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Monday, June 30, 2014

GUEST POST: Five Contemporary Horror Authors You Should Read Right Now by Kevin Lucia

Reviewers and publishers are ALWAYS talking about “fresh faces in horror,” touting dozens of writers as the “new best thing ever.” It can get a little confusing. Our time is limited, right? We can't read everything. Which authors are worth our time? Even accounting for different tastes, it can be tough to cut past the hyperbole and actually find those new authors worth reading.

Who am I to tell you all this? Certainly no great voice in the genre. I've experienced a certain measure of success, but not enough to make any of what I say gospel, by any means. In the end, I'm just a guy who loves reading maybe even more than writing, and that's about it. So, without further ado, let's look at five “must-read” contemporary writers in the horror genre.

Mary Sangiovanni: Mary is probably one of the best non-Lovecraftian scribes of cosmic horror working in the field today. She builds wonderful atmosphere and tension, and her characters are three-dimensional, people you really care about. She knows how to tug on the heart-strings, and she knows how to invoke that creeping dread. Thrall boasts some of the most inventive world-building in cosmic horror that I've seen.

Ronald Malfi: It would be wrong to compare Ron to either Stephen King, Peter Straub or Robert McCammon, because he has his own voice, but I'm tempted, because of two things: 1. He crafts flawed characters that remind us very much of ourselves, and 2. He takes horror tropes and makes them his own. Floating Staircase was a wonderfully written, emotional, remarkable twist on the “haunted author” trope. The Narrows is the best non-vampire vampire novel I've read in years. The Fall of Never is HIS gothic novel. Plus, he shows some serious literary chops in Passenger, one of the most surprising and gut-wrenching things I've read in awhile.

Rio Youers: It may be more accurate to consider Rio's work “darkly speculative” rather than straight out HORROR, but it really doesn't matter, because he's simply one of the best new speculative writers, regardless of what label you peg him with. A fine craftsman who doesn't lean on overused tropes, Rio is always ready to take his readers for a ride they'll never forget. Whether he's telling a chilling coming-of-age story in Mama Fish or offering us a haunting glimpse of the sunset years in Old Man Scratch, Rio tells stories that defy easy categorization. Plus, Westlake Soul made me cry. Nuff said.

Norman Prentiss: Again, comparing Norman Prentiss to someone like Charles Grant does him a grave disservice. Norman has his own voice, his own identity. But for my money, he's the best thing going today in the sub genre of “quiet horror.” Invisible Fences is one of the subtlest stories I've read in years. On Four Legs in The Morning is a smartly, cleverly woven together quartet of stories reminiscent of Grant's Oxrun Station. For the quiet, creeping chill, Norman is your ticket.

Johnathan Janz: Johnathan Janz has done some excellent work since landing with Samhain Horror. Imagine mixing the Gothic sensibilities of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House with the late Richard Matheson's Hell House, and adding a pinch of Ed Lee's unflinching narrative, and you've got Johnathan Janz. I'm only familiar with his “house” novels: The Sorrows, The Darkest Lullaby and House of Skin, but those were excellent, and Janz has become very prolific, quickly becoming one of Samhain's top producers.

Should I say something about my work, now? Okay. My newest book, Devourer of Souls, is being published by Ragnarok Publishing. It contains two linked novellas, Sophan and The Man in Yellow. Both take place in or near my fictional haunted Adirondack town, Clifton Heights, which was introduced in my short fiction collection, Things Slip Through, published by Crystal Lake in November, 2013. Both stories are weird and strange, I hope entertaining and, at the root, about people. I hope you'll check it out, and if you do, hope you enjoy.

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Kevin Lucia is a Submissions Reader for Cemetery Dance Magazine and his podcast "Horror 101" is featured monthly on Tales to Terrify. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through was published November 2013.
Monday, June 23, 2014

Tower Lord by Anthony Ryan (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Blood Song
Read the first chapter (Verniers' account) here

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Anthony Ryan is a pseudonym used by the author as his previous day job prevented him from using his real identity. The has an academic background in history, works fulltime as a researcher and currently lives in London. 

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: The blood-song rose with an unexpected tune, a warm hum mingling recognition with an impression of safety. He had a sense it was welcoming him home.”

Vaelin Al Sorna, warrior of the Sixth Order, called Darkblade, called Hope Killer. The greatest warrior of his day, and witness to the greatest defeat of his nation: King Janus’s vision of a Greater Unified Realm drowned in the blood of brave men fighting for a cause Vaelin alone knows was forged from a lie. Sick at heart, he comes home, determined to kill no more. Named Tower Lord of the Northern Reaches by King Janus’s grateful heir, he can perhaps find peace in a colder, more remote land far from the intrigues of a troubled Realm.

But those gifted with the blood-song are never destined to live a quiet life. Many died in King Janus’s wars, but many survived, and Vaelin is a target, not just for those seeking revenge but for those who know what he can do. The Faith has been sundered, and many have no doubt who their leader should be. The new King is weak, but his sister is strong. The blood-song is powerful, rich in warning and guidance in times of trouble, but is only a fraction of the power available to others who understand more of its mysteries.

Something moves against the Realm, something that commands mighty forces, and Vaelin will find to his great regret that when faced with annihilation, even the most reluctant hand must eventually draw a sword.

FORMAT/INFO: Tower Lord is 608 pages long divided five sections, each of which open with a Verniers account and numbered chapters. This pattern is very similar to that of the first book. Narration is in the third-person, via Vaelin Al Sorna, Reva, Frentis, and Princess Lyrna. The book also feature maps of the unified realm, the Alipran and Volarian empire. There are two appendices for the Dramatis Personae as well as the game of Warrior’s Bluff. Tower Lord is the second volume of The Raven’s Shadow trilogy.

July 1, 2014 marks the North American Hardcover and e-book publication of Tower Lord via Ace Books. The UK version (see below) will be published on July 3, 2014 by Orbit Books UK.

ANALYSIS: Tower Lord is a book that I’ve been waiting for since 2012. Anthony Ryan really announced himself in spectacular fashion with his self-publication success, which then translated into a traditional publishing contract. Two years later, a lot of fans are waiting to see if he can repeat and build upon his success with Tower Lord. In my review for Blood Song, at the end I had written "give this book a read if you want to read a story that’s closest to those written by David Gemmell." With Tower Lord, he not only proves that in spades by giving the readers a siege situation similar to that in Legend and also many more memorable events and characters. There will be mild spoilers in the review below so be wary before you start.

Let's begin with the story, in Tower Lord, we get three new POV characters besides Vaelin who was the sole narrator in Blood Song. Another funny aspect of the story is that this book also follows the same narrative format as Blood Song wherein the events begin in the near past and interspersed between five current accounts of the royal Alpiran chronicler Verniers Alishe Someren. As to why the story is set in such a format and what is Verniers doing will be up to the fans to RAFO. Safe to say it's quite shocking to meet Verniers who finds himself in quite stunning conditions.

We find Vaelin Al Sorna back to the Unified realm and seeks to find his relatives who might be still surviving. The second POV character is Reva a young woman with tremendous martial skills who seeks revenge on Vaelin for a past crime. She's not an Asraelian and seeks his death single-handedly, who she is and why she hates Vaelin is spoiler material and so I won’t comment on it. Safe to say for people wanting to know her identity can take guesses and I might just give you tell if you are correct or not in the comments section below. The other two POV characters are Princess Lyrna & Frentis. I, as a fan was expecting them to be POV characters and enjoyed getting to know their thoughts.

This book also magnifies the world situation by showcasing the continent east of the Alpiran & Unified realms, namely the Volarian Empire. The story begins by detailing an attack on the unified realms from many fronts. Vaelin is faced with a new responsibility when he's made Tower Lord of the Northern Reaches by King Malcius. He has to ride north and take charge which he does but not with some reluctance. Reva’s track has us focusing on how she came to hate Vaelin so much and how she tracks him to face him for a duel. Last when we met Frentis, he was aboard a strange ship heading off to lands unknown. We find him now as an Alpiran slave who’s fighting to stay alive. Lastly we also get to explore the Northern Reaches as Princess Lyrna tries to find accord with the realm’s northern neighbors.

That’s all I’m going to say about the plot contents, as what happens in the story is that realm truly faces an invasion that boggles the mind. I can see why the author choose to expand the POV list as this story would have been impossible to cover from just a singular POV. Another highlight of this book is that nearly every character that made a major & minor impression in its predeceasing title is back in this one (except the dead ones). We get to see all of them & experience different shades to them; this was an extremely pleasurable to read. A couple of mysteries from Blood Song, namely who attacked Vaelin in the Test Of the Wild as well as who was behind it get clarified. Many other bigger revelations also abound like what truly happened to Vaelin when he was an Alpiran captive. Who is the Witch’s bastard and who are his allies? There’s also a fascinating exploration of the Seventh order and the magic system espoused in this trilogy.

Secondly going on to the characterization, Anthony Ryan shines brighter in his sophomore effort by giving us many brilliant characters. Besides Vaelin, Reva, Frentis and Princess Lyrna get the POV turn and I loved how different the characters were from what we read in Vaelin’s thoughts. Princess Lyrna was the character that was the most intriguing to me and in this book, she gets to shine truly. There’s also the brothers (Caenis, Sollis, the order aspect, etc) who we have met before and now have acquired different roles. You’ll be surprised to see many of them and how they feel about Vaelin.  There are also some characters who make an appearance under a different name & it will be fun if you can spot them. Many of those who complained about Frentis’ cockney accent will be glad to know that it isn’t a problem in this sequel. Infact I would say he becomes a terror worthy of Vaelin’s status. The author also expands the readers on to the world by focusing on the realm and giving us fascinating insights into the various types of people and faiths that abound. This light is also shone upon the Alpiran as well as the Volarian culture.

Lastly the pace and action sequences are amplified across all the four POV sections, we get to see our favorite characters face odds that they have never thought of and the fun is reading how it all ends. Previously I talked about the siege-like conditions similar to Legend. The author displays his skills and gives us a fascinating account in to the siege via Verniers and then through the actual characters. This dual approach creates some confusion but it’s done in a way that will leave you with a smile in the end. Coming back to my original statement of this book being similar to Legend, David Gemmell's epic debut. We get a siege wherein legends are forged and this was the highlight of the story. And how does the author manage to top off such an exciting read, he cruelly ends the story with a chapter that hearkens back to the shocker that was the epilogue in A Storm Of Swords. This climatic chapter ends on such a note that you might not want to wait a whole year for Queen Of Fire.

There's so much more I want to gush about this book but I think I've said enough. Regarding the negatives about this title, the only thing I can think is that the story has kind of a slow start with all POV chapters. It takes only a while for the pace to pick up but once it does, the chapters fly by on to a rousing action-packed finale that is memorable. Your mileage may vary but this is the only drawback in an otherwise superb sequel.

CONCLUSION: This book easily is the best heroic epic fantasy of 2014 (bettering the high of City Of Stairs which is yet to be released) and now all other books will have to excel to overcome it. Tower Lord is a loud proclamation that Anthony Ryan is David Gemmell’s natural successor and epic fantasy’s best British talent.
Friday, June 20, 2014

Mini-Reviews: XOM-B by Jeremy Robinson and Hot Lead Cold Iron by Ar Marmell (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: XOM-B by Jeremy Robinson is quite a story; I was intrigued by its blurb and cover which promised a fascinating crossover between I, Robot & The Walking Dead. Safe to say the author managed to surprise me with his plot and the way the story ended.

XOM-B opens by introducing us to what are later revealed to be events such as “the Awakening” similar to the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. Set in the tumultuous events set between 2052 to 2054, this small prologue while seeming confusing is of grand importance in the latter half of the story. The first chapter introduces to our protagonist Freeman and is set in 2074. Freeman is a person who can’t remember much about his past and according to his memory, he seems to be only sixteen days old. His protector Heap is a quiet sort not offering much but doing his best to help him survive the wasteland that is Earth. Certain events that occur in the first chapter lead Freeman onto a rather decrepit part of their location wherein he meets Luscious and Jimbo who are rather surprised by him and his appearance.

The story then races forward as we find out what exactly happened to the world? Who is Freeman? What is pursuing him? This storyline is an incredible mash up and I can’t reveal more without spoiling the story. Firstly a warning, in nearly the first hundred chapters, most readers will feel an acute vertigo of sorts wherein the author drops you along with Freeman into the story. We don’t know much about what has happened and what is currently happening. Stick with the story and there’s a huge payback from the middle wherein we get clues about what is the current nature of the world and how it all comes together.

The storyline is a classic quest story but with such subversion of tropes that you will definitely enjoy the ride planned by the author. Characterization is bit dicey as we only get a singular first person POV from Freeman & therefore the worldview and understanding is limited. There isn’t that many characters introduced but all of them have a big part to play as well as big secrets to reveal. The pace is definitely top-notch as the reader is shunted quickly along the plot and from twist to twist. The story forces the reader to look out for small clues along the way as well as understand the world from Freeman’s limited understanding.

A thing that bugged me about the storyline was that because of the tight POV focus we never get to truly see the world developed within or seen through another POV. This definitely robs the story of some of its sheen. I would have enjoyed knowing more of the world but it isn’t too much of a deterrent.

CONCLUSION: This is a brilliant exploration of the zombie apocalypse story angle but with robots as well as humans, Jeremy Robinson indeed proves that he’s one of the rising stars of the SFF genre. Be sure to check out XOM-B if you want to read a story about zombies of a kind that you have never read before.

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Agents Of Artifice
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Conqueror's Shadow
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Warlord's Legacy
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Goblin Corps 

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Hot Lead Cold Iron is the first volume in the Mick Oberon chronicles, however it isn’t Mick's first appearance. That honour goes to the short story “The Purloined Ledger” which appeared in Broken Time Blues: Fantastic Tales in the Roaring '20s, a little over three years ago.

This story however does a fantastic job of introducing us to private detective Mick Oberon who lives in 1930s Chicago and does a bang-up job reminding the readers of famously jaded lone-wolf detectives such as Phillip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Sam Spade, etc. He’s however much different in nature while sharing their drive to do good against all odds. He’s not entirely human, scratch that he’s not a human at all but one of the Fae folk. He’s carefully hidden this secret quite skillfully and yet managed to pass among his acquaintances as an eccentric person but a person nonetheless.

His newest case however will have between a rock and a hard place when the wife of a famous Mafiosi requests his aid for their daughter. She claims that a changeling has replaced her daughter and it’s up to Mick to find out where her actual daughter might be. Mick slightly reluctantly takes up the case and that means travelling back to the world of his origin wherein he’s been a persona non-grata for reasons revealed in the story. What happens next is something that most readers can guess but the beauty would be in RAFOing what a magical twist the author has accomplished on the nature and structure of the Fae world.

The story has a very historical feel to it with the characters mouthing words and phrases that seem very specific to the thirties decade. This was really excellent and helped make the story immersion that much smoother. Another aspect that I enjoyed was the pace and the twists that the author throws into the story. Of course due to the nature of the story, some of them are quite easy to predict but then most of them due to the infusion of Fae mythos into the crime structure of the storyline makes it a unique one (as far as I know).  Another thing worth mentioning is the fabulous cover art by Julia Lloyd and the way it helps capture a distinct look for the book.

Drawbacks to this story are the same to most urban fantasy books, if you don’ t like the genre then this book won’t be changing your mind about it. Also if you are a tickler for no magic in your mystery then this definitely isn’t your cup of tea. For me there wasn’t much to complain, as I love both genres of urban fantasy and mystery stories. Perhaps the only thing that I lightly grumble about is that sometimes, the main character’s speech patterns can get confusing. But that was just my peeve and not something that should be mildly troubling for everyone.

CONCLUSION: Hot Lead Cold Iron is Ari Marmell’s most imaginative and strongest book so far in career. Give it a shot if you love to read lone-wolf PI stories or love historical crime mysteries or simply innovative urban fantasies. This one didn’t disappoint in the slightest.
Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"The Inventor's Secret: Inventor's Secret 1" by Andrea Cremer (Reviewed by Cindy Hannikman)

 Visit Andrea Cremer's Official Website Here

 OVERVIEW: In this world, sixteen-year-old Charlotte and her fellow refugees have scraped out an existence on the edge of Britain’s industrial empire. Though they live by the skin of their teeth, they have their health (at least when they can find enough food and avoid the Imperial Labor Gatherers) and each other. When a new exile with no memory of his escape  or even his own name seeks shelter in their camp he brings new dangers with him and secrets about the terrible future that awaits all those who have struggled has to live free of the bonds of the empire’s Machineworks.

The Inventor’s Secret is the first book of a YA steampunk series set in an alternate nineteenth-century North America where the Revolutionary War never took place and the British Empire has expanded into a global juggernaut propelled by marvelous and horrible machinery. Perfect for fans of Libba Bray's The Diviners, Cassandra Clare's Clockwork Angel, ScottWesterfeld's Leviathan and Phillip Reeve's Mortal Instruments.

FORMAT: Inventor's Secret is the first novel in a new series by Andrea Cremer. It is a YA novel with steampunk, alternative history, and romance elements. It stands at 368 pages and was published April 22, 2014 by Philomel.

ANALYSIS: Inventor's Secret sounds like an amazing premise for an alternate history YA novel. Add in the fact that the author is experienced and already has popular YA series under her belt, and this first book of a new series should have been a hit. Unfortunately, a lack of world-building and frustrating characters makes Inventor's Secret an alright novel when it had potential to be great.

Inventor's Secret is supposed to take place in an alternative world where the US lost the Revolutionary War. Even though America or the Patriots lost, some of them continue to fight against the British Empire and all that it stands for. They have setup a system that allows children of those fighting to hide underground until they age out. When they age out, they too must join the front lines and fight.

Unfortunately, that is really all that readers are given into the 'history' or background setup for the novel. There is no real explanation of why the British Empire is bad, what the Patriots are fighting for (yes they are fighting against what Britain stands for, but what is that), and how far does Britain's power reach. It appears Britain has this floating city of sorts which is located roughly where NYC is, but that couldn't possibly be the entire area that made up Britain's rule.

Cremer does an amazing job of developing what life is like on this floating city and some of its levels, but a lot is left to the imagination. This makes readers – like myself – struggle to grasp the severity of some situations. Why is the British Empire so bad? What are the Patriots doing to stop it and what is their plan for the future?

In addition to the lack of development of the backstory, the entire setup of the world that the novel takes place in is confusing. The British Empire or the area that we are introduced to has this very confusing mix of Greek mythology, Christian gods, and steampunk. It really felt like all of a sudden the author went – 'I should throw some Greek mythology into the mix just to spice things up'.

The Greek mythology just does not gel with the setting, characters, or world that is created. It seemed forced and a bit random.

Most of Inventor's Secret focused not on adventure and excitement or even world building, but on a very forced, illogical romance between the main character Charlotte and Jack. Charlotte and Jack have always hated each other and got on each other's nerves. That is until Charlotte must dress up and pretend to be a high society lady. The minute she puts a dress on Jack falls madly in love with her and she too feels the same. This wasn't a developing romance. No, this was a madly in love, professing love to each other and 'feeling it is right' romance.

While a few things – that I will not reveal as I do not wish to spoil the book – prevented the romance from blossoming, it just really seemed forced and not fully developed. I struggled to understand how Charlotte felt the way she did and so strongly in such a short time. Maybe this was because I really didn't care for Jack at all, as he did nothing to make him likeable or maybe it was just how fast it was developed.

There are a few things good about Inventor's Secret. Once readers get passed the sluggish first set of chapters, it moves at a rapid pace. There is a lot of dialogue between characters and the steampunk setting is fun and fresh, but many readers might struggle with the lack of world building and character development.

Overall, I thought the novel was alright. I think for a first book in a series it could have been better. I feel the author tried to accomplish too much in terms of creating a unique alternative history, background, romance, and conflict. Unfortunately, in her effort to tackle all of these things it led to most of them feeling forced and underdeveloped.

Inventor's Secret will probably appeal to teens and fans of Cremer's previous books, but unless dramatic changes are made I don't really see it appealing to a bigger audience. I will probably try the second book in the series, but it isn't a priority.
Tuesday, June 17, 2014

GUEST POST: Messages From Beyond by Jaime Lee Moyer

Trances, séances, mediums and channeling messages from the dead. Ghosts and spirits. 

What do many of us think of when we look at those words? Halloween, scary movies, séances at parties, or the fortuneteller in the little house at the edge of town. We don't take them all that seriously. After all, none of those things are real. You can't communicate with your dearly departed while sitting around a table in the dark. Right?

That's the attitude today, in the opening years of the 21st century. We're up to our necks in modern wonders and technology, instant communications that can reach around the world, and solar powered rovers that send back photos of Mars. Ghosts, mediums, and yes, witches, can be seen as throwbacks to a past we left behind long ago. A hundred years ago attitudes were much different. People believed in ghosts and spirits, in mediums being able to pierce the veil between worlds to communicate with the dead. Receiving messages from the great beyond wasn't out of the realm of possibility for most people. In fact, they counted on it.

One of the more interesting facts I uncovered while researching Delia's Shadow and A Barricade In Hell, was that people saw going to see a medium on stage was a popular form of entertainment. Looking for something to occupy an evening or an afternoon, spiritualists would browse through listings of which mediums were in town preforming, and decide where to spend their time. It was a lot like choosing what movie to see on Saturday night. 

Séances, while still often held in small private spaces, also became a form of public entertainment. Large lecture halls and theaters that held hundreds of people, because popular venues for mediums to demonstrate their ability to communicate with the dead. Audiences left these public séances convinced that what they'd seen was real. That instance after instance of fraudulent mediums bilking gullible people were exposed, and their fraud publicized, didn't stop people from believing the next medium they went to see was real. 

We've all seen séances on TV or in movies where the ghost communicates by sound, often rapping on the bottom of the table or from inside a wall. The Fox sisters "discovered" spirit communication back in the mid-1800s. News of ghosts tapping out messages for the two sisters spread, as did the number of people who believed in them. The spirits sending them messages weren't shy of large audiences either. People paid admission fees to see the Fox sisters in theaters all over the country and listen to the ghostly sounds they summoned. While the Fox sisters were the first to draw crowds, they were far from the last.

An extremely popular and successful form of public performance by mediums was "trance lecturing". A medium would take the stage and offer himself, or more often herself, as a channel for a spirit control to deliver a message. Trance lectures were some of the first instances were women were allowed to speak in public, something they'd been prohibited from doing before. The spirit was in control, not the woman acting as medium, and these spirit driven talks often touched on social issues such as marriage or the treatment of women in society.

Some spirit controls became well known in their own right. Kings or Queens who ruled ancient kingdoms centuries before, wise men from distant lands; spirit controls came in all forms. The apparent change in persona between the medium before entering the trance state and after, changes in posture, voice and facial expressions, helped cement in an audience's mind that the change they saw was real.

Every medium communicated with spirits in different ways. Aside from the unexplained tapping that started the craze for séances, or the trance lectures, spirits might play musical instruments, or exhibit some other dramatic spiritual manifestation. Not everyone believed. Some skeptics publicly equated mediums with stage magicians, saying that at least the magicians were honest about their trickery and bilking people out of their money. 

All this research showed me that having Isadora Bobet make her living as a society medium, holding séances in drawing rooms, or giving tarot card readings at dinner parties, was completely in keeping with the times.

The major difference was that Isadora wasn't putting on a show. Her abilities were real.

Official Author Website
Order A Barricade In Hell HERE
Read The Nocturnal Library's review of Delia's Shadow

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Jaime Lee Moyer’s Delia’s Shadow won the 2009 Columbus Literary Award for Fiction. Moyer has sold short fiction to Lone Star Stories, Daily Science Fiction, and to the Triangulations: End of the Rainbow, and Triangulations: Last Contact anthologies, and edited the 2010 Rhysling Award Anthology for the Science Fiction Poetry Association. Moyer lives in San Antonio with writer Marshall Payne, three cats, three guitars, and a growing collection of books and music.

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of Chuck Sambuchino & Writer's Digest. The Fox sisters picture courtesy of  Donna Davies & Hudson Valley Halloween magazine.
Monday, June 16, 2014

The Confabulist by Steven Galloway (Reviewed by Will Byrnes)

Official Author Website
Order The Confabulist HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "What no one knows, save for myself and one other person who likely died long ago, is that I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice."

Stephen Galloway, the award-winning author of The Cellist of Sarajevo, takes on a legendary real-life character and tries to make some magic with his lesser known history. He tells a tale of Houdini, vaudevillian superstar, greatest magician of his time, escape artist extraordinaire and, maybe, an international spy. Martin Strauss is none of these things. When we meet him, in the present day of the tale, he has just gotten some bad news:

 ”Yours is a rare condition,” [the doctor] said, seeming almost excited, “in which the damage that is being done to your brain does not destroy cognitive function but instead affects your brain’s ability to store and process memories. In response to this, your brain will invent new memories.”

Strauss is Galloway’s external, invented character, there to help frame the narrative. So, Harry Houdini meets Memento?

Strauss, a student in Montreal, is fascinated with magic, although he is not a capable practitioner. He is smitten with a young lady who shares his interest, and when they have a chance to see the great Harry Houdini perform, they avail. Strauss is not the most secure beau and when the object of his desire seems more interested in the famed escape artist than is comfortable, things get heated.

On October 31, 1926, the real-life Houdini died from a ruptured appendix. A few days earlier, in Montreal, a student named Whitehead was granted permission to punch Houdini in the stomach, a test of the performer’s claim that it would not hurt him. Under normal circumstances it might not have, but it turned out that Houdini was compromised with a case of appendicitis. He kept traveling and performing, but was brought to a hospital in Detroit, in severe pain, and died there. Ascribing his death to the student’s blows was really a ploy to get his life insurance to pay double.

 “Houdini’s death has always really interested me. What would it be like to be the guy who punched Harry Houdini in the stomach?” from the Globe and Mail interview

There are alternating tale-tellers in The Confabulist. Martin Strauss speaks for himself, and the Houdini chapters are told by an omniscient narrator. The time lines are dual as well, present day alternating with a past that advances from 1897, before Houdini had achieved world-wide renown, to 1927, as Martin recalls and we see for ourselves what transpired. We cover some real estate in The Confabulist, as well, from Canada to New York to sundry locales in Europe.

                        (Houdini – image from wikimedia)

We get to see how the gifted Erich Weisz became the amazing Houdini, professionally and theatrically. There are explanations for a few of the stage tricks of the age, and that is a particular bit of fun. There is some insight into how the entertainment business of the early 20th century was run, and a look at the latter day Houdini as an exposer of charlatan psychics and spiritualists. Some insight into international intelligence goings on of the period is also noteworthy. Strauss’s history is far less interesting, but in his musings we get at some of the thematic issues of the novel. What is real and what an illusion is a consistent theme throughout the tale, on stage and off:

  "How is it we can be so sure that we’ve seen, heard and experienced what we think we have? In a magic trick, the things you don’t see or think you see have a culmination, because at the end of the trick there’s an effect. Misdirection tampers with reconstruction. But if life works the same way, and I believe it does, then a percentage of our lives is a fiction. There’s no way to know whether anything we have seen or experienced is real or imagined."


  "A memory isn’t a finished product, it’s a work in progress."

So does Galloway succeed in making magic? Only somewhat. There are two issues I had with the book. One is the inherent difficulty of having an unreliable narrator. That this is done openly from the opening chapter does not make it any less problematic. How are we to know if what Strauss reports is true or imagined? And if one cannot know if what he reports is real, it makes for difficulty in relating to his experience, and knowing for ourselves that what we are reading is or is not an accurate rendering of events.

The dimorphism between the wonderful tale of Houdini’s and the far less gripping tale of Martin Strauss makes one want to slip the knots of Martin’s chapters to make one’s way back to the real action. And, while the story of Houdini does succeed in holding our interest, it seemed to me that there remained a distance between reader and character, even for Houdini, that kept one from the sort of emotional engagement that is needed if we are to feel much for him. Martin is an obvious literary device, so one does not hope for too much there. But one does want to feel more of an investment in Houdini than was possible here.

CONCLUSION: There are compelling elements at play in The Confabulist. The contemplation of reality versus illusion counts as a strength. On the other hand, the rationale for Strauss’s attack on Houdini seemed forced. One would expect that there is a marvelous story encased in the available elements. Unfortunately, the tale is only able to extract a limb or two and remains locked up. While there is no obvious tell in the author’s literary sleight of hand, there is certainly enough going on to sustain a reader’s interest, this remains an instance when the magic simply does not quite go poof.

NOTE: Here are a few extra things about the story which I found were worth highlighting:

1) The condition ascribed to Martin Strauss was discovered by one Sergei Korsakoff, a Russian neuropsychiatrist, who is represented in The Confabulist by a Russian Dr. Korsakoff practicing in the West, presumably New York.

2) Here is some info on the actual condition.

3) A bit of info on Harry Houdini.

Interview with the author from The National Post.

5) Here's an interesting article about Houdini's grave.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Interview with John Hornor Jacobs (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Twelve-Fingered Boy
(Photo credit: Rick McFarland)

John Hornor Jacobs is a writer who has been flying under the radar for many a fantasy fan. He has written books in varied genres such as YA, Lovecraftian horror & post-apocalyptic zombie ones. His upcoming work The Incorruptibles is a fantasy world mixed in with Roman alternate history and certain wild west flourishes. In this interview, John was kind enough to talk about The Incorruptibles, the world he's created and why he keeps writing in such different genres. Read ahead and find out why you need to check out John's work...

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?

JHJ: My name is John Hornor Jacobs and I am a writer of novels. As of right now, I have four out and four more slated for release in the coming three years. My books currently out are Southern Gods (Night Shade 2011), This Dark Earth (Simon & Schuster 2012), The Twelve-Fingered Boy (Carolrhoda Labs 2013), and The Shibboleth (Carolrhoda Labs 2014). Most of my books are dark, though I wouldn’t call them “grimdark” nor would I call all of them horror. Even my books that are marketed as horror.

Q] Many writers have a muse, who directs their writing, and others do not seem to be affected the same way. Which group do you fall into? What is your main motivation and source of inspiration? 

JHJ: Muses are fine for people without deadlines. But waiting around for the Muse to show up and whisper into one’s ear isn’t for me. In the beginning of a project, what drives me are the “What if…” questions and the “Wouldn’t it be cool?” brainstorming. Once the project has begun, it’s the characters living in my head and the pregnancy of the plot that keeps me writing.

As I’ve matured as a writer, I’ve slowed down my process some, focusing more on how I say things, my style and voice and tone, than plot (though plot remains important). And at a professional level – it’s kinda mercenary to say this – but money is also dominating factor in motivation. The sooner I produce what I’m contracted to produce, the quicker I get paid. On the real, as all the kids say.

Q] World-building is one of the key ingredients of epic fantasy. With regards to your upcoming fantasy debut, what do you think are the keys to successfully crafting a believable, yet fantastical world? 

JHJ: I think the key to world-building is that is must be a servant to the character’s story. I think a lot of fantasy fans are tired of the tropes of the 70s and 80s where authors spoon-fed them a metric shit ton of backstory, full of evil and magic artifacts and legacies, for the story to work. At least that’s my opinion and worth about as much as opinions do.

My approach to worldbuilding is one of extrapolation – again hitting on the “What if” questions. What if a society very much like Rome (in The Incorruptibles I didn’t try to obfuscate the origin and call it Rume) managed to continue to exist until the point of westward expansion and an industrial age? What if that industry was driven by what I call infernal combustion, energy derived from bound daemons. What would that world be like?

Q] The map (see above) which is featured in The Incorruptibles seems to be a facsimile of the North American continent. Is that coincidental or an intentional move? 

JHJ: Because The Incorruptibles is a fantasy, with western tropes, the country of Occidentalia is a stand-in for the United States. However, this isn’t an alternate history. It’s very loosely analogous. I like to describe my approach to writing “alternate history” as history three steps to the side, two steps back, and dressed in a Halloween costume.

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

JHJ: When I first had the idea for The Incorruptibles, it came to me when I was reading a Louis L’Amour western. I’d never read many western novels, save for Charles PortisTrue Grit and Elmore Leonard’s early novels. Elmore Leonard’s westerns read like crime noir novels with horses, and so I wasn’t really prepared for the epic, flowery, good versus evil sensibilities of L’Amour’s style. I kept thinking to myself, take away the guns, and L’Amour would be writing fantasy, there were so many similarities.

So, I thought, what would it be like if early western-writing Elmore Leonard wrote a fantasy?

The curiosities of this world? Did I mention the daemons? There are daemons and lóng (dragons) and vorduluk and chiang-shih and sentient eels that get in your belly. And massive frilled snakes that are worshipped as gods. And fourteen foot tall vicious carnivorous elves.

As for gods there are multiple pantheons, depending on region. I've chucked out the Roman ones and supplanted them with some different ones, some of my own creation, some that have made appearances in my earlier books - my amalgam mythos I loosely refer to as The Prodigium. That pretty much covers it.

Q] In a blogpost, you mentioned a few things about Greco-Roman mythos and worlds in regards to your fantasy series. Can you expound a bit on that aspect and how you utilized it to flesh out your world? 

JHJ: I’m a fan of classical mythology and history, so there are a few referential Easter eggs in The Incorruptibles, (along with Southern Gods).

Q] So far you have written books in diverse genres focusing on southern gothic horror, post-apocalyptic zombies, teenage kids with super powers, etc. What is the reason for the genre wanderlust? 

JHJ: I’m creatively restless and I have no interest in writing the same book twice. Jumping genres has been to my detriment some – with every “debut” I have to jump-start my career – but in the end it allows me to focus on stories I want to tell and not rehash stuff I’ve already done.

Q] To any reader who hasn't read one of your books, how would you convince them to give one of your novels a try and which one would it be? 

JHJ: I’m a terrible salesman – “Hey, what’s it gonna take to get you into a copy of This Dark Earth, fella!?!” Authors often recommend people to read the first book in their series to hook them into the IP. I don’t ever try to do that. If I’m chatting with someone, I get to know what they like and make a recommendation – I simply hope they find something of my work that resonates with them and if they do, they most likely might enjoy my other books, despite the dissimilarities. Online? They can just read synopses on my website faster than I can tell them.

Most of my books are dark. Southern Gods is pretty much a dark fantasy – crime noir meets southern gothic meets cosmic Lovecraftian horror – and is not the happiest of works. This Dark Earth is post-apocalyptic, zombies and nuclear war. The Twelve-Fingered Boy and its sequel The Shibboleth are about broken children with superpowers. All of them, despite the genre trappings, really focus on character, character growth, family, and elemental human emotions coming from flawed, wounded, brave, tragic characters. So if any of that appeals to you, pick one. What’s it gonna take to get you into a copy of The Twelve-Fingered Boy?!?

Q] In the start of your career, you have written standalone stories before going on to a trilogy and now onto a series (hopefully). Was there any specific reason for writing such a way? Were there any other factors like publishers or lit agents that factored into this decision? 

JHJ: I wrote three novels before I had an agent. Two were standalones and one was the beginning of a series. Then I landed an agent and wrote another book – not the second in the series I’d already started, but a new novel in a new series – The Incorruptibles – because I didn’t want to write two books in an unsold series. What if they didn’t sell? I know an author who’s written two mystery novels with a detective and he can’t sell either of them.

Little did I know that within a year and a half my agent would have sold all of the books I’d written and their series. It put me in somewhat of a bind that only now am I coming out from under. In a year and change, I had to write three books which was hard on me. I’m not a fast writer though a lot of people think I am because I sold so many books so quickly.

Q] So far all your books have a strong geographical focus on the American south, what’s the reason for this fascination? 

JHJ: I’m from Arkansas, which is one of the poorest states in the union, and the most illiterate. My location informs my writing, though I’m not slavish about setting books here solely. The Shibboleth occurs in New York and Montana and The Incorruptibles occurs in a secondary world. I like writing about Arkansas and the south because of the hardness of the people and the environment – the heat, the poverty, the desperation. All of that makes for an excellent crucible in which to place my characters. But there’s nothing stopping me from exploring other locales or regions, either in the real world or in my imagination. Someday, I’d like to write a really cold book. Just absolutely frigid.

Q] On your Website, it’s mentioned that you have worked for fifteen years in advertising. How was that experience and did it in any way help you with your writing? 

JHJ: Working in advertising helped me in my writing by showing me that I’d rather write than work in advertising.

Q] What do you do when you aren't writing, what hobbies and proclivities engage you? 

JHJ: I’ve got kids, so we do a lot of stuff together. We all take martial arts classes at the same dojo. We’re lucky to have a lakehouse, and spend time there in the summer. I used to play guitar semi-professionally, but don’t anymore though I still play occasionally on camping trips or at parties. We do lots of arts and crafts and we try to travel when we can. I’ve started bringing my kids with me to conventions because, like kids do, they love staying in hotels and their presence tend to keep me from being too stupid with the drink and late nights.

Q] In closing, are there any final thoughts or comments that you'd like to share with your readers? What can we look forward to you in the future? 

JHJ: Well, I’m glad you gave me the opportunity to answer these questions. This summer, folks in the UK will be able to pick up the first in my fantasy series The Incorruptibles in hardback, trade, and audiobook. Matter of fact, right now you can pre-order it for £1.99 in ebook format, which is a bargain, whatever country you’re in.

Next year will see the release of The Conformity, the conclusion to my young adult trilogy that began with The Twelve-Fingered Boy. It will also see the publication of Foreign Devils the second book in The Incorruptibles series.

I’ve got a secret project that is secret. Super-duper secret. But it will be awesome. And I’ve got a bunch more books planned. Thanks again for having me!

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of Rick McFarland, Ron Wolfe & Arkansas Online. Map and all other pictures courtesy of John Hornor Jacobs.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"Scourge Of The Betrayer" and "Veil Of The Deserters" by Jeff Salyards (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Scourge Of The Betrayer HERE
Order Veil Of The Betrayers HERE
Read The Bibliosanctum's (Mogsy) interview with Jeff Salyards
Read Nick Sharps' interview with Jeff Salyards

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Jeff Salyards was born and brought up in the northern parts of Illinois. From an early age he was into the fantastical worlds that spawned further worlds in his imagination. By day, he is a book editor for the American Bar Association; by night, he steadily works on writing newer worlds. Jeff currently lives near Chicago with his family.

ABOUT SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER: Many tales are told of the Syldoon Empire and its fearsome soldiers, who are known throughout the world for their treachery and atrocities. Some say that the Syldoon eat virgins and babies–or perhaps their own mothers. Arkamondos, a bookish young scribe, suspects that the Syldoon’s dire reputation may have grown in the retelling, but he’s about to find out for himself.

Hired to chronicle the exploits of a band of rugged Syldoon warriors, Arki finds himself both frightened and fascinated by the men’s enigmatic leader, Captain Braylar Killcoin. A secretive, mercurial figure haunted by the memories of those he’s killed with his deadly flail, Braylar has already disposed of at least one impertinent scribe ... and Arki might be next.

Archiving the mundane doings of millers and merchants was tedious, but at least it was safe. As Arki heads off on a mysterious mission into parts unknown, in the company of the coarse, bloody-minded Syldoon, he is promised a chance to finally record an historic adventure well worth the telling, but first he must survive the experience!

A gripping military fantasy in the tradition of Glen Cook, Scourge of the Betrayer explores the brutal politics of Empire–and the searing impact of violence and dark magic on a man’s soul.

ABOUT VEIL OF THE DESERTERS: History, Family and Memory… these are the seeds of destruction. Bloodsounder's Arc continues as Captain Braylar Killcoin and his retinue continue to sow chaos amongst the political elite of Alespell. Braylar is still poisoned by the memories of those slain by his unholy flail Bloodsounder, and attempts to counter this sickness have proven ineffectual.

The Syldoonian Emperor Cynead has solidified his power base in unprecedented ways, and demands loyalty from all operatives. Braylar and company are recalled to the capital to swear fealty. Braylar must decide if he can trust his sister, Soffjian, with the secret that is killing him. She has powerful memory magics that might be able to save him from Bloodsounder’s effects, but she has political allegiances that are not his own. Arki and others in the company try to get Soffjian and Braylar to trust one another, but politics in the capital prove to be far more complicated and dangerous than even Killcoin could predict.

Deposed emperor Thumarr plots to remove the repressive Cynead, and Braylar and his sister Soffjian lie at the heart of his plans. The distance between "favored shadow agent of the emperor" and "exiled traitor" is an unsurprisingly short road. But it is a road filled with blind twists and unexpected turns. Before the journey is over, Arki will chronicle the true intentions of Emperor Cynead and Soffjian. And old enemies in Alespell may prove to be surprising allies in a conflict no one could have foreseen.

FORMAT/INFO: Scourge Of The Betrayer is 253 pages long divided over four untitled, unnumbered sections, while Veil Of The Deserters is 464 pages long divided similarly. Narration is in the first-person singularly via Arkamondos (Arki) in both volumes. May 1, 2012 marked the North American Hardcover and e-book publication of Scourge Of The Betrayer. Veil Of The Deserters was published in Hardcover and e-book form on June 3, 2014. Both books were published by Nightshade Books.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Imagine a world wherein the author decides to drop you (reader) into without any warning.  You flounder for a while and at the end, you either love his work or you feel he's wasting paper. I know you might be thinking of this enigmatic writer, but bear with me; I’m referring to this dude Jeff Salyards who’s as cruel as a writer as the best of them.

In his debut Scourge Of The Betrayer, he introduces us to Arkamondos, a young scribe who is hired by a company of Syldoonian soldiers captained by Braylar Killcoin. The story then unfolds as Arkamondos learns what truly is the life of a Syldoon soldier. His journey then is gloriously told in the first book as we get to see why he was hired and where are they going. The Syldoonians are a strange and dangerous lot with their skipper Braylar being the most lethal and secretive as well.

The story ends on such a note that makes you wonder as to what is truly happening and where the characters are headed. The second book Veil Of The Deserters, begins almost immediately after the end of its predecessor and we are then introduced to a new group of soldiers called the Memoridons who fight in a different way but are no less deadly. Braylar’s sister Soffjian heads this particular group, and the siblings don’t seem to share any love but only a rivalry that is deadly to comprehend. The main plot deals with the summons that has been issued by the Syldoonian emperor Cynead for all his companies and that means a journey back to the capital. What will happen is something that nobody can predict but danger is omnipresent and they will have to go to Sunwrack to obey their emperor.

This story while seeming very stereotypical is completely away from such tropes, the first book lays the foundation for the Bloodsounder’s Arc as we are introduced to the kingdom of Anjuria, Rivermost is the city wherein the story begins for Arkamondos and for the readers. It’s from herein that is becomes nigh unpredictable as Arki is forced to follow the captain and his crazy orders and ways, and record them to the minutest degree. That is the bargain and we get to see them all through Arki’s eyes. This is where Jeff Salyards’ tremendous characterization skills along with dialogue come in to superb form.  The obvious character who is the focus of the story is captain Braylar and there's no bigger enigma present. Faced with a cryptic functioning style, Arki struggles to understand Braylar and the author makes it hard for readers to decipher him by limiting the information to Arki's POV only.

The first book has Arki (and us along with him) stumble through out the plot not knowing whom to trust or know what was truly happening. The second book is much clearer in its plot as well as its secrets as Arki gets to know the men around him. This natural progression works very well within the course of the story as we get to learn what truly is happening with the ascension of the young emperor Cynead and how certain Syldoonian companies (like the Jackals) still want the return of the previous emperor Thumarr. The second volume also brings us an additional intriguing character in the form of Soffjian. Similarly to the first book wherein the focus was sharply on Braylar, in this volume Arki's fascination is extended to both siblings. This is indeed fascinating as the siblings provide a contrast with their own selves as well their military/martial bearings. This sibling conflict powers the second volume and has quite an interesting climax which allows for some fascinating context with regards to the third volume plot.

There’s also the curious Godveil, which is strewn across the Eastern half of the known world (as shown in the map). This veil has been created due the abdication of the gods of lore as told to the reader in the first volume. However the readers are given proper clarification about it in the sequel wherein we get to learn more about Braylar’s strange weapon and its possible connection to the Godveil. This magic in this series is quite understated and so I believe the eventual reasons of the Godveil formation will be fascinating to know. The author however keeps things very tight and we get a very limited understanding due to the POV structure.

Even though the story features only Arki as a narrator, we get to see a multitude of characters that are distinct from each other and no leas caustic to Arki. Beginning with Braylar, we meet other Syldoons such as Vendurro, Muldoss, Lloi, Hewspear and in the sequel we get to meet them again along with newer characters such as Soffjian, Skeelana, Emperor Cynead, Rusejenna, Commander Darzaak and a few others. The author’s characterization does help in making this story that much deeper and kudos to the author for having such an impressive character cast despite having a singular first person narrative.  The dialogue also helps as often the humor is at its blackest best with the Syldoonian speak among each other & their cursing. I enjoyed how Jeff managed to portray this military unit who have their own creative abuses and yet seem so realistic.

Lastly the only thing that perhaps can be construed as a downer is the pace of the story and this is present in both volumes of the Bloodsounder’s Arc. The story in the first volume meanders on and there has been a complaint that it almost reads like an over-extended prologue. With regards to this complaint, it seems to be true. The first book is a bit of one-off and the second book does an absolute one-eighty on that aspect. However the paces doesn’t quite become a rip-roaring one. Another strange aspect of both the books was that they have rather long sections, which aren’t quite broken into chapters. This was a strange move and one that actively contributes to the slowing of the plot pace.

The second book reveals a lot about the world, the magic and mythology (that is only hinted at so far) and gives us a really deeper look into all Syldoon soldiers that Arki has met so far. The second volume distinctly showcases what the author has in mind for this story and it seems to be grand in its scope. Think The Black Company but more grit, grayer morality and creative curses. I have to admit Jeff Salyards had me a bit confused with his debut but now after reading his sophomore effort, I can safely vouch that the Bloodsounder's Arc is heading in a fascinating direction.

CONCLUSION: Scourge Of The Betrayer and Veil Of The Deserters are the first two entries in Jeff Salyards’ debut series. It’s grim and gritty enough to satiate any fan of dark stories or grimdark fantasy. Be sure to check both these titles, as they are very excellent indicators of how dark and funny Jeff Salyards' writing is and that sure bodes well for fantasy fans in the future.


 Click Here To Order “Barnaby The Wanderer” by Raymond St. Elmo
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 Click Here To Order “Barnaby The Wanderer” by Raymond St. Elmo
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 Click Here To Order “Barnaby The Wanderer” by Raymond St. Elmo
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 Click Here To Order “Barnaby The Wanderer” by Raymond St. Elmo
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