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Book Review: Promise of Blood, by Brian McClellan

“The Age of Kings is dead…and I have killed it.”

This awesome tagline adorns the cover of Brian McClellan’s  debut novel Promise of Blood, the first volume of the Powder Mage Trilogy, and aptly sums up the political theme of the book: revolution.

After a few false starts with novels I struggled to get into, I’ve taken to downloading free samples from kobobooks.com with the intention of only buying the book if sufficiently hooked. Promise of Blood passed this test with flying colours and I quickly bought the ePub so that I could continue reading. Read more

The Prince of Lies: finished cover

Yesterday one of my favourite genre websites, Fantasy Faction, did an exclusive cover reveal for the final book in my Night’s Masque trilogy. However I can’t resist posting it on my blog as well, as I’m so pleased with it!

As with The Merchant of Dreams, I briefed my editor Marc on what I wanted to see on the cover and he passed it along to Larry Rostant, who interpreted our instructions beautifully. The lightning bolts weren’t in my original brief but I have to admit they give it an extra pizazz that leaves you in no doubt that some serious magic is going on here!

To go with the cover I have an updated description as well:

Elizabethan spy Mal Catlyn has everything he ever wanted—his twin brother Sandy restored to health, his family estate reclaimed and a son to inherit it—but his work is far from over. The renegade skraylings, the guisers, are still plotting; their leader Jathekkil has reincarnated as the young Henry Tudor. But with the prince still a child, Mal has a slim chance of destroying his enemies while they are at their weakest.

With Sandy’s help Mal learns to harness his own magic in the fight against the guisers, but it may be too late to save England. Schemes set in motion decades ago are at last coming to fruition, and the barrier between the dreamlands and the waking world is wearing thin…

I’m really looking forward to unleashing the book on the world come October – the fact that I shall be waving goodbye to Mal, Coby, Ned and friends hasn’t really sunk in yet…

What next?

The Prince of Lies is revised and handed in, which means it’s all over for Night’s Masque apart from final tweaks and copyedits. Yes, sorry, fans of Mal, Coby, Ned and Gabriel – their adventures are over, at least for now. I have no immediate plans for any more books in that universe, though if I were to get a great idea for a story, it’s certainly possible.

So what next, you might ask? Well, I’ve been jotting down notes in-between drafts of The Prince of Lies so that I could hit the ground running once that book was complete. However I couldn’t really allow myself to commit to it until now because I don’t have time in my busy schedule for distractions and side projects. Now I can, I’m sooo excited to be launching into something new! Read more

A Game of Bones: the finding of Richard III

Yesterday morning I was glued to my laptop, watching the press conference announcing the results of the research into the skeleton found in a Leicester car park last year. To cut a long story short, they confirmed that yes, the body is that of Richard III, beyond a reasonable doubt. I was immensely moved by the whole proceedings – after all, Richard is the most vilified king in English history, and this discovery goes a long way towards teasing out the truth from the Tudor propaganda.

But what is that truth? Well, for a start, it confirms that although Richard suffered from scoliosis (a twisted spine) which would have likely left him with one shoulder slightly higher than the other, he was not a “hunchback”, nor did he have a withered arm. So Shakespeare’s representation of his deformities is a gross exaggeration but not wholly without foundation. The remains and the facial reconstruction based on them even fit the portraits of Richard: a handsome young man with delicate, almost feminine hands despite his reputation as a great fighter. Indeed, far from making him appear the wicked king of legend, most portraits show a care-worn figure, perhaps troubled by chronic pain caused by his scoliosis.

Secondly, the Leicester investigation provides touching insights into the events of his death. The body bears several potentially fatal head-wounds, the most severe of which almost certainly killed him, but there are other, minor wounds that seem most likely to have been inflicted after death. Dagger cuts to the face, and stabs to the back and buttocks (areas that would have been protected by armour during the battle), all echo contemporary accounts which say that his body was stripped and tied across a packhorse for transport to Leicester.

None of this, of course, bears much relation to the real mystery associated with Richard: did he murder his nephews (or at least, cause them to be murdered)? I’m not one of those rabid Ricardians who believes he was practically a saint, viciously slandered by the Tudors – as we now know, there were grains of truth in the unflattering physical description presented by Shakespeare, so why not in his behaviour too?

My personal belief is that Richard fully intended to carry out his role of Lord Protector (as set out in his late brother’s will), but found himself thwarted at every turn by the queen and her ambitious relations. Richard was very popular in the North, his home ground, but he was little known in the South and may have been out of his depth at court. Remind you of a certain fictional character?

Rather than back down and see the Woodvilles rule through a child king, he declared the boys bastards (just as Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones tries to disinherit the Lannisters) and took the throne for himself. It turned out to be a disastrous decision, but at the time he might have felt it was the right thing for England, and the House of York. After all his own son, Edward, was still living at this point and his wife was young enough to bear more children.

So what about the princes in the Tower? To my mind there are two possibilities:

1. Richard realised that the princes would be too tempting a target for rebels, and so they had to die. Medieval kings were ruthless in protecting their interests, and perhaps Richard was no exception. Or maybe the king balked at such an act, just as Queen Elizabeth later hesitated over signing her cousin Mary’s death warrant, and it was one of his courtiers who acted in his name.

2. The princes were killed by a Tudor sympathiser looking to simultaneously blacken Richard’s reputation and clear Henry’s way to the throne. The boys’ deaths certainly made Henry Tudor’s job a lot easier. If they had been alive when he defeated Richard, he would have had to get rid of them himself – not a good start to his reign!

The problem is that both are plausible, so I don’t think we’ll ever know which is the truth. It wasn’t to Richard’s advantage to cover up their deaths so clumsily – if he had access to either the living princes or their bodies, why not put an end to all the speculation? – but then unlike a novel, real life doesn’t always make sense. At least his remains have been rescued from their ignominious fate and will now be buried with honour. Richard III was no better than many medieval kings, but I reckon he was no worse, either.

Previously, on Night’s Masque…

The trouble with series books coming out months or even years apart is that you tend to forget what happened in the last one by the time you get hold of the new one. With that in mind, I decided to take a leaf out of TV’s handbook and provide a summary of each of my novels, so that busy readers could refresh their memories if they didn’t have time for a full re-read.

Note that it will of course involve serious spoilers, so don’t read it unless you’ve already read the book (or are one of those weird people who like spoilers…)!

Previously on Night’s Masque: The Alchemist of Souls

(If you read it and think of anything vital I’ve missed, do let me know!)

I’ve also uploaded the official Merchant of Dreams three-chapter free extract, just to whet your appetite for the sequel!

The Next Big Thing

I tried to slither out of this at first, but then I woke one morning at 5am and couldn’t get back to sleep, but couldn’t get into the writing groove either, so I thought I might as well give it a go! The Next Big Thing is a blog post chain for writers. You talk about your work-in-progress (or in my case, about-to-be-published novel) and then tag five other writers to carry the torch forward. It’s been going a while, so practically every writer on the planet has already done it – soon we’ll have to start linking back to existing posts and it’ll go all Ouroboros on us…

1) What is the working title of your next book?

The Merchant of Dreams. That’s the official title, btw :)

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

It’s a sequel to my debut The Alchemist of Souls, so it picks up where that book left off. Also, I’d always wanted to set a novel in Venice, so I just needed to work out how to get my characters there!

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Historical/alternate history fantasy.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Hmm, I’ve debated this one a lot, but eventually I came down in favour of Aidan Turner (Being Human, The Hobbit) to play Mal, especially after seeing photos of him as Kili (below). He has the right mix of charm, intensity and darkness to play my swashbuckling hero and his mentally unstable identical twin brother.

I’ve also cast a number of other actors in my head: Dominic Cooper (The History Boys, Captain America) as Ned Faulkner; Jack Davenport (Pirates of the Caribbean) as Robert, Prince of Wales; and Bradley James (Merlin) as his younger brother Prince Arthur. And whilst it would require a significant makeup job, I totally envisage Seth Green (Buffy, Austin Powers) as Ambassador Kiiren :)

Aidan Turner (as Kili in “The Hobbit”)
Aidan Turner (as Kili in “The Hobbit”)

The character I have most trouble with is Coby Hendricks, my girl-disguised-as-a-boy; someone suggested Olivia Thirby (Juno, Dredd) but it would depend if she could do the accent!

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When Elizabethan spy Mal Catlyn’s dream about a skrayling shipwreck proves a reality, it sets him on a path to the beautiful, treacherous city of Venice – and a conflict of loyalties that will place him and his friends in greater danger than ever.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’s represented by John Berlyne of Zeno Literary Agency, and published by Angry Robot Books. It will be out in ebook, audiobook and US paperback on 18 December 2012, and UK paperback on 3 January 2013.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I did the very first draft for NaNoWriMo, back in 2007, so technically, only a month. However I had to completely rewrite it from scratch; not only was it far too short at only 50k, but the previous book had changed substantially in revisions so the plot no longer fitted. The new draft took about eleven months, although I had to take time out to edit and promote the first book so it wasn’t a non-stop process. Actual hands-on writing time was probably nearer seven months.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The closest ones I can think of are Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series and Mark Chadbourn’s Swords of Albion. Like the former, several of the main characters are gay or bisexual, and like the latter it revolves around the Elizabethan secret service.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The city of Venice – I absolutely love it! It’s hardly changed in the last four hundred years, which makes it perfect for any writer of historical fiction, realistic or fantastical.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s probably one of the few Elizabethan fantasies that doesn’t feature either fairies or William Shakespeare (though the Bard does have a couple of cameos in the third book of the trilogy). My “magical beings” are a race of non-humans called skraylings who evolved in the New World at around the same time that humans appeared in Africa. They now live alongside the Native Americans, acting as go-betweens and traders, and since Columbus showed up and the Spanish started hassling them, have allied themselves with the English in an attempt to keep the Europeans out of the Americas.


Right, that’s my bit done – time to pass the torch to my victims, ahem, writer buddies:

Adrian Faulkner

I first met Adrian at EasterCon 2011, I think – he’s a great guy, and like so many people I met that year he now has a book deal! His first fantasy novel, The Four Realms, is due out from Anarchy Press in late December.

Jennifer Williams

Jennifer is another convention buddy, this time introduced to me by fellow Angry Robot author Adam Christopher. Her fantasy novella The Copper Promise has been self-published on Amazon, and I know she has plans for more stories in that world!

Jacey Bedford

Jacey was a fellow panellist at EasterCon 2012, where she impressed me with her witty rejoinders! Like me she writes swashbuckling alternate history fantasy, but Regency instead of Elizabethan – really looking forward to that one!

You’re supposed to link to five others, but this meme’s almost played out and I didn’t have time to hunt down any more. Bite me!

Alchemist of Souls signed audiobook giveaway

Christmas is coming early for one of Mal Catlyn’s fans…

One of the (many) cool things about Angry Robot Books is that they now publish an audiobook version of all their titles, simultaneously with the paperback and ebook. This is a great thing for both authors and readers, since there are a lot of fantasy fans who don’t have much time to sit down and read a book but will happily listen to one on their daily commute or whilst doing chores (I listen to audiobooks whilst washing up).

Anyway, I have a spare boxed set of The Alchemist of Souls on CD to give away. This is the unabridged edition, on 13 discs, narrated by award-winner Michael Page (see my June blog post announcing the audiobook release).

All you have to do to be in with a chance is to leave a comment on this post. If you win, you will receive a brand new CD audiobook set of The Alchemist of Souls, with disc 1 signed by yours truly! Unlike previous giveaways, since I only have the one spare copy, entry is open to anyone, anywhere in the world. This is a one-off chance to own the only signed copy currently available :)

Please note that comments are moderated to reduce spam, so don’t panic if yours doesn’t appear right away.

Rules:

  1. One comment per entrant, please – multiple commenters will be disqualified.
  2. For security reasons, please don’t leave contact details in your comment – there’s a space in the comment form for your email address, I’ll use that to get hold of you.
  3. Closing date for entries is noon PST time on Tuesday 27th November. Any comments posted after that deadline will be deleted.
  4. I will be picking one winner (using a random number generator), to receive the aforementioned boxed set.
  5. If I do not hear from the winner before Christmas, I reserve the right to select a replacement.

Good luck!

@MalCatlyn is back!

To mark the upcoming release of his latest adventures, Elizabethan spy Mal Catlyn will once more be tweeting his exploits for the next three months. Why, you might ask, would a spy be broadcasting his whereabouts on a public network? Well…

  1. He could well be using one of the many cunning ciphers that were invented by 16th-century cryptographer Thomas Phelippes;
  2. He’s a spy, so you can’t trust anything he says;
  3. The internet didn’t exist in 1594, so who’s going to read them? Duh!

As with his previous outing, #malsdiary, I’ll he’ll be tweeting in “real time” (give or take 418 years), segueing into the events of The Merchant of Dreams in January.

Mal’s Diary

Want to read the original “Mal’s Diary” tweets, all in one convenient free download? I’ve compiled an ebook version of the feed for your reading pleasure:

ePub | Kindle | PDF

Friday Reads: Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie

About this time last year I reviewed the first volume in Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, The Blade Itself, having enjoyed it immensely. However with all the other demands on my time since I signed my own book deal, it’s taken me since then to get around to the second volume, Before They Are Hanged.

Warning: some spoilers!

Picking up where the first book left off, Before They Are Hanged follows four storylines: Bayaz’s expedition into the far west, accompanied by Logen Ninefingers, Jezal dan Luthar and Ferro Maljinn; Glokta’s posting to the southern frontier city of Dagoska, under threat from being retaken by the Gurkish; Major West’s campaign on the Union’s northern border, as the warlord Bethod pushes south; and Logen’s former companions travelling south into the Union, trying to avoid Bethod’s armies. It is very much a middle volume of a trilogy in the tradition of The Lord of the Rings, with the main purpose of moving its characters around on the map, presumably towards a final confrontation. Only Glokta’s storyline is neatly self-contained, bringing him back to Adua after the fall of Dagoska.

As before, Glokta is still my favourite character; he’s as cynical and self-deprecating as ever, unable to accept that he retains some shreds of decency even though he behaves in a decidedly chivalrous manner towards the women he encounters. I also enjoyed Jezal’s character arc, as the privations of the trek across the western continent beat this spoilt city-bred brat into a humbler, more mature man—albeit still with enough vanity to be mortified by his battle scars! Logen and Ferro are growing on me, as is the Dogman, but Bayaz remains an arrogant, unknowable figure who leads more through abject fear of his powers than from any inspirational qualities. Abercrombie’s prose is ironically at its most shaky when describing his best character: Glokta is sometimes little more than a collection of mannerisms, only rescued from tiresomeness by his dry wit. In contrast, the narrative voice of this novel is at its strongest in the chapters from the point of view of the Dogman, perhaps because the northern warriors are closest in speech to Abercrombie’s native Lancashire accent/dialect.

Whilst this is mostly an open-ended narrative encompassing several entirely separate storylines, there are little touches that tie it all together, such as the contrast between Jezal’s ability to grow and change versus Prince Ladisla’s total, tragic inability to do so. Another thematic link is how impulsive acts that make a lot of sense at the time can turn out to have unexpected consequences way down the line. I won’t spoil the major plot twists but in Abercrombie’s world, as in Middle Earth, the fate of thousands often rests on the decision to kill or spare an individual. In fact in this volume I felt Tolkien’s influence very strongly; we have a wizard leading a disparate group of adventurers across a continent, a beseiged city, ancient ruins, a mage-created race of violent humanoids who can be slaughtered with impunity…the parallels are numerous and sometimes a little too obvious.

Whilst both Abercrombie’s and GRRM’s books are often described as “gritty”, I for one find the former far more palatable than the latter, largely because of the difference in attitudes to women characters. In A Song of Ice and Fire, rape and other violence against women is commonplace and (more importantly) rarely punished; in The First Law, the opposite is true. Of course bad things sometimes happen to good people, but the overall tone is upbeat. For all their violence, Abercrombie’s novels are not “grimdark”, at least not in this reader’s estimation—and for that I’m heartily grateful.

Given the length of my TBR list, it will probably be another year before I get around to reading the final volume in the trilogy, but since that’s about the same pace that Joe’s books are being published, it’s not really a problem. On the contrary, it’s something to look forward to…

Friday Reads: The Whitefire Crossing, by Courtney Schafer

Dev is an outrider: a talented mountaineer who helps scout out potential rockslides and avalanches for merchant convoys crossing the Whitefire Mountains. He also has a nice sideline smuggling illegal magical items from the mage city of Ninavel across the border into Alathia. But when he’s asked to smuggle a person across the border—a young man named Kiran who turns out to be an apprentice mage fleeing his abusive master—Dev finds himself having to risk his own life and those of his friends, or face breaking the promise he made to his dying mentor: to save a young girl from being sold into prostitution.

I confess that the main reason I picked this book up is that Schafer was one of the other debut authors on the recent blog extravaganza that I was involved in. I tend to prefer my fantasy low on magic, and I’ve also found that I don’t enjoy descriptions of wilderness travel that much, so the premise of this book didn’t set me afire. However I’m glad I didn’t let my prejudices stop me, as it turned out to be an enjoyable read—to the point of being difficult to put down!

For one thing, Schafer has a light touch with detail and resists the temptation to which many writers succumb, of being so in love with their specialist subject that they do the literary equivalent of cornering you at a party and boring your socks off. There are some descriptions of climbing, and a lot of obvious knowledge of mountain conditions, but for the most part these are merely the framework for the human story of Dev and Kiran’s desperate flight from Kiran’s master.

As for the magic, I’m no aficionado but it didn’t seem all that different from what I’ve seen in countless other fantasy books. However as with the climbing it wasn’t wrapped up in too much jargon or described in obsessive detail, so it didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment of the story. The jargon that is used has a distinctively Russian flavour, though it was hard to tell if this was specific to the small group of mages using it or a wider aspect of the worldbuilding. Still, it made a refreshing change from the usual Latin-based magical vocabulary, which has seriously worn out its welcome thanks to Harry Potter. Also, the master mages are deliciously psychopathic in a way that makes complete sense, so that they are at once utterly despicable villains and yet chillingly believable people.

What sold the book for me, though, was the combination of two charming lead characters and a plot that never lets up the tension for long. Dev’s passages are told in first person, in a laconic, fairly modern idiom that soon had me hearing Jensen Ackles as his voice! Because of his well-developed character, his inner conflicts didn’t come over as whiny or angsty (as they can so often do), but as the voice of a man embittered and frustrated by the unfairness of life. By contrast, Kiran’s scenes are told in third person, with the result that his voice doesn’t come out as strongly as Dev’s. I’m not clear on the reason for the different approach, though it may be that Schafer needed a certain detachment from Kiran in order to make him more morally ambiguous, or possibly to avoid any whininess and excessive self-pity, since he’s both less sassy and street-smart than Dev and a survivor of far worse childhood abuse.

As for the plot…at the beginning of the book, Dev and Kiran don’t trust one another at all, leading to a lot of interpersonal conflict to spice up what could otherwise be a somewhat dull travelogue. And even when they do reach a measure of mutual friendship, that’s torn apart again by the complex scheming of the mages and smugglers, all of whom are trying to take advantage of Kiran’s flight over the border. I confess I didn’t see the final twist at the book’s climax coming, and yet Schafer had set it up nicely. The pace slackens towards the end, as the consequences of Dev and Kiran’s actions are played out, but the denouement also serves to introduce an interesting new character whom I hope will appear again.

One minor gripe I had was that in addition to the very welcome asterisks between scenes (I read this in ebook format), PoV switches were marked by the character’s name in brackets as a header. I didn’t feel this was necessary, given we have only two PoVs and they are pretty distinctive. Also, because PoV breaks often happen mid-chapter, it just looks less elegant than George R R Martin’s chapter-named-after-PoV approach. There seems to be a definite trend on the other side of the Pond for editors to want to simplify things as much as possible for readers—c.f. Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s recent account on SF Signal of the combined UK/US edit of his book—so I don’t know whether the headings were in the original manuscript or added by the publisher, but I for one felt patronised by the device.

Overall: a very entertaining and assured debut, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, The Tainted City, which is due out in October. Although looking at my TBR pile and my writing deadlines, I may have to wait rather longer than that…