Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Review - The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

My name is Jax.

That is the name granted to be by my human masters.

I am a clakker: a mechanical man, powered by alchemy. Armies of my kind have conquered the world - and made the Brasswork Throne the sole superpower.

I am a faithful servant. I am the ultimate fighting machine. I am endowed with great strength and boundless stamina.

But I am beholden to the wishes of my human masters.

I am a slave. But I shall be free.

I have watched the rise of Ian Tregillis with great interest. I was first introduced to his work via his Milkweed Triptych books, a trilogy that included English warlocks and Nazi super soldiers pitting their wits against each other as the war raged around them. To say I was smitten with these books would be an understatement. I bloody adored them and their action filled pseudo-Lovecraftican weirdness! So when I heard that Tregillis was writing another alternate history with steampunk themes called The Mechanical, I celebrated, and then immediately ordered a copy for myself.

And boy, I am glad I did! 

I loved so many things about this book that it would take me an age or two to completely deconstruct and explain my thoughts on it, so I will try and keep it simple. This book is an absolute stunning read, and Tregillis is one of the most underrated writers in the world today. 

The Mechanical is set in an alternative universe where in the 17th century prominent scientist Christiaan Hyugens uses magic to develop an army of intelligent clockwork automatons that are bound (via a series of spells and bonds) to their masters. This breakthrough changes the face of history in Europe, with the Calvinist Dutch empire surviving and expanding rapidly whilst overthrowing their foes (who in their right mind would fight an army of automatons anyway?). The Mechanical takes place three hundred years after this, with Dutch still remaining the dominant power around the globe despite being opposed by French Papists, who are becoming more and more desperate as time passes. 

The opening pages of the book set the tone. We are introduced to the first of the main protagonists of this story, an automaton called Jax, as he watches the execution of French spies. From this beginning Tregillis launches into a tale that combines themes from steampunk, spy novels, political thrillers, and philosophical tracts. Jax, following the execution of the French spy ring in the Netherlands, find himself unwittingly (when he is used to smuggle intelligence across the Atlantic) caught up in wide ranging events alongside the other protagonist of the book, French spymaster Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord. Their fates become further entwined as they attempt, amidst the growing chaos, to achieve what they want most our of their existence, freedom (Jax) and revenge (Berenice). Their relationship is truly one of the highlights of the book. I absolutely adored the character of Jax (and the Clakkers in general), and how he struggled with his growing humanity and the dilemma of free will amidst the sea of cold cruelty from humanity around him. Jax's tale was truly absorbing, and his inner monologue and existential crisis kept me glued to the pages as I read. Berenice was also a fascinating character, with the highs and lows of her life revealing a truly complex and layered individual whose main goal in life was one of vengeance throughout the story. As her complicated struggle with life grew more tense, so did Jax's existential crisis. Add to this a cast of other spies, clakkers, and religious and political figures ruthlessly building or trying to destroy an empire and you have the makings of an incredible story. 

The world building in the Mechnical is also simply superb. As a history buff and teacher I was utterly enthralled by the world Tregillis created in this book. It was weird, wonderful, and filled with little tidbits that sent waves of contentment coursing through my brain. There is no one on earth (that I can immediately think of) that writes alternative history quite like Tregillis, and it is truly gripping when he flips history on its head and weaves themes from fantasy, steampunk, and philosophy into it. The world building alone makes this book worth buying, and then Tregillis adds a wonderful story that is filled with intrigue, action, and adventure to the melting pot to take it to that next level. 

The pacing and timing was also superb, and I tore through it in two sittings over the space of a couple of days. Whenever I had a spare moment I found myself eying the book and considering whether or not I had the time to devour another chapter instead of doing the chores around the house. That for me is the sign of a great book. I was forever looking for my fix! 

I literally cannot fault this book... and I seriously could ramble on and on for days and days about the little nuances that I loved in this book, such as the threading of the philosophies of Descartes and Spinoza (who existed in this alternative timeline!), or the clash between clockwork automatons and French applied chemistry. The Mechanical is simply an awesome tale (and the first in a series!), and one that I cannot recommend highly enough. 

If you have a beating heart and functioning brain you will love this book. 

5 out of 5 stars. 

A review copy was provided. 

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Interview - Kate Forsyth

Hey Peeps! 

I am absolutely delighted to be able to bring you yet another awesome interview in our ongoing series focusing on local (and awesome) writers. This week, Kristy (from the awesome Book Frivolity blog) and I had the amazing pleasure to chat to the legendary Kate Forsyth. Kate has had such an incredible impact on the speculative and historical fiction scene here in Australia, and it was such an honour for Kristy and I to sit down and shoot the breeze with her about writing, her latest book The Beast's Garden, and how she goes about her research and investigating for a book. (note, my questions are in black and Kristy's are in blue. Be sure to check out her amazing site too over at Book Frivolity... she's a very cool cat!) 


Kate Forsyth, welcome to Smash Dragons and Book Frivolity!

First up, tell us about yourself. 

Why did you start writing? Was it something you always envisaged doing professionally even when you were young?

I have always wanted to be a writer. There was never a moment of epiphany in which I thought: that’s it! That’s what I have to do! I just always knew. I began writing stories and poems as soon as I could hold a pencil, and I wrote my first novel when I was seven. I have never stopped since. As soon as I finish one novel, I begin thinking about the next.

Your latest book, The Beast’s Garden, is a fascinating retelling of Beauty and the Beast that is set in Nazi Germany. I’m curious, what inspired this particular story and its setting? 

The idea first came to me as a kind of dream. I was drifting between sleep and awakening, in that hypnopompic state I call the shadowlands. A lot of my best ideas come to me in that state – not quite a dream, not quite a daydream. I call it ‘liminal dreaming’. 

I saw a young woman dressed in a long golden dress, leaning on a black piano and singing in a very sensual way to a nightclub full of SS officers in their sinister black uniforms. Somehow I knew that the woman was German, and she was some kind of resistance fighter seeking to cajole secrets from the Nazi officers. More images came – I imagined her hiding in the rubble of a bombed out city, and scrabbling for something to eat in a wintry forest. I knew that she had an old battered copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that was like a talisman for her.

At the time, I was struggling with my novel The Wild Girl, which tells the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world’s most famous fairy tales. One of the stories she told him was ‘The Singing. Springing Lark’, an utterly beautiful version of ‘Beauty & the Beast’ which I loved because of the courage and steadfastness of the heroine, who must follow her beloved beast-husband for seven years and battle with the enchantress who first cursed him. I was trying to find ways to weave Dortchen’s tales through my novel, and had not yet seen my way clear. 

I was, at the same time, also working on the chapter on the Grimm brothers in my doctoral exegesis. I had discovered that Adolf Hitler had been a great fan of the Grimms, and that the Allies had banned their books and stories after the end of the Second World War. This really troubled me, as I had loved the Grimms’ fairy tales since I was a child, but had hated all that Nazism stood for since I had read Anne Frank’s Diary when I was twelve. 

These worries and anxieties had kept me from sleeping, and so I had read an old World War II thriller into the dark hours of the night. My subconscious mind connected all these different things, and somehow put them together into my vision of the girl in a golden dress (which is a key motif of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’.)

I knew at once I was going to write a story about the German resistance – even though I did not yet know there had been one! 

When re-imagining such a well-known tale, are there confines that you find you need to write within, so it doesn’t stray from the initial essence of the story? 

For me, yes. It is always very important that I am true as possible to what I see as being the spirit of the original story. This is because I love the stories so much, and believe passionately in their hidden meanings. However, I would never set those constraints upon other creative artists. I think fairy tales and myths and legends are extraordinarily versatile, and open to interpretation, and that there are many ways to turn them inside out and upside out, and shake new stories out of them. 

If so, do you write the story within the confines, or do you mould the story to them once you have the initial story down?

I write my story within the confines as I see them. 

There are a number of books that deal with the horrors of Nazi Germany, and recently some that have caused some outrage due to the indecorous ways they deal with it. How do you go about creating three dimensional characters and scenes, in a way that doesn’t infringe on the memory of those that survived such a horrific time in history, especially when it is still so fresh in our cultural memory?

You have put your finger firmly upon what was my greatest challenge in writing The Beast’s Garden. It was soul-harrowing research, and I felt very strongly the need to be as sensitive and truthful as possible. I kept imagining myself into the skin of my heroine, Ava. She was just an ordinary young woman, who had to make very difficult choices about how to live her life. She tried to be brave, she tried to be kind, she tried to be steadfast in her loves and loyalties … yet she was living at a time of terrible fear and tension, where the cost of bravery was torture and death, not only for herself but also for the ones she loved. Would I have been able to be as brave? I hope so … and yet I wonder. I am just an ordinary woman too, and it takes such courage to stand up for what you believe is right. 

Did you face any particular challenges whilst writing this book? 

The whole creative process was a challenge! The research was enormous, and horribly upsetting. I had to stare into Hitler’s face, both literally and metaphorically, day after day, week after week, month after month. I had to find some way to make my story believable (it is, after all, a fairy tale retelling!) I wanted to show something of the dreadful reality of living in Berlin during those tumultuous years. I also wanted to do my best to honour those brave souls who stood up to Hitler and paid the price for it.  

It is impossible not to study Hitler and the Holocaust without suffering some kind of existential crisis. I had to think about the very nature of evil, and what is the right way to fight against it. 

I suffered unspeakable nightmares and inexplicable anxieties the whole time I was writing the book. It made me fear for the world we live in, and wish that I could be a better person – braver, stronger, more outspoken. I am trying now to be that person, but it is hard to know sometimes what is the best thing to do. 

How much research did you undertake prior to writing it?

A great deal! Dozens and dozens of novels, non-fiction books, diaries, memoirs, poems, and documentaries. It took months.

Thanks to social media we get to follow you on some of your research travels, which is incredibly interesting for those intrigued by historical fiction research. Do you have an idea of the story before researching, or does the idea stem from the research?

Thank you so much! I’m glad you love following my strange and wild adventures.

Essentially, before I start writing a novel, I do as much reading and research as I can, so I am deeply immersed in the time and the place of the story. I plan my narrative arc carefully, and lay out as much of the skeleton of the plot as I can.

I began with a strong sense of the story I want to tell, but the process of research throws up many more ideas, and previous ideas may change and grow.

I do not start writing the novel until I have a strong feeling for my characters. Their voices, their inner lives, and, of course, the world in which they live. 

Writing the novel then presents me with many new and unexpected questions, and I return to my research books again and again, and usually realise that I need to do more.

I do not usually go on a research trip until the first rough draft of the novel is written. By then, I know what I need to discover and where I need to go. Also, by that time, I have been inhabiting the skin of my characters for a long time, and so everywhere I go will be experienced through their eyes, their ears, their soul. I cannot always control the timing of my research trips, though, as I build them around other commitments such as teaching and touring. 

For the first time ever this year, I went on a research trip for a book that I was only just beginning. This means I will need to go again next year. It is, however, a very complex and challenging novel, and so I think I will need the extra time.

Have you ever uncovered something when researching that you surprised you, something you didn't expect to find? 

Of course! All the time. That is one of the primary purposes of the research.

When writing a Historical Fantasy like Bitter Greens (2014), that spans time and continents, interweaves them with real life and fictional characters, then adds the irregularity of magic (I’m tired just thinking of it all!) - How do you keep everything from tangling, when there are so many elements intersecting and interacting at different points? When reading them, it’s easy to imagine you plotting over a huge corkboard with pins, and strings in knots! 

I record all my ideas and inspirations in a notebook, which then travels everywhere I go. I stick in maps, diagrams, photographs, copies of paintings and poems and quotes, sketches and doodles and lists of things to do, character outlines, chapter breakdowns, timelines, research notes, books to buy and books to read. The timelines and plotting plans slowly grow and develop, and I constantly type them up as they evolve, and stick them in the notebook again. Planning is everything in a book as complex as Bitter Greens, but luckily I love the planning process. 

You have written many different titles across genres ranging from fantasy through to historical fiction and children’s books. How do you think you have grown as a writer since your debut Dragonclaw was first published in 1997?

 It’s hard for me to tell! I don’t read my novels again after they are published, and I wrote Dragonclaw so long ago. I was 30 when it was published, and next year I will be 50, and I have lived a rich and full life in the meantime, so of course my writing must have changed as I have.

However, I think all of my books are woven with threads of suspense and romance and history and magic. It’s just that some are more suspenseful or romantic or magical than others, according to the story’s need. I always say that the story demands its own shape. By that, I mean that the story tells me what it needs to be, and all I do is listen and try to do my best by the story as it is shown to me. 

Is there a process involved when deciding what genre/audience age to write for next?

It mostly has to do with what story has grabbed hold of my imagination and won’t let go. I have been contracted for books that I very much wanted to write, but then have had a new and brilliant idea electrify my imagination, and been compelled to sit down and try and give it life. 

I have many more ideas than I could ever write, though, and sometimes I need to think about my husband and my children, and their needs. For example, I badly wanted to write Bitter Greens, my retelling of ‘Rapunzel’, for a very long time. However, I knew it would be a very difficult and time-consuming book, and so I waited until my youngest child had started school. That meant I could write full-time for the first time. Similarly, my son has been doing his final school exams this year, and so I’m having a much quieter year, and not touring the world! 

When world-building for your Fantasy novels, are you a Gardener or An Architect?

I’m both, of course. And neither. I really dislike this kind of simplistic approach to the creative process. Each book develops differently, and throws up new challenges and offers new rewards. I think planning is a very important part of the process, but I also believe passionately in the importance of intuition, spontaneity, and surprise. Each new book is a new emotional and psychological journey for me, and calls on a whole range of different creative tools. 

What is your take on the state of Australian speculative fiction? 

I think it’s wonderfully diverse and fresh, and has a strong sense of community and camaraderie. I love the work of so many Australian writers, and am very glad I can call so many of them friends.

In your opinion, what do we need more of?


What has been the best thing a fan has ever said to you in regards to your work?

I am so blessed in the love and support of my readers, and get so many wonderful, heart-warming and uplifting letters and emails and artworks. I actually print the loveliest ones out, and stick them in my diary, so that whenever I’m feeling a little low, I can read them again and remind myself that there are many people who love what I do. 

The best messages are always the ones that say, essentially, ‘your books helped save my life.’ 

It’s always a humbling and sobering experience, and reminds me to always take what I do seriously. Art must have serious intent.

Hypothetical question… if you could become a character in another fantasy writers universe who would it be and why? 

I’d want to be Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!

Obligatory Top 5 Fantasy Reads?

(If you don’t mind, I’m going to answer this in two parts.)

1) The 5 Fantasy Reads That Shaped Me (not counting children’s books)

J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings 
Terry Brooks, The Sword of Shannara
Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave 
Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon
Tad Williams, Memory, Sorrow, Thorn

2) My favourite Australian Fantasy Reads

Garth Nix, Sabriel
Juliet Marillier, Daughter of the Forest
Lian Hearn, Across the Nightingale Floor
Alison Croggon, The Riddle
Kim Wilkins, Daughters of the Storm

Obligatory Top 5 Historical Fiction Reads?

1) The 5 Historical Novels that Shaped me (not counting children’s books)

Isabel Allende, The House of Spirits
Tracy Chevalier, Girl with a Pearl Earring
Sarah Dunant, The Birth of Venus
Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl
Susan Vreeland, Girl in Hyacinth Blue

2) My favourite Australian Fantasy Reads

Jesse Blackadder, The Raven’s Heart
Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders
Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden
Kim Wilkins, The Angel of Ruin
Marcus Zusak, The Book Thief

Everyone needs to know – Are you an e-booker or dead tree collector?

I prefer p-books, because of their beauty, and also because I like to read in the bath. I also find my eyes are tired after a long day in front of the computer, and printed books are more soothing to tired eyes. 

However, I read a lot on my i-pad as well, particularly when I’m travelling. And I love the instant gratification of getting a book as soon as I want it!

I also buy a lot of old books, particularly if they are signed by the author! 

What authors/genres/books are you reading at the moment?

In the past week or so I have read:

Jane Yolen, Snow in Summer (YA fairytale retelling)
Anne Gracie, The Spring Bride (Regency romance)
Angus Donald, Outlaw (historical fiction)
Michael Morpugo, Kaspar, King of Cats (illustrated children’s book)
Martin Walker, Children of War (contemporary crime)
Jan Marsh, Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life, (literary biography)

So you can see I have a very eclectic reading diet!

Complete the following sentences – 

Fantasy and Historical Fiction rocks because… they open our eyes to other ways of living and thinking.

If I were Empress of the Earth I would… make sure every child had enough to eat and enough to read.

Vegemite flavoured chocolate is… a terrible waste of chocolate.

I am taking Kristy on my next (all expenses paid) research trip to… Let’s make it France and Italy, shall we? Got your passport?

What’s next for you? 

I am working on a new novel about the painting of the famous ‘Briar Rose’ series of paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. 

Can we expect to see you at any events or conventions over the next few months? 

My son is beginning his final school exams in a matter of weeks, and so I am keeping a very low profile till he is finished. I am at the Jewish Literary Festival in Sydney on 30 August, at the ASA National Congress in Sydney on 11 September, and I might be coming up to GenreCon in Brisbane in late October (the week my son’s exams finish!) Then I’ll be at Supanova in Adelaide on 21 & 22 November. That’s it! Hopefully I can gets lots of writing done. 

And finally, best advice for any aspiring authors out there?

I think the best advice I can give anyone is to have courage, and to keep the faith in yourself and your story. Writing is a very challenging occupation, for so many reasons, and the only way to triumph is to never let yourself believe the dark voices in your head. Be brave, stay strong, and never give up!

Kate Forsyth, thank you for talking to Smash Dragons and Book Frivolity!

The Beast's Garden is available for purchase at all good online and bricks and mortar retailers. Be sure to check out Booktopia for a signed copy (if they haven't already sold out mind you) of it! Also, Random House has recently released new jacketed versions (see photo above for Dragonclaw cover) of Kate's wonderful Witches of Eileanan series. We recommend you purchase these books immediately! Finally, be sure to check out Kristy's Book Frivolity webpage here. She is an amazing reviewer, and a passionate supporter of all things historical and speculative fiction.  

Until next time people, be nice to each other, and keep on reading!

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Interview - Bradley P. Beaulieu

Hey Everyone!

I am delighted to bring you yet another cracking interview with an author I consider to be one of my new found favourites. Bradley P. Beaulieu has quietly spent the last decade writing and learning his craft, whilst also publishing books such as the widely loved and acclaimed Winds of Khalakovo. With the upcoming and highly anticipated release of Bradley's newest book Twelve Kings (Twelve Kings Sharakhai for US readers) in September we decided to sit down and chat to Brad about writing, life in general, and how Twelve Kings is set to rock our worlds! 

Bradley P. Beaulieu, welcome to Smash Dragons!

First up, tell me a bit about yourself, and your upcoming book Twelve Kings.

Who am I? I’m a computer science major who loves epic fantasy and has been writing it since I decided it was time to take my hobby seriously.

Twelve Kings is my fourth published novel and marks the first in a new series, a “Game of Thrones meets Arabian Nights” sort of tale. The twist is that it follows one young woman closely through the story, and shows how she stands up to the twelve immortal kings who rule the city state of Sharakhai with an iron fist.

What was your motivation behind writing this story? Where did you draw your inspiration from? 

I’d long wanted to scratch the itch to write a desert story. I can attribute this partly to liking the tales of the Arabian Nights (or One Thousand and One Nights), particularly the milieu. In fact, as my last series, The Lays of Anuskaya, progresses, you can see more and more of the Persian-influenced Aramahn coming into the picture, culminating in long stretches of desert scenes in the final book, The Flames of Shadam Khoreh.

So the desert was something I really wanted to explore, and I knew I wanted to steep the history of the city in a nomadic, Bedouin-like culture, but I’d probably (letting my geek flag fly here a bit) give the most credit to the Thieves’ World anthologies for the inspiration for the setting. I loved the city of Sanctuary when I first starting reading the anthologies in high school. I loved that it was the “armpit of the empire,” that it was a meeting point of old and new as the Rankan Empire drove into Ilsigi territory, that there were pantheons of gods vying for power, and in fact commingling even as they fought. Above all, I loved the vastness of Sanctuary and the hidden wonders it contained.

The feel of that is what I wanted to explore with Sharakhai. Sharakhai is in some ways a mere city state. But in effect it controls trade throughout a massive desert bordered by four powerful kingdoms, and because it controls trade, it has amassed incredible wealth and power. It hasn’t done so without making enemies along the way, however. The twelve immortal kings of Sharakhai are hated by many. And the roots of the story are buried deeply in that hatred.

Did you face any particular challenges in getting this book off the ground? 

I’m going to say no to this one, with the exception of timing. I like to let book ideas marinate for a year or two before diving into them. Which works well for me, as I typically start brainstorming new books while I’m writing other ones. In this case, I was finishing up The Lays of Anuskaya while getting the ideas together for The Song of the Shattered Sands. I also wanted to get a partial to my agent well ahead of finishing the Anuskaya series so that we (hopefully) have a contract in hand by the time I was done and could simply shift straight to the next set of books.

So that was the plan, but it did take quite a bit of time to develop the plot, to write the first partial, to come up with the full series outline, etc. In the end, though, it all worked out, and I feel very fortunate to have landed with such great publishers.

Twelve Kings is filled with a cast of compelling and amazing characters. Who was your favourite to write? Why?

Well, I identify and sympathize with main character, Çeda, the most, but that wasn’t really what you asked. If you hear actors talk about their favorite roles, it’s often the villains they cite as their favorites. Why? Because they’re nasty. They’re more unpredictable. They get the best lines. And I think this is true for writers as well.

In this case, I felt like I had to have at least one POV dedicated to the kings, and in this case I chose King Ihsan, a man known as the Honey-tongued King. He was really fun to write because he has power, he has a biting tongue, and he has hidden agendas. If that isn’t a formula for a fun character to write, I don’t know what is.

If you were a Pit Fighter in Sharakhai what would be your weapon of choice? 

There’s a fair bit of east-Asian weaponry and culture in the books. I wrote a scene recently with Çeda wielding a three-sectioned staff. That was a ton of fun to write. So I’ll choose that, mostly because it looks really flashy.

Why did you start writing? Was it something you saw yourself doing when you were younger? 

I came to writing pretty late. I didn’t really get serious about it until my thirties. I never really saw myself as a writer when I was younger. I loved computers and software, and that’s what I went to college for and eventually got my degree in. But I was always reading, and I’d dabbled here and there with getting more serious about writing.

After finally finishing my first trunk novel, I wrote a few more (alas, also trunk novels). I started attending writing conventions and learning the ropes of publishing. And then I started to go to writing conferences and attending workshops. It’s been a fun ride when I look back on it. I really do love the world of publishing, warts and all, and it’s been intensely interesting to see the contract side of things, how agents and editors and publicists work. Maybe I’m strange, but I like seeing how the sausage is made.

How do you feel you have grown as a writer when looking back over your career so far? 

I think all writers are trying to improve our craft as we write. When I was writing The Lays of Anuskaya, I was very concerned about lulls in the action. I felt the readers’ eyes over my shoulder, and whenever there was a pause, I felt like it couldn’t be allowed. I’ve since realized that while it’s important to stay focused on the plot, there is a need to show the characters outside of it as well, to let the reader sit down in the world a bit. You should do even that with purpose (with an eye toward where the story as a whole is going), but I think it gives the reader the sense that these characters are real, that this place is real. It gives a sense that the times of tension and strife mean something. It creates, in other words, more emotional contrast in the tale, which serves to enrich the world.

I’ve also shifted slightly away from the “everything is gray” mode of writing that permeates a lot of epic fantasy and grimdark fiction. That’s not to say that I’ve gone for absolute goods and evils, a la Tolkien, but I do think that the notions of good and evil are useful, even important, to a lot of readers. They’re a convenient sort of shorthand, a cue as to who the reader should love or hate (which is partly why the practice is maligned), but another aspect of good vs. evil is that it acts as a proxy for the inner desires of the readers to fight the evil they see in the world. So I’ve tried to relax my notions of what a villain and a hero should be to lean in to the concept of good and evil a bit more.

Take me through a day of writing with you. Are you a planner or pantser? 

I work as an IT solution architect during the day (sounds a lot fancier than it is). At night, I hang out with the family, and then help get my kids to bed. Then it’s time to write. I generally take an hour and a half, and in that time, I get about 1,000 words done. That’s my daily goal. 1k words per day, 20k minimum per month. That nets me one large novel per year, plus more time for some shorter projects. I’d love to up my word count by going part-time at the day job, but I’m not yet ready to make that leap.

I used to be a very plot-driven writer, to the detriment of my writing. I’ve worked hard over the years to change that and to learn a lot more about the characters so that they can guide me and make the stories more character-driven. I’m not really able to figure a character out, though, until I start writing about them, so early on, it’s still true that plot plays a larger role, but as I learn more about the characters, plot and character play off of one another, slowly and imperfectly leading me toward the climax of the story.

Hypothetical question. You have been selected to join the first colonization mission to Mars. Due to payload restrictions you can only take three hardback books with you. What titles would you select, and why? 

There’s got to be a single, bound volume of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, right? Is that cheating? I don’t care, that’s one, because those are my all-time favorite books.

Second, hmmm. I’m going to go with a few books that have really impressed me lately, rather than all-time favorites. One is The Ocean at the End of the Lane; the other is The City and The City. They’re both brilliant (brilliant!) books, but very different from one another.

I think those three books would give me a lot of variation to keep me busy for a while, at least until we start the first publishing company on Mars.

One of the things that I love about your work is that you incorporate incredibly unique and diverse settings for your stories. What is your design process when building these settings? I have noticed that you refer to photos and pictures a lot whilst writing.  

One of my favorite resources these past few years has been Pinterest. I use that a lot to collect the rough ideas and inspirations for special places in the stories I’m writing, whether it’s a grand palace, a canyon in the desert, a place in the slums, or what have you. Beyond that, I simply try to show off the world. There are so many places scenes could be set, so why not vary them, create contrast through place as well as through character and the tone of the writing? It’s yet another tool in the writer’s toolbox, and I do enjoy the set designer’s role. So it’s one I take my time with and to try to make it something the reader will enjoy.

If you could spend the day with one other writer (dead or alive) to get their advice who would it be, and why? 

Aboslutely it would be Tolkien. I would love to chat with him about his process, the things that came easy to him, the things that he had to work hard at. I’d love to learn more about the delay between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I’d love to hear him talk about his “ah ha!” moments, the things that opened up his writing for him. I’d like to hear about his influences.

And if we could do it while strolling around Oxford, so much the better!

Complete the following sentences – 

If I were Overlord of the Earth I would… order the immediate and full adoption of renewable energy sources.

The next person who mispronounces my last name will… be forced to eat a pound of Stilton cheese.

Fantasy fiction needs more… humor. It goes such a long way of making other emotions feel more real.

What are you reading right now? 

I’m finishing up The Golem and the Jinni, a brilliant, brilliant book by Helene Wecker. It’s the sort of book that makes me jealous of how good the writing is, but it does so in an inspiring way, pushing me to make my own writing better.

Will you be doing any events or conventions to promote the release of Twelve Kings?  

Coming up, I have my local book launch and a few signings. I’ll be visiting New York Comic Con in October. Later that month I’ll be heading to the UK for a small tour, starting with Gollancz Fest, a few signings in and around London, and wrapping up with a visit to FantasyCon in Nottingham. (I can’t wait for that trip!) And the last con planned for this year is World Fantasy, my favorite convention. It’ll be a great way to wrap up this crazy year.

Finally, can we expect to see you visiting Australia anytime soon?

I truly hope so! I have no current plans, but you never know. If the Australian market demands me, my publisher will have no choice but to send me there. So come on, Australia! Brad wants to hug a real koala!

Bradley P. Beaulieu, thank you for taking the time to chat with us here at Smash Dragons!

Twelve Kings will be available from all good online retailers and bricks and mortar stores from September 1st. And a heads up... we here at Smash Dragons have read it... and holy hell it is awesome! Our review will go up on the day of release. 

Also remember to check out Brad's blog and website at for book related news, fantasy discussion, and general geeky coolness! 

Until next time peeps... be nice to each other, and keep on reading! 

Monday, 10 August 2015

Had a moment today...

I had a weird experience today. 

It all began normal enough. I was playing with my daughter outside. The sun was shining, and there was a gentle breeze floating across our yard. All of a sudden, amidst all of the games and giggling, I suddenly was flooded by thoughts about my dad. 

Time ground to a halt, and grief and emotion burst out of me in a torrent that I struggled to hold back. Memories of past games of Hero Quest, or trips to the library with my dad became very real again as I stood in the yard wiping my eyes and shaking with grief as my daughter watched me with concern. 

You see, my dad was my hero, and the person who was ultimately responsible for fuelling my love for all things speculative fiction.

He was the one who read fairy tales to me at my bed side of a night. 

He was the one who introduced me to D&D and played it with me. 

He was the one who ultimately taught me about the amazing and simple pleasure that reading a book can bring. 

And he was also the one who taught me to be the man and father I am today. 

I have unconsciously carried on so many of his practices and mannerisms as a father to me with my own child now, or so my mum tells me. This makes me smile. 

When I think about the past it is crazy that it has been eight long years since I lost my dad. At times, like today, it still feels very raw and sudden. I miss our conversations about books, or footy, or just anything in general. In fact I just miss him. 

And it makes me very sad that my daughter, who is my greatest gift to this world, will never know the warmth of a cuddle from her granddad, or the wonder of a story told to her by someone who truly was a master at it. Roald Dahl, Narnia, and The Hobbit.. you name it.. he mastered it. 

I honestly don't know where I would be today if it wasn't for my dad. And now, as my daughter snuggles up to me as I type this, I can only think about being the best dad I can be to her by doing all of the things he did for me when I was growing up. 

My dad was, and still is, my hero. 

Miss ya mate. 

Friday, 7 August 2015

Interview - Marc Turner

Hey Everyone!

I am delighted to bring you yet another cracking interview here at Smash Dragons. This week I had the amazing opportunity to chat with author Marc Turner. For those of you who don't know Marc, he recently released his debut fantasy novel When the Heavens Fall in May. To coincide with the release of the paperback edition of this title here in Australia (available from the 1st of August), Marc kindly offered to sit down and chat to us here about various things such as writing, getting a tattoo, and feet reading. 


Marc Turner, welcome to Smash Dragons!

Thanks for having me.

Tell us a bit about yourself, and your novel When the Heavens Fall. 

I was born in Canada, but grew up in England. I did a law degree at university, and stuck it out as a lawyer for about ten years before finally coming to my senses and deciding to try my hand at being a writer. I write epic fantasy novels, of which When the Heavens Fall is my first.

When the Heavens Fall tells the story of a mage who steals an artefact, the Book of Lost Souls, that gives him power over the dead. He uses it to resurrect an ancient civilization in order to challenge Shroud, the Lord of the Dead, for control of the underworld. And what could possibly go wrong with a plan like that, right? Quite a lot, as it happens. Shroud responds by sending his elite followers to seize the Book. But the god is not the only one interested in the artefact, and a host of other forces converge, drawn by the magic that has been unleashed.

The paperback edition of your book is out on the 1st of August here in Australia. I’m curious, how has the journey been so far following the initial release of When the Heavens Fall earlier this year?

It’s been a breakneck ride, that’s for sure. The book came out in the US and the UK just two months ago, but it feels much longer. Seeing my book in my local bookshop was obviously a momentous experience as well as a slightly surreal one, particularly since my surname follows closely on from Tolkien. Pretty lofty company to keep on a bookshelf, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Since then, there’s been little time to pause and reflect. When the Heavens Fall is the first in a series, and I’ve been busy promoting it while editing book two and writing book four. Sometimes all at the same time. 

What motivated you to write When the Heavens Fall? Did you face any particular challenges whilst getting it off the ground?

When it came to motivation, I guess there were pushes and pulls. On the pushes side, I was in a job I wanted to get out of. On the pulls side, I’ve been writing on and off for as long as I can remember, without ever committing myself to a project the size of When the Heavens Fall. Before I went the extra distance I wanted to know if my writing was up to the mark, so I wrote the first two chapters and sent them to a “book-doctoring” organisation that arranges for published authors to read and comment on your work. The feedback I got was very positive, so that inspired me to take the plunge.

I did face some very particular challenges on the road to publication, but I’m not sure they are things I should be sharing! Come and find me at a convention and ask me again.

Magic plays an important part in this story. Tell me, if you could pick one of the magical powers in your novel what would it be and why?

Just now I’m thinking Vale’s ability to change the speed at which he moves through time would come in handy. With a power like that, challenging deadlines would become a thing of the past.

Describe When the Heavens Fall in 25 words or less. 

Lord of the Rings meets World War Z.

Who was your favourite character to write in When the Heavens Fall? Why? In your opinion what makes a good character? 

My favourite character to write was probably the high priestess, Romany. Romany is a mix of ruthlessness and entitled haughtiness, so I suppose I should be concerned at how readily her voice came to me. In particular, her conversations with her patron goddess, the Spider, were enjoyable. The two of them have a testing relationship. There’s mutual respect there, but they also like scoring points off each other, and that made their scenes fun to write.

As to what makes a good character, that’s a tricky question. To start with, I think there’s a world of difference between a “bad” character and a character you don’t like. Too often the two are equated. For me, a “bad” character is one that is clichéd, or lacking in depth, or who follows the plot rather than driving it forwards.

I think a good character needs to one you can sympathise with on some level, but of course different people will sympathise with different characters. Personally, I like characters that show some element of inner struggle. Characters that are shades of grey, rather than all white or black. I dislike all-white characters as much as I dislike all-black ones, which is why you’ll never find any traditional “hero” types in my books. I just don’t find them interesting enough to want to write about them.

In When the Heavens Fall, I have four POV characters, two male, two female. One of the advantages of using multiple POVs is that you can include a variety of personalities – and you should do, else you will end up with different flavours of the same person, and the reader will struggle to tell them apart.

I’m always interested to see which of the POV characters in When the Heavens Fall my readers like best. I’d say a consensus is forming as to who is the most popular, but I’m not going to say who it is! Even when people agree on a favourite character, though, they rarely agree on the other characters.

Who are your literary influences? If you could sit down for one day with another author to pick their brain who would it be and why? 

The authors whose work I would say have influenced me most are Joe Abercrombie and in particular Steven Erikson. I loved the depth of his worldbuilding, and the way he brings multiple storylines together at the end for a suitably climactic finale. That’s something I’ve tried to do myself in When the Heavens Fall.

Unsurprisingly, Erikson would also be the author whose brain I’d like to pick. I enjoyed the final book in the Malazan series, The Crippled God, but I remember being left with a whole series of unanswered questions. So if I could speak to Steven Erikson I’d try to get him to fill in some of the blanks. With thumbscrews, if necessary.

Tell me a random fact about yourself. 

I once had my feet “read” by a man who believed he could tell someone’s personality from the shape and position of their toes. He’d even written a book about it. I was doing some freelance journalism for magazines at the time, and the foot reading formed part of my article. As an insight into my character, it was surprisingly accurate, too. Or at least the nice bits were.

What is your take on the speculative fiction genre at the moment? What does fantasy fiction need more of? 

You may be surprised to hear that I don’t read much fantasy at the moment. Writing seems to take up all my time. As such, I’m probably the last person to ask for an opinion on the speculative fiction genre just now. Having said that, I think more books by that Marc Turner guy could only be a good thing.

What drew you to the genre in the first place? Can you recall a particular moment where you fell head over heels for fantasy fiction? 

The first fantasy I can remember reading was Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings. At the time, it was unlike anything else I’d read before, and after reading it I devoured everything I could find by the likes of Raymond Feist, Stephen Donaldson, and so forth. I’d struggle to tell you what drew me to the genre back then, but now I enjoy fantasy for the high stakes, the expansive scale, and for the opportunity to lose myself in a secondary world.

Every author has their own particular methods and idiosyncrasies when writing. What are yours? 

There’s one technique I have that I suspect most people will find unusual. I write books with multiple POVs, and I write the story of each character in turn. So I’ll write the whole story of character one, then the whole story of character two and so on. I’ll then edit them separately as well. It’s only comparatively late in the process that I’ll start weaving them together into the finished book.

It takes a lot of planning at the outset to make it work, and I have come unstuck at times. But I find that it helps me maintain a consistent character voice.

What is the most loved book on your shelves? For example, mine is a battered copy of Moorcock’s Stormbringer that my dad owned before he passed away.  

Can I say my own? Well it is my debut!

Complete the following sentences – 

My weapon of choice for gladiatorial combat would be…

A gun. But then I did read King of Thorns recently.

If I had to get a tattoo that was inspired by my book it would be…

The dragon that appears on the US cover of Dragon Hunters. I have a few favourite quotes from When the Heavens Fall, but they’re probably too long (and thus too painful) to consider.

The best and worst aspects about being a writer are…

The best aspect would have to be the planning stage of a book, when you can let your imagination roam, thinking up new characters and storylines. Before you have to do any real, you know, work.

The worst aspect is when I have one of those days when the words won’t come together, no matter how hard you try. Sometimes I re-read what I’ve written and I think I could teach my dog to do better. And I don’t even have a dog.

How is your next book coming along? The cover art for it looks amazing too by the way!

I recently finished the final edit of book two, and it was an interesting experience. I wrote Dragon Hunters maybe four years ago, so there were parts of it I’d actually forgotten. It features different characters from When the Heavens Fall, and in some ways it’s a different type of story. I can’t really expand on that much without giving spoilers, but it takes place in a different part of the world and over a much shorter time period – just four days. As such, there isn’t really a quest element to it. I’m looking forward to seeing what people think of it when it comes out.

Can we expect you down under here in Australia anytime in the future? 

Absolutely. That was you offering to buy my plane ticket, wasn’t it?

Finally, best writing tip for aspiring authors? 

For the minutes or hours you're writing, the thing in front of you should be the most important piece of fiction you've ever written. Every chapter, every scene, every paragraph has to be the best you can make it. And you should have fun doing it too, because if you don’t find the writing enjoyable, you can’t expect the reader to.

Marc Turner, thank you for chatting to us here at Smash Dragons!

The pleasure was mine.

When the Heavens Fall is available from all good bookstores and online retailers. We here at Smash Dragons loved it, and highly recommend that you head online immediately to buy it. 

Until next time peeps, be nice to each other and keep on reading!


Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Review - Half a War by Joe Abercrombie

Words are weapons

Princess Skara has seen all she loved made blood and ashes. She is left with only words. But the right words can be as deadly as any blade. She must conquer her fears and sharpen her wits to a lethal edge if she is to reclaim her birthright.

Only half a war is fought with swords

The deep-cunning Father Yarvi has walked a long road from crippled slave to king’s minister. He has made allies of old foes and stitched together an uneasy peace. But now the ruthless Grandmother Wexen has raised the greatest army since the elves made war on God, and put Bright Yilling at its head – a man who worships no god but Death.

Sometimes one must fight evil with evil

Some – like Thorn Bathu and the sword-bearer Raith – are born to fight, perhaps to die. Others – like Brand the smith and Koll the wood-carver – would rather stand in the light. But when Mother War spreads her iron wings, she may cast the whole Shattered Sea into darkness.

Oh Joe... words escape me! Where do I even begin when reviewing this title? 

Perhaps an opening statement?

I LOVED IT! (although I had some minor issues with characterisation... more on that soon). 

Half a War is a fitting finale to what has arguably been one of the most interesting and unique set of books I've read in recent times. In true Joe Abercrombie fashion he kicks in the door from the opening pages, dazzles us with a smile, and proceeds to render wholesale death, vengeance, and destruction on levels that are best left whispered about behind closed doors!

In Half a War the Shattered Seas are in chaos. King Uthil and Grom-gil-Gorm are in open rebellion against the High King, and Grandmother Wexen has gathered a huge army to wage war with. It is in this environment that Abercrombie thrusts a raft of new characters, as they attempt to survive and influence (alongside some old favourites in the background) events as they spiral out of control around them. 

And therein lies my issue with this book. I may as well get it out of the way early so I can talk about what I loved. 

New major characters... in the final book of a trilogy... huh? 

Don't get me wrong, Skara, Raith, and Koll (who we know already) all end being fascinating protagonists, but none of them had the massive emotional pull on me that Yarvi, Thorn, and Brand  had had in the previous instalments of this series. The problem, I think, is caused by two things in Half a War.  Firstly, none of the protagonists seem to wield much power in this book. Major decisions are seemingly made by others (such as Yarvi) in the background, and almost all of the outcomes of the story are shaped by people other then our protagonists. This left me feeling a little underwhelmed, despite the fact that characters such as Skara were incredibly well crafted (she would have been AMAZING if she had had some more agency prior to the ending). 

Secondly, Abercrombie didn't leave me enough time to develop any major emotional attachment to these new characters. The secret of Abercrombie's past success has, in my opinion, been his ability to mould characters that we not only love but also secretly hate. Yarvi is the perfect example of this in Half a War. Sometimes he does things that are incredibly harsh and cruel without any iota of remorse or explanation. We collectively gnash out teeth in response, and shake our fists at the sky for five minutes. Inevitably, however, we are swept up again into the tragedy that is playing out before us as. This sort of emotional involvement in a character however takes time to set up, and even a writer as talented as Abercrombie cannot do it properly over the space of one book (especially the final book of a trilogy). As such, Skara, Raith, and Koll were all solid without being amazingly all consuming like Father Yarvi (who kinda sat in the background again in this book) was to me throughout this series. 

Now that I've gotten that minor bit of displeasure out of the way I can wax lyrical about what I loved!

The action and and adventure in Half a War was (like in all Abercrombie' stories) awesome and bloody. The war to end all wars is depicted brutally, and death and mayhem reigns supreme all throughout this book. Sacrifices are made for the greater good (although good and bad are very subjective terms), and vengeance is taken many times over. I would argue that Abercrombie has reached new heights in Half a War in terms of weaving intricate and fascinating fights and battles. This is high praise when you consider the quality of writing that Abercrombie wielded in books such as The Blade Itself. The stakes were ever present in Half a War, and they got higher and higher as the plot unfolded. I also adored how within these parts of the book Abercrombie incorporated an examination of what it meant to be a hero or villain, and how the idea of the greater good is used to justify evil acts of violence and murder. It was these scenes that kept me enthralled when I found myself not engaging with the protagonists as much as I would have liked. 

The world of the Shattered Seas is also revealed more in Half a War. We learn more about the past events that led to the downfall of previous civilisation, as Yarvi delves more and more into the world of Elf Magic (long lost technology). Some people have expressed displeasure with how Abercrombie handled Elf Magic throughout this book, but I found it to be in line with how I imagined a medieval pseudo-Viking society would react to and use technology that they didn't full comprehend. I adored the inclusion of their weapons in the final battles, and the creepy scenes involving the forbidden city were magnificently described. The pacing itself was also fast and efficient, with no significant moments of inaction or boredom. All of the plot threads that Abercrombie started in the first book of this trilogy are sewn up nicely, and he leaves us with an outstanding twist at the end that left me a little stunned in all honesty. 

All in all Half a War, when considered as a part of a series, is a magnificent book that finishes what has been a scintillating post apocalyptic pseudo-Viking adventure of the highest order. Is it as strong as Half a King (the first book in this trilogy)? No. It has its weaknesses (which I have expressed above) when compared to that brilliant debut, but damn it is still a cracking read that is well worth checking out. 

I loved it, despite its flaws. 

4 out of 5 stars. 

A review copy was provided. 

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Quick Update

Hi Everyone,

Things have slowed down here for the past week due to my daughter being in hospital. All is well though, she is on the road to recovery and things should pick up on the blog later this week once family routine settles back down.

I have a review of Joe Abercrombie's Half a War coming up for the blog in a few days, and I have interviews with Marc Turner, Bradley P. Beaulieu, and Kate Forsyth to conduct over the next fortnight. Exciting times!

Never fear, I shall be back up to full speed soon.