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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Interview with Rachel Aaron & Travis Bach (interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Rachel Aaron Website
Official Travis Bach Website  
Order “Forever Fantasy Online: Last BastionHERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Forever Fantasy Online"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Nice Dragons Finish Last"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "One Good Dragon Deserves Another"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "A Dragon Of A Different Color"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Last Dragon Standing"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Minimum Wage Magic"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "The Spirit Thief
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of “The Spirit Rebellion” 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of “The Spirit Eater” & “Spirit’s Oath” 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of “The Spirit War” 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Spirit's End"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Fortune's Pawn"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Honor's Knight"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Heaven's Queen"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Interview with Rachel Aaron
Read Eli Monpress series completion interview with Rachel Aaron
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Interview with Rachel Bach
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Heartstrikers interview with Rachel Aaron
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Second Heartstrikers interview with Rachel Aaron
Read "Why A Nice Dragon" by Rachel Aaron (Guest post)

Q] Welcome back to Fantasy Book Critic Rachel and Travis, I would like to extend a warm welcome to you. Can you tell us about yourself and how did you end up joining your lovely wife on the writing path?

Rachel: I pulled him into it! Trav has always been the better storyteller. All of my books would have been terrible without his input. It was inevitable that he’d start writing on his own really.

Travis: Thanks for having us. Appearing on FBC is a real joy [that I’ve been slightly jealous of Rachel of for years now…^_~]

Rachel’s praising me but co-authoring a book with her has been like One Piece’s Zoro vs Mihawk-- I never before knew that the top was so high and far away from my skills. It’s been fun and humbling.

She’s right that it was inevitable. Eventually I found a story I wanted to read but which didn’t exist. So, I threw caution to the wind, sat down, and wrote it. Luckily for me, Rachel also liked it and joined the project to help bring it up to a level that everyone else could enjoy.

Q] Since this trilogy is a first for you both. Rachel it’s a first for you to collaborate professionally on a story. Travis this is your debut trilogy, considering both of these firsts, I was wondering how you both approached writing this story?

Rachel: I was super busy with finishing Heartstrikers when Trav came up with the idea for Forever Fantasy Online. The moment he told me the story, I was all YOU HAVE TO LET ME IN ON THAT, but I had no time in my schedule. Trav had long wanted to write something himself anyway, though, so he decided to just give it a go writing the story himself.

Travis being Travis, he did a really bang-up job! There were plenty of rough bits as there are with every first novel, but the story itself was really really good. I knew instantly that I wanted to publish it, so we decided to collaborate and use my experience to bring the book up to publishable quality. Also, I *might* have grabbed the manuscript and run off while cackling.

Anyway, after much experimentation, we ended up with both of us collabing on the plot, then Trav writes the first draft and passes it on to me. I make edits and we argue about changes, then I get the book for a final pass and polish. After that point, we pretty much tossed the book back and forth until we both loved the finished product.

I don’t know if this is how other authors work, but Travis and I have always worked together on pretty much every project, so we just did what felt natural and produced the best end result. I’m really proud of the books we’ve written together. I love FFO in general, but I think what I love most is that it’s a story I never would have come up with on my own. This is a project neither of us could have done on our own, and I think it’s the best combination of both of our talents!

Travis: We’re pretty used to planning books together, so the initial plotting was more or less the same – i.e. notebooks at a brewery and us cackling over this dreadful twist or that hilarious gag. That’s the “easy” part.

Afterward, I go off and write the first draft for a few months. This begins the ongoing process of me showing the work to Rachel, her covering it in red ink, and me rewriting huge swaths. That probably sounds more dramatic than it is because there’s an apprenticeship part of this whole deal. This is the phase where I get critiqued down to the prose level as well as the hyper-detailed story level. It’s something no editor (or anyone) but Rachel would do for me and it’s utterly invaluable for my learning to be an author.

(And here I must thank all those years of being a programmer. Harsh or panicked criticism of your work is a pretty normal day for a coder IMO and years of that have made me pretty good at accepting pages-long lists of “what you did wrong.” It’s definitely enabled Rachel and I to work through mountains of newbie mistakes with wonderful efficiency and minimal drama.)

Once I’ve learned as much as I can on the manuscript, I hand my best version of it over to Rachel and we get down to the business of producing a high-quality book. She adds and rewrites whatever parts she wants in order to bring her voice and flavor to the work. Keep in mind we plotted it together and have worked out the kinks beforehand, so oodles of her input have already been sewn into the fabric of the novel by this time.

My favorite part of all this is getting to read her version of the book. It’s like someone taking my web-series and turning it into a AAA movie. (Also humbling when I get to see how much better her prose is than mine. But hey…goals.)

Q] I know with her previous books, Rachel really loves to plot the story. With this collaboration, how did you both go about with the plotting?

Rachel: We are both nutters about plotting. Seriously, we talk plot all the time about books we’re not even going to write because we’re giant nerds who’ve always loved making up stories. Getting to plot FFO together was the ultimate form of this obsession. We must have hashed out the plot for the series a billion times, refining and fine tuning until we knew exactly what happened and why. Which is good, because as you see in book 2, things get COMPLICATED.

Travis: We got pretty obsessed with it for a while there, which is good. But yeah, there’s a lot going on in this book. Part of that comes from the massive cast and double protagonist set up of Tina and James. The rest comes from our adamant refusal to deal in simple black-and-white issues. The situation in Bastion is messy and there are no clean easy solutions laying around. Some characters are both good and bad. This meant we had a lot of material which required detailed handling.

Overall, it’s bold, it’s dramatic, and it’s an ambitious-as-hell book that I’m very proud of.

Q] With regards to writing the story, how did you both split it? Do you approach it like Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child who write individual chapters and then polish each other’s chapters or like other collaborations when author’s write individual chapters while focusing on an overall main plot?

Rachel: Nothing so elegant. Travis and I have always been a happy pig pile of ideas. We just sit down and throw ourselves at an idea, talking over each other and running wild with ideas until we end up with something that makes us both super happy. It’s a fun, chaotic mess that’s still based on good fundamentals like theme and story structure, because without those you’re lost. We’ve always plotted my books together, though, so it wasn’t actually a big change. The new element was that Travis was writing the scenes now instead of just helping me. But this was a true collaboration. We’ve both touched every word in the novels, and I think we ended up with a true blend of both of our ideas and voices.

Travis: We have a thing called “the idea bucket.” Awesomeness gets poured into it at all stages of the novel up until the content edits are done. We try to fit in as much of the bucket’s contents as we can, because those are the pieces we’re most excited about and which ultimately make the most entertaining story.

We also gossip about our characters like a pair of old church ladies. It’s really productive gossip though! Even though we’re talking about who likes who and who hates who, what weird thing so-and-so keeps in their backpack, who would win in a fight, what he said, what she said, and so on.

It’s fun, but this sort of gossiping also helps the two of us get to know the cast really well and in a way that’s uniform between us. My NekoBaby and Rachel’s NekoBaby is the same [awesomely flawed] person. This is super-important as we can’t have inconsistent characters but it’s also how we wind up with every character having a strong voice of their own. We really try to get to know them like roommates.

Q] Let’s talk about Forever Fantasy Online trilogy, with LitRPGs being the new upcoming subgenre. What lead you both to write a story in this field?

Rachel: To be honest, I didn’t actually know LitRPG was a thing until someone called FFO that. We’re just a couple of hopeless America MMORPG gamers who watched the explosion of trapped in the game anime like Sword Art Online and Log Horizon and instantly thought “what if WE did that, but for the sort of games WE played and starring the gamers WE knew?!” And thus FFO was born.

Travis: What Rachel said. (I can do that once per interview. Right? ^_~) Haha, just kidding. We love the trapped-in-the-game genre, but the anime of such is always limited to shounen character tropes. The gamers I know and love are cut from much more diverse cloth. They are raucous hooligans, hilarious trolls, stoners, power-gaming moms, drunk dads (represent!), no-lifers, dragon-gamers-who-want-to-conquer-everything, that overly sweet healer guy, and more. I wanted a trapped-in-the-game novel about those people. Our people.

Little did I know about Litrpg. But I’ve read a ton of it since the publication of FFO1 and I can happily say that Forever Fantasy Online is a fairly unique approach to this subgenre. We have no stats or leveling, which are hallmarks of Litrpg, but that void is filled by an ensemble cast and an epic-fantasy storyline. Besides, I worry that only telling the “hero levels up” story is too confining for a growing genre, so I’m happy to contribute something which pushes the edge a bit.

Q] Talking about FFO, whose idea was it originally given that both of you are gamers?

Rachel: This was Travis’ brain child. He finds all the cool stuff we’re into. But he comes up with most of my good ideas. I just steal them and run!

Travis: Says the lady who invented 99% of the Heartstrikers and the DFZ novels. I was just like, “what about a dragon who doesn’t want to be a calculating master-villain?”

I may have started FFO, but there’s so many of Rachel’s ideas in the book that I’ve lost track. We’ve gamed together for 17 years so we share a brain on this (and a lot of great in-game stories.)

Q] Travis, since Rachel is already a published author. What lead you to take the plunge with this story?

Travis: After having helped make books with Rachel for so many years now, I felt ready to do it. I wanted to do it. So why not? In my hubris, the bar for success seemed very low at the start. *Hysterical laughter goes here* Yeah, my first draft for FFO1 was awful. Turns out being an editor doesn’t teach one how to write. The story was fine, but my prose was totally amateur.

But I have learned a lot since FFO1. Book 2 has come together much faster and with far fewer mistakes on my part. There have been many lessons for me to learn still but my issues are getting more subtle and finer in nature. No more “you forgot to describe things in this chapter” types of problems. ^_^

Q] How did you try to make the story accessible to non-gamers (like moi)? Because the story has heavy utilization of several terms that would confound most non-gaming folks?

Rachel: We always wanted this to be a book anyone could read, so right off the bat we were super careful to make sure the jargon was always explained either directly or by context. Honestly, though, SciFi novel and Epic Fantasy are always full of new terms and ideas you have to teach your readers so they can understand the story! Compared to introducing readers to magical systems or powered armor, gamer terminology wasn’t actually that big a jump. Especially since so much of it is used in every day internet-speak already!

Travis: Rachel nailed it, but what I’d love to add is that this is a big reason why Frank exists. We made up an ingenue character to help with the burden of exposition. I think Frank plays his part very well. (Also, I freaking love Frank. He’s such a warm soul!)

Q] FFO while having an epic fantasy feel to it, also has a very solid mystery to it as well. I liked this fusion, what were you both aiming for with it?

Rachel: I’ll let Trav handle this one since he came up with the mystery plot, but really it was a natural evolution of having so much to explain. Not to pull back the curtain too much, but complex exposition is a LOT easier to handle when the characters are trying to figure out what’s going on at the same time as the reader.

Travis: As any of my table-top players will tell you, this sort of set up is my favorite storytelling trick. I love to have a deep, dark mystery lurking at the center of my settings. Something which drives events of the past, present, and future with its gravity.

FFO is no exception. Just like my table-top RPG campaigns, I have a document for FFO called “the true history” which lays out exactly what happened, when, and why. But no one character in the series knows that much. In-setting, people have things wrong, or they have partial information. So they all circle around this black-beating heart of a mystery that’s slowly sucking them all in as it gets worse.

Rest assured though - I know what the Nightmare is, how it started, how it ended, and all the other important meta-questions of the series. It was all figured out before FFO1 was published and I promise we’re gonna get to it by the end of book 3.

Q] FFO also has a brother-sister duo as the main POV characters, however book 2 has a new POV character. Will there be more characters getting a POV in the 3rd book?

Travis: This is tough to answer without spoilers, haha. Um, let’s say that, no, there won’t be any new POVs introduced. Technically the character we’re discussing got a POV sequence in book 1 as well. I intend to keep that character limited to 1 POV sequence per novel.

Q] Will you both be collaborating on a new story once this trilogy ends?

Rachel: It really depends on which story we decide to do next. There are definitely a couple I think we should do together, but there are also lots we both want to do solo. It really depends on what we’re most excited about when the time comes!

Travis: I’ve tried really hard, while writing FFO, to never look at a problem and say, “I’ll just let Rachel fix this when she gets to it.” I know that:
(1) if she catches me doing this…oh boy and
(2) that’s not how I improve.

Still, I always have to wonder if I tried my absolute hardest knowing that I have such amazingly expert backup.

I worry that if we do another collaboration on the heels of FFO, that I’ll plateau on my skills. Chicks have to leave the nest eventually. Training wheels need to come off to ride. You know the sayings.

That said, if we come up with a great project we both want to do together, then that’s what we’ll likely do. In the end, we chase the books we’re most passionate about as those make the most unforgettable stories.

Q] Rachel when you will be releasing the sequel to Minimum Wage Magic and what can readers expect in it?

Rachel: Book 2 is called PART-TIME GODS and it should (barring disaster) be released this summer! I don’t have an exact date yet since we’re still lining the final bits up like the cover and what not, but it definitely will not be long. I really love how the story turned out, and I hope you will too!

Q] Travis will you be writing any solo stories? What can we expect from you next?

Travis: I feel its important for my next work to be solo. As for what that is, I don’t know yet. I doubt that I’ll do another Litrpg story as I’ve said all I wanted to say. FFO is a strange beast since it starts as sci-fi (future, immersion VR) but lives as an epic fantasy. I feel that I could go Sci-Fi or Fantasy or even Urban Fantasy from here.

Fortunately, the story bucket is packed so I’m going to sit down and do some career planning once FFO3 is done.

Q] Thank you both for your time, any parting words for your fans and for our readers?

Rachel: Just thank you. You guys are the reason we get to do the job we love most in the world! We never forget that entertaining you is the reason our books exist, and I can’t wait for you to read all the new fun stuff we’ve got lined up!

Travis: Thanks again for asking us over. I also have some free fiction in the form of various shorts over on my site if people are curious. It’s no grand collection, but there’s some more LitRPG, a spot of comedy, some space-colony-zombie stuff, and a few experiments.
Wednesday, April 24, 2019

SPFBO Finalist: The Anointed by Keith Ward (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski & Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order The Anointed over HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Keith Ward has been writing fiction since he was little; in elementary school, he and his friend John wrote a series of skits called "We're in the army now," in which they were raw recruits. They'd write the script early in the week and act it out later in the week. 

For more than a dozen years he's written fiction, focusing on novels and screenplays. In 2012, his screenplay "Deadly Air," about the early days of the U.S. Airmail Service, won a special award at the Astana International Action Film Festival in Astana, Kazakhstan. He's also collaborated on screenplays with a major Hollywood producer.

He lives in Maryland, near Baltimore, with his glorious wife and whatever children haven't yet come to their senses and left the nest.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Xinlas’s life goal is modest: he wants to be a living legend, revered in song and story. And he’s off to a good start. He faced death once, and won. His legend grew -- at least in his own mind.

Fame comes calling on Xinlas again, or so he thinks, when he stumbles on a hidden village. The village has a resource that no one’s ever seen before. A resource that can be used to conquer other lands. A resource that a power-mad ruler will kill for.

Can Xinlas -- with the help of a mysterious orange-haired girl he meets on a river -- stop the man who would enslave millions? It will take a kind of courage found in legendary heroes. 


FORMAT: The Anointed was self-published by the author in December 2017 as a third book in Red Proxy series. It works as a standalone. It's available in an e-book, paperback and hardcover format. 

The book counts 489 pages and is divided into 70 numbered chapters. 

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (LUKASZ): The Anointed shows a lot of promise. It blends well-known tropes/topics (chosen one figure, coming-of-age arc) with interesting setting and unique ideas (transfer of life-span through Proxies). Unfortunately, it also falls short on providing a substantial character development and strong storytelling.

I liked the setting and the concept of lengthening the life. In theory, anyone with sufficient means can reach immortality through Transfers. In the process, a Transfer recipient gains the life Span of a Proxy (usually innocents and children). Getting more Transfers, gives you a longer life but increases the risk of Transfer Sickness that leads to insanity. 

Story’s protagonist, Xinlas, had done nothing noteworthy in his life. As the fortunate son of a rich, influential family, he dreams about becoming a hero. When it turns out his Span was probably miscalculated, Xinlas acts like a typical teenager. It gets him into troubles but it also drives the story forward, especially when he meets Greengrass - a mysterious and strange girl from Peacewood. 

Their worlds have little in common. In Peacewood, everyone works for the benefit of the community and they even don’t have words like money or buying. Greengrass’ driving force is curiosity. Xinlas’ actions steer from ambition, arrogance and angst. Their interactions are usually fun. 

That said, I haven’t warmed up to any of them. As most characters in the story, they felt rather two-dimensional. Their arcs contained uninteresting repetitions and lacked a hook that would make me turn the pages frantically just to learn what happens next.

Even though the story’s bad guy, DuQuall, feels slightly over-the-top, I liked his chapters most. DuQuall is a cold, ruthless and ridiculous ruler who doesn’t care for his people. He’s portrayed mainly through Plionya (his wife) and Jiixe (Span-seer) POV’s. Their parts of the book never lack tension, strong emotions, and good hooks that made me wonder what would come next. 

DuQuall used his children as Proxies. He wants to live forever and he fears his offspring would follow his footsteps and, once allowed to live and age, usurp his throne. I admired Plyonia’s strength and Jiixe’s skill in dealing with him.  

Ward’s utilitarian and simple prose is easy to follow but also repetitive and lackluster. I firmly believe in the power of brevity and I dislike unnecessary description or slowly developing chapters. Ward’s writing didn’t immerse me in the world and the events. Take a look at this quote about a character falling from the skies:

So this is what it feels like to fall off a dragon. Strange. Wow. I’m moving really fast. The ground is approaching quickly. I. Am. Going. To. Die. Nothing I can do about it. I just never thought something like this would happen. What about my destiny?

Maybe, just maybe, someone would actually think those words. No idea, I’ve never fallen off a dragon. But that’s irrelevant. They just don’t convey the danger and the drama. 

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (MIHIR): The Anointed is a book that I was super excited to read based on its blurb. The details that the blurb entails are pretty cool as is the spiffy cover. This world has some pretty cool features and dragons. All in all I was very much wanting to read this book.

The story has many POV characters and chief among them is Xinlas, our “hero” and resident problem child. He’s a sole surviving proxy baby which makes him uniquely arrogant. This world as presented is a very cool one, there’s the span concept which basically means that anybody who’s born immediately knows how long they will live. There’s also the fact that nothing can float in this world so potentially any water body is an unsurpassable boundary. There’s also the concept of proxy babies, which is a way for people to increase their life span (in a horrific way). There’s the sudden discovery of a hitherto hidden place which has magical wood which floats which suddenly causes the plot to go into high speed.

There’s a few more things that are bubbling under, but overall the world settings and magic system which really differentiate this story and this I believe is the USP of the story. For me though this book wasn’t an enjoyable read inspite of these interesting characteristics because of its utterly annoying main character Xinlas. This is not a knock on unlikeable characters, I like prefer stories with darker turns and unlikeable protagonists. However Xinlas as a character failed to hold my interest. His dealings with the other characters, his superiority complex as well as his arrogance. There’s also the fact he assaults a female character which supposedly helps him grow as a person. Now I’m not a reader who believes in absolutes. I believe an author should be able to explore any aspect that they want but then they should be able to explain as to why their characters behave as they do. This is where my enjoyment of the story fell apart, Xinlas absolutely comes across as jerk of the highest order and there’s no real reason given for his change. This is not to say that the author doesn’t present the case for Xinlas’ change of heart but honestly it didn’t come through as genuine enough for me.

There’s also the part about the people who have managed to stay hidden for so long who are peaceful beyond compare and also are truthful beyond fault. I failed to buy this aspect of the story, not saying that this can’t happen. But there’s not much of an explanation provided and that really hampered my read. Lastly the story pace is also something that perhaps could have been spruced up. More than two-thirds of the story, things are just tepid. Again in the end, this is my subjective opinion. I feel that I’m unduly trashing this story and that there might be better stories by Keith Ward. Unfortunately for me this one wasn’t to my taste at all.

CONCLUSION (ŁUKASZ)With its strong setting and interesting premises, The Anointed shows some promise. Unfortunately, parts of the book are monotonous, especially when it digs into the repetitive descriptions. It lacks strong chapter hooks that would make me feel the urge of page-turning hunger. 

SPFBO Final Score - 3/10

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Zero Sum Game by SL Huang (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order Zero Sum Game over HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: SL Huang justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. In real life, you can usually find her hanging upside down from the ceiling or stabbing people with swords. She is unhealthily opinionated at and on Twitter as @sl_huang.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good. The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight, and she'll take any job for the right price.

As far as Cas knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower...until she discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master.

Cas should run, like she usually does, but for once she's involved. There’s only one problem...

She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.

CLASSIFICATION: Science fiction thriller.

FORMAT: Initially self-published by the author, Zero Sum Game was republished by Tor Books in October 2018. It's the first book in Cas Russell series. It's available in an e-book, paperback, and hardcover format. 

The book counts 329 pages


There is something beautiful about the high-speed math of a gunfight. I’ve heard other people opine that gunfights are confusing and disorienting, but to me, they always happen with perfect clarity: every bullet impact leads back to its source, every barrel sweeping through with its own exact trajectory.

Thanks to good teachers I fell in love with mathematics and geometry early in my life. There are art and thrill in reasoning, imagination and finding the truth. 

Zero Sum Game’s protagonist - Cas Russell is a weaponized mathematics genius and a kick-ass heroine with mild psychopathic tendencies. She literally equates her way out of impossible situations and devastates her opponents with preternatural ease and speed. It seems I have a new crush.

Cas is a loner and an outcast leaving off the grid as a retrieval expert. Human life doesn’t mean much to her, and she rarely hesitates to pull the trigger. She trusts only one person, Rio, an absolute and ruthless psychopath whose ability to be lethally effective borders on the unrealistic. 

Her latest job goes wrong. It turns a seemingly naïve drug mule Cas rescued from Colombians is part of a secret and well-connected organization, called Pithica. Despite the evident danger, Cas can’t help digging deeper into the case. Supported by Rio, irritatingly moral PI investigator and a brilliant computer-whiz she faces opponents with augmented psychic skills (telepathy). 

I have a soft spot for unlikable heroes with psychopathic tendencies. Add genius mind to the mix and I’m sold. Cas and Rio are a lethal, terrifying duo. Cas’s mind-bending math skills allow her to dodge bullets, eavesdrop through closed doors thanks to an in-depth understanding of sound waves properties, or jump from building to building through an armed window. People don’t understand her and she doesn’t function well in society. 

Rio is an unstoppable killing machine. He’s unable to experience normal human emotions. For unknown reasons the two trust each other on a visceral level. I hope SL Huang will explore their non-romantic, intriguing relationship in the sequels. 

Secondary characters felt entertaining and well rounded. That said, remember we’re talking about explosive, fast and over-the-top pulp read. Don’t expect these characters to be realistic. Unless you live in a much more interesting world than I.

I choose to turn a blind eye to its flaws - small inconsistencies, open ending, a ton of unanswered questions, cheesy moments directly out of an action B-movie. If such things irritate you Cas’s story will tire and disappoint you. If, however, you love explosive, hard-hitting and straightforward crime fiction with a supernatural twist try it.

CONCLUSION: I loved this book. It has it all. A kick-ass heroine with mild psychopathic tendencies and a genius mind. Mathematics. Preternatural skills. Conspiracies. Breakneck speed. Guns, mines, and grenades. 

Interesting fact Originally, the Cas Russell series (formerly Russell’s Attic series) was self-published by the author and consisted of four books and two short stories. Because of upcoming Tor re-release of the series only book 1 is available for purchase at the moment (with book two Null Set coming out in July). The republished version will differ from the source material on some levels.
Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Witch who Courted Death by Maria Lewis

Official Author Website
Order Witch Who Courted Death over HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Maria Lewis is an author, journalist and screenwriter based in Sydney, Australia. Getting her start as a police reporter, her writing on pop culture has appeared in publications such as the New York Post, Guardian, Penthouse, The Daily Mail, Empire Magazine, Gizmodo, Huffington Post, The Daily and Sunday Telegraph, i09, Junkee and many more. Previously seen as a presenter on SBS Viceland’s nightly news program The Feed and as the host of Cleverfan on ABC, she has been a journalist for over 13 years. 

CLASSIFICATION: A dark LGBT friendly urban fantasy with horror elements.

FORMAT: The Witch who Courted Death was published by Piatkus in October 2018. It's a stand-alone novel. It's available in an e-book, paperback and hardcover format. 

The book counts 432 pages and is divided into 20 numbered chapters. 

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (Lukasz): It’s been a while since I read a book about witches. Actually, it’s been a while since I read a genuinely fresh urban fantasy and I read in the genre regularly. The Witch who Courted Death by Maria Lewis impressed me on many levels and I don’t understand why so few people read it. It has it all - a relatable, complex characters, interesting supernatural creatures, magic, spells, charms, covens, mayhem, and romance. Plus, contrary to most books in the genre, the story happens in Europe, in Berlin, Riga, and Cornwall.

Corvossier ‘Casper’ von Klitzing, the world’s most powerful medium, and her twin brother Barastin can speak with and control the dead. For unknown reasons a sect called Oct targets them, kills Barastin and maims Casper. She survives, but she looses everyone she’s ever cared for. She wants a revenge, but before she sees justice done, she must find a witch who doesn’t want to be found.

Casper is an impressive gal. Strong, composed, caring, intelligent and resourceful she makes her plans work by using resources at hand. The hunger for revenge drives her but doesn’t consume her. As a self-aware adult who’s been using her powers all her life, she’s already accomplished the quest for self-discovery and teenage angst is way past her. And I love it. Urban fantasy needs more mature protagonists.

Her relationships with Barastin and the remaining cast of characters felt true, and I loved her interactions with ghosts. Lewis impressed me with descriptions of Casper’s journeys on an astral plane. Very imaginative, and fresh.    

Worldbuilding is the second delight of this story. I enjoy urban fantasy for many reasons, mainly because it introduces supernatural elements to our world and doesn’t have to spend a lot of time on establishing geography, mythology and, well, the world. Lewis impressed me with the amount of supernatural knowledge and research she poured into the novel and that allowed her to keep the balance between two worlds: supernatural and the real one. Caspers’ world has a lot of different beings (elementals, werewolves, ghouls, Arachne) and a complex supernatural hierarchy, sets of powers and behaviors. In places it reads almost like an espionage thriller.

I need to give you an example. Have you ever seen stunning etchings of Gustave Doré? If not, you should. He created beautifully haunting engravings to accompany Dante’s Divine comedy, and one of the most impressive presents Arachne’s punishment. We see her partially transformed into a spider. Similar creatures play a significant role in Lewis’ stand-alone. And they’ll give you goose bumps.

The plot, while engaging, has uneven pacing. The story starts strong and develops fast until Casper visits Cornwall. And then things slow down and the story looses momentum. What started as a darker urban fantasy saturated with humor and pop-culture references suddenly devolves into a romance story. The middle part of the book reads almost as a supernatural slice of life fantasy. I didn’t like it. It bored me. 

The romance is convincing; I guess. The thing is, I dislike romance, and when it becomes the focus of otherwise engaging story, I start to complain. Even though more romantic readers will enjoy this arc, they will, probably see (and if not, I’ll tell them) the biggest problem of this novel - it can’t choose what type of story it wants to tell. For me, revenge and “investigation” parts contrast strongly with unfocused, wordy and unexciting stay in Cornwall and blooming romance. 

That said, if you like romance, I expect your reaction to differ from mine. 

The prose, now. Lewis writes well. She likes descriptions and long chapters more than me, but I have no complaints. Her language conveys the story and paints a clear picture. When needed, she mixes humor with horror. She delivers punchy lines, and excellent descriptions of people, magical creatures and their interactions. Also, the dialogue. Natural, nicely flowing, engaging.   

CONCLUSION: Despite minor issues I had with this book, I enjoyed it a lot. It provides a solid, energetic story and well-needed emphasis on women (not teenagers, adult, mature women). With fine characterization and willingness to spill blood so the reader may understand the stakes, it shines amongst a plethora of generic books published in the genre. Also, it’s a stand-alone, self-contained novel with a satisfying, upbeat end. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

SPFBO Finalist: Sowing by Angie Grigaliunas (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski & Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Sowing over HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Angie Grigaliunas (grig-ah-LOO-nahs) is a part-time normal person and full-time author of fantasy/dystopian young adult books. And also some romance. (“She admits it! Murderer!”) She loves Jesus, the woods, and the stars, and has always wanted to be a superhero with a secret identity.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: For Ariliah, life under the militarized Hulcondans is one of order and safety. Despite the soldiers’ ruthless policies, she trusts their judgment. They alone provide protection from the enemies lurking beyond the city wall.

For her older sister, Rabreah, every glance from a Hulcondan is a threat. Though even a whisper against them is treason worthy of death, Rabreah is determined to end their tyranny. Joining an underground resistance is her only hope – until she realizes she doesn’t know the people she’s aligned herself with at all. Unsure who to trust but unable to back out, she must work alongside the attractive yet infuriating rebel leader who reminds her far too much of the soldiers she hates.

But with subversive posters appearing throughout the city and people dying on the blade of an unknown assailant, the sisters’ world begins to crumble.

CLASSIFICATION: A YA Dystopian novel.

FORMAT: Sowing was self-published by the author in 2016 as a first book in The Purification Era series. It's available in an e-book, paperback and hardcover format. 

The book counts 386 pages and is divided into 32 numbered chapters. The cover art was done by Kat Mellon. 

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (LUKASZ): While I read broadly, I rarely reach for dystopian YA fiction. I have nothing against the genre, but given the choice, I pick other things. In this case, though, I'm glad SPFBO made me read it. 

The story takes place in the nation of Etholia, in a city walled from all around. Militarised Hulcondans rule the city and expect its citizens to follow ruthless policies. They can be cruel and abusive but they also provide protection from the enemies lurking beyond the wall. 

The dystopian scenario requires a rebellion, and one is just starting. Not yet city-wide, but groups of rebels led by a mysterious Sorek try to shake highly regimented society. And here comes the twist. Grigaliunas doesn’t follow key characters on both sides of the barricade. Instead, she focuses on two sisters - Ariliah and Rabreah - who interact with change-makers. The novel is told in first-person chapters that alternate between their points of view. 

Ari trusts Hulcondans and believes their rules will bring peace and safety. Rab despises them and dreams about ending their tyranny. She joins the underground resistance but soon she realises she doesn’t know the people she’s aligned herself with. 

Sowing impressed me on many levels, namely character growth, in-depth study of trauma and emotional abuse, and a solid presentation of strong emotions. While the sisters were irritating and I couldn’t fully connect with them, they grew a lot. Characters felt well developed, not only because of behaviour but also thanks to intriguing back stories and unique quirks. 

Ariliah never gives non-verbal responses to direct questions, and she stutters, especially when nervous or afraid. Rabreah is always on the defensive and lashes out on people. Rebellion leader, Sorek, remains snarky and composed while one of the oppressors, Masrekah displays a dry sense of humour. 

Both sisters suffered emotional and physical abuse from their mother. They care for each other deeply and I would say sisterhood and their relations remain more important than the plot. Obviously, there’s a plot and larger scale-events but Grigaliunas doesn’t focus on them. Instead, she focuses on people involved in the conflict and their emotions. We get little action or graphic violence but the in-depth study of characters wrestling with their respective fears (in first person POV) makes Sowing surprisingly dark and intense.

I appreciate the lack of an evil villain. Both city Lords, Masrekah and Siserah, fit the role but there’s much more to them. I’m especially interested in manipulative Mas. I have a feeling that his icy pretence is just a mask. I definitely want to see how his arc develops. And I like him. 

Then we have Sorek. He cares for people, but he will do anything to stop monsters. When needed, he’ll become one.  He makes an impression of someone who doesn’t care whether he lives or dies as long as he reaches his goals.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (MIHIR): Sowing by Angie Grigaliunas is a book that has divided opinions among the SPFBO judges. It’s a book that Sarah (Bookworm Blues) chose this book because it was a sorting hybrid thriller and political intrigue novel among other things.

This book was a hard one for me to review as on one hand I enjoyed the characterization as we get two solid POV characters and they do draw the reader in entirely but on the other hand, the world details aren’t quite laid out properly for the narrative to make sense entirely. The main plot revolves entirely around Rabreah and her younger sister Ariliah. Both of them are living in an unnamed city which is ruled by beings called Hulcondans and they now extract a heavy price on the populace for their support. Ariliah & Rabreah have completely differing viewpoints about the necessity and effective of the Hulcondan ruling class. Thus begins the main plot of the book and it further devolves into many threads as both sisters go their separate ways as they try to make sense of their lives and try to find purpose. This book had a lot of issues that affected my enjoyment, dealing with 3 topics:

- Worldbuilding

- Characterization

- Overall plot

Primarily the worldbuilding is where there is a massive disconnect, we are told of a conflict in the past as well a current problem involving a humanoid race called the Itzalin. But that’s about it, we never hear anything more. Not whatever happened in the past or what’s currently happening. There’s a few mentions of somethings but nothing that clarifies much more. This partially baked approach really hampers the plot as well as our understanding of the story.

The characterization is the next point that perhaps struck me as a little off. Here’ why both the sisters are said to love each other but they take different paths. Now that wouldn’t be such an issue but the author doesn’t really explain much of why and how they came to their current positions. It would have been nice to see why Rabreah is the rebellious sort whereas Ariliah seems to be the one deferring to authority. Plus this has been pointed out in many reviews and I don’t want to add to the chorus but the mother’s character is major puzzle. Why is she so sadistic towards her daughters, why does she behave the way she does? This and many more questions are just left for us to ponder and this was jarring to say the least.

Lastly the overall plot never really coalesces into something that the readers will enjoy. I mean that there isn’t much that happens overall and then there’s the whole sexual assaults (real, assumed, and threatened) that occur in the book. I get the author wanted to project a world that offers no safety to women and in some cases, it might convey the sense. However a trick utilized too many times, becomes easy to predict and that’s exactly what happens. Almost every time when you think something bad can happen, it usually does and it involves some form of sexual assault. I wish the author had better camouflaged this aspect of the world or presented it in a way that didn’t make is seem repetitive.

Going by my review it might seem, that this book isn’t all that good. But that’s not the case, there’s a good story hidden within and you can glimpse it from time to time but there’s a lot that needs to be done over here for this title. I hope the author doesn’t take this as an attack. For a book to reach the finals, it definitely means that it has merit. Each judge’s opinion is subjective and all the things that I listed above, could be pooh-poohed away by anybody who enjoyed Sowing. For me this book, wasn’t an enjoyable read and that’s what is reflected in our score.

CONCLUSION (ŁUKASZ): I’ll stop before this review becomes too long (probably too late anyway). I enjoyed the book. Impressive intrigues and cleverly exploited character flaws make it memorable. Fans of non-stop violent action may feel disappointed as not much is happening. If, however, you appreciate introspection and character study, Sowing should satisfy you.

SPFBO Final Score - 5/10
Thursday, April 11, 2019

EXCLUSIVE COVER REVEAL: Quill (The Cartographer series #1) plus Q&A with AC Cobble (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Today we are super excited to exclusively reveal the cover for QUILL, the first book in the Cartographer series by A. C. Cobble. AC is the author of the Benjamin Ashwood series that is complete at six volumes. I first came to know of this book thanks to cover designer Shawn T. King, who is the genius behind several amazing indie covers such as Never Die (Rob J. Hayes) with art by Felix Ortiz, Endsville (Clay Sanger), & We Ride The Storm (Devin Madson) with art by John Anthony Di Giovanni,  and many more...

We are also glad to have AC answer a few questions about this new book and series as well as the world within. AC also talks about his collaboration with Shawn to create the stunning cover seen below. So without further ado, here is the gorgeous cover for QUILL (The Cartographer Series #1) and its description:

(click to see high-res version)

Official Book Blurb: The fate of empire is to crumble from within.

A heinous murder in a small village reveals a terrible truth. Sorcery, once thought dead in Enhover, is not. Evidence of an occult ritual and human sacrifice proves that dark power has been called upon. Twisting threads of clues lead across the known world to the end of a vast empire, and then, the trail returns home.

Duke Oliver Wellesley, son of the king, cartographer, and adventurer, has better things to do than investigate a murder in a sleepy fishing hamlet. For Crown and Company, though, he goes where he’s told. As the investigation leads to deeper and darker places, he’ll be forced to confront the horrific specters rising from the shadows of his past. When faced with the truth, will he be able to sacrifice all that he has known?

Samantha serves a Church that claims to no longer need her skills. She’s apprenticed to a man that no one knows. Driven by a mad prophecy, her mentor has trained and prepared her for a battle with ultimate darkness, except, sorcery is dead. When her life is at stake, can she call upon an arcane craft the rest of the world has forgotten?

AC Cobble, the author of the best-selling Benjamin Ashwood series, crafts worlds of stunning-depth and breath-taking adventure. In Quill: The Cartographer Book 1, a pair of unlikely investigators walk a deadly path into the past, uncovering secrets best left alone.

The fate of empire is to crumble from within. Do not ask when, ask who.

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. To start with, could you tell us what inspired you to be a writer in the first place, and why you choose to go the self-published route? Anything else you’d like to share about yourself and your past?

ACC: Hi Mihir, thanks for having me! My origin story, so to speak, is a little bit different from a lot of other authors. For one, it was never my dream to become one. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved books since I can remember, and my room as a child was filled with over-flowing bookshelves, but books were never things I thought I could write myself. I was solidly on a “business” career path, and it wasn’t until I was in my early 30’s that I was inspired to start putting words on paper. I believe I’d recently read some really terrible fantasy (we all know the stuff) and told myself that even I could write a better story! I already had some characters and story concepts in mind that bounced around in quiet moments. Eventually, that disdain for bad fantasy inspired me to write my own. I can only imagine, my stories are inspiring others in the same way ;)

I chose to self-publish because when I did my research, I saw the odds were against ever finding a traditional publishing deal, and even if I did, there was almost no chance of earning enough income to support my family. The contracts publishing companies offer new authors are tragic, in my opinion. Self-publishing guaranteed my book would be available and it offered a glimmer of hope that this could be a career, even though I wasn’t expecting that to actually happen. It seemed a smart decision on all fronts, and it’s worked out better than I could have hoped (I’ve been a full-time author for 18 months now).

And on that note, prior to The Cartographer Series, I wrote the Benjamin Ashwood Series. It’s complete after 6 books and for a limited time only, Book 1 is available for FREE to Amazon Prime members in the US and Australia. A bit random on the geography, but hey, you take what Amazon gives. That series has gained hundreds of thousands of fans, so I encourage you to check it out while waiting for June 1st when Quill (The Cartographer Book 1) releases!

Q] I loved the cover for QUILL. What were your main pointers for your cover designer as you both went through the process of finalizing it? What were the main things that you wished to focus on in it?

ACC: On the cover, I worked with the extremely gifted Shawn T. King. I was familiar with his portfolio and really liked a lot of his recent work, so I had faith he could bring my sloppy, half-baked vision to life. I sent him a sketch of what I was thinking, and some of that even found its way into the final version.

The concept of the compass in the center with the sword and quill is original. Almost everything else changed. The actual layout of the symbol is far different from my terrible version, and as we were kicking around ideas, I changed the name of the entire book because this one looks cooler! It was Shawn’s idea to bring in the subtle map background, and if you look reeeeally close, you can see it’s an actual map of a country in the book, and you’ll find the full-size map on the interior! So, hats off to Shawn for such an awesome, and appropriate, idea.

Q] Could you tell us about the inception of QUILL & vis-à-vis The Cartographer Series and what was/were your main inspiration(s) for it?

ACC: I drew ideas from a lot of places in building the world for QUILL. The real genesis though is a loose interpretation of 1750’s colonial Britain. Around the time I was brainstorming what would come after Benjamin Ashwood, I was fortunate enough to spend some time in London, Singapore, India, and of course I live in the US. That’s the colonial government and three former colonies. In Singapore, I went to a museum exhibit on colonial rule, and it really got my wheels turning. I spent a lot of time considering the implications for these cultures before/after colonial rule, and I did a great deal of research on the time period. None of QUILL is meant to be historically accurate or a direct reflection of that period, but it did inspire a great deal of this world.

Q] This book and series seems to be a nautical fantasy story. There aren’t many of those in the fantasy genre but there have been memorable ones by Paul Kearney, Rob J. Hayes, Robert V. S. Redick, Robin Hobb etc.). Where would you say your story falls on the spectrum?

ACC: I have to admit, I haven’t read all of those authors, but I think it’s safe to say there is a lighter nautical theme in my book. There are ships, airships, and even pirates, but they are set pieces rather than elements that drive the story.

Q] One thing that I loved about the cover is that there’s a map in the background and given the title of the series. Is it safe to say cartography will be a strong focus in this series? Will you be having extra maps for these books?

ACC: Yes, there is a map in the background on the cover, and it is one crafted by the talented Soraya Corcoran for the book. I will have three of her maps included in QUILL, and very likely a few more will be commissioned before this series is complete! The protagonist of the tale is a cartographer, and while most of the focus is on his other adventures, there are several times he brings out the quill and parchment. With a cartographer as a character, I wanted to make sure this story was well-mapped! Also, there’s an idea around maps that I find really inspiring, and I feel the concept holds true for telling fantasy stories. In cartography, the lines of the map are where knowledge meets imagination.

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

ACC: As I mentioned, the world is very loosely based on a 1750’s colonial Britain. It’s not meant to be directly analogous, but much of the style of the book is drawn from there. In addition to that, I’ve added layers of technology largely based on the magical possibilities of the world. Essentially, there are two types of magic. Sorcery, aka dark magic, the magic of the underworld. This is of course what our bad guys use, and in this world, sorcery involves rituals and ceremony to contact and then compel spirits from the underworld. Think pentagrams and blood. Then there is life magic, where druids or shamans negotiate assistance from the spirits of life. Think of a primal communion with nature. As far as magic, sorcery is the one which gets all of the screen time in Book 1. There’s also a healthy dose of combat with primitive firearms, swords, and fists. This story has multiple points of view, but primarily follows two main characters and what happens after they are tasked with investigating a mysterious murder in a small village.

Duke Oliver Wellesley, son of the king, cartographer, and adventurer, has better things to do than investigate a murder in a sleepy fishing hamlet. For Crown and Company, though, he goes where he’s told. As the investigation leads to deeper and darker places, he’ll be forced to confront the horrific spectres lurking in his past. Samantha serves a Church that claims to no longer need her. She’s apprenticed to a priest that no one knows. Driven by a mad prophecy, her mentor has trained and prepared her for a battle against a terrible darkness. A darkness that everyone knows is impossible.

Q] So for someone who hasn't read any of your novels, how would you describe the type of stories that you write, what would be your pitch for The Cartographer Series?

ACC: My stories have a similar feel to the fantasy I grew up reading. Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Tolkien, and so on. I like to think I’ve taken their strong foundation and built a modern structure on top of it. My characters are not Chosen Ones, but that doesn’t mean they are not heroes. If you enjoy regular people, battling through fantastic, complex worlds, facing extreme danger, on their way to save the world, then you’ll enjoy QUILL: The Cartographer Book 1.

Q] You will be releasing QUILL in June. Could you give us a progress report on book 2 and outline your plans for the series as a whole?

ACC: Yes, QUILL will be up for pre-order for a June 1st release. Currently, the series is drawn out as a trilogy with a story thread in mind to extend it if people really enjoy the books. Book 2 will releasing in December and the conclusion in June 2020.

Q] So what can readers expect from this book/series and what should they be looking forward to according to you?

ACC: For readers of my Benjamin Ashwood series, I’ve been describing it as if Ben and Amelie had a baby, and that child spent summers with Uncle Rhys. For those who haven’t read Benjamin Ashwood, that means expect an adventure. Intrinsically good people, who also know how to have a good time, traveling the globe to battle the forces of darkness.

Q] In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers?

ACC: A lot of readers were a bit disappointed that I ended the Benjamin Ashwood series. They wanted a spin-off, and I told them I needed to write this story first. I think once everyone gets their hands on QUILL, they will understand why. I’m really excited for this book to go public and can’t wait until June 1st! In the meantime, if you haven’t read Benjamin Ashwood yet, go ahead and take it for a spin! If you have any other burning questions about me or my work, you can find me on Reddit doing an r/Fantasy AMA on June 6th!

Official Author Website
Pre-order QUILL over here

About The Author: AC Cobble is the author of the Benjamin Ashwood and the Cartographer series. He was born and raised in Tennessee but currently resides in Texas with his wife, their three children, and his wife's dog. In addition to writing, he escapes by reading, eating, drinking and traveling. Benjamin Ashwood is a classic sword & sorcery fantasy that begins with a young man leaves his village with mysterious strangers. The six book series is completed in English and available in all formats, books 1-3 are available in German, and the rest are coming soon! The Cartographer is a thrilling ride packed with dark ritual and action & adventure. The first book in the series will be available in eBook and print on June 1st, with audio to follow soon after!

NOTE: Shawn T. King picture courtesy of Laura King. AC Cobble photo courtesy of the author himself. Benjamin Ashwood series pic courtesy of The Fantasy Hive.


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