Welcome to the first installment of my new blog series called “Don’t Make Me Read That.”
As I’ve told you before, I read quite a bit. But I don’t veer out of my favorite genres too often. I don’t know anything about fantasy or science fiction, and I’ve read very little true crime or mystery. I want to try new types of books, and what better way to learn about them than from their biggest fans?
This new series will serve two purposes: it gives me a chance to talk books with some of my favorite people. And it will help broaden my horizons a little bit.
My first guest is Fantasy/Sci Fi author Stephen Allan. I met Stephen at a writing conference last year, and we hit it off immediately when I yelled at him for eating a doughnut that was bigger than his head. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Stephen is very smart, very funny, and curses even more than I do.
We discussed our reading habits in advance. I told him that I am pretty stuck in the literary/contemporary fiction world, with a lot of romance and chick lit thrown in. I warned him that the only thing I might veto in this book exchange is a horror novel, because I don’t like to be scared. Stephen is an avid fantasy reader, but can’t stand historical fiction. So naturally that is exactly what I picked for him.
From the Amazon description: In Sunderland, England, a city quarantined by the cholera epidemic of 1831, Gustine, a defiant fifteen-year-old beauty in an elegant blue dress rented from her pimp-landlord, sells her body to feed her only love: a fragile baby boy. When she meets surgeon Henry Chiver, who has recently been implicated in the Burke and Hare killings, in which beggars were murdered so the corpses could be sold for medical research, Gustine begins working for him by securing cadavers for his ill-equipped anatomy school. It is a gruesome job that will soon threaten the very things she’s working so hard to protect.
Since I dislike fantasy, Stephen chose Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman, the first book in the Coldfire trilogy, for me to read.
From the Amazon description: Over a millennium ago, Erna, a seismically active yet beautiful world was settled by colonists from far-distant Earth. But the seemingly habitable planet was fraught with perils no one could have foretold, and the colonists found themselves caught in a desperate battle for survival against the fae, a terrifying natural force with the power to prey upon the human mind itself, drawing forth a person’s worst nightmare images or most treasured dreams and indiscriminately giving them life. Twelve centuries after fate first stranded the colonists on Erna, mankind has achieved an uneasy stalemate, and human sorcerers manipulate the fae for their own profit, little realizing that demonic forces which feed upon such efforts are rapidly gaining in strength. Now, as the hordes of the dark fae multiply, four people—Priest, Adept, Apprentice, and Sorcerer—are about to be drawn inexorably together for a mission which will force them to confront an evil beyond their imagining, in a conflict which will put not only their own lives but the very fate of humankind in jeopardy…
Julie – Hey there Stephen! Let’s get right into it. Here’s my first question for you. Why are fantasy books so flippin long? I mean this book is like eight thousand pages. And this is only the first of a trilogy.
Stephen – I think it’s more like 500 pages.
J – No, I’m pretty sure it’s eight thousand pages. (Editors note: at this point, Julie checked the book to prove her point. She was wrong.) OK, it’s 586 pages.
S – Epic fantasy is a universe you are going into. If it takes place on earth, I don’t need to know what earth looks like. But a futuristic world, like Coldfire, I want it explained to me. I want to know. It takes place in the future but there are still churches and religion and that type of thing? Why is it that magic can be used by certain people but not others? The term epic connotes a sense of getting lost in the world. There is no such thing as quick bite epic fantasy because you really have to become one with the world to understand it. I’m not a huge believer that books need to be a certain length, but in my experience it’s true that a good epic fantasy novel will be at least 400 pages.
J – The whole time I read Black Sun Rising, I was whining that I don’t like fantasy, but now talking to you I remember that I do, in fact, love a good fantasy. Duh, I’ve read the the Harry Potter series ten times.
S – Maybe you just like more modern fantasy instead of weird, out there fantasy.
J – Where does the Coldfire trilogy fall in the fantasy pantheon?
S – I found this book when searched Amazon for the best sci-fi/fantasy novels. I hadn’t heard of it, but was intrigued by the description. I’ve yet to meet someone else who knows about it. But it’s a book that I push endlessly when people ask for a good fantasy book to read. Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones – everyone has heard of those.
J – So it’s an undiscovered gem. I like that. I intentionally didn’t look up what popular opinion was on this book because I wanted to read it unbiased.
S – The plot is well developed.
J – Yes. It would make a great movie. But very often while reading, I was thinking slow down!
S – Do you have an example?
J – So, Tarrant, the vampire guy? I think he’s a vampire, I’m not really sure what the hell he is. He travels with them and then he dies. The person who killed him was the body of his wife. The last thing he saw was his wife, who he presumably killed earlier? That’s good stuff. That’s interesting to me. And you know, we’re a thousand pages in to the book before we learn he’s got an interesting personal story, and then he’s killed by this thing that is the resurrected body of his wife. It’s just story, story, story,and there is no stopping to learn what any one character thinks about anything.
S – Are you saying it’s inconsistent in pace?
J – I guess me as a reader, I’m more interested in the whys than hearing the history of the world. I don’t care about the magic system. I’m ok with whatever, you know? You don’t have to stop and explain it to me. I want to know, Is Tarrant sad to see his wife? Scared? Happy?
S – Wait, did you finish reading this book?
J – No. I did not. (Editor’s note: for the record, Julie could have lied here. She chose to be honest. That has to count for something. She DID, in fact, finish the book after this conversation occurred.)
S – OK, because Tarrant’s not dead.
J – Oh. So you’re saying I have to finish the book before I can really complain about it?
S – No, you can complain about it. But listen, the mark, to me, of a great epic fantasy series is one where you are not going to get all the answers in book one, but you will by the end of the series. That’s part of falling in to a universe. We read these epic tomes because we don’t want to spend a single book, we want to spend thousands of pages with them. It’s sort of a slow burn. Tarrant is one of my favorite characters ever because when you first see him, you think this guy is going to suck the soul out of this girl, and then kill the priest and everyone will be dead. But you let it play out little bit and you realize that there is actually a heavy dose of back story and complexity to this character that you don’t pick up on in the first three or four hundred pages.
J – It just took a long time to get there for me. That’s a flaw in me as a reader. If I’m not good and sucked in by 50, maybe 100 pages, I’m just not going to read it.
S – The ironic thing is, I felt that way about Dress Lodger. I think that kind of goes to the genres we like. If you had not given me that book not only would I have never picked it up, I never would have heard of it. Maybe like, my future wife would ask me to read it and I’d be like, Ugh. If I have to. For you. So I’m reading that first chapter, and I’m like, what the fuck is going on? You said the plot would come back around, but I never saw any connection.
J – What I meant when I said it would come back around was that the first few pages were following the character Fos, but then we leave her for a while and don’t see how she is relevant until later. I liked how the author actually says to us, ‘I’m going to draw your attention to her, and I’m letting you know I’m drawing your attention to her, but it’s not really about her. But eventually you will see this connection.’ It was kind of a show off writer’s trick. But I dug it. I thought it was clever. She knows what we like and what we are used to, and she tells us right off the bat that she’s going to mess around with our expectations. It was weird at first but then I was so fascinated by every single person in that book.
S – Which is interesting because I felt the opposite. Like I felt like it was the author getting in the way of the story. To me it was distracting. I don’t read for color commentary on a story, I read for the story itself. That was too meta for me. But, you know, I sucked it up because hey, book club! (Editors note: at this point, Stephen made a little jazz hands motion, with a big smile that could have indicated sarcasm, but Julie chose to interpret as enthusiasm.)
J – You are a good man.
S – I did appreciate the development of the doctor and of the hooker. But there are two things I hate in writing, and they are both in this book. One is the writer speaking to the reader directly. “Oh dear reader…” And I also despise present tense. I deliberately avoid books in the present tense and I know people say I’m missing out but it’s a pet peeve of mine.
J – But when she is good, when she gets a description right, I mean, I had to put the book down a few times just to think about her words. I love that. Sheri Holman can write.
S – Yeah, there were certain parts where her descriptions are really good. It’s just a taste in writing style. I’m not all action, action, action. But an author has to know when to slow down and speed up, and your slow pace has to have a purpose. Description for its own sake is just filler.
J – Do you read as a writer? Or can you just go with the story?
S – I go with the story.
J – You’re not thinking about it as a construction?
S – Actually, I don’t think I do that enough. If something really sticks out I note it. Like for example, in Path of Flames by Phil Tucker there was a chapter that was thirteen pages long with no dialogue that was incredible. I had never considered writing a chapter with no dialogue. But when I saw how effective it could be, I knew I had to try it. And in one of the last chapters of my first fantasy series is a funeral with no dialogue, and I think that makes it more powerful. But usually, to me what is the sign of a good book is when I stop thinking critically and just start enjoying.
J – When I catch myself making literary choices for the author I realize I’m maybe not enjoying the book. When I really love a book I totally forget that I’m even reading.
S – Right. It’s so good, I stopped thinking critically.
J – I really like the Rakh race in Black Sun Rising. They are descended from something feline, there is a depth to it that really surprised me. The chapter where I finally learned about them pulled me out of the book in a good way. I realized that this book is really about something.
S – In your defense, I do remember that book taking me a long time to get into also. I kept with it because I was really interested in the relationship between the priest and the girl. But it took me a about thirty or forty percent of the book to recognize what the overall theme was.
J – Maybe if I had paid attention I might have recognized earlier that that this book really is about something much bigger than magic.
S – What character did you like best in Dress Lodger?
J – The doctor.
S – Really? Why?
J – Because his obsession with the human heart was so fascinating. And his willingness to sacrifice his soul. The manipulation of the poor for the sake of advancement, and the doctor who is sure that there is knowledge but he can’t get to it. And when he finally caves in and submits to his animal side, and the way the power shifts between him and Gustine. That was a horrifying and sad and heartbreaking scene, because you know he had this vision of himself as the soul and intellect of medicine, and Gustine’s protector. He thinks he can see what the poorer class needs, and then he became the very animal that he hates. He was an awful person, but what a complex character.
S – Just like today. There is an inability to communicate on either side, where the poor think the elite are running the world their way to keep the poor down. And the elite are trying to do things to help the poor but they are communicating it so badly
J – Exactly. All these doctors in Dress Lodger trying to tell the sick people that what they are doing is for their own good, but then they are robbing graves to do it, and trying to bully their way into fixing things. It’s historical fiction, but the parallels to today’s world astonished me. Same with Coldfire. The way religion battles non-religion and who controls the earth power. Who did you like in Dress Lodger? There were no vampires, so you probably didn’t like anyone.
S – He’s not a vampire. You watch too much Twilight. (Editor’s note: Julie does not watch Twilight. But she does not judge anyone who does.) I think it was interesting to see the doctor because that balance between tunnel vision and passion for what you do to the point of ruining lives versus just loving what you do. I’m not robbing graves, but I can be over intense about what I do. Nothing gets in my way of writing. It was interesting to see the dark side of ambition, where that ultimate focus plowed over people.
J – The stakes aren’t as high, for you as a writer, but its the flip side of the same coin in a modern world.
S – My zealotry for writing makes me productive, but if I was that type of person – get that dollar bill no matter what – it could make me lie or cheat or whatever.
J – The difference is that you have self awareness. You take care of yourself physically, you are an athlete. You set your daily goals and you stop working when you meet them to go live your life. That’s what the doctor is missing – the self awareness to recognize danger and that’s what makes him such a terrifying character. Are you ever going to read historical fiction again?
S – Never say never. I like to imagine what will happen in the future, or impossible worlds with dragons and monsters. I like unrealistic settings with realistic characters. But reading about what happened in the real world? I don’t know. I’m not as drawn to it as I am drawn to what could be, or what would be if some magical element existed.
J – To me, the reality is precisely what is so fascinating. If you told me there was a cholera epidemic in England, I’d say, OK, that is an interesting historical fact, and it sounds like a bummer. But reading this book I feel as if I’ve actually experienced it and it’s now very scary and heartbreaking. The people actually mean something to me now.
S – The best fantasy and sci-fi is still grounded in the human characters. I don’t want to read a book about robots interacting, or dragons interacting. I want to read a book about humanity surviving those situations. I know how humanity reacts in real situations or historical situations. So I want to see what happens when a dragon the size of the Chrysler building starts raining hell down on a small town.
J – Right, but we essentially like the same thing.
S – It is the same thing, just a different presentation of it.
J – You like it packaged in one form and I like it in the other. But we have the same questions about what makes us human and what makes us react the way we do. I am very sorry I texted you that I hate your goddam guts for making me read your book. That was unnecessarily harsh.
S – No, it was great. I was thinking the same thing about you. And honestly, if you reacted so strongly, it meant I did my job.
J – Well, Stephen, thank you so much for talking with me! This was so fun.
S – Yes, it didn’t suck as much as I thought it would.
(Editor’s note: Julie replied to that last comment with a string of curse words that cannot be reprinted here.)
To read more about Stephen, including his review of The Dress Lodger, go here.
Or, check out a few of his books:
Drugs and hookers are about to be the least of Amsterdam’s concerns.
CIA agent Sonya Ferguson has finally gotten the vacation of a lifetime. With a month off and an entire continent to explore with her brother, Brady, Sonya eagerly awaits the sights of Amsterdam and beyond.
But the adventure that she thinks will consist of visiting historical attractions suddenly turns violent when she magically lands in a realm unlike anything she’s seen before. Dragons, demons, vampires, shifters, and other monsters of the underworld ravage this strange new dimension—and worse, they are about to break into the human world.
Will Sonya be prepared to take on the greatest fight of her life? Will she be able to withstand the forces of hell, including the greatest evil she has ever encountered?
Or will the devil break her and annihilate civilization?
Crystil is one of the empire’s best soldiers and struggling with the loss of her husband during war. Cyrus and Celeste are siblings from a royal family and coping with the death of their father.
Together, they are the sole survivors of humanity. The three barely manage to escape their home but made it to a mysterious new world much like their own—full of beautiful wildlife, endless vegetation and a gorgeous, massive mountain.
But when the sun sets, a monstrous dragon comes and hunts all life at night. With the dragon, their own competing desires and beliefs, and other revelations they cannot even begin to imagine, their fight for survival is on precarious ground every waking-and resting-moment.
Will Crystil, Cyrus, and Celeste establish a new civilization on their new world? Will the great dragon send humanity into extinction?
Or will the three survivors destroy each other first?