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Thursday, August 13, 2020

SPFBO Semifinalist Interview with Deborah Makarios (Interviewed by Adam Weller)

Order The Wound of Words over here
Wednesday, August 12, 2020

SPFBO Semifinalist Interview with Geetha Krishnan (interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Pradyutita over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's thoughts on Pradyutita

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. To begin with, could you tell us a little about yourself, your background & your interests?

GK: Thank you for having me. I’m Geetha, and I’m from India, more specifically Kerala, the southernmost state of the country. I love to cook, read and write, mostly with music in the background. I love old Malayalam, Hindi and Tamil songs. Writing and reading fan fiction is how I relax most of the time.

Though I used to read almost everything at one time, nowadays, I find it hard to read anything other than fantasy which is the genre I prefer to write in as well.

Q] What inspired you to be a writer in the first place, what experience you went through in finishing your book, & why you chose to go the self-publishing route?

GK: Well, I can’t say what led me down this path, but I remember writing poems as early as when I was 7 or 8. I used to scribble short stories in notebooks while in school. I was and still am quite the introvert, so I never showed my writings to anyone, except my sister and a few cousins. When I was younger, I was the storyteller in our group. I used to narrate everything I’d read to my sister and cousins and we also used to make up stories with our favourite sportspersons and actors as characters and I was the one who again wrote those things down. I think this path was set from those days, it was not like I decided one day that I wanted to be a writer, because I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t writing or making up stories.

Choosing self publishing now was a bit more complicated. Basically, I had no patience to wait and query and even when I tried, I got disheartened very easily. I also love the freedom that self publishing brings, and that I have full rights over my content at all times.

Q] Many writers have a muse, who directs their writing, and others do not seem to be affected the same way. Which group do you fall into? What is your main motivation and source of inspiration?

GK: I wouldn’t say I have a muse as such unless you call my characters that. I’m a pantster, so my main motivation is to know what’s going to happen in the end. Also, I’ve had some major life experiences that weren’t easy, and writing is how I cope with my depression. It keeps me grounded and helps distract me from my own thoughts. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that reading and writing have literally saved my life.

Q] Why did you decide to enter SPFBO?

GK: I entered this competition last year because a friend told me she got some good feedback on one of her books the previous year. At the time, I had no idea how big this was or how much exposure it brings one. I just wanted some feedback, lol. My book made it into the semifinals last year, and so, it seemed just natural to enter again this year.

(Karna vs Ghatotkacha artwork by Mukesh Singh)

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of the Jaya trilogy occurred. How long have you been working on it? Why did you decide to write it as a trilogy?

GK: The Mahabharata has always been a passion with me, especially the character of Karna. Most of my Mahabharata based works are centered on him. I had this idea of writing a book with him as the central character for long. I’m part of a group of people who are passionate about Mahabharata and we used to have long long discussions on the epic and I learned to question everything as a result. It was hard, let me tell you! But once I opened my mind to the possibility that everything I had so far considered inviolate may indeed be false, it all started making sense.

Around this time, I read an interview where Bibek Debroy who had translated the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata said that he once had a theory that in the original epic, there were only Yudhistira and Bheema and that the other three were later additions. That sparked something in me, and I was trying to figure out how the epic would have played out in such a scenario, and finally I decided to write it, but with Karna as the central character.

I’d never planned on a trilogy, but when I started writing, I knew this was bigger than one book, or even two books. My brain sort of starts to panic when a book goes beyond a certain length, and so, I knew that this will have to be done as more than one book. All my books are short because that’s all my brain can handle while writing. Even now, I’m not sure if this will be three books or more, but I’m hoping three. (knock on wood)

Q] Pradyutita is the first volume in the Jaya trilogy. Could you tell us about your work on the second book, offer any blurb details about it and maybe tell us what awaits in the trilogy ending?

GK: I wrote a few pages of the second book, before abandoning it, but now it’s very much a work I’m planning to revisit. No blurb at the moment, lol. All I can say is that it will start where Pradyutita leaves off and I’m hoping to end it with the Rajasuya at least, but let me see what this weird pantster brain of mine has to say, lol. In spite of the many changes, I won’t be changing the basic storyline with regards to Karna, so it will end as it ends in the epic, except it is planned out differently.

Q] Your book is a retelling of the Mahabharata. What’s your elevator pitch for non-desi folks who might not know of the world’s biggest epic?

GK: Okay, that’s a tough one. I mean how do you condense all that complexity into a few sentences? Hmm…

The existence of a child, who was supposed to be dead, is a threat to the established order. A cog in a machine he doesn’t even know exists, how long can Vasushena protect his secret when his very blood impels him into a path of collision with forces beyond his comprehension?

That’s basically my whole series, lol. That’s the angle it will take, that in the end what happens to him is a result of a concerted, deliberate action. He was always a threat to Yudhistira, and even in the epic, he was the one Yudhistira wanted dead more than anyone from the day of the Rangbhoomi.

Q] Let’s talk about your book’s genre. Technically its low fantasy as there’s almost no magic. Would you call it secondary fantasy or mytho-epic fantasy?

GK: I would just call it low fantasy, lol.

Q] Can you tell us more about the world that the story is set in, the nations and the peculiarities of the world?

GK: The world is basically ancient India. The main nations in my series will be Kuru, Panchala, Madra, Gandhara, Matsya and Anga.

Many of the customs in ancient India will be there:

Swayamvara where a princess gets to choose her husband from an assembly of kings and princes, which is how Kunti marries Pandu in Pradyutita and how Draupadi will choose her husband later in the series.

Niyoga, the practice where a childless widow is impregnated by her husband’s brother. It is the practice Pandu forces on Kunti in Pradyutita, the practice by which he himself was born.

Sati, the practice where a widow is burnt in her husband’s pyre, is not common in those times. In the original epic too, Madri is the only one who commits it, which seemed odd to me and which has led to my own interpretation of it.

The Gurukula system, the boarding schools of ancient India will also come later in the series.

Q] Writing your own version of such an important epic much have been daunting. Could you tell us about the research which you undertook before attempting to write this story? What were the things which you focused upon and any fascinating things that you found amidst your research?

GK: Daunting is right. It still is. My research included reading the original epic in full, not an easy task, god it is so long and many parts are just boring! Still, it had to be done. Can’t depend solely on my memory. I have a six book Malayalam translation with me and the KMG version that’s in the public domain. In addition, I read every scholarly article and the relevant parts of Debroy’s translation of CE as well as his preface to it where he again reiterates he believes Arjuna to have been a later interpolation.

Q] You have also taken massive liberties with character motivations and situations. I thought it was brilliant as it completely twisted the story while sticking to the major landing points. Can you explain your thinking process for going this route?

GK: As I said, it all started when I began questioning everything I had once accepted blindly. A few things stood out to me.

Vidura and the way he always seemed to be extremely prejudiced in the Pandavas’ favour. He wanted Suyodhana killed as soon as he was born. Why? Because some donkeys brayed. How does that even make sense?

Krishna, and about how he was determined to bring about Karna’s death. I mean, why should he have been so adamant?

The DyutSabha and everything that happened there. Draupadi herself later tells Krishna that Karna’s laughter pained her, and that she was upset that she was made a slave. Nothing about the disrobing, or about Karna calling her a whore. Shouldn’t that have stood out more if it happened? But if it didn’t happen, then her words make perfect sense.

The war, which was the core of Vyasa’s original epic Jaya. In the war, it is the Pandavas who cheat, who break rules. Yet, we are expected to believe they are the good guys? Also, the Pandavas’ label of Good hinges only on the fact that Krishna was on their side. But if you strip Krishna of his divinity and look at him as a man, the whole thing collapses.

Okay, so I didn’t mean to go into a monologue, lol, but basically these are the things that sort of prompted all of the characterizations.

Q] Will Krishna be introduced in the sequels considering his importance and actions in the original epic?

GK: Oh yes!! I can’t wait to write him as the manipulative politician that he was!! He’s going to be completely different from the loving God of Dharmasamsthapanarthaya!

Q] You have also scaled back on the characters and more importantly there’s no Arjun in your story. How do you plan to showcase the great archer battle that’s the cornerstone of the Great War?

GK: If there was no Arjuna as Debroy theorised, then it seems obvious to me that Yudhistira must have been the archer. That would explain why Krishna is so devoted to his interests, and why Arjuna was needed to be invented. All the good parts they made into another character. No wonder Yudhistira is such a weakling in the epic!

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?

GK: The authors who have made an impression on me are not actually fantasy authors. I grew up reading classics, and my heart is forever captured by Dostoevsky, Steinbeck and Tagore. My greatest ambition is to write at least one line worthy of Tagore. Just one line. I’d be happy with that.

Among current authors, there’s J.E. Mueller who writes such engaging and fun books. I love Naomi Novik, especially her characterization. I also love the world building and prose of Katherine Arden’s books.

There are also a couple of authors whose works I’ve beta read, and who I’m so certain will become famous as soon as they’re published. Nico and Danni, I’m talking about you two!!

Q] Thank you for taking the time to answer all the questions. In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers?

GK: Thank you for giving me this opportunity. Thank you all for all the support and love. Keep supporting indie authors. We need all the love we can get.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Bystander 27 by Rik Hoskin review

Official Author Website
Pre-order Bystander 27 over HERE(USA) or HERE (UK)

Monday, August 10, 2020

EXCLUSIVE COVER REVEAL: Kings Of Heaven by Richard Nell

Official Author Website
Pre-order Kings Of Heaven over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Kings Of Paradise
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Kings Of  Ash
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The God King's Legacy
Read Fantasy Book Critic Interview with Richard Nell

And so it ends. What began with a simple idea of 'two cultures coming together', transformed into a genius cannibal (my favorite description remains 'Conan the barbarian mixed with Hannibal Lecter') and a powerful prince sorcerer. Ash and Sand now spans three books with more words than Lord of the Rings, and more themes, heroes, and villains than I care to shake a stick at.

But as one story ends, another begins. Fans of the series should take a moment of bittersweet satisfaction (I surely have), but I can tell you here: you will see more from this world. I'll be writing another book in the Ash and Sand 'universe', and showing the long arm of history in other (eh hem) very related tales of knights and demons, muskets and cannonfire. It is perhaps fair to say, The Ash and Sand legacy has just begun...

Thank you to all my readers, past and present, who made this series possible. And I hope very much you enjoy the book.

Also dear readers check out the fabulous cover courtesy of Derek Murphy below.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: In the final book of the Ash and Sand trilogy, Ruka, son of Beyla, faces the emperor of the world, yet even victory may not save his people…

With the death of his ally, Farahi Alaku, Ruka ‘Godtongue’ is alone. Or not exactly… The island prince Kale Alaku now haunts his mind, rattling within his once peaceful ‘Grove’, promising revenge and growing every moment in power. Meanwhile, the Pyu isles are in chaos; the coastal kingdom of the Tong is still Ruka’s enemy, and every day that passes brings the empire closer to destroying his dream of a new world for his people.

Once again, the son of Beyla will need the strength of his dark twin, Bukayag. Perhaps together they can unite three peoples, gather an army of ash, and defend or destroy their way to peace. But in the end, there can be only one king of heaven…

The Last Uncharted Sky by Curtis Craddock

Official Author Website
Order The Last Uncharted Sky over HERE(USA) or HERE(UK)

Read Fantasy Book Critic's interview with Curtis Craddock
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Curtis Craddock was born in the wrong century and quite possibly on the wrong planet. He should have been born in a world where gallant heroes regularly vanquish dire and despicable foes, where friendship, romance, wit, and courage are the foundations of culture and civilization, and where adventure beckons from every shadow.

Instead, he was born on Earth and lives in a world bounded by bureaucracy, hemmed in by cynicism, and governed by the dull necessity of earning a wage. An exile in this world, he is a biographer of friends he's never met, a chronicler of events that never happened, and a cartographer of places that never were.

FORMAT: The Last Uncharted Sky is the final book in The Risen Kingdom trilogy. Published on August 11, 2020 by Tor, it's available in all formats from all retailers. Cover art by Thom Thenery. Length - 455 pages.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Interview with John Bierce, author of The Wrack

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little about yourself.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Letters from a Shipwreck in the Sea of Suns and Moons by Raymond St. Elmo

Official Author Website
Buy Letters from a Shipwreck in the Sea of Suns and Moons HERE(USA) or HERE(UK)
Read FBC's review of As I Was on My Way to Strawberry Fair 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Quest of the Five Clans series and The Scaled Tartan
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Origin of Birds in The Footprints of Writing
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Stations of Angels

Author information: Raymond St. Elmo is a computer programmer living in Texas. A degree in Spanish Literature gave him a love of magic realism. A fascination with artificial intelligence gave him a job. His books tend to be first-person fantastical accounts with frequent references to William Blake, Borges and PKD.

Format: Letters from a Shipwreck in the Sea of Suns and Moons was self-published by the author on July 30, 2016, and is available through Kindle Unlimited and in ebook and paperback formats. It counts 414 pages.

Review: Raymond St. Elmo’s writing is often magical and creative, which is a delicate way to say it’s totally wackadoo:) It makes me laugh while, simultaneously, it laughs at conventions and doesn’t pay any attention to what sells at the moment. As the title suggests, Letters from a Shipwreck in the Sea of Suns and Moons is a weird book and its narrative requires certain patience from the reader. 

The writing is excellent and shows the author stretching his abilities. Told primarily as an interview between the protagonist and mysterious interviewers, it’s a time travel book, but not in the usual sense. The adventure starts at the board of Unicorn (a ship) as it sails upon the Sea of Suns and Moons. An ancient poet-turned-sailor, Clarence St. Elmo, shares vignettes of the voyage that ended in a shipwreck caused by unnatural storm. St. Elmo survived but found himself washed up at the shores of Theodosia, the island of dead gods inhabited by mythological terrors.

It’s an adventure story. And a love story told through letters. A story of lovers torn apart, but also a love letter to stories and storytelling. It’s often confusing, but also funny. It’s weird, but also immersive. It throws a lot to the mix - adventure, satire, humor, romance, fantasy, mythology and makes it work. There’s also a cargo of dead gods who are perhaps not as dead as everyone believes. And a haunted cemetery. 

So far I have performed a dark ritual in a cemetery, escaped a theological asylum, been locked in a dungeon for arguing at lunch, and run from unnatural dogs through a labyrinth. Checking my schedule, I see that tomorrow morning I am to fight a duel to the death. And yet, for all the theatre of my current residence, my attention keeps slipping. Gods, dogs and duels: they must clear their throats to recall my attention. Else my mind turns towards home, and a poem there I left unfinished.

I love St. Elmo’s dry, insightful humor. It makes me giggle. As for the story and plot - they ask for attention; the narrative requires it. The interviewing committee repeats some questions and answers differ or add to what Clarence has already said. But it also tells a story within a story. The interviewer claims the narrator is the blind old man, but it’s not as simple as that. It never is.

Letters from a Shipwreck in the Sea of Suns and Moons is a weird and unique book with a convoluted plot and unusual narration. It won’t appeal to readers looking for a well-pronounced plotline and quick pacing. Probably even fans of literary fiction will find it infuriating at times. And yet it’s the book worth trying as once you start to get into it you probably won’t want to leave.
Thursday, July 30, 2020

SPFBO: The Third Reaping & Semifinalist Update by Adam Weller

Read Fantasy Book Critic's First SPFBO Update
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Second SPFBO Update

Hi, everyone! My name is Adam Weller, and this is my first year teaming up with Fantasy Book Critic. I’m a regular contributor at Fantasy Book Review, which was one of the ten judges for SPFBO4 a couple of years ago. It was a lot of work to organize and publish all the reviews and blog posts, so I’m thankful to Mihir, Lukasz, and David for letting me infringe on their turf this year and handle all the dirty work.

I was intrigued when I drew my initial lot of eight books out of our assigned thirty. I was pleased to pull a couple of titles I had been hoping for, as well as a couple of offbeat, non-traditional titles I could sink my brain-teeth into. But the thing that interested me most about my lot was how little fanfare these books had received to date. The book with the highest number of ratings on Goodreads had only twelve people rating it. Only twelve people, out of all eight books! Five books from my selection had five or less star ratings, and two books had zero ratings and zero reviews. One of those books was recently published, so it is understandable, but the other book was published more than two years ago. How could this be? What other mysteries behind these stories was I about to unravel?

My favorite aspect of SPFBO, and the reason why I review books at all, is to find stories I love and nag everyone I know to read them. Seeing these books had such small Goodreads audiences to begin with, it lit a fire inside me to find these books larger audiences that would appreciate them. I hope I’ve done my job, as I’ve written reviews of all eight books below. Sadly, I had to eliminate six of them, but I will announce my two semi-finalists towards the end of this post.

I encourage all of you to take a few moments and find one or two that might appeal to you. So instead of buying that extra cup of coffee tomorrow, why not invest in some fantasy entertainment from all across the spectrum?

Let’s get started!

Bloodline: Rise by Jonatan Håkansson

Official Book Blurb: A decade of peace coming to an end, the rumour of a queen’s return.

When the Iron Jarl waged war against the mountains eleven years ago it was to free the north of the clans’ tyranny. Left in their wake, however, was but mistrust and twisted ambitions. A fickle balance upheld by the old families now toppled over as a witch is found within the Willslocks’ lands.

A bloodline at stake, the haunting words of a life taken. The oath has been broken and the winds whisper of war. What fate awaits the Grayrat house in this realm where legends linger?

REVIEW: This book lays the foundation for what feels like a sprawling epic to come. It is well-written, but there was one thing that nagged the back of my mind while reading it: the plot seemed far too familiar to the first book of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

The book focuses on a Ned Stark-like character, the head of a powerful house in the far north. The house is one of a few ruling families, with familiar squabbles and alliances. At one point, an opposing Lannister-like family talks about repaying their debts. There is a supernatural threat beyond a mountain range border that is rearing their heads. The head of the house also has several children who are assigned different tasks across the land, hoping to save the world and stay honorable even though they’re making enemies left and right. There’s a city of slavers that one child wishes to free. There’s even a royal twin brother and sister who have an unusually close relationship.

I don’t believe all of these similarities are intentional—at least, I hope not--but it was still difficult for me to enjoy the story when so much of it felt so familiar. There are certainly some original threads to it; witchcraft and cursed blood and some clever politicking kept the story interesting and never dull. And if you haven’t read A Game of Thrones, you will certainly enjoy this story. Even if you have read A Game of Thrones, and you like all of the ingredients mentioned above, then you’ll surely enjoy this story.

Death of the Invisible Financier by R.D. Henderson

Official Book Blurb: Paul Bloom wants to make his own way and stop grinding for a criminal organization. The higher-ups in the organization are lining their pockets thanks to Bloom and he was getting just a pittance. The catch is he doesn’t want the higher-ups to learning he wants to make his own way.

Mettle Coyle, an elf and financier, is finally able to get out from under his aunt, who was beloved by everyone at their family-owned investment and financial firm and died under mysterious circumstances, and seized control of the firm with the goal of lining his pockets at the expense of his partners or investors. Paul Bloom, his associates, and Mettle Coyle join other criminals in engineering a confidence scheme which most likely ensure each of them a nice tidy profit.

REVIEW: This book has a promising opening. Right away, I was impressed by how polished the book felt. There’s a particular tone that Henderson was aiming for, and it was something that I was drawn to immediately. But the repetitive format of each chapter, the lack of character depth, and the sheer disposability of most of the cast made it extremely difficult to enjoy this story as much as I wanted to.

This book has some interesting ideas, but its execution just wasn’t for me. It’s been described as The Sopranos or The Wire meets D&D. I wouldn’t go that far, but I understand what he was going for: it’s almost entirely scenes of dialogue, with barely any exposition, and only a touch of live action that lasts a fleeting moment or two. This format might work in TV, but it didn’t work for me in a book format. Most of what happens has already happened between chapters, and it’s just referenced. The reader doesn’t experience it firsthand.

There’s a few other talking points about this book that can be discussed. It would make an interesting buddy-read, since it really is different that most other books I’ve read, and that’s truly saying something. I don’t know exactly what that something is, but for a book that I didn’t necessarily enjoy all that much, it has inspired me to want to write a lot about it.

Why not check it out for yourself?

The Alchemy Dirge by Ryan Howse

Official Book Blurb: In Aeon, everything can be had for a price.

In this city of guilds, conspiracies, and artifice, the cost can be more than gold.

Salai Pavane, alchemist and inventor, wants to create a printing press to lift his fellow citizens to a better world. Desperate to fund his invention, he pushes the boundaries of alchemy to sell on the black market. In doing so, he accidentally produces the most dangerous weapon the world has ever known.

Success is more dangerous than failure. Now he’s pursued by anarchists who want his formula, the Ministry who wants him imprisoned, and assassins who want him dead.

REVIEW: Although this is the second book of the A Concerto for the End of Days series, it serves as a standalone piece. It focuses on two characters. Salai is a talented alchemist, living in a slums of a floating city, crafting tools and armor for the local military. He is also nearly finished with his life’s work: an invention that has the potential to change how information is stored and shared across the populace, which could upend society’s class structure. Naturally, there are those who wish to steal and suppress his work. But Salai must also deal with a dangerous alchemical weapon he created by mistake that has fallen into the hands of a terrorist group led by witches and corrupt freedom fighters, all looking to squeeze Salai for everything he is worth.

Ilher is a longtime friend of Salai, a merchant by day and a black-market trader by night, dealing magical items, books, wards, illegal weapons, and information to both the police and criminal organizations. When a foreign ambassador from an enemy country arrives into town, Ihler’s trust and social allegiances are tested, and he finds himself caught in the middle of way more than his job description ever entailed.

This book brought to mind the civil unrest and factional divides found in Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Divine Cities trilogy, mixed with the city-as-a-character feel of Gareth Hanrahan’s The Gutter Prayer. It was full of exciting scenes and interesting ideas, and there were some great set pieces that had me fully drawn into the world. The lead characters were painted in detail, and pieces of the world-building had some fine touches. I did, however, feel like there were a few too many ideas introduced that we didn’t get to explore. It felt like Howse bit off a little more than he could chew, especially where the book ended. Apparently there are no plans to continue this thread of the story, so I’m a bit confused as to some decision-making in the final act. Also, there were no female lead characters; there were only two female supporting characters of any note, and we didn’t learn that much about either of them. They served a purpose in supporting the MC’s, but not much else.

This is a fun and fast-paced adventure with an original setting, some unpredictable events, and a hint of something much larger planned ahead. If any of that sounds good to you, then give this one a go!

The Wound Of Words by Deborah Makarios
Order the physical book over HERE

Official Book Blurb: There are words which change lives...forever.

Andrei just wants a chance with the girl of his dreams, but he knows she's keeping a secret from him - an imperial secret, a disturbing secret, and one that will not leave Andrei and his love alone.

Now he's on the run from a murderous monster, with only one chance to save himself and those he loves: hunt down the heart of the dreadful curse that has fallen on the Czar and find a way to end it for good.

Followed by nine feet of animated stonework, a petrified exhibitionist, and his grandmother's sullen apprentice, he must struggle through winter's deadly chill to uncover the truth before everyone he knows is changed forever.

REVIEW: This book is not something I would have normally picked up from the blurb alone, as the tone of it didn’t appear to be my usual cup of tea. But thankfully, it landed in my SPFBO6 slush pile, and it surprised me in the best way possible: it started well enough, seemingly a low-fantasy romance I could invest in. Then a few chapters in, it takes a surprising hard left turn, and the humor, mystery, and overall weirdness doesn’t let up until the final pages have been turned. The plot twists are never at the expense of the characters, who are as varied as they are memorable. It’s a hodgepodge of clever madness and I welcomed it with open arms.

With a title of The Wound Of Words, one would hope that dialogue would be one of the stronger aspects of the story. I thought it was where the book shines the brightest; it features some of the sharpest and most creative uses of dialogue in recent memory. There are some parts of the story where words are used as weapons, so the verbiage, use of sarcasm and hyperbole, cadence, and tone all play especially important roles in the story. Our heroic companions of wildly different personalities have funny enough conversations on their own, but when you add this feature into the dialogue… let’s just say that some events are difficult to predict.

Another aspect I appreciated was that the level of violence was kept to a bare minimum, yet the story still held a high level of danger and excitement. This is a refreshing turn from the type of books I’m normally drawn to, so it was all the more impressive that I was absorbed in its mystery and consequences without thinking there was anything lacking from the story.

If there’s one thing I had to nitpick, I’ll mention that the first few chapters took a bit to reel me in. The writing and the characters held my interest, but the plot didn’t pull me in early on. Perhaps it was an intentional choice to misdirect readers, so the shift in gears would have had a greater impact when it occurred.

At the time of writing this, The Wound Of Words had zero ratings or reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. Makarios’ previous book, Restoration Day, has only two ratings and one review since its publication in 2018, even though it was nominated for the Vogel Award for Best Novel last year. It is with no trepidation that I call Makarios a hidden gem in the self-publishing world. Since she has decided to publish her books under the Creative Commons license—she wrote an author’s guide to the Creative Commons license, which you can read here—only the paperback versions of The Wound Of Words are available on Amazon, but e-book versions are available for purchase worldwide through her Smashwords page.

The Wound Of Words is a wonderful book. It is extremely well-written, with beautiful prose, and rich, lively characters who are smart, flawed, humorous, and distinct. The story pulls you through one mystery after another as it transports you throughout a Russian-inspired winter countryside. I encourage you to pick this story up, even if looks to be outside your comfort zone. It is an easy recommendation, and a standout story that reads like a combination of a Russian fable, a witch-tale, and something completely original and undeniably entertaining.

I, EXILE by David M. Samuels

Official Book Blurb: Exiled into a wasteland because of a heist gone wrong, Emelith vows to hunt down the one responsible. Except not all is what it seems in the haunted realm of the Cauldron.

REVIEW: This story is a fast-paced, plot-heavy adventure about a heist gone wrong, an exile to a desert wasteland, and a threat from a powerful opponent that could spell doom for all the land. While the story elements feel a bit too familiar at times, I was engaged and having a blast tearing through this book at a rapid pace.

If you’re a fan of playing RPGs, whether it’s a computer game or a D&D campaign with friends, you’ll very much enjoy this story. Most of the book felt like you were guiding your character through a quest of varying locations, ‘NPC’ encounters, and lots of thrilling monster battles.

While the plot was a fun trip, the characters were a bit too thin. There was more depth added toward the end of the book, but it would have been better to share more of this development at the beginning so I could have cared more about character motivation and cheered or jeered them on.

There are a few convenient “just-in-time!” moments, and injuries didn’t seem to slow the party down, but the story moves so quickly onto the next challenge that it’s hard to dwell on anything for too long. Overall, I, Exile a fun sword-and-sorcery adventure that feels like a RPG campaign in book form. Fans of R.A. Salvatore or the Dark Sun D&D realm would especially enjoy this. Recommended!

A Dark Inheritance by Todd Herzman

Official Book Blurb: Torn apart by a raid on their village, three siblings must find their way back to each other.

But a dark force stands in their way—one they can't fight alone.

REVIEW: What sparked my interest right away about this book is Herzman’s approach to the story itself. This is a sprawling world, with multiple continents, oceans, islands, rulers, and lots of history. But when we start the book, we know nothing about any of that. And it stays like that for some time.

We see the world through three siblings, aged 19, 15, and 12. The story begins, when they’re woken in the middle of the night to find out that their small village has been invaded by raiders and set aflame. What would you do? We dive right into the action, but since we’re seeing the world through the children’s perspectives, we experience the fear and newness of the situation; we don’t know what’s going on, and we have little knowledge of what happens outside our village that we’ve never left. So the story starts small. But as it develops, the world opens up to us through these children and their experiences. There’s no long-winded or forced exposition dumps. It’s a natural education for all three POVs, and it paints the world in believable ways.

Unfortunately, those ways are rough going. One discovers how blood mages gain power through enslavement firsthand. It’s not how you want to spend a Friday night. Another sibling is determined to find what is lost, and chooses the path of wisdom through the powers of nature. The third sibling discovers their power by the sword, the seas, and the soul. The supporting characters all have pasts and motivations and goals of their own, and there’s plenty of big mysteries to reveal.

Herzman’s prose is similar to Brandon Sanderson. He delivers concise and direct sentences that get the job done. Its lean tone makes for a highly digestible read, often leading to numerous one-more-chapter-okay-maybe-two-more late nights. The build-ups towards chapter cliffhangers come early and often, and the rotation between the three POVs are consistent, so if you want to know what happens next, you’ll have to read three more chapters to find out. It’s a sneaky, but reliable dig at the reader to keep them stuck to the pages. It worked.

One issue that stuck out was that a number of reveals were projected pretty far out, or were easily predicted. Some big ones were a nice surprise, but I think some re-wording and less mentions of certain elements earlier in the story might have a more successful impact of certain events when they dropped. It didn’t take away too much enjoyment from the story, but it did linger a bit after it was over. I also hoped the ending played out in a different direction, but I’m glad this was only book one of a series.

A Dark Inheritance is not a story that will subvert any tropes or carve out many new ideas in the genre. However, what it does set out to do, it does it very well. I had a great time reading this story; I was fully engaged with the plot and loved all three characters, each having distinct personalities where it seemed like they actually acted their age. The more I read books with younger POVs, the less common I find this to be, so I commend Herzman for a fine job of pulling me into this new world. I look forward to seeing how the next chapter is going to play out. You should get on board, and find out, too.

The Blood Stone: The Curse of the Drakku #1 by Jason J. Nugent

Official Book Blurb: He slays dragons for a living. Now he's on a mission to wipe them from existence. Lailoken longs to slit the throat of the beasts who abducted his wife. And with the winged monsters raining havoc on the northern lands, the vengeful dragonslayer's bloody skills have never been in higher demand. Finally granted the chance to rescue his long-lost love in exchange for a dangerous, magical gem, he sharpens his sword for the quest of his life.

Venturing deep into enemy territory to collect the dragon-killing artifact for his fanatical leader, Lailoken prays that he'll have one more chance to hold his beautiful bride. But as his single-minded hunt for revenge reveals a darker truth, he fears he may be fighting on the side of evil.

Will Lailoken reunite with his love and slay dragonkind, or has he unwittingly triggered the realm's destruction?

The Blood Stone is the first book in the fast-paced Curse of the Drakku fantasy series. If you like intriguing magic, powerful dragons, and honorable heroes, then you'll love Jason J. Nugent's epic adventure.

REVIEW: We open the story with a tactical battle as a group of dragonslayers, mages, and rangers have joined to take down a dragon and capture its essence. These battles have been going on for generations upon generations, as the lifeblood of the dragon is what powers much of the magic that humankind depends. The lore of the land is that the dragons (and halflings) are responsible for the land becoming barren and ill-supporting of life, so the humans have been trying to kill these dragons for centuries to restore their land back to health.

But here’s the kicker: the more dragons they kill, the worse the land gets. Somehow, they still think that wiping out all these creatures is solving the problem, instead of making it worse. Until one talented dragonslayer communicates with an elder dragon and learns that everyone might have been doing things wrong for the last thousand years. Meanwhile, a mage’s trainee discovers some ancient, hidden powers that should have stayed buried, and his dreams of power only grow stronger by the chapter.

This book was just not for me. I won’t go into too much detail, but I just couldn’t connect with it. However, it has a classic 1980’s sword-and-sorcery feel to it, with dragons, magical artifacts, evil mages and the like. If that sounds like it could be up your alley, then you, kind reader, have found your next book.

Timberwolf by Dominic Adler

Official Book Blurb: In Stassia, loyalty to the Party means survival. And Axel Geist – rogue, self-styled ladies’ man and accidental political prisoner – is determined to survive. Even if it means selling his soul to the Old God Bassarus, Lord of Deceit and Duke of Hell.

When Bassarus orders Axel to volunteer for Stassia’s warrior elite, the black-uniformed Timberwolves, he joins a labyrinthine security state. A traitor, deep inside the regime. A world of play or be played, kill or be killed… Stassia’s destiny turns on Axel’s treachery and lies.

Timberwolf – a dark fantasy of espionage, love, war and betrayal set in a world similar to, but entirely different from, our own.

REVIEW: This story is bananas. I’ve never read anything like it. I’ve never even heard of anything like it, so right off the bat it gets monster points for originality. The closest I can come to describing it is a ‘late 1930’s pseudo-German/early Holocaust military fantasy.’ Yeah, one of those.

Axel Geist is your first-person POV throughout the story. He narrates a brief chapter summarizing his youth, but by the end of chapter one, he’s a political prisoner at a Party-run concentration camp, sectioned off with other anti-Party groups such as homosexuals, free thinkers, and intellects. This country is a fascist state, and the mask the separates it from the rising superpower of 1930’s Nazi Germany is paper thin. The name are German, and the soldiers respond with “Jawohl!” It’s not a subtle book.

We follow Geist through years of forced labor, and eventually, the horrors of the military. The Party is hell-bent on invading everything around them, and the prisoner-soldiers from the labor camps are the first to the field. Anyone who runs gets mowed down by their own sergeant.

The war scenes itself are gritty and difficult, with panzer tanks, automatic weapons, munitions, and all the death and gore that comes along with it. It’s almost easy to forget that you’re reading fantasy until the moment that Geist’s team breaks through a gate, and instead of finding more enemy troops, they run into a warlock and his monstrous creation. Imagine facing that on the beaches of Normandy. Once the fantastical is introduced—and it does take a decent chunk of the book until we get there—Geist somehow ends up getting involved with some ancient gods of this world, and must now stifle his own code of ethics to do what he abhors for the good of his people. It’s messy, and complicated, and James Bond-esque, and an incredible amount of fun.

This story takes some commitment. There are so many events packed into this one novel, and they keep coming without much of a break. Now that I can reflect on all the major events of the story, it feels like one long James Bond/Mission Impossible mashup film mixed with a Wolfenstein video game with the Titanomachy to seal it all together.

I came across a couple of aspects with the story that didn’t sit right with me. First and foremost were the female characters. Nearly every single woman in the book either needed to be saved, or ended up being in love with Geist, or in most cases, both. It got a bit eye-rolly by the time I got to the end. Also, there’s a bit of a lull in the second arc of the story, around a quarter to halfway through. The world-building is appreciated, but at times I felt like I was reading an entirely different book. I also didn’t love the writing in the final arc of the book, but I won’t go into details, and most of that is subjective opinion anyway.

In summary, Timberwolf is a book you’ll have to read to believe. This is a hefty book with a lot to say, a ton of style, and Alex Geist’s narrative voice is one you won’t soon forget. If you have any inkling for an action-packed military fantasy-thriller rife with political allegory and increasingly mad set pieces, then Dominic Adler’s Timberwolf is a must-read.

DECISION TIME: So my two semi-finalist selections are:

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Deborah MakariosThe Wound Of Words, and Todd Herzman’s A Dark Inheritance (Hollow Fate Book #1)

*** Congratulations to you both!!! ***

It was very difficult to eliminate a book I enjoyed as much as Timberwolf in the opening round. It came very close to becoming my second semifinalist, but I feel like I made the right decision. I do hope that many fellow readers, bloggers, and authors give it a go, as I’ll be singing its praises for a long time to come. I must also state that in a different draw, The Alchemy Dirge and I, Exile could have both been my semifinalists as well. I believe I got a disproportionate selection of high quality books this year, which were all a pleasure to read, but torturous to eliminate.

I’d like to thank Mr. Adler, Mr. Nugent, Mr. Samuels, Mr. Howse, Mr. Håkansson, and Mr. Henderson for sharing their stories with us.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Interview with A.J. Vrana, author of The Hollow Gods

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little about yourself. 

No, no, thank you! I’m born and raised in Toronto, Ontario to Serbian diasporic parents. In addition to my writing, I am a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, and my research focuses on the supernatural in Japanese and former Yugoslavian fiction and its relationship to violence. I’m also lucky enough to live with two ridiculous rescue cats, Moonstone and Peanut Butter, who are adorable and definitely aliens. I love shiny things and make jewelry from semi-precious gemstones like labradorite and moonstone, which features heavily in my pet naming conventions and within my fiction. 

Saturday, July 25, 2020

As I Was on My Way to Strawberry Fair by Raymond St. Elmo

Buy As I Was on My Way to Strawberry Fair HERE(USA) or HERE(UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Quest of the Five Clans series and The Scaled Tartan
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Origin of Birds in The Footprints of Writing
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Stations of Angels

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