Book Review: Crown of Vengeance – Stephen Zimmer (w/interview)
You guys are in for an amazingly long post today (insert evil laughter).
This review will be a little different than my normal ones. The reason why is because I have an author interview, as well. Thus, my review will be a little shorter (which some people say is still long). After the review I’ll post my interview.
A good book reviewing friend of mine, EdiFanoB, recommended Crown of Vengeance to me. He practically sung its praises. I figured I absolutely could not pass up an opportunity to read a book he enjoyed so much, so I hit up Stephen Zimmer for a review copy. He didn’t just send me a review copy, he send an autographed book, bookmarks and some really cool artwork as well. Now, instead of taking up more room and putting up a plot synopsis, I’m going to give you a few links so you can go find out about the book yourself.
Crown of Vengeance is the first book in a unique epic fantasy adventure series. Unique is a good word to describe this book. It’s not your typical epic fantasy. Zimmer starts his book out in modern day Lexington, Kentucky and then moves it through the mist and into another reality, another time and place entirely which is wholly fantasy. Because of this, Zimmer isn’t just telling an interesting story but he’s also playing with deep ideas about the nature of reality and the basic human drive we all feel at one point or another for “something more.” This book is surprisingly human while really grabbing onto the feeling of “what if.”
Zimmer spends the first chunk of his book focusing on his main caste of characters and really developing them, and their histories. While this could, at times, be slow going, once the mist comes in the plot really gets moving and these histories become important in character development and plot motion later on in the book.
Ave is a world rife with conflict and on the brink of an amazing war. It is here that Zimmer really hits his writing stride and fully shakes off some of the stylistic things that made the first two sections of the book fairly slow going. Perhaps that is because Ave is where the meat of the story really takes off and things start getting complex. Not only is he balancing the creation of Ave, but he’s also managing the relationships and developments of his crew from Earth. It’s an impressive feat.
Zimmer really has a flare for the details and while, at the start of the book I thought it was, at times, a tedious read, it really paid off later by making situations more understandable and believable on the whole. Some of the descriptions of culture, weaponry and the like were shockingly detailed and incredibly vivid. This, as well as really nicely done artwork interspersed throughout the book, really helped Ave burst to life in my mind.
Zimmer also does a good job at keeping things real. These characters from Earth don’t drop into Ave and save the day. Instead, he kind of leads you along and lets you wonder (and sometimes figure out) answers to questions you may have about them. The cast of characters does expand, but points of view never get confusing. Each character has, and keeps their own unique voice and perspective throughout. He ends Crown of Vengeance nicely, with enough unanswered questions to keep fans coming back for more in future installments in the series.
All in all, this was a surprisingly good book with a compelling storyline. Zimmer has a flare for details and in a work this interesting and complex it pays off. If the start is a little slow, it’s a wonderful foundation for the rest of the book and for the series as a whole. The plot is nicely paced and believable. The detailed character development insures that the readers will find a believable cast they can care about in these pages. The book is a good blend of new ideas and Tolkien-esque imagery. Zimmer is a promising writer and I anxiously await the next installment in this series.
Now, onto the author interview!
Would you mind telling the readers a little about yourself?
First of all, thanks for the opportunity to visit with you, Sarah! As far as myself, I am an author and filmmaker currently residing in the heart of the Bluegrass, here in Lexington, Kentucky. I have been published for just a couple of years now, though the two series that are out have involved many years in development.
I have a wide range of interests, from hard rockin’ music, to medieval and military history, to all things book and film related, to my loyal four-legged cohorts (currently, a super cat named Harold, but formerly including another wonderful cat and a couple of basset hounds!), Monster Energy drinks, travel, travel, and more travel, and much more. I really believe you become a better writer by expanding your horizons of experience, so I’m always interested in learning about new people, places, and things.
I saw that you also work for an independent film company. Has working with movies/entertainment in that way impacted your writing at all?
Being a screenwriter and director/producer has been helpful to my writing, in that filmmaking really makes you think of storytelling in a visual manner, which can help in your approach to writing a major scene in a novel. I have always been very visually minded, and when writing I “see” everything playing out in my head as I write. I sometimes refer to it as being in my “zone”. Screenwriting is a very minimalist form of writing, and very different from writing for a novel, but its discipline does help in terms of focusing in upon what’s most important in a scene.
One of the first things I noticed about Crown of Vengeance was that the book starts out in the modern world with characters from all walks of life from a low-key drug dealer to a college kid whose family is stuck in Iraq during the war. This really humanizes the plot and, I think, gives the cast of characters a very well rounded, realistic feel that a lot of books lack. Did you set out to accomplish that sort of realistic everyone-can-relate-to-someone-in-some way feel or did it just sort of happen as you wrote?
I definitely set out to bring realism to any character, whether fanciful in nature or not. In the case of the characters that you meet at the beginning of Crown of Vengeance, I wanted to bring a group with a diverse range of life experiences to go together on the grand adventure. I really believe you can find something in everyone that you can connect with, if you bother to take the time, and I am glad that some of this resonated with your reading of the characters from our world appearing in Crown of Vengeance.
You do have a wide variety of backgrounds featured with your characters. Did you find that some were harder to write than others?
I really didn’t have any significant obstacles in developing the characters. They all flowed pretty smoothly into the story, as they emerged. I am an astute observer, as I think most writers tend to be, so I’ve taken mental notes on a variety of individuals and professions over the years, a lot of which weaves its way into the constructions of characters such as those in Crown of Vengeance. I have known many individuals in similar situations to characters such as this, whether war veterans, restaurant owners, students from other countries, etc. I gained wonderful insights from these friends and acquaintances, and I hope it helped translate to writing realistic characters.
Despite the fact that your characters all come from such different walks of life, they all have something in common. They are all dissatisfied, or somewhat displeased with their current lives and are wishing for something different – something more. Then the mist appears, and they end up somewhere else. Dissatisfaction with life is such a common feeling that we all experience at one point or another and you’ve managed to turn that into a very subtle, but pivotal plot point. That interests me because usually in fantasy the plot hinges on prophecy or some invading empire and while there is plenty of drama and action in Crown of Vengeance, it’s still that subtle feeling that really drove everyone to be where they ended up being. It was also the first real uniting theme among your cast and it really managed to resonate with me. Is there any specific reason you inserted that theme into your book?
There is a certain restlessness in most every individual, which can take many forms, ranging from things more ambitious to other things that are more simple in nature. This drive for “something more in life” is very much at our core, and is what is behind the pursuits of science, faith in religions, and other personal quests. Otherwise we would just remain inert and never get up in the morning.
This searching/restlessness is certainly present in many forms with the characters in Crown of Vengeance, where you have characters like Janus, who is very restless in regards to some of the biggest questions about life and existence, to others like Logan, who have a burning, ambitious edge that has not been sated, and, like fire, can result in something beneficial or harmful. Then there are some like Antonio, who is not asking for quite so much in life, though even that little seems nearly impossible to reach. Erika, Mershad, Lynn, Erin, Lee, and Ryan all have their own inner desires and hopes, and I really believe this reflects reality at a deep level. Reflecting those things in these characters helps to strengthen the reader’s connection with the characters, and helps the reader to relate to them, and perhaps find some personal common ground with one or more of them.
You really let your imagination run wild with your creatures/peoples in Crown of Vengeance. This is another point that interests me because they are all so unique and different than anything I’ve read in other fantasy books. Not only did you manage to create some amazing creatures, but you also managed to find an artist who could draw them all. Was it a challenge for you to create such interesting peoples/animals? Did you have to work closely with the artist to insure he got the drawings to align with your vision? Most books don’t add illustration, but it’s a nice flourish with yours that helped me picture the world more vibrantly. What made you decide to insert them into your book?
I definitely agitated for the artwork, as I have always loved the idea of having illustrations in books. From old Dickens and Tolkien novels, to the graphic novels of today, there is definitely a place for illustrations. I am fortunate to have an amazing artist working with me in this area, Matthew Perry. At this point, on the cusp of book 2 of the Fires in Eden series, a fairly substantial body of artwork has been developed between these books and the Rising Dawn Saga books.
As far as the process, I like to see what Matt comes up with based on his own interpretation of the text. I do give some suggestions on scenes in the book that might make for good artwork, and, if it involves something that has a historical reference, I provide some background, but the only things that I ever ask Matt to change involve cases where there is a very clear difference between something in the artwork and the text itself. An example of this was when Matt rendered the dragon Gorynych in the Rising Dawn Saga with one head in his first draft, when the dragon (based upon one from Russian lore) is described as being three-headed. We both had a good laugh about that one!
I also want to give my readers the best release possible, and the artwork is another way I can demonstrate my ardent commitment to my readers, to bring them a release that they can enjoy on many levels. My readers make my journey possible, which is why I call them my reader-friends, as friends help you attain your dreams, so why would I not try to put everything I can into a release? That’s the least I can do for them, and if I am fortunate enough to progress in my career, I will express this deep appreciation to my readers in bigger and bigger ways.
You mentioned graphic novels. Are you a graphic novel fan? If you are, what are some of your favorites?
I do find graphic novels fascinating, and am actually talking to Matt about a possible collaboration in this area involving some of my short stories. Unfortunately, I do not have an extensive graphic novel background as a reader, though it is not because I don’t like them. As far as favorites, I would have to say the Frank Miller stuff is incredible, and made for some great translations to the movie world.
This question is pure conjecture because I haven’t read The Exodus Gate yet, but from what I can see about both books is they start in this world more or less, and then somehow move into another dimension, or alternate reality whereas most fantasy/sci fi books seem to wholly take place “somewhere else.” It seems like you enjoy toying with reality a bit. Am I off the mark on that? Care to elaborate/correct me?
I love the idea of parallel worlds, which is something that is gaining more credence all the time with modern physicists. Whether more mystical or scientific in nature, I find it very fascinating to think that you can step right out of one realm of existence into another. As a child, this is what grabbed me immediately when I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.
The idea plays out a little differently in the two series, as our world and Ave are both physical worlds in the Fires in Eden series, whereas the Rising Dawn Saga, as of now, takes place in a physical world (one that is close to, but not our own) and in non-physical realms. There is also decidedly more “back and forward” movement with characters between dimensions in The Rising Dawn Saga than in the Fires in Eden Series.
You mentioned C.S. Lewis above, what are some other authors/books that you consider influential to your writing?
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are at my foundational level, in terms of inspiration, but I do have many other authors that I consider to be strong influences, ranging from George R.R. Martin, to David Gemmell, Robert E. Howard, Clive Barker and Glen Cook. On the small press level I have discovered some incredible authors, such as H. David Blalock (whose novel Ascendant was the basis for the short film Swordbearer that I just directed), D.A. Adams, and my two main cohorts with Seventh Star Press, Steven Shrewsbury (who is right in the vein of Robert E. Howard and David Gemmell), and Jackie Gamber.
You are writing both the Fires in Eden series and The Rising Dawn Saga, both of which are epic. I couldn’t imagine working on two epic series at once, plus working a job on top of that. How do you balance it all, and keep both of your series straight? Do you have an organization secret behind your genius?
I love writing, and doing what you love does not feel like “work”. I’ve always said that I feel fine working a 100 hour week if it is spent doing something I like, while 30 hours spent doing something you don’t like can be immensely tedious. If I can shed other obligations and make the transition to full time creative endeavors, my output would increase even more, in fact. Admittedly, I do not have much spare time, but I make time for writing, as that is when I am happiest.
Though I didn’t plan it this way, I have come to discover that alternating releases between two series has been very advantageous. It allows me to approach each new book with a fresh mindset and vision, which has resulted in me being able to see new avenues for various threads, as well as things that need to be cut out, well before I put a draft on my editor’s desk. I really believe that if I just went in direct sequence I would not pick up on some of these things as well as I have in alternating the two series. I think it has also produced very strong benefits when it gets to the editing phase, as Karen Leet, my editor in the Fires in Eden Series, has made many positive comments about how clean my text was when I handed book 2 in.
How long did writing Crown of Vengeance take you from inception of the idea to publication (if you had to guess)? Is there any specific “ah ha” moment where you were working on this novel and you realized you had something special?
The Fires in Eden Series was set in motion in the mid-1990’s, so it has been in development for quite some time. I would say that around 2003, I gave the material a big overhaul, and focused really hard on giving a historical feel to the things of Ave, bringing in a mountain of medieval research to bolster the cultures, weapons, and lands of Ave. If there was an “ah ha” moment, then it was probably this phase, which was when I was able to bring the series to a point where I was ready to move forward to seek an editor, and look to get it published.
Speaking of the Fires in Eden series, do you have a projected publication date for the next book in the series and how many books are you planning to write in this series?
We are holding fast to a pattern of releasing a new book in the Rising Dawn Saga every summer, and a new book in the Fires in Eden Series every winter. The Exodus Gate was released in spring of 2009, with Crown of Vengeance in November of 2009, with The Storm Guardians in June of 2010, and book 2 of Fires in Eden coming here in December. As of now, we project about 7 books in the series, give or take one title. The main story arc is set, so we have a pretty good idea of the full scope of the series.
I am not going to keep my reader-friends waiting with extensive hiatus’s! If they commit to reading my work, then I am committed to delivering the new books in a timely fashion to them.
I would like to thank Stephen Zimmer for taking the time out of his busy life to talk with me. I sincerely appreciate the time spent and the effort made.