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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

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

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


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.


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


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. 


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.


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.


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...


Almost there


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

“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.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Duckett & Dyer: Dicks For Hire by G. M. Nair (reviewed by Justine Bergman)

Official Author Website
Order Duckett & Dyer: Dicks For Hire over HERE (US) or HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: G.M. Nair is a crazy person who should never be taken seriously. Despite possessing both a Bachelor's and Master's Degree in Aerospace Engineering and a job as an Aviation and Aerospace Consultant, he writes comedy for the stage and screen, and maintains the blog MakeMomMarvel.Com. Now he is making the leap into the highly un-lucrative field of independent book publishing.

Duckett & Dyer: Dicks For Hire is his first novel, and in a world with a fair and loving god, it would be his last. Alas, he tends to continue. G.M. Nair lives in New York City and in a constant state of delusion.

OFFICIAL BLURB: Michael Duckett is fed up with his life. His job is a drag, and his roommate and best friend of fifteen years, Stephanie Dyer, is only making him more anxious with her lazy irresponsibility. Things continue to escalate when they face the threat of imminent eviction from their palatial 5th floor walk-up and find that someone has been plastering ads all over the city for their Detective Agency.

The only problem is: He and Stephanie don't have one of those.

Despite their baffling levels of incompetence, Stephanie eagerly pursues this crazy scheme and drags Michael, kicking and screaming, into the fray only to find that they are way out of their depth. They stumble upon a web of missing people that are curiously linked to a sexually audacious theoretical physicist and his experiments with the fabric of space-time. And unless Michael and Stephanie can put their personal issues aside and fix the multi-verse, the concept of existence itself may, ironically, no longer exist.

FORMAT/INFO: Duckett & Dyer: Dicks For Hire is 300 pages divided over 32 numbered and titled chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue, and is a standalone novel. The book is currently available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover format. It was self-published by the author on March 30, 2019. Cover art by Tareque Powaday.

CLASSIFICATION: Science Fiction/Humor

"Because when nothing really matters...then everything matters."
Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire is a brilliant blend of science fiction and snarky comedy, just oozing with laugh-out-loud humor and sarcasm. Set in a bustling city very reminiscent of modern day Manhattan, we're dropped into a seemingly normal world of workplace cubicles, laundromats, and fifth floor walk-ups, but that all changes very quickly. Following a trail of lightning strikes and the stench of lingering ozone, we find ourselves tumbling through the multi-verse in hopes of solving a mystery; one that if left unsolved, could destroy all. Once you begin to peel away the layers of banter and wit, there's a truly touching tale of family and friendship hidden within. This is a story of righting wrongs, surviving alongside the consequences of your actions, and seeking the means to change the past, regardless of the painful journey of the finding the truth.

This book is packed to the brim with sensational and strange happenings, including the elusive and enigmatic Sticky Note Specter, multi-verse hopping via exploding persons and tears in the space-time continuum, and people mysteriously disappearing without rhyme or reason - and this is just in the "real" universe. Once we make our way to alternate universes, we're met with knights riding atop their trusty giant rabbits, territorial man-eating hamburgers (you read that correctly), cubist cowboys, and eyeball-laden minotaurs. This book gets more curious and glorious with each chapter, and it's such a treat to read. Clever writing and a plot that twists and turns left me guessing until the final moments. My only criticism is that the ending felt a bit rushed to me, and it may have been more conducive to experience events through the eyes of a different character.

Speaking of characters, Michael Duckett and Stephanie Dyer are two of the most relatable and, for lack of a better word, familiar characters I've read in a long while. Duckett, a strait-laced slave of the corporate world, suffering from social anxiety, and struggling to make ends meet. Dyer, a charismatic, yet nihilistic couch potato, who coasts through life on the coattails of others. They're polar opposites, but balance each other beautifully, and have been the best of friends since childhood. Their relationship is one that feels so genuine, one of loyalty, each always willing to protect the other, despite the disapproval and hurt simmering beneath the surface - a relationship that transcends friendship, and into the realm of family. The quips, the anger and resulting guilt, the heart-to-hearts, all of these things make these characters feel so real, and I love them to pieces.

In addition to our faux P.I.s, the other point of view we're introduced to is that of Detective Rex Calhoun, a very Roger Murtaugh-esque "hard-boiled" detective, who's just too old for this shit. Always finding himself in the most inopportune circumstances, at the most inopportune times, he's the lawful stabilization to the chaotic mess known as Duckett & Dyer, and such a wonderful addition to the story.

Nair has infused this story with such a magnificently organic, (relatively) clean, and oftentimes nostalgic humor that I rarely come across in any genre. The deadpan buddy comedy, unexpected and amusing one-liners, and back-and-forth bickering had me cackling like a fool throughout. Let me set up a scene for you: Duckett & Dyer are being arrested for falsely identifying themselves as licensed private investigators. Dyer exclaims, "I want a lawyer! Is Dick Wolf an attorney? I want Executive Producer Dick Wolf! Am I being detained?" I immediately made the Law & Order 'dun dun' sound, laughed myself to tears, then Googled how to spell the sound in preparation for this review (opinions differ greatly). I can't tell you how many of these I came across, forcing me to put the book down just to regain my composure. Discovering these amazing trinkets sits towards the top of the list of the most satisfying aspects of this book.

I initially went into this book expecting weird and snark, and I happily got that and then some. Nair has created something superbly unique, filled with a refreshing level of creativity rarely seen, making this story tons of fun from the first page of the prologue through the last page of the epilogue. Beautiful character dynamics and unrivaled humor dominate this sci-fi/comedy/mystery mash-up, and the only way to truly appreciate this endeavor is to give it a read yourself. Although this is a standalone, I definitely wouldn't mind spending more time with Michael and Stephanie in the future. If you're looking for a whole lot of laughs, and are willing to roam through strange worlds filled with fantastical blood-thirsty creatures, then Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire is just what you need.

Note: A huge thank you to the author, G.M. Nair, for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order Theory of Bastards over HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Born a long time ago, in another country, Schulman has traveled enough to have vomited on four continents, including once onto a Masai tribesman’s feet.  He, unfortunately, was barefoot.

Her books aren't boring.  For a short time, one was even optioned for a movie with Wes Craven (the director of Nightmare on Elm Street).

She now lives near Boston with her family and runs an energy-efficiency nonprofit called HEET.

FORMAT/INFO: Theory of Bastards is 416 pages long divided over twenty-nine chapters. The book won 2019 Philip K. Dick Award for BEST Science Fiction and was a FINALIST of 2019 Neukom Institute Literary Arts Award for Speculative Fiction.

Theory of Bastards was published on April 24, 2018, by Europa Editions and is available in following formats: ebook, paperback, and audiobook. Cover art and design are provided by Emanuel Ragnisco.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Theory of Bastards is a weird book. But also a brilliant one. It focuses on Francine Burke, a superstar of the biological research, fascinated by whimsical mating habits of different species (finches, humans, primates). She accepts a position in a facility studying primates, including pansexual Bonobos. Frankie finds their promiscuous mating behavior fascinating from the evolutionary point of view. When everyone has sex with everyone how can females be sure if their offspring gets the best genes?

The narrative, divided between Frankie’s current research at the Foundation and glimpses from her past, focuses on the science behind our choices of sexual partners. Don’t worry, it never turns into a boring collection of data. Schulman weaves the research seamlessly into the narrative making the novel unputdownable.

Frankie is cold and distanced, focused on collecting data and proving her new theory that women cheat on men because titular bastards have evolutionary advantages. She tries to approach Bonobos as subjects, not as living and feeling creatures. Not an easy task when you work with such a colorful group of characters. As we get glimpses of Frankie's past, her struggles with the debilitating pain caused by endometriosis, and her strained and unhealthy relationships it gets easier to relate to her and understand her caustic demeanor. It's rare to see this particular ailment pictured in speculative fiction and even rarer to see it done so well.

Theory of Bastards starts and develops slowly until it reaches an unexpected post-apocalyptic turn. When the technology fails, Frankie, her assistant and a group of Bonobos will have to fight for survival. Following scenes show, rather realistically, struggles of people suddenly disconnected from technological advancements they had been using all their lives. I like small scale narratives and Schulman's choice to follow a small group of primates (two people and Bonobos) resulted in an intimate and engaging story about instincts, reason, and emotions appearing in the face of the unknown.

CONCLUSION: I loved Theory of Bastards. It's almost perfect. I'm not sure if it will appeal to fans of edge-of-your-seat-style narratives, but it should engage readers who enjoy a literary blend of academic research, evolutional psychology, and philosophy. It offers a brilliant mix of ecological and speculative fiction and proves that a skilled writer can turn the scientific study of human and bonobo sexual preferences into exciting fiction.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Interview with SL Huang

Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Zero Sum Game
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Null Set

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little bit about yourself. Who is SL Huang? And why should everyone be reading your books?

Because they’re awesome! And math is awesome! Ha.

I’m an MIT graduate, Hollywood stuntwoman, and firearms expert who decided to write some books about math and guns. Billed by Tor as “the geek’s Jack Reacher,” they’re nonstop action-packed thrillers, and the main character’s superpowers are being able to do math really, really fast. Which she uses to kill people. As one does with math.

As a nonwhite woman, it was also important to me to make them very diverse books, filled with people who look like me and the friends around me in Los Angeles. And I do thrill in writing Cas, my main character, as something of an antihero who is also a woman—I think we have far too little female representation in the dark, snarky, and hypercompetent category.

When and why have you decided to become an author? 

I don’t think I ever really decided so much as I was always writing, since before I can remember. I’ve always, always made up stories and I’ve always, always been writing them down.

The clearer decision was when to start publishing. Aside from early childhood dreams of being an author and publishing Real Books—I did have those, though I also had dreams of being an astronaut and President—I didn’t have a strong desire to publish my fiction until I wrote Zero Sum Game, which is actually my fourth novel. Writing had for so long been the thing I did “just for me” that it was a big change to decide I was at the point where I wanted to share!

Before we get any further there’s this one thing I need to ask you about. On your website you mention that you were lit on fire four times, three times on purpose. Can you elaborate? 

Sure! As a stuntwoman, I’ve been lit on fire several times on purpose—it’s a stunt I love doing, and the fire teams I’ve worked with have been phenomenal and super skilled. I love doing big burns; it’s one of my favorite things.

The one time that wasn’t on purpose . . . well . . .

I have this very good friend. We’ve been friends since college, and every time one of us has a bad idea, the other one very much does not say, “no, maybe let’s not” but instead says, “THAT’S BRILLIANT WE SHOULD TOTALLY DO THAT.” So one year, when I decided to have a birthday party, and one of us said, “oh my god, there should be flaming shots!” the other of us said “YES THAT’S BRILLIANT WE SHOULD TOTALLY DO THAT.”

We looked up how to make flaming shots on the Internet. You can find anything on there, did you know?

Fast forward to midnight, when I was . . . no longer sober . . . and my friend made me another flaming shot. Which I promptly spilled on myself. Being, you know, no longer sober, I looked down at my hands—which were very definitely, very obviously covered in merry flames—giggled, and said, “I’m on fire!”

My friend, fortunately, took me to the sink and put me out before all the alcohol burned off and the fire got started on my skin.

What draws you to writing in the genre? And how would you classify your books? A science fiction thriller? A thriller with supernatural elements? 

Any or all of the above!

It’s quite hard for me to classify my books. They’re science fiction and thriller, they’re contemporary but supernatural, a little bit of an urban fantasy vibe but definitely not fantasy, and superhero but with a noir feel. I usually say scifi thriller, as that seems to fit them the best and conveys the “speculative genre” and “fast-paced excitement” parts.

I confess I didn’t set out to write in a particular subgenre—I wrote the books I wanted to read, and unfortunately they’re a little hard to slot into existing categories!

As for what drew me to writing genre . . . I’m not sure. Growing up, I read voraciously across all genre lines, and I don’t even really know when I started gravitating more and more toward speculative fiction. I think by the time I was reading mostly SFF and defining myself as a SFF fan, I couldn’t have looked back and said when that happened.

Because it’s what I read, it was never really a decision as to what I would write; I think I was writing SFF before I was even clear on what the genre lines might be. But I truly love speculative fiction as a lens for talking about the real world—I think it’s one of the most effective places to explore both deep thematic parallels to reality and also offer some raw escapism.

Tell us a little bit about your writing process. What do you start from? Do you start with a character, an image, or an idea? Talk a little bit about how a novel “grows” for you.

I definitely start with character. If I don’t have character, I don’t have a book. The characters’ motivations and choices are what drive the writing forward for me.

As this might indicate, I fall more on the side of “pantser”—someone who discovers the book as I go rather than writing to an outline. I do find it helpful to have a general idea of what the structure will be in my head, and I try to figure out large turning points like the midpoint and the climax I’m heading for when I’m still early on. But the characters can always overturn that if, when I get there, I realize that based on my setup they absolutely 100% would not do what I had planned for them!

What’s the hardest thing for you during the whole “writing experience”?

I think the same as a lot of other authors—when I get stuck, and whatever I’m writing just isn’t working. It’s an awful place to be, and I hate it! I also hate the self-doubt that inevitably follows, that I don’t know how to write a novel despite having written half a dozen, and this one I will fail at and never be able to get to work.

Fortunately, I’ve learned better and better techniques to deal with this when I fall into it, but it’s still the most awful part of the process for me.

What made you decide to initially self-publish as opposed to traditional publishing?

A variety of reasons. I’d heard horror stories about characters being whitewashed or book covers showing female leads in ridiculously sexist poses, and that made me gun shy, since the diversity of my cast is so important to me. I also really wanted to publish under Creative Commons, and I was intrigued about going through the whole publishing process myself, which is an experience I still feel was very valuable. I also wasn’t terribly attached to what I saw as the “cachet” of being published—I was happy with my job in Hollywood, and I just wanted to start putting the books out there at the highest production value I could give them so that other people could read them, too.

It’s also certainly true that I didn’t actually know how much I didn’t know about publishing at that point. I thought I had done all my research, but it turns out I was still very ignorant about a lot of things in the industry. And, more saliently, I had yet to learn which parts of self-publishing versus being with a commercial publisher would and wouldn’t work for me personally, which was a much bigger learning curve than I had expected. I kind of had to figure it out through my first years as I self-published novels and did some short works with small presses. I listened, I learned an incredible amount, and I’ve been lucky enough to land in a place where I have the ability to choose what I think will work best for me and for my books.

What made you decide to sign with Tor Books and republish your books, traditionally this time? 

By the year I got the Tor deal, I’d already come to the conclusion that, in the long run, going with a publisher was going to be much better for me. As I’d gotten more experience with self-publishing, with publishers, and in the publishing landscape generally, I’d started to realize that my own skills and limitations were a far better “fit” for traditional publishing. I’m still very glad self-publishing exists as an option, and other authors have found a great home there, but it was becoming clear that for me it wasn’t going to be the best long-term choice.

I was also getting an extremely good response to my work across the publishing landscape, which suggested that I was lucky enough to have the option of working with a publisher, if I wanted it. Agents and editors were expressing interest in whatever new work I might be thinking about, and I resolved to start working on a novel that I would query with and start my hybrid career.

I did, however, expect the Cas Russell books to stay self-published, as it’s extremely, extremely rare for a self-published series to get a publisher pickup the way mine did. Enter my magical agent,

Russell Galen, who drastically changed my career and, frankly, my life. I signed with him because I had movie interest on the books, and he told me that it was fine if I wanted to keep the books self-published—it would always be my decision—but that he was confident he could get me a six-figure deal with a Big 5 publisher.

Within my writing life, I’d already determined a more traditional career was what I wanted . . . and outside my writing life, I was at a career crossroads thanks to some health issues and surgeries. So when my agent said that, I jumped hard and didn’t look back.

He was right, and now I’m a full-time writer thanks to this deal launching my traditional career!

What did you find easy, difficult, or surprising about the publishing process?

Back when I first started working with editors on my short fiction, I think I’d say what surprised me most is how wonderful it felt to be part of a team. When I was self-publishing, of course I had my cover artist, editor, and other professionals I hired to help me, but I was the only one who was in the thick of it every day, intensely invested in the success of my book.

And the first time I had editors and a magazine alongside me in that investment? It was marvelous! I felt supported, and cheered on, and like I had other people than me doing heavy lifting to make sure everything was a success.

Looking back, I think I had some naïve ideas about “control” over one’s work versus working with editors, and I’m very glad those have since been knocked out of me. I’m not saying there aren’t poor editors out there, but I could not be happier with all of my editorial experiences thus far. My excellent editor for the Cas Russell series, Diana Gill, hasn’t taken any “control” from me at all—instead, she pushes me to make the books so much better. More of what I want them to be. She’s amazing, and I could not be more grateful to have her eye and talents. My whole team at Tor makes me so happy—my cover designer and his stunning art, my tireless, invaluable publicists, my copyeditors and proofreaders who catch literally everything, the editorial assistants who go above and beyond . . . I have a team now! And it makes me giddy!

I absolutely love your Cas Russell series. What was your initial inspiration for it?

I’ve long had an idea about science and math skills as superpowers, and it’s something I’ve had knocking around in my brain for years. It wasn’t until I figured out the premise for Cas, though, that I realized this is how I wanted to tell that story.

The initial idea I’d had was much more ensemble-cast and focused on a variety of powers. But I’d never really been able to get it to work. Once I hit on making the Cas books much more focused on mathematical powers than my initial idea was, and starring a particular, prickly, kickass protagonist in a grounded, contemporary setting, everything ended up fitting together very nicely!

You’ve created fascinating and unique characters. Cas is a mathematical prodigy for whom killing is not a big deal, Rio lacks empathy and can be described a weapon of mass-destruction. Both are great. Do you have a favorite one to write yourself? 

I love writing all of them!

Cas might be my favorite to write just because she gives no fucks and she can be so sarcastic and funny while also busting through her world with violence. As I mention below, my nerdy hacker Checker is the most like me, so I also get a big kick out of writing him. But I love Arthur and Rio too, especially their voices and the way they can so powerfully challenge Cas’s worldview.

In Null Set, we also see Pilar for the first time, and I want to give her a special shoutout. Pilar is a character type I feel we rarely see in a female action hero. Unlike the other characters, she’s not a math genius or a hacker or a serial killer or a private investigator. She’s not broken or a killer or a criminal. She stumbled into this world without much experience, and is a bit too delightful and kind and normal for it. But she learns fast and levels up, and I like to think she does it in a way where she never loses the core of who she is.

I like the fact Cas has male platonic male friends and isn’t engaged in any kind of romance. As a reader I dislike romance, but I know I’m in a minority. Do people contact you with expectations regarding Cas’s love life? Do you think that good fiction needs romance/sexual tension?

Oh, of course not! I think plenty of great fiction has romance as an element, but I certainly don’t think it’s necessary. We can write about the human condition so broadly in so many ways; there’s no element we have to have.

And I confess, I’m not as interested in romance myself as a reader, which is probably why I didn’t write very much in.

As for whether people contact me about Cas’s love life, well, a fair number of people ship her with one of the male characters (I’ve heard people root for Rio, Arthur, and Checker all three, but Rio the most—clearly what Cas needs most in her life is a relationship with a psychopathic serial killer). But the most common question I’ve gotten, mostly from queer readers who want more QUILTBAG portrayals, is whether they might be right in reading Cas as asexual. And they are indeed right! I intended from the beginning for Cas to be gray asexual, and I’m delighted people are picking that up. Her particular orientation is such that romance and sex aren’t off the table for her, but they’re also nowhere on her priority list. So however long the series runs, you can expect it to continue to be relatively low on the romance scale.

The main characters in any book are commonly considered a reflection of the author. Is this true in “Cas Russell series”?

Checker is! I often say Checker is the character who is most like me (although he’s a lot more talkative than I am). We’re both pretty intense in our geekery.

People ask a lot whether Cas is based on me, and I always laugh, because I really HOPE I am a nicer and less murderous person than she is. I do think, though, that there’s a little bit of my id in her—those sneaky hindbrain bits that wish that when someone condescended to me I could punch them in the face. (To be clear, I do not do this.)

Everyone’s favorite character, though, is Rio, my delightfully empathy-lacking serial killer. This makes me worry slightly about my readers. And no, he is not based on me at all.

What sort of research did you do for Cas Russell series?

So, so much research. Everything tech-related I mention, every bit of law enforcement procedure, everything I can think to ask a question about I’ve researched. For example, the way the EMP worked in Zero Sum Game was as close as possible to government reports I read on the subject, and the cell phone hacking in Null Set is also as near to reality as I could get it.

And, of course, the math. I do so, so much math for this series—many of Cas’s computations, I’ve done ridiculous research on the particular scenario and then walked through the calculations myself just to make sure it’s possible. And, of course, to pull some lines of texture. It’s not unusual for me to spend an entire afternoon on math research for about three lines of the book.

Would you say that Cas Russell series follows tropes or kicks them?

Both, I hope. As a lifelong SFF reader, I hope I both hit the tropes I love about the genre—and subvert the ones I think we can do better at!
For example, mind control is a big theme in the series, and I think that’s something SFF tends to treat in an abysmally cavalier way, from J.K. Rowling to Professor X. I’ve purposely been playing off that history in the way I approach it here, and at the same time pushing against it.

Which question about the series do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

I’ve always wished someone would ask me what Rio says to Cas in Tagalog in Zero Sum Game.
Because then I could explain that it means “I believe in your teapot.”

And then I could explain further, that it’s a reference to Russell’s teapot—a thought experiment that is often used in support of atheism. The mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell posited that if he said a teapot was floating in space above Earth, the burden of proof was on him to prove it, not on other people to disprove the existence of such a teapot. It’s commonly seen as a way of saying the burden of proof is on religious people to prove God exists, not on atheists to prove God’s nonexistence.

Rio, however, being religious, is using this extremely esoteric analogy to remind Cas that his faith is his guiding principle. The play on Russell’s teapot amuses him . . . but he’s also doing it deliberately in a language Cas doesn’t understand, because otherwise it might too obviously be an indication that the “Russell” in Cas’s name isn’t originally hers, and instead was chosen as a reference to that same mathematician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell.

What can we expect in the next book? You’ve mentioned that republished books will differ from the first four self-published instalments. 

Yes, and they’re differing more and more as the series goes on. But the next book after Null Set will actually be a brand-new novel, never before seen in any form!

As to what to expect—without giving too many spoilers for Null Set, I’ll say:
Cas’s mental condition, which is a big part of Null Set, will continue to be an ongoing theme in the book coming after that. I’m not a fan of magical cures, and I don’t see a lot of SFF characters portrayed as having chronic, long-lasting mental health issues (even if supernatural). Stability, for Cas—even when she can attain it—is always an unstable equilibrium for her.
And again without giving too many spoilers—Cas is a selfish enough character that she doesn’t know that much about her friends’ lives, even a few books in. So she’s going to be very surprised to realize in Book 3 that her friends have intense lives, families, priorities, and histories that don’t have anything to do with her, and all of that suddenly gets dumped into her life in a big way!

Can you name three books you adore as reader, but that make you feel inadequate as a writer? 

Oh, wow, there are a lot more than three. I’ll choose:

Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. Described as the great Ugandan novel, it’s not only far deeper and more important than anything I will ever write, but is a stunning, expansive, multi-generational epic that somehow makes each page riveting.

The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin. I am such a fan of hard science fiction, and I will never be able to do it as well as Liu. The way he intertwined all that with Chinese politics stabbed me in the heart. And I could drink the prose (as translated by Ken Liu) all day.

The Love Song of Numo and Hammerfist by Maddox Hahn. The funniest, most creative fantasy I’ve ever read. I will never be able to invent a world or creatures that are this clever, or characters as alien and yet somehow intensely relatable. I don’t understand how that came out of someone’s brain!

Thank you so much for agreeing to this conversation, SL! We greatly appreciate your time and thoughts.

You’re quite welcome! Thank you for having me!

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