A Review of Four and Twenty Blackbirds

I was mentioning earlier that I had picked up Cherie Priest’s debut novel Four and Twenty Blackbirds and would be taking it with me to the trade show I went to last weekend; well, I did, and I read it while I was there, staying up until about 3am to finish it (fortunately, I didn’t have to sign any books until 1:40 pm the next day).

Briefly speaking, I was quite happy with it. It gave me a good spook and offered a lot of evocative writing without falling into the faux-Anne Rice verbiage many other Southern-based ghost stories I’ve read have done — Ms. Priest has her own voice, and that’s a good thing. She also has a good eye for imagery: The heroine Eden’s visit to a creepy old mental hospital and her arrival into the Florida city of St. Augustine are both very vivid.

My only complaint about the book is that it was too short, which is to say I would have like to have gone into deeper depth concerning Eden’s relationship with the ghosts that haunt her — not in explaining the relationships (which is handily done in the telling of the tale), but in the experience of interacting with those ghosts and an exploration of those abilities and how they were passed to her. I don’t think my desire to want to go deeper with that constitutes a failure of the book, however; it’s just a manifestation of where my own curiosities lie. 4&20 is plotted and executed well, and the author’s own plan for a tale doesn’t always coincide with that of the individual reader. I do know Ms. Priest has additional books in the series on the way, so maybe those things will get explored more there.

I’ll be passing along 4&20 to Krissy when she’s done with the book she’s currently reading; Krissy’s a big fan of southern gothics, so this is going to be right up her alley. I also think it would read very well for a teen audience; I could give this to my 16-year-old niece without a problem (perhaps as a double feature with Scott Westerfeld’s Peeps). And overall I’m happy to say I can recommend the book, and I’m looking forward to Wings to the Kingdom, the sequel, which as I understand will be available in late 2006.

Also, I think the 4&20’s cover art is absolutely fabulous.  

As an aside to the review the book, I’ve discovered with some interest that Ms. Priest and I have an unusual thing in common — both of us sold novels to Tor after serializing them online: Me with Old Man’s War, which I serialized here, and she with 4&20, which she serialized on a now defunct LiveJournal. 4&20, however, came to Tor by a rather more excruciating route (Ms. Priest originally sold the book to a small press, and it quickly became clear this might have not been a great idea; see this entry on Ms. Priest’s site for the whole sordid story). The novels appear to have been written more or less at the same time (2001), although her serialization predates mine (she did it in 2001, it seems, posting as she wrote, whereas I did it in 2002, after the book had been finished for more than a year).

I think it’s interesting and significant that two unknown writers who serialized their novels online eventually had those novels find their way to Tor. Among other things it shows both a proactiveness on the case of the Tor editors (Patrick Nielsen Hayden for me, Liz Gorinsky for Ms. Priest) to find work rather than just let work come to them; it also shows their facility in and comfort with the online world (both PNH and Liz have blogs of their own).

I don’t think this means that everyone should now start serializing their novels online, hoping for PNH or Liz or some other editor to wander by; you’ll note that Ms. Priest notes in the above-linked entry that she didn’t expect anything to come of her posting the work , and the reason I posted is because I was too damn lazy to shop the book around and had accepted the idea that posting it online would kill its sales value. Our experiences aside, it’s still vastly better to get your work in front of editors in their preferred manner than trying to get them to come to you (note here also that Ms. Priest did submit to Tor in the old-fashioned way; Liz found the partial manuscript on the slush pile before tracking down Ms. Priest online).

However, our experience does suggest that at least one publisher out there is looking to find good (and hopefully profitable) work from new writers by any means necessary. For first-time writers, this should be an encouraging thought.

19 Comments on “A Review of Four and Twenty Blackbirds”

  1. For first-time writers, this should be an encouraging thought.

    It is indeed. I am discouraged and encouraged by turns; I’ll read something about how authors are making terrible money, and how there’s no possible way for anybody other than a lucky 0.00001% to make a living any more, and then I’ll come here or to Lynn Viehl’s blog and read stuff by people who are making a living as authors.

    In general, I am encouraged. However, that may be because of my natural optimism rather than realistic evaluation of my writing. What the hell, there’s always POD, right? :)

  2. First of all John, many, many thanks.

    And second — believe it or not, the *original* edition was fully 20K shorter. I believe I mentioned in that post you linked that it wasn’t really finished when the small press declared they wanted it. I can’t tell you how happy I was to get a chance to rework it a little more at my leisure.

    Third — Dean — I sure did get lucky, but it came towards the end of ten years of working for that luck. And if only I made a living as an author. I’ve still gota 40 hours-a-week day job, I’m afraid. ;-)

  3. Well, I’m making my living as a writer; I make part of that as an author.

    I probably should have said ‘writer’. I’d be happy doing either, or both.

    Dean — I sure did get lucky, but it came towards the end of ten years of working for that luck.

    I’m a firm believer in the old saw about making your own luck.

  4. Most of us who are “authors” have the good ol’ reliable day jobs. I spend 6am-3pm every weekday scrutinizing invoices and supervising teenagers who really, really, want to sneak out behind the building and smoke.

    Now, if only I could find a day job where I could write while pretending to work…

  5. I just picked up that book last night, but I’m not letting myself read it until I finish at least one of the other books I’m reading. It keeps staring at me while my back is turned, though, so I may cave and start it by the end of the day. We’ll see.

    Tor seems (and has, really, for some time now) really awesome. I would very much like to work there, I think. But I may be biased by my shameless fangirling of the Nielsen Haydens.

  6. Cherie Priest writes:

    “First of all John, many, many thanks.”

    Pish and tosh. Don’t thank me; you’re the one who wrote a good book. My recommending it follows naturally from that fact.

  7. Oddly enough, I was fixated on the idea of submitting my first novel to Tor for years as I tried to write it. In early 2004, I posted a few excerpts online for some friends to read, and those caught the attention of Simon Spanton, an editor over at Gollancz in the UK. He asked to see a larger sample of the book, and that was all she wrote; I have four books under contract to the guy now. ;)

    There are definitely a few editors who have their feelers out for interesting stuff floating around the ‘net, and an uncanny level of web awareness. I think you’re wise to point out that the traditional submission process is still the best way to go, but I can corroborate that other sorts of happy accidents do occur.

  8. Hello. Non-author/reader here with a sticky question: This makes two novels (that I’m aware of) that I could have read from free, but now have to pay for. Does anyone have any suggestions for how to find good serialized novels online *before* they get picked up & published (other than the standard Googling, of course…)

  9. You want free and good, Brian? Yeeesh! There’s no pleasing some people.

    I’m not aware of a clearing house site where people go to announce their serialized online novels. I suppose to some extent you just have to hunt for them.

    Bear in mind also that the final published novel may vary significantly from what’s online; as Ms. Priest noted, the Tor version of her book had significant additions/improvements.

  10. A quick Google search for ‘online novels’ returned 19,800,000 hits, with the first few entries offering free online novels. Of course there is no way to judge the quality of these offerings, but perhaps Brian could give some of them a try and report back to us…

  11. Brian,If you don’t insist on works from this century (or heck, the last ~75 years), check out Project Gutenberg, quite possibly the coolest web site ever. It’s been around essentially forever, in Internet terms (I stumbled on it back in ’92 I think). Their goal is to produce freely available etexts of everything in the public domain (which is sadly becoming a more obtainable goal as copyright keeps getting longer and longer).You can get pretty much all of the “classics” there, as well as lots of early 20th century pulp novels. Lots o’ good stuff.You can even help proofread new books if you’re feeling helpful.

  12. Brian – I don’t believe those novels weren’t posted online for free. Small portions (excerpts) only were posted online, not the entire work. So even if you’d known about them earlier, you wouldn’t have been able to read them for free.

  13. Livia Llewellyn writes:

    “So even if you’d known about them earlier, you wouldn’t have been able to read them for free.”

    No, I posted Old Man’s War in its entirety.

  14. No, I posted Old Man’s War in its entirety.

    I was talking about Cherie’s and Scott Lynch’s work, and wasn’t including yours. Sorry I didn’t make the distinction!

  15. Oh yes, I never posted the entirety of my novel online, for the sinister reason that it wasn’t finished. ;) I think I posted three excerpts before I heard from Simon.

    The whole idea of posting or serializing a complete work online intrigues me, and I want to play with it, eventually.

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