Monthly Archives: December 2012

Book Review: The Between by L.J. Cohen

The Between

Lisa Cohen has created a powerful and unusual faerie tale in The Between. I’m giving “faerie” that spelling because she does. This is a young-adult fantasy whose main character is a seventeen-year-old girl who is a changeling: a faerie child substituted for a mortal baby and raised in a mortal family. While the idea of the changeling is an old one, it’s also seldom been explored from the changeling’s own point of view, or the parallel fate of the mortal child stolen by the faeries considered.

All of that is gone into here as Lydia the changeling is summoned by the Bright Court and King Oberon to meet her destiny, and coincidentally provide an influx of magical power to the king in his struggle with his estranged wife Titania, who now heads the Shadow Court. But Lydia, still with half her mind in the mortal world, wants no part of the King’s manipulations or those of Titania, who would also like to avail herself of the fund of magic that Lydia represents. For it seems that Lydia isn’t just any old faerie. She is a “trueborn,” the child of two faerie parents, and trueborn children are rarely born. The fae have found it necessary to mate with mortals to continue their lineage, and these half-breed offspring are considered faeries, but Lydia, as the real deal, commands more power than the run of the mill fae does in these degenerate days.

Degenerate is a good word for faerie as the realm is described in The Between. There is little to admire about either Oberon or Titania, and only a bit more in some of their subjects. Lydia’s return to faerie threatens to trigger a war between the monarchs that will destroy all the faeries and indeed every living thing in the faerie realm, as the warring powers suck it empty of magic to fuel their conflict — that conflict itself being mostly a matter of spite, greed, and cruelty. Somehow Lydia must find a resolution to it all that will protect not just herself, but her new faerie friends, the realm of faerie itself, and her mortal family, against the overwhelming power and vindictiveness of Oberon and Titania.

The Between is a well-crafted story with lots of conflict and tension, an original plot line, and treatment of faerie that is new and original. I’d give it a good rating for that, and for the quality of the writing itself. It’s also well edited and formatted, which is not a given with an indie book.

Where I felt The Between fell a little short was in the development of its main characters. I finished the book without a real grasp on who Lydia was. I don’t know what kind of music she likes, what she talks about when she hangs at the mall with her friends, whether she’s ever had a boyfriend or been in love (even unrequited love), whether she has any artistic aspirations. I know that she’s athletically-inclined and likes to run, but not whether she competes in a sport or wants to do so. I know she wants to go to college, but not what she wants to study, and that she would like a car but not what kind she wants or why her parents don’t want her to have one. We get a somewhat superficial feel for who Oberon and Titania are, but not in any depth; the secondary faerie characters Clive (from the Bright Court) and Aileen (from the Shadow Court) are similarly revealed only in sketches.

This is a serious deficiency but not a killing one. The story is well worth reading for the power of the tale itself and the images of faerie, in its corruption and intrigue as well as its magic. It makes me want to read more of Cohen’s work, and I’ve bookmarked her on-line serialized science fiction story Derelict for future reading.

You can find The Between on Amazon.

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Book Review: The Story Trap by Masha du Toit

story_trap_mid

It took me a while to get into this story, but once I did the concept of it and the complexity were compelling. It’s a contemporary fantasy story for young adults set in South Africa in and near Cape Town. The main protagonist, Rebecca, is a young woman just setting out on her own who falls into a deadly trap set by a witch and finds herself experiencing a story from the inside, while her body lies in a coma and gradually declines and decays. Her family struggles to unravel the puzzle of how this happened to her while Rebecca makes her way through the story that has become her life, trying to survive and understand what’s happened to her.

The story acquires lots of layers and levels. The witch’s motivations are not fairy-tale at all, and are even praiseworthy, whatever one may say of her methods. The story weaves together themes of personal struggle, matching ends and means, environmentalism, responsible use of power, and the power of stories to capture and compel. In the end, Rebecca gains an interesting gift from her ordeal. The author adds original illustrations as grace notes.

I did feel the story had more potential than was realized in the execution. It could have been somewhat longer, with more time spent developing the characters of Rebecca, her family, and the good/evil witch and her sister. We don’t get to know them as well as I would have liked. The plot elements also presented possibilities for conflict and tension (particularly Rebecca’s part of it as she moved inside the story trap) that were not pursued. So this could have been a better story than it was, but it still gets my recommendation.

Available at Amazon

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Three Character Snapshots

Goddess Born

Here are some snapshots of three of the main characters from Goddess-Born (recently posted to my Google+ page).

THE QUILL PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD!

With a little help from the writer’s divine friends.

Anne Fircone is a noblewoman who wants to end the privileges of her own class, topple the monarchy, and turn her country into a republic. She is also the former lover of a man who became a god: Johnny the Singer, the Lord of Art. But before he became a god, Johnny was a commoner, and Anne’s haughty father objected to the relationship and threatened to disinherit her. To protect her status (and access to her father’s wealth), Anne testified against Johnny at his trial for witchcraft — and he was sentenced to hang!

Johnny escaped to the world of Faerie and eventually became a god, and Anne, seized with remorse (also fear of divine vengeance), makes a generous offering at his shrine. Johnny appears to her and assures her that it’s her own forgiveness she needs, not his, and gives her a gift: a writer’s eloquence. Thereafter, using the pen name Madame Foresight, Anne becomes the Voice of the Revolution, writing and publishing incendiary pamphlets that urge the people to cast off their chains!

In the end, though, she finds that it’s the revolution itself — and the evil at its heart — that finds her a greater threat, and threatens her life in return, not her own noble peers.

WHEN YOUR MOTHER IS A GODDESS, YOU DON’T KNOW HER BUT SHE KNOWS YOU.

Sonia Sandburr appears to be the only child of a wealthy merchant, the late Gerald Sandburr. But in reality, her mother is the goddess Illowan, Lady of Light and Fire, and her father is the god Malatant, Lord of Shadow and Wickedness. Her divine mother left Sonia with Emily Sandburr when she was a baby, extracting a promise that Emily would reveal her real parentage to Sonia on her fifteenth birthday.

Sonia worships her real parents and calls upon them to power her magic spells, but she has never met either of them. She inherited great magical talent, high intelligence, and striking beauty, and she grew up in a loving home, but she has never felt her mother’s embrace, and she is not sure why.

Strange events are moving through her life. She finds herself at age twenty-one in love for the first time — with another goddess-born, Malcolm, son of Johnny the Singer, the God of Art, and Shavana, the Mother of Life, who was fostered with the lofty Lord Pinecone and his wife. She worries that her promiscuous past will be held against her, that Malcolm will think her untrustworthy in a long-term relationship.

But that’s not her worst problem. Her country stands on the brink of revolution, and the movement for the people’s liberation is corrupted by the influence of Gilusa, a twisted priestess dedicated to Sonia’s divine father — but acting against the god’s wishes. Sonia is the only one who can oppose Gilusa’s machinations, one sorceress against another, for her country, her people’s freedom, her father’s love, and Sonia’s unborn child.

SHE’S BETRAYED HER GOD AND PLUNGED A NATION INTO CHAOS AND A MONSTER WANTS HER FOR DINNER.

Gilusa, Priestess of the Shadow, stunningly beautiful and magically powerful, was born a slave. From puberty until age sixteen, she served as the sexual toy of anyone who desired her, male or female. When she was sixteen, the dark god Malatant saw her potential, gave her his child to bear, and inducted her into his priesthood.

No longer a slave, Gilusa holds high status and wields great power, but resentment still burns in her for those early years of degradation. She longs in her heart for revenge against those who used her, the society that made her a slave, even the dark god himself.

And the Worm of the World has chosen her for its meal. She hears its powerful call in her mind, dreams of being swallowed alive by the creature, and wakes from nightmares screaming.

Now Malatant has sent Gilusa on a mission to the Old World. He wants her to further his interests there in the place from which Gilusa’s ancestors fled ages ago. The Old Gods have returned, much to the people’s astonishment, and Malatant wants his share of influence in the events of these times.

But for Gilusa, her mission is a chance to escape from the Worm’s call, to indulge her passion for chaos and ruin, and to work her revenge.

Can anyone betray the God of Shadow and succeed, even in another world? Can the call of the Worm be denied?

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Thoughts on Contemporary Fantasy

Contemporary Fantasy

There are fads in literature as in anything else. For a number of years now, in the fantasy genre the sub-genre of contemporary fantasy has been a fad. I’ve written some of it myself (my Star Mages trilogy is contemporary fantasy), huge popular series built around a single character (too many to list) have been published in the contemporary fantasy sub-genre, and so it deserves some thought.

Contemporary fantasy is fantasy that’s set in our own modern world, with fantasy elements changing it to one degree or another. It’s distinct from other-world fantasy (or, as it’s more commonly called, “epic” fantasy — a somewhat misleading term) which is set in a world other than our own. Since most fiction is set in our own modern world, contemporary fantasy can easily be cross-genre and one sees fantasy detective stories (e.g. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series), fantasy romance (e.g. Twilight), and so on.

It’s always difficult in fiction to establish clear and definite boundaries. One is engaged in a creative enterprise and the tendency is to push the edges of the envelope, defying simple categorization. In writing contemporary fantasy, one begins with our own world as it is today — at least as well as the writer can understand it, which of course is never perfectly. But one begins with today’s world — and then one introduces changes to it.

Perhaps one moves the story a bit in time, into the past or into the future. Barbara Hambly once wrote a two-volume story (The Rainbow Abyss and The Magicians of Night) which began as an other-world fantasy and then transported the main character from it into Germany in 1940. How does one categorize the second volume? Is it contemporary fantasy or historical fantasy? My Star Mages series is set some 50-150 years in the future. Is it contemporary fantasy or is it science-fiction-fantasy?

How much is the world we know changed by the fantasy elements? Are they present in the world around us, unseen and unrecognized, so that the world of the story is exactly the same as the one we know, but our attention is drawn to a part of it we haven’t experienced up to now? Or is this a changed world, not really the same as the one we know because magicians or vampires and werewolves or the gods or whatever have changed it dramatically? At what point should we say that the world has changed so much that we are now dealing with other-world fantasy and not contemporary fantasy at all?

Contemporary fantasy carries a subtle hint that other-world fantasy does not. It suggests that these magical things and beings are (or at least could be) part of our own world. It is therefore less “safe” than other-world fantasy, which allows the mind to explore magical realms without challenging the boundaries of the real in our own lives. There is magic to sing to our spirits in other-world fantasy, but it is safely there and not here. In contemporary fantasy it is here. If I were more of an optimist and less a cynic, I might suppose the popularity of contemporary fantasy to signal a development in human social evolution and a new readiness to allow the magical into our lives. That may be so. We’ll see.

Does contemporary fantasy make world-building easier or harder? On the one hand much of the world is built for us by nature and history and all one has to do is add fantasy elements (along with characters and plot, of course). On the other hand, writing in a world that everyone already knows and that some people are guaranteed to know each part of better than the author presents challenges of its own. In writing The Star Mages, I was very grateful for the existence of Google Maps, which let me say things about cities and places where I have never been as if I knew anything about them.

Ultimately what distinguishes contemporary from other-world fantasy is a feel. The world being depicted may depart radically from the one we know, but it should have a contemporary feel to it. What is the feel of modern life? Fast-paced? Uncertain? Moral values in flux? Everything changing so fast it’s hard to feel rooted? All of that, together with reactions to it that range from denial to exuberance. A contemporary fantasy should have that feel. It can come from the things that give us that feel today, or it can come from the fantasy elements themselves — a similar sense of conflict and change can be woven into the new material as into the old. Add enough elements from life in the world today to give the reader a sense of familiarity and you have it, even if the night is populated by vampires or there are wizards advertising their services in the phone book.

Perhaps the final question not just about contemporary fantasy but about all literary genres is this. Do we want to set out to write a particular category of story? One of the beautiful things about fantasy that distinguishes it from some other genres is that there is no strict formula for writing it. A fantasy story is just a story with fantasy elements. Other than that, it can be any sort of tale at all. I’m not sure it’s a great idea to sit down and say, “I’m going to write a contemporary fantasy novel.” Better to have a story in mind, or a character or several, and if the story or the characters belong in today’s world then place them there. No matter how successful a certain type of story is, you won’t write your best by imitating it.

Image credit: fotokostic / 123RF Stock Photo

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Vanity Publishing

As if we didn’t have enough reasons already to loathe and despise the Big 6 publishing companies, now they’re dirtying their hands with vanity publishing scams, and to add insult to injury this foray into the even-darker side of the publishing world is being described in press releases as publishing companies getting into “self-publishing.” Both Penguin and Simon & Schuster have bought or partnered with a vanity publishing company to lure writers into giving them their money.

Despite the press releases saying they are, Penguin and Simon & Schuster are not getting into self-publishing. Vanity publishing is not self-publishing. The Big 6 publishers will never support self-publishing in any way; self-publishing (the real thing) dooms their control of distribution, on which their profits depend, and is their death sentence. But they don’t mind fleecing would-be authors that might otherwise genuinely self-publish their work. If this isn’t final proof of just how much contempt the big corporations who control traditional publishing have for authors, what would be?

A review of the history of vanity publishing might be useful here. Vanity publishing is an industry that arose in the old days, before the internet, before real self-publishing existed, when books were marketed almost exclusively in brick-and-mortar bookstores. There was no such thing as an e-book, or print on demand, or even the ability to order books on-line for delivery by mail. Printing a book was expensive. It required a large capital investment. Distribution was limited, and reputable publishing companies had it under lock and key. It was not completely impossible to self-publish in those days, but it was expensive and extremely difficult and hardly any authors succeeded at it. If you were a writer and you wanted your book published, you submitted it to publishing companies because there was no alternative.

Although it was easier in those days to get your book published with a publishing company than it is today (in those days, publishing companies weren’t threatened with extinction, there were more of them*, and they were more willing to take a risk on a new author because they were a growing business not a shrinking one engaged in cannibalism), it still wasn’t easy. Since publication was expensive, publishers could only publish so many titles a year. They were selective. Authors typically piled up rejection notices for years before finally having a book accepted for publication. Naturally, many authors found this frustrating.

Enter vanity publishing, a dubious business model created to take advantage of that frustration. Vanity publishers were not selective the way standard publishing companies were, because they made the authors pay for all the costs involved rather than paying those costs themselves — and then some. And not only that, but once you had ponied up thousands of dollars to see your book in print, you didn’t own the books, the vanity publisher did — you had to buy copies from them, and they paid you “royalties” just like the big boys, taking a hefty share of any proceeds of sale, even though the author had shelled out the capital to produce it and should, by any reasonable judgment, own all of it!

Of course, with no promotion and few to no bookstores willing to carry vanity titles, sales would be meager to nonexistent anyway. Vanity publishers made their money from author payments, not from sales of books. Vanity publishing came with a heavy load of stigma and rightly so, because an author would resort to it only because he could not find a conventional publisher, and usually that meant bad writing, poor editing or none, and poor judgment on the part of the author. (Some of that stigma transferred to real self-publishing, but that’s changing.)

There’s a very simple rule of thumb that can tell you whether you are dealing with a genuine self-publishing platform or a vanity-publishing scam. If they want your money before they will publish you, DON’T!

Now, there are two services that may be offered to an author for which up-front payment is appropriate. These are editing and cover design. To add to the confusion, publishing companies (large and small) normally include these services for any book they accept for publication without charging the author up front. A company that charges for these services isn’t necessarily a scam, but two questions must be asked. First, can you publish with the company without making use of these services, at no charge? And second, is the price involved appropriate given the market rates for freelance editing and cover design? If the answer to the first question is no, my advice is not to consider using that service for a split second. If the answer to the second is no, then obviously you should look elsewhere for these vital services. (There are actually ways to have both without paying a cent — which is not to say that professional editors and designers aren’t worth what you pay them.)

Here’s the baseline. You can publish an e-book or a print-on-demand book with many different on-line retailers directly. Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (for e-books), Amazon CreateSpace (for printed books), Smashwords (e-books only, also acts as a distributor), and Barnes & Noble’s Pubit! are probably the most important ones, but there are others. For all four of these genuine self-publishing outlets, you can upload a book that meets their formatting guidelines and sell it on-line through the platform’s web site at no charge to you whatsoever. Of course, you’re responsible for the quality of your book, and far too many self-published authors cut corners here that they shouldn’t, but the fact remains that as far as making the book available to readers, no genuine self-publishing platform charges for this service. Instead, they each take a share of the proceeds when the book is sold. (A small share. Smashwords takes 15%, Amazon slightly more than 30%, and Barnes & Noble 35%.)

One could go into a lot more detail, but if you follow that one rule you can’t go wrong. If they want you to pay up front to have your book published, that’s vanity publishing. If not, that’s self-publishing. Know the difference, and don’t be fooled.

 

* Let me qualify this statement. As the advent of self-publishing causes a revolution in the publishing world, a lot of small publishers have begun mushrooming to accommodate the new reality. When I speak of publishers in this article’s context, they’re not the ones I’m talking about; I’m referring to the major corporate-owned publishing companies. Please excuse any confusion that arises as a result. These are confusing times.

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Goddess-Born (A Tale of Two Worlds)

Goddess Born

Goddess-Born, the second volume in the Tale of Two Worlds series and a companion to The Green Stone Tower (although they don’t need to be read in order), is available at Smashwords and should shortly be available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Links will be added when it goes live there.

Meanwhile, I’m offering my blog readers a chance to read the first six chapters free. You’ll find a description of the book below, followed by the first few paragraphs and a link to read more. Enjoy!

***

The Kingdom of Grandlock heaves with revolution. The nobility have oppressed the people for generations, but new advances in technology are enabling them to drive more and more people into unemployed misery, at the same time as radical ideas spread among the populace: ideas like democracy and popular rule. Liberty is only a revolt away – but magic threatens to subvert it and fasten new and crueler chains on the people even as they cast off their old ones.

An evil priestess of the Lord of Shadow has come from the world of faerie by way of the Green Stone Tower and built a secret cult dedicated to chaos and ruin. Her agents infiltrate the democracy movement and may replace the king with a tyrant who will enslave the people in the name of liberty, using sorcery to bind them to his power.

And the only thing that can stand against him and his evil mistress is a young woman barely out of her teens: the daughter of a goddess and a powerful sorceress herself.

Goddess-Born is the second of a projected four books in the Tale of Two Worlds series; however, it is an independent story and it and the first volume, The Green Stone Tower, can be read in either order. The same will be true of The People of the Sea and Light and Shadow, to be published in 2013.

You can read the first six chapters for free, starting below:

CHAPTER ONE

On a fateful morning, Tranis of D’Anrith woke up in the arms of his goddess.

It happened every so often, a gift of the Light itself. He loved her, but no man can possess a goddess and their coupling was at her discretion, not his. Still, even when she was not there for him in the flesh, her spirit was a bright star illuminating his life and had been for years. It was enough.

He woke as always to find Illowan already awake. He thought her deliciously exotic with her fair skin, sky-blue eyes, and flame-red hair. Of course, being a goddess, she could assume any form she wanted. Sometimes she took the guise of a woman of the Faithful, brown-skinned and black-haired like himself, and he only knew her for the goddess from her knowing smile, the light shining in her eyes, and the familiar touch of her heart. On one of those occasions, in the midst of his passion she had changed form into something out of nightmare, still beautiful but with coal-black skin, burning scarlet eyes, a forked tongue in a mouth that hissed like a snake, and blood-red talons on her fingers. Tranis had cried out in a strange mixture of panic and lust and plowed her harder than ever while she laughed and laughed.

The Lady of Fire, bless her, could be more than a little kinky at times.

This fateful morning, though, she wore her usual form, the one she had worn when they had met before she became a goddess. She smiled and kissed him. “Tranis, my friend,” she said, “I need you to make a journey.”

Goddess-Born (Amazon — to come shortly) (Barnes & Noble — to come shortly ) (Smashwords)

UPDATE: The Amazon and Barnes & Noble editions are now available.

Or: Continue reading.

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