Okay, not fight, exactly. Compete. That’s better.

Yes, Round 2 of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off has officially begun. Actually, it officially began last month, but since I was gone during that time, this is just the first chance I’ve gotten to talk about it here.

First off, let’s introduce the books that have been passed forward to this round, that all participants will be taking a look at in the coming months.

A Soul for Trouble, by Crista McHugh
City of Burning Shadows, by Barbara J Webb (which I already reviewed here)
What Remains of Heroes, by David Benem
Shattered Sands, by W G Saraband
Under a Colder Sun, by Greg James
Bloodrush, by Ben Galley
The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids, by Michael McClung
The Weight of a Crown, by Tavish Kaeden
Priest, by Matthew Colville
Sins of Sovereignty, by Plague Jack

There are some interesting things that I’ve noticed about both batches of books. So I thought I’d take a moment to go over a few of those statistics.

Batch 1

  • Author gender: 38.4% male, 46.1% female, 15.3% ambiguous/unknown at first glance
  • Page count: 104-745 (average page count: 295; note that this is skewed because 2 books did not have listed page counts on Amazon or Goodreads, and the Kindle app doesn’t show real page numbers for them)
  • For sale on Amazon: 23/26, or 88%
  • Attractive, professional-looking cover art: 13/26, or 50%

Batch 2

  • Author gender: 60% male, 20% female, 20% ambiguous/unknown at first glance
  • Page count: 210-480 (average page count: 354)
  • For sale on Amazon: 10/10, or 100%
  • Attractive, professional-looking cover art: 8/10, or 80%

First, books with page counts between 300-400 seemed most popular, and though there were outliers in each batch, they were far closer to the average range in the second batch than the first. Moreover, most of the books that caught my interest in the first batch were in that range, too, with more of the outliers (especially ones that had page counts of 200 or less) failing to spark interest.

Second, some of the books submitted for the first batch don’t actually seem to have been published anywhere yet, or at least aren’t listed on Amazon. The remaining books may be listed on sites like Smashwords, or perhaps are in the pre-publication stage at this point, but ultimately, there were a few that could not be found on an extremely large and popular site that’s all about selling things. All books in the second batch are listed there.

Third, far more of the books in round 2’s batch look indistinguishable from books you’d find at any bookstore, and break the mold of what most people think of when it comes to self-published novels. In the first batch, however, only half of the books could claim that, with an equal half looking like they were were cobbled together quickly in an image-editing program or were sketched out by somebody who doesn’t do visual art on a pro or semi-pro level.

Why didn’t I address the gender issue first, since it appears first one the list of stats? Because here’s where things got complicated. While it appears that there’s a clear predisposition to passing male authors to the second round, I had to look at the total list of submissions, all the books that were passed around to every participant, to get a proper idea of what was going on. And it seems that my batch was actually a pretty weird one. I was the only person who got a list of books with more women than men, at least where gender was apparent from the name alone. In fact, I received almost 20% of the books whose authors used female names.

I looked into this; books with female author names were not disproportionately given to female (or assumed female) bloggers.  It really does appear that it was just random happenstance than landed me with a whole bunch of books written by women.

However, this isn’t the whole story, because every person received books with author names that were ambiguous. Whether they went by initials, or an obvious pseudonym, it wasn’t always clear who identified as female and who didn’t. It’s long been known that female authors sometimes write under their initials rather than their full names, to avoid having their book instantly be dismissed by some as worthless or uninteresting or full of romance and flowers and other girly stuff. So a number of those books where the author was listed by initials may also have been written by women.

I know for a fact some were written by men. But since this was an “at a glance” look, I didn’t go into great detail tracking down the true identities of the authors.

So if you assume that my batch is typical, it looks like women really got screwed over in the publicity department. Taking my batch as typical, women were more likely to submit than men, and yet for every book in Round 2 that’s written by a woman, there’s 3 written by a man.

In truth, the stats look something like this:

  • 58.2% male, 22.7% female, 18.2% ambiguous

Which looks a lot closer to the stats of the books in round 2. Round 2 is actually pretty representative of the total submissions when it comes to gender. Which isn’t at all what I expected when I was only looking at my own numbers.

This is what I spent an evening doing. Looking at stats. And it actually turned out to be rather fun, and shed some light on a few curious issues around writing and self-publication. The only stat I wanted to look at that I didn’t cover here was sales, but since that info’s not really available to me, I had to leave it out. Still, it would have been nice to see sales stats when correlating to gender, or cover art, or page count. It wouldn’t be definitive, of course, but info like that could go a long way to showing aspiring authors just how much investing in good cover art or editing to certain word count ranges could potentially improve sales.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this look at some project statistics.

GUEST POST: What Would I Give Up Writing For, by Fran Wilde

This post was supposed to go live yesterday, so my apologies for the delay. And many thanks to the wonderful Fran Wilde for writing such a wonderful and personal guest post.

Is there anything I would give up writing for?

At this point in my life, absolutely nothing can stop me from writing. I’ve found a good working pace, and have enough support from family that I can tour in promotion of a new book like Updraft, work on the next book (or two), teach at workshops, be a guest at conventions, and all the rest of the things that go with a writing career.

I also have some freelance clients that help support my writing costs.

But a few years ago, “nothing can stop me from writing” was not my answer.

A few years ago, I was just starting out, and money was really tight. My spouse and I were newly married, and my spouse needed to go back to school. I’d already completed an MFA in poetry, was working on a Masters’ in Information Architecture and Interaction Design, had several large freelance jobs lined up, and was settling down to work on a manuscript when we realized that, in order for my spouse to return to school, I would need to work full time, or more than full time. I ended up taking on additional freelance programming and writing gigs, a full-time job, and two teaching positions at local universities. That’s a lot of hours.

To make room for it all, I set the manuscript aside for the time being, and my spouse and I made a deal that I’d come back to it when my spouse graduated.

Yup. I know how that sounds. If you’d told college-me or high-school me I’d be doing that, I would have been horrified. The risks of setting aside a career to help someone else’s career and establish a family at the same time are enormous, and my dream career lagged in the meantime.

But looking back now, it was a good decision. We were able to give ourselves a little bit of financial stability, I gained a ton of new skills that paid well, and when my spouse graduated, the job opportunities added to that. It was not always perfect, and certainly when the economy got rough things were difficult, but we patchworked our way through.

I did it because had no illusions that writing was a guaranteed path to fame and riches.

Those were the good reasons why I set my writing aside.

The bad reasons why I set writing aside were something else entirely — and those almost kept me from picking my writing back up again.

Bad reason number one was that I didn’t value my writing nearly enough. I felt that because it didn’t make any money, it wasn’t worth anything.

Bad reason number two was that I felt that I needed to put others (family, students, friends) first. I figured I’d get around to my writing after all the other things were done.

And bad reason number three was that I didn’t believe in myself.

Boy was I wrong about those reasons. They were terrible, and they kept me from writing, submitting, and writing more.

When I finally discovered that my writing was worth something, even if it didn’t make a ton of money, that if I didn’t put my writing first, no one else would, and that I needed to believe in myself before others would.

That’s when I was able to pick up my writing again, and stick with it, after giving it up for a long time.

I did that by going to writers’ workshops, finding a community of working writers, and listening — or trying to — when someone complimented my work. I began to get stable ground beneath my feet in a new way. And that was vitally important to picking up my writing again and getting rid of the bad reasons for not writing.

The focus I was able to give to Updraft, and the books and short stories before and after it, happened solely because I ditched those bad reasons. I’m glad I did.

Things may change again — a writing career is nothing if not fluid — but I’m glad I’ve taken the path I have, and especially glad I’ve learned the lessons I have. Because now? Absolutely nothing can stop me from writing, every day.

franwildeFran Wilde’s first novel, Updraft, debuted from Tor Books on September 1, 2015. Her short stories have appeared at Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny Magazine, and in Asimov’s and Nature. Fran also interviews authors about food in fiction at Cooking the Books, and blogs for GeekMom and SFSignal. You can find Fran at her website, Twitter, and Facebook.

About that hiatus…

It was supposed to end tomorrow.

Yeah, it’s not ending tomorrow.

The heat wave is over, and the temperature has returned to what it normally is for this time of year. There’s actually a little chill in the mornings now, where you can tell that fall’s right around the corner, and that’s so nice to know after the weeks of really high temperatures. I normally look forward to autumn, but after all this, it’s an even greater longing.

But what my body seems to have taken away from this heat wave is:

~ Sleep is the enemy
~ Stress stemming from guilt is your constant companion
~ Feedback loops are fun

I can’t sleep past a certain point in the day, which is roughly when I’d wake up from the heat being too intense to keep sleeping through. Which might not be so bad if just going to bed earlier helped, but my body seems to have gotten in the habit of no matter what, only sleeping for 4-5 hours a day. I may or may not be able to nap later, so I’m kind of living in this exhausted haze.

Why can’t I nap? It’s even odds as to whether I’ll feel guilty because I’ve let the housework slide while it was too hot to move, and then worry that the landlord is going to want to come over the next day for whatever reason, which will have to result in a massive cleaning frenzy by myself while my roommate is at work, which will be hard and further exhausting. And before anyone points out that I’m borrowing trouble because that hasn’t happened yet (*touch wood*), well, welcome to chronic anxiety. Borrowing trouble and running scenarios over and over in my head is part of that package.

The other reason? Oh, that would be the chronic pain. Restless legs syndrome is no fun either, and I swear, “restless legs” gives the wrong impression of what that’s like for me. It sounds like something that can be fixed by taking a brisk walk. What it feels like is deep muscular pain that feels like it might go away is only my joints would bend in the other direction. It’s only relieved by pressure, like lying on my front, or at its worst, doing that and having someone sit on the back of my legs for a while. It gets worse with dehydration and fatigue, and keeps me awake when I try to sleep, making that fatigue thing all the worse.

Add to that the fact that I had that pain almost this badly when the now-removed tumour was ruining my life, along with bad heartburn which I also seem to have these days for whatever reason (likely stress), and it results in worry that the tumour has come back. Which is unlikely because I’m not showing any other symptoms, and those 2 things were side-effects of the tumour being so large and cause bad anemia, so I know, logically, that’s not what’s going on. But trauma will do that to you, make you flash back and relive that trauma even when small things remind you of it.

So between something I hesitate to call PTSD — but it probably is a mild form of it anyway — and the general lack of sleep and near-constant pain, yeah, I’m in no condition to add another responsibility back to my roster right now.

So I’m continuing the hiatus through September.

This isn’t all bad. Aside from hopefully giving me another 4 weeks to get general life stuff back in order and remember what actual restful sleep is, I do have a few projects I’ve been sitting on that I want to get underway, and this will give me time to do them without fretting that I still have to do a load of reading and reviewing on top of it all. I want to use some of the time off to set up a bit of a stockpile of reviews and other elements of those SUPER SEKRIT PROJECTS so that I have a bit of a cushion under me for the future.

So I apologize to those whose books are being released this coming month; I won’t be posting an advance review. I will be posting reviews eventually, but sometimes post-hype reviews don’t have a great effect, so I apologize about that. And I’m sorry to the group I was reading Max Gladstone’s books with; I’ll have to sit Last First Snow out.

I probably could just power through and start blogging consistently again. For a while. But I know I’m riding the edge of burnout at the moment, and so I’d rather take a break so that I can come back strong than to push through stuff and half-ass it and probably burn myself out more in the long run. I’d rather step back so that I can provide better content in the future.

So maybe don’t look at this like a hiatus. Maybe look at it like my blog is closing down temporarily for renovations, and when I come back, things will be better than ever!

Thanks for your patience and understanding, people, and I’ll be back in a month.

So Going on Hiatus Right Now

I’ve been pushing myself these past few weeks to keep up my regular posting schedule, but in truth, that’s a little beyond me at the moment. I’ve been battling a cold now for, oh, about a month, and the heat and humidity have been so murderous around here for most of that time that every time I think I’m getting better, I get about a day or two of respite before I’m knocked flat on my butt again, wanting to do nothing but lie on the floor (because it’s the only part of the house that’s kind of cool that doesn’t involve me living in the basement) and staring vacantly at the ceiling. I’ve spent entire nights watching and rewatching YouTube videos because eh, I can’t be bothered to expend the energy to do anything else. Standing up to wash a small load of dishes is draining. Vacuuming for 10 minutes left me way more sweaty than moving slowly and pushing a light sucking-machine really ought to have. At any given moment, I feel tired, nauseous, and the heat of the day isn’t letting me get much restful sleep. I’ve been living on meal replacement drinks, with bits and pieces of solid food every now and then, because the heat has killed my appetite, which leads to even less energy because I’m not getting decent nutrition…

I’m just worn down, and I need to discharge a responsibility or two so that I can get back on my feet again.

So I’m putting this blog on hiatus until August is over. That’s about 2 weeks, and if I haven’t recovered enough to resume blogging by then, there’s a more serious problem than the heat and the flu-that-never-ends. (Yes, it goes on and on my friends…)

I’ll still hang around on Twitter and Facebook and I’ll still post the winners of the two giveaways I announced yesterday morning. But any more content than that will have to wait for a little while, until I’ve recharged my batteries a little.

Thanks for your patience, folks! I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, hopefully with some awesome new zest for bookblogging! See you on September 1st!

GIVEAWAY: The Sleeping King, by Cindy Dees & Bill Flippin

It’s the day for giveaways! Courtesy of Tor Books, I’ve got a copy of Cindy Dees’s & Bill Flippin’s The Sleeping King for 1 lucky US or Canadian winner!

The Sleeping King is the first in an epic fantasy series, featuring the best of the genre: near immortal imperial overlords, a prophecy of a sleeping elven king who’s said to be the savior of the races… and two young people who are set on a path to save the day.

If that sparse description didn’t grab you, then take a look at this fantastic book trailer on YouTube!

Want to get your hands on a copy of this great-sounding book? No problem. Just leave a comment on this post. Provided you meet the rest of the requirements in the rules, of course.






  • Must have a US or Canadian mailing address; no PO Boxes
  • Must provide mailing address if chosen as a winner, which will be sent to the publisher for shipping and not retained by me
  • Comment on this post to enter; must provide valid contact info in the comment in case you win
  • Limit of 1 (one) entry per person
  • Giveaway closes at 11:59 PM, PST, Sunday August 23, 2015
  • Winners will be drawn and announced on Monday August 24, 2015

GIVEAWAY: Updraft, by Fran Wilde

I’m happy to announce that once again, thanks to the wonderful amazing people at Tor books, I have a great new giveaway for you all! feast your eyes on Fran Wilde’s Updraft!

In a city of living bone rising high above the clouds, where danger hides in the wind and the ground is lost to legend, a young woman must expose a dangerous secret to save everyone she loves

Welcome to a world of wind and bone, songs and silence, betrayal and courage.

Kirit Densira cannot wait to pass her wingtest and begin flying as a trader by her mother’s side, being in service to her beloved home tower and exploring the skies beyond. When Kirit inadvertently breaks Tower Law, the city’s secretive governing body, the Singers, demand that she become one of them instead. In an attempt to save her family from greater censure, Kirit must give up her dreams to throw herself into the dangerous training at the Spire, the tallest, most forbidding tower, deep at the heart of the City.

As she grows in knowledge and power, she starts to uncover the depths of Spire secrets. Kirit begins to doubt her world and its unassailable Laws, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to a haunting choice, and may well change the city forever—if it isn’t destroyed outright.

Sound like a book you want to read? I can’t blame you at all! So check to make sure you’re eligible for this giveaway, then go right ahead and enter!


  • Must have a US or Canadian mailing address; no PO Boxes
  • Must provide mailing address if chosen as a winner, which will be sent to the publisher for shipping and not retained by me
  • Comment on this post to enter; must provide valid contact info in the comment in case you win
  • Limit of 1 (one) entry per person
  • Giveaway closes at 11:59 PM, PST, Sunday August 23, 2015
  • Winners will be drawn and announced on Monday August 24, 2015

In-Depth Analysis: Black Sun Rising, by C S Friedman – Chapters 5-9

Last week I posted my as-I-read-them thoughts and analysis of the prologue through chapter 4 of C S Friedman’s Black Sun Rising, the first book of the Coldfire trilogy. This week I’m taking a look at chapters 5 through 9, talking about what I’m reading from chapter to chapter and writing down some more in-depth thoughts than I often find time for during a more general review.

So with that in mind, let’s get right down to it!

Chapter 5

The interior of the boutique was small[…]

The chapter starts off with a bit of amusement: Damien getting new clothes. In multiple layers of varying shades of purple. With Ciani chuckling the whole while. And all I could picture was this as his expression:

stupidbeastBut then we jump to something far more serious as earthquake warning sirens go off, and just about everyone in Jaggonath rushes to the town square for safety. He’s here that we get to see some of the practical benefits of using the fae. Most of the town is warded, intended to essentially take the excess energy of the earthquake and release it harmlessly, providing more stability for buildings and places of safety for citizens. Damien comments that this is something the church ought to be taking advantage of, rather than shunning.

The church, however, seems to have its own failsafes in place. Part of the chapter is told from the viewpoint of the Patriarch, and we get a dropped comment about how the church building has had its stonework reinforced so much over the years that it’s as impervious to earthquake damage as anything warded with the fae. Maybe even moreso. But it’s not really said how it was reinforced. Are we talking actual masonry? A constant team of people who repair even small cracks so that any damage stays out of sight and out of mind?

The Patriarch seems very secure in his belief that the church will stand long after the fae fail and other buildings crumble, so my money’s actually on subconscious fae use. In a previous chapter, Damien noted that the Patriarch could sense and use the fae, though he repressed it and was probably even unaware of it, given his devotion to the church and the church’s view of the fae to begin with. So I figure that security in the church being right and stable and enduring could well be made manifest by the very thing that the Patriarch insists should be avoided.

And if that’s the case, it’s a wonderful dose of irony. Having the thing you hate be the reason that the thing you love — which advocates hating that thing you hate — still stands.

There is one weird bit in this chapter where Damien and Ciani and standing together as the earthquake goes on, and they get turned on, so they go elsewhere and have sex. And I don’t know, but is that really an appropriate time? Was it one of those “life-reaffirming sex” situations, the thrill of a large event, even when you know everyone’s mostly safe? I dunno, that bit just kind of sat wrong with me.

Chapter 6

When the Neoqueen Matilla finally pulled into harbor, it took two men to hold Yiles Jarrom back[…]

An interesting little chapter, this, telling what Yiles Jarrom discovered when his hired ship and its crew make port almost 2 months past the date they were supposed to. One of the crew tells a story of how things were going well enough until the captain forgot the route. And how to read his own notes. And how, little by little, the rest of the crew would start losing their memories, sometimes of things regarding their jobs, sometimes things relating to the rest of their lives.

And at some point in the voyage, the ship picked up 3 mysterious passengers, likely the ones from Chapter 4, and it’s strongly implied that the crew (or at least the crewman telling Yiles the story) can’t actually remember the details of picking them up in the first place.

Not much to really analyze here, but the plot thickens!

Chapter 7

The Patriarch remembered:

A flashback, a memory of when the Patriarch was a young boy, coming home to ask his mother for permission to cross the river with his friends. His mother is an addict, mixing a hallucinogenic powder with her alcohol, something that she’s been warned will kill her eventually but she does anyway.

Stopping right there, I have to say that this chapter is an interesting portrayal of addiction through the eyes of a child. He’s old enough to understand that what his mother is doing is dangerous, even some degree of why it’s dangerous, but he doesn’t seem to be under any ideas that he can stop what she does, nor has he given up on her and become bitter. Ashamed, yes, and he doesn’t want his friends to see her, but there’s no resentful anger in the tone of the writing, and I thought that was interesting.

The to-be-Patriarch’s mother, however, is not exactly in a great state when he finds her. The text doesn’t say whether she’s dead, but it does say that horrific dark things are sitting on her shoulders and picking pieces of her brain out of her head. A literal presentation of the doctor’s words, “It’ll eat your brain,” when advising her to stop taking drugs and alcohol together like that. Honestly, it’s better at that point if she is dead, because it’s hard to stomach the thought of her being alive while dark entities are ripping into her skull.

It’s easy to look at this chapter and to think that it was the mother who brought that end upon herself. That maybe she, in her drug-addled state called demonic things down on herself by accident. Maybe things got out of control. As Ciani said, everything comes back to the fae, and what it can do.

But doesn’t this tie in well with the idea that the Patriarch is manifesting things around him because of his own fae connection? That in his fear that the drugs would eat his mother’s brain, the fae made it happen. Literally. That his fear accidentally killed his own mother.

I kind of feel sorry for the guy.

Chapter 8

Never sleep through the true night[…]

Three minutes of true night, when the sun and the moons have all set and there’s blackness in the sky. When the dark fae come out, with no light to inhibit them. Damien watches the tendrils until a glimpse of light rises above the horizon, then goes back to bed.

Only to be woken up 15 minutes later by a massive explosion, one that he traces back to Ciani’s shop. Fae-wrought fire engulfs the whole thing, and all signs point to Ciani having been inside at the time. Nobody can get close enough to rescue her, and the fire keeps raging. There’s no sign of what caused the explosion. Something attacked, in all likelihood, and her wards backfired, but as to what attacked, that’s unclear.

I think it’s a safe bet to assume it has to do with the dark fae that came out during that brief period of true night, though.

Damien enters grief. The two hadn’t known each other for long, but Damien confesses to the Patriarch, at least, that he thinks he was falling in love with her. The Patriarch, happily, doesn’t take this chance to go on some diatribe about how people who mess with the fae get what’s coming to them, though he does comment that they take their chances and sometimes it doesn’t all work out in the end. Still a painful thing to hear and a bit insensitive to say, but it could have been worse.

He and Damien share their grief and frustration over both of them having experienced a tragedy where all you can do is stand by and watch, feeling useless, though the Patriarch doesn’t mention any detail about his own experience.

Chapter 9

It’s finished, the first one whispered.

Is it going to be a pattern in this book that every 5 chapters, there’s a convenient cliffhanger-y spot that falls perfectly where I’ll stop analyzing for the week? Because that would be kind of awesome.

This one’s extremely short, a single page, and it’s back to the mysterious people from Chapters 4 and 6. They’re silently discussing the explosion amongst themselves, and it’s amazing just how much can be hinted at in a few short sentences.

“We could have killed her ourselves,” means they weren’t the ones that triggered the wards and caused the fire and Ciani’s death. Commenting that her rich full life was delicious hints at them being… I don’t know? Memory-eaters? Feeding on a person’s experiences, the events that make up a person, and it makes sense that such a thing would leave holes in the memory, like what happened with the crew of the Neoqueen Matilla. And, “It is finished,”could mean that Ciani’s death was a task that had to be done, if not by them then by someone, or it could simply mean that the fire’s out and the event itself is over for the time being.

I want to know more about these people! Who are they? What do they want? What are they doing in Jaggonath? This is the downside with trying to go slowly and look at things chapter by chapter, because now that things are really getting going, all I want to do is keep reading without all that irritating commentary business I’ve committed myself to!

Full Fathom Five, by Max Gladstone

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N or Indiebound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 15, 2014

Summary: On the island of Kavekana, Kai builds gods to order, then hands them to others to maintain. Her creations aren’t conscious and lack their own wills and voices, but they accept sacrifices, and protect their worshippers from other gods—perfect vehicles for Craftsmen and Craftswomen operating in the divinely controlled Old World. When Kai sees one of her creations dying and tries to save her, she’s grievously injured—then sidelined from the business entirely, her near-suicidal rescue attempt offered up as proof of her instability. But when Kai gets tired of hearing her boss, her coworkers, and her ex-boyfriend call her crazy, and starts digging into the reasons her creations die, she uncovers a conspiracy of silence and fear—which will crush her, if Kai can’t stop it first.

Thoughts: The third book of the Craft Sequence, Full Fathom Five takes us once again to a new place, the island of Kavekana, based pretty obviously on the Hawaiian islands. Which is right away something that I noticed about this book that sets it apart from many other fantasy novels; for all that Hawaii has a really interesting history and culture, it’s another one of those places that doesn’t get much fantasy based upon it. So it’s got that going for it.

The story alternates back and forth, for the most part, between Kai, a priestess who works with idols, and Izza, a street girl trying to achieve something else in her life. Kai’s life changes after she attempts to save a dying idol and finds signs that it’s become sentient, something which isn’t supposed to be possible given the way idols are made. Izza’s life changes after one of her gods dies, and she decides she wants something else beyond living on the street and telling secret stories of forbidden gods to other street kids. Throw in a few surprise cameos from characters we saw in other books in the series, and the stories converge into something that could rock the entire Kavekanese culture to its core.

When I first started reading this series, I was told that for the most part, it’s a series of standalones, that you could jump into any book in any order and not feel lost. There were a few bits of the second book that were richer for having read the first one, but in the beginning, I agreed with that summation. But here, with 3 characters from previous novels making appearances and referencing events that happened before and elsewhere, the series is starting to come together more as a whole. I suspect you could enjoy this book without having read the previous ones, but knowledge of the other two books in the series will make more than a few character motivations and actions make more sense. Why does Cat have a weird silver suit? What business brought Teo to Kavekana, or gave her the scars she’s so touchy about? These aren’t important plot points, but they seem like unaddressed issues that are brought up and then discarded without explanation, unless you already know the answers.

I love the story that Full Fathom Five tells, though it’s really difficult to talk about it and avoid spoilers at the same time. Suffice it to say there’s a good deal of religious debate, looking at the value of gods and worship, and now that I’m typing that out, it sounds an awful lot like things you could say about, oh, the rest of the series. Which is one great reason why I do love the series so much. But in Full Fathom Five, there’s a flat-out debate over the relative merits of atheism versus religion, and whether one is better than the other. I love the way it doesn’t dance around heavy-hitting subjects like that, and I love the way the debate didn’t reach any real conclusion. There are pros and cons to both sides, and neither one is more right than the other.

It’s also worth saying that unlike most fantasy novels, the majority of the characters here are women. It’s rare to see this. It’s rarer still to see all the women be strong, capable, independent women, doing what they need to do when they need to do it. Kai is probably the most influenced by the men in her life, from Jace to Claude to even Mako, but she doesn’t lean on them for support, and she doesn’t defer to them when she knows she’s right.

Kai also deserves a mention for being a trans woman, too; also an uncommon occurrence in fantasy novels.

Whenever I make note of such things, like gay characters, or trans characters, or women who can be awesome without needing men to encourage said awesomeness, I always wonder whether that really needs to be mentioned. Whether or not I’m doing more harm by bringing up how different it is that all this stuff is presented as normal, a part of someone’s life but not the ultimate definition of their character. An aspect rather than a limitation. But then again, no, it still does bear mention, because the number of books that give this treatment to minorities are still vastly outnumbered by the books that don’t. So yes, this book has some awesome women and a really great transgender female lead character, in addition to being a fantastic story.

There’s a lot to Full Fathom Five, plenty of intelligent plotlines and conspiracies and the usual theology-combined-with-law that makes the Craft Sequence books so unique. It’s a wonderful continuation of the series, a testament to Gladstone’s strength as a writer and a storyteller, and the kind of novel of which there can be no imitation. It stands above the crowd, and justifiably so. Definitely worth reading, and I can’t wait to dive into Last First Snow next.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Incarnations, by Susan Barker

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N or Indiebound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 18, 2015

Summary: Hailed as “China’s Midnight’s Children” (The Independent) this “brilliant, mind-expanding, and wildly original novel” (Chris Cleave) about a Beijing taxi driver whose past incarnations over one thousand years haunt him through searing letters sent by his mysterious soulmate.

Who are you? you must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of sixteen million in search of you.

So begins the first letter that falls into Wang’s lap as he flips down the visor in his taxi. The letters that follow are filled with the stories of Wang’s previous lives—from escaping a marriage to a spirit bride, to being a slave on the run from Genghis Khan, to living as a fisherman during the Opium Wars, and being a teenager on the Red Guard during the cultural revolution—bound to his mysterious “soulmate,” spanning one thousand years of betrayal and intrigue.

As the letters continue to appear seemingly out of thin air, Wang becomes convinced that someone is watching him—someone who claims to have known him for over one thousand years. And with each letter, Wang feels the watcher growing closer and closer…

Seamlessly weaving Chinese folklore, history, and literary classics, The Incarnations is a taut and gripping novel that sheds light on the cyclical nature of history as it hints that the past is never truly settled.

Thoughts: Wang Jun is a taxi driver in Beijing. His life is relatively normal. Married. 1 kid. Okay job that pays the bills. Secret homosexual lust for a guy he met in a psych ward.

And a mysterious person sending him detailed and vivid letters about their past lives together.

Barker tells a brilliant and non-linear tale about Wang and his mysterious soulmate. The story is woven together in 3 parts: Wang’s present with his wife and kid, driving his taxi for a living and trying to make sense of the feelings he has for an old acquaintance; Wang’s childhood and early adulthood in an abusive and strained family situation; and the letters from Wang’s supposed soulmate, the person who has followed him from one life to the next, always meeting and developing some sort of relationship as they go along. And honestly, I couldn’t tell you which branch of the story I liked best, because they were all wonderfully compelling and full of amazing imagery and beautiful writing.

The letters themselves all tell different stories from different periods of China’s history, from over 1000 years ago right up to Wang’s present life. While the writer of the letters remembers all these past lives, Wang does not, and nor do the previous lives being written about. They’re not the same people in the same situations, just in different spots throughout history. Each past life is unique, each person an individual with their own urges, goals, faults, and so on. Each time these two end up drawn together for various reasons. Often there’s a sexual attraction, but not always. And a soulmate isn’t presented as a great romantic love, the way we often use the term. Instead, it’s somebody whose soul is joined with someone else’s, following them through lives, being a part of their life always. Sometimes it may be sexual. Sometimes not.

I kind of love this way of approaching soulmates, since the whole “love that lasts lifetimes” thing is wonderfully romantic, but it’s done so often that I get tired of seeing it. I often have a similar reaction to that presentation as I do to insta-love. It’s fine if two characters fall in love and get together, but having it be destiny or something they can’t help because of some past-life thing actually takes a lot of the interest out of it for me. There’s no drive for the characters to improve their relationship, or work at anything, because they’ll always mesh perfectly and there’ll never be anything to come between them. As I said, wonderfully romantic, but I’m tired of that. So it was a great thing to see the soulmate connection played out a bit differently. There is love, there is attraction, but those two things can have multiple layers, multiple presentations, and they don’t overcome everything.

As for the identity of the letter-writer, it’s an utter mystery until very near the end, as every good mystery should be. I spent most of the book trying to put together patterns from what was presented in the past lives, but every time I thought of who it might be, I’d also quickly be able to think of a very good reason why it also couldn’t possibly be that person. So the book really keeps you guessing.

But aside from the historical aspects of the book, Wang’s present-day life makes a strong story all on its own. It’s the kind of story that would easily stand alone as a piece of literary fiction. A man in a fairly average life has a secret forbidden romance that he wants kept hidden from his family, which arose due to trauma and a tremendously messed up set of situations in his childhood. Indeed, I’m sure plenty of book have been written with that idea as their framework. In this way, The Incarnations reminded me of Jo Walton’s My Real Children. Each part is a standalone story, utterly contemporary and on their own, still a good story. But it’s in the combination, the blending that it becomes something more than the sum of its parts.

Brilliant and evocative, The Incarnations is part historical fiction, part contemporary fiction, bound together with silver threads of fantasy. It’s a genre-bending masterpiece that I will most assuredly read again, and I highly recommend it to those fans of literary SFF or genre-crossing stories who are looking for something a little further from the beaten path.

(Received for review from the publisher.)