Thursday, 20 September 2018

Snapshots Review 2: Review Harder

The Snapshots Reviews are posts in which I review the samples of a small number (4-6) of books. Reviews are just of the samples, I haven’t read the full books of any of them, at the time of posting this. The first Snapshots Review was elsewhere, and can be found here. The books I’ve reviewed are all in the fantasy genre.

Dangerous to Know (Chronicles of Breed, book 1), by KT Davies

The first sample I read in this batch, and I have to admit, things really hit the ground running. The writing style was immersive and easy to read, the world is well-realised and portrayed without info-dumping (I never felt there was a slab of text outlining society etc, but by the end of the sample I knew a reasonable amount about the world), and there are even some light, humorous touches. The sample follows a half-breed mercenary, half-human, half-thoasa (a sort of war creature). She starts off in a bad situation (page one features being chased by a dragon) and it soon gets worse when Breed finds herself in an icy ruin with a demon her only hope for discovering the way out. Really good start to things.

The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter 

This sample is in two halves, with the first half being a sort of prologue, and the latter half (starting with Chapter One) occurring a century and a half-ish later. The prologue has a slightly unusual premise, which I like, of a queen leading her people on a sort of watery exodus, landing her ships on land to escape some unknown danger. However, the locals aren’t too happy and a bit of a war ensues. The latter part is on the claimed land but some time later, following Tau, a young chap aspiring to become a warrior. Unfortunately there is a lot of info-dumping and jargon, which gets in the way of both pace and clarity.

[A note on this: I couldn’t believe it got such a high rating on Amazon. One review I checked explained why. Apparently the start is pretty iffy but the latter half is fantastic, a bit like the Lies of Locke Lamora. Obviously, I’m just reviewing samples, and things can improve or worsen. Just thought I’d mention that].

Tree of Ages (the Tree of Ages series book 1), by Sara C Roethle

This one had an unusual premise. A tree stops being a tree, and becomes a young woman. Finn doesn’t know how, or why, and wants to return to being a tree. With the help of a kindly cottager, Finn sets out to reverse the transformation. I like a different premise, and enjoyed this sample a lot. Easy to read, low on action (there’s none) but highly engaging, as samples go it’s very good. The foundation of the story is laid, main characters introduced, and I found it very interesting.

The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids (Amra Thetys Series book 1), by Michael McClung 

By chance, I happened to pick this and another winner of the excellent SPFBO contest. So, hopes were high as I began the sample. And met. The story follows Amra, a thief not quite world class but definitely a cut above the average, as her friend Corbin is trying to sort out a deal gone wrong. He leaves her a golden statuette and extricates a promise to look after his dog if anything goes wrong. And it does, of course. The writing style’s easy to read and and the world is effortlessly revealed through natural storytelling. It’s a charming book, which I suspect will be quite gritty.

The Grey Bastards (the Lot Lands), by Jonathan French

By weird coincidence, this is also an SPFBO contest winner. The sample follows Jackal, a half-orc, and his friends Oats and Fetching (also half-orcs) as they have something of a tangle with a group of human soldiers outside a brothel. The trio return to the Kiln, their headquarters, and their boss, Claymaster, holds a meeting which probably unveils the wider premise of the story (which may be hinted at in the brothel fight). Enjoyable to read, with grim humour and a plot/world that unfolds naturally, it’s yet another sample that could easily lead to me buying the book (this half-dozen of samples is something of an embarrassment of riches).

Darkmage (the Rhenwars Saga Volume 1), by ML Spencer

Darkmage’s sample largely follows Darien, a soldier returning from a front line in a classic high fantasy world, where the enemy are pressing strongly and he wants his mother (effectively head of state) to allow a pacific oath to be broken to win the war. Naturally, there’s quite a bit of tension there, not least because he’s returning to inherit arcane power and is expected to take the oath himself. But the enemy are closer than either of them think. The story’s premise works, but I did find the writing style to be a little more tell than show (for example, Darien courted a lady mage, against the rules, and that’s why he was away in the first place. Why not show that?). It’s not bad, but didn’t grab me.

I had planned to nominate just one as a recommendation, as per the first time, but there are a number of great samples well worth a look.


Friday, 7 September 2018

Review: Blood and Sand Trilogy, by Jon Kiln

Some time ago on The Wayfarer’s Rest* I had a little experiment, reading half a dozen or so samples from Kindle books. It was quite interesting, with some laden with info-dumping, others insufficient to let the premise unfold. Easily the best was the sample of the Blood and Sand Trilogy, by Jon Kiln, which I just finished reading.

The story follows Vekal, a Sin Eater (confessor meets martial artist), and opens as his city is being sacked by barbarians. After the engaging spot of initial action dies down, we encounter the central premise of the plot. Vekal’s forced to try and help the barbarian warlord’s daughter, who has a peculiar sickness, and finds himself possessed by a demonic spirit. But because he’s a Sin Eater, the devil is unable to totally control him, and the pair find themselves bickering and co-operating, sometimes doing what Vekal wants, sometimes doing what Ikrit wants.

The plot holds together well, and one aspect I liked was that whilst Ikrit is clearly not a good chap, he’s also not just a moustache-twirling blacker than black villain. That would’ve made things a bit flatter, and less interesting. By humanising him, to a degree at least, he’s somewhat sympathetic (whilst still more than happy to kill people in the way). The relationship between Vekal and Ikrit varies from antagonistic to co-operative, as their goals coincide or diverge. It’s a nice take on things.

Besides Vekal/Ikrit, clearly the main character(s), there are a number of others who get some POV time. Naturally, they aren’t fleshed out quite so much, but I liked that many secondary characters had some depth to them.

The world is well-realised, and there’s a pleasant absence of info-dumping. It hangs in the background, as it should, whilst the characters get on with their adventuring. The low magic (hardly any is used) works very well, as possession or fear thereof provides the main arcane aspect of the story and world.

I do think the book could’ve been slightly better proofread. Should stress it’s not riddled with errors, and I do expect some in a novel-sized book, but there are perhaps a few too many (and sometimes phrasing’s repeated in short order).

In terms of sex, violence etc, there’s no frisky time and quite a lot of bloodshed, but it’s not as grim as many books.

Overall, I found Blood and Sand to be an enjoyable read.


*For those wondering, I liked posting more frequently but just lacked the time to do so. I may resurrect TWR one of these days, but the irregular rambles and reviews on Thaddeus the Sixth won’t be going anywhere. Unless I get decapitated by a low-flying flamingo, obviously. Then my blogging will decline dramatically.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

The Curta Mechanical Calculator

And now for something completely different.

There was a time, children, when computers didn’t exist. And when they did exist (hello, Colossus) but were far from commonplace. People getting telephones at home, or even, gasp, televisions were new and exciting events. The radio was made of wood, and rather more listened to (perhaps due to the absence of TV, or because the people had better accents).

But what about calculators? Think of a calculator and you think of perhaps an app, or an electronic calculator, whether a simple everyday one or a swankier scientific version.

But what if those don’t exist? Well, you can work it out in your head.

Or you could use a mechanical calculator. The one pictured is the Curta, designed by Curt Herzstark. Born in 1902, he was an Austrian and son of a Jewish father. He’d completed the Curta’s design by 1938 but the Nazi annexation of Austria rather put the kibosh on production plans. He was ordered to make devices for the German army, until he was arrested in 1943 and sent to a concentration camp. Despite the less than ideal circumstances, Herzstark was able to redraw the designs from memory whilst in the concentration camp.

The mechanical calculator he created is similar in dimensions to a cylindrical deodorant can, albeit perhaps 2/3 the height and with a slightly larger diameter. It comes in an airtight two-part container.

I am not an engineer (the people who used the Curta perhaps the most), or a mathematician, but I must admit I found it to be not very intuitive (I’ve provided links to a few helpful Youtube videos at the end of this article). There is a series of movable switches running around the lower part of the cylinder. On the top is a handle that can be rotated either in the up or down position, with a separate ring that can be rotated (with the top part raised, this resets the device).

Turning the handle is curiously satisfying, like grinding a pepper mill full of numbers.

It turns out the switches on the lower part are for integers to add, subtract, multiply or divide. Turning the handle in the down position is for addition, in the raised position it subtracts. The number currently worked upon is indicated once an initial calculation (addition) has been made. So, the switches might be flipped to 1 0 2 4 at the bottom, the handle turned, and 1024 shows up on the top. A second turn adds the same again, yielding 2048. Multiplying small numbers is simply a matter of repeated additions.

For a larger multiplication, such as 2048 by 299, the upper part of the calculator is raised, and rotated so that the 2048 at the bottom (movable switches) is entered in the hundreds rather than units. This adds 204800 to 2048 (so, a multiplication by 101). Repeated twice is multiplication by 301. The top part is raised again and returned to the units, and the handle raised to the subtraction position. A double rotation removes 2048 twice, giving us 612352. As well as this, correct, answer, the multiplication factor (299) is shown on the upper part (in a silver rather than black area). [Experimentation reveals that if you subsequently alter the switches number, this is not taken account of. So, doubling to 4096 and adding once increases the count to 300].

Anyway, it’s an interesting little thingummyjig, and I thought people into engineering, history, or creative writing might be intrigued to learn about a calculator that doesn’t need any fancy electricity to get its business done.


Saturday, 18 August 2018

Review: A Brief History of Roman Britain, by Joan P Alcock

I found this book, which covers the entire period (and a little before) of Roman Britain to be rather interesting. It’s split into distinct halves, the former being a chronological account of Roman Britain (with a chapter on Celtic tribes beforehand) and the latter consisting of chapters focusing on individual topics, such as religion.

In that way it’s something of a mixture of Adrian Goldsworthy’s Fall of Carthage and Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller mini-series.

The level of detail included is often very deep, particularly regarding food, and does help to put the reader in the shoes of, say, a 3rd century Briton, who might dislike the imported garum fish paste, love their new mosaic floor, and enjoy availing themselves of the public baths.

As the title indicates, the book is about Roman Britain, but to an extent it also functions as a microcosm of the rising and falling fate of the Western Empire more generally. Charting how the Empire won wars then won support from the Celtic leadership (and then lost it with greed and corruption, leading to Boudicca’s rebellion) is an interesting read but also functions as a template for how the Empire won over the people it had conquered. Similarly, declining resources partly due to increasingly frequent civil wars denuded the province(s) of military manpower, exposing them to barbarian attack and reducing economic activity as the well-paid soldiers left and suddenly merchants had lost a huge market. The benefits of city living through local bakers (removing the need to grind your own flour), baths et cetera was replaced by onerous burdens for local leaders (whose taxes and public duties increased as the Empire weakened), leading them to leave and reducing the urban population.

I was a little worried about the first chapter. It’s a little bit listy, not quite to the extent of The Iliad or the Bible, but thereafter the book’s much easier to read.

The writing style could be a little more fluid and little less matter of fact, but except for the first chapter on pre-Roman Celtic tribes, it’s a minor point.

There are one or two small errors that perhaps should’ve been caught. (I’m no longer a Grammar Nazi about this sort of thing, as some mistakes are almost certain in a full-sized book, but certain errors such as writing Julius rather than Julian can be a little confusing). There was also confusion over the name of Isis’ son (Hippocrates or Harpocrates, which might reflect a Greco-Roman divergence or simply be a homophonic typo).

However, those small quibbles apart, I found the book to be interesting, detailed (immensely so in some places), and enjoyable.


Thursday, 9 August 2018

Review: A History of the First World War, by BH Liddell Hart

A bit outside my usual area, but this military history seemed interesting, so I gave it a look. It charts the course of the war from beginning to end, including an introductory segment setting the scene.

Reminiscent of Dodge’s Napoleon biography (first volume), I actually found the political and military preamble to the war itself to be the most interesting part. Setting the scene with the Schlieffen plan and the varying states of readiness of the Great Powers was very nicely done.

The war was notable, amongst other things, for the rapid invention and development of new technology with battlefield implications. The radio, rail, aircraft, gas shells, and tanks were all either created for the first time, advanced swiftly or otherwise had great military significance. Machine guns had existed for a little while by this stage but this was the first war when they gave near total predominance to defence over attack (until the tank rolled up).

It was fascinating to read of how the Germans really could have won the war early on, but for Moltke buggering up the plan Schlieffen had put together some years earlier, denuding the powerful right of strength whilst reinforcing the centre.

I’ve read enough military history (admittedly, mostly classical) to know that some wars are notable for their brilliant strategy, and some are remarkable for surprising incompetence or plain bad luck. The latter was not unique to the First World War (we need only look for how the Romans repeatedly mishandled the Cimbri for evidence that strategic/tactical idiocy and generals infighting can endanger a national cause). World War One does have the slight mitigation that new technologies were not fully understood (aircraft could have been employed on a more aggressive basis, for example), and the exacerbating factor that the same mistakes were made repeatedly, at immense cost of human life.

The sheer numbers of people involved is also worthy of remark. Tens of thousands (or more) fell during the largest battles, millions of men lived in trenches.

I must admit I sometimes found things a little hard to follow, although the gist was never in doubt. (I maintain that military history is more interesting before the use of gunpowder became widespread). There is a good number of maps, with many chapters beginning with a map of the local situation. A nice addition, which was not present, would have been something along the lines of a trench cross-section or the odd diagram of a plane, machine gun or tank, but it would’ve been an extra rather than some necessary that is missing.

It should be firmly stressed that this is a military history, and politics, excepting the interesting preamble to war breaking out, is mentioned only in so far as it directly relates to the war. Russia vanishes after the revolution and peace is agreed between the Bolsheviks and Germany.

The author does comment on both military and moral failings of generals when it comes to mistakes made (some understandable, others perhaps less so), and also those of the ordinary soldier. Whilst rarer, instances of soldiers performing misdeeds (such as advancing well, then coming across quantities of alcohol and getting lashed as a ferret on Christmas Day) are mentioned. That said, the focus of the book is clearly on the military aspects, with morale (and morality) considered alongside ammunition, supply lines, and so forth as a military asset, or deficiency.

Overall, I found the book interesting, occasionally a bit tricky to follow. As I’ve said before, its sole interest is the military side of things, so those after something considering the political or social implications of the war will find it lacking. Those seeking to understand the strategic and tactical situation that unfolded from 1914 to 1918 will find it of significant use.


Thursday, 2 August 2018

Review: Game of Thrones, season six

It’s been a little while since I saw the fifth series of Game of Thrones, but I’ve got to say that the sixth was the televisual equivalent of fitting like a glove.

At this stage, and certainly by the end of the series, the TV show is ahead of the books, so if you’re waiting for the books then I’d advise you stop watching either at the end of the fourth or fifth series (the fifth is ahead of the books in at least one significant place but behind in many others). That said, there is some divergence between the media, so…

Naturally, there will be spoilers galore for the first five series. I shall keep spoilers of the sixth to the barest minimum reasonably possible. So if you want zero spoilers at all, stop reading now.


The three main prongs of the story are the ongoing power struggle in King’s Landing, the battle to rule the North, and Daenerys’ arc (which I shall not spoil but shall say is significantly better than the last few seasons of Meereen hum-drummery).

The High Sparrow’s storyline, the tale of insidious fanaticism, of the seemingly kind being amongst the most brutal (the benevolent dictatorship of stamping on your face, but only because it’s good for you) is absolutely fantastic.

The last two episodes, as is so often the case, were great, both wrapping up some storylines and promising future delights in others. The CGI remains very good but they aren’t over-egging it, using real actors, horses and practical effects well instead of simply relying on pixel magic all the time (and going for tiling of real images rather than making pretend ones where possible).

The general quality of acting is, as always, excellent. Jonathan Pryce as the High Sparrow deserves a special nod for his portrayal of the smiling, kind fanatic.

The story has one or two twists and turns that are predictable (one in particular is so lacking in surprise it did make me wonder how the unfortunate chap involved didn’t see it coming) but there’s a good share of cunning twists and fiendish plans. There’s a relatively strong focus on the three main plots I mentioned above.

Bran returns after an absence in the fifth series, and there are rather dramatic doings. He is not the only character to return (and I am not referring to he whom you might think I am referring to).

Downsides on the TV show itself are minimal. Dorne was a dog that didn’t bark, featuring but not nearly as heavily as I anticipated.

That said, keeping all the plates spinning with a show that has so many different threads is a difficult thing and, by and large, the showrunners have done a great job.

Weirdly, the case/packaging have changed a lot from the first five series, being significantly slimmer. I have mixed feelings as I don’t have that much room, but format changes within a series irk me.

As always, some commentaries are better than others. Sophie Turner and Kit Harrington (Sansa and Jon) were entertaining, and I enjoyed the quartet of chaps (particularly Dolorous Ed’s actor, Ben Crompton).

Whilst not a fan, as a rule, of behind the scenes stuff, the half hour (ish) look at the Paint Hall over 24 hours was quite fun because we get to see the cast and crew in their natural habitat. There’s also a behind the scenes look at a battle. Shan’t give details to avoid spoilers, but it was also pretty interesting.

By this stage, you pretty much know if you want to keep watching Game of Thrones or not. There are no clangers or woeful reasons not to watch, the general excellence is maintained, and if one or two plot twists are telegraphed, there are plenty more great moments to enjoy.


Monday, 9 July 2018

So, The Last Jedi [spoilers galore]

I am, it’s fair to say, rather late to this tap dance. However, I did recently see this film. And so I thought I’d ramble about it (this is my blog, after all, home of rambling about sci-fi and fantasy. And history).

For those who haven’t seen it yet, this ramble will be laden with spoilers, so if you don’t want them, stop reading now.

Sometimes in really grim/serious films (Batman Begins, for example) I wish they’d add a little levity. I don’t mean change the overall tone, but people crack jokes, even if just as a coping mechanism in terrible situations. In World War One, when soldiers were pinned down in trenches with dead friends, they’d prop the bodies up (mimicking a soldier on guard duty) and shake their hand when they walked past. It’s ok to have a joke now and then, even if it’s still pretty grim.

The Last Jedi is the opposite. It’s ok to be serious now and then. Impending evacuation under heavy fire, wildly outgunned? Better crack a joke then. Waking up from some sort of medically induced coma? Slapstick and leaking time.

Star Wars has always been (mostly) family friendly (very friendly if you include the incestuous kissing in Empire Strikes Back). That doesn’t mean it can’t take things seriously, just occasionally, when dealing with what is, essentially, war between good and evil. Darth Vader could crack a joke (as Captain Needa discovered), but he was still a serious character. Hux is practically comic relief.

Captain Phasma and her rubbishness returns. Cool armour, lame turn of events. And then there’s Snoke (daft name), the pale imitation of Emperor Palpatine. But what really annoyed me about Snoke was how damned contrived and clunky the dialogue was when he ‘read Kylo Ren’s mind’ and saw him turn the lightsabre (yes, Americans, sabre is spelt this way in England) and kill his ‘true enemy’. … Decent twist to have him kill Snoke but the lumbering awkwardness of the dialogue and the mental hoops to jump through detracted from it.

In the same way JJ Abrams doesn’t understand the basic concept of space being big, it seems Rian Johnson didn’t understand the first thing about Star Wars. Or, if he did, he wanted to ‘interpret’ it (ie damn internal consistency) in the same way that Russell T Davies buggered up Davros’ character in New Who*. Luke, the hopeful hero who believed he could turn Darth Vader, apparently now thinks about killing his own student whilst he sleeps, and attempts it in such an incompetent way he accidentally turns said student evil. And is also capable of being defeated by same student.


Not only that, Luke apparently knows how to speak Wookie less well than Rey, who helpfully translates what Luke’s close friend Chewbacca has to say.

The plot wasn’t hugely engaging. Star Wars does get knocked for rehashing the Death Star story (although it’s worth noting that The Empire Strikes Back had nothing to do with that and is the best film by a mile), but this effort did make me wish there was a superweapon on the loose.

The storyline is that they need fuel after evacuating. The First Order is chasing down the tiny remnants of the Rebellion. Rightyho. Not the most engaging plot ever.

I do disagree with some criticism I’ve read. Rose wasn’t my favourite character but she wasn’t terrible.

Some have criticised the revelation that Rey’s parents were not especially significant, but I don’t think that was a problem at all. Not everyone has to be related. Plus, the weird relationship she develops with Kylo Ren would’ve been, er, a bit weirder if they’d been related and she *had* been Luke’s daughter.

I think Luke appearing effectively as an astral projection to Kylo Ren was fine (that’s a new power rather than one which contradicts previous rules of the universe), although his inexplicable death afterwards was both nonsensical and a very stupid way of killing one of the franchise’s key characters.

It was absolutely irrational that Admiral Holdo decided to ram, at hyperspeed, Snoke’s ship. And that it worked. Yes, noble self-sacrifice, etc. But it doesn’t actually make any bloody sense at all. The premise was that the Rebel cruiser was the only ship that could be tracked and therefore the smaller escaping ships would be safe as all First Order attention would be on the cruiser Holdo was piloting. She was drawing it away and would be killed (the plan was foiled when the First Order was able to fire on the smaller ships after all).

So why not ram Snoke’s ship to start with? If you’re certain to die and the options are to die alone or take down a huge ship and thousands of enemies, why wouldn’t the latter be your first option? For that matter, why wasn’t that approach used with the Death Stars? Or the Starkiller base? You don’t even need a human aboard, just get a droid to pilot a large, empty ship. I’m really not a fan of plot ‘twists’ that don’t actually make any sense.

I’d quite like to watch Phantom Menace again to have a side-by-side view of the films. I suspect the prequel would look good by way of comparison.

The flaws with The Last Jedi, besides an uninspiring story, is that it contradicts what’s been previously established, most obviously with Luke’s character. It also has a lot of stuff that just feels unrealistic (yes, it’s sci-fi and gets to break rules on faster than light travel, but even fantastical stories have to maintain their own rules and have some semblance of contextual realism. Otherwise Snoke could just snap the Rebel ships in two using the power of his mind).

I tend not to do film rambles/reviews, so didn’t post about this before, but I thought Rogue One was pretty good. Had weak spots, of course, but I liked the sense of certain doom, loved the ending, and, although some better characters would’ve been good (likewise if the pointless monks had been axed) it was a decent film.

The Last Jedi is the weakest of the Star Wars films I’ve seen (all except Solo). I do think the reaction has been over the top. Whilst not a great film, it’s still just a film. Pouring abuse over people is not limited to those who hate The Last Jedi, but it’s depressing to see (videogame developers, politicians, almost anyone in the public eye can get dogpiled with venom, sadly).

I’ve seen a little of the fallout from the film. Boycott for Solo, hate for Rian Johnson and the actress who plays Rose and so on. Disliking a film is fine but personalising hatred online is just wrong. It’s like complaining the well water is brackish and pouring in poison.

Anyway, those are my rambling thoughts on The Last Jedi.


*Spoilers for Doctor Who:

Davros’ whole character arc was creating the daleks, being betrayed by them and then trying to (and eventually succeeding) in reasserting control. Then in New Who, he actually agrees to be the compliant captive of the dalek leader. Utter tosh. Tosh, I tell you!

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Medea and Other Plays, by Euripides

I read this some time ago (maybe 15 years now) and reacquainted myself with this excellent little book recently. My edition is the Penguin version, translated by Philip Vellacott. The plays included are Medea, Hecabe, Electra, and Heracles.

Each play is a tragedy, the collective lesson of which appears to be that fate is cruel and you’re probably going to be vengefully murdered by a close friend or relative.

The plays are all very short. Despite there being four included, the page count (including the introduction and endnotes) is scarcely above 200 pages. This makes each play more or less a premise developed within a scene. However, this is done in an excellent fashion.

Euripides is extremely good at eliciting sympathy for someone’s unjustified plight, and then making one wonder whether the consequences of their anger are worse than the causes (to paraphrase Marcus Aurelius). The sense of human tragedy is not eroded one iota by the long time that has passed since the playwright’s lifetime in the 5th century BC. If anything, that prolonged period highlights the unchanging essence of human nature, of tragedy, cruelty, the will to revenge and the irresistible twisting of fate.

The plays all feature characters of some note in Greek myths, but for anyone not up on that the premise is clearly laid out so foreknowledge is not required.

I tend to go for history over literature, but this is a very good quartet of plays. If I didn’t already have a to-read pile I’d probably be looking at buying some more of Euripides’ works.

Downsides are few but clear. Endnotes remain the work of Satan, and they’re (rather oddly) not even flagged up in the text with small numbers or asterisks.

All in all, an excellent book.


Friday, 29 June 2018

Review: Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa

Musashi is the tale of the eponymous historical figure’s early life, beginning with the aftermath of the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. This was the tail end of the Warring States period in Japan, which saw the Ashikaga shogunate totter and fall beneath the widespread warfare between daimyo (powerful noblemen). Sekigahara saw the forces of two of these, the Houses of Tokugawa and Toyotomi, clash. Tokugawa won and claimed supremacy, although the remnant forces of Toyotomi holed up at Osaka and dreamt of returning to glory.

In this world, there were many masterless samurai, called ronin, and Musashi was one of them. Early on he’s little more than a strong and energetic fighter, but over the course of the book he dedicates himself to the Way of the Sword and mastering himself. His wandering takes him from place to place, and the book’s POV sometimes switches to other significant characters, such as Matahachi (his comrade-in-arms at Sekigahara), and Otsu (a childhood friend from the same village). Various places are visited, including Kyoto, Osaka, and the rapidly expanding city of Edo. Coupled with smaller villages, this presents the reader with an interesting cultural backdrop including schools of swordsmanship, pleasure houses, and temples.

The book is large at 970 pages, but I read it faster than most things because I found the plot intriguing and the writing style easy to read. It perhaps also helped that the world of early 17th century Japan was interesting to read about.

The cast is not as large as might be expected of such a big book, but the author’s style of drawing together and then dispersing clusters of characters, interweaving their own personal stories so that every character has different relationships with one another was very well done. It led to natural conflicts, allies of convenience, and explains how Musashi, despite doing his best to act honourably, managed to accrue quite a number of enemies over the years.

Other characters are three-dimensional, not merely reacting to Musashi’s own doings as background to his tale, but striving to achieve their own goals, whether that’s revenge or achieving success for oneself.

I tried to think of downsides, but it wasn’t especially easy. The size may put some people off. There is occasional sexual content but it’s the haziest of hazy watercolours you can imagine. Violence is a feature, of course, but far less frequent or visceral than in, say, Outlaws of the Marsh.

It’s a very enjoyable book, in short.


Thursday, 14 June 2018

Review: Red Sister, by Mark Lawrence

I nabbed this during a discount for just 99p, having previously enjoyed the author’s Broken Empire trilogy. It’s first entry in a new series, the Book of the Ancestor, set in a different post-Apocalyptic world.

It took me a fair while to read, not due to being badly written or anything, I just incurred some moderate pestilence which, at times, stopped me from reading.

The book follows the difficult and bloody childhood of Nona, who ends up in a convent where, alongside spirituality, the novices are also taught delights such as combat skills and how to poison people.

She’s rescued into the nunnery by Abbess Glass, who saves her from hanging for crossing a powerful nobleman (who thoroughly deserved it). Whether or not the convent will prove sufficient protection from said noble family’s wrath remains to be seen, but it’s certainly safer than not being there.

Alongside Nona are a number of friends/rivals, my favourite being Hessa, a lame girl nicknamed Hop Along who is perhaps Nona’s truest friend. Besides the novices there are several sisters of importance, and I enjoyed the Poisoner quite a lot, due to her mixture of mischief and toxins. Giving girls a truth serum then asking them who they have a crush on was entertaining.

The classroom politics and scheming blends nicely with wider conspiracies aimed at disrupting life in the nunnery, with Nona sometimes struggling to know who to trust. In terms of writing style, it’s easy to read and quite moreish. It’s not a soft book but it’s not as brutal as Prince of Thorns either.

In the middle there could perhaps have been a touch more pace. Shan’t spoil the ending, of course, but I liked the late twists and the conclusion of the story.

Overall, I enjoyed Red Sister a lot, and definitely felt invested in the story’s end. I’ll probably buy Grey Sister (the sequel) when it’s on sale, as the current Kindle price is £9.99. Which is more than the listed (currently unreleased) paperback, and barely less than the hardback.


Sunday, 10 June 2018

Three drawings: two gingers and a dragon

Suddenly struck me that the two (coloured) drawings of cartoon characters I really liked from my childhood (Tygra from Thundercats and Maid Marian from the animated Robin Hood) were both gingers. Maybe I’m a closet gingophile.

Anyway, I have done some drawings. It was really surprising how quickly I did my attempts at Tygra/Maid Marian (each pencil sketch was begun and done in one session, often it takes me a lot longer). Colouring naturally took longer, and I brightened the Marian colours (the scene from which the screenshot I used was at night so everything was subdued).

Fairly pleased with both of them although there’s still many things to improve. One that might not be obvious with the Tygra drawing is that I started it too high up on the page, so the forehead/hair aren’t quite as high as they should be, which has the knock-on effect of pushing the stripes closer together.

For Marian, the headgear is too high. I also found her eyes very tricky (pleased with his the fur turned out, though, especially as I haven’t done much of that).

Both drawings, as indicated, were just me copying screenshots.

The dragon, currently uncoloured/unshaded, is a different kettle of monkeys. It’s part of a lesson included in Steve Beaumont’s How To Draw Fantasy Worlds, which is perhaps a little above my head. The scan I’ve posted is not the end of the lesson but I wanted to get it scanned at this stage, before any shading occurs (I haven’t done much shading and I’d be loath to bugger up a drawing that, at this stage, looks mostly ok).

I haven’t drawn many monsters/animals, so this was an interesting challenge. I didn’t stick completely to Beaumont’s guidance (I’ve made the wings folded, added a small number of spiky bits, and not included the skull at the foot of the page). Whilst mostly happy with it at this stage, it’s clear my eye/hand is a bit lacking when it comes to fine detail, and I find the male figure a bit tricky. The dragon’s head looks reasonable although I got the proportions a bit wrong (it’s meant to be a little longer/more crocodilian).

Unlike the ginger cartoon characters, it took me a long time to get to the current stage of the dragon drawing. Have to see how the shading turns out.


Monday, 4 June 2018

Sir Edric and the Tale of the Discounted Book

Good news!

The Adventures of Sir Edric, the first book about the eponymous knight, which is replete with five star ratings, has been cut to just 99p for a week or so.

It’s a cracking good read, a rollicking adventure that mines heartily at the rich seam of British comedy. Aided by Dog, the world’s trustiest manservant, Sir Edric embarks somewhat reluctantly on perilous quests, alongside companions ranging from a foxy elven sorceress to a ten foot cyclopian nun.

Reviewers (UK and US Amazon) say:

"I can only recommend that everyone who likes British humour and fantasy buys this"

"Spewed Coffee on the Screen I Laughed so Hard" [note: the author accepts no liability for hardware costs incurred thusly]

"this book is ideal for both fantasy fans and booklovers in general looking who are looking for something different"

Take advantage of this fantastic offer to get yourself a fast-paced and witty book for less than the cost of a cup of coffee.


Friday, 1 June 2018

Some videogame rambling

Blogging’s been a touch light due to actually getting some work done (huzzah!) and being mildly pestilent (buggerydoo).

Anyway, there has been some recent videogame news that caught my eye and I thought was worth a quick ramble. So ramble shall I.

Fallout 76 is to come out. I imagine a proper reveal and launch date will emerge during this year’s E3, but the murmuring at the moment suggests it’s not a ‘proper’ Fallout (ie a single player RPG along the lines of Fallout 4, or New Vegas). Instead, it sounds like a (primarily, at least) multiplayer online tosh pit, probably including at least some element of base-building.

I rather liked the building in Fallout 4, although I didn’t like Garvey being a nag (and a layabout, why did *I* have to save every damned settlement whilst he frolicked through the streets, whistling and doing nothing?) or the paid DLC nonsense. However, with Fortnite, PUBG and perhaps now H1Z1 dominating the time, and wallets, of millions of gamers it’d be unsurprising if there were a battle royale aspect.

I’m not a fan of multiplayer gaming, and not just because I’m a misanthropic monster who dwells in an isolated cave on a remote North Sea island and whose only human contact is when the local villagers annually deliver me seven redheaded maidens to appease my wrath. It’s quite remarkable, really, given how much time I’ve sunk into Skyrim (much, much more than Fallout 4) how Bethesda have managed to announce various releases since, only one of which I’ve bought, and none of which I’ve played for even 10% of the time I put into Skyrim. But, gaming is a business. If you can make eleventy billion dollarydoos with Elder Scrolls Online *makes the sign against evil* and it takes less time than creating The Elder Scrolls VI: Your Grandkids Will Be Dead Before This Comes Out, it makes financial sense.

Will I be getting Fallout 76? Well, let us imagine a lovely world in which time and money were no object. In that marvellous realm of fiction, the answer would be: almost certainly not.

A more tempting prospect would be the forthcoming Tomb Raider, the third entry in the reboot of the mega-series. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is pencilled in for the middle of this September which really isn’t that far off now. I’ve played both immediately preceding instalments, as well as perhaps a third of those preceding the reboot, and have high hopes this will live up to the standards recently established.

It’s also being touted as completing the ‘origin trilogy’ which will see Lara Croft emerge from the cocoon of ordeals as an arse-kicking heroine. Although she did seem to be there by the end of the second game, if not the first… Anyway, it’s set in South America, with jungles and incredibly steep pyramids all around. This means both camouflage and never skipping leg day will be vital if Lara is to survive this particular adventure.

We are not yet certain what endangered species Lara will be murdering, or what priceless artefacts and/or cities she’ll be wrecking, but I’m sure that’ll come out in due course. Camouflage does play a role, though whether that’ll be just mud and leaves, or something akin to Metal Gear Solid 3’s approach, I don’t know. (As an aside, if you haven’t played Rise of the Tomb Raider yet, you can get it on Amazon for the PS4 for £16, so it’s worth a look).

One thing I will say against Shadow of the Tomb Raider is that the fancier ‘Croft Edition’ comes out 48 hours earlier. That kind of thing is just nonsense, in my eyes. Bonuses in swankier editions should be limited to cool extras like maps, posters, that sort of thing. Getting to play earlier because you’re Captain Moneybags does not sit well.

I’ll probably end up getting this, but not at launch.

On the new games front, this last is a ‘sort of’ entry. The Banner Saga Trilogy Bonus edition for the PS4 comes out towards the end of July (£30). The first game was the first, and so far only, game I’ve ever bought electronically. I have to say I liked a lot about it. The art style is interesting, I liked the strategic combat, and the element of uncertainty/deceit with the characters was intriguing. I also liked the ending a lot. However, I never got around to buying the sequels. Hard to say if it just slipped my mind, my dislike of electronic stuff got the better of me, or what. It’s not the best game ever made but it is a good game and well worth considering, particularly if you enjoy tactical combat, Viking(ish) settings, and tough moral choices.

Speaking of electronic stuff, I still plan on getting Blood & Wine DLC for The Witcher 3 at some point (this may seem like I’m absentminded, but given at least 16 years elapsed between me buying the first and second entries in the Death Gate Cycle, this is a small delay). I might also see about getting some XCOM 2 DLC at some point, but less sure about that.

On a wider note, rumours abound that the PS4 is drawing towards the end of its life cycle, although that still means going on to 2021. Given the bullshit pulled with the PS4 Pro, I shan’t be in a hurry to throw hundreds of pounds at Sony next time around. I’ll wait a few years, and see if they pull the same nonsense again.

And don’t forget, if you enjoy fantasy (serious or comedy), do check out my Amazon author page and the lovely five star reviews:


Saturday, 26 May 2018

Tales of Knights and Nitwits: Episode 12

Hey, kids. Progress has been a little slower with the comic than I'd like due to lack of time (work, pestilence, the stupefying realisation of the futility of human endeavour as we crawl like ants on a speck of dirt orbiting a a spark destined to become a cinder of insignificance in a universe created by a dead god that doesn't care), so I'll probably be posting this sort of thing on an as-and-when basis. I have the whole basic storyline (probably 40-50 episodes or so) down so it's just a question of trimming it into episodes and getting the art done (and, of course, time).

Anyway, here is the 12th episode. Enjoy. Unless you don't like it of course, but if you're reading the 12th episode of a series you dislike you're a moron or a masochist.

Full List of Episodes

Previous Episode


Monday, 21 May 2018

Dragon Age Delinquisition part 4: Haven does not live up to its name

Sealing the Breach was surprisingly easy, due to the number of pet mages I own. Haven partied and everyone toasted my name. It was great. For about six minutes. And then we were attacked.

A dimwit called Cole turned up, claiming he was here to warn me. Nice work, numbnuts, but next time try warning me before I’m being attacked rather than during.

It was the templars, all sporting knobbly growths in an unfashionable shade of red (Red Knob Disease, as one wag called it). The lyrium-lickers soon paid the price for being dumb enough to attack me. One well-aimed trebuchet, courtesy of yours truly, flung its boulder high up on the mountain slopes, causing an avalanche. Enjoy your snow sandwich, halfwits!

It was at this point a dragon showed up. Bravely, I ran away.

Just before reaching the chantry I saved Threnn (quartermaster). The ungrateful bitch told me: “I didn’t expect this from you.” That’ll teach me to help a shem.

As every human in the chantry was too busy shivering with fright and wetting themselves, I went out to launch the last trebuchet boulder and bury Haven. At the siege engine I encountered Corypheus, aka The Elder One. Even by human standards he’s ugly. And so’s his dragon.

But it takes more than a Tevinter and a glorified iguana to get the better of me.

Whilst Corypheus was wasting time with exposition rather than actually trying to kill me, I unleashed the trebuchet to bury Haven, heroically escaping into some underground tunnels.

Eventually, I caught up with the others. (After a little bickering) they were so relieved to see me they sang a hymn and knelt before me. Solas added a few notches to his dodginess by revealing he knew of an abandoned castle nearby. Handy. And bloody suspicious. Anyway, I hardly had a choice. Upon arrival, the others formally asked me to be their leader. Cute that they thought anyone else could do it.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Review: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain, by Ian Mortimer

This is the third Time Traveller’s Guide that Ian Mortimer has written, the previous two being of Medieval and then Elizabethan England. They’re completely self-contained, but I thought it worth mentioning in case anyone reading this preferred to get them in chronological order.

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain is a sort of everyday history, relating the habits of people high and low through the latter half the 17th century, when the monarchy was restored after the censorious puritanism of Cromwell’s reign. Innovations and advancement are everywhere, as Newton, Purcell, and Wren set to work furthering the boundaries of science, music, and architecture (the latter ‘aided’ by the Great Fire of London in 1666).

It is in this period that superstition really buckles beneath the weight of science, or starts to, at least. Speech becomes freer as newspapers spring up and a short-lived attempt at regulation ends, enabling a free press (which has continued to this day). Literacy rises, transport is improved with flying coaches and the impressively swift postal service. The plague sees its last occurrence on British shores, doctors soar in number, and women begin to break into art, acting, and other fields.

But it also sees terrible fires, the coldest winter ever, political turmoil when James II is deposed, the ongoing battle between puritans and those who preferred a freer society and many attitudes we would consider horrendous today (a love of cockfighting, religious segregation, kidnapping people for enforced servitude on ships/in colonies etc).

Ian Mortimer tells of life from the very richest to the very poorest, what people ate, how they lived, what work they did, and how the country changed so dramatically from the austere reign of Cromwell to the flamboyant Charles II (and his successors). It’s engaging and places you in the boots of the 17th people he describes.

This did throw up an interesting question. Until quite recently I didn’t give books specific ratings (on a personal level, I dislike them because a small problem for one reader is a deal-breaker for another, but do appreciate that others find such things useful). How to define a five star book? Something nigh on perfect? Something that’s 81% or better?

Regardless, I believe this excellent book, full of interesting snippets of information and insightful commentary, to be a five star book.


Monday, 7 May 2018

Dragon Age: Delinquisition part 3: New Minions, and picking between Templars and Mages

Leliana mentioned the Grey Wardens have gone missing. Turns out they’re some anti-darkspawn cultists. Anyway, she’d heard of one in the Hinterlands, called Blackwall. Weirdly, he had no idea his chums have gone missing, and no idea why. Being as much use as pineapple on pizza, I was set to leave but, even more oddly, he offered to join up. I was going to tell him to sod off, but he explained Wardens have treaties compelling others to help them, and that’s too good to miss.

In Orlais, I recruited Sera and Vivienne, although I suspect that might’ve been a mistake. Sera’s a low level criminal, a tame elf used to human ways, such as atrocious hair. Vivles is a pro-chantry, pro-circle orthodox creature, so brainwashed she actually loves the chains the shem put on mages. But she does have connections with Orlesian nobility. I let let her join, but I’m going to have to keep an eye on her.

On the Storm Coast, I hired the Bull’s Chargers. They’re a mercenary group led by a one-eyed Qunari with the neck of a bull and a pebble for a brain. The fool goes into battle topless, wearing ridiculous baggy trousers. And I thought Orlesians had daft ideas about fashion. With an attitude like that to armour, no wonder he lost an eye. Could be a useful meatshield, though.

The Inquisition is pretty strong now. I have spies and connections from the Qunari to the Orlesian court. Decision time has arrived. Do I approach the rebel mages or the templars for help destroying the Breach (as the hole in the sky has become known)?

Lord Seeker Lucius seemed about as friendly as a scorpion’s handshake, so I decided to visit Redcliffe village to hear out Grand Enchanter Fiona. Bizarrely, the bridge between the village and castle has broken and nobody mended it. I didn’t see a pulley system or suchlike set up to get food to the castle either. Bloody weird. I knew humans were stupid, but that’s some elite level idiocy.

I was getting myself some booze in the pub when I bumped into Fiona. She claimed to have no knowledge of inviting me. Either she’s a liar or someone else tricked me. Even worse, the damned fool mages have signed themselves into indentured servitude to Alexius, a Tevinter magister. And the local lord has run off. The whole thing stinks.

Halfway through negotiating with Alexius (who has the wardrobe of a drunken jester), we were interrupted by his son Felix feigning illness to give me a note. It asked me to visit the chantry, claiming I was in danger. Naturally, I went along. After a little light demon-slaying, ’twas time for a chat with Felix and Dorian, Alexius’ former protégé. Turns out the jester is in a cult called the Venatori, and they’re obsessed with me. So obsessed, in fact, they used wildly unstable time magic to get here and secure the mages’ allegiance ahead of me.

I already have a hole in the sky to fix. I could do without the unravelling of time as well.

Attack is the best form of defence, and confronting Alexius went very well, up until the point he hurled me and Dorian through time. We learnt from Fiona, who was busy turning into a lump of red lyrium, that two years had passed and ‘the Elder One’ (Alexius’ master) had conquered the world. Dorian responded by saying he could send us back if we find the amulet of Alexius. We shall see if he lives up to his moustache.

Leliana was still alive, although looking pretty rough. Humans age even worse than I thought. In the end, it was a simple matter of killing Alexius and using the amulet to return to the present, where he surrendered pretty tamely.

Chose to make the mages my allies. It’ll guarantee their loyalty and stop them returning to the chantry. Anyway, all that’s left is to close the Breach and I can relax for a moment.

Friday, 4 May 2018

An Interview with Terry Mancour

Pleased to say that today I’ve been joined by Terry Mancour, author of the Spellmonger series (10 parts currently and still going strong). There are some spoilers in the interview below.

What's the premise of Necromancer, the tenth and most recent instalment in the Spellmonger series?

Necromancer is a climactic book, in a couple of different ways. First, it’s the tenth book in the series, and hitting double digits deserves some celebration, plot-wise. There are elements that I brought up in Spellmonger, Book 1, that I didn’t revisit until Book 10. Secondly, it’s also the conclusion of a trilogy (quadrology?), of sorts. Books 8 (Court Wizard) and 9 (Shadowmage) take place partially concurrent with Book 7, Enchanter, but from different character perspectives. In Necromancer I had to unite those three disparate character and plot perspectives and put Minalan back into the picture, character-wise. All of those deeply personal questions that arose at the end of Enchanter had to be answered.

Plot-wise, Minalan the Spellmonger is in rough shape . . . but he has hope. It involves an impossible quest and a tricky set of moves in which he manipulates everyone he needs to, from his own vassals to the very gods, to get what he wants. Thematically, it’s a quasi-Orphic quest in which he goes into both a figurative and a literal Land of the Dead in order to bring his wife, Alya, back from a persistent vegetative state. It’s a fight between Min’s ego and intellect and the dark forces around him – not all of which are readily apparent. He emerges from a dark place, by the end of the book, but only at great cost.

The early books focused very much on the goblin threat, but more recently it’s on the backburner. Can you tell us whether the Dead God and his goblin hordes will be coming back soon, or even at all?

The role of the gurvani (goblins) has changed, since Spellmonger, but they are still very important to the over-all plot, as is their fossilized Dark Lord. As truths about Callidore’s past get revealed, Sheruel’s simple desire for genocide will seem quaint and wholesome compared to Korbal – or, at least, the reader might feel a little more sympathetic to the gurvani. They have been kicked around by a lot of different peoples over the years, and they feel sidelined by the Nemovorti. They were finally on top, with an undead Dark Lord of their very own, and now this! They very aren’t happy about it. We will see Sheruel again, and the rise of the Goblin King as rebels against Korbal’s betrayal. Gurkarl will decidedly play a role, because yes, I enjoy drawing out plotlines that far for the pure hedonistic joy of it.

There are many parts already in the series, and many planned ahead. How much detail have you charted out the course of future books, or do you make a vague outline for each planned instalment and only develop it when you arrive at that book?

In some cases, quite a bit. I know how it ends, more or less. I know what has to happen for the end to happen. I know the cool scenes I want to write. But there is much undiscovered country along the way, and part of the joy for me, as the writer, is having unexpected stuff fall out of my brain and onto the page. I know we can expect to see some familiar fantasy tropes tackled in a slightly new or different way.

Min will go on the road, during his exile, and there will be a lot of adventures before the end. But I’ve learned not to over-plot my books before I’ve started them. That’s boring for the reader and for me. And its too much work. It’s easier to hitch my subconscious to the plow of my keyboard, or somesuch other analogy, and let it do the heavy work. That opens my writing up to spontaneous inclusions of interesting bits of stuff I pick up in my research.

Writing a series offers both writer and readers the ease of a consistent world and characters, as well as enabling for more character depth and development than a single volume, but keeping consistency without making things repetitive or ‘samey’ can be tricky. What’s the greatest challenge you’ve found writing a series which is now up to part 10?

Thankfully, while the piano only has 88 keys they still keep getting new songs out of it. Fantasy is much the same. Both J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin use the medieval European fantasy setting, dragons, swords, magic, etc., but they are two entirely different stories. Hopefully, Terry R. R. Mancour will be able keep playing across those tropes in an entertaining way.

The episodic format of series fantasy fiction is helpful. But it’s also important for the writer to not abuse that. I make a point that each of my novels is a complete novel, in itself, not merely a section of a larger work. That means they need a beginning, a middle, an end, a plot, character development, and the rest.

Part of that can rest on the natural progression of events and character development. If you do it right, and understand human nature sufficiently, then figuring out how your character is going to change and develop in response to the course of events isn’t as hard as most writers seem to make it. In Enchanter, Minalan underwent stages of psychological response to a major personal trauma. That’s a pretty clear course of development to follow, and it gave the story greater depth without a lot of psychobabble. Or not much.

Part of that has to be supplied by the author applying a different approach or perspective on the same old medieval fantasy tropes. I find I take a lot of inspiration from significant events of the Middle Ages. Journeymage, for instance, was inspired by the Children’s Crusade.

Thankfully, the Middle Ages had a lot of fascinating stories that Fantasy literature has endlessly reinterpreted. While knight vs. dragon, elf vs. dwarf, etc. has had a lot of play, there are plenty of great tropes I haven’t used yet. In the future, expect some stories and plots revolving around the plague, voyages of exploration, peasant’s revolts, pirates, a succession crisis, and perhaps even the Inquisition. I’ll also be doing some more-familiar Fantasy tropes, such as the Dragon’s Lair, the Secret Cult, the Lost Civilization, the Ancient Evil, etc. Any of these is enough to hang an entire novel on, if you do it right. Mixing and matching them in the Spellmonger universe is a joy, and I have a long way to go before I start running short of material.

The series is focused entirely on Minalan to start with, but more recent instalments have seen other perspectives become increasingly important. Was this always planned, or did you feel that either telling the story or offering a new point of view was necessary to keep things fresh?

At a certain point, I think you have to vary the perspective in order to keep the reader’s attention. Consider that an awful lot more happened in the Civil War than what Rhett Butler saw and experienced. Offering those different perspectives allows you to give true depth to your world-building. It also allows the author to inject differences of perspective that can be jarring.

A case in point is how I handled the character of Dara in Necromancer. Dara has been the lead in the Young Adult/Cadet spin-off series I’ve done chronicling the events of the Spellmonger Series from her perspective. An adolescent girl and a middle-aged man see things very differently, and their perceptions of each other are as flawed and biased as anyone’s. I caught some flak from fans about how Dara, after being a strong and resilient character in one series, seems to be a whiny and self-absorbed girl in the main series.

Here’s the thing: to Minalan’s perspective, she is a whiny and self-absorbed girl. But Min’s perspective is informed by only a few brief scenes, not the introspection that Dara is undertaking as she moves from childhood to adulthood. To her, Min is a wise and powerful wizard who always knows what to do, not a self-doubting and sometimes self-loathing mage who frequently feels he’s in waaaay over his head. Which perspective is the “true” one? Neither. Each is just as valid, and by shifting viewpoints and characters to review the same events I hope to build up a tension that eventually erupts into conflict between the two.

A similar thing occurred with Pentandra. Responding in part to the popular ideas that a) there were no good female leading characters in Fantasy (which I dispute) and b) that men could not write good or convincing female characters, I wrote Court Wizard from Pentandra’s perspective. Within the novel she sees quite a bit of Callidore’s society that Minalan doesn’t, thanks to both her class and her gender. More, I had to change not only the nominal gender of the main character, but had to work to understand her perspective myself. Regardless of the politics of the moment, men and women generally tend to approach the same situations from slightly different directions. While there are notable exceptions, writing a female lead convincingly had to encompass some of these basic differences or Pentandra would have just sounded like Min in drag. No one wants that.

The further excursions into perspective, specifically Book 4, Knights Magi, and its more-or-less sequel Book 9, Shadowmage, explore the relationship with Tyndal and Rondal, Min’s senior apprentices. They’re undergoing an entirely different journey than Dara. They have different motivations and seek different risks and rewards. And they all see Callidore differently.

It’s not just a matter of keeping things fresh. Changing characters and perspective can serve the greater story when the reader knows things that the main character doesn’t. In fact, keeping track of who knows what, when, and how that advances the plot is something I spend a lot of time on.

Your books are selling nicely and well-reviewed, but do you ever want a break from the Spellmonger world? Are you working on anything else/have other plans, or are you just enjoying writing the series?

I’m so glad you asked! I am absolutely devoted to the Spellmonger series – it’s like a rich mug of ale.  But I have two sci-fi series underway, at the moment.

The first is my Tanith series, a continuation of H. Beam Piper’s classic space opera novel, Space Viking. After the original author tragically committed suicide with no heirs, his work became public domain. I’ve written two short sequels to the original already, Prince of Tanith and Princess Valerie’s War, and I’m working on a capstone finale to the work now, called Trask’s Odyssey.

And I will be totally honest: one reason it’s taking so long to produce the final book is that I’m enjoying it too much. If Spellmonger is like a rich mug of ale, then the Tanith Series is like a dirty double martini with three olives.

Secondly, I have a second sci-fi trilogy I’ve begun publishing. I won’t get into the background of the work here, but it’s an original time-travel piece that’s also (wait for it) openly pornographic. Sexually explicit. With all the best dirty words. It’s called the Casanova’s Butterfly trilogy, and the first book, Bad Penny, was released last summer to generally good reviews. I’ll be releasing the other two parts this summer and next, respectively. It’s already written, I just want to space it out because I’m like that.

It’s a trashy beach read and a lot of fun for any student of history or erotica or both. The main character is an anti-hero Pick-Up-Artist who goes pro by joining an elite government-sponsored time-travel program which goes back in time to insert certain genetic corrections into the human genomes to avoid a future catastrophe. The Old Fashioned Way: by seducing your grandmother. Most of the MC’s work is in the mid 20th century, the 1940s-1970s, one of my favorite historical periods. Along the way, the character’s hubris and arrogance screws up the time stream but good. If Spellmonger is a rich cup of ale, Casanova’s Butterfly is like a classic Manhattan with a roofie in it. I like to think of it as the Thinking Man’s porn novel.

The Spellmonger series is classic high fantasy. What were your inspirations, whether fictional or (for the political side, probably) real life?

It goes without saying that Tolkien is my bedrock inspiration, and my appreciation of the Professor grows every time I start another book. I also credit George R. R. Martin for some inspiration, because I began reading him before Game of Thrones and enjoy his approach to prose.

Other influences may be more obscure or subtle, even when I try to make them blatant, but here it goes: First and foremost would be Steven Brust’s Adrilankha series. My approach to Min’s character is closest to how Steve handles Vlad, his main character. Careful readers of both series will recognize me blatantly ripping off Steve’s character for a kind of cross-platform cameo in Shadowmage. But Steve’s wit and humor informed Min, and his approach to a well-drawn character is something I am proud to have stolen from him. Brust is the spiritual heir of Roger Zelazny’s amazing style, and I can’t recommend his stuff highly enough. Zelazny, himself, is a huge influence as well, particularly the Chronicles of Amber and the Lord of Light, but I even tracked down his “hard boiled detective novel” from the 1960s, and it rocked.

Another powerful influence was Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. Even though it has dragons and castles, it isn’t Fantasy. Not a lick of magic in it. It’s high-concept Sci-Fi with really good characters. Much of my cadet novels were cribbed from her Harper Hall YA trilogy. Another was Andrew Offut, who might be a little obscure for some folks but who did some great work back in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly for the Thieves’ World shared-universe series (for which Brust contributed a story, last volume). If you aren’t familiar, Thieves’ World was a wonderful collection of fantasy stories that really demonstrated the chops of some of the better fantasy writers of its time. Offut’s stories always impressed me the most. His original novels were likewise superior, though he didn’t get the acclaim that he deserved for their quality. Andy Offut knew how to get the most out of his characters, especially the minor ones, and when I need inspiration I frequently turn to his stories in the anthologies.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Fritz Lieber and Robert Howard, whose magnificent bodies of work informed the adventurous imagination of my childhood and occasionally leak all over Spellmonger. They made the world safe for brawny-thewed barbarians everywhere.

Non-literary influences should be included. Count the Boy Scouts and Dungeons & Dragons (which I was, incidentally, introduced to in Boy Scouts by Chris Evans – thanks, Chris!) as among my strongest. The BSA led, of course, to the Kasari culture in Spellmonger, and D&D has been a constant source of both inspiration and research.

Looking back at the 10 parts to date, which character (whether major or minor) have you found most enjoyable to write, and why?

I have a few favorites, and I’ll take the various main characters off the table for the sake of this question. Writing Crazy Alya was fun, largely because she’s usually so level-headed. I love writing the various Wizards of Sevendor, especially Olmeg the Green and Banamor. Both are based on people I know. Gatina the Kitten was a delicious delight to write, because she combines utter commitment with youthful enthusiasm. Onranion is a blast because he just doesn’t give a crap, and so is the Sorceress of Sorsha Wood, Lilastien the Rebel, M.D., the last remaining member of the Callidore Colonial Medical Service.

I love Sire Cei. I love writing Azar. There are characters that I absolutely love and who I haven’t even gotten to, yet. And yes, sadly, some won’t make it. But I have plenty to work with, and as long as I can keep them all sounding different and exciting, we’ll keep seeing them. Some will even get their own books. Banamor, Olmeg, Sire Cei and Zagor the Hedgemage will all get separate stories focusing on their perspectives, hopefully this year. Others will be explored in the future.

When can we expect the 11th instalment, and can you reveal anything about the premise?

I thought I might tell this one from the vampire’s point of view.

Seriously, Book 11 begins the second major arc of the series. The first ten books (decalogy) is The Spellmonger Ascendant. The second ten will be The Spellmonger’s Exile. In the first series, we see the rise of Min from lowly village spellmonger to senior noble of a unified kingdom. We saw how he built Sevendor from scratch and changed the feudal society he found himself in for the better: Magic in the Service of Man.

The second series will go a little darker. Now that Min has been exiled from Sevendor for at least three years, and then put unexpectedly in charge of the Magelaw, he has an even greater task ahead: building Vanador, a city designed to challenge the might of the various Dark Lords directly, without messing around too much with the rest of the Five Duchies. He has recovered his family, somewhat, and finds himself threatened in ways he never suspected once he becomes Count of the Magelaw.

In one way, the pressure has never been higher. At the end of Necromancer we saw our understanding of the war, so far, challenged by events and revelations from the past. Humanity has finally caught the attention of the Sea Folk, and now Min has to figure out what to do with it . . . as well as solving the complicated thaumaturgic puzzle of how to re-create the freak Snowstone spell. His wife is only beginning to recover her sanity and her fragmented memories. He faces a dauntless foe with very few resources or advantages, and no allies nearby to speak of. His political situation has never been more dire, and the future looks grim.

Yet in another way, Min has never been happier. The accomplishment he feels after retrieving the Handmaiden in Necromancer gives him great power, and he doesn’t see the various threats to Vanador as serious, compared to Korbal and Sheruel. The goblins are fighting each other, for a change, and the thousands of former slaves he helped free are struggling to rebuild their shattered lives in a shattered and depopulated land. Min has learned how to develop a country, thanks to Sevendor, and he has a lot more help this time. He’s living where he originally wanted to (more or less) with the girl of his dreams and their children. His enemies are far away and think he’s been bound by his exile, when nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Min sees his exile as a means of catching up on some important work while allowing Sevendor to grow naturally, without his direct guidance for a while. In a way, he’s off the game board of Kingdom-level politics. In a way, he’s at the center of it.

It’s a time of restful watchfulness and preparing for future battles. A time of repose, reflection, rebuilding and consideration of the future. So, nothing of consequence happens. I anticipate that it will be a really long and boring book on peasant market economics and the fascinating study of crop rotation’s effects on overall productivity and peasant farmers’ risk management schemes. I foresee some fascinating discussions on comparative thatching techniques. Perhaps some titillating debate about the differences between canon and secular law. Livestock will be discussed in depth and detail. There might even be some authentic pottage recipes, if you’re good.

There will be a mix of old characters and new. To the fore will be Tyndal, Gareth, Ruderal, Carmella, Azar, Wenek, Sandoval, Terleman, Landrik, Caswallon, Thinradel, Cormoran, the Dradrien, and others. On the back burner (in the “Meanwhile, Back In Sevendor . . . .” sense) will be Rondal, Gatina, Pentandra, Anguin, Sire Cei, Banamor, Olmeg, and Dara. Ithalia and Onranion will be present. Varen, Fallawen, and Lilastien will have cameos, at best.

We’ll also see some new folk in the woods of the Wilderlands: Rumel’s people, commonly known as Wood Dwarves. Durin’s Folk, they ain’t. Some new critters we haven’t seen before, including powderhorns and shapeshifting predators. We’ll see how someone other than Dara commands a wing of Sky Riders. We’ll start to get to know Min’s kids as more than names. Including the children of Greenflower. We’ll see what light an ancient AI from humanity’s past can shed on the current colony’s precarious position. We’ll find out more about the Forsaken. And we’ll see just who among his many manly minions Korbal considers powerful enough to challenge the Spellmonger.

As to when it will be out, that’s difficult to say. It takes a while to craft a book like that, a lot of research and a lot of writing. I took much of this year off of Spellmonger to prepare for the next series and finish up the audiobooks for the first one. I’ve committed to publishing three other novels and some stories before I even get there. I’m also feverishly working on additional texts, like the Atlas of the Five Duchies and a FRP module and sourcebook, in conjunction with superfan and recognized Mage Knight of Sevendor, Aaron Schwartz. I need to continue my marketing efforts and my development efforts. I’d really like to see some elements of Spellmonger in an AV format, someday, and have been working in that direction. I’d also be interested in exploring a comic adaptation, if I could find the right artist. I’ve been looking for a few years, now, but haven’t found someone who can do it, yet.

All of that being said, I can make this simple guarantee: YOU WILL SEE BOOK 11, THAUMATURGE, BEFORE YOU SEE WINDS OF WINTER. Likely sometime in early 2019.

So, suck it, George R. R. Martin.