Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

April 8, 2014

Conflux Writers Day and Aurealis Awards

Canberra turned on a typically miserable autumn day last Saturday for the gala social event of the Australian speculative fiction writing calendar, the 2013 Aurealis Awards. Ignoring the constant, unrealised threat of rain from an oppressive overhead blanket of grey, the tribe gathered to honour the year’s best and fairest in the fantasy, science fiction and horror realms.

But before all that, the Conflux organising committee, spearheaded by the implacable Nicole Murphy, assembled an army of inspirational speakers to present the Conflux Writers Day. The CWD was a one-day mini-convention aimed squarely at writers, with short, sharp sessions on everything from genre to craft, marketing to research, social media to scriptwriting to editing and… Well, with three parallel presentation streams for most of the day, it was impossible to get to everything I wanted to see. One thing we all had in common were the four plenary sessions that bookended the day.

Jo Anderton was first, talking about how she turns simple ideas into fantastic worlds and uses those to find characters and stories. I’m a huge fan of her stories in “The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories”, so hearing the specific ideas that inspired several of those stories was terrific. Kaaron Warren was up next, giving the assembled masses a much-needed (in my case at least) kick up the arse about writing when there’s no time to write. “You can’t always change the way you live your life,” she noted, “so change the way you write.” To prove her point that writing can be done in the margins of free time, she made the audience do an exercise – from the index page of a collection of legal cases, we were to select one and write something inspired by the name for two minutes. I don’t know if the exercise worked for anyone else there, but from those two minutes I have the core idea for what should be an amusing little short story.

The first of the afternoon speakers was Ian McHugh, talking about the accumulation of rejection letters as a way of keeping score on your short story writing. “Embrace insanity,” as he put it. “[Submitting short stories] is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.” It’s a sentiment I’ve heard Ian and others endorse before, and it certainly helped me to persist with my weird Twitter(-ish) story. I submitted that one 12 times before it finally found a publisher who wanted it.[1] Ian reckons an acceptance rate of about one submission in ten is typical – your mileage may vary – so he recommends having at least ten stories out for consideration at any time. I’ve personally got a fair way to go to build up my stockpile!

The final speaker was Keri Arthur, on the trials and tribulations of being a New York Times best-selling author. Keri’s talk was primarily about contract negotiations with her publishers, which seems were at times fraught with poor communications if not outright intransigence. Wrangling over advances is a problem a lot of authors might like to have, but it certainly didn’t sound like much of a party. The big take-home message from Keri’s talk was to keep writing. Keri’s written something like thirty books in the last fifteen years, which is…pretty disciplined of her, I would say.

In between the plenary sessions I crammed as much writerly goodness as I could: catching up with out-of-town friends, making a couple of new acquaintances and of course sitting in on the lightning-quick presentations. The standard of presentations was very high – I could have spent easily twice as long with each speaker picking their brains. My personal highlights were probably Cat Sparks’ talk on the alternate history genre and Alan Baxter’s amusing admonitions concerning writers’ use and misuse of social media.

And then it was home for a quick change into something a little smarter for the day’s main event, the Aurealis Awards ceremony. The Aurealis is one of two major annual awards in the Australian speculative fiction filed (the other being the Ditmar Awards, which will be presented at Melbourne’s Continuum convention in June). While the Ditmars are voted on by eligible members of the spec fic community (basically anyone with membership at the current or previous year’s national convention), the Aurealis Awards are judged by panels. Extraordinarily hard-working ones, at that – in the space of a couple of months they read dozens of novels and sometimes more than a hundred short stories to put together their short-lists. I get tired even thinking about the workload.

The evening was MC’d by spec fiction luminaries Sean Williams and Simon Brown. Their hilarious riffs on the Aurealis Awards of what appears to be an extremely exciting future were sadly probably not recorded for posterity. Sorry you missed their routine, it was bloody great.

The Fildenstar (aka Kate Rowe and Ryan Morrison), whose weird speculative lyrics are married up to some beautiful Kate Bush-y/Tori Amos-ish soundscapes, provided several musical interludes. I was mildly disappointed that they didn’t stay onstage for the whole ceremony. I wanted to see them play someone offstage for having too long an acceptance speech. Nobody did, though, so I suppose the point is moot.

And the awards ceremony was – well, it was an awards ceremony. Not as self-congratulatory as the Oscars, not as unnecessarily glam as the Golden Globes and not anywhere near as unremitting awful as the Logies. Presenters read out lists of names and synopses of stories, then awkwardly tore open envelopes and announced winners. There were ties in at least three categories that I remember. The winners are all listed here.

In terms of winners, I was very pleased to see Joanne Anderton have a win in the Best Collection category for “The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories”, which I liked. And my pal Kaaron Warren won for a science fiction short story I’d not heard of from a collection I’ve still not laid my hands on, The Lowest Heaven. All of the winners are listed on the Aurealis Awards homepage.

My only mild disappointment was that I didn’t get to collect a trophy for my pal Andrea Höst for her self-published YA novel “Hunting” (which I thought was jolly good). If I recall correctly that was Andrea’s third shortlist nomination for an Aurealis. It’s only a matter of time until she picks up a gong, I feel sure. Interestingly, this year the winner of the Best Fantasy Novel was also for a self-published book, Mitchell Hogan’s “A Crucible of Souls”. He looked pretty pleased and surprised.

All in all it was a lovely day (and that’s not even mentioning the informal Friday night burritos-and-beer meetup). Cat Sparks has posted up a photo gallery of shots from both the Writers Day and the awards ceremony. Check out the cool mural from the Australian National University’s Great Hall in the first few photos. I suggest you linger on those early picture so that your eye doesn’t stray down the page to where it might accidentally see me. You’ve been warned.

 

[1] I’ll post details on that one when I can. I don’t expect it to be for a while yet.

March 17, 2014

Review – Champion of the Rose by Andrea K Höst – AWWC14

This is my second review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014. The novel this week is Andrea Höst’s Champion of the Rose, a political-mystery-romance set in a high fantasy realm with great mages, ancient magical constructs and some very daunting Fae. Like all of Höst’s novels, it is self-published (with a very beautiful Julie Dillon cover).

You almost feel sorry for Soren Armitage, the mystically chosen personal Champion of the monarch of a kingdom that has been a Regency for a couple of hundred years. Not being naturally inclined to the court, she’s happy enough with the complete lack of prestige or responsibility that comes with a position that nobody takes seriously. Which is when, of course, a magical rose blooms to let everyone know that the King has unexpectedly returned.

The shape of Champion of the Rose is a little hard to pin down. The first third or so is a hunt for a King whom nobody’s seen and who shouldn’t exist. Then the focus shifts to Soren’s navigation of courtly politics flavoured with espionage, betrayal and attempted assassin, all while she attempts to unravel ancient magical secrets and negotiate impossible personal relationships. Finally the last bit is more of the previous, only with the stakes turned up to eleven by the unanticipated presence of a Fae embassy.

Soren Armitage is one of those reluctant heroines who goes from comfortable to out-of-her-depth in a matter of a few paragraphs. With no great martial or magical skills, she holds her own only with a slightly disoriented pragmatism and a tenacity reinforced by a series of confounding magical revelations. While she is far more resourceful and brave than she’s given credit for, I found myself far more interested in several of the supporting cast. In particular Aristide Couerveur, the son of the Regent (and a character with as Höstian a name as the author has ever conjured) is fun. He is the tremendously powerful mage whose ascent to the Regency is arrested by the King’s return – the author successfully teases his inscrutable motives for quite some time before he shows his true colours. Despite the dour self-control that dominates his personality, I found Aristide one of the highlights of the story.

Champion of the Rose is an engaging fantasy political thriller (in part), a tormented romance (in some ways) and a complicated magical murder mystery where the dead bodies are in all the wrong places. I found it an enjoyable read with a satisfying resolution. I would just caution readers that the geopolitical history of the setting set out early in the novel is pretty important. Maybe don’t skim over those bits quite as casually as I did, or you’ll find yourself having to check back when it all comes together in the later chapters.

 

May 21, 2013

AWWC 2013 Review – Hunting by Andrea K. Höst

This is my third review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013. I thought I was doing a little better than that, but then I remembered that I’ve been reading short stories almost exclusively for the last couple of months. So I’ve got a little bit of catching up to do.

Hunting is a standalone young adult fantasy novel by Andrea K. Höst [1]. Ash Lenthard is the street-smart young heroine  who has disguised herself as a (slightly younger) boy and apprenticed herself to a herbalist in order to escape from an unfortunate previous life. When her guardian is murdered, she finds her desire to return to life on the streets thwarted when she is warded to the Investigator appointed by the king to look into the serial killing of herbalists. With no choice but to maintain her identity as a young boy, Ash finds herself cornered into becoming a seruilis (squire) to the foreign noble and a key part of his murder investigation.

A summary of the first couple of chapters makes Hunting sound like a bit of a fantasy version of a grim investigative procedural, and to an extent it is. The more that Ash and the nobleman, Thornaster, poke around, the more vicious and bleak the conspiracy they uncover becomes. Beneath the witty banter, romantic interplay and the flirtation with cross-dressing farce, the world of Hunting has a more nihilistic streak than most of Host’s work. But she does an excellent job of keeping the action moving so that the story never threatens to wallow in its own darkness.

The author has mentioned that Hunting was written at least partly in response to her frustration with the heroines of Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels, who despite their deep reserves of pluck and spirit often fall just short of being proactive. Some guy always comes along to make all their decisions for them.  Ash is every bit as strong-willed as any Heyer heroine, but she’s only likely to go along with a would-be white knight if it happens to suit her purposes. She’s a fun character, even if she herself is not often having much fun.

I have to confess that I didn’t fully understand the magical elements of the story, which are integral to the plot’s resolution, but it certainly didn’t keep me from enjoying them. Apart from that, it’s an adventurous romp with plenty of derring-do, peril and romance, flavoured with the odd splashes of darkness to settle the froth.

 

[1] I have previously reviewed her novels And All the Stars,  Stained Glass Monsters and The Silence of Medair.

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