Genre, sub-genre, categories … when trying to find a home for a story on the shelves of a bookstore or library, the options can sometimes seem overwhelming. Is this fantasy or science fiction? Historical mystery, cozy mystery, or some other type of mystery altogether? Thriller or adventure? Memoir or autobiography?
This is made even more difficult when you have an author who likes to cross two or more genres in one book. And yes, I’m talking about myself and the Whitney & Davies series here. Since the beginning, these books have been hard to categorize. Do they go on the fantasy shelf or the mystery shelf? (One local library solved the puzzle by sticking Magic Most Deadly on the “fiction” shelf–going more generic instead of less, I guess!) It wouldn’t matter so much, aside from causing headaches to librarians and bookstore owners, except that muddled categories can make it difficult for readers to understand what sort of book they are looking at, and thus make them less likely to pick it up and read.
The basic premise of the Whitney & Davies series–taking an already-existing genre and adding a magical twist to it–is not unique to me. My first exposure to the concept was with Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s marvelous fantasy of manners Sorcery and Cecilia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot. Other well-known Regency fantasies are Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories, and of course Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
Then there’s the “gaslamp” or “gaslight” fantasies, which take the same idea and place it in a Victorian or Edwardian England setting. Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series would likely fall into this category, as well as Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent.
However, I’ve not yet found anyone besides myself taking Golden Age Detective Fiction and inserting fantasy into that, and I’ve been racking my brains for ages now trying to coin a phrase to neatly sum up this sub-genre to make it clear from one glance what type of a story the reader is getting. “Mystery-fantasy set in 1920s England” is, let’s face it, way too clunky.
I’ve narrowed it down to two options, although I am open to suggestions for something else! I like “Golden Age Detective Fiction” for its descriptiveness, but on the other hand it is still long and a little bit clunky. Then there’s the short and snappy “Whodunit Fantasy,” but the downside to that one is that it doesn’t necessarily convey the sense of time and place–between wars in England–that the other does.
So I am tossing the choices out there for my readers! Which do you prefer? Which one conveys the feel of Whitney & Davies best to you? And if you haven’t read my books yet, you may still feel free to comment–I’d like to know what type of story you think of when you see either of those two categories.
I would also be curious to know if you have any comparison books or series that come to your mind when thinking of W&D–you know, the old, “If you like _____, you will like Whitney & Davies.” The closest I’ve come up with is Martha Wells’ Death of the Necromancer, and I’m not exactly sure that’s the best match. I think that’s the sort of thing that is difficult for an author to judge about his or her own work, especially when one of the main reasons for writing the books is that no one else out there is!
Last year–almost exactly a year to this day, in fact–I was in Bavaria, visiting Neuschwanstein Castle for the first time. That trip–planned mainly because I wanted to visit the München Christkindlmarkt–came so close to not happening: both Carl and Grace were recovering from the flu; Carl had just gotten back to Cambridge from flying to Texas to see his aunt in the hospital and say goodbye to her (she died of pancreatic cancer the day we returned from Germany to England); we had just made the incredibly difficult decision to cut our time in England short and return to the US after Christmas; life was more than a little overwhelming.
And yet. We knew we’d never have a better chance to do this. For some reason, it was incredibly important to me to see Munich. We decided the fresh Alpine air would do Carl and Grace good, and we also decided that if we needed to spend the entire trip resting in our AirBnB we would. So we went.
The first time I saw the Alps out the window of our rented car, I burst into tears. (Yes, I was obviously emotional from all the other situations. All the same, crying over mountains is not a usual emotional response for me.) The landscape, the scenery as we drove to Neuschwanstein … it was magical. I suddenly understood why the Germans are so steeped in fairy tales and folklore. I could believe in gnomes, dwarves, dragons, and talking beasts here.
After all that, the castle itself was a minor letdown. Fancy … but not real. We were glad to have toured it, and Joy especially was thrilled to see “the” original fairy tale castle, but a castle meant to imitate fairy tales was just that: an imitation. The real magic was outside.
The rest of our trip was incredible–we visited Oberammergau, in large part because of my love for the Betsy-Tacy books, and bought ornaments, gifts for family, and our very own Christmas pyramid there. We did make it into Munich–or München–and met up with an old friend, who took us to lunch at the Hofbräuhaus and showed us some of her favorite Christmas markets, and we watched the Rathaus-Glockenspiel strike noon, and drank mulled wine (Carl), hot chocolate (the kids) and hot gin toddy (me), and brought home the mugs, and bought yet more ornaments, and made incredible, incredible memories.
But perhaps the best of all was the magic of driving around the Alps.
So, when we had returned to Cambridge and I was writing the monthly flash fiction for my Patreon supporters, there was only one story I could tell: that of someone looking for inspiration at a fairy tale castle, and finding it … well, I won’t tell you where. You’ll have to read it for yourself.
Today, that story has been published in New Myths, and I’m so happy to be able to share it with the world. Go ahead and give it a read–hopefully it will make you fall in love with Bavaria just as I did.
Around this time of year, you will often see posts on social media saying something like, “give an author the best gift imaginable: leave a review for their book!” As an author, I agree whole-heartedly with such posts. I got to thinking the other day, though: if I weren’t an author myself, would I understand just why reviews are so important? And I realized, probably not.
So I thought I might take some time to explain why authors will often sound almost desperate in our pleas for reviews for our books.
The first reason has to do with algorithms. Ugh, I know. In the world of bookselling as it exists today, algorithms are what determines how easy it is for potential readers to find your books. On, say, Amazon, if you type “magic most deadly” into the search bar–well, I scrolled through fifteen pages before I gave up on finding my book actually titled Magic Most Deadly.
As for From the Shadows, well, that one remains firmly in the shadows so far as bookselling websites are concerned.
So, why is it that my books don’t show up in searches? Because they don’t have enough reviews. The general rule of thumb is that it takes about 50 reviews for the computer programming that runs Amazon’s search pages to decide your book deserves to appear sooner and more frequently in searches.
So then, the #1 reason authors beg for reviews is simple: more reviews = more visibility, more visibility = more chances for people to buy our books.
The #2 reason is also pretty simple. The vast majority of buyers online are always going to check the reviews before they purchase. This goes for anything, not just books. I do the same! I want to make sure I’m not buying a dud. And when it comes to stories–especially self-published books, which, unfairly or not, have a reputation of being of lesser quality than traditionally published books–readers want to know if this is going to be worth their time or not.
(This is one way in which a detailed negative review can also be helpful, by the way. If I, a potential reader, find a 1-star review that says “This book is awful! The characters just talked to each other and nothing ever happened. It was well written but so boring, and there wasn’t even any romance,” I am suddenly much more interested in that book, because that sort of story is exactly to my taste.)
Visibility and buyer confidence. That’s what our need for reviews really boils down to.
But Louise! I hear you say. Reviews are a pain to write! I never know what to say.
Never fear, I am here with a very simple template you can follow for almost any type of review. Think of this as Mad Libs for reviewing. Ready?
Glowing review: “This is a [positive adjective] book! I especially liked [character or event]. If you enjoy stories with [descriptive noun], you will enjoy this book.”
For example, and I’m going to use Magic Most Deadly here because why not: “This is a wonderful book! I especially like the friendship that developed between Maia and Len. If you enjoy stories with well-developed characters, you will enjoy this book.”
Temperate review: “This is a [mildly positive adjective] book. [character or event or stylistic choice] was particularly well done. I thought that [character or event or stylistic choice] was [negative adjective], but overall, a good read. If you like [descriptive noun], you will enjoy this book.”
And the example, still using Magic Most Deadly: “This is a pretty good book. The relationship between the main characters was particularly well done. I thought that the pacing was slow, but overall, a good read. If you like stories that are more about the characters than the plot, you will enjoy this book.”
Negative reviews are a little trickier, but you can use a basic template for them as well: “I did not enjoy this book at all. It was [blank] and [blank], and it did not work for me. I am sure there is an audience for this book, but I am not it.”
And here we go fitting that to MMD: “I did not enjoy this book at all. It was slow and the writing style felt pretentious, and it did not work for me at all. I am sure there is an audience for this book, but I am not it.”
And there you have it! Obviously you will want to fiddle with it a bit to make it your own, but generally speaking, opinion of the book + one or two reasons for that opinion + why people might or might not like the book = amazing reviews.
Now you know why authors plead so much for reviews, and you have an easy template for writing those reviews, so hey: go make an author’s holiday extra bright by leaving them a review on Amazon or wherever you bought their book!
Looking for a unique Christmas gift for a friend, a family member, or yourself? Love the idea of giving a signed book to someone, but mourning the lack of author signings?
Enter the signed bookplate. I am offering to send an autographed bookplate for FREE to anyone who asks for the entire month of December. Comment if you are interested, and I will get in touch with you to find out the address and which name you want–E.L. Bates or Louise Bates. I am also happy to add a personal note if you would like! I’m not very good at thinking up catchy comments to go with an autograph, but I think I can manage a “Merry Christmas” or “to So-and-So.”
This holiday season is going to look different from what we are used to and what we would like, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be merry and bright.
For Maia Whitney, life after the Great War is dull, monotonous, and drab. Nursing soldiers in the bloody fields of France hadn’t been easy, but it was better than life at home, standing in her sisters’ shadows. There seems no chance for a change until the night she witnesses a murder in the woods.
The last thing Magic Intelligence Agent Lennox Davies needs is this outspoken, independent lady crashing his investigation. Bad enough that a murder happened on his watch; much less that she had to see it happen. He works alone, and he does not have time for Miss Maia Whitney’s interference.
But as Maia’s own magical talent blossoms and danger thickens around the two with every step they take, before long Len and Maia must rely on each other in a fashion neither has ever done before. If they can’t learn to work together, England itself might topple. Even worse, if Maia doesn’t learn to control her magic soon, she might do more to destroy them even than their shadowy enemy.
Can they set aside their stubbornness and self-reliance in time to save themselves—and all England?
Maia Whitney has held men as they died before, but never in peacetime, and never in her aunt’s front hall. And this unexpected death is only the beginning. Someone is stealing magic and life from England’s magicians and using them for his or her own gain. No one is safe, not even Magical Intelligence Agent Lennox Davies, whose targeting by the parasite brings him his own set of challenges to work through. Though she is only an apprentice, Maia will not sit back and wait for others to bring about justice, and teams up with Len as she did once before. Using a blend of magical skills and detective work, together Maia and Len dig deep into a case that has its roots buried in the shadows of the past … and could leave one of them magic-less forever.
Four exciting short stories set in the magical England of the Whitney & Davies series!
The Third Thief: Maia Whitney has returned home for her sister’s wedding determined to stay aloof from family dramas. Alas, the disappearance of a valuable and possibly cursed bracelet alters her plans. Can this magician’s apprentice solve the crime and save her sister’s wedding from doom and disaster?
Many Magical Returns: On Susannah’s seventeenth birthday, she learns why her mother has always insisted she never use magic in front of Uncle Ernie. Escaping her uncle’s greed and learning magic on the run are tall orders, but one thing is certain: this is a birthday Susannah will never forget.
Passion & Practicality: Steady, sensible Evelyn has always looked after and protected her flighty, feather-brained older sister Violet. So when Violet accidentally kills a man, of course Evelyn is going to take the blame. But her former fiancé Henry, now working for the magicians’ Domestic Protection Agency, has other plans.
Masks & the Magician: Who is the mysterious woman? Is she the Grand Duchess Anastasia, as she claims, or a fraud? The English magician calling himself Merlin has his own ideas, but untangling truth from lie is a difficult task in this mission. When everyone wears a mask, who can be trusted?
Whisked from her troubled, solitary life to a spaceship centuries in the future, widowed folk musician Riss Waldon must first figure out how she got there, and then if it’s possible to get home. Before long, she is visiting strange and deadly planets and meeting new alien races, and forming friendships with the crew. Even as they strive to discover a way for her to return, she wonders if it possible to step out of the shadows of her past life and stay here. But when the well-being of the entire crew rests on her shoulders, she isn’t sure she’s up to the task. What if she fails them? All she can do is try …
Pauline Gray, journalist by day and novelist by night, discovers anonymous letters are being sent to a young widow, insinuating that her husband did not die by accident. Pauline’s compassion and journalistic instincts combine to help her to seek an answer to who is sending these letters, and why. Was Bob Ferris really murdered, and if so, by whom? Before long, Pauline is uncovering evidence of a local smuggling ring and stirring up secrets some people would rather remain buried along with the dead. Despite the danger, Pauline won’t stop until she has shone a light into the hidden places of the past and seen justice done for the grieving widow and her son. No matter what the cost …
What starts as an intriguing puzzle soon takes a more sinister turn when a dead body shows up. When all of the clues only make matters more murky, how can Pauline Gray make sense of it all? This case will take all her wits and investigative ability to solve … but the body count is growing …
Horace Van Camp, of Clayton, NY, is dead, and his wealth has been divided among strangers. Arabella Warren cannot understand why she should have inherited a diamond necklace from a man she never met, and she asks Pauline Gray to look into the matter. Eager for a new challenge, Pauline takes the case. The deeper she explores, the more complicated matters become. Why was Van Camp’s great-nephew disinherited? Did the pompous lawyer have anything to do with it? How were the twelve beneficiaries chosen, and why?
When a dead body turns up on the Van Camp estate, the puzzle takes on a more sinister aspect. With the police dismissing it all as a series of coincidences and accidents, it is up to Pauline to set things right in the face of the greed, deception, and fear that lie at the heart of this disquieting case. It will take all of Pauline’s ingenuity to solve this case, but she is once again determined to see justice done for those who cannot seek it for themselves.
Whew! Long post, but there you have it. All my books, one post, each with one simple link to get you to all the stores where they are sold. If you are looking for something to read over Thanksgiving (or over the weekend, for non-Americans), now’s your chance!
In my most recent blog post, I spoke about the defaults I revert to when writing characters. Today I’ve been thinking about one of my other storytelling defaults, which is the importance of community.
I was going to say that this theme shows itself most strongly in From the Shadows, but then I thought, No, actually it comes out most strongly in the Pauline Gray series, and then I dithered about it for a while before realizing hey, it doesn’t have to be a competition. So let’s simply look at the three different worlds I’ve built and see the way community plays out in each, without holding one against another, shall we?
First up, From the Shadows. On the surface, it looks like the main problem of the book for our protagonist, Riss, is that she’s stuck on a spaceship in the future with no way to get home. But actually, as the story develops, we see–and Riss learns along with us–that her real problem is her deep, unsatisfied need to be part of a community where she is valued both for her own self and for her gifts. The community aboard the Caledonia is a close, tight-knit, self-contained group, and Riss’s struggle to figure out if she could belong there is really what makes up the heart of the story.
Then there’s Pauline Gray. The need to find and/or build community doesn’t play as active a role in Pauline’s stories, but the community of a small, rural town in the midst of the Depression is the firm backbone of the series. This is a place where the people look out for each other, and even if they don’t like each other very much, they come together in difficult times to do what needs to be done. That’s why murder is such a shattering thing each time it happens in Pauline’s world–because it tears apart the fabric of the community, and it breaks the unspoken trust that people have in their neighbors. Pauline is less aware than Riss of her need for community, but she feels the tearing of it even if she is not aware that’s what the problem is.
Well, what about Whitney and Davies? I will admit the theme of community isn’t quite so strong in these books as it is in the others I’ve already mentioned–but it is there. In Magic Most Deadly, Maia’s discovery of magic allows her to enter into the community of magicians, and in Glamours & Gunshots she starts to figure out what she wants her role in that community to be. Len, meanwhile, is moving out of the community he’s always been part of and searching for a new one, one where he doesn’t always have to hide who he is and what he does. Together, they are forming their own microcosm of a community and seeking ways to serve the larger community at the same time.
When I was younger, I was pretty oblivious to the human need to exist within a community, but the older I get, the more I value it. I’ve lived in places without any sort of community–was a young mother in some of them, which I 100% do not recommend–lived in others where there ought to have been community and wasn’t, and hardest of all to endure, lived in some places where they was a community and I was on the outside of it. Those experiences have all shaped my own deep desire to be an active and valued member of a community. Not a selfish wish to be part of some hidden “inner circle”–like Mark in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength–that’s when community turns into a clique, and is one of the ugliest things in the world. But a genuine community, where people look out for each other and take care of each other and help each other out when needed, and everyone has something to give and everyone’s lives are woven together.
I don’t talk about politics on this blog, but it isn’t political to say this country is experiencing a deep division right now, a tearing apart of what we value and how we view the world and our place in it. There is a limit on how much each ordinary person can do to change that on a grand scale. But here’s what we can do: we can look out for our neighbors. We can take care of the vulnerable in our towns, villages, and counties. We can cut down that limb from the tree in our yard that is threatening to fall on the next-door neighbor’s house. We can thank our town officials for their hard work during this election season. We can buy a coffee for the guy (6 feet) behind us in line at the local bakery, just because. We can make a meal for the new parents down the street. We can encourage our kids to talk to the outsider at school, the one shy kid who always stands in the corner and can’t seem to believe that anyone would want to be their friend.
Community doesn’t exist simply by a group of people living in close proximity to each other or being part of the same activities. It comes about when people commit to caring for one another, to seeing each other, to not living as though others don’t matter.
That’s a message I keep needing to tell my heart, which is probably why it keeps cropping up in my stories. Maybe you need the encouragement as well? Covid-19 has created a lot of loneliness for a lot of us, and made community something out of reach in many cases. I hear you–moving to a new place in the midst of a pandemic means it’s been awfully hard for our family to do anything toward finding a community. But it’s worth it to keep trying.
And if you can’t find it in real life right now, I hope you can find enough of a community in books to tide you over until you can.
So, turns out the kids starting school for the first time means everyone, including Mom, has a lot of adjusting to do. Last week was a haze of trying to get everyone up on time, making sure everyone had all their assignments done in time, making sure the assignments were handed in, not just completed, and oh yes, let’s not even talk about lunches.
We had a wonderful weekend, spent hiking a mountain and tidying up around the house and getting some pumpkins and mums on our front walkway to welcome autumn, and it was the perfect reset button–this school morning went much more smoothly. We’ll see how managing assignments goes!
So, onto the final week for the Self-Published Fantasy month! We have five reviews today, instead of four, since I missed posting this last week and was therefore able to add one more book to my reading tally.
First up, Intisar Khanani and her Sunbolt Chronicles. Khanani is probably better known for Thorn, her Goose Girl retelling (which I also highly recommend), but as that is now published by a traditional press, it doesn’t quite fit the criteria for this review series (but seriously, you should still read it).
Her Sunbolt Chronicles, though, are equally brilliant. Although here I have to add a disclaimer–I have only read Sunbolt, the first book. The second, Memories of Ash, is another one I’m saving for a time when I really need a thoughtful, deep, hopeful book. Because that is what Khanani does with her books. They are not afraid to look into the darkness, but they unflinchingly declare that the light is better, and that in the end it will be triumphant.
Next we have Tara Grayce, whose Fierce Heart was sheer delight to read.
Fierce Heart gives us an extroverted princess who has no super-special abilities aside from the determination to look for the good in every situation and find a way to be happy in it. I didn’t know how much I needed a cheerful protagonist after so many Angry Girls in fantasy fiction until I started reading this–but Essie soothed my weary soul as much as she did the–well, I won’t spoil it for you. But if you’ve ever watched LOTR and wondered how the elves manage to keep their hair so perfect, Tara Grayce has the answer for you–and it might just stop an interspecies war. (Seriously, I love how she was able to take a common trope in fantasy, poke gentle fun at it, and then turn around and use it as a major plot point in the story. Brilliant!) I haven’t had a chance yet to read the rest of the series, but I’m looking forward to it.
Next is another middle grade author, Stephanie Ascough, and her debut novel Light and Shadow.
Ascough tackles a lot of challenging themes and topics in this novel, first in a planned series. She shines at world-building, creating a wonderful universe with unusual magic and a rich mythology. I love that, despite this have a very fairy-tale feel, both the protagonist’s parents are alive, and she in fact has a warm and loving, if challenging, relationship to them both. All the relationships are well drawn, in fact, from the friendship between the cousins (having grown up with wonderful cousins myself, I am always a suck for cousin friendships in stories) to the friendships that Ardin, the princess protagonist, develops throughout the course of the story. Oh, and did I mention that Ardin is visually impaired? And there’s no magical cure for it? Ascough handled that difficult topic so well, and all of these things combined mean I am very much looking forward to the next book in the series whenever it comes out!
I love fantasy stories with a female protagonist in her thirties or older. Possibly this is a result of my own aging, but also, I don’t know, sometimes you just appreciate a slightly wearier, warier, more mature standpoint to view the world from, rather than the all-or-nothing, ride-or-die mentality of teens and twenty-somethings. A protagonist in her thirties has generally learned caution and understands responsibility, and while she might still feel passionately about individuals or causes, she’s not going to rush right into anything without taking stock of the sacrifices first, and not without first calling in sick so the people who are depending on her in ordinary life aren’t left high and dry. I like that. Strangehold definitely gives us that kind of protagonist, one with nieces who need her help and a sister who might be beyond her help, and two worlds that are threatening to collide and destroy what she loves. Sorrow’s Son, the sequel, continues the story, but I confess my heart really belongs with Morgan, the protagonist of the first story. Like I mentioned before, these books are novellas, so they are a nice short read for when you don’t have time to dive into an 800-page tome.
Finally, the author for whom I am bending the rules a little bit: Arielle M. Bailey, and The Icarus Aftermath. Bailey has written an unabashed tribute to Star Wars with The Icarus Aftermath, which might make some people want to classify it as sci-fi. But she has blended Star Wars with Greek myth, which combined with the fact that Star Wars itself is basically fantasy-in-space is enough for me to claim it as fantasy, and therefore include it in this post.
I loved this story. I adored the Greek myths when I was a kid, and I have loved Star Wars ever since my first exposure to it, so I’m pretty sure Bailey wrote this just for me, specifically. Plus it starts out, as the title says, in the aftermath of a tragic event, the death of one of the Rebellion’s brightest, most charismatic leaders, their hope for the future (this is not a spoiler–you can pretty much assume what is going to be the inciting event from the title if you know anything about the Icarus myth), and the rest of the story is as much about the people he left behind dealing with grief and trying to heal as it is about the Rebellion striking a blow against the Olympians. Although the latter part was great, too. Space fantasy, Greek myths, and a story more focused on interpersonal relationships than about flashy battles and ever-bigger galactic threats? Yeah, like I said: I’m pretty sure Bailey wrote this story for me. You know that story about Lewis and Tolkien deciding they had to write the stories they loved to read because no one else was? Well, this is a story I love that I didn’t have to write for myself, and that just makes it even better.
And that brings us to the (belated) end of this series! Thanks for sticking with me, guys, even after I missed last week. I hope this has provided you with lots of new reading material! These four blog posts are by no means an exhaustive list of the amazing self-published fantasy out there. I might do this again sometime even aside from the larger event hosted by the Self-Published Fantasy Month blog (loads of other authors mentioned there, by the way, most of whom I have not yet had a chance to read myself and so couldn’t include in this series), so feel free to let me know of your favorite author who got missed this month, and hopefully I’ll be able to include them at a later date.