Category Archives: books

A photo of my bookshelves

Why I Got Rid of My Books

I’ve been getting rid of my books. Phew. It feels good to get that off my chest. But let me explain.

Books have always been more than the paper and ink they’re made of. Each one was a vessel for the story or information within. So I was greedy for books, hoarding them like Smaug’s treasure. I loved books, treasured them, rereading them and treating them like they were my own, my love, my precious. I’m mixing Middle Earth metaphors here, but the principle is in there somewhere. I loved books, and I couldn’t get enough of them.

Ebooks have changed all that.

Books have almost become a nuisance to me. Reading a paperback means carting it around everywhere I go. I invariably forget it one day and, rather than go without reading, I get my grubby mitts on the ebook, either by buying it from Amazon or borrowing it from my local library. Of course, this means I later have to rummage through the paperback to find the point that I got to. This repeats for a day or two until I give up and just read the ebook.

So, to return to my Smaug metaphor, I no longer slept on my hoard of treasure. My loot was going dusty and unloved. So I took the plunge. I got rid of my books. The only ones I’ve kept are those I just can’t let go of: reference volumes I’m still using, books with cover art that I like, and books with sentimental value.

I used to have a thousand books. Now I have a fraction of that number. My shelves look great; I’ve got room to display my books properly, so I can see the cover art I love so much. And I’m not hoarding all those stories anymore. Instead I’ve shared the wealth so that other people can enjoy it.

If you’re throwing holy water at your screen and ordering me an exorcist, don’t worry; I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of my books entirely. And, to prove my love for books is still real, here are my top ten physical books.

  1. Ender’s Game – this Orion edition was a gift from my Aunt Judi, and I went on to enjoy all three of the follow-ups (all of which I’ve kept).
  2. Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Quest – although I have the ebook editions, I’ve kept the first two Fitz trilogies purely for the gorgeous cover art by John Howe.
  3. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (and the sequels) – aside from the fact that they’re really good books, there’s something about the cover art I really like.
  4. Katharine Briggs’ Encyclopedia of Fairies – if you’ve read any of the Fair Folk series, you might know how many different fay it features, and they nearly all have their genesis in this fantastic book!
  5. Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman’ series – I reread this recently and found it a little pretentious, but it still tells a marvelous story with beautiful art and it showed me that comics can be so much more than people in spandex hitting each other.
  6. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife – this is one of the few books that somehow feels like it should be read in paper form.
  7. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves – and this is one of the few books that can only be read in paper form. Seriously, it just would not work as an ebook.
  8. Timothy Zahn’s ‘Thrawn’ trilogy and Michael A. Stackpole’s ‘X-Wing’ series – these books have to be read in paper form because the publisher hasn’t bothered to create ebooks (and I have a soft spot for these Star Wars novels!)
  9. J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – weird, given that I’ve never read the third book and I’m not even a big fan of the writing. But a self-respecting fantasy author needs a copy on his shelves. And I’ve actually got two now; one with John Howe’s beautiful cover art, and a hardback edition.
  10. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens – not because the paperback is especially pretty, not because I wouldn’t be happy to read the ebook, but because ebooks still struggle when it comes to footnotes; a sign that, as good as they are, ebooks aren’t perfect yet!

Ebooks have made the day-to-day process of reading easy and convenient. But a beautiful paperback or a gorgeous hardback can still turn my head. As great as ebooks are, there’ll always be a special place in my heart for physical books.

Cover to Assassin's Fate by Robin Hobb

Great Fantasy Books: Assassin’s Fate by Robin Hobb Reviewed

We’ve all taken something too far. You joke around with a friend, go too far and now the joke’s not funny. You add too much garnish to a dish and now you’ve spoilt the balance of flavours. And writers keep writing and inadvertently ruin the story. We’ve all seen it happen. Star Wars prequel trilogy, anyone? And, unfortunately, I think Robin Hobb might have done the same. I think she took the Fitz books too far when she wrote Assassin’s Fate.

“Who had that young man been who had thought himself so old and worldly-wise? He was a stranger to me now.”

In order to explain myself, I need to (briefly!) lay out the history of Fitz books. The story of FitzChivalry Farseer (Fitz) began in the ‘Farseer’ trilogy. Fitz is the bastard son of a disgraced prince and assassin for the royal family, who forms a psychic bond with a wolf, Nighteyes, and befriends the king’s Fool, a prophet who wants Fitz to help end the Red Ship War. The ‘Farseer’ trilogy culminates in a definite, albeit bittersweet, ending for Fitz.

The ‘Tawny Man’ trilogy sees Fitz return to the intrigues of court to help secure peace between two warring kingdoms, and embark on a quest to bring dragons back to the world. The Tawny Man trilogy culminates in a definite, sweeter ending for Fitz.

The ‘Fitz and the Fool’ trilogy, of which Assassin’s Fate is the third book, sees Fitz’s sweeter ending spoiled by a nation of prophets who kidnap his daughter, and force Fitz to travel across the world in his efforts to bring her home. And it’s the ending of this trilogy, which Hobb has said is the final and ultimate ending for Fitz, that rubs me up the wrong way.

“But you don’t know what will happen.”
“No. That is our curse. To know that something will happen, and only after it is over, to look back and say, ‘Oh, that is what that meant. If only I’d known.’ It can break your heart.”

On paper, the ending of Assassin’s Fate works. It fits in with the world Hobb has created, linking into lore that was set up in the first trilogy that should have foreshadowed Fitz’s eventual fate but never did. It’s somewhat open-ended, enabling fans to imagine what might happen after ‘The End’. And it ties in with Fitz’s relationships with Nighteyes and the Fool, two characters that are hugely important both to the character and to readers.

But what works on paper doesn’t always work for the heart. Assassin’s Fate‘s path to this ending feels contrived, as if Hobb thought it up first and then tried to twist the narrative to make it fit. It also doesn’t gel with Fitz’s quest to save his daughter, so it feels deeply dissatisfying. Finally, I had the sense that it was supposed to be a happy ending, or a bittersweet one at best. But Fitz’s fate isn’t one you would wish upon a character you’ve followed for nine books.

Ultimately, Hobb took an ending I was happy with, undid it, and replaced it with what, for me, feels like the worst ending Fitz has endured.

I felt a strange sort of peace. As if all the parts of me were finally in one place.

I feel it’s important to note that reading Assassin’s Fate was still a pleasurable experience, which is all to do with the way Hobb writes. Her writing is gorgeous, rich, emotive, and lush. Sometimes overly descriptive, but that’s a fault in many fantasy novels, so she’s hardly the first to spend a little too long describing food, clothing, or locales. Fitz is also very lovable and, in Assassin’s Fate, he is as noble, earnest, dour, selfless, selfish, fierce and foolish as ever.

I admit that at times I became impatient. Hobb has also written two other series set in the same world, the ‘Liveship’ trilogy and the ‘Rain Wilds’ series, and Assassin’s Fate attempts to be a sequel and a coda for those books too. As I never warmed to those books, my experience of Assassin’s Fate suffered when Hobb spent too long on these other storylines.

Nevertheless, her prose is as beautiful as always and, even when I was less interested in the story of a character I neither knew nor really cared about, it was still easy to enjoy her writing.

But a delicious meal can be ruined by finding a hair in the last mouthful.

“Never do a thing until you consider well what you can’t do once you’ve done it.”

A sequel has many jobs to do, but the most important one it has to fulfill is validating its own existence. Once the reader has been given “The End”, there needs to be a good reason to amend that to “The End, but also…” If it fails to do so, it intrudes upon your experience of what came before. For instance, your memory of whiny brat Anakin Skywalker intrudes upon your your experience of Darth Vader.

The ending of Assassin’s Fate intrudes upon the earlier books. No matter how much I try to put it from my mind, to live in the moment, as Nighteyes might suggest, I can never fully forget what lies in wait for Fitz at the end of his journey. I cannot unread that ending, unremember it, or undo it.

I know many people will enjoy the ending to Assassin’s Fate. I don’t hate Robin Hobb for writing Assassin’s Fate, I’m not writhing in righteous anger at what she did, and I won’t rage at anyone who enjoys the ending that left me cold. It’s an entirely subjective matter. But, for me, Assassin’s Fate, and indeed the whole trilogy, serves as a perfect example of leaving well enough alone.

Because while it might be tempting to write another sequel, it’s all too easy to spoil what you already made.

If I haven’t put you off, you can get a copy of Assassin’s Fate here.

Paperback copies of The Fey Man and The Unquiet Sword

The Unquiet Sword Giveaway

There’s still three weeks until The Unquiet Sword goes on sale, but for one lucky person, the wait is over. Createspace sent me two copies of the advance proof, you see, and I can’t send one back or sell it as I needed to make some changes to the manuscript. So what should I do with it? Give it away, of course!

Bear in mind that this is an advance reader copy, or ARC. That means there are spelling mistakes (quite a few, to my embarrassment), and some of the text will be slightly different to the official published version. But if you want to be the first to find out what happens to Tom and the rest, here’s your chance!

And on top of an advance copy of The Unquiet Sword, the winner will also receive a paperback copy of The Fey Man. So you’ve got everything you need to start reading the Fair Folk series, or you can pass the first book to a friend if you’ve already got a copy!

This giveaway runs until 11:59 Monday 19th September GMT, and it’s open to anyone and everyone. If you’ve got any questions, leave a comment or send me a tweet!

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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.

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?

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?

P.S. The Fey Man is now available to your local library, so why not borrow it for free? If you can’t find a copy from your library, just ask them to order it from Overdrive.

Cover to the UK edition Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb

Great Fantasy Books: Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb Reviewed

Sequels are tricky things. They suffer from anticipations and expectations. They promise more of what you loved, but there’s always a secret fear that the writer will have lost “it”, “it” being that magical touch that made the prior installments so good. Everyone has been crushed by a sequel at some point. Once you’ve experienced your own personal Phantom Menace, the prospect of a sequel is never the same. So it’s fair to say that I approached epic fantasy Fool’s Assassin with a mixture of hope and dread.

Worst still was the fact that this was the second time Robin Hobb had done this to me. The story of royal bastard FitzChivalry (or Fitz) began in the Farseer Trilogy and had a downbeat but definite end. That ending was opened up in the Tawny Man trilogy but, while it was something of a retread of the first, Hobb pulled it off and gave Fitz a happier ending. Now Fool’s Assassin would be the beginning of a third trilogy, a third attempt to open up a closed book. Would the law of diminishing returns strike? Could Fool’s Assassin be the book where she lost “it”?

We live in our bodies. An assault on that outside fortress of the mind leaves scars that may not show, but never heal.

To enjoy the Fitz books, you have to love Fitz. Stubborn, headstrong, sometimes maudlin, not always wise, with a strong sense of morality and rarely a sense of how to employ it. You feel less that Hobb has created the hero of an epic fantasy and more a real, flawed man to hang her story on. Fitz is not the same character he was in the first trilogy, though. His experiences have battered him, strengthened him in some senses, weakened him in others. He’s older, more mature, but in some ways he’s the same old Fitz. He’s not a bad analogy for the novel as a whole.

Robert Zemeckis once said that people like a sequel because they want to revisit characters and places they loved the first time around. Hobb understands this, and so Fool’s Assassin respects, recalls and revisits the previous installments. Thus there are visits to Buckkeep, and characters like Chade and Kettricken and Dutiful make appearances. Even absent characters are present through recollection or, in a sense, resurrection. Fans of a particular relationship they might think ended will not, I feel, be disappointed. In some sense, Fool’s Assassin is the same old Fitz story.

But just as Fitz’s new maturity and responsibilities are the most interesting things about him, Fool’s Assassin works best where it leaves behind all the old intrigue and politics of prior stories. Instead of trying to preserve a royal family and its kingdom, the focus of this novel is closer, more immediate: Fitz’s family. This by necessity creates a smaller story; so small the first map is of Fitz’s house. But though it is smaller in scope it is deeper in feeling, which is where Hobb’s novels always do best. And it’s a perfect way to open up Fitz’s world to new narratives. Yes he’s had a happy ending, but happy endings very rarely lack their own complications.

Hobb also takes this opportunity to open up the story to new narrative techniques. Fans of these books might think it heresy, but trust me: you will love reading the chapters written from a viewpoint other than Fitz’s.

You might be surprised to find that facing life can be much harder than facing death.

But, just as Fitz can’t let go of some of his old, poorer habits, so Hobb couldn’t quite let go of old story elements. So Chade inserts new intrigues into Fitz’s life (without any explanation for Fitz or reader) and, perhaps worse, too many old characters remain. Consider how much time has passed since the beginning of the first trilogy; some characters just shouldn’t be breathing anymore. I’m not usually so bloodthirsty, but Hobb only highlighted this by teasing a number of character deaths only to snatch them back from the jaws of death mere pages later.

Time is an unkind teacher, delivering lessons that we learn far too late for them to be useful.

Fool’s Assassin also made me realise something about Hobb’s books I’d never noticed before. Have you ever described a story in a single sentence? “Unassuming hobbit must destory a magic ring to defeat a dark lord”? “Young rebel must learn the powers of the mystical Jedi to topple an evil Galactic Empire”? “Royal bastard trains as an assassin to help save his kingdom”? Most stories make sure you can offer such a description early on. “Here’s the type of story you can expect”, they say, and either fulfill that expectation, subvert it, or disappoint it.

Fool’s Assassin doesn’t do that. And not just that, but all the Fitz books. Hobb writes a story that ambles its way through the plot. It’s certainly a pleasant amble, even an entrancing amble. But it leaves the reader in a sort of limbo. The reader doesn’t know what to anticipate, what to dread, what to attend to and what to be intrigued by. This is what makes Chade’s new intrigues frustrating. They seem so disconnected from the new world Fitz lives in and there is no explanation to them. So they stand out like a sore thumb and even seem like filler. Most readers of Fool’s Assassin won’t mind this, because they’ll have read prior trilogies and thus be happy to go where Hobb leads. But I suspect newer readers might not be willing to offer Hobb the trust she deserves.

Do not agonize about yesterday. Do not borrow tomorrow’s trouble. Let your heart hunt. Rest in the now.

But here is why I love Fool’s Assassin, and all Hobb’s work, despite those grievances: you don’t worry about them whilst you’re reading. Hobb’s prose is beautiful in its description, searing in its truth, compelling in its narrative, and it forces you to forgive all sins. It puts character before lore and it lets character drive plot. Her worldbuilding is not overbearing; it intrudes on the page only rarely, when it needs to. There is still the magic, the grand locations and action scenes that epic fantasy demands. But it’s all focused on character. And those characters are so well-drawn, so deeply developed, that you’ll love them by the end. It isn’t the plot that keeps you turning the page; it’s wanting to see your beloved characters delivered through that plot, safe and sound.

If you’ve read the previous Fitz books but you’re worried about Phantom Menace syndrome, set aside your fears. Fool’s Assassin is a worthy sequel to the series. If you haven’t read any Fitz books, don’t start here. Yes, you might enjoy it and, no, you don’t need to have read the others. But you’ll miss out on the history, the nuances, and the clever callbacks, and I like you too much to let you do that to yourself. So go read Assassin’s Apprentice and work your way up to Fool’s Assassin.

You’ll thank me for it.

Get Fool’s Assassin from: Amazon US | Amazon UK | Apple iBookstore

Cover to Graham Joyce's Some Kind of Fairy Tale

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce: Review

To be honest, I got the wrong idea about Some Kind of Fairy Tale. I got the idea it was going to be an urban fantasy novel. I don’t know how; it makes no claims to be. In fact, I’m not sure I would call Some Kind of Fairy Tale a fantasy novel at all. At first I was disappointed but, once I recovered, I really enjoyed this book.

The modern superstition is that we’re free of superstition.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale‘s premise is that Tara was sixteen when she disappeared twenty years ago. Now she’s come back, looking not a day older than when she left, and claiming she’s been living with fairies for only six months. Her family and her old boyfriend now have to try to assimilate her back into their lives, and a psychiatrist has to determine what really happened to her. Because, of course, no-one believes her.

The thing is, when everyone is trying to persuade you that a thing you know to be true isn’t actually true, you start to believe them: not because it is true but because it’s easier. It’s just the easy way out.

Joyce has a way with a turn of phrase and he writes with a charming simplicity. Not in the sense that he uses small words but that he doesn’t beat around the bush. If there’s something he wants you to know, he tells you (or shows you). If there’s something he doesn’t want you to know, he makes that clear too. So the point of Some Kind of Fairy Tale is not the mystery of what happened to Tara. This is more of a character study. The different reactions to when someone you mentally buried (in the absence if a body) reappearing after twenty years, and what that does to a person.

Sometimes that simplicity of style does offer some jarring moments, some non-sequiturs as Joyce hauls dialogue or prose towards where he wants to be, which is usually a pithy line. But, on the whole, his writing is comfortable and comforting; his surety with language lets you know you’re in safe hands.

He said he preferred to feel the earth sing through his feet, and that shoes stopped you from hearing the song of the earth.

I said that I wasn’t sure if Some Kind of Fairy Tale was a fantasy novel. It does have a strong element of the fantastic to it: Tara actually relates some of her time with the fairies. I can confirm Joyce knows his fairy folklore (he even quotes Katherine Briggs), and he paints an intriguing picture of the Otherworld. A deep connection to a natural world unknown to us, a very physical and sexual spirituality, charts and maps that reveal a comprehensive understanding of the world.

But there is a question as to whether any of this is real. Some Kind of Fairy Tale also proffers the possibility that Tara’s narrative is an invention to cover some kind of psychological trauma. This is why I’m not sure I’d class it as fantasy; our only glimpse of the otherworldly is via Tara’s recollection. And both possibilities are given equal weight and credence; Tara’s family support the psychological explanation, but her still-youthful appearance supports the fantastical.

Jack had spotted something in the woods, as had the dogs. Someone had been watching him. But to reveal who had been watching him would be to reveal who has been telling you this story all along. And, as you were advised earlier, everything depends on that detail.

The ambiguity of Some Kind of Fairy Tale is perhaps the reason I enjoyed it so much. Some people hate ambiguity, but I think it’s great. It allows two conflicting stories to co-exist, simultaneously. As Neil Gaiman once wrote, nobody remembers the secret; it’s the mystery that endures.

If you’re looking for an urban fantasy with concrete answers, this isn’t for you. But if you’re looking for a well-written, character-driven story that mixes fantasy, psychiatry and ambiguity, Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a book I can absolutely recommend.