Monday, April 11, 2016

March 2016 Reading Roundup

Yes, I know it is mid-April and yet here I am posting about March, but hey. Better late than never, right? After experimenting for a while with posting monthly reading round-ups over on my tumblr, I decided to start posting them directly here instead. I hate tumblr's search function and I want to be able to look back more easily at what I've read. 

Anyway! I read a bunch of good books last month:

The Second Death (Teresa Frohock)--dark fantasy

This third and final installment of the Los Nefilim novellas provides an excellent climax and satisfying conclusion to the story arc, but oh goodness, I hate to say farewell to Frohock’s world of angels and daimons locked in complex intrigues!  Not only is the setting rich with possibility, but I adore her characters. Half-angel, half-daimon Diago, struggling to overcome a painful past and accept friendship and trust; his lover Miquel, gentle yet fiercely competent; Rafael, the young son Diago wants so desperately to protect…Frohock does such a wonderful job portraying their deepening bonds, and each character’s individual growth and change as they face new threats and agonizingly difficult decisions, that I could happily read many more novellas (or novels!) following their story. Also, for those wanting to read more stories featuring positive portrayals of LGBT relationships that do not end in tragedy or death, take note: this series is for you! Los Nefilim may be dark fantasy, but that darkness is complemented by a glorious blaze of tenderness and hope.  Honestly, I cannot recommend these novellas highly enough. Tightly plotted, beautifully crafted, deeply affecting—this is fantasy at its best.

Fugitive Prince (Janny Wurts)--Epic fantasy with a capital E

Fourth book in Wurts's epic Wars of Light and Shadow, and the start of a new story arc. One of my favorite things about this series continues to be the incremental, accumulating reveals of the world’s backstory and the motives of the various magical players. The character work in Fugitive Prince is excellent just as in previous books; I was particularly impressed by Jieret and Mearn, who are my new favorite characters. (Oh, how I am praying that neither of them die horribly. The series isn't grimdark, but Wurts also does not pull her punches. I've already mourned a few characters I really liked.) The machinations of the Koriathain Order and the Fellowship Sorcerers are getting quite interesting, and I'm looking forward to seeing where all the plotlines set up so carefully in this book will lead in future installments. Anyway, an excellent if dense and challenging read. (These aren't the sorts of books that are good to relax with when you’re braindead after a long day at work. Wurts requires a reader’s full attention.) Onward to Grand Conspiracy (#5) I go.

The Keeper of the Mist (Rachel Neumeier)--YA fantasy

Ever since I read and loved House of Shadows, Rachel Neumeier has been on my “insta-buy” list. I snapped this up the moment it released, and devoured it nearly as quickly! Neumeier writes both adult and YA novels; this is one of her YA offerings, a standalone. (Or at least, it can be read as one; I don’t know if Neumeier intends any sequels). Keri, the illegitimate daughter of the Lord of Nimmira, is shocked when the country’s ancient magic decrees that she will take his place as the protector/ruler of the country, instead of his three legitimate sons. Keri, a baker, has no training or knowledge of how to run a country—her predicament reminds me of Maia’s in Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, and anyone who loved that book should definitely try this one. Like Maia, Keri remains resolutely goodhearted in the face of treachery and political maneuvering, and it’s her practicality and her ability to see the best in people that are her greatest assets. As always with Neumeier’s novels, I loved the magic, which is wonderfully unique and lyrically described, particularly in some of the climactic scenes. While I don’t think this one has beaten out my favorites of Neumeier’s work, I thoroughly enjoyed the read, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy full of hope and likable characters.

Demon Drums (Carol Severance)--sword and sorcery

It always makes me a little sad when I think about how many talented fantasy authors (especially female authors) from past decades have vanished off the radar, their works seemingly forgotten by all but a few. I had thought I was fairly well-read in 90s fantasy, but somehow I never heard of Carol Severance, who won a Compton Crook Award for her first SFF novel Reefsong (1991), and followed that up with her Island Warrior series, of which Demon Drums is the first installment. It was only when I did a search on fantasy novels with Pacific Islander/Polynesian settings that her name came up. Severance drew on her experiences living in Micronesia and Hawaii to inform the environments and cultures of her novels—a nice change from the more common pseudo-European settings common to so many fantasies. Not only does Demon Drums feature coral atolls and island jungles instead of forests and castles, it has a not-so-usual protagonist: a middle-aged, jaded female warrior suffering from a type of PTSD after she abandons fighting in a neverending war. The portrayal of Iuti’s reluctance to make connnections is skillfully handled, as is her slow-developing bond with a young woman she’s trying to protect. The main plot, a struggle against an evil sorceress, is solidly written as well, and the magic both interesting and entertaining. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series, and I hope more people discover it.

Spirit Caller (Krista D. Ball)--rural contemporary fantasy

Short, sweet contemporary fantasy set in Newfoundland. This edition is a compilation of the first three novellas in the series. I’m glad I read it as a compilation, because otherwise I think the individual entries would have felt too slight and the endings too abrupt. (But perhaps that is my bias showing as a lover of epic fantasy, which is usually anything but short!) Reading all three novellas together provides a decent arc of plot and characters.  My favorite part was protagonist Rachel’s neighbor, the smart-mouthed, elderly Ms. Saunders—every time she was on the page and part of the action, I was smiling wide. I also enjoyed the various supernatural shenanigans, which start off relatively tame but soon get more threatening. I wasn’t quite as fond of the romantic arc—Rachel is in love with her best friend, Jeremy, whom she believes doesn’t love her back, and she spends a LOT of page time agonizing (and crying) over this.  Just not my particular cup of tea, even if it's realistic. (Dithering drives me crazy, both in books and real life.) But the rest of it was a fun read—if you enjoy lighthearted rural fantasy, I’d recommend giving it a try.

The Chomolungma Diaries (Mark Horrell)--mountaineering

Interesting account of a successful guided Everest expedition from the point of view of a client. It’s fashionable among the climbing community to sneer at the “yak routes” on Everest and bemoan the commercialization of the peak, especially after Krakauer’s Into Thin Air provided such a harsh critique of the inexperience of some clients on guided trips. “If you haven’t the skill to climb the mountain on your own, you shouldn’t be there,” is a sentiment I’ve heard many times at a crag. Talk got even more heated after the 2014 avalanche in the icefall that killed so many Sherpas. I read many a rant about uncaring westerners exploiting and endangering their hired Sherpas, all so a bunch of rich wanna-bes can brag about ticking off an item on their bucket list. 

Horrell provides a view from the other side. He’s not some rich surgeon or CEO, he’s just a regular guy who started off trekking and hiking and grew to love climbing big mountains. He’s oriented his life around going on expeditions; working to save up money (not too hard with good computer skills and no family to care for), then heading out on his next trip. He didn’t just leap onto Everest, he climbed a bunch of lesser peaks first (all on guided expeditions), gaining skill and confidence until he felt ready to tackle Everest. The Chomolungma Diaries is his account of his climb from the north (Tibetan) side of the peak. It’s a good read; Horrell has a dry, self-deprecating humor that makes him quite likable as a narrator. He details quite thoroughly his thoughts and fears, without succumbing to the temptation to overdramatize or glorify his experiences. Looking at the book as a travel narrative, the one flaw is that he’s not quite as good at conveying the character of his fellow climbers. They feel like thumbnail sketches rather than real people, perhaps because Horrell didn’t want to offend anyone by being too vivid in his portrayals.

Looking at the book as a defense of guided Everest climbing...I am not sure it quite succeeds, though Horrell spends a fair bit of time discussing the issue in a thoughtful manner. But what it succeeds excellently at is providing a “regular guy’s” view of what a commercial expedition is really like. I enjoyed the read enough that I went on to buy and read Horrell’s more extensive account of his experience with trekking and climbing, Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest. Besides, as of this writing, The Chomolungma Diaries is certainly a good value: it’s free on Amazon. I’d recommend it for anyone with an interest in mountaineering.

Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest (Mark Horrell)--mountaineering

I read this after enjoying Horrell’s The Chomolungma Diaries—the latter covers only his guided ascent of Everest, and I was curious to read about his experiences on other guided ascents leading up to the Everest climb. The book certainly delivers on that score, and I continued to enjoy Horrell’s self-deprecating humor and “regular guy” narration. (The flaws of the narration also remain the same: Horrell does well at portraying his own character and thoughts, not so well at memorable portraits of his fellow climbers.) Like The Chomolungma Diaries, I’d recommend the read to anyone with an interest in trekking and mountaineering.

The Last Step: The American Ascent of K2 (Rick Ridgway)--mountaineering

A brutally honest account of the 1978 American expedition to K2. Ah, mountaineering! Lots of egos, lots of drama, lots of interpersonal conflict in which hardly anyone comes off in a good light. (It’s particularly interesting to read this one after Jennifer Jordan’s Savage Summit, which looks at the first five women to climb K2, and discusses the misogyny and difficulties they faced from fellow mountaineers. I’d be quite curious to hear expedition member Cherie Bech’s side of the story Ridgway tells.) The struggle to reach the summit makes for a gripping read, and it’s a fascinating window into a lost era of mountaineering, when siege-style rather than alpine-style climbing was the norm, and climbers had to carry loads and fix ropes without help from trained locals. (For a look at modern climbing on K2—in which the egos and drama remain, just with a different focus—try Freddie Wilkinson’s One Mountain Thousand Summits, or Zuckerman and Padoan’s Buried in the Sky.)

The Duchess War (Courtney Milan)--romance

A lot of discussion has been happening recently about biases that many SFF readers have against romance, which has challenged me to examine my own attitude toward the romance genre.  I’ll admit upfront: I’ve never been much of a romance reader. A lot of the common tropes either do nothing for me or actively bother me. That said, I would never write off the entire genre as somehow lesser than SFF; rather, it’s a genre aimed at readers with different tastes than mine. But I don’t like to keep making that assumption, either. I know how broad and diverse the fantasy genre is, and how frustrating it is when people make assumptions based on a limited selection of the big-name popular novels (which often tend to a same-ness). I’m sure romance is no different, and I’m always willing to try new things. So when I saw Courtney Milan’s novels recommended in the online discussions as examples of romances that don’t have “alphahole” male characters (a character type that I personally detest), I decided to give her work a go. And, well…once again, we come back to taste. The Duchess War is well written. It indeed has a mostly-likable (not alphahole) male lead. Its female lead is both likable and clever. It does have one of my un-favorite romance tropes (insta-lust), but there’s also an exploration of worker’s rights and women’s rights and a plot that has to do with the same. I can certainly see why so many readers enjoy Milan’s work…yet I never got beyond mildly interested. But! That just means Milan isn’t an author I love, not that she somehow represents the entire genre. I will keep trying romance novels I think might work better for me.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Want a recap of the prior 2 books before diving into Labyrinth of Flame? You're in luck...

So I had this grand plan before The Labyrinth of Flame came out that I was going to put up synopses of The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City on my web page, for readers that wanted a recap to refresh their memory before diving into book 3. I see people requesting these types of summaries for series books all the time on various fantasy forums, and I sympathize; when there's a long wait between books, details fade, and if you're not a fast reader, the thought of re-reading can be daunting. 

No problem, I thought. I've got synopses already! One for Whitefire Crossing that I used back when I was first querying the book, and one for Tainted City that I wrote for the cover artist. 

Yeah. Thing is, I forgot just how much the books had changed since I wrote those synopses. (For example, in the version of Whitefire that I first queried, Pello the spy didn't even exist. And in Tainted City's case, I wrote that original synopsis when I was only 1/3 of the way through a serious draft of the book. It's actually quite amusing to look at what I wrote then and compare it to the final product. Broad strokes of the plot are the same, but wow are the details different, including pretty much everything about the ending.)

Anyway, when I realized how much work was needed to update the synopses, right when I was in the throes of book production--I admit it, I chickened out. After all, I reasoned, I'd already done my best to write Labyrinth of Flame such that the reader is reminded of important events/characters when they become relevant (mostly through Dev or Kiran's personal take on the situation). That'd be good enough, right?

For most readers, it has been, or so people have told me. But when I saw someone post on r/Fantasy asking for a summary of Whitefire Crossing and Tainted City, well, I figured it was time to stop cringing from the task. (I find synopsis writing really hard. So hard that back when I'd finished my big revision of Whitefire Crossing and one agent asked for an exclusive, yet I had another agent interested, the tipping point in my decision to grant the exclusive was that agent #2 wanted a revised synopsis. I reasoned that if agent #1 read the revised manuscript & rejected it, THEN I'd go through all the pain of revising the synopsis. But then agent #1 loved it & offered representation, so I was spared! Until now.) 

But synopsis writing is an important skill for an author, and I do feel a tad more comfortable with it now than I did back then. So, behold:
Hope this helps out anyone who needs a refresher! At the very least, it was good practice for me. These are a bit longer than I would do if I was writing for an editor/agent and not readers (Tainted City's in particular covers more details than would be necessary in that case), which made the writing a bit easier. (Condensing is the hard part of synopsis writing.) But I admit I am awfully glad to return to plain old story writing--after a synopsis, even first-drafting seems easy and fun!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Arrival of the Stabby Award

Look what came in the mail today! 

The Labyrinth of Flame's lovely, pointy "Stabby" award for winning r/Fantasy's Best Independent/Self-Published Novel of 2015
Seriously, how awesome does that engraved dagger look? God knows my 7yo can't keep his hands off it. I have to be very stern that this is MY dagger to play with, not his. In any case, both he and I agree that r/Fantasy has the best awards.

You know, sometimes the whole publishing process (whether trad or indie) can make an author feel like you’re slogging up a sledding hill through thigh-deep snow in a blizzard…

My intrepid kiddo on his way up our local sledding hill during our recent massive snowstorm
Then you reach the top at last (finish the book, get the deal, whatever), and you’re anticipating this thrilling ride, but then you find your sled won’t even move because the snow is too thick and wet and deep…

"Arrrrrggghh!!! Mommy, my sled WON'T GO!"
And you just want to collapse in the snow and give up the whole idea.

Maybe you think about taking a different publishing path, but that can feel as intimidating and difficult as considering a drop into Corbet’s Couloir on a day when the snow is hardpacked ice…

"So...who wants to drop in first?"
But if you take that risk, if you keep pushing onward, the reward is moments like this—whether an award, or a lovely detailed thoughtful review, or a reader email saying how much your book means to them—that are proof you’re not just shouting into the void. That you’ve attained your goal of giving people joy through your writing.  And all at once, you’re no longer stuck in the snow, but blazing down the slope, yelling “WOO HOO!”   
Having the best day ever! 
So thanks again, to r/Fantasy and all the readers out there who’ve enjoyed the Shattered Sigil trilogy. When times are hard, it’s your encouragement that gives me the strength to keep writing, and I’m forever grateful for it.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Podcast fun: discussing worldbuilding, characters and craft with Kate Elliott, Helen Lowe, and Paul Weimer

So you might remember me mentioning a while back that I'd recorded a podcast with fellow fantasy authors Kate Elliott and Helen Lowe, hosted by the always-awesome Paul Weimer for the Skiffy and Fanty show. The podcast is now live, and you can listen to the four of us discuss all manner of things relating to our books and the craft of fantasy writing, from characters to magic systems to geography to plot. (Kate, a veteran of the genre, has many fascinating things to say--as does Helen, who has the added bonus of a lovely New Zealand accent!)

This was the most fun I've ever had with a podcast, I think because of the group discussion setting. As with panels and signings, I find sharing the limelight (so to speak) always significantly lessens my nerves and helps me relax and enjoy myself. Recording this felt to me more like sharing in the sort of interesting dinner conversation you might have with friends at a convention (my favorite part of cons!), as opposed to a live interview where I'm always worried I'm about to say something stupid (I tend to babble when I'm nervous).

In other news, in case you missed it, I put up my February reading round-up over on tumblr...though arrgh, I got the name of Catherine Fisher's book wrong (it was The Speed of Darkness, not Obsidian Mirror--the latter is the 1st in the series instead of the last). If it's possible to edit tumblr posts, I haven't yet figured out how. Maybe next time I'll just post the roundup here and link to it there, instead of the other way around. (The one thing I do like about Tumblr is it feels more casual, somehow...I don't feel pressure to make a post all beautiful with pics of the books I'm talking about. Instead I can just whip out a quick "here are my reactions" post, which takes far less time and therefore is more likely to happen.)

And because this blog has been sadly lacking in wilderness pictures lately--my main computer with all my photos on it died, and we're still working to recover them off the hard drive--I'll end with a couple pics I found on my laptop of our last trip to Utah. Because Utah pictures make every Monday better.

Klondike Bluffs in Arches National Park
Slickrock bowl and Delicate Arch

Classic Utah: red rock, blue sky

Goblin Valley
Utah has the best sunsets

Monday, February 22, 2016

Announcing The Labyrinth of Flame's release in print!

Great news! The Labyrinth of Flame's beautiful illustrated physical edition is now available to buy at Seattle Book Company and on Amazon, courtesy of the same company that did the print run for my Kickstarter (Thomson-Shore). I'm really pleased about this, because I thought the quality of their print copies was excellent:

So if you're one of those readers who missed the Kickstarter and have been waiting patiently, go forth! Buy! (I get a slightly better deal from Seattle Book Company purchases, in case that matters to anyone. But honestly I don't care where you buy it as long as you enjoy it. :)

You'll note the book is being sold through Amazon by Thomson-Shore, not direct by Amazon. This is because I chose in the end not to go for wholesale trade distribution, where Thomson-Shore would have sold the book to the big distributors such as Baker & Taylor, Ingram, and Amazon, and then the distributors would fulfill orders from bookstores and vendors. To be honest, I don't expect to sell massive quantities of the print edition; so to cover the fees and costs of wholesale distribution, I would have had to make the book's list price so expensive I felt it wasn't reasonable. This way, the book is available at a decent price ($17.99) to those who wish to buy it, and I don't have to worry about ending up in the red.

Some folks have asked why I didn't go through CreateSpace or Ingram Spark as most self-publishers do, since both of those companies offer wholesale channels for very cheap cost. The biggest reason was quality: I've heard horror stories about CS's 10% defect rate. Ingram is said to be better, but apparently only if you already know what you're doing in terms of book production, as their interfaces are non-intuitive and their customer service apparently non-existent. One thing I've been very pleased with about Thomson-Shore is how responsive and helpful they are--I've had a great experience working with them. That said, if Labyrinth of Flame had not been illustrated, I might've risked CS or IS. But since the illustrations had to be printed on special insert paper for best quality, I wanted to go with a company I knew could offer that and do it well.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Interview, art prints, and buckling down to work

Today's news: I did an interview over at fellow writer Amanda McCrina's blog in which I talk about my influences, my favorite scenes in the Shattered Sigil books, my writing process, and whether or not fantasy has a responsibility to tackle real-world issues. Plus I share a bunch of the books I'm looking forward to in 2016--always one of my favorite discussion topics!

Life continues to be busy at Casa Schafer, but thankfully a little less busy than before. I'm still slowly making my way through the Kickstarter art print orders--turns out packing posters is even more time-consuming and finicky than packing books. But just look at these lovely prints:

When my six year old first saw the prints, he begged me for a set to put up in his room. I'm calling that a parental win. (I'm even more amused that his favorite is the Tainted City cover, because of the ward-lightning. Appropriate, since that's the book I dedicated to him. Not that I'll let him read it for a long, looooooong time. Like maybe when he's 30.)

The best part of life calming down a bit is that I finally feel ready to write seriously again. Oh, I've been mucking about with the short stories for the Kickstarter, laying out plot and writing the occasional few paragraphs here and there when I felt like it, but I hadn't been working with any real consistency. But now I'm rested and energized and ready to buckle down to proper work, not only on the stories, but on my next full-length book. I'm setting myself a nice attainable goal: 1K/day of first draft words, and it doesn't matter how awful and first-drafty the words are, or which project I choose to work on. Just gotta get 1K words and I can call it a good day. So, onward!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Reading round-up, and a note for German Shattered Sigil fans

Upon hearing that a snowstorm was bearing down on Colorado, I made a cunning plan: I'd clear my schedule of all appointments/meetings/etc, beg my husband to do both drop-off and pick-up of 6yo from school, and take Tuesday as a powder day.

It was going to be EPIC. I was sure of it when I woke. Just look at all the snow that accumulated overnight! The ski slopes would have even more.

Then I realized I'd forgotten one very important fact: schools close when it snows this much. But in Colorado, workplaces do not, which means my husband must wallow his way to his office in the 4wd, and I'm on kid duty. Other skiers will understand the agony: there is epic powder, but I cannot ski it! (I considered taking the 6yo up for a ski day...but he can't ski more than blue runs yet. It'd be EXTRA torture to be on the slopes yet unable to ski the steep & deep.)

The agony won't last long. 6yo and I will have a blast sledding and snowball-fighting and building igloos. But in the meantime, while he and my husband shovel our walk (not our driveway; in Colorado nobody bothers with that--that's what a 4wd car is for), I'm catching up on my neglected little blog to post a few tidbits of news:

1) Reading Round-up: January was a crazy busy/stressful month (thanks mostly to day job), but I got some good reading in while on a business trip. On tumblr I posted a summary of my thoughts on my reads; my favorites were books from Janny Wurts and Ilana C. Myer. 

2) Note for German readers: a lot of folks have been asking via email when a German translation of The Labyrinth of Flame will be available. Sadly, a German translation is not yet in the works, but if you'd like to see Labyrinth of Flame auf Deutsch, the best way to get the wheels turning is for German readers to tell all their friends about the series and encourage them to buy Die Chroniken von Ninavel. Nothing gets a publisher's attention like sales!

3) Update on Labyrinth of Flame's print edition: good news! I've worked out a distribution agreement with the company that printed Labyrinth of Flame for the Kickstarter, so a general-relase print edition is coming soon! I will announce the release once it's ready to buy.

4) Note for Kickstarter backers: as I said in my recent update, if your reward included trade paperbacks and you have NOT received them, please contact me at courtney (at) courtneyschafer (dot) com. For those waiting on art prints, I'm hoping to start shipping them this week.

5) Podcast incoming: I had a great time on Saturday recording a podcast with fellow authors Kate Elliott, Helen Lowe, and our excellent host Paul Weimer of the Skiffy & Fanty show. We talked about worldbuilding and characters and the craft of writing series and it was so much fun. Not sure yet when the podcast will air, but I'll announce it here when it does. (By the way, the latest book in Helen Lowe's Wall of Night series, Daughter of Blood, just released--if you are not reading this series, you really really should be! It's epic fantasy with a terrific female lead (and some wonderful secondary characters), plus plenty of magic and wonder and action. Basically, everything I like best in fantasy!)