Leaflet Review: Thief’s Covenant by Ari Marmell

Thief's Covenant, Ari MarmellOnce she was Adrienne Satti, an orphan with a rags-to-riches story.

Now she is Widdershins, a thief with a sharp blade, a sharper wit, and help from a secret god living in her head.

But now something horrid, something dark, is reaching out for her, a past that refuses to let her go …

This is another book that was on my “books to look for in 2012” list. (It’s also on the list of books Lou Anders convinced me to buy with alarming ease. The guy’s a freaking hypnotist.) Before I start the review, I want to share a note about the cover. The image in this post and the cover on my book are different in one way that is significant to me: the apostrophe on my book is a curly quote, not a straight one. I can no longer tell if straight quotes bother me for true aesthetic reasons or because I’ve been trained to eradicate them, but they stab my soul one way or another. However, my scanner is rubbish, and all the online images I can find have the erroneous straight quote, so do me a favor and imagine the cover is typographically flawless, because the final product is.

Now I’ll review the actual text.

Renaissance Romp

This book has several things going for it. The plot races forward at a steady clip, seamlessly shifting from one plot arc to another. Although this is a YA book, Widdershins tackles adult issues—keeping food in her belly, balancing an investment portfolio, etc.—but she still keeps a youthful attitude and likeability. The book’s topics aren’t watered down for a younger audience either. For a novel labeled dark fantasy it’s on the light and friendly side of things, but it still fits comfortably in that sub-genre. The book also benefits from a fresher milieu than many secondary world fantasies: it is neither fully modern nor fully medieval, but takes root in a renaissance-style city called Davillon.

Although dark things happen in the book, it never stops being fun. Between Widdershins and Olgun, her personal god, nearly every page is filled with an element of sarcastic joy, despite the fact that at any given moment just about everything is going wrong. The characters make for good company, no matter the circumstances, which is not something I can say for every book I’ve read.

Some Quibbles

As with most books I review, I have a few quibbles. With Thief’s Covenant, most of them are on the prose level. Sometimes the humorous prose is overwrought, straining too hard for the laugh. Even so, there were plenty of times when it hit the sweet spot and I did laugh, and humor is more subjective than most things, so for some of you the jokes I find overwrought will hit you right on the funny bone.

There are also some more grammar- and usage-related issues: some rule-breaking that doesn’t seem to serve a purpose other than confusing me; some words (like miasma) that appear more frequently than they should (in my opinion); and some sentences I had to read multiple times to follow the action of a scene.

The good news: none of these issues stopped me from enjoying the story. It was fun, fast, and flavorful. I’ll be holding onto my copy, and the sequel, False Covenant, will most likely find its way onto my bookshelf. All minor quibbles aside, I can’t keep away from an upbeat character like Widdershins.

Cover illustration by Jason Chan.

Weekly Roundup: 10/15–10/21

Page from the Book of KellsChristopher Butler: How Disregarding Design Limits The Power Of Content

This is a pretty long article from Christopher Butler that talks about how design can shape and inform meaning and interpretation. It’s especially relevant today when design is so fluid—ebooks change from device to device, etc. Butler points out that the problems with fluid form aren’t problematic for everything, but fluid form does present limits that are problematic in some instances.

Kevin Canfield: Can Harper Perennial Reinvent Publishing?

In this article Kevin Canfield examines how Harper Perennial is staying nimble and relevant in today’s publishing climate. It’s a good look at how publishers can adapt to the opportunities available today.

New York Times: Authors to Get Sales Data Online From 3 Big Publishers

The New York Times reports that three big publishers are implementing online access to sales data that they will release to their authors. This is a great change, in my opinion. Authors have been a bit starved for information in many situations—that’s one of the appeals of epublishing. Changing that discrepancy will strengthen publishers’ positions in the market.

Duolit: Get Noticed: 5 Steps to Boosting Book Publicity

The team over at Duolit gives out five key points for publicizing your book. Their tips help you look professional and prepared. Another piece of their advice—having your publicity plan figured out before you publish—is key to publicizing your books properly.

Writing Excuses: Endings

Writers often get a lot of advice about starting out and beginning, but advice on endings is a little harder to come by. Lou Anders returns to Writing Excuses to discuss sticking your novel’s ending.

Weekly Roundup: 10/1–10/7

Writing Excuses: Hollywood Formula

This week’s episode of Writing Excuses is a gem. Lou Anders, from Pyr joins the regular crew to talk about the Hollywood formula, which centers around three main characters and their relationships. Lou says the formula is a method many screenwriters use to ensure they’re getting the best emotional effect possible from their story’s climax. It’s well worth the listen, I assure you.

Roz Morris: Four tips for writing good prose

Writer Roz Morris gives four great tips on getting your prose right. I especially like her second tip, “Develop an ear.” I’ve edited for writers who have excellent vocabularies and clear ideas, but the sentences they write are like poorly paved roads. Your readers needs to be able to glide through your words, hit the beats you need them to hit, and continue through your story.

Emily Books: An Indi(e) Bookstore

Emily Books is a new indie bookstore that sells a subscription to 12 ebooks a year (the owners hope to sell a larger variety later, but will always keep the subscription model). They embrace ebooks, and they say, “We want there to be a million stores like Emily Books, with dedicated booksellers—not algorithms—deciding which books to recommend. When a monolith is in charge of selecting which books readers get to hear about, everyone loses. We think independent bookselling is good for publishers, authors, and readers!” It’s an interesting idea in the realm of content curation. Not sure Emily Books would be the bookstore for me, but it would be interesting to see more curator-style stores popping up.

Lou Anders: The Tangled Webs We Weave

Lou Anders makes his second appearance in this week’s roundup with his essay “The Tangled Webs We Weave.” The essay will only be available online for a limited time, but it appears in Webslinger: SF and Comic Writers on Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, which is edited by Gerry Conway. Lou aims his essay at how science is becoming less sexy in our culture, and how media both reflects and contributes to that change.

John Scalzi: Writer Beware and “The Write Agenda”

Author and SFWA president John Scalzi discusses a new group called The Write Agenda. This group is determined to discredit resources aspiring authors have used for years to keep tabs on industry scammers. TWA seems to make hefty use of boycott lists and one-star reviews on books written by authors they don’t agree with. Leaving one-star reviews for anything other than the contents of the book is a ridiculous practice regardless. Read Scalzi’s write up and be cautious.

Leaflet Review: Blackdog by K.V. Johansen

Blackdog by K.V. Johansen

Cover illustration by Raymond Swanland (trust me, it’s an even more amazing cover when you can hold it in your hands)

In a land where gods walk on the hills and goddesses rise from the river, lake, and spring, the caravan-guard Holla-Sayan, escaping the bloody conquest of a lakeside town, stops to help an abandoned child and a dying dog. The girl, though, is the incarnation of Attalissa, goddess of Lissavakail, and the dog a shape-changing guardian spirit whose origins have been forgotten. Possessed and nearly driven mad by the Blackdog, Holla-Sayan flees to the desert road, taking the powerless avatar with him.

Necromancy, treachery, massacres, rebellions, and gods dead or lost or mad, follow hard on their heels. But it is Attalissa herself who may be the Blackdog’s—and Holla-Sayan’s—doom.

I picked up Blackdog because Lou Anders from Pyr raved about it at WorldCon. I couldn’t help myself after hearing how excited he was about it. I even sent my husband to Barnes & Noble without me so he could pick it up because the week after WorldCon I was too swamped with deadlines to do anything but edit. (P.S. Giving ourselves a book budget was perhaps the smartest money decision Mr. S and I ever made.)

So I guess that leaves the question: Did it live up to the hype?

Overall, I’d have to say yes. I immensely enjoyed the journey Johansen took me on (I also very, very, very much appreciated that the book’s storyline is complete and won’t require six more books to complete). In the beginning I was a bit hesitant, but I got over it and I’m grateful that I did.

Not So Great Bits

First, the not-my-favorite experiences I had with the book: The book opens from the perspective of Otokas, the man possessed by the Blackdog spirit and the protector of the lake goddess Attalissa (do note that deities in Blackdog are local deities—Attalissa is goddess of a particular lake, Narva has a mountain, Sera a stream, Kinsai a river, Sayan a portion of the Western Grass, etc.). Attalissa is, at this point, a young girl of 8 or 9 and she is powerless until she reaches womanhood. This beginning initially bothered me, because I was emotionally attaching myself to Otokas, who I knew was going to die and be replaced as Blackdog by Holla-Sayan—the back of the book told me so. So why was I spending multiple chapters in a soon-to-be dead man’s head? (I needn’t have feared: Otokas’s memories are relevant to the plot and [slight spoiler] Holla-Sayan receives them when he is possessed.) The first chapters are also full of action (i.e. the sacking of Attalissa’s town and temple), and some of the prose has a syntactic style that made it difficult for me to grasp what was going on or appreciate it. This syntactic quirk either died in later chapters or I learned to understand it, because it wasn’t a problem as the book progressed.

Very Great Bits

Worldbuilding. Now for the good. The worldbuilding was fun and diverse. I loved it. There were lots of different cultures within the book, and they’re fairly well differentiated. Most (if not all) have some sort of parallel with the real world—Nabban is like China, the Northrons are Scandinavian-esque, etc. Holla-Sayan’s caravan is very culturally diverse, and you get a taste of each culture from spending time with the caravaneers. Everyone has a sense of place, of connection to their people, their land, and their gods. Even magic comes in widely varying cultural styles, from the cats-cradle woven spells of the Western Grass to rune-based Northron spells and Nabbani divination based on the Sun–Moon dichotomy. The theme of place wanders throughout the book, even while you’re following people in a caravan.

Year-spanning plot and age-spanning backstory. I was immensely impressed with how Johansen handled the fact that the book spans several years and that the world and the characters all have complex backstories. There was a bit of an infodump when Holla-Sayan was introduced, but overall the character and world backstories are revealed elegantly in piecemeal, partially because different pieces are introduced from various viewpoint characters and cultural perspectives. The histories of the seven devils and the seven wizards that rocked the world with their war on the Old Great Gods is shared in storyteller-type epitaphs in the first portion of the book as well as through the character’s eyes. Spanning years and eons in one book is a feat I rarely see done to my satisfaction, buy Johansen excelled.

Viewpoint-character diversity. The diversity in the viewpoint characters was the highlight of the book for me. Each character has things that motivate them and drive them to action, and they’re all pretty sympathetic (the person I sympathized the least with was, incidentally, the Villain). Even though two characters may view the same event in completely different terms (for example, Attalissa and Moth view things very differently but remember a lot of the same time span), both viewpoints are validated and neither is necessarily marked as any worse than the other.

(Side note: I loved Moth’s character. She added a lot to the depth and diversity of the book, and she granted a level of humanity and sympathy to Tamghat—the Villain—that I don’t think I would have gotten otherwise.)

(Other side note: Attalissa—or Pakdhala, as she is called while she is with the caravan—was probably the character it took me the longest to appreciate since she doesn’t really come into her own as a person for a long time.)

Conclusion and Disclaimer

Overall, I found the book immensely enjoyable, and I was very annoyed when I had to put it down to do something silly, like go to work. While I had my quibbles with this and that, those quibbles never marred my enjoyment of the story or of the characters. The plot is very multi-dimensional—far more so than I’ve communicated in this review, or is even hinted at in the back-cover copy. There is a grand scope to the novel even though it is isolated to location-specific characters and plot points. It has such a grand scope that I feared the loose ends wouldn’t be tied up by the final chapter and I’d have to wait for another book to come out, but Johansen neatly concludes Blackdog’s story. While there are certainly threads that could continue further (Moth’s quest is far from over, for example), the book is completely satisfying as a standalone.

I should also note that I’ve read a review or two that complain that it’s difficult to keep track of characters because each character has a name, a nickname, and possibly another name or two. I didn’t have a problem with this, but that’s probably because I was forewarned. So be aware: Attalissa is also ’Lissa, Pakdhala, and ’Dhala; other people also have a large variety of names. Go in prepared and it won’t be an issue.

Weekly Roundup: 8/29–9/3

This is the first of my (hopefully) weekly roundups where I post articles and events in publishing that caught my eye this week. The focus is that these are what caught my eye, so they may not be the most important stuff for anyone else.

Wordplay Podcast: Young Adult & Middle Grade Novels

Nathan Bransford (former agent, author of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow), James Dashner (author of the Thirteenth Reality series, Maze Runner Trilogy), and J. Scott Savage (author of the Far World series and the forthcoming Grimville Case Files from HarperCollins) launched a new podcast this week called Wordplay. Their first episode was “Young Adult and Middle Grade Novels,” which, given their publishing credentials, was a perfect topic for them (the episode is around 20 minutes long—I’m pretty sure they don’t intend for it to become an hour-long monster ’cast).

The point they hit on that I appreciated the most was defining the idea of a middle grade sensibility. That sensibility is something I’ve heard a lot about, and when I read a YA book and then a middle grade book I can definitely feel the difference, but it’s hard to define. They essentially said that reaching a middle grade sensibility means writing from the perspective of a young reader—the things that get noticed, the way they’re interpreted, etc., should be seen like your ideal reader. This can come from channeling your inner 12-year-old (and trying to sound like them) or simply capturing the sense of wonder associated with what your ideal reader will fall in love with (they use Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as an example of a middle grade book that doesn’t have a middle grade voice but still captures the middle grade sensibility). Portraying your ideal reader’s interests in a way they’ll appreciate is good advice no matter the age group you’re writing for.

Another interesting point they hit on was whether the MG/YA distinction is going to matter quite as much as people move away from physical bookstores (where things are shelved categorically, instead of by author). Nathan mentioned that middle grade is the youngest genre that gets read up by older people; James said he has the same reader in mind when he’s writing the Thirteenth Reality books (MG) and when he’s writing the Maze Runner books (YA). They all think the distinctions are going to become less important for future electronic markets.

The podcast will also have special episodes every third Monday that are just for younger writers and readers (3rd through 8th grade). You can email questions or requests for content directly to contact@wordplaypodcast.com.

Writing Excuses: World Building Communications Technology

If you write in speculative fiction, you’ve probably already heard of Writing Excuses, the writing podcast from Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, and (new to this season) Mary Robinette Kowal. For episode 13 of season 6, they put out “World Building Communications Technology.”

The podcast is basically an encouragement to think outside the box when you’re thinking about your speculative world’s communications capabilities, and they also warned against defaulting to the level of communication you’re familiar with. When you’re in a pre-industrial world, remember things like the semaphor, or the communication capabilities of the Great Wall of China (old war technologies are good things to look at). In Victorian England, they had mail deliveries and pickups 10 times a day—that’s practically as good as email if you live close enough together.

To find inspiration for conflict in your communications, the WE crew recommended looking for failure points in your communications system (where can servers clog up, what happens during natural disasters, etc.).

Nathan Bransford: The Place for Publishers with Big-Name Authors

Nathan Bransford makes his second appearance in this week’s roundup with his blog post entitled “By the Time A Self-Publisher Hits It Big, Do They Really Need a Publisher?” In the post he looks at John Locke’s recent distribution deal with Simon & Schuster and questions what publishers can offer authors who have already made a name for themselves (i.e. the authors who do much of the work to make publishing a functional business). He wonders if publishers who survive the revolution will need to focus on the package of services they provide authors and instead become service providers instead of top dogs.

Janet Reid: Pitch versus query

For those of you planning to go with traditional publishing: the literary agent behind Query Shark posted about the difference between a pitch and a query—with examples. Examples really are the best way to learn this stuff.

Joe Konrath: How To Succeed

For anyone trying to be published (traditionally or on your own): self-publishing advocate Joe Konrath succinctly outlines how to succeed. My favorite line? “No one deserves to make money writing. The world doesn’t owe you a living, and you aren’t entitled to huge sales. You simply need to work at it, until you get lucky.” I also like his answer to “What if I never get lucky?” and “Can it really take forever to be successful?” No matter what you’re trying to do with your books, it takes hard work, dedication, and a lot of luck. That doesn’t mean you need a lot of those things concentrated over a matter of month, or even over a few years.

Lou Anders: Thoughts on eBooks

Please take a moment to consider Lou Anders’s thoughts on ebooks. I wholeheartedly agree. I’ll probably add more thoughts on this in future posts.

What the Editors Are Looking For

Something writers often hear is that they should submit their novels and sotires to editors and literary agents who will be a “good fit” for their work. The reasons for this are twofold: “good fit” editors are more likely to offer you a contract and they’re more likely to “get” your novel and share a vision of your work.

A concern I’ve often heard is that authors are afraid big, scary, corporate editors will overhaul their stories. That fear is greatly diminished when you know the editor gets your book—which is why you want a good fit editor. This is something most authors understand.

The trouble some writers on the traditional publishing road run into is that it’s sometimes tricky to figure out what individual editors like because they work behind the curtain. Yeah, you know the book came from Tor, but who inside of Tor worked on it? A lot of times you can find that information by looking in the acknowledgements in published books similar to yours. Pub Rants, a blog from Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency, often has her impressions of what editors in general are looking for during a given season or year. There are also small contributions like the one I’m about to give you: my specific observations from speaking with four editors at WorldCon.*

Jim Frenkel (Tor)

Jim is looking for “really good books,” which isn’t very helpful for most people who are already pretty sure they have one of those. But if you’ve already got a really good book on your hands, Jim is pretty open in terms of genre. He’s edited science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, historical fiction, and engaging science-related nonfiction. He’s hardly picky.

Right now a book he was excited to talk about is Lady Lazarus by Michele Lang. If you don’t know already, it’s a historical urban fantasy set at the beginning of World War II in an alternate universe where the main character is the last in a long line of Jewish witches who help keep demons from meddling in human affairs.

Jim also mentioned that he does agenting on the side and works a lot in foreign rights, so I would be inclined to believe (though he never actually said this) that he thinks at least somewhat on a global scale.

Liz Gorinsky (Tor)

Liz was one of this year’s Hugo nominees for Best Editor, Long Form. She has a background in comics (and she’s starting to get her fingers into more of those again), and she prefers more literary-style fiction. (Since “literary” is such a non-descriptive word: She recently edited Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal, if that helps you peg one aspect of what she considers literary.)

Moshe Feder (Tor)

Moshe was also a Best Editor, Long Form, Hugo nominee. He’s the editor for Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells (to give you some reference points for his taste). Moshe has a background in science fiction, so he appreciates magic and worldbuilding that make sense (which explains why Sanderson’s almost scientific magic systems appeal to him so much).

One thing Moshe stressed while I was speaking with him was how he strives for empathy and understanding in the author–editor relationship, even with authors whose books he passes on. That isn’t to say that other editors don’t strive for it too—both Jim and Liz said that they want authors to have authority over their books—but it was a point of emphasis for Moshe in our particular conversation.

Lou Anders (Pyr)

Lou has been nominated for Best Editor, Long Form, five times, and this year he took the Hugo home. When one of my friends (the lovely Charlie Holmberg) asked him what he was looking for in a book, initially he answered with an abstract measuring stick. If his wife has to ask him what a manuscript is like and he just meanders through a list of its merits, she’ll let him know he needs to put it down; if instead she has to force him to sit down and finish reading the manuscript because he’s so excited to tell her about it, he knows it’s something he needs to buy. (So essentially, he wants writers to be brilliant.)

After the more abstract description he was able to give some definite genres he’s looking for, though. He digs sword and sorcery (he even edited an anthology of short stories in the genre) and epic fantasy. He watches ebbs and flows of interest and developing ideas carefully. He knows the history of speculative fiction genres and he has it in mind when he’s looking at fiction. If you’re a writer who flourishes in the “anxiety of influence,” try running your stuff through Pyr’s open submissions pile.

I mentioned more about Lou’s preferences when I posted about publisher’s styles, so you can find those there if you want more information about what he’s looking for right now.

There are, of course, many more editors than these four—but these are the ones I’ve met and spoken with recently, so that’s all I’ve got for you right now.

*Please remember to take my observations with a grain of salt. I’m hardly perfect.