Stockport Central Library, how I love you

Stockport Central Library, how I love you

I recently started using the ebook lending section of my local libraries, and in doing so made an interesting discovery. Having downloaded a book file, I quickly realised that I couldn’t read it, because it was the wrong file format. I read ebooks on a Kindle Fire, which uses Amazon’s exclusive .mobi format, whereas the library books were in the .epub format used by all other e-readers.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious that the library would use epub files. After all, a publicly funded service wasn’t going to use a proprietary file format that only works with one brand of e-readers, even a brand that has two-thirds of the market share. In Britain at least, public services are still meant to be about accessibility and providing an even playing field for different suppliers. And in keeping with that ethos, there was a way around my file format problem, through a browser-based reader that works on my Kindle Fire.

To me, this is also a sign of the future of e-books. Using an exclusive file format has helped Amazon fence its readers in, keeping them using its e-readers with its e-books through its online store. But through this slightly grasping, territorial approach to its market, Amazon has excluded itself from a big public service chunk of the market. As library e-book collections grow, and people get used to using them, this is likely to become a more important part of the market, given that it’s as easy to borrow an e-book as to buy one, and often significantly less costly.

By using epub, libraries may provide a larger service than making ebooks more accessible – they may help to prevent Amazon building a monopoly.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionI don’t get huge numbers of reviews, so I sometimes get over-excited when I receive one, especially one as glowingly positive as this recent review by Writerbee of By Sword, Stave or Stylus. To quote the start of the review, ‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ I really can’t complain about a review like that!

By Sword, Stave or Stylus is available as ebook via Amazon.

2901955081_8d6f4cb45f_zA good magic system or weird technology can really make a fantasy or steampunk setting. To try to do this better in my future writing, I’ve come up with five points to consider when creating such a system:

My Five Point Magic System Template

  1. Theme: What am I trying to do or express with this magic? Am I after something exciting, horrifying, humorous? Do I want to use it to explore love, art, vengeance, greed or some other issue? Whatever I pick, that will become prominent in any story using this system.
  2. Cost: All magic and technology has to have a cost. If it doesn’t then it becomes a limitless resource that lets users do whatever they want. So what’s the cost? Do users become corrupted? Do they have limited magical reserves they use up? Must they spill blood or dig up ghost rock to power their machines?
  3. Limitations: What can this magic do, and what can’t it do? Being clear on this stops it becoming a deus ex machina that resolves every story situation in unsatisfying fashion. Knowing the limits means you can set them up early in your story.
  4. Who can do it? Usually, only a select group of people can access the magic of a setting. So who are these people? Is it everyone who trained at the University of Making Things Go Bang? Is it all ginger people? Do you have to be blessed by the Empress to have magical power?
  5. Rules: Points 2-4 are the most important rules for a magic system, but there will be others. Circumstances in which it does and doesn’t work. Taboos around its use. How it looks when it happens. Knowing the rules gives you limitations to explore, boundaries to encourage creativity, and are what separate a system from just hand waving away your characters’ problems.

How About You?

Can you think of other things I should consider when creating magic and technology systems for fiction? Do you have your own list? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Fantasy War is Hell

Posted: June 10, 2015 in Uncategorized

I’ve noticed a trend recently for fantasy stories that explore just how awful war can be. From the gruelling swamp warfare of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Guns of the Dawn, to the monstrous horrors and civilian casualties of Attack on Titan, to the acts of brutality, cowardice and deception in Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes, fantasy creators are exploring the dark side of war.

It’s quite a contrast with traditional fantasy, in which there are clear good and evil sides, causes worth fighting and dying for, and warriors mostly experience courage, heroism and camaraderie. Tolkien’s war for Middle Earth this is not.

Like literary and historical fiction before it, fantasy fiction seems to have become more willing, even eager, to explore the dark side of warfare. It’s a trend I find pleasing, as I think it makes for more interesting stories and more realistic characters. But I wonder if it will last, or whether we’ll see a backlash and a return to the dominance of old-fashioned tales of war as a righteous endeavour.

I suppose only time will tell.

I’ve been looking forward to reading Guns of the Dawn since listening to its author Adrian Tchaikovsky read from it at FantasyCon last year. Combining black powder fantasy with a war story and an exploration of gender roles, it hits a lot of themes that interest me. And as it turned out, it was even more interesting than I expected.

Revolutionary War is Hell

Guns of the Dawn is set in a fantasy world with late 18th century technology and politics, in which one nation has overthrown its monarchy in a bloody revolution and its neighbour is invading in defence of the old order. As the war against revolutionary Denland grinds brutally on, neighbouring Lascanne is running out of soldiers to fight with. Emily Marshwic becomes part of a first wave of female conscripts, desperately trying to defend their country from their regicidal neighbours.

Except that, as the cover says, ‘the first casualty is always the truth’, and the rights and wrongs of this conflict are far from clear.

Half the book’s action takes place in a brutal battle for control of a stretch of swamp. It’s a good example of fantasy world building that draws from different parts of history, with the technology of the Napoleonic Wars, the exhausting jungle warfare of Vietnam, and the issues of mass conscription that marked the First World War. This jamming together of historical elements shows one of the great advantages of using fantasy over historical fiction – looking at how elements from different historical periods might combine. It’s a great piece of world building, and really hammers home the horrors of war.

Now for Some Jane Austen

The dark experience at the heart of the book is made all the more striking for being framed by Emily’s pre- and post-war experience. Hers is a genteel life like something out of Jane Austen, leaving her unprepared to become a soldier. As well as making the war all the darker by contrast, this acts as a reminder that such a privileged life is often made possible only by the suffering and struggles of others.

Jane Austen’s characters existed in the same world where Napoleon was conquering most of Europe. These two elements, often seen apart, combine to make a fascinating contrast.

Dawn of the Guns

There are plenty of other things about this book that I could enthuse about. The characters follow familiar tropes, but are given enough depth to make them enjoyably familiar rather than tedious clichés. The way magic fits into the social and political hierarchy hints at some fascinating possibilities. The atmosphere of the the military campaign, and the psychology of people unable to face the truth, are brought vividly to life.

But one of my favourite details is a technological one. During the fighting in the swamps it becomes clear that the Denlanders have special guns which are giving them an advantage. When the truth eventually comes out it’s a clever use of real historical technology, showing how researching the real world can make imagined worlds stronger.

Some scenes from my book Guns and Guano, immortalised in Lego…

Governor Cullen is terribly excited to take his guests hunting in Hakon's wild jungle. But what else is lurking out here?

Governor Cullen is terribly excited to take his guests hunting in Hakon’s wild jungle. But what else is lurking out here?

Dirk Dynamo would rather be tracking clues to the Great Library.

Dirk Dynamo would rather be tracking clues to the Great Library. Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms, on the other hand, just wants a chance to fire his experimental gun.

Surprise bear! Can Dirk save Governor Cullen from this wapred monstrosity?

Surprise bear! Can Dirk save Governor Cullen from this warped monstrosity?

To find out what happens next, download Guns and Guano as a free ebook via Amazon and Smashwords.

The minute they had faces, these guys became more real

The minute they had faces, these guys became more real

One of the biggest mistakes I made writing the early drafts of Guns and Guano was being vague. When I started out I wasn’t confident in getting an American protagonist right, so I fudged his accent and was vague about his background. But such evasion is not getting it right, as became clear the minute I got the book near beta readers. Specificity is what makes characters real, because real people and places are specific and detailed.

You can write something in a vague way from the start and then fix it later. But if you’re doing that then why not write something specific, which you might stick to later? You’ll be no worse off. Pick a name for that random bodyguard, decide which town the action happens in, know which side of the war your character fought on (yes I tried to fudge that, no it did not work). Even with accents, pick one, do a few minutes’ research and then go with it. You’ll still be doing better than my original cowboy-impressionist generic American.

Better to take a risk on a detail and maybe get it right than to be vague and be sure of going wrong.