Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book Review: The Islanders

The last time I read a Christopher Priest novel I was resoundingly blown away.  The Prestige is easily one of my all-time favorite books, and it's a book that has had a lasting effect on me.  Almost exactly a year later, I still find myself still thinking about that book and all it's amazing nuances.

I'll be honest, despite such success with my first Christopher Priest reading experience, I was hesitant to dive into another of his works. Not long after I read The Prestige, my lady bought me a copy of The Islanders, and I've had it sitting on my shelf ever since.  Though I told myself I was waiting for the right moment to read it, that is only partially true.  Part of me had been hesitant because I was afraid that my next Priest read might not be as impressive as The Prestige, and thus lower my esteem for Priest and his works.  What if it wasn't as good?  What it Priest isn't as phenomenal a writer as I think he is?  These doubts assailed my conscience, and delayed my next Christopher Priest reading venture. Eventually though, my curiosity won over my doubts and I moved away from uninformed speculating and got down to the reading.

By the end of The Islanders' introduction, I knew I had been a fool for doubting Priest.

And to think I almost skipped the introduction!

For real.  I almost skipped it.  I almost always skip introductions as they tend to be spoiler-ridden gush fests. Seriously, introductions don't do a lot for me, and out of habit I almost passed this one over.  Then I got a sneaking suspicion that Priest might be just the kind of guy to write a fake introduction to his own book.  Then I took a look at the writer who introduces the novel; A guy by the name of Chaster Kammeston.  It sounded like a made up name, so I decided I'd better not skip a single printed word of this one, and dove in.    My suspicions were quickly proven correct, and within a few paragraphs I found myself completely lost in this novel that is one part travelogue to a fantastical world, one part mystery, one part literary puzzle, and sports a myriad of additional facets that make this book one of the most engaging, challenging, and artful books I've ever read in my life.

This might sound like hyperbole, but The Islanders is one of the most cleverly written books I have ever read.  The layout of the book is a sort of atlas/travel guide to a vast archipelago.  Each chapter covers a different island, or island group in the archipelago, and talks about the island's flora, fauna, and geographical characteristics. The chapters would often cover a bit of history and some information about notable people who have lived on the island as well.  As the reader begins to progress through the novel, certain notable islanders start popping up all over the map, and certain well-known stories get fleshed out, and further developed.  The end product is an amazing jigsaw puzzle of a novel where all the pieces are presented to the reader, but the reader is left to do much of the piecing together and a bit of the mystery solving as well.

It's kinda funny, but I don't think I've ever had to work this hard for a novel, but at the same time, I don't think I've ever wanted to "figure everything out" more than I did with The Islanders.  Priest does absolutely no hand holding here, and instead, assumes that he has a readership that can parcel things out given his hints, clues and reveals.

Much like with The Prestige, Priest once again plays the part of writer-magician, as he masterfully employs clever acts of deception, and sleight of hand as his narrative unfolds.  There's a murder mystery at the heart of this novel, and though it, (or any other story element for that matter), never really takes center stage, it is this story element that many other elements swirl around.  Every now and then, other pieces of this mosaic will touch on the murder mystery story, and a clearer picture of the whole tapestry will be provided.

Although it was easy to fall into this novel, and easy to bask in the joy of reading such skilled writing, it took some time to get fully into the swing of this novel and what it is all about.  The reason being is that many chapters seemingly wouldn't reveal anything that ties into the overall tapestry of the novel, while others would provide massive treasure troves of pertinent information that the reader had been craving.  Eventually, I got into the swing of things, but this is a novel that requires a measure of patience from the reader.

That patience will certainly pay off, as this is not only one of the very best novels sitting on my shelves, but it is also a completely unique book in that it is an art piece that is also a book.  Priest plays with the reader's notions of story format, narrative flow, and expectations.  On top of that, he ensures that his work is something that has to be actively engaged by the reader.  Yes, I understand that by opening any book, reading its words, and turning its pages is active engagement, but Priest goes far beyond that by making the reader work to piece this narrative together, and in the end, make sense of it all.  Sure, this is a pretty big risk on his part, as some readers might not want to work that hard for the pay-off, but I can't remember ever feeling so rewarded after reading a novel, nor have I ever felt such a give and take sensation from reading a novel.

After a years and years of reading, it is pretty fucking exciting to read something that manages to do so much new stuff in just one novel.

To top it all off, Priest shows that his world building skills put even the greatest epic fantasists in check.  The island archipelago upon which this mosaic novel is set is a place that Priest brings to life in such a way engages all five senses.  Like all the best fantasy worlds, this is a place that is so well created that a reader will want to journey there again and again.

While a reread of The Islanders purely for fantasy world escapist pleasure would be rewarding, I can see plenty of other reasons to revisit this novel for the sake of greater understanding of the narrative as well.  Priest laces his sentences, paragraphs, and pages with clues and hints, and I'm sure I missed a few along the way.   Though I loved every page of this novel, by the end I couldn't help but think I'd maybe missed a thing or two along the way that would have led to a fuller understanding.

Here it is October, and I'm pretty sure I have a clear front runner for best read of 2012.  The Islanders is simply an astounding achievement of literature.  It is very safe to say I was blown away.  I'm enthusiastically giving this my recommendation.  If a fascinating world, and an expertly clever narrative aren't enough to entice you, The Islanders also has possibly the best fantasy creature ever...the Thryme is not to be trifled with.  Purely sublime stuff here. Read and enjoy!

Grade: A+

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Comic Review: Locke & Key Vol. 4 Keys to the Kingdom

Just when I thought Joe Hill's Locke & Key series couldn't get any better, it did.

In the fourth volume, Keys to the Kingdom, everything gets ratcheted up to a whole new level of greatness.  There is so much going on in this volume that it almost seems like there's two trades worth of comics here even though it contains the usual six issues worth of material.

For one thing, Keys to the Kingdom reveals a bunch of new magical keys.  By a bunch, I mean that the total known keys probably doubled here.  There's some really cool ones too, my favorites, and the one used in the coolest ways being the music box key, and the skin key.

In many ways, this fourth volume feels like business as usual in the world of Locke and Key, as it covers much of the same ground as past volumes, just in slightly different ways.  The Locke kids deal with stresses around the home, stresses at school, stresses with their personal lives, and stresses regarding the strange house they live in.  The nice thing about this volume is that the Locke kids finally get savvy to a few things that, as the reader I have been privy to, while they have remained largely clueless.

This literary technique, where the reader knows way more than the protagonists, has built up a lot of drama and tension in the series, and it is a lot of fun to know more than the protagonists, yet simultaneously tormenting as I have had to watch them bumble around trying to figure shit out.  Hill has done a great job of teasing out this drama to the point that I nearly reached the breaking point and started yelling at those damn kids to smarten up.  Yes, that would have been somewhat satisfying, though pointless, and it would have made me feel like a grumpy old man too.  But goddammit, if only those Locke kids could only get their shit together!  It doesn't help that they have an adversary that is always at least one, if not a couple dozen steps ahead of them. The two people who are the most on top of things are the last two characters you'd expect, Bode, the Locke kid in Kindergarten, and Rufus, Bode's playmate who has an undefined developmental delay.  Too bad they need Kinsey and Tyler, the two teenaged Locke kids to help out, yet Kinsey and Tyler seem to be constantly distracted by their typically stressful and mixed up teenage lives.

All the while Zack Wells, Kinsey's BF and Tyler's epic bro, is the sole source of all their problems.  Zack is one of my favorite, slash, most loathed villains of all time.  He is one incredibly cruel bastard, a talent he has displayed to epic proportions in previous volumes. Yet, in this fourth volume he goes far beyond cruel, deep, deep into the realm of pure evil.  It is hard to watch.

Hill certainly has things set up for the final two volumes, as Keys to the Kingdom certainly put a lot of awesome pieces into place.  There was a brutal plot twist right at the end here, and it's one of those twists that as a reader you are happy to see because it makes the story so much more interesting, and makes you instantly crave the next installment...But on the other hand, makes you feel sick because the plot twist just totally fucks over the person or persons you care for in the story.

What this all boils down to is that Hill is a master of messing with his reader's emotions, and he's not afraid to raise the stakes of his story.  I've been very impressed with the man's prose work so far, but I think I'm most impressed with his work on Locke & Key.  This is not only one of the best comic series I've ever read, but it is flat out an amazing piece of writing.  This is an amazing blend of horror and fantasy, and both elements are done with expert level skills.

It's very easy for me to go on about Hill's writing, but this story wouldn't be what it is without Gabriel Rodriguez's artwork.  Rogriguez is more than just a passable artist.  He's an artist who can not only show the story, but he does it in a very interesting way. Rodriguez shakes things up by using interesting page structures, unique panel layouts, and a variety of "camera angles" to show the story as it unfolds.  This is all well and good, but I felt like he really cut loose on this volume as he displayed a couple different art styles as well...my favorite being his Bill Watterson tribute art at the beginning of the volume.  Overall, Locke & Key is one of the few comics out there where the quality of both the writing and the art are far above the usual standard.

With four out of what will eventually be six volumes under my belt, I think I can firmly say that Locke & Key is one of the best comics available right now.  For fantasy readers who don't usually read comics, this is the ultimate gateway for you.  It is penned by a modern master, and features art that is easily digested, and incredibly good.  On top of all that, it features story elements that though familiar, are creative, unique, and terrifying.  Locke & Key is great stuff, and Keys to the Kingdom solidifies the fact that this is an awesome comic.

Grade: A-

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Book Review: Kindred

This might sound all kinds of crazy, (or maybe not, perhaps my fellow readers have the same experience), but the one person I love more than anything, (my lady), is not usually the person I go to for book recommendations.  We just flat out have different tastes in books.

I like books, she doesn't.

Kidding!  For real though, we're both avid readers though rarely do our tastes coincide.  On occasion though we'll recommend something to each other, and I'm happy to say, she hasn't led me astray yet...and I have her reading GRRM, so it is a win-win.

Anyway, she's a fan of Junot Diaz, an author I need to read sooner than later, and she recently went to a Junot Diaz author event here in Seattle.  Apparently, during that event Diaz was talking about some of his influences and he mentioned Octavia E. Butler as an big influence. He even stated that she had written five perfect books.

When my lady came home from this author event, she asked me if I had read any of Butler's books, and when I answered "no", she filled me in on the story I just relayed to you, which peaked my interest enough so that when I was out and about on my next bookstore cruise, I made sure to pick up a couple of her books.

Lord knows I'm a sucker for time travel, so I started with Kindred.

Kindred is a novel about Dana, a 20th century black woman who, at the start of the book, is quietly celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday in her new home with her white husband, Keith.  (I mention both Dana's and Keith's race here, because it plays a role in the overall narrative of Kindred.)  With little more than a strong sense of dizziness as a warning, Dana is suddenly transported from her home in modern times, back to the antebellum South.  When she arrives, she discovers herself by a riverside where a small boy is drowning.  Acting purely on instinct, Dana saves the child, who turns out to be the son of a slave-owning plantation owner.  Against all odds, and bounds of reality, it appears that the child, Rufus, has the ability to draw Dana to him across the gap of time and space to save him.

Though Dana returns shortly after the rescue, she soon finds herself drawn back to Rufus again, and again as he ages.  Each time Dana must do something to save him from certain death.  This second time, through physical contact during the transfer, Keith is able come along. This time though, rather than a stay of mere minutes, their stay spans weeks and months.  Dana soon learns that saving Rufus might just be a key to her future existence, as she discovers he is likely one of her ancestors.

However, as a black woman in the antebellum South, each of Dana's transfers is fraught with peril, and her second transfer ends with her transferring back to modern times, and Keith getting left behind.  When Dana returns again, years have passed, and Keith is nowhere to be found.  All the while, Dana must strive to get by in a society where she has no rights, and is treated as less than human.

If you couldn't tell from the plot summary, Kindred is one incredibly engrossing novel.  Even though it has a fantasy concept at it's center, it is a novel that is firmly based in the unflinchingly portrayed reality of the antebellum South.  I'll be completely honest, I found many parts of this novel absolutely terrifying. The thing is, all those terrifying moments were things that were a part of every day reality for so many black people during those times.  When that is juxtaposed with modern racial tensions and equal rights movements, it is striking to see how glacially slow progress has come about.

Butler did an amazing job of bringing the world of the antebellum South to life in Kindred.  And she did this all while maintaining an objective stance.  Characters from both sides of the racial divide were given equal amounts of development and the result is that each and every character was incredibly fleshed out and realistic.  Butler has an amazing knack of making the reader see the characters as individuals rather than literary, or sociological stereotypes.  Don't expect to be fed common caricatures of the times where the white plantation folks are portrayed as one dimensional racist fucks and the black slaves to be portrayed as powerless victims of brutal treatment, inhumane and unjust laws.  Instead, Butler gives the reader an incredibly honest and unflinching look at the times and the people who lived during those years.  Butler created a novel where the reader will feel like they are right there, watching everything unfold, but are just barely too far away from the events to lend a hand to help.

In addition to presenting a story filled with incredible, heart wrenching drama, incredibly realistic characters, and a gripping plot, I was also impressed with Butler's skill at writing a story that deals with such sensitive subject matter.  The fact is that race is still a very difficult subject to talk about, yet Butler seemingly created a novel that does just that, opens up a space for discussion, with relative ease.  Simply put, Kindred is a very accessible novel.  Butler uses language that is simple enough to understand, and thus incredibly accessible to readers of varying ages, and Kindred is a book that could be read, understood, and enjoyed by probably any reader over the age of 12.  That being said, readers of different ages are going to get different things out of this novel, and achieve varying levels of understanding and self-reflection. Because of that, I have a good feeling that it is an incredibly re-readable novel, as it is a book that can have different meanings and value at varying stages of a person's life.

There's a lot to be impressed with in Kindred, as a reader I was incredibly impressed by this tense, and emotional novel.  As a human, I found many parts of the book that inspired personal reflection and growth, and as a book critic, I found a new (to me) writer whose literary craftsmanship is impressive and whose voice is one that has largely been missing from my reading habits.

Grade: A

Monday, October 22, 2012

Author Interview: Michael J. Sullivan

It's a happy day here at Battle Hymns, because Michael J. Sullivan, author of the Riyria Revelations series, is on hand to answer some interview questions. I'm only a third of the way into his debut series, but as you can tell from my review of Theft of Swords it is off to a stellar start.  I could tell you how talented and how much of a nice guy he is, but I think it shows pretty clearly in his answers, so you might as hear it from the man himself.  

Battle Hymns: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Michael J. Sullivan: Sure, I’m a fiercely independent person, who REALLY hates being told what to do. If left to my own devices, I can be very creative and productive. However, if I have someone telling me what to do, or how to do it, I can barely perform.  As such, I don’t do well in a traditional work environment, and it’s best for all involved to keep me isolated and writing stories.

BH: Your path from writing the books contained in Theft of Swords to publication was quite an experience.  Can you tell us about that epic journey?

MJS: Years ago, decades in fact, I used to write with the intention of publication. I created twelve novels in ten years all of which went nowhere. Frustrated, I finally quit (and dramatically vowing never to write creatively again).  After a decade on hiatus, the itch to write couldn't be contained.  My daughter was struggling with reading (she’s dyslexic), and I decided to write a story just for her, myself, my wife, and a few friends.  I wanted it to be fun and fast-paced, similar to the books I had grown up with.  I had no intention on publishing, as I had already been convinced that was a colossal waste of time.

Eventually my wife read the books and made it her mission to “get them out there.” She wrote queries, got hundreds of rejections, found an agent (but nothing became of it), submitted to a small press (got accepted), and eventually created her own company to release the books.  Eventually once she had taken them “as far as she thought they could go,” she, and my foreign rights agent, took the series to New York where it garnered a much different reception.  There were seventeen proposals sent and seven or eight fantasy imprints expressed an immediate interest.  Orbit made a pre-emptive bid, and since they were already high on my list, I signed.  In addition to the English versions there are translations completed, or in process, for twelve other languages.  So I guess my wife accomplished what she had set out for.

BH: What aspects of the book, if any, changed from the independent publication to the publication by Orbit?

MJS: From a story standpoint actually very little changed between the two versions.  By the time Orbit got the books, there were already 70,000 copies sold, and feedback had indicated that the story was solid.  It was also intricately conceived, so pulling on one thread could unravel everything. As such, there wasn’t a lot of room for changes.  Still there were a few things adjusted. Most notability I added a new beginning, which started with our main characters (previously the books had started with the section directly after that).  My editor at Orbit, and feedback from readers, indicated a desire to meet Royce and Hadrian right away. Beyond that, there really were just places where I added a bit more description, or provided clarification, but none of those changes affected the story as a whole.  Of course, there was a full top to bottom re-editing.  Although I had hired many freelancers over the years a book can always be “further polished” and the team at Orbit did a great job with that.

BH: Was it a deliberate decision on your part to make each installment in the series feel self-contained, yet have over-arching plot lines that tie into a greater narrative?

MJS:  Most definitely, and a technique I stole from some favorite television shows like Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I liked how the creators had ongoing aspects that would unfold across the season, but each story had its own conflict and resolution.  Truth be told, I thought of the series much like a television show, but since I didn’t have access to a production company, or an inside track with television executives, I did what I could, which was write a series of books.  To me Revelations has always been a single tale, but much too large to tell all in a single volume.

Because I wasn’t writing for publication, I actually finished all of them before my wife finally found a publisher. This turned out to be very fortunate, because I would sometimes go back and tweak an earlier book as some new insight arose when writing a later one.  This provided for some great weaving which makes the series particularly rewarding for me personally.

BH: What are the plusses and minuses of working with a big publisher in comparison to a small, independent publisher?

MJS: Actually all three paths (self, small, big) have their own plusses and minuses.  Small presses take a lot of the work off your shoulders (copy editing, layout, etc) and are more willing to listen to and incorporate your ideas on things like titles and covers (for instance AMI used a cover that I created).  The downside though, is they are very limited with regards to distribution, and many small publishers struggle financially.  My first publisher didn’t have money to print the second book, and there were times when The Crown Conspiracy showed up as out of stock because the warehouse wouldn’t ship until their back fees were paid.

Self-publishing is great because everything is in your control. You never have to worry about not getting things done “exactly” the way you want them.  But it is also a lot of work.  Whether you do editing and cover design yourself, or have to hire others there is a lot of time spent on those activities. The plus side there, besides the total control, is a better chance at substantial income.  It’s so much easier to earn a living when you make 70% of the sale.

Big publishing has tremendous distribution capabilities, and a team of professionals that really give you enough peace of mind to know that things will be done “right.” This allows me to concentrate on other books. The down side comes in the form of revenue sharing and dealing with infrastructure issues. Publishing has changed a lot but some of the contracts are still antiquated, so Robin’s time is spent getting clauses adjusted to a point where I feel comfortable signing. One thing that I think will need to change in the future is the author’s share on ebooks.  Currently industry standard is for the publisher to get 52.5% and the author to receive 17.5%. This is one of the reasons that so few traditionally published authors can earn a living. 

BH:  Who is your favorite character to write and why?

MJS:  My favorite is probably Myron, a monk of Maribor.  He shows up in books one, five, and six.  In the first book he’s a really bookish, gentle soul.  He’s been isolated from the world for so long that he can see beauty and fascination in something as simple as a cattail. I love his scenes. In one, he is performing a blessing before our main characters ride out to save the day, and then we discover that he was actually blessing the horses. That’s so typically Myron, and my favorite scene in the first book involves him and a “squirrel tree.” Later in the series he comes back as a much different person, yet still one of my favorites. He has a great outlook on life, and completely untouchable by any dangers, because he has found happiness and contentment. 

BH: Who is the biggest influence on your work?

MJS:  Back in the day, when I was teaching myself how to write, I would actually dissect how authors wrote their book, trying to figure out what they did and why.  For instance, I loved how Stephen King developed characters, how Ayn Rand described scenes, how Steinbeck evoked emotion, and the simplicity of prose in Hemingway’s works.  A lot of my early novels were written using some of those techniques, and in some ways it was like learning illustration by copying a picture.  I personally didn’t like it very much, because I hadn’t yet discovered my own voice.  Being so clinical about writing had taken a lot of the joy out of it for me. 

A decade later, it was when I picked up the first Harry Potter book that I had an epiphany. THIS was how fun writing/reading could be. I was transported and found it whimsical, exciting, touching, and most of all fun.  Realizing that I could write something with no other goal then making a book that I wanted to read really helped me to discover my own style, and in so doing the joy of writing returned.

BH:  What inspired you to become a writer?

MJS:  I don’t know if it’s the same for others, but I didn’t “decide” to become a writer. It’s just what I do.  I’ve always told stories, and for the most part I’m inspired by a lack of something to read. Don’t get me wrong…there’s a lot of great books out there…more than can be consumed in ten lifetimes, but it’s hard for me to read others without thinking about how I would do it differently.  That’s not to say that my execution would be better, just that it would suit my preferences more closely. Writing for me is a way to get “exactly” what I want.

BH:  What’s the best part of your job? What’s the worst part of your job?

MJS:  The best part is hearing reactions from people who love what I’ve created, especially from my wife. There’s nothing better than hearing her talk about things that she liked in the books.  I get the same satisfaction from readers, through email or in online forums. They usually say something like, “I don’t mean to bother you…” or “I’m sorry to take up your time,” and I’m always amazed by this.  It’s those letters that fuel me to write.  Coming up with a story is great, but it’s empty and hollow without sharing it with others. 

To be honest, there really isn’t a “worst part.” I feel like a child who wakes each morning with no other responsibility than playing their favorite game. I have complete freedom, very little in the way of pressure, and can set my schedule anyway I wish.  There really isn’t a downside in such an environment, especially since writing is currently paying my bills.  While I would do this if I never made a cent (and in fact did exactly that for several decades), I’m glad my wife no longer has to support the household. For years she was our sole income and I really love giving her what she had given to me.  The freedom from getting up each day and “working for the man.” 

BH:  For you as a writer and/or reader, what qualities make for a good read?

MJS:  Not too long ago I did an almost clinical analysis of my favorite books, and came to a realization that they all shared some common elements.  First off, I want characters that I really care about and would like to have as friends in real life.  Second, is a setting filled with adventure and danger that I would like to experience myself…I like escapism, to be transported. Most importantly, though is whether or not I’m entertained. We get so little free time that I want to make the most of mine. To me that means feeling better after I close the book then before I opened it.  

BH:  What is a day in the life of Michael J. Sullivan like?

MJS:  I get up and head out to a local coffee shop.  I’ll drink a cup while reading the paper on my ipad.  Then I stop in at the grocery store to get whatever will be for dinner that evening. I return home and start my workday by reading a few pages of a really good book. I find it kinds of primes the pump and gets me into the right frame of mind for writing. I generally write until lunch, which will usually produce  around 2,000 words. Now that Robin is home, we’ll make the lunches leisurely, sometimes talking about books past or future. In the afternoons I generally do something physical, bike riding, jogging, taking a walk, or doing a short workout.  I may return to writing, or go online and answer messages and talk to readers or other writers.  The evening meal is spent watching The Daily Show and The Colbert Report  on the DVR (my only real TV time). It takes much longer than an hour as we are constantly pausing as we discuss something related or get pulled off on a tangent. In the evenings, I may write some more, or read, or play a video game. I usually end each night with a bit of reading before turning in.

BH:  Name three things you couldn’t live without.

MJS:  Can’t do it…because there’s only one, my wife, Robin. I’m not sure if it is a blessing or a curse.  I guess no matter how you look at it, we’ve had a good life. We met young (I was 18 she was 17) and have been joined at the hip through most of our lives (on three occasions actually sharing the same employer).  But we are many would describe as co-dependent, and I would literally cease to function if she were to pass.  We’re actually hoping to die in some accident that takes us both out at the same time.  If she were to go first, I’m sure I wouldn’t survive a year, and you wouldn’t want to be around me during those last months. 

BH:  Own up to a guilty pleasure.

MJS:  You’re actually the second person to ask this, and I’m just as stumped this time around.  I can’t figure out why if something brings you pleasure there should be any sense of remorse associated with it. In general people consider guilty pleasures things that they would be embarrassed by, but I say if it brings joy, that’s a good thing.  When my wife bikes, she cranks on music and sings (very off key) at the top of her lungs.  Joggers she passes shake their heads and smile.  Most probably think she’s a loon. I feel that sometimes we constrain that which brings us pleasure because we are afraid how others will perceive us.  This is not a problem that children, and some with developmental disabilities, suffer from. They just do what feels good, and could care less what people think. I wish more people of all ages and capabilities did similarly.

BH:  What music are you listening to these days?

MJS:  I’m always on the prowl for new music, and my search is aided often by my daughter who seems to find some really cool stuff. Some recent additions are: Fun, The Piano Guys, and The Flight of the Conchords.

BH:  What’s your all-time favorite album/record/CD?

MJS:  Hard to choose but probably Paul Simon’s Graceland.  At the time I hadn’t heard any music that infused other cultural influences so strongly and it opened up a whole new area of things to explore.  Plus it has some of the most entertaining lyrics I’ve ever heard. It’s brilliant.  

BH:  What was the last concert you went to?

MJS:  In the summers the National Gallery of Art puts on concerts on the National Mall in the Sculpture Garden. We go most Fridays if we are in town. It’s a great time. We bring a blanket, some snacks (cheese, fruit, crackers) and usually get a pitcher or two of Sangria that they sell there, which is pretty good.  I have a lot of friends that know I’ll be there so people just show up. You never know who will come until it happens, but it’s always a good time.

BH:  Are you a comics reader? If so, what’s something you read recently that you enjoyed? Who’s an artist you love?

MJS:  No I’m not a big comics reader, but I do have an artist that I absolutely love…my daughter.  She has a comic, Ugly Vampire that she does free online. It’s about Jerry, a not-too-bright guy who is a bit of a loser and decides to become by a vampire so he can be beautiful, immortal, and cool.  Problem is after he’s bitten, he’s still the same old ugly, fat guy…and will be forever.  She’s also helped me with a project called, Plotholes, where we poke fun at fantasy writing and publishing.  She’s even had done a comic with Royce and Hadrian (my two main leads) which is pretty funny.  I’m thinking about having her and a friend do a comic version of The Viscount and the Witch, a short story I wrote a while back. I hope she takes me up on it.

BH:  What book or books have you read lately that you thought were especially good?

MJS:  I’ve been very impressed with Anthony Ryan’s Bloodsong. There are a lot of similarities between us. He’s a self-published author, who has now signed on with ACE.  It’s not without its flaws, but what he does right far outweighs any nits of criticism. Few new writers have the patience to let the story unfold slowly and naturally.  He has mastered that art of restraint, and knows how to pull the reader along a bit at a time.  I except to be seeing a lot more from him in the future. I recommend picking his book up now while it’s just $2.99.  You’ll be able to say you “knew him when.”

BH:  If you found yourself in a typical fantasy setting, what would be your weapon of choice?

MJS:  Hmmm….in role-playing games I usually choose wizards. I think standing in the background while someone else takes the damage is more to my liking. In general I’m pretty agile, and avoiding attacks would be my modus operandi. So I guess something small, like a dagger.

BH:  What would you like to see change or see more of in the Fantasy genre?

MJS:  I actually think right now there is a lot of diversity in the genre, and that’s a good thing.   I’m not really big on the idea of limiting choices. Just because I may not be drawn to paranormal romance, or some of the recent dark-and-gritty releases doesn’t mean that I want to see them gone.  The more variety, the more readers, the more readers, the more authors that can earn a living, so it’s all good.  For me personally, yes I would like to see more books that would excite me…which means a bit more fun and less dour. But that’s not really such a big issue as I’m in a position to write that type of stuff to entertain myself.

BH:  What does the future hold for you?  Any new projects you can spill some beans on?

MJS:  Just recently Orbit announced that I’ll have a new series coming out in August 2013, The Riyria Chronicles.  This is a prequel that tells “the other side” of The Riyria Revelations. In Revelations we see how the team known as Riyria ends, and inChronicles we see how it all begins.  I’ve finished two books in that series, The Crown Tower and The Rose and the Thorn.Whether there will be any more after that will depend on the readers.  I don’t want Royce and Hadrian to overstay their welcome, and while I do have ideas for more Chronicle tales, I’m not going to write them if there is no interest.

I’ve also written an urban fantasy called Antithesis, which is currently being reviewed by Orbit.  If they decide to pass, I’ll likely self-publish it. This is a story of two opposing individuals who each wield magical power limited only by their imagination. They keep the world in balance.  Usually the power is passed down to someone who has been trained to receive it.  But in this story, an untimely death has it passing to an innocent bystander. Not only does this person not understand the responsibilities of this power, but they also aren’t aware that they are being hunted by the other party.

I’m about fifty percent done with Hollow World. A science fiction novel that wasn’t even on my radar to write, but I got inspiration from a little short story I created called Greener Grass. Originally it was for an anthology, but it didn’t fit the theme as well as I had wanted, so I released that as a little self-published short.  The concept is based loosely on John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”  It’s set in a world with no religion, countries, or war…and explores whether this would be a utopia, or a bland homogenized existence.  I’m not sure how my existing readers will feel about it, but I LOVE it and my experience has been that if you write something you want to read, there will be an audience for it somewhere.

Last but not least…I’m going to be about half a year behind on my next big series.  I’ve ben plotting it for several years now and had intended to start writing it this fall.  Hollow World kind of jumped in front of it, so I won’t start it until early next year.  Like The Riyria Revelations I plan to write all the books in this series before publishing any of them, so it’s going to take awhile to produce.  That’s why I have these other four stories: The Crown TowerThe Rose and the Thorn, Antithesis, and Hollow World queued up.  They should give people some stuff to chew on while I’m off writing this next series.

BH:  Is there anything you’d like to say to your readers and fans?

MJS:  As always I want to take this opportunity to say thanks so much for all your support.  It’s the readers that allow me to live a dream that I didn’t think was possible.  In many respects I think any success my books have is only partially my own. The rest comes from the readers who recommend them, buy extra copies as gifts, leave reviews, and help to get the books noticed.  I feel like we have a great symbiotic relationship, and I’m just glad that I don’t have to earn a living at a day job. They give me plenty of time to work on the books, and I hope to continue to produce works they enjoy reading.

Oh, and one last thing. Feel free to drop me a line anytime at Michael.sullivan.dc@gmail.com. As I’ve said, hearing from people is my real fuel, and getting letters actually increases my productivity by many factors. So if you want to see me write faster, then stop by and say hello.


Michael, As always, a big thank you to you for taking time out of your busy writing schedule to be part of Battle Hymns.  I had a lot of fun, and I hope you did too!  Much Appreciated!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Book Review: Theft of Swords

Back in the early days of the blog I read the first book of a six book series by an author who had taken the indie route to publishing.  The author was Michael J. Sullivan, and the book was The Crown Conspiracy.  

The book had been receiving some positive reviews around the fantasy blogging corners of the internet, and I was intrigued enough to check it out.  Near the very end of that review, (which feels sorta amateurish looking back), I said that I "look forward to reading more from the Riyria Revelations."  In the (roughly) two years since that review, Sullivan has not only finished up his series, but also been picked up by a major publisher, (Orbit) and had the books re-released in an awesomely package three book omnibus set.  

Despite these developments, I continued to put off my return to the lands of Avryn.  Then, one day, literally out of the blue, the author himself, apparently not willing to let even the most wayward reader off the hook, contacted me and made me an offer I couldn't refuse.  The offer: an ebook copy of his first omnibus, Theft of Swords in return for a future encounter that will soon play out on this very blog.  (For those of you hoping for a live thumb-wrestling showdown, sorry that's not in the works...yet.)  

Anyway, I jumped at the opportunity, and quickly moved Theft of Swords up to the top of the ol' reading heap.  I considered just skipping the first half of the book, which I had already read earlier, but upon scouring my brain for old details, decided a re-read would do me a world of good.  Turned out to be a good move because some slight changes, tightenings, and alterations had been made for the Orbit publication.  

On the grand scale, The Crown Conspiracy remains largely unchanged; two very skilled and professional thieves are contracted to steal famous sword, and wind up being framed for the murder of the king.  Though they are captured, jailed and sentenced to death the following morning, our intrepid heroes Royce Mellborn and Hadrian Blackwater, with some aid, escape; only to then kidnap the prince-who-will-become-king and take him off on a wild adventure filled with magic, a wizard, a civil war, and much more.  Like I said, still the same plot and premise, but Sullivan made a number of smallish changes that really made the story much more tight, and did a better job of introducing the characters and their personalities at the early stages of the novel.

One of my favorite qualities of Sullivan's work is that each individual novel can be read as a standalone adventure.  That being said, there are a number of plot points and story developments that lend themselves to a much more epic story line that appears to be playing itself out across all the novels.  After reading Theft of Swords which contains the books The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha I've come to really appreciate Sullivan's self-contained, yet with overlapping plot style. I like the feeling of reading a book and knowing that the events that take place in it will be wrapped up by the end without crazy cliffhangers.  

It was nice to know that when I started reading Avempartha I was reading a new story.  However, it was interesting to discover just how some of the major plot events from The Crown Conspiracy were still making waves a couple years down the road.  

 Avempartha also has a much different feel to it than The Crown Conspiracy.  In The Crown Conspiracy Sullivan seems to almost deliberately limit the amount of fantasy elements in the novel.  Sure, there's some magic, but aside from the classic fantasy races getting some mention, there's really very little else that says "fantasy".  

Avempartha is a whole 'nother beast though.  In this one Royce and Hadrian travel to a small village on the very edge of the frontier which separates the lands of men from the lands of the elves.  Royce and Hadrian have been hired by a young woman from the village to help slay a mighty beast that has been killing the villagers.  So right off the bat you've got one of my favorite things about fantasy: beasts.  There's more fantasy elements at play though and the village seems to be some sort of lodestone for attention, because while there, Royce and Hadrian meet up with a number of old friends, accomplices, and enemies as the church of Nyphron holds a tournament with a grand prize greater than any contestant could imagine.  In addition to drawing the attention of the church, the realms greatest knights, there's also another powerful force that has an interest in what Royce and Hadrian are up to.  

Whereas The Crown Conspiracy was tightly focused, Avempartha certainly feels like it sprawls out a lot more.  At least it does in terms of world building, character development, and political schemes, but despite all this fleshing out of, well, everything, Sullivan never lets the story lose focus.  Avempartha is equally as sharp as its predecessor, all while managing to up the ante considerably.  An impressive feat. 

In all honesty, there is hardly a negative thing I can say about The Crown Conspiracy, these are not only well written, and well paced books, but they are also a hell of a lot of fun to read.  At first, I found myself thinking of Royce and Hadrian as homages to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, but as I read further into the novels, these characters began to feel less like homages or pastiches and more like their own characters.  I will say that Royce's character seems to be coming together a lot slower than Hadrian, and there are times when Royce seems pretty one-dimensional.  However, by the end of Avempartha, I got the sense there there is a lot of back story to be told for both Royce and Hadrian, and in the telling, the characters will become more well rounded.  

If you are looking for a deep character-driven narrative, this might leave some people wanting more.  Still, Sullivan is no slouch when it comes to writing characters, and when you combine that with great action and strong plotting, you get a great read.  

What it all comes down to is that fact that Theft of Swords is one stellar fantasy read.  I can only look back at my earlier reading of The Crown Conspiracy and see that all the qualities that made it good then, are only  tighter, sharper and more finely focused now.  Avempartha takes all that was great about the series opener, and cranks every aspect up notch to raise the bar even higher.  More magic, more political scheming, more swords...plus a fell beast.  All this adds up to make a book that should be on every fantasy reader's shelf.  Last time out I said I looked forward to reading more of Sullivan's Riyria Revelations series, this time it wont be two years between reads.  

Grade: A

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

I got Interviewed!

I had the distinct honor recently of being part of one of the best ongoing interview series on the internet; Mieneke Van Der Salm's Blogger Query.  When Mieneke asked me if I'd like to take part in the interview my affirmative response was immediate...I've secretly been hoping she'd ask since I read the very first Blogger Query back when she began her interview series.   Well, my dream came true, and  you can read all my answers to her interview questions at Mieneke's wonderful blog, A Fantastical Librarian.

If you've ever wanted to know more about me, the blog, how I picked out it's name, or my views on a variety of topics that concern bloggers everywhere, stop by and check it out. While you're there, don't forget to check out all the other great interviews, plus all the great content Mieneke has on her site.  

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Awesome Announcements from NYCC

Photo from comicsalliance.com
One of the bigger comic conventions around was held this past weekend in New York City.  NYCC is one of those conventions where publishers actually make big announcements for things that are down the road, and after a San Diego Comic Convention where almost nothing interesting was announced,  I was happy to see that some exciting news come out of NYCC.

Up first is the most promising tid-bit, and one that soothes the pain of Sweet Tooth having only two issues left...

Vertigo announced a new Jeff Lemire series titled Trillium.  It's plugged as "The last love story ever told", and since it is written and drawn by Jeff Lemire, that means it will be poignant, heart wrenching and will probably make me cry.

It follows a space-botanist from the far future and an explorer from the 1920's who manage to fall in love despite the separation of space and time. Trillium is set to be a ten issue series, which is good news given that there'll be a gaping hole left in my comics reading when Sweet Tooth comes to an end.  I'll be hard up for some new Jeff Lemire comics come 2013, but I do wish this was an ongoing rather than a limited series...either way, it sounds awesome. This one is published by Vertigo and is set to hit the shelves sometime in 2013.  I'll be there for it.

Photo courtesy of comicsalliance.com
Next up is another Vertigo title, this time from two of the comics industry's biggest up and coming dudes, Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy.  The Wake is a sci-fi horror epic which begins when something terrifying is discovered in the depths of the ocean.  (My fingers are crossed for Cthulhu!)  Snyder and Murphy have worked together before on an American Vampire mini-series.

I personally have fairly limited experience with these two creators.  I've read a year's worth of Snyder's DCnU Batman, but I recently gave that title the drop when DC announced that there'd be a giant sprawling crossover story with the Joker where I'd have to buy a shit load of other Batman-family books just to keep up.  I've also read the first five issues worth of American Vampire, and wasn't that interested, but that's likely more due to that fact that I'm bored by vampires. Anyway, I've only been moderately impressed with Snyder's writing, but I'm willing to give the guy another shot.  He seems to be writing everything these days, so hopefully he isn't spreading himself too thin, and can put together a good run on The Wake.

The big draw here for me is that fact that Sean Murphy will be doing the art.  I have to give a lot of credit to Murphy, his art on Joe the Barbarian was a big reason I got back into reading comics as an adult.  To put it simply, the guy is a phenomenal artist, and I can't wait to see what he does with a sci-fi horror story.

The Wake is set to hit shelves in Spring of 2013.

Photo courtesy of http://scottkowalchuk.blogspot.com/
Last up, comes a slew of announcements from Oni Press.  The publisher who brings me my monthly dose of The Sixth Gun announced a whole bunch of stuff that has me excited.  First off, in January, Oni Press will relaunch it's website and feature new webcomics serials.  Once these webcomic serials finish up, they'll be collected in print as graphic novels.  One of these webcomic serials will be Down Set Fight which will feature the art of Scott Kowalchuk, an artist I'm a big fan of, and a guy who was cool enough to create this sweet birthday commission for me a year ago.  I've been wondering what the dude has been up to for a while now, it's all been a secret, so I'm happy to finally have something tangible to look forward to.

Also on the webcomic-serial front, Oni has a science-fiction-romance meets Blade Runner story
 coming from Jamie S. Rich and Natalie Nourigat. It features the rather drab title, A Boy and a Girl.  Nourigat got her start writing and drawing her bio-comic Switching Gears, and I really like her art, so I'll be checking this one out as well.

photo courtesy of
Rounding things out come two announcements regarding Cullen Bunn, the writer of The Sixth Gun.  Up first is a spin off of that very same series titled The Sixth Gun: Sons of the Gun.

This six issue mini series will feature origin stories for General Hume's four lieutenants from the series' first story arc.  I have always hoped for more Sixth Gun material featuring these villains, and I'm finally getting my wish.  These four were some bad-ass dudes, so this should be one dark and compelling story.  I always like a story about villains.  Also, it should be cool to learn more about the guns of power and the effect they have on their owners.

Brian Churilla will be handling the art for this one.  He's pretty much an unknown for me, but that teaser image looks pretty cool, so hopefully he can do justice to the series and the material.

photo courtesy of
The other Cullen Bunn related piece of news regards another six issue mini series.  Helheim is a dark fantasy featuring Joelle Jones on art.  Bunn describes the series as "Frankenstein in the viking era".  The story follows a hero who is brought back from his peaceful and honorable death and thrust into a war between two witches.

Based on the strength of The Sixth Gun I'll be more than willing to give this series a shot.  Bunn has impressed me with his ability to deliver some awesome fantasy elements in The Sixth Gun, so I'll be interested to see what he does in a more standard fantasy setting.

Jones is another unknown artist for me, but her art from the teaser image looks pretty cool.  It reminds me a bit of Becky Cloonan, which definitely isn't a bad thing.  I'll be looking forward to this one.

Judging from all these great announcements, it looks like 2013 is shaping up to be a solid year on the comics front.  Lots of cool new stuff to check out.  I'm sure most, if not all, of these comics I mentioned above will get some attention here in the future.  Keep an eye out.

Also, this post would not have been possible with out the continually amazing comics coverage of http://www.comicsalliance.com.

Lastly, thanks to Scott's Snazzy Sketchblog for the Down Set Fight art.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Skyscrapers of the Midwest

I'm not gonna string you along, or make you wait until the end of the review to tell you this: Skyscrapers of the Midwest is one brilliant-ass graphic novel.  It is one of the most interesting things I've ever had the pleasure to read.  The story follows a young anthropomorphic cat who is staring down adolescence, but is reluctant to leave his boyhood and his well-loved toys behind.

Yeah, that's pretty much it, but this is a tale that winds it's way around a bunch of other topics as it makes it's way to the finish.  In between you get a segmented story about a run-away robot, a vignette or two about what it is like to be in your twenties and already feel trapped in a life you can barely tolerate, as well as a cowboy advice column, cigarette ads, a recipe for cherry pie, and plenty more.

Just as this graphic novel covers a wide variey of topics and subject matter,  Skyscrapers of the Midwest is one of those graphic novels that runs the gamut of emotional highs and lows.  There were many times where this book had me laughing out loud.  Embarrassingly, my biggest laughter outburst happened on the bus...yes, it was a shit joke that caused me to nearly fall out of my seat. Why is that kind of stuff way funnier on the bus?

This graphic novel has some sad, melancholy moments as well.  As the main character goes about his life it is hard to not feel for the guy as he moves from one childhood trauma or disappointment to the next.

One moment that really stands out for me was when his mother gave him this awesome robot backpack for his birthday.  The kid loved the backpack, but knew that it would cause him to be the recipient of bullying and playground ridicule if he kept it.  So he did the only thing he could do in the situation; he told his mom he didn't want it, and asked her to return it.  The thing is the mom knows he likes it, knows he wants to keep it, but also understands why he can't keep it. That awkward moment of childhood disappointment was so incredibly poignant to me that I was nearly blown away.  I don't know how many times I lived that experience as a child, but I'd never been able to fully process what that all meant until I read this scene.  It's not often that I ever get to have a moment of spot-on, perfect shared experiences and shared emotion, but I got there here with a cartoon cat...fucking impressive.

As much as this graphic novel allows the reader to laugh at the hilariously tragic moments of childhood, and shed a tear or two at the truly sad parts, Skyscrapers of the Midwest is also an awesome, awesome ode to the wonders of childhood.  The artist/writer, Joshua W. Cotter achieves this by mixing in all these amazing flights of fantasy that are part of a child's brilliant imagination.  The very first scene of the graphic novel shows the main character envisioning the kids that just excluded him from a game of kickball getting squished and stomped by a rampaging giant robot.  Only after those kids are roadkill does he then imagine himself turning into a robot who not only saves the day, but gets the girls.

Later, when the unnamed protagonist is the unwitting recipient of a tongue-lashing from the girl that he likes, he works his way through the mental grief in a hilarious homemade comic starring his robot-hero/alter-ego Nova Stealth.

These moments were not only somewhat sad, somewhat funny, and fun to read, but they totally made me feel like Cotter had eerie insight into the inner workings of my childhood mind.  Cotter makes similar connections with the reader over and over throughout this graphic novel.  It's an incredible skill to be able to create something that can resonate so strongly.

Skyscrapers of the Midwest is a one of a kind comic that manages to dabble in a bunch of topics, delve deep into others, provide a few oddball moments, and even provide a hefty dose of laughs.  It's a graphic novel that is incredibly genuine, and has a heart.  It's also quite pretty to look at.

Cotter displays a number of styles here, but his primary style reminded me a bit of R. Crumb's scratchy, cross-hatched line work.  That might come off as sounding like a rough and scruffy style, but it actually looks quite good.  Things look like they have texture and depth and weight to them in Skyscrapers.  This style allowed Cotter's art to deliver a lot of the emotional impact required of the story.

The guy isn't a one trick pony either.  There was a section of the story where he does spoofs of many popular syndicated comic strips, mimicking not only the art style of the comic strip, but also the comic strip's style of humor.  In other sections of the book Cotter uses a clean ink-line style too.  In the end, Cotter proves to be just as nimble with his artistic style as he is with his story-telling skills.

As I said in the opening paragraph, this is fantastic graphic novel.  The only other thing I've read so far this year in the comics medium that rivals it is Underwater Welder and King City.  Both of those are brilliant comics, and Skyscrapers of the Midwest has the power to hang with them both.  This is one of those reads that has stuck with me ever since I read it.  Skyscrapers of the Midwest is a comic that should be read and enjoyed by many. This one comes to you Highly Recommended.  

Grade: A+