Bjørn Larssen’s Storytellers in Audiobook Format

From Tantor Media September 7th.

If you don’t know this marvellous book, here’s my review from its release day in 2019.

Storytellers-cover

Set against Iceland’s harsh but beautiful landscape in the late 19th and  early 20th century, Bjørn Larssen’s debut novel Storytellers explores the multi-generational effect of the evasions, embellishments and outright lies told in a small village. The book begins slowly, almost lyrically, pulling the reader into what seems like situation borrowed from folktale: a reclusive blacksmith, Gunnar, rescues an injured stranger, Sigurd. In exchange for his care, Sigurd offers Gunnar a lot of money, and a story.

But as Sigurd’s story progresses, and the book moves between the past and the present, darker elements begin to appear. Gunnar’s reclusiveness hides his own secrets, and the unresolved stories of his past. As other characters are introduced and their lives interweave, it becomes clear that at the heart of this small village there are things untold, things left out of the stories, purposely re-imagined. Both individual and collective histories – and memories – cannot be trusted.

The book was reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, in both theme and mood. Both books deal with the unreliability of memory; both are largely melancholy books. And perhaps there is allegory in them both, too. Storytellers is a book to be read when there is time for contemplation, maybe of an evening with a glass of wine. It isn’t always the easiest read, but it’s not a book I’m going to forget easily, either.

Release Day Reality

My sixth book is out today.

The cat just loudly deposited a hairball on the rug. Her retching woke me.

The dishwasher needs emptying; the birdbath filling.

My day planner tells me I have a guest post due today, reading to do for a book review, and various tasks related to my volunteer job as editor of our community newsletter, as well as feedback notes to write for a first-time author I’m mentoring.

In other words, the world hasn’t stopped because I have a new book out, and, you know, that’s ok.

Brian and I will go out for ice cream at our favourite place by the river a little later today, to celebrate. (Normally, we go out for a meal, but as it’s also our 40th wedding anniversary this week, we’ll do that on Friday.) Friends are sending congratulations. I am suffused with the sense of accomplishment and pleased with the book’s reception so far. It’s the sixth book in a series; there will be a small spike in sales this week, and then it will trail off, to be purchased as people work their way through the first five. Six years and six books into the life of an indie author, I know it’s a long game.

Next week I’m taking a holiday, travelling a couple of hours north to Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, for a few days walking and birding, leisurely brunches on outdoor patios, some pleasure reading, and whatever else catches my fancy. After this short break. Heir will take up some of my time – guest blogs, interviews, a blog tour, perhaps some readings, but it’s out in the world, no longer mine alone but belonging too to its readers, to make what they will of it. Both the next two books – Empress & Soldier and Empire’s Passing – are nudging me: work needs to start in earnest there.

As it will. Alongside dishwashers to empty, and meals to cook, and community work…and hairballs.

From Concept to Finished Novel(s): Part II: Beginning with the End

With Empire’s Heir coming out in just over a week, my mind has inevitably moved on to the next book. While still set in my fictional work, and with familiar characters, Empress & Soldier will be something a little different.

As the title suggests, it focuses on two characters: the Empress Eudekia, and the soldier Druisius. In my third book, Empire’s Exile, we are introduced to both characters in the last half of the story.  Empress & Soldier will overlap with those chapters from Exile, although it will begin much earlier in the lives of both Eudekia and Druisius.

Empress & Soldier will – or can – serve as a second entry point into my world, so it creates some structural and conceptual challenges. In the overlapping part of the story, I will be writing scenes from either Eudekia or Druisius’s point of view. Sometimes these are scenes that are in Exile; sometimes they are scenes that happened ‘off page’ in that book, and are only referred to. 

I can’t skimp on this by assuming the reader has read Exile.  Nor should I just reverse the POV. What happens –  what either Druisius or Eudekia think, want, act on – is what matters. And that may be the opposite of what the main or supporting characters in Exile think, want, or act on. In fact, I already know it is, in some cases. A friend who has read some of the early draft scenes said, “I thought I knew Druisius. I was wrong.”

I’ve created a planning document, with the entire section from Exile on half the page, and blank space on the other. Now I’ll start going through each scene, thinking about the purpose of a parallel or supporting scene from the viewpoints of my two new main characters – but still conveying the important parts of the arcs of the other characters, those whose actions and reactions we saw in Exile.

I expect to spend a good chunk of time on this. Planning now will save a lot of energy and words later. I also intend to write this last section of Empress & Soldier first, because what happens here tells me what I need to show in the character development as Eudekia and Druisius grow up in much different ways in Casil, my Rome-analogue city. The plot, which will include some antagonists familiar to readers of my other books, has a framework, with details to be worked out which also depend on these last chapters.

There’s also an enormous amount of research to be done, and another advantage of writing these last chapters first is that I can juggle writing and research, because this section will require the least – I did most of what’s needed when I was writing Exile.

My last challenge – or I should say the last challenge I know about now! – is how Druisius wants to tell his story. Unlike my previous protagonists, for whom the written word either is or becomes their preferred mode of expression in journals or histories, song or poetry, Druisius is an oral storyteller with a distinctive voice – and a desire to tell his story in present tense.

“Druisius!”  My captain’s voice. What does he want? I am off duty. Friends are waiting to dice.  I turn.

“I’m reassigning you. A ship arrived this afternoon from the west. One of the passengers might be a queen, or something. They’ve asked for an audience with the Empress. The harbourmaster says they look like barbarians to him, but,” he shrugs, “they’ve been assigned a house, and guards, and you’re one of them.”

“Why me? And who’s the other?”

He snorts. “As if we don’t all know how bored you are.” He drops his voice. “Anyhow, it was the Magistere Quintus who suggested you. You know what that means.”

Can I/he maintain this?  I don’t know yet. (Nor do I know Eudekia’s voice at all, right now.) But this is a new adventure, in more ways than one!

Featured Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Moving On

In Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing, the one that has always resonated with me is this one: “Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”

The tendency to keep refining my work is there. I can agonize over ever word, moving them around, adding, subtracting, to see if my intent is better expressed, if the emotion is stronger, the scene more intense. But if I do that, my books will never see the light of day. And I have more writing to do.

Empire’s Reckoning is done. It’s been structurally-edited, line-edited, revised, copy-edited, beta-read, sensitivity read, revised again, and the first ARCs are out. Twenty-two months of the most difficult writing I’ve done. I threw out the first draft almost completely and began again after 80,000 words. I excised 45K to become the novella Oraiáphon. I had difficulty finding my protagonist’s voice; I had difficulty with the two-timeline structure. And I had difficulty telling the story, because to tell my characters’ stories honestly and authentically, I challenge perceptions and presumptions about them. Not all my readers will be comfortable with how the story unfolds, I think, and that too was another difficulty.

“Move on, and write the next thing,” Mr. Gaiman says, but I can’t, not yet. I need time to let these characters who have lived so intensely in my mind for up to twenty years step back. They’re not disappearing, but they are giving way to the next generation; they will become secondary characters over the next two books in the series. I need time to get to know my new protagonist as an adult, to hear her voice clearly. I know the major story arcs of the next book, political and personal – or at least I think I do – but she needs to be living those conflicts, not being a puppet I move around within them.

I’ve lived, over the past almost-two years, a period of about eighteen months in my characters’ lives, a period for them of intense emotion, political intrigue, and personal growth. When I see them again, they’ll all be four years older, my original main characters feeling the aches – physical and spiritual – of middle age; the young ones the challenges and frustrations that come with taking their places in the world. It’ll be a bit like visiting friends or family you only see once or twice a decade, and get holiday and birthday cards from, but not much else: there will be a lot of catching up to do.

Sometime in the next week or two, I’ll clean up my study. I’ll take down the pictures of the actors that represent my characters at the stage of life they were at in Reckoning, and the pictures of northern Scotland and Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall and the Caledonian Forest that have kept me in the landscape of my book. The mindmaps and charts and even the song lyrics that line my study wall will go in a banker’s box and be relegated to the basement. I’ll back up all the files.

And then, in a few weeks, I’ll start replacing them: I’ll find pictures of my new protagonist as a young woman, not the girl she is in Reckoning. I’ll find the pictures of Rome that will inform the streets of Casil, its analogue city in my series and where most of the story of Empire’s Heir will take place. Empire’s Reckoning will be out in the world, for better or worse, and it will really be time to move on. Knowing that, following one more of Neil Gaiman’s rules, I’ve written my story as it needed to be written, honestly, and as best I can.

Empire’s Reckoning releases May 30.

Witch (Freya Snow Book 5) by L.C. Mawson: A Review

Witch is the fifth book in the Freya Snow series, following the experiences of autistic, bi-witchsexual, non-human Freya as she learns to navigate both the human world and the world of magic, discovering the complexities of both.

In the human world, Freya has a job as a barista; in the non-human world, she is mostly concerned with finding a way to lift a curse that has placed a friend into a coma-like state. As she solves this problem – with noticeably more skill in negotiation and communication than in earlier books – she also learns more about herself, her non-human family and her place in the hierarchy of magic. Freya’s friends play a larger part in this book; her human family is barely seen, and this is appropriate given Freya is older and more independent.

Freya’s developing maturity is paralleled by author L.C. Mawson’s development as a writer. Witch is perhaps a more thoughtful book than earlier installments, with less physical action and more development of, and insight into, Freya’s character and personality. The ending of Witch is indicative of Freya’s ability to accept responsibility, moving her from adolescent to adult.

Four stars to a pivotal installment in the series. For an overview of all the Freya Snow books, I suggest the author’s site here.

Xan and Ink, by Zak Zyz: A Review

Many fantasy books start out well but lose their way somewhere in the middle. Xan and Ink does the opposite: I found the first third of thxanandinkcovere book fairly rocky going, but once the author had his characters where he wanted them – trying to stay alive in the insect jungle of Kalparcimex, caught up in the feud between the Ranger Xan and the sorceress Ink – the story found its feet.

Banished brothers Sandros and Gregary, and their companions Brakkar and Osolin, are on a quest, to find a way to rid Joymont of the insectine creatures that are destroying it. Chance takes them in search of the legendary Xan, scholar and ranger of the Kalparcimex, to ask for his help. Both the world and the characters the author has created are complex and multi-layered, and we are given only glimpses of the back-story and motivations of the four sworn to find help for Joymont. We learn the most about Osolin, the escaped, condemned slave. Nor do we learn much more about Xan or Ink, except hints and little tastes of what made them who they are, and the past history between them. I found this intriguing; others may find it disappointing. We are only beginning to understand the complexity of the characters when the book ends, but as the ending demands a sequel, more may be revealed if that sequel is forthcoming.

The insect jungle, the Kalpa, is one of the most unusual and creative ways to pit the environment against the protagonists that I’ve come across. The insects – ranging from annoying to fatal, from mindless to sentient – are antagonists that most of us can easily imagine – anyone who’s hiked in a mosquito-laden wetland, or fought off blackflies or sand-fleas or leeches (or the black wasp of Uganda that stings just for the love of it) – can extend that experience to the horror of the Kalpa. It had me shuddering more than once.

Sexually explicit, this is a book for adults, not younger readers. Xan and Ink was far from the usual fantasy that crosses my desk, and I appreciated it more for that. Four stars.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

A Star-Reckoner’s Lot, by Darrell Drake: A Release-Day Review

We are used to fantasies that involve either the magical, fey beings of Northern Europe, or star-reckonerthose of Victorian horror novels. Darrell Drake’s historical fantasy A Star-Reckoner’s Lot introduces us to the mythology of Sassanian Iran, its beings of good and evil, and the complex idea of star-reckoning, a type of sorcery that channels the warring powers of the heavens to the benefit – or detriment – of humankind.

Revolving around three main characters: Ashtadukht, the Star-Reckoner; Tirdad, her cousin and bodyguard, and Waray, a half-div (half-demon, more or less) stray befriended by Ashtadukht, A Star-Reckoner’s Lot is a long story in terms of passing time; it unfolds in a series of vignettes; the reader may sometimes have difficulty in grasping the immediate importance of the events, or the connections between them. Nor is the reader given much backstory; the world, both seen and unseen, its characters, and the interactions between them unfold gradually, but the story moves inexorably towards its climax and conclusion.

Ashtadukht is a difficult character to get to know, and perhaps too a difficult character to truly like, stoic and bitter, but our understanding of her and what drives her develops over the story; in the end, we understand her, and likely have sympathy for her. Tirdad is perhaps the least developed of the three main characters, but he too is a character of dimension faced with difficult choices. Waray, the half-div, is on the other hand the most developed character: at times appealing, at times annoying, and at times amusing, all those facets hide a depth of sorrow and regret, and a desire for redemption that drives her.

It would be easy to read A Star-Reckoner’s Lot as a simple adventure set in an unfamiliar mythos, but the themes of love and honour, exclusion and belonging, and regret for the prices paid for actions raises it above many fantasy novels. Do not be misled by the author’s light hand (and occasional bad puns); this is a story with some haunting imagery and deep themes, and not one I’m going to forget quickly. Five stars.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

A Year of Reviewing: My Top Ten

I wrote my first review on this site a year ago this week. Since then, I’ve reviewed 65 books. These are my top ten, in alphabetical order. All these received 5 stars from me; coincidentally, this were the only 5-star reviews for the year, so I didn’t have to make a decision of what to include or leave out!

Citizen Magus, by Rob Steiner

Falcon Boy, by Barnaby Taylor

Hollo: The Gatecaster’s Apprentice, by Devon Michael

Magic of the Gargoyles, by Rebecca Chastain

Prophecy by Benjamin A. Sorenson

Sailor to a Siren, by Zoë Sumra

Sapphire Hunting, by J SenGupta

The Quantum Door, by Jonathan Ballagh

The World, by Robin Wildt Hansen

Tom Cat, by Amy Holden Jones

Shivers up my Spine

You’re a writer. You write something – a short story, say; you think it’s good. Other people read it; you read it out loud at a couple of open mic nights. People like it.

But hearing it read by someone else, someone who is a really really good reader, is a whole new experience.bssh

Bob Daun at Bob’s Short Story Hour reads my short story A Spider’s Spinning so well, it sent shivers up my spine. (Which it is supposed to do – it’s a scary story – but I didn’t expect to have that reaction, given I’d written it.)

Got 10 minutes or so? Click on the link above and listen, while you’re cooking dinner or folding laundry or just sitting back with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Not just to my story, but to the music and other readings on this episode. You won’t be disappointed.

Temporary Shift, by E.V. Baugh: A Review

Temporary Shift by E.V. Baugh is a cute little sci-fi romance with appealing characters:temporary-shift
essentially, chick-flick sci-fi. Klutzy temp worker Sally is assigned to a private physics laboratory….and when she drops her phone and accidentally bumps into some controls as she bends to retrieve it, the results send her into a series of multi-universe existences, playing out different scenarios in her possible lives. The attractive physicist whose lab it was, and to whom she feels a distinct pull, is a part of all of these different lives: he’s clearly important to her, but in what way?

I’ll be clear; this isn’t technical science-fiction. The time-travel is a device to play out different scenarios in Sally’s life, and that’s all. It reminded me of the film Sliding Doors, but with more alternatives than just two parallel universes. It’s amusing and there’s just enough twist to the romantic angle to keep the ending from being completely obvious.

The writing is competent and the voice appropriate to the story. I had a few niggles with the pacing, with perhaps too much time in the first third of the book taken up by one (or two) too many different scenarios in Sally’s possible lives. Even after that, some of the story was repetitious, but perhaps with so many early scenarios, the author needed to clarify which issues were important. Characters are fairly stock for this type of book, but nicely described and realized.

Temporary Shift is a quick read, good for a lazy Sunday afternoon (alternatively, I’d find it a good commuter-train read, not so demanding of concentration you’d miss your stop) for those who enjoy a light romance. Overall, 4 stars.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.