Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Wednesday Review - The Black Orb

Good morning, everyone!  I'm Claire Ashgrove (or Tori, or Sophia, or pick a name, any name), and I'm very happy to be contributing to reviews on the 4th Wednesday of even months.  As an author and editor who’s incredibly supportive of the independent market, when I was asked to review for Heroines of Fantasy, I decided I was going to start out with independently published and small press published books.  If we’re on the search for gems, you don’t need me providing remarks on a book that’s already amassed accolades or has countless reviews floating around. Which leads me to today’s review of The Black Orb.


Author:Sabine A. Reed
Genre: Fantasy
Price: $1.99 (ebook)
Publisher: Sabine A. Reed
An accomplished thief, Aria runs cons and picks pocket so that she can support her older brother, who is one of nature’s innocents. When he disappears, she fears he has been abducted by the minions of the Queen of Azmeer, and forcefully recruited in her army. While seeking word of his fate, she narrowly escapes capture herself. She is aided by an old man who appears to have strange and magical powers. Bikkar claims to know how she can free her brother and at the same time defeat the Queen’s potent weapon, the Black Orb, which sucks power from mages.

But before they do that, Bikkar must escape the stone warriors who pursue him, and Aria must die, for no living person can wield the magical Dragon Claw.
Amazon  |  Smashwords  |  Kobo

The Remarkables:

I love this cover.  It’s intriguing, it’s certainly professional, and perfectly conveys fantasy.  Self-publishing authors, take note.  Way.  Awesome.  Cover!

The magical elements are very intriguing and unique.  And the negative and positive consequences of these are also interesting.  The device that resolves the conflict, the Dragon Claw, its origin, ability, and how it’s employed is very original.  

There’s also a secondary character, the heroine’s brother, who was a breath of fresh air.  He’s “slow” as the heroine describes him, and typically characters like this are recluses and usually stand offs.  This one is well loved, and it was very nice to see him with a devoted partner as opposed to being the isolated, pitiable character we commonly see.

Overall concept of the book is also really engaging, and there are elements to the world building that are inspired—such as the Dryad’s and the way they are tied into the forest. Traditional, and yet not.  Very nicely done.

Presentation is above average, wholly professional, and it’s clear the author has employed professionals to meet this expectation.  Good job!

The Not-so-remarkables:

While the story was interesting, it just wasn’t as captivating as I had hoped it would be.  It’s entertaining, but it isn’t mesmerizing.  

I found the heroine a bit over the top – she never failed at anything, pulled off some miraculous deeds, achieved “legendary status” with little work, and pretty much was guaranteed to achieve her goal.  I never felt like she was ever in danger, and that breathless, hanging-on-the-edge tension just wasn’t present.  She’s too belligerent at times, too snarky, lacked internal struggle, and jumped too readily into her circumstances for her background.  I like more tension, more conflict both internally and externally.  I like more of a true journey of the soul, where values and beliefs are tested.  

It wasn’t a bad book by any means.  But as a professional editor who has worked with a multitude of books, what was most disappointing is the potential that’s right there but just not quite making it to the page in the right areas.  Perhaps this is a result of this being a somewhat older book of the author’s, and in all fairness, I must mention that.  Honestly, I don’t fault the author at all; a solid developmental editor should have pulled those aspects out, and I’m saddened this didn’t occur.

I think overall, I can sum up my thoughts with it was a good, enjoyable read, but I expected great, and was disappointed by the fact it could have been exceptional with a little more depth.  If you’re looking for a short entertaining passing of time, pick it up and check it out.  If you’re looking for a read that will keep you on the edge of your seat, I don’t make the recommendation.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Words Matter

This week's guest poster is Irene Soldatos, author of the newly published Bad Bishop. Take it away, Irene!
There is a three-stage process which all social changes go through before an attitude becomes the norm. First we change how we act; then we change how we speak; and last of all we change how we think.

In terms of the equality of the sexes, our society seems to be hovering somewhere between stage two and three – and has been doing so for some time. These days, western society generally accepts that the sexes are equal; not only that they should be treated as though they were equal, but that they are equal, and that societal behaviour should reflect this.
This acceptance was arrived at slowly, and it involved a great deal of argument, philosophical and otherwise, because after all there has been millennia of social conditioning to contend with; but eventually certain things were accepted, and as such acceptable modes of behaviour were agreed upon. For example: An employer may no longer fire a woman for being pregnant. Hurrah! A result! While this became enshrined in legislation, however, it was still perfectly common and acceptable, to call women ‘sweetheart’ at work, and ‘flirt’ outrageously with them.

Eventually, the ‘flirting’ came to be called harassment, and that was put a stop to, though the ‘sweetheart’ endured for a while longer, because, after all, it’s just a word; it doesn’t hurt anyone; it’s a term of endearment after all, what can possibly be wrong with addressing women in such an amicable manner?

By now, of course, the year being 2014, using the word ‘sweetheart’ in the workplace is not really the done thing, because it’s finally been pointed out that men don’t call each other ‘sweetheart’, or ‘darling’, or ‘my dear’, so why should they do so with women who are not their romantic partners or their wives? The fact is, words carry meaning. A shocking revelation, I know; but true. Imagine a man addressing his male colleague, or subordinate, as ‘sweetheart’. Or telling him he looked very nice today. You’ve done something with your hair. Is that a new suit?

Words carry meaning and reflect thoughts – and modes of thought. And that’s what the problem with ‘sweetheart’ is. So, now we’re at the point where certain modes of expression towards women have become taboo, and that goes a long way to making the environment in which half the human population lives (at least in Western secular societies) a bit less unpleasant than it was previously. However, just because a word is not used, it does not go to mean that the thought or mental attitude that would prompt you to use it is gone too. It only means that you censor yourself to comply with acceptable social norms.

Given time, though, the changes in the way we express ourselves will lead to changes in our thoughts and mental attitudes, because words condition our thoughts, just like our thoughts are reflected in our words. In fact, thought and language are inextricably linked: we can only contemplate abstract concepts using words, and words define the concepts themselves. Simply changing the word we use to describe a certain act is enough to change the act itself from acceptable to unacceptable. It changes the way we think about it. This is what has happened since we replaced the word ‘flirting’ with ‘harassment’. Now what I would really like to see go the way of the dodo is the tendency to say to little girls, the moment people meet one: ‘What a pretty girl you are!’ Why don’t people say that to little boys? Why don’t they say: ‘What a good-looking boy you are!’? Because the appearance of boys is not important, presumably, whereas the appearance of girls is. And this is how women, and men, learn from infancy that it’s the most important thing – for women. Because words carry meaning.

The fact is, all we know is what we have words for. As Wittgenstein very rightly said: ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’

So it logically follows: What we say, and what we write, even in fiction, plays a part in forming the world we live in. It matters. 

~Irene Soldatos
I was born in Greece, but growing up lived in England. Then in Greece. Then in England again. Then in Germany. Now I'm back in England. I get about. I have a B.A. in English and a Master’s and PhD in Musicology. I’m a geek, a dedicated pen-and-paper gamer, and a vocal advocate of all things Open Source, and non-commercial sharing.

You can find Irene at:

Available on Amazon


Friday, February 21, 2014

Review: Three Days of Night

Title: Three Days of Night
Author: Wren Roberts
Genre: science fiction (novella)
Price: $2.99
Publisher: KYSO Books
Point of Sale: Amazon
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

First, full disclosure:  Wren Roberts is a member of my writers group.  Having said that, if I didn’t like her novella Three Days of Night, I wouldn’t be writing a review of it. 

The novella is set on the world of Nibiru, which orbits the double star Sotiras and Oligos.  The world spins much slower than ours, resulting in a night that’s 72 hours long.  Unfortunately for Farina, our teenage girl narrator, the Anunnaki have taken over on Nibiru.  They are human, and bear more than a passing resemblance to our modern-day Taliban.  Farina, as a girl and not Anunnaki, is doubly vexed by the Anunnaki.  One of that religion’s tenants is that women can’t be out after sundown.

Farina, of the first generation born of Nibiru, dreams of fleeing her oppressive existence and going to Earth.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the Anunnaki are not letting women leave, so Farina has to attempt to sneak out.  At the end of the first day of night, Farina makes her break.  Things don’t go to plan, in part due to surprising betrayals. 

I found the story very gripping emotionally.  I am not a fan of the Taliban, and the Anunnaki are entirely too Taliban-ish for me to like, but at the same time they're not cartoon villians.  I also found Farina very realistic.  She’s a teenager in action and words.  Her circumstances are forcing her to grow up, but perhaps she’s not making the transition fast enough.

I found the ending unexpected and ambiguous.  I am frankly not clear if what being described is real or a hallucination.  To a certain extent, this confusion is an artifact of the first-person narration, but to a certain extent it’s a deliberate choice on Wren’s part.  All I can say is that the ending worked for me.  Well, actually the whole piece worked for me, and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Wednesday Review: Fat Girl In A Strange Land

Title: Fat Girl In A Strange Land
Editors: Kay T. Holt and Bart R. Lieb  
Publisher: Crossed Genres Publications 
Publication Date: 2012  
Genre: Fantasy and Science Fiction  
Price: $4.99 (ebook), $10.80-$12.50 (paperback)  
Where to purchase: Powells | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Reviewed by: Julia Dvorin

Hi there, HoF readers. I’m Julia, Hadley Rille author and your official Book Review Herder, and it’s finally rolled around to my turn to post a review. I thought I’d start with one of the many interesting finds I gathered at last year’s WisCon from the fine folks at Crossed Genres Publications: an anthology with the intriguing title “Fat Girl In A Strange Land”.

You can probably tell just from the fact that I attended WisCon (and am involved with a blog called “Heroines of Fantasy”) that I’m someone who is interested in speculative stories about/from historically marginalized perspectives. And as a woman who has been solidly (see what I did there?) on the “fat” side of the weight spectrum her entire adult life, I was intrigued by the title and concept of this collection, described as “an anthology of fourteen stories of fat women protagonists traveling distant and undiscovered realms.” Would the experiences and attitude of these fat heroines mirror any of my own, and make the characters and situations extra relatable to me as a reader? And how would the speculative elements fit in? Would fatness itself perhaps be used as magic, or impact technology? I was especially curious to see whether weight and body image issues would be the central subject of each story, or whether the plus-size of any given protagonist would be normalized as just another physical descriptor.

 On the one hand, I feel like it’s critically important to encourage more stories that speak specifically to the experience of being a fat woman, whether that is related to the speculative element or not, because the more we have access to each others’ specific experiences, the more we can relate to each other (and the more we can relate to each other, the less likely we are to cause each other harm. Theoretically.) On the other hand, I also agree with the argument that one of the goals of creating a rainbow of fictional protagonists of diverse shapes, ages, colors and backgrounds is to equalize all experiences, so that a size 20 heroine isn’t remarkable unless her size is specifically relevant to the story. How would this anthology approach this, ahem, weighty debate over specificity vs. normalization?

The short answer was, in both ways. In some stories, like the beautiful “La Gorda and the City of Silver” by Sabrina Vourvoulias, where a woman who wants to become a luchadora uses her size, strength and courage to also become a folk hero and savior of women and children, the cleverly-written-through-journal-entries sci-fi story “Blueprints” by Anna Caro, where the heroine is part of a group of people who cannot leave a dying Earth for a new planet because of the weight restrictions for FTL travel, or the heart-warming “Lift” by Pete “Patch” Alberti, where the heroine who is rejected from the “popular” kids’ spaceship because of her weight builds her own spaceship with the help of an elder fat mentor, the heroine’s size was central to the story and the story wouldn’t have been the same without it. In others, like the fairy-tale retelling “Tangstwyl the Unwanted” by Katharine Elmer, or “Davy”, a tale of conquering literal manifestations of post-partum depression by Anna Dickinson, or “How Do You Want To Die?”, a chunk of sword-and-sorcery tinged desert adventure by Rick Silva, the heroine’s size seemed like inconsequential flavor to the story, just one more piece of character description. I appreciated that the anthology editors were likely trying to present both kinds of stories, but I found myself enjoying more the ones that specifically revolved around the heroine’s size and her issues related thereto—probably because it still seemed like a refreshing rarity to experience a story from that specific point of view.

Like many anthologies, I found the stories here somewhat uneven from a writing point of view—some were certainly better than others in both concept and execution (though some of that may be personal taste, and of course your mileage may vary). Some, like “How Do You Want To Die”, “Sharks and Seals” by Jennifer Brozek and “Marilee and the S.O.B.” by Barbara Krasnoff, felt like excerpts from a longer work or derived from an already existing/previously developed story world rather than stories complete in themselves, which I found vaguely frustrating. Some stories, like “Nemesis” by Nicole Prestin where a “size 14 soccer mom” superhero refuses to wear a spandex uniform and has to deal with mocking by her teammates and the public, touched my experience directly and felt true and relatable even when they were not necessarily perfect pieces of literature. Some stories, like “The Right Stuffed” by Brian Jungwiwattanaporn about fat women recruited by the military as counterintelligence agents in the digital Void because they’ll be less squicked at “eating” data, felt more clumsy or stereotypical in their attempt at imagining what it might be like to live in a fat body and what issues a fat character might have.

 Overall, though, most of the stories were fat positive, the collection kept me interested all the way through and some of the stories were truly lovely. I’d say this is a collection definitely worth checking out and supporting.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The "race card"

We don't usually talk politics in here, but bear with me. I have a point and a purpose. Before reading what follows, I'd decided to riff off Karin's fabulous post on diversity in fantasy fiction. While compiling thoughts for this post, I came across this:

Happy MLK, Jr. Day!
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mr. President, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all who commit to ending any racial divide, no more playing the race card.

It is from February 20th, Sarah Palin's Facebook page. I don't care if Ms. Palin wrote that herself, or one of her many handlers thought it would be a great way to keep her in the news; whether or not those are her words, this is the persona we have been trained to know as fact. Her wording is both condescending and ignorant. Committing to racial division by putting those historically on the short end of the stick on the defensive? Egads, it is mind-boggling. That's like the bully yanking the kid he just knocked down to his feet saying, "Come on. I pushed you down five minutes ago. This is NOW, and now I'm helping you up. See? Even Steven." But in her completely idiotic way, she kind of makes a point (anti-point?) I want to make with this post, and that's this: When it stops being specifically about race, we've leapt over a huge hurdle.

In comments for Karin's post, we discussed Harry Potter, and the fact that for a modern work of fantasy, there were no characters of any color other than white in the major roles. How fantastic it would have been had there been, especially for children, to see themselves in those heroic roles! I won't go through the whole conversation, but it got me thinking. There were, among the minor players, other-than-white characters. What's wonderful, to me, is the fact that they were not white wasn't a point to be made. They were characters. Period. Kingsley Shacklebolt. Padma and Pavarti Patil. Dean Thomas and Lee Jordan. Cho Chang. Hogwarts is an international school. These characters did not seem forced but completely right.

HRB is doing the Ruins Excavation (woman of color archaeologist) anthology, and it's been getting positive response. The project was created specifically to focus upon a group so ridiculously unrepresented in fantasy and science fiction. No "race card," but a true celebration, and the hope that it will push forward a trend that stops being a specific goal, and instead a naturally occurring event.

Zihariel: Finder Artwork by
Thomas Vandenburg

I will admit, when I wrote Finder, I set it in a non-European setting for a reason. I wanted to diverge from the training I'd been giving myself in that pseudo-European world. What resulted was Zihariel, and with her a whole cast of non-white characters that carries through A Time Never Lived, Beyond the Gate, and The Shadows One Walks. I set out to be different, but ended up with what I hope are characters judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.

Fraeda: The Shadows One Walks
artwork by Annette Spurgeon

For now, there is an unfortunate need to make it a point to get racial diversity into our fiction. I look forward to the time it just is, no point to be made. There is a whole lot more to say on this subject, and I hope it gets said in comments; we at Heroines of Fantasy have a 500 word limit on our posts, and I've already gone over.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Wednesday Review - The Shifter's Trail

Title: The Shifter’s Trail
Genre: science fiction / YA
Price: $6.99 (ebook) / $12.95 (paperback)
Publisher: Outskirts Press
ISBN: 9781478700845
Point of Sale: Amazon Barnes & Noble
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

Hi y'all!  I'm Chris Gerrib, author of  Pirates of Mars and one of the newer reviewers here on Heroines.  The good folks here gave me the keys to post Wednesday reviews, so you'll be reading me on the second Wednesday of even months.  Now that introductions are done, let's get right to it.

Adam Alexanders’ novel The Shifter’s Trail asks a very good question, namely, “if an alien passed you on the street, would you know? Are you sure?”  Based on that question, I requested the book and I am glad I did.

The book is largely narrated by Andromeda Brown, a sixth-grade girl attending the Newton Math and Science Academy in Chicago.  As one could deduce from the age of the narrator, it’s YA and set in Chicago, my home base.  The story starts engagingly enough, with Chapter 0.0 being the crash of a spaceship, and Chapter 1.0 being the arrival in Chicago of a large meteor – large enough that the sonic boom breaks windows.  Chapter 1 ends with the sinking of the Brown family sailboat, Schroedinger’s Cat.  This event ends up plunging Andromeda and two of her friends into a search for a shape-shifting alien.  To make matters worse, the shape-shifter is being pursued by a third group of hostile aliens that have a sizeable lead on our heroine.

All of the above sounds complicated, and it is, but the puts and takes are very well explained.  This explaining is done engagingly, without stopping the plot – in fact part of the plot, like many good SF novels, is taken up with figuring out what’s going on.  We’re told Andromeda is very good with math, and the story stops at several points for Andromeda to solve a math problem.  I suspect that YA readers will roll their eyes a bit at this, but the math is cleverly worked in and not too obtrusive.

I have to say that this novel hits on several classic points of science fiction that I have been exploring.  For example, the hostile aliens would like to take over the Earth.  But they know that, even with really advanced technology, one ship against a planet is a bad gamble.  So they are using stealth to even the odds.  Alexander has restricted all of his space-travelers to travel at the speed of light, so there will be no sudden arrival of the intergalactic cavalry. 

I also like Andromeda as a protagonist.  She is a kid who acts like one.  The stakes are high and people are killed, which frankly scares all of the characters, even the aliens.  Nobody’s running around Chicago with a blaster in each hand in this book, even though humanity’s very existence is at stake.  Oh, and the aliens are always sufficiently alien, even when they are trying not to be alien.  In short, I highly enjoyed The Shifter’s Trail.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Dia de la Amistad

A few weeks back, when I was looking ahead at my schedule for Heroines of Fantasy, I realized that my February post would fall the same week as Valentine's Day.  That's a rich opportunity, to say the least, and I imagined myself taking advantage of the occasion to talk about one of my favorite topics:  epic love.

By my heart's not really into epic love today.  Instead, I find myself thinking on a different level about love and companionship, and what these two words mean in the broader context of our lives. 

In my second home of Costa Rica, Valentine's Day is not celebrated in quite the same way as in the U.S.  Ticos call February 14th Dia de la Amistad, or "Day of Friendship". They use it to celebrate friendship in all its manifestations, including romantic friendship, but certainly not limited to that. 

Friendship plays a fundamental role in our stories just as it does in our lives.  I don't remember who my favorite character was back when I first read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.  But when Peter Jackson released his film interpretation of this timeless story, there was no doubt in my mind as to who took the number-one spot in my heart:  From the first film to the last, my favorite character was Samwise Gamgee.

For me, Sam represented, and still represents, an archetype of friendship. His humble, steadfast dedication to Frodo as a person (not as hero, and not as Ringbearer), his courage and ability to keep his head together while the world was falling apart, and his simple insistence on always being there, are qualities that I not only admire, but that I hope to find in my own friends, and to give to those who consider me a friend.

Those of you who are connected to Hadley Rille Books through other channels know by now that a week ago our editor-in-chief, Eric T. Reynolds, suffered a stroke and is looking toward a long road to recovery.  This has been a difficult time for the Hadley Rille family because Eric, more than our editor, has been a good friend to every one of us. 

Sometimes I've envisioned Eric as the Sam to our quests as authors; keeping utmost calm even as we start caressing our manuscripts with crazed looks in our eyes and muttering, "My preciouuusssss..."  Eric would travel with any of us through Mordor, fight off the giant spiders, and carry us on his back up Mount Doom if we asked him to, even if all the while all he really wanted to do was return home to the Shire. 

As the Hadley Rille family has come to terms with the grief and pain of Eric's illness, I have found much solace, and even cause for quiet celebration, in the reaffirmation of the bonds of friendship that bind us not only to Eric, but to each other.  None of us are walking alone on this path, and the support that the Hadley Rille community has shown toward each other and toward Eric's family is nothing short of admirable.

While this Valentine's Day will not be the happiest I've experienced, I know I will celebrate it with a deeper appreciation of the meaning of friendship in our lives.  I invite you to do the same.  Maybe this week on Heroines of Fantasy we can talk about our favorite stories of friendship, in fiction and in life. Please share yours in the comments below, and help make this Valentine's Day a true Dia de la Amistad for everyone.

-posted by Karin Rita Gastreich

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Wednesday Review: 'everything you know' by Mary Beth Bass

everything you know is the story of Emma and Joe, two high school students who meet and feel an instant connection. They quickly find the attraction between them is rather more than the usual giddiness and exhilaration of first love and sexual awakening; indeed, it is the catalyst which triggers their dormant abilities: Emma's telepathy, Joe's power of flight. Soon, deep secrets from their families’ pasts are uncovered as they are plunged into an adventure spanning parallel worlds. Set against them are two sets of opponents, locked in a power struggle with each other, each wishing to use Joe as bait to achieve their end. And then the plot escalates as a third, greater threat emerges, raising the stakes far beyond mere life and death.

It’s what I'd call a science fantasy and is an ambitious work, taking in romance, politics, heartbreak, nineteenth century poetry and the role of the individual within society. It is satisfying that the main conflict of the book is much more complicated and nuanced than merely good versus evil, and the siren voices are beguiling and insidious, suggesting indeed that it may not be so terrible a fate to sleep in the arms of Thanatos. Moreover, Bass addresses small scale adversity in ways that show it is no less important than large; indeed my favourite aspect of the story was Emma’s sense of change and disconnection from childhood friends and securities as the post-adolescent world opened up before her. At times the language is quite lovely: as she slips from one reality to another, Emma experiences her body ‘dissolving like salt into water’. There is real voice and quality in such conjured images. And there is, of course, the poetry, Keats, Shakespeare, Rossetti, which is woven into the story and informs it on every level.

Although the quest to understand Joe’s past and find his father is the driving force of the plot, three female characters – Emma, and also her younger sister, Maude, and cousin, Isohel – are central to its unfolding and resolution. They illustrate, perhaps, different ways young women may view love as they stand on the brink of adult life: Isohel, talented, beautiful but loveless; Maude, defined by love (her declaration of oneness with her lover reminded me of Catherine Earnshaw’s “I am Heathcliff”, though Maude is rather less destructive than Catherine); and Emma who, to my mind at least, represents the balanced life, whereby one can love whole-heartedly without the loss of all other aspects of identity. Curiously, each of these three has no choice in such matters, not even (if I’ve read aright) as to the object of their affections; their romantic destinies are intrinsic to their natures. There is a fascinating discussion to be had, I think, about autonomy and choice, freewill and destiny, with regard to this aspect of Bass’s work. This is to be applauded – it’s wonderful to see such ideas tackled in YA fiction.

And yet, even as I was reading, and recognising, and applauding, I’m afraid I stumbled over various aspects of the storytelling. Joe and Emma’s relationship unfolded in a somewhat uneasy counterpoint to the science fantasy of the main conflict and, sometimes, I felt jolted from one thread to the other in a too sudden change of register and mood. The worldbuilding of the fantasy reflects the range and depth of Bass’s reading and imagination; a huge amount of thought and, I think, love has gone into it. It does, however, require the assimilation of a large amount of information and I felt, at times, that natural conversation was sacrificed in favour of exposition to bring characters – and the reader – up to speed on the backstory. Also, despite Bass’s ear for imagery and language, I struggled a little with the extensive vocabulary created for the second, parallel world, despite all the terms being glossed on introduction. There are also a great many characters; too many, perhaps, for all to be developed fully in a book of this length. In particular, I would have liked to have seen more made of Emma’s childhood friend, Izzy: one learnt something significant and rather moving of her, likely to be of interest to an important minority of teens, but her thread petered out bar a brief update as the book closed.

Overall, however, despite these reservations, Bass’s engagement with literature, myth and philosophy shines through the pages of her novel: everything you know is filled with thought-provoking and challenging ideas, and underlaid with a fair amount of philosophy. I was pleased, too, to find no trite or easy answers offered for difficult questions. It’s a complicated read, a big read, bursting the confines of the paranormal romance much as Emma and Joe burst out of mundane reality into a world where anything is possible.

Harriet Goodchild

everything you know: Mary Beth Bass
Boroughs Publishing Group
Published 2013
everything you know at
everything you know at

Monday, February 3, 2014

Some thoughts about the "Big Book Syndrome"

One of the joys of the reading and writing life is the catalog of 
great reads and experiences one assembles. We have all taken turns 
gushing about our favorites, spreading the word about great tales that 
others might have missed. I know I've expanded my reading list over 
these last few years, acting on the suggestions of my fellow authors 
and friends I've encountered at cons and on-line.  I'm happy to report 
that almost all of those suggestions have proven memorable--with a few 

The blog post last week got me thinking about the industry, again, and 
our ongoing crusade to push small press houses and the important 
responsibility they shoulder in safeguarding the essence of story.  
While it may be sour grapes to some, I suspect there are growing 
numbers of us who seriously question the divide developing between the 
big house publishers and the small presses. When I look at what 
dominates the shelves, I have to confess I get a little chippy.  I see 
way, way too much sameness in title, cover design, presentation and 
content. Additionally, I see a proliferation of the "big" book. I've 
written before about series that seem to go on too long and outlast 
the vitality of the initial story. In my mind those tales and their 
writers have fallen prey to sales over substance. They became cash 
cows that bred marketing campaigns rather than deepening the well of 
artistic expression within the genre.

Sometimes I wonder if the slams against our genre aren't warranted by 
such mismanagement of intent.

I mentioned "big book" above, and that is the core of my concern 
today. In short, I think the big houses currently are too in love with 
the big, sprawling tome. Now, I like the big book experience. I love 
tearing through pages, enjoying the story, and thumbing the mass, 
taking solace that there are still 200 pages left, wow!  I think you 
know what I mean. There are stories that take us on a journey where we 
read like mawkish tourists taking photos of every vista, fountain, 
rocky outcropping or cute local kid dressed in native costume. Those 
stories exist, but my contention is that too many try for that effect 
and fail because they just aren't good enough. Even when I use the 
term but author A gets away with it well enough, suggests a falling 
off.  There shouldn't be any falling off.  I think such an effect is a 
tragedy for the idea of story and renders the genre subject to 
parody. Has anyone taken a glimpse at IFCs The Spoils of Babylon? 
Yes. That. I think those books get too much attention just for being 

I think we do a disservice when we stretch a single volume beyond the 
organic limits of the story;  we risk repeating ourselves or risk 
injecting cliché and overused tropes into the mix, which demeans both 
the story and the reader.  I have found elements of this farce in the 
works of some of my favorite authors, so I don't think I'm overly 
biased because I still enjoy their work. Oddly enough, I find these 
lapses encouraging: even the popular ones don't always have control.

My most recent example of what I see as a manifestation of the quest 
for profit over reigning in a story to its proper scope is Rothfuss's 
Kvothe tales, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear. I've 
enjoyed the read so far, but I keep getting the feeling that I am 
walking on familiar ground. Some of the criticisms leveled at 
Paolini's egregious Eragon novels apply here, at least a little. For 
example, I am having a hard time deciding what Rothfuss wants these 
tales to be. He romps along, developing a great character, and then he 
throws in a pastiche of already told things. Kvothe in Tarbean sounds 
eerily similar to other urchins-in-survival-mode scenarios. Arya, 
  The University and Kvothe as a budding arcanist is almost too 
reminiscent of Hogwarts. In fact, I think it is Hogwarts, with warts, 
as it were. And then in book two, he takes us on a ninety page 
digression into the Fae with Falurian, and then he takes him off to 
the Ademre to become the fantasy ninja. Honestly, I'm on page 800 of a 
1050 page paperback and I think I'm reading the plot lines to Kung Fu 
Panda. Oddly enough, out of the nearly 2000 pages of narrative, I've 
liked the somewhat less than a hundred pages of Kvothe as innkeeper 
than all the rest combined. Rothfuss is actually subtle in those 
scenes, which is sad because the rest is excessive and increasingly 
derivative.  And yet the second volume has FIVE pages of author blurbs 
attesting this author is the second coming of Aesop. 

The novels sell amazingly well: marketing 101 at the expense of a cool idea.  
Frankly, I find the whole thing a study in self-indulgence. If this is the 
price of big house success, then thank the gods for the financial 
restraints implicit in the small press experience. Their financial 
reality makes such books mostly untenable.  And THAT is the beauty of 
the whole thing. The very thing that enables excess in the big house 
experience actually forces restraint in the small press, and one of 
the unintended consequences of that fiscal restraint are tales that 
remain palatable with just enough tell to add to the show without 
sacrificing the magic of faery, the economy of the active voice over 
the passive, and the benefit of sound editing over market 
share/publishing date/timing to swoop and conquer.

Now, before you hang me in effigy or start searching for old candles 
to make into sangreal to vent your magical wrath, let me qualify 
things a little more. Rothfuss, Donaldson, Follett, Martin, Jordan and 
the other practitioners of the sprawling tale are great writers, and I 
own and have enjoyed ALL of their words. I just think they use far too 
many to convey their story.  As I see it excessive over-writing leads 
to trope, which leads to cliché, which becomes ordinary and, 
ultimately, boring. If I'm looking ahead, the book is dead.  After 
reading Rothfuss's Name of the Wind last year, I thought he took some 
liberties with plot and pace. And with The Wise Man's Fear so far, I 
keep thinking if he had just gotten rid of about 400 pages of fluff he 
would have a story that actually progresses rather than meanders about 
within its own inventiveness.  

I remember distinctly the moment when I  gave up on Jordan. It was 
after 900 pages of Winter's Heart where NOTHING happened. Wow. 
Rothfuss, et al, are not that bad, thankfully, but I really do think more 
restraint might provide a better service to  the art. I fervently want to 
think our audience can handle a little ambiguity, a little Celtic fog and 
glamour over the present practice of beating the reader about the head 
with matrix density details, something I like to call de-trails, because the 
effect is like wandering off the path in Mirkwood. For every  Bilbo-finds-
himself moment, there are a host of character and story carcasses moldering 
amongst the underbrush.

So, am I way off base here? Do you think the big book syndrome helps 
or hurts our genre?

~Mark Nelson