My friend Lawrence Schoen’s latest novel and big publisher debut, Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, from TOR Books had sold out its first printing before it even released. It is about sentient animals who have survived the self-destruction of human beings and now rule the galaxy. I asked him to talk on the blog about how to write animals as main characters of a novel.
How do you approach writing animals as characters? Do you anthropomorphize or avoid it?
I treat animal characters much like I treat alien characters, which is to say, I write them as characters first, and then add in the other bits (animal, alien, or both).
I start by asking myself a few basic questions like, “Who is this character? How does he see the world? How does he see himself? What does he want?” and then as these basics start to sketch out, I drop the character into the setting that further shapes those answers.
With the anthropomorphic animal (or as I like to call them, “raised mammals”) characters in Barsk, there were additional factors. The easiest of these was to build on the physiological differences from the source animals, and play with how that then affects the more basic characteristics and questions. This is particularly important for the reader, because she’s looking for something familiar to glom onto, something that can be assessed at a glance, be it an elephant’s trunk or the graceful gait of a cheetah or the relative lethargy of a sloth. These are signals to a reader that say, “oh, okay, it’s like a human being, only not, because it’s also like X.”
After the broad strokes of an animal character is done, the real fun begins. The bits that act as Easter eggs for more savvy readers. Little pieces from research into what ethologists and other scientists have learned about these species which when dropped into sapient characters inform their culture and worldview. As one example, we know that among elephants, after a certain age, the males all go off on their own solitary way and only return to mate, leaving the females behind to form groups of adults and children of both sexes. Take this one datum and apply it a planet of uplifted elephants and you get a society where you have households of adult females — mothers and sisters aunts and cousins, like something out of H.M.S. Pinafore — taking responsibility for all child rearing, and males who spend their adult lives as peripatetic bachelors — never settling down for long, always moving on. And from there you get to ask how this all manifests in routine things that you probably won’t actually look at in the book, but which has to exist in the back of your mind because it all influences the way the characters walk through their own world. Questions like, “What does this do to the housing market? What’s the impact on job security? What happens to individuals who don’t fit smoothly into the society’s normative roles?”
The characters in an anthropomorphic novel need to have the same quality of breadth and depth and variety that ordinary human characters enjoy and/or endure; it’s all just filtered through the specialized animal traits that is their due as well. Because at the end of the day, you’re using them to tell human stories, and while they may be furry or horned or bat-winged or something else, they must also project a basic humanity, one to which the reader can relate. In the end, the thing we always remember about the best alien or anthropomorphic characters isn’t how much they differ from us, but how human they were.
Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and the publisher of a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem. He’s been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia. You can find him online at LawrenceMSchoen.com and @KlingonGuy.
Today, my friend, Howard Andrew Jones, one of my favorite writers, shares with us about his writing process. His latest Pathfinder Tales novel, Beyong The Pool of Stars, is out now from TOR and Paizo. But I’ve enjoyed his previous Pathfinder and original novels very much as well. Check them out and enjoy his wise words.
A writing career is a work in progress. I’m always striving to better my writing process.
I suppose I still live in hope that I’ll produce 5k or more of workable prose every day like some of my friends do. And it happens for me, sometimes. More often, though, I’m a 2k to 3k guy. And I’ve decided that might just be the way it works for me, so more and more I’m trying to make sure that the 2 or 3 thousand words I produce are useful ones.
Bit by bit, tweak by tweak, I’ve come to my current method, and it’s served me well for Beyond the Pool of Stars as well as for the book that immediately preceded it and the two books currently on my hard drive. I’ll detail it for you in the hopes you’ll find it useful.
First, three steps I have to take once I have the germ of the novel’s idea:
It probably goes without saying that you have to know your characters. Develop principal characters – and keep that number small – that fascinate you. If you don’t find them interesting no one else will.
Find out what their goals are, then find a way to keep them away in an entertaining way.
Know your villain and what she wants. And make her interesting as well, or you’ll be just as bored as your readers whenever your characters interact with her.
Once I have those pieces I set to work on the outline. I block it out loosely, imagining important scenes. I try to take my characters to fascinating places. Why not create backdrops of wonder with a few lines of description it would take a film company millions to create?
Once I have a basic feel for beginning, middle, and end, I get to plotting chapter by chapter and scene by scene, and my current favorite trick is to block it out like a play.
I write entire scenes with just dialogue and occasional stage direction. It might be that I can perfectly picture the tone of voice or even a moment of description, and if I do, I go ahead and drop it in even during this rough “stage draft.” There aren’t any hard and fast rules for what I can or can’t do at any stage, after all, and if I picture something I really like I try to get it down, even if it’s just a few quick notes.
Once I get the scene working I can either move on to the next section, or punch away at it, getting the dialogue just right. If the scene’s working properly then the more I work on dialogue, the better I can picture it… and the more solid the scene or chapter becomes as I polish. I add detail as I work until that dialogue is surrounded by useful prose and the stage descriptions of what characters are doing transforms into fluid actions.
A stage draft enables me to experiment with the dialogue and flow without investing a whole lot of energy into finessing metaphor and getting into a character’s internal thoughts. If something doesn’t work and the scene goes off the rails, I haven’t wasted hours polishing fool’s gold. And believe me, I’ve done that before.
Neither this method nor any other can work for every writer. If a method worked perfectly for everyone, there wouldn’t be so many writer self-help books out there.
I think it’s been successful for me because I’ve always found that dialogue comes easily. You should always be aware of your weaknesses and work to overcome them. But during the initial composition stages, whatever methods you, try to play to your strengths.
Howard Andrew Jones is the critically acclaimed author of The Desert of Souls, The Bones of the Old Ones, and Pathfinder novels Plague of Shadows, Stalking the Beast and the hot off the presses Beyond the Pool of Stars. A former Black Gate Editor, he also assembled and edited 8 collections of historical fiction writer Harold Lamb’s work for the University of Nebraska Press. He can be found lurking at www.howardandrewjones.com. Follow him on Twitter @howardandrewjon
In Chicago this past summer, I finally met my friend Jay Lake. I’ve known Jay and talked with him online for over two years, but it took World Con to finally get us in the same physical space. As expected, Jay was a delight. We also did a panel together, which I moderated. But he also told me about his latest cancer diagnose, and it broke my heart. Jay and I may not agree on politics and religion much of the time, but we share a common passion for people and helping each other and for community. We’re both bluntly honest about our lives in ways that can be both offputting to others and very vulnerable for us. Nowhere did Jay demonstrate this more than his The Specific Gravity Of Grief, a limited release novella from Fairwood Press about a protagonist’s self-discovery during cancer treatment.But if you asked him, I imagine Jay would tell you he wouldn’t have it any other way. And I find transparency to be immensely freeing myself.
That said, I’ve also enjoyed Jay’s work as writer and editor. From his wonderful steampunk novels (Clockwork Earth, TOR) to his short stories and the fun anthology All Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories, one of several he’s coedited, his world-building is fantastic, character development masterful, and his themes resonate long after you put the books down. So when TOR asked me help promote Kalimpura, the conclusion of his Green trilogy, I was honored and thrilled.
While I have not yet read the Green books, I have heard people rave about them.
In the first novel, Green, Green’s father sold her to the Court of the Pomegranate Tree, where she was trained as both courtesan and assassin. Instead of winding up as so many of her peers, Green takes a knife to destroy her own beauty, and kills her intended master.
In the second, Endurance, Green has won her freedom. Yet she is still claimed by the gods and goddesses of her world, and they still require her service. Their demands are greater than any duke’s could have been. Godslayers have come to the Stone Coast, magicians whose cult is dedicated to destroying the many gods of Green’s world. In the turmoil following the Immortal Duke’s murder, Green made a God out of her power and her memories. Now the gods turn to her to protect them from the Slayers.
In Kalimpura, the final book, Green is forced to leave Copper Downs for Kalimpura, where the maleficent Surali has overtaken the Lily temple aided by evil sorcerers and cultists. He’s taken hostage two children along the way and Green makes an oath to retrieve them. To do so, she must seek out Red Man, a mysterious cult exile and two special knives, all where caring for her own newborn twins.
Describe as epic fantasy “sensual, ominous, shot through with the sweat of fear and the intoxication of power,” this is not Tolkien but something else entirely.
I interviewed Jay a while back about his writing. Since he’s in cancer treatment and unable to do interviews and promotion, here are some excerpts:
SFFWRTCHT: Jay, how do your stories start? With character, question or situation?
Jay Lake: It varies how I start. Often it’s just with an image or a situation. Visual or language cue, maybe. I can gin up a story from a very small seed. It’s one of the pleasures of the craft for me.
SFFWRTCHT: Your prose is so dense and tight, how many edits does it take to get your sentences throw so much weight around?
JL: Believe it or not, a lot of that happens in the initial draft. Though a novel will have four or five passes.
SFFWRTCHT: How much did your exposure to “other” while growing up as the son of a diplomat effect your writing?
JL: I think growing up overseas in a diplomatic family is a huge part of why I became interested in writing the other. My entire childhood was made of ‘other’. The world is fractally, gloriously complex. Genre fiction re-opens those doors for me.
SFFWRTCHT: The third in your Green series just came out. Are the Green books a trilogy? Will there be more books after Kalimpura?
JL: Kalimpura is Green 3 and finishes out this story cycle with a logical close. But there might be more if readers and the market want.
SFFWRTCHT: Don’t you find inspiration comes from genres diff from what you’re writing, e.g. non-fiction?
JL: Absolutely. That’s why I try to read (and DVD watch) outside my genre. So I don’t grow stale. It’s also why I shoot a lot of photographs and seek out new people and experiences in real life.
SFFWRTCHT: How do you feel about writing/marketing across different genres?
JL: Writing across different genres seems a fine thing to me. I’m not wedded to Fantasy and Science Fiction, it’s just my first and best love.
SFFWRTCHT: You remain very open about your cancer struggles on Facebook and the blog. And one of your departures lately was The Specific Gravity of Grief, a novella about a man going through cancer. Has that been hard for you to write about?
JL: Cancer is everywhere in my writing, directly and indirectly, but I don’t think it has dominated Primary colon cancer was first diagnosed in April, 2008. Lung metastasis in April, 2009. Mistaken diagnosis of liver metastasis in July, 2010. I talk openly about the cancer because so many people don’t. I get more fan letters off my cancer blogging than off my fiction. It’s difficult to talk about it sometimes, but it’s also something I can give back/pay forward for all those who have loved me.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you work from outlines or let the story unfold as it comes?
JL: Outlines, for short fiction? Never. I “follow the headlights.” For novels, always. But the process changes every time. The outlines for Sunspin are fantastically more detailed than ever before. The Trial Of Flowers outline was five paragraphs.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you ever consider giving up the day job for full time writing?
JL: No. I need the steady income and the benefits. Cancer means I can never be a full time free lancer.
SFFWRTCHT: What does your writing space look like and do you have any software preferences?
JL: My writing space looks like a MacBook Pro. I can and do write almost anywhere. As for software, I’m a dinosaur. I’ve been using Microsoft Word since it fit on the same floppy as the Mac OS, back in 1985/1986. Or maybe I was using MacWrite back then. But it’s been Word since forever.
SFFWRTCHT: When asked by other writers, what advice do you most commonly offer them?
JL: I like to tell new writers to “write more”. Whatever you’re doing, do more of it. Plus I’m a big fan of putting down the TV and the videogames. Nothing wrong with entertainment, but things that scratch your plot bump will keep you from writing. The question is: do you want to be a producer or a consumer?
SFFWRTCHT: Can you be both?
JL: Of course you can be both. We are all consumers by definition. But to be a producer, you have to shake off some of the habits of being a consumer. Another comment that comes up a lot is.”Publishing is meritocracy, but it is not a just meritocracy,” which is to say being good is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. Writing a lot to learn and grow is exactly how we succeed. Nobody is born a literary genius. You would expect to practice a martial art or a new instrument or a foreign language. Why wouldn’t you practice writing? And write new stuff. Don’t spend years laboring over your Great Work. Trust me, it’s not that great. Go write another one.
SFFWRTCHT: Can’t some consumption lead to inspiration? Read to write idea?
JL: Absolutely. It’s called filling the well. Imagine a chef who never ate anyone else’s cooking. But time is an issue. People complain they don’t have time to write, but they’re in WOW every night, or watching House. Or whatever. That’s a choice.
SFFWRTCHT: For a while you were doing quite a bit of anthology editing. Any more of that on the horizon?
JL: Maybe another anthology or two on the horizon. Mostly I need to find publishers who want to work with me. I love editing anthos. Great fun. But the administrative side of it is tedious. And I don’t want to fund any more.
SFFWRTCHT: You’re amazingly prolific. Sometimes it seems like everywhere I turn I see a story or book you’ve written. Any advice about dealing with rejection?
JL: Yeah, the million bad words theory. I wrote and submitted regularly from 1990 to 2001 before making my first sale. Probably about 800,000 words of first draft before I broke in. At this point, I’ve probably written close to 3,000,000 words of first draft and sold over 2,000,000 of those words. I still get rejected all the time. More often than I get accepted, I think. Submitting fiction is kind of like dating. It helps to be cheerful and bullet-resistant. Did I ever want to quit? Lots of times. But I kept going. Because, well, this is what I wanted. And it’s been years since the last time I wanted to quit. Success is its own reward. It takes an inordinate amount of self-motivation to get this far, though.
But you can also support Jay by buying his books, so click here for Kalimpura. And if you pray, do keep him in your prayers. Regardless, thanks for your support!
About Jay Lake:
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on multiple writing and editing projects. His 2007 book Mainspring received a starred review in Booklist. His short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his Web site at www.jlake.com
About Bryan Thomas Schmidt:
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the editor of Blue Shift Magazine and an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exoduswill appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends from Delabarre Publishing. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press (July 2013), headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, and Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age for Every Day Publishing (November 2013). He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.
In 2009 when I started writing The Worker Prince, my debut science fiction novel, I had no idea what urban fantasy was. Of course, as I got into the industry and reading I heard bits and pieces. True Blood showed up and I met and became friends with Kat Richardson and John A. Pitts whose novels fell in that category. One of the advantages of hosting Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat is that I get sent tons of books to read and deliberately book and ask for a variety of genres. So I finally managed to read John and Kat’s books and I loved them. I have never been that into paranormal. Poltergeist was amusing but silliness. I do believe in spirits but I’m don’t think about ghosts a lot, and vampires and zombies to me are about the most tired things out there. It takes a lot to get me interested in them. I loved Anne Rice’s series and that did it for me on vamps. Zombies have just never interested me. Let dead people stay in the ground. Just a body. Meh. On the other hand, urban fantasy is huge with tons of bestselling authors, including Charlaine Harris, Jim Butcher, Kat Richardson…need I go on? So of course SFFWRTCHT needs to cover it and I need to be aware.
Now, I simply love it! One of my favorite genres and someday I will write some. I have ideas in development now, in fact. I read 52 books a year just for chat plus extras for blogging on SFSignal, etc. and blurbs, which I get asked for now. Usually 70 books at least is around the number, so it may take me a while to get through a lot of stuff (no Hamilton or Butcher yet). But these 9 are the Urban fantasy I’ve read so far. And I loved all of them for different reasons. They’re quite distinctive from each other.
1) Greywalker by Kat Richardson – Harper Blaine is a P.I. who died after an attack for two minutes then came back with the ability to see spirits. Yep, she’s a Greywalker now, and this series has gotten deserved high praise. [See Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Paul Goat Allen raving about them here. ]These are bestsellers for a reason and the seventh book, Seawitch, just arrived this month. Mysteries with Harper investigating and dealing with all kinds of spooky creatures from vampires to ghosts, etc., they are well paced with a great noir feel and make good use of their Pacific Northwest settings. From the cover description, although I like Kat as a person a lot, I was not at all sure I’d enjoy her books. Never have I been so wrong. I’ve read two so far and own all but the latest. Cannot wait to find time to read them!
2) Sarah Beauhall by John A. Pitts – Another where I love the writer as a person but the description didn’t enthrall me. And again, I was soooo wrong. (Are you noticing a pattern?) Pitts has taken the old tropes and made them new with this one. Also set in the Pacific Northwest, Sarah Beauhall is a blacksmith apprentice and movie props maven whose prop sword turns out to be a magical dragon killing sword. The magical dragon killing sword. And she finds this out, of course, by encountering someone looking for the sword to kill dragons. But these are not the green, scaly dragons of legend and lore just yet. They are men and women who work on Wall Street and various places. And when their schemes begin to threaten Sarah and her world, she puts her sword to good use. Great fight sequences, a fun play with an SCA-like reenactment group, nice humor, and a touch of romance with Sarah struggling to open up to her girlfriend. Packing enough testosterone-laced action to satisfy male readers and enough romantic emotional moments to please female readers, this series is for everyone and books 2 and 3 are out too. Fantastic!
3) Jane Yellowrock by Faith Hunter – A member of the illustrious Magical Words blog team with David B. Coe, amongst others, Hunter has been inspired by Anne Rice but made vampire tales set in New Orlean’s her own. If you read my introduction, you already know I would not have picked me up if her publicist hadn’t scheduled her for SFFWRTCHT. I’m so glad she did. The last of her kind, a part Cherokee vampire hunter and skinwalker capable of shapeshifting into any creature she wants, Jane’s been hired by Katherine Fontaneau, one of the oldest vampires in New Orleans and the madam of Katie’s Ladies, to hunt a powerful rogue vampire who’s killing other vamps. In the process, she gets more than she bargained for when her employer is murdered and Jane winds up working for Leo, the head vampire of the entire region. In subsequent books, she works with Leo to investigate incidents involving other vampires, even heading off to North Carolina at one point as a mediator. Jane is not the dainty heroine but an ass kicking, motorcycle riding, take no prisoners badass, but yet Hunter manages to write the books with no gratuitous sex, violence or language, keeping it PG despite the violence. And I doubt you’d have noticed if I hadn’t said that. Great writing, inventive worldbuilding and pure fun. Highly recommended.
4) Hallie Michaels by Deborah Coates– Brand new, the first book having just arrived a few months back, this series surprised me too. A new author sent to me by Alexis Nixon, publicist at TOR, Coates’ stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Fantasy and Science Fiction and Best American Fantasy, amongst other places. Hallie Michaels is a soldier fighting a war in Afghanistan when she’s called home for her sister’s funeral. The police and townsfolk say “suicide,” but Hallie can’t believe it and her investigation into it uncovers a startling plot that endangers the entire town. Something magical or supernatural is going on and a trail of bodies are associated with it. She soon discovers someone she used to know is responsible and winds up fighting for her life. I don’t know where book 2 will take us when it comes out, but Coates used the rural South Dakota setting masterfully in Wide Open and I can’t wait to read more!
5) Sookie Stackhouse by Charlaine Harris – I came to this series late, after already watching the TV show, because I was invited to interview Harris. (Confession: yes, I watch True Blood despite my lack of interest in vampires. It hooked me early on and I can’t look away, okay? Is that so wrong? Plus, I have a crush on Anna Paquin…) The books are better than the series and filled with great humor, southern charm and fun. I really enjoyed these. Told solely from Sookie’s quirky point of view, these are fast, can’t put them down reads. I can’t wait to read more.
6) Control Point by Myke Cole – Not your typical urban fantasy, Cole, a veteran of the Gulf War, has envisioned a contemporary world with various types of magic. The military even has a special unit assigned to hunt down rogue users. A few with the approved classes of magic actually work for the military, but then Oscar Britton finds out he’s a portomancer–ah oh, verbotten–and he’s forced to run, leaving everything behind. Caught and interned for training by the military he’s sworn to serve, he discovers the gift is the least of his worries. An evil magical force is on the rise and this Army officer must save the world or else. Packed with action and intrigue and great characters, Cole takes you inside military life in an intimate way and still makes you believe its a world where magic could happen. Gritty and powerful, this book opened my eyes to possibilities for creativity I hadn’t imagined and it’ll open yours too.
7) Grigori Legacy by Linda Poitevin – Ah, angels, the tired 80s trope are back. I booked Linda for chat and expected to be bored. Instead, I found myself reading two detective thrillers that just happened to have angels in them. Heaven and hell are at war and humans are caught in between, including homicide detective Alexandra Jarvis whose investigation of a serial killer points to a surprising and unusual suspect. Yes there’s angels and a romance between an angel and a human. Yes, there’s God and the Devil and some Catholic theological worldbuilding used here, but Poitevin used it to enhance worldbuilding not to sell an ideology or religion. Gritty, intense, fast-paced and engaging. Another set of books you won’t want to put down until you reach the end.
8 ) Low Town by Daniel Polansky – Another departure and one that’s hard to classify but I’m putting it here. Unlike the others, it’s not set in our contemporary world but a fictional medieval -type world and the protagonist is a disgraced intelligence agent and forgotten war hero turned independent drug dealer. Yes, that’s right. Known as the Warden, he leads a life of crime, addicted to cheap violence and expensive drugs as he constantly hustles for customers and protecting his turf from competition. Then he discovers a murdered child and feels compelled to discover who’s responsible. The mission finds him caught up in a dangerous game of deception between underworld bosses and the psychotic head of Black House intelligence bureau that once employed him. What he finds is far more sinister and dark than he’d ever imagined. Noir and action packed, Polansky has invented a genre almost. He mixes epic/adventure fantasy and urban fantasy with detective noir seamlessly and it’s a compelling debut. Book 2 arrives this Fall.
9) Magic Ex Libris by Jim C. Hines – Hines switches from Goblins and fairy tale princesses to an urban fantasy about Libriomancers, basically people who can pull magic from books and use it in the contemporary world. Hines is a smartass in real life and it extends to his writing, but that’s okay, because the book is laugh out loud funny as a result and endears you tot he characters. This is a voice you’ll be willing to spend time with for a while, and it won’t be long because Libriomancer is a fast, compelling read. Isaac Vainio, a member of the secret order of Libriomancers founded by Johannes Gutenberg himself (yes, that Gutenberg), Isaac is attacked by vampires that leaked from the pages of books into our world and barely manages to escape. Then he discovers his mentor has been killed and Gutenberg himself kidnapped and a hot, motorcyle-riding dryad shows up asking him to help track down her former lover, leading to their discovery of a dark power that’s manipulating both vampires and humans and causing major havoc. Hines cleverly incorporates the mythos of every vampire world you’ve encountered, creating a world of vampire types and layers, and throws in books by famous authors real and imagined as well. Fun, fast-paced, with plenty of action and good coming of age and romantic arcs, this book was a delightful way to while away hours. I can’t wait for the second one, coming from Daw next year.
So there you have 9 Urban Fantasy series that I think you’ll really like. Great weekend, summer or Fall reads to keep you entertained and remind you why you love books. I’m looking for more to read now. So what are some of your favorite Urban Fantasies? I’d love to hear about them in comments. Oh, and click here to buy any of these books,too. For what it’s worth… To the writers, I love you guys!
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. A freelance editor, he’s edited novels and nonfiction and also hosts Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.
Imagine, if you will, the dark streets of Boston. Trouble is afoot, a revolution against the wealthy and the authorities. Equality and justice are demanded by protesting crowds, some of which get out of hand at times, leading to smoky, dark nights. Add to that ghosts and dark magic at hand, a secret sorcerer working his will in the midst of the chaos. Sounds like a pretty good urban fantasy, right?
Now imagine all this is occurring during the Stamp Act uprising in the 18th Century. Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty, the original Tea Party, the Colonists stirring against the British Crown.
D.B. Jackson’s debut alternate history novel is the tale of a thieftaker, one who hunts down stolen property for a fee and returns it to its rightful owners. What separates him from his competition, however, is Ethan’s gift for conjuring. He was born with the gift, inherited from his mother, and now Ethan Kaille is called upon to investigate the theft of a brooch off the neck of a murdered daughter of one of Boston’s wealthy merchants. Murders are not the sorts of crimes men like Ethan typically get involved with, but the girl’s cause of death is undetermined and some believe conjuring was involved, and so Ethan promises to find the stolen brooch and return it, revealing what he also discovers about the murderer in the process.
But once he gets involved, finding himself haunted by ghosts and voices of not just the dead daughter but others who’ve died in similar fashion, attacked by his main rival, Sephira Pryce, a thieftaker who rules the city in ways less honorable than Ethan and many of her trade, and hunted by the authorities. Drawn into an unfolding mystery by his compulsion to understand and his desire to set things right, Ethan uncovers a dark conspiracy that brings him into encounters with the British leadership, upper crust merchants, and even Samuel Adams himself.
Jackson is the nom de plume of a well respected fantasy writer with numerous fantasies under his belt. And his skill at prose, worldbuilding, and character development shine through on every page. Add to this his degree in history and passion for that, and you have a book that drips with authenticity, despite the fantastical elements wove into the historical narrative. Colonial Boston really comes alive here, and the story draws you in quickly, compelling you to read onward with every page.
Alternate history is as tricky as working in a contemporary setting because so much documentation and knowledge exists that one has to study hard and tread carefully in order to use history both responsibly, meaningfully and fairly in weaving a fictional tale around and within it, while still crafting elements which would appeal to the genre fans for whom the book will be primarily targeted. But my opinion is that any fan of history, particularly Revolutionary War America, would love Thieftaker. And I think it’s a not to be missed start of a new not to be missed series.
Jackson is scheduled to follow next year with Thieve’s Quarry and everything from the beautiful cover art to the prose, dialogue and settings works together to bring this charming, authentic, well paced tale to life. It’s unique and yet familiar. And it’s one of my favorite reads of 2012 so far. Highly recommended!
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited novels and nonfiction. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.
It’s that time of year again. And I find myself reflecting on a year filled with books. I read 52 books a year just for SFFWRTCHT alone. And this year, between guest blog posts, reviews, research, and more, I added at least 23 more books on top of that. I lost count, truthfully, and I’m not going to go through Goodreads to find out. So we’ll say I read 75 and call that close enough. In any case, this list is not a ranking of everything I read. Instead, I’ve chosen to list books which most impacted me as far as opening my eyes to possibilities. The books on this list either showed me new genres, new ways of looking at old genres, or new approaches to them in ways which have stuck with me and left me thrilled and challenged as both writer and reader. With that in mind, here’s my 2011 Personal Top Reads:
1) The Flying Machine by Andrew Mayer — Okay, steampunk’s been done already. Cherie Priest mastered it, we’ve all heard. Gibson, Powers, Jeter and Blaylock launched it. But wait. Here comes a new writer whose not only done it but added superheroes and written a tale the likes of which we haven’t seen since Jules Verne? The Society Of Steam series launched with The Flying Machine and steampunk has never been so fun. A great read, with fun characters, good action and good humor.
2) Soulless by Gail Carriger — And speaking of humor, nothing made me laugh more than Gail Carriger’s Soulless, the first of four Parasol Protectorate books in her original series and now she’s just about to launch a new one. Werewolfs, vampires, Victorian England, even the Queen herself appear amidst the quirky characters. This is fun and funny. A great read.
3) Greywalker/Downpour by Kat Richardson — Harper Blaine was just your average, small time Pacific Northwest PI until a man beats her to death. In those two minutes, while she’s dead, something changes her forever. When she comes back, Harper can see dead people. Not in a ‘Call Bruce Willis, Mommy, this is odd” kind of way but a “Hey, Drac, you been taking your vitamins? You’re pale as a ghost kind of way.” Vampires, Ghosts, magic and witches transform her life. Written in 2006 I can easily understand why this urban fantasy novel took off, and the sixth book, Downpour, from 2011, is just as good. Harper’s now used to her powers, so to speak, and so are the undead used to having her around. This time she witnesses a ghostly car accident whose victim blames a nearby small resort community. When Harper goes to check it out, she finds a sinister cabal gathering forces with a dark art and she must stop them before it’s too late. Great characters, great use of Pacific Northwest locations, great mystery elements and pacing that carry you suspensefully through to the end.
4) Diving Into The Wreck by Kristine Kathryn Rusch — Kris Rusch is no stranger to most of you, she also writes mysteries as Kristine Grayson and edited the mighty Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for several years. In this great new space opera series of which two books are out this year and another follows in early 2012, the protagonist, Boss loves to dive historical ships found adrift between the stars. Sometimes for money, but mostly as a historian. She wants to know about the past—to experience it firsthand. Then one day, Boss finds the claim of a lifetime: an enormous spacecraft, incredibly old, and apparently Earth-made. It shouldn’t be here. It can’t be here. And yet, it is. Boss is determined to investigate and so hires a group of divers to explore the wreck with her, but the past won’t give up its treasures without blood. Really good stuff based on several short stories which have appeared in Analog.
5) The Disappeared/Consequences (Retreival Artist) by Kristine Kathryn Rusch — her other series started from short stories, about former cop turned retreival artist Miles Flint starts with The Disappeared and continued through 7 novels with an 8th coming out this month. Flint helps hunted innocents, convicted of crimes against alien races which they don’t really understand and didn’t intentionally commit, to hide themselves and start new lives, to disappear. But somehow his clients turn up dead. Someone is hunting them or revealing their identities and Miles has to stop them. Great books with a combination of space opera SF and mystery-police procedural elements. A whole lot of fun. With some well developed, interesting alien cultures.
6) The Unremembered by Peter Orullian — A musical magic system where spells are sung? Need I say more? Well how about this, if you’re mourning the coming end of The Wheel Of Time, you’ve got seven books ahead of you in Orullian’s Vault of Heaven series. Yep. And this first one reminded me how much I love epic fantasy. It’ll remind you too. Great characters, great worldbuilding, epic good v. evil. And musical magic. Who could ask for anything more?
7) The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams — Ok this one’s been around a while. 1988 copyright. But I’d never read it and I am having a ball. It’s a long, dense book with lots of characters and description and there are three more books to follow, the last in two parts, but there’s a reason this series has been hailed as epic fantasy on a Tolkien-esque scale. An epic evil is rising and two brothers are fighting over their father’s throne, threatening to divide a kingdom. Great stuff, rich settings, action, and characters with politicking, dragons, trolls and more.
8 ) Goblin Corps by Ari Marmell –Ari Marmell has written D&D adventure packs and tie-ins, but in Goblin Corps he writes a heroe’s adventure with the bad guys as heroes. That’s right, top goblins including an orc, a kobol, a bugbear, a troll, a doppleganger, an ogre and a gremlin are sent by the Goblin king to recover objects of power that will reverse the course the Dark Lord’s defeat, only to uncover a more sinister plot that threatens them all. They’re not the easiest group to like or root for yet Marmell pulls it off and never stops entertaining with good action and humor along the way.
9) Black Blade Blues by John A. Pitts — John A. Pitts’ urban fantasy series about apprentice blacksmith Sarah Beauhall was one of the best surprises of the year for me. Anyone who’s ever hung out with SCA members or gone to a Ren fest will appreciate this story, about dragons taking over the financial power as brokers and businessmen who come up against an ancient dragon killing sword when Sarah uncovers it while doing props for a movie. They come to destroy it and try and destroy her in the process and Sarah fights back to save her lover and her friends. Great coming of age drama, good humor, and a lot of fun. A great read all around. And book 2 arrived late this year.
10) Pathfinder Tales: Plague Of Shadows by Howard Andrew Jones — Howard Andrew Jones, Managing Editor at Black Gate Magazine and editor of many anthologies of classics from the likes of Harold Lamb, etc. burst onto the scene with two terrific novels this year, Desert of Souls, with Asim and Dabir–follow ups coming in 2012 and beyond– and this Pathfinder Tales D&D tie-in. I’d never read any D&D books before and I imagined silly stops in the action for the characters to roll dice and other game-play nonsense but there’s no such thing. This is good adventure, sword and sorcery fantasy with strong characters, a well thought out world and magic system, and a lot of fun. I had a blast. Made me want to get back into D&D regularly again after twenty years and I’ve read several others since. Good stuff for the fantasy lover in this line.
11) Firebird by Jack McDevitt — The third SF title on my list is part of an ongoing series about the antiquities agent Alex Benedict and his assistant Chase Kolpath as they help wind up the estates of the deceased deep in a distant solar system only to uncover deeper mysteries surrounding the objects and the people themselves. This time reknowned Physicist Christopher Robin has disappeared and left a trail of interstellar yachts flown far outside the planetary system where they too vanished. Following Robin’s trail into the unknown puts Benedict and Kolpath in danger. McDevitt writes like a classic Golden Age writer, which anyone who’s read my posts here knows sold me right away. Just a lot of fun with good SF elements to boost the mystery.
12) The Black Prism by Brent Weeks — Gavin Guile is the Prism, the most powerful man in the world, high priest and emperor, a man whose power, wit, and charm are all that preserves a tenuous peace. But Prisms never last, and Guile knows exactly how long he has left to live: Five years to achieve five impossible goals. When he discovers he has a son, born in a far kingdom after the war that put him in power, he must decide how much he’s willing to pay to protect a secret that could tear his world apart. Great magic system. Great characters. Great action. Epic fantasy in a unique setting with lots of tension and excellent pacing. Weeks was new to me but he already has the best selling Night Angel Trilogy and you won’t want to miss this new one either. Book 2 comes in Fall 2012.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novelThe Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.