasn’t right. I dug out an old USB headset and abandoned the paints.

I found a website called Firestartoys.com which sold individual Lego minifigure components and accessories. They’ve got a huge catalogue to trawl through, and it took a few weeks to identify which pieces would work for the set. The Lego website also offers a Pick a Brick service which meant I could order specific bricks without breaking the bank.

Soon enough it was time to record the first official Let’s Build The Fey Man video. I have to admit, I was surprisingly nervous! This video would be visible for the entire world to see. What if I looked like an amateur, or a fool, or I wasn’t entertaining or interesting enough? I restarted two dozen times, even wiped a video and started all over again. But in the end I had a video. And I put it online.

Thankfully the feedback has been positive so far. I’m still finding my way a little and my audience isn’t big, but they seem to enjoy the videos and, best of all, they offer feedback, ideas and suggestions. That’s what matters to me. As long as they enjoy the journey, it doesn’t matter how many of them there are. We’ll build this set together, and hopefully it will look great at the end of it all.

Want to take a look at the results? Check out Let’s Build The Fey Man.

Each sale of The Fey Man in paperback earns about 40p in royalties

Are Paperbacks Worth It for Indie Authors?

Let’s talk numbers. I know, it’s terribly gauche to talk about money and how much we all earn, but if we don’t talk about it then we’re all ignorant. Besides, this isn’t an attempt at gloating. I’d like to make a serious point here: are paperbacks worth it for an indie author?

Let me show you what I mean. The Fey Man is 374 pages long and priced at $9.99 / £7.99. Amazon take 40% of the list price. They then apply a Fixed Charge which depends on the page count, which is $0.85/£0.70 for The Fey Man. On top of that they apply a Per-Page Charge, which is $4.49/£3.74 for The Fey Man. So whenever I sell a copy, I earn $0.66 ($9.99 – 40% – $0.85 – $4.49), which converts to £0.45. Or, in the UK, from £7.99 I earn £0.35.

Now take a look at ebooks. Amazon have two rates for ebooks dependent on price. Below $2.99 or above $9.99 and it’s 65% (don’t price your ebook at $9.99). But, at $2.99 or more it’s 30%. $2.99 it is! Amazon also take a delivery fee based on the file size, which is $0.11 for The Fey Man. So for each ebook I make $2.02, which converts to roughly £1.30.

(The UK government charge 20% VAT on ebooks so from a £1.99 ebook sale I see £1.04.)

These figures alone suggest the paperback is a waste of time, but don’t forget to factor in the cost of commissioning a spine and back cover from your artist, as well as the cost of ordering prints and the sheer amount of time it takes to format a paperback. And for a measly £0.35? Why bother right?

There are, of course, other benefits to paperbacks. Living in the UK, we still have a huge segment of the population who haven’t adopted ebooks. That pesky VAT keeps ebook prices higher than they ought to be, for a start. So if I stopped producing paperbacks, I’d leave a lot of readers behind. A paperback also makes the ebook a better value proposition: £1.99 looks like a better next to £7.99 than in a vacuum.

I also suspect that paperbacks are seen as a validation. That you’re not a “real” author if you don’t have a paperback. But I wonder if this attitude will last. Will we see a day when paperbacks are relegated to items of luxury? Given the sheer cost of paper, ink and postage, will a day come when authors forgo the paperback and release their books in digital formats only?

It’s happening in the music, film and video game industries. I can see it happening in the book industry too.

But what do you think? Is there a death knell sounding for paperbacks? Or will they be around for many years to come?

The Legend of Prince Valiant logo

Prince Valiant Title Sequence: Unlikely Inspirations

Arthurian myths play a big role in The Fey Man. You might think I read and researched a lot of those myths. Perhaps you have a romantic image of me in a montage of reading books, cross-referencing articles, leafing furiously through pages before finally falling asleep on a pile of books, glasses askew. Perhaps you don’t. But whilst I was inspired by the myths, I also took inspiration from another source: the title sequence for The Legend of Prince Valiant.

Time for a confession: I was never a fan of Prince Valiant. I watched it, because I’d watch any old rubbish as a kid. But if there was something else on, I’d watch that. The Legend of Prince Valiant was too slow, too mundane for the tastes of a boy who thought Teenage Mutant Turtles were the best thing since sliced pizza. But the title sequence always stuck with me. I suspect it was the power ballad.

It was definitely the power ballad.

It might sound daft, but I’m fairly certain this sixty second video has influenced my entire thinking of the Arthurian myth. It’s full of sun symbology, brave knights galloping, and everyone is standing about proudly and bearing arms to the sounds of 80s enthusiasm. It speaks of a golden age of chivalry and, well, valiance. And then, towards the end, there’s an old man slumped in a throne. Completely at odds to everything else. Even old Merlin is doing the whole standing proudly thing. But Arthur seems fed up with it all. Or defeated. Surrounded by all this hope and purpose and yet unable to feel it.

And doesn’t that exactly sum up the myth of Arthur? His rule is meant to be a golden age. But, like all halcyon days, it’s too good to be true. It falters and fails. So instead the myth casts another ray of hope, that Arthur will return one day and bring about a true golden age. Yet it’s a vain hope. Those days will never come again. Even if Arthur did come back, how could he bring that time with him? The past has passed and doesn’t return. That old man slumped in his throne is aware of the lie of his legend.

Or am I reading way to much into a cartoon title sequence?

Norwich Millenium Library - now lending The Fey Man :-D

20 Reasons Why Libraries Rock

So apparently libraries have betrayed independent publishers; that’s the word from one of the speakers at the Inpress Publishing Festival. His problem seems to be that libraries aren’t buying as many books from small publishers as they used to. I won’t get into the politics of it all, although I’m surprised to see anyone in publishing criticise libraries; I think it’s safe to say that most people in publishing have benefitted from libraries and would encourage their success at every opportunity. So I thought I’d list twenty personal reasons why libraries rock.

  1. Libraries never told me a book was too advanced for me.
  2. Libraries never told me I was too advanced for a book.
  3. Libraries answered my questions before the Internet was no more than message boards.
  4. Libraries helped me get my hands on a rare and expensive book for my history project about the historical Dracula.
  5. Libraries introduced me to Terry Pratchett via the Mort graphic novel.
  6. Libraries allowed me to devour the Star Wars Expanded Universe without impoverishing my parents.
  7. Libraries granted me the infuriating hilarity of reading a book in which Princess Leia’s surname had been methodically corrected by pencil to ‘Skywalker’.
  8. Libraries meant I could listen to The Prodigy without having to ask my mother to buy it for me and thus have to explain why The Prodigy was fine for a teenage boy to listen to.
  9. Libraries helped me find enough resources to give a book report on Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart despite not having read it.
  10. Libraries have since helped me read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
  11. Libraries introduced me to the work of Katharine Briggs, which would prove pivotal to The Fey Man.
  12. Libraries furnished me with scientific books about dinosaurs when everywhere else offered colouring books.
  13. Libraries have cursed me to forever try to find a children’s book about a boy who travels back to the time of the dinosaurs and, at some point, visits Kew Gardens. No-one else seems to have heard of it. But I’ll find it one day.
  14. Libraries offered dozens of books about writing at a time when I didn’t know what the word ‘plot’ meant.
  15. Libraries were the first place I discovered comic book heroes outside of cartoons.
  16. Libraries let me read a prose adaptation of the Batman Knightfall storyline that made more sense than the collected editions of the comics.
  17. Libraries offered a rare space in my life where peace and quiet reigned supreme and unchallenged.
  18. Libraries are willing to lend a book written by an unknown local author.
  19. Libraries permitted me to read at little cost, at a time when little cost was the only cost I could bear.
  20. Finally, libraries are a bastion of the book. They might not always be perfect, but they are an almost barrier-free access point to books, which open countless doors to countless worlds to both young and old, rich and poor.

Why do you love libraries?

Brian Sibley, who also adapted The Once and Future King for radio

Of Brian Sibley and Quotes

I used to think that I was a lucky person. In fact sometimes it felt like I lived on luck, that there was a steady trickle of it that would never drown me but might one day decide to leave me high and dry. But I’ve changed my mind over the past few years, in large part to that quote from Peter Dinklage.

“I feel really lucky…although I hate that word — ‘lucky.’ It cheapens a lot of hard work. Living in Brooklyn in an apartment without any heat and paying for dinner at the bodega with dimes — I don’t think I felt myself lucky back then. Doing plays for 50 bucks and trying to be true to myself as an artist and turning down commercials where they wanted a leprechaun. Saying I was lucky negates the hard work I put in and spits on that guy who’s freezing his ass off back in Brooklyn. So I won’t say I’m lucky. I’m fortunate enough to find or attract very talented people. For some reason I found them, and they found me. – Peter Dinklage interviewed in The New York Times

I’m not sure what reason helped me find Brian Sibley (or indeed, he find me), but I appreciate how very, very fortunate I am that he provided a quote for the cover of The Fey Man.

Brian Sibley is like an onion. Or an ogre. Or a parfait. It’s all layers. At first I thought him a Tolkien authority. Amongst other things, he adapted The Lord of the Rings for BBC radio back on 1981, and wrote all the Making Of books for Peter Jackson’s films. Then I learnt he’d also written books about A.A. Milne. And C.S. Lewis. Walt Disney. Harry Potter. Rev. W. Audrey. To top it off, I recently discovered he wrote a very funny piece of comedy about The Twelve Days of Christmas.

The Fey Man found its way into Brian’s hands via my dad; both my dad and Brian are members of the Magic Circle and Brian was too kind not to say no when my dad thrust a copy into his hands. (Perhaps this proves again it’s not what you know but who you know.) Brian’s written about some great authors and great works, and now he had my little novel in his hands (and a copy with the old maps too). I must admit I was a little nervous. And then I received this in the post.

The card that Brian Sibley sent meNot only had he read The Fey Man, but he sent me a card to tell me he liked it. That card immediately went up on the mantlepiece and it’s never coming down! I wrote back to thank him, and a brief correspondence led to him offering a quote. And a quote isn’t a small thing. Publishers seek every quote they can get as a form of social proof, as a way of saying “look, this famous person liked this book so you will too”. To offer one to an unknown author is a leg-up, an endorsement, and a rare gift. It was an act of unestimable kindness.

So to say I feel fortunate is an understatement. And perhaps you can appreciate why I want to say I’m lucky,even if Peter Dinklage might tell me off.

Find out more about Brian Sibley at his website, his website, or you can check out his Amazon page to see how prolific he really is!

Overdrive logo

Overdrive, Libraries, and Ebooks

I’ll admit it: I was behind the curve on this one. I’d heard that some libraries lent ebooks but that it was awkward, difficult and poorly executed. So I didn’t investigate further. Turns out I should have done. Library ebook lending has come a long way thanks to a service called Overdrive.

Overdrive is an ereading app that links into your local library’s ebook catalogue. The app is available on iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. It’s possible to load borrowed ebooks onto ereaders too, but you have to use Adobe Editions which is, apparently, still awkward, difficult and poorly executed. So I would say Overdrive is really targeting phones and tablets.

So far I’ve enjoyed the Overdrive experience. I can browse my library’s ebook catalogue, borrow items and return them all within the app. The reading and listening experience is decent; it lacks a few flairs such as page turn animations and annotations, but it gets the job done.

My one gripe so far is renewals. It took me far too long to figure that out and involved rummaging around a menu on the library website. Even after I’d successfully renewed, I still had to download the book again. If I can return a book with a simple tap within the Overdrive app, why not renewals too? And why not leave the content on the device?

However one thing I did love was the little counter over every borrowed item showing how long you had left. This little countdown seems to act like a great motivator to read before you lose the book; I steamed through The Girl on the Train in a matter of days! This also means there are no late returns and no fines; the content is simply deleted once your time is up.

Overall, if you want to borrow ebooks from your local library, using a phone or a tablet, Overdrive seems like a pretty good solution. It’s a shame it’s painful to get them onto an ereader, but since I’m not paying for the ebook it seems wrong to complain too much. So I’m pretty sold on Overdrive! But what do you think? Leave a comment about your experiences with Overdrive (or any other way you’ve borrowed ebooks from libraries). I’d love to hear your opinion.

P.S. The Fey Man is now available from Norfolk Libraries ebook catalogue, so why not borrow it for free! Not in Norfolk? Just ask your local library to order it from Overdrive. I’ve set the price for libraries to free, so it shouldn’t cost them a penny!