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Tuesday, July 23, 2019

SPFBO Semifinalist: The Fox and The Hunter by Linn Tesli (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)


Official Author Website
Order The Fox and the Hunter over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Linn Tesli
is an author of fantastical stories, for people of all ages. As a previous freelance journalist, she's also written both magazine articles, movie reviews, and feature stories.

As a child, making up stories was how she made her days brighter. She believes that it's an extraordinary thing to be able to dive into words to escape the reality one lives in. 

OFFICIAL BLURB: Elva lives a peaceful life with her tribe, practicing to one day become the noaidi—the shaman. Her peace is shattered when two viking earls arrive in the camp. Her grandmother, the current noaidi, is accused of witchcraft, and is taken away to stand trial before the tyrant king Olav. The punishment is death.

Elva is not ready to become the leader of her tribe, nor is she ready to let go of her grandmother. She is nowhere near strong enough to fight the vikings in Nidaros, but she has to try. She's an outcast in her own land, on a journey that will challenge her convictions, her faith and even her heart. Can Elva overcome the powerful enemy and rescue her grandmother? 

FORMAT/INFO: The Fox and the Hunter is 206 pages divided over 40 numbered chapters and is the first entry in the Where Vikings Roam duology. Cover design is by Linn Tesli herself.

OVERVIEW: Set in northern Norway in the Viking age, The Fox and the Hunter explores difficult themes of a religious and political conflict. The clash of indigenous nature religion and monotheism is brutal and destroys lives. 

The story's protagonist, Elva, is raised to replace her grandmother as the noaidi (shaman) of her tribe when the time comes. She hopes it won't happen anytime soon, but she may have no choice when a Viking earl accuses her grandmother of witchcraft, a practice punishable by death. Elva decides to do everything in her power to stop the execution. 

I deeply believe in the power of brevity and I like focused narratives. It seems Linn Tesli shares my preferences. The story moves forward at a quick pace and doesn't focus on background static. Each scene serves something, Elva has a clearly defined goal (saving her grandmother), and the religious themes are well intertwined with the plot progression and interactions between her and secondary characters, especially with the Hunter (a young and naive son of a Viking Earl, who desires to be baptized). 


I liked Elva's connection to nature and animals, and I found descriptions of shamanic rituals (communication with the spirit world) involving the use of a drum very suggestive. 
Her character arc is all about change. We observe as she slowly changes, hardens herself to the harsh realities of the Viking world, and becomes more, shall we say, cunning. 

The Hunter, on the other hand, remains naive and doesn't learn from what he experiences. I mean, he wants to be baptized for some bizarre reason and even witnessing the acts of cruelty committed by overzealous "evangelists". I hope we get better insights into his psyche in the second book of the duology.

Because the story develops in a harsh, cold climate with little food supply it doesn't shy away from showing a grim reality of killing animals to survive. Many readers (me included) react badly to violence towards animals, so I feel they should know upfront what they're getting into. There's one shocking scene that enraged me but I can't discuss it. Damn spoilers.


Tesli has created a gritty and gruesome world in which violence happens but it’s never included for the sake of shock value (except, maybe, for that one scene). 
While the plot development is solid, there are a few weak points, including a few awkward sentences and the dialogue in certain scenes, where it feels unnaturally formal and stiff. Sure, a dialogue isn't exactly like speech in real life, but it should give the impression of actual, believable conversation. And here, characters' speech varied between nicely flowing and unbelievably formal.

Overall, though, The Fox and the Hunter is a solid, well-written, and engaging story I liked enough to read the sequel once it's published.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Wolf's Call by Anthony Ryan (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website
Order the book HERE (US) and HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Blood Song
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Tower Lord
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Queen Of Fire
Read Fantasy Book Critic interview with Anthony Ryan
Read "The Influence Of History On Epic Fantasy" by Anthony Ryan (guest post)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Anthony Ryan is a pseudonym used by the author as his previous day job prevented him from using his real identity. He has an academic background in history, previously used to work fulltime as a researcher and currently lives in London.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: PEACE NEVER LASTS

Vaelin Al Sorna is a living legend, his name known across the Realm. It was his leadership that overthrew empires, his blade that won hard-fought battles – and his sacrifice that defeated an evil more terrifying than anything the world had ever seen. He won titles aplenty, only to cast aside his earned glory for a quiet life in the Realm’s northern reaches.

Yet whispers have come from across the sea – rumours of an army called the Steel Horde, led by a man who believes himself a god. Vaelin has no wish to fight another war, but when he learns that Sherin, the woman he lost long ago, has fallen into the Horde’s grasp, he resolves to confront this powerful new threat.

To this end, Vaelin travels to the realms of the Merchant Kings, a land ruled by honour and intrigue. There, as the drums of war thunder across kingdoms riven by conflict, Vaelin learns a terrible truth: "that there are some battles that even he cannot hope to win.’

FORMAT/INFO: The Wolf’s Call is 409 pages long divided three parts, each of which open with a Luralyn’s account and then numbered chapters. This pattern is very similar to that of his debut book. Narration is in the third-person, via Vaelin Al Sorna for the numbered chapters, and first person for the accounts interspersed within. The book also feature maps of the unified realm, and the Merchant kingdoms of the west. There is a single appendix for the Dramatis Personae. The Wolf’ Call  is the first volume of The Raven’s Blade duology.

July 23, 2019 marks the North American Hardcover and e-book publication (see cover below) of The Wolf’s Call via Ace Books. The UK version will be published on July 25 2019 by Orbit Books UK.


OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS:
The wolf….. It called…..
Vaelin mentions it called to him and he had to respond. I think it called out to Anthony Ryan as well, hence e heard the fan clamour for this sequel series. As for me, I’m always excited for Anthony Ryan’s work. His debut Blood Song is one of my all-time favourite titles. The Raven’s Shadow trilogy was an exciting one, however the increase of POV focus from a singular one in the first book to the many in the remaining two books caused many a consternation among fans. Their grievances while understandable weren’t shared by me. I still love the ending as it was an all-out action ride that had Vaelin and his brothers facing unsurmountable odds as well as Lyrna who has become a queen in more ways than one.

The sequel books really expanded the world and gave us a strong background on the Alpiran and Volarian empires. They also expanded the character cast and gave us more information about the dark and its practices. The books also introduced the Merchant Kings whose kingdoms featured to the West of the unified realm. At the end of Blood Song, Vaelin took a calculated risk and sent his love away with Ahm-Lin. He’s ever been haunted by his actions, not fully knowing how she took it. Plus after the events of Queen Of Fire and faced with the loss of his blood song. He’s no longer able to match his current prowess to that of his legends. Things however are calmer and there aren’t any battles or wars that need his attention. His position as tower lord of the north means that he has to help keep the peace as well occasionally lead forays against slavers. Reva’s daughter Ellese has also joined his court and proves to be a tough ward. One of his essential functions is receiving visiting dignitaries as his fame has indeed spread to many other lands. On such a recent visit from those of the merchant kingdoms, Vaelin comes face to face to again (surprisingly) with his fre-nemy whose actions have long been intertwined with Vaelin’s life.

Revealing a new danger that is arising from the lands to the west of the Merchant Kingdoms and one of the first casualties being Sherin leads Vaelin to immediately leave for those foreign lands. However he’s not alone, brother Nortah has been waylaid of late with certain issues and Vaelin chooses to take him along as he sees no other option left for him. There are a couple more people who join our beloved warrior on his quest and he’s not happy about it. Things are much weirder as there’s a new warrior who claims the title of Darkblade while having extra help and he has named Vaelin as the Thief Of Names. As you can surmise, there’s a lot going on and Anthony Ryan has a lot of irons in the mix with this new duology featuring his most beloved character.

Firstly the positives, characterization has been Anthony Ryan’s forte and with this book, he returns to the style of his debut wherein everything is filtered through Vaelin Al Sorna. This has two solid benefits, primarily we return to familiar atmosphere of Blood Song and secondarily we get a solidly focused narrative that keeps the readers engaged. The Vaelin we meet is an older, grizzled one but no less charismatic. He’s our narrator and holds the story cohesively. We get to see the other characters such as Nortah, Sherin, Ahm-Lin, and many new folks from the western kingdoms. Everyone is a fully realized character and even with only Vaelin’s third person perspective, we get a solid character cast who intrigue, inspire and arouse disgust.

The story is very much a stranger in a strange land mold and the worldbuiding is solidly done from the three Merchant Kingdoms to the Iron Steppe and its inhabitants the Stahlhast. The readers are introduced to a whole new land and its inhabitants and Athe author lays out a very detailed landscape from the canals of Hahn-Shi to the dry, dusty steppes and their iron tors. I enjoyed this East Asian facsimile that Anthony has created. Astute readers will easily be able to figure what regions and history, the author is utilizing. The story also further deepens the aspect of the afterlife and what was revealed in Queen Of Fire with regards to the Black Stone in Volaria. I thought this was a nice tie-in to the original trilogy and we are given more hints about what lies in the beyond.

For those readers who might be shy to jump in this new series without reading the previous titles such as Tower Lord & Queen Of Fire. Be not wary, if you have read Blood Song then you can jump into this duology easily. Surely there'll be a few minor things that won't make any sense but given how divisive the opinion is over those two titles. I can safely vouch for this title being the better than both and only needing Blood Song's background and details for one to enjoy this volume.

The action sequences aren’t a lot to begin with and the readers will find sporadic scenes until the last third of the story. But it’s during this last third that the story kicks into overdrive. We get a solid taste of what has been promised. The climax even pays a bit of homage to one of Anthony Ryan’s favorite titles namely David Gemmell’s Legend. However the author neatly lays in a twist that’s hard to anticipate and the way it pans out, I really enjoyed it. Lastly the book ends on a big cliffhanger and sets up the sequel superbly. I loved what the author has in store and with that twist, the sequel becomes another must read for 2020.

Going on to the things that might not work, one of the confounding things is the structure of the book. It follows the pattern of having first person accounts interspersed between the third person POV chapters. In the first trilogy, it made sense as it was Verniers who was chronicling Vaelin’s legend. With this new duology, I was more than surprised to this style adopted by the author. Maybe it was to draw similarities between both series and in that it works beautifully. However I hope that the author has more in store and can reveal why he chose to structure the new series this way. Secondly we are led to believe that there will be a big conflict between said demigods but that doesn’t happen and I for one was a tad disappointed with it.

CONCLUSION: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again “Anthony Ryan is David Gemmell’s natural successor and heroic fantasy’s best British talent”. With this new duology, he proves me right all over again. The Wolf’ Call heralds a successful call back to Blood Song and while it might not be as great as Blood Song was. It’s still a damn good story that will make you want the sequel now.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Fortune's Fool by Angela Boord (reviewed by Justine Bergman)


Official Author Website
Order Fortune's Fool over HERE (US) and HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Angela Boord published a handful of short stories in the early 00s, then had a bunch of kids who are now all sleeping at night, making it easier to write again. She lives in northwestern Mississippi with her husband and their nine kids, plus two dogs, one cat, and varying numbers of chickens. She is currently hard at work on more books in the Eterean Empire series and plans to release Book 1.5 in early 2020.

OFFICIAL BLURB: A secret affair. A disfiguring punishment. A burning need for revenge.

Kyrra d’Aliente has a bad reputation and an arm made of metal.

Cast out of the safe and luxurious world of silk to which she was born, played as a pawn in a game of feuding Houses, Kyrra navigates a dangerous world of mercenaries, spies, and smugglers while disguising herself as a man.

War destroyed her family and the man she loved.

Vengeance is within her grasp.

But is she willing to pay its price?

FORMAT/INFO: Fortune's Fool is 720 pages divided over six parts and a total of 37 numbered chapters, and is the first installment in the Eterean Empire series. The book is currently available in e-book and paperback format, as well as on Kindle Unlimited. It was self-published by the author on June 25, 2019. Cover art by John Anthony Di Giovianni and cover design by Shawn T. King.

CLASSIFICATION: Epic fantasy, Romantic fantasy

ANALYSIS:
A girl and an illusion of love.
A girl betrayed.
A girl punished and maimed and scorned.
A woman and a reckoning.

Kyrra d’Aliente, sole heir of the Aliente House, falls victim to the charms of Cassis di Prinze. Now a pariah within her household, she's cast into the dirt to appease the mighty Prinze. Mutilated and cursed to a life of serfdom, she lives her days under the mocking ridicule of the Household, but one day is lifted from the dirt by a mysterious gavaro. Kyrra No-Name of House Aliente uncovers a plot that will expose the man she loves, stripping her of the only thing she desires. Taking matters into her own hands, she becomes the sacrificial lamb to appease the mighty Prinze. He cannot bear the thought of life without her, and against the judging verdict, they flee into the unknown. Kyrra No-Name of Nothing is the last of a dead House destroyed by war and the machinations of the mighty Prinze. Bestowed with an arm of metal and magic, posing as a man and mercenary, submitting to the darkness, she has one goal: tear down the mighty Prinze. Everyone has a name.

Fortune's Fool is an immaculate character-driven epic fantasy, governed by vengeance and the need to protect that of which you love by any means necessary. At its core, this novel is the tale of a romance that eclipses the injustices of the past, and paves the path to the future of a righted world. Kyrra No-Name, continuously used as a means to an end, broken and shunned, and finally freed by a man with gray eyes and cloaked origins, she must find her place in the world, and her purpose. Her mind aching for retribution battles her heart yearning for acceptance, and she is soon thrusted into a life defined by inverses: loyalty and deceit, love and betrayal, sacrifice and survival. With twists and turns, scheming, and the ever-daunting unknown, Boord drops us onto the board of a grand and deadly game of chess completely shadowed by uncertainty. All we can hope for is justice where justice is due.
"I suppose you have a right to be wary of wolves, but just because you're fallen, do you think it means you have to stay down in the dirt?"
Boord has created something incredibly beautiful with her debut, and I'm finding it difficult to put into words my praise for the splendor she has penned onto page. The writing is exquisite; meticulously immersing you in a world that is extraordinarily rich and vibrant. Descriptions of textiles you can feel beneath your fingertips, exotic foods you can smell on the warm breeze, pain and torment that twist your heart - it's easy to lose yourself in Eterea. Her ability to alternate timelines and tense is impeccable, highlighting Kyrra's past and budding relationship with Arsenault, then her present path of vengeance, done so with smooth, subtle transitions and a continuous flow. The prose is striking and polished, the pacing perfectly builds tension, the foreshadowing haunting. Of all the things done exceedingly well, her ability to tell a story is peerless. Boord is a master when it comes to plotting, as this story is layer upon layer upon layer of cohesive history and unrevealed intrigue. Peeling back the layers and diving deeper into this complex story is one gratifying and worthwhile adventure.

As mentioned, the characters take center stage in this novel, with major focus on both Kyrra and Arsenault. All conflict stems from their choices and actions, and they each inevitably suffer the consequences. Following Kyrra's disgrace and subsequent ruin, Arsenault enters her life, and changes it forever in many, and oftentimes initially reluctant, ways. Despite the half-truths and veiled secrets, their growth is based solely on the other, bringing them together, rather than tearing them apart as expected. He gifts her with a piece of herself that's missing, and a confidence once shattered, while she aids him in mending his fractured memories, and allowing him a closeness he thought lost forever - they each make the other whole. Their relationship is raw, fiercely profound, and something truly special to behold.

Further, we witness the development and transformation of a well-rounded cast of characters. Geoffre di Prinze is the epitome of a deceptive villain, his true intentions unclear until it's too late. He's the puppet master behind the curtain, pulling the strings of all the powerful families to achieve his goals with no regard for collateral damage. Lobardin and Jon are seemingly duplicitous and abusive players in the grand game, but the masks they wear are only to deliver them the endgame. Mikelo is a young man with no direction, but he possesses an intense power within himself that others can only envy. Much like her plotting, her characters are intricate, each distinct with cryptic pasts that become untangled as we continue to journey alongside them. I'm excited to see more of these characters and their progression in the future of this series.
"Hunter," he said. "And Sacrifice. In you, the two are combined. You choose which road you follow, with which vision you will see. Your heart will always be your own."
A novel of this size allows for a gradual enrichment of the world being built around you, and Boord does just that by carefully placing one building block at a time without overwhelming the reader. She has infused an Italian-inspired province with spiteful gods, mysterious magics, and wonderfully realized settings. We're transported from quaint countryside villas, to airy mountainside hunting lodges, to bustling and bloated city marketplaces, to secretive underground hovels, each brimming with their own populace, and trades, and secrets. I would speak more of this, but her world is one best discovering yourself.

CONCLUSION: I can't praise this story enough, as it's honestly one of the best things I've read in a long while. Let me be clear, this is a romance imbued with the fantastical, and what a beautiful and magical romance it is. Fortune's Fool is an amazing foundation for Boord’s Eterean Empire series, and while it closes nicely, I cannot wait to see where we're taken next. I highly recommend.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Ravencry by Ed McDonald (reviewed by David Stewart)


Official Author Website
Order Ravencry over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Blackwing

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Ed McDonald
has spent many years dancing between different professions, cities and countries, but the only thing any of them share in common is that they have allowed him enough free time to write. He currently lives in London, a city that provides him with constant inspiration, where he works as a university lecturer. When he’s not grading essays or wrangling with misbehaving plot lines he can usually be found fencing with longswords, rapiers and pollaxes.

OFFICIAL BLURB: Four years have passed since Nall’s Engine drove the Deep Kings back across the Misery, but as they hurl fire from the sky, darker forces plots against the republic. A new power is rising: a ghost in the light known only as the Bright Lady manifests in visions across the city, and the cult that worship her grasp for power even as the city burns around them.

When Crowfoot’s arcane vault is breached, an object of terrible power is stolen, and Galharrow and his Blackwings must once find out which of Valengrad’s enemies is responsible before they have a chance to use it.

To save Valengrad, Galharrow, Nenn and Tnota must venture to a darker, more twisted and more dangerous place than any they’ve walked before: the very heart of the Misery.

FORMAT/INFO: Ravencry is 384 pages divided over 40 numbered chapters and is the second entry in the Raven's Mark series. The book is currently available in all formats, with its sequel, Crowfall, available in all formats as well. Cover design for the US cover (see below) is by Adam Auerbach while the UK cover design is by Dan Smith.


OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Even though this is only the second book in the series, I have this expectation when I open up a Raven's Mark book that at some point, a crow will claw its way out of Ryhalt Galharrow's arm, and in that moment I will feel a mixture of revulsion and glee because there is something exciting about that violent act. It's as though, until it happens, we are simply reading a book about a man going on with his life - a normal, albeit grimy, life that involves darker things than most of us are used to, but fairly normal. But then the crow emerges and so too does the memory that there is nothing normal here and that what you are in fact reading is a grimdark fantasy novel where magic hurts and part of the world is already destroyed with the rest in peril. I like that. McDonald times his crowmergence (feel free to use that, Ed) quite well in each of the first two books, Blackwing and Ravencry, and I know that once it happens, the world of Galharrow and his buddies is about to get much crazier.

One might wonder how things could get much crazier than they were at the end of Blackwing. Ezabeth Tanza, the scarred love of Galharrow's life, sacrifices herself to save the besieged city of Valengrad, seeming to disintegrate into the very motes of light surrounding the metropolis. The Nameless converge to battle a Deep King, a clash larger than even the city itself, and somehow Galharrow, Nenn, and Tnota all survive. They are changed, but alive. Four years later, Valengrad is mostly rebuilt, the trauma all that remains, and things move apace. Galharrow has formed an agency of sorts, Blackwing, that serves as a spy network/private investigation company and is enjoying a modicum of success in large part due to his recognized heroics from the prior book.

Ryhalt can't sleep though because whenever he closes his eyes, he sees Her again, his dear Ezabeth, arms outstretched in a halo of light. It is not as pleasant a vision as it should be. What's odd about these visions is that he is not the only one. People are seeing a "Bright Lady" at various points across the city, often in conjunction with the phos light system of magic that powers much of it. It does not take long before an entire religion emerges from these visions, as it would, and even less time for the stability of the city to be threatened.

Blackwing was a book that introduced fantasy readers to some very bizarre concepts, which while not completely original, had enough new elements to make them stand out above the pack. The Misery is an area unlike any other in fantasy, a mystical geography that often changes, is never safe, and stands as both a terror-inducing nightmare just outside city walls and also its best shield against the horrors of the Deep Kings and their drudge citizenry. This no man's land played a large role in Blackwing, and I was worried that in Ravencry it would take a back seat. It does for much of the novel, but as one can glean from the book blurb above, it becomes more important than ever at the apex of the narrative. I am not sure if it was some skill of McDonald's or a random confluence of mental events that led me to desiring the very thing that McDonald had Galharrow do towards this section of the book, but either way it was very satisfying.

But one of the problems in writing a sequel wherein your unknowns are largely known is giving your readers something new to discover. I was worried about Ravencry's ability to do this. There were aspects of Blackwing that shocked me in their creativity and depravity. The Brides, in particular, were not something I had ever envisioned and frankly never needed to. The Darlings were also a terrifying vision of what happens when a child is warped into something beyond imagination - a Chucky doll but much, much worse. Ravencry does not blast us with these viscerally blaring monsters, at least not in the new sense. There is one familiar Darling, and a few others, but the monsters we encounter in the book are known foes. Even the big bad villain is someone we've met before, and while none of this information is inherently bad, it does remove a bit of wonder from what is a very strange world.

That's not to say that there isn't much about Ravencry worth reading, and by the end I was fully on board with the events therein. The idea of a religious cult taking over, however it happens, is something many of us can both envision and fear - even when the figurehead around which this cult forms is someone with whom we sympathize. The aforementioned villain is a bit of a disappointment, not necessarily because they aren't terrifying, but rather because they are largely absent until the very end, and we are left with proxy faces to despise instead of the real thing.

Ravencry also suffers from the middle book syndrome, being the second part of a trilogy, and there have probably not been many middle books that have ever eclipsed their former or latter entries. It is a limbo in which events for the next book must be put in motion - a book that will be the penultimate in the series and likely end it. That is not an easy position, but Ravencry does manage to be engrossing from cover to cover, and that's really all we can ask of it. It also does something vital to both the series and to the final book, and that is to allow Galharrow a transformation. I won't go into that, but it's strange and welcome in such a dark world, and not at all what anyone might expect.

I have liked and enjoyed both of these Raven's Mark books, while not loving them, but if the plot of the third book that is hinted at in this one lives up to my now-high expectations, I suspect I will love Crowfall. I am eager to read it and to see where McDonald is heading with this series.

CONCLUSION: The world McDonald has built is not one that can simply be wrapped up, in large part due to the massive figures moving around and within it. Ryhalt Galharrow and even Ezabeth Tanza are minor figures when compared to the near-deities that are the Deep Kings and Nameless. This means that we won't have a Wheel of Time style ending where everything is sealed up and all is good. Chances are the dark will stay dark and we will see the end of one man's story, and that is exactly what we should get.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

SPFBO: The First Cull & Semi-finalist Update




It's my second year as an SPFBO judge, and I'm both honored and excited to participate in this bloodbath contest. The first step is simple – each of us was asked to filter through a batch of books and choose a semi-finalist. I've read at least 30% of each book before deciding if I want to finish it. 

Each title in my mini-batch of six books will get an honest review on my Goodreads account. My semi-finalist will get a full review on FBC website.



Here’s my batch of six books (in alphabetical order), and my brief thoughts on them:

Exhumations by Christian Corbitt

Genre: metaphysical fantasy

Series/Standalone: standalone


Overview: "Rinaldo has been dead for over three years before he decided to return home." I loved Exhumations' opening line. Combined with the cover alluding to the famous Shakespearean graveyard scene, where Hamlet holds up the unearthed skull of Yorick, it sets the tone of the book. And does it well. Exhumations is different, weird and eerie, and it requires attention from the reader.

A sorcerer’s apprentice who took his own life returns to the small town of Recillio. Disguised as a friendly count, he interacts with people but his goals (including overthrowing reality) are at odds with what most living creatures expect from life. Things get weirder when we meet a spirit who mistook an ordinary night for the apocalypse or discover a city sprouting up in streets and alleyways. 

Corbitt created an interesting and imaginative setting and memorable characters, all described with a rich vocabulary. I found the writing elegant, but experience shows part of fantasy readers prefer more utilitarian straightforward prose. As imaginative as the setting is, a casual reader may feel lost in a tempest of myths and legends, prophetic visions, and dark memories. 


While I appreciate Corbitt's creativity and subtlety, I feel the novel spends too much time meandering, setting things, giving subtle hints. In consequence, it lacks strong character/development hooks that would fuel the reader's urge to turn the pages.


Exhumations, with its eerie atmosphere and strange phenomena, will appeal to people who enjoy different, weird books with moments of profound introspection and less emphasis on non-stop action


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Fear the Wolf by Andrew Butcher

Genre: dark fantasy

Series/Standalone: Works as a standalone, but can easily turn into a series (I'm not sure what's Andrew Butcher's plan for this one).

Overview: Fear the Wolf is a small-scale dark fantasy in which Senla (the protagonist) faces her desires and fears. In her village, children are raised in fear of the Wolf and taught to know their place and follow the orders. She's no good at it, and her desires don't fit societal norms.

Fear the Wolf has a lot going on: forbidden love, secrets, moments of dark introspection, a mysterious and devastating plague, dangerous monsters, and a young woman who wants to find her inner strength to slay the Wolf (both physically and metaphorically). All of these ingredients make for an engaging story. 

On the surface, it draws from classic fantasy novels, as it features the troubled, naive adventurer leaving a destroyed home, seeking answers, and meeting unique and unlikely partners that help her survive, succeed and grow as a character.  However, the predictable elements stop there, as Butcher has crafted an intriguing new angle on the formula, and demonstrates his skills as a storyteller from the very first page. 


While I appreciate the build-up and strong reveals, I didn't fully warm up to Senla as a character. I enjoyed parts of the story but wasn't keen on others. I think I understand the final confrontation leading to important reveal, but I wasn't fully satisfied with it.


Overall, it's a solid, well-structured book that should appeal to readers enjoying dark and intimate stories.


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Genre: sword & sorcery

Series/Standalone: book 1 of the Gorp the Goblin series.

Overview: As a goblin, Gorp struggles to land a decent job. Other races despise his species. But there’s a work at a Ye Olde Dungeon managed by the sinister Dungeon Overlord Jamalin Spellslinger. Fantasy readers tend to associate dungeoneering with exciting exploration, high adventure, and heroics. Very few think about the logistics of maintaining a dungeon and keeping it clean. Brave janitors work backstage to make things shiny. Or, rather, sufficiently dank and gloomy. It’s a job with perspectives; a quick professional advancement is at hand, especially when more experienced cleaning crew has just been eaten by a dragon (dungeon's biggest attraction). 


Gorp is a likable protagonist without a clearly defined agenda. Things happen to him but he can find his way around and get out of a jam. He never says what others want to hear, but what is in his heart. The author approaches this story with gentle humor and a distance. As a result, Gorp reads quickly and easily. 

That being said, I need to address some issues, namely insufficient editing, weak characterization, and lack of stronger turns and twists. We get a villainous villain who kills his minions whenever he’s in a sour mood, a dragon with an agenda, and a good-hearted protagonist who somehow always lands on top. While it won’t impress seasoned fantasy readers, it has the potential to entertain.

With additional tweaking such as clearing all grammar and spelling errors, and simplifying some awkward sentences, Gorp can become an engaging and enjoyable story for a younger audience

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Journey to the Top of the Nether by William C. Tracy

Genre: science fantasy aimed at a younger audience

Series/Standalone: Book six of the Dissolution Cycle but it works as a standalone

Overview: This one grabbed my attention with a quirky cover. The story is full of surprises and unexpected settings. The famous explorer Morvu Francita Januti has discovered an ancient, insect-shaped machine able to drill through the Nether. She takes her daughter, Natina, on an expedition to climb Nether’s smooth walls for the first time. Such an expedition comes with a risk, but if they survive, they will enjoy fame and glory. Not to mention that Natina will spend more time with her always busy mother and finally understand how she became the most famous explorer of the ten species.

The story impressed me with an imaginative and unique setting, and exciting exploration of the Nether, high above the clouds. It seems Journey of the Top of the Nether is the sixth book of the Dissolution Cycle series, but it stands on its own. I think William C. Tracy made a good job of introducing the world while using no info-dumps. Unfortunately, some terms or the names of the species were casually thrown into the story as something obvious. It’s cool that Natina and her mother are Etanela but I know nothing about Etanela, or other species in the Dissolution verse, except the fact they’re taller than most other Nether’s inhabitants. A glossary would help.

Although the prose contains some awkward turns of phrase, it flows well, with Tracy never losing sight of his target audience (as proved by age-appropriate dialogue). The well-crafted illustrations of Justin Donaldson add life and depth to the author’s words. I love the way they picture the world - each illustration complements the unfolding story. I wouldn't mind seeing more of them!

In all, an enjoyable and imaginative book suitable for a younger audience. 


                                                     *---------------*---------------*---------------*


Silvertongue by Casey White

Genre: superhero fantasy

Series/Standalone: book 1 of the Remnants of Magic series

Overview: Silvertongue started as a writing prompt and morphed into a web serial hosted on Casey White’s Reddit page. The story revolves around Jon Christensen. He likes burgers and peace. He would enjoy being a regular guy, but, much to his displeasure, he has a gift to hear any language as English. When he speaks, his words always come in the listener’s native tongue. He tries to hide his talent and he succeeds until a chance encounter in a fast-food store throws him in a violent world he doesn’t understand. 

I enjoyed White’s take on magic / preternatural talents. People can gain them through Relics - objects of ancient power. The author introduces plenty of characters with various powers and her creativity impressed me. She doesn’t shy away from violent scenes with strong imagery (like the exploding head), so be warned that the novel explores darker sides of human nature. 

While I like some of the ideas introduced in Silvertongue, I also confess that the story didn’t engage me. It introduces new characters and scenes but does little to indicate the sense of direction or characters’ goals. I DNF-ed the book at 31% of the ebook version (around 180 pages) and I still couldn’t clearly define the plot or the themes it tried to explore. I found it repetitious and didn’t warm up to any of the characters. And when there’s no emotional engagement or, at least, a desire to know what happens next, reading becomes tiresome. I called it quits. 


Not to downplay the work White has put into the book, but perhaps in its current form, it still works better as a web serial, but not as a novel. I expect every scene to have a goal and move the plot forward and I like focused narratives. Because I didn’t finish the book, it’s possible things and facts connect later in the story, but my impression is that the author spends way too much time creating mini-cliffhangers at the end of each chapter without giving a clear sense of direction or purpose. I’m sure there’s a solid story here, but I would like to see it structured more tightly. 



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The Fox and The Hunter by Linn Tesli

Genre: YA historical fantasy influenced by Norse traditions

Series/Standalone: book 1 of the Where Vikings Roam duology


Overview: Set in northern Norway in the Viking age, The Fox and the Hunter explores difficult themes of a religious and political conflict. The clash of indigenous nature religion and monotheism is brutal and destroys lives. 


The story's protagonist, Elva, is raised to replace her grandmother as the noaidi (shaman) of her tribe when the time comes. She hopes it won't happen anytime soon, but she may have no choice when a Viking earl accuses her grandmother of witchcraft, a practice punishable by death. Elva decides to do everything in her power to stop the execution. 

I deeply believe in the power of brevity and I like focused narratives. It seems Linn Tesli shares my preferences. The story moves forward at a quick pace and doesn't focus on background static. Each scene serves something, Elva has a clearly defined goal (saving her grandmother), and the religious themes are well intertwined with the plot progression and interactions between her and secondary characters, especially with the Hunter (a young and naive son of a Viking Earl, who desires to be baptized). 


I liked Elva's connection to nature and animals, and I found descriptions of shamanic rituals (communication with the spirit world) involving the use of a drum very suggestive. 


Because the story develops in a harsh, cold climate with little food supply it doesn't shy away from showing a grim reality of killing animals to survive. Many readers (me included) react badly to violence towards animals, so I feel they should know upfront what they're getting into. There's one shocking scene that enraged me but I can't discuss it. Damn spoilers.


Tesli has created a gritty and gruesome world in which violence happens but it’s never included for the sake of shock value (except, maybe, for that one scene).


While the plot development is solid, there are a few weak points, including a few awkward sentences and the dialogue in certain scenes, where it feels unnaturally formal and stiff. Sure, a dialogue isn't exactly like speech in real life, but it should give the impression of actual, believable conversation. And here, characters' speech varied between nicely flowing and unbelievably formal.

Overall, though, The Fox and the Hunter is a solid, well-written, and engaging story I liked enough to read the sequel once it's published.

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One more thing, a general remark that concerns most books that introduce dialects or rare terminology. While having a glossary at the end of the paperback is handy, I would love to see it at the beginning of the ebook version. You can easily turn the pages to check the term, but doing the same thing on e-reader feels more tedious and anticlimactic. Just a general thought, one worth considering to improve e-book reader's experience.


Choosing a semi-finalist


Last year I had a hard time picking my semi-finalist. This year, though, it was a no-brainer.

I know.


Anticlimactic.


What can I say?

First, I want to thank you all for submitting your books for our consideration. While I did my best to remain fair and open-minded, I have my preferences and pet peeves. Some stories that appeal to me bore others, depress some, enrage others. All are perfectly valid, reasonable responses. And SPFBO rules are brutal. 




In the end, there's only one throne selfie-stick. 

And our first semi-finalist still has a chance to grab it :)

Without further ado, I can now reveal the first FBC semi-finalist to be...

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Almost there

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Congratulations Linn! The Fox and The Hunter won me over with its focused narrative, solid characterization and a promise of an exciting sequel.





Monday, July 15, 2019

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by KJ Parker (mini-review by Lukasz Przywoski)




Order Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City over HERE



AUTHOR INFORMATION: K.J. Parker is a pseudonym for Tom Holt. 

According to the biographical notes in some of Parker's books, Parker has previously worked in law, journalism, and numismatics, and now writes and makes things out of wood and metal. It is also claimed that Parker is married to a solicitor and now lives in southern England. According to an autobiographical note, Parker was raised in rural Vermont, a lifestyle which influenced Parker's work.


OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: This is the story of Orhan, son of Siyyah Doctus Felix Praeclarissimus, and his history of the Great Siege, written down so that the deeds and sufferings of great men may never be forgotten.

A siege is approaching, and the city has little time to prepare. The people have no food and no weapons, and the enemy has sworn to slaughter them all.

To save the city will take a miracle, but what it has is Orhan. A colonel of engineers, Orhan has far more experience with bridge-building than battles, is a cheat and a liar, and has a serious problem with authority. He is, in other words, perfect for the job.

CLASSIFICATION: Military fantasy.

FORMAT: Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City was published in April 2019 by Orbit. It's available in an e-book, paperback, and hardcover format. 

The book counts 384 pages

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: 
“According to the books (there’s an extensive literature on the subject) there are fifteen ways to defend a walled city. You can try one of them and, if that doesn’t work...What the books don’t tell you is, there’s a sixteenth way. You can use it when you’ve got nothing; no stuff, no men, and nobody to lead them. Apart from that it’s got nothing to recommend it whatsoever.”

I’ve discovered KJ Parker late in my life, through his excellent novellas. I became a believer. Brilliant minds impress me and Parker’s books shine with wit, humor, and clever ideas. He doesn’t delve into magic. Instead, he focuses on politics, finances, and logistics of war. 

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City narrated by Orhan, an engineer turned emperor, tells the story of the Great Siege. The Walled City has poor perspectives, what with thousands of enemies around it, plus lack of food and water. But little things like that won’t stop a Colonel of Engineers. 

Orhan colorizes the events and his role in them, but I couldn’t help but root for him. I have a soft spot for cynics, especially when they discover they can still act for a higher good (no matter how stupid and pointless in a longer run). Even when they lie and cheat along the way. Orhan’s actions stem mostly from logic, calculation, and luck. Somehow the fates favor him and allow him to wriggle out of the fix.  

The story doesn’t demand a lot of world-building, but what we get gives a sense of the current state of affairs at large. Apart from interesting military and personal conflict, Orhan presents also a racial and class differences that divide the society even in the face of almost inevitable doom. 

With a steady pacing, solid, lean writing and variety of twists, the novel keeps on surprising the reader, but it doesn’t prepare him for an abrupt ending. What can I say? I wanted more. heck, I still want more.

CONCLUSION: Highly recommended, especially for readers enjoying sarcastic, witty, irreverent, and unreliable narrators. 


Friday, July 12, 2019

The God King's Legacy by Richard Nell (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski and Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website
Order The God King's Legacy 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 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: God-king Marsun, the 'Demon King', has ruled for centuries. But nothing lasts forever. Once just an illiterate tribal chief, Marsun trapped an ancient evil within his mighty soul, united scattered tribes, then retreated from the world. But his sacrifice is all but forgotten. Technology marches on; new ambitious powers rise; unhappy lords plot rebellion; and from every corner of civilization, savage enemies gather. The God King's legacy has just begun...

From the author of Kings of Paradise comes two tales in a world of knights and demons, muskets and cannon fire. Flintlock fantasy mixed with the grit of Game of Thrones.

1) Rebellion of the Black Militia - Johann Planck, bastard and scribe of the god-king's tower, is yanked from his peaceful life of academia, and ordered to capture an immortal creature of darkness. If the knight he's accompanying doesn't kill him, or the demon 'Sazeal', fresh rebellion just might.

2) Devil of the 22nd - A crumbling empire. An abandoned army. Kurt Val Clause is an ordinary soldier trying to keep it all together because no one else has the balls. Now he has one chance to win a glorious future, die in agony, or lose his soul. He just might do all three.

FORMAT/INFO: The God King Legacy is 294 pages long divided over two novellas and further divided into nine and ten chapters. This is the prequel omnibus volume to the God King Chronicles.

The book was self-published by the author on June 10th, 2019 and it's available as an e-book and paperback. Cover art and design is provided by Shawn T. King.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (MIHIR): This is the first prequel novella in the God-King Chronicles by Richard Nell, the author who has written the magnificently twisted Kings Of Paradise. Not to lie down with just that acclaim, this Canadian bugger went ahead and created another story which in my estimates is more complex and cooler than the Ash & Sand one.

The first novella "Rebellion Of The Black Militia" focuses on Johann Planck, an apprentice-scribe who's devoted his young life to the study of demons, their lore and the history of their kingdom. Introverted, pious and judgmental to a fault, Johann is doing his best to prove himself to his Scribery masters. He gets tasked with going to the Humberland province wherein a demon is loose and needs to be re-tethered. Helping him along with task is the deadly warrior named Lamorak the stone knight and a dour persona at that.

Pretty soon the readers and Johann learn that the demon isn't the only problem plaguing the lord and lady of Humberland. There's also perhaps a rebellion brewing or is there something more? All of these events and more force Johann to reconsider what his role is and perhaps what he wants in his life.

Richard Nell does a lot in this novella, not only do we get a whole new world, we also get a flintlock fantasy that's mashed with demons in an epic way. As has been the case with his debut book, characterization is Richard's forte and he excels herein as well. Readers won't like Johann when they meet him but there's more to him as we realize, the same is case with Lamorak and many other characters that we meet. This tale is Richard's take on the knight & his apprentice trope but done from the POV of the apprentice who looks down on the knight and everything else. The effect is darkly humourous and possibly intentional. The story is spread out over nine chapters and we get to see quite a lot of things, there's action, sex, plot twists and a satisfying ending that really made this novella a standout one.

The second novella is “Devil of the 22nd” and focusses on Kurt Val Clause, a veteran sergeant of the red division of the Keevland Empire’s eastern army, and one mean, smart son of a bitch. The empire as well as the military higher ups have all but forgotten about the First division. Kurt and his fellow soldiers have become a renegade unit of sorts, doing their own thing while under the apparent aegis of the emperor. Things take a weird turn when the regiment gets orders for a rescue and recovery of a Ms. Clara Lehmann. Kurt however decides to take those orders and spin them to his own flavor. Things are soon afoot in the Helveti lands where new things will be discovered and legends will be made.

The second novella is a bit longer and more twisted than the first. Kurt Van Clause isn’t a likeable narrator but he is a charismatic sociopath. He twists opinions, perceptions & rumours to his purpose & he has had two decades worth of time to perfect his devilish charm. This story unlike the first doesn’t have any heroes in it. It has soldiers, killers and a demon. But what it also has is a very strong narrative that keeps you hooked with its twists as well as its pace.

Richard Nell certainly has a way with his plots, we can’t really be sure where the story is heading. Plus Kurt and the other soldiers introduced within are certainly a cast worth following. Neither heroes but not outright villains either, the author really makes them human enough to be mildly sympathetic.

Overall this novella is distinctly different than the first one and is more about the mental justifications characters utilize to do things that are morally reprehensible. The story also focuses on a demon similar to the first but the character's interactions are completely different. The ending though is really unpredictable and sets up an interesting twist for the main series.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (LUKASZ): As a huge fan of Nell’s Ash and Sand trilogy, I had to check this novella. And I liked it a lot. Once again Nell impressed me with character-development, brisk pacing and engaging plot.

Our POV character Johann is an apprentice scribe, a decent, well-educated lad, but more of a thinker than a doer. When a famous knight yanks him from his quiet, peaceful life of academia, and tells him to capture a powerful demon, Johann’s far from thrilled. Especially when the Knight he used to admire behaves like a brute who smokes all the time and enjoys spitting his phlegm in sacred places.

The mission turns from dangerous to insanely dangerous when the pair discovers that a rebellion is brewing in the King’s Lands. Johann gets promoted to a sergeant, gets a musket. He needs to stop the rebellion, survive, and capture a demon. Easy.

The characters and their development are excellent (for a novella format), and Johann and Lamorak’s interactions regularly switch between hilarious (Johann’s naïve outrage at his companion’s uncouth behaviour) and unsettling (Lamorak kills his enemies without remorse and has no scruples to slay underage traitors). Their conflicting morals bring nice tension to the story.

Despite short-length, the world-building feels rich and ingenious. I loved the concept of binding a demon to use his powers and the flintlock elements. Action and battle-scenes thrilled me, and I loved the ending. An excellent novella and a good introduction to Nell’s writing. Highly recommended.

I’ve officially read everything Richard Nell had published. Now I need to hack his computer and read things he hasn’t published yet.

Kurt ‘the Devil’ Val Clause has served the empire of Keevland since he was twelve. Somehow he survived twenty years of war, most of it at the front, and now he schemes for power, plunder and glory. He’s cruel, cynical and rotten to the core. But in Nell’s world fouler things than he exist, and Kurt will have to face a challenge unlike any other.

As a huge fan of a novella format, I think Rich Nell does things right. His pacing, characters, plotting and twists are top-notch. Devil of the 22nd presents a cruel world in which power-hungry sociopaths shape reality. Don’t expect to find any redeeming qualities in Kurt and his people. They‘re murderers and scums.

Most of them would happily continue a pointless life of abuse, but Kurt has a vision, and he wants to secure a place for them to live and prosper. I didn‘t like Kurt. But I liked his story and an excellent twist near the end of the novella. He craved power, and he got it, just not the one he expected or desired :)

Once Nell wraps up Ash and Sand series, I would love him to revisit God-King chronicles universe. I need more demons in my life.

CONCLUSION (MIHIR): Richard Nell has created a very intriguing world and a magic system premise that's very sparsely mentioned here but is very, very imaginative. Think the demon lore of Peter V. Brett's the Warded Man saga mixed with Django Wexler's flintlock fantasy and you'll get an idea of where this series might be heading. As for me, I can’t wait for the author to write the first full length book in The God King Chronicles as I wanted more of this fascinating world.

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