Category Archives: ABNA 2014

January 1st 2015

It seems to be sort-of customary for blog writers to set out a kind of manifesto at the start of the year – not quite a set of resolutions, since most people seem to be off resolutions this year, but more of a declaration of intent.

My own musings on this were partly triggered by getting my Goodreads stats sent through to me – seems that as regards GR I have reviewed 42 books (11495 pages). Now, I know there are a few HNS reviews still waiting to go through their system before I can post elsewhere, but it’s a fair reflection. I was also quite pleased to see that although most were published in the last few years, I have a scattering of 19th and early 20th century ones, and a couple going way back – The Elder Edda and the Kumarasambhava to be precise.

I took part in two “Reading Challenges” this year – for The Historical Tapestry I just failed to meet the target (25 books… I was one off), after family illness stopped progress for a while. But for The Mad Reviewer I was well in excess of my planned 26 books as the non-historical fiction titles boosted the total nicely. I’m still thinking about whether I want to participate in a similar challenge this year, or whether my activities with HNS and other review groups will be quite sufficient!

Next year on the blog I am planning to do a monthly interview, mostly with historical fiction authors but no doubt a few others thrown in as well. I’m also planning to up the frequency of the historical posts picking out some feature of the background to my own writing – or else just something that caught my eye historically. This probably means I will combine several reviews together in abbreviated form rather individually in full form, since after all there isn’t room or time for everything!

Cover - Scenes from a LifeAs regards my own writing, the CreateSpace version of Scenes from a Life went live a little while into 2014 (the kindle version being available in December 2013), and said book got through to the quarter finals of Amazon’s ABNA award.

Flame draft coverThis year the big event should be the release of The Flame Before Us – hopefully by March or so, all being well. There will be no shortage of news about that… Right now I am working on the last major incomplete section, then comes a few rounds of editorial work and such like before release.

So lots to look forward to in the coming year… not least the excitement of encountering new people and new books through the various routes we all use. Last year’s HNS conference here in London gave a good opportunity to actually meet with some of the many people I enjoy “meeting” online – but there are a great many other people who as yet I have not encountered in the non-virtual world. It would be a nice resolution to aim to meet a few of these, but time will tell if it is a realistic one!

Meanwhile, all the best for 2015 to readers of this blog.

Review – Athame and Wrath by Morgan Alreth

ABNA General Ficton categoryTime for a review amongst all the excitement of Scenes from a Life and the ABNA awards.

So, this review covers the first two books in Morgan Alreth’s The Unfortunate Woods series – Athame and Wrath. The series continues in a third book which at the time of writing has not yet been released.

These are fantasy books, set in a world where humans are the most numerous species, but share the land (and especially the forest) with several other natural and supernatural life forms. Relationships between the species tend to drift from neutral towards hostile, with occasional times of cooperation for specific shared goals.

Magic is, as you might expect, a vital part of the setting. The magic system is based around the four classical elements (fire, water, earth, air), with connections to the four seasons as well as other binary or four-fold natural or human divisions. Each element is linked to a deity with suitable qualities. It seems to me to be fundamentally well thought-out, particularly in Wrath where there is more development of the interconnections. An important plot theme is that pretty much any serious use of magic tends to have unpredictable side-effects, small compared to the original purpose but needing to be taken into account.

Athame opens in a wild and dangerous forest. A woman living here, Jess, chooses to help a man, Pete, who is lost, saving his life from any number of potential threats. He turns out to be a significant player in the royal succession drama unfolding in the country. Unsurprisingly, but credibly, the two eventually become lovers.

The plot continues with Jess and Pete venturing out of the forest and back to the capital city. This turns out to be every bit as dangerous as the wild forest, but with human rather than exotic enemies. There are definite echoes of Crocodile Dundee here, though the gender roles are switched, and the couple here is much more equally matched in talent and ability.

Athame ends with them having resolved a serious external threat, but separating for what appear to be perfectly sensible and necessary reasons. However, this is a source of grief to both.

Wrath – over twice as long according to my kindle – tracks subsequent events. They start separately, in different regions of the world, as they try to resolve their individual destinies; both have to face different but significant threats. Eventually they reunite, but tact and spoiler avoidance forbids me saying how this turns out. Suffice it to say that their quest returns them to their country of origin, which by now has fallen into serious civil unrest.

The hints and clues you get about the third book indicate that the overall problems of succession and disunity will be resolved, perhaps with a level of reconciliation between the various non-human species as well.

So, the books are interesting, and many aspects of the world seem credible to me. What are the down sides? Firstly, there is a theme I have also encountered in some of Morgan’s other writing. Rural settings may well be dangerous, but are basically clean and honourable; rural individuals are poor and bluntly spoken but honest. In contrast, cities and towns – anything bigger than a handful of houses together – are filthy, disease-ridden, and full of cruel and wickedly motivated individuals. Countryside is good: towns are bad. I am not really convinced by this.

In Athame, another rather simple binary opposition is between organised religion (largely in the hands of men and fundamentally corrupt) and personal spirituality (largely in the hands of women and basically uplifting and respectable). Wrath is more nuanced about this, and smooths out the earlier stark contrast into lots of intermediate shades of a spectrum.

Another difficulty is with the opponents. I guess it is par for the course for fantasy heroes to get increasingly more powerful themselves, and have a coterie of increasingly powerful followers. But how do you then find worthy adversaries? Somehow, the filthy, disease-ridden cities and their temples manage to turn out a whole collection of fearsome, top-of-the range fighting men and magician-priests.

The production of the kindle copy is mixed. My copies were downloaded from Smashwords, and the rather patchy navigation may be a consequence of that site’s conversion software. However, there are a surprising number of spelling errors, format problems, and other minor issues which should have been caught during rounds of proof reading.

In summary, these two books still come out as four star books for me. Certainly worth the read if you like fantasy books, and the series develops some interesting ideas. The gradual build-up of the plot is credible. Speaking as a Brit, some of the dialogue rather grates, but US readers might appreciate it more. However, the flaws which I have mentioned diminished my enjoyment of the whole, and made me feel that Morgan could have lavished a little more care on the production of the books as well as the imaginative aspects. I do intend to catch up on the conclusion of the series in time, so these flaws have not deterred me from carrying on.

These books were made available to me without charge but with no expectation of a review.

Scenes from a Life ABNA Excerpt now available for free download

Well, Amazon have now made available the ABNA Excerpts as free kindle downloads at the various international sites. For Scenes from a Life, navigate to one of:

On the Amazon sites you can preview the first couple of pages, or download in kindle format the Excerpt for free. The Excerpt for Scenes from a Life was about 3750 words long – the upper limit was 5000 words, but I wanted to end the Excerpt at an obvious section break. It represents part but not all of Chapter 1.

General Fiction ABNA logo

You do not need an actual kindle device to read it as there are kindle viewers for all kinds of other platforms such as PC, Mac and so on.

Like any other purchase on Amazon, you can add your own reviews of the Excerpt. It’s not very clear how audience reviews feed into the next stage – the main judging is done by staff from Publishers Weekly who have access to the entire manuscript now. However, in addition to this “Amazon customers can download, rate, and review Excerpts on, providing feedback to Amazon Publishing Editors about submissions”. So if anybody is motivated to write such a review, I would very much appreciate it. There is about a month for this stage of the process, until May 23rd or thereabouts, and the names of those going through to the semi-finals are announced around June 13th.

Amazon ABNA expert review comments

At some stage soon the excerpts for all the ABNA quarter-finalists will be published on – as soon as I know where I’ll post about this. Meanwhile the two review comments by (anonymous) ABNA expert reviewers have appeared. Here are some highlights…

  • We learn so much about the life and work of Makty. I found it very interesting…
  • Elegantly written and full of rich back story about Makty and how he’s fashioned his current existence…
  • On a line level, this is one of the strongest pitches I have read…

The full review comments follow… at this stage the reviewers were only exposed to the “Excerpt”, ie the first 3750 or so words (rather less than the first chapter). At the next stage then (so I understand) the general public gets to see the “Excerpt”, and the reviewers the whole lot.

  1. First reviewer
    • What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?
      We learn so much about the life and work of Makty. I found it very interesting …not only how he worked at decorating the tombs but also his life style i.e. how he, although he worked hard and was very frugal, still chose to move on to a new location after not staying too long in any one place.
    • What aspect needs the most work?
      Maybe it would have been even more interesting if we had gotten even a hint as to where we were heading and not so much detail of Makty’s painting etc.
    • What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?
      I found it very interesting and, although I would have preferred to have at least of a vague idea of what was coming, I believe it would ultimately turn into a very good story. I also learned some things about tombs it never occurred to me to wonder about.
  2. Second reviewer
    • What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?
      Elegantly written and full of rich back story about Makty and how he’s fashioned his current existence. The author does a good job of toggling back and forth between past and present action, making us feel as though much more has actually happened in this chapter than actually does. Makty’s strange dream plants just enough of a seed that we can see conflict is on the horizon. His nomadic lifestyle and desire for space and movement also complicate his character, deepening a character otherwise defined by his work. Lots of potential in the the scope and historicity of the work.
    • What aspect needs the most work?
      I mentioned not a lot happens already, but really, not much happens. Outside of the dream, I’m not sure I see a true hook. This is a chapter full of throat clearing and set up. Nothing wrong with that, but the lede is buried under an awful lot of information and description, mostly Makty ruminating, ruminating some more, and then slightly re-calibrating. Without other characters, dialogue, or a shift in scene, I found it hard to stay closely with Makty’s thoughts throughout the chapter. Give this guy something else to ping himself off of, and I think this chapter opens up and breathes a little better.
    • What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?
      On a line level, this is one of the strongest pitches I have read. This author has a sense of what he’s doing, even if I’m not as engrossed by the writing as I could be. I worry about audience with this piece. Who is the market? Is it for people who value character driven stories or historical fiction? A modern novel or more fabelistic? Movement and the journey the author promises in the pitch will be key. ACTION will be key. This excerpt is certainly well crafted enough to demand further attention, especially given its superior style.

Schematic map - the area around Waset (modern Luxor)