Tobias Buckell

Writer’s Ink: Tobias Buckell

Hurricane Fever - CoverTobias Buckell is the New York Times bestselling author of such books as Crystal Rain, Halo: The Cole Protocol, and most recently, Hurricane Fever [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], a techno-thriller about heavy weather and Caribbean spies. Toby and I have pretty much come up together as writers, and it’s been great to see his success over the years. He also has a pretty badass writing tattoo, which he talks about below. (Click the picture for a close-up.)


WI-BuckellI’d been planning to get my tattoo to celebrate my fifth year of being a full time freelancer, but couldn’t set aside the money for it until my sixth year celebration.

It’s a memento mori of a skull and crossbones, a call out to my growing up on ships in the Caribbean. And then underneath, instead of crossbones, I have a pen and a pencil. And then in bastardized Latin I have the phrase “CREO AUT MORI.” Rough translation: “Create or Die.” I got it to remind myself to keep creating.

Latin purists will ding me for the translation, as AUT MORI is infinitive, meaning it very technically translates as “I create or to die” but AUT MORI was often shorthanded on coats of arms as “OR DIE” so I used it. I like the 4 letter word 3 letter word 4 letter word symmetry when doing the visual design.

I got it while on a writing retreat in North Carolina. It took about three and a half hours, which is wild as I used to be absolutely terrified of needles.

The Apocalypse Ocean, by Tobias Buckell

The Apocalypse Ocean [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is the fourth book in Tobias Buckell‘s Xenowealth series.

The story behind this book is almost as interesting as the book itself. Buckell talks here about how he used Kickstarter to successfully reboot this series. I haven’t seen the ebook, but I can tell you the hardcover is gorgeous. More about that later, though…

The Apocalypse Ocean continues Buckell’s tradition of blending larger-than-life characters (Pepper and Nashara are back!) and … well, let’s call them “life-sized” characters for comparison. Tiago is a boy doing his best to survive on Placa del Fuego, an island where acidic, flammable rains are only the least of people’s troubles. Placa del Fuego is a dead zone, where little technology functions, and an alien known as the Doaq roams the streets at night, devouring all who oppose it. Tiago is a clever but low-level pickpocket, and his Fagin is Kay, a woman raised and engineered on a hellish alien world who’s determined to run Placa del Fuego for herself. Unfortunately, their island is about to be caught in the middle of a galactic conflict…

It’s been four and a half years since I read and reviewed Sly Mongoose, the previous book in the series, and I stumbled a few times as a result of my own forgetfulness about what had happened. The new book does stand on its own, but it will mean more if you’re familiar with the first three.

You can tell Buckell knows his world and his characters very well, and has spent a lot of time developing both. From the smallest details of the home Tiago shares to the sweeping history and conflicts of the wormhole network, he’s gone beyond surface flash to consider the implications and possibilities of his worldbuilding. The Doaq uses a horrifying but fascinating version of wormhole technology, for example.

All in all, it’s a strong, engaging adventure, one that leaves me hoping for a fifth book in this universe.

As an author myself, I was fascinated by the way this book came about. Buckell has always been near the forefront of publishing, following and analyzing the trends, and doing a good job of taking advantage of new possibilities. So I wasn’t surprised to see him try Kickstarter, nor was I surprised to see him succeed. Physically speaking, this hardcover is as good or even better quality than a lot of what I’ve seen from professional publishers. I did notice a few typos, but nothing that threw me out of the story. Buckell put a lot of work and care into this book, and it shows.

Arctic Rising, by Tobias Buckell

Arctic Rising [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is a bit of a change from other Tobias Buckell books I’ve read. While it’s definitely science fiction, it’s near-future SF with a strong “thriller” feel. (The genre, not the Michael Jackson song. There are no dancing zombies in this book.)

The protagonist is Anika Duncan, an airship pilot for the U.N. Polar Guard who gets shot down after discovering a nuclear missile being smuggled into the Arctic. She soon finds herself in the middle of a global power struggle. The Gaia Corporation have devised a plan to reverse global warming, but the technology can also be used as a deadly superweapon. (And I can’t say what the technology is without spoiling things, which sucks, because it’s pretty darn cool.)

I like the extrapolation Buckell has done on a world where the icecaps continue to melt and the oceans continue to rise. He’s done his research, and it shows. (Some aspects of the book should be familiar to anyone who reads his blog.) The dwindling ice caps create a rush to tap previously inaccessible oil reserves, leading to a proliferation of arctic settlements and colonies. Those settlements in the arctic have a bit of a science fiction feel as well, which was fun. Yes, I’m reading the book through more of an SF lens than a thriller one.

This was a pretty fast read, with colorful characters, a bit of dangerous romance, international intrigue, spies, guns, all leading to a desperate, high-stakes climax.

If you’re familiar with Buckell’s work, this book has some of his trademarks: awareness that there’s more to the world than the United States; significant nonwhite characters (Anika is neither white nor straight); sailing ships written by someone who’s actually lived on one; and lots of action.

Given that climate change is a hot political topic right now, I suspect some readers will denigrate the book as leftist liberal propaganda, and that’s unfortunate. I’ll admit there were a few points early on where I felt like the message started to overtake the story. But then I started wondering if this was due to the fact that in the U. S., any mention of climate change has become so highly politicized. In other words, it’s not that Buckell is preaching; it’s more that political groups have been screaming and squawking and flat-out lying at me about global warming issues for so long that it affected my reading of the book, which is unfortunate.

Overall, Arctic Rising does exactly what good science fiction is supposed to do: examines the current science and research, makes predictions about the future, and writes a rousing story about that future.

This book comes out on February 28.

What Should Jim Read Next?

I finished the book I was reading for research purposes, which means it’s time to figure out what to start next. I’m torn between three ARCs, all of which I’m excited to read. So I decided I’d throw it open for a vote, because I’m just too damn lazy to make a decision.

Throne of the Crescent Moon [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Saladin Ahmed (February, 2012). The debut novel from a Nebula and Campbell award finalist.

The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, land of djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, Khalifs and killers, is at the boiling point of a power struggle between the iron-fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince.  In the midst of this brewing rebellion a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms. It is up to a handful of heroes to learn the truth behind these killings.

Arctic Rising [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by NYT bestselling author Tobias Buckell (February, 2012).

Global warming has transformed the Earth, and it’s about to get even hotter. The Arctic Ice Cap has all but melted, and the international community is racing desperately to claim the massive amounts of oil beneath the newly accessible ocean.

Enter the Gaia Corporation. Its two founders have come up with a plan to roll back global warming. Thousands of tiny mirrors floating in the air can create a giant sunshade, capable of redirecting heat and cooling the earth’s surface. They plan to terraform Earth to save it from itself—but in doing so, they have created a superweapon the likes of which the world has never seen.

Shadow Ops: Control Point [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Myke Cole (February, 2012). This is Cole’s first novel, described as “Black Hawk Down meets the X-Men.”

Across the country and in every nation, people are waking up with magical talents. Untrained and panicked, they summon storms, raise the dead, and set everything they touch ablaze.

Army officer Oscar Britton sees the worst of it. A lieutenant attached to the military’s Supernatural Operations Corps, his mission is to bring order to a world gone mad. Then he abruptly manifests a rare and prohibited magical power, transforming him overnight from government agent to public enemy number one.

So which one would you start with?

Cover Art: Doing it Right

More authors are experimenting with electronic self-publishing these days. I want to point out two recent releases by friends of mine. Aerophilia, a short story by Tobias Buckell, and Fright Court, a serialized novel by Mindy Klasky.  Specifically, I want to point to the cover art.


I love these covers. Aerophilia’s was put together by Jenn Reese, Fright Court’s by Reece Notley. (I’m noting these names for my own use, since I’m toying with the idea of publishing a few more mini-collections of my own.)

ETA: Mindy was kind enough to share her own first draft of a cover. You can see that, along with Mindy’s comments, here.

Remember my post last week about making it look easy? I look at these covers and think, Hey, I could probably do that! Maybe not the artwork itself, but if I found a good stock image, I could slap it all together. Because it looks easy.

Then I remember doing it with Goblin Tales [Amazon | B&N | Lulu]. Big shock: it ain’t easy, and skill as a writer means squat when it comes to visual art or graphic design. I did get professional artwork for mine, and I’m proud of what I came up with, but I think both Klasky and Buckell ended up with better-looking covers.

I’ve heard people talk about covers that “look self-published.” I’ve used that phrasing myself, but I think it’s inaccurate. It’s not that so many covers look self-published; it’s that they look amateur. Amateur isn’t a dirty word, and it’s not an insult. It means the work was done by someone who’s not a professional.

My friend Stephen Leigh gave me permission to pick on him. He’s an author with DAW, and has been doing this far longer than me. He recently released his dark urban fantasy novel The Woods [Amazon | B&N] as an e-book, and did the cover art himself. He used the cover on the left first. After receiving some feedback, he reworked the cover and came up with the one on the right.

I think number two is a better cover — easier to read, clearer visuals — but it doesn’t have the professional vibe I get from Mindy’s or Toby’s.

All of which leads back to the myth that it’s quick and easy to self-publish. Well, it is … but it’s not quick or easy to do it well. Slow down. Either hire people to do the jobs you’re not skilled at, or take your time and do the work Cover art and design are just two steps in the overall process, and there’s a reason publishers hire professionals for most of those steps.

Discussion time — how much attention do you pay to “professional vs. amateur” cover art when browsing e-books? What sort of things make a cover look amateur to you? (For me, I’ll admit to having a bias against most digital art.) And does it really make sense to invest in professional cover art for a small self-published project, given that most such projects probably aren’t going to see huge sales?

PS, All three of the writers mentioned here are wonderful people, and you could do much worse than to check out their books!

Book Reviews: Buckell, Mallett, Mantchev, Strout

Despite multiple Internet-related SNAFUs, the Rape Crisis Center Fundraiser has raised $430 in the first 24 hours. Thank you all for the donations and the links. Another $70 and we’ll reach the first bonus prize!


When I was at ConFusion this year, I received a copy of The Executioness [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Tobias Buckell. This is a novella-length work, and shares a world with another novella by Paolo Bacigalupi, a world in which magic is outlawed, as its use leads to the spread of deadly bramble. It’s a great setup, as is the premise of the story: Tana’s home is attacked by a neighboring power. Her husband and her father (an executioner) are killed, and her children taken. So she takes up her father’s axe and hood and sets out to save them, beginning a quest “that will change lives, cities, and even an entire land, forever. A quest that will create the legend of The Executioness.”

There were a few times the story felt a bit rushed, and I could easily see this being a novel-length work. But I liked it a lot (though the cover art, while beautifully done, is a bit eye-rolling with the exposed midriff and leg). I like the way Tana’s legend spreads, the way she uses that and learns to take advantage of the fact that women are so often ignored in these conflicts. And without spoiling things, I felt that the ending worked well.


I’ve never read Frazz, but I met Jef Mallett at A Rally of Writers over the weekend, and picked up a copy of Frazz 3.1416 [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy].

Talking to Mallett, he came across as the kind of writer I want to be: he genuinely listened to everyone who came up to talk to him, was generous with his time and advice, and just came across as a really nice, down-to-earth guy. I’m happy to say his comics are much the same: smart and funny, and reading his book just made me feel good. I’ll definitely be picking up more.


I’ve been wanting to read Lisa Mantchev‘s YA fantasy Eyes Like Stars [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] ever since it came out. This is another book with a great premise, taking place within the Theatre Illuminata, a magical theatre where “the characters of every play ever written” live and perform. Beatrice Shakespeare Smith (Bertie) was born in the outside world, but was raised in the Theatre. Throughout the course of the book, she must prove her worth to the Theatre, uncover the mystery of her past, and choose between the pirate Nate and the seductive but dangerous sprite Ariel.

The characters are great. Bertie’s fairy sidekicks are highly amusing. Ophelia was another favorite, complex and tragic (per her script, she’s constantly running off to drown herself).

My only complaint is that the Theatre, which is supposed to include all plays ever written, seems limited to European and American works, and is heavily weighted toward Shakespeare. But overall, Mantchev takes a great idea and turns it into a very satisfying story.


Finally, there’s Anton Strout‘s fourth book, Dead Waters [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy]. This time, Simon Canderous is investigating the death of a university professor and former FOG (Fraternal Order of Goodness) agent, while dealing with budget cuts and relationship troubles.

I really liked seeing more of the Inspectre’s character in this one, and learning about his past. The central mystery was fun, and similar in tone and action to what you’d expect from Strout’s previous book. I wasn’t as happy with Simon’s relationship tension with Jane, which felt a little forced. But the ending … I don’t want to spoil it, but I’m very interested to see how Simon adjusts in the next book. Like previous books, it’s a fun, light read.

New Books!

No First Book Friday post this week, I’m afraid. So I figured we could do New Book Friday instead.

Oof. As it turns out, I know an awful lot of people who write books! I know this list is incomplete, too. I got in trouble for that the last time I posted a new books list, so if you have a book out and I didn’t include you, I’m not being deliberately exclusive. My brain cannot keep track of all the books.

So, anyone read any of these yet? Any you’re particularly looking forward to? And of course, feel free to add more new book suggestions in the comments!

Clicking the covers will take you to an excerpt/preview of the book, where available. (Making this one of the most link-heavy posts I’ve done in ages. I hope y’all appreciate how much work I do for you!)

Deathless [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Catherynne M. Valente.

The Shattered City [Harper Collins Australia] by Tansy Rayner Roberts.

The Woods [Amazon | B&N], an e-book from Stephen Leigh. (Also, B&N really needs to work on their search algorithms!!!)

Con and Conjure [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Lisa Shearin.

Faerie Winter [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Janni Lee Simner.

Fury of the Phoenix [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Cindy Pon.

Kat, Incorrigible [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Stephanie Burgis.

Rage [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Jackie Morse Kessler.

Shady Lady [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Ann Aguirre.

Nascence (17 stories that failed and what they taught me) [Amazon | B&N], an e-book by Tobias Buckell.

First Book Friday: Tobias Buckell

Welcome to First Book Friday, an ongoing series exploring how various authors sold their first books.

Carribean-born Tobias Buckell is a busy guy.  In addition to his four published novels, including the New York Times bestselling Halo: The Cole Protocol, Buckell is the founder of SF Novelists, a full-time freelancer, and the father of one-year-old twins.  He and I share an agent, and it was through Toby that I connected with the folks at JABberwocky.  He took time to share the five-year roller coaster ride that led to the publication of his first book, Crystal Rain.


Back in 2001 I met my agent, Joshua Bilmes (of JABberwocky Literary Agency). We were introduced by another author, and we chatted politely in the hallway. I’d only sold a few short stories by then, and written a novel proposal, but not continued work on the novel. It was a bizarre mix of Caribbean expats and a reborn Aztec nation, created by strange aliens, all set on another planet that had lost contact with Earth. I called it a Caribbean steampunk lost colony world sort of novel.

Now, I knew that agents usually didn’t snag authors based on partial manuscripts, so when Joshua gave me his card and told me to send the partial manuscript along, I’d pocketed the card and done nothing. 9/11 soon had our attention, and there were short stories I had not yet finished.

But some time later in the fall or early winter, my phone rang and Joshua’s voice came through the other end. He wanted to know why I hadn’t sent that proposal along. “Oh,” I said. “You weren’t just being polite!”

Just before Christmas, he called back to say that if the whole book was as good as the first three chapters, he’d represent it, and that I should write the book.

I spent a good chunk of 2002 writing the first draft of the first novel I’d ever attempted: Crystal Rain [B&N | Mysterious Galaxy | Amazon]. Airships, cyborgs with dreadlocks, battles at sea, funky aliens…  I had a total blast writing the thing, and I tried to imbue it with all the energy I could. But showing it around to various people I trusted revealed flaws, and throughout a chunk of 2003 I workshopped it. Joshua had some rewrites for me as well. We sold it to Tor in 2004, and there were edits and rewrites my editor wanted. I remember sitting in the basement of our newly purchased house sweating over the novel line by bloody line.

It came out in February 2006.

Having your first book launched is supposed to be the most magical, exciting thing. And I had a small taste of that. But two days before my launch I was informed I was going to be laid off, and my attention turned quickly toward trying to assemble a life as a full time writer/freelancer years before I had planned to try that.

It worked out, and now I get a lot more time to write. But it was a hell of a roller coaster ride, having a new book out while trying to basically invent a new job!

Jim C. Hines