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Monday, December 9, 2019

Heroes Wanted: A Fantasy Anthology Editor (Laura M. Hughes) & Authors Interview (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Download HEROES WANTED for FREE over HERE (USA) & over HERE (UK)

Just this past Thursday (12/6), The Fantasy Hive revealed the cover and line up of the newest anthology from the Terrible Ten author group. Today we are thrilled to have Laura M. Hughes, editor extraordinaire, Fantasy Hive’s brain-in-chief and all-round fab lady over to chat about the newest anthology as well as we get to hear from some of the authors themselves. 

So without further ado, checkout the smashing cover & be sure to download the newest anthology as it’s FREE on all platforms.

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic Laura, how are you and what has been keeping you busy?

LH: Thanks so much for having me here! ‘Busy’ is definitely the right word to describe the last twelve months or so. In addition to leading the SPFBO team on The Fantasy Hive (and the day-to-day running of the site itself), I also released my debut LitRPG novel (God Of Gnomes) under the pen name Demi Harper. And I’ve been lucky enough to edit some spectacular fantasy novels from some very talented authors over the last year - including a few of my anthology buddies!

Q] I’m a big fan of heroic fantasy since I first discovered David Gemmell. So when you told me about the “Heroes Wanted” anthology, I was very, very excited. What led to the inception of this specific project?

LH: A big part of fantasy’s appeal has always been that it offers escapism. While the grimdark genre has seen a huge rise in popularity over the last decade (deservedly so), I think many people are now once again seeking out more hopeful fantasy settings and traditional heroes - or, in many cases, non-traditional heroes who nonetheless exemplify the classic Gemmell-esque moral fortitude and a general desire to do the right thing. More succinctly, to quote David Benem’s response from later in this interview: “The tale of the “good guys” winning out over evil in the end is no doubt a trope, but one I think the vast majority of readers will always like to hear. The real world has too much of the opposite taking place.”

Many of my fellow anthology authors share this affinity for fantasy that’s less (not more) bleak than the real world, so when we first began throwing around ideas, the ‘Heroes Wanted’ theme was pretty much a no-brainer. (Fun fact: an early alternative title for the anthology was ‘I Need a Hero.’)

Q] This anthology is sort of a spiritual sequel to the Lost Lore anthology as it has many of the same authors in its line-up. Does this mean that there will be a third in the future?

LH: Quite possibly! There’s been talk of organising a Kickstarter to fund the next one, though I’d personally prefer us to keep putting them out for free (the ebooks, at least - as you might have noticed, Heroes Wanted is also available in paperback!). But we’ll see!

(Who am I kidding? There’ll almost certainly be a third anthology next year or the year after, though the theme is TBC. Suggestions welcome!)

Q] As a reader & reviewer yourself Laura, what are some of your favorite titles & heroes in the heroic fantasy sub-genre? (you can extend this to the whole of SFF if you prefer)

LH: Okay, so one of my favourite tropes in fiction is of the bad guys (or the ‘good’ guys!) seeing the error of their ways, even going so far as to team up with their former nemeses for the greater good. (Like Thor and Loki in every Marvel movie ever - or even the Malfoys abandoning Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It took them way too long to get to that point, and Lucius and Narcissa still remain terrible parents, but it counts for something that they made that decision while they still had the choice.)

That said, acts of heroism don’t necessarily make you a hero (*cough* Snape *cough*). By choosing to glorify characters who dramatically turn coat to save the day at the last minute - or even those who just happen to be strong enough to make a noticeable difference to the outcome in the short term - do we undermine those who’ve been toiling to do the right thing from the very beginning, no matter how ineffectually?

This is one of the reasons I love the characters in the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Trull Sengar, Onrack, Anomander Rake, Cotillion, Tavore, Kruppe, Bugg, and of course Tehol Beddict. The series is full of heroes of all shapes and sizes, many of whom quietly go about their business of making the world a better place without anyone knowing, and without any promise of a reward. However, many of these characters also happen to be skilled warriors or mages, and/or demigods, so in a way they can afford the ‘luxury’ of choosing to fight the good fight.

You mentioned Gemmell earlier, and his books are great (if outdated) examples of the opposite. In the classic Legend, Druss is ‘the hero’, yes, but so is every other soldier fighting to defend the walls of Dros Delnoch against impossible odds. Every effort counts, and not just the efforts of the warriors: the medics, staff, and civilians also play their part, as do the nobler among the nobility. Gemmell is great at showing (rather than telling) the reader what kind of people his characters are; he often provides little to no concrete information about their backgrounds, leaving it up to the reader to witness their actions and decide for themselves how they feel about each character.

This makes books like Legend and Waylander particularly interesting, since they feature characters whose reputation or situation would make them appear to be villains, yet whose actions in the moment define them otherwise, and vice versa. Gemmell’s characters feel like they exist independently of the reader, and we just happen to catch glimpses of them at certain points in their lives. We’re unaware of each character’s ‘normal’ behaviour: we simply see them as they are, and this makes our connection with them feel natural and unforced, our own choice rather than the author’s manipulation. This is the sort of thing we’re hoping to evoke within the anthology.

Q] I love the sleek cover art which focuses on some of the heroes within the story. Can you tell us more about who the artist/designer is? Did they come up with it on their own or did you give them an inkling about what you wished for?  
LH: Credit for the cover art goes entirely to the awesome Shane Cook, and I can’t praise him highly enough.

When we first started throwing ideas around for the Heroes Wanted cover, a few familiar names were mentioned, including Andreas Zafiratos (who did the art for Lost Lore’s cover) and Felix Ortiz. However, I felt a more ‘classic fantasy’ style would suit the theme better, and I also really wanted to commission a less well-known artist in order to shine a spotlight on hidden talent (which is, after all, one of the main purposes of anthologies like this one).

I first came across Shane’s work back when I was writing Malazan articles for (we used some of his art to accompany my piece on Deadhouse Gates). When I approached him about the Heroes Wanted cover, he was just as excited about the concept as we were, and threw himself whole-heartedly into the art. After I sent him the Pinterest board I’d made, he sent back several sketches, which we then went back and forth on for a while before settling on the one we liked best. He was very open to all kinds of feedback, and always happy to explain why he’d made certain decisions during the design process. Even better, when the time came to flesh out the characters on the cover, Shane read the first drafts of the stories I sent him in order to better decide which heroes might be best suited to an intriguing cover. Honestly, the level of commitment and enthusiasm he showed made the whole process an absolute delight, and I would 100% work with him again.

It would be remiss of me to not mention the typography, which was done afterwards by the excellent Christian Bentulan. Like Shane, Christian was professional, enthusiastic, talented, friendly and communicative - the perfect combination, and exactly what any author or publishing company looks for in a service provider.

Can you tell I was really happy with my experience with both of them?

Q] The author lineup is very varied in terms of genre & writing styles. How did you approach them or was it a mutually agreed upon thing? Besides the Terrible Ten, how did the others get involved?

LH: Don’t tell anyone I told you this, but in actuality, the ‘Terrible Ten’ - a super-secret fantasy writers’ group/superhero team/cult - is more like the Terrible Thirty. Yes, that means all nineteen of our anthology authors belong to the Terrible Ten. No, it doesn’t make sense. What can I say? We make our own rules. :D

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

LH: BUY OUR BOOK! Please. It’s free!

Honestly, I’m really proud of this anthology, and of every author’s contribution. No matter what your preferred fantasy subgenre is, I can guarantee there’ll be a story - and a hero - in here for everyone.

But don’t just take my word for it…


Q] The tagline in the blurb says “What do you think a hero is? It’s just the right person in the right place making the right choice at the right time. Heroes aren’t born. They’re made.” Expounding on that meaty line, how did you interpret it vis-a-vis your story?

Laura Hughes: That quote is from Joe’s story, ‘Half-Breed’, and there’s a reason I picked it for the blurb. The idea that anyone - anyone - can take control of their life and become a hero (whatever their definition of the role may be) is one that I think has universal appeal. In fantasy especially, the age of destiny and the chosen one/secret heir to the kingdom is giving way to more stories about self-made (and circumstance-made) champions. Most importantly, I think it’s crucial for a genre with endless possibilities to allow for the exploration of characters who might not be regarded as ‘heroic’ in the traditional sense. A character’s worth in any situation should be determined by their actions and decisions - and this doesn’t always involve demonstrations of martial or magical prowess, or even a willingness to fling oneself heedlessly into danger. You don’t have to slay a dragon to be a hero. Most of the time it’s simply about making the right choices for the right reasons. The rest is a matter of perspective.

Matt Moss: In The Custodian, it’s fight or flight for Thomas. As a young man who finds himself inside of a castle that’s being ambushed by marauders, he has the option to run and hide, or stand up and fight. Despite his fear and the impossible odds that are stacked against him, he makes the choice to be a hero and rise to the occasion.

Michael J. Sullivan: Most of my fantasy stories revolve around unlikely heroes who are “made” by rising to the occasion to do the “right thing.” The Ashmoore Affair continues that tradition.

Ben Galley: In Ulroc’s Redemption, I explored how choices define a hero. It could be the choice to stand up for what’s right, to persevere, or it might be knowing when to run. It all boils down to making the difficult, extraordinary decisions when others can’t or won’t. The beauty of this definition means that anyone, if they so choose, can become a hero when the need arises. I also enjoy the idea that heroes can take any shape, and exist in many different contexts. Not all heroes take the shape of glorious, shining knights, for example. You can be a hero amongst thieves, for example. Even the opposing side in a war has their heroes.

Joe Jackson: The line comes about in Half-Breed because heroes rarely see themselves as such. In my writing, I generally try to shy away from Chosen One tropes and such. Everyone has the potential within them to be a hero on some level to someone. Doesn’t have to be the world or even a nation. You can be a hero to your neighbor, or a small animal. Nobody else even has to know; it doesn’t change the fact. All you have to do is make the right decision when that moment comes. And most of the heroes in my stories are “regular” people - many from broken homes/families - who just have that fiber to do the right thing when it matters most. As one of the characters in my main series says, “So it was with all the great heroes of the past. You stand up and you do what needs doing. That is really all that separates the heroes from the commoners. Try not to take the weight of the world upon your shoulders, but simply do what needs doing, follow where the gods lead you, and, if all else fails, set the example for the next generation to do the same.”

MD Presley: “Hero” is a rather nebulous term for me, which probably reflects my affection for anti-heroes. Wolverine always was the best X-Man after all. I’m a big fan of heroes in real life, those folks who do good for no other purpose than doing good. But, as Superman demonstrates, they’re kind of boring in a narrative sense. So in Is Dumb I wanted to play with the concept of hero and how it’s defined by perspective just as much as personal choice.

Daniel Potter: A dictionary definition of a Hero is someone who is admired for courage, high achievements or noble qualities. Yet, a person can have all these things and never be a hero. And they can have none of these things and still be hailed as a hero. To be a hero you have to be in a position to affect the outcome of the wider world and use that opportunity for what you believe to be the greater good. Of course that doesn’t mean that every heroic action has the intended heroic results.

Dyrk Ashton: There are many kinds of heroes, from the perfect knight to the neighborhood person who helps feed the poor and the everyday decent mom and dad. In many ways, just a small act of kindness can be heroic, and even more so depending on any number of circumstances.

JC Kang: I think heroism takes many forms, but the kind I focus on in this particular story is when an otherwise obedient soldier disobeys questionable orders.

Andy Peloquin: For me, it's all about how one person stands up at the right time to make a difference. Especially if they're not your typical "hero". They may not have the skill, training, experience, knowledge, or strength to do it, but as long as they are willing to do what needs doing, that makes them a hero in my books.

Jeramy Goble: In The Dwarven Dragon, I wanted to explore what I thought it might mean for a person to be their own hero; and not just in the traditional sense of saving yourself or others from danger, but exploring how someone faces adversity and loss. I found that by choosing to face down those personal challenges, one can often-times become a hero to others as a byproduct of taking care of yourself.

Jeffrey Hall: In Small Teachers, I wanted to try to explore the opposite of what the typical idea of a hero is; a big, burly warrior swooping into save the day, when in fact, I believe heroism is the act of showing up and not giving up despite a thousand reasons why one should. Often times heroes are made when they are taught by others what a hero actually looks like, and those teachers, just like heroes, can come in all shapes and sizes.

Mike Shel: I think I’m still trying to decide who the hero/heroes) is/are in Final Word. Much depends on your definition of the term, and what might happen after the story is over could change your conclusions.

K.S. Villoso: Fresh Off the Boat revolves around a young man who goes to a strange new land to reunite with a wife he hasn't seen in years. I took a familiar, everyday tale of Filipino diaspora: of voluntary separation from loved ones in the quest for a better life, and transported it into a fantasy world. The "hero" interpretation is two-sided: I see it in the men and women who dare to venture out into the unknown, braving discomfort and hardships for the sake of their families. I also see the potential to become a hero in just about anyone, even in simple people just trying to survive. Even if you have no power, you can still make a difference.

David Benem: My story, What Needs to Be Done, is a tale of a man who’s lost someone close to him, and who’s trying to do what he can to heal the pain of that loss by doing what he knows to be the right—and necessary—thing. He’s not some paragon of heroism, but rather a regular guy in a dark world doing what he thinks is his part toward the greater good. It’s a story of confronting fear and loss and darkness and trying to find redemption it doing what one knows ought to be done.

Q] Please tell us about your individual story & what inspired you to write about your specific hero?

Matt Moss: I know what it feels like to be stuck in life; to feel like there’s no way out. That you just have to play the hand that you were dealt in life. That’s not the way it is… not the way it has to be. We all have the choice to rise up. We all have the opportunity to be legendary.

Laura Hughes: I’ve always been drawn to underdogs. Not the ‘talented chosen one facing overwhelming odds’ kind of underdog, but rather the kind who are just normal people, stepping up out of necessity or because it’s the right thing to do (think Neville rather than Harry - or Frodo and Sam rather than Aragorn and Gandalf). In other words, people who choose to save the world, rather than those who are fated to do so. Similarly to Matt, I wanted to write a character who’s so downtrodden he has no idea where he belongs in the world (my protagonist, Ori, is an outcast ratman who’s been conscripted as a necromancer by the forces of darkness) so that I could present him with an opportunity to rise up - a choice to make the most of his existence, to follow his instincts, and to live.

Michael J. Sullivan: I didn’t create new heroes for this story. Instead, I wanted to give my existing fans some time to hang out with their old friends Royce and Hadrian. And for people who haven’t been introduced yet, I hope this little tale gives them a taste of my writing style in the hopes they want to spend some more time with the pair.

Ben Galley: Ulroc’s Redemption is about a fallen-from-grace half-orc boxer trying to live out his days in peace and quiet. Like Matt and Laura, I too am fond of the underdog rising to a challenge. Ulroc’s a past champion, so he’s not lacking in speed, power or wits, but he is lacking in means. When a high-born man offers him a chance at redemption through larcenous means, his motivations are self-serving, but they are also a rebellion against the downtrodden life he’s been forced to live. Ulroc refuses to settle for his lot, and accepts the challenge to rise up and save not just himself, but his newly found comrades, too. Otherwise, the story was inspired by the simple excuse to toy with a setting I’ve admired for some time: 1930’s, Prohibition-esque fantasy.

Joe Jackson: Half-Breed” is about exactly that, a half-demon teenager just trying to make his way in a city that doesn’t much care about him. But everything leads him to the first of many defining moments in his life, where he’s forced to choose between returning evil for evil or rising above. The story serves as an origin tale for the character, Eli, who becomes one of the more prominent protagonists in my Eve of Redemption series. This will give his fans a chance to see how he came to meet the people with whom he forged his path to destiny…

MD Presley: I haven’t had the time to play a video game in at least a decade, but boy-howdy did I log in some hours (and missed classes) on Diablo. And when I did, I always wondered about the dungeons’ monsters. I mean, here they are watching my hero hack and slash a bloody swath through them dozens at a time, yet they kept charging when the only sensible option would be to run. This is a core dynamic to the dungeon crawler, but it makes absolutely no sense for them as individuals (also, where these naked monsters hide all their loot has also kept me up at night). So in Is Dumb I reframed the story from the monsters’ perspective to provide them a bit more motivation. And now that I think more about it, is it bad that I identify with monsters so much?

Daniel Potter: Dranis is a protagonist for a book that has yet to be written. The Altar serves as his origin story. A story that is growing from the seed, what if you saved the devil’s life?

Dyrk Ashton: I knew I wanted to set the story in the history of the world of my The Paternus Trilogy, which if chock full of classic heroes and villains (gods and monsters, angels and demons, etc.), and became intrigued with the idea of who these characters might consider a hero, and maybe even be surprised by their own answer. It was a lot of fun to come up with someone both a true hero and a true villain would choose - and that being the same person. Who they choose is also someone who is very young and has no intention to be heroic, but leaves a lasting impression on these two ancient and powerful beings.

JC Kang: Tian belongs to a clan of imperial assassins. When he finds out his assigned target is a boy, he has second thoughts. He’s a character I’ve written about quite extensively, and I wanted to show a formative incident in his life, where his own sense of morality clashes with his loyalty to his clan.

Andy Peloquin: Enwan is the name of an acclaimed hero in my Heirs of Destiny series, and his actions in the Battle of Fortune's Pass changed the history of his city. Not because he personally won an important battle, but because he proved that even the lowest castes could produce true warriors and heroes. I wanted to dive into what kind of man he would be, what would make him stand up and throw himself into danger--what ultimately makes him the revered hero.

Jeramy Goble: Most of the ideas that I get excited to write about center around the nooks and crannies of fantasy or sci-fi, or types of characters not frequently featured. The Dwarven Dragon is no different. The main character of this stand-alone story, a young female dwarf, popped into my head fairly quickly when I considered how fun it might be to juxtapose her against a massive, metal dragon of her own making.

Jeffrey Hall: Liddle came to be as I thought about how the idea of heroism pervades culture and is often celebrated, but how often times the heroes we hear about are built to be larger than life people who seem impossible to live up to. I wanted to explore a character stuck with that cultural push of being a hero despite the ability to fit into that “heroic” form and have to find his own way to save the day… with a little help from a few, phlegm-spewing friends.

Mike Shel: Lumari was a character in my debut novel, Aching God whose history and motivations I wanted to explore further and set up some events in the third book of a trilogy I’m in the middle of.

K.S. Villoso: The idea for Fresh Off The Boat came to me after meeting new friends who'd only been in Canada a few months. Most of my books are in a shared universe, and I thought about writing a story from the point of view of an immigrant who left Jin-Sayeng (where my series Chronicles of the Bitch Queen mostly takes place, and where magic is outlawed) to settle in the Empire of Dageis to the north, where magic is an everyday thing.

David Benem: Brendall Hane is a man fighting demons, both inner ones and ones that are very real and very deadly. He’s a man dealing with loss and a sense of shame, and seeks redemption in doing the right thing.

Q] Who are some of your favorites in the heroic fantasy sub-genre? Any particular titles & authors you would like to give a shout out to?

Michael J. Sullivan: Call me old school, but I was inspired by Tolkien to start writing fantasy and later by Rowling, who got me to pick up the pen after vowing never to write creatively again. Both of them write fantastic heroes: People who you want to emulate because they make a stand when the odds seem impossibly stacked against them.

Laura Hughes: Yeah, Tolkien and Rowling are big influences for me too. As I mentioned above, Frodo is the ultimate underdog - he’s no ‘chosen one.’ Instead he’s a regular nobody stepping up to do the right thing. But the greatest heroes never stand alone. Frodo has Sam and the rest of the Fellowship; and The Boy Who Lived would have become The Boy Who Failed Spectacularly at the First Hurdle if it weren’t for Ron and Hermione.

Of course there are other authors (apart from the aforementioned David Gemmell) who write awesome heroic fantasy with the same sort of themes. Jen Williams is especially great at the ‘rag-tag team stepping up to defend the world because no one else can or will’ thing, as are Teresa Frohock, Alec Hutson, Anthony Ryan, Nick Eames, T.O. Munro, Adrian Tchaikovsky, D.M. Murray, Daniel Abraham, and Phil Tucker (whose Godsblood trilogy is criminally under-read and underrated). Plenty of LitRPG also falls into the ‘heroic fantasy’ subgenre; the Stonehaven League series by Carrie Summers is especially brilliant at emphasizing that no matter how strong or determined you are, you can’t do everything on your own. It’s all very well and noble to shoulder the responsibility of saving the world alone, but you’re more likely to succeed if you share the load (share the load… the loooad… share the l-o-o-a-a-d etc.).

Joe Jackson: I got hooked on fantasy by the early Drizzt books by RA Salvatore, and later moved into Tad Williams’ “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn” trilogy, followed by almost all of Raymond E. Feist’s work. And, of course, Lord of the Rings serves as the major backdrop to all of it. More recently, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Alec Hutson’s “The Raveling” series, and am looking forward to the next release in that. It amuses me to see my fellow authors of this anthology mentioning Harry Potter, because in modern days, who else would come up as a prime example of a hero? Yet while people think of his adventures, fantastic battles, and overcoming odds to save the day, Harry is one of the biggest heroes in my mind for saving one person, the person he had the least reason to ever save - Draco Malfoy.

MD Presley: I’m beginning to suspect this interview is going to be exhibit A in the trial deeming me a sociopath. I mean, I read Tolkien, Lewis, and Brooks as a kid, but never really cottoned to all those lofty characters. Honestly, the first time I saw someone I really identified with in a fantasy story was Raistlin from Dragonlance. He was an underdog whose talent was matched only by his ambition. I mean, the gall to challenge the goddess of darkness, not to defeat her but unseat her, is something I outright admired in my youth. Yet for all his ambition and plotting, he made the decision I considered admirable in the end. And it’s those hard choices that inspired me more than any of the other obvious, high-minded heroes. Also, and Wolverine. Obvs.

Dyrk Ashton: I have to echo what some of the others have said. Bilbo and Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn for certain. I have to include Conan as well, and John Carter, but also comic book characters like Superman, Spiderman, Ironman, etc. Many of mine come from mythology as much, if not more, than fantasy or comics, though.

JC Kang: I am a big fan of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance series. It has reluctant heroes, anti-heroes, and glory seekers who fail to become heroes.

Andy Peloquin: Brandon Sanderson is probably my go-to author for heroic fantasy. Not because his characters are heroic to start off--Vin is a thief, Wayne is a PTSD-suffering con artist and gunslinger, Kaladin is a branded prisoner--but because they become heroes through their choices and actions.

Jeramy Goble: Druss from Gemmell’s LEGEND is my immediate thought. I first read it when I was about 7 or 8, but I didn’t fully understand or appreciate what Druss did until I re-read it in my teens. Despite being told that what he was about to do would lead to his death, Druss stepped up and defended the Drenai anyway. Doesn’t get much more heroic than that.

Jeffrey Hall: Richard Mayhew from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Richard starts off as the typical person, a businessman going about his normal, tedious life and then is suddenly thrust into this amazing world where he has to be more than what he is. I loved this character because he is so relatable, and even though Neverwhere’s setting isn’t as grand as Middle-Earth or Arrakis, it is weird enough to test the mettle of the everyday man that is Richard and see if he is capable of being the hero of his own life.

Mike Shel: Elric, Corum and Hawkmoon were my gateway to heroic fantasy as a teenager, followed quickly by Fahfrd and Grey Mouser, then Conan. Glen Cook’s Black Company is a more recent favorite.

K.S. Villoso: I think just about everyone else has mentioned Tolkien. Maybe an unconventional answer, but I've always loved Sparrowhawk (Ged) from the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin, because that series approached him not just as a hero who goes on quests and becomes powerful, but as a hero who has to live with the consequences of his actions and learns to temper his power with humility and responsibility.

David Benem: Heroic fantasy is precisely what made me fall in love with the fantasy genre in the first place. It started with Lloyd Alexander and his Chronicles of Prydain, and just went bonkers from there. I believe David Eddings was next, soon followed by Tolkien, Weis and Hickman, Tad Williams, and on and on. My own series, A Requiem for Heroes, is a take on heroic fantasy, albeit a darker one. The tale of the “good guys” winning out over evil in the end is no doubt a trope, but one I think the vast majority of readers will always like to hear. The real world has too much of the opposite taking place.
Tuesday, December 3, 2019

SPFBO 2019 (Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off) finalists and our approach

As avid fantasy readers, we love discovering new voices and hidden gems. SPFBO contest gives us such possibility and we’re thrilled to participate in it for the fifth time. The first stage of the contest has just ended.

After five months of a bloodbath, ten bloggers have chosen their champions. We’re excited to read all of them and would love to encourage you to do the same.

Our approach

Each of us (David, Justine, Łukasz, Mihir) will read all the books from cover to cover. If it sounds lame and obvious allow me to rephrase it by using numbers - each of us will read 4509 pages and, approximately, 1 239 975 words! Almost one million two hundred fourty thousand words. Not too shabby, right?


We plan to start posting reviews of SPFBO finalists in January. If you decide to read along with us, consider dropping your review on Goodreads, Amazon or Barnes & Noble. For an indie author trying to draw attention to their recently published book, reviews are hugely beneficial. Help us to spread the word about the books you love.

And now, let's take a look at SPFBO 2019 finalists listed in alphabetical order.

392 pages, published on March 29, 2019, Order it here

Secrets have a price.

After enduring weeks of torture and being convicted of witchery, Ris escapes, only to discover the Darkness and the Lady are hunting her. They need the magic that sings within her.

Creator of all, the imprisoned Lady needs Ris, her last vessel, to find the Heart of Creation. The Darkness seeks to corrupt the vessel and retain his hold on the Lady, and with it, the world.

Ris finds help from a pair of Paladins of Light who aid her in cleansing the evil taint from the lands. As her power grows, so do her questions. How can she restore balance to the world and free the Lady? Should the Lady be trusted or is she as much at fault for the evil in the world as the Darkness? With powerful demons War, Ruin, and Plague at her heels, Ris struggles to stay alive as she tries to unravel the secrets hidden within her before it's too late.

Secrets that may cost Ris her soul even if she does succeed.

502 pages, published on May 18th, 2019, Order it here

Can a broken warrior and a lost criminal find hope in a world of darkness?

Dumnorix princess and born warrior, Talyn Dynan was the finest fighter of her generation. With her Callanan partner at her side, she was invincible, reckless, a death-knell to their enemies. But after her partner is torn away from her, Talyn is left broken, wracked with guilt and unable to regain the confidence she once had. Could an unexpected mission to the mysterious country of Mithranar, home of the magical winged folk, be the thing that saves her? Or will the danger and secrets she finds there finally break her completely?

The Shadowhawk lives a life in the shadows. Constantly hunted for his criminal exploits, yet desperate to help the human folk of Mithranar who are oppressed by their winged folk rulers, he haunts the streets of Dock City. The arrival of a foreign warrior threatens to upset the carefully balanced life he leads, but when she begins to offer a hope for the humans he’s only ever dreamed of, can he risk trusting her?

And unbeknownst to both, a mysterious foe stalks the dark corners of Dock City. One that answers to a single purpose…


368 pages, published on February 17th, 2019, Order it here

The Councilate controls everything except the truth. I have nothing save my discovery—but with this shall I destroy an empire.

Tai Kulga lost the rebellion and his best friend on the same day, stripping him of his will to live even as a strange power flooded his bones. When the friend returns as a spirit guide, it feels like a second chance—but his friend is not who he was, and the Councilate is not done oppressing his people. When trouble with lawkeepers lands Tai’s surviving friends in a prison camp, he must go underground to find the last of the rebels and convince them to break his friends free.

Along the way he meets Ellumia Aygla, runaway Councilate daughter posing as an accountant to escape her family and the avarice of the capital. Curious about the link between spirit guides and magic, her insights earn her a place among the rebels, and along with Tai’s power help turn the tide against the colonialists.

But as the rebels begin to repeat the Councilate’s mistakes, Tai and Ellumia must confront their own pasts and prejudices, before the brewing war turns them into the monsters they fight.

BLADE'S EDGE by Virginia McClain
314 pages, Published on January 23rd, 2015, Order it here

Mishi and Taka live each day of their lives with the shadow of death lurking behind them. The struggle to hide the elemental powers that mark the two girls as Kisōshi separates them from the other orphans, yet forges a deep bond between them.

When Mishi is dragged from the orphanage at the age of eight, the girls are unsure if or when they will find each other again. While their powers grow with each season-cycle, the girls must come to terms with their true selves--Mishi as a warrior, Taka as a healer--as they forge separate paths which lead to the same horrifying discovery.

The Rōjū council’s dark secret is one that it has spent centuries killing to keep, and Mishi and Taka know too much. The two young women have overcome desperate odds in a society where their very existence is a crime, but now that they know the Rōjū’s secret they find themselves fighting for much more than their own survival.

BLOOD OF HEIRS by Alicia Wanstall-Burke 
323 pages, published on October 23rd, 2018, Order it here

Lidan Tolak is the fiercest of her father’s daughters; more than capable of one day leading her clan. But caught between her warring parents, Lidan’s world begins to unravel when another of her father’s wives falls pregnant. Before she has time to consider the threat of a brother, a bloody swathe is cut through the heart of the clan and Lidan must fight, not only to prove her worth, but simply to survive.

Ranoth Olseta wants nothing more than to be a worthy successor to his father’s throne. When his home is threatened by the aggressive Woaden Empire, Ran becomes his city’s saviour, but powers within him are revealed by the enemy and he is condemned to death. Confused and betrayed, Ran is forced to flee his homeland, vowing to reclaim what he has lost, even if it kills him.

Facing an unknown future, and battling forces both familiar and foreign, can Lidan and Ran overcome the odds threatening to drag them into inescapable darkness?

FORTUNE'S FOOL by Angela Boord
737 pages, published on May 18th, 2019, Order it here

A secret affair. A disfiguring punishment. A burning need for revenge.

Kyrra d’Aliente has a bad reputation and an arm made of metal.

Cast out of the safe and luxurious world of silk to which she was born, played as a pawn in a game of feuding Houses, Kyrra navigates a dangerous world of mercenaries, spies, and smugglers while disguising herself as a man.

War destroyed her family and the man she loved.

Vengeance is within her grasp.

But is she willing to pay its price?

KALANON'S RISING by Darian Smith
424 pages, published on October 15th, 2016, Order it here

Solve the murder. Stop the war. Save the world.

Sir Brannon Kesh spent years building a new life as a physician, leaving the name Bloodhawk and the war that spawned it behind. But when the King's cousin is murdered, duty calls him back. The crime scene suggests dark magic and the evidence points to the ambassador of Nilar, an alluring woman with secrets of her own, who sees Bloodhawk as little more than a war criminal.

As bodies pile up and political ramifications escalate, Brannon must join forces with a vain mage, a socially awkward priest, and a corpse animating shaman to solve the murders and prevent another war. But who can he trust when the phases of a bigger plan take shape?

The Risen are the greatest danger Brannon has ever faced. If he and his team cannot stop the killer then all of Kalanon - and the world - will descend into darkness.

NEVER DIE by Rob J. Hayes
274 pages, published on January 29th, 2019, Order it here

Ein is on a mission from God. A God of Death.

Time is up for the Emperor of Ten Kings and it falls to a murdered eight year old boy to render the judgement of a God. Ein knows he can't do it alone, but the empire is rife with heroes. The only problem; in order to serve, they must first die.

Ein has four legendary heroes in mind, names from story books read to him by his father. Now he must find them and kill them, so he can bring them back to fight the Reaper's war.

SPARK CITY by Robert J. Power
421 pages, published on March 1st, 2018Order it here

Erroh has a plan. A simple plan. It’ll never work.

Despite his family's warrior pedigree, he'd rather gamble and drink while living from one tavern to the next. But when his wanderings bring him upon a gruesome slaughter of innocents he is torn from carefree ways.

Spark City is on the horizon and with it the mysterious trials of The Cull. After a life spent rejecting his birth right, the time has come to pick up his sword and accept his destiny.

With an army marching forward, and unlikely companions buy his side, does Erroh have what it takes to stop the coming war?

Spark City is the gripping first novel in Robert J Power’s new epic fantasy series. If you like spectacular combat, unlikely heroes, and slow burn romance, you’ll love this thrilling tale.
651 pages, published on February 17th, 2019, Order it here

A mother struggling to repress her violent past, a son struggling to grasp his violent future, a father blind to the danger that threatens them all.

When the winds of war reach their peninsula, will the Matsuda family have the strength to defend their empire? Or will they tear each other apart before the true enemies even reach their shores?

High on a mountainside at the edge of the Kaigenese Empire live the most powerful warriors in the world, superhumans capable of raising the sea and wielding blades of ice. For hundreds of years, the fighters of the Kusanagi Peninsula have held the Empire’s enemies at bay, earning their frozen spit of land the name ‘The Sword of Kaigen.’

Born into Kusanagi’s legendary Matsuda family, fourteen-year-old Mamoru has always known his purpose: to master his family’s fighting techniques and defend his homeland. But when an outsider arrives and pulls back the curtain on Kaigen’s alleged age of peace, Mamoru realizes that he might not have much time to become the fighter he was bred to be. Worse, the empire he was bred to defend may stand on a foundation of lies.

Misaki told herself that she left the passions of her youth behind when she married into the Matsuda house. Determined to be a good housewife and mother, she hid away her sword, along with everything from her days as a fighter in a faraway country. But with her growing son asking questions about the outside world, the threat of an impending invasion looming across the sea, and her frigid husband grating on her nerves, Misaki finds the fighter in her clawing its way back to the surface.

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Moon Fall Series Spotlight Q&A with James Rollins (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Read A Paean To Myrillia (The Godslayer Chronicles World And Series Analysis article)

Just over a fortnight ago, Entertainment Weekly broke the news about James Rollins returning to the fantasy fold in a big way. The article and some digging spoke about how Devi Pillai & Tor Books were able to procure this new series amidst some tough competition from other publishers. I’ve been following Jim’s career since the turn of the millennium when I was first introduced to his Rollins’ writing side. Soon afterwards I became acquainted with his Clemens books which quickly became my favorites.

However in 2006, the Clemens books took a hiatus and now after 15 years, in 2021 we the fans will get a brand new saga from the brilliant mind that has given us such gems in the SIGMA series, Godslayer Chronicles & the Banned & Banished saga. We are glad to have Jim over today to chat about the Moon Fall saga and how he came back to the field where he can truly let his imagination reign. So read ahead to find our more about the Moon Fall saga and what readers can expect from it.

Welcome back to Fantasy Book Critic James. Thank you for your time. It’s been over a decade since we had you over for some questions. Since then you have racked up many an accomplishment. What would you say has been your most fun thing in this past decade?
JR: Thanks, Mihir. It has been a busy decade—both writing-wise and personally. During the first decade or so of my career, I was writing a fantasy novel (under “James Clemens”) and a thriller (under “James Rollins) every year. Then these past ten years, I’ve still been doing two books per year, but it’s been a thriller and some “other” project: stand-alone novels, middle-school fantasy adventures, co-written projects. So, I’m exciting as I start my 21st year as a published author to return to my roots, to writing a fantasy novel and thriller every year. As to what has been the most fun over the past decade, personally it’s been getting to know many of my readers over a longer breadth of time that can only come from writing for so many years. I’ve made many enduring friendships, some that started as email exchanges and have evolved to staying at each other’s houses.

Just a few weeks ago, the fantasy landscape was rocked by the EW announcement about your triumphant return to the realms of fantasy. Can you walk your fans about how this return was initiated?
JR: I’ve never fully strayed away from fantasy. Many of my “other” projects have had a distinctly fantastical edge: from the middle-school adventures of Jake Ransom to a co-written trilogy of novels that dealt with vampires. But there’s been a unique story that’s been building for 7-8 years. It started as an idea that got imbedded in my head, and once that happened, I had a hard time dislodging it. The only way to address it was to begin building that world, populating it, layering its history, even consulting a few scientists. Eventually it became too large to ignore and I knew it had to be written.

All your fantasy fans (yes we Clemens fans are outnumbered by your Rollins ones) have been patiently awaiting you to return to your fantasy roots since 2006. However, you are writing your new series under your Rollins pseudonym, what lead to this shift?
JR: Mostly for the sake of transparency. It’s been a poorly kept secret that James Rollins and James Clemens are indeed the same person. Its mentioned at every book-signing and comes up often during discussions online. So, it seemed disingenuous after so long to pretend this new series was not being written by me and publishing it under the Clemens penname. Also from the sake of practicality, it’s easier to keep everything under one name versus schizophrenically splitting my writing into two artificially constructed camps.

From what has been revealed so far, it’s pretty obvious that this book is an amalgam of many genres. It has many aspects that make your titles so alluring: 
- A vast character cast of both antagonistic and sympathetic folks, 
- An environment that plays a central factor within the story, 
- A magic system that’s unique and yet complex as well 
What would you say is compelling about this story and why you choose to write this for your comeback?
JR: The storyline drew me for many reasons. The setting is unlike any seen in fantasy before, so the challenge of breathing life into this world was undeniably compelling. But it’s also the characters that always draw me in. I was living with Elena (from the “Banned and Banished” series) for years before setting her story to paper. Same with Tylar from the “Godslayer Chronicles”  It’s when you know those characters so well that they go from whispering in your ear to demanding to be heard that I can’t help but write them and share them with the world. For this new series, it wasn’t just one character clamoring in my ear, but a whole diverse and unique cast. How could I not write them into existence?

Was the writing process any different for this new book and did you face any challenges with this genre shift especially after having written the SIGMA thrillers as well the horror tinged Sanguine books over the last decade?
JR: Not really. There are unique challenges in every genre, and one of my joys of writing is to mix and merge genres. My Sigma thrillers are part historical mystery, part scientific speculation, and part adventure fiction. Even for my fantasy novels under James Clemens, I drew upon my veterinary background to make the “creatures” in my books as realistic as possible. And for this new series, I take a similar approach—but in a much more extreme and challenging way.

You know I’m probably one of the (if not the biggest fan) of your Godslayer Chronicles. So I have to ask this question on behalf of all of those who are waiting for the next book(s) in the saga? What can you reveal about the future of Myrillia literally & figuratively? When can we expect to read God Sword?
JR: Like I mentioned, I can’t ignore those characters demanding for their stories to be told. In the background, I’ve been continuing the story of Tylar ser Noche. The rough draft for the third book in the “Godslayer” series (tentatively titled God Sword) is finished, as is about half of the fourth book. My longterm plan is to finish all five books before putting them out in the world.

I’d like to see the entire remainder of the Godslayer Chronicles all published en-masse, or at least spaced close together, like 4-5 months apart. As big and complex as this series becomes, I think it would be best to be consumed more quickly than spaced a year apart. That’s why I’d like to get the entire five books written before starting the publication conveyor belt. What year will we see that happen? It’s hard to say until I get a better feel on balancing a thriller and fantasy per year and see how much extra time I have to work.

How will your writing schedule be for the next few years? Can fans expect a fantasy & thriller release every year similar to what you did from 1999 to 2006?
JR: That is the plan—both for this new series and beyond.

Can you share something about the book that’s not mentioned in the blurb and why fans of your previous works should be excited for this new story?
JR: Hmm, I’m somewhat under some restraint on what I can and can’t reveal. But I will offer one bit of extra information. I mentioned above that I love to create fully realized creatures in my books. For this new series, I’m working with a brilliant graphic artist to create biological sketches for the bestiary of this series. Those sketches will be part of each novel as one of the characters in the new series is a naturalist who will be journaling the quest, revealing in stunning detail the beauty and horrors of this new world.

What are your currently writing? What will be next for you under your Rollins name?
JR: My next Sigma thriller, The Last Odyssey, comes out next March, which marks a major turning point in the series. And I’m currently writing the follow-up, tentatively titled The Savage Zone.

Thank you again for taking the time to chat with us, Jim. 2021 can’t come soon enough for The Starless Crown’s release? Anything else you have going on right now that you'd like the world to know about?
JR: Not that I’m at liberty to speak about right now. But stay tuned (and yes, that’s a hint)!

Friday, November 29, 2019

Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A Tale of Atomic Love (reviewed by Łukasz Przywóski)

Order Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Mercedes M. Yardley is a whimsical dark fantasist who wears stilettos, red lipstick, and poisonous flowers in her hair. She recently won the prestigious Bram Stoker Award for her story Little Dead Red. Mercedes lives and creates in Las Vegas with her family and menagerie of battle-scarred, rescued animal familiars.

FORMAT/INFO: Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu is 175 pages long. The book was originally published in 2016 by Crystal Lake Publishing. Cover design by George Cotronis.

OVERVIEW: I won’t lie. I’ve read the book because of the title. It showed on the Goodreads Readers also enjoyed feed of Seth Skorkowsky's Hounacier and once I saw it, I just had to try it just to see what kind of story is hidden behind such an amazing title.

It turns out it’s a love story.

But instead of chocolate and roses, our lovers share eviscerating others. It’s a short story of a blossoming romance between an Asian-American serial killer and a stripper he kidnapped. Nuclear Lulu and Apocalyptic Montessa do horrible things together but they also love in a very real and fierce way. Their romance is self-consuming and baptized in tears and blood. As melodramatic as it may sound, it’s a very well written book that’s not afraid to go to very dark places.

Both characters are deeply damaged and went through childhood trauma. Montessa’s relationships were empty and hurtful. She admits that

it was easier to be with a man who wanted to murder her, and would appreciate it than be with a man who would only beat her to death.

Lu is a serial killer who loves to make people suffer. It’s his true calling. It’s something he does well. Their relationship evolves quickly and they end up meaning the world to one another. Despite their flaws and craziness Lu and Montessa are endearing.

Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu doesn't idealize love. Neither does it try to sell it to you. Love is presented as a violent thing rooted in imperfection. There’s a little world outside a pair. Other people appear but they’re barely sketched. The focus of the story lies elsewhere: in picturing impossible and yet relatable romance with words and sentences.

While Mercedes M. Yardley prose is economic, it’s poetic in places, melodramatic in others:
He held out his hand. She walked over and took it. Sparks flew. Magic happened. Nuclear reactors melted in joy. The world combusted.

Not everyone will like this style. I loved it. It’s strong. It delivers feelings pretty well and, in places, sets a bit surreal ambiance.

Overall, it was something else. The book is very short and strong. It’s dark and twisted take on the topic of soulmates. Obviously, some moral questions may arise as we start to cheer for a pair of psychotic killers and it’s good to think them through.

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