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Monday, June 1, 2020

SPFBO 2020 Introduction Post

FBC will have a pleasure to participate in the SPFBO for the sixth time. This time we'll have four judges involved in choosing our SPFBO champion. We'll happy to have an excellent guest blogger - Adam Weller - joining us this year. Here’s a bit of information on all of us:

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by KS Villoso (Reviewed by David Stewart)

To say that I liked Tali, Queen Talyien, the Bitch Queen of Oren-Yaro, is like saying that I like coffee. I could take a few cups of Tali every day, six or seven on those days where I need the extra kick. She is a character, but also a character. Villoso has a knack for writing strong leads, with Luc in Blackwood Marauders being the best part of that book and now Tali in The Wolf of Oren-Yaro taking up the strong lead mantle. Told in the first person in a diary-like way, Wolf is Talyien's book from the first page to the last, and seeing the world through her eyes is never dull. She makes sitting down to tea readable. The story of Wolf has readers venture with Tali into a foreign land, and while I was expecting something political, I was not expecting the fish-out-of-water story that Villoso gifts us with, all the while asking readers a complex question - what does a queen do when she is stripped of everything that makes her royal?


Well, I've already spoiled what I think is the strongest part of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. Tali really steals the show, and she is reason enough to read this book. That she happens to be my "type" of character probably biases me towards liking Wolf, but even the best character needs a good plot and setting in which to work. Thankfully, Villoso has provided us with both. The story sees Tali venturing into the unknown, constantly beat up, and barely surviving to the very end of the book. The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is a political tangle, with Talyien hardly understanding her own nation at times, much less the complications of others. Villoso does politics and royal machinations very well, while at the same time not requiring an encyclopedia to keep track of a bunch of houses and one-off characters. The advantage of telling a book in first person that's also full of politics is that the reader only ever needs to know what Talyien knows.

The other great strength of the book is that question I posed in the start of this review. Talyien quickly loses all the shields that make a queen so invulnerable. She becomes a lamb amidst the wolves, and queens I've read about in other books would crumple in similar situations. Tali starts strong as a character, but her development over the course of her journey is key to The Wolf of Oren-Yaro succeeding. Villoso places her queen in situation after situation that tests her resolve and grit, and Talyien walks away a little different every time.

The other great strength of this book, perhaps its defining jewel, is Villoso's descriptions of food. This works both ways as some of the street food she describes is fairly nauseating, but her ability to either repulse or salivate her readers is truly beautiful. Not much more needs to be said about this.


There were aspects of the setting in The Wolf of Oren-Yaro that I felt were underdeveloped. Part of this stems from the nature of the work. Talyien's journey takes her to very specific spots. We don't get the jumped perspective of someone across the nation to break up what we're seeing. That said, I would have liked a deeper exploration of Villoso's world. I am intrigued by some of the hints given, particularly those involving dragons, but I never felt fully immersed in the world as much as I did in Tali's story.

The biggest problem in The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, for me, was the big reveals, and most pointedly, the villain of the book. It is difficult for an author to build tension for a grand reveal near the climax of the story without giving away that very reveal by dropping overt hints or too many clues. I think Villoso errs in her choice of villain for The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, and while I think the character is fine by villainous standards, I found them largely fangless and simply an obstacle to be overcome - like a dark alley or locked room. Puppeteer villains like this one can work, but there needs to be, for the reader, some chance at guessing who is pulling the strings, or some kind of foreshadowing. Without that, it feels like the writer is forcing a reveal that is not entirely earned. This did not ruin the novel for me because there are strengths enough to appreciate, but given the sheer involvement of the villain in The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, I would have preferred to care more about them.

If You Liked

I place The Wolf of Oren-Yaro in august company in this section. It is fairly unique in that it didn't overtly remind me of much, but when I started thinking about it I found some similarities to some of my favorite books. Queen Talyien has much in common with Misaki, the lead character of the recent SPFBO winning Sword of Kaigen. These are women with power, but hindered by their cold-shoulder male counterparts. They are both middle-aged mothers, something not common enough in fantasy, and they both display a strength of character and physicality that is hard not to admire. I also thought of Senlin Ascends as I was reading Wolf. Though not much can top the sheer wonder of the Tower of Babel, Talyien has a similar helplessness when left to her own devices that echoed that of Thomas Senlin, and like Senlin, she manages to overcome her trials through character and wit.

Parting Thoughts

I didn't read The Wolf of Oren-Yaro when it was self-published, but I did read Villoso's other self-published book, The Blackwood Marauders. My biggest complaint with Marauders had been a subtle lack of polish, which I mostly attributed to the author's admitted ESL situation. When Orbit picked up The Wolf of Oren-Yaro for publication, I knew it would be worth reading because Orbit has one of the best editing teams in the business, and Villoso's storytelling and world-building talent would shine in their hands. I was not wrong, and The Wolf of Oren-Yaro's polish gleams in the sea of fantasy books we find ourselves with these days. It's a great start with one of the most refreshingly blunt and multi-faceted characters I've had the pleasure of reading this year. The story wraps up in an incredibly satisfying way that also leaves the reader wanting to see where Talyien goes in the next chronicle. Villoso has crafted a world and a cast that have possibility, and I'd honestly like to read the next book right now.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Race The Sands by Sarah Beth Durst (reviewed by Caitlin Grieve)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFO: Sarah Beth Durst is the award-winning author of twenty fantasy books for kids, teens, and adults, including The Girl Who Could Not Dream, Drink Slay Love, and The Queens of Renthia series. She won an ALA Alex Award and a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award and has been a finalist for SFWA's Andre Norton Award three times. She is a graduate of Princeton University, where she spent four years studying English, writing about dragons, and wondering what the campus gargoyles would say if they could talk. Sarah lives in Stony Brook, New York, with her husband, her children, and her ill-mannered cat.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Life, death, and rebirth -- in Becar, everyone knows that who you are in this life will determine what you are in your next life. The augurs can read your fate in your aura: hawk, heron, tortoise, jackal, human. Armed with that knowledge, you can change your destiny with the choices you make, both in this life and your next. But for the darkest individuals, there is no redemption: you come back as a kehok, a monster, and you will always be a kehok for the rest of time.

Unless you can win the Races.

As a professional trainer, Tamra was an elite kehok rider. Then a tragic accident on the track shattered her confidence, damaged her career, and left her nearly broke. Now Tamra needs the prize money to prevent the local temple from taking her daughter away from her, and that means she must once again find a winning kehok . . . and a rider willing to trust her.

Raia is desperate to get away from her domineering family and cruel fiancé. As a kehok rider, she could earn enough to buy her freedom. But she can't become good enough to compete without a first-rate trainer. Impressed by the inexperienced young woman's determination, Tamra hires Raia and pairs her with a strange new kehok with the potential to win -- if he can be tamed.

But in this sport, if you forget you're riding on the back of a monster, you die. Tamra and Raia will work harder than they ever thought possible to win the deadly Becaran Races -- and in the process, discover what makes this particular kehok so special.

FORMAT/INFO: Race The Sands was published in North America on April 21st, 2020. It is 544 pages spread over 37 chapters. It is told in third person across multiple viewpoints. This is a standalone book and is published in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats by Harper Voyager books.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Fear for your immortal soul is a very real problem in the land of Becar, a realm where those who die are reincarnated based on the goodness of their soul. Most likely, you'll come back as an animal; a rare few are pure enough to come back as a human. But the worst of the worst come back as kehoks, monstrous creatures that are random amalgamations of different creatures. Kehoks live to kill and destroy, and will always reincarnate as nothing but a kehok. But that hasn't stopped the brave and foolhardy from capturing and training kehoks to run in the annual races. The prize money is enormous, and the kehok who wins the grand championship is granted a charm that will allow them to reincarnate into a human upon their death.

This year, trainer Tamra desperately needs to sponsor a rider who can win the kehok races. Her daughter is training to be an auger, a gifted individual who can read a person's aura and determine what kind of creature they will reincarnate into. But auger school is expensive, and if Tamra can't pay the fees, the augers will assume full custody of her daughter "for the good of the country," and Tamra will never see her daughter again. So when she finds Raia, a runaway teen with the fire of a person who has nothing to lose, she goes against her better judgement and agrees to train her. And as if the two women weren't already under enough pressure, they soon discover that their kehok is particularly unusual - and its existence soon embroils them in a power struggle for the fate of the country.

Race The Sands is an engaging fantasy tale that raises all kinds of questions about morality and what drives a person to be "good." Becar's entire system of power is based upon the system of reincarnation and the fear of what your soul will come back as. The wealthy maintain control because it is custom to believe that their wealth is a reward from the gods for the purity of their souls - and the fact that aura readings are private keeps anything from assailing this myth. Augers are those who live unblemished lives and should be given nothing but respect, but does their ability to see your future give them the right to destroy families in their quest for new members? And Tamra raises an excellent point - she won't remember her past life in her next body, so why should she do anything except what is best for her right now in this moment? Shouldn't she be good just because it's the right thing to do, not simply because she might come back as a toad in her next life? These are the kinds of questions kicked around in a story that begins with a very simple premise of "monster-racing."

Tamra and Raia are two excellent female leads that anchor the adventure. Tamra has a core of iron will power that allows her to control kehoks, and she's the main moral compass of the book. She's blunt enough to ask questions without concern for rank or etiquette, and pushes an auger who falls into their company to reexamine his beliefs. Raia, on the other hand, has a spark born of desperation as she escapes from a controlling family, and has to overcome her own self doubts over what she believes is a lifetime of failures. Along with Tamra's daughter Shalla, a family unit is built that has to weather all kinds of storms (literal and psychological).

The central thrust of Race The Sands is familiar, but no less enjoyable for it. You have your rookie rider, your curmudgeonly veteran trainer, and the horse monster that everyone believes is untrainable, fighting as the underdogs to win the grand championship race. But there's an extra layer to Race The Sands that was a surprising and welcome addition to what I was promised on the book jacket. Yes, this is largely a book about monster-racing, but there's also a level of political intrigue. There's tension in the capitol city revolving around the soon-to-be-crowned emperor, and those tensions and the attempted manipulations of those involved soon spill into the races themselves, as the capitol is where the final championship race is held. The stakes elevate just beyond Tamra and Raia's personal problems and become about the fate of the country as a whole.

One thing I had to get used to in this book is that it has a magic system that isn't visually flashy. If you aren't an auger, you can't see auras, and if there wasn't a POV character from an actual auger, we'd have to go on faith that their proclamations about who reincarnates into what are true - which, to be fair, is one of the points of the book. It makes me almost wish that we had only been given POVs of non-augers, to keep us in that same state of uncertainty as the populace as a whole. Regardless, it doesn't stop the book from raising questions about the system, questions that can be applied to real world religions and how they gain and wield power.

CONCLUSION: Race The Sands is a rousing standalone fantasy adventure, the kind that starts on a small, personal scale and eventually grows to a finale that shakes Becar to its core. It also scratches that itch of the "human bonds with a magical creature" trope, even if these particular magical creatures are reincarnated humans. If you're in the mood for monsters or racing or a primarily female cast surviving against all odds, Race The Sands delivers on all counts, in one delightful package that doesn't require a series commitment!
Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky review

Official Author Website
Order The Doors of Eden over HERE(USA) or HERE (UK)

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

From Cold Ashes Risen by Rob J. Hayes (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order From Cold Ashes Risen over HERE (USA) and HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Along The Razor's Edge
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Lessons Never Learned
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's Mini Q&A 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 Fantasy Book Critic's Never Die Release Interview with Rob J. Hayes
Read Fantasy Book Critic's The War Eternal Trilogy Release Interview
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 BOOK BLURB: The Corpse Queen Comes.

Eskara has lost everything. The War Eternal has cost her everything she loves, and the Iron Legion has taken the rest. Yet there is something that is still hers, something that kept her warm during her time in the Pit. Anger and a lust for vengeance. First on the list of those who must pay, the Emperor of Terrelan.

Her friends counsel peace, but her inner demons push for war, and Eska finds herself caught in the middle. Will she find a way to reap her vengeance? Or will the enemies of her past catch up to her first?

One thing is certain. The world will soon know fear when the Corpse Queen ascends her throne.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: From Cold Ashes Risen bring to an end to Eska’s journey as espoused by the trilogy format. At the end of The Lessons Never Learned, both the reader and Eska are given some majorly shocking revelations. With those, it made me want to read this book immediately. In this review, I’ll have to be very vague so as to not spoil the plot but also keep away from spoilers from the preceding volumes.

The story begins with Eskara being shattered about knowing the truth of her and Josef’s powers. There’s also the revelations about the world and the magic system. All in all this volume had mighty expectations placed on it because of the way, the story has unfolded and the particular way Eska narrated her own story. The main plot takes a while to come together but once it does, we the readers are treated to an all-out war that Eska rages against her enemy. The Corpse Queen rises and when she does, all else will fall.

This book takes all that we know about the world, the magical races and Eskara and then it further pulls the rug from beneath it all. Rob J. Hayes was worried about this trilogy about the style utilized, the main narrative voice, the plot structure, etc. All of his fears while justified from an author brand standpoint, turn out to be unsubstantiated from a fan standpoint. The writing is solid as ever (maybe one can argue that it’s better than his previous books considering the narrative and story structure), the pacing is crisp and each book has its own place, style and reveals a further aspect of the world, magic system and current happenings.

Eska as a character has really matured over the past two volumes. Yes she still has her rage but now she has the magical acumen and mental fortitude to back up the rage and make it into a cold flame which lasts longer and is more vicious. In this trilogy ending volume, she has all of her advantages taken away except for Serrakis and she has to truly work to achieve her end goal. The complete and utter annihilation of the entity that has shaped her life and powers. In both the past and future timelines we get a vivid story about how the past shapes the future and yet certain things are still unpredictable as ever.

The surviving characters and those she holds dear to her heart such as Hardt, Tamura and another unnamed character (SPOILERS) are given much more scope to shine. Plus I loved how the author played with the concept of sacrifice and heroism. Perhaps none more personified by the one entity who isn’t a person (Serrakis). The shadowy, Other worldly monster truly comes into the picture and I loved the way Serrakis does what it believes to be sancrosant. Lastly a quick word about the covers for this series, Felix Oriz and Shawn T. King have been a staple factor for Rob’s books and this series has been visually stunning. However the cover art for this volume is simply mindblowing to say the least & I’ve been just in awe of it since it was unveiled over at the Fantasy Hive.

For drawbacks, there’s a couple I would like to highlight but they are very spoilerific and more than a bit subjective. So I can’t really talk about them however the author note in the end of the book significantly dispels one of them. The other one perhaps is more due to the author’s ruthlessness and maybe by now I should expect that. But the losses still hurt and kudos to the author for making me so invested in his works no matter which story he chooses to tell.

CONCLUSION: From Cold Ashes Risen not only heralds a pivotal plot aspect but also the rise of Rob J. Hayes as a writer to seriously be considered as one of the best wordsmiths of the darker side of fiction. This trilogy might end with this book but the story and the characters will live on and maybe, just maybe we the readers will be rewarded with more….
Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Something is Killing The Children Vol. 1 review

Official Author Website
Order Firewalkers over HERE(USA) or HERE (UK)

AUTHOR INFORMATIONJames Tynion IV is a comic book writer, best known for his work on the Batman franchise for DC Comics. James' comics career began with co-writing the back-up stories on Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's character defining run on BATMAN, which would lead to his making his own name on a number of Bat-Centric series. 

An alumnus of Sarah Lawrence College, Tynion now lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.

FORMAT/INFO: Something is Killing the Children is 128 pages long. It was published in May 2020 by BOOM! Studios.

OVERVIEW: I was raised on comic books. I still love the medium but I rarely find gems I need to shout about from the rooftops. Spoiler alert: I'm just about to do it. Something is Killing The Children is terrific.

With their first volume, James Tynion IV, Werther Dell’Edera, and Miguel Muerto introduce readers to strange things happening in the small town of Archer’s Peak. Something weird and terrifying, something adults can't perceive, takes local children one-by-one. 

A mysterious stranger known as Erica Slaughter comes to the town. With a name like that, she has little choice but to slay monsters, right? And she does, but there's much more to her than that. Her origins and motivations remain mysterious and barely hinted. I expect the team will explore them in upcoming issues. Carrying machetes, using a chainsaw when needed,  and wearing a creepy bandana over her face, Erica kicks ass. But there's also a sense of sadness to her, a sadness that quickly turns to rage.

From the very first page, the story conveys a strong feeling of dread. Dramatic writing powered by amazing artwork give each scene a morbid atmosphere. Tynion succeeds at making readers unsure if the main characters will make it to the end. In most media, dire situations involving children serve mainly to raise the stakes, but children usually survive. Not here. Monsters are real and they don't care about the reader's expectations and genre's tropes. 

No one is safe. Violence occurs. Mayhem ensues. BUT nothing feels over-the-top, silly, or unnecessary. 

Dell’ Edera's art feels offbeat and unique. He enjoys thick lines of ink and tends to use a lot of shadows creating an eerie mood and sinister feeling. Colorist Miquel Muerto picks the right tones of blues and greens to make the panels and pages even more ominous. 

Something is Killing the Children is terrific and gripping. It tells a deeply personal, slow-burn horror story that deals with childhood's monsters and trauma. An excellent graphic novel.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Cover Reveal Q&A: Cradle Of Sea And Soil by Bernie Anés Paz (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Pre-order Cradle Of Sea And Soil over HERE

Today we are glad to exclusively reveal the cover of Cradle Of Sea And Soil (book 1 of the Islandborn trilogy) by debutante author Bernie Anés Paz. Bernie also talks with us about the roots of his trilogy (Puerto Rican, West Africa, Caribbean,etc.) his background and about his #ownvoice fantasy story. So read ahead and enjoy the spectacular cover art

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic Bernie. To start with, could you tell us what inspired you to be a writer in the first place, and why you choose to go the self-published route? Anything else you’d like to share about yourself and your past?

BAP: Thanks for having me! So, my path to becoming a writer was a little weird. I was a military brat, so I never stayed in one place for long. I was also born in Puerto Rico and struggled with learning English as a kid. It was bad enough that I couldn’t understand the teachers or my classmates, so I didn’t really have many friends or playmates outside of my younger brothers. I quickly found novels to be an escape from all that, though I needed help reading them at first. Once I started reading on my own, though, I became a voracious little monster and devoured stuff like Animorphs, Dragon Riders of Pern, and Goosebumps before leaping deeper into the fantasy and science fiction spiral. These novels also helped reinforce my understanding of English over time, and seeing me read made my teachers happy, so I kept at it.

Eventually, I stumbled onto a fantasy roleplaying website named Dae Luin. It was pretty awesome. Everyone had a character they developed over time, and we wrote our own plots within a shared world. Our members played shopkeepers, gods, angels, kings, monsters, pretty much everything and anything. I stayed there for almost six years. It not only helped improve my English even further, but it also gave me my first taste of writing, and I found it so enjoyable that I knew it was what I wanted to do.

I ultimately decided to go the self-published route for a lot of reasons. While I believe both traditional and indie publishing are valid paths, with self-publishing it’s more likely that any stumbles or roadblocks are of my own making. I also enjoy the creative freedom and ability to release on my own timeline, and I’m comfortable with shouldering a lot of the effort of publishing myself.

(Art by Daniel Kamarudin, Design/typography by Shawn T. King)

Q] The artwork for Cradle Of Sea And Soil is just spectacular. What were your main pointers for your cover artist as you both went through the process of finalizing it? What were the main things that you wished to focus on in it?

BAP: Daniel Kamarudin, my cover artist, pretty much turned lead into gold. To be honest, I didn’t know how to translate what I wanted into imagery, so I decided to trust his experience and knowledge. In the end, I just handed him some basic lore and background information, told him the two main characters—Colibrí and Narune—were mother and son, and mentioned that I wanted to portray that relationship as much as possible because family is one of the core themes of my novel. I gave him a description of the setting as well, which is this massive tropical forest where oversized roots and the lowest branches form pathways.

Daniel took that and ran with it and did a ridiculous job. I don’t know how he does his magic, but it worked. Shawn T. King then took Daniel's magic and added his own to compete the cover with his typography.

Q] Cradle Of Sea And Soil is the start of the Islandborn trilogy. What can you tell us about the main story and characters within it?

BAP: The entire trilogy will almost exclusively follow two POVs—Colibrí and Narune. As I mentioned, they’re mother and son, and they’re living together in exile just outside their tribe’s village because of a spiritual affliction they both have.

Colibrí is a veteran warrior trying to figure out why corrupted land is appearing well beyond where it should be, while Narune is trying to earn the right to become a warrior-mystic in order to better fight beside his mother—whose exile forces her to prowl the incredibly dangerous rainforest alone—when he earns his adulthood. The story alternates between them and follows them through their unique journeys, but they never really separate. Both Colibrí and Narune have to deal with each other and those who eventually became part of their family every step of the way. A lot of the story touches on the messy closeness families experience daily.

Along the way a lot of things happen. Colibrí and Narune are both warriors, so they’re sworn to take part in the eternal war against the strange, hollow monsters the tribes have fought forever. Those monsters also serve as the primary antagonists of the trilogy and are kind of tribal-themed eldritch horrors. You’ll also get to see Colibrí and Narune slowly deal with their shared spiritual affliction, and you get to watch Narune learn to use his people’s martial-based magic. Hopefully the end result is a trilogy that is both familiar yet a bit different than a lot of the Eurocentric fantasy out there.

Q] Let’s talk about how Cradle Of Sea And Soil came to fruition? What was your inspiration for this story?

BAP: I wrote a bunch of desk-drawer novels and they were all styled the same way as the fantasy I read. Many of my characters were even white and from European-inspired cultures. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. Many of my most beloved authors write “standard” fantasy, and all I really care about is a gripping story with characters I can become invested in. But I watched this amazing Ted Talk named “The danger of a single story” and it absolutely broke my heart. I looked long and hard at the stories I was already trying to tell, then decided to challenge myself.

The result was this novel. It’s primarily inspired by Puerto Rico, but includes a lot of inspiration from West Africa and the Taino natives, from which Puerto Ricans draw a ton of their heritage. I also pulled from the Carib natives and other Latin American cultures and, separately, from Spain which will pan out later in the trilogy.

Again, I personally believe there’s nothing wrong with writing what most people consider “standard” fantasy, but I figured that if I could add something born from my own experiences and heritage to the pool, then I owed it to myself to at least try and tell that story. There are already others out there doing the same thing, like Evan Winters, N. K. Jemisin, and M. L. Wang. Now, I want to be clear that I’m not trying to compare myself to any of them. They’re just very inspirational to me, and I wanted to write a story that followed after their footsteps.

Q] Can you tell us more about the world that The Islandborn trilogy is set in? What are the curiosities (geographical, mystical, etc.) of this world?

BAP: The story’s setting is a tropical archipelago. Within it is the world’s most ancient rainforest, and at that heart of that is a giant fissure known as the Primordial Wound. It gushes magical energy known as Flow, which has basically hyper-evolved everything in the region, including the native people. The Wound is also festering with a kind of infection known as the Stillness, and from it grow these hollow monsters that imitate pieces of nature or ideas like victory and fury. The tribes have been fighting against them forever, and their entire culture is based around containing the infection at any cost.

The forest itself is where most of the story takes place. It’s a tangle of layers, bridges, and roads created by roots and low branches. It’s full of all kinds of crazy, dangerous life, too. Some of the frogs have a synaptic connection to each other, so killing more than a few by mistake will send a venom-dripping swarm after you. There are hunting plants that either set traps or seek out prey in order to make up for the lack of sunlight that comes through the canopy. Only warriors usually enter the forest, whether in search of food or their ancestral foe. Everyone else lives in the coastal villages of the tribes.

As far as the magic goes, I think people will find it fascinating. It’s very combat-based sorcery loosely inspired by Magic the Gathering’s themed colors. Spells are “painted” into existence and every color has its quirks. The depths of the magic system will be explored well over the series, but readers can enjoy a hefty chunk of it in this novel.

Q] Can you share something about the book that’s not mentioned in the blurb and why should fans should be excited for your debut?

BAP: The worldbuilding, I think. The blurb just doesn’t do it justice. I love my characters, but it’s the setting that gives them so much of their flavor and cultural ticks. If you’re looking for something that’s different and not simply weird, and if you enjoy exploring worlds inspired by unfamiliar cultures like in Rage of Dragons, then I think you’ll really enjoy my novel too.

Q] So 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 pitch for this trilogy?

BAP: Tough one! I’d describe my stories as a trip abroad, just as with any other fantasy novel, but maybe one that’s a step further than you’re used to going. Rather than kings, emperors, and barons, you get a cacica. Instead of beer, you get chicha. My not-dragon is effectively a couatl. People eat cassava and guayaba. Again, different rather than simply weird and otherworldly, but there’s still monsters, magic, and battles to be had. I think that’s the pitch for my entire trilogy, in fact.

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

BAP: I just want to say thank you to anyone who picks up a copy of my book. Seriously, this is the start of a new journey for me and I can’t wait to see where it takes me. I appreciate you being a part of that adventure.


(Art by Daniel Kamarudin, Design/typography by Shawn T. King)

Pre-order Cradle Of Sea And Soil over HERE

Official Blurb: The Primordial Wound has festered with corruption since the birth of the world. The island tribes have warred against its spawn for just as long—and they are losing.

Burdened by the same spiritual affliction that drove the first Halfborn insane, Colibrí lives in exile with little more than her warrior oaths and her son. But when Colibrí discovers corrupted land hidden away by sorcery, those same oaths drive her to find answers in an effort to protect the very people who fear her.

Narune dreams of earning enough glory to show that he and his mother Colibrí are nothing like the Halfborn that came before them. Becoming a mystic will give him the strength he needs, but first, Narune will need to prove himself worthy in a trial of skill and honor.

Together, Colibrí and Narune must learn to become the champions their people need—and face the curse threatening to scour away their spirits with fury.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Pretty Little Dead Girls by Mercedes M. Yardley review

Official Author Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu 

Order Pretty Little Dead Girls over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Mercedes M. Yardley is a whimsical dark fantasist who wears stilettos, red lipstick, and poisonous flowers in her hair. She recently won the prestigious Bram Stoker Award for her story Little Dead Red. Mercedes lives and creates in Las Vegas with her family and menagerie of battle-scarred, rescued animal familiars.

FORMAT/INFO: Pretty Little Dead Girls is 260 pages long. The book was originally published in 2016 by Crystal Lake Publishing. Cover design by Galen Dara.

OVERVIEW: I loved this book so don’t expect me to be objective. I want everyone to read it. Pretty Little Dead Girls is gutting and dark, but there are lightness and beauty to it, especially in the prose.

“Bryony Adams was the type of girl who got murdered. This was always so, and it was apparent from the way that men looked at her as she adjusted her knee socks to the way that women shook their heads in pity when she rode by on her bicycle.” 

Everyone who knows Bryony knows, the moment they meet her, she’ll end up murdered. Doomed at birth, she remains bright, loving, and friendly. She lightens the lives of people around her, making them better, even if for a while. She comforts those who mourn, in advance, her unavoidable death. Her natural charm and openness allow her to make friends with everyone, including a charming serial-killer destined to fulfill her dark destiny.

I loved observing Bryony navigate her doomed life. We’re all born to die, but it doesn’t mean we should wring our hands and despair. There’s so much to experience and enjoy. Despite living on a borrowed time, Bryony makes every moment worthwhile.

Yardley’s captivating writing style conveys emotions (love, happiness, fear and pain) with ease and impact. Her lyrical style awed me. I don’t know another author able to create such a dark and disturbing atmosphere in such a charming style. Like in this passage where the killer runs after his victim:

"He was sprinting, because he did not need to make it to the edge of town: he only needed to make it to the girl. His feet hit the ground like pistons, cold and mechanical, and he held the knife tightly in his grip, blade down. Oh, oh, how tragically this shall unfold."

Her style resonates with me. I praise her not only for imaginative wordsmithing but also for excellence in handling a third-person omniscient narrative voice. Not only is the narrator omniscient, but they also break the fourth wall throughout and… it works! The narrator engages readers, questions their assumptions, and plays with their emotions. And it works every single time. Incredible. And gut-wrenching.

A killer is just a tool of sinister fate and personified Desert for which Bryony's demise is the only acceptable outcome. Whenever her friends rescue her or interfere with her fate, the desert gets angry. But nor for long, because

"The desert had a trick up its sleeve, oh yes it did. For it may be thwarted at the moment, but it will not be thwarted for long, and even now there was a rumbling deep underground that made the desert cease feeling sorry for itself. In fact, it began to smile, a harsh smile, a terrible smile, and anybody who witnessed it certainly would have been frozen in horror, pierced by the chill one feels when they drop something fragile, something that was given to them by somebody very dear who is now dead, and now they have nothing with which to remember them, and shall never be able to recall their features exactly ever again."

Yardley described Pretty Little Dead Girls as a novel of murder and whimsy, a perfect description. It's a horror that doesn't revel in gore. It's a romance that twists the genre. It doesn't shy away from brutal truths of our existence but even when it tugs at your heartstrings it leaves you with a sense of wonder.  Despite darker elements, it left me with a sense of hope and wonder at the end. This book gets a well-deserved place on my all-time favorites list.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Library of the Unwritten by AJ Hackwith (Reviewed by David Stewart)

The unintentional horror of The Library of the Unwritten might specifically apply to me. I have been a librarian for most of my adult life, and also a writer. The main character of The Library of the Unwritten is a woman named Claire, librarian of Hell's library and an author whose own literary ideas never found fruition. As I read though AJ Hackwith's novel, I couldn't help but feel a little called out. There is an idea in this book that if an author thinks about their unwritten character enough, that character will manifest and start walking around in the world. The idea of meeting my own main character, and the overwhelming guilt that would follow that meeting, terrifies me. Why did AJ Hackwith write a book specifically to shame me into finishing my own?


The idea of a library in hell where unwritten books go to linger is a good one, but it isn't unique. The first time I came across such an idea was in Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novel series, where the lead character has exactly this kind of library in his domain. In Gaiman's work, the idea is not fully fleshed out and is only really mentioned in passing. Hackwith runs with the notion, sets her library in Hell (because apparently unwritten ideas don't make it to Heaven), and sets a story in it. I'll admit, I am always a little uncomfortable when authors decide to claim the existence of a Judeo-Christian Heaven and Hell, but Hackwith softens this fear with the inclusion of other religions, including Valhalla which is always a plus with me, and even some dead ones. Claire's journey takes readers on a ride, and along the way she gathers up a ragtag group of adventurers to help and hinder her. Claire herself is an excellent lead, fleshed out and sympathetic, while being deeply flawed (let's face it, she wouldn't have earned her turn as Hell's librarian if she weren't full of regrets).

There would be a real danger, in a novel like this, of abusing its connection and adoration of books and the written word. Puns would kill The Library of the Unwritten, and I am happy to say that it handles its connection with literature in as deft and plausible way as it could. The concept of book characters coming to life could feel hokey, on paper, and it takes suspension of disbelief to make it work even in this book, but that's the nature of fantasy. The meta-conversation about how characters are alive is in full swing here - many of Hackwith's inside-the-book characters feel as fleshed out as her "real" characters, and that says something about a writer's ability to humanize imagination. Of particular note is when Claire's history reveals that she has literally fallen in and out of love with one of her characters, revealing the kind of tangled psychology that would require months of therapy to unravel. What could have been a comedy fantasy about living books in Hackwith's hands becomes something much deeper.

I also had a moment in this book, which is full of beautiful prose and captivating imagery, when I was imagining the actual library. I thought of all those stories, potentially billions, that had never been written down, never conceptualized beyond the step of creation, and it hurt. It made me physically uncomfortable to think about every story that someone felt too afraid to write down, or show someone else, or to even think about for fear that they might not be praised, or worse, might be shunned. This was perhaps an unintended moment for the author, but a welcome one for a reader.


As much as I did like The Library of the Unwritten, there were aspects of it that prevented it from being truly great - even for a library book nerd like me. Many of these hiccups are parallel to the book's strengths. For instance, the inclusion of non-Judeo-Christian religions was a nice nod, but it almost feels like a begrudging addition. I never had the sense that any of these other religions carried any weight, and it was the belief in Heaven and Hell that was the supreme arbiter of faith. Now, this tracks on a percentage basis, Christians and Muslims make up the majority of the world's religious, but it feels like it places too much weight on one particular belief. Nor does it take into account the nearly one billion or so folks who claim no faith or a faith that lies outside of the major ones. This same critique can be applied to a dozen authors who write books like this, Gaiman, Pratchett, Moore, etc., and it likely boils down to the author's own background and shouldn't be counted as a ding against the book, but I would have really loved a deeper exploration of faith-based systems that did not center so much on Judeo-Christian beliefs. Perhaps that's asking too much for a book that carries a lighter hearted tone than many that deal in religion.

I mentioned liking Claire quite a bit, and I did, but I had some issues with other characters in the novel. Leto, for one, who is a good character in his own right, feels largely forced into the story for a big reveal later that, for me, fell completely flat. There are actually a few characters in the book that feel largely purposeless, but is it fair to criticize characters, even well-written ones, for not serving much purpose? Probably not.

To again parallel some of my earlier thoughts on the strengths of The Library of the Unwritten, while the reference to books and writing are well done, there is also a pattern of characters consistently trying to say these lines as though they are trying to get into Barlett's Book of Quotations. If it hadn't happened so often, I might not have noticed, but the novel has a persistence of characters basically turning to the camera and delivering one-liners that they hope will feel meaningful but ultimately feel a little cheesy.

The last area where The Library of the Unwritten falls flat for me is in its inability to go further. This is a series, so perhaps this critique will correct itself in subsequent novels, but for a book about the power of imagination, the sheer depth and breadth of it, it stays fairly tame. When I consider the amount of unwritten stories in a library like this, how many tales the author had to draw from with almost no limitation, I find myself disappointed in how mundane some of the events of the book play out. There is a climactic scene at the end, in particular, that could have really been a memorable one, but it plays out in a predictable way with one contrived deus ex machina moment that made me sad to read.

If You Liked

I was a little surprised, given the clear influences, that the author did not mention Neil Gaiman in her acknowledgements. This book screams Good Omens and Sandman to me, but I will acknowledge that similar ideas can bloom in different minds at different times. Regardless, readers who enjoy the more Judeo-Christian tones of some of Gaiman's England-centered work will find this enjoyable. I also found some pretty heavy similarities to Christopher Moore, particularly in the early parts of the novel which are more comedic in tone than some of the latter. Fans of books about big mystical libraries also might find some similarities to Scott Hawkins' fantastic Library at Mount Char, though Hawkins' book is a fair bit darker in tone then Hackwith's.

Parting Thoughts

The Library of the Unwritten is a book that, on paper, I should love. I liked it, and I will probably read the second book in the series when it is released later this year. Hackwith's writing is very good, and I only would wish for a stronger exploration of her material to really love what she is doing with these books. I am happy that she will continue with Claire as her main character because her complexity and range is really refreshing to read. I would like to see some of the adjacent characters brought up to that level, but ultimately the series feels like it belongs to Claire and I am ok with that. She is the librarian. 
Friday, May 15, 2020

Xindii: The Boy Who Walked Too Far by Dominic Watson Cover Reveal and Q&A

Pre-order Xindii: The Boy Who Walked Too Far over HERE(USA) or HERE(UK)

We have the immense pleasure of hosting the cover reveal for Dominic Watson’s Xindii: The Boy Who Walked Too Far. It’s a unique story that blends fantasy, sci-fi, metaphysics, and more.

Xindii is a thrilling story unlike anything you’ve read and Dominic was super kind to answer a few questions to talk about the world, the story, and how the cover was created.

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