Honest Critiques

No, I mean it. REAL honest. Email your excerpts or full stories, up to 1000 words or so, to honestcrits [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk. Synopses would also be welcome. My backlog is so daunting now that I recommend not submitting anything you are not prepared to wait a couple of months for a response on.
  • Click here to find out what this blog is all about.
  • Tuesday, September 13, 2005


    25,000 people in Trafalgar Square this morning, and me stuck in the office. Oh well.

    Here's Emmet's fantasy novel, Darkwing.
    Til's linen tunic was soaked through. His mail hauberk chaffed. Five days on a reave and it lay heavy on him. His bones ached, his eyes were gritty with tiredness, his legs like swollen birch held too long in water. Still, he was pleased. His little band had acquitted itself well. The Ri had complimented them on their courage. They had claimed the heads of a half a dozen Firbolg and lost none of their own, though one of the young bloods had been wounded. The herd of dun cattle they were coaxing home only sweetened the deal.

    He paused in shade beneath a copse of alder. No breath moved in the valley floor. Like a heavy hand, the sun pressed pressing him into the earth. Still, he could smell the river ahead and knew that Pale was less than a league away, over two forested hills, known as Maiden's Pair. Wildgrass on the hills wove delicate green patterns as the wind caressed it. Poppies and lemon Filam grew in wild profusion. He quickened his pace. He would be home before Jahila birthed. He had promised her as much, and he was a man who kept his promises.


    The village swept down two sides of a hill toward fields on the Meridian Plain below. A ring fort, fires burning on its stone battlements, crowned the hill. Below it, reed-thatched longhouses lined the streets, arcing toward the quays, their eaves steep triangles almost touching the ground. Cattle and sheep grazed on the long swathe of the grassy commons in front of the temple of the Dagda. Outside the wooden palisade surrounding the village, barley and rye danced, a pulsating emerald wave in fields ringed by unmortared walls stretching away from the River Sila. The green river wound through the plain, its muddy banks covered in reeds and clusters of willow.

    A small crowd, alerted by outriders and the hill pickets, waited for them outside the bronze-plated gates of the Main Guard. The clan leaders stood amongst the mothers and wives and children of the returning warriors. Two priests decked out in saffron cloaks, sporting antler helms, intoned the gruss, a prayer for the safe return of travelers.

    Garl the Tanaist, known as Giant, strode forward to meet them, his braided hair glinting like autumn wheat. He smiled a troubled smile, wrapped Til in a bear hug, and said, “It is her time, wife-brother. All is not well.”

    Til’s blood chilled; his heart froze. He sprinted up the hill, past the market square and the cattle grazing on the commons, to his longhouse. The door opened before he reached it. His mother strode out, rubbing her hands on her kirtle. The look on her face told him all he needed to know.


    Mag the Midwife, his mother's maiden sister, pulled back the woolen blankets as he ducked into the recessed alcove. Jahila lay on soft heather on a long bench of packed earth, sided by planks of pine. He knelt beside the bed and clasped her hands in his.

    Runnels of grimy sweat meandered down her forehead. Her face was a sickly, pale. She smiled weakly and tears welled in her winter-green eyes as she whispered something he could not hear through cracked lips. He held her hand, cradled her head, and wiped the matted hair from her fevered forehead. He soothed her when the contractions again wracked her tiny frame.

    Hours passed, punctuated by the coming and going of the two midwives, clucking together as they toted water and medicine. A priest came. He brayed prayers to the Dagda in Ogham, and tied a staff of elder at the foot of the bed.

    Halin, the leech, appeared, sniffed the air in the tiny alcove and shook his head .

    Til pulled him aside. "Will she live?"

    Halin shrugged. His turned his eyes skyward and signed a Souling Ward; the gods and spirits would decide.
    Quite assured stuff from Emmet. Maybe an adjective or two too many (grimy, sickly, pale, winter-green (?), cracked, matted, fevered and tiny all in that last paragraph) and occasionally there's a conflict between the POV character's voice ("his legs like swollen birch held too long in water") and the author's voice ("the herd of dun cattle ... only sweetened the deal" is very 20th century). But in general, it's pretty good.

    I get slightly anxious these days whenever I see a Prologue, as I think I've mentioned before; very often they appear to have little connection to the main action of the book, and seem to answer a need to let some awkward piece of back story stand on its own rather than be artfully incorporated in to the main body of the novel. At worst, it seems merely to be fashionable. It's hard to say what Darkwing's prologue is being intended for without seeing the rest of the book, but if it's just the birth scene of the main characters, it might not be necessary.

    There has been some discussion on the Absolute Write Water Cooler about prologues, and someone said that many readers skip them. I think that if any part of a book can comfortably be skipped by a reader, it is not required in the first place. (On the other hand if people go around skipping the beginnings of books, what are you to do? Madness.)

    So, we seem to be in Celtic High Fantasy mode here - the names, the prayers to the Dagda in Ogham (is Ogham a script, in fact, or a language, by the way?) - so what's the story? Let's turn to the synopsis.

    Our cast:
    NIANA, daughter of Til of the men of Pale: Born a warrior, to the despair of her mother and the exasperation of her father. Her will is fierce and unbending and her heart knows no defeat but her penchant for rash violence may lead to disaster for her people.

    HARN: Niana's twin. Physically weak but with kenning of the Dreamways. An accomplished seer and walker on the Paths of Power. In his heart he guards a secret like a viper and guilt threatens to destroy his soul.

    CONSTANTE Di Silva. Master of Henlia, Commander of the First Lardron Riders, victor of Kildan's Pass, Redburg and White Ford. The most accomplished of Caedian generals. An honorable man, a man who loves his family, his land and the ideals of duty. A man who, if he is to succeed, must choose victory over honor, duty over love, death over life.

    JULIAN Di Silva, Constante's cousin, inquisitor in the church militant, Governor of the New Lands. A half-blood whose only duty, as he sees it, is to himself. There is nothing he will not stoop to for power and wealth.
    Representatives of:
    The Tribes of the Free Peoples.

    A loose coalition of related tribes whose lands stretch from the Mountains of Mourne and the borders with Caedia to the towering mountains known as Landspine. They hunt, they fight, they laugh, they drink copiously and guard the borders of their humble realm, blissfully unaware of the approaching storm clouds.


    An ancient empire. Famed for the stark beauty of its cities, a beauty that mirrors the starkness of the mountains which gave birth to its people. Famed too for its cruelty and the injustice bred of its social order. A place where corruption is a byword for justice, where both money and blood flow towards the lowest common denominator. Caedia is surrounded by enemies and, to defend its borders, has turned to armies of the half-dead, the ferocious hilka, whose damned souls are parasites in living bodies.

    The empire drowns in the blood of those it sacrifices to maintain these hilka. To survive it must find another way to fund its army.
    So, there's a sort of Roman Empire vs. the Celts thing going on here, in an invented world. I think it might be an idea to switch some of the references about, so that the Celts seem less Celtic and the Romans less Roman; the names in particular could all be invented, as long as they're done well. You can nick whole theologies as long as you find new vocabularies for them (but then, vocabulary is half the trick, as Tolkien showed.) Careful not to veer off into Asterix.

    I like the armies of the half-dead. A good macabre touch and an original one as far as I know. The story arc (which I won't reproduce here) sounds like there's plenty of opportunity for drama. There are battles, brother against brother, and finally a quest for the all-important McGuffin that will destroy the Empire's power - this is all less than original, but can be dealt with in an interesting manner.

    The trick will be keeping the tone various. The prologue, above, is very steady and grave in the manner of much high fantasy. That's fine, but if it marches on in its stately way just so for 500 pages, it will be a tiring read. If there's room for humour as well as heroism, and the skill with human touches that makes the best fantasies breathe, this could turn out well.

    By the way - interesting that Emmet has included a theme for his book in the synopsis:
    Can people survive in a corrupt society and not be either corrupted or destroyed? Can people fight despotism with violence and not be made despotic and violent?
    A good touch, I reckon. Sometimes a synopsis is just a narrative of invented facts, which is unlikely to make an impression on an editor. I rarely read synopses, as you can get rid of 90% of the slushpile just by reading the first ten pages. It's only when you're wondering if you want to read the rest of it that you have a look at the synopsis, and I'd much prefer a short, spoiler-free statement of what the novel is about than a great long list of the things that happen in it. (If you're unsure what your novel is about, there may be problems with it.)
    Torgo, 9:54 pm


    ...and only ten days late.
    Blogger Torgo, at 10:02 pm  
    Your dedication is awe-inspiring. Or did you just not wish to be trampled in Trafalgar Square?
    Blogger Barbara, at 4:13 am  
    I thought a synopsis was supposed to give the facts of the story, including the ending. Am I thinking of something else?
    Anonymous David McAfee, at 9:15 pm  
    Well, no, a synopsis usually is just as you say. But I don't feel there's any great need to be dogmatic about things. I don't really tend to read them, as I say, but would prefer this sort over the usual. It's just more interesting, and encourages further reading if done right.
    Blogger Torgo, at 9:55 pm  
    Ogham was, in fact, a language--it was terribly unwieldy as script.
    Blogger Mac, at 10:14 am  
    Haven't tuned in to site for a while so haven't responded before. Thank's for this and all positive comments etc. but dammed (sic) if I don't have to go on a dedicated adjective hunt now.
    Thanks again
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:46 pm  

    Add a comment