Got an email last night informing me I got that sweet, sweet Bookbub Featured Deal action for LURK. The ebook version will be free on Amazon from August 22-26.
Got an email last night informing me I got that sweet, sweet Bookbub Featured Deal action for LURK. The ebook version will be free on Amazon from August 22-26.
A dishonored swordsman running from his past.
A city shrouded in dark magic.
An antihero born.
Daniel Harper was champion, until a single mistake destroyed his fencing career forever. With nothing left to lose, he flees to Eastern Europe, where he can start over… where he can be someone else.
In the exotic, lantern-lit crevices of a nameless city, Daniel meets two people who open very different kinds of doors than the ones he is searching for: the troubled flower girl Kashka, who holds the key to a nightmarish otherworld; and the enigmatic street magician and self-professed love tourist Ink, who has the power to bend others to his will.
As Daniel plummets into a downward spiral of hedonism and dereliction, he is tormented by macabre visions of a frozen world in endless darkness where an evil tyrant has stolen the sun, where humanity’s remnants fight to scrape out a cruel existence underground, and wandering spirits inhabit the bodies of the recently deceased. Daniel is doomed to return to this Night Country every time he falls into a deep sleep. But the longer he spends there, the more Daniel realizes his curse is anything but an accident….
Well… that’s only half-true.
My Eastern Europe-based dark fantasy/post-apocalyptic/Wizard of Oz on three bottles of vodka novel Corruption, Book one of the Corruption Cycle, has had an admittedly small number of readers since it hit Amazon two months ago. Much smaller than my horror debut Lurk, which seems to be selling better each month (especially on Audible). I never planned to make money writing books, and so the royalties I get from Lurk continue to be a pleasant surprise.
By comparison, Corruption doesn’t have a single review yet on Amazon, and none of the reviewers I reached out to before the book’s launch have gotten around to it yet. I have done exactly zero promotion for the book, which I know is not ideal. A few people have purchased it on Amazon or read it on KDP. But, so far, the book is still a complete unknown.
There are a few reasons for the book being slow to launch, and I’m not ignorant to them; it is my fault for not putting a bunch of money behind it to buy ad space and promotion stuff right when it came out, which is the typical strategy indie authors use to get a book off the ground. My approach to editing was iterative. Some of the early drafts I sent to my beta readers or interested friends/family were pretty rough, which I could’ve waited on. I also don’t think the first blurb I wrote was very good, and made the book sound kind of boring. So I did the sensible thing and rewrote it, and the new blurb is a vast, vast improvement.
The last thing, and this is smaller but still important… I didn’t do my due diligence in getting reviewers lined up before the launch. Group psychology is a real thing when it comes to book sales. Readers want the books they pick up to already be vetted by other readers, because books take a lot more work than other forms of entertainment to truly enjoy. The reviewers I reached out to were people whose opinions I trust for good or ill, but they are all pretty popular, which means their to-be-read piles are gargantuan.
Word of mouth is king. If nobody knows your book exists, they can’t talk about or recommend it, can they? This is the precisely the conundrum I found myself in with Corruption. I needed exposure, but I know my flaws, and the biggest one by far when it comes to writing stuff is that I am terrible at self-promotion.
So I entered the book into Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-off.
The SPFBO is a contest held by best-selling grimdark author Mark Lawrence each year to shine a light on works by indie authors that fall under the umbrella of fantasy fiction that would otherwise go lost in the shit sluice that is book publishing in 2017. I don’t mean that every self-published book out there is shit. My books are both self-published (Lurk had a publisher, but they went under). No, “shit sluice” here only means that there are a ton of books out there – something like 1,000,000 e-books on Amazon alone – and getting yours noticed without the push of a big New York publisher behind you is near impossible without a fame-wave or mountains of disposable cash to ride on.
As far as exposure goes, the SPFBO is an indie author’s dream come true. Fantasy readers are voracious for new stuff to read, and the contest tends to filter for some truly awesome books. Authors who make it to the final round get a massive boost in eyeballs, if not sales, and it’s not just the fans who are watching. Josiah Bancroft, who wrote the Books of Babel, one of last year’s SPFBO finalists, just nailed down a book deal with a big New York publisher. How cool would that be? And he wasn’t the only one.
Anyway, the contest takes about a year to play out. But the initial feedback from the reviewers is in, and Corruption made the top 12 covers in the contest… out of a pool of 300! Go go go little book. Of course, a great cover doesn’t mean a book is good or bad, but it is absolutely true that the cover is the first thing that sells the book. I’m extremely proud of how Corruption’s cover came out, and think my designer, J. Caleb Clark, knocked it out of the park, capturing the story perfectly in a simple, clean image that really stands out on the shelf.
Take a gander:
I’m planning to really start pushing Corruption end of summer/beginning of fall. I just don’t have time or funds to do it seriously before then, and my experience getting Lurk airborne has taught me that it’s better to do it right than right now. The audiobook is in production, though, and should be on Audible in the next two or three months. I’m already hard at work on the sequel, which is tentatively titled Virtue.
If you dig grimdark fantasy/portals/end of the world stuff/tales of drunken debauchery in foreign countires or all of the above, Corruption may be just the dark fantasy fix you need. A link to buy the book is at the beginning of this article. The ebook is $5 and paperbacks are $18.
LURK is a Countdown Deal on Amazon right now, down from the regular price of $3.99 (Kindle edition) to a meager $0.99. That’s less than the price of a beer in Bavaria! Please note that Countdown Deals are flash sales that go by incremental pricing; it will only be 99 cents today (5/23), then will go up to $1.99 tomorrow, and to $2.99 the day after that.
I’ve posted a few pieces of previously-published short fiction here lately, and here’s why. It’s my goal to eventually make all of the short stories I publish in magazines or anthologies free to read online, once the rights revert back to me. I’ve never published original short fiction on here, but that might be in the cards someday, too. I know it’s fashionable these days for some bigger-name authors to post shorts as Patreon rewards to their donors, which is annoying, and would hurt my image as a grumpy old curmudgeon, so I’m not gonna do it.
So far, of the roughly ten pieces of short fiction I’ve sold, almost all of them meet the “free” criteria, and are free to read for anyone with an Internet connection right here on this website (or several others). Many are also available as Kindle ebooks. I’m still trying to master the art of making Kindle books perma-free on Amazon, so for now the ebook versions are set at $.99.
Everyone pirates everything these days anyway.
Now back to writing and delicious burgers.
As a budding author who just released the first book in my own dark fantasy series, it seems, looking back, that however much I’ve tried to give books of every genre equal opportunity to be read, it has always been this one that affected me the deepest. I define dark fantasy somewhat loosely, as any work of massive imagination that says something about us, humanity, that may be difficult to hear. Don’t get me wrong. The words “bastard,” “sword,” or both of those together will never lose their crunch. Still, a book is never about its skin, but its soul. To me, “dark fantasy” concerns the dreams we dream when we look inward and find the soul is stained. Of course, it should go without saying that this list is incomplete. No doubt some of your own favorites will be missing. If so, be sure to sound off in the comments.
If you pick up The Witcher books expecting another Lord of the Rings, you might be in for a bad time. The games have done a decent job of capturing the essence of these books, but – call me old fashioned – it’s the opinion of this Internet nobody that the books are just better. However, they are also quite divisive. That’s because Sapkowski’s writing does not represent a Western point of view. The Witcher is Polish, through and through: in its mentality, in its humor, in its worldview; as well as in its treatment of subjects like racism, oppression, and war. First published in the nineties, this series remains a bold statement on what is possible when we give in to the tempting voices of our worst selves. The Witcher saga is vibrant, original, and riveting.
Pros: Unforgettable characters, sympathetic monsters of the non-human variety, deliciously brutal ones of the human kind.
Cons: May leave unfamiliar readers scratching their heads. Do your homework and read up on Poland before starting.
I purchased this book on a whim before a longish flight from San Francisco to New Orleans. I thought I was in for another somewhat forgettable high fantasy romp, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself falling headfirst into a wicked, simultaneously lyrical and blood-soaked science fantasy reminiscent in the best way of Gene Wolfe and China Mieville. The prose is beautifully jagged, littered with diamonds in the rough. The characters, including the protagonist (who doesn’t speak), and his best friends, a baby and a goat, are instantly endearing. The threats are real, and every blood splatter felt. The Vagrant is the most fun I’ve had reading a new author in years, and I am hoping for many many more books from Peter Newman to come.
Pros: Dank prose, graceful treatement of clichés, a sono-sword that can wreck your shit.
Cons: Present tense narration pulled me out of the story at times.
To me, this book is the essence of dark fantasy. There are no swords in Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant, horrifying epic about a gang of scalp-hunters riding the highway to Hell during the Mexican-American War (maybe sabres or bayonets). There are no dragons or damsels in distress. If there were, make no mistake, Glanton, Judge Holden, Toadvine, and the Kid would shoot and scalp them.
But despite lacking the traditional genre trappings, every word of this book deals in the fantastical, the awful, and the awe-inspiring; from the oneiric quality of the prose, to the story’s villain, the enigmatic, seven foot-tall albino known as the Judge, who is the embodiment of war itself. Blood Meridian isn’t a work that plots a clear path between moral or intellectual points. It is the reading of a nightmare that is wholly American, wholly historical, and yet somehow also mythical and timeless. It is one of the few books I have read that I reread with ritualistic engagement every few years. There is a tree of dead babies. And that scene where they make gunpowder… look, just read it.
Pros: The Judge. Peeing to make gunpowder. Something about floating blue islands.
Cons: One of the bloodiest books in print. No punctuation.
The Divine Comedy was one of the first works written in a language common people could read (Italian, rather than Latin). Its author, Dante Alighieri, was a man who experienced life’s highest highs and lowest lows. He met his true love, lost her, was exiled from his hometown of medieval Florence, and then spent most of his life searching for redemption.
That quest is mirrored here, in his often crude, more often clever narrative poem about a man who, while wandering lost “midway through life’s journey” finds that the only way for him to see his lost love again in Heaven is to literally go through Hell; to journey through the deepest pits of despair and bear witness to the souls of the damned being punished there for their sins. It is gross, it is long, it is tedious, and it is life-changing. And, of all the works of dark fantasy on this list, it is probably the only one that people will still be reading a thousand years from now.
Pros: Lots of mofuggas getting their goddamned comeuppance. Poop demons. The line, “Through me you go to the grief-wracked city.”
Cons: Hundreds of pages long. Read the Ciardi translation. Others read like the Bible.
A standalone, grimdark war story set in the same world as Joe Abercombie’s First Law trilogy. I love the word “grimdark.” It makes me feel smart when I say it, like I could almost add a little Richard Attenborough to the finish and nobody would call it out. And it perfectly captures what this story is about, bleakness, cold steel, and rivers of spilled blood over of all things… a hill. That’s right. This is the story of a bunch of guys killing each other over who gets to be King of the Hill. Like that one part of that Metallica song.
And it works. The conflict itself becomes the main character of this story, and it unfolds through the clearest lens of battle I’ve yet read in fantasy fiction. I really value that Abercrombie took the time to write this book, which seems like a weird thing to say, and maybe it is, but if The Heroes didn’t exist, I probably never would have given a second thought to one of our species’ favorite and most destructive pastimes, which is pointlessly slaughtering each other over who gets the best view.
Pros: Red meat and redder steel. Looooooong. My copy came from Armchair Books in Edinburgh (the one in the header image).
Cons: Heavy enough to use as a weapon if you ever find yourself storming a hill.
No fat pink masts or Myrish swamps to be found here. This is a YA novel. But it is also a monumentally deep and important one. I battled with myself about whether or not to list the whole series, like I did with a few other spots on this list, but I think The Subtle Knife is a much stronger novel than the other two, however much I enjoyed them twenty years ago, when I first… holy f***, I’m old.
This isn’t just a story about a knife that can cut doorways to other worlds; it is a book about the idea of what a world is. It isn’t just about two kids from different parallel universes who are thrown together by a series of exploding events and also an airship, a broken family, a gaggle of witches, and don’t forget the giant armored polar bears, who then end up forming a deep friendship and experiencing first love together; it is about the idea of what our loved ones give us. It isn’t just about the infinite possibilities out there in the multiverse, including worlds where children wear their souls outside their bodies as shape-shifting animals who only take a fixed form after puberty, and other worlds where creepy shadow people eat those fixed forms, leaving cities where there are no grownups and only gangs of punk-ass children; it is about the nature of infinity, and how truly small humanity is in the face of it.
Pros: Cittagazze, Pantalemon, The Guild of Philosophers.
Cons: Can’t think of any, although this series is not well-loved by highly religious folks.
A benchmark work in the development of “mature” comics, The Sandman was now-fantasy superstar author Neil Gaiman’s breakout work, and it ran long enough to fill ten trade paperbacks (not to mention all the spin-offs, sequels, and prequels). There were a few other comic series that I considered putting in the graphic novel slot on this list – Transmetropolitan, Northlanders, and Moore’s Swamp Thing to name a few. But this story, about a family of immortals known as the Endless who represent personifications of the human psyche (as well as plenty of others borrowed from various mythologies, including the DC/Vertigo universe), supersedes not just its peers in the comic world, but the medium itself.
The Sandman is a love ballad to storytelling, more specifically fantasy. Its cast includes Dream, Destiny, Despair, Desire, Destruction, Death, and Delirium – could any group of words better summarize why we read this genre? Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, takes center stage for most of the main Sandman run, and his explorations of our dreams, our hopes, and our fears, are all masterfully written and drawn. My favorite arc is A Game of You, but I can’t remember a single issue of The Sandman that I didn’t like, and most, I absolutely loved. It takes a certain level of genius to maintain that level of interest over 100-something issues. This is Gaiman at his youngest, most raw, and purest.
Pros: Perfectly plotted. Snappy dialog. Old school art and coloring still pops.
Cons: Some kids these days might need to step out of the box to really get into a comic printed on newspaper.
The granddaddy of books about knights who say f—. Well, not knights, exactly. Just normal soldiers. This is a grim, realistic, and often hilarious examination of men at war through the fantasist’s lens. The fact the fantasist in question is a veteran of the U.S. military adds the necessary authenticity. Glen Cook’s flagship series pulls no punches, both in terms of how men “in the shit” talk and how they behave. A diverse cast of characters with a broad range of personalities, who constantly subvert expectations. The dark lord, for example, is a smokin’ hot woman.
Pros: Characters and cities that live and breathe. No kid gloves about violence and war.
Cons: Croaker is a little bit nondescript as far as protagonists go.
A satirical novel by Russian playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov about a machine gun-toting cat who works for Satan and performs street magic, this is the book that subverted the entire Soviet Union and its culture of ideological censorship with nothing but humor, despite being published posthumously after the author burned it, rewrote it from memory, and hid it in a box for three decades.
The basic plot is that the Devil, a fabulously fashionable man who wears a pince-nez, arrives in Moscow to make trouble for everyone, including the government, the titular Master (a writer languishing in obscurity), and his sweet love, Margarita. There is also a simultaneous retelling in flashbacks of the trial and execution of Jesus Christ. Dope doesn’t begin to describe this novel. Some people say the classics aren’t sexy, but with the amount of nudity and broomsticks, in this particular instance, those people would be wrong.
Pros: The quote “Manuscripts don’t burn.” Excellent use of a story-within-the-story. Machine gunning demon cat.
I’ve read “The Book of the New Sun” cover-to-cover four times, and each time it becomes richer, deeper, and more enjoyable. Neil Gaiman wrote an entire article on why you should read Gene Wolfe, who the New York Times called “Science Fiction’s Difficult Genius” and who Ursula K. LeGuin called “Our Melville.” Wolfe is a writer’s writer. His stories are shadowy, labyrinthine puzzles, impossible to fully grasp on the first read-through. Oh, you will think you know what’s going on, and who’s-who, and who that guy’s mother is. The first time. Maybe even the second. But trust me, you have no idea.
The Book of the New Sun tetralogy is set in far-future Argentina, when the sun is dying, and follows the confessions of Severian, a disgraced young journeyman in the Guild of Torturers who is kicked out for falling in love with and subsequently showing mercy to one of his victims. Over the next four books, we travel with Severian and his mercury-weighted executioner’s sword all over the Americas, as he collects heads for a paycheck, battles mad scientists and their giant homunculi, resuscitates his grandmother from the lake of the dead, faces an army that can only speak in short government-approved aphorisms, time-travels, journeys to the stars, and ultimately, becomes leader of the free world. If you are already skeptical of this list of events, that’s great – you’re off to a good start at successfully reading Wolfe.
Pros: Terminus Est, the Alzabo, conversing with the Ascians, the king of unreliable narrators.
Cons: Dense and difficult, but worth the work.
So, those are my top ten. What are yours?