With the rise of the ebook and the internet, publishing a novel is no longer about access to a printing press. More and more authors, both debut and experienced, are turning to self-publishing as a way to reach more readers, gain an audience for a particularly adventurous or unusual idea, or as a way to capture more of the proceeds of their work.
While self-publishing used to be the preserve of those who couldn’t get a ‘proper’ publisher to take them on, it is increasingly being seen as a viable alternative route to an audience — with some innovative writers skillfully using social media to cultivate a loyal readership.
We at Parallel Worlds would like to celebrate and highlight some of the better self-published novels out there — both to support writers whose work deserves a wider audience, as well as to guide you, our readers, to gems you may otherwise miss.
Enemy Immortal predicts that the human race will spread out into the stars and we’ll get to meet a number of aliens along the way. It’s set far into the future, when humanity is just one of many interstellar civilisations. Two vast empires struggle for control over the galaxy: ‘The Entanglement’ and ‘The Immortal Ascendency’.
It seems that to have any real chance of survival, a species has to join one of these two empires — and humanity is threatened by a fleet of brutal Immortal cyborgs who are on their way to enslave the Earth. To prevent this cataclysmic event, humanity chooses to join the other side. This isn’t without its complications, however; The Entanglement follows a rigid social order and assign a whole race to carry out each single function of their empire. There is a real fear that, as a result, humanity will lose its cultural identity and diversity.
Jade Mahelona is someone who shares this fear, not wanting to lose her Hawaiian identity. Personally, if I was Jade, I wouldn’t be too concerned about losing at least some of her past, after her own mother experimented on her to give her the ability to read others’ feelings and sense electrical fields. Handy skills to have, but really — your own mother?
Regardless, Jade’s usefulness and intelligence earned her a place as a Lieutenant in Earth’s Solar Defense Force. Three months out of the academy, and she’s made commander of a team sent on a mission to investigate an alien colony that has disappeared. You can imagine what such a fast promotion does for her popularity in the team. Before they even arrive at the colony they are ambushed by a ten-tonne cyborg Immortal known as Umlac, who wants to control whatever it was that made a whole colony vanish. Things start to go pear-shaped from there, and — to make matters worse — her performance and that of her team will determine if humanity joins The Entanglement or is left to the whim of the Immortal cyborg. No pressure then.
Enemy Immortal is the author’s debut novel and, although it would have benefitted from a good editor, it’s an impressive start. The diverse cast of characters are exceptional and imaginative, with strong personalities, and there are some really alien aliens — my favourite being the Dasypods, which reminded me of playing Plants vs. Zombies. Dasypods are plant-based, tumbleweed-shaped creatures rest by sticking their ‘feet’ into soil to suck up nutrients. The cultures of these diverse creatures are as complex as the creatures themselves, and a great deal of effort and thought has clearly gone into the cross-cultural dynamics and communication. One race even communicates via movement.
The story is interesting but linear, with little real surprise; however, there is plenty of action, which is engaging and fun. The plot takes focus over world-building (although the book isn’t devoid of this), helping to set a swift pace. Being fairly plot-driven and fast means you do really need to pay attention, as there are regular point of view jumps between characters. Some editing of how these shifts take place would have helped avert a feeling of disorientation. The book also shares a flaw with many self-published books: a propensity to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’.
But Enemy Immortal has a lot going for it, offering messages on cultural identity and diversity, while presenting some genuinely interesting aliens and some intriguing ideas — all wrapped in a fun story. Recommended for a light, not-too-serious sci-fi read.
Author: Jim Meeks-Johnson
Formats: paperback, ebook
The Majestic 311
Growing up in the 70s and 80s, western films and series were screen staples — while authors were beginning to write post-western (also known as ‘anti-western’) novels that challenged the ideals of the traditional story. In film and TV, the 21st Century seems to have almost entirely discarded the western genre, although small resurgences such as Westworld and The Hateful Eight help to prevent it from dying out completely. Thankfully, novels with a post-western theme are alive and kicking — tales that are often combined with other genres. These genre combinations are grouped into a sub-genre called ‘Weird Western’, and have been written since the early 80s by authors such as Joe R Lansdale, Stephen King (The Dark Tower series), Emma Bull (Territory), Gemma Files (The Hexslinger series), Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), and others.
It’s rare to see a weird western that slips into horror and seriously weird fantasy at the same time though — step forward The Majestic 311.
Back in 1903 the 311, a train of thirteen carriages known to locals as ‘The Majestic’, is carrying over 100 souls towards a tunnel that will lead them under the Canadian Rockies. The train safely enters the tunnel, but never emerges out of the other side. Search parties comb through the tunnel and surrounding area to no avail. Passengers and train are never seen again, although some members of the search parties claim to hear a ghostly whistle echoing in the tunnel. The only evidence of the train ever existing is an Oriental hand-fan, spread wide like a butterfly’s wing. The train slips into legend, a tale to be whispered around campfires.
Some years later, as winter snow blankets the Rockies, the Leland Baxter gang — a rough group of cattle thieves, gunmen, and cutthroats — wait on horseback outside the infamous tunnel. They plan on robbing the 5409, which is secretly carrying a whole train car of cash, destined to pay the workers of the British Columbia gold and copper mines. The sun drops before a train appears at speed. and they frantically board a locomotive that by all rights should be slowing — but, if anything, seems to be gaining momentum.
These seven unlucky souls haven’t boarded the 5409 but the missing Majestic 311, a train that never stops and from which no-one ever escapes.
The Majestic 311 is a wild ride that fits well into the weird category, as things get stranger and stranger the deeper the gang descend through the train. The author does a great job of creating some rough, dangerous characters that, even though they clearly are not the nicest of people, you can’t help rooting for when you realise what they are faced with. That doesn’t stop the author killing them off one by one, though (although perhaps not all — you’ll have to find out yourself). The pace is frantic, with the action picking up not long after they board the train and then hardly letting up throughout the rest of the book.
The author has a real talent for describing action scenes and doesn’t draw back from vivid, visceral detail. Be warned: there is a fair amount of bad language, so if you are easily offended this book isn’t for you. The quality of the writing is excellent, with some great dialogue interspaced with dark humour that prevents the novel becoming too grim. The author has been writing and self-publishing books for a number of years now, and his experience shows.
The story itself is original and as weird as I have read in a long time. I’ve never taken any serious (or illegal) drugs but I can imagine the resulting hallucinogenic trip wouldn’t be too dissimilar to reading The Majestic 311. Much safer and cheaper, too (if Breaking Bad is anything to go by).
If you like something a bit different or want to read something weirder than a £3 note, this book is for you.
The Majestic 311, by Keith C Blackmore, is available from Amazon.
Author: Keith C Blackmore
Formats: paperback, ebook
Fogbound: Empire in Flames
It is the 1890s, and London is a fog-shrouded half-ruin in the years following the Martian invasion. Fogbound: Empire in Flames is a spiritual sequel to H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, and the events of that book hang over the plot.
Sir Pelham Simmons is a ‘man catcher’, who ventures out into the dangerous wasteland beyond the city’s walls where the police won’t go, to bring in fugitives.
The author, Gareth Clegg, explicitly set out to write a steampunk novel, and Fogbound revels in its genre. It is a tight, well-constructed, and racy adventure novel. Simmons is cantankerous, middle-aged, chivalrous, and gruff, damaged from a past we’re given no more than a glimpse into. Most of the characters, in fact, are interesting, albeit often neatly divisible into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Bazalgette is a naive engineering genius whose childlike viewpoint forms a neat counterpoint to Simmons’, and the friendship that develops between these two main characters is charming. Clegg understands that characters need both things that they’re good at in order to be interesting, as well as flaws in order to be likeable.
Fogbound is clearly the result of a lot of passion for Victorian London. Many of the characters’ names are rooted in history, and the locations described — while warped towards the fantastic — are grounded by evident research. This is a formidably well-planned fantasy world.
The plot carries you along merrily. Its conspiracies, betrayals, and intrigue are not always the simplest to follow, but you hardly mind as the ride is so much fun. Exposition is smartly left to the bare minimum: the alien remnants of the invasion are clearly this world’s most threatening inhabitants, but this plot only tangentially concerns them, leaving you with the tantalising knowledge that there is much more to this fictional universe than you’ve seen.
However, Fogbound is not perfect. One limitation of self-publishing is presumably access to editorial scrutiny, but the odd typo and grammatical slip are easily overlooked here. The writing is rich with descriptions and adjectives — all of which adds colour, but does on occasion dip into purple prose. ‘Power armour’, of the Space Marines variety, feels well-worn as tropes go, but that’s probably my preference. More seriously, and from a structural point of view, there are a clutch of important characters introduced late into the piece who are therefore not as fleshed-out as they could be. The love story also seems an awkward addition, seemingly built upon nothing more than a few infrequent interactions.
However, none of this takes the pleasure out of Fogbound. The author’s delight in the period and thoroughness in research make every page rich and colourful. Clegg has succeeded in writing quintessential steampunk, seemingly mostly for his own enjoyment, and that sense of fun seeps through every page. Pick it up, and let’s hope there’s a sequel.
Fogbound: Empire in Flames, by Gareth Clegg, is available from https://garethclegg.com/ and Amazon.
Author: Gareth Clegg