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I often like to look at which books get nominated for fantasy and science fiction awards. A nomination doesn’t always mean I’ll like a book, because I’ve come across winners I’ve loved and others I’ve hated, but I enjoy finding out whether I agree with the choices. I rarely actually vote in any awards, either because I can’t, or because I don’t have time to read the shortlisted entrants before the deadline, and I don’t like to choose without having considered them all.

This year, however, I’m going to WorldCon, so for the first time ever I’m able to vote in one of the biggest SF&F awards out there: the Hugos! I’m pretty excited about it, so I decided I’m going to try to read the finalists in as many categories as I can before the online ballot submission closes on July 31st.

I’m a slow reader, so I don’t know how many I’ll manage, but here are the main categories I’m going to attempt:

Best Novel

This is the category I really want to read all the works for. It’s made a little hard by the fact two of the shortlisted books are the third instalments in series… but my plan is to read the first books, and if I enjoy them enough to continue the series I’ll do my best to get to the third by the deadline, if not I’ll go by my thoughts on the first book.

I’ve already made some progress on this category – only two to go! (not including the above-mentioned sequels). Spinning Silver is my favourite so far, followed by Ninefox Gambit – the first in the series Revenant Gun is part of. I’m halfway through The Calculating Stars and liking it, but not loving it, which is how I felt about the first Wayfarers book, so those will probably end up ranking 3rd or 4th for me. Trail of Lightning wasn’t really my cup of tea, though I did finish it.

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book

I’d really love to read all the books for this category, and I’m going to try, but I don’t know if I’ll achieve it by the end of July. I read one of them already last year – Children of Blood and Bone – so that’s a start, and they’re all fairly short books so maybe I’ll pull it off. Also if I make a start on some and discover I’m not into them, I’ll move on, which may speed things up (the same goes for any finalist in any category that isn’t interesting me after a decent number of pages: the main thing is to give each one a chance).

Best Short Story

This is a category I feel I can manage by the deadline – they’re short, after all! And the voter packet I received makes it easy to access them all. I don’t read a lot of short stories and have traditionally not been so keen on them, so that’ll make this interesting. Maybe I’ll become a convert.

  • “The Court Magician,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)
  • “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
  • “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018)
  • “STET,” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018)
  • “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine 23, July-August 2018)
  • “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)
Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

I’ve already seen four of these films, so I just need to watch the remaining two. It’s going to be a hard category to rank my votes in. Annihilation and A Quiet Place were both brilliant, creative and unique films, but with a totally different style and budget to films like Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther, which were also great.  I nominated all four of these in the nomination stage and was hoping the shortlist might narrow my options… it hasn’t!

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So at long last I’ve come to the final decade I’ll cover in this series: the 00s! This period saw a surge in fantasy films and television shows, with adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and The Chronicles of Narnia bringing the genre and its classics to new audiences. The “Noughties” were also crucial for paranormal romance and young adult fantasy – sales grew exponentially, in no small part due to the success of Twilight.  Many series from this decade are still being added to today.

Below I’ve listed what I believe to be the 12 most popular or influential fantasy novels published between 2000 and 2010. I’ve tried to use the original cover from that year where possible. Series titles are included in brackets:

(To enlarge a cover simply click on it and the image gallery will open)

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As a child of the 90s I confess to having a particular soft spot for this decade… but personal biases aside, this was an important one for fantasy. Best-sellers boosted the genre to further heights (the phenomenon that was Harry Potter started in 1997), and many popular series that began in the 90s are still being written today, not to mention adapted into to film and television hits.

Below I’ve listed what I believe to be the 12 most popular or influential fantasy novels published between 1990 and 2000. I’ve tried to use the original cover from that year where possible. Series titles are included in brackets:

(To enlarge a cover simply click on it and the image gallery will open)

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After the boom of the 60s and 70s the fantasy genre continued to enjoy mainstream popularity, with many 80s authors branching into new sub-genres and styles.  Fantasy tropes were so established that works of comic fantasy, which poked fun at them and were humorous in tone, became increasingly popular. Urban fantasy as we now know it also had its early roots in this decade.

Below I’ve listed what I believe to be the 12 most popular or influential fantasy novels published between 1980 and 1990. I’ve tried to use the original cover from that year where possible. Series titles are included in brackets:

(To enlarge a cover simply click on it and the image gallery will open)

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This week I’m excited to bring you a guest post from urban fantasy author Ken Hughes, who’s taking a closer look at the four elements and the use of elemental magic systems. Ken is the author of the Whisperers Series and the Spellkeeper Flight Series, and has recently released his latest book, Freefall:

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“Water. Earth. Fire. Air.” Those are the first words in Avatar: The Last Airbender, but we’ve seen the same four-elements structure of magic and worldbuilding in so many other fantasy stories that the dreaded word “cliché” is never far away.

Still, the difference between a cliché and a classic might just be how long it’s been since we’ve seen that idea handled well (which Avatar does, yes). And fantasy does love its classics. 

Elementary Wonder

Avatar Elemental Dragons. Image by slifertheskydragon (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

For myself, I think the reason the Four Elements idea sunk such deep roots into fantasy isn’t so much because Aristotle’s writings made it “the official historical mysticism.” (Never mind that his theory was science in ancient Greece.) I think it keeps turning up because fantasy loves returning us to the sense that there are still forces larger than ourselves in the world, sometimes under our control like we see today’s world, sometimes not.

—After all, if a fantasy hero ventures into a primeval cave or chases pirates over the sea, it’s only “natural” that that rock or that ocean might be the decisive source of power.

For the most direct forms of magic, the elements are perfect. If a story needs magicians to simply blast each other, there’s instant variety in doing that through the Four, especially if the story does justice to differences between them. Of course earth is the strongest and most stable, air the fastest, water a happy medium between them, and fire the most purely destructive—it’s as simple as heavy, light, and medium military forces, plus a specialist. We can see that in Avatar’s duels, or games like Grandia where you quickly learn fire spells hit harder but wind rattles the whole battlefield.

But even if elemental magic were to start with brute force, it wastes no time in spilling out into larger possibilities where it belongs. Half the fun of fantasy is playing up physical wonder, and anything from that pirate-ravaged sea to the whisper of wind on a harp just might be tied in to elemental forces. (At least, to a writer worth reading.)

To make a world feel unknowable, elemental power can lurk deep in nature and be perilous to even bargain with, let alone control. Or it might be wielded on naturalistic terms only, like foresters who can guide their trees’ growth to crumble a fortress in a week but be too slow to snare a charging enemy. Or smiths might keep a fire-spirit in their forges, or Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea sailors depend on weather-wizards for favorable winds, and Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters books show elementalists’ mining and shipping secretly driving the Industrial Revolution.

Elements of Improvement

Isidore of Seville’s The Four Elements. Image from Wikimedia

So should we use elemental magic in a story?

My short answer would be: of course, if you want—but it might not hurt to use something other than four of them.

The elements are a huge storytelling touchstone, which means any writer should approach that with a sense of how much they’ve been done before. If your vision starts leading toward the idea that magic has five, seven, or three forces, that could be a head start on making your story more distinct. (European magicians did add Spirit as the fifth element, aka the “quint-essence,” to form the famous pentacle. Asian spiritualism separates earth, wood, and metal. And then there’s ice, light, lightning…)

Meanwhile if you stick to the classic four elements, you’re taking on both the most familiar appeal and what some readers will see as the most overused approach. For some stories that might be a problem, but not for others.

Something else to watch for is how much you keep the elements separate. It can be too easy to assume a magician can only wield one, and maybe have whole societies spring up on your map patterned around a single element. Those might be the form your story needs, but they’re also a convenient way to come up with more ideas than you’ve stopped to do justice to—don’t overlook how many possibilities might lie in how all of them interlock. How much is rain an air spell, and how much is it water? Would a seafaring nation worship water gods and neglect the winds, or would they understand better than anyone how the two work together on the sea? plus how devastating fire would be against an enemy ship? Some stories’ magicians might be patterned around one element alone, but it’s hard to think of a nation ignoring the others.

Then there’s the nonphysical question: which “element” is it that summons up a ghost, or works a teleportation spell, or moves a piece of cloth? It’s easy to picture the elements as tangible force, but then find your magic has no room left to do anything unsolid or even outside of nature. Historical “magicians” used the elements as much as symbols of nonphysical ideas as for the obvious: they’d invoke fire to bring “burning, ruinous rage” on an enemy or inspiration on an ally, and “all-seeing air” to bless a scholar. (Of course, they did that instead of expecting their rituals to literally set someone’s house on fire… but there’s no reason your magicians can’t do both.) Or there’s Spirit or other nonphysical elements that could have their own place in your spellbooks.

The four elements are a familiar device in fantasy, with all the appeals and the risks that come with that. But the reason they’ve endured is less as a shortcut in worldbuilding, and more because of how much they tap into and how much room they have to develop something new.

How would you use them?

__________________

“Whispered spells for breathless suspense.”

Ken Hughes dreams of dark alleys and the twenty-seven ways people with different psychic gifts might maneuver around each corner. He grew up on comics and adventures before discovering Steven King and Joss Whedon, and he’s written for Mars mission proposals and medical devices, making him an honorary rocket scientist and brain surgeon. Ken is a Global Ebook Award-nominated urban fantasy novelist, creator of SHADOWED’s “Whisperers” series and the Spellkeeper Flight series (with the newest, FREEFALL, just launched this month). Don’t get him started on puns.

You can visit Ken’s website, and follow him on Twitter or Facebook, or check out his books on Goodreads.

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The fantasy boom of the late 60s came to full fruition in the 70s, drawing older works back into the light as well as bringing many new ones. The decade also saw the publication of important works in particular sub-genres, such as vampire fiction, fairy tale retellings, time travel fiction and more.

Below I’ve listed what I believe to be the 12 most popular or significant fantasy novels published between 1970 and 1980. I’ve used the year each novel was first published  and I’ve tried to use the original cover or jacket from that year: 

(To enlarge a cover simply click on it and the image gallery will open)

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While the 1950s might have seen the publication of crucial series like The Lord of the Rings and Narnia, it was during the 60s that the fantasy genre skyrocketed to new levels of popularity and mainstream appeal. Publishers eager to meet rising demand sought out fantasy works, and the decade brought many beloved classics to the genre.

Below I’ve listed what I believe to be the 12 most popular or influential fantasy novels published between 1960 and 1970. I’ve tried to use the original cover from that year where possible. Series titles are included in brackets:

(To enlarge a cover simply click on it and the image gallery will open)

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Many would say that fantasy literature as we now know it began in the 50s – specifically with the publication of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Add to that the release of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and you have the emergence of two fantasy worlds that shaped the genre for years to come. These works had such a profound impact they tend to overshadow other fantasies from this decade, but there are still some worth mentioning.

Below I’ve listed what I believe to be the 8 most popular or influential fantasy novels published between 1950 and 1960. I’ve tried to use the original cover or jacket from that year where possible: 

(To enlarge a cover simply click on it and the image gallery will open)

Pulp magazines had already been publishing fantasy stories and serialised novels in the 30s and 40s, and continued to do so in the 50s, but it was the The Lord of the Rings that brought the genre mainstream popularity and acclaim. It became one of the best-selling series of all time, inspired countless later works, and established epic high fantasy as the core of the genre. While Tolkien had already published The Hobbit in the 30s, The Lord of the Rings garnered more widespread success and helped position fantasy as something that could be read by adults (many previous works had been aimed at children).

C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novels were published in the 1950s and also helped build the prominence of the genre. Unlike Tolkien’s work, however, Lewis’s continued a more established tradition of portal fantasy aimed at children (exemplified by earlier books like The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland). Other memorable children’s novels with more subtle fantasy elements, like The Borrowers and Charlotte’s Web, were also published in the 50s.

The Haunting of Hill House may seem a strange inclusion above, since it’s a horror novel, but it is a significant work of paranormal fiction and has influenced the paranormal and gothic fantasy genres.

A Few Interesting Facts
  • Tolkien originally intended The Lord of the Rings to be released in one volume, but for economic reasons it was divided and published as three books. Some later editions recombined them into one volume, and many fans still view the series as one book.
  • Both C.S. Lewis and Edward Eager were influenced by Edith Nesbit. Eager viewed her as the best children’s author of all time, and Lewis once commented he was working on a children’s novel “in the tradition of E. Nesbit”.
  • In an essay titled “It all began with a picture” C.S. Lewis makes it clear the inspiration for Narnia came from an image he’d had in his mind since the age of sixteen of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.
  • All seven Narnia books were published from 1950-56, with one released each year. When the first was published, Lewis had already completed three of the other books.
  • Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword is set during the Viking Age and contains many references to Norse mythology. Writer Michael Moorcock later described it as “one of the most influential fantasy novels I ever read”.
  • Jack Vance wrote the stories of the The Dying Earth while serving in the US Merchant Marine during World War II, and the book gave the dying earth sub-genre its name. It features boats propelled by giant sea-worms controlled by “wormringers”. Vance is said to have been influenced by the style of James Branch Cabell (an early 20th Century comic fantasy writer).
  • Stephen King called Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House “one of the finest horror novels of the late 20th century”. The book is often lauded as the greatest haunted-house story ever written.
Other 50s Works and Authors

There are some works that aren’t included in the list above, either because they were more science fiction or magical realism than fantasy, because I’d already included another work in the same series in the previous decade, because they weren’t novels, or simply because I didn’t feel they were as significant to the genre as others. However, they are still worth mentioning:

  • The 13 Clocks by James Thurber (1950)
  • The Sword of Rhiannon / The Sea-Kings of Mars by Leigh Brackett, (1953)[originally published in Thrilling Wonder Stories magazine, 1949]
  • Mio, My Son by Astrid Lindgren (1954)
  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954) [a science fiction horror novel – very important and influential for vampire and zombie fiction]
  • Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (1957)
  • The Once and Future King by T.H. White (1958) [collected and revised previous works inc. The Sword in the Stone, listed in 30s & 40s post]
  • Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959) by Mervyn Peake [The sequels in the Gormenghast series that started with Titus Groan in the 40s]
  • The Gammage Cup (The Minnipins Series) by Carol Kendall (1959)
  • The Elric tales (novellas published in Science Fantasy magazine) by Michael Moorcock, 1961-1964 (the first Elric novel wasn’t published until the 70s)
  • The Finn Family Moomintroll / Trollkarlens hatt (The Moomin Series) by Tove Jansson (Swedish original: 1948, English translation: 1950). This was not the first book in the series but is the most well known.

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Are any of these books a favourite? Or would you add another important novel to the list? Feel free to give it a mention in the comments.

< Popular 1930s and 40s Fantasy Novels

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A short break in the decades series this week, but for a good reason – to bring you a guest post from Brian D. Anderson! Brian is the author of over 20 fantasy novels and has recently signed a book deal with Tor. He’s here to share his experiences in making the transition from indie to traditional publishing and the challenges he faced in moving between these worlds:

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So you’ve written a few books, had them edited, paid for a cool cover, learned how to market, and as a result, had a great deal of success selling them online. You’ve even quit your day job. Maybe bought a house or a car…or both. Life’s coming up roses. You’ve achieved something special. Something spectacular. You are a professional novelist! Moreover, you’re an experienced indie, well qualified to pass on your wisdom to the never-ending river of up-and-comers dreaming of emulating your accomplishments.

That’s more or less how I felt a few months ago. For seven years, I have enjoyed a degree of professional success in indie fantasy. Not to say I was at the top of the heap. But I sure wasn’t at the bottom. I had an agent, had made a few significant audiobook deals, and been nominated for an award or two. But that’s where it stopped. I’d reached the limit of where I could go on my own. If I wanted to continue up the ladder, I had to find a way to break into traditional publishing.

My agent had submitted several times to the Big Five, without success. I was perfectly satisfied with my achievements as an indie, but the game was changing, and I was rapidly facing the possibility of fading away into obscurity. New indie talent was emerging, and they were hungry, energetic, and motivated. I’d been working at a feverish pace for seven years, and I’m not ashamed to say I was running low on steam. This new class of indies half my age could produce at a rate I simply could not keep up with. And their facility with social networking made me a horse and carriage to their self-driven car.

I decided that perhaps it was time to try something new with my stories, so I wrote The Vale, which is based on the tropes, plotting, and pace of RPG’s like Final Fantasy and Tales Of. I was aware of GameLit and LitRPG, but this was different in the sense that it read like a novelization of a game – no stats, no being sucked into the game world, no other criteria placed on the genre by its fans. I landed a substantial audio deal for the series, which basically crushed my chances to sell it to the Big Five. Still, my agent thought it was worth a shot.

As expected, they weren’t interested. However, an editor over at Tor (Macmillan) read it and liked it very much. And while unable to make an offer, asked that they be given first look at my next project. That alone sent me over the moon. By the way, I saw the lunar lander while I was up there. Take that, conspiracy theorists! I had a mountain of work to do, but I didn’t want to waste the opportunity. I had a new series in the beginning stages saved in a file, so I banged out the first few chapters along with a synopsis. Tor took a quick look and replied by saying that the complexity of the world was too much to make a decision without a complete manuscript.

So, defeated, I went back to my indie work and plodded on, forgetting all about Tor, the book, and transitioning to traditional publishing. Yeah, right! This is Tor we’re talking about. As a kid, most of the books I read came from Ballentine, Del Rey, or Tor. Becoming a Tor author would be the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy. So I shoved everything else aside and worked like my life depended on it.

After about eight weeks, The Bard’s Blade was finished. BEA (BookExpo America) was about a month away, and my agent contacted Tor, offering an exclusive look before shopping it to other publishers while she was in New York. Now, here’s where it gets weird…in a good way.

For anyone who has been through the submission process, you know how mind-numbingly, soul-suckingly, nail-bitingly long an ordeal it is. Aspiring writers can spend years finding an agent just to spend years more submitting to publishers. Tor seemed excited to read it and told us that they would have an answer ahead of the convention. While I wanted to believe this, I fully expected to hear back from them saying they couldn’t make a decision within the allotted time frame. I had mentally prepared for this likelihood so as not to drive myself nuts checking my inbox every five minutes.

Not only to my disbelief but to that of every traditionally published writer I know, this isn’t what happened. Tor received the manuscript on a Friday; on Monday they emailed my agent, stating they were interested and intended to make an offer. That alone had me grinning from ear to ear. I had three numbers in mind. What I would take; what I wanted; and the imaginary number that would not happen. There was, of course, the chance they would come back with a lowball figure that I would be forced to reject. That was the nightmare scenario. To turn down an offer from Tor would haunt me for the rest of my life.

But my astonishment increased when Wednesday arrived and my agent received a deal memo. It was to the dollar what I wanted. Sure, there was some tweaking pertaining to rights, but overall, I could not have expected better. It took a full day for me to absorb what had happened.

Once the contracts were signed, it was time for me to come to the realization that experienced as I was in the indie world, I had a lot to learn about working on a Big Five publication. To her credit as both a person and a professional, Lindsey Hall, Senior Editor at Tor, was understanding, and she bent over backwards to help me acclimate to new procedures and expectations. She was always available to talk and responded to my questions, no matter how silly.

After seven years of indie work, I’d ironed out a method of production that worked well for me. There is the first draft, of course, where I give little consideration to prose. This is for getting down the plot and fleshing out the characters. The second draft smooths out some of the rough edges. Then, depending on deadline constraints, one of two things happens. One: If pressed for time, the manuscript goes to my editor, with whom I’ve been working for five years. He knows my style intimately and can make additions and adjustment so close to the way I would write I can’t even pick them out. Or two: A third pass where I give it polish and pay close attention to detail. From there, I send it to my first editor.

Once I have it back, I give it a read through, then send it to my copy/line editor and proofreader. She’s fast, and has it back to me in a few days or a week at most. After another final read, I format it and then upload the manuscript to the online platforms.

During this period, I’m working with cover artists and interior designers for the paperback edition. I’m also busy on my social networking sites, getting the word out and prepping fans for the release. The details are many, and would take a book unto itself to explain. But from writing the first page to publication, I can produce a full length 100,000 word novel in roughly 4-5 months.

On the traditional front, though, things move at a different pace. The Bard’s Blade is not slated for release until January 2020. So the first thing I had to learn was patience. An indie making the transition must understand that this is not just a business – it’s a BIG business, with entire departments dedicated to aspects of publishing that an indie manages alone. Where I was the shot caller, now there were committees. Where I could make a choice and then act on it instantly, now even the discussions about making the decisions were scheduled months in advance. But this was not what had me screaming at my computer.

Switching to traditional publishing meant I was giving up the total dominion I’ve enjoyed over the content of my work. I was not the only one invested in the story and concerned about how it would be received by fans. There are good reasons editors pick some books and pass on others. They are there to pick winners. The books with which they are associated are closely watched by their superiors and the industry at large. How long will an editor keep their job after too many flops? In other words, my success is in a real way tied to my editor’s.

Knowing this did not make it any easier when I received the first round of revisions. Holy moly! I sat at my desk in a stupor for…I’m not sure how long. From my perspective, the entire book needed to be rewritten. Whole chapters – gone. New chapters needed. Even my beloved pointy-eared elf-like people were to be eliminated. It…it was…genocide! It was also as close as I came to refusing to go along with it.

But in the end, I set aside my ego and made the changes. And that’s really what it takes. When you make a success out of any endeavor, like I had with indie publishing, you begin to think you possess insights that you do not. You’re surrounded by people looking to you for answers on how they too can sell thousands of books and quit their day job. It makes you feel important; wise. Your association with other authors and the conversations you have can trick you into thinking it’s given you even greater perspective. But until you have experienced the pride-killing blow of being wrong about your own work; yelled at the comment box only to lose the imaginary argument; then looked at the end result of what you did (were forced to do) and grudgingly admitted how much better it turned out, you really can’t know what it’s like.

That’s not to say my skill sets learned as an indie were wasted. I work fast as a necessity. When given a month, I’d only need a few days. When plot issues arose, I was three steps ahead with solutions. And it wasn’t as if Lindsey took over the book and changed what it was about. It felt a bit like that in the beginning, granted, but that was just a visceral reaction, like when an only child has to share a toy for the first time with a new sibling. I was still the one creating the plot points, shaping the characters, building the world. But now I had someone helping me stay on track who could see what I was too close to notice.

I’m still putting out indie books, and will be for some time. Tor, surprisingly, has encouraged this. But I intend to slow my pace considerably. Three novels a year for seven years has taken a toll. Now, thanks to Tor, I’m carrying more tools in the bag, and it’s making it easier for me to move forward. There’s still so much to learn; curtains to be pulled back.

And for the first time in a while, I’m eager to find out what’s next.

______________

For more than a decade, Anderson tried breaking into the music business while holding down day jobs. To relieve stress, he would sit at his computer and write short stories. He had always loved writing, but had never considered it for a career. This changed when his son came to him, excited as only a seven-year-old can be, and told his father the idea he had for a story. It was in that moment everything changed. What his son told him became the foundation for an entire career. And the beginning of The Godling Chronicles. Since then, he has sold more than 500,000 books worldwide. His second series, Dragonvein, was a top five finalist on Audible for Fantasy Book of the Year in 2015.

Currently he resides in Fairhope, Alabama with his wife and son.

You can visit Brian’s website or blog, follow him on Twitter or Facebook, or check out his books on Goodreads.

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