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Archive for April, 2013

This month I’m handing my quill and ink pot over to fellow fantasy fan, Waxy.

It’s commonly held that “everybody has a book inside them” and clearly most authors who make a living from it have a few more than one, but once you’ve committed your life to being an author is there any way off the merry go round?

What brought on this ambling line of thought was finding out that there is a new Robin Hobb book out soon, the 4th (in what was going to be a trilogy) in her Rain Wild Chronicles series (and also the fact I have little productive stuff to do at work today).  Hobb is an author that was exceptional – that’s right, I said WAS.  The Farseer and Tawny Man Trilogies are in my list of all time greats, the Liveship Traders took time to grow on me but I still class them as a highly accomplished and often read series.

But then came Soldier Son Trilogy, and knowing I was an avid fan my sister bought me the first in hardback for Christmas one year.  A hardback as a gift is a mixed blessing – excellent to have the book so early, but damn her as I then had to buy the next two in hardback too (see her matching covers blog for more on that topic).  Anyway, I wander off topic, Soldier Son… looking back now it was the start of the rot.  I never really engaged with the characters and the entire series felt a little flat, I went on to buy all of them because it was Hobb and I kept expecting the story to pick up and really get going.  But it never did and I’ve never felt the need to revisit the series.

Then we have the Rain Wild Chronicles back in the often visited and familiar realm of the Elderlings, surely this would deliver.  I read the first, eventually bought the second whilst bored, vowed never to buy the third.  The biggest issue I think is that the story is completely linear – there are dragons & keepers going up a river, the group has 1 lead and, say, 8 other characters so there is a limited number of interactions and diversity to reveal any depth to the characters.  The Farseer trilogy also only followed one lead character but had a wealth of interlocking threads: there was Molly & the Buckkeep town kids, Burrich and the stables, Chade and his tower, Verity & Kettricken, Regal, Shrewd – so many interactions and different levels of authority and feeling.  It gave Fitz a humanity and depth of character rarely seen outside the real world.  And it must have taken great effort and emotion to write such a rounded character and build up those layers.  I don’t mean to Hobb-bash, but I think it is that effort and investment of emotion that is lacking in later series.  I genuinely love her first few series and would recommend them to anyone, but as a fan(atic) I feel deeply disappointed in the more recent scribbling.

We see a similar thing with Trudi Canavan, her first series (The Black Magician) was exciting, involving and a great read.  Her second (Age of the Five) was such a linear and obvious storyline that I guessed the ‘big twist’ of the series whilst only about 100 pages into book one (it’s revealed at the end of book three).  Whilst there were a couple of minor side plots for occasional interest it was a shame that Black Magician couldn’t have been followed up in more style.  I read the first book of her third trilogy, (which is back in the world of Sonea, the black magician), and, if I’m honest, barely remember it or the characters in it – which probably says more than any long winded review could.

the-endAnd so I ask at what point authors should hang up their quills and stamp a final “The End” across their bibliography.  Whilst some writers it seems are fated to be taken from us before their brilliance runs out (Sir Terry Pratchet immediately springs to mind here), others are slowly driving away their dedicated fans by chasing another pay cheque and churning out emotionless characters and dry plots.

My take on it is that at some point the fire dims, the passion fades and being an author becomes nothing more than another job.  You log your hours, stack up your word count and, if your early works were good enough, you can probably secure some juicy publishing bonuses for a couple of series before your fans finally give up on you.  It’s rare that an author has the strength or conviction to stand up in front of a publisher and STOP.  So here is my plea:

Don’t cave in to the pressure to put out another book next year, a new trilogy idea in 2015, a new series, a new world – live on your savings and back-catalogue sales, go work in a coffee shop, go back to whatever you did before that first big break and wait.  When you get the fire back, when that story line hits you, when you start to genuinely miss the time you spent with Fitz, Nighteyes, Sonea, Kylar etc then, then you should pick up a pen again and go back to your publisher with an idea.  Until that happens the chances are your series will be flat, lifeless and a huge disappointment to fans worldwide.

For this reason among others I have spent a lot of time on Amazon recently tracing more obscure authors in search for my next hit of pure emotion.  That moment where a character dies and you find yourself unconsciously welling up (Nighteyes in the Tawny Man trilogy gets me every time).  My old faithful authors are failing to deliver the goods anymore – so let’s go out and find the young blood coming up through the ranks.  I’ve recently come across Sullivan and Lynch and (a couple of years ago) Weeks – not all my new finds are classic gold, and other than Weeks I don’t think any of them match an early Hobb, but they are still great new additions to my library that was starting to get stale and dusty.

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Are you bothered if you have books within a series that have different style covers? I know of at least 2 people who may be reading this and literally cringing at the thought of that mismatched book shelf!

I quote from an email with a friend:
“Books have to have the same style covers, otherwise it’s illegal.  Everyone knows this.  It makes your bookshelves look untidy.”

Does it matter to you?

Jumping from one style of cover to another does make me want to go out and re-buy the books so the covers all match. Especially as usually one is a far more fitting and accurate style for the book than another in my opinion. And by accurate I think I actually mean deliberately vague! I’ve realised covers I tend to like are the ones which hint at a character, suggest what someone or something looks like, and don’t take the main character and slap a big picture of them on the cover. That image can never match what is in my head, and if it does, then it won’t match what you’ve imagined! Which is exactly why Kingshott has been deliberately very vague about describing his lead, Tristan in The Magic of Prophecy:

“I wanted to avoid describing him too closely as I wanted the reader to create their own image of what he looked like.  I always liked the fact that no two people see the same thing when they read a book and I wanted to leave Tristan as open to interpretation as possible, just to see how different people saw him.”

A successful cover depends a lot, I suspect, on the brief the artist is given by the writer/publisher. I wonder how many artists have actually read the book before they do the illustration for it.

To borrow from Goldilocks – Is it too blatant, too bland, or just right?

Polgara Too blatant?

Here we’ll take the example of Eddings’ Polgara the Sorceress. The American edition has a cartoon-like buxom young woman in a typical medieval dress looking directly out of the cover at the reader. The UK version has a softer image, still of a woman but she’s got her shoulder turned away, it’s just a bit more subtle than the American “look at me, the obviously mediaeval style dress, white lock in hair, owl on arm”. I’m thankful they’ve never tried to draw Ce’Nedra, she’d look like a Disney fairy!

Hobb’s book covers, on the other hand manage to provide examples of both the too bland and the ‘just right’. Sadly it’s the original UK covers that are a good example of a fantasy cover, and the latest reprint which are terribly bland.

Starting with the originals: We have John Howe to thank for these. Taking Royal Assassin as an example, look at the well-balanced mix between hinting at detail without force-feeding a main character’s image in your face (something he slides into in the Fool trilogy later on incidentally, oh and don’t start me on what that red dragon is doing there…). Notice the lovely stone carving in the borders, the little portraits of people in the book, sketched in the corners, not right in your face, and there’s Buckkeep Castle high on the cliffs above the town – it’s clear early on in the book that it’s the castle there on the cover, but it’s still an image viewed from some distance, leaving the reader the time and space to fill in the details themselves. There are no attempts here to portray too much detail, for example, he’s steered well clear of the oft-mentioned, and somewhat tantalising, tapestry of the Elderlings which hangs on the wall in Fitz’ room.

And now, sadly, we have a bland reprint in the UK. It’s like they ran out of time and forgot about the covers, panicked and chose an animal that was loosely relevant to that book in the 5 minutes before it was due at the printers. A Deer. A Dragon. A Wolf. All plonked in the centre of the cover. There’s no intrigue. There’s no detail. There’s no subtlety. There’s no pondering what will happen, who the people portrayed on the cover are (incidentally that was something Josh Kirby was very good at for Pratchett), there’s nothing to entice you into the book at all. If you don’t have the books to hand, can’t remember what the covers are like, or for some crazy reason haven’t read them (why? why?) then you can see an example of the 2 different UK covers, along with the truly terrible US one on Hobb’s own site. (Gah! And I’ve just noticed on the French cover Fitz, who is continually referred to as dark haired (to emphasis his Farseer family links) has gone blond!)

In the modern world where most people’s attention span is only 15 seconds, everything is super size, neon bright, in your face and loud it takes bravery to be subtle, but when considering books it’s the subtle which attracts.  When I’m looking for a book I want a delicate intricate plot with deep characters – and the cover should reflect this.

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