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Monday, October 14, 2019

Cover Spotlight: The Company Of Birds + Q&A with Nerine Dorman (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order The Company Of Birds over HERE (US) & HERE (UK) & HERE (Rest Of the world)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Firebird

Ever since I read The Firebird, Nerine Dorman’s entry in the 2018 SPFBO edition. I was enthralled by the plot, the characterization and the world-building ensconced within the novella. It was a refreshing taste of how talented Nerine is and even though The Firebird wasn’t a finalist. I wanted to see what she would write next and was very excited to hear about her next book which would be a full length one. The Company Of Birds is its title and it’s being published by Immanion Press. Nerine showcased the brilliant cover a few days ago and she was even more kind to answer a few questions about it as well as the book below:

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic Nerine and thank you for your time. To start with, could you tell us what inspired you to be a writer in the first place, and can you tell us about your writing journey so far? Anything else you’d like to share about yourself and your past?

ND: Oh, goodness, the classic question. My very earliest memories involved peering at the spines of the books in my parents' collection. They had these two massive teak bookcases they kept in the lounge, and I remember from a young age being fascinated by the stories locked within – stories that were at first out of my reach. For me books were something magical, and authors were these mystical beings who could take an idea and make it into an object that can be touched, seen and smelt. And I wanted to be an author. Badly. There's a particular kind of vanity attached to the idea that my name will similarly jump out at a person casually browsing a bookshelf.

My writing journey so far has been what I call A Very Long Epic. It's most certainly a calling, a passion, because if I had been doing this for the money, I'd have starved a long, long time ago. I've seen many authors lose their passion for writing because they get caught up in the whirlpool of marketing and sales and Amazon algorithms, and I decided that chasing after that elusive best seller status was not for me.

Storytelling is something that is a vital part of me. So long as we have methods to write and share stories, I'll be telling them – if it means that I can give people a few stolen moments of wonder that can set them dreaming.

Q] The Company Of Birds is a special book for you. It’s being released by Immanion Press which was founded by Storm Constantine. Can you tell us more about how this book came to be selected by them and why this was such a special thing for you?

ND: I got to know Storm through her Wraeththu mythos – a setting which she has so graciously opened up to other writers through the anthologies and novels that she publishes. Her writing is magical and otherworldly, and she's one of the authors I look up to as being one of my guiding lights. She was also the very first editor to write me my very first rejection letter, for my novel Khepera Rising, and over the years I hoped that I would one day write the novel that she would eventually publish.

The Company of Birds is that novel.

I knew I was onto something special with this book, but it's a difficult story, slow-moving, textured. It's about life, death, failed love, regret ... all the things a woman past the first bloom of youth will feel when she starts edging to her middle years. It's not a fantasy novel about dashing heroes or vast, conquering armies. Instead it's more subtle, about the power of friendship, losing your parents, letting go of your past, and of finding your own true voice after allowing others to talk over you for so many years. And how finding your personal truth can lead to earth-shattering consequences. Most importantly, I wrote this book for me, and so far I've found that it's resonated with others who've read it.

Q] As far as titles go, The Company Of Birds is certainly an intriguing one. Can you tell us whether you choose this title or was it suggested by your editor?

ND: I suck at finding book titles, but I'll shamelessly admit to offering a nod at Neil Jordan and Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves. And I'm sure I had more than a few discussions with friends and fellow authors until The Company of Birds stuck.

(Cover art by Æiden Swan & Design/typography by Thomas Dorman)

Q] Let’s talk about the stunning cover that you unveiled a few days ago. Please tell us about the artist and designer and how they collaborated to come up with that gorgeous piece?

ND: I've been a huge fan of Æiden Swan's art for a while now, and when I asked her if she'd collaborate with me and my husband, Thomas Dorman, on it, she was all over the project. Naturally, I was (and still am) thrilled. It's always a bit of a risk doing something different, especially in an industry that relies on the shorthand of cover design to communicate quickly and clearly what the book is about. However, considering that this book is already so far off the beaten track in terms of popular trends in fantasy, I figured I may as well create something special, a work of art.

Now my husband does graphics in the film industry, and he's worked on some pretty big productions like The Dark Tower, Warrior, Maze Runner 3, and The Watch, among others – and he has an eye for typography, colour and composition like it's no one's business. So I was in good hands under his guidance. He did all the heavy lifting, which left me to handle the finer touches of the design.

Q] What were your main pointers for your cover artist & designer as you went through the process of finalizing it? What were the main things that you wished to focus on in it?

ND: I told Æiden and Thomas that they had carte blanche (which is important when you're collaborating as opposed to commissioning) – though I supplied both of them with a mood board, and we met up for an hour or so to make sure we were all on the same page. Æiden checked in with a few compositional scamps, and we chose a design that would work best. Because her work is so time-consuming, there were no do-overs, so we had to be sure that we were getting it right. When she was done, Thomas worked his magic with his typography and then image retouching to ensure that we had enough background for the text, and it all went pretty quickly after that. Our focus was to create an engaging visual, and you have to admit there's a certain degree of magnetism in those all-too-human eyes peering at you through the dreamlike owl face.

Q] How did the inception of The Company Of Birds occur? What were some of the inspirations for you during its writing?

ND: Music was big for me. I often find that particular artists will provide the soundtrack while I write – so for me this was a steady diet of Dead Can Dance, Arcana, Wardruna, Heilung, Peter Bjärgö, Danheim and other similar projects. Threaded through this was the idea of the bird messenger – a theme that recurs often enough in my stories. In this case it was a made-up bird – a dusk owl, that looks a little like a silver-grey barn owl. And if anyone's watched Labyrinth, they'll understand why the owl can be so mysterious and enigmatic.

Q] Similar to its ornithological predecessor The Firebird, The Company Of Birds deals with question of identity amidst societal and familial upheaval. What would you say is the thematic and literal core of this story?

ND: Hah! You've got me there. As an author it's difficult to see the forest for the trees in terms of overarching themes that occur in subsequent works. The core of this story is about finding one's true will. It's about second chances, and it's about discovering that each individual, no matter how ordinary, can do extraordinary things if they align themselves with their true will.

(Cover art by Æiden Swan & Design/typography by Thomas Dorman)

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

ND: The setting is very much inspired by southern Africa's colonial history – so issues it deals with include colonialism (and inevitably racism) and the distorted society that comes into being where there are no convenient answers to problems. The main character, Liese ten Haven, is already quite progressive in terms of her outlook compared to some of her peers, which causes trouble for her in a largely patriarchal society where she's one of the few who've succeeded in a traditionally male-dominated workplace (an academy of magi).

She feels that she's missed the mark – her husband has just divorced her and she realises she's stuck in an academic post that is going nowhere. But if this was just the story of an incipient mid-life crisis, there wouldn't be much of a novel. Liese crosses paths with a strange tribesman, who sets her on a quest that will change her entire world.

We have soul-shifting bird shamans, fire mages, civil war ... and plenty of academic intrigue (if that can be considered exciting!)

Q] Is The Company Of Birds a standalone story or is it book one of a new series?

ND: Haha, Storm and I had this discussion not so long ago. I'd like for The Company of Birds to stand alone, but the world has such depth and breadth, and I've left threads that I intend to pick up in a year or so. Liese's story has a full arc, and if she does return, her role will be secondary. So, let's (tentatively) say yes, that there may be more, but it's taken me half a decade to reach the point where the book is being unleashed upon the world, and I need a little time to catch my breath.

Q] So what can readers expect from this book and what should they be looking forward to according to you?

ND: This book is strange. It doesn't rush off on fetch quests or great battles. It meanders and it shows you a different world. It's filled with magic and musings.

Also, my proofreader told me that after she read A Certain Scene We Won't Discuss For Fear of Spoilers, she had to go lie down for an hour or so. So expect to have your emotions wrenched a little too.

Q] In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers?

ND: I'm not going to lie: this was a difficult book to write. From the moment where the plot bunny bit me right through to the point where I sent Storm the final files, this book took TIME. The first draft was easy enough – I had that nailed in a few months. The book went out on sub and did a round on the query mill. So that was another year gone. I happened to mention the book in passing to Storm; she offered to look at it, and less than a week later she sent me a seven-page editor letter. Which promptly took me a year and a half to implement because the book was broken in ways that needed time for me to untangle threads, weave new ones and somehow make it all hang together. And yet it has all worked out, and I'm glad for Storm having seen something special in this story, and for all her patience with my soul searching, late nights and long, mumbled conversations with my friends in the Skolion co-operative as to how I can make this book shine.

This is a heart book. Folks will either love it or leave it, and that's fine with me. For those of you who fall in the former category, thank you for stepping into my world.


Order The Company Of Birds over HERE (US) & HERE (UK) & HERE (Rest Of the world)

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Sometimes a hero must burn all she holds dear.

Unrest brews in the city-state of Uitenbach, but its magi continue their work, even though the world outside the hallowed grounds of their academy seems to be tearing itself to pieces.

Newly divorced and still smarting from her philandering ex-husband’s rejection, Maga Liese ten Haven doesn’t want to draw attention to herself. When the mysterious Atroyan tribesman Malagai reveals to Liese that she is the heir to a forbidden magical legacy, she is thrust into a conspiracy that may foment a civil war. If she fails, her magic will consume her.

But what if the only way to right the wrongs her people have done to the Atroyan nation is to sacrifice everything?

A fantasy novel of warring factions in a richly-developed world. Fire magic is outlawed and those who wield it punishable by death. Liese ten Haven, a maga in the city-state of Uitenbech, finds herself in possession of a deadly legacy.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Vine Witch by Luanne G. Smith (reviewed by Łukasz Przywóski)

Official Author Website
Order The Vine Witch over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Luanne G. Smith lives in Colorado at the base of the beautiful Rocky Mountains, where she enjoys reading, gardening, hiking, a glass of wine at the end of the day, and finding the magic in everyday life.

FORMAT/INFO: The Vine Witch is 263 pages long divided over 35 numbered chapters and is the first book in the Vine Witch series. Published by 47North in October 2019, it's the author's debut novel. The cover art and design are by Micaela Alcaino.

OVERVIEW: I’m not sure why I’ve picked The Vine Witch. I have no interest in wine and even less in books with a significant romance arc. I won’t say no to a glass of good wine or to a good romance book, but I don’t actively seek them out. Maybe it was the cover? No idea. To my surprise, I adored every second of Smith’s debut. A sign that I’m growing old and sentimental for sure. 

The Vine Witch, set in a fantasy version of rural France, blends romance, folklore, witchcraft, and murder mystery. Elena Boureanu, the titular vine witch, had never suspected she’d spent seven years eating moths and slugs to survive in a fetid pond, turned into a toad. Focused on making Chateaux Renard's wines exceptional, she paid little attention to petty rivalries or little things. And yet someone has cursed her and turned into an animal.

When she regains her body, she wants nothing more than revenge against whoever stole seven years of her life. She suspects it was her ex-fiancé Bastien Du Monde, ambitious, business-savvy and charismatic vigneron, and she plans to make him pay. First, though, she needs to regain her power. When she returns Chateaux Renard, her home, she discovers it was sold to a scientifically minded ex-lawyer Jean-Paul Martel who seeks a new vocation in life. Her Grand-Mere and magic teacher grew old and lost her edge and the vine that made Renard’s Domaine famous lost its magic:

She took a sip of the wine to chase the memory from her mouth, but if she was looking for relief she was vividly disappointed. None of the musky hues of spice and rose petals the Renard vineyard was famous for hit her palate. It was all chalk and mushrooms.

A closer look at the vineyards make things obvious - someone cursed them. Elena can deal with an intricate spellwork, but her magic reserves are still weak and when Bastien is found dead and Police consider her the prime suspect, things get complicated.

Shaped by historically accurate details, the story feels true to the era of the late Belle Époque. Smith enriched it with fascinating details particular to that era (fashion, automobiles, pre-industrial wine and cheese making practices). I'm sure she's also made a lot of research on witchcraft, witch trials, and herb lore as they're very detailed. All of this in less than 300 pages, something I highly appreciate as it proves the skillful writer can find a perfect balance between world-building, pacing and characterization.

The plot, while slightly predictable in places, impressed me with a great balance between murder mystery, action, and slow-burn romance. Just when I thought I had everything figured out, Smith threw few clever surprises at me, the perfect bitter-sweet ending being one of them. Well done.

Both main characters and their sidekicks feel human. Elena and Jean-Paul are three-dimensional and their romance is believable and engaging. I prefer Elena, but I can see female readers falling for the handsome lawyer whose life is just about to turn upside down.

Elena is a strong lead. Fierce, intelligent, and hungry for knowledge, she's easy to like and admire. Her past remains mysterious but we learn she has mastered divine arts while still in her teens. Hungry for more, she sought the magic she hadn't been taught (including blood magic) and developed an extraordinary talent known as shadow vision. She knows there’s a glorious magic to be found in the darkness and she wants to understand it. I admit I have a soft spot for protagonists with a darker side and Elena fits the archetype well. 

Jean-Paul believes in science and innovation. He treats the mention of magic as the superstitious nonsense and has no interest in seeing it applied in his vineyard. When his beloved laws of physics, doctrines of religion and the empirical evidence of the senses are rendered useless by what he'd seen, he must reassess his beliefs. Smith portrayed his inner conflict well and found a clever way to change him.
And now the romance. I liked it - perhaps because, while important and highlighted, it never overshadowed intricacies of the plot. Jean-Paul and Elena share a strong chemistry. Their beliefs are at odds and this adds some tension to their budding relationship. 

Besides the vine magic and slow-burn romance, I enjoyed the investigation of the murder mystery and Elena’s focus on discovering the witch wielding blood magic. This part of the story went into dark places and added another layer of complexity to the story and characters. 

I need to mention and praise the prose. Rich, nuanced and appealing to all senses it makes reading The Vine Witch a worthwhile experience. I loved the way the author described tastes, smells, landscapes and emotions. Here’s a little sample:

Despite his desire to leave, the fresh-baked smell captivated him, and he reached for the sticky tart. One bite and the full complexity hit him. The pastry tasted of fruit and nuts, butter and brown sugar, and the rich spices of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom, all heat-seared by fire. Sweet, yes, but also sophisticated, heightened by a hint of salted brandy. Not unlike a well-aged wine, he thought, the way the flavors evolved on the tongue. 

Descriptions of food and wine made me salivate. Description of the Chanceaux Valley made me want to visit it. When a book does it to me, I don't need another proof it's well written.

If you’re in the mood for witchcraft, romance, and the wine, I have an inkling you're going to love The Vine Witch.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Nothing Within by Andy Giesler (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order The Nothing Within over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Andy has been a library page, dairy science programmer, teacher, technical writer, healthcare software developer, and official Corporate Philosopher. He grew up in a town in Ohio Amish country. He's a husband, father, and nonprofit web consultant living in Madison, Wisconsin.

FORMAT/INFO: The Nothing Within is 556 pages long and is a standalone dystopian novel. The author self-published it in June 2019. The cover art and design are by Jeff Smith Graphics.

OVERVIEW: I’m not partial to post-apocalyptic stories but Giesler’s fresh and unusual take on the subject won me over. The Nothing Within is the first rural dystopia I’ve ever read.

An apocalyptic event known as The Reckoning has wiped out civilization in North America leaving only a few rural communities cut off from the outside world. Their inhabitants live simple lives filled with menial tasks and rarely travel outside their villages. It’s too dangerous as chimeras, violent hybrid creatures, roam the wilds. The reasons for travel include buying food and breeding - interbreeding in a small village would lead to troubles and disabled children.

Root is a blind young woman who struggles to fit in, but she’s too curious and too straightforward for her own good. When she hears a voice in her head, the Nothing within her stirs and gives her serious enhancements (increased speed and strength, and more, but I won’t spoil it to you). The Nothing Within is… well, I can’t tell you what it is as the author reveals it near the end of the book.

The Nothing Within blends fantasy with science-fiction. The story develops in two timelines - present and the past one. The main arc focuses on Root trying to survive and understand what’s happening to her and who she really is. The other one presents events that lead to the Reckoning. Clues and important data are scattered throughout both narratives. While I appreciate it intellectually I also admit that the past storyline lacked a strong lead with a distinct voice Root has. 

Root is an excellent, if unreliable, storyteller. She often admits that her memory isn’t what it used to be, and it plays tricks on her. We’ll never know if and to what extent the time has warped her recollection of the events. She narrates the story of her life to a gathering of listeners. 

Giesler has created fascinating rustic, spartan, and ordered world shaped by Amish principles, something I rarely see in fiction. I liked the character development as well. Both Root and Ruth Troyer start as weak and naïve, but develop inner strength and become the leaders of their communities. As cliche as it may sound, the skillful use of POV makes it a pleasure to read. The uniqueness of the setting coupled with strong characterization makes The Nothing Within intriguing and satisfying. 

Giesler takes time to develop the world and characters, though, so the pacing in the first half of the book feels off. Things get together well, but you’ll need the patience to get through parts of the text. 

While I enjoyed the blend of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and mystery I also think that sometimes Giesler tried too hard to include social commentary about the dangers of bioengineering and science. I like simplicity but I also choose to believe science can do more good than bad in the longer run. 

Everything depends on who and how uses it and unfortunately those who have access to powerful tools aren’t always the people for the task.
Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Interview with Jesse Teller (interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Onslaught Of Madness over HERE

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic Jesse and thank you for your time. To start with, you self-published your debut in 2016 and since then have published 10 books including an omnibus and have participated in a couple of short story collections. You seem to have quite the writing speed. Pray tell us about how you managed to write so many books in such a small amount of time.

JT: When I started writing books, one thing I realized early on was that I wasn't any good at it. I needed to train myself on how to do the job before showing it to the world. So I just focused on writing. I set up a schedule of writing 3,000 words a day, and I just got to work. 3,000 words a day shakes out to be about nine and a half pages. And so, nine and a half pages at a time, I started building my world. It took a couple of short novels, and a couple of really long ones, before I was confident that I knew how to write. And then I went back and rewrote the books I was unsatisfied with to get them where I wanted them. In doing that I had trained myself how to write a book and get the desired effect. But I kept writing, refusing to publish, until I had written for twelve years, 3,000 words a day.

Back then I would finish a book, put it in a box, and mail it to myself. This is a poor man's way of copyrighting his own work. It's under an official date stamp. So I would just write one and put it in a closet, get started on the next. I did this for 12 years. Every book I created, I tied in to the ones before it. And before long, I had crafted a pretty huge world. In 2016, I started publishing. I published my first book, got a few reviews, things were going really well. A couple months later I published my first short story collection. When I published my third book that October, I realized that six months was a pace I could keep up. I could pull a book out that had already been written, send it through two editors while designing a cover for it, and get it out by the end of six months. I got to write for twelve years before adding the pressure of any deadlines. Twelve years of just setting it aside. If I stopped writing books right now, and just published the ones I had in the closet, I could publish books until 2031 at a pace of two books a year, which includes five completed series.

Q] Onslaught Of Madness is a special book for you. One can call it a capstone to your previous books and short stories. Why was this such a special thing for you?

JT: My world is set up on a timeline that, until a couple of days ago, did not make sense to anybody reading my books. Every book, every story, is headed with a number of years before "The Escape" or a number of years after. Everything is built around this one event that changes history forever, and those years and that heading have been included in every book I've published for the last three and a half years. Anybody reading those books would have to face the mystery of what The Escape is. With the release of Onslaught Of Madness, I have shown what The Escape is. Its full ramifications are not known yet, but Onslaught, depicting the Escape, becomes the central event all the other books can be arranged by. Everything I've written now falls on a timeline that either happened before Onslaught or after Onslaught.

Reading Onslaught gives you a starting point for all of my work. But there's this real interesting thing I've noticed happening because of the release schedule I have chosen. You can start this world at any entry point currently out there. You can walk in through any of the standalones, through the trilogy, or through Onslaught. And eventually it all makes sense. However, if you enter through the trilogy, meeting those characters first changes your interpretation of the rest of the work. If you come in through Liefdom first, you'll feel completely different, and have a completely different experience than if you enter through The Manhunters.

Also, with each series, and each standalone telling a single story, you can read just those pieces and walk away. If you read Liefdom, there's no mandate insisting that you read everything else. Any reader looking for short stories will be satisfied with Legends of Perilisc. Anyone looking for a standalone will be satisfied with the standalones I've released. If you're looking for a trilogy, or if you're looking for a massive world, each one of those can be found. The reader decides their level of involvement. This is why Onslaught is so important, because it places everything on its timeline.

Q] Since all of your books are set in the same world, a lot of planning must have gone in creating a detailed world with history, geography and magic system. How did it all begin for you?

JT: I played a lot of DnD. Started playing Dungeons and Dragons at six or seven. My junior year of high school, the idea was introduced to me of creating my own world in which to play the game, so that I was not relying on the creators of Dungeons and Dragons to dictate maps to me, or races, or cultures. That was in 1994. So in 1994 I started putting together my own world. I told hundreds of stories, creating different nations, political systems, and characters. Testing out what worked and what didn't. When I started writing the books, I had an idea of what characters I wanted to use as inspiration to create new stories in that world.

In 1998, my wife was in college for graphic design, and we sat down and created the first map of Perilisc in her computer. We were then able to print it out, make notes on it, adding cities, lakes, rivers. We were able to draw new nation lines. Every new map drawn, every new city created, was entered into the master map in the computer. In this way I was able to create, over the span of my life since I was seven, hundreds of characters, hundreds of storylines, and one complete world to draw inspiration from in creating my work.

Now some things were there and some things weren't. The world of man was pretty well detailed. The world of the fey was one big question mark. None of that existed before I started writing Liefdom. A lot of my work takes place in Hell. And although I did run a Dungeons and Dragons game in Hell, very little of that game was used when creating the actual landscape and intricacies of the Hell that's in my books. This works really well because, when I enter a book, it provides me with a baseline to start with while also giving me room to discover new things.

Q] The Series title is the Madness Wars and certainly is an intriguing one. Can you tell us why you chose this title and what you think it encapsulates?

JT: The title works on two levels. The first is, all war is an exercise in madness. So, it touches on that. But even more so, the main character of the book is named Rextur Cherlot. He is a warlord for a nation called Drine. Drine is bent on world domination and all of its warlords are given horrifying names to strike fear into the hearts of the entire world. The name Rextur was given, when he earned his first legion, was The Madness. In this series, Rextur encapsulates the madness of this nation, its pure lunacy displayed by its endeavor to enslave everyone, conquer everything, and destroy all that does not fit into its plan.

Rextur is the most powerful warlord in that nation, and he is the very madness of Drine. The series starts off with the opening of one war, but by the end, he finds himself embroiled in two. I didn't have any idea what to call it for a long time, but finally, after writing three of the books and the companion book, and having many long discussions with my wife, the series name came to us. And after settling on its name, we realized that it was the only thing we ever could have called it.

Q] Speaking a bit more about war, Pope Francis has said, “War is madness… war destroys… War ruins… War is irrational”. What do you make of it and the many wars that you will unleash via this saga?

JT: The concept behind war is, I'm going to build as many weapons that do as much damage as possible, and with these weapons, I am going to slaughter as many people as I possibly can. I'm going to get hundreds of thousands of people involved, whether they want to be or not. In forcing them to kill their enemy I will create within them a crippling amount of hate and hunger for destruction. I have a reason for this, however the people that I force to fight this war usually do not. The foot soldiers on the ground, in most cases, do not understand the true motives behind the war itself, and if they do, very few times do they actually care.

So I have created a force of people hundreds of thousands strong, who are using devastating weapons to slaughter as many people as they can for a cause they may or may not believe in. That is war. It is the absolute definition of madness. That's the reason why I named the greatest warlord the Madness. I call him many times in the book the Madness of Drine.

Q] How did the inception of The Madness Wars occur? What were some of the inspirations for you during its writing?

JT: Part of it was trying to understand why war existed. Once I got in, a good part of it was to show the change in motive that war brings about. You can go into a war with a pure motive, but once the killing starts, that motive is usually gone and it just becomes about death. You can go into war one kind of man, and come out another. I wanted to explore all of these factors. I wanted to understand the soldiers I have met, and that I hear about all the time. Because when you talk to a soldier who has been in a war, you realize very quickly from the things they say that your understanding of war is completely different from theirs. Most of the time, the common civilian is ready to talk about a war, and the soldier is not.

I wanted to understand. I had been through a number of military history classes in college. I knew how wars were carried out, but I didn't understand the emotion of them, and how they changed people. And so, I wanted to write this book to understand that. Of course, I had run the game in Dungeons and Dragons, a couple of times, with a couple of different gaming groups, from a couple of different entry points. So, I had the inspiration of those characters and those stories. But when I got to the actual writing, and I was deep into the emotion of the characters I was writing, I realized the stories I had told in the DnD games were not sufficient. They were not accurate. And I needed to start all over. Almost nothing from the games survived. There were characters that were played that inspired characters in the book, but for the most part, when we were running those games, we didn't understand war.

Q] Let’s talk about the stunning cover that you unveiled over at Fantasy Inn. Please tell us about the designer and how you collaborated to come up with that striking piece.

JT: Well, let's talk about Jenny Zemanek. The covers of my first four books were designed by my wife and I. My wife's a graphic designer, we were happy with them. We had ideas for what we wanted them to look like. We captured those ideas perfectly. However, when we decided to work The Manhunters covers, we did not have a driving vision. And my wife had fallen in love. See, she had been watching, by this time very carefully, the self-published fantasy world, and she had begun to see what Benedict Patrick was putting out. His covers were breathtaking, and she couldn't stop talking about them. She did her research. Through trick and by quick, she found out who his cover designer was. Very sly, very shady process, I think she asked him. Either way, we decided Jenny was our girl.

She had us fill out a form that she had created, asking questions about the book's content, major themes, characters, images, something that could get her started. She wanted examples of book covers we liked and then she took over. She took all that information and came back to us with what she calls inspiration boards. These are a collection of images she has found that inspire her to create a cover that she thinks suits all of our needs. We were instantly excited to be working with her. We loved the direction she was going. And that's how we came up with The Manhunters covers.

When we were done working with all three of them, we knew we wanted her to be our cover designer from that point on. She's never let us down. We created the cover for Legends of the Exiles, getting her mother involved, as Jenny's mother is an illustrator. She illustrated the women on the cover, and I couldn't have been happier with the end product. That only solidified in our mind that we wanted to keep working with her.

Q] What were your main pointers for your cover artist/designer as you went through the process of finalizing it? What were the main things that you wished to focus on in it?

JT: Ever since I started working on the book, I associated the color purple with Rextur Cherlot. So, I decided the first book would be drenched in that color. In The Madness Wars, there is a nemesis relationship between Rextur and another character named Peter Redfist. Peter is king chief of a nation called the Nation of Three. It's him and two other boys. That's his entire nation. We decided we would create an image portraying that nemesis relationship on this cover. So we showed the Nation of Three in opposition to a great bull, the bull being the symbol of Rextur. We wanted to show a lot of landscape to signify how big the world was there.

There was a certain effect with the light we were going for. I really left a lot of the design of this cover to my team, my wife and my cover designer. Pretty much as long as I had my bull, my three boys, and my lighting, I would let them do whatever they wanted. This is what we came up with. I couldn't be happier with it, and I'm excited to see the direction we're going with the other books. We have the cover finished for the next book in the series, and I find it even more dynamic than this one, if that's possible. That cover reveal is not for quite a while, but here in the Jesse Teller camp, we try to get as big a head start on our releases as possible.

Q] You are aiming for a rapid 6-month release with this saga. How much planning and effort did go in making such a schedule. Can you give the readers an insight into this entire process?

JT: Well, all five books of the story itself were written and the tale was finished in 2017. I took a year off. I believe that when you write a rough draft, you need distance from it before you can revise it, so that when you come back you can see what you have actually written versus what you think you have written, because in a lot of cases there's a big difference. Last year, I divided my work time up, and during the day I did revisions to The Madness Wars and used my nighttime hours to write new material. Dividing my time up like this, I was able to edit all five books side-by-side in one year. This meant that the story for Onslaught was still well-seated in my head when I was revising the last book in the series. I used this method so that I could have more control and have better continuity in the story itself.

A Jesse Teller book goes through nine drafts, with a focus through all of them on continuity and accuracy and grammar. So I knew I needed to get started as soon as possible if I was going to make this release date, but I had already finished two of the drafts myself. So we got started. This first book was a real strain on my editors, not because they lack ability, but simply the time management aspect. Neither one of them had ever edited a book of this length before. So both underestimated how long it would take. But we had about a year to play with, so we had enough time. It was just a matter of staying focused and keeping the pedal down.

We started to overlap books immediately. As soon as an editor was done with one book, we'd get him the next in the series. I did the best I could to make sure there were no hold ups on my end, getting my post-edit drafts done as quickly and efficiently as possible. And where we sit now is: Onslaught is done, the second book in the series is all but done, next October's release has been through one editor, and is being prepared to hand off to the next. At this pace, we will have extra time by the end of the series. We will have books waiting for their release day, and all we'll have to do is push the publish button. I can tell you with all certainty that unless there is an unforeseen disaster, I can meet my deadlines. And even if there is some unforeseen disaster, we have built enough time into our schedule that we will still be able to make it. It's all a matter of time management. And that is something we specialize in here at the Teller camp.

Q] So what can readers expect from this book & series and what should they be looking forward to according to you?

JT: My work is full of very serious themes. The overarching theme in everything I've ever written is hope vs. despair, but you can also expect themes like leadership, parenting, gender roles, love. I pride myself in understanding human character. After the childhood I experienced, I went to therapy for 17 years. I studied my behavior and the behavior of everyone around me. I became an expert, after 17 years of study, on the things that make people tick. Motives and emotions. I am able to use that knowledge to create well-rounded characters that are believable and full of depth.

I've got a close friend who's an art teacher for middle school. In his classroom, he says there is one overarching rule, one rule that should be considered at the beginning, during, and end of each project, and that rule is Make it Cool. He wants to see from his students the kind of wild things that go on in their minds. That is also the goal in my work. I want to see the kind of things in my world and in my work that you can't get anywhere else, things you dream of seeing, things that lift you off the couch when you read them, things that have you cheering out loud. That's what I'm going for in my work. That's what you can look forward to.

Q] In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers?

JT: I will tell you the same thing I tell everyone. Everyone I talk to about my work, everyone who reads my work, they all hear the same thing. My wife has said it countless times to everyone she interacts with. There is more coming, and you will not have to wait long to get it. I'm here, and I'm not going anywhere.

Note: Jesse Teller book feature pic courtesy of The Fantasy Hive. Author pic and Onslaught Of Madness art courtesy of the author himself.
Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Interview with Jonathan French (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

(Photo credit: Dyrk Ashton)

Official Author Website
Order The True Bastards HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Grey Bastards
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The True Bastards
Read First Fantasy Book Critic Interview with Jonathan French

We are hugely excited to have Jonathan French back with us on the release day for The True Bastards. I very much enjoyed the return to the Lot Lands and so today chatted with Jonathan about the differences in the sequel, the future of the saga and more...

Q] Welcome back to Fantasy Book Critic Jonathan, thank you for your time. How was the experience with writing this sequel to such a beloved book?

JF: It's my pleasure to be back. Thanks for having me! Writing True Bastards was...long. I started it on January 1, 2017 and it’s just now meeting the public, so about 25 months of writing and several more of editing/revisions. I also started this one before I knew THE GREY BASTARDS was going to be picked up by a major publisher, so this sequel was in process during my transition from self-pubbed author to traditional. It’s my first 100% new work in 4 years, so I’m excited to see what it’s going to do.

Q] This book came with a lot of anticipation and how much of the “fan anticipation” factored into the writing process? Did it cause any additional anxiety besides one for writing the sophomore effort?

JF: That term “sophomore effort” is an interesting one in this case because this is my fourth book! But it still applies as far as being a second book in a series, though it was my first written while with a publisher. Confused yet? there was certainly some stress along the way. Only a small part of that stress came from worry over “fan anticipation” but that gremlin did whisper at me throughout the two years I was writing. I definitely worried it wouldn’t be as well-received because of the different tone and POV.

Q] As I was reading THE TRUE BASTARDS, one thing which struck me was how this book could be read as a standalone while being a proper sequel. I know that certain events would make much more sense (such as Fetching being the chief, the title of TRUE BASTARDS, etc.) but overall someone could easily read this book and still enjoy the story told within. Was this intentional?

JF: I can’t say it was intentional. It’s actually surprising to hear it could work as a standalone. I don’t disagree, but I’m so close to it now that my perspective is hopelessly biased. It’s funny because THE GREY BASTARDS was written as “a stand-alone with potential.” The story wraps up, but there are tendrils still hanging, right? Perhaps this one is “a stand-alone with an optional prequel.” I dunno. I hesitate to endorse that because I haven't yet heard from someone who just jumped straight into THE TRUE BASTARDS.

I’m a big comic book fan so it’s nearly impossible for me not to think in terms of long, connected stories. And in that medium sometimes you do have to jump into “issue # 87” without the benefit of the previous issues. Maybe it was subconscious on my part. Personally, though, with prose novels I wouldn’t want to jump into any “Book 2” without having read the first, but I’ve heard of folks doing that quite often (though it never fails to shock me.) There are just so many little details that come back around in this case.

Q] You wrote & self-published the first book, and then it was traditionally published with minimal changes. With this book, how much of it did change from your original plan (if any)? Were there any things that your editors asked you to flesh out or reduce the scope which made this book stronger?

JF: This was the first book I've written that went through multiple drafts. I write linearly, so my process up to this point was start at Chapter 1, page 1 and just go until the book was done (usually about 18 months later). I would edit and revise as I went, plus a hard look at the whole thing when the manuscript was done. With THE TRUE BASTARDS, that...didn’t happen. I had about 70,000 words of it done (about 60% of the book) when I got “the call” from Crown Publishing. So I had to backburner the sequel and go back to THE GREY BASTARDS to get it ready for the re-release.

During that process I began to rethink some pretty broad sections of the sequel, most notably the inclusion of female slopheads. They weren’t in the original draft because I was worried they would distract from Fetch's uniqueness. It didn’t take me long to see that I hadn’t worried about any side characters diminishing Jackal in Book 1, so why was I doing it with Fetch? So, I went back and included Incus, Ahlamra, and Dacia. But this was the first time I’d ever done such a huge addition/revision prior to a manuscript being complete, so it upended things a bit for me. I pushed through and finished the first draft, but after getting editorial feedback I went a little crazy and ditched more than a third of the book.

I turned in a second draft with a cliffhanger ending which baffled my editor because he wasn't expecting such a huge change. We had a deep discussion about it and ultimately I saw I needed to try again. There was some great stuff in those first two drafts, but they weren’t satisfying sequels at the end of the day. Without a doubt, the female slops make the book stronger and they wouldn’t have been there if not for my editor and his assistant. And I’m glad the cliffhanger didn’t happen because it didn’t give Fetch the kind of ending she deserved. It would have been less her book and more of a “bridge book” which would have been a disservice, I think.

Q] This book is truly all about Fetching and her past as well as the present circumstances of the lot lands. The epicness of the plot is quite scaled down with this book as you keep a narrow focus on the True Bastards and their hoof. Why such a tight focus rather than an expansive multi-POV story?

JF: This series is very heavily inspired by Spaghetti Westerns. Typically, the style of those films is for the landscapes to be these huge, operatic set pieces, but the visual language for the characters is stark, claustrophobic close-ups. That’s what I tried to emulate. The Lot Lands are vast, but they’re a harsh, rustic backwater. There’s no major cities or courts or any of that, so one POV helps retain a feeling of intimacy and isolation. The Bastards as characters are pretty underexposed and ignorant of the broader world. Having one character be our window into their lives limits the amount of perspective and insight we, as readers, gain. We can’t help but see things their way, for better or worse.

Q] If the first book was about obtaining power, the second book would be about maintaining it. But you twisted that scenario by shifting the focus onto Fetching (Isabet) in this sequel. This switcheroo was a definite surprise, your thoughts?

JF: I was surprised that folks were surprised, honestly. With Jackal gone I had to shift to Fetch if I still wanted it to be a Bastards book, because she’s the one still with them. Jackal’s journey became, for me, like a Hitchcock film: what we didn’t see was more interesting. So, yeah:
- Book 1 is all about the pursuit of leadership.
- But 2 is all about the burdens of that leadership and the one bearing them kinda gets left holding the bag.

That was more interesting to me than sticking with the same dude through multiple books. Sometimes the hero’s journey is more like a relay race. It’s all about where the baton is. My goal when the series is done is to show that these books really were about the Bastards, not just the POV characters.

Q] After finishing THE TRUE BASTARDS, I felt the story has come to a logical stopping point but there are more events in play. What can you say about the potential third book and will there be a new POV character within?

JF: There will be another POV shift, yes. And another tonal shift. I can't say much without spoiling things, but I will say book 3 is gonna hurt. A Lot ;)

Q] You dwelt a lot in to the makings of a half-orc (human + orc) in the first book and in this one, we get to know more about the other potential combination. Will you be exploring more of the magic system as well as the nature and origins of the orcs themselves in the third book?

JF: Yup! The nature and origins of the orcs is coming. We have more details than we realize right now, but the big answers are on the horizon. As for a “magic system” I lean more toward the Sword & Sorcery flavor with this series: magic exists, it’s weird and dangerous and inexplicable to those that don’t practice it. That said we will definitely be seeing more types of arcane weirdness moving forward. Maybe even some divine weirdness, too!

Q] So far Hispartha has been a constant thorn for the folks living in the Lot lands but we never get to see events from their perspective. Will the land be explored in the future books?

JF: Sure will! We meet some characters in True Bastards that have some past life experience in Hispartha, so there’s some foreshadowing already happening that points north. The Bastards’ world is getting bigger all the time. One way or another, we’ll see the Kingdom before it’s all over.

Q] What, according to you, is one part of this book that would be a surprise for the readers?

JF: There’s a small moment in THE GREY BASTARDS where Jackal realizes that Warbler has been to Dhar’gest (homeland of the orcs). He asks why he went and Warbler’s reply is “Because some things just have to be faced.” I didn't know the real reason until Warbler told me in Book 2. I think the readers will be as surprised as I was!

Q] A lot of authors have difficulties in making the sequels not be exactly like their famous predecessors? How did you differentiate this book from its illustrious predecessor?

JF: Other than going with a different POV character, you mean? Ha! I mean, I slowed it down in terms of pace. Some might find issue with that. The first book received no small amount of praise for its relentless action and plot twists. I could have replicated that, but I didn’t want this book to feel like a carbon copy of the first just with Fetch instead of Jackal. The very first draft certainly leaned a bit in that direction. And (dovetailing to your previous question) I was afraid that readers were expecting a similar ride. I guess the vote is still out on how that will go.

But this is a different story with a different lead. Fetch is not Jackal. She thinks and acts differently, not only from him, but from how she might have in Book 1 because her responsibilities have grown enormously. I wanted to try to make the reader feel the pressure of being chief. That constant worry. The shell game of keeping people alive and content. It’s not always the most exciting thing and that’s a major theme of the book. Fetch can’t just go swashbuckling her way forward like Jackal did, much as she might want to.

Q] Thank you very much for your time and for the amazing read. I can’t wait to read what you come up with next. Any parting hints you might like to offer your fans for the future ahead?

JF: Thank you! Always fun! Let’s see, a parting hint? I’ll say that book 3 will be thrice the ride...

Monday, October 7, 2019

The True Bastards by Jonathan French (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order The True Bastards over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Grey Bastards
Read Fantasy Book Critic interview with Jonathan French

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Jonathan French was born in Tennessee, and spent his childhood reading comics. He spent his childhood and teenage in the UK and US which fueled his curiosity and spurred his writing roots. His greatest literary influences are Robert E. Howard and Lloyd Alexander. He loves D&D and publicly speaking on topics that are dear to him. He currently resides in Atlanta with his wife, son and cat.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Half orc. All badass. A female chieftain in a brutal wasteland society fights to take what is hers in an action-packed, foul-mouthed fantasy adventure from the author of The Grey Bastards

Fetching was once the only female rider in the Lot Lands. Now she is the proud leader of her own hoof, a band of loyal half-orcs sworn to her command. But in the year since she became chief, the Lots have tested her strength to the breaking point. The Bastards are scattered, desperate, their ranks weakened by a mysterious famine, their fortress reduced to smoldering slag. And their troubles are only growing. A pack of ravening beasts circles their camp, while grasping human nobles hatch a plan that will shift the balance of power in the Lots.

Fetch and her comrades are still standing defiant—they’re Bastards, after all—but even the toughest half-orc can take only so much; and Fetch knows they’re on the verge of ruin.

As she strives to lead her hoof to safety and unravel the plots set against them, Fetching must journey through forbidden elven lands, overcome long-standing hatreds, battle a monstrous wizard of terrifying power—and, worst of all, delve into the dark truths of her own existence.

She’s no stranger to fighting the world, but on this journey, sharp steel and a strong hog won’t be enough. To survive these trials, she’ll have to defy not just her foes but the very nature of the Lots.

The True Bastards is the sweeping, ambitious second entry in the Lot Lands series, an irresistibly thrilling, gritty, foul-mouthed adventure that deepens, expands—and again upends—the Bastards’ unforgettable world.

FORMAT/INFO: The True Bastards is 584 pages long divided over forty-three numbered chapters. Narration is via third person solely by Fetching throughout. This is the second volume of the Lot Lands saga.

October 8, 2019 marks the e-book and hardback publication of The True Bastards and it being published by Crown Publishing. It will also be released in the UK in both Trade paperback and e-book versions on October 8, 2019.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The True Bastards is a sequel that has been heavily anticipated by all those folks who read Jonathan French’s 2016 SPFBO winning title The Grey Bastards. The Grey Bastards was a revelation with its violence, unabashed action and uncouth language. It also showcased Jackal, Oats, Fetching, the Claymaster, and all the other hoof members that lived, squabbled and patrolled the Lot lands alongside the other hoofs. The True Bastards as a sequel not only expands the world scenario but also furthers the insight into characters which we love.

The sequel begins with Fetching who’s now the hoofmistress of the newly re-named True Bastards. Smart, tough and a bad-ass warrior, Fetching has her hands full as she tries to grow her hoof. Maintain diplomatic relations with the others and find out what happens next in the Lot Lands after the Orc incursion. Things however are never as smooth as the True Bastards realize with the loss of their stronghold (after the climatic events of The Grey Bastards). There’s a new entity in the lot lands and they have a target in mind. Things are going from bad to worse as Fetching finds out how heavy it is to bear the crown.

First things first, as sequels go, the first traditionally published one by Jonathan French is a tour-de-force. Let me be clear this sequel will have its fans and detractors, there are some things that fans are expecting which they will not find. They are things that are revealed out of the blue which while stunning, add even more depth to this burgeoning world. So let’s begin with what this book is not, primarily this book is a very different title to The Grey Bastards. That book was an action packed monster, this one is its more contemplative cousin who’s equally deadly but simmers slowly. Fetching as a narrator is very starkly different to Jackal, where Jackal was attack first and ask questions later, Fetching is equally effective at defense and offense. She is also an able leader whose skills get stretched to their limits with all the troubles the True Bastards face.

The action in this series is more personalized as we get lots on one on one sequences as well as some mass scenes. The book however is equally filthy, coarse and gory as was its predecessor. It’s better than predecessor in its overall plot as we get more details about certain specific events from the first book as well as the magic system gets more insight. There’s some huge potential revelations that left me hugely excited for what come in the future.

Going on to the characterization, with more than 500 pages and just one POV character, the author has to really nail down the tone. Jonathan French goes above and beyond in presenting Fetching as more complex character than Jackal was and having a lot more stress placed on her shoulders due to her gender, her birth as well events beyond her control. But face them with aplomb, she does, while being as foulmouthed, tough and brilliant as she’s shown to be in the first book. Jonathan’s decision to shift the focus really pays off as we get to see the bastards truly become a hoof through hellfire (mostly figuratively and some cases literally). Jonathan French also expands the cast as we get a few more female half-orcs (including one who I hope gets a much larger role in the future books).

I was impressed with how the author choose to take a much different path with its sequel. This view might not be appreciated by all the readers as many might want a book similar to the first and it’s this group that’s going to be heavily disappointed. However I believe this book while being different is part of the necessary growing pain that the saga will need to become a special one indeed (and if the last third is any indication, things are about to get very, very brutal and scary with more magic, battles and godly meddling).

With regards to the drawbacks, the book’s place is also sluggish for the first nearly 40-50% as the author lays down a lot of tracks for the book’s plot arc as well as the series arc. While I didn’t mind it that much, there will be those who might not enjoy this slow pace at all. The story revelations that come, create more questions and there are no easy answers to be found. Then there’ Jackal’s reduced role and there’s one particular thread which just barely references what Jackal was upto and it is so very, very tantalizing. I wish the author could have included more of that in this book but it would have this one an even bigger monster. I hope he releases a novella or side-quel that showcases all that Jackal has been upto. Lastly there’s a Dimidium-orc ex machina situation which resolves a complex issue very neatly and this is where that side story would have been very helpful.

CONCLUSION: The True Bastards is a true sequel, it compounds the mysteries, amps up the action and makes you want the next book now. Jonathan French ups the ante as he increases the character cast and showcases how he has improved his already excellent writing skills. Read this book and then like me, count the days until we get the thrice born sequel in the Lot Lands saga.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Growing Things and Other Stories by Paul Tremblay (reviewed by Will Byrnes)

Official Author Website
Order the collection HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Cabin At The End Of The World

"We all know the big bad is coming, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it, yet still we go to our jobs and we chitchat about nothing important with coworkers and we go to dinner and we go to the mall and we go to our dentist appointments and we buy groceries and we make plans with friends and family and we walk and love our pets and we watch TV or read or sit in the glow of our smartphones, and all we’re doing is going through the motions because we can’t stop and think and accept that the pit of dread in our stomach is a pit of knowing. The big bad is coming."
Growing Things is my second exposure to Paul Tremblay’s writing. The first was his outstanding, award-winning 2018 novel, The Cabin at the End of the World. I have not read his earlier horror novels, A Head Full of Ghosts or Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. The reason this matters is that there are a few stories in this collection that use characters from A Head Full of Ghosts. It would certainly enhance one’s appreciation of those to have read the novel. And there is one story among these nineteen that serves as a prequel to Disappearance. Impact officially lost on me.

If you do not mind such things, or have read the requisite novels, then no problem. There really should be few reasons not to thoroughly enjoy Tremblay’s dark tales. Some may be familiar to frequent readers of the genre. Turns out that seventeen of the nineteen have been previously published in anthologies or magazines. But now, together for the first time!...

The approach to the stories varies, from third-person omniscient to first-person narrator to addled first-person narrator. From a story told largely through photographs to a tale told through journal entries. From a choose-your-own-adventure offering to a tripartite querying of a circus seer laid out in a very unusual physical format. There is a story within a story, and one that qualifies as a novella. Sometimes Tremblay will get you close to a character, enough to care, while in other stories the characters are held at a distance, in favor of concept. Be prepared for ambiguity. He even makes fun of himself for this impulse in one of the stories. Monstrous things might be extreme manifestations of fraught emotional/behavioral states, and sometimes the horrors be real.

There are several things that turn up more than once. One is most certainly a fondness for Lovecraftian beasties. There will be tentacles! Teachers recur (Tremblay’s day job is cramming math into high school brains. Maybe using tentacles?) Students get a corresponding degree of attention. Childhood is indeed a powerful source of so much horror. And let’s not forget writers. They are kept busy scribbling away, or being referenced.

Growing Things  Marjorie (14) and Merry (8) are in a tough spot. Recently their father stopped eating, because of the shortage of food, giving his share to his daughters. The lack of food has made him squrirelly, a word their mother—who ran away more than four years ago—used liberally when describing their father. Maybe squirrels were faring better than people, as a mysterious plant has been taking over and destroying everything, everywhere. Marjorie entertains Merry with stories that give us the history of the Growing Thing, while pop is out trying to forage enough to keep them alive, leaving them with a warning, Don’t open the door for anyone! Don’t answer it! Knocking means the world is over! Managing to leave offHave a nice day.”

This story was written in 2010, the girls being brought back for Tremblay’s novel Head Full of Ghosts
I knew very early on in the process [of writing that 2013 novel] that I wanted it to be from the maybe-possessed younger sibling’s point of view. Merry and Marjorie both have literary antecedents (Merry is named after Shirley Jackson’s Merricat and Marjorie is named after Stewart O’Nan’s Marjorie from his brilliant novel The Speed Queen.), but I also found myself returning to two sisters I wrote about in…“Growing Things.” - from More2Read interview 
The notion for the story came from a friend reporting weeds in North Carolina growing ridiculously fast. Apocalyptic scenarios will pop up again in the collection

Swim Wants to Know If It’s As Bad as Swim Thinks – SWIM is sometimes taken over by an intense chick. Apparently her behavior when under that influence is not the best. Everyone in town hates her. Might, just maybe, have something to do with drug addiction, as she refers to a ball of meth she had swallowed. She has lost custody of her daughter, but aims to get her back, and does something desperate. Giant smokestacks are heading her way as she tries to figure a way out.

Something About Birds – This is a send-up of the horror writer community, as a fan who just interviewed a famous horror writer gets an invite from said writer in the form of a dead bird head, his ticket to a small gathering in three days. It gets seriously weirder from there. Do you really want to get to know that reclusive writer better? See his inspirations? His dark thoughts? Sure you don’t want to reconsider?

The Getaway – Worcester, MA does not get a lot of attention in fiction, but
that was sort of a story for hire at the time. There was an anthology, it was going to be called “Supernatural Noir.” So they wanted a supernatural element mixed with a crime story, and at the time I'd written a few crime novels, so that was kind of where I was approached. But I think with most of my New England stories, I like the idea that there is this history so you can use it and add to it — or more often than not, I like to tweak it a little bit, or maybe subvert some of the expectations of what a New England story would look like, or in the case of Worcester, a place that really isn't written about very often, and show that side of New England as well.” – From WGBH News interview 
A team of lowlife sorts pulls a robbery, but then begin to vanish one by one. Nice local color, a taste of Tremblay’s noir skills, and a hefty dose of comeuppance.

Nineteen Snapshots of Dennisport – Sometimes we see events we cannot deal with, particularly if what we have seen is horrifying, and if we are at a tender age. And perhaps we are able to see only with the perspective of time. Nothing supernatural in this one, but the events certainly contain plenty of horror. It was inspired by the short story 23 Snapshots of San Francisco by Seth Lindberg.
I basically retook my own childhood vacation at a place in Cape Cod that we rented once. It was a chance to turn nostalgia on its ear and make it dangerous. I do think nostalgia can be a threat in the way it blurs over the messy parts of your history. - from the Slant interview 
Where We All Will Be – Years after being finally diagnosed and treated for a behavior issue as a kid, Zane is back at his parents house at a time when strangeness is in the world. Moths have emerged en masse, on an abnormally warm winter day. But more is going on as dad drags him to a place that he hopes will be safe.
…the story grew out of anxieties related to the early academic struggles of one of my children. That, and an abnormally warm day in the middle of one of our New England winters that resulted in thousands of moths hatching/waking (I’ll admit ignorance to the moth lifecycle here) and then surely dying a day or two later when the temperatures plummeted. – from More2Read interview 
The apocalyptic urge that Tremblay clearly feels is given another outing here. The story was another one written on request for a collection.

The Teacher Mr. Sorent is not the usual high school teacher sort, but is seen as a cool one, long hair, ear-ring, plays guitar. He shows his students increasingly disturbing videos. Counterpointed with Kate, a student, going through the terrors of that age. Again, not really a spectral tale, but one containing real-world horrors, nonetheless.
This story represents some of my anxieties as they relate to school (both as being a student and a teacher) and how any of us get through those adolescent years and into our scary futures. - from Notes in the book
Notes for “The Barn in the Wild” – Told through notes and journal entries of one Nick Brach on the trail of a missing young man. Fun for the methodology, reminds me a little, in feel if not direct correlation, of The Blair Witch Project. Features a very creepy house. There are elements in here of tribute to Laird Barron, a writer and friend of the author. (The Black Guide and Old Leech are taken from Laird’s work)

[“_____”] – Tremblay returns his setting to a beach that is familiar from family trips.
[This] story was actually written for a specific anthology that came out a few years ago. And the idea is that you were supposed to write a story in reaction to one of H.P. Lovecraft's essays on horror. There was a line in the essay where he said that the horror story really was all about atmosphere. It has to have a weird atmosphere from the beginning or it won't work. And being the contrarian that I can be, I was like, no, first, there's no one way for a horror story to work. So many of my favorite horror stories are grounded in realism. And then when the rug is pulled out from under you, to me, that's like woah. - from the GQ interview
A father is with his two children at the beach when a strange woman plants herself in the middle of their outing, flirts with him and acts as if she is the man’s wife and the kids’ mother. How long would you go along with such strangeness, just to keep from causing a possible scene? Fun payoff.

Our Town’s Monster – Tiller’s Swamp. Lovely town. A very objectified couple, Brent and Hannah, are looking at a house abutting the actual swamp. The realtor positively chirps about the humanoid monster that lives in the swamp. Takes the odd pet now and again, she says, but has not gone after people in rather a while. Reminded me of a Monty Python sketch, maybe with a dose of The League of Gentlemen. Dark native force vs modern humanity? Or a charming local eccentricity? With a moral? Taking on the notion of who writes history and what might be left out as inconvenient.

Perhaps if we were to tell the real monster story and fully confront all the tragedies…we might glimpse an awful and beautiful and most elusive wisdom: of how to love and live with each other and with the terrible knowledge of the unknowable, uncaring, and undiscriminating monster.

A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some are Broken – A sweet choose-your-own-adventure story in which a woman visits the house in which she had grown up, trying to cope with ancient regret over having not stayed in her sick mother’s room until she died.
I wanted to give the character a way out. Because I think most people, or many people, do survive their personal traumas, their personal ghosts. -from Slant interview 
It Won’t Go Away – An author has a dark idea, and it will not go away. Stalked by this idea, he has been taking photos of himself, posting some on line, and sending some to his friend the narrator, a fellow horror writer. There is something decidedly eldritch about the shots, with shadowy areas that cannot be resolved. Were they a sign of something bad to come? We get the story from the narrator, looking back to events leading up to the dramatic moment, then continuing on from there. Really dark, really creepy.
I have attended and participated in many readings hosted by my friends at Lovecraft Arts and Sciences (bookstore and curio/oddities shop in Providence’s Arcade Mall)…After reading Steven Millhauser’s “The Knife Thrower” I thought about writing a story where a mysterious writer comes to town for a reading and does something over-the-top weird…Icky and morbid…
Notes From the Dog Walkers – In this longest piece in the collection, a novella, a high school math teacher and horror writer (now, where have I seen that before?) engages the services of HappyDogServices to do some dog-walking for his 7-year-old pooch, Holly. Several walkers share the task, each providing reports whenever they walk her. The daily reports soon move way past one line “Peed” or Pooped” updates to extended essays on their careers and his. One of the walkers gets both weird and LOL funny in her reports

"I trained Holly to shiver and whine when she hears the phrase 'intellectual property'.”
"I trained her to huff air out of her snout whenever she feels ennui.”

The subject matter is very much about the world of writing and publishing, including Tremblay tweaking himself about his penchant for ambiguity, and wondering why he opted for horror writing. This is a wild ride, with much meta in its mutt DNA, a sort of pop-up video on the world of horror writing.

Further Questions for the Somnambulist – A woman, a man, and a child all seek answers from a circus seer. The Somnambulist of the title. The story consists of each if the three asking questions in a column of the pages, white space used to keep them in the planned, staggered alignment.

This odd little story could rightly be described as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fan fiction. If you haven’t seen the silent movie, you should do so. Everyone has a little German Expressionism in them somewhere. Also, I’m intrigued by the idea of writers using the presentation of text and blank page space to augment the story’s atmosphere or mood. - from Notes

Not my favorite of the group, but a nice closing. 

The Ice Tower – Out of nowhere a seven-hundred-foot ice tower appears in Antarctica. A group is assembled to climb this thing and see if an explanation for its presence can be found. This is not your father’s seven-hundred-foot ice tower, although if your father was a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, maybe named your puppy Cthulhu, well, then it might be. Great fun! In the book Notes Tremblay say he wanted to do a winter/ice horror story, admiring as he does reps of the subgenre such as John Carpenter’s The Thing, the novel and film of Let the right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Stranded by Bracken McLeon, and others.

The Society of Monsterhood – Four scholarship students at a private school endure the slings and arrows of outrageous outsiderhood, until the school bully dents the van that takes them to school. They challenge him to meet them after school at an alley entrance, claiming that a monster lives there. When the bully enters the alley to check out the yeah-sure-I-believe-that monster, he is in for a surprise. When more who challenge the Society of Monsterhood inexplicably vanish, one must wonder if they have somehow conjured a beast. Or did they just grow in maturity, strength and size, and can now fend off mindless attacks?

Her Red Right Hand – Tremblay was asked to contribute a story for an upcoming collection of Hell Boy stories. Has the feel of a fable. An outsider girl, A darkly enchanted well, a need to save a dying parent, and a talent for drawing things that step off the page. Creations coming to life is a common ploy. Perfectly fine story, but felt a bit of an outsider in this collection.

It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks – We see the apocalypse by reference only. A family drives far from home to a familiar country place. That night young Danny hears thunder and lightning or a plane or a bunch of planes or a bunch of thunder and lightning…. ATMs and electronic commerce begin to fail. This has an “On the Beach” feel, and a poignant finale.
It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks is the earliest story in the collection and the first one where I thought, “I can do this.” That was the first time I made uncertainty essential to the story, central to the theme and the “why.” Though it could be hard for a reader to point at any one thing and say, “That’s why it’s a horror story,” I do feel it’s one of the more horrific things I’ve ever written." – from the Slant interview
The Thirteenth Temple – Merry of A Head Full of Ghosts and, in an early iteration, of the first story in this collection, is twenty years older, now under the pseudonym Karen Brissette, (a name that should be familiar to GR veterans, and eerily seems to relate back to the unhinged KB of Notes From the Dogwalkers from this collection) is on a book tour, having written a tell-all of her experiences. A crazed fan of a narrator breaks into her room and she calms him down by telling him a story, so a frame for a Merry/Marjorie tale. Had an M. Night Shyamalan feel to me.
"I’d never write a sequel novel to A Head Full of Ghosts, but I liked that there could be one more, short Merry/Marjorie story to tell."
It had been swirling about in Tremblay’s head for a long time. He knew he wanted it to be the last story of this collection and wrote (or gathered up) the other eighteen tales before settling in to write this one.

CONCLUSION: Best of all, there are many fun reads in Growing Things, which should only secure Tremblay’s rep as one of the best horror writers working today. You probably don’t want to let any grass grow under you waiting to pick this one up.
"Some fears can only be explored by story. Some emotions can only be communicated by story. Some truths can only be revealed by story."
NOTE: This review was originally posted on Will’s goodreads page. Paul Tremblay author pic courtesy of Allan Amato &

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