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Posts Tagged ‘other people’s books’

Books read, October 2018

Shadow of the Fox, Julie Kagawa. YA epic fantasy with a Japanese-inspired setting, reviewed here at the New York Journal of Books. I liked the premise of this one, but it didn’t really deliver on the character front, which was a pity.

So You Want to Be a Wizard, Diane Duane. Somehow I missed these books back in the day. I’ve been hearing about them for years, but only just recently picked up the first one. It reminds me a lot of Madeleine L’Engle — a similar feeling to the magic, a similar vibe to the cosmological threat, and a similar impression of kindness and compassion on the character level. My library has all of them in ebook form, which really facilitates mainlining the whole series; I anticipate reading at least several more, though I’ve gotten the impression from friends that there’s a point at which the quality really tapers off.

(I’m also given to understand that the books were revised in recent years. Since I’m reading ebooks, I’m pretty sure it’s the revised version, but I don’t know what changes were made.)

Once and Forever: The Tales of Kenji Miyazawa, trans. John Bester. Another one read for the New York Journal of Books, but that review isn’t live yet. It’s a collection of short stories by an author who lived in the early twentieth century; most of them have the feel of animal fables. On the whole I found them fairly slight, but as with the Duane, there’s a feeling of compassion that was very pleasant spend time with.

The Black Tides of Heaven, JY Yang. First in a series of epic fantasy novellas. I really liked the setting in this one, and the overall shape of the story, but . . . it read to me like the Cliff Notes of the story itself. There were so many things that got disposed of in a single scene, with no setup beforehand or development afterward, and things that got dropped in without prior context — like when one of the characters had to fight someone from their past, except this was the first we’d ever heard of that person, so it really didn’t carry much weight. The plot here elapses over a period of decades, and there’s enough raw material that it easily could have filled a novel. I didn’t dislike the novella, but that’s the problem: because I liked it, I wanted to see all the things in it get properly developed, rather than done on fast-forward.

A Night in the Lonesome October, Roger Zelazny. Been meaning to read this one for ages, but I’d gotten it fixed in my head that I had to read it in October, and furthermore that I had to read it in “real time” — each chapter takes place on a different day in October, and I wanted to read it at that pace. Which is silly and unnecessary, and in fact I screwed up a few times and had to read two or three days’ worth in a sitting. But on the whole I (finally) accomplished what I wanted to. And I enjoyed the book; as my husband says, it does a lovely job with its canine protagonist (and does so while also having a decent feline character, which is a thing not all authors can manage), and I was glad it kept the Lovecraftian stuff mostly alluded to rather than shoving it up in your face. There were some amusing twists, too. And now I have read it, and there’s that small life goal checked off the list.

Books read, August-September

Writing has left me with relatively little time for reading, the last couple of months, and it hasn’t been helped by the sheer size of some of the things I’ve been reading. But I’ve managed to finish a few:

The System of the World, Neal Stephenson. YOU GUYS YOU GUYS I’M DONE. It only took me about five and a half years. Not for this book alone; I apparently started Quicksilver in April 2013, finished it in February 2014, and completed The Confusion some time in mid-2015 (July, August, or September; I lumped all three months together in my post). I was bound and determined to finish this one before September, so I could tell myself it had only been less than three years in the making.

What I said about the previous two persists here: as a novel I don’t think it’s very good, because honestly half the time I had no idea where the story was going. But I enjoyed reading it, which is a different measuring stick entirely. In fact, I kept reading bits of it out to my husband and sister, because there were so many funny moments and hilarious lines. And only Neal Stephenson would make one of the two climactic sequences of the ending a frickin’ Trial of the Pyx.

An Illusion of Thieves, Cate Glass. Read for blurbing purposes. Epic fantasy in a world where magic is illegal, with a main character trying to keep herself and her brother alive and their magic hidden. There’s clearly more being set up here for the long term; the characters resolve the immediate problem, but there’s a bigger question of attempts to reform their society, which are going to take longer to deal with.

Heroine Complex, Sarah Kuhn. Superhero urban fantasy, with Asian main characters, set in San Francisco. There’s a certain pleasure in reading something that takes place in a place you know; there’s also a lot of pleasure in Kuhn’s writing. The main character is actually the assistant to a superheroine, handling her marketing and PR and so forth, but she has a superpower of her own that she’s reluctant to use. I found the climactic plot developments the least satisfying part of it, but the relationships are the real driver here: not just of the romantic sort, but also familial and the friendship between Evie and her boss, which goes back to childhood and has fallen under increasingly untenable strain now that Annie Chang is Aveda Jupiter, Protector of San Francisco. If you can survive wanting to drop-kick Aveda through the back cover, those problems do eventually get addressed; I still want more out of that, but since the second book in the series focuses on Aveda, I suspect there’s more growth coming.

Important Beyond All This: 100 Poems by 100 People, ed. Larry Hammer. I’ve been following Larry’s weekly poetry posts on his blog, and enjoying his selections often enough that I picked up this collection. I didn’t like everything in it; in particular — and to my surprise — I found some of the longer narrative pieces especially hard to get through. They’re of course much shorter than novels, but the ways in which poetry can digress into description etc. meant I kept losing the thread of the story, and wound up feeling like “ugh, why are you using so many words.” But some of the other narrative poems worked fine for me, and I found a number of shorter works that were new to me and quite engaging.

So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo. Picked this one up on the recommendation of Marissa Lingen, who said “I didn’t want to be the progressive white woman who was all ‘oh I don’t need to learn any of this stuff’ and definitely needed to learn this stuff.” Since that was a sentiment I could identify with, I read the book. And while I did know some of it, there were parts that were new — and I especially found it useful to see how Oluo uses the language of abusive relationships to talk about white supremacy and racial prejudice. I can think of ways to use that in explaining concepts like microagressions across to some people.

From Zero to DNF in 3.6 Seconds

There’s a book I was almost done with and about to put on my list of Books Read — until it managed to drive me off in no time flat. And I want to post about why.

Content warning for sexual assault, including upon dead bodies. Which right there is the tl;dr of why I stopped reading, but I want to unpack the situation a bit more.

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Books read, July 2018

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini. Exploration of the principles and techniques used by what Cialdini calls “compliance professionals” — anybody whose job is to get you to go along with them. Salespeople, fundraisers, advertisers, interrogators, con artists, etc. I have to admit it’s a little creepy reading this book, identifying all the knee-jerk reflexes we have and how they can be leveraged against us . . . but also very useful for a writer, because it gives me a more solid grounding for figuring out how to get one character to manipulate another. The six broad categories Cialdini identifies are reciprocity, consistency and commitment, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity; he says up front that he’s leaving out material self-interest because it’s straightforward and self-evident. Just ignore the part in his introduction where he tries to explain participant observation (a bedrock of anthropological fieldwork), because omgwtfbbq no, it isn’t “spying” or “infiltration.”

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Spark of Life: Ruthanna Emrys on DEEP ROOTS

Like most people who don’t know Lovecraft’s fiction all that well, I associate him pretty much entirely with coastal New England towns. I didn’t know, until I read Ruthanna Emrys’ words about her sequel Deep Roots, that he also wrote about New York City. Of course in typical Lovecraftian fashion he found it utterly horrifying — but for Ruthanna, it’s an opportunity for her Deep One protagonist to rebuild her community.

***

Ruthanna says:

DEEP ROOTS by Ruthanna Emrys

The spark for Deep Roots came years before I wrote it. Years before I read Lovecraft, or imagined Aphra’s first steps into freedom as she left the internment camp, or thought up the details of her family’s life beneath the Atlantic. That spark struck, and sputtered out, in half a dozen stories before this one: two chapters of a cyberpunk dystopia in high school, scattered post-apocalyptic dreamworlds, a half-written urban fantasy about magical infrastructure failure. And at long last that spark caught, and burned, for the second Innsmouth Legacy book.

Aphra’s insular community of amphibious humans—considered monsters by their neighbors—was destroyed in a government raid when she was twelve. She spent eighteen years imprisoned, watching her friends and neighbors die one by one in the bone-dry air of the desert internment camp, finally released at the end of World War II into a world she barely recognized. In Winter Tide she returned to the ruins of Innsmouth, hoping to recover the esoteric knowledge buried there. In the process she found new family, made fraught alliance with the government that once caged her, and came away determined to rebuild what they destroyed.

And then what?

Aphra’s story is, among other things, a transformation of H.P. Lovecraft’s wildly creative and infamously bigoted horror stories. Winter Tide took place among his imagined Massachusetts coastal towns: Arkham, Kingsport, and of course the remnants of Innsmouth. Lovecraft found such towns scary because they were full of people not descended from rich white Anglo-Saxons, and also old houses. Aphra finds them scary because they’re full of people who abetted or ignored her family’s destruction.

But small New England towns weren’t the only places that Lovecraft thought terrifying. He spent a few years living in New York City—and his stories and letters from that time are full of vile rants against the immigrants living (and horror of horrors, speaking languages other than English) there.

Some of those immigrants were my family. He described them, or people much like them, with the same language he used for his invented monsters.

My parents moved from New York to rural Massachusetts a few years before I was born. But I grew up visiting the city. I learned to find my way around the subway, and keep my balance as the trains juddered beneath the street. To walk in starling synch through the crowded sidewalks. To gravitate to menus describing all the treasure you can carry through Ellis Island, and love foods that couldn’t be found anywhere on Cape Cod. And every time we crossed the bridge into Queens, I could feel the city’s heartbeat, a thrumming, wakeful energy linking me to millions of people jostling to do those same things.

I tried to write that rhythm, and that sensory palette, for years. The smell of the subway and the primal shriek of the train coming in, the echo of tiled foyers in Greenwich Village, the music of all those languages that Lovecraft feared. And it never quite fit—it didn’t belong to the cyberpunk assassin or the meditative AI. It belonged, it turned out, to Deep Roots.

Of course Aphra would go to New York. It was only logical: she wants to find her remaining relatives on land, and you can find ten of anything there. But New York also accentuated her internal conflicts. Aphra grew up in a small community of people who shared a culture and a faith and a set of assumptions rarely found outside their walls—and she thrived there. But whatever she does, she can’t rebuild that. Even if she finds a town’s worth of people with Deep One ancestry, they won’t have grown up there. They won’t take the same things for granted. The family she’s making for herself now includes people from many cultures, many faiths, many sets of assumptions. So New York, with all that cosmopolitan community that I love and Lovecraft hated, is both the opposite of what she finds comfortable, and the epitome of the new kind of life that intrigues and terrifies her.

So that’s the spark—that rhythm I’ve felt since childhood and can imagine in my sleep, finally finding its place in a late ‘40s New York full of Deep Ones and aliens and—truly terrifying—ordinary humans.

***

From the cover copy:

Ruthanna Emrys’ Innsmouth Legacy, which began with Winter Tide and continues with Deep Roots, confronts H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos head-on, boldly upturning his fear of the unknown with a heartwarming story of found family, acceptance, and perseverance in the face of human cruelty and the cosmic apathy of the universe. Emrys brings together a family of outsiders, bridging the gaps between the many people marginalized by the homogenizing pressure of 1940s America.

Aphra Marsh, descendant of the People of the Water, has survived Deep One internment camps and made a grudging peace with the government that destroyed her home and exterminated her people on land. Deep Roots continues Aphra’s journey to rebuild her life and family on land, as she tracks down long-lost relatives. She must repopulate Innsmouth or risk seeing it torn down by greedy developers, but as she searches she discovers that people have been going missing. She will have to unravel the mystery, or risk seeing her way of life slip away.

RUTHANNA EMRYS lives in a mysterious manor house on the outskirts of Washington, DC, with her wife and their large, strange family. Her stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Strange Horizons, Analog, and Tor.com. She is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, which began with Winter Tide. She makes homemade vanilla, obsesses about game design, gives unsolicited advice, and occasionally attempts to save the world.

Books read . . . lately

For a while there I completely stopped not only posting about what I was reading, but keeping track of what it was in the first place. So here, have what I’ve read in the last two months + what I can remember from before that.

Nine Hundred Grandmothers, R. A. Lafferty. Collection of short stories. Lafferty is one of those names I’ve heard a bunch but never read; I picked up this book at a used bookstore ages ago, and finally took it off the shelf when I joined a challenge on Habitica for reading more short fiction. As with any such collection, it was very hit or miss; Lafferty has a certain type of character he writes in multiple stories who just leaves me cold. On the other hand, “In Our Block” (with alien creatures doing a terrible job of pretending to be human) made me laugh out loud, and “Land of the Great Horses” managed to dodge making me cringe over its depiction of the Romani — in part because of how the story ends.

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Spark of Life: Kate Heartfield on ARMED IN HER FASHION

I’ve talked before about how some of my stories have pivoted on pieces of music, with lyrics or just the general feel making my subconscious decide which way the plot needed to go. And the entire Great Cataract sequence in The Tropic of Serpents? That came from a photo of Iguazu Falls. So it’s no particular surprise to me that not just the initial inspiration but the spark of life for Kate Heartfield’s Armed in Her Fashion came from a painting.

***

Kate says:

cover for ARMED IN HER FASHION by Kate HeartfieldMy debut novel, Armed in Her Fashion, was inspired from the beginning by a piece of art: Dulle Griet by Pieter Bruegel. I suppose it was only natural that when I got stuck, near the end of the first draft, I returned to the painting for fresh inspiration.

Bruegel was a 16th century painter in the Netherlands. He was influenced by the monstrous, surreal visions in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, a century before. But Bruegel merged those grotesque imaginings with images of ordinary peasant life, and in Dulle Griet, we see a very ordinary-looking woman, holding a frying pan, leading a raid on the mouth of Hell.

Griet herself, a traditional Flemish figure who sometimes represents greed or shrewishness, was the beginning of my story. I wanted to know what would lead a woman to raid Hell; what was she looking for? What could she hope to gain? What could she teach us about how women have provided for themselves and their families throughout human history, and about how their communities saw them?

I set my own version of Griet in the Bruges of 1328, in a city under siege. Margriet de Vos is very ordinary: a wet-nurse, and a widow. Determined, pragmatic, sharp-tongued and old enough not to care what names people might call her.

But the weirdness in the background of Bruegel’s painting influenced the novel’s world. This is an alternate version of 14th century Bruges, in which monsters are very real. The Hellbeast in my novel is a literalization of the Hellmouth that appears in Bruegel’s painting, which is itself a late version of the Hellmouths that appear in medieval European art. As I considered the amalgamations of human figures with musical instruments, birds and devices that appear in so many Bosch and Bruegel paintings, the novel began to explore the promise of body modification, and the horror of non-consensual weaponization of the body.

As I neared the climax of my plot, I knew what had to happen, but I didn’t know why; I didn’t know what events in the world of the story could force my plot in the direction I needed. One day, I glanced at Bruegel’s painting again, and I realized there was one element I had not yet included in the novel: Eggs. They’re everywhere in Bosch and Bruegel. Maybe they’re an alchemical symbol, or maybe they signify greed, or gluttony, or fragility, or the promise of new life. Probably all the above. I knew what they signified for me: a deeper level of world-building, and a new twist in my plot. They represented change and renewal, and I knew right away what these eggs were and why they mattered to my characters.

Like many writers, I often turn to the art created by others when I feel my creative well running dry. Often, that means putting on a piece of music or watching a movie. But when I really need to recharge, I go to the art gallery.

***

From the cover copy:

In 1328, the city of Bruges is under siege from the Chatelaine of Hell and her army of chimeras. At night, revenants crawl over the walls and bring plague and grief to this city of widows.

One of those widows, Margriet de Vos, will do anything to make sure her daughter’s safe, even if it means raiding Hell itself.

Kate Heartfield is the author of Armed in Her Fashion, a historical fantasy novel from ChiZine Publications, and The Road to Canterbury, an interactive novel from Choice of Games, set for release in spring 2018. Tor.com Publications will publish two time-travel novellas by Kate, beginning with Alice Payne Arrives in late 2018. Her fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Strange Horizons, Podcastle, and Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World. Kate is a former newspaper editor and columnist and lives in Ottawa, Canada. You can find her at her website or on on Twitter.

Spark of Life: Bryan Camp on THE CITY OF LOST FORTUNES

Gods are hard to write about in a convincing manner. Too often they seem like plot devices, or else like ordinary characters who happen to have a lot of power. But some authors manage to strike the right balance of personality and numina . . . and sometimes the route to that balance goes off the expected map. Here’s Bryan Camp’s account of how Baron Samedi came to life for him in The City of Lost Fortunes — and hey, maybe if we make pleading puppy-dog eyes, he’ll tell us the rest of the story!

***

Bryan says:

cover art for THE CITY OF LOST FORTUNES by Bryan CampEven though I wrote and rewrote this novel for a decade, I didn’t truly know what I was trying to write, or how I should go about doing it, for years. To learn those two details, I had to travel to a sleepy little town in central Mexico. It was there that Baron Samedi, one of the loa of the voodoo faith, sparked to life for me, and through him, the whole novel.

It might seem strange that I came to understand the voodoo guardian of the cemetery by leaving New Orleans, a city filled with cemeteries and a place where voodoo looms large in both the popular imagination and in actual practice. It’s certainly not why I went there. I was just trying to get a degree. At the time, I was earning an MFA from the University of New Orleans, through their Low Residency program. It was a pretty sweet deal: Spring and Fall semesters, all my classes were online (which meant I could keep my job as a high school teacher) and for a month during the Summer semester, I fulfilled all of my residency requirements abroad. That summer, I was taking a New Orleans Literature class with Dr. Nancy Dixon (who literally wrote the book on Nola Lit) and a Fantasy and Science Fiction workshop led by the brilliant Jim Grimsley. It was in that workshop where I met Rachel E. Pollock, a good friend of mine who is one of those people who just unfairly brim over with creativity and talent. She’s not just an amazing writer, but she’s also an artist and an artisan who sews costumes for plays and . . . look, she’s awesome, all right?

Anyway, we were talking about what we were writing, and I told her that I had this novel I wanted to rewrite for my thesis, full of deities from all kinds of myths and faiths, among them Papa Legba and Baron Samedi. Rachel, being as awesome as she is, had a friend who practiced voodoo. When I named the different gods I wanted to write about, I saw a flicker of something sly move across my friend’s face. “Oh,” she said, with a fierce, conspiratorial grin, “I’ve got a story about Samedi.”

I have to pause here and tell you something about voodoo that you may not know. The loa don’t manifest physically in our world; they come here as spirits and inhabit the bodies of their devotees. If you are ridden by one of the loa, they aren’t merely inspiring you in a way that you translate and interpret. They’re not along for the ride; they’re in the driver’s seat. They don’t, in short, communicate through you. If they’ve got something to say, they speak with your mouth.
So when Rachel said she had a story about Samedi, she didn’t mean it was something she’d come across in a book. This was not a matter of folklore scholarship. She knew someone who, within the boundaries of her faith, had spoken to Samedi. This was more of a “friend of a friend” situation. Just three degrees of separation between me and the spirit world. For want of time and space I won’t go into the whole narrative, but suffice it to say that the punchline was Samedi promising that he “had the biggest Spock of all the loa.” He uh, he used a word other than the name of a beloved sci-fi character, but I’m trying to keep this PG here.

What made this line equally hilarious and illuminating was that the body he was inhabiting when he said it was female. That told me a whole lot about Samedi. It told me that he was 100 percent, grade A bro, with all the self-aggrandizing, genital-obsessed swagger that went with it. It told me he had a pretty high opinion of himself. It told me that his own reality was more significant to him than the circumstantial factors of his presence in ours. More crucial than just giving me all these insights into his personality, though, was the fact that this line made it explicitly clear to me that he had a distinct personality to begin with.

I’d been thinking about the figures in myth as archetypes, as symbols, perfect abstractions that merely represented some universal fear or yearning or blessing shared by all humanity. That made it difficult to write about them in ways that weren’t stilted or insincere. It’s hard to get Fear of Death to have a meaningful conversation; hard to predict what Filial Piety’s favorite movie might be. To be clear, myths are archetypes and symbols, but that’s not all they are. They’re also characters, with their own flaws and hungers and strengths. Their own friends and foes. Their own voices.

Once I had that voice in my ear (in a manner of speaking) I was able to see the whole character, how he would act and react. Not just how he would dress and the kind of alcohol he would drink, which I knew from the literature that recorded oral traditions, but why he always wore a suit and preferred rum. And that, for me, was the moment when this figure of myth made the shift from an idea into a character. Through these kinds of thoughts, I was able to really imagine the rest of my immortal beings as people, and thus, The City of Lost Fortunes really started to open up and breathe.

All because Baron Samedi couldn’t stop talking about his eggplant emoji.

***

From the cover copy:

In 2011, Post-Katrina New Orleans is a place haunted by its history and by the hurricane’s destruction, a place that is hoping to survive the rebuilding of its present long enough to ensure that it has a future. Street magician Jude Dubuisson is likewise burdened by his past and by the consequences of the storm, because he has a secret: the magical ability to find lost things, a gift passed down to him by the father he has never known—a father who just happens to be a god. When the debt Jude owes to a fortune deity gets called in, he finds himself sitting in on a poker game with the gods of New Orleans, who are playing for the heart and soul of the city itself.

Bryan Camp is a graduate of the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop and the University of New Orleans’ Low-Residency MFA program. He started his first novel, The City of Lost Fortunes, in the backseat of his parents’ car as they evacuated for Hurricane Katrina. He has been, at various points in his life: a security guard at a stockcar race track, a printer in a flag factory, an office worker in an oil refinery, and a high school English teacher. He lives in New Orleans with his wife and their three cats, one of whom is named after a superhero. You can find him on Twitter (@bryancamp), Facebook (@BryanCampNovelist), or Instagram (@bryanlcamp81).

Spark of Life: E.C. Ambrose on ELISHA DAEMON

Some of the best moments I’ve had while writing have come when a character who was supposed to be a minor spear carrier insists on developing depth and color and an interesting relationship with the protagonist. You can engineer that kind of thing deliberately, of course, but the best ones (in my experience) are the characters who do it organically, without me planning for it, because my subconscious sees an opportunity there. And apparently E.C. Ambrose’s subconscious saw something in Martin Draper . . .

***

E.C. Ambrose says:

cover art for ELISHA DAEMON by E.C. AmbroseOne of the most fun aspects of writing a book is when the characters take on a life of their own. It’s always surprising, and always delightful—though it often requires some re-jiggering later on to incorporate the character’s unexpected actions. When I was writing Elisha Barber, the first volume in the Dark Apostle series which ends with my new release, Elisha Daemon, meeting Elisha’s best friend was one of those moments.

Elisha, the protagonist of the series, is a barber-surgeon in 14th century London: cutting hair, pulling teeth, performing blood-letting, and other minor operations. In the first scene of the book, Elisha is shaving a man’s beard when Elisha’s brother barges in to call Elisha to a childbirth. The client, a wealthy cloth merchant, protests this departure, calling the brother’s pregnant wife a whore. Infuriated, Elisha insults his client, realizing he’ll have to apologize later. Their exchange made it clear that they knew each other well: in fact, that Elisha knew his client was gay. Apparently, this guy had hit on Elisha in the past, but they retained their working relationship in spite of Elisha’s rejection. Elisha had not denounced or blackmailed his client, which told me a lot about Elisha and his attitudes. Interesting.

Then, in chapter four, things got very interesting. Elisha’s sister-in-law has lost the baby, Elisha’s brother has lost his life. Elisha kneels in their bloody house, trying, literally, to pick up the pieces when Martin shows up, and Elisha immediately calls him by name—crossing several levels of the social hierarchy. It’s one thing for a lowly barber to maintain a polite relationship with a wealthy patron whom he knows to be gay, and another thing entirely for the man to show up at his house—to even know where he lives. In spite of his terrible day, Elisha apologizes to Martin. Martin’s warm, sympathetic reaction placed their relationship in a whole new light.

Martin gives him a gift, a scrap of cloth, that proves to be useful in more ways than one later on. I was writing this book by the seat of my pants—no outline, just a few notecards—so I often had to do a mental inventory to see what tools or clues I had left for myself to get through a given scene. Martin’s gift was one of these, a small, apparently worthless item that adds meaning throughout not only this book, but also the succeeding volumes. An unexpected character can be like that: a gift you don’t know you’ve been given until they make their power known.

***

From the cover copy:

In this fifth and final installment of The Dark Apostle, barber-surgeon-turned-sorcerer Elisha must save plague-stricken England from its path of destruction–or risk succumbing to the very dark magic he is trying to eradicate.

Elisha was once a lowly barber-surgeon from the poorest streets of 14th-century London; now, he may be the most powerful magus alive. He faces the necromancers, a shadowy cult of magi who draw their power from fear and murder–and who have just unleashed the greatest plague the world has ever known upon a continent already destabilized by wars, assassinations, and religious conflict.

Empires and armies are helpless with no clear enemy to fight. The Church loses its hold upon the faithful as prayers go unanswered. Europe has become a bottomless well of terror and death, from which the necromancers drink deep as the citizens sink into despair. Elisha knows that if there is to be any chance of survival, he must root out the truth of the pestilence at its unexpected source: the great medical school at Salerno. There, Elisha might uncover the knowledge to heal his world.

But as he does, his former mentor, the beautiful witch Brigit, lays her own plans. For there may be one thing upon the face of the planet deadlier than the plague: the unfiltered power of Death within Elisha himself.

E. C. Ambrose is a fantasy author, history buff, and accidental scholar.

Spark of Life: Joshua Palmatier on THE THRONE OF AMENKOR

When I decided to title this blog series “Spark of Life,” I didn’t expect that the moments where the characters and stories came to life would involve literal sparks. But in the case of Joshua Palmatier’s novel The Skewed Throne (the first book in The Throne of Amenkor omnibus), it really was the White Fire that brought things to live — or rather, his heroine’s response to it.

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Joshua says:

cover art for THE THRONE OF AMENKOR omnibus by Joshua PalmatierThe “Throne of Amenkor” series—my first published trilogy—has a special place in my heart. The obvious reason is because THE SKEWED THRONE, the first book in the series, was the first novel I ever sold. But more importantly, it was because of its main character, Varis. In essence, she is the entire series. So I thought I’d talk about how and when Varis “came to life” for me.

The idea for the novel came from two sources: First, while writing another novel (unpublished), I had to will an ancient museum with interesting artifacts, and one of those artifacts was a throne that appeared warped in some way and those who approached it heard voices; this became the Skewed Throne. Second, I had an incredibly strong visual in my head of a young girl on the rooftops of a city, staring out over a harbor, with a wall of white fire approaching from across the ocean, stretching across the horizon. This became the White Fire, and was the catalyst for the story.

The woman in the visual was Varis, of course, but she hadn’t come to life yet. There was no spark at that point. Both of those images were static. The spark that brought her to life came almost immediately when I sat down to start writing. I began with the typical “portentous prologue” that seemed to be at the beginning of all fantasy novels in the 80s. The White Fire seemed perfect for this, after all. It was monumental in scope, affected everyone, would change the culture of the world. Perfect for a portentous prologue. So that’s where I began.

But then a magical thing happened. After a few paragraphs of this portentous prologue, that ponderous, powerful voice that everyone hears when reading such prologues got interrupted. By Varis herself. She cuts into it with a scathing remark. The interruption is jarring, and with a single line—“Fire, my ass”—you get an instant characterization of Varis herself. The contempt and self-reliance that comes across with those few words is what suddenly and immediately brought the entire book—what would become a trilogy—to life for me. The moment I typed those words, I drew in a sharp breath, because I knew that this character that I had yet to become familiar with had a life and depth that I would want to explore. She was going to be a powerful character, one that could sustain a series, someone who was strong and resilient and yet who had hidden hopes and vulnerabilities.

That moment was when the character—and thus the story—took life for me. Varis bloomed in my head, and while the plot centered around the White Fire and the Skewed Throne, that plot would have been empty and meaningless without the voice of Varis to tell it. That is how all of my novels get written: when a character or characters suddenly speaks and comes to life inside my head. It’s always about the character.

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From the cover copy:

The Throne of Amenkor Trilogy omnibus brings together The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, and The Vacant Throne for the first time.

One young girl holds the fate of a city in her hands. If she fails, it spells her doom—and the end of her world.

Twice in the history of the city of Amenkor, the White Fire had swept over the land. Over a thousand years ago it came from the east, covering the entire city, touching everyone, leaving them unburned—but bringing madness in its wake, a madness that only ended with the death of the ruling Mistress of the city.

Five years ago the Fire came again, and Amenkor has been spiraling into ruin ever since. The city’s only hope rests in the hands of a young girl, Varis, who has taught herself the art of survival and has been trained in the ways of the assassin. Venturing deep into the heart of Amenkor, Varis will face her harshest challenges and greatest opportunities. And it is here that she will either find her destiny—or meet her doom.

A professor of mathematics at SUNY College at Oneonta, Joshua Palmatier has published nine novels to date—the “Throne of Amenkor” series (The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, The Vacant Throne), the “Well of Sorrows” series (Well of Sorrows, Leaves of Flame, Breath of Heaven), and the “Ley” series (Shattering the Ley, Threading the Needle, Reaping the Aurora). He is currently hard at work on the start of a new series, as yet untitled. He has also published numerous short stories and has edited numerous anthologies. He is the founder/owner of a small press called Zombies Need Brains LLC, which focuses on producing SF&F themed anthologies, the most recent being Submerged, The Death of All Things, and All Hail Our Robot Conquerors!. Find out more at www.joshuapalmatier.com or at www.zombiesneedbrains.com. You can also find him on Facebook under Joshua B. Palmatier and Zombies Need Brains, and on Twitter at @bentateauthor and @ZNBLLC.