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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Second SPFBO Semifinalist Update (by Cindy Hannikman & Mihir Wanchoo)

With Alec Hutson’s The Crimson Queen becoming our first semifinalist, its high time we nominate our second semifinalist. As I had explained in my 2017 SPFBO introduction post. We’ll be selecting one book semifinalist from every five books. These book groupings are random and sometimes we might have no semi-finalists or we might have more than one in one group.

With this group, my co-editor Cindy was super instrumental in selecting our semifinalist and helping with reading through our second lot. As with our earlier lot we tried to read at least five chapters or 20% of the book (whichever was longer). So here are Cindy’s and my concise thoughts on each of them:

The Rift (J. T. Stoll):

Cindy’s thoughts – This book had a very fast pace feel to it straight from the start. It was easy to read 10, 20 or even 30 pages in one sitting without realizing it. Unfortunately, in an effort to bring readers a fast pace, the book seemed to suffer. While it was easy/fast to read, it felt like I was reading a cliffnotes version of a story. It was almost like we were skimming the surface and not really getting to know characters/worlds or anything. This prevented me from being invested in the story.

Mihir’s thoughts – The Rift was an intriguing mix of portal & urban fantasy and as Cindy pointed out, it was a very quick read however it felt rushed. The world and magic system didn’t quite feel detailed or well-explained hence both of us didn’t feel strongly enough about it.

Warcaster (J. C. Staudt):

Cindy’s thoughts – When reading standard fantasy books, I look for 2 things – a unique plot or amazing characters I really want to go on a journey with. Warcaster doesn't have anything wrong with it, but it doesn't have that “it factor” or the spark to make it stand out from the dozens of fantasy books out there, either.

Mihir’s thoughts – I liked Warcaster’s blurb and had high hopes from this book. The story however didn’t quite match my expectations and while the story was very simplistic. The characters and plot pace did help the story but not enough to make it a standout one. Another title which started well but couldn’t carry through on its execution.

Wrath of the Exiled (D. N. Pillay):

Cindy’s thoughts – I liked where this was going in terms of word building, but it suffered from too much information at times. The novel had a very babbly-feel to it and the story seemed to wander with things that just didn't seem to matter to the main plot.

Mihir’s thoughts – This book is an ambitious one and it is easily apparent as you read the story to see the author’s efforts in crafting it. The storyline does promise a lot of bombastic stuff and the author lays down some pretty cool concepts however the characterization mars the story as its seems very archetypal.

Forgotten Relics (Tiffany Cherney):

Cindy's thoughts – On the surface this sounded amazing. Space pirates/a space setting, but this just didn't have that spark or it factor that made me want to continue past my (personal) set number of pages (approximately 65 – 75 pages). There wasn't anything that inspired me to read on.

Nefertiti's Heart (A. W. Exley):

Cindy’s thoughts – There are some weighty topics/scenes in here and a lot of romance, but I was captivated. I wanted to follow the characters, see what happened to them, and learn more about everything. It was these reasons that I voted to put it through to the semifinals.

Mihir’s thoughts – This story was an intriguing mix of historical fantasy and steampunk plus the author laid out the story intriguingly. What I loved most about was the inherent mystery within the main plot and the thriller aspect of the storyline. 

With this lot, for both Cindy & me it was an easy choice. Nefertiti's Heart was the perfect mix of plot, characters and mystery to intrigue both of us and we will be writing a dual review for it next week. The author has also graciously agreed to an interview and that will be posted next week as well. We hope to highlight why this was such a fun read for us and how it mixes several genre aspects to make a successful concoction.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty (Reviewed by Will Byrnes)

Official Author Website
Pre-order the book HERE

OFFICIAL BLURB: Step into The City of Brass, the spellbinding debut from S. A. Chakraborty—an imaginative alchemy of The Golem and the Jinni, The Grace of Kings, and Uprooted, in which the future of a magical Middle Eastern kingdom rests in the hands of a clever and defiant young con artist with miraculous healing gifts.

Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of eighteenth-century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles and a reliable way to survive.

But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to question all she believes. For the warrior tells her an extraordinary tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling birds of prey are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass—a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.

In Daevabad, behind gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. A young prince dreams of rebellion. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences.

After all, there is a reason they say to be careful what you wish for . . .

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: It’s time to polish that special lamp gathering webs in the attic, put a fine edge on your bladed weaponry, remind yourself of ancient tribal insults and outrages, dust off that list of wishes that is around here somewhere and vacuum your magic carpet. You are about to be transported.

(“The Magic Carpet” (detail), 1880, by Apollinary Mikhaylovich Vasnetsov © State Art Museum, Nizhny Novgorod, Russia/Bridgeman Art Library)

Nahri, our Aladdin here, is a twenty-year-old thief and con artist, working marks in 18th Century French-occupied Cairo. She has a gift for discerning medical maladies and another for treating them. She is adept at languages and at parting the unwary from their money. When she is called in to help deal with a 12-year-old girl who is possessed, she rolls her eyes and opts to have a bit of fun trotting out an old spell that has never worked before. The difference here is that she tries it in a language she seems to have known forever, but which no one else has ever heard. Turns out the girl really was possessed, by a particularly nasty entity, and turns out that Nahri’s little experiment summoned a very scary djinn. In a flash, the evil possessor spirit and a large number of its dead minions are on her like decay on a corpse. Thankfully, the djinn is there to save the day, with extreme prejudice. This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The frustrated pursuers have made Cairo a no-go zone for Nahri, so she and the djinn, Dara (which is a small portion of his entire name) head for the place where people of his sort reside, the world capital of the magical races, Daevabad, the Brass City of the title.

To call Dara a hottie would be a bit of an understatement. Handsome? For sure. Incredibly powerful? Fierce in battle? Be afraid, be very afraid. Able to leap tall minarets in a single flying carpet? You betcha. As if that were not enough, he is literally a creature of fire, and emits actual smoke. You never had a friend like him.

Cairo may present imminent threats of death, but Daevabad is no prize either. Ancient tribal hatreds are kept at bay by a strong, and ruthless ruler. King Ghassan ibn Khader al Qahtani must contend not only with inter-tribal tensions, he must cope with a growing insurgency. (Think sundry Middle East rulers with tribally diverse populations.) There are many who feel that laws favoring purebloods are unjust, and want those of mixed Djinn-human blood, shafit, (think mudbloods) to be treated fairly. One of those happens to be the king’s number two son. Ali is a very devout young (18) man. As second in line, he is destined to help his older brother, Muntadhir, rule, as, basically, the head of security.

He is extremely adept at sword-fighting and has gained a good reputation among the other student-warriors at the Citadel, a military training school (not in South Carolina) where he has been living and training for some years. Dad would not be pleased were he to learn that junior was giving money to an organization that purports to offer civilian-only aid to shafit, but is also rumored to be involved in a more military form of activity. (Think Hamas). Revolutionary tensions are on the rise, palace intrigues as well, as trust is something one could only wish for. One key question is where Nahri really came from, who is she, really? It matters. And what happened to the ancient tribe that was chosen by Suleiman himself to rule, way back when.

There are magic rings, flaming swords, strange beings of diverse sorts, plots, battles, large scale and small, plenty of awful ways to die, without that being done too graphically. And there is even a bit of interpersonal attraction. Did I mention Dara being smokin’? There is also some romantic tension between Nahri and Ali. Add in a nifty core bit of history centered on Suleiman.

"One of the great strengths of City of Brass is the lode of historical knowledge the author brings to bear. It actually started not as a novel, but as sort of a passion project/exercise in world-building that I never intended to show a soul! I’m a big history buff and with The City of Brass I wanted to recreate some of the stunning worlds I’d read about while also exploring traditional beliefs about djinn. A bit contrary to Western lore, djinn are said to be intelligent beings similar to humans, created from smokeless fire and living unseen in our midst—a fascinating, albeit slightly frightening concept, this idea of creatures living silently among us, dispassionately watching the rise and fall of our various civilizations." - from the Twinning for Books interview

(Mahamoti Djinn - Magic:The Gathering)

Chakraborty, our Sheherezade here, fills us in on much of the history of how the djinn came to build their human-parallel world, offering not just what is, but how what isarose from what was:

"There’s a djinn version of Baghdad’s great library, filled with the ancient books humans have lost alongside powerful texts of magic; they battle with weapons from Achaemenid Persia (enhanced by fire of course); the medical traditions of famed scholars like Ibn Sina have been adapted to treat magical maladies; dancers conjure flowers while singing Mughal love songs; a court system based on the Zanzibar Sultanate deals justice to merchants who bewitch their competitors… not to mention a cityscape featuring everything from ziggurats and pyramids to minarets and stupas." - from the Twinning for Books interview

There are a lot of names to remember, words to learn, tribes to keep straight, and allegiances to keep track of. I found myself wishing there was a list somewhere that helped keep it all straight, and “Poof!” there it appeared at the back of the book, a glossary, rich with useful information. It could have been a bit larger though. I would have liked for it to include a list of the djinn tribes, with information about each, their geographical bases, proclivities, languages, you know, stuff. The information can be found in the book itself, but it would have been nice to have had a handy short reference.

CONCLUSION: The City of Brass is both very smart and very entertaining. The richness of the world we see here gives added heft to a wonderful story. The world Chakraborty has created hums with humanity, well, whatever the djinn equivalent might be for humanity (djinnity?). You will smell the incense, want to keep a damp cloth at hand to wipe the dust and sand from your face, and a cool drink nearby to help with the heat. It probably wouldn’t hurt to post a lookout in case someone decides to try spiking your drink or inserting a long blade into your back. This is a wonderful, engaging, and fun read. It will not take you a thousand and one nights to read, but you might prefer that it did. The only wish you will need when you finish reading The City of Brass is for Volume 2 of this trilogy, The Kingdom of Copper, to appear, NOW!!!

NOTE: This review was originally posted over here by Will Byrnes.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

GIVEAWAY: Owl And The Electric Samurai by Kristi Charish

Kristi Charish’s The Owl series is a series that has mixes the fun of urban fantasy along with the rollicking action of adventure thrillers. Kristi Charish & Fantasy Book Critic are glad to be giving away two copies of Owl And The Electric Samurai to Two Lucky Winners!!! 

There are two copies up for grabs. The trade paperback copy of Owl And The Electric Samurai is open for everyone in USA & Canada. The Audible version is open internationally to all folks.

To enter, please send an email to with your Name, Mailing Address, and the subject: OWL. Giveaway will end on 12:01 PM, 27th August 2017 and will be open to participants in the US/CANADA (paperback) & WORLDWIDE (Audiobook) regions! 

Thank you for entering and Good Luck! 

1) Open To Anyone WORLDWIDE
2) Only One Entry Per Household (Multiple Entries Will Be Disqualified)
3) Must Enter Valid Email Address, Mailing Address + Name
4) No Purchase Necessary
5)Giveaway will end on 12:01 PM, 27th August 2017
6) Winners Will Be Randomly Selected and Notified By Email
7) Personal Information Will Only Be Used In Mailing Out the Books To The Winner 

Friday, August 11, 2017

SPFBO: Interview with Alec Hutson (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Order The Crimson Queen HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Crimson Queen 

Alec Hutson's The Crimson Queen was our first SPFBO Semifinalist and as you can read in my review yesterday, it's really apparent why. Alec was kind enough to answer a few questions while preparing for his marriage. I owe him more than just a thank you for his time.  In this interview, you'll learn more about his beginnings on the writing path as well as how The Crimson Queen came into being. Read ahead and get to know more about Alec and  be sure to grab a copy of The Crimson Queen. You won't be sad when you do.

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. To begin with, could you tell us a little about yourself, your background & your interests?

AH: Hi! Thanks for the questions! I grew up in a small town on the north shore of Massachusetts (the setting for one of HP Lovecraft’s short stories, actually). My aunt owns a rather large independent bookstore, and I was surrounded by books from a very young age. I always loved fantasy and have a memory of lugging Ed Greenwood’s Spellfire into my third-grade classroom for show-and-tell. 

I went to Carleton College and studied mostly history, majoring in political science. Up until my senior year I thought law school would be my route, but as graduation hurtled closer I realized that I didn’t really want to be a lawyer - it just seemed like a natural path for my skill-set (high school debate captain, good with the words, etc). So instead I applied to writing programs, and was accepted into the one at NC State run by John Kessel, the eminent science fiction author.

About this same time, I’d started dating a girl who was working at the same bookstore as me. Before we’d even met she was planning on going to Shanghai to teach English with her sister, and she convinced me to defer my writing program for a year and join her in China.

That was fifteen years ago, and I’m still in Shanghai (though the girl I arrived with is now happily married to a doctor in New York). The interval has been an exciting and fun time, to be sure, but I do wonder how my life would have been different if I’d taken the other branch back in 2003 and gone off to get my MFA.

Q] Can you tell us what inspired you to be a writer in the first place, what experience you went through in finishing your book, & why you chose to go the self-publishing route?

AH: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I remember writing, illustrating and binding a book in the first grade based off of the old King’s Quest computer games. I published fantasy stories in my high school’s literary magazine. I loved creating and having written, but I can’t say I have the same compulsion to write that some writers speak of. The act of writing isn’t enjoyable for me. It’s like a wrestling match, and while I do feel tremendous satisfaction when words I’m happy with are on the page, it’s also exhausting.

During my twenties I tried several times to write a book. I always got 50k words in or so, and that nagging little internal critic would convince me to throw it aside. For The Crimson Queen, I joined the story-sharing site Wattpad when I’d hit the word count where self-doubt usually came crashing down hardest and started posting chapters. The reception was quite good, and honestly it was the readers there that pushed me to finally finish.

After I had a first draft done I started researching the query process. For those who haven’t done it, it’s pretty horrible. Slaving away over a hooky blurb, then dispatching these queries to literary agents, most of whom will only glance at what you send them and dash off a form rejection (if they reply at all). My initial batch of 15 queries or so fizzled, though I did get asked for two partials – from the two biggest agencies I’d queried, actually.

One of my writer friends on Wattpad suggested I look into self-publishing. I hadn’t even considered this route, but I started reading articles by Hugh Howey and lurking on kboards. It quickly became very apparent to me that this was the future of publishing. I loved that I had absolute control over the story and its rights, and that my book’s success or failure would rest on my shoulders, not some faceless marketing department.

I began preparing my book for self-publication. It took me about two months to make The Crimson Queen, and I hit publish in early December, 2016. The response really floored me. My initial goal was to make back in 2017 my investment in putting the book back together, which was about 2k dollars. By the end of December, I’d already done that. Then in the middle of January a really fantastic indie author – Will Wight – was handed my book by a reader of his blog. He loved it and raved about it on Goodreads, Amazon, Twitter . . . . The Crimson Queen sort of exploded after that. At the end of January, I received an e-mail from the huge fantasy agency I’d queried 9 months before. They wanted the full manuscript of Queen, which I believe is a big step on the way to representation. I explained to the agent that I’d already self-published, and he said that that was okay, but I’d have to take down my book, it wouldn’t return to print if he took it on for at least 18 months, and he couldn’t guarantee an advance of more than 10k dollars (which I guess is sort of standard?). By this time – 6 weeks into self publishing – I was already fast approaching that number.

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

AH: Elements of the book began gestating back in my twenties, and several characters and scenes were taken from previously failed versions. I really wanted to write a classic fantasy story set in the kind of world I loved to read about, but without the Manichean duality that in my opinion renders a lot of fantasy kind of simplistic. I wanted to do a less-dark version of Game of Thrones. The characters of the Crimson Queen herself and Alyanna – and their conflict – were always there in previous iterations, as was Jan. Keilan – who became the viewpoint character – was a late addition.

When I finally set to writing the book it took me about 18 months to finish.

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?

AH: I wouldn’t say I have a muse, unless it’s the writing of authors that I really love, like Mieville or Martin. My motivation, I suppose, was chasing that emotion I always loved when I read fantasy novels – kind of an upwelling in wonder, that feeling of being transported to a different realm. If I can create that same emotion in readers, then I’ll consider my book a success.

Q] The Crimson Queen is the first volume in the Raveling series. Could you give us a progress report on the next book, offer any blurb details about the sequel and outline your plans for the series as a whole?

AH: I’m about halfway through the second book in the series. I’m aiming to release it this winter, but I also won’t put it out until I’m completely satisfied, so that might be the spring. I can’t imagine it’ll take longer than that. In the second book – The Shadow King – the threat to the world becomes clearer, and in some ways the series settles down into a more traditional fantasy story.

Q] One of the things I noticed in your debut was a good mix of mythology that seem inspired by East, Central & North Asian legends. Could you tell us about the research which you undertook before attempting to write your debut? What were the things which you focused upon and any fascinating things that you found amidst your research?

AH: I’ve lived in China for fifteen years, so I have a familiarity with East Asian culture and history. I’m also in general just a bit of a history nerd, so bits and pieces of my own interests worm their way into certain cultures in my books. The Shan and their Empire of Swords and Flowers are very obviously based off of Tang dynasty China. Menekar is a more classical-era civilization. The Gilded Cities are similar to Italian city states, or perhaps more of a Hanseatic league-type merchant federation.

Most research I did was related to particular events – like when Nel begins to teach Keilan knife-fighting, I researched the basics of that. The last thing you want to do as a writer is break immersion by completely misrepresenting something that readers might be passionate about.

Q] Another curious bit about your debut was the presence of the mythological creature designs within TCQ & TMS (at the start of chapters and in the start). Is there any particular reason for their presence in these volumes? Also why those particular designs (dragon, manticore) for each volume?

AH: The internal formatting of my books is done by Colleen Shaheen of Write Dream Repeat book design. She’s wonderfully talented, and I love what she’s done with the books. She presented me with an assortment of designs and images, and I simply chose ones that I liked. The manticore obviously made sense given that my short story collection was named after a flash fiction piece inside called The Manticore’s Soiree – the rose and dragon design in The Crimson Queen I just thought looked great.

Q] I thoroughly enjoyed how your debut presented your own twist on several fantasy tropes. Particularly the titular character whom you kept sort of hidden from the POV characters as well as the reader & is only revealed in the last fourth quarter of the book. I liked how you subverted reader expectations by purposefully keeping The Crimson Queen as an enigma? Was this planned? Will we ever see what makes her tick and how she rose to power?

AH: I did want her to be an enigma. Mysteries keep readers reading. I’ve found it interesting how different readers have come away with very different impressions of her, from benevolent to ruthless, to both good and evil. I do plan on getting deeper into her character and her motivations – I have a backstory all primed for when it makes sense in the narrative to explore it.

Q] Talking about POV characters, you have written both mortal & near immortal ones. How do you get in the mindset for writing them? Do you write them one at a time? or do you write them all together?

AH: I wrote the chapters as they’re laid out in the book, so sometimes alternating points of view, sometimes the same character again. The most difficult POV for me to write was Keilan. I had to be true to the fact that he’s being thrust into a situation he doesn’t fully understand, and goes through much of the book in wide-eyed wonder at what’s going on around him. Some readers have remarked about a lack of agency with him, but for me, I couldn’t imagine a scenario where a fifteen-year-old boy seizes control of the situations he finds himself in. He’s an effective vehicle for exploring and explaining the world, I suppose. Alyanna was the most fun to write. She’s confident, arrogant, and powerful. A lover of beauty and life. Also extremely selfish. Just a fun character to explore and write about.

Q] Your book has an intriguing world mixed with some different geographical countries. What was your inspiration for the setting and what are your thoughts on world-building in general?

AH: Like a lot of fantasy books and worlds, the inspiration came from our world’s history. Most of the cultures are vaguely analogous to something familiar. I don’t think I broke new ground with the setting, but it’s exactly the kind of world I love to explore as a reader, so I was hoping others would find it compelling.

There’s also a certain way to present a fantasy world – in the language used, and the way far-off peoples and locations are referenced – that I think really deepens the fantasy reading experience. Let me give a few examples. Here’s one of my favorite openings, from The Phoenix and The Sword, one of the first Conan stories:

Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west.”

This is a world I want to explore. I get those little flutters in my stomach when I read about the ‘towers of spider-haunted mystery’ or ‘Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold.’ With The Crimson Queen I tried in parts to do the same thing – here’s a section from the very beginning, when Keilan is describing what he knows of the world beyond his village:

His mother had taught him so much. While most of the other villagers only knew about this tiny sliver of the world, their homes and the nearby town of Chale, the waters of the bay and the dun hills to the east, his mother had told him stories of the vastness that unfurled in every direction. Farther east, over the Bones of the World, lay the ancient cities of Menekar, where white lions curled at the feet of ruling satraps; to the far north was a frozen waste pocked by crumbling holdfasts locked in ice and sorcery; to the west the Gilded Cities glittered on the coast; and to the south, beyond the sea, was where the mysterious Shan ruled in their Empire of Swords and Flowers.

Or another example would be how I introduce the city of Menekar from the perspective of the Shan advisor to the emperor:

The peach rains had finally come.

For weeks now Menekar had been swaddled in a shroud of late summer heat, heavy and suffocating. Along the Aveline Way, in the shadow of the aqueduct that channeled water from mother Asterppa to the cisterns and gardens of the city, the bare feet of children had slapped the marble as they ran shrieking to play in the crowded fountains. Past them matrons and maidens alike had walked swaying to market, their jokkas unbound and bared breasts gleaming, hair coiled atop their heads so that the faint breath of a breeze might cool their necks. And elsewhere in the city, in shaded villas along the banks of the sluggish, silty Pandreth, the painted wives of satraps summering in the capitol had reclined on velvet couches, fanned by great feathers held by the hairless men of the Whispering Isles.

As summer had waxed, the days had lengthened, becoming more languorous, colors slowly seeping from a city bleached by the heat.

Then the spell had broken. As happened every year, something in the swollen air had burst, and the peach rains had finally come, sweeping over the city in lashing torrents. The patter of children’s feet had given way to the sound of falling raindrops; the hairless men of the Isles had set down their fans and bent to rub oils into the legs of their mistresses. The dust and filth of the hot dry summer months had been swept into the suddenly overflowing canals.

Menekar had been reborn, cleansed – for a short while, at least.

There’s a trend in fantasy toward realism and grit, and that’s really not where my writing leads. I’m going for that sense of wonder – I want to make the reader want to strap a sword to his or her side and go out to explore these places and have adventures.

Q] Please tell us about the books and authors who have captured your imagination and inspired you to become a wordsmith in your own right. Similarly, are there any current authors you would like to give a shout out to?

AH: My conception of fantasy changed when I pulled A Game of Thrones off my bookstore’s shelf in 1996. It was probably the most formative reading experience of my life.

For the quality of their sentences I really respect Cormac McCarthy, Vladimir Nabakov, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, David Mitchell, China Mieville, Lucius Shepard, R Scott Bakker, John Crowley, and KJ Bishop, to name a few off the top of my head.

If I was to make a list of my favorite fantasy books they would be:

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

The Scar by China Mieville

The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Etched City by KJ Bishop

Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link (short stories)

The Jaguar Hunter by Lucius Shepard (short stories)

My exposure to self-published books is somewhat limited – before this spring, I’d never picked one up. Now I have a to-be-read list a mile high, and I’ve been extremely impressed with the quality of what I’ve tucked into so far. There’s a few indie gems I’ve picked up that I’d love to steer readers toward:

The Cradle series by Will Wight, starting with Unsouled. Will gave my book a tremendous boost soon after I published – I had never read him before that, but I devoured the (now three) books in his Cradle series. Incredibly inventive and accomplished fantasy. So much fun. If this series was picked up by a big 5 publisher it would be a NYT bestseller.

I love sword and sorcery, so I read The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids by Michael McClung. It’s a wonderfully written adventure that I read in about two sittings.

And one science fiction plug – if you enjoyed The Hunger Games or Red Rising, try Age of Order by Julian North.

All three of these books I thought were better than the average title put out by New York publishing.

Q] Thank you for taking the time to answer all the questions. In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers?

AH: You’re welcome, and thank you for the wonderful questions! I guess I just also want to say thank you to all the readers who have read The Crimson Queen. I never imagined my book would be so well-received, and it’s great motivation to keep writing and improving my craft.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

SPFBO Semi-Finalist: The Crimson Queen by Alec Hutson (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Order The Crimson Queen HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Alec Hutson was born in the north-eastern part of the United States and from an early age was inculcated with a love of reading fantasy. He was the Spirit Award winner for Carleton College at the 2002 Ultimate Frisbee College National Championships. He has watched the sun set over the dead city of Bagan and rise over the living ruins of Angkor Wat. He grew up in a geodesic dome and a bookstore, and currently lives in Shanghai, China.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Long ago the world fell into twilight, when the great empires of old consumed each other in sorcerous cataclysms. In the south the Star Towers fell, swallowed by the sea, while the black glaciers descended upon the northern holdfasts, entombing the cities of Min-Ceruth in ice and sorcery. Then from the ancient empire of Menekar the paladins of Ama came, putting every surviving sorcerer to the sword and cleansing their taint from the land for the radiant glory of their lord.

The pulse of magic slowed, fading like the heartbeat of a dying man.

But after a thousand years it has begun to quicken again.

In a small fishing village a boy with strange powers comes of age...

A young queen rises in the west, fanning the long-smoldering embers of magic into a blaze once more...

Something of great importance is stolen - or freed - from the mysterious Empire of Swords and Flowers...

And the immortals who survived the ancient cataclysms bestir themselves, casting about for why the world is suddenly changing...

CLASSIFICATION: The Crimson Queen showcases the best of Robert Jordan’s worldbuilding skiils, laced with Terry Brooks’ fluid characterization and topped off with a pinch of David Gemmell’s heroic fantasy escapades.

FORMAT/INFO: The Crimson Queen is 422 pages long divided over forty-three POV titled chapters with a prologue and an epilogue. Narration is in the third person via Keilan Ferrisorn, Janus Balensor, Alyanna, Holy emperor Gerixes, Xin, Senacus, Wen Xenxing the black vizier, and Cein d’Kara. This is the first volume of the Raveling series.

December 3, 2016 marked the e-book & paperback publication of The Crimson Queen and it will be self-published by the author. Cover art and design is by Jeff Brown.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Crimson Queen by Alec Hutson is at first appearance a book that might cause your eyes to glaze over it. Its cover has an unusual shade of yellow in its background along with a generic appearance of an old city. That however would be your first mistake. This book since its release in late 2016 has been slowly making waves and was slotted in to the 30 books afforded to us. Of the first batch of books that I read, it was the best and hence was our first semi-finalist.

The story blurb again talks of an old cataclysm which shaped in the world into what it is currently. The main story opens in a very Wheel Of Time fashion with the prologue showcasing someone or something that is old, possibly immortal and talking of events that will change the world. The story then opens us by showcasing the life of Keilan Ferrisorn who lives in a small fishing village and has a sorrowful past that impedes his village life. Janus Balensorn is a person who we quickly learn has more to him than just a honeyed voice and an arresting manner. Senacus is a paladin of Ama and one of the Pure, a sect of Templar-like knights who have powers and seek to stamp out magic. Senacus’ path brings him in conflict with certain wielders of magic and his path to Ama will be sorely tested. There are a few more characters but that’s the gist of the protagonists who power the main plot threads.

The book has a strong mystery to almost every aspect of it. Firstly there’s the mystery of the world itself which is mentioned in the blurb. Secondly there’s the two characters Keilan and Jan (as he refers to himself constantly). Both these characters have mysterious tragedies in their past which fuel their behavior and there’s also the titular character who’s as slippery as they come. In fact the author builds up her mystique by not introducing her until the last quarter but at the same time we are constantly hearing about her exploits and her fame. Then there’s the other characters in the book who take on POV roles and are as intriguing as our two main protagonists. Even though it’s his debut, Alec Hutson has managed to write some solid characters. Sure they stick to fantasy tropes (orphan village boy, unknown traveler, and deadly warrior) but he writes them with a fresh perspective and make sure that they don’t seemed jaded. Case in point the book’s main protagonist (at least by POV chapter count) Keilan who is a half-orphan and pretty soon discovers how ignorance plays out among the scared rural populace. While this seems very generic in the fantasy landscape, Alec Huston has imbued enough freshness in to Keilan that you want to root for him and get invested in his past.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Alec has a real solid knack for writing engaging characters. Be they villains, heroes, or merely misguided ones, nearly all the folks we meet are fully formed personas who act and behave with their own agendas in mind. The book also has female POV characters and in fact they are the real mysteries of the story. One of them is the titular character and the other one, well you’ll have to read the book to know more about her. I must point out that at this point I’m very, very curious to know more about Cein d’Kara the noted Crimson Queen. Plus kudos to the author for presenting her  as a multi-faceted person who depending on which angle you view her from,  can be a tyrant or a savior or both. So very much like Dany if she had already conquered Westeros and now was eying Essos & Southros.

What I also thoroughly enjoyed about this book was the way the author introduced the world. There’s a solid mystery afoot about what happened over a millennia ago and how it has impacted the world that we are currently introduced to. The world map showcases the different regions and most fantasy readers will be easily be able to recognize the real-world facsimiles. Plus the author makes sure to slowly unveil aspects of the world and there are no big infodumps that threaten to derail the plot or the pace of the book. The story also visits quite a few locations listed in the map and while that seems very trope-ish, it doesn’t feel forced at all. The author also mentioned in his interview with us (to be posted tomorrow) about where he got his influences from but the world he creates is his own with touches of our world here and there.

In our current atmosphere of solidly grimdark books, this fantasy debut takes route less soiled. Alec Hutson’s world isn’t necessarily grim but neither is it a bed of roses. He doesn’t really take the gritty route but manages more of a traditional heroic fantasy route. This works to his favor as I believe writing a grimdark story just for the heck of it, would certainly fall flat. Here I believe the author set to write a fantasy story more in line with the late 80s & 90s fantasy titles which were epic in content, but not grimdark as the current trend is. I can’t exactly say that Alec Hutson’s writing is like certain author X or writer Y but what I can surmise is that he brings to the table certain elegant qualities.

Imagine the best of Robert Jordan’s worldbuilding skiils, laced with Terry Brooks’ fluid characterization and topped off with a pinch of David Gemmell’s heroic fantasy escapades. Then you get an indication of the fun that awaits when you crack open The Crimson Queen. I’m sure Alec Hutson might disagree with my estimation but honestly it’s very clear that he’s his own writer and wants to write a certain kind of story. Were there any drawbacks to this story, yes there are some flaws. Plot wise this story doesn’t offer anything new that fantasy readers haven’t seen so far. The author incorporates lots of fantasy tropes and that might be a turn off for certain readers. One can even make a premise that the book’s pace falters a bit in the middle but it’s only a mild stumble and then picks up the pace as it hurtles towards its conclusion. Another point might be that there’s a lot of unexplained things introduced but since this book one of the Raveling series, I can’t really hold the author to that.

CONCLUSION: Alec Hutson's The Crimson Queen is a rare indie gem, sure nowadays we are unearthing more and more of them than say 4-5 years ago but it doesn’t take any sheen off the efforts that have gone into completing this one. The Crimson Queen is a fantasy debut that will have the reader rooting for its main characters, enjoying the plot mysteries and wanting the next book desperately. That is a hallmark of a true winner and I don’t think there’much more to say beyond that.

Monday, August 7, 2017

"The Metropolitans" by Carol Goodman (Reviewed by Cindy Hannikman)

Visit Carol Goodman's Website Here

OVERVIEW: The day Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, four thirteen-year-olds converge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where an eccentric curator is seeking four uncommonly brave souls to track down the hidden pages of the Kelmsbury Manuscript, an ancient book of Arthurian legends that lies scattered within the museum's collection, and that holds the key to preventing a second attack on American soil.

When Madge, Joe, Kiku, and Walt agree to help, they have no idea that the Kelmsbury is already working its magic on them. But they begin to develop extraordinary powers and experience the feelings of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, and Lancelot: courage, friendship, love...and betrayal. Are they playing out a legend that's already been lived, over and over, across the ages? Or can the Metropolitans forge their own story?"

FORMAT: The Metropolitans is a standalone children's novel. It is a blend of historical fiction, mystery and fantasy. It stands at 368 pages and was published March 14, 2017 by Viking Books for Young Readers.

ANALYSIS: I have always enjoyed middle school/children's mystery/puzzle/adventure novels. When I saw The Metropolitans was being compared to The Mixed Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler with a National Treasure twist, I was super excited. Unfortunately, the book had a few too many unbelievable parts to it that I was unable to really enjoy the novel.

Essentially, The Metropolitans tells the story of 4 13-year old children during World War II who through some twist of fate end up together and working towards a common goal. That goal is to help divert a potential Nazi attack on New York City. The only way to prevent the attack is to run around the Metropolitan Museum of Art finding pages from a mysterious manuscript that will help them decode a message from a known enemy spy.

While working to prevent the attack, the children start developing these weird powers that seem like they are straight out of Arthurian legend. Throughout the story, the children learn more about their powers while exploring some of the pressing issues of the time (such as Japanese internment camps, mistreatment of Native Americans, homeless in the city, and the loss of family due to death).

On the outside, it looks like this novel might turn out to be something wonderful and even fun to read. There were just too many distracting aspects of the novel that really prevented this novel from being all that it could be.

The first distracting aspect of The Metropolitans was the overuse of 1940s slang by one character. I fully understand that times change and terms that are used in the 40s, such as malarkey, hunky dory, swell) would seem awkward today, but this just seemed forced. Only one character in the entire book used this slang language and each and every time she spoke she used it. I found it difficult to believe that these terms would be so widely used that they would be used by one character every time she opened her mouth, yet not one of the other characters ever uttered these time-specific terms.

Another distracting aspect was the instant friendship between the four main characters. In a children's novel I understand there isn't a whole lot of time to devote to developing friendships, but this novel took quick friendships to the extreme. Literally, within a matter of an hour or two, all the characters went from complete strangers who had never seen each other, never interacted and they became best friends forever.

The main characters practically could not live without the thought that they wouldn't be friends. This was only after 4 hours of knowing each other. They instantly took each other in to their houses, vowed to remain friends forever, and do whatever they could to help each other. It was just unbelievable.

Of course, it could be argued that their instant friendship was because they were the legends of Arthur reincarnated into the 40s. But their instant friendship happened before this occurred, wasn't really touched upon as odd, and was just left out there for readers to accept.

Lastly, the other main issue I had was the grab bag of diversity, as I would call it. The four main characters include a Japanese-American girl who is facing discrimination because of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and forced to deal with the hatred and issues that came up during the 40s, a Native American boy who was taken from his family and not allowed to really embrace his culture, a Jewish boy from Germany who ran from Hitler leaving his family behind and saw people die in the streets, and an Irish-American girl who lost her mother to illness and was forced to move in with her aunt while her brothers were sent to an orphanage because her dad had some mental breakdown and decided to be homeless.

I am all for diversity in novels especially children's novel. This, however, seemed extreme and unbelievable. The fact that every individual from every culture was magically represented seemed a bit too far-fetched for me to believe. Throw in the fact that conveniently each character had some catastrophic past that neatly addressed the issues of that time period and it took it to the completely unbelievable zone.

The overreach with diversity and issues served as a major drawback. There was so much going on and so many issues the author tried to cover that I don't feel any issue, from the horrors people saw in Germany to the hatred of anyone who looked Japanese just because of what happened with Pearl Harbor,  was properly covered. It all seemed glossed over.

There were other issues with The Metropolitans that really took away from the novel, but they weren't as big of an issue for me as the three I explored above. Other issues included the rather clunky transition and use of Arthurian legend (it seemed forced and a bit difficult to understand exactly what happened as the novel was a mystery and then all of a sudden there are super powers and its fantasy), the lack of care or concern most adults showed in the novel, the fact 13 year olds just ran around the city hailing cabs and running all over the place during a national crisis, the 'seeing the light' moment that caused one character's father to stop drinking and living on the streets and become responsible, and the overuse of the ring-a-levio phrase that seemed to appear 3 to 5 times every chapter.

I will say that I did enjoy the setting. It was fun to explore the Metropolitan Museum of Art and hear about some of its exhibits.

Overall, I believe that The Metropolitans easily blends in with almost any other children's novel out there. It doesn't stand out in any way, shape or form, and has far too many unbelievable moments and underdeveloped plot points to make it an outstanding novel. That doesn't mean it won't be for you, but if you are looking for a book that will 'wow' you or really give the Arthurian legends a new spin, this probably won't help you.
Saturday, August 5, 2017

2017 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off Grand Giveaway (by M. D. Presley)

Okay, this is it: The big score, bonanza, mother lode, pot of gold, and proof that I own a thesaurus. So many 2017 SPFBO books are now up for grabs, we decided to break this bunch into two glorious grab-bags for two lucky winners.

To enter, leave a comment here on the blog, or head on over to Fantasy Book Critic’s Facebook page and SHARE this post to enter for a chance to win. I assure you, you’ll be glad you did.

Win or lose, we hope everyone found a fantasy book by a self-published author they were unfamiliar with. And please, if you did find something here in our SPFBO giveaway, leave the author an Amazon/ Goodreads review and tell your friends. Reviews and word of mouth weigh nothing, but they’re more valuable than gold (and mithril) to us authors.

And now, without further ado (adieu?), our first winner will receive not only digital copies of our FIRST, SECOND, THIRD  and SIXTH, but also the following great books:

Ben Galley: The Heart of Stone

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Official Blurb: Merciless. Murderer. Monster. He has been called many names in his time.

Built for war and nothing else, he has witnessed every shade of violence humans know, and he has wrought his own masterpieces with their colours. He cared once, perhaps, but far too long ago. He is bound to his task, dead to the chaos he wreaks for his masters.

Now, he has a new master to serve and a new war to endure. In the far reaches of the Realm, Hartlund tears itself in two over coin and crown. This time he will fight for a boy king and a general bent on victory.

Beneath it all he longs for change. For something to surprise him. For an end to this cycle of warfare.

Every fighter has a last fight. Even one made of stone.

S. J. Lem: The Waterfall Traveler 

Official Blurb: All eighteen-year-old Ri wants is to cure her adoptive father Samuel from his hallucination-inducing illness. Everyone in her village tells her it's impossible. But when she meets two newcomers in the forest—a gruff rogue with a vendetta against the gods and a charming fugitive with the power to travel through water—she'll be torn away from Samuel and swept across the sea to an oppressed city governed by a ruthless tyrant. Once there, she'll not only have to confront Samuel's unlawful past, but a vicious evil that threatens all mankind.

In this tale of bravery, friendship, and unexpected love, Ri must discover her own strength to save the men she cares for.

Ulff Lehmann: Shattered Dreams 

Official Blurb: If one looks too long into the abyss, the abyss looks back. Drangar Ralgon has been avoiding the abyss's gaze for far too long and now he turns to face it.

For a hundred years the young kingdom of Danastaer has thrived in peace. Now their northern neighbor, mighty Chanastardh, has begun a cunning invasion.

Thrust into events far beyond his control, the mercenary Drangar Ralgon flees his solitary life as a shepherd to evade the coming war and take responsibility for his crimes.

In Dunthiochagh, Danastaer's oldest city, the holy warrior Kildanor uncovers the enemy's plans for invasion.

As ancient forces reach forth to shape the world once more, the sorceress Ealisaid wakes from a century of hibernation only to realize the Dunthiochagh she knew is no more. Magic, believed long gone, returns, and with it comes an elven wizard sent to recover a dangerous secret.

Mercenary, holy warrior, noblewoman, sorceress, elf. All struggling to find their place in a world where actions do have consequences and mistakes are paid for in blood and pain. Each individual tale draws closer to the others, forming a tapestry that tells a single story. War, like a weaver, pushes lives until paths align. There are no shining heroes, no damsels who cannot save themselves, only people trying their damndest to make sense of the chaos their lives have become. Here, a few can make a difference.

Matt Moss: The Path of Man

Social Links:
Twitter @mossthewriter
Instagram @mossthewriter

Official Blurb: The war has just begun.

The Dark Society has finally emerged from the shadows after years of silence. Their mission is clear and they won't stop until the Order is destroyed.

The Order has been waiting for this day. The Prophet has already assured their victory.

Buried within the riddles of an ancient text lies a place of legend that contains an unspeakable power. Many believe it to be a myth. But if the rumors are true, the Dark Society may already know of its location.

Arkin's world is changed forever when a stranger rides into town. Suddenly, he's thrown into the age-old war between the Order and the Dark Society. Choices made in the past ripple through time as Arkin puts the pieces together. His choices will determine the future of all as he follows the Path of Man.

On top of all this, a SECOND winner will receive not just digital copies of our FOURTH, SEVENTH, EIGHTH and NINTH giveaways, but the following fantasy finds:

Marie Andreas: The Glass Gargoyle

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Official Blurb: Archeologist Taryn St. Giles has spent her life mining the ruins of the elves who vanished from the Four Kingdoms a thousand years ago. But when her patrons begin disappearing too--and then turning up dead--she finds herself unemployed, restless, and desperate. So she goes looking for other missing things: as a bounty hunter.

Tracking her first fugitive--the distractingly handsome and strangely charming Alric--she unearths a dangerous underworld of warring crime lords, demonic squirrels, and a long-lost elven artifact capable of unleashing a hell on earth.

Chased, robbed, kidnapped, and distressingly low on rent money, Taryn just wants one quiet beer and to catch her fugitive. But there's more to Alric than his wicked grin--is he a wanted man or the city's only hope? With menacing mages in pursuit and her three alcoholic faery sidekicks always in her hair, Taryn's curiosity might finally solve the mystery of the elves... or be the death of her and destroy her world.

Aldrea Alien: Dark One’s Mistress

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Official Blurb: Seventeen-year-old Clarabelle Weaver has only known the quiet village of Everdark where everyone lives under the protection, and shadow, of the Great Lord's fortress. But although his men patrol the land and keep them safe, no one in the village has seen much of the lord himself for years.

When news of the Great Lord's passing reaches the village, Clara is abducted by the Great Lord's men and whisked off to his fortress. Rumour whispers that his son, Lucias, is hunting for a mistress to beget him an heir to ensure the kingdom safety and she's it.

With nowhere to run and no one to trust, Clara quickly realises she must match her will against a man with dark magic at his beck and call. But the more she tries to escape and the more she learns of Lucias, the more she is drawn to the quiet, patient man. Will her desire for the man finally win over her longing for freedom?

Adrian G. Hilder: The General’s Legacy

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Official Blurb: A king obsessed with conquest, armies, magic, and monsters powered by the souls of the dead – the legendary General of Valendo defended his kingdom from them all and taught his grandson, Prince Cory, everything he could. But the worst is yet to come.

Cory’s life is changed forever after the general’s death when their enemy strikes at the heart of their Kingdom. Confronted by his grandfather’s world of warriors and magic, and with the lives and souls of all in his kingdom at stake, Cory must do the one thing the old general never could.

End the war.

Elise Edmonds: Where Carpets Fly

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Official Blurb: Restless teen Elina is bored of village life. When she starts magic lessons in the city, her only concern is exploring the sights with new school friend Kara. However, life takes a darker turn. Her magic teacher is hiding a secret, and odd happenings pile up, like unsociable Simeon's shady dockside deals. But Elina’s questions go unanswered.

When Elina and Simeon develop a magical mind link, she suspects his involvement in foreign spy work. But an unexpected ship tour-turned-voyage throws her and Kara right at the mystery’s heart—in the volatile, dangerous country of Pallexon.

Alone and with no ID, things worsen when a terrorist act blows Kara’s cover. With her own freedom at stake, Elina must rely on her wits and magic to save her friend and unravel Pallexon’s secrets—before it's too late.

Friendships are forged and loyalties tested in this magical fantasy adventure from debut author Elise Edmonds.


Official Author Website
Order The Woven Ring HERE

Bio: MD Presley
is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout. But if you’ve ever got a hankering for some grimdark gunpowder fantasy with a female anti-hero, check him out at


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