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Friday, September 22, 2017

SPFBO: Interview With A. W. Exley (Interviewed by Cindy Hannikman & Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Nefertiti's Heart HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Nefertiti's Heart

Anita W. Exley's Nefertiti's Heart really captivated both Cindy & me as evidenced in our review. It had the perfect mix of characterization, plot pace & Victorian settings that made the story so compelling. We were more than thrilled when Anita agreed to answer a few questions about her writing, the Artifact Hunter series & herself. So read ahead to get to know her better, checkout the gorgeous covers of her books and lose yourself in a captivating world.

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

AWE: I'm Anita and I live in rural New Zealand where I have horses. I used to be a forensic accountant, until I realized it was more fun to sit at home and kill people ;) I'm one of those people born in the wrong era - I ride sidesaddle, adore hats, wear a corset, and was steampunk long before I ever heard the word.

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?

AWE: As cliché as it sounds, I'm one of those people who has always written. Books were my escape as a child and creating my own worlds was a natural extension of that, I just never finished anything! lol When I took a parenting break from my accounting job, I was looking for something to keep my mind engaged and decided to take the plunge and finish writing a book. From there it grew as I became more focused and I hit the query trenches trying to land an agent (hint: I failed). I had a friend who gave up on querying despite agent offers, and she headed off into indie waters and encouraged me to follow.

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

AWE: I had written a young adult steampunk novel that failed to interest agents, so decided to try my hand at an older novel with different characters. I have always loved Egypt and wanted to finally use my Egyptology studies! I was staring at my text books, trying to figure out a way to bring ancient Egypt into a steampunk England when I decided to do it via an ancient artifact. I was fascinated by the story of Nefertiti and Akhenaton and once the idea of the mechanical heart popped into my mind, the story grew from there. I think it took me about a year to write the book after that.

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?

AWE: I listen with envy to other authors who say how their muse pours forth words onto a page. I have to hunt my muse with a sack and a tranq gun. I'm a very slow writer and spend a lot of time turning a scene over in my head before I write it down. I tend to start with the seed of an idea (like a mechanical heart and a killer intent on finding it) and often the ending, then I have to work backwards and figure out how it all unfolded.

Q] Nefertiti’s Heart is the first volume in the Artifact Hunter series. The series is completed so could you talk about what the readers can expect next in the series?

AWE: Life becomes more complicated for my heroine as she adapts to life with the villainous viscount and the secrets he is keeping. Queen Victoria succumbs to megalomania brought on by an artifact from Hatshepsut, a powerful woman who became a pharaoh. Cara needs to figure out how to get the necklace off the queen before she takes over the world. Then someone intent on keeping a decades old secret uses a fiddle that once belonged to Nero to tidy up loose ends by inducing spontaneous human combustion …

Q] One of the things I noticed in your debut was a good mix of steampunk mixed in with a solid mystery. Could you tell us about the research which you undertook before attempting to write the Victorian era as described within it? What were the things which you focused upon and any fascinating things that you found amidst your research?

AWE: I read a lot of non fiction about British history, plus grew up on a steady diet of BBC programmes. I've spent some time walking the streets of London and love the sense of history that soaks up from the cobbles and it was natural to take Victorian London as a starting point. From there I determined how my world differed and how I would utilize steam/mechanical technology.

It's the tiny details about every day life that I find the most amazing. Like learning that an electric light was first demonstrated in 1835 and in the 1840s a French nobleman lit up his estate with electric lights, long before Edison even thought about the light bulb. I also discovered that condoms were made by the Goodyear tyre company in the 1860s and bore a lot in common with inner tubes…! lol

Q] Cover art is always an important factor in book sales (whether we like it or not). This factor becomes even more crucial with self-publishing wherein reader prejudice can be higher. Your Artifact Hunters has some gorgeous cover art, I would love to hear how these covers came to be?

AWE: The covers started with a very simplistic idea of hand + artifact. However by the time I got to book 4, a staff just didn't seem that interesting as a cover symbol. I had a look around at a number of other steampunk books that feature women in corsets. However I'm a corset snob and no cheap plastic boned monstrosity was going on my books! I have a friend who is a very talented photographer and fellow corset wearer and she offered to do a custom photo shoot for me. The mechanical heart that Ricky Gunawan designed is such a powerful image (and central to my author branding) so I kept that for book 1, but used custom photographs as the basis for books 2, 2.5, 3 and 4. Regina from Mae I Design then took the photos and gave each a different treatment that reflects the tone of the book, like the fire for Nero's Fiddle and the frozen London of Moseh's Staff.

Q] Talking about characters, even though your book focusses on Cara & Nathaniel primarily. The character cast however is no less intriguing with folks such as Jackson and the Scotland Yard detectives. In this regard I found your book to be very exciting. Could you talk about how you develop your characters and how do their personas come forth?

AWE: I think secondary characters are often more interesting and believe they should each have their own backstory and motivations, they are after all the stars of their own stories, just not the current focus. When I create a secondary character I spend a bit of time thinking about who they are, where they came from and what pivotal moments impacted their personality/flaws. Two of mine (former pugilist Jackson and airship captain Loki) spawned their own books and I have always wanted to go back and write my detective's story and his investigation into the serial killer known as The Grinder.

Q] The world described in your book is Victorian but with steampunk technology added to it. One of things that I would have better enjoyed in this book if more of the world-building were revealed. What was your inspiration for the setting and what are your thoughts on world-building in general?

AWE: Nefertiti's Heart definitely suffers from first book syndrome and by that I mean things that in retrospect, I wish I had done better or differently. In hindsight I completely agree with you and wish I had spent longer thinking about the world, how its technology differed and what impact that had on society. In many ways I winged it and dealt with issues as they arose, but if I had fleshed the world out before I started writing, I think it would have delivered a deeper and more satisfying experience. By the time book 2 was written and the series was gathering momentum I was stuck with the boundaries I had created and had to make the best of it.

It's been a learning experience for me, and with other series I am tackling I am sorting out the world building beforehand and trying to have certain cornerstones in place before I start writing.

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?

AWE: My introduction to fantasy came as a child when I discovered Anne McCaffrey. Pern captured my imagination and never let go, and who doesn't want to Impress a dragon? Even today I still enjoy her continuing legacy and the novels written by her son, Todd. I also chewed through the Dragonlance chronicles and discovered Raymond E Feist. Fantasy is my first and enduring love but my catnip these days is when fantasy is twisted up with a historical time period like Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series or Bec McMaster's London Steampunk.

I'd like to give a shout out to the Historical Fantasy Bookclub.  We have a monthly book that we read (and twice a year we watch a historical fantasy movie) and I've been reading far wider and outside my usual go-to authors. I've found many new authors to follow and lost myself in books and worlds I wouldn't normally pick up 

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?

AWE: A huge thank you to Mark Lawrence for the work he does in organizing and running the SPFBO and I want to take a moment to thank Cindy & Mihir, the Fantasy Book Critic crew, for the time and effort you put into reading and reviewing for participating authors. I've been visiting the blogs and adding to my growing TBR pile but there's no way I'd want to try and pick just one book to put forward!


Thursday, September 21, 2017

SPFBO Review "Neferiti's Heart: The Artifact Hunters Book 1" by A.W. Exley (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo and Cindy Hannikman)

1861. Cara has a simple mission in London – finalise her father’s estate and sell off his damned collection of priceless artifacts. Her plan goes awry when a killer stalks the nobility, searching for an ancient Egyptian relic rumoured to hold the key to immortality.

Nathaniel Trent, known as the villainous viscount, is relentless in his desire to lay his hands on both Cara and the priceless artifacts. His icy exterior and fiery touch stirs Cara’s demons, or could he lay them to rest?

Self-preservation fuels Cara’s search for the gem known as Nefertiti’s Heart. In a society where everyone wears a mask to hide their true intent, she needs to figure out who to trust, before she sacrifices her own heart and life

ANALYSIS: (Mihir)  Nefertiti’s Heart is an intriguing book that popped up in Fantasy Book Critic’s lot. Firstly it was a top 3 contender with its gorgeous cover art and the blurb was exciting enough for me to get started on it early on. The book’s blurb details our protagonist’s hurry to sell off her father’s estate for reasons that become crystal clear in the first few chapters itself. Cara Devon is a person who’s been shaped by her teenage/adolescent years and those hardships have left mental, physical & psychological scars on her. These scars inform her current behavior and outlook in life wherein she has decided she wants nothing to do with her dad and his precious collection.

Cara’s struggles are further compounded when she learns that some of the items in her father’s collections are prized by similarly focused individuals who share even less morality than her recently departed father. There’s also the concern that her father’s death wasn’t a natural one and due to which Scotland Yard detectives are very much intrigued by her and her whereabouts. There’s also the Viscount who’s interested in her legacy and a Scotland Yard officer who wants the truth to be uncovered. These are the main characters in play and there’s a serial killer at work too. These are the tangled threads that author A. W. Exley puts into play in the first volume of The Artifact Hunters series. The book ends on a strong climax which solve the mystery presented in this first volume but sets up a romantic plot thread that will resolve over the series as well gives us a colorful cast of characters to follow.

What I loved immediately about this book upon starting it was the characterization beginning with Cara. She’s a formidable character who will intrigue the reader with the hints about her past and her resoluteness in her wish to be rid of her father’s legacy. I was immediately drawn to her and as the story progresses we find that there’s more to her grit. The story is almost a thriller with some solid romantic overtones to it and I felt that as a thriller lover, I was able to enjoy the story and even the romance. I can’t speak to how well the romance is crafted since I’m not that big a romance reader but the story held up for me. A word of caution though there’s some dark stuff within with regards to Cara’s backstory and it might not be palatable to everyone. Any plus point about the book was its streamlined pace and the mystery at its core. In this regard this book was a definite surprise as it managed to successfully mold aspects of the thriller, romance & steampunk genres in its fold confidently. Lastly the book cover is an eye-catching one and was in the top 3 from our lot.

The not so fun parts to this story, well there’s the whole romance buildup which takes place between our protagonist and the Viscount which doesn’t quite add up. For example our heroine doesn’t like been touched but is strangely drawn to the count’s dark brooding ways. The author explains some of this attraction later on in the plot but it didn’t quite ring much for me. Maybe for romance readers this might be a genre trope and that would explain it. For me, that was a bit of a glitch in the story. There’s also the steampunk aspect of the story which seems a tad window dressing like. Sure there’s mention of airships and other things from time to time but not much explanation is provided of how things came to be as they are.

Overall these are minor complaints from me as I still was able to enjoy the story because of the main mystery, the engaging characters (main and side cast) as well as the plot pace which makes it quite easy to want to keep on reading. I think this book definitely deserves a semifinal slot and I would be interested to see how the author develops the world and characters in the sequels. Nefertiti’s Heart is a fun but dark romantic mystery story that offers a bit of many genres and marks itself as a good read nonetheless.

(Cindy) I think I have mentioned a time or two or even more that I love reading books that take place in London. When I saw that Nefertiti's Heart took place in a Victorian-era London, I instantly had to give it a shot.

Nefertiti's Heart is a mixed bag of genres all combined into one book. There is a little bit of sci-fi/steampunk, adventure, mystery, gothic, and romance. Normally this wouldn't work out as it would seem that mixing so many different genres would cause the plot/characters/flow of the book to suffer, but it didn't.

I will admit that there is a heavier emphasis on the romance element than I am used to or really would care to read, but – for me – the mystery and steampunk elements were strong enough that I could easily look over the romance-heavy sections.

There were a lot of things that I really enjoyed about Nefertiti's Heart. It had a very fast-paced feel to it, the mystery was captivating, and I really "clicked" with the characters. Add in the fact that much of the mythology referenced and time period was very well researched and you have a solid novel that is extremely enjoyable.

While I really enjoyed Nefertiti's Heart, I will admit that it isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea. The romance-heavy sections are really heavy on the romance. Not every reader is going to be able to overlook it and some may even feel it draws from the plot.

There is also another issue that really needs to be mentioned. It isn't so much an issue, but it does – I feel – need to be noted so readers can make an informed decision. Nefertiti's Heart brings up some pretty grim and heavy topics. If you are squeamish regarding abuse, especially the physical and sexual abuse of a child/teen, the entire novel isn't going to fit for you. While these topics are heavy, I felt they were handled in an appropriate manner.

Overall, I feel Nefertiti's Heart is a strong novel. It certainly isn't going to be everyone's favorite book and there are going to be a lot of things some readers don't like, but for me, personally, it worked. Give it a shot, you might be impressed.
Monday, September 18, 2017

First Watch by Dale Lucas (Reviewed by Michael E. Everest)

Official Author Website
Buy the book HERE

OFFICIAL BLURB: Humans, orcs, mages, elves, and dwarves all jostle for success and survival in the cramped quarters of Yenara, while understaffed Watch Wardens struggle to keep its citizens in line.

Enter Rem: new to Yenara and hungover in the city dungeons with no money for bail. When offered a position with the Watch to compensate for his crimes, Rem jumps at the chance.

His new partner is less eager. Torval, a dwarf who's handy with a maul and known for hitting first and asking questions later, is highly unimpressed with the untrained and weaponless Rem.

But when Torval's former partner goes missing, the two must consort with the usual suspects -- drug dealing orcs, mind-controlling elves, uncooperative mages, and humans being typical humans -- to uncover the truth and catch a murderer loose in their fair city.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS:The Fifth Ward: First Watch’ is the action-packed debut to Dale LucasFifth Ward Series. One of Orbit’s many, and varied, debut novels to be released in 2017, the ‘First Watch’ is a genre crossover of fantasy and crime, lauded as ‘Lethal Weapon meets Lord of the Rings’. Playing on elements of ‘buddy cop’ tv shows, including the friendship between the two leads, a human newbie and a veteran-watchwarden dwarf, the story explores what the ‘boys in blue’ do when there isn’t a dark lord/lady threatening to destroy the world, in this welcomingly familiar and fun story.

THE GOOD: A nice step-change from recent releases (grimdark and epic-tomes, specifically), ‘The First Watch’ is an easy read, both in terms of structure and style. Familiar for its obvious links to police/cop tv shows (even in the way it’s episodic in its storytelling), and even more so for its familiar faces of fantasy (humans, dwarves, elves and orcs), yet different for its willingness to explore something that not a lot of other books do: what do the good guys do day-to-day?

THE BAD: On the note of ‘easy read’ and ‘episodic’, the story does suffer slightly from tension issues, in that it doesn’t really peak at any one point. Instead, chapters read like episodes of said police/tv cop shop, with their own self-contained level of tension, issues, climaxes, and where appropriate, cliffhangers. Also, maybe because all of this (the fantasy and crime elements) feels striking familiar throughout, it doesn’t do anything ‘new’.

THE UGLY TRUTH: ‘The First Watch’ is the perfect summer read, if you’re looking for something light and easy to dive into ‘by the pool’ (or in my case, between kids asking ‘come play, dad, come play!’). It’s easy to pick-up and start again from where you left off, thanks to its structure, lending itself a page-turning pace, even though it suffers from some tension-issues. I’ve never read a ‘boys (and girls) in blue’ story in fantasy before (and I’m fully aware of the many urban fantasy books out there) but I was struck by how familiar this felt to me. Between the elements of high(er) fantasy and the down-in-the-gutter lows of crime, whilst the ‘middle’ of the two was original, I didn’t feel that there was anything ‘new’ or ‘genre breaking’. Plenty of genre ‘definers’ here, but I felt that there was a missed opportunity to really take this somewhere new. That being said, this is a case of ‘do cross the streams’, as it was ‘new and exciting’ (in buzzword terms), and I highly recommend it to readers looking for something between bigger, badder readers, because you’ll still have plenty of ‘badass’ in ‘The First Watch’.

Full review: This is probably one of the trickiest reviews I’ve had to write to date. I really enjoyed this book, but I did have a few issues with it. (The original was well over 2,000 words, so I’ve had to cut it down!)

The First Watch’ does exactly what it says on the tin. ‘Lethal Weapon meets Lord of the Rings’. Police/cop tv show meets fantasy.

Lethal Weapon and Police/cop tv show? Buddy cop duo, check. Crime (petty and serious), check. Henchmen and goons, check. Fisticuffs and barroom brawls, check. ‘Clues’, check. Behind-the-scenes ‘bad guy’ plot, check.

Lord of the rings/fantasy? Elves, check. Orcs, check. Dwarves, check. Swords and sorcery, check.

We’re introduced to Rem, who through circumstance (or consequence, depending on how you look at it), joins ‘the Fifth Watch’, one-of five policing forces that watch over the wards of the city of Yenara. Partnering up with Torval, a dwarven veteran of the wardwatch, the reader finds themselves sucked into a criminal-mastermind operation, alongside Rem and Torval, as they seek out clues, suspects, and a way to bring it altogether. As you’d expect from the police/cop tv show side of it, the seemingly unrelated crimes and events are in fact part of something bigger, and it’s down to Rem and Torval to figure out what, before the criminals figure out that they’re onto them…

This is a remarkably easy and fun book to read, for a lot of reasons. The prose, although a little purple at times, is styled simple and straightforward; and the structure is set out so that the chapters are episodic. It would make for a perfect Netflix series, in which every episode focuses on a specific crime or development in the case, all the while building the bigger plot in the background, seemingly tying all the smaller crimes into the big one.

This episodic approach is great, especially if like me you're looking for something easy to get your teeth into (I'd come off the back grimdark epics and I needed something light, both in tone and tempo), but – and there's always going to be a but – the story also suffers because of this. Because each chapter is an episode, the overall tension of the novel doesn't really peak, as you’d expect. Instead, each chapter blips like a heart rate monitor.

Keeping with the comparison to the police/cop elements, the story is also somewhat let down by things that hold back police/cop shows. For example, the supporting cast for the most part fall by the wayside, especially those ‘in the Watch’.

And, don’t expect to go into this with the ‘hollywood’ version of police officers in mind. There’s no huge car chase (or in fantasy terms, horse and cart chases), no ticking-time bombs (literally or figuratively), no big shoot-outs. What there is, however, is plenty of heart and hope.

CONCLUSION: So, in closing, I have rambled on…a lot. And a lot more in the original 2,000 words+ version. But, in amongst the many, many, many tangents, I hope I have made one thing clear. I really, really enjoyed this book. It was the breath of fresh air that I needed after some heavier reading. I loved the blossoming bromance between Rem and Torval I was caught-up in the action. And above all else, I was happy to lock myself up and throw away the key to my cell just to finish this book in the early hours of the morning, because the kids kept distracting me in the days.

Oh, I hope another thing clear, too.

Buy. This. Book.

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