The Big Idea: Sam Sykes

For the record: I don’t own that particular hat. Other than that, everything Sam Sykes says about me in this Big Idea piece for his new novel The Mortal Tally is 100% accurate. Especially the part about the ventilation shafts.


Aside from his immense popularity, staggering wealth and a super-cool hat that says “WORLD’S BEST CROATIAN GRANDDAD,” there’s been only one other thing that John Scalzi has that I really want.

The ability to be recognized as a threat to society.

So, I don’t know if you knew, but I have a new book coming out. It’s called The Mortal Tally, the second book in the Bring Down Heaven trilogy. It’s also my second trilogy I ever wrote, the first one being The Aeons’ Gate. Back when I was first starting out, I pored over every review I got, agonized over every criticism they gave me, ruined my mood for days whenever someone was slightly mean to me on the internet.

Eventually, I learned to ignore it. I learned that whatever people might have to say about my particular work was irrelevant next to the story I wanted to tell. I learned that trying to reconcile different perspectives from different criticisms was a futile effort and that neither were as important as me going forward and pouring all my heart and soul into my next work and that reading reviews would be detrimental to that.

I still hold that reading reviews is a waste of time.

And for a long time, I was very content to take my own advice.

Until it started.

I think it began with Joe Abercrombie, when he linked a negative review where someone actually set his book on fire because he feared that it would infect the world with nihilism. It’s continued through the years with authors who are routinely accredited with far-reaching motives to ruin society via the inclusion of gay characters, progressive plots or the suffusion of too many emotions in their writing.

Few people seem to get as much hate as John Scalzi. I can’t figure out why, since he’s mostly nice except for the times when he goes rummaging around in my ventilation shafts hoarding cheese. But I’ve seen people accuse him of everything from trying to ruin science fiction to actually cannibalizing science fiction authors to trying to destroy marriage.

Now, don’t get me wrong, fellows. I’m not a political guy. I don’t want to get into big arguments, to have my twitter feed filled with people trying to fight me over politics (I made a joke about Chicken McNuggets and Bernie Sanders that haunts me to this day), so I get it will sound a little hypocritical when I say this, but…

I want in.

I started perusing my own reviews again recently in hopes that someone had come out and proclaimed me to have been the doom of America. I was hoping someone would accuse me either of trying to ruin the moral fiber of the world or of having a shadowy agenda (leftist or rightist, I’m not picky, so long as I can be a bogeyman).


What I got was a few people complaining that I write emotional characters.

Which is kind of hard to deny. Or get mad about.

Though, in a way, it does strike me as kind of subversive to have characters that are overly emotional, angsty or even whiny. In the same way that I’m starting to view a lot of my work as kind of subversive for having slow pacing, not the greatest worldbuilding, and other stuff that we routinely grumble about in fantasy.

I’m not trying to slam on people who like quick pacing, fleshy worldbuilding and grim characters who don’t say a lot. Nor am I trying to suggest that fantasy is plagued with faux machismo and overly emotional characters are seen as an allergen to be purged.

Rather, I’m trying to say that we, somewhere along the line (probably around the time it became cool to accuse each other of trying to destroy things we love), lost our love of subversion.

Not the mechanical subversion that comes from such things as, say, subverting a trope so that dragons all run juice bars instead of hoards. We still love that. But rather, we started seeing subversion of mechanics as the only form of subversion. We support those subversions that occur in places that we are expecting subversion (that is, reimaginings on things we’ve already seen before), but become hesitant in subversions of things we weren’t expecting.

Sex in fantasy is pretty subversive. Not rape, there’s a lot of talk about that. But consensual, emotional, meaningful sex is pretty rare. The emotions that go into it and the way it raises the stakes of a relationship are often met with scoffing. Don’t believe me? Go look for reviews of popular fantasy books and see how many times the phrase “is the sex scene really necessary” comes up.

Mystery in fantasy is pretty subversive. Having things not totally planned out in advance, having things that can’t be explained by a mechanic, having problems that don’t have a clear solution are all met with some consternation from readers. I’ve read enough criticisms of an underdeveloped magic system to know.

And emotions are pretty subversive. We like motivations—the rage at seeing a loved one die, the sense of duty that comes from a long lineage—but emotions give us pause. We don’t like seeing characters who make bad decisions based on their emotions. We don’t like agonizing on emotions like whether our lovers are true or lying or whether we’re actually just lying to ourselves when we say we can do better. We like decisive action and possibly two lines afterward to reflect on the tragedy of it all.

Which is a shame, because The Mortal Tally has all those things and I’m super proud of them.

Now, I’m sure someone out there is gearing up to angrily refute all of this and offer a billion different examples of how it’s done—not you, though, gentle reader, you are precious and cuddly—and I welcome those.

And it might be thinking too highly of myself to be ascribing all these things I’ve done to subversion. It could just be that people don’t like these things at all and I’m putting out a conflict where none exists. It could just be that I like pushing at things and making things obnoxious and like to bust out grandiose explanations for them to explain away my own abrasiveness.

Or perhaps it could be that these things really do bring down societies and that’s why we don’t write about them as much.

In which case, I eagerly look forward to your review.


The Mortal Tally: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

11 Comments on “The Big Idea: Sam Sykes”

  1. I wish you’d told us more about the book (and the series, which I learned about on Amazon, where I went to find out what the book is about) than about why you wrote it. With the greatest of respect and with no wish to start a kerfluffle, I really am not all that invested in author motivation. I’d like to know more about the world you created.

    (To be fair, I have the same issue with other Big Idea authors as well, so please don’t think it’s just you I’m picking on.)

  2. And from the opposite side, I really enjoyed reading about the authorial motivation — in fact, I think this was the MOST interesting Big Idea column I’ve read in a while.

  3. Magda,

    I think that’s the point of the Big Idea, is to show what inspired or motivated the author to write the book being talked about. Check out Sam’s web site for more details on the books themselves as well as an online comic that introduces the characters and the world.

    Also, Sam is a cool guy, so you should Buy His Book!

  4. Already purchased and can not wait to read what happens next to Lenk and his companions.

  5. On-topic: I liked this. I’m going to try and stay among the precious and cuddly readers and stop myself from reflexively arguing about the subversiveness or lack thereof of some of the things mentioned in the list, but regardless, all of those things make for an engaging Big Idea post and made me curious to find out more about the book.

    My two cents for the other convo happening in this thread: Personally, I think the more Big Idea posts resemble publishers’ descriptions, the less informative and therefore less valuable they are to me as a reader. Publishers’ descriptions already exist, after all. Not to mention every critic’s review of a book includes at least a couple sentences summing up the basic premise and provides a wealth of information about the reading experience itself.

    Big Idea, for me, is an opportunity to learn something I wouldn’t otherwise have known about the kernel at the heart of a story. I click through and add books to my reading list after reading a particularly interesting Big Idea post far more often than I do while surfing through new releases on Goodreads, and I attribute it mostly to the fact that the Big Idea for a book *isn’t* just an answer to the question, “What’s it about?”

  6. Magda:

    So there’s this guy, Lenk, in a pre-industrial secondary world filled with weird magics, multiple races and a lot of religions. Lenk is in many ways not a good person, but then also has this annoying conscience he can’t get away from every time (some of the time, but not every time.) Plus he’s falling in love with someone he’s not supposed to fall in love with. He’s got this gang of adventurer mercenaries, some of whom have to restrain themselves from not eating/killing the others, and all of them are not thrilled when he gets them into a mess of an assignment that involves pirates, ancient secrets, sea gods, demons, dimensional gates, magical weapons, saving the world, etc. So that’s the first trilogy.

    This seems to be the second book in the second trilogy involving Lenk and his band getting themselves again into another religious and magical war with demons, mysterious riddles, gods, swordbattles, etc. in a giant city. Which is partly because these people are not the most competent folk in the world, even if they do end up saving things a lot. (They have a large problem getting people to pay them for their work.) So for this second trilogy, it seems to be less water and more skullduggery.

    If you like rogue fiction — and who does not really — they’re fun. They’re not slapstick satire (well a scene here or there, but not fully,) and have some existential inner crises to the characters whose total lack of appropriateness for working together somehow ends up working. They have a lot of battle action and some dark Lovecraftian horror (squishy deadly monsters!) tempered with main characters who have a good bit of mushy interior. The dialogue is quite good, which is essential for rogue fiction. So if you have enjoyed Joe Abercrombie, Mike Sullivan, Douglas Hulick, Max Gladstone, Scott Lynch, Alex Bledsoe and Karen Miller, etc., then I’d certainly recommend adding Sykes to the list. He’s built up quite a following and deserves it.

    But. His world building is complex and inventive. His pacing is not slow and he has lots of action. His characters are talky, but that’s one of his best features. They’re also grimmer than he likes to think, but not super grim. About regular for a rogue story. Consensual, romantic sex is of course not rare in fantasy fiction. (Perhaps read more women authors, Sykes.) And mystery and fantasy are best friends since the beginning of recorded time. Fantasy fiction characters are also the most emotional characters on Earth. Subversive, it is not.

    So really, you just need to have some lesbians who insist on non-binary pronouns in the third book and they’ll come running. (Not that this is subversive in SFF either, but in the outside world it apparently signals the end of times to some people.) But if you want Scalzi levels of doom prophecy, it doesn’t have much to do with the books. You instead just need to piss off online someone who has nothing better to do than round up some troglodytes to whine about how you’re not really popular as a writer, are secretly a communist Nazi and are pretending to be nice to women to get laid or something. (Or do a YouTube video about how electronic games could improve their portrayal of women characters.)

    And congrats on the new book — super cover for it.

  7. On topic: Cool book blurb.

    Mostly off topic, but you kinda brought it up in the piece, so I’m calling it fair game: Wait. Is Scalzi Croatian? I would say that was my grandfather’s religion but he wasn’t as serious as church as he was about “the club” (The local CFU club. Heh. Which acronym only now as an adult am I realizing contains FU in it). And there was a story told in a a star-crossed lover type way about my grandmother’s parents – one Serbian and one Croatian.

    My grandfather was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met (which non-family members would echo as well). Thank you for the flashback :)

  8. @Kat Goodwin: “So for this second trilogy, it seems to be less water and more skullduggery.”

    Thanks for making me LOL, Kat!

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