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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

GUEST POST: Masters of Deception Cover Reveal (Part 2: Indecision 2018) by J. C. Kang

Now that you know my sordid history with covers, it’s time to reveal the cover of my newest story, Masters of Deception (book 1 of The Dragonstones Chronicles) it follows a half Asian/half-elf ninja, an East African sorceress, an East Indian Paladin/Jedi, and a conman Diviner as they seek to prevent the orc gods from returning to the world.

After the success of the Dragon Songs Saga bundled set, I knew I wanted to go with characters instead of a symbol, while maintaining consistent typography branding because it takes place in the same world.

Given the popularity of Evan Winter’s Rage Of Dragons and Rosalyn Kelly’s Melokai, I originally planned to feature the African sorceress from the story. Well before I had finished the rough draft, I commissioned Leah Keeler, who I had found on Deviantart, to do some concept art for two of the characters, as well as the Renaissance Venice setting.

However, for the cover, I already knew long before that I wanted Amalia Chitulescu, the artist for one of my favorite covers ever, KN Lee’s Fallen Empire.

Amalia is brilliant with photomanipulation, as well as painting over stock photos. It also turns out that she was exceedingly patient with my nitpicking. Her waitlist was long, and the continued success of The Dragon Songs Saga combined with the waiting gave me time to change my mind: Instead of going with the sorceress, I switched to the half-elf ninja from first series. Amalia sent me this as a starting point:

I told her to make her barefoot, give her a second weapon, strap some throwing stars to her leg, and give her elf ears, and the next day, I had a draft cover. However, the other character, the East Indian Paladin/Jedi came out like this:

He was meant to be twenty years younger and infinitely more handsome. Amalia tried her best to modify it, but the face wasn’t working. It turns out, she has used “Ethnic Beauty Male” from Daz3 as the base.

None of the ethnic males in the set were particularly good looking, so we switched to stock photos. Word to the wise: it isn’t easy to find ethnic models. After hours of searching, I found three I liked, and my readers helped me choose this one.

Finally, she changed her fonts and added Emily Burlingame’s logos to remain consistent with Dragon Songs. Here is the final product. Drum Roll…

And the spread:

Thanks again to Fantasy Book Critic for hosting this cover reveal!

Monday, July 30, 2018

GUEST POST: Masters of Deception Cover Reveal (Part 1: How I went from bright-eyed new author to jaded marketer) by J. C. Kang

I am honored to have Fantasy Book Critic host the cover reveal for my upcoming new book, Masters of Deception. However, before the drums roll, I felt I needed to explain how that cover came to be.

Let my experience by a cautionary tale, one which will turn any new indie author ready to publish into a calculating cynic.

Many of you may have seen my semi-debut novel, Songs of Insurrection, in SPFBO4’s cover contest. A multicultural epic fantasy, it follows a na├»ve misfit as she rediscovers the lost magic of Dragon Songs.

I say semi-debut, because it started its life as The Dragon Scale Lute, released in March of 2016.

A world of difference, right?

The original screams Young Adult Fantasy Romance, or perhaps Historical Romance. I found the artist, Chacha Wang on Deviantart, and she did a wonderful job painting what I asked. Writer friend and graphic designer Emily Burlingame did the typography and logos. Still, because of style, the book attracted readers who wanted to see the young woman fall in love with the dragon, not vanquish it. Read-through for the entire series dropped off sharply from 500 copies of book 1 to 100 copies of Book 2.

Though I love the illustrations, I followed the advice of more experienced authors and decided to rebrand with new artwork, and even new, epic titles. I re-ordered the chapters and reworked the content. Then, the hunt began. I first searched a thread in a Goodreads group for authors looking for resources, and commissioned Duong Covers.

(It looks a little like a Chinese literature text I read in college)

I wasn’t a fan of that one, and Julie tried again:

I liked the idea—it reminded me a little of Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire, down to her left-handed playing— but ultimately decided against it. Amazing artist Vanessa Garkova, who I found on Goodreads did a wonderful proposal. However, since she focused on photomanipulation at the time, she was limited by stock art.

(I think she used Chun Li as one of the models)

I also commissioned Sarayu Raungvesh, who I found on Deviantart. He is an outstanding illustrator, who I drove insane with my nitpicking (I drove all my artists insane).

(Another lefty, apparently) Then, I tried Grace Zhu, who I found on Kboards.

(Oppa Gangnam style!)

It was not exactly what I was looking for, so I also negotiated with a critique partner and talented artist, Sylvia Frost, and later approached Meriliza Chan (Elise Kova’s illustrator).

When those options looked too expensive for my dwindling budget, I miraculously found Bob Kehl. To be honest, I was considering at so many candidates at the time, I don’t remember how I discovered him.

Originally, I wanted to stick with character-based covers, but my critique partner extraordinaire JC Nelson suggested symbolic ones. Bob came up with this concept, a mix of eastern and western themes:

(My next story will be titled Book Cover)

There was unanimous approval from kboards, author friends, and marketing gurus—whether that was because they believed in it, or they were just tired of all by pestering. I recycled Emily Burlingame’s logos and had Laura Kang do the typography (she also did the maps). In the end, this became the branded series:

End of story, right?

Unfortunately not. The new look did ok, but not great. They sold about four thousand copies in 2017… which after all the art I’d commissioned, in addition to editing and marketing, my publishing career was still hemorrhaging cash.

I decided on one last ditch effort: bundling the series as one product. With a wife grumbling about all the money I was losing, I drew on old artwork and split-tested it through Facebook ads.

The middle one won out; but even then, I commissioned Laura Kang to do mock-ups, and got feedback from readers, friends, and a core group of authors on spine art and styles:

After I’d finally chosen a version with modifications, I used Photoshop to test out its legibility in prime real estate on Amazon’s product page.

(I see you, Michael Miller)

Then I launched and held my breath. Whether it was devaluing my work to four books for under a buck, or all the promotional help I got from many supportive authors, the series took off.

The results also sold me on character-based covers, which leads to Part 2, the real cover reveal (so be back tomorrow)...

Friday, July 27, 2018

Interview with Ian Gregoire (Interviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Exercise Of Vital Powers

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

IG: Thanks for having me. First of all, I was born in London into an immigrant family from the so-called “Windrush Generation” who arrived in the UK in the late fifties from the Caribbean. Being born into poverty really limited my options for hobbies when I was a child, and that was a significant factor in my interest in reading and writing; it didn’t cost a penny to go to the local library every weekend to loan out lots of books.

For whatever reason, I’ve always been very introverted which has made me a bit of an outsider and a loner throughout my life. I’m that person who never quite fits in comfortably anywhere. In many ways being a writer is the perfect vocation for me because it is such a solitary one.

Q] 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?

IG: The inclination to be a storyteller was kindled when I read C.S. LewisThe Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, for the first time when I was seven years old. This was how my love for reading and writing began, but it wasn’t until I was eleven that I realised I wanted to become an author when I grew up. In school, for an English assignment, I had to write a short-story to be entered into a national literary contest. I can’t remember what my story was about, but it was one of several runners-up, and I was subsequently awarded a certificate that was presented during a morning assembly. From that moment I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

Finishing my book was a mostly unpleasant experience, but a rewarding one, nonetheless. My decision to favour self-publishing over traditional publishing was primarily the result of a blog post by the author John L. Brown in 2013. He revealed that while writing the second book of his Dark God series he requested to be released from his contract with Tor Books, allowing him to self-publish the series. This blew my mind as Tor is one of my top three fantasy/science fiction publishers, and I would consider it an honour to be published by them. But when I thought more about his reasons for doing so, it became easier for me to understand because I would do the same thing if I was in the same position.

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of The Exercise Of Vital Powers occurred. How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea?

IG: It began life in 2007 as a fan fiction story I came up with after I re-watched one of my all-time favourite TV shows on DVD. Several years later, in 2014, I set myself a goal of having a novel published by the time I turned forty, and I decided to use this “fanfic” as the basis for the story that eventually became The Exercise Of Vital Powers. Although the basic plot of the two stories is essentially the same, the end product is so different I don’t think any reader could successfully guess the TV show that inspired the original fan fiction story.

Writing the book was a bit of a stop and start affair. I began in 2014, but personal problems got in the way so I had to abandon it. I resumed work on it in 2015, but again life got in the way. At the start of 2016 I knew I had only a year left to finish writing the book before my fortieth birthday so I really knuckled down and got on with it. I wish I could say it was an enjoyable experience, but it wasn’t. I had so many difficulties throughout the year and, at times, both my mental and physical wellbeing really suffered, so it was a huge relief when I finally completed my story in early January 2017.

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?

IG: Music is definitely my muse. Listening to music while writing helps me in a lot of different ways. Principally, it helps set the tone and mood of the scenes I’m writing, but there are also times when it is responsible for inspiring ideas for scenes. One notable example is a pivotal scene in The Exercise Of Vital Powers that was inspired by a verse from a song by a British band (who are, coincidentally, called Muse). I won’t mention the name of the song or the verse in question as it’s potentially a spoiler.

My main motivation when writing is a desire to craft stories that live on in the hearts and minds of readers long after I am dead. To leave behind books that are not only memorable, but also capable of having a profoundly life changing influence on those who read them―in much the same way as C.S. Lewis had such an impact on my life. I can’t think of any greater reward for my own writing than to have a similar effect on a reader, even if it’s only one person.

Q] Can you tell us about your SPFBO 2017 experience? I like to think it gave you a push to improve your book and invest time and money in making it look professional. Was it the case?

IG: I almost didn’t enter SPFBO 2017, but even after I talked myself into doing so I had no expectation that my book would make any kind of impression. I assumed it would be eliminated at the first hurdle without anyone noticing. For a number of reasons, I wasn’t willing or able to spend a penny getting The Exercise Of Vital Powers published, especially as I didn’t believe I’d earn that money back. Consequently, it didn’t have the benefit of an editor, and the cover artwork was obviously a DIY effort. At most, I was just hoping to get a half decent review from my participation.

The review eventually arrived in mid-August. I logged into Goodreads and was surprised to discover that not only had Kaitlin (Kitty G) finished reading my book, she had written a very complimentary review. Despite its editorial issues she liked it enough to award it a 4.5 stars rating. It was a big relief to have a positive review so I was no longer bothered about being eliminated early. But that wasn’t quite the end of the story. I still remember watching Kaitlin’s video, a couple of weeks later, wherein she selected her first semi-finalist. I was shocked when she picked The Exercise Of Vital Powers; I couldn’t believe it.

By the time its SPFBO adventure came to an end in November my book had received a handful of positive reviews, making me wonder how much better it could have been if I had invested money getting it edited by a professional editor. Finally, I was starting to seriously think about the possibility of a revised second edition, and by the end of the year the decision was made.

Q] TEoVP was intended to be standalone but you plan to develop it into a series. That’s good news. Could you talk about what the readers can expect next in the series?

IG: Now that The Exercise Of Vital Powers is book one of a series, readers who are interested will have four more stories to look forward to. Each additional installment has already been outlined and I’m currently still writing book two. The principal reason for my decision to write a series was how much I enjoyed writing the two main characters, and how much I liked the dynamic between them. As a duo, Kayden and Fay really compliment each other; they are like the Ying to the other’s Yang, and they both have a void in their life that the other fills, though neither of them realises it yet. This is ultimately why I wanted to write more of them―to explore and develop their relationship.

In terms of what to expect from the first sequel, I will reveal the title and plot details later in the year, but I can say that book two picks up two years after the events of The Exercise Of Vital Powers, and is about how Kayden’s apprenticeship to join the Order comes to an end.

Q] Kayden is difficult to like. I believe one of the reviewers described her as an ultra-bitch. Why did you make her your hero? How did she develop as a character?

IG: Kayden was an original character I created for the fan fiction story I mentioned previously, and her unlikeable disposition was the result of needing her to be a major source of antagonism for the character whom Fay is based upon. Beyond that, she wasn’t a character I developed much because she wasn’t the protagonist.

When I decided to write The Exercise Of Vital Powers I knew I didn’t want to alter the nature of the character so it became necessary to create a detailed backstory for Kayden to help me understand why she is the way that she is at the start of the story. It was particularly important to do this as she was now going to be the main character.

I realised early on that she would be a difficult character for many readers to like, for much of the book, yet it’s my I hope that this initial reaction changes by the time they’ve finished reading. I wouldn’t describe the story as a redemption tale but the character introduced at the beginning does change as things progress.

Q] Cover art is always an important factor in book sales. TEoVP’s first cover was weak. The new one looks stunning. I would like to hear how this cover came to be?

IG: First of all, after drawing up a shortlist of potential designers I eventually approached to take on the job of giving my book a makeover. The application process made it easier for me to convey my idea by making me describe key elements in the story that I wanted depicted on the cover. I was also required to provide links to book covers I like that feature similar motifs.

Using my descriptions the design team created two book cover candidates for me to choose one to be developed further as the final design. I couldn’t decide between the two as they both had elements I liked and disliked, so I opted for an amalgamation of those things I like from each. After a few more iterations I finally had a new cover I was happy with.

Q] Apart from getting great, new looks, your book was edited by a professional editor. Can you talk about the experience and the scope of changes?

IG: Despite the unavoidable delay in getting the job started it proved to be a real learning experience. Liz (Elizabeth M. Hurst) brought to my attention issues such as my overuse of adverbs, as well as a small number of potential problems/mistakes in my narrative that I hadn’t noticed. Her revisions really improved my sentence structure, helping numerous paragraphs to flow better.

In response to some of her helpful advice I re-wrote a number of passages (either because sentences were too long and needed to be broken down into several smaller ones, or to make ambiguous things clearer to the reader), while also adding a few new passages to increase the impact of important scenes. She also advised me to remove certain passages that she felt were unnecessary, and more often than not I did just that.

There isn’t a huge difference in the narrative, but there is a significant improvement in the quality of the writing. All in all, Liz’s edits and notes really helped me to identify areas where my writing can be improved, and I know I will become a better writer as a result.

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?

IG: It all started with C.S. Lewis. If I hadn’t read The Chronicles Of Narnia as a child I don’t think I would have grown up wanting to be an author. Philip K. Dick is another author who really influenced me once I reached my teens. The way he pulls off unexpected twists and turns is something I’ve always tried to emulate in my own storytelling. Finally, discovering Jacqueline Carey in my late twenties really changed how I viewed fantasy literature. If not for her I’d probably be writing urban fantasy books right now.

There are a host of other authors and books across several genres that have provided inspiration over the years (notably Trudi Canavan, and her Black Magician Trilogy) but far too many to mention here.

In terms of contemporary fantasy writers I’d like to give a shout out to, there are three whom I consider to be head and shoulders above everyone else: Jacqueline Carey, Guy Gavriel Kay and Lois McMaster Bujold. There are no other authors whose abilities I envy more. They are the standard by which I judge myself, having raised the bar to a level that I would like to reach with my own writing. Each of them has made significant contributions to my list of all-time favourite books, and I always recommend them and their work to readers.

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?

IG: Never give up on your dreams, and please buy The Exercise Of Vital Powers.

 NOTE: Author picture courtesy of the author himself.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Forever Fantasy Online by Rachel Aaron & Travis Bach (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Forever Fantasy Online HERE
Read an excerpt HERE

ABOUT RACHEL AARON: Rachel lives in Athens, Georgia with her family. She has graduated from University of Georgia with a B.A. in English Literature. She has been an avid reader since her childhood and now has an ever-growing collection to show for it. She loves gaming, Manga comics & reality TV police shows. She also posts regularly on her blog about publishing, books and several other intriguing things.

ABOUT TRAVIS BACH: Travis is a nerd who loves gaming, reading, writing & hiking. He’s Rachel Aaron’s husband as well as one of her strongest pillars. He shares Rachel’s fascination with gaming as reading fantasy. He lives in Athens, GA with his wonderful family.


In the real world, twenty-one-year-old library sciences student Tina Anderson is invisible and under-appreciated, but in the VR-game Forever Fantasy Online she's Roxxy—the respected leader and main tank of a top-tier raiding guild. Her brother, James Anderson, is a college drop-out struggling under debt, but in FFO he's famous—an explorer known all over the world for doing every quest and collecting the rarest items.

Both Tina and James need the game more than they'd like to admit, but their favorite escape turns into a trap when FFO becomes real. Suddenly, wounds aren’t virtual, the stupid monsters have turned cunning, NPCs start acting like actual people, and death might be forever.

In the real world, everyone said being good at video games was a waste of time. Now, separated across a much larger and more deadly world, their skill at FFO is the only thing keeping them alive. It’s going to take every bit of their expertise (and hoarded loot) to find each other and get back home, but as the harshness of their new reality sets in, Tina and James soon realize that being the best in the game might no longer be good enough.

FORMAT/INFO: Forever Fantasy Online is 498 pages long divided over nineteen numbered & titled chapters with a glossary of terms and a content warning note. Narration is in the third person via Tina Anderson aka Roxxy, and James Anderson aka Heal-A-Hoop. This is the first volume of the Forever Fantasy Online trilogy

June 1, 2018 marked the e-book publication of Forever Fantasy Online and it was self-published by the authors. Cover art is provided by Tia Rambaran and cover design is by Rachel Aaron.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Forever Fantasy Online has a lot of firsts for Rachel Aaron, it's her first collaborative effort (with her husband Travis Bach no less), and it's her first foray into the LitRPG genre. Coincidentally it's Travis Bach's debut as well. I was lucky to be given an earlier draft of this book as well as the finalized version.

The story is set from the viewpoints of a brother-sister duo, Tina and James Anderson. Tina and James are both massively experienced players in Forever Fantasy Online, a game that has taken the world by storm and managed to give an experience that's unparalleled in virtual reality. Tina's avatar is Roxxy, a stonekin warrior who performs the role of Tank in her guild. James on the other hand is a Jujubatu named Heal-A-Hoop (a cheetah like anthromorphic creature), both of them are great in the “Forever Fantasy Online” game unlike their real lives wherein their relationship is frayed horribly and their lives aren’t of much importance.

They both log in at similar times along with many, many others and find out that there's been a snag, suddenly all of their virtual equipment and weapons no longer work as before. They seem to be locked into the game and not only that, the sensations are more life like and none of them can log out. They are stuck in the game and all of their previous conquests are coming back to attack them. Also all the other characters which are present in the game or NPCs (Non Player Character) have a violent hatred towards any and all players. These NPCs are also actively wanting to kill any player that they can get their hands on.

This story is a classic LitRPG story wherein we get a spectacular view into the world of FFO and also the plot twists that are occurring simultaneously within both James' and Tina's POVs. The story builds up slowly as the reader shares the same confusion that these characters experience. We also get an idea much quicker than the characters but the world is more unknown to us than the characters. The story is literally into two quests, Tina is trying to save her guild members or what's left of it from impending doom rampaging behind them. James on the other hand is trying to save his own skin as the Jujubatus are hunting the players. 

Both of them have to undergo their own struggles and this is where we get to see how they respond to their individual challenges. I must admit amidst both the POVs I preferred James' struggles as his self loathing and easy going nature made his struggles that much more refreshing and relatable. Tina on the other hand while having more of the action, was a bit harder to understand. Tina is shown to be a stonekin and perhaps the authors' were more successful than they thought as her POV shows her to be hard and demanding. This behavior however is absolutely needed as you will learn when you read the story through her POV. Many of her guild mates dislike her but you can see how she's trying everything that she can to ensure everyone’s survival. 

There are a couple of other characters namely SilentBlayde and NekoBaby who are present in Tina's chapters and are quite fun to read about. SilentBlayde is Tina's second-in-command and does their best to make sure that Tina gets all the support she needs. NekoBaby is simply hilarious with whatever scenes she gets and I hope the authors explore her story in the sequels.

The action sequences are pretty epic and feature terrific battle sequences. The action is very heavy in Tina's sections as they literally are marching to save their lives while battling ghosts, zombie skeletons, and many more creatures. All of these sequences mirror various vide games and are fun to read about. James' sections feature more of the world and the magical fights as his quest has him helping an NPC titled Ar'Bati to save his sister. Both these parallel tracks keep the readers engrossed however readers will easily have their favorites. Lastly I enjoyed how seamless this book was, the story was one fine mix wherein you couldn't tell which author wrote what section. I love this aspect in collaborated stories and FFO is a fine entry point.

Overall the story expands really in depth and then ends on a solid cliffhanger, which make me want to read the next book The Last Bastion immediately. Forever Fantasy Online is definitely a book for the gamers among us readers, I'm not a gamer so there were some terms that were unknown to me. Thankfully the authors included a glossary which was great for a non-gamer like me. The one thing about the book which wasn't helpful was the book's pace which took a while to get going. Also the reveal as to the major reasoning about the world's status is never addressed and this is a major concern. I'm going to read the next one but I would have liked to know more about the whys and hows of the world.

CONCLUSION: Forever Fantasy Online was one of my first LitRPG reads and it was an exciting one. I was intrigued about how Travis and Rachel Aaron's collaboration would be and it was a solid effort which I thoroughly enjoyed. Forever Fantasy Online is a collaborative effort that showcases Rachel Aaron’s amazing skills and heralds a wonderful future for Travis Bach.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Exercise Of Vital Powers by Ian Gregoire (Reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order The Exercise Of Vital Powers HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: The reclusive Ian Gregoire is a taciturn introvert residing somewhere in London, where he was born and raised. Of all life’s diversions, reading and writing are the only ones he ever deemed worthwhile enough to be passionate about. This eventually led to his belated decision to pursue his true calling in life as a fantasy and science fiction author. His debut novel, The Exercise Of Vital Powers, is just the first of many books he intends to inflict upon an unsuspecting world.

FORMAT/INFO: The Exercise Of Vital Powers is 450 pages long divided over twenty three numbered chapters. The narration is in the third person, and focuses on two POVs - Kayden Jayta and Fay Annis. This is the first volume of the Legends of the Order series.

The book is available in e-book and paperback formats. It was self-published by the author. Cover art and design are by Damonza.

CLASSIFICATION: The Exercise Of Vital Powers is an action-packed dark(ish) fantasy with strong coming of age arc.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Kayden is a bitch!

Don't look at me this way.

I'm not mean. I state the obvious.

Picture a reckless, ambitious, brilliant and determined young woman who's well aware of her superior intellect. Imagine that she treats everyone as a pitiful retard. She won't hesitate to beat you and abuse you to reach her goals. Do you picture her? Good, but the picture in your head is a nicer version of Kayden.

Ian Gregoire's debut novel participated in last year's SPFBO contest, and it did well. Kitty G, an awesome booktuber, has chosen it, somewhat unexpectedly, as her semi-finalist. Ultimately, the book didn't make it to the finals - it won the second place in Kitty's batch.

I've read the book as soon as it was chosen as a semi-finalist and I enjoyed it a lot. Sure, it wasn't perfect, but for a debut novel, it was more than promising. It had some flaws, starting with a weak cover or some awkward sentences. That's why I was thrilled to learn that the author decided to learn from the experience - upon realizing that his book lacked a professional touch, Gregoire withdrew his book from sales and invested time and money to make it a better product.

In my opinion, this alone deserves a re-read.

The Exercise Of Vital Powers is a book that describes events of two meaningful days. The story focuses on Zarantar's (magic system) apprentice – Kayden Jayta. She’s special. But not in a usual way. Failure is not an option for her. She is manipulative, willing to use and exploit other people for her ends, with no regard for the consequences. She is confrontational, believing power should be employed to cow people―to impose her will upon them. She treats most people in a condescending way approaching them as mentally challenged simpletons. She has no sense of authority – to reach a goal she’s ready to beat a teacher senseless and steal her memories of the event. As you may guess, she’s not the most popular person on the campus. It would be safe to say she’s the most hated one. At one stage of the story she’s described as follows:

You must not have been paying attention. I smile all the time.”
No, you don’t. You smirk. A withering smirk to let the recipients know they are less significant than the dirt beneath your boot.”

Angsty and arrogant teenagers aren’t that rare in fiction, however, when they have the power to bring kingdoms to their knees, they may stress out their teachers a bit. Kayden may become a tremendous asset to The Order – an organisation that keeps peace in The Nine Kingdoms. She may also become a harbinger of death and destruction as the history of the lore teaches us. Of course, Kayden doesn’t fully realize her full potential. She has other priorities - her resolute determination to join the ranks of The Order is born of a secret that puts her priorities at odds with the precepts of the organisation, setting her inexorably on a collision course with the most powerful institution in The Nine Kingdoms.

The book focuses on Kayden choosing her path. Some other conflicts are mentioned, some subplots are sketched, but The Exercise Of Vital Powers is, essentially, a book about Kayden. There’s no bigger agenda, and there’s no political intrigue. Only Kayden and her choices.

I love dislikable characters. Sherlock Holmes, agent Pendergast, Repairman Jack are my pals. I love characters who have darkness in them (Royce Melborne, Faran). I love rebels and outcasts. And yet at times, it was impossible to like Kayden. She's so self-absorbed and goal-oriented that she doesn't even try to understand others. So yes, have this in mind. Kayden is a bitch.

And as readers, we'll learn why and if she's willing to change.

It feels that the new edition went through the hands of a professional editor. While I've spotted one or two missing words, the writing feels neat and polished. Sentences are reasonably short and free from unnecessary adverbs found in the first edition. Overall, the flow of the prose and events is much better now; it makes the story smooth and easy to follow.

The story itself is entertaining and full of little surprises. It sucked me in literally since the beginning and was hard to put down. And by the beginning, I mean page number one. It wasn’t necessary to go through several chapters to get into the world. In the first chapter, we learn a lot about Kayden and her school. The next chapters and story development kept me entertained and engaged in the plot until the last part of the book.

We reach climax at around 85 % of the book. Later on, the story focuses on resolving various plot lines in, mostly, satisfying ways. We learn more about the world, the magic system and other things through dialogue filling the last pages of the story. As a result, the tone of the book changes to some extent. The tension drops. While it feels good to observe certain things revealed and explained, I think that the ending tells too much instead of showing things in a subtler way.

CONCLUSION: Overall, The Exercise Of Vital Powers, being a debut work, is a good book that every fan of character-driven fantasy should try to read. I encourage you to give it a chance as it manages to do something that’s not very common in a fantasy world. It grabs your attention from the first page and keeps you invested for the next few hundred pages.
Thursday, July 19, 2018

Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Reviewed by D.C. Stewart)

Official Author Website
Order Spiderlight HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Review of "Empire in Black and Gold"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Review of "Dragonfly Falling"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Review of "Blood of the Mantis"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Review of "Salute the Dark"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Review of "The Scarab Path"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Review of "The Sea Watch"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Review of "Heirs of the Blade"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Review of "The Air War"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Review of "War Master's Gate"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Interview with Adrian Tchaikovsky

FORMAT/INFO: Spiderlight is 304 pages long. The narration is in the third person and focuses on five POV characters: Dion, the holy priest, Lief the thief, Cyrene the ranger, Penthos the wizard, and Enth. This is a stand-alone fantasy novel.

This book is available in all formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Back in the 90s – I say, dating myself – there were multiple novel series set in different Dungeons and Dragons campaign worlds; mostly Dragonlance and The Forgotten Realms. These included some gems like Salvatore’s Drizzt series and the Dragonlance narrative itself. These two sagas were fantasy comfort food that one didn’t have to think too much about and that spawned a plethora of imitations – copycat novels that would not be published in today’s competitive climate. They were the fantasy equivalent of trashy romance; fun occasionally but ultimately forgettable.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Spiderlight swims in the tradition of classic D&D storytelling, even if it never mentions any specific D&D phrases or systems, and it somehow manages to elevate this strange sub-genre of fantasy into heights I never would have expected. Like last year’s debut hit from Nicholas Eames, Kings of the Wyld, Spiderlight is an adventure story about tromping across the land on the way to defeat a great evil. It’s chock full of familiar tropes and more than a little comedy, and if I were to read a synopsis of this story, I would assume it was a carbon copy of The Lord of the Rings cross-bred with Garry Gygax’s formulaic ruleset. Much like Kings of the Wyld, Spiderlight is so much more.

The story follows Dion and her hand-picked group of adventurers on their quest to save the world – typical fantasy stuff. There is a paladin, a thief, a wizard, a ranger, and Dion herself as the holy priest and the one destined by prophecy to defeat the Dark Lord Darvezion. This is the group in the beginning, but things quickly change as Dion is forced to accept Enth into the group. Enth also is a spider.

This is unusual, but even with a spider companion along for the ride – albeit one transformed magically to appear 90% human – one might be tempted to compare Enth to a Gollum or a friendly Ettin if it weren’t for the fact that Tchaikovsky lets us into Enth’s mind. Viewpoints change often, and Lief the thief, Cyrene the ranger, and Penthos the wizard (who has the personality of Usidore from Hello from the Magic Tavern) are interesting viewpoints, as is Dion with her righteousness and doubt, but Enth’s sections are a fascinating introspection on what it means to be human, to have emotion, and to live in servitude to masters who misinterpret almost everything. He is seen as a monster, and while we the reader can see the falsity of this, that even the term monster is a human invention to demonize the “other”, his traveling companions are continually torn, in a world where Light and Dark are very clear-cut, about whether to trust Enth or simply kill him for the nightmare-made-flesh that he is. Their pathos is ultimately useless as Enth is required to fulfill their quest.

So that’s part of what makes Spiderlight so cool, and that might have been enough to set this book apart from the multitude of fantasy novels drowning the shelves. But Tchaikovsky is not content to merely subvert a hero trope.

The world of Spiderlight is as familiar as the characters. Light and Dark in Tchaikovsky’s vision are manifest things. One can detect the other even if shades of grey seem to exist in every nook and cranny of both humanity and those outside of it. The book is packed with action, which is always entertaining, but it’s the indecision and moral squabbling in between the sword-and-fire fights that makes for the more intriguing experience. These characters fight more with their own morality than they do with the varied dark fiends roaming the land. Tchaikovsky seems, in places, to be recriminating the gratuitous violence found in much of the genre while at the same time indulging in it. He finds clever ways as a writer to damn his cake and eat it too.

One could make the argument that the plot of Spiderlight, at least until the final few chapters, is not engaging enough to slog to its incredibly worthwhile ending – how could it be with such a trope-filled cast and by-the-numbers progression – but thanks to Tchaikovsky’s deft hand with moral quandary and an equally skilled ability to make almost every chapter laugh out loud funny, reading Spiderlight is never anything less than engaging. And though I won’t spoil the ending in this write-up, I have rarely read a final chapter that so thoroughly envelopes the preceding ninety percent of the story.

CONCLUSION: This is where I usually list out the faults that I had with a novel, whether they be few or many, but the fact is that Spiderlight has very few faults. It is well-written, engaging, entertaining, and does exactly what it sets out to do. By the end I felt as satisfied as if I’d just eaten an entire pizza, but without the gastrointestinal side-effects. This is ripe fare for any fantasy fan who wants either a ripping adventure, or something more cerebral to sink their mind-teeth into. This is also a great book for anyone who wants to be a spider, even if you yet only have two eyes with which to read it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Great Hearts by David A. Oliver (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Information
Order The Great Hearts HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: David A. Oliver was born in the British Isles and currently lives in England with his lovely partner. David was introduced to fantasy at quite a young age thanks to the Redwall books by Brian Jacques. After an extended, multi-year fantasy binge David decided to write a book and The Great Hearts is his debut novel. A fantasy novel that takes the reader on a whirlwind adventure featuring monsters and mayhem. He hopes any new reader enjoys it as much as he liked writing it!

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Imperator. A word synonymous with fear, pain, loathing and, for a chosen few, the sharp end of a blade. The voice of the Emperor, an Imperator is the perfect weapon, skilled in combat, politics and strategy and moulded by years of punishing training. They are the hidden assassins, the enforcers of the Emperor’s will.

They are the hunters of the unknown.

Calidan Darkheart is an Imperator, a self-professed killer and an adept hunter of the creatures that most citizens of the Empire do not realise exist. Together with his hulking companion Cassius, he hunts those that slaughtered their home village.

Pity those who find themselves in their path.

Calidan and Cassius were bright young boys, living peaceful, happy lives in a remote mountain village, until the day everything changed. Once the screams have subsided, and with the horrors they have seen embedded in their minds, they embark on a journey of survival, fraught with danger, strange magic and dark deeds. Unbowing and undaunted they push forward, striving for power, making lifelong friendships along the way, and above all else, discovering the truth behind the magnificent, mythical Great Hearts.

Young Calidan is a boy full of hope and courage, driven by the past but not ruled by it. Old Calidan is a bitter and twisted killer of monsters and men, his past haunting his dreams.

This is his story.

FORMAT/INFO: The Great Hearts is 324 pages long divided over thirty one titled chapters (spread into three sections), a prologue, an epilogue, and three “present day” interludes. Narration is in first person solely via Calidan Darkheart in both timelines. This is the first book in the Great Hearts series.

May 16 2017 marked the e-book and paperback publication of The Great Hearts and it was self-published by the author. Covert art and design is done by J. Caleb Clark.

CLASSIFICATION: Combining Sword & Sorcery elements with a hefty dose of Grimdark, The Great Hearts is very much in the vein of Blood Song with a solid dose of Indiana Jones-esque action adventure and topped off with some fantastic SF elements.

OVERVIEW ANALYSIS: I discovered this book thanks to Amazon's cool algorithms. The cover and the blurb are what drew me in and the excerpt I read convinced me that this was another gem in the rough. The book is currently a part of the SPFBO 2018 contest (The Qwillery's group) but I had bought a copy of it months ago and was able to read it slowly. This book left me with many conflicting feelings but overall it’s a debut that left me wanting more of David Oliver’s work. Also a key aspect about this book, it’s a whole lot of fun.

The Great Hearts has a dual timeline plot and is narrated by Calidan Darkheart in both of those timelines. The first one is wherein we meet him and his giant friend Cassius who reveal themselves to be Imperators, the secret police/hunter/spies of the emperor. Calidan is a person who abhors his role, curses his emperor but yet sticks to his tasks for reasons not yet revealed.

In the second timeline, we go back in the past and meet Calidan & Cassius as young boys playing and being silly as young children can be. The readers find out how remote and simplistic their village life was and specifically what catastrophic event ruined their sanguine life. This event is the main thing that spurs both Cassius and Calidan to become Imperators and fight against what ruined their lives. This timeline takes up the major chunk (nearly 95% of the book) and it is the main timeline of this book. Both boys are forced to travel beyond their high mountains and towards the capital of the Anderal Empire. Amidst their travels, the readers will get to see how they meet someone that will embody the title of this debut as well learn how Calidan and Cassius get selected to be entered into the Imperator training school.

With a mix of his self-deprecating as well as self-loathing narration,  we see Calidan’s growth both physically and mentally as he learns what it truly means to be a soldier for the empire. The readers get a solid view into how brutal the training regime is set up to be, not just physically but psychologically as well. Thankfully the author manages to spare us the farmboy hero /hero academy trope (to a solid degree but not entirely) and showcases Calidan to be a normal student who gets extra help (RAFO). The story then very quickly veers into action adventure setups and then ends on an action-packed climax which reveals a lot about the world. I'm being very vague here as I don't want to spoil the book's main plot.

The characterization is the biggest plus point of the story as we get to see the world from Calidan’s POV and in this regard, the story reminded me a lot of Kvothe in The Name Of The Wind and Vaelin in Blood Song. As it combined the orphan nature of Kvothe’s existence as well the militaristic training of Vaelin’s upbringing. The characterization is not on the same level as either The Name Of The Wind or Blood Song however it's still competent enough that the readers won't feel bored. Mainly we get to see why and how Calidan gains entrance to the Imperator training school and that truly is the biggest surprise of the story. Even though this is a single person POV story, we are introduced top other characters who go beyond the two-dimensional mold. I suspect though there’s a sequence during the training school which will raise the ire of certain readers but I feel the author handles the scene and its follow-up soundly.

The action is truly one of the better things about the book as throughout the story, the author continuously amps up the action sequences and towards the end we get to see  a terrific climax. The world settings are enticing as in the start it seems like any other secondary fantasy world but the way the author reveals the final twist, it really puts the entire story in a whole new light. I enjoyed this aspect of the story and I love how the whole reveal just raises more questions. This story is all about mysteries and the biggest one is the title of the story and the mystery about the world (again being vague for spoiler reasons).

I've to give kudos to the author where it's due as this being a debut book, it was fun and engrossing to read. The action is interspersed nicely and the story is solidly grimdark. There's some horrific things which happen in the book and the author does his best in explaining the events. I understood the author's approach but there's might be some readers who might not be able to stomach it. Nonetheless the main characters refuse to be bogged down by their circumstances and I relished reading about them in that regard. Lastly the way the author ends the story, makes me want to the sequel ASAP. The story also ends on a cliffhanger and therefore some readers might not enjoy that part as well. I wasn’t too thrilled either and I hope that the sequel explains a lot.

Going onto the things that didn't quite work for me, the characterization while fun also leaves a few things lacking. While we get a solitary first-person POV from Calidan, I definitely felt that this story would have benefited from the multi-POV approach IMO. The final reveal about the world was really, really good but I wish the author had done some better build up to the climatic twist which would have helped rather than springing it all out of the blue (you’ll understand when you read it). Also the titular character's history and background is never expounded upon beyond a few sentences and I hope the sequel rectifies that.

CONCLUSION: The Great Hearts is an intriguing mix of dark fantasy, SF and something else that is spoilerific. I loved how David A. Oliver sets up the story and then springs some crucial surprises to knock down our expectations. This book is a whole lot of fun to read and I believe the author wanted the readers to experience it as such. The Great Hearts is a debut that has me excited to follow David’s upcoming works. I sincerely hope he builds up on the elements introduced in this book and delivers a cracking sequel.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

We Ride The Storm by Devin Madson (Reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order We Ride The Storm HERE
Read an excerpt HERE 

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Devin Madson is the Aurealis Award-winning author of In Shadows We Fall. Having given up on reality she is now a dual-wielding rogue with a lot of points sunk into stealth and lock picking skills. Anything but zen, Devin subsists on tea and chocolate and so much fried zucchini she ought to have turned into one by now.

If you’re after happy, fuzzy tales then you’ve come to the wrong place. Her fantasy novels come in all shades of grey and are populated with characters of questionable morals and a liking for witty banter.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: War built the Kisian Empire and war will tear it down. And as an empire falls, three warriors rise.

Caught in a foreign war, Captain Rah e’Torin and his exiled warriors will have to fight or die. Their honour code is all they have left until orders from within stress them to breaking point, and the very bonds that hold them together will be ripped apart.

Cassandra wants the voice in her head to go away. Willing to do anything for peace, the ageing whore takes an assassination contract that promises answers, only the true price may be everyone and everything she knows.

A prisoner in her own castle, Princess Miko doesn’t dream of freedom but of the power to fight for her empire. As the daughter of a traitor the path to redemption could as easily tear it, and her family, asunder.

As an empire dies they will have to ride the storm or drown in its blood.

CLASSIFICATION: The Reborn Empire is a gritty and violent action-packed, character-driven dark fantasy series.

FORMAT/INFO: We Ride the Storm is 444 pages long divided over twenty four numbered chapters. The narration is in the third person and focuses on three main POV characters: captain Rah e’Torin, whore/assassin Cassandra and Princess Miko. This is the first volume of the Reborn Empire series.

This book is available in e-book and paperback format. It was self-published by the author. Cover art is by John Antony Di Giovanni, cover design is provided by Shawn T. King.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: I've never tried to saw off the head. To my surprise, it's a complicated and bloody process***. If you've ever wondered how it's done, it's described in gory detail in the first chapter of We Ride The Storm. From here, things get even more gruesome. It's probably the most violent novel I've read this year.

It's also a surprisingly layered book, but before you fully appreciate it, you'll have to look past spilt blood, sticky viscera or brains oozing through the cracked skulls.

Sounds fun?

Then buckle your seatbelts and prepare for a hell of a ride.

The book is about war and war politics. In times of war, no one cares about people, and both religious and political leaders play a cruel, devastating game that destroys lives and  breaks kingdoms. Despite focusing on bigger conflict, it's a character-centric story. While there were parts of the book that dealt with army movements and politics, it wasn't frustrating and didn't dilute an otherwise engaging story.

We Ride The Storm revolves around numerous characters, but we learn about the world and the events through the eyes of three of them.

Captain Rah e’Torin and his exiled warriors are caught in a war they have no interest in. They're nomads with a strong sense of honour. Unfortunately, in this world honour and higher values have little value. Torin and his soldiers have become slaves; they're abused (physically, mentally and sexually) and are used to fight.

Cassandra is a whore and an assassin. She's never alone as there's another voice in her head. She wants nothing more than to make it go away. She accepts a contract that may give her answers and relief; only its true price may be everyone and everything she knows.

Princess Miko wants the power to fight for her empire. As the bastard daughter of a traitor, her possibilities are limited. And yet this resourceful gal may find a way to reshape the empire and become a legend. I like her.

Their fates and paths will soon cross in the aftermath of an epic and bloody battle.

Secondary characters were interesting but less developed. I'm especially interested in Dom Leo Villius of Chiltae, eldest son of His Holiness the Hieromonk. He's a servant of God who somehow had gotten himself mixed up in politics, and someone disliked it enough to want him dead. The storylines of the three protagonists revolve around him. Miko was supposed to marry him. Cassandra intends to behead him. And Rah tries to protect him. Leo is interesting for few reasons. All of them are spoilers. Suffice to say I want to learn more about him and see if he'll return in the sequel.

My favourite portions of the book were definitely those that involved Cassandra. That fallen, insane woman ended up playing a major part in this book, somewhat unwillingly, and I was suitably impressed by it. Not that she's so impressive as a character, but her actions and choices influenced the plot directly and indirectly. I still don’t understand what's the nature of the entity that shares her body and mind, but their dialogues and struggle for control were impressive. I'm not sure if some of the scenes, especially the ones in which Cassandra beats herself, weren't a bit over the top. But that's the thing about this book. I still don't know how I feel about it.

Because of extreme violence (including rape and sexual abuse), it's definitely a book you want to open up before buying. Read a sample from it if you're ordering from the internet. It's not for everybody. You need to have a strong stomach to follow the story without reaching for Prozac. After finishing it, I hugged my wife and my dog to remind myself the world can be a safe place and good things happen.

CONCLUSION: In the end, I'm confused, so I'll make it simple. I loved certain parts of the book. I equally disliked other parts of the book. It was bleak and brutal, and some scenes were probably over the top. I appreciated the political intrigue and the impressive depth of the characters. On the other hand, I'm not sure if their motivations are always convincing. And so on, and so on. I really don't know what to think and to say about this book.

One thing is sure, though. I'll read the sequel once it hits the shelves.

***- The bloody part is obvious, but in movies and in books people are usually beheaded gracefully in one blow.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

COVER REVEAL AND EXCERPT: Point of Fate by David L. Craddock (Book Two of the Gairden Chronicles)

Cover Art by Nele Diel
Preorder Point of Fate on Amazon or  Kobo
Visit David L. Craddock's Website Here 
Read FBC's Review of Heritage Here

Fantasy Book Critic is excited to offer you the very first look at the cover for Point of Fate, the second book in David L. Craddock's fantasy series. This is an extremely special opportunity and Fantasy Book Critic is honored to be able to host this exclusive cover reveal.

This cover is extremely special for us because David Craddock is not only a good friend of mine, but he got his start as a book critic right here at Fantasy Book Critic. For a number of years, David shared his love of fantasy books with readers. That love turned into writing his very own fantasy series.

Today, we offer you the chance to see the amazing cover of Point of Fate, read a partial excerpt from Chapter 1 and learn more about David Craddock and his impressions on the cover art! We hope you enjoy this cover reveal and sneak peek of Point of Fate

David's Comments on the Cover Art for Point of Fate 

I'm not an artist, but I know what I like. After describing a critical scene that I thought would work well as Point of Fate's cover, Margaret Curelas, my editor at Tyche Books, took charge of finding an artist while I hammered out semi-final revisions to the book. A few weeks later she sent along Nele Diel's portfolio and asked for my thoughts.
One look at Nele's work was all I needed to know she was the right artist for the job.

Nele has an incredible eye for scale and environmental detail that perfectly matched the scene I had chosen. She's a visual storyteller, drawing from my description of the setting to establish the right mood and illustrate an oncoming threat: Hundreds of undead (known as vagrants in the Gairden Chronicles universe) rising from their graves and descending, quite literally, on Aidan Gairden and Nichel of the Wolf, who stand braced in the foreground.

Braced, but not ready. Not only does Nele know how to bring a setting to life, she nailed Aidan's and Nichel's characterization. The age and statures of these childhood-friends-turned-enemies—manipulated against one another by Point of Fate's central antagonist—is critical to who they are and what they're hope and need to accomplish. Aidan is the Crown of the North, leader of a kingdom. Nichel, as war chief, has united her clans, who teeter on the brink of extinction.

Aidan and Nichel carry the weight of their people on their shoulders. They're also teenagers. They don't want this responsibility. Each is doing what they believe must be done for the good of their realms. Are their shoulders strong enough to hold such a weight? That's what I want readers to ask themselves as they read Point of Fate, and that's what Nele expertly brings across in the book's cover art. Their stature and stances remind us that, crowns or no crowns, they're still two kids forced to stand against the greatest threat they have ever known—and that threat is rushing at them, raining down on them, whether they're ready for it or not.

Nele did an incredible job, and I'm thrilled and proud to share her work with you.

Official Synopsis of Point of Fate  

Spring has come to the northern kingdom of Torel. No longer a fugitive, Aidan Gairden has claimed Heritage, the ancestral blade of his royal bloodline, and rules as Crown as the North. But even as the snows of winter thaw, darkness spreads across the continent of Crotaria, threatening its four realms with eternal night.

In the north, Torel's capital sits vulnerable as the Ward marches west to fight a misguided war, leaving Daniel Shirey scrambling to fortify the city against the undead gathering outside its walls. In the east, Edmund Calderon petitions Leaston's ruling guild to add their ships and steel to Torel's cause even as grief and inner demons overwhelm him.

In the south, Christine Lorden struggles to unite the Touched under Aidan's banner while her people, the oppressed Sallnerians, entreat her to lead an uprising against Torel. In the west, Aidan works to convince Nichel of the Wolf, now war chief of the Darinian tribes, of the plot to turn Torel and Darinia against each other. Torn between vengeance and love, Nichel wrestles with an ancient and malevolent magic that has awakened within her, stoking a bloodlust she fears will never be sated.

At the heart of every conflict, Tyrnen Symorne—one-time friend and counselor—pulls strings as the Point of Fate that will decide the fate of the realms draws near.

Learn More About David L. Craddock 

David L. Craddock lives in northeast Ohio with his wife and business partner, Amie Kline. He writes fiction, nonfiction, and author bios, usually his own. He is the author of the Gairden Chronicles series of epic fantasy novels for young adults, and the bestselling Stay Awhile and Listen trilogy that recounts the history of World of WarCraft developer Blizzard Entertainment and Diablo developer Blizzard North. Tag along with his writing adventures online @davidlcraddock on Twitter, and at


 Partial Excerpt from Chapter One of Point of Fate  


The following excerpt comes from Chapter 1 of Point of Fate: Book Two of the Gairden Chronicles by David L. Craddock. Point of Fate will be published in paperback and electronic formats by Tyche Books on August 28, 2018, and is available for pre-order on Amazon and Kobo. Heritage: Book One of the Gairden Chronicles was published in 2014.

Chapter 1: Doom of the Wild

The road to the Father’s Vanguard is paved with hot coals and sharp stones.

Romen of the Wolf had spoken those words to Nichel after a hardship. The meshia, the climb, the attempt on her life by an assassin of the Blood. Never before had the words rang truer. Hot coals and sharp stones were as nothing to the man looming over her.
With one hand, Guyde of the Bear removed his helm and tossed it casually over the side of Janleah Keep. It scraped and bounced against stone. The man staring back at her had a hard face carved with scars. His eyes were bright, passionate, pleading.

“Do not do this,” he said. “I will avenge your father. Aidan Gairden will pay for—”

At that name, her fear vanished. Nichel darted forward. Silk spun in her right hand as Sand jabbed at Guyde’s exposed throat. His eyes went wide, and he backpedaled, giving ground and raising the axe, his paw, before him—one hand gripping the black shaft near the base, the other choking it beneath its smooth, polished blade—to deflect Nichel’s flurry of blows.

Guyde’s shock lasted as long as rainfall. He planted his feet and swatted at her with the butt of his axe. Nichel raised Sand out of instinct. She may as well have tried to stop a mountain from stampeding over her. The wooden haft, as thick as both her legs, cracked against Sand, sending tremors up her arm. She grunted and stumbled to one side, off balance. Bellowing like his namesake, Guyde threw himself at her, reclaiming ground, cleaving the air with his axe in wide, two-handed strokes. Far below, bears roared. His clansmen were with him.

Guyde feinted left, swinging his axe back so far he twisted at the waist. Nichel read his movements. He was preparing to deliver a wide horizontal slice. The maneuver made sense. Given the length of his arms and that of his weapon, such swings covered nearly half the platform. She tensed, appearing indecisive, unsure of which way to go. When he began to swing she would duck under him and—

Without warning Guyde brought his axe up instead of around. He raised it high over his head for a split second and then brought it whistling down. Nichel’s grim determination shattered, replaced by fear. The Bear’s Paw. It was Guyde’s fabled attack, responsible for splitting countless enemies from skull to groin.

Instinctively, she threw herself back. The stone platform shuddered as Guyde’s paw crashed down atop it, kicking up sparks. His body shook with the force of the blow. His roar cut off as his teeth clicked together hard enough that Nichel heard it over the tumult of shouts and cheers below. He was slow to lift his axe. The shock of the blow must have been great enough for him to lose all feeling, if only for a moment. A moment was all Nichel needed.

She launched herself forward, not at his throat, but at his legs, where the hinges on his greaves met. Two swipes from Sand, one for each leg, was all it took. The hinges snapped. His greaves fell loosely, exposing dark flesh. In the same breath in which she had swung Sand, Nichel darted in with Silk, stabbing and cutting at hamstrings.

Guyde howled and swung his paw behind him. Nichel rolled and came up hacking and slashing, targeting more weak spots. She was dissecting him, cutting him open and exposing flesh and sinew and bone. Guyde’s roars grew more frenzied, anger mingling with pain as blood ran from wounds. He kicked wildly, first with one leg than the other, like a frightened horse.

His right leg gave out first. One moment he was standing upright, and the next he fell to one knee. Fear painted his features. Gripping the handle of his axe, he held the weapon across his chest like an oar, crawling backward.

Nichel did not just see his fear. She could smell it. It filled her nostrils, a mixture of sweat and blood and cold radiating from him in waves. She leaped at him and thrust her knives down.

In an instant, Guyde’s expression changed from sheer terror to triumph. He brought his paw up and Sand and Silk bit into wood and held firm. She was wrenching before her feet hit the ground, snarling and trying to rip them free. They were stuck, buried up to their hilts in ebony wood cut from forests in the forbidden realm.

Guyde heaved forward. The shaft smashed into her ribs and sent her flailing. Her feet left the stone and her back crashed against it. Breath left her lungs in a whoosh. Guyde rose, tottering until he achieved balance, snarling as he tried to put weight on his left leg. He ripped Sand and Silk free and hurled them at her feet hard enough that they bounced before skittering out of reach.

             She looked up in time to see Guyde pounce. Gritting her teeth, struggling to pull in air, she pushed herself up and threw herself to one side. Too slow. Guyde of the Bear slammed atop her, an avalanche of muscles and steel that stole what little breath she’d managed to regain. She squirmed futilely. His great mass pinned her to the stone. His left knee found her left arm and went still. He shifted his bulk, driving all his weight down on her arm. Something snapped. She screamed, struggled harder, gouging at his eyes with her right hand. Guyde grunted, swatting her hands away, then drove his head against her skull.

Bright colors flashed across Nichel’s vision. When they cleared, two Guydes stood over her, blurry as specters through a haze of tears and blood. Blackness threatened to close in. It took all her willpower to cling to consciousness.

Guyde of the Bear stumbled, favoring his right leg. Blood ran down it in a curtain, but Guyde paid it no mind. His mountainous form glared down at the assemblage like some ancient deity descended from the clouds, his expression twisted more by anger than pain. They cried out for him, weapons rattling and fists shaking. They cried out for blood. For sacrifice to the Father.

“This battle is over,” he called. “Nichel of the Wolf fought with honor. She...”

Guyde’s words faded to indistinct mumbling. The world receded. The aches and bruises forming over her body, the fire racing through her broken arm—everything faded. His words were as frilly as the silk of her mother’s dresses. For all his talk of honor in combat, there was no way any war chief would let a challenger live. She would be considered a threat to his reign, mercy a sign of weakness.

Guyde of the Bear’s droning reached a crescendo. The roars of his people, of her people, rose to a pitch. They sounded mad, feverish with bloodlust. Turning, she saw Guyde’s enormous hand reach down and heft his paw, dragging the steel head against the stone. With his other hand he hauled her from her back and turned her over so that she knelt, head lolling, left arm dangling, her neck exposed.

Nichel closed her eyes, but tears still squeezed through her eyelids. “It’s not fair,” she whispered through bloody lips already beginning to swell. Anger and grief bubbled up.

Guyde must have heard her. His voice grew piteous. “You fought well, Nichel of the Wolf. The Father’s Vanguard lit your path and will welcome you home.”

Nichel managed a wet snort. She was not afraid. She was ashamed and heartbroken. Her parents had been slain. It was her duty to avenge them, and she had failed in spectacular fashion. All the while, their killer walked free. Aidan Gairden. The man she had been promised to marry, their union tying unbreakable bonds between Crotaria’s northern and western realms. That union would never be. Torel and Darinia would go to war. Hundreds of thousands would die. Aidan would be one of them. She should be the one to spill his blood. To taste it.

Anger festered, becoming blind fury. Grief rotted into despair. She closed her eyes tighter, bracing for Guyde’s axe and hoping the blackness of her eyelids would soon turn to the bright expanse of the Vanguard. Her parents waited for her there.

Red eyes opened in her mind. They stared at her, through her, saw inside her. Her thoughts were sluggish, clouded by pain and anguish and wrath so hot her blood boiled.

What are you? The whispered voice was her own, distant and hazy.

The red eyes became the shade of molten fire.

Nichel was there, yet not there. Outside herself. She gazed into the eyes. They were mirrors, reflecting her pain back at her. Not physical pain. Broken bones and bloodied lips did not exist in this place. Those eyes were mirrors that magnified her wrath and hopelessness tenfold. Those eyes brightened, blinding her, burning her up, filling her, consuming her and the world and everything.

—Free me. That voice rumbled, a growl emanating up from the depths of a deep, dark hole.

Nichel opened her eyes.

 About Tyche Books 

Tyche Books is a Canadian small-press specializing in science-fiction and fantasy anthologies, novels, and non-fiction, all available as ebooks and trade paperbacks. We crave innovative stories that push the boundaries of our imaginations. Our name “Tyche” (pronounced Tie-key) comes from the Greek goddess of fortune and prosperity. Tyche is also the name of the hypothetical gas planet in the Oort cloud. We felt it was the perfect balance of mythology and science, much like our press. Based out of Alberta, Canada, we are the new home of BOLD Science Fiction, Fantasy and related Non-Fiction.

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