Recently I created a new Facebook group that I was hoping to focus on the more literary fantasy works of SFF. Mark Lawrence humorously named it as Literary Snobs of Fantasy.

If I’m not mistaken literary fantasy isn’t clearly defined anywhere however, which provided some uncertainty within the group when it came to book recommendations. I’m usually against labels and trying to shoehorn books into boxes but will endeavour to provide some guidance on what my views on the subject were when I created the group, hoping to spur and invite thoughts from others, rather than lay down rules set in stone.

To illustrate my point, I created this little scale here. The underlying principle is that books which are not literary have a strong focus on the first element (plot) of the novel or the first two (plot and world building), while literary books concentrate on the last four.

Just to be clear right at the start: A book being literary doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better, than a non-literary one. An amazing story told well, where the main focus is on telling that story and on not much else can easily be a great book and often a bestseller.

A book is always a mixture of these elements though. You can’t push the focus high on everything. If you push some of the lower categories too high, it will push back the plot for example. Talking a lot about how the characters feel or filling the pages with picturesque description or poetical musings will slow the story. Concentrating on various themes won’t leave enough space to develop intriguing storylines. The secret of any good book is often finding the right balance.

Considering another section of genre fiction, I’ve never particularly been a crime fiction fan. Yet, two of my all-time-favourite authors were writers of that genre. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who hasn’t just laid down some of the fundamental building blocks of modern crime fiction but introduced us to Sherlock Holmes’s wonderfully complex and intriguing character. This characterisation was very much part of why I fell in love with the stories in the first place.

My other favourite is Raymond Chandler. When I think about his books I feel that some of the lower buttons in my scale chart are pushed to the extreme right. Character. Prose. Human Condition. Yet Raymond Chandler adds literary content without turning the books into anything else than crime. He doesn’t “kill off” the genre, by overdoing the literary elements. Instead he makes it richer, better. And that’s exactly what literary content should achieve in genre fiction in my opinion. Not turning them into something unreadable by adding over-the-top flowery language, boring with focusing on descriptions and such too much. It should enrich our reading experience while still giving us a story of fantasy, crime, science-fiction or horror.

A few years ago I wrote a few thoughts on why the Broken Empire by Mark Lawrence felt literary to me. Below I will repeat what I said there as an example of fantasy being literary in my opinion as it’s relevant here:

In literary fiction characters generally come before the plot. While in fantasy literature we mostly get to know characters based on what they say and what they do, the dialogues and actions essentially becoming the plot itself, literary fiction also puts a heavy emphasis on what they think and how they feel, which often slows the plot. In The Broken Empire not only does the character come before plot but the plot in fact serves to illustrate/exercise the character.

The poetic, profound and masterfully crafted prose we find in the trilogy is also more of a ‘requirement’ of literary fiction, genre fiction readers being generally more interested in the story itself.

Finally, works of literary fiction are known to deliver a deeper reading experience, with themes depicting what it means to be human running under the surface of the plot. The characters undergo experiences which make the readers think and question certain aspects of life and with answers not provided they are expected to come to their own conclusions about them. In The Broken Empire one of these themes is how atrocities experienced in childhood may form the personality and how the person handles, grows around these hurts with time.

Children severely traumatized early in life do not easily bond with other people. They often cannot love or accept love, they can become children without conscience, who can hurt or even kill without remorse.

In The Broken Empire some of the questions we need to find our own answers for are whether such characters after all the violence and damage they caused on others might be still forgiven, whether they deserve any sympathy or at least, an understanding.

It’s also worth noting that while in The Red Queen’s War trilogy the plot gains a stronger position, the above elements still echo through it. The main character might be more shallow, rendering the prose less profound and philosophical, giving way to humour in turn, it is still very much character driven with much emphasis on the protagonist’s personality, –  both as a consequence of childhood experiences and as something to be further refined on the anvil of the story.

 

Below I ramble a bit about beta-reading. If you found this article by googling Holy Sister and were hoping to read about what happens in the last book you’ll be disappointed. I promise I’ll post the blurb on ThatThornGuy.com as soon as it’s written and I’m allowed. But I imagine the below might be more interesting to writers and beta-readers, if anyone, at all.

Someone last year asked me how anyone becomes a beta-reader. Is there a course? In my somewhat limited experience this happens when an author asks you. You can occasionally see them posting an open request on the internet, on forums or in discussion groups, so keep an eye out for opportunities. Most often it’s a private thing though, because for many writers it’s important that they sufficiently know you and trust you. I don’t often see posts from other beta-readers though, so the confusion is understandable. In fact, for many readers I shall undoubtedly remain the woman who sends Mark wine and chocolate, gets to read his books early and has nothing but praise for him. In reality there is a little more to it though, which I’ll be talking about here to anyone interested.

I spent the beginning of April going through Holy Sister with a focus on a few things that had been slightly changed since the publisher’s edit. Re-reading a book two years after the first time, but one year before it gets published is pretty much like walking on no man’s land. There’s no one in sight but the author to discuss my findings with and we have very different perspectives.

I write, too, and can call myself lucky to have a few great beta readers who give feedback on my chapters. In theory I know how beta-reading goes from both sides of the process. You tell the author what works, what doesn’t work, what you like, what you don’t like, what makes sense, what doesn’t make sense, what intrigues you, what bores you. You point out any inconsistencies you spot. Maybe even any typos you spot. If you’re very dedicated you might even come up with some suggestions on how to make improvements. Then that’s it. Your work is finished, thank you very much. The author takes a look at your notes and decides what to action and what not. If they work closely with you they might even show you later how they implemented some of your suggestions.

As a writer this is pretty much what I’m hoping for from my betas and anything more would likely make the relationship awkward. Luckily beta-readers are usually not fanatics though and won’t pursue things further than reasonably expected. They have already spent a good amount of time and energy on your work, the rest is up to you. In turn, they learned from the process, which should benefit their own writing.

So anyhow. I have enough experience to know how it should work and how it shouldn’t. The way we run this ship with Mark is strongly in the second category. It really shouldn’t work. But somehow it does.

‘So, what poses the difficulties?’ you might ask. Well, first of all, as you can probably guess, someone who runs a fansite all alone (despite several people believing it a whole team), is pretty passionate about these books. Mark’s books always meant a lot to me and since I have the opportunity to help with making them even better if I can (which is for the last three-four years or so), I take these duties very seriously.

Then, if you follow Mark’s interviews and blogposts you might already know that he doesn’t really like making changes. His view is once it’s written it’s done and unless something is very clearly an error his preference is to leave it as it is. (He can also be a little lazy. Shhhh! You didn’t hear that from me!). Whereas unfortunately I’m a perfectionist. I’m sure you can already see where this all leaves us. ‘Again’, ‘I told you’, and ‘honestly’ are just some of the most common phrases popping up here and there.

Luckily, we had a little practice to adjust to these ‘extreme’ parameters before starting on Red Sister. I read The Liar’s Key before it was published and pointed out a few things to him that I felt could have been better, or thought were inconsistent. It was too late to make changes on the manuscript by then in any case, but still it was good practice. I read The Wheel of Osheim straight after and provided feedback on it in a similar manner. We also discussed most of his short stories within a few days they were written. By this time I believe he had more trust in my opinion, while I learned to let some things go and only put up a fight where I felt changing something was absolutely necessary. At times we both compromised.

Even so. During writing The Book of the Ancestor trilogy there were a few instances where arguments got a little out of hand and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had stopped asking for my opinion altogether. Instead, we managed to work through them and come up with something in each instance that eventually received a positive feedback later, most often from readers, but sometimes even from the publishers themselves.

More pleasant time was had when it came to brainstorming, albeit these happened less frequently. Mark is usually quite good at coming up with ideas on his own (as you’d expect from someone who earns a living from making things up). My biggest claim can most likely be to be “the one who sent Nona into the caves”. In fact, she became quite the explorer as the story went on, not unlike her dad. I also remember insisting that there absolutely had to be a library at the convent. And despite having worked at a wine company for years, as those who know me might remember, no, the winery wasn’t my idea. *Points.*

All in all though, now that my little part in the creation of this amazing trilogy has come to an end I feel proud and satisfied. The first book, Red Sister was for me the most work. And perhaps for that reason, feels the most important. The next two installments went much easier. I won’t spoil what is yet to come for you, but know this. The way the first two books tie together in the last one is truly special. Mark has always been a master of timelines, but I believe the way the prologues connect and flow into the conclusion in the third book is an art in its own right.

Next year war is coming. “There is in every delicate thing, no matter how precious, nor how beautiful, a challenge. Break me.” It’s time to face that challenge. Be strong. Be ready.

 


Photo by Raulla Merhej

 

So first of all, apart from a few notable exceptions, I’m not a huge fan of traditional epic fantasy. I much more prefer character-focused stories with epic prose, and for that reason it took me a while to get around to this book. Even at the beginning I struggled to make myself focus, to take in and remember who’s who and what exactly is going on in this world. But I really wanted to like the book, because of all those lovely people involved who I just adore: John Gwynne, of course, and helping him among others his absolutely amazing wife, Caroline, the very cool Edward and Will, whom I got to chat with on a number of occasions now, and even the mighty Kareem Mahfouz! So I marched on, because I really wanted to like this book and … damn! I LOVED it! I did not see that coming! In fact, I’m quite disappointed now that the book finished where it finished and I can’t just go on and find out what happens next!

John Gwynne is such a natural and talented storyteller. His world draws you in and makes you feel part of it. As if you listened to the tale while sitting around the fire, sharing dinner with folks from the Banished Lands. It’s flawless. Everything about it fits together perfectly and feels just right. I was also quite impressed by how gradually the book darkened and just how dark it got, the dread descending over me just as much as over the characters, their pain and loss affecting me deeply.

I look forward to reading the next volume.

 

“By the third day the rumour can no longer be contained. It is whispered in the black tents, shared like smokes among the men on patrol, murmured in the drill yard before the bellowed morning prayer. It is weird and horrific and yet a curse no one can fail to understand. Someone’s mind has been stolen, and the thief still walks the camp.”

 

This opening paragraph told me everything I needed to know about the novel in advance. It was going to be intriguing, exciting, beautifully written and I was going to love it. And oh my gosh, how I did. Even now that I finished reading it a few days ago, sometimes I just get this urge to re-open it and read on, to lose myself in the adventure again, only to remember that… bollocks! I already finished it!

 

In a harsh land, quarantined off from the rest of the world due to a deadly plague, ruled by a psychopathic tyrant who wields terror with practiced ease, two brothers run for their lives. They run from the wrath of their ruler, chased by their entire nation, hunted by elite forces, bloodthirsty monsters, and creatures darker, deadlier and more sinister still, through barren fields of devastation, towards the great desert called “The Land That Eats Men.”

 

Robert V.S. Reddick expertly weaves many threads back and forth into a rich, colourful and epic tale of rivalry, adventure, friendship, mystery and love. Kandri and Mektu, the two main characters find themselves in one extraordinary situation after the other, yet it’s their troubled relationship that make their story even more absorbing. In some instances, the bond they share reminded me of that between Thor and Loki from the Marvel universe. Kandri, a bit like Thor, is valiant, thoughtful and caring, while the younger brother, Mektu is selfish, mischievous and careless. He annoys Kandri no end with his continuous troublemaking, who in turn is worried for him half the time and wants to kill him himself the other half. Unlike their Asgardian counterparts, they are far from being Gods. They are flung into the heart of danger by chance rather than face it by choice. Yet the harshness of their world, the threats they need to face, the choices they have to make, sets the bar impossibly high. They must clear it or die.

 

And as if all this wasn’t enough to make a great book, the level of mystery surrounding the half-brothers, their past, their families and the world around them impressed me greatly. I very much enjoyed the way the secrets slowly untangle as the story flows through the pages, satisfying many of my questions, yet leaving enough unsolved to make me eager for the next volume.

 

On the first page of my copy there is a note from the senior editor, in which they say Talos Press is proud to present this novel. They have every right to be. I wouldn’t be surprised to find in the future that Master Assassins was just the beginning of a masterpiece in the making.

 

 

Many thanks to Mark Lawrence for gifting me his own advance copy for Christmas. I hope he will be able to acquire a hardback soon, I know how much he enjoyed it, too! 🙂

When it comes to talking about Mark Lawrence books my choice is either to wait a few years until they get published, and say something when some of my initial enthusiasm faded, or talk about them while the experience is still fresh, pulsing inside and risk looking like a show-offy buffoon.

So no, I won’t blame you for looking away, rolling your eyes. But I have to say, slowly nearing the end of Limited Wish, the second book of his science-fiction trilogy I think it might be some of the strongest writing I’ve seen from him yet, and that’s saying a lot, considering the works he produced so far. It doesn’t just have a fascinating, gripping story and great characters, it also makes you think, question your own choices in life, it moves you in ways you don’t even see coming. It’s science-fiction, yet at its core it’s very much about family, friendships, love, things for which we face our biggest fears and threats, things we live for, fight for or sometimes even die for.

It’s easily shaping up to be one of his best books, putting up a fierce competition against another strong contender in the category, The Girl and the Star. The latter being the working title of the first book of his new fantasy trilogy, set in the same world as Red Sister. TGATS has a more complex plot to Red Sister, a wonderful, rich tale and an even more fascinating world building. On a personal level it also claims the title of the book with my most favourite opening, ever. All that, combined with incredible writing brings the book well in line with Red Sister, if not making it slightly superior to it.

Mark is such a genius. I truly believe he’s one of the great masters, capable of humbling us with his skills, making it look easy. I think we’re incredibly lucky that he’s so prolific. He doesn’t just finish his series, his writing just keeps getting better and better. You can always rely on him and know: the best is yet to come.

 

 


Art by Valin Mattheis

I attended the Grim Gathering once again last month, this time in the picturesque Bath! Some of us went and had lunch with Mark Lawrence in Bistrot Pierre on George Street prior to the event, which was really lovely and visited The Roman Baths afterwards. The event itself was organised by Fantasy-Faction and was held at Waterstones. The panel featured Peter V. Brett, Joe Abercrombie, Anna Stephens, Mark Lawrence and Peter Newman. I supply a few photos here, but you might find this Facebook life streaming I did in the evening more interesting. It starts off a little shaky, but steadies afterwards. Hope, you’ll enjoy it! 🙂 (You can watch it even if you’re not on Facebook) https://www.facebook.com/mitriel/videos/10155730808927156/

 

Following up on Michael Miller’s recommendation I went to check out the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club tonight in Central London. It was hosted by Hachette (their headquarters impressed me greatly – see photos).

.
For the first half an hour I felt like a complete outsider, seemingly unable to join in any of the conversations around me and was depressed by the thought of how much of an introvert I must be if I can’t even socialise in a “SUPER RELAXED Fantasy Club”! As the evening progressed however I did manage to talk to a few people who were very nice. One of them as it turned out writes a comic called Red Thorn! (Because who else would Mark Lawrence’s beta-reader talk to if not someone writing Red Thorn!)

.
The first guest (“reader”!) of the evening was Francesca Haig, who was absolutely lovely and very witty. She read for us from her upcoming book, The Forever Ship, and to avoid spoilers she renamed the character being buried in the scene using a name of someone she said she wouldn’t mind being buried in the character’s place. She called him “Boris”.

.
The second guest was Mike Carey, who I was lucky to have met on a few occasions previously (a great guy & true gentleman!). He also read for us from his most recent title, “The Boy on the Bridge”, and just like Francesca answered questions from the audience. He was there with his wife, Linda, who co-authored several novels with him and with their daughter, Louise.

.
Unfortunately I had to dash off early and couldn’t stay for the pub session afterwards, but I think I’ll come along next month again. There’s a possibility that it will be held on the roof terrace and since it’s only five minutes walk from work I feel like I really should give it another try.

 

%d bloggers like this: