Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Crutch Words (part 2)

Sorry, I know it's been a while since the first post on crutch words. Sometimes I get caught up in other things and neglect my poor little blog.

This post will include crutch words and phrases of a different sort. These are those placeholders that a lot of authors end up putting in to avoid dialogue tags. Things like:

He smiled.

She frowned.

They shook their heads.

He shrugged.

She nodded.

He chuckled.

She grinned.

There are other words that fall into this category. Now, are these words and phrases all forbidden? No. But you need to be careful about how you use them, and how frequently. A little bit goes a long way. However, if you have your characters nodding and shaking their heads to everything, they're going to look a little ridiculous.

In most cases, these phrases aren't necessary, especially when you're using them instead of  a dialogue tag. You can often infer disagreement from the dialogue itself. On the other hand, if you want to emphasize an odd reaction, have a character's body language not match their words. That's a great way to add tension and mystery to a scene. In most cases, though, that's not how writers use these words. They're placeholders more than anything. I include them in the first draft, then cut quite a few of them as I revise.

Another place to use them: silent communication. Sometimes a character simply nods to indicate agreement. That's okay, and you should show that. But don't do this:

He nodded. "I agree."

You're telling us the same thing twice. It's not the strongest writing. If you can't find a suitable action to tag the dialogue, it's okay to use a dialogue tag. It's true that most readers barely notice the word said. Usually, they notice it only if you have a lot of them in a row, with nothing to spice up the writing. Note: nodding and shaking heads generally don't spice up the writing. They're boring.

A few other phrases to watch for: he looked, he glanced, and of course any filtering words (but that's a matter for another post).

Hope this helps others in their editing process.

Fantasy Reading List: Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick

I just finished the sequel to this one, so I thought I'd add it to the Fantasy Reading List. Among Thieves is one of the many good thief novels to appear in fantasy recently. I found it was action-packed and gritty (but without overdoing the grittiness). It took me a while to warm to the main character Drothe, but once I did, it was a great reading experience.

It's also worth reading for the simple fact that it's written in first person. You don't see much secondary world fantasy written in first person. I found Hulick did it very well, and it helped me grow to like a character I might not have liked otherwise. As far as antiheroes go in fantasy, Drothe is one of my favorite I've read.

I also found this to be one of the more convincing depictions of the criminal underworld in fantasy. It probably got some thing "wrong," but it worked for me. The book also gave a lot of hints of a complex world. There's an interesting reincarnation thing going on with the emperor. The order of Degans is very interesting, and you're just scratching the surface in this book (book 2 gets into them a whole lot more). Drothe's sidekick from that order, whom he simply calls Degan, is also a great character.

In general, I found this book struck most of the right chords for fans of this type of book. Gritty, but not too gritty. Fun and funny at times, but not lighthearted. Lots of action, but still some time for character development. A setting that's interesting with more to come. My only real complaint is that it took me a while to warm to it, but that's not unusual for me.

I also thought the second book was all kinds of awesome.

Rating: 8/10

Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review: Malice by John Gwynne

I just finished this book recently. I was excited going in because I saw generally good reviews. However, I was disappointed, especially with the first half of the book. I ended up liking it overall, but the first half was very slow, and there was nothing particularly interesting about it.

We have scheming kings, bandits, a boy destined for great things, a prince who thinks he's going to be some kind of great savior, a looming war. It's all something I've seen before in fantasy. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the early part of this book lacked other elements that could make up for the lack of originality. I'm okay with unoriginal ideas if I love the characters or the writing. The characters grew on me eventually, but getting through the first half of the book was a chore.

As for the writing, it's not the best I've seen in the fantasy genre. Most of the time, it was competent, but there were a few places where I found myself shaking my head and wondering how some things had made it past a professional editor. Things like shrugging and grinning as dialogue tags. That might just be something I noticed as a writer myself, but it bothered me.

Despite all this, I wouldn't say it's a bad book. The end of the book made up for the struggle I had earlier on. Toward the end, there were some great action sequences, and the story really got rolling with revelations and other interesting plot developments. It just took too long to get there. If I'd written this book, I would have condensed a lot of the earlier scenes, or eliminated them altogether.

Still, this book was good enough that I'll read the next in the series.

Rating: 7/10

Fantasy Reading List: The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

It's been a while since I've written a post. I got busy doing other things, and the blog ended up being forgotten (as usual). Right now, I'm reading Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold, so I thought I'd give a brief review of his First Law trilogy.

Abercrombie is an absolute favorite of many fantasy readers, especially those who prefer their fantasy more on the grimdark side. I'm not as much into the grimdark, but I can still appreciate an author who does that style of fantasy well. And Abercrombie does it very well.

This trilogy is a must-read if you're looking for antiheroes. You could argue that every viewpoint character in the thing fits as an antihero. I found that I liked some of the characters more than others: Logen Ninefingers, for example. Glokta, on the other hand, didn't do it for me. I know a lot of people love the character, but I didn't. In fact, Logen was the only character I really connected with throughout the series. The others had their moments, but they weren't my favorites.

However, if you're more into antiheroes, you'll probably find yourself liking more of the characters than I did. I still liked the story in spite of my dislike for some of the characters. I should note, however, that I didn't care as much for the first book as I did for books two and three. The first book felt like it was there to setup the rest of the story, rather than being a complete story on its own merits.

I know I'm pointing out a lot of negatives here, but it is a good series, just not one that's always suited to my tastes. There's plenty of action, which Abercrombie describes very well. He's one of the best I've seen at depicting battles, both large and small. He's also the best I've seen in fantasy at incorporating character voice in a third-person narrative. His characterization is superb in general (even if I didn't like some of them). He also has a way of cleverly subverting many of the most common fantasy tropes.

In general, if you're a fan of darker, grittier fantasy in a brutal world filled with antiheroes, this will be a great read for you. If you're tired of seeing farmboys chasing dark lords across generic fantasy landscapes, this might be the series you're looking for.

Personally, I liked it, but I wasn't blown away because it's not to my tastes.

Rating: 7.5/10

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Book Review: Tower Lord by Anthony Ryan

A while back, I read Anthony Ryan's Blood Song, and I thought it was one of the best new fantasies I'd read in a long time. For my review of it, click here.

So I went into Tower Lord with some reservations. I wondered how it could possibly measure up to the first book. I've had disappointments before with second books. Peter V. Brett's The Desert Spear, Scott Lynch's Red Seas under Red Skies, and Patrick Rothfuss's The Wise Man's Fear come to mind. None of these were bad books. In fact, they were still quite good. But they didn't measure up to the mammoth expectations I had after an amazing first book.

I was also worried about the new POV structure. Before I began, I'd heard that Anthony Ryan added new viewpoint characters to the novel. Part of what made the first so good was the focus on Vaelin. It was such a strong character-driven book. I worried that this book would lose that.

On the one hand, my worries were correct. On the other, they weren't. Did this book measure up to Blood Song? No, not quite. But it was still a great book in its own right. Did the additional POV characters cause me problems? Yes, they did. But they also brought more depth and breadth to the world and story. It took me a while to adjust to them, but once I did, I started enjoying Tower Lord every bit as much as I enjoyed Blood Song.

The key thing is this: don't go in expecting more of the same. If you do, you're going to be disappointed. In the first book, Ryan used a less traditional fantasy narrative structure. In this one, he's gone more toward the standard multi-POV structure in epic fantasy. This is not a bad thing. It's just different. In some places, you'll feel like you're reading the first book in a series again, as you have to get used to new POV characters, but you have to trust the author. He makes it work.

Thankfully, two of the new viewpoint characters are people we've already met: Princess Lyrna and Brother Frentis. The third new POV character was the toughest adjustment, especially since she starts out the book hating Vaelin. But give it time. Ryan can develop these three additional characters just as well as he developed one character in the first book. And he does it in a similar number of pages because this story covers a much shorter span of time.

Here's how I look at it. Blood Song was a highly entertaining introduction to Vaelin, but it wasn't the real story. It was a prelude of sorts. The real story starts here, and I found it just as entertaining, especially toward the end. However, the start was a bit of a struggle for me, so I can't rate this book quite as highly as the first.

Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

I sent out my first query today for Sunweaver.

So I took the plunge. After months of editing and revision, I've sent out my first query for Sunweaver. It's both exhilarating and terrifying. I spent a lot of time on that query, suffering through the trials of Query Letter Hell. I'm glad that I got started on the query as soon as I finished the first draft. That gave me the chance to work on the query during the long revision process.

In the coming days, I intend to send out more queries. It'll still be scary, but hopefully clicking that send button will get easier.

Fantasy Reading List: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Here's another favorite of mine I thought I'd add to the list. I read this a year or two ago. Coming into it, I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd heard so many good reviews about it, but I was worried I might not like Locke Lamora, that he might be too much of an antihero.

As it turns out, my worries were completely unnecessary. I didn't fall in love with Locke right away, but I ended up enjoying the story. In an era of so many dark and depressing stories, it was nice to see some fun alongside the dark and depressing. Yes, it's still a grim world, but Locke and his cohorts inject enough humor and fun into that world that it's not a depressing reading experience.

Still, it can be brutal at times. No doubt about that. Characters die. Things get really messy. Yet I found that Scott Lynch balanced these two sides of the story very well. At the end, the action really picked up, and I remember frantically turning pages because I had to know what was going to happen. There are few books that get me to turn pages like that.

However, the early going was a bit rough, as I didn't identify with the characters right away. Also, the dual timeline structure of the story was a bit strange at first. I adjusted, but it took me some time. Once I adjusted, I fell in love with the characters. They were drawn very well.

Overall, this was a great read promising more to come. Although I was disappointed with Red Seas Under Red Skies, I loved The Republic of Thieves (possibly even more than the first book). If you want to read a thief story that's both fun and gritty, this is a story you should read.

Rating: 9.5/10

Monday, October 6, 2014

Fantasy Reading List: The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett

Here's another one for the list. I read this a couple of years ago, and it has stuck with me. I loved the world Brett created in this, a world where humanity lives in constant fear of corelings (demons that come out of the ground at night). At the time the story begins, most people live in warded cities and towns, hiding from the demons. No one travels at night. Few people travel at all.

This setting creates a tense atmosphere, and that's what drew me to the book. As I read it, I came to appreciate it for the character-driven story it is. Yes, there are plenty of demons and some good battles, especially toward the end. But first and foremost, this story revolves around the character Arlen, who becomes the titular Warded Man. It covers a long stretch of his life and shows how he has changed from an ordinary village boy to someone who might be the world's savior.

Yes, it's an age-old fantasy plot, but Brett does it very well. There's a lot more depth to it than you see in most stories of a similar nature. The characters and setting both feel real and nuanced. I also loved the magic system that you discover over the course of the book. There's a lot to recommend this book.

Now, I was a little disappointed by the sequels. They're still good reads, but they're not as good. However, some feel they do retrain the strength. Still, I strongly recommend this one.

Rating: 9/10

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Fantasy Reading List: The Black Company by Glen Cook

While I'm at it, I think I'll add another military fantasy to the list. For this review, I'll be covering the first three books of Glen Cook's series The Black Company. For military fantasy, this series is one of the most prominent classics. You can see it as inspiration for later (and more complex) military fantasies like Steven Erikson's Malazan books (which I'll get around to reviewing at some point).

Overall, The Black Company was a good read. It's far from my favorite, but it provided an interesting world. I also liked Croaker as the narrator. He was the character with whom I identified most easily. A lot of the author characters were perhaps a little too dark and violent for my tastes, but I saw more decency and humanity in Croaker.

While this is military fantasy, you shouldn't expect constant battles. That was a bit of an adjustment at first. I came in expecting battles, and instead I saw a whole lot of life as a soldier. Once I adjusted to this, I came to appreciate the series more. I also felt it improved as I went along. Book three was my favorite of the Cook's first trilogy.

I should note that the writing style can take some adjustment. Croaker's first-person narrative is very direct, even choppy at times. If you're used to lyrical, flowing prose, you'll find this a bit jarring at first. Just a warning. I still think the series is worth reading, especially when you consider its influence on the darker, grittier side of the fantasy genre.

Rating: 7/10

Fantasy Reading List: Legend by David Gemmell

David Gemmell's books have been around for a long time, but I just finally got around to reading one of them recently. I chose Legend, as that's the one most people recommend you start with. It was an interesting story, and not quite what I expected when I picked it up. I was thinking the whole thing would be a big battle, and, yes, there was a nice big battle at the end, but there was more to it than that.

I also wasn't expecting for Druss to be an old warrior well past his prime. It was an interesting take on that kind of character, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. In fact, I ended up liking most of the characters (though I did think the romance between two of the main characters happened way too quickly).

This book isn't a complex read by any means, but it's fun, with some good action sequences (both smaller scale skirmishes and large-scale confrontations). I liked it enough that I'll check out more from Gemmell at some point.

My biggest complaint about the book was the author's handling of point of view. I'm guessing he chose to use an omniscient narrator, but it came off more as head-hopping than omniscient. The point of view would change from one character to another with no warning. Sometimes it would even switch locations. This took a bit of an adjustment and detracted from the book for me.

Rating: 7.5/10