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Sunday 20 August 2017

Self-publishing comes of age - in a hit and miss way

The Centurion Part 1: Gabriel By O.C. Shaw (26 March, 2015) €3.53 eBook HHHHI

Self-publishing has gone the way of internet dating: that is, it is no longer for the desperate among us.

Independent publishing turns out as many hits and misses as does conventional publishing, and the effort it takes to release one's work is formidable enough - and that's following on from all the work it took to create it in the first place.

Whilst indies may be more prone to mistakes in the text and dodgy covers, every now and then a gem pops up from the crowd. This is one of them.

Fantasy, romance and crime fiction are, I am guessing, the leaders in the self-publishing field because of the almost numberless fish in those particular barrels.

Shaw has written a fantasy that is primarily for teens, but its issues are captivating enough for adults as well, much like the Harry Potters.

Invoking the scarred one is inevitable here, as the sturdy tropes of the orphaned child who is unaware of his powers and of prophecy, are the centrepiece of this first in a series about Gabriel.

An orphan whose magical gifts have been foretold, Gabriel is on the cusp of his awakening into his role as a Centurion. Like the Roman cohort, there are only ever a maximum of 100 of them on Earth at a time, and their souls keep reincarnating to keep the numbers stable.

These quasi-supernatural beings are divided into factions: the Defenders defend humans from the Feeders, who seek to steal their life force for their own pleasure and to pump up their power.

Gabriel is a wholly new soul that has never gone round the wheel of life, and as such has powers that have never been seen before. His battle to preserve normality for himself and his girlfriend is a losing one, but there is hope at the end.

Shaw tells a really terrific story that is let down in several places by writing that doesn't live up to the promise.

Huge swathes of monologue take the place of huge swathes of exposition, but ends up being direct explanation anyway, and several of the voices of the characters are indistinguishable from each other.

The climactic battle is rather a damp squib, but the ending is satisfying and brave - and will keep me on the look out for the next one.

CANNONBRIDGE

By Jonathan Barnes Solaris (2015) €11.99 HHIII

And here's an example of terrific, juicy writing that is let down by poor storytelling and structure.

Matthew Cannonbridge is a Zelig-like figure that pops up mainly in the Victorian era, in the presence of great writers and thinkers.

He is being pursued by something through time: he doesn't know what the thing is, if it is indeed corporeal, but he senses impending doom. In modern times, Toby Judd is an academic who has decided that the Cannonbridge - now revered as a prolific author, poet and playwright - is in fact, a fake.

He embarks on a journey to prove this, allowing the various time lines to weave. The actual use of words to create a 19th century voice is flawless, and that descriptive richness bleeds believably into the contemporary era.

The actual structure however, becomes predictable and bland as we switch off between Victoria's era to 21st century London.

And as with many time travel novels, there is too much that we have to take on faith, or because we're told that something is so. Neverthelss, a brave attempt.

THE RAVEN'S HEAD

By Karen Maitland Headline (2015) €29.50 HHHHI

And here's another 17 year old getting himself into all sorts of trouble. It's 1224, and Vincent, an orphan and apprentice scribe, is fed up being stuck indoors all the time at the beck and call of his master.

He soon gets more than he bargained for - discovering a secret that his master would prefer no one knew, his attempt at blackmail fails, and he is forced to go on the run.

His story interweaves with that of Gisa, the niece of an apothecary, and of Regulus, a small child torn from his family and installed with a crowd of demented alchemists.

Maitland's tale unfolds slowly, but she manages all the disparate elements with authority.

This is not a costume-drama version of the 13th century, though, so if you like your ladies fragrant with virtue and your castles without the mess of smelly rushes on the floor, then you should look elsewhere.

Maitland is unsparing with the kind of detail that'll make you glad you were born in a time that has all its mod cons.

THE DRAGON OF HANDALE

By Cassandra Clark St Martin's Press (17 March, 2015) €4.99 eBook HHIII

The fifth in a crime series set in the middle ages, Hildegard of Meaux is a sleuthing nun who in this instalment, is back from pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and unsure as to whether or not she truly has a vocation.

Her prioress sends her to Handale, a truly awful place that serves as a sort of correctional facility for wayward female clergy.

What transpires is a number of mysteries get solved one by one, very - very - slowly. In a well-wrought mystery, these elements would appear to be unconnected, but of course, would ultimately weave together in a satisfying manner.

Not so here: the connections are so tenuous. Clark has a formidable medieval lexicon, though, so lovers of new words will enjoy themselves here.

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