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Thursday, February 28, 2019

2019 and Beyond Interview with Craig Schaefer (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Long Way Down 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The White Gold Score 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Redemption Song 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Living End 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of A Plain-Dealing Villain
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Killing Floor Blues
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Castle Doctrine
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Double Or Nothing
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Neon Boneyard
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Sworn To The Night
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Detonation Boulevard
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Winter's Reach 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Instruments Of Control 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harmony Black
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Red Knight Falling
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Glass Predator
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Cold Spectrum
Read My Sworn To The Night Cover Reveal Q&A with Craig Schaefer

Yesterday we presented Part I of our interview and in part deux, Craig talks about the books that will be releasing in 2019 as he's set to release four different titles. Read on as he exclusively reveals the title of the new Harmony Black book, details about his new crime thriller series as well as what happens next in within the Daniel Faust and Harmony Black titles. 

Q] Welcome back to Fantasy Book Critic Craig, it’s a brand new year and I believe you have some brand new stories for us? What should readers be expecting from you in 2019?

CS: I do indeed. With the Wisdom’s Grave trilogy complete, this year is all about new things: new stories, new experiments, and trying to expand and improve my writing skills. Ghosts of Gotham, a stand-alone fantasy novel, is coming from 47North Publishing in April, and August will bring The Loot, the start of a new crime/thriller series from Thomas & Mercer.

Then we’ll round out the year with new installments in the Harmony Black and Daniel Faust series, both of which will see the protagonists picking up the pieces in the wake of Wisdom’s Grave and facing new challenges.

Q] Your first new book titled Ghosts Of Gotham, is coming out in April. Can you tell us more about the inception of this book and potential new series?

CS: I firmly believe that writers only get better by challenging themselves, by pushing their boundaries and stepping outside of their comfort zones. I needed to shift to something new, to slip out from under the weight of a dozen novels’ worth of elaborate continuity and start with a clean slate. The story unveiled itself to me over the course of a few long, dark nights in New York City, and the guidance of some very special friends.

A follow-up was written, but ultimately it didn’t live up to my standards, so I tossed out the entire 125k-word manuscript and started from scratch. I’m down in those trenches as we speak.

The objective for Ghosts and its hopeful successors is to mine the literary traditions of dark romanticism. Don’t expect slam-bang urban fantasy; it’s more about suspense tinged with gothic horror, buried historical secrets, and a city whose foundations are steeped in occult mysteries.

Q] Previously you had announced that there will be a new crime thriller series that will be making its debut in 2019. You mentioned “I grew up reading Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block, so it’s been a heck of a thrill to finally work in their wheelhouse.” So with the crime thriller genre being your next destination, how would you stamp your unique signature on this genre?

CS: I can’t claim uniqueness; in anything I do, any genre I write, I’m walking in the footsteps of giants. I can definitely say the Charlie McCabe series is going to be a fast, fun and hard-edged caper romp, featuring people making terrible life choices, occasional explosive violence (literally), and protagonists who mean well but can’t seem to stop doing crimes. They do a lot of crimes. If you like the Daniel Faust novels, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy hanging out with Charlie and her crew.

Q] Will the Charlie McCabe series be more open-ended or is it planned to a specific conclusion?

CS: Open-ended. Big plot elements and important beats will carry through the series, but it’s not an elaborate tapestry like my fantasy novels and each book is a self-contained adventure. Thomas & Mercer has me under contract for two books, and if people buy them, I get to write more.

Q] Due to the publication of your books with Amazon next year, how will the release pattern for the next Daniel Faust (#9) and Harmony Black (#5) be affected? Can you give us any specific release months or timelines?

CS: The new Harmony has been done for a while, but it’s still in editing; because of the need to keep a certain time-window open around a new release (to avoid saturating the market and “competing with yourself,” as one of my publishers puts it), it likely won’t come out until the Fall. Right now I’m hoping Harmony will drop in October, and the next Faust novel just a couple of months after that.

Q] Last when we left Daniel and Harmony, they were both in the midst of their individual struggles with the Enemy & The Network. What can readers look forward to in the next individual books for both of them?

CS: The new Harmony Black novel titled, Right to the Kill, is a departure for the series. It’s been envisioned as a Casino Royale-style (very) soft reboot and a place for new readers to jump in. To be clear, nothing in the first four books is being retconned, but I’m taking this opportunity to re-focus the narrative, to drill down on theme and feel and the “voice” of the series, and make the most of a small time jump. When we left Harmony and Jessie in Cold Spectrum, they’d driven out a threat from within and taken control of the Vigilant Lock organization. Now it’s months later and they’re in the driver’s seat, with new responsibilities and challenges to face, and the resources of an illegally-funded covert-operations group backing them up.

When two agents go missing on a mission in Tampa, Harmony and Jessie find themselves on the trail of an occult bioweapon, tracking a madman from the Florida coast to a mist-shrouded New England fishing village. And that’s all I can say about that for now, except that there’s a particular watery connection that readers of Detonation Boulevard will find familiar…

The next Faust outing, The Locust Job, opens with a funeral (if you’ve read Bring the Fire, you know whose) and the sorcerous underground dealing with the fallout from the Wisdom’s Grave trilogy. Everything is in chaos, and while Daniel normally thrives on chaos, his enemies haven’t gotten any less dangerous – especially now that he has a long-lost brother to worry about and an extremely eager apprentice to train.

This would probably be the worst possible time for the Redemption Choir to come back, wouldn’t it? Yep. Definitely the worst possible time. And their old leader is still buried under a brothel’s parking lot, so who’s calling the shots?

Q] What titles (irrespective of genre) are you eagerly awaiting in 2019? Concurrently which authors (that you enjoyed previously) would you like to highlight for our readers?

CS: Nothing’s really on my 2019 radar right now, simply because my to-be-read pile is a massive mountain and I feel like I’m neglecting it by looking at new books when all these OTHER books are tugging at my sleeve, demanding attention.

I recently read a pair of Lovecraft-adjacent novellas – Victor LaValle’s Ballad of Black Tom and Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe – and enjoyed them a lot. Right now I’m slowly making my way through Catherynne M. Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues -- slowly, because it’s a really good but really downbeat anthology (as it needs to be), absolutely not light bedtime reading – and wolfing down Scott Pratt’s “Joe Dillard” series of legal thrillers, which are very entertaining. And in the middle of all that I’m trying to make room for a couple of Jane Austen re-reads, because sometimes you just need some Jane Austen in your life.

Q] Thank you for your time. I personally can’t wait to read all your new works. I’m sure our fans share the sentiment. What parting thoughts would you offer for your fans?

CS: What can I say, but “thank you”? Readers are an author’s lifeblood; we can’t do what we do without you, and your time and emotional investment means the world to me. I’m trying some new things in 2019, taking some risks and opening new doors, and I hope you enjoy the journey.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Wisdom's Grave Trilogy Completion Interview with Craig Schaefer (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Long Way Down 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The White Gold Score 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Redemption Song 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Living End 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of A Plain-Dealing Villain
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Killing Floor Blues
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Castle Doctrine
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Double Or Nothing
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Neon Boneyard
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Sworn To The Night
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Detonation Boulevard
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Winter's Reach 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Instruments Of Control 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harmony Black
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Red Knight Falling
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Glass Predator
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Cold Spectrum

Today we are glad to have Craig Schaefer with us and like last year, he was very gracious to answer a few questions for us. We chat about his Wisdom's Grave trilogy and all the twists, secrets, and ramifications it entailed. This interview will hinge upon some spoilers for the trilogy so be warned.

Q] 2018 marked the completion of the Wisdom’s Grave trilogy and also marked about four years since you first published The Long Way Down. It felt like the completion of the Phase one of your grand story arc ((to paraphrase from the MCU, with the DF, HB & RC books). Would you say that’s a fair assessment?

CS: Definitely. Once I got a handle on what I was aiming to create, I couldn’t help but mentally parse it that way; I’m not even a big fan of the Marvel flicks, but the concept of a “cinematic universe” is so popular and ingrained it’s hard not to view it through that lens.

Q] With Bring The Fire, you had a lot of reveals with regards to the trilogy as well as some of the deepest questions about the state of the universe. How did you decide on what you wanted to put in it versus what you choose to hold back?

CS: It mostly came down to what fit the narrative flow of the story. Nobody likes infodumps; there were a couple of bits I ended up trimming not because I didn’t think readers would find them interesting, but because I couldn’t find a way to make them relevant to the characters and the plot. They’ll show up in later books, eventually, when and where they properly fit.

This happened with characters, too. My original ambition was to have every single (living) character from all of my previous books make a cameo at some point, and that was the first idea to land on the cutting-room floor. Fan service is fun, but it’s got to take a back seat to story.

Q] Sworn To The Night has also made it to the 2018 SPFBO finals. So many, many congratulations on that front. How did you feel when you found out about it? How do you rate its chances?

CS: Very pleased! I don’t rate its chances particularly well (the trilogy as a whole is fairly divisive, people largely either really like it or really don’t – thankfully, more land in the former category than the latter), but anything that gets my work in front of new readers is a net positive.

Q] After the events of Bring The Fire. Will the Owl & the Knight Characters be making future appearances in any of the Faust or Harmony books?

CS: Their influence will definitely be felt. Given the new status quo of the multiverse, they’ve got a lot to deal with, but their influence will definitely be felt. More than that, I can’t say just yet.

Q] Another character that drew my eye was Rosales. She was a fascinating character who while being evil (so as to speak) was fun to read. With her seemingly being on the same spectrum as Jessie (with regards to her powers), will we get to know about her past?

CS: In my original outline, Rosales was slated to die in the final showdown. Ultimately, I was having such a good time writing her that I decided to get self-indulgent and gave myself a way to bring her back sometime. In a world of cosmic schemes, it’s fun to have a villain whose ambitions largely amount to “make enough money doing villain stuff so I can stay in bed, eat pizza and watch reality TV.”

She’ll be back sooner or later, and I’d like to get her and Jessie in a scene together to see what happens. (Possibly violence, possibly Netflix and chill. It could go either way.)

Every now and then I play with the idea of a stand-alone book involving a Suicide Squad style team-up of minor antagonists from the Faust/Black novels, and doing it as a gory pitch-black comedy. If I ever actually write the thing, Rosales will definitely be on the team.

Q] The Wisdom’s Grave trilogy ended on such a strong note and with so many revelations. As a reader, it becomes easily apparent as to how much planning has gone forth in all of your series so far. Can you tell us when you began planning for this trilogy as you nearly had to write sixteen books before you could write this trilogy?

CS: I’d say I started planning in earnest three years ago. As soon as the greater scope of my fictional setting started to unfold, I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to take it and where the first crescendo would land. At this point I think readers know me as a writer who plays a long game, and I knew I had to make this work.

Q] It was heartening to see how the Wisdom’s Grave trilogy ended in contrast to the Revanche Cylcle with regards to the bonded Characters. With your books, it’s not often that the characters get a happy ending. This was particularly sweet since we know how throughout the millennia and through various worlds, the Story has played out. Was that a purposeful twist?

CS: Purposeful and mandatory, considering the themes I wanted to explore with the trilogy. Ending the trilogy on a sour note, with the Story repeating again, would have been – I’d go so far as to say ethically, morally wrong. Not everyone comes out of the trilogy with a happy ending (or survives it at all), but it ended the way it needed to end.

Q] With your books being so intrinsically tied in with each other. I noticed one curious aspect that you mentioned about the Garden of Eden. Is the Garden of Eden referenced in The Living End (Daniel Faust #3) the same as the one mentioned by shepherd in Bring The Fire?

CS: Exactly the same. And as per the epilogue to The Neon Boneyard, there’s still a stable gateway in Mexico, now in the Network hands. (Which reminds me of a tangential issue, because it comes up in that scene and I’ve been asked if it was deliberate:
- Yes, the Mr. Smith from Neon Boneyard is the same Mr. Smith who shows up in the Wisdom’s Grave trilogy.
- Yes, he’s been murdered twice, by two different people.
- Yes, there’s a reason for this.)

Q] On a side note, the Shepherd mentioned that events on the Planet of Eden along with the family that resided on it were somewhat of an epic shitshow! Do you think you would ever be able to tell that specific tale?

CS: It’s definitely going to come up. Not very soon, we’ve got some other business to take care of first, but it’s going to come up.

Q] Following on from the Phase One aspect of your grand story, Will there be more phases to play out since the Enemy was surprisingly silent amidst all of the events of the Wisdom’s Grave trilogy. With the whole Paladin-Enemy conflict that's ever present on the horizon, are you at liberty to reveal if that’s the central conflict of the next phase?

CS: As I mentioned, originally every character I’ve written was supposed to appear in the Wisdom’s Grave trilogy. The Enemy was the first to go, simply because he’s Daniel’s nemesis and I couldn’t find a way to fit him into the trilogy in any kind of satisfying way. A lot came down to exposition. Specifically, trying to avoid it. The entire story of the Enemy involves a lot of background lore and buildup, little of which was directly relevant to the trilogy’s plot, so bringing it in would have involved a ton of extraneous background. That said, the next phase is all about the Enemy and the Paladin, so expect that conflict to take center stage now that the trilogy is complete.

Q] One of the curious things that was unearthed was that the Story was thrown awry as the Characters are supposed to be reincarnating simultaneously but that wasn’t the case. What was the specific reason for this mechanism to be thrown off?

CS: Imprisoning the Enemy broke the entire mechanism. (I’m avoiding massive spoilers, but as we learn in Bring the Fire, it wasn’t a very elaborately designed system to begin with.)

Q] As mentioned in the Daniel Faust books, the Enemy was imprisoned on a desolate world. That seems like a tale in itself. Will that story be ever explored? Was that due to the machinations of the other Characters or due to the inhabitants of that planet? 

CS: It will be, yes. I can’t say more about that just yet, but it’s going to come up. (And as some readers have noticed, one of the very first antagonists in my books – the sole surviving Smoke-Faced Man – has been off-stage for a long time. That doesn’t mean I forgot about him, hint hint.)

Q] One of the fascinating things that came up was that the Story has thirteen Characters. However not everyone’s stories are tied in together. Does this mean that Story is finally broken or will that only be done once the Enemy-Paladin conflict occurs.

CS: The Story still exists, baked into the fabric of the multiverse. For now. Which means, of course, that Daniel Faust still has to deal with the burden of having the mantle of the Thief, and you can expect more development on that front very soon. Whether things will end with the Paladin/Enemy showdown, or if our heroes will come up with something a little more tricky…well, I’ve already said too much.

NOTE:  Part II of the interview focussing on Craig's upcoming books and plans will be posted tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft (reviewed by D. C. Stewart)

Official Author Website
Order The Hod King over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Senlin Ascends 

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Josiah Bancroft started writing novels when he was twelve, and by the time he finished his first, he was an addict. Eventually, the writing of Senlin Ascends began, a fantasy adventure, not so unlike the stories that got him addicted to words in the first place. He wanted to do for others what his favorite writers had done for him: namely, to pick them up and to carry them to a wonderful and perilous world that is spinning very fast. If he’s done that with this book, then he’s happy. Josiah lives in Philadelphia with his wife, their daughter, and their two rabbits, Mabel and Chaplin

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Fearing an uprising, the Sphinx sends Senlin to investigate a plot that has taken hold in the ringdom of Pelphia. Alone in the city, Senlin infiltrates a bloody arena where hods battle for the public's entertainment. But his investigation is quickly derailed by a gruesome crime and an unexpected reunion.

Posing as a noble lady and her handmaid, Voleta and Iren attempt to reach Marya, who is isolated by her fame. While navigating the court, Voleta attracts the unwanted attention of a powerful prince whose pursuit of her threatens their plan.

Edith, now captain of the Sphinx's fierce flagship, joins forces with a fellow wakeman to investigate the disappearance of a beloved friend. She must decide who to trust as her desperate search brings her nearer to the Black Trail where the hods climb in darkness and whisper of the Hod King.

As Senlin and his crew become further dragged in to the conspiracies of the Tower, everything falls to one question: Who is The Hod King?

FORMAT/INFO: The Hod King is 607 pages long divided into four parts. Narration is in the third person via Thomas Senlin, Voletta, Iren, and Edith Winters. This is the third volume of the Books of Babel series.

The book was published by the Orbit Books on January 22, 2019. Covert art by Ian Leino with design by Lauren Panepinto.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: How does a fantasy book reviewer critique a work that he unabashedly loves? Do I try to make up bad things about Josiah Bancroft’s newest Book of Babel? Do I scour it for the tiniest typo and the smallest grammatical error simply so I don’t come off as an advertisement for Orbit Books?

I mean, I guess it took me five days to read through The Hod King. I finished the final book in the Harry Potter series in a night (a feat I regret to this day because some things deserve to be savoured), so I clearly didn’t love this installment enough to glue it to my eyelids and never look away. Then again, see my statement in the parenthetical and maybe not finishing it so fast means I liked it even more.

What seems clear to this reviewer is that, with every book he writes, Josiah Bancroft proves he is more than just the winner of a self-publishing contest and better than a one-hit wonder. The Arm of the Sphinx was as good, if not better, than Senlin Ascends, and I think that The Hod King is maybe the best yet. How common is this in series fiction? Not very, in my experience. Sequels tend to be worse than their predecessors, even if later books in the same run can reverse the trend. But Bancroft keeps getting better, and if his fourth and final Babel book continues this upward trajectory, he has every right to be carved on to the Mount Rushmore of fantasy authorship.

But enough gushing - what is The Hod King about? Beware of spoilers now because I intended to talk of The Arm of the Sphinx in detail. At the end of the second novel, Senlin and his crew had met the legendary Sphinx, a figure deified in Babel lore and who wields more obvious power than any living thing in the Tower. Through some coercion and bargaining, the Sphinx gathered Senlin, Iren, and Voletta into his net, a web in which Edith had long ago been ensnared. The Hod King sees our heroes undertaking their first overt missions for the Sphinx, and Senlin’s just happens to take him to the very Pelphia where his long-lost wife Marya now resides. It also separates him from his crew, a crew which Edith now captains, and so for the first time since his initial foray into the Tower, Thomas is alone.

I admired the hell out of Bancroft’s bravery in changing viewpoints in The Arm of the Sphinx, and I continue to be impressed with his ability to do so in The Hod King. Senlin Ascends rarely, if ever, took us out of Senlin’s head, a viewpoint that I would wager is quite comfortable for Josiah Bancroft. Both subsequent novels see Bancroft diving into the heads of Edith, Iren, and Voletta, and they are such wildly different characters, and so far removed from Senlin, that watching him stretch his skills like this is like watching a monarch emerge from its chrysalis - you know it will be beautiful but it’s wondrous to watch. Bancroft nails these viewpoints, and lets us into the minds of characters who we could only wonder at in the first novel. We could never have known of Iren’s insecurities or Voletta’s flightiness in Senlin Ascends. We might never have known the depth of Edith’s feelings, nor of her desire to fly had her author not decided to step out of his comfort zone. It works, and it is part of the reason why The Hod King is so successful. This is no longer a story about a man traversing a tower. It’s become almost familial in its intimacy, and I find myself increasingly loving these characters in a way I seldom have for fictional beings. It’s become so bad that I have cajolingly threatened the author on Twitter should he George R.R. Martin any of them.

Aside from character, both the plot and setting of The Hod King continue to captivate and embrace the reader. Bancroft takes a Pulp Fiction approach to his story, with each section using the same basic time-frame to tell a different perspective of the same overall narrative. This is a technique that could end in utter failure, but Bancroft shows mastery over the style. By the last quarter of the book, my urgency to see the whole plot of The Hod King was so focused that I lost sleep about it, and I am continually amazed at the new vistas that this Tower has to offer. That one building can encompass more lore and mystery than many fully-fleshed fantasy worlds is an impressive feat. It helps that it’s likely one of the biggest structures ever imagined in literature.

CONCLUSION: There is not much more to say about The Hod King that will tempt anyone to read it or not read it. Let’s face it, if you read through the first two novels in this series, you will likely want to read through this one as well. I truly do believe that it is the best of the three, and I said in my review of Senlin Ascends that I thought maybe Bancroft had written one of the best fantasy novels of the last decade. I can’t really praise these books any more than that, even if I will continue to do so. I don’t know the name of the last book in the Babel series yet, but this is the first time in a long while that I will be eagerly scanning new release schedules and wishing I could get my hands on something that does not even exist yet. That’s a good feeling to have.

Friday, February 22, 2019

SPFBO FINALIST: Aching God by Mike Shel (reviewed by David Stewart & Lukazs Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order Aching God over HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Mike Shel was born in Detroit, Michigan and grew up in the suburb of Dearborn. He has practiced as a psychotherapist for over 20 years and is a freelance adventure designer for Paizo Publishing and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Aching God is his first novel. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with his wife Tracy and has three children, Haylee, Trinity, and Leo. And two dogs, Neko and Elsie. Let’s not forget the dogs.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: The days of adventure are passed for Auric Manteo. Retired to the countryside with his scars and riches, he no longer delves into forbidden ruins seeking dark wisdom and treasure. That is, until old nightmares begin plaguing his sleep, heralding an urgent summons back to that old life.

To save his only daughter, Auric must return to the place of his greatest trauma: the haunted Barrowlands. With only a few inexperienced companions and an old soldier, he must confront the dangers of the ancient and wicked Djao civilization. Auric has survived fell beasts, insidious traps, and deadly hazards before. But can he contend with the malice of a bloodthirsty living god?

First book in the Iconoclasts trilogy, Aching Godis the debut novel of RPG adventure designer Mike Shel. He is working on book 2, Sin Eater. The first two chapters of Sin Eater are included at the end of Aching God.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (DAVID): The tendency to pigeonhole Aching God as a simple Dungeons and Dragons adventure is tempting (not that such efforts should be cast aside because many a good story has come from the table-top). Shel’s debut has all the trappings of a role-playing game: there is a band of adventurers, each with a different skill set; there are monsters to slay and dungeons to explore; there are strange religions of differing morality; and it takes its characters from one side of a map to another. This formula screams D&D. I would not be at all surprised to hear that Shel took his story from a well-run campaign - a very likely possibility given his Pathfinder work.

However, Aching God, by virtue of Shel's ability with the written word and his talent for diving deep into a character’s psyche, is so much more than a game set to the page. This is a horror novel, a story about post-traumatic stress, a character study, and a world-building opener that screams at more secrets and things to come. Aching God does what some of the best fantasy in the history of the genre does in its ability to flesh out a map and trickle in enough information to keep a reader wondering with every flip of the page. Aching God is really, really good.

The story finds an aging Auric Manteo, retired from the Syraeic League where he drew his fame and fortune, once more thrust into the life of an adventurer when his daughter and her fellow compatriots in the League, are stricken with a mysterious plague. The source of this plague is an idol taken from an ancient tomb, the kind of thing Auric himself might have plundered in his younger days, and the scholars within the League (those yet alive) predict that the only thing to stop this plague is to restore the idol to its place of origin. Auric must, with a cadre of capable companions, journey to the Barrowlands, spelunk back into the horrifying crypt, and place the idol back into the statue from whence it was wrested.

Sound familiar? The concept here is nothing new, but we don’t always need something new in our fantasy - Nicholas Eames proved that with his genre-shaking debut Kings Of The Wyld. Sometimes the oldest stories, if told with a twist and told well, can be fantastic.

What is Shel’s twist? He has a few. First, and most memorable, is the way in which he narrates Auric’s adventurous past. Auric did not retire because he had a nice long life and wanted to reap the rewards. Auric retired because his last foray into one of the Barrowlands’ dungeons saw his entire party slain and devoured before his very eyes. Shel does a masterful job of relaying Auric’s last journey, mostly through flashbacks or dreams, and the more we learn about that last fated adventure, the more we understand Auric’s motivations and his fears. Shel borrows notes from Lovecraft in his depictions of the Djao gods, deities once worshipped by an ancient race but that were cast down by the realm’s current pantheon. These are grotesque beings of indeterminable size or form. They toy with their victims in an eldritch manner, worming into the mind in order to use madness as a weapon. Shel shrouds all of this in that signature mystery often reserved for ruined ancient races.

Shel also does a lovely job in his characterizations of the party. Of particular note is Auric’s companion Belech, an ex-soldier who accompanies the retired adventurer at the behest of the noble lady in whose realm Auric has retired. Belech is a complex mixture of simple man and unassuming scholar. He has faith, but is not preachy about it and seems to truly believe in the benevolence of his god. He’s also handy with a mace. Auric’s other companions are ones furnished him by the League, but they leave nearly as much of an impact. Sira is a priest whom Auric and Belech meet even before coming to the Syraeic League’s headquarters, and she becomes one of the most sympathetic and authentic characters in the novel. It is a testament to Shel’s character work that he is able to write characters with a spectrum of cynicism and optimism. Gnaeus, a young swordsman, is the consummate cynic and polar opposite of Sira, in much the same way that Auric and Belech lean towards opposite ends. Del Ogara, a happy sorceress, and Lumari, a cold alchemist, round out the balanced pairs in a way that is only noticeable upon later scrutiny. There are times when the characterization does not completely hold up, and a scene near the end in particular that tries to impart an emotional bombshell that is unearned, but for the most part I cared about these characters and wanted to see them succeed.

The only part where Aching God falters is in its ending. Shel spends so much time working towards this confrontation with the unknown Aching God, and then when things finally reach that head, it turns out to be a disappointment. I both understand and lament this. This is the first novel in a series. Robert Jordan couldn’t end The Eye of the World with Rand confronting and defeating Shai’tan. Neither can Shel simply have his characters meet the world’s biggest bad and stick a sword in him. But where Jordan succeeds and Shel fails, to use the prior analogy, is that Jordan casts a wider net with his villains. Shel makes mention of something more out there, but not until the very end, and the entire novel is spent working solely towards this one unfathomable creature. The way in which this is told, it feels like Rand is making his way to the Dark One, to further push that comparison, and when he gets there he finds that the Dark One isn’t very dark at all. I feel that this will be fleshed out in the sequel, certainly, but it makes for a mostly unsatisfying conclusion to what is an incredible journey.

I don’t know if Mike Shel will win the SPFBO. This is my favorite book so far in the competition, but I suspect others might find less depth than I have and see it as more of a simple role-playing game-style adventure. I hope people take the time to read more into the story than what’s on the surface because I do think this is an excellent book, and I expect to stay with Mike Shel for a long while.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (LUKASZ): Shel’s Aching God receives great reviews and did well in SPFBO contest. I had to see for myself what’s the hype about.

The plot is fairly simple, but not simplistic. Clever twists and turns keep the reader guessing and turning the pages. A mysterious plague devastates the Syraeic League, and no one knows how to fight it. Perhaps returning the Besh relic to the temple will help? Because of the plague, the League “employs” story’s protagonist Auric and his companions to make it work.

Auric Manteo, a retired Agent of the Syraeic League, is a traumatised but otherwise skilled and resourceful adventurer. In the past, during and after his missions for the League, he’s lost most of the people he had cared about. He still deals with PTSD. I think his intriguing and dark back-story makes Auric compelling and relatable. His faults make him more tridimensional, more layered and human. He reacts to events in believable ways. I think Auric’s character and POV make this novel interesting to read.

Other characters get much less time and, as readers, we don’t get a chance to get in their heads. The cast of supporting characters includes a trustworthy mace-wielding fighter Belech, an alchemist, a sorceress, a showy swordsman and an inexperienced priestess of Belu (god of healing).

Because of the choice of narration, all of them (except Belech) remain underdeveloped and two-dimensional.

I liked the simple and straightforward writing style that focuses on telling the story and not on crafting beautiful sentences. I was impressed with the editing - expect no typos or grammar mistakes. Someone put an admirable effort to clean the book.

My main gripe with the novel concerns occasional but dense info-dumps and expositions (for example the Queen’s back-story). Fans of rich and detailed world-building will probably dig it. For me, it was tiring.

The other thing is the ending. It doesn’t answer many questions, but I get it. I’m supposed to buy the sequel. That’s how this business works. Unfortunately, a good Lovecraftian horror that made Aching God exciting, transforms along the way into dealing with more conventional evil. The build-up was great, the resolution rather disappointing (but it’s just me).

Shel crafts a good escapist sojourn. He delivers a thrilling story full of action, wonder, and characters you can grab onto. Aching God is unpretentious (except for its significant length) and fun. The author does his best to immerse you in his world with admirable conviction and he mostly succeeds. For me, there was too much info-dumping to feel fully engaged and, at times, I felt tempted to DNF it. But I can see RPG fans love it, especially the parts of the book that take place in the Dungeon.

SPFBO Final Score - 7/10

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Seraphina's Lament by Sarah Chorn (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski & Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Seraphina's Lament over HERE
Read Stalin, Communism, & Fantasy by Sarah Chorn (guest post)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Sarah has been a compulsive reader her whole life. At a young age, she found her reading niche in the fantastic genre of Speculative Fiction. She blames her active imagination for the hobbies that threaten to consume her life. She is a writer and editor, a semi-pro nature photographer, world traveler, three-time cancer survivor, and mom. In her ideal world, she'd do nothing but drink lots of tea and read from a never-ending pile of speculative fiction books.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: The world is dying.

The Sunset Lands are broken, torn apart by a war of ideology paid for with the lives of the peasants. Drought holds the east as famine ravages the farmlands. In the west, borders slam shut in the face of waves of refugees, dooming all of those trying to flee to slow starvation, or a future in forced labor camps. There is no salvation.

In the city of Lord’s Reach, Seraphina, a slave with unique talents, sets in motion a series of events that will change everything. In a fight for the soul of the nation, everyone is a player. But something ominous is calling people to Lord’s Reach and the very nature of magic itself is changing. Paths will converge, the battle for the Sunset Lands has shifted, and now humanity itself is at stake. First, you must break before you can become.

CLASSIFICATION: Seraphina's Lament is a gritty and dark dark fantasy.

FORMAT/INFO: Seraphina's Lament is 398 pages long divided over 44 chapters. The narration is in the third person and focuses on eight POV characters: Seraphina, Premier Eyad, Mouse, Vadden, Amifi, Taub, Neryan, The Ascended. 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 Pen Astridge,

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (LUKASZ): Seraphina’s Lament breaks genres, conventions and taboos. Set in a secondary world based on the Russian Revolution and the Holodomor, it gives a detailed look at a dying world.

A collectivist government controlled by an ex-revolutionary, Premier Eyad, used to have noble objectives. Things and people changed. Rulers inflict starvation, forced labour, and death on their subjects. Rampant famine forces people to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty and despair, including cannibalism. Magic leaks from the world.

Seraphina, a slave with a unique fire affinity, escapes her tormentors and joins revolutionaries. She wants Eyad dead. Her anger consumes her humanity. The same happens to other protagonists. As they head to Lord‘s Reach city to fight a corrupted government, they undergo significant changes. Some of them start to Become.

Seraphina’s Lament is a dark and unsettling book. Using elements of fantasy, horror, symbolism, magical realism and allegory, it dives into metaphysics and creation of gods.

Food, eating, and starvation represent life, death, guilt, and withheld love. Early in the book readers get to know Taub who undergoes a shocking metamorphosis. Chorn describes radical changes (mutations?) in such hallucinatory detail that I had to stop and reread chosen passages to picture them accurately. We can see protagonists’ bodily torment and share their disgust and terror when they first witness and experience it.

You’ll know early in the novel if her writing style works for you. It switches from poetic and allegorical to no-nonsense. I loved parts of it, but had to slowly reread others to see things. Some similes didn’t work for me. Others felt creative and imaginative. Chorn’s writing is dense and her story is so different from mainstream fantasy that I expect it to divide the audience. Some will “get it”, while others will feel lost and helpless. I like allegories and Seraphina’s Lament may appeal to readers who enjoyed themes of unbecoming pictured in Dyachenko’s brilliant Vita Nostra.

CONCLUSION: Seraphina‘s Lament is a strong debut. It evokes feelings of futility, confusion, and helplessness, but I wouldn‘t call it nihilistic. It ends with a glimmer of hope. It impressed me and I can't wait to see where it goes from here.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (MIHIR): Seraphina’ Lament is Sarah Chorn’s debut book and knowing Sarah’s penchant for the darker side of literature. This title was high on my list once she announced it. The story is set in a secondary world and one wherein magic is present but not in a high fantasy sense. Focusing on different characters such as the titular character, Premier Eyad, the rebel leader Vadden, Seraphina’s brother Neryan and a few others. We are shown a world in crisis and one wherein there’s no straight end in sight. Sarah Chorn deftly gives us a landscape wherein famine and magic co-exist. There have been calamities on all fronts and Premier Eyad is forced to take certain hard steps or is he

The story is dark and right off the bat, I can see this is going to be one of those wherein readers will be divided into camps about it. There’s no two ways about this book because of the darkness and the misery it showcases. The author brandishes a deft hand in handling a sensitive subject such as the Holodomor as well showing a thing or two about communism. Not that she names them as such.

Characterization is a forte of Sarah’s writing as she handles each person’s needs and ambition crucially while never making them caricatures. Even the villains as well those manipulated by the higher beings. The characters never take missteps within the story’s needs but act as simply with their own feelings and intellect. I loved this aspect and I couldn’t wait to see how they would react within certain points within the story and especially in the end. The author also has highlighted characters with disability and I found that to be another unique feather in her cap.

The prose is perhaps the best part of this debut. The author manages to show the depth of suffering and yet elegantly describes feelings, emotions and such. There are such gems strewn throughout:

 "Belief was a terrifying thing, he realized. Give a man a blade forged of purpose and another of belief, and he has all the justification he needs to do anything he wanted.”

CONCLUSION: The book is littered with such lyrical prose that brings you joy and will have you doubting the depths of human depravity. It’s highly unusual to find such accomplished writing in a debut and the fact that Sarah has written this is of no surprise. Sarah Chorn is an author who impressed me mightily and if his debut is any indication. Then we can wonder what further brilliance there is to come. Dive into Seraphina’s Lament and discover why Sarah Chorn is dark fantasy’s next superstar.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

GUEST POST: Stalin, Communism & Fantasy by Sarah Chorn

Order Seraphina's Lament over HERE

My first draft of Seraphina’s Lament did not have a communist government system. It wasn’t until I was getting ready to do my rewrite, and doing a ton of research in preparation for that, that I realized that the Sunset Lands really needed to be communist. How could I possibly tell a story even remotely related to the Holodomor without communism?

Furthermore, how could I do it without a Stalin.

It was impossible.

So, in my second rewrite I realized I had to almost completely rebuild the world I’d created. I also needed to create a Stalin, and then a magic system that fit into all of this.

I knew that communist government systems weren’t that common with fantasy books, but I don’t think I realized just how unique having a Stalinist communist system would actually be until people started commenting on it.

This required an incredible amount of research. I’ve got a few books totaling around 6,000 pages on Stalin sitting on my bookshelf at home, and that’s not taking into consideration all the books I’ve read at the library, or the ones I bought through Audible. The thing is, it’s pretty easy to create a world where communism is the government once you know enough about communism to be able to do that. After I’d done all my research, the whole story fell into place and I realized that communism was exactly what had been missing from that first draft that it had desperately needed. I also realized that my own character, Premier Eyad, who is patterned after Stalin in so many ways, really needed to be part of this book.

Stalin was a horrible person. There are no mincing words about that. He killed millions upon millions of people, passed policies that had dire impacts on just about everyone, and left a red-stained legacy behind him. Yet despite all of that, he still thought he was doing the right thing. I really hated doing it, but trying to capture that element of Stalin’s character was really important to me. Villains rarely think they are villains.

Once I stopped looking at Stalin as a hulking historical figure, but started to see the man that made him who he was, creating a character influenced by him was pretty easy.

Communism was really interesting to learn about, and even more interesting to write. Communism is pretty foreign to people located out here in the United States, and while we learn about it, a lot of the details are either glossed over in history class in high school, or just not touched on at all. Basically, from high school, I was left with the understanding that communism is bad, and not much else.

In order to build a realistic communist system in my world, I had to not just understand the policies, but the impacts of these policies and how they were implemented. I had to take the main points of Stalinist communism, and change it enough to fit into the Sunset Lands.

Communism itself has a lot of territory for an author to tinker with. Setting down the policies of this government system and figuring out the impact on society as a whole was really the groundwork for building my world. Once I had that figured out, everything else fell into place.

Going into this, I knew I wanted to create a magic system based on the elements. However, due to communism, and state ownership of both goods and labor, it had to be a magic system that could be utilized like any other skill. It needed to be something that could be worked, and create, or help create, goods and services. Therefore, I ended up deciding that the elemental magic system needed to be something that could be bartered and traded.

Due to the dying world, and the changing nature of magic, the magic in Seraphina’s Lament, is understated, but there are a few situations that show what I’m talking about here. One, early on in the book, where a woman who has a talent, is forcefully separated from her son and sent to a village, ordered to use her elemental talent to help people in that village work their land. Seraphina and her twin brother Neryan are slaves because their fire and water talents are incredibly rare and valuable. Every person in the Sunset Lands is tested at a certain age, and a mark is branded into their cheek that shows if they are null talents (no talent) or what talents they have, and then, depending on the results, are either sent into specialized schools, labor camps, or assigned to villages for labor.

While I chose to write this book with a government system based on Stalinism, I ended up being really surprised that there weren’t more fantasy books with communist government systems. It’s a form of government that has plenty for authors to draw on, and use in the books they write.

The world is a big place, and part of reading is discovering it, and exploring different ways of living. Part of doing that is straying away from the tried and true forms of rulers and leadership in fantasy, kings, queens, emperors and the like. There will always be a place for that in our books, but there are so many other governmental systems out there, and so many other ways that people have lived, and are living. For me, choosing to create a communist governmental system was natural to the story I was telling. I can’t imagine Seraphina’s Lament being told any other way.


Official Author Website

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sarah has been a compulsive reader her whole life. At a young age, she found her reading niche in the fantastic genre of Speculative Fiction. She blames her active imagination for the hobbies that threaten to consume her life. She is a writer and editor, a semi-pro nature photographer, world traveler, three-time cancer survivor, and mom. In her ideal world, she’d do nothing but drink lots of tea and read from a never-ending pile of speculative fiction books.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Empire Of Sand by Tasha Suri (Reviewed by Will Byrnes)

Official Author Website
Order Empire Of Sand over HERE

When you dance with the Rite of Dreaming, you dance with the gods.
Mehr’s got it made, I guess,
There were perks to being the Governor of Irinah’s daughter—even an illegitimate one. People obeyed you. Servants rushed to your bidding. Even the ones who loathed you—and there were many—were forced to veil their contempt and keep their loathing eyes lowered. All people faced hatred. All people suffered. Few had the cushion of wealth and privilege to protect them as Mehr did. nice wardrobe, plenty to eat, time on her hands, but it comes with downsides. Her father’s grounds constitutes a golden cage. And mom’s side presents a whole other problem.
While dad is a member in good standing of the Ambahn clan, the ruling caste in the empire, Mehr’s mother was a member of the oppressed Amrithi clan. Not your usual ethnic minority. The Amrithi began ages ago when a magical being called a daiva (djinn-like, with both a physical and a more ethereal nature) got jiggy with a human, making the Amrithi not entirely our sort. The magical side DNA comes with some benefits, though, for some Amrithi anyway. An ability to communicate with the daiva who still roam the world. And how do they communicate, you may ask?

Here is the genius of the book. Amrithi communicate with the daiva via physical movement, specifically through dance and sigils,something between magic spells and prayer. (If you have ever seen the TV show, The Magicians, they do a lot of hand sigils there, and not all are of the middle finger variety) They also have dance rites that are the equivalent of the prayer rituals common to many religions. Mehr keeps up the rituals she learned from her mother and from a mentor her mother asked to look after her when she left. The rituals give her a sense of connection not only to her heritage, and her mother, but in a very real sense to the magical events in this world.

Suri took some inspiration from her own upbringing. Kids in Indian classical dance training make abundant use of hand symbols. She also wanted to incorporate that signaling with an element of martial arts. Her characters’ hand sigils are no mere form of artistry. They have real world impact. They kick ass.

More family enters into it. Mehr has a little sister she loves and wants to protect, (and whose safety can be used as leverage against her) and then there is the evil-stepmother, Maryam, (a true bloom of Ambhan womanhood) who does her best to hiss and sneer her way across the page whenever she shows up. She is particularly eager to keep Mehr from continuing the practices of her Amrithi heritage.

There’s more. In this fantasy world, which is inspired by a Bollywood version of what the Mughal Empire might have been, reality is not the relatively consistent universe we have come to know. It is a product of the dreams of the gods. Only sometimes those dreams get disturbed, generating hurricane-like storms that dump a whole new type of precip, a thing called dreamfire. Way beyond oobleck.
The dreamfire was everywhere now. It was in the air she breathed, in the sweat at the nape of her neck. She could feel the strength of it churning the city into a storm. The buildings were drenched in light, debris flying through the air as if the world had tipped on its side and sent everything sprawling. Even the earth felt like it was moving beneath her feet. It was dizzying, terrifying. Exhilirating. 
Dad, who clearly loves Mehr, and evil-step-mom, who clearly doesn’t, may have Mehr’s best interests at heart in keeping her confined to the grounds. Seems the talent she has for things magical is in high demand by dark sorts. So, when Mehr slips out and puts her skill to the test, word gets around and she is in a whole mess of trouble. Way worse than being grounded.

The religious leader of the empire (midway between Thanos and the High Sparrow), has sent a delegation of mystics and a not-so-subtle demand offer for Mehr to marry one of them, a dodgy-seeming character called Amun.
Like so many other of the other mystics Mehr had seen in Lotus Hall, his face was swathed by cloth. Only his eyes and bridge of his nose were revealed but his head was lowered, hiding his gaze. The little of his skin she could see was dark She couldn’t tell if he was young or old, ugly or handsome. He was simply male, broad-shouldered and intimidating with footsteps that were soft, too soft. He had a predator’s tread.
It is an offer she cannot refuse. No more mani pedis for you, dear. Mehr hits the road with her new associates and the game is afoot. No, really. No saddles or palanquins. They walk across the desert to the evil leader’s oasis-centered temple. His name is Maha, and the similarity to mwahahaha cannot possibly be accidental.

Ok, entire-world-fantasies can really get you bogged down in describing everything, (like the above) and then you lose track of the thread. Ok? We got all our words straight, Daiva? Sigil? Amrithi? Ambahn? Jeez, can we move on with it already?

The change of scene also signals a change in approach. What ensues is not just learning what dark plans Maha, who is entirely cruel and not entirely human, has in store for Mehr, and taking on that challenge, but getting to know Amun. Is this bad boy really so bad? Why does everyone think he’s a monster? What’s the deal with all the blue tats? And what else will be forced on Mehr? A challenge for sure.

The book heads in two directions here. First is getting the lay of the land and finding out who you can trust, and where you can get the best figs. Part of this is dealing with being invited to hang by one group, when you really want to be doing something else, figuring out who can be trusted, deciphering the palace politics in her new town. Very relatable, particularly for the younger set. The other major element is the reveal of what the Maha has in mind, and how Mehr will cope. But the major bit for what seems the largest chunk of the book is Mehr getting to know Amun. They have to come up with modus vivendi in order to accomplish the tasks with which they are charged, and not get, you know, murdered.

It was not the fastest read. I enjoyed the first 100 pps of intro to the world and Mehr’s situation, and I enjoyed watching her face diverse challenges and overcome, or not, yet still grow in the process. But I did not enjoy the pace or duration after that. It was reasonably-paced and engaging at first, but settled into a slower, drawn-out tempo that was a bit frustrating. The book might have lost about fifty pages, maybe more, without suffering too much. There are a few interludes when we see events away from Mehr from the perspective of other characters. These offered a break from the central pillar of the tale, and added in a few details Mehr could not deliver to us. There was an element of romantic interaction that was appropriate and engaging, but which took up way too much of the book, detracting from the much more interesting magical, and palace intrigue elements.

You know I like a good romance. Well, I read a lot of romance…That’s something that romance series do really, really well. they create books that draw on each other but they’re also kind of discrete stories in themselves. You’ve got a beginning, a middle and end. You’ve got a satisfying conclusion. You know if you pick up the next one you’re going to get the same thing. So, that’s what I’m trying to do with the series. - from the Reddit session

Not the romance thing, per se, but the beginning-middle-end thing.

It was a bit unclear to me whether this was intended for YA readers or adults. Certain tropes made me think YA. Things like a sheltered girl being forced to face life’s realities and find out if she will face-plant or be the stuff that dreams are made of. We have certainly seen plenty of examples of kids or teens with hidden powers that emerge as they grow and confront danger of one sort or another. Evil stepmothers are a dime a dozen in YA tales. And Mehr has a little sister she is eager to protect, like that Everdeen kid.

But then, the challenges that Mehr confronts extend well beyond showing the world her stuff. She has to contend with complex moral questions. Suri is also looking at larger issues relating to women. She is interested in how women could exercise power in a heavily patriarchal society, and not settle for invisibility. She shows them choosing paths for themselves, despite the external limitations on their freedom, and sometimes having to hide their true feelings.
She managed to catch herself on her hands before her skull met the floor. Then she bowed to the floor, her forehead to the cool marble. She allowed herself to tremble; feigned being a thing bent and broken by his cruelty. She did not have her jewels or her fine clothes, but she had this power, at least: she could give him a simulacrum of what he desired from her. And hold her crumbling strength tight. Let him think he had broken her. As long as he believed he already had, as long as she fooled him, he would not succeed in truly doing so.
CONCLUSION: I very much enjoyed the extreme creativity that went into the literary construction of this world. The magical concepts were impressive, exciting, and fit well with the story. Mehr is an engaging character you will find it easy to root for, particularly when she is faced with wrenching decisions. The writing is beautiful and evocative. I enjoyed much less what seemed a shift from the magical elements and court machinations to an excessive focus on the romantic. But was brought back by the action, twists, and resolutions at the end. I expect there are many castles to be made of Suri’s sands. She has a second book in the series planned, The Realm of Ash, set many years later, looking at the consequences of the actions in book 1. Some dreams can be made real.

NOTE: This review was originally posted by Will on Goodreads.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Interview with M. D. Presley (Interviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order The Glass Dagger over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Woven Ring
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Imbued Lockblade
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Glass Dagger

Q] Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little bit about yourself. Who is MD Presley? And why should everyone be reading your novels?

MDP: I’m an introvert, so this is my most dreaded question of all times. I swear, I’ve lost more jobs than I can count when I hit the “tell me about yourself” question and I would stutter something like how I’m not a serial killer. Which we all know only makes you sound more like a serial killer. Because who needs to assure you that they’re not serial killers other than serial killers?

Now that the creepiness is (mostly) out of the way, I guess you should know I’m a former screenwriter who still works in the industry and got tired of no producer ever greenlighting the bizarre and budget-busting ideas I had. So I decided to self-publish, which might just be the best retirement plan for all screenwriters who don’t quite “make it.” But I like to think I learned a lot about plotting and characters from my time in the trenches, which hopefully shows in my novels, which is why you should read them.

Plus floating trains. And psychic exoskeletons. Who doesn’t want to read about those?

Q] When and why did you decide to become an author?

MDP: Ugh… I am the writer cliché that always wanted to be an author. Ever since I was a kid playing with my GI Joes/ Star Wars action figures, which I acted out really, REALLY intricate stories with. Then I would run the scenario again, but changing one event to see how it played out. Not borderline-type behavior at all…

Shortly after college I learned about screenwriting, which embodied everything I loved: Stories that no one ever read. I don’t particularly care for my prose, and screenwriting is a medium where no one but the film crew actually reads your work. So it seemed perfect.

Smash Cut To: 15 years later as I write novels and expose my prose to everyone who will deign to look.

Q] What draws you to writing in the genre of fantasy?

MDP: My mother checked out a single chapter of The Sword of Shannara on tape when I was in fourth grade and I listened to the battle between Panamon Creel and Keltset versus the skull bearer and I was pretty much hooked. Which sort of put me at a disadvantage since I encountered post-Tolkien authors (ala Dragonlance) before actually reading any Tolkien. So it was always a bit of a letdown when I read the source from which all inspiration sprung.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was the next real eye-opening moment for me when I realized authors could do anything, be it blending comics with sacred myths, all the while adding our own idiosyncratic mythos in a modern setting. It really was pivotal for me, and probably why I focused on epic urban fantasy during my screenwriting career.

Q] Tell us a little bit about your writing process. What do you start from? Do you start with a character, an image, or an idea? Talk a little bit about how a novel “grows” for you.

MDP: I’m a creative cannibal in that pretty much all my worlds, plots, and characters were begun in a completely different story idea that never panned out. But there were always some kernels of awesome seeded there, so I would keep them in my notes and wait until they found fertile soil. Usually by mixing them with another aborted idea. Sol’s Harvest, for instance, is a variation on a character I came up with in college mixed with a plot for one of my earliest screenplays, painted on a world I came up with as a thought experiment.

But that’s just planting the idea garden with a bit of compost from other ideas. After everything takes root, I’m really disciplined in my outlining phase, bible writing, world building, plotting, and the like. I would talk your ear off about it, but I realize there is nothing more mentally grating than hearing an author go on and on about their process. So I’ll just say visit my blog, where I go into excruciating detail as to the process weekly.

Q] What’s the hardest thing for you during the whole “writing experience”?

MDP: The process is pretty streamlined for me at this point, so I’ll say the waiting and myopia. Even with the great community of fellow self-published authors I get to hang out with online, writing is a very lonely endeavor: I literally sit alone in a darkened room after the rest of the household goes to bed. So you develop an intimate relationship with the material that isn’t always healthy. You (meaning me) get too close to the story, to the point you lose perspective and can’t tell if it’s good or bad anymore. I try to schedule time between the rough drafts and the editing phase so I can approach it with fresh eyes, but you (meaning me) honestly can’t tell what it’s worth until you start getting some sort of feedback, usually in terms of beta readers. Unfortunately, this is several months into the process, while all the while you’re left wondering if you’d just squandered your time and sanity on something no one will ever possibly love.

Which is why, I guess, there’s always such a cliched comparison between writing and raising children.

Q] What made you decide to self-publish as opposed to traditional publishing?

MDP: Like I joked earlier, I see a lot of screenwriters turn to self-publishing as a means to get their ideas out when no one in Hollywood will listen. We come from a world where the screenwriter makes (maybe) 2% of the budget of the film and then has to do rewrites (which are invariably TERRIBLE) based on the director/ producer/ actors’ notes multiple times throughout the process. Now don’t get me wrong, I obviously value others’ opinions (see above answer), but it gets very soul-crushing to be the one whose specialty is the story, yet having the least amount of control over it in the room. So writing novels was my escape from this, the ability to tell the stories I wanted to tell the way I wanted to tell them.

Which is why I avoid the traditional process like the plague: It’s the same thing I was trying to escape from the film world. Now this is my personal path, and I do not begrudge anyone who wants to go the traditional route. I just didn’t have the time/ inclination to start the same process over again at this point in my life. And, as advances drop and publishers try to wring diminishing profits out of their authors and new mediums like e-books and audio books, I feel I’ve made the right decision.

Q] One of the big challenges with self-publishing is finding readers. Was that your experience?

MDP: Oh dear God, yes. As wonderfully democratic as it is that anyone can now publish a book and get around those mythical gatekeepers of quality in the traditional publishing approach, the double-edged sword takes effect in that anyone can publish a book… usually of dubious quality. And as much as I am a proponent of self-publishing, I do realize there’s a lot, LOT of crap out there flooding the market. So the real problem in being a new self-published author is convincing a potential reader that you’re not like the rest of those terrible writers.

Which, just like a serial killer, is exactly what a terrible writer/ serial killer would say.

I did make some good early connections with fellow authors early on, but Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off was really a turning point for me in finding an audience. I ended up here at Fantasy Book Critic, and while I lost the opportunity to bear your banner to the championship round to eventual second-place winner Alec Hutson, the reviews I received here gave me that seal of approval I could tout to others as to why they should give my books a chance.

Q] What advice would you give someone who wants to self-publish?

MDP: Learn the lay of the land. Writing is a great personal experience, but you need an audience. And chances are you’re probably writing for/ in a subgenre. So go find that subgenre and where they hang out ahead of time. Become one of them so your book will have a better chance of reaching a receptive audience when it comes out.

Then make sure to put out a professional product. The reason self-publishing gets a bad rap is because much of it is crap. So rise above and take the extra effort to look like the real deal. That means professional proofreading, editing, and a great cover… all things I made mistakes on in my first fledgling steps.

But there are resources out there for authors now, covering everything from how much you should spend on editing to creating your author newsletter. Learn it and practice it.

Q] As you know, I'm a huge fan of your series. The novels can be read simply for fun and engaging plot, but they also deal with issues of politics, sacrifice and religious zealotry. Why were these themes important for you to write about?

MDP: I joke that the true pitch of my series is The Last Airbender put through the True Detective blender, which is to say I want to take everything that is bright and enjoyable of a fantasy world, then cover it in grit. And as much as I’m riding the current grimdark wave as it crests, I think it’s important that we don’t gloss over these big issues as we write our escapist genre. I’m a firm believer in the anti-hero, which also means that no one thinks they’re the villain in their own story. Which is why it matters so much to me that there’s shades of grey from all perspectives in this series.

Q] What was your initial inspiration for the Sol's Harvest series?

MDP: Oops, I answered that above. It really was The Last Airbender in that I wanted to test myself to see if I could create a world equally as lavish and interesting as that series, and True Detective in that I wanted to do a multiple timeline tale where you get to watch the protagonist(s) arc twice in the telling of each book, so that when you finish one timeline the events that preceded it now offer a different perspective than when you were reading it at the time.

Q] The thing I really enjoyed about the story was how you’ve orchestrated different, but converging time lines and how each book of the series focuses on a different character. Why have you decided to write them this way?

MDP: That’s the True Detective influence again (I should probably read the upcoming questions ahead of time so I will stop answering them in the previous questions). But each perspective adds new insight to previous events, so that knowing what you do about Luca in book two, you would read book one differently. Ditto with Graff from book three. And don’t even get me started on how book four will shift the understanding of the whole series…

Q] One of the things I’m torn about is my favorite character in this series, and that’s a good thing. I am definitely partial to Marta, though I probably find Luca most charming and Graff interesting in a creepy way. Do you have a favorite to write yourself?

MDP: I shouldn’t admit this, but Carmichael and Oleander were probably my favorites. I do like Marta and Luca (and Isabelle) as characters, but I don’t think I’d like to actually hang out with them as people. Not now that I’ve dealt with them for years on end. Oleander gets the benefit of the doubt because she’s remembered as a perfect and loving foil by Marta, which Carmichael is the exact opposite embodiment of. Which makes him so much fun to write.

Is it bad that I always identify with villains?

Q] The characters do develop and change as you read the novels. Did you find your own views of the characters changed as you were writing or was it always your intention for things to be “as they are”?

MDP: All their arcs are mapped out way ahead of time, although the path they take to get to those beats that I’ve planned out sometimes surprise me in the execution. And yes, my opinion of Graff changed significantly before/ after writing book three.

Q] The setting of the books is excellent. Though we’re not told everything, there feels like a rich backstory of history, myth and legend. What challenges did you face not just in making it accessible, but in incorporating all the information that needed to be conveyed to make the story work?

MDP: This is a tough question in that I’m currently doing research on a book on fantasy worldbuilding and will talk your ear off on the subject. But I do think it’s something we should discuss as fantasy fans/ authors because I think, along with plot and characters (and maybe prose), worldbuilding is one of the table legs that support our genre.

Personally speaking, I wrote something like 100 pages of worldbuilding spanning from their creation myth to the different factions currently vying for control before I even began outlining the books. But worldbuilding is a lot like backstory for characters in that, while the author needs to know it all, the audience doesn’t. It’s all about context and what you think is necessary for the story to make sense. I tried to show-not-tell the bits I could, but didn’t fear the infodump when I couldn’t. How well I accomplished creating audience context is entirely up to the readers to decide though.

Q] What sort of research did you do for Sol’s Harvest?

MDP: I hate to admit, but most of my research was Wikipedia. I mean, I read some books on the Civil War as well as a lot of myths, but mostly relied upon my memory of high school history and used my imagination (it is fantasy after all). Wikipedia was for moments where I needed specific details like how many troops are actually in a brigade.

Q] What was the most difficult part of writing this series? What was the most enjoyable part?

MDP: The most difficult part was the starting out as a self-published author and not knowing a damn thing. It was like being a newly blinded person let loose in a mob and told to go purchase a train ticket from a machine a half-mile away (I don’t know where that simile came from). Needless to say, there was a lot of fumbling and some skinned knees.

The best part, I hope, is yet to come when book four comes out and people see this unholy monstrosity I’ve wrought over the last several years.

Q] If you would be given the chance to rewrite any of the scenes in The Woven Ring before publication, would you do it? If yes, what and why?

MDP: I would rewrite it from page one on until the final punctuation mark. Not the story beats, mind you, but the prose. As I’ve said, I hate my own. But I hate what I’ve recently written less than I hate what I wrote long ago. Which is why I only read what I’ve already published to find specific details I need for the current story. Otherwise, reading it pains me since I want to correct it to fit my current style.

Q] Would you say that Sol’s Harvest series follows tropes or kicks them?

MDP: Well, it kicks the farmboy with a sword trope in the balls right out the gate with an aristocratic female with all the gifts who has already failed at life as the protagonist. Although I guess she does have a sword. There’s also no immediately obvious prophesy or dark one, and I do sort of end the initial quest in book two of four.

Which might be why this series isn’t that popular: People like tropes and I don’t think I included nearly enough.

Q] Which question about Sol’s Harvest series do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

MDP: Will character X be the final POV for book four? I love that question because it shows that people are engaged enough to care. And I can’t really answer because that would give it away.

But that was sort of a cheat. So I’ll leave you with this creepy question I got once: Will Marta and Carmichael ever make out?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Noooooooooo!

Q] Do you have a plan for your career as an author? At the moment you are wrapping up Sol's Harvest tetralogy. Do you have any other authorial goals that you are striving towards that you want to talk about?

MDP: As I said, I’m going to try my hand at a non-fiction book on fantasy worldbuilding when this is through. Then I’ll kick off an urban fantasy series that’s been living in my head rent-free for almost two decades. And I’m also considering returning to the world of Ayr with a series of novellas exploring the other continents and their particular magics with one of the surviving characters from this series. But we’ll see how much energy I actually have.

Q] Can you name three books you adore as a reader, but that make you feel inadequate as a writer?

MDP: Neil Gaiman’s The Wake: I had so many feels for this one that I don’t think I’ll ever produce in anyone ever, even if I live to be 100. 100 Years of Solitude: Just plain lush. And I’ve always wanted to make a movie out of Peter Hoeg’s Borderliners because of the way he captures alienation in a way I’ve never been able to. Although I’ve certainly tried.

Q] Thank you so much for agreeing to this conversation, MD! We greatly appreciate your time and thoughts.

MDP: You’re kidding, right? You appreciate my time?! How often does an author, especially a self-published one, get to go on about themselves on a stage like this without having to pay money (or perhaps an organ) for? Seriously, much of the success that I do have comes from Fantasy Book Critic and the support you’ve shown me, an unknown author with no connections. You opened the doors for me and I will never forget that.

So if you ever need a body buried west of the Mississippi, you got my number.

East? Well, I know a guy…

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