Bookbanter Column: Goodreads and Amazon Living Together . . . Mass Hysteria!

On Thursday, March 28th, it was announced that Amazon is buying the popular social networking and book review site, Goodreads.  Founded in 2007, it now has more than 16 million members, and will logically serve as an advantageous addition to the growing Amazon juggernaut.

On the Goodreads blog, the CEO and co-founder Otis Chandler said the site “will continue to be the wonderful community that we all cherish.  We plan to continue offering you everything that you love about the site – the ability to track what you read, discover great books, discuss and share them with fellow book lovers, and connect directly with your favorite authors – and your reviews and ratings will remain here on Goodreads.  And it’s incredibly important to us that we remain a home for all types of readers, no matter if you read on paper, audio, digitally, from scrolls, or even stone tablets.”

Unsurprisingly, reactions from various types of people in the book industry were both visceral and volatile.  There was shock from many on Facebook and Twitter, and lots of vocal disappointment.

Many announced that they had instantly cancelled their Goodreads accounts, and I wonder now how many have since renounced their love of Goodreads and how much that 16 million-member number has dropped.

What is perhaps most hurtful about this merging is the Goodreads CEO said, “We could not think of a more perfect partner for Goodreads as we both share a love of books and appreciation for the authors who write them.”  Chandler makes it sound like Goodreads had many different groups coming to them with hopes of working together.  Amazon may be a place where one can buy books and see what people think and have to say about them, but “love of books” and “appreciation for the authors who write them.”

Yeah, that’s not what I think of when I think of Amazon.

On his blog, Jarek Steele of Left Bank Books had this to say: “Really Goodreads?  You’ve forsaken all the other opportunities to partner with independent bookstores, Kobo, even Barnes & Noble and the Nook?  How about iPad?  Also, who at Amazon has a love of books and authors?”

I’ve been an avid book reviewer for over a decade now, and have my reviews up on a number of sites online: my website, The Sacramento Book Review, and Amazon.  In November of 2007 I learned about this new site and community called Goodreads.  I now have 683 book reviews up on Goodreads, have rated 992 books, and have 2,759 friends.  I have also listed my self-published books on there and received reviews, as well as interacting with the readers.

About every three months or so, I will spend time uploading all my new reviews to Goodreads and Amazon.  Over the years I have been doing this, I continue to receive comments from readers on the review, whether they liked the book, as well as other thoughts and discussions.  What is interesting about this is that while I have not conducted a physical survey to prove it, I have discovered a couple of interesting things about posting my reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.

  • Goodreads seems to have more commenters on book reviews, giving thoughts and ideas about both the book and review; there is more interaction and discussion involved.  As compared to Amazon where comments are rare and terse.
  • Goodreads comments tend to be polite and complimentary, while Amazon comments are invariably angry, spiteful, and mean spirited.  I would estimate that this is true for over 95% of my reviews.  I can think of hundreds of positive and interesting comments I have received on Goodreads, with only a few negative ones.  While on Amazon, I have received a number of acceptable and appreciative comments, but far more negative, reactionary comments that seem either unfounded or unnecessary.  It’s a review of a book; it’s one person’s opinion.  And yet apparently this really gets to the types of people who hang around and troll on Amazon.

I am certainly not happy about this news of Amazon acquiring Goodreads, but I also don’t know what it will mean in the future for Goodreads.  Will it become one entity with Amazon and just one place for reviews?  If so, what does that mean about the thoughtful commenting and engaging discussion I’m used to with Goodreads?  Will this die away, or will it fight against those other types of commenters on Amazon?  Or will there be some strange, peaceful coexistence?

It’s just one of those things that only time will tell.  The good thing about the Internet and those 16 or so million members of Goodreads is that if Amazon does something really stupid to change or mess up Goodreads, you know us 16 million strong are going to be on the offensive against Amazon, and that’s a lot of pissed off vocal people.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.

Bookbanter Column: Remembering James Herbert

There are probably not too many people familiar with James Herbert, who was the equivalent of Stephen King in Britain: a huge bestselling horror author.  He started from simple beginnings, as many writers do: he studied graphic design, print and photography and then worked at an advertising agency.

Then, in the early seventies, in just ten months, he wrote his first book, called The Rats.

The Rats is a horror novel set in London that brilliantly catches the feeling of the city at that time in the early part of the decade, and is about very ordinary people with very ordinary lives.

But then a new mutant form of rat evolves that grows to be the size of some small dogs. And these rats soon develop a hunger for human flesh and begin their attack on London, mercilessly killing.

It’s up to the people of London — at least those still alive who haven’t fled — to save the city and its survivors from these terrifying, giant, blood-thirsty rats.

The short novel sold 100,000 copies in three weeks and was later adapted into a movie. It would go on to be one of Herbert’s bestselling and most known books, much like with Stephen King and his debut novel (also short), Carrie.

[CONTINUE READING . . .]

Bookbanter Column: Remembering James Herbert

There are probably not too many people familiar with James Herbert, who was the equivalent of Stephen King in Britain: a huge bestselling horror author.  He started from simple beginnings, as many writers do: he studied graphic design, print and photography and then worked at an advertising agency.

Then, in the early seventies, in just ten months, he wrote his first book, called The Rats.

The Rats is a horror novel set in London that brilliantly catches the feeling of the city at that time in the early part of the decade, and is about very ordinary people with very ordinary lives.

But then a new mutant form of rat evolves that grows to be the size of some small dogs. And these rats soon develop a hunger for human flesh and begin their attack on London, mercilessly killing.

It’s up to the people of London — at least those still alive who haven’t fled — to save the city and its survivors from these terrifying, giant, blood-thirsty rats.

The short novel sold 100,000 copies in three weeks and was later adapted into a movie. It would go on to be one of Herbert’s bestselling and most known books, much like with Stephen King and his debut novel (also short), Carrie.

Herbert wrote twenty-three novels over his career and sold fifty-four million copies around the world.

Herbert’s talents as a horror writer were in that he wrote about the things that terrify many people, or even things that are mildly scary that he turned into something horrifying. Some of these books include The Dark, which was literally about an approaching darkness that could kill you; and The Fog. 

Again, there is another similarity with Stephen King, who wrote the short story The Mist. And much like Stephen King, James Herbert would always use ordinary, non-superhero people with normal jobs in a setting and story that would push them to go way beyond their average lives.

Herbert also had a talent for the ghost story and the tale of the haunted house. A number of his novels were on this subject, including: Haunted, The Ghost’s of Sleath, Others, The Secret of Crickley Hall, and his last published novel, Ash, featuring a returning parapsychologist character of the same name.

Occasionally, Herbert would try something completely different, like he did with Fluke, a book written entirely from the perspective of a dog.

Of course, with the continuing success of The Rats, he would also go on to write two sequels: The Lair, which brings new untold horrors of giant killer rats, this time going outside of London; and Domain, set in a future London where there has been nuclear war, and some people have survived, as well as the aforementioned giant killer rats.

Now, with his passing on March 20, 2013, the world has lost a great storyteller, who could take you to the edge of the darkness and beyond, but then bring you back at the end, nice and safe. Though, as is the case these days with prominent authors dying, I’m sure he has another book or two sitting around that he wrote earlier in his career, or was currently working on that will get completed by someone, and eventually published.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.

Bookbanter Column: Brandon Sanderson: The Hardest Working Writer I Know

Writing books isn’t easy; anyone who tells you otherwise either hasn’t done it, or is an idiot because they haven’t actually done it.

And when an author gets published and fully begins their publishing career, things don’t get a lot easier.

Yes, if one is making enough money, one is able quit their day job and write full time, which sounds wonderful.

But it’s also a lot of hard work, from sitting down and doing all the actual writing, to the editing and revising, then meeting with agents and editors and further revising, then copyediting and proof reading, then publication and all the PR associated with it, then the book tour, and during the publication and PR of the published novel, the author is already working on the next novel.

[CONTINUE READING . . .]

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Bookbanter Column: Brandon Sanderson: The Hardest Working Writer I Know

Writing books isn’t easy; anyone who tells you otherwise either hasn’t done it, or is an idiot because they haven’t actually done it.

And when an author gets published and fully begins their publishing career, things don’t get a lot easier.

Yes, if one is making enough money, one is able quit their day job and write full time, which sounds wonderful.

But it’s also a lot of hard work, from sitting down and doing all the actual writing, to the editing and revising, then meeting with agents and editors and further revising, then copyediting and proof reading, then publication and all the PR associated with it, then the book tour, and during the publication and PR of the published novel, the author is already working on the next novel.

Brandon Sanderson is one of those authors who has worked very hard to get where he is, and as a result is a New York Times bestselling author and arguably one of the best fantasy writers in the business today.

And there’s not a day that goes by that Sanderson isn’t thankful for this and feels that the people who made it happen are his readers, and his job is to keep writing and writing, because he loves to do it, but also because the readers want more books, and they are the ones who made him a bestselling author.  On the writing podcast Writing Excuses Sanderson does with fellow friends and authors, Dan Wells (I am Not a Serial Killer), Howard Tayler (Schlock Mercenary comic series) and Mary Robinette Kowall (Shades of Milk and Honey), there have been numerous occasions over the years that the podcast has run where Sanderson has said exactly this.

Sanderson published his first novel, Elantris, in 2005.

Now, eight or so years later, he has since published: three books in the Mistborn Trilogy, as well as the first book in the continuing Mistborn world; four books in the Alcatraz young adult series; the final three books in the epic Wheel of Time series; the first book in his Stormlight Archive series, The Way of Kings; and a stand-alone novel, Warbreaker.  And when you take into account that almost all of Sanderson’s books are 650+ pages, that works out to a lot of writing.  He has also published six novellas, some of which are from projects he likes to work on in between books.  Scheduled for publication in 2013, he has: a young adult novel, The Rithmatist in May; the first in a young adult trilogy, Steelheart, in the fall; and the planned publication of the second of the Stormlight Archive, Words of Radiance, due sometime later this year.

When I first interviewed him in October 2008, it was at the Borders store I worked at.  He had just finished a signing with his friend and author, David Farland.  They’d driven all the way from Utah to California with multiple signings along the way.  There were about twenty or thirty delighted people at the signing.  In the interview, Sanderson talked about his writing schedule: his morning begins when he wakes around 10am, and then he begins his day with various author duties that are not writing, and any necessary household chores.  Then once the kids come home, it’s daddy time, as he takes care of them with his wife.  And then once everyone has been put to bed and is asleep, around 9pm, it’s the start of his writing time, which he does until 4am, at then goes to bed.  He has kept to this schedule for years and with six or seven hours of steady writing time this has given him ability to get all this writing done.

When I interviewed Brandon Sanderson again in November 2010 when he was on his book tour for Towers of Midnight, it was a very different scene.

The signing was at a Barnes & Noble.  Arriving there a half hour before the interview, I could see the place was already filling up fast.  I learned that due to the high turnout it would only be a signing, there would be no reading.

When the time for the interview came, I was ushered into a back room, like I was being taken to see a big celebrity, where I conducted the interview.

Compare this to the time I interviewed him 2008, when we recorded the interview sitting in a couple of chairs in front of where he’d done his reading and signing; times had certainly changed for Sanderson.

I believe Sanderson has since changed his writing schedule around to fit more with his now even busier life as a big bestselling author.  But you can see from the many books he has published in a relatively short time, as well as what he has slated for this year, that he works hard and writes a lot.  All his books have been high quality and worth the read.  And I know he continues to be ever thankful that his readers love his books and writing, giving him the chance to keep doing what he loves to do, which is write.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.

Bookbanter Column: The Power of Character (January 25, 2013)

Readers can be divided mostly into two categories, and a smaller number into a third.  There are readers who choose, read and enjoy books for the story, the plot, what the whole thing is about; get caught up in it and stay hooked to the very end, enjoying the entire tale.  Then there are readers who pick and read books for characters, for unique people they become fascinated in reading about, knowing that they drive the story and keep reading to find out where and how the characters will end up.

And then there are the readers that enjoy books for both character and story equally.  But we’re not going to talk about that contingent today.  Today we’re focusing on those readers who look for books that are character-driven.  They are the type of people who study and seek out people interacting in their lives, and relish reading about it on the page, seeing what makes people tick, how they will act and react in certain situations, and how when two or more are brought together in a specific situation, what exactly will happen.

Unsurprisingly, there are writers like this too; likely because they are these same types of people.  It is people they like to write about, and not so much the story, as they let their characters drive said story, not always certain where they are going to take it, but always excited about the ride.  Two particular authors who do this and do this very well, as shown by their international bestsellerdom, are Haruki Murakami and John Irving.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,  Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84.

Haruki Murakami is a massive author celebrity in his native Japan, as well as around the world.  Perhaps best known for one of his early works, Norwegian Wood, many of his other books have gone on to become just as popular, such as The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleKafka on the Shore, and most recently with his epic three-volume tome, 1Q84.

When one picks up a Murakami book — whether it be a novel or short story collection — one knows they are in for a real treat, as the story will be unique and fascinating and certain to be one wild ride, but it is all due to the characters.  Murakami begins with a character, a type of person you likely haven’t met before, with an interesting life, that immediately draws you into the story, and it is the choices and decisions that this character makes that drives the story.

You may be saying: well this is true for all stories, that characters makes choices and the story moves forward, but they key is whether an event happens in a story that forces a character to make a decision, or whether the character makes a decision that then forces an event in the story.

With Murakami it’s always about the character making that decision or choice that forces the event and moves the story along.

The same can be said for John Irving.

The Cider House Rules, The World According to Garp  The Hotel New Hampshire, A Prayer for Owen Meany, In One Person, Son of the Circus

Irving is perhaps best known for his bestselling novel, The Cider House Rules (as well as the popular movie adaptation), but has written many books that have become just as big, including The World According to Garp  The Hotel New Hampshire, and  A Prayer for Owen Meany.  His most recent book is In One Person.

While Murakami may perhaps be best known for having fascinating individual characters with each of his books, Irving is the master of the all star cast of special people.

To say that Irving’s characters are flawed characters is putting it extremely lightly for his books; everyone has some sort of problem, but it is because of this that the characters make the choices that they do that further the plot and lead to the next chapter.  And this is what Irving’s readers enjoy most about his books, as they look forward to seeing where these characters’ choices will lead them.

Nobody in this world is perfect, and so when we read about flawed characters, we perhaps can see a little of ourselves in them and are therefore fascinated in seeing where they end up.

Writers or books aren’t better for being plot-driven or character-driven, and readers shouldn’t think otherwise.  Everyone is different; which is why there are many different types of writers and many different types of readers in the world.  Character-driven stories and books will continue to be written by authors like Haruki Murakami, John Irving and many others; and there will continue to be many readers for these types of works who receive great entertainment in reading about what happens to a character when they make a specific choice or decision.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.

Bookbanter Column: The Book Dump, or What People Are Reading (January 11, 2013)

From February through July of this year, a good solid six-month period, I worked in the book department at Dimple Records in Sacramento.  Most of my job consisted of unboxing, sorting and shelving thousands and thousands of books that had been purchased for the company through their used book buyback program, available at all of their retail stores.  There were literally boxes and boxes of books coming into the warehouse each day from the various stores, and it was my job to organize them and get them put on the shelf in the right sections.

Raiders of The Lost Ark, Alex C. Telander

Another warehouse consisted of many rows of shelves all sectioned and organized by subject and genre.  For the first few months I quickly filled up these shelves, and then when they were full and all set to go, the books and shelves were taken to the Citrus Heights store location, which was remodeled and organized to accommodate all these new books.  There were approximately 15,000 used books made available at the Citrus Heights store.

And then my work began again from scratch, as I began filling up all news shelves for what would eventually become the first (of hopefully many) Dimple Books book stores which opened its doors in July.  At this store there were over 30,000 used books.  In my time with Dimple I sorted through and organized over 50,000 books.

Alex C. Telander, Used Books, Bestsellers,

In the six-month period I became an observer as well as a book worker, noticing what titles, authors, names, genres kept appearing and reappearing; who are the bestsellers of the used book world, and what are people reading most when they buy books, be they new or used.  I collected my rough data together and below are the interesting results.

They are organized by genre and subject and are roughly in order of most copies of books by the same author and/or most multiple copies of the same book by an author.

  • Fiction: Nicholas Sparks, Jodi Picoult, Jonathan Franzen, Sara Gruen, Khaled Hosseini, Kathryn Stockett, Barbara Kingsolver, Tim Lahaye, Anita Shreve, Mitch Albom, Alice Sebold, Alice Walker.
  • Mystery: James Patterson, John Grisham, Patricia Cornwall, John Sandford, Janet Evanovich, Michael Crichton, Iris Johansen, Charlaine Harris.
  • Romance: Nora Roberts, Debbie Macomber, Mary Balogh, Danielle Steel.
  • Science Fiction/Fantasy: Piers Paul Anthony, Orson Scott Card, Douglas Adams, Frank Herbert/Brian Herbert, Robert Jordan, Anne McCaffrey, J. R. R. Tolkien, Star Trek series, Star Wars series.
  • Children’s Books: J. K. Rowling, Brian Jacques, Lemony Snicket, Eoin Colfer.
  • Young Adult: Stephenie Meyer, P. C. Cast, Ann Brashares, Christopher Paolini.
  • Biography: Elizabeth Gilbert, Frank McCourt.
  • Politics: Al Franken, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, Michael Savage, Bill O’Reilly.
  • History: Tom Brokaw.
  • True Crime: Anne Rule, John Grisham.
  • Religion: Sylvia Browne, Rhonda Byrne, Rick Warren.
  • Psychology: Jack Canfield, Phil McGraw.
  • Animals: John Grogan.
  • Health: Kevin Trudeau.

The question perhaps remains as to whether it is a good thing that there are so many multiple copies of the same book, and so many books of a particular author; or whether it is a bad thing.  On the one hand people ultimately bought these many books and helped make said book and author a bestseller, they presumably enjoyed the book and recommended it to friends and family; perhaps bought copies as gifts.

But on the other hand, they also chose at some point to get rid of the book they didn’t consider worth keeping.  Was it a book received as a gift that they had no interest in reading and got rid of; was it something they started reading and didn’t enjoy?  Or did they finish it and felt they had no need to keep it or to read it again, and got rid of it?

Alex C. Telander

When one brings books in for buybacks at Dimple, one can choose whether to receive cash, or store credit, which one can use to either buy more books, or anything else that Dimple sells (except gift cards).  This is simply part of the world of used book buying and reading: when one is done with the book and doesn’t want to keep it, they sell it back at a used bookstore for credit or money to buy more books.

So perhaps all these copies that were bought back were just part of this used book buying and buying back cycle.  But this then possibly adds fuel to the question of whether these books can truly be considered “bestsellers,” since many of them ended up at the Dimple used bookstore.  And one will see the same if they go to other used bookstores, with large sections of many of these authors, as well as at thrift stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army.

These books became a bestseller by the selling of a certain number of copies in stores and online as tracked by the particular publisher.  But when so many of the copies were not kept by the owner for not being enjoyable enough or worth keeping for any particular reason, it seems that while they may have been bestsellers at the time of release, they weren’t necessarily deemed to be very good books.

Perhaps at a future point in time in addition to the tracking of book sales and determining whether they are bestsellers or not, there will be a contrasting tracking system used in bookstores as well as online tracking to record just how many of these “bestsellers” ended up being bought back at used bookstores, and how soon after said book was released, and applied to a different kind of scale that determines whether the book deserved to be a bestseller for either being a genuinely good book, or one with a popular author listed on the cover that simply sold a lot of copies.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.

Bookbanter Column: Get Lost in a Good Fantasy Series Part 9: His Dark Materials (October 26, 2012)

While technically Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is classed as a children’s or young adult series, it has some very adult themes, features large and complex fantastical and alternate worlds, and has been issued with adult covers, since apparently adults can’t bear the thought of another adult seeing them reading a book with a kid on the cover.

The trilogy has been loved and read by many, continues to be a bestseller even though the first book in the series was published in Great Britain under the original title of Northern Lights in 1995.

And at the same time it has gotten a lot of flack and received a lot of criticism from various groups for its content and what it’s supposedly putting in the minds of children reading it.

Regardless of which side one may fall on this series, it still remains one of the most developed and interesting children’s epic fantasy trilogies that goes beyond just telling a good story and leaves the reader thinking on many matters.

The Golden Compass (Northern Lights)

This is the story of a young girl who doesn’t know what to do or what is going to happen with her life, but soon discovers that she is on a specific course of destiny that she is unable to avoid.

While The Golden Compass is considered a children’s book, like the Harry Potter series, it is written with an adult voice in an adult language, with adult themes.  It seems that British authors give their young readers a lot more credit that American authors.  The result is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy that is by no means “just a kid’s book.”

Lyra Belacqua is a young girl who spends her days roaming the many hallways and rooms of Jordan College, Oxford, where she makes friends with everyone regardless of class or status.  She’s just looking to have a good time and loves taking risks, whether it be climbing the roof of the college, or chasing and attacking the gyptians who show up every once in a while on the river.

This is a different world to ours, where everyday electricity doesn’t exist.  This is a world of zeppelins, steam and air powered machinery, gyroscopes and wheels and cogs, essentially a steam punk world.  Also in this world every person has what is known as a dæmon, essentially the embodiment of a person’s soul in the form of an animal.  When young, children’s dæmons can change form, but when they reach puberty the dæmon settles on a single form for the rest of their lives, giving one an insight into the person’s nature.

But Lyra’s world changes when first she saves her father, Lord Asriel, from being poisoned, and then learns of his work in the distant icy north where work is being done with something called Dust, the northern lights, and something about another world in the sky.  Lyra then meets Mrs. Coulter, who she immediately takes a liking to for she is so strong and impressive and knowledgeable, that is until Lyra discovers that she is the one who has been kidnapping children and taking them to the north for experimentation.  Managing to escape, Lyra joins with the gyptians who head north to find out what is going on with all this business about kidnapped children and Dust.  The rumors are terrible.  It is said that experimentation is being on separating children from their dæmons which, considering it is taboo for a person to even touch another’s dæmon, does not bode well for Lyra and the gyptians.
It is in the North that Lyra finally discovers everything that is going and more importantly, why it is happening, as well as a giant armored warrior polar bear, Iorek Byrnison, known as panserbjørne; and a Texan balloon-fighting man called Lee Scoresby.

His Dark Materials, in my opinion, is even better than the Harry Potter series for the subject matter is far more complex with truths that relate to every reader.

The Subtle Knife 

The golden compass of the first book was a special future-telling instrument which, when used correctly, can answer any question you ask it.

Lyra happens to be of the chosen variety that has the natural skill to read it.  In this book we meet our next hero, Will Parry, who is from our world.  He finds and becomes the beholder of the subtle knife, a special knife with one side so sharp it can cut any material object, and the other side so sharp it can cut through the fabric of reality and open a doorway into another world.  And so the reader realizes the great complexity of this universe with its many worlds.

Lyra and Will now continue their journey, both in search of their fathers with the help of many unusual characters like giant bears and witches.

The Amber Spyglass

In the final and lengthier conclusion to the trilogy, the full realization of this story is brought to light to such an extent that everything now becomes symbolic in some way, literature quotes begin each chapter, and the depth and complexity of the novel passes far beyond any childhood or young adult fantasy, presenting a complicated plot and moral for even adults to handle.

It is in this final book that the strengths and beliefs of our heroes will be tested to their extent, while our own beliefs will be in danger, when the basis for all religion and faith in all worlds is brought into question and threatened.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.

Bookbanter Column: Get Lost in a Good Fantasy Series Part 8: The Sarantine Mosaic (October 12, 2012)

Bestselling author Guy Gavriel Kay got his start in writing in an unusual way, working more as an editor with Christopher Tolkien on the numerous volumes of Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth material J R. R. Tolkien wrote during his lifetime.

His first published series was the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, which falls into a lot of the pitfalls of a stereotypical fantasy series with some weak characters.

But with the release of Tigana in 1991, he began a journey through many worlds and stories with many more books, which are all kind of linked. Tigana is a quasi-medieval Italy, but with alternate, with numerous fantasy elements.

A Song for Arbonne is alternate-medieval France. The Lions of Al-Rassan is sort of medieval Spain. And The Last Light of the Sun is from the time of the Vikings, in a story you likely haven’t read about before.

And then there’s The Sarantine Mosaic, a duology written about the time of the great city of Byzantium with its powerful king and queen, and the chariot races, and the magic that existed there.

These two books, Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, do an excellent job of showing Kay at his best blending historical fact and fiction with fantasy and easily transport the reader to another world.

In 2010, Guy Gavriel Kay released Under Heaven, a Chinese historical fiction novel with fantasy elements set in the 8th century Tang Dynasty, and plans to release River of Stars in 2013 set approximately 350-400 years after Under Heaven.

Sailing to Sarantium

Sailing to Sarantium, the first in the two-part Sarantine Mosaic, is a picturesque and moving adventure of ancient Byzantium, with Guy Gavriel Kay writing at his best.

This is the story of a talented mosaicist, Crispin, who has lost his wife and children to the plague and is looking for something new in his life.  He is delivered this opportunity, a chance to create something, a project in the distant and renowned city of Sarantium.

As this is the first part of a two-book series, Kay spends a healthy amount of time exploring his main character and exploring the world he has created, which is a lot like that of the ancient world, but also a wonderful fabrication of Kay’s imagination.  Crispin experiences much on his journey to Sarantium: the meeting of an alchemist, a slave girl, and an epiphany where he perhaps comes face to face with an ancient god.  The events serve to change Crispin’s outlook on life, but also to let the reader in on his experiences and ideology.

In Sarantium, he tries to keep to himself and his work, but finds himself drawn into political factions, the emperor’s court, and becomes part of the many who seemingly worship the hippodrome and the great chariot races, whose riders are seen as heroes.  

Sailing to Sarantium is a great example of Kay’s creative writing, his strong and interesting characters, and his imagined but quite believable world.

Lord of Emperors

In the concluding volume of the Sarantine Mosaic, after Sailing to Sarantium, we continue where we left off: talented mosaicist Crispin, now Imperial Mosaicist to Valerius II, is working on a magnificent dome for the Emperor and Empress of Sarantium (a fantasy version of ancient Byzantium and Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora).

But because this is a large, complicated city, and Crispin is now an important person, he finds himself unavoidably inveigled in plots and conspiracies, as the Emperor plans for a war in Crispin’s homeland.  Then a new character enters the play, Rustem of Kerkakek, a physician from the eastern desert kingdom of Bassania; a reward for saving his emperor’s life.

Now Sarantium has a host of unusual citizens, while Crispin keeps his allies together – a slave girl and mistress, the exiled queen of Antae, Gisel, and this new and enigmatic character, Rustem.

Guy Gavriel Kay continues to build on the momentum and creativity of Sailing to Sarantium, but also introduces new and interesting characters, as well as creating new plotlines that weren’t visible in the first book.

He does what is key to a sequel: building on the story already established, but at the same time taking the reader down new and undiscovered avenues.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.

Bookbanter Column: Get Lost in a Good Fantasy Series Part 7: The Kingkiller Chronicles (September 28, 2012)

The Name of the Wind, the first of the Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss, showed itself to the world in 2007.

It was a story that seemed to have every trope and cliché that epic fantasy is expected to have from an old innkeeper named Kvothe telling his tales of yore, to a magician learning the ways of his craft at a magician’s school . . .

. . . And yet there were also facets of the book that made it fascinating and quickly a bestseller, from Kvothe’s abilities and talents as a musician, to some of the amazing characters and friends he has gotten to know, to the magic itself, as they consider themselves arcanists and the magic feels more like a form of science.

The Name of the Wind spent a good long time on the bestseller lists, and earned the epithet: “Harry Potter for Adults.”

Rothfuss took his time with the second book in the trilogy, The Wise Man’s Fear, which was released in 2011, almost a thousand pages long.

But by the end of the book, there still seems too much story to tell.

Rothfuss maintains that it will only be a trilogy and is hard at work now on the final book, with the planned title of The Doors of Stone, with no known release date.  Therefore readers looking for a good new series can take their time with the first two books, as the final volume likely won’t see a release date until possibly late 2013, if not 2014.

The Name of the Wind

Kvothe begins his story as a young boy in a family of musicians and soon reveals his incredible talent with the lute and singing, following in the family tradition.  While mastering these talents a member of the University joins the troop and begins teaching Kvothe a material and science based form of magic, as well as the secret of naming, creating a drive in Kvothe to discover the Name of the Wind.

At the same time, his father Arliden is composing a song about the Chandrian, a mythical race of evil beings who may or may not exist.  This is soon proven when the Chandrian find the troop and slaughter them all.  Kvothe is the only one to survive, hiding in the woods.

He spends his next three years eking out a living begging and scratching by on the streets of Tarbean, until his interest in magic and study is reignited once more by a storyteller.  Using his experience in bargaining and negotiating to survive, Kvothe gets himself into University where he leans all he can while trying to make enough money to cover the tuition by playing and singing.  It is while playing he is reunited with an old friend, Denna, who he is very taken with.  During his studies, he also begins research on the Chandrian to avenge the death of his parents.

The book comes to a close as Kvothe investigates a place of death and destruction where a wedding was abruptly brought to an end by the Chandrian, coming face to face with a drug-addicted dragon.

At the heart of The Name of the Wind are a lot of almost clichés one would expect with an epic fantasy novel, but at the same time there are a lot of new, refreshing and completely different ideas and plots.  The magic of this world – unlike that of say Harry Potter – is one of balance, based in science with quantities and a variety of materials; it is a type of magic that at times seems quite realistic and believable.  The world has familiar places but with unique situations and events involving some strong characters and unusual creatures that keep the reader interested.

By the end of the book, the reader has become quite attached to this world and its people, wanting more stories and tales from Kvothe the innkeeper, but alas they must wait until Wise Man’s Fear, due March 2011, hopefully without delay.

The Wise Man’s Fear

Readers are returned first to Kote at the Waystone Inn with his friend and apprentice, Bast.

A new day begins, after the stories and surprising events of the one before.  Chronicler sits ready to record the story, while Kote has already been up many hours, preparing fresh cider and newly baked bread.  And so Kote continues the story of his life, the story of Kvothe the arcanist.  The sixteen year-old continues his studies at the University, struggling to get by.  He has spent his recently acquired monies on a new lute and now has little to show for it, but the instrument is an investment.  Now raised to the next level of arcanist, Re’lar, his tuition is considerably higher, and his must borrow money to pay for it.

Fortunately, he has his incredible talent as a musician and singer, and is able to make some money this way through a clever scheme at the inns.

Then there is the Fishery, where all manner of arcana are made.  Kvothe has spent previous terms learning and inventing simple items such as sympathy lamps that bring in a decent amount of money, but this term he is challenged to create something truly unique; it will take him many months, but the result will fetch a high price.  Kvothe is also finally granted access to the priceless Archives once more, and after learning how to travel its complex, labyrinthine halls, corridors and stacks; begins his incessant research on the unknown Chandrian, for they are the ones who murdered his family and friends.  Meanwhile, Kvothe’s relationship with Deanna continues to go nowhere fast, as he does all he can to make her happy and feel special . . . everything that is except confess his love for her.  He even breaks into the rooms of his mortal enemy to steal back Deanna’s ring and proceeds to get himself into a whole mess of trouble.

At the end of the term, Kvothe seems to have everything in order, but has a couple of options: he can continue with his studies the following the semester, and risk having the gossip of his involvement jeopardize his studies; or he can leave town and try something different for a while.  Fortunately at that moment, there is a rich noble from Vintas looking to woo a certain lady and needs one skilled with words.  So begins the second half of the book, as Kvothe is soon on his way and finds himself involved in the noble courts, as a different world is revealed to the reader of manners and ways and courtly intrigue.  Kvothe is also employed into a gang to stop a band of bandits terrorizing the tax collectors.  In this gang he befriends a unique man and seeks to learn his ways and culture.  The question is whether he can understand and learn this man’s language, as well as stop these bandits once and for all.  Meanwhile, in the back of his mind, Kvothe wonders and hopes if the rich noble who has employed him may wish to take him on permanently as his patron.

In this thrilling and worthy sequel, Rothfuss does an excellent job of balancing the familiar of The Name of the Wind with plenty of new and fascinating material, furthering the complexity and interest of the world, its people, and its varied cultures and ways.  While the heavy tome could’ve stood to lose a few pages in editing, readers will no doubt be delighted with its length and depth.  To many – as with this reviewer – this book will exceed their expectations and prove to be an even better episode in the Kingkiller Chronicles than the previous one.

Patrick Rothfuss has proven in Wise Man’s Fear that he can deliver the goods, and while he may need to take his time to get the writing done, the result is an epic giant in the world of fantasy that will be remembered for a long time.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.