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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

COVER REVEAL: Thorn Of The Night Blossoms by J. C. Kang

Official Author Website

Back in September, Fantasy Book Critic was generous enough for me to post not one, but two articles revealing the cover of my then-new release, Masters of Deception.

And, with the cover, I might have been a little deceptive.

No matter how amazing Amalia Chitalescu’s cover was, I wanted to hedge my bets. I had just learned about another artist, Binh Hai, and commissioned him to do another cover.

Like the Dragon Songs Saga, I had planned to run a split test in Facebook Ads to see which one would get the most clicks. Binh had way too many projects on his plate, and while he came up with an amazing sketch, the progress was too slow.

This features the half-elf Jie and the Indian paladin Sameer.

The deadline came and went. I stuck with Amalia’s cover, and haven’t looked back. However, I still had an outstanding project with Binh, and I decided to have him swap the male character to Tian, a popular male in the Dragon Songs Saga.

I hate to say it, but Binh was very slow. I didn’t get the final project until half a year after the original due date.

I had always planned to eventually do a collection of prequel short stories about these two characters, and decided this would eventually be the cover.

Then in January, I started writing what was meant to be a 5,000-word short story about Jie, ten years before the start of The Dragon Songs Saga, when she is training in an upscale red-light district. The story ballooned to 27,000 words, and became Thorn of the Night Blossoms. I asked Binh to switch the male character out for the other main character, Lilian, and switch to a nighttime background. However, I never expected him to finish on time, so I commissioned Sutthiwat Dechakamphu, who’d done work for my author buddies, Bryce O’Connor, ML Spencer, and Eric T. Knight.

This was his concept:

And the final:

But, Binh came through.

… and now I had a chance to do a Facebook ad split test. I played around with zooming in with the characters, bringing them closer, tinkering with the background.

And THIS won out:

Pre-order Thorn Of The Night Blossoms over HERE

Official Book Blurb: In the legendary Floating World, wars are waged with wit, the strongest soldier can be bound with threads of silk, and flesh is the currency by which life, death, and freedom can all be purchased.

Half-elf Jie doesn’t mind her temporary assignment as a Night Blossom in the most sought-after house. It’s perfect cover for her real work as an assassin in the emperor’s service, and keeps her close to one who matters most. Her life belongs to her clan, but her heart lies with clan junior, Lilian.

Lilian’s talents trade stealth for sensuality, poison for poetry. With looks as sharp as any blade, she can coax information from any man, and still leave him paying for the pleasure. She’s enthralled many a noble, none more important than the warlord who can calm a brewing insurrection. Only her sweet whispers can secure his obedience to the throne.

But now, his increasing abuse has Jie seeking a new assignment for Lilian—even if it means their separation. When killers target clan sisters, and the seeds of rebellion find fertile soil in the Floating World, Jie must choose between loyalty and love.

Monday, March 25, 2019

GUEST POST: Noir Under The Ocean by G. R. Matthews

First of all, thanks for letting me waffle on about Corin Hayes, his world, and the upcoming Omnibus. Second of all (if there is such a thing), it is hopefully worth announcing that the aforementioned Omnibus now comes with the first ever Corin Hayes short story - The Passenger. The idea of a short story was suggested by one of my fans/followers - and as an added bonus to them, they have a part in the story itself. Immortalised for ever in e-ink!

Anyway, let’s start with Hayes:
- Who is he?
- What does he do?
- And why should you care?

Born one Saturday morning in what I would like to claim was the hangover from hell (because that makes me sound like a wild party animal when in reality I’m not), but was really a slight headache, memories of younger, wilder, alcohol fuelled nights and their aftermath (I think I might have had two of those) came flooding back and Hayes sprung (staggered, clutching his head, onto the page). Strangely, he did so in a noir-ish way (we’ll come back to that).

Corin has a history. We don’t meet him at birth, he isn’t the chosen one with a great destiny to fulfil, and possesses no magical powers or great skill at arms. He’s a man with a lifetime of faults, guilt, and sins which dog his every step. A broken hero, a broken man who strives to do the right thing and often fails.

He isn’t a cold, calculating, dangerous man, nor does he have fits of berserk rage to overcome his physical failings. Hayes was a soldier, trained in specific skill set - infiltration by Fish-suit (an advanced and stealthy diving suit) and destruction. A little self-defence training, but nothing else, though, to be fair, they did teach him to eat with a knife and fork, so it wasn’t a total waste of time. A man of few skills, no friends, with only a stubborn streak and finely honed sense of sarcasm to protect him from the dangers of the deep.

I’ve never written from the perspective of the most powerful characters in any of my books. If there is no threat, no struggle to overcome, why read and invest in a character who can do anything and beat anyone. To me, for me, the little people, the cogs within the gears, those who keep the systems running are more fun to read about. A measure of any hero are the scars they carry - those which are visible and those which are hidden. Hayes is a man made of scars.

And his world? What is that like? Where did it come from?

I’ve read SciFi since I was a tiny lad. There is something about the imagination of a future amongst the stars which appeals to me. It might be the infinite vastness of space, or the ability to invent a society which is better than our own, or the chance to lose yourself, to become anonymous amongst the billions of suns and planets (in effect, to reinvent yourself). Heroes in space get to travel these worlds, explore cultures, struggle with moral dilemma, and are often dragged into wars which save, or doom, the universe.

I love that however I didn’t want to write about that.

I wanted something claustrophobic, something contained, which limited the scope of the world (for the characters) and in that limitation posed dangers for them. Also, a limit to the physical world does not mean a limit to the imagination - quite the opposite.

So, probably influenced by the original Bio-Shock, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Man from Atlantis, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Seaquest DSV and many other things that swirled around my mind for more years than I want to recall, I set Corin’s stories underwater. It is as dark as space yet, in space, you can see for light years. Underwater sometimes you can’t even see your hands in front of your face. As far as I know, our maps of the galaxy are more accurate than those of the bottom of our oceans.

Once you start thinking about a new setting there are a few (thousand) things to consider:
- How do they breathe and where does the oxygen come from?
- How do they communicate?
- How do they travel?
- Who pays for the buildings, the construction of new cities?
- What about the poor, how do they live?

And so much more - every time I wrote something new I was forced to think and consider the impact of it all.

Also, think on this. Despite our often western-centric views on the world, other cultures would have moved below the waters. What was their world view? What do they think of life now and what dreams do they have of future (hint: Book 3 - Three Times the Trouble)?

Our current technology, rapid as its development is and as fast as it is changing, might not be suitable for this new submerged world. A lot we might recognise, but some will be different, it has to be. Can we adapt what we have now to suit the new world, and how will it develop over the centuries?

This whole section has been about questions and granted few answers. After all, books are about the experience of a new world, a new character. Secrets can’t be just given away. However, a renowned scientist has read the first book and declared technology and solutions ‘fairly solid’ - Thanks, Mr Lawrence.

Lastly, why noir-ish?

It wasn’t intentional, but it was subconscious. I love those old movies and it (in my memory) is always raining. Water falling from the sky, dripping down the walls, soaking into clothes, running off hats and puddling on the floor. This theme of noir and water goes together well - they are (to me) synonymous - Blade Runner is all about that noir/water, and thinking about it now, that probably had a lot do with it. Corin himself is a little like Decker - he’s not the strongest, the brightest, the most insightful, or the best of men. And that’s probably more noir than everything else.

I hope I’ve given a little insight, and more than that (being honest) I hoped I’ve piqued your interest a little. Enough that you’ll go and pick up the Omnibus. Get involved in Corin’s life, his struggles and his mistakes. Plus, you’ll get a short story to read and, even better, you can finish the Omnibus in time for Book 4 - Back In Blue to be released at the end of the April.

Preorder Corin Hayes Omnibus over here

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: At the bottom of the ocean, a former special forces pilot of the most advanced diving suit ever developed possesses skills that are still much in demand. However, at bottom of a beer glass there is only a blessed oblivion to drive the memories away. The face of a murdered daughter, the corpses of friends, and the last glimpse of a happy life as the light slowly dims. Corin Hayes has nothing left, nothing to live for, and no one to share his misery. Nothing, that is, except a stubborn streak wider than the ocean and sarcasm sharper than a scalpel.

But all good things must come to an end and in the sacred solitude of his favourite drinking hole a beautiful woman presents him with an offer he'd be a fool to turn down.

Perhaps a job, the chance to earn real money, the opportunity to be useful once more might redeem his life and self-respect. However, in the world beneath the waves there is no such thing as an easy life and Hayes is about to discover that some jobs can be real killers.

This omnibus edition collects books 1 to 3 of the Corin Hayes series in one volume.

Silent City, Book 1

Corin is forced to watch his friends die. Revenge drives him on, but it may not be enough.

Nothing Is Ever Simple, Book 2

A simple job, easy money, but nothing is ever that simple. Can Hayes clear his name and bring down those who want to see him dead?

Three Times the Trouble, Book 3

With danger coming from every direction, can he save the lives of two children as well as his own?


Official Author Website

Official Author Information:

 After studying for a Diploma in Creative Writing, G R Matthews taught the subject at A Level and holds a BSc (Hons) in Geography. Currently working in education with a focus on Child Protection and Safeguarding, he finds time to write in the evenings between battles to get his children to go to bed and the desire to binge watch Eureka on Netflix. He has also studied (been hit a lot) Judo, Kung fu, Wing Chun and Kickboxing - and is not particularly skilled in any of them (hence the being hit a lot).

A D&D enthusiast, G R Matthews prefers the rogue (stabby stabby… who me?) as it suits his imagination and allows him to hide from all the things that go (accidently) wrong during a dungeon crawl… (and no one can prove I set fire to that town… it was only a little fire, honest!). As a self-taught guitarist the best that can be said is that at least he doesn’t sing along to the songs (all the time) and the few thousand, over the years, who’ve heard him play (and sing) are mostly fine (some, to be fair, are still in recovery, but we wish them well).

You can follow him on twitter @G_R_Matthews or visit his website.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Interview with Jonathan French (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order The Grey Bastards over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Grey Bastards

Today we have the distinct pleasure of Jonathan French visiting Fantasy Book Critic. March 19th marks the paperback release of Jonathan's SPFBO winning title and breakout hit The Grey Bastards. Jonathan was very kind to answer in detail about the creation of the Lot Lands series, his worldbuilding ideas and what lies in the future for the Bastards.

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic Jonathan. Thank you for joining us, could you talk about your journey to becoming a published author as well as your SPFBO win.

JF: Thanks for having me. And sure! I began writing with a mind to being published in 2008, finishing my first book, The Exiled Heir, in 2009. But, as with most first manuscripts, I didn’t get very far with agents and publishers. I had been looking into self-publishing as an option and, after serious encouragement from a good friend as well as massive support from my family, I pulled the trigger in 2012. The Exiled Heir did better than what you might expect, bolstered by my appearances at book fairs and pop-culture conventions. Basically, I commissioned some great artwork to decorate my selling table and went to any venue that would have me, participating on panels and selling the book, writing the sequel along the way. I released The Errantry Of Bantam Flyn in 2014 and continued to do appearances, but that was a beast of a novel (210k words) and I felt I needed a break from the world. Plus, while the two Autumn’s Fall Saga books had their devoted fans and were well-reviewed, sales weren’t stellar. I felt I needed something that was a quicker read; a stand-alone novel that would have an easy pitch.

Over the years I found many readers that approached my table at conventions didn’t want to commit to an unfinished fantasy series (shame on them!), so I thought it might be helpful to the ole profit margin to have a “one-and-done” book set in a separate world from the others. That book was The Grey Bastards, which I self-pubbed in October of 2015. Some months later, I was lurking on the Grimdark Readers & Writers Facebook Group when I noticed a link to Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off competition. I entered The Grey Bastards with no hope of it making the Top 10, but with this mad theory that if the book did get that far it would win. I still marvel at the fact that wasn’t just an empty boast to my wife in a moment of forced optimism. During the final weeks of the SPFBO I was contacted by an editor at Crown Publishing (Penguin/Random House) who had read the book and wanted to see if I would be interested in traditional publishing. He contacted some agents on my behalf and I eventually signed with Cameron McClure at Donald Maass Literary Agency. She guided me expertly (and patiently!) through the formal pitch to Crown and the Bastards’ transition into “big NY publishing” that followed.

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

JF: So, I mentioned some of the real-world reasons above, but as far as the actual fiction, it started as an idea for a D&D game. I’ve been a tabletop roleplaying game enthusiast since I was about 7 (back when you didn’t have to qualify the hobby with the word “tabletop” because video games hadn’t taken over the nomenclature yet.) I’m such a game nerd that I have a favorite miniature sculptor! And that’s kinda how the Bastards started. I was painting up some orc and half-orc models sculpted by Tre Manor and got inspired to run a game where the players were all part of a mounted mercenary company of half-orcs tasked with fighting off full-blood orcs in a thankless badlands setting. When I told my wife about the idea her response was: “Forget the game. Write the fucking book.” So I knocked out a first chapter and had such fun with it that…well, hence The Grey Bastards. It has certainly evolved as an idea.

As a writer, I’m not much of a plotter, so there is a great deal of change that occurs organically as I draft a novel. It’s tricky to talk about the changes without spoiling too much for those that haven’t read it, but I find my books always have a fair amount of “scope creep”, meaning the idea starts off fairly small/intimate and scales toward more, I guess, “epic” as it moves forward. Originally, the entire plot of The Grey Bastards centered around a power struggle between Jackal and Fetching over the possession of Starling. The Claymaster was just this shadowy crime-lord figure called the Paymaster and the Bastards were mercenaries instead of a gang. But there weren’t ever multiple drafts of the book. It all developed in process and became a living thing, evolving as I typed. After 5 years, it’s a bit murky to me what changed since it’s all part of the same simmering soup. As said previously, I never intended to start another series. But the response to the book during the SPFBO made me realize that I needed to do another one. The contest brought it a much bigger audience and it was clear they wanted more. I was already working on the sequel when Crown called. Thankfully, they were interested in a second one!

Q] For someone who hasn't read any of your novels, how would you describe the type of stories that you write? What would be your elevator pitch for the Lot Land Series?

JF: The stories I write tend to be fantasy with re-worked history and mythology elements. But everything for all my books starts with character. I think that comes from creating so many characters for RPGs and from a love of comic books. The heroes are what matter to me, so I come up with them first and build the world to suit. I love fleshed out ensembles, so I attempt that as much as possible. As for the Lot Lands, the elevator pitch is: "Pig-riding half-orcs using foul language while killing shit!"

Q] Many reviewers have commented on the Sons Of Anarchy vibe that the readers get while reading The Grey Bastards. Are you a SOA fan or was this just a coincidence?

JF: It’s not a coincidence! I had watched a few seasons of SOA when I started writing the book and it was a key ingredient of the soup. The idea of biker gangs viewed through a fantasy lens was the springboard of the entire thing. More than that, it was dissecting SOA’s own inspirations. That show was very much a modern Western, celebrating outlaws, rebellious freedom, living by the gun and all that. As a Westerns enthusiast, I saw a chance to do something similar but in the fantasy genre which I loved so much. The show Justified also informed the Bastards, as well as Spartacus, Black Sails, and the Mariachi Trilogy of films. Not to mention anything done by Sergio Leone!

Q] The Grey Bastards has a singular POV approach. I’m curious as to why you chose to go this route? Will there be any addition of POVs in the future volumes?

JF: My books in the Autumn’s Fall Saga have multiple POVs, so I wanted to do something different. The Grey Bastards was conceived to be a faster, grittier, action-oriented read and I felt a single POV would lend itself well to that. Keep it in lean fighting shape, as it were! Plus, I thought I could complete the book faster if I only had to tackle one POV. The future books won’t have additional POVs, but they will be told through a different POV. So, still one character taking us through, just not Jackal. Those who have read The Grey Bastards probably have a good idea who that is for Book 2.

Q] Talking about dysfunction, all the characters don’t behave normal by any stretch of the imagination. However they have their own rules and bonds. What were your historical and genre influences for the hoofs and their sub-culture?

JF: Historically, the book is heavily based on Reconquista-era Spain. The light cavalry known as jinete that spawned from that broad period was crucial to fighting in that landscape, so much of the hoofs’ armament and tactics stem from there. Spaghetti Westerns and that genre’s brand of sunbaked heroism were a massive influence, for sure. From fiction, The Named Men from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books, though Arthur and his knights also creeped in a bit. Super Hero teams, as well, were an influence: Shadowpact, Seven Soldiers of Victory, The Outsiders, X-Force. The Bastards and the other hoofs are bands of maligned outcasts, a minority of third-class citizens forced to survive through violence and tribalism. Once I had that in my head, they basically wrote themselves.

Q] Tell us a little bit about the research you undertook before attempting to write this series. What were the things you focused upon? Were there any fascinating things that you found amidst your research?

JF: I knew pretty early on that I wanted to use an analog of Medieval Spain as the setting. So I did some reading on the Reconquista, mostly using Osprey Publishing’s excellent catalogue of military history books. S.S. Wyatt’s translation of Daily Life in Portugal In The Late Middle Ages by A.H. de Oliveira Marques was also an invaluable resource. Figuring out the riding hogs was probably where I spent the most time in research. And the most fascinating! There were a lot more breeds of swine, both existent and extinct, than I realized. Reading up on the natural evolution and controlled breeding of various wild boars and feral hogs to help inform and create my fictional Great Bearded Deer-Hogs (aka “barbarians”) proved to be quite fun!

Q] One solid feature of your debut was the amount of worldbuilding present. What is it about worldbuilding that you love, and what according to you is the key(s) to successfully crafting such a believable, yet fantastical world showcased within The Grey Bastards?

JF: I write the stories I want to read, so I’m forced to create the worlds I want to experience. I love history, but don’t feel I’m enough of a scholar to write compelling historical fiction, plus as a huge fantasy nerd, I crave the creatures and magic! As a boy, I was deeply enamored with Masters of the Universe, Jim Henson films, Conan comic books, but I was absorbing all of that mostly ignorant of their respective inspirations. They were just these fantasy worlds that captured my imagination. It was pure. Later on, as an adolescent I discovered the Old World of Warhammer through the wargames set in that mythos (now, sadly, all but abandoned by Games Workshop). I started to understand that what, for me anyway, was so compelling about Warhammer was the blending of fantasy traditions with real world history. And very specific history! The landsknechts of the Holy Roman Empire, melded with the cuirassiers of the English Civil War, both marching alongside war machines that could have sprung from one of Da Vinci’s drawings. All of this mated with fantasy elements drawn from Tolkien, Lovecraft, Moorcock, Leiber, Peake. And those were just the obvious sources!

Despite all that, Warhammer was still its own beast and made me realize how fantasy could be such a gateway into history. I doubt I would care about Renaissance Europe without those games and that’s to say nothing of feudal France, ancient Egypt, pre-Tsarist Russia, and all the other specific periods that form the pastiche of the Warhammer Old World. And, of course, they weren’t the only ones running that playbook. For literature, Guy Gavriel Kay is arguably the master of such quasi-historical fantasy. Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and A Song for Arbonne are huge influences for me. So that’s where my sense of world building springs from; a strong foundation of the realistic that serves the fantastical. But I think the trick is to somehow make it your own and that takes putting aside a great deal of worry, purging the word “derivative” from your thinking, finding courage and confidence that what you’re presenting has its own identity, then getting to work.

Q] The gang heraldry, culture and nomenclature had a very strong biker feel to it. I absolutely dug that aspect and especially those snippets which gave us a look into the world’s history. I couldn’t get enough and will the sequel expand upon that? Especially will we get a look at the other hoofs?

JF: Oh, yes! There’s much more for us to learn about Hispartha, Dhar’gest, the Lots, Strava, the Tines, both their respective pasts and the prospects of their perilous futures. And many new details and tidbits about the broader world will be revealed as the Bastards continue their journey to survive. The other hoofs will play a much bigger role in the sequel. In fact (mild SPOILER in 3…2…1…), we will meet the chiefs of every other half-orc hoof in Book 2.

Q] With this book focusing on the half-orcs, you detail the gruesome process of the creation of half & thrice blooded orcs. Does it stand to reason that there might be half-elves or other such race hybrids?

JF: Most certainly! Stay tuned…

Q] I loved how elves and centaurs were basically the scariest beings in your world. What was your thought process in making them as such?

JF: Well, thank you! That was fun to do. I wanted to bring everything to a very earthy level. Centaurs and elves made good vehicles for cultures that contain an inherent and potent savagery. I love me some noble and enlightened elves as much as the next fantasy reader, but everything in the Bastards’ world demanded a certain dangerous sex appeal. I like to joke that the Lot Lands are Middle Earth after a drunken night of bad decisions. Everyone wakes up next to a stranger (or three!) and has a few fresh tattoos. I thought the best way to fit elves into that backdrop was to take their traditionally insular culture and amp up that up to a very hostile tribalism. I think leaning into their connection to nature and giving them an adept wildness elevated their menace factor. As for the centaurs, I didn’t do much but bring them back to what I felt were their roots; liminal beings that are at war with their own nature, physically and culturally straddling the line between civilization and barbarism. Of course, the mystery of the Betrayer Moon and its violent effect upon them aided in their frightening aspect.

Ultimately, the half-orcs in the Lots do not really know much about the elves and centaurs, so they’ve filled in those gaps with superstition, distrust, bigotry, and supposition. Since we experience the story through Jackal, I think his ignorance conveys that sense of threat. Sadly, it’s that same old dance: we often fear and hate what we don’t understand.

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?

JF: Other than the inspirations mentioned above, I would add Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. That series is a major inspiration for the Autumn’s Fall Saga. L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, as well. Robert E. Howard is the writer that made me hit the keyboard with serious effort. I had enjoyed his character of Conan since I was kid through various comic books and novels, but when Del Rey released Howard’s complete Conan stories purged of the “work” of other writers, I devoured them and a switch flipped in my brain. Creative writing went from a fun hobby I dabbled in to something I knew I could do as a career.

Other authors that I love are Terry Pratchett, Tanith Lee, Tad Williams, George R. R. Martin, Jacqueline Carey, and Caleb Carr. Most of those are still quite “current” but far as newer voices go, I am (like many) in awe of Josiah Bancroft; the Books of Babel are a gift not just to fantasy, but to the written word. Very different but no less brilliant is Jesse Bullington; I’ve recommended The Enterprise of Death probably more than any other book. Darktown by Thomas Mullen recently had me enthralled. If I need to laugh I will pick up Aaron Cross and Jim Hodgson without delay. Humor is damn hard, but those two have it down.

Q] The Grey Bastards is the first volume in a series. Could you give us a progress report or offer any details about the sequel, and outline your plans for the series as a whole?

JF: Certainly. The progress report is: after spending 25 months (all of 2017 and 2018) writing the sequel, I am relieved to say that The True Bastards will hit shelves in October. Apologies to all of those looking for it in June, but I wanted to deliver a worthy sequel and I think (hope) the readers will agree the wait was worth it. As for details, let’s see…in this case the line between teasing Book 2 and spoiling Book 1 is so narrow, but here goes:

"The True Bastards is all about the burden of leadership. It’s been nearly two years since the events of The Grey Bastards and the hoof is solidly under the rule of their new chief, but life in the Lots is harder than ever. Famine has struck the hoof, Hispartha’s prejudice against half-orcs has only increased, and the other mongrel chiefs are pressuring the Bastards to disband."

"Are these hardships simply a harsh reality of life in the badlands or Crafty’s vengeance at work? And what about the deadly creature now prowling the Bastards’ lot? Nothing like it has ever been seen before and the only salvation for the hoof may lie with the Tines. Does their new chief dare risk trespassing on elf lands to save them? Or do they stand firm, friendless, and fulfill their creed to die on the hog?"

As far as the future of the series, my plan is to do two more in this initial series. So four Lot Lands books. However, as of now books 3 and 4 are not under contract. Now, I’m not saying pre-sales for Book 2 need to be strong for those to happen, but I’m not NOT saying it either ;) After Bastards is done, I’ll take a break and get back to Autumn’s Fall, but I do have ideas for other books in the Bastards’ world so it’s likely I’ll do those down the road if there’s enough interest.

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

JF: I’d like to thank anyone that took the time to read this interview. If you picked up a copy of The Grey Bastards (whether you became a fan or not), you have my greatest appreciation. For those that enjoyed their ride through the Lots, more is on the way! I’d also like to give a grateful tip of the hat to my readers in the UK. You lot have taken to the Bastards with such enthusiasm and I love you for it! And for the stalwart few Autumn’s Fall fans anywhere in the world, please continue to be patient. I know it’s been too long, but I haven’t abandoned Airlann. To all the writers: keep striving, keep scribbling. It will pay off if you continue to give it some gumption. Live in the saddle!

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of Jonathan French himself.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Interview with Curtis Craddock (interviewed by Łukasz Przywóski)

Official Author Website
Order A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery over HERE.

Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery

Q: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little bit about yourself. Who is Curtis Craddock? And why should everyone be reading your books?

CC: By day I teach school at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility.  My job is to help people, and my philosophy is to do what I can to alleviate the suffering of other people and to know more about the world today than I did yesterday.

I have a wonderful long term sweetheart Donna Hume who is graphic designer, history geek, and all around alpha nerd, and I share my personal space with two huge black cats and two very small dogs.

Q: When and why have you decided to become an author?

CC: It seemed like good idea at the time.

I actually started writing seriously in high school more than thirty years ago. I always loved to read. I actually cut class to go to the library. In 12th grade I took a creative writing class, and my teacher Mrs. Wright assigned us a short story to write.  I wrote the story.

She said, “Okay, you have an A in this class. All you have to do is write more stories and submit them to contests and publications.”

I’ve never looked back.

Q: What are the primary influences in your writing, such as authors you’ve read, or significant events in your life?

CC: The book I’ve re-read the most times in my life is probably Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. When I was young I read it for the adventure. When I was older I read it for the social commentary.  These days it’s one of those books that people-on-the-internet ™ either love or hate all out of proportion to the book or its message. What it taught me as a writer was how to build out from a premise, which is an invaluable skill.

Stylistically the author who’s had the most influence on me is Lois McMaster Bujold.  She does characters better than just about anyone, and her stories are always fun.

I also draw from Andre Norton, Poul Anderson, CJ Cherryh, Neil Gaiman. Carol Berg, Tony Hillerman, Isaac Asimov, and too many others to mention.

Q: The fantasy genre is broad—your writing seems to be more on the innovative, genre-blending end of the spectrum. Can you discuss this? And what draws you to the steampunk aesthetics? 

CC: I don’t actually think of the Risen Kingdoms as steampunk because there’s no steam-powered technology iand it’s not in the regency period or later.

That having been said, I do like the steampunk aesthetic because it moves the story out of a medieval mindset.  A lot of fantasy (by no means all) is very backwards looking. It’s about restoring kings or dynasties, or taking things back or putting them the world back to some previous ideal.

Steampunk and Renaissance/Enlightenment based fiction like the Risen Kingdoms allows for the characters to be more forward looking.  The past is not a sacred land. The world is something they can change and improve, and not all change is bad.

Minor spoiler:  An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is about restoring order to a broken kingdom, but it’s not, ultimately, about putting things back the way they used to be.

Q: Serious writing takes not only a story to tell, but the craft of writing to tell it well—can you comment on your journey as a writer?

CC: Practice, practice practice. I’ve been writing, deliberately trying to improve for more than three decades.  I’m not sure if this makes me really good or just a really slow learner.  Writing isn’t about putting words on a page. It’s about putting ideas, impressions, and images in the reader’s mind.  The hardest part is making the turns from, “This is what I want to say,” to, “This is what I want you to feel".

Q: Tell us a little bit about your writing process. What do you start from? Do you start with a character, an image, or an idea? Talk a little bit about how a novel “grows” for you.

CC: Some writers are careful plotters. Some are daring enough to fly by the seat of their pants. My method is more like three raccoons in a trench coat fighting over a crack pipe.
I generally start with a character with a problem.  The character has to solve the problem and either (a) fail, or (b) create a new problem for themselves in the process.  The character must then change their approach and try again to solve the problem in front of them. Repeat that enough times and you have a story.

This is not to say I don’t have long term big ticket problems for the characters to deal with, it’s just that I have a lot of unexplored country and nothing resembling a map on how to get there.

Q: What’s the hardest thing for you during the whole “writing experience”?

CC: Deadlines. I write slow. More to the point my process is slow. All stories are fundamentally linear; you proceed from one word to the next in a predetermined order until you get to the end. But in order to be believable, the story need to feel like it didn’t have to be linear, as if there were other ways it could have gone. I achieve that by writing a lot of those untaken paths and then pruning back to the one that gets taken. The paths that got removed leave traces of themselves in the word-stream that remains.

This is fun, but, as I said, very slow.

Q: What are the reasons you decided to publish?

CC: I started writing with the intent to publish. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to go into bookstores and find my books on shelves.  I wanted to be a writer.  Ideally I’d like to make my living this way, though I am realistic enough to accept that’s probably not going to happen.

Q: What did you find easy, difficult, or surprising about the publishing process?

CC: I found breaking into the business to be incredibly difficult. When I first started, traditional publishing was pretty much the only game in town. Self publishing did exist, but it was called vanity press for a reason.  The internet was barely a thing at that point. Anyone born after about 1985 literally lives in a different technological age than those of us born before that. They have never lived in a world without the internet.

As a consequence when I started writing my goal was to become a published author by what we now call traditional means: get an agent who will find an editor who will get a book deal.

That remained my goal, even after the asteroid we call the internet hit the Earth.  It changed forever the way we handle information, and information is what books are.

I was very slow to change. In fact, for the most part, I still haven’t. I have a wonderful agent and top notch editor, and I plan on selling my next series the same way I sold my last one.

Q: What was your initial inspiration for The Risen Kingdoms series?

CC: The Risen Kingdoms is a river with a lot of tributaries. It didn’t spring from a single source. I will say that the first scene in An Alchemy of Mirrors was inspired by real events. Louis XIV of France insisted on being present at the birth of  children into important noble families. This had the effect of keeping most high-born women of childbearing age trapped in the Vicinity of Versaille,s and forced their husbands to visit often.

Q: One thing I really enjoyed in reading both Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors and A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery  was the depth of the characters. How did you create them, and did they go through any metamorphosis as you wrote?

CC: Depth of character is created by letting the characters make choices and reflect on the choices both taken and not taken. I keep a lot of the path not taken when I’m exploring their internal lives.

The fun part is when I find out things about them I didn’t know when I started and that I can’t recall putting there. I figure that if a character can surprise me, they can surprise the reader as well.

Q: You write a lot of diverse characters without falling victim to stereotypes. Do you think attitudes about diversity in publishing have shifted, or does the industry still have a ways to go?

CC: I suppose that depends on whether you’re talking about diversity within the industry defined as the people producing the product, or the diversity within the industry defined as the people portrayed by the product.

As for diversity within the industry of producers, I’m a straight white guy, so I cannot and will not presume to speak to the experiences of marginalized people within the industry.  I will say that I advocate for marginalized people whenever the opportunity arises.

As for diversity within the product, I would say it’s improving, but it has plenty of room left to improve.

Q: The main characters in any book are commonly considered a reflection of the author. Is this true in “The Risen Kingdom series”?

CC: Well, they all spring from my imagination fully formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, so in that sense they are reflections of me, but they also borrow from other people, and in so doing manifest emergent personalities that are quite different from my own.

Q: Who is your favorite character to write, and why? And least favorite?

CC: I like writing all of them. Jean-Claude is usually the easiest to write.  He’s a trickster and the one most likely to cause trouble. Isabelle’s harder to write because (a) she’s more cautious and (b) she’s smarter than I am.  It’s hard to write a character who is genuinely more intelligent than you are.

Q: I really like Grand Leon. It would be amazing to read a novella or a short story from his POV. Would you consider giving us a glimpse of his thinking process?

CC: Grand Leon is very much a pragmatist and a realist. To understand him, you really have to understand his motives. It’s alluded to a couple of times in the story that he’s a self-crowned king. He usurped the throne from his uncle because his uncle was trying to purge all his relatives within striking distance of the throne, a group which included the young Grand Leon.

Two really important things came out of the coup. The first was that Grand Leon learned to choose his allies wisely and to surround himself with competent people. The second thing was that the Temple, which had backed his uncle, refused to acknowledge him as the rightful roi, and kept trying to have him overthrown.

In response to the Temple’s constant meddling, Grand Leon decided to destroy their influence in l’Empire. He can’t get rid of the Temple because the people support it, but he can neutralize it. Since the Temple maintains much of its authority by keeping the various sorcerous bloodlines at each other’s throats, one of his main goals was to create a diverse society in which all the different sorcerous bloodlines could live and work together. He also supplanted Temple run schools with free primary schools, Temple hospitals with royal hospitals, and so on.

As a consequence he’s been unleashing an age of Enlightenment almost by accident.

His primary virtue as leader is that he absolutely despises the aristocracy and the notion of birthright privilege, even if he can’t get rid of either and participates in both. Yet wherever possible, he promotes on merit, and takes steps specifically to annoy and disadvantage people whose only qualifications are being born to the right set of parents.

The result is, he has surrounded himself with highly talented and well motivated people who in turn make him seem like a genius.

Q: You’ve created rich world with a unique magic system. What challenges did you face not just in making it accessible, but in incorporating all the information that needed to be conveyed to make the story work?

CC: One of my pet peeves are stories that involve magic, especially magic that is a day to day occurrence in the world, where the people in that world don’t seem know anything about it.

So when I create a magic system I ask myself. Where did this magic come from? How did people discover it? What do they know about it that is true? What do they believe about it that is s not true?

Once I know that, I ask, “How and in what context do they use it?” and then, “How do they leverage it for maximum effect?”

Once I have this information in hand, the characters themselves become the explainers of magic as they interact with it.

Q: What are the challenges of world building? How have you overcome those?

CC: This is pretty much the same process as the magic building. I start with something I want to talk about culturally, economically, or technologically, figure out some basic pieces fit together. For example, how do skyships affect the economy?  And then I give that knowledge to the characters.  As the characters have cause to think about it, the information get revealed to the reader.

Q: Moving on to the magic, I like the idea that it comes from holy bloodlines. So far you’ve shown us what to expect from Sanguinares, Seelenjager, Goldentongue, Windcallers and Etincelle sorceries. Is there more types of sorcery to explore in your world? 

CC: There is one other named bloodline, the Tidsskygge, sorcerers, and a few more I haven’t developed yet.  In the lore of the world, there are ten canonical sorceries, sometimes referred to as the Decade Sorceries, which are the ones codified by the Temple.

There were actually dozens of different types in the beginning, when the saints emerged from the Vault of Ages, but there weren’t that many saints and most of the bloodlines got attenuated to the point where they can’t produce sorcerers any more, although you still get atavistic throwbacks.
Isabelle’s l’Étincelle sorcery is not one of the Decade. It hasn’t been seen in the world since the days of St Céleste.

Q: What was the most difficult part of writing this series? What was the most enjoyable part?

CC: The most difficult part is getting it done.  For my next project I’m going to do considerably more work plotting before I dive into the actual drafting, just so I don’t find myself jammed up against a deadline.

The most enjoyable part is figuring things out. I know it sounds strange to say it, but I can’t just force the story to go a particular way. It’s too complex a thing to be conceived in its entirely all at once. In order to make it work, I have to figure out its secrets and lay them bare.

Q: If you would be given the chance to rewrite any of the scenes in Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors before publication, would you do it? If yes, what and why?

CC: I think it was Leonardo da Vinci who said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

I would probably rewrite a few things for clarity’s sake, and to presage events in book three that were not conceived of at the time of book one.  I would probably do a lot better job with my French and Spanish terminology and naming conventions.

Q: Would you say that Risen Kingdom series follows tropes or kicks them?

CC: I don’t think you can kick a trope until you’ve put it on the field. I definitely like to turn things on their ears.

I mean this story begins after the world has already been broken.

Isabelle, for example, was conceived with the following question, “What would happen if a Disney Princess actually wanted an arranged marriage?”

Of course the story immediately diverged from there, and Isabelle had very definite ideas about who she was going to become, but kicking the trope was the spark.

Q: Which question about the series do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

CC: I wish someone would ask me the following question, “Can we make an HBO series about this series and pay you enough money that you can quit your day job.”

To which I would say, “Yes!”

Q: Is there any message that you have tried to put forth in your writing?

CC: There’s a very strong streak of un-cynical realism in my books.  Heroes see the world as it is and work with what they have to get what they want. The antagonists see the world as it isn’t and try to bend it to their will.

Q: What can we expect in the next book? Certainly the ending gives us an idea where the story may be moving, but give us a few hints!

CC: Chases, escapes, romance, true love, sky battles, a mighty duel, death by pirates, and maybe the end of the world.

Q: Can you name three books you adore as a reader, but that make you feel inadequate as a writer?

A Civil Campaign, by Lois Mc Master Bujold.
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R.Tolkien
Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett.

Q: Thank you so much for agreeing to this conversation, Curtis! We greatly appreciate your time and thoughts.

CC: You are welcome. Happy reading.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Exclusive Cover Reveal: Flames of Mana: Eschaton Cycle (Heirs of Mana Book 2) by Matt Larkin

When I contracted Felix Ortiz for this series, it was always supposed to be a trilogy of grimdark fantasy books set in Polynesia (with a potential second trilogy some day).

We knew we wanted all the covers to mirror one another, so book 2 was going to look like book 1 in so far as a god-queen would be wielding badass elemental magic.

Anyone who read book 1 could probably guess which goddess needed to be on this cover:


Pretty much the most badass deity in Polynesian myth.

In this case, my request to Felix was something like “give me lots of lava and eruptions.”

Felix pretty much took that and ran with it, incorporating water both for contrast, and a representation of the continuing struggle between the different god-queens.

And I love how it turned out.

Pre-order FLAMES OF MANA over HERE

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Her rage is an inferno.

Flames and volcanoes answer her call. Armies fall before her.

But not even can she can raise the dead.

Can she?

With unlikeliest of allies, Pele strives to save the soul of her fallen sister. Time is short and with every passing hour, the girl drifts closer to becoming a shade. All that might save her is the Waters of Life.

But how far will the immortal guardians go to protect their secrets?

And even if Pele can overcome the gods, can she face the mistakes of her own past?

You’ll love this gritty dark fantasy that unfolds across tropical islands and undersea realms laced with hidden savagery.

Monday, March 11, 2019

SPFBO FINALIST: Orconomics by J. Zachary Pike (reviewed by David Stewart & Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order Orconomics over HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: J. Zachary Pike was once a basement-dwelling fantasy gamer, but over time he metamorphosed into a basement-dwelling fantasy writer. By day Zack is a web professional and creative-for-hire, but at night he returns to his lair to create books, films, and illustrations that meld fantasy elements with offbeat humor. A New Englander by birth and by temperament, Zack writes strangely funny fiction on the seacoast of New Hampshire.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Brimming with swords, sorcery, and wit, Orconomics: A Satire introduces Arth, a world much like our own but with more magic and fewer vowels. For the licensed wizards and warriors of Arth, slaying and looting the forces of evil is just a job. The Heroes' Guild has turned adventuring into a career, selling the rights to monsters’ hoards of treasure as investment opportunities. Corporations spend immense sums sponsoring heroes to undertake quests, betting they’ll reap the profits in plunder funds when the loot is divvied up.

Questing was all business for famous Dwarven berserker Gorm Ingerson, until a botched expedition wiped out his party, disgraced his name, and reduced him to a thieving vagabond. Twenty years later, a chance encounter sees Gorm forcibly recruited by a priest of a mad goddess to undertake a quest that has a reputation for getting heroes killed. But there’s more to Gorm’s new job than an insane prophecy; powerful corporations and governments have shown an unusual interest in the job. Gorm might be able to turn a bad deal into a golden opportunity and win back the fame and fortune he lost so long ago.

Promising fun, fantasy, and financial calamity, Orconomics: A Satire is the first book in The Dark Profit Saga, an economically epic trilogy.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (LUKASZ): Some reviewers have compares Orconomics to Pratchett novels. A bold statement if you ask me. As a fan of satires, I needed to experience and verify it myself. And I liked it.

It’s funny and uplifting but also serious and sad in some places, as every good satire should be.

On the world of Arth, adventuring is the industry that drives the economy. Groups of battle-hardened warriors hunt and kill Monsters and Shadowkin (Orcs, Goblins, Kobolds) and claim their hoards. These loots are bought and sold by corporate interests to plunder funds long before the hero’s guild attacks. You’ll easily see similarities to Goldman Sachs in Goldson Baggs operations.

The story follows Gorm Ingerson - a fallen dwarven hero whose hero’s license has been revoked. His clan disowned him, and he lives as a rogue. One of funds forcibly recruits Gorm to undertake an impossible quest with a team of similar fallen heroes. If he succeeds, he may win back the fame and fortune he lost so long ago.

His new team includes colourful and fun cast of characters– a goblin squire (who brings a lot of comic relief), clumsy and naïve prophet of a mad goddess, an elf warrior addicted to alcohol and drugs (healing potions in the book), two mages who are at each other's throats, a thief who claims to be a bard (even though he can’t really sing) and a warrior seeking his own death. They start the quest to find Elven Marbles. As we follow the story, the plot gets a little more complicated and nuanced.

I always appreciate a well-plotted and solid high fantasy tale with humour woven into the plot and the world. The world building mixed seamlessly into the story impressed me. The characterization doesn’t disappoint - even characters that seem very archetypical get significant development by the book’s end. The pacing is just right. It speeds up and slows down in all the right places.

The humour made me laugh. Obviously, no author should be compared to Sir Terry Pratchett - simply because no one stands a chance. In no way is this book on par with Pratchett’s novels. It is, though, a superb fantasy satire.

Thanks to mostly uplifting tone, Orconomics works as a well-deserved rest from dark books in which characters you love die, become evil or destroyed. On the other hand, it’s not all sunshine and roses. After finishing the book I’m impressed by Pike’s skilful blend of humour and tragedy. I mourn one of characters. Every good satire needs to contain a level of tragedy and Orconomics delivers both.

The ending of the book set ups for the sequel I will definitely read once I sort out my reading schedule.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (DAVID): Satirical fantasy has never been my sub-genre. I like Terry Pratchett (no way I’m getting through this review without mentioning Pratchett, so might as well get it out of the way), but not in the devotional way of many of fantasy connoisseurs. I get it.  There’s no denying the clever writing and imaginative world-building, but for whatever reason my personality type needs serious fantasy. Going into Orconomics, I was prepared to like it and likely not love it. This was the right mindset to begin this book with because by the end I was surprised and delighted to find that, yes, I loved Orconomics.

Gorm Ingerson is a dwarf with a checkered past. Once considered one of the greatest heroes in the realm, Gorm has since fallen into innumerable gutters and increasingly finds it difficult to crawl out. The world according to J. Zachary Pike is one where heroism is a commodity. Heroes are for hire in every sense of the world, and like many video games of our own world, there is a system of points and values associated with questing and slaying what society considers to be evil creatures, or Shadowkin. Gorm used to have a high rank and more prestige than he knew what to do with until he ran from a quest, which in the Freedlands is criminal. Gorm was cast out of the Heroes Guild, rank stripped, and continued to dig himself into a hole by robbing would-be adventurers of their own gains simply to survive. Then a goblin is literally thrown onto Gorm’s sleeping self and everything changes.

In form, Orconomics is nothing extraordinary. It’s a book about a quest, which is a timeless and well-worn path. What makes it so good is its ability to tell this boilerplate story while inserting so many satirical references. Commerce rules the Freedlands much in the same way corporations run the Earth. In many ways Pike is just substituting specific terms and jargon and telling a story that could come out of the New York Times. This even became a slight detriment for me as the economics terminology being thrown about made my eyes glaze over, but it’s all in service to the greater effort and any daze quickly passed as a new joke or metaphor was juggled in front of me. I have no doubt that this story could not have been told in any other way, and it works incredibly well.

I have read a few different books this year that have been heavily inspired by video games. Some, like Phil Tucker’s Death March, use the literal game world as setting. Others, like Orconomics, are slightly more subtle. Pike uses the mechanics behind many video games and posits that such systems could be used as real-world structures. In the Freedlands, the Heroes Guild and the efforts to earn points and rank by slaying monsters is society’s way of forcing ideals of black and white over a shades-of-grey form that it simply does not fit. What makes this novel so competent is the pushback by the heroes against that system, even if they might not realize that they are doing so until the very end.

My only real issue with Orconomics is that Pike has long passages of exposition, or telling as those in the writing world would say, that seem to be viewpoint independent. In fantasy, it is difficult to avoid the problems of exposition because the world is always so fresh and strange that it needs explaining. However, that fact does not mean that there aren’t more efficient ways to slip said exposition into the text without over-long paragraphs of pure tell. Pike switches his viewpoints around, and it is apparent and effective when he does so, but the exposition almost feels told by a narrator in its own consistency and lack of voice.

The final point I want to make about Orconomics is a compliment disguised as a critique. There is no mistaking the satire in this work. Pike sees it through for most of the book, and it is at times brilliant in both its subtlety and overture. However, a certain scene whips away all the pretense of this fantasy novel and renders it as heartfelt and meaningful as any of its peers. Pike deftly builds the relationships between his main characters to the point that we don’t even realize how much we care about them until it hits, like a bolt from the blue, and then it dawns on the reader that the book has transformed from satire into something more. It is a beautiful moment and can not be understated. I look forward to seeing how the sequel to Orconomics flows because it will take a skilled pen to manage what Pike has accomplished with this book and yet transcend it further. He has certainly set the stage for more, and I am curious to see where this goes.

SPFBO Final Score - 8/10
Thursday, March 7, 2019

A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery by Curtis Craddock (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery over HERE.

Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Curtis Craddock was born in the wrong century and quite possibly on the wrong planet. He should have been born in a world where gallant heroes regularly vanquish dire and despicable foes, where friendship, romance, wit, and courage are the foundations of culture and civilization, and where adventure beckons from every shadow.

Instead, he was born on Earth and lives in a world bounded by bureaucracy, hemmed in by cynicism, and governed by the dull necessity of earning a wage. An exile in this world, he is a biographer of friends he's never met, a chronicler of events that never happened, and a cartographer of places that never were.

Given that the mundane world supplies a dearth of oddly progressive kingdoms to be saved, he spends his time saving cats, dogs, and the occasional bird of prey. By day, he teaches Computer Information Systems classes to offenders at a correctional facility. By night, he puts on his writer's cap, the broad-brimmed one with a feather, and, into the prison walls of reality, etches defiant words of legend.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Isabelle des Zephyrs has always been underestimated throughout her life, but after discovering the well of hidden magic within her, unveiling a centuries-long conspiracy, and stopping a war between rival nations, she has gained a newfound respect amongst the cutthroat court.

All that is quickly taken away when Isabelle is unfairly convicted of breaking the treaty she helped write and has her political rank and status taken away. Now bereft, she nevertheless finds herself drawn into mystery when her faithful musketeer Jean-Claude uncovers a series of gruesome murders by someone calling themselves the Harvest King.

As panic swells, the capital descends into chaos, when the emperor is usurped from the throne by a rival noble. Betrayed by their allies and hunted by assassins, Isabelle and Jean-Claude alone must thwart the coup, but not before it changes l'Empire forever.

CLASSIFICATION: Steampunk / Gaslamp Fantasy with Flintlock elements.

FORMAT: A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery was published by Tor in January 2019 as a second book in  The Risen Kingdom series. It'a available in an e-book, paperback and hardcover format. 

The book counts 416 pages and is divided into 26 numbered chapters. The cover art was done by Thom Tenery. 

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors was one of my top books of 2017. It impressed me with its clever plot, relatable characters, steampunk aesthetics and unique world-building. After finishing the book I promised myself to follow the series, and so I was beyond excited to read the sequel, Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery

I’m happy to say it surpasses expectations. While I enjoyed Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors just a touch more, Craddock’s got the job done properly and once again crafted a wonderfully intricate story with likeable characters, and a plot that demands and rewards attention. 

Expect a courtly intrigue, lots of magic, romance, and adventure. Isabelle des Zephyrs unveiled centuries-long conspiracy, stopped a war and gained respect amongst the cutthroat court. As happiness and fortune don’t create suspense the way troubles do, Isabelle soon finds herself unfairly convicted and stripped of her rank. In the meantime, her faithful musketeer and bodyguard Jean-Claude uncovers a series of gruesome murders by someone calling themselves the Harvest King. 

Craddock took care to develop both the world and characters. 

Isabelle grows significantly as she tries to figure out her place in society, and how she feels about the events and people who interact with her. I always liked her cold logic and honesty, but now I appreciate them even more. It’s a rare pleasure to observe brilliant minds at work and I think the author has captured her sharp intelligence well. 

Despite her brilliance, Isabelle has little life experience and her arc has a strong coming-of-age vibe. Especially when she meets a dashing Captain Bitterlich, a shape-shifting Seelenjäger with great manners, a proper sense of humor and great looks. For me, the most exciting parts of the story focused on Isabelle trying to understand her mysterious l’Etincelle sorcery. I love the concept of a maimed heroine with sorcerous limb - an arm-shaped volume filled with luminescent pink and purple clouds and sparks. It turns out this gift has most surprising applications. 

Isabelle‘s closest friends, Jean-Claude and Marie, get plenty of screen time and I deeply enjoyed their arcs. Jean-Claudeused to be a dashing musketeer with an adventurous past. Because time spares no one, he turned stout, near-sighted and generally grumpy. His body betrays him more and more. Luckily he didn’t lose his wit, and he somehow remains arrogant, impetuous and whimsy. He combines character traits of D’Artagnan and Portos, an unexpected combination but it works and entertains. Jean-Claude proves once again his loyalty to Grand Leon and Isabelle as he deals with gruesome murders and an infection that strips saintborns of their magic. He also takes an apprentice, but I can’t tell you anything more about this. 

As for Marie, she’s tough, efficient and dangerous. We never know what exactly happens in her head, but I do love her character and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for her. New characters, especially Captain Bitterlich, feel fully realized and well rounded.

In A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery, Craddock expands the world, its history, customs and geography. While I usually dislike detailed world-building, I found myself immersed and intrigued by his creation and I wouldn’t mind learning even more about it. As readers we learn more about various forms of magic like bestial shape-shifting abilities of Seelenjäger, or Goldentongue sorcery - the ability to craft illusions so convincing that they could even upend nature for a time. A great, imaginative stuff folks. 

I find the story and the tone of A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery darker than what we experienced in An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors. At times, violence is graphic and the themes (experimentation on living humans, fratricide) heavy. And yet Craddock finds a way to torture his characters without torturing readers. 

CONCLUSION: The ending opens many possibilities for future exploration of the world and Isabelle’s place in it, and I want to participate in this journey. Well done, Monsieur Craddock. Well done. 

A short side note: normally I would devour this book in a day or two, but as I had a free audible credit I decided to try immersion reading (reading an eBook and listening to companion audiobook at the same time). I still prefer reading books to listening them, but I must say Erin Bennett's narration is spectacular. Highly recommended.

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