Series Review – The Silk & Steel Saga

The Steel Queen CoverThe Steel Queen
The Flame Priest
The Skeleton King

by Karen Azinger


This is going to be a very unusual review for me, wherein I will gush praise for a self-published series.

I read these about a month ago, during a brief period of unemployment. There are currently six books in the series, with the final seventh volume due out toward the end of the year.

I found these books while looking for a warrior-woman story. I ended up getting a warrior teenager, but she grows up quickly, so I shall not quibble with that. I absolutely devoured these first three books. I didn’t continue reading only because I like to take books in series three at a time. I plan to start reading the series again in September, and hopefully the last book will be coming out by the time I am ready for it.

At the center of this story is Princess Katherine, who is the only daughter among five brothers who are all warriors. She wants nothing more than to be a warrior as well, but that is forbidden to women in her kingdom. She lives in a castle that is fortified with some sort of long-forgotten magic, and which is home to the Octagon Knights, of which she longs to be a part.

The story begins when she tricks a newly-made knight into promising to train her as a warrior.The Flame Priest

Meanwhile, something evil is wakening. Twenty or thirty years earlier, the Mordant has his executioner kill him so that he may be born again. His rebirth is due, and his kingdom is stirring. A messenger comes south out of his lands with a warning, but the only one who listens to his cryptic message is Kath, and the reader doesn’t find out what it means until book 3.

It’s hard to write about three books without spoiling book one and two. So I’ll speak in general terms.

First–these characters are great. Ms. Azinger can really get behind the eyeballs of her characters and make you feel what they feel. The evil characters seem unstoppable, and the good characters are playing constant catch-up. The deities of the evil characters give them all sorts of advantages, and the good characters seem to be hopelessly left in their dust. Or, in their trail of bloody body parts.

And the plot has some of the most unique elements I’ve read in a long time. Sure, the over-arching plot of the dark lord is familiar, but the execution is fresh. For example, the Mordant is a harlequin, which is a soul that has been reborn over and The Skeleton King Coverover because he has pleased his evil deity with his dark and bloody deeds. And once he is reborn, he has to get back to his old kingdom and prove who he is by passing all these tests that he, himself, devised. In the meantime, other, younger harlequins–and one harlequin wannabe–are trying to out-do each other with their evil-deeds-doing in order to please their deity so they might be reborn again. And as the reader, you don’t know about the secret harlequins, the identities of which, once revealed, are devastating.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints that include two warrior princesses, a bard prince who ventures into an evil theocracy, his native guide from the theocracy, an archer who travels with one princess but falls in love with the other, two Octagon Knights, the queen of a wealthy and powerful nation, her evil son, a candidate harlequin who ventures into the evil theocracy to make it even more evil, and of course, the Mordant, and more.

I loved this series and may not be able to wait to read more.

Updates, Recent Research and Upcoming Series Review

This summer has been pretty active. The action started when I was laid off. The timing was actually pretty good because over the next couple of weeks, I was needed to help with a family illness that came up during the same time. And then we went to a long-planned wedding. I made three trips across Florida in five weeks. When we got back, I received a job offer, which I accepted. I started a week later. Just after that, we had to bundle my daughter off to camp. Which involved a huge amount of shopping and packing. She came back the following week, which meant a round of unpacking and laundry, and the week after that, we made another trip across the state.

This weekend, I’m having a little downtime.

Recent Research

While polishing up East of Yesterday, I had to revamp a scene where a group of young men must sneak into a camp and retrieve some stolen items. One of them needed to cover for the noise they were making, so I decided to have him sing a song. Since he’s from the Revolutionary War era, he sings an almost-forgotten song from that era. Here’s the opening verses:

THAT seat of science, Athens,
And earth’s proud mistress, Rome;
Where now are all their glories?
We scarce can find a tomb.
Then guard your rights, Americans,
Nor stoop to lawless sway;
Oppose, oppose, oppose,
oppose, For North America.

We led fair Freedom hither,
And lo, the desert smiled!
A paradise of pleasure
Was opened in the wild!
Your harvest, bold Americans,
No power shall snatch away!
Huzza, huzza, huzza, huzza,
For free America.

You can find the full song at Bartleby.

Upcoming Review

I recently read the first three books in an excellent epic fantasy (and warrior woman!) series, and I’ve written a series review.

Any reviews I post here are for books I’ve purchased and enjoyed. I generally don’t post negative reviews because I don’t usually finish books that I’m not enjoying. Sometimes, people still contact me for book reviews, but I have not requested any material from anyone since I closed down Debuts & Reviews. Katie and I briefly discussed reviewing again, but I ultimately had to bow out, because if I were to make this a review blog again, something else in my life would have to go.

I have the series review scheduled to post on Monday.

Plotting a New Novel

June has been crazy, with a series of ups and downs, along with a lot of changes. This week, I started a new job. Things are starting to settle down now, hence this blog post.

Normally, I don’t plot much, and when I did, I often didn’t follow the plot.  Until recently, I have been a panster. But the plot for East of Yesterday remained mostly intact, so I’m trying it again for the sequel. I started out with index cards, but when I realized I could do the exact same thing more effectively with Visio, I transferred the cards to Visio processes (using the Flowchart template), created some swimlanes for the POV characters, and took off.

SOYThreads

South of Yesterday is just a working title, but it works pretty well, because for the most part, the plot takes place even further in the past. Areas that are blocked together will probably end up in the same chapter. This is helping me estimate how long the book might be. I had all these characters converge in a major confrontation in what will probably be the early second half of the novel. I don’t know, however. It is hard to get a feel for the length.

In the past, whenever I outlined, it the act of outlining would sap some of my enthusiasm for the story. The reason for that, I think, was those outlines were too detailed. With this approach, I can only fit about fifteen characters in each of those boxes. This helps keep my outlines in the ideal state of sketchiness. I can’t wait to write these scenes, and that’s how it should be.

I’m finding it difficult to plot much further than that confrontation. I know what the villain is doing, and some of the shades-of-gray characters, but not everyone else. There is a doosey of a betrayal, and an even better rescue involving forgiveness and transformation on the part of both the rescuer and the rescuee. The plots for some of these characters may come to an end, with formerly-secondary characters jumping into starring roles.

This month of change has been good for this plotting process. Because I have been so busy with all this newness and all my obligations, I am forced to just let it sit. I occasionally open it up and add boxes when I have a flash of insight, as I did with my betrayal and subsequent rescue/forgiveness/transformation. But for the most part, it’s just percolating. Which is just what I think it needs.

On to the Next Project

From LOC: Highway intersection near Belle Glade, Florida. Negro bean pickers hitchhiking

Click to enlarge. From LOC: Highway intersection near Belle Glade, Florida. Negro bean pickers hitchhiking. URL: http://www.loc.gov/item/fsa1997008184/PP/#about-this-item

So I officially finished East of Yesterday. I made a few changes around this website to reflect that fact, including the front page and the East of Yesterday page, under Fiction. I removed the Petroleum Sunset pages for now, because I don’t have the time to finish those stories at present, and I never really considered them “launched”. When I do launch them, I will probably re-issue them under another name that I decided to write under for East of Yesterday. They are more closely related to East of Yesterday than my fairy tales.

I started plotting the second book in the series. I think there will only be two books unless I start weaving other characters into the story in order to continue their stories in later books. I have not decided yet.

In the last few weeks, I have also been going through my other in-progress novel, Magic by Starlight. I only have a few more chapters to re-read, and then I will have two completed, marketable novels on my hands. I will probably continue to write under Tia Nevitt for that series, since it is so different from East of Yesterday, but not so different from my fairy tales. The problem would be juggling the two series. I would need to be able to write full-time in order to write two series.

How many novels have I written altogether? I consider my first three to be trunk novels. The third book, I think, had potential, but my writing was just not quite there yet, and I had not yet grasped the concept of driving the plot forward with every scene. I sometimes think of doing something with it, but then I always have other ideas.

For now, I am committed to these two stories. And right now, my next writing immediate goal is to come out with a high-level/low detail plot outline for the second story in the time travel series.

Ready to Query East of Yesterday. Almost.

I started a blog post called “Ready to Synopsize East of Yesterday” but I never finished the post and now I am finished with both the synopsis and the query.

Part of the reason I made so many changes to the story in the last few months is that it proved impossible to synopsize. I have learned that the process of writing a synopsis will make evident every point in your story that sucks. Because you will find it impossible to write that part of the synopsis.

So I did some rewriting.

I generally enjoy writing synopses. I wrote a blog post and an infographic on the subject some time ago. Still, it took me two weeks to get a two-page synopsis that worked. I ended up writing three versions–one that was too detailed but had lots of voice, one that was concise but lacked voice, and a combination of the above. When I finished that, I went back to the query, but I only made a few tweaks to it because I liked it already. So I am ready. Now I need to come up with a querying strategy.

There are several agents who have read my full manuscripts in the past, and who might like this book, even though it is significantly different from anything else I have written. So they are my top choices. But the question is, do I query them first? The reason I ask this, is after one round of querying, I inevitably think of better ways to query/synopsize, and I revise everything and end up with a better query and synopsis.

On the other hand, one hears all the time that one should not put all one’s eggs in one’s basket. Plus, I think the query is damned good as it is. Any improvement I make, at this point, probably won’t be groundbreaking. Besides, none of the so-called improved queries and synopses ever ended up in a sale.

It has been a very long time since I have sent out a query. I have not queried anyone since before I sold The Sevenfold Spell. I really want an agent for this book, so I’ve been going through the old tools I used to use. AAR, AgentQuery and Publisher’s Marketplace still appear prominently in my Google query. AgentQuery used to be my preferred agent search tool, but the data is looking a bit stale, and I don’t see a good way to check how old each entry is. I

Then I thought of QueryTracker–I remember when the guy first launched it because he emailed me. It has a slew of awards, so I created a account (a new one–the old one seems to have been purged). I just spent the last three hours going through 125 agents who accept science fiction, looking for agents who also accept Historical, and giving each of them a closer look. There’s no category for time travel, so science fiction/historical is the next best thing. I whittled it down to 27 agents.

I found quite a few agents who appear to accept all genres, and QueryTracker’s reports tool was especially helpful here. If said agent have not actually requested any fulls or partials for SF or Historical submissions, I passed them over, for now. I think this set of 27 will give me a good place to start. If I go through them without any success, then I’ll look at the rest of the SF lovers.

I forgot how much work this is!

How I Lost Twenty Pounds

A few weeks ago, I hit the twenty-pound mark in my weight-loss efforts. I had been trying to lose weight for a number of years, but I have only been successful in the last six months. The weight-loss method I am using is traditional calorie counting.

Here’s what I did that was different.

1. Enlist a partner. My husband had some bad news from his doctor, and we knew it was time for him to lose weight. I have been on high blood pressure medicine for about five years, so we decided to do this together. It has been SO much easier–especially since we are both committed. I was unable to stick to a plan until my husband and I started this together.

2. Find a calorie counting app with reminders. I’ve had MyFitnessPal on my iPhone for a couple of years now. I selected it because it was the only one that enabled me to set food tracking reminders throughout the day. This is important when you are establishing the food-tracking habit, because it really does take 21 days to establish a habit. Now, we both use it.

3. Find a daily goal I could stick with for month after month. This is important. You need to be able to cut enough calories to lose weight, but you don’t want it to be so difficult that it is discouraging. It took me six months to lose twenty pounds. I’m good with that. It took years for me to pack on this weight, after all. If I lose a total of forty pounds after one year, I will be totally thrilled.

MyFitnessPal suggests a goal for you based on your activity level. Because I know I have a somewhat active metabolism–I can’t blame my weight on my glands–I chose Lightly Active as my activity level. This is even though I am probably not that active. Because I chose Lightly Active, I don’t carry around my iPhone with me so it can track steps. I only let it track steps when I have my purse with me. If I happen to be more active than usual, it will count those steps. If not, the few steps I take won’t have much of an impact. My husband chose Sedentary even though he probably is Lightly Active. But he carries around his cell-phone, and it records every step he takes.

Important take-away here–I have managed to lose 20 pounds even though I have not stepped up my activity level.

4. I Track every day–even when I go over my calorie goal. Face it–you will go over your calorie count from time to time. I find that I need to eat more when I have a bad headache, or when I have lost more than 1 pound in a week. But the important thing is to track the calories anyway. If you stop, it will just make it harder to start up again. So I don’t care about blowing it on the days that I go over–I just make sure I track everything.

MyFitnessPal has this wonderful Complete Entry feature, which tells me what I will weigh in five weeks if I eat that many calories every day. It is motivating both ways–when I go over, I see that I will gain if I keep eating that much, and it puts me back on-track. When I am under or on-target, I see how much more I will lose, and I am motivated.

BTW, the predictions have been fairly accurate. It now predicts that I can lose 4 pounds in a month, which is pretty much the rate at which I have been losing, excepting for a plateau or two.

5. Weigh-in over a three-day period, and record the lowest weight. I started weighing myself on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and I record the lowest weight. Why? Because your weight fluctuates so much over the course of a few days. This way, you don’t have to record a discouraging gain on a day when you may be constipated or retaining water. This goes with number 6 …

6. Only record losses. This will probably fly in the face of most advice. I found that when I plateau or have a slight gain, if I record it, it is demotivating. Sometimes, I now reason, it takes me two weeks to lose a pound, instead of just one. So if after a week of faithful calorie counting, if I am at the same weight or slightly over, I wait another week and try again. This gives me another week to lose that pound, and keeps me motivated.

Now if you go two or three weeks without losing any weight at all, or if you gain, you may have to re-evaluate your daily calorie goal, or perhaps stop indulging in so many over-limit days. However–important point, here–this has not happened to me yet. The most I have ever had to go without recording a loss is 2 weeks.

And so, that is what has worked for me.

As ever, if you have health issues, please discuss any potential diet with your doctor before starting. As for me, my doctor told me to lose 20 pounds when he first put me on these blood pressure meds. So I am just about 5 years late in following his advice.

Better late than never?

Series Review – Star Trek Continues

StarTrekContinuesThis will be an unusual post for me. I don’t remember the last time I reviewed a TV series. I may have done a post about Firefly years ago. I don’t watch a lot of TV, after all.

Star Trek Continues, however, is not on TV. They are fan-made webisodes. So this is a first. I watched these webisodes by hooking my computer to the TV by means of an hdmi cable. That way, we were all able to enjoy it.

Star Trek Continues is the brainchild of Vic Mignogna, who alsoSTCKirkMcCoy plays Kirk. It is unabashed fan fiction. It seeks to continue Star Trek: the Original Series (TOS) as if it were never cancelled. That means being faithful to the original set, equipment, make-up and costumes. This means heavily made-up men and styles reminiscent of the 60s. Don’t expect amateur performances. These episodes are engaging and highly polished.

It has attracted a lot of attention. Christopher Doohan–the son of the original Scotty–plays, well, Scotty.  The guest starts include Lou Ferrigno (who plays a green-skinned Orion!), Michael Dorn, and former Star Trek guest stars Michael Forest and Asia DeMarcos (who, I swear, has not aged. A day). Two of the STCMcKennahSpockepisodes, the first and the third, continue (and conclude) stories that began in the original series. For those, I recommend watching the original TOS episodes first.

The series features the same iconic characters–Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scott, Uhuru, Sulu and Chekov. It adds a new cast member, McKennah, the ships counselor, pictured with Spock, at the left.

The first episode, Pilgrim of Eternity, continues the Apollo episode, Who Mourns for Adonais? In it, Apollo is now an old STCEp3man, played by the original actor. This is the only one that I think looks just a little rough. The makeup and the costumes improve greatly from this episode, so don’t let it put you off. The set, however, looks terrific, and the story is very faithful to the original. Including a godly wreaking of havoc.

The second episode, Lolani, is, as far as I can tell, is an original story. It is about an Orion slave girl who wants to be free. Except there’s this problem of other sovereign states with their own laws, and a little thing called the Prime Directive. This is the Lou Ferrigno episode, and he doesn’t play a good guy.

The third episode, Fairest of them All, is my favorite. It continues Mirror, Mirror from the last two minutes of the original story. In that story, Kirk–in one of those numerous transporter malfunctions–switched places with an evil Kirk from an STCUhurualternate universe. This story follows Spock in that original story, as he attempts to effect change in the the Empire.

And the fourth episode will be making its debut at the Phoenix Comicon.

Star Trek Continues has been funded by Kickstarter campaigns. The current Kickstarter is in a Fully Funded status. I expect there will be future Kickstarters, as well.

I really enjoyed the first three episodes, and am looking forward to the ones that are coming next. Michael Dorn is shown among the list of guest stars, so he must be coming up soon.

To watch, go to the webside, www.startrekcontinues.com. Before you dive in, I recommend you play around a bit. There are a lot of short videos, including comparisons showing scenes that took place in both TOS and Star Trek Continues.

I’ll be interested in your comments–did you watch them, or do you not care to see it? If not, why? If you watched them, what did you think?