Monday, 22 December 2014

Review: Emperor of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

Emperor of Thorns is the last instalment in The Broken Empire Trilogy. Here are my reviews of Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns.

The approach taken with Emperor is slightly different. Jorg Ancrath remains the central character and the story covers him in the present day (two years after the events in King of Thorns) as well as the past, but there is a third aspect. A certain character who has featured in both previous books gets small sections, set in the present, to herself. This does help to develop the antagonist, but I’m not sure whether it was necessary.

The secondary cast (the Brothers) seem to have a lesser role, due to both their numbers being diminished and their total absence from Jorg’s adventures in the past, which is a bit of a shame. However, we do get to see some new and interesting corners of the Broken Empire, and this also helps to flesh out the vote for the emperor near the end of the book.

The writing style, as has been the case with both prior books, is very easy to read. We continue to see the development of Jorg’s character, as well as the likes of Makin and Miana.

The story and ending did not progress quite the way I imagined they would. The premise of the present day plot is that Jorg is travelling to a planned voting ceremony, held every four years, to see if there will (finally) be an emperor agreed upon. Obviously I won’t spoil the ending, but there was less time than I’d imagined spent negotiating/arguing over the vote.

Emperor of Thorns is a good final part of a cracking trilogy, set in an intriguing world that mixes elements of both the past and future. I’ll probably try out something new in the immediate future, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for other books by Mark Lawrence.


Thursday, 18 December 2014

An Interview with Jo Zebedee, author of the Abendau Trilogy

I’m delighted to say that the very talented Jo Zebedee, author of the forthcoming Abendau Trilogy, has agreed to a little interview. So, here it is:

You've got a trilogy coming out, starting with Abendau's Child. What's the premise?

Abendau is set in a stellar cluster ruled by an empress who needs a blood heir, but has been left barren after the birth of twins. The children were taken from her by their father and brought up as space nomads until a space collision killed their father and one of the twins. The surviving child, Kare, holds his mother responsible for the accident and, as an adult, joins a rebellion against her rule, incurring her considerable wrath. The story explores his defiance to her rule and what happens when she extracts a vengeance which, even if he survives, will leave a legacy of mental damage. It's very character focused, set against a classic space-opera background.

Is it set in the real universe or a fictional one?

It's completely fictional, even in terms of the stellar cluster not being identifiable. It's a big space opera world, with lots of politics, in-fighting and dynastic history. The main planet, Abendau, is a desert planet, a contrast of an ancient city and the futuristic.

Abendau's Child, the first book in your trilogy, is due out in early 2015. Any word on when books 2 and 3 will be out?

Sunset over Abendau will be out in Autumn 2015, with Abendau Falling to follow.

When writing the trilogy, did you sketch the whole plot out before starting on the first book in detail, or did you complete the plot for the first book, then work on the second and third?

I worked on each chronologically but am now working between the three books as Teresa Edgerton, my amazing editor, reviews them and I build the level of depth needed into book 3 and adjust book 2 where needed.

It has meant a bit of backwards and forward working, particularly between book two and three which are chronologically linked, whereas ten years has passed between book one and two, but as I write more the world grows bigger and that needs reflecting. By the time it's published, I think Abendau's Child will have had about 20 rewrites from its original concept.

Do you prefer to plan in extensive detail ahead of time, or adopt a more spontaneous approach to writing?

I'm totally spontaneous. At most I'll plot a couple of chapters ahead, but mostly I just write and revise later. I am totally in awe of planners, though, and wish I could be a bit more effective at it. I blame the characters, actually. They don't appear to want to do what's logical. I'm also fairly open to rewriting, which I think most pantsters have to be.

Is your approach to writing sci-fi one where you try and make the technical details as scientifically accurate/plausible as possible (hard sci-fi, if you will), or one where you're happy for technical detail to remain in the background?

I'm very much at the escapist end of sci-fi. I do have a few scientists I know who are endlessly patient when I ask questions, and some beta-readers are quick to point out when things are completely off-beam, which helps a lot. I also try to put some semblance of rationality into the world but the technical stuff is very much in the background.

As the books have a feel of fantasy running through them - psi powers are a big element as are a race of space nomads linked to each other by a psychic mesh - I think the lighter touch better matches the tone.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

It's a slow business and bags of patience are needed; I think you have to really love writing to maintain the interest when things are tough and slow. Write lots, as well. I do flash fiction pieces and short work between longer pieces, and that helps keep me fresh. And find some supporters - there are days when virtual cake is the only way forward and being able to cry out for it makes such a difference.

Which authors/books inspired you, either in childhood or more recently?

I read a lot of non-genre books, but most of my inspiration comes from sci-fi. Most recently, I've been reading the Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold, and I've been loving them. I like her blend of characters with sci-fi, and Abendau is very much cut from that same cloth.

Anyone who knows me will tell you I adore The Time Traveler's Wife. I love the close character writing, and how plausible Audrey Niffenegger makes the unusual.
I also adore Neil Gaiman, and Zafon, so my tastes are quite eclectic.

Further back, I love the classics of sci-fi: Heinlein, Clarke, Logan's Run, Dune, and each of these have had an influence on Abendau.

What aspect of writing do you struggle with the most?

Well, I run a small consultancy (something has to pay the bills), have two kids (and a husband) and numerous pets, so I'd have to say finding time can be a challenge. It helps that I'm a fast writer.

I also find switching off is hard. I could write all day happily but, obviously, need a break. When I wrote Abendau's Child it exploded out of me and I could think of nothing else. It was both exhilarating and exhausting. As I'm starting to do more and more writing, the need to find ways to switch off is increasingly urgent.

What's your favourite part of being a writer?

I love getting lost in the world, and forgetting any worries I might have for a while. I also enjoy the craft - I'm one of the few writers I know who adores a good rewrite.

Oddly, for such a solitary activity, I enjoy the camaraderie. I've met friends through writing from all over the world, doing all sorts of jobs, and it's fascinating. I've also made some close friends through it and, whilst most of my socialising with them is virtual (which is what I get for living in the sticks), it's a nice diversion and I get lots of giggles.

Do you plan on writing some stand-alone novels or sticking with series?
I'd love to write more in Abendau, but don't plan to write anymore about Kare - this trilogy tells enough of his story. I'd actually like to write something about the second male character, Lichio. There is a lot he hides about himself which we only come to know in the later books, and I think getting to know him better would be nice. He's also one of the most popular characters, so I think it could be fun to follow his story. And there's a second generation who are ready to blossom into
their own people.

I'm working on a number of standalones, including some fantasy which I'm enjoying, and some YA, which I love writing.

I also have several short stories out - two in an anthology, Malevolence, from Tickety-boo press and two on-line, with Kraxon magazine, and I work on shorts when the fancy takes me. I enter flash-fiction comps every month, on the and sometimes that germ of 75 words cries out for exploration.
I'm lucky to be represented by Molly Ker Hawn of the Bent Agency, who supports and guides me in the various ways my mind takes me really well.

Outside of writing, how do you like to unwind?

I do a lot of gardening. I bring on my own seeds and grow flowers and veg, and get a lot of enjoyment from that.I also love spending time with my family, and my long-suffering writing-neglected kids. We don't always go far, but shopping, ice-creams, beaches - all those sort of things appeal.

I like cooking, too, and, like most writers, I'm a pretty voracious reader. I also juggle pretty badly.

Thanks Jo, and best of luck with the Abendau Trilogy. [And consider growing radishes. Very easy, and you get two crops in a single year].


Monday, 15 December 2014

How big should villages, towns and cities be?

In the modern world, a city with over a million people in it is nothing special. There are Chinese cities with more people than the whole of Portugal.

But in the medieval world, or a fantasy with a vaguely realistic approach to demographics, things were very different.

For a start, the rural population was much larger than the urban population.

Villages could be spread over a significant distance, or be a very simple small settlement which would basically have a few houses, a single street and a parish church. Around 150 people or fewer would probably live in a village, but obviously that varied. It would not be unusual for everyone to know everyone in a village.

A town was a bigger deal, and had one key attribute: the market. The market meant that traders (even if just occasional traders, such as subsistence farmers selling the surplus from a bumper crop) would travel to the town and do their business. This was advantageous all round. Traders got to earn cash, the local lords got to charge tolls to use the roads, bridges and trade within the town. Towns were the beating heart of the economy, but weren’t necessarily all that large. Several hundred people, perhaps, but that would include craftsmen that would not be found in villages. Towns could be home to thousands rather than hundreds of people (although you could argue at that point the difference between a town and city was almost academic).

Cities, in England at least, were defined as having a cathedral (and, therefore, a bishop). Economies of scale meant that cities would be richer, man-for-man, than other, smaller settlements. However, so many people crammed together almost made hygiene and crime more troublesome. Not to mention that fire could absolute devastate a city. A city might only have a couple of thousand people. Over ten thousand would be very significant in, say, the 14th century. Only a few were ever larger (Byzantium was enormous during its height, as Rome had been earlier). A city of one hundred thousand could well be the seat of a continental empire. According to Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (which I heartily recommend and review here), London had a population of just over 40,000 around this period.

I used to have links to a number of fantastic medieval demographic calculators, but sadly they seem to have become defunct.

It’s also worth pointing out that populations were more vulnerable at this point in history than today, and compared to the past (I’d rather fall sick in ancient Rome than medieval England). Disease was generally not handled well, with cures often useless at best and harmful at worst. Infection was not well understood, and in the middle of the 14th century the Black Death swept through England, killing a very significant proportion of the population (so much so that the price of things like swords declined, because so many sword-owners dropped dead, and food rose, because there were fewer peasants to work the land).

Fires, as mentioned above, could rip through medieval settlements, which often had wooden houses packed very close together. Not to mention the perpetual state of warfare that existed during the 14th century.

Nowadays the population, globally, only goes one way, but back then populations rose and fall as prosperity and advances in farm and mill equipment were balanced out by disease and war.


Monday, 1 December 2014

Review: King of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

King of Thorns is the second book in The Broken Empire Trilogy (preceded by Prince and succeeded by Emperor). It’s dark fantasy, set in a medieval(ish), magical world several centuries after mankind has undergone a nuclear holocaust, which destroyed the vast majority of ancient (ie advanced) technology and reduced our race to swords and spears, castles and knights.

The protagonist is Jorg Ancrath, a complex chap who doesn’t so much have shades of grey as small variations of black. Accompanied by a few associates (some perhaps even worse than Jorg), he spends much of his time travelling what’s left of Europe, seeking knowledge, power, allies and to sate his own curiosity. The other half of the book (the story flits back and forth) is four years after that journey, when he’s defending his modest kingdom from a man they say is destined to reunite the Empire.

King of Thorns keeps all that was to like about the first book and adds to it. In addition to the interestingly grim Jorg and the intriguing setting (which has elements of both past and future), it feels better balanced and takes its time (in a good way) without ever letting the plot get bogged down. The past and present chapters fit perfectly well together, the writing style is very easy to read and conveys a strong impression with relatively few words. There’s also a nice little twist near the end, which I shan’t spoil.

I particularly like the setting. Post-apocalypse is done to death, and a world where things are back on their feet but not back where they were (almost as the 9th century or so was to Rome following the Dark Ages) is more interesting.

Downsides? Quite few, to be honest. The map is one of those which covers two pages, which means the paperback version has much of it disappear where the pages meet.

I’d strongly recommend it, but as it’s book 2 in a series, do make sure you read Prince of Thorns first. They’re dark fantasy, so if you’re more after snuggling up in bed with a fairy or two The Broken Empire may not be for you. But if you like the works of Martin, Abercrombie or Lynch you should definitely give this series a look.