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The Merchant of Dreams: publication date confirmed

I’m very happy to announce the publication date of the second book in the Night’s Masque trilogy, The Merchant of Dreams.

Ebook & US paperback: 18 December 2012

UK paperback: 3 January 2013

Now, before you grumble that the US is getting the paperback edition ages before the UK, the explanation is simple. Usually the US publication date is near the end of the month, but that means a Christmas Day launch date, which is less than ideal! So, the US date has been brought forward a week, whilst the UK date has to remain where it is to, again, prevent a clash with Christmas. All clear? Awesome.

Below is the (draft) back cover text:

Exiled from the court of Queen Elizabeth for accusing a powerful nobleman of treason, swordsman-turned-spy Mal Catlyn has been living in France with his young valet Coby Hendricks for the past year. But Mal harbours a darker secret: he and his twin brother share a soul that once belonged to a skrayling, one of the mystical creatures from the New World.

When Mal’s dream about a skrayling shipwreck in the Mediterranean proves reality, it sets him on a path to the beautiful, treacherous city of Venice—and a conflict of loyalties that will place Mal and his friends in greater danger than ever.

So, all I need to do now is finish writing the damned thing! Wish me luck…

Why I read reviews

The other day a question came up on Twitter: what value do you get out of reading reviews? I’d been thinking of writing about this topic anyway, so I thought it was time to put my thoughts in writing…

A lot of writers refuse to read reviews of their own books, on the grounds that if they read the good ones, they are honour-bound to read the bad ones, and they find the latter too painful. I can understand that attitude, and if that’s how you roll, you have my sympathy. Writing is hard enough, without getting stressed out about the things you can’t control—like reader reaction.

So why read reviews at all? Clearly you have to have a thick skin (or be a masochist), but I think they can be useful if you approach them in the right way. For me, it’s a kind of market research. We’re constantly being told that, as 21st century writers, we need to be aware of our audience—our market, to put it in even more commercial terms. But who is that market?

Some writers have an instinctive feel for it, like Jack Sheffield, who spoke at the Winchester Writers’ Conference a few years ago. He uses his experiences as a headteacher to write novels set in a fictional primary school in the 1970s, and he targets readers in their 40s who were at school in that period. Nostalgia, pure and simple. Maybe I’m just not commercially minded enough, but I don’t have a clear demographic in mind for my books. I simply write books of the kind that I would enjoy reading, and hope to appeal to the fans of authors whose books I enjoy: Lynn Flewelling, Tim Powers and so on. Hence, reading reviews by book bloggers and other fantasy fans helps me to find out who is reading my books and what they enjoy about them.

I should also point out that for these purposes I focus on the positive reviews and ignore the negative ones. Not because I’m looking for an ego-boost, but because if someone doesn’t connect with my books, they are by definition not my target audience. Of course if the majority of your readers are dissatisfied, you have some serious work to do, but if the critics are in the minority, you’ll just be shooting yourself in the foot by trying to please them.

Most importantly, it’s not about individual opinions so much as trends. The more reviews you read, the more you realise how idiosyncratic an individual’s response to a book is. One person may love Character A and find Character B annoying, another feels the exact opposite. Some reviewers say they find The Alchemist of Souls slow-paced, others that they couldn’t put it down. They can’t all be “right”, in the sense of providing objective criticism! So, I’m looking for a consensus, of the “this was a great book apart from…” variety. For example, I have to admit that the “slow” comment crops up quite a bit, so I have to at least consider whether I can up the pace a little in the next book without throwing away its other virtues.

I’m also on the lookout for comments of the “I love X and would like to see more” variety, where X is something I enjoy writing, and particularly where no-one else singles out X as something they hate. That’s a no-brainer for the writer, really. Sometimes you’re just too close to the writing to see what needs bringing out, so this kind of feedback is invaluable. Yes, a good editor may also provide this kind of feedback, but editors are individuals too and they can sometimes overlook the elements that really click with the audience.

One last word on negative reviews: never, EVER respond. It doesn’t matter how justified your complaint—baring your ego in public is not pretty, and will not win you any respect. If an Amazon review is offensive or totally irrelevant, you can ask Amazon to delete it, but for the love of God do not comment in person, or ask your friends to comment on your behalf. You chose to put your writing out into the world, and the reader is entitled to their opinion, however wrong-headed.

The only thing that really gets under my skin is when a reader accuses me of factual inaccuracy—and is wrong. I try not to over-explain everything in my novels, with the result that some readers will miss connections and go with their gut reaction. Still, I bite my tongue and hope that other potential readers seeing these reviews will also know that the reviewer is wrong. I know for sure that a comment from me will only hurt my case. If the topic is big enough, though, I might blog about it (as I did about homosexuality in Elizabeth England); that way I can have my say without attacking individuals.

What it comes down is that whatever you write, not everyone is going to “get” it—and you’re going to have to live with that. Either you stay away from reviews altogether, or you discipline yourself to take the rough with the smooth and learn from it, like with the rest of life. Your choice. Just choose wisely…

MoD final draft, Days 19-21

I’ve now reached the halfway point of the manuscript of The Merchant of Dreams, and I seem to have spent most of the weekend shuffling scenes around, specifically in Mal’s chapters. On Sunday afternoon it hit me why I was having such a problem with them: I’ve hit the crucial part of the story where Mal confronts a major character who is about to turn his worldview upside-down, and I absolutely have to get it right in order for the rest of the book to work.

The reason I had a facepalm moment is that exactly the same thing happened in the previous book, when Kiiren reveals to Mal why he is really in London. I knew there were a lot of echoes of The Alchemist of Souls in this new book, but I hadn’t realised that I had instinctively followed the same narrative structure.

Hopefully I’ll learn this lesson, and when I get stuck halfway through The Prince of Lies, it won’t come as quite such a shock. I doubt it, though. Writing a book is a little like giving birth in one respect – you have to block out the horrible bits, otherwise you’d never agree to go through with it again!

MoD final draft – Days 12-18

After my struggle with Chapter 8, I finally hit a “clean” section of the manuscript that didn’t require massive rewrites, so I’ve been racing ahead of schedule! However I’m probably going to need that spare time when I hit the middle of the book, because Mal’s storyline requires major rearrangements and some expansion.

In fact I’ve already started to reach that point which is why, after editing chapters 9-16, I skipped ahead to 18 and 20. Those two chapters are in Coby’s timeline (tiny spoiler – they spend a chunk of the book apart) and are pretty solid, so I find them easy to edit on weekdays. I’m saving the major rewrites, starting with 17 and 19, for the weekend when I have more time to concentrate. Well, at least that’s the theory…

MoD final draft – Days 1-11

I’ve been nose-down in revisions for the past week and a half and totally forgetting to log my progress, but the news is (mostly) good. I’m currently in the middle of Chapter 8, which means I’m slightly ahead of schedule.

Replica of the Golden Hind, docked in Southwark (photo courtesy Jose Marin)
Replica of the Golden Hind, docked in Southwark (photo courtesy Jose Marin)

The bad news is that at the beginning of this week (Day 8), I had finished Chapter 7 and was thus two days ahead. However Chapter 8 is mostly new material rather than edits, so it’s taking me longer. Add in the fact that I’ve reached the section where my characters are travelling by sea, and this makes me doubly slow. Not only do I have to keep stopping to do more research (I now realise I was woefully lax in checking the physical layout of Tudor ships on the first draft), but I find the plot possibilities of a sea voyage to be limited. Besides storms and pirates, just what problems can I plausibly throw at my heroes after only a few days at sea?

I have to say that some of the blockage is due to my own stupidity. I should know by now that just thinking about a plot problem is no way to solve it, at least not for me. I need to sit down with a notepad and pen and brainstorm the situation – only then will my Muse come out of hiding and start throwing ideas at me. Sure enough, after three days of racking my brains and cranking out a mere 2000 words of revised prose, I got out my Merchant of Dreams notebook and within ten minutes had an interesting plot development that I can use to power the rest of this chapter!

I’m going to try and finish that today – I have until Friday evening to do it, otherwise I fall behind schedule, which is Not An Option…

Book giveaway: signed copies of The Alchemist of Souls

Would you like a signed paperback of The Alchemist of Souls? Of course you would!

This month I’m giving away 3 copies to readers in the UK/EU only (there’ll be another giveaway in the summer for North American readers, never fear).

All you have to do to be in with a chance is to leave a comment on this post. If you win, you will receive a brand new copy of the UK paperback edition of The Alchemist of Souls, signed by yours truly!

Please note that comments are moderated to reduce spam, so don’t panic if yours doesn’t appear right away.


  1. You must live in the EU to enter (sorry – worldwide postage gets expensive)
  2. One comment per entrant, please – multiple commenters will be disqualified.
  3. For security reasons, please don’t leave contact details in your comment – there’s a space in the comment form for your email address, I’ll use that to get hold of you.
  4. Closing date for entries is noon UK time on Tuesday 15th May. Any comments posted after that deadline will be deleted.
  5. I will be picking three separate winners (using a random number generator), to receive one copy of the book each.
  6. Selected winners must respond to the confirmation email by Thursday 31st May, so that I can get the books out in a timely manner.
  7. If a winner does not respond by the stated deadline or cannot supply an EU postal address, I reserve the right to select a replacement.

Good luck!


The Merchant of Dreams: finished cover

Last week I got my first glimpse of the gorgeous cover art for Book 2 of the Night’s Masque trilogy, and thanks to some hard work by artist Larry Rostant and Angry Robot supremo Marc Gascoigne, I’m now able to reveal the finished article:


As you can see it features Mal Catlyn’s partner in crime, Jacomina “Coby” Hendricks, ready for action on the murky streets of a certain Italian city…

I’m particularly pleased with this cover, as I really wanted Coby to feature on it since she again plays a significant role in the book. I gave Marc a detailed brief of what I envisaged, and he and Larry have translated that perfectly. The timing is also ideal, as I’ve just started work on the final revisions, and this image is really going to help focus my imagination on the atmosphere I want for the book.

The Merchant of Dreams is due to be published in spring 2013 – watch this space for more news!

History at the Movies: Shakespeare in Love

I have a love-hate relationship with movies set in my favourite historical periods. On the one hand, I adore the visuals, but the scripts in particular can be horribly anachronistic or just plain annoying! Just for fun, I thought I’d pick apart a few films set in the Elizabethan period, starting with a well-known example: Shakespeare in Love. I chose this film because, although one obviously can’t hold a frothy romantic comedy up to the same standards as a historical epic, it’s surprisingly faithful to the period.

*** SPOILER WARNING *** In order to discuss historical accuracy, I have to give away the plot. However this movie is over a decade old, so…

The Story

Enthusiastic young playwright Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is struggling with ideas for his latest play, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter, until he encounters the lovely Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), far above him on the social scale. Viola, meanwhile, is no shrinking violet; betrothed to a pompous nobleman (Colin Firth), she tries to escape the strictures of her life by disguising herself as a young man and auditioning for a part in the new play.

Hilarity ensues (as they say), as Viola struggles to keep the two sides of her life separate and secret. She falls madly in love with Will, only to discover he has been keeping a secret of his own: he’s married. Realising that they can never be together, she gives him up, but they never forget one another, and Shakespeare eventually immortalises her as one of his pluckiest cross-dressing heroines, Viola in Twelfth Night.

Historical basis

Obviously there’s not going to be a lot of this in a romantic comedy, but just for the record, the real events included in the film are:

  • Shakespeare’s writing of Romeo and Juliet, probably in the early 1590s (it was first published in 1597, and this usually only happened after a play had been performed many times)
  • the murder of Christopher Marlowe in the early summer of 1593 (supposedly in a quarrel over a dinner bill, but since Marlowe was a spy, the motive behind it was probably political)

Also, Shakespeare was 29 in 1593 (and actor Joseph Fiennes was 28 when the film was made), hence the romance plot fits into Shakespeare’s life very plausibly.

Many of the background details are pretty accurate. Shakespeare is shown stripping the barbs from his quills when preparing to write, and Bankside is portrayed as suitably muddy and semi-rural. There are little touches of social history, too, like Shakespeare walking in on Burbage and his whore and not being the slightest bit embarrassed, or the nurse rocking noisily in her chair to drown out the sounds of Will and Viola’s lovemaking, which give a real feel for how little privacy Elizabethan people had.

Deliberate fictions

Pretty obviously, Shakespeare’s working title for Romeo and Juliet never involved a pirate’s daughter; that’s just a bit of fun, to prepare the ground for the change that his love for Viola brings to his writing. And Viola herself is a fictional character, though judging by Shakespeare’s sonnets he was by no means celibate when he lived in London, hundreds of miles from his wife! Viola’s fiancé, the Duke of Wessex, is equally fictional, though he is a typical Elizabethan nobleman, hot-tempered and proud.

Being a comedy, the film has a lot of fun with anachronisms, from the “priest of Psyche” on whose couch Will confesses his performance anxiety, to the wherryman who talks exactly like a London cabbie: “I had that Christopher Marlowe in the back of my boat, once…”. However these little touches help to connect a modern audience with the past, and they are in the spirit of the era, if not the letter.

Historical “errors”

  • It’s fairly certain that Shakespeare never wrote a play for Philip Henslowe (played by Geoffrey Rush in the movie). No payments to Shakespeare are listed in Henslowe’s surviving account books – a fact which some have used as “proof” that Shakespeare wrote none of the plays attributed to him. However Shakespeare was a member of a theatre company based on the other side of London, and from 1599 he was a sharer in that company, so the absence of payments to him isn’t that surprising.
  • The story about Queen Elizabeth and the cloak over the puddle is almost certainly fiction; it probably originated with 17th-century historian Thomas Fuller, who was inclined to embroider the facts with fanciful incidents, and was perpetuated by Sir Walter Scott in his Elizabethan romance Kenilworth.


Overall I give this movie 6/10 for historical accuracy – the plot may be pure fiction, but it’s played out against a background that puts many a more serious film to shame.