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Epic fantasy? What does that even mean?

Yesterday I finished the final draft of The Prince of Lies – yay! – which inevitably left me feeling more than a little punch-drunk, like I’d been hit round the head with a 135,000-word manuscript…So I goofed around on Twitter a bit, and whilst chatting about book lengths and genre I realised that fantasy really needs a new name for a rather common sub-genre.

Cover art for “Shadow’s Master” by Jon Sprunk
Cover art for “Shadow’s Master” by Jon Sprunk

OK, before we get going, yes I know that sub-genres are artificial and that you shouldn’t try to shoehorn your work into one of them, but once you have a book – or three – written, and you start to look at what market you’re going to be aiming at, it can be helpful to have a label so that everyone knows what you’re talking about. Except – are they really talking about the same thing?

The discussion that sparked this was about the ideal length for a debut epic fantasy, which varies from agent to agent, but certainly somewhere in the 100-150k ballpark as a rule. For other kinds of fantasy, as well as SF, the suggested length is more like 90-120k.

The thing is, what do agents mean by “epic fantasy”? I suspect that for some in the business it’s a synonym for secondary world fantasy, or indeed anything that isn’t very clearly either steampunk or urban fantasy. Because it’s like Tolkien and George R R Martin, right?  And in one respect they’re right – all non-contemporary fantasy has broadly the same audience, and it’s distinct from (though it may sometimes overlap with) urban fantasy/paranormal romance.

The thing is, a lot of the secondary-world fantasy that I read isn’t what I’d call epic. There are no continent-spanning wars or treks through sweeping landscapes, no wide-eyed young heroes venturing out of their comfy hobbit-holes and being swept along on An Adventure. Typically they’re based in one city (just like urban fantasy), with a cast of characters who are far from innocent: thieves, spies, assassins and the like. You know, those Hooded Men who’ve been gracing the covers of our favourite books for the past decade…

(As an aside, if you google “hooded man” images, the cover art for The Alchemist of Souls comes up quite high in the results. Which is ironic, since there’s not a hood in sight!)

This sub-genre used to be known as swords’n’sorcery, and it was typified by Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories. Lots of swashbuckling swordplay, but also lots of monsters and evil wizards and the like. The thing is, modern-day S&S is typically quite low in magic and often the characters are all human, so the label doesn’t really fit any more. Nor does the newer label “grimdark” really help, as it’s a tone, not a subgenre as such. Both GRRM and Joe Abercrombie have been described as writing grimdark, but their books are also epic fantasy.

I raised this on Twitter, suggesting “cloak’n’dagger” as an alternative. I got some great (not always serious) alternative suggestions:

  • The Streets of Darkness
  • Hooded Figure Fantasy
  • Poignards’n’privies (very apt in my case!)
  • Mock-Tudorpunk
  • Grime’n’punishment
  • Alchemical romance (by analogy with Wells’ “scientific romance”)

What do you think? Do we need a new label for non-epic, non-contemporary fantasy?

Previously, on Night’s Masque…

The trouble with series books coming out months or even years apart is that you tend to forget what happened in the last one by the time you get hold of the new one. With that in mind, I decided to take a leaf out of TV’s handbook and provide a summary of each of my novels, so that busy readers could refresh their memories if they didn’t have time for a full re-read.

Note that it will of course involve serious spoilers, so don’t read it unless you’ve already read the book (or are one of those weird people who like spoilers…)!

Previously on Night’s Masque: The Alchemist of Souls

(If you read it and think of anything vital I’ve missed, do let me know!)

I’ve also uploaded the official Merchant of Dreams three-chapter free extract, just to whet your appetite for the sequel!

Alchemist of Souls signed audiobook giveaway

Christmas is coming early for one of Mal Catlyn’s fans…

One of the (many) cool things about Angry Robot Books is that they now publish an audiobook version of all their titles, simultaneously with the paperback and ebook. This is a great thing for both authors and readers, since there are a lot of fantasy fans who don’t have much time to sit down and read a book but will happily listen to one on their daily commute or whilst doing chores (I listen to audiobooks whilst washing up).

Anyway, I have a spare boxed set of The Alchemist of Souls on CD to give away. This is the unabridged edition, on 13 discs, narrated by award-winner Michael Page (see my June blog post announcing the audiobook release).

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 CD audiobook set of The Alchemist of Souls, with disc 1 signed by yours truly! Unlike previous giveaways, since I only have the one spare copy, entry is open to anyone, anywhere in the world. This is a one-off chance to own the only signed copy currently available 🙂

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


  1. One comment per entrant, please – multiple commenters will be disqualified.
  2. 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.
  3. Closing date for entries is noon PST time on Tuesday 27th November. Any comments posted after that deadline will be deleted.
  4. I will be picking one winner (using a random number generator), to receive the aforementioned boxed set.
  5. If I do not hear from the winner before Christmas, I reserve the right to select a replacement.

Good luck!

Friday Reads: Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie

About this time last year I reviewed the first volume in Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, The Blade Itself, having enjoyed it immensely. However with all the other demands on my time since I signed my own book deal, it’s taken me since then to get around to the second volume, Before They Are Hanged.

Warning: some spoilers!

Picking up where the first book left off, Before They Are Hanged follows four storylines: Bayaz’s expedition into the far west, accompanied by Logen Ninefingers, Jezal dan Luthar and Ferro Maljinn; Glokta’s posting to the southern frontier city of Dagoska, under threat from being retaken by the Gurkish; Major West’s campaign on the Union’s northern border, as the warlord Bethod pushes south; and Logen’s former companions travelling south into the Union, trying to avoid Bethod’s armies. It is very much a middle volume of a trilogy in the tradition of The Lord of the Rings, with the main purpose of moving its characters around on the map, presumably towards a final confrontation. Only Glokta’s storyline is neatly self-contained, bringing him back to Adua after the fall of Dagoska.

As before, Glokta is still my favourite character; he’s as cynical and self-deprecating as ever, unable to accept that he retains some shreds of decency even though he behaves in a decidedly chivalrous manner towards the women he encounters. I also enjoyed Jezal’s character arc, as the privations of the trek across the western continent beat this spoilt city-bred brat into a humbler, more mature man—albeit still with enough vanity to be mortified by his battle scars! Logen and Ferro are growing on me, as is the Dogman, but Bayaz remains an arrogant, unknowable figure who leads more through abject fear of his powers than from any inspirational qualities. Abercrombie’s prose is ironically at its most shaky when describing his best character: Glokta is sometimes little more than a collection of mannerisms, only rescued from tiresomeness by his dry wit. In contrast, the narrative voice of this novel is at its strongest in the chapters from the point of view of the Dogman, perhaps because the northern warriors are closest in speech to Abercrombie’s native Lancashire accent/dialect.

Whilst this is mostly an open-ended narrative encompassing several entirely separate storylines, there are little touches that tie it all together, such as the contrast between Jezal’s ability to grow and change versus Prince Ladisla’s total, tragic inability to do so. Another thematic link is how impulsive acts that make a lot of sense at the time can turn out to have unexpected consequences way down the line. I won’t spoil the major plot twists but in Abercrombie’s world, as in Middle Earth, the fate of thousands often rests on the decision to kill or spare an individual. In fact in this volume I felt Tolkien’s influence very strongly; we have a wizard leading a disparate group of adventurers across a continent, a beseiged city, ancient ruins, a mage-created race of violent humanoids who can be slaughtered with impunity…the parallels are numerous and sometimes a little too obvious.

Whilst both Abercrombie’s and GRRM’s books are often described as “gritty”, I for one find the former far more palatable than the latter, largely because of the difference in attitudes to women characters. In A Song of Ice and Fire, rape and other violence against women is commonplace and (more importantly) rarely punished; in The First Law, the opposite is true. Of course bad things sometimes happen to good people, but the overall tone is upbeat. For all their violence, Abercrombie’s novels are not “grimdark”, at least not in this reader’s estimation—and for that I’m heartily grateful.

Given the length of my TBR list, it will probably be another year before I get around to reading the final volume in the trilogy, but since that’s about the same pace that Joe’s books are being published, it’s not really a problem. On the contrary, it’s something to look forward to…

Friday Reads: Casket of Souls, by Lynn Flewelling

Casket of Souls is the sixth installment in Lynn Flewelling’s long-running Nightrunner series of fantasy novels set in a roughly 17th/18th-century-esque milieu. Whilst recent books have seen protagonists Seregil and Alec travelling widely, Casket of Souls finds them back on familiar territory in the city of Rhiminee, and back to their old ways. Seregil, a very minor nobleman distantly related to the royal family, is an accomplished spy and cat-burglar and, with his young companion and lover Alec, has served the crown loyally for years. However with a war dragging on and food shortages in the city, tensions are running high, and it’s not long before the two young men find themselves in the midst of a conspiracy to usurp the throne. And as old friends of one of the rival claimants, if they don’t find solid evidence of the traitors’ plans they could be arrested themselves.

Added to their problems is a sudden, mysterious plague afflicting the poorer parts of the city; a plague with no known cause or cure. Most of the victims are children, a fact which especially touches the gentle heart of Alec. As the deaths mount up, Seregil and Alec find their loyalties torn between unmasking the conspirators and protecting the city’s children from the plague; even the best nightrunners can’t be in two places at once.

Casket of Souls marks a return to the intrigue and derring-do of the earliest Nightrunner books, as well as the unpleasant magics that are a trademark of Flewelling’s world. The first half unfolds quite slowly, as is somewhat inevitable in this kind of plot where all the pieces have to be put in place before they can make their moves, but the pace picks up as the net tightens around Seregil, Alec and their friends.

It’s not all deadly serious, thank goodness. There’s a particularly fun scene in a gambling house (let’s just say it will please the fangirls no end!), and though a number of characters die, the story lacks the angst and bleakness of recent outings.

The conspiracy plot is perhaps wrapped up a little too hastily, but that may just be because I read the last third of the book so fast! Even though you know it’s all going to work out OK in the end (Flewelling has more sense than to kill off characters with such an ardent following), there are enough deaths that the threat to our heroes is palpable and you have to keep reading to be absolutely sure.

Overall I think this may be my favourite book of the series so far. Such a pity then that there will only be one more!


When I found out the title of this latest book, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. Lynn had already blurbed my own novel The Alchemist of Souls, which seemed coincidence enough. However it seems there’s some kind of psychic bond going on between us, because although the particulars are very different, there are an awful lot of parallel elements between the two books, from the conspiracy plotline to the acting troupe with their new theatre, and of course the magic hinted at by the title. What’s more, I know Lynn had just about finished revising her own book when I sent her mine,  so any similarities are entirely coincidental, honest!

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.

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…

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!

My very first book deal

After many anxious weeks of biting my tongue, I am finally able to share my good news with the world – I have a three-book deal from UK SF&F publishers Angry Robot 😀

Back in September last year, this was only a distant, fervent dream. I met Angry Robot head honcho Marc Gascoigne at FantasyCon and pitched him my book and, despite the lateness of the hour and my nervousness, I was apparently coherent enough for him to request some sample chapters and a synopsis. These were duly sent, and a few weeks later I got a reply to say he and Lee (the editor) loved my writing – yay! – but thought that magic should play a larger role in the plot. We bounced some ideas back and forth until we had a solution we were all happy with, and I set about revising my novel along those lines.

At the end of January I sent off the complete manuscript, followed a couple of weeks later by a revised synopsis of that book plus one for a sequel, to form the basis of a potential book deal. My hopes were really up by this point, partly out of sheer keenness to work with Angry Robot but also because of Marc’s enthusiasm so far – but at the same time I was just a little bit terrified that I was being over-optimistic and setting myself up for disappointment. However barely a week later I received another email to say that the synopses had been received – oh, and by the way, they’d like to make me an offer!

Once I had calmed down a bit, I emailed John Berlyne at Zeno, who offered to represent me and negotiate the deal. After that it was just a matter of sending some more emails back and forth, signing paperwork and so on. The worst part was the waiting; signing a new client is a big deal for the agent and publisher as well as the author, so it all has to be coordinated and planned and done properly.

Anyway, now it’s all public! To find out more, including titles and publication dates, visit the Novels section of this site which, unlike this blog post, will be updated as I get more news. As for me, I’m going to pinch myself one last time, then get back to writing the next book in the series…

Book Review: The Sword of Albion, by Mark Chadbourn

I thought it was about time I did another book review focusing on my own corner of the genre. I’m still catching up on my reading, so at first it will be books that have been out for a while, but hopefully I’ll be more up-to-date soon!

My next “victim” is The Sword of Albion by Mark Chadbourn (published as The Silver Skull in the US).

Disclaimer: I have met Mark and he’s a lovely bloke, but I will try not to let that influence my review. After all, I’ve met other very pleasant authors whose books I was not impressed by, and I’m sure there are books I like whose authors are not so nice.

The Sword of Albion is the tale of Will Swyfte: swordsman, adventurer, rake, and England’s greatest spy. He is famed throughout the kingdom, thanks to ballads and pamphlets – so how can he work in secret when everyone knows who he is? The truth is that his real work is against an Enemy who have long known his identity, and his fight against them requires more than stealth and a ready rapier.

The story ranges from London to Edinburgh and down into the Iberian Peninsula, culminating in the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish – the famous armada of 1588. The action moves relentlessly from set-piece to set-piece, dragging the reader along in Swyfte’s wake as he is repeatedly captured and makes another dramatic escape. Think James Bond meets Pirates of the Caribbean; not only would this make a great movie, but since Chadbourn is a scriptwriter as well, it reads like a great movie.

Will Swyfte is not an arrogant mysogynist like Bond, however. OK, so he indulges in wine and women (sometimes to excess) to blot out the memories of the terrible things he has to do for Queen and country, but at heart he is a romantic, haunted by the memory of his lost love. His companions, though getting much less of the limelight, are also complex, well-drawn characters with believable motivations, though some are decidedly less sympathetic than Will.

The historical setting is well-drawn, with enough detail to satisfy the Elizabethan buffs amongst us without slowing down the action. The filthiness and smelliness of London is sometimes laid on a little heavily, but it does provide a contrast with the elegant, blossom-fragrant citadels of Spain.

I have only a few small quibbles, mostly the nitpicking of a fellow writer that will probably go unnoticed by other readers. There are a few places where information is repeated, or spelt out in narrative immediately after it has been explained in dialogue. And in one scene, Will somehow manages to hold a rapier to a bad guy’s throat and simultaneously whisper in his ear – pretty impressive with a blade that was normally around 36-40 inches! (I assume he is using the tip, since rapiers were not terribly sharp near the hilt). My attention did start to drift a little during the sea-battle, but that sort of thing is always hard to do in a novel. It wasn’t badly written – quite the contrary – but every time the action shifted away from Will towards ships in combat, I just wanted to skip ahead to the next bit of derring-do 🙂

I was also a little disappointed that the Enemy resorted to mundane physical torture, when they are so good at the psychological kind, but I guess it had to be clear that they were capable of inflicting horrible torments on those Will cares about. On the other hand, kudos to Chadbourn for writing torture scenes that didn’t give me nightmares. He sensibly focuses on the interrogation that is the point of the scene, rather than gratuitous descriptions of the torture itself. Books being so much more intimate a medium than film, it takes very little to make a strong impact on the engaged reader.

In summary, this is an entertaining page-turner with strong, sympathetic characters and a fascinating, terrifying setting – what more could one want from a fantasy novel? I for one am eagerly looking forward to reading more of Will’s adventures…