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Friday, May 31, 2019

Grim Solace by Ben Galley (reviewed by Justine Bergman)


Official Author Website
Order Grim Solace over HERE (US) and HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Ben Galley is an author of dark and epic fantasy books who currently hails from Victoria, Canada. Since publishing his bestselling debut The Written in 2010, Ben has released a range of award-winning fantasy novels, including the weird western Bloodrush and the epic standalone The Heart of Stone. He is also the author of the brand new and critically-acclaimed Chasing Graves Trilogy.

When he isn't conjuring up strange new stories, Ben works as a self-publishing consultant, helping fellow authors from around the world to publish their books. He enjoys exploring the Canadian wilds and sipping Scotch single malts, and will forever and always play a dark elf in The Elder Scrolls. One day he hopes to live in an epic treehouse in the mountains.

Ben can be found on Twitter or vlogging on YouTube @BenGalley, or loitering on Facebook and Instagram @BenGalleyAuthor. You can also get a free eBook copy of his bestselling fantasy The Written at http://www.bengalley.com.

OFFICIAL BLURB: Nothing is certain in Araxes. Not even death.

Stolen from the widow's clutches, master thief and ghost Caltro Basalt must learn new ways to survive the cutthroat society of the Arctian Empire. His one hope for freedom and justice? A gift from the dead gods, who continue to beg for a saviour.

Breaking a soul takes time, and Caltro's spirit is far from broken. Many try to weave him into their plots, but he is set on salvation by no means but his own.

As Caltro finds himself ever ensnared in Araxes' cruel games, Nilith fights to survive the Dune Plains in her quest for redemption, Sisine continues her game of claiming ruler, and Temsa works toward his reign of chaos, one noble at a time

The board is set. The players chosen. Who will win the great game of Araxes?


FORMAT/INFO: Grim Solace is 455 pages long divided over 23 numbered and titled chapters, and is the second entry in The Chasing Graves Trilogy. The book is available in e-book and paperback format, as well as on Kindle Unlimited. It was self-published by the author on January 24, 2019. Cover art by Chris Cold, cover design by Shawn T. King.

ANALYSIS (Justine): The epic game continues in Grim Solace, the ambitious and unrelenting sophomore installment in The Chasing Graves Trilogy.

And so we carry on with our journey into a battle of life and death, where mysteries are bound to arise from beneath the punishing sands. The so-called "Dead Gods" scheme with hopes of fixing a fractured world, but as with all the others with skin in the game, who can presume their true intentions? Factions lurking in the shadows cast by Araxes' spiring towers at sunset clash for supremacy with no regard for collateral damage and the only measurements of success are either in the weight of their copper half-coins or the number of white feathers upon the breasts of the wronged. With the introduction of a whole new multitude of monsters and mayhem, only the grains slipping through the hourglass will tell who will reign triumphant.

We begin right where we left off as Caltro finds himself in the clutches of another who will gladly use him as easily as he himself uses his tools to breach an impenetrable vault. As he is passed from one bad situation to the next, he internally struggles on which path to freedom will best suit his selfish needs. However, a gift given to him by the gods proves him a valuable asset to all the parties involved in the fight for power.

Temsa continues to carve a path to the top of the food chain, a path drenched in blood and littered with carnage. His unfounded and blind ambition, as well as his willingness to play both sides of a raging war, may be his demise as the loyalty of those closest to him begins to waver.

Empress Nilith races to reach Araxes to fulfill her master plan while outrunning a group of bandits fueled by a malicious grudge. Her path is rife with horrors, both natural and man-made, but her belief that she can undo the travesties set forth by those before steadily pushes her forward.

There are others with curious and unknown designs working in secret and outside of earshot that may very well play a crucial role in the outcome of the game. Will their crafty planning turn the tide as a hopeful victor reaches the finish line?

Grim Solace is a wonderfully realized story dominated by impeccable and deepening character development, and while book one introduced a cast of great characters, this one allows us to peek deeper into their minds and witness their struggles and machinations. The story moves along at a breakneck pace as peril awaits at every turn. The cunning and danger are palpable and the overall feeling is grim and futile, however there remains a seed of hope that there will be justice where justice is due. A welcomed dark, snide humor breaks up the aura of complete hopelessness, making Caltro's passages particularly enjoyable to read. Galley also beautifully graces the pages with exotic and vividly depicted places and creatures, making a read that remains captivating throughout. When things begin to settle down to an almost ordinary level, he throws in a fresh and fantastical adversary or hellish landscape, challenging your brain to let go and believe in the unbelievable.

The threads are beginning to come together, even though we are left grasping the edge with several cliffhangers. The story is becoming more compelling with each chapter and I'm really excited to see how Galley concludes this tale, which has definitely piqued my interest and violently drawn me in. As I dive deeper into this world, it's becoming more difficult to decide on who I'd like to see victorious, because if I've learned anything from these exquisite characters, it's to trust no one. The fight for Araxes continues in Breaking Chaos.

A huge thank you to Ben Galley for providing me with an advanced copy of this book.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Chasing Graves by Ben Galley (reviewed by Justine Bergman)



Official Author Website
Order Chasing Graves over HERE (US) and HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Ben Galley is an author of dark and epic fantasy books who currently hails from Victoria, Canada. Since publishing his bestselling debut The Written in 2010, Ben has released a range of award-winning fantasy novels, including the weird western Bloodrush and the epic standalone The Heart of Stone. He is also the author of the brand new and critically-acclaimed Chasing Graves Trilogy.

When he isn't conjuring up strange new stories, Ben works as a self-publishing consultant, helping fellow authors from around the world to publish their books. He enjoys exploring the Canadian wilds and sipping Scotch single malts, and will forever and always play a dark elf in The Elder Scrolls. One day he hopes to live in an epic treehouse in the mountains.

Ben can be found on Twitter or vlogging on YouTube @BenGalley, or loitering on Facebook and Instagram @BenGalleyAuthor. You can also get a free eBook copy of his bestselling fantasy The Written at http://www.bengalley.com.

OFFICIAL BLURB: Meet Caltro Basalt. He's a master locksmith, a selfish bastard, and as of his first night in Araxes, stone cold dead.

They call it the City of Countless Souls, the colossal jewel of the Arctian Empire, and all it takes to be its ruler is to own more ghosts than any other. For in Araxes, the dead do not rest in peace in the afterlife, but live on as slaves for the rich.

While Caltro struggles to survive, those around him strive for the emperor's throne in Araxes' cutthroat game of power. The dead gods whisper from corpses, a soulstealer seeks to make a name for himself with the help of an ancient cult, a princess plots to purge the emperor from his armoured Sanctuary, and a murderer drags a body across the desert, intent on reaching Araxes no matter the cost.

Only one thing is certain in Araxes: death is just the beginning.


FORMAT/INFO: Chasing Graves is 391 pages long divided over 23 numbered and titled chapters and a prelude, and is the first entry in The Chasing Graves Trilogy. The book is available in e-book, paperback, and audiobook format, as well as on Kindle Unlimited. It was self-published by the author on December 5, 2018. Cover art by Chris Cold, cover design by Shawn T. King.

ANALYSIS (Justine): Firstly, I'd like to thank the author for giving me an advanced copy of this book. I was so intrigued with the concept of an original fantasy world built with an Egyptian flavor that it was instantly pushed to the top of my TBR - I am so glad for this decision. Chasing Graves is a deliciously dark tale of treachery, secrets and murder filled with a cast of truly detestable characters whose intentions cannot ever be taken at face value. The only drawback of reading the first installment of a series before its official release date is the grueling wait for its sequel!

Araxes, the sprawling City of Countless Souls, where wealth is measured by the amount of bound dead slaves owned, lies within the heart of The Arctian Empire. As renowned locksmith Caltro Basalt arrives upon its docks with a promise of employment, he quickly finds himself being pursued by a group of brutal killers that violently heave him into the city's infamous soul trade and sold to the mysterious Widow Horix. Nilith ventures across the Long Sands with her dead husband's corpse - and ghost - in tow; her timely arrival at the Gem of the Arc her sole ambition. Boss Boran Temsa makes a living illegally selling souls to the city's aristocracy with a hunger for power that will allow him to finally emerge from the shadows. Princess Sisine grows weary of her father's inability to rule the empire and wickedly schemes to take control by any means necessary. All the while, as the people of The Arc deal in death and betrayal, the believed dead gods plot to come back to the land of men.

Of all the things that deserve praise, it's impossible not to begin with the outstanding character development. In my opinion, Galley has given breath to some of the finest and most complex voices in modern fantasy. Caltro is incredibly snarky and self-indulgent, yet I couldn't help but feel sympathy for his wrongful enslavement. Nilith is a strong, badass woman who can handle herself in a multitude of adversarial situations, but I had to keep reminding myself she murdered her husband and dragged his corpse through a desert in order to bind his soul. Sisine appears to be a calculating and merciless queen-in-waiting, but she's set to inherit a city so corrupt that her extreme measures may be just what Araxes deserves. Temsa is a despicable murderer and soulstealer, however, he's charming and an unfortunate product of his violent environment only attempting to raise his station. This three-dimensionality made it insanely enjoyable to get acquainted with each and I'm really looking forward to learning more about them.

The setting and environments are beautifully built with striking detail, transporting you directly into this peculiar, yet familiar world. From the diverse districts of Araxes to the endless expanse of the Long Sands to the alien peak of the Firespar, every aspect of this world is so distinct and tangible. The pacing changes based on the character of focus and the situations they're embroiled in, at times passive and other times breakneck, which I found to be extremely refreshing. The prose is articulate and picturesque with seriously cynical undertones, making this an entertaining read.

CONCLUSION: Chasing Graves is one of the most unique stories I've read this year and ended with a cliffhanger that had me internally screaming for more. It's a strong start to a new series and I'm really excited and looking forward to seeing what happens next. This is one you really need to add to your to-read list.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Necromantica by Keith Blenman (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)


Official Author Website
Order Necromantica over HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Keith Blenman hails from Metro Detroit. He teaches forensic analysis, works as a compliance coordinator in retail, and independently publishes fiction. He is short, chubby, and heavily tattooed.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: In this heart-stopping, dark fantasy, two thieves charge through an epic battle between monsters and men. One, a necromancer, a sorceress who uses black magic to manipulate the dead. The other, a rogue assassin and skilled swordsman. Enemies to both armies, allied only to each other, they face doom at every moment on a suicide mission to steal from a holy king.

FORMAT/INFONecromantica is 192 pages long divided over 8 numbered parts, followed by the Epilogue. This is the first volume of the Vecris series.

The book was self-published by the author on November 17th, 2015 and it's available as an e-book, paperback, and hardcover. Cover art and design is provided by  Christina Irwin.

ANALYSIS: Most literary editors advise, strongly, against writing a novel in the second person. Such narration tends to disorient a reader who, instead of focusing on the story, may wonder if the narrator/protagonist addresses her or someone else in the story. Blenman’s Necromantica plays with the narrative and switches, deliberately, between the second and first-person point of view. 

In this visceral story, a pair of thieves charge through an epic battle between monsters and men. One, a necromancer, the other, a rogue assassin and skilled swordsman. They want to steal an amulet from the most powerful man in the world. Basically, they go from point A to point B in Dungeons & Dragons type setting, kill everyone along the way, and then they have a boss fight with the bad guy. We’ve already seen it. But never told this way. 
I barely notice myself. The whisper of my blades is echoed by mists of blood. I liberate orc heads from their bodies. I slap the flat side of my swords against the arrows meant for me, deflecting them into other enemies. I break bones. I shatter faces. Their infantry surrounds me and I teach them to regret it. I become lost in my own rampage. One of them shot you. For that there are sliced torsos. There are severed jaws. And there are screams. So, so many horrible screams.
Emotionally charged storytelling makes it visceral. It switches between past and present (in separated chapters), and has a trance-like quality. I won’t spoil anything by revealing something obvious - it’s not the author speaking to us in second-person POV; it is a first-person narrator (Lama, the rogue swordsman) who is speaking to Mornia (necromancer). We observe the events through his eyes as he refers them in the present tense. Lama tells the story as I, and Mornia is described mostly as You. His connection and deep love for Mornia make the second-person narration both plausible and meaningful. Once you get used to it, it creates a feeling of immediacy and intimacy. But yes, it’s a little experimental. Some readers will embody Mornia, while others will feel lost and find the narrative jarring.

Necromantica is, essentially, a love story. You feel it in the way Lama speaks to Mornia. You see it in Mornia’s behavior. Remember, they’re not sharing a drink. They’re in the midst of the battle and they slaughter enemies. Call it a dark fantasy romance. I mean, you don’t write a story called Necromantica without it being dark, right?

Lama and Mornia share heart-wrenching stories. Mornia used to live a free, spiritual life and wanted to grow into a healer. By the time the story begins, her life has been robbed from her and ell her loved ones killed. She survived, but she’s broken. Whatever magic she possessed, she used for revenge. Instead of healing people, she focused on black arts and necromancy. 

Lama, a son if a slumlord who used to pit his bastard children in dogfights for profits, is a thief and a murderer. He’s never experienced much kindness from others, save for Mornia. He’ll do anything for her. And, with his swords, he can do a lot. Split arrows. Decimate enemies. Maim and kill.

They've never been given a fair chance. Both are flawed and tragic. But they have each other. And as readers, we observe their twisted romance as they plow through the armies of orcs and men.

CONCLUSION: Despite being brutal and dark, the story doesn’t read as nihilistic. It offers some comic relief (introduction of The Fish Thief of Luna Falls) and deep connection between protagonists. Necromantica impressed me with a memorable blend of first- and second-person narration, visceral action-scenes and skillfully developed characters. There’s something special about it. I can’t promise you’ll love it as much as I did. But I think you should try it as it is, in many ways, unique.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Seven Blades in Black by Sam Sykes (reviewed by David Stewart)



OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATIONSam Sykes is the author of the acclaimed Tome of the Undergates, a vast and sprawling story of adventure, demons, madness and carnage. He lives with two hounds in a small, drab apartment and has eaten at least one of every animal on earth. You can visit his website at www.samsykes.com.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURBHer magic was stolen. She was left for dead. Betrayed by those she trusts most and her magic ripped from her, all Sal the Cacophony has left is her name, her story, and the weapon she used to carve both. But she has a will stronger than magic, and knows exactly where to go. The Scar, a land torn between powerful empires, where rogue mages go to disappear, disgraced soldiers go to die and Sal went with a blade, a gun, and a list of seven names. Revenge will be its own reward.

FORMAT/INFOSeven Blades in Black is 704 pages long divided over sixty-two chapters and is the book one in the Grave of Empires series. The book was published in April 2019 by Orbit, and is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats

OVERVIEW/ANALYSISSal the Cacophony is a hell of a character. I don't know that I've read her equal, though Monza Murcatto from Joe Abercromie's Best Served Cold is close. These deadly ladies share a few common characteristics, from their ability to extract death from the unlikeliest of circumstances, to their completely unforgiving and exacting attitudes towards any and every one. They are also hell-bent on revenge, blinders on and charging forward no matter how many cities burn. Where Sal differs is that she does soften her hardest edges with some of the funniest lines I've read in a book, let alone a fantasy book. She has a second-career as a stand-up should she ever find the life of vengeance and murder less satisfying.

Before I continue, Seven Blades in Black does have a story, and it's a good one. It might even be really good, but there's no doubt that Sal is the star of this show, and Sykes could probably entertain an audience by having her ride around on her chocobo (oops, I mean bird of course), shooting her gun in the air and breaking wind (and she basically does this a few times). Sal is a novel-carrier, which is unfortunate because it also means she has plot armor, which she wields to great effect during the course of Seven Blades. The narrative is told in the guise of a storytelling, with Sal explaining to a Revolutionary general named Tretta the events that have transpired over the past few weeks of her life. It is a clever bit of writing structure because it allows Sykes to get away with a few things that would otherwise break the narrative flow. Sal often refers to "you" in the writing, which in other first-person viewpoints would be immersion breaking, but because Sal is telling her story to a character in the book, and because those portions where Sal and that character interact are in the third-person, it works. It also allows for some extreme embellishment of the story. I'll explain that further. 

Seven Blades in Black is a lot like an anime series. The characters are larger than life, the plot is world-shattering in scope, and the fight scenes are bombastic to the point of ridiculousness. Sal gets beaten up so much, tossed around so roughly, and is basically dead for so much of the novel that the suspension of disbelief becomes a little hard to swallow. That is, until you remember that she is telling a story to someone. It also helps that she is so full of herself throughout the novel, that any aggrandizing she does in that telling is completely believable. Like I said before, this is a neat trick of storytelling that, without much effort, allows Sykes to craft an over-the-top, completely ridiculous tale without his readers constantly rolling their eyes. Make no mistake, this is as action-movie as can be, and Sal is basically the fantasy equivalent of John Wick, but it works so well, and does precisely what it sets out to do, that almost all is forgiven. 

The actual story is one of revenge. Like an older Arya Stark, Sal the Cacophony has a list, and her goal in life is to check off the names on that list. Unlike Arya, who in the A Song of Ice and Fire begins as a helpless child and becomes a remorseless killer, Sal starts off as one of the most deadly people in existence and has her power stripped away - thus why she wants revenge. Thankfully for Sal, at some point after her power is taken, she finds new power in the form of the Cacophony. The Cacophony is not just her namesake, but also an extremely powerful gun that shoots a variety of magical/alchemical bullets. The Cacophony is also a living weapon - it smiles at her often - and the relationship between Sal and the construct is one of the pivotal points in the novel. Rarely can a character exist without saying a word, but the Cacophony holds its own as a central figure in Seven Blades

Sal is, ultimately, joined by a few other key figures in her quest for revenge. Liette is Sal's lover and also her personal Freemaker. Freemakers are half-sorcerer and half-alchemist, and Liette is the one who crafts ammunition for the Cacophony. She also serves as a moral compass for Sal, who might otherwise veer completely off the rails. She also manages to rope a Revolutionary named Cavric Proud into her madness, and Cavric is an even more moral compass due to his almost unbelievably pure ideology. The Revolution stands in opposition to an Imperium, and the short of that conflict is that the Imperium enslaved those without magic for ten-thousand years before the "nuls," as they are called, rose up and formed their own civilization. Sal was an Imperium but turned Vagrant, meaning she was cast out of all polite society, and begins the novel as the equivalent of an old West bounty hunter. A quick description of Sykes' world-building is, "what if the American Revolution was fought because one side had magic and the other had technology, and then there were lots of explosions and lots of death." Metaphorically, it's not far off the historically accepted truths of U.S. history. Sykes world also has bird mounts instead of horses.  

I think Sykes has something special on his hands with this first in The Grave of Empires series. The entire book is truly a joy to read, with genuinely funny moments that got me more than a few weird looks in public and at home due to the maniacal cackle that they caused. Sal is one of the most memorable fantasy characters I have come across, and I am actually relieved that she has such impenetrable plot armor because she really is the kind of protagonist around which a series can revolve. The only advice I might give for going into Seven Blades in Black is not to expect something with the grace and pathos of The Lord of the Rings, but rather know that you're going to have a damned good time with a decent amount of pathos and almost no grace

Friday, May 24, 2019

Kings of Ash by Richard Nell (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski & Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website
Order Kings of Ash over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Kings of Paradise
Read Fantasy Book Critic's interview with Richard Nell

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Richard Nell concerned family and friends by quitting his real job in 2014 to 'write full-time'. He is a Canadian author of fantasy, living in one of the flattest, coldest places on earth with his begrudging wife, who makes sure he eats.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Follow the long, bloody journey of Ruka, son of Beyla through the islands of Pyu and the frozen wastes of the Ascom; see the return home of Ratama Kale Alaku, the 'Sorcerer-Prince', and the terrifying rise of his 'miracles'. Before the end, a shocking history will unravel, ancient connections unfold, and all will learn the cost of unleashing the Kings of Ash...

FORMAT/INFO: Kings of Ash is 665 pages long divided over twenty-nine chapters. This is the second volume of the Ash and Sand series.

The book was self-published by the author on January 19th, 2019 and it's available as an e-book. Cover art and design is provided by  Michael Shinde.


ANALYSIS (Lukasz): 
You’re all slaves. But I will free you. I will drag you from this place kicking and screaming if I must.
Sequels are hard. As a reader, I want to know what happens next but when I’m about to pick up a sequel to a book that devastated and enthralled me impatience and hunger mix with anxiety. What if the story I loved loses a sense of direction or disappoints? It’s happened more than once. 

After I finished Kings of Paradise, I wasn’t sure how and if Richard Nell could top himself. I mean, where do you go from there? To the inevitable clash of titans? Or maybe you twist things and prove readers wrong?

Nell did both. 

He delivers a heart-wrenching and devastating story with real, believable characters you care for despite their monstrosity. He doesn’t give much humor, save situational one. Instead, he gives strong intrigue, tragedy, and terrifying insight into the inner workings of the greatest mind of a generation. 

Kings of Ash focuses on Ruka. It tells his story, unravels his past, and shows what drives him, and how he’s been made. It’s not a story for the faint-hearted as it contains graphic violence, physical and sexual abuse, mentions of rape, and cannibalism

It’ll make you hate, love, fear and cheer for Ruka. It won’t give you the answers you’ll desperately need. Is he a mad prophet, a semi-god, god or something entirely else? I hope we’ll get the answers in Kings of Heaven in 2020.

Dala and Kale appear, but they get just a fraction of screen time compared to Ruka. Not a problem for me as I consider him one of the greatest characters in contemporary fantasy. To make things more interesting Nell gives plenty of exposure to another fascinating character from KoP - King Farahi. I was right to consider him complex and intriguing. 

You may wonder if KoA is better than Kings of Paradise and as flawless as my ramblings may suggest. My answer may surprise you - no, it isn’t. It has minor flaws like repetitive descriptions of Ruka’s preternatural skills, especially near the end, or few long-winded parts of the story with small impact on the over-arching plot. Additionally, in places I found extreme and graphic violence disturbing and, perhaps, unnecessary. And then, there’s the ending. I’ll brood on it for weeks. Was it really the only way? 

That said, Ruka’s story made me experience moments od deep and genuine emotion and this means a lot to me. That’s the reason I’ll round the rating up and will await 2020 with growing impatience.

ANALYSIS (Mihir): Sequels are incredibly hard as first time writers have often talked about. It gets trickier when your first book gets near universal acclaim. Richard Nell finds himself in such esteemed company along with Rothfuss, Lynch, and A. Ryan. For us reviewers it gets trickier as those first books are sheer magic. How does one compare the sequels to them?

To discuss this book will be very spoilerific and so I’ll do my best to reveal as little as possible. Richard Nell really outshines himself with this one as he gives Ruka the space to shine. When we last met Ruka, he was diminished in battle and mind. Not trusting his ownself and left with a death wish of sorts, he takes a boat and ventures out in the northern seas. Thinking that he’ll die, he finds that fate has much more for him when he reaches the islands. Taken prisoner and soon forced to revert back to Bukayag. Ruka’s journey will have him learn what truly his life’s mission is. Meet someone who might be his intellectual equal and also figure out more about his mental grove. This book is all about Ruka as you can surmise and the surprises in it only lead to more questions.

With Kings Of Ash, Richard Nell circumvents the Kane vs Abel approach that was so evident in his debut Kings Of Paradise. With this book, there’s a major twist right in the first few chapters that wasn’t evident in the previous book and I thought that was a very devious one. This book is almost all about Ruka Ruka and how he’s gained his abilities. We get to see where and how he ended up in the Pyu islands and what befell him. There’s also Kale’s chapters as we find out who and what he’s become after his temple sojourn. He’s constantly flummoxed by his abilities but finds himself becoming more and more powerful as the days go by. Lastly there’s very little of Dala but she shines in the meager amount of page time that she gets. Her presence makes her reunite with Ruka and they find out what it is that they have to do. Now that Ruka brings back word of the impossible.

Richard Nell has truly given readers a great gift with Ruka. He’s an enigmatic savant who has taken it upon himself to right what he sees as life’s injustices. The first book we saw Ruka’s childhood and saw why he became the way he did. He was brutal, a bit bloodthirsty and trying to figure out whether he was a monster or a mistake. In this book, Ruka truly finds out what he can do (and it’s big). What his destiny is and finally someone who treats him for the genius individual that he is rather than the grotesque monster he might seem to be. This book really goes in-depth about Ruka’s thoughts and we get some more gems like:

There is only fear and failure. The world is cruel to the weak. How they suffer does not matter.”

Success is often luck and to think otherwise is arrogance. Your burden is only to try. Face your path with courage, and let come what may

There’s some crazy magic stuff which even though unexplained, ends up being a lot cool. I can’t wait to see what the eventual reveal is about. The story really takes the slow route in showing each and every step of Ruka’s evolution. While I really enjoyed this, I’m not sure it will be to everyone else’s liking. The story’s pace takes a backseat in this regard but only because we get a thoroughly detailed look in the happenings. The world-building is really expanded as we get a solid look into the Pyu Islands, the monastery and possible origins of the Ascom people. All of this and more is revealed which made the read such a rich one.

We also meet king Farahi and get a more in-depth look at his thinking process as well as his past. He’s a cipher from Kale’s perspective but from another, he’s still a cipher of sorts but there’s a humane side of him which we get to see. We learn what and how he thinks, what moves him and who is it that he trusts. After reading the Farahi sections, I desperately wanted to re-read Kale’s sections from Kings Of Paradise.

The only complaint I have about this book is its ending which brings me back to my first point about this story not going the Kane vs Abel route. The last twist actually hearkens back to the rivalry that’s showcased from the first book and we get a culmination of that. However the ending is an odd one as both protagonists do things that run counter to what’s happened so far. This I can’t talk more without massive spoilers so I’ll leave it at that. But this was the sole point that I would say was off for me.


CONCLUSION: I don’t want to say anything more about this book. Because it is a direct follow up to Kings of Paradise, anything I tell you about the story of Kings of Ash will tell you how KOP ended. Let’s just say that the story develops in few timelines and when they converge, Nell will prove you wrong and then break you. I‘m not saying more. If you want the rest, go read the books. 
Thursday, May 23, 2019

Legends Of The Exiles by Jesse Teller (reviewed by Justine Bergman)


Official Author Website
Order Legends of the Exiles over HERE
"Writing About Difficult Topics" by Jesse Teller (Guest Post)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Jesse Teller fell in love with fantasy when he was five years old and played his first game of Dungeons & Dragons. The game gave him the ability to create stories and characters from a young age. He started consuming fantasy in every form and, by nine, was obsessed with the genre. As a young adult, he knew he wanted to make his life about fantasy. From exploring the relationship between man and woman, to studying the qualities of a leader or a tyrant, Jesse Teller uses his stories and settings to study real-world themes and issues.

He lives with his supportive wife, Rebekah, and his two inspiring children.


OFFICIAL BLURB: The isolated barbarians of Neather have deep ancestry and strict traditions. Four resilient women defy tribal customs as they fight to overcome their own tragedies. Abuse. Addiction. Assault. Grief. What struggles can they endure to defend their hopes and their hearts?

Helena seeks a love as bold as she, yet finds the men of her village lacking.

Jocelyn fears her strange visions and sacrifices a life with the man she loves for the one her destiny demands.

Torn apart by abuse and grief, Ellen is a brilliant woman who must focus her intellect on finding reasons to persevere.

Rachel, a brash girl of noble heritage, dares all men to challenge her and longs for one who will.

In this set of four interwoven novellas, award-winning author Jesse Teller challenges assumptions and showcases the strength of feminine resolve.

FORMAT/INFO: Legends of the Exiles is 455 pages divided over four separate novellas. The book is currently available in e-book and paperback format, as well as on Kindle Unlimited. It was self-published by the author on April 15, 2019. Cover art and design by Seedlings Design Studio.

CLASSIFICATION: Dark fantasy

ANALYSIS:
The arrow wants to fly, her instructor said all those years ago. It is only waiting for the right moment and the right warrior to fly from.
I always find it exciting to begin reading the works of an author I'm unfamiliar with. There's the thrill of not knowing what to expect and the hope of thumbing through the final pages with a sense of satisfaction in finding a treasure in a vast sea of wonderful adventures. When I first read the blurb for this book, I knew instantly it was something I needed to read and now that I've closed the back cover, I can say with all honesty I've found a priceless trinket and Jesse Teller has has gained a loyal reader.

Legends of the Exiles is an exquisitely beautiful and poignant narrative that follows the lives of four women from different clans as they venture to find love, but in the end find their true selves. Each of the four original with an independent voice, and a warrior in her own way, whether it be in the traditional sense of a trained fighter, a survivor of abuse and loss, one who sacrifices all in the name of duty, or one who is willing to do whatever it takes to hold onto true love. All four the living embodiment of fortitude, driven by strength and conviction regardless of how dark and hopeless things may seem. Their ability to stand in the wake of adversity and overcome what life forcefully hurls at them is truly inspiring. It seems as though, despite their differing backgrounds and upbringings, these women have more in common than they may think.

The format of this book is brilliant and something I have yet to encounter. Each woman is the focus of her own novella - four separate novellas, knitted together with the use of similar timelines and familiar faces, adding a whole new depth and understanding of the world that surrounds us as we journey from the mountain to the City of Exiles and back again. Reading this was akin to putting together a magnificent jigsaw puzzle, each page another piece in the grand scheme. Once I began the second novella and witnessed the threads from the first seeping in, I was blown away and completely committed.

What I appreciate most about this story is its ability to tackle issues that many face - regardless of gender - in an authentic and unwavering way, never hiding the grisly aspects that, unfortunately, oftentimes remain behind closed doors. The effects of sexual assault, bullying, shame, death, and all the ghastly pain that follows. Although set in a fantasy setting, it feels real and relatable, and done in a strikingly tasteful way.

I went into this with high hopes and am more than pleased that Teller has exceeded my expectations. Legends of the Exiles is an intelligent exposition of human emotion and behavior deep in its bones. It's charming and tragic and eloquent and I absolutely adore it. Please please please, give this one a try, I cannot recommend it enough.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Steel Discord by Ryan Howse (reviewed by Justine Bergman)


Official Author Website
Order The Steel Discord over HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Ryan Howse is the author of The Steel Discord and The Alchemy Dirge. He lives in Regina, Canada, with his wife, cats, and children. You can find him online at twitter.com/RyanHowse.

OFFICIAL BLURB: Zarachius Skie is presumed dead.

His mentor, the Arcanist Mordekai Gethsemane, had been arrested for conspiracy to commit regicide. Zarachius knew it was false. He did what had to, and snuck onto a military train to break Mordekai out.

But now, the Ancien Legion, vengeful anarchists, and Mordekai's old co-conspirators are doing whatever it takes to bring Zarachius out of hiding. They need to know what he knows.

They need to know the secret he uncovered on that train.

FORMAT/INFO: The Steel Discord is 441 pages long divided over ten chapters and an interlude, and is the first entry in the A Concerto For The End of Days series. The book is currently available in e-book and paperback format. It was published by Everard Books on December 5, 2018. Cover photo by Timothy Brennan, cover design by Brian Krespan of Krespan Designs.

CLASSIFICATION: Fantasy

ANALYSIS:
Zarachius Skie was dead. Time to forge another identity from the flames.
Arcanist Zarachius Skie has one goal: to free his master from the confines of a train headed towards the empire's most notorious prison. However, what starts as a rescue mission quickly turns into the unraveling of a plot that threatens the very fabric of society, leaving him vulnerable to powerful adversaries who desire nothing more than to know what he knows. What better way to take your secrets to the grave than to fake your own death? The only problem with secrets - they're bound to catch up with you sooner or later.

The Steel Discord is quite a unique and absorbing story of political machinations, betrayal, and fighting against the tide of fate. With a strong focus on the very human belief of knowing all the answers, only for that belief to be inevitably shattered by the realization that there is always more to learn, it's a testament to the old adage ‘nothing is as it seems'. Filled to the brim with planning, scheming, and acting, all in the name of the greater good, it remains unclear who or what is truly acting on behalf of those in Mordant and its surrounding nations. While it's definitely an action-packed heist story, at its heart, it's a tale of kith and kin, the sacrifices made for the ones you hold dearest in your heart, and finding that beacon of hope when adrift in a lonely and tempestuous sea.

I knew as soon as I cracked open this book I was going to fall in love with the characters Howse has crafted and given voice to. Always a fan of the odd couple trope, I was thrilled to see the author perfectly embody this with Zarachius Skie and Kyran D'Allaire, the 'lanky Arcanist and the large brawler', through tons of love and brotherly banter. Between Zarachius' constant curiosity of the unknown, and need to be involved and/or be the hero, and Kyran's 'I don't give a damn, but I'll bash some skulls' disposition, these two beautifully balance each other, creating an amazing dynamic that oftentimes leads them into dangerous, yet amusing situations. In addition to the boys, their mentor/guardian Mordekai Gethsemane, master occultist, is as complex as they come. I'll admit I had a love-hate relationship with him throughout the entire story, and couldn't for the life of me figure out his endgame until it was too late. And last but certainly not least, Nicola Maronovich, the mysteriously exotic rogue, with a shadowed history and clear intentions drew me in right from the start.
"Did those scars erase you? Or did they change you, make you better? Perhaps the symbol isn't one of separation from who you are, but one that ties you to a greater lineage?"
We're dropped into a French-inspired nation during an era resembling our own Industrial Revolution, where there's no shortage of technological advancements, but always with a fantastical twist. Steel trains surge across the land, while zeppelins dominate the sky. Industrious cities belch acrid smoke into the air, and forests wane as man and the like stretch their fingers farther into the unknown. Humans are not the only intelligent, sentient beings within society; we witness familiar faces pulled from mythology, as well as others that are specific to this world, most of which have been specifically bred for battle. The empire, led by a loathed and undesirable ruler, survives solely on the the feats of Arcanum, and corruption is more widespread than anyone would like to believe, all of which have led to a seemingly never-ending state of war. We spend time in floating cities, sprinting through dark forests, and barreling down train tracks at breakneck speeds. But it's important to always keep in mind: there's always more than meets the eye.

Of all the things I found most compelling in this book, its magic system is definitely towards the top of the list, simply because it's not only the literal backbone for this entire story, but also one of the most interesting and intricately designed systems I've recently encountered. Through the use of runes and incantations which open portals to the aether, an alternate 'universe', Arcanists summon caitiffs, or spirits, which are then bound to complete a variety of tasks, most of which are rudimentary to the upkeep of modern society. For instance, undines (water spirits) and ignans (fire spirits) are summoned and forced to interact to create steam to power the engines of the different types of transportation. This whole process plays a crucial role as the story continues, and takes some interesting twists and turns, which I hope are examined further in future installments of this series.

This was my introduction to the writings of Ryan Howse, and it certainly won't be the last time I dive into his work. With straightforward prose, an excellent balance of building and action, and some truly nail-biting moments, I blew through this one pretty quickly and thoroughly enjoyed it. We're left with the fates of several of the characters remaining unknown, so I'm hoping this isn't the last we see of Zarachius and Kyran. If you're looking for a little bit of adventure, with some snarky, yet warmhearted characters, and an interesting world filled with surprises, The Steel Discord ticks all these checkboxes. I'm looking forward to more within the A Concerto For The End of Days series.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

An Illusion of Thieves by Cate Glass (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)



Official Author Website
Order An Illusion of Thieves over HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATIONCate Glass is a writer of the fantasy adventure series Chimera. Cate Glass is also a pen name of Carol Berg, award-winning and bestselling author of fifteen epic fantasy novels and half a dozen novellas and short stories.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURBRomy escapes her hardscrabble upbringing when she becomes courtesan to the Shadow Lord, a revolutionary noble who brings laws and comforts once reserved for the wealthy to all. When her brother, Neri, is caught thieving with the aid of magic, Romy's aristocratic influence is the only thing that can spare his life—and the price is her banishment.

Now back in Beggar’s Ring, she has just her wits and her own long-hidden sorcery to help her and Neri survive. But when a plot to overthrow the Shadow Lord and incite civil war is uncovered, only Romy knows how to stop it. To do so, she’ll have to rely on newfound allies—a swordmaster, a silversmith, and her own thieving brother. And they'll need the very thing that could condemn them all: magic.

FORMAT/INFOAn Illusion of Thieves is 352 pages long divided over twenty-three chapters with an epilogue, and is the book one in the Chimera series. The book was published in May 2019 by Tor, and is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats. Cover art and design by Alyssa Winans.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSISAn Illusion of Thieves opens a new epic series written by Carol Berg under her new pen name Cate Glass. Set in the world reminiscent of Italian Renaissance, it blends political intrigue, skullduggery, heist, and magic.

Significant conflicts and conspiracies start id dining rooms and artisan workshops. The city of Cantagna is a hotbed of issues, social, economic, and political. Despite internal conflicts and differences, everyone agrees that magic is evil and any person carrying the taint should be executed.

The story’s single point narrator, Romy, leads a comfortable life as a courtesan and the favored mistress of Il Padrone, the ruler of Cantagna. She has a dark secret (magic) she hides well until her foolish brother, Neri, commits a theft using his magical skills. To save him, Romy has to give up her life and build a new one in the slum of Lizard’s Alley. Luckily for the siblings, her thorough courtesan’s education involved reading, writing and developed her charm, grace, humor and the ability to hold an intelligent conversation. She finds a job as a scribe. 

And when their life finally starts getting normal, an unexpected turn of events forces her to learn to control her powers and assemble the team of magical misfits. Sounds like fun, right?

Glass told the story through a single point-of-view narrator, but don’t let it mislead you. It’s not a one-woman show. It centers on a four-person ensemble of thieves with magical abilities and their way of getting into the business of secret missions, heist, and thievery. 

I liked Romy as a lead character and her engaging voice. She’s complex and conflicted, and her past (sold by her parents, raised to be a courtesan, lost everything because of her younger brother’s foolish behavior) shapes her actions and developments. For years she perceived her magic as a demonic taint, not a gift. After using it she was left with chills and aching head. 

When she discovers that magic can feel clear and pure, she questions if it was something broken in her that made her magic so awful. Despite darker moments, Romy remains rather optimistic, resourceful and likable. 

She shares great chemistry with other members of the crew. I especially liked the ruthless training she and her brother received from Placidio, a battered swordmaster with a dangerous past. Pure fun. The fourth member of the crew, a metalsmith with an unusual skill for forgery, impressed me with his stoic approach to threats and danger. Only Romy’s brother, Neri, could use more development. He fits a trope of a young, athletic and reckless hero adored by girls, but with little brains. I’m sure there’s more to him than that, but, well, we see little development for him. I find him flat, but hopefully, things will change in the next installments of the series. 

An Illusion of Thieves loses some ground with slower pacing and insufficient focus on a central plot. Glass takes time with building characters and the complex world of political intrigue and magic. I didn’t mind as I prefer smaller-scale fantasy to the end-of-the-world narratives, but epic-fantasy readers may feel the story lacks higher stakes. I don’t agree, but I can understand why someone would feel this way. 

Glass planned Chimera adventures as an episodic series rather than an epic arc told in few installments. What does it mean? More magical heists. Secret missions. Twists. And this is only the beginning. 

CONCLUSION: I can’t wait to put my hands on the next book. An Illusion of Thieves is pure fantasy fun, rich, engaging, with intriguing worldbuilding, thoughtful character development and a storyline that grows tenser with every chapter. 
Monday, May 20, 2019

From the Wreck by Jane Rawson (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)



Official Author Website
Order From the Wreck over HERE


OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Jane Rawson grew up in Canberra. During years as a travel editor and writer, mostly for Lonely Planet, she dawdled around the streets of San Francisco, Prague and Phnom Penh and left smitten. She has also worked as the Environment Editor for news website The Conversation. She likes cats, quiet, minimal capitalisation, and finding out that everything is going to be OK.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: From the Wreck tells the remarkable story of George Hills, who survived the sinking of the steamship Admella off the South Australian coast in 1859. Haunted by his memories and the disappearance of a fellow survivor, George’s fractured life is intertwined with that of a woman from another dimension, seeking refuge on Earth. This is a novel imbued with beauty and feeling, filled both with existential loneliness and a deep awareness that all life is interdependent.

FORMAT/INFO: From the Wreck is 272 pages long divided over twenty-nine chapters. 

The book was published by Transit Lounge Publishing in 2017 and it's available as an e-book, paperback and hardcover. Cover art and design is provided by  Michael Shinde.


ANALYSIS: The novel opens with SS Admella, an Australian passenger steamship, being shipwrecked on a submerged reef off the coast of Carpenter Rocks in the early hours of Saturday 6 August 1859. Survivors clung to the wreck for over a week, many of them died despite having the land in sight. Rescue attempts failed one after another because of the weather.  Of the 113 on board, only 24 survived, including Jane Rawson’s great-great-grandfather George Hills and a mysterious woman, Bridget Ledwith.

The loss of 89 lives makes this tragedy rate as one of the worst maritime disasters in Australia’s history. From the Wreck follows the years-long aftermath of this horror through three perspectives, two human (George Hill and his death-obsessed son Henry), and one inhuman (a nameless shape-shifting creature from a different dimension).

George suffers from PTSD (Rawson accurately illustrates its symptoms and the current state of knowledge about trauma at the time). Plagued by nightmares and obsessed with memories of a shape-shifting woman that helped him to survive the accident, George tries to find her at any cost, slowly isolating himself emotionally and hurting his family. In the meantime, the creature was never far away. It attached itself to George’s family taking different shapes, for example, of the birthmark on Henry’s back. It feels lost and lonely on Earth and tries to survive.


I appreciate the way Rawson handled inhuman perspective. She did it with a poetic touch, sensibility, and imagination. The creature feels lost, lonely and confused. It doesn’t understand humans and doesn’t want to hurt them, but when it learns that others like it may still exist on Earth, it starts to influence Henry’s behavior by taking over his body and mind whenever it finds it necessary. That said, I find shape-shifting alien fascinating and written in a convincing, emotionally loaded way.


Rawson’s writing is elegant and imaginative, especially the parts written from the perspective of the alien. 

Apart from the introspective story, From The Wreck gives a well-researched insight into the social constructs of Australia at that time, especially with regards to women and their roles in the society. They were considered the “weaker sex” whose role was to support their husbands and raise children. When a woman lived her life, like one of the secondary characters named Beatrice, she risked being called a witch. 

CONCLUSION: Blending facts with fiction, From the Wreck tells a touching story about loneliness and the need for belonging. An excellent read.
 
Saturday, May 18, 2019

Blackwood Marauders by KS Villoso (reviewed by David Stewart)



OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATIONK.S. Villoso was born in a dank hospital on an afternoon in Albay, Philippines, and things have generally been okay since then. After spending most of her childhood in a slum area in Taguig (where she dodged death-defying traffic, ate questionable food, and fell into open-pit sewers more often than one ought to), she and her family immigrated to Vancouver, Canada, where they spent the better part of two decades trying to chase the North American Dream. She is now living amidst the forest and mountains with her family, children, and dogs in Anmore, BC.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURBGrowing up in a quiet farm, Luc "Lucky" son of Jak didn't think much of the world until he fails the military entrance exam and finds himself responsible for a group of vicious, bloodthirsty mercenaries. Raised to be honest, upright, and true, his own ideals clash with the mercenaries' shaky morals. His problems take a turn for the worst when he falls into a trap set by Roena Blackwood.

The eldest of Duke Iorwin's daughters, Roena is adamant that life can only go her way. A high priest's prophecy causes her to rethink her options and take the path less travelled: that of a travelling mercenary. 

But killing monsters and saving villages can only get interesting for so long. Luc and Roena find themselves in a twisted plot concocted by none other than the merchant Ylir yn Garr. Together, they must learn to set aside their differences and work together to prevent disaster, even if it means confronting what they ran away from in the first place.

FORMAT/INFOBlackwood Marauders is 397 pages long divided over twenty-three chapters with an epilogue, and is a stand-alone fantasy novel. The book was self-published through Liam's Vigil Publishing Co. in 2018, and is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats. Cover art and design by the author.


OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "You don't argue with a name like "Lucky" if you were lucky to be alive." Thus starts KS Villoso's Blackwood Marauders, and in doing so introduces us to its main character, one Luc "Lucky" apn Jak, a young man so likable from the start that even had I not enjoyed the story and other characters of Blackwood, I likely would have read it simply to walk through the world with him. Luc is something of a paradox, in that he presents a positive and outgoing bent on life while traversing a world that is decidedly dark and grim. He is consistently in contrast to almost every other person he meets, and somehow Villoso makes this work.

There is much about Blackwood Marauders that could see it undervalued as just another fantasy coming-of-age story in a pile of them that none of us will ever be able to finish. There are tropes aplenty from the start: Luc leaves his rural village to find his place in the world; a convenient set of events leads him away from that home and does not allow him to come back; he does not know who his real parents are and was found washed ashore by a man who happened to be as morally pure as they come; etc. These are all themes we have read about before, in various mediums, and to see them emerge again either feels like visiting an old friend or having an old, unwelcome, friend visit you. I would argue for the former in the case of Blackwood Marauders because I think Villoso's voice provides a fresh take on this type of story. For one, Luc is not the shy, young man lacking confidence that we expect in this type of tale. He has a brashness to him that is common only in Errol Flynn-style swashbucklers, but it is a boldness tempered by his need to do what's right. He has character, imparted to him by the aforementioned moral father, and he never compromises that center even when faced with some truly troubling decisions. Luc is offset by Roena, the spoiled, rebellious daughter of a local lord, and when the two eventually meet, there is a clash of ideologies that is fascinating to watch.

Like many coming-of-age tales, Blackwood Marauders follows a Hero's Journey path. Luc leaves home, descends in to the underbelly of humanity, finds various mentors in various forms, and eventually returns home a changed man. Along the way he joins a mercenary band, kills magical creatures that he has no right tackling, and meets a gamut of fantasy personalities. I truly enjoyed Villoso's world-building, even if at times I found it hard to follow. She has built lore into her writing that has the ring of authenticity to it, and I wanted more by the end of the novel. I was actually disappointed to learn that Blackwood Marauders is a stand-alone, both for those lore reasons and because I think Luc is a good enough character to carry a series forward.

I did have some more pressing issues with the book. The writing can be inconsistent, with tense shifts and oddities in grammar that unerringly pulled me away from the narrative. This is not to say that there aren't beautiful lines within, like this personal favorite, "Daughter and father were like the sun and the moon - neither could light the sky at the same time." The dialogue can feel off in places while being excellent in others - certain characters feel incredibly real while others often feel like caricatures. Around the two-thirds mark of the novel, the pacing gets thrown off track, with events seeming to speed up and slow down in a disconcerting way, as though the novel were rushed in its back half and potentially even edited less.

Despite those issues, I really enjoyed what Blackwood Marauders had to offer. There is a mixture of Robin Hood and the Black Company in Villoso's depiction of the mercenary band that Luc and Roena find. I think Luc is a character worth returning to, and while I didn't particularly love Roena, I think she holds her own and the disparity between her and Luc, which ebbs and wanes throughout the novel, is interesting enough in its own right. Mostly, I just want to learn more about this world she's built. My hope is to do so with some of her other novels which seem to provide that backdrop I seek. Blackwood Marauders, despite its flaws, certainly receives a recommendation from this reader.

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