Beyond The Shadows

The grimdark fantasy anthology Beyond The Shadows is now live on Amazon. There’s been a great initial response to the release, with positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

There are 15 stories in the anthology, including my own, Stiff’s Standoff. I’m now a third of the way through the book myself and I’m impressed with the variety of the stories that I’ve read so far. I’m also surprised it’s such a HUGE book – I’ve taken a picture of the paperback which gets across how many words we collectively put out!

Beyond The Shadows on my bookshelf

The eBook version has a new release price of 0.99 until the end of the month, when it will go up to 3.99, so now is a great time to get it.


Introducing Lothar ‘Stiff’ Sauer

When the editor of Beyond The Shadows gave the writers some direction for the anthology, he suggested a ‘grimdark’ tone. If you’re new to this term, this is used to denote the relatively recent crop of books whose characters can be described as ‘morally grey or ambiguous’; which forego the traditional good vs evil storylines of fantasy for worlds which are more realistic, or cynical, depending on your outlook. Some of the most well known writers awarded this label are GRR Martin, Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence.

While my current series has some elements of grimdark, it sits more squarely with the traditional fantasy blueprint of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. So my story for the anthology, Stiff’s Standoff, introduces an entirely new scenario with new characters. The main character, Lothar ‘Stiff’ Sauer, isn’t trying to save the world. He’s the leader of a small mercenary group (four of them, including himself) trying to make some money, competing against better leaders with bigger crews.

‘Come on, Stiff,’ said Peter. ‘There’s seven of us here. All professionals. We’ve been preparing for days. What have you got? A fat archer, a psychopath, an old man supping too much beer, and you’ve somehow blundered into a score. You’ve always been sensible. Known when to take a risk and when to back off.’

Patronising shit, thought Lothar, feeling himself rile up. Since when do I take advice from him?

‘I’ll give you 50 pieces for your trouble, Stiff,’ said Anke, making it sound generous. ‘You turn a tidy profit for a day’s work, everyone gets to leave with their reputation intact.’

Now she was doing it. Trying to buy him off for spare change. But Lothar knew something was up. He knew Peter and Anke plenty enough to tell that. Both trying a little too hard to appear nonchalant.

Fantasy characters can tend towards the heroic and the invincible. Lothar is neither – he is an ordinary man in an unpleasant world. He’s just trying to survive in it.

‘What a shithole,’ he murmured, looking around.

He saw a collection of wooden shacks, leaning against each other, on either side of the two roads that met here. The only substantial building was the church, set in its own grounds on the north-east edge of the village. He smiled to himself bitterly. Poor fuckers the world over kept themselves poor by giving all the spare money they had to the Church. It was the ultimate long odds gamble of the desperate and the hopeless.

Footsteps behind. He knew them to be Mirko’s.

‘Shithole,’ said a gravelly voice.

Lothar nodded. He considered the wooden shacks and the people who lived inside.

‘What possesses someone to decide to live their life in a place like this?’ he asked.

‘Because the place they’ve left is worse.’

To survive in this world, Lothar has developed a personal motto. Don’t get into something you can’t get out of. When temptation comes his way, will he stick to his motto and survive another day? Or will he get dragged into a situation from which he can’t escape?

Beyond The Shadows is set to be released on 5th January, featuring 15 short to mid-length stories.

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

Mark Lawrence has been one of the biggest names in Fantasy for a while, so it was well past time I got round to reading him. I’ve come close a couple of times, even buying his books for other people with the intention to borrow them when they had finished with them (what? You don’t do that?), but for various reasons they didn’t work out until I picked up my own copy of Red Sister. I’m not a prolific reader, but there’s no doubt that this book shot to to the top of my ToBeRead pile because of this man’s inexplicable generosity in support of indie fantasy writers through the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) competition that he founded.

Not having read his stuff before, I had few expectations, though those who follow Fantasy will know that Mark is strongly linked to the Grimdark subgenre. As the name suggests, this is associated with adult themes, dark or flawed characters and a depressing/realistic/cynical (depending on your point of view) world view. So before I started reading, I was interested to find out how dark things would get. And…I was a little surprised.

 

Characters

Lawrence is known for his single character led writing and Red Sister is no exception. Front and centre we have Nona, a young (9?) girl raised in poverty and ignorance but claimed by the Sweet Mercy Convent due to the potential of the powers she exhibits. The story of a child with magic powers is hardly a new one in Fantasy and it’s easy for the reader to settle in to a familiar journey. Nona herself is great company, Lawrence mostly succeeds in looking at the world with a child’s eyes and this child is brave and admirable as perhaps only children can be. I find it hard to imagine a reader who wouldn’t warm to her. And this was one reason for surprise – this is surely a departure from Lawrence’s Grimdark roots, making it a more mainstream title. I’m not sure that Nona displays a serious character flaw, does anything reprehensible or is faced with a decision where she doesn’t automatically take the heroic path. Maybe this is because she is a child, maybe it’s because she’s a girl. Maybe these tough choices come in the later books. But for now, she is simply likeable. Nona doesn’t like herself, this is true. The nature of her powers means that she considers herself a monster, in fact. But the reader doesn’t.

The supporting cast is largely made up of the students and teachers at Sweet Mercy Convent. She makes friends here but also has enemies, mostly outside the safety of the Convent. It’s mostly a female cast, which makes the story interesting and distinctive at times. But for me, it didn’t always make it distinctive enough. Two words loomed large while reading this. Harry Potter. It was hard not to compare. ‘Abbess Glass is Dumbledore’, ‘Sister Apple is Snape’ my brain kept telling me. And this is totally unfair, because the characters were well drawn and not copies by any means. But there it is nonetheless. If you want a Grimdark Harry Potter, of course, then you’re in heaven right now.

 

Worldbuilding

The world of Abeth has some interesting sci-fi elements. Four races arrived here, by spaceship. Each race had certain powers – one giants (strength), two magic, one speed (this race is called hunska). These powers have largely died out amongst humans, but some people have retained them in smaller or greater measure – and, in effect, this makes such characters magical. Nona, we soon realise, has hunska powers. Some people may even have more than one of these 4 powers, making them extra special. All this is fine, and for those who like an explanation for magic in fantasy, this one is satisfying and has its own logic and rules. It means that the Convent can offer different classes to suit these different abilities.

Abeth is also distinctive because it exists in a solar system where the sun is dying. Huge walls of ice have enclosed most of the planet. All that is left is a thin corridor in the middle, where the ‘Focus’ moon passes and heats the terrain enough to keep the ice at bay. It’s an interesting idea and by the end of the book starts to drive the plot, presumably taking an even bigger role in the sequels. On the other hand, despite this crisis the parts of Abeth we see are surprisingly ordered. The kind of dystopian chaos one would assume a dying sun would engender happened a long time ago, turning the technological clock backwards, but humans have managed to come through fairly civilised. There is an Empire with currency, a prison system and all the other trappings of civilisation. There are convents and academic institutions and a universal church. It’s a familiar fantasy world despite the unique setting.

 

Plot

[Reviewer’s Disclaimer: I have spent many years as a teacher and this may have affected the following section of this review]

Red Sister is a Coming of Age story set in a school/convent. When I realised this my reaction was ‘meh’. And this is purely personal. But these stories are so dominant in literature right now, plus they are not really my thing anyway, that I struggle to get excited by them. Children’s/teen books, whether fantasy or otherwise, are dominated by the school setting. And in Fantasy, it’s not just Harry Potter. Most books that I have read recently and reviewed here follow this format. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss has a magic school at is heart. Blood Song by Anthony Ryan has a military type school. I understand the appeal and these books are incredibly popular. But I hanker after something different.

Otherwise, the plot chugs along well and there is a neat climax of themes at the end while leaving room for Book Two. Lawrence knows what he is doing and is in full control of the story from beginning to end.

 

Overall, this is a great book with no weaknesses that looks set to develop into a great series. The sequel, Grey Sister, has now hit the stores. I will be reading on, there’s no doubt about that. Now, how do I get my hands on that copy of Prince of Thorns that I bought myse…-cough- that I bought someone as a gift?