Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Firedancer - and SA Bolich on weaving a rich tale

by S.A. Bolich
Sky Warrior Books (2011)

Review by Clare Deming

In Firedancer, S.A. Bolich introduces us to a fascinating world in which Clans have power over the elements of fire, wind, earth, and water. This is more than elemental magic though, and the way in which Bolich weaves her world together creates an organic tapestry of cultures that is completely convincing. At the heart of this first volume is Jetta Ak'Kal, a Firedancer of the third rank.

The story opens when a fire erupts in Jetta's home village of Firehome Vale, and we instantly see that this fire is not a simple thing. The opening line gives the perfect description:

This fire was malicious.

A delicate balance exists between the Ancient - the deepest fire that smolders beneath the earth - and the Clans that remain vigilant against it. Trapped underground, the Ancient perpetually searches for a way to reach the abundant fuel on the surface. Jetta has fought against this fire all her life, like all Firedancers, using a learned Dance, the moves and forms passed down from master to student. In her previous assignment in the village of Setham, Jetta's Dance failed, and she lost her lifemate, her reputation, and her confidence.

Healed in body, but not in spirit, Jetta is given a new assignment in Annam Vale, a mountain village where the Delvers mine the containment stone used throughout the land to build fireproof structures. Yet rumors tell that Windriders also inhabit the distant village, and when fire is fed by the wind, catastrophe could result.

On arrival in Annam Vale, Jetta meets both encouragement and resistance from the Delvers. Yet it is the abrasive and secretive Windriders that provide her with unique challenges as she works to unravel the mysteries of the Vale. For Old Man Fire has started to resist the Dance. The forms and patterns that Jetta has always known no longer work as they should, and she must use all her resources to discover a solution before fire escapes from the mines beneath the town.

This book was nearly impossible to put down, with compelling characters and such an original concept that I was driven to discover more about this world. Bolich has infused so many details into the cultures - whether it's a Firedancer's braided hair and dance leathers, or the carvings made by a Delver - that I found myself completely enraptured.

The threat of the Ancient lurked beneath all of the other plot threads, creating an ever-present tension. As the story progressed, multiple subplots emerged that added complications of politics, love and jealousy, mistrust, and tragedy. And it all flowed naturally from very real characters. Firedancer is the first book in a planned trilogy that is off to a great start.

Interview with SA Bolich, conducted by Ann Wilkes.

AW: When did you first start writing fantasy?

SAB: When I was 14 my best friend lent me her copy of The Lord of the Rings, doling out each book one at a time. I flew through them in three successive days. And then I immediately sat down and began to write my own Tolkien-inspired epic. The first two are still in my drawer. I never finished the third, but it taught me a lot and I still use elements of it in some of my stories.

AW: Who were your major influences, both authors and those who encouraged you in your craft?

SAB: I read in a lot of genres. My favorite authors when I was a teen were Andre Norton’s YA SF and fantasy stories and Rosemary Sutcliff, who wrote awesome historical fiction. I very much enjoyed Anne McCaffrey’s dragons and Heinlein’s SF and pretty much everything else I could get my hands on. I won my first writing contest in the 6th grade; my 9th grade English teacher wanted me to try and publish some of my stories. In high school my teachers encouraged my writing in every way they could, and I’m grateful to them, because they somehow stuck it in my brain that I should nurture the writing spark that has never quite gone out no matter how much life has gotten in the way.

AW: Where did you get the idea of the dancers who control elements?

SAB: Heh. Good question. I distinctly remember the first line of Firedancer landing in my brain. Like all of my stories, the thing built itself. When my fingers start on the keys, I truly am never sure what is going to fall out. Things appear that have zero meaning until a few sentences farther on, and then I think “aha!” But after Jetta first began to dance on page two, the whole story took off and all at once the correlation between fire and the Dancers who fight it fell into place.

AW: Your prose is so rich, your characters so well-drawn. Where did you learn to write so descriptively? Do all the descriptions come in the first draft or do you go back and flesh out the scenes and characters later?

SAB: Description has always come easily to me. I’m fortunate, I guess, in having lived in many interesting places and grown up on a farm, forever outside running around in the dirt and the wind and the rain atop a horse. It has embedded a great deal of sensory memory into my bones, I think. I remember when I was still in junior high I started writing a historical novel about a girl from the hills of Tennessee who came west. I handed my mother two versions of the first page and asked her which she liked better. She handed me back one and said “This one. I feel like I’m there.” Sometimes I let the scenery get too rich, which interrupts the pacing, and have to cut it back. In fact, my editor made me put in a lot of sensory detail I had left out of Firedancer because I was afraid of stretching the word count and slowing the story too much. Now I’m hearing all kinds of good things about the richness of the writing in Firedancer and how it really puts people into the story. So…I guess I will follow my instincts and continue to wrap words around what I visualize in my head. Not everyone will like it, but my personal taste leans toward really rounded descriptions of the worlds I visit. I just like the big fat doorstop books, I guess.

I often do flesh out the bare bones of a scene in the revision, but more often I find myself cutting rather than adding.

AW: I know you're a co-founder of Other World's Writers' Workshop. Would you like to tell my readers more about that?

SAB: I am always happy to pitch www.otherworlds.net. It’s one of the oldest genre workshops on the Web, founded in 1998 and hosted at Yahoo Groups (OWWW) since 1999. It is an all-levels workshop, from beginners to pros. The critiques are detailed and intense, because we warn people up front we are geared toward publication. We’re not a reading group and we thin out the lurkers every month to keep people focused on actually writing and submitting and improving their work. We have some wonderful writers who have progressed from pretty raw beginners to published authors.

AW: When can readers get a hold of the next volume?

SAB: Windrider comes out in April 2012.

AW: Do you have shorter works readers can find online or in e-book format?

SAB: I have many stories out at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, On Spec, Damnation Books, Science Fiction Trails, and several other magazines and ezines. I also have stories in the Wolfsongs 2 and Defending the Future IV: No Man’s Land anthologies. My short ebook Who Mourns for the Hangman? is available along with Firedancer pretty much everywhere ebooks are sold.

AW: What are you working on now?

SAB: I am in the final revision stage with Windrider and then I will start on the next book, tentatively titled Seaborn, that will come out in 2013.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Gezlinger's Knot - exciting possibilities

"Gezlinger’s Knot", Book 1: Traveling Rimside Blues
By JG Nair/J. William Myers
Mutant Horse 2011

Review by Lyda Morehouse

The world of Gezlinger’s Knot is nifty, a cool as heck concept and is accompanied by Myer’s strong visuals that evoke a kind of cross between “Blade Runner” and “Road Warrior.”

In a future where we’ve destroyed the ecosystem beyond repair, Earth is now a wasteland riddled with plague and pestilence and freakish mutations. Most of humanity survives in the remaining domed cities, while a few rugged individuals brave the soup of disease looking for clean genetic code to sell to gene tailors who can rebuild extinct animals for fun and profit.

The story starts with Jim Gambol, a gene trader, and because things begin with him one must presume he’s ultimately the hero of this tale. Unfortunately, I learned much more about him in the publicity materials attached to the comic than I did in the first issue. What we see of him in this book has minimal emotional impact. There seems to be a lot of wandering around the rim (another cool concept – a subculture that exists in the maintenance spaces between the dome proper and the outside,) but, otherwise, there’s not a lot in the text to latch on to. I have no sense of what’s at stake for him, or why I should care.

That could be a massive fail, but the last couple chapters follow a free trader (one of the brave/insane souls who venture outside) called Jobeam and his awesome mutant horse, Stogo. (I can’t explain it, but I really loved this horse.) I found myself much more emotionally attached to both of them because they faced an immediate conflict – the dangers of outside. Their section also ended is a startling cliffhanger that left me wanting more, right now!

My only regret is that the first part of the issue was not as strong as the last. However, as a science fiction reader, I can wait. I was given enough of a taste that I can be patient for the story to progress. Thus, the debut issue functions as a successful hook and the good news is that subsequent issues are planned every 1 – 2 months, with a graphic novel compellation when the story is finished.

If episode two delivers Jim Gambol’s conflict and thus, engages the reader in his story, I think “Gezlinger’s Knot” will spin a
marvelously rich, exciting tale.

Monday, November 21, 2011

My negative review of an anonymous book

Title (I can't tell you)
Author (I so can't tell you)
Review by Ann Wilkes

I read a bad book through to the end yesterday. No I haven't devolved back into that person who thinks she has to finish everything she starts - even a bad book. If I tell you the reason, you might figure out what book it was. Since I'm going to pull no punches about why it was bad and why I wanted to throw it across the room, I can't tell you the title. I have already established in my guidelines that I don't post negative reviews, and I'm not likely to read another bad book any time soon, so my guidelines will have to stand. That's enough of my preamble. I'm going to deliver this review of an anonymous book as a sanitized (no title, author names, character names, etc.) critique.

Dear writer,
Good for you that you put yourself out there and your novel was published. When I learned the topic of the book and it's connection to XYZ, I felt compelled to read it. I was looking forward to it, even.

I had been reading another book that has a large cast of characters and a grand scope with myriad complex issues. More work than I was ready for just then. So, finding out what an easy read yours was felt like a relief. Ahhhh. A book I can wiz through on the weekend.

However, around page 100, I'm getting sick of your one-dimensional protag who goes through life in a Pollyanna way, never making mistakes and solving problems with the greatest of ease. Where's the conflict? Where's the tension?

On page 236, I read the fly to see what the book is actually supposed to be ABOUT. Some of the stuff on the jacket had not happened yet and didn't even get introduced until the last third of the book. I want to know about those stakes and that conflict way sooner. I need way less of your protag's wonderful ninja career skills in minute detail. OK. I get you know your subject. You're an expert. But please give me a story. A plot!

And that first two-thirds would have been half as long if you paired down all the info dumps, eliminated all the wordy language and repetition, and quit telling me about every single opening and closing door.

We all have pet phrases. It's OK if your characters have them, but the narration shouldn't. Don't tell me character A completely understood this, that and the other, and the other. Sometimes, perhaps they knew full well, or grasped the subject. And please don't have them always hating to admit this or that. (The real over-used phrases have been changed to protect the author.)

And we all have favorite mannerisms. But not everyone in the room is a hand wringer or a lint picker. Give them different ones, please. The mannerisms should set them apart, not make them homogenized.

So, you decided to throw in a romantic interest. Good for you. I don't mind a little romance in my sci-fi, so long as it doesn't take over. This did the opposite. Those few tender moments were all tell, no show. I'm not asking for graphics, here. They're only kisses. But don't tell me he or she felt thrilled. Show me what it looked like. Have (we'll say her) touch her lips after (we'll say he) walks away, or have the lips quiver before the kiss. Something.

And twice during a kiss, the protag suddenly has eyes in back of (we'll say his this time) head and knows what the other people in the room are doing. The whole thing is in his Point of View until he's lip-locked. Then suddenly it's an omniscient POV.

Also, there's a chapter toward the end that is in another character's POV. I just wish you had done that sooner and more often. It came out of left field so far into the book.

Now about that ending. I'm so totally not a happily ever after kind of writer, but wow. That was brutal. But as brutal as the protag's loss was, the protag still spouted advice about coping to everyone else and didn't fall apart. Perfect to the last. I get that he might be in shock and will fall apart later, but he was way too peachy and preachy. At least if you're gonna give your character a blow like that, have him grieve, grow and change.

But you got published. So, there's that.

Wow! I feel so much better. I just hope no one guesses the book - especially the author - since I've seriously ripped his or her book to shreds.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Trailer House - Get your geek on

You've had a hard week. Look both ways, put on the head phones and get your geek on.

On the other hand, if your week's been super hard, this will definitely not cheer you up. That apocalyptic trend is still going strong.

And here's a free read:

Phoenix Pick’s free ebook for November is Paul Cook’s “The Engines of Dawn.”

The coupon code is 9991522 and will be good from November 2
through November 30
. Get the e-book download at PPickings.com.

The great engines of the Enamorati have enabled humanity to travel the
stars, but at what cost? Little is known of the jealously guarded engines
while a complacent humanity slowly loses its edge and becomes increasingly
dependent on mysterious alien technologies.

However, when an engine failure strands a university ship, Professor Ben
Bennet and a group of students challenge the status quo and start
discovering hidden secrets that threaten the future of humanity itself.

“A lot of contemporary SF satisfies but doesn’t excite. Cook’s latest
delivers everything you could want”—Science Fiction Chronicle

At www.PhoneixPick.com you can also enter to win a membership to Worldcon in Chicago (Chicon 7) which includes dinner with GOH, Mike Resnick.

Monday, November 14, 2011

OryCon Blew Me Away

Con Report by Ann Wilkes

Can we do it again next weekend? I had a ball at OryCon in Portland, OR last weekend. I sat on 9 panels, did my pro bit at the writer's workshop and read at the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading (twice).

The Writer's Workshop was my first gig at 5PM on Friday. It went well, but could have used more time. We had 3 pros and 3 victims-er beginning writers. Each writer heard a critique from their peers and the pros and then had 5 mins for questions all in an hour. If you do the math, you will see that it simply does not add up. We did the best we could and handed over very detailed crits to the authors.

Who would have guessed that "To Outline or Not to Outline, that is the question" would be an animated, fun panel? We had fearless moderator, MK Hobson, who is the anal outliner, Alma Alexander whom you couldn't pay to produce an outline and Peter A. Smalley, who mostly does outline, but not in as much detail (70 pages, really? ) as Mary. I just hope we weren't having so much fun that we forgot about the audience. ;) And where do I stand? An outline? Only if I'm desperately trying to find my way out of blind alley and then only a couple sentences per chapter, no tiered structure.

"Women Role Models in Science Fiction" sort of morphed into a study of the shifts in gender roles and how both sexes are still figuring things out in the real world. The fact that a strong female role model is not a warrior with tits was only the beginning.

I moderated "That's gotta hurt!" with GOH EE Knight on my left and Rory Miller, with a gory photo album of real injuries, on my right. We went the full gamut from torturing characters with set backs, to nearly killing them, to killing everyone around them. And Rory kept it real, with real-life examples, the physical and emotional cost and what doesn't work.

Aimee Amodo and I delivered "How to give a stellar reading". Aimee talked about all the things that make writers - or anyone - afraid to speak or read before a crowd. We went on to list numerous tips to make your reading the performance it should be. Then came the fun part. I asked for volunteers (very forcefully - ;) ) to deliver readings to work on their voice inflection, volume, modulation, eye contact and body language. So they wouldn't be distracted by unfamiliar words, I had them use nursery rhymes. Imagine hearing Humpty Dumpty and Three Blind Mice as a eulogy, Mary Had a Little Lamb as a candidate speech and others as a newscast or an acceptance speech. And Aimee charmed us with one as William Shatner. Fun stuff.

I actually learned stuff on the "How to Prepare a Manuscript" panel from my fellow panelists, moderator John C Bunnell, Patrick Swenson and Camille Alexa.

Mary Robinette Kowal deftly moderated the "Alien Etiquette" panel. The discussion continued to lead back to how hard it is to come up with aliens who are more alien than some isolated tribes on our own planet. We mostly take a custom that is odd to us and push it to the extreme or invert one. And the devil's in the details. We have to come up with the cultural norms, manners and behaviors for our aliens that fit their unique setting and circumstances.

I had a ball moderating "Blah, blah blah, she said". We had five or six pros (including GOH EE Knight and William F. Nolan) who never tired of sharing dialog don'ts and giving examples of best practices.

My last panel on Saturday was a Feedback Workshop, the expected structure of which no one understood. As moderator, I sort of winged it based on who showed up and what they expected to get from it. It turned out fine and I think everyone had something to take away.

Sunday I was glad to be the traffic cop for "A Touch of Farmer, a Pinch of LeGuin" since I was the least-well-read person on the panel. Just going down the table sharing our influences took half of our time. Writers are passionate about good writing.

While reading at the Broad Universe reading, a crying baby made its entrance. I had no trouble speaking over the dear, but BU host extraordinaire, MeiLin Miranda felt bad, and since we fired a little more rapidly than expected, I was able to read a second piece that I had brought in case I couldn't shave the first one down to the required five minutes. I read an excerpt from a story I'll be sending out later this week after a few more final touches and my fractured fairy tale that always gets a roomful of laughs, "Troll Games".

Friday night after my panel marathon, I hosted a dinner with Broad Universe pals and other con friends. I should have got off my tush and taken more pics. I know Joyce took a bunch, but I don't have them yet. Here's what I do have.
Left to right - David A Levine, MeiLin Miranda, Joyce Reynolds-Ward, SA Bolich.

Even though her eyes are closed, this is great of Alma Alexander. That's Brenda Cooper to her left. On my other side were Andrea Howe and her hubby, Jeff. At the other table, besides David and MeiLin, were Mark Ferrari, Shannon Page, Camille Alexa and a couple of Mark's friends.

And across from me were Renee Stern and an unfortunately blurry Rhiannon Held.

At a room party Friday night I became fast friends with Vivian Perry, who lives in Oakland and sings Jazz. Definitely won't wait till the next con to get together with her. She gave me a CD and the girl can sing. ;) And don't you think she looks like Moriarty's girlfriend, the Duchess Bartholomew from STNG?

I also had fabulous conversations with Richard A. Lovett, G. David Nordley, Bob Brown, Amy Thompson, SA Bolich, Brenda Cooper, Alma Alexander, Joyce Reynolds-Ward and many others. After the con, I met my Aunt and cousin Richard and family for lunch. Then my cousin, JoAnn took me to the airport. When she picked me up at the hotel I still had to fetch the books that didn't sell in the dealer's room. I'm pretty sure next year I'll be staying with her and she'll be coming to the con. The dealers room alone bowled her over - yes I snuck her in. But, hey, I converted her for next year. ;)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Psyche's Prophecy might make you look over your shoulder

Psyche's Prophecy
Ann Gimpel
Gypsy Shadow Publishing (2011)

Reviewed by Clare Deming

In Psyche's Prophecy, author Ann Gimpel takes us to a near and possible future in which resources are scarce and rolling blackouts and gasoline shortages are increasing. Amid this burgeoning dystopia, psychotherapist Lara McGinnis stays busy, counseling disturbed teenagers, OCD patients, and couples with marital problems.

The story immediately takes on the trappings of a thriller before delving into the fantasy aspects that are at the heart of this mixed genre tale. Dr. McGinnis learns that patient Ken Beauchamp is abusing his pregnant wife and steps in to offer the woman assistance. Her help comes nearly too late. Mr. Beauchamp puts his wife in the hospital in critical condition, disappears from the authorities, and begins a course of stalking and retaliation upon Dr. McGinnis for her interference.

In her private practice as a psychotherapist, Lara has found that her long-time ability to read auras has always been handy. However, she has more frequent and disturbing visions as the conflict with Mr. Beauchamp and the unpredictable blackouts across the city continue. On top of this, a graduate student, one of her other patients, and even her live-in boyfriend, Trevor, have all had a common dream. Lara tries to solve this mystery while everything else around her spirals deeper into chaos and her visions become darker.

The first half of this book kept me up at night, both as a page-turner and in sympathetic fear for Dr. McGinnis. This is a very good thing if you're a fan of that type of story, but if the thought of having a stalker break into your residence will give you nightmares, then you may want to read this only during daylight hours.

As the story progresses, Lara must face who she is and what her paranormal abilities mean. There are dark forces at work other than Ken Beauchamp, and ancient mythologies turn out to have real relevance to modern life. Lara and Trevor's characterization sparkled as they confronted new facets to Lara's power and the inevitable changes to their world.

In the second half of the book, I felt like the tension lagged. Although to be fair, it was more like the type of tension changed, because this is where the fantasy aspects became heavier. A lot of information about magic, witches, and power is introduced that seems more like buildup for the next volume.

Psyche's Prophecy was recently announced as a Finalist for an EPIC e-book award. While there is a definite conclusion to this book, there are also many questions left unanswered. Psyche's Prophecy is the first book in a planned trilogy and the second volume, Psyche's Search, will be released soon.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Honeyed Words - yeah, they are

Black Blade Blues
Honeyed Words
J.A. Pitts
(TOR, April 2010, July 2011)

Reviewed by Deirdre M. Murphy

Black Blade Blues looked like it would be a fun read. It’s a modern-day adventure with dwarves and dragons, starring a female blacksmith who is dating a bard. Throw in SCA fighters, a Norse god or two, and an ancient, broken sword with runes running down its length, and I figured, how could it go wrong?

And indeed, though there were some places that felt rough, especially in the earlier part of the book, Black Blade Blues proved to be a good solid adventure story. Stuff did go wrong, of course, but in the story, not in the writing. Our hero was faced with an escalating series of challenges that ended in a confrontation between the evil dragon who had kidnapped the love of her life and his minions, which included ogres and trolls, and our hero and her allies. The good gals and guys didn’t win all they wanted to, but they survived (they had to do that—there’s a sequel!)

The world is grittier and more real than I expected from the delightfully disparate ingredients I mention in the first paragraph. The climactic battle is exciting and the end poignant. Black Blade Blues read like a first novel to me, but a solid one, and I’m glad it found its way onto my reading list.

Honeyed Words picks up not too long after Black Blade Blues, though we happily get to skip the hospital and physical therapy bits. Our blacksmith-hero, to her frustration, has found that knitting is helping her burned hand regain function. She sets all of her worries aside to take her girlfriend away for a birthday trip, to go see a friend and ren-faire musician, who made it big, perform.

After the performance (hey—was that a real elf in line?) the musician is kidnapped, elves show up to do mischief, and then our hero ends up working with a very strange blacksmith who has an odd—well, I don’t want to say too much, but more than one strange and magical family legacy is involved, and so are the dragons and both their minions and their opponents. As if that wasn’t enough, someone’s making a magical “blood mead”. These various strange and fascinating things were easy to follow as I read, but seem more complicated now that I’m writing this review and looking at the book structurally, instead of experiencing the adventure.

Honeyed Words more than lives up to the promise of Mr. Pitts’ first book. It’s fun and riveting. The relationships between the various magical peoples, and especially between dragons, gods, and humans, are more complicated than they first appeared (and they are perhaps, less black-and-white). I had trouble putting this book down when it was time for chores or bed. I wanted to see how all the disparate threads in the story came together in the end. I finished the book satisfied and wanting more.

I’m always happy when the second book in a series is better than the first. It just seems wrong when it’s the other way around, but that’s not the only reason. I’ve found that an author whose work gets better cares about the craft of storytelling, and is therefore someone I’m willing to trust my all-too-scant recreation time to again and again. One thing is certain—when the next book, Forged in Fire, comes out next spring, I won’t start reading it on an evening when I have to get up and go to work the next day.