Hi! Today, in my review, I’m going to discuss three books. All are independently published, and I will be singing the praises of this amazing publishing option, as well as warning people away from the dragons and goblins that lurk along the way. For like any good fantasy quest, the journey to the Lost Tower of Authorovia, with its chest of Published Books, is fraught with dangers, distractions, and traps that even the bloodthirsty Grimtooth would shy away from.
I also hope I don’t come off a little too harsh. I myself published a novella, A Flight of Dwarfs, in 2012, and while I made enough money on it to see my Grandfather in California a month before he passed away (not the reason I published, but the royalty check arrived the day I found out I should go see him while I could) I also received the full panoply of reviews that any first-time indie writer should receive… the five-star “This is the best evar!” from a well-meaning friend or three, the three-star “Well, it’s not bad, and I kind of enjoyed it” from acquaintances or people who had heard of it, and the important review, the two-star from the reader who took the time to read it, ripped it apart, and yet pointed out what was good, along with what I really needed to work on. It’s hard to tell someone who’s spent years on a project that it just doesn’t have the effect that the writer hoped it would, that it needs work, or that perhaps the writer should start over, maybe with the same characters, and try again, and it’s particularly hard for a writer who has written a few books himself. When I look at a 300-page independent novel, I don’t just see the characters, the plot, and the dialogue. I see a minimum of three months of writing and editing to get a passable 2nd draft, and perhaps six months, or a year, or two, along with the multiple passes, again and again and again. In fact, this is why Grimdark Fantasy exists… after a certain point, every writer just wants to wade into his or her story and chokeslam everyone in it. I take no pleasure in tearing apart an independent book because I know that they are almost always a labor of love by writers working without much of a backup staff of editors and proofreaders. But I do take a lot of pleasure in reading a well-written, entertaining book, and that means I have to do my duty as a reader if I want to read better stories.
A month or so ago, the ravens that visit me on my craggy mountaintop fortress in the jungles of Florida brought me a copy of Falling Reign by Kenneth Collins. I had just finished reading The Coldfire Trilogy and needed another fantasy to read, so I pulled it off of Way Too Fantasy’s towering TBR stack and read it. From the beginning, I could tell that there was a lot to like about it. There was a sailor and builder as the main character, and his stories about both jobs seemed practical and grounded in reality. The wizard and the nobles injected a good dose of mystery and intrigue into the story, and by the time the main character was quite literally pulled into the action, I had reached a point of no return, and I knew I was going to finish it, and soon. This does not always happen with books, as you know, and the problem with reading a lot (and wanting to read a lot more) is that my patience for a book that doesn’t grab me or isn’t written as well as the last few books I read has plummeted. Regardless of anything else I say about this book, I will say that the story is a good one, and I found myself honestly caring about the characters by the end. The conflict between the King and the Prince on one side, and the rebels on the other, is visceral and immediate, and the author does a great job of showing the struggle between a bad man with a lot of power and a good man with barely any. This student of history was quite entertained.
However, there were a lot of parts where I felt myself pulled out of the story. For example, the conversations, when two or more characters would argue or discuss the plot were always entertaining, but a lot of the incidental dialogue was just not written well… it was too wordy, or had too much detail packed into a single line, or just fell flat. This is not, by any means, an unusual problem to have; I just read a trilogy of romance novels by one of the bigger names in Harlequin (and Hallmark) romance, and her dialogue was riddled with more exposition than a tourguide on meth. But I did find that a lot of the dialogue interrupted the flow of the action, or added little to the plot.
I’m honestly looking forward to reading the next book in this series. I also wholeheartedly recommend any (every?) indie author retain the services of an editor. Friends, even writer friends, can only do so much for a manuscript, and the money that you spend on an independent set of eyes and a skilled red pencil will either translate into more sales, better writing, or both. That was a hard lesson for me to learn (especially since I closed my ears the first few times I should have learned it) but it’s one I’m thankful for. And as a reader who wants to see more authors publish outside the Big Five publishers, it’s a tip that I will always try to share.
I don’t know if Barry J. Levinson had an editor between books one and two of the incredibly entertaining Space Team series, but I would not be surprised. There is a distinct difference in quality between the first book, Space Team: A Comedic Sci-Fi Adventure, (which was itself laugh-out-loud funny) and Space Team 2: The Wrath of Vajazzle (which was also laugh-out-loud funny yet with a more compelling storyline). I enjoyed both books, but whereas I felt only 75% confident in recommending the first book, I now feel like I should push it on people, if only because they should definitely read it before they continue on with the series. (If you haven’t read the first, you’ll never understand why I laughed hard enough to drop the book just because someone in the second book mentioned the Disney World ride “Space Mountain.”)
The premise of the first book, in as spoiler-free of a description I can possibly come up with, is this: Cal, a minor criminal, is accidentally put in a jail cell with a cannibalistic homicidal serial killer, but space soldiers from one of the largest companies in the galaxy break in, kill the cannibal, kidnap Cal because they think HE’S the killer, and draft him to lead a group of criminals against the enemies of the state. His shipmates include a huge wolfing princess, a sarcastic cyborg named Mech (think of a mix between Marvin and Grumpy Cat), a pilot ostensibly from the same company, and a blob of something called “Splurt.” After the first third of the book, it starts to get strange.
I’m bringing this up in the same review as Falling Reign for a good reason. After Space Team: A New Hope (okay, I might have edited that in myself) gets going, it finds itself in danger of falling flat. The storyline slips into a predictable mold, the characters threaten to become one-note punchlines, and the drama and conflict piles up so quickly, and are resolved almost as quickly, that the book nearly loses its tension. It does pick up in the end, though, and has a satisfying ending, though, and even if that was the only book Mr Levinson wrote in the series, I would still tell people that it was decent.
Again, I don’t know what happened between the first and the second book… perhaps he switched editors, perhaps he just had more practice writing the characters and the setting… but there is a definite change between the two. The jokes have a longer set-up, the characters have more sides to them and are more sympathetic, and the plot itself is more compelling, not just an excuse to move the characters around. We’re talking a difference between Seasons 1 and 2 of Parks and Recreation in its quality. I haven’t read the third book yet, but I know without a doubt that I will. I also suspect that the next book of the Falling Reign series could also show the same change in quality and entertainment value if the author seeks out the wealth of tools that exist for us indie writers in this day and age. The stories that he told in the first book are definitely worth it.
So, there we have it. Independent writers need to keep writing, because people like me (and I suspect most of you reading this blog) will keep reading their books. Remember to keep writing, and perhaps avail yourself of the editors and proofreaders who are good at their job and know nothing about you besides what they pick up from your manuscript. Don’t get discouraged, don’t stop writing.
Until next week…