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“It’s good but depressing” is the headline of the first 3-star review I received for Firehurler, just the other day. I’ve got as thin a skin as the next author, so after receiving almost exclusively positive feedback for my books so far, I cringed a bit. “Have I finally been found out?” “Is there something all the other readers have just been afraid to tell me?”

Well, I read the review. Averting my eyes or looking at its reflection in a polished shield weren’t going to spare me its contents.

I thought firehurler was a very original idea. i’ve never read anything else with that sort of alternate dimension mechanic. It’s just a bit grim for me. It is hard to pinpoint what would have made this a better read for me. There was definately humor, though maybe its dark nature is what kept me from truly enjoying it. Still if you like grim novels, this is a very well written and original one.

3 out of 5 stars

60% original and well written, 40% grim and depressing

Well, there have certainly been more scathing reviews of novels. After all, they did give it three starts, not one. On the whole, it was even fairly complimentary. There just seemed to be one hang-up that the writer had: it was “too grim”.

This is an interesting concept for me, since I’ve never considered myself to be a writer of grim tales. I mean, I suppose I have it in me, but I haven’t done it yet. Or had I? I tossed the question out to my Twitter followers. My favorite of the responses:

Neither MLP nor Red Wedding

There were other responses along the same lines, but this one I think most succinctly captured the essence of the counter argument. OK, so maybe Firehurler isn’t the grimmest, darkest, most depressing novel out there, but it certainly falls along a continuum from G-rated Pixar fare to MacBeth. But where?

Let’s look at a few characteristics that go into making a novel grim, dark, or depressing and how they apply to Firehurler (I’ll keep this as spoiler-free as possible):

  • Themes: Firehurler is mainly a battle of wits and self-discovery that spills over into actual battles and trying to root out the secrets of others. Probably not the source of any grimness I’ve written.
  • Atmosphere: This is epic high fantasy, not horror. I try to convey scope, grandeur, history, and the like. I’m not intentionally trying to create a sense of dread (ok, well maybe here or there). We’ll give this one an “unlikely”.
  • Tragedy: Well, here we might be on to something, or at least a hint of something. Bad things happen in Firehurler, and not always to people who might deserve it. Wearing a “white hat” doesn’t protect anyone from the consequences of their actions (or from being in the way of someone else’s plans). There are battles; there are assassins; there are pirates (the ruthless sort, not the amusingly foppish sort). This is probably the root of whatever may be grim or depressing.

The only other thing I felt I really needed to consider was whether I had led any readers astray. Was what I portrayed out of line with other works in the genre? Were the blurb and cover giving an unfair impression of what lay within? As to the first, I’d say unequivocally not. The Lord of the Rings sets the standard for all fantasy, and for epic fantasy in particular. There’s nothing in Firehurler that stands out as darker than the battle of Helm’s Deep, or the trek through Mordor. There’s also nothing so graphic as the wildly popular Game of Thrones (or any of the rest of A Song of Ice and Fire for that matter).

How about the cover and blurb? The blurb I tried to keep as neutral as possible. The premise is both the novel’s hook and its little surprise. I spend nearly the whole of the blurb dancing the line between enticement and spoilers, and don’t delve into the action much. I think I like it that way. What then of the cover? Let’s examine the key elements: knight, sword, fire.

Annotated Firehurler Cover

Let’s break this down into its component parts

  •  Knight: Chivalrous, valiant, brave. If you see a knight performing vile acts, you are certainly in grim territory, but I’d say more fantasy treats that as the exception. There is certainly a hint that there will be combat.
  • Sword: Part and parcel to the knight, the sword implies there will be some sword fighting. How many books have a sword prominently displayed on the cover but no one uses one?
  • Fire: It’s not a campfire, or a torch, it’s a ball of fire held in hand. One might (correctly) surmise that this implies magic, and specifically magical fire. Do sorcerers use magical fire? Doesn’t seem out of the question. Can you think of terribly many nice things they might do with it? (I’ll leave you to dwell on that one)

The long and the short of it is that one review with a different take on my book gave me pause for a fair bit of introspection. I think, more than anything, it shows that there are people with all different tastes out there, and that what’s fine fare for one may cross a line for someone else.

Fun Challenge

What’s the tamest (as in least dark, least grim, least violent) book that shows someone with a sword on the cover?

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