Blogger Query – Angels of Retribution

One of the bloggers I’ve only started following more recently is Abhinav Jain, the man behind Angels of Retribution and a regular contributor over at The Founding Fields. I discovered Abhinav on Twitter, where he showed up in my Twitter stream more and more often. I discovered a blog with interesting mixed content run by a blogger who lives in a country halfway round the world from me! I was very interested in learning more about him, so I asked him for a Blogger Query. In addition, as part of his Advent Reviews Abhinav will be guest reviewing here tomorrow, so check back then to check out his reviewing chops! For now though, let’s check out his response to my Blogger Query:

Let’s start with the basics. Who is Abhinav Jain?

Simple kid from Delhi, India who started reading at a very early age and became, umm, infamous within the entire family for being a reader. Always been interested in science fiction and fantasy since the late ’80s and ’90s Disney movies were a huge part of my viewing growing up and I loved all the superhero cartoons on Cartoon Network like Space Ghost and what not. These days I live in Dubai and work with my dad. Reading and writing and reviewing are like my guilty pleasures/hobbies/entertainment now and I love it.

I currently run my own blog “Sons of Corax” and contribute as a prolific book reviewer for “The Founding Fields” and the occasional movie reviews for “Just Beyond Infinity”. And finally, I also serve as sort of an editor for the Bolthole Black Library fan-forum’s blog “The Bloghole”.

What got you into blogging?

Writing, really. I had a blog in the late-2000s where I posted my thoughts on a work-in-progress novel I had started writing back in high school. It was very, very short-lived and after a couple more false starts, I just gave up on all of it. The blogging discipline wasn’t there and I found out that I didn’t have as much to talk about as I had hoped.

Then in 2011 I was like, ok, let’s do it again. I was about to kick off my writing aspirations by working out some submissions for a tie-in military SFF publisher and I thought blogging about the whole deal would be nice. The blog started as a way for me to talk about the lore and general background for an army inspired by the IPs held by the publisher and has morphed dramatically into what you see now, some 19-20 months later.

Why Angels of Retribution?

Time to indulge the tabletop geek. I got into Black Library’s tie-in fiction for the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop games sometime early in high school. That interest later transformed into me playing the actual tabletop stuff, starting in December 2007, and I was an avid player at my local game store for almost a year and a half.

Space Marines were always my favourite army (and still are), so when I decided to try my hand at writing in a more… professional manner, I based my submissions for Black Library on the army I used to play. And called them the Angels of Retribution. The name fit thematically very well with the background I was writing on them and since it’s such a cool name, I went with that as my blog title.

In an earlier incarnation they were known as the Sons of Corax but I dropped the name, which is why the blog address is different from the blog title. [Ed. Note: Ah, I had wondered. Also, I think one day I might have to try some Black Library as so many people who’s opinion I respect seem to enjoy them a lot!]

What is your unique selling point? Interviews, humour, news coverage?

I don’t think I have a particular selling point really. The best piece of advice I’ve ever come across with regards to blogging is that you need to have that one selling point, that your blog needs to be focused on something. Sadly, I’ve never been able to adhere to it. From posting details of my “theoretical” tabletop army I use as inspiration for some of my writing, to talking about my writing in general, to posting flash reviews, to posting my first proper reviews, to do after-action reports on events I’ve been to, my blog is all over the place really.

I used to post some fan fiction on it up until about a year back but that creative outlet died out all of a sudden. I just could not keep writing more stuff. It was like hitting a massive brick wall that you just can’t get past. Then, for this year I decided to do both a writing challenge and a reading challenge, for which I’ve aimed to do monthly reports.

For those interested, my writing challenge is to do roughly 420,000 words in total, which include essays on various topics that get posted on the blog, the monthly reports, all my creative writing, book reviews, movie reviews and the like. As of 15th November, I hit that goal, largely thanks to my ongoing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) project and there’s an outside change that I could actually hit half a million words all told this year.

The reading challenge was originally to do read 200 novels (and novellas). That later changed to include audio dramas as well. Then audiobooks. Then comics. Then the number changed to 250. Then to 300, and now finally, to 400. As of writing this, I’m sitting at 335/400 and I’m definitely going to hit the number.

People apparently like reading about my progress with both, so I guess that’s one of the things in my favour!

Currently the bigger selling point of my blog is a guest post series I’m running, “Names: A New Perspective”. Borne out of two of my articles from last year where I talked about coming up with character names and the like, I asked a bunch of debut authors from 2011-2012 in September if they would be interested in doing something similar in guest posts of 500-1,000 words. The majority of them agreed, and the response from readers and the authors themselves has been fantastic, more than I had even hoped for. Right now I’m working on getting the second batch of guest posts ready. The invites have been sent out and the acknowledgements are flooding in, which pleases me immensely. And this time, its not just debut authors from the last two-three years that I’m inviting, but the more established authors as well. [Ed. Note: I really love this series. If you haven’t been following it, do go check it out!]

What are your goals for your blog?
The blog has grown dramatically in the last ten months most of all. Sticking to somewhat of a regular posting schedule has helped immensely, as has keeping my content within a wide range of topics. One day I will talk about the relationship between publishers and reviewers, and another day I will talk about a specific lore event in an-going tie-in fiction series. Another day I might post teasers of my various works-in-progress, such as my current one for NaNoWriMo.

The goal for the blog is just to provide interesting content for people. Given all the general blogging I do month-to-month, my personal blog used to be only a small part of it and that’s really all I would like to change. Part of that is that reading review blogs has been quite inspirational. “A Fantastic Librarian”, “Bookworm Blues”, “Staffer’s Book Reviews”, “Bastard Books”, “Civilian Reader”, “Paperless Reading”, “SF Signal”, “The Functional Nerds”, “Fantasy Faction” and several others have been a huge part of that experience. [Ed. Note: Why thank you, that is some august company you’ve included me in.]

I look at all these blogs, and I want to do something similar to what all these blogs do. I have, in my 19-20 months of blogging, reached a point where there are people out there who are very much interested in me opining on a variety of topics. Whether these people agree to disagree with me, my opinions matter to them.

Honestly speaking, I think that’s all a blogger can really ask for. And I just want to maintain that interest and respect. I have received incredible support from authors and reviewers alike, so I want to do my small part in giving back to the entire community.

One of the eternal book reviewer debates is to rate or not to rate? Where do you stand on the issue?

I firmly believe that a review should be rated. A lot of people find ratings to be a poor representation of their reviews, that somehow it infringes upon the integrity of the review. I can respect that, but I firmly disagree. Thing is that we live in a very fast-paced world that is interconnected to the max. At any given time I can be interacting with a person from anywhere in the world, whether in the US West Coast, South Africa, Norway, Philippines, Japan, etc, all from the comfort of my own chair, listening to anime music or Bollywood tunes. Our speed of consumption is, frankly, out of control and struggling to meet with the demands of this fast-paced world.

Using “shorthand” is inevitable if expect to keep up. Review ratings are similarly inevitable since they are part of that “shorthand” culture. So while we, as reviewers, may not feel comfortable at all in reducing our thoughts and opinions to mere ratings, we are still fighting an uphill battle, and are turning away a portion of readership by not giving them that facility.

Now, ratings are a horrible mess in general, I will agree on that. For me, a 5* rating just cannot rightly express where I stand on a book (or any other format), which is why I find Goodreads ratings to be so problematic. Personally, any book I rate below a 7 I find to be not worth it, so a 6.5 would mean that readers really should stay away. But that doesn’t map so well with Goodreads. Or with Amazon. Or any other place using a 5* system. To me, a 10* makes sense, since it allows room for more nuance, which is to be reflected within the body of the review. Even then, something is missing, which I cannot really articulate.

Most readers will skip to your ratings and disregard your review since all they want is a quickie. The trick I think is to establish yourself as someone whose reviews matter, in terms of content presentation. And you have to put your faith that what you have written is worth it as well.

Negative reviews, yay or nay? And why?

That would be a yay for me. Simple reason being that just doing positive reviews all the time is such a bore! When I write a review, it is to present my opinion on the publication at hand. I rarely think of how that review serves the blog-reader. I’m just interested in presenting my own experience, in the vain hope that people out there will somehow react to that experience. All reviewers are readers, and we read books that are good, books that are bad, and books that fall somewhere in between. So why should we present only our positive thoughts? Some reviewers will argue for negative reviews from the perspective that not doing those reviews is a disservice to the reader. My take is that not doing that is doing yourself a disservice, and that it prevents you from being honest, in that regard.

All that said, I’ve had a very bad experience with a negative review, for an audio drama by an author who is very highly regarded by the fandom. The sheer hostility I fielded for that review, not to mention the author fan-wanking that I saw, was just staggering. It showed me that some people just cannot take a criticism for what they consider to be, well, holy and perfect and untouchable. In the end, all it did was reinforce my drive to do negative reviews, although I don’t do much of those since I’m generally an easy sell on a book and rarely rip into anything with a vengeance. Only when an author seriously misrepresents a culture, for instance, will I get worked up, as was the case with a recent debut that whitewashed an entire culture into a parody that was little more than a “westernisation” of the source.

It’s all a weird thing really, and I certainly don’t consider myself to be normal by any means.

You live in Dubai. Is there a lively SFF scene there? Is there much SFF written in or translated into Arabic?

You know, you totally have me there. I really have zero experience in this area. Part of it is that when I came to live in Dubai with my parents, a bookshop here was the term people used for a place where you get school/college textbooks, office supplies, school supplies, and not fiction. A true bookshop was super rare, partly because any such were found only in the most remote locations of the city. My school-friends, most of them, read “Western” fiction from what I remember anyway. So I never had exposure to Arabic fiction, even peripherally. I also don’t speak Arabic, which is another stumbling block.

I can tell you however that a fair amount of “Western” fiction is translated into Arabic. A jaunt into any of the newer bookstores, such as Borders and Kinokuniya, proves that. Again, since I don’t speak Arabic, I almost never venture into those sections. [Ed. Note: Abhinav linked me to this very interesting interview (in English) with an Arabic SF writer, who, to break all preconceptions we might have about the region, is female!]

A lively SFF scene though, depends on what you mean. People here are crazy about “western” fiction. Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, Twilight, Avengers, Batman, The Hunger Games, Expendables, Forgotten Realms, you name it. We had the first ever Middle East Film and Comic-con in April this year and the turnout for that was fantastic, in part because we actually had folks like John-Rhys Davies (The Lord of The Rings), Jason Momoa (Stargate: Atlantis , Conan, Game of Thrones), Mark Sheppard and Luciana Carro (Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural), Laurie Holden (Walking Dead), and Alodia Gosiengfao (world-renowned cosplay artist) as guests. That was a huge star power boost since they also joined various panels! We had Avengers-themed cars on display. Lots of cosplay, and so on. The event has been given the go ahead for a second year and I’m all pumped up for it. I can finally get my SFF fix locally and don’t need to spend $3,000 anymore! Not that I wouldn’t mind doing that, you see.

We also had the one-and-only Alastair Reynolds himself as a guest for a book festival in early March, although I was travelling at the time and couldn’t meet him.

In the past year or two there has been a large increase in books with settings inspired by the Middle East and by A Thousand and One Nights. Do they get it right, in your opinion? Do you enjoy these novels or do they bother you?

I’ve read little of that subset, and what I have, failed to work for me. There’s this one debut fantasy novel that came out last year that was said to be very Persian-themed, but reading through, I never quite got that feeling. I am no expert at all on the topic of course, but still, I believe the author never committed fully to that idea, that he stopped midway. A shame really since I was so very much looking forward to it, based on blogger-buzz.

Now, one thing you have to keep in mind about a place like Dubai is that something like 80-85% of the population, if not more, is made up of expatriates, like myself. We live here, we work here, we have families here, but in the end all we are all just guests. In an environment like Dubai’s melting pot of cultures and ideologies, much more of a “chaotic mess” than say Los Angeles, you really don’t get a cohesive cultural feel that says “this is uniquely middle eastern”. And since Dubai is generally very pro-west, that influence is very, very strong here in most things.

If I lived in another Middle-Eastern country, I could perhaps answer that question more fully.

How important are blogs to your reading choices?

They are a huge part of my online experience. I am, however, a lurker most of the time. I read the reviews, the articles, the interviews, etc, but I rarely participate. That’s because I feel the blogger has written something that I fully agree with and as a response I can’t add anything useful other than an “I agree”. Simple as that. [Ed. Note: This is so my problem as well.]

Several of my favourite reads of the year have been blogger recommendations. All the more important since I tested waters this year with genres outside of the typical and mainstream SFF.

If you are a book blogger, then you most definitely need to spend time going through a variety of other blogs in that blog-space. They will take you down roads you never imagined and in the end you will grow on a personal level since you are exposed to that very variety in the first place. If you are insular and close-minded about it, your blog career will most likely be a very solitary one. Visitors alone won’t give you that same fulfilment as other bloggers will.

How do you think blogs and reviewers fit in the book business?

Our responsibility as bloggers/reviewers is to spread the word. That’s really the end all and be all of it. Whether that word is good or bad is incredibly subjective, and you can’t take that into consideration really. While most publishers send out books to us because they want us to provide with positive endorsements, I don’t think it is as clear-cut as that. Let’s be fair. We all like different things. Having two people with the same likes and dislikes is next to impossible. So it is with books. What works for you does not necessarily work for me, and vice versa.

The way I look at it, while a clear positive endorsement is the meta goal, publishers work with us because they want a fair assessment of the products they are putting out, day in, day out. You would be hard-pressed to find something out there that has a truly universal appeal. So what the publishers really want is that we generate enough of an interest in the product. That’s their basic, grass-roots level goal. If there is interest, there is demand. If there is demand, there is sale. After that, it just becomes a matter of how far that interest spreads, the further the better.

What is your current read and what book are you most eagerly awaiting?

My current read is an anthology called The Other Half of The Sky. It is published by Candlemark & Gleam, edited by Athena Andreadis and Kay Holt. This is an anthology of short stories by various authors, featuring female protagonists in situations where you would typically find male leads. Such as a Starship captain, or a detective, or such. It’s a really interesting anthology, with a much broader range of styles and content than I had expected. Looking to finishing it in the next few days.

Most eagerly anticipated, that would be Gav Thorpe’s Ravenwing. This is a Black Library novel for the Warhammer 40,000 setting and features one of the most secretive Space Marine chapters, the Dark Angels, as they hunt down some ancient enemies who are part of the chapter’s greatest personal shame. Very, very much looking forward to this.

Is there something else you’re obsessed with other than books?

Do comics count? [Ed. Note: Yes!] I rediscovered the joy of the format in April/May with the two volumes of Kill Shakespeare, written by Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery, published by IDW. I’ve been on an incredible roll since!

Other than that, it would have to be video games, although my interest has largely mellowed out in the last couple years since I’ve been spending a large amount of my free time on my writing and reading and reviewing. Currently playing Mass Effect 2 and enjoying it.

Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?

No method to my madness, I’m afraid. Books are put together largely by which series they are a part of, and which publisher. Very meta.
Thank you, Abhinav! You can find Abhinav’s reviews at Angels of Retribution and The Founding Fields. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads. Don’t forget to check back for his guest post tomorrow!