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Friday Reads: The Emperor’s Knife, by Mazarkis Williams

Since I’m trying to read more books this year, I’ve decided to take these book reviews out of my weekly schedule (in which posts go out every Tuesday) and post them on an irregular Friday schedule as and when I finish a book. Hopefully that’ll be at least monthly, but it’s likely to vary.

The Emperor’s Knife is one of a flush of Middle-Eastern-inspired fantasies that came out in 2011 – an encouraging trend, since that milieu has been sadly neglected in the genre despite being a rich source of myth and story formerly very popular in the West. The setting is a secondary world rather than the historical Middle East, but with its deserts, grand viziers and palace intrigue it manages to capture an Arabian Nights feel whilst allowing Williams a broader palette for storytelling.

The central conceit of the book is the Pattern, a magical analogue of the elaborate pattern of a Persian rug. The Pattern is generally believed to be a disease: once it appears on a victim’s skin (somewhat like a tattoo), the person either dies or becomes a kind of zombie, physically alive but with their old personality gone. However there’s literally much more to the Pattern than meets the eye, and the characters of The Emperor’s Knife became enmeshed in it in ways they never imagined.

Four main characters carry the narrative: Prince Sarmin, who has been kept locked in a tower since childhood as a secret backup in case his brother the emperor fails to produce an heir; Eyul, the emperor’s Knife, i.e. assassin; Tuvaini, the obligatory scheming grand vizier; and Mesema, daughter of a nomad chieftain and intended bride of Sarmin. These four offer very different and often opposing perspectives on events, and the frequent switches between the four helps to keep the story moving along even when not much is happening in an individual’s timeline.

The narrative pace did sag somewhat in the second quarter; it felt like Williams was struggling to fill the time whilst all the pieces moved into position, resulting in several scenes where characters had long conversations that didn’t amount to much. It didn’t help that some of these conversations were almost too realistic, wandering around a topic that neither character wanted to discuss—or even think about—directly, and in one case I was left very confused as to what was actually going on. However once everyone got back to the capital city the pace started to pick up and I read the second half of the book in a couple of days.

Also, whilst the characters were generally interesting and well-developed, I felt that the assassin Eyul lacked something. Maybe it was just a combination of the aforementioned confusing scenes, Eyul’s own repressed personality and my being unwell whilst reading the book, but his emotional arc didn’t quite work for me.

Flaws aside, though, there’s a lot to enjoy in this book. Prince Sarmin is a delightfully gender-reversed Rapunzel, spurred into action by unexpected visits to his lonely tower, and Mesema is the kind of strong female character I love to read about: not a “kickass warrior babe” male fantasy but a resourceful young woman coping admirably with the scary new world she’s been thrown into. Also, the magic of the Pattern is pleasingly organic, woven into the fabric of the world, its mysteries unrolling before the reader like a…(OK, enough with the Persian rug metaphors! Ed.) *ahem*

In summary, if you’re looking for an action-packed fantasy epic you’re going to be disappointed by this book. If on the other hand you enjoy a character-driven tale of political intrigue as subtle and intricate as the Pattern itself, I can strongly recommend it. It’s a solid debut, and I’ll certainly be picking up the next book in the series.


A tiny gripe about the ebook edition (at least, the one I have): there are no asterisks or similar symbols marking scene breaks, which given the frequent point-of-view switches makes for a slightly uneven reading experience. I appreciate that ebook formatting is still something of a dark art and that inconsistency across platforms is inevitable, but there’s really no excuse for omitting such a simple but vital typographical feature. Publishers, take note!

Research trip: Hampton Court Palace

One of the fun things about writing historical fantasy is that it’s a great excuse to visit (or revisit) historic locations. Sadly, most of the Tudor palaces that appear in the Night’s Masque trilogy are long gone, but one of the best—Hampton Court—survives, albeit with some 18th-century modifications. Hampton Court Palace makes only a brief appearance in The Merchant of Dreams but I wanted to make it as authentic as possible, and since I hadn’t been in at least fifteen years I thought another visit was in order.

The anteroom to Henry VIII's Great Hall, where food was brought up from the nearby kitchens
The anteroom to Henry VIII's Great Hall, where food was brought up from the nearby kitchens

Rather than do the tourist thing of following itineraries, my main aim was to orient myself within the sprawling palace complex and try to imagine where my characters might have found themselves. I therefore wandered around taking lots of not-very-artistic photos, designed more to jog my memory than to show off the palaces’s finer features. Unfortunately my camera battery, which had appeared to be half-charged when I left home, decided to conk out after a handful of photos, so I had to take the rest with my phone.

 

A Tudor rose garden
A Tudor rose garden

Although a fair amount of Henry VIII’s palace remains intact, particularly the public places, most of the private apartments were pulled down and rebuilt by William III and Mary II, and the gardens were extensively remodelled. However the Tudor gardens have been recreated in miniature in Chapel Court, complete with heraldic beasts on striped poles. Old-fashioned red and white roses fill half the garden, whilst the other half is given over to herbs: mint, thyme, marigolds and a number of others I had trouble identifying. All the beds were edged round with heirloom strawberry plants, and the temptation to pick and eat one of the tiny fruits was almost overwhelming!

 

No visit to a historic location would be complete without souvenirs, but so much of what is sold is cheap tat aimed at tourists. I searched the kitchen shop for a book on Tudor cooking to no avail, which seems a dreadful oversight given that Henry VIII’s kitchens are a major exhibit. In the end I selected a more general book—the heavily-illustrated official history of the palace, in the same series as the Tower of London history I bought last year—and a rather handsome pewter cup (right). The latter is pleasingly plain, with just a simple inscription around the base: “Make goode cheere who wyshes: Faicte bonne chere quy vouldra”. I look forward to drinking wine from it whilst working on the final book in the trilogy!

MoD final draft, days 41-47

Index cards for "The Merchant of Dreams" final draft
Index cards for "The Merchant of Dreams" final draft

So, I actually finished the high-level revision pass of The Merchant of Dreams on Sunday, but I’ve been so bunged up with a cold-turned-sinus-infection that I haven’t had the mental focus to blog about it. However I’m delighted with my progress – it’s taken me less than seven weeks for this first pass, which involved not just editing it but writing quite a bit of new material. You can see that from the photo, where the white index cards are scenes from the first draft that I kept more or less intact (albeit sometimes heavily edited) and the pink cards represent new scenes, written to either replace ones that were discarded or expand an under-developed storyline. (The small stack in the red rubber band is the deleted scenes.)

I admit that, looking at the card stack, I’m surprised at how much new material was needed in the first third of the book, but I was beefing up the main story arc and streamlining the subplot, and neither of those could be achieved by simply editing what I already had. I also think it’s telling that the last quarter is almost completely white, as I was mostly deleting repetitive, meandering scenes and tightening up what remained.

I still have to do a fine-tuning pass, where I catch any remaining loose ends resulting from the rewrites and also polish up the prose, but that usually only takes a few days. The hardest part is convincing yourself that it really is as good as you can make it, and then hitting ‘Send’ on the email!

Web Presence 101.6 – Facebook

It’s been a while since one of these posts, since spring was such a busy time for me, but with new social networks cropping up I thought I should get the ball rolling again.

Facebook is still (in 2012) the biggest and best-known social media site. There are two main kinds of Facebook content stream: individual user accounts, which is what most people are familiar with, and Pages, which are a bit like micro-websites within Facebook. You’ll need the former to use Facebook at all, and when you get close to being published, the latter is a good idea too.

I’ll admit right now that I’m not a big fan of Facebook, and don’t use it much, but it’s impossible to ignore, particularly as they have started creating “community pages” (read, “content sucked in from Wikipedia”) about every topic under the sun; presumably including any author with a Wikipedia page about them. Like it or not, unless you create your own Facebook page about yourself, someone else will probably do so—and you won’t control that content.

User accounts

I won’t say much about user accounts except: be careful! Don’t friend all and sundry, and don’t be tempted to fill in all the information fields just because they’re there. There was a very disturbing story doing the rounds a few months ago, about a smartphone app that combined social media content to produce what was in effect the perfect stalking tool. Keep an eye on the privacy setting, or better still don’t put anything into your profile that you wouldn’t want made public. There have been plenty of articles published on the subject, and I invite you to check them out. Suffice to say that I post as little personal information on FB as I can get away with!

Pages

It might seem egocentric to have a “fan page” about yourself when you’re not even published yet, but really it’s just a handy way around the “mutual friending” structure of Facebook. If you don’t have a fan page, you will have to friend every single reader who wants to follow you – which means they get access to all the personal stuff you post! Much better—and safer—to set up a page they can Like. There’s also the advantage that Facebook pages are visible to the wider internet, including search engines, whereas your ordinary Facebook account is not.

Also, as mentioned above, once you are big enough to merit a Wikipedia page, Facebook will create a Page about you that you don’t control, so it’s worth getting in on the ground floor and attracting a following. That will push your Page above the automated one in any search results and ensure than anyone on Facebook who’s looking for you will find real, fresh information, not a bunch of third-hand, rarely updated stuff.

As you can see from the screenshot of my own page, the new “timeline” view allows, nay encourages, you to add an image to the top of your page. The size is fixed and a bit weird, so you may have to do some fiddling around with your chosen image to get something suitable.

I populate the page with my blog feed via RSS, and check back once or twice a day to see if anyone’s left a message. I also post the occasional bit of unique content, usually if I have some news that isn’t significant enough for a blog post but is too long for a tweet. Because I mostly post on here rather than my personal account, my friends who follow me aren’t swamped with content.

A word about “reach”

Since posting this article, my attention has been drawn to the fact that posts on your Page are not automatically added to the feed of everyone who Likes your page (betcha didn’t know that, did you? No, neither did I until just before I wrote this.). The probability of an individual fan getting your posts depends on how often they like and comment on other posts, i.e. how engaged they are with your content, but also how much interest the post is getting from other, more dedicated fans. Fortunately Facebook shows the percentage reach at the bottom of each item, so you can see how many of your fans are seeing the content.

On the one hand this is a blatant ploy by Facebook to get you to pay for advertising, but you can also see it as a way to judge how effective your content is. If you post boring stuff that no-one responds to, your reach will go down (the average is apparently only 16%!) – which is a good incentive to post better content! Mine usually range between 20 and 50 percent, and of course major announcements like cover art and publication dates get more interest than more general blog posts (the same is true of the number of comments on the blog itself). So, do keep an eye on these numbers!

 

That’s really all I have to say about Facebook. If you love it you may find it a great promotional tool, but for me it’s just a way to reach a few more fans, particularly who don’t use Twitter.

Other articles in this series:

  1. Claim your name
  2. Your website
  3. Blogging
  4. Introduction to social media
  5. Twitter
  6. Facebook
  7. Goodreads
  8. Pinterest
  9. Google alerts

Book review: The Spirit Thief, by Rachel Aaron

Omnibus edition of the first three Eli Monpress novels
Omnibus edition of the first three Eli Monpress novels

Eli Monpress is the greatest and most infamous thief in the world. At least, that’s his ambition. The bigger the theft, the higher the bounty on his wanted poster – and what could be higher profile than stealing a king? Unfortunately the kidnapped king’s absence leaves a power vacuum in the wizard-hating kingdom of Mellinor and sets off a chain of events that even Eli’s charm can’t easily get him out of.

I confess that I started reading this book under the misapprehension that it was YA – I’m not sure why, maybe the lovely new cover art for the omnibus edition (right)? However it took me some time to realise my mistake, perhaps because between the “clean rating” (no swearing or sex, very little violence), the girl mage who rides a giant telepathic wolf, and the wryly humorous style, it reminded me of a cross between The Princess Bride and an intelligent Disney cartoon. Of course the fact that the previous book I read was The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan probably made the contrast even more striking! At any rate, this is one of those books that is likely to appeal to – and be suitable for – a wide age range of readers, from young teens upwards.

Towards the end it becomes somewhat darker, as Eli confronts a particularly nasty wizard bent on taking over the kingdom, and I’m told that later books continue in this vein (I have the omnibus edition, so I’ll no doubt be reading them at some point). However the overall flavour is definitely slanted towards the light, epitomised by master swordsman Joseph, who walks around covered in unfeasibly large amounts of edged steel but is really only interested in fighting opponents worthy of his skill.

If you’re not keen on the “gritty” type of epic/adventure fantasy, or just want a break from all the raping and pillaging, I heartily recommend you check out this book. Eli’s reputation depends on it!

MoD final draft, Days 34-40

The Jubilee weekend was highly productive, and I roared ahead of schedule, getting as far as Chapter 28 by Tuesday evening. Of course things slowed down again once I was back at work, and this weekend I’ve only managed a chapter a day. However I’ve finally managed to weave my plot changes back into the existing ending (near as dammit), so the remaining six chapters should be relatively straightforward.

I say relatively, because of course they’re some of the most important, so I have to resist the urge to rush them in order to get to The End. Still, it’s good to know that I’m still ahead of schedule on the main rewrite, which should hopefully give me a bit more time for the final polishing pass. It’s been a gruelling process, but I’m very pleased with the way things have gone.

Tomorrow I’ll take the day off revising, as Mondays are never very productive for me, then it’s eyes down for the final stretch…

The Alchemist of Souls – now in audiobook!

June is Audiobook Month, so I’m delighted to be able to contribute with my own slice of aural entertainment. You can now wrap your lugholes around the adventures of Mal, Coby and friends with the latest co-production between Angry Robot Books and Brilliance Audio. Read by Michael Page, award-winning narrator of Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, this is an unabridged edition of The Alchemist of Souls. That’s 15 whole hours of Elizabethan intrigue, romance and action – enough to entertain you through quite a few commutes.

I’ve been listening to it myself the past few days, partly to find out how Michael got on with the skrayling names and languages, and partly to try and absorb the rhythm of my own prose when read by a great narrator. Of course there’s the small problem that I do occasionally wince and wish I’d written a sentence better, but that’s part of the learning process :)

What’s particularly interesting about the narrator is that he’s a professor of theatre with a particular interest in Shakespeare – I do hope he enjoyed reading the theatrical sections and didn’t find my made-up play too terrible! He certainly does a good range of accents and voices, and does a creditable job of pronouncing all the skrayling stuff despite not having had a pronunciation guide from me (I guess my orthography was a success, then!). In some respects he pronounces it better than I do, since I’m rubbish at a trilled ‘r’; he does speak it rather slower than the skraylings would, but that’s perfectly understandable. At some point I shall post a pronunciation guide on my website, and perhaps a bit of background information about the languages, for the delectation of the conlangers out there.

All in all I’m delighted with the end result, and hope you enjoy it too. The audiobook is available from Audible, Amazon and the iTunes Store – see my Alchemist of Souls webpage for links. For more about Audiobook Month, search for the #JIAM2012 hashtag on Twitter or see the link at the top of the page.

MoD final draft, Days 22-33

I confess I’ve been putting off posting on here as the midpoint rewrite is still going very slowly – slowly enough that I’m actually behind schedule for the first time. Partly that’s down to a sudden heatwave and my resultant lack of sleep, and partly it was the need to plan a completely new chapter to follow the one I’d been having such a hard time with. I came up with some fun ideas for adding a bit more action to the story, but it required a lot of thinking about the logic of how it would all work – not easy when you’re exhausted.

Thankfully the weather has cooled and I have two extra days off work this weekend (Queen’s Jubilee), so I have a chance to get caught up. I really need to get this in on time if it’s going to be published in December!