Tag Archives: books

Rising of the Shield Hero Watch-Through Part 1: “The Shield Hero”

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Japanese “Light Novels” are something I’ve been wanting to cover on this blog for quite some time. Essentially a cross between pulp fiction and YA, they’ve grown hugely popular in the last few years, and are starting to affect the western book market, especially in fantasy. Like LitRPGS? You can thank Sword Art Online and Log Horizon for that. Like Sufficiently Advanced Magic?

Recently, a show based on one of these Light Novels popped up, and has garnered both praise and controversy. Like the LN Goblin Slayer before it’s become very popular very rapidly due to some of the initial backlash it’s received. And since it’s somewhat topical at the moment, I’ve decided to dive into Shield Hero to dissect both the good and bad of Light Novels, and what western writers can learn (and avoid) from them. After watching a couple episodes, I feel Shield Hero is one of the best series for dissecting the tropes and elements of Light Novels, and what western authors can gain from them.

If you want to read the book, you can get it on Amazon here. If like me, you plan on watching the show, you can do so legally on Crunchyroll. There are massive spoilers ahead, so unless you’re okay with that, I recommend you check out the source material first (Crunchyroll is free but ad-supported).

For the sake of my more book-focused audience, I’ll be staying away from any terms or anime-specific wording, and will treat this as if I were discussing a western fantasy book or story. The one exception to this rule is the term “Isekai,” a LN genre where characters from Earth get transported to another (usually fantasy) world, often after dying and being reincarnated. The Chronicles of Narnia and Thomas Covenant series are kind of similar, but Isekai has its own tropes, such as the earth-heroes being reincarnated, or the world looking less like Middle-Earth and more like Dragon Quest.

Anyway, with that out of the way, let’s get on to the episode’s summary.

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New Year, New Title Reveal!

So it’s 2019, and looking back, I’m honestly a bit stunned at all the stuff I’ve accomplished with writing. I released my short horror story, and a sword and sorcery one is coming next. I started author interviews with folks like Mark Lawrence, Christopher Wolf and Alec Hutson. And I’ve started work on not one, but two books I plan on releasing this year. So I thought I’d share a bit about what I’m cooking up, revealing a title and the ideas behind both books.

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The first is The Shrouded Emperor, an epic fantasy story inspired by late 17th century America and paranormal horror. It contains all the elements you’ve come to enjoy from the genre such as warriors, wizards, questing, battles between good and evil…the whole nine yards. However, there’s a bit of Lovecraftian horror thrown in the mix, as well as firearms and some old-timey tech. Think Johnny Tremain meets Wheel of Time with a dash of Call of Cthulhu and The Nightmare. Weird stuff, but I’m seriously digging what I’m writing, and I think you’ll really dig it if you’re a fan of more Robert Jordan/Tolkien side of things.

The second is a swords-and-sorcery inspired novel. Very much a Conan-style “wandering warrior beats the sh*t out of wizards” kind of deal, but set in a trippy setting that’s less like the middle ages and more like a prog rock album cover. Morrowind, Pirates of Dark Water and John Carter of Mars were all inspirations for the setting, a weird, almost alien world of brass cities and perilous sorcerers. As this is a tribute to Moorcock, Conan, Lieber and other such writers, it’s going to be very short and very weird. Like, I know what I described above sounds a bit out there, but this one has it beat by quite a lot. Maybe play some Pink Floyd in the background when reading this bad boy. Title is still TBD, but very close to being picked.

My swords-and-sorcery book’ll most likely come out before Shrouded Emperor as it’s one third the size. I’m working on cover design for that right now, and the cover for SE is already done. I’ll be revealing that later on in the year however, around mid to late summer 2019. Expect a cover reveal for the swords-and-sorcery book in the next couple months.

Author interviews will continue, but in the months leading up to the release dates of my books, they’ll decrease somewhat. I will however, be bringing some really cool ones to the table, including the #SPFBO finalists and a few more. So stay tuned for that as well!

Overall though, 2019 will be the year this blog focuses more on my content, now that I’m beginning to release it. I’m really looking forward to sharing these stories with you all, and hope you enjoy them when they’re out!

#SPFBO Interview: Mark Lawrence, Author of Prince of Thorns

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Mark Lawrence. If you’re familiar with the “grimdark” subgenre of fantasy, you’re probably well aware of his work, most notably the international bestseller Prince of Thorns. He’s up there with some of the best and most well-known fantasy authors out there. However, as I got into the indie fantasy scene, I noticed him being brought up with even more frequency.

As it turns out, Mark doesn’t just work in the trad publishing space, but also hosts the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, a contest for indie genre authors. Having covered the SPFBO a bit in prior posts, I was curious to see what inspired Mark to start it, as well as his thoughts on other related topics.

MARTIN: So for those who are new to all this, what exactly is SPFBO?

MARK: The Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is a contest that exists to shine a light on self-published fantasy. Ten blogs judge 300 books each year to find ten finalists and one winner. It exists to find excellent books that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. It aims to help readers select, from the enormous range of options, books that have a better chance of entertaining them than a random choice, thereby increasing reader faith in finding a quality self-published read.

MARTIN: As most fantasy readers are no doubt aware, you’re traditionally-published, and an international bestseller. So what got you into the indie scene?

MARK: I think it arose through a combination of survivor’s guilt and the fact that I enjoy competitions. I always felt traditional publishing to be a lottery and, when I got a “big” book deal, I never believed it to be because I was somehow head and shoulders better than all the others striving to be in the same place. I encountered a number of self-published authors after being published myself and, before being published I interacted with many unpublished writers on critique forums, so I knew that the reservoir of top class talent out there was huge. I also saw how hard it is for a book, regardless of quality, to somehow show itself above the noise barrier when so many titles are competing for attention. A brilliant book can fail utterly, but that same book, with even a modest publicity push can take off.

The SPFBO was just a small way of offering an extra chance, a way to find great books irrespective of the author’s personal marketing skills and to bring them to a wider audience. It’s also a method to filter some excellence from the sea of self-published offerings so that readers could feel more confidence when committing to them – which then steps toward giving self-published titles in general a better reputation and helps all of them engage new readers.

MARTIN:  So onto your books! You latest novel, Grey Sister, came out this April. For those of us who are new to your books, can you give us a quick pitch of the series?

MARK: Gay murder nuns. You said quick.

MARTIN: Short and to the point. I like it! But now, on to the books you’re a fan of. Are there any indie titles in particular you’d recommend to self-pub fantasy newbs, SPFBO or otherwise?

MARK: I’m a slow reader with limited spare time so I’ve really not read many self-published fantasy books, and almost all of those are SPFBO finalists. My big favourite is Senlin Ascends (now traditionally published). The three winners so far all have much to recommend them. The Grey Bastards (also now traditionally published) is excellent.

MARTIN: What advice would you give any readers here who might be considering a SPFBO submission of their own next year?

MARK: I don’t think any advice other than “do it” is required. Otherwise it’s the same things you would do if you weren’t entering. Write a great book.

MARTIN: And for our last question…you’re well-known for fantasy books classified as “Grimdark.” As many SFF and gaming fans know, the term had its origins in the Warhammer 40,000 franchise. So I’m curious…do you have a favorite Space Marine Chapter?

MARK: I’ve never read a Warhammer book and know nothing about them. Though, oddly, I was invited to write for them recently.

Mark Lawrence’s next book, Holy Sister, arrives March of next year, and is available for pre-order. You can also check out his Amazon Page to get caught up on his prior work, or his blog for updates on SPFBO and other topics. Also, please consider liking and sharing this post on social media. Every share helps me get the word out about writing, authors and other topics related to genre writing!

Book Review — The Crimson Queen by Alec Hutson (Epic Fantasy)

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Below is the review I submitted to the book’s Goodreads and Amazon. If you’ve read the book, but haven’t submitted a review yet, please consider doing so! More good reviews means more sales for the author. With that out of the way, here are my thoughts on Alec Hutson’s The Crimson Queen.

The Crimson Queen is one of those rare and wonderful books that manages to be both unique and familiar at the same time. Wizards, paladins, rogues, monsters, dungeons and treasure are all present and accounted for, so fans of traditional fantasy need not worry. But in addition to these familiar elements are warriors styled after Chinese swordsmen, eldritch abominations, creepy demons, and truly weird and awesome new elements. The worldbuilding here is on point, and every character from the heroes to the villains feels real and fleshed-out. The plot will have you guessing all the way, and the ending was a satisfyingly epic conclusion that sets up the events of the next book smoothly.

One “flaw” I feel this book has is the lack of a cohesive magic system. Magic in this book, is less like Mistborn and more like Dragonlance and Lord of the Rings. You never quite understand the mechanics behind it, but it still remains cohesive and believable. It’s by no means a deal-breaker though, and everything else on offer more than makes up for it. Overall, if I had to sum up The Crimson Queen, I’d say it feels like a more mature, HBO -ified version of the 80’s and 90’s epic fantasy paperbacks. There were certainly whiffs of Wheel of Time and the aforementioned Dragonlance to be had, but the conflict and characters are way more fleshed out in my opinion. Easily a 5/5 recommendation for me, and worth the hype.

Final Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Tide is Turning in Indie SFF Publishing, #SPFBO

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When I first posted my Self-Published Fantasy Guide, I had no idea just how far self-published and indie SFF lit has come. I still remember a time when “self-published” was synonymous with horrible paranormal romance books and…stranger things.

As of 2018 however, we’re seeing some major authors and titles emerging from the self-published and indie scene. Books with stories and covers comparable to (or better than) traditional offerings. This trend has increased to the point where the Barnes and Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog revealed the cover art for Rob J. Hayes’ Never Die.

Yes, this is real. The genre promotion blog of America’s biggest book chain just featured a self-published book. I remember talking to a fairly well-known author who’ll remain anonymous, and having him mention that “indie is the future.” That was not even a year ago, and as far as I can tell, we’re reaching that future at a shockingly rapid pace.

So yeah. The tide has definitely turned, and indie is getting bigger and bigger. I was told by the author Rob J. Hayes that some folks “took notice” of his SPFBO win, which goes to show what a useful tool that is for curating these titles. Which is something to keep in mind if any of you are planning books of your own.

If you haven’t bought any of his books yet, you can check out Rob J. Hayes’ Amazon page here. I recommend his piratical Best Laid Plans books, as they’re fairly unique in the fantasy space. Which is a trend Never Die seems to continue with its chanbara influences. It’s a book I think looks really kickass, and I’m glad Barnes and Noble seems to think so too!

I Bagged a (Book About a Were-) Deer, and Other Cool Stuff!

So recently, indie author C.T. Phipps was kind enough to send me these two books. I’ve been meaning to check out his Wraith Knight series for some time, and I’ve heard nothing but great things about his Bright Falls series of comedic Urban Fantasy novels. The blurb on the back of  Teenage Weeredeer had a masterfully so-bad-it’s-good pun that honestly made me laugh out loud. Think I’m gonna enjoy this one quite a bit.

I haven’t really done book reviews yet on this blog, in part because I’ve taken a bit of time when I read as of late. I used to be a lightning-fast reader, but my own writing projects have kind of taken a bit of that free time away. That said, once I get around to reading these, I’ll be sure to share my thoughts. What little I have read has been awesome so far, and once I finish some of my current epic fantasy reads, I will be checking these out for sure. In the mean time, I highly suggest you give C.T. Phipps’ Amazon Page a looksie. He has everything from Sci-fi, to Spies, to Superheroes to something called Cthulhu Armageddon, so there’s plenty of flavors to choose from here.

In unrelated news, I’ve found the cover artist for my own book! It’s quite exciting stuff, and his work is extremely impressive, unique and old-school, reminding me a bit of Mike Ploog’s work on Lord of the Rings. Much as I like the Warcraft aesthetic in games, I do find this gritter, more down-to-earth AD&D style much more to my liking. And my artist really captures this, but add a modern level of polish that really elevates it to a new level.

So yeah, between this and the books (Thanks, C.T.!) and the recently announced Warcraft 3 Reforged…November’s already shaping up to be a pretty kickass month for me.

An Interview with Alec Hutson, Author of The Crimson Queen

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Alec Hutson is a Self Published Fantasy Blog-Off ’17 finalist, and the author of the critically acclaimed Raveling series. While a new face in the SFF community, his work is already making waves as a bold new example of Epic Fantasy’s rise in independent fiction. I sat down with him recently to discuss self-published fantasy, his experience living in China, and the shifting landscape of SFF fiction.

MARTIN: Alec, Your Raveling series has garnered quite a bit of buzz as of late! Not too long ago, all the positive feedback surrounding the first book in the series (The Crimson Queen) convinced me to buy a paperback copy of my own. And I have to say, I’ve been enjoying the heck out of this world you’ve created! So as a newer writer, and a self-published one at that, what’s your reaction to all the positive feedback?

ALEC: Well, thank you for the kind words. I have to say the success of Queen caught me pretty much completely off guard. I’d always wanted to write a fantasy book, but I never really seriously entertained the notion that my writing would resonate with others or that my book would achieve a small measure of success. When the positive reviews started coming in and the book began selling at a reasonable clip I was pretty shocked. It was like I was in a dream, to be honest. Along with the surprise, I did feel a small measure of satisfaction regarding the nature of The Crimson Queen – I would consider it very much a book in the mold of a classic high / epic fantasy, and a kind of book that it appears to me that traditional publishers have almost stopped publishing. One of the reasons I self-published was because I simply didn’t see many debut books in the mold of Jordan or Feist being trad published today . . . with the exception that sometimes a book like this does so well self-published that it is eventually picked up (like The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington) Queen’s success in self-publishing *I think* is partly due to the fact that there is a large number of readers who still love classic fantasy, and their reading needs are no longer being well met by the big houses.

MARTIN: So for those here who haven’t yet read the first book, what can they expect from this world you’ve created? What sort of realms, magic systems, monsters and civilizations lie waiting for the curious reader?

ALEC: It’s a classic high fantasy world, with parts of it modeled after different Earth-analogous cultures. For example, one of the main empires is based off of Tang dynasty China (or, at least, the romanticized version that exists today in modern Chinese media), another is a more Classical-era Mediterranean empire, and others are cobbled from several different civilizations. For magic, I really prefer a ‘soft’ magic system – no formulas or complicated explanations. Hopefully, this preserves some of the wonder. Monsters also exist in the world, though they don’t run rampant over the country-side like in D&D. I have a race of ancient creatures called the Ancients who slumber in the deep places in the world, and I was going there for a Lovecraftian vibe. I tried to create my own creatures rather than rely on some of the fantasy archetypes. Basically, I wanted to pay homage to all the classic aspects of fantasy that I love – the magic, the world, the monsters – but put my own little spin on it. Comfort food, but filling.

MARTIN:  It’s interesting you bring up unique creatures and worldbuilding elements, because I kind of feel that this is the path fantasy as a whole is taking. Hero’s journey stories are obviously never going to go away, but the way we tell Epic Fantasy is bound to change over time. And I notice in more modern fiction that there’s a shift away from the Dungeons and Dragons mold of “oh look, here’s these archetypes you can find in the Handbook/Monster Manual,” and more of a focus on new and unique creatures and worlds. I even talked with some editors in trad on this, and they seem to agree. How do you as a writer, feel about this genre shift?

ALEC: I think it’s a good thing. Personally, anytime I browse a fantasy book and see ‘elves’ or ‘orcs’ it’s a pretty good bet I’m not interested in picking it up. Usually, it shows a paucity of imagination, and if the same recycled races are in a book, most likely the plot isn’t going to surprise me. That said, there are exceptions. Two of the best books I’ve read this year included archetypal fantasy races – The Gray Bastards, which had orcs and centaurs and elves, and The Kings of the Wyld, which was a great nostalgia trip with basically every entry in the old Monster Manual.

MARTIN: It’s also worth noting that you participated in the SPFBO last year, and made it as a finalist. As a self-published author, how does it feel knowing that resources and awards like that exist? Do you feel that the self-publishing landscape is improving for SFF authors, and what advantages do you feel they have over trad publishing?

ALEC: It’s fantastic knowing that something like the SPFBO exists. Mark Lawrence is a saint for putting up with the headache it must be to herd those cats every year. And yes, I do feel like the SFF self-publishing landscape is improving. I’m seeing more and more authors choosing to self publish good books and ignoring trad publishing entirely. And it has massive advantages. Perhaps the biggest reason I self-published was that I looked at trad publishing and I saw virtually no classic high fantasy debuts being published, despite my feeling that there was still a massive market for it. This was back in 2016 when every new debut competed to claim the title of darkest grimdark. I do believe that the big houses decide ‘this’ is popular this year or this season and group-think publish only a few types of books – perhaps the kinds of books that the editors and agents want to read, and I don’t really think they represent the average fantasy reader. Or, at the very least, there are massive groups of readers undeserved by the books coming out of New York and London. Which is why we’re seeing self-published taking a larger and larger chunk of the overall reading market – I believe the most recent numbers put self-published fantasy at something like 35% of the entire pie, which is pretty incredible if you ask me. There’s also, of course, the advantage of speed, and that self-published writers can earn a more fair percentage of the money their work brings in.

MARTIN: That’s something I’ve taken note of as well, and while you and I both love a lot of what’s coming out of established publishing (I too own Kings of the Wyld!), I kind of feel the same way about the Epic Fantasy genre in particular. The self-pub scene has seen some fairly big releases that are Epic fantasy, with Queen being one of those. As a fan of fantasy — not necessarily a writer — what would you ideally like to see coming from that scene in the future? Are there any sort of cultures, myths or Epic Fantasy subgenres you feel are under-served by trad that could see a rise in self-pub? Wuxia, or Space Fantasy (ie Star Wars), something like that?

ALEC: WuXia is actually the perfect example, and more particularly – I believe I’m getting the term right – Xianxia. I think with the rise of gaming readers today have an attachment to the idea of character progression or leveling, and we can see this is LitRPG, which is another subgenre that trad seems blind to. In Chinese Xianxia books the main character starts out weak, but through a cultivation of qi or another internal energy they eventually develop into powerful warriors. They go from losing fights to the schoolyard bully to throwing mountains at the gods. There are a few websites of poorly translated versions of the popular Chinese stories, and they have a growing following. Will Wight’s excellent Cradle series (this is the most addictive self-published fantasy I’ve read) is, I think, a really great version of a Xianxia story, and shows how it can translate to the West. I’m toying with some ideas along this line for my series after The Raveling. I live in Shanghai and have met several Chinese SFF writers, and one of them is keen to collaborate on a project together. I’m not sure if it will happen, but co-writing a Xianxia style-story that’s aimed at both a Chinese and Western audience with a local Chinese writer could be pretty cool, and it might be the first such collaboration ever in fantasy fiction.

MARTIN: So your most recent book, The Silver Sorceress, was recently released. Without spoiling anything, were there any cool elements you enjoyed writing in that one? Maybe a sneak peek for those of us who read/are reading Queen?

ALEC: As in Queen, my favorite chapters in Sorceress were those written from the villains’ perspective. I like stepping inside the heads of the antagonists because it both humanizes them for the readers and perhaps provides context or justification for some of their actions. And villains are just fun to write.

MARTIN: On your Amazon page, you mention you live in Shanghai, and grew up in a geodesic dome and a bookstore? I mean, that right there kinda sounds like something from a novel! Do you feel any interesting events or places from your life helped with worldbuilding?

ALEC: Probably not my early life, as that was spent in a quiet Northeast coastal town. Though there is a fair bit of history where I live – my family has lived on the same land since 1600 or so, and the family farm where my cousin and her family now reside has been in the family since 1641. According to an old copy of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not it’s the oldest continuously owned family farm in America. Also, my hometown – Newburyport – was mentioned in an HP Lovecraft story. So perhaps I’ve always had an affinity for cosmic horror having grown up there. The biggest influence on worldbuilding for me was living in Asia for the past 15 years and traveling around to places like Angkor and Bagan and Tibet. There’s so much rich culture here, and it all becomes grist for the worldbuilding mill.

MARTIN: So normally this is the part where I ask a crazy question to see what creative response my interviewee comes up with…but right now? I’m just curious about the food in China! What are some of your favorite regional dishes and street foods? The intersection of food and culture is always one of those things that really fascinates me, and I’m just dying to know what’s out there!

ALEC: Oh, good question! As most folk know, American Chinese is completely different than real Chinese food. Real Chinese food is absolutely terrific and quite varied. It’s hard to choose individual dishes, so I’ll run through my favorite cuisines.

1. Sichuan. This is the most popular cuisine in China. Famous for its numbing peppercorns and fiery dishes. I suggest everyone eating at an authentic Sichuan restaurant once in your life.
2. Hunan. The really spicy stuff. More hot than numbing.
3. Xinjiang. This cuisine is from the northwest area of China, and the people here are actually Turkish. Lots of lamb and fried bread.
4. Dong Bei. Comfort food. Heart dumplings and noodles. The northeast of China.
5. Cantonese. Fresh ingredients and natural flavors, and dim sum is amazing. Dim sum in Hong Kong from one of the Michelin starred cheap restaurants will change your life.

My favorite street food is called jian bing. It’s kind of a breakfast crepe – here’s a very accurate video of what you’d see on just about every street-corner in China in the morning:

MARTIN: And as an added bonus, what would your main protagonist’s favorite Chinese dish be?

ALEC: I think he (Keilan) would like something hearty and rustic, maybe some di san qian (potatoes, peppers, and eggplant in a garlic sauce). Or for a special occasion some guo bao rou (fried pork in sweet sauce).

Alec Hutson’s latest book, The Silver Sorceress, is now available on Amazon. For more of his work, please visit his Amazon page and website. For those of you who’ve already read his books, please be sure to leave a Goodreads review if you haven’t already. Also, consider liking and sharing this post on social media. Every share helps me get the word out about great SFF, writing and more cool stuff!