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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

SPFBO Semi-finalist: By Raven's Call by J. A. Devenport (Reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order By Raven's Call HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: J. A. Devenport was forged from the wilds of Alaska, a true cross between polar bear and man. After obtaining an education from BYU, Devenport began the long journey of making a career from writing. He now resides in Utah where he writes, works out, and chills with his two cats Buddy, and Lulu.

FORMAT/INFO: By Raven’s Call is 391 pages long divided over thirty five numbered chapters preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue . The narration is in the third person. There are few important POVs. This is the first volume of the Blackwing Cycle series.

The book is available in e-book and paperback formats. It was self-published by the author. Cover art and design are DIY.

CLASSIFICATION: By Raven’s Call is a plot-driven dark epic fantasy book with imaginative and immersive world-building.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Raven is an unstoppable killing machine. He's more of a weapon than a human being. Rumour has it that he killed thousands of people, including the old king. Unfortunately, the new one is even worse. To put it mildly, the tyrant king is a despicable and greedy individual who doesn't care about the kingdom or its people.

The Uprising lead by a mysterious leader works to overthrow the ruler. It seems The Raven may be involved, but it's tricky to be sure when no one knows who The Raven is and if he exists at all.

As it's a plot-driven story with multiple narrative twists and turns, I won't get into more details. Suffice to say it gets better, deeper and more surprising the further we go. By Raven's Call's pacing is brisk, and it takes place in a fascinating world riddled with mysteries. The world-building is impressive and deep.

The setting starts out routine enough, but soon magic (sort of), airships, flying machines, drugs enhancing strength make their appearance. The story takes more than a few unexpected turns. Things explode. Stoned warriors jump from the airships. Characters aren't who they seem to be.

Well, yes. We've seen it before. But here it's done very well. I enjoyed the inclusion of alchemically powered airships a lot. They're powered by three god-metals (each with different properties, thanks to them airships can levitate, navigate and generate light). It turns out there may be one more, a much more sinister ingredient necessary to fuel King's fleet.

If only killing the bastard was easy. But it's not. He's guarded by a powerful Spirit Dancer - Valora. Spirit Dancers summon the spirits called aenmai who give them preternatural skills (ungodly strength, almost Flash-like speed, control over the matter and many others; each aenmai shares a unique set of skills with a human it bonded with).

Regular people can increase their chances of survival by using augments - potions like aceta or ciraj that can reduce fear and make impossible feats (like single-handedly devastating a garrison of trained soldiers) possible.

And that's just a start. I'm thoroughly impressed by the rich world-building and parts of aenmai mythos introduced in this novel. They give plenty of exciting possibilities for future developments.

Both plot and world-building are intriguing and enjoyable. What about characters?

And therein lies the rub.

To be fair, I reread parts of the book. My opinion didn't change. Characters are... decent. And I prefer them spectacular. Sure, each of them has a backstory and some distinct defining traits, but they don't feel fully fleshed out. There's a bear of a man wanting nothing more than to find his daughter, a woman who changes from prey to predator, a mysterious assassin hearing voices in his head. They're enjoyable, but none of them really stayed with me after I finished the book.

While it was entertaining to read slow-motion action-scenes involving The Raven, his statements like “I’m a weapon, I’m hardly safe” grow old fast. Yes, he's not in control of himself. He's ruled by Raven's voices in his head, and it's a fascinating concept. On the other hand, his internalizations and ramblings that he can't love or be loved are tiring and make me think about B-grade action movies of the 80s. He's a character with great potential but somehow remains unmemorable as a person I could relate to.

The same is true for others. Their motivations are believable, but somewhere along the line, they start to be defined by the need for revenge, berserk rage, blind devotion and stuff.

My other issue with the book is its cinematic panache. On the one hand, it's fantastic as the scenes are explosive, strong and easy to visualise. On the other hand, when you think about them they're over the top:
Uncertainty and awe crossed the man’s face as he felt the sheer weight of power emanating from her. Valora raised her arms, and the man turned and fled. With one leap he was twenty feet away, dust swirling into the air from the force of his passage. He ran, twice as fast as a normal man, leaving curling spirals of smoke in his wake, diving over the burning remains of buildings and flipping in the air before landing on his feet and sprinting onward.
I think it's a great action scene. It contains plenty of embellishments, though. There's also one crucial and dramatic scene in which loyal royalists/mercenaries turn into insurgents seconds after witnessing the King cruelty. I'm not saying it wouldn't happen. I just don't think it would happen that fast and that unequivocally. To be fair, though, it reads very well.

CONCLUSION: While not fully satisfying in certain regards, rough with its characterisation, there is a sound concept, and enough plot hooks to keep readers flipping the pages with growing excitement.

Fresh and unique world-building deserves high praise. I'll definitely read the sequel.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Interview with Rob J. Hayes (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order City Of  Kings over HERE (USA) and HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of City Of Kings
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Where Loyalties Lie
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Fifth Empire Of Man
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Heresy Within
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Colour Of Vengeance
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Price Of Faith
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of It Takes A Thief To Catch A Sunrise
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of It Takes A Thief To Start A Fire
Read Fantasy Book Critic interview with Rob J. Hayes
Read Fantasy Book Critic trilogy completion interview with Rob J. Hayes
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Best Laid Plans Series Interview with Rob J. Hayes
Read Fantasy Book Critic's SPFBO Aftermath Q&A with Rob J. Hayes
Read A Game of ̶T̶h̶r̶o̶n̶e̶s̶ Death by Rob J. Hayes (guest post)

Q] Welcome back Rob and thank you for your time. How has your launch for City Of Kings been? 

RJH: Thanks for having me again. The launch has been somewhat stressful (as all launches are), but it's going really well. Books have been sold and are being read, so I generally consider that a win.

Q] Since your SPFBO win, you have had an SF release and now this book which is a tie-in to your debut saga. How has the reader feedback been for both those releases?

RJH: Extremely positive. I'll admit I was a little worried about both releases. DRONES is a huge departure from my normal stuff for a number of reasons. It's sci-fi, it's spec fic, it's all written in 1st person present tense (which is a nightmare to write in), so it was a daunting release. Luckily most people have really taken to it.

 For City Of Kings, it's again a little different as it's my first standalone set in the world of First Earth, and it deals with some quite dark themes. Again, most readers seem to be digging the brutality of it.

I'm still waiting for the 1 stars though, I'm sure they're coming.

Q] With Drones being your SF genre debut, it was an interesting read and a different read from your usual fantasy fare. What lead you to write a SF-thriller dealing with harvesting and packaging of human emotions?

RJH: I just had the concept idea rolling around in my head, this ability to harvest and sell emotions in a way that drains the memory of all emotional connection and then passes the pure emotion on to the buyer. At the time of coming up with it I had no setting or story surrounding it. It took me a good six months to decide it would work best in a science fiction future sort of like Total Recall or Bladerunner. I do love a good cyperpunk future setting. The real headache was that I decided it should be written in 1st person present tense... never again. It took me about a year of editing to get rid of all the past tense inconsistencies.

Q] Let’s talk about CITY OF KINGS. It’s your first standalone fantasy book and also a proper sequel to some of the events and characters of your first trilogy (especially The Colour Of Vengeance) and the your short story Pre-Emptive Vengeance. What lead to its inception?

RJH: It was pretty much always there. I went into my fantasy saga of First Earth with a plan, a 12 book plan. That plan turned out to be quite fluid. Some stories have grown from nothing, demanding to be written, others have sunk into the murky waters of just not working out. But the 12 book plan remains intact with a number of key points that have to happen along the way. City Of Kings is the midway point, as the sixth book in the saga, and it's an important one. It introduces a couple of key pieces of information that will become very relevant later on in the saga, and introduces a new character.

Q] As a sequel to The Colour Of Vengeance, all of the POV characters except Rose had been POV characters in The Colour Of Vengeance. What was the impetus for Rose to get her own POV in this book?

RJH: It's her book. Rose is the driving force behind everything that happens in City Of Kings. She has a vision for the Wilds that she is determined to bring about, no matter how much a monster it makes her. And she's fully aware that she's running out of time to make it happen. It would have been a crime for me to write it without Rose's point of view.

Q] Anders is the only other person besides Henry who has appeared in all of your First Earth books. However he knows much, more about what's happening than Henry has any idea about. Would you say that's a fair approximation? Will the latter books reveal all of Anders' mysteries?

RJH: Yes. :D

Q] Chronologically it’s set alongside the Best Laid Plans duology and I believe CITY OF KINGS runs parallel the events of THE FIFTH EMPIRE OF MAN. Was that an intentional move? Another trilogy of sorts by combining a duology and a standalone?

RJH: Not really. Believe it or not, the timing of everything that happens is because of one particular character. I pay a lot of attention to where my characters are at what time, and I try my best to keep a consistent timeline running. So it really all boils down to City Of Kings had to happen when it happened because of Anders. It's all his fault, and most of my characters agree.

Q] From our talks before you have mentioned that the next book and trilogy will be skipping a few years (after the events of City Of Kings & the Best Laid Plans duology) and will be set in Acanthia. Can you tell us more about it?

RJH: Yes. There is actually roughly a fifteen year time skip between City Of Kings and the next series. I can't give away too much right now, but I will say that the series will reveal a lot more about First Earth's secondary race, the Drurr, and how they fit into the larger plot of the saga. The series will also tell readers more about the rise of necromancy as an ongoing threat.

Q] You currently have a quite a few short stories set at different timepoints and places in the First Earth World whilst featuring many different characters. Which short stor(y)ies will be tying in to the new trilogy?

RJH: There's already a couple. There's two short stories in The Bound Folio called, The Merchant of Truridge and By My Life and Bloodline, both of which feature characters who feature strongly in the next series. There might be a few more shorts on the way as well, but I can't say for certain. Too much of my time is being taken up with writing full length novels at the moment.

Q] I never have asked you about this, but the grand title of your saga is the First Earth. What does it mean and why did you choose to call it as such?

RJH: Well if there's a First Earth, it would suggest there might be a Second Earth... and maybe a Third and Fourth Earth as well.

Q] What’s next on the horizon for you? Are you writing a sequel to one of your earlier works or will you be releasing something brand new?

RJH: My next release is a book called NEVER DIE, and it's a standalone fantasy book set in its very own world. I've taken a lot of inspiration from eastern martial art films and anime with it. It follows a young boy called Ein who is given a quest by a shinigami (god of death) to kill the emperor. To do this, Ein is given the power to bring heroes back to life to fight for him. The only problem is, to bring them back to life and bind them to his cause, first those heroes have to die. NEVER DIE will be releasing early next year.

And beyond that my next project is a trilogy set in a new world where magic is granted to Sourcerers by swallowing crystals. It's a bit more high fantasy than I've written before with a few other races, and lots of big magic, and it's another one I've written in first person from the perspective of young woman called Eska. Book 1, Along the Razor's Edge, will be releasing next year (this is the first time I've revealed that), with books 2 and 3 following the year after.

Q] Never Die sounds amazing and I'm sure your fans will love to hear more about it. The other trilogy you reference sounds even cooler, will this be your turn to dabble in the YA genre?

RJH: Apparently so. I certainly didn't intend it to be YA when I started it, and in my mind it isn't, but some of my early readers have said it has YA elements to it. I've also been told it's what would happen if you put Faithless and Red Sister in a blender. I'm not sure I agree with either statements personally.

Q] Thank you for your time and answers, I’ll look forward to Never Die when it releases next year. In parting, it there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

RJH: Just to say thank you for reading. I love sharing stories with people, and I couldn't do that without readers. You are all awesome!

Friday, August 10, 2018

Circe by Madeline Miller (Reviewed by Will Byrnes)

Official Author Website
Order Circe OVER HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS:  Men, can’t live with ‘em, can’t turn ‘em all into swine.

What do you mean turn them into swine? From her earliest application of her new found transformative skills it is suggested that what Circe turns her unfortunate guests into has more to do with their innermost nature than Circe’s selection of a target form. (The strength of those flowers lay in their sap, which could transform any creature to its truest self.) Clearly her sty residents had an oinky predisposition. And I am sure that there are many who had started the transformation long before landing on her island.

Whaddya call the large sty Circe filled with erstwhile men? A good start.

Ok. You had to know this would be part of the deal for this review. So, now that I have gotten it out of my system, (it is out, right?) we can proceed.

When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist. It was a word that Barbara Bush might have had in mind when she described Geraldine Ferraro, her husband’s opponent for the Vice Presidency, in 1984. “"I can't say it, but it rhymes with 'rich,'" she said, later insisting that the word in question did not begin with a “b,” but a “w.” Sure, whatever. But in this case, I suppose both might apply. Circe is indeed the first witch in western literature. And many a sailing crew might have had unkind things to say about her.

(Madeline Miller - image courtesy of Stephanie Diani & The Sunday Times)

Our primary introduction to Circe (which we pronounce as Sir-Sea, and even Miller goes along with this, so people don’t throw things at her. But for how it might be pronounced in Greek, you know, the proper way, you might check out this link. Put that down, there will be no throwing of things in this review!) was that wondrous classic of Western literature, The Odyssey. Given how many times this and its companion volume, The Iliad, have been reworked through the ages, it is no surprise that there have been many variations on the stories they told. Circe’s story has seen its share of re-imaginings as well. But Miller tries to stick fairly close to the Homeric version. Be warned, though, some license was taken, and other sources inspired the work as well. But it is from Homer that we get the primary association we have with her name, the magical transmutation of men into pigs.

We follow the life of our Ur-witch from birth to whatever. She did not start out with much by way of godly powers. Her mother, Perse, daughter of the sea-god Oceanos, was a nymph, and her father was Helios, the sun god. Despite the lofty position of Pop’s place in things, Circe was just a nymph, on the low end of the godly powers scale. This did not help in the family to which she had been born. Not one of her parents’ favorites, she was blessed with neither power nor beauty, had a very ungod-like human-level voice, and her sibs were not exactly the nicest. Kinda tough to keep up when daddy is the actual bloody sun.

Years pass, and one day she comes across a mortal fisherman. He seems pretty nice, someone she can talk to. She’d like to take it to the next stage, so she lays low, listens in on family gatherings, and picks up intel on substances that might be used to effect powerful and advantageous changes. She asks her grandmother, Tethys, (wife AND SISTER to Oceanos) to transform him into a god for her, but Granny throws her out, alarmed when her granddaughter mentions this pharmakos stuff she had been looking into. Left to her own devices she tries this out on her bf, making him into his truest self. It does not end the way she’d hoped. (Pearls before you-know-what.) Not the last bad experience she would have with a man.

Her relationships with men are actually not all bad. Daddy is singularly unfeeling, and can be pretty dim for such a bright bulb, and her brothers are far less than wonderful, but there is some good in her sibling connections as well. She has a warm interaction with a titan, Prometheus, which is a net positive. Later, she has an interesting relationship with Hermes, who is not to be trusted, but who offers some helpful guidance. And then there are the mortals, Daedalus (the master artist, the Michelangelo, the Leonardo da Vinci of his era), Jason, of Argonaut fame, Odysseus, who you may have heard of, and more. There were dark encounters as well, and thus the whole turning-men-into-pigs thing.

Miller has had a passion for the classics since she was eight, when her mother read her the Iliad and began taking her to Egyptian and Greek exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It made her a nerdy classmate but was a boon when she got to college and was able to find peers who shared her love of the ancient tales. It was this passion that led her to write her first novel, The Song of Achilles, a reimagining of Achilles relationship with his lover, Patroclus, a delight of a book, a Times bestseller, and winner of the Orange prize. It took her ten years to write her first novel, about seven for this one and the gestation period for number three remains to be seen. She is weighing whether to base it on Shakespeare’s The Tempest or Virgil’s Aeneid. If past is portent, it will be the latter, and should be ready by about 2025.

The central, driving force in the story is Circe becoming her fullest possible self. (I suppose one might say she made a silk purse from a sow’s ear. I wouldn’t, but some might.)

This is the story of a woman finding her power and, as part of that, finding her voice. She starts out really unable to say what she thinks and by the end of the book, she’s able to live life on her terms and say what she thinks and what she feels. - from the Bookriot interview

Most gods are awful sorts, vain, selfish, greedy, careless of the harm they do to others. Circe actually has better inclinations. For instance, when Prometheus is being tortured by the titans for the crime of giving fire to humans, Circe alone is kind to him, bringing him nectar, and talking with him when no one else offers him anything but anger and scorn. She is curious about mortals, and asks him about them, going so far as to cut herself to experience a bit of humanity.

Livestock comes in for some attention outside the sty. Turns out Circe’s father has a thing for a well-turned fetlock, so maybe she comes by her affinity for animals of all sorts, albeit in a very different way, quite naturally. Her island is rich with diverse fauna, including some close companions most of us would flee. An early version of Doctor Doolittle?

Scholars have debated whether Circe’s pet lions are supposed to be transformed men, or merely tamed beasts. In my novel, I chose to make them actual animals, because I wanted to honor Circe’s connection to Eastern and Anatolian goddesses like Cybele. Such goddesses also had power over fierce animals, and are known by the title Potnia Theron, Mistress of the Beasts.  - from the author's photo essay

Not be confused with The Beastmaster!

While she has her darker side (she does change her nymph love-rival Scylla into a beast of epic proportions, which gets her sent to her room, or in this case, island, and there is that pig thing again) she is also a welcoming hostess on her isle of exile, Aiaia. (Which sounds to me like the palindromic beginning of a lament, Aiaiaiaiaiaiaia, which might feel a bit more familiar with a minor transformation, to oy-oy-oy-oy-oy-oy-oy-oy). I mean, she runs a pretty nifty BnB, with free-roaming wild animals, of both the barnyard and terrifying sort, a steady flow of wayward nymphs sent there by desperate parents in hopes that Circe might transform them into less troublesome progeny, a table with a seemingly bottomless supply of food and drink. And she is more than willing to offer special services to world-class mortals, among others. I mean, after that little misunderstanding with Odysseus about his men, (Pigs? What pigs? What could you possibly mean? Oh, you mean those pigs. Oopsy. How careless of me.) she not only invites everyone to stay for a prolonged vacay, but shacks up with the peripatetic one, offers him instructions on reaching the underworld, suggests ways to get past Scylla and Charybdis, and probably packs bag lunches for him and his crew. She is not all bad.

Circe struggles with the mortals-vs-immortals tension. Her mortal voice makes her less frightening to the short-lived ones, allowing her to establish actual relationships with them that a more boombox-voice-level deity might not be able to manage. Of course, it is still quite limiting that even the youngest of her mortal love interests would wither and die while she remained the same age pretty much forever. Knowing that you will see any man you love die is a definite limiting factor. Yet, she manages. She certainly recognizes what a psycho crew the immortals are, even her immediate family, and respects that mortals who gain fame do so by the sweat of their brow or extreme cunning, (even if it is to dark purpose) not their questionable godly DNA. Reinforcing this is her front row seat to the real-housewives tension between the erstwhile global rulers, the Titans, and the relatively new champions of everything there is, the Olympians. I mean, perpetual torture, thunderbolts, ongoing seditious plots, the nurturing of monsters, wholesale slaughter of mortals? She knows a thing or two, because she’s seen a thing or two.

My thoughts about [Circe as caregiver] really start with the gods, who in Greek myth are horrendous creatures. Selfish, totally invested only in their own desires, and unable to really care for anyone but themselves. Circe has this impulse from the beginning to care for other people. She has this initial encounter with Prometheus where she comes across another god who seems to understand that and also who triggers that impulse in her. I wanted to write about what it’s like when you to want to try to be a good person, but you have absolutely no models for that. How do you construct a moral view coming from a completely immoral family? - from the Bookriot interview

Of course, there is a pretty straight line between the sort of MCP hogwash Circe had to endure in the wayback and recent events that have been getting so much attention of late

I wasn’t trying to write Circe’s story in a modern way… I was just trying to be true to her experience in the ancient world.” “It was a very eerie experience. I would put the book away and check the news. The top story was literally the same issue I had just been writing about — sexual assault, abuse, men refusing to allow women to have any power ... I was drawn to the mystery of her character — why is she turning men into pigs?” – from The Times interview

There are plenty of classical connections peppered throughout Circe’s tale. Jason and Medea (niece) pop by for a spell. She is summoned to assist in the birthing of the minotaur (nephew) to her seriously nasty sister. She is part of Scylla’s origin story, interacts with Prometheus (cousin), gives shit to Athena, even heads into the briny deep to take a meeting with a huge sea creature (no, not the Kraaken). Hangs with Penelope (her bf’s wife) and Telemachus (bf’s son), and spends a lot of time with Hermes. She definitely had a life, many even, particularly for someone who was ostracized to live on an island.

For Circe, I would say the Odyssey was my primary touch-stone in the sense that that’s where I started building the character. I take character clues directly from Homer’s text, both large and small. I mentioned her mortal-like voice. The lions. The pigs. And then when I get to the Odysseus episode in the book, I follow Homer obviously very closely… - from the BookRiot interview

In terms of sources, I used texts from all over the ancient world and a few from the more modern world as well. For Circe herself, I drew inspiration from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, Vergil’s Aeneid, the lost epic Telegony (which survives only in summary) and myths of the Anatolian goddess Cybele. For other characters, I was inspired by the Iliad, of course, the tragedies (specifically the Oresteia, Medea and Philoctetes), Vergil’s Aeneid again, Tennyson’s Ulysses and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Alert readers may note a few small pieces of Shakespeare’s Ulysses in my Odysseus! - from the Bookpage interview

CONCLUSION: Madeline Miller’s Circe is not a lovelorn, lonely heart desperate for connection in her isolation, but a multi-faceted character (not actually a human being, though), with inner seams of the dark and light sort, with family issues that might seem familiar in feel, if not in external content, with sins on her soul, but a desire to do good, and with a curiosity about the world. She may not have been the brightest light in the house of Helios, but she glowed with an inner strength, a capacity for mercy, an appreciation for genius, beauty and talent, and a fondness for pork. This is the epic story of a life lived to the fullest.

Circe is an explorer, a lover, a destroyer, and can be a very angry goddess. This transformative figure is our doorway to a very accessible look at the Greek tales which lie at the root of so much of our culture. If you have a decent grounding in western mythology this will offer a delightful refresher. If you do not, it can offer a delightful introduction, and will no doubt spark a desire to root about for more. Madeline Miller may not have a wand with special powers, or transmogrifying potions at her command, but she demonstrates here a power to transform mere readers into fans. Circe is a fabulous read! You will go hog wild for it. Can you pass the hot dogs? That’s All Folks

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

SPFBO: Interview with C. D. Gallant-King (Interviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order Hell Comes To Hogtown HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Hell Comes To Hogtown

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

CD: I’m thirty-odd-something. I’m Canadian, from the island province of Newfoundland, which is kind of like the North in Westeros, except that instead of a solid wall of ice we’re surrounded by a sea full of icebergs. At eighteen I moved to Toronto to study theatre, and I completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts. I haven’t set foot inside a theatre since.

In my life I’ve been a stock boy, an actor, a marketing coordinator, a stage manager, a lighting designer, a print shop manager, a retail supervisor, a trainer, an executive assistant, a bookkeeper, and currently I push papers around for the government. I also once spent an afternoon handing out free hugs and cupcakes on a street corner. Through all of it I’ve written stories, but to be honest the writing doesn’t pay much better than the cupcakes.

In addition to reading books and telling stories I like playing games, especially if they involve funny-shaped dice and talking in silly voices, and I’m also very partial to the noble and ancient art of professional wrestling. I also buy lots of Star Wars toys and pretend they’re for my kids.

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?

CD: I’ve always loved telling stories, even before I could write. I think I just like the attention, which is probably why I briefly ended up as an actor. Writing is another medium for story delivery and attention hogging that, in many ways, is superior: you can still make your audience laugh, cry or get angry, and they can’t throw anything at you.

I’ve written I believe ten books, but only two I’ve made widely available for mass consumption. I had collected a bunch of rejection letters in my twenties and ended up putting writing on the back burner, but when I discovered how prevalent self-publishing had become I convinced myself I had to give it a try. I rushed to self-publish my first book by my 35th birthday and it was, to be polite, not ready. The day after I published it and friends and family members had purchased numerous copies, my wife made me take it down and fix it. I have since re-written it extensively, but that original sting still hurt. Especially since none of the people who rushed to buy the first one have read any of my work since.

I self-published Hell Comes To Hogtown sort of as proof to myself that I could do better. I had learned a lot from my first pass and was convinced I would make a better go this time around. Plus, it was a weird blend of styles and genres that I didn’t look forward to trying to shop around. I like the idea of writing whatever the hell I want and not trying to aim toward a particular market.

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of Hell Comes To Hogtown occurred. How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea?

CD: Hogtown was the first book I set out to write that I knew I would make available for people to read, and that I would be self-publishing it, and after the first one I wanted to do a better job with it the first time around. I wanted to write a supernatural mystery with a gang of weird heroes, sort of like a messed up version of Scooby Doo. The original first draft took about five months to write, and I wrote it all long-hand in a coil notebook. It took another year to edit and revise it to where it needed to be.

Part of the reason it took so long is because my first draft was so free-form and rambling, I had to trim and cut and move things around to make it make any sense. While the general plot and basic characters still exist from the original draft to the final book, it looks very different. Many of the scenes are in a completely different order, characters have been removed and added, and the fates of several key cast members have been significantly changed.

The other reason it took awhile is because I wrote the entire thing – the long-hand first draft, the transcribing to a digital file, and all of the editing – on the bus during my commute to and from work. I think I must be some kind of masochist, but it was the only free time I had (and I had a lot of it), so I made the most of it the best I could.

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?

CD: I don’t have a single muse that inspires me. I get ideas from many different places. Often it’s a book or movie with a plot I would like to re-tell but change. Sometimes it’s an interesting person I meet or observe on the street that is so weird I have to put it in a book because no one will believe they’re real. Sometimes it’s a real conversation I have with my wife, or a funny story one of my kids tell. All of these ideas are floating around in my head so that I have no shortage of inspiration, if anything I have more ideas than I could possible use in one lifetime. As I get older I realize I also have so many I will never remember them all.

Q] Why did you decide to enter SPFBO?

CD: I entered last year because I had just finished revising my original book and I was pretty proud of it. I had no expectations that I would win anything, but I figured I might get a review out of it, and reviews, especially from a respected review blog, was worth something, right? Unfortunately my book was the very first one eliminated from its group because the reviewer was really turned off by my sense of humour. I tried again this year, even though Hell Comes To Hogtown has ten times as much offensive humour, because I figured “What do I have to lose?” I couldn’t possibly do worse this time unless Mark Lawrence personally showed up at my house and punched me in the face (which, to be fair, would be an awesome story). Again, I really didn’t expect anything, but I crossed my fingers that someone would read my stuff and get my humour.

Q] Your book is pretty dark in places, but it’s balanced by elements of grotesque and wicked sense of humour some readers will, undoubtedly, find inappropriate. Was it deliberate?

CD: Absolutely. I had a theatre professor who said the only difference between comedy and tragedy is that comedy has a happy ending and tragedy has a sad ending. You need both to be truly effective. Tragedy, by itself, just becomes numbing and boring after awhile. You need comedy to break it up, to instill little bubbles of hope to make the tragedy hammer land all the harder when it swings back around. And comedy without pathos is just a mindless sitcom. Tragedy never hits more effectively than when it comes out of the blue into an otherwise happy and joyful situation.

So yes, I used both elements very purposefully, and I used them both very purposefully to their extreme. Sure it’s grotesque, and sure it will make people uncomfortable at times, but sometimes you have to laugh at sorrow. There are many people who have come to SPFBO looking for noblebright epic fantasy that will absolutely be turned off by Hell Comes To Hogtown. Hell, there are probably people who like horror and thrillers that would find it too goofy. But somewhere in the Venn diagram of those two audiences lies my sweet spot.

Q] There are two main heroes and a nice final twist - I wonder whether you had the ending nailed when starting to write the book?

CD: Not at all. Without a doubt, the ending was the hardest part of the book. I have many ideas for these characters and I wanted to leave it open for a sequel, but at the same time I wanted some closure and satisfaction in case that sequel didn’t happen. Plus I found just getting something that was narratively satisfying was tough. Part of the problem might have been that I didn’t have a clear ending in mind when I started. I completely re-wrote the last few chapters a half dozen times before finally showing it to my wife (who is much smarter than me) and she immediately said: “You’re being stupid. End it like this.” And she was right.

Q] It’s difficult to classify your book - comic urban horror-fantasy with a noir-tinge sounds like a good place to start. Is there a specific sub-genre you identify with most as a writer?

CD: First and foremost I consider myself a comic writer. I’ve written fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, I even have a western I’m dabbling with, but it’s always funny. I love all of those genres but they’re also all ridiculous and full of tropes, so they’re just begging to have a bit of fun poked in their general direction. If we can’t laugh at ourselves and the things we love then what’s the point?

If you wanted something more specific than that, then I would say I sit somewhere in the middle of “comic fantasy” and veer toward “epic,” “urban,” or “horror” as the situation calls for, liberally sprinkling “thriller/mystery” from time to time.

Q] Cover art is always an important factor in book sales. Hell Comes To Hogtown has a “loud” cover. I can’t say I enjoyed it as much as the novel. Can you tell me about the idea behind it?

CD: The rest of the book is offensive, so the cover should be too, right? No, seriously, I did want something bold and funny but also dark, and it’s a very hard line to walk with little talent and even less money.

I love the photograph base by Jason Salvatori – I feel a sexy woman lying on a pile of comic books fits the tone perfectly, and I also really like lettering of the title, which I had done on Could I have put the elements together better? Probably, but since I lacked the finesse to make anything subtle and tasteful, I just went completely in the other direction. Like everything I do.

Q] Your book was edited by a professional editor. Can you talk about the experience and the scope of changes?

CD: Amy Allen-MacLeod is fabulous and I can’t recommend working with her enough. She really dug deep into the manuscript to help me make it the best it could be. Not just helping to clean up the grammar and sentence structure and so on, but also picking out plot problems and characterization issues to make sure that everything made sense. We discussed everything and went back and forth on a number of issues; most of her suggestions I agreed with immediately, a few more took some debate as I argued why it was important to keep and she told me I was being an idiot (my words, not hers, but she was still right).

She never made any recommendations of sweeping changes, but explained that if this was the way I wanted the story to go, these are the things I would have to do to get there. Sure that meant adding/removing/changing paragraphs or pages throughout, but the overall flow of the story is much better because of it. Any issues with the final manuscript is on me, not her.

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?

CD: My list of favourite authors probably won’t surprise you: Terry Pratchett, Kurt Vonnegut, Christopher Moore. I wish I was as prolific and British as Pratchett, as concise and insightful as Vonnegut, and that I had thought of the plot of Lamb before Moore.

Other “less-genre-y” inspirations include Cormac McCarthy, P.G. Wodehouse and Douglas Adams – I don’t consider Adams a genre writer, he’s more of an Evangelist.

As for current authors, I would be remiss not to mention the Grimdark Readers and Writers Group on Facebook, and the Insecure Writers’ Support Group, both of which are great resources. Specific shout-outs to Philip Overby, whose style I generally just copy and then take two steps too far, and Patricia Lynne, who my wife insists writes much better than I do.

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?

CD: First I would ask my kids “Where the fuck did you find a penguin and why did you put it in the freezer?” Then we would put a Santa Clause hat on it and pose for our family Holiday pictures, because you have to take an advantage of a free penguin when the opportunity presents itself.
Tuesday, August 7, 2018

SPFBO Semifinalist: Hell Comes To Hogtown (Reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order Hell Comes To Hogtown HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: C.D. Gallant-King wrote his first story when he was five years old. He had to make his baby-sitter look up how to spell "extra-terrestrial" in the dictionary. He now writes stories about un-heroic people doing generally hilarious things in horrifying worlds. 

C.D. has also written eight novels you haven't read, because they're still locked in The Closet. The Closet is both a figurative and literal location - it is the space in his head where the stories are kept, but it's also an actual closet under the stairs in his basement where the stories are also kept. It's very meta.

He's a loving husband and proud father of two wonderful little kids. He was born and raised in Newfoundland and currently resides in Ottawa, Ontario. There was also a ten-year period in between where he tried to make a go of a career in Theatre in Toronto, but that didn't work out so well.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Fitz is a broke night manager for a grubby comic book store. His only friend Dee is a drugged-out, womanizing pro-wrestler. Together they’re the most pathetic losers on the face of the planet. Their lives cannot possibly get any worse. And then they’re implicated in the kidnapping of the prime minister’s wife. On the run from the cops, Fitz and Dee discover there is something far worse than the RCMP stalking the dark streets of Toronto. They are being hunted by an ancient demon of unspeakable evil with an insatiable taste for blood... or maybe it’s just your run-of-the-mill giant murderous hobo? Either way, life in prison might be better than whatever the creepy drifter has in store for them...

CLASSIFICATION: Hell Comes To Hogtown is a genre - bending mix of horror, comedy, fantasy and supernatural thriller.

FORMAT/INFO: Hell Comes To Hogtown is 303 pages long divided over thirty-nine numbered chapters with a prologue and epilogue. The narration is in the third person via Fitz and Inspector Croteau.

The book is available in e-book and paperback formats. It was self-published by the author. Cover art and design are by Jason Salvadori and Max Covers. .

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: I'm a fantasy guy at heart. Sure, I go on adventures and try new things but there's nothing like a good old-fashioned epic story. Horror is a genre of its own that can intersect with fantasy but is definitely not contained fully within it. I have a feeling that horror tends to create two very distinct camps– those who love it and those who would never dream of reading (or watching) anything in the genre. I'm in the middle. I'm willing to read horror novels, but I rarely enjoy them.

Hell Comes to Hogtown surprised me in a good way. How do I even describe it? It’s a strange, genre-bending mixture of action, horror, fantasy and comedy. And it works - it entertains, surprises and, above all, gives a lot of fun.

Fitz (Fistpunch Chetrit) is a broke night manager for a grubby comic book store. His only friend in the world, Dee (King David Bonecrusher) is a womanizing drug fiend and pro-wrestler. Everybody has ups and downs in their lives, but in case of these two, there are no ups. To make matter worse, they’re implicated in the kidnapping of the prime minister’s wife and, in consequence, plunged into a world of darkness.

Soon, they discover that Toronto police is nothing compared to unspeakable evil stalking the dark streets of the city.

Hell Comes to Hogtown has plenty of strengths. The thing that gripped my attention from page one was a humorous, instantly likeable writing voice. It blends comedy and blackness in a way that hits all the right notes for me. I would go as far as to say it may appeal to Pratchett or Vonnegut fans. On the other hand, where Pratchett's perfectly British sense of humour was quite universal, Gallant's dark and pop-culture influenced voice may be slightly over the top to more sensitive readers. Be prepared to see dildo-bat used to fight forces of darkness or hear Dee's sexist ramblings. Sometimes the dialogue is vulgar but witty. All in all, if you like Family Guy's kind of fun, you'll dig it. I did.

The writing is neat and has an excellent flow that made the book difficult to put down. I particularly enjoyed the use of Canadian French slang (later on the swears become more imaginative, but also richer in fucks, so I won't quote them):
What is wrong with you? They were my suspects, too!”

“Constable Salvatore was only a few days away from retirement.”

Tabarnak, he was, like, thirty years old! Tabarnak”
The story is told through two points of view: Fitz and Croteau. Fitz is a bit dorky and slow on the uptake of what's happening around him but don't let it fool you. Despite being an utter coward and a loser, he always manages to find his way around and get out of a jam. Additionally, his slightly self-deprecating voice is hilarious. Inspector Croteau is a tough, impetuous gay Policeman swearing in most imaginative ways. I loved his short-tempered voice and his chapters were fantastic. When they meet the bad guy with ungodly powers, pacing becomes breakneck, with few pauses for comedic scenes.

In essence, I enjoy this kind of story—a race against the clock, a motley crew of characters, nicely flowing prose.

In practice, however, Hell comes to Hogtown has a few things going against it. It started perfectly and up until around 65% of the book I simply couldn't put it down. But then the book tried to be more serious and black than comedic and somehow it didn't have expected impact on me. It's not even crazy orgy in which people die in the whirlwind of ecstasy. It's mostly Ariadne (prime minister's wife) arc resolution. I hoped the story would be more daring and dark. That there won't be any doubtful internal struggles between good and wrong. As a result, the climax was a bit disappointing and slightly too cartoonish. The final twist, though, and final reveal were satisfying.

CONCLUSION: In the end, I enjoyed this novel. It has a similar vibe to Tarantino or Guy Ritchie's movies. The story is simple but twists and turns are legion and you really can't be sure what to expect. It'll entertain you in a loud and violent way. The narrative won't appeal to everyone, but for those who enjoy dark and twisted humour, it offers a delectable adventure full of fun, laughter and terror.

Also, the brain gets very mushy with nothing new to entertain it. It needs the challenge of something new and different and Hell Comes to Hogtown delivers something like that.
Friday, August 3, 2018

SPFBO: The First Cull & Semifinalist Update by Lukasz Przywoski

Last year I followed SPFBO's unexpected developments with bated breath. I’ve read close to fifty books by authors determined to win the SPFBO selfie-stick. Who wouldn’t like to get one?

This year, thanks to FBC, I’m participating in the fourth edition of the SPFBO as a judge. I’m honoured.

The first step of the contest is simple – each of us was asked to filter through a batch of books and choose a semi-finalist. While we’re not asked to read the books from cover to cover, I’ve done precisely this. I want my reviews to be fair and some of my all-time favourite books gripped me a bit later in the story than suggested minimum of 20% of the book.

Each title in my mini-batch of eight books will get a full, brutal review on my Goodreads account. Chosen titles will get full reviews also on FBC.

Other FBC judges may approach their batches differently, so bear in mind that not all books in our group will be read from cover to cover.

Here’s my batch of eight books, and my brief thoughts on them:

By Raven's Call by J.A. Devenport

Genre: Epic Fantasy

Series/Standalone: Book 1 of The Blackwing Cycle series

Overview: The Raven is an unstoppable killing machine. He's more of a weapon than a human being. Rumour has it that he killed thousands of people, including the old king. Unfortunately, the new one is even worse. To put it mildly, the tyrant king is a despicable and greedy individual who doesn't care about the kingdom or his people.

The Uprising lead by a mysterious leader works to overthrow the ruler. It seems The Raven may be involved, but it's tricky to be sure when no one knows who The Raven is and if he exists at all.

While not fully satisfying in certain regards, rough with its characterisation, there is a sound concept, and enough plot hooks to keep readers flipping the pages with growing excitement. Also, world-building deserves high praise. It feels fresh and unique.


Dancing in the Dust by Gwendolyn Pendraig

Genre: Dark Fantasy, Dystopian

Standalone/Series: Listed as a standalone, but the ending opens plenty of possibilities for the sequel.

Overview: We're done. A virus of Bubble Flu killed most of the human race. Those who survived behave more like feral animals than civilised humans. If you look closely you'll see mothers roasting their children over the fire, men raping women and abusing them in every imaginable way. Even if your imagination is twisted, you'll witness scenes of such cruelty that even Satan himself would turn his eyes in shame.

This novel is uber-dark, gruesome and puts on display the very worst humankind has to offer. I can't say that I love nihilistic fiction, but if there's a cathartic quality to it, I'm usually able to appreciate it. At least a bit. Unfortunately, it's not the case here. For me Dancing In The Dust doesn't deliver any meaningful message; instead, it assaults the reader with ultra-violent, often disgusting scenes.

If you're in the mood to shower in blood, brain matter and other body fluids, buckle your seatbelts and go for it. I'll stay at home and water the garden instead.


Dominus Silentia: Part 1 Awakening by Eric Wooden

Genre: Urban Fantasy, Dark fantasy(?)

Standalone/Series: Book 1 of the series

Overview: Dominus Silentia is compact. It moves quickly and is easy to read. The prose isn’t perfectly fluid, but it works fine for the story. There isn’t enough time for extensive worldbuilding; that’s the kind of thing left for the sequels, I guess. We get as much worldbuilding as we need to follow the adventure, remain engaged and be surprised.

This is essentially an origin story of sorts. The supernatural world is introduced in an entertaining way and Dominus Silentia's take on werewolves and vampires is less obvious than what we get in most YA books and movies. I was motivated to turn pages and discover what happens next. While not really surprising, the ending fit the story and the promise made in the title.

Ultimately, though, it didn’t do anything to pull itself up out of the pool of gazillion of UF books surrounding it.


Empowered: Agent by Dale Ivan Smith

Genre: urban fantasy, superheroes, YA

Standalone/Series: Book 1 of the Empowered series

Overview: Agent focuses on Mat Brands (aka Vine), an angry young woman who wants nothing more than to take care of her family and lead a normal life. Not an easy task for the empowered. Even more complicated for empowered on parole. Despite her best efforts, she ends up with the choice to go back to prison or infiltrate a group of super powered criminals.

Mat's superpowers aren't very impressive. She is classified as a Botanical Catalyst which is a fancy way of saying she can control plants. She can't stop hearing them in her mind. She hears them sleep. She hears them suffer and feel when they need water. As someone who loves nature and walking barefoot, I think it's a fantastic power that can enhance the sense of unity with the world around us. On the other hand, speaking with plants and growing them, no matter how fast, isn't going to impress people wowed by real, kick-ass superpowers.

But it should. Mat has few aces up her sleeve.

I liked this book. It's not perfect. It has some flaws, weak characterisation of the secondary characters being the main one. On the other hand, the story was engaging and entertained me. I felt motivated to turn the pages, even when what I saw in my mind's eye was silly. The pacing is excellent, and some action scenes impressed me with vivid imagery. Despite numerous eye-rolling moments, I plan to continue with the series.


Hell Comes To Hogtown by C.D. Gallant-King

Genre: horror, comedy, urban fantasy, supernatural thriller

Standalone/series: standalone

Overview: I'm a fantasy guy at heart. Sure, I go on adventures and try new things but there's nothing like a good old-fashioned epic story.

Horror is a genre of its own that can intersect with fantasy but is definitely not contained fully within it. I have a feeling that horror tends to create two very distinct camps– those who love it and those who would never dream of reading (or watching) anything in the genre. I'm in the middle. I'm willing to read horror novels, but I rarely enjoy them.

Hell Comes To Hogtown surprised me in a good way. How do I even describe it? It’s a strange, genre-bending mixture of action, horror, fantasy and comedy. And it works - it entertains, surprises and, above all, provides a lot of fun.

It’s not lighthearted, but a strong dose of absurd and wicked sense of humour balances off some of the tragic events.

It has a similar vibe to Tarantino or Guy Ritchie's movies. The story is simple but twists and turns are Legion and you really can't be sure what to expect. It'll entertain you in a loud,violent and inappropriate way.


Inharmonic by A. K. R. Scott

Genre: YA, sword & sorcery

Series/Standalone: Book 1 of The Music Maker series

Overview: Inharmonic is a warm, well written YA book - first in The Music Maker series of fantasy novels. It uses tropes but twists them lightly to offer something new(ish). Instead of magic / military school, we have nicely sketched music conservatory brought to life by varied groups of students and teachers. Magic is real. It just needs someone special with a right pool of genes to channel it through music (for example singing a lullaby that'll make you sleep for days).

I enjoyed this book and felt motivated to finish it. Sure, I was a little frustrated with contrivances in the romantic relationships in an attempt to create tension – these behaviours and problems were and felt forced.

Despite some reservations, I would recommend Inharmonic to teen readers who like fantasy. Old ideas are tuned in a smart way that should keep your attention and allow you to read it along with your kids.


Nia Rae: A Book about Boobs and Space and Stuff by Debbie Taylor
Genre: Sci-fi, romance
Standalone/Series: possibly Book 1 of a series

Overview: One of New Year's resolutions I was able to keep was to read more Sci-Fi. It turns out Space Operas rock. Nia Rae: A book about boobs and space and stuff is described as Part one of an epic polyamorous bisexual science fiction romance that will change the course of history.

I won't lie, the title got me hooked but also worried if there's more to it than boobs. There are some fun and creative ideas here, but the novel lacks a clear structure and the spelling/grammar errors riddled throughout and coupled with weak characterization bring down the plot.

In the end, I think this book needs further edits - both developmental and proofreading to gain clear structure, sense of direction and strong, consistent narrative voice.


Silverglen by E.A. Burnett
Genre: Epic fantasy, YA
Standalone/Series: standalone, epic fantasy

Overview: Silverglen is E. A. Burnett’s debut novel. It's a teen epic fantasy about a young woman who must leave home when her shapeshifting abilities are discovered.

Her father - Lord Arundel is known for his hatred for shape-shifters. As a powerful wizard able to devise intricate spells, he's not the one to play with. Especially that torture is one of his preferred pastimes. Lord Arundel's minion - Fletch is even worse, a cunning, gross man driven by low instincts and petty wickedness.

It's good standalone YA book with a fitting bittersweet ending. I appreciate E.A. Burnett's rich imagination and nicely developed world. I would recommend the book for younger readers looking for an original* epic fantasy book.

* As I don't read that much YA / teen fantasy I may be wrong here. On the other hand, I read a lot (100-150 books per year), and I think Burnett's take on shapeshifters is exciting and definitely not recycled.

Choosing a semi-finalist:

Last year I might have called some of SPFBO judges names for the absurd and outrageous decisions they've made. Now I see how damn difficult it is to choose a semi-finalist. I don't even want to think about choosing a finalist. Hopefully, Mihir will just say "We take this one" and the burden will be gone ;)

On a more serious note, though, after finishing eight books I knew which one I liked most. But it's not that simple. We're supposed to choose the best book in the batch and try to remain impartial. Easier said than done.

While I try to be a fair and honest reviewer, as every reader I have my preferences and pet peeves. Some stories that appeal to me, bore others, depress some, enrage others. All are perfectly valid, reasonable responses.

Bear that in mind when you see your favourite book fall in a second. So, in order to choose my semi-finalist I wrote full reviews of every book in the batch and compared their strengths and weaknesses in a top secret excel sheet shared by FBC judges. After the first analysis, five books remained on the arena:

All of these stories were entertaining and perfectly readable, but there were two novels that rose to the top of my list. Here they are, in a brutal fight for survival:
Hell Comes to Hogtown made me laugh and entertained me with a unique and fresh mix of fantasy, horror, action, brisk pacing and absurd, dark and twisted humour. I couldn't put it down. While I hoped it would be more daring and uncompromising in the end, I found the ending satisfying. On the other hand, it's a comedy horror novel. Does it really represent best the spirit of the contest?

By Raven's Call is a strong, plot-driven story that impressed me with its clever, complex plot and immersive world-building (airships, drugs augmenting strength and reducing fear, alchemy, bonding with spirits; there's a lot of goodies in here). Also, it's quite possible that despite some issues with characterization, By Raven's Call will appeal to larger fantasy audience.

So, love or reason?

Damn. It was difficult.

In the end I've made the decision.

So, without further ado, I can now reveal the first FBC semi-finalist to be...

Drum roll, please

. . . . . . . .


Congratulations, C.D. I liked your book most of my batch and I hope more readers will give it a try.

But wait. That's not the end of the story. While I enjoyed HCTH very much , I thought it would be a mortal sin to cut By Raven's Call at this stage. And I don't want to burn in Hell, ok?

I discussed things with Mihir and we agreed that keeping J.A. Devenport’s debut work in the game is the only reasonable choice.

So congratulations J.A. - By Raven's Call is now, officially, a second FBC semi-finalist.

Well done, guys. I hope that fantasy readers and SPFBO enthusiasts will give your books a try and share their thoughts in meaningful places.

In the meantime I'll approach you both asking for a possibility to have a mini interview with us.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

City Of Kings by Rob J. Hayes (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Pre-order City Of  Kings over HERE (USA) and HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Where Loyalties Lie
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Fifth Empire Of Man
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Heresy Within
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Colour Of Vengeance
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Price Of Faith
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of It Takes A Thief To Catch A Sunrise
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of It Takes A Thief To Start A Fire
Read Fantasy Book Critic interview with Rob J. Hayes
Read Fantasy Book Critic trilogy completion interview with Rob J. Hayes
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Best Laid Plans Series Interview with Rob J. Hayes
Read Fantasy Book Critic's SPFBO Aftermath Q&A with Rob J. Hayes
Read A Game of ̶T̶h̶r̶o̶n̶e̶s̶ Death by Rob J. Hayes (guest post)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Rob J. Hayes was born and brought up in Basingstoke, UK. As a child he was fascinated with Lego, Star Wars and Transformers that fueled his imagination and he spent quite a bit of his growing up years playing around with such. He began writing at the age of fourteen however soon discovered the fallacies of his work. After four years at University studying Zoology and three years working for a string of high street banks as a desk jockey/keyboard monkey. Rob lived on a desert island in Fiji for three months. It was there he re-discovered his love of writing and, more specifically, of writing fantasy.

OFFICIAL BLURB: War makes monsters and corpses of us all.

For generations the blooded have ruled the Wilds, cultivating a lawless frontier and bleeding the good folk dry. The Black Thorn, once the most wanted outlaw the world has ever seen, is set on stopping them, and bringing an end to the great game that oppresses them all.

Crucible is the only blooded fortress left, but not for nothing is it called the City of Kings. Its defenses are unbreakable, its walls unassailable, all built so one hundred can hold back a thousand. Worse yet, the Black Thorn is running out of time and there are darker things hiding underground, looking to turn the city into a tomb.

FORMAT/INFO: City Of Kings is 355  pages long divided into six titled sections and further spread out over fifty-one character titled chapters and an prologue. The narration is in third person omniscient via Betrim “The Black Thorn” Thorne, Henry, Anders Brekovich, Pern Suzku & Rose. This book is a standalone title in the First Earth saga.

August 6 2018 will mark the US and UK e-book publication of City Of Kings and will be self-published by the author. Cover art & design is provided by Shawn King.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: City Of Kings is Rob J. Hayes' next spectacular fantasy title after his SPFBO win early this year. This book is a standalone title focusing on the Black Thorn, his queen Rose and their gang as they try to conquer a city. This book while being a standalone entry is part of the author's grand plan for his world called the First Earth Saga. Simply put The Ties That Bind trilogy was the first foray. The Best Laid Plans duology was the next wave which illuminated another aspect of the world (the high seas and the pirates). City Of Kings is the next chapter in this dark world and while it is a standalone, the overall story line and characters would be better appreciated if one reads The Colour Of Vengeance (book II of the Ties That Bind trilogy) or the entire Ties That Bind trilogy beforehand. Also in terms of chronology this book is set alongside the Best Laid Plans duology. The epilogue of Where loyalties Lie & the first couple of chapters of The Fifth Empire Of Man (Elaina Black’s POV) serve as a prequel to this story and its ending is set just before the main climatic events of The Fifth Empire Of Man.

The story begins with a prologue wherein both the would-be conquerors and the Blooded clans attempt an unsuccessful parley. The peace attempts foiled, lead to the preparation of the siege of the city-fort called Crucible by Black Thorn and his army. Crucible is the home of the Brekovich clan and their head Niles Brekovich (think a Tywin Lannister like figure). However the Wilds have been now claimed under the leadership of The Black Thorn. What most folks don't know, is that the real brains & steel behind his rule is his wife Rose. Betrim "Black Thorn" Thorne is extremely happy with this arrangement as it leaves all the mental heavy-lifting, scheming and planning to Rose while he gets to fight which is more his sort of stuff. We meet again with the rest of his crew and since this is also set after the events of “Pre-emptive Revenge” [the short story featured in the GrimDark Magazine# 9], there have been some big personnel changes.

Henry is always present as Betrim's right dagger, still sharp and murderous as ever with even more scars. But her partnership with Pern has given a stable edge to her sharpness and she's even more deadly for it. Pern Suzku has been declared a Honin (after the events seen in The Colour Of Vengeance) and he can't seem to escape his fate from his Haarin clan. They will do everything to make sure Pern finishes what he couldn’t do before. There's also Anders who serves more than one master but is finally about to get to one up on his dad (the aforementioned Niles Brekovich) and the rest of his family. There are a few other new faces who have come aboard Rose's campaign to unite the wilds and this will be the final push to unite the wilds.

The story is set over a period of a week and it's a bloody one at that. Infact I would say that this book has outdone all of Rob's preceding titles in terms of action, blood, plot twists, and resolution. City Of Kings is the last book for a while in the First Earth saga and this standalone title has a solid finality to its ending. Talking about why I enjoyed this book, starting with the characters: Betrim, Rose, Anders, Henry, Pern are all fascinating personalities and even after two-three books featuring the aforementioned characters. Rob  J. Hayes manages to keep them multi-faceted and it's still refreshing to read about them. There are newer personality dimensions to be discovered and older problems surface. This is brought refreshingly to the fore as we get to see characters arcs play out (beginning from The Colour Of Vengeance) and there’s a finality to all of their  personal arcs.

There's also the plot pace and twists which keep this story from appearing as a staid one or even a stereotypical siege storyline. What I mean is that most readers expect certain tropes in a siege story and the author conveniently sidesteps them. Things get very, very intriguing and even bloodier than I ever expected (this after the savage climaxes of both The Ties That Bind trilogy and The Best Laid Plans duology). But to even hint at them lie spoilers so I will be silent... Safe to say while this is a siege storyline, events that occur are far, far more complex. Beginning with the underlying question that has been lurking throughout the previous five books, why are the dead returning as zombies all over the place?

Rob's world is a dark one and it's safe to say that it isn't a fair one. However because of his incredible writing, it's a world that I want to read more and more about. The mysteries which are present get revealed in small increments and there are bigger questions arising. Each of the previous books have revealed at the mystical background about the world and the players into the mix. We get another solid indication of one side in this book. It becomes apparent how big of a game the author is playing with his readers as the First Earth saga unfolds. The next series will be a trilogy set within the kingdom of Acanthia and is most likely set a few years after the events of The Fifth Empire Of Man and City Of Kings.

What didn’t quite work for me, possibly next to nothing! I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it brings to close a lot of events that have been in motion from the author’s debut. To a certain degree, I think while this is a standalone story that can be enjoyed by readers completely unfamiliar to Rob’s work. I honestly feel readers will enjoy it the most if they read it after the Ties That Bind trilogy. So this IMHO isn’t a through & through standalone and that’s my only negative about this incredible read.

CONCLUSION: City Of Kings is a brutal story for its characters, the readers and for all the people mentioned within. It spares no punches (emotional, or literal) and truly showcases what happens before a regime change. How brutal it can be and how much of an iron will is needed to bring this about. In this regard there's one character who truly shocks and this is in spite of knowing their past deeds. Credit to the author for pushing the envelope even when he knew that the readers might not agree with his characters actions. City Of Kings truly cements Rob J. Hayes as a writer that combines epic and grimdark fantasy in the best possible way.

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