Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Reviews, not Endorsements

First, a disclaimer: I don't have anything against quick or short reviews. My style requires a lot of time and I understand that few people want to spend their leisure writing an essay about their reaction to a book. What I dislike are reviews that sound more like advertisements than reviews.

When strolling through Amazon, I find reviews that disturb me. They're all composed of the same basic phrases: "couldn't put it down", "when's the next one", "recommend to all age groups/everyone/anyone that likes reading." In three paragraphs, it's easy to overlook them but when a review is one paragraph and made entirely of these phrases it raises a red flag. I think "Is this a paid review?" or "Did this person read the book?".  When I gush about things, I go into detail. I avoid spoilers or warn of them, of course,  but I want them to know exactly what I liked about a book so they will understand how great the story is and read it themselves. Generic reviews are a waste because they contain nothing specific about the story and so they could be copied and pasted any number of times.

A reviewer isn't doing an author any favors by turning their review into a endorsement. It sounds fake. Often times, it sounds cheesy. Posing questions that the novel 'answers' or saying that it bucks trends or some such; you don't sound like a reviewer you sound like a promoter. Nobody trusts a promoter because the promoter is biased. They're looking for an honest and informed opinion.

When I write a review it is long and it is thorough. If I dislike something about the book then I am sure to include it. I give A+s sparingly and even then I don't sound like "OMG! This book is awesome!!!!" It's a point of professionalism. Even for books that are not review requests, I follow the same format. Three sentences of generic praise may bolster the rank but it doesn't help the reader (at least, it doesn't help a reader like me) decide on whether or not to read the book.

I use bland language for this reason. Poetic lines are not professional because you sound like you're trying too hard to impress. By using such language you're trying to turn your review into something that is more than your personal opinion about a work; you're trying to make your review into a work itself. I find that silly and arrogant. Reviews are not supposed to be read like a book or a poem. They're supposed to inform a potential reader (and customer) about the book from the perspective of another reader and customer. Nobody cares how witty or enjoyable your reviews are because they're interested in whether or not you liked the book. (I recognize there are exceptions: newspaper columnists and bloggers etc can have fan followings of their own, but in that case, what they're reviewing is less important than the review itself.)

Genuine reviews are more effective promotions than promotions pretending to be reviews because the former has substance. It is unique. A promotion will not be unique and so has no substance. It's little more than literary junkfood.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Answering Review Request "Journey to Altmortis"

Thaddeus White asked me to read "Journey to Altmortis" for review. It's about a pair of siblings tracking two thieves that stole family heirlooms to the dead city of Altmortis. I will examine plot, characters, and polish and then assign a grade.


What I like most about this book is that it reads like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. A group of adventurers traveling to a monster infested dungeon to find treasure is classic. I can imagine someone homebrewing this and a lot of people choosing Kuhrlanders as their player character because Kuhrlanders are awesome. As for the plot itself......

The title is apt because this truly is the "Journey to Altmortis"; a significant chunk of the plot and the first arc of the story is simply reaching the place. There are mundane challenges to be overcome in addition to the fantastic typical in this sort of story.

For instance there is a problem of logistics. Altmortis is a Kurhland city which means it is deep inside a bitterly cold country that is currently in winter. The party has to buy warmer clothes and one of their party, a dwarf, has to make do with furs wrapped around his feet inside his boots because even the local children have bigger feet than he does. Also, food is a constant concern. "Do we have enough food to reach the next city" is regularly brought up and "we can only stay x more days in Altmortis before we run out of food" is regularly stated. While there are many games with this sort of plot "go to the dungeon and reach this treasure" few of them require the player to bring along essentials like food or water to preserve their character's health.

Then there's the fantastic aspect. One obstacle the party must overcome is the Blutwald, a cursed forest. It's played up like an Eldritch Location because it is the only place in Kuhrland which is not covered in snow and the all the trees are blood red. These are carnivorous trees; touch them and they'll eat you. It's touch and go for the party. They also encounter a village of human-like demons which brings to mind the classic Always Chaotic Evil humanoid races like orcs or goblins. They have special abilities, a savage nature, and endanger all passerbys.

The ending is fantastic. It's just the kind of ending I like to see. The results of the campaign, no loose ends, but there is a surprise waiting there. It was an emotional experience and a twist on a theme the book developed through it's whole length.

Now comes the part of the review where I list the things I disliked. There are three in total; a curious break in the realism at one point, a deus ex machina, and something about a villain. For the first, there are monsters in Altmortis and the party fights a great deal of them in narrow hallways and my problem has to do with the corpses. Eventually they should pile up but this doesn't happen. It's jarring considering the attention to realism and logistics earlier in the book. For two, a number of the heroes are trapped by the monsters and certain that they will go down fighting but the monsters withdraw all of a sudden. It wouldn't be a problem if a chekhov's gun had been dropped earlier, but as it was, it felt cheap. For three, a villain other than the heirloom thieves is involved in the story and follows the Protagonists to Altmortis but he doesn't affect the plot until the end and only for a chapter. His plot arc feels like fat on an otherwise lean story. Considering this is a not-quite-sequel, I assume it has something to do with the previous book. It's not a big deal but I'd like to know the backstory.

Characters are good. The opening scenes provide lots of detail for characters; physical traits, nationality, personality traits, etc. There's so much I was confused at first. Cultural posturing is put to good use here. As the Dennish and Felarian and Kuhrland people take potshots at each other's culture, both that culture and themselves are developed but in a way that feels like showing instead of telling.

What I want to highlight is how this party runs the full spectrum of anti-heroes. From the heroic character that thinks little of herself to the heroic assholes to the guys that would be your enemies if someone paid them enough to the guy that is trying to steal from the others every night. In a group of thieves and mercenaries, these kinds of differences do wonders to flesh everybody out.

Roger the Goat gets a paragraph all to himself because he is my favorite. He's a dwarf (not a goat) and serves as the party's thief. He has little to do on the way to Altmortis so he amuses himself by throwing snowballs at Fritigen and then running away before the big guy can catch him. He is simultaneously the most the most heroic of the group and the Token Evil Teammate; it's a weird combination.


I didn't see anything major in terms of spelling or grammar problems, but I do have something to say about pacing. It's about the villain side plot I mentioned earlier. Not only is this guy unrelated to the main plot but he tells a minion of his to stir up trouble in the protagonist's home while he's away. This leads to a C plot that is resolved quickly and does nothing for the main plot. It's not uninteresting to say the least (on the contrary I liked reading it) but it throws off the pacing of the main story. If I were the editor of a publishing house then cutting it out would be an obvious choice. At most I'd save it as a short story for some "Thaddeus White-The Complete Collection" package.

Grading this story was difficult. There are flaws in this story but it was hard for me to decide whether or not they were significant enough to affect the grade. I want to give this book a perfect score but the deus ex machine (however minor) is a weakness in the narrative and ruins my enjoyment of what could have been a Crowning Moment of Awesome.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Journey to Altmortis" an A.

This is a free review request. All I received in exchange for this review was a free copy of the book.

Click here for the previous review (which was not a review request): Ophelia

Click here for another book in the same universe and by the same author: Kingdom Asunder

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

"Ophelia" by Lisa Klein

Today's book review is "Ophelia" by Lisa Klein. This is not a review request. I read Shakespeare's play in college and I was intrigued by this idea but more by the format; it's not a play but a novel. I will examine plot, characters and polish, and then assign a grade.


I was pleased by the plot. Considering this is written from the prospect of Hamlet's Love Interest, one would expect it to be a straight up romance but it is bigger than that because Ophelia is more than a love interest. This is accomplished by the author taking a wider scope than Shakespeare; Ophelia's childhood is included and a substantial part of the book takes place after the play ends. Indeed, 2/3 of the book is original content.

Instead of simply her romance with Hamlet, the story instead follows her desire to find her place in the world. From her home as part of her family, to the Court of Denmark as one of Gertrude's ladies-in-waiting to Hamlet's Inner Circle and beyond. By the way, this is a past-tense first person narration so it's no surprise that she's survives her canon death.

The author fills in some gaps and provides a different perspective on events in the canon story. Some of them are clever. Also, I was pleased to find that no scenes were regurgitated, that is, that Ophelia did not happen to eavesdrop on scenes where she was not present originally.

The ending is terrific. It is a fulfillment of the story's themes and ends as happy as realistically possible.

If I had a compliant about this story it would this: at times it feels like a vessel for feminism. It's not undeserved considering the time period but considering the more gender-neutral themes of the original and some of the original content it stands out. Then again, if one were to take Ophelia's perspective in the original, that would shift the center of gravity. After all, Ophelia has no beef with Claudius beyond that of a mourning subject and so her interest would be elsewhere. Then again, a lot of that interest is how few options are available because of her gender. As you can see, I go back and forth on this.


Naturally, Ophelia receives a much deeper characterization. Instead of a girl that swoons over Hamlet, she is his childhood friend with her own drama and conflict separate from him. However, this isn't new stuff. The madness scene in canon where she talks about flowers and their medical purpose, for instance, is explained as her learning about herbal remedies from two elderly women.

Polonius has become a minor antagonist. He is obsessed with his career and rising in the opinion of the king, though he is minor minister. His "to thine own self be true" line is used to paint him as a hypocrite because he changes himself to suit his current master.


No technical problems (grammar, spelling, etc) and so I'm more interested in the narration. Like I said above, it's first person narration which I often find too self-conscious to accept. I find this one bearable because it's not conversational. It feels more like a diary entry than conversation; a sense that this is not a stream of conscious but an outside observer.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Ophelia" an A+

Click here for the next review (which was a review request): Journey to Altmortis

Click here for the previous review (which was also a review request): Out Of The Grey

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Reflecting on the Previous Year

One year ago, I crossed the line between 'hobbyist' and 'professional'.  Now I'm looking back on it and sharing my experience.

1. Publishing
I read so much about publishing while I was writing A Mage's Power and it was intimidating stuff. Simply finding an agent was a major step that could take months. Finding a publisher was supposed to be even harder and there were lots of little things that could hurt a first timer's chances.  All of it together made the idea of publishing seem like a pipe dream. That's why I'm glad I went into self-publishing. There's more control, more royalties,  and so much easier and faster. I'm working on the sequel, Looming Shadow, and only the final arc remains to be revised. Publishing a series will be a different experience and I'm looking forward to it.

 2. Royalties and Pirates

Royalties are great for two reasons; reader validation and pocket change.  It's validating to move from a fanfiction writer into original fiction and to see people paying to read it; investing time and money in my work. The pocket change is nothing to live on to be sure but it's enough to pay for my writing snacks or some other small treat without touching my day job's paycheck.

As a result of this, I've had to deal with pirates. It's given me a new perspective on the media that I purchase myself; both empathy and sympathy now that I'm in the same boat. On one hand it's frustrating because they're stealing from me, but on the other hand, they're still reading my book and hopefully enjoying it. If they made fan content (fanart, fanfiction, a tvtropes page, etc) that would be payment enough (I'd still prefer they pay the 99 cents, of course).

3. Lessons Learned.

If I go back to college for a Masters or something, I will never complain about revising a ten, twenty or even fifty page paper because it could not be worse than revising a 200+ page novel. I went through A Mage's Power three times after I thought I found all the errors and there was still a truckload of them.  It was a lesson in humility that cost me the equivalent of several days out of my finite life span. Looking back, I should have sent it to a proofer before those three times.  If nothing else, my negative reviewers couldn't complain about grammar or spelling problems.

Speaking of the reviewers, some of them surprised me. A number of them accused me of ripping off the manga/anime Naruto. While it was an influence, it wasn't the main or most important influence. I'm surprised no one's spotted those yet but I suppose it has to do with exposure. Naruto is certainly the most popular of my influences and also the newest since it's still on-going as of this post.  I'll give you all a hint: they begin with an S and there are more hints elsewhere.

4. Advertising

"If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door."
What Mr.Emerson neglected to include was spreading the word about this better mousetrap and convincing them that it is, indeed, better. I've looked into various forms of advertising since then and most of them involve Twitter, which is a comment in its favor. I've also looked into Book Awards for that mark of distinction.

4. Second Work

Revising the sequel to Looming Shadow has taken geologically longer than I thought it would. Each chapter is like turning over a stone and finding dead bugs because I overhaul each one but I don't realize the extent of the revisions until I reach the chapter.  That's the benefit of a long break but the thing is, I've already taken a long break before. Perhaps it wasn't long enough or I didn't know the story well enough. In either case, I'm at the final arc. Hopefully it will be done, beta read, proofed, published and advertised before this time next year. I'm shooting for some time before summer.