Fantasy Review: ‘Prince of Fools’ by Mark Lawrence

Prince of Fools (The Red Queen’s War, #1)Maybe I just needed a fresh start.

Look, I enjoyed Prince of Thorns when it hit. Before it went viral I wrote a one paragraph review on Goodreads that still gets ‘likes’ three years later. It was different, it was sparse, it was fun in a way that makes no since to those who don’t like their stories dark.   I then completely ignored the series. Eventually I picked up King of Thorns way late, and while I struggled at first eventually came to love it as well. Yet I never picked up Emperor of Thorns, and I can’t explain it.

I promise I won’t lag behind on this new series set in the same world. Because while I enjoyed the first two books of Jorg’s story plenty, I can’t remember it ever grabbing ahold of me like Jalan’s has already. Fans of the first series are probably already convinced that they want to read this one, but for any that were not? Well, maybe you want to give the world another try. I sure am glad I did.

As a prince I’d been taught that good opposes evil… And always I wondered where I fitted into this grand scheme, little Jalan built of petty wants and empty lusts, nothing so grand as evil, nothing closer to good than imitation.

Jalan is a Prince of Red March, but far enough down the line of succession of live the life he really wants; gambling, flirting (and more), and having all the fine things in life without needed to do the work. He is a hero among his people for his role in battle, though he remembers running like hell and finding himself crowned hero when it was over. The Flashman of the Broken Kingdoms, Jalan’s little world is about to turn over on his selfish head when he becomes tied magically to a powerful Northman named Snorri.

Horror and fantasy mix just fine here. Zombies are not quite so silly when they are directed by a master and fed with the souls of the innocent. A mad cackling witch has absolutely nothing to Lawrence’s Silent Sister; one of the spookier characters I have seen on page. Even those showing the most kindness to Jalan are suspect. Just who is the Uncle no one talks about in the tower, wasting away and almost ignored?

What I read here was damn fine in its simplicity. A travel story; yet one where the protagonist never quite knows where it is going. Forced along by his tie to Snorri the reader is left wondering at the purpose of the journey as much as the Jalan is. There is a villain to be sure, but what purpose he has is not immediately revealed, nor will we be getting a clear answer on just what the threads of this story are coming too. Jaral is more worried about survival and his ‘curse’ than any larger picture, a very different ride than the focused drive we followed in Jorg’s story.

I rarely mention individual scenes because of the lack of context within the larger story. But Prince of Fools has one of the finest scenes I have ever read in the last third of its pages. While Jalan grows throughout the book, the petty selfish boy still gets to come out. So when he is upstaged in a bar his chance to do something good, while still getting some petty revenge, had me laughing loud. Scene then continues to build and escalate until Snorri cuts everything, leaving us with only a hint of what could have come next. Bar scenes are usually empty pages where backstory is filled in or a fight with no relation to the story happen; Lawrence instead made it one of the highlights of the book.

Those who don’t like clever references to old earth may not be impressed. I found myself wanted to research how long some of our constructed projects could last without upkeep, but presumable the author has done some diligence on this front and I would find fewer ‘gotcha’ moments than I would hope. I was a little dubious of Scandinavians reverting to ‘Vikings’ after a world breaking apocalypse; seemed a bit convenient. While I appreciated the uniqueness of the world I am not always sure I buy it completely. But this quibbles are quickly forgotten when reading; the pacing and style sucked me in and the great story held me.

Yes maybe I just need a fresh start. Or maybe the more humorous (though still plenty dark) approach grabbed my attention more. But I think Lawrence has another winner on his hands, and here is too the rest of the series making me feel like a fool for not finishing the last one.

4 Stars

Review copy received through Edelweiss

Tough Traveling – Immortals

Tough Traveling jpegEach Thursday, our copy of ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’ in hand, we shall tour the mystical countryside looking for adventure and fun (and tropes) from all over fantasy.

Today’s Tour Topic is…Immortals

IMMORTALS are fairly common in Fantasyland.  There are three kinds:

  1.  GODDESSES AND GODS, who exist forever unless people stop believing in them.

  2.  ELVES or DARK LORDS, who live forever unless someone kills them.

  3.  Humans…

Wow, this was so much easier than last week! There are immortals EVERYWHERE in fantasy fiction. And a few in Sci Fi. And this may grow into the longest list ever! But no, I shall hold back and keep it to…some. I will even divide this one up by bullet point.

1. Goddesses and Gods

Gods Behaving BadlyGreek PantheonGods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips- The whole gang is here, at least all the ones the average high school graduate may know. Unfortunately Zues has gone crazy, Apollo keeps wasting power turning mortals into trees, and said power is diminishing rapidly due to lack of belief. Oh, and they are currently living in a trashed out apartment in modern times. This was a great little book for lovers of myth and mortals out witting the gods. It featured my favorite geek couple ever, some mad Scrabble skills, and the most boring afterlife in the history of ever.

Someday someone will be able to tell me how this got optioned, a movie got shot, and it still is unreleased. No justice in the world.

OmSmall Gods by Terry Pratchett – Giver of of a thousand commandments (that he doesn’t remember given), namer of prophets (wait, was he the one that talked to himself?), known for displays of power in the form of a monstrous bull, glorious swan, and even a… turtle?

Yes lack of belief can be a real bitch my friends. But together with Brutha, the most unlikely of prophets ever(though to be fair, perhaps the only one who believes in Om rather than fears his church). Honestly I am going to assume everyone has read this book, loved it, and ignore anyone who challenges this worldview.

Luke Eight Days of Luke by Dianne Wynne Jones – A strange little red headed imp of a Eight Days Of Luketeen boy who appears mysteriously. And shortly after, he draws interest in several powerful figures. His new friend David finds himself meeting a new interesting person every day, and dragged further and further into something strange going on. Was that Mr Chew who showed up on Tuesday? Mr Wedding on Wednesday? Or was he perhaps mishearing those names?

Hmm, anyone read American Gods?

2. Elves and Dark Lords – Science Fiction- just to change things up.

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)Anaander MianaaiAncillary Justice by Ann Leckie – But, I thought this book was just a gimmick with a gender pronoun switcheroo? Well, you thought wrong. There is no doubt the way Leckie plays with gender expectations gained this book a lot of publicity, but it was not a book solely defined by it. One of the best parts of this glorious mindfuck tm came from ancillaries themselves. And while the protagonist was cool, the villain was even better. Immortal in a different way, with her mind held in so many bodies that an assassination attempt would be about as successful as a haircut; nothing important lost. Of this book is so good.

The Emperor of MankindWarhammer 40k – Oh hell ya. The man on the golden throne, betrayed by Horus, kept alive by a constant mortal sacrifice of psykers. Yet without him there would be nothing, Chaos would rule and mankind would be overran.

‘In the Grim Darkness of the future there is only WAR.’

3. Humans

Immortal EmpressThe Spirit War by Rachael Aaron –How to talk about this one The Spirit War (The Legend of Eli Monpress, #4)without a mass amount of spoilers? Hmm, really cant. Favorite of the Shepardess, controller of spirits without apparent domination. None of that makes since? Well, you all are reading the Paradox series so you know you want to read Aaron’s first one. Get on it, and by book four you will know what I am talking about.

The LadyThe Black Company by Glen Cook- I have used The Lady before. But come on, she took out The Dominator and stole the Ten who were Taken from him, burying him for hundreds of years. She is just cool, and seemingly immortal. Imagine that.

Mr. SlantDiscworld by Terry Pratchett – Nathan, you already used Pratchett! Ya, but I missed him on some other lists so I gotta even things up.

Death stops some completely, others just have to change their eating arrangements a bit. Zombies may have been scary on the whole at one time, but they are pretty boring. But a lawyer zombie? With lifetimes of case law under his belt? If you aren’t quaking you just don’t get it; we have a lawyer who doesn’t need sleep here. Scary stuff.

How many more could I have listed? I have four more just on my shelf of physical books in the other room. I had to cut back, but damn, I think this is plenty. And I gotta save some for a few others.

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Join as next week as we deal visit… Invisible Colleges

Invisible College is used for training WIZARDS and usually occupies a prim site in some major CITY…

You know what though, rather than force the issue and make this hard, let’s open the topic to any school in fantasy that is hard to reach or gain entrance in to.  Should give a more varied list.

 

As always thanks for stopping by, and please check out the other travelers. And if ever you want to join in, just do it! Anytime, the linky stays up all week.

Fantasy Review: ‘Scourge of the Betrayer’ by Jeff Salyards

Scourge of the Betrayer (Bloodsounder's Arc, #1)If I were a scribe who had spent my life dealing with stories from the dullest people in the world would I have taken the opportunity? Would I have dropped what I was doing and taken commission from a band of warriors? Syldoon warriors, men rumored to be the nastiest of nasty; would I have willingly gone with them with no direction and no assurances of what was to come?

Damn right I would.

This is a book that deals with the smaller scale by design. There is no epic war going on, no big bad end of the world foreseen, hell there isn’t even an army. Just a band of soldiers and their newly hired scribe. We walk into the story at about the same point their new scribe Arkamandos does. The soldiers are hiding something, have a destination in mind, and are content to bicker among themselves until their captain tells them to head out. Arki can only listen in, record, and wonder what it is he is making a transcript of.

What makes this book click is the character interactions. A story with a tight cast will live and die by this and here we have a story that thrived. We get a great look into each character early on as they bicker and taunt each other within the bar. W learn about them naturally, through Arki’s eyes and ears, as they drift in and out of the picture. Never do we gain a complete picture because we have no omniscient narrator to help us cheat. The captain shows quite a bit of kindness early on to his new scribe; do we trust it? He also is hiding quite a bit; starting with his mysterious flail that he stops others from talking about. Lloi is another enigma for Arki to discover. She is plenty kind to him, so why are even the toughest of the group fearful of her?

The writing is more intimate that fantasy readers are probably used to. Each and every one of Arki’s thoughts are vivid; especially his humiliations. An early scene where he tries to control his lust and fight his shame while pretending sleep during another’s sexual encounter is as intimate and awkward as could be expected; and provided so much insight into the man we were dealing with in such a short scene. More than any other it showed us how over his head the scribe may be, without having anything to do with the actual task.

The plotting of this book will either work for a reader or not. The early going seems like aimless traveling, not even a hint at a larger purpose is given. The group is often split and the story relies on small conversations about nothing to move along. But it all builds our knowledge of the land and the company. There is action, again fairly unique with its small scale battles where numbers top out in the twenties, at most. And slowly but surely we, like our new favorite scribe, start to put the pieces together. So by the time the captain seems to reveal his plan a smart reader will see that there is more coming and finally have the details needed to search for relevant clues.

Of course this book gets compared to The Black Company, and it should be. But while Cook’s awesome books had some pretty high stakes (with the company right in the middle of everything), Salyards’ story is different. The high stakes in his story is all character based; we naturally feel what Arki feels for each character (and yes, he starts to feel for some of his new companions). I will say this book hit me with a surprise death that mattered, something very few books have been able to do since I first read GRRM.

Hey Jeff, thanks for reminding me that I still had not read your book! Especially as we seem to be right in time for the next one to come out. I really enjoyed it.

4 Stars

Copy for review provided by author’s publicist.

Fantasy Review: ‘The Last Continent’ by Terry Pratchett

Part 22 of The Complete Discworld Reread

*Ring*

Hello, Terry?

Ya, it is me, Nathan.

Nathan!

You know, the guy doing the full reread of your Discworld series?

No? Haven’t read one review? Not even…

Really? Wow, really thought some of those would have made it your way. But hey I got a few questions for you.

Huh? Well, it is surprisingly easy to get someone’s home number these days, the internet is a wonderful place. Anyway, I just finished The Last Continent and I am a bit confused.

Yes, I figured out that it was set in the Discworld version of Australia. Hell my three year old could have figured that out. By the way do you get those Foster’s Beer commercials on your TV much?

No? Oh come on, you know the ones. They show something like a guy throwing a boomerang at someone and then say “Instant message,” implying that that is how the Australian people would grab someone’s attention.

Really? Not ringing a bell? Because honestly they either stole half their jokes from you or vice versa, there were a lot of easy jokes in this book. Honestly did you just get bored? Usually your stuff is more clever than this; you of all people know that just making a reference to Pricilla Queen of the Desert does not automatically make it a joke.   Most of Rincewind’s page time was spend poking at Australian stereotypes in not so clever ways.

Please don’t hang up sir, I am sorry. I know you can’t be on fire all the time.

No need to be defensive sir, I know there are tons of people who loved this book. No doubt they have watched Crocodile Dundee six times this week. Nothing, I didn’t say anything there, just background noise sir.

What’s that? Oh ya, the evolution jokes were better. I loved the god of evolution. I loved the love or beetles.   Instant adaption is great. And to be fair everything to do with the university wizards is comedy gold, you have the interplay between them down to an art. It was just Rincewind’s story that didn’t seem to have any actual comedy in it.

Ok, yes I will stop bring it up and move on. I am sorry.

My favorite part? Oh the scene where everyone takes over and tries to draw a duck. Pure gold. I especially love the Burser’s thoughts in the background, a rare look into someone so insane he is down right sane. Plus, I have to say, it was this book that first taught me what a drop bear was when I read it years ago.

You have to go soon? Really? It’s almost midnight, where are you going this time of night?

What? Oh, the real reason I was calling? Like I said, I am a bit confused about The Last Continent. Could you answer a plot point question for me? Then I will let you go.

Oh thank you. Let me see, how should I actually phrase this. I mentioned I loved the wizards and found them hilarious as ever. I saw a lot of your genius hidden in some of the jokes, subtle nods to evolutionary theory and perspective in art. And while the Austrialian clichés got old I admit a few of them made me chuckle. But… ahh, this is hard. How do I ask this? Ok, I got it.

Was there any kind of coherent plot I was supposed to following in this jumble, confused mess of a book?

Hello?

Hello?

Terry?

3 Stars.

Tough Traveling – Hidden Kingdoms

Tough Traveling jpegEach Thursday, our copy of ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’ in hand, we shall tour the mystical countryside looking for adventure and fun (and tropes) from all over fantasy.

Today’s Tour Topic is… Hidden Kingdoms

Hidden Kingdom.  Usually reached through CAVERNS or after an arduous trek into the heart of the central masssif, this is often the object of the Tour QUEST…

Good god this was hard this week.  Why can’t I find any damn hidden kingdoms in fantasy?  It seems like something that should be all over the place.  And yet, I got nada.  So live with what I give you.  Hopefully the other travelers did a bit better this week.  Oh well, this is the best I can do.  And if you say some of them are cheating, well, you are right.  I cheated like mad.

The examples I came up with can be found in the following.

The Silk Map (Gaunt and Bone, #2)The Silk Map – Chris Willrich- Strange land?  Strange monks?  A timeless place in which people spend eternity trying achieve perfection?  Ya I think this one counts.  It was even the destination for Gaunt and Bone’s quest, thought to be a hidden place of silk worms that weave iron silk.

Probably best if you don’t eat any of the fruit though.

Iron Jackal – Chris Wooding – You know you can’t always be the first to arrive at the hidden kingdom.  What if the enemy has been The Iron Jackalthere for years?  Well if you’re the crew to the best junker ship on the planet and your captain has a curse to break you don’t let that bother you.  This was an abandoned kingdom,  and thus maybe more suited to be classified as ruins, but as the technology within was still good I am going to count it.

Are all hidden kingdoms worth saving?  Maybe not, sometimes explosions are a bit more fun.

The Dread HammerDread Hammer – Linda Nagata –  Not every hidden kingdom is a place of enlightenment.  Sometimes all they need to gain their qualifier is the ‘hidden’ part.  The Puzzle Lands are damn hard to get to, and impossible to invade.  Not because no one can find a map, or knows the password to a hidden cave, or has access to flight that would just point the way.  The Puzzle Lands are hard to reach because one family has the ability to pull on all the strings and change things up on a whim, any path you are on will probably disappear on both sides within a few minutes.

Camelot – Monty Python- On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot.  ‘Tis a silly place.

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Join us next week, where hopefully things get a bit easier.  The topic will be… Immortals.

IMMORTALS are fairly common in Fantasyland.  There are three kinds:

  1.  GODDESSES AND GODS, who exist forever unless people stop believing in them.
  2.  ELVES or DARK LORDS, who live forever unless someone kills them.
  3.  Humans…

And as always, please visit the other travelers.  And feel free to join in at anytime.

Fantasy Review: ‘Blood Song’ by Anthony Ryan

I don’t know enough about Anthony Ryan to accuse him of being Nickleback of fantasy lit, Blood Song (Raven's Shadow, #1)but he certainly seems to have crafted a book designed to sell.  Nearly invincible protagonist humbly telling his story, long training sequence, love interest who holds her own.  And in fantasy literature, taken as an escape, I fail to see anything wrong with this.  New ground is not broken, deep thoughts are not explored, but a very entertaining story is told by a guy who knows how to write.  There will be detractors; I have seen ‘generic’ thrown out a few times, but for the average fantasy consumer?  I can see how this book has taken the scene by storm.

Told mostly in the third person for most the story the book never less has a cool little hook in its  chapter lead ins; a chronicler who once wrote a history of the protagonist is learning how he got it wrong from the man himself.  Hints that the scribe is not getting the same story we are gives a taste of the unreliable narrator but for those readers who hate being lied to the bulk of the story is told more traditionally. 

Like many good series openers this is a book with two stories going.  One is the story of Vaelin Al Sorna, a young noble dropped off by his father to instead train with a group of…I dunno, let’s call them warrior monks.  We watch his training, his growth, and eventually, the making of his legend (this is not a spoiler, we know we are dealing with a legend from the opening passage).  So Blood Song is the tale of how a legend became a legend.  Yet it is also planting seeds for a larger story, a story that will require a legend to reach its conclusion.  Clever, no?

Readers picking up Blood Song can expect a long training sequence.  These are hit or miss depending on how they are handled but I felt this one worked pretty well.  I appreciate the tough teaching that didn’t turn to near torture (hello Emperor’s Blades).  I also appreciate that the teachers were tough but there wasn’t that typical evil antagonist; some were tougher than others and maybe even unfair at times, but never do we have a Snape like figure that I have seen kill more mature books.   Schooling that is so much better than any else out there is a bit silly, Vaelin and his cohorts are basically invincible by the time they are done, but that is just the kind of story this is. Love it or leave it.

This book was fairly long so I would hate to lobby for more length but the second half of Vaelin’s story was a bit rushed compared to the first.  We linger on every aspect of his training and camaraderie with his ‘brothers,’ but once we get into his actual deeds we rush from one end of the map to another.  By the time we get to a betrayal I had really lost track of which fellow soldier was which and found it didn’t really affect the story enough to go back and figure it out.  This story revolved around Vaelin so much I realized at the end that almost no other character (outside of the king) important enough to this story that they couldn’t be replaced or left out.

There is a big however coming though.  For all of its fairly generic nature, and despite some criticism that I don’t think I made unfairly, I can’t think of a more readable book I have come across lately.  I hated to put it down, chewed it up in huge chunks, and forced myself to stay up late to finish it.  For every thing I saw coming there was a small twist that stood out.  This is a good book, a great story, and a series I will eagerly devour.  I put this in a little personal category with Sanderson and Rothfuss; I can see the flaws and would probably never place it in a list of my favorites, but I am highly appreciative of what Ryan has done here.

4 Stars

PS.  This is another example of an author going from self-published to a big publisher.  And another example of someone from Fantasy Review Barn reading it before it happened.  Pauline posted her review on her own site originally, but you can find it here as well.

Q & A: Mark Smylie Talks About ‘The Barrow’

Mark SmylieI have to be honest, these author Q&A’s are not usually my thing.  But despite my love of The Barrow it is not a book without controversy.  As Mark Smylie was willing to address these controversies, how could I turn down the chance?

Rather than give a long introduction though, lets just get to it.  When Mark answers questions he doesn’t mess around.

1) Mark!  Thank you so much for answering a few questions.  I was a huge fan of The Barrow, the best debut I have been able to read in the first wave in my short time blogging.  I want to toss you a soft ball or two first, and then ask a couple of questions of a more serious nature.  I warn you, I have never done a Q&A before and things could get a bit wordy as I try to narrow down what I am trying to ask.

No worries, Nathan; thanks for taking the time! Wordiness is practically my middle name, as I’m sure you’ll see.

2) First, for those like me who had no idea The Barrow was set in a world you had already created, how does it fit in with the Artesia comic series?

The Barrow functions as a prequel, though it can also act as a stand-alone book. You don’t need to know anything about the Artesia series in order to read The Barrow, though readers of the comics might see lots of little connections and references. It has different concerns and characters and a different focus than the Artesia series, which was more an epic military fantasy about a war that wracks the Middle Kingdoms and its neighbors (which are the central setting in both the comic and the novel). The Barrow is set prior to the start of the war, and in some ways is exploring what the society and culture of the Middle Kingdoms is like before a giant wrench gets thrown in the middle of it. One of the main characters of The Barrow, Stjepan Black-Heart, is the brother of Artesia, the eponymous main character of the comic series, and he has appeared several times in the comics so far; Artesia doesn’t really appear in The Barrow except in Stjepan’s dreams, which flash back to the death of their mother as a recurring motif.

3) Was it a natural transition to go from comics to writing a full novel, or did it require a big Artesia Volume 1reset of the brain?

Yeah, there are definitely some differences that required adapting new writing strategies and habits.  Everyone writes comics a little differently; because I was both writer and artist, I mostly concentrated on writing dialogue and then would thumbnail sketch the page and panel layouts for the comic, already knowing in my head what I wanted the pages and locations and characters to look like. In switching to a novel I had to figure out how I wanted to handle description; I suppose there are some readers who might feel I went a little overboard with it but as a writer I was generally happy about how it turned out.

In discussions with other writers there does seem to be a trend in reader preferences away from description and towards the utter centrality of dialogue, and some writers clearly embrace that and enjoy it; I don’t, if I start reading a book and there’s pages and pages of dialogue with virtually no description or direction I usually stop reading it. That could be a generational issue; I suspect for many modern readers that they see themselves, for lack of a better way of phrasing it, as actors engaged in the performance of a text, and dialogue is something you can project yourself into, while description is just words.

The Barrow4) This book has seen its share of mixed reviews.  Obviously I loved it, and I wasn’t alone.  But with not every book being for every person it picked up a few critics as well.  I would love to ask a few questions based on some of the more controversial aspects.

To start with this book was highly sexualized throughout.  Very few scenes got off without some underlying sexuality.  While I have some theories on why this is I would love to know your thoughts on how the book evolved this way.  Was it something you planned thematically, something that happened organically, or something else altogether?

Yeah, sexuality and gender dynamics are and always were a fundamental part of the text; the main crux of the narrative, after all, is a map appearing on the body of the character Annwyn (which you don’t even get to until page 200 or so; I will fully admit that I took a leisurely stroll to reach the real starting point of the story), and then essentially what follows is this very intricate, socially-coded negotiation for this band of adventurers to get access to her body (and hence, the map). So the whole question of the male gaze, of men looking at the bodies of women, and hence who has control over the bodies of women in a patriarchal, feudal culture, was always an explicit theme (not simply subtext but in fact actual text), and from that starting point it seemed natural to look at the way that sexuality is treated in fantasy generally (which is often, I think, not at all) and how it would function in a world in which magic and occultism are real forces. Artesia as a comic book also has very strong sexual content, though it could be considered more “sex-positive” in the sense that Artesia as a character very much controls her sexuality, being from what I would think of as a sexually more progressive (or at least more open) culture from within the setting, while the female characters in The Barrow are stuck (much, I think, to their detriment) in a more closed, conservative, even reactionary culture. Sexuality in The Barrow is damaged, twisted, perverted (in the sense that it has been perverted) because I think that’s what happens to sexuality in a patriarchal culture that both devalues women and treats sex as a problem rather than as a pleasure.

5) There was one scene that stood out even more than the others to a few friends I want to question a bit more closely.  The Unicorn Horn.  I know it was the stopping place for at least one who gave the book up.  It was probably the most sexually explicit scene in the book.  I don’t want to ask you to defend it, don’t get me wrong.  But when writing it did it stand out to you as much as it has for others?  Make you second guess it, or conversely, feel like a key piece to the story?  Or was it just one scene of many that built your story?

A lot of the sex scenes in The Barrow are there to scare you; The Barrow is, in many ways, a horror story, and many of the sex scenes are there to make the reader uncomfortable and throw them off their game, so to speak, like the “bright baubles” that Harvald warns Erim about in the Prologue: “’Things are never what they seem. Never get distracted by the bright bauble.’” That was as much an admonishment for the reader as it was for Erim, because The Barrow is ultimately a book about deception. I don’t think American readers are scared by violence or the destruction of the body much anymore; at least not when it conforms to their narrative expectations. I think people start to get scared, to feel dread, when they suddenly realize they don’t know what’s going to come next, when they don’t know what the outlines and outcome of the story are supposed to be. And the sex in The Barrow is there to confound your expectations about what’s expected and appropriate for a fantasy story.

That scene may, admittedly, do that a little too well; but I’ve also seen some reviewers call out other scenes as their stop moment, and then conversely many reviewers and readers were able to get past it to discover what the story is actually about, so everyone presumably has their own personal limits. At that moment you’re getting several narrative threads all driving to their peaks simultaneously: the curse consuming Harvald’s body, the loss of the map (and its transfer to Annwyn), and this reveal of the extent of debauchery that occurs when Dieva (the goddess of pleasure) starts to be displaced by Ligrid (the goddess of perversion, and one of the rulers of Hell as outlined in the Prologue)—so yeah, it’s supposed to be this scary, insane moment. But the scene also contains, in many ways, some crucial clues, for readers who can see past the sex: for example, if you didn’t already suspect that Gilgwyr is one of the Nameless, that scene, and the presence of the Ligrid priestess, should be a huge clue. Gilgwyr’s kind of out of control at that point, he’s really taking a lot of risks with arranging the performance, and it’s supposed to feel dangerous for everyone involved (but obviously for Ariadesma in particular). And of course, there’s also another subtle clue that there’s maybe something else going on around Gilgwyr, in the Gilded Lady’s reaction to the performance.

I haven’t really felt it necessary to second-guess the sex scenes that are in the book; I feel, at least as an author, that they all serve very specific purposes and reveal very specific things about the characters and their world and the narrative that they are participating in. But I will admit to being a bit surprised at how easily it was to distract some readers and reviewers from what’s going on in the story under the surface.

6) Erim is a female hiding under a male guise. Hardy original on its own.  What made it Artesia Volume 2: Afield - The Second Book of Doomsdifferent was her story never revolved around any real threat of discovery or danger due to her gender.  Always the plan? 

If you read histories of women who have disguised themselves as men, for example when serving as soldiers in wars, one of the interesting things is how often and how long they are able to elude discovery, sometimes until they are either killed or wounded, at which point their fellow soldiers finally discover that they’re women. I think there is a natural inclination in most cultures (at least prior to the 20th century) to assume that the clothes that you wear reflect some fundamental truth about you, so if you walk around dressed like a man, then most people will see you as a man and treat you as such. It’s not that you wouldn’t be in trouble if you were discovered, but more a question that because of cultural conditioning that such deviations from the norm are not expected and therefore are unlooked for.

This is a bit of an aside but paradoxically I wonder if gender-bending may actually be harder to disguise nowadays because we are more attuned to deviance and the presence of deviance (in the sense of things that deviate from the expected; so that’s intended to be without moral judgment on my part). I’m an 80s kid, and so I grew up with everything from Boy George, Duran Duran and the New Romantics movement, David Bowie, midnight showings of Tim Curry in Rocky Horror, eventually Tilda Swinton in Orlando and Terence Stamp in Priscilla (admittedly both 90s films)—there was a lot of heavy-duty androgyny back then, and it often feels that since then there had been a lot of culture war pushback, even from places and scenes that would not think of themselves as reactionary (90s grunge is very butch, for example, and the hipster movement often deliberately grounds itself in an “ironic” 50s style with very exaggerated male and female costuming). It’s always surprising to me that as modern and progressive as our cultural sensibilities have become there are still some things—long-haired “hippy” men, women cutting their hair short, guys wearing dresses or kilts—that can set some people off and seem to trigger all sorts of fear and loathing, in part because some people still prefer to have a strict visual coding that what you see is what you get. Anything else threatens their sense of identity and cultural stability, somehow.

That danger—of discovery, of punishment—certainly exists in Erim’s world, most particularly and officially in the Inquisition of the Sun Court of the Divine King (the sharp, shiny tip of the patriarchal spear, as it were). Erim always has to be careful—she bathes or relieves herself separately from the other characters, for example—but she has been passing as a man for a while so I think for her the fear of discovery is background noise rather than a constant clear-and-present danger. She ruminates a bit on the fact that it’s easier to pass in a city, for example, and that the countryside makes her nervous because people are actually more conservative there; and her sour attitude to the Inquisition, mentioned in passing, is in part due to a fear of them. But she also trusts herself to present as male to most people around her. Stjepan already knows and is able to abet her disguise; and I do think she lucks out that in the one instance where someone else does discover her secret (after she has been wounded, true to history) that it’s Godewyn, who doesn’t really give a rat’s ass about that kind of thing. Godewyn isn’t really a progressive, he’s just too self-centered to care about other people’s issues or secrets.

 7) She also considers herself a sexual deviant yet we never see the evidence, despite the highly sexual nature of the rest of the book.  Does she have a past we don’t see, or perhaps is it a cultural conditioning that makes her think of herself this way?  Or something I am going to have to wait a book to learn more about? 

Yes, there’s a very fast clue, almost a throwaway line, in the Prologue that hints at (or perhaps even declares?) where Erim’s view of herself comes from, when she thinks “there were none but the Damned that would take the likes of her, so the temple priests had assured her when she was young and they played with her in the dark.” Every character in the book, male or female, has had their sexuality constructed in some way by the cultures around them—I tend to favor nurture over nature when it comes to that old argument—and none perhaps more so than Erim, who as the line implies was molested as a child. I think growing up in a patriarchal feudal culture is going to be bad enough for most women (and men for that matter), but in Erim’s case she has been, in effect, deliberately shaped by those that interfered with her.

I’m not an expert, strictly a layperson in such matters, but observationally people who are sexual predators in positions of power over young people often exert a kind of Jedi mind trick (if you’ll forgive so casual an expression) on their targets by trying to get their victims to believe that it is some sort of flaw or deviance that is active and inherent in them as the victim—their appearance, their demeanor, their behavior, or their very nature—that is bringing about their molestation. That’s often part of how a predator in a position of power is able to escape detection for so long, because they’re getting into the heads of their victims and using their authority and position as both a shield and a weapon, by convincing their victims that the only persons at fault are themselves.

Once again from a layperson’s understanding, victims of that kind of early abuse can have a wide variety of responses (ranging from a complete rejection of sex and embrace of celibacy, to becoming abusers themselves, to intense promiscuity, and just about everything in between). And there are no therapists in Erim’s world to help her through it. In Erim’s case her cross-dressing is in part an attempt to escape the role that has been laid out for her by her molesters; it’s her way of starting to wrest some control of who she is and what she can do away from men who were essentially trying to program her for life.

But yes, as you note, even though she thinks of herself as a deviant (and her sexual impulses become more subdued the further they go on their quest, as the demands of survival kind of drive those thoughts out of her), we don’t really ever see her do anything. That was quite deliberate. With The Barrow, readers who like to read purely from an identification standpoint (where they project themselves into a character that they like) might have trouble with the book, depending on their expectations and prejudices. Half the characters you follow are outright villains (even if they do not immediately announce themselves as such, though the sex scenes should be major clues), Stjepan is bisexual (which might put off some readers), and Annwyn either appears to have too little agency or, by the time you reach the end, perhaps too much. In some ways, Erim is a variation on a horror trope, the so-called Final Girl trope first identified and named by the film theoretician Carol Clover in her book Men, Women & Chainsaws, written in the early 90s. The Final Girl is usually a desexualized—or at least sexually unavailable—female character that manages to become sole survivor of a horror film by dint of pluck and luck and that can serve as a stand-in for the (at the time) usually male audience members for the horror films of the 80s (think Jamie Lee Curtis’s character in Halloween, or even Ripley in the original Alien); I wanted to complicate that a bit by giving Erim a very intense sexual imagination, but leaving her actions open to interpretation, so that she could still potentially serve as a point of identification for both male and female readers. That might work okay for some readers, perhaps not for others who reject even the hint of a sexual life in a character. In terms of how her sexuality evolves or reveals itself, we’ll just have to see how that plays out over time.

8) Ok, last question.  The Barrow actually wrapped up its plot pretty tight.  What can we look forward to in this series future?

The next book, Black Heart, will follow the survivors of the barrow on several intertwined trajectories, most notably the upcoming campaign against Porloss, the rebel Earl of Orliac who is hiding out in the hills with a small army of bandit knights, the preparations for which are mentioned several times in The Barrow. There are all sorts of little plots and threads that will get picked up on in the book, particularly around the Guild and the Black College in Therapoli, the machinations of the King’s Shadow and the High King’s Court, and then there are the looming events of the Artesia storyline as well. She’s introduced as a character in Black Heart and then the next book, Bright Sword, will tie into and cover the events of the first Artesia graphic novel.

Thank you again, and I look forward to more great stories from you in the future!

Thank you! I appreciate the opportunity to talk about the book some, and I hope you like the sequels!