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The Prince of Lies – Christmas giveaway

My author copies of The Prince of Lies turned up the other day, so I thought it was about time I did a giveaway!

I have three paperbacks (UK edition) to give away, open to entries anywhere in the world. All you have to do to be in with a chance is to leave a comment on this post – 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 (unless you’re replying to a question on the post or similar).
  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 UK time on Tuesday 10th December. Any comments posted after that deadline will be deleted.
  4. I will be picking three separate winners (using a random number generator), to receive one copy each.
  5. I will aim to get the books out promptly, but given how close it is to Christmas, I can’t guarantee delivery times.
  6. If a winner does not respond by Christmas Eve (24th December) or doesn’t provide a valid email address, I reserve the right to select a replacement.

Good luck!

 

Prince of Lies – the official wallpaper

So far I’ve produced desktop wallpaper based on cover art for the first two volumes of Night’s Masque and they proved rather popular, so I’m completing the set with The Prince of Lies.

As with previous versions, it includes a quotation from the novel that I hope sums it up without being spoilery :)

I’ve created two versions, one widescreen (8:5) and one standard proportion (4:3), both in sizes large enough for all but the biggest monitors.

1600 x 1000 | 1280 x 960

Enjoy!

Full credits

Cover art © Larry Rostant at Artist Partners

Background texture & lettering by Marc Gascoigne

Angry Robot logo © Angry Robot Books

Design and novel excerpt © 2013 Anne Lyle

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

Book Review: The Spirit Eater, by Rachel Aaron

This time last year I read and reviewed The Spirit Thief, the first Eli Monpress novel from Rachel Aaron. For some reason I didn’t review book two, The Spirit Rebellion, but I enjoyed both enough to continue with the series. In fact I picked up book three, The Spirit Eater, when I was having trouble getting into any of the new books I’d picked up—I thought perhaps it would be easier to slip into a story where I already knew the characters. Thankfully I was right, and Aaron’s book broke my reading dry spell! 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…

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!

Book review: Babylon Steel, by Gaie Sebold

Babylon Steel is the eponymous heroine of Gaie Sebold’s debut fantasy novel, an ex-mercenary turned madam of a moderately up-market brothel. Desperate for an injection of cash to pay for her girls’ expensive tastes, Madam Steel takes on a commission from suave gambling-den owner Darash Fain to locate a missing girl, and unsurprisingly finds herself up to her neck in trouble, not to mention haunted by a terrible past that is gradually revealed during the course of the story.

I came to this book feeling a little uneasy, given the profession of the protagonist. There’s a tendency in the fantasy genre to romanticise prostitution and stress the willingness of the participants, when in reality the vast majority of women only turn to the profession out of desperation. On the other hand it was refreshing to read about female characters with a healthy, nay enthusiastic, attitude to sex, and there’s a pleasing lack of the rape’n'misogyny vibe that pervades so much fantasy. Also, who can fail to like an author who creates a pair of BDSM specialists called Cruel and Unusual?

Part noir, part sword’n'sorcery, this is a difficult novel to pin down. The “present day” storyline was complex in itself, weaving the plotline about the missing girl with the everyday problems of the brothel, including a sect of creepy puritanical priests who seem bent on driving Babylon out of business. Add in regular tension-filled flashbacks to Babylon’s past as a teenaged trainee priestess and it almost feels like too much story is being crammed into a relatively short book – and yet everything is woven together with a great deal of skill, reminding me of one of Terry Pratchett’s more intricate Discworld novels. Thankfully, after a few chapters I was sufficiently engrossed to read the whole book in four (work) days, so everything stayed fresh in my memory. This is not a book to put down and pick up at intervals!

The setting is not your typical medieval fantasy world, either; it’s just one world—or plane—in a multiverse connected by portals and inhabited by a bewildering array of sentient species, from various human-like races to furry or scaly beings with more or fewer than the usual complement of limbs (or other appendages *cough*). It reminded me a great deal of the kind of SFF I read back in the eighties—Zelazny, Leiber and particularly Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor stories and Robert Asprin’s Thieves World anthologies—and owes far more to the American fantasy tradition than to Tolkien. Which is no bad thing, in my mind; the genre has become a little ossified. At times I felt it was almost too much of a rag-bag of creatures, with fey, vampires and were…somethings rubbing shoulders (and more intimate body parts) with beings that would have been more at home in a Mos Eisley cantina, but it does contribute to what’s basically a light-hearted setting under its sleazy, run-down façade of villainy and vice.

On the subject of race, I have to admit I’m a bit disappointed by the whitewashed cover. On several occasions it’s mentioned that Babylon is typical of her race in having copper-coloured skin, and if I recall correctly she also has a high-bridged nose, which makes her sound more Central American than white. The art appears to be a photo-realistic painting rather than a straight photograph (click on it for a high-resolution version), so there’s really no excuse for changing the character in this way.

Another minor gripe was the fight scenes. In order to convey the immediacy and chaos of combat, the narrative shifts into present tense and becomes disjointed, giving only glimpses of the action. I can see what Sebold was trying to do, but the technique was so blatant that it pulled me out of the story a bit. Of course this could just be me being a typical writer and noticing the skeleton beneath the story’s skin, but it really didn’t work for me.

These small issues aside, it’s an enjoyable book with an engaging protagonist and an unusual setting, and I will certainly be trying to find room on my TBR list for the sequel.

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…

Lyle’s Three Laws of Magic

Yesterday I came across an article about creating a magic system for your novel, and on impulse tweeted to say that I disliked the phrase “magic system” when applied to written fiction. This sparked a lively debate, and afterwards I thought it would be fun to codify my conclusions in a set of rules.

OK, they’re not so much rules, more what you’d call…guidelines :)

1. Magic cannot be all-powerful

"The Wizard", by Sean McGrath
"The Wizard", by Sean McGrath

I think most writers (and readers) understand this one. If magic can do anything, there’s no narrative tension, because there’s no problem it cannot solve. There must be at least some hard limits on what it can do. Popular limits include: only some people can perform magic; they have specific talents and can only do certain types of magic; powerful magic comes with a high cost. Many fantasy worlds combine all three, but it doesn’t really matter what you choose as long as it stops magic from being a “get out of gaol free” card.

You don’t have to define down to the last detail what magic can do, but you really, really need to know what it can’t do.

2. Magic that’s too logical becomes science

This is a more controversial one, and the point that provoked the Twitter discussion. As someone pointed out, this is the inverse of Clarke’s Law, i.e. “any sufficiently advanced magic system is indistinguishable from technology”.

I know there are some readers who love the Brandon Sanderson approach, i.e. highly detailed rules of magic, but to me all that does is make magic an extension of the science of your universe. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I’m often tempted to create a fantasy setting that, like Discworld, is literally how pre-modern people believed their universe to be – but I think you as a writer need to be aware that that’s what you’re doing.

More to the point, as I said on Twitter, the reader shouldn’t be able to hear the rattle of a ghostly D20 or envisage a “magic points gauge” falling. Don’t make your magic so mundane and mechanistic that it reads like a poorly written RPG novelisation!

3. Magic should tend towards entropy

What I mean by this is that, whilst your character may think of magic as a tool that can get him out of trouble, you as the writer should be thinking of ways to use it to get him into trouble :)

A lot of fantasy worlds do this in a very simplistic way, by making magic illegal, which is fine if that fits your setting. It can also be used for comic effect, e.g. the archetypal inept apprentice who tries to light a candle but instead makes it explode! However it can also be done more subtly, by setting up unintended consequences. That thunderstorm spell over the battlefield might break the ranks of the enemy, but the resultant rain could easily cause the nearby river to flood and wash away the bridge the characters were relying on to get to the castle in time to stop the usurping prince from slaughtering the rest of the royal family.

You can also have magic be just plain unreliable. The reason that so many humans throughout history have believed in the reality of magic is the same reason that gambling is addictive: it works just often enough, and with sufficiently gratifying results, that our optimistic brains overlook all the failures. You don’t want to go too far with this, though. If your magic randomly fails at a crucial moment, it can feel as clunky as a story in which the hero’s mobile phone batteries go flat just when he needs to make that vital call. At the risk of contradicting rule 2, failure needs to be logical or at least plausible, rather than completely random.

 

So, there you have it – my three laws of magic for fantasy writers. Go ahead and break them if you want to, though – after all, it’s your universe!