A corner of the internet for speculative writers and readers
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Meet Justine Bergman - book blogger
In the first of a series, I approached Justine to tell us about why she blogs about books. People who read, review and blog about books are the lifeblood of the writing industry. How else would we discover new authors and discover material that matches our tastes? It's a massive obligation, not just in terms of time and effort but the responsibility of managing the comments that go into the review. So why do it? Here's Justine to tell you. It's not very often reviewers and bloggers are asked to discuss the whats and whys of writing reviews. As I sat down to write this, I found it was quite difficult to answer the questions Phil proposed when he initially reached out about this feature. Much easier to write about someone else's work than your own, I guess. Let's give it a go! My love of reviewing books sparked a few years ago when I became involved in the Self-Published community on Twitter. Prior to that I was a serial rater and maaaybe a this-book-is-fantastic-you-should-read-it kind of gal. I remember turning the final page of the book I was reading and spotting “If you enjoyed this story, considering leaving a review. Every bit helps,” and I immediately thought, I CAN DO THAT! So…I did. And I haven’t stopped since. Reviews are integral in the lifecycle of a book, and being able to take part by not only gushing about a great story, but also providing constructive criticism for authors is what makes being a reviewer so great. I’ve heard the argument that reviews are for readers, not authors. I’ve heard the argument that reviews are for authors, not readers. I’m a firm believer in reviews being for both. Other than taking a chance on a book based on its cover (I don’t care what anyone says, we all judge a book by its cover) and blurb, potential readers may scan a few reviews to see if that book is for them. On the other hand, if an author is passionate about the craft of writing, they should always strive to strengthen their skillset. Comprehensive reviews can help them pinpoint where they need a bit of work, all while (hopefully) getting some praise along the way. Side note: I don’t believe in combative, fully negative reviews whatsoever, unless there’s legitimate cause (the content is completely offensive, the author shows no pride in their work, etc.). I personally don’t finish books that I don’t mesh well with, because reading is meant to bring joy, and life is far too short to add yet another item to the list of things we have to unwillingly force ourselves through. Back on track, Justine. So, why do I blog? The best part of blogging is that instance where that one person reaches out telling you they loved a book you’ve recommended. I adore this. I adore this more than I could possibly express. I don’t know about you, but I’m one of those overly enthusiastic gift givers, and hearing this is akin to giving a homemade gift that costs nothing but a little bit of love and time. And vice versa, really. If I learn about a book from a review I’ve read and end up loving it, I just want to give the reviewer a huge hug for introducing me to something wonderful. Another great aspect of blogging is meeting others in the community, both readers and writers alike. I’ve had a blast over the past few years (digitally) meeting some incredible people, and I’m always excited to meet more through a mutual love of books. I was a judge on the Fantasy Book Critic team for SPFBO5, and words can’t even express how amazing the sprawling community truly is. There are, however, a few uncomfortable cons to being a reviewer/blogger. There’s A LOT of pressure if you’re one that accepts review requests. When I first started Whispers & Wonder I couldn’t say no to these requests – I’m still trying to catch up. For those of you I’ve promised a review to who are reading this, I haven’t forgotten about you…I HAVE A LIST AND I NEED MORE HOURS IN THE DAY, PLEASE. And NetGalley? Let’s not even go there. *clears throat* Other than that, and this is a very rare occurrence, it is utterly awkward when an author feels the need to contact me (publicly or privately) defensively questioning points I’ve made in my reviews. This is bad. Don’t do this. It’s a surefire way to ensure I’ll never read another word you ever write – and I’m not afraid to let other readers know so, as well. My reviews are my space, and I’ll write whatever the hell I please. That is all. Onto what I enjoy and what keeps me engaged in reading and reviewing. I consider myself a dark fantasy enthusiast. I love dark, violent, tragic stories, and I believe Lee C Conley can even quote me challenging him “the darker, the better” (which I like to believe he took to heart, then absolutely killed it with A Ritual of Flesh). Give me ALL the dark fantasy books. I love books that push me to delve deep into ethical and philosophical debates. I’m an academic at heart, and I always appreciate questioning the things I believe I know. Change my mind, I welcome your attempt with open arms. I love complex stories and characters. Sure, straightforward narratives are great, but I cherish those moments after closing a book, staring off into the middle ground, and whispering “what the f*ck did I just read?” – Luke Tarzian is a pro at making me do this. All of these things keep me going. I do enjoy simple palate cleansers every once in a while, but I generally crave complexity. If an author makes me think, then I’ll have so much to say in my reviews – it may be nonsensical brain spew, but I try to keep that to a minimum. Storytelling is an art, and just as one would view and study a painting, written word deserves the same respect. And it also helps when authors get involved/respond, even if it’s just so I can let them know how much I appreciate what they’ve shared with the world. And finally – don’t know how so many words appeared on this page – the books that have had the largest impact on me while I’ve been blogging. In no particular order, these are some of my favorites over the past couple years. Michael R. Fletcher’s Manifest Delusions: This series opened my eyes to what the Grimdark fantasy subgenre really has to offer. These books are vile and visceral, yet so thoroughly intriguing. Plunging deep into base human instincts with focus on mental illness, Fletcher pulls no punches here. It’ll undoubtedly make you uncomfortable, but that’s the point, isn’t it? The Song of the Ash Tree by T L Greylock – A Norse-inspired epic fantasy series that portrays some of my favorite characters ever created. The story is stunning, perfectly plotted, and so full of heartrending emotion…whenever I read a story that falls into the same subgenre, it always pales in comparison to this. I love this series to pieces. The World Maker Parable by Luke Tarzian – As with his dark/surreal fantasy debut, Vultures, The World Maker Parable is a book that blew my mind. Tarzian’s craft is flawless and highly imaginative, and he refuses to adhere to the “rules”, which is something I’ll always admire. His ability to gift his non-human characters with such tragic humanity is breathtaking. Gah, I need more. Ok, I think I’ve talked your ear off enough here. Go pick up a book, and if you enjoy it, let the world know about it. There are tons of people out there that are looking forward to hearing what you have to say. Happy Reading! Want to find out more about Justine? Look no further... Web developer by trade, book blogger by passion. I have an insatiable hunger for stories that will transport me to other worlds, all from the comfort of my living room. In my scant free time, I enjoy building things of questionable robustness, dabbling in photography, and gaming while fueled by copious amounts of strong coffee. Always on the hunt for those hidden gems. Website: Twitter: Instagram: Goodreads: Justine is also half of the partnership behind the brilliant Storytellers On Tour that help showcase the work of writers with new books coming on to the market. I feature my contributions on this site. Website: Twitter: Instagram: I'm immensely grateful to Justine for taking time out to write this post. So much of what she said resonates with me. I agree with her about the value of the writing community, it is full of great people, bloggers and authors alike. It is supportive and encouraging, essential qualities when you're in the lonely business of writing! I also found myself agreeing with Justin's point about art and writing being similar, the more there is to analyse in a story, the better as far as I'm concerned. Please visit Justine's blog to read her reviews, she is insightful, honest and fair. Likewise look out for Storytellers on Tour! And if you blog/review, why not sign up to join the tour?
It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of William Ray's Verin Empire series. His stories are always exciting and filled with engaging, credible characters but it's his world building which impresses me the most. It's tough enough to create a world which is defined in one genre but William goes way beyond that. He blends genres so that his world has twin perspectives. And, as if that isn't enough, his three stories (including his soon-to-be-released Shadow Debt) each have different fantasy settings. Gedlund's world is set in different war zones, one with goblins and the undead primarily. The Great Resoration is set in the same world, the Verin Empire, but this time on the 'frontier', a land once populated by Elves. In Shadow Debt, we travel even further into the wilderness of this world, into the Wild West, cowboy country. A place so vivid you expect John Wayne to turn up. In my discussions with William, I asked him how he went about creating such a vivid and diverse world when it needed to serve so many different purposes. The result is this article. A world is a big thing to build. No mere mortal could hold the entirety of our world in their mind, nor even build a library sufficient enough to hold all that detail for them. There are innumerable guides to world-building, but my advice on the subject essentially devolves into two main points. Firstly, as Frederick Pohl once said, good science-fiction predicts not the automobile but the traffic jam, and I think that perfectly encapsulates the difficulty faced in creative world-building for both science-fiction and fantasy. A fantasy world might resemble medieval Europe, but it has crystal balls and fire-breathing dragons, and a big part of making the world feel real is showing how those things have impact beyond their immediate use in the plot. In striving for that, you should never waste time on work someone else has already done: there’s a whole world right here, whose details you can sift through to fill in every spare corner of yours. Mark Twain explained that history never repeats, but often rhymes, so in your world-building find history that rhymes and borrow the details. History can’t tell you how people respond to crystal balls, but it can show you how they reacted to crystal radio. The Great War showed how we might respond to flying, fire-breathing monsters. Even looking into the future, while history can’t tell you the impact of a teleporter, there is plenty to learn from changes wrought by the telegraph. The danger in drawing from history is that history seldom lists the usual moments, and is instead an accounting of the oddities. History tends to talk about the progress created by new innovations, but nothing tells you more about how something really felt than observing what people complained about. To get the proper feel for it, you need to look in dusty corners. Newspapers can be good, as can period guidebooks and contemporary novels. Court cases are another great way to suss out what people were really concerned with in their day-to-day lives. Nothing makes a world feel more real than unexpected inconveniences – sure, flying around on dragons is great, but the poop! And the smell! And farmers complain that they startle the livestock, causing a general shortage of eggs and butter, making the price of bread skyrocket! Newspapers and lawsuits can help you find all sorts of unexpected inconveniences. And always remember that our world is so full of contradictions that it’s often said we can only recognize its rules by observing their exceptions. Let things be messy. Secondly, when it comes to fantasy world building, perhaps the most important thing for an author to remember is whose perspective is describing that world to the reader. This lesson was driven home to me in a college role-playing game. As a player arrived at a location, our Game Master would describe it to them, who was there, what they were doing, and so on. The second player got a different description of the same location, because they interpreted that same room in a different way. The GM gave four very different descriptions of the room before my turn, and I was near breathless in anticipation of hearing how it would seem to me. The interesting part of any world is not what is there, but how we perceive what is there; think through what each character, including the narrator, perceives, and how those perceptions differ. The trick to writing a good story in what feels like a believable world is to always remember that, unlike reality, the perception offered up through the narrator is more firmly set than the world that offers it. Don’t overbuild your imaginary world up front – instead, create details as they’re needed. Let the world grow from the story. Science may be forced to take a fixed world and work through a myriad of descriptions to figure out what is real, but creative fiction does the opposite, taking descriptions necessary to the story and changing the world’s underlying reality to match it! The biggest key that I’ve found to maintain that flexibility is the use of error. Force your characters, particularly whoever provides your story’s point of view, to be wrong. Maybe they are mistaken, or maybe they just lie, but either way establish early on that their expectations and perceptions are not definitive. It doesn’t need to be anything major, but an innocent mistake or a transparent deception will set the audience’s expectations. If errors have been in the narration, a sudden change becomes a twist of expectations rather than an inconsistency, but more importantly, the underpinnings of that change also allow you fill in all sorts of details about your characters, your world, and their perceptions of it. A character being wrong also allows you exposition through error. If the character thinks all ogres are evil, and is told they are not, that lets you explain not just about ogres, but also what the world at large thinks of them, and what your character thinks, and how they react to the new information. That mismatch of character expectations allows you to construct the world through the clash of their perceptions. Another often overlooked aspect of perspective is the horizon. Always show a day-to-day world that extends beyond what your narrator sees. This is critical for avoiding the sensation that the world is just set-dressing. If you only show me foreground elements that are important to the story, various Chekov’s guns hung in orderly rows, then I can’t guess what it would be like to be a farmer, or a grocer, or somesuch living in your world, and it won’t feel like a real place. Always remember that a character’s perspective isn’t just what they see, but what lurks in the corner of their eye. And that is how to build an entire world. Maybe there’s more to it, but I only get the space of a thousand words, and even the good Lord took a full week of words to make it happen! I'm very grateful to William Ray for this article. It's given me lots of think about, particularly because he's dealt with both the macro and micro levels of world building. Plus, the idea of 'borrowing', using inspiration from newspapers, guidebooks and the like is a clever way to get credible ideas. Letting characters make mistakes too, I can make excuses to my editor with that one! You can find all of William Ray's Verin Empire series here. I highly recommend them!
Looking for a book for someone special this Christmas? Not sure what to get them? We've asked some of our Speculative Faction friends to make some suggestions, hopefully they will present you with some great ideas! Why not check out their catalogue too? Here is the final collection in this series. (There are links in the title to take you to Amazon, if that helps.) Recommendations from Patrick Samphire Patrick Samphire decided that he was going to be a writer when his English teacher said he could skip lessons to work on a book. In the intervening years, he has avoided many other responsibilities in order to write. He has published about twenty short stories in various magazines and anthologies, as well as two middle grade novels. His first fantasy novel is SHADOW OF A DEAD GOD, which is out now. When he’s not writing, he designs websites and book covers. Website: Newsletter: Facebook: Twitter: Blade’s Edge by Virginia McClain This is a fascinating Japanese-inspired fantasy novel. Set in a world where girls are forbidden from having elemental powers, it follows two girls, Mishi and Taka, whose possession of such powers puts their existence in peril. There are horrifying secrets, plots, and peril in the story, as there are in any good epic fantasy. McClain is a highly compelling writer, and the world she describes is rich, believable, and well-researched. A Wind from the Wilderness by Suzannah Rowntree I don’t read a great deal of historical fantasy, but I’m very glad I picked this one up. Set in the time of the first crusade, it follows three characters, a Syrian boy, thrown forward in time almost 500 years and desperate to get back, a Turkish girl determined to get revenge against a mysterious Christian order who murdered her father, and a Frankish count leading one of the crusading armies. Despite it being a historical fantasy, the closest comparison I could come up with is George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, in terms of the mix of personal stories with politics, betrayal, and war. I don’t know enough about the period to say how much is historical and how much is fantasy, but it certainly felt authentic. The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky I doubt I’ll be the only person recommending this science fiction thriller by one of the UK’s most versatile and interesting SFF authors. Mixing conspiracy theory, spy thriller, and speculative evolution, The Doors of Eden is another imaginative triumph that moves along at a brisk pace. Branching universes, a non-linear climax, and well-rounded characters kept the story moving and gripping. If you’ve read Tchaikovsky’s science fiction before, you’ll know what to expect. If you haven’t, this is an excellent place to start. Recommendations from Virginia McClain Virginia McClain writes epic and urban fantasy novels featuring badass women. Not just sword-wielding, magic-flinging, ass kickers (although, yes, them too) but also healers, political leaders, caregivers, and more. She writes epic fantasy inspired by feudal Japan, and humorous urban fantasy inspired by the unanswered mysteries of science. Twitter: Facebook: Instagram: Bibliography: Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse Epic fantasy at its finest. Expansive world building, intriguing characters, and a story that will make you desperate for the next installment. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir Lesbian space necromancers. Do you need to know anything more? Fine. Murder mystery, haunted house, and slow burn romance between brawny warrior and brilliant mage is somehow also all in this book. The Bone Ships by RJ Barker Take Horatio Hornblower, drop him into a world far harsher than England in the Napoleonic wars, throw in some giant sea dragons, a fascinating matriarchy, and a captain to rival Sir Edward Pellew and you’ll have just the barest inkling of what The Bone Ships is all about. Only, it’s better than all that. Half a Soul by Olivia Atwater I laughed. I cried. I cheered. I’m not entirely certain what I was expecting when I picked up Half a Soul back in August, but I don’t think I was expecting it to turn into one of my all time favorite reads of the year. Highly recommended if you need a comforting read (and in 2020 who doesn’t?). The characters are delightful and the banter as witty as you could want. Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher T. Kingfisher has created one of my all-time favorite fantasy worlds with this series (a duology with a few barely connected standalones), and I am honestly mad at the world for not having put these books in front of me sooner. There are troubled Paladins, there are talking badgers, there’s a stone cold killer with an attitude, and there is an entire religious sect dedicated to giving solid legal advice. Blood of Heirs by Alicia Wanstall Burke This brilliant SPFBO5 finalist made me like horror, and I hate horror. Alternating POVs take us through gripping plots on opposite sides of a beautifully crafted, darkly magical world. And, as a bonus, there is one very stabby scene that actually had me jumping out of my chair to cheer for a minute. You won’t want to miss this one. Recommendations from Jamie Richardson Jamie Richardson is a psychiatrist from Leeds who has been writing in his spare time since he was a teenager. A fan of fantasy and dystopian fiction, his work tends towards exploring the darker side of the human condition. His debut novel Free City is set in a world where automation is on the rise, poverty is rife and there is a killer on the loose. When he is not working or writing, he enjoys travelling with his wife, both at home and abroad, and with a daft dog in the house, they are always kept on their toes. Blog/Self-Indulgent Twaddle; Facebook; Twitter; Instagram; The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua Yes it is a graphic novel. Yes it is heavy on the maths and computer science (and footnotes). But it is also extremely funny, entertaining, enlightening and informative. Telling both the real and imagined lives of the founders of computer science with a heavy steampunk vibe, Padua manages to weave what could be a rather dry story into an intriguing book which I read from cover to cover in just two sittings. If you loves maths and computers this is the book for you. If you hate maths and computers, this is still the book for you. Fen by Daisy Johnson Have you ever considered your house might be in love with you? No, me neither, but Johnson clearly has. Her short story collection is bizarre and magical and gripping. Exploring some of the exciting milestones of people’s lives through a prism of darkness and magic, the characters are instantly relatable, even when the situations are far from it. If you are new to short story collects or a seasoned pro, Fen is a lovely little book of weirdness to get your teeth into. Notes from Small Planets by Nate Crowley To complete my not-a-typical-novel trio, I offer you a travel guide. But not just any travel guide, a travel guide to those speculative worlds which will be at once familiar and exotic. In short, Notes from small planets is brilliant. Coming from an obvious love for speculative fiction, Crowley takes a reverent jab at the tropes and fictional worlds we all hold dear. The attention to detail and research which must have gone into this book is phenomenal, which just adds to the joy as you skip from world to world as you might country to country here on Earth. This is the book I wish I had written, and should certainly have a place under the Christmas tree this year for you, with additional copies for every single member of the family and all of your friends to boot. Recommendations from Jacob Sannox Jacob Sannox is a 36 year old writer from the sunny climes of Bedfordshire, England. He is the author of a dark epic fantasy series, The Dark Oak Chronicles. Book one, Dark Oak, is currently available and book two, Age of the Dryad, will be released shortly. He has also released The Ravenmaster’s Revenge and Agravain’s Escape, both part of his Arthurian fantasy series, The Return of King Arthur. Follow the legendary king and his knights from the 5th century into the 21st century. You can find out more at Instagram: @jacobsannoxwriter Twitter: @jacobsannox Facebook: facebook.com/jacobsannox Orconomics by J. Zachary Pike I fell into this book and felt instantly content on arrival. Although Orconomics is a satire and highly amusing, it is moving too, with a sense of jeopardy. Very cleverly written, in a world combining D&D with economic theory. I fell in love with the adventuring party and the world they explore. The second book, Son of a Liche, is also a must read! Paternus: Rise of Gods by Dyrk Ashton Man, this book grips you by the throat and doesn’t let go, hauling you spluttering through a version of our own world, populated by every god you’ve ever heard of and plenty that you haven’t. Meticulously researched and cannily put together, Rise of Gods will make you laugh, cry and stare into the void, wishing you had written it yourself. I’m on book three of the trilogy now. Keep reading. Never Die by Rob J. Hayes Never Die is an Eastern-inspired fantasy novel with a fascinating premise; an 8 year old given a mission by the god of death puts together a band of heroes to achieve his goal, but to serve him, first they must die. You meet them one by one as you progress through the book. Their individual stories are compelling and the relationships between them are convincing. Never Die felt like a legend passed down through the centuries. I was enthralled from beginning to end. Many thanks to Patrick, Virgina, Jamie and Jacob for their recommendations. Hopefully they (and the others in previous collections) have introduced you to some great books, ones you may not have known about. I'd also recommend checking out the books of these good folk because they are all awesome writers!
Writing ghost stories for a younger audience by A. Lawrence
As part of the Grave Reflection book tour, I invited its author, A Lawrence to write a ghost post for The Speculative Faction. Grave Reflection is a story I'm sure lots of kids will enjoy because it's fast-paced, full of engaging and relateable characters who find themselves trapped in places where ghosts are the ones in control. I asked the author to tell me what a writer of that genre had to keep in mind when it came to ghost stories. Here's what they said: Ghosts. What are they? The souls of people who have died? Some remnant of a person’s psyche imprinted on the world? Bad wiring causing hallucinations? Entire industries have been built on proving that ghosts are real. Skeptic or believer, almost everyone enjoys a good ghost story. When writing ghosts for a younger audience, the first thing you have to decide is your genre. Paranormal/supernatural, horror, romance, mystery, or maybe a mixture. That will determine your tone and what kinds of ghosts you’re writing and how far you can push things. Once you know what kind of ghosts you’re writing, you have to decide: are the ghosts in this world real, or could they be a figment of the characters’ imagination? Is it ambivalent? Is it just a twist of the character’s mind - something else taking form from some past trauma or to explain something happening in their life? Everyone is haunted by something, is it literal or figurative? If the ghosts aren’t real and that’s stated within the text, make sure to market appropriately. When I pick up a book about ghosts, I want there to be actual ghosts. Anything else, even if it’s interesting, is a bit of a let down and will color my perception of the book. If you do have real ghosts, how far can you go? What do teens (and older readers) expect out of their ghost stories these days? How can you scare them without taking things over a line? Honestly, there is no right answer. The line is imaginary and constantly shifting, so it’s impossible to say. There are some tropes that should definitely be avoided, particularly harmful horror movie tropes (you probably know the ones: only the white characters live, the promiscuous character dies right away, etc. etc.). Make sure to research appropriately. Beta readers will always be invaluable, along with sensitivity readers at all stages. While I still stand by that, my advice is to push your ghosts to whatever limit you’ve set. What is actually going to scare kids is how the characters react, since they’re rooting for them and identifying with them. At the end of the day, horror and what scares us is entirely subjective. This makes writing ghost stories hard, but rewarding. As long as the right amount of dramatic tension is built up, usually you’ll have a pretty good story to work with, whether it’s scary or you just want someone to smooch a ghost. The most important thing is to have fun. oooOooo I enjoyed reading this book, primarily because the characters are vivid and kids will connect with them. Any writer knows how important that is! This graphic is a lovely insight into the characters, who successfully avoid the usual tropes and stereotypes (therefore another reason for this book being a hit!) Here's more details about the story of Grave Reflection: Another Friday night, another trip through a potentially haunted house. Shay’s not a believer, but she’s willing to help her best friend, Max, with their amateur ghost hunting show. Little does she know she is about to be thrown into a world of witches and dangerous spirits. With newly discovered abilities, Shay finds that she can both see and touch spirits. The downside is, the ghosts can touch her back, and it seems that they’ll do anything to get a hold of her. She was never much of a ghost hunter. How will she do when she is the one being hunted? Grave Reflection is the first book of Ghost Punch, an exciting paranormal series full of mystery and action! Links: Goodreads: Amazon: Website: Twitter: You can visit the Grave Reflection book tour at the locations of my fellow book bloggers! Stop by and say hello to them! You'll find they have lots more great reviews to read! Many thanks to A. Lawrence and Storytellers on Tour for their involvement in this post.
Looking for a book for someone special this Christmas? Not sure what to get them? We've asked some of our Speculative Faction friends to make some suggestions, hopefully they will present you with some great ideas! Why not check out their catalogue too? Here is the fourth in this series. (There are links in the title to take you to Amazon, if that helps.) Recommendations from G.D. Penman G.D. Penman is fulfilling his destiny as a fat, bearded man by writing bestselling fantasy novels and smoking a pipe. He lives in Dundee, Scotland with his wife, children, dog and cats. Just… so many cats. God of Gnomes by Demi Harper While I have not been particularly taken with many of the books that comprise LitRPG's offshoot subgenre of Dungeon Core; God Of Gnomes blended the rigid structure of a simulator game with the emotional impact of the best of literature. Carefully constructed and perfectly executed. Prosper's Demon by K J Parker Given what a bitch this year has been, just finding a book that could give me the energy necessary to go on reading has been difficult. Prosper's Demon was very much that book for me. A twisted tale of an exorcist and the demons he fights to expunge, with neither claiming any moral high ground. Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon High fantasy as a genre rarely holds my attention the way that its grimmer siblings do, but in this book Shannon created a modern counterpart to the classics of the genre. The giant magic mongoose being the natural enemy of the serpentine dragons was the icing on the cake. Recommendations from Timy Timy, also known as Queen Terrible Timy hails from a magical land called Hungary, born and raised in its capital city, Budapest. Books have been her refuge and best friends ever since she can remember along with music. She might be a tiny bit addicted to the latter. Timy is the owner and editor of RockStarlit BookAsylum, a blog dedicated to books and music. She always tries to find ways to bring the two worlds together. Timy is also the co-owner/manager of Storytellers On Tour, a book tour organising service dedicated to indie SFF authors. In her free time (hah!) she likes to scribble things, collect panda stuff, go to concerts and travel. Website: Twitter: Facebook: Instagram: Storytellers by Bjørn Larssen I picked Bjørn Larssen’s debuting (historical fiction) novel, Storytellers, which had such a big impact on me that it basically inspired the name for Storytellers On Tour. „Storytellers is about personal demons, about the rougher side of life which isn't improved by the Icelandic weather. It's about people, about choices and the lies (stories) we tell ourselves. It's about a lot of things, really, and the more time you spend in Larssen's world the more it makes you think.” My full review: Los Nefilim by T. Frohock My second pick is Los Nefilim by T. Frohock, which I’ve read over the summer and which sealed my love for the series. Containing three novellas which tell a full story, Los Nefilim has a lot to offer if you are into historical fantasy, angels and daemons, a music based magic system, Spanish settings and great LGBTQ representation. „I honestly found myself smiling like an idiot whenever they [Diago and Miquel] interacted with each other or with Rafael. Like, damn, it's so nice to read about non-toxic relationships which are just a warming light in an otherwise dark-toned book.” My full review: Black Stone Heart by Michael R. Fletcher My third pick is Black Stone Heart by Michael R. Fletcher, which also happens to be my SPFBO6 semi-finalist pick as well. It was a tough choice between many awesome books I’ve read, but eventually I went for this one because I just can’t stop thinking about it and I’ve read it twice in a short amount of time. „Black Stone Heart will make you uncomfortable, will make you question the actions of the characters but will never let you go. Do a favor to yourself and listen to the audiobook narrated by Fletcher himself. If you won't fall in love with his voice and wish he was reading everything to you from now on, then there is something wrong with you.” My full review (along with the others’ from my team): Recommendations from Jamie Edmundson Jamie has always loved a good story, whether real or imagined. He grew up in the south of England before moving to the north, where he worked as a history teacher. He still lives there with his wonderful family, but now spends his time writing, mainly about people hitting each other with swords. Website: Facebook: Twitter: A Thief in Farshore by Justin Fike Quite YA in tone, short in length, with generic fantasy races – not my go to kind of book. At all. But Fike really won me over with an intriguing setting, an engaging main character and a well written, clean (i.e. error free) script. Delivers plenty of humour along the way too. Recommended reading for writers starting out – a pared back approach that doesn’t waste words and delivers what readers want. Where Loyalties Lie by Rob J Hayes Something I’d been meaning to read for some time. Essentially grimdark pirates, I felt this delivered on characters, setting and dialogue. By focusing down on a small part of his world, I felt the story avoided getting bogged down in fantasy tropes and this reduced scope/ low fantasy vibe made it feel like more of a unique story. Tower Lord by Anthony Ryan I enjoyed Blood Song, the first in this series, without really loving it. Stories set in schools don’t really get me going, nor do super powered mcs who take up all the focus of the story. Thus, going against the grain of most readers, I much preferred this second book in the series. A wider range of characters are followed, many of whom I found interesting. It is also more expansive in setting, as we are out in the wide world, with a complex plot and incredibly high stakes. Kudos to Ryan for taking his series in this direction. Many thanks to GD Penman, Timy and Jamie for their recommendations! There will be more of our friends making their suggestions very soon!
Looking for a book for someone special this Christmas? Not sure what to get them? We've asked some of our Speculative Faction friends to make some suggestions, hopefully they will present you with some great ideas! Why not check out their catalogue too? Here is the third in this series. (There are links in the title to take you to Amazon, if that helps.) Recommendations from Peter McLean Hi, I’m Peter Mclean. I’m the author of the fantasy gangster thrillers Priest of Bones and Priest of Lies, published by Jo Fletcher Books and Ace/Roc, and recently optioned for TV by Heyday Television. My first novels, the Burned Man series, are noir urban fantasy. I have also worked on game tie-in short fiction for various franchises including Warhammer. You can find me at , , and So, what have I been reading this year? Less that I would like, in all honesty, as I’ve been busy with deadlines and contracts and all that good stuff, but here are three books that really stood out for me recently. They weren’t all published in the last year, but they were new to me and I enjoyed them enormously. Rawblood by Catriona Ward This was hands down my favourite read of the year so far. An unholy blend of Thomas Hardy, Shirley Jackson, and The Wasp Factory, this is a masterpiece of gothic horror. It’s not easy, and you have to pay attention, but wow. That was seriously impressive stuff. Ironsheild by Edward Nile A, for me at least, very rare foray into self-published books. I was absolutely sucked in by the brilliant cover art, which is how I discovered this book in the first place. It could definitely do with another edit but the premise and the worldbuilding, the whole idea of huge Dieselpunk battlemechs duking it out in a World War One analogue setting, is so damn cool I can forgive it anything. This was an awful lot of fun. The Trouble With Peace by Joe Abercrombie This one is a bit of a cheat as I’m still reading it and haven’t actually finished yet, but I know it isn’t going to disappoint. This is Abercrombie at his best; violent, snarky, cynical, and utterly engrossing with brilliant characters. The total deconstruction of capitalism that began with A Little Hatred kicks it up another notch with this book, and the humour flows as freely as the blood. Truly a master at work. Recommendations from Patrick LeClerk Patrick LeClerc makes good use of his history degree by working as a paramedic for an ever- changing parade of ambulance companies in the Northern suburbs of Boston. When not writing he enjoys cooking, fencing and making witty, insightful remarks with career-limiting candor. In the lulls between runs on the ambulance --and sometimes the lulls between employment at various ambulance companies-- he writes fiction. Find out more about Patrick via: His site: Twitter: Facebook: The Last Benediction in Steel by Kevin Wright Wright combines noir detective prose with grim fantasy and supernatural horror, and blends them into a seamless tapestry of riveting entertainment as only he can. Once again Luther Slythe Krait, knight in tarnished armor, his axe wielding pagan sidekick Karl and his pious brother Stephan must navigate a labyrinth of intrigue and betrayal to unmask an eldritch horror which stalks the land, preying upon it's subjects. Can he unearth the answer he seeks? And can he distinguish friend from foe among a rogue's gallery of unlikely allies and deadly enemies, each with their own hidden agendas and dark motives? The jury is still out on that, but he can certainly take the reader on a hell of ride trying. Psycho Hose Beast From Outer Space by CD Gallant-King This book is a lot of fun. Not surprising as I had previously read “Hell Comes toHogtown” and found it to be entertaining as hell. In fact, I would put him at the top of the list of Canadian horror humor authors, as soon as I find some more so I can actually make a list. The book is told mostly from the viewpoint of a small group of school ages friends, who are caught up in a potential apocalypse as an ancient evil from beyond the star is wakened from its slumber in the depths of the ocean. It would not be inaccurate to describe the book as “Stranger Things meets H P Lovecraft in 1990s Canada.” If that sounds like a lot of fun, well, it is. Like “Hell Comes to Hogtown,” the horror is solid, but I think the great strength of the book is the voice, the way Gallant-King really gets into the minds of his characters. The kids feel authentic, with all the baggage or adolescence as well as supernatural horror bearing down on them. River of Thieves by Clayton Snyder The characters are fun and well developed, and that is what carries the book. Told in the first person by Nenn, a veteran of the orphanage and the mills turned thief, who has taken up with Cord, a man with a curse and a mission. Cord is seemingly unkillable, returning to life after repeated "deaths" but each consecutive one seems harder and takes more out of him. His mission is to free the kingdom from the reign of callous and greedy nobles and the twisted magicians who support them. While Cord's goal might be laudable, his methods are...let's say reckless. Our heroes’ journey is filled with well written fights and escapes and trickery and magic, and leaves a trail of chaos in its wake. But that's not the point. The point is hanging out with Cord and Nenn and their friends and just basking in the banter. Seriously, if all they did was sail up the river and deliver pizza I'd read this book and love it. Recommendations from Steven McKinnon I’m a 34-year-old Glaswegian writer with four books to my name. Most of my work is within The Raincatcher’s Ballad, an epic fantasy series set in an industrialised world. The first novel, Symphony of the Wind, was selected as a finalist in Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off in 2018, and nominated for Booknest.eu’s Best Self-Published Fantasy the same year. I’m currently working on Book 3. Website address: Amazon page: Goodreads: Twitter page: Facebook link: Instagram: The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis The Guns Above is a secondary world military fantasy, kind of like Steampunk meets the Napoleonic wars. There’s no magic here, but it features airships battles, humour, and dialogue that bounces back and forth like a frantic game of table tennis. It’s not a grimdark story by any means, but the books I thought of the most while reading this were Joe Abercrombie’s First Law novels. Like that series, our protagonists include a tough, experienced war veteran who has a better instinct for war than the army’s inept and arrogant officers, and a preening, shallow fop who’s only interested in himself until he gets a taste of the real world. Archetypes we’ve seen before, but ones that possess a lot of potential to do something fresh with – which the author does. Spit and Song by Travis M. Riddle Spit and Song is a mesmerising fantasy buddy comedy set in a Jim Henson-esque wonderland, full of colourful (and all-too human) creatures. We follow trader Kali and musician Puk on their cross-world race for a mystical artifact, as they butt heads and make friends along the way (and one or two enemies with a vested interest in said artifact...). It's whimsical, yes, but it also deals with self-destructive impulses such as jealousy and imposter syndrome, and the things we do to tune that negativity out. Plenty of heart and humour makes it easy to rally behind the main characters. Maybe some of the conflicts were resolved a little too easily and conveniently for my tastes, rendering a couple of minor characters a little flat - but then, I'm someone who enjoys grimdark and feeling every visceral punch, slash and bite during action scenes, so take that criticism with a grain of salt. I look forward to stepping into this world again, and uncovering more of its charms and treasures. Priest of Bones by Peter McLean A solid, low fantasy that takes Peaky Blinders and Robin Hood and puts them through a stainless steel blender. We follow a host of good… Well, interesting characters newly returned from a gruelling war. Tomas Piety – army priest of Our Lady and leader of the Pious Men - is our eyes and ears in Ellinburg. His businesses have been taken away and his streets are no longer his. The war might be over, but accompanying Tomas on his mission to reclaim what he’s lost are his loyal second-in-command Bloody Anne, his hot-headed younger brother Jochan, and a host of other shady characters - including Billy the Boy, a young lad with a few tricks up his leave (and who provides our few glimpses at the magic that exists in this world). Tomas metes our harsh justice but also lends an ear when needed – he cares for the men and women under his command. Of course, it’s not long before he’s caught up in the wider machinations of Ellinburg’s ruling class and is dragged into warren of conspiracy, bloody action and gangland revenge, all so he can protect his home from the horrors of war – and maybe line his pockets along the way. Many thanks to Pete, Patrick and Steven for their recommendations! There will be more of our friends making their suggestions very soon!
For far too long, The Big Five publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster) have maintained a strangehold over what appears on bookshelves, both real and virtual. If you're not already well established, famous (or infamous, or a reality TV personality - which is not fame!) then you stand little hope of swelling their numbers. Even if you do, their speed of getting your book to market is glacially slow, we're talking worse than continental drift. As explained here, from the point where an agent offers representation and takes your book to a publisher - to the point where it finishes up on a bookshelf can take two years. Two years! Of course this can vary, there will be endless edits you'll go through during that process but it is slow. Frustratingly slow. YOu have to ask - how do they stay in business? The answer? By shaving the royalties paid to authors. For this reason alone, a number of publishing businesses have used modern technology to establish a smarter, more agile, process to get books published. True, many focus on e-books. But, regardless of your preferences, these are environmentally more friendly than hardbacks and paperbacks. I've listed a bunch of these independent, digital publishers so readers (and potential authors) can identify which ones may be worth approaching. Links are in the company titles. I've given a brief profile taken from their site. Where possible, I've avoided those companies which demand payment from the author, I consider these vanity publishers (though some renounce that term). Here we go, I hope you find this resource helpful. 404 Ink They say, "404 Ink was founded by Heather McDaid & Laura Jones in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2016 with the view that publishing could be a little louder and a little more fun. We still feel that way today. Our goal is to support new and emerging writers’ careers and we believe in quality over quantity. That is, not publishing to fill a schedule but publishing because that book truly needs to be read. We strive to provide better-than-average royalty rates and to always punch above our weight in all areas to get our authors in front of as many people as possible." Their authors are all young (make of that what you will). You can submit whole books or ideas for "Inklings" - a brand new non-fiction series of books that capture big ideas in a compact way. You submit your pitch of an idea, not the the book. Birlinn They say, "The team at Birlinn are proud of the company’s reputation and prominence in Scottish publishing. We constantly challenge and nurture the talent of our authors and we push the boundaries of the imagination. We never rest in our search for what comes next." They are made up of several imprints: Polygon (literary fiction, poetry, music journalism), BC Books (for kids), Arena Sport (sporting non-fiction), John Donald (academic), Birlinn (generic non-fiction). Boldwood They say, "Boldwood Books is an award-winning independent, global fiction publishing house. Over the past 12 months the company has published 59 titles, signed 42 authors and sold over one million books across the world. Based on the principles of a true partnership with authors, consumers and team members Boldwood is seeking out the best stories from around the world, from both new and established writers, and bringing them, in all formats, to readers everywhere. Founded by a team with over 50 years success in fiction publishing it promises to be innovative but experienced, fearless but responsible, and lots of fun!" A cursory check of their authors suggest preferences for romantic and historical fiction, crime and psychological thrillers. Bookouture They say, "We believe that the best publishing happens with great care, creativity and attention to detail. That means a clear vision for an author supported by the best editing, cover design, marketing and publicity. We publish a small number of very talented authors so that we can focus on the detail and create brilliant books that sell. We aim to add value every step of the way." In 5 years they've gone from selling 2.5 million to 9 million books per year. Their author profile is entirely crime/psychological thriller, romance/chick lit with one SFF author! Burning Chair They say, "We founded Burning Chair because we want to get great books out to the world, and make sure authors get the rewards they deserve. From first class editing to cutting edge marketing and promotion, we provide authors with the support they need to make sure their book fulfils its potential. We’re bringing together a community of authors who support each other, because as writers ourselves we know how valuable that can be." Their author profile reflects a diverse range of genres, including speculative! Elsewhen They say, "We are a small independent publisher specialising in Speculative Fiction. Our Earth-based operations are headquartered in the UK, in the South East of England, whence we publish titles in English in print and electronic editions." My good friend Simon Kewin is published by these guys so that speaks to their quality as far as I'm concerned. (You can read my reviews of Simon's books here.) Epoque They say, "Epoque Press is an independent publisher based between Brighton, Dublin and New York. Established to promote and represent the very best in new literary talent." Their focus appears to be mainly on literary fiction but they also publish in their regular ezine as well (which gets your name out there at the very least!). The ezine has a different theme for each issue. Eyrie Press They say, "We publish contemporary, historical and speculative fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, steampunk, dystopian fiction, fairy tales etc.) and the occasional non-fiction book." They are a social enterprise and Community Interest Company with a very small team (4 people) so don't expect big bucks from them. That said, they organise workshops, festivals and other community events to promote their authors. Fairlight Books They say, "Our mission is to promote contemporary literary fiction and quality writing. We aim to bring together a community with a shared passion – a love of beautiful books and great writing." They thoughtfully define what they mean by 'literary fiction' too - "For us, it’s about the quality of the writing. We don’t mind if that story contains an alien, or a ghost or two, if it is a mystery, if someone is murdered and someone else has to figure out who dun’ it, so long as your writing is of a good standard, the plot makes sense, your characters have some depth and are not two dimensional." Their author profiles show a diverse range of genres and types. Galley Beggar Press They say, "We are an independent publisher committed to publishing daring, innovative fiction and narrative non-fiction. Founded in 2012, we are particularly keen to support writers of great literary talent writing outside the norm, who push the boundaries of form and language. We have been called a “small-but-mighty institution” (The Desmond Elliott Prize), a “tiny publisher… with a cartload of guts” (The Guardian), and “revolutionary” (The Telegraph)." Apart from publishing, they run a short story competition and a school offering classes, reading groups and mentorships. They sound like an ambitious outfit. A quick profile check of authors suggest a preference for writers with prior experience in writing and a high level of education. But don't me put you off. I could be wrong. Headline They say, "Our nimble attitude towards the social reading era has allowed us to be playful with format as never before and create digital bestsellers. Our spirit of entertainment thrives in a world where direct communication means we can talk to readers, booksellers and reviewers to show and spread our love for books, at the touch of a button. Headline will always represent a modern mindset and an energetic outlook. And always stand for best-in-class publishing." They are a huge business with several imprints focusing on different genres and non-fiction. They have celebrity names in their catalogue. Just sayin'! Head of Zeus They say, "Head of Zeus is an award-winning independent publisher of genre fiction, narrative nonfiction and children’s books. In 2017 we won Independent Publisher of the Year. We specialise in subjects and categories where we know we can excel and earn recognition as a market leader -- whether medieval history or historical adventure, saga or SF, children's fiction or nature writing." They proclaim having helped 4 authors reach one million readers and sold 25 million books. They launched a SFF imprint - Ad Astra in August 2020, you can read more about it in this article here. I shall be approaching them!! Hera Books They say, "Hera is a brand new, female-led, independent digital publisher, founded in 2018. We’re on a mission to publish the very best in commercial fiction. We're looking for crime and thriller, romance, saga and general fiction." They are unashamedly about commercial fiction, the two women who lead the company having been named Bookseller Rising Stars. HQ They say, "We have one thing on our minds at HQ… to seek out and bring you brilliant books. We have something for everyone – from women’s fiction to crime, thrillers to memoirs, cookbooks to poetry, from paperback to audiobooks, from debut authors to household names, we’ve got them all." Their digital division has a wide range of genres (not SFF!), a writer friend of mine has a book published with them and had a positive experience. Salt They say, "Salt is one of UK’s foremost independent publishers, committed to the discovery and publication of contemporary British literature. We are advocates for writers at all stages of their careers and ensure that diverse voices can be heard in an abundant, global marketplace." They have hundreds of authors (24 with A surnames!) so this is a big organisation. They cover the major fiction categories (not SFF that I could find) along with poetry, kids books and non-fiction. Serpentine Books They say, "Serpentine Books are a new and innovative publishing house building our first list. We are unashamedly selective on the books we publish. We want unique fiction, full of great characters, action, and a flawless plot." Their website is quite basic but they do state that they're interested in all the things the industry can be stuffy and judgemental about and focus on crime, cross-genre, speculative fiction, thrillers, sci-fi, horror and mash-ups of all these things. They're currently pushing their SF authors. You definitely get the impression they are a new publisher. Tangent Books They say, "Tangent is a purposefully radical publisher: both in the content we publish but also in the authors and writers we choose to publish. We publish books whose stories, thoughts, images and writing will not be published elsewhere; whether because of location, economy or content. Radical, witty and irreverent by nature, we hope you find something to enjoy, and make you think a little too." They're based in Bristol and if you know the profile of that city, their eccentric nature fits in there. As illustrated by their refusal to 'work with Tories' or anyone supporting Bristol City FC. Their books are a weird collection but certainly worth checking out. They're not always open to submissions, so do check! They appear to be friendly, eager to work with authors. I've tried to screen out those who look dodgy but if you've had bad experiences, let me know. I hope you find this post helpful. If so, please share it on social media, making sure to reference The Speculative Faction in the process. Thanks.
Looking for a book for someone special this Christmas? Not sure what to get them? We've asked some of our Speculative Faction friends to make some suggestions, hopefully they will present you with some great ideas! Why not check out their catalogue too? Here is the second bunch in this series. (There are links in the title to take you to Amazon, if that helps.) Recommendations from Cameron Johnston Cameron Johnston is the British Fantasy Award and Dragon Awards nominated author of dark fantasy novels The Traitor God and God of Broken Things. He is a swordsman, a gamer, and an enthusiast of archaeology, history and mythology. He loves exploring ancient sites and camping out under the stars by a roaring fire. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland, and is trying very hard to fit even more books on his heaving shelves. Website: Facebook: Twitter: The Green Man's Heir by Juliet E. McKenna Rural fantasy (as opposed to the ubiquitous urban fantasy) was the genre I didn't know I needed. Green Man's Heir scratches that itch yearning for deep dark forests and landscapes that haven't been paved over, the sort of places where we can really feel that older more primal forces still dwell. The sort of places that have you eyeing shadows warily and shuddering at the lonely howl of some unknown beast. The streets of a supernaturally-afflicted big city are all well and good, but this delving into English folklore is a different beast, featuring old myths and folklore of the wildwood, dryads, naiads, black shucks and boggarts and other monsters - what a wonderful change away from vampires and werewolves and their ilk. McKenna's writing and description really bring the rural setting to life, from the small town and farms to the lonely roads and deep forest. It's a quieter sort of life, one ripe for dark things to meddle with. A dryad's son gets drawn into a murder mystery perpetrated by something dark and twisted dwelling in the deep woods...yep, that setup alone sold me on this book. We Are The Dead by Mike Shackle What's not to love about a gritty epic fantasy about a conquered people struggling for their survival against occupying forces and their dark magic and leashed monsters? I'd heard good things about this book but it surpassed them. It's a fast-paced thrill-ride that whips along while ratchetting up the tension as plans fall apart and people struggle to survive. The world building and characters fit together flawlessly, and as a sucker for underdog stories this book really hit the sweet spot for me. The characters all have their own motivations which conflict with each other, setting up a tale of conflict, cowardice and stubborn heroism. Along the Razor's Edge by Rob J. Hayes Mysteries, magic and monsters (both human and otherwise) are very much my thing, and Along the Razor’s Edge by Rob J. Hayes delivers all of that in spades and heaps even more on top. This was another book that I was sold on after reading the description: Eskara was trained as a weapon, a young sourcerer using her magic to destroy the enemy. The war was lost and all her power was stripped from her before she was thrown into the Pit, a mine ran by sadistic overseers intended to break its occupants. A young hero?villain? (who knows...) thrown into the dark and hungry depths below ground and having to struggle for survival while plotting an escape is what I wanted, and it's what I got. She is no passive little mouse waiting to be rescued - she is vicious and merely biding her time to escape. Most of the book is set within those dark and brutal mines, but there are a number of flashbacks to her training to flesh out the world, the really interesting magic system, and the mysteries yet to come. The world is an old one, with ancient races, forgotten ruins and secret knowledge - all great stuff for this reader! Recommendations from Travis Riddle Travis M. Riddle is a fantasy author best known for his books Balam, Spring and The Narrows, the latter of which received a positive review in Publishers Weekly. He currently lives in Austin, TX, where he largely spends his time eating food, playing games, and watching stuff. Find out more about Travis here: Twitter: // Instagram: // Website: Island Book by Evan Dahm Is it cheating to use my first slot for "all of Evan Dahm's graphic novels"? He has a ton of fantastic, surreal, unique work; I've blown through all of it this year and have loved every minute of it. For the sake of this exercise, I'll say specifically to check out Island Book, which is full of breathtakingly beautiful landscapes, bizarre locales, and interesting, charming characters. But really, those descriptors apply to all of Evan's work, so if you like Island Book then also be sure to grab Rice Boy, Vattu (vols. 1-3), and Order of Tales. Evan creates worlds like no other. Antkind by Charlie Kaufman Kaufman is one of my favorite directors/screenwriters (seriously, his new film on Netflix "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" is my top film of the year so far), so I was anxiously awaiting his first novel. It definitely didn't disappoint, and I'm happy to report that Antkind is just as weird, hilarious, and mindbending as Kaufman's filmography. The narrator, B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, is bar none the most insane protagonist I've yet to encounter. The book follows film critic B.'s attempts to recreate a 3-month long film (yes, you read that right) that he is the sole person to have seen before accidentally destroying it. It's deeply satirical, full of Hollywood in-jokes, and has a hugely pathetic main character (as he himself would readily tell you), so it's definitely not for everyone. But this is the funniest novel I have ever read, and it kept me laughing the whole way through. Rosewater by Tade Thompson I should also say that this recommendation applies to the full Wormwood trilogy, which became one of my favorite sci-fi series after I read it this year, although there's just something super great about the first book. I think it's the fact that we're solely in the POV of Kaaro, who I absolutely loved as a narrator; his dry humor and attitude toward everything happening and the people around him was endlessly amusing to me. This series takes place in a near-future Nigeria, where a city has been built around an alien dome that exudes healing powers once a year and there is a group of citizens who can enter a mental world to help or hinder one another. The series tackles strange, fascinating sci-fi, political, and philosophical concepts which perfectly meld into an adventure I didn't want to put down. Recommendations from Alex S Bradshaw Alex S. Bradshaw is a fantasy writer and publishing professional who lives in the UK. His debut novel, Windborn, is a dark fantasy story about Viking superheroes and is tentatively scheduled to be released later this year. You can find him on Twitter at @AlexSBradshaw, or head over to his website at to find out about his latest updates. Queens of the Wyrd by Timandra Whitecastle Want a magical tale about shield-maidens, fantasy mothers going on their own adventures (finally)? Then get this absolutely brilliant Norse-inspired story that shows that just because someone has a child it doesn’t mean they have to stop adventuring (doesn’t that usually mean the adventures are just beginning?). This story is packed full of epic moments, wonderful characters, and gave me goosebumps towards the end! Get this for people who want to see more fantasy adventures with mothers in them, who want to see a strong cast of female characters and love Norse-inspired fantasy and kick ass stories. The author has said that she was partly inspired by the equally wonderful Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames, so if you enjoyed that book then this is definitely for you. Dungeons of Strata by G.D. Penman The absolutely amazing cover of this book first dragged me in and the wonderful story kept me engaged. Dungeons of Strata is a LitRPG, basically a story that uses some of the mechanics and tropes from games and most usually MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games), and sinks its teeth into you quickly. The book’s protagonist, Martin, is someone we can all sympathise with as he’s zoned out in his job (something I think we’ve all done at some point or another, right?) and picks up the latest and greatest game - Strata Online - and he is determined for his guild to be the first to complete the seemingly unbeatable end-game. As with the best of LitRPGs there’s a story inside the game and one outside of it and both seem to have something sinister going on that I hope we will find out more about in later books. You should get this for people who love well-paced stories that sink their teeth into you as well as fans of MMOs, RPGs, and underdog stories. The Poison Song by Jen Williams The Poison Song is the final book in Jen Williams’ trilogy The Winnowing Flame, so I may be squeezing out more than one book-gift recommendation here. I loved every aspect of The Winnowing Flame trilogy; the wonderful characters, the epic setting, the magic, and the story. When I first started reading this story it felt like I was reading something inspired by Studio Ghibli mixed with Dark Souls. It has a once-great city, magically twisted wildlands, fugitive witches, absolutely stellar characters, monsters, artefacts and an ancient enemy that is beginning to stir once more. You should get this for anyone who loves sprawling epic fantasies packed with superb characters, snarky magical beasts, or for someone who might want to dive into a meaty, finished series. Many thanks to Cameron, Travis and Alex for their recommendations! There will be more recommendations from other Speculative Faction friends coming soon!
If you're a self-publishing author, acquiring the knowledge and skills of marketing experts is essential. It is easy to overlook a crucial point in time as you prepare your book to meet its audience - it's not the Launch. (I've given it a capital letter because it's important!) The launch is a big, big event. You might have arranged for it to coincide with a Book Tour (linked to the company I use). You've probably got your emails and social media alerts scheduled. That's great. But you should have started BEFORE this. Let me give you eight tips to identify what they are. 1. Update your website You have got a website, haven't you? You need it to accommodate ALL the details about your new book. If this is your first and you're likely to be unknown, your internet presence is vital for people to get to know you. Set up your profile, make sure you sound human! Be quirky. Show off your book cover, get the image established in people's minds. Offer readers a chance to read the opening chapter - it works as a great hook. Make sure there are links to where people can buy your book and make sure they're on all the key pages. Finally, make sure you site looks professional. People will judge your site before your book, if the site looks naff, they may think your book will too. Read more about this here. 2. Maintain presence on social media You need to know which platforms work best for you; Twitter has a lot of authors, Facebook has lots of writer groups and advertising potential, Instagram has its visual appeal and a younger audience profile. Whichever you choose, it needs to be maintained. Contribute something on it every day! Yes, every day! 30-40 minutes if you can spare it. To do what? To make connections. Adverts are all well and good but connect with other writers, writing communities help each other. A lot! But forge relationships with people first. Do not - I repeat - do not just promote your book endlessly. You will lose more followers than you gain. Social media is a place to meet people, not greet them at their door so you can sell them something! At the same time, build excitement. Talk about your anxiety regarding the launch, your excitement at finally reaching the point of being a real author! Sound human! Countdowns are good for this. You can schedule tweets on Twitter via HootSuite and analyse your members via Tweetsmap. There's a useful article here on effective social media usage. 3. Consider newsletters, podcasts and a blog Newsletters are ideal for regular, small chunks of information to send out to people who are interested in your work. If you're just starting out it takes time to build up this network, but it's a goal to aim for. Don't send them too often, they get spammed. But for your launch, they're perfect. Podcasts are increasing in popularity, especially for people under the age of 40. We're starting to demand more experiences in multi-media formats, audio and visual stimuli are powerful. It might take more technical knowledge and equipment perhaps though mobile phones will do lots! Professionalism is key here though! No wobbly camera work please! Or crackly sound. You will be judged. Blogs (and vlogs) are a brilliant way to build connections with your readers, in non-salesy ways. But it takes time, you must be consistent in your output. What do you blog about? Try to maintain a focus that is linked to your brand. If you're a fantasy writer with stories based on mythology, blog about legends, myths and stories linked to them, show us history, images of locations etc. Engage people with fun quizzes and surveys. But remember my repeated point about being human - write about things that matter to you and 'sell' it in a way that generates interest in others. People may find your book because of your blog. There are some useful pointers here, here and here. 4. Practise your pitches Lots of people will ask you this question - "What's your book about?" You need your "elevator pitch" - a 3 sentence summary which captures the story's essence. Refining it is a skill that takes time, it won't come straight away. It needs to hook the questioner, make them want to know more. If you're at a sales event (like a con) then you'll repeat this pitch all the time. It's perfect if you choose to submit to agents and publishers too. Develop an extended version of the elevator pitch - for someone who looks like they are genuinely interested and not just being polite. Include some info about character and plot. Don't include spoilers. Next, have a protracted pitch ready. This is for someone who has a good grasp of your genre, of the kind of books/authors like yours. Compare your work accordingly. Define your USP (Unique Selling Point) as discreetly and modestly as you can. You have to stand out in the market place - what does your story do that is different to the rest of the market? There are tips here, here and here. Now, rehearse those things. Be able to recite them with polish, professionalism and confidence. 5. Create promotional images I'm not talking book covers here, that's already been done. Professonally. These are images which launch your book. These may include the cover, your name and perhaps quotes from people who've read the story (get their permission first!). Have a variety that do similar things so they can be repeated in the same places as you build up to the launch. They do need look professional so get someone with artistic flair to do this if you can't. Make sure your brand is visible! If you can't find someone (or can't afford it) then it's worth using software like Canva which provides templates you can adapt easily. There are examples here and here. I like to use a downloadable program called DP Animation Maker. 6. Build your writers' (and bloggers) network Speaking personally, one of the best things about becoming an author was becoming friends with so many other writers, often people whose books I'd been reading for years. Social media allows this to happen. For me, Twitter is best. Here are some tips: a. Explore the Followers of people who you rate and have started to follow. Check their profiles and look at what they say. (Don't just click willy-nilly, you are making friends here!!) Make sure they match the kind of person you're looking for. (Yeah, like dating!) b. Check the #hashtags - like #WritingCommunity or #AmWritingFantasy or lots of others. c. Use these #hashtags to encourage others to engage with you d. Reply to other writers with something encouraging and positive, show them you empathise. e. Look for bloggers who may be willing to review your book. #bloggers #blogging In Facebook there are loads of groups that will match up with your genre, join them, meet people that way. 'Like' what you see and add comments. All this takes time. It's not about building a thousand followers in two months either. It's quality interactions, not quantity. It's about the relationships that will sustain you and help promote you. 7. Encourage pre-orders You may do this best via your website and link it to Amazon (if that's where you book is on sale). There is an excellent, step-by-step approach I recommend here. Another one here. I also recommend getting your BETA readers and blogger reviewers to have their reviews ready in plenty of time so people who pre-order have enough information to go on. If you have only 3 or 4 reviews (who might be family and friends anyway!) objective sales might hesitate pre-ordering if they have little or nothing to go on. 8. Enjoy the process Don't turn this process into a treadmill. As a self-published author you have a lot of work that is mainly (but not entirely) done by the publisher. The drawback is that it will take a year and a half till your book appears in shops! Self-publishing gives you total control and that is brilliant! But it's hard work. The other benefit is the people you encounter during that process, other authors and bloggers who will join you on your journey. Just as you will join them. I started this journey in January 2018 after completing my first novel. I knew nothing and so the learning curve was almost vertical. Now I have a wide circle of friends who've helped me design book covers, acted as beta readers, reviewed by stories and given me honest and constructive feedback as well as supported me when I've felt down. No one else will understand what you're going through (they may try of course) but the writing community is a wonderful thing and it will help you enjoy the process, if you let it. This post was prompted by an article by Phil Stamper-Halpin, you can read it here. If you've enjoyed this post and would like to share it, that's fine. I would ask that you reference The Speculative Faction as well please.
Looking for a book for someone special this Christmas? Not sure what to get them? We've asked some of our Speculative Faction friends to make some suggestions, hopefully they will present you with some great ideas! Why not check out their catalogue too? Here is the first bunch in this series. (There are links in the title to take you to Amazon, if that helps.) Recommendations from RJ Barker RJ Barker is the author the Wounded Kingdom Trilogy and his newest novel is the critically acclaimed The Bone Ships, the first in the Tide Child Trilogy with the second Call of the Bone Ships being released at the end of November. His work has been shortlisted for the Kitschie, The Gemmell, The British Fantasy Society and the Compton Crook award. RJ lives in Yorkshire with his wife, son and unpleasant but very spoiled cat and a collection of old and slightly odd taxidermy. Find him on twitter or at and in all good book shops. A Private Cathedral – James Lee Burke. I’ve always loved James Lee Burke’s crime fiction. He’s an astounding prose stylist, uses words in amazing ways to convey the American South in books heavy with the threat of violence and full of regret for it. There’s quite often been supernatural overtones, very subtle, and even without those, the way he writes lends the books an almost magical realist feeling. The last book in his Robicheaux series, New Iberia Blues was a hard read, probably not a book I’ll ever go back to as it was so heavy with hurt – while still being quite wonderful – but it did make me a bit apprehensive for A Private Cathedral. Even more so when I read that it was about a time travelling thousand year old hit man from hell. These are books very firmly set in our world and the supernatural, though present, has never been overt. I was always going to read it, just to see how the author approached what seemed an impossible premise. I need not have worried, I think it’s testament to his skill that you never question what’s happening. It seems all too plausible and his love of humanity shines through. It’s an amazing book and I thoroughly recommend it. Though if you’re unfamiliar with the series then it’s worth starting at the beginning. You won’t regret it. Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy. I tried reading The Road when everyone was talking about it, just before the film came out I think, and it didn’t stick. It just felt so unrelentingly miserable that I had no real wish to read on and with that I’d presumed McCarthy wasn’t for me. But, I think it was the crime author Steve Mosby who talked about this book and he’s mentioned a fair few books I’ve loved (Slow Horses by Mick Herron being the most memorable) and I like a cowboy book so I thought I’d give it a try. Wow. This book is astounding while also being one I will never, ever read again. It’s a trip, the writing is wonderful, it sucks you in to these massive vistas. These huge open places while we follow a bunch of amoral drifters on a murder spree in search of Indian* scalps. It’s a big book asking big questions, about good and evil and why people do what they do. It also has something of the fever dream about it, a hyper realness that makes it unreal. The violence being so unthinkable, so terrifyingly casual that it takes on the form of a nightmare everyone in the book is trapped within. It also leaves a tremendous amount of its world open to interpretation by the reader. I feel like there are large parts of the end of the book, which may not actually be happening, and maybe there are even characters in the book that possibly don’t exist. It’s a book without anything supernatural in it that also manages to feel like a ghost story. Unlike the James Lee Burke books, you may actually regret reading this, but it is definitely worth that regret. *I’m using the book's terminology here. Scalped – Jason Aaron/R.M. Guera I have a weird relationship with graphic novels. I have loved 2000AD for a long time but when it started doing that American thing where it would finish stories from one magazine in another it effectively priced me out as a kid and then a skint adult. Similarly, American comics were just never on the board for me and I’m not a big fan of super heroes anyway. They don’t do it for me. But Tade Thompson (who wrote the superb Making Wolf and Rosewater books) put me on to these. A story about a native American cop on a reservation. They are very noir, violent, unpleasant, and I’m not sure I am meant to like anyone in it, but it’s also excellent. I’m only on the second graphic novel so I can’t say a huge amount about plot. Often with graphic novels I’ve felt like there’s not much there, I’m whizzing through it and fifteen minutes later I’m finished. But these feel like novels, they have a real weight. Recommendations from Damien Larkin Damien Larkin is an Irish science fiction author and co-founder of the British and Irish Writing Community. His debut novel Big Red was published by Dancing Lemur Press and went on to be longlisted for the BSFA award for Best Novel. He currently lives in Dublin, Ireland and is editing his next novel Blood Red Sand due out in May 2021. Find out more about Damien: Website: FB: Twitter: IG: Smokepit Fairytales by Tripp Ainsworth Smokepit Fairytales is one of the most entertaining reads I've come across in years. On the face of it, it's a war story following some US marines on their deployment to Iraq and the aftermath of a short war with Iran, but there's so much more to this novel. The humor is what sucked me in at first - the sharp, snappy one-liners heard in barracks around the world. The highs and lows were hilarious and brutal, from drunken rampages on crazy nights out to moments of raw suffering as the main character and his friends battle with PTSD and everyday life. Full review here: Awakening by PS Livingstone (Beta read this and not out yet, but easily one of my top 3 reads this year) Awakening is the stunning debut of up-and-coming author PS Livingstone and it's a roller coaster ride of a story. It's an epic urban fantasy novel with some romantic elements, but there's so much more to this book. The characters are so well written and realistic that they almost jump out from the pages. The snappy dialogue and interactions between Aubrey and Cathal are entertaining and full of emotional depth, while the author hurls exciting plot twists and curveballs that drive the action along. Full review here: A Ritual of Flesh by Lee Conley A Ritual of Flesh - Book 2 in the Dead Sagas series picks up weeks after the first book and like it's predecessor, it doesn't fail to deliver. Where the first book ended giving us some insight into the approaching menace threatening the kingdom of Arnar, this novel starts by slowly setting the scene for the horror to come. The author does a great job of giving us snapshots into the lives of the ordinary folk whose entire livelihoods are at risk from the ever-encroaching sickness and the evil that trails it. The opening scenes are richly detailed, so much so that you can almost see the bodies sprawled on the streets or the tension in the air as law and order begins to break down. Full review here: Recommendations from Phil Williams Phil Williams is an author of contemporary fantasy and non-fiction books, best known for the Ordshaw urban fantasy thrillers. He lives on the south coast of England and spends a lot of time imagining terrible things to write about, and moderate amounts of time imagining pleasant things. I’m in the habit of reading something like 2-3 books a week now, including audio and graphic novels, so it’s hard to narrow down a year’s reading to 3 picks, but I thought I’d try and tread a line between not-completely-obvious choices (in the realms of Murderbot, Gideon the Ninth, Piranesi and such) whilst also having a general appeal to be gift-worthy. I’ve also tried to go for 3 very different books, one SFF, one literature and one non-fiction. Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi Riot Baby stands out for me as something that is both a creative, page-turning story and an engine of raw, noteworthy emotion. While wrapped in elements of scif-fi and the supernatural, this book remains a heart-felt and gritty mirror to reality. Hugely topical and relevant, while also a solid example of a superhero-esque frame. Onyebuchi achieves one of the things I admire most in writing – the ability to present something huge and important in a very short space. Get it for anyone interested in racism and systematic oppression, or conversely anyone who’d appreciate a story of struggle and hope with a creative twist all of its own. Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson This is one I just recently finished that I feel is worthy of more note than you typically see; Jackon recs are always populated with Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (both amazing), but together with her other novels, Hangsaman has a subtle and uniquely different charm. While essentially a coming-of-age story of a girl first heading to college, it’s really a careful study of a wandering mind peppered with brilliantly realised vignettes of human interaction. Get it for anyone interested in a snapshot of human life woven with seamless flashes of dark day dreams. Underland by Robert Macfarlane Finally, a non-fiction recommendation that should appeal to just about everyone. Anyone familiar with my fiction will be aware I have an eager interest in the subterranean, and Macfarlane has taken that interest to extremes that make me wholly jealous. Through exploring the world beneath our feet, he jumps between studies of astrophysics, history, literature, and deep time itself. It’s an all-encompassing, fascinating book that I only wish there was more of (or that I could’ve been there to help research). Get it for anyone interested in the world around us, under us, before us and after. Anyone, get it for anyone. Many thanks to RJ, Damien and Phil for their recommendations! There will be more recommendations from other Speculative Faction friends coming very soon!
The Chosen One is a common trope in speculative fiction. You've got Harry Potter of course, Aragorn in Lord of the Rings and John Connor in the Terminator stories. Characters who will fulfil a destiny, a prophecy of some kind. In Young Adult novels, it's particularly common. Unsurprising really, a kid with an ability to show superiority over the adults, or the bullies. I'm a fan of Jim Butcher's Codex Alera stories, a Roman-esque setting for the boy who overcomes numerous challenges to become lead his people out of danger by the seventh book. In the early stages he's without the powerful abilities to manipulate the elements that others possess, like Harry Potter he goes to an academic institution where he's bullied and secrets prevail. He serves in the army, encounters foreign enemies and defeats them only to find the greatest danger is on his doorstep. The thing is, we're never left in any doubt that the Chosen One will win, in the end. And isn't that the problem? We're left wondering more about how the protagonist defeats the baddie, rather than if they will win. This trope presents some dangers when it comes to adopting the trope for any story. Let's explore what they might be. Danger #1: Expositon and the Back Story I've outlined the danger in my example of Butcher's Codex Alera. The Chosen One often comes out of nowhere, with no relevance to the story and needs to grow into their role. That growth requires a fairly detailed background enabling us to see why the prophecy occurs, why others haven't spotted it, why the majority of people won't accept it. In effect it means establishing two settings at once. The world of the protagonist at the start (often a life of poverty and hardship, isolation, desperation) and the world of the 'Endowed' - those with wealth and power, well established status and a society which depends on it. For some stories, this setting facilitates the story's focus on righting social wrongs. Anakin Skywalker, a kid on some obscure planet, defeats the evil Empire with its corruption, cruelty and inhuman treatment of those who are less fortunate. It becomes a story about revolution. In this respect, the trope loses some of its significance. The story isn't so much about the protagonist winning in the end, it's more about what changes that victory will bring. It's a story about Change. But - the danger remains. Balancing the story with the huge quantities of exposition needed to define the two worlds and all the people within it. Both my examples stretch across several novels, as it does with Aragorn's acceptance of his role in Lord of the Rings, likewise Neo in The Matrix films. Book One is invaiably focused on setting up these worlds and delivering a minor challenge of some kind to retain the tension needed to keep us reading. Don't think it will be easy telling such a story in one book! Danger #2: Righting wrongs and ethical conundrums The Chosen One is the person who must fight to correct certain evils that have already been committed. This may, or may not, involve a prophecy. In The Last Airbender stories, Aang is led to believe he must kill the villainous Ozai. Having been educated in the ways of peace and harmony, this doesn't come easy for the boy, technically he's expected to commit murder. It's only after meeting the Lion Turtle that he realises defeating his nemesis doesn't need to involve killing him. For YA audiences, this ethical issue is a worthy one for young people to consider, it's a teaching aid as much as its a story. Do wrong-doers always need to die? The same is true for another classic YA series, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer. Here our Chosen One has subverted the trope by being villainous already. He does bad things, such as kidnapping a fairy to facilitate his goals. Of course, Good comes out of the story as the winner in the end but it offers some wonderful opportunities for ethical conundrums to be explored. The Inkheart Trilogy by Cornelia Funke is another YA story where you might argue Meggie is a Chosen One. The ethics explored here are interesting, fictional characters escape from their pages into reality and Meggie and her father spend the 3 books getting them back where they belong. Inevitably, with their newly discovered freedom, they don't want to go back. Would you? Where your freedom is taken from you, where the story is really a prison? My examples may all be from the YA genre but they serve to illustrate how this trope treads a delicate line with morality. What moral issues will the Chosen One need to confront to fulfil their role and reach their goals? Who suffers - and is it right they should? Merely reaching the goal without considering this topic is a danger. In adult stories, there are issues around the levels of suffering that might exist, likewise for various forms of abuse. The danger is to ignore all this, or worse, reduce its importance and relevance. Danger #3: Medieval settings and modern sensitivities In some ways, this danger combines the previous two. The world of the Chosen One in speculative fiction has a medieval setting. Magic exists because science doesn't. Like the Middle Ages, Life has little value, survival is everything. It's a popular choice for authors because the threats are many and varied, the likelihood of dying is great. People are treated appalling badly. This is certainly true in Grimdark novels. The Chosen One trope exists in these stories to put an end to the villainy which takes advantage of this situation. Jon Snow in George RR Martin's Game of Thrones stories is another Chosen One, set within the grimest of Grimdark settings possible. Here life has little value, violent death is inevitable and women are little more than sex slaves in the majority of cases. Ethical issues abound here and were voiced regularly while the TV series aired, you can read here and here. The ethics focus on the extent to which we should capture the values of the past, when we, as civilised people, know they are wrong. Kameron Hurley, whose Mirror Empire uses a kind of Chosen One trope, is another nominee for the Grimdark label. I include her here because of something she said in a debate on this topic. The discussion centred on the ethical issues of abuse, rape and violent murder which can occur in some dark fantasy stories. She said, "imitators who come after (the instigators of this style, such as Abercrombie, Morgan, Lawrence et al) start to water down the original ideas behind the backlash, and instead of a nuanced exploration of human frailty and complexity, we end up with nihilistic heroes who kick puppies and murder people on page one and call it deep and serious." Isn't this the point? There are people who focus on the dark sides of the human psyche in their stories because they aim to imitate the success of such authors. The danger is they risk stepping over the line of what we consider as acceptable. Debates rage on the internet about how inappropriate (or otherwise) these stories are. My point here is to be aware of the decisions taken as a writer, to be aware of the issues you are addressing and to include them only after such considerations have been made. Danger #4: Lazy solutions thanks to Deux Ex Machina Yes, I'm talking to you John Connor from the Terminator stories. It doesn't get much easier to deal with the challenges facing a Chosen One than when you use Time as the solution. When people try to kill you before you've even been conceived life is never going to be easy I suppose but it certainly highlights what the future holds for you. As a result, your mother equips you with all the knowledge and skills you'll need to defend yourself. So problem solved. You're in a tight corner so what do you do? You summon knowledge or apply a skill - that has never been mentioned before - to save you. Great! Hollywood is filled with stories like this. We get carried away by the SFX and get distracted by the lazy scriptwriting. Don't get me started on Jupiter Ascending either - where our plucky Chosen One is rescued by (wait for it) a character who is half super-soldier and half dog - with super-smell. Not surprising it sunk without trace at the box office eh? It's a dangerous trap some inexperienced writers fall into because they hope it won't get noticed. It's how a maguffin serves as a rescue device (ring, amulet, funny little blue creature etc) or a character appears out of the blue who provides all the answers, secrets hidden for centuries appear at the right moment - all devices that use a Deux Ex Machina solution that leaves the reader rolling their eyes. If such things are going to be used - they need to be established early on and then hidden again by distracting the reader. Danger #5: Stereotypes and stock characters The Chosen One as a trope presents the danger of employing other tropes, especially where characters are concerned. Rather than find fault with any books (and their authors!) let me illustrate this danger with the film that defines this topic beautifully, by satirising it. I'm talking about the wonderful The Princess Bride by William Goldman and turned into the cult film by Rob Reiner. The story is filled with stock characters that impede or enhance the Chosen One's journey. Buttercup is, herself, such a character, she's the imperiled princess but we have giants, gangsters, mystical medics and evil viziers. It's not difficult to modify such characters with a little more detail but the fact remains we will recognise what they are fairly quickly. Conclusions The Chosen One, as a trope, has a lot to offer any story. What I hope I've shown here are some of the dangers that come with it, that are easily included if you're not careful. They get caught up in the slipstream of the Chosen One's narrative if you're not looking for them. There are articles on the internet which suggest this trope is tired and over-used. I disagree. I think it continues to offer news alternatives but the writer needs to be aware of those attendant dangers which are actually the real problems here. It's all about being original, finding new ways to tell the story and to define the character. Once that part is done, the Chosen One can become exciting and fresh again. 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3 Tips for Making Real-world Fantasy Believable by Phil Williams
It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of urban fantasy author, Phil Williams. You can see why if you check out my reviews of his books here. After reading his latest work, 'Kept From Cages', we got talking about the challenges faced in making readers believe in the unlikely, the fantastic and the too-impossible-to-be-real. The majority of Phil's stories take place in the superficially normal city of Ordshaw in the UK but his latest story goes global. Such an expansion has to impose even greater challenges surely? It resulted in me inviting him to write this post. I think it's insightful and thought-provoking, I hope you agree. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve probably spent more time than your average person pondering the intricacies of convincing people monsters are real. From the first stories I wrote, I’ve always looked to bring fantasy into the contemporary world, to make it feel like it could really happen to you. That’s the joy of the genre, where I’d otherwise be writing thriller or adventure stories, I want to feel like anything is possible. So, how do you make the unbelievable believable? I’ve come up with three starting points for producing realistic contemporary fantasy. Though they could probably actually apply to all fantasy or sci-fi. Or horror, or romance or any genre for that matter… 1. Respect Rules & Reason In any story, it’s crucial to establish exactly what is possible and what isn’t. For something to work in the real world, or in the world of your story, you might also consider how and why things are possible. Explanations for magic, monsters or people smelling through their eyes don’t need to be complicated, but they need to exist so you can ensure they’re consistent. If your made-up details don’t behave in a consistent way (unless you have a really good reason that forms some major plot twist), it can feel half-baked, unconvincing – not real. For extra credit, be sure the invented convincingly interacts with established reality. Ponder things like: to what extent does modern sun cream help vampires? A lot of these things you decide don’t actually need to be in the story; if you’ve given it all this thought and a strong backbone, it’ll feel more confident anyway. Going further than this, when you include things you haven’t made up, unless you explicitly deviate from accepted knowledge, then do your research. A reader’s more likely to find a story unconvincing when an ordinary gun never runs out of bullets, for example, than when you present a monkey channelling the voice of an ancient tree god with no questionable reason why not. 2. Create Realistic Responses Realistic characterisation is something worth working on, because we might make up outlandish places and things but readers always want to experience it through the eyes of believable people. The way characters react to unreal situations can make or break fantasy. It can be as simple as having characters treat established unreal details as part of their everyday society, and not something unusual (e.g. making bigoted remarks about London’s long-term goblin taxi drivers instead of mulling over their culture and physical characteristics). Having characters react properly to what’s unexpected is more challenging, but honing these kind of responses, be it for humour, horror or plain surprise, is what makes it real. A story world can be utterly bizarre and different, but if the character experiencing it is relatable, we’re there and we accept it. An alternative is to make a character compelling, not necessarily sympathetic, but I’d argue that even that is a case of probing for the familiar, as “compelling” usually stems from something we’ve seen, want to see, or definitely do not want to see in ourselves or others. 3. Use Anchors Lastly, and this is the easiest implemented advice, a handful of effective anchors used early can make all the difference in putting readers in the moment. In the first paragraphs of a story you can immediately identify time and place by looking out for tiny details that would indicate either – brands are good for this; a discarded chocolate wrapper, a familiar car, a specific landmark. If you open with a character watching the BBC news on a TV, we get a reasonable idea of modern, real world, UK (yes, that’s how Under Ordshaw opens, and I’ll admit it was my editor’s idea). It’s crucial to establish these anchors as soon as possible, because while you might keep readers guessing on a lot of things, the setting shouldn’t be one of them. This is particularly important in contemporary fantasy, as without recognisable details, with unusual things happening we could easily start to think of a more traditional fantasy setting. Readers might draw their own conclusions and be picturing a medieval tavern until, surprise!, an orc pulls a gun and you’re thrown out of the story instead of drawn into the action. So, there’s three meandering thoughts on some of the ways to make fantasy seem more real. Good luck with it! Phil Williams is the author of the Ordshaw contemporary fantasy thrillers. His latest, globe-trotting romp, Kept From Cages, is out now. You can find out more about Phil and his books here and follow him on Twitter and Facebook