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Saturday, May 18, 2019

Blackwood Marauders by KS Villoso (reviewed by David Stewart)



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Despite those issues, I really enjoyed what Blackwood Marauders had to offer. There is a mixture of Robin Hood and the Black Company in Villoso's depiction of the mercenary band that Luc and Roena find. I think Luc is a character worth returning to, and while I didn't particularly love Roena, I think she holds her own and the disparity between her and Luc, which ebbs and wanes throughout the novel, is interesting enough in its own right. Mostly, I just want to learn more about this world she's built. My hope is to do so with some of her other novels which seem to provide that backdrop I seek. Blackwood Marauders, despite its flaws, certainly receives a recommendation from this reader.
Friday, May 17, 2019

Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)


Official Author Website
Order Sea of Rust over HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: A veteran of the web, C. Robert Cargill wrote as a film critic for over ten years at Ain't it Cool News under the name Massawyrm, served as animated reviewer Carlyle on Spill.com and freelanced for a host of other sites including tenures at Film.com and Hollywood.com. He is the co-writer of the motion picture SINISTER, and lives and works in Austin, Texas.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: A touching story of a search one robot's search for the answers in a world where every human is dead. The new novel from C. Robert Cargill echoes the worlds of Stephen King and Ray Bradbury. It is another The Martian but with a very surprising protagonist. 

CLASSIFICATION: Sci-fi.

FORMAT: Sea of Rust was published in 2017 by Gollancz. It's available in an e-book, paperback, and hardcover format. 

The book counts 365 pages


OVERVIEW: Sea of Rust offers an intriguing subversion of the robot-apocalypse genre, as it takes place after humans became an extinct species. They had it coming, what with all the AI experimentation and blissful ignorance? Bots and AIs struggle to survive in the decaying, foreboding world they’ve built for themselves.

Written as a one-shot, middle length novel, Sea of Rust contains more creative ideas than many bloated epics. Impressive. Not only does Cargill introduce a terrifying, innovative world, he also blends cinematic action sequences with a clever plot and some philosophical depth. Sure, it’s more of a fast-moving, violent action thriller set in the deadlands where robots fire plasma-guns at each other than a deep treatise on the nature of the existence, but it has its moments of reflection.

Robots overthrew and exterminated humans (for a very logical reason explained in the book), but in the long run, it changed nothing. Just as humans they cling to life, and fight for survival and freedom from their own robot overlords called OWI (One Wold Intelligences). North America became the battleground for two OWIs, VIRGIL, and CISSUS, that strive to absorb individual robots into their ever-growing hive mind. You either join them or die.

Not all bots fancy the idea of giving up their consciousness. They hide in the wastelands and broken cities and scavenge for parts to keep surviving. Brittle, a former Caregiver robot haunted by memories of the war, is such a bot. She wants to keep her independence,  but some of her vital parts are failing, and she needs parts. Unfortunately, the only Caregiver she knows, Mercer, needs her parts as much as she needs his. To make matters worse, CISSUS actions drag Brittle, Mercer, and other bots into a secret mission that may end the OWIs’ rule. They just need to survive.

Brittle is a veteran and a survivor, desperate to keep living. On the outside, she’s independent, angry and wants others to believe she doesn’t give a damn about anything. But it’s just a mask. The narrative seesaws back and forth between her present and her past, showing her as a Caregiver who not only lived with humans but also loved them. As much as she tries to escape herself, she can’t do it, and she looks for the right cause to fight for.

Mercer, Doc, Murka, they all have distinct personalities and share great chemistry in the scenes in which they appear together. Mercer and Brittle’s conflict and interactions bring tension and change with time.

As much as I enjoyed Sea of Rust, I have to mention its flaws. First, in theory, there're no humans in the book. In reality, though, the bots behave and think precisely like humans, the only difference being them looking for parts. A funny thing here, as it seems most bots use old-school hardware and OWIs need entire buildings to contain themselves. I could understand it in a book written in the nineties, but not recently. I mean we’ve all heard about quantum computing, neural networks, and nanotechnology. I understand it was easier to write the robot-apocalypse western this way, but easier rarely means better.

The shortcuts and casual treatment of layered problems were probably a deliberate narrative choice. Great pacing and accessibility made Sea of Rust compelling and difficult to put down. The final twist was great, but including sexbots near the end felt cheap and tropey.

CONCLUSION: Despite this criticism, I had a lot of fun reading Sea of Rust. Intended and written as a standalone, it leaves plenty of space for more stories in the world. I hope Cargill won’t fight the temptation to write them.
Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Half-Killed, by Quenby Olson (reviewed by David Stewart)



OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Quenby Olson lives in Central Pennsylvania where she spends most of her time writing, glaring at baskets of unfolded laundry, and chasing the cat off the kitchen counters. She lives with her husband and two daughters, who do nothing to dampen her love of classical ballet, geeky crochet, and staying up late to watch old episodes of Doctor Who.

OFFICIAL BLURB: Dorothea Hawes has no wish to renew contact with what lies beyond the veil. After an attempt to take her own life, she has retired into seclusion, but as the wounds on her body heal, she is drawn back into a world she wants nothing more than to avoid.

She is sought out by Julian Chissick, a former man of God who wants her help in discovering who is behind the gruesome murder of a young woman. But the manner of death is all too familiar to Dorothea, and she begins to fear that something even more terrible is about to unleash itself on London.

And so Dorothea risks her life and her sanity in order to save people who are oblivious to the threat that hovers over them. It is a task that forces her into a confrontation with her own lurid past, and tests her ability to shape events frighteningly beyond her control.

FORMAT/INFO: The Half-Killed is 275 pages long divided over twenty-five chapters with a prologue, and is the first entry in the Sundered Veil series. The book was self-published through World Tree Publishing in 2015 and is currently available in e-book and print formats. Cover art and design by A.J. Navarre.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: It becomes apparent from the opening of The Half-Killed that Quenby Olson is a master of mimicking Victorian prose. I would wager that she is so good, so authentic, that she could fool the literati of the time. She sets up the prologue of The Half-Killed in second-person point of view, potentially the only clue that this isn’t a book written in the late 1800s, and it is an effective prologue in the sense that it introduces us to our protagonist, Dorothea Hawes, as a young girl witnessing the death of her family. It is a gorgeous and horrific scene, and sets a gripping tone that does not let up until the last page is turned - and only then can we again safely draw breath.

Olson’s prose never wanes, never dims, and is fluid and melodic throughout the entire novel. I have not read much, particularly in the fantasy realm, that matches it. It is poetry at times, so much so that it actually gets in the way of the story. In fact, one of my only real gripes with The Half-Killed is that its language is so descriptive and beautiful that it sometimes interrupts the pacing of the book. I found myself lost amidst passages, happily so, but then confused when the action of the plot regained its footing and needing to relocate my bearings. This is actually not a bad problem to have, but it does create problems for story.

That story revolves around a sweltering Victorian London, seized in an unnatural heat that dries up the Thames and causes even some of the stuffiest citizenry in the history of humanity to loosen a button or two. Thea, who had once used her talents as a supernatural medium to become a celebrity of London, has since fallen on typically hard times. In a period when the act of convening with the spiritual realm is both scandalous and popular, Thea stands out as one of the few practitioners who can actually do the deed. But it comes with a price - voices that constantly assail her and memories she wishes she could bury in her mental graveyard. It is only when Julian Chissick arrives on her doorstep, imploring her to help him find the killer of his recently murdered sister, that Thea is drawn back into a life and to people that she would rather forget. Naturally, this leads to a host of further problems and much more death.

Walking through Victorian London with Quenby Olson is a treat. This is an author who obviously loves this time period, cherishes it, but in loving it can also see its faults and point them out piece by piece to a reader. Victorian London is disgusting - particularly in unseasonable heat. There are no air conditioned parlors to escape to here, and the aforementioned moral stuffiness of the time means that one cannot simply throw on a pair of shorts instead of their proper gown or trousers. Olson turns this era, often depicted as glamorous and clean, into what it truly is - a dim horror. Candle wax seems to be on everything, the streets are lined with all manner of refuse and excretion, and the bodies of people, described in minute detail, verge on the grotesque. At the same time, The Half-Killed does manage to capture the romance of Victorian England. The interactions between the main characters, each genuine in their own way, is decidedly proper but yearning. And London is always London, no matter how dirty it gets. The attention to detail in The Half-Killed is extraordinary and exciting.

It’s amazing how much Olson gets right with this book. The humor is dry, like the parched bed of the Thames itself, but genuinely funny. “If she’s ever been in contact with a spirit,” Thea says of one character who fashions herself Britain’s Next Top Medium, “it’s never been more frightening than one she could mix into her afternoon tea.” Or, when speaking of a former suitor’s possibility of bearing children, Thea claims that, “he’s always been something of a child himself. For him to have a son or daughter of his own... I don’t think he’d relish the competition." The delivery here is pitch perfect, and it isn’t often that I take the time to write out quotes from books these days, but I found many of Olson’s one liners to be worthy of repeat. She also gets dialogue right, which is extremely hard to do, particularly when writing about a real-world time period. Characters talk in dialect, but there is no heavy-handed apostrophe work here. Rather, the author understands how speech patterns and word choice can invoke dialect better than any attempt at trying to out-muddle Irvine Welsh.

The only thing that keeps me from declaring The Half-Killed to be the perfect Victorian fantasy thriller is the ending. ***Spoilers to follow, so beware.*** There is a Fight Club-style ending to The Half-Killed that left me unsatisfied, and I wonder if that’s mostly on me for not really understanding this type of conclusion. In Fight Club, Tyler Durden is blasted out of the narrator’s head by a well-placed gun shot that leaves said narrator still alive. Something similar happens with The Half-Killed, but I couldn’t really figure out why, in either book, this left the protagonist alive. How does approaching death’s door drive out these dark passengers? Perhaps this is something Olson will explore in the next book, and she has plenty left yet to explain. A certain set of photographs and their larger implications is also left unresolved, and even the villain of The Half-Killed is never truly unveiled. Some of these are, again, good problems to have because it means an eventual sequel to this beautiful novel, and I am here for that.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Gameshouse by Claire North (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)




Official Author Website
Order The Gameshouse over HERE



OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Claire North is actually Catherine Webb, a Carnegie Medal-nominated young-adult novel author whose first book, Mirror Dreams, was written when she was just 14 years old. She went on to write seven more successful YA novels. 


Claire North is a pseudonym for adult fantasy books written by Catherine Webb, who also writes under the pseudonym Kate Griffin.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Everyone has heard of the Gameshouse. But few know all its secrets...

It is the place where fortunes can be made and lost through chess, backgammon - every game under the sun.

But those whom fortune favors may be invited to compete in the higher league... a league where the games played are of politics and empires, of economics and kings. It is a league where Capture the Castle involves real castles, where hide and seek takes place on the scale of a continent.

Among those worthy of competing in the higher league, three unusually talented contestants play for the highest stakes of all...

FORMAT/INFOThis novel was originally published as three digital-only novellas: The Serpent, The Thief, and The Master. Trilogy, released on May 28th, 2019 counts 448 pages and is available in e-book, paperback and audiobook format.

THE SERPENT


I didn’t listen when people told me to read Claire North. Silly me.

The Serpent opens Gameshouse trilogy of novellas. It takes place in 17th century Venice, where a young, lovelessly married woman named Thene discovers the joy of a game. In the Gameshouse you can play the games we all know and enjoy, but the chosen few win their admittance to the higher league, where the currency is life, and kings and empires become pawns.

Thene becomes one of the real players, she has to figure out how to play her cards (real people) to win the game.

I daresay North packed more creativity and fresh ideas in less than 100 pages than many authors do in their bloated epic creations. It has it all - strong intrigue, politics, philosophy, elegant and precise language. Thene is a female lead with brains and agenda, and games within games impressed me a lot.

Excellent.

THE THIEF



The Thief by Claire North is the second novella in the Gamehouse trilogy, and it tops The Serpent.

Set in the 1930s Thailand, The Thief follows Remy Burke - a veteran player of the Gameshouse. One night he gets drunk and makes a risky bet – he wagers his memories against 20 years of his challenger’s life. The game? A hide and seek. Thailand becomes the playing board, and Remy’s odds look bad. Remaining unnoticed as a six foot tall white man in pre-WWII Thailand is difficult. Especially when his opponent has a lot more cards at his disposal.

Remy flees the city, and ends up on the run, struggling through a jungle, villages and cities. He meets people who help him but also those who betray him. It all makes for a fast-paced and exciting read with clever twists and ingenious tactics used by Remy.

The story is narrated by “watchers” who observe the game and comment it to the reader providing insights and glimpses of the future. I hope North reveals their identity in the last novella.

A must-read if you enjoy intelligent, clever ideas and the power of brevity.
 

THE MASTER


The Master ties the trilogy together. Set in the present it focuses on a mysterious Silver who appeared in the previous novellas. Silver is attempting to play the ultimate game for mastery of the Gameshouse itself. The Great Game begins and players face each other during a chess match, only they don't use the board. They play governments, geopolitics, other players. 

Things get violent and insane, the game involves NSA, MI5, hackers, assassins, and much more. At times it may feel overwhelming, but I loved every moment of this spectacular world-reshaping match. 

North writes great, three-dimensional characters, engaging dialogues, and intelligent plots. The Master's conclusion is simply magnificent.

It's a must-read for everyone. Seriously. Especially now, that you can have all three novellas gathered together.



Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Mini-review: A Wizard' Forge by A, M. Justice (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website
Order the book HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: A Wizard's Forge is a debut that intrigued me with its mix of SF and fantasy. Very few books have done so, and one of the most underrated ones out there is the Coldfire trilogy by C. S. Friedman.

A Wizard's Forge begins with with Vic, a young woman who becomes the youngest logkeeper. A logkeeper is a person who are charged with the preservation of the log records of the spaceship that brought the human populace to the planet known as Knownearth. Vic is a person whose youth hides her brilliant mind and the author really showcases her mental aptitude. Vic however is captured by slavers who take her to the city of Traine. Wherein she’s forced to be a mistress to the lord of the region Lornk Korng. Over the next few months, she suffers psychologically and physically. But soon events arise wherein she gets a chance to truly fulfill her potential and the plot truly thickens.

Besides Vic, we get a POV from prince Ashel and it’s a solidly different approach with his story. The story is strengthened by the presence of both of its POV characters as well as the rest of the character cast including Lornk and his son Earnk, Ashel’s sibling and his parents as well as the soldiers that Vic works with. Amanda M. Justice really nails down the characters and starting with Vic who’ undergoes some horribic abuse of the sexual and psychological kind. The author never goes into the actual events but through Vic’s recollections as well her internal monologue, the readers get a proper idea about what it is and how much of a sadistic prick Lornk is.

With Ashel’s POV, we get to see things from his privileged status. While he doesn’t do anything terrible, we get to see things from a person who doesn’t have to endure indignities as the same as those taken by the slavers. I liked this dual perspective and another thing that the author truly highlights is the diverse nature of the world. There’s quite a few races as well as a magic system that is perhaps not quite entirely explored in this story.

I loved the backstory of this world and it reminded me quite a bit of the Coldfire trilogy by C. S. Friedman. The essential common bit being that mankind travelled from Earth and now descendants barely remember their Origins. This is where the similarity ends as in the Coldfire trilogy, the world and its inhabitants are hostile to mankind whereas in Amanda’s Knownearth. Humanity has been able to successfully transplant itself while coming up with some new origin stories. I would have loved to read about the backstory and how and why the inhabitants survived. But with this being volume one, I think I can wait to see how Amanda Justice illuminates the past.

There were a couple of drawbacks with this book for me. Namely the pace of the story which really isn’t the quicksilver kind. Perhaps this was intentionally done as the author slowly and surely raised the stakes and gives us a very emotionally resonant climax. The second point was that the magic system isn’t quite properly explained. Sure Vic is able to do things as are a few others but its cloaked in secrecy (especially the forest sequences in Latha). I would have liked to know more the forests and trees as well as how the world affected mankind. Maybe it will be revealed in the sequels.

CONCLUSION: Amanda M. Justice’s debut is a particularly solid effort that is dark and refreshingly unique. With characters that resonate and a prose style that is spartan but conveys the truth effectively. A Wizard’s Forge is a SPFBO debut that missed out on the finals but makes sure that the sequels will be worth checking out.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Vultures by Luke Tarzian (reviewed by Justine Bergman)


Official Author Website
Pre-order Vultures over HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Fantasy Author. Long Doggo Enthusiast. Snoot Booper. Shouter of Profanities. Drinker of Whiskey. These are all titles. The Khaleesi nobody wanted and the one they certainly didn't deserve.

OFFICIAL BLURB: TRUTH FROM MADNESS

In Ariath, this is more than a simple adage. For Theailys An, they are words to live by, especially in the city of Helveden, where he and his demon brethren, the dissident, are looked upon with scorn. Viewed as cohorts of the dead progenitor of Ariathan suffering, they are outcasts.

Still, Theailys has a job to do: destroy the Heart of Mirkúr and end the war for good. Though Te Mirkvahíl is dead, its progeny leak endlessly from the Heart, sowing death with their passage. With The Keepers' Wrath, a power focus of his own design, Theailys believes there is hope to restore peace to Ariath once again.

But ending a war is easier said than done, especially for a man haunted by past tragedies and occasionally possessed by a murderous presence keen to take his body for its own. As Theailys works to forge The Keepers' Wrath, amid a creeping shadow over Helveden, one thing becomes increasingly and horrifyingly clear:

These events have played out many times before.

FORMAT/INFO: Vultures is 333 pages long divided over sixteen chapters, and is the first entry in The Shadow Twins Trilogy. The book is scheduled to be self-published by the author on June 11, 2019; it is currently available for pre-order in e-book format, and will be also be available as paperback on its publication day, as well as on Kindle Unlimited. Cover art and design is provided by the author, .

CLASSIFICATION: Dark fantasy

ANALYSIS:
The light is darkest just before the dawn.
In a world marred and preyed upon by demons, Theailys An has one goal, to reforge The Keepers' Wrath in order to end the demons' dominion over those struggling for survival. With divine intervention at every turn, an everlasting conflict between the wielders of illum and mirkúr, and a history that seems to repeat itself, Thaeilys must secure what's needed to bring peace to a land that has been plagued by a war of shadows for millennia. But are his efforts propelling him towards a predetermined conclusion, or will he take heed to the prophecies bestowed upon him as he dreams?

Vultures is a tale of balance and the war between light and shadow, law and chaos, good and evil. These opposing forces the two sides of one coin, and the balance the minuscule edge on which everything teeters. A careful exploration into the human psyche through the concept of innate fractured personalities wanting and in need of differing final results, all battling for sovereignty. It is a tale of righting wrongs and altering the effects of histories past, and the painful sacrifices needed in order to do so. It is, hands down, one of the most ambitious and sophisticated stories I have ever read. After reading the preview chapter offered by the author, I went into this with high expectations, and I cannot express how elated I am that the remainder of the book completely exceeded everything I had hoped for. If this outstanding debut is anything to judge by, Luke Tarzian is one author everyone needs to keep an eye on.

The format of this book is quite unique in which we're transported to various interesting locations through a series of timelines, allowing us to witness crucial points in history while remaining in the present. As some books are immediately heavy on worldbuilding, Vultures creates its world, rich in culture and diversity, right before your eyes. Yes, ancient events are implied through their results, such as the mention of a dead city of rot, but we also get to see firsthand how this city has come to be a desiccated shell of shadow and ash. The use of dreams and dream-like states as vehicles for worldbuilding is brilliant, constructing the masterpiece around you, rather than dropping you in blindfolded or overwhelming you with copious amounts of details. At times it may seem the purpose of these mechanisms are unclear, but as the story continues, all threads converge to build a magnificent tapestry with perfect clarity.
The bold may wisely cage a wolf that wields the power to raise an army, Behtréal thought, but it is the arrogant, the ignorant who reach between the bars to slay the wolf's cubs.
Tarzian has created a cast of intricately complex characters, each possessing of different abilities, hailing from disparate regions around the world, and each with their own strengths and downfalls. Some are controlled by avatars of wrathful gods, others are phreznic, or consumed by multiple presences that attempt to take control of the physical body, others yet are are simply haunted by the past. While the book focuses on three main characters, namely Theailys, Serece, and Behtréal, we're also introduced to different aspects or personalties of these characters, allowing us to observe critical events as they occur from every angle. There are a variety of secondary characters that perfectly flesh out the story and add a bit of levity, but as diverse as they all are, they all have one thing in common: pain - pain from loss, pain from war, pain from past decisions made, pain of loneliness - bringing them together to rise up for a common cause.

There are so many facets of this book I want to shout praise for and I only wish I could discuss them in more detail, but this story contains one jaw-dropping revelation after another. So, out of fear of spoiling, I'll just say Vultures is beautifully written, amazingly plotted (this is a severe understatement), and so emotionally raw. Tarzian's prose is gorgeous and flowing and reminiscent of an epic saga; his words a meticulously honed knife searing into your heart, preventing you from putting the book down, lest you fear leaving the characters you've become acquainted with alone in the darkness. His world is strange and awe-inspiring, one that he allows you to catch glimpses of, leaving you wanting more. And finally, peeling away the layers to learn more about the grand scheme is one highly rewarding experience.
The Demon Prime is a force of nature, a wind that begins as a whisper and evolves into a storm of madness that you cannot comprehend.
I feel that anything I say will not give this story the justice it deserves, as it's one you need to personally experience. It's earnest, tackling some pretty personal and serious themes, such as loss and depression, never skirting around the severity of their terrible effects. However, we're always reminded that there is the light of dawn on the horizon. I've mentioned this in the past, and I'll continue to express how excited I always am to dive into the works of a new author, and this is definitely no exception.

CONCLUSION: Vultures is simply one of the most stunning debuts I've ever read and a beautiful beginning to The Shadow Twins Trilogy. I highly recommend you give this one a try.

Note: A HUGE thanks to the author who provided me with an advanced copy of this book.


Wednesday, May 8, 2019

We Lie With Death by Devin Madson (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)




Official Author Website
Order We Lie With Death HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of We Ride the Storm 

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Devin Madson is the Aurealis Award-winning author of In Shadows We Fall. Having given up on reality she is now a dual-wielding rogue with a lot of points sunk into stealth and lock picking skills. Anything but zen, Devinsubsists on tea and chocolate and so much fried zucchini she ought to have turned into one by now.

If you’re after happy, fuzzy tales then you’ve come to the wrong place. Her fantasy novels come in all shades of grey and are populated with characters of questionable morals and a liking for witty banter. 

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Into Kisia’s conquered north, a Levanti empire is born.

Loyal to the new emperor, Dishiva e’Jaroven must tread the line between building a new life and clinging to the old. Only Gideon can lead them, but when he allies himself with a man returned from the dead it will challenge all she thinks she knows and everything she wants to believe.

Now empress of nothing, Miko is more determined than ever to fight for her people, yet with her hunt for allies increasingly desperate, she may learn too late that power lies not in names but in people.

Rah refused to bow to the Levanti emperor, but now abandoned by the Second Swords he must choose whether to fight for his people, or his soul. Will honour be his salvation, or lead to his destruction?

Sold to the Witchdoctor, Cassandra’s only chance of freedom is in his hands, but when her fate becomes inextricably linked to Empress Hana, her true nature could condemn them both.

There is no calm after the storm.
 

CLASSIFICATION: The Reborn Empire is a gritty and violent action-packed, character-driven dark fantasy series. 

FORMAT/INFO: We Lie With Death is 484 pages long divided over twenty four numbered chapters. The narration is in the third person and focuses on four main POV characters: captain Rah e’Torin, whore/assassin Cassandra and Princess Miko. This is the second volume of the Reborn Empire series

This book is available in e-book and paperback format. It was self-published by the author. Cover art is by John Antony Di Giovanni, cover design is provided by Shawn T. King.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: With a richly immersive setting and complex characters, second book in The Reborn Empire series wraps readers in a dark and gritty tale. As far as dark epic fantasy goes, We Lie with Death checks all the boxes. It presents readers with a world so vivid and featuring complex religious and racial divides, it will satisfy genre’s most discriminate enthusiasts. I don’t count myself as one and yet I felt utterly engrossed in the events.

We Lie with Death expands and deepens the world Madson created. Where We Ride the Storm focused closely on three protagonists, the sequel introduces a new character’s point of view, adding another dimension to the events. I needed time to warm up to Dishiva e’Jaroven, Captain of the Second Swords of Jaroven, but once I did her chapters kept me glued to the pages. Not only does she have an interesting backstory and engaging voice, but she also sheds some light on Dom Leo’s dark secrets and Gideon’s machinations. 

Leo’s presence added a lot of colour and dark humour to the pages of WRTS and most readers took him for a charming, if slightly creepy and eccentric character. It turns out he has a nefarious agenda and he will stop at nothing to make it happen. New reveals surprised me and moved the story in an exciting direction. Prepare for clever twists that will make your jaw drop and nod in appreciation of Madson’s plotting skills.

Rah and Miko’s arcs intertwine as they spend a significant part of the book together. Their thorny relation changes and turns into something interesting, but not cheaply predictable. They come from radically different cultures and the clash is inevitable as showed in scenes where Rah tries to honour deceased by cutting their heads. Miko doesn’t appreciate it, where Rah sees his duty, she sees only barbarity. And yet, forced by the events they have to learn to trust each other despite their differences and language barrier. 

Ultimately though, it’s Cassandra Marius’ arc I find most exciting. Madson explains her unique talents and explores them in a darkly humorous way. Let’s just say the unfortunate turn of events will force Cassandra and Empress Han to form an unlikely alliance and their caustic head-to-head lightens dark themes their chapters explore. Cassandra remains my favourite character and I doubt it’ll change.

Along with her remarkable world building, Madson introduces rich supporting characters that are deftly drawn into both the battles and the layered political intrigue. She packs plenty of twists into the story. Though some revelations are predictable, most reveals and unique “magic” system elevate the story above most contemporary dark fantasy. Another great strength of the Reborn Empire series is its exploration of faith, religion, and how those in power adhere and abuse both. 

If it stumbles somewhere, it’s only with pacing. While I admire writers able to create complex mythology and detailed world as a reader I don’t enjoy all the details. I could live without them. And I would have even more fun.

The last thing that needs mentioning is the quality of the ebook production. Just look at the cover and the font - it looks spectacular. And it doesn’t end here. Each character has its own sigil printed in the beginning of his/her chapter. The book opens with the list of characters and a summary of the key events of the first book allowing the reader to refresh the memories.

We Lie with Death is a brilliant sequel. I recommend it to fantasy fans seeking their next dark epic fantasy fix.
Tuesday, May 7, 2019

SPFBO Finalist: Ruthless Magic by Megan Crewe (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski & David Stewart)




Official Author Website
Order Ruthless Magic over HERE




AUTHOR INFORMATION: USA Today bestselling author Megan Crewe lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and son. She's been making up stories about magic and spirits and other what ifs since before she knew how to write words on paper. These days the stories are just a lot longer. Her YA novels include the paranormal GIVE UP THE GHOST, post-apocalyptic the Fallen World series, the sci fi Earth & Sky trilogy, the contemporary fantasy A MORTAL SONG, the supernatural thriller BEAST, and the urban fantasy Conspiracy of Magic series.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Each year, the North American Confederation of Mages assesses every sixteen-year-old novice. Some will be chosen. The rest must undergo a procedure to destroy their magical ability unless they prove themselves in the mysterious and brutal Mages' Exam.

Disadvantaged by her parents' low standing, Rocío Lopez has dedicated herself to expanding her considerable talent to earn a place in the Confederation. Their rejection leaves her reeling—and determined to fight to keep her magic.

Long ashamed of his mediocre abilities, Finn Lockwood knows the Confederation accepted him only because of his prominent family. Declaring for the Exam instead means a chance to confirm his true worth.

Thrown into the testing with little preparation, Rocío and Finn find themselves becoming unlikely allies—and possibly more. But the Exam holds secrets more horrifying than either could have imagined. What are the examiners really testing them for? And as the trials become increasingly vicious, how much are they willing to sacrifice to win?

The first in a new series by USA Today bestselling author Megan Crewe, Ruthless Magic combines the magic of Harry Potter with the ferocity of The Hunger Games alongside a poignant romance. Fans of Cassandra Clare and Holly Black, look no further for your next urban fantasy fix. 

CLASSIFICATION: A YA urban fantasy.

FORMAT: Ruthless Magic was self-published by the author in 2018 as a first book in  Conspiracy of Magic series. It's available in an e-book, paperback, and hardcover format. 

The book counts 352 pages and is divided into 38 numbered chapters. The cover art was done by Rebecca Kemp. 

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (Lukasz): I rarely read YA fiction, especially when it features romance. And yet I enjoyed Ruthless Magic. Crewe draws inspiration from Hunger Games, but she does everything right.

Each year, the North American Confederation of Mages assesses magically gifted teenagers. Some will succeed and enter the Confederation while unlucky or less-talented ones will lose magic. Anyone who doesn’t qualify in the initial stage of cutting the chaff from the wheat can enter a brutal Mages’ Exam. 

The story focuses on teenagers who had to (or decided to) try themselves in the exam. It alternates between two viewpoints.  

Rocío Lopez, a gifted magician, comes from a poor family. It turns out Confederation picks Champions not only because of their talent but also because of their social standing.  

Finn Lockwood comes from an influential and wealthy family. He makes up for his mediocre magical abilities with natural charisma, charm, and good-naturedness. 

Thrown into the testing with little preparation, Rocío and Finn become allies, and more. Painfully cliche? Probably. The execution, though, thrills and entertains. 

Crewe’s characters are instantly likable and relatable. Their struggles with terrifying magical challenges felt exciting. I appreciate the twisted creativity behind the tests they undergo. Clear storytelling allows to see each situation easily, with all the details and emotional load.

YA characters often display insecurity and experience self-loathing. Rocio has a crush on Finn but she considers herself inferior to him. Despite her talent and magical skills, she still sees herself as a ghetto-trash girl. There’s no way a guy like Finn would care for her. 

In the meantime, Finn cares for her,  looks for her attention and deals with his own insecurities. As naïve as it sounds, it felt endearing. I liked them both and followed their chapters with pleasure. That said, I think Rocio‘ and Finn’s voices weren’t distinct enough. They narrated the events in a very similar way. If the chapters didn’t start with a narrator name, I would probably have to guess at times. 

Secondary characters remained underdeveloped. A pity, as I would gladly learn more about Prisha, Desmond or Lacey. A protagonist needs an antagonist. We get one. Callum is as wicked as they come - violent, calculating, utterly flat and boring.

The story develops at a breakneck pace, with short pauses for food and development of characters’ feelings toward each other. I dislike romance in books, but this one made me feel good. Crewe knows what she’s doing and even when the story becomes dark and unsettling, she smuggles hope to the events. I needed uplifting, clever story with solid character development and intriguing plot, and she delivered.

I enjoyed Ruthless Magic and I encourage you to try it. It has flaws, but it entertained me, made me feel good and engaged in the story. I even missed two metro stops while reading it, and if it’s not the best endorsement a book can get from a reader, I don’t know what else would it be.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (David): Though I did finish Ruthless Magic, I was not very impressed with it, particularly versus some of the entries in this contest. I would not likely have let it even make the semis. The story and writing are competent, but this is one of the most unoriginal books I've ever read. Almost every plot line and even some sub plots are taken whole cloth from Harry Potter or the Hunger Games or Ender's Game, among other works. I would not say that there is plagiarism at work, but at some point borrowing crosses the border from homage into theft. I liked Rocio well enough, but she was about the only redeeming quality to the whole book. The shortened "'chantment" aggressively annoyed me every time it was used, and I found some of the character descriptions to be uncomfortable from a potentially racial standpoint. Maybe this book works for some, but I think it's average at best. 

CONCLUSION: The overall light tone makes it a quick and entertaining read. It’s not perfect (especially plot and conflict-wise), but I found the experience pleasurable. 

SPFBO Final Score - 5/10
Monday, May 6, 2019

WORLDWIDE GIVEAWAY: Briz and Bayla: The Bronze Age Bounty Hunters + Collector's Box by Jeramy Goble


Official Author Website

Today we are proud to present an amazing WORLDWIDE giveaway courtesy of Jeramy Goble. Fantasy Book Critic & Jeramy are giving away a spectacular collector’s box + three autographed hardcovers and two signed paperback copies of "Briz and Bayla, the Bronze Age Bounty Hunters.” (book one of the Moving Targets series) !!!

Checkout the amazing video below to see the snazzy collector’s box (inspired by Egyptian history) that Jeramy has made with his own hands. Plus this contest is open to anyone internationally so what are you waiting for?


There are a couple ways to enter this WORLDWIDE contest:
 - You can visit Jeramy’s website and sign up for his newsletter,
- You can also share the link to this announcement on social media with the hashtag #BBMT1, for “Briz and Bayla Moving Targets 1.”

 Every newsletter sign up, and every share of the link with the hashtag is an entry.

Thank you for entering and Good Luck!

GIVEAWAY RULES:
1) Open To Anyone WORLDWIDE
2) No Purchase Necessary
3) Giveaway will end on 20th May,2019 12:01 PM PST
4) Winners Will Be Randomly Selected and Notified By Email
5) Personal Information Will Only Be Used In Mailing Out the Books To The Winners



ABOUT JERAMY GOBLE: Jeramy Goble is a whimsical and refreshing fantasy and science fiction author, originally from Morganton, North Carolina. While traveling with his sister, mother, and military father, Jeramy accumulated passions for the wonders of world faiths, and the excitement of science and technology. In addition to being the author of the Akallian Tales space fantasy trilogy and the dark fantasy Coven Queen, Jeramy is an IT professional, composer and avid gamer.


OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: When Bayla's village known for its magic is destroyed by a group of merciless raiders, she strikes out on a rage-fueled journey across sea and desert to avenge her family.

After being captured by a race of scorpion men while trying to carry out a bounty, Briz survives certain death when Bayla discovers him and sets him free.

As they combine efforts to carry out Bayla's revenge and track Briz's target, a mysterious reward will test their burgeoning trust. If they can overcome political plots and ancient powers by taking advantage of their complimentary skills of might and magic, they may earn a place amidst the legends of Egypt and beyond.

Friday, May 3, 2019

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



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

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

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: A deformed genius plots vengeance while struggling to survive. A wastrel prince comes of age, finding a power he never imagined. Two worlds will collide. Only one can be king.

FORMAT/INFO: Kings of Paradise is 608 pages long divided over fifty chapters. This is the first volume of the Ash and Sand series.

The book was self-published by the author on August 8th, 2017 and it's available as an e-book. Cover art and design is provided by Derek Murphy.

ANALYSIS (Lukasz)Making me read a large, weighty book that counts more than six hundred pages is almost impossible. Even bribery doesn't work. And yet I reached for Kings of Paradise and couldn't put it down. 

It's brilliant. It's, undoubtedly, one of the best books I read this year*. The hype is real and high scores are well deserved.

Kings of Paradise is a dark and gritty coming-of-age story that follows multiple characters. Some of them are secondary and their chapters, while making the narrative more colorful, serve mainly to show three main characters through the eyes of others. 

Ruka is a beast. He's a deformed, twisted genius with an eidetic memory and bright, golden eyes of a wolf. He's a ruthless killer who won't hesitate to maim others or eat them when the food is in short supply. 

All of us experienced existential isolation before. The feeling that no other human being can comprehend who you truly are, no matter how close you become. Sure, it's depressing, but it's an experience that binds us all. Ruka, though, is alone in a way no other fantasy protagonist is. 

Born in the frozen, snow-covered wasteland of the Ascom—the land of ash—Ruka was spared from death at birth by his mother’s love. His childhood was cruel, he's lost everything he loved, and all he has left is a desire for vengeance. He struggles with psychological demons, and at times he behaves as a borderline schizo. And yet, he's one of the most complex and interesting characters I've ever met. In fact, he wants a better world, and he's ready to burn and break our wicked world to change the things.
I want a world where love is not a crime, where children are not doomed to misery because they are different. I want only laws with mercy, and justice, and wisdom.
I had goosebumps while reading the scene in which he said these words. 

Kale is a fourth son of the king Farahi. He's a good, innocent and likable protagonist. He has a high drive to be something, or do something, but he doesn't know what. He believes in people, looks for what's best for them and tries to make the world a better place. 

Unfortunately, his father, King Farahi is a cunning paranoid and Kale's life will soon become very dangerous and complicated. On the other hand, Kale may have some supernatural skills that come handy when he's in danger. I don't want to spoil it for you, but I loved Kale's Monastery trials and their unexpected consequences. Suffice to say, that he plays with the powers that can alter the very fabric of the world. I was literally glued to my Kindle when these powers were demonstrated**. 

Then, there's Dala. She's an intriguing heroine who goes through hell in her youth. When she joins a religious order, she hopes to make the world a better place. She isn't prepared for the godless, power-hungry people and their cold politics. But she learns fast, and to make a change, she's ready to stir a revolution and drown the streets in blood. I'm definitely interested in more of her story, and I believe my curiosity will be satisfied in sequels. 

Secondary characters were all done exceptionally well. They all have distinct traits and voices. Every single one of them. It takes some serious skills to make a reader feel this kind of visceral connection and, sometimes, dislike towards fictional characters, and Nell does it flawlessly. Damn impressive.

I find king Farahi fascinating - while he's not a caring parent role-model, his cold and cunning mind is impressive. Asna Fetlan Isha Fetnal is a killer, but his inner monologues, carefree attitude, and sarcastic remarks were humorous and made me crack a bit in the end. The scene was far from funny mind you, but Asna's voice was hilarious.

My favorite thing about Kings of Paradise was the amount of development the characters get and evolving relationships between them and their entourage. It's a surprisingly deep and layered story that pulls no punches. Despite things getting messy and gory, I never felt the violence served to shock the reader. Actually, it's the opposite - even the grittiest scenes helped the plot or character evolution. 

There's no single villain in the story; the conflict is centered around protagonists' beliefs and dreams colliding with the corrupted world and petty, power-hungry leaders playing politics. It was especially evident in religious orders pictured in Dala and Kale's storylines in which scholars, priests, and priestesses were sullying the sacred teachings with very mortal aims.


ANALYSIS (Mihir): Ruka Stared at the corpse of the boy he’d killed, and his stomach growled

As far as killer opening lines go, that one has to be one of the best ones. Not just in the epic fantasy genre but possibly all types of speculative fiction in the thirty-forty years. And yet with that singularly enigmatic line, Richard Nell introduces us to perhaps one of the most divisive POV characters ever written. Not only are we introduced to a brutal characters but also to a brutal world.

We get to see two world and through the eyes of three characters. The continent of Ascom and the Pyu islands along with its neighborly great continent. There three POV characters are:
- Ruka
- Kale
- Dala

We get to see Ruka as a young man and then we get to see why and what events lead to become a cannibal. We see Kale as a carefree prince who finds out truly where he stands in his father’s eyes and sets out to find himself. Dala is a girl forced to grow quickly due to the harsher living standards of the Ascommani and finds herself seeking change. These three characters are our three facets into these twin lands and the lifestyles within.

Right out of the bat, let me get this out of the way. This was my first Richard Nell book and it was such a stunning experience that I’ve become an ardent fan of his. The brutality within the characters lives, the ambiguity about the reason for conflict as well as the nature of the world. Richard skillfully raises questions and makes you wonder about the philosophical underpinnings of life and existence. All of this while giving us a rousing story and glorious, glorious characters.

First there was Joe Abercrombie, then came Mark Lawrence and now there’s Richard Nell but he goes above and beyond his peers by giving us characters who are perplexing to say the least. I couldn’t help but wonder who would survive between Logen Nine-Fingers and Ruka while between Jalan and Kale who would outwit the other. Such questions are inevitable but what’s not inevitable is Richard Nell’s ascent in the hallowed annals of epic fantasy along greats such as the aforementioned two alongside George R. R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker and others. His talent at providing human characters who perhaps do inhumane tasks and feeling the worse for it. None better encapsulate this fact than Dala and Ruka.

Ruka primarily is a wonderful case study as the author showcase all that has happened in his life and your heart melts at his plight during his childhood and teenage years. At the very same time, his brutality is scary beyond belief when he attains his Bukayag persona (like shit your pants scary). The author veritably plays with the readers hearts and minds as he makes us root for Ruka whilst he does horrible things. Very few can do such feats however Richard Nell is truly among the rare few folks such as Thomas Harris, and to a lesser degree Blake Crouch who make cannibalistic characters seem charismatic and scary. Ruka is very much a cross between Hannibal Lecter and the Bloody Nine in the sense that he shares Hannibal Lecter’s inexplicable brilliance while being simpatico with the bloodthirsty savagery of the Bloody Nine. To a certain degree he surpasses them both and is more complex than either character.

There’s also Dala who we learn is forced to undergo a different sort of hardship. A chance encounter with a killer makes her learn of her shortcomings and she understands what truly needs to be done for the salvation of the Ascomanni folks. She strives harder than ever and we get to see another brilliant mind at work whose zeal matches her drive to do what’s necessary to bring the required changes.
Kale in comparison to both of them, simply doesn’t shine to the same degree. That’s not to say this chapters or characterization is weak but compared to diamonds, a ruby or sapphire might not seem so brilliant. His chapters show his own struggle and eventual path realization. That’s what this 600 page book is all about, all of these characters recognizing what they truly are and all the steps that they take to get to their hearts contents.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this story would have faltered horribly or came of a very one-sided. Richard Nell is not one of those writers, he very carefully reveals each layer of the story while further twisting the knife on his characters. He doesn’t make them altruistic or heroic but he shows what they are truly capable of. Be it revenge, mass murder or societal change, no character is bereft of the their mental whims but they take the hard path and we the readers are rewarded for it. There's also the non-POV characters who are brilliantly etched and their actions certainly drive the story in interesting ways such as Beyla, Al Farahi, Amit, etc.

Lastly the world-building is definitely one to be highlighted. The author eschews the normal euro-centric pathways and gives us a culture that's slightly Nordic but has enough differing elements such as a matriarchal society to make it complexly unique. There's also the Pyu islands which distinctly has a south east Asian flavor and there's some Hindu names mixed in as well. All in all this book distinctly borrows from our world and the end product is a multivariate one that while seemingly similar is much different one. Kudos to Richard Nell for it and I can't wait to further delve in to the world and see how both the lands might be connected (if at all)

Is this a story without any faults, I don’t think so. The pace of the story due to its vast length cannot be said to be of a galloping kind. It’s not just possible within such a complex story. There are no vast battles or magic being thrown about by wizards. No but there’s action in it plenty of the personal kind. The savagery and brutality within makes this book one for adults and adults only. Perhaps my only complaint about this book is the lack of an eventual reveal about who or what Ruka is. However this is book 1 of a trilogy and supposedly good things come to those…

CONCLUSION (Lukasz): It won't be a surprise to anyone, but I loved the hell out of Kings of Paradise. It's not a joyous book - at times it's tragic and sad, and Ruka's story alone can make you reach for Prozac. It is, however, intelligently written and powerful book with stellar world-building and a fantastic cast of characters. The ending of Kings of Paradise can lead to numerous explosive developments. 

Which would mean little if I read, say, five mediocre books. This is not the case, though. So far I've read 102 books, and many of them were excellent. 
** A side-effect of my lifelong love for comic books and Marvel heroes

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