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Friday, September 22, 2017

SPFBO: Interview With A. W. Exley (Interviewed by Cindy Hannikman & Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Nefertiti's Heart HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Nefertiti's Heart

Anita W. Exley's Nefertiti's Heart really captivated both Cindy & me as evidenced in our review. It had the perfect mix of characterization, plot pace & Victorian settings that made the story so compelling. We were more than thrilled when Anita agreed to answer a few questions about her writing, the Artifact Hunter series & herself. So read ahead to get to know her better, checkout the gorgeous covers of her books and lose yourself in a captivating world.

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. To begin with, could you tell us a little about yourself, your background & your interests?

AWE: I'm Anita and I live in rural New Zealand where I have horses. I used to be a forensic accountant, until I realized it was more fun to sit at home and kill people ;) I'm one of those people born in the wrong era - I ride sidesaddle, adore hats, wear a corset, and was steampunk long before I ever heard the word.

Q] Can you tell us what inspired you to be a writer in the first place, what experience you went through in finishing your book, & why you chose to go the self-publishing route?

AWE: As cliché as it sounds, I'm one of those people who has always written. Books were my escape as a child and creating my own worlds was a natural extension of that, I just never finished anything! lol When I took a parenting break from my accounting job, I was looking for something to keep my mind engaged and decided to take the plunge and finish writing a book. From there it grew as I became more focused and I hit the query trenches trying to land an agent (hint: I failed). I had a friend who gave up on querying despite agent offers, and she headed off into indie waters and encouraged me to follow.

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of Nefertiti’s Heart occurred. How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea (if any)?

AWE: I had written a young adult steampunk novel that failed to interest agents, so decided to try my hand at an older novel with different characters. I have always loved Egypt and wanted to finally use my Egyptology studies! I was staring at my text books, trying to figure out a way to bring ancient Egypt into a steampunk England when I decided to do it via an ancient artifact. I was fascinated by the story of Nefertiti and Akhenaton and once the idea of the mechanical heart popped into my mind, the story grew from there. I think it took me about a year to write the book after that.

Q] Many writers have a muse, who directs their writing, and others do not seem to be affected the same way. Which group do you fall into? What is your main motivation and source of inspiration?

AWE: I listen with envy to other authors who say how their muse pours forth words onto a page. I have to hunt my muse with a sack and a tranq gun. I'm a very slow writer and spend a lot of time turning a scene over in my head before I write it down. I tend to start with the seed of an idea (like a mechanical heart and a killer intent on finding it) and often the ending, then I have to work backwards and figure out how it all unfolded.

Q] Nefertiti’s Heart is the first volume in the Artifact Hunter series. The series is completed so could you talk about what the readers can expect next in the series?

AWE: Life becomes more complicated for my heroine as she adapts to life with the villainous viscount and the secrets he is keeping. Queen Victoria succumbs to megalomania brought on by an artifact from Hatshepsut, a powerful woman who became a pharaoh. Cara needs to figure out how to get the necklace off the queen before she takes over the world. Then someone intent on keeping a decades old secret uses a fiddle that once belonged to Nero to tidy up loose ends by inducing spontaneous human combustion …

Q] One of the things I noticed in your debut was a good mix of steampunk mixed in with a solid mystery. Could you tell us about the research which you undertook before attempting to write the Victorian era as described within it? What were the things which you focused upon and any fascinating things that you found amidst your research?

AWE: I read a lot of non fiction about British history, plus grew up on a steady diet of BBC programmes. I've spent some time walking the streets of London and love the sense of history that soaks up from the cobbles and it was natural to take Victorian London as a starting point. From there I determined how my world differed and how I would utilize steam/mechanical technology.

It's the tiny details about every day life that I find the most amazing. Like learning that an electric light was first demonstrated in 1835 and in the 1840s a French nobleman lit up his estate with electric lights, long before Edison even thought about the light bulb. I also discovered that condoms were made by the Goodyear tyre company in the 1860s and bore a lot in common with inner tubes…! lol

Q] Cover art is always an important factor in book sales (whether we like it or not). This factor becomes even more crucial with self-publishing wherein reader prejudice can be higher. Your Artifact Hunters has some gorgeous cover art, I would love to hear how these covers came to be?

AWE: The covers started with a very simplistic idea of hand + artifact. However by the time I got to book 4, a staff just didn't seem that interesting as a cover symbol. I had a look around at a number of other steampunk books that feature women in corsets. However I'm a corset snob and no cheap plastic boned monstrosity was going on my books! I have a friend who is a very talented photographer and fellow corset wearer and she offered to do a custom photo shoot for me. The mechanical heart that Ricky Gunawan designed is such a powerful image (and central to my author branding) so I kept that for book 1, but used custom photographs as the basis for books 2, 2.5, 3 and 4. Regina from Mae I Design then took the photos and gave each a different treatment that reflects the tone of the book, like the fire for Nero's Fiddle and the frozen London of Moseh's Staff.

Q] Talking about characters, even though your book focusses on Cara & Nathaniel primarily. The character cast however is no less intriguing with folks such as Jackson and the Scotland Yard detectives. In this regard I found your book to be very exciting. Could you talk about how you develop your characters and how do their personas come forth?

AWE: I think secondary characters are often more interesting and believe they should each have their own backstory and motivations, they are after all the stars of their own stories, just not the current focus. When I create a secondary character I spend a bit of time thinking about who they are, where they came from and what pivotal moments impacted their personality/flaws. Two of mine (former pugilist Jackson and airship captain Loki) spawned their own books and I have always wanted to go back and write my detective's story and his investigation into the serial killer known as The Grinder.

Q] The world described in your book is Victorian but with steampunk technology added to it. One of things that I would have better enjoyed in this book if more of the world-building were revealed. What was your inspiration for the setting and what are your thoughts on world-building in general?

AWE: Nefertiti's Heart definitely suffers from first book syndrome and by that I mean things that in retrospect, I wish I had done better or differently. In hindsight I completely agree with you and wish I had spent longer thinking about the world, how its technology differed and what impact that had on society. In many ways I winged it and dealt with issues as they arose, but if I had fleshed the world out before I started writing, I think it would have delivered a deeper and more satisfying experience. By the time book 2 was written and the series was gathering momentum I was stuck with the boundaries I had created and had to make the best of it.

It's been a learning experience for me, and with other series I am tackling I am sorting out the world building beforehand and trying to have certain cornerstones in place before I start writing.

Q] Please tell us about the books and authors who have captured your imagination and inspired you to become a wordsmith in your own right. Similarly, are there any current authors you would like to give a shout out to?

AWE: My introduction to fantasy came as a child when I discovered Anne McCaffrey. Pern captured my imagination and never let go, and who doesn't want to Impress a dragon? Even today I still enjoy her continuing legacy and the novels written by her son, Todd. I also chewed through the Dragonlance chronicles and discovered Raymond E Feist. Fantasy is my first and enduring love but my catnip these days is when fantasy is twisted up with a historical time period like Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series or Bec McMaster's London Steampunk.

I'd like to give a shout out to the Historical Fantasy Bookclub.  We have a monthly book that we read (and twice a year we watch a historical fantasy movie) and I've been reading far wider and outside my usual go-to authors. I've found many new authors to follow and lost myself in books and worlds I wouldn't normally pick up 

Q] Thank you for taking the time to answer all the questions. In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers?

AWE: A huge thank you to Mark Lawrence for the work he does in organizing and running the SPFBO and I want to take a moment to thank Cindy & Mihir, the Fantasy Book Critic crew, for the time and effort you put into reading and reviewing for participating authors. I've been visiting the blogs and adding to my growing TBR pile but there's no way I'd want to try and pick just one book to put forward!


Thursday, September 21, 2017

SPFBO Review "Neferiti's Heart: The Artifact Hunters Book 1" by A.W. Exley (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo and Cindy Hannikman)

1861. Cara has a simple mission in London – finalise her father’s estate and sell off his damned collection of priceless artifacts. Her plan goes awry when a killer stalks the nobility, searching for an ancient Egyptian relic rumoured to hold the key to immortality.

Nathaniel Trent, known as the villainous viscount, is relentless in his desire to lay his hands on both Cara and the priceless artifacts. His icy exterior and fiery touch stirs Cara’s demons, or could he lay them to rest?

Self-preservation fuels Cara’s search for the gem known as Nefertiti’s Heart. In a society where everyone wears a mask to hide their true intent, she needs to figure out who to trust, before she sacrifices her own heart and life

ANALYSIS: (Mihir)  Nefertiti’s Heart is an intriguing book that popped up in Fantasy Book Critic’s lot. Firstly it was a top 3 contender with its gorgeous cover art and the blurb was exciting enough for me to get started on it early on. The book’s blurb details our protagonist’s hurry to sell off her father’s estate for reasons that become crystal clear in the first few chapters itself. Cara Devon is a person who’s been shaped by her teenage/adolescent years and those hardships have left mental, physical & psychological scars on her. These scars inform her current behavior and outlook in life wherein she has decided she wants nothing to do with her dad and his precious collection.

Cara’s struggles are further compounded when she learns that some of the items in her father’s collections are prized by similarly focused individuals who share even less morality than her recently departed father. There’s also the concern that her father’s death wasn’t a natural one and due to which Scotland Yard detectives are very much intrigued by her and her whereabouts. There’s also the Viscount who’s interested in her legacy and a Scotland Yard officer who wants the truth to be uncovered. These are the main characters in play and there’s a serial killer at work too. These are the tangled threads that author A. W. Exley puts into play in the first volume of The Artifact Hunters series. The book ends on a strong climax which solve the mystery presented in this first volume but sets up a romantic plot thread that will resolve over the series as well gives us a colorful cast of characters to follow.

What I loved immediately about this book upon starting it was the characterization beginning with Cara. She’s a formidable character who will intrigue the reader with the hints about her past and her resoluteness in her wish to be rid of her father’s legacy. I was immediately drawn to her and as the story progresses we find that there’s more to her grit. The story is almost a thriller with some solid romantic overtones to it and I felt that as a thriller lover, I was able to enjoy the story and even the romance. I can’t speak to how well the romance is crafted since I’m not that big a romance reader but the story held up for me. A word of caution though there’s some dark stuff within with regards to Cara’s backstory and it might not be palatable to everyone. Any plus point about the book was its streamlined pace and the mystery at its core. In this regard this book was a definite surprise as it managed to successfully mold aspects of the thriller, romance & steampunk genres in its fold confidently. Lastly the book cover is an eye-catching one and was in the top 3 from our lot.

The not so fun parts to this story, well there’s the whole romance buildup which takes place between our protagonist and the Viscount which doesn’t quite add up. For example our heroine doesn’t like been touched but is strangely drawn to the count’s dark brooding ways. The author explains some of this attraction later on in the plot but it didn’t quite ring much for me. Maybe for romance readers this might be a genre trope and that would explain it. For me, that was a bit of a glitch in the story. There’s also the steampunk aspect of the story which seems a tad window dressing like. Sure there’s mention of airships and other things from time to time but not much explanation is provided of how things came to be as they are.

Overall these are minor complaints from me as I still was able to enjoy the story because of the main mystery, the engaging characters (main and side cast) as well as the plot pace which makes it quite easy to want to keep on reading. I think this book definitely deserves a semifinal slot and I would be interested to see how the author develops the world and characters in the sequels. Nefertiti’s Heart is a fun but dark romantic mystery story that offers a bit of many genres and marks itself as a good read nonetheless.

(Cindy) I think I have mentioned a time or two or even more that I love reading books that take place in London. When I saw that Nefertiti's Heart took place in a Victorian-era London, I instantly had to give it a shot.

Nefertiti's Heart is a mixed bag of genres all combined into one book. There is a little bit of sci-fi/steampunk, adventure, mystery, gothic, and romance. Normally this wouldn't work out as it would seem that mixing so many different genres would cause the plot/characters/flow of the book to suffer, but it didn't.

I will admit that there is a heavier emphasis on the romance element than I am used to or really would care to read, but – for me – the mystery and steampunk elements were strong enough that I could easily look over the romance-heavy sections.

There were a lot of things that I really enjoyed about Nefertiti's Heart. It had a very fast-paced feel to it, the mystery was captivating, and I really "clicked" with the characters. Add in the fact that much of the mythology referenced and time period was very well researched and you have a solid novel that is extremely enjoyable.

While I really enjoyed Nefertiti's Heart, I will admit that it isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea. The romance-heavy sections are really heavy on the romance. Not every reader is going to be able to overlook it and some may even feel it draws from the plot.

There is also another issue that really needs to be mentioned. It isn't so much an issue, but it does – I feel – need to be noted so readers can make an informed decision. Nefertiti's Heart brings up some pretty grim and heavy topics. If you are squeamish regarding abuse, especially the physical and sexual abuse of a child/teen, the entire novel isn't going to fit for you. While these topics are heavy, I felt they were handled in an appropriate manner.

Overall, I feel Nefertiti's Heart is a strong novel. It certainly isn't going to be everyone's favorite book and there are going to be a lot of things some readers don't like, but for me, personally, it worked. Give it a shot, you might be impressed.
Monday, September 18, 2017

First Watch by Dale Lucas (Reviewed by Michael E. Everest)

Official Author Website
Buy the book HERE

OFFICIAL BLURB: Humans, orcs, mages, elves, and dwarves all jostle for success and survival in the cramped quarters of Yenara, while understaffed Watch Wardens struggle to keep its citizens in line.

Enter Rem: new to Yenara and hungover in the city dungeons with no money for bail. When offered a position with the Watch to compensate for his crimes, Rem jumps at the chance.

His new partner is less eager. Torval, a dwarf who's handy with a maul and known for hitting first and asking questions later, is highly unimpressed with the untrained and weaponless Rem.

But when Torval's former partner goes missing, the two must consort with the usual suspects -- drug dealing orcs, mind-controlling elves, uncooperative mages, and humans being typical humans -- to uncover the truth and catch a murderer loose in their fair city.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS:The Fifth Ward: First Watch’ is the action-packed debut to Dale LucasFifth Ward Series. One of Orbit’s many, and varied, debut novels to be released in 2017, the ‘First Watch’ is a genre crossover of fantasy and crime, lauded as ‘Lethal Weapon meets Lord of the Rings’. Playing on elements of ‘buddy cop’ tv shows, including the friendship between the two leads, a human newbie and a veteran-watchwarden dwarf, the story explores what the ‘boys in blue’ do when there isn’t a dark lord/lady threatening to destroy the world, in this welcomingly familiar and fun story.

THE GOOD: A nice step-change from recent releases (grimdark and epic-tomes, specifically), ‘The First Watch’ is an easy read, both in terms of structure and style. Familiar for its obvious links to police/cop tv shows (even in the way it’s episodic in its storytelling), and even more so for its familiar faces of fantasy (humans, dwarves, elves and orcs), yet different for its willingness to explore something that not a lot of other books do: what do the good guys do day-to-day?

THE BAD: On the note of ‘easy read’ and ‘episodic’, the story does suffer slightly from tension issues, in that it doesn’t really peak at any one point. Instead, chapters read like episodes of said police/tv cop shop, with their own self-contained level of tension, issues, climaxes, and where appropriate, cliffhangers. Also, maybe because all of this (the fantasy and crime elements) feels striking familiar throughout, it doesn’t do anything ‘new’.

THE UGLY TRUTH: ‘The First Watch’ is the perfect summer read, if you’re looking for something light and easy to dive into ‘by the pool’ (or in my case, between kids asking ‘come play, dad, come play!’). It’s easy to pick-up and start again from where you left off, thanks to its structure, lending itself a page-turning pace, even though it suffers from some tension-issues. I’ve never read a ‘boys (and girls) in blue’ story in fantasy before (and I’m fully aware of the many urban fantasy books out there) but I was struck by how familiar this felt to me. Between the elements of high(er) fantasy and the down-in-the-gutter lows of crime, whilst the ‘middle’ of the two was original, I didn’t feel that there was anything ‘new’ or ‘genre breaking’. Plenty of genre ‘definers’ here, but I felt that there was a missed opportunity to really take this somewhere new. That being said, this is a case of ‘do cross the streams’, as it was ‘new and exciting’ (in buzzword terms), and I highly recommend it to readers looking for something between bigger, badder readers, because you’ll still have plenty of ‘badass’ in ‘The First Watch’.

Full review: This is probably one of the trickiest reviews I’ve had to write to date. I really enjoyed this book, but I did have a few issues with it. (The original was well over 2,000 words, so I’ve had to cut it down!)

The First Watch’ does exactly what it says on the tin. ‘Lethal Weapon meets Lord of the Rings’. Police/cop tv show meets fantasy.

Lethal Weapon and Police/cop tv show? Buddy cop duo, check. Crime (petty and serious), check. Henchmen and goons, check. Fisticuffs and barroom brawls, check. ‘Clues’, check. Behind-the-scenes ‘bad guy’ plot, check.

Lord of the rings/fantasy? Elves, check. Orcs, check. Dwarves, check. Swords and sorcery, check.

We’re introduced to Rem, who through circumstance (or consequence, depending on how you look at it), joins ‘the Fifth Watch’, one-of five policing forces that watch over the wards of the city of Yenara. Partnering up with Torval, a dwarven veteran of the wardwatch, the reader finds themselves sucked into a criminal-mastermind operation, alongside Rem and Torval, as they seek out clues, suspects, and a way to bring it altogether. As you’d expect from the police/cop tv show side of it, the seemingly unrelated crimes and events are in fact part of something bigger, and it’s down to Rem and Torval to figure out what, before the criminals figure out that they’re onto them…

This is a remarkably easy and fun book to read, for a lot of reasons. The prose, although a little purple at times, is styled simple and straightforward; and the structure is set out so that the chapters are episodic. It would make for a perfect Netflix series, in which every episode focuses on a specific crime or development in the case, all the while building the bigger plot in the background, seemingly tying all the smaller crimes into the big one.

This episodic approach is great, especially if like me you're looking for something easy to get your teeth into (I'd come off the back grimdark epics and I needed something light, both in tone and tempo), but – and there's always going to be a but – the story also suffers because of this. Because each chapter is an episode, the overall tension of the novel doesn't really peak, as you’d expect. Instead, each chapter blips like a heart rate monitor.

Keeping with the comparison to the police/cop elements, the story is also somewhat let down by things that hold back police/cop shows. For example, the supporting cast for the most part fall by the wayside, especially those ‘in the Watch’.

And, don’t expect to go into this with the ‘hollywood’ version of police officers in mind. There’s no huge car chase (or in fantasy terms, horse and cart chases), no ticking-time bombs (literally or figuratively), no big shoot-outs. What there is, however, is plenty of heart and hope.

CONCLUSION: So, in closing, I have rambled on…a lot. And a lot more in the original 2,000 words+ version. But, in amongst the many, many, many tangents, I hope I have made one thing clear. I really, really enjoyed this book. It was the breath of fresh air that I needed after some heavier reading. I loved the blossoming bromance between Rem and Torval I was caught-up in the action. And above all else, I was happy to lock myself up and throw away the key to my cell just to finish this book in the early hours of the morning, because the kids kept distracting me in the days.

Oh, I hope another thing clear, too.

Buy. This. Book.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Second SPFBO Semifinalist Update (by Cindy Hannikman & Mihir Wanchoo)

With Alec Hutson’s The Crimson Queen becoming our first semifinalist, its high time we nominate our second semifinalist. As I had explained in my 2017 SPFBO introduction post. We’ll be selecting one book semifinalist from every five books. These book groupings are random and sometimes we might have no semi-finalists or we might have more than one in one group.

With this group, my co-editor Cindy was super instrumental in selecting our semifinalist and helping with reading through our second lot. As with our earlier lot we tried to read at least five chapters or 20% of the book (whichever was longer). So here are Cindy’s and my concise thoughts on each of them:

The Rift (J. T. Stoll):

Cindy’s thoughts – This book had a very fast pace feel to it straight from the start. It was easy to read 10, 20 or even 30 pages in one sitting without realizing it. Unfortunately, in an effort to bring readers a fast pace, the book seemed to suffer. While it was easy/fast to read, it felt like I was reading a cliffnotes version of a story. It was almost like we were skimming the surface and not really getting to know characters/worlds or anything. This prevented me from being invested in the story.

Mihir’s thoughts – The Rift was an intriguing mix of portal & urban fantasy and as Cindy pointed out, it was a very quick read however it felt rushed. The world and magic system didn’t quite feel detailed or well-explained hence both of us didn’t feel strongly enough about it.

Warcaster (J. C. Staudt):

Cindy’s thoughts – When reading standard fantasy books, I look for 2 things – a unique plot or amazing characters I really want to go on a journey with. Warcaster doesn't have anything wrong with it, but it doesn't have that “it factor” or the spark to make it stand out from the dozens of fantasy books out there, either.

Mihir’s thoughts – I liked Warcaster’s blurb and had high hopes from this book. The story however didn’t quite match my expectations and while the story was very simplistic. The characters and plot pace did help the story but not enough to make it a standout one. Another title which started well but couldn’t carry through on its execution.

Wrath of the Exiled (D. N. Pillay):

Cindy’s thoughts – I liked where this was going in terms of word building, but it suffered from too much information at times. The novel had a very babbly-feel to it and the story seemed to wander with things that just didn't seem to matter to the main plot.

Mihir’s thoughts – This book is an ambitious one and it is easily apparent as you read the story to see the author’s efforts in crafting it. The storyline does promise a lot of bombastic stuff and the author lays down some pretty cool concepts however the characterization mars the story as its seems very archetypal.

Forgotten Relics (Tiffany Cherney):

Cindy's thoughts – On the surface this sounded amazing. Space pirates/a space setting, but this just didn't have that spark or it factor that made me want to continue past my (personal) set number of pages (approximately 65 – 75 pages). There wasn't anything that inspired me to read on.

Nefertiti's Heart (A. W. Exley):

Cindy’s thoughts – There are some weighty topics/scenes in here and a lot of romance, but I was captivated. I wanted to follow the characters, see what happened to them, and learn more about everything. It was these reasons that I voted to put it through to the semifinals.

Mihir’s thoughts – This story was an intriguing mix of historical fantasy and steampunk plus the author laid out the story intriguingly. What I loved most about was the inherent mystery within the main plot and the thriller aspect of the storyline. 

With this lot, for both Cindy & me it was an easy choice. Nefertiti's Heart was the perfect mix of plot, characters and mystery to intrigue both of us and we will be writing a dual review for it next week. The author has also graciously agreed to an interview and that will be posted next week as well. We hope to highlight why this was such a fun read for us and how it mixes several genre aspects to make a successful concoction.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty (Reviewed by Will Byrnes)

Official Author Website
Pre-order the book HERE

OFFICIAL BLURB: Step into The City of Brass, the spellbinding debut from S. A. Chakraborty—an imaginative alchemy of The Golem and the Jinni, The Grace of Kings, and Uprooted, in which the future of a magical Middle Eastern kingdom rests in the hands of a clever and defiant young con artist with miraculous healing gifts.

Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of eighteenth-century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles and a reliable way to survive.

But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to question all she believes. For the warrior tells her an extraordinary tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling birds of prey are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass—a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.

In Daevabad, behind gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. A young prince dreams of rebellion. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences.

After all, there is a reason they say to be careful what you wish for . . .

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: It’s time to polish that special lamp gathering webs in the attic, put a fine edge on your bladed weaponry, remind yourself of ancient tribal insults and outrages, dust off that list of wishes that is around here somewhere and vacuum your magic carpet. You are about to be transported.

(“The Magic Carpet” (detail), 1880, by Apollinary Mikhaylovich Vasnetsov © State Art Museum, Nizhny Novgorod, Russia/Bridgeman Art Library)

Nahri, our Aladdin here, is a twenty-year-old thief and con artist, working marks in 18th Century French-occupied Cairo. She has a gift for discerning medical maladies and another for treating them. She is adept at languages and at parting the unwary from their money. When she is called in to help deal with a 12-year-old girl who is possessed, she rolls her eyes and opts to have a bit of fun trotting out an old spell that has never worked before. The difference here is that she tries it in a language she seems to have known forever, but which no one else has ever heard. Turns out the girl really was possessed, by a particularly nasty entity, and turns out that Nahri’s little experiment summoned a very scary djinn. In a flash, the evil possessor spirit and a large number of its dead minions are on her like decay on a corpse. Thankfully, the djinn is there to save the day, with extreme prejudice. This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The frustrated pursuers have made Cairo a no-go zone for Nahri, so she and the djinn, Dara (which is a small portion of his entire name) head for the place where people of his sort reside, the world capital of the magical races, Daevabad, the Brass City of the title.

To call Dara a hottie would be a bit of an understatement. Handsome? For sure. Incredibly powerful? Fierce in battle? Be afraid, be very afraid. Able to leap tall minarets in a single flying carpet? You betcha. As if that were not enough, he is literally a creature of fire, and emits actual smoke. You never had a friend like him.

Cairo may present imminent threats of death, but Daevabad is no prize either. Ancient tribal hatreds are kept at bay by a strong, and ruthless ruler. King Ghassan ibn Khader al Qahtani must contend not only with inter-tribal tensions, he must cope with a growing insurgency. (Think sundry Middle East rulers with tribally diverse populations.) There are many who feel that laws favoring purebloods are unjust, and want those of mixed Djinn-human blood, shafit, (think mudbloods) to be treated fairly. One of those happens to be the king’s number two son. Ali is a very devout young (18) man. As second in line, he is destined to help his older brother, Muntadhir, rule, as, basically, the head of security.

He is extremely adept at sword-fighting and has gained a good reputation among the other student-warriors at the Citadel, a military training school (not in South Carolina) where he has been living and training for some years. Dad would not be pleased were he to learn that junior was giving money to an organization that purports to offer civilian-only aid to shafit, but is also rumored to be involved in a more military form of activity. (Think Hamas). Revolutionary tensions are on the rise, palace intrigues as well, as trust is something one could only wish for. One key question is where Nahri really came from, who is she, really? It matters. And what happened to the ancient tribe that was chosen by Suleiman himself to rule, way back when.

There are magic rings, flaming swords, strange beings of diverse sorts, plots, battles, large scale and small, plenty of awful ways to die, without that being done too graphically. And there is even a bit of interpersonal attraction. Did I mention Dara being smokin’? There is also some romantic tension between Nahri and Ali. Add in a nifty core bit of history centered on Suleiman.

"One of the great strengths of City of Brass is the lode of historical knowledge the author brings to bear. It actually started not as a novel, but as sort of a passion project/exercise in world-building that I never intended to show a soul! I’m a big history buff and with The City of Brass I wanted to recreate some of the stunning worlds I’d read about while also exploring traditional beliefs about djinn. A bit contrary to Western lore, djinn are said to be intelligent beings similar to humans, created from smokeless fire and living unseen in our midst—a fascinating, albeit slightly frightening concept, this idea of creatures living silently among us, dispassionately watching the rise and fall of our various civilizations." - from the Twinning for Books interview

(Mahamoti Djinn - Magic:The Gathering)

Chakraborty, our Sheherezade here, fills us in on much of the history of how the djinn came to build their human-parallel world, offering not just what is, but how what isarose from what was:

"There’s a djinn version of Baghdad’s great library, filled with the ancient books humans have lost alongside powerful texts of magic; they battle with weapons from Achaemenid Persia (enhanced by fire of course); the medical traditions of famed scholars like Ibn Sina have been adapted to treat magical maladies; dancers conjure flowers while singing Mughal love songs; a court system based on the Zanzibar Sultanate deals justice to merchants who bewitch their competitors… not to mention a cityscape featuring everything from ziggurats and pyramids to minarets and stupas." - from the Twinning for Books interview

There are a lot of names to remember, words to learn, tribes to keep straight, and allegiances to keep track of. I found myself wishing there was a list somewhere that helped keep it all straight, and “Poof!” there it appeared at the back of the book, a glossary, rich with useful information. It could have been a bit larger though. I would have liked for it to include a list of the djinn tribes, with information about each, their geographical bases, proclivities, languages, you know, stuff. The information can be found in the book itself, but it would have been nice to have had a handy short reference.

CONCLUSION: The City of Brass is both very smart and very entertaining. The richness of the world we see here gives added heft to a wonderful story. The world Chakraborty has created hums with humanity, well, whatever the djinn equivalent might be for humanity (djinnity?). You will smell the incense, want to keep a damp cloth at hand to wipe the dust and sand from your face, and a cool drink nearby to help with the heat. It probably wouldn’t hurt to post a lookout in case someone decides to try spiking your drink or inserting a long blade into your back. This is a wonderful, engaging, and fun read. It will not take you a thousand and one nights to read, but you might prefer that it did. The only wish you will need when you finish reading The City of Brass is for Volume 2 of this trilogy, The Kingdom of Copper, to appear, NOW!!!

NOTE: This review was originally posted over here by Will Byrnes.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

GIVEAWAY: Owl And The Electric Samurai by Kristi Charish

Kristi Charish’s The Owl series is a series that has mixes the fun of urban fantasy along with the rollicking action of adventure thrillers. Kristi Charish & Fantasy Book Critic are glad to be giving away two copies of Owl And The Electric Samurai to Two Lucky Winners!!! 

There are two copies up for grabs. The trade paperback copy of Owl And The Electric Samurai is open for everyone in USA & Canada. The Audible version is open internationally to all folks.

To enter, please send an email to with your Name, Mailing Address, and the subject: OWL. Giveaway will end on 12:01 PM, 27th August 2017 and will be open to participants in the US/CANADA (paperback) & WORLDWIDE (Audiobook) regions! 

Thank you for entering and Good Luck! 

1) Open To Anyone WORLDWIDE
2) Only One Entry Per Household (Multiple Entries Will Be Disqualified)
3) Must Enter Valid Email Address, Mailing Address + Name
4) No Purchase Necessary
5)Giveaway will end on 12:01 PM, 27th August 2017
6) Winners Will Be Randomly Selected and Notified By Email
7) Personal Information Will Only Be Used In Mailing Out the Books To The Winner 

Friday, August 11, 2017

SPFBO: Interview with Alec Hutson (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Order The Crimson Queen HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Crimson Queen 

Alec Hutson's The Crimson Queen was our first SPFBO Semifinalist and as you can read in my review yesterday, it's really apparent why. Alec was kind enough to answer a few questions while preparing for his marriage. I owe him more than just a thank you for his time.  In this interview, you'll learn more about his beginnings on the writing path as well as how The Crimson Queen came into being. Read ahead and get to know more about Alec and  be sure to grab a copy of The Crimson Queen. You won't be sad when you do.

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. To begin with, could you tell us a little about yourself, your background & your interests?

AH: Hi! Thanks for the questions! I grew up in a small town on the north shore of Massachusetts (the setting for one of HP Lovecraft’s short stories, actually). My aunt owns a rather large independent bookstore, and I was surrounded by books from a very young age. I always loved fantasy and have a memory of lugging Ed Greenwood’s Spellfire into my third-grade classroom for show-and-tell. 

I went to Carleton College and studied mostly history, majoring in political science. Up until my senior year I thought law school would be my route, but as graduation hurtled closer I realized that I didn’t really want to be a lawyer - it just seemed like a natural path for my skill-set (high school debate captain, good with the words, etc). So instead I applied to writing programs, and was accepted into the one at NC State run by John Kessel, the eminent science fiction author.

About this same time, I’d started dating a girl who was working at the same bookstore as me. Before we’d even met she was planning on going to Shanghai to teach English with her sister, and she convinced me to defer my writing program for a year and join her in China.

That was fifteen years ago, and I’m still in Shanghai (though the girl I arrived with is now happily married to a doctor in New York). The interval has been an exciting and fun time, to be sure, but I do wonder how my life would have been different if I’d taken the other branch back in 2003 and gone off to get my MFA.

Q] Can you tell us what inspired you to be a writer in the first place, what experience you went through in finishing your book, & why you chose to go the self-publishing route?

AH: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I remember writing, illustrating and binding a book in the first grade based off of the old King’s Quest computer games. I published fantasy stories in my high school’s literary magazine. I loved creating and having written, but I can’t say I have the same compulsion to write that some writers speak of. The act of writing isn’t enjoyable for me. It’s like a wrestling match, and while I do feel tremendous satisfaction when words I’m happy with are on the page, it’s also exhausting.

During my twenties I tried several times to write a book. I always got 50k words in or so, and that nagging little internal critic would convince me to throw it aside. For The Crimson Queen, I joined the story-sharing site Wattpad when I’d hit the word count where self-doubt usually came crashing down hardest and started posting chapters. The reception was quite good, and honestly it was the readers there that pushed me to finally finish.

After I had a first draft done I started researching the query process. For those who haven’t done it, it’s pretty horrible. Slaving away over a hooky blurb, then dispatching these queries to literary agents, most of whom will only glance at what you send them and dash off a form rejection (if they reply at all). My initial batch of 15 queries or so fizzled, though I did get asked for two partials – from the two biggest agencies I’d queried, actually.

One of my writer friends on Wattpad suggested I look into self-publishing. I hadn’t even considered this route, but I started reading articles by Hugh Howey and lurking on kboards. It quickly became very apparent to me that this was the future of publishing. I loved that I had absolute control over the story and its rights, and that my book’s success or failure would rest on my shoulders, not some faceless marketing department.

I began preparing my book for self-publication. It took me about two months to make The Crimson Queen, and I hit publish in early December, 2016. The response really floored me. My initial goal was to make back in 2017 my investment in putting the book back together, which was about 2k dollars. By the end of December, I’d already done that. Then in the middle of January a really fantastic indie author – Will Wight – was handed my book by a reader of his blog. He loved it and raved about it on Goodreads, Amazon, Twitter . . . . The Crimson Queen sort of exploded after that. At the end of January, I received an e-mail from the huge fantasy agency I’d queried 9 months before. They wanted the full manuscript of Queen, which I believe is a big step on the way to representation. I explained to the agent that I’d already self-published, and he said that that was okay, but I’d have to take down my book, it wouldn’t return to print if he took it on for at least 18 months, and he couldn’t guarantee an advance of more than 10k dollars (which I guess is sort of standard?). By this time – 6 weeks into self publishing – I was already fast approaching that number.

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of The Crimson Queen occurred. How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea (if any)?

AH: Elements of the book began gestating back in my twenties, and several characters and scenes were taken from previously failed versions. I really wanted to write a classic fantasy story set in the kind of world I loved to read about, but without the Manichean duality that in my opinion renders a lot of fantasy kind of simplistic. I wanted to do a less-dark version of Game of Thrones. The characters of the Crimson Queen herself and Alyanna – and their conflict – were always there in previous iterations, as was Jan. Keilan – who became the viewpoint character – was a late addition.

When I finally set to writing the book it took me about 18 months to finish.

Q] Many writers have a muse, who directs their writing, and others do not seem to be affected the same way. Which group do you fall into? What is your main motivation and source of inspiration?

AH: I wouldn’t say I have a muse, unless it’s the writing of authors that I really love, like Mieville or Martin. My motivation, I suppose, was chasing that emotion I always loved when I read fantasy novels – kind of an upwelling in wonder, that feeling of being transported to a different realm. If I can create that same emotion in readers, then I’ll consider my book a success.

Q] The Crimson Queen is the first volume in the Raveling series. Could you give us a progress report on the next book, offer any blurb details about the sequel and outline your plans for the series as a whole?

AH: I’m about halfway through the second book in the series. I’m aiming to release it this winter, but I also won’t put it out until I’m completely satisfied, so that might be the spring. I can’t imagine it’ll take longer than that. In the second book – The Shadow King – the threat to the world becomes clearer, and in some ways the series settles down into a more traditional fantasy story.

Q] One of the things I noticed in your debut was a good mix of mythology that seem inspired by East, Central & North Asian legends. Could you tell us about the research which you undertook before attempting to write your debut? What were the things which you focused upon and any fascinating things that you found amidst your research?

AH: I’ve lived in China for fifteen years, so I have a familiarity with East Asian culture and history. I’m also in general just a bit of a history nerd, so bits and pieces of my own interests worm their way into certain cultures in my books. The Shan and their Empire of Swords and Flowers are very obviously based off of Tang dynasty China. Menekar is a more classical-era civilization. The Gilded Cities are similar to Italian city states, or perhaps more of a Hanseatic league-type merchant federation.

Most research I did was related to particular events – like when Nel begins to teach Keilan knife-fighting, I researched the basics of that. The last thing you want to do as a writer is break immersion by completely misrepresenting something that readers might be passionate about.

Q] Another curious bit about your debut was the presence of the mythological creature designs within TCQ & TMS (at the start of chapters and in the start). Is there any particular reason for their presence in these volumes? Also why those particular designs (dragon, manticore) for each volume?

AH: The internal formatting of my books is done by Colleen Shaheen of Write Dream Repeat book design. She’s wonderfully talented, and I love what she’s done with the books. She presented me with an assortment of designs and images, and I simply chose ones that I liked. The manticore obviously made sense given that my short story collection was named after a flash fiction piece inside called The Manticore’s Soiree – the rose and dragon design in The Crimson Queen I just thought looked great.

Q] I thoroughly enjoyed how your debut presented your own twist on several fantasy tropes. Particularly the titular character whom you kept sort of hidden from the POV characters as well as the reader & is only revealed in the last fourth quarter of the book. I liked how you subverted reader expectations by purposefully keeping The Crimson Queen as an enigma? Was this planned? Will we ever see what makes her tick and how she rose to power?

AH: I did want her to be an enigma. Mysteries keep readers reading. I’ve found it interesting how different readers have come away with very different impressions of her, from benevolent to ruthless, to both good and evil. I do plan on getting deeper into her character and her motivations – I have a backstory all primed for when it makes sense in the narrative to explore it.

Q] Talking about POV characters, you have written both mortal & near immortal ones. How do you get in the mindset for writing them? Do you write them one at a time? or do you write them all together?

AH: I wrote the chapters as they’re laid out in the book, so sometimes alternating points of view, sometimes the same character again. The most difficult POV for me to write was Keilan. I had to be true to the fact that he’s being thrust into a situation he doesn’t fully understand, and goes through much of the book in wide-eyed wonder at what’s going on around him. Some readers have remarked about a lack of agency with him, but for me, I couldn’t imagine a scenario where a fifteen-year-old boy seizes control of the situations he finds himself in. He’s an effective vehicle for exploring and explaining the world, I suppose. Alyanna was the most fun to write. She’s confident, arrogant, and powerful. A lover of beauty and life. Also extremely selfish. Just a fun character to explore and write about.

Q] Your book has an intriguing world mixed with some different geographical countries. What was your inspiration for the setting and what are your thoughts on world-building in general?

AH: Like a lot of fantasy books and worlds, the inspiration came from our world’s history. Most of the cultures are vaguely analogous to something familiar. I don’t think I broke new ground with the setting, but it’s exactly the kind of world I love to explore as a reader, so I was hoping others would find it compelling.

There’s also a certain way to present a fantasy world – in the language used, and the way far-off peoples and locations are referenced – that I think really deepens the fantasy reading experience. Let me give a few examples. Here’s one of my favorite openings, from The Phoenix and The Sword, one of the first Conan stories:

Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west.”

This is a world I want to explore. I get those little flutters in my stomach when I read about the ‘towers of spider-haunted mystery’ or ‘Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold.’ With The Crimson Queen I tried in parts to do the same thing – here’s a section from the very beginning, when Keilan is describing what he knows of the world beyond his village:

His mother had taught him so much. While most of the other villagers only knew about this tiny sliver of the world, their homes and the nearby town of Chale, the waters of the bay and the dun hills to the east, his mother had told him stories of the vastness that unfurled in every direction. Farther east, over the Bones of the World, lay the ancient cities of Menekar, where white lions curled at the feet of ruling satraps; to the far north was a frozen waste pocked by crumbling holdfasts locked in ice and sorcery; to the west the Gilded Cities glittered on the coast; and to the south, beyond the sea, was where the mysterious Shan ruled in their Empire of Swords and Flowers.

Or another example would be how I introduce the city of Menekar from the perspective of the Shan advisor to the emperor:

The peach rains had finally come.

For weeks now Menekar had been swaddled in a shroud of late summer heat, heavy and suffocating. Along the Aveline Way, in the shadow of the aqueduct that channeled water from mother Asterppa to the cisterns and gardens of the city, the bare feet of children had slapped the marble as they ran shrieking to play in the crowded fountains. Past them matrons and maidens alike had walked swaying to market, their jokkas unbound and bared breasts gleaming, hair coiled atop their heads so that the faint breath of a breeze might cool their necks. And elsewhere in the city, in shaded villas along the banks of the sluggish, silty Pandreth, the painted wives of satraps summering in the capitol had reclined on velvet couches, fanned by great feathers held by the hairless men of the Whispering Isles.

As summer had waxed, the days had lengthened, becoming more languorous, colors slowly seeping from a city bleached by the heat.

Then the spell had broken. As happened every year, something in the swollen air had burst, and the peach rains had finally come, sweeping over the city in lashing torrents. The patter of children’s feet had given way to the sound of falling raindrops; the hairless men of the Isles had set down their fans and bent to rub oils into the legs of their mistresses. The dust and filth of the hot dry summer months had been swept into the suddenly overflowing canals.

Menekar had been reborn, cleansed – for a short while, at least.

There’s a trend in fantasy toward realism and grit, and that’s really not where my writing leads. I’m going for that sense of wonder – I want to make the reader want to strap a sword to his or her side and go out to explore these places and have adventures.

Q] Please tell us about the books and authors who have captured your imagination and inspired you to become a wordsmith in your own right. Similarly, are there any current authors you would like to give a shout out to?

AH: My conception of fantasy changed when I pulled A Game of Thrones off my bookstore’s shelf in 1996. It was probably the most formative reading experience of my life.

For the quality of their sentences I really respect Cormac McCarthy, Vladimir Nabakov, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, David Mitchell, China Mieville, Lucius Shepard, R Scott Bakker, John Crowley, and KJ Bishop, to name a few off the top of my head.

If I was to make a list of my favorite fantasy books they would be:

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

The Scar by China Mieville

The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Etched City by KJ Bishop

Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link (short stories)

The Jaguar Hunter by Lucius Shepard (short stories)

My exposure to self-published books is somewhat limited – before this spring, I’d never picked one up. Now I have a to-be-read list a mile high, and I’ve been extremely impressed with the quality of what I’ve tucked into so far. There’s a few indie gems I’ve picked up that I’d love to steer readers toward:

The Cradle series by Will Wight, starting with Unsouled. Will gave my book a tremendous boost soon after I published – I had never read him before that, but I devoured the (now three) books in his Cradle series. Incredibly inventive and accomplished fantasy. So much fun. If this series was picked up by a big 5 publisher it would be a NYT bestseller.

I love sword and sorcery, so I read The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids by Michael McClung. It’s a wonderfully written adventure that I read in about two sittings.

And one science fiction plug – if you enjoyed The Hunger Games or Red Rising, try Age of Order by Julian North.

All three of these books I thought were better than the average title put out by New York publishing.

Q] Thank you for taking the time to answer all the questions. In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers?

AH: You’re welcome, and thank you for the wonderful questions! I guess I just also want to say thank you to all the readers who have read The Crimson Queen. I never imagined my book would be so well-received, and it’s great motivation to keep writing and improving my craft.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

SPFBO Semi-Finalist: The Crimson Queen by Alec Hutson (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Order The Crimson Queen HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Alec Hutson was born in the north-eastern part of the United States and from an early age was inculcated with a love of reading fantasy. He was the Spirit Award winner for Carleton College at the 2002 Ultimate Frisbee College National Championships. He has watched the sun set over the dead city of Bagan and rise over the living ruins of Angkor Wat. He grew up in a geodesic dome and a bookstore, and currently lives in Shanghai, China.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Long ago the world fell into twilight, when the great empires of old consumed each other in sorcerous cataclysms. In the south the Star Towers fell, swallowed by the sea, while the black glaciers descended upon the northern holdfasts, entombing the cities of Min-Ceruth in ice and sorcery. Then from the ancient empire of Menekar the paladins of Ama came, putting every surviving sorcerer to the sword and cleansing their taint from the land for the radiant glory of their lord.

The pulse of magic slowed, fading like the heartbeat of a dying man.

But after a thousand years it has begun to quicken again.

In a small fishing village a boy with strange powers comes of age...

A young queen rises in the west, fanning the long-smoldering embers of magic into a blaze once more...

Something of great importance is stolen - or freed - from the mysterious Empire of Swords and Flowers...

And the immortals who survived the ancient cataclysms bestir themselves, casting about for why the world is suddenly changing...

CLASSIFICATION: The Crimson Queen showcases the best of Robert Jordan’s worldbuilding skiils, laced with Terry Brooks’ fluid characterization and topped off with a pinch of David Gemmell’s heroic fantasy escapades.

FORMAT/INFO: The Crimson Queen is 422 pages long divided over forty-three POV titled chapters with a prologue and an epilogue. Narration is in the third person via Keilan Ferrisorn, Janus Balensor, Alyanna, Holy emperor Gerixes, Xin, Senacus, Wen Xenxing the black vizier, and Cein d’Kara. This is the first volume of the Raveling series.

December 3, 2016 marked the e-book & paperback publication of The Crimson Queen and it will be self-published by the author. Cover art and design is by Jeff Brown.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Crimson Queen by Alec Hutson is at first appearance a book that might cause your eyes to glaze over it. Its cover has an unusual shade of yellow in its background along with a generic appearance of an old city. That however would be your first mistake. This book since its release in late 2016 has been slowly making waves and was slotted in to the 30 books afforded to us. Of the first batch of books that I read, it was the best and hence was our first semi-finalist.

The story blurb again talks of an old cataclysm which shaped in the world into what it is currently. The main story opens in a very Wheel Of Time fashion with the prologue showcasing someone or something that is old, possibly immortal and talking of events that will change the world. The story then opens us by showcasing the life of Keilan Ferrisorn who lives in a small fishing village and has a sorrowful past that impedes his village life. Janus Balensorn is a person who we quickly learn has more to him than just a honeyed voice and an arresting manner. Senacus is a paladin of Ama and one of the Pure, a sect of Templar-like knights who have powers and seek to stamp out magic. Senacus’ path brings him in conflict with certain wielders of magic and his path to Ama will be sorely tested. There are a few more characters but that’s the gist of the protagonists who power the main plot threads.

The book has a strong mystery to almost every aspect of it. Firstly there’s the mystery of the world itself which is mentioned in the blurb. Secondly there’s the two characters Keilan and Jan (as he refers to himself constantly). Both these characters have mysterious tragedies in their past which fuel their behavior and there’s also the titular character who’s as slippery as they come. In fact the author builds up her mystique by not introducing her until the last quarter but at the same time we are constantly hearing about her exploits and her fame. Then there’s the other characters in the book who take on POV roles and are as intriguing as our two main protagonists. Even though it’s his debut, Alec Hutson has managed to write some solid characters. Sure they stick to fantasy tropes (orphan village boy, unknown traveler, and deadly warrior) but he writes them with a fresh perspective and make sure that they don’t seemed jaded. Case in point the book’s main protagonist (at least by POV chapter count) Keilan who is a half-orphan and pretty soon discovers how ignorance plays out among the scared rural populace. While this seems very generic in the fantasy landscape, Alec Huston has imbued enough freshness in to Keilan that you want to root for him and get invested in his past.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Alec has a real solid knack for writing engaging characters. Be they villains, heroes, or merely misguided ones, nearly all the folks we meet are fully formed personas who act and behave with their own agendas in mind. The book also has female POV characters and in fact they are the real mysteries of the story. One of them is the titular character and the other one, well you’ll have to read the book to know more about her. I must point out that at this point I’m very, very curious to know more about Cein d’Kara the noted Crimson Queen. Plus kudos to the author for presenting her  as a multi-faceted person who depending on which angle you view her from,  can be a tyrant or a savior or both. So very much like Dany if she had already conquered Westeros and now was eying Essos & Southros.

What I also thoroughly enjoyed about this book was the way the author introduced the world. There’s a solid mystery afoot about what happened over a millennia ago and how it has impacted the world that we are currently introduced to. The world map showcases the different regions and most fantasy readers will be easily be able to recognize the real-world facsimiles. Plus the author makes sure to slowly unveil aspects of the world and there are no big infodumps that threaten to derail the plot or the pace of the book. The story also visits quite a few locations listed in the map and while that seems very trope-ish, it doesn’t feel forced at all. The author also mentioned in his interview with us (to be posted tomorrow) about where he got his influences from but the world he creates is his own with touches of our world here and there.

In our current atmosphere of solidly grimdark books, this fantasy debut takes route less soiled. Alec Hutson’s world isn’t necessarily grim but neither is it a bed of roses. He doesn’t really take the gritty route but manages more of a traditional heroic fantasy route. This works to his favor as I believe writing a grimdark story just for the heck of it, would certainly fall flat. Here I believe the author set to write a fantasy story more in line with the late 80s & 90s fantasy titles which were epic in content, but not grimdark as the current trend is. I can’t exactly say that Alec Hutson’s writing is like certain author X or writer Y but what I can surmise is that he brings to the table certain elegant qualities.

Imagine the best of Robert Jordan’s worldbuilding skiils, laced with Terry Brooks’ fluid characterization and topped off with a pinch of David Gemmell’s heroic fantasy escapades. Then you get an indication of the fun that awaits when you crack open The Crimson Queen. I’m sure Alec Hutson might disagree with my estimation but honestly it’s very clear that he’s his own writer and wants to write a certain kind of story. Were there any drawbacks to this story, yes there are some flaws. Plot wise this story doesn’t offer anything new that fantasy readers haven’t seen so far. The author incorporates lots of fantasy tropes and that might be a turn off for certain readers. One can even make a premise that the book’s pace falters a bit in the middle but it’s only a mild stumble and then picks up the pace as it hurtles towards its conclusion. Another point might be that there’s a lot of unexplained things introduced but since this book one of the Raveling series, I can’t really hold the author to that.

CONCLUSION: Alec Hutson's The Crimson Queen is a rare indie gem, sure nowadays we are unearthing more and more of them than say 4-5 years ago but it doesn’t take any sheen off the efforts that have gone into completing this one. The Crimson Queen is a fantasy debut that will have the reader rooting for its main characters, enjoying the plot mysteries and wanting the next book desperately. That is a hallmark of a true winner and I don’t think there’much more to say beyond that.

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