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Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Witch who Courted Death by Maria Lewis

Official Author Website
Order Witch Who Courted Death over HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Maria Lewis is an author, journalist and screenwriter based in Sydney, Australia. Getting her start as a police reporter, her writing on pop culture has appeared in publications such as the New York Post, Guardian, Penthouse, The Daily Mail, Empire Magazine, Gizmodo, Huffington Post, The Daily and Sunday Telegraph, i09, Junkee and many more. Previously seen as a presenter on SBS Viceland’s nightly news program The Feed and as the host of Cleverfan on ABC, she has been a journalist for over 13 years. 

CLASSIFICATION: A dark LGBT friendly urban fantasy with horror elements.

FORMAT: The Witch who Courted Death was published by Piatkus in October 2018. It's a stand-alone novel. It's available in an e-book, paperback and hardcover format. 

The book counts 432 pages and is divided into 20 numbered chapters. 

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (Lukasz): It’s been a while since I read a book about witches. Actually, it’s been a while since I read a genuinely fresh urban fantasy and I read in the genre regularly. The Witch who Courted Death by Maria Lewis impressed me on many levels and I don’t understand why so few people read it. It has it all - a relatable, complex characters, interesting supernatural creatures, magic, spells, charms, covens, mayhem, and romance. Plus, contrary to most books in the genre, the story happens in Europe, in Berlin, Riga, and Cornwall.

Corvossier ‘Casper’ von Klitzing, the world’s most powerful medium, and her twin brother Barastin can speak with and control the dead. For unknown reasons a sect called Oct targets them, kills Barastin and maims Casper. She survives, but she looses everyone she’s ever cared for. She wants a revenge, but before she sees justice done, she must find a witch who doesn’t want to be found.

Casper is an impressive gal. Strong, composed, caring, intelligent and resourceful she makes her plans work by using resources at hand. The hunger for revenge drives her but doesn’t consume her. As a self-aware adult who’s been using her powers all her life, she’s already accomplished the quest for self-discovery and teenage angst is way past her. And I love it. Urban fantasy needs more mature protagonists.

Her relationships with Barastin and the remaining cast of characters felt true, and I loved her interactions with ghosts. Lewis impressed me with descriptions of Casper’s journeys on an astral plane. Very imaginative, and fresh.    

Worldbuilding is the second delight of this story. I enjoy urban fantasy for many reasons, mainly because it introduces supernatural elements to our world and doesn’t have to spend a lot of time on establishing geography, mythology and, well, the world. Lewis impressed me with the amount of supernatural knowledge and research she poured into the novel and that allowed her to keep the balance between two worlds: supernatural and the real one. Caspers’ world has a lot of different beings (elementals, werewolves, ghouls, Arachne) and a complex supernatural hierarchy, sets of powers and behaviors. In places it reads almost like an espionage thriller.

I need to give you an example. Have you ever seen stunning etchings of Gustave Doré? If not, you should. He created beautifully haunting engravings to accompany Dante’s Divine comedy, and one of the most impressive presents Arachne’s punishment. We see her partially transformed into a spider. Similar creatures play a significant role in Lewis’ stand-alone. And they’ll give you goose bumps.

The plot, while engaging, has uneven pacing. The story starts strong and develops fast until Casper visits Cornwall. And then things slow down and the story looses momentum. What started as a darker urban fantasy saturated with humor and pop-culture references suddenly devolves into a romance story. The middle part of the book reads almost as a supernatural slice of life fantasy. I didn’t like it. It bored me. 

The romance is convincing; I guess. The thing is, I dislike romance, and when it becomes the focus of otherwise engaging story, I start to complain. Even though more romantic readers will enjoy this arc, they will, probably see (and if not, I’ll tell them) the biggest problem of this novel - it can’t choose what type of story it wants to tell. For me, revenge and “investigation” parts contrast strongly with unfocused, wordy and unexciting stay in Cornwall and blooming romance. 

That said, if you like romance, I expect your reaction to differ from mine. 

The prose, now. Lewis writes well. She likes descriptions and long chapters more than me, but I have no complaints. Her language conveys the story and paints a clear picture. When needed, she mixes humor with horror. She delivers punchy lines, and excellent descriptions of people, magical creatures and their interactions. Also, the dialogue. Natural, nicely flowing, engaging.   

CONCLUSION: Despite minor issues I had with this book, I enjoyed it a lot. It provides a solid, energetic story and well-needed emphasis on women (not teenagers, adult, mature women). With fine characterization and willingness to spill blood so the reader may understand the stakes, it shines amongst a plethora of generic books published in the genre. Also, it’s a stand-alone, self-contained novel with a satisfying, upbeat end. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

SPFBO Finalist: Sowing by Angie Grigaliunas (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski & Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Sowing over HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Angie Grigaliunas (grig-ah-LOO-nahs) is a part-time normal person and full-time author of fantasy/dystopian young adult books. And also some romance. (“She admits it! Murderer!”) She loves Jesus, the woods, and the stars, and has always wanted to be a superhero with a secret identity.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: For Ariliah, life under the militarized Hulcondans is one of order and safety. Despite the soldiers’ ruthless policies, she trusts their judgment. They alone provide protection from the enemies lurking beyond the city wall.

For her older sister, Rabreah, every glance from a Hulcondan is a threat. Though even a whisper against them is treason worthy of death, Rabreah is determined to end their tyranny. Joining an underground resistance is her only hope – until she realizes she doesn’t know the people she’s aligned herself with at all. Unsure who to trust but unable to back out, she must work alongside the attractive yet infuriating rebel leader who reminds her far too much of the soldiers she hates.

But with subversive posters appearing throughout the city and people dying on the blade of an unknown assailant, the sisters’ world begins to crumble.

CLASSIFICATION: A YA Dystopian novel.

FORMAT: Sowing was self-published by the author in 2016 as a first book in The Purification Era series. It's available in an e-book, paperback and hardcover format. 

The book counts 386 pages and is divided into 32 numbered chapters. The cover art was done by Kat Mellon. 

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (LUKASZ): While I read broadly, I rarely reach for dystopian YA fiction. I have nothing against the genre, but given the choice, I pick other things. In this case, though, I'm glad SPFBO made me read it. 

The story takes place in the nation of Etholia, in a city walled from all around. Militarised Hulcondans rule the city and expect its citizens to follow ruthless policies. They can be cruel and abusive but they also provide protection from the enemies lurking beyond the wall. 

The dystopian scenario requires a rebellion, and one is just starting. Not yet city-wide, but groups of rebels led by a mysterious Sorek try to shake highly regimented society. And here comes the twist. Grigaliunas doesn’t follow key characters on both sides of the barricade. Instead, she focuses on two sisters - Ariliah and Rabreah - who interact with change-makers. The novel is told in first-person chapters that alternate between their points of view. 

Ari trusts Hulcondans and believes their rules will bring peace and safety. Rab despises them and dreams about ending their tyranny. She joins the underground resistance but soon she realises she doesn’t know the people she’s aligned herself with. 

Sowing impressed me on many levels, namely character growth, in-depth study of trauma and emotional abuse, and a solid presentation of strong emotions. While the sisters were irritating and I couldn’t fully connect with them, they grew a lot. Characters felt well developed, not only because of behaviour but also thanks to intriguing back stories and unique quirks. 

Ariliah never gives non-verbal responses to direct questions, and she stutters, especially when nervous or afraid. Rabreah is always on the defensive and lashes out on people. Rebellion leader, Sorek, remains snarky and composed while one of the oppressors, Masrekah displays a dry sense of humour. 

Both sisters suffered emotional and physical abuse from their mother. They care for each other deeply and I would say sisterhood and their relations remain more important than the plot. Obviously, there’s a plot and larger scale-events but Grigaliunas doesn’t focus on them. Instead, she focuses on people involved in the conflict and their emotions. We get little action or graphic violence but the in-depth study of characters wrestling with their respective fears (in first person POV) makes Sowing surprisingly dark and intense.

I appreciate the lack of an evil villain. Both city Lords, Masrekah and Siserah, fit the role but there’s much more to them. I’m especially interested in manipulative Mas. I have a feeling that his icy pretence is just a mask. I definitely want to see how his arc develops. And I like him. 

Then we have Sorek. He cares for people, but he will do anything to stop monsters. When needed, he’ll become one.  He makes an impression of someone who doesn’t care whether he lives or dies as long as he reaches his goals.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (MIHIR): Sowing by Angie Grigaliunas is a book that has divided opinions among the SPFBO judges. It’s a book that Sarah (Bookworm Blues) chose this book because it was a sorting hybrid thriller and political intrigue novel among other things.

This book was a hard one for me to review as on one hand I enjoyed the characterization as we get two solid POV characters and they do draw the reader in entirely but on the other hand, the world details aren’t quite laid out properly for the narrative to make sense entirely. The main plot revolves entirely around Rabreah and her younger sister Ariliah. Both of them are living in an unnamed city which is ruled by beings called Hulcondans and they now extract a heavy price on the populace for their support. Ariliah & Rabreah have completely differing viewpoints about the necessity and effective of the Hulcondan ruling class. Thus begins the main plot of the book and it further devolves into many threads as both sisters go their separate ways as they try to make sense of their lives and try to find purpose. This book had a lot of issues that affected my enjoyment, dealing with 3 topics:

- Worldbuilding

- Characterization

- Overall plot

Primarily the worldbuilding is where there is a massive disconnect, we are told of a conflict in the past as well a current problem involving a humanoid race called the Itzalin. But that’s about it, we never hear anything more. Not whatever happened in the past or what’s currently happening. There’s a few mentions of somethings but nothing that clarifies much more. This partially baked approach really hampers the plot as well as our understanding of the story.

The characterization is the next point that perhaps struck me as a little off. Here’ why both the sisters are said to love each other but they take different paths. Now that wouldn’t be such an issue but the author doesn’t really explain much of why and how they came to their current positions. It would have been nice to see why Rabreah is the rebellious sort whereas Ariliah seems to be the one deferring to authority. Plus this has been pointed out in many reviews and I don’t want to add to the chorus but the mother’s character is major puzzle. Why is she so sadistic towards her daughters, why does she behave the way she does? This and many more questions are just left for us to ponder and this was jarring to say the least.

Lastly the overall plot never really coalesces into something that the readers will enjoy. I mean that there isn’t much that happens overall and then there’s the whole sexual assaults (real, assumed, and threatened) that occur in the book. I get the author wanted to project a world that offers no safety to women and in some cases, it might convey the sense. However a trick utilized too many times, becomes easy to predict and that’s exactly what happens. Almost every time when you think something bad can happen, it usually does and it involves some form of sexual assault. I wish the author had better camouflaged this aspect of the world or presented it in a way that didn’t make is seem repetitive.

Going by my review it might seem, that this book isn’t all that good. But that’s not the case, there’s a good story hidden within and you can glimpse it from time to time but there’s a lot that needs to be done over here for this title. I hope the author doesn’t take this as an attack. For a book to reach the finals, it definitely means that it has merit. Each judge’s opinion is subjective and all the things that I listed above, could be pooh-poohed away by anybody who enjoyed Sowing. For me this book, wasn’t an enjoyable read and that’s what is reflected in our score.

CONCLUSION (ŁUKASZ): I’ll stop before this review becomes too long (probably too late anyway). I enjoyed the book. Impressive intrigues and cleverly exploited character flaws make it memorable. Fans of non-stop violent action may feel disappointed as not much is happening. If, however, you appreciate introspection and character study, Sowing should satisfy you.

SPFBO Final Score - 5/10
Monday, April 15, 2019

Guest Post: Writing About Difficult Topics by Jesse Teller

During the process of creating Legends of the Exiles, I had several beta readers and advance readers take a close look at the book. Some were supportive of the storylines within, and some readers thought I crossed a line in my depiction of child sexual abuse.

I do feel their concerns were genuine, but in all honesty, such scenes are intended to be disturbing. I do not agree that this is inappropriate. When I wrote this book, I was very careful. I knew it would trigger a lot of readers if I handled this wrong. I am one of those readers. I was molested as a child, and I would not approach this topic without being very deliberate about my actions.

There is precedent for this sort of storytelling. Maya Angelou wrote a book called I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. In this book she describes herself as a child being molested. She does not describe the act of sex, as I do not describe the act when it takes place in the story. She describes the feelings she had during the event and the things that were running through her mind. She does not flinch in telling the way she felt or the way her attacker made her feel. I did the same thing in Exiles.

In light of such feedback, I looked at the scene very carefully. There are very few things I would do to change it. I do not want to smooth it over at all. It implies the sheer brutality of the event without explicit descriptions.

This sort of horrible crime happens unfortunately to boys and girls all over the world. It needs to be talked about. It needs to be looked at and it needs to be done in a tasteful way. And in doing so, we need to take a hard look at what that child experienced if we are going to help them heal.

I hope you will see this is a book about a survivor who has experienced a traumatic event and is too strong and too smart to let it break her. When I wrote Ellen’s story, I wrote who I wanted to be. I wrote who I wished I had been after my abuse. I wrote a character who inspires me to protect the weak and let them heal in their own way.

I have done much to help the victims of abuse in my own life. Helping the other victims of my abuser along with others I have seen being hurt. I can stop the act from continuing and I have on a few occasions. That is a pristine act. Saving a person, be it a man, woman, or child, from being brutalized is noble but it cannot stop there. When a person survives such abuse, they need a way to go on. They need to find the thing that can drive them into the next day and give them hope they can find peace, can find happiness and find love. My greatest desire is that this book does that.

In Ellen’s novella, we see the tale of a person who came through this trauma and battles the crushing horror of it. When I was growing up and trying to figure out how to be a man after what happened to me, I had nothing to hold me up. Nothing to make me feel as if I was not alone. No role model to help me pull myself out of the darkness. After 17 years of intensive therapy, I told myself I was going to use my work to give people hope. I have spent my career using my books to discuss the themes of Hope vs Despair. The novella Dead Girl is in that regard my greatest achievement.

I hope you read this book and see what it is and what it is meant to be. But my truest hope is that you be gentle with yourself. If reading this book makes you uncomfortable to a point where you feel it is doing damage to your peace of mind, then please put it down. Write your review and warn everyone. But if you can look past the horror of that scene and see the power of a little girl surviving the most horrible thing that can happen to her and finding strength beyond it, then I hope you do finish it and I hope you find a way to tell possible readers.

No matter what you do, please know your opinion is valuable to me and I learn from every review and every conversation I have about the things I have written. I learn every day what my work means and I do not take for granted the time people give me or the emotional journey they are willing to make with me.


Official Author Website

Official Author Information: Jesse Teller has loved fantasy since the age of five. It has gone from love to hobby to professional life. He now spends his time writing novels and short stories in a fantasy world of his creation. Here you can find his thoughts on the genre, samplings of his work, and his process in creating it. Jesse Teller lives in Missouri. He hasn’t always, but like storytelling, it snuck into his bones. He fell in love with fantasy when he played his first game of Dungeons & Dragons. The game gave him the ability to create stories and characters from a young age. He started consuming fantasy in every form and, by nine, was obsessed with the genre. As a young adult, he knew he wanted to make his life about fantasy. His books explore violent issues without flinching.

Order The Book HERE

Official Book Blurb: The isolated barbarians of Neather have deep ancestry and strict traditions. Four resilient women defy tribal customs as they fight to overcome their own tragedies. Abuse. Addiction. Assault. Grief. What struggles can they endure to defend their hopes and their hearts?

Helena seeks a love as bold as she, yet finds the men of her village lacking.

Jocelyn fears her strange visions and sacrifices a life with the man she loves for the one her destiny demands.

Torn apart by abuse and grief, Ellen is a brilliant woman who must focus her intellect on finding reasons to persevere.

Rachel, a brash girl of noble heritage, dares all men to challenge her and longs for one who will.

In this set of four interwoven novellas, award-winning author Jesse Teller challenges assumptions and showcases the strength of feminine resolve.

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of the author himself.
Thursday, April 11, 2019

EXCLUSIVE COVER REVEAL: Quill (The Cartographer series #1) plus Q&A with AC Cobble (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Today we are super excited to exclusively reveal the cover for QUILL, the first book in the Cartographer series by A. C. Cobble. AC is the author of the Benjamin Ashwood series that is complete at six volumes. I first came to know of this book thanks to cover designer Shawn T. King, who is the genius behind several amazing indie covers such as Never Die (Rob J. Hayes) with art by Felix Ortiz, Endsville (Clay Sanger), & We Ride The Storm (Devin Madson) with art by John Anthony Di Giovanni,  and many more...

We are also glad to have AC answer a few questions about this new book and series as well as the world within. AC also talks about his collaboration with Shawn to create the stunning cover seen below. So without further ado, here is the gorgeous cover for QUILL (The Cartographer Series #1) and its description:

(click to see high-res version)

Official Book Blurb: The fate of empire is to crumble from within.

A heinous murder in a small village reveals a terrible truth. Sorcery, once thought dead in Enhover, is not. Evidence of an occult ritual and human sacrifice proves that dark power has been called upon. Twisting threads of clues lead across the known world to the end of a vast empire, and then, the trail returns home.

Duke Oliver Wellesley, son of the king, cartographer, and adventurer, has better things to do than investigate a murder in a sleepy fishing hamlet. For Crown and Company, though, he goes where he’s told. As the investigation leads to deeper and darker places, he’ll be forced to confront the horrific specters rising from the shadows of his past. When faced with the truth, will he be able to sacrifice all that he has known?

Samantha serves a Church that claims to no longer need her skills. She’s apprenticed to a man that no one knows. Driven by a mad prophecy, her mentor has trained and prepared her for a battle with ultimate darkness, except, sorcery is dead. When her life is at stake, can she call upon an arcane craft the rest of the world has forgotten?

AC Cobble, the author of the best-selling Benjamin Ashwood series, crafts worlds of stunning-depth and breath-taking adventure. In Quill: The Cartographer Book 1, a pair of unlikely investigators walk a deadly path into the past, uncovering secrets best left alone.

The fate of empire is to crumble from within. Do not ask when, ask who.

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. To start with, could you tell us what inspired you to be a writer in the first place, and why you choose to go the self-published route? Anything else you’d like to share about yourself and your past?

ACC: Hi Mihir, thanks for having me! My origin story, so to speak, is a little bit different from a lot of other authors. For one, it was never my dream to become one. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved books since I can remember, and my room as a child was filled with over-flowing bookshelves, but books were never things I thought I could write myself. I was solidly on a “business” career path, and it wasn’t until I was in my early 30’s that I was inspired to start putting words on paper. I believe I’d recently read some really terrible fantasy (we all know the stuff) and told myself that even I could write a better story! I already had some characters and story concepts in mind that bounced around in quiet moments. Eventually, that disdain for bad fantasy inspired me to write my own. I can only imagine, my stories are inspiring others in the same way ;)

I chose to self-publish because when I did my research, I saw the odds were against ever finding a traditional publishing deal, and even if I did, there was almost no chance of earning enough income to support my family. The contracts publishing companies offer new authors are tragic, in my opinion. Self-publishing guaranteed my book would be available and it offered a glimmer of hope that this could be a career, even though I wasn’t expecting that to actually happen. It seemed a smart decision on all fronts, and it’s worked out better than I could have hoped (I’ve been a full-time author for 18 months now).

And on that note, prior to The Cartographer Series, I wrote the Benjamin Ashwood Series. It’s complete after 6 books and for a limited time only, Book 1 is available for FREE to Amazon Prime members in the US and Australia. A bit random on the geography, but hey, you take what Amazon gives. That series has gained hundreds of thousands of fans, so I encourage you to check it out while waiting for June 1st when Quill (The Cartographer Book 1) releases!

Q] I loved the cover for QUILL. What were your main pointers for your cover designer as you both went through the process of finalizing it? What were the main things that you wished to focus on in it?

ACC: On the cover, I worked with the extremely gifted Shawn T. King. I was familiar with his portfolio and really liked a lot of his recent work, so I had faith he could bring my sloppy, half-baked vision to life. I sent him a sketch of what I was thinking, and some of that even found its way into the final version.

The concept of the compass in the center with the sword and quill is original. Almost everything else changed. The actual layout of the symbol is far different from my terrible version, and as we were kicking around ideas, I changed the name of the entire book because this one looks cooler! It was Shawn’s idea to bring in the subtle map background, and if you look reeeeally close, you can see it’s an actual map of a country in the book, and you’ll find the full-size map on the interior! So, hats off to Shawn for such an awesome, and appropriate, idea.

Q] Could you tell us about the inception of QUILL & vis-à-vis The Cartographer Series and what was/were your main inspiration(s) for it?

ACC: I drew ideas from a lot of places in building the world for QUILL. The real genesis though is a loose interpretation of 1750’s colonial Britain. Around the time I was brainstorming what would come after Benjamin Ashwood, I was fortunate enough to spend some time in London, Singapore, India, and of course I live in the US. That’s the colonial government and three former colonies. In Singapore, I went to a museum exhibit on colonial rule, and it really got my wheels turning. I spent a lot of time considering the implications for these cultures before/after colonial rule, and I did a great deal of research on the time period. None of QUILL is meant to be historically accurate or a direct reflection of that period, but it did inspire a great deal of this world.

Q] This book and series seems to be a nautical fantasy story. There aren’t many of those in the fantasy genre but there have been memorable ones by Paul Kearney, Rob J. Hayes, Robert V. S. Redick, Robin Hobb etc.). Where would you say your story falls on the spectrum?

ACC: I have to admit, I haven’t read all of those authors, but I think it’s safe to say there is a lighter nautical theme in my book. There are ships, airships, and even pirates, but they are set pieces rather than elements that drive the story.

Q] One thing that I loved about the cover is that there’s a map in the background and given the title of the series. Is it safe to say cartography will be a strong focus in this series? Will you be having extra maps for these books?

ACC: Yes, there is a map in the background on the cover, and it is one crafted by the talented Soraya Corcoran for the book. I will have three of her maps included in QUILL, and very likely a few more will be commissioned before this series is complete! The protagonist of the tale is a cartographer, and while most of the focus is on his other adventures, there are several times he brings out the quill and parchment. With a cartographer as a character, I wanted to make sure this story was well-mapped! Also, there’s an idea around maps that I find really inspiring, and I feel the concept holds true for telling fantasy stories. In cartography, the lines of the map are where knowledge meets imagination.

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

ACC: As I mentioned, the world is very loosely based on a 1750’s colonial Britain. It’s not meant to be directly analogous, but much of the style of the book is drawn from there. In addition to that, I’ve added layers of technology largely based on the magical possibilities of the world. Essentially, there are two types of magic. Sorcery, aka dark magic, the magic of the underworld. This is of course what our bad guys use, and in this world, sorcery involves rituals and ceremony to contact and then compel spirits from the underworld. Think pentagrams and blood. Then there is life magic, where druids or shamans negotiate assistance from the spirits of life. Think of a primal communion with nature. As far as magic, sorcery is the one which gets all of the screen time in Book 1. There’s also a healthy dose of combat with primitive firearms, swords, and fists. This story has multiple points of view, but primarily follows two main characters and what happens after they are tasked with investigating a mysterious murder in a small village.

Duke Oliver Wellesley, son of the king, cartographer, and adventurer, has better things to do than investigate a murder in a sleepy fishing hamlet. For Crown and Company, though, he goes where he’s told. As the investigation leads to deeper and darker places, he’ll be forced to confront the horrific spectres lurking in his past. Samantha serves a Church that claims to no longer need her. She’s apprenticed to a priest that no one knows. Driven by a mad prophecy, her mentor has trained and prepared her for a battle against a terrible darkness. A darkness that everyone knows is impossible.

Q] So for someone who hasn't read any of your novels, how would you describe the type of stories that you write, what would be your pitch for The Cartographer Series?

ACC: My stories have a similar feel to the fantasy I grew up reading. Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Tolkien, and so on. I like to think I’ve taken their strong foundation and built a modern structure on top of it. My characters are not Chosen Ones, but that doesn’t mean they are not heroes. If you enjoy regular people, battling through fantastic, complex worlds, facing extreme danger, on their way to save the world, then you’ll enjoy QUILL: The Cartographer Book 1.

Q] You will be releasing QUILL in June. Could you give us a progress report on book 2 and outline your plans for the series as a whole?

ACC: Yes, QUILL will be up for pre-order for a June 1st release. Currently, the series is drawn out as a trilogy with a story thread in mind to extend it if people really enjoy the books. Book 2 will releasing in December and the conclusion in June 2020.

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

ACC: For readers of my Benjamin Ashwood series, I’ve been describing it as if Ben and Amelie had a baby, and that child spent summers with Uncle Rhys. For those who haven’t read Benjamin Ashwood, that means expect an adventure. Intrinsically good people, who also know how to have a good time, traveling the globe to battle the forces of darkness.

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

ACC: A lot of readers were a bit disappointed that I ended the Benjamin Ashwood series. They wanted a spin-off, and I told them I needed to write this story first. I think once everyone gets their hands on QUILL, they will understand why. I’m really excited for this book to go public and can’t wait until June 1st! In the meantime, if you haven’t read Benjamin Ashwood yet, go ahead and take it for a spin! If you have any other burning questions about me or my work, you can find me on Reddit doing an r/Fantasy AMA on June 6th!

Official Author Website
Pre-order QUILL over here

About The Author: AC Cobble is the author of the Benjamin Ashwood and the Cartographer series. He was born and raised in Tennessee but currently resides in Texas with his wife, their three children, and his wife's dog. In addition to writing, he escapes by reading, eating, drinking and traveling. Benjamin Ashwood is a classic sword & sorcery fantasy that begins with a young man leaves his village with mysterious strangers. The six book series is completed in English and available in all formats, books 1-3 are available in German, and the rest are coming soon! The Cartographer is a thrilling ride packed with dark ritual and action & adventure. The first book in the series will be available in eBook and print on June 1st, with audio to follow soon after!

NOTE: Shawn T. King picture courtesy of Laura King. AC Cobble photo courtesy of the author himself. Benjamin Ashwood series pic courtesy of The Fantasy Hive.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Finder by Susanne Palmer (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Order Finder over HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION:  Suzanne lives in western Massachusetts with a number of two- and four-legged critters, including one Very Large Fluffy Dog, and is a Linux and Database System Administrator for the Sciences at Smith College.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Fergus Ferguson has been called a lot of names: thief, con artist, repo man. He prefers the term finder.

His latest job should be simple. Find the spacecraft Venetia's Sword and steal it back from Arum Gilger, ex-nobleman turned power-hungry trade boss. He'll slip in, decode the ship's compromised AI security, and get out of town, Sword in hand.

CLASSIFICATION: Science-fiction / Space-Opera.

FORMAT: Finder was published by DAW in April 2019 as a first book in the series. It's available in an e-book, audiobook, paperback and hardcover format.  The book consists of 397 pages. 

I am Fergus Ferguson, and I find lost things. I’m going to bring Venetia’s Sword home because I said I would, and if I have to go through Gilger and the Asiigto do it, so be it.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: While not exactly a law-abiding do-gooder, Fergus has enough charm to make readers like him. He specializes in chasing things, getting into trouble and running away. When he tries to recover a sentient spacecraft stolen from Shipmakers of Pluto by a ruthless crime boss Airun Gilger, someone makes an attempt at his life. He barely survives, and what was supposed to be a routine job devolves into a disaster. Fergus’ actions may start a civil war, and to make matters worse, dangerous aliens seem interested in him as well.  

The action-packed plot sucked me in fast and never let go. Ferguson escapes one dire situation just to find himself in even more trouble. When you start to think he can’t handle more, Palmer proves you wrong. Watching Ferguson getting out of a mess thanks to his quick wit and ingenuity entertained me, and his resourcefulness impressed me. We all recognize lasers and light-swords as standard tools used to fight in space, but how many of you thought about using vibrating alien sex toys as space weapons (of sorts)? Just a few, I guess. And Fergus is one of you. 

Luckily, quick thinking and insolence are just the outer layers of his nuanced and well-developed character. His many flaws and upbeat attitude coupled with intriguing backstory delivered through occasional flashbacks make him relatable. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about secondary characters who lack depth. They’re well rounded and fun, I’ll give it to Palmer, but they’re here mainly to make Ferguson shine. That said a good dialogue, evocative descriptions and interesting tech make up for this. And let’s not forget about aliens. They’re cool and they make Fergus’ life more interesting, heck, they make him more interesting :)

CONCLUSION: Breakneck-paced, action-packed, and character-driven, this story is powered by thrilling plot twists that kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end. Well worth a shot.
Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Ghosts Of Gotham by Craig Schaefer (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

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AUTHOR INFORMATION: Craig Schaefer was born in Chicago and wanted to be a writer since a very young age. His writing was inspired by Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark, Clive Barker & H. P. Lovecraft. After reaching his 40th birthday he decided to give in to his passion and since then has released twelve novels in the last three years. He currently lives in North Carolina and loves visiting museums and libraries for inspiration. 

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Irresistibly drawn to mysteries, if only to debunk them, reporter Lionel Page exposes supernatural frauds, swindlers, and charlatans. His latest case is an obsession—at least for an ancient and wealthy heiress: verify the authenticity of a lost Edgar Allan Poe manuscript circulating through New York City’s literary underworld. But the shrewd Regina Dunkle offers more than money. It’s a pact. Fulfill her request, and Lionel’s own notorious buried past, one he’s been running from since he was a child, will remain hidden.

As Lionel’s quest begins, so do the warnings. And where rare books go, murder follows. It’s only when Lionel meets enigmatic stranger Madison Hannah, his personal usher into the city’s secret history, that he realizes he’s being guided by a force more powerful than logic…and that he isn’t just following a story. He is the story.

Now that the true purpose of his mission is revealing itself in the most terrifying ways, it may finally be time for Lionel to believe in the unbelievable.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Ghosts Of Gotham is Craig Schaefer’s newest offering and one that promises a new direction in his illustrious career. This book is based on the next chapter in his career with 47North. The story is quite interesting and was definitely a new twist on gothic stories.

Lionel Page is a Chicago reporter who’s addicted to debunking mysteries and because of his past, he cannot resist them any more than he breathes. However he’s clueless as to how to solve his own personal mystery. His penchant for risks often lands him in the cross hairs of his editor Brianna who fears for his safety as well. A recent assignment goes sideways and lands him in a bit of a hotspot. Soon he gets introduced to Regina Dunkle who tasks him with a special offer to find a lost Edgar Allen Poe manuscript and also promises him a sizeable contribution for his efforts. Travelling to New York City, he soon immerses himself in this search and also meets an enigmatic fellow traveler who goes by Madison Hannah. Both of these characters have their own agendas but don’t know exactly who are ones pulling their chains. This lost manuscript is one that will cause a lot of trouble but also bring to the fore mysteries that have long since stayed hidden.

Any Craig Schaefer book is a cause for celebration and this one is something a lot different than what he has written before. This book was deemed as Craig’s love letter to the city of New York as well as all of its intricacies and secrets. The story begins on a very typical mystery note wherein the readers are introduced to the first mystery is Lionel himself and what drives him. Lionel is also our sole viewpoint of this story and it is truly through him that we get to experience everything. His characterization is key and creating enigmatic characters is Craig’s forte. This book is no different as while we are slowly uncovering the mystery of the main plot. We also get to see the many mysteries of the other cast of characters such has Madison who goes by Maddie and flits in an out of Lionel’s NYC investigations, his private benefactor Regina Dunkle who maintains her privacy above everyone and everything else.

All these characters are what make this story so interesting and there are mysteries galore within them as well as the burdens they carry. The story is of course a tribute to the somewhat quixotic nature of New York City and also a Gothic suspense story. The very nature of New York City is called into question as the reader along with Lionel get to witness it turn into something more. More than just the financial capital of the world, it becomes a city that houses almost every type of story and Lionel is just trying to find the one that perhaps is tied to his past (without knowing it to be such). The plot unfolds at a nice pace and the twists are such that they become harder and harder to predict.

The best part about the story is the slow reveal of what the story is truly about and I thoroughly enjoyed that aspect. I can’t talk much about it without spoiling the whole plot of the story but safe to say. This story is a little disingenuous about its overall plot and that’s done on purpose. The author takes great pains to frame the story in a certain and with smart plot twists, we see it unravel into a spectacular climax. It’s also focuses on a thread that originates with Edgar Allen Poe and then gives NYC a special spectral past. I loved how the author presented New York City as a character on its own. This was really fun to see and I’m sure resident NYCers will be able to discern some small details that might not be easily apparent to someone like me.

Lastly there’s also the presence of a Greek mythological character who also is mentioned in some of his other books but according to the author isn’t related to his previous works. I enjoyed this character’s actions and they are very much central to the main plot. The book is sold as a standalone and it works a little bit in that direction but honestly this story and world introduced is so rich that it deserves a sequel.

With such a story, the drawbacks are going to be very subjective. For me the only drawback perhaps is the eventual reveal which becomes a tad predictable. Not the climax but the main secret about its main characters. Not that it detracted from my enjoyment but still after reading all of Craig’s works, I’ve come to expect the sky of his written efforts. For some, it might be the pace which starts slow and then really unfolds or it might be the primary antagonist who perhaps doesn’t quite come with the same menace as some of Craig other memorable creations.

CONCLUSION: Ghosts Of Gotham is a lovely little mystery that’s also a love letter to New York City, Greek mythology and the many faces that we humans choose to take on. The story is about literal, metaphorical and allegorical ghosts. Salman Rushdie talks about "ghosts being nothing but unfinished business", I believe this perfectly encapsulates Ghosts Of Gotham as well what lies ahead in the sequels.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Soulkeeper by David Dalglish (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

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AUTHOR INFORMATION: David Dalglish is the author of the popular Half Orc fantasy series and the Paladin series. He was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He graduated from Missouri Southern State University in 2006 with a degree in Mathematics and used to work with Special Education students. He lives with his family in Missouri; A Dance Of Cloaks was his traditional publication debut.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: When ancient magic suddenly returns to his land, a warrior priest must answer the call and protect his world from monsters that were once only legend in the first book of USA Todaybestseller David Dalglish's epic fantasy trilogy.

Devin Eveson is a Soulkeeper, traveling through remote villages as a preacher and healer. But when a mysterious black water washes over the world, the veil is torn, flooding the land with ancient magic and forgotten races: fire that dances as if alive, corpses that walk, and creatures that can manipulate time itself. And not all the creatures that have re-awakened remember humanity fondly.

As the land grows more dangerous and more chaotic, Soulkeepers are turning up dead, their bodies transformed into macabre works of art. Devin must set aside his words of peace and accept his new role: slayer of monsters and protector of the human race.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: I’m a fan of David Dalglish, I’ve been an unabashed one since I first read A Dance Of Cloaks more than 9 years ago. Soulkeeper however is the start of a new series set in a new world. I was super excited to read this one when David told me about it. The book was definitely a distinct departure from what he has written about before.

The story opens up Devin Eveson, our protagonist and a soulkeeper, who is a part of the church that worship the Three Sisters (Goddesses who nourished and nurtured humanity). Devin is our window into the world and the world is a very different one than what we have seen previously in all of David’s titles. Devin is by nature a peaceful person but accepts the realities of being a soulkeeper. One such task that he’s asked to look into, is a village in crisis wherein people & livestock seem to be running away from something. Upon arrival at Dunwerth village, he finds that all of the strange occurrences can be tied to the black water which has encroached upon the village and its surroundings. Pretty soon Devin finds that the water is tied to more strange occurrences and is forced to retreat to the main city of Londheim. It’s there wherein majority of the plot & action will unfold and we meet several other important characters both protagonists and antagonists. There’s also the presence of a giant mountain that while seemingly important doesn’t quite translate its oozing menace.

This story is a distinct departure from his previous books wherein they were more about the darker characters. Devin Eveson is a more clean-cut figure who is kind, considerate and good-natured to a fault. This was a distinct surprise in this book as David Dalglish’s protagonists are usually from the shadowy walks of life. But besides Devin we have a huge character cast and within that we have quite a few who hearken back to his Half-Orc, Paladin and Shadowdance series. Chief among them is Janus who seems to fit in solidly with some of the Dalglish’s famous deadly creations in the past.

The world history and magic system isn’t quite as revealed as I would have preferred but there’s a lot that is laid bare. Such as the evolution of humanity which was entirely thanks to the sisters Alma, Lyra and Anwyn. The world however is much more than what humanity knows and soon fable and myth become reality and hazard becomes horror. All of this wonderfully unfolds as the characters soon realize what is happening but not how or the why of it. Action sequences have always been David’s forte and it’s no surprise that he excels with them over here too. Big action sequences, terrifying magic usage and dark villains, Soulkeeper definitely has it all but what it also does different from his preceding titles is a world that’s on the cusp of an apocalypse.

Chracterization is an art that David Dalglish has always had an excellent grasp on and it’s no wonder that within this book, readers will have their favorites. Mine were Jacaranda, Tesmarie and Puffy. Especially Puffy who is a veritable delight on every page that they appear and I hope the author gives us more and more of Puffy in the future volume. Jacaranda is a person who perhaps has the most twisted path but showcases that she’s not one to be easily categorized. It will be intriguing to see where the author takes her next. Lastly Devin as the main protagonist is a solid choice but is a bit of a goody two-shoes. This isn’t a criticism but I feel that he will have a lot to do in the future books and he might not get a lot of choices.

Lastly as with any Dalglish title, you can expect amazing action sequences, cool magic systems, terrifying monsters (of both the human and non-human kind) & the sort of fun that was found in 90s action thrillers. Soulkeeper is no different as the author unleashes a world that features some truly horrific monsters and that leads to some cool action sequences to satisfy the action aficionados. The magic system isn’t entirely revealed but I’m excited to see what happens in the sequel and know more about the three sisters as well as those who hate them and their progeny.

Lastly I had a couple of criticisms about the book, firstly the pace of the book isn’t typical of a David Dalglish book. Namely in the first third of the story, it’s much on the slower side as events unfold and many set pieces are slowly moved into place. But from the middle, things take off and we never have to look back. I felt that with this book being perhaps the longest one in the author’s career. The pace was perhaps lost for better exposition. Secondly I know many have loved the cover, however I think Orbit books completely missed the mark with this one. I say this because I have seen the fantabulous efforts they have done for the Shadowdance series and the Seraphim trilogy. Compared to those two series, this cover seems like a sub-par effort. I hope that Orbit can up their game as I know how wonderful their covers are (for eg. checkout any of their other books) as I was definitely flabbergasted to see this cover.

CONCLUSION: Soulkeeper is the start of a new trilogy that promises quite a bit of fun twists mixed in with trademark Dalglish action, cool magic & characters who will stay with you for a long time. This seems to be a new direction in the author’s career and I can’t wait to see what exciting experiences he brings to the table.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

SPFBO FINALIST: Out of Nowhere by Patrick LeClerc (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski & David Stewart)

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AUTHOR INFORMATION: Patrick LeClerc makes good use of his history degree by working as a paramedic for an ever-changing parade of ambulance companies in the Northern suburbs of Boston. When not writing he enjoys cooking, fencing and making witty, insightful remarks with career-limiting candor.

In the lulls between runs on the ambulance --and sometimes the lulls between employment at various ambulance companies-- he writes fiction.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Healer Sean Danet is immortal—a fact he has cloaked for centuries, behind army lines and now a paramedic’s uniform. Having forgotten most of his distant past, he has finally found peace—and love. But there are some things you cannot escape, however much distance you put behind you. When Sean heals the wrong man, he uncovers a lethal enemy who holds all the cards. And this time he can’t run. It’s time to stand and fight, for himself, for his friends, for the woman he loves. It’s time, finally, for Sean to face his past—and choose a future. A story of love, of battle—and of facing your true self when there’s nowhere left to hide.

CLASSIFICATION: A humorous urban fantasy.

FORMAT: Out of Nowhere was self-published by the author in 2012 and as a first book in The Immortal Vagabond Healer series. It's available in an e-book and paperback format. 

The book counts 260 pages and is divided into 38 numbered chapters. The cover art was done by Rebecca Kemp. 

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (Lukasz): If you’ve ever watched and loved Forever, chances are you’ll enjoy Out of Nowhere. While not entirely similar, both stories focus on an immortal character working in a medical field. Despite long lives, both characters haven’t turned cynical. They share a dryish sense of humour and the need to help others.

Sean Danet works as a paramedic. He’s immortal, and he has a gift - a healing power. As amazing as his powers might be, they don’t make him any money. He has to work, and he’s chosen a profession where his healing power is useful. He uses it discretely and in small doses. Unfortunately, during one intervention he heals the wrong man. Soon, someone starts to ask questions about Sean and attacks his beloved ones. That won’t do.

I liked Sean as a character and POV. Despite ages of experience as a soldier, a healer or a witch, he still believes in humans and tries to help them whenever he can. He appreciates good food and good company. While he probably wouldn’t win MasterChef, Sean has strong opinions on cooking:

“I have definite views on garlic. The garlic press is a tool of the devil, garlic powder is for the lazy, and the jarred stuff is an abomination. If you can’t be bothered to chop it, you don’t deserve garlic.”

He doesn’t take direction well, and that’s why he appreciated his job - he can do pretty much whatever he needs to get the patient to a better place, so long as he can justify his actions after the fact. Faced with adversity, he uses his brain rather than muscles. He’s smarter and sneakier than his opponents. 

Side-characters and Sean’s love interest feel well rounded, although not really three-dimensional. A sexy friend, an asshole work buddy who throws gay jokes fit well in the story and are fun to follow, but they don’t feel real. That said, I enjoyed paramedics’ banter and stories from the interventions. Not much happened during the first half of the book, but it read well. 

The second half is much tighter and brutal in places. A well-crafted combination of humour and drama keeps the reader’s attention, lending moments of honest excitement to the story. 

The plot is not without its flaws. When you look at things critically the beginning is slow and focuses on things that don’t move the plot forward (but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it). I don’t buy the antagonist’s motivations and the way the author resolved the conflict felt a bit anticlimactic. And too tidy.

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

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (David): I used to watch a show called Lost Girl about a succubus embroiled in a complicated Fae world. She had a human sidekick and lots of sex. It was an all right show, watched because, at the time, there simply were not that many fantasy shows on television. Game of Thrones hadn't blown the doors off of the possibility yet. Patrick LeClerc's Out of Nowhere reminds me of Lost Girl, not so much in its themes, though it too is urban, paranormal romance, but because it is neither good nor particularly bad. It's a solid piece of writing that feels like the urban fantasy equivalent of a James Patterson novel - it's easy to read but I've already forgotten about most of its characters and plot (in fact I just had to look up what the main character's name despite finishing the book yesterday). 

Out of Nowhere is about Sean Danet, a man who can heal at a touch, and who is subsequently immortal. He can't heal himself, so how he can retain immortality is but one of many plot holes never explained. He can heal others so that their cells regenerate, and so has a cat of indeterminate age, but is unable to heal even a hangnail in regards to his own. Sean works as a paramedic, where he can use his powers without drawing too much attention to his supernatural self. As he has learned in the past, people fear what they can not explain, and so he keeps his secrets close. During a routine broken ankle call, Sean unknowingly heals the descendant of a man whose family swore a blood oath to kill Sean some time back in the misty past. This sets in motion the plot of the novel, which is basically Sean killing anyone who comes near him. He meets an ancient languages professor named Sarah, whom he falls in love with, and that is basically the book. 

What I liked about Out of Nowhere is the obvious medical knowledge imparted on the text. LeClerc knows his EMT terminology, which he should because his bio says he worked or works as one still. This comes off in the text, and I wonder whether he might have been better off simply writing a book about an EMT. The supernatural stuff works in context, but I'm not sure it adds anything outside of the history portions sprinkled throughout the text. Sean is constantly reminiscing about some war or some woman from the past, despite his memories suffering from longevity problems. The history portions are interesting, and there is an authenticity feel to his combat descriptions, but I also had issues with this. Sean is constantly remembering historical figures as though he knew them well. He speaks of famous authors and generals as though he had tea with them weekly, and this might be believable once or twice in his long history, but not constantly. How many of us regular folk walking around are in touch with famous world-shaping types in our daily lives? I'd wager almost none, but Sean seems to have constantly been intimate with many. His healing powers might make this relevant if he weren't so touchy about keeping them secret. 

There are also some sexist and racist bits in Out of Nowhere that had me cringing as I read them. At one point in the novel, Sean asks himself if he's sexist, then goes on to explain that he is but that it's ok because he's the protagonist. The way he looks at women throughout the entire book is uncomfortable, to say the least, and while he isn't outright comparing them to fine cuts of meat, he might as well be. Similarly, there is casual racism sprinkled throughout that probably makes sense in a real-world context, I would assume LeClerc has encountered this almost non-stop in his time as a medic, but that doesn't mean it needs to make its way into a book. Authors have the power to create better worlds, particularly in fantasy, and so unless the book is specifically about racism or has themes of it, which this does not, I see no reason to pepper the text with even occasional racist slang. I might only have noticed this because I'm particularly sensitive to it, but it bothered me, as did the overt homophobic nature that rode right along with it. 

CONCLUSION (David): What I see in Out of Nowhere is an effort by an author either new to novels or new to writing in general, and as such it's not a bad effort. I read through it, which I can not say for every entry into the SPFBO 2019 contest, even the finals, but had it been any longer than its 260 pages, I might not have. LeClerc is smart to keep this one short.

SPFBO Final Score - 6/10

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