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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Guest Review: Dragon Age: The Masked Empire by Patrick Weekes (Reviewed by A.E. Marling)

Order Dragon Age: The Masked Empire HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Patrick Weeks is a senior writer at BioWare and has contributed to all three of the award-winning Mass Effect games. His stories have appeared in Amazing Stories, Realms of Fantasy, and Strange Horizons. He has also published a stand-alone fantasy novel.

CLASSIFICATION: The story reads very much like a Dragon Age game, with long and frequent fight sequences but more character depth, love, and moral ambiguity than a typical swords and sorcery adventure.

FORMAT / INFO: Tor Books published a  384 paged paperback and eBook. Narration is third person, switching scene by scene primarily between the three heroes and the villain. The story was released from its Veil imprisonment on April 8th, 2014.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Reignite your love for Dragon Age with The Masked Empire by senior BioWare writer Patrick Weekes. Fans of the games will delight in another diverse cast of characters who struggle to survive in a world of uncertain evils and treacherous goods. And if you haven’t yet played Dragon Age, well, there’s your first mistake.

Writing novels about a game franchise where the player makes impacting choices has its risks. The prior Dragon Age novels struck discordant notes with my constructed narrative, such as a cameo of a character I’d previously killed. At that point it’s like the novel disintegrates into dust in my hands. The Masked Empire avoids similar feel-bad’s while keeping the nostalgic delights. When the heroes battle tree grotesques, my heart pounds faster since I’ve fought sylvans myself. By the Maker, don’t let their roots reach the mages! 

In Dragon Age: Origins, Leliana had a lot to say and sing about her life as a bard in Orlais. She claimed to have played in a deadly game of masks and daggers, where a wrong look could topple an empire. Leliana also said that god spoke to her in a rose garden, and she named her pet nug Schmooples. Not exactly trustworthy.

Turns out, Leliana was right. In Orlais, she meets secretly in a Chantry with Empress Celene. They bargain for stability of the realm. Too bad they live in the Age of Dragons. The mages are threatening to break from their Circle, and the repressed elves are starting a rebellion.

In the world of Thedas, the elves are outcasts and slaves. Humans have betrayed them and left the beauty of their elvish empire in ruins. Playing as an elf in the game gives a skin-crawling insight into The Other, where you can call your other party members on their accidental discrimination and fetish innuendo. In this story, the elf Briala suffers through the condescending slur of “rabbit” and the insult of “knife ears.” As a handmaid of the empress, Briala influences policy to help her people in the slums. The dirt-street elves accuse her of not knowing true hardship. The Dalish elves in the woods don’t even acknowledge her as kin.

She has to stop the elvish rebellion before it topples the reign of her empress and lover. Briala plans to assassinate the lordling whose cruelty sparked the uprising. A bardic master at deception, infiltration, and fine dressing, she’ll kiss the lord goodnight with her dagger. The rebellion will diffuse, and Briala can go back to helping her people through peaceful channels. A fine plan, if the antagonist had nothing to say about it.

Duke Gaspard has had enough of the empress’s complacency toward inferior people and nations. She refuses to conquer the dog-lovers of Ferelden. She permits elves to study in the university. What’s next? Will she allow commoners and knife-ears into the order of chevaliers? As a chevalier himself, Duke Gaspard has a duty to Orlais to unseat the empress. To do this, he attacks her political position with the Game. Then he strikes at her head’s position atop her body with his sword. The Empire of Masks gives a great taste of the deadly courtesy and verbal sparing required at court. Then it transitions into magical blasts and mayhems of steel. The fights are choreographed in detail, in a similar style to R.A. Salvatore.

Wounded politically, Empress Celene has to regain the favor of the nobles by crushing the elvish rebellion. She cares about prosperity and peace. If that means slaughtering elves and alienating her lovely handmaiden Briala, then that’s a price they’ll all have to pay. Regret has been trained out of Celene. Beneath her rosewater-scented gowns wait daggers, blazing with both magic and her ambition.

Her faithful bodyguard, Ser Michael, is the duke’s worst fear. Michael was born to an elvish whore, but through deception and impeccable swordsmanship, he excelled in the noble order of chevaliers. His code is death before dishonor, so he’ll kill anyone who might expose his half-breed heritage. And he’s a juggernaut of a warrior, even without his silverite blade. At one point he defeats two armed elves using only a wet blanket. No joke, especially not to the dead elves.

That Ser Michael is one of the protagonists illustrates the moral uncertainty of Dragon Age. The party is further destabilized by a Dalish mage, Felassan. He crushes the clichés of elvish wizards with his unsanctimonious glee and silly jokes. At one point Briala yells at him for his unstealthy use of lightning bolts. He shrugs. What did she expect? He’s going to toss boulders around and sometimes rip holes in the Veil. He’s a mage, after all, and he even has the mod that shrinks his staff out of sight between battles. The spell callbacks to the game make me smile. Remember the overpowered Crushing Prison that could one-shot your hero? Yeah, that can happen in books, too.

In addition to the long fight scenes, the book fires off several volleys of character backstory. The sort of fire-side stories that characters might tell at camp are dumped into the reader’s lap. The upside is, it’s interesting.

CONCLUSION: Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a jaunt into an Eluvian mirror. I understand that’s where I can meet the better sort of elves, the kind who’ll sell their souls to demons to reclaim their lost empire.

GUEST AUTHOR INFORMATION: A.E. Marling is a fantasy writer, dancer, law-abiding citizen, human being (in that order). Discover his fantasy-appreciation blog and follow him on Twitter, @AEMarling, or the kitty gets it.
Saturday, April 26, 2014

Re-Review: Irenicon by Aidan Harte (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Aidan Harte was born in Kilkenny, Ireland. He studied in the Florence Academy of Art. He currently works as a sculptor in Dublin and his sculpture can be seen in Sol Art Gallery in Dublin. He works in the classical tradition informed by the early 20th century expressionists. He has also directed an IFTA winning, BAFTA nominated kids’ TV show, Skunk Fu, which was broadcast on BBC, Kids WB and Cartoon Network. This was his debut.

OFFICIAL BLURB: The river Irenicon was blasted through the middle of Rasenna in 1347 and now it is a permanent reminder to the feuding factions that nothing can stand in the way of the Concordian Empire. The artificial river, created overnight by Concordian engineers using the Wave, runs uphill. But the Wave is both weapon and mystery; not even the Concordians know how the river became conscious - and hostile. But times are changing. Concordian engineer Captain Giovanni is ordered to bridge the Irenicon - not to reunite the sundered city, but to aid Concord's mighty armies, for the engineers have their sights set firmly on world domination and Rasenna is in their way.

Sofia Scaglieri will soon be seventeen, when she will become Contessa of Rasenna, but her inheritance is tainted: she can see no way of stopping the ancient culture of vendetta which divides her city. What she can't understand is why Giovanni is trying so hard to stop the feuding, or why he is prepared to risk his life, not just with her people, but also with the lethal water spirits - the buio - that infest the Irenicon. Times are changing. And only the young Contessa and the enemy engineer Giovanni understand they have to change too, if they are to survive the coming devastation - for Concord is about to unleash the Wave again...

FORMAT/INFO: Irenicon is 583 pages long divided over sixty-eight numbered chapters with an epilogue. Narration is in third-person by Sofia Scaglieri, Giovanni the engineer, Doctor Bardini, Gaetano Morello and a few other minor characters. Irenicon is the first book of the Wave trilogy and has an ending that concludes the novel’s major storylines.

April 1, 2014 marked the North American e-book and hardback publication of Irenicon by Jo Fletcher books. It was previously published in the UK by the same publisher on March 29, 2012.

ANALYSIS: Irenicon the word sounds mysterious and was unknown to me when I first heard of it. Its meaning, I discovered was a device or proposition for securing peace. Such an intriguing word and the debut from Aidan Harte also dripped intrigue from its blurb to the overall premise. The book is an alternate historical story with the central premise being that Christ never reached adulthood. Herod was successful in killing Mary’s son and thus the prophesied messiah was never able to spread his words. His mother however was venerated as the holy Madonna and she did her best to spread his message. Christianity as we know is forever altered and becomes a different religion altogether.

Fast forward to the 14th century wherein the Italy we know is there in an altered state. Rome is briefly mentioned however is not the power it was in our world. There are two main cities that vied for power, Concord and Rasenna however Concord harnessed a terrible power through a mysterious process invented by Girolamo Bernoulli who managed to astound everyone with his brilliance. He managed to up throw the influence of the church and created a society of scientists and engineers that share some shades with the Dunyain of Earwa. Though not so heartless in their devotion, the engineer guild pioneered by Bernoulli has lead to the rise of the Concordian empire and the crowning movement was when they engineered a wave to disrupt Rasenna’s geography. The offshoot is that the after effects have lead to some sentience being developed by the weapon and now has developed a rather sinister attitude towards humans.

The story begins with the two narrators namely the young to-be-Contessa Sofia Scaglieri and the engineer Giovanni. She’s the to-be-ruler of Rasenna and he’s the enemy sent to build a bridge across the waters of Irenicon so that the Concordian army can march across and show its marital splendor thereby cowing any thoughts of Rasennian rebellion. Thus is a destiny created between these two as they go about their various individual paths not knowing how closely linked they will be to each other. There are other POVs as well however their presence is only from time to time and often gives the reader a perspective beyond the two main characters. The story is quite unpredictable in its scope and the author does his best to dole out much about the world and the enigmatic Bernoulli in the form of footnotes.

Another succulent feature of the book is its Erikson-esque prose that manages to draw the reader in and confound them with the world presented. The magic system is present but more akin to a K.J. Parker world is manifested in small amounts and generally takes a secondary role. The emphasis is strongly on characters and they are what power the story. The character cast is not a large one however the characters presented are a well rounded lot who come in many shades. Their journeys might not be predictable but they are indeed interesting to read about. The author very vividly brings to life a small town riven apart by infighting and its divisive mentality, and this view is thoroughly expanded throughout the book.

The story takes some interesting turns and the readers will be kept guessing till the very end as to what’s happening and how the story ends. The plot also shares some aspects and philosophy with that of the Matrix, though not overtly an SF story, there are some valid edges to it that makes one wonder as to what other surprises the author has in store for the remaining two books in the trilogy. The climatic twist of the story is one that can go either way, either surprise the reader entirely or just be downright off-putting. Readers might have to read it with a certain expectation that the author will clarify more about it in the next book. Lastly on the aspect of character deaths, the author's writing style and presentation reminded me of David Gemmell in some aspects and this was something that I enjoyed.

One of the main drawbacks of the story that I noticed was that while its characterization led to some interesting results, it also robbed the story of its pace and this can be a very concerning factor as the book is a 600 page tome. The tepid pace often causes disconnect with the plot happenings as there are events happening which will want the reader to immediately know what happens next however the sluggish pace might deter readers. Another aspect that is a bit unexplained is the level of technology as well as certain happenings of the story; it is never clearly detailed and hence can cause certain readers to question the premise of the story. I was willing to go along with the story and hence it worked for me. Readers will have to decide for themselves in this regard.

CONCLUSION: Aidan Harte’s debut is an eclectic mix of influences and therefore makes the story a touch more intriguing than the blurb makes it out to be. I went in not knowing what to expect and was pleasantly surprised to find a story that is in parts a love story and in parts a thriller. Irenicon is a hard book to define and so all I can say is that give it a try to see whether it matches your interest, I happened to find it pretty exciting and original amid the current fantasy landscape.
Friday, April 25, 2014

Heaven's Queen by Rachel Bach (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website  
Order “Heaven's QueenHERE 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "The Spirit Thief
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of “The Spirit Rebellion” 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of “The Spirit Eater” & “Spirit’s Oath” 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of “The Spirit War” 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Spirit's End"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Fortune's Pawn"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Honor's Knight"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Interview with Rachel Aaron
Read Eli Monpress series completion interview with Rachel Aaron
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Interview with Rachel Bach

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Rachel Bach (Rachel Aaron) lives in Athens, Georgia with her family. She has graduated from University of Georgia with a B.A. in English Literature. She has been an avid reader since her childhood and now has an ever-growing collection to show for it. She loves gaming, Manga comics & reality TV police shows. She also blogs occasionally on the Magic Districts website.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: From the moment she took a job on Captain Caldswell's doomed ship, Devi Morris' life has been one disaster after another: government conspiracies, two alien races out for her blood, an incurable virus that's eating her alive.

Now, with the captain missing and everyone -- even her own government -- determined to hunt her down, things are going from bad to impossible. The sensible plan would be to hide and wait for things to blow over, but Devi's never been one to shy from a fight, and she's getting mighty sick of running.

It's time to put this crisis on her terms and do what she knows is right. But with all human life hanging on her actions, the price of taking a stand might be more than she can pay. 

CLASSIFICATION: The Paradox trilogy is an action-packed SF series with romantic elements. Think of it as “Kate Daniels in armor and fighting aliens in space” or possibly a female heroine version of the Shadow Warrior series by Chris Bunch.

FORMAT/INFO: Heaven’s Queen is 400 pages long divided over fourteen numbered chapters and a prologue. Narration is in the first person solely via Deviana “Devi” Morris and in the third person for Brian Caldswell. There's also an excerpt from Ancillary Justice

April 22, 2014 marks the Trade paperback and e-book publication of Heaven’s Queen via Orbit Books.

ANALYSIS: I’m a big fan of Rachel Aaron, that’s pretty evident to readers of this blog. I’ve been following her books since I happened upon Spirit Thief and it’s to her credit that since 2010 she’s also finished her second series in a completely different genre. This review will be talking about the preceding titles in the Paradox trilogy so for readers who haven’t read the previous ones please stop and read the earlier books.

Heaven's Queen is the concluding volume in the Deviana Morris trilogy and as far as endings go, a smashing one. The prologue reveals a big secret of the past in regards to the formation of the Eyes as well as how the Lelgis first came up with a solution for the phantoms. We get to see it all from Brian Caldswell’s POV and also how Maat got a permanent location. We find ourselves back with Devi and Rupert who have to iron the mess that have been their professional & personal lives. Also before they can do so, Devi it seems is on time-ticker with regards to the Plasmex virus within her. Everyone including the Eyes, Paradoxian, Terran & the Lelgis are after them & her options are running out to figure out what her endgame will be. This is the main plot of this volume and of course there are a lot more surprises within.

All but the main secrets have been revealed in the second volume Honor's Knight, but in this one we are privy to what really started the war for saving our universe & how Brian Caldswell became such a pivotal figure in it. Not only are we shown that crucial scene but also Brian’s past is laid bare which goes a long way in explaining his actions so far & all that he attempts in this one. Devi on the other hand is still the same motormouth armored badass that we have come to expect. She however also shows a lot of fortitude and guts with her decisions in regards to Rupert and Maat. There's also much more about Maat, her daughters and why she has been imprisoned so far.

That’s the big focus of the story; the whole universe is in major trouble and its upto our protagonists to resolve the crisis. I loved how the author managed to shift the focus on to this aspect of the story as in the first two books, the story while being Devi-centric was more focused on what she did and happened around her. In Heaven’s Queen, the plot while being Devi-centric manages to convey the sense of dread and ultimately the journey that she undertakes. I enjoyed the action sequences set in the story and also the fact that we got to see a crucial personage from the Paradoxian world.

Lastly we get down to Devi and Rupert. While the romantic aspect of the story was a bit toned down due to it being the finale, for those looking for some romantic action will not be entirely disappointed. A massive ending ensues and once again Rachel Bach/Aaron proves that she never does things on a tiny scale. With this story she was looking to combine SF action with a strong does of romance and she was able to do that rather admirably if you look at the entire trilogy as a whole. For those wanting their action fix, she doesn’t disappoint either and somehow manages to make the climax epic and yet focused on a few individuals. The pace of the story never lets up and will have the reader turning pages to see how it all ends.

Now as with trilogy endings, there are always going to be a few things that you might not like. For me there was a sort of imperfect balance between the action sequences as well as the romance in the story. While the first two books managed to be precise with this aspect, somehow Heaven’s Queen wasn’t able to continue that trend. Sure I might be completely wrong about this and others might like this book better than its predecessors. But for me the first two books were superior to this one.

Also we don’t quite get a proper reveal about the Terran-Paradoxian split, this was something I was very curious to know. Also the Paradoxian society was never quite revealed but only glimpsed via conversations. Now with the trilogy being focused on all other worlds except Terran & paradox, I don’t blame the author for not being able to reveal more. I’m hoping that she does manage to write another series in this universe wherein these queries can be resolved.

CONCLUSION: Rachel Bach ends the Paradox trilogy on a note that will strongly resonate with her readers and fans of Devi Morris. Sure there are a couple of things that didn’t match up to my expectations but these are simply minor details in what turns out to be a smashing read filled with action, romance and a strong does of humor from a motormouth mercenary who manages to leave everyone speechless. Heaven’s Queen is an epic ending to a fun trilogy that will be ideal for fans who love great characters and incredible settings.
Thursday, April 24, 2014

"Independent Study: The Testing Series Book 2" by Joelle Charbonneau (Reviewed by Cindy Hannikman)

 Visit Joelle Charbonneau's Official Website Here
Read FBC's Review of 'The Testing" Here

OVERVIEW: In the series debut The Testing, sixteen-year-old Cia Vale was chosen by the United Commonwealth government as one of the best and brightest graduates of all the colonies . . . a promising leader in the effort to revitalize postwar civilization. In Independent Study, Cia is a freshman at the University in Tosu City with her hometown sweetheart, Tomas—and though the government has tried to erase her memory of the brutal horrors of The Testing, Cia remembers. Her attempts to expose the ugly truth behind the government’s murderous programs put her—and her loved ones—in a world of danger. But the future of the Commonwealth depends on her.

FORMAT: Independent Study is the second book in The Testing Series. Book 1 in the series is The Testing. Independent Study is a YA dystopian novel with romance, drama, adventure, and political intrigue. It stands at 310 pages and was published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Young Readers on January 7, 2014.

ANALYSIS: The Testing was a new, unique dystopian novel that was designed to replace the void YA readers had after reading Hunger Games and Divergent. While it was a quick read, it wasn't a 'wow' book for me. Independent Study is the sequel to The Testing and I have mixed feelings about the series.

Independent Study follows the testing candidates after they have passed the testing and are moving into their own independent areas of study. Unfortunately, because the government always knows best in dystopian novels – the government will pick and choose which areas of study a student goes into.

This sequel has so much potential to be a good book, but unfortunately something falls flat. I'm not sure if it is any one thing, so much as it is a bunch of little things that – when combined – turn into an 'eh' book.

Let's start with the main character – Cia. Cia is smart, you would have to be to be picked for the testing and pass it, but somehow in the time from the testing to when Independent Study picks up, Cia turns into this all perfect, wonderful, brilliant person. She knows the answers to everything practically and she knows them hours before everyone else.

Now, normally this wouldn't bother me, but it felt as if the entire book was designed to showcase just how brilliant Cia is to the point it worked the opposite. I understood why the other people didn't like her, I understood why they wanted to take her down. I really don't think this was the desired effect the author intended.

Take the sudden brilliance of the main character and mix it with the extensive info dumping and random plot twist, and you have what is just an alright book. There are huge sections of Independent Study that go on and on to explain how the area got to be like it was, some of the history, and other aspects. It just got a bit overwhelming and felt like it threw off the vibe of the book.

I understand that second books are a tough sell for authors. Authors are tasked with carrying the huge momentum from the first book into the second without any problems. This book unfortunately didn't do it for me. I found myself floundering to get into a groove with the book and it honestly felt like an entirely new series I was starting. I'm not sure if it was the random throwing out there of the two revolutions, the character development changes, or the rather excessive info dumping.

Overall, Independent Study wasn't what I would have expected. It wasn't enough to turn me completely off from the series, but I don't feel the momentum that I felt in the first book. I still enjoy the whole school setting and educational twist, but I don't feel the push to read book 3 like I usually feel when following a series.

I am certain that people looking for a replacement or a similar series to Hunger Games will enjoy this series, but I don't see the attachment forming that I saw in Hunger Games.
Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Guest Review: Harry Potter and The Order Of The Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (Reviewed by Achala Upendran)

Official Author Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harry Potter and The Chamber Of Secrets
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harry Potter and The Prisoner Of Azkaban
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harry Potter and The Goblet Of Fire

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Ah, now we come to it. The fifth book of the Potter series, the one that polarizes the fandom. You either love or hate Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I am of the former party; I love the fifth book, chiefly because of the Harry I met in its covers.

Order of the Phoenix gets off, I will admit, to a rather slow start. Contrary to what we might expect based on the close of Goblet of Fire (where Voldemort returned in his full glory), the wizarding world at large does not appear to be gearing up for war. Instead, Harry is spending his holidays as usual, cooped up in Privet Drive with his horrible aunt, uncle and cousin. To make matters worse, he hasn’t heard much from his best friends, Ron and Hermione.

Being Harry Potter of course, this state of affairs does not last long. A Dementor attack on Harry and his cousin results in Harry’s expulsion from Hogwarts and his subsequent remove from Privet Drive. He is spirited away by an elite group of witches and wizards, to the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. There, Harry meets many new faces, but also gets back in touch with some favourites from the past, including Professor Lupin and, of course, his godfather, Sirius Black.

The plot of Order of the Phoenix, so far as it can be said to exist, is relatively simple. The Dark Lord is back, but the Ministry of Magic does not seem ready to acknowledge it. In an attempt to quash Headmaster Dumbledore and Harry (who insist on parroting this inconvenient truth for all to hear), the Ministry sends its own spokesperson into Hogwarts in the guise of the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher: Professor Dolores Umbridge. Professor Umbridge seems less concerned with teaching her students how defend themselves against ‘what’s out there’ and ensuring that they learn only those lessons she considers ‘suitable’. Needless to say, not all of these lessons are ones Harry and his friends can, or should, stomach.

So not only does the wizarding world at large consider Harry a liar and attention-seeker, but Harry’s dreams, spilling over from his fourth year, don’t seem to be giving him any rest. He appears to have a strange connection to Voldemort, seeing what the Dark Lord is up to, feeling surges of his emotions. And when the lines between himself and Voldemort start blurring, that’s when Harry knows he, and the people around him, cannot take distance from the Dark Lord as any indication of safety.

Why do I love this book, despite its rather tenuous plot-line? I love it precisely for that reason. Order of the Phoenix is propelled, not by a magical mystery, nor by a series of quests, but instead, by Harry himself. Harry Potter is finally growing up and growing away from the people around him, dealing with the emotional crises that come with being a hero. Whether the betrayal of a world that has, usually, shown him considerable support in his heroic endeavours and now chooses to paint him as a deranged liar, the sheer terror of being connected to a wizard as devious and evil as Voldemort or the relatively less dangerous but no less confusing muddles that come with teenage romance, Harry’s got a rough deal. And is he going to buckle down and take this all with his customary good nature?

Of course not. Harry is going to angst his way through Order of the Phoenix, and depending on your frame of mind, you will either love and sympathize with him, or find him a miserable, whiny teenage brat. For me, since I read this book at almost precisely Harry’s age (when it released I was just turning fourteen), I welcomed his teenage surliness. Others, however, disliked it.

I think it was an important step for Harry, however, and for Rowling to make him a difficult-to-like figure in this book. Here she shows us that Harry is really, really not perfect, nor is he in any way ready to be the saviour the wizarding world seems to implicitly expect him to be. The moment he acts in a manner that does not accord with the pretty fiction the authorities condone, he is ridiculed and punished. When he buckles to pressures that no fifteen-year-old should have to face, he, quite understandably, goes into what fans have dubbed his ‘Capslock mode’, yelling at people he would once have unquestioningly followed. Rowling reminds her readers that Harry is, for all his magic and heroism, a teenager and thus makes him a more human hero than many fantasy authors have managed to craft.

And that, really, is what makes Order Of The Phoenix my favourite book of them all.


GUEST REVIEWER INFO: Achala Upendran is a freelance editor and writer based in India. She blogs about fantasy literature, with a special focus on the Harry Potter series, at Where the Dog Star rages. You can also follow her on Twitter at @AchalaUpendran

Achala will be reviewing all of the seven Harry Potter books, so enjoy her thoughts as she brings a special focus on the series, characters and world that have enchanted so many of us.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Interview with Seth Skorkowsky (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Dämoren 
Read Building The Perfect Revolver by Seth Skorkowsky (Guest Post)

Seth Skorkowsky really grabbed my imagination with his debut story that mixed urban fantasy, horror and thriller genres in a neat package.  He was also very kind to answer a few questions detailing his publication process, the Valducan series and how Lou Anders changed his writing outlook and his life...

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. For starters, please introduce yourself, tell us what inspired you to write and describe your journey to becoming a published author? 

SS: Thanks for having me. I’m Seth Skorkowsky, author of DÄMOREN. I started writing about 10 years ago, after I’d finished college. My original plan was to write role-playing games, but I ended up writing a novel instead. I published a few short stories, but never could sell the novel. Eventually I gave up on that bad piece of work and wrote DÄMOREN

Q] My next question is about the genesis of the Valducan Chronicles, How did its inception occur? How long have you been working on it? 

SS: The inception was the idea of a magical revolver. I mixed that with the idea that monsters such as werewolves and vampires were actually demonic possessions, and could only be killed with holy weapons. That world-concept bounced around in my head for five or six years before I started writing it. Once I decided to write it, I came up with the characters and flushed out the story. The book itself took fifteen months from start to finish.

Q] Your debut novel is the first volume in a series. How is the next book coming along? I’m sure the readers would appreciate any details about the sequel/spinoff “HOUNACIER” and the outline of your plans for the series as a whole? 

SS: The second book is coming along great. I’m about a third of the way through my first draft. HOUNACIER will follow Dr. Malcolm Romero to New Orleans. It’s more of a noir mystery/horror than the first, and delves into new aspects of the mythos. The third book will be titled IBENUS. I’m also planning a collection of “archive” stories that follow past events with different hunters such as Max Schmidt when he was young, and also the grand exploits of Victor Kluge.

Q] Now with Hounacier, you are technically writing a spinoff as it will focus on a different weapon and its weilder. Why the change of perspective both human & otherwise? 

SS: I want to keep it fresh. Every character and weapon has their own strengths and weaknesses. In DÄMOREN, Matt is a lone hunter that has to learn how to work with a team. In HOUNACIER, we’ll not only get to see a new side to Malcolm, but watch how he can adapt to working alone instead of with a team. There will be familiar faces, no doubt, but Malcolm and Hounacier deserve their own story.

Q] You wrote this helpful post about having “a book in the drawer”. Could you talk about your experience and how Lou Anders played such an instrumental role in shaping your debut? 

SS: I attended a three day writing workshop at FenCon 2011. Lou was heading it up. All 20 attendees sent in our first ten pages and all reviewed each other’s prior to the event. Lou showed us what he thought of them as an editor, and gave a lot of wonderful advice. Since we’d all read each other’s work, we all benefitted from everyone’s critiques, rather than just what he said about our own works. The biggest thing he showed was how quickly an editor can decide against a manuscript. He showed we needed to hook them right out the door.

In the end, I finally came to grips with the fact that my first novel was simply a practice piece. Strangely, I wasn't upset at all about that. It was a relief to let it go. Armed with a lot of feedback and advice, I had the courage to actually start DÄMOREN.

Q] Specifically could you give us some insight as to what points Lou raised that you incorporated in your writing which led to the publication of Dämoren

SS: DÄMOREN wastes no time introducing the character and the conflict. Many authors would begin with long-winded weather reports about wind through the trees, and then slowly introduce their characters by Page nine. I knew I had two, maybe three pages to catch an editor’s interest and Lou showed us how.

Shortly after I finished DÄMOREN, I attended an agent/editors conference. Lou was there and sitting on a speculative fiction panel. Ten of us were allowed to submit our first two pages and query letter. I was very happy when his response was, “I’d keep reading this.” That might not sound like much, but knowing how rarely he says that, I was pretty happy. He also gave some helpful pointers on my query letter, which was very appreciated.

Q] Talking specifically about Dämoren, I liked how even though it was urban fantasy, there’s a strong thread of horror in it. I enjoyed this combination and so was that done specifically or was that how you envisioned the story? 

SS: I always planned for the horror aspects to be prominent. I wanted to reader to see the monsters as something to be feared and I needed to sacrifice a few characters in order to show how desperate the situation was. I've always considered Urban Fantasy and Horror to be very closely related.

Q] For your debut, you have gotten a very nice blurb by the supremely talented Elizabeth Bear. As a reader, I haven’t seen her blurb a lot of books, how did this come to be? 

SS: I’m a member of the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction Fantasy & Horror. Elizabeth Bear is one of the resident editors who offers advice and critiques to new authors. She gave me a very helpful review on DÄMOREN, and after Ragnarok picked it up, I asked her if I could quote part of it as a blurb. I’m very grateful that she agreed.

Q] You have a series of shorts focusing on Ahren (The Black Raven). Can you talk about its inception & what inspired you to write it? 

SS: The Black Raven started off as a Sword & Sorcery short story about a thief who gets framed for murder and then falls in with a secret mafia. It was supposed to be a stand-alone story, but I kept coming up with more adventures. He’s a mixture of James Bond and the Gray Mouser. I published a few with Flashing Swords Magazine and am now releasing two collections with Rogue Blades Entertainment later this year.

Q] Let’s talk mythology for a bit especially, the mythology you endorse in Dämoren. I found it fascinating how you amalgamated several mythologies and combined them in a Lovecraftian way? What was your thought process behind it creation? 

SS: Werewolves and vampires are the rockstars of modern folklore creatures. I love them as much as anyone else, but wanted to bring in a lot of the other monsters from different cultures that don’t get the same publicity. The Lovecraftian elements were a gradual process that seeped their way in over the course of writing it. Once I noticed them, I just ran with it.

Q] I loved Dämoren as a title, what does it mean? And how did you come up with it? 

SS: Dämoren’s root is “dämon,” which is German for “demon”. I really liked the umlaut because it gives it a non-English feel. Unfortunately, it’s a little hard for people to type and some software to read. I had a few queries come back where the ä was replaced with an error symbol. I can only wonder what those agents thought about a title their computers couldn’t read.

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

SS: Don’t ever give up on your passion, no matter the setbacks. Keep going. Learn from your mistakes. And most importantly, have fun with it.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Intern's Handbook by Shane Kuhn (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website 
Order the book HERE 
Read Casual Friday for FREE (prequel short story) 
Read Qwill’s interview with Shane Kuhn 

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Shane Kuhn is a writer and filmmaker with twenty years of experience working in the entertainment business and the ad world. A shameless product pusher in the ad world, he has worked as a copywriter, creative director, and broadcast video director and producer for several notable brands and charitable organizations. As a college baseball player, he threw a fastball in the low 90s but his career was cut short by a Bull Durham strike zone. The Intern’s Handbook is his debut. He currently lives with his wife and family in a bi-coastal/mountain migration pattern that includes Massachusetts, Colorado, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: John Lago is a hitman. He has some rules for you and he's about to break every single one.

John Lago is a very bad guy. But he’s the very best at what he does. And what he does is infiltrate top-level companies and assassinate crooked executives while disguised as an intern.

Interns are invisible. That’s the secret behind HR, Inc., the elite “placement agency” that doubles as a network of assassins for hire who take down high-profile targets that wouldn’t be able to remember an intern’s name if their lives depended on it.

At the ripe old age of almost twenty-five, John Lago is already New York City’s most successful hit man. He’s also an intern at a prestigious Manhattan law firm, clocking eighty hours a week getting coffee, answering phones, and doing all the grunt work actual employees are too lazy to do. He was hired to assassinate one of the firm’s heavily guarded partners. His internship provides the perfect cover, enabling him to gather intel and gain access to pull off a clean, untraceable hit.

Part confessional, part DIY manual, The Intern’s Handbook chronicles John’s final assignment, a twisted thrill ride in which he is pitted against the toughest—and sexiest—adversary he’s ever faced.

CLASSIFICATION: Lisa Lutz aptly described it as “The Intern's Handbook is Dexter meets Office Space—the blackest and goriest office comedy you could imagine, with an intern-slash-assassin in the starring role.

FORMAT/INFO: The Intern’s Handbook is 288 pages long divided over forty-four numbered & titled chapters. Narration is in the first person solely via John Lago. This is book one of the John Lago series. Casual Friday is the prequel short story set nearly eight years ago & is currently FREE on Amazon.

April 8th, 2014 marked the hardback and e-book publication of The Intern’s Handbook via Simon and Schuster. It was also published as Kill Your Boss on January 2, 2014 in the UK by Little Brown.

ANALYSIS: There are some books that draw you in with their blurb descriptions about their protagonists such as Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells, Beat The Reaper by Josh Bazzell, etc and then completely hook you in with the content matter. The Intern’s Handbook seemed to be another such book and I couldn’t wait to read it and see how it would pan out.

The story begins as a series of chapters in a handbook that details the life of John Lago, one of the best assassins that Human Resources Inc. has to offer. He’s on the verge of becoming twenty-five years old and that means that he can no longer do what he does best. That seems ironical but the way HR Inc has become so proficient at their work, is because they send out people who are below the age of twenty five as interns and who are trained to be deadly killers. John Lago was inducted into HR Inc when he was twelve years old, he along with a group of twenty-six other like-minded individuals made up the batch. Only three remain and all of them are superbly efficient. John is given one last mission and after that he can decide whether to retire or not.

His last assignment is to infiltrate New York’s most prestigious law firm; Bendini, Lambert & Locke. However the biggest drawback of the assignment is that there’s no target yet. Sure there’s someone to be terminated however he will have to ingratiate himself with all the senior members, keep his intern status and find out who the target is. Not an easy job but one John is prepared for. His biggest problem however comes in the form of Alice, who starts as part of his assignment but ends up complicating his life. This final assignment will be prove to be his nadir as he unlearns all that he gleaned so far and he still has to find out whom he has to kill, to finish it.

The Intern's Handbook is Shane Kuhn's debut and a super fun story. John’s handbook for recent recruits is a handbook as well as his biography. I couldn’t stop reading once the story began and along with the twists, the story is told with a very dark comedic tone that helps massively. Here are a few examples of the author’s humor:

The shortest distance between truth and bullshit is six feet straight down.”

Hip-hop, you have f***** the King’s English for life, good on you.”

He calls himself a ‘big picture guy’, this is a Business 3.0 way of saying he doesn’t give a shit about anything but the bottom line.” 

44% of my kills came from my superior coffee-making ability. It’s simple, puts you in direct contact with the target and it can be a vector for a variety of weapons.

Also similar to Columbus’ list of rules for survival in Zombieland, John has a set of rules that are interspersed between the chapters and which further help elucidate why he’s considered to be one of the best. The pace of the story is of the rapid kind as the twists pile on; it becomes even harder to put this down. Trust me you don’t want to start this book in the evening as that way you’ll end up reading late in the night till the story ends. Do what I did, reserve time for it and then read and chuckle along as the tale unfolds.

The main protagonist is the big draw of the story as we get a hitman who while young in age, has developed a cynical attitude that seems more proper in one who would be in the 40-plus age range. John’s observations and his rules make the book stand out completely and kudos to the author for his top-drawer characterization. While we don’t get to much about the side character cast, they aren’t the two-dimensional ones and add to the character dynamic in many more ways. And to top it all, the climax of the story is quite an unpredictable one, which goes on to add to the charm of the book. Plus after reading the very last page, readers will definitely be clamoring for a sequel.

With such stories, there are always points that go against it, for me the only point that didn't seem to gel was the fact that towards the latter third of the story, John Lago battles the antagonists who don't quite use all the weapons (both literally & figuratively) in their arsenal. Perhaps the author will shine a further light on this aspect in the sequels but for now, this point seemed a bit weak. In the end this was a dark, quirky assassin story that pays homages to several films and silver screen characters and takes a rather funny route towards its unpredictable climax.

CONCLUSION: The Intern’s Handbook is a rip-roaring tale of an intern cum assassin, who plans to retire young but as often as it does with best-laid plans, his journey never goes where he plans it to be. This tale is quite apt for fans of the Dexter series, The Spellman Files & the John Wayne Cleaver trilogy. Make sure you don’t miss The Intern’s Handbook by Shane Kuhn, as far as debuts go, this one hits the bullseye.
Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mini Q&A with Rob J. Hayes (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE (US) and HERE (UK)
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 Northern Sunrise
Read Fantasy Book Critic interview with Rob J. Hayes

Rob J. Hayes is an author who currently is in the top echelons of my anticipated author list.  His most recent release The Northern Sunrise was a surprising steampunk and magical mix plus with the ever reliable top-notch characterization. Read ahead to find out what were his thoughts behind his newest standalone and what he plans on writing next...

Q] Welcome back to Fantasy Book Critic, while most writers are comfortable writing in their debut milieus, you have gone against the grain and written a standalone story set in a completely different world. What was your line of reasoning behind this bold step? 

RJH: Thanks for having me back. I think I wanted to try something a bit different and, after spending the past five years working on the world I created in The Ties that Bind trilogy, I wanted to take a break from it. I have a few worlds swirling about in my imagination, as I would assume most fantasy authors do, and a whole host of stories taking part in those worlds.

While I was writing The Price of Faith I had this idea for a short story involving the two protagonists from The Northern Sunrise and after putting it onto paper I found it so charming that I wanted to take it further and adapt it into a full novel.

Q] The Northern Sunrise while being a heist story is also miles away from your grimdark debut with regards to characters, plot bleakness and language. Did you feel that this story needed to be different from your debut or was this just what the story required? 

RJH: A little bit of both really. The story itself doesn't call for much violence, sex or harsh language so I made a conscious decision that there would be as little as possible. I think the character's attitude is a reflection of the world; the world I created in The Ties that Bind is dark, hard, cruel and unforgiving and the characters that inhabit it are very much a product of that. The world I created in The Northern Sunrise is full of intrigue, deceit and hope and I think, once again, the characters reflect those qualities.

Q] Please tell us about how The Northern Sunrise came to be? What were your inspirations for the story and what were you aiming for with it? 

RJH: So it started off as a short story set in a world that I've been designing for a while now to be one part steampunk-esque science, one part elemental magic and one part religious zealotry. A bit of a mash I know but I'm hoping it'll pull together in the end. :D

I love heist capers. From films like Ocean's Eleven to books like The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, I love the idea of a group of thieves overcoming impossible odds and stealing something that cannot be stolen. At the same time I wanted to include the romance of Bonnie and Clyde (only without the rampant murder), with a couple whose lives revolved around the obvious and deep love they have for each other and the thrill of the steal.

Q] Again in The Northern Sunrise, the characters are the highlight of the story particularly Isabel & Jacques who share a very warm and loving relationship. Also dangerously fascinating were Amaury & Franseza, what's your secret in the creation of such intriguing people? 

RJH: I think growing up with a psychologist for a mother probably helped. :D I try to create realistic characters wherever possible, giving them strengths and flaws, hopes and dreams, and conflicts both with other characters and also with themselves.

Q] Since this is a standalone story, what are you planning to write about next? Will you be returning to the world of The Ties That Bind trilogy? 

RJH: I am indeed. My next project follows on pretty directly from where The Ties that Bind trilogy left off. It will contain some of the old cast and many new characters as well. That's about as much as I'm giving away at the moment.

Q] With Indie books, cover art is always a tricky issue. I was very impressed with the cover art for The Northern Sunrise. Did you have any input in regards to it? If yes please elaborate... 

RJH: I think with cover art you really get what you pay for and, despite the old adage, people do judge books by their covers; so I've discovered the trick is to find (and pay for) a good artist and they will usually want quite a lot of input from the author. For the cover of The Northern Sunrise I chose the shape of the airship, and wrote all the annotations you see on the cover. Luckily the artist I found had a really good idea of what I wanted doing so there was very little conflict and what we came up with looks pretty damned good. :D

Q] Thank you once again for your time, what can your fans expect in 2014 and near future? 

RJH: Well hopefully towards the end of this year or the beginning of the next, I'll have the first book of the new series ready. On that note if people want to keep up to date with what's going on with myself and my scribblings they can do so by visiting my webpage, where they'll find news and short stories by myself, or by following me on Facebook at Rob J. Hayes, or on Twitter at @RoboftheHayes.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Dämoren by Seth Skorkowsky (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read Building The Perfect Revolver by Seth Skorkowsky (Guest Post) 

was born in east Texas in 1978 and always dreamed of being a writer. His short story "The Mist of Lichthafen" was nominated for a British Fantasy Award (long list) in 2009. Dämoren is Seth's debut novel. He recently signed a two-book deal with Rogue Blades Entertainment for his "Black Raven" sword-and-sorcery collection. When not writing, Seth enjoys travel, shooting, and tabletop gaming. He currently lives in Denton, Texas, with his wife.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: A secret society of monster hunters. A holy revolver forged to eradicate demons. A possessed man with a tragic past. A rising evil bent on destroying them all.

Matt Hollis is the current wielder of the holy weapon, Dämoren. With it, he stalks and destroys demons. A secret society called the VALDUCANS has taken an interest in Matt’s activities. They see him as a reckless rogue—little more than a ‘cowboy’ corrupted by a monster—and a potential threat to their ancient order.

As knights and their sentient weapons begin dying, Matt teams up with other hunters of his kind such as Luiza, a woman with a conquistador blade; Allan, an Englishman with an Egyptian khopesh; Malcolm, a voodoo priest with a sanctified machete; and Takaira, a naginata-swinging Samurai.

As the hunters become the hunted, they must learn to trust one another before a powerful demonic entity thrusts the world into a terrible and ageless darkness.

CLASSIFICATION: The Valducan series is an action-packed urban fantasy series with a rather strong streak of horror running through it. Think Jim Butcher meets James Rollins with a dash of Lovecraft

FORMAT/INFO: Dämoren is 320 pages long divided over twenty-one numbered chapters. Narration is in the third person solely via Matt Hollis. This is book one of the Valducan series.

April 14th, 2014 marked the e-book publication of Dämoren via Ragnarok Publications. Cover design is by J.M. Martin.

ANALYSIS: With urban fantasies nowadays, there’s only so much being done. Faced with the usual bandwagon of vampires, werewolves, faeries, elves and other tropes, it can get a tad disappointing for an urban fantasy fan like me. Of course we have authors like Ilona Andrews, Liz Williams, Myke Cole, Tim Marquitz, and Rachel Aaron who dare to stretch the limits and pave new ground.

Seth Skorkowsky’s Dämoren was a book, which after reading the blurb, I was hoping that would also be different. The blurb details a world wherein there’s a series of holy weapons that have been wielded by men and women to defeat all sorts of unnatural and nasty creatures. Matt Hollis is our protagonist who is also the current wielder of Dämoren and he’s been doing his job (of sorts) since he learnt what the world truly is. In his teenage years when he went by Spencer Mallory, he came to know what a wendigo is and what savagery a group of them can inflict. Saved by a stranger who wielded Dämoren, Matt/Spencer is drawn to the gun with a mind of its own. Fastforward fourteen years to the attack, we encounter Matt investigating a strange phenomenon in Canada.

That’s where he meets the Valducans, a strange group of people who wield similar weapons and who request him for his help. There’s much more to the weapons than Matt knows but the only way he can get information is if he decides to join this motley bunch. The spanner in the works is that Matt has a secret of his own and it might endanger everyone.

You have to admit Seth Skorkowsky has gotten a nice hook with this story. There’s a magical weapon, a freaking revolver with a blade. It’s sentient as are other weapons and a mystery organization is holding them to battle with all sorts of nasty creatures. The author does really go out of his way to make this tale an international one by having the story move around from locale to locale and doesn’t conform to any one specific mythology either. Utilizing a whole gamut of creatures from European, Native American and Hindu mythos, he keeps the story and the readers on an even keel. There’s also a strong undercurrent of horror that the author utilizes effectively within the action sequences and with certain plot points.

The story also moves at a very fast pace and has some terrific action sequences interspersed. Additionally the author also has some neat twists reserved for the end, which go on to explain some exciting hints about the mythology of the holy weapons. The author also gives some important information about the world between chapters as book excerpts and other such, which really helps the reader without going into unnecessary exposition. The story is nicely streamlined as the Valducans are constantly hammered on all fronts and Matt has to figure it out before the suspicions against him turn violent. The story also ends on a big climax that should satisfy most of the readers and points excitingly towards a sequel.

Now to the points that didn’t make this it a five star read, in regards to the characterization of the protagonist. We are given enough of a clue about him and his past however the circumstances with which he grew up would have been exciting to explore. A boy who has been savaged by wendigos is saved by something beyond his control and yet looked on with hostility by his savior. That’s a terrific origin story right there! Of course with regards to the story he wanted to tell, I can imagine why the author directly jumped to the present. Also in regards to the other characters, we don’t get much background on them but they aren’t cardboard cutouts either.

Another thing I would have enjoyed is that if the author had explored as to how all the world religions and mythologies tie in together, there are a few things mentioned here and there. But nothing concrete is offered, this is what usually ruffles the read for me. I would have liked to see how the world religions have been affected or atleast some hypothesis in regards to it. But with this being book one in a series, it can be understood if the author didn't want to reveal all his cards. Lastly one more interesting thing the author manages is that he very effectively sidesteps the question of which brand of belief is the correct one. I thought that was a very smooth move.

CONCLUSION: Dämoren is an exciting debut, as it offers the best of both urban fantasy and thrillers have to offer. Seth Skorkowsky writes a story that is an excellent combination of horror, action and mythology, furthermore his writing flows smoothly and makes for a damned good read as well. Check out Dämoren if you like Jim Butcher's works mixed in with a strong dash of James Rollins' thrillers.

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