Book Review: A Crucible of Souls by Mitchell Hogan

I’ve found another gem in the self-published fantasy field (though it won’t remain self-published for long). Hogan delivered the kind of fantasy I love reading. Magic. A fast-paced plot. A likeable main character. It felt kind of like if you found a halfway point between Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson. Fans of these authors will probably find a lot to like here. And the last quarter of the book is an absolute page-turner. I’m really excited to see where this goes.

Frankly, I’m astonished that books this good end up being self-published. I think it goes to show that there’s a lot of great fantasy out there these days.

The plot of this one looks like something you’ve seen before. Orphaned boy goes on to greatness…yawn. But Hogan separates his story from others like it by making his main character sympathetic and through strategic utilization of other point-of-view characters. They bring new layers into the story, and Amerdan is an absolutely fascinating character. I wouldn’t want to read an entire book about him, but I found Hogan gave him just the right amount of page-time.

Not only is the story great. It also reads like a published book. I can only recall one glaring editing issue, which was really just a place where Hogan forgot to delete a word while editing. I’m not going to complain about that because I’ve failed to notice the same thing in my own books.

Overall, if you’re a fan of the modern update on classic fantasy (think Sanderson, not Abercrombie), this is well worth reading.

Rating: 9/10

Balancing the Familiar and the Unfamiliar

For me, part of the attraction of writing fantasy and science fiction is the fact that I can do whatever I want with my worlds (as long as I remain internally consistent). But that isn’t always the best strategy. Well, it’s fine if you’re writing only for yourself, but if you’re writing for other people, you have to keep what they want in mind. It might be fun to throw everything and the kitchen sink at the reader. However, that’s not likely to get you many fans.

The same goes for being different for the sake of being different. Sure, it can work. You see writers like China Mieville pull of utterly bizarre worlds. But it should also be noted that Mieville’s stories don’t work for every fantasy reader.

At the opposite end, you have writers from the D&D craze of the 70s and 80s. A lot of their ideas were inspired by Tolkien. This gave readers a very familiar world to fall into. Some would argue that it was too familiar, that these writers didn’t do enough to bring that sense of wonder and discovery into their books.

Personally, I find it best to strike a balance between these two extremes. You might call it the “Brandon Sanderson approach.” Sanderson is known for taking many of the common tropes of fantasy and putting a new spin on them. In doing this, he gives us a story that’s both familiar and new.

For example, look at the premise for Mistborn. It’s a world where the dark lord has won, where the prophesied hero failed. The story is about defeating this dark lord, but it’s not the quest story so many authors do. Instead, it’s a heist story. That brings in an element we haven’t seen done to death and makes the story feel fresh and original. Then, of course, there’s the fascinating, mist-shrouded world. Sanderson took many of these elements we’ve seen before and put them in a story that feels like something new despite so many familiar elements.

That’s what you have to do as a fantasy writer. You have to write a story that balances the familiar and the unfamiliar. The best fantasy worlds, in my experience, are not the ones that are incredibly bizarre. They’re the ones that feel both familiar and bizarre. Sure, you can have all kinds of weird things in your world, but they should be balanced with a story and characters that feel recognizably human. Some of us have the talent of a Mieville and can pull off utterly bizarre. Most of us are better putting new twists on old ideas.

After all, those old ideas have become so ingrained because readers like them. Even fantasy and science fiction readers like to see something they recognize. But you don’t want to give them the same thing they’ve seen so many times before.

It’s a delicate balancing act, but it’ll pay off in the end.

Getting back in the swing of things.

As I mentioned a week ago, my dad’s been in the hospital. Yesterday, he finally got out of the ICU. He seems stable now, and he managed to eat his first meal while we were visiting. With slightly less worry about my dad, I was finally able to write today. I managed about 4,500 words in The Shadowed Land. Today, it was all action scenes (written a bit out of order).

I’m still enjoying the way this one is shaping up. It was nice to write again after nineteen days without writing. I also love taking what looks like a traditional fantasy story and putting my own spin on it. This second book really challenges the whole idea of the dark lord kind of character. The first book begins that challenge. At first, I present what looks like the same old quest story you’ve seen a thousand times, but it’s a more complex tale than that, and I hope you’ll give it a chance.

I still have no idea how many books this is going to be. I know for sure that it is not a trilogy.

One of these days, I need to get up some good blurbs for these books.

I do think I’m going to go through with my self-publishing plans. It won’t be an easy road. It will require me cutting back on some other things. But it should be worth it (though I might not see the results immediately).

Still, it terrifies me.

Update: Why I haven’t been writing.

Sorry that I haven’t been blogging (or doing any writing for that matter). Last Thursday, my dad nearly died. He’s been in the ICU for over a week now. For the moment, he’s stable, but it hasn’t been a quick recovery. I hope he’ll be out of there soon. At some point, we’ll have to help him through his recovery, so I may not be updating this blog all that often.

It also means I might be putting my self-publishing plans on hold. I’ll see how things go with his recovery (and pray that he does indeed recover). He’s seventy-two years old, so he isn’t getting any younger. And it really was a close call. The condition he had, even with treatment, is fatal in seventy percent of cases.

With all my worries (and all my trips to the hospital), I haven’t exactly felt up to writing.

Work/School/Writing/Life Balance

As a writer, one of my biggest struggles is finding time for everything. I already have a job that cuts into a lot of my writing time. In the fall, I’ll be starting on my Engineering degree, which will eliminate a lot of my writing time. Because of this, I’m trying to figure out what I cut back to make more time for writing (and marketing).

Unfortunately, there are certain things you always have to do in life. Dishes don’t wash themselves. Houses don’t stay clean without some help. Grass doesn’t stop growing because you don’t have time to cut it.

For some people, the answer would be to sleep less, but that doesn’t work for me. I’m on medication that makes it necessary for me to average about eight hours of sleep. Sure, I can cut back to seven or six hours for a night or two if I need to, but I can’t sustain those over long stretches of time.

So it comes down to being more productive with the time I do have. I’m still trying to figure out how I can find this productivity. I might not be able to meet my general writing goal of 3,000 words a day. There’s too much other stuff taking up my time.

The biggest place I’ll have to cut back is reading. Thankfully, I’ve already read a lot of book, and I have a good feel now for what makes good prose. I’ll miss reading as much as I normally do, but it’s a sacrifice I’ll have to make if I want to juggle all the responsibilities on my plate. I won’t stop reading. I could never do that. But I might have to cut down to a book or two a week rather than the three to four. After all, I can’t abandon reading altogether. It’s one of the most crucial aspects of being a writer, and my writing has improved tremendously since I’ve dedicated myself to reading a lot.

I’ll also need to cut back on non-essential internet time and video games. Sure, the internet is fun, but if I’m not doing something writing-related, it’s not really helping me, is it? I also love video games, but they’ll be there later when I have more time to play them.

This is part of being a writer. It’s not an easy path. You have to make some sacrifices. In the end, if the things you’re sacrificing are more important to you than writing, that’s a sign that you shouldn’t be a writer.

That being said, you shouldn’t cut leisure activities out altogether. Everyone needs a few chances to unwind with something fun and non-stressful. It’s part of staying sane, and for someone like me who has mental health issues, staying sane is an important consideration.

I’ll have to play this all by feel. I’m heading into uncharted territory. I’d love to have a plan for everything, but sometimes you can only develop a plan once you know what you’re getting into.