Category Archives: books

The incredible cover art to Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

2014: Year in Review

Is it me or years getting shorter and shorter? It doesn’t seem that long since I was last trying to remember what I’d read and which I should write about. For newcomers to the blog, I always jump on the “year in review” bandwagon, but I review my year. Everyone else is listing the best books released in 2014, I’m listing the most impressive books I read in 2014, regardless of when they were published.

The way I figure it, “the cutting edge” sounds painful and something to avoid; I prefer the comfortable middle.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

So good it garnered a review of its own, this was one of the few instances when a book lived up to its hype. The main character used to be a spaceship and the society she comes from has no concept of gender. Original, imaginative and engaging, I’ve not read a space opera like this for a long while and I can’t wait to read more.

Unbroken Ties by M. Latimer-Ridley

The sequel to Legend Unleashed, which I reviewed a couple of years ago. There’s a world, under the one we know, of magic and wizards and werewolves. The war between the latter deepens in this installment and it also explores the ramifications of what happened to wizard Alastair Byron and werewolf Halvard Wolfram in the last book. Although it felt a little rushed at times, it was great to see that the Byron/Wolfram arc wasn’t tied up in a neat little bow; things get complicated for a while, which is how I like my fiction.

Min by Lola Rayne

A raunchy contemporary romance, I should state that I am totally not the target demographic for this novel. I would never usually pick up a book like this, but Rayne has an excellent style that’s filthy and funny and makes me smile; she could probably write a treatise on farming tools of the 1300s and it’d still be an enjoyable read. So although this type of book isn’t my cup of tea, I still enjoyed it immensely, and you should definitely give it a try.

You by Austin Grossman

You was a strange reading experience. The tale of a successful guy who quits his job to work at a video game developer set up by his schoolmates, I don’t think it works well as a novel; elements of the story disappear unresolved, some events have no reason for being other than the writer wanted to write about them, and frankly it’s all a little contrived. But I enjoyed it nonetheless, largely because it was the first time I’d read a novel that dealt with video games as if they mattered. So if you’re a video game geek, you’ll probably enjoy it, but otherwise you should probably read something else.

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

If, like me, you thought The Da Vinci Code was a decent if over-hyped summer blockbuster book, do yourself a favour: don’t read The Lost Symbol. It appears to be a mere clone of its older brother. Langdon on the run from the authorities. A strange, unstoppable figure enmeshed in his faith, hunting Langdon. Even the same historical figures and books are recycled at times, and you can see the “twists” coming from the first page. I really wanted to like The Lost Symbol but I hear Inferno is a better read?

What books did you read this year? Leave a comment and tell me all about them; I’m always looking for more to read!

My Problem with Kindle Matchbook

Kindle Matchbook is a great idea: buy a paperback and get the ebook version at a discounted price (or even free). It’s a nice reward for a reader and it helps remove the format quandry (as ebooks are often cheaper but not as nice to own). There’s just one problem with Kindle Matchbook.

It’s not universal.

It’s not available in every country and, of course, you can’t make use of it if you have a non-Kindle ereader device or app. I enrolled The Fey Man in Matchbook but I’m painfully aware that my UK-based readers, for instance, can’t take advantage of it. And anyone reading their ebooks on a Kobo or iDevice are out in the cold too.

So here’s my solution: if you bought a copy of The Fey Man in paperback and you want a free copy of the ebook version, take a picture or yourself with it and post it to my Facebook Page or upload it to Twitter (be sure to mention me with @realjtk!) I’ll send you a copy of the ebook in your preferred format (and help you get it on your ereader as well).

(P.S. There’ll be no DRM in this ebook, either, so you’ll be free to share it with friends. Because I’m nice like that.)

The cover to Ann Leckie's fantastic Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – Review

Or is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative, that in ordinary circumstances never reveals itself as a fiction?

If you have an ear anywhere near the ground you might have already heard of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. It seems to have won every award under the sun and a lot of people are talking about it. With good reason: it’s a brilliant novel.

Thoughts that lead to action can be dangerous. Thoughts that do not, mean less than nothing.

Most of what I read about Ancillary Justice before I bought a copy was focused on the approach to gender. The main character, Breq, comes from a culture where gender isn’t very important and almost always uses the pronoun “she”. Because the novel is told from her viewpoint, it means it is always telling you everyone is female. It also admits that isn’t biologically feasible. So you know some of the characters are male. You just don’t know which ones. And while you could spend a lot of time trying to figure it out, I found it far more enjoyable to assume everyone was actually female. It removed the unpleasantness of gender stereotypes and, oddly, made the world feel more real and rounded.

To invade and take, what, half the adult population? And turn them into walking corpses, slaved to your ships’ AIs.

The approach to gender in Ancillary Justice means that Breq herself is also overlooked. That’s a shame because Leckie has created something wonderful in her. Once upon a time Breq was the AI of a ship. And that ship had ancillaries, human bodies that were connected and acted as extensions to that AI. Think of the AI as the queen and the ancillary bodies as mere worker ants. It’s a horrifying concept totally at odds with the notion of this culture being the harbingers of civilisation. Yet it is so casually accepted, even lauded at times, that it serves as a clever questioning of how civilised civilisation really is.

And then I fell to pieces.

It also means that Breq can be in many places at once and a number of scenes occur in different locations simulatenously. Such an ability runs the risk of confusing the reader, but Leckie pulls it off so artfully, so effortlessly, that I have to applaud her. I was never confused, never lost. Leckie managed to make the fragmented yet unified experience of many bodies feel intuitive without drawing attention to what she was doing. She also does a good job of using these many-bodies-many-Breqs to question ideas of identity without getting too lost in philosophy.

But I never paid attention to you, I’d never have asked if someone was One Esk’s favorite.

Ancillary Justice also has some of the best AI I’ve ever encountered. It seems most approaches to AI has them either as cold and emotionless machines or indistinguishable from humans. Breq is neither of those. She is meant to be completely reasonable, but her fall from grace comes directly from attachments. Breq-as-ship had her favourites; all AIs do. So, whilst Breq doesn’t weep or rage or laugh much, what emotion she does exhibit means all the more for its scarcity. Though Breq probably wouldn’t care either way, you end up liking her.

That said the central mystery wasn’t as compelling as I think Leckie wanted it to be; I kept reading because I was enjoying the experience rather than needing to know what happened. And while Leckie doesn’t spoon-feed the reader, sometimes she didn’t explain her world quite enough; there are a lot of new ideas the reader has to handle in the dark for chapters at a time.

But Ancillary Justice is still an excellent space opera, one of the best I’ve read in a very long time. A good story, a unique protagonist, and clever ideas. I can’t wait to read the second book, which is as high a recommendation as there is.

You can preorder The Fey Man from Amazon now

Why Preorders Matter to Indie Authors

Time for a controversial statement: preorders aren’t about sales; they’re about being seen.

It doesn’t matter if you build it; no-one will come if they don’t know about it. The average visitor to Amazon doesn’t know about the thousands of books on sale because they can’t possibly see them all. But they do see the top sellers; Amazon shows them off. Top ten thrillers. Top ten epic fantasy. Top ten murder mysteries with a hero called Jim. And so on.

Getting on those lists equals more sales. (Okay, I fibbed, it is ultimately about sales.) And selling a large number of books in a short time boosts you up the listings and increases your visibility. Here’s where preorders help: all sales from preorders are counted on release day. Get a lot of preorders? Get a leg-up those listings. [UPDATE: Unless it’s Amazon. This principle applies to Apple, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble, but Amazon do not count preorders as day one sales.]

And, hey, it doesn’t hurt that they’re a confidence booster too.

So hopefully you understand why I’m now going to ask you to preorder The Unquiet Sword. You’d be doing me a big favour and it would mean you don’t have to worry about remembering the release date; it’ll be delivered to your ereader as soon as it’s available!

Amazon UK | Amazon US | Kobo | Apple iBookstore | Barnes & Noble

And, as a thank you, the preorder price is just 0.99, but that’s only for preorders. So make sure you don’t miss out!

Annah Wooten's incredible artwork for the cover of The Fey Man

Announcing The Fey Man

At the wizened old age of thirty, the journey to this point seems long. It started with childish stories often aped from the books and films I loved. It moved through a terrible science fiction trilogy. It grew through short stories. Now it feels like it’s about to hit the milestone I’ve always been travelling towards: in just two short months, you’ll be able to buy my first novel: The Fey Man.

The Fey Man is an epic fantasy about a man’s quest to return to Faerie and the war that keeps getting in his way.

It’s been inspired by Scottish folklore, fairy tales, Arthurian legends and the film Armageddon. Yes, you read that right. Click the link to find out more about The Fey Man.

I’ve been writing this book for about three years now and I can’t tell you how excited and scared I am that you’ll be able to read it soon. I hope you like it. I’ll be writing more about it in the coming weeks but, for now, I’ll leave you with Annah Wootten’s incredible cover art for the novel. Isn’t it great?

The cover of The Fey Man

A D&D dragon guards its treasure

The Best Fantasy Dragons

Writing about fantasy books almost certainly means I’ve been writing about dragons. They seem almost intrinsic to the genre, and while a dragon is by no means necessary for a fantasy novel, they do seem to inspire a certain fascination in us.

So while there are plenty to choose from, here are my five favourite dragons. Judge me if you will.

The Stone Elderlings

Robin Hobb’s later novels did feature “proper” dragons, but Assassin’s Quest featured dragons made of living stone. When the heros first stumble upon them they are dead and silent. But when they are quickened by magic and death, the stone roars into life.

The heroes sculpt their own dragon, too. Magic users can pour their memories, emotions and finally their very lives into the special stone. By doing so they create the powerful ally they need to save their people. It’s a wonderfully original idea and is in complete service to the story; rather than forcing the narrative around traditional dragons, she created something that fit her theme of sacrifice just perfectly.

Smaug

Can a list of dragons be completed without Smaug? The real villain of The Hobbit, perhaps no dragon has influenced fantasy literature more than Smaug. Tolkien took a lot of inspiration from Beowulf so Smaug shares many characteristics with the creature of that work: his hoard of treasure, his appropriated underground dwelling, his penchant for vengeance. But where the monster of Beowulf was mute, Tolkien gave Smaug a voice and therein elevated the dragon from mute monster to delightful villain. He’s vain and greedy and his love of riddles and language make him a pleasure to read.

Dragon Quest

Dragon Quest was a role playing game that got bought and rebranded by the company that owned Dungeons & Dragons. The dragons owe nearly all of their character to Smaug (evil, hoarding, clever, love riddles, etc.) and they have no depth. They’re simply big monsters for players to defeat. But in trying to create enough variety for dungeon masters and repeated playthroughs, they created different types and breeds of dragon that fascinated my young mind. And there was some truly beautiful art in the rulebooks too.

Granny’s Garden

If you played this game you already know what I’m thinking of: those damn baby dragons!

In order to rescue a child in this BBC Micro adventure, you need to tame four baby dragons. Each dragon either loves, likes or hates each of the four items of food you have. You have to figure out what order to toss them the food so you can isolate and tame each one.

Replaying this at the wise old age of thirty resulted in two game overs and a handmade chart to keep track of the dragons’ likes and dislikes. Playing at the tender age of five resulted in two dozen game overs, tears, bitterness and possibly minor acts of temper tantrum. So whilst these dragons should barely register on a list of the greats, you can see why they had such an impact on me nonetheless.

George and the Dragon

With St George being the patron saint of England, it’s hard not to come across this story as a child. The way I was told it was a terrible, fire-breathing dragon was terrifying a local village, stealing and eating their sheep. Good St George comes along and slays the mighty beast and the village is safe once more.

Turns out, it’s a bit more interesting than that. The earliest form of the legend has the dragon bearing plague, not fire, that sickened the land. The people tried to appease it with sheep and, when that did not work, their children, chosen by lottery. It’s only when the lottery picks the king’s daughter that St George happens along. And even then he promises to slay it only if the land promises to convert to Christianity, the swine.

So from a humdrum, fire-breathing monster to a plague-carrying instrument of religious blackmail. Doesn’t get more interesting than that.

Are these the best dragons around? Or have I missed some out? Tell me about your favourite fantasy dragons!

Smaug is the steroetypical treasure-hoarding dragon in The Hobbit.

Top Fantasy Novels: The Hobbit

If there’s one fantasy novel to rule them all, it’s Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It has such a far-reaching influence that it’s almost impossible to find any aspect of fantasy fiction that doesn’t owe the trilogy some sort of debt. But, despite that, I think Tolkien’s earlier novel, The Hobbit, is unfairly overshadowed by it’s younger brother. I think The Hobbit might be the better fantasy novel.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Certainly The Lord of the Rings is far grander, a battle between good and evil for the fate of the world and so on. It’s more serious in nature and therefore held in higher esteem. But if The Hobbit is more light-hearted than The Lord of the Rings, I say it is better for it.

We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!

The Hobbit sits much closer to traditional fairy tales in content and tone. It’s an adventure, a treasure hunt, with a dragon to vanquish and humorous events and coincidences along the way. The narrator speaks in a knowing tone, sharing asides and commentary intended to delight and surprise. A favourite is mine is the invention of golf, accredited to a Took’s fortuitous decapitation of a goblin.

I think this is why I prefer Bilbo to Frodo, too. Bilbo’s reticence to leave his home is funny and loveable, whilst Frodo’s seems confusing and naive. To want to stay in the warm because adventures make you later for dinner is cute. Refusing to help save Middle-Earth would have made Bilbo seem mean and selfish.

He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.

But, though this might be “just” an adventure, there’s still peril. Giant spiders. Ancient dragons. And, of course, Gollum.

Poor Gollum wasn’t such a bad guy in the first edition. But when it came time for The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien went back and made some changes to bring his character into line with the more mature tone of the sequel. Consequently, Gollum was no longer a fairy tale obstacle who happily bets a magic ring and parts amicably after losing. Now he becomes mean and violent and a very real danger. But the riddles remained and thus the real charm of their encounter.

So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.

And, of course, this is still a Tolkien novel and it’s still set in Middle Earth. So there is plenty of folklore and languages for the people who like that sort of thing (me). There’s plenty of poetry, too, and beautiful lines that could only have been written by J. R. R. Tolkien.

A beautifully written, funny, charming fairy tale adventure, set it Middle Earth. Tell me why it shouldn’t be one of my top fantasy novels.

Dream from Neil Gaiman's The Sandman

Top Fantasy Novels: The Sandman

Let’s address the elephant in the room: The Sandman is not a fantasy novel.

I was going to write about American Gods, which is a fantasy novel, but I realised everything I liked about it was done better in The Sandman. So, although The Sandman is an urban fantasy horror comic series, I’m going to explain why it’s actually a great fantasy novel.

She’s realised the real problem with stories – if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death.

First of all, I’m letting myself count it as novel for of one simple reason: it’s got a beginning, a middle and an end. While most comics are spandex-filled soap operas, The Sandman was written with an end in mind. And certainly there are issues and even arcs that don’t feature the central character, Dream. But these feel more like sub-plots and, more often than not, those stories do in fact feed into the finale. The Sandman had a cohesive narrative you don’t often see in comics, but you see all the time in novels.

Only the phoenix rises and does not descend. And everything changes. And nothing is truly lost.

Say what you like about Neil Gaiman, the man has an ear for poetical prose. Regular readers will have noticed I pepper my reviews with quotes from the text. The Sandman has been the hardest to pick quotes from. It’s beautifully, honestly written, with lines that will make you stop and think and even change the way you see the world. It makes The Sandman very easy to love.

Things need not have happened to be true.

But why is it a great fantasy novel? Well, for starters, the main character is Dream. He’s the living embodiment of, well, dreams. If that’s not enough for you, the setting ranges from modern day Earth to the past, to Hell, to other worlds, to realms like the Dreaming and even worlds in the mind. Still not enough? How about a cast of characters from myth and literature? John Constantine and the Martian Manhunter rub shoulders with Odin and Bast. Robin Goodfellow and Titania mingle with Remiel and Lucifer. Gaiman pulls in mythology and folklore and legend from wherever takes his fancy. He also creates a number of secret histories (a story that reveals an unknown cause or meaning to historical events). It turns out that Dream had a hand in Shakespeare’s genius as well as the fate of Emperor Norton of the United States of America.

I have no liking for prisons, Master Li. Sometimes I suspect that we build our traps ourselves, then we back into them, pretending amazement the while.

That’s why The Sandman is one of my top fantasy novels. Yes, it’s beautifully written and it’s got a cohesive story quite rare to comics. But it’s an epic far greater if not grander than The Lord of the Rings. It pulls in so much fantasy that it’s almost bursting at the seams. And yet it never feels like a jumble of myths and cameos. Gaiman makes it seem like all the disparate characters and settings were always meant to be part of the same story. If you’ve read it, you know what I mean. And if you haven’t, I can’t recommend it enough. After all, how many fantasy novels are told with pictures?

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.

I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, he said, BUT I COULD MURDER A CURRY.

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?