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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The 2017 BookNest Fantasy Awards (by Mihir Wanchoo)

The second Booknest awards shortlist was posted this previous Saturday (14th October) and I had the privilege to be one of the six bloggers who helped in creation of the long list. A huge thank you to Petros T. for enabling me to be a part of these awards.

The awards for each of these three categories are beyond eye-catching to say the least and here are the nominees in each category:

Best Traditionally Published Novel

- A Plague of Swords by Miles Cameron
- Age of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan
- Assassin's Fate by Robin Hobb
- Breath of Fire by Amanda Bouchet
- Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
- Red Sister by Mark Lawrence
- Sins of Empire by Brian McClellan
- Skullsworn by Brian Staveley
- The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
- Wrath by John Gwynne

There’s some great books in the traditionally published category and I believe it will a tough fight between Mark Lawrence, John Gwynne, Robin Hobb, Michael Sullivan & Brian Stavely as all of them have written amazing books and have a very passionate fan base. Among all the titles in this category, in my mind, the two strongest titles are Red Sister & Skullsworn and I’m having the hardest time in deciding who to vote for.

Best Self Published Novel 

 - A Keeper's Tale by J.A. Andrews
- Darklands by M.L. Spencer
- Faithless by Graham Austin King
- On the Wheel by Timandra Whitecastle
- Revenant Winds by Mitchell Hogan
- Sufficiently Advanced Magic by Andrew Rowe
- The Fifth Empire of Man by Rob J. Hayes
- The Heart of Stone by Ben Galley
- The Mirror's Truth by Michael R. Fletcher
- A Dragon of A Different Color by Rachel Aaron

This is another tough category as there are so many amazing titles and quite a few are in the running for the SPFBO title this year. I have read quire a few of them such as ADOADC (Rachel Aaron), SAM (Andrew Rowe), TFEOM (Rob J. Hayes), Darklands (M. L. Spencer), THOS (Ben Galley), TMT (Michael R. Fletcher). I’ve read all of these aforementioned titles and can vouch for their amazing nature. In this category my vote was divided between TFEOM and ADOADC and right now I’m leaning a tad towards TFEOM for its insane finale, mind-blowing characters and an ending twist that would have made GRRM proud.

Best Debut Novel

- Blackwing by Ed McDonald
- Gilded Cage by Vic James
- Godblind by Anna Stephens
- Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames
- River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
- The Bear And The Nightingale by Katherine Arden
- The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark
- The Dragon's Legacy by Deborah A. Wolf
- The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis
- Age of Assassins by RJ Barker

The best debut category, I believe is the true group of death. This year has been a phenomenal year for debuts and it shows with Ed McDonald, RJ Barker, Nicholas Eames, Katherine Arden, Anna Stephens, etc. This category is anybody’s guess and honestly I’m sad that Alec Hutson didn’t make the cut. He would be another contender for sure. In this category, I’m having the hardest time selecting my choice as it changes with every hour. I’ll be waiting to see who wins eventually.

So dear readers please go ahead and vote for your choices in the aforementioned categories. The voting ends on 31st October so make your votes count 

Monday, October 16, 2017

GUEST POST: The Unreliability of Magical Surveillance. by Tom Doyle

In my American Craftsmen trilogy, psychic spies (farseers) can view intel across the distances of time and space (farsight). Their visions guide the missions of magical and mundane soldiers, and they play against the farseers of hostile powers.

I want to look briefly at some of the popular stories of magical surveillance. The use of magical or psychic means to view across space and time is an old idea. Yet few of the stories that come immediately to mind view such power as an unambiguous good for the wielder. In the story of Snow White, the evil queen uses a magic mirror for scrying. Like many such devices, the mirror is a two-edged weapon. On the one hand, the mirror demonstrates what powerful surveillance can accomplish; for example, the attempt of Snow White and the huntsman to fake her death fails because of it. On the other hand, the mirror seems to be driving the queen to her eventual destruction by doling out only as much information as she requests and no more.

In The Lord of the Rings, we have the Mirror of Galadriel, the palantíri, and the Ring itself. All of these are in their own way unreliable. The Mirror of Galadriel shows Sam a vision of an industrializing Shire that momentarily discourages him from his mission, when his mission is the one hope of Middle Earth. Denethor’s palantir gives him true intel, but only what Sauron wants him to see, and so he goes mad with despair. In turn, Aragorn is able to use Saruman’s palantir to nudge Sauron into rushing his attack. The Ring seems to serve as a sort of tracking device, but only when Frodo puts it on does it work well enough to zero in on him.

(By the way, Palantir Technologies is the name of a big data analysis, counterterrorism company, as anyone who’s taken the DC metro over the last few years knows from its ads.)

In the original Oz book, the Wicked Witch of the West only had one eye, “yet this eye was as strong and powerful as a telescope, and could see everywhere in the Winkie Country.” (In the film, this was changed to a crystal ball.) Yet this eye, which clearly helped her enslave the Winkies, also led to her doom, because it’s explicitly stated that Dorothy would not have been able to find the Witch, but the Witch was able to find Dorothy.

In the Dune books, Paul Atreides has an incredible power of precognition, but he has difficulty seeing the actions of opponents scheming under the protective umbrella of a Spacing Guild Navigator because the Navigator is also a precog. In the end, Paul’s foresight only leaves him with one tragic choice.

The most famous oracle of Classical Greece was at Delphi. Scholars think that it may have in part functioned as an intelligence gathering and exchange point, and it was particularly effective for guiding the Greeks in their founding of colonies. But the oracle could also be notoriously ambiguous and potentially disastrous to the unwary and hubristic. According to Herodotus, one such oracular prediction was that if Croesus made war on the Persians, he would destroy a mighty empire. That empire turned out to be Croesus’s own.

Finally, related to the ambiguous oracle is the unheeded prophecy. Cassandra is the archetypical example; her ability is precise and accurate, but no one believes her anyway. Many stories of biblical prophecies are similar--the prophet clearly warns that if bad behavior continues, disaster will surely follow, yet we have fewer stories of the prophecy being avoided than fulfilled.

I’m uncertain as to why the limitations of farsight are such a consistent theme in our stories about it. However, the Dune series points out a particular problem of perfect prescience--under the God Emperor of Dune, history as we understand it comes to a halt. Perfect prescience may not eliminate free will, but it may negate its force in the universe.

Or perhaps any power without a limit or flaw just makes for bad storytelling.

So, what are the limits of farsight in my secret history of our world?

1. Farsight is probabilistic. In the fashion of scientists, my psychic spies report their predictions in the form of probabilities, with absolute certainty never fully achieved, only very closely approached.

So, my first book, American Craftsmen, has passages like “High probability of end of American democracy,” and another where one spy counts down the seconds and another gives the survival odds. The third book, War and Craft, mentions a probability of greater than five sigma of a certain character’s destruction. War and Craft also introduces the insane, drug-addled precogs of the Left Hand, who under apocalyptic stresses made such absurd predictions as “probability the sun turns into a giant clown-faced wolf at ten to the minus tenth percent.” In its more sober form, this use of probabilities allows those who use the psychic intel to weigh it, but it also underlines the limitations of such intel perhaps more honestly and directly than other more mundane reports and considerations.

2. My farseers are limited by other precogs and the Dune rule. No one nation, ideology, or moral stance has a monopoly on precog, and sufficiently skilled psychic competitors of all stripes can see the oncoming probabilities of certain events. Beyonds a ubiquitous passive observer effect, this means that rivals can attempt to take action to avoid certain outcomes. Also, associates of a farseer (or in one case, friends of the child of a very powerful precog) are largely screened from such predictions.

3. Farseers have a variety of skill levels and trustworthiness. It’s proverbial that military intelligence is only as good as the people delivering it and using it. Some of the best farseers have become unstable because of the tragic choices they are forced to repeatedly make. Sometimes those responsible for giving the orders based on the intel fail to do so because they don’t trust the particular farseer or prediction. In my books, the unbalanced yet powerful oracle codenamed Sphinx issued predictions that were so distant in time and extreme in counteraction that the tragedies occurred anyway: “Evacuate the embassy in Tehran. Close all the airports in September.”

4. From their experience, my characters (particularly morally dubious ones) know that if they lean on precog intel too much, the prediction may spring some karmic trap upon them. As one evil character reflects, “responding too directly to oracles was a quick trip to poetic justice,” especially when the ambiguities are almost screaming in the choice of words.

However, even my characters who aren’t precog specialists pick up bits of oracular statements everywhere. Combat heightens the sense of irony and of the perversity of fate. Anything that sounds like “famous last words” triggers their psychic warning bells, and certain characters are gifted or cursed with strong forebodings of their own deaths.

Thank you to Fantasy Book Critic for hosting this post. I hope you’ll check out my psychic spies for yourselves.

Official Author Website
Order War And Craft HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of American Craftsmen
Read "Mixing Magic With The Mundane World" by Tom Doyle (guest post)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Tom Doyle is the author of a contemporary fantasy trilogy from Tor Books. In the first book, American Craftsmen, two modern magician-soldiers fight their way through the legacies of Poe and Hawthorne as they attempt to destroy an undying evil--and not kill each other first. In the sequel, The Left-Hand Way, the craftsmen are hunters and hunted in a global race to save humanity from a new occult threat out of America's past. In the third book, War and Craft (Sept. 2017), it's Armageddon in Shangri-La, and the end of the world as we know it.

Some of Tom’s award-winning short fiction is collected in The Wizard of Macatawa and Other Stories. He writes in a spooky turret in Washington, DC. You can find the text and audio of many of his stories on his website.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

SPFBO Semifinalist: The Woven Ring by M.D. Presley (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order The Woven Ring HERE 

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Born and raised in Texas, Matthew D. Presley spent several years on the East Coast and now lives in California with his wife. His favorite words include defenestrate, callipygian, and Algonquin. The fact that monosyllabic is such a long word keeps him up at night. He’s also worked as a professional Hollywood screenwriter who has written for Chinese TV serials as well. When not writing, he also makes jewelry for fun. This is his debut book.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: A fantasy re-imagining of the American Civil War, The Woven Ring pits muskets against magic, massive war machines against mind readers, and glass sabers against soldiers in psychic exoskeletons.

In exile since the civil war that tore the nation of Newfield apart, former spy and turncoat Marta Childress wants nothing more than to quietly live out her remaining days in the West. But then her manipulative brother arrives with one final mission: Transport the daughter of a hated inventor deep into the East. Forced to decide between safely delivering the girl and assassinating the inventor, Marta is torn between ensuring the fragile peace and sparking a second civil war.

Aided by an untrustworthy Dobra and his mysterious mute companion, Marta soon discovers that dark forces, human and perhaps the devil herself, seek to end her quest into the East.

CLASSIFICATION: Think Mark Lawrence's edgy characters mixed in with Brandon Sanderson's excellent world-building skills and you will have an exact answer to what awaits within this amazing debut.

 FORMAT/INFO: The Woven Ring is 292 pages long divided over thirty-four chapters and a prologue. Narration is in the third person via Marta Childress mostly and a few others. This is the first volume of the Sol’s Harvest series.

July 10, 2016 marked the e-book & paperback publication of The Woven Ring and it was self-published by the author. Cover art and design is provided by Amit Dutta.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Woven Ring is M. D. Presley's debut book and a glorious introduction to the world of Soltera. This title is another one that I was lucky enough to be graced with in this year’s SPFBO. This book was one that stood out to my mind based on its blurb and the fact that it was a fantasy reimagining of the American civil war in a secondary fantasy world. I dove in with a lot of expectations and was rewarded immensely. It was an easy semifinalist pick along with The Songweaver's Vow.

The story begins in two timelines in the world of Soltera. The first track starts nineteen years ago as we meet Marta our protagonist a six year old girl who faces a terrible situation. The first line of the book sets up the scene wonderfully “Marta was mad. Carmichael had lied to her. Again!” While this line & scene might not seem particularly vicious, we soon learn what truly has happened and how much of a twat Carmichael is. The second timeline opens up nearly nineteen years later, Marta is no longer a fresh-eyed girl. She’s a veteran of the civil war that has shaken their nation and left her scarred emotionally & physically. She however is tasked by her elder sibling Carmichael to hunt down a person whom she hates more than her brother. Thus begin the two timelines as we see Marta’s painful evolution into the person that we meet in the second timeline.

Very few titles capture the reader’s interest by offering more than one surprise. This debut book not only has spectacular world building but it also manages dual storylines very coherently. Let’s talk about what captivated me so strongly about this book. Talking about the world & magic system mentioned within. I have to note when it comes to books that have spectacular world-building, often times the book’s plot and characters aren’t quite that up to the mark. On the flip side, often when characters/plot are focused upon then the world-building might conversely suffer. It’s rare for a book to ace both factors, fewer books especially debuts do these things so smoothly. A few examples who fall into this unique category are:

- Scott Lynch’s The Lies Of Locke Lamora,

- Mark Lawrence’s Prince Of Thorns,

- Anthony Ryan's Blood Song

All of these debuts won readers over and have created legacies that most debut authors would love to emulate. With this title by MD Presley, I believe we have another debut which while different from the aforementioned titles, will set its own path. The author has to be lauded for creating a world that while mirroring the American civil war but creates its own legacy. Let’s talk about the world, what the author has so wonderfully done is that while he doesn’t focus on the slavery angle, he builds up a religious conflict which is centered on a magic system. The magic system while being simplistic is quite fascinating. The author builds upon the concept of breath which plants have one (body), animals have two (body, mind) & humans have three (body, mind, soul). With some human beings have four and depending on the location of the fourth breath. The magic users could be classified as a:

- Shaper (body)

- Listener (mind)

- Whisperer (mind)

- Render (soul)

- Weaver (soul)

The conflict that builds up in the nation of Newfield is due to the theological & philosophical clash that occurs between Renders & Weavers and the eastern and western halves of the nation of Newfield. I loved how the author made this an eastern vs western one (holding a mirror but yet changing events a bit). There’s also the Pseudo-European lands called the Auld lands from whose descendants the nation of Newfield is founded by. There’s also the Myna nations and Ingios territories who are similes’ foe the Native American tribes. I loved how the author managed to weave the travails of the land with the religio-political squabbles that cause all the tension within the story. The author also manages to showcase the science within the story by making the magic system logical and making it a tad boring. What I mean by this is that the magic in this story isn’t the unknown arcane power. It is studied, and harnessed. There are vehicles which are utilized by tapping into the Ley lines of the land. There are ways of communication invented. All of this following the magic system and the powers that can be. All of this is very logically presented & from a world-building perspective is just so damned fine to read.

There’s also characters and this is where I want to talk about Marta. The Marta we meet in the past and the Marta we see in the present timeline are two completely different people. The beauty of the story and the author’s writing is we get to see her first see as a bright & energetic six year old but who then slowly transforms into the twenty five year old, scarred veteran that we meet immediately in the start of the story. While much of the plot is narrated from Marta’s POV, we do get a few POVs from other characters but majorly it’s Marta who shows us the world. I also want to highlight the fact that she’s clearly an anti-hero but perhaps by showing how she became that way, the readers will be able to sympathize with her actions and understand her way of thinking. Like I mentioned previously Marta was a character whom I both admired & disliked. I look forward to what reactions she creates among other readers. There’s also the other characters we meet via Marta, and like Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song, we seem them as flesh & blood ones with dreams, plans & aspirations of their own. I very much enjoyed the greyness of most characters as they are caught in this conflict which makes everyone a puppet of other folks. Not to say that there aren’t villainous characters, there are but the true fun is reading morally ambiguous folks who are defined by their circumstances rather than personal choices.

The mythology of the land, plus the presence of certain magical creatures is very well ensconced within the story and doesn’t feel like an infodump and this was truly an outstanding feature. Because in a world this rich, it might be all too easy to have characters go on soliloquys explaining different facets of the world, religion, etc. Credit to the author he explains a lot without making it all too complex or boring. For a cartophile like me, there’s also three maps provided which further enriched my read.

Lastly I can think of only two drawback in this story, firstly we truly never get a viewpoint into Carmichael Childress and this was disappointing. One of the major conflicts of the story is this sibling rivalry between Marta & Carmichael and to never get a different side to it was slightly off putting. But since this only volume one of the entire story I’m willing to wait and see how the story unfolds. There’s also the plot pace which is a bit slow in the start of both story lines however within the first two-three chapters of each timepoint it picks up rapidly and from that point onwards, it just surges forward slowly and surely building up to a dual climax in the past and present. For some readers though this might not be the pace they are used to expect.

CONCLUSION: The Woven Ring is an understated effort however it’s not an underwhelming one. M. D. Presley has given the readers a story that touches the elegant writings of Mark Lawrence in creating wholly realized, unlikeable anti-heroes whom you cannot ignore. Plus the scale & depth of world-building is definitely on par with some of Brandon Sanderson’s finest efforts. All of this is a debut which heralds a rich future for Matt D. Presley and I for one will have a very, very hard time in deciding who will be our ultimate finalist based on all the four semifinalist selected so far.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Third SPFBO Semifinalist Update (by Mihir Wanchoo)

With the first & second semi-finalists already chosen, it was high time that we went through the other titles. I have to apologize in this regard as work had caused my reviewing to take a backseat. Cindy had a family emergency which also took most of her time. As I had explained in my 2017 SPFBO introduction post. We’ll be ideally selecting one book semifinalist from every five books. These book groupings are random and sometimes we might have no semi-finalists or we might have more than one in one group.

As with our previous two lots I’ve tried to read at least five chapters or 20% of the book (whichever was longer). So here are my concise thoughts on each of them:

The Songweaver’s Vow by Laura VanArendonk Baugh – This book was the third book based on the blurb and the excerpt and this book completely blew me away. The story is set in pre-historic times and features a Greek girl among Vikings, and Norse gods of yore. Plus she has to navigate her survival there with just her wits and her stories. The author’s characterization and lovely prose made me a fan and once I finished it. This book was a straightforward semifinalist for me. More to come in review next week…

Dybsy by A.M. MacdonaldDybsy is an interesting fantasy-SF hybrid story that I enjoyed reading but ultimately I couldn’t select to go forward. Let me be clear, the author has made it a very simple story to follow and the pace is terrific as well. The one thing that’s mars the read to a certain degree is the simplistic characterization. This book would be better enjoyed by 14-year old me but 34 year old me didn’t quite enjoy it to the same degree. A valiant effort and the author has to be lauded for this imaginative hybrid story with shades of Ender’s Game & Ready Player One (though with a lot less  pop culture references).

The Defenders' Apprentice by Amelia SmithThe Defender’s Apprentice is a classic fantasy story that will certainly have its fans. Amelia Smith does a good job of introducing her world and the relatable POV characters however its scope is limited because of the very predictable storyline. This is not a dig against the book and it certainly is for younger readers of fantasy. However for most genre readers (like myself) it doesn’t offer anything startling or original to mark itself out. A decent story that I liked but couldn’t really say that it would make me pick up the next book.

The Hiss of the Blade by Richard WrithenThe Hiss Of The Blade was a book that I had high hopes for as I often enjoy darker turns of fantasy. This book was a bit on the shorter side and while it offered some dark thrills. It didn’t quite seem that cohesive plot wise. I liked how the author set up the story with a gruesome murder and the noir shades to the story were very interesting however the characterization was a bit flat. Overall this is a story with some terrific scary bits to it but the execution wasn’t all that good which is why the story seemed more than a bit dry and I couldn’t care much for it.

The Woven Ring by M. D. Presley – This was another surprise for me as while the blurb seemed intriguing, this book blew me away completely. Let me be clear, this book has its odd bits to it but so far in the three years of SPFBO and among all the titles which I’ve read. This book has the best world-building showcased that I’ve ever come across. Not to say that’s the only plus point but featuring a dual storyline akin to Mark Lawrence’s Thorn trilogy. The author gives us a superb female anti-hero who will make readers admire & dislike her in equal parts. This book for me is the biggest surprise in SPFBO and I’ll be talking more about it in the proper review next week. Think Mark Lawrence's edgy characters meets Brandon Sanderson's worldbuiding skills and you will have an exact answer to what awaits within...

So there we have it, for the first time ever, we have two semifinalists chosen. The Songweaver’s Vow & The Woven Ring are two fantastic titles that SPFBO has unearthed and you all should be reading them pronto to see why they are so special IMHO.

Also I’ll be interviewing both the authors as well so look forward to their thoughts on a variety of topics…

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