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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Interview with Songs of the Earth author Elspeth Cooper

Today marks the United States release of Elspeth Cooper's highly anticipated debut, Songs of the Earth. Released in the UK last year, Songs garned a great deal of praise along with its fair share of skeptics. I read an early galley of the U.S. edition and reviewed it about a month ago. Long story short, it's a very solid debut novel that features great writing with some (not unexpected) first novel unevenness.

Over the last few months I've had a chance to chat with Cooper on Twitter and various literary forums. I've very much enjoyed her insightful and candid responses. After finishing the novel, I had some questions, which she was kind enough to answer. Enjoy!


Here's the blurb:
The Book of Eador, Abjurations 12:14, is very clear: Suffer ye not the life of a witch. For a thousand years, the Church Knights have obeyed that commandment, sending to the stake anyone who can hear the songs of the earth. There are no exceptions, not even for one of their own. 
Novice Knight Gair can hear music no one else can, beautiful, terrible music: music with power. In the Holy City, that can mean only one thing: death by fire—until an unlikely intervention gives him a chance to flee the city and escape the flames. 
With the Church Knights and their witchfinder hot on his heels, Gair hasn’t time to learn how to use the power growing inside him, but if he doesn’t master it, that power will tear him apart. His only hope is the secretive Guardians of the Veil, though centuries of persecution have almost destroyed their Order, and the few Guardians left have troubles of their own. 
For the Veil between worlds is weakening, and behind it, the Hidden Kingdom, ever-hungry for dominion over the daylight realm, is stirring. Though he is far from ready, Gair will find himself fighting for his own life, for everyone within the Order of the Veil, and for the woman he has come to love.

Justin: First off, it seems to me it would be difficult to have two major release dates so far apart. You've been out in the UK for something like 5 months. You saw all the reviews and critiques the first time around, and suffered whatever second thoughts about how you did this or that. Now, the same book is being released again to a whole new audience. It seems like double dipping anxiety. How have you handled that?

Cooper: There's a little bit of a double dip going on, I can't deny it, but I always knew there would be. Gollancz bought the trilogy in September 2009, but we didn't get a US deal until early 2011, by which time, publishing schedules being what they are, Tor couldn't shoehorn it into their calendar any sooner than February 2012.

I'm a lot more relaxed about it this time around, though. For the UK release I was pinging off the walls with excitement and therefore terribly vulnerable to anxiety; this time it's all happening way over there so it feels a bit more remote, and I've got a better idea of what to expect.

As for the second-guessing, well, I try not to do that. The book's written and in print; I can't change it now so I try not to get wound up about "Oh, I wish I'd fixed that/made that clearer" when a review comes in. It's done. Any missteps I made the first time around I've tried to avoid with the second book, but at the end of the day, no matter what I do, there will always be someone who doesn't like it, or thinks I should have done things differently. That's their prerogative, but it was my best effort at the time. No book is ever perfect.

Justin: You wrote three main POVs in the novel. Gair, Alden, and Masen. All men. In fact, there's only one female PoV, and it's only for a few pages. What compelled you to write so many male characters? Were you tempted to give us Aysha's POV?

Cooper: I was compelled by the story. You see, Songs came about because like many debut authors, I got an idea and I ran with it, figuring things out as I went. As E L Doctorow said, it was like driving at night in the fog, only able to see as far ahead as my headlights would let me. This was where the story led me; I just wrote it down.

A certain amount of maleness was predicated by Gair's origins as a member of a monastic military order - an absence of women in that environment is kind of a given - but mostly I didn't choose to have all-male POVs in Songs: I opened the tap, and that was what came out. By the same token, Trinity Moon wound up hip-deep in women with agency: Tanith has a larger role, there are two more terrific women in Ytha and Teia, and numerous other smaller roles.

I was tempted to give Aysha's POV in Songs, largely because she was so much fun to write and I knew it'd be a hoot to get inside her head and hear her take on things, but in the end I decided that doing so would have been pure indulgence on my part. She didn't have enough to add to the main story, and I was afraid that if I let her off the leash she'd end up trying to take over the book. She's a force of nature, that woman.

Justin: Speaking of the Church, the one in Songs feels very hypocritical, although led by a man who seems quite the opposite. Between you and me, were you raised Catholic?

Cooper: I've been asked that before - no, I wasn't.  My birth certificate says Presbyterian, I went to a Methodist Sunday school, I've attended a Catholic mass (as a non-combatant, as it were), and observed both Eastern Orthodox and western celebration of Easter.  I love ecclesiastical architecture, I can feel some kind of energy in sacred spaces, and have been known to light votive candles in great cathedrals in times of tragedy, but I am not a believer.

 I detect some very biblical themes though. Maybe even a little hint of Paradise Lost. Conscious influences?

Cooper: Really?  Well I never. People keep asking me about the themes in Songs, and all I can say is that any themes they find must have sneaked in whilst my back was turned, because I damn sure wasn't consciously introducing anything other than the story.

I've never read Paradise Lost (and me an English Literature student - shocker) but I have read widely and voraciously over the years. There could be all kinds of influences coming out in the wash that I'm not even aware of - from Beowulf to the Brontës to Blackadder.

I stand in awe of writers who actually decide what they're going to write about, and choose to explore such-and-such a theme by doing thus-and-so. How do they do that? That kind of thought process does not come naturally to me at all.

As you can probably tell, as a writer I am very much what George RR Martin called a gardener. I get an idea for a story, incubate it a bit to see if it's got what it takes, then I just let it go and try to keep up until it's done. During the edit phase I prune and trim and shape, bring some strands out and send others into the background, but mostly I'm just transcribing a movie playing in my head.

Justin: You also seem to have a thing for swords. The scenes where Gair is playing with his sword (not a euphemism) are really compelling. Any experience in that type of stuff or just good hard research?

Cooper: I've been in love with edged weapons for over thirty years. Longswords, falchions, cavalry sabres, katana - yum. I have no real experience, though. My MS was affecting my balance too much by the time I thought about getting some lessons, so without the technical knowledge to describe the action, I concentrated on writing about how it feels. This was the perfect excuse to buy myself a blade: a replica of a 15th century longsword, as close as I could get to what Gair uses without having one custom made. It's not one of those poncy fakes made of cheese designed to hang on the wall, either: it's functional, and it's sharp. How else am I going to know what a real sword feels like?

As for research, yes, I did a bit - there's plenty of WMA/HEMA (Western martial arts/historical European martial arts) videos on the internet, for instance - but mostly it was instinct, common sense, and watching a lot of historical and fantasy movies an awful lot of times . . . ahem. Sooner or later someone who actually knows what they're doing is going to come along and put me in my place, I'm sure.

Justin: You don't go into great depth with magic system. It's a song in the mind, but the mechanics aren't really delved into. Are you in the magic should be unknowable camp or will there be more exposition on that front moving forward? I find this to be one of the more interesting debates between fantasy authors. It's like the Jets and the Sharks.

Cooper: Interesting question. You're right, a lot of fantasy fans seem to get into quite a tizzy about this subject, insisting that it has to be one or the other. I sit more in the middle.

I'm not particularly interested in the nuts and bolts of how anyone's magic works, as long as it's consistent and enough is explained for me to understand it. That's one of the reasons why I didn't dwell on Gair's studies: I shouldn't need to write a primer on the use of the Song for a reader to enjoy the story. Besides, with Harry Potter et al the whole magical college thing has been done, and I didn't think I had anything new to add to that particular trope.

The way I see it, if you make your magic too hand-wavy and unknowable, you run the risk of it becoming a cop-out, a cheat, a way to cover up a deus ex machina. Analyse it to death and it becomes too much like science (don't you start quoting Clarke's Third Law at me!) and you lose a little bit of what made it magic in the first place.

Don't get me wrong, I admire the heck out of writers who have the patience, the imagination and the sheer dwarven cunning to come up with systems like allomancy and sympathy, but it's not my thing. So a magical thingummy doesn't obey the laws of thermodynamics? Dude, it's magic. If the author's managed to suspend my disbelief this far, I'll swallow almost anything. And no, we are *so* not going there ;o)

Justin: The primary story arc in Songs is Gair learning how to be a Guardian and, to a large degree, a man. There are quite a few other subplots, some more obscure than others. They certainly hint at a much wider world. Can we expect Trinity Moon to take us over the hills and through the woods?

Cooper: Oh Trinity's going to take you to all kinds of places. The deserts of Gimrael, to Astolar and Bregorin, north into Arennor and beyond the Archen mountains. There is also stepping through the Veil, and interaction with denizens from the Hidden Kingdom, to give you a teaser for when the lid really comes off in Book 3, The Dragon House.

Justin: So I understand you're working on edits for Trinity Moon, do you have an idea of when it might be out? 2012 in the UK, 2013 in the US?

Cooper: Middle of June for the UK, for the US I don't know yet. My editor at Tor did mention something recently about catching up with the UK release dates for subsequent books but I'm not sure whether that was just a fond hope on her part!

Justin: Thanks for joining me Elspeth! Get back to work.

Cooper: *rips off parade ground salute* Sir, yes, sir!

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Arctic Rising - Tobias Buckell (and giveaway!)

Arctic Rising is the best James Bond novel I've ever read. Wait, what? Indeed Tobias Buckell's latest novel could be taken as an Ian Fleming experiment gone terribly... right. An ironic homage to Bond, based on gads of research into the nature of climate change and some of the more inventive solutions, Buckell has created a near term speculative novel that's as current as it is authentic. Believable? Let's not get greedy; I did say Bond after all.

Buckell's premise begins a few years in the future, where global warming has transformed the Earth. The Arctic Ice Cap has all but melted, and the international community is racing to claim the oil beneath the newly accessible ocean. Enter Gaia Corporation whose founders have come up with a plan to roll it all back using thousands of tiny mirrors floating in the air to redirect heat and cool the Earth's surface.

The protagonist is Anika Duncan, Buckell's first piece of Bond irony. She's a black lesbian, tough as nails, but far from a trained covert operative. She's an airship pilot for the underfunded United Nations Polar Guard. It's her job to ensure things run smoothly in the new Wild West. When a smuggled nuclear weapon makes it into the Polar Circle on Anika's watch, she winds up caught up in a plot to destroy Gaia Corporation and with it Earth's hope the future.

When I read the synopsis for Arctic Rising last winter, I was skeptical. I was aware of Buckell's relationship with Karl Schroeder and Paola Bacigalupi, two staunch environmental advocates, and of his own interest in environmentalism. It concerned me that Buckell was tackling climate change, and setting it in such a near future. The possibilities for political commentary, finger pointing, and hair shirt environmentalism were rife. My cynicism was completely unwarranted. Buckell uses well founded research to weave an argument not just for environmental reforms, but also against extremism and unilateral policy making. The end result is an even handed novel that will appeal (almost) equally to readers on both sides of the proverbial aisle.

In truth, Arctic Rising is far more of a thriller (see Bond) than other recent ecocentric novels like The Wind Up Girl (Bacigalupi) or Seed (Rob Ziegler). Buckell makes a few points here and there about the inevitability of climate change, and few more about how the world might go about solving them. Meanwhile, the focus remains on a breakneck story that would fit neatly into any host of genres. Anika has to save the world with the help of a few friends from an out of control corporate oligarchy bent on winning at any cost. And she might just fall in love on the way.

And therein lies the strength of Buckell's latest novel -- Anika. She embodies what makes Buckell such a dynamic voice in a sea of historical homogeny. The dashingly handsome white male, well trained and supremely confident, that so pervades this type of fiction, is absent. I mentioned Anika is a black lesbian. I should also mention she's completely believable in her sexuality and ethnicity. There's never a moment when I felt she was written by a man and despite numerous opportunities, she never turns into the Xena Warrior Princess action hero (thank God). She's a real woman in unreal circumstances. A third world native living in the developed world, I can't help but believe that Buckell's life experiences as a Caribbean man moving to the States pervade Anika. I know for sure that those values light up the page with their conviction.

Is the novel a little absurd? Well, yes. The major plot device involves millions of floating mirrors capable of redirecting the sun. A conspiracy surrounds it all that calls to mind Mel Gibson's Conspiracy Theory (1997), as unlikely as it is fun to imagine. Buckell balances that unreality with the truth of Earth's rising temperatures and the frenetic grab for natural resources that continues unabated throughout the world. That balance allows Buckell to take a stance on an issue, invite his reader to listen, and keep them there through a compelling and exciting story. Like Saladin Ahmed's recent debut, Throne of the Crescent Moon, Arctic Rising is a novel with a point of view. And that's something James Bond never seemed to have -- Ian Fleming, eat your heart out.

Arctic Rising comes with my highest recommendation. It's due out in Hardcover and eBook tomorrow, February 28. You should read it. Learn more about Tobias Buckell on Twitter or at his blog.



I have one (1) copy of Arctic Rising to 
give away courtesy of Tor.

Giveaway Details:

This giveaway is open only to residents of the United States and Canada.  You must be 18 years of age or older to participate. Void where prohibited by law. Giveaway rules are subject to change.  

How to participate:
  • To enter the giveawaye-mail me at, with the subject ICE CAPS, including a valid mailing address.
  • One entry per person, or face disqualification.
  • Entries accepted until 11:59pm ET on March 5, 2012.
  • Winners will be chosen by random sorting entries, and then using a random number generator.
  • There will be one (1) winners who will received one (1) book.

Although not required, it sure would be nice if you:

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Updates and Giveaway Winners!

So, what's going on here at Staffer's Book Review (and occasional musings)? Regular visitors may notice that I've substantially changed the way the blog looks. Specifically, I've changed the name of the blog because it sounds more like what it is, a book review blog. It's also brought about a new character here on the blog courtesy of an idea from Rob at Rob's Blog o' Stuff (he's waving hello in the banner).

In other news, I've got another giveaway coming up next week of Tobias Buckell's new novel Arctic Rising. I'll also have a review of the novel up, and a piece I wrote taking a look at him as an author and a dude. There's going to be an interview with Elspeth Cooper, author of Songs of the Earth, next week as well.  Furthermore, I promise to try to do something that'll piss people off.

Have a great weekend!


Last week's giveaway of five copies of Robert Jackson Bennett's The Troupe ended last night. Congratulations to the winner below. The books will go out on Monday.

Rob from Kent, UK
Ryan from Colorado, USA
Eric from Kentucky, USA
Ken from Arizona, USA
Sherryl from Panay City, Philippines

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Collection of Short Reviews from Early 2012

I tend to write long reviews for everything I read, but I've found that increasingly difficult as I read more. It's particularly difficult with second and third books in a series. From time to time I'm going to do posts like this one where I bundle a bunch of reviews together. Most of them will be second and third volumes in a series, but occasionally I'll throw a standalone in as well. I'll also write up novels here that I didn't finish (very rare) and I'll try to explain why without actually reviewing it. Enjoy!


Shadow Master by Jon Sprunk

I finished Shadow's Master last night, concluding Jon Sprunk's trilogy that began a few years ago with Shadow's Son. I'm keeping this review short because I've said almost everything about the series and Sprunk's style that needs to be said in my reviews of Shadow's Son and Shadow's Lure. For those who've been awaiting this final installment I can confidently say it's a fitting end to Caim, Josey, and Kit's stories. The novel is also a bit of a return capturing the kinetic violence and unrelenting pace of the first volume.

If I have one complaint about the series, and it's a relatively big one, it's that Sprunk doesn't do a very good job of giving his world and magic system the depth that could have taken the series to another level. There are times when the magic becomes deus ex machina almost entirely due to the fact that it's just unexplained. None of that really detracted from my enjoyment, but it is something I'd like to see Sprunk do better in his next series.

The Ruined City by Paula Brandon

Last year I wrote a review for The Traitor's Daughter, the first book in Paula Brandon's The Veiled Isles Trilogy. I found it wildly entertaining, but lamented the book's marketing strategy that pushed it more toward romantic fantasy readers. The romance comes across as a secondary story line to the true conflict in the series which revolves around the corruption of the Source, a magical energy that's in danger of reversing course and altering the world. Brandon shines in this space, utilizing interesting, flawed, and wholly believable characters with goals that are equal parts right and wrong.

Book two, The Ruined City, picks right up where Traitor's Daughter left off. Admittedly, Brandon does open up the throttle on the romance, taking Jianna and Rione's relationship to the next level. It's handled well, and never descends into the sugary annoyance the novel's cover might suggest. Unfortunately, it occasionally portrays Jianna as a girl waiting around for men to solve her problems. The novel's conclusion gives me hope that will change in the final volume, due out this summer.

Jane Carver of Waar by Nathan R. Long

Being Long's first original novel, I would typically write a long form review about Jane Carver of Waar. Except as much as I enjoyed the read, I don't have a whole lot to say. Long takes Edgar Rice Burrough's classic John Carter stories and gives them a modern bent with a strong, female protagonist. The novel reads like a pulp lover's fantasy with over the top action, humor, and a good amount of sex.

It's not just cheap thrills. Long embeds a good amount of commentary on racial and gender equality, class warfare, and biker chicks. As I've never read Burrough's original series, I suspect there was a lot of nuance I missed that fans will pick up on.  Either way, it was a ton of fun to read and I highly recommend it.

The Legend of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron

Ok, I'm totally cheating because I haven't read the entire Legend of Eli Monpress. It's an omnibus of three novels -- Spirit Thief, Spirit Rebellion, and Spirit Eater. Orbit has released them in this format, I presume, to get some new readers involved in time for the fourth installment, The Spirit War, due out this summer. Personally, I'd never heard of the series before despite the fact that it's part of one of the most popular sub-genres in fantasy (thief/assassin). I can't help but wonder if the original covers had something to do with it (very urban fantasy don't you think?).

I did finish the first of the original three novels and I'm glad to report it was a fun read. Shallow, overly light on the world and character building, but also possessing a great voice with a fast paced adventure plot. I think the target demographic is younger readers, but there's plenty here to enjoy for everyone. I don't hesitate to recommend the omnibus. I mean it's three books for $10, how can you beat that? I plan to finish it before the fourth book is released.

Giant Thief by David Tallerman

I'm kind of cheating here too. I didn't finish Giant Thief. I didn't even get very far -- around 90 pages. It's not a bad book. It's well written and the plot wasn't unworthy, but the narrator didn't do it for me at all. I found his voice bland and completely uninteresting. A first person novel pins everything on the reader's ability to connect to the narrator, and I just didn't. I can't recommend or not recommend it and I hate that. I try to finish everything I start, even bad books, but this was a rare case where I just didn't dislike or like it enough to continue. Most of the reviews out there, from people I trust (Far Beyond Reality), have been good so maybe I just caught it on a bad week.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Pillars of Hercules - David Constantine

Around these parts I commit myself to finishing everything I start. Why, you ask? Because I think it's important for me to help my reader make decisions about what they should buy and what they should avoid. If I only read things that I enjoy, how will I ever fulfill the second half of that commitment? I'm also loathe to spend 800 words eviscerating someone's baby. Thus, Cheryl was born. Cheryl is my imaginary personal assistent who helps me "review" novels I really did not like. Instead of just doggedly attacking a novel's failures, I try to have some fun with it and get some laughs. Hopefully it's taken the way I intend it.

This is my fourth installment of posts featuring Cheryl. If you enjoy this one, I suggest finding the Cheryl tag on the right sidebar for the others.

Oh and there's a new reoccurring character joining the blog today...


Here's the blurb:
Alexander, Prince of Macedon, is the terror of the world. Persia, Egypt, Athens . . . one after another, mighty nations are falling before the fearsome conqueror. Some say Alexander is actually the son of Zeus, king of the gods, and the living incarnation of Hercules himself. Worse yet, some say Alexander believes this . . . . 
The ambitious prince is aided in his conquest by unstoppable war-machines based on the forbidden knowledge of his former tutor, the legendary scientist-mage known as Aristotle. Greek fire, mechanical golems, and gigantic siege-engines lay waste to Alexander''s enemies as his armies march relentlessly west--toward the very edge of the world. Beyond the Pillars of Hercules, past the gateway to the outer ocean, lies the rumored remnants of Atlantis: ancient artifacts of such tremendous power that they may be all that stands between Alexander and conquest of the entire world. Alexander desires that power for himself, but an unlikely band of fugitives-including a Gaulish barbarian, a cynical Greek archer, a cunning Persian princess, and a sorcerer''s daughter-must find it first . . . before Alexander unleashes godlike forces that will shatter civilization. 
The Pillars of Hercules is an epic adventure that captures the grandeur and mystery of the ancient world as it might have been, where science and magic are one and the same


Justin: *buzz* Cheryl! Get me The List.

Cheryl: Yes sir. I'll bring it right in.

Justin: *impatient foot tapping*

Cheryl: Here you go, sir.

Justin: *sigh* What the hell?

Cheryl: I'm sure I don't know what you mean.

Justin: I've been trying to come up with an original idea for a novel for the past decade. Every time I think I've hit on just the right niche someone comes along and beats me to it.

Cheryl: Humm...

Justin: What?

Cheryl: Oh nothing.

Justin: Cheryl...

Cheryl: Well, maybe it's because you spend more time talking about writing a novel than you do writing one.

Justin: What did you just say, Cheryl?!

Cheryl: I said you're lazy.

Justin: That's what I... wait, what?! I should fire you!


Mysterious Wizard: Calm yourself, Justin.  It isn't Cheryl whom you should be mad at...

Justin: Who the hell are you?

Mysterious Wizard: I'm Fizbane, the Wizard who inhabits your blog.

Justin: *boggled*

Fizbane: Perhaps, who you're truly mad at is David Constantine, author of The Pillars of Hercules.

Justin: Um, I'm pretty sure I'm pissed at Cheryl. She's supposed to do what I say, it's in her contract which I have here, written in her blood and notarized by Cthulu.

Fizbane: As the Google representative in charge of this blog, I regret to inform you that Cthulu is not a licensed notary.

Cheryl: Face.

Justin: Shut it, Cheryl! You're telling me you work for Google?

Fizbane: I am your blog wizard. We come standard with every blog. For the most part we lurk in the background, but given your wholesale attack on fair Cheryl today, I felt it was time to assert myself.

Justin: Oh my God, this is why Google opposed SOPA. I mean you're clearly a rip-off of Fizban.

Not a notary... apparently.
Fizbane: *wizardly chortle* Come now, I clearly bear no resemblance to that fictional charlatan of the floppy hat and grandfatherly humor. Any similarities are purely coincidental, I assure you.

Justin: Uh-huh.

Fizbane: Now, back to the topic at hand. Pillars of Hercules. It sure sounds like a great idea. Advanced technology set during Alexander's conquest of Europe and Asia.

Justin: Damn good idea, you're right. Although, I have to admit, it didn't really come together. Constantine asks, "What if Alexander didn't die in Persia and instead, went west?" But he does nothing beyond that to explain this vastly advanced technology. Submarines, steam engines, explosives, etc. As though by Alexander's mere survival all the technology that Plato and Aristotle theorized became a reality. It's a stretch and never made much sense.

Fizbane: So you're a bully and a nitpicker. *stern stare*

Justin: Jesus, Fizbane. What are you my dad?

Fizbane: And a blasphemer.

Justin: Really?

Fizbane: I call 'em like I see 'em.

Justin: Anyway, it's not just that. I mean the whole book has a boatload of modern affectations. All the language is super modern with high-fives and current day idioms. There's also no concept of Greek/Roman/Carthaginian cultural mores. All the PoV characters are progressive thinkers. One of the major plot points is that Alexander believes he's the son of Zeus. No one really believes him though. I mean, even those who think he might be telling the truth don't seem to find any particular sense of reverence associated with it. It's almost like every character is in on the joke that the gods aren't real.

Fizbane: *aghast* The gods aren't real? Who does Constantine think he is?

Justin: Now who's the grouchy one?

Fizbane: The opinions expressed by your blog wizard do not reflect those of Google corporate.

Justin: Right. Well, despite these problems, it might have worked if the book was put together right. Unfortunately, it really wasn't. From a craft perspective, the book is just one long frustration.

Fizbane: *back under control* How so?

Justin: Constantine has about eight different PoVs that he uses. Only one of them has a distinct voice, making it difficult to become immersed in the characters. He switches PoVs every 3-5 pages on average and sometimes as often as every page.

Fizbane: That seems overly frequent, like the number of times you badger poor Cheryl.

Justin: Ok ok, I get it. I'll be nicer to Cheryl. I'll treat her like Flint treats Tasslehoff in Dragon's of Autumn Twilight.

Fizbane: Don't you dare!

Justin: Ah ha! I knew it! I caught you Fizban the Wanna-be.

Fizbane: Any similarities between your blog wizard and fictional characters protected by copyright law is purely coin...

Justin: Coincidental, whatever. Back to Pillars of Hercules. By the novels conclusion I realized Constantine was switching PoVs primarily to hide things from the reader he wasn't ready to reveal and to build tension. It felt cheap. All of this shifting around totally sucked the pace right out of an absolutely action packed novel. I was so busy keeping track of whose head I was inside that I lost all track of the action and plot moving around it.

Fizbane: I'm beginning to see your point despite my Google programming that requires me to be as unassuming as possible as to not upset any government entities that may consider invoking anti-trust laws.

Justin: That seems to be an unnecessary level of personal detail for you to share, Fizbane.

Fizbane: *pats Justin on the head* I like you. Call me Fizzy.

Justin: It's not just craft, inexplicable world building, and odd language choices, but the plot really isn't very interesting. It just crawls along without sense of context. The characters all feel like little miniatures in a massive game of Risk. Constantine just pushes them around the board from one conflict to another with no sense of ramification.

Fizbane: It seems that perhaps your anger in Constantine is misplaced. His execution was poor, the idea is still worth exploring.

Justin: You make a good point... Fizzy. I could start my version of the novel tomorrow. Yes.

Cheryl: Oh give me a break. I can't listen to this any longer. You'll actually take the time to sit down and write a novel around the same time I get up out of this digital space and smack you on the back of the head. Constantine is twice the writer you can ever hope to be!

Justin: Do you see what I have to deal with here Fizzy?!

But the wizard was already gone, a white... turkey... feather all that remained of his benevolent presence.

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Winner Announcements of Two Very Different Giveaways

A couple weeks back, I wrote a post offering to read and review a randomly selected self-published speculative fiction novel. I got a decent response, with around 20 people entering their work. Unfortunately, I got almost that many e-mails asking me to review their novel, indicating that they didn't bother to actually read my post. If I'm being honest, I found that very annoying.

Regardless, I lined up all the eligible entries, ran a random number generator, and drew:

Twelve year old Karen is having vivid dreams that feel more like memories. After her parents go missing, Karen does her best to take care of her six year old brother, Timmy, while they stay with her busy Aunt Sarah, but Timmy is kidnapped to the Shadow Realm while Aunt Sarah is on a business trip.

Joey looks to be about thirteen. He has fiery red hair and a temper to match but no memory of who he is or where he came from. 
Fourteen year old Mike has a legendary swordsman for a grandfather and a past that he doesn't want to talk about. 
As the meaning of Karen's dreams becomes clear, the three of them must join together to help Karen master the first Sword Spirit and rescue Timmy from the Shadow Realm. If they can just keep from killing each other first.

Expect a review soon...


I also held a giveaway last week to off-load a bunch of duplicates and things I'll never read from my shelves. I was only going to do two winners, but I ended up having a lot more stuff than I thought... so I added in an extra winner. My only complaint -- two were Canadian. Damn you Canada!! Who knew it was so much more expensive to ship across a border that's so close?

Congratulations to:

Chris from Minnesota, USA
Bob from Ontario, Canada
Zara from Ontario, Canada

I'll probably do another one of these later in the year.  Each of the three ended up with around 7-8 books.


Friday, February 17, 2012

Books I Want - Night Shade Books in May

My next two reviews (coming next week) are March releases from Night Shade Books -- Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine and Jane Carver of Waar by Nathan Long.  One thing NSB has been good about in the last 18 months is putting out great novels (for the most part).  What they haven't been very good about is keeping the community well informed about what's coming.  So, I guess I figured I'd bang the drum a bit for their May titles as I find all three rather intriguing.

Scourge of the Betrayer 
by Jeff Salyard
In a world where nothing is quite what it seems, a young scribe takes a job that will change his life forever. Arkamondos is hired to chronicle the activities of a band of mercenaries, led by an enigmatic foreign military commander, Captain Braylar Killcoin. But, what starts out as a secret mission escorting mysterious cargo quickly escalates into murder and sedition! Arkamondos must gain the trust of his employer — the secrets that Braylar and his soldiers are hiding could lead to death, or worse. At the same time, Arkamondos must learn the skills that will allow him to survive in the violent, unpredictable world he finds himself in. Unexpected allies from within the company reveal themselves and their intentions just as things become more dangerous for everybody.
From the sell sheet:
320 pages, Hardcover
Debut Novel and part of Night Shade's New Voices Program
Ship Date: 5/1/2012
Rights: World
Comparison Titles: The Blade Itself, Return of the Crimson Guard


The Black Opera
by Mary Gentle
Naples, the 19th Century. In the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, holy music has power. Under the auspices of the Church, the Sung Mass can bring about actual miracles like healing the sick or raising the dead. But some believe that the musicodramma of grand opera can also work magic by channeling powerful emotions into something sublime. Now the Prince's Men, a secret society, hope to stage their own black opera to empower the Devil himself — and change Creation for the better! Conrad Scalese is a struggling librettist whose latest opera has landed him in trouble with the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Rescued by King Ferdinand II, Conrad finds himself recruited to write and stage a counter opera that will, hopefully, cancel out the apocalyptic threat of the black opera, provided the Prince's Men, and their spies and saboteurs, don't get to him first. And he only has six weeks to do it...
From the sell sheet:
550 pages, Trade Paperback
Ship Date: 5/1/2012
Rights: Canada, Mexico, United States
Comparison Titles: TiganaThe Anubis Gates


The Croning
by Laird Baron
Strange things exist on the periphery of our existence, haunting us from the darkness looming beyond our firelight. Black magic, weird cults and worse things loom in the shadows. The Children of Old Leech have been with us from time immemorial. And they love us. Donald Miller, geologist and academic, has walked along the edge of a chasm for most of his nearly eighty years, leading a charmed life between endearing absent-mindedness and sanity-shattering realization. Now, all things must converge. Donald will discover the dark secrets along the edges, unearthing savage truths about his wife Michelle, their adult twins, and all he knows and trusts. For Donald is about to stumble on the secret...of The Croning.
From the sell sheet:
320 pages, Hardcover
First novel from award-winning short story author Laird Barron.
Ship Date: 5/1/2012
Rights: World
Comparison Titles: Heart Shaped Box, A Dark Matter

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Interview with The Troupe author Robert Jackson Bennett (and giveaway)

Last month I did an early review of Robert Jackson Bennett's new novel, The Troupe.  It's all about a sixteen-year-old pianist named George Carole who joined vaudeville to find Heironomo Silenus, the man he suspects to be his father. As he chases down Silenus's troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are unique even for vaudeville and strange happenings follow in their wake. It's not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe isn't simply touring, and Silenus is hiding a secret as old as time itself.

Long story short, I thought it was an awesome read. It reminded me of American Gods for it's look behind the curtain of reality and I dare a parent to finish it without a few tear stained pages.  I figured I ought to chat with the author about.... stuff.

Oh and at the bottom of this post there's a giveaway, just saying.  Be sure to read the instructions, as I'm changing the method I use to collect entries.


Justin: When I first heard about The Troupe my first reaction was, "another circus novel? Did Orbit lose the auction for The Night Circus and then just go find the next best thing?" As jerky as that sounds, this is how trends can be perceived. Have you heard any of this? What do you think?

Bennett: I have heard some of it already, and I’ll be honest, it is fairly irritating to me. The process for this book started about two or three years ago, long before this trend started happening – or at least I think before it. I only learned about the existence of The Night Circus a month ago or so (an indication of my poor reading habits, certainly), when someone compared The Troupe to it without ever having read my book, which is when I had to go out and discover that a circus trend was indeed taking place, and apparently I was part of it.

I do not think that this trend started with The Night Circus, however – I think it probably started with Water for Elephants, which came out several years ago, and was such a smash hit that I think it’s reverberated throughout many genres and movies.

Regardless, if you read the novel, or just look vaudeville up, you will find that vaudeville is not the circus: it’s not a huge production of thousands of men and women and animals, but just one person or a couple of people with some props and sheet music touring theaters and living out of hotels. Sort of like rock stars touring venues, but crazier, because vaudeville was open to anything. It’s much more individual, much more varied, and much more unpredictable.

My inspiration for The Troupe was probably David Lynch. He always has very cool red curtains in his stuff. I just wanted to do something with curtains and a stage.

Justin: Regardless, it's probably inescapable for the comparison to be drawn.  I guess you can hope that their success will transfer to your novel.

Bennett: I have no idea. I have not really looked into either novel: I haven’t read them, nor have I done much research on their sales or reception. I guess it’s expected of me to do so, but I think the last thing writers want to read is stuff like their own. It gives them the creeps.

It’s quite funny – my editor later professed  –  after I finished The Troupe, of course - that he’d been a bit hesitant when I first described the book I planned to write. So I can honestly say that Orbit did not jump on the circus bandwagon, but had to be persuaded.

Justin: As you said, The Troupe isn't even close to a circus novel. In fact, it's only superficially a vaudeville novel as the story moves away from that pretty quick. Were you tempted to go more milieu and give the reader a real strong feel for vaudeville?

Bennett: I actually had several thousand more words in the first third of the novel about George joining vaudeville, learning the ropes, understanding what vaudeville was, and so on. But it quickly became apparent that this didn’t contribute to the action of the book at all: it was just George hanging out in vaudeville. Nothing was happening.

Essentially, George’s father, Harry Silenus, not only controls his troupe, but he also controls the plot – and when Silenus was offstage, things weren’t happening. Silenus carries all the secrets and meanings of the story with him, almost like how a vaudevillian keeps his props in his suitcase. He’s a guy you want front and center.

Justin: I spent a lot of time in my review talking about the father/son relationship that you develop in the novel. It's incredibly well done. How much of this was inspired by the birth of your own son and all the responsibilities and pressures that come with that?

Bennett: Well, I’ll say I had the idea for the entirety of the plot before I got married, and finished the book before I knew I was going to be a father. I worked and reworked on it after that point, of course, and it’s probable the reworks were colored more by my anticipation of becoming a father than the initial first draft was, but the overall structure was already in place.

But one thing I’ll say about parenthood is that hearing about it is one thing, and seeing and doing it is another. You don’t know it until you actually know it, until it’s for-reals happening. I intentionally finished The Troupe before it started for-reals happening – I practically had to - so I’m not sure how much actual, bonafide paternalistic experience affected The Troupe. My own experience of fatherhood has been a lot more fun than what happens in the book.

Justin: It also felt like there's a definite theme in the novel of the 'world behind the curtain' so to speak, which felt very Gaiman to me -- particularly American Gods. Any intentional hat tips in the novel, or just a reader putting his own interpretation on what he's reading?

Bennett: My actual inspiration for a lot of the prose and the nature of the characters was Susana Clarke more than Neil Gaiman – but the two are pretty solidly connected. I think the “world behind the curtain” aspect is common not only to urban fantasy, but to a lot of fiction: we all like the feeling that underneath the drab exterior of the world there is something fantastic working away, making sure everything goes as it is supposed to. We want for our lives to have a larger meaning.

It’s interesting that you mention interpretation, because that’s one of the bigger conceits of the book. How much of what you’re experiencing was intended by the artist – or the Creator? The master of manipulating interpretation is, of course, Nabokov, so I did toss in one hat tip to him. I’m curious to see if anyone finds it.

Justin: I haven't read any of your other work. You seem to be getting some award buzz for Mr. Shivers this year. How are they like The Troupe? Or put another way, is there a style uniquely RJB that fans of your previous work will find in your new stuff?

Bennett: I can never tell. I thought The Troupe was wildly different from my other stuff – it has more pathos, more humor, more hope – but I am told it is still very much a Robert Jackson Bennett novel. I don’t know what that means. Probably has to do with stabbings, or something.

I do think that The Troupe was when things “clicked” for me. The Company Man was a struggle to write – this one just leaped out of my head, fully-formed, like (what a cliché) Athena. But ask me again on the next novel, and I might tell you that that “click” was horseshit, and I don’t know what I’m doing.

Justin: You touch on race a bit in the novel. It was well done, and did a ton for character development, but didn't seem very connected to the plot. Did you include it just for character purposes or was there a larger purpose? Perhaps addressing the very real issue of race that pervaded vaudeville?

Bennett: I would say it was connected more to theme than to the plot. The book has a lot to do with perception, and how people see themselves and each other and the world. Each member of the troupe has their own struggle with perception, and race just happened to be one characters’ struggle. It fit in very naturally.

I will say that I felt like if I didn’t examine minstrel shows to at least some degree in a book about vaudeville then it would have felt like a sin of omission. It was such a prominent part of vaudeville, I just couldn’t feel comfortable amputating an unpleasant part of history just to make the book more palatable.

Justin: Does your son actually have a beard and epic tattoo'ed eyebrows? (If you don't follow Bennett on Twitter, you won't get this joke, so sorry.)

Bennett: Not yet, but we’re feeding him the appropriate vitamins.

Justin: Thanks for taking the time. I loved the novel, and really need to get to Mr. Shivers and The Company Man.

Bennett: Thank you for having me.

You can follow Robert Jackson Bennett on Twitter or on his blog.  He also has a very cool website for his book.



I have five (5) copies of The Troupe to give away
courtesy of the author himself.

Giveaway Details:

This giveaway is open to anyone.  You must be 18 years of age or older to participate. Void where prohibited by law. Giveaway rules are subject to change.  

How to participate:
  • To enter the giveaway, e-mail me at, with the subject TROUPE PLZ, including a valid mailing address.
  • One entry per person, or face disqualification.
  • Entries accepted until 11:59pm ET on February 23, 2012.
  • Winners will be chosen by random sorting entries, and then using a random number generator.
  • There will be five (5) winners who will received one (1) book each.

Although not required, it sure would be nice if you:

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Exogene - T.C. McCarthy

Most who read T.C. McCarthy's debut novel, Germline, called it military science fiction.  After all, it's a story about a guy serving in the military in a future war.  Under that basic definition, I suppose it is.  Yet, because of the narrator's point of view, it lacks tactical or political awareness and eschews scientific understanding of the postulated advances.  Told through the filter of Oscar Wendell, an individual so self absorbed (and high) that he rarely relates to the reality around him, Germline is the harrowing psychological coming of age story of a narcissistic drug addict seeking to justify his existence.

I was a big proponent of Germline and have worried a bit over how McCarthy would approach the second novel.  Would it be a continuation of the first?  A departure?  With a first novel that was so bleak, who would want to read, or write, that kind of novel again?  Exogene, McCarthy's second installment in his Subeterrene Trilogy, feels like a response to Germline, with more traditional genre markers couched in an undeniably hopeful quest to find humanity.

The hopeful questor is Catherine, a genetically engineered American soldier.  She's fast, strong, and lethal -- the ultimate in military technology.  In other words, she's everything Oscar Wendell isn't.  Called Little Murderer by her sisters, she's a weapon in the body of a teenage girl taught to kill for her God, with her death the only avenue to paradise.  If she manages to survive her two years of service on the front lines, she'll be decommissioned and shot.  She isn't entirely human, but it doesn't mean she doesn't want to live.  Rumor has it Thailand holds a refuge for the genetically maimed and Catherine will do almost anything to get there.

Demonstrated in Germline, and confirmed in Exogene, McCarthy possesses an uncommon knack for getting inside his narrators' heads, plumbing their depths, and compelling his reader to empathize.  Where in Germline the prose often came across as self-indulgent and confused (from a drug addled journalist? no way!), the prose in Exogene is colder and more precise, with a hint of things coming apart at the seams.  McCarthy takes full advantage of the first person narration, writing with a brilliance not for story telling, but for living inside his narrator's head.  And he does it as well as any author I've ever read.

Ultimately though, that same success is a bit of a problem.  Catherine, for all her good points, just isn't as compelling as Oscar.  There's less of a frenetic pace to the novel, and her general disposition is far too fearless for me to ever to truly hold her at risk.  Combined with her inhumanity, on which she frequently reflects, I found myself with a psychic and physical distance from her that I'm not sure McCarthy intended.  The result of that trade off is a far more coherent and cohesive narrative that tells a traditional behind-enemy-lines military story, but lacks the verve of his debut.

Chronologically the novel jumps back and forth between Catherine's flight from the U.S. military and her early years learning to make war in God's name.  Woven into this narrative is a broader look at the world McCarthy has built.  He paints a disturbing picture that's all too imaginable given the instability in North Korea and the tumultuous relationship between the U.S. and Asia.  His technology is advanced beyond current standards, but not so far that it requires a great deal of exposition.  There's a general awareness that genetic modification isn't far off, and the work being done in robotics and nerve splicing is incredible.  In those ways, McCarthy's Subterrene Trilogy has something of a ripped from the headlines feel, or at least as much as possible given unreality of it all.

There's also a natural connection to be drawn between the genetically engineered American soldiers and the western perception of the "jihadists".  Some may find this comparison distasteful, drawing some conclusion that McCarthy is identifying jihadists as some form of unthinking, programmed monsters who kill indiscriminately for God. I don't think that's the intent. Rather, McCarthy points out the difficulties -- and inhumanity -- in any belief system built around subverting the basic desire for survival and doing it in God's name.  By the novel's conclusion I found myself invested in the discussion on life and death and faith, and more importantly in Catherine's connection to it.

While McCarthy embraces more military and science fiction and less Hunter S. Thompson, Exogene still depends heavily on the reader's empathy for Catherine.  I empathized, but was also left wanting, remembering the raw emotional power of Germline.  However, in that power vacuum exists a much smoother narrative, which results in a novel that will endear Exogene to a broader group of readers even if it receives less "critical praise".

Despite my relatively small complaints, McCarthy remains an author I recommend everyone read.  Exogene is no different in that regard, and makes for a thought provoking companion piece to his visceral first novel.  I'm excited to see how he ties it all together in the final volume, Chimera, due out this summer.

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Thursday, February 9, 2012

I feel like giving some books away

I get books sometimes that I know I won't read.  Sometimes I get two copies of a book.  Sometimes I get books and I already have the eBook.  Either way, I have more books than I know what to do with sometimes.  So, I'm going to give some away.

There will be two (2) winners.  I'll let the each winner choose a book or two they want, and then I'm going to surprise them with the rest (probably 5-7 books each).  I also promise that both winners will receive at least one book that I highly recommend that has not yet been released in the States.

Sound good?  Below is a small list of some of the titles I have duplicates of.  I'll be adding more when interesting falls out of my shelves.  Rules to enter at the bottom.


Giveaway Details:

This giveaway is open to anyone.  You must be 18 years of age or older to participate. Void where prohibited by law. Giveaway rules are subject to change.  

How to participate:
  • To enter the giveaway, just place a comment in this post and declare intention to participate.
  • One entry per person, or face disqualification.
  • Make sure to provide an email address or Twitter username at which I can contact you.
  • Entries accepted until 11:59pm ET on February 16, 2012
  • Winners will be chosen by random sorting entries, and then using a random number generator.
  • There will be 2  winners.
  • Winner will have to confirm by email/DM to be considered a winner within a week after February 16, 2012.
Although not required, it sure would be nice if you:


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Author D&D Video Trailer

Last month I had the pleasure to watch and film some of the best authors in the business play a game of D&D.  I shot around three hours of video, most of which is still being edited (not by me).  I had some extra footage laying around from a second camera, so I decided to put together a little trailer to whet everyone's appetite.

Playing in the game were big-name authors: Joe Abercrombie, Elizabeth Bear, Peter V. Brett, Jim C. Hines, Jay Lake, Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss, and Brent Weeks.  Running the game as co-Dungeon Masters were debut authors Saladin Ahmed (Throne of the Crescent Moon) and Myke Cole (Shadow Ops: Control Point).


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