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Friday, December 4, 2020

Blood Heir Cover Spotlight with Luisa Preissler Q&A (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Artist Website
Pre-order Blood Heir over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s interview with Luisa Preissler

Today we are placing the spotlight on one of my top 5 anticipated 2021 titles. Blood Heir by Ilona Andrews is a cracking return to the world of Kate Daniels however this sequel volume has a new-ish protagonist & a bigger mystery to solve. Since Ilona Andrews unveiled the cover nearly 2 months ago. I’m in awe of Luisa Preissler who created this gorgeous piece. I reached out to Luisa and she was super kind to chat about the cover, how she created it and what lies ahead for her professionally.

Q) Hi Luisa, welcome back to Fantasy Book Critic. How did you get involved in the cover art for Blood Heir (the standalone sequel to the Kate Daniels saga)?

Hi Mihir, thanks for having me again! I got involved in the cover art the way I always do: via email. Ilona shot me a mail asking about my availability and shortly after I was commissioned by Nancy from Nancy Yost Literary Agency to do a wraparound cover for a new book about the character Julie from the Kate Daniels world. Needless to say, I was thrilled!

Q) Your artwork is gorgeous & Julie is stunning in her new avatar. How did you collaborate with Ilona Andrews to create this cover? Did they give you detailed notes or was it more like an overview which you then expanded upon?

Thank you! It was more of an overview - I had a lot of creative freedom again and that’s what I love about working with the Andrews’. Ilona wanted Julie in an action pose with background elements that communicated a blend of post-apocalyptic modern and fantasy. I got some notes and reference images from Ilona about Julie’s new look, which helped a lot in forming my mental picture of the character. As further research I read all of the free “Ryder” story blog posts that were released until this point and distilled some key elements and the mood that I wanted to convey. I remember that there was a short description of her work clothes and spear in the early draft so I incorporated them as well.

For the background it certainly helped that I had already read all of the Kate Daniels books and was familiar with Post-Shift Atlanta. As always I started with a big Pinterest search to get inspired and tried out a few poses and background elements before I settled on an idea I liked. After a few sketches it became obviously clear to me that a book with the title “BLOOD HEIR” definitely called for a red color scheme. After getting the green light from Ilona, I started painting.

Q) I know you are a big fan of the Kate Daniels saga. How excited are you to be working on the series sequel and did you get to read the book beforehand?

How excited I am? Over 9000, haha. When I picked up my first Kate Daniels book in 2008, I never dreamed that I could ever be the cover artist for a sequel. It feels totally surreal! With regarsds to the second part of your query, I didn’t get to read this book beforehand. I don’t think it was even finished at that point. However, I read the free chapters that were online at the time and I was SO hyped. I honestly can’t wait for the book to come out in January.

Q) Julie’s stance and look is similar to Kate while being her own person. Especially with her spear & the utility belt, is the spear of special significance akin to Kate & Slayer?

From reading the free chapters I definitely got the impression that the spear had a special significance to Julie but I’m not the author so you have to ask Ilona to be sure. :)

Q) Ilona and you recently shared another image (Julie the Princess) will this be in the book as well? Or is it for something else?

It’s an interior piece that shows the royal side of Julie in contrast to the cover which shows the tough fighter that she is.

Q) Thank you very much for your time Luisa, I hope to see more of your gorgeous work in 2021. Would you be able to let us know what you have in the works?

Sure, anytime! I already have a pretty full schedule for 2021 with currently eleven cover artworks planned, most of them urban fantasy. I’m also looking forward to collaborate again on a new series with one of my favorite authors, Rachel Aaron. I can’t say much, but there might also be another illustration for Ilona Andrews in the works. :)

Pre-order BLOOD HEIR over HERE

Atlanta was always a dangerous city. Now, as waves of magic and technology compete for supremacy, it’s a place caught in a slow apocalypse, where monsters spawn among the crumbling skyscrapers and supernatural factions struggle for power and survival.

Eight years ago, Julie Lennart left Atlanta to find out who she was. Now she’s back with a new face, a new magic, and a new name—Aurelia Ryder—drawn by the urgent need to protect the family she left behind. An ancient power is stalking her adopted mother, Kate Daniels, an enemy unlike any other, and a string of horrifying murders is its opening gambit.

If Aurelia’s true identity is discovered, those closest to her will die. So her plan is simple: get in, solve the murders, prevent the prophecy from being fulfilled, and get out without being recognized. She expected danger, but she never anticipated that the only man she'd ever loved could threaten everything.

One small misstep could lead to disaster. But for Aurelia, facing disaster is easy; it’s relationships that are hard.

NOTE: Artist picture and artwork courtesy of Luisa Preissler.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

The Burning God by R. F. Kuang (reviewed by Caitlin Grieve)

Order the book HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Poppy War
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Dragon Republic

OFFICIAL AUTHOR WEBSITE: Rebecca F. Kuang is a Marshall Scholar, Chinese-English translator, and the Astounding Award-winning and Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award nominated author of the Poppy War trilogy. Her work has won the Crawford Award and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford; she is now pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: After saving her nation of Nikan from foreign invaders and battling the evil Empress Su Daji in a brutal civil war, Fang Runin was betrayed by allies and left for dead.

Despite her losses, Rin hasn’t given up on those for whom she has sacrificed so much—the people of the southern provinces and especially Tikany, the village that is her home. Returning to her roots, Rin meets difficult challenges—and unexpected opportunities. While her new allies in the Southern Coalition leadership are sly and untrustworthy, Rin quickly realizes that the real power in Nikan lies with the millions of common people who thirst for vengeance and revere her as a goddess of salvation.

Backed by the masses and her Southern Army, Rin will use every weapon to defeat the Dragon Republic, the colonizing Hesperians, and all who threaten the shamanic arts and their practitioners. As her power and influence grows, though, will she be strong enough to resist the Phoenix’s intoxicating voice urging her to burn the world and everything in it?

FORMAT/INFO: The Burning God was published on November 17th, 2020 by Harper Voyager. It is 654 pages split over 34 chapters and an epilogue. It is told in third person from Rin's point of view. It is available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook form.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: After suffering betrayal after betrayal, Rin has had enough of listening to other people, of trying to work with other nations that just want to exploit her country. With no one left to turn to but the southern provinces, Rin finds herself unexpectedly returning to her roots to seek new allies in her fight. The southern armies are ill-equipped and poorly trained, but they are determined to resist the Hesperians, who have been using the civil war to move in on Nikan and quietly colonize the country. But the one thing the Hesperians don’t have is a conduit who can channel the power of the Phoenix goddess – and Rin intends to use that advantage to burn out every single last enemy in the country.

R. F. Kuang is back for another no-punches-pulled look at war and its many, many costs. Anyone who has read the previous books in the series knows that Kuang doesn’t hold back from examining the horrors of war, from the sacking of cities to the emotional tolls on survivors. The Burning God gives us a new angle to consider: guerilla warfare. Rin has to reacclimate herself to stop thinking of war as something to be conducted in a neat and orderly way, with clear battle lines and strategies, and start thinking of more unorthodox maneuvers. She and her allies must also contend with what to do with villages that were conquered and forced to give support to the enemy, and what to do with those who collaborated with their new rulers. Were collaborators taking advantage of a situation for selfish reasons? Were they saving their own skins at the expense of others? Were they trying to intervene and mitigate further harm to the village? There’s no clear cut answers, and further demonstrates the confusion of war.

Rin continues to be a fantastically complex POV character, determined to protect her country, but also willing to take on some extreme costs to do so. I was occasionally frustrated with Rin as it seemed like she was continuously out of her depth, especially at the beginning of the book, which seemed like an odd place for a character to be in book three of a trilogy. Sometimes it felt like her strategy was of the “throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks” variety. But Rin is barely 20, if that, so to some extent, it’s a realistic character. But more importantly, the way Rin is written begins to veer into paranoid, unreliable narrator territory, in a descent that was fascinating to watch. Any time Rin gets power, she begins to worry about who will take it away, an understandable fear given events of the past few books. That means her perceptions of other people’s actions might be flawed – or it might be dead on. Once again, we are not provided clear-cut, clean answers to Rin's problems, leaving the reader to judge events for themselves.

A small thing I bumped on was that occasionally the overall pacing felt odd. Plot lines that seemed like a Big Deal were wrapped up sooner than anticipated, leaving me a bit flummoxed. Granted, it’s a 650 page finale to a sweeping trilogy, so there’s a lot to get done. I’d say I was more taken by surprise than disappointed by this development, especially since the moment had a big build up, only to be wrapped up fairly quickly.

CONCLUSION: But overall, it’s a small quibble in a book that had me hooked from beginning to end, and I absolutely cried at the ending. It’s not a neat and tidy resolution, but it is an ending, and one that made sense. I always struggle to say I “enjoy” these books since they are about the horrors of war in all their varieties, with a protagonist who is frequently selfish and flawed. Nevertheless, Rin is always fascinating to watch, even if it is like watching a car wreck happen while wishing the driver would veer at the last moment but knowing in your heart that they won’t. If you enjoyed the first two books in the series, you’ll find a satisfying conclusion, and if you haven’t started yet – the trilogy is finished, so get started!

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Greensmith by Aliya Whiteley review

Order Greensmith here or directly from the publisher
Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Dragon Republic by R. F. Kuang (reviewed by Caitlin Grieve)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Poppy War

is a Marshall Scholar, Chinese-English translator, and the Astounding Award-winning and Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award nominated author of the Poppy War trilogy. Her work has won the Crawford Award and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford; she is now pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: In the aftermath of the Third Poppy War, shaman and warrior Rin is on the run: haunted by the atrocity she committed to end the war, addicted to opium, and hiding from the murderous commands of her vengeful god, the fiery Phoenix. Her only reason for living is to get revenge on the traitorous Empress who sold out Nikan to their enemies.

With no other options, Rin joins forces with the powerful Dragon Warlord, who has a plan to conquer Nikan, unseat the Empress, and create a new Republic. Rin throws herself into his war. After all, making war is all she knows how to do.

But the Empress is a more powerful foe than she appears, and the Dragon Warlord’s motivations are not as democratic as they seem. The more Rin learns, the more she fears her love for Nikan will drive her away from every ally and lead her to rely more and more on the Phoenix’s deadly power. Because there is nothing she won’t sacrifice for her country and her vengeance.

The Dragon Republic was published August 8th, 2019 by Harper Voyager. It is 658 pages split over 37 chapters. It is told in third person from Rin's point of view. It is available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Poppy War is over. Rin made sure of that when she used the full power of the Phoenix goddess to destroy the home island of the Mugenese Federation, killing their emperor and throwing their army into disarray. But the end of the war didn’t bring a happy ending. Betrayed by the Vipress, the shamanic Empress of Nikara, Rin and her fellow Cike members are on the run. But a glimmer of hope appears on the horizon. The Dragon Warlord plans to unite the southern territories and overthrow the Empress, and he wants Rin and her compatriots to help him do it. Plagued by guilt, trauma, and a burning desire for revenge, she agrees, content to finally have an outlet for her anger and grief. But with the arrival of allies from a foreign land, Rin realizes that the path to revenge might not be cut and dry. She’s always been a soldier, but can she always trust those who are giving the commands?

THE DRAGON REPUBLIC is an engrossing tale of power and responsibility, focused on very flawed people who nonetheless have your undivided attention. Kuang has created characters that you can utterly empathize with as they struggle to survive in a brutal world. Rin is once again the heart of the story, and she’s faltering under the immensity of being a power player on the world stage. Where in THE POPPY WAR, Rin was concerned with clawing her way into a prestigious school and proving she belonged there, Rin now has to prove that she belongs at the table with the generals deciding the fate of her country. Except, Rin isn’t sure she wants to be there. The guilt of destroying an entire island nation weighs heavily, and she’d rather avoid responsibility for her actions by letting someone else point her in a direction. Rin’s arc is one of learning whether or not she has it in her to be a true leader, to accept consequences and decide if she should act on behalf of herself or others.

Even when she’s trying to just go with the flow, Kuang threads the needle of never making Rin seem like a passive character. This book is full of momentum, stakes and deadlines, the tension of not knowing where the enemy will strike next or if you even stand a chance against them. Rin is constantly lashing out, not just physically, but verbally. Never one to say silent, she is constantly challenging her leaders, demanding answers. Sure, she can be petty and whiny at times, but that doesn’t mean she’s wrong in the questions she’s asking. Rin gets particularly fractious with the son of the Dragon Lord, a young man she doesn’t think is stepping up to the plate when he has the chance; he, in turn, doesn’t think she is willing to make the sacrifices that war demands.

But perhaps the most compelling moment is when Rin finally encounters the Vipress. When villains make the argument to the hero that “we’re the same, you and me,” it often comes across as a clichéd piece of dialogue you can easily dismiss. But in this instance, the author has done such a fantastic job of writing flawed, three-dimensional characters, I actually paused and considered the argument. Rin isn’t perfect, she’s incredibly human, and what might be justifiable to her is incredibly callous to another.

All of this drama is playing against a backdrop of impending colonization. In this book, we meet the Hesperians, a white-coded nation showing up to see if the Asian-inspired Nikara can be “civilized.” They offer tantalizing aid to the fledgling Dragon Republic, but demand they prove themselves worthy of that aid first. It makes for rash decision making and boxes characters into corners and explores the kind of leaders who would be tempted by such offers in the first place. There have been more works of fiction lately examining the act of colonization from the perspective of those being colonized, and it’s an important look at how degrading it is to rely on help from those who don’t even view you as human.

CONCLUSION: Lest you think THE DRAGON REPUBLIC waxes too philosophical, never fear, there’s plenty of war and action to be had in these pages. The days of school are done, and now it’s time for naval battles and warring shamans. From the opening pages, when Rin leads her fellow shamanic Cike compatriots on a strike mission, Kuang keeps the action coming, while never losing sight of the horror of war and the thousands that die while leaders squabble. All of this is to put Rin through the grinder once again, so that by the end, she knows unequivocally where she belongs and what comes next. And that decision should make her enemies tremble.

NOTE: This review was originally posted on Realms Of My Mind.
Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Interview with Anna Stephens (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website

Order The Stone Knife over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

Read Fantasy Book Critic's Review of The Stone Knife

Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Godblind

Today as The Stone Knife is released into the world. We are very lucky to have Anna visit us at FBC to chat about her new epic fantasy story. So read ahead to know more about the peninsula of Ixachipan, the Songs Of The Drowned series, & what you can expect from this new amazing saga

Q] Anna, welcome to Fantasy Book Critic and thank you for your time. How are you doing amidst these troubled times?

AS: Hi Mihir, and thanks so much for having me! I’m not doing too badly, thank you. I have lots of projects to keep me busy – in fact, I probably have a few too many! The pandemic and lockdown hit my productivity pretty hard and I’m not managing as many words usual, but I’m still writing and spending far too much time goofing off on social media. Whoops. 

Q] Could you please tell us what inspired you to write in the first place, and describe your journey to becoming a published author?

AS: I was raised with a love of books and some of my earliest memories are of bedtime stories and our weekly trip to the library every Saturday morning, so I’ve always loved the written word and its ability to transport you out of yourself and somewhere else. I’ve always had a very vivid imagination and a strong creative streak, and I love the idea of being able to entertain people but without actually having to be in their presence to make a fool of myself while doing so! (Not that I mind making a fool of myself; you should see me at book conventions. I’m a one-person car crash most of the time.) 

Creative writing was my favourite part of English lessons, and when I was 14 I told my best friend my dream job would be as an author, and she always encouraged me to pursue that. It was a long and arduous journey, involving some truly terrible drafts of truly terrible stories, a lot of rejections from literary agents, a few short story successes, a part-time Literature degree, and an awful lot of luck. My agent, Harry Illingworth, tweeted he was looking for Joe Abercrombie-esque epic fantasy just at the point where I’d completed a good draft of Godblind – so the stars aligned and the gods smiled and I submitted it to him. We went through a round of edits before he sent it out to publishers, and here we are! 

Q] While most fantasy writers are comfortable writing in their debut milieus, you have gone against the grain and are writing a new story set in a completely different world. What was your line of reasoning behind this bold step? 

AS: Sheer stupidity. 

I love the Godblind universe and a lot of my best friends live there (the ones that are actually still alive) but I’d spent so much time writing in that world – I wrote the first draft of Godblind 13 years before it was published – that I was honestly worried that I didn’t have any other stories in me. That I’d write this one trilogy and then never be able to move past it. So I wanted to challenge myself and, wow, did I ever do that, because a new universe is hard.

I wanted to stick with what I’m good at – the stabbing – but put it in a bigger, more ambitious setting. I wanted to experiment with magic and monsters; I wanted to draw out bigger, more important themes; and I wanted to challenge myself. 

I spent most of every day of drafting The Stone Knife cursing myself for attempting something new, but now that it’s done, I’m really proud of how it turned out. It was a steep learning curve, but I’m glad I persisted.  

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of the Songs Of The Drowned series occurred. How long have you been working on it? What were your inspirations for the story and what were you aiming for with it?

AS: I had a vague pitch – which turned out to bear little resemblance to the finished book – in 2018, and I started working on it in between drafting and editing Bloodchild, so it’s still pretty new in my head and while I know the ultimate ending for the next two books and the shape of the overall story, I’m still feeling my way through exactly how it will look and how we’ll get there – which is always the most fun and yet the most frustrating part of writing for me. 

I wanted to write something that wasn’t ‘white, medieval Europe with magic’, because I’d sort of done that with my first trilogy. I wanted a different environment with challenges of its own, that forced people to live in a different way, a different form of symbiosis with their environment. 

And I wanted to examine Empire and colonialism from both inside and outside those power structures and look at how people with privilege are blind to it and how it skews their thinking and behavior. There’s a great line in one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, where Granny Weatherwax says “sin, young man, is when you treat people like things” and that’s always stuck with me. 

But I also wanted to examine a different sort of society, separate from the issues of colonialism. I wanted to see what a society that didn’t have defined gender roles looked like, a society that didn’t even understand the concept of homophobia or patriarchy, and those themes became some of the most rewarding to write. It was also interesting to see how the Empire of Songs could still be a horrific place despite holding these same values, and that made them a far more complex and nuanced enemy. 

Q] The Songs Of The Drowned while being a bit dark is so much different than your grimdark debut with regards to characters, plot bleakness and language. Did you feel that this story needed to be drastically different from your debut or was this just what the story required? 

AS: I think it’s partly a result of my evolution as a writer and partly out of a desire to write something with a much broader scope. The Godblind trilogy was quite small, inasmuch as it focused on Rilpor and Mireces. The Stone Knife covers an entire peninsula, a dozen different peoples and customs, and much bigger themes. 

With the idea of the song running through the narrative, I wanted to allude to it occasionally with richer descriptions than I’ve used in the past, and to really draw out the relationship between people and nature by focusing a little more on the environment and how characters live within it. As a result, the language I use in various places is definitely different to how I wrote the Godblind trilogy, and it was a nice challenge to stretch my writing muscles that way. 

Q] Once you started writing this trilogy/series, how much of the entire journey was planned and how much of it evolved organically? Was the ending planned from the very beginning? 

AS: I’ve got a definite end point for the main plot, and for how book 2 will come to its conclusion. There are certain events I know need to happen to push the narrative along, and broader themes and character journeys I want to explore, but other than that, everything is up for grabs. 

Up until a month ago, I was sure of which characters would live and which would die and when, and I’ve completely revised that now in a bout of feverish excitement about how many readers I can make cry this time around. So it’s fair to say, everything’s pretty fluid at this stage. 

Q] Could you give us a progress report on book 2 and outline your plans for the series as a whole (will it be a trilogy or longer)?

AS: I’ve got a rough draft of book 2 finished, and I’m in the process of refining and rewriting large parts of that in line with the edits we made to The Stone Knife and how they’ve impacted the plot and timeline. This is pretty common for me, in that the draft I’ve already got will undergo extensive changes based on ideas or edits to the previous instalment. 

The plan is for the overall narrative to be completed in three books, and I don’t think that will change until something goes drastically wrong – or perhaps drastically right! 

Q] Can you tell us more about the world that The Stone Knife is set in and some of the series’ major characters? What are the curiosities (geographical, mystical, etc.) of this world?

AS: The Stone Knife is set on the peninsula of Ixachipan, which is a hilly, heavily-forested tropical environment. The Empire of Songs has slowly conquered all but two of the lands and peoples of Ixachipan, and have finally set their sights on Yalotlan and Tokoban. If they can conquer these lands, they will have brought the whole peninsula under the song. At that point, their ruler, the Singer, will cast a great magic to wake the world spirit. 

In the Empire, the holy Setatmeh are water-gods who control the rains and the crops and the harvest, who keep the world in balance and are a link with the world spirit and the song. They are worshipped and sacrificed to. In Tokoban and Yalotlan, however, they are known as the Drowned, and they are the peoples’ greatest threat. 

The Stone Knife follows the Tokob characters Xessa – a warrior against the Drowned; Lilla – a warrior against the Empire; Tayan – a shaman; and the Empire characters Pilos – commander of the army; Enet – an ambitious politician; and the Singer himself. There’s one other point of view character, but I can’t talk about them because spoilers!  

Q] I want to ask you about your characters and not just the main POV ones but even the ones that only make fleeting appearances. What goes through your mind when you create them? How do you make them so complex and believable?

AS: It’s important to me that even my ‘villains’ are three-dimensional, real people. Cartoon villains twirling their moustaches and being bad for the sake of it are never, to me, convincing. I want to know what goes on in their heads, why they’re doing bad things. I want to understand their motivations and I can’t do that if I don’t explore their character in depth. I think my only truly detestable character so far is Galtas Morellis from the Godblind trilogy – he absolutely delighted in being bad and tormenting people. But even he had his nuance – he had a massive inferiority complex and that drove him to delight in others’ misfortune and revel in the power and influence he accumulated. Without that nuance, he would have simply been a Generic Bad Guy and utterly forgettable. 

Everyone else – from that series and this one – are just people who genuinely believe that they’re doing the right thing. The Pechaqueh of the Empire of Songs honestly believe that they deserve to be at the top of the social strata because of the Singer and the song. They believe that bringing everyone under the song and into their religion will be good for them and that they’ll be better people as a result. They can’t conceive that they might be wrong, or that they’re causing untold harm by their actions. 

As for my point of view characters, I tend to begin with a defining trait or characteristic and have that the core of their personality, but I make sure to build in all the other quirks and flaws as well, both good and bad. Pilos, for example, is a deeply honourable man fully embedded in a corrupt regime and unable to see it. He cares for each and every one of his warriors, whether they’re elite Pechaqueh like him, or lowly slave-warriors from a conquered tribe. He’s a good man, a decent man, but he doesn’t grasp that even having slave-warriors is a bad thing. 

Q] What are you writing currently and what can your fans expect to read next from you?

AS: I’ve got a Black Library novella coming out in November as well as The Stone Knife, centered around Trisethni, a witch-aelf and a Daughter of Khaine, the Lord of Murder. She’s an assassin with a penchant for poison and slaughter, and she was a lot of fun to write, especially in light of what I’ve said above. She’s not a very nice person, and it was a challenge to make her sympathetic and relatable that I really enjoyed. 

Other than that, I’ve got some more work ongoing with Black Library and, of course, book 2 of Songs of the Drowned is due out next November. 

I’m also working on a super-secret project that should hopefully come out next autumn as well! 

Q] For someone who hasn't read any of your novels, how would you describe the type of stories that you write? What would be your elevator pitch for The Stone Knife?

AS: I write stories about people pushed to their limits and how they deal with it, about their worlds being upended and them having to find themselves and their purpose in the ashes, how everything they once thought was true might in fact be a lie. I write about love and duty and religion, about finding yourself and your purpose. I occasionally write happy endings, but only in the wake of a lot of emotional devastation. 

For The Stone Knife, I’d pitch it as “A story of empire and conquest, where one people’s gods are another’s monsters, and the only truth is the people who stand by you.”

Q] Please tell us about the books and authors who have captured your imagination and inspired you to become a wordsmith in your own right. Similarly, are there any current authors you would like to give a shout out to?

AS: Oh, I don’t think we have long enough to talk about all the books I love! Fantasy, sci-fi and historical fiction/historical fantasy are my favourites, as well as a fair few of the classics. I was a big fan of The Dragonriders of Pern series as a kid, but also the Duncton Wood books by William Horwood. I loved Tales of Farthing Wood and Watership Down – which may have some bearing on why I always aim to destroy my readers – but also Tolkien and Pratchett and Murakami

Authors I really want to shout out about that I’ve read and loved lately: Tasha Suri, Jen Williams, Evan Winter, Tade Thompson, Alix Harrow, RF Kuang, Stewart Hotston, Kameron Hurley, Fonda Lee … this too is an extensive and non-exhaustive list. 

Q] One of the perks of being an author is that you get to read books before they get published. I’ve noticed that you have blurbed some fabulous ones by Evan Winter, Devin Madson, Peter McLean, & Justin Lee Anderson. Which upcoming titles has you had the pleasure of reading recently?

AS: Woo hoo, I get to shout about new books! The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan and The Councillor by EJ Beaton are three that I’ve read recently and are all spectacular and beautiful and devastating and critical of the right things in the right way.

I’m currently beta-reading a superb fantasy by Stewart Hotston that requires publishing immediately, it’s so good, oh my god. 

Q] Thank you for your time and for the answers. Any parting thoughts/words that you'd like to share with your fans & readers?

AS: Thank you for reading! Wear a mask! Black lives matter

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of the author herself. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Stone Knife by Anna Stephens (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Order The Stone Knife over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Anna Stephens is the author of the Godblind trilogy: Godblind, Darksoul, and Bloodchild, which are published through HarperVoyager in the UK and Commonwealth, and Talos Press in North America. A literature graduate from the Open University, Anna loves all things speculative, from books to film and TV, including classic Hammer and Universal horror films, as well as DnD and the chameleon genius of David Bowie.

As a practitioner of Historical European Martial Arts, with a focus on Italian longsword, and a second Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, she’s no stranger to the feeling of being hit in the face, which is more help than you would expect when writing fight scenes.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: For generations, the forests of Ixachipan have echoed with the clash of weapons, as nation after nation has fallen to the Empire of Songs – and to the unending, magical music that binds its people together. Now, only two free tribes remain.

The Empire is not their only enemy. Monstrous, scaled predators lurk in rivers and streams, with a deadly music of their own.

As battle looms, fighters on both sides must decide how far they will go for their beliefs and for the ones they love – a veteran general seeks peace through war, a warrior and a shaman set out to understand their enemies, and an ambitious noble tries to bend ancient magic to her will.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Stone Knife is Anna Stephens’ new foray into the world of epic fantasy and it’s as different from her previous trilogy in terms of her world, characters, and darkness. I had enjoyed her Godblind trilogy but with this new trilogy focusing on Pseudo-Central/South American culture, I was very, very excited to read it.

This new book starts out with a people in disarray and running from a rapidly expanding empire. The main story is set in the peninsular lands of Ixachipan. The Empire of Songs has conquered everything and everyone in these lands with their powerful musical magic. However things haven’t gone entirely dire as two forest tribes are still resisting the empire’s ambitions. The Tokoban and Yalotlan tribes are feeling the encroachment as well as the refugees who are slowly trickling in from the conquered lands. The book’s first third portion further expands on this setup and we are then treated to a start of a magnificent epic story.

What’s really striking about this story is by now if you think this is going to be a simplistic good tribes versus empire story then you will be sorely wrong. The story first three four chapters focus exclusively on the Tokob tribe and again as we are lulled into a singular way of life and the characters. The author brilliantly and quickly shifts the spotlight directly into the Empire camp via Etne & the Singer. Then quickly we learn that Empire of Songs aren’t necessarily all that evil as we might have imagined them to be (though they are championing slavery). We find that the invaded tribes have a strange and brutal method of honouring their gods. The empire's Gods are very much abhorrent to these forest tribes as is their way of living. So in some way, the Empire is trying to bring a change (of sorts) however it's left up to the readers to decide what's good and bad. Such complexity and more is inherently jampacked in this EPIC fantasy story opener.

Why I loved this story so much because of three things that Anna Stephens did superbly:
- Plot
- World
- Characters

The plot of the story is complex, mired in grey morality and gives us both sides to a conflict that will shake the known world in its entirety. I can’t thank Anna Stephens enough writing such a fantastic story that’s as epic as among the annals of fantasy literature but also complex enough to rival the famous stories written by Messrs.’ Martin, Abercrombie & Mses' Friedman, Bear. Since this is book one, we are given a fantastical opening into a conflict that will bedazzle and frighten all the same. Plus the way the book ends, it sets up the future books really strongly.

The worldbuilding done in this opening volume is stupendous to say the least. I commend Anna for giving us a non-European setting. This subtropical world is one of dense foliage, damp watery marshes, and weird, dangerous creatures. Beginning with the descriptions of the swampy and forest foliage, then to the attire as well the cultures that are open to differing sexualities and physical abilities. All in all, this world is new, strange and entirely enticing for a worldbuilding junkie akin to myself. In every chapter, Anna Stephens gives us some new information about the people, the flora and fauna and it all builds up as the climax approaches. Lastly I want to give another shout to her for creating such disturbing monsters which inhabit this world and using them sparingly to increase the terror in the story.

Lastly going on the characters, this story has a multi-POV structure and it lends itself beautifully to the story as we get in-depth looks from both side of the struggle. We get to see the lives of the following characters Xessa, Tayan, Etne, Lilla, Pilos, and The Singer. They are a complex lot with differing views on life, battle and conquest. There’s also a whole host of secondary characters as well as the animal kind who don’t share the same sentience but are cool nonetheless. I enjoyed how the author explored both cultures from the eyes of these characters and even though some are noble like Pilos, they have their blinders on horrid things like slavery. This and more dichotomies are very keenly explored by Anna thereby causing the readers to be further enmeshed within the characters' lives and the struggle that's ongoing.

This story builds up the conflict by layering the story with enough details and quite detailed POVs which help in providing context and give us a rich storyline where neither side is the clear cut heroes. They both have differing shades as is true in most geopolitical shindigs. The book is also quite grim and dark in many places as it doesn’t shy away from showcasing aspects of cannibalism, torture, violence towards both human & animal kind. This is not to say that all of it just to throw the readers’ sensibilities askew. It’s presented within a very realistic world and it’s never meant to titillate.

The only thing which prevented this story from being a five star read for me was the pace of the story. As I previously mentioned, this is a big book and the first third of the story has quite a buildup wherein the pace is sacrificed for the sake of excellence in characterization and worldbuilding. For me, this wasn’t such a bad thing, however for many readers, the slow start might dampen their enthusiasm for the book. This is a sad thing as the plot is really a terrific one.

CONCLUSION: The Stone Knife is a unique story that combines epic fantasy, distinct new cultures and world building on a scale that is hitherto unseen so far. Anna Stephens has given us a dark gift that heralds her as one of epic fantasy’s newest and most acclaimed writers. Don’t miss out on this opener in a new saga, it promises to get darker and more violent but you will be thrilled all the way along.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Infernal by Mark de Jager review

Official Author Website
Release Date: November 26, 2020, page count: 384, publisher: Solaris
Order the book HERE(USA) or HERE(UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFO: Mark isn’t sure if his love of writing led to his love of gaming or vice versa, but his earliest memories involve both. He now spends his time trying to find a balance between these and working a full time job in the City, a process made slightly easier by his coffee addiction. An ex-MP in the South African army, Mark now lives in Kent with his wife Liz (herself a published author) and their lazy dog in a house that is equal parts library and home.

OVERVIEW: Infernal is fun. It’s also over-the-top and pulpy, but I loved it. Stratus wakes in an unfamiliar place, with no memories of his past. And just in time before local vultures rip him into pieces to enjoy the meal. 

Things escalate quickly, and Stratus finds himself engaged in an approaching war with evil forces. He has no interest in people and their conflicts, but the fickle hand of fate cares little for his plans and goals. Especially that he has peculiar, inhuman, skills. Preternatural strength and a knack for sorcery allow him to decimate his opponents. Those who try to trap and hurt him disappear in a shower of blood. Interestingly, tasting brains allows Stratus to gain insights into the past of his fallen opponents.

I need to emphasize that despite gritty and violent moments, Infernal remains darkly humorous. Sure, not everyone will enjoy the grim humor, but I found it hilarious. Like this exchange between Stratus and Tatyana, the second key character:

Tatyana stared at me without saying anything for long enough that I began to wonder whether I had said it aloud, or simply thought it. As I was about to repeat myself, she turned her gaze to the dead man, then back to me. ‘You’re going to eat him,’ she said. She made it sound like a statement.‘Just his brain,’ I corrected her.‘His brain.’‘Are you repeating everything for a reason?’

In a way, Stratus resembles Drax the Destroyer - he has no sense of humor, he doesn’t understand sarcasm or metaphors. Subtle jokes skip right past him. Something about his earnest tone and deadpan delivery is comic, especially in his back and forth with Tatyana. The smell is his strongest sense - Stratus sniffs people without realizing it’s creepy as hell for them, and it results in solid situational humor.

Because the story is told only through Stratus’ POV, we don’t get any unnecessary exposition. It also means secondary characters remain underdeveloped, but I didn’t mind. We discover the world through his eyes and nose, and because Stratus isn’t human, he sees things from an alien perspective. Frankly, the big reveal of his identity is hardly surprising, but I won’t spoil the fun for you. I’ll just say the foreshadowing, while not subtle and rather in-your-face, entertained me a lot and helped me to picture him. 

Infernal gives an old school fantasy vibe but plays with tropes. It blends non-stop violent action with horror and grim humor. I couldn’t put it down, but I need to point out its weaker parts. Jager’s writing is uneven. I found his similes awkward and sentence structure surprising in places. The beginning, while entertaining, is repetitious, and the story doesn’t pack a lot of really surprising twists. It’s simple and unpretentious, and I guess that’s the reason why I enjoyed it so much. Readers looking for depth and complexity may find it disappointing.

Personally, I'll read the sequel as soon as it's available. I love the amnesiac hero trope, and Jager nailed it. Join me if you fancy following an inhuman with a fractured mind.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Interview with Benedict Patrick

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

SPFBO Finalist: Black Stone Heart by Michael R. Fletcher review

Official Author Website

Order Black Stone Heart over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Smoke and Stone
Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen (reviewed by Caitlin Grieve)

Order the book HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR WEBSITE: Essa Hansen grew up in beautifully wild areas of California, from the coastal foothills to the Sierra Nevada mountains around Yosemite, before migrating north to the Canadian Rocky Mountains. She has ranched bison and sheep, trained horses, practiced Japanese swordsmanship, and is a licensed falconer. She attended the Vancouver Film School and works as a sound designer for SF and fantasy feature films. Essa lives with her British Shorthair cat Soki in the San Francisco Bay Area.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: When a young man’s planet is destroyed, he sets out on a single-minded quest for revenge across the galaxy in Nophek Gloss, the first book in this epic space opera trilogy debut — perfect for fans of Revenger and Children of Time.

Caiden’s planet is destroyed. His family gone. And, his only hope for survival is a crew of misfit aliens and a mysterious ship that seems to have a soul and a universe of its own. Together they will show him that the universe is much bigger, much more advanced, and much more mysterious than Caiden had ever imagined. But the universe hides dangers as well, and soon Caiden has his own plans.

He vows to do anything it takes to get revenge on the slavers who murdered his people and took away his home. To destroy their regime, he must infiltrate and dismantle them from the inside, or die trying.

FORMAT/INFO: Nophek Gloss was published on November 17th, 2020 by Orbit Books. It is 448 pages split over 50 chapters. It is told in third person from Caiden's point of view solely. It is available in paperback and ebook formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS Caiden has spent his whole life being a simple mechanic doing a simple job, with no plans for anything bigger. But when his entire settlement is killed, Caiden is forced to flee for his life. After literally stumbling onto a spaceship, he discovers his planet is only one of thousands in the multiverse. Adopted by an eclectic crew, Caiden adjusts to this vast new life, but is driven by a singular goal: revenge on the group who killed his family. He will have to leverage new technology, questionable alliances, and a rare ship with a unique power if he’s going to accomplish his goal, but what cost will prove too high for his revenge? 

Nophek Gloss is an absolutely mesmerizing piece of world-building. After a harrowing opening, the reader joins Caiden in being nearly overwhelmed with new aliens, ships, alliances, locations, and more. The sheer size of the worlds the author creates isn’t an onslaught, but a deep pool you are thrown into, and it is a delight to get your bearings. I absolutely loved being in a setting that was completely foreign to me, getting to know the rules and the aliens and everything in between. 

Readers will need to throw their original conception of the multiverse out the door. Here, multiverse doesn’t mean “parallel universe” as it has come to be defined in popular culture. Instead, it means that there are other, self-contained universes outside the main one that have their own physics, biomes, etc., not all of which are suitable for all species, and crossing between universes can be a dangerous or even lethal situation. Caiden falls in with a group of explorers called passagers, those who chart regions and exchange the knowledge back home for money and resources. 

The first half of Nophek Gloss I absolutely devoured. With its devastating opening and imaginative worlds, I kept wanting to see more and more of these universes. The back half of the book didn’t click quite as well for me, ironically because it was so fast paced. The first half of the book revels in introducing the reader to the world, spending all of its time on just a few days, so when events started moving in the back half, it felt oddly rushed. It frequently felt like a problem was introduced one chapter and resolved by the next one, with no chance for the tension to simmer and breathe. Combined with Caiden, who spends most of the book (deservedly) being an angry, impulsive character, and I felt myself falling off a bit. 

That said, this is still a fantastic adventure and worth a read for those who love big sci-fi worlds. There are plenty of emotional moments scattered throughout the rushing action, and one theme of “found or forced” with regards to friendships absolutely tugged at my heartstrings as Caiden struggled with feelings of isolation in this giant galaxy. For a 400 page book, Nophek Gloss is a book that moves incredibly well, and sets up tantalizing new adventures in future books.

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