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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

SPFBO: The Third Diminution & Semifinalist Update by Justine Bergman

Read Fantasy Book Critic's First Semifinalist Update
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Second & Third Semifinalist Update

Hello, everyone. Justine here. Firstly, I can’t tell you all how excited and honored I am to have even been asked to participate in this year’s SPFBO. Sure, I’ve followed for years, but as this is my first time judging, I wasn’t really sure what to expect - so, a huge thank you to my blogmates for hunkering down as I bombarded them with questions and concerns, and an even bigger thank you to all of you who have so graciously submitted your books and given me tons of great things to read.

As you already know, for this round, we were tasked with finding the best of the best in assigned mini-batches. I’m going to be completely honest with you - this is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do in my blogging career. I know this competition is stressful for authors, but being given the roles of judge, jury, and executioner is something that’s been pretty rough for me. I wish I could just float you all to the finals, and let someone else handle all the tough decisions, but alas, I cannot. So. Without further ado, here we go with the another culling.

I had an incredible batch of books, and thoroughly enjoyed making my way through all of these stories. I approached each and every one as objectively as I could, and tried to keep my personal tastes out of my decision-making as much as possible. Here are the six books assigned to me (organized alphabetically by author):

Pursuit of Shadows by J.A. Andrews
Grayden by L.K Evans
Starheart by Hailey Griffiths
The Dark Ability by D.K. Holmberg
A Keeper’s Destiny by C.A. King
The Ukinhan Wilds by Eldon Thompson

Let’s get to it.

Pursuit of Shadows

Pursuit of Shadows by J.A. Andrews
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: The Keeper Chronicles

I was a little hesitant to dive into this one, only due to the fact that this is the second installment in AndrewsThe Keeper Chronicles series. To be clear, I have not read A Threat of Shadows, and was worried that although book two is a standalone, I would be missing out on key worldbuilding. This was not the case whatsoever. Pursuit of Shadows is a fun, clean, uplifting, and enjoyable read, highlighting the idea that one person, no matter how flawed, is able to make a vast impact. A recurring theme of choosing the best path for the greater good, and living with the consequences ties all aspects of this story together seamlessly. With all the darker fantasy currently flooding the market, this book was truly a breath of fresh air, and has earned its place on my list of feel-good fantasy.

After a bit of a slow start, we follow Keeper Will, who has the ability to read the emotions of others, on his journey to find his kidnapped sister in a land ripe with enemies. Recruited as resident storyteller by a seemingly progressive enemy clan leader seeking peace, Will is soon heaved into a grueling adventure populated with humans, elves, dwarves (the best), goblins, dragons, and magic. This book is perfect for fans of classic and epic fantasy, as it’s a charming, yet modern take on the core elements that generally define the fantasy genre. Of the many things to praise, the character dynamics Andrews creates are just superb. Easy to read, splashes of chill-inducing prose, and stunning character and plot development, this was definitely a stand-out read for me. There are a few unanswered questions at the end, and I'm hoping for closure in future books.

Grayden: The Secret of Illryn

Grayden: The Secret of Illryn by L.K. Evans
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Series: Standalone

That first chapter, though. I mean, nothing like introducing your reader to a world where a man magically severs tongues and melts flesh from bone with a mere thought and flick of the wrist. I have to admit, that scene was glorious. *insert 'I seen some sh*t' emoji*

Grayden: The Secret of Illryn is a compelling story of persuasion and deceit governed by magic, gods, and the arduous journey of finding the truth. The general concept Evans conveys of a gifted person being used as a puppet by both the church and state for their own conflicting needs was one that really appealed to me, and one that was definitely executed well. As the story continues on, Grayden begins to access repressed memories, and I feel this gradual unlocking of secrets hidden within the dark corners of his mind is a brilliant engine for worldbuilding. The additional thread of an ongoing battle between gods infused a whole new layered depth to Grayden's mysterious past, that which unravels before us in a stunning fashion.

I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of this book, and believed we were on course for a solid grimdark tale of vengeance filled with hyper-violent stabby moments and reprisal. Oh, I got plenty stabby moments - however, I felt there was a turning point where the story began to stray from the established tone - the darkness of retribution to the dawn of redemption, if you will. And while Krowen is one of the most incredible and wonderfully developed characters I've become acquainted with lately, Grayden's transformation felt a little too abrupt, leading to an unfortunate disconnect I wasn't expecting. There's something special about this world Evans has created, I just hoped the story would stay true to the roots it sprouted from.


Starheart by Hailey Griffiths
Genre: Young Adult
Series: Vale of Stars

This was the first book I chose to pick up, because I was in dire need of some YA escapism. Starheart is a remarkably whimsical story defined by a uniquely enchanting world; one that is far too easy to lose yourself in. The setting is beautifully illustrated, and reminiscent of one within a fairytale with surprises everywhere the eye lands. The imaginative trials faced, and the wicked villains we're introduced to were among some of my favorite aspects of this book. Additionally, the writing is solid, the underlying mystery is alluring, and it was difficult to decipher who was friend and who was foe (something I always appreciate in a story).

While I found the second half of the book a charming experience, the first half was pretty difficult for me, as I felt there was an unnecessary amount of fluff preventing a real sense of urgency from forming. I sense the world itself has a deep history below the surface just waiting to be discovered, but many of these indications are mentioned with little to no details, and those are often vague, as well - almost as if there was a book I should've read before this one. The characters we follow, although adults, seem childish and flat at times, unfortunately preventing me from truly bonding with them. All things considered, I'm glad I continued through this book, as that final half was exactly what I was looking for - I only wish the fascinating bits began just a tad earlier.

The Dark Ability

The Dark Ability by DK Holmberg
Genre: Young Adult
Series: The Dark Ability

The Dark Ability was one of interest around the FBC circle, as it already has over 2,000 varied ratings on GR, so I was pretty excited to give it a try. The notion of magical abilities determining a person's standing in society is an intriguing approach to viewing the many prevalent inequities in our own society. The whole "they only hate and fear it because they don't understand it" concept plays a huge role in this story, and tackling it sends out a positive message to readers. Additionally, I absolutely loved the blacksmithing aspect introduced, especially how lorcith, a magical and almost sentient metal, calls out to Mastersmiths to be shaped in a way it desires, usually in the form of weapons. These lorcith-forged weapons have been deemed illegal by those ruling - the reasoning unknown. I was also captivated by a supporting cast of complex characters with many unveiled secrets.

Having that said, while I adored Brusus, Jessa, and Haern, I just couldn't connect with Rsiran, the main character, whatsoever. His constant, repetitive introspection became overly distracting, consistently pulling me from the immersion of the story - if these repetitions had borne fruit, I'd not even mention it. The underlying story is truly fantastic, but I felt some aspects were overly simplified, while others felt too bogged down with superfluous details. Additionally, the corrupt ruling class dictating the lives of all was an interesting thread I wished has been explored in more detail - I know they're the bad guys, but not why. Despite my mixed reactions to this book, I'll most likely be continuing with the series, simply because I need to know what happens next.

The Portal Prophecies: A Keeper's Destiny

The Portal Prophecies: A Keeper's Destiny by C.A. King
Genre: Young Adult
Series: The Portal Prophecies

A Keeper's Destiny is a coming-of-age story that follows a group of teenagers as they discover their own abilities and attempt to save the world from an impending invasion and complete destruction, as foretold in a prophecy. This story also focuses on the corruption of man, and the inevitable ruin that follows. It's apparent King has imbued this world with an interesting and rich history, as we catch snippets of the past through storytelling and seers - I only wish these facets were discussed in further detail while setting up the conflict of the main story. This book has a promising concept and tons of potential, what with the idea of once-believed sealed portals opening between worlds, but it just falls short on delivery.

I unfortunately didn't finish this book, as I couldn't get past the copious amounts of info dumping, often repetitive, that drowned the first 40%. For one of this length, I expected this story to swiftly sweep me into a fantastical and mysterious tale of prophecies led by a Chosen One, but the author left nothing to the imagination. Although this is labeled YA, I felt as though the narrator was speaking to a younger audience, with portions that were overly simplified, and too much focus on inconsequential aspects. While I love the idea of a younger cast exploring their strengths, talents, and interesting powers, I was unable to connect with any of them. I was definitely interested in the core tale, and was looking forward to finally reaching the 'ah ha' moment, however my journey to get there was just too prolonged.

The Ukinhan Wilds

The Ukinhan Wilds by Eldon Thompson
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: Warder

Well, the entirety of this book is one wild expedition, fraught with horrors and peril at every. Single. Turn. A thrilling tale of adventure, treachery, and courage, The Ukinhan Wilds delivers us from the throes of a hungry sea, to shattered shores, to humid swamps, to labyrinthine caves, and more, in order to deliver a kidnapped princess back to her father. However, there's a consistent feeling that nothing is as it seems, which unravels into a larger underlying plot line that awaits further discovery. Populated by a large cast of diverse characters - some you love, and some you hate - this story focuses quite a bit on character dynamics, most of which were interesting to watch unfold. Kylac, the main character, is overly-powered, yet conflicted, which I always find to be a fine balance. Solid writing, vividly painted landscapes, and truly terrifying baddies, this story was an unexpected and welcome treat.

While I enjoyed my precarious trek through the wilds, at times there was a bit of meandering that threatened to pull me from the story, finding myself growing weary and wishing for more monsters. Don't get me wrong, there are monsters aplenty, and each more horrifying than the last. I also felt somewhat of a disconnect with Kylac, and later learned that the author dedicated another entire series to his adventures. There were a few aspects of his character that I found distracting or questionable, and maybe being acquainted with his history would've better equipped me for this. A shocking ending leaves this series open to a whole new set of nail-biting wanderings, and I'm looking forward to seeing what trouble Kylac finds himself in next.

There Can Be Only One.

Welp...and now I have to choose! I'd like to thank you all for tossing your hats into the ring - it's because of you this competition continues to remain awesome! This was not an easy decision, but here we go:

My choice for the next FBC SPFBO5 semifinalist is...

Are you ready? I'm not.



Pursuit of Shadows
*trumpets blaring*

A huge congrats to J.A. Andrews for moving on in the competition! This book was such a pleasure to read, and my finger is poised upon the order button for the rest of the series! Stay tuned right here on the FBC blog for my full review coming soon.

Thanks for stopping by, everyone, and best of luck, J.A.!

Happy Reading!

Monday, August 19, 2019

Dual Review: A Spark Of White Fire & A House Of Rage And Sorrow by Sangu Mandanna (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order A Spark Of White Fire over HERE
Pre-order A House Of Rage And Sorrow over HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Sangu Mandanna’s Celestial series drew me with its premise of being based on Mahabharata. I read both A Spark Of White Fire (book 1) and A House Of Rage And Sorrow (book 2) back to back and I enjoyed how the author juxtaposed the Mahabharata epic within a SF setting with genderflipped roles and many a twists.

The overall story is the main conflict between the Rey family. Our protagonist is Esmae a nobody of sorts on the spaceship of Wychstar. Ruled by King Darshan Karn and his children, it’s a city of fairness and stability. However King Darshan has created Titania a sentient space ship that’s indestructible and also the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. Setting up a contest to have the best archer win it, everyone is confounded when an unknown entity wins it and announces herself as scion of the house of Rey. The House of Rey is divided as the current king Elvar and his queen Gwinne rule within the dominion of Kali. However they have exiled queen Kyra and her two children Alexi & Abra Rey after the death of Cassel Rey. Cassel and Elvar were siblings however Elvar the elder brother was set aside because of his congenital blindness and Cassel ruled instead. However after his death, Queen Kyra and her children were set aside by Elvar who took the throne as was the royal decree by their grandmother Vanya.

Since then things have been tense and all the forty kingdoms expect war between King Elvar and Prince Alexi Rey as both have had their destinies taken away from them for no just cause. Titania is the latest spark in this smoldering fire which would have caused one side to win easily. However Esmae actions cause the biggest tumult in this galaxy as she upsets everyone with her supreme archery skills. By declaring herself as a scion of a famous house, she wants nothing more than to return to Kali and reconcile with both sides of the family and learn why she was abandoned. Aided by the goddess Amba, since she was a child. Esmae knows no family and longs for recognition and love and with her archery skills she proves everyone that sometimes the smallest pawn cause the biggest shakeups.

I consider myself to be a Mahabharatophile, I’ve read almost every version of the Mahabharata since I first heard the epic of Mahabharata from my mother and grandmother. I was fascinated by the heroes and villains in it as I devoured the Amar Chitra Katha comics. Since then I’ve read the C. R. Rajagopalchari version, the original K. M. Ganguli translation as well as the recent Ramesh Menon versions. Also I’ve read and enjoyed Yuganta, Mrityunjay, & Parva. So you can understand why I was so excited by Sangu Mandanna’s SF-YA retelling. The story focuses on the central themes of the epic such as the reason for the conflict, the main archery rivalry between Karna and Arjun, and the meddling of the gods within mortal lives.

All of this and more is handled adroitly by Sangu Mandanna, she genderflips some roles such as Karna & Eklavya, merges several characters such as Yudhisthir and Arjun, Bheesma and Drona. She also mines several significant events from the epic such as the wax palace burning, the eye of the fish test, the city/palace of illusions (Indraprastha), etc. With Esmae, she takes the character of Karna and genderflips it but retains his magnanimous nature as well as his friendships, his generosity, and his amazing abilities. Here’s a breakdown of the characters who are strong facsimilies of the characters from the epic:

Esmae/Alexa Rey = Karna
Alexi Rey = Arjun
Max Rey = Suyodhan (also Duryodhan)
Arba (Bear) Rey = Bheem
Kyra Rey = Kunti
Cassela Rey = Pandu
Elvar Rey = Dhritarashtra
Guinne Rey = Gandhari
Sebastian Rickard = Amalgamation of Bheeshma and Drona
Darshan Karn = Amalgamation of Shikhandi and Drupad
Kirrin = Krishna
Selwyn = Shakuni
Hundred & One = Kauravas
The Blue Knights = Yadava warrior clans

These are the main characters who play many an important role in the story in both the books and also before the events of the first.

What I really enjoyed was the SF and epic mythology merging of the story. Beginning with events and characters to the inclusion of mythological beings such as Rakshasas, and Garudas and the Devas. Plus the author really let her imagination fly with the spaceship cities, the technological armor upgrades as well as the action sequences. Another cool feature is that the storyline isn’t a direct recreation of the Mahabharata epic but it utilizes several key points and characters while also allowing for the author to insert her twists and turns. With that we get a very different and enjoyable reading experience (I speak from a POV of a person who’s intimately acquainted with the epic). For those who have no idea, I expect every twist will be cool. The addition of the gods and the Hindu mythology were done syncretically and really gave me a thrill to read about (the stories of the origin of the gods, the seven celestial weapons, the Empty Moon and its mysteries, etc.)

The pace and the twists are done really well, the first book though while beginning slowly certainly catches up by the halfway mark and then gives us a very sound climax. The second book is even better as it starts off quickly from within its first chapters and then just goes full steam towards the end wherein it ends on quite a few shocking notes.

Lastly I would have to mention the characterization as with this being a YA book, there’s only so much one can do with complexity. However the author a wonderful job in showcasing all of these characters and their needs. Primary among them is Esmae with her burning anger, Alexi with his conflicted feelings, Max with his intelligence and steadfastness. I enjoyed reading about them but I wish the author had done more to portray why Esmae feels the rage that she has in her heart (in the original epic & Mrityunjaya, Karna is brilliantly humanized and we get to really feel for him). I also didn’t like the sidelining of Alexi & Abra (Bear) both of whom are based on Arjun & Bheem. These are formidable warriors who are equally great and have complex personalities as well. The author tries to capture Bear’s soft hearted nature with his fascination with honey cakes (Bheem was also supposed to be a master cook).

Alexi gets sidelined a lot and is made out to be a villain of sorts who does what he wants when he doesn’t get his way. I thought the author lost out on portraying him as an equally fascinating persona and hence leading up to the great clash between him and his sibling (foreshadowing the equally complex relationship & rivalry between Karna and Arjun). Lastly I was glad to see Max being shown as a wonderfully intelligent character who has his own reasons for being the way he is. In almost all versions of the Mahabharata, Suyodhan/Duryodhan is shown to be just evil and I never quite understood that. His friendship with Karna as well has his kingship and brotherly relations are very much understated. However the author cleverly illustrates why Esmae holds Max in such high regard and I loved what twists the author envisioned with his character arc.

Overall though most characters all seem very one-dimensional compared to the enigma that is Kyra Rey, as her actions have what set up the majority events of the story. Plus she almost never makes an appearance on the pages except at a very climatic point and even then refuses to be just a villain. I thought this was a masterstroke by the author and was very well done. There’s also the sentient ship Titania who gets a POV turn in the second book and I very much enjoyed its recollections and observations. I feel I’m being a bit harsh as this is a YA story and it can only get so complex especially when the source matter is possibly the greatest story ever told. I reiterate Sangu Mandanna does a terrific job of giving us a story that keeps the reader entertained, and yearning for more.

The only point that I didn’t enjoy was the romance that was inserted within the story, it is predictable and quite staple worthy of the YA genre and maybe that’s why it was present. I didn’t care much for it. I’m also not a typical YA reader so you have to take this specific observation with the necessary caveat (as I’m definitely not the target audience for it).

CONCLUSION: The Celestial series books are a wonderful amalgamation of YA, SF & the Mahabharata. I can safely vouch that such a unique combination has never been done before. Give Sangu Mandanna wholesome credit for giving full rein to her imagination and giving us readers such a wonderfully epic and twisted storyline. I can’t for book III of the Celestial Series.

NOTE: My thanks to Shealea for allowing me to participate in this blog tour. Checkout the rest of the blog tour for A House Of Rage And Sorrow over HERE.
Sunday, August 18, 2019

Cartophile Contest with Soraya Corcoran (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Soraya Corcoran Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic interview with Soraya Corcoran

Howdy FBC readers and other ne'er-do-wells, we are in the midst of SPFBO 2019 while these are early days. There’s a lot of excitement and jostling afoot. While we are about halfway through our lot of thirty books, the fourth semifinalist will be announced in this upcoming week. Similar to last year, we have an exciting contest announcement for all self-published authors (including current and former SPFBO ones).

I love maps in fantasy books and are a popular part of the genre. As a cartophile, I’m always rooting for fantasy books to have maps. Which is what this second edition of this contest is all about! We are honoured to have Soraya Corcoran aboard. She has graciously offered her cartography services for this contest. Plus similar to last year, we will be footing the bill for her services.

Soraya is an amazing cartographer and you can checkout some of her amazing work below (as well as on her website). Even if your fantasy book already has a map, this is a great opportunity to have an updated one or one specially made for your liking, or for your own website. The choice is completely yours and the best part, it’s entirely FREE OF COST TO YOU.

In order to win this fabulous prize, all you have to do is describe in 250 words (or less!) why your world deserves a map and why you should win this contest! Please send in your entries to with the subject line “FREE MAP”!

THAT'S IT, that’s all you need to do. The contest will run until the 7th of September and we will announce the winner on September 8th. Best of luck to all those who enter…

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Ibenus by Seth Skorkowsky (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order Ibenus over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Dämoren
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Hounacier
Read Fantasy Book Critic interview with Seth Skorkowsky
Read Building The Perfect Revolver by Seth Skorkowsky (guest post)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Raised in the swamps and pine forests of East Texas, Seth Skorkowsky gravitated to the darker sides of fantasy, preferring horror and pulp heroes over knights in shining armor. When not writing, Seth enjoys cheesy movies, tabletop role-playing games, and traveling the world with his wife.

FORMAT/INFO: Ibenus is 410 pages long divided over twenty-four numbered chapters. The narration is in the third person limited. This is the third volume of the Valducan series. It can be read as a standalone. 

The book is available in e-book and paperback formats. It was republished by Crossroad Press in 2018. Cover art and design are by Shawn King

CLASSIFICATION: Ibenus is a character-driven dark urban- fantasy book with immersive world-building and in-depth study of demons lore. 

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: I like the concept of a hidden world of monsters and of a small group of people that hunt them. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy theValducan series so much. The fact it’s awesome helps as well.

Each book in the series can be read as a stand-alone although it’s rewarding to read them in publication order. 

The series follows an order of modern-day knights that hunt demons. When someone is possessed by a demon, they take the form of a monster, such as a werewolf, oni, or wendigo. The only way to kill a demon is by using a holy weapon. Each knight is bonded to a unique weapon. It’s a bond more intimate and strong than any human relationship you can imagine. An absolute and pure love. Not surprising, as each weapon is inhabited by an angel who chooses his protector and bonds with him/her.

Dämoren followed Matt Hollis, and Hounacier Malcolm Romero. In Ibeneusthere’s a wider cast of characters but the story focusses on Ibenus protector - Allan Havlock. I liked Allan in Damoren a lot and I was happy to learn he would get more spotlight. Nothing prepared me to what Seth Skorkowsky had in mind for him, though. 

Allan takes an apprentice - a disgraced police detective Victoria Martin who survived demon attack. Victoria belongs to an internet group intent on exposing Valducans. At first, she’s driven by the anger but when she learns more about the order she starts to desperately play both sides to not only protect herself but also Allan, whom she has begun to love. Ibenus, however, has other plans for the couple. 

Ibenus is my favorite book in the Valducan series. It kept me glued to the pages for hours. Allan and Victoria’s relationship is convincing and watching remaining Valducans through their eyes gave me a fresh perspective on the remaining knights. I mean, those guys are lunatics. Imagine a band of folks entering buildings with medieval weapons, burning houses and claiming there are demons around us. Would you easily believe them? 

Apart from Victoria’s storyline, my favorite part of the book was the bonding between a German accountant and Umatri. It felt intimate, convincing and beautiful. I work as a HR Consultant and I have to admit that Valducans’ recruitment techniques are well-targeted and take into account a given weapon’s needs and preferences. Lakrasus always chooses dancers as his protectors so he’s displayed in the dance center, Umatri was a bit of an enigma and Valducans decided to display it close to places frequented by soldiers. However, it was an accountant, not a soldier that has proven worthy of this amazing, undulating blade. Umatri may be one of the coolest weapons described in Valducan series so far. 

We continue to learn more about the monsters. They’re not romanticized or tragic. They’re pure evil. Some of them share a history with angels. If you remember Anya from Damoren, Ibenus gives a satisfying closure of her arc.

In Ibenus, the Valducans are going after Mantismeres - the giant insectoid demons that spawn doll-faced carapaced minions, which lure in their unwitting victims by emitting sounds that imitate crying or giggling babies. Imagine meeting something like that in the dark. Would you run to help it? Probably. And that would be your final mistake.

CONCLUSION: The story is well-paced, fully immersive and hard to put down. If you’re into darker urban fantasy or simply enjoy reading about demon hunters try Valducan series. It’s brilliant.
Tuesday, August 13, 2019

SPFBO: Semifinalist Interview with Randall McNally (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

(Not the author or is it?)

Official Author Page
Order Shadowless over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Shadowless

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

RM: Thank you for asking me to take part in this interview, it’s an honour to be here. I’m currently a project manager, working for a large software company, and I write in my spare time. I’m from Ireland and I have a degree in Astrophysics; so with the scientific education and over ten years’ experience working as a computer programmer you would think I’d have written a Sci-Fi book, but no.

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 choose to go the self-publishing route?

RM: A few years back, when I was working as a developer, I landed a new job. Programmers tend to jump between companies every 2-3 years and so this was normal. A few things happened and the move turned sour. I had only just joined the company and I didn’t want to leave right away – if anything, leaving so soon would have looked bad on a CV.

One day on my lunch break I read an article about a lady in America who gave up her day job to become a writer. She worked in a call center (cube farm) and sat behind a large man who ate egg sandwiches and flatulated all day. While I couldn’t afford to just leave my job this lady’s story definitely struck a chord. It was then I began writing; in the evenings, at the weekends, holidays. Some days in work I’d even churn out a few hundred words over lunch and email them to myself.

Writing the book was a massive undertaking and in all honesty, if I had known what was involved and how much it was going to cost, I’m not entirely sure I would have ever started. Anyway, the company I was working for, when I began writing Shadowless, was little more than a start-up and when a huge shift occurred in the industry people had to work longer hours without getting paid overtime or time in lieu. Trying to squeeze in writing during this time was difficult, and so because of this Shadowless took 2 years just to write (the entire process took 3 years). I’d never written a book before so everything was new to me, from finding an experienced proof-reader, a professional copy editor, a cover artist and a graphic design team. Sourcing all these people took time and, of course, money.

Why did I choose to self-publish? I didn’t choose. It was lack of option. I contacted thirty four literary agents/publishers (I know because I kept their details in a spread sheet so I didn’t contact the same ones twice) and pitched them my idea, sent them the first 3 chapters, etc. The eight that replied all said something similar…"Great idea, love the premise, strong writing style…just not what we’re looking for at the minute."

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?

RM: The best source of inspiration I know is people. Sometimes I’ll be sitting in a canteen, bus or a bar and overhear a witty or insightful comment. If it sounds like something one of my main characters would say then I type it into my phone quickly, before I forget it.

Q] How did you hear about SPFBO and what helped you decide to submit your debut in this edition?

RM: Last year I contacted a book-blogger via Twitter and offered them a free copy of my book in exchange for an honest reviewer. They read it and loved it. Afterwards they got in touch with me and suggested that I submit Shadowless into the SPFBO competition. This was last September so I’ve been waiting about 10 months to submit my book.

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

RM: Growing up I used to play RPG’s and computer games, all of which tended to be fantasy-based, even the films I watched and books I read were mainly sword and sorcery. There was something about the genre that appealed to me, so when I started to write it was obviously going to be fantasy. The idea for Shadowless had been rolling around in my head for a few years but never fully took shape until I began writing. I didn’t actually set out to write a book, merely to write short stories. It was only when I had a few of these stories written that a friend suggested connecting them. It took a few rewrites but I managed to get them to gel together into something that (hopefully) makes sense.

Q] Shadowless seems to be the opening volume in a saga. Could you give us a progress report about the sequel and outline your plans for the series as a whole? Also what would the series title?

RM: Yeah, everything is set up for a trilogy of books or even more. The world building and map are in place, a cast of main and supporting characters have been established and I have enough material for at least a few more books. Realistically however, a sequel was always going to be dependent on the success of the first book, and even though Shadowless has been well received it’s still nowhere near close to paying for itself. Despite that, I have got a rough draft of the first few chapters of a second book written, but it’s really slow going (not that the first one was written quickly). I changed jobs again soon after Shadowless was published and so don’t have the same need for the escape mechanism that writing provided.

I’m not sure what a series would be called? I was going to call the first book ‘Tales from the Northern Realms’ right up until the last second…but the title didn’t really go with the cover art. I’m glad I changed it. If anyone reading this has any ideas of what a series should be called then I’d love to hear them.

Q] Your book has a very unique approach to its POV structure. You roughly have about 20 POV chapters, each dealing with a new godling character (even though some POV characters make appearances in some other POV chapters). Why did you write your debut in such a distinctive manner?

RM: I didn’t realise the chapter format was that distinctive until people began commenting on it. This is my first book and I hadn’t done any writing since school, I mean…I wrote at university but it was all equations, lab reports and experiment write-ups…certainly no creative writing.

The distinctive format of the book came about because I began writing short stories about different characters in far-flung lands, each with a unique power and each with a very distinctive personality. It was only after the first few chapters that I started to link things together, flesh out the details and introduce the overall narrative. As you mention, some of the character’s chapters are (seemingly) standalone while others weave in and out of the novel’s main storyline. The chapters are deliberately in a specific order so as to drip-feed the reader with the book’s main elements rather than bombard them with information.

Q] Your book had a very Clash of The Titans feel to it. The Gods in your world are alien, cruel and very, very powerful. What was your inspiration for them and the world being the way it is and what are your thoughts on world-building in general?

RM: Clash of the Titans (the proper one with Laurence Olivier) was, of course, a major inspiration for the book, but I wanted to take it one step further. I grew up watching films like Jason and the Argonauts and marvelled at the way the gods used mortals as pawns, pitting them against each other and often plunging them into dangerous situations and watching how they reacted.

In these legends some of the gods breed with mortals to produce heroes of renown. I wanted to turn this on its head and have the gods breed with mortals with an aim to killing their offspring further down the line.

Building a world for my book was probably one of the most straightforward parts of it, I simply described it through the eyes of my characters. Yes, there’s dragons and gods in the world I created…but grass is still green and the sky is still blue.

Q] Can you tell us more about the world that the Shadowless is set in and some of the book’s major characters? There are some Greco-Roman influences (arena fighting and weapons) as well as medieval touches (heraldry and nobility). What are curiosities (geographical, mystical, etc.) of this world?

RM: Shadowless is set in the Northern Realms. As you can see by the map the continent is about the size of North America and contains differing climates and untamed wildernesses. The map itself took almost 200 hours to draw and required me teaching myself how to use Photoshop.

The Northern Realms is made up of thirteen independent and very different realms. Each one has their own laws and their own variations of nobility, much like our own world. Some of the secrets of the Northern Realms are teased out over the course of the book; yes there’s magic in the world but it’s subtle. It’s implied and hinted at, not shoved in your face without a backstory or context.

Q] The Shadowless world and the creation process for each semi-divine persona is quite dark. With that being said, would you call your book a dark fantasy or a grimdark one?

RM: I’ve tried to make my novel as real as possible (as real as you can be when thirty-foot tall armoured gods are involved); some of the characters get into dangerous predicaments and some even die. I think if a book like this doesn’t have an element of grimdark then realism gets suspended and readers get bored. I’ve heard people say that their biggest pet hate is characters who have Plot Armour.

The world in which the book is set is a really dangerous place for the main characters who live there, that’s not to say that Shadowless is four hundred and fifty pages of blood and violence. I’ve tried to tell a story in the best way I could and to give readers a glimpse into the lives of the characters in it. If readers can identify with even the smallest part of any of them then maybe I’ll have achieved something.

Q] Let’s talk about that cover, I really like it and I believe it very specifically ties into a crucial scene from the book. Who’s the artist for it and how did you collaborate with them for this striking cover? Did you give them any particular scenes or ideas to work on?

RM: The artwork was drawn by an artist called Mon Macairap and the rest of the cover was done by a graphics design company called Streetlight Graphics. I’m from Ireland, Mon is from the Philippines and the graphics design company is based in the U.S., so yeah, creating the book cover was a global effort.

I’m glad you like the cover, I’ve had so many people comment on it. I think it captures the mood and feel of the book perfectly. The inspiration for the cover came from John Howe’s picture of Ulmo. I’m a big Tolkien fan and when I saw John Howe’s picture, years ago, it stuck with me. In terms of what I asked Mon for, I explained the scene and what the characters looked like…the rest was all down to him.

It seems you’re not on your own in liking the cover, it recently won the public vote for Best Cover in this year’s SPFBO Cover Competition.

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?

RM: J.R.R. Tolkien and HP Lovecraft were the two main inspirations I had growing up. I’m also a fan of David Gemmell and Stephen King books.

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

RM: I’d just like to say thank you once again for inviting me to take part in this interview. I’d also like to take the time to thank everyone who’s read my book up to now and to everyone who voted for my cover in the recent SPFBO Cover Competition.

My book comes with a map but it seems that some of the detail was lost when the map was shrunk down to fit into the book, if anyone would like a high-resolution jpg version of the map then please email me at and I’ll be happy to supply one.

NOTE: All the artwork & Snowball picture courtesy of the author.
Monday, August 12, 2019

Kingdom of Heroes by Jay Philips

Official Author Website
Order Wayfarer over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

Jay Phillips lives on the Gulf Coast with his wife and two children. A lifelong lover of comic books, Star Wars, Doctor Who, and everything else from the nerd culture, he prides himself on writing fiction that crosses boundaries. 

OFFICIAL BLURB: Years ago, a gene virus ran rampant across the planet, leaving a small percentage of people gifted/ cursed with extraordinary abilities and humanity itself forever changed. Suddenly, there were people with super strength and speed, people who could read minds, people who could teleport themselves from place to place with but a single thought. 

FORMAT/INFO: Kingdom of Heroes is 411 pages long. It was self-published by the author in 2013. 

OVERVIEW: The world is full of books about superheroes, but only a handful revolve around a murder mystery and incorporate neo-noir aesthetic. Kingdom of Heroes contains most of the stock ingredients of the genre; the femme fatale, the morally ambiguous hero, complex plot, hard-boiled dialogue, and so on. It never wastes a second - thanks to short, action-packed scenes it’s ridiculously addictive.

Set in a world ruthlessly ruled by former superheroes known as the Seven, it pulls no punches in presenting a new form of dictatorship. We learn about world-altering events through a short introduction and skillful use of the newspaper clippings, transcripts of recordings and diaries between the scenes. Before the change of the power structure a gene virus affected a small percentage of the world population by mutations that manifested as enhanced mental and physical skills. Each mutated individual was affected with different abilities, some got immense powers while others useless ones.

Philips paints a gruesome picture of people discovering their powers:

“A woman in Peoria accidentally burned her husband alive when her ability to manifest flames turned on as she was climaxing during sex; a college student in Houston inadvertently lobotomized his History professor while searching the teacher’s mind for the answers to a test; a child in Denver was killed when he unknowingly teleported himself onto a major highway.”

Initially, superheroes wanted to protect the United States against crime and supervillains. But then the government made a fatal mistake and started to perceive them as a threat to the world’s safety and to persecute them. Agent America, and his team of powerful mutants, The Seven conquered states and created a dictatorship their leader perceives as a real-life Utopia. When a mysterious killer murders The Seven one by one (in gruesome ways), Agent America offers a deal to Canadian superhuman knows as the Detective who hates The Seven himself. Mayhem ensues in the best possible way. 

The novel draws from famous comic book arcs and presents characters similar to Marvel’s iconic characters. It starts almost like the Watchmen - with a brutal murder of the member of the Seven, a brilliant scientist Anthony Barren who flies around in technologically advanced suits. When the killer puts his hand on Anthony’s most advanced suit, he gains access to the hidden records concerning the strengths and weaknesses of members of the Seven, which include plans to neutralize them allies in a fight (an arc inspired by excellent JLA: Tower of Babel by Mark Waid). 

You won’t have to look very hard to spot characters inspired by Iceman, Captain America, Colossus, or Cloak&Dagger. And if like me you’re a geek raised on Marvel and DC, occasional nods to well-known characters will add another layer of fun to the edge-of-your-seat narrative. The action moves at a breakneck pace, from one location to another as The Detective tries to solve the murder mystery and stop the killer. The Detective himself is an intriguing character with a knack for the witty that’s top of the line (as long as you enjoy lines from 80’s B Movies). He speaks a lot and I could describe him as a mix of Peter Parker and Deadpool. See for yourself if you’ll enjoy his voice:

“Nothing like a bullet wound and sex with a beautiful woman to make a man feel the pangs of freedom.”

Or this exchange with a gal who’s just about to kill him:

“Oh well,” she said. “At least we had tonight. That means something, doesn’t it?” “Not to me,” he said, smirking for what he assumed would be the last time. “I doubt I’ll even remember you in the morning.”

Such cheesy lines brighten otherwise gruesome and violent reality of survival in the world rules by Agent America. You just can’t approach them seriously. The characterization has enough depth to make the reader care, but it doesn’t try to explore the deepest layers of a human psyche. Despite some shortcuts, I would never call the Detective one-dimensional. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about female characters who are shown as hot and flirtatious types who can’t resist the Detective. Sure, it’s part of neo-noir canon, but it’s also sexist. As long as you accept it and turn a blind eye to the flawed characterization of females, you’ll enjoy the story. Dissect it, and I don’t think you’ll want to finish it.

Kingdom of Heroes is an excellent popcorn fun. It’s fast, furious and loud. If you like Hollywood pacing, superheroes, and crime you’re in for a rare treat.
Friday, August 9, 2019

SPFBO Semifinalist: Shadowless by Randall McNally

Official Author Page
Order Shadowless over HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Randall McNally is originally from Ireland and has a background in Astrophysics. He has previously worked as a computer programmer as well as project management. He was inspired to take up writing after reading an articles about an author who began her writing career after being stuck in cube farm. Shadowless is his debut.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: What if the gods themselves wanted you dead?

A young boy lies on a beach on a warm summer's day. While trying to block the sun from his eyes Arpherius makes a shocking discovery; he has no shadow. Confused and bewildered he asks his uncle why he is shadowless. What he learns is a terrifying secret that will change his life forever.

Set in the Northern Realms, Shadowless is a fantasy novel about individuals born without a shadow. Spawned by the malevolent deities of this world these children of the gods are persecuted at every turn. Hunted by the high priests who carry out the wishes of their gods, hunted by the Shadow Watchers; armed soldiers who are assigned to each temple, and hunted by the gods themselves.

Part-mortal and part-god, the Shadowless live for centuries and face a battle for survival, constantly on the run or hiding in far-flung corners of the Northern Realms.

Soon their lives and fates become intertwined, expedited by the mysterious monk Amrodan. Driven by a series of visions Amrodan travels through the Northern Realms, seeking out the Shadowless and trying to enlist their help to take a stand and fight back against the gods.

FORMAT/INFO: Shadowless is 499 pages long divided over twenty titled chapters with a prologue and epilogue. Shadowless is the first book in the Shadowless series. Narration is entirely in third person and takes place via several different characters.

The book was released on December 5, 2017 and was self-published by the author in paperback and ebook formats. The cover art is by Mon Macairap and design is by Streetlight Graphics.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Shadowless by Randall McNally is a debut book that touches upon quite a few genres such as epic fantasy, dark fantasy & godpunk to name a few. The story is a bit hard to describe because of the unique way the author has written it. For me, the cover was certainly striking and the blurb while being so vague (which after reading the book, I completely understand why) still drew me in and this was the first book in my lot with which I decided to start SPFBO 2019.

The story is set on a huge continent called the Northern Realms, which is further divided into thirteen realms who have their own rules and ways of dominion. The biggest shocking aspect of the series is the presence of the gods and their copulative meddling in all but one of the realms. As described in the book, there was a civil war among the gods and all the female gods are dead. Thus the male gods from time to time, take a human guise and impregnate females. Who upon birthing the godling children die. These godlings have a special characteristic that they don’t have any shadows and hence the title. They also share a bit of the specific god’s powers. What’s also cruel is that these same gods then harvest their children by killing and getting their power back (with interest). This sadistic cycle has been ongoing for many centuries.

As you can imagine, there’s a lot going on in the background. To add to that, the author inserts another twist by having twenty chapters. Plus each chapter has its own POV Shadowless narrator, this makes it a grand epic storyline. As we get 20 characters whom get to follow and know more about in each chapter, before the author whisks us to the next Shadowless godling in a different region and time period. This effect can be a bit disorienting in the first few chapters but pretty soon, you get the hang of things and start discovering minute ties within chapters. The biggest draw for me was trying to figure out what was the actual chronological timeline as a couple of chapters mention events which we later find out have occurred in the past. There’s also a central druid/wizard character who makes appearances in a few chapters before making a bow in his own. Lastly towards the end we get a strong culmination of several character and events which leave us with a terrifically action-packed climax which also heralds the start of a new war on the gods.

The author has to be lauded for his worldbuilding skills as he showcases each of the thirteen different realms and the magic system that prevails throughout the story. The magic system is of the understated sorts as we along with the characters face a similar amount of confusion in trying to figure it out. The Gods are also alien, hugely powerful and very Greek in their dealings with the inhabitants of the Northern Realms. This book strongly gives a Clash Of The Titans vibe as demigod children are forced to hide from or fight back against their immortal fathers. The gods often rape their human mothers so they can birth the godlings (who also receive a portion of the god’s power). With each godling, the longer they live, the more powerful they get. Hence if the gods kill them after a while, they get an interest on their portion that was given to the godling. I thought this was a very well thought and decidedly dark area of the book. The author takes care to never showcase any rape on the pages and it is only hinted at.

We also get a wide variety of characters, the warrior child who’s fated to be the Shadowmancer. A demigod herbalist who might not be as silly as he seems. A child who can harness the power of weather and who feels rage like none other. The priest who’s trying to helps all the shadowless. A brother-sister duo who take on slavery as they seek their future and many more such intriguing characters who make up the Shadowless. With each chapter, we are thrust into the life of a new Shadowless godling both heroic and horrible. These characters are very intriguing and there were a few that I couldn’t get enough of and I hope the author gives us more in the sequels.

With regards to any drawbacks, we have to keep in mind, this is a big book. The pace of the story fluctuates from chapter to chapter and many might feel a sense of disorientation as the reader is uprooted and inserted into a whole new angle each time. For those who don’t like the darker bent of fantasy or those who like their stories with a lot of action might not find this debut entirely to their liking. The dialogue also isn’t the most striking but definitely conveys the needed emotions.

CONCLUSION: Shadowless is a debut that is strikingly original in scope, execution and plot. I loved how Randall McNally presented a world that while alien, struck a chord in my mind. Shadowless is the bastard child of Clash Of The Titans and Rob J. Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy but unlike its titular characters, it is entirely welcome and utterly fantastic.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

SPFBO: The Second Reaping & Semifinalist Update (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Read Fantasy Book Critic's First Semifinalist Update

As with Lukasz's post a few weeks earlier, today we have our second round of cuts. As explained in our introductory post, all five of us have randomly been assigned six titles. These were the titles in my lot:

The Stolen Karma of Nathaniel Valentine by Justin Bloch

Ayana by Geeta Krishnan

Shadowless by Randall McNally

A Halo of Mushrooms by Andrew Hiller

Children of Shadows by A. M. Hall

Enchantress Undercover by AC Spahn

To start with, I read through about 25-30% of each of them before deciding whether to continue or not. I eventually did read almost all of them fully and only two of them were titles that I thoroughly enjoyed. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on all six of them:

Ayana by Geetha Krishnan – This book while having such a passé cover, really intrigued me as the blurb indicated that this was going to be a story about the Indian epic Ramayana. I dove into it with a high amount of anticipation. The story focuses on Ravana, Rama & Sita, the three main characters of the epic and we get a very streamlined story.

For someone who already knows the complete saga, this story was a fun iteration. Those who have no idea or background about the epic. This book will be a great segue into the epic story and perhaps can find other books that dwell deeper. Overall I enjoyed this story as it really simplifies the entire epic to a few characters while presenting it as something more. The author’s writing style has to be commended for making this Indian epic so accessible to a non-desi audience. My only complaint about it was that it perhaps didn’t go deep enough and maybe that’s a personal preference.

The Stolen Karma of Nathaniel Valentine by Justin Bloch – This was a very intriguing story as from the blurb it promised an epic story but told from a single person’s perspective. The story opens up with an attack on our titular character by a spider demon and from then on, the tale just spirals into a weird wonderland of sorts. Similar to Nathan Valentine, the reader is equally confused about the nature of the person who brought Nathaniel into the strange world and the world itself.

I read nearly a third of the story and while it was captivating with regards to the Alice In Wonderland aspect, the main character and a couple of the other characters that were introduced by then didn’t really hold my interest. I would have read more in to the story if the prose and characterization would have been more striking. As the story goes, the prose and characterization was good but not exciting enough for me to continue. The central plot mystery was a good one and I was definitely intrigued by that. Maybe in the near future, I’ll read the rest of the book to see how the book fares in its entirety.

Children Of Shadows by A. M. Hall – This was another of those books whose mysterious blurb drew me in. The book deals with four characters mainly Kyra, Emerald, Tom and Sam who deal with various events and are taken away from their rural lives. This story was an interesting one and had quite a slow start.

Overall this story had a mix of high fantasy and a YA feel to it. The story takes a while to get going and takes nearly half of its length before we find out what it is it about. This aspect didn’t quite work for me as I was hoping that the pace would pick up soon. Alas that didn’t quite happen as soon as I hoped it would. The ending though is quite an action packed one and it helped me to enjoy the book a lot more than I thought I would.

A Halo Of Mushrooms by Andrew Hiller – This was one of the stranger books in my lot. It combined a bunch of genres and it left me thinking a lot. First the title is definitely something that will throw you off. The plot is just bonkers, it begins on a different planet and then with our protagonist Derik. It combines marauding monsters, magic focused on cooking and other food items, hunters and much more colourful characters. All in all, this story just started of on a weird tangent and kept on going off in weirder directions.

This book though isn’t for everyone. The writing style is a simplistic one and makes it easy to read. The imagination which is prevalent in this story is very, very cool. Lastly the story kept me intrigued with its weird twists and turns and then ended on an unpredictable note. A Halo Of Mushrooms indeed seems like someone wrote while chewing on the aforementioned mushrooms, such is the weird genre mix in the story. Read a sample to see if it draws your interest.

Shadowless by Randall McNally – This book firstly has a lot of going for it. Namely that awesome cover which turns out is a pivotal moment in the book. Secondly the godpunk nature of the plot which blew my mind. The world scenario is a very dark one and the author definitely pairs it with a complex world and magic system. There’s also the unique nature of the POV structure which could have gone wrong horribly but the author manages it quite well.

Overall this book is a monster with over 220k words but with a fascinating writing style and a darker bent to the magic and world-building, the author kept me invested in the story throughout till its excellent climax and then a twisted epilogue. Shadowless is an absolute blast to read. 

Enchantress Undercover by AC Spahn – I’m a fan of urban fantasy so I was very excited for this book. Focusing on alternate historical America wherein people with paranormal powers live among the normal folks trying to frantically avoid the presence of the “Voids”. The main narrator Adrienne Morales is of Columbian origin and is running away from some horrific things in her past. Adrienne is an enchantress who channels magic through her artwork and also can pass of charms through her pieces. Things however catch up with her as the Voids are alerted to her presence.

The best thing about this book is magic system which is thoroughly explained and is grounded. The humour is also a strong point and I’ve to mention Kendall the squirrel shifter who gets most of the punch lines. I would have really enjoyed reading this book ten years ago when I was new to the UF genre. However now it just is a mish-mash of the same tropes that are highly visible in the UF genre. Not to say that’s a bad thing but this book just didn't offer anything new for me and that reduced my enjoyment. Those readers wanting to have a quick, fun read in the UF subgenre, then Enchantress Undercover is certainly the book for you. For those who seek a little extra in your urban fantasy reads might want to skip this one.

So those were the titles in my lot and as I mentioned before, of the six, only two books really struck a chord in my mind and those two were:

- Ayana

- Shadowless

Both these titles intrigued me with their plots and overall they were really solid reads. Shadowless wowed me with its premise of alien gods and a Clash of the Titans-like atmosphere. Ayana was a solid retelling of the Ramayana epic while also simplifying it nicely to increase its accessibility and make it more about the characters within.

Overall I’m a tad torn between both of the titles as ideally I wanted to select a single semifinalist. But since both of them were good for different reasons (I’m still conflicted as I write this). I’m going to go ahead and review them both.

So congratulations to Randall McNally & Geetha Krishnan, your books beguiled and thoroughly entertained me and hence are the second and third FBC semifinalists. I’ll be reviewing Shadowless this coming Friday and my Ayana review will be posted next week.

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