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Thursday, April 24, 2014

"Independent Study: The Testing Series Book 2" by Joelle Charbonneau (Reviewed by Cindy Hannikman)



 Visit Joelle Charbonneau's Official Website Here
Read FBC's Review of 'The Testing" Here


OVERVIEW: In the series debut The Testing, sixteen-year-old Cia Vale was chosen by the United Commonwealth government as one of the best and brightest graduates of all the colonies . . . a promising leader in the effort to revitalize postwar civilization. In Independent Study, Cia is a freshman at the University in Tosu City with her hometown sweetheart, Tomas—and though the government has tried to erase her memory of the brutal horrors of The Testing, Cia remembers. Her attempts to expose the ugly truth behind the government’s murderous programs put her—and her loved ones—in a world of danger. But the future of the Commonwealth depends on her.

FORMAT: Independent Study is the second book in The Testing Series. Book 1 in the series is The Testing. Independent Study is a YA dystopian novel with romance, drama, adventure, and political intrigue. It stands at 310 pages and was published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Young Readers on January 7, 2014.

ANALYSIS: The Testing was a new, unique dystopian novel that was designed to replace the void YA readers had after reading Hunger Games and Divergent. While it was a quick read, it wasn't a 'wow' book for me. Independent Study is the sequel to The Testing and I have mixed feelings about the series.

Independent Study follows the testing candidates after they have passed the testing and are moving into their own independent areas of study. Unfortunately, because the government always knows best in dystopian novels – the government will pick and choose which areas of study a student goes into.

This sequel has so much potential to be a good book, but unfortunately something falls flat. I'm not sure if it is any one thing, so much as it is a bunch of little things that – when combined – turn into an 'eh' book.

Let's start with the main character – Cia. Cia is smart, you would have to be to be picked for the testing and pass it, but somehow in the time from the testing to when Independent Study picks up, Cia turns into this all perfect, wonderful, brilliant person. She knows the answers to everything practically and she knows them hours before everyone else.

Now, normally this wouldn't bother me, but it felt as if the entire book was designed to showcase just how brilliant Cia is to the point it worked the opposite. I understood why the other people didn't like her, I understood why they wanted to take her down. I really don't think this was the desired effect the author intended.

Take the sudden brilliance of the main character and mix it with the extensive info dumping and random plot twist, and you have what is just an alright book. There are huge sections of Independent Study that go on and on to explain how the area got to be like it was, some of the history, and other aspects. It just got a bit overwhelming and felt like it threw off the vibe of the book.

I understand that second books are a tough sell for authors. Authors are tasked with carrying the huge momentum from the first book into the second without any problems. This book unfortunately didn't do it for me. I found myself floundering to get into a groove with the book and it honestly felt like an entirely new series I was starting. I'm not sure if it was the random throwing out there of the two revolutions, the character development changes, or the rather excessive info dumping.

Overall, Independent Study wasn't what I would have expected. It wasn't enough to turn me completely off from the series, but I don't feel the momentum that I felt in the first book. I still enjoy the whole school setting and educational twist, but I don't feel the push to read book 3 like I usually feel when following a series.

I am certain that people looking for a replacement or a similar series to Hunger Games will enjoy this series, but I don't see the attachment forming that I saw in Hunger Games.
Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Guest Review: Harry Potter and The Order Of The Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (Reviewed by Achala Upendran)


Official Author Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harry Potter and The Chamber Of Secrets
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harry Potter and The Prisoner Of Azkaban
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harry Potter and The Goblet Of Fire

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Ah, now we come to it. The fifth book of the Potter series, the one that polarizes the fandom. You either love or hate Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I am of the former party; I love the fifth book, chiefly because of the Harry I met in its covers.

Order of the Phoenix gets off, I will admit, to a rather slow start. Contrary to what we might expect based on the close of Goblet of Fire (where Voldemort returned in his full glory), the wizarding world at large does not appear to be gearing up for war. Instead, Harry is spending his holidays as usual, cooped up in Privet Drive with his horrible aunt, uncle and cousin. To make matters worse, he hasn’t heard much from his best friends, Ron and Hermione.

Being Harry Potter of course, this state of affairs does not last long. A Dementor attack on Harry and his cousin results in Harry’s expulsion from Hogwarts and his subsequent remove from Privet Drive. He is spirited away by an elite group of witches and wizards, to the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. There, Harry meets many new faces, but also gets back in touch with some favourites from the past, including Professor Lupin and, of course, his godfather, Sirius Black.

The plot of Order of the Phoenix, so far as it can be said to exist, is relatively simple. The Dark Lord is back, but the Ministry of Magic does not seem ready to acknowledge it. In an attempt to quash Headmaster Dumbledore and Harry (who insist on parroting this inconvenient truth for all to hear), the Ministry sends its own spokesperson into Hogwarts in the guise of the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher: Professor Dolores Umbridge. Professor Umbridge seems less concerned with teaching her students how defend themselves against ‘what’s out there’ and ensuring that they learn only those lessons she considers ‘suitable’. Needless to say, not all of these lessons are ones Harry and his friends can, or should, stomach.

So not only does the wizarding world at large consider Harry a liar and attention-seeker, but Harry’s dreams, spilling over from his fourth year, don’t seem to be giving him any rest. He appears to have a strange connection to Voldemort, seeing what the Dark Lord is up to, feeling surges of his emotions. And when the lines between himself and Voldemort start blurring, that’s when Harry knows he, and the people around him, cannot take distance from the Dark Lord as any indication of safety.


Why do I love this book, despite its rather tenuous plot-line? I love it precisely for that reason. Order of the Phoenix is propelled, not by a magical mystery, nor by a series of quests, but instead, by Harry himself. Harry Potter is finally growing up and growing away from the people around him, dealing with the emotional crises that come with being a hero. Whether the betrayal of a world that has, usually, shown him considerable support in his heroic endeavours and now chooses to paint him as a deranged liar, the sheer terror of being connected to a wizard as devious and evil as Voldemort or the relatively less dangerous but no less confusing muddles that come with teenage romance, Harry’s got a rough deal. And is he going to buckle down and take this all with his customary good nature?

Of course not. Harry is going to angst his way through Order of the Phoenix, and depending on your frame of mind, you will either love and sympathize with him, or find him a miserable, whiny teenage brat. For me, since I read this book at almost precisely Harry’s age (when it released I was just turning fourteen), I welcomed his teenage surliness. Others, however, disliked it.

I think it was an important step for Harry, however, and for Rowling to make him a difficult-to-like figure in this book. Here she shows us that Harry is really, really not perfect, nor is he in any way ready to be the saviour the wizarding world seems to implicitly expect him to be. The moment he acts in a manner that does not accord with the pretty fiction the authorities condone, he is ridiculed and punished. When he buckles to pressures that no fifteen-year-old should have to face, he, quite understandably, goes into what fans have dubbed his ‘Capslock mode’, yelling at people he would once have unquestioningly followed. Rowling reminds her readers that Harry is, for all his magic and heroism, a teenager and thus makes him a more human hero than many fantasy authors have managed to craft.

And that, really, is what makes Order Of The Phoenix my favourite book of them all.

*----------*----------*----------*



GUEST REVIEWER INFO: Achala Upendran is a freelance editor and writer based in India. She blogs about fantasy literature, with a special focus on the Harry Potter series, at Where the Dog Star rages. You can also follow her on Twitter at @AchalaUpendran

Achala will be reviewing all of the seven Harry Potter books, so enjoy her thoughts as she brings a special focus on the series, characters and world that have enchanted so many of us.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Interview with Seth Skorkowsky (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Dämoren 
Read Building The Perfect Revolver by Seth Skorkowsky (Guest Post)

Seth Skorkowsky really grabbed my imagination with his debut story that mixed urban fantasy, horror and thriller genres in a neat package.  He was also very kind to answer a few questions detailing his publication process, the Valducan series and how Lou Anders changed his writing outlook and his life...

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. For starters, please introduce yourself, tell us what inspired you to write and describe your journey to becoming a published author? 

SS: Thanks for having me. I’m Seth Skorkowsky, author of DÄMOREN. I started writing about 10 years ago, after I’d finished college. My original plan was to write role-playing games, but I ended up writing a novel instead. I published a few short stories, but never could sell the novel. Eventually I gave up on that bad piece of work and wrote DÄMOREN

Q] My next question is about the genesis of the Valducan Chronicles, How did its inception occur? How long have you been working on it? 

SS: The inception was the idea of a magical revolver. I mixed that with the idea that monsters such as werewolves and vampires were actually demonic possessions, and could only be killed with holy weapons. That world-concept bounced around in my head for five or six years before I started writing it. Once I decided to write it, I came up with the characters and flushed out the story. The book itself took fifteen months from start to finish.

Q] Your debut novel is the first volume in a series. How is the next book coming along? I’m sure the readers would appreciate any details about the sequel/spinoff “HOUNACIER” and the outline of your plans for the series as a whole? 

SS: The second book is coming along great. I’m about a third of the way through my first draft. HOUNACIER will follow Dr. Malcolm Romero to New Orleans. It’s more of a noir mystery/horror than the first, and delves into new aspects of the mythos. The third book will be titled IBENUS. I’m also planning a collection of “archive” stories that follow past events with different hunters such as Max Schmidt when he was young, and also the grand exploits of Victor Kluge.


Q] Now with Hounacier, you are technically writing a spinoff as it will focus on a different weapon and its weilder. Why the change of perspective both human & otherwise? 

SS: I want to keep it fresh. Every character and weapon has their own strengths and weaknesses. In DÄMOREN, Matt is a lone hunter that has to learn how to work with a team. In HOUNACIER, we’ll not only get to see a new side to Malcolm, but watch how he can adapt to working alone instead of with a team. There will be familiar faces, no doubt, but Malcolm and Hounacier deserve their own story.

Q] You wrote this helpful post about having “a book in the drawer”. Could you talk about your experience and how Lou Anders played such an instrumental role in shaping your debut? 

SS: I attended a three day writing workshop at FenCon 2011. Lou was heading it up. All 20 attendees sent in our first ten pages and all reviewed each other’s prior to the event. Lou showed us what he thought of them as an editor, and gave a lot of wonderful advice. Since we’d all read each other’s work, we all benefitted from everyone’s critiques, rather than just what he said about our own works. The biggest thing he showed was how quickly an editor can decide against a manuscript. He showed we needed to hook them right out the door.

In the end, I finally came to grips with the fact that my first novel was simply a practice piece. Strangely, I wasn't upset at all about that. It was a relief to let it go. Armed with a lot of feedback and advice, I had the courage to actually start DÄMOREN.

Q] Specifically could you give us some insight as to what points Lou raised that you incorporated in your writing which led to the publication of Dämoren

SS: DÄMOREN wastes no time introducing the character and the conflict. Many authors would begin with long-winded weather reports about wind through the trees, and then slowly introduce their characters by Page nine. I knew I had two, maybe three pages to catch an editor’s interest and Lou showed us how.

Shortly after I finished DÄMOREN, I attended an agent/editors conference. Lou was there and sitting on a speculative fiction panel. Ten of us were allowed to submit our first two pages and query letter. I was very happy when his response was, “I’d keep reading this.” That might not sound like much, but knowing how rarely he says that, I was pretty happy. He also gave some helpful pointers on my query letter, which was very appreciated.

Q] Talking specifically about Dämoren, I liked how even though it was urban fantasy, there’s a strong thread of horror in it. I enjoyed this combination and so was that done specifically or was that how you envisioned the story? 

SS: I always planned for the horror aspects to be prominent. I wanted to reader to see the monsters as something to be feared and I needed to sacrifice a few characters in order to show how desperate the situation was. I've always considered Urban Fantasy and Horror to be very closely related.

Q] For your debut, you have gotten a very nice blurb by the supremely talented Elizabeth Bear. As a reader, I haven’t seen her blurb a lot of books, how did this come to be? 

SS: I’m a member of the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction Fantasy & Horror. Elizabeth Bear is one of the resident editors who offers advice and critiques to new authors. She gave me a very helpful review on DÄMOREN, and after Ragnarok picked it up, I asked her if I could quote part of it as a blurb. I’m very grateful that she agreed.


Q] You have a series of shorts focusing on Ahren (The Black Raven). Can you talk about its inception & what inspired you to write it? 

SS: The Black Raven started off as a Sword & Sorcery short story about a thief who gets framed for murder and then falls in with a secret mafia. It was supposed to be a stand-alone story, but I kept coming up with more adventures. He’s a mixture of James Bond and the Gray Mouser. I published a few with Flashing Swords Magazine and am now releasing two collections with Rogue Blades Entertainment later this year.

Q] Let’s talk mythology for a bit especially, the mythology you endorse in Dämoren. I found it fascinating how you amalgamated several mythologies and combined them in a Lovecraftian way? What was your thought process behind it creation? 

SS: Werewolves and vampires are the rockstars of modern folklore creatures. I love them as much as anyone else, but wanted to bring in a lot of the other monsters from different cultures that don’t get the same publicity. The Lovecraftian elements were a gradual process that seeped their way in over the course of writing it. Once I noticed them, I just ran with it.

Q] I loved Dämoren as a title, what does it mean? And how did you come up with it? 

SS: Dämoren’s root is “dämon,” which is German for “demon”. I really liked the umlaut because it gives it a non-English feel. Unfortunately, it’s a little hard for people to type and some software to read. I had a few queries come back where the ä was replaced with an error symbol. I can only wonder what those agents thought about a title their computers couldn’t read.

Q] In closing, do you have any last thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers? 

SS: Don’t ever give up on your passion, no matter the setbacks. Keep going. Learn from your mistakes. And most importantly, have fun with it.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Intern's Handbook by Shane Kuhn (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website 
Order the book HERE 
Read Casual Friday for FREE (prequel short story) 
Read Qwill’s interview with Shane Kuhn 

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Shane Kuhn is a writer and filmmaker with twenty years of experience working in the entertainment business and the ad world. A shameless product pusher in the ad world, he has worked as a copywriter, creative director, and broadcast video director and producer for several notable brands and charitable organizations. As a college baseball player, he threw a fastball in the low 90s but his career was cut short by a Bull Durham strike zone. The Intern’s Handbook is his debut. He currently lives with his wife and family in a bi-coastal/mountain migration pattern that includes Massachusetts, Colorado, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: John Lago is a hitman. He has some rules for you and he's about to break every single one.

John Lago is a very bad guy. But he’s the very best at what he does. And what he does is infiltrate top-level companies and assassinate crooked executives while disguised as an intern.

Interns are invisible. That’s the secret behind HR, Inc., the elite “placement agency” that doubles as a network of assassins for hire who take down high-profile targets that wouldn’t be able to remember an intern’s name if their lives depended on it.

At the ripe old age of almost twenty-five, John Lago is already New York City’s most successful hit man. He’s also an intern at a prestigious Manhattan law firm, clocking eighty hours a week getting coffee, answering phones, and doing all the grunt work actual employees are too lazy to do. He was hired to assassinate one of the firm’s heavily guarded partners. His internship provides the perfect cover, enabling him to gather intel and gain access to pull off a clean, untraceable hit.

Part confessional, part DIY manual, The Intern’s Handbook chronicles John’s final assignment, a twisted thrill ride in which he is pitted against the toughest—and sexiest—adversary he’s ever faced.

CLASSIFICATION: Lisa Lutz aptly described it as “The Intern's Handbook is Dexter meets Office Space—the blackest and goriest office comedy you could imagine, with an intern-slash-assassin in the starring role.

FORMAT/INFO: The Intern’s Handbook is 288 pages long divided over forty-four numbered & titled chapters. Narration is in the first person solely via John Lago. This is book one of the John Lago series. Casual Friday is the prequel short story set nearly eight years ago & is currently FREE on Amazon.

April 8th, 2014 marked the hardback and e-book publication of The Intern’s Handbook via Simon and Schuster. It was also published as Kill Your Boss on January 2, 2014 in the UK by Little Brown.


ANALYSIS: There are some books that draw you in with their blurb descriptions about their protagonists such as Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells, Beat The Reaper by Josh Bazzell, etc and then completely hook you in with the content matter. The Intern’s Handbook seemed to be another such book and I couldn’t wait to read it and see how it would pan out.

The story begins as a series of chapters in a handbook that details the life of John Lago, one of the best assassins that Human Resources Inc. has to offer. He’s on the verge of becoming twenty-five years old and that means that he can no longer do what he does best. That seems ironical but the way HR Inc has become so proficient at their work, is because they send out people who are below the age of twenty five as interns and who are trained to be deadly killers. John Lago was inducted into HR Inc when he was twelve years old, he along with a group of twenty-six other like-minded individuals made up the batch. Only three remain and all of them are superbly efficient. John is given one last mission and after that he can decide whether to retire or not.

His last assignment is to infiltrate New York’s most prestigious law firm; Bendini, Lambert & Locke. However the biggest drawback of the assignment is that there’s no target yet. Sure there’s someone to be terminated however he will have to ingratiate himself with all the senior members, keep his intern status and find out who the target is. Not an easy job but one John is prepared for. His biggest problem however comes in the form of Alice, who starts as part of his assignment but ends up complicating his life. This final assignment will be prove to be his nadir as he unlearns all that he gleaned so far and he still has to find out whom he has to kill, to finish it.

The Intern's Handbook is Shane Kuhn's debut and a super fun story. John’s handbook for recent recruits is a handbook as well as his biography. I couldn’t stop reading once the story began and along with the twists, the story is told with a very dark comedic tone that helps massively. Here are a few examples of the author’s humor:

The shortest distance between truth and bullshit is six feet straight down.”

Hip-hop, you have f***** the King’s English for life, good on you.”

He calls himself a ‘big picture guy’, this is a Business 3.0 way of saying he doesn’t give a shit about anything but the bottom line.” 

44% of my kills came from my superior coffee-making ability. It’s simple, puts you in direct contact with the target and it can be a vector for a variety of weapons.

Also similar to Columbus’ list of rules for survival in Zombieland, John has a set of rules that are interspersed between the chapters and which further help elucidate why he’s considered to be one of the best. The pace of the story is of the rapid kind as the twists pile on; it becomes even harder to put this down. Trust me you don’t want to start this book in the evening as that way you’ll end up reading late in the night till the story ends. Do what I did, reserve time for it and then read and chuckle along as the tale unfolds.

The main protagonist is the big draw of the story as we get a hitman who while young in age, has developed a cynical attitude that seems more proper in one who would be in the 40-plus age range. John’s observations and his rules make the book stand out completely and kudos to the author for his top-drawer characterization. While we don’t get to much about the side character cast, they aren’t the two-dimensional ones and add to the character dynamic in many more ways. And to top it all, the climax of the story is quite an unpredictable one, which goes on to add to the charm of the book. Plus after reading the very last page, readers will definitely be clamoring for a sequel.

With such stories, there are always points that go against it, for me the only point that didn't seem to gel was the fact that towards the latter third of the story, John Lago battles the antagonists who don't quite use all the weapons (both literally & figuratively) in their arsenal. Perhaps the author will shine a further light on this aspect in the sequels but for now, this point seemed a bit weak. In the end this was a dark, quirky assassin story that pays homages to several films and silver screen characters and takes a rather funny route towards its unpredictable climax.

CONCLUSION: The Intern’s Handbook is a rip-roaring tale of an intern cum assassin, who plans to retire young but as often as it does with best-laid plans, his journey never goes where he plans it to be. This tale is quite apt for fans of the Dexter series, The Spellman Files & the John Wayne Cleaver trilogy. Make sure you don’t miss The Intern’s Handbook by Shane Kuhn, as far as debuts go, this one hits the bullseye.
Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mini Q&A with Rob J. Hayes (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website
Order the book HERE (US) and HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Heresy Within
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Colour Of Vengeance
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Northern Sunrise
Read Fantasy Book Critic interview with Rob J. Hayes

Rob J. Hayes is an author who currently is in the top echelons of my anticipated author list.  His most recent release The Northern Sunrise was a surprising steampunk and magical mix plus with the ever reliable top-notch characterization. Read ahead to find out what were his thoughts behind his newest standalone and what he plans on writing next...

Q] Welcome back to Fantasy Book Critic, while most writers are comfortable writing in their debut milieus, you have gone against the grain and written a standalone story set in a completely different world. What was your line of reasoning behind this bold step? 

RJH: Thanks for having me back. I think I wanted to try something a bit different and, after spending the past five years working on the world I created in The Ties that Bind trilogy, I wanted to take a break from it. I have a few worlds swirling about in my imagination, as I would assume most fantasy authors do, and a whole host of stories taking part in those worlds.

While I was writing The Price of Faith I had this idea for a short story involving the two protagonists from The Northern Sunrise and after putting it onto paper I found it so charming that I wanted to take it further and adapt it into a full novel.

Q] The Northern Sunrise while being a heist story is also miles away from your grimdark debut with regards to characters, plot bleakness and language. Did you feel that this story needed to be different from your debut or was this just what the story required? 

RJH: A little bit of both really. The story itself doesn't call for much violence, sex or harsh language so I made a conscious decision that there would be as little as possible. I think the character's attitude is a reflection of the world; the world I created in The Ties that Bind is dark, hard, cruel and unforgiving and the characters that inhabit it are very much a product of that. The world I created in The Northern Sunrise is full of intrigue, deceit and hope and I think, once again, the characters reflect those qualities.


Q] Please tell us about how The Northern Sunrise came to be? What were your inspirations for the story and what were you aiming for with it? 

RJH: So it started off as a short story set in a world that I've been designing for a while now to be one part steampunk-esque science, one part elemental magic and one part religious zealotry. A bit of a mash I know but I'm hoping it'll pull together in the end. :D

I love heist capers. From films like Ocean's Eleven to books like The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, I love the idea of a group of thieves overcoming impossible odds and stealing something that cannot be stolen. At the same time I wanted to include the romance of Bonnie and Clyde (only without the rampant murder), with a couple whose lives revolved around the obvious and deep love they have for each other and the thrill of the steal.

Q] Again in The Northern Sunrise, the characters are the highlight of the story particularly Isabel & Jacques who share a very warm and loving relationship. Also dangerously fascinating were Amaury & Franseza, what's your secret in the creation of such intriguing people? 

RJH: I think growing up with a psychologist for a mother probably helped. :D I try to create realistic characters wherever possible, giving them strengths and flaws, hopes and dreams, and conflicts both with other characters and also with themselves.

Q] Since this is a standalone story, what are you planning to write about next? Will you be returning to the world of The Ties That Bind trilogy? 

RJH: I am indeed. My next project follows on pretty directly from where The Ties that Bind trilogy left off. It will contain some of the old cast and many new characters as well. That's about as much as I'm giving away at the moment.


Q] With Indie books, cover art is always a tricky issue. I was very impressed with the cover art for The Northern Sunrise. Did you have any input in regards to it? If yes please elaborate... 

RJH: I think with cover art you really get what you pay for and, despite the old adage, people do judge books by their covers; so I've discovered the trick is to find (and pay for) a good artist and they will usually want quite a lot of input from the author. For the cover of The Northern Sunrise I chose the shape of the airship, and wrote all the annotations you see on the cover. Luckily the artist I found had a really good idea of what I wanted doing so there was very little conflict and what we came up with looks pretty damned good. :D

Q] Thank you once again for your time, what can your fans expect in 2014 and near future? 

RJH: Well hopefully towards the end of this year or the beginning of the next, I'll have the first book of the new series ready. On that note if people want to keep up to date with what's going on with myself and my scribblings they can do so by visiting my webpage, where they'll find news and short stories by myself, or by following me on Facebook at Rob J. Hayes, or on Twitter at @RoboftheHayes.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Dämoren by Seth Skorkowsky (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read Building The Perfect Revolver by Seth Skorkowsky (Guest Post) 

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Seth Skorkowsky
was born in east Texas in 1978 and always dreamed of being a writer. His short story "The Mist of Lichthafen" was nominated for a British Fantasy Award (long list) in 2009. Dämoren is Seth's debut novel. He recently signed a two-book deal with Rogue Blades Entertainment for his "Black Raven" sword-and-sorcery collection. When not writing, Seth enjoys travel, shooting, and tabletop gaming. He currently lives in Denton, Texas, with his wife.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: A secret society of monster hunters. A holy revolver forged to eradicate demons. A possessed man with a tragic past. A rising evil bent on destroying them all.

Matt Hollis is the current wielder of the holy weapon, Dämoren. With it, he stalks and destroys demons. A secret society called the VALDUCANS has taken an interest in Matt’s activities. They see him as a reckless rogue—little more than a ‘cowboy’ corrupted by a monster—and a potential threat to their ancient order.

As knights and their sentient weapons begin dying, Matt teams up with other hunters of his kind such as Luiza, a woman with a conquistador blade; Allan, an Englishman with an Egyptian khopesh; Malcolm, a voodoo priest with a sanctified machete; and Takaira, a naginata-swinging Samurai.

As the hunters become the hunted, they must learn to trust one another before a powerful demonic entity thrusts the world into a terrible and ageless darkness.

CLASSIFICATION: The Valducan series is an action-packed urban fantasy series with a rather strong streak of horror running through it. Think Jim Butcher meets James Rollins with a dash of Lovecraft

FORMAT/INFO: Dämoren is 320 pages long divided over twenty-one numbered chapters. Narration is in the third person solely via Matt Hollis. This is book one of the Valducan series.

April 14th, 2014 marked the e-book publication of Dämoren via Ragnarok Publications. Cover design is by J.M. Martin.

ANALYSIS: With urban fantasies nowadays, there’s only so much being done. Faced with the usual bandwagon of vampires, werewolves, faeries, elves and other tropes, it can get a tad disappointing for an urban fantasy fan like me. Of course we have authors like Ilona Andrews, Liz Williams, Myke Cole, Tim Marquitz, and Rachel Aaron who dare to stretch the limits and pave new ground.

Seth Skorkowsky’s Dämoren was a book, which after reading the blurb, I was hoping that would also be different. The blurb details a world wherein there’s a series of holy weapons that have been wielded by men and women to defeat all sorts of unnatural and nasty creatures. Matt Hollis is our protagonist who is also the current wielder of Dämoren and he’s been doing his job (of sorts) since he learnt what the world truly is. In his teenage years when he went by Spencer Mallory, he came to know what a wendigo is and what savagery a group of them can inflict. Saved by a stranger who wielded Dämoren, Matt/Spencer is drawn to the gun with a mind of its own. Fastforward fourteen years to the attack, we encounter Matt investigating a strange phenomenon in Canada.

That’s where he meets the Valducans, a strange group of people who wield similar weapons and who request him for his help. There’s much more to the weapons than Matt knows but the only way he can get information is if he decides to join this motley bunch. The spanner in the works is that Matt has a secret of his own and it might endanger everyone.


You have to admit Seth Skorkowsky has gotten a nice hook with this story. There’s a magical weapon, a freaking revolver with a blade. It’s sentient as are other weapons and a mystery organization is holding them to battle with all sorts of nasty creatures. The author does really go out of his way to make this tale an international one by having the story move around from locale to locale and doesn’t conform to any one specific mythology either. Utilizing a whole gamut of creatures from European, Native American and Hindu mythos, he keeps the story and the readers on an even keel. There’s also a strong undercurrent of horror that the author utilizes effectively within the action sequences and with certain plot points.

The story also moves at a very fast pace and has some terrific action sequences interspersed. Additionally the author also has some neat twists reserved for the end, which go on to explain some exciting hints about the mythology of the holy weapons. The author also gives some important information about the world between chapters as book excerpts and other such, which really helps the reader without going into unnecessary exposition. The story is nicely streamlined as the Valducans are constantly hammered on all fronts and Matt has to figure it out before the suspicions against him turn violent. The story also ends on a big climax that should satisfy most of the readers and points excitingly towards a sequel.

Now to the points that didn’t make this it a five star read, in regards to the characterization of the protagonist. We are given enough of a clue about him and his past however the circumstances with which he grew up would have been exciting to explore. A boy who has been savaged by wendigos is saved by something beyond his control and yet looked on with hostility by his savior. That’s a terrific origin story right there! Of course with regards to the story he wanted to tell, I can imagine why the author directly jumped to the present. Also in regards to the other characters, we don’t get much background on them but they aren’t cardboard cutouts either.

Another thing I would have enjoyed is that if the author had explored as to how all the world religions and mythologies tie in together, there are a few things mentioned here and there. But nothing concrete is offered, this is what usually ruffles the read for me. I would have liked to see how the world religions have been affected or atleast some hypothesis in regards to it. But with this being book one in a series, it can be understood if the author didn't want to reveal all his cards. Lastly one more interesting thing the author manages is that he very effectively sidesteps the question of which brand of belief is the correct one. I thought that was a very smooth move.

CONCLUSION: Dämoren is an exciting debut, as it offers the best of both urban fantasy and thrillers have to offer. Seth Skorkowsky writes a story that is an excellent combination of horror, action and mythology, furthermore his writing flows smoothly and makes for a damned good read as well. Check out Dämoren if you like Jim Butcher's works mixed in with a strong dash of James Rollins' thrillers.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014

GUEST POST: Building The Perfect Revolver by Seth Skorkowsky


When writing DÄMOREN, the pistol's physical description was critical. I wanted a gun that was unique, yet historically accurate for the time period she was made. It went through several changes before I finally knew what she would look like. I had already decided that Dämoren was originally a holy sword that was broken in the 19th Century. The owner then took the pieces to a gunsmith and had them made into revolver (which at the time was the pinnacle of weapon technology). A friend suggested the idea that she should be single-action and the bullets should be loaded one at a time, making it even slower than modern revolvers.


(Old-style revolvers used a little latch called a Loading Gate to load and unload the pistol.)

MAGIC

The original concept was to have a gun that could kill a demon. Magical swords have always existed in folklore, and the blade of a magic sword hitting and killing its opponent is easy to understand. A magical gun, however, is a different matter. A gun never touches the target, so in order for it to work, the power must somehow transfer to the bullet. My original solution was to have a prayer etched along the inside of the barrel. As the bullet travels down the barrel, it gains this blessing. To finalize the consecration, the word "Amen" would be molded into the bullet itself, thus charging it with demon-killing magic.

Since the bullets had to be molded to have the word "Amen”, that meant my hero would need to cast and load each bullet. I decided that even the brass shells should be engraved and special, and that the hero would only have a limited number of them. Therefore he'd have to save and reuse the shells over and over, while casting new bullets. This also added a few more hindrances on my protagonist, which I liked. I didn't want having a demon-killing handgun to be too easy.

At the time I was coming up with these ideas, I wasn't a very experienced shooter. I was talking to a friend (who was very experienced) about the concept when he mentioned that brass shells don't last forever and eventually do wear out. He said that it shouldn't be a problem since the magic of the gun could also cause the shells to be more durable or heal themselves. I agreed (can't argue with science), but wanted to further explain why holy weapons might heal minor damage, rather than just saying "magic" and ignoring it. Without giving too much away, the solution changed the course of the world mythology. As a tribute to my good friend, who also taught me how to shoot properly, I named my hero's mentor after him. Clay.

CARTRIDGES

Because I wanted Dämoren's shells to be reloads, it meant that the gun had to have been made after 1866. That was the year that modern primer cartridges were first patented. Prior to that, bullets were either cap and ball or pinfire, neither of which I wanted. In order to qualify as an antique firearm, for a scene where the hero gets Dämoren past customs, it would need to be made prior to 1898 and not fire any normal-sized caliber.


(Pinfire (or Lefaucheux) shells had a firing pin that jutted from the side, unlike a primer in the back, as we have today.  They were terribly unsafe.  Bumping them could set them off.  I also admit I was very tempted to use them for Dämoren.)

THE BLADE

Surprisingly, Dämoren's most noticeable feature, the rather intimidating blade beneath her barrel, was one of the last additions I came up with. Early on, I had decided that Dämoren's power to kill demons wouldn't just be reserved to her bullets. As a holy weapon, she should be able to pistol-whip a demon to death. I imagined a scene where Matt, out of ammo and facing an oncoming monster, flips the gun around grabbing by the barrel and clubs the demon down. Then I learned how to shoot and found out how insanely hot a gun barrel is after firing (Who would have thought that TV and movies lied?). In searching for an alternative, I found this:


(Affixing a blade beneath the barrel transformed Dämoren from a spiffy magic gun into a badass demon killer.)

Since Dämoren was to have been made from a broken sword, having a blade in addition the the barrel became an obvious choice. I also decided that the bronze from the sword's crossguard would be the same metal used to make her special shells.

THE GUNSMITH

With magical or masterwork swords, there's always the scene where the owner proudly gives its lineage. Whether it was forged by God (Excalibur), Hattori Hanzō (Kill Bill), or Masamune (Highlander), you want to know that the iconic weapon was made by the best. My original plan was to have Beretta make Dämoren. Beretta has been crafting firearms since the 16th Century and arming my favorite action heroes since the 1980's. Unfortunately, Beretta was never known for their revolvers. Next, I chose Harris Holland of London who is known making firearms for royalty and the wealthy.

Then when researching more information on cutlass revolvers, I stumbled on the work of Celestin Dumonthier


Dumonthier was a French gunsmith known for making some of the most beautiful cutlass revolvers. He was also active during the time window I needed (1866-1898). While the beautiful lines and almost melted way the blade comes off the barrel isn't as all how Dämoren appears, I knew I had my gunsmith. Researching Dumonthier was a fun, albeit difficult, task. Not much is out there about him. The most helpful resource I found was "BLADES and BARRELS" by H. Gordon Frost, which has been out of print for 40 years now.

In the end, Dämoren's evolution was a gradual process from an ornate gun into what she eventually became. She is as much a character as any other in my novel, and building her (at least in my imagination) was a lot of fun. I hope my readers enjoy her and much as I do.


Official Author Website
Order the book HERE 

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Seth Skorkowsky was born in Texas in 1978. He currently lives in Denton, Texas, with his wife, and works for the University of North Texas. His short story "The Mist of Lichthafen" was nominated for a British Fantasy Award (long list) in 2009. Dämoren is Seth's debut novel. He recently signed a two-book deal with Rogue Blades Entertainment for his "Black Raven" sword-and-sorcery collection. When not writing, Seth enjoys travel, shooting, and tabletop gaming.
Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Northern Sunrise by Rob J. Hayes (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website
Order the book HERE (US) and HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Heresy Within
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Colour Of Vengeance
Read Fantasy Book Critic interview with Rob J. Hayes

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Rob J. Hayes was born and brought up in Basingstoke, UK. As a child he was fascinated with Lego, Star Wars and Transformers that fueled his imagination and he spent quite a bit of his growing up years playing around with such. He began writing at the age of fourteen however soon discovered the fallacies of his work. After four years at University studying Zoology and three years working for a string of high street banks as a desk jockey/keyboard monkey. Rob lived on a desert island in Fiji for three months. It was there he re-discovered his love of writing and, more specifically, of writing fantasy. 

OFFICIAL BLURB: The Northern Sunrise is a standalone book by the author of The Ties that Bind trilogy. Set in a new world of corruption, deceit and thievery; mixing magical fantasy and alchemy-punk with a healthy smattering of airshippery.

"There comes a point in every thief's life where one has to take stock of all that they have achieved. We have stolen almost everything there is worth stealing: Prince Henri's Jadefire ring, the Marquisse d'Bola's collection of prized toy soldiers, Elize Gion's Living Autumn, the very first airship schematic, and who could forget we definitely made off with Baron Rivette's pride."

"The trick, I find, is not to break in. No. The trick is to convince the mark to invite you in." 

FORMAT/INFO: The Northern Sunrise is divided into twenty-five chapters and an epilogue. The narration is in third person via Isabel de Rosier, Jacques Revou, Shadow concieller Renard Daron, and Amaury Roche. This is a standalone story.

March 19, 2014 marked the US and UK e-book publication of The Northern Sunrise and was self-published by the author.

ANALYSIS: After reading Rob J. Hayes’ debut effort, I was suitably impressed. With this tale being a standalone and specifically not related to his previous trilogy, I was wondering how this effort would turn out be.

Isabel de Rosier and Jacques Revou are two consummate thieves who have accomplished several different sorts of heists and larceny. Their most recent efforts have them squarely in the sights of Renard Daron, the shadow conceiller to the king of Sassaille. Isabel and Jacques are forced into a final job for Renard Daron and fiercely watched by Daron's two deadly shadows Franseza Goy & Amaury Roche. Going into a job blind, has never been their sort of thing but with all their bank accounts frozen and with not a single penny to their name. Isabel and Jacques must learn to dance to the shadow conceiller's tune however they are not without their own tricks.

This was a very different offering from the author’s debut, and I’m glad for that very reason. So often authors tend to repeat what they have done before and they run the risk of being labeled as one-trick ponies. Rob J. Hayes certainly bucks that trend with this standalone tale about thieves coerced into working with a spymaster for his own nefarious ends. Also this story is a far cry from his previous work which made most grimdark stories look like YA ones.

As with the previous books, the characters are what make this story so enjoyable, beginning with our main characters, who are quite an adorable duo. They keep the story from getting too dreary and also keep the reader entertained. Another plus point is that the author makes their voices distinct so as to not confuse them. Also with the other POV characters, they are quite individualistic and also make the story that much more intriguing. Ultimately this story is about wills and the deception that people engage in. With Isabel and Jacques, it’s all about their skills in fooling people into believing whatever they want them to. With Daron, it’s basically about the kingdom and its needs, however what Daron thinks what’s best for the kingdom might not be entirely correct.

Amaury and Franseza aren’t given that much space but their motivations and instincts are quite clear to discern. The story is quite fast paced and has a reasonable amount of twists that will keep the readers wanting to know how it will all end. A trick the author utilizes is the use of flashbacks before the start of the chapters, which further help in fleshing out the story and the characters. Another plus point is that the world setting which includes air ships, guns and a remarkable type of creature that the readers will have to find out more on their own. The world technology level is set about a pre-industrial level and the characters and world seems to be based on French culture which is a slightly refreshing change from the usual British one.

I thought this book was a fun read that offered some remarkable twists and ended the tale on a strong note. The ending however also lends to a sequel should the author ever want to revisit the world but the ending I must say is a proper one and the story can be considered complete. In the age of numerous series, it’s very refreshing to see a proper standalone story and in this case, it was good to see a different story from an author whom I have very high expectations for.

CONCLUSION: The Northern Sunrise by Rob J. Hayes is a surprisingly fun thriller even though it deals with deception, spy craft and other dastardly activities. Rob J. Hayes certainly is his own writer and know how to buck reader expectations and give a story which while different is no less a pageturner.
Friday, April 11, 2014

Bird Box by Josh Malerman (Reviewed by Will Byrnes)


Official Author Page
Pre-0rder the book HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Close your eyes and imagine the basso sound of voiceover icon Don LaFontaine intoning, “In a world gone mad…” and that is pretty much where Bird Box begins. Open your eyes and go mad. Kill others, yourself. Can you keep from peeking? For how long? In Josh Malerman’s post-apocalyptic, eye-opening scare-scape, something happened. An invasion? Some natural phenomenon? No one is really certain. But what has become clear is that anyone who steps outside with their eyes open goes insane, not just gibbering or confused, but violently and destructively, homicidally mad.

In the near-future today of the story, Malorie is a young mother, with two small children in her charge. She has been training them for over four years, to hear, with a sensitivity and acuity more usually associated with flying mammals. They embark on a river journey to what she hopes is a safe haven, twenty miles away, blindfolded. Any noise could be someone, or something following them. She must rely on the skill she has rigorously drilled into the boy and girl every day to help guide them, and alert them to danger. And we must wonder if the destination she aims for will offer relief or some version of Mistah Kurtz.

Chapters alternate, mostly, between the river journey and Malorie’s back story. We follow her from when The Problem began, seeing death and destruction in first a few isolated locations, then spreading everywhere, seeing loved ones succumb, then finding a place to live, a refuge, with others, and watch as they cope, or fail.

In horror stories, it helps to have an appealing hero. I am sure most of us have seen our share of splatter films in which the demise of each obnoxious teen is met with cheers rather than with dismay. The other sort is of the Wait until Dark variety, in which our heart goes out to the Audrey Hepburn character beset by dark forces. Bird Box is the latter type. Malorie is a very sympathetic character, an everywoman trying her best under ridiculous circumstances, more the Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) of Nightmare On Elm Street or the Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) of Halloween, than the Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) of Alien, but Malorie does what she must to survive and to prepare with patience and diligence to sally forth against the unknown.

Malerman was bitten by the horror bug as an early teen:

"My big introduction was Twilight Zone: the Movie, the first horror movie I ever saw. After that came Saturday Shockers and sneaking in whatever I could at a friend’s house (Faces of Death, PsychoBlaculaProm Night.) I was also reading a lot. There’s a great period of horror fiction history, before the novel-boom of the 70’s spearheaded by Rosemary’s Baby, The Other, and The Exorcist, in which the short story ruled the genre. That period is golden and completely bursting with ideas. I read M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Poe, Blackwood, Bierce, et al. When you first approach it, the genre, it feels infinite, but it’s not. So, come high school, I was trying to write my own scary stories, weird poems, strange tales." (from Detroit CBS Local news interview)

He likes to write with horror movie soundtracks on. And he is a musical sort as well, singing and playing in the band The High Strung. In fact, fans of Shameless, on Showtime, have already been exposed to Malerman’s work, as the writer and performer of that show’s theme song.

The dynamics of the house-full of refugees in the back story will feel familiar. Who to let in, or not, concerns over sharing limited resources, discussions over what adventuresome risks might or might not be worth taking re looking toward the future, or in trying to learn more about the cause of their situation. One might be forgiven for seeing here a societal microcosm, but I do not really think this was what Malerman was on about. He does offer a bit of a larger, thematic view though, tied to the central image of the book, which definitely adds to the heft of the story. A wondering at more existential questions:

 "She thinks of the house as one big box. She wants out of this box. Tom and Jules, outside, are still in this box. The entire globe is shut in. The world is confined to the same cardboard box that houses the birds outside. Malorie understands that Tom is looking for a way to open the lid. He’s looking for a way out. But she wonders if there’s not a second lid above this one, then a third above that. Boxed in, she thinks. Forever."

You really want Malorie to reach safety with the children, but there is a gauntlet to be run, and there is no certainty that any of them will make it. The dangers are human, natural and eldritch, and I mean that in a very Lovecraftian way. You will definitely not want to put Bird Box down once you pick it up.

This is a very scary, and gripping novel. If you are reading on the train, you may miss your stop. If you are reading at bedtime, you will definitely miss a few winks, and might want to sleep with the lights on after you finish.

A generic problem I have with the book is that the dark elements here sometimes tend to step back when they have decided advantages, failing to make the most (or worst as the case may be) of their positions. It was not obvious to me that there was some point being made by these unexpected choices. Nevertheless, Malerman takes the notion of the unseen and pushes readers to create the scariest thing of all, that which lurks in the imagination.

CONCLUSION: It is not at all dangerous to see how much fun this book is. Usually it is considered a good thing to think outside the box, but in this case it is clearly a far, far better thing that Malerman has done his thinking inside one.

NOTE: This review was originally posted on Will's blog. Josh Malerman picture courtesy of  Sara Castillo and Fearnet.

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