One of the first rules of writing etiquette — I mean really “How-to-be-an-Author 101” type stuff — is never respond to reviews. We have our say with the books and stories we write. Our readers get to comment on them in reviews, blogs, etc. And at that point we’re really best off keeping our virtual mouths shut. In fact, most of the time we’re better off not even reading our reviews. I know this. I understand the reasoning. I get it.
I just came within a hair’s breadth of violating that “Don’t respond” rule. Why? Because there are now two reviews of SPELL BLIND on Amazon that accuse me of “blatantly ripping off” the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher. I have, I assure you, done no such thing.
First of all, Jim Butcher is a friend, and I wouldn’t do that to a friend.
Second, with apologies to Jim, I’ve only read the first two Dresden books, and that was back in 2004.
Third, from what I know of the Dresden books, I have to say that the Justis Fearsson books are not really all that similar. They’re darker, the weremyste element of my series is quite different from Harry’s magic, and the plot lines of all three books in my series (SPELL BLIND is out, HIS FATHER’S EYES will be released in August, and SHADOW’S BLADE is written and in the early stages of production) are, from my perspective, pretty original.
So what has these reviewers so outraged? Well, they don’t like that my character is also a male private detective with magic. I wonder, if I had made my protagonist female, if they would have accused me of ripping off Faith Hunter or Patricia Briggs or Kim Harrison or any number of other incredibly talented and successful female authors, or if they’re just protective of Jim and Harry. I wonder as well if I had left out the magic, whether they would even have picked up the book.
One of them complains that I use “internal monologue.” So does every book with a first or close-third person point of view. ‘Nuff said.
They also don’t like the fact that a higher up in the Phoenix police force (my books are set in Phoenix; Dresden lives in Chicago, I believe) has it in for my main character. That, of course, is a trope that goes back well before the first Dresden book. It is, in fact, something that you find in nearly all great private eye stories. That’s what makes it a trope. Same with the friend on the police force. I don’t apologize for either of those devices — tropes are tropes for a reason. We authors use them, we play with them, we make them our own.
While we’re talking about tropes — the spirit guide who helps the magic wielder with his spell-work is one readers will find in almost any urban fantasy. Yes, Namid’skemu in my books falls into the category. He is really nothing like the talking skull I remember from the Dresden books, but his mere presence seems to be enough to tick these guys off. Again, I refer them to other authors who write in the genre. We all use this. I’m allowed to as well.
Magical serial murders? Jim was not the first to do this, and I am certainly neither the second nor the last. Another trope.
One of the reviewers objects to the fact that my hero’s mother died a mysterious death and that this is similar to Harry Dresden’s personal history. To be perfectly honest, if I was in his position, I might object to this, too. It is a striking similarity, one of which I was not aware until I read his review. If this is mentioned in one of those first two Dresden novels, it had not registered with me in a meaningful way. I swear it was not something I “copied” from Jim’s work. It’s probably too specific to call it a trope, but I will say that in fantasy novels of all stripes, it’s not at all uncommon for the protagonists to lose one parent or the other under mysterious circumstances. It’s a useful plot seed for later volumes. And I think that Jay’s relationship with his father, which is one of the strongest themes of the Fearsson books, sets it apart from Butcher’s work and that of others in the genre.
Look, I’ve been writing fantasy professionally, under two names, for nearly twenty years, publishing 16 novels — 18 by the end of this summer — earning a Crawford Award, excellent reviews, good enough sales to survive in a tough business, and the respect of my peers, which I value above all else. I would not rip off the work of a friend or a colleague. I don’t need to. I have plenty of good ideas on my own, thanks very much. Are there superficial similarities between my urban fantasy and other urban fantasies out there, including the Dresden Files? Perhaps. But read the books. Really read them. Jay Fearsson is very much my own creation. So are the characters surrounding him. So is my magic system.
If you don’t like the books, fine. I can live with that. If you like Jim’s more, also fine.
But don’t accuse me of plagiarism. Don’t impugn my professionalism and my integrity based upon your reading of one book. It’s not true and it’s not fair.