Interview with Jonathan Renshaw, author of Dawn of Wonder

Davis: Today, I get to interview Jonathan Renshaw, author of the fantastic Dawn of Wonder, the first volume of his planned Wakening series. This is the self-published novel that I recently reviewed and absolutely loved. I thought it was one of the finest self-published fantasy work since Anthony Ryan’s seminal Blood Song, and one of the finest fantasy novels I’ve read in the past few years.

But before we get to your book, Jonathan, let’s talk about what you’ve done in the past. There is an old wives’ tale, sometimes attributed to Stephen King, that in order to become proficient as a writer, you first have to practice, and that usually requires one million words of crap before you finally start getting it right. For me, that turned out to be the case.

Thus, my first question. Are there any deep, dark books that you’ve written? Novels so bad that the pages bleed? (fingers crossed: please say yes, please say yes, please say yes-us mere mortals hate it when demigods descend to show us up).

Jonathan: Deep and dark would be undue compliments to my early efforts. Shallow and combustible might be more accurate. The weird thing is that I can never really tell at any given stage if my writing is any good. It’s only when I look back that I get a bit of perspective – and wince. At the time, I thought those first few pages I wrote were going to shake the world with their brilliance. I did allow one or two people to read them and they were disturbingly silent afterwards. Sometimes the silence would be broken by questions like, “Have you thought about becoming an accountant?”

 Davis: Oh thank God! Now I don’t have to feel so inferior.

In your bio, you indicate that you originally grew up reading the classics, such as Dickens, Twain, Doyle, Austen, Stevenson, etc. and that you’re original fiction writing was informed in this way. I find that fascinating because while I read many of those authors, I didn’t study their writing. I read a few Jane Austen novels more recently and she’s still brilliantly funny, but those run on sentences! Sheesh! How did puzzling out the classics help with your own writing? Or did it?

Jonathan: Yes, there are some major differences in punctuation and style, which have to be overlooked, and I do share your frustrations but I find the gains are worth it.

I have a long list of things I’ve learned from the classics, but let me just pick out a few. The first would probably be the creative use of words, almost a playfulness. Things are often expressed in unexpected, even adventurous ways that would have taken a lot of thought and that result in a new dimension, a new layer to the reading experience. Another would be the depth of insight into characters’ thoughts, reactions and motivations. The subtle perceptions are often so revealing and so neatly expressed. Next on my list would be the descriptions of scenes. The passages tend to be far longer than most modern readers would tolerate, but the skill shown with the word-brush can still be appreciated. The scene painting is as much about the artistic use of words as about the resulting picture, not unlike poetry. Maybe the last point I would make is the sound. Any good writing can be “sounded”. There’s a rhythm to prose, more subtle than poetry, as well as a musicality – the way the tones interact with each other and with the meaning being conveyed.

 It’s not that I don’t think there are modern writers capable of these things, but so many of the classic writers did them well, and they were the ones to lay the foundations of good prose. Learning from them is like learning from the grand masters, the teacher’s teachers.

 Davis: That is very interesting. It makes me wish I’d actually taken some formal courses on the study of those authors and how they structured their sentences. I guess there’s no time like the present to learn what I overlooked. Recently, I’ve taken a look at poetic devices to see how I can better incorporate it into my writing.

Jonathan: Actually, that shows. The subtle poetic touches caught my attention within the first few pages of your writing. Thou art are no stranger to the word brush.

Davis: So after figuring out that writing like someone 200 years old might not be the best way to communicate with a modern audience, what did you do in terms of reading? Which of the more recent books made an impact on you? More specifically, which fantasy novels or authors do you enjoy?

Jonathan: My reading diet is rather broad. I try to read things from all ends of the spectrum from easy action thrillers to the heavy academic works in which nothing happens but that nothing is exquisitely presented. My favourite books are the ones where brilliant writing meets a satisfying story.

 Some of the more recent books I’ve enjoyed have been Chickenhawk (Mason), Shantaram (Roberts), The Abyss (Card), My Sister’s Keeper (Picoult), Words of Radiance (Sanderson), The Husband (Koontz), The Kite Runner (Huseini), Three Men in a Boat (Jerome), The Second Foundation (Asimov), The Testament (Grisham), Life, the Universe and Everything (Adams), The Book Thief (Zusak), The Eagle Has Landed (Higgins), The Caine Mutiny (Woulk).

 I have to admit that I’m not actually able to get my hands on much of the fantasy I want to read. Saving up and committing to full time writing have required me to live on a shoestring budget for several years, so most of my reading has had to come from the local libraries, which are kind of thin on fantasy. Gormenghast, for example, has been on my wish list for about five years.

 Fantasy authors I enjoy – Sanderson, Pratchett, Rothfuss, Feist, LeGuin, Beagle, Lewis, and Tolkien (if these last two are admissible as modern authors). The fantasy books I’ve most recently read and loved would include both The Stormlight Archive books, The Name of the Wind, The Colour of Magic, and The Last Unicorn.

 Davis: That is an eclectic list. I think you’d love Gormenghast. Reading his descriptive prose is a joy in itself.

In terms of your writing schedule, how do you approach your books? Do you have to have the entire plot outlined? The major plot elements outlined? Or just wing it?

Jonathan: I’ve tried both the tightly structured and the no-plan launch. I can’t wing it for long without a plan because the ideas multiply and as I jot them down on bits of paper, phone, hand, whatever is available, I end up with a rough plot. I found the biggest problem with a tight structure is that characters aren’t permitted to surprise me and mess things up, and if they can’t do that, they aren’t real. I think Stephen King makes this point.

 For now, I work with a dynamic plan. There is a guideline at the start, but I find that if the structure is rigid and imposes on character choices, the story goes flat very quickly. I like stories that are driven by relationships. That requires real characters that act in ways that are unexpected and even frustrating for a writer who is trying to contain them within a plot. When I allow characters to behave in ways that are true to their natures and make choices that surprise each other and even me, it shifts things around and the plot needs to adapt.

 The depth of Aedan’s brokenness is an example. I could have written a much simpler story in which he gains personal confidence from his growing skills and overcomes his internal weakness after a few months, but the more I read on the fight/flight/freeze (and the lesser-known fawn) behaviours from psychologists and war biographers, the more I began to see a kind of trauma that exists on a very deep level that is almost always hidden, even from the individual in question – until some crisis causes it to surface.. I hadn’t planned for Aedan to have a crippling weakness. It spoiled my original plot but it was where the character was tugging. Liru is another example. She wasn’t a plotted character. She swept in from nowhere and made a large place for herself that resulted in several adaptations. I’m still not sure where her character came from. It just sort of appeared on the page and I decided to let her grow into the story as she seemed to want to do.

 So in short, I plot, but in pencil.

 Davis: I have a similar writing style, and I am similarly surprised and gratified. There is one character in particular who I absolutely love. He was initially supposed to be an Orc/Redshirt, but he decided to become so much more. It was just one line change in how this character perceived an event, and my entire story was upended. It ended up changing the entire dynamic.

Jonathan: I love that. It’s like these characters stand up from the page, kick the letters aside to make some space, refuse to do as they are told, and then start bossing us around. Those, for me, are the most enjoyable characters to write. The challenge is to then go back and breathe the same kind of life into all the others.

Davis: Now moving on to your book. Dawn of Wonder. How long have you been working on it?

Jonathan: The book itself took a little over a year and a half, but I spent about ten years before that building the world with different books that opened at various places on the map, with various characters. I’d get about a hundred pages in and then begin again with another angle, trying to do a better job each time. I also worked on other book ideas in different genres. After a decade of that, I knew where I wanted to start and what kind of story I wanted to write, partly because I had built up such a good sense of where and what I didn’t want to write.

Davis: It sounds like there’s quite a bit of worldbuilding going on, so hopefully, there are many more stories to come from this world.

Jonathan: I hope so. That’s the thing with fantasy, especially epic. The worlds authors build require so much work that it would be bitter indeed to have to abandon all that after a single book.

Davis: Dawn of Wonder starts out in a place that’s familiar to most fantasy fans. It’s the Shire, or Emond’s Field, or some small rustic village we all secretly wish we could live in. Again, back to your bio, how similar is Aeden’s childhood to what you experienced growing up?

Jonathan: My first home had a lot in common with the Mistyvales, including the mist. It was a place of farms, forests, grassy hills and a view of the mountains when the air was clear. I’d considered starting the story elsewhere, like in a city, because I knew some would call the countryside a fantasy trope, but I simply couldn’t start anywhere else. The Mistyvales was in my dreams long before I’d even heard of epic fantasy. It wasn’t just a place, it was a character that spoke into the relationships seen early on, much as my first home did for me. There’s a great deal I love about cities, but the Mistyvales is what my blood knows as home. The same, incidentally, can be said of the academy. Trope or not, I couldn’t keep it out of the story. Universities are special places to me, not just for the knowledge they contain, but also because of all the fascinating corridors, galleries and storage rooms that you aren’t supposed to explore. We were forever discovering security entrances that had been left unlocked … Perhaps I should stop here.

Davis: The characters you created are for the most part treated with great sympathy. Even Aeden’s father is given moments to reveal something other than the beast. You show the reality of the world, the gutter politics, the conniving, the deadly street gangs, and yet, Aeden and those who know him, maintain a moral core. Given the popular trend in fantasy toward gray heroes or even anti-heroes, was this a conscious decision? And, if so, why choose this route?

Jonathan: It’s true that Aedan and his friends are seen as having a moral core (though there are some fairly serious vices exhibited among them – kleptomania, racism, cruelty …). It wasn’t so much a decision on what kind of person I wanted to represent as what point of view I chose to use. You’ll know how a limited third person perspective is similar in many ways to the outlook of a first person. The way Aedan is seen is largely the way he sees himself. I thought the kind of boy I was writing about would most naturally think of himself as trying to do the right thing. In reality, his choices are not always morally right, but he would have given little weight to this, and the narrative perspective reflects that.

As to his friends, I don’t think that as a teenage boy he would be most likely to see his companions in sophisticated greys but rather in simple black and white – friend/likeable, enemy/unlikeable. He would also naturally give more emphasis to the good qualities in his friends and overlook their vices.

The same story told from Malik’s side would probably also be morally polarised, but the groups would be different and the events would interpreted from an entirely reversed perspective. Malik would be seen as troubled yet fundamentally good, and his flaws would be justified. Aedan’s virtues would be ignored and his character cast in the deepest suspicion using all the same plot elements in the existing story. Malik genuinely does think Aedan played him false at the festival and sees himself as the injured party.

I don’t mind the grey trend, but I don’t feel it should be used exclusively or by default. I’ve read writing coaches who say that people aren’t black and white, but grey, so they should be depicted as such. But what’s missing from that reasoning is not everyone sees people as grey. That really needs to be taken into account once the point of view has been chosen. My ten cents on the matter is that writers need to set aside the fact that they know people are grey in order to ask, “Does my POV allow me to use that knowledge”, and if using a limited perspective, “Does my POV character look at people that way?”

Davis: That, too, is an interesting approach and makes me wonder what you have planned for the later books.

Jonathan: As the POV character matures and becomes more perceptive, the slider will shift, but the shifts will be subtle.

Davis: There was a scene early on where Allisian, the dark-haired, beautiful princess notices Aeden and his friends. Does she play a further role in the later books—I have my fears about her? What about Thomas and some of Aeden’s friends from up north?

Jonathan: Allisian is definitely going to be back. To some extent she is someone to be feared, but also someone to be feared for. There are treasonous words being spoken in the palace and the walls that keep people out can also keep people in.

 Regarding the north, it’s not just the friends, it’s the whole of the north. In time the story will be going back to the Mistyvales. Those friends are not forgotten.

Davis: Glad to hear it!

There was a vivid scene following a lightning strike that I absolutely loved. And there were also some animals that were changed by the lightning strike. Where did that idea come from? When I read those scenes and descriptions, I kept picturing God and Adam from the Sistine Chapel and also the Nephilim.

Jonathan: The heart of this book was born from my faith, so yes, your reference to Michelangelo’s painting is appropriate. The encounter depicted there is similar to what was in my mind. I think God reaches down to people mostly in very quiet ways – a whisper in the soul – and very occasionally in a way like in that scene.

The animals – museums! I can still see those great beasts that awed me into silence as a five year old. The wonder that flooded me in museums never really left me.

Davis: You’ve mentioned that the tension gets ratcheted up even further with book 2? Any hints on what we can expect? I’m dying here, so even a blurb would be fine. When do you expect to have it out?

Jonathan: At the latest, a year between books, but if I can, I’ll get it out sooner. I’m certainly trying for sooner.

Ahh … I am so useless with hints and blurbs. It takes me forever to put together a spoiler-free anything. Well, the first book was largely about getting to know the characters and what they are capable of. In the second book, they need to actually use all the things they have been taught, and even the tiniest details of their training are going to be crucial. Book two is fast from the start and tense to the end. In the first book they spent a lot of time growing their skills at the academy. There’s no such hanging around any spot for any length of time in the second book. The Lekran Isles are too unsafe. The stakes are colossal, the time short, and the danger constant. And remember that ship being rebuilt beneath the academy? That scene wasn’t just for decoration – there’s something very important there. This whole paragraph probably sucks in the way of hints, but you were warned.

Davis: Arghhh! I hate waiting. Unless I’m the one doing the writing, and then it’s ok.

You’ve had an eclectic life in terms of your job. You’ve been deeply involved in music, and Jacob Cooper, who I interviewed here has a similar background, so I’ll ask you the same as I asked him. Why do you suppose there seems to be such a strong connection between music and writing?

Jonathan:  Maybe it’s because neither group wants to do any real work so they switch between these so called careers when the fancy strikes. Did you want a serious answer?

I’m not sure that being a musician indicates any gifting as a writer, but it does give you a lot of experience in how to work up a shoddy piece into a better one. Working with melodies is a lot like working with sentences. Tweaking the notes involves parallel processes of creative inspiration and critical evaluation. I imagine it’s the same across the arts. Maybe developing the type of concentration needed for this in one art form opens the door into another. One thing most musos know how to do is edit, and as Harry Shaw famously said, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”

I suppose the kind of brain process used to invent a melody could be related to that used to invent a story. Years ago I read a bit on the psychology of music – how music interacts with the emotions and so on. The explanations given were quite speculative but the observations were interesting and got me thinking about how there is possibly more direct intention behind the resulting emotional prompting of a tune than we realise. While any art form is emotionally engaging, music and stories would have to be two of the front runners in that department. Having an instinctive or learned feel for guiding emotions would possibly be useful for someone making the move from music to writing.

Davis: I’d never heard that quote from Harry Shaw, but I love it! A blank page can’t be edited is another one I like.

Jonathan: That’s great. I’d add to that – an unedited page can’t be read. To anyone out there holding onto the myth that there is something special in the first draft: the only thing special in a first draft is its potential. The one thing that all first drafts have in common is that they suck. Well at least all mine do. Davis, I certainly hope you are going to second me on this.

Davis: What kind of music or artists do you like to listen to when writing?

Jonathan: Having spent years working in the music world, my ears tend to get snagged on passing notes and that breaks my concentration. I’m thinking on so many levels when I write that I need every available nanowatt of brainpower. Birdsong drifting through the window is generally the limit for me.

Davis: So no AC/DC?  For me, it’s different. I can work in quiet or with music, but I can’t work with people talking around me. I’m too much a people watcher and terrible about listening in on the conversations of others. So I use music as white noise to shut out the world and the voices in my head. I kid. Mostly.

Jonathan: Actually I can relate. I did once use music to shut out a conversation two dogs were having outside the window. Reminded me a little of the way we sometimes argue as people, each party constantly making the same point over and over and neither listening to a word from the other. It wasn’t the best writing day.

Davis: You’ve taught English but are also proficient in woodworking. What kind of woodworking do you do? Cabinet building? Framing? Or fine arts, like marquetry? What’s your favorite wood to work?

Jonathan: Proficient you say? Hate to disagree with a compliment, but my woodwork is firmly on the rough side. My father got me going by building treehouses (high) and since then I’ve built a balcony, cupboards, a desk and various things for recording studios. The fun part of woodwork is making bows, atlatls, that kind of thing. If it’s at least slightly dangerous then it’s far more interesting. Here’s a link to a short vid of the bow made in the book.

I enjoy fir, maple and pine the most because they smell so good. That’s a terrible reason and all carpenters who read this will just have rolled their eyes. I worked with something that must have been stinkwood once. I shall not work with it again. Most of the great carpentry woods are out of my budget and anyway they’d be wasted on me. My carpentry is quick and functional. No fine arts or marquetry, whatever the heck that is. Okay, I just looked it up. Definitely no marquetry.

Davis: Marquetry is challenging. I haven’t tried it yet, but I love working with wood. I like measuring it, shaping it, smelling it, cutting it. The best wood I worked with was mahogany when I made a coffee table and a filing cabinet. If anyone reading this is interested, I can take some pictures sometime. I’d love to have the time to do more woodworking. If I can squeeze out a few moments, I’m building a grandfather clock out of some cherry and maple I have saved up.

Jonathan: Wow! That sounds impressive. I hope you intend to post pictures.

And finally, the most important question, which challenges your knowledge of simple physics and biology. Who would win in a fight between Superman and Batman?

Jonathan: From physics, Superman. From biology, Superman. It’s like putting Inspector Gadget up against the Hulk.

It eats me, though, because anyone who floats around in public wearing his bright red undies on the outside needs to have his bright red butt kicked. As long as Batman reinforces his toe caps with kryptonite, I’m gonna be rooting for him regardless of the odds. The other thing which weighs heavily against Superman is that he has no toys. And then just look at all those bat gadgets. He who has the most toys should win. It’s only fair.

Davis: As usual, another interesting answer. Thank you Jonathan for spending some time here in my little corner of the web!

Jonathan: My pleasure. It’s a very friendly corner. Thanks so much for having me over.

There was and is a popular tendency to bash Tolkien as being too influential in the fantasy genre. It’s what all the cool kids do. Tolkien, after all, is that most dreaded of individuals: an old, white male. Can there be anyone less worthy of respect in today’s popular culture? 
However, in terms of the arguments I’ve read about Tolkien-and these critiques are decades old-they’ve always struck me as being strawman arguments (this doesn’t touch on criticisms of his writing itself, which is a far different matter).
One critique of Tolkien’s work often rips him for his lack of diversity. Everyone is a white Anglo-Saxon male. Ok. Fine. But for me, diversity is about more than check-a-box of white character, female character, gay character, brown character, or whatever different looking character someone thinks they need to click off on having diversity in their writing. It should be about the characters themselves having diversity of opinion because that’s ultimately what is truly diverse: thought. And Tolkien most certainly does that. There’s the wisdom of Gandalf, the uncertainty of Aragorn, and the longing of Boromir. None of them approach the Ring in the same way. None of them approach Mordor in the same way. And this doesn’t even touch on the other members of the Fellowship, such as Gimli and Legolas or the Hobbits themselves, all of whom approach danger and the quest from different perspectives. They may all be white, but they aren’t all the same. They don’t come from the same backgrounds or cultures.
Then comes another criticism that Lord of the Rings is really about a bunch of white dudes on a sausage-fest quest to go kill some Dark Lord. Everything is black and white. To a point, that’s true, but then what about Saruman? What about Boromir’s fall? There is so much more going on then just a quest to kill a evil guy. The deeper reading reveals so much more that is worthy of emulation. There are ideals that have stayed with me from the first time I read LotR decades ago. Things such as the longing for quiet lives; of simple heroes who are heroic because they do what they think is right and ordinary; of the desire for forgiveness, to want to forgive; and the entrapment of greed and lust.
I understand that for some people, such stories are still too simplistic. Even with that more poignant reading, LotR still comes across as simply good vs. evil. That’s fine. Opinions and all that. I know many people today prefer flawed characters with a deep shade of gray, or even better, black. And the market agrees with them. These days, anti-heroes are all the rage. Witness the thunderous success of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire with it’s plethora of detestable people (BTW, A Song of Ice and Fire was influenced by Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn and that was very obviously influenced by Tolkien and I love Martin’s work). So I imagine those who don’t like Tolkien’s work will be glad to note that his influence and his style of story has waxed away, but for those of us who love him, I imagine it will come around again.

Interview with reviewer/blogger Eric Fomley

Davis: Today I’m excited to be joined by Eric Fomley, owner and proprietor of The Grimdark Review and co-blogger of the recently formed Grimdark Alliance. Eric has a passion for fantasy, and especially the grimdark variety. He’s active on some of the same forums that I am, and so I thought to myself, ‘Self, why don’t we interview Eric and learn what’s so fascinating about grimdark.’ Plus, Eric just seems like a pretty cool guy. So, without further ado, let’s get started.

Welcome, Eric, to my little corner of the interwebs (I think that’s what the cool people call it nowadays). You’re obviously passionate about fantasy, but what was it that sparked your interest in the genre? According to your bio in Grimdark Alliance, the book that ignited it all was The Hobbit? What about after The Hobbit? What came next? What books/movies?

Eric: The Hobbit was definitely my first dip into fantasy. It was read to me by my father in early elementary. It was the first time something other than a movie was able to take me out of this world to go on grand adventures. From there I went on to read the seven Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and the Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. Star Wars was big for me though growing up so a lot of my fantasy fix came from copious amounts of Star Wars novels. Needless to say, I was a little disappointed that Disney did away with that expanded universe.

Davis: I know what you mean about the Star Wars I wasn’t a big reader of them, but the amount of work needed to create that history and verse was impressive. But it also sounds like from the beginning, you got caught up in the gateway drugs known as Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. It’s amazing how, even to this day, it’s those two authors who are how young people discover fantasy. Which brings me to my next question, after Tolkien, Lewis, and Star Wars, you eventually delved into a genre that’s actually rather old but recently, it seems to have taken over the epic fantasy field. I’m talking, of course, about grimdark. How would you define that subgenre?

Eric: Well I think the interpretations of this sub-genre are quite different depending on who you ask. For me, Grimdark is a way for authors to write books that intentionally debunk the traditional tropes of fantasy by focusing heavily on the gritty reality of humanity. Humans tend to be in it for themselves and we are often harsh, wicked and greedy. War isn’t something to be sung about, it’s a bloody mess and the subgenre of Grimdark makes sure we don’t forget these things.

Davis: War is harsh and sanitizing it isn’t something to which any book or movie should aspire. A follow-up question: what aspects of grimdark to you enjoy?

Eric: Heroes that aren’t heroic. What I mean by that is that I love the protagonists that are not your usual knight in shining armor. The character wants something, needs something, or gets caught up in something but they’re always in it for themselves. I think the best example would be Jorg from Prince of Thorns. His uncle caused him grief, he wants revenge. But instead of Jorg being some high standing prince who solves his problems in courtly manners, he runs a gang of criminals and cut-throats his way to victory. That to me is what is good about grimdark. I love to read about a character that gets what he wants in whatever manner he wants. This is a definite theme in grimdark.

Mark Lawrence is simply a fabulous writer and an all-around nice guy. His books are grimdark, but the poetic nature of his writing is an absolute treat. In this, I think he is rare, not just in books we might define as grimdark, but in terms of authors in general, no matter the genre. But who else do you enjoy reading? And this doesn’t need to be limited to grimdark?

Eric: When people ask me this I usually give them my top five. My very favorite author is Mark Lawrence, the author of the Broken Empire trilogy and the Red Queen’s War trilogy. After that it’s Glen Cook, author of the Black Company series. Anthony Ryan, author of the Raven’s Shadow trilogy. Andrzej Sapkowski, author of the Witcher Saga. And Michael Sullivan, author of the Riyria Revelations and First Empire series.

Davis: An eclectic group there. I’ve read all of them except Sapkowski, but given the positive notoriety of the Witcher saga, I’ll have to remedy that. I’m glad to see Glen Cook up there. I think he and maybe Michael Moorcock are probably the grandfathers of modern grimdark.

I’ve noticed that the notion of gritty reality suffusing fiction is at an all time high. And it isn’t just in books, but in TV with shows like The Walking Dead and even The 100. In the movies, we just had Mad Max thundering out and kicking ass. If you’ve seen Mad Max, what are your thoughts on the latest movie?

Eric: I have not actually seen the Mad Max movie but I really want to. It will definitely be one I get when it comes out on disk. But as far as the Grimdark elements in movies part of your question, I definitely know what you mean. If I had more time away from work and knew how to approach it, I might consider doing a study on the effects books and movie moods have on each other. The grimdark theme is definitely popular in both formats presently and it is awesome for me as a fan. But I don’t think this is something that will change anytime soon.

Davis: Mad Max is a blast. I hope you have a chance to go see it. It’s got thin characterizations and a plot just as thin, but it makes up for it in the amount of sheer bombast and striking imagery.

In terms of fantasy novels prior to this current era, there was the 1990s ethos best exemplified by Robert Jordan. Which of these older book did you enjoy? Are there any that you go back to over and over again like comfort food. For me, it’s Riddlemaster of Hed.

Eric: I’d have to say the Witcher Saga is my favorite 90’s series. I always loved how the witchers are supposed to be these monster slayers that stay out of the way of the world’s conflicts to hunt the monsters that plague it, but Geralt never is. He hunts monsters, but he can’t help but meddle when the people he cares about are involved. It’s a great series that really isn’t read enough by the fantasy community. Maybe with the new game its popularity will improve.

Davis: I definitely have to read the Witcher.

I also noticed that according to your bio, you studied philosophy in university, and given your interest in grimdark, have you read Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series? If so, thoughts on his work?

Eric: I have heard Bakker uses philosophy heavily in his series and I have been very eager to start The Darkness that Comes before. But with all the Arcs I’ve been reading I haven’t been able to get around to it yet. It’s on my bookshelf dying to be read though and one day very soon it will have its chance. I enjoy authors that use philosophical concepts in their writing or use characters that struggle with philosophical dilemmas. One author I love that does this is Michael Moorcock. His Eternal Champion Sequence was filled with moral and philosophical dilemmas that drove me through the plot. If Bakker has anything like this to offer, count me in!

Davis: I think you’ll like Bakker. If you do give his Prince of Nothing series a try, make sure to intersperse your reading with plenty of light-hearted material as well. I recommend Looney Tunes or Tom and Jerry.

Moving on to the work you’re doing as a blogger, you have The Grimdark Review where you review books you’ve enjoyed and even have the occasional guest interview. However, recently you’ve collaborated to create Grimdark Alliance. How did that come about? And what do you hope to accomplish with it?

Eric: Well it was really just a matter of common interests. I quickly found with blogging that it can be really difficult to keep generating new content at a pace that can keep the readers engaged. As I only really get the chance to read around my family time and full time job I decided that I really needed to be working with a team. I met Leona through my site The Grimdark Review. She was a regular reader and runs her own blog Leona’s Blog of Shadows. When I spoke with her about my ideas she was very much in the same boat. We then contacted Alexandru from Barbarian Book Club and Grimdark Alliance was forged. We each enjoy the grimdark subgenre and we are each busy people with our day jobs and families. Together though, we hope to generate a nice community where fans of grimdark can find new reads, recommend reads to us, and have some good conversation.

Davis: It’s definitely a great idea. Blogging is hard. To do it successfully, it seems like you have to have new content everyday. I think of an idea, but the work needed to turn that idea into a readable essay of any length is just time away from my job, family, or my writing. Plus, it usually isn’t that interesting. So I can see where people with a similar passion would want to get together and share the burden of blogging.

Speaking of your love of books, is there a book that you’ve read that isn’t commercially popular but happens to be one of your favorites? For me, it would obviously be my own books. 😉

Eric: I would say Beyond Redemption by Michael Fletcher. I read it and thought it was absolutely amazing. The only reason why it isn’t commercially popular is because it doesn’t come out for another few weeks. I received an ARC for it and I will recommend it over and over again. Great start to a series.

Davis: Sounds fascinating. The idea that beliefs can forge reality is a trope that C.S. Friedman mined heavily in her Coldfire series.  I’ll be interested to read Mr. Fletcher’s take on it.

Now a final question, and the most difficult one of all. Who would win in a fight between Superman and Batman? This is a test of your knowledge of physics and biology.

Eric: This is a foolish question and I don’t know why so many people struggle with it. Supposing there exists a reality on our world where Superman and Batman exist, it is only feasible that Superman would win. The reasoning for this is that if his only weakness truly is Kryptonite, a fragment from his planet that blew up many thousands of light-years away, and he arrived at earth in a space shuttle his parents placed him in; there would be no Kryptonite on planet earth whatsoever. The only way batman could win is if when the planet exploded it did so at such a vast speed and velocity that a piece was able to travel as fast as the speed of light, which I would assume is as fast as superman’s ship, against the pull of gravity that was holding the planet in place without any form of propulsion on the meteor. If it were the case that the fragments were traveling that fast and could somehow not get caught in the gravity of that system, we would have to assume then that it kept the exact trajectory to earth for thousands of light-years (which is also highly unlikely). Supposing even that happened, Batman would have to determine how to find a meteor rock coming from a certain planet that he has never been to and possesses no sample from and distinguish it from the thousands of meteors that his earth’s surface every day. Supposing he found a sample, it would have to be big enough to be used to begin with. Even if he found it somehow and made a weapon out of it, Batman would have to move faster than a man that can move faster than the speed of sound. Ergo, it is impossible that Batman could ever beat Superman.

Davis: Good answer! And thank you again, Eric, for taking the time to visit with me here.

Review of Dawn of Wonder by Jonathan Renshaw

Dawn of Wonder is the stunning debut novel by Jonathan Renshaw and is also the first in his The Wakening epic fantasy series. The story is the coming of age tale of a young boy named Aeden, and from that perspective, the book may sound trite, but it succeeds in ways so many similar novels fail. First, Mr. Renshaw captures the absolute fun of being “almost thirteen”. His Aeden is a Tom Sawyeresque character who is utterly charming. From the very first scene when he tries to convince his friend Thomas to jump off a bridge into a snow-melt-cold stream to the various pranks and gags he manages to pull off throughout the novel with daring aplomb, there is joy in him, and he is a joy to discover.

But a novel can’t be all fun and games. There has to be testing and testing there is. Mr. Renshaw shows us this ‘summertime of his life’ child and immediately engulfs him in tragedy. In the hands of a lesser author, what happens to Aeden would simply come off as paint-by-numbers writing. Often, these secondary characters seem to have a singular purpose: Die so the main feels sadness. That’s not a flaw in Dawn of Wonder. Mr. Renshaw imbues all his characters with life and meaning. The loss Aeden experiences is genuine. I felt it. With one scene in particular, my heart actually clenched. That hasn’t happened in a long time.

Following this loss, young Aeden’s secret shame is revealed as he and his family have to flee their bucolic home. This shame-an abusive father-is one that will haunt Aeden throughout the rest of the story. It’s a fatal flaw that he did not deserve or cause, but one that will forever define him, rendering an otherwise courageous boy cowardly.

He travels on to the southern city of Castath and is eventually enrolled in the military academy meant to train the marshals, the nation’s elite warriors and spies. It is there that the story spends the majority of its time, and in this, it is much like Anthony Ryan’s splendid Blood Song. While the story and scenes in Castath with Aeden’s training as a marshal aren’t quite as mysterious or riveting as those in Blood Song, they are, nevertheless, fascinating and well done. Characterizations are strong and most of them are quite likable. Much more happens in this large book (over 700 pages). There is great daring-do, ancient mysteries unearthed, and literal laugh-out-loud moments. There is also that sense of age, of history and truth to this novel that serves as the hallmark of the best worldbuilding.

But if that was all there was to this story: another coming-of-age story done well, but this one with humor, I wouldn’t be writing this review.

Instead, I am doing so because Mr. Renshaw’s writing is simply astounding. His effortless command of syntax, structure, and similes is remarkable. His writing is absolutely gorgeous with a breezy, yet detailed way of describing any scene and setting. There seemed to be a moment every page where I would have to pause and re-read a passage simply to take in the clever turn of phrase, the poetry, or the unexpected use of adjectives as nouns. It was absolutely beautiful and for this reason alone, should be read. His elegant, poetic prose, so like Mark Lawrence’s (although Aeden is definitely not Jorg, nor is Dawn of Wonder grimdark), turned a very good story with themes that touched my heart into one that is wondrous (pun intended).

All in all, Dawn of Wonder was the finest self-published fantasy novel I’ve read since the previously mentioned Blood Song, and one of the finest fantasy novels I’ve read in the past few years, period.

ConCarolinas 2015

Had a great time at ConCarolinas yesterday. I was especially glad to meet Michael Hogan (Colonel Tigh on the Battlestar Galactica reboot). What a wonderful, generous man. He was so giving of his time to everyone. I also met some famous and semi-famous authors, and it’s always kinda weird meeting them; putting a real human being behind the books.

Interview with Jacob Cooper

I’m excited to interview Jacob Cooper, author of the Amazon and Audible bestselling Circle of Reign. Jacob, welcome to the show and congratulations on your recent award. I understand Circle of Reign won Gold for Fantasy in the 2015 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY). Congratulations! And you can purchase the book here on Amazon.

DavisCircle of Reign is your 1st published novel, but before we get to it, are there any poorly written books you have stashed away in your attic or basement? Books so awful that were someone to read them, they’d likely burn out their eyes? In other words, when did you realize you wanted to write and were you like the rest of us peons and slaved over 1,000,000 words, which you then had to promptly throw away before you figured out this thing called writing?

Jacob: Actually, I guess I might be a strange case. I didn’t grow up as this voracious reader like some in my family or my wife. I only read when school made me. As an adult, I read a lot of business books at first. Leadership, teamwork, sales, financial/economics. Eventually, my brain needed a break, so I’d read (who am I kidding, I’m an audiobook junkie…so I’d listen) to the occasional thriller. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I read my first fantasy book. That was Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. Eragon followed pretty quickly and then the series that actually got me into writing, Mistborn. Within a month of finishing Mistborn (and becoming a convert to Michael Kramer’ voice) I started writing Circle of Reign. I remember being so blown away by escaping into another world…the experience was unlike any other book or series with Mistborn. I suddenly saw what other people saw when reading fantasy. That other world that you get sucked into…it was so addicting. 

I’ve always wanted to emulate things that inspire me. It’s always been like with music, business, whatever. If I hear a song that really moves me, I try to compose a song in that vein. I guess it’s my way of applauding that work that has inspired me.

All that said, I didn’t get real serious about Circle of Reign until about 3 years into it. I’d just occasionally write when I had time (or insomnia). It was just kind of a creative outlet for me for a time. It’s still kind of hard for me to believe I’m an author now.

Davis: So let me get this straight. This is your first book, and you hit it out of the park. Sigh. Moving on. Circle of Reign begins with a bang, and the world of the Dying Lands is pretty inventive. In a sense, the world almost seems alive as it eases through a cycle of birth/death and presumably rebirth. This is sorta like Hinduism when it comes to the soul. So what’s the underlying story for the Dying Lands? How long has it been percolating in your noggin?

Jacob: That element of Våleira, the cycling (dying/rebirth) of lands came to me a few years into writing. When it finally hit, it was such a neat concept to me. If you imagine a world where you know that your land will someday die and force your entire nation to move on, you’ve got a pretty neat backdrop for history of the world and cultures of people. The dying of your home land might take decades, the signs manifesting slowly, or it could be very abrupt. When your lands die, you only have three choices: 1. stay and try to survive as long as you can, but you know you’ll eventually die off; 2. Explore and try to find new, fertile land that is currently uninhabited; 3. Invade. Similarly, if your lands are currently not cycling, you know without a doubt that you will face invasions. The very fabric of that world is unique. Though to the people of Våleira the cycling is just part of life, the bigger question is really, Why do the lands actually cycle? What’s behind it? And, what if the lands stopped being reborn?

Davis: I imagine we’ll get some of the answers to those questions in your next book and in some of the short stories you’ve been working on as well. At least we better. Shakes fist.

Reign and Hedron are obviously close being brother and sister, and they’ve witnessed awful tragedies. Yet, they’re relatively well-balanced and quite likeable. In fact, most every one of your characters are likeable. Given the trend in the past decade toward grimdark-and the events that occur in Circle of Reign are certainly grim and dark-what made you push toward likeable, relatable characters vs. the gray antiheroes that populate many a fat fantasy at ye’ olde Barnes and Noble?

Jacob: I guess I wanted to have characters that I liked. There are some characters that have a bit of gray to them (Hedron as far as his ambivalence to his family name; Aiden with his past; and Tyjil just might have motives he thinks to be noble), but by a large they are definitely either good or bad. But, think about it: It’s the end of the world. The conflicts of good vs. evil are culminating to what appears to be a final battle. The world itself is almost completely dead as the Lumenatis fades. Wouldn’t sides be very clear at that point? That’s what struck me as the case as the plot developed over the years.

Davis: I don’t know. I think we share the same desire for relatable, likeable characters (which is what I tend to write as well). However, I do know of stories where even with the world’s end breathing down everyone’s necks, people behave like selfish assholes. I’m looking at you BSG. I enjoy those kind of stories if they’re told well, but I don’t generally revisit them.

JacobCircle of Reign is dark. There’s also glimmers of bright light. Some of it is gruesome, but it’s a bit removed from your typical grim-dark fantasy on that note. Altar of Influence, the prequel the The Dying Lands Chronicle, also deals with a couple heavy themes, but I don’t feel that the books couldn’t be read by a mature teenager. I’d just say that the books are full of action and with that comes violence. But that’s also what Circle of Reign and Altar of Influence have been most praised for, the battle scenes and sequences.

Davis: I haven’t read your short stories yet, but I’ll get to the battle scenes later in the interview. But getting back to characters-and please pardon me if the answers are in the short stories-two of my favorites were Holden and Ryall? I’m expecting great things from those two young men. And is there some deeper point you’re discussing with those two? They are literally questing for hidden knowledge in dark, secret places. And we all know how that story usually ends.

Jacob: I’ll be honest, it felt like a completely new book when those two entered the scene. They added a bit of needed comic relief but also depth to the mysteries. When you have civilizations that migrate to new lands every several hundred years, history tends to get muddled and lost. And what if you’re unsuccessful in finding new land, either because you can’t find any or your invasion fails? That civilization is wiped out and lost with little to nothing being known about it. After all, it’s not like you have international trade and commerce if you’re trying to keep your location secret to avoid invasions, right? Okay, Holden and Ryall. They are not in either of the short stories (The Red Grove and the-soon-to-be-released Remnants and Shadows). However, Song of Night, book 2 in The Dying Lands Chronicle, has quite a bit of them. I think what they will discover gives a lot of exposition to the world, who the Ancients were, the Lumenatis, and, perhaps most importantly, Those Not Remembered, a race that supposedly pre-dated the Ancients and from which all the people of Våleira purportedly descend. 

I have 8 siblings, so writing Holden and Ryall wasn’t tough at all. Their prank war…well, I’ll just leave it to your imagination. Those two characters are named after one of my nephews, Holden Ryall. My sister found those two names are family names by doing some genealogy. 

Davis: The Borathein are your sly nod to the horselord/nomad trope. They even live on a kind of plain. Then you’ve got the Alysaar. I must know (and you better not say, ‘get used to disappointment’-gratuitous Princess Bride reference) if that’s a play on Allosaur. And the way they bond and look and fly reminded of those flying creatures in Avatar, the James Cameron movie. So first, are the Borathein, in fact, horselords and are the Alysaars flying Allosaurs?

Jacob: You might be somewhat disappointed with my answer. I don’t envision them like the flying creatures in Avatar at all, nor did I even think about the horselord/nomad tope. To me, the entire world is semi-nomadic. And the Alysaar…I tried to stay away from the dragon trope as well, but really liked the idea of a flying mount. I think the Borathein were more inspired by my affinity toward Viking history than anything. Always have been fascinated with that culture and wanted to have a nod toward that, I suppose. 

Davis: Ack! No horselords?! But then how will you introduce the noble savage archetype? And how he becomes best buds with the noble Knight archetype?

Just kidding there. Just a bit of alluding to the late, great David Eddings and his use of archetypes.

Back to your book, Jacob. The ending of Circle of Reign encompassed the last 1/3 of the book and was basically non-stop action, but it had meaning. It wasn’t simply a thrill ride but was instead simply thrilling. Do you plan on keeping up that page-churning pace for book 2 or will you slow things down a bit?

Jacob: What? A 1,000 page battle? Me? [awkward silence].

Davis: Then I guess we’ll just have to accept character development in lieu of Michael Bayesque explosions. Hmm. A book where the action is a means to develop the characters? Who ever heard of such a thing!?

You have an audiobook version of Circle of Reign narrated by Michael Kramer, which is quite the coup. How did that come about?

Jacob: I looked him up on Facebook and contacted him. It was that simple. He did in a pre-read to kind of screen the book, and ended up enthusiastically agreeing after that. In fact, it was quite a confidence booster to me as a first time author to have him say that he “had to apply the Sanderson rule, which is, don’t start reading late at night because you’ll be up until 3 am.” It was really a highlight to work with him and John McElroy as the producer. He has an ability to bring stories to life that I simply love. 

Davis: That’s it? That was your great secret? Again sigh.

Ok. I’ll fess up. I already knew what you’d done, and I actually tried to steal the idea. Then I ran into Michael’s agent and learned his hourly rate. Good God! It would be near 5 figgers (that’s figures for you non-southerners) for him to narrate my first book. But then again, aren’t you putting your own voice to narration now? What is it about narration that interests you?

Jacob: I’m an audiobook junkie. Did a radio show for many years and really loved it. Have some background in music production as well so I decided to try and put all that together. I have 3 projects going currently and have really enjoyed it so far. 

Part of it probably also came from how I edit my stories. I narrate them all the way through several times. For some reason, speaking my stories out loud and hearing them brings new ideas and points out weaknesses to me. Maybe that’s a bit odd, but I’m an auditory learner without question. Circle of Reign is 20 hours long in audio and I narrated it all the way through 3 times as I was editing it. Helped tremendously for me. The same for Altar of Influence and I’m sure will be the same for Song of Night. Kramer will continue to do the official narration, however. Mine are just for editing purposes 🙂

Davis: You mean to say that you narrated 60 hours for Circle of Reign? Gulp. Moving on. You’re very much into the act of creating given your accomplisments as a musician. I find it interesting how often writers love music. Why do you suppose that is or at least in your case?

Jacob: Creative outlet. They are closely related, for sure. And the music I love is story driven. Progressive rock, for example. More complicated musical movements, the entire album is usually a story. In short, it’s epic. I am not surprised at all that many authors are also musicians. 

Davis: Speaking of music, what do you listen to when writing? Do you have any albums available?

Jacob: I throw on the Lord of the Rings Pandora station a lot. The concept of “friction” in my books (one of the magic systems) was loosely inspired by the song “Fix me” by 10 Years. Movie soundtracks tend to do well for me in general. Film Scoring was my declared degree when I attended Berklee College of Music back in the day.

Davis: And now, a final question, and this is the hardest because it’s a test of your knowledge of biology and physics. Who would win in a battle between Superman and Batman?

Jacob: Unless Batman finds a huge quarry of kryptonite, Superman. Without a doubt.

Davis: That is correct! Well done, sir!


FIFA Scandal-Arresting them is a good start

I’m glad to see these arrests, and hopefully, it will only be the start. I’d like to see these guilty men impoverished and imprisoned for what they have done. But it’s not because I care about the money they stole or with which they were bribed. It’s because of five thousand young men. According to the Qataris, five thousand men will have died in order to build these sports complexes and hotels. And given that this is the official number, the true number will likely be much higher.

Just think about that for a moment. Five thousand men from the very poorest countries; young and willing to work, were killed. Their deaths are considered acceptable losses. Five thousand men dead in a desert for a soccer tournament. Five thousand sacrifices so greedy, evil fuckers could make a dime.

It’s simply too awful to fathom.


Tanith Lee-the loss of another legend

What a gut kick to learn that she’s passed away. Her books were so influential in the entire fantasy landscape, and I wish more people knew about her books, especially the Paradys novels and the Tales from the Flat Earth. She could write creepy mood and evocative setting like no one else and incorporate horrific takes on modern fairy tales. I loved Heartbeast, which was about a werewolf, but it was absolutely not urban fantasy. It was Victorian horror. But then there were some fun children stories. One I especially liked was set in India. Then there was Cyrion, a heroic warrior who was unlike Conan in that he was very cerebral in how he dished out his violence. He mainly won his battles through guile. I could go on and on about her books and stories.

There are ongoing discussions on some websites about female fantasy authors that should be more widely read. There aren’t many that should be higher on the list than Tanith Lee.  I hope people will go out and rediscover her works.

Rest in peace to a wonderful author and my heartfelt condolences to those she left behind.

Here’s an article about the type of writer she was.


What a first edit of a first draft looks like

Spoiler alert. If you haven’t read A Warrior’s Knowledge, don’t read any further. This is the first page of the prologue from Book 3, tentatively titled A Warrior’s Penance. And this is what the edit of the first draft looks like.

When I was younger there were writers who implied that they would write a book, and basically, all it would take would be some tweaking of their first draft, and BOOM! They were ready to publish. Then I’d read my work and feel completely inadequate given the crappy quality my own first drafts. Later, I discovered that those authors who claimed to only do a few revisions were likely lying. Don’t know why, but I never forgot that feeling of incompetence they managed to inspire in a younger me. So I thought I’d post something more typical of my work, and hopefully if there’s anyone out there thinking they can’t write worth a lick because their first drafts aren’t up to snuff, this will ease your mind. Notice all the red.

It’s hard work writing a book so it  resembles the story in my head.


Prologue edit