City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

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City of StairsCity of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like any detective novel, City of Stairs starts off with a doubled narrative. The first is the story of the investigation itself; the second is the story that is uncovered–a story of secret jealousies, agendas, and betrayals that led to the murder in question. The first narrative is the uncovering of the second.

But while City of Stairs starts off like any detective novel, the second narrative quickly transitions away from the murder toward the history of the ruined city that comprises the setting of the story.

This city was once the capital of a world-spanning empire, backed by the might of mysterious and powerful Divinities. Then, one of their conquered slave states developed a weapon against the gods and, upon their deaths, the empire was not just overthrown but also physically ruined.

Who murdered the beloved old professor looking into the forbidden history of those Divinities? What are the former conquerors plotting to overthrow their new masters? Why did the gods help one people but not the others?

Into this mess comes a bookish, brilliant, bespectacled woman, Shara, who is the preeminent spy in her young empire, along with her secretary, a huge, ass-kicking nihilist named Sigurd.

Sigurd will be a fan favorite, I predict; he nicely fulfills Jim-Butcher-like levels of Exaggeration (reference: http://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/1698.html ) but it’s Shara who carries things. Her voice–analytical, disillusioned, detached emotionally except when she’s not–makes the book work.

However, this is a book about stories, and they’re stories that the characters tell each other. While there are some action scenes, much of the text is taken up with puzzling over old myths and secret history, so it’s talky. In a good way, but still.

Anyway, this is the first of Robert Jackson Bennett’s books I’ve read, and it’s terrific. You should read it, too.



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In which I invite another author to kiss my fat ass

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Usually, when I see a stupid thing on the internet, I laugh and maybe tweet about it. “Look! Someone spilled a pile of dumb on the internet!” Then we’ll all share a laugh together and I’d go back to blocking “Emergency Cat” accounts. If I think the source of this particular piece of blockheadery is a pernicious sort who is actively courting the attention, I won’t bother.

But some things are annoying enough that I feel moved to blog about it. Here’s the deal: When Guardians of the Galaxy came out, a lot of people were talking about how upbeat it was, as though it was this bright, cheerful thing. They were also contrasting it favorably with Man of Steel, an objectively terrible movie no matter how thrilling the special effects were.

Me, I didn’t think GotG was all that upbeat. In fact, I thought it was pretty dark (without being grimdark) and said so.

You don’t have to click through on that link. Basically, I embedded a Kameron Hurley tweet about the movie’s success being the “sound of grimdark being over”, then I talked about the actual darkness in GotG, why it was a welcome contrast with MoS, and the piece ended like this:

So, don’t expect GotG to be light, cheerful fare. It has more than its share of darkness. The difference is that it also has clever, dedicated protagonists who are capable of prevailing in the end.

That’s it. That’s the whole deal.

I don’t know how that got interpreted as As fantasy authors Kameron Hurley and Harry J. Connolly observed, the success of Guardians of the Galaxy heralds “the sound of grimdark being over. over on io9. If I’d agreed with Hurley’s tweet, I would have just retweeted it, not written a fucking blog post. Anyway, I tried to clarify this in a comment over there, but it didn’t go and I’m too busy to fuss with blog comment systems.

And now I have this shit, in which Richard K. Morgan links to my post (and only my post) and responds to it as thought I’m personally calling for the end of the grimdark subgenre.

As anyone who’s read the actual post (rather than the io9 summary) would know, I’m not. Maybe Kameron Hurley would like it to go away forever; I’m not her so I wouldn’t know. Personally, I’m happy to see grimdark on the shelves, because I read it. Not only that, but anyone who’s picked up my short fiction collection knows I write it, too.

In fact, I have never felt the urge to call for the end of any genre. Some I read. Some I don’t. It’s no big deal. When I go into the supermarket, I see vanilla AND chocolate ice cream in the freezer. I get to choose the one I like and leave the other for someone else to buy, maybe. I don’t require everyone to want what I want. In fact, I don’t really care what you like (unless it’s my books, in which case why not buy some, please).

But all I have to do is point out that MoS was deeply muddle-headed in its attempt to be serious and grim, and suddenly I want to take away people’s favorite ice cream.

What is it with that shit, anyway? Why do these guys reflexively read any criticism at all–even of something dumb like MoS–and interpret it as “You’re trying to ban something I love!”

Anyway, that’s the stupid thing, what I would normally just tweet about for a laugh. This is the annoying bit.

Is this a constituency so totally bombproof resistant to cultural shift that they want to go back to a fictionscape dreamed up in the middle of the last century, back when women and coloured folks still knew their place, the cop on the beat was a lovely cuddly (white) guy, war was a glorious endeavour undertaken against dastardly foreign foes, and real men walked like John Wayne?

Hey, Mr. Morgan, you can kiss my fat ass for this. And if this wasn’t meant to be addressed to me directly, you should have linked to someone else at the start of your post.

Anyway, I’m sure regular readers (both of you) will be startled to discover that grimdark is totes progressive. You know those olden days, when everyone’s art was all about capital G good and capital E evil, no nuance need apply!

Please.

For the record, the only work of Mr. Morgan’s that I have read was a trade collection of a Black Widow comic, which I thought was excellent. In fact, I thought it should be the basis of the character’s first movie. The blog post he wrote is still as dumb as a sack of ice cubes.

Also, the short fiction piece of my own I consider grimdark is the title story in my collection: “Bad Little Girls Die Horrible Deaths” even though no girls (bad or otherwise) die in the story. #spoilers

Yes, I realize that last link is basically an invitation for punitive one-star reviews. So be it.

The awful stink of writer desperation

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Last night my wife received an email from a fellow she sort of knows. He’s a fantasy writer, apparently, and after hearing that she’s married to me, he pressed her to take a copy of his novel (which comes with supplemental materials, it seems).

My next sentence will have even more commas.

There’s a lot of calling people “friends” and more than a few claims that Goodreads, et al, make certain books more visible based on an algorithm that blah blah blah. Seriously, do these sites not also sell co-op? I don’t actually know if they do or not; I’ve always just assumed.

Anyway, the whole thing reeks of desperation, it’s awkwardly written, and it makes the deadly mistake of (politely) ordering people around. That’s why I’m going to address the rest of this post to the unnamed and unquoted indie author.

Yes, word of mouth is important. Yes, readers spreading the word about books they love does good things for those books. However, that word of mouth has to be done out of love. If a you’re relying on some sort of social obligation (“I’d better give Arlene’s new book four stars before I see her at the office on Monday…”) then everyone loses, because that reader is going to resent being recruited as a volunteer PR person, the review they write won’t be honest, and anyone fooled by it is going to be disappointed. That’s not what you want.

Look, I know it’s tough. I know it’s hard to get any kind of visibility, especially as an indie author. It’s hard to get reviews, or any sort of attention. It’s like shouting in a crowd of other shouting people.

You want to know the real secret here? It’s not about the marketing. It’s not about emails to acquaintances begging for reviews. It’s about three things: the book itself, your ability to identify the people who would like it, your ability to give them a reason to read a free sample.

If you can get those three things right, you don’t have to worry about the book too much. It will take off on its own. Breaking it down:

The book itself: This isn’t a question about whether your book is “good” or not. There’s no point in arguing that your book is good (which won’t stop people, but that’s beside the point here). Is the book a story that people love and want to share with their friends? Do they read it and then buy three copies to give as gifts?

If you’re not getting that kind of response, no marketing in the world is going to help you.

Your ability to identify the people who would like it: You know how much fantasy fiction my wife reads? None. Well, it used to be none before she got tangled up with me. Now she reads mine, but I don’t think that counts. Thing is, she’s not what you’d call a geek at all. She’ll see the movies because that’s fun mass entertainment. She’ll watch ARROW if they remember to include workout scenes. When she sits down with a book, she reads about non-fiction about education reform.

Seriously, that’s her thing. She’s a homeschooling parent, and she wants to do a good job. So pressing a fantasy novel into her hands will do nothing for you except waste your time.

Your ability to give them a reason to read a free sample: See, even if you can identify potential readers of your work, you need to pique their interest. You ought to be funny, or kind, or insightful. You should be out in the world, most likely in social media, sharing things that interest people. And right beside that, you have a bio that reads “I write books. Read a free sample here.”

That’s it. Yeah, there’s more to it, obviously, but those are the basics.

I understand how frustrating it is, but some choices can actively hurt your chances of success. Sending long emails to my wife is one of them.

Good luck.

Randomness for 8/11

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1) Gambit’s costume is completely ridiculous, so this guy made one. h/t James Nicoll.

2) If David Lynch directed Dirty Dancing. Video.

3) Black leather dragon backpack. I’d get this, but it would make the toddlers in the Starbucks cry.

4) What your favorite 80s band says about you. This is better than it has a right to be.

5) More dice shaming!

6) Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie: the same movie.

7) Was HP Lovecraft a good writer? Nick Mamatas makes the argument that he was.

Amazon launches assault on Hachette’s interns

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Okay. I’m going to deal with this quickly and I’ll be out of here.

Background: Last night Amazon sent an email to everyone who had published books through their Kindle Direct Program (KDP) and since I’m one of those authors (Buy My Books) it came to me, too. You can read the whole thing here.

It’s kind of weird. I mean, I do business with Amazon. I don’t do business with Hachette. However, Hachette isn’t releasing oddball press releases via email, nor are they sending out rallying cries to garner support. Some of their authors? Yeah. And it’s weird. The company themselves? Nope.

So, let’s linkfarm this shit:

Amazon says that George Orwell was against cheap books. Accurate or selective quoting? The answer will won’t surprise you. Unsurprisingly, this is what people are talking about, not whether Amazon is totally on your side, readers.

Should KDP authors be on Amazon’s side? Actually, higher ebook prices from big publishers helps indie authors. Why would I want to help Amazon bring their prices down to my level?

Like Chuck Wendig, I’m not terribly moved by the Authors United push.

Also like Chuck Wendig, I think Amazon’s latest press release is fucking ridiculous.

Why? Because they published the Hachette CEO’s email address and gave people a bunch of talking points to send him in an effort to make him cave on their negotiations.

Seriously. Let me state for the record that I am not going to spam anyone’s inbox for the sake of a big corporation. I wouldn’t spam someone’s inbox for a real life friend, so I’m definitely not doing it for Amazon.

Let me also state that anyone who thinks Hachette’s CEO is going to be skimming through those emails thinking “Hmm. SilverDragonLady211883 At Yahoo dot com makes a good point about her mother’s reading habits” is kidding themselves. The only people who’ll see these emails are the bored interns tasked with deleting them all.

I shouldn’t be surprised by this PR fail (after “human shields”) but I am. It’s incredibly unprofessional.

Amazon, get new PR people. Stop trying to be loved. You can’t be beloved by consumers and be Walmart at the same time. Choose between those options and live with the consequences.

UPDATE: I forgot to include this!

UPDATE 2: I’d seen the Authors United NYTimes profile, but not the big ad they purchased. Apparently, that ad includes Jeff Bezos’s email with a request that readers spam him. Uncool, AU.

Want to see the Chris McGrath art for book 2?

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Sure you do!

I just sent this out in a Kickstarter update, so now I can share it with you. Chris McGrath’s art work for The Way Into Magic, book two of The Great Way.

The Way Into Magic, Book 2 of The Great Way Cover

The Way Into Magic, Book 2 of The Great Way

I know, right?

I’ve talked before about searching for a cover artist to portray Cazia (a fifteen-year-old girl and the co-protagonist), and how few galleries feature female characters that weren’t sexualized. As much as I love the cover art for book 1, this image makes me really grateful to work with Chris on this.

Book 3 art is still hidden here in my vest pocket, to be unveiled later.

Need a GISHWES story?

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I’d never heard of GISHWES before this year, and only then because writers were complaining about an unexpected flood of emails asking for free stories.

So far, I’ve only received one request, which I fulfilled (the person who asked was very polite about it). Still, as I understand it, the stories don’t have to be unique, do they? They just have to be a story by a published author, right?

Here’s a short story for any GISHWESers having trouble finding authors to write something. It’s 139 words long.


Trumpets blared a fanfare, retainers lifted their pennants, and every eye turned toward the throne.

Misha Collins, wearing a brand-new trench coat, knelt on the gleaming marble and bowed his head.

The Queen tapped the flat of her sword on his shoulders. “Rise, Sir Misha.” Misha looked up, eyes shining with joyful tears.

The cheers of the crowd were cut off by the sound of a door slamming open. A second Misha, this one naked but for a strategically-placed bearskin hat, burst from a closet. “That’s an imposter!”

The kneeling Misha grinned and began to inflate like a balloon, tearing through his clothes. Tentacles and tusks sprouted from its body…. It was the Elopus, assuming its true form.

The creature pranced before the throne. “I’m Sir Misha! I’m Sir Misha!”

The Queen rolled her eyes and raised her sword high.


Hey, if you’re new here, why not take a look at my books. Twenty Palaces is the first book in my urban fantasy series and Bad Little Girls… is my newly-released short fiction collection (which means it’s cheap).

The series listed at the top of that page, The Great Way, has not been released yet.

Good luck with your scavenger hunt.

Another strike against Smashwords

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On July 8th, Smashwords said my short fiction collection would be distributed to Kobo’s ebook store. As of yesterday, that still hadn’t happened (just like last year). So, I canceled Smashwords distribution and uploaded directly through Kobo, which meant the books were available for sale in less than 12 hours.

Three and a half weeks: nothing. <12 hours: listed. There's no doubt that Smashwords is less useful all the time.

Yes, I could have done what I did in May '13, emailing customer support and asking them to straighten things out, but I'm not willing to do that every. Single. Time I put something in Smashwords's distribution channel. Too much bother.

Anyway, the book is now available on Kobo, too, for you international epub buyers.

Cover art for Bad Little Girls Die Horrible Deaths And Other Tales Of Dark Fantasy

Cover Art