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Introducing Owl Totem!

Let me tell you something, folks: there’s no greater feeling than putting the finishing touches on a story that you’ve been working on, to some degree and in some capacity, for fully one-third of your life. Yet, here I sit, thirteen years after putting the first notes on paper for the fantasy novel that I’d thought about writing ever since losing myself in The Lord of the Rings, with everything complete except the interior formatting, which is being professionally done as I write this.

And therefore, fine folks, it’s my pleasure to present Owl Totem, the fruit of those long-maturing labors! I cannot tell you how excited I am to finally see this monster in print. Hopefully that’ll be before the end of 2022; if not, it’ll almost certainly be ready for me to give myself a hard copy as a fortieth birthday present in late January. As always, you’ll be able to snag your copy, either in hardcover, paperback, or e-book format, at a discounted price directly from this site, or from your favorite online bookseller.

It's touching to look back on the evolution of the story. I still keep a printout of the first iteration, leastwise until I decided to scrub the slate clean and start from scratch; those hundred or so 8”x11” pages read like the first-time writings of a Tolkien fanboy, with a side dish of Stoic philosophy. Not a bad start, mind you, but nowhere resembling anything worthy of being published. The second attempt, for which I penned three chapters of fairly significant length, would’ve been essentially a rehash of the first one, written in a different voice, but it still meandered way too much. And the third? Hooboy, the third attempt. That one would’ve been a monster that made A Song of Ice and Fire seem wanting for POV characters and would’ve needed the page count of The Wheel of Time just to tell a functional story. Seventy thousand words in, without any significant story progression, and it went straight into the wastebasket.

Even though those attempts bore no great bounty, they did have their fruits, fruits which have nourished the story that you’ll come to experience (and I do hope you experience it). The characters, cultures, politics, religions, histories, philosophies, in-canon lore, etc. all blossomed from those first failed attempts in some fashion, though the names might have changed or been reassigned, and the geography, and the nuances of history and legend.

I began writing the final version of the story shortly before shifting my attention to Aethyr and returned to it after finishing Omega Noir. I had started a few other science fiction books since then, but, between getting frustrated with those and, frankly, a sense of dread at the state of the world around me that I’d not previously experienced in the aftermath of Putin’s murderous rampage through Ukraine, leading me to fear that I might never have the opportunity to finish the story, I decided that now was the time to finish what I’d started. No more putting it off, coming back to tweak things before focusing on other stuff. The story still necessitated some changes, but between what I’d written, which constituted roughly one-quarter of the story, and the copious notes and reams of backstory I’d compiled over the years, I was able to churn out the first draft of the manuscript in around eight months.

Which isn’t to say that I wrote the book in eight months. Nay, I typed the manuscript in eight months, with that typing occupying almost the entirety of my free time. After work? Writing. Days off? Writing, and maybe a break or two to eat and rest my fingers. Vacation? Writing, except the day I went out to Akron for the air show. And that evening was spent writing. But all that typing was simply giving a formal structure to the story that had, indeed, been a part of my life for thirteen years. Could I have written a book, start to finish, in eight months? Sure. But could I have told a story in that timeframe? Perhaps, but not a very good one. Not one into which I poured my heart, my soul, and my demons. In other words, not a story worth telling.

I’m tired. But in a good way. I feel fulfilled. I told myself that I deserve a break from writing after finishing Owl Totem, not to mention replenishing my bank account (without getting into exact figures, suffice it to say that professional book editing and design aren’t cheap, but you’re a damned fool if, like way too many self-published authors who are haughty enough to flood the market with torrents of poorly written refuse, you skip these essentials). But just the other day, I caught myself writing a possible prologue for a sequel to Owl Totem, and resurrecting some old poetry to use in an early chapter. I can’t help myself sometimes.

While Owl Totem isn’t on shelves yet, you can get an early start on the history and lore of Balad (which is the name of the known world in this tale) on I chose to publish these notes, which are only a fraction of what I’ve compiled over the years, online rather than as appendices in the book or as a standalone volume; no one should have to pay extra to read what are essentially polished author’s notes. I fully intend to add a lot more to the site, especially in the lore department, but…like I said, I need a break from writing.

So, what’s this story about anyway? Who is it written for? And what’s up with all the owls? Well, my friends, stick around, because I’m about to answer your burning questions (spoiler-free, of course) about Owl Totem!

Q: Let’s start with the obvious: why is it called Owl Totem?

A: Owls are central to the religious beliefs of the central people of this world, who are called the Vacids, or Feacthengead in their own language, meaning “people of the owl-totem.” Specifically, owls are the messengers of their Sacred Ancestors, called upon to carry the souls of the dead to the afterlife, and are associated with wisdom and prophecy.

Q: Is this book going to appeal more to Tolkien fans, or to George R.R. Martin fans?

A: Well, hopefully both! Full disclosure: while I enjoy both authors, I’m far more of a Tolkien fan than a Martin fan. (Actually, Tolkien is probably the only author I can honestly say I’m a “fan” of.) But if you’re wondering if the book is more the romantic escapism of Tolkien than the visceral realism of Martin, well, I’d say it’s somewhere in between. Tolkien fans will probably love parts of the story, but might be put off by the fact that there are cuss words (though not nearly as many as my previous writings—I’ve taken your criticisms to heart!), a few adult scenes, and excursions into the generally banal parts of the human experience. Fans of more contemporary fantasy might find the characters too idealistic and not “gray” enough. But I think that most readers will find it enjoyable, and that it’ll be one that they remember.

Q: What is the image on the cover supposed to be?

A: It’s an interpretation of a foirfeachail, a sort of shaman staff used by one of the protagonists (technically two, but Caileigh never uses hers) in religious rituals, as depicted by my cover designer based upon the description in the text. The one on the cover is actually a bit more elaborate than what I’d envisioned, but I like it!

Q: What is this world of Balad like?

A: Well, we really only see two islands in this book. The bulk of the story takes place on Dearviél, which is the home of the Vacid people, and was said to have been the home of the Fae in the material world in times long past. It’s not stated outright in the book, but Dearviél is about the size of Ireland (or Pennsylvania, for my fellow Americans), and, while it’s its own fantasy world, it basically is tenth-century Ireland. There’s even a southern part, where the Vacids live, and a northern realm separated by mountains, home to Northmen who’d once raided the island. Dearviél is under the rule of the Kingdom of Belocharas, with whom the Vacids have a less-than-stellar relationship at the moment. Exacerbating matters is a famine that’s sweeping across the island.

The other island we’ll visit is called Stenvandë, colloquially called the Winterisle. If you’re looking for a real-world comparison, it’s a bit like Iceland in that it’s barren, sparsely populated, and home to fishermen who look like Vikings.

Q: Who are the main characters?

A: Owl Totem has three point-of-view characters, plus a fourth in the epilogue. Two are Vacid sisters, Leara Mana and Caileigh Mana, who are members of a guild that studies the sciences known as the Snowy Owls. The famine has basically pressed their guild into service as healers and custodians of the dead as well. The third POV character is an aging warrior, Andrin Torvarni, who is a Northman by blood but serves as a mercenary to the Kingdom of Belocharas.

Q: Are there dragons in Balad?

A: There were at one time, but they’re all extinct. And, unlike in A Song of Ice and Fire, they’re staying extinct. No dragons. Got it? They were all slain by warriors who rode into battle on giant hawks, who are mentioned in Owl Totem but don’t actually appear (but will play a significant role in any sequels or spinoffs I may or may not write).

Q: Well, you mentioned Fae. Does that mean there are beings like Elves in this world? Dwarves?

A: There are Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, Seasprites (or mermaids, if you want to call them that), etc., but they’re not the kind you’re used to. Owl Totem isn’t heavy on the fantastical elements, but they are certainly there, and let’s just say that their presence typically doesn’t bode well for our heroes.

Q: What is the story all about?

A: Ah, I thought you’d never ask! Long story short, Leara and Caileigh are trying to spare their people from the famine. Suffice it to say that they’ve got their work cut out for them, especially with armed rebels raising havoc throughout Dearviél and fears of a coming war. Leara goes in search of a mythical fruit called glandmal, which the Northmen claimed was handed down by their most revered god, Eithrun, as a cure for all hunger. (It turns out to be much more than that, as Leara will learn.) She sets off on a quest to find the seedling, a journey that will lead her to the Hill of Fate at the uttermost end of the earth. Along the way, she encounters Andrin and his ragtag band of warriors—plus Syggi, their adorable, mute, eight-year-old pathfinder. Seeking redemption for the sins of his past, and believing that helping Leara will help him find it, Andrin agrees to help her, despite the objections of some of his men, which will lead to strife between them.

Caileigh would’ve gone with her younger sister (they’re in their thirties, by the way), but instead finds herself getting into a whole new world of hurt, namely that of Vacid politics. You see, along the road, she meets by chance her brother, Fearhan, who happens to be the landlord of a minor Vacid family. Fearhan wants to win the title of Golden Owl, which in the long past would’ve made him high king of the Vacids but, under Belocharan rule, more of a figurehead than anything. Caileigh tries to talk him out of it, but stubbornness runs in this family. Her reluctant quest to seat Fearhan on the Oakenthrone, as well as to convince the quarrelsome landlords to put aside their petty disputes and grievances and come together for the sake of their suffering people, proves a herculean task to say the least, one in which she sometimes has to put aside her principles for the good of the people. But, as it turns out, Caileigh has some friends of her own…and knowledge of a magical power, albeit one that exacts a heavy toll from the one who uses it.

Q: Is Owl Totem a standalone novel, or will it be the first part in a series?

A: Honestly, I can’t say for certain. When I settled upon the version of the story that’s going into print, I envisioned it as a standalone volume. But, without getting into spoilers, the ending is left pretty open. I have not yet decided whether to write a sequel, make a series (probably a trilogy at most, but I’m setting a strict limit of five books), or leave the ending open for readers to draw their own conclusions on what happens next.

Q: How long is the book?

A: Formatting for the print version is still underway as I write this, so the page count is still TBD, but the body of the final manuscript is approximately 271,000 words. In other words, it’s big. If the formatting is the same as it is for my other books, that’d put it at around a thousand pages. (UPDATE 12/18: The formatted draft is complete; it still needs a few tweaks before publication, but the body consists of 751 pages.)

Q: Will there be a sequel?

A: Maybe; the end of Owl Totem certainly invites one. But it most likely won’t be the next thing I write, and, while I sincerely hope it won’t take me another thirteen years to finish the next book, I make no promises.

Q: Why should I read Owl Totem?

A: Because I wrote it and I want your money. (Actually, in the unlikely event that I break even on the costs to produce Owl Totem, I’m donating all the future profits to local charities, so that’s a lie. You should read it because was a passion project that means the world to me, and I hope it means the world to you too!)

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