Bookbinding 101

I made a thing. It’s not a perfect thing, but damnit I’m proud of it. And given the circumstances, I’m pretty sure it’s the best damn thing I could have possibly made.

I made a book.

I didn’t write the book, but I did format it. I drew all the illustrations. I sewed it. I glued it. I made the physical book itself. It sapped what sanity I had left in me at the end of semester and it took two nights of staying up until three in the morning, but I made it.


I made it as the final project for my publishing design technologies class. I had issues with that class from the beginning. Not with the class itself, exactly, but with the lab. There seemed to be no preplanned structure to the way our labs were run. Instruction was minimal at best and at worst it was confused and flat out wrong. The professor and the TA didn’t seem to have discussed how the labs were to be taught, because the TA often seemed at a loss to explain to us how to do the lab assignments the prof gave us. Considering that we were a class of students who mostly had no idea how to work InDesign, it was frustrating to say the least when the prof gave us a lab sheet that says, “do this thing” and when we ask how to do the thing, the TA says, “Don’t worry about that thing” and then, naturally, we got points taken off. After a month of that I figured that Google was probably going to be the best instructor I could get to pass that class, and I stopped asking the TA to do the thing she was getting paid to do.

This final project was no different. We received minimal guidance on how to get the book printed and were instructed to watch Sea Lemon videos to learn how to put the book together. In fact, the only part of this that I was decently confident about was the formatting part. I’m by no means an expert on InDesign now, but I feel confident in my ability to format raw text at least from this class. Illustrator and Photo Shop remain beyond my skill level. None of that would have been that big of a deal except, like I said, this was my final project. It came at the end of semester when I also had two essays and two final exams to complete/study for. And the final project was worth 22% of my grade. So I was in full on panic-stress mode for two weeks racing my deadlines while my professors and TAs were on the sidelines telling me to calm down and not freak out. Which is a bit like being on the bomb squad trying to dismantle a nuke on a sixty second timer with the whole city standing around telling you that it’d be okay if you took a coffee break. Or at least that’s how it felt at the time. And since the TA had already made me nervous about asking for any kind of help due to her insufficient knowledge, I felt completely on my own in this.

But this post is about the book, not the class, so I’m going to walk you through the step-by-step process as best I can. To be honest though, I think I’ve locked up some of these memories for my own mental health, so there may be some gaps.

We were given a raw text file for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, but it had terrible line breaks throughout the whole thing that I didn’t have time to go in and fix by myself, so I grabbed the text off the internet instead. Formatting in InDesign is an incredibly laborious process. It’s not at all like Word, so don’t complain about what your formatter charges you. It’s a pain in the ass that involves making different character styles, paragraph styles, and master pages for each different formatting element in the document. Alice is only twelve chapters long, but it took me four days just to format the raw text. Including putting in the images, doing the line edits, correcting for widows and orphans and the final proof read, I read that damn book, cover to cover, six times. That was before any printing at all had been done. (To extrapolate, the idea that ebooks require no extra work than physical books and therefore shouldn’t cost so much is wrong. It’s so wrong. Stop disseminating this idea.)

The formatting, as I said, was the easy part. After I had it formatted, I had to figure out how to print it. I ran into some problems here. The first problem was that I wanted it printed on high quality, textured cream paper. It’s just a style choice for me. I don’t like white paper because the ink contrast is too high and it hurts my eyes. I also think that it looks cheap and unprofessional, but again, that’s just me. The problem was, if I wanted that kind of paper I’d have to buy it and print it myself, because ordinary print shops don’t carry high quality textured cream paper, and they don’t let you bring in your pwn paper either. But this presented its own problem because, as I discovered the night before my very last lab in which to work on this project, my printer doesn’t print double sided. So I had to scrap that idea.

The second printing problem that I had was signatures. Signatures are packets of four to five sheets of paper representing sixteen to twenty pages when folded in half. In traditional bookbinding (ie the kind of book binding you’re probably most familiar with) signatures are sewn together to create a uniform shape for all the pages in the book. But it involves a complicated formatting arrangement of the pages that we were assured by prof and TA both that the printers would understand how to do. I was assured by prof and TA both when I asked multiple times that if I went to the printer with my regularly formatted PDF file and said, “I want this printed in signatures of five sheets each” the printer would understand and would be able to print it how I wanted it.

This was not the case. The first printer I went to had no idea what I wanted. He didn’t know what a signature was, and when I explained to him what it was, he printed the whole document in one giant signature. Imagine taking thirty-five sheets of paper and folding them all in half. It doesn’t make a nice, uniform edge, does it? Not only that, but the sheets didn’t print in the correct order, so it was a complete waste of time, and it put me in a full on freak-out, because I had to go to work that afternoon and if I couldn’t get my signatures printed that morning I wasn’t going to have time to print them ever. The TA’s advice was to print a sample sheet myself, but I didn’t know how to do that at all, and she wasn’t much help explaining it to me, so I contacted every printer within walking distance to get a price and a time quote on this project. Thankfully, DigiTech Printing, less than five minutes from my school, figured they could get it done before noon. So I hauled ass over there with my files and, I have to say, they were the nicest, most accommodating people I worked with through this whole ordeal. Their professionalism, knowledge, and willingness to work on a deadline brought me down from apoplectic panic to mild worry. They assured me that everything I wanted (aside from the high quality, textured cream paper) could be done, but there was only one, small problem: price.

Wearily I asked them how much. They said $80. I said done. They reasserted that it would cost me $80. I said I didn’t care how much it cost as long as I didn’t have to be the one to deal with it anymore. I’m not ashamed to say that I literally threw money at the problem until it went away. The important thing was that I had my signatures printed, folded and trimmed, and all I had to do now was bind the book, which I didn’t need my prof or my TA for, since I would be learning that part via YouTube videos. (Why did I spend $1000 to learn publishing design from Google and YouTube?!)


Of course I needed the materials for bookbinding. Those I had to buy from Opus, Dessew, and Michael’s which are thankfully just down the street from my school. They were unfortunately far less knowledgeable, professional and agreeable than DigiTech. Dessew seemed to be staffed by grannies who are altogether tired of your shit. With the exception of the one lady who helped me find the black canvas for my cover, everyone else I dealt with in that store treated me like a junkie asking to use the bathroom. (Though to be fair I’m pretty sure all the shopkeeps on East Hastings have to deal with more than their fair share of junkies on a regular basis.) Opus on the other hand seemed to be staffed entirely by stoners who thought it would be great to operate an art supply store until the high wore off and they realized they had no fucking idea what they were doing there. No one seemed to know where anything was in the store. I was passed off to four different employees who kept scattering like scared rats at the sight of a customer. My efforts to explain what I was looking for turned up the most useless products for my project (giant sheets of paper that no one would cut, when I only needed a couple 8″x11″s) and endless chatter about anything but the products I was looking for. My last stop was Michael’s which looked like the Grinch had ransacked it. He took the cloth-binders, paper-punchers, and ink-dabbers. He took the wax thread, the gold letters, the red ribbons. What bits of glitter he left behind in that store were barely enough for a mouse and no more. Lesson learned: don’t go to Michael’s before Christmas.


So there I had all my supplies. All I had to do was: sew the signatures, glue the signatures, trim the pages, cut the cover boards, measure the cloth cover, make the headband, position the lettering, make a text block, glue the headband to the text block, glue the text block to the end sheets, glue the end sheets to the cover and FINISHED!

Easier said than done. The sewing of the signatures actually turned out to be fairly easy, despite me doing it completely wrong the first time and having to cut and unthread the whole thing and start from the beginning. I was actually quite pleased with how the corrected version turned out.


I applied two coats of bookbinding glue to the sewn spine and let it dry overnight while I worked on the cover. The cover was trickier. As with every step of this damn project, there was a problem. In this case, I ran out of time to make a dust jacket, in part because I was busy completing other assignments, and in part because the printing of the signatures took way, way more time than I anticipated it would for reasons outlined above. So I had to put the title directly on the cloth itself, and the only way I could think to do that in a professional looking way was with iron-on letters. These came in large sheets from which each individual letter had to be cut in squares. The squares then had to be placed down on the cloth and ironed on both sides, which meant that I couldn’t glue the cover boards to the cloth until after I had ironed on the letters. This posed the challenge of how to position the letters so that they would appear evenly on the final cover. I solved this in the messiest way possible: I outlined in chalk. In hindsight this was probably not the best idea. Honestly, a piece of yarn rolled in flour probably would have been neater, but I was fueled entirely by coffee and cortisol as I was working on this portion, so I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly. I sketched out the position of the book boards, and where I wanted the letters to be which left only one complication: how to line up the individual squares of letters so that they would look neat and not move under the iron? My solution: make a type block out of scotch tape. I positioned each letter upside down and backwards as neatly as I could muster on a strip of tape and then taped the sucker down on the chalk line I drew for it. I could then iron the letters, front and back without worrying about them shifting out of place as I did so. The result was less than perfect, but better than expected.


It took a course paint brush to scrub away most of the chalk lines. I wasn’t exactly happy with the lines that remained, but definitely too exhausted to care overly much about it. Gluing everything together also turned out to be relatively easy, starting with the text block which took a couple of extra sheets to make it cohesive, and then the end sheets, which would attach it to the finished cover. For whatever reason the edges of the pages ended up slightly uneven at this stage, so I had to cut them with a craft knife. Despite my best efforts, however, the knife kept slipping and I was left with an uneven cut. Sea Lemon recommended taking a file to the uneven edges to make them smooth which yielded… mixed results which I won’t picture here.


The final complication ended up being a few pieces of information that, if left missing, would result in at least a letter grade deduction. These were, ISBN, publisher information, and the back blurb. As already mentioned, I didn’t have time to do a dusk jacket, so I was going to print an obi (book belt) to fit around the back cover instead, except my easily confused printer couldn’t figure out what size paper I wanted, so I had to go with something much smaller and much more slapped together. In the end, the final product looked like this:

I don’t know what I got on the project. I won’t know until I get it back in January. If my final grade is anything to go by I got less than an A on it, which I’m extremely disappointed by given the amount of effort I put into this compared to the amount and quality of instruction. I ended up finishing the course with an A- however, so I don’t have much footing on which to complain. If there are any constructive criticisms on the project when I get it back, I’ll edit them in here. What I do have are the memories, and the first hand knowledge of what an all nighter looks like. For the record, it looks like this:


Before They Are Hanged: Afterthoughts

All right, I’m finally getting around to speaking my mind about this book. Sleep has been had, showers have been taken, the bird has been fed—it’s time to gush. It was really hard writing this review, in part because I have a goldfish memory and I let this one sit too long before writing it, and in part because reviews of books I really enjoy usually turn into fangirlish, detailed summaries, and that doesn’t help anyone. I should have taken more notes as I read, but in my defense, Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie is a bit of a page-turner, and I completely forgot that note taking was an option.

Before They Are HangedI also may have forgotten to eat and shower.

Dear Fantasy Fairy God[father],

I want a story in which the bad characters are sometimes good and the good characters are some times bad. I want it to be action packed and violent, with some tear jerking tender moments too. I want it to be familiar and unique. I want it to build up my expectations and knock them all down again in a way that doesn’t leave me frustrated and confused. I want it to be magical and realistic. I want it to be humorous and dark, intelligent and approachable.  I want it to keep me up at night.


One Desperately Picky Reader

I don’t remember sending that letter, but someone obviously received it. Before They Are Hanged, the second book in The First Law trilogy, is a tremendously entertaining book, filled with paradoxes, twists, amazing characters, and a vivid, tangible world. It is one of the rare cases where the sequel is better than the original, and I would happily read it again, just on its own. In fact, I think I will do that now.

~ another week passes~

To start with, all the things that I wanted from this book, I got: Glokta and Jezal both grow as characters, Ferro is developed more and is given a thicker plot, and there is lots more action for the remaining Northmen of Logen’s former band. I was also delighted with the elevation of Collem West’s character to a more important position in the second book, and quickly grew to like him, despite his failings.

But because it’s way harder to review books that I love especially when, in this case, I love the book for the same reasons that I loved the first one, I’m going to fall back on the good old list:

Things That I Loved

– Dogman, Black Down and Harding Grim. There are specific scenes that I’ll get to below, but to start with, I just love their characters all around.

– The cooperation between Collem West and the above mentioned Northmen. It was too entertaining to sit through. I was squirming and giggling through all the chapters they were in.

–  Glokta’s brief moments of human charity. They kept his character real, and away from the two dimensional sinkhole he could have fallen into, given his profession and constitution. Not that he doesn’t exhibit a delicious amount of nastiness, but his merciful moments are what enrich his character. Specifically the mercy granted to Shickel and Eider, and the general cynical sympathy he feels for the natives of Dagoska. His caring for Ardee near the end of the book is made that much sweeter for these previous acts of niceness.

– Logen’s awkwardness, even when he’s self-assured. Again, he’s given depth by being fallible in ways that even he can’t predict:

Impressive, no doubt, but Logen was nobody’s fool when it came to a spot of sneaking. He’d been known for it, when he was younger. Lost count of the number of Shanka, the number of men he’d come up behind. The first you’ll hear of the Bloody-Nine is the blood hissing out of your neck, that used to be the rumor. Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say that he’s stealthy.

He flowed up to the first wall, slid one leg over it, silent as a mouse. He lifted himself up, smooth as butter, keeping quiet, keeping low. His back foot caught on a set of loose stones, dragged them scraping with him. He grabbed at them, fumbled them, knocked over more with his elbow and they clattered down loud around him. He stumbled onto his weak ankle, twisted it, squawked with pain, fell over and rolled through a patch of thistles.

So perfectly imperfect.

– Glokta and Vitari’s shaky alliance. I think really any time Glokta interacts with a woman it’s amusing.

– Nicomo Cosca, because he shouldn’t have been as likable as he actually was, damnit. Also because I think he must be a little bit insane.

– That Logen genuinely tries to be a point of cohesion in the group, despite him being one of the least likely people to adopt such a position. His relationships with both Ferro and Jezal made me enjoy their narratives that much more.

– Glokta’s murder myster(ies). Watching him put the pieces together was great, but the so-expected-as-to-be-unexpected result was that much better.

– That Ladisla got what was coming to him in spades. Oh, that was beautiful in so many ways.

– Glokta’s violent determination to do the job he was assigned, not because he wants to, or expects reward, or even expects to live to see the end of it, but because he hates everybody, and opposing the people he has the power to oppose might be the only thing that makes him happy in the book. His throwing the ambassador’s head on the table made me happy as well.

– The mace that Jezal took to the face. Turns out that will humble a man, and it was exactly the sort of development I was hoping for him. I may have secretly clapped.

– The battles. Abercrombie has a great talent for describing battles in a way that put the reader right there, whether they want to be or not. Both the war in the North, and the siege in Dagoska, as well as the smaller fights that Logen, Ferro and Jezal play a part in are made real with great, dynamic action and description.

– That with every scene he’s in, Bayaz starts looking less and less moral, which is saying something, considering he didn’t have a whole bunch of morality to start with.

– When West pushes Ladisla over the cliff. I agree with Black Dow. I’m beginning to like you, West!

– Black Dow barking at West. And Shivers. Just any time Black Dow talks, really.

– The world building with Kanedias, Juvens and Glustrod. Rich history and myth bring a fantasy world to life.

– Logen and Ferro’s developing relationship and the best, most awkward sex scene I’ve ever read. I kept my fingers crossed for them to be together at the end, even though the story makes it painfully obvious that this isn’t the case.

– Dogman and Cathil and the tear inducing way their relationship ended. Damnit, Abercrombie! Stop making me cry!

– Shivers, and at this point I might as well just admit that I loved all the characters and just stop listing names. Specifically, I kept expecting it to all go south where Shivers was concerned, and was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t.

– Threetrees vs. The Feared.  ,¬¬,

– The fact that the quest, arguably the main plotline of the book, was absolutely fruitless. Bayaz’s subsequent temper tantrum was amazing.

– Harding Grim’s eulogy to Threetrees. Goddamn, I need a new box of tissues!

Things I Didn’t Love So Much

– Bulging eyes. Everywhere. Eyes bulging. To be fair, this isn’t so much of an “I didn’t like this” as an occurrence so frequent it became amusing.

– I never bought that West has a temper. A repressed violent streak, maybe, but Cathil says specifically that she can’t be with him because he’s too angry. I feel that if West truly had the temper that the books try to give him, he would have killed Ladisla far sooner than he did. If you ask me, he has woman issues, not anger issues.

– Bayaz, Logen and company tend to fall into a bit of a pattern of fight, rest, back-story. Again, it’s not that it ruined the story, but it did become noticeable, and then predictable. That said, the back-story had to be given somewhere, and where it was placed wasn’t unreasonable. I guess my complaint is that the regularity of it made me see some of the puppet strings, which reminds me that I’m reading a story.

– Zacharus and Cawneil. Of all the characters in the book, I felt they were the most superfluous. They really only exist to give Bayaz back-story which, again, was needed, but I was disappointed that their characters only amounted to that. At least Yulwei was a little more useful to the present story.

There’s not much more I can say. Before They Are Hanged is a sequel that lives up to its original, which is a hard thing for a sequel to do. I loved it for all the same reasons that I loved The Blade Itself and more, because it surpasses the first book. I had moments of squealing delight, misty-eyed sorrow and nail biting apprehension, and any book that can make me feel what the characters are feeling has definitely done its job.

Review for the third book, Last Argument of Kings forthcoming.

The Blade Itself: Afterthoughts

It would be my luck that the first book I read this year would be over five hundred pages long. Granted, when your preferred genre is fantasy, books under three hundred pages can sometimes seem a luxury. The Blade Itself however, makes it so pages become irrelevant; the only thing that matters is the story, and after zipping through it in three days (thank you vacation) I found myself wondering if it weren’t a couple hundred pages too short, sequels notwithstanding.

The Blade Itself is a sometimes bloody, sometimes dark, sometimes funny story that dances along the edge of established fantasy tropes without ever setting foot in them long enough to become boring. It has a full cast of characters, running through their own converging plot arcs, which, impressively, each have a unique voice in narration. The characters are multi-layered and not confined to the skin of the fantasy mold they come from. There is real growth in most of them throughout the book, making them feel real and connectable. And while the frequent name-dropping of countries and territories hints at a vast world, Abercrombie doesn’t bog the reader down with needless details of geography and history. Really, the only place he spends considerable time world building is Adua—fitting as this is where most of the story centers.

In short this is a really, really good book.

the blade itselfwith a pretty cover too

First, a little bit about the mechanics. I already mentioned that each character arc has its own narrative voice. This technique didn’t sell me right away; the first two chapters had me grinding my teeth over the choppy prose and a supposed authorial disagreement with the word ‘and’. The voice changes drastically when the point of view shifts, however, and the light bulb turned on that this was intentional on the part of Abercrombie. I like when writers do strange things with a purpose in mind. Not only does it make me feel comfortable in the story, it hints to me that what I’m reading is going to be interesting.

Having the prose and voice change with each character added to the separate feeling of each arc, and dropped little crumbs of detail for each of the cast that would have been to clunky to add in exposition.

On that note, back story and exposition are minimal in The Blade Itself. The characters all clearly have off screen histories that are known well enough to the author to be dropped in casually throughout the story, but are never gone into in detail. I know this method of storytelling isn’t for everyone, but I absolutely love it. I don’t need to know every little detail of a character’s past, but I want to get the feeling that they have a past. It makes them more real.

Additionally, Abercrombie uses repetition very effectively. It keeps the characters consistent in their habits while at the same time allowing them personal growth. It also injects humor into otherwise dark or tense scenes, and ties up chapters, sections and even the whole book in a neat, satisfactory way.

Finally, the subtle humor is a noteworthy element of the book. Abercrombie doesn’t shy away from darker themes; there’s plenty of graphic blood and gore, swearing, domestic abuse, torture and mutilation. None of the characters are clean and everyone’s got blood on their hands in one way or another. Yet the story doesn’t take itself as seriously as a work by Goodkind or G.R.R. Martin. You can almost catch a whiff of parody in between the lines. Almost.

Let’s jump into the summaries now. Those who are spoiler shy should look away. Look away!

The plot definitely takes a bow to the characters in this book.  Each character arc is its own tributary, curving and winding along, combining at their own pace into the larger river of what I’m going to on faith call the plot of the second book. Some have yet to merge, and I’m OK with that.

The thin plot is as follows: The Union, a kingdom sandwiched somewhere in the middle of the world map and sitting fat and comfy on success and prosperity is about to have its world shaken. The North has invaded, led by the barbarian king Bethod, and the southern Gurkish Empire is making its own similar preparations. I’m pretty sure this could be the dictionary definition of ‘oh shit’. In one way or another, these two events push and pull the characters in the story. The plot, therefore, is somewhat loosely connected.

The book opens with Logen Ninefingers, hulking, brute of a barbarian with a reputation that precedes him by miles and one hell of a berserk button—running for his life, barefoot through the forest, chased by foul, unnatural creatures, and leaving his men behind. Logen spends his time in the book occupying one or more states of tired, scared, thoughtful or pragmatic. He curses when he fights and reminds himself he’s alive when it’s all over and in fact, if no one in the book ever mentioned he was a barbarian, as a reader you wouldn’t peg him as one.

Convinced his men are dead and with no king, country or clan to be loyal to, he travels south to find a magi he’s told is looking for him. This magi—Bayaz, the first of the magi, and by all accounts the most powerful—is not what Logen or the reader expects him to be. Squat, fat, balding, dressed more like a butcher than a wizard, he’s crass and short tempered, a liar and a cheat, but at least he gives Logen a direction to go in.

Now, if there’s one problem with the wise old wizard archetype, it’s that they inexplicably withhold crucial information from the characters that need it the most. From a writer’s perspective this is necessary; there wouldn’t be much of a story if all the characters know exactly where to go and what to do when they get there. As a reader though, it’s a head-scratcher. Don’t the wizards want their mission to succeed? Why wouldn’t they make sure that their party is as prepared as they possibly could be? Abercrombie dodges the improbable while remaining minimalistic with five delicious little words:

“I don’t want to know.”

“All my life I’ve sought to know things. What’s on the other side of the mountains? What are my enemies thinking? What weapons will they use against me? What friends can I trust? … Knowledge may be the root of power, but each new thing I’ve learned has left me worse off. … Whatever it is you want from me I will try to do, but I don’t want to know until it’s time. I’m sick of making my own decisions. They’re never the right ones. Ignorance is the sweetest medicine, my father used to say. I don’t want to know.”

And just like that Bayaz—and Abercrombie—keeps his secrets, and Logen—and the reader—is left in the dark.

So far we have a philosophical barbarian and a not quite moral wizard, but surely the hideous, bitter and spiteful cripple will occupy the position of antagonistic slimeball throughout the whole story, right? That’s one trope that’s firmly stuck in its rut.

Like many of Abercrombie’s pointedly unlikable characters, Glokta, torturer of the Union’s Inquisition, has some surprisingly doubting, insightful and even tender scenes. He doesn’t torture for the pleasure of it, but because he’s good at it—first hand experience will teach a man a lot. He’s a low man on the Inquisition’s totem pole and he knows he’s being played, and does his best to keep his head above water while at the same time cautiously sniffing around what stinks in his organization. His attitude is a product of his history, and just when you think that his character is stationary, he has a surprising and stunning show of heart. I really do hope that Glokta continues to grow as a character—if he does then he will truly be one of my favorites in fiction.

The final major character arc in the story is that of Jezal Luthar, young man, noble, captain and arrogant asshole. Jezal occupies the lowest position on my list of likeable characters—possibly because he is the one who steps out the least from his character frame. He behaves precisely the way you’d expect a young, pampered nobleman to behave. He has everything he could want: title, money, prestige, admiration, looks, a strict but knowledgeable fencing master determined to get him to win the Contest that will skyrocket him to glory—and yet he’s lazy, unsatisfied and bored with life. The only thing that stirs him at all away from his mold is Ardee West, the sister of his friend and afoul talking, alcoholic commoner. The unconventionally beautiful Ardee ties Jezal up in knots with her wild behavior, her jibes and her flirting.

Unfortunately, his time with Ardee takes up less space in his arc than his training and participation in the Contest. I would have been bored to tears with his story if I didn’t sympathize so strongly with his position. The stress, the expectation, the anticipation, the hard training that doesn’t seem to go anywhere and the insatiable urge to give up are all elements of fencing tournaments that I’m well familiar with. Which is to say nothing about the strength and morale that’s bled out every time an opponent scores a point. Sharing in Jezal’s grief, I think, was the only thing keeping me from skipping the chapters he was in.

He does start to lean toward a change in character near the end of the book, but quickly snaps back to arrogant petulance when his plans for certain death on his terms are dashed when Bayaz recruits him against his will to join the as yet mysterious adventure the wizard has planned. I’m hoping he gets a little more character development in the second book.

There are really only two minor character arcs that I want to talk about: the remaining barbarians in Logen’s band, and Ferro.

The barbarians, first off, are just as entertaining as Logen, if not more. They share the same narrative voice, which breathes so much more life and realism into the writing than if the entire story was told with consistent prose. The barbarians are all Named Men like Logen (I love that concept, by the way—Named Men): Dogman, Threetrees, Black Dow, Tul Duru (Thunderhead), Grim and Forley the Weakest.

Figuring their leader is dead, they are introduced bickering amongst each other over what to do next; they can’t (and won’t) have anything to do with Bethod who has exiled them, and since they’ve got no place to return to in the North, south seems like the best option. Along the way they get the opportunity to show off their fighting and practical skills to the reader, though they truly make me feel all the feels (and I do mean ALL of them) when they come to the conclusion that Bethod needs to be warned about the monstrous Shanka overrunning the North lands. What happens next has forever endeared me to all five of them. I can’t even decide which of them I like the best, they’re all so great.

The other secondary character arc is that of Ferro. She is the only other woman in the story after Ardee, and while I think I liked Ardee a little more, there’s a part of me that really appreciates Ferro’s well, feral nature. She isn’t a shoot first and ask questions later sort of character. She’s a shoot first and piss on the corpse sort of character. Questions are never a part of the equation, which is perfectly justified given the bits of her history that the reader is allowed to know. The book hints at her being something of a key to the plot of the series, and I really hope that her character is more than just that. Woman-as-the-magical-key is a trope I find utterly repulsive in fantasy. At least she isn’t a delicate damsel in distress/virgin sort of key. Those are the worst.

Now that I’ve gushed praises for this book, and you’ve all run to go buy a copy for yourselves, I’ll sneak in here that it isn’t without its faults. The frequent use of interjections causes the prose to stumble in some places, as do some of the more bizarre dialogue tags. As well, the book is more of a set up to a plot, than its own, fully contained plot. If you’re looking for a book that breaks conventional fantasy, this isn’t it either. As far as I’m concerned, however, the things that the book does well (characterization, voice, and genre bending) far out-weigh the things it fumbled, and I found myself able to overlook little things that have in other books been unforgivable sins.

I’ve already started reading the second book in the series, Before They Are Hanged, so look forward to my thoughts on that one as well before too long.

The Unicorn Sonata: Afterthoughts

I probably shouldn’t be writing this review at midnight when I have to be up for work at seven in the morning, on yet another seven day work week and with a mysterious cold/flu miasma drifting through the house, but what the hell, YOLO, amirite?

Peter Beagle’s The Unicorn Sonata was a light, quick read – much appreciated after pounding through Leviathan last week. It’s a charming story, thought provoking and with a great deal of imagination and lasting imagery – it’s just out of my age range, sadly. However, despite being fifteen years too old for this book, I still found it enjoyable and I can’t help but feeling that’s part of its message. In any case, it made me think some things and feel some feels, which is what hooks me to a book in the end.

the unicorn sonataI’m much too old to like this book… but I do anyway.

…also, spoilers.

The book tells the story of Joey (Josephine) a typical young teen, with all the feelings of displacement and dissatisfaction that come with being her age. She has an affinity for music, and spends her free time in the music shop of a Greek man by the name of John Papas. On one such day, a strange boy enters the store and offers to sell John Papas a horn that plays the most beautiful, mysterious music – for all the gold Papas can give him.

In the end, the boy refuses the deal and disappears again. Joey, however, is haunted by the music, and one night it leads her from her bed, down into the street and straight into a magical ‘other world’ called Shei’rah. There she meets and befriends all manner of magical creatures including mermaids, satyrs and unicorns – the latter of which have become mysteriously blind. To unravel the mystery, Joey must come to understand the meaning of home and family and sacrifice.

If the book has one failing, it’s the ending. The blindness of the unicorns is treated as if from an outside agent, seperate from the realm and scope of the unicorns themselves. As a result, the sudden afterthought in the last chapter of ‘the unicorns went blind because one unicorn really didn’t want to be a unicorn, but couldn’t physically sell his horn for selfish reasons, so the universe created a very, very specific reason for him to need a lot of gold to cure them’ made me do a mental double take. I wish the book had gone into more detail about the affliction, or about the powers of the unicorns, because other than the ending that my suspension of disbelief couldn’t surmount, I really did enjoy the story.

It’s the kind of book I would have loved in my middle school years. That got me to thinking though: how many of the books I read and enjoyed in my youth would not hold up now? If I read them again, would I be able to conjure the same feelings of warmth, imagination and excitement that I did then? Do the books that I do reread and still love continue to evoke that affection from memory alone? There are a handful of books for me that can be read and read and read some more and never seem to lose that glow. There are books that I read in my youth that I know for certain I enjoyed only because they resonated with events in my life at the time. If I were to read them again now, a changed person dealing with new struggles, discoveries and advances, would I find them as captivating as I once did?

To branch from that thought, there was one passage in the book that spoke to me especially. When Joey is learning to write the music of Shei’rah and feels she is getting the hang of it, she says as much to John Papas and he has this to say in reply:

“Nah, it’s never right Josephine Angelina Rivera. This world, that world, doesn’t matter. You never make people to see what you see, hear, feel what you feel. Notes don’t do it, words don’t do it, paints, bronze, marble, nothing. All you can do, you maybe get it a little close, a little closer. But right, like you’re talking? No. No.”

It gets to the heart of something I’ve been thinking about for a little while now. As an artist – any kind of artist – there’s a world in your head and heart which maybe you can see clearly and maybe you can’t, but it’s there, and the hardest part about having it there and wanting to share it -especially in the beginning- is getting it out with the same clarity, the same rightness with which you see it in your mind.

And sometimes there are holes in the completeness of the world, and your brain can skip over them easily enough in private, but when you want someone else to see what you see, they don’t understand the holes and it’s frustrating. It’s the most frustrating thing about trying to produce art, in my opinion. The hours spent writing and rewriting, drawing and erasing, painting and restarting never produce the result that feels right. The only comfort is that with every attempt, it gets a little bit closer to right.

And those are my final thoughts on The Unicorn Sonata. It’s a pleasant, fanciful read, with a little something for children and adults both.

The next book on my reading list is Shadowdance by Robin Wayne Bailey.

PSA: Put the ‘Self’ Back in Self Promotion

Dear Desperate Author;

I’ve seen your book. I’ve seen the cover splashed across the writers’ forums I participate in. I’ve seen the links you post on Twitter and I’ve skimmed the glowing reviews you’ve plucked from Amazon and Goodreads. I’d like to let you know that I know it exists. And I don’t care.

Ouch. That’s cold. After all, I’m a writer. Aren’t I in the same pool, thrashing around, desperate to get my work noticed? Yes, I am, and that’s part of the problem. There are thousands of us in here, amateur and seasoned professional both, eager to get a slice of readership from people whose free time is steadily shrinking.

Writing doesn’t pay my bills. It would be nice if it could, but I have a day job, and a house to keep, and a body to maintain. My free time is limited, and stretched between working on my own craft, reading to expand my horizons and those blessedly necessary moments when I turn off my brain and stare at the wall. I have to choose my reading material carefully—I just don’t have time to read everything that comes out. Sad, but true.

I’m sure your book is special, that it’s a knock out, and will change my life, but you’re not showing me that. You’re showing me a cover, and telling me it’s totally not going to waste my time. For reals. You’re posting reviews that, honestly, I don’t read. I read reviews after I’ve read a book, to see how many people shared my opinion of it. Reviews have never shaped my opinion on whether or not to buy a book.

Here’s where I turn my rant upside down: I’m not telling you not to promote your book. You’ve got to, or it’ll gather dust in obscurity, especially as a self published author. But like anything else, you have to put thought and effort into it. It’s not enough to carpet bomb the internet with “I HAVE A BOOK”. So what? Lots of people have written books. What makes yours so special? Better to start with “I have an idea” or “I am a person” and try to sell that.

And on that note, being a human billboard doesn’t work for me. Maybe it works for other people, but I can’t stand it. I hate advertisements. I do my best to ignore them out of spite. If you want ads, buy ad space. Social media is just that: social. Engage with people. Have them get to know you. Let them hear your voice and see into your mind. Introduce them to your thoughts, your education, and your imagination.

So you have a book –who cares? Do you have a soul?

When you ask someone to read your book, you’re asking them to take several hours out of their lives to devote to you—to put their time and faith in your ideas. If it truly is worth it, please take the time to show us why you deserve it.