Monday, 31 December 2012

5 Minutes with Joey Pinkney

Another short but sweet interview, this time conducted by the delightful Joey Pinkney.

This was a nice surprise, as Mr. Pinkney actually contacted me rather than vice versa.

The 5 questions (and 5 answers) can be found here.

Must say that marketing/publicising stuff is one of my least favourite parts of writing, and it's a very nice surprise when a chap wanting to do a review/interview comes to me rather than the other way around.

For more interviews, either conducted by me or with me answering the questions, click here.


Thursday, 27 December 2012

Things to look forward to in 2013

Now that the year is almost done, it's time to look forward to what we can expect in 2013.

One game that I'm really looking forward to is The Last Of Us. It's a zombie apocalypse game, and, to be honest, I can take or leave an apocalypse or zombies. However, the real reason I'm excited about The Last Of Us is that the core of the game seems to be the relationship between the protagonist (a fortysomething man who may be a military veteran) and his charge/sidekick, a girl of about 14 he's smuggled out of a secure facility. A pseudo-father/daughter relationship is pretty unusual for a game, and the voice-acting, from the clips I've seen, sounds tremendous. Not only that, the game appears extremely well-designed, the combat looks visceral and gruesome and the zombies aren't run-of-the-mill 'BRRAAAAIIIIINNNSSS' sorts. It comes from Naughty Dog, makers of the Uncharted games, but will strike a more gritty/realistic note. It should come out in May 2013, and is PS3 exclusive.

In March Tomb Raider, the unhelpfully titled reboot of Lara Croft's series, comes out for the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. Miss Croft has taken quite a spanking from Nathan Drake, so this game may mark the resurgence or loss of a series that's been around for ages (in gaming terms). It goes back to Lara before she was a seasoned adventurer and killer of endangered species, and will feature a reasonable amount of survival gameplay. I can take or leave Tomb Raider (I've probably played about three of them over the years), but the game does look like it has potential.

A day before Tomb Raider, on 4 March, the second season of Game of Thrones comes out on DVD/blu-ray. It's still bloody annoying to have to wait so long, but I'll be pre-ordering this for certain. The first series was hugely enjoyable, and the DVD extras (especially the commentaries) were surprisingly good.

March also sees the release of God of War: Ascension. It tells the tale, which I have a feeling includes quite a lot of violence, of how Kratos became the Ghost of Sparta, and his betrayal by Ares. It's PS3 exclusive and will feature the first multi-player offering of the series, although I must admit I find multi-player gaming as tempting as multi-player colonoscopies. A while ago I read an article indicating that Kratos would be slightly softer than his later self, and less prone to do things like murdering women. We'll have to wait and see if that's the case.

A possible release (Autumn 2013 is the present forecast) is Dragon Age III: Inquisition. Origins, the first game, was very popular, although DA2 was less so due to an obvious lack of time that led to environments being very heavily reused and music copied and pasted a lot from Origins. However, the Arishok was cool. Inquisition has had far more development time, and, according to one report, a single dungeon in it is larger than the whole of DA2. The game will take place in Orlais, and the plot is largely guessable if you played DA2 (big civil war: sort it out). Inquisition has a job on if it's to stand comparison with the likes of Skyrim, but it could be a very good game.

I'm hoping that Sworn in Steel (Tales of the Kin 2) by Douglas Hulick will be out next year. I think it was originally pencilled-in for this year, but it got pushed back. The first book was enjoyable and included some fascinating lore/world-building, and I've been wanting to read the follow-up ever since.

Another possibility is the next book in the Stormlight Archive, by Brandon Sanderson. The first book, Way of Kings, was a rather enormous book that I absolutely raced through, and I'm hoping that we get the second instalment this year. A word of warning, though. The Stormlight Archive is set to be a mega-series (akin to A Song of Ice and Fire, or Wheel of Time) so it's possible that later books might have long waits between them. However, Mr. Sanderson's a pretty snappy writer.

Using exhaustive and cunning research techniques (I googled it after nothing showed on Amazon) I've discovered more good news, with an October release planned for The Ace of Skulls, the fourth book in the Tales of the Ketty Jay series, by Chris Wooding. I really like this series. It has an unorthodox world, with approximately Victorian/early 20th century technology mingled with a more scientific approach to magic. There's also a great blend of drama and humour, which can sometimes be missing from fantasy.

Incidentally, if you got an e-Reader for Christmas and want to fill it with reasonably priced (free to $2.99) independent books, there's a fine list here (including Bane of Souls, a sure sign the list is of high quality):

Last but not least, I hope to have Journey to Altmortis published this year. There's still much work to be done, but, with luck, it'll be out in the first or second quarter of 2013.


Friday, 21 December 2012

Judging a book by its cover (and title)

Never judge a book by its cover.

Sounds like good advice, for both books and most other things, and yet it's also highly misleading for authors/readers. We do judge books by their covers. In fact, one of my reviews specifically stated that a part of the reason behind the chap buying it was because of the cover (and also title).

Judging a book by its cover is like judging someone by their appearance. We probably shouldn't do it, but the blonde girl wearing a bikini will get more attention than the unwashed fifty year old man swigging gin.

The title is similar. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but as The Simpsons suggested they'd probably be less popular if they were called crapweeds.

Tip for new authors: try and get the cover done much earlier than you think you'll need it. This'll ensure any issues with slow production or difficulty finding an artist won't delay the book's release.

Covers generally need to work in several ways. They need to look good full-size, but also as a thumbnail. Less important, but still helpful, is if they look good in black and white (for an eReader screen). A good cover can help gather more interest, which in turn leads to more purchases and hopefully reviews/word-of-mouth promotion.

By coincidence, after I wrote most of this but before I put it on the blog, I got an e-mail from a potential reviewer asking how gruesome Bane of Souls is (there are one or two grim bits but mostly it's not gruesome) because of the cover. Something for me to consider for future covers.

Personally I found the title of Bane of Souls trickier than the cover idea. You don't want to spoil your plot with the title, and at the same time it's best to be distinctive whilst making it plain the sort of thing that can be expected.

Tip for new authors: try and avoid very generic terms as titles. Otherwise, when people try searching for your work they'll get a massive list of results and may have difficulty finding your book.

Finding an artist did take me a while, but I was lucky to get one whose work I not only really like but whom I get along with very well too. (Lee Yoong, whose work can be found here: ). I searched Deviant Art, and there are lots of good artists on there (when asking about commissioning a piece check and, if necessary, ask to ensure they do commercial work. Otherwise you might get far down the track only for the artist to realise it's commercial and for them to reluctantly stop work on it, wasting your time and theirs).

Happily, artists tend to be rather more prompt than agents when accepting or rejecting work. Of the ones who got back to me, just about all of them did so within a week (and most within a day or two).

The cover and title are superficial compared to a hundred thousand words, but they're also far more noticeable and can be key to making potential readers into actual ones.


Friday, 14 December 2012

An interview with Paul Dorset

Paul Dorset asked the questions and I provided the answers. Click on the link to find out just what I can do without using my hands [although, having written that, I'm not sure if that'll put off more people than it'll entice…]

It's available for your reading pleasure here:

I still plan on doing more interviews (where I ask the questions as well as ones where I answer them) next year. I enjoyed thinking up hopefully interesting things to ask Toby Frost and Terry Mancour, and their interviews can be found on the Interviews tab immediately below the picturesque banner.


Monday, 10 December 2012

The Butcher's Bill

Lots of fantasy takes place in incredibly dangerous worlds. Tyrants and dragons abound, villains and varlets are commonplace, and heroes (or anti-heroes) struggle to survive.

Or do they?

The questions of how many characters of importance to kill off and whether or not very major characters should be killed are not easy ones to answer.

Killing off a character brings their part in a story (usually) to a dramatic and permanent close, and can either make a story all the more enthralling or irritate the reader to a significant degree. Particularly in series, killing characters can be something that writers are often loathe to do, as it permanently removes someone to whom the readership has hopefully become emotionally attached.

But, if the world is dangerous and the adversaries are deadly, how credible is it to have everyone survive with nothing but flesh wounds?

Credibility in fantasy can be tricky, as it often involves suspending disbelief when it comes to dragons and magic and elves. However, I think a key part of a believable fantasy world is having credible, realistic characters and people who survive every danger are incredible.

Killing off significant figures presents a great opportunity for writers as well as terminating (hopefully) entertaining characters. When major characters die it instils a sense of uncertainty about whether or not others will live and gives subsequent violent scenes a greater edge of danger.

It's important that death fits the story and isn't included purely for shock value. It has to at least make sense and be plausible, if not actually meaningful.

Sometimes a plot also demands that someone not wearing a red Star Trek uniform gets killed. War is the most obvious example, and because Bane of Souls revolves around one or more murderers I wanted to make sure that it didn't fall into the trap of having lots of murder victims but everyone connected with the plot/protagonist surviving.

I think it's also the case that a death can be a strong, character-defining moment. If the village idiot sacrifices his life to save a spoilt brat it can recast the idiot as a hero and set the brat on a new path.


Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Interview with Mia Darien

My first interview (as the interviewee rather than interviewer) is now up!
The lovely Mia Darien asked the questioned, and the interview can be found at:

I'm going to add this, and subsequent interviews where I answer rather than ask the questions, to the Interviews page at the top of the blog. On a related note, I'm still planning on doing more interviews where I ask the questions. I'll try and get a few done next year.


Sunday, 2 December 2012

Top 10 Books of 2012

These are all books that I've read and reviewed on this blog. They aren't in any particular order and links are provided to the full reviews.


Joe Abercrombie's one of my favourite authors, and I think this is the best book he's written to date. Red Country mingles the mood of the Wild West with a medievalesque civilisation, wrapped up in Mr. Abercrombie's trademark gritty gruesomeness. It's fantastically entertaining.

This is the second Shadows of the Apt book, and whilst I liked the first I thought it was a bit hit and miss. Dragonfly Falling, however, is very much a hit. The addition of several new characters and a wide-ranging, and engaging, story make it well worth reading.

Spellmonger is the first book in Terry Mancour's Spellmonger series, and tells the tale of an invasion that one man (the Spellmonger of the title) more than any other works to foil. It's tense and very well-written. (An interview with the author can be found here).

I could've picked any of the three parts of the Riyria Revelations but went for the last one because it was perhaps the most enjoyable. Can't spoil the plot, but Michael J. Sullivan does a great job of creating a coherent world and a very well integrated plot which covers three (or six, as each book has two parts) books. It never stutters and never ceases to be entertaining, and is great to read.

This is the first book, I think, by Douglas Hulick, and follows the misadventures of Drothe, a criminal seeker of knowledge who finds himself entangled in a scheme far beyond the usual nefarious plotting of the underworld. Mr. Hulick's world has a very interesting religious/power structure and the plot has a number of unexpected turns.

This was one of the earliest books I read this year but it was a definite for this list. I'd never read anything by Mr. Kay before and was greatly impressed by his style of writing and the world he'd created (sadly, I think it's only used in this one book). Romance is usually an area (in literary terms) I dislike, but even here the book's offering was very enjoyable to read.


I reviewed this very recently, and was quite taken by the unusual adoption of the present tense for a history book. Most parts are delightful to read, and some (the description of plague, for example) were quite brilliant. To get a flavour of Medieval England, this book provides an excellent introduction.

I deliberately read this book slowly, because I enjoyed it so much. Perhaps a smidgen slow at the start, Livy does a perfect job of capturing the mood (or the mood as it was suspected to have been several centuries later) of early Rome and charts, mostly accurately, the rise of the city and the fall of kings. The Rome covered in this period is not the all-conquering superpower of centuries later, but a strong yet challenged city state facing significant local rivals. It's extremely easy and enjoyable to read.

I knew sod all about Jugurtha and little about the rise of Marius until reading this book. The lack of historical sources means it's occasionally patchy, but the author always points out where sources fail and conjecture/varying theories fill the gap of fairly reliable evidence. The period covered is very interesting (and not one of the better known bits of Roman history) and the book's well worth reading.

This is a splendid collection of miscellany about the ancient world (mostly Roman and Greek, as you might expect) and covers the gamut from jokes to odd little anecdotes and lists of lesser known gods and various means of ancient transportation. As with his Legionary and Gladiator Unofficial Manuals, Philip Matyszak displays a witty sense of humour to accompany his in-depth historical knowledge.

Shameless self-promotion

I couldn't really do a list of books for the year whilst omitting my own. Bane of Souls came out around the middle of this year and tells the tale of Horst, a barbarian youth who finds himself conscripted by mages when visiting the city of Highford. Abandoned by his uncle and forbidden to leave on pain of death, he then learns the city is being terrorised by murders, and the culprits have a taste for dead mages…


Friday, 30 November 2012

Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PS3)

So, I finished the game in just over a week. Partly that's because it's of moderate length, and partly it's because I played it a lot.

Aliens have invaded and are killing people, the extra-terrestrial scum. You are the commander of XCOM, which is basically an elite global army. Supported by a German scientist, a Chinese engineer, an American military adviser and soldiers from around the world (who all have American accents) you must defend Earth, defeat the aliens and try and keep all your financially supportive nations onboard.


The game has a strategic aspect, which takes part in the XCOM base, and a tactical aspect, which happens on the various battlefields.

The base has lots of scope of development. It's subterranean, but slightly less than a quarter of it has actually been excavated and built upon at the start of a game. Adjacent facilities of identical/similar function (power generation, for example) confer bonuses, so if you plan ahead you get essentially free stuff. However, the costs of excavation increase as you dig further down.

Just about every sort of facility is useful in one way or another, making it tricky to decide what to build, and as space is strictly limited (as are funds) these decisions will drastically affect your style of play.

The player also has to decide what to research, build and improve using the labs, workshops and foundry. This will affect how well equipped your soldiers and fighters are, and could make the difference between success and failure. Losing battles and having your planes/satellites shot down will only increase panic and could prompt your financial backers to pull out of the XCOM project.

There's a real sense of crisis management, as you'll often be presented with difficult choices. Keeping all the nations together can be hard when you're offered a choice of three countries, each verging on terminal levels of panic, to rescue from alien incursion. Even on normal difficulty this isn't straightforward.

The tactical battles are usually challenging and almost always great fun. After graduating from rookie status soldiers are randomly assigned one of four classes. Heavies have machine guns and rocket launchers, and support units are ideal (once they get some promotions and corresponding perks) for healing your soldiers. Assault units are frontline fighters and the sniper, perhaps my favourite class, can wreak carnage over long distances.

Each class has a secondary weapon (pistol for all save the heavies, who get a rocket launcher) and can be outfitted with an optional fourth accessory-type item, a main weapon and armour. This, coupled with the variable perks picked upon promotion, mean that units of the same class can vary somewhat.


The music of the game does a perfectly decent job without being especially outstanding. However, as its job is strictly to provide a backdrop that's not too bad.

Voice acting is generally good. The three individuals (scientist, engineer and military) you see back at base are pretty well-voiced, and the soldiers likewise. However, some more variable accents for the soldiers would have been welcome.

Sounds effects are good, and some are excellent. I love the sizzle of lasers as they cook aliens, and even the bog-standard assault rifles have a nice thumping bass as they rattle off bullets.


There could be a little more variety in battlefields, such as having desert, semi-arid, mountainous or snowy places to play Kill The Alien in. However, there's a decent mix, and they're all graphically sound. The graphics of characters, weapons, armour and so on is solid or good, particularly given that most of the time on the battlefield you're presented with an isometric view rather than close-ups. When you do get a close-up (when a soldier kills or dies) then the graphics are sharp enough without being spectacular.

Sometimes there are issues with loading in textures, particularly noticeable for the Skyranger (transport plane) and the distant background as the Skyranger lands.

Bugs and Other Issues

In addition to the sometimes slow or absent texture loading, the game could run more smoothly. Especially on battlefields with many aliens the picture sometimes became jerky and delayed.

It's also the case that the game (out of a single playthrough) froze on me perhaps half a dozen times. Certainly not game-breaking, but definitely a pain in the arse.

SHIVs seem slightly bugged. Most of the time they work fine, but if you put one in your squad for a mission and it doesn't show up, don't take it along. This happened to me once and on the battlefield it was a motionless humanoid shape. The game then froze. If the SHIV (or SHIVs) appear as normal they should work fine.

Longevity and replayability

A playthrough will only take something like 20 hours (it varies a bit because you can delay doing priority tasks). However, there is a constant feeling of progress during this time.

Replayability is very high, because the battlefields, even for key tactical missions, are randomised. So, no two battles are the same, and the difficulty is hard enough to be challenging but not so hard it's frustrating.


XCOM is a great game which offers good gameplay at the base and on missions, a strong challenge and the possibility of defeat (something often absent from modern games). It does have some bugs but these are relatively small and don't seriously detract from an addictive, entertaining and very well-designed game.

I don't usually give scores, but XCOM: Enemy Unknown would get 9/10 from me.


Monday, 26 November 2012

Review: The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, by Ian Mortimer

The book takes the unorthodox approach of writing in the present tense about Medieval England (which, for the purposes of this book, means the 14th century). As the writer states he intended, this helps to make the description of the past more immersive and sympathetic.

Mr. Mortimer writes of a wide range of areas and whilst there's enough depth to give a good feel for a certain topic (travelling, for example) the book is not burdened with excessive detail and is easy to read throughout.

The writing style is light and straightforward, and, despite not knowing much of this period, I never felt lost with strange technical terms. Whenever an odd term or one which has a different meaning in the modern world crops up it's explained simply and concisely.

The only slight issue I had in terms of information was that there was very little about the armour of knights, or suchlike. The book is about life in England rather than war overseas (or at home), but it still felt like a small missed opportunity.

As might be expected I found some chapters more interesting than others. Travel was not my favourite, but the description of the physical and wider social/psychological impact of plague was absolutely fascinating. At its best the book was absolutely enthralling, and the chapters (including law) that I found less appealing were nevertheless well-written.

Overall, the book paints an intriguing and enjoyable picture of what life was like about seven centuries ago. I'd recommend this to anyone who wants to read about life in the Middle Ages, regardless of whether they know any history beforehand.


Monday, 19 November 2012

First Impressions: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PS3)

I didn't plan on buying this, but many people said it was fantastic and I happened to spy a copy for just £20, so buy it I did.

Even more surprisingly, it had the colour pack, or whatever it's called, in, which enables greater customisation of soldiers. Because of a wonky internet connection I played initially without that DLC, and can report that it's as DLC should be: it adds a little, but only superficially. To be honest, the colour and styles of hair don't add much, although it'd nice being able to colour co-ordinate snipers, heavies and so on.

So, in the four hours or so I've played XCOM, has it met those lofty expectations?

Yes, in a word.

Unlike some strategy games there is actual strategy as well as a tactical level of gameplay. XCOM is split between the base and the various battlefields you visit. Both aspects of the game are great, in very different ways.


The story is about as old school as they come. Aliens are invading, the swine, and the world has united to kill them. They've found a handsome devil (the player) to lead the charge and… that's about it as far as story goes. However, this isn't an RPG and the premise of the game works very well.

Gameplay - Base

The base is underground, and features a range of basic starting facilities (a lab, barracks etc). The base operates on a grid basis, with excavation and access lifts required to free up more space for brand new facilities or copies of existing ones (to speed up research or provide sufficient power for the base).

The base is the strategic part of the game. There's never quite enough resources to get everything you want, whether it's making new weapons, buying new fighters for the hangar or expanding the base itself.

In addition, the base is where you get given missions, when they crop up. Each country has a certain threat/panic level, and when this reaches the maximum they pull out of the XCOM project and stop supplying funds. So, when you have a choice of missions, as often happens, and can only attend one you need to consider the difficulty, the potential reward and the threat level of the country in question. Rewards vary, including scientist/engineers, a veteran soldier or money.

The base is extremely well-balanced. Almost every facility seems useful in and of itself and it can be very hard to decide just what should be bought. Keeping all the plates spinning regarding the threat level of the various countries is challenging too.

Gameplay - Battlefield

This is the tactical part of the game. A squad of 4 (initially) soldiers go on a mission to a specific battlefield. Most of the time the mission is basically kill everything alien, but occasionally you have to rescue civilians or a VIP, stop a bomb going off, or find an alien craft your fighters shot down.

The battlefields are quite small but this works well. Difficulty, on normal, is higher than might be expected and presents a challenge (although I must admit I had to replay one mission after my best soldiers got absolutely slaughtered).

Initially the aliens are pretty soft, but before long they start unleashing rather more fearsome units and the difficulty rises as the game progresses. I'm playing on normal and it's a nice challenge.

Units begin as rookies, but after their first promotion they get a specialisation (sniper, heavy etc). After each promotion, of which there are several, they get a new perk (most of the time you get to choose from two options) most of which seem useful and some of which are great. A small downside is that the specialisation is random, so if you've got a dozen heavies and would love a sniper, you might end up with heavy number 13.

The differing unit types seem well-balanced, and each soldier can be individually outfitted with four varying items (armour, main weapon, sidearm and an auxiliary item such as a grenade or medical kit). It's a very simple but very good way of making soldiers slightly different.

The tactical gameplay works brilliantly. The only minor downside is that if your best soldiers get obliterated bouncing back with rookies would seem to be very hard, as the difficulty of missions can often be Difficult, Difficult and Very Difficult.


Not the core of a game like this, but the graphics are mostly good and occasionally very good. The globe/hologlobe in Mission Control looks great and all the items, soldiers, aliens and characters (whilst not rivalling a Final Fantasy cutscene) look distinctive and good.

Textures can sometimes take a while to load, but I think that's the only graphical issue.


There are a handful of characters in the base (engineer, scientist and military chap) who are well-acted, but the range of voices elsewhere is limited to American accents. It seems a bit odd that the game goes out of its way to include countries from every inhabited continent as members of XCOM but then has just US accents. However, the soldiers' voices tend to be good or at least passable. Sound effects are very good, and it's always fun listening to a laser beam terminate an alien.

Bugs and Other Issues

Sometimes on the battlefield the game can run a little slowly. There's also a persistent issue with soldiers/aliens being able to shoot through walls, which is a little weird.

I've read reviews of the game freezing (either for a short term or permanently) but this never happened to me (for reference, I'm using a 40GB fat PS3) and it seems to be a minority issue.

Rebuilding a squad if your A team get slaughtered is perhaps harder than it should be. Apart from that, the game seems extremely well-balanced.

The only way to get resources is when aliens attack, which makes proactively getting alien alloys and other stuff impossible. It'd be nice if there were an alternative way to get resources or lure aliens down somehow.

Conclusion (after a few days)

In a world swimming in shooters and games so easy a health and safety executive could've designed them to ensure nobody failed and suffers hurt feelings XCOM: Enemy Unknown is both a welcome change and a cracking game in its own right. I'm really looking forward to see how the rest of the game goes and then playing it a second time without making so many schoolboy errors.

I'll write a proper review after I've completed my first playthrough.


Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Beta Readers, Alpha Writers

A beta reader is someone whom an author sends writing to be critiqued. The basis for doing this is pretty simple: someone else can look at the writing with fresh eyes and pick up things that the writer might miss, and it can be useful to have another perspective.

Very many authors, including top writers, make use of beta readers. I don't (or, at least, not yet), but might change my mind in the future. The potential downside is that a beta reader has to be critical enough to pick up mistakes, from straightforward typos to problems with tone or continuity, without being hyper-critical. There's also the need for the author to be able to take criticism and to have confidence in their beta reader.

Note that a beta reader is not an editor or proof-reader, although their suggestions and comments might include thoughts on editing and the spotting of typos. It's not a paid job, it's a helping hand from someone who loves to read for someone who wants some (hopefully objective) feedback. Authors, perhaps obviously, sometimes do it for one another.

I recently did some beta reading for someone (for the first time), and found it quite a refreshing experience. It probably helped that the writing was easy to read and good, but it was far more relaxing and enjoyable than critiquing my own stuff (I managed to read 16,000 words on the day I got the file and sent back my thoughts the following day). The hardest problem I faced was that when critiquing my own writing I'm relentlessly negative (because good stuff can be left as is whereas bad stuff must be identified and changed/deleted) and it was a bit odd trying to remember to say nice things as well.

So, if you're a new author why not consider beta readers? At worst you can ignore silly suggestions, and at best they can offer great insight.


Saturday, 10 November 2012

Review: War in the Middles Ages by Philippe Contamine

I read a translation of Contamine's original book (which is in French), which was translated by Michael Jones. The book's a little pricey (£30), but I got a second hand copy for less than half that from Abebooks.

The scope of the book is pretty large, dealing with the military changes from the fall of the Roman Empire (in the West) until about the end of the 15th century. This is not a superficial book, as the social changes that underpin military capability and the clash between and within religions are also considered.

Reading of the way power dispersed and coalesced after the Empire fell and after Charlemagne was a revelation, and it was fascinating to read of how the Dark Age rulers sought to utilise the shattered remains of Roman thinking and structures to forge armies.

There is abundant detail, with every consideration backed up by a couple of examples (or more). Perhaps this is the Englishman in me, but it was striking to notice how the French author emphasised the importance of cavalry (specifically knights) in medieval warfare.

As society shifted from a feudal system with military service an obligation towards a world where mercenaries became more important and powerful the nature of armies changed significantly. There were also geographical quirks, with wealthy Italian cities preferring to hire mercenaries and the English having a large number of excellent archers.

The dominance of short-term, small scale raids over more prolonged wars was well-described, as was the nature of objectives. Rather than seeking to expand dominions most medieval warfare was about enriching oneself through pillage and ransoming off prisoners of war (obviously there were exceptions such as Charlemagne and the wars against the Moors in Spain).

However, the extreme density of the information and the various terms (understandable both because it's a translation and because French, English and Latin terms are all relevant for various objects and concepts) does not make it the easiest book to read at times. Certain sections (the weapons, particularly) were much easier to read but at times it did feel like something of a slog.

The back of the book has a mammoth bibliography for those looking for further reading.

If you're after a comprehensive and detailed look at medieval warfare and the society that underpinned it then this is a very good book, provided you don't mind wading through a dense level of information. It's probably only for the dedicated or those who already have a good working knowledge of the Middle Ages (I don't). Or, if knowledge were a mine then this book is a rich seam but the ore takes a bit of effort to work free.

Part of the reason I read it was to help me get more of an idea of how medieval warfare might work, and it definitely helped me get that understanding in social, financial, religious and military terms.


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

KDP Select: is it worth it?

Amazon has a feature for authors who publish directly to the retailer called KDP Select. Basically, you must make your work exclusive to Amazon and in return your work gets promoted to increase downloads.

But is it worth it?

Disclaimer: I did not opt-in to the scheme for Bane of Souls (you can buy it on iTunes and elsewhere), but may do so in the future for other work.

To answer that the situation regarding the eBook market needs to be summarised. There are many retailers, such as iTunes (Apple), Kobo (WHSmith), Diesel, Barnes & Noble and so on. If you opt into KDP Select you are definitely restricting the potential customer base you have, because your work will be available only for those with Kindles who buy through Amazon.

The mitigating factor is that Amazon remains the 800lb gorilla of book sales. If you did have to limit yourself to one eBook retailer it's a no-brainer that you'd go for Amazon. Roughly 98-99% of Bane of Souls sales have been through the Amazon sites. In short, if I *had* opted into KDP Select it would've made a small difference through lost non-Amazon sales but would've added promotion which *might have* led to a significant increase (or at least balanced the lost sales).

Some people I've heard of have gained a few hundred downloads, others thousands, and there is the possibility of getting some great reviews which will help the book sell later on. When you release a second book, if prospective buyers can see you've got a highly rated first novel it'll only shorten the odds of them giving your work a shot.

It's also important to note that KDP Select auto-reaffirms, so you have to actively cancel it.

I'm not going to opt into KDP Select for Journey to Altmortis (partly because I want to run a voucher scheme on Smashwords to temporarily cut the price, and don't know if I can do that with Amazon), but I do think it could be a clever idea for a short story. That way, there's promotion but it's of work that takes a few weeks/months rather than a year or more.

So, for me, it's not a clear yes or no, (which is unhelpful but true).

I might consider writing a short story (or a bundle of two), such as Horst's first lessons with spells or the story of how Pierre became Pretty, but don't think I'll be putting a full length novel onto an exclusive programme.


Sunday, 4 November 2012

Review: Red Country, by Joe Abercrombie

Red Country is a stand-alone book, and occurs in the same world as The First Law Trilogy and the stand-alone Best Served Cold and The Heroes. This book review will be as light on spoilers as possible.

The story occurs mostly in the Far Country, which is akin in tone to the Wild West, but with a far simpler level of technology. The protagonists are Shy and Lamb, the former being a very rough diamond and the latter an elderly and cowardly man who worked on her farm. The pair find themselves trekking across the Far Country to try and save Shy's younger siblings, who have been kidnapped.

There are fewer characters of note than in The Heroes, the previous book, but this does allow a tighter focus on those who are present and works very well. Shy and Lamb, and others with whom they travel, change and develop significantly during the journey as they're confronted with hard questions and bloody answers.

The world is very well-described, and has an immersive, realistic feel. The disintegration of law and order as people travel further from civilisation towards the unclaimed Far Country and the emotional volatility of hope, despair and stubborn resilience from various quarters fits the leap of faith (some falling, some landing safely) of travelling into the wilderness for a better life.

I must admit to absolutely loving lore, and although it's almost entirely in the background the latter part of the book will be especially interesting for those who love hearing more about the antiquity of the Circle of the World.

Red Country continues Mr. Abercrombie's grey morality, which I rather like, and has an added note of poignancy. I think the tone of the book's more balanced than the previous stand-alones, which erred on the side of darkness. It's still grim and gritty, but there's a bit more yang to balance the yin.

Some versions (happily including the one I got) have a very short story at the end, written by a biographer who plays a minor role in the book. It's very much an appendix sort of story: it's enjoyable to read, but doesn't add anything substantial to the story so those without it are missing a few minutes of reading pleasure rather than any critical information or a hidden plot twist.

It's probably quite clear that I think Red Country's fantastic, but it's not quite perfect. I think that a certain cameo character could've and should've had a slightly greater presence, and that he almost might as well not be there otherwise.

So, in summary: the characters are engaging, the story is simple for the first half but has numerous twists later on and the writing is excellent throughout. It's my favourite book by Mr. Abercrombie so far, and I'm struggling to think of a fantasy I like more.


Thursday, 1 November 2012

Stand-alone or series?

When starting out writing there's an early question that must be answered: will the first book be a stand-alone, self-contained story or the initial part in a series?

Fantasy is perhaps renowned for its series, some of which are very sizeable. Lord of the Rings stands out, as does Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, and The First Law Trilogy.

A series, whether a trilogy or a longer series, enables the writer to use a more detailed world and larger cast to tell a deeper and longer story. Which sounds cool, although there are certain pitfalls. For a start, it's possible to write a trilogy all at once and release it together (to help promote sales of book 2 and 3, as people who have to wait a year or two for the second part may neglect to buy it) but that does involve a long delay to publication and cannot really be done for a mega-series.

There's also the problem of each book being worthwhile in itself. By definition, a stand-alone novel has to stand or fall on its own merit. With a series, there can be a danger of one book being more about tying up loose ends from its predecessor and setting up the plot of its successor rather than telling its own story.

Variable quality's another issue. If you've bought 7 books in a series, but know from the reviews of people you trust book 8 is a bit poor, you're faced with the unpalatable choice of ditching a series of which you've read thousands of pages or forcing yourself to endure gruel whilst waiting a year or more for the tastier next course.

So, given that, why would anyone prefer writing a series, long or short, over stand-alone books?

Simply this: a series means characters can be developed more, and have more complex relationships with others. Plots can be more intricate and numerous, the world described in greater detail and the emotional investment readers have can be increased significantly. In addition, some stories are just too large to confine to a single book without making it a massive tome.

It's not entirely an either/or choice, though. Lots of authors choose to write stand-alone books set in the same world (such as Joe Abercrombie or Scott Lynch) or trilogies set in the same world (Robin Hobb). This means the reader gets a nice sense of continuity and familiarity, and the author gets to explore and expand an already existing world without having to create a new one for every new book.

For Bane of Souls, and Journey to Altmortis (due out next year), I went for the stand-alone approach for a few reasons. It's much quicker than writing a series (if I chose to write a trilogy all at once I'd be about half done now), and both of the stories were enough for a single book rather than needing several. The trilogy which will follow Altmortis will be of lengthier proportions because the story, a civil war, necessitates it.

Not sure what I'll do after that (it'll take me quite long enough to get it finished) but I'm near-certain I'll never write a mega-series. They take too long, readers can understandably get frustrated if there's a prolonged wait between instalments, and I don't want to be tied down for a decade to a series.


Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Bane of Souls now up at

Yes, it's a few months since the book was released, but I've finally gotten around to joining Goodreads (which seems pretty cool from a reader's perspective as well) and adding Bane of Souls to it.

One thing I especially like about the site is that you can give a rating of 1-5 stars without also having to write a review. It's a simple but clever separation, as very few people actually write reviews.

Bane of Souls can be found at the following link, so if you've read it please add it to your shelf and consider rating/reviewing it:

There are no trivia/quizzes as yet, but I do plan on getting around to adding some questions. I probably won't use the blog feature, as I have this one for general use and the official site's writing blog ( for more focused articles about writing and how things are coming along.


Monday, 22 October 2012

Dragon's Dogma Vs Skyrim

I've recently been playing a new game of Dragon's Dogma, which is one of the most surprisingly good games of recent years.
But how does it stack up against the 800lb gorilla of RPGs that is Skyrim?


Dragon's Dogma:
The menu's are reasonable but could be a little slicker. Conversations are pretty basic, but there are a few significant choices to make.

However, the game's greatest asset is it's bloody fantastic combat. Not only is it a challenge, the difficulty is just about spot on. So, you will die, but not every fifteen seconds. Enemies could be slightly more varied but there are a decent number of larger monsters which are a joy, especially at lower levels, to fight. Even better, there are nine classes (three to start with) and the fighter, strider and mage fight in very different ways. Importantly, they're well-balanced and fun, and, during the course of a game, a player's job can be switched easily.

Character creation offers a single race, but otherwise has average or extensive options (height, weight and stance being especially distinctive from the 'make your face' approach of other character creators).

The single save slot and auto-save feature, however, is a pain in the arse, and I really hope they sort that out for Dragon's Dogma 2: Rhetoric Returns [ok, I made the subtitle up].

I love the race options, and whilst it's nice being able to vary muscularity a height/fat slider would've gone down nicely.

There's no class system as such, enabling a character the opportunity to specialise or become a jack-of-all-trades from the start. However, fighting in a melee style is pretty simplistic, the spells are far less impressive than Dragon's Dogma and fighting as an archer is a bit clunkier. The absence of a customised main pawn/sidekick also weighs against Skyrim.

Menus are pretty user-friendly, although they do lack a fantasy feel, and there are often a good range of choices in conversation. However, when it comes to serious choices to change the outcome of the central quest line or that of a guild there are almost none.

Unlike Dragon's Dogma, Skyrim has a sensible saving system allowing for tons of saves.

Dragon's Dogma's brilliant combat makes its gameplay the better by a clear distance.


Dragon's Dogma:
The quality of graphics for characters and items are perfectly reasonable, without being fantastic. Spells (and their effects, such as immolating a cyclops' arm) look either pretty good or very good. The gradual change of lighting effects for the day/night cycle look very nice. Landscapes look reasonably good without being fantastic. Gran Soren, the main city, isn't bad graphically but the city does look bloody boring.

The large range of clothing/armour available fits well together and doesn't lead to items meshing poorly.

Character faces look good (and have nice dirt/tattoo options), enemies are nice and realistic in appearance and the province of Skyrim looks amazingly good. Even better is the knowledge that just about everywhere visible can be visited. Snowy climes, icy seas, dense woodland, open tundra, misty bogs, all look great. The cities are at worst functional (Falkreath) and at best distinctive visually (Solitude). The spells are a significant improvement on Oblivion and I love the fact that every single object can be looked at in the menu. Reading the books can be quite entertaining, actually.

In almost every area Skyrim matches or, more often, surpasses Dragon's Dogma.


Dragon's Dogma:
Bit of a mixed bag, to be honest. Lots of the voice-acting is hampered by a poor attempt at ye olde English (for a top notch effort at this play the fantastic Vagrant Story), and the quality of voice actors is highly variable.

Creeping rats and shrieking bats sound better, and the spells (always a high point) often sound pretty good. The music (that shocking J-rock opening track aside) is pretty good.
The voice-acting is significantly better than Oblivion, and I love the Nordic voice actors (especially the lady who voices Mjoll the Lioness). The scripts are generally good (or at least make sense and don't use the word 'aught' three times a sentence) too.

The sound effects for magical effects, most especially the lightning spells, are very good, and the music soundtrack is excellent. The main theme in particular is fantastic.

Skyrim wins, courtesy of better voice-acting and an outstanding score.


Dragon's Dogma:
Whilst not very original, there's nothing wrong with Dragon's Dogma's storyline. A mighty dragon destined to destroy the world has emerged, and you play the man or woman who must slay it.

Whilst not very original, there's nothing wrong with Skyrim's storyline. A mighty dragon destined to destroy the world has emerged, and you play the man or woman who must slay it.

Erm… I'd give it to Skyrim. Although superficially the storylines are basically identical, Skyrim has a far better defined world, more lore, a greater sense of why the dragon's about and killing things. Late on, Dragon's Dogma does actually explain quite a lot, but overall the experience of Skyrim's story is better than its rival.

Longevity/Replay value

Dragon's Dogma:
The world is pretty big, and effectively made larger by the difficulty of fast travel. There are also many classes (on my first playthrough I mastered 3/9 of them) and the player creates both their own character and main sidekick, increasing the possible variables.

There are only a few serious choices to make, but they do seem to make a very significant difference to the end of the game.

On the downside, the central story is linear and once completed the game ends (or a New Game Plus begins), and there's really only one way to do a given side quest.

The world is bloody enormous (in fact, it's probably as big as a world can get before its size becomes a liability rather than an asset), but can shrink quickly courtesy of carriages to cities and very easy fast travel.

The main storyline is entirely linear, and the guilds are almost entirely linear also. There is, however, greater variance regarding racial choice for the player-character, and because of the way perks and levelling works characters can be wildly different (it takes some time to become a journeyman or master mage, for example).

Whilst I love the combat in Dragon's Dogma, my own experience suggests that the enormity of Skyrim makes it far more replayable. A first time playthrough also takes significantly longer.

Bugs and other problems

Dragon's Dogma:
One save slot and auto-saving is bloody stupid. I think even Sonic 3 had three save slots. That's the only serious gripe that springs to mind.
Originally it froze all the damned time. Now, it freezes but relatively rarely. It's still a pain, though.

Occasionally weird things occur (mammoths falling from the sky, a giant trapped in the road outside Whiterun etc) but they tend not to be too serious. I did once, however, get a Companions quest to find something, and it wasn't there. Thankfully, my ridiculously frequent saving meant I could go back to a minutely earlier save and continue from there.

Dragon's Dogma will give you less buggy woe than Skyrim.

This is quite difficult. Dragon's Dogma has a great combat system, but in every other area (save freezing) Skyrim is better. If an immersive world, whether regarding lore, graphics, sound or a definite sense of place, is a must-have for you then Skyrim must be considered the better. If all of that stuff is superficial to you and you just want to dive in and enjoy killing things, go for Dragon's Dogma.

As for me? Er…. I'd probably, just, go for Skyrim. I love good voice-acting, lore and a game I play for hundreds of hours. Dragon's Dogma is a great game and I'm delighted it's getting a sequel, but if I had to pick one, it'd probably be Skyrim.