We’re a few weeks in to the Under the Radar series and I’m still struggling to figure some things out. The intent, ostensibly, is to call attention to novels that we believe are being under-recognized by some nebulous population of readers. Two of the authors I’ve pointed out—Teresa Frohock and Zachary Jernigan—are actually quite well reviewed and regarded by the blogging community. In fact, both have received more coverage on blogs than many authors who sell exorbitantly more copies. I chose them because of their sales numbers. Despite endless positive reviews for both titles, they weren’t able to penetrate the average readers’ awareness. What I bet the general public doesn’t understand is what I mean when I talk about “struggling sales.”
We all know Patrick Rothfuss sells a lot of books. Would it surprise you to know that some of the books I’ve talked about sold less than .01% of The Name of the Wind in the US? Because those are the kinds of differences in volume that we’re talking about. Taking it international and it’s probably more like .0001% because many of the books we talk about in this series don’t even have foreign rights deals. Take it up another notch to someone like Charlaine Harris and the numbers really boggle.
What about someone like Daniel Abraham? He’s a well-known name; one half of the New York Times bestselling James S.A. Corey, the man behind M.L.N. Hannover, author of the completed series The Long Price Quartet and the ongoing Dagger and Coin series, Abraham is one of the most prolific writers in the business. In seven years, he’s published sixteen novels, with three more coming in 2013. Not to mention a host of novellas and short stories scattered throughout various markets. Add up all his book sales and he may be approaching what Rothfuss has done for his first book. Maybe.
While the Dagger and Coin series is a success by any measure, it’s in no way selling as much as it ought to. Abraham is unquestionably the best epic fantasy writer in the middle of a series working today. His books come out every June like clockwork. And yet we’re talking about the kind of readership on that series that’s more like Battlestar Galactica than Buffy.
All of that goes to say that when we talk about something being “Under the Radar” in the science fiction and fantasy literary world, it’s a term we can apply to almost anyone outside of the ten to fifteen super powers. There are authors in the wild now who have sold five figures of a debut novel, but are struggling to get a good offer to continue the series. Publishing is an oligarchy. The mid list still exists, but it is a dwindling animal with no Endangered Species Act as a backstop. So, for the next four hundred words I’m going to pretend to be the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a mid list author in the very beginning stages of her career.
ML Brennan, author of Generation V and its sequel, Iron Night, has been overlooked by two different sets of readers for entirely different reasons (this a bit of an assumption on my part). It’s an urban fantasy series, and makes no bones about it. But, the covers feature a regular guy, in jeans, leaning against a wall. It could as easily be a reissue of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders as a vampire novel. And the blurb has buzz words like, “out smart” and “pouring coffee.”
One of the most prevalent tropes in the urban fantasy sub genre is the kick-ass female, with her witty one liners and propensity for edged weapons. The successful male lead urban fantasies—like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden and Kevin Hearne’s Atticus O’Sullivan—are Mr. Awesomes, and are packaged as such. Generation V has none of that. In fact, the protagonist isn’t snarky or particularly good at, well, anything. This probably doesn’t sit all that well with the vast majority of urban fantasy consumers who are quite used to very capable leads (see fantasy, epic for same) and certain kinds of character arcs.
As someone who doesn’t get the warm fuzzies reading urban fantasy, I have long held the misguided and close-minded belief that I don’t like urban fantasy on the whole. Why, you might ask? I have considered it repetitive and trite and guilty of pandering to its readership (as is every sub genre, right?), mostly because 95% of urban fantasy books look like the same book. Their covers and blurbs can be almost unrecognizable from each other, leading to an assumption that it’s a cookie-cutter sub genre. In fact, I never would have read Generation V if the author hadn’t sent me a very personal and well-researched note, asking me to do so. With all my baggage then, why did I love Generation V so much? Because it doesn’t pander. It isn’t repetitive. And it isn’t trite. Maybe a little on the last count. It has to have some of the tropes or it wouldn’t be a genre novel.
Brennan’s protagonist, Fortitude Scott, is a broke college kid working as a barista who’s also a pre-pubescent vampire. He’s got a screwed up family and gets no respect from anyone in his personal life, including a girlfriend who cheats on him with impunity. He ends up investigating a series of murders when a vampire comes into his family’s territory and needs a snack. His mom calls in a favor to hook him up with a hot shape changing fox bodyguard. Then things get hairy.
Nothing about the book goes as you might expect. The narrator is non-standard. He isn’t powerful, funny, or even vampirish. He’s just a dude trying to do the right thing. His partner, the shape changer, is full of urban fantasy stereotypes. She’s tough, kicks ass, has snark coming out of her tail, and looks awesome in a pair of leather of pants. But, because she isn’t the narrator, the entire novel possesses a freshness that I can’t quite put my finger on. Not to mention Brennan has a wholly new, and very deep, take on the vampire mythology. In other words, although at first blush Generation V might turn off UF apologists and haters, it’s a novel that absolutely appeals to both. It is a perfect combination of new and old that comes along only very rarely.
Through Generation V, ML Brennan convinced me to take a look at my preconceptions. Because I was willing to leap into a space that made me uncomfortable, I’ve opened myself up to a whole new avenue of exploration. I’ve read several urban fantasies since Generation V. I’ve found some gems, and a few that reconfirm my past experiences. If the mid list author is going to survive the rough waters of modern publishing they will need more readers to do the same. Readers will need to take chances on something unfamiliar. There needs to be a revelation from epic fantasy readers that Brandon Sanderson, Brent Weeks, and Joe Abercrombie are not all there is to life, much as Kelley Armstrong, Kim Harrison, and Jim Butcher fans need to do the same.
To that end, I challenge everyone who reads this to pick up a sub genre this month that they’ve cast aside. Take a leap, like I did. In the comments, I hope you’ll ask for recommendations and give them in kind. And if you’re going to recommend, do it with thought for who’s asking. If a Charlaine Harris fan is looking for epic fantasy, Brandon Sanderson may not be the right choice. But, Sam Sykes? He might be closer to the mark. If someone loves Joe Abercrombie, what about Rob Thurman? These are just a few suggestions to get the conversation started.
For me, I&rsquo9;m going to read a category romance novel. I hope you’ll follow my lead and give it a shot... erm... reading something new, not necessarily romance. Anyone have an suggestions for me?