Sunday, 24 January 2016

Hello, Tyler!

Okay, the ARCs (advanced reader copies) of SHADOW MAGIC are doing the rounds. That's all great (it fact, it's AWESOME) and there are reviewers, bloggers and librarians who've not got it sitting somewhere on their TBR piles.

As you saw from my last post (yes, just look back a bit) SHADOW MAGIC scored a big fat STAR from the SLJ.

Now I've had my first from a kid, y'know, the sort of person the book's actuallyu aimed at. And what's more, Tyler's kindly written ma a letter.

Here it is.

Dear Joshua Khan,

My name is Tyler Zenz and I am a 6th grade student of Westwood Middle School. I am writing because I just read Shadow Magic. My teacher went to the National Council of Teachers of English Convention and received lots of ARC books. I chose Shadow Magic out of all of them because it had a cool cover, with a bat, and it sounded like my type of book. I read your book and wrote a book review. Here is my book review: 

In the book Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan, Thorn, an enslaved boy who ran away from home searching for his dad, meets Lily, a 13 year old girl who's parents and brother died while coming back from a peace meeting with neighboring lands. Lily, now the only person left in House Shadow, which is one of the six old Great Houses of sorcerers, becomes the ruler of Gehenna and Queen of Castle  
Gloom. When Thorn is found by Tyburn, House Shadow's executioner, and gets brought back to Castle Gloom, he sees Lily again. A sudden surprise sends them on a wild goose chase, and both of them discover clues that could change the way they think about the past.

This book was very entertaining and compelling. The way the author uses imagery, sensory language, and mood, really made me feel like I was standing with the character and feeling what the character feels. Such a distinct voice for each character made it super easy to tell who's talking and how they are feeling. The scattered black and white pictures throughout the book really helped me to visualize what was happening. The surprises were very well placed and there were just enough to keep you reading. Overall, I loved reading this awesome book. 

I really loved the book, as I mentioned in my book review. I really couldn't find anything I didn't like. I was just wondering how you think of ideas to write books? Also, how long do you think you should spend on brainstorming for your book? When you write do you think about errors in capitalization, punctuation, or spelling or do your editors fix that for you? Do the words just come out easily or do do have to think for a while?

Thank you for writing Shadow Magic. I really loved reading it and can't wait for the sequel to come out.

Tyler Zenz

Dear Tyler, a brilliant review (I should get you to write my blurbs) and some top questions. Here are some answers.
1. Book starts with a character. I had an idea of a slave boy and princess joining forces to solve a mystery. Two characters a million miles apart in upbringing, attitude, training and education. A pair who, normally, would never even meet. 
But what sort of princess? What sort of slave boy? Now there are a lot of kick-ass heroines in fiction and I'm a big fan of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, but, I didn't want to do that. I wanted a heroine who was tough, clever, and brave WITHOUT picking up a sword.
As a Brit, we've got Queen Elizabeth the First. So great we named an Age after her. Daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (who he executed) Liz was never meant to be queen. But her brother and sister died, and queen she became. She had enemies at all sides. She had other kings wanting to marry her (and thus have her power) and she ruled an age that was the beginning of the British Empire, and incidently gave us William Shakespeare. She defeated every one of her enemies, and never once lifted a sword or shot and arrow. I wanted my heroine to be like her. That was the start of Lily Shadow.
Then, what sort of boy? He needed to be streetwise (or forest-wise in this case) and be able to stand his own, without being overshadowed by Lily. I wanted him to be stubborn, a fighter, but with a rigid moral code. He knows what's right and what's wrong. he feels in in his guts and he trusts them. If Lily was all brains and education, then Thorn was all instinct.

2. Next, came the world they would inhabit. I wanted to write a HUGE, EPIC fantasy, but one without the usual heroes. Y'know, the knights in shining armour and destinies to be kings. Sure, i hd them, but they were the BAD GUYS (think of Gabriel and the paladins). MY heroes were the necromancers, the ones with the ghosts and the zombies and all the bad press. The ones who in most books are the villains. 

Now, going further along in the fantasy thread, I always wondered why the wizards didn't just take charge over everything. Like Gandalf. Why not just take the ring, summon and eagle and fly over Mount Doom and drop the Ring in? Job done and no faffing around with hobbits and men of Gondor and whatnots.

So, in my fantasy world, the sorcerers are IN CHARGE. Each has his specialty (Air, Water, Fire, Earth, Light and Darkness) and their cultures and magic are very very different from one another's. I hope, if the series continues to expand, we'll get a change to travel to these other kingdoms.

3. But what's it all about, in the end? What's the MEANING behind this story?

In the end, it's about the power of learning. About education, in it's simplest form. Look at the Third World. Millions of kids (especially girls) don''t have the chance to go to school. To learn to read and write. You heard of Malala Yousafzai? She's a Pakistani girl who tried to get education, and was shot for it. She survived and won the Nobel Prize last year. 

She inspired me on Lily's story. Lily's powerless because she's denied her birthright, an education like her brother. In SHADOW MAGIC it's the opportunity to learn magic. To become powerful. In our world, it's education that is the path to power. 

There is an old saying. KNOWLEDGE IS POWER. I believe that. Without education, without knowledge, how can we make life better for ourselves, and those around us? That's Lily's goal. As you know from the book, she LOVES Gehenna, and will do everything she can to protect it, and her people. It makes her a bit blind (she wants to see the best in people) but makes her noble, in the truest sense of the word.

Thorn's journey is the same, it's the quest for knowledge. He learns dark secrets (especially about his father) but instead of that destroying him (NO SPOILERS!!!!) it makes him BETTER. Look at how he treats K'leef. He is loyal, honest and straightforward. He may not know how to read and write, but he's as clever as anyone else in Castle Gloom. 

I could talk LOTS and LOTS about the origins of SHADOW MAGIC, but thought i'd give you some of the answers you've been looking for. Who knows, if the book does well I may even get a chance to come out to the US and maybe meet, face-to-face, and then we can have a proper chat about it all. Oh, and then I can tell you much more about Hades, perhaps my favourite character!

The writing wasn't easy, not at all. The book took about two years to write, but I enjoyed every minute I was at the keyboard. It's been great, GREAT fun exploring Castle Gloom and the big old place still has many, many more mysteries hidden away in its catacombs and tombs. I'me busy working on the sequel, DREAM MAGIC, and that'll take the adventures of Thorn and Lily to another level entirely...

All the best,

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

First review in!

Oh Lord, this is it. The book's gonna be out soon (12th April, peeps!) and review copies are floating around all over the place.

So, after about 5 years (give or take) of writing, binning, rewriting, despairing, binning and rewriting SHADOW MAGIC landed on the desk of someone in the reviews department of the SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL.

And they liked it! Very much! They gave it a STAR!

Which, as you know, is rather what schools are all about.

See for yourself. Bats, they're gonna be big in 2016.

«Khan, Joshua. Shadow Magic. illus. by Ben Hibon. 336p. Disney-Hyperion. Apr. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781484732724.

Gr 4-6–Normally, getting purchased by an executioner wouldn’t be a good thing. For Thorn, however, it’s the beginning of a thrilling adventure. Captured while out looking for his missing father, Thorn is taken by new owner Tybalt to the kingdom where he serves as executioner. Arriving at Castle Gloom in Gehenna, Thorn meets 13-year-old Lady Lily Shadow, the last surviving member of the ruling family of House Shadow, one of six ancient families of sorcerers. The rest of Lily’s family, save for one drunken uncle, have been brutally murdered, and she is a reluctant ruler. Betrothed sight unseen to the son of a rival ruler in the name of peace, Lily is also a reluctant bride-to-be. A sudden death quickly throws Thorn, Lily, and their friend, K’Leef, into a maelstrom of mistaken identities, murder, magic, necromancy, and narrow escapes. Thorn’s skill with animals, evidenced by his relationship with an elderly, gigantic, voraciously hungry bat named Hades, proves invaluable. Working together but never losing sight of their individual objectives, Thorn and Lily uncover surprising truths about their families. The book’s hand-drawn map is a helpful resource. Occasional black-and-white illustrations appear throughout. The bat flip-book feature is a fun surprise. Despite the gloomy setting, this book vibrates with hope.

VERDICT Short chapters filled with action, appealing characters, and cliff-hanger endings make this fantasy the kind of book readers will find hard to put down. Recommended for all middle grade collections.–Sara-Jo Lupo Sites, George F. Johnson Memorial Library, Endicott, NY

Yes, I'm chuffed.

Friday, 18 December 2015

An Invite to visit the Kingdom of Gehenna...

Gehenna will be opening it's doors to all visitors (alive and undead) from April 2016. Just mind the zombies...

Sunday, 6 September 2015

So I have this book coming out next year...

So, there's something rather exciting when you've written a book. Exciting and nerve-wracking.

Is it any good? Will anyone like it, apart form my mum?

Oh why did I give up the day job?

And then you get (out of the blue!) someone like Rick Riordan (actually, not some like him, but actually him!) dropping you an email saying how much he loved it!

Wow. You don't get many moments like that in your life.

So, what's SHADOW MAGIC about?

Plenty, but mainly about an outlaw boy, Thorn, and the darkest princess you'd ever hope to meet this side of the grave. It's a story about when the bad guys are the heroes and the good guys... well, not what you expect.

It'll be out April next year but if you love high, epic fantasy and are a fan of all things gothic and magical, then maybe this might be the book for you.

After all, Rick seems to like it...

Sunday, 21 June 2015

World Building, Part Two -- Going EXTREME

Welcome back! Hope you're having a great weekend. It's Father's Day and I think the kids are downstairs preparing a special lunch, so I'm trapped in the study...

Last week I touched on my inspirations that got be going on writing fantasy. This next post will overlap that, but that's inevitable since when it comes to world-building we're hoping to weave a seamless whole.

Going EXTREME. What does that mean?

It means not sitting on the fence. It means taking your biggest, best ideas and turning them up to 11. In fantasy (and I'll include sci-fi as the image is DUNE after all) you want to explore beyond the boundaries. You're venturing into the unknown, or you'd better be or else you're not offering anything new, are you? The reader wants to stand in awe of the new worlds, peoples and societies you've created. Mediocre has no place in epic.

The Extremes
1. Good and evil. Yeah, we know the world's full of greys. Good people do bad things. Bad people are heroes to some. The world's a twisted, illogical place. In fiction, it all has to have a reason. Randomness can exist, but it's still all part of the plot. There are countless Dark Lords in fantasy. Waaay waay too many to count. How can you add your twist so we're taken by surprise? George Lucas did it in The Empire Strikes Back. Darth Vader was our super-evil dude, then turned out to be the hero's dad. I know it was a long time ago (and in a galaxy far, far away) but it was a true OMG moment in cinema history. I was there (about 13, popcorn in face).

You may say "But what about Game of Thrones? Lots of grey characters in there."
To which I'd reply "Not as many as you think. Joeffrey? Robb Stark? Tyrion? Dany (most days)?"

2. Settings. DUNE is a primary example. A whole desert planet, inhabited by bedouin travellers called the Fremen. LORD OF THE RINGS is another great example. Mordor doesn't have any nice spots, does it? The kingdom is EVIL down to its very soil. How can soil be evil? In can in fantasy. This is taken from the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King, a poisoned king means a poisoned land. It's the ancient belief that the king and the land are one of the same.

EARTHSEA by Ursula le Guin is loved because she has a brilliant setting, a world made up of tiny islands. She breaks the cliche of horse-riding knights by putting everyone in a boat. How would that affect a world?

Then you have individual locations. Castles should be epic. GORMENGHAST is a world within a castle. So is Hogwarts. So too are the motorized cities of Philip Reeve's epic MORTAL ENGINES saga.

3. History. In fantasy it's usually ridiculously long. Far longer than our recorded history. No kingdom is worth its name unless it's tens of thousands of years old. Legendary founders are a must. Dune, obvs, LotR too, GoT also has a highly detailed past, whole reigns are outlines, and you have Valeria, the mythic past (that world's Atlantis).

4. The inhabitants. This is both the cultures and the creatures. Cultures based on a single attribute. The horseclans of the Dothraki. The Fremen. The Bene Geserit. I have to admit DUNE is probably my fav fantasy/sci-fi book even. It's a masterclass in world building that doesn't follow the North European tropes than, I feel, have bound typical fantasy into a parody of Tolkien since, well, since forever.

Creature-wise we're looking at your dragons and elves and dwarves, wizards and whatnots. If this is the path you're going down, TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT!

My own particular hate is the helpful wise wizard. I still don't quite understand why Gandalf isn't just say "Give me the ring, Frodo. I'll just summon one of my eagle friends, we'll glide over Mount Doom and we'll be home before the kettle's boiled."

Right, I hope that's given you something to think about. More next week.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

World Building Part One --Where to begin?

So, we've all got out favourite fantasy or sci-fi epic. Be it Harry Potter, Dune, Game of Thrones or Conan, we love our heroes and we love entering the world they live in.

We love how REAL the author makes their world. It breathes, and the inhabitants live.

Then, the same could apply to ANY work of fiction, right? Historical, detective, romance.  I'm a huge fan of the Bernard Cornwell Sharpe novels, set during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th Century. Sure, there's huge amounts of research gone into it, but Cornwell's tailored it to suit his hero, his view of the world. Sharpe didn't capture the Imperial Eagle, but Cornwall's writing fiction, so breaks reality, breaks history, to make his story work.

But this blog, and the series that will follow, will focus on the FANTASY genre, though the same will apply to pretty much anything.

Okay, you've got in mind a fantasy series. It's going to have dragons and knights and wizards and whatnots. You've got a love of castles so you want those and plenty of swashbuckling. Maybe the idea of an apprentice sorcerer, about to launch into the great and terrible world, maybe a charming swordsman or cunning thief. Perhaps a girl from a noble family harbouring a terrible secret.


Not they need to live somewhere. They need a home.

Inspiration will come from the world we, that's you and me, live in.

That's HARRY POTTER. Boarding school storties were the mainstay of a particular type of children's fiction when J. K. Rowlings was growing up but had become out of fashion until she found a unique spin. They work brilliantly for kids' stories. Our child heroes are stuck together 24-7, they're away from their parents (so no running home to get Mum to sort it out) and these boarding schools are invariably old, mysterious and spooky. It's also terribly romantic, the whole idea of escaping one's parents to live with all your friends, and, unfortunately, your enemies.

See also Rick Riordan's PERCY JACKSON and the recent SCHOOL OF GOOD AND EVIL by Soman Chainani. Both centre around the actions and rivalries within a boarding school, whether or not its Camp Halfblood or the SOGE. For the spy fans amongst you there's Ally Cater's GALLAGHER GIRLS series.

For those of you with more violent tastes, the same trope applies to the ludus, the school for gladiators. Watch the SPARTACUS Season One, where Spartacus gets bought and recruited to the ludus and has to climb up the social ladder amongst the other slave warriors. Here the life and death struggles are very literal.

It's well known THE GAME OF THRONES saga takes its inspiration from the English War of the Roses. The Starks are the Yorkists and the Lannisters are the Lancastrians. GRRM picks and weaves snippets of real history (The Red Wedding was based on a real wedding massacre) and brilliantly combines them into his epic. Khal Drogo, isn't he a bit Ghengis Khan, or Attila the Hun?

The 39 CLUES series, we discover that one family, the Cahills, have been the secret manipulators of world history and that many of the great, good and terrible throughout the ages were all actually members of that family. The series takes real historical events (for example the latest book centres around the Titanic) and puts our heroes, Dan and Amy Cahill, smack bang in the centre of it.

There are a number of great time-travelling series (TIME RIDERS by Alex Scarrow leaps to mind) where the magic/sci-fi of the world-setting and real historical events are designed to overlap.

Perhaps you want to base your hero or heroine on a real-life figure/ That's the path I took. My heroine, Lily Shadow, is totally inspired by Elizabeth 1, the great Tudor queen of the sixteenth Century. Her father executed her mother! Plenty of rich material there, methinks.

The obvious one here is Percy Jackson where Riordan took the simple, but amazing, step to wonder "What if the Greek gods were still around, having kids?".

Ancient myth mixed in with the modern day is a great way forward. Look at Sarwat Chadda's ASH MISTRY series, and also all the recent fairy tale adaptations, such as TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan and AKATA WITCH by Nnedi Okorafor.

Mythology is also where I'd like to talk about the Monster POV. TWILIGHT  (Stephenie Meyer), THE LESTAT CHRONICLES (Anne Rice), THE CHANGELING (Steve Feasey), Holly Black's TITHE, are all brilliant examples of taking a mythological creature (whether its a vampire or werewolf or fairy) and bringing it into play in our world. Once they were the antagonists, now they are our (dark) heroes.

What's brilliant about myth and history is you can go beyond the familiar shores of Western fantasy. There's plenty of rich resource material that's waiting to be explored out of the East (and the native American world to the West) which brings me to...

If we return to the GoT we see the Dothraki are a hybrid of the Mongol Horde and the nomadic Native American tribes. You look at DUNE, by Frank Herbert, and the Fremen are clearly based on the Arabic desert-dwelling bedouins.

If you want to avoid the trope of producing another North European mediaeval fantasy, you could do worse than adapt a society from somewhere different. You've got Aztecs, China, Japan (Japanese samurai cinema certainly inspired STAR WARS!) and so on. The bonus here is there great material already out there to help you, and yet its relatively unfamiliar to most readers. A complete WIN in my book.

I hope that's given you something to thing about. I'll be building up the, er, world building as the weeks go by. Next week we'll be looking at GOING EXTREME...