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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.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

SPFBO FINALIST: The Gods Of Men by Barbara Kloss (reviewed by D. C. Stewart & Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order The Gods Of Men over HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: As a child, Barbara Kloss loved adventures and reading. As an adult she continues to be a thrill seeker via reading, writing, trekking through the wilderness, and gaming (video games. RPGs, specifically). She previously was a clinical laboratory scientist before she ventured in to writing and publishing her debut series titled The Pandoran Saga.

She currently lives in Northern California with her family. The Gods Of Men is her first foray into high fantasy.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Sable hated the gods. She hated what men did in their name.

Magic is forbidden throughout the Five Provinces; those born with it are hunted and killed. Sable doesn't know her music holds power over souls--not until, at age nine, she plays her flute before the desert court and accidentally stops her baby sister's heart, killing her. Horrified by what she's done and fearing for her life, she flees north, out of Provincial jurisdiction and into the frigid land of exiles and thieves, known as The Wilds. There, Sable lives in hiding, burdened by guilt, and survives as a healer. But now, ten years later, someone--or something--is hunting her.

On the run again, Sable's best chance for survival is Jos, a lethal man from the Five Provinces, who claims to need her skills as a healer to save his dying father, and she needs the large sum of money he's offered. There's something about him Sable doesn't trust, but she doesn't have many options. A spirit of the dead is hunting her, summoned by a mysterious necromancer, and it's getting closer.

Sable soon discovers she's just the start of the necromancer's plan to take over the Five Provinces, and she's the only one with the power to stop it. But harnessing her forbidden power means revealing it to the world, and the dangerous Provincial, Jos, she's beginning to fall for.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (David): The Gods of Men is not the type of book to which I am drawn. It’s categorized on some websites as Young Adult and Romance, two sub-genres I usually avoid. After reading through it, I would place it in neither and simply call it a great fantasy read. There is nothing young adult about it, and the romance, while there, is understated and meaningful. Perhaps the most credit I can give to it, in a way, is to say that Barbara Kloss not only stirred my flame for good fantasy, but also rekindled one for good romance that I had forgotten I had.

The book focuses on a young woman named Sable and a warrior prince named Jeric. It is no secret from the start, given their descriptions, that something steamy might occur between the two, but thankfully for readers the story is not so much about bodice-ripping as it is about power and the ability to overcome extreme obstacles while staying true to onself. Sable, who begins the book as Imari, has a power that she does not understand and one that, early on, kills someone whom she dearly loves. In the aftermath of this tragedy, she flees the courtly desert life she has always known and takes up residence as a poverty-stricken healer in a remote village of The Wilds. How people live, and choose to live, in The Wilds is a potential narrative gap without a satisfactory explanation. The Wilds are a terrible place, woods full of nasty shades and dark overlords who demand tribute lest villagers be put to the sword. It’s like if humans had chosen to live in Mordor.

Jeric, on the other end of the spectrum, is second in line to the Corinthian throne, but has made a reputation for himself as the greatest warrior in the world. He earns this acclaim by his relentless slaughter of a people known as Sol Velorians, a group similar to Sable’s countrymen but with a darker history. His racial genocide earns him the love of his own people and the hate of anyone with darker skin. If this makes Jeric sound like a villain, rest assured that Kloss makes every effort to emphasize the good and bad about each side in this national conflict. In his own eyes, Jeric is a holy warrior, and his cause is right. This view is, of course, shaken up when he meets Sable in The Wilds where they begin a journey that will inexorably change them both.

The narrative of Gods of Men is a familiar tale of what happens when two people of disparate backgrounds come together to find common ground. That they also happen to be extremely attracted to one another only helps with this foundation. It’s Beauty and the Beast, except Jeric looks like Gaston and his transformation is drawn out over the course of an entire book. Sable, like many a Disney princess, is a clueless young woman who denies her own power throughout the entire story. I have mixed feelings about this notion of denying one’s power. It is made very clear that she fears the power that took from her someone she loved, but it has always felt, when reading this type of story, that the protagonists should seek to understand such ability rather than deny it. Pushing down our feelings or emotions, we are often taught, is the best way to see them explode later on in ways we do not want.

From a storytelling standpoint, this works for Kloss because she can’t very well have her protagonist be an all-powerful killing machine for the entire tale. She already has Jeric for that, which leads me to an issue with the book in that it has an invincible protagonist. Jeric is to combat what peanut butter is to jelly. He is a force, and even when thrown up against supernatural forces beyond the scope of a normal man, he somehow is quicker and stronger than anything he faces. That’s not to say he doesn’t face his fair share of danger, and Kloss is smart to kick him around as much as she does, but his sheer talent at killing is at times a little frustrating. Perhaps I seek too much realism in my fantasy, but fighting one opponent is difficult enough for most people. Jeric seems to take on armies like a character straight out of a Dynasty Warriors game.

What Kloss does very right with The Gods of Men is to provide two characters who are able to grow into one another in believable and natural ways. Despite an initial attraction that might see protagonists of other books jumping into a passionate embrace, Kloss dances around the smoulder that burns between Jeric and Sable, even going so far as to throw them together and then away from one another again. Their relationship is the best part of this book, and the Montague/Capulet dynamic between them, as tried and true as it is, feels fresh in Kloss’ able hands. I could even appreciate the way the tale ends, without spoiling it of course, because it is not what one might expect at the end of what could be called a fantasy romance.

Kloss also builds an interesting world, replete with lore and mysterious forces that hold history and potential within themselves. I was genuinely interested in the Sol Velorian wars that took place hundreds of years ago, and intrigued by the collection of nation-states that remained in the aftermath. The world that The Gods of Men presents is not overly complicated, nor is it large, but it succeeds in providing an interesting and engaging background for these two characters to dance around on. The supernatural forces that she weaves into this world, and that are intimately bound up in its history, are equalling fascinating. I also love that Kloss is able to weave music into her magic system, even if it is very limited.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (Lukasz): Navigating through unknown spaces of the indie publishing scene gives me a lot of fun. It makes me feel like an explorer on the verge of a great discovery. Here’s another worthy pick. While it didn't deliver a full package of delight, I enjoyed it..

Sable’s music holds power over souls. It can enchant, but also kill. Because of a tragic accident, Sable flees her Kingdom into the frigid land of exiles and thieves, known as The Wilds. She lives in hiding, burdened by guilt, and survives as a healer.

Soon, she finds herself on the run again.

The story, told in third-person limited, follows two distinct POVs - Sable and Jeric. Jeric, the second son of a king, spends his life tracking down and killing ‘threats’ to the country. Sable will have to trust him to survive even though she despises him at the beginning.

With time, things change, and they develop feelings toward each other. Happily, nothing feels rushed or unnatural. Quite the opposite. Sable and Jeric are flawed individuals who struggle to find their place in a world. When they story arcs meet, things start to gel. Slowly but inevitably leading to striking realizations.

The cast of side characters is nicely mixed and likeable. Good work.

Kloss’ clean prose, brisk pacing and clear structure keep the narrative engrossing from beginning to the end. Her novel never becomes confusing or unconvincing.

Flaws? Even though both main characters feel distinct and real, I didn’t care much for them. But it’s strictly subjective. The plot was interesting enough to make me finish the book and I appreciate final twists and reveals.

I would say this book deserves more attention.

CONCLUSION (David): In all, The Gods of Men is one of my favorite finalists in the SPFBO contest, and I will be eagerly awaiting Kloss’ next entry into the series. She manages to wrap up this particular story, while also leaving room for so much more in this world she has built, and with these characters. This is definitely one to watch.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Exclusive Chapter Excerpt: Never Die by Rob J. Hayes

Official Author Website
Pre-order NEVER DIE over HERE

Some fight for honour, and some for reward.

Some for glory, and others for a cause.

Some fight for freedom, from tyranny and hate.

And some fight for love, not for a person but a name.

With death as their guide, their companion and goal.

They cross all Hosa, spirit, flesh, and soul.

Hounded by demons, from the pages of lore.

What starts with a whisper, must end with a roar.

Chapter 1

The walls of Kaishi had fallen before the first wave of bandits reached the gates. It was clear from the outset that Flaming Fist had sent men in the day before. They hid in the dark places, alleys and sewers, and waited for the signal to climb the walls from the inside and kill the city defenders before opening the gates. No one suspected the attack to come so soon. Cho hadn't expected it to come at all. Flaming Fist was little more than a bandit with a following, preying off small villages and those who couldn't defend themselves. He simply didn't have the numbers to assault a city as large as Kaishi, no matter what recent reports had said. Cho re-evaluated that opinion as soon as the first cries went up.

They rushed from the wine house into a dark street thick with fleeing citizens. Rich and poor alike were shoving each other aside in an attempt to get to the sanctuary; some carrying the most valuable things they owned, some carrying nought but their own lives. They flowed around Cho and her comrades like a river before an island. Oong, Cho's comrade, known as the Red Bull of Fades, grabbed at one of the fleeing citizens, pulling the panic-stricken fellow from the crowd. "What's happening?" the Red Bull slurred. He was already well into his third jug of wine and he wasn't the only one. Even Cho was feeling a little lightheaded from the drinking.

"The gates are down," the terrified man shouted. "They're in the city. The Flaming Fist has come for his daughter!"

The Red Bull let the man go and leaned upon his great iron-shod staff. "Daughter? No one said anything about a daughter."

Cho shrugged. "We have been paid to defend Kaishi. What does it matter why Flaming Fist is here?"

Qing, often called Hundred Cuts, pouted. "It matters to me," she said. "I like to know which side of the fight I am on."

"The side that is paying us," Oong said.

Cho shook her head. "The side of innocence and justice. Not the side of slavering bandits." No matter what his reasons for attacking, Flaming Fist was attacking, and Cho would defend the city and its people.

"But they are paying us?" Oong asked to no reply.

The sounds of battle were close; the clash of steel, the crackle of fire, the screams of the dying. Cho pushed her way into the crowd towards those sounds, forcing the people of Kaishi to move around her. One man caught at her yukata, trying to pull her away from the fight. Cho brushed him away with a flick of her wrist, but not before she heard a rip. She glanced down to find a small tear in the hem, splitting one of the sunflower designs in half. She counted it a shame, it was her favourite yukata. Kaishi was a rarity of squat buildings and cobbled streets, the roads were wide and the houses far apart, no doubt to stop fire from spreading. Of course, that didn't account for a band of pillaging bandits purposefully torching everything. The first of Flaming Fist's soldiers they came across were busy slaying the city's guards as they tried to intervene. Cho wasted no time in rushing to their aid. Her slippers breezed across the cobbled streets and her robe fluttered. Her first katana, Peace, slid from its saya with barely a hiss, cutting a silent bloody arc. Two more Flaming Fist bandits went down before they realised they were beset, each one dying from a single strike. Precision was as important as strength when it came to battle. Often more so.

The Red Bull of Fades charged past Cho with a bellow of rage, flailing his staff left and right, caring nothing for precision. The iron rings on either end of his staff made each blow a killing one. Qing held back, her steel fans ready should any of the soldiers make it past the Red Bull and Cho. None did.

Even as the last of the Flaming Fist bandits fell, Cho let out a deep breath and wiped down Peace before sliding it back into its saya next to its partner. It was a cleansing ritual following the kill, as much for Cho's soul, as for her swords. She whispered a prayer for those she had slain, knowing full well the stars were deaf, and those men didn't deserve it anyway.

The surviving soldiers stammered their appreciation. They were not eager to stay, fleeing towards the sanctuary with those they were employed to protect. She couldn't blame them, they were poorly trained and just as likely to get in the way. They needed as much protecting as the townsfolk.

"We should go," Cho said, turning with the fleeing soldiers.

"What about all of those left in the city?" Hundred Cuts had a reputation for lost causes and Cho could now see why.

"They will either hide, flee to the sanctuary, or die. We cannot save everyone. Our efforts are best spent in protection of the sanctuary." It was a reasoned argument, they could not save everyone. Cho chose not to add that they had yet to be paid in full and the men with the coin would be cowering in the dark corners where it was safest. The difference between the rich and the powerful was always made so much clearer by walls. The rich hid behind them, the powerful tore them down.

Hundred Cuts hesitated, still chewing over the idea of leaving so many people to their own fate. Cho felt a tug of her conscience; it had not been so long ago that she might have thrown herself into the city to protect everyone she could. It was, after all, the mantra of a Shintei to protect the weak and to honour any oath sworn, no matter the cost. Maybe this time would be different. Maybe this was one oath she would finally keep. Good sense won out and Cho turned towards the sanctuary. The Red Bull fell in line straight away, Hundred Cuts was not far behind. Some were born to follow, not lead. They rushed through dark streets, ignoring the bright embers floating up into the night sky as the town burned around them.

The sanctuary, as the people of Kaishi called it, was actually a temple dedicated to the stars. From the outside it was a tall pagoda of several floors, with a commanding view of the city around it. Inside, however, there was a hidden basement containing a network of tunnels that led out to the nearby cliff side, emerging behind the Fury Falls. A secret passage hidden behind a waterfall seemed a little obvious to Cho, but the city officials claimed it had never once been discovered. The steps leading up to the sanctuary from the city were already littered with bodies, some of Kaishi's citizens, but many more of Flaming Fist's men. Amid the corpses stood Murai, the Century Blade, the greatest living swordsman in all of Hosa.

Despite his ancient body, the Century Blade moved as slowly and deliberately as oil over stone. Cho recognised one of the corpses; Wandering Spear, one of Flaming Fist's greatest captains lay dead at the sandaled feet of the Century Blade who bore not a scratch to show for such a memorable kill.

Cho bowed as the Century Blade descended the steps toward her. He was not her master now, nor had he ever been, but he deserved respect and she gave it freely. "You do this all yourself, old man?" The Red Bull of Fades asked. Cho winced at the disrespect.

The Century Blade smiled and ignored the Red Bull. His wrinkled skin and wispy white beard made him appear kind, almost gentle, though the bleeding bodies nearby said otherwise. Cho wondered how he could have achieved such a feat without a single spot of blood on his white robes.

Flakes of ash were drifting into the clearing in front of the sanctuary. Kaishi was burning. Flaming Fist loved to burn things, most notably his own hands. The Century Blade stopped before Cho and bowed low, ever humble despite his age and experience.

"Whispering Blade," he said in a voice like cracked leather. "Can you hold here while I escort those inside to safety?"

Cho nodded. "Why not help me fight Flaming Fist?"

The Century Blade bowed again and turned toward the sanctuary. "The truer test is to do nothing when called to action. Though the reward is often thankless. I will protect those in need of it, and leave the glory to those more suited to it. Good luck, Itami." He stopped at the foot of the first step and turned back for a moment. "He favours his left side. An old injury given by an older opponent."

There was a still a trickling stream of citizens flowing towards the sanctuary, and Cho let them through. Hundred Cuts even half carried an old man up the steps. As the fires grew higher and hotter, the sounds of battle receded, eventually vanishing all together. Cho waited upon the second step, sitting with her saya pulled across her lap, her hand on the hilt of her first sword, Peace.

The first few Flaming Fist soldiers dashed into the courtyard and made a poor attempt to gain the first step. The Red Bull threw them back with his staff, breaking bones and silencing cries of pain. Still Cho waited. Only when Flaming Fist himself appeared, did she rise from the second step.

He was a large man with not a single hair on his head. He rode in the square astride a horse that seemed ill-equipped to carry his weight. Each of his hands was a mess of puckered scars, and weeping wounds. Such is the price a man pays when they regularly light their own fists on fire.

Bandits emerged from dark streets and alleys, following Fist toward the sanctuary and surrounding the three defenders. So many flowed into the clearing that Cho was certain her eyes were playing tricks on her. Hundred Cuts cursed and backed up to the fourth step. Cho smiled and walked down to meet them head on. Even the Red Bull seemed unusually quiet.

"Where is my daughter?" Flaming Fist's voice was a booming thunderclap. Despite the city burning around him, and all the death carried out in his name, he seemed bored. "I don't know." Cho refused to raise her voice.

Flaming Fist drew in a deep breath, his face curdling as though he smelled something unpleasant. "Kill them."

The soldiers came forward in a wave, some with spears, some with swords, closing in from all directions. There were no tactics to give, no special orders that could turn the tide of the battle, so Cho gave none. She drew Peace into both hands and charged into the oncoming wave, crashing against them, and weaving into their ranks. She dodged, ducked, twirled, and even jumped. Each stroke of Peace was a death, each counterstroke just as deadly. A circle of bodies quickly formed around her, and others rushed in to take their place. She couldn't allow the spears to stab at her from range, so she kept advancing, always closing in on her enemies. Steel fell towards her, clumsy and hacking; she stepped away from some, and brushed others aside. The cobbled streets ran crimson, soaking her sandals and staining her yukata.

The Red Bull of Fades just beyond the first step, his staff a whirling bludgeon that made corpses almost as easily as Peace. Hundred Cuts danced around the edges of the attacking swarm using her steel fans to injure rather than kill. Injured enemies were often even more useful than dead ones, but not in Flaming Fist's warband. They were not so much soldiers, as bandits drawn together by a strong will and murderous purpose. They didn't stop to give their injured comrades aid, but stepped over the wounded to join the fight.

Cho knew the Red Bull had gone down when the first cheer went up. There was no fighting to his aid, and between sword strokes and bodies dropped, she glimpsed Hundred Cuts die in the attempt. One moment the woman was dancing around steel, flipping over her enemies and leaving slashed faces in her wake, the next she had a spear erupt from her throat. Cho saw the look of horror on Hundred Cuts' face. It was a vision that would stay with her for the rest of her life. There seemed no end to the bandits crowding in to kill her, and no relent to the crazed blood lust, no matter how many she killed. Through it all Flaming Fist sat atop his horse and watched, his face a picture of scarred boredom.

Cho brought Peace close to her face and spoke to it, a whispered word none other could hear. The blade hummed in response. Her next strikes cut through swords and armour both, sheering them apart as though they were rice paper. Men died grasping at gushing wounds, falling beneath a shimmering, whispering sword they couldn't block, wielded by a master whose skill they couldn't match. But numbers, Cho knew, counted for much, and she was hopelessly outnumbered. As each man fell to her hissing blade, another rushed in to take his place, clambering over the dead bodies to get to her.

It seemed an inevitability when Cho took a glancing sword thrust to the leg. She slashed out at the swordsman, rending his face in two, but the damage was done. Cho could feel herself slowing down. Peace no longer cut through flesh so easily, the edge dull with so much killing. She backed away, parrying and thrusting, as she cut a path towards the sanctuary. Another strike took Cho in the side, the blade tangling in her yukata, but scoring her ribs and pulling a shout of pain from her. Then she was free of the crowd and staggering towards the steps of the sanctuary. Her foot hit that first step and she turned to find the soldiers weren't following. They waited, a bristling thicket of sharped steel pointed her way. There were bodies littering the clearing, flames rising high from the city behind them into the night, ash falling all around like black snow.

Flaming Fist slipped from his horse and pushed aside his warriors as he made his way toward Cho until there was nothing but charged air between them. Each of his fists was wrapped in an oily chain, but he had yet to set fire to them. "Is this the way you wish to die, Whispering Blade?"

Cho drew herself up, standing straighter again despite the pain. Her breathing was laboured and her leg was wet with blood. She glanced down at her second sword, bound into its saya, but she wouldn't draw it. Not even with death staring her in the face. She had sworn an oath never to draw that sword, and it was one oath she intended to keep. Perhaps the only one she had ever kept. She tightened her grip on Peace, and set her stance, ready to repel a stronger attacker. Flaming Fist snorted and threw his chained hands up. "Kill her."

His men flowed around him like a wave and crashed upon Cho. She took down two of them before the first sword slid between her ribs. The wielder hit the ground before she did, Peace lodged in his neck. The second cut took the fight from her, the pain as it pierced something vital inside beyond maddening. Two more swords thrust into her chest and Whispering Blade died with a scream.


Friday, January 18, 2019

Cover Reveal: The Glass Dagger by M. D. Presley (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Woven Ring
Read Lukasz's review of The Imbued Blade
Pre-order The Glass Demon over HERE

Today we are glad to exclusively reveal the cover for The Glass Demon (#3 in the Sol's Harvest series). Author M. D. Presley was super kind enough to allow us to do the honours and this time, there's a new artist involved. Michael Shinde is the person who's done the spectacular cover.

Readers can also view the video cover reveal based on Matt’s Fantasy Cover Cliché Challenge.

So checkout the fantabulous cover by Michael Shinde below and the official blurb as well:

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.

 Also as part of the release of The Glass Demon on 6th February, 2019. The books will be selling at a discount:

 - The Woven Ring will be FREE from Feb 2-6th

- The Imbued Lockblade will be $.99/p from Feb 2-6th

- The Glass Dagger  will be discounted for preorder of $1.99 until 2/6 ($4.99)

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Cover Reveal: Tides Of Mana (Matt Larkin) by Felix Ortiz & Shawn King (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Today we have the pleasure to reveal the cover for TIDES OF MANA, Matt Larkin's newest Eschaton Cycle saga title. Featuring the amazing cover art by Felix Ortiz and design/typography by Shawn King. So here we have Matt talking about how he approached Felix and Shawn and what he wanted from this cover...

Grimdark. With mermaids. In Polynesia.

Show me that.

My notes to Felix Ortiz were a little better than this. But not much.

The Eschaton Cycle in general retells myths, legends, and fairytales as a pastiche of grimdark fantasy, historical fantasy, and classic sword and sorcery (complete with cosmic horror).

This story is a retelling of a Hawaiian myth (though it pulls in other Polynesian myths), so I needed something that would convey that vibrance, show a woman with incredible powers, and still fit the tone of what is a fairly brutal story of war and vengeance.

I knew from day one this would prove a hard cover to get just right. After all, I wanted to create something grimdark (or at least grimdark adjacent), set in one of the most vibrant, beautiful places on Earth.

Not an easy match up.

I didn’t know where to start so I actually asked fellow author Rob J. Hayes for advice, and he pointed me to Shawn King. Through Shawn’s page I saw Felix’s paintings and was blown away.

So I contacted Felix and he said, "sorry, I’m not taking clients."

Big disappointment there.

Except, two weeks later, while I’m still searching for an artist, Felix emails me back and says something opened up and asks do I still want to work together.

Yes, yes I did.

We had two basic ideas to toy with, and Felix sketched both. One involved a mermaid—that’s a major element—but Shawn and Felix agreed it might prove difficult to convey the tone with that element at the forefront. The other idea focused on Namaka, the main character, controlling the seas and whipping them into a frenzy.

Obviously, this one grew into the current cover, with which I’m amazingly pleased.

We did some more back and forth to get the clothing just right, and Felix tweaked a few things, but, by and large, the cover remained true to his early sketch.

I gave him a tall order and Felix blew away all my expectations. Check it out in all its glory below...

Official Felix Ortiz Website (cover artist)
Official Shawn King Website (cover designer)

Official Book Blurb - She controls the seas.

Her sister controls the flames.

Together, they rule as god-queens over their island nation. No mortal army can stand against their power.

But what happens when civil war erupts between these goddesses?

Namaka turns the fury of the sea on her sister, wreaking untold devastation on the land and under the sea, earning the ire of the mer kingdoms. Their answer: turn Namaka into one of them. Possessed by a mermaid spirit, she is drawn into battles in their alien world.

How will she survive a war not only with her sister, but with a rival mer nation?

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

TIDES OF MANA will be released in February

Official Author Website

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Matt Larkin writes retellings of mythology as dark, gritty fantasy. His passions of myths, philosophy, and history inform his series. He strives to combine gut-wrenching action with thought-provoking ideas and culturally resonant stories. As M.A. Larkin he also writes space opera. At present he has more than 20 novels in print and hopes to continue writing until the end of time. Matt lives in Florida with his wife and daughter.

NOTE: Mermaid art courtesy of Vikasa Yoga.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Top Reads of 2018 By D. C. Stewart & Lukasz Przywoski

David’s Top Reads of 2018

While I wish I could populate this list with books published solely in 2018, I have entirely too much catching up to do in the fantasy genre to ever limit myself like that. Thus, you will find here a mixture of books published this year, as well as books published traditionally and self-published. Being a part of the SPFBO in 2018 has been an extraordinary opportunity for me because it has opened me up to an entirely new realm of possible reads and some authors I would have tragically never stumbled upon in my pursuit of literary excellence. This is a double edged blade because as I mentioned, I am way behind on reading many of the fantasy greats, and so adding more to the ever growing TBR pile is a bit anxiety inducing, but in the end it is a good problem to have.

Top Ten Titles:

1. Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb - I am so late to the Realms of the Elderlings series that I am shouting into the wind when I sing its praises, but sing them I will. I only ventured into Robin Hobb’s world for the first time last year, and not only did she completely hook me, but I think she might be my favorite fantasy author. Assassin’s Quest wraps up her Farseer Trilogy, starring the ever-damaged Fitz Farseer, and it is so beautiful and so heart-wrenching that I have had to take an extended break simply to recover from what Robin has done to me. This is one of my favorite books of all time.

2. The Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft - Finishing The Arm of the Sphinx was such a relief because it cemented Bancroft as more than a one-hit wonder. The second novel in his Babel series is as good as the first and only feels slightly diminished in its familiarity. The Arm of the Sphynx, as sequels generally do, shows Senlin and his motley crew in the fallout of the first novel, still struggling to work their way up the tower and find Senlin’s long-lost wife. What I loved about The Arm of the Sphinx is how it slowly unfolds everything within the tower, casting it all in shades of grey so that friends and foes outside of the immediate crew are constantly in doubt. I am soon to devour The Hod King and see this masterpiece to its conclusion.

3. A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood - Like many readers in these ridiculous and troubling times, I found myself drawn to Margaret Atwood’s classic tale of feminine oppression. That this is considered fantasy is something that becomes more clouded with each passing year in this political climate, but thankfully we are yet a stone’s throw from this horrific future. I can say that Atwood’s classic lives up to the hype, and her ability to tell speculative fiction with such human themes is second to none.

4. Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames - I do not think I am alone in loving Bloody Rose even more than I did Kings of the Wyld. Eames tops himself with this sequel, drawing an entirely new cast while maintaining the same consistent world-building and quality action that so drew readers to his first installment in The Band series. Bloody Rose is like Led Zeppelin IV - I can still enjoy the prior albums, but damn does this one have some epic tracks. Impressive is Eames’ ability to continue writing after his schtick, that mercenary bands are the rock-stars of his world, is seemingly spent. It turns out, he has much more to say on the topic, and that there are many many more Final Fantasy references yet to sneak into his writing.

5. The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley - I did not think one could tell the story of Beowulf yet again and find such success in doing so. The Mere Wife takes the ancient saga and sticks it in the suburbs where the rich and famous must contend with a monster in the mountains who comes down to befriend their children. Headley tells the tale from the monsters’ point of view, more often than not, and reveals that there are horrors on both sides of that white picket fence - and it isn’t always their appearance that unmasks them.

6. Death March by Phil Tucker - Oh boy do I like video games and table-top RPGs. Phil Tucker likes these things too, and so he did what any sane person would do and wrote a book that merges the two in virtual reality and gives a reader like me exactly what they want. Death March is one of the first LitRPG books I’ve read, and now I know what has ben missing in my life. It does precisely what it sets out to do, and I can’t wait to see where the series heads. If I had one complaint, it would be that the protagonist is a little too everyman for me, but in a way this compliments the genre perfectly due to the cipher-based nature of MMORPG protagonists.

7. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison - Have you ever wanted to read a book and be unable to pronounce a single name within in? Me too! If you’re like me, then Katherine Addison’s foray into the political machinations of a goblin kingdom is a perfect fit. Jests aside, The Goblin Emperor is what is often referred to as hopeful fantasy in that it creates conflict within a fairly well-lit world. Yes, the political intrigue is Machiavellian in its complication, but the characters in Addison’s vision can be good and kind, especially protagonist Maia, and it was lovely to read of such a hauntingly beautiful place amidst a year full of so many dark ones.

8. Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky - Speaking of dark worlds and table-top adventures, along comes a Spiderlight. Tchaikovsky takes a familiar adventure with characters that practically jump off the character sheet and completely and unexpectedly turns it on its head. The amazing thing about Spiderlight is that it would have been a completely acceptable, if not remarkable, novel without doing any of that - such is Tchaikovsky’s writing. What he does with the tale blows the mind and makes this one to remember.

9. The Firebird by Nerine Dorman - I honestly think that The Firebird could have been a serious contender to win the SPFBO had it been more than a novella. Dorman’s prose is so beautiful and the world she creates so evocative that my only complaint is that she didn’t allow me more time in it. The story is meaningful, replete with familial strife, and every page makes the most of its space. I hope that Dorman is not finished with this world because I want to see more of it.

10. Foundryside by Robert Bennett Jackson - I never expect to open a fantasy book and find myself face to face with a new genre, but Jackson seems to have done exactly that. Foundryside can best be described as some kind of steampunk mytho fantasy, with a dark and gritty edge and a protagonist that is hard to love. I eventually did, but she makes it difficult! I hadn’t read any Robert Bennett Jackson up to this point, but he has planted himself on my TBR pile, and the sequel to Foundryside is something I think about even months later. He left me so full of questions.

Top Ten Debuts:

1. Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft - I say in my review that Senlin Ascends is probably the best fantasy book published in the last decade, and I stand by that bold claim. I loved this book from page one to the back cover. The characters in Josiah Bancroft’s vision are vivid and lovely and will carve themselves into a willing heart. He has built a world of unique vision and populated it like an architect envisioning arches and domes on a cathedral. It is truly magnificent.

2. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden - I never knew how much I needed Russian folklore in my life until I came across Arden’s beautiful prose and haunting, snow-filled world. Arden’s debut captures both the mystical, haunting nature of the Russian winterscape, as well as the hardships faced by an early Rus culture. That she manages to craft a remarkable, strong female character amidst a landscape that does not welcome such a thing is even more stunning.

3. The Boy Who Walked Too Far by Dom Watson - Having Dom’s book in my pile of SPFBO reads has been the best literary gift of 2018 for me. The Boy, despite its flaws, has the kind of imagination and whimsy that most writers will struggle their whole lives to find. It’s future fantasy and Sherlockian and much of it might not even make sense to a casual reader, but for those willing to brave its depths, this is a book with the potential to leave one changed. Pay attention to Dom Watson!

4. The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty - It’s hard for me not to talk about City of Brass without mentioning The Bear and the Nightingale. Their parallels are unavoidable, and while their styles are definitely unique, one only has to flip their coin from the Russian side to the Arabic to find a very similar tale. I say in my review that City of Brass is rich, sumptuous even, and if the Arabian Nights or the tale of Aladdin has ever interested you, this is a no-brainer.

5. Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer - Whitefire Crossing is actually the first e-book that I have read from end to end, and my fear from the beginning was that said format would somehow taint my experience. Thankfully, Schafer creates a world and characters that rise above even my biases, and I even now find myself thinking about Dev and Kiran and the magic-infused world that she has built with Whitefire. Schafer also manages to craft believable and engaging narrative about a trip over a mountain pass, which I thought only Janny Wurts could do.

6. Here Be Dragons by David Macpherson - I struck gold a second time in my SPFBO pile with Here Be Dragons. Not only did this have the best cover, in my opinion, of our bunch, but this book is legitimately funny from end to end. Not often do we see our heroes past their prime, reliving their glory days and pining for more. Macpherson gives us that and manages to write a fantasy novel that goes out of its way to avoid violence as an answer. That is a worthy goal.

7. Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien de Castell - What Castell does with his Greatcoats series is fairly simple - he is telling the fantasy version of The Three Musketeers. We might guess that this has been done already, but unless I’m unaware of a treatment, it has not. One could argue that The Three Musketeers is fantasy enough on its own, but de Castell proves that throwing in some magic and offering up some small twists more than meets the requirements for telling this tale. Traitor’s Blade is a flawed book, certainly, but it is one with so much heart that I am willing to forgive its faults.

8. Blackwing by Ed McDonald - Blackwing has the Dark Souls that I need in my dark fantasy. His is an ancient world, full of ruin and elder magic, and his protagonist is simply a man struggling to eke out his way amidst these towering powers and horrid landscapes. I love the world that McDonald has built. It has more potential than almost any I’ve read about this year. This is grimdark of the grimiest nature, with a section of the world darker than anything in fantasy, but it is good and its characters are solid and there is a great deal of potential in that mixture.

9. The Blood Tartan by Raymond St. Elmo - I don’t know whether or not I was experiencing some kind of fever dream while reading The Blood Tartan, but that is what my memory of it feels like. This is a book that carries its reader along on a mad fantasy that probably will not make sense throughout the meat of it. Elmo’s prose is so good as to be criminal, and there is something so captivating and resonant about his English-Scottish world that it drew me in whole-hog.

10. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi - I was fairly critical of Adeyemi’s debut in my review of Children of Blood and Bone. It’s difficult to review a book that has been so hyped by its publishers and the various market-pushers out there. I do not feel that the book lived up to that hype, but I did enjoy it and feel it worthy of a read. Adeyemi creates a familiar world, but one full of magic and strong female characters who both struggle and emerge changed. It may not have been the second coming of Harry Potter that was promised, but Children of Blood and Bone carves out a place for itself in the deluge of young adult fantasy out there.

Lukasz’s Top Reads of 2018:

I tried to limit myself to books published in 2018, but failed miserably.

As most readers, I have a lot of catching up to do. My Goodreads counter claims I read 226 units in 2018 (I use this word for GR short story, DNF or epic Fantasy Behemoth count as one read position). With an average rating of 3.4 most of the books I read were entertaining, and pleasurable.

Here, though, I’d like to highlight the books I consider exceptional. I limited myself to ten titles, without dividing them into best title / best debut / best self-published/independent categories. Those are my ten favorite books of 2018. Period.

1. Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko - This book crafts new vision of the world and the laws that govern it. As the story progresses, Dyachenko’s share insights into the world‘s metaphysics and if you’ve ever been fascinated with the language and power of the words, you’ll be satisfied with some of the discoveries.

I could go on, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll tell you this - it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. It combines fascinating adventure with philosophical depth, impossible metamorphosis with profound psychological insights. It’s strange, amazing, and brilliant.

2. Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence - I always liked Lawrence‘s Writing and his characters. Jorg and Jalan are great and memorable, but, unexpectedly, it‘s Nona I really care for. The Books of Ancestor series speaks to me on a personal level and it provides a genuine emotional experience I seek.

3. The Wisdom‘s Grave trilogy by Craig Schaefer - I religiously follow Schaefer’s books and Wisdom’s Grave is a treat. It connects and resolves important character arcs and plotlines. Plus, it describes Nessa. And she is, for me, Schaefer’s greatest creation.

4. Endsville by Clay Sanger - I never expected to fall in love with bad guys with no redeeming qualities, but I did. Sanger’s world is terrifying and brutal, but also complex and fascinating. It convincingly portrays flawed individuals who struggle with substance abuse, occult addiction, toxic and abusive family relationships and living a life of crime. An excellent book, but approach it with caution. It contains lots and lots of violence (including mentions of rape), sex and bad language.

5. Kings of Paradise by Richard Nell - I loved the hell out of Kings of Paradise. It’s not a joyous book - at times it’s tragic, and Ruka’s story alone can make you reach for Prozac. It is, however, intelligently written and powerful book with a stellar world-building and a fantastic cast of characters. I consider Ruka one of the most fascinating fantasy characters ever written.

6. Those Brave, Foolish Souls from the CIty of Swords by Benedict Patrick - Long story short - it’s Patrick’s best book. It’s also one of the best indie books I’ve ever read. It does everything I like in fantasy well - it combines myths, quest-like adventure, and redemption of flawed heroes and tales within the tales. Those Brave, Foolish Souls from the City of Swords is engaging, immersive and touching. It’s a book I’ll re-read with pleasure and it’s not something I say often. I crave more Yarnsworld stories.

7. Djinn-son duology by Sami Shah - Shah’s Fire Boy and Earth Boy duology (in some regions published as a single volume called Boy of Fire and Earth) blew my mind. I loved this book. It’s a dark, funny, and compelling urban fantasy tale based in Pakistan’s biggest city - Karachi. A young boy, Wahid, comes to terms with his unique abilities and sets out on an adventure to recover the soul of the girl he loves from vengeful djinns.

8. Ghosts of Tomorrow by Michael R. Fletcher - Set in 2046, Ghosts of Tomorrow is a disturbing and fast-paced cyberpunk novel I just couldn‘t put down. It got under my skin and stayed with me.

9. The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett - The Liminal People is a fantastic novel about superheroes that touches many vital subjects (family, race, faith) in an entertaining and moving way. The prose is very vivid and, for me, it made this tale. The strength isn’t in the plot that’s relatively easy to predict but in the voice of the narrator with all his emotions and phobias present in the language. The book is violent, and some of the body’s transformations performed by Taggert may hunt you for a long time. I highly recommend it to all X-Men aspirants.

10. The Necromancer’s House by Christopher Buehlman - The Necromancer’s House is unlike any urban fantasy novel I read. I'm not even sure if I should call it this way. It contains horror elements and reads like a literary fiction with strong prose. While I can't say it was always a comfortable book, it is impressive with its multiple viewpoints, unexpected reveals, well-crafted sentences and exciting twists.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Interview with Richard Nell (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Kings Of Paradise over HERE

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. For starters, could you please introduce yourself, tell us what inspired you to write in the first place, and describe your journey in becoming a self-published author.

RN: Well, that could be quite a long answer! Let's try reasonable brevity: my name is Richard Nell, and I'm a Canadian prairie kid who left the farm, went around the world and did a lot of (questionable) things, and finally came home. I always knew I wanted to write, but knew too I needed the discipline, experience, and let's say...enough wisdom, for my work to be worth a damn. So, I tried with varying degrees of success to obtain those things. At some point I knew it was now or never, and took the plunge. I've never liked waiting for approval so I never asked for it and went straight to self-publishing. Haven't sent a query letter in my life.

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

RN: The series itself really didn't crystallize until I sat down to write it. I had plenty of themes I wanted to explore, questions I'd like to ask, but the story-details were vague. It evolved a great deal from the original plan of 'two very different cultures, one rich and one poor, coming together'. In fact it probably became less about that and far more personal to individual characters in a complex world, but I'm pretty happy where it ended up.

Q] Your debut novel is the first volume in a trilogy. Could you give us a progress report on the third book, and offer any details about the sequel “Kings Of Ash”? 

RN: The third book (Kings Of Heaven) is being drafted now. I have a very good sense of how the main plot will finish, so I don't anticipate any major roadblocks. But these are big books, so, I expect it will be out 2020.

In Kings Of Ash you can be assured of a couple things:
 1) to catch up on the lost time of Ruka in Pyu; and
 2) to see the coming together of Kale and Ruka, and all the fall-out that entails...

Q] For some authors it’s easier writing their second novel, while for others it’s more difficult. How was your experience with Kings Of Ash and did you learn anything when writing “Kings Of Paradise” that helped prepare you for the new book? Also the books of Ash and Sand are a trilogy so how did you prevent Kings Of Ash from suffering from any ‘middle volume’ tendencies?

RN: I certainly learned a lot, but the short answer is that it was mostly easier. I'd actually been almost finished drafting book 2 before I released book 1, and in many ways they are a 'single' story in my mind, very much dependent on each other. I actually expect (hope?) lots of readers will think book 2 is a 'stronger' book, or at least more satisfying, in that it expands and 'finishes' lots of the things set up in book 1. But I guess we'll see.

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 Ash and Sand trilogy?

RN: This is a big, dark, engrossing book with a lot of detail in the writing, but very personal in the telling. It's not a light read. It's for people who like to think, who like to be challenged, who don't need trigger warnings or hand-holding and want to look at the world in different ways. If you're a fan of books like Dune, Game of Thrones, or even historical fiction like Shogun, this book is written for you, and I'm most pleased to make your acquaintance.

Q] Your book has a multifocal POV approach. However only one of the POV characters is a female, and she has a supporting role until the last one-fifths of the story. I’m curious as to why you chose Dala to have a minor role. Will the sequels enhance her standing in the story?

RN: As to why - I'm not sure there's an answer, except Kale and Ruka were always the main characters of this trilogy. But that damn Dala, her story just kept getting bigger. As to how/if her role enhances, well, most signs point to yes. And that's all I have to say about that.

Q] Like many readers I was deeply fascinated by Ruka. His eidetic memory, his brilliance and his cannibalism. They reminded me of another brilliant character called Hannibal Lecter. What would you think of this comparison as both of them have faced horrible childhoods and have very deep connections with a female family member (mother for Ruka, sister for Hannibal).

RN: You might be only the second person to mention this (the first called Ruka 'Hannibal meets Conan')! I'm without a doubt a Thomas Harris fan, and Ruka is unquestionably influenced by Hannibal Lecter. No doubt you could even compare his 'Grove' to a 'Memory Palace'. You'll be getting a great deal of Ruka in Kings Of Ash.

Q] Also Ruka’s facial deformities aren’t never quite properly detailed besides his eyes and that those deformities are thought to be evil. What exactly was he born with and why did the Ascomanni tribesman think them to be evil?

RN: It's fair to say I keep it a little intentionally vague for imagination's sake. I'm not generally a fan of endless physical details in fiction, partially because it's often tedious, and partially because I enjoy letting my mind wander and come up with that detail on my own. I trust my readers to do the same, and no doubt these things are better in images than in words.

Q] Tell us a little bit about the research you undertook (SE Asian societies and names, cannibalism, psychopathy) before attempting to write this series. What were the things you focused upon? Were there any fascinating things that you found amidst your research?

RN: I love history and science and this stuff can suck me in for days and weeks while almost nothing gets written. Most things don't make it to the book because while I find the materials used in ship-making fascinating, most people...don't want to read about it. I can say almost all of the cultures in the book are based on something, mixed and mashed from real cultures in history. For book two I deep dived into metallurgy, astronomy, which are particularly relevant, and a few other technological things. The great part about writing fantasy is at the end of the day you can say 'ah to hell with it, close enough'.

Q] There have been reddit rumours of you also being a romance writer and having written something in that lucrative genre. Please tell us more about these lurid rumors?

RN: Hahaha. Well, once upon a time, rumors had a way of often being true. In 2018 I'm not so sure that's accurate. There are a couple of pretty detailed sex scenes in Kings Of Paradise, however. I leave it to the readers to decide if they could belong in a proper romance, and if so, well, nevermind fantasy I think I'll go make some real money.

Q] After publishing your debut doorstopper, you have also published two flintlock fantasy novellas that are part of the God-King Chronicles saga. Please tell us more about these and the world that they are set in?

RN: These started as almost therapy writing. I needed a break from giant, epic fantasy, and I thought 'this will just be some fun adventure story without any context or giant plot to worry about!' Oh, Richard of the Past, so naive, so full of hope. Now there is a rather complex world built, and at least another trilogy envisioned with an' immortal' (but dying), demon-infused God-King who is looking desperately for someone to hold the ancient creature inside him before he expires and looses it on the world.

The novellas are sort of 'intros' or snapshots into that world, and the characters will all certainly feature later in the novels. I hope to put out another one in 2019, this one a female protagonist involving pirates, amnesia, and, of course, another demon...

Q] Can you tell us more about the world that the Ash and Sand trilogy is set in and some of the series’ major characters? What are curiosities (geographical, mystical, etc.) of this world?

RN: So the Ash and Sand world is really quite similar to our own. I really won't say anything about the magic except it exists, and will be discovered, but is not understood or really believed by normal people. There's a yellow sun about as far away as you'd expect, one moon, the land and sea filled by flora and fauna everyone would recognize, human beings acting as you'd expect them to.

One of the major plot details is that people haven't really explored this world. Most of the cultures live on one continent and think all around them is endless sea. Except, so do the people on another continent the first people don't know exist. You might think of the 'main 'continent in the book as Asiatic, and the other as a sort of Antarctica that's bigger, slightly further North, and therefore vaguely inhabitable.

The two main characters are from these two different lands, and neither knows anything about the other. Kale is an island prince from just South of the main continent who lives a rather meaningless life of luxury. Ruka is a disfigured outcast from the Antarctic continent, fighting just to survive in a harsh, brutal place.

Q] Themes of identity, ethnic diversity, tribalism & cultural disparities seem to play an important role throughout Kings Of Paradise. How much of this did you draw from your own readings and experiences? And how much of it was gleaned from history?

RN: It would be hard to say! I am fascinated by the interaction of culture and evolution, but also by the individual experience. I think with human beings as social as they are, one can hardly exist without the other. But what is useful? What is vestigial? Will what guided us in the past help us in the future? What are the consequences and benefits of history? I find these sorts of questions absolutely enthralling, and the different ways we unite or separate ourselves and all the pros and cons of that. I'm not sure I have any answers.

Q] In today’s fantasy genre, there seems to be a number of authors out there who are writing grittier, darker, more realistic fantasy books or are attempting to defy traditional tropes in both the self-published and traditionally published worlds. What are your thoughts on this movement, the audience’s response to such books, and fantasy tropes in general?

RN: I'm not sure who coined it (I think Picasso), but there's really no improving on the old line that artists tell lies to tell the truth. What those lies are, of course, depend on the culture. I'm not sure I can speak to the trend, but I can speak for myself: I suppose I'm trying to remind myself where humanity comes from. We're so rich and safe compared to any other time in history it's easy to forget, and take it for granted. We are, after all, only the stewards of a civilization built by our ancestors, and it required a great deal of mistakes, blood and sacrifice to get us here. We are only ever a single generation from disaster.

Ultimately, I think the darkness of many modern stories is a reminder to be thankful for what we have, and how hard-won it has been. There is however also a more nihilistic trend, which I don't write, endorse, or enjoy, but is perhaps another marker of an unfortunate modern cultural truth.

Q] You have previously mentioned about a serious eye injury due to pellets. Does that in any way hamper your writing or day to day activities? Do you have a favorite eye-patch?

RN: I took a shot to the face when I was seven. Alas, I can't recommend it. On the positive side I've been leaving a fake eye in the soup of friends and relatives for decades with consistently predictable results. It can also be fun at parties. Fortunately it doesn't hold back my writing, though I'm almost positive I would have been a pro baseball player without it. My wife, brother, father, mother, and all applicable childhood friends don't agree. But, we'll never know for sure.

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?

RN: The dreaded question. The authors are legion. My very first love was Samuel Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and I still hate poetry that doesn't rhyme. I was a voracious reader pretty early, from Dixon's Hardy Boys straight to fantasy like the Dragonlance books or RA Salvatore, or David Gemmell. I'm sure I read some more YA stuff but I don't remember it very well, and certainly less existed when I was a kid. I moved to historical fiction, Forester's Horatio Hornblower, James Clavell's Asian Saga, Steven Pressfield's Greek stories, Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series. I suppose in the end it was only natural for me to combine a more historical feel with fantasy, and I'd say George R. R. Martin led the way. We would all be mute without the greats of the past.

Q] In closing, thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions. Do you have any parting thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers?

RN: My pleasure - fantastic questions, I must say. In parting with any fantasy fan I'm very pleased to say precisely how I feel, and in solidarity: what a privilege to be part of this sacred group we've all chosen - this great tribe of the mind. May it last forever. And until next time, my friends.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Mihir's Top Reads of 2018 (by Mihir Wanchoo)

As has been the pattern with these lists of mine, January seems to be the best time for posting these. I hope our readers will forgive this idiosyncrasy of mine. The main reasoning for choosing these titles is the varied milieu of the plots, excellence in prose, characterization and the overall enjoyment they provided. This year was the least amount of books that I’ve ever read since I started blogging but I try to up my ante for 2019. So here we go for 2018 ...

Top Ten Titles:

1) The Wisdom’s Grave trilogy by Craig Schaefer What can I say about this trilogy comprising of Sworn To The Night, Detonation Boulevard, & Bring The Fire, that I haven’t already gushed about the books in the reviews. Craig Schaefer’s trilogy was the epic culmination of plots that have been in the works over three different series and nearly 16 titles. Featuring a love story between a witch and her knight, the story has epic battles, inter-dimensional escapades and everything in between. The revelations provided in these titles went a long way in explaining the crazy amount of planning that must have gone with this trilogy. Craig Schaefer now is solidly among my alltime favorite writers.

2) Paternus: Wrath Of The Gods by Dyrk Ashton – Dyrk Ashton marked himself as a special talent with his debut. With this sequel, Dyrk basically made sure that he marks his books out as a genre within their own. Mixing several mythologies (coherently), epic battles and a huge cast of inhuman characters, Wrath Of The Gods was The Dark Knight to Paternus: Rise Of The Gods. Excellent in every which way, Dyrk Ashton made this sequel a glorious reading experience.

2) Circe by Madeline Miller  Circe is a hard book to describe, it basically is the humanistic retelling of perhaps the most understood persona in Greek mythology.  Historians haven't been kind to Circe but via Madeline Miller, we get an in-depth, nuanced portrayal that is astounding to say the least. In part magical and in parts literary, Madeline Miller's Circe is possibly one of the best books of the decade.

3) Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence – Mark Lawrence is an anomaly, he writes books that combine beautiful prose, tremendous action and characters that stay with you even after the books are done. Grey Sister builds up on the epic finale of Red Sister and sets up the world conflict spectacularly. Mark Lawrence has shaped the story brilliantly and now we only have to wait to see how it all ends in Holy Sister.

4) Age Of Assassins by R. J. Barker – R. J Barker is a tremendous find for orbit books, his Wounded Kingdom trilogy is complete and Age Of Assassins is an epic conclusion to the tale of Girton Clubfoot. Brilliantly mixing action, intrigue and vulnerable characters, R. J Barker marks himself to be a writer to watch out for. I also hope he branches out to write crime thrillers just based on the empathetic scope of this trilogy.

5) Fire Dance by Ilana C. Myer – Ilana Myer’s sequel explores a different part of her world. Again we are drawn in by the beautiful prose, intriguing characters alongside magic as well as political revolution. Fire Dance showcases exactly why I love Ilana Myer’s work and why her books need to be read more widely.

6) City Of Kings by Rob J. Hayes – Rob J. Hayes is another favorite of mine and this standalone title after last year’s pirate duology proves his acumen at writing conflicted characters, grey situations and action sequences to blow your mind. Mixing a pregnancy with a bloody siege and with a lot of character conflict, Rob Hayes writes a spectacular story of the fall of a regime while making you cry all the same. City o]Of Kings is an excellent introduction to the First Earth saga but it will also implore you to read the earlier books strongly.

7) The Empire Of Ashes by Anthony Ryan – Anthony Ryan is a storyteller who impressed us mightily with his debut Blood Song. The Draconis Memoria trilogy is his sophomore effort and arguably his better work. The Empire Of Ashes is an epic conclusion that gave the readers their fill of action, magical battles and most of all an ending that leaves you with a gut punch but mentally satisfied as well.

8) We Ride The Storm by Devin Madson – Devin’s book was one out of the left field. It’s the first book in a new series but set in the same world as her debut trilogy. Dark, brutal and with lots of chopped heads, it left me in awe of her sparse writing style. With a very streamlined plot and an in-depth focus on characters, We Ride The Storm became our SPFBO pick for the finals and a series that I’ll continue to read as soon as the next title releases.

9) The Silver Sorceress by Alec HutsonContinuing from his magnificent debut Alec Hutson showed no sophomore slump and with The Silver Sorceress gave us more of the epic goodness that was so solidly reflected in The Crimson Queen. This book neatly avoided the middle book trap and sets up an intriguing geo-magical conflict that is sure to explode in the next volume.

10) Master Assassins by Robert V. S. RedickMaster Assassins is a welcome return by Robert V. S. Redick. Set in a brand new world and focusing on a plot about brotherly love. Robert brilliantly showcases various themes afflicting mankind and provides us with a cracking story that left me wanting to read more about this world.

Honorable mentions to the following titles that narrowly missed out on this list:

– Forever Fantasy Online by Rachel Aaron & Travis Bach

– The Neon Boneyard by Craig Schaefer

 Starless by Jacqueline Carey

 Those Brave Foolish Souls From The City Of Swords by Benedict Patrick

Top Ten Debuts:

1) The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang – Rebecca Kuang’s debut title mixing epic fantasy and Chinese history, showcased that women can write grimdark fantasy magnificently and do it better than most. The Poppy War is a book that outshines most military fantasy titles by showing the brutality of war and the sacrifices it asks of mankind. Absolutely horrific in its brutality and terrific in its scope, The Poppy War is an unforgettable debut marking Rebecca Kuang as an author who will only get better.

Kings Of Paradise by Richard Nell – Richard Nell just snuck up on most of the fantasy readers as his debut Kings Of Paradise was the textbook sleeper hit. Opening with a cannibal protagonist and making him relatable is just the start of this epic fantasy story. Richard Nell’s prose and characterization are what made this debut such a standout one. Think Hannibal meets Deadwood meets epic fantasy, Kings Of Paradise is epic in every sense of the word and shares the top spot.

2) The Great Hearts by David A. Oliver The Great Hearts was another surprising find for me, combining the amazing characterization of Blood Song within a grimdark frame and topping it off with action-adventure a La Indiana Jones. David A. Oliver marked himself out in my eyes with his splendid mix of genres and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

3) Endsville by Clay SangerEndsville is a debut that feels like it’s specifically written to counter most of the urban fantasy genre. Endsville is dark, hell it’s about a family who presides over a biker clan and certainly draws some glorious comparisons with Sons Of Anarchy. This story very epic in scope and major props to Clay Sanger for his glorious descriptions of gang heraldry and culture. Exciting characterization, epic plot scope and a unique story made this debut land a special place in my heart.

4) City Of Lies by Sam HawkeCity Of Lies was an epic fantasy debut that had an interesting take on a brother sister duo. Their familial bond and their shared passion with poisons was what made this debut such an exciting read for me. Sam Hawke injects her story with charismatic prose, characters with flair and also has one of the best opening lines that I’ve ever read in speculative fiction.

5) Orconomics by J. Zach PikeOrconomics is a comedic fantasy with a very striking cover that makes no bones about what the reader can anticipate. This book has its mix of comedic turns, action sequences, and heart-breaking moments that highlight the characters within. A debut that will be in the running for the 2018 SPFBO finals and a solid contender at that. I can’t wait to start Son Of A Liche after reading Orconomics.

6) Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri I was really excited for Empire Of Sand as it was supposed to combine elements of Hindu mythology with those of the Mughal empire. Empire Of Sand did all of that while also giving us a tender love story and setting up an epic conflict. Tasha Suri’s prose and style was solid and I’ve high expectations from her forthcoming sequels.

7) The Boy Who Walked Too Far by Dom Watson – Dom Watson has written one of the most distinctive books that I’ve ever read. It was definitely the most unique across all four editions of SPFBO and one that’s very, very hard to classify. Mixing every sort of genre and ideas, TBWWTF is a unique reading experience and I can’t wait for Dom to write more of the Xindii Chronicles.

8) Kingshold by D. P. WoolliscroftElections can be pretty boring to write and read about. But Kingshold proves to be the exception to that maxim. D. P. Woolliscroft’s debut manages to catch a kingdom in upheaval and with an election upcoming. A myriad host of characters are thrown into the mix as they all try to do the various things. Funny, laidback and with some intriguing characters, Kingshold is a book that you will want to read and watch out for the sequels to come.

9) Banebringer by Carol ParkBanebringer is one of those titles that slipped by in the 2018 edition of SPFBO but it deserves more praise and reader spotlight. Combining a complex world, unique magic system and a dark world scenario, Carol Park has written a hefty book that has a bit of everything for most fantasy readers. I’m going to follow this series and can’t wait for the next book Sweetblade.

10) City Of Shards by Steve Rodgers – Steve Rodgers has written a very, very cool high fantasy book that speaks to his imagination. Mixing some very cool concepts and a myriad plot with engaging characters, City Of Shards is a perfect debut for those readers who love high fantasy and are looking for the next Brandon Sanderson. Steve Rodgers might very well be the next in line to his throne.

1) Not all linked reviews are from FBC but are either from FBC contributors and other fellow sites whose opinions I trust. Since I wasn't able to review every book that I read, I felt this was a good alternative option.
2) Two notable exceptions from this are Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames and Arm Of The Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft as I wasn't able to read them in the past year. However they easily would have graced this list, if I had read them in time.

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