Book Review: Shadows Linger

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Four years have passed since the epic final battle at the Tower of Charm in The Black Company, the first novel in The Chronicles of the Black Company, and readers once again experience the mercenary brigade’s adventures through the eyes of Croaker, the Company historian. Shadows Linger does not so much concern itself with the aftermath of the war against the Rebel but with the growing specter of the Dominator (the male counterpart to the first novel’s antagonistic sorceress and chief-employer of the Company, the Lady) and the forces that seek to return him to corporeal world.

As the Black Company purges the North of the last Rebel elements they are unhappily drawn to the distant fringe city of Juniper, a cold and religious place where a dreaded black castle inhabited by monstrous beings is engaged in the latest attempt to revive the Dominator. Currently entombed in the Barrowland, the Dominator’s minions are trying to build another portal through which he can return and usher in ten thousand years of darkness.

The Lady, ruler of the northern Empire, orders the Black Company to spearhead the siege but Croaker and the others inadvertently find themselves on the trails of Raven and Darling. Darling is the girl prophesied to be the White Rose who will ultimately destroy the Dominator and the Lady, and is a friend to the Company, which puts them on the defensive in more ways than one.

Shadows Linger is a strange sophomore installment because, in almost every way, it breaks from the traditional middle-book mold fairly regularly. Rather than center itself as a bridge between the first and third books Shadows Linger produces its own plot that is secluded enough that it can be read independently of the first book, but inclusive enough that it fits well with the trilogy. What’s more, it expands the narrative from Croaker to Raven and a Juniper-native called Shed. By doing so it better explores the depths to which these men will sink in order to advance their individual goals: Shed is a study in poverty and immorality; Croaker’s unusual relationship with the Lady grants us a peculiar view into the inner workings of a ruthless but almost humane tyrant.

But, like its predecessor, Shadows Linger shines when it’s Croaker that’s doing the talking. He, along with the rest of the novel, genuinely wrestles with what it means to ally with the lesser of two evils because as the Dominator nears his return,  Croaker and the rest of the Black Company must fight even harder to keep him down; and therefore in defense of the Lady. This central conflict overshadows Shed’s acts of heresy against Juniper’s dominant religion; and compliments Raven’s architecting the destruction of one of Juniper’s criminal overlords. Repeatedly, this book provides instances of characters picking the least worst option and never gets close to something as naive or unrealistic as a happy ending.

Shadows Linger provided a strong second installment in The Chronicles of the Black Company and is an excellent introduction to the final novel in this first trilogy. Succeeded by The White Rose, Shadows Linger did a great job of giving us more of the characters that we love in a world where the only choices are either bad or worse.

Book Review: The Rook

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When Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in the rain bruised and battered but—most importantly—amnesiac, she is thrust into the supernatural underbelly of modern day Britain.

Rarely, oh so rarely, does a novel as engaging and thrilling as The Rook come across my desk. This is one of those precious urban fantasy novels whose conceit simply works right from the start. From the first page to the last, Daniel O’Malley utterly envelops the reader into the most believable of unbelievable notions: that an organization called the Checquy Group monitors and covers-up the supernatural activities in the UK and that Myfanwy Thomas, the unsuspecting bureaucrat, has been drawn into a brutal power-struggle. O’Malley treats his world, where possessed houses gobble people up and the ‘powered’ individuals of the Checquy are given chess-related titles (hence the title), with equal parts gleeful joviality and soberingly pensive moments.

The Rook tackles a variety of themes ranging from what constitutes a personality to the nature of equality and Rook Thomas takes point in these spirited debates. I found that the informal tone of the book added depth to it; enriched by the often times bizarre gifts that O’Malley imbues the staffers of the Checquy Group with—a team of doctors actually licks the protagonist thoroughly at one point! But The Rook, for its many foibles and irreverent references, always plays with a central question of the nature of power: who wields it, who doesn’t, and whether that’s reality or a fantasy in itself.

As far as urban fantasy goes, which can be done poorly as often as it done well, The Rook exceeds where others have failed namely by maintaining the veil of secrecy that separates the supernatural realm from the mortal realm. The Checquy Group act as the judge, jury, and executioners in all magical affairs in their effort to maintain strict secrecy. This element of secrecy really helps the book excel as a whole and reinforces why urban fantasy exists as a genre: we want to believe that there are dark and terrible things on the fringes of reality and The Rook delivers upon that notion in droves.

It’s with rabid enthusiasm that I recommend Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook to anyone looking for a great read. And if this review wasn’t enough to sell you on the book, then the duck that can tell the future should definitely do the trick…

Book Review: The Name of the Wind

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By no means does the debut novel of Patrick RothfussTHE NAME OF THE WIND, start with a bang. In the age of instant gratification and explosive action, The Name of the Wind reads more like poetry than prose. Originally published in 2007, this book had been on my radar for months in a “if I ever have the time I’ll definitely read that book” kind of way. Purchased as one of the eight novels of choice on my birthday, it was number four to be read from beginning to completion.

The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind

Perhaps the most charming aspect of the story is the humble beginning in which it is strongly rooted. In the novel’s present, a man named Kvothe is hiding in a backwater town under the alias of Kote, the simple innkeeper who is almost nearly out of business. A chance encounter on a dangerous night brings a famous historian, aptly named Chronicler, to Kote’s inn. Chronicler has heard the tales and legends of Kvothe’s greatness and is allowed to record the truest version of the man’s life.

The Name of the Wind, with its near constant emphasis on music, is lyrical in its composition and unabashedly meticulous in its execution. Rothfuss creates an enamoring world of magic and music, of friendship and betrayal, that doesn’t shy away from cruelty. Part of what makes Kvothe’s story so compelling is how unfair the world is to him, given that he so rarely catches a break. This level approach makes the character relatable in some aspects, irritating in others, but wholly realized and developed. It’s such an intimate story of a young man’s growth, a true bildungrsoman, because an adolescent Kvothe must come to terms with the challenges of his life as he attempts to reconcile his pursuit of education with his heroic, altruistic, and sometimes self-serving tendencies.

Rothfuss pays judicisous attention to the Four Corners, the sub-section of the fantasy world that he’s created in which his story takes place. With the precision of a linguist, he subtly establishes the tonal differences that exist between the rival states as well as their cultural gaps—going so far as to remind us that Cealdish coin is good anywhere, but that Commonwealth currency will suffice in most other circumstances. In this benign method, Rothfuss gives us what we need to know about his world without bludgeoning us over the head with it. This, in my opinion, is expert fantasy craftsmanship at work.

Eventually, the major challenge that The Name of the Wind faces is the format of its own story; this novel is day one in Kvothe’s promised three day recitation which means that there isn’t an overarching endeavor or singular goal that Kvothe is working towards in this first novel. Kvothe even admits, at the novel’s end, that it’s a satisfying foundation upon which the real story can be told. Either way, the content by and large allowed me to lose myself within the pages and the world of The Name of the Wind long enough to practically tear through it and thereby subdue my modest qualms.

highly recommend The Name of the Wind and feverishly anticipate the sequel, THE WISE MAN’S FEAR.

Book Review: The Graveyard Book

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THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman was recommended to me last Christmas by an individual that I thought least likely to ever recommend any type of fantasy literature. That person raved and raved about it and then went on to teach me a lesson in stereotypes by outlining their other favorite fantasy novels, but I started with Neil Gaiman’s phenomenal novel, The Graveyard Book.

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK BY NEIL GAIMAN

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK BY NEIL GAIMAN

I have to admit that this was my first ever Gaiman novel, though I knew the author’s name because I saw the movie version of STARDUST some years ago. I enjoyed STARDUST and promised myself that I would one day read the book, but while I never made the time for that I squeezed in the episode of DOCTOR WHO written by Gaiman, “THE DOCTOR’S WIFE”, and I was very impressed. Since then, I’ve had a strange fringe-relationship with Gaiman where I’m familiar-ish with the author despite never having technically ‘read‘ a word of his writing. When The Graveyard Book came to me so highly recommended from a person that I deeply respect, I picked it up without a moment’s delay.

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is, perhaps, one of the most difficult books to adequately review that I’ve ever encountered. It is one of those rare novels that examines the most valuable question that anyone has ever asked: what’s the purpose of life? The novel follows Bod Owens, a toddler who has escaped a dark fate and is taken in, quite literally, by the nearby graveyard and the phantoms that inhabit it. Its ghosts and tombs and natural beauty become the little boy’s home and there he grows up, all the while learning more about the world he must be protected from, until the day when the dangers of his past catch up with him.

But do you want to know the truth? That might be what this book is about, but really it’s not about that at all. Gaiman is telling a personal, intimate story in this book. Not about himself, not necessarily, but certainly about everyone. This is a story about death, about growing up and growing old, and about Life.

I’ve read some of the most stirring passages that I’ve ever encountered in my career as a reader within this novel. I love that it’s a children’s book that is still so dangerously adult. I love that I honestly wanted to cry at the end of this book—not manly, crocodile tears but little kid tears.

That, I think, is what The Graveyard Book is about.

300 Pages and Counting

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At a certain point, when we defy our own notion of success, we stop and take stock of our achievements. Today I hit a milestone that I was certain would not be coming anytime soon: 300 pages.

When I hit 200 pages on a separate manuscript last year, it was one of the most memorable accomplishments in my career as a writer. Never, not once before, had I achieved such a monumental goal. With 300 pages under my belt, I now turn my gaze to 400 and wonder, inevitably, how the hell I’m going to get there?

Thank you to everyone who has supported my creative process; I truly hope to have good news somewhere in the nearby future!

Book Buying Bonanza

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After my shopaholic stint at Barnes & Noble on my birthday, it’s safe to say that I’m stocked up on books for the foreseeable future. Eight books later, I’m still trying to figure out the order that I’m going to read all these excellent-looking novels. Also, I’ve noticed a trend: anything steampunk or urban fantasy wound up in the pile without hesitation—with a few exceptions. From smallest to largest, my purchases were: Continue reading

270 Pages Later

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This week marks several milestones. A birthday, a wedding, and now a page-count record breaker! This evening I reached 270 pages on my current manuscript, a number that surpasses the previous record-holder (my last manuscript was 256 pages) by a healthy 14 pages. What’s even more exciting is that I’m not finished with the current manuscript; checking my location against my roadmap for this manuscript suggests to me that I’m around 2/3 complete, overall.

I expect this current manuscript to be finished near the 350 page mark, if I’m lucky! That would be such an amazing feat, especially since I originally thought that this project wouldn’t be more than 250 pages long—and that was back when I also thought the first manuscript would be around 200 pages instead of the 256 pages it eventually became. Looking back, I can’t help but appreciate that this has all been accomplished in a little over 17 months.

To offer some perspective, I was struck by inspiration for this project in the wake of publishing SOMEONE TO REMEMBER ME last February. I wanted to create a very strong, very opinionated female lead and the notion more or less fell into place with another idea that I had been kicking around for ages: to write a more contemporary, more dangerous book that blended fiction and nonfiction, as well as the possibilities of fantasy with the starkness of reality.

I wanted to tackle terrorism and fanaticism; the dangers of the police state and the risks of the unbridled revolution. And the current project went from being planned to being written. Quite abruptly I began writing about Sarah al Villete, the terrorist waging a war against the world’s last government on the world’s last habitable continent. More for her personal lust for revenge rather than the benefit of humanity. Hundreds of pages later, I’m regularly examining the weary questions of war and faith—of what happens when belief clashes with the unwieldy nature of reality.

Originally, I wanted just one big book. I tend to go on a rant against the saturation of the Fantasy and Science-Fiction genres by series. It felt, to me, that whenever I picked up a book in that aisle it was always book three or four in the this-or-that series. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good series as much as anybody but sometimes you want one great, mind-blowing book. Not three or four. Just every once in a while, you know?

So I endeavored to write that type of book and, unsurprisingly, it turned into a total beast on its own. So here I am on part two of a three part mega-book that currently sits at 526 pages and 293,622 words. And it’s worth mentioning that those aren’t book pages—they’re freaking single-spaced, 8 and 1/2 by 11 pages which is sooo much more impressive than those tiny little double-spaced pages you get in normal books. Seriously, go take a peek in that book on your desk—I guarantee you that sucker is at least 1.5 or double space font.

But I digress.

This is a week of milestones, today included. I’m glad that this goes out to at least a handful of people who can appreciate the steady and onward march of creative progress. May your projects continue as swimmingly as mine have.

5 Tips to Get Your Writing Started

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Writing, believe it or not, is easy. Are the first words that hit the paper automatic gold? Nope. Far from it. But like any other talent or skill, writing is something you get better at the more you try and fail at it. Today’s post is about the planning stage—the things you can do before you sit down to write your next book that will help it hit the top of the New York Times Bestseller List twice as fast. (Editor’s Note: This is hyperbole. I’ve never been to the top of that particular list, so results will vary.) These are a few tips and tricks that I’ve picked up over the past year that I think make a big difference in my writing that add to my overall feelings of accomplishment when I finish a project.

1. Pick Your Poison

In my experience there are two ways to begin the process and these are to either a) plan nothing or b) plan everything. This is a gross oversimplification but it gets the general point across extremely well. Chances are that you, as a writer, will bounce between these two as you grow and experiment with your own style. Speaking personally, I used to hate planning my books. Or I would plan only a fraction of the work as a whole, as I tried to allow the spirit of the story to guide my process. As I undertook more ambitious projects, which were namely books in a series, planning became increasingly crucial to the long-term viability of the books. What I’ve discovered is that, like building a house with many rooms, you need detailed blueprints for a book. Without them, the whole undertaking falls apart leaving behind an absolute mess.

What I found as I undertook more and more ambitious projects (specifically books in a series) is that I would lose track of the many things I wanted to explore. Character interactions, particular scenes, powerful events…all those little details that kindled my original interest in that project. Since then I’ve moved closer to the planning side of things, though I try to leave room for a lot of spontaneity.

2. Outline. Brainstorm. Outline Again. (Repeat as Necessary)

Planning has some serious benefits. It allows you to document what you want to explore. Character interactions, major events, minor details…all the elements that kindled your initial interest in that project. Going back to our analogy, outlining your story is equivalent to creating a blueprint of your book. I accomplish this by listing major plot points, punctuating them with character development and world building. When you read the term ‘world building’ you might say, ‘well I’m not writing the next Game of Thrones–or fantasy for that matter–so I can assume people know all about my world.’

Tell them anyways. When you take for granted that people know what grass looks like, or what the beach smells like, or how the mist feels, you’re only hurting yourself. Take the opportunity of outlining to include the details that interest you, the scenes that you want to write. Forget plot for five minutes and write something you don’t think is exactly necessary but would be fun to include. I recently wrote a scene where two characters sit outside a barn and gaze at the stars. Does it bring them any closer to the climax of the novel? No. Does it advance the plot? Not really. Was it something that screamed at me to write it for a week? Heck yes. You, as the writer, are the first and most importance member of your audience. Write to yourself first and to others second.

Dare to stray from your outline. While a major advantage of planning is that I get all of my thoughts into one document, keep in mind that this reference document is a living, breathing entity. In life, few things go strictly according to plan. Let your literature reflect that. Allow your outline to reflect that. Add the unexpected, the dangerous, and the frightening as it occurs to you. Keep what works, remove what doesn’t. I often dare myself to stray from my outline. To push the boundaries of my story in creative and exciting ways. I invite you to do the same.

3. Create Characters Who Don’t Always Get Along.

Coming back to the realities of the world, you won’t always get along with everyone you meet. It’s an unfortunate but wonderful truth that you can apply to your writing. If you’re writing six books and a movie and your characters get along from day one, how the hell are you going to fill all those empty pages with meaningful, witty, and emotional text? Remember how Hermione didn’t get along with Harry and Ron until they saved her from a mountain troll? I call this Mountain Troll Rule. Relationships take work, since the most important ones usually start off on the wrong foot.

Giving characters oppositional attitudes and dispositions means you’ve given them something to squabble over. Divisions to impede their ability to work together. Differences they’ll have to work past in order to win at the end of the book. Reflecting the complexities of interpersonal communications in the men and women you create makes for good reading, so pile on the dysfunction.

I often purposefully design oppositional characters. For instance, I wrote an ultra-religious character specifically to conflict with with another character who is, at best, a pessimistic agnostic. Or, another time, I wrote a very duty-bound character in opposition to a flippant opportunist. Life and literature are regularly filled with binaries since people rarely trust one another at first sight, and would sooner argue rather than consider the opposing viewpoint. I try to reflect this in my writing as often as possible. In my experience, I’ve found that it adds multiple layers to the ending my stories, whether they end in the highest triumph or the lowest defeat.

4. Take Breaks. Lots of Them.

Know when you need a break from writing. I believe that being exhausted is the kiss of death to your creativity, so learn to recognize when you need to take a step back and do other things for a while. During these breaks I highly recommend daydreaming. Seriously, I don’t know how I’d survive if I couldn’t daydream. I let my creative impulses go on safari for a few minutes, brainstorming all the stuff I’ve yet to try but long for the opportunity to do so. Oddly enough, this tip relates directly to the first, which was to plan. Keep in mind that planning is great and all, but remember that an idea that just pops into your head is worth as much as one that you’ve already written down.

5. Have Fun.

If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong. There will be times when you write something that you don’t like. It’ll feel clunky and awkward. Your general opinion of it will be that you don’t like it but it’s necessary to the plot, to the characters, or to some other broader excuse. It took me a long time to figure out a good answer to these conundrums, but I’m proud of my simple-yet-amazing solution: toss it out.

If you don’t like what you’ve written you need to rework it. Revise it. Redo it. Rewrite it. Do whatever it takes to make what you’re writing something to be proud of. Something you can’t wait to share. Readers can spot passages and chapters that the author obviously felt the need to grind through. Don’t let that happen to you. I’m not saying it doesn’t still happen to me, but the sooner you get comfortable with trashing something you don’t like, the sooner you’re writing something you love.

As always, I appreciate your attention and readership. Feel free to drop me a line or post in the comments with any questions!

Brendan