Review: Exile and Nandor by Martin Owton

Hey folks, hope you’re all well. 🙂

Today I’ll share my thoughts on Martin Owton’s ‘Exile’ and ‘Nandor’, a dualogy which focuses on Aron of Darien.

Aron is the title’s exile, struggling to survive in a world in which basically everything except his talent with a sword and his sense of duty has been taken from him.

When we meet Aron, he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time – and pays the price for that by being pressed into the local Earl’s service, which not only launches the first novel’s plot and introduces us to most of the tale’s important players, but also gives us a good understanding of Aron. He doesn’t suffer fools, and yet also doesn’t blindly barge into situations which might overwhelm him. He can be headstrong, but also shows empathy and sympathy. He’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind getting to know, and the kind of guy who’ll have your back as your friend. His skill with a sword is cool to behold, and most of the time he knows how to navigate politics and intrigue – but his skills don’t help him when it comes to ladies. 😉

‘Exile’ gives us a good view of the world Aron lives in – a distant king who seems to not really give a damn; dukes vying for prestige and honours from said king; scattered towns filled with merchants and men-at-arms; slavers and bandits. There are also magicians, and what’s interesting is that they serve, and aren’t served – it’s a refreshing angle to read, especially in Fantasy.

And Exile also sets us up for book two’s events, in which Aron’s quest will culminate, while bringing to a close certain threads begun in the first book. The book has (and maintains) great pace, is peppered with witty dialogue and serious moments, has an important love story, and features great combat, as well as what reads as well-researched knowledge of the kinds of pre-industrial technology present in Aron’s world.

Exile is old school and enjoyable – it doesn’t reinvent anything, but also doesn’t need to. 🙂

9/10

Nandor, the sequel to Exile -and the book which brings and end to Aron’s tale- picks up nine months after Exile’s end; Aron returns to the family he met in Exile when he receives dire news, and decides to lead a rescue mission, which takes him and the people with him into the kind of dangerous territory only hinted at in the first book. the excellent pacing which made Exile tick along is carried through into Nandor, and the characters are really put through their paces, as they find themselves caught up in a war very few people know about. This war, which is also being fought with terrifying magic, forces Aron to make some truly difficult decisions, and no-one escapes unscathed. I was sad when I ended the book, as that meant that Aron’s adventures were done and that we wouldn’t get to explore more of the world Martin created, but you all know what they say about ‘all good things’, right?

8/10

The books are available in a variety of formats:

Kindle (ExileNandor)

and Hardcover (Exile) (as well as signed editions from Tickety Boo Press)

And do check out Martin’s site for more of his work and an exclusive short story featuring Aron.

Until next time,

Be EPIC!

My Favourite Books of 2016 – Part Two

Hey everyone, 🙂 I’m back with my second ‘Favourites of 2016’ post, and in this post I’ll be telling you about books from Alex Marshall, John Burnham Schwartz, Justin Cronin, Christopher Golden and Suzanne Van Rooyen.

A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall

This novel, which kicks off what promises to be a rollicking, ass-kicking trilogy, follows a mayor’s wife on her quest for revenge – obviously, she’s much more than initially revealed. 🙂 The novel is by turns incredibly funny, brutal, thoughtful and inventive, with excellent world building and stand-out characters; multiple points of view allow the reader to gain a wide-screen (if I can use that description, which I’ve just done…) understanding of the various conflicts and story lines, while also giving us the gritty, ugly, beautiful detail we Fantasy readers crave. There’s plenty of inventive and interesting magic, battles and skirmishes (skillfully written, brutal and entertaining), and intrigue a-plenty. One also gets the sense that the world Alex has created is absolutely filled with stories we only glimpse, which also serves to make the world live and flex and breathe more deeply. Undeniably, though, the characters of this novel are the stars – Villains without being the quintessential bad guys. 🙂 Highly recommended!

If you’re not aware, Alex Marshall is, in reality, Jesse Bullington. 🙂 Order your copies here.

Next up, Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz:

I’m not a fan of literary novels – a term, I have to add, which just doesn’t make sense to me, and smacks of incredible elitism. That being said, when I read something which falls into that bullshit category (which doesn’t happen often), the novel has to be accessible, and by that, I mean that I don’t want to feel as if I should be sipping a too-expensive wine while sitting in a too-expensive chair in my ‘den’. Reservation Road is a novel anyone can read. You don’t have to be part of some inaccessible circle of award-chasers to appreciate this novel. And yes, I watched the movie, years ago, but this novel… I completely forgot about the movie while reading it, and the movie was good. The novel is heart-breakingly sublime. Absolutely unflinching, incredibly emotional. It hits hard, folks – as it should. And I don’t have kids; folks who do have kids and read this might not be able to finish it, but I urge you to stick with it. Order your copies here.

Next up, Justin Cronin‘s ‘The City of Mirrors‘:

The Passage absolutely rocked me back on my heels. It is, to date, the only novel that had made me cry like a baby within the first 30 or so pages, due to Justin’s absolutely incredible prose and ability to evoke emotions. The Twelve continued the epic (and this trilogy truly is epic), ending with an incredible climax, and The City of Mirrors ends it all beautifully. What sets this trilogy apart from most post-apocalyptic Horror sagas is the sheer beauty and strength of the emotional journey the reader embarks on – as with Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead graphic novels, the focus is on the characters; their dreams, their heart aches, their losses and triumphs and decisions, and how who they are and what they do echo down through the years and decades. Yes, Justin has created a world which fell to a terrible, brutal plague, but this world is as filled with beauty and love as it is with terror and grief. And I’ve never truly, deeply sympathised with the ‘bad guy’, but here, I had no choice. Stephen King said that the trilogy “will stand as one of the great achievements in American fantasy fiction.”, and I completely agree. It’s a lyrical, intense, intelligent, brutal and beautiful exploration of relationships, terror, the collapse of society and the stubbornness of true survival. Massively recommended!

Next up, Ararat by Christopher Golden:

I’m a big Horror fan, and I’m also a big fan of novels that tread different genres. I enjoy it when writers are ambitious and take chances, and where they create expectations and proceed to fulfill those expectations in ways the reader (who is also a writer, in this case) could never predict. Ararat is one of those novels. On the face of it, the novel is a story about one of the biggest finds in Biblical and proper, scientific Archeology, to what lengths the characters go to cement their place in history, and what, inevitably, goes wrong. And I don’t mean ‘inevitable’ as one of those ‘people are digging where they shouldn’t and get into shit because of it’ tropes; I mean ‘inevitable’ in the sense that things go wrong, whether between people (relationship-wise), colleagues (who disagree and have varying levels of education and study), or representatives of governments (and the complications involved when these get-togethers are further hampered by religious constraints). Yes, there’s a helluva lot that does go wrong in this novel (and, in effect, goes exactly right), but Christopher doesn’t push for disaster simply to pile up the odds against the characters – there’s reason and sense behind what happens, and varying degrees and levels of disaster, too – emotional, professional, physical, etc. Cause and effect, for sure, but injected with a healthy dose of how the myriad characters would truly react (Humans make dumb decisions for very good reasons, and the opposite also holds true). Christopher also really enjoys tropes, man – in the ‘know the rules and break them’ sense, because what I expected and predicted didn’t happen, but what does is so much better. There’s plenty of menace in this book, coupled with a slowly-creeping sense of ‘oh, shit-shit-shit’, and I’m pretty sure readers will enjoy the hell out of it. Expect to be surprised, expect to feel the cold and experience the claustrophobia and terror, and expect this book to sit in your head for a good long while. Excellent stuff! Pre-order your copies here.

Next up, ‘I Heart Robot‘ by Suzanne Van Rooyen:

I don’t think I ever read a novel quite like this before. I was expecting the quintessential and stereotypical forbidden romance, and instead, what I read was one of the best explorations of humanity (in it’s various forms) I’ve ever encountered. If you want a love story, it’s here – and it’s sweet and dangerous, fraught with mistakes and realizations, constantly tested and evolving… In other words, real. If you want an epic confrontation between humanity and what humanity creates, it’s here – but it’s not Michael Bay-here; it’s Children of Men-here. It’s subtle and powerful and far-reaching, the kind of unfolding clash which really makes you think about what it means to be human, to have feelings and an identity, to seek connection. Suzanne explores the politics behind this clash, the philosophies driving the players, the varying effects of the technology… There’s so much going on in this novel, so much that it deals with, that you’ll probably be re-reading it or, better yet, discussing it in your group after everyone’s read it. And what also helps is Suzanne’s understated, almost invisible prose – damned well written. I’m extremely jealous. Read it.

***

That’s it for now – next week I’ll have some more of my favourites for you. 🙂 Until then,

Be EPIC!

 

 

Cover Reveal: A Song of Conflict – A Mahaelian Chronicle Tale

Hey folks, hope you’re all well. 🙂

Here we go – and I have to say, I love it!

A Song of Conflict

The cover was designed by Tallulah Lucy, with typography by Johnnie Aucamp, and was created by this gent; we used the fonts from the cover of ‘A Song of Sacrifice‘ to keep things connected. 🙂

I’ll let you all know as soon as you can pre-order the novelette – the story takes place concurrently with the events in Conviction’s Pain, so keep an eye on the site (or my Facebook Page) for more info as and when I get it. 🙂

Oh, and expect to see the cover of Conviction’s Pain really soon! 😉

The Wall of Storms – Launch-Day Interview with Ken Liu

Hey everyone. 🙂

Yep, I was lucky enough to have been able to conduct an email interview with Ken – I’ve been reading (and massively enjoying) The Grace of Kings – not only as a fan of Epic Fantasy but also as a writer. 🙂

grace_of_kings_cover_with_nebula_badge_blog

If you haven’t read The Grace of Kings yet, you’re missing out on something supremely special – here’s the blurb:

Two men rebel together against tyranny—and then become rivals—in this first sweeping book of an epic fantasy series from Ken Liu, recipient of Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.

Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.

Fans of intrigue, intimate plots, and action will find a new series to embrace in the Dandelion Dynasty.

Book 2, The Wall of Storms, was released today, and I know I’m not the only one excited about where the story is headed. 🙂 With that in mind, let’s get to the interview, shall we?

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Dave: Every tale has a seed – looking back, what was the genesis of The Grace of Kings? Where did it all begin for you?

Ken: When I was in grade school, I used to run home every day during lunch break to listen to the pingshu storyteller on the radio with my grandmother, both of us entranced by tales of heroism and betrayal. This was how I absorbed Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and a great deal of what I’ve learned about storytelling can be traced back to these early lessons.

My wife Lisa similarly grew up with fond memories of wuxia TV dramas in Hong Kong, which take a lot of their narrative techniques from Chinese historic romances. When I was looking for a suitable subject for my first novel, Lisa suggested that I do an epic fantasy take on Chinese historical romances, and I knew right away that the idea made sense. I wanted to try to reimagine a Chinese historical romance as an epic fantasy, to transform a foundational Chinese narrative—in this case, the founding of the Han Dynasty—into a new kind of story told with narrative tropes taken from both East Asian and Western epics.

Or, in words more suited to our Twitter-driven age: I wanted to write “War & Peace with silk-and-bamboo airships; Iliad with living books and sentient narwhals; Romance of the Three Kingdoms with u-boats.”

The actual source material for The Grace of Kings is Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian. Sima painted vivid portraits of historical figures in his biographies (not unlike Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans), and parts of The Grace of Kings deliberately evoke that “historian’s voice” to offer another perspective on the events and characters.

While I draw a lot of inspiration from Chinese literary predecessors, the novel is told using a deliberate melding of narrative conventions taken from multiple literary traditions. There are wuxia-style flashback character introductions as well as Anglo-Saxon-style kennings, poems based on Tang Dynasty models as well as songs imitating Middle English lyrics, rhetorical devices taken from Greek and Latin epics as well as formal descriptions reminiscent of Ming Dynasty novels. The opening scene, for example, makes use of an extended series of parallel sentences with repetitive structure to form a catalog, something familiar in old oral epics but not often seen in modern works. A reader may feel this novel is different, but if I’ve succeeded, the reader should also feel, after an initial period of adjustment, that this melded style is the only one right for the story.

Dave: Every writer has their process – what is yours? For example, I sit with headphones on and play movie scores while writing. What is Ken Liu’s process?

Ken: All my writing time is pretty much confined to the commuter rail trips between my home and my job. It’s really the only break during the day when I can focus on writing, and so I take advantage of it to do as much of my drafting during that time as possible. On the other hand, I do a lot of thinking and story development when I’m walking about or just doing housework so that I can write with more focus when I do get a moment to draft.

Dave: The Grace of Kings is a sprawling epic – did you sit down to outline the tale before writing it? And how much of that outline did you stick to? I know from my experience that sometimes characters do things that are surprising, and events take place which weren’t necessarily in the blue-print. 

Ken: I had in mind an overall arc for the series as a whole as well as some big set pieces I knew I wanted to hit along the way. Keeping those set pieces and the overall shape of the arc in mind, I prefer to let the journey surprise me. I write the novels by following the guidance of the pre-imagined landmarks, sailing from island to island, but the exact course I chart remins a surprise until the words actually appear on the screen.

Dave: You’ve got plenty of wonderful, memorable characters in The Grace of Kings – were there some characters who were easier to write than others?

The hardest character to write was probably Mata Zyndu. He represents such a different way of thinking and of relating to the world that it was quite difficult to make him sympathetic to the reader (this is similar to how it is very difficult for modern readers to relate to a character like Achilles, whose view of the world and whose ethics are so different from ours that he seems like an alien to most of us). But some readers have told me that he is their favorite character, which makes me really happy.

I have affection for all my characters, even the villains. It’s easy to write the deeds of heroes, but harder to write about the deeds and thoughts of villains and portray them with humanity without losing the moral compass of the tale.

Dave: There are many tropes and expected conventions of Epic Fantasy which you play with and explore in The Grace of Kings – can you talk a bit about these tropes and conventions and how they differ (or change) from culture to culture? For example, the kinds of stories which come of of the Far East versus the expected kinds of stories coming out of Western or Western-influenced genre tales? 

Ken: I tend to resist the idea that cultural differences in narrative can be easily summarized into simple contrasts. The more confidently someone tells you how the “Far East” is different from the “West,” the less I think you should bother listening to them because such confidence is a sign that either they don’t know much or that they haven’t thought about the issues very hard. The more I study different literary tradition, the more difficult it becomes to generalize about their differences. On the one hand, there are echoes of certain sets of themes across all the epic traditions I study: the nobility of the warrior’s code is celebrated as much by the ancient Greeks as by Anglo-Saxon thanes and Han Dynasty generals. On the other hand, when you examine the details of these narratives, there are interesting differences at every level. For instance, East Asian traditions seem to explore often the theme that warriors can form a fast and close brotherhood when joined in common cause against a great foe, but such bonds tend to fall apart as the common foe is defeated and ambition seizes the hearts of individual warriors. This theme, while not unknown in Western epic traditions, doesn’t have quite the resonance or importance it does in East Asian literature. This theme, of course, is at the heart of The Grace of Kings, and I tell parts of it with all the trappings and flourishes of an Anglo-Saxon poem.

The Grace of Kings also deliberately plays with the “epic” part of Epic Fantasy. Modern Epic Fantasy has actually moved away from a lot of the techniques and conventions used in classical epics. The Grace of Kings often feels like a much older work than it actually is because it deliberately attempts to be an epic poem about an East Asian narrative pattern.

Dave: One thing that many Epic Fantasy-readers expect to find is magic, or sorcery – can you talk a bit about this expectation from readers and how you played with that expectation?

Ken: The world of Dara hovers deliberately on the edge of “fantasy” – on the one hand, the presence of the gods and fantastical creatures like the crubens tells you that this is not a world quite like ours, but at the same time, every time the gods do intervene, the scene is written in such a way that you could, if you wanted to, make sense of the events without resorting to the supernatural. This is, actually, quite close to our own experiences with the ambivalence of the “supernatural” in this world.

In fact, if there were something in The Grace of Kings, that truly functions like “magic” in a modern Epic Fantasy, it would be the silkpunk technology. Silkpunk shares with steampunk a fascination with technology roads not taken, but is distinguished by a visual style inspired by Chinese block prints and an emphasis on materials primarily of historic significance to East Asia—silk, bamboo, ox sinew, paper, writing brushes—as well as other organic building materials available to seafaring peoples like coconut, whalebone, fish scales, coral, etc. The result is a technology vocabulary that feels more organic and more inspired by biomechanics. For instance, the bamboo-and-silk airships compress and expand their gasbags to change the amount of lift and are powered by feathered oars. When illuminated at night, they pulsate and move like jellyfish through an empyrean sea. Similarly, artificial limbs described in the book draw their inspiration from the “wooden oxen” of Zhuge Liang in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, being constructed from intricate wooden mechanisms powered by flexible ox sinew.

The engineers in the Dandelion Dynasty series assume roles that would traditionally be taken by wizards in an Epic Fantasy (and this is even more obvious in The Wall of Storms). This makes my fantasy read a lot like science fiction in places, and that’s a deliberate choice as well, for the series, despite the presence of the gods and the constant evocation of fate, ultimately subscribes to the view that the universe is knowable.

Dave: And finally, what can readers expect from ‘The Wall of Storms’? Are we, as the stunning cover might suggests, going north?

Ken: The Grace of Kings is about larger-than-life characters doing larger-than-life thing. The Wall of Storms, on the other hand, is about how the next generation rewrites these legends and construct new stories from broken-up pieces of the old.

The book starts about five years after the end of The Grace of Kings, and introduces a set of new characters alongside the ones readers already know from the first book. You’re quite right that there’s an attempt to go beyond the boundaries of the world shown in the first book, and the attempt leads to a new challenge to the order of Dara that will either bring about the end of the world as we know it or point the way for a new way to achieve more justice.

The Wall of Storms is bigger, deeper, and I think better than The Grace of Kings. It asks different questions and provides different answers, but readers will get to enjoy even more intricate plots and political maneuverings, as well as tons of silkpunk technology inventions. I had even more fun writing this book than the first one, so I hope readers’ enjoyment also goes up similarly.

***

There we go – hopefully that gave you some insight into Ken, his process and The Grace of Kings. 🙂 Since we’re celebrating the release of The Wall of Storms, here’s the wonderful cover:

cover_wall_of_storms_final_blog

Head over to Ken’s site for his launch-announcement, and click below to order The Wall of Storms:

Amazon US HardcoverAmazon US KindleAmazon UK HardcoverAmazon UK Kindle,  and add it to your Goodreads shelf here.

I’ll be doing more author-interviews on my site, as well as posting reviews, so subscribe or add my RSS feed to keep up to date. 🙂

Massive thanks to Blake Brooks for facilitating this interview, Jennifer Ball for putting me in touch with Blake, Elmarie Stodart for reaching out and passing this opportunity my way, and Ken, of course, for taking the time over a weekend to answer my questions. 🙂

Until next time,

Be EPIC!