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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Sweet Harmony by Claire North review

Official author website
Order Sweet Harmony over here: USA/UK

About the author: Claire North is a pseudonym for Catherine Webb, a Carnegie Medal-nominated author whose first book was written when she was just fourteen years old. She went on to write several other novels in various genres, before publishing her first major work as Claire North, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, in 2014. 

Format: Sweet Harmony is published by Orbit Books on September 22nd, in North America, and in the UK. Page count: 134 p.

Review: I’ve been doing a lot of reading over the past few months. Short stories, long stories, pacey thrillers, you name it. Most of my reading choices go by whim, but, luckily, only a few disappointed me. I hope to read more exciting titles this year but I doubt more than one or two will top Sweet Harmony. It's perfect. And terrifying. 

Harmony doesn't have hobbies or deep thoughts, but she has ambitions. 
She is excited for the future; she has dreams, ambitions; she has chosen the house she’s going to buy when she’s got the money; she has chosen, if not the man she’ll marry, then certainly the car he’ll drive, and the white cashmere jumper he’ll wear on casual Sundays at garden parties.
In her timeline, not far in the future, everyone can pursue and attain perfection by upgrading their Nanos - apps controlling nanobots influencing and improving physiological and nervous functions. Possibilities are countless, as long as you can afford them. No More Dentists will keep your teeth white and your breath minty-fresh. Elevation, the ultimate pack for the sexual woman, will enhance your libido and bring your hormones into perfect balance. Powerful Poise develops a muscular definition combined with feminine sensuality, no training required. For £39.99 a month you'll get a perfect stubble and a further £82.99 will secure you the latest pheromone enhancement technology. 

Successful people and aspiring professionals keep their Nanos up to date and always look for new improvements. Before they realize it, they start to spend staggering sums on continuous self-improvement. Healthcare providers feel morally and contractually obliged to ensure their clients' immunization packages remain functional even in times of financial strain. At the same time, they feel comfortable with disabling non-essential services (like smell or color-vision) until payment is received. 

Sweet Harmony is a great study of perspective, ambition, privilege, and addiction – short chapters set in converging timelines present Harmony's path to a dire situation. There is a super great social commentary here as well as a deep and terrifying character study.  It offers a scathing look at how well-meaning people can ruin themselves and their close ones. 

Only a few models and actresses could pull off the naturalist’s look these days, and even then most fashion magazines tended to agree that while it was all very impressive and that, it wasn’t the choice of the true superstar. The trend-setting idols were the ones who were getting custom nanos programmed directly by the health product designers; from the rock stars with the shimmer of scaled snakeskin translucence on their skin, through to the eagle-eyed, black-tongued bad boys of the studios, programmed to shock, surprise or just to have the perfect build for their next explosive blockbuster.
North's sobering take on the culture of debt and want-driven society terrifies because it's plausible and true. Tech companies base their marketing strategies on deep understanding of consumers' fears and desires. Ultimately, though, people can only blame themselves for falling for it and for decisions they make. Harmony's emotional and financial struggles are heart-wrenching, but were they really undeserved? 

Times being what they are, I should probably pick more optimistic titles. But I have no regrets. Claire North has mastered the novella format. In Sweet Harmony, every word counts, every scene serves a goal, and Harmony's decisions have a cost. North's take on nano-upgrades, a sense of identity, and addiction is terrifying, plausible, and intelligent. An outstanding novella.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Nemesis by S. J. Kincaid (reviewed by Caitlin Grieve)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read Caitlin's review of The Diabolic
Read Caitlin's review of The Empress

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFO: S.J. Kincaid originally wanted to be an astronaut, but a dearth of mathematical skills turned her interest to science fiction instead. Her debut novel, Insignia, was shortlisted for the Waterstones prize. Its sequels, Vortex and Catalyst, have received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Booklist. She’s chronically restless and has lived in California, Alabama, New Hampshire, Oregon, Chicago, and Scotland with no signs of staying in one place anytime soon.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Three years ago, Tyrus Domitrian shocked the galaxy by killing the woman he swore to love forever. The woman for whom he upended the Empire. The woman with whom he wanted to build a new and brighter future.

Now, the once-idealistic heir apparent has become the cruel Emperor Tyrus, wielding his authority with an iron fist, capable of destroying planets with a single word, controlling all technology with a simple thought. He has bent the Grandiloquy to their knees, and none has the power to stand against him.

But there is a muttering among the Excess. They say that Nemesis is not truly gone. They whisper of her shadow spotted in distant star systems. They say that Nemesis lives. That she will rise, and rally the people to topple the man who was once her truest love—and is now her fiercest enemy.

FORMAT/INFO: The Nemesis was published August 25th, 2020 by Simon & Schuster. It is 416 pages spread over 48 chapters. It is written in first person from Nemesis's perspective. It is available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Nemesis Lives. That’s the whispered rumor across the galaxy that the Emperor didn’t succeed in killing his wife. It’s the last shred of hope the Excess of the Empire have, that the one woman who came the closest to dethroning the Emperor survived her failed attempt. Nemesis does live, but she’s staying far away from talks of rebellion. Her hopes of reforming the Empire ended in tragedy, with her husband Tyrus captured and drugged by their enemies until he became the mad and cruel Emperor the galaxy fears today. But when Tyrus threatens to unleash malignant space on planets that don’t support him, Nemesis realizes she can’t let the man she once loved destroy a galaxy, even if that means killing him.

The Nemesis starts off a bit shaky, as it begins by flashing backward and forward to cover the months since we last saw Nemesis. These back and forth jumps made the opening a bit disjointed, but eventually the narrative smooths out and it becomes a sprint for the finish line. There’s a particularly good space ship stand off between Partisan forces and the Emperor’s, as they both try to manipulate a particular space anomaly for their own advantage. It’s less a frantic battle and more a series of chess moves to force the other side to capitulate. Nemesis is, as always, a force to be reckoned with on her own, and once more does not hesitate to get her hands dirty to accomplish her own goals.

Nemesis goes through some heart-breaking emotions in this final outing. She knows the man she loves is “dead,” that the drugs he was subjected to have twisted his mind. It still takes a tremendous amount of emotional fortitude to contemplate killing her husband, let alone actually going through with it. But this is also a Nemesis who is just DONE. She has always been a character of extreme emotion, especially given her genetically engineered protectiveness, but her frustrations at the people she’s lost and the different groups that have tried to manipulate her over the years (including her own allies) leave her with very little trust.

One drawback of this last book is that there were a few too many betrayals and twists, to the point where the unexpected became a bit expected. The author has made some great plot swerves in the past that have completely upended the status quo. With the end of the series in sight, however, I was ready for a more straightforward final ending.

CONCLUSION: The Diabolic series has been a great YA sci-fi adventure. It doesn’t pull punches and features an unapologetically brutal heroine who will always do what it takes to protect the ones she loves. Those who like court maneuverings with the occasional literal backstabbing would do well to check this series out!
Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Cover Reveal: Shadow Debt by William Ray

Official Author Website

Today we are super excited to be a part of the Shadow Debt Cover reveal courtesy of Storytellers on Tour & William Ray.

This is book III in the Tales Of The Verin Empire series and each book of this series can be read as a standalone.

The cover art & design is provided by Ramona Marc and you can checkout the blurb alongside the stunning cover below:

Official Book Blurb: Glynn Sorley is sheriff of Keat’s Field, a tiny settlement in an otherwise lawless frontier. With the discovery of diamonds, her town is flooded with fortune-hunters looking to strike it rich. It’s also a target for competing colonial powers, savage goblin tribes, and outlaws.

A rustler on the run from the law stumbles across his father’s mysterious legacy – a weapon of immense magical power. He uses it to ravage across the territory as the notorious outlaw Gentleman Jim.

But the weapon’s power comes at a terrible cost, and Keat’s Field may just have to pay the price…

This third Tale of the Verin Empire returns us to the world of Gedlund and The Great Restoration. It explores a frontier trapped between competing nations, where goblins reign and a lone sheriff fights to keep the peace.

Drawing inspiration from L’Amour’s Comstock Lode, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and our own late 19th century, Shadow Debt continues William Ray’s bold, critically acclaimed reinvention of classic fantasy in a world of memorable characters and unique perspectives.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Our Favorite Self-Published Novels

September 1 kicks off Self-Published Fantasy Month, an initiative we love. 

The Indie fantasy scene is dynamic and rich. Each year, the quality of self-published books improves and we were lucky to find true gems. 

Hopefully, our biased list will help readers to pick excellent new reads that could go otherwise unnoticed. 

Each of us shares his favorite self-published books in alphabetical order.

Adam Weller

Cradle by Will Wight

Iconoclasts by Mike Shel

Manifest Delusions by Michael R. Fletcher

Spellgiver by Steve Rodgers

The Coraidic Sagas by Alicia Wanstall-Burke

The Dark Profit Saga- J. Zachary Pike 

The Raincatcher's Ballad by Steven McKinnon

The Raveling by Alec Hutson

The War Eternal by Rob J. Hayes


In the Vanishers’ Palace  by Aliette de Bodard - a f/f Vietnamese retelling of Beauty & the Beast where the Beast is a dragon. It’s strange, eerie, and beautiful and I need to read more of this author. 

Never Die by Rob J. Hayes - the book that showed me just how talented self-published authors could be. This adventure manages to capture the feel of a wuxia film and is full of a great cast of characters.

Snowspelled by Stephanie Burges - a quick fantasy of manners where a simple party in the countryside becomes a race to uncover a magical plot. Just the right blend of magic and period romance for a cozy weekend read.

The Ventifact Colossus by Dorian Hart - a group of strangers assembled by a wizard must work together to fight a rising threat to the kingdom. This book captures the feel of a D&D adventuring party in the best possible way. If you need an old-school romp as far away from grimdark as possible, jump in here.

Uncanny Collateral by Brian McClellan - I love a good urban fantasy, and Uncanny Collateral gets a lot done in a short amount of pages. A collections agent who deals in supernatural affairs gets hired by Death to find out who is stealing souls that belong in the afterlife. 


Ash and Sand series by Richard Nell - a masterpiece of modern fantasy. And Ruka is, IMO, one of the most memorable characters ever written. If you haven't read it yet, you should ask yourself what the hell is wrong with you.

Black Stone Heart by Michael R. Fletcher - it's addictive and compulsively readable, dark but also darkly humorous. I'm a fan. 

Daniel Faust series by Craig Schaefer - I've read Schaeffer's full bibliography. Basically, all of his books deserve a place here. That said, Daniel Faust series started it all. Plus, it's great.

Fortune’s Fool by Angela Boord - Well-written, smart, complex, it finds a good balance between the plotline, world-building, and character development. It demands a level of trust from a busy reader hesitant to start such a big book, but I feel it rewards the time-investment.

Heartstrikers series by Rachel Aaron - uplifting, addictive, and exciting. Amazing series. And Bob Heartstriker is amongst my favorite fantasy characters ever.

Sol’s Harvest by MD Presley - an excellent flintlock fantasy with memorable characters, exciting world-building, and clever twists. I can't recommend it highly enough.

The Half Killed by Quenby Olson - otherworldly, atmospheric, and memorable. One of the rare books I'm eager to re-read.

The Origin of Birds in the Footprints of Writing by Raymond St. Elmo - Raymond St. Elmo not only has a remarkable imagination but also the skills to translate that onto the page. His books tend to play with the narrative and blur the lines between reality and feverish dreams. They tell the story, celebrate the meaning of stories, and pay homage to literary heroes (JL Borges, Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka, Philip K. Dick, EA Poe) while making readers laugh. I enjoyed most of his books and was tempted to list his The Quest of The Five Clans series here, but I think The Origin of Birds in the Footprints of Writing is a better starting point (as it stands alone).

The Sword of Kaigen by ML Wang - a flawed masterpiece. Despite the slow beginning and plenty of exposition, it delivers a powerful emotional experience. Unforgettable stuff.

Yarnsworld by Benedict Patrick - a fantastic series based on folklore. 


Top 10 Indie series/saga 

Ash and Sand series by Richard Nell

First Earth Saga by Rob J. Hayes

Heartstrikers series by Rachel Aaron

The Dark Profit Saga- J. Zachary Pike 

The First Story saga by Craig Schaefer

The Paternus trilogy by Dyrk Ashton

Sol’s Harvest saga by M. D. Presley

The Heretic Gods series by Carol A. Park

Yarnsworld series by Benedict Patrick

Top 5 indie standalone titles:

Of Honey And Wildfires by Sarah Chorn 

Never Die by Rob J. Hayes

Timberwolf by Dominic Adler

Queens Of The Wyrd by Timandra Whitecastle

Top 10 Indie/SP books/series that were picked up by traditional publishing:

  • Blood Song by Anthony Ryan
  • The Shadow Of What Was Lost by James Islington
  • The Rage Of Dragons by Evan Winter
  • The Books Of Babel by Josiah Bancroft
  • The Shadowdance series by David Dalglish
  • The Reborn Empire series by Devin Madson
  • The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French
  • The Ex-Heroes series by Peter Clines
  • The Chronicles Of The Bitch Queen by K. S. Villoso
  • The Riyria Revelations by Michael J. Sullivan
Special hat-tip to Courtney Schafer & Kari (K. A.) Stewart who went indie to publish their final books (and not leave her fans hanging) after they were abandoned by their publishers.

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