Book Review: The Raven’s Table by Christine Morgan

Collections are a notoriously hard sell in the publishing world, especially if you haven’t got the household name to back you, but sometimes you come across books that turn that notion on its head. Christine Morgan’s The Raven’s Table – Viking Stories is one such collection, with tales and saga-esque poetry set in the Norse world, it’s a feast of Vikings and thralls, gods and goddesses, curses and cults.

In my previous post I reviewed Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology which, despite its glorious cover, felt over-indulgent on the author’s part, and left me feeling… meh. The Raven’s Table does all the things Gaiman’s collection should have but didn’t. With each tale, Christine Morgan drops you into the character(s)’s world without preamble. There’s no over-explaining of the mythos ‒ it just is. It’s this type of storytelling that allows the reader to be fully immersed.

The Raven's Table

The Raven’s Table has eighteen tales and poems within this collection, four of which are originals. Don’t let the ‘reprint’ status give you pause, though, as each story is a vicious delight of blood and gore, war and betrayal, monsters and mayhem. It’s clear from the first story that Morgan knows her mythos, giving the reader insight into the lesser-known aspects of the superstitions and rites of Norse mythology. There’s a depth to each of the tales that creates layers you don’t often see in storytelling, and boy does she nail her imagery.

Morgan takes poetic licence with her narrative, often melding stanzas in the form of storytelling by the characters within her tales, which only reinforces the saga-esque feel of the book. Morgan is the skald who has sat you around the fire, retelling the places she’s been, the things she’s seen, and giving warning to those who dare defy the gods.

Not one story is alike, although Morgan’s narrative-style is the thread that binds.  There are some truly beautiful turns of phrase in the stories, pieces that will transport the reader entirely into the fear of a thrall, the struggle to stare down a Valkyrie, the absolute certainty that monsters are real. When stories start with: ‘Men died screaming.’, you know you’re in for some bloodied fun.

It’s hard to pick a favourite from the collection, but I’ll give the top five of those that have stuck with me now that I’ve finished the book: The Fate Spinners, The Barrow Maid, Njord’s Daughter, With Honey Dripping, and Sven Bloodhair. That was a tough top five to pick, I have to say… so I’ll sneak in At Ragnarok, the Goddesses.

I mentioned earlier that The Raven’s Table did all that Gaiman’s Norse Mythology didn’t, and I stand by that. If you’re wanting to read seriously impressive Viking tales that cover the gamut of the Norse mythos without that didactic feel, then ignore Gaiman’s offering and instead pick up Christine Morgan’s collection – you won’t be disappointed.

Fair warning, for those who don’t like blood and gore and sex in all its forms, this might not be the book for you. For the rest of you – it’s the best collection I’ve read in a long while.

On a Goodreads scale I give it five stars.

Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Now for a change of pace. Yes, it’s book review time, and up on the blocks is Neil Gaiman’s latest offering: Norse Mythology. I have to admit, I was truly excited for this signed copy to arrive, like stalk-the-postman-excited (sorry, Kev). Mythology has always held a special place since I was a child. There were gods and monsters and battles and magic ‒ many-legged beasts and winged deities, muses and fates… so much wonder and woe. It was the playground of my imagination, both glorious and treacherous.

The Norse mythos is also one of my favourites – the gods are fallible, and they make no excuses for who and what they are. Gaiman, too, has used mythos in a lot of his work, American Gods (arguably one of his best) delves deeply into the role of gods both old and new, and those who have read it know exactly who Mr Wednesday is. So it really wasn’t a surprise that Gaiman decided to pen a retelling of the Norse mythos in his own words, expanded upon and tweaked somewhat.

Unlike my other book reviews, there’s no need for a spoiler warning here – this is known ground Gaiman’s covering. Which leads to my next question: why? I thought long and hard about this question, as there’s nothing really in Norse Mythology that you couldn’t find in The Edda. Sure, Gaiman has put his spin on it, but… that’s pretty much all you’re getting.

Look, don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful-looking book. That cover is sublime, and the print edition is top quality (gotta love those matt covers) and looks wonderful on my bookshelf – yes, even with just the spine showing. The writing is solid, the storytelling pure Gaiman (along with the humour and wit), but at times it did strike me as rather self-indulgent. Thing is, I’ve read The Edda, and that may be the issue I have with this – the source material is divine.

Norse Mythology

When I got to the end of Norse Mythology, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I didn’t hate it, but I couldn’t say I loved it either. What I did recognise, however, was its use for those who are testing the waters of Norse mythology and wondering whether it’s for them (it is, I’m just sayin’), or even just wondering what the fuss is all about. It’s the perfect introduction to the mythos, to those greater tales – the sagas – that so beautifully bring to life the Norse and their gods and goddesses, their giants and their beasts, of Fenrir and Sleipnir, and Gjallarhorn of Ragnarok.

Perhaps it’s for those who watch the series ‘Vikings’ (which I love), and want greater understanding of the role the gods and goddesses play in that universe. And if it’s a stepping-stone to someone wanting to read The Edda, then I’d say Norse Mythology has done its job.

There’s really not a lot else I can say about it. Was it truly awful? No. Did I enjoy it? Somewhat, I guess. And I think that’s where the real issue lies. There’s nothing… outstanding about it. Someone who has no real knowledge of the Norse mythos may have a different take on it; Norse Mythology is easier reading than The Edda. Maybe that was Gaiman’s idea behind the book, to make it accessible, to entice readers unfamiliar with the sagas to step into that world and explore. Maybe. I don’t know. Like I said, it does come off a little self-indulgent, but that could be just me.

The cover is beautiful though.

On a Goodreads scale I give Norse Mythology three stars.

It Takes A Village (To Raise A Book)

You there, about to load a first or second draft to a publishing platform. Yes, you. Don’t you hit that upload button. Back away from the keyboard nice and slow. That’s it, sit back, relax, we need to have a chat. Look, I know you’re excited about getting your baby out in the world, of having it read and getting those sales, but is it the best version of your baby? Or, are you sending it out half-formed and with shitty clothes? I said back away from the keyboard.

Okay, I understand that writing is mostly a solitary endeavour but the processes of getting your book out to readers is not. Doing that alone is a fool’s errand. I’ve listened (somewhat) patiently to authors telling me they don’t need beta readers or an editor or a cover artist or a cover designer or layout artist – they can do that all themselves and not have to worry about expenditure. Technically they’re right. With the advent of self-publishing and the associated platforms you most certainly can do this alone. The question is: should you? The answer is: no.

Expenditure is an issue, I get it, but if you don’t invest in your book, don’t expect readers to invest in it either. With the traditional route, your publisher will take care of this: the editing, the cover, the proofreading et al. (Note: with traditional publishing you shouldn’t pay for any of this – money flows to the author, not away – but that’s a subject for another post.) Author-publishers? Yeah, you need to pay for this yourself.

So let’s take a look at the processes you need to put out the best damn book you can. So you’ve finished the eleventy-first draft of your story and you’re pretty happy with where it is – characters are on point, plot is kicking-arse, sub-plots are woven nicely, narrative is killer. Time to get that baby out in the world! Yeah… no. What you have in your hands is a ‘rough draft’, the foundation upon which you will build. A strong foundation it may well be, but a foundation is what it is. Write, edit, redraft. Rinse and repeat.

You’ve spent a good lot of time and effort to get to this point, so you’re well past being able to see any issues with it. You don’t just hammer out a first draft and upload it. I suppose you can do that if you like (plenty of people have), but be prepared for any reviews to point out exactly where you went wrong. Plot holes? You got them. Spelling and grammar issues? Kill me now. Point-of-view hops? What’s happening! Layout all over the place? My eyes!

gouge eyes

It’s bad reviews for you. And bad reviews, especially when it comes to poor spelling and grammar, clichéd story, Mary-Sue/Marty-Stu characters will guarantee low-to-zero sales. Readers take note of bad reviews, especially those that cite all of the above. Remember, there’s that ‘look inside’ option, and you’ll lose that potential sale right there. Not only will you not get sales, readers tend to not give you a second chance. Why would they when there are plenty of other authors doing it the right way.

Because I love the point form, here’s a breakdown of who you need in your village (just step over the books strewn about the place):

  • Beta readers: the unsung heroes of the writing/publishing process. You’ll need at least two (but no more than five), and ones with differing skill sets ‒ someone who reads in your genre, and someone who doesn’t (librarian, book reviewer), someone who has an understanding of grammar and/or story mechanics. Not your nanna. She may be lovely, but… no.
  • Editor. And by editor I mean someone with qualifications (ask to see these), industry experience, and one who understands the genre in which you write. Beta readers are not editors. Editors know structure and syntax and speech, they know consistency, cohesion, and characterisation. They understand foreshadowing, and herrings, and Chekov’s rifle. They know subjects and predicates, showing versus telling, and they know dangling participles and why you shouldn’t have them. They know language, and they will tighten the crap out of your narrative.
  • Cover artist/cover designer. These can be two different people, so make sure you know what you’re getting. I won’t go into too much detail here as I’ve covered this in my previous post: Art of the Cover.
  • Layout artist. Yes, you need someone who understands desktop publishing and has the right tools for the job. No, you should not load a Microsoft Word document to a publishing platform ‒ the internals will be off-kilter, as will your kerning and typography. You don’t want bland and vanilla internals. With the right desktop publishing tools, your book becomes a reading experience. Layout is only noticeable when done poorly. And if someone tells you differently, run far and run fast.
  • Proofreader. This will be the final point at which you can catch any small issues eg. errant spaces, widows and orphans, correct page numbering etc. This is usually done with a PDF file called a galley proof. Best suggestion is to have someone other than your editor do the proof. New set of eyes means they’ll pick up any missed issues.

Now you’re probably bemoaning the processes and the associated costs, but if you want to put out professional product and be taken seriously then it needs to be done. Some editors will be happy to work with a  payment plan (and if asked will provide a sample edit), beta readers may ask for reciprocity, you can find reasonably-priced good cover artists and stock images, cover designers as well. These are processes you can’t skimp on if you want to do self-publishing right.

Check out Devin Madson’s episode on ‘Storywork’ about the 5 Steps to Professional Publishing. As a self-publisher, Devin has gone about this the right way. She gathered a village of beta readers, editor, cover artist, cover designer, layout artist around her and put out a book that rivals any published by the Big 5. Just take a look at one of the covers for her Vengeance Trilogy.

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This is author-publishing done right. Devin talks about your reputation as an author, and she’s not wrong. As I mentioned earlier, if you put out sub-par work don’t expect readers to return to your books, to buy them. Reputation can make or break you. Have it ‘make’ you.

Now before I let you return to your keyboard, think about all I’ve said, and think about the work you want the world to see. Professionally done books will bring readers back; the poorly done books will not. First impressions last.

It really does take a village to raise a book, a good book, a professional book… and when done right, you get a whole other village – readers, fans, those who will market upcoming releases for you, and who are willing to party with you for every book to come.

** Special shout-out to Adrian Collins of Grimdark Magazine for the suggestion for blog-post fodder — you rock, dude! Oh, and check out Grimdark Mag, they know their stuff!