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Monday, October 21, 2019

SPFBO Semifinalist Mini-Reviews: Magpie's Song by Allison Pang & Ayana by Geetha Krishnan (reviewed by Lukasz Przyswoski & Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Magpie’s Song defies easy categorization. It mixes elements of steampunk, dystopia, coming-of-age, and dark fantasy into a singular blend.

BrightStone, ruled from above by the technologically advanced Meridians, is a dangerous city rife with crime and poverty. Its citizens struggle with everyday life, lack of perspectives, and a rampaging and lethal plague known as Rot. Only Moon Children, Meridian half-breeds, seem immune to the devastating effects of the disease, and that makes them useful, but only to lead Rot victims into the dreaded Pits, a place no one returns from.

While you’ll find snippets of humor here and there, the story goes into dark places and has a serious tone overall. Titular Magpie, a Moon Child known as Raggy Maggy, is a half-breed caught between two worlds–the run-down city of BrightStone and the floating city of Meridion. When she’s framed for a crime she didn’t commit, she has to trust exiled Meridian doctor and a clanless Moon Child named Ghost to discover the cause of the Rot and the secret behind her own lineage.

Mags is a great character. An outcast who doesn’t belong anywhere. She cares for one person. She finds freedom in rooftop dancing and her prowess in climbing, leaping, gliding through the city would put most traceurs to shame. Only Ghost does it better than her.

She also has a clockwork heart, and it seems a clockwork dragon found by a Meridion’s dead body likes and follows her. An intriguing combination of the mysterious past and tenacious behavior won me over. I like Mag’s voice. Sure, she makes bizarre decisions and trusts wrong people, but hey, she’s just nineteen.

Magpie’s Song starts in the middle of the action and never slows down. Things happen, characters die, and at times I wasn’t sure where all of this was going, but I felt engaged throughout. The addition of a few subplots makes the narration unfocused in places, but at the scene level, it never disappoints.

I liked Magpie’s Song a lot and plan to follow the series.


Official Author Website
Order the book HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Ayana by Geetha Krishnan really drew me in because as an Indian, I’m deeply familiar with Hindu epic Ramayana. For those who aren’t, a wikipedia summary might be helpful. But if you were to ask me, it’s a classic story of right versus wrong. It’s a story wherein a young prince realizes his potential and becomes the great soul  that he’s destined to be. His nemesis a cruel king succumbs to his doom, by stealing the prince’s wife, a lovely princess on her own. He signs off on his and his nation’s downfall.

That’s the simplistic version, however there’s many layers to this epic. Rama for all of his glorious nature, fails just once and it matters the most. Sita has always been an instrument between forces out her control. Ravan is one of the most complex creatures in Hindu mythology, a glorious Asura king, a great Shiva devotee and one of the most deadly warriors ever to lay foot on Jambudweepa. The author smartly decides to focus on all three and gives us a in-depth look into who they are and why they behave they do. In Hindu mythology, there’s a significant focus on past lives and how the actions/curses in those affect the current/future incarnations. The author draws upon this thread really strongly and gives us a meta look into the narrative.

For me this was the icing on the cake as I was aware of what the mythology is and the backgound for this epic and the characters within. The author showcases this and perhaps that’s why this isn’t Ramayana but just Ayana and each Rama, Sita & Ravan have their own journeys and role in this story. In some ways this is more of a tragic story than the other Hindu epic Mahabharata as it draws clear cut lines about who was right and who was wrong. But if one truly looks at the undercurrents, then this is as conflicted a story as the Mahabharata. The author tries to highlight a lot of these moral underpinings and this perhaps might get lost on those who don’t know the background details. She tries her best to shine a lot on these aspects but not all of it might be crystal clear.

The writing style is very simplistic and makes this epic saga seems very easy to dwell into. The action sequences make for fun reading but aren’t the smoothest in conveying every ebb and flow. The story overall is neatly compacted and presented in a slim volume. In this regards, some readers will like the author for her efforts but some might castigate her for minimizing its complex charm.

Overall I enjoyed this wonderful dive into Indian mythology and I thought it worthy of being a semifinalist. Give it a chance if you wish to give a shot at something quite quite different in the fantasy genre.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

SPFBO: The Fifth Jettisoning & Semifinalist Update (by Lukasz Przywoski, Justine Bergman & David Stewart)

This is the last update and we will be announcing our final semifinalist at the end of this post. The books in this lot were read by four of us and were reviewed jointly as well. So here are the thoughts on the remaining six titles:

The Shadow Rises by K.S. Mardsen

Overview/Analysis: There’s a society of witch-hunters and Hunter (not his real name) is probably the best at what he does. He’s got money, the looks, and the skill. I mean, he’s almost like James Bond of the supernatural world. A girl he once saved from the clutches of the evil witch wants to join witch-hunters. A tragic turn of events makes him accept her as his apprentice. In the meantime, the evil raises and things get trickier than ever.

I liked the story and the concept. Everyone needs a good popcorn read from time to time, and The Shadow Rises mostly succeeds at offering high-octane, if slightly predictable, fun. Some action scenes and suspenseful moments are drawn out appropriately, but then a key piece of exposition or character development may be glossed over, or opportunities for those moments are missed. Both main and secondary characters have some distinct traits but, in general, remain underdeveloped and flat.

The writing itself could use a bit of a polish, particularly in the structure of the sentences and establishing POV and keeping it. Long stretches of simplistic phrases make the story accessible and easy to follow, but also remove the suspense or tension building in the story.

Despite many weak spots in the writing and the lack of more depth to the storyline and characters, Mardsen succeeds at creating an interesting blend of reality and fantasy. She explores the concepts of loyalty, individuality, and difficult choices and offers some unpretentious fun. As long as you approach it as a fast pulp read, you should appreciate at least parts of the story.

Windwalker: Forbidden Flight by H.G. Chambers

Overview/Analysis: Windwalker took me by surprise. I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much, but it has it all - winged raptors, sand-warriors, a rebellious protagonist willing to break the rules and follow her dreams.

Kiva Fariq wants nothing more than to help her tribe as a Windwalker scouring the desert skies on the back of a giant flying predator. She has the skill, will, and determination. Unfortunately, she’s a girl and the windwalker sect is closed off to women. When the time comes, Kiva attempts the perilous windwalker trials in secret. Even if she succeeds, the question is open whether the elders will accept or banish her.

In the spirit of youthful adventures, Chambers makes the teenage protagonists seem far more capable than the adults. Not only is she willing to challenge ungrounded beliefs and fight for her future, but she’s also the only one to see approaching danger. Younger readers, especially girls, will enjoy her inspiring growth. But even older readers should appreciate a good balance between appealing to a youthful target audience and creating a captivating, but ultimately comfortably predictable plot.

Overall, Windwalker: Forbidden Flight is a strong and uplifting start to intriguing series. It should appeal to a wide range of readers, from middle grade to young adult. I won't be surprised to see adult readers enjoying this one as a well-deserved rest between bleaker stories.

The Deadbringer by E.M. Markoff

Overview/Analysis: The Ascendancy and its Sanctifiers are on the hunt for remaining Deadbringers throughout the land, and young Kira finds himself on the run in pursuit of survival. Traversing cursed forests, hungry bogs, and countrysides filled with citizens that loathe and fear the very thought of what he is, Kira must hide in plain sight in order save not only himself, but those he holds dear, as well.

The Deadbringer is a dark and intriguing tale of finding one's true self and bearing with the consequences of lies told. We're dropped into a rich world with various races and mysterious, dangerous landscapes, that houses tons of facets waiting in the shadows, just plotting to reveal themselves and shatter what you believe to be the truth. A stunning blend of fantasy and horror, with beautiful, elegant prose, and blood and gore aplenty, this story is an incredible foundation for a potentially outstanding series.

As this is an account of the hunt, we're introduced to several point of view characters that lie on each end of the spectrum. We witness events through the eyes of the hunters and the prey, and at a point the lines between the two begin to blur. This alternating storytelling allows Markoff to refine the world around us without copious amounts of info dumping, something that I always appreciate. However, many major events suffered from a jarring time-jump mechanism, where readers are forced to observe the aftermath, rather than event itself, causing the flow to become unfocused and confusing at times. Also, a substantial amount of moving pieces and a bit of meandering led to just a few missed opportunities that I felt could've been beneficial to the story.

The conclusion of this book is its ultimate shining moment that left me at a point where I not only wanted more, but NEEDED more, and I cannot wait to continue my journey through Ellderet with The Faceless God.

The City Screams by Phil Williams

Overview/Analysis: The City Screams is my initiation into Williams’ work, and what an incredible introduction it has been! An urban fantasy set in Japan that pulls in a healthy dose of lore from the area, this story perfectly portrays the concepts of courageousness and resolve, that not everything of consequence need be witnessed only through sight, and that there is always more to be discovered beneath the surface. Conspiracies, strange organizations, mysterious ongoings, peril, and hope, it’s a genuinely fun read that keeps you guessing until the very end – and that twist! Excellently realized characters and a plot where nothing is at it seems, there’s no shortage of surprises along the way. It’s length smartly strips all the fluff, resulting in a fast-paced adventure where every word matters, and honestly, I finished this book craving more of the Ordshaw world.

Being a story of this size, there are a few concepts that, while possessing excellent backbones, lack just a bit of fleshing out. I know The City Screams can be read as a completely independent standalone within the series, but I feel reading Under Ordshaw and Blue Angel prior to diving into this one could’ve been beneficial, and most likely would’ve answered all of my lingering questions. The story itself ties up nicely, however, everything is left open-ended, so I’m really hoping this isn’t the last we see of Tova. I’m excited to experience the events that paved the way for this great story, and also see where Williams takes us in the future.

Magpie's Song by Allison Pang

Overview/Analysis: I liked Magpie's Song. It has a setting I'm not familiar with - something that I can only describe as post-apocalyptic steampunk. The main character, one Raggy Maggy, exists in the slums of a divided city. On one side are the rich, and on the other the poor, and above them rests a floating island where reside those that even the rich stand in awe of. Raggy Maggy is a Moon Child, meaning she exists as the offspring of one of those who lives above and one who lives below. This makes her special, both because it gives her cool silver hair but also because it makes her immune to the plague that destroyed most of civilization.

Magpie's Song is an incredibly strong contender in our batch of books. It is well written, the main character is very well thought out and interesting, and the writing is solid with very few mistakes. My only real complaint with the book, and it's basically a deal-breaker for me in regards to preferring it over some other entries, is that the book leads up to something for almost its entire length, and then it ends without realizing what is promised. I've been told this happens in the subsequent book, which is fine, but what I am looking for when I sit down to read something is a self-contained story that has a beginning, middle, and end. Magpie's Song has no end, so despite liking the book a lot and really enjoying my time with it, I was left wanting.

Cleansed by G.S. Scott 

Overview/Analysis: Cleansed chronicles the life of Dirge, from childhood to adolescence. Orphaned at a young age, he’s taken in by Talic, the leader of the Order of the Brotherhood, assassins for the God of Death, Aza’zel. Dirge grows into a dangerous young man skilled in combat. When The Prophet of the forgotten God of Order, Ukase, approaches him, Dirge finally finds his way. He breaks with the Brotherhood to serve his new master.

His military adventures are bloody and epic. Cleansed goes into dark, scary places. It pictures lots of violent and gory fight scenes, debauchery, and casual cruelty. As the plot grows more and more complex, Dirge has to decide if he wants to lead the armies of Ukase.

I found Cleansed intriguing. It doesn't shy away from violence, but most of it served to show the grim reality of the world being torn apart by warring deities. With a strong ending and plenty of narrative hooks, it'll appeal to fans of dark fantasy.

That being said, the beginning of the book, with numerous time skips was hard to follow and tiring. As important as those events were in shaping Dirge's personality, they didn't engage me and I had to force myself through the first 25% of the book. Some scenes felt unclear (like Jacob appearing suddenly in the room with Dirge).

Overall, though, Cleansed is an interesting book, one worth trying.

So amidst all these titles, our last semifinalist is Allison Pang’s Magpie’s Song. Because of its well-written protagonist, post apocalyptic settings and its quick pace, it wowed all of us and hence easily overcomes the strong competition that Windwalker provided.

So there you go, Fantasy Book Critic has selected six semifinalists. Best of luck to all authors, we will be announcing our SPFBO finalist in the next couple of weeks.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Cover Reveal: The Infernal Machine by Clayton Snyder

Today thanks to Parliament Press (Erica F.) & Clayton Snyder, we are super excited to be a part of the cover reveal for Clayton’s upcoming book The Infernal Machine. Clayton came on to our radar with his debut River Of Thieves and now I can’t wait to see what the author has in store for us with his next book.

To put it in own words, this is a “Gothic Steampunk version of Indiana Jones meets Hellboy". So checkout the stunning cover below with cover design & typography by Shayne Leighton.

Add the book on Goodreads

Official Blurb: Arthur White lived a simple life tending the dead in a quiet cemetery, until meeting a mysterious stranger known only as Mr. Black. In a few short hours, the stranger turns the groundskeeper’s life upside down, burdening Arthur with an immortal clockwork heart.

Over the course of years, Arthur works as Mr. Black’s right hand, doing the things the old warlock cannot dirty his hands with. The death of a mutual friend and the discovery of Lucifer’s cast-off heart catalyze them into action, setting off a global chase to recover the artifact and open the door to death.

Along the way, Arthur struggles with evils he’s committed, dreams of loss that plague him, and desperate loneliness that may be cured by the appearance of a mysterious new companion, Ava. But before they can get to know one another, they must confront a cult out to steal the heart for their own ends.

Before it’s over, Arthur, Ava, and Mr. Black will have to face who they are and what they’ve done, or perish in a brutal new world. Whatever remains from the ashes may be their only hope.

Official Author Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of River Of Thieves

Official Author Information: Clayton began reading the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Madeline L'Engle, and others, at an early age. It ignited a love of the odd, the darkly funny, and the magical in him that never left. Over the past few years, he's published several short stories with various magazines, and three novels with small presses. When he's not telling stories, he works as a systems administrator for a game retailer. In his off time, he games, he cooks, and he attempts to play guitar. He currently lives in North Dakota with his wife, two dogs, and a cat that insists it's the other way around.

Detonation by Erik A. Otto

Official Author Website
Order Detonation over HERE (USA)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Erik A. Otto is a former healthcare industry executive and technologist, now turned science fiction author. Erik's works of fiction expose the impact of cultural and technological themes on society in a number of futuristic and otherworldly settings. He focuses on delivering intricate plotting, engaging characters and action-driven storytelling to immerse the reader in thought-provoking events and circumstances.

In addition to writing, Erik is currently serving as the Managing Director of Ethagi Inc., an organization dedicated to promoting the safe and ethical use of artificial general intelligence technologies. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two children.

FORMAT/INFO: Detonation is 632 pages long and is a standalone book. The author self-published it in 2018. The cover art and design are by Anup Kumar Bhattacharya and Karolis Zukas.

OVERVIEW: AGI terrifies me. I hope it likes pets and treats them well. Maybe it’ll allow its pet-humans to read books and enjoy themselves?

That sounds nicer than wiping out all human race in a spray of blood and nanobots. I try to remain optimistic, but the existential risk of superintelligence is imminent and severe. 

A computer with the same pattern of algorithms as our brains could think much faster than us because silicon-based transistors fire faster and communicate faster than biological neurons. Yes, you too should be terrified.

Detonation explores mankind’s constant quest for rapid innovation and the risks it generates. The reader gets a glimpse of a world where super-intelligent machines almost destroyed humanity. Why? Not to spoil the things it was a matter of a simple P&L calculation. Perfectly logical when you look at it rationally (despite the absurd AGI’s goals programmed by a human).

The novel alternates between two timelines, Pre-Detonation and Post-Detonation, in what we know as USA. The remaining society is divided into two camps: tech-savvy Spokes, and the Essentialists, who perceive technology as the primary cause of Detonation. Both factions use primitive post-Detonation technology. The Retchers (bird-like monsters) seek and destroy any electronic devices manufactured before the event.

I especially enjoyed the pre-Detonation part of the book told through the eyes of Axel - a security director for a powerful corporation. His mission is simple - stop humanity from destroying itself by reckless development of AI. Axel won‘t hesitate to kill an “innocent” programmer when needed. His storyline got me on the edge of the seat and I loved its non-compromising but hopeful conclusion.

The remaining storylines were good but not as engaging. I guess it comes to other characters who, while well-developed, weren’t as relatable as Axel. Despite significant length (632 pages), Detonation kept me invested and eager to see what will happen to characters and the world. Expect violence, treason, and drama, plus chilling reflections on our not-to-distant future.

I find the book stimulating intellectually and terrifying. That said, I wouldn’t call Otto a skillful wordsmith. His prose is simple and utilitarian. His similes tend to sound awkward. I didn’t mind as I was interested in the events and the plot.

Overall, Detonation combines action, philosophy, and social commentary in an absorbing and terrifying tale. It’s terrifying not because of the bloodshed but because I can see Detonation happen in my lifetime.
Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Clockwork Detective by R.A. McCandless review (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Order The Clockwork Detective over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: R.A. McCandless has been a writer both professionally and creatively for nearly two decades.  He was born under a wandering star that led him to a degree in Communication and English with a focus on creative writing. He continues to research and write historical and genre fiction, battle sprinklers, and play with his three boys.

FORMAT/INFO: The Clockwork Detective is 317 pages long and is the first book in the Constable of Aqualinne series. The book was published by Ellysian Press in May 2019. author self-published it in June 2019. The cover art and design are by M. Joseph Murphy.

OVERVIEW: Steampunk aesthetic appeals to me. It’s cool to see pocket watches and gas lamps in worlds inhabited by automatons strolling the cobblestone streets. And when you look up, you see bizarre airships cutting through clouds. Yummy.

The Clockwork Detective takes place in such a world. To make things even more fun, it throws dangerous Fae to the mix. Aubrey Hartmann, a war veteran with a pocketful of medals, fearsome reputation, and a clockwork leg investigates the murder of a young druwyd. Her potential mistakes can cause a full-scale war with the Fae. Her enemies want her to fail. Her past can ruin her career. As you see the stakes are high. 

As a lead, Aubrey doesn’t lack the roguish charm and charisma.  Despite her military past and her current work in law enforcement, she repetitively straddles the line between crime and justice. She drinks too much. She does questionable things for personal gain but she also sees the big picture and works for the interest of the society. Her intelligence allows her to see the matters clearly and unmask dangerous conspiracy and find creative solutions to problems at hand. All of this makes her nuanced and layered. 

The story has a strong feel of a police procedural. Supernatural elements come into play into the final third and that’s when the fun begins. I especially enjoyed Centaurs presented as wild and lethal predators able to tear humans into pieces without breaking a sweat. Those few chapters kept me at the edge of the seat.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the ending. Or, rather, the path to the climax. Just when things get exciting, the pacing slows down and loses most of its momentum and tension. Exciting parts mix with pages of dialogue and thinking. I’m a huge proponent of thinking, mind you. I just prefer to see its results faster in books.

The story comes together well and the main plot is well oiled and all tied up. Sure, there are hints about a bigger conspiracy Aubrey still needs to unravel, but the answers we get satisfied my curiosity but also whet my appetite for more. 

Despite its minor flaws, The Clockwork Detective should appeal to readers who enjoy intelligent protagonists and murder mysteries with complex politics in the background. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Right To The Kill by Craig Schaefer (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo & Lukasz Przywoski)

Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Long Way Down 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The White Gold Score 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Redemption Song 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Living End 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of A Plain-Dealing Villain
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Killing Floor Blues
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Castle Doctrine
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Double Or Nothing
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Neon Boneyard
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Sworn To The Night
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Detonation Boulevard
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Winter's Reach 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Instruments Of Control 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harmony Black
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Red Knight Falling
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Glass Predator
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Cold Spectrum
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Ghosts Of Gotham
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Loot
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: When two operatives go dark in Tampa, chasing the trail of an oligarch with ties to the demonic underworld, Vigilant Lock — the nation’s first and last line of defense against occult attack — sends their best to the rescue: Harmony Black, a troubled investigator and an elemental witch with a keen but tangled mind; and her partner Jessie Temple, the daughter of a supernatural slasher and the inheritor of her father’s powers.

The trail of clues leads them to the doorstep of Judah Cranston, a wealthy scientist with dark secrets and a darker agenda. Toss in an alluring marine biologist with eyes for Harmony, and a pair of demon-blooded troubleshooters on a hunt of their own, and Tampa Bay is heating up fast. As the mission takes Harmony and Jessie from the sun-drenched Florida coast to a gloomy New England fishing town steeped in forgotten history, they find themselves up against a threat far greater — and more otherworldly — than they ever expected.

FORMAT/INFO: Right To The Kill is 382 pages long divided over forty-two chapters with a “what came before” section. Narration is in the third-person, via Harmony Black , Jessie Temple & Kevin. This is the fifth volume of the Harmony Black series which is a spin-off to the Daniel Faust series.

October 14, 2019 marked the North American paperback and e-book publication of Right To The Kill and it was self-published by the author. Cover design is by James T. Egan of Bookfly Design.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (Lukasz): Before you read this review, you must know I’m biased. Craig Schaefer is one of my favorite pulp writers. Plus, I love his characters and I’m happy to see them again. Don’t expect a fair and critical assessment.

Right to the Kill, is a soft reboot of the Harmony Black series and a place for new readers to jump in. In Cold Spectrum Harmony and Jessie had driven out a threat from within and taken control of the Vigilant Lock organization. Now they’re in the driver’s seat, with new responsibilities and challenges to face, and the resources of an illegally funded covert-operations group backing them up. When two agents go missing on a mission in Tampa, Harmony and Jessie find themselves on the trail of an occult bioweapon, tracking a madman from the Florida coast to a mist-shrouded New England fishing village. What else? Have you read and enjoyed A Little Mermaid? If yes, she’s back! Except she’s carnivorous and lethal.

Schaefer went from a first-person perspective to the third person giving everyone on the team a chance to shine. The gang can finally do much cooler spy-stuff and we get to see all the moving parts through various perspectives. Also, Jessie. She’s hilarious. And brutal when the lupine passenger in her head takes the lead. Her scenes and banter with Harmony were a highlight of the novel.

I admit I didn’t like Harmony when I started the series, but after recent events, she’s developed a darker side that makes her layered and intriguing. I can officially say she’s grown up and became a nuanced and intriguing character I can root for.

The feel of the book? Think a horror-thriller and yes, there are tentacles :)

TL;DR - a brilliant reboot of the series

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (Mihir): The Harmony Black series has an interesting beginning as do most spinoffs. Harmony first made her appearance in Redemption Song (book 2 of the Daniel Faust series) and her arc continued until A Plain Dealing Villain (book 4). She then made her debut in her own series which was published by Amazon. It was then let go by 47 North last year and the rights reverted back to Craig Schaefer. Craig since then has had made up plans to give Harmony and crew a proper trilogy send-0ff (with the possibility of more books, if certain things align up). We at Fantasy Book Critic were super excited to do the cover reveal for Right To The Kill which is book 5 of the Harmony Black series as well as a soft reboot.

Right To The Kill has some structural changes from the previous titles, namely a shift from first person to third person. There’s also a few other things but those I would rather the reader discover for themselves. The book begins nearly a year after the events of the Wisdom’s Grave trilogy (labelled the Wisdom’s Grave incident). The Vigilant Lock team is now free of all their previous constraints (known and unknown). The story begins with Harmony, Jessie, & the team trying to infiltrate Nadine’s cash network and finding ways to disrupt it. Things take a wild turn as such is the wont in thriller stories but it’s from there the story takes a wild turn as a live lead on Bobby Diehl makes them turn to Florida. Events however aren’t smooth as two of their agents have gone missing and Harmony and team now have to go to Florida to find out what happened to the two agents.

This story is a wild thriller and is back to its spies with magic roots that Craig had specified in his interview with us. The narrative change also helps as now the reader is able to get a wider perspective of things and still keep us in the thick of things. The main story while beginning in Florida then dovetails into the remote Maine coast wherein we get a solid horror dose. I loved this aspect as from the first book wherein horror was such a major component. It was good to see the author explore Lovecraftian aquatic mythos.

Let’s talk about the characterization, namely with the narrative focus change, we don’t get an internal view into Harmony’s head however due to the author’s strong skills. We still don’t lose the emotional connect that we have had with Harmony and Jessie. Harmony has been suffering from a while due to court of blooming flowers’ ministrations but she has been adapting herself with some interesting techniques. This book we get a strong indication of where the author plans to take this thread next. Going on to Jessie, we get one of the best scenes in the series so far and I couldn’t stop laughing. I bet many other readers will have a similar reaction and I can’t wait to see where Craig takes her track next. There's also further mingling of the Vigilant Lock team within the Infernal courts and this time, we get a further look in to one of the east coast ones (I expect this court and the infernal character introduced to be of significance later).

The action sequences and plot pace are enhanced strongly and there’s a thread which gives a strong Children Of The Corn vibe. Craig Schaefer ties a wonderful thread to a certain  gargantuan thing from Detonation Boulevard and that only portends some more creepiness in the future. This book breaks the trend of staid amazon covers and the new style cover is just freaking amazing. Again James T. Egan proves why Craig trusts him so much. Lastly this book ends on a climatic note and you will want the next book now (which to be fair, is exactly what the author is aiming for).

CONCLUSION: Right To The Kill is a triumphant return to form in the Harmony Black series by Craig Schaefer. It underscores the main reason why Harmony Black needed a spinoff series of her own. Right To The Kill is the Casino Royale reboot that Schaefer fans have been eagerly waiting for. Savor it and rejoice that this series has gotten the boost on the inside and out.

Monday, October 14, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Company of Birds is that novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 11, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 10, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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