Review: A Noble’s Quest

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Review of A Noble’s Quest
by Ryan Toxopeus
ISBN-10: 1492170127

If you’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons, chances are you and your group of fellow adventurers sometimes waded into combat without asking a lot of questions first. Or justified a slaughter when diplomacy fell through. Or found it easier to kill the King’s guards and hide the bodies than face up to some perhaps well-deserved justice.

You did all this in the name of fun and because, as the main characters in your own story, you were obviously the heroes. You saved the world, or at least the town, and if you left a lot of bodies behind along the way, well, that’s the life of an adventurer.

Maybe someone in your group jokingly brought up how your actions must appear to everyone else in the game world. “We’re murder hobos!” But it’s just a game and everyone’s having fun, so who cares, right?

But when those adventures are the basis for a book, as they are here, those ruthless antics are not as simple. As a reader, I expect the main characters to act heroic, work toward becoming a hero, or at least recognize that they’re not heroes at all, but they’re doing what they think is right.

If I had one huge disconnect with the book, it is that while the main characters are proclaimed to be heroic, the book never really addresses that they often act like murderers and thieves, without having any sense that their actions are justified. They’re doing it because they’ve been sent on a series of quests to achieve a secret goal, and they repeatedly talk about these quests in a way that seemed a little too meta for the characters, as if they were aware they were an adventuring party in a game.

One of the main characters repeatedly worries about the group’s seemingly unjustified murders, but eventually has an epiphany in which he realizes they were all justified after all because he was defending himself and his friends. I didn’t buy the logic and I never really felt the characters were heroic.

That being said, the book is well-written and it kept me reading. There’s a good sense of humor throughout and, even though a lot of the world-building is stock Player’s Handbook in many parts, the original touches are clever and engaging. I especially enjoyed a scene of some dwarves dealing with an interesting type of alarm, and any scene that had to do with the Dwarven religion, which seems like a clever, Dwarven take on Christianity.

I think if you approach this book as the account of a role-playing group acting out the lives of Player Characters, you’ll be more likely to enjoy it for what it is. And when all is said and done, I want to know what happens next in this world. Good thing then that the second book, A Wizard’s Gambit, is in the works.

The Fifth House Edits: Week One

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I am 40,000 words into the first pass edit of The Fifth House, which is the sequel to The Only City Left. (Sign up for my newsletter to be notified when The Fifth House is released!) For this first pass, I am looking at the structure of the story as a whole, from where the chapter breaks are, to character arcs through the book, to where certain scenes need to fall in relation to one another. More detailed edits will have to wait for the second pass.

Already I have pushed back the introduction of one character and relegated her to a smaller role in the book, because she was fighting for attention in an already-crowded novel. That change allowed me to cut down the length of the first chapter she appeared in, but of course this also requires cascading changes throughout the rest of the book. In the end, I think it will be worth it, though. Plus, any character I cut like this usually shows up again, whether in a short story or another work altogether.

I should mention that I have two point-of-view characters in Book Two, as opposed to only Allin in Book One, and they switch off chapters. This is done to expand the story possibilities in this book, and to have the action be more wide-ranging while still allowing me to tell the big-picture story I want to tell. Reading through my draft, I realized that the second character was sort of defined by her relationship to Allin. Since she should be as important a character as Allin, I wrote an entirely new introduction chapter for her, and I think this makes the story flow much more smoothly.

Finally, when I wrote this draft, I was more concerned with getting the ideas out than making the chapters the perfect length as I went. This meant that some of my “chapters” were 4000, 5000, even 7000 words long, whereas my preferred chapter length is about 2500 words. Breaking the chapters down to that size is complicated by my dual-narrator approach, but it’s a challenge I’m having fun tackling.

So in the first third of the draft, I have cut chunks of exposition, removed a character, added in a new chapter, and cut the existing chapters into smaller, more manageable pieces. Not bad for week one of edits!

Photo credit: [44/365] I am Jack, hear me lumber! by Pascal.

Review: Helen & Troy’s Epic Road Quest

helentroyquestI used to read humorous fantasy all the time when I was younger: John DeChancie’s Castle Perilous Series, Craig Shaw Gardner’s trilogies, and Robert Lynn Aspirin’s Myth series being some of the books I read and reread several times. Somewhere along the way, though, I fell out of the habit of reading funny books.

Helen & Troy’s Epic Road Quest, by A, Lee Martinez, definitely falls into the humor fantasy category. I might not have picked it up except for it being the book chosen for a local book club I am going to attend for the first time. I won’t say it has rekindled my love of the genre, but it was good enough that I’ll sprinkle similar books back into my reading queue. (Since I’ve had Terry Pratchett recommended to me more times than I count, that seems like a good place to start.)

So who are Helen and Troy and why are they going on this epic quest? Without revealing too much, Helen is a minotaur and Troy is your usual perfect hero type. They live in our world, if myths and legends were true and the fantastical had long since become commonplace. Their Call to Adventure comes by way of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, where they end up being tasked with a quest by an insane god.

In other words, just another day in the fantastical world Martinez has created. Of course, everything is taken so much for granted and treated with a dry, been-there-done-that attitude, that the book doesn’t have much of a sense of wonder. Instead, it’s a by-the-book quest to get the McGuffins, and it wears this on its sleeve. The characters themselves are aware that they are on a quest and must abide by certain tropes.

It’s done with a dry wit and gentle touch, spending as much time on building the friendship between Helen and Troy as on describing the mythical beings they encounter along the way.

Above all, it’s a quick read that kept me amused me and worked by itself and as a meta narrative on the nature of heroic quests.

5 Tips for Aspiring Self-Published Writers

Begin One Way by Andy Arthur

I am a self-published writer at the beginning of my career. I’m not a master passing down wisdom from on high. I’m just another traveler on the same road as everyone else, and these are some of the tips and reminders I give myself from time to time. Maybe some of them will speak to you, too.

1) You’re at the beginning of a long road. You know that old saw about enjoying the journey and not the destination? You better be ready to believe that, because the journey is the only thing you’re in control of. You can write, and polish, and publish, improving your craft with each cycle, but no matter what you do, there’s no guarantee you’ll become a bestseller or even make enough to pay your bills at the end of the road. Which brings us to point number two:

2) You gotta have faith, a-faith, a-faith-ahhh*. Trust yourself. You’re doing this for a reason. You’re passionate. You have stories fighting to escape from your mind and burrow into your readers’ imaginations. Finding those readers can be difficult at first. You might feel like you’re writing into the void. Keep going. If this is something you are passionate about, and you’re willing to keep improving your craft, it will find an audience. Someone will read your work and be transported to another world. How cool is that? Which reminds me:

3) You are awesome. And you stink. Both, really. At the same time. You have to be able to hold both of these thoughts at once, in balance, and not succumb to the dangers of excess belief in either. If you think you’re completely awesome, you might risk not getting some second opinions on your work before you publish, at which point finding out you are not the next Stephen King can come as a tremendous blow to your ego. If you think your writing stinks worse than last week’s beef and broccoli, you’ll paralyze yourself before you can bring a story to completion.

Remember, you are awesome, but you’re not perfect. Some of what you write will be downright horrible. Allow yourself to stink the place up in your first draft. Polish it. Share your writing with some trusted fellow writers or complete strangers and get some feedback. Polish it again. Try to have an objective eye for your work and, if you think it’s ready, put it out there.

4) Write, publish, repeat. No, I haven’t read the book of the same name, although I think I bought it in a bundle a while back. But I digress. I don’t need to have read the book to agree with its mantra. I know too many writers who have never pulled the trigger on publishing their work. They have so many unfinished projects, but for whatever reason, they won’t actually release any. If your goal is to grow as a writer, I suggest that you finish what you started and publish it. It feels good to have accomplished something, you’ll have proven to yourself you can do it, and most importantly, you can move on to the next project. And the next one, and the next one.

5) There’s a lot about selling books that is out of your hands, so for the things you can control, make them as excellent as you can. Note the italics on “as you can.” I’ll come back to that in a second.

The biggest item you can control is your writing, but don’t make the mistake of striving for the perfection of some ideal Book or Story. Write the best work you can. Get it edited if you can. Get beta readers if you can. Have it proofread by a professional if you can. Get an awesome cover if you can.

If you can. Notice I’m not saying you must or you should. I think we all, given the choice, would have a team of experts assisting us with every aspect of our book. Many of us aren’t at the point where this makes financial sense, however. We can afford some experts, maybe. Or we can’t afford any but we have some trusted associates we can trade with. Or we can trade beta reads, or find a writing group, or an online community.

Produce a work you’re proud of and accept that there will always be those who will tell you what you must do and what you should do, but in the end, do what you can do. Keep doing what you can do for long enough, and maybe you’ll be able to afford all the things you must and should do.

Bottom line: if you believe you have created the best work possible for you at this point in time, publish it. Then listen to reviews and pick out the constructive criticism. Use it to improve your next work.

Whatever road you’re on, I wish you the best of luck along the way.

*If you don’t get this reference, you’re probably starting on the road to self-publishing much earlier in life than I am. :)

Photo Credit: Begin One Way by Andy Arthur.

Lego 60066: Swamp Police Starter Set

Psst, you may not know this, but I like Lego. I’m in the early stages of Lego addiction, and I’ll be posting on my blog whenever I have something Lego-related to share.

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Lego has a new “swamp police” theme, which seems to involve lots of sets with the same few characters. Each set has a different vehicle or two, and a small building or two. I’ll admit not being that interested in the theme overall, but for anyone looking to build up their Lego collection, I highly recommend the Swamp Police Starter Set.

For $10 you get four minifigures (female and male police officers, two male criminals), which is a good deal in and of itself. One of the criminals comes with a nice orange-red beard, and both sets I’ve opened had an extra beard piece. Nice.

What else do you get? A pair of oars, fan and circular fan case, snake, spider, shovel, walkie-talkie, money, handcuffs, some foliage, and best of all, a really nice crocodile with opening jaw and swinging tail. And then there’s bricks to make a small hovercraft, a wooden raft, and small island money cache.

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I bought three of these sets, partly to get three crocodiles for a Pitfall build I’m working on, but also because it’s hard to beat the price on this one in relation to the minifigures and other neat bits you get.

5 of 5 for price and usefulness.

Manga & Graphic Novel Challenge

Mother Gamer Writer

The fine folks at Mother/Gamer/Writer have been hosting a Manga/Graphic Novel/Video Game Novel Challenge for a few years now, and I’m going to join in this year.

I’m going to shoot for the stars and enter at Level 5 (read a total of 45-55 books). The actual reading should be easy. I tear through manga and graphic novels on a regular basis (and I’m skipping the video game novel portion of the challenge). But keeping up with reviewing each book? That will be a challenge. Let’s see if I can keep up or I fall flat on my face, shall we?

I better get myself to the library and get some manga and graphic novels checked out, because if there’s one thing I can’t do, it’s afford to buy all of the books I am going to read! If you’re of a mind to help me in that department, maybe you’d consider buying one of my books or stories? (What, you thought I’d miss a chance for a shameless plug?)

Moorcock and Tolkien

The scales of justice, photo by James Cridland.I can’t get worked up about a lot of things, and certainly not about what books people like to read, so it is always with some amusement when I see someone or other trash someone else’s writing. It is even more amusing (or perhaps confusing) when I find out one of my writer heroes, Michael Moorcock, despised another of my writer heroes, J.R.R. Tolkien.

I’ll spoil the ending of this post right now: I like both of them and I’m cool with that. But I think it’s interesting to look at their different styles, as I experienced them, and see what I can make of Moorcock’s attitude and what effect each writer has had on my own style.

In a recent piece in the New Yorker, “The Anti-Tolkien,” Peter Bebergal writes: “Moorcock, one of the most prolific living fantasists, sees Tolkien’s creation as little more than a conservative vision of the status quo, an adventure that brings its hero “There and Back Again,” rather than into a world where experience means you can’t go home again.”

Moorcock’s work, especially the Elric series, is presented as a rebellion against Tolkien’s traditional fantasy.

Bebergal again: “In the nineteen-seventies, swimming in the shadows like a remora alongside Tolkien’s legacy, was a hero of sorts with a slightly darker nature than that of Bilbo or Gandalf. His name is Elric, a frail, drug-addicted albino and the reluctant ruler of the kingdom of Melniboné, where revenge and hedonism are abiding characteristics, and human beings are enslaved. The inhabitants of Melniboné are not the spiritual, almost angelic elves of Lothlórien, but a race of decadent autocrats whose magical gifts are bestowed by demons.”

I had never really thought of Moorcock’s work this way, probably because I read Moorcock before I read Tolkien (the Lord of the Rings trilogy seemed dense and overwhelming to me in my teens, when I devoured dozens of books each month and formed some of my strongest reader/author bonds).

Granted, I always found something cooler about Moorcock’s worlds and heroes. They were tragic, usually barely hanging on to their lives, and even when they succeeded, it wasn’t long before a cruel world swept the rug out from under them once more. Perhaps Moorcock’s writing better agreed with the way the world felt to teenaged me (and, I’ll admit it) adult me.

I rarely participate in epic quests and ultimately conquer evil. Life is a series of small battles and the outcome is usually questionable, so I can relate more to Moorcock’s heroes in this way. As Bebergal writes, “Elric is not about abstract ideas of good and evil, with faceless powers looking to strip the world of its trees and its hobbit holes. Elric is about law and chaos, and how, sometimes, choosing one over the other is no more or less just.”

All that being said, epic fantasy, with the forces of good eventually winning a hard-fought victory over the nameless evil, definitely has its time and place. I love the scope, the world-building, the mix of characters and personalities. I love that Tolkien’s world feels like a real place, a piece of our own history, with a sense that around any corner of the world, something else awaits, some adventure or hero or villain or ruin with a story all its own.

Even though I tend more toward stories about individual heroes trying to balance law and chaos within themselves, often with bittersweet victories at the end, I don’t feel the need to dismiss one type of story over another.

As a writer I tend toward one side of the balance, but as a reader I enjoy both equally, at least until the next book I read tips me more toward one side or the other.

(Speaking of which, Michael Moorcock’s new book, The Whispering Swarm, is out on January 13!)

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Photo credit: The scales of justice, James Cridland.

Book Tour: The Only City Left

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Twin Opinions is hosting a belated book tour for The Only City Left this week. Visit the page to see where The Only City Left will be showing up this week, and also enter to win one of two ebook copies of The Only City Left!

Writers: If you’re interested in having Twin Opinions host a tour for you, they have a sale going right now. Check out their Pricing page.

Meet Allin Arcady

Ryan Toxopeus nominated me to participate in the Meet My Character Blog Tour, and lo, after weeks of procrastination, here it is.

Meet Allin Arcady

1) What is the name of your character?  Is he fictional or a historic person?

Allin Arcady. He’s fictional but part of a grand future history I have planned. (I can’t resist future histories. Cherryh. Asimov. Heinlein. Niven. I love it when an author’s many and varied works share a universe and timeline.)

2) When and where is the story set?

The Only City Left is set on the planet Earth, tens of thousands of years in the future. At this point, the planet has been paved over, dug out, and built up to the point where it is one giant, hive-like city that completely covers the planet. Oceans still exist beneath the city, and some towns and cities were swallowed whole, especially if they had some historical value, but from the outside the Earth would be unrecognizable to a visitor from our time.

They might recognize the Moon though, still orbiting the Earth as it always has.

The city called Earth is largely empty now. No one knows where the majority of the population went, but there are many rumors as to why they disappeared. All agree that it must have happened a long time ago.

3) What should we know about him?

Allin has survived on his own in the depths of the City for the past three years. Before that, he lived with his parents as a nomad, always moving throughout the City, never settling down. He’s used to scavenging old tech to create new devices to help him survive his often-perilous journey.

4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his life?

Allin’s running from the horrors of his past. He thinks if he can climb out of the dark depths of the City and see the Sun rise over the Roof of the World, he’ll have accomplished all he can hope for in life. Unfortunately, making his way up through the deadly maze of the City is not easy, and it becomes even harder when a menace from his parents’ past comes calling. Allin may want to be rid of his past, but it’s not going to let go that easily.

5) What is the personal goal of the character?

To survive and to see the Sun for once in his dark, dreary life.

6) Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

It’s called The Only City Left. You can read a sample on Amazon, or read some of the wonderful reviews it has received.

7) When can we expect the book to be published?

The Only City Left is currently available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback formats. I’m currently at work on the sequel, The Fifth House.