Saturday, 17 March 2018

Feasting Friday - Later than Ever!

I'm so good at keeping a blog updated.

Which is a shame, because my culinary life has been banging like a school trip in a drum shop.

Top of the list is the discovery that my wife loves curry. Or at least, coconutty curry that's not too coriander heavy. A friend cooked us the Prawn Malabar recipe in Camellia Panjabi's 50 Great Curries of India and she has since demanded I cook it twice.The first went a little awry due to too much heat and not enough salt. The second, I probably cut the tomatoes too big and again not enough salt... but really good.

My own personal attempt at playing mad scientist is trying to do a Pork and Apple stir fry. The flavours go well together. They share some great complimentary flavours that go great in a stir fry in ginger and cinnamon. Stir fries need some crunch, which apple can provide. Go number one has not quite done what I've wanted, but has made an admirable sweet and sour stir fry. I wished I'd added some chilli to it, and maybe doing a quick half-pickle of the apples isn't the way to go as they totally lost their texture, but it's pretty good. I'll try repeating and refining the sweet and sour version and noting down the recipe at some point this weekend.

There hasn't been too much home cooking as we've eaten out far, far too much. Highlights include:

Wahaca's chorizo and potato quesadilla. I've had this one every time I've gone there and it is the absolute highlight dish there - creamy, smoky and just the right amount of crunch, give and chew.

Pandan Roll from Chinatown Bakery. I've no idea how it's so light and airy, and apparently I really like the taste of Pandan. Most of Chinese sweet baking seems too heavy to me, but this is heavenly.

The Jerk Dub Fries from Sub Cult. Like, what the actual bleeeeeeep. I'm a fan of the idea of loaded fries, but this is the first time I've seen anyone really really nail it. Perfectly crisp chips, lovely soft pork shoulder, and tons of jerk sauce is how loaded fries should be. Dayum.

And that's it for now. Back to the writing.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Top 10 books read in 2017

I made a few half-assed justifications about why I was posting a top 10 articles of 2017 when I did. There are no justifications for this. It is utter untogetherness at work and pure indulgence to think there's any import to this list. But since I like to make self-indulgent decisions when blogging, here it is. Enough waffle - here it is from the top.

1) Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

Okay, going back to self-indulgence - I'm super stunned I haven't taken time to rave about how much I love this book here. Because I really love this book. It features one of the more imaginative, 'wow', downright cool presentations of magic and its impact on a secondary world I've ever seen and will probably ever see.

Beyond that though there's a very well-crafted and appealing book in just about every way. Gladstone has the Pratchett-esque knack of of making characters feel interesting, familiar and unique in a few short lines. He also manages to mix wry dark humour with incisive thinking and prose in a way that reminds me somewhat of Pratchett too.

The only place Three Parts Dead is lacking is when it comes to the murder mystery and plot. It's intriguing but after a while, it feels a little thin with not enough false trails to keep the mystery alive. Even then, Gladstone manages the sound and fury of the climax more than well enough to satisfy. Overall, it makes for a phenomenal book. Absolutely phenomenal.

2) The Goddess Project by Bryan Wigmore

This lost out by the thinnest of hairs. Given there's been quite a bit about this book on the blog, there isn't a huge amount left for me to say again. It hits a lot of the same notes as TPD for me; innovative world affecting magic, mystery, and interesting characters. Clearly this is one of my favourite flavours of fantasy now.

What it does differently, and what I love, is the feeling of the book. It isn't magic as industry, it is magic - and a world - as mystery. Without stinting on the world we see, just about everything important about The Goddess Project is a mystery of some sort and that really drags me in.

You'd think after a year, I'd be able to identify something of a weakness in this book for me. Still can't. I know some people don't get on with the prose and the dialogue. Don't really agree with that, although I guess the dialogue doesn't pop and sizzle like parts of TPD. But this just as good and my gift buying patterns over the last year prove it.

3) Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Here's my Abercrombie history. Read The First Law trilogy and really liked parts, was meh at other parts. Re-read some parts and was really meh. Read Best Served Cold and decided to believe all the hype.

The thing I like most about Abercrombie is the tone of his work. It reads like a trad fantasy and a spaghetti western/Pulp Fiction at the same time. That's how blood-heavy fantasy should be. That he's got a Gemmell-esque knack for showing the psychology of violence provides the other half of the coin needed to pull off blood-heavy fantasy.

And everything else, he does well to very well. I have been severely remiss in not chasing up his other books.

4) Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

It's one damn good year when this only hits number four. Gaiman's greatest gift as an author (arguably) is his portrayal of normal confused people in abnormal confusing circumstances. And (arguably) he never does it better than he does in this book.

He's also got as great a sense of place here as ever, strong pacing, and a wicked sense of humour. It maybe isn't as epic as American Gods or as full of wonder as Neverwhere and Stardust, but it occupies a very comfortable middle ground between the two. Arguably his best book? Very arguably, but about as good as fantasy gets.

5) Horns by Joe Hill

Just about everything else on this got a 5 from me on GoodReads but this only got a 4. Which just goes to show I know less about Jon Snow. Horns' ideas and creepiness have stuck with me. The big reveals have only got more effective with time. The heavy handed use of theme has become more acceptable. Sometimes you don't realise just how much enjoyment you'll get out of a book when you've finished it - and I knew I'd enjoyed it a lot when I'd finished. Superior gothic mystery.

6) Angel's Truth by AJ Grimmelhaus

For sheer untrammeled fun, this retro-styled adventure novel (you could imagine it as a D&D module) was about as good as 2017 got for me. Its written with a nice mix of modern sensibility and old school charm that gives it a really good tone and aesthetic, which is backed up with a good twisty story line. It lacks the thematic depth to crack the top five here but hey, fun is fun. This book was so much fun.

7) Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

From uncomplicated fun to complicated, thought-provoking, sometimes not fun. It's a very, very good book in a lot of ways, but I think for most people, sooner or later one of the tonal shifts or long explanations will lose them a little. It did so for me. The richness of idea and depth of emotion still made it a favourite for me. I'm not sure who's writing this sort of sombrely beautiful and imaginative fantasy today, but I need to find out.

8) The Imbued Lockblade by MD Presley

This one nearly slipped my mind because I beta'ed it rather than brought it. Well. I say beta'ed. What I mean is I read it, wrote an email saying "Yeah, you got it" and got one back saying "That's it?". That was it. My favourite part is the complexity and unrelenting nature of the plot - and flashback narrative arc - but other readers seem to go on more about the characters and world. They're certainly interesting, but it's the arc that has the magic here for me. I'm looking forwards to seeing this series go forwards a lot whereas with other books on this list I've been ambivalent about reading the others.

9) Temeraire by Naomi Novik

Good example of the last sentence right here! Temeraire's mix of period Hornblower-esque adventures with the Weyrs of Pern was a huge amount of fun to read. My mum absolutely loved it and got half the series. I've yet to read any of the others. Fear the novelty of the idea will fade thin and reveal there was nothing behind the curtain? I did find the plot wore somewhat thin in this book. But it was still a lot of fun and I should try the rest.

10) Jade City by Fonda Lee

I really wanted to love this book. Really really wanted to. Wuxia Godfather is such an awesome idea. And I liked it a lot, or it wouldn't be here. But I didn't love it because, as I recently said, there's simply too much story for the pages. But Lee certainly did enough justice to the idea of Wuxia Godfather that I'll be keeping tabs - and Wuxia Godfather is surely all I need to tell people to get others to try this book.

The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams: A lot of fun - arguably more fun than some of the stuff on the list - but lacked the emotional heft to etch it into my memory

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett: Probably cracks this list if I didn't hate present tense; hella admirable, but I hate present tense. Only present tense book I've finished though.

The Night Circus by Erin Mogernstern: Deserves all its praise but ultimately the big moments just missed the bullseye for me.

Waters And The Wild by Jo Zebedee: Slow start keeps it out of the list but very good when it gets going.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Theatre Review - Bury the Hatchet

In my finest tradition of writing about things I have only the loosest grip on, I'm turning theatre critic. I'm really not kidding here. Before yesterday, my last visit to the theatre in... I've no idea. And that's a shame on a lot of levels, not least the fact that I'd have got a lot more out of seeing Bury the Hatchet had I done so.

Bury the Hatchet is a three person effort coming from Out of the Woods Theatre, telling the tale of Lizzie Borden, America's most famous possible axe murderer. Well. They made a point of reminding us that she used a hatchet but I prefer the term axe murderer. So there. The play isn't just about Borden though. Its about a lot of things, such as stereotypes, the accuracy of reported information, and the way we tell stories. Which is why I wish I'd been to the theatre more; I'd have probably got a lot more out of it.

I still had a blast.

At least one of the group is a My Favourite Murder fan - my wife found out about the play through the London Murderinos facebook page - and it shows. Bury the Hatchet had the same mix of true life crime, wry and multifaceted humour, occasional personal confession and socially progressive critique as the podcast. The actors took this formula and ran with it. Like, Chariots of Fire style ran with it. It takes a deft hand to balance tragedy and humour in this way; it is present in both the acting and the writing.

The best part of both humour-wise were the numerous fourth wall breaks, such as one of the actors interrupting the opening speech to criticise the accent and also later going to sit in the audience and ask questions. Those moments got the biggest laughs along with the tale of how the family servant, Bridget, was known as Maggie.

Bury the Hatchet shined even brighter though when concentrating on the pathos of the story. The trio showed off their musical talent with a number of mournful renditions of traditional folk songs, bringing home the realities of the situation faced by Lizzie when she was accused of murder.

Was she guilty? The play's focus on the tragicomic aspects left little space for going into the specifics of the situation and many theories surrounding it. There clearly wasn't a shortage of research into the subject, with frequent excerpts from the period such as the coroner's report, police inquiry, and even Lizzie's meatloaf recipe making their way into the play. But I left wanting more. That might just be personal taste though.

It's definitely a sign of a good play that I had that level of interest come the end though. Bury the Hatchet marries the warmth of My Favourite Murder with a tastefully toned down version of Deadpool's wit. In the unlikely event this is seen by anyone in London looking to hit the theatre in the next few days, I've got a recommendation for them. Its down in the Vaults. For everyone else - well, hope that the show goes on elsewhere.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Five More Books: Fantasy Crime edition

Jade City by Fonda Lee

Jade City is described most commonly as a wuxia version of the Godfather for good reason. It packs all the scope and heft of Coppola's classic and echoes the twisted family loyalties of the Corleones. It is also filled with the breathtaking action and high mythic feel associated with wuxia. And, really, who doesn't want to read something that hits both of those points?

Unfortunately, Jade City doesn't quite do its concept justice. The sheer size of the story feels too big for the page count as arcs build up then sizzle out with characters suddenly going with the flow of events. As a result, I felt rather neutral on the characters and their struggles, neither hoping nor fearing for them. Hopefully over the course of the series, I end up thinking the opposite.

Because, despite the rather large flaw I find in Jade City, I do want to read the rest and find out how the story ends. Lee writes well, particularly when doing action scenes, and presents a beautifully vivid world, intriguing me where the characters and story do not. And the characters do have potential - they just need more words to realise it - and the story has been set up for a potentially breathtaking sequel. I'd recommend it for those reasons alone, as I believe Lee will deliver, but any fans of, well, wuxia and the Godfather would do well to check in.

The Straight Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky

When I started searching for fantasy noir, this was the book most recommended to me. It doesn't take more than a few pages to realise why. The Straight Razor Cure is saturated with sardonic style and is definitely the closest thing I've found to Chandler giving fantasy a go. Polansky has more than a noir voice though; he has the knack for making the dark and seedy feel non-gratuitous.

His narrator, the Warden, is swiftly thrown into a murder investigation that threatens the whole city as well as his very personal well-being. The storyline progresses nicely with an entertaining cast of secondary characters - that is, until it hits the murky middle. For reasons I can't quite put my finger on, it became a struggle to push through, uninteresting and a bit confusing. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the middle is about where I began to tire of the voice too; there can be too much of a good thing.

Nevertheless, I liked it enough to struggle through to the end, thanks to some wonderful set-pieces. Tell the truth, I can't even really remember whether I liked the ending, although I do remember heavily disliking certain elements. I did start reading the next one though (until I needed to give it to the library) so it can't have been that bad. And I will, murky middle or no, echo the people I asked; this is the book to start with for Noir fantasy.

Night Watch by Sir Terry Pratchett

Yes, yes, I'm reviewing the last (or more or less last) first. That's because its the best, a masterpiece in its own right elevated by the series worth of character development that went into Sam Vimes and the streets he treads. Books like these are why readers cling grimly to series even when the author seems to have murdered their creative muse for the life insurance and buggered off to the Bahamas.

Crime books sometimes undersell their characters, when arguably they need to be sold harder than any other genre. They must be vulnerable enough - human enough - for empathy, yet tough enough to belong to the mean streets that very few of us willingly choose. Pratchett nails both parts of the equation. He does an equally fine job with the supporting cast, who are invested with a lot of humanity in a very short period of time, and greatly add to the book's tension as a result.

Not that this is a tense book. I struggle to think how I'd characterise the book's story actually. But what tension exists is mostly cut with background gallows humour, until right at the end itself. Those looking for a tight mystery are in the wrong place (although many of the earlier Guards books do have them) as are those looking for something bleak. For everyone else, this series - and eventually this book - would be where I'd recommend starting with fantasy crime.

The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids by Michael McClung

There's a big gap between Polansky and Pratchett when it comes to tone; those looking for something in the middle might try McClung. His eponymous thief, Amra Thetys, has something of the Warden's grimness and moral laxity, while also having something of Vimes' world-weary humanity and humour.

This results in a book with fantastic voice and plenty of charm, albeit spoiled by a few anachronistic phrases. The mystery itself is well plotted and revealed, although the most memorable moments tend to come from the action scenes than the big reveals. Big fights are something McClung does very well though, so it's somewhat understandable.

Unfortunately, he relies a lot on powerful magicians who do somewhat unravel the plot. That, plus the odd slips of mood and a few tedious repetitions, were enough to seriously dent my enjoyment levels of this book. Which is a shame because at his best, McClung shows he gets everything that goes into a fantasy crime book and just how to do it. Here's hoping the rest of the series is a bit more refined.

Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard

Servant of the Underworld features one of my favourite concepts ever; an Aztec priest who fights crime. Well. Solves a murder. I'm still annoyed I wasn't able to buy a new paperback copy and show De Bodard my support the old fashioned way. I'm even more annoyed that despite all the vivid myth and detail surrounding the Aztecs and their neighbours, there is so little fantasy literature honouring them. I've heard some criticise De Bodard's depiction of the Aztecs here; I am no expert, but I found nothing to fault here.

Sadly I can't say the same of the plot, which was more intent on digging through the tangled worries of the priest's home and political life than the crime itself. To an extent, I understand; De Bodard gave her protagonist an interesting background that I wanted explored. But the result did justice to neither as far as I'm concerned. 

Which isn't to say this is a bad book. I finished it after all. The characters and central premise of the murder are great. Its certainly worth exploring if you stumble across it. It may even be worth chasing down, if, like me, you love mythology and crime and all that good stuff. You may find it less uneven than me and think its downright excellent. I hope many do, but for me, it remains a case of squandered potential.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Feasting Friday

Because I'm unable to concentrate on any one topic, I've decided to start using this blog to keep a semi-regular account of my gastronomic adventures.

Well. I say adventures. I'm pretty sure going to a Chinese supermarket isn't actually an adventure.

But gods does it feel like its magic.

The magic shop is one of the nicknames me and my wife have for Wing Yip, the Chinese supermarket down in Croydon. It's also known as the happy place.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when we first went there. I'd been there, a long time before, but without knowing quite how to take full advantage. We went there mainly to stock up on sauces but I quickly realised the best way to take proper advantage. And that is starters.

The starters section is undoubtedly the best part of any Chinese menu, which is undoubtedly the best type of takeaway menu. Unfortunately, that stuff gets expensive very fast.

Enter Wing Yip and its big freezer full of takeaway starters.

I forget just how much the big box of sesame prawn toast was, but it was three portions worth for about one portion's worth of a takeaway. What's more, eating them fresh from the oven meant they tasted a hell of a lot better. Ditto with the duck spring rolls. Its made celebrating Chinese new year - by which I mean eating all the Chinese food - a hell of a lot better in every possible way.

I think the only way to get sesame prawn toast better is to be in a good restaurant and get them done really well. That's what we did last time we went to the happy place and popped into Tai Tung, the restaurant next door. The sesame prawn toast there was perfectly crunchy and succulent at the same time. The real big discovery there was cheung fun, a steamed rice noodle roll that was beautifully seasoned and with just the right amount of resistance.

Anyway, that's it for now. In future, there will be recipes, the Jamie Oliver 15 minute meal drinking game, meals around London, all the rest of it... but for now, happy Year of the Dog.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

My top 10 writing articles from last year

Being super on the ball, I decided that towards after the end of January is about the right time to get my top 10 9 10 lists from last year out. I could defend this on grounds of belief that the process of judging should only occur once the very last day of the year has gone and that it takes time to judge properly. Sadly, this is more a case of extreme untogetherness.

But all good things in all good time and hopefully this is good. In a year full of seeking enlightenment as to writing better stories, I've read a lot of articles, a lot of tips. These are the ones that I've gone "huh" at, reread, pondered. The ones I've taken things from and think have something others can take from as well.

With no further ado, and with only the loosest order:

When We Try to Sort Writers Into ‘Plotter’ or ‘Pantser’ by Ada Palmer

This one has been pivotal to me. The order is loose but it's no accident this one ended up on top. People go on about the idea of a toolbox (as advanced by King) but not many talk about what it should contain. Palmer does a fantastic job of telling me about the tools I always had without knowing - and also needed without knowing.

Death To Readers by Terry Rossio

Rossio's site is jampacked with useful advice for storytellers but this is the article of his I read first and took most from. Writing often becomes complex because we are juggling so many tasks, but most of the tasks are quite simple. Death To Readers is the best reminder of that I've found and the best aide memoire for whether you're getting that right or missing the details in the big picture.

Screenplay Techniques by M.D. Presley

The man who introduced me to Rossio. There's a lot of screenplay writing advice thrown about in the fantasy community (see above) but Presley is the only one I've seen so far that treats that advice in terms of what is applicable to literature and what is not. The result is a lot of solid pragmatic advice on story structure.

Seventeen important things I've learned about writing and publishing by Teresa Edgerton

So far I haven't taken that much from Edgerton's article in terms of writing - although it is clear and intelligent there - or the writing industry, which I have yet to properly encounter. But in terms of why people write and whether we should or shouldn't, I find it incredibly reassuring and wise. Its something that rewards me every time I come back.

Five Thoughts About Beginnings by Toby Frost

Sometimes I feel like I think about beginnings too much. As such, I like articles about them. Admitedly, sometimes I like them mainly because I can argue with them. Frost's article is a bit of both for me. It pinpoints some of the common elements of a good traditional opening - good to absorb, good to also try and avoid.

Michael Moorcock's Rules for Writers by Michael Moorcock

Moorcock's advice is very succinct and personally, very good. It is particularly relevant for a writer seeking to build their style and storytelling chops. A good one to revisit for grounding.

How to Write a Story by Gav Thorpe

A long history of GW fanboyism left me somewhat disinclined to listen to what Thorpe had to say, but I liked the way he makes the case for theme here. Some people see it as the enemy of action fiction; Thorpe sees it as the basis. I'm inclined to agree.

Jade City, An Anti-Nanowrimo Case Study by Fonda Lee

I found the link to this on the Writing Process thread on SFFWorld. Its one of my favourite threads ever and this is my favourite link from there because it provides a great counterbalance to the write fast then edit orthodoxy out there. Other methods work too and this is one case of how.

"Infodump," "Mary Sue" And Other Words That Authors Are Sick Of Hearing by Charlie Jane Anders

Speaking of counter balance, the world is full of advice on why not to use commonly derided and seemingly outdated techniques. A lot of its good. But its not the whole of the story and here's a lot of spot on words about why its not the whole story and why these techniques still have their place. I don't agree with all of them - Kushner in particular seems to didactic - but they all provoke thought.

Philip Pullman: Rules of writing from man behind His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

I'm not sure having a favourite pen is going to help me and I definitely favour music over white noise. But his words on tone reinforced what I read in Palmer's article and helped get me thinking about writing in a new way. I like the relatively unstructured way he approaches the craft.

Monday, 22 January 2018

"A Whole Other Level of Writing": An Interview with Juliana Spink Mills

Last year, I took a rare excursion into YA fiction and found myself enjoying it a lot more than I'd have expected. The only obvious thing to do was to drag Juliana Spink-Mills in for a chat about it all...

PL: What gave you the original idea for the Blade Hunt chronicles? I know it started as a short story that required more thanks to your interview with Kim Briggs, but what gave you the short story idea and what inspired you to take it the direction you did?

JSM: The short story was about a group of girls on a survival-style camping trip who have a run-in with a demon who picks them off one by one (with a plot twist, of course, because I love a good plot twist). At the time, I was taking a break from a longer project, and thought I'd try the old saying 'write what you know'. Not that I've met many serial-killing demons! (Or have I?...) But I did grow up camping in the Brazilian jungle, so there's that. And the jungle can get creepy sometimes, especially when all the chirping and cheeping critters go silent all at once!

PL: And then you took it to somewhere else you know - Connecticut. Do you draw a lot of inspiration from the places around you? Or is it just laziness and looking for something you already know? I promise not to tell (apart from the part where I publish this interview where you tell, you know...)

JSM: 'Draw inspiration from' sounds a lot fancier, so we'll go with that. To be honest, part of it was how charmed I was — and still am — by Connecticut. When we moved here in 2013, I expected endless miles of suburbia, not woodlands, rivers, and gently rolling hills all over the place. It just felt right, setting a story here. And it's definitely easier when I can drive over and check I got the highway turnoff right for a certain scene, or use my own memory of specific places I've visited.

PL: A lot of America is a lot more charming than people anticipate, particularly in New England.:)

So from local inspiration to other forms of inspiration - why demons?

JSM: I'm actually not sure! I'd just finished a SF-ish novel about super genes (which I should probably get back to at some point and revise!), and I guess I just needed a change of pace. Moving from vaguely hand-wavey science to fantasy felt right at the time. I wanted a horror vibe for the short story, and demons seemed to fit in well, although I surprised myself in the end with where that story ended up. When I decided to expand the world into a novel, it was only natural that angels, vampires, werewolves and pixies would decide to show their faces.

Huh, speaking of short stories, that's another piece of work I should probably take another look at and revise...can you sense a theme? 

PL: Its nice to know I'm not the only person out there with a TBC mountain.

So Heart Blade wasn't your first novel - how long have you been writing, and what would you say is the biggest change in you as a writer?

JSM: I started writing 'for real' just over five years ago. My first few attempts were all middle grade novels (for the 8-12 age group), so a lot shorter than your average epic fantasy doorstopper! Eventually I moved up to young adult novels, though I still love my earlier MG work and want to go back and revise some of it now that I've grown as a writer.

Getting Heart Blade published was a real eye opener for me; it was my first time working with a professional editor (the wonderful Teresa Edgerton) and it really changed the way I approach the editing and revision process. I think you inevitably mature in terms of craft as long as you keep writing, and also take time to beta and critique other writers' stuff (seriously, critique groups work for a reason – they're a great training tool for all those involved!). But learning to take my work from passable to publication standard has taught me to push myself into a whole other level of writing.

Heart Blade - the first book in the series

PL: Two questions for the price of one - 

What draws you to writing Middle Grade and Young Adult aimed works?

What was the process of getting published like for you?

JSM: Why write kid lit? I think it's partially because it's something I've always wanted to do – children's and teen fiction fascinates me. But also, my 'writer voice' tends to be a little on the young side, even when I'm trying to write 'proper grownup fiction'. I always tell people I'm around 12 or 13 years old inside... :ROFLMAO:

As for publishing, it's been an interesting ride. One of the advantages of dealing with a small press like Woodbridge, is that authors are more involved in all steps of the process. I was consulted for cover input, at all stages of pre-publication, etc. I got previews of everything that went into the books, and frequent updates on all of it. I know from friends who have been published with large presses that this isn't always the case, so I'm glad that my first experience in the book world ended up being such a close working relationship with my publisher.

PL: What was the submitting process like? Did you use an agent? If not, have you ever thought about going through that process in future?

JSM: Heart Blade was a direct submission – my publisher, horror and sci fi author Nathan Hystad, is a writing friend and we often do critiques for each other's work. Nathan had been one of my beta readers for Heart Blade, and when he opened up Woodbridge Press he got in touch to ask if I'd be interested in publication. So I kind of dodged the entire submission process on that one.

I have queried agents in the past, though, and once I've finished my current project (something brand new and unrelated to my Blade Hunt Chronicles series), my plan is to get back to querying again. I know plenty of people who have ended up going both routes in their path to publication – agented and unagented – and both have their merits depending on what you want from publishing. But personally, I like the idea of having someone in your corner, looking out for you.

PL: That's true - just really helps when that person is the publisher! :D

Okay - obviously getting and giving advice has been a big part of writing for you - what's the best advice, and the worst advice, you've been given?

JSM: Wow, tough question!

Best was probably: read/listen to all the writing advice, sift through to see what works for you, and disregard the rest. :D So true! Everyone is different, and different things work for each. There is no 'one size fits all' when it comes to writing advice!

Worst, hmm... I can't think of a specific example, but probably every time I'm told I can't do a particular thing when it comes to writing, or that I have to do things a specific way. It immediately makes me want to play with the loopholes and find the exceptions!

PL: I sometimes find there's a lot to be said for the creative stimulus of being put in a box and having to look for loopholes - did anything in the Blade Hunt Chronicles come from finding the exceptions?

Different tangent - judging from your blog, you seem pretty big on your characters, getting art done for them, introducing them and so on. Where do you get your inspiration for your characters?

JSM: In regards to the first question, it's not really a loophole, but before Heart Blade got picked up by Woodbridge, I took the first pages to one of those agent query sessions. Both agents I talked to told me that 'vampires and angels and all that stuff, that's old, we can't sell that, no one wants to read that stuff anymore.' Which of course made me all the more determined not to give up on my story! (I think all writers need a good dose of stubborn in them...) :D 

As for the characters, I love looking at fan art, and I decided it would be fun to get art drawn for some of my main characters. I actually found the artist I use, Corinna Marie, on Tumblr. She did a great job! I'm not really sure what to say in terms of inspiration – I think there are bits of me in a lot of my characters, and bits of other people I know. I have a lot in common, personality-wise, with my character Camille (although I can safely say I'm NOT an immortal succubus). Oh, and I have a soft spot for brown-haired female main characters. I'm a brunette and, back in my 80's teen days, it seemed as if there was a surplus of blonde females in fiction. This is payback, Juliana style!

Corinna Marie's drawing of the main cast

PL: Do you have favourites among your characters? Also, which character would you say you have the least in common with? My money's on one of the angels, buuuut...

JSM: Argh, don't make me choose!! Camille, of course. Del and Diana in book 1, and Ben and Raze in book 2. But there are things I like about all of them, even my 'bad boy' Jude Raven... As for least in common, probably one of the sentinels, Jordan. He's Ash's cousin (one of my main characters), and although he has angel blood in his veins, he's not particularly nice or angelic. Writing nasty people is hard! Jordan has very little to redeem him, and it's been hard trying not to fall into cliché bully tropes.

PL: I had a feeling you'd say Jordan. What do you think are the traps to avoid when it comes to not writing cliche bully tropes?

JSM: Having great critique partners? Seriously, I have a lovely group of writers who I can always count on to flag things like that. It's far too easy sometimes to fall into traps of the sort (the cliché bully character, for instance), and having other sets of eyes on it to call me out on my mistakes is worth pure solid gold. (But I don't have any gold. Sorry.)

PL: Always comes back to the community! When it comes to other authors' characters, who do you admire - bully boys or otherwise?

JSM: I do love a well-written anti-hero, and any sort of 'grey area' and complex character. They're a lot more fun to read about! Reluctant heroes are also great. Give me all those nuances, please!

PL: Gimme examples! Name me some of your favourite anti-heroes. And reluctant heroes too.

JSM: They might not be exactly anti-heroes, but I have a weakness for accidentally heroic thieves, like Locke Lamora in Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastards series, or Kaz, Inej and company in Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows duology. 

As for reluctant heroes, one of my favorite arcs is Kaladin's in Words of Radiance, Brandon Sanderson's second Stormlight book. Lila Bard in Victoria Schwab's Shades of Magic trilogy is great, as is Han Alister in Cinda Williams Chima's Seven Realms books (although at first he falls under the thief-hero banner, too). Julia Knight, who also writes as Francis Knight, writes fantastic shades of grey characters.

We can all agree that Deadpool is another great example of this sort of character and generally fantastic. Here's a photo Juliana took of Lego Deadpool riding a dinosaur because why the hell not.

High Five on the Locke Lamora love! Shame that events are keeping him from getting the next one out there, I want to know how it ends. You've got book 2 of your own series out at the moment - what can we expect from the rest of the Blade Hunt Chronicles?

JSM: I have two more books planned to finish out the Blade Hunt Chronicles, named for the two last swords in the prophecy the series takes its title from: Star Blade and King's Blade. I don't want to say much because #spoilers, but I can tell you that book 3 centers around a murder mystery, a blizzard, and a trip to Yorkshire...

It's been interesting working on a series – trying to find the balance between writing a self-contained plot for each book with a satisfying ending, and spinning out the longer arcs that span the series. It's certainly a challenge, but a fun one. Hopefully I'll be able to keep up momentum, and not let readers down! Feedback I've had so far from book 2, Night Blade, has been positive, so I'm feeling pretty confidant at the moment.

One nice thing about working with multiple books is being able to spend time deepening the core series characters, as well as the worldbuilding. With a standalone book, you're constantly treading a fine line between not enough info and throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the page. With a series, you can take your time, and add more to the world with each book. 

PL: All things are better with Yorkshire - well, all things but beach holidays. Very well, I shan't pry too much. But what is the one thing you're proudest of with Night Blade and think readers will love most?

JSM: One of the main plotlines in Night Blade is a heist, and I had a blast writing it. I'd been wanting to try my hand at a heist story for a while, and it was every bit as fun to do as I'd imagined. Tricky, though, trying to get all the elements right, but I really like the way it all turned out. I hope readers will enjoy it, too!

Another fun part to write was the ballroom scene, swishy dresses, tuxes and all. But all in all, I think the heist sequence is what I'm proudest of.

So if heists, ballrooms, demons and nuanced heroes sound your thing, Juliana Spink Mills has your back. Night Blade, the second book of the Blade Hunt Chronicles is out now, and is available at Amazon US and UK. To read more by Juliana, visit her website at

Merilliza Chan did the cover art for Heart Blade and her art can be found at

Corinna Marie did the character sketches and her art can be found at

Juliana does her own Lego Deadpool photos but inexplicably does not have a website dedicated to it. Yet.