Some books defy market categorization. Like many classics. But these days, if you can’t slot your work so that the sales team knows where to put it in a book store, you have even less a chance of selling it to traditional publishing than most books. Like Francesca Forrest’s brilliant Pen Pal, lingering in memory as my favorite book of a couple years ago.
Out of new books, Andrea K. Höst’s The Pyramids of London illustrates the best of indie freedom.
This is not to denigrate traditional publishing. I like traditional publishing!
But this limitation is a tough one to get past: supposing one reaches an enthusiastic editor (and I don’t know why traditional publishers are not all over Australian writer Höst–or maybe they have been but she’s determined on the indie course) but anyway, supposing this book jazzed an editor as much as it jazzed me, where would the sales force slot it? There are dual POVs, equally important: three teens whose parents died under very mysterious circumstances, and their 36 year old aunt, who inherits their guardianship and is determined to find out why they died. Her POV is that of an adult, the kids are kids, their motivations believable when they pitchfork themselves into trouble with all the best intentions.
What would it be? Steampunk? Vampire? Mystery? Fantasy? Alternate history, YA, new adult, adult? Because it is all of these.
This is the kind of freedom that Dickens and George Eliot and Mrs. Gaskell had during the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth unslottable-at-the-time writers like Harper Lee and Tolkien and Richard Adams. Breaking marketing rules makes a book more difficult to categorize, but when the story works, the reader finds herself in a landscape without the predictable road maps. It sure worked for me– a few weeks ago, I was stuck for over twelve hours in a hotel lobby. This book happened to arrive that morning for beta read (Con or Bust last year), so I sat down on a comfy couch with a bottle of water and time simply zipped by, permitting me to read the entire book without interruption.
This is the first of a five book arc, splendidly setting up a steampunky alternate Europe in which England is divided into dragonates, protected by weather vampires who bring ancient Egyptian culture to England, er, that is, Pyrtennia. The Roman Empire maintains its predominance through harnessed lightning, which powers their airships.
In other words, the AU here is immensely cool.
When the book opens, Rian, the aunt, is deliberately selling herself to one of these vampires for a ten year contract in order to begin to solve the mystery, but with the spectacular crash through a window in a high storm, her careful plans are blasted to smithereens, and the race against time is on.
Fascinating worldbuilding–complicated and appealing female characters with all kinds of agency, and interesting conflicts between proper reticence and fierce emotion–contrasting POVs in a way that I love–rarely have I passed a day so pleasantly. This mystery resolves, setting up much bigger questions, making me really look forward to the entire arc. I want to spend lots of time in this world.
This next book is probably the most easily genre-categorized, as “urban fantasy” or “paranormal” is a fairly broad umbrella. But whereas most of the ones I’ve tried tend to fall into very narrow plot and emotional arc paths (the latter sort of all angst all the time, in ways I find difficult to believe) I think that there is some new ground being broken with Lia Silver’s Partner, book two of the Werewolf Marines series.
Elevator pitch: D.J. Torres, a dyslexic Marine who also happens to be a werewolf, is wounded in Afghanistan, and when the medicos see him shift, is bundled off to find himself a prisoner in a secret government lab, where he meets Echo, a genetically engineered assassin. Both have severe psychological problems, but this series is far from grimdark and wallowing in mystery.
DJ is so appealing, using music to express himself and to keep a cap on his emotions, and Echo is convincing as the badass assassin who has been paying the emotional cost. When these two meet I couldn’t stop reading–for me this series finds that sweet spot between humor and the extreme tension of action scenes, with the added bonus of realistic psychological complexity in extraordinary circumstances. Like werewolves, and evil secret government labs. Even the lab minions get varying motivations or limits of knowledge; the Big Bads also get complexity, or when compartmentalized, plausible.
Partner is the second half of Prisoner (which is free); the latter does not end on a total cliffhanger, but the leftover threads are carried to Partner. There is a third book, Laura’s Wolf, which runs parallel to the above pair. And a single very tantalizing thread dangles from Partner, setting up for the next book.
Over at Tor.com, Liz Bourke said about these: Lia Silver’s Laura’s Wolf, a standalone novel, and Prisoner, the first book in a projected trilogy, are doing something pretty special… The closely-observed and immensely sympathetic portrayal of post-traumatic stress is their strongest aspect– that, and Silver’s grasp of how to tell a fast-paced, compelling story with interesting characters. There’s more than a bit of action-adventure in among the romance: I recommend them as more than worth one’s time.
Leigh Kimmel is an old friend from a long-ago round-robin-by-mail writers’ workshop called “Long Writers.” The mail bit shows how long ago it was. We both love complicated world building, and braided novels in such settings. Of late Leigh has turned indie, with Khuldar’s War as first offering. Again, how to characterize the story and world? It’s sort of space opera, sort of science fantasy, sort of AU. It begins in the aftermath of a war, and . . . it’s probably easiest to quote from the blurb, especially as I’m still in the process of reading (it only appeared a few days ago): Geidliv the Tyrant was dead, and the rogue nation of Karmandios now lay in ruins, its people prostrate before the occupying armies of the five allied nations. But now the winners are quarreling among themselves, and where brothers fight, enemies will enter to widen the gap.
Merekhet is a man torn between competing loyalties, tormented by guilt over his past failures. Raised the scion of a Karmandi noble family, he discovered upon puberty that he was in fact the son of a senior war commander of the telepathic People of the Hawk. Yet he could not entirely disavow his mother’s people, and thus became entangled in Geidliv’s regime and his nephew Khuldhar’s doomed attempt to fight it.
Now Merekhet has evidence that Geidliv used telepathy and the bioscience of the mer-people to create a living weapon from Khuldhar’s genetic material and hid it in plain sight. Worse, a former ally now estranged is seeking that weapon, and must not be allowed to capture it, lest all the world of Okeanos fall to far greater tyranny than Geidliv could ever have hoped to create. Merekhet must regain Khuldhar’s confidence, and together they must find the five young men who are the keys to Geidliv’s final vengeance weapon.
I venture to suggest that if you like Lindsay Buroker, David Drake, and Ankaret Wells, you might be the reader for this world and story.
Another indie writer is new on the scene. Melissa McShane’s The Smoke-Scented Girl is a magical mystery romance set in a vaguely nineteenth century English setting, with characters whose language and social rules map over Mark Twain’s time; magic is a recognized part of life, and a great deal of the story includes sussing out, and using, various spells in order to solve the central mystery, which keeps getting steadily weirder along with the ever-ramping stakes.
The most delightful aspect for me was the banter and interaction between the characters. I also loved the imagination that went into the magic–anyone who adored the magic of Harry Potter should enjoy this right down to the Latinate spells. The romance was beautifully handled, too–totally believable arc for a couple of academic minds.
And though I mentioned it a couple days ago, I want to bring up again Sara Stamey’s crackling fast-paced thriller, The Ariadne Connection, (available also in print)–the blurb says “at the crossroads of science and myth” which is the element I found stood above other thrillers I’ve tried. Complex characters, vivid imagery of the Greek isles, and high stakes.
All these indie books are at least as good print books by traditional publishers–but I think would be tough to slot in marketing. Anyway, indies as well as traditionally published books depend on word of mouth to find their readership, so with that in mind, what indies have you discovered of late–especially ones who cross genre boundaries?