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Thursday, February 14, 2019

Empire Of Sand by Tasha Suri (Reviewed by Will Byrnes)

Official Author Website
Order Empire Of Sand over HERE

When you dance with the Rite of Dreaming, you dance with the gods.
Mehr’s got it made, I guess,
There were perks to being the Governor of Irinah’s daughter—even an illegitimate one. People obeyed you. Servants rushed to your bidding. Even the ones who loathed you—and there were many—were forced to veil their contempt and keep their loathing eyes lowered. All people faced hatred. All people suffered. Few had the cushion of wealth and privilege to protect them as Mehr did. nice wardrobe, plenty to eat, time on her hands, but it comes with downsides. Her father’s grounds constitutes a golden cage. And mom’s side presents a whole other problem.
While dad is a member in good standing of the Ambahn clan, the ruling caste in the empire, Mehr’s mother was a member of the oppressed Amrithi clan. Not your usual ethnic minority. The Amrithi began ages ago when a magical being called a daiva (djinn-like, with both a physical and a more ethereal nature) got jiggy with a human, making the Amrithi not entirely our sort. The magical side DNA comes with some benefits, though, for some Amrithi anyway. An ability to communicate with the daiva who still roam the world. And how do they communicate, you may ask?

Here is the genius of the book. Amrithi communicate with the daiva via physical movement, specifically through dance and sigils,something between magic spells and prayer. (If you have ever seen the TV show, The Magicians, they do a lot of hand sigils there, and not all are of the middle finger variety) They also have dance rites that are the equivalent of the prayer rituals common to many religions. Mehr keeps up the rituals she learned from her mother and from a mentor her mother asked to look after her when she left. The rituals give her a sense of connection not only to her heritage, and her mother, but in a very real sense to the magical events in this world.

Suri took some inspiration from her own upbringing. Kids in Indian classical dance training make abundant use of hand symbols. She also wanted to incorporate that signaling with an element of martial arts. Her characters’ hand sigils are no mere form of artistry. They have real world impact. They kick ass.

More family enters into it. Mehr has a little sister she loves and wants to protect, (and whose safety can be used as leverage against her) and then there is the evil-stepmother, Maryam, (a true bloom of Ambhan womanhood) who does her best to hiss and sneer her way across the page whenever she shows up. She is particularly eager to keep Mehr from continuing the practices of her Amrithi heritage.

There’s more. In this fantasy world, which is inspired by a Bollywood version of what the Mughal Empire might have been, reality is not the relatively consistent universe we have come to know. It is a product of the dreams of the gods. Only sometimes those dreams get disturbed, generating hurricane-like storms that dump a whole new type of precip, a thing called dreamfire. Way beyond oobleck.
The dreamfire was everywhere now. It was in the air she breathed, in the sweat at the nape of her neck. She could feel the strength of it churning the city into a storm. The buildings were drenched in light, debris flying through the air as if the world had tipped on its side and sent everything sprawling. Even the earth felt like it was moving beneath her feet. It was dizzying, terrifying. Exhilirating. 
Dad, who clearly loves Mehr, and evil-step-mom, who clearly doesn’t, may have Mehr’s best interests at heart in keeping her confined to the grounds. Seems the talent she has for things magical is in high demand by dark sorts. So, when Mehr slips out and puts her skill to the test, word gets around and she is in a whole mess of trouble. Way worse than being grounded.

The religious leader of the empire (midway between Thanos and the High Sparrow), has sent a delegation of mystics and a not-so-subtle demand offer for Mehr to marry one of them, a dodgy-seeming character called Amun.
Like so many other of the other mystics Mehr had seen in Lotus Hall, his face was swathed by cloth. Only his eyes and bridge of his nose were revealed but his head was lowered, hiding his gaze. The little of his skin she could see was dark She couldn’t tell if he was young or old, ugly or handsome. He was simply male, broad-shouldered and intimidating with footsteps that were soft, too soft. He had a predator’s tread.
It is an offer she cannot refuse. No more mani pedis for you, dear. Mehr hits the road with her new associates and the game is afoot. No, really. No saddles or palanquins. They walk across the desert to the evil leader’s oasis-centered temple. His name is Maha, and the similarity to mwahahaha cannot possibly be accidental.

Ok, entire-world-fantasies can really get you bogged down in describing everything, (like the above) and then you lose track of the thread. Ok? We got all our words straight, Daiva? Sigil? Amrithi? Ambahn? Jeez, can we move on with it already?

The change of scene also signals a change in approach. What ensues is not just learning what dark plans Maha, who is entirely cruel and not entirely human, has in store for Mehr, and taking on that challenge, but getting to know Amun. Is this bad boy really so bad? Why does everyone think he’s a monster? What’s the deal with all the blue tats? And what else will be forced on Mehr? A challenge for sure.

The book heads in two directions here. First is getting the lay of the land and finding out who you can trust, and where you can get the best figs. Part of this is dealing with being invited to hang by one group, when you really want to be doing something else, figuring out who can be trusted, deciphering the palace politics in her new town. Very relatable, particularly for the younger set. The other major element is the reveal of what the Maha has in mind, and how Mehr will cope. But the major bit for what seems the largest chunk of the book is Mehr getting to know Amun. They have to come up with modus vivendi in order to accomplish the tasks with which they are charged, and not get, you know, murdered.

It was not the fastest read. I enjoyed the first 100 pps of intro to the world and Mehr’s situation, and I enjoyed watching her face diverse challenges and overcome, or not, yet still grow in the process. But I did not enjoy the pace or duration after that. It was reasonably-paced and engaging at first, but settled into a slower, drawn-out tempo that was a bit frustrating. The book might have lost about fifty pages, maybe more, without suffering too much. There are a few interludes when we see events away from Mehr from the perspective of other characters. These offered a break from the central pillar of the tale, and added in a few details Mehr could not deliver to us. There was an element of romantic interaction that was appropriate and engaging, but which took up way too much of the book, detracting from the much more interesting magical, and palace intrigue elements.

You know I like a good romance. Well, I read a lot of romance…That’s something that romance series do really, really well. they create books that draw on each other but they’re also kind of discrete stories in themselves. You’ve got a beginning, a middle and end. You’ve got a satisfying conclusion. You know if you pick up the next one you’re going to get the same thing. So, that’s what I’m trying to do with the series. - from the Reddit session

Not the romance thing, per se, but the beginning-middle-end thing.

It was a bit unclear to me whether this was intended for YA readers or adults. Certain tropes made me think YA. Things like a sheltered girl being forced to face life’s realities and find out if she will face-plant or be the stuff that dreams are made of. We have certainly seen plenty of examples of kids or teens with hidden powers that emerge as they grow and confront danger of one sort or another. Evil stepmothers are a dime a dozen in YA tales. And Mehr has a little sister she is eager to protect, like that Everdeen kid.

But then, the challenges that Mehr confronts extend well beyond showing the world her stuff. She has to contend with complex moral questions. Suri is also looking at larger issues relating to women. She is interested in how women could exercise power in a heavily patriarchal society, and not settle for invisibility. She shows them choosing paths for themselves, despite the external limitations on their freedom, and sometimes having to hide their true feelings.
She managed to catch herself on her hands before her skull met the floor. Then she bowed to the floor, her forehead to the cool marble. She allowed herself to tremble; feigned being a thing bent and broken by his cruelty. She did not have her jewels or her fine clothes, but she had this power, at least: she could give him a simulacrum of what he desired from her. And hold her crumbling strength tight. Let him think he had broken her. As long as he believed he already had, as long as she fooled him, he would not succeed in truly doing so.
CONCLUSION: I very much enjoyed the extreme creativity that went into the literary construction of this world. The magical concepts were impressive, exciting, and fit well with the story. Mehr is an engaging character you will find it easy to root for, particularly when she is faced with wrenching decisions. The writing is beautiful and evocative. I enjoyed much less what seemed a shift from the magical elements and court machinations to an excessive focus on the romantic. But was brought back by the action, twists, and resolutions at the end. I expect there are many castles to be made of Suri’s sands. She has a second book in the series planned, The Realm of Ash, set many years later, looking at the consequences of the actions in book 1. Some dreams can be made real.

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

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Interview with M. D. Presley (Interviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order The Glass Dagger over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Woven Ring
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Imbued Lockblade
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Glass Dagger

Q] Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little bit about yourself. Who is MD Presley? And why should everyone be reading your novels?

MDP: I’m an introvert, so this is my most dreaded question of all times. I swear, I’ve lost more jobs than I can count when I hit the “tell me about yourself” question and I would stutter something like how I’m not a serial killer. Which we all know only makes you sound more like a serial killer. Because who needs to assure you that they’re not serial killers other than serial killers?

Now that the creepiness is (mostly) out of the way, I guess you should know I’m a former screenwriter who still works in the industry and got tired of no producer ever greenlighting the bizarre and budget-busting ideas I had. So I decided to self-publish, which might just be the best retirement plan for all screenwriters who don’t quite “make it.” But I like to think I learned a lot about plotting and characters from my time in the trenches, which hopefully shows in my novels, which is why you should read them.

Plus floating trains. And psychic exoskeletons. Who doesn’t want to read about those?

Q] When and why did you decide to become an author?

MDP: Ugh… I am the writer clichรฉ that always wanted to be an author. Ever since I was a kid playing with my GI Joes/ Star Wars action figures, which I acted out really, REALLY intricate stories with. Then I would run the scenario again, but changing one event to see how it played out. Not borderline-type behavior at all…

Shortly after college I learned about screenwriting, which embodied everything I loved: Stories that no one ever read. I don’t particularly care for my prose, and screenwriting is a medium where no one but the film crew actually reads your work. So it seemed perfect.

Smash Cut To: 15 years later as I write novels and expose my prose to everyone who will deign to look.

Q] What draws you to writing in the genre of fantasy?

MDP: My mother checked out a single chapter of The Sword of Shannara on tape when I was in fourth grade and I listened to the battle between Panamon Creel and Keltset versus the skull bearer and I was pretty much hooked. Which sort of put me at a disadvantage since I encountered post-Tolkien authors (ala Dragonlance) before actually reading any Tolkien. So it was always a bit of a letdown when I read the source from which all inspiration sprung.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was the next real eye-opening moment for me when I realized authors could do anything, be it blending comics with sacred myths, all the while adding our own idiosyncratic mythos in a modern setting. It really was pivotal for me, and probably why I focused on epic urban fantasy during my screenwriting career.

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.

MDP: I’m a creative cannibal in that pretty much all my worlds, plots, and characters were begun in a completely different story idea that never panned out. But there were always some kernels of awesome seeded there, so I would keep them in my notes and wait until they found fertile soil. Usually by mixing them with another aborted idea. Sol’s Harvest, for instance, is a variation on a character I came up with in college mixed with a plot for one of my earliest screenplays, painted on a world I came up with as a thought experiment.

But that’s just planting the idea garden with a bit of compost from other ideas. After everything takes root, I’m really disciplined in my outlining phase, bible writing, world building, plotting, and the like. I would talk your ear off about it, but I realize there is nothing more mentally grating than hearing an author go on and on about their process. So I’ll just say visit my blog, where I go into excruciating detail as to the process weekly.

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

MDP: The process is pretty streamlined for me at this point, so I’ll say the waiting and myopia. Even with the great community of fellow self-published authors I get to hang out with online, writing is a very lonely endeavor: I literally sit alone in a darkened room after the rest of the household goes to bed. So you develop an intimate relationship with the material that isn’t always healthy. You (meaning me) get too close to the story, to the point you lose perspective and can’t tell if it’s good or bad anymore. I try to schedule time between the rough drafts and the editing phase so I can approach it with fresh eyes, but you (meaning me) honestly can’t tell what it’s worth until you start getting some sort of feedback, usually in terms of beta readers. Unfortunately, this is several months into the process, while all the while you’re left wondering if you’d just squandered your time and sanity on something no one will ever possibly love.

Which is why, I guess, there’s always such a cliched comparison between writing and raising children.

Q] What made you decide to self-publish as opposed to traditional publishing?

MDP: Like I joked earlier, I see a lot of screenwriters turn to self-publishing as a means to get their ideas out when no one in Hollywood will listen. We come from a world where the screenwriter makes (maybe) 2% of the budget of the film and then has to do rewrites (which are invariably TERRIBLE) based on the director/ producer/ actors’ notes multiple times throughout the process. Now don’t get me wrong, I obviously value others’ opinions (see above answer), but it gets very soul-crushing to be the one whose specialty is the story, yet having the least amount of control over it in the room. So writing novels was my escape from this, the ability to tell the stories I wanted to tell the way I wanted to tell them.

Which is why I avoid the traditional process like the plague: It’s the same thing I was trying to escape from the film world. Now this is my personal path, and I do not begrudge anyone who wants to go the traditional route. I just didn’t have the time/ inclination to start the same process over again at this point in my life. And, as advances drop and publishers try to wring diminishing profits out of their authors and new mediums like e-books and audio books, I feel I’ve made the right decision.

Q] One of the big challenges with self-publishing is finding readers. Was that your experience?

MDP: Oh dear God, yes. As wonderfully democratic as it is that anyone can now publish a book and get around those mythical gatekeepers of quality in the traditional publishing approach, the double-edged sword takes effect in that anyone can publish a book… usually of dubious quality. And as much as I am a proponent of self-publishing, I do realize there’s a lot, LOT of crap out there flooding the market. So the real problem in being a new self-published author is convincing a potential reader that you’re not like the rest of those terrible writers.

Which, just like a serial killer, is exactly what a terrible writer/ serial killer would say.

I did make some good early connections with fellow authors early on, but Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off was really a turning point for me in finding an audience. I ended up here at Fantasy Book Critic, and while I lost the opportunity to bear your banner to the championship round to eventual second-place winner Alec Hutson, the reviews I received here gave me that seal of approval I could tout to others as to why they should give my books a chance.

Q] What advice would you give someone who wants to self-publish?

MDP: Learn the lay of the land. Writing is a great personal experience, but you need an audience. And chances are you’re probably writing for/ in a subgenre. So go find that subgenre and where they hang out ahead of time. Become one of them so your book will have a better chance of reaching a receptive audience when it comes out.

Then make sure to put out a professional product. The reason self-publishing gets a bad rap is because much of it is crap. So rise above and take the extra effort to look like the real deal. That means professional proofreading, editing, and a great cover… all things I made mistakes on in my first fledgling steps.

But there are resources out there for authors now, covering everything from how much you should spend on editing to creating your author newsletter. Learn it and practice it.

Q] As you know, I'm a huge fan of your series. The novels can be read simply for fun and engaging plot, but they also deal with issues of politics, sacrifice and religious zealotry. Why were these themes important for you to write about?

MDP: I joke that the true pitch of my series is The Last Airbender put through the True Detective blender, which is to say I want to take everything that is bright and enjoyable of a fantasy world, then cover it in grit. And as much as I’m riding the current grimdark wave as it crests, I think it’s important that we don’t gloss over these big issues as we write our escapist genre. I’m a firm believer in the anti-hero, which also means that no one thinks they’re the villain in their own story. Which is why it matters so much to me that there’s shades of grey from all perspectives in this series.

Q] What was your initial inspiration for the Sol's Harvest series?

MDP: Oops, I answered that above. It really was The Last Airbender in that I wanted to test myself to see if I could create a world equally as lavish and interesting as that series, and True Detective in that I wanted to do a multiple timeline tale where you get to watch the protagonist(s) arc twice in the telling of each book, so that when you finish one timeline the events that preceded it now offer a different perspective than when you were reading it at the time.

Q] The thing I really enjoyed about the story was how you’ve orchestrated different, but converging time lines and how each book of the series focuses on a different character. Why have you decided to write them this way?

MDP: That’s the True Detective influence again (I should probably read the upcoming questions ahead of time so I will stop answering them in the previous questions). But each perspective adds new insight to previous events, so that knowing what you do about Luca in book two, you would read book one differently. Ditto with Graff from book three. And don’t even get me started on how book four will shift the understanding of the whole series…

Q] One of the things I’m torn about is my favorite character in this series, and that’s a good thing. I am definitely partial to Marta, though I probably find Luca most charming and Graff interesting in a creepy way. Do you have a favorite to write yourself?

MDP: I shouldn’t admit this, but Carmichael and Oleander were probably my favorites. I do like Marta and Luca (and Isabelle) as characters, but I don’t think I’d like to actually hang out with them as people. Not now that I’ve dealt with them for years on end. Oleander gets the benefit of the doubt because she’s remembered as a perfect and loving foil by Marta, which Carmichael is the exact opposite embodiment of. Which makes him so much fun to write.

Is it bad that I always identify with villains?

Q] The characters do develop and change as you read the novels. Did you find your own views of the characters changed as you were writing or was it always your intention for things to be “as they are”?

MDP: All their arcs are mapped out way ahead of time, although the path they take to get to those beats that I’ve planned out sometimes surprise me in the execution. And yes, my opinion of Graff changed significantly before/ after writing book three.

Q] The setting of the books is excellent. Though we’re not told everything, there feels like a rich backstory of history, myth and legend. 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?

MDP: This is a tough question in that I’m currently doing research on a book on fantasy worldbuilding and will talk your ear off on the subject. But I do think it’s something we should discuss as fantasy fans/ authors because I think, along with plot and characters (and maybe prose), worldbuilding is one of the table legs that support our genre.

Personally speaking, I wrote something like 100 pages of worldbuilding spanning from their creation myth to the different factions currently vying for control before I even began outlining the books. But worldbuilding is a lot like backstory for characters in that, while the author needs to know it all, the audience doesn’t. It’s all about context and what you think is necessary for the story to make sense. I tried to show-not-tell the bits I could, but didn’t fear the infodump when I couldn’t. How well I accomplished creating audience context is entirely up to the readers to decide though.

Q] What sort of research did you do for Sol’s Harvest?

MDP: I hate to admit, but most of my research was Wikipedia. I mean, I read some books on the Civil War as well as a lot of myths, but mostly relied upon my memory of high school history and used my imagination (it is fantasy after all). Wikipedia was for moments where I needed specific details like how many troops are actually in a brigade.

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

MDP: The most difficult part was the starting out as a self-published author and not knowing a damn thing. It was like being a newly blinded person let loose in a mob and told to go purchase a train ticket from a machine a half-mile away (I don’t know where that simile came from). Needless to say, there was a lot of fumbling and some skinned knees.

The best part, I hope, is yet to come when book four comes out and people see this unholy monstrosity I’ve wrought over the last several years.

Q] If you would be given the chance to rewrite any of the scenes in The Woven Ring before publication, would you do it? If yes, what and why?

MDP: I would rewrite it from page one on until the final punctuation mark. Not the story beats, mind you, but the prose. As I’ve said, I hate my own. But I hate what I’ve recently written less than I hate what I wrote long ago. Which is why I only read what I’ve already published to find specific details I need for the current story. Otherwise, reading it pains me since I want to correct it to fit my current style.

Q] Would you say that Sol’s Harvest series follows tropes or kicks them?

MDP: Well, it kicks the farmboy with a sword trope in the balls right out the gate with an aristocratic female with all the gifts who has already failed at life as the protagonist. Although I guess she does have a sword. There’s also no immediately obvious prophesy or dark one, and I do sort of end the initial quest in book two of four.

Which might be why this series isn’t that popular: People like tropes and I don’t think I included nearly enough.

Q] Which question about Sol’s Harvest series do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

MDP: Will character X be the final POV for book four? I love that question because it shows that people are engaged enough to care. And I can’t really answer because that would give it away.

But that was sort of a cheat. So I’ll leave you with this creepy question I got once: Will Marta and Carmichael ever make out?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Noooooooooo!

Q] Do you have a plan for your career as an author? At the moment you are wrapping up Sol's Harvest tetralogy. Do you have any other authorial goals that you are striving towards that you want to talk about?

MDP: As I said, I’m going to try my hand at a non-fiction book on fantasy worldbuilding when this is through. Then I’ll kick off an urban fantasy series that’s been living in my head rent-free for almost two decades. And I’m also considering returning to the world of Ayr with a series of novellas exploring the other continents and their particular magics with one of the surviving characters from this series. But we’ll see how much energy I actually have.

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

MDP: Neil Gaiman’s The Wake: I had so many feels for this one that I don’t think I’ll ever produce in anyone ever, even if I live to be 100. 100 Years of Solitude: Just plain lush. And I’ve always wanted to make a movie out of Peter Hoeg’s Borderliners because of the way he captures alienation in a way I’ve never been able to. Although I’ve certainly tried.

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

MDP: You’re kidding, right? You appreciate my time?! How often does an author, especially a self-published one, get to go on about themselves on a stage like this without having to pay money (or perhaps an organ) for? Seriously, much of the success that I do have comes from Fantasy Book Critic and the support you’ve shown me, an unknown author with no connections. You opened the doors for me and I will never forget that.

So if you ever need a body buried west of the Mississippi, you got my number.

East? Well, I know a guy…

Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Glass Dagger by M. D. Presley (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order The Glass Dagger over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Woven Ring
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Imbued Lockblade

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Born and raised in Texas, Matthew D. Presley spent several years on the East Coast and now lives in California with his wife. His favorite words include defenestrate, callipygian, and Algonquin. The fact that monosyllabic is such a long word keeps him up at night. He’s also worked as a professional Hollywood screenwriter who has written for Chinese TV serials as well. When not writing, he also makes jewelry for fun. The Woven Ring was his debut book. 

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Some Monsters Secure Our Safety.

Everyone fears a Render, those chosen by Sol to sever the bonds of life with their glass blades. And no Render is more feared than Graff, who single-handedly held the line at Stone Cleaver. Hundreds died by his hand during the Grand War, and hundreds more in the intervening years, despite Graff not spilling a single drop of blood. A relentless monster, Graff has set his sights on the child Caddie, and not even Marta can stop him.

And now Luca doubts if she even should.

Their band shattered and original mission scattered to the winds, Marta must ally with old enemies as new friends betray her. Worse still, Marta now suspects something dark dwells deep in the child she now considers her own.

FORMAT/INFO: The Glass Dagger is 461 pages long divided over twenty-nine chapters. Narration is in the third person via Marta Childress, Luca Dolphus and Solace Graff. This is the third volume of the Sol’s Harvest series.

The book was self-published by the author on February 6th, 2019  as an e-book. Cover art and design is provided by  Michael Shinde.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Solace Graff, Render extraordinaire, is a creep. A huge, clumsy bloke with a glass eye, insane powers and total lack of interest in personal hygiene or well being. His lifelong obsession to become the greatest living Render living on Ayr made him stark raving mad. Obviously, there’s much more to it than we suspected and Graff’s dark past hides many surprises.

In The Glass Dagger, MD Presley brings important plot and character arcs to a satisfying and surprising conclusion, while simultaneously opening new ones.We learn who Caddie is and why the future of Ayr may depend on whether she lives or dies. We learn who and why made the civil war start and how key characters’ pasts intertwined and converged off-page. New reveals blew my mind and attest to MD Presley’s impeccable plotting skills. I love the way he orchestrates timelines and characters arcs while moving between them.

The real joy of the book is how well the magic integrates with the rich Ayr’s mythology. The result feels compelling and immersive and every chapter draws the reader deeper into the dark and disturbing story. The plot, while mostly journey- and hunt-based (Graff and Luca follow Marta and Caddy) has enough twists to remain compelling even after the characters and world are established. Add to this cinematic fight sequences and enjoy the ride.

The Glass Dagger stumbled only with characterisation. An autistic, overpowered and single-minded Graff, while intriguing lacks complexity. Marta, Luca and Isabel lost a sense of direction (a deliberate choice of the author before the final book, I think) and turned into feral animals that fight, bite and destroy things.

Especially Marta. A pity as I always loved her as a character. Killing is her second nature. Caddie awakened her maternal instincts. When someone threatens Caddie, their life ends in seconds. Speaking bluntly, for the most of the story characters feel flatter than in previous instalments. Although their relationships still have much growing left to do, many of the later scenes in the book between them (and in various configurations) felt emotionally rushed. That said, Marta and Carmichael’s confrontation was excellent and showed a genuine development of Marta as a character. It also hit her where she’s always been most vulnerable.

CONCLUSION: While this book won’t make you sit back and feel good about the world, it’ll make you reflect and wonder (on politics, religion, beliefs and ambitions) and that’s the power of a good novel. MD Presley doesn’t provide a salivating cliffhanger, but he sets the stage for final reveals I can’t wait to discover. After this ending, I have little doubt that the ultimate book will be anything less than breathtaking. I can’t wait to see how it wraps up.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Imbued Lockblade by M. D. Presley (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order The Imbued Lockblade over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Woven Ring

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Born and raised in Texas, Matthew D. Presley spent several years on the East Coast and now lives in California with his family. His favorite words include defenestrate, callipygian, and Algonquin. The fact that monosyllabic is such a long word keeps him up at night. He’s also worked as a professional Hollywood screenwriter who has written for Chinese TV serials as well. When not writing, he also makes jewelry for fun. The Woven Ring was his debut book.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Over the Mueller Line and stalking across the Eastern homeland she betrayed during the Grand War, Marta Childress now cares for the catatonic Caddie Hendrix, whom she has been tasked to deliver to the child’s father. Too bad Marta secretly intends on killing the man to save the nation of Newfield a second civil war.

Executed on the spot if anyone uncovers her identity, Marta also flees the relentless Render Graff and an unstoppable glassman, only to learn too late that worse horrors await her in the East. Fortunately, she can depend on her new freebooter friends Isabelle and Luca.

Yet Luca harbors secrets of his own, a grubber boy born with nothing but whose ambition earned him an imbued lockblade enchanted to ensure his victory so long as he holds it in hand.

FORMAT/INFO: The Imbued Lockblade is 321 pages long divided over thirty-seven chapters. Narration is in the third person via Marta Childress and Luca Dolphus mostly. This is the second volume of the Sol’s Harvest series.

November 20, 2017 marked the e-book & paperback publication of The Imbued Lockblade and it was self-published by the author. Cover art and design is provided by Amit Dutta.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: After finishing The Woven Ring, I was thrilled to learn that the sequel was ready. The world of Ayr is worth discovering. Besides, I also have a small crush on Marta and there’s still plenty to learn about Carmichael’s schemes along with Luca and Isabelle’s pasts. There are multiple reasons to read this series. That’s why I applied to read ARC of the book through author’s website. Sadly, I wasn’t bribed to write this review. I received ARC. No check. Shame :/

If you haven’t read The Woven RingSol’s Harvest series can be described as a fantasy re-imagining of the American Civil War. It is important to note, though, that author uses history as inspiration for his story that happens in a world full of its own unique fantasy elements.

A major magical conceit is Breath, an essence left over from Sol's (deity/god) sacrifice of his life essence. Said essence flowed over the world and created life, each living thing containing a fragment of their creator (the Breath):
- Plants, as the simplest, have only one, making up the Body.
- Animals have two; the Body and Mind.
- Humans, as Sol's chosen, have three: Body, Mind, and Soul.

But some humans, known as Blessed, are born with four Breaths and gain additional abilities based on where the additional Breath resides. If it's in the Body, they can create psychic exoskeletons. If the Mind, they can either hear or influence the thoughts of others. And if it's in the Soul, they are able to control the Breath around them.

The Imbued Lockblade starts where we were left in The Woven Ring ending. Marta Childress accompanied by a pair of freebooters Luca and Isabelle plans to deliver catatonic (not fully) Caddie Hendrix to the child’s father. Too bad Marta secretly intends on killing the man to save the nation of Newfield from a second civil war.

She starts to trust her companions but she may be proven wrong as it seems Luca has plenty of secrets. In a similar way to The Woven Ring, The Imbued Lockblade merges (coherently) two storylines. One happening in the present, the other, showing Luca’s past and a path to becoming who he is, in the present.

Both plotlines move forward building up to a dual climax. I think the pacing was good, although, even before starting the book I was invested in the story and characters. For me, it was like a meeting with exciting people I want to know more about. I can imagine that readers focused on non-stop action may find pacing a bit slow in places. If you like Luca and want to know more about him, you’ll be thrilled by plenty of insights. If you don’t care about him, well, there’s a risk you’ll feel overwhelmed by a number of information on his backstory. All packed into action sequences, mind you.

The Imbued Lockblade is definitely a character-driven story. Both protagonists and antagonists are rather complex and morally ambiguous characters. They’re caught in a conflict that brings both worst and best from them. Each of them has dreams, plans, and aspirations, however, the civil war and personal dreams and conflicts influence their choices. And their choices influence others.

Marta is my favorite character, hands down. She’s not always likable and she was described as an antihero. To be honest, I don’t really see her as an antihero. After what she went through, I wouldn’t expect her to be sunny and cheerful. She’s definitely morally ambiguous but it’s precisely this that makes her so interesting to me. If you hoped that she would go to the pub with Graf and Carmichael to have beer, get things straight and tell some jokes, it won’t happen. Neither does she happily fall in love. Instead, she faces dangerous foes. Also, she’s painfully proven wrong. Even when she believed she had cut all of Carmichael’s strings, she still found herself playing her part in his performance without ever having seen the script. Both, irrepressible Render Graf and powerful Glassman Berenice Mauch are interested in destroying Marta as well. It’s too much and there’s a scene where Marta finally unleashes her fury and believe me it’s a slaughterhouse. Marta’s new Armor (sort of Exoskeleton) makes her dangerous in a fight. Wood and stone crumble before it like porcelain. I like her even more now.

It is, however, Luca Dolphus who gets the most attention in this book. We learn about him, his past and his relationship with Isabelle. We see how he’s manipulated by those close to his heart and what kind of human he is. Charming and charismatic, undefeated in a battle as long as he holds his Imbued Blade, Luca is an interesting character. Ambitious and passionate but also ready to sacrifice everything for his loved ones. And the sacrifice he does is great indeed. The story of Luca obtaining the Imbued Lockblade is a bit heart-wrenching and done well. It’s worth noting that part of his storyline describes Luca’s stay in Hottenkof School of Tshi. The concept is great (imagine a lockblade school inspired by flying insects and some cool trials allowing to move further in school hierarchy). I would gladly read a short story focusing on Luca’s misadventures during his stay there. After finishing the book I’m torn between liking and relating to Luca and considering him an asshole. On the other hand, his fate remains a mystery so I want to discover more.

While Isabelle isn’t a POV character, we learn much more about her and her relationship with Luca. Ingio blood runs in her veins and she really is wild at times. But also loyal to the end. A character trait worthy of  the reader's attention and appreciation.

Finally, Caddie’s secret is revealed (although not fully explained). In order not to spoil things, let’s just say that she straddles a unique position in the epistemological understanding of the will of Sol.

World-building continues to impress even more. Its scale and depth are praiseworthy. In book two author explores the culture of the Dobra (his mashup of the Roma/ Jewish traditions in our world). We learn a lot about their traditions and lifestyle. As well as their secret rituals, like imbuing things, a process that requires death. The clan structure is quite detailed and complicated.

Writing and prose are precise and to the point. There’s little of what you might call purple prose. The author seems to enjoy including archaisms and informal American terms, so checking some of the words in the dictionary was a fun (happily Kindle built-in dictionary is quite handy and helpful).

CONCLUSION: If you enjoyed The Woven Ring, chances are you’ll love The Imbued Lockblade. Especially if, like me, you were curious about Luca and Isabelle’s pasts. Luca is a true hero of this story – we learn a lot about him and Dobra culture. The book ends with a sort of cliffhanger or, shall we say, a game changer that will make things even more interesting. I can’t wait to see where the story goes. Also, I’m quite curious if the author will continue the tradition of telling the story in two parallel timelines presented in alternated chapters. I won’t lie. Carmichael’s perspective on the events could be compelling, given how finely he pulls all the strings. I wouldn’t mind learning more about Isabelle either.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Exclusive Cover Reveal: We Lie With Death by Devin Madson (by Devin Madson)

Official Author Site
Pre-order We Lie With Death over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of We Ride The Storm
Read The Fantasy Hive's Cover Reveal for We Ride The Storm

Right from the beginning, I knew I wanted to have the point of view characters on the covers of this series, but that was immediately a problem because I don’t have a visual imagination. I don’t know what my characters look like. To me they are a collection of words and traits and motivations and feelings all wrapped up in… fuzziness, and it hurts my brain to try to focus that into a proper image. It was easy for Rah on the cover of We Ride The Storm because as a people the Levanti are well described. But Cassandra? I couldn’t have even said with any certainty what colour her hair was,

Fortunately, John Anthony Di Giovanni is a delight to work with and is more than capable of visualizing for me, so I was more excited than nervous to see the finished product. Finally I might get an idea of what she looks like. (She would still be a fuzzy collection of words and traits and motivations and feelings in my mind, but at least I could point to the cover if anyone asked.) As with its predecessor, Shawn T. King, would be doing the cover design for We Lie With Death.

Unlike with the cover of We Ride The Storm, we went through hardly any sketches for this. There really seemed only one way to capture the essence of Cassandra in a single image - doing what she does best:

So without further ado, John, Shawn and I would like to present the full cover of Book Two of The Reborn Empire, We Lie With Death.

(Typography & Design by Shawn T.  King)

Pre-order We Lie With Death from here

Official Book Blurb: Into Kisia’s conquered north, a Levanti empire is born.

Loyal to the new emperor, Dishiva e’Jaroven must tread the line between building a new life and clinging to the old. Only Gideon can lead them, but when he allies himself with a man returned from the dead it will challenge all she thinks she knows and everything she wants to believe.

Now empress of nothing, Miko is more determined than ever to fight for her people, yet with her hunt for allies increasingly desperate, she may learn too late that power lies not in names but in people.

Rah refused to bow to the Levanti emperor, but now abandoned by the Second Swords he must choose whether to fight for his people, or his soul. Will honour be his salvation, or lead to his destruction?

Sold to the Witchdoctor, Cassandra’s only chance of freedom is in his hands, but when her fate becomes inextricably linked to Empress Hana, her true nature could condemn them both.

There is no calm after the storm.


NOTE: Devin Madson's books picture courtesy of Petrik of Novel Notions blog.
Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Never Die Release Interview with Rob J. Hayes (interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Never Die over HERE (USA) and HERE (UK)
Read Chapter One of Never Die over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Never Die
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 Fantasy Book Critic's Post COK interview with Rob J. Hayes
Read A Game of ̶T̶h̶r̶o̶n̶e̶s̶ Death by Rob J. Hayes (guest post)

Q] Welcome back to Fantasy Book Critic Rob, it’s a brand new year and I believe you have some brand new stories for us? What should readers be expecting from you in 2019?

RJH: Thanks for having me back. Yes, a new year and some new tales to share. First off is my Asian-inspired sword and sorcery novel, Never Die. It’s a story about Ein, a murdered 8-year-old boy who is brought back to mostly life by a shinigami in order to carry out a quest to kill the Emperor of Ten Kings. To accomplish this task he is given the ability to bring heroes back to life and bind them to his cause, but first those heroes have to die. Never Die is coming out today (Jan 29th 2019).

And later on in the year I will be publishing the first book in a new high-fantasy trilogy. The first book is called Along the Razor’s Edge, and it is set almost entirely in the confines of an underground prison. It follows a character called Eskara Helsene, a young mage who fought in the greatest war mankind has ever seen. Fought, and lost. Stripped of her magic, Eskara is thrown into a prison that is run by the very criminals it keeps locked up. There she must make new allies, learn new skills, and stay alive long enough to find a way to escape. I don’t have a definite release date on that one yet, but you can expect it in the back end of the year.

I also have a few other projects that might see the light of day (some short stories and the like), but I can’t say much else about those just yet.

Q] Never Die is your fourth new world and story that you have created in your published career. Can you talk to us about its inception? What lead you down this path and how did you develop this story?

RJH: Oddly enough, the book started out as something else entirely. Its initial inception came from watching a trailer for a video game (I can’t even remember the name of it) where larger than life heroes were defending a city from attack. I had this idea about the heroes dying in the siege and being brought back to life. At that point I had in mind to write the story in the litRPG genre, but have the game as a MOBA (mobile online battle arena) instead of a MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role playing game). The MOBA genre is a style of game where heroes face off against other heroes and respawn (come back to life) when they die. In the planning stages of that novel, I decided to scrap the litRPG concept and write it as a sword and sorcery novel heavily inspired by both anime and eastern martial arts films.

I’m very much a pantser/gardener. I set out with a rough plan that involves the basic beginning middle and end, and hope the rest comes to me as I write. Well it really did in this case. The big twists at the end (I won’t spoil them ๐Ÿ˜‰ ), popped into my mind one day when I was about 1/3rd of the way through writing the book. I had to go back and do a fair amount of rewriting in order to make them fit, but I think most early readers are very happy I did.

Q] You have been a huge anime fan and often like to talk about it. What can you tell us about your anime love and how it manifested in Never Die?

RJH: Yeah I’m a fairly big anime geek. Started out as a kid watching things like Legend of the Four Kings and Ninja Scroll on late night TV. Then I accidentally stumbled across Dragonball Z one day… these days my house is full of anime figures and paraphernalia.

I think the inspiration I took from anime in writing Never Die is completely pervasive. Some early readers have said it’s the most like watching an anime they’ve ever felt from a book, and that was pretty intentional. From the over-the-top characters each with their own unique abilities, to the heavy quest-drive storyline. I wrote the book wanting to capture the energy, excitement, and straight up cool factor I used to feel when I watched the old anime TV shows, or those crazy martial art films from Hong Kong.

There’s also quite a few little homages in there. I won’t spoil many, but those of you who are familiar with Cowboy Bebop will instantly recognize the murdered 8-year-old’s name.

Q] The world within the book is definitely inspired by East Asian terminology and certain distinct mythologies (Japanese). How did you go about picking what you wanted to utilize versus what you didn’t?

RJH: Yeah, it’s no secret that the majority of fantasy is set in worlds that are very Eurocentric in feel. I wanted this one to feel East Asian down to its very bones. However, I have a few different areas of interest that I really wanted to represent. I’m a big fan of the setting of the Chinese epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It has feuding warlords, major battles, heroes and villains that really stand out. But then I’m also a big fan of samurai, and also of a lot of Japanese myths and legends. I knew from the get go I was going to therefor be mashing together different cultural influences, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about how the result would be received.

I can only hope at the end of the day people see that the book isn’t meant as any sort of cultural statement, but entirely as a love-letter to the things that have inspired me throughout my life, and helped shape me as an author.

Q] The world nestled within the pages seems such a vibrant and complex one. Will you be writing any further stories set in this world (besides The Two Faces Of War from the ART OF WAR charity anthology)?

RJH: No guarantees. I have a lot on at the moment with different projects… BUT… I do have an idea for another story set in this world.

(The Two Faces Of War art by Jason Deem)

Q] Is The Two Faces Of War (short story) set chronologically before or after the events of Never Die? That story was such a somber one but it had a lot of gravitas to it. How did its genesis occur? What was your aim with it vis-ร -vis the theme of the anthology?

RJH: From a chronological standpoint it is set before the events in Never Die, but the two stories have no relevance to each other, other than being set in the same world. The Two Faces of War really came about because of the cause the anthology was created for. Petros (the lord high marshal of BookNest) created The Art of War anthology to raise money for Doctors Without Borders. So I decided I wanted to write a story that was both about war, and about the doctors who patch up the victims of that war. And I really wanted to point out with that story that people really aren’t that different. Whether you’re a soldier on one side of the conflict, or a doctor on the other side of it, we’re all human. We’re all people with hopes, dreams, pasts, family. So that story is really about a lull in the conflict, where two people, each from a different side of the battle, come together to share a drink and unload their stress about the events of the day and the battle.

Q] Based on your most recent blog post, you seem to have more than one new project in the works? Can you tell us about them?

RJH: I can say a bit. My next project is an epic fantasy. The books will be a bit longer than I usually write and will focus heavily on the characters’ journeys throughout the evolving story arc. I can’t say much at the moment other than… There will be angels!

Q] So epic fantasy is your next destination, how would you stamp your unique signature on this genre?

RJH: I’ve come to realize that my unique signature is very much in the characters. I like to write characters who feel real. They don’t talk like heroes or walking exposition dumps, but like real people who often times have no idea what they’re doing… and sometimes no idea what they’re saying. I also like to think I utilize a very subtle form of world building. The worlds I write are revealed more in character interactions and observations rather than narrative exposition.

Q] After the release of Never Die, which will be your next book release? In your previous interview you had mentioned Along The Razor’s Edge? When are you planning to release it? Any plans for the cover art?

RJH: Along The Razor’s Edge will be coming later in this year. Probably the fourth quarter, but that release date is far from certain at this point. I must admit I haven’t even started looking at the cover art for it yet. I will say this though, it’s my first fantasy novel written in first person perspective. So that’s something a bit new for me.

Q] Recently you tweeted this image (see above) and mentioned it as research. Can you tell us anything about it?

RJH: Nope. ๐Ÿ˜

Q] What titles (irrespective of genre) are you eagerly awaiting in 2019? Concurrently which authors (that you enjoyed previously) would you like to highlight for our readers?

RJH: Oh there’s quite a few. Though the chances are I won’t read any of the books this year. I have such a backlog of a tbr. But in 2019 I’m definitely looking forward to Mark Lawrence’s new books (Holy Sister, One Word Kill). The finale installment of Dyrk Ashton’s Paternus trilogy. Book 3 of Josiah Bancroft’s Books of Bable series (The Hod King). The final book in Ed McDonald’s Raven’s Mark series.

As for highlighting an author I’ve read recently. I’d lose my fanboy status if I didn’t mention Chris Wooding’s The Ember Blade. I recently read and loved We Ride The Storm by Devin Madson. I’ve recently started reading Ben Galley’s Chasing Graves, which oddly enough stars a main character who dies in the first chapter (looks like we both had the same idea there).

I could mention so many more, but I’ll leave it there.

Q] Thank you for your time. I personally can’t wait to read all your new works. I’m sure our fans share the sentiment. What parting thoughts would you offer for your fans?

RJH: Thanks for having me. I would like to part by promising people that there are more First Earth books coming. I haven’t given up on my grimdark world, just taken a little break as I’m halfway through the saga. There is a new trilogy in the works though, and it will explore more about the Drurr race, and also about the deteriorating boundary between life and death.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Never Die by Rob J. Hayes (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo & Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Pre-order Never Die 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 Fantasy Book Critic's Post COK interview 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: Ein is on a mission from God. A God of Death.

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

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

FORMAT/INFO: Never Die is 273 pages long divided into forty-one titled and numbered chapters and an prologue. The narration is in third person omniscient via Itami Cho the Whispering Blade, Zhihao Cheng the Emerald Wind, Iron Gut Chen Lu, Bingwei Ma the undefeated wushu master of Sun Valley & Roi Astara aka Death’s Echo. This book is a standalone title and is set in a completely new world.

January 29, 2018 will mark the US and UK e-book publication of Never Die and will be self-published by the author. Cover art is by Felix Ortiz & design is provided by Shawn King.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (Lukasz): Wuxia is violent and anti-Confucian but also fun!

Rob Hayes delivers a thrilling take on classic principles and conventions of wuxia while casting them in a new light (and in a secondary world based on east-Asian influences). Wandering warriors are mostly, but not fully, alive. Some follow a code of honour, others don’t care about such nonsense. 

A mysterious eight-year-old boy - Ein sets on a mission to kill the Emperor of Ten Kings. He can’t do it alone. He needs the help of heroes, preferably legendary ones. To serve him, they must first die.

A plot summary barely conveys the extraordinary energy of this book. At first glance, it sounds like a simple story. Ein recruits the team and they confront the bad guy in an explosive final battle. Such a description, while sound, doesn’t do the justice to the characters and their dynamics. Never Die blends reversals, unexpected meetings, betrayals, cliffhangers and lovingly described combat. 

Each character has a special skill (in some cases reflected by his/her name - Whispering Blade, Iron Gut) crucial to the success of the team. Each feels distinct and memorable. I especially liked Bingwei-Ma and Itami Cho, probably two most honourable team members. That said, others were intriguing and likable as well. Iron Gut and Emerald Wind's banter brought life and humor to the pages, while Death's Echo's behaviour raised many questions.

I will stop here because Never Die is so full of nail-biting twists and turns that I don’t want to spoil the experience. For me, it’s a fantastically entertaining piece of suspenseful action storytelling with a killer ending.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (Mihir): Never Die is Rob J. Hayes' newest standalone fantasy and the first of his two releases in 2019. Rob was inspired to write this fantasy story due to an action sequence in a video game trailer as well as the innumerable anime movies that he gorged upon in his impressionable years. The world of Never Die was first introduced in Rob's short story in "The Two Faces of War" in the Art Of War: Anthology for Charity. For disclosure purposes, I was an alpha reader for an earlier draft of this book.

Never Die introduces us to a world which is based on several nations/regions in East Asia. The story is primarily set in the region of Hosa (China analogue) and there are quite a few other regions mentioned such as Ipia, Unga, Cochtan & Nash. I believe they might correspond to Japan, Mongolia, & India or Tibet. The story focuses on a young boy named Ein who's tasked by a Shinigami (a death god) to kill the Emperor of ten kings of Hosa. But such a task is nigh impossible considering the Emperor's superhuman powers and stature. However Ein has an edge, he's out to recruit his favorite warriors from his book of heroes to help him in his task. The only catch, they must first die so he can bind them to his cause.

Focusing on four characters, Itami Cho the Whispering Blade from Ipia, Zhihao Cheng the Emerald Wind, Iron Gut Chen Lu, & Bingwei Ma the undefeated wushu master of Sun Valley. Joining them in this mission in an enigmatic assassin called Roi Astara a.k.a. Death's Echo, his loyalties are unknown as are his motivations. But the only constant is that he's dying of a particular disease that forces him to wrap himself in bandages and hope that his body is able to survive till the end. Rounding out the cast is young Ein whose intention is singular and powered with death magic, he will do everything in his power to kill the emperor for reasons only shared between him and the Shinigami. The prologue of the story is short, dark and reads "Itami Cho woke to the screams of her own death. She remembered it all!"

The story beginning on such a somber note proceeds to quickly introduce the plot and characters involved. Primarily we get the story from Itami's and Zhihao's viewpoints and secondarily from Chen Lu, Bingwei Ma and Roi Astara. Rob J. Hayes has created a story that primarily focuses on a revenge plot and seems pretty dark. But (and this is big) the world isn't a grimdark one, in fact an argument could be made for it being epic or heroic fantasy. Still not noblebright though as that would be a bridge too far for the author ๐Ÿ˜„

The world is very reminiscent of a parallel earth and steeped in Japanese mythology. The author liberally uses terms and creatures like Yokai, Oni, Jikininki, etc. which mean the same as they do on our Earth. But he also uses terms like Shintei and Thopters which correspond to specific things on our Earth (which the readers can RAFO). This world is a very deep one as snippets of its geography, history and peculiarities are sprinkled throughout the story. Nothing is particularly spelled out but you will have to pay attention as there are a lot of clues, nods and hints interspersed throughout.

Besides the intriguing world setting, the characters are the strongest component of the story. Beginning with Itami Cho, the troubled Shintei warrior, then Zhihao Cheng a bandit whose moral qualms are shakier than most. Iron gut Chen Lu is a boastful glutton whose powers and most striking physical characteristic start and end with his gargantuan stomach. Then there's also Bingwei Ma, the most heroic character of them all but also the one that might be the hardest to bend to Ein's strategy. All these characters along with Ein and Roi Astara, give the readers plenty to ponder about. These POV characters are multi-faceted and come in all shades. We have outright heroic characters, we have those who strive to achieve good but are more opportunistic. Plus there are those who are cruel and evil so to speak but they have their reasons and while they might not be palatable to most common folks, those reasons are their own.

The POV characters as well as the secondary ones are fully realized characters with motivations as pure and putrid as any found in our lives. They have their frustrations, they don't get along and aren't quite sure of Ein's true motives. How would they? He's an eight year old that brings back people to life and binds them his cause:

"Cho now realized the boy would make monsters of them before his quest was done!"

There's also a very solid mystery to this revenge storyline:

- What did happen to Ein?

- Why does he want to kill the Emperor?

- Why does he wear a red scarf and no shoes? (see the magnificent cover for Ein's red scarf).

These are pertinent questions and all of them are answered with some mental deduction by the readers as well as some huge plot twists by the author. Including the biggest twist of them all which left me stunned and was one which I don't think has been explored much in the fantasy genre. This was a particularly wicked one and I truly can't talk more. But believe me, you will know when you stumble across it as do the characters...

The story is filled with action sequences and personal battles that bring to mind Wuxia literature and anime movies. The author is a huge fan of anime and manga and there are plenty of homages and nods snuck in throughout the book. One particular reference is about China's most celebrated historical epic and it was a nice wink. I appreciated how Rob Hayes has managed to utilize East Asian lore and martial arts aspects and add his own particular brand of twisted plotlines to give us a revenge story that's uniquely his own. This world that's introduced within is too interesting for the author to just give us a standalone entry. I hope that the author write more stories set in this world as I would like to know more about:

- Of the Century Blade's past as well as the outcome of his fifth trial,

- The troubles and possible conflict with the Cochtan,

- The true backstory & the future of Daiyu Lingsen also referred to as The Art Of War by friends and foes alike.

There's just so much of this world that's mentioned in a throwaway line or character remembrance that as a reader, I was completely entranced and left wanting to explore more of it.

Lastly I must say that the cover of this book is truly fantastic. Artist Felix Ortiz & designer Shawn King have come up with something unique and wondrous. The cover matches the brilliance of the story and dare I say perhaps outshines it. As self-published books go, this cover is one of the best that I've ever seen and rivals the best that traditionally published books have to offer. Don't believe me, the Barnes & Noble SF&F blog folks say so as they hosted the cover reveal for the book. Making this a special first for any self-published title or author ever in the history of the fantasy genre. Now that's just a particular inkling for the kind of book this is.

With such a superlative story, there’s not many faults that I find in this story. But to be objective, the only thing I can say is that the final twist is perhaps not telegraphed as smoothly as it could have been. Again I can’t talk more without spoiling the story and so I’ll just leave it at that. Lastly as an Asian, I’m glad to say this book is very much a homage to the anime and manga medium. It utilizes several aspects of Japanese mythology and their usage is done with proper context.

CONCLUSION: Never Die is an incredibly action-packed, twisted story that showcases another side to Rob J. Hayes’ writing. With shades of epic fantasy, action-packed sequences as well as East Asian mythology, Never Die is a fantastic amalgamation that solidly underscores why Mark Lawrence emphatically calls Rob J. HayesOne of self-publishing rising stars”.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Kingdom Of Copper by S. A. Chakraborty (reviewed by Will Byrnes)

Official Author Website
Order The Kingdom Of Copper over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The City Of Brass

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Can you ever make a new world that properly addresses the wounds of the past? - from Lightspeed Magazine interview

The Kingdom of Copper is the second in S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy, and it must be trying harder, as the first was amazing and this one is at least as good. I suppose you might pick this book up and have an entirely fine time reading it, but I would not advise it. If you have not read the first one, The City of Brass, jump on your flying carpet and dash off to your local bookstore. (Oh, and could you pick up some lamp oil at the bazaar on your way back? Thanks.) I suppose you could use one of your wishes to just make it appear, but really, that would be cheesy. It’s like Game of Thrones. Yeah, you can jump in at some point and catch up bit by bit, but, really, you have to be there from the beginning to get the most from it. Ditto here. Come back after you have read volume one, ok? And if you have already read #1, then Salaam and good evening to you, worthy friend.

So, when we left our heroes, Nahri, an orphan of a hustler from Cairo, who discovered she had skills, is stuck in Daevabad, the nominal city of the series title. Her buddy of a prince, Ali, had been banished from the kingdom for opposing his pop, the ruthless, genocidal, king Ghassan, and Darayavahoush (Dara to you and me), a complicated Djinn sort, monstrous warrior, hottie, and decent guy, was done in by said Prince Ali, although Ali may not have been entirely in charge of himself when it happened.

We are several years on. Nahri is married to Muntadhir, Ali’s older brother, the heir apparent, handsome, smart, and the epitome of Mr. Wrong. More of a political alliance than a love match. (Marry my son, or I will start slaughtering your people. Well, since you put it that way, sure.) Ali is making a life for himself in a desert town, using his newfound talent for things aqueous to locate underground water, or make it appear, or something. He is reluctant to make too much of a life for himself, as he remains the target of occasional assassins, and would spare potential family members the discomfort of having to plant him, or maybe get caught in the crossfire. Dara, who we thought was gone, is only sort-of gone. He is brought back from some plane of existence where he was wandering by forces that are less than divine, but hey, he gets to live a bit more, so whatev! On the other hand, Dara is enslaved again, made to take on a mission he would probably be happier skipping. (Mass slaughter is sooo last millennium) And he is stuck in a material form he is not thrilled with. So, a mixed bag. All three must contend with not only external hostile forces, but internal moral crossroads. (yeah, like Grand Central Station)

In The City Of Brasswe alternated between Nahri and Ali’s POV. This book adds Dara’s, although for far fewer pages than the other two. There is overlap, of course, as combinations of the three engage at diverse points. Political intrigue continues to be a major feature here. Very Game Of Thrones, as sundry tribal groups (even within families) vie for influence, power, and turf. Instead of the Seven Kingdoms with their associated Targarians, Lannisters, and Starks, et al, there are tribes. The Geziri are the current ruling class, to which Ali, Muntadhir, and Ghassan belong. Nahri is of the Daeva group. Her ancestors used to rule in Daevabad, until the Geziris drove them out with extreme prejudice. Since you read the first volume, (you read it, right?) you know, it gets complicated.

The motive force for the story in Book #2, Nahri has discovered the remnants of an ancient Nahid hospital in less than wonderful shape, and seeks to have it restored so she can expand her work. In addition, she has learned of non-magical healers in the city, and looks to join with them to broaden her knowledge base and treat all the city’s residents. As one might imagine, this notion meets considerable resistance from those in power. (No, not Steve King) But with the help of Ali, whom she hates, by the way, for killing Dara, (Ali had gotten suckered into coming back to the city, wondering if he would be slaughtered when he arrived.) there is some hope of gettin’ ‘er done. It takes a village, though. Others are brought in to the attempt and politics are played. (Can’t we all just get along?)

There is a big centennial event planned for the city, called Novatetem, Mardi Gras on steroids, parades, floats, feasts, competitions, and, well, there are folks who are planning some unpleasantness. The action accelerates as we get closer and closer, the November 1963 moment in Dallas, the coming hurricane, the ticking bomb. You know the deal. Michael Bay cum White Walkers cum ILM magnificence, and great fun. But also, with characters you care about trying to make it through.

There are secrets aplenty, double-crosses, and some pretty neat magical tech. Toss in a few nifty large-scale monsters for good measure. One of the really cool things about the fabulous environment Chakraborty has created is that buildings constructed by the Nahid respond to Nahri, who is now the #1 Nahid in the place, so is referred to as Banu Nahri e-Nahid, (aka Banu Nahida) or Lady Nahri of the Nahid people, which comes with perks. Pictures on the walls of Nahid buildings animate when she passes. Things like that, and some that are more substantive. Pretty cool.

In addition to the internal struggles with which each of the characters must cope, there are broader-scale motifs. The notion of Occupied People is a strong one in the book.

[In medieval history] so many of these cities and civilizations were the products of waves of conquest. How does that shape the societies that survive them generations later? How do conqueror and conquered influence each other and how do their stories and legends of what happened get transmitted? Can you ever make a new world that properly addresses the wounds of the past? - from Lightspeed Magazine interview

It is a major challenge trying to figure out how to make peace with the travesties wrought on the Nahid by the Geziri, but also on others by the Nahid. How can you step off the eternal wheel of revenge and retribution, how can you heal the wounds of the past? In a very concrete way, Nahri attempts to do just that. Even though she was an impressive healer in book one, she was largely an uneducated one. But she has been working and studying hard, is learning some new tricks, and now, in a place that seems to act as a booster to her abilities, she is becoming an even better doctor. But can Nahri, in league with others, keep the city from descending into the usual cycle of eternal genocidal violence? Can she forgive Ali? Can she survive her crappy, shotgun marriage and her psycho genocidal father in law? It takes more than an ability to repair bodies to heal a city. Chakraborty’s decision to make Nahri a doctor grew out of her own experience:

"I wrote a lot of this while managing a large obstetrics & gynecology practice (while my husband went to medical school), and I really wanted to capture the messy reality of medicine. It’s not always glamourous and noble; it can be exhausting, the work is bloody and tiresome and challenging, and sometimes your patients are terrible. It requires a confidence bordering on arrogance to cut into a person for their own good, and I wanted to show how a character might grow into that." - from the Quill to Live interview

There are bits of humor sprinkled throughout. My favorite is when a shape-shifter with a fondness for turning into a statue, cannot get back to normal, and Nahri is stuck removing pieces of rock from him. “But it’s so peaceful,” he pleads. There is another LOL scene in which Ali is compelled by his father to taste some impressively appalling dishes from around the kingdom. A ref to a hospital room specially designed to keep floating djinn from injuring themselves puts one in mind of a Mary Poppins scene in which characters and furniture dispense with gravity. These were delightful.

There are a lot of details to keep track of, tribes, places, words, characters. Thankfully appendices are provided, as are rather broad view maps. My only disappointment with the book was that Dara did not get as much time as the other two, the definition of a quibble.

CONCLUSION: I’ve gotta say that volume 2 was a major page-turner for me. The ARE I read came in at 608 pages and I wished it were longer, really. (oops, there goes another wish. How many do I have left?) The action is almost non-stop. The characters are seriously engaging. There is actual character development. Moral considerations are treated seriously. There is real content woven into this fantasy world, an appreciation for the literary history of Islamic civilization, and there is wonderful creativity in the details of magic here. The Kingdom of Copper is pretty much all you could possibly wish for in a fantasy read. And you don’t even have to use up the limited supply in your special lamp.

NOTE: This review was originally posted on Will's Goodreads page.

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