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Monday, September 30, 2019

The Sword of Kaigen by ML Wang (reviewed by Łukasz Przywóski)

Official Author Website
Order The Sword of Kaigen over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: M. L. Wang was born in Wisconsin in 1992, decided she wanted to be an author at the age of nine, and never grew up. She currently splits her time between writing fantasy books and working at a martial arts school in her home city of Madison.

When she isn’t building worlds on the page, she builds them in her aquarium full of small, smart fish that love to explore castles and don’t make noise during writing time.

FORMAT/INFO: The Sword of Kaigen is 651 pages long divided over 31 numbered chapters and is a standalone novel based in ML Wang's Thoenite world. The author self-published it in February 2019. The cover art and design are by the author herself.

OVERVIEW: Boring and predictable. 

Not the book, though, but my review. I join The Sword of Kaigen fan club and I plan to force anyone listening to try it. I won’t lie, I hoped I would identify its unforgivable flaws and enumerate them to show how insightful I am. I did find some, but they didn’t stop me from loving the book. 

The Sword of Kaigen introduces memorable and relatable characters and throws them into disastrous conflict with a powerful enemy. Kusanagi Peninsula, renowned for its unstoppable warriors who bend elements to their will, stands between the Empire and invaders. Fourteen-year-old Mamoru represents the Matsuda clan proudly and with full conviction. A new student, Kwang Chul-hee, who transfers from outside of the province challenges his beliefs. What if everything their academy teaches is just propaganda? And what if the Empire treats legendary Kaiganese warriors as cannon fodder?

Mamoru’s mother, Misaki, doesn’t deny the accusations. Once an accomplished warrior, she’s sacrificed everything to marry into the Matsuda family and provide it with sons. Her past haunts her and when she receives a letter warning her that the entire Kusanagi Peninsula is in danger, she acts. But will her husband, cold, distanced and powerful warrior, approve of a woman fighting for her own? 

The Sword of Kaigen focuses on a mother and son. Their histories and arcs are inseparable and strongly connected. Misaki gives Mamoru the strength to challenge his beliefs about the world and his place in it. Mamoru’s conflict with his father gives Misaki the strength to challenge social norms and rediscover her inner warrior. As we watch them grow closer to each other, it’s hard not to admire Wang’s knack for characterization and conveying strong and believable emotions. It works against the reader - when the enemy strikes and mayhem begins no one is safe. The story takes wild and dark turns.

At 651 pages, the book rarely feels too long (once you get past a somewhat tepid beginning). It contains so much. The complexity of the Kaiganese traditions and genealogy. Martial arts, elemental magic, and epic battles. Small graceful details and moments of silence and reflection between powerful climaxes. The protagonists of The Sword of Kaigen are masters of theonite power known as jiya, the ability to control water and ice. They’ve honed their skills and mastered complex techniques that allow senior Matsuda clan’s members (Takeshi and Takeru) to display godlike powers. The epic battle that happens halfway through the book contains so much pure awesomeness (but also tragedy) that the book is worth reading for it alone. 

As I mentioned I found some flaws. The beginning is slow and filled with heavy info-dumping. It requires patience and trust from the reader. Heavy use of honorifics and fictitious therms can feel confusing. The redemption arc of the character you loathe (unless you’re a misogynistic boor) felt rushed and unconvincing. I liked the result but not the path that has led to a sudden change in his relationship dynamics with his partner and others. The last chapters weren’t necessary for this story to work but I understand they had to be included to tie TSoK to Wang’s Theonite series. I’m ok with it.

On the other hand, Wang plays with tropes and makes a middle-aged mother a compelling and memorable character you root for. The other character starts as a young prodigy and just when you think you know what will happen, Wang will crush your expectations. Important characters die. Some deaths are brutal and gruesome, some tragic. One of them will tear you apart and is, for me, one of the most beautiful death scenes in all fantasy

So, while the pacing could be tighter, the characters and action-scenes are fantastic. Wang's writing conveys raw emotions well and some twists will crush you. And that is a sign of greatness.
Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld (reviewed by Will Byrnes)

Official Author Website
Order The Butterfly Girl over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Enchanted
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Child Finder

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Lost. You can be lost even when you’ve been found. You can make the wrong turn in life even if you’re surrounded by people who love you. That was what suicide was, Naomi figured. It was choosing the final exit instead of another path. Not because you wanted to hurt anyone, but because you feel too hopeless to find your way home. There was more than one kind of suicide, too, more than one kind of leaving. How many people spend their entire lives not even knowing that they have already left?
============================================================ “Children of the forgotten. Harvested like the berries of the field.”

The Butterfly Girl (changed from an earlier title, The Butterfly Museum) is the second in a series featuring private investigator Naomi Cottle. (The series opened with The Child Finder, released in 2017) Twelve-year-old Celia is not being held captive by a creepy perv, but she is certainly at risk. She is more of a throwaway child, forced into living on the street by a sexually abusive stepfather and a junkie mother, whose addiction to illegal substances and her husband’s lies exceeds her love for her child, and any notion of decency. But the streets were a kind of captivity, too. She has two besties, Rich and Stoner, a street family of three. Together they manage, picking up meals from a soup kitchen, sampling the daily delectables from dumpsters, and doing whatever is needed to bring in some cash for occasional stops at a deli, or luxuries, like bus rides. They dress in the latest designer fashions from the house of Goodwill, and have found a squat that has not yet become too dangerous, by virtue of being undiscovered by dark elements, or worse, by gentrifiers. Celia endures her fraught existence by imagining swarms of butterflies that offer her comfort and direction, and a heavenly image of a Butterfly Museum where she can enjoy their company in total safety.

Naomi Cottle has made a career of searching for children still missing after the authorities have thrown in the towel. She has a gift. Well, a gift and a ferocious tenacity. She understands that it takes not only insight, but several Imelda-size closets worth of shoe leather to get from where? to there! She has an extra bit of underlying motivation. She’d been held captive as a child herself, managed to escape, but not with her little sister. All she can remember is running in terror, barefoot, through strawberry fields. Snatches of that time come back to her in dreams, bit by bit. But her sister would be in her mid-twenties by now, and, really, what are the chances that she is still alive? Naomi decided a year ago to focus solely on the search for her sister, that search taking her to Portland. Girls, or, the remains of girls, have been turning up there in growing numbers, and Naomi is determined to find out if there might be any connection between these crimes and the taking of her and her sister.

In searching for clues to her sister’s whereabouts in Portland’s Skid Row, Naomi meets Celia, and feels a connection. She also notices a very scarred man who seems to be lurking about. Naomi follows clue after clue as the body count grows and the danger to Celia, and scores of other Portland street kids, increases. One element furthering the connection between Naomi and Celia is that, like Naomi, Celia has a younger sister she wants to save. The evil stepfather is still in the scene and mom is still a junkie, making the danger to her sister a question of when rather than whether.

We follow the tension of Naomi trying to have a personal life. Now married to her lifetime bff, Jerome, they struggle with life issues that may sound familiar:
- like what are we gonna do for money? since they have been exhausting their resources on Naomi’s full-time quest.
- Where are we gonna live?
- Can we put down roots somewhere, anywhere?

We also see flaws in Naomi, as she sometimes misses things that are right in front of her because of her obsession with finding her sister.

Denfeld brings to her writing a familiarity with street culture, and dark experiences. She has had plenty of her own. And has gotten to see much, much more in her day job as a private investigator, with particular focus on helping death row inmates. She wrote a non-fiction (All God’s Children- 2007) about Skid Row life that has some very surprising conclusions. In this one, I particularly enjoyed seeing how Naomi interacted with official sorts, offering information, analysis, and insight in exchange for help finding her sister, not just relying on convenient snitches to keep the lead-feed rolling.
"I grew up with a lot of trauma. My stepdad was a registered predatory sex offender, for instance. Much of my writing is informed by my own history, including my efforts to use my experiences to help others—I'm now a therapeutic foster mom and investigator as well as author. I did have someone close to me disappear when I was a child. It was extremely traumatic, and helps me understand when working with those who are dealing with such terrifying losses." - From GoodReads’ Ask the Author
Her other superpower is a poetic sensibility that is mesmerizing. She brings to The Butterfly Girl the same appreciation for beauty, the same admiration for imagination, and the same command of language that she wielded so deftly in her prior two books. She also shows times where unchecked imagination can get one into trouble.

Despite this being a riveting read, the notion of imagination as a saving grace, while fabulous, seems maybe a bit too similar to the mechanism the young captive used in book #1 of this series. On the other hand, the notion of captivity extending to circumstances in which one may be able to physically move about, but which are still hugely constraining is perceptive and very real. Another difference from prior Denfeld novels is her portrayal of the baddie. Previous books offered a closer look at the humanity of the people doing awful things. Although there is a bit of history presented on how the perp came to be such a twisted sort, it seemed thinner to me than the more faceted depictions of her previous bad actors.

One extra bit you should take from The Butterfly Girl is the portrait of a social realm that makes it into the news-maw only when someone not of the place is done in. The street life of homeless Portland children is no less Dickensian for being a century and a half removed from the London he showed the world. The same conditions are likely to be present in most American cities. One particular gap in social service attention to younger homeless residents is surprising and rage-inducing, as the kindness of the caring institutions and individuals trying help them is warming, and hope-sustaining. And while assaults by the better-off on those down on their luck is a popular sport in the nation’s capital and in many state capitals, that hostility is made personal and kinetic here.

One of the things that makes this such a resonant book is that Denfeld shows how a culture of rape and abuse can flourish when perpetrators are people of means and their targets are not. Headlines about Jeffrey Epstein’s long history of raping children, without being held to serious account offers a particularly relevant real-world example. The novel looks at how the silence of uninvolved people in the face of obvious wrong-doing allows such outrages to persist, and how victims of powerful criminals cannot count on the legal system to come to their defense.

CONCLUSION: You will keep flipping the pages of The Butterfly Girl to see how Naomi fares on her quest, and if Celia can remain beyond the clutches of the mysterious Portland killer. But as you read, you may notice that the beauty of Denfeld’s writing leaves small sparkles on your hands, and in your head, bits of literary pollen that attach and nourish. She remains a poet with a deep appreciation of beauty, in the world, in the imagination, and in language. She possesses a gift for story-telling, writing engaging characters, and shining a bright light into some very dark places. If you are searching for a smart, soulful, engaging, mystery/thriller, you would do well to alight on The Butterfly Girl. It is a nourishing, satisfying read that is also a thing of remarkable beauty.

NOTE: This review was originally posted on Will's Goodreads account.
Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Smoke and Stone by Michael R. Fletcher (reviewed by Lukasz Przywóski)

Official Author Website
Order Smoke and Stone over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

Michael R. Fletcher is a science fiction and fantasy author, a grilled cheese aficionado, and a whiskey-swilling reprobate. He spends his days choreographing his forklift musical (titled "Get Forked"), and using caffeine as a substitute for sanity. Any suggestions that he is actually Dyrk Ashton in disguise are all lies.

OFFICIAL BLURB: After a cataclysmic war of the gods, the last of humanity huddles in Bastion, a colossal ringed city. Beyond the outermost wall lies endless desert haunted by the souls of all the world’s dead.

Trapped in a rigid caste system, Nuru, a young street sorcerer, lives in the outer ring. She dreams of escape and freedom. When something contacts her from beyond the wall, she risks everything and leaps at the opportunity. Mother Death, a banished god seeking to reclaim her place in Bastion’s patchwork pantheon, has found her way back into the city.

Akachi, born to the wealth and splendor of Bastion’s inner rings, is a priest of Cloud Serpent, Lord of the Hunt. A temple-trained sorcerer, he is tasked with bringing peace to the troublesome outer ring. Drawn into a dark and violent world of assassins, gangs, and street sorcerers, he battles the spreading influence of Mother Death in a desperate attempt to save Bastion.

The gods are once again at war.

FORMAT/INFO: Smoke and Stone is 511 pages long divided over 40 numbered chapters and is the first entry in the City of Sacrifice series. The author self-published it in September 2019. The cover art is by Felix Ortiz.

OVERVIEW: In ancient times, healers and shamans used hallucinogenic substances to break their mental shackles and achieve transcendence. In Fletcher’s world, sorcerers devour obscene quantities of hallucinogenic mushrooms to do magic. It helps them to produce psychedelic sensations of time-space displacement or transformation into beasts. Their narcotic-shaped realities intrude upon the real world and give them preternatural skills.

The world as we know it no longer exists. After a cataclysmic war of the gods, the last humanity huddles in Bastion, a colossal ringed city whose structure reflects its social stratification. Unprivileged inhabit the outer rings rife with violence, poverty, and crime. Wealthy and powerful live in the inner rings enjoying the relative luxury and power. Beyond the city walls lies an endless desert.

Beyond the Sand Wall, endless desert. A dead world. She couldn’t comprehend the scale. Bastion was huge, it was everything, everywhere. As a child she dreamed of walking beyond the walls, of the freedom. You’ll get your chance. It was, however, unlikely she’d survive the fall. She’d heard sermons about the few who did. Inevitably they lay wounded and screaming in the red sand. Few lasted more than a day. Heat and 

The story follows two sorcerers whose paths intertwine. Nuru, a young street sorcerer, dreams of escape from the outer ring and freedom. It seems her talents caught the attention of Mother Death who seeks to reclaim her place in the Bastion’s Pantheon. Akachi is a priest of Cloud Serpent, Lord of the Hunt, tasked with bringing peace to the troublesome outer ring in which Nuru lives. They serve different gods and each of them is just a pawn in game humans can’t understand. Fletcher stays true to himself and does to his characters what you expect from him - he puts them through hell and ruins them.

Fletcher doesn’t write for the squeamish, and he relishes ruining his characters as they step into madness or self-destruction. And yet, like his other books, Smoke and Stone is an addictive read thanks to a unique setting and a plot full of twisted reveals. 

Beyond the awesomeness of the premise (ringed and socially stratified city, human sorcerers as proxies to warring gods, crystal and drug-induced magic) and the moral complexities of characters’ choices, Smoke and Stone truly shines in terms of its ensemble cast. Both POV characters remain convincing and tragic, with no good choices ahead of them. After having a vision of a mythical creature (a hybrid between spider and women) Nuru is obsessed with carving its statue. Sorcerers are able to shape-shift into creatures they carve. She just needs to get some paint and tools to finish the work.

Because of the events I can't mention (spoilers), Akashi is afraid to lose control of his life. He trashes himself on drugs, mixing them to gain preternatural skills and fight with his insecurities:

Only after the words were out did he realize how that might sound. His thoughts swam in narcotics. Foku fought to pull his attention to the perfect gutters lining the streets. Bihurtu stretched the veil of worlds so thin he saw his spirit animals circling impatiently, ready to come to his aid. Jainkoei peeled his soul, exposed him to the gods. He felt them all around him. Their will drove him, made him dance like a marionette. He was a twig caught in the raging torrent of divine need. He couldn’t think what to say to Yejide to make it right. There wasn’t enough of him left. 

Secondary characters stand out as well, especially a mysterious girl known as Efra who bounces between cold self-interest and a desperate yearning to belong. She doesn’t believe in half-measures and behaves like a blood-thirsty lunatic but she's also smart. I won’t lie. She scares me.

I’ve mentioned the world-building. I love the concept of the city, but the magic system based on hallucinogenics and crystals impressed me even more. I mean, there are twenty different drugs used by sorcerers to do magic and each of them has a different effect. Skilfull sorcerers mix them to prepare themselves for special feats. 

The only real complaints I have for this book are two-fold. First, I wished that there was a little more attention devoted to the worldbuilding and society stratification and its explanation. What we get is enough to follow the story and understand the tensions between casts but I would love to learn more. Second, the prose, while precise and providing the information we need, sometimes feels too casual for my tastes.

Other than that, I found Smoke and Stone enthralling and unpredictable. It has it all. A solid plot, a unique magic system, fascinating world, and memorable characters. Oh, and if you're fond of familiars in your fantasy, Nuru has one. A black viper named Isabis. A sweet creature, really. I have no idea why Nuru's friends feel uncomfortable when she's caressing the snake's scales :)

Monday, September 23, 2019

A Wild And Unremarkable Thing by Jen Castleberry (reviewed by Justine Bergman)

Order A Wild and Unremarkable Thing HERE (US) and HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Jen Castleberry is a bestselling author who resides in Virginia Beach with her husband and pets. Her background is in Communications and Animal Welfare. All of her pets are named after superheroes!

OFFICIAL BLURB: Cayda has spent her entire life training to slay a Fire Scale. Now the time has come to leave her dragon-ravaged village behind, march into the Summer Alps, and reap the rewards of a Champion. But the road between poverty and prosperity is rife with beasts, betrayals, and baser temptations. Sensible Cayda soon discovers she’s not the only Champion with her eye on the prize, or the only one wearing a disguise.

A Wild and Unremarkable Thing pits girl against dragon in a stunning blend of Greek mythology and medieval lore. Don’t miss the thrilling novella that readers are calling poetic, enchanting, and a must-read for fans of fantasy!

FORMAT/INFO: A Wild and Unremarkable Thing is 238 pages divided over 49 chapters. The book is currently available in e-book and paperback format. It was published by The Parliament House on December 7, 2017.

CLASSIFICATION: Fantasy, New Adult

"Small of stature, gentle of heart…You might write your own story, Cody. But men will write stories about you too."
An unfortunate girl masking as a boy seeking to uphold her duty. An orphan favored by royalty seeking purpose. A mysterious man seeking the gift of uncertainty. The Emerging is upon us, and it carries promises of glory and a brighter tomorrow for those skilled – and lucky – enough to survive until the rising dawn.

A Wild and Unremarkable Thing is an elegantly crafted novella penned by author Jen Castleberry, and is an incredible account of obligation and perseverance. With heightened focus on the prosperity of kindness and togetherness, this tale of desperation, longing, and defying the norm is one that took me by surprise in the best way possible. Despite its length, it’s notably developed and refined, and packs quite a punch. It’s been a while since a book has made me pause just to admire the beauty of a line spoken or an event unraveled, and I only wish I could experience this magical story for the first time all over again.

The writing is simply stunning. A gorgeous, poetic, and almost singsong prose makes it feel as though we’ve stumbled upon a tale being told, rather than a book being read. The use of third-person present tense allows readers to share in the festivities, completely immersing us in a mystical world full of beasts and shadow and hope. Charming morsels pepper the pages, and even seemingly insignificant instances, such as the gifting of a bar of soap, are done with such poise and heart.
She unwraps the soap – a slick, softly cut bar. She holds it in cupped palms beneath her chin like an injured bird. It smells of spruce and leather – like Penn.
My note for this passage: “I love this book”. A whimsical prologue primes the structure of the story well, and we’re soon introduced to short, bursting chapters of alternating points of view, which keep the pace moving quickly and allow us to experience events unfold from every angle. Diverse characters are surprisingly complex and easy to love (or hate). The sensual, blossoming romance is tastefully executed and utterly captivating.
She calls it violent and magnificent. Penn says that it’s perfect.
The concept of this story is rather straightforward – slay the beast, earn the winnings, and save the family – however, there is nothing rudimentary about how Castleberry composes this dazzling narrative. The worldbuilding is superb as settings, customs, and legends are colorfully expressed with attention to the most minute of details. You can smell the pine on the mountain breeze, and feel the excitement of the flowing crowds as the first Fire Scales take to star-strewn skies. I can’t even begin to express how handsomely this book is illustrated – just go read it.

As with others, I did feel the ending was a bit rushed, and would’ve like to spend more time in this beautiful place with these beautiful people. I can only hope this isn’t the last we see of this striking world Castleberry has created. A Wild and Unremarkable Thing, which I would characterize as a modern fairytale, is a book that I feel anyone with a love for tales of danger and tender romance will appreciate and savor. I’m excited and immensely looking forward to seeing where we’re taken next.

Note: A huge thank you to The Parliament House for a complementary copy of this book.
Thursday, September 19, 2019

Interview with Michael J. Fletcher (interviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order Smoke and Stone over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little bit about yourself. Feel free to brag.

Bragging isn’t really my thing. I mean, sure, I’m totally fucking awesome, but everyone already knows that.

Let’s gloss over the past. Small towns. Goats. Chickens. University. Alcohol and hallucinogenics. Guitarist in a metal band. Audio-engineer. Hey, I wanna write a book. Write a dark and cynical fantasy and sell it to a Big-5 publisher. HUGE FLOP! Get told that no one wants dark and cynical fantasy anymore. Keep writing dark and cynical fantasy because that’s me and I’m a dumbass.

Sweet. That was less painful than expected.

When and why have you decided to become an author?

I always wanted to be an author, but it seemed like a lot of effort. One day, while my future-wife was planning our wedding, I realized I’d either have to help out or find some stupidly huge project that would keep me too busy to look at table arrangements. Boom! I wrote a book! Amazing what the right incentive will do for you.

After that, it was all downhill. I became addicted to reviews, to seeing people’s reactions to the mad stories I played out in my head. And oh my gods the money! Like, what am I supposed to do with all these phat stax? One man can only own so many Bugatti Veyrons before it becomes silly.

You’re a hybrid author at the moment. It seems self-publishing wasn’t your first choice but here we are. What do you like about being a hybrid? What’s cool about self-publishing and what’s not so cool about it?

Traditional publishing requires a great deal of patience and the strength of character not to fall prey to crushing depression while waiting on rejections. I have neither.

Even if you do manage to sell a novel, it won’t see print for another year to two years. The whole machine moves at a glacial pace.

Self-publishing is very different. You can have your insane crayon scribbles published and for sale a day after you complete them. I mean, you shouldn’t, but you can.

My favourite part of self-publishing is the control. I hire the artist and typographer. I choose the cover. I decide what editor to work with. I do the internal layout for the print version. I write the back-cover copy. If the book doesn’t look amazing, it’s all my fault.

The downside is that I also have to pay all those folks. It’s a hefty outlay of funds on what is, let’s face it, a terrible risk.

One of the big challenges with self-publishing is finding readers. Was that your experience? Or has your (relative) success in traditional publishing helped you to gain faithful readers who don’t care how you publish books as long as you do it?

Beyond Redemption (Harper Voyager, 2015) earned me a small but dedicated fan-base. Without those folks, I’d be an utter unknown. I am crap at promoting because it doesn’t interest me. I want to write books, not be a publicist/promoter.

Serious writing takes not only a story to tell, but the craft of writing to tell it well—can you comment on your journey as a writer?

I was lucky enough to find a truly brutal editor early on. She gutted my first book. I learned a lot. Some folks are born talented. The rest of us work hard at it. Keep writing. Keep trying to get better. Listen to your editor. Try to make different mistakes each time. Stop trying to write someone else’s book. Tell your story the way you think it should be told. Find your voice by not searching for your voice. Shut off your brain and sit the fuck down and write the fucking book. Don’t talk about it until AFTER it’s written.

Woops. Rant.

Tell us a little bit about your writing process. When and where do you write? Do you start with a character, an image, or an idea? Talk a little bit about how a novel “grows” for you.

I have a day job and a wife and an eight-year-old daughter and so I write wherever and whenever I can. I write in the morning before work. I write during breaks at work. I write at the dining room table. Sometimes I even get to write in my office, though that’s pretty rare. Pop in some earbuds, crank the death metal, and I’m good to go.

Each book has its own process, so in a way, I can’t answer that question; they’re all different. City of Sacrifice started with two ideas: bending reality with hallucinations, and a caste system based on the divides of the real world.

I tend not to do a tone of work defining characters beyond some basic physical characteristics and maybe a vague idea of what kind of person they are. They form as I write. Then, after the book is written and I know exactly who they are, I go back and fix everything so it looks like I planned it all. Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone.

Do you give yourself mini-deadlines (e.g. must have chapters x-y written by January 1st) or do you progress with an ultimate deadline in mind?

I used to do this, but have now decided that writing must be fun. I write when I feel like it. I take days or even weeks away. I don’t have a deadline and so there’s no stress. I’ll finish it when I finish it.

Once the book is written and edited, deadlines become a thing. For City of Sacrifice I’m releasing it November 1st to give everyone plenty of time. The artist is working on the cover. Reviewers have early review copies and months to get to it. But that deadline was chosen knowing I could release the book tomorrow if I wanted. Zero stress.

What was your initial inspiration for City of Sacrifice series?

Years ago I read Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality (and a couple of the follow-up books). I loved the philosophy inherent in Don Jaun’s teachings, but I also loved the magical aspect, sorcery through narcotics. I always thought it would make a great magic system.

Please, tell our readers what do your characters have to overcome in Smoke and Stone? What challenges did you set before them?

Fuck no. Read the book.

What unique challenges did this book pose for you, if any?

The City of Sacrifice series is a trilogy. Book one was written in about three months. I knew the story and how I wanted the first book to end. The first draft had four POV characters. It was too many and diluted the story. I picked two characters and did a complete rewrite.

That’s pretty much par for the course for me.

The real challenge came when I started writing book two, Ash and Bone. I had nothing planned, no ending for the series. For the past couple of months, I’ve been planning the last two novels. This is a first, as I’ve always been a Pantser. Gotta say, I’m liking it. I know how book two ends, and have the conclusion for the entire series planned. Can’t wait to get there!

Smoke and Stone is an engaging and dark book with plenty of twisted reveals and cool ideas. Tell us about magic systems (both Crystal Magic and the one that uses hallucinogenic substances). Which one is more powerful? Which one would you rather master?

Why had one magic system when you can have two?!

Actually, I’m not going to answer this because the whole fun with magic systems is learning them as you read. Talking about them would ruin that.

Another thing that impressed me was the way religion and holy books (Book of Bastion and The Loa Book of The Invisibles) twist people’s minds and give them an excuse to commit atrocities. Not unlike in real life. Any comment or is it too political? 

Too political? The entire city of Bastion was planned out as political commentary.

The cool thing with writing a book is realizing you don’t matter. The book isn’t about what the writer thinks it’s about, it’s about what the reader gains. And so City of Sacrifice definitely comments on religion and politics, but what I think it says is irrelevant.

And now the question I’m afraid to ask and hear the answer to. The fact that we’re on different continents gives me at least some sense of safety. So, the main characters in any book are commonly considered a reflection of the author. Is this true in any of your books? If yes, should Canada start to evacuate?

Aspects of my personality find their way into a great many characters. No one character is me. I’m a little of Stehlen’s fear of relationships. I am some of Bedekt’s insistence that he is sane. I have Wichtig’s need to be the greatest. I cling to my tribe like Nuru clings to her friends, and I understand Efra’s selfishness.

I really like Efra and her grey morality leaning toward blackish. Would you consider giving us a glimpse of her thinking process?

Efra… She knows there is something wrong with her. She knows she is not like other people, that she can do things most would hesitate to even consider. But she’s not crazy, and she’s not stupid. She sees the advantages of working with people but also understands the inherent weakness on relying on others.

Morality is a weird invention. It’s something applied to our decisions and actions after the fact. I don’t write about morality or with morality in mind. The only thing that matters is that the characters are true to themselves. There is no black and white, good and evil. All people are shades of grey.

You’ve created an intriguing, quite complex world with unique creatures, beliefs, and magic. 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?

What? I’m supposed to put thought into that stuff? Nah. I’d rather assume that the reader will be smart enough to figure things out. And if they can’t, it’s probably because I failed them as a writer. My one goal is to avoid info-dumps. Sprinkle the information the reader needs throughout the story. Feed it to ‘em slow. Tease them with hints.

Would you say that City of Sacrifice series follows tropes or kicks them?

Not a fucking clue. Is it wholly original and totally unlike anything anyone has ever read in the history of the world? Nope. And so I guess there’s some tropiness in there. Is it about a grumpy old axe-man, a thief, and a swaggering Swordsman? Nope. I think all this talk of tropes is a handy way for people to ignore or discount books without actually putting any real thought into them.

I have a story I want to tell, and then I tell that story. If someone sees tropes, cool.

What can we expect after Smoke and Stone? What’s your publishing Schedule for 2019/2020?

The dates are all approximate, and subject to change, but here goes…

November, 2019: Smoke and Stone (City of Sacrifice #1)
February, 2020: The Millennial Manifesto
June, 2020: Black Stone Heart (The Obsidian Path #1)
September, 2020: Ash and Bone (City of Sacrifice #2)
Early 2021: She Dreams in Blood (The Obsidian Path #2)

After that, it’s a little more up in the air. I’ll try and release at least one book a year until the two series are finished.

The City of Sacrifice series will be three books, as will The Obsidian Path.

Do you have any other authorial goals that you are striving towards that you want to talk about?

Have fun. Stay sane. Sell enough books to pay for the art and editing of the next book. Tell engaging stories that, if I get really lucky, resonate with a reader or two.

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

Stormbringer. Catch-22. Snowcrash. All for very different reasons. The first is literally genre-defining. The second is a brilliant and brutal social commentary. The ideas of the third opened my eyes to the possibilities of genre fiction.

Let’s settle this once and for all - will you ever give the pants back to Dyrk Ashton?

No. Not ever. They are mine. In a way, they always were. He was just wearing my pants that he bought for me but hadn’t yet thought to hand over.

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie (reviewed by Łukasz Przywóski)

Official Author Website
Order A Little Hatred over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Joe Abercrombie is a freelance film editor, who works on documentaries and live music events. He lives and works in Bath. 

OFFICIAL BLURB: Introducing a cast of unforgettable new characters, A Little Hatred is the start of a brand new trilogy set in the world of the First Law which will have you gripped from the very start . . .

War. Politics. Revolution.

FORMAT/INFO: A Little Hatred is 480 pages long divided over 40 numbered chapters and is the first entry in the Age of Madness series. The book, published in September 2019 by Orbit, is currently available in all formats. Cover design for the US cover is by Lauren Panepinto with the artwork by Sam Weber while the UK cover design is by Tomás Almeida. 

OVERVIEW: Say one thing for Joe Abercrombie, say he’s a hell of a writer. The First Law trilogy captivated me from the first page of The Blade Itself with fascinating characters, a great intrigue and thrilling unpredictability. A Little Hatred takes place 30 years after the events of Heroes.

The Northmen are invading the Union. The industrialization has been gaining momentum for a while. Business-savvy individuals make fortunes at the cost of unprivileged masses.  Savine dan Glokta, the ruthless daughter of the feared chief inquisitor, controls large chunks of industry and excels at parlor games. Her secret lover, Prince Orso, doesn’t lack charm or charisma but prefers spending his life inebriated in brothels than doing something of any worth.

In the North a hotheaded warrior, Leo dan Brock (known as the young lion) tries to stop the Northmen and dreams about beating their leader, a psychopathic Stour Nightfall (knows as A Great Wolf), in the Circle. Both Stour and Leo consider Bloody-Nine as a role model, go figure. Dogman’s daughter, Rikke, gifted with Long Eye foresees troubles on all fronts and she’s right. It’s Abercrombie’s world after all and his view of life is dark. Lord Grimdark’s trademark black humor and wit make the story enjoyable and addictive but when you look past them, you’ll witness another tragedy developing right before your eyes. 

While A Little Hatred is character-driven and character-focused, things do happen. Plots and subplots converge, but without strong and distinct voices of the POV characters, they would seem generic. Battles, morally ambiguous characters, twisted magic - we’ve seen it before. Abercrombie’s characterization skills, brilliant inner monologues of his characters and sparky dialogue make it unique and unforgettable. He destroys his characters with perfect timing and no scruples. 

I consider Sand dan Glokta the best character in modern fantasy. His daughter, Savine, has the potential to follow in his footsteps. Like her father, she’s morally gray. She’s intelligent, manipulative, well-educated, and brilliant. She’ll do anything to get on top. Nothing and no one can stop her. Except for the harsh reality she’s never experienced before. Raised in a wealthy home, wearing clothes worth more than yearly wages of most people, she considers herself more powerful and strong than she really is. Her brutal clash with the reality will leave you dazed and confused. Fast-paced, violent scenes presenting the insurrection in the Valbeck boil with rage and are among the best I’ve read this year in any book. 

Some chapters come with a heavy dose of graphic descriptions of violence, and that’s something potential readers should know. The author doesn’t hold back but you already know this, right? And I sincerely hope you don’t expect a happy romance, do you? Because if you do, I have bad news. You have to be realistic about these things.

Abercrombie juggles multiple plotlines and points of view with gusto. Each arc is thrilling and memorable. They start to overlap near the end but you need to remember A Little Hatred doesn’t work as a standalone - a lot of what happens is really just structural work for what comes later. But is this really an issue when it’s so addictive to read? I don’t think so.  

A Little Hatred is full of adventure, thrills, and twists and turns. With fully realized and fascinating characters that keep the story moving, I just couldn’t put id down. If you loved First Law trilogy prepare for a feast and enter The Age of Madness.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Kickstarter Exclusive: Dyrk Ashton interviews Graham Austin-King

Official Kickstarter Page

Today we are glad to present a conversational interview between Dyrk Ashton & Graham Austin-King. Both are SPFBO veterans and beloved over here at Fantasy Book Critic. Graham has launched a kickstarter for re-edit and re-release of the Riven Wyrde Saga (his dark fantasy debut trilogy).

I’ve backed it already and I implore you to check it out and back it at whatever level you can. So go ahead and checkout Dyrk’s conversation with Graham:
Dyrk: Hi Graham! Thank you for joining me for this interview for Fantasy Book Critic!
Graham: Thanks, this should be fun. You ARE wearing pants, right?
Dyrk: Umm...
Graham: Oh jeez, it's going to Worldcon all over again
Dyrk: You wish
Graham: Shhh
Dyrk: Anyway! I’m very excited about your Kickstarter for your Riven Wyrde Saga series of books. What inspired you to want to do the Kickstarter?
Graham: Mostly I think it's because you grow as a writer. I wrote the first of those books during 2013. I think I've improved a lot since then in terms of my writing. I've also learnt a lot about self-publishing and what to look for in terms of cover artists, editors, so on and so forth.

Myke Cole said once that when people ask him what he writes he tends to steer them away from his first book. It had reached that point with me.

This trilogy is sort of an entry point into my writing and I just felt it could be better.

Also, Michael Fletcher edited it and missed out all of the words with an E
Dyrk: I know exactly what you mean. I see the Kickstarter is actually entitled "Riven Wyrde re-edit." What exactly do you plan to do?
Graham: Okay so the project is much more than just a re-edit. There are going to be new covers, a new map, a complete re-edit and proofread. I'm going to produce hardbacks for the first time. There's a whole pile of fun rewards in the Kickstarter, plus I have some funky ideas for stretch goals if we get to that point
Dyrk: That's very cool! From a writing standpoint, can you talk a bit about what kinds of things you want to change?

(I've already backed it because I want those signed hardbacks, by the way )
Graham: There's a lot of really dull structural things that need changing. My chapters, for example. In the first book (when I was a baby-writer and also an idiot) I decided I needed a set length for each chapter. These came in at a staggeringly long 5000 words. That's just too long for a chapter.

There are some points in there where I'd like to move things around, just tighten the book and prose up in general. There's even a point in there where one of the female characters looks into a mirror and thinks about how her life turned out. Clichés like that have got to go. That's almost as bad as your female protagonist discovering she has powers and a mysterious uncle... oh, wait...
Dyrk: That sounds great... HEY!
Graham: oops
Dyrk: From now on, you may no longer wear Rob Hayes's hat!
Graham: IT'S MY HAT

From what I understand, putting together a Kickstarter is a lot of work. Can you tell us a little about the process?
Graham: It's been a steep learning curve, that's for sure. Kickstarter is pretty cool in the way it's set up in that that's designed to protect the backers. When someone chooses to back my project, for example. the money doesn't leave their account until the project funds. That way, if I don't reach my target figure then nobody misses out.

I've had to go through and explain exactly what the project is supposed to achieve, right down to the painfully awful video I had to shoot of myself that took way too many takes.
Dyrk: You looked and sounded pretty good to me. Almost makes me believe your real.
Graham: I've gone through the various risks of the project, but thankfully there aren't many. My books are already written. My editor is the editor of Cohesion Books, my cover artist is someone I've used already, and all of the production platforms, with the exception of the supplier’s box for the boxed set, are people I've used before.

Oh, I'm not real. I might be Ben Galley. It gets confusing after a while. I might be Rob Hayes. I honestly have no idea.
Dyrk: No one knows it, but I'm actually Scott Oden and Michael R. Fletcher. So are you.
Graham: This would explain a lot
Dyrk: For anyone considering doing a Kickstarter (like me), any wisdom?
Graham: Start working on it earlier than I did? Certainly, I think you need to start your promotion work long before the project actually launches. You only have a limited time to reach your target figure and that time flies past very quickly.
Dyrk: Good advice, thanks!

Most important question yet. Is it true that Australian author Alicia Wanstall-Burke is actually a quokka?
Graham: I... I...

I can neither confirm nor deny that she is a quokka

I have no clear recollection of that, sir...

Dyrk: It is true! I knew it!
Graham: ...
Dyrk: Tell us more about the Kickstarter. What kind of stretch goals and/or rewards will you be having, or have already introduced?
Graham: There's pretty much something for everyone ranging from £1 to £100. I have everything from HD cover art to use a screen backgrounds, to signed hardback books. There are some limited rewards in there where I'll use your name in a book and kill you off in a gruesome fashion (just in the book though, honest). There's another where I'll critique your writing. Or you could just get eBook versions of the reworked trilogy.

As far as stretch goals go, you'll have to wait and see. If we go far enough then we can look at getting a new version of the audiobooks, possibly limited-edition leather-bound hardbacks, we shall see
Dyrk: Those sounds awesome! Not sure I believe you about the whole killing people in a gruesome manner but only in the book thing though...
Graham: I told you, I've stopped doing that.
Dyrk: Well that's good to hear. *Calls police quietly as interview continues*

Thanks for joining me for this interview, Graham! It's been a great pleasure. Best of luck on the Kickstarter. I've backed it myself because I really need those signed hardbacks. Yes, I said 'need.'
Graham: No blood this time though.T

The Riven Wyrde Relaunch Kickstarter runs until October 10thCheck it out HERE.

About Dyrk Ashton: Dyrk Ashton is a writer, educator, filmmaker and former actor active in storytelling and media making. Born and raised in the Ohio, he spent his formative years in the American Midwest wherein he got a BFA, Masters & PhD in the field of filmmaking & Movie studies. Dyrk loves the outdoors and even more the genre of speculative fiction. He currently resides in Ohio, but the fantasy landscape is the place he calls his true home. Paternus was his debut.

About Graham Austin-King: Graham Austin-King was born in England. From a young age, his interests ran from fantasy novels to computers and tabletop gaming. Having previously worked in the fields of journalism, international relations, and law, he found himself returning to his love of fantasy and creating rich worlds. He has finished his debut fantasy trilogy focusing on the Fae and decided to do something different with his next work. He currently lives in the south of England after living in the northern part of the country and Canada.

NOTE: Author Rob Hayes picture courtesy of himself. Jumping Quokka image courtesy of Cambojones Instagram.

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