Joe Abercrombie Book Review: Best Served Cold (spoiler free)

bestservedcold

Why, oh why, have I only just got my hands on Joe Abercrombie.

One of his books that is, not the author himself.

Obviously.

Wandering into a local charity shop, I came across a copy of Best Served Cold. A thick tome, featuring a female warrior holding a sword and a quote from George R. R. Martin on the front stating ‘This is his best book yet’.

Since my fantasy withdrawal symptoms are sort of George’s fault – I’ve read (and reread) all of the A Game of Thrones books and am, like many fans, wondering if there’ll ever be a wrap-up book in the series before he, or we for that matter, expire – I figured Mr Martin owed me a good interim read.

So, I paid my dues (sorry Joe, charity shop=no royalties but now I’ve found you I may be persuaded to part with cold, hard cash that lines your authorial coffers for the next book of yours I read) and took the book home.

What’s it about? (No spoilers I promise, it’s on the back cover blurb).

The most feared and famous mercenary in Styria, Monzcarro Murcatto, has become a shade too popular for her employer, Grand Duke Orso’s, liking. Her brother is murdered and she is left for dead. Broken but alive, she burns for revenge. ‘Whatever the cost, however distasteful the allies required, seven men must die…’

This is epic fantasy, set in a large and vividly imagined world. It has a female heroine (if you can call her heroic) who is most definitely not a teenager or a Chosen One. She’s hard, bitter, focused, messed up and she has her reasons to chase vengeance.

Was it any good?

Was?? Hang on…I haven’t finished it yet! I’m three-quarters of the way through. But, yes, it’s good. I wouldn’t normally review a book without finishing it, so how do I know that without actually getting to the end? Lately, I’ve not had a lot of reading time. Mostly, last thing at night when I’m huddled under my duvet trying to keep warm on an English winter’s night. Then I might not pick up the book again for a day or so. This means I easily lose my place in the story and if a book isn’t all that, I tend to forget about it and start a different one. (For the record, I used to be a ‘to the bitter end, no matter what’ reader, but nowadays I don’t have time. If it doesn’t keep me interested, away it goes).

I’ve struggled to put Best Served Cold down. When I’ve lacked time to get back to it for a day or so, I’ve picked it up and been immersed straight back into the story. If the ending doesn’t quite come up to scratch, I’m already happy to forgive the author because I’ve loved everything else about the book.

Having done some research on Mr Abercrombie before starting this post, I now know this is a standalone novel set in a previous world he’s created. The world building is incredible and immersive and hooked me from the start. Some of the reviews by fans on Amazon say this isn’t his best book so I’m very keen to read his other works as I enjoyed it and disagreed with some of the negative points reviewers put across. Hopefully, his other books will live up to the reviewers’ hype.

It is pretty much a one-track story without any real subplots. It’s not as epically sprawling as A Game of Thrones or Robin Hobbs Farseer and The Liveship Traders Trilogies but it still kept a good pace for 700 odd pages. There’s only a touch of magic so it would probably come into the low fantasy genre – no elves, dwarves, orcs or wizards.

My favourite character is Caul Shivers, the barbarian Northman who fights alongside Murcatto. Abercrombie writes Shivers’ chapters in Shivers’ actual voice, although in the third person. For me, this worked brilliantly and brought the character straight off the page.

In summary

Like George R.R. Martin, Abercrombie puts his characters through the mill. You’re never quite sure who is going to make it to the end or meet a sticky end along the way. There are brutal war scenes, violence that should be gratuitous but wasn’t given we’re in the middle of all-out war, the occasional hardcore sex scene a la A Game of Thrones and I’m not sure any of the main characters are going to redeem themselves, so, on the whole, it’s dark stuff. It’s lightened by Abercrombie’s use of irony and his witty turn of dialogue which makes his characters spark well together.

If anyone has any good fantasy author recommendations let me know. I’m on the lookout for a good series.

In return, I highly recommend Robin Hobb, especially The Liveship Traders trilogy which sits between her two Farseer trilogies. It’s a bit of a slow starter but well worth sticking with and can be read as a standalone series if you can’t face nine books plus her newer Rainwild Chronicles which follows on from Liveships (but, seriously, who could turn down a nine book series??).

 

 

 

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The R Word

not accepted

It’s been a mixed few days. Out of the pieces of work I have ‘out there’ at the moment, four pieces have returned unaccepted – yes I did just avoid the R-word. Not gonna use it either. It stings a little too much. Four pieces came home unaccepted in six days. Ouch.

The first was MOLP 4, which I wrote about on here last week. This wasn’t too much of a stinger. It was a contest that I paid a small fee to enter but I got to support an amazing charity and have a tree planted in Kenya. That made me smile and took the edge off.

The second was a quick submit to Writers Forum magazine mainly because I could pay extra for some feedback. The story had weaknesses but I wanted it confirmed that I was right about what they were. Well, I was. It’s a story where ‘nothing much happens’. However, I did get some lovely comments. Having had feedback from the same person before, I know I should take the good bits to heart as she doesn’t just throw them out there. ‘An easy to read writing style…clearly have lots of talent…I hope to see more of your work’. All positives. Right? *happy dance*.

The third was from Glimmer Train. I sent this off ages ago but wasn’t expecting it back for another few weeks. The magazine is run by two sisters who apparently read every submission they receive. The email they sent was personally addressed to me, named my story, said how much they’d enjoyed reading it but unfortunately weren’t going to accept it. I love that they took the time to send something personal. I’ve responded with a brief, polite thank you for their encouraging words. I’m sure their inbox is bursting at the seams but a short note can’t hurt, right? And I genuinely did appreciate it. They said they liked my story and hope to see more of my work. *another happy dance*

Fourth and last was The Strokestown International Prize for poetry. I was probably a little ambitious entering this one. I don’t write a lot of poetry just happen to have a few pieces lying around from ages ago. No form email or feedback from Strokestown, just a link to the shortlist, which I scanned whilst pretending not to have my heart in my mouth but ultimately my poem wasn’t on it.

So, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster of ‘Yay, someone likes my writing’ and ‘Boo, they don’t want this piece’.

It feels a little like I’m almost there but not quite and nobody can seem to help with getting from Not Quite to actually There. It seems there are no definites of where ‘There’ actually is. Is it really that indefinable?

So, it’s time to pick myself up, keep writing, keep pulling apart what makes a great story, keep practicing my skills, keep learning new stuff.

And keep writing.

What about you? How were your early days of submitting? How do you handle work coming back? Were you first misses sent back with nice encouragement or form letters or just an acceptance deadline passed with nothing?

(And, in case you’re reading this, many thanks to the lovely friend who’s been on the receiving end of Rollercoaster Valley this week. You know who you are and you’re awesome.)

 

 

 

Magic Oxygen Contest 2018

MOLP

Magic Oxygen Literary Prize – MOLP for short – released their poetry and short story shortlist #4 a couple of days ago. I had entered as a last minute thing, so being invited to log into Facebook Live to watch the shortlist announcement was pretty exciting stuff. I wasn’t on the list but it was still a funfilled few minutes viewing.

Magic Oxygen is a publishing house – and writing contest – with a difference. Your £5 entry fee and proceeds from the sale of the competition anthology supports the community in Bore, Kenya, including the building of a new classroom for Kundeni Primary school, and each entry buys a tree to be planted in the same area.

The idea is to build a ‘word forest’ and help the area recover from mass deforestation due to charcoal burning, settlement expansion and conversion of land to agriculture. At the last update, this legacy forest is now 11 times the size of Wembley Stadium and growing. Not only will it replenish life-giving trees, it offers the community in Bore a potential future income.

In the grander scheme of things, Bore is close to the equator, meaning that trees grow quickly which makes the area incredibly efficient at balancing CO2 and oxygen for the benefit of the whole planet.

MOLP #5 opens in October 2018 and I’ll definitely be entering again. Got a suitable poem or short story? Why not add it to your contest list and give it a go?

Love reading and want to support our environment?

I’m adding the anthologies to my ‘must read‘ list, knowing the proceeds are going to a good cause and I’ll get some interesting new lit to read. I use a lot of paper, I read a lot of books. It’s nice to know I’m doing something to contribute back and supporting an amazing community at the same time.

 

 

 

 

 

Magic Wants to Be Fed: Cooking the Books with Robin Hobb

A few years old now, but I only just found it. It’s an interview by Fran Wilde with one of my favourite authors, Robin Hobb, on the use of food in her fantasy worlds. If you’ve not yet discovered her books, I recommend them highly.

Fran Wilde

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s | Goodreads

This summer, I met Robin Hobb at Loncon3. We were both on a great food politics panel and she is as lovely and charming in person as you can imagine. When I asked her later if she’d join Cooking the Books for an interview, I knew my chances were slim, given that she’s hard at work on the new book – but she said yes. Everyone wins!

Robin is the bestselling author of short stories, books, and fantasy series including the Farseer trilogy, The Liveship Traders trilogy, and The Fitz and the Fool trilogy. Knowing that Robin has many loyal fans, I offered the lovely folks at reddit/fantasy a chance to join me in interviewing her. What follows are her fantastic answers to the questions we put together — please join me in welcoming Robin Hobb to the November Cooking the Books!

CTB: From the…

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Writing Contests

tolstoy warriors.time

What’s All This Contests Business About?

There are lots of writing competitions and contests out there on the web or in writing magazines. Some are free, some charge a small fee to enter, yet others have an eye-watering entry charge.

I love the free ones. I’m also happy to pay a small fee knowing that it contributes to prize money, admin fees, eventual printing costs and possibly a payment for the judges for their time. So far I’ve avoided the eye-watering ones as being ridiculously expensive.

Interestingly, the higher entry cost does not always mean the better prize. There are some free to enter contests that have generous prizes for the winners and some charging high fees with low returns for the winners.

Prizes range from simply seeing your work published – online or in print – and sometimes a copy of the magazine or anthology it appears in, free consultations or in-depth critiques on your piece, cash prizes from small to life-changing, writer’s retreats in gorgeous locations and sometimes fun prizes like a weekend away somewhere.

What Should You Submit?

Some contests set themes or are genre specific. Others are open-ended so you are free to submit what you like as long as it meets any other guideline requirements.

You may read the guidelines and realise you have the perfect piece stashed away on your hard drive ready to go. Great! Why not give it a try?

Maybe a contest theme appeals to you or sparks an idea, or provides a new genre or medium for you to explore. Great! Use it to create a fresh piece of writing and challenge yourself.

Whatever you decide, always fine tooth comb the guidelines. Entries are discarded immediately if they fail to meet the word count, or are the wrong genre or have already been published somewhere else if the contest has specified previous unpublished work only be submitted.

There really is something for everyone out there. Every genre under the sun and any medium you can think of – short, flash, novel, poetry etc.

Where Do I Find These Contests?

Google is your friend here. As is Twitter. Writing forums and groups and writing friends often share opportunities with each other. Writing magazines like Mslexia, Writers Forum and Writing Magazine list competitions in their magazines as well as running their own.

Chris Fielden has just updated his writing competitions page which you can check out for free because he is awesome like that. He also offers advice on entries and his own personal experiences with Writers Forum, where you can pay an additional £5 for some feedback on your entry.

How Do You Know They’re Legit?

As with anything, do your research. Google them and make sure they’re reputable. There’s a whole load of forums out there that dish the dirt on dodgy markets, so worth a look to see if a market has been flagged.

Be wary of those offering to add your story to an anthology for a fee. Some of these are genuine and mean your winning work will appear alongside other chosen winners. There are cases of anthologies where all the entries get published, often in poorly edited forms, regardless of quality. So be careful and do your research.

Victoria Strauss offers some useful advice on her website. Writer Beware is a good general place to check for market scams.

My Competition Experiences

When I started entering contests early last year, I had four short stories and a handful of poems that I circulated. Some are currently still ‘out there’ waiting for results announcements.

I kept a spreadsheet to track every entry, fees, prizes, deadlines, projected announcement dates and other relevant information. I entered a total of 22 pieces in 16 contests throughout 2017 (some allowed more than one entry for a better fee ratio).  On three pieces, I paid an extra £5 on top of the fee for feedback as I felt I needed it. I spent a total of £83 including the feedback.

Four entries were free. The cheapest was Glimmer Train at $2. The most expensive Mslexia at £10.

Did I have any success? One short made it onto the Exeter Writer’s Short Story Competition longlist. Out of hundreds of entries across the world, it made the Top 40. That was a hell of a boost to my writing.

As I said above, I paid for some feedback and what I got back was helpful, if a little brief, but I guess £5 isn’t going to buy you anything too in depth. I have reworked the pieces and two are out doing the rounds again.

Is It Worth It?

That’s subjective, of course. I’ve set myself a budget limit for this year and I’m looking more at free-to-enter contests and normal publishing markets where there’s no fee but I have a handful earmarked that I intend to enter. I like the buzz of it.

If you create a new piece of work, whether it wins or not, then I’d say yes. If you’re longlisted, shortlisted, get an honourable mention, are lucky enough to win – all of these are a great credit to add to your writing CV.

And, oh boy! If you win a prestigious one, your writing career may just hit the big time.

Additional Pros and Cons?

Pros:

Deadlines! Always helpful to boost productivity.

Trying something new – who knows what a prompt or new genre might set off in your brain.

Judges reports and winning entries are worth reading post competition if you can find them to give a feel for how it all works.

Cons:

Long wait times for announcements are a bitch. I try to forget about them and get on with something new.

Justifying cost. Especially when you don’t win.

Not winning. Self-explanatory. It’s disappointing. I try to deal with this by having a new market lined up to send the piece straight back out after a quick edit/ rewrite if needed. Not necessarily to another contest as I’m now lining up general markets as well but that’s a whole other post.

How about you? Entered any contests? Had any luck? Feel disappointed by the whole process? Just don’t think it’s worth it?

Would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below 🙂

 

The Flash Fiction Form

writerholic

I’m extremely pleased to be writing again. I’ve been playing with the flash fiction form. It’s hard cramming everything in under 500 words but I have managed it. How on earth do people manage in 100 words or less?

Some markets will count flash fiction as anything under 1000, which gives you much more room to add more characterisation, setting, motivation and so on.

I’m about two thirds of the way through Holly Lisle’s free flash fiction course. If you’ve not tried writing so short before the course is a good introduction to how to create a beginning, middle and end using such a small word count. I don’t get anything from Holly from putting her course out there, I just enjoy her upfront style and find her helpful. And she does offer this short course for free. I’ve created one finished 500 word flash and have several others I’m working on from taking it so I’m more than happy I signed up.

Flash Fiction Online pays $60 for between 500 and 1000 words if they accept your submission. Sign up for a free Submittable account – well worth doing as a few markets I’ve come across use it – then find Flashfiction Online’s submission guidelines to submit – again for free – via Submittable. Do read their guidelines though as they’re very clear on what they view as suitable for their publication. They also have lots of previously published stories available so you can get a feel for what they like and how it can be done.

Because of the extra word count I played some more with my 500 words and added in – I hope – better motivation for my character’s actions. If Flashfiction Online say ‘Nay’ I have another market ready to send the piece to. I also have the original 500 word piece to send out. I now have ten pieces ‘out there’, have other markets lined up to send them to if they come back and am resolutely forgetting about them and getting on with creating new stuff.

It’s hard and in the back of my head I’m anxiously waiting for responses and crossing everything. Still. I’m miles ahead of where I was last year and I’m very, very happy with that.

Anyone else out there reading flash fiction or had a go at writing it? Enjoyable or a waste of time what do you think?

 

The Handmaid’s Tale: Cautionary Entertainment

handmaids tale

I’ve read a bit of Margaret Atwood in the past but somehow never The Handmaid’s Tale. Bit strange really as I love Sci-Fi and love dystopian tales even more and Handmaid is often touted as a cult feminist classic in those genres. I’m not sure how I avoided it for so long other than what I have read of Atwood’s hadn’t really grabbed me.

Offered a choice of books from a big box a colleague had acquired, I found The Handmaid’s Tale lurking so nabbed it quick and couldn’t wait to start it. The TV adaptation was floating about and I had planned to save it for the Christmas break and binge watch it. I always prefer to read the book first before watching a movie or TV adaptation so was stoked to find the book.

I enjoyed the first half of the book. It was a slow read, one to savour, because the prose is lyrical and a tad dense. I dipped in and out and took my time absorbing the world of Offred, the shocking nature of the sudden, violent changes she’s endured.

The explanations of how these changes came about are shown in flashback. Offred isn’t an entirely reliable narrator. Sometimes, she tells you stuff and then closes by saying that it never really happened. Her narrative is fractured, perhaps intentionally given all she’s undergone. To survive such catastrophe, the mind would find its ways to cope, maybe this was a reflection of hers.

By the middle of the book, I was struggling. I put it down for two weeks and forced myself to pick it up again and skip-hopped my way to a very ambiguous end that didn’t answer much at all about her future.

Attwood is a highly regarded author and successful, so who am I to criticise when I’m only just starting out with trying to get published and no idea if I’ll make it. But I was disappointed in the book, in the lack of characterisation, the dearth of information about why the world went the way it did. Given the heavy style of narrative voice, it feels the book should have been shorter somehow to be more effective.

I was too busy over Christmas to binge watch anything but I’m finally getting to watch the TV series. This is one of those rare times that I have to say the screen adaptation far surpasses the novel. The visuals are stunning, the acting by all the female cast stellar, the sets and costumes sumptuous and the world building visceral and horrific.

There’s more knowledge of how things changed in Offred’s world. Sometimes, these changes are happening in the background to the main action so you have to pay attention to what’s going on behind the action, especially in Offred and Moira’s scenes. I liked how this panned out because in the story Offred and Moira are missing the clues too and are caught out by the speed of the changes, even though the signs were there had they known to look for them.

Much has been made of the timing of the adaptation. Arguments over a woman’s rights to her body are high in the news: fetal abortion, rape clauses, the MeToo campaign, gender pay gaps, high profile, sexual misconduct scandals in both the UK and USA makes the cruel, misogynistic world of Gilead seem less improbable than it might have a few years back.

It’s being touted as a cautionary tale, a warning to women everywhere not to take anything for granted and to remember how hard-won our rights were not so many years ago. The Handmaid’s distinctive garments and cap have been used by some women during protests across the world. This is a  striking use of imagery. Women, clad in white and scarlet, often standing silent or with backs turned to represent their unheard voices.

I’m only on episode 4 of the TV series. It’s labelled as Season 1. I can’t help wondering if it will end as ambiguously as the book and whether there may be a Season 2 to take the world beyond its author’s imagining.

I’m off to google what Atwood makes of it all. Did you enjoy the book or series?

What do you think? Misappropriation of art, feminist overreaction or is the use of such visceral symbolism valid in the current climate?