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Monday, September 24, 2018

Dämoren by Seth Skorkowsky (Reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order Dämoren over HERE
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: Dämoren is 382 pages long divided over twenty one numbered chapters. The narration is in the third person. This is the first volume of the Valducan series.

The book is available in e-book and paperback formats. It was republished by Crossroad Press in 2017. Cover art and design are by Shawn King.

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

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: While I consider myself a pacifist and have no interest in guns, I wouldn’t mind having Dämoren at hand. Just in case. You know how it is with werewolves, vampires, and daemons – impossible to say when they’ll come to get you. 

Unfortunately, the moment I took the Holy Weapon, it would be my last. Matt would kill me. No one, except him, can touch his beloved one.

Dämoren is an impressive debut. Dark and fast, it’s filled with foreboding and terror but also a healthy dose of wit and hope to balance things a bit. It tells the story of Matt Hollis – the wielder of a holy weapon called Dämoren, and his introduction to Valducan society of demon hunters.

Almost each (except apprentices and those who retired) Valducan member is bonded to a Holy Weapon (swords, maces, a sabre and a gun). They love their weapons more than spouses or children. It’s an absolute love. When the weapon is destroyed there’s nothing left for Valducan to live for. Listen to Matt’s thoughts:

"If Dämoren died, smashed to pieces before him, he wouldn’t want to live. For a Valducan, his weapon is a single most important thing in life. Sure, they’re able to socialise but there’s a driving, all-consuming force in their life. It gives them a goal and a direction."

The novel starts strongly with a wendigo attack on Hollis’ family. A hunter goes after them. He’s faced with a difficult decision to make. But it’s not only his to make - Dämoren will express her opinion as well. 

Soon after the prologue, we meet Matt Hollis who’s hunting daemons with his holy gun. Things don’t go as planned, and he meets Valducan representatives who want to recruit him. It seems the monsters around the world make teams and join their efforts to destroy holy weapons and their human guardians. Because of Matt's past and the fact he may be possessed by a daemon, not all team members welcome him with open arms. As the hunters become the hunted, they must learn to trust one another before a powerful demonic entity thrusts the world into a terrible and ageless darkness.

Matt Hollis is a likable guy. I feel tired of Urban Fantasy heroes/martyrs who try to bear the whole weight of the world on their tired shoulders. Many of them like to despair. I don’t. Matt doesn't either. He is a hunter. He loves his weapon, and he’s bonded with her. He kills demons. He stays out of trouble if it’s possible. Because of his lifestyle, he isn’t in any kind of long-term relationship. These are his choices. He knows who he is, what he does and fully embraces it. While he’s not the funniest guy ever, he has a distance that makes the book pleasant to read. 

Other characters felt nicely drawn and fleshed out. I would love to learn about Max's past (he’s a retired Valducan; a guy who’s spent almost fifty years fighting demons must have some fascinating stories to tell). Because the story is set in the modern world, it’s easy to recognise and imagine places. It’s not a very happy world but good things also happen. Yes, it’s filled with darkness and monsters and it may feel a bit reminiscent of Constantine lore. In the same time, though, there are good people in here who make choices I can identify with.

World-building was introduced skillfully through dialogue and later by notes from Valducan archives. I loved these notes. I could easily spend time scrolling through them. Some theories, for example, why werewolves can be hurt with silver and rakshasas with gold were fascinating and felt fresh. 

Basically, the only gripe I have with the book is the fact it didn’t go deeper into characters. Instead, the pacing became breakneck and bloody fights between monsters and Valducans got all the spotlight. The fights weren’t bad, actually, they were pretty nice. I would like more layers of what was happening though. I love good popcorn reads but this book has a potential to be something more, and it didn’t fully use it.

CONCLUSION: Even though it’s not perfect, I’ve already bought the rest of the books in the series and plan to read them shortly. I hope they're at least as good as Seth Skorkowsky’s debut.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (Reviewed by Will Byrnes)

Official Author Website
Order The Child Finder over HERE 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Enchanted

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "This is something I know: no matter how far you have run, no matter how long you have been lost, it is never too late to be found. "

Rene Denfield’s first novel, The Enchanted, was a dazzling look into a dark place. It showed that even under the bleakest circumstances life and hope can find a way to make the unbearable into a transcendent experience. No sophomore jinx here. Denfeld has done it again.

There are similarities in core concept between The Child Finder and The Enchanted. Both deal with imprisonment, with imagination as a tool for psychological survival, for transporting oneself beyond one’s immediate chains.

In The Enchanted, The Lady represented death row inmates, looking for the truth in their cases, and ways to keep them from dying. In this story Naomi is The Child Finder, a freelance investigator with a passion and a gift for locating missing kids. Her motivation is pretty clear. She had been taken as a child herself.

On a winter day in rural Oregon, five year old Madison Culver had vanished. Three years on, the authorities have abandoned hope. Having exhausted all other options the girl’s frantic parents call in Naomi. There is no such thing as a cold case for her. She finds a way, discovers the clue everyone else missed, considers things from a new perspective, haunts relevant locations. She is fearless, fierce, and coldly relentless.

The narrative switches between Madison’s and Naomi’s point of view. Madison is held by a man known only as Mr B. We track the development of the relationship between Madison and Mr B. Watch as Madison’s will to survive digs in, as she moves on from victim to actor, from object to powerful player, using her native intelligence and keen observation to give herself at least a chance of surviving. The other tool she uses is her imagination. A favorite fairy tale becomes a mechanism by which she feels hope and a limited sense of freedom even while imprisoned. In talking about The Enchanted, Denfeld addressed a theme relevant to The Child Finder:
"I think the fantastical elements are important, as they show how the narrator copes with being in solitary confinement for so many years. He escapes through his imagination, including astonishing interpretations of his world. I've worked with men and women facing execution, and am often thunderstruck at how humans can persevere despite horrific circumstances." - from the author's GoodReads Q&A
Naomi follows clues in a procedural style, checking with this person, then that, noting oddities, poring through public records and old newspapers, her feel for a trail making some items stand out. She is shown working on another simultaneous case, and we learn of some of her past successes and failures.

Naomi is beset by what she calls The Big Dream, a recurring nightmare that may hold clues to her past. Her investigative prowess has failed so far to let her find out who she really is:

 "As always, after having the dream, she tried to uncover the truth. What part was reality and what part was fantasy? Are the stories we tell ourselves true or based on what we dream them to be?"

Naomi is a powerfully crafted character, a beautifully moving portrait of anguish, strength, and compassion. She recalls her own escape and subsequent upbringing with an amazingly warm foster mother. Her relationship with her foster brother, Jerome, is a core element here, and it sings. Her brief dealings with an older detective seemed far too brief. I hope that when Naomi returns in subsequent volumes we get to see more of him.

As with The Enchanted, Denfeld makes use of her poetic sense, and sparkling command of language, to paint a grim world with great swaths of beauty. And there is considerable darkness here, but graphic unpleasantness is kept to a minimum:
"I feel strongly against graphic violence that is vicarious, or exploitative. After working with so many victims, I feel sensitive to honoring how unspeakable crime can be." - from Rene's GoodReads Q&A
The emotional connections are beautifully written. There is a scene in which a very patient foster mother is finally allowed in by a damaged child. If your eyes don’t gush, it’s time to being to bring them in to your ophthalmologist. Something is not working right.

As with her earlier work Denfeld offers an insightful look at the baddie, a nuanced portrait of a damaged person engaging in unspeakable behavior. This has particular resonance with the death row characters of The Enchanted, an interest not merely in extinguishing the darkness but in understanding how it came to be. We are also treated to some insight into psychological elements of surviving captivity. Denfeld knows a fair bit about such things, as her day job entails investigating on behalf of death row inmates. She is also a foster mother.

In addition to offering keen observation of the world Naomi inhabits, (Naomi ate a large breakfast in the diner, where the waitress no longer called her hon, but nodded indifferently, like she was a local.) The Child Finder offers a rich supply of supporting imagery, concept and insight. The sometimes necessarily porous line between the real and the imagined is considered. As is the virtue and value of patience, whether as a captive, a caregiver, or an investigator. Where does dreaming leave off and memory begin? There is a balance between seeking the lost and hiding out. The earth, the ground, serves as a worthy image here. In one case, an opening in the earth yields a cornucopia of inspirational stones, a sacred place, in another a dark pit fraught with peril. Naomi as a child and Madison are held in subterranean, cave-like places. Naming issues are considered as well. Madison thinks of herself as the Snow Girl from her favorite fairy tale. Her captor is only ever Mister B to her. Even Naomi does not know her real name. What is means to be human comes in for a look. Ironically, Mister B feels more human for having Madison with him than he had felt before. Madison subsumes her humanity at times under her alt-reality fairy-tale persona.

The gripes here are few. There are some moments in which the sentiment expressed seem a bit Hallmarkian. (Her entire life she had been running from terrifying shadows she could no longer see—and in escape she ran straight into life.) There a few of these. In one moment of peril, a rescue seemed a bit deus ex machina for my taste. These small stumbles may keep The Child Finder from quite matching her previous work, but really, can you gripe at Herman Melville for not matching Moby Dick with his next effort? This is still an amazing book.

CONCLUSION: The Child Finder is a beautifully written, gripping page turner, rich with psychological insight, emotional engagement, life-and-death peril, and a memorable cast of characters, rooted in a darkly atmospheric landscape. It is a book that is worth searching for, bringing home, and welcoming into your family.

NOTE: This review was originally posted by Will on Goodreads.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

SPFBO: Interview with J. A. Devenport (Interviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Review of By Raven's Call
Order By Raven's Call HERE

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

JAD: Haha! There’s a lot to tell. I guess I’ll start with the basics…I grew up in the Alaskan wilderness, in a cabin (16 feet x 20 feet) with my rather large family (at the time there were 11 of us). After I graduated high school, I attended BYU in Utah and never really ended up leaving because it’s actually warm here.

There’s a lot of things that I enjoy, mostly really manly things like cutting firewood, and shooting guns, but I’m also a retired ballroom dancer, which is weird. Currently, I mostly spend my free time hitting the gym and playing videogames. Also, I like cats.

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

JAD: My writing drive started early on, evolving pretty naturally from reading constantly (there wasn’t much else to do during the Alaskan winters). There’s a good story here, but I’ll save it for when I finally get around to starting a blog.

Finishing my first book was actually quite difficult, I’d been working on a project for years during college, an epic fantasy, but as I learned more about the publishing business (from Brandon Sanderson’s creative writing class) I realized I wouldn’t be able to get it published as a first-time author. So then, I started a smaller “standalone” project which I felt would be easier to attract the interest of publishers. To finish that project I had to quit a very awesome job with the National Park Service so I could take a stab at writing full time. Once I did that and could actually focus my energy, I managed to finish a VERY rough draft of By Raven’s Call in about four months. Then I had to get a job again :(

Even though I wrote the book specifically so I could get it published, I found the actual submission process to be time consuming (you spend so much time just waiting to hear from a batch of agents about your query, and then even longer if they ask for a partial). I hated it, and I probably only ever submitted to 15-20 agents. But then, last year, I stumbled on J. A. Konrath’s blog about self-publishing and I was hooked. Here was a viable way for me to get a project that I was starting to get annoyed with off my plate so I could move onto the next.

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of By Raven’s Call occurred. How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea?

JAD: By Raven’s Call has gone through a few stages. It was born from a writing prompt in a creative writing class, just an idea a couple paragraphs long. Then, during another class it turned into a short story. And finally, I novelized it when I decided I needed a quick, sellable idea. And honestly, I couldn’t have purposefully made it a more difficult and complicated process.

The idea has evolved a ton since I started it in 2010. The original short-story was told in the first person and had a jaunty and light-hearted tone that I realized didn’t work after I finished the first draft. So I had to change all that. And that was just the beginning. Getting the whole project to the stage where I felt confident letting other people read it has been painful. But I learned a lot. And the result is something that I feel is a solid first attempt.

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?

JAD: That’s a hard answer. I wish I had a muse. That would make things easier, I think. But right now my source of inspiration is my imagination, and my motivation is that I don’t want to work a day job forever. Haha!

Q] Why did you decide to enter SPFBO?

JAD: Honestly, I literally found out about SPFBO the day the contest opened for submissions. Randomly, a month or so earlier, Kopratic over at The Fantasy Inn had discovered my book on the Kindle store and liked the cover (we’ll get to that). So he bought it and wrote a review about it (my first ever! Woot!). The first day of submissions for SPFBO4, his fellow blogger, HiuGregg, messaged me and convinced me to enter. What did I have to lose?

Q] I described your book as plot-driven - do you agree?

JAD: Yeah, absolutely. I like fast-paced, action oriented books and I guess that’s what I ended up writing.

Q] You have quite a few distinct characters in the book - was it difficult to manage them in a satisfying way?

JAD: Yes and no. The first draft had more characters, and I tried to remove all the unnecessary ones. Other than that, there was only one character that really gave me trouble. One of the women. I had to rewrite her five or six times because it was so difficult getting a balance of vulnerability (in regards to what she experiences early on) and core strength that was relatable, and likeable. Hopefully I succeeded.

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?

JAD: I discovered the realm of fantasy through two books: The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, and The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. They’re very different, but both absolutely captivated me with their magical worlds. These days I read a bit of everything, but, obviously, I’m a fan of Brandon Sanderson. He’s basically the king of fantasy right now. If I could accomplish a tenth of what he has, then I’ll be happy.

Q] By Raven’s Call features an impressive and immersive world-building. How long did it take you to develop the world? How do you keep track of everything? Does it still evolve?

JAD: Oddly enough, I never really focused on world building. It just happens because I have an imagination and I spend a lot of time daydreaming and taking pieces of the real world and giving them a bit of magical flare. For instance, my magic system was born from my enthusiasm for dance, augments are a natural progression of real world drugs, and airships…airships are just frickin’ awesome!

It isn’t really hard to keep track of…in my head the world exists, it operates a certain way, and obeys its own rules. As long as I know the rules—and I do since I made them—then everything just makes sense. At this point, the evolution is mostly over, though some things will change through the course of the sequels.

Q] Cover art is always an important factor in book sales. Your cover is rather simple and minimalistic. Can you tell me about the idea behind it?

JAD: Ahem. This is easy. I’m dirt poor. So I designed my own cover, and since I was limited by my artistic skills, I had to keep it simple. Still, you can accomplish a lot with a shutterstock subscription and free art programs like GIMP and KRITA. I drew the sword by hand though. Hahah! I know it doesn’t compete with most of the covers in this competition, but it works.

Q] Can you tell us about your editing process?

JAD: I’m a firm believer that the best writing is actually good editing. So I just vomit the first draft, then I go through and clean it, cutting as much as I can. Then I give it to the meanest, most critical people I can find and let them tear it to shreds. Then I rewrite it again. And again. And again. I do that until I have a story that I am happy with.

Q] I love oddball questions and oddball answers, so allow me to ask you one - What would you do if you found a penguin in the freezer?

JAD: Errm…I’d slap it with the salmon he was trying to steal and tell him to go get his own. I think. I don’t know. Is he a wizard?

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

JAD: Louis L’Amour is underrated as a writer. That is all.


Monday, September 17, 2018

SPFBO Semifinalist: Here Be Dragons by David Macpherson (reviewed by D. C. Stewart)

Official Author Website
Order Here Be Dragons over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

FORMAT/INFO: Here Be Dragons is 414 pages long, divided up into 57 chapters with a prologue. The story is told via the third-person omniscient viewpoint, with most of the action focusing on Orus. As of this writing, Here Be Dragons is only available via digital edition.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Many would seek the crown once worn by the late Sir Terry Pratchett; headwear that proclaimed Pratchett as master and lord of all comic fantasy. He has had many emulators, both during his reign and after, but none have quite managed to capture the humor and philosophy offered by the realms of Discworld. While I am not ready to sling the Pratchett-crown at David Macpherson (even were I the master of crown-slinging), I have read few authors who fell so readily into the mold even while distinguishing themselves. With Here Be Dragons, a bouncing tale of incompetence and buffoonery, Macpherson has proven himself at least worthy of sharing a sentence with the best of the best.

The hero of Here Be Dragons is a has-been named Orus. Orus used to be a big deal, even graduated with honor from the acclaimed Cromalot School for Heroes, but after his first big adventure he found himself quite suddenly married with a child. Happens to all of us, right? Decades pass and Orus is offered a chance to once more take up the mantle of heroism, and feeling the doldrums of middle-aged boredom, he jumps at the opportunity - or he would if he hadn’t become fat and easily-winded. Macpherson subverts our typical hero right away. Orus is not the grizzled veteran, still capable of out-fighting his foes. Orus has settled down, become a family man, and his greatest challenges involve sewer pipes and stubborn weeds. Nevertheless, the world needs a hero, and Orus might be the best man for the job - nevermind what that says about the current state of worldly heroes.

Orus is recruited by a monk named Ambrose, who pleads his help and when offered leads him to the dragon shrine where his mission will become clear. Orus is fine with ignorance because he is simply happy to have a quest.. There is also a donkey who bears their equipment, talks to the reader in italics, and is likely the true hero of the story.

On the surface, this all might sound silly, and it is. It would be easy to send Here Be Dragons straight to the comedy cemetery if it weren’t actually so damned funny. Not every joke lands, but most find solid ground. It can even veer towards slapstick at times and somehow not lose its luster. It is a rare author who finds themselves able to make readers laugh out loud while reading. Pratchett did it, and so does Macpherson

What I didn’t like about Here Be Dragons was that it so often reminded me of Shrek:
1) Talking donkey - check.

2) Villainous prince who is secretly a coward but who is adored by the masses - check.

3) Bumbling oaf who somehow manages to stumble his way into heroism - check.

Add a princess into this mix, and we might have some copyright infringement on our hands. Here Be Dragons does enough to separate itself from the famous ogre’s tale, and Mike Myers is thankfully nowhere to be found, but there is enough there that I found myself thinking of that movie multiple times throughout the story.

I also took issue with Macpherson’s use of real-world terminologies in his metaphors. In the early part of the novel, he uses footnotes to speak to his audience, and this works and is fun. But this is a fantasy novel set in a world not our own. The line, “The style favoured was like that found at a Scottish rugby club ceilidh at 2am,” is jarring as soon as that reality encroaches upon the escapism (even if the term ‘ceilidh’ sounds more like fantasy that reality).

This is a comic fantasy novel and that could be an excuse to use such terms - we are often told that fantasy has no barriers - but their addition cuts into the easy flow of this work and, I think, harms it. This is particularly frustrating when Macpherson’s other metaphors are so good. The term “red-pen gaze” is so evocative of a certain character in the novel that I wrote it down for use in my own work.

Thankfully the issues I had with Here Be Dragons failed to deter from the simple delight of it. Macpherson takes a common story and makes it fun, and in what I consider to be the most remarkable aspect of the tale, he does so without resorting to violence. At the risk of spoiling some of this book, Orus never once uses his fists to solve problems that he and Ambrose can figure out using their heads. It is amazing in part because this isn’t a passive world. There is violence here, and much of the book’s focus is on the slaying of legendary creatures. Heroes in Macpherson’s world have celebrity status, even boasting trading cards with their likenesses, all because of their ability to kill the bad things set loose upon humanity. Though Orus may have aspired to such status in his younger days, it is the tempering of fatherhood and a settled life, and perhaps an overly large gut, that keep him from seeking blood before seeking solutions.

CONCLUSION: Though a bit rough around the edges, and perhaps in need of a nit-picking editor, Here Be Dragons is a stand-out in this year’s SFPBO. It is so rare that we fantasy fans are allowed to jump out of our scary grimdark and epic, world-crashing tales and simply laugh at an oafish dad and his mid-life crisis while still getting to hear tales of dragons and swords. I’ll take that even if I have to suffer through cynical telepathic donkeys.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Cover Reveal: Chasing Graves – Book One of the Chasing Graves Trilogy By Ben Galley

(Desert digital art by Daniel Kvasznicza)

One of my favourite parts of the book publishing process is reaching the cover design stage. I find that even though you can stare at a humongous Word document for months on end, even though you’re well aware you have a book, it somehow doesn’t feel tangible until it has a cover. It’s part film poster, part packaging, and it’s why I thoroughly enjoy getting to this stage. And so, back in May, when my calendar politely reminded me it was time to organise the cover for Chasing Graves, I may have performed a small jig around my writing cave.

The genesis of the Chasing Graves cover concept came from the story itself. Wherever possible, I always like to feature a character on my book covers. In the new trilogy, the main protagonist is a fellow by the name Caltro Basalt. He’s a master thief, somewhat of a bastard, and finds himself ostensibly dead on his first night in the city of Araxes. In the world of Chasing Graves, bodies can be bound so that their ghosts become slaves for the rich. The process involves submerging a body in the black water of the River Nyx, and I decided that Caltro’s moment of passing into the ghost realm would be perfect for the front cover, showing his tumultuous transformation from human to ghost. My hopes were that through colour and content it would be eye-catching, almost horror-esque without leaving the fantasy genre behind.

The next step was to transfer what I had in my mind’s eye onto paper and reality. Now, I’m not an artist, as you’ll see from my rough sketch below, and that’s why I’ve always relied on professionals to create my covers. Chasing Graves was no exception. Initially I looked to the fantastic covers we’re blessed with in the fantasy market, and the amazing artists behind them. I also trawled ArtStation and DeviantArt to find creators that were producing art similar to the style I wanted. After a few weeks of chatting to various artists, discussing briefs and timescales, I decided to go with an artist called Chris Cold.

I came across Chris on ArtStation and was immediately transfixed by the array of otherworldly, haunting, and incredibly detailed artwork in his portfolio. The tone of his artwork was gothic in places, colourful where it needed to be, and to be honest, exactly the style I’d had in mind. Chris got back to me within a day and within no time at all, the brief was sent over and the artwork for the entire trilogy was commissioned.

I always try—emphasis on try—to give a detailed brief. Writing a brief is very similar to writing a blurb. I can create a world and spin multiple yarns, but ask me to condense an idea into succinct sentences in my head and I fall to pieces. With the help of a few examples—such as the scene in Watchmen where Jon Osterman/Dr Manhattan is ripped apart by the field generator—and one terrible sketch, Chris started work in early August.

First we confirmed composition and colours, working on details such as the fact ghosts in my world are bright blue and that Caltro has a darker skin-colouring, as most of the trilogy is based in a North African world.

After that stage, the initial cover popped into my inbox. I would prefer not to say I squealed, and recall it as a barbarian’s roar, but there was definitely some excitement.

I wanted more ghost in Caltro’s face, and after I confirmed my feedback with a few fellow authors and long-time fans, Chris went straight to work on the final artwork. And here it is: 

If I could have hooked my brain up to a printer and generated the image I had in my mind’s eye back in May, scribbling ideas down over a pint, this would have pretty much been it, except it didn’t look anywhere near as good. I think Chris has absolutely nailed the brief and perfectly encapsulated Caltro being torn from mortality. The detail and colour against the black strike me in just the way I wanted, and he also incorporated a feather for the detail on the back cover, which is the symbol of the bound dead in Chasing Graves.

Next up was the typography and the very final cover design, which came down to the inimitable Shawn King. Shawn and I worked together on my standalone novel The Heart Of Stone and its short story prequel Shards, and he did such a brilliant job with those that he was my first choice for adding text to Chris’ art. Needless to say, Shawn smashed it as always. For me, the font choice backs up the grungy nature of the art and the decay of the world Chasing Graves is set in, while adding dynamism to the whole design.

Overall, I’m thrilled with how both Chris and Shawn took my humble imagination and turned it into something not only tangible and real, but something that I’m incredibly proud to slap on the front of my book. They’ve done a fantastic job, and if Chasing Graves is anything to go by, I’m straining at the bit to see what they produce for books two and three…

Thanks for reading, and a big thank you to Mihir and the rest of the Fantasy Book Critic crew for letting me ramble on. I hope you like the cover and enjoyed the story!


Official Author Website, Facebook & Twitter

Release Date: December 7th 2018 (eBook & Paperback)

Pre-order link: Amazon US & Amazon UK

Official Book Blurb: Meet Caltro Basalt. He’s a master locksmith, a selfish bastard, and as of his first night in Araxes, stone cold dead.

They call it the City of Countless Souls, the colossal jewel of the Arctian Empire, and all it takes to rule is to own more ghosts than any other. For in Araxes, the dead do not rest in peace in the afterlife, but live on as slaves for the rich.

While Caltro struggles to survive, those around him strive for the emperor’s throne in Araxes’ cutthroat game of power. The dead gods whisper from corpses, a soulstealer seeks to make a name for himself with the help of an ancient cult, a princess plots to purge the emperor from his armoured Sanctuary, and a murderer drags a body across the desert, intent on reaching Araxes no matter the cost.

Only one thing is certain in Araxes: death is only the beginning.

NOTE: Environment: Dune digital art by Daniel Kvasznicza.
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

SPFBO Semifinalist: The Boy Who Walked Too Far by Dom Watson (Reviewed by D. C. Stewart)

Order The Boy Who Walked Too Far over HERE

FORMAT/INFO: The Boy Who Walked Too Far is 756 pages long, with named but un-numbered chapters. It is a third-person limited viewpoint set mostly through the eyes of Heironymous Xindii, Solomon Doomfinger, and Brick. The Boy Who Walked Too Far is the first book in Dom Watson’s Xindii Chronicles and is available in e-book formats with potential physical publication in the future.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Defining fantasy, as a genre of literature, is one of the trickiest things in this industry. There are so many sub-genres now, as well as decriers of genre who insist that everything should simply be called literature, that to enter a contest like the SFBPO is to hope that whoever reads your work will see it as you see it.Dom Watson claims that THE BOY WHO WALKED TOO FAR is a fantasy novel, an implicit fact in his entering this contest, but there might be some who would disagree. This novel is set millions of years into the future, the year 11,234,097 to be precise, and imagines a world in which humans have survived until the end of time.

It is a book about dreams, and a “magic” system called Dreamurlurgy that is mastered by only a select handful of beings. There are different species of humans in this book and ancient, demonic gods - possibly even God him- or herself. There are DNA-engineered elephants in Watson’s vision, shrunk to trot around at peoples’ feet like dogs. This is a complicated novel that likely defies genre, and while some might not see it as the cut-and-dried sword-and-sorcery fantasy that we are used to when we browse our local library shelves, in some ways I believe that Dom Watson’s work embodies the spirit of fantasy as much if not more than most of what we know. This is a work of imagination, unlimited by time and space, and for that I think it is not only a worthy entry into this contest, but possibly one of the best.

Xindii Heironymous is a Mapper - one of the best Mappers living or dead. He is able to infiltrate dreams, control them, and even trap people into their own Reveries - states of perpetual dream that they are unable to escape from unless the Mapper wills it. Xindii’s home is Testament, the last bastion at the edge of civilization. Time is ending, and Testament stands as the spot where living creatures will make their stand. But it is a city, and cities must function as they do, and so in Testament, Xindii serves not only as a professor in the most prestigious university in town, but as an investigator into potential dream-related crimes. When Godrich Felstrom is devoured by a supernatural horror in the middle of a bar, Xindii, along with his lifelong friend and half-ape hyper-genius Solomon Doomfinger, is called upon by the Auditors, a group of mathematical rulers who seek to record every living thing’s number into their grand algorhythm that allows them to predict the future, to figure out how and why Godrich was killed.

If that paragraph feels like a very large and confusing info dump, welcome to THE BOY WHO WALKED TOO FAR. This book can be incredibly confusing, particularly at the onset. Watson is not shy about throwing his readers terms that he never explains, or only subtly explains via context clues and careful reading. One of the book’s many flaws, in fact, is this inability to convey what the hell is actually going on. This can be a strength, however, in the right hands, and Dom Watson very nearly succeeds in wielding those hands.

What begins as a seemingly standard Doyle-esque murder mystery, albeit set far into the future, quickly evolves into the kind of adventure that would make a Doctor Who episode look boring. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Xindii in the same sentence as a Doctor or a Sherlock Holmes or even a Gregory House because he is of this same ilk. His addiction to a violent and horrible drug, along with a dark and tortured past, are offset by a personality infectious in its zest for life and the ability to fling himself headlong into adventure. Xindii’s charm is balanced by Solomon Doomfinger’s austerity and poise, and while some might accuse Watson of taking too much formula from Doyle and Steven Moffat, these types of pairings work and to great effect in this author’s hands.

Xindii and Doomfinger are but two in a wide cast of characters. They are joined by Brick, an inspector who brings the hard-boiled trope to life and whose skin is made of literal stone. Bliss, a seemingly innocuous woman who is actually the very first of her kind to exist, and a cast of villains that range from the blackest evil to the ones we feel can be saved if we just love them enough. Watson plays with morality in this novel like a philosopher who has studied it for decades, and no one comes in or out with a clean slate.

The Boy Who Walked Too Far takes place almost entirely in the city of Testament - the last stand of humanity. It is here that all the races, human and sub-human alike have to attempt a life against the backdrop of civilization’s end. In humorous fashion, Watson is perpetually detailing aspects of this town that are both laughable and unbelievable. Starbucks is still around, for instance, and LED lights are still somehow in fashion. God, the ultimate creator of reality, has his own district and house that would make Doctor Strange jealous. But thankfully, Watson’s humor is ingrained in the very nature of his writing, and he manages to make this novel both deadly serious and out-loud funny at the same time. Few novels can even do one of these properly, but Watson weaves them in the most human and authentic way.

The Boy Who Walked Too Far’s plot does follow the murder-mystery trope in its initial stages, but it does not take long to blossom into a full-fledged world-ending saga. Watson does a beautiful job weaving Xindii’s past into the current narrative. He does so purely in italics, which I found jarring and unnecessary, but as with many aspects, this book needs an editor’s eyes to correct such potential mistakes. Without getting into the spoiler-weeds too far, there is one aspect of The Boy’s plot that I feel needs to be praised above others. Well into the novel we are introduced to the idea that stories burrow into the mind and stay there. A tale we heard as a child never leaves and only needs the right cue to call it forth. This is a lovely idea and one we are all probably familiar with. Dom Watson ruins this. He creates of storytelling a literal monster, and it is a brilliant accomplishment that I have never seen in any other narrative medium. Watson makes a story an evil thing, and despite my overwhelming love of story, I’m not even mad about it. In a book full of the kind of creativity all authors should aspire to, it is this one portion in particular that I will never forget

It is frustrating that The Boy Who Walked Too Far is so riddled with errors. Some of these are commonplace mistakes, a plethora of sentence fragments or a name spelled differently in multiple places. Some are more egregious, like an entire scene replicated twice that spans several pages - a situation particularly frustrating in a novel about dreams and experimentation where one might not realize that they are reading a mistake until they have pored over it several times.

CONCLUSION: The truth is, I’m not sure that this novel can win SFBPO with the sheer amount of editing that it needs, and this is a tragedy to me because I truly love this book. Whether or not Dom Watson makes it past the first round or into the finals is irrelevant to me (though certainly not to him!) because he has found himself at least one reader who will evangelize his flawed masterpiece to anyone who will listen. The Boy Who Walked Too Far is far and away my number one choice for advancement into the SFBPO semi-finals.
Sunday, September 9, 2018

GIVEAWAY: Win a Set of Serena Valentino's Disney Villain's Series

 Hashtag: #DisneyVillainsBooks
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Fantasy Book Critic is excited to partner with Disney Book Group to offer our readers a giveaway of the Villains Series. Anyone who knows me knows I am a huge fan of all things Disney. These books in the series, which are told from the Villain’s POV, are really good!

The giveaway is being offered to celebrate the release of the fifth book in the series Mother Knows Best: A Tale of the Old Witch by Serena Valentino.

The giveaway is for 1 prize pack that includes ALL FIVE of the books in the series. The Giveaway is open to US addresses only! 

Follow the giveaway instructions below to enter! May the odds be ever in your favor!

Learn More About the Book Mother Knows Best: A Tale of the Old Witch
The Disney VILLAINS series by Serena Valentino explores how the antagonists in Disney movies became some of storytelling’s most iconic villains. In the first five VILLAINS books, we see how the Evil Queen, the Beast, Ursula, Maleficent, and Mother Gothel fall into darkness, through the instigation of the mysterious Odd Sisters: Lucinda, Martha, and Ruby.

The tale of the legendary golden flower is widely known. The story has been told many times and in many ways. But always the flower is coveted by an old witch to keep herself young and beautiful. And always the flower is used to save a dying queen, who then gives birth to a princess with magical hair. Not willing to lose the flower, the old witch steals the princess and locks her away in a high tower, raising her as her own. But the princess always finds out who she truly is and manages to defeat the old witch.

And yet this is only half the story. So what of the old witch, Mother Gothel? Where does she come from? And how does she come across the magical golden flower?

Here is one account that recounts a version of the story that has remained untold for centuries . . . until now. It is a tale of mothers and daughters, of youth and dark magic.

It is a tale of the old witch.

Learn More about the Author!
Serena Valentino has been weaving tales that combine mythos and guile for the past decade. She has earned critical acclaim in both the comic and horror domains, where she is known for her unique style of storytelling, bringing her readers into exquisitely frightening worlds filled with terror, beauty, and extraordinary protagonists. The books in her best-selling VILLAINS series are best enjoyed when read in the following order: Fairest of All, The Beast Within, Poor Unfortunate Soul, Mistress of All Evil, Mother Knows Best.


1. This contest is open to US addresses only.

2. Only one entry per person.

3. To enter send an email with the subject ‘VILLAINS RULE’ to Please include your name, mailing address, and email address!

4. Contest starts from date of this published post and will run until September 24 at 12:02 p.m. Entries after that date and time will not be counted.

5. Winner will be picked by random number generator.

6. All information is collected for giveaway purposes only and deleted immediately after the contest winner is verified.

Have fun!
Wednesday, September 5, 2018

SPFBO: The Second Reaping & Semifinalist Announcement (by D.C. Stewart)

Read Fantasy Book Critic's first semifinalist update

Truth be told, I had not even heard of the SPFBO contest until last year. I had become more active in the reddit fantasy group and people kept talking about these books with titles I’d never heard of: Sufficiently Advanced Magic, The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids, The Grey Bastards. These weren’t being published by Tor and Houghton Mifflin, and like many, my preconceived notions of the publishing world stood on shaky ground at best. What ventures I had made into self-published work had nearly put me off reading anything of its ilk. I am thankful that Mihir invited me to join this year’s SPFBO because not only is my heart flipped on the concept of self-publishing, and not only do I now see my own faults and strengths as a writer, but I strongly feel that I may have discovered one of the next big names in fantasy, and that is a hell of an exciting prospect.

I should state here that while I finished most of the books on my list, there were several that I did not complete. When reading through these entries, it would become clear fairly quickly what titles would make the final cut and what would not. If I was not enjoying a book and did not feel as though it had any chance to beat out stronger entries, I would put it down. If an author is unable to hold a reader’s attention even in the first fifty pages, the chances of that author winning this contest are not good.

My finalists will get full-fledged reviews here on FBC, and I may choose to write about a few of the other entries. There is not one author on this list who does not have potential and/or talent, and I think with some work any of them could be a published author. I truly believe it.

Without more side-talk, here is what I think:

Apples Of Idunn by Matt Larkin

I was happy to get Apples of Idunn in my pile because I’m a Norse Mythology junkie. I also really like mead. Apples of Idunn seeks to reinvent the saga of the Aesir, but tackles the myth from a very human angle (and one seemingly authentic to ancient nordic life). Odin’s father is slain, and the mantle of leadership over the As tribe falls on his still-young shoulders. Odin is quickly approached by the Vanir goddess Idunn, who promises him immortality should he unite the tribes and declare himself king.

Apples of Idunn is ambitious, but ultimately falls victim to poor characterization. I did not like Odin, or Tyr, or any of the characters aside from Loki (oddly enough the most sympathetic character), and found their behavior reprehensible with very little redemptive presence. I also found the gender dynamics to be flawed to the point of frustration, and would have torn my hair out if I’d have read the word “trench” or the phrase “swelling trousers” one more time.


Seeking Shiloh by Coleman Grey

Seeking Shiloh started out so strong that I expected to not only like it but possibly find it in my list of semi-finalists. There are genuine laughs in the first and second chapters, and while the tale it sets out to tell is a familiar one (rescuing a princess), I am happy to read something full of tropes if it’s humorous. Setting the viewpoint in the eyes of an incompetent accountant further separates this from its ilk.

Unfortunately, Seeking Shiloh quickly loses itself in the attempt to push its humor agenda too far. The jokes start to feel so forced as to become cringe-worthy, and many of the scenes in the book feel like they exist only to insert snide politic jokes or to damn the press. The fine humor line that Seeking Shiloh could have taken is crossed heavily and it never recovers.


Death’s Merchants by Justin Hennar

The protagonist of Death’s Merchant begins his tale in a gruesome way - through patricide. Wielding powers he doesn’t understand and in a world that defies understanding, Jem Trask is alone. Or so he thinks. Through an aimless wandering Jem becomes embroiled in the games of gods.

Justin Hennar is what I would call a master of language. He writes beautifully, with every sentence an elegant combination of words fine enough to put to poetry. However, a mastery of language does not mean a mastery of storytelling, and sometimes purple prose can hinder a story more than help it. It hurts Death’s Merchant, as does a meandering narrative that has trouble ever finding its feet. I wanted to like Hennar’s work for its beautiful language, but I ultimately could not stomach the endless descriptions and overwrought writing.


Glitch Hunter by Skyler Grant

Glitch Hunter is the first LitRPG that I have ever read, and in fact my introduction to the existence of this new fantasy sub-genre. As someone who spends entirely too much time and money on video games, this is a style of novel after my own heart. I could immediately relate to the events of Glitch Hunter because I have spent decades of my life immersed in a variety of online multiplayer role playing games. Grant throws us into the shoes of the player Alex, who finds himself naked and amnesic in an unknown world where he is a Glitch Hunter who must fulfill specific quest parameters and slay monsters known as Glitches.

What Glitch Hunter does right - namely telling a really fun dungeons-and-dragons-style story within the confines of a game-style world - is overshadowed by what it does wrong. There are some basic writing issues in this work that need to be addressed, but even beyond that the complete obsession with sex completely eclipses the story. I like a nice racy scene as much as the next reader, but when every character is jumping every characters bones within the first paragraph of meeting them, I being to wonder if I’m reading a fantasy novel or pornography. This might work for some, but it did not work for me.


Recumon by Michael R.E. Adams

Recumon features a world like our own, but one full of hidden demons and those few select people who can see them, and hunt them.

Recumon is one of the few novels of my pack that I did not finish. The writing is fine even if at times it feels as though the author is not a native English speaker. This is a work trying to be cool and edgy but not understanding what cool and edgy writing actually feels like. There is an manga quality to it that I could not adjust to given my own views of what written storytelling should be. It is clear from the start that Michael R.E. Adams has a flair for the creative and dark nature of fantasy, but his knowledge of basic storytelling and writing techniques needs work.


Soul Prison by Derek Hampton

Soul Prison is an ambitious attempt at telling huge, world-scale fantasy, but regrettably became another book that I could not finish due to poor pacing and the kind of fight scenes that are more reminiscent of Dragonball Z than anything believable. I knew from the first two chapters that Soul Prison was not strong enough to contend with the other entries on my list, and I could summon very little desire to continue with its story. There is a way to write about god-like characters without making them look silly, and unfortunately Hampton has not yet mastered this method. There is solid world-building buried in the bones of Soul Prison, but too many flaws hamper the effort to make it work.


Here are my semi-finalists:

Here Be Dragons by David Macpherson

Many would seek the crown once worn by the late Sir Terry Pratchett; headwear that proclaimed Pratchett as master and lord of all comic fantasy. He has had many emulators, both during his reign and after, but none have quite managed to capture the humor and philosophy offered by the realms of Discworld. While I am not ready to sling the Pratchett-crown at David Macpherson (even were I the master of crown-slinging), I have read few authors who fell so readily into the mold even while distinguishing themselves as masters of their own work. With Here Be Dragons, a bouncing tale of incompetence and buffoonery, Macpherson has proven himself at least worthy of sharing a sentence with the best of the best.

Though a touch rough around the edges, and perhaps in need of a nit-picking editor, Here Be Dragons is a stand-out in this year’s SPFBO. It is so rare that we fantasy fans are allowed to jump out of our scary grimdarks and epic, world-crashing tales and simply laugh at an oafish dad and his mid-life crisis while still getting to hear tales of dragons and swords. I’ll take that even if I have to suffer through cynical telepathic donkeys.


The Boy Who Walked Too Far by Dom Watson

What I can say about The Boy Who Walked Too Far is that this book defies expectations. The title does not make sense until the very end of the book, and the cover would suggest a journey into the afterlife or some ghost-realm. I was not expecting a book to defy genre so wholeheartedly because even after reading it I’m not sure if this is a Victorian inspector novel, a science fiction piece set billions of years into the future, a psychological fantasy thriller, or a novel on dream interpretation. It is somehow all of those and more. Set millions or even billions of years into humanity’s future, the city of Testament has seen a murder in its midst, and it is Heironymous Xindii’s task as the world’s foremost Dreamurlugy detective, along with his assistant the super-genius Solomon Doomfinger, to figure out whodunnit, little realizing that their quest might prove to be the lynchpin that saves civilization.

The Boy Who Walked Too Far is the best book I have read out of this pile of SPFBO entries, and I suspect Dom Watson might be the hidden gem that comes out of this contest. I loved this book. I loved its characters and their interactions and its weird, mind-jumble of a plot. I loved its setting, which itself becomes a beloved character. I loved the plethora of, to me, completely new ideas that emerged from this novel (genetic architecture, reverie prisons, and story parasites to name a few). Make no mistake, Dom Watson needs an editor (there is an entire section of the novel that unintentionally repeats itself, just as a for instance), but he is overflowing with talent and I want his book to succeed. It is testament to his ability to craft story that a book so laden with mistakes could still be so phenomenal. The Boy Who Walked Too Far is far and away my number one choice for FBC semi-finalist.


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