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Thursday, April 30, 2020

SPFBO Finalist: The Sword of Kaigen by ML Wang (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski, David Stewart, Justine Bergman and Mihir Wanchoo)



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


Wednesday, April 29, 2020

GUEST POST: The Girl Drank Poison by Keith Blenman




Author Information: Keith Blenman hails from Detroit, Michigan. He works as a forensic investigation professor and helps manage a computer store. He’s been self-publishing fiction for twenty years. 

Order The Girl Drank Poison over here(USA) or here (UK)


Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Mini-Review: Of Honey And Wildfires by Sarah Chorn (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Seraphina's Lament
Read Stalin, Communism & Fantasy by Sarah Chorn (guest post)
Pre-order Of Honey And Wildfires over HERE

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

OFFICIAL OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Of Honey And Wildfires is the sophomore effort by Sarah Chorn and it’s a vastly different story than her debut Seraphina’s Lament.

OHAW is set in a western setting (circa 1800s of the American West) that’s just about on the cusp of exploration and having new wonders showcased. The story is set from the viewpoint of three characters: Cassandra, Arlen & Ianthe. The story is also set in two different timelines as we get to see Cassandra as a young child and in the near present while Arlen is recounting the story until the present climax. Ianthe has her own thing but that way lies spoilers. The world and the story is infused with this magical substance called Shine. It literally has changed the ways and thinking of the populace. It’s a substance that enhances all inanimate things it comes across and yet casts a heavy toll on the living. Matthew Esco is the person who discovered it and created an empire around it. Arlen Esco is his son who now is sent to the Shine territory to see firsthand how shine is extracted and how to further increase profits.

Cassandra isn’t an orphan but we find out how she has had a semi-orphan like childhood and why her father abandoned her. Ianthe is her friend and we see what happened to her to have her in the state which she is in. The world that’s showcased is a very much a brutal capitalistic one. Through Arlen’s eyes, we see all the worst that humanity can think of. Child indenture (slavery all but in name), forced addiction that hollows out the human bodies & mind, lifelong interest rates that never let the families escape their service. All of this and more is very adroitly shown by the author while not even focusing on it. The main focus as always are the characters and the tribulations they face.

I love how Sarah manages to showcase the worst of humanity but at the same time, she still is also able to provide hope by having her character experience kindness, goodwill and strength in the most unlikely quarters. Both Arlen and Cassandra are victims of fate but they have the drive in them to want or dream of a better future. They aren’t shy to avert their eyes from cruelty and keep in it their mind to see what they can do to change it. Sarah’s prose is exceptional to say the least, and in this book, we get many, many examples.

This book deals with a lot of tough subjects and Sarah doesn’t make it easy on her characters and neither is it easy for the readers. This book deals with some of the darker aspects of the western living. This book isn’t much on action but it more than compensates with the world and magic system. I loved how layered the world is and how understated the magic system. For me, there were no complaints about it. I’m sure many others will have their own thoughts but for me this book is a special one for the way it explores all of the themes within.

Lastly the author also does an admirable job of spotlighting LGBT characters in this setting. Especially with her main characters, she talks more about this in also this guest post over at the Bibliotropic blog. She takes the hard route in making them seem intrinsic to the plot and setting and making their identity/sexuality/gender just another layer but not its defining one. I loved this method as it provides the impetus that everyone is more than just a sum of their personas. Hats off to Sarah for spotlighting this important issue and yet making it seem au naturel rather than a shiny addition just for the sake of it.

CONCLUSION: Of Honey And Wildfires is a special book and it’s a standalone to boot. Sarah Chorn is an author who’s taking a different path, her books aren’t for everyone but they are magical to say the least. Of Honey And Wildfires is a book that’s doesn’t shy away from showing the worst of humanity but in doing so, it showcases the best of what Sarah Chorn has to offer. Lyrical prose, amazing worldbuilding and exceptional characterization, what more can you ask for.
Monday, April 27, 2020

The Armored Saint by Myke Cole (Reviewed by David Stewart)



Official Author Website
Order The Armored Saint here

Confession - I picked up The Armored Saint not from any recommendation or reviews I'd read. I had very little idea what I was getting into when buying the book (like many, I thought that the armor on the cover was way too big for that woman). I mostly bought it because I find the Twitter romance between Myke Cole and Sam Sykes so adorable, and as I'd already read Sykes, I felt I owed it to Cole to give his work a look. Well, color me surprised because I loved this book (in fact more than I liked Seven Blades in Black, which I also did like). The Armored Saint is not typical fantasy (whatever that means these days). It's gritty, with an edge of realism that even magical trappings can't dull. It tells the story of a young woman in an oppressive land who is faced time and again with situations that she is in no way equipped to deal with, and yet somehow she always survives and comes away stronger. This is a book packed with real emotional moments that not only surprise a reader, but stick with them. So yes, I am thankful for Sam and Myke's rivalry (brovalry?) because it has now allowed me the opportunity to begin two promising fantasy series that I will continue to read long after the two of them have broken up.

Strengths

Heloise. Heloise is the book's strength. I could stop there, but I won't. The absolute tidal wave of strong female characters in the past decade's fantasy has been a real thrill for me. Strong women are my ideal protagonist, and whatever that says about me is irrelevant because Heloise is a great character by any definition. Her growth arc is remarkable in large part due to how wild it gets at times. She begins the novel fairly tame, but from the first chapter we can see a spark in her that we know at some point will fully ignite. Cole does a remarkable job of stoking that spark, little by little with events through the story, several of which are large and momentous, and by the end Heloise is hardly even Heloise anymore - or perhaps she's the Heloise she was meant to be.

Cole's character work is well done elsewhere, but it's clear that our eyes are meant to stay with Heloise. Most of the other characters really only exist in relation to the protagonist, which I might find issue with if it didn't make so much sense in context. Cole wraps this story around his central character in a way that defies anyone else from intruding. That said, we do feel those other characters in much the same way that we might feel the people in our lives - we know that we are living our own stories, but it does not make us the most important person in that story. Heloise's father, Samson, for instance, is a nuanced veteran making the best of a life that is beset with obstacles. Heloise's love interest, a blacksmith's daughter named Basina, has moments seen through Heloise's eyes that could be seen from a dozen different angles but we feel them as Heloise would, and it makes them powerful.

Heloise's world is one inspired by the witch hunts of most of human history. The ruling power fears a return of devils from the underworld, devils brought about through the use of magic. Inquisition-like factions terrorize the rural land where Heloise and her family live and toil. They are the equivalent of fantasy peasants, in that they have no power and are made to believe in the existence of devils and demonspawn with very little evidence. I fully expected this book to be a cautionary tale against religion, but without spoiling anything, Cole turned my expectations completely around, and by the end of the book I was dumbfounded and confused, but in a good way. I want to read more.

Weaknesses

I will not give a completely free pass to my confusion at the end because the ambiguity that Cole leaves us with is frustrating. Ideally, I would have guesses about where the next novel is heading (I know it's headed for war, but that's about it). It's hard to criticize the book in this way because I think there is value in the way it ends, but I might have wished for something slightly different.

A valid criticism I have is one of scale. This only comes into play during the last quarter or so of the book, but I felt that Cole had a problem of describing the size of things. That might seem petty, but bear with me because my criticism makes sense in terms of reading flow. Towards the beginning of the novel, as a spoiler free for instance, Heloise runs into a ranger named Clodio, "Heloise ran for her house, so intent on beating the failing light that she blundered into a pair of legs as solid and hard as oak trunks." This broke the narrative for me because I immediately began sizing up characters. To run into someone's legs, Heloise would either have to be the size of my toddler, or Clodio would have to be the size of Yao Ming. There are similar instances in the novels big climactic scene. Heloise gets a suit of armor and has to fight, but the thing she fights against is either the same size as she is or as big as a house and I had no idea which was true. This might seem like a silly thing to criticize in a book, but it does break a reader's immersion if they have to start doing math mid-sentence.

If You Liked

It's tricky for me to compare this book to others in the fantasy genre because I think it's unique. There are obvious echoes of The Crucible in The Armored Saint, but I could also make far-fetched allusions to action films like Pacific Rim or Iron Man. In tone, I think the book I can most relate this to is Graham Austin-King's Faithless, both for its quandaries on religion but also for the incredibly personal journeys that its characters make.

Parting Thoughts

I loved The Armored Saint. It really affected me in a surprising way, and it did so in a mere 200 pages. There is one heart-wrenching scene in particular that is really sticking with me and I get a little teary just thinking about it. Cole has a real handle on how to write emotion, and how to write about the bonds between people, and I think there are writers that could learn a lot from that expertise. I have already picked up a copy of The Queen of Crows with literally no idea where this series is going, and I like that. I suspect to be devastated again and again.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Interview with Phil Williams



Friday, April 24, 2020

Under Ordshaw by Phil Williams review




Order Under Ordshaw over HERE(USA) or HERE (UK)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

SPFBO Finalist: Blood of Heirs by Alicia Wanstall-Burke (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski, David Stewart, Justine Bergman and Mihir Wanchoo)




Official Author Website
Order Blood of Heirs over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Girl and the Stars by Mark Lawrence review



Monday, April 20, 2020

The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter (Reviewed by David Stewart)



Official Author Website
Order the Rage of Dragons here

Few books in the past year have built up a level of hype as that surrounding The Rage of Dragons. There was a solid two month period where I rarely saw a day go by without hearing about Evan Winter's debut fantasy novel. I'll admit I slept on it because I wanted the trade paperback version, and now that I've read it, with all the hype behind us, I'm happy to report that it lives up to it. This is one of the best debuts I've read, but I am a little worried for its strength because the inevitable sequel has much to live up to.

Strengths


There is much to love about The Rage of Dragons. Winter sets his story in an invaded world. The Omehi people are introduced as conquerors, forcing their way into a foreign land having fled their own for reasons that are not detailed in this novel but promise to feature in subsequent books. This is a twist - we generally don't root for the invaders. Winter make it work by telling the entire book from the viewpoint of an Omehi youth named Tau. Tau exists in this world many hundreds of years after the invasion. This land is the only one he knows, and he can not be blamed for despising the barbarians who make war on his people year after year - even if history shows him that it was the Omehi who brought it.

Tau's growth throughout the novel is possibly the strongest aspect of the entire book, even if it does create problems down the line. Tau starts out as a young man with some apparent combat ability, but he is unremarkable in almost every way. He is small, not particularly good-looking, and not born to an important caste in a society where status means everything - he is an everyman. Circumstances force him out of this inheritance early in the book, and it does not take long for him to embark on a journey of revenge. Like Arya Stark, Tau has a list, and the only way for him to legally check boxes off of that list is to train for a spot in the military.

Much of the book takes place in an academy, and another of the strengths of Rage is the camaraderie built up between Tau and his friends.  Tau is an outsider, and remains so for nearly the entire novel, but he forms bonds that even his rage and pinpoint focus can not keep out. One thing that I think Winter does particularly well with this academy fantasy is to spread his eggs. Tau is good at one thing - fighting. He is no strategist, nor particularly good at rallying morale (he manages this through sheer force at some point, but it's clear that he finds it uncomfortable). Winter spreads the talents needed to form a competent team throughout the squad, and it makes it more believable. Other novels of this ilk can often run into the trap of creating one superhero with a team of underlings, and while Tau is certainly the superhero of the novel, he has obvious weaknesses.

Weaknesses


The Rage of Dragons is a book that promises to feature dragons in a central role. Picking up the book without knowing a thing about it, a reader might assume that the book is about dragons more than anything else. It is not about dragons. Much like in A Song of Ice and Fire, dragons are a weapon - a chess piece used both politically and militarily. They have no personality, are not in the book very much at all, and in the end prove as an important catalyst but one that the novel could have substituted any powerful item for. I don't often pick on title conventions, but I do feel that this one is a little misleading. At the same time, I love dragons and always want them in fantasy books, so this one is easy to forgive.

The only true problem I had with The Rage of Dragons is what Tau becomes. His transformation is a double-edged blade. When I said that his character growth was excellent, I meant that. It is well-paced, and we see him grow in a warrior sense throughout the story as though we were watching a character level up in a video game (an apt analogy for what he ends up getting himself into). But with that growth comes a level of ability so unmatched that it becomes ridiculous. Tau becomes invincible in a way that invalidates much of the world-building that Winter has laid out. This also makes for big problems with the inevitable sequel. By the end of The Rage of Dragons, Tau is so powerful, through his own sheer grit, that the only way to create conflict in the second book would be either to strip him somehow of his power, or to make him the villain. The former outcome is boring, and the latter robs readers of an established and interesting character. I hope Winter has a clever solution for this problem, and I suspect he does. I'm excited to see it.

If You Liked


Going in to The Rage of Dragons, I was told on numerous times to expect Gladiator, and there are certainly aspects of that with the arena combat and team-building. But what Rage most reminded me of was the Red Rising Saga, Pierce Brown's excellent space-fantasy trilogy. Darrow and Tau have very similar trajectory's, with revenge topping their list but societal transformation as the final goal. Their initiations into the real world both take place in a very dangerous academy style setting, and they even have similar growth trajectories. I think Tau is a better character, evidenced by the fact that I had to look up the protagonist of Red Rising because I couldn't remember much about him despite loving that trilogy. I think Winter does a good job of getting into Tau's head in a way that makes him unforgettable.

I also think that, through its setting, The Rage of Dragons shares much in common with books like Tomi Adeyemi's Children of Blood and Bone and even Nnedi Okorafor's Binti trilogy. There are certainly others that I haven't read yet that use African elements as their backdrop, and for fantasy readers this is a new and exciting direction to explore. I have also mentioned A Song of Ice and Fire twice in this review, but I think its similarities with Martin's work are fairly sparse.

Parting Thoughts 


I have concerns about Winter's second book, as outlined above, but The Rage of Dragons is so good that I have confidence that he knows what he's about with a sequel. Winter has set himself up as a solid writer, a storyteller, and a world-builder on par with some of the heavy hitters in fantasy right now. He has an advantage in that his setting is not as saturated as, say, European-based fantasy, and this helps The Rage of Dragons stand out in the melee. He also writes a hell of an ending, and it was the last quarter of this book that really solidified it as one of my favorite reads yet this year. I am here for this series and hope the quality persists.
Friday, April 17, 2020

The Last Crossing by Brian McGilloway (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website
Order The Last Crossing over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Brian McGilloway is a crime fiction author from Derry, Northern Ireland. Born in 1974, he studied English at Queens University Belfast, where he was very active in student theatre, winning a national Irish Student Drama Association award for theatrical lighting design in 1996. He is a former Head of English at St. Columb's College in Derry, but now teaches in Holy Cross College in Strabane. McGilloway's debut novel was a crime thriller called Borderlands. McGilloway lives near the Irish borderlands with his family.

OFFICIAL BLURB: Tony, Hugh and Karen thought they’d seen the last of each other thirty years ago. Half a lifetime has passed and memories have been buried. But when they are asked to reunite - to lay ghosts to rest for the good of the future - they all have their own reasons to agree. As they take the ferry from Northern Ireland to Scotland the past is brought in to terrible focus - some things are impossible to leave behind.

In The Last Crossing memory is unreliable, truth shifts and slips and the lingering legacy of the Troubles threatens the present once again.

FORMAT/INFO: The Last Crossing was released in hardcover and e-book editions by Dome Press on April 2, 2020. The book is 323 pages spread over fifty-nine chapters and three titled chapters.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Last Crossing is my first exposure to Brian McGillloway’s work and even though Brian McGilloway is a named man in the world of crime fiction. I wasn’t aware of him and it seems that it is my loss at that. This standalone story begins with a crackerjack sentence:

Martin Kelly cried for his mother before he died.”

For a reader like me this is one of the best hooks to get me interested about the story. The story begins with Hugh, Karen and Tony joining forces for the murder of Martin Kelly. We as the readers don’t know why such a horrible event is occurring, except for the fact that the three of them believe it absolutely necessary. After disposing of the body and linking evidence. The three then part ways and never seen again. However thirty years later, events take a wild turn as the three of them are forced to return. It’s from here that things take a stranger turn as we the readers are given dual timelines. The one in the present and the one in the past (thirty years).

The author really gives us a layered storyline as this isn’t just a crime story. It’s more about the tumultuous events that shape us and how our actions often cause echoes that affect people and their lives not just in the present but the future as well. Here’s where the author’s characterization is really brought to the fore. In both timelines, we meet the same characters however they might just be different people. Such is depth of characterization that those three characters (Hugh, Karen & Tony) are completely different people in both timelines. However the death of Martin Kelly is what binds both timelines and all the characters. We learn why and how the opening scene came to be and there’s some effective manipulation involved. The trick for the readers is to recognize who is manipulating and who are being manipulated.

For the settings, as one can guess with any story set on the Irish shores, it’s sure to involve the Troubles. Such is the sheer calamitous nature of the Troubles which affected both the major British Isles that any person who was remotely involved cannot say their lives remain unscathed. We find that our main characters are deeply involved with these Troubles however not in the way that one might think. This is where the readers will have to read the story to see how deeply the author has enmeshed the storylines and character lives.

The author’s prose is also quite admirable and the sentence and chapter structure is on the shorter side but it is done so with intent. The pace of the story is also quite quick as we are never left with a staid storyline. Broken down into four sections, the story moves quite quickly and before we know it, a dark climax approaches. The ending is quite unexpected and I enjoyed how it all played out. The story is definitely a dark one and the author makes no qualms about it.

For those readers who don’t want to read about a gloomy storyline and characters who perhaps aren’t the most moral. They definitely won’t enjoy this story. This storyline while a dark one does have it humorous moments and for one, is definitely a solid story about human nature and redemption.

CONCLUSION: The Last Crossing is definitely a story that will resonate with a lot of folks. It’s nuanced and written in such a way that lends to rereads. I don’t know if the author intentionally wrote it that way but I do know he’s written to cause a reaction. The Last Crossing is a book that dwells a lot of human behavior and the way we think and react. It’s no surprise that this book similar to humans is a mystery that awaits your attention.
Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Always North by Vicki Jarrett



Official Author Website
Order Always North over HERE(USA) or HERE (UK)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Vicki Jarrett lives and works in her native Edinburgh. Her first novel, Nothing is Heavy, was shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year 2013. Her short fiction has been widely published and broadcast, shortlisted for the Scotland on Sunday/Macallan Short Story Competition, Manchester Fiction Prize and Bridport Prize. The Way Out is her first story collection.


FORMAT/INFO: Always North is 320 pages long and is standalone. The book is currently available in ebook and paperback formats. It was published on October 21, 2019 by Unsong Stories Limited. Cover Artwork by Caleight Illerbrun. Cover design by Vince Haig.


OVERVIEW:

This isn’t a comic book. We do not have twenty-four hours to save the Earth. The world’s already fucked, and we’re all fucked along with it. That’s not my fault and it’s not yours.’
Climate fiction matters. The world changes and normal doesn’t exist anymore, just ask my grandparents ;) I believe powerful fiction can impact readers’ behaviors stronger than the raw scientific data or orders and prohibitions. Subtlety works better than brute force. At least for some. 

Always North is an ambitious book about the collapsing environment, our accountability, mysterious workings of mind and memory, and the nature of time. It’s set over two time-frames and settings: an oil survey vessel in the Arctic Ocean in 2025 and the Scottish Highlands in 2045. 

Isobel, a software engineer, joins a team surveying the Arctic seabed for oil deposits. Along the way, the ship draws the attention of a mysterious polar bear whose appearances will give you goose-bumps. The journey ends in a bloody disaster. The story makes a time jump to show the environmentally ravaged world in which jobs are in short supply. Like most people, Isobel is struggling to make ends meet. To her, the world went apeshit.


‘Just more and worse of everything. Riots. Gangs on the increase. More people, not enough food or shelter to go around. The government too stretched or too preoccupied with saving their own skins to do anything about it.’

Isobel changed. A lot. When we first met her, she was self-centered and living to the fullest on her own terms. Her older self is harder and more conscious. When one of her old crew members (and lovers) shows up and offers her a job, she accepts. With the help of advanced technology, she revisits her memories of the expedition to discover what and how went wrong.  

This part of the story, with its flashback segments, has a surreal quality. Jarrett’s writing conveys the intensity of near-endless daylight and bleakness of the frozen wasteland with stunning and evocative descriptions. She controls the narrative with clear but impactful writing that awed me. Her prose is elegant, subtle and compacted. It gives the first half of Always North the velocity of a thriller. The second half of the novel experiments with the structure and can feel meandering to some readers. 

Conclusion: Jarrett ends her tale with an incomplete yet touching ending I found perfect. She combines elements of eco-horror, sci-fi, and post-apocalyptic dystopia in something fresh and unique. Not an easy book to follow, but I won’t forget about it anytime soon. 

Monday, April 13, 2020

Black Tie Required by Craig Schaefer (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website
Pre-order Black Tie Required over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Long Way Down 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The White Gold Score 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Redemption Song 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Living End 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of A Plain-Dealing Villain
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Killing Floor Blues
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Castle Doctrine
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Double Or Nothing
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Neon Boneyard
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Locust Job
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Sworn To The Night
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Detonation Boulevard
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Winter's Reach 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Instruments Of Control 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harmony Black
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Red Knight Falling
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Glass Predator
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Cold Spectrum
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Right To The Kill
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Ghosts Of Gotham
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Loot

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Craig Schaefer was born in Chicago and wanted to be a writer since a very young age. His writing was inspired by Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark, Clive Barker & H. P. Lovecraft. After reaching his 40th birthday he decided to give in to his passion and since then has released twelve novels in the last three years. He currently lives in North Carolina and loves visiting museums and libraries for inspiration.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Las Vegas, Nevada. For some, a neon-drenched playground. For Harmony Black, a graveyard of bad memories. But when your job is protecting humanity from the horrors of the occult underworld, you go where the mission sends you.

The annual TechTopia conference draws Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, big thinkers, startup investors — and the Basilisk, a former German Military Intelligence officer turned freelance assassin. He’s in town to make a killing, and his target could be any of a thousand potential victims. To protect their source of information, direct action is off the table: Harmony and her team have to identify the target and stage a rescue without the Basilisk — or his mistress, the sadistic demoness Nadine — ever learning that they were involved.

Stranger things are brewing under the neon and glitz. The elite of the criminal underworld are flocking to the city like flies to a rotting corpse, rumors of a secret auction are swirling, and the assassin’s target has ties to Talon Worldwide — a corporation with a foothold on two parallel Earths. Soon enough, Harmony discovers there’s far more at stake than a single life. The consequences of this mission aren’t just global: they’re interdimensional.

FORMAT/INFO: Black Tie Required is 286 pages long divided over thirty nine chapters with a “what came before” section. Narration is in the third-person, via Harmony Black , Jessie Temple & Kevin. This is the sixth volume of the Harmony Black series which is a spin-off to the Daniel Faust series

April 14, 2020 will mark the North American paperback and e-book publication of Black Tie Required and it was self-published by the author. Cover design is by James T. Egan of Bookfly Design.

OVERVIEW/ANALYISIS: Black Tie Required is the sixth book of the Harmony Black series and the second book in the new Harmony Black trilogy. Black Tie Required follows the events of Right To The Kill as we find the team still focusing on their main target Nadine.

The main plot deals with the TechTopia conference in Las Vegas around which swirls a rumour of a secret auction. To add that, a highly sought-after german assassin is also attending the conference and the team not only have to find out who the target is but also prevent it. This is just the start as Harmony has her own struggles due to Nadine’s vicious actions. The team is also dealing with the revelations from Right To The Kill, all in all things are as crazy as they can be. The main plot unfolds over a period of two-three days and it’s as good as a thriller you can get. We get a story that mixes a lot of elements and ultimately it leaves the reader guessing about who the target is and what is truly happening. In this plot regard, it reminded me a lot of Jeffrey Deaver's The Coffin Dancer.

As with Right To The Kill, it’s the characterization that makes this book and the reboot of the original series such a successful one. While the main plot is still focused around Harmony, we get some important bits via Jessie and other characters and this is where the story truly explodes of the pages. The plot really shines a good amount of light on the antagonist which was a cool thing. As the Basilisk is one of the most dangerous folks that the Vigilant team have ever faced and this is a team that has faced demons literally. Harmony and Jessie are the emotional core of this series and it's in this book their bond is tested and highlighted to its strongest extent. I love how the author has showcased them to be polar opposites in magic and temperament but beneath it all, they share the same steel and drive for justice. This book forces the most amount of change on Harmony physically, psychologically & morally. (this point is really driven home after reading the penultimate chapter). All of which feels mighty organic and is perhaps leading to some bigger dust-ups down the road.

As with any Craig Schaefer book, the plot is a twisted one with a lot of threads. I’ve begun to notice that in this regard, Craig is similar to Jeffrey Deaver who is famous for his multiple twisted endings. I love this aspect as in this book, what we think is happening and what truly is the case is miles apart. The book has some clever and cool nods to the Wisdom’s Grave trilogy and in one specific case we even find out what Marie (the Knight) is up to currently. Suffice to say it’s a very knightly thing to do and I truly hope Craig gives us a story/novella about it (trust me you WILL want to know more).

The twisted plot ends on a big climax and I loved how it touched on quite few of Craig’s other series and for those fans (me included), this is one of the best bits about Craig’s books. This truly is a connected universe and it shows in the tiny nods, references & mentions (things like what the Knight is doing, the return of a certain brother-sister cambion duo from NY and we finally learn about a particular black Hemi Cuda which has been the subject of speculation since about the last twelve books). The action is a bit more on the personal level and the horror element takes a backseat to the thriller one in this book unlike its predecessor. This though is a great thing as this book IMHO takes it back to the pinnacle of the series which was Harmony Black (book 1). I loved how this book has taken this series to a whole new level. Book 5 was a revival but book 6 will really make fans notice why Harmony Black is worthy of her own series.

On another note, I’ve to highlight the cover which IMO is an amazingly cool one. This has been another ace in a long line of winning covers and seriously a slap in the face of folks who complain about self-published books not having decent covers.

The only point that perhaps made my read a teeny tiny bit less enjoyable was the fact that while it touched upon events of the Daniel Faust series, we didn’t get any clear pointers about a certain Paladin-Enemy conflict. Things have been heating up especially amidst the events of The Locust Job. I’m sure that we will be getting a lot more with the next books in the Daniel Faust and Harmony Black series but I was hoping that there would be a bit more revealed about that particular plot thread.

CONCLUSION: Black Tie Required has it all, a thrilling plot, characters put through a wringer, a bit of dark humour, and an ending that will leave you wanting the next book NOW. Craig Schaefer solidly underscores why I consider him to be the best author that the urban fantasy genre has to offer. Of course he does it by bucking every trend and trope that the sub-genre is known for. Black Tie Required is one of the best books I’ve read in 2020 and as a thriller fan, I consider it to be one of the best thrillers I’ve read in my life.
Friday, April 10, 2020

The Shadow Saint, by Gareth Hanrahan (Reviewed by David Stewart)



Official Author Website
Fantasy Book Critic's Review of The Gutter Prayer
Order The Shadow Saint here

The Gutter Prayer was one of the few books that I have pulled off a bookstore shelf simply because the cover was so arresting. I did not know a thing about the book but ended up loving its gritty world and misfit cast of characters. The Shadow Saint, The Gutter Prayer's follow-up, goes in with the disadvantage of expectation - I knew mostly what I was in for and it was up to Hanrahan to deliver a worthy successor to his breakout hit. He did it, and while I think The Gutter Prayer might be the better novel, The Shadow Saint is in many ways the ideal way to showcase the middle chapter of a series. It is rare for a second book in a trilogy to be the one that everyone raves about (I know it happens, Star Wars fans), and so that tempered my wildest expectations enough that I was able to settle in to The Shadow Saint and simply enjoy myself.

Strengths


What immediately caught the attention of most of The Gutter Prayer's readers was Hanrahan's world-building ability. The city of Guerdon is a character all its own, and like any good character, over the course of these novels it changes drastically. At the end of the first book, a New City is literally grown from the body of a dying man, giving the old city a coat of fresh paint that plays an integral part in the second book. Even beyond that, Hanrahan has such an interest in politics and religion and how they intermingle to form a society, that even did Guerdon not change in a very real physical sense, it would do so thematically. To add to this is Hanrahan's pantheon of gods - a group of deities that defy any logic and exist in the same way that the violent old gods of our own mythology do. In The Shadow Saint, gods from across the sea are coming to destroy Guerdon, and the city's only defense is a weaponized distillation of the Black Iron Gods, the very evil Carillon and Spar sought so desperately to stop in The Gutter Prayer.

Part of what makes Guerdon so interesting is its tone. I always question why human beings choose to live in dangerous places, and my confusion extends to fantasy realms. Guerdon is not a friendly place, and why everyone hasn't moved out to the countryside to live in suburbs with SUVs and in-ground pools is beyond me, but I'm glad they haven't because I enjoy the constant sense of danger and weirdness that Guerdon offers. Adding in the New City, a place that can quite literally change with a thought, gives the entire thing an even weirder context - as though the characters aren't really on the mortal plane at all but rather existing in some city of the gods. It works, and Hanrahan's writing style fits it like a warm blanket.

The Gutter Prayer had readers following Carillon, Spar, and Rat as they tried to survive a veritable apocalypse, and I quite liked that original cast. In a surprise move, Hanrahan takes the focus off of Carillon and onto her cousin, a young woman named Eladora who is featured in the first book but isn't front and center. She is joined as a point-of-view character by a spy who is never given a true name and exists as several people at once, and a prince from a Northern realm that, if its mentioned at all, was not in my memory from The Gutter Prayer. I like the new cast, and Carillon isn't entirely absent from the book, but I really liked those misfits from the first story. They would be hard to top in this context, and I actually admire Hanrahan's willingness to move out of his comfort zone. Even if I may not have liked them as much, there is no doubt that these are fully fleshed out characters who probably adapt and change more than did those in the first book (Spar might be the exception). Eladora changes dramatically in The Shadow Saint, and I think her evolution is remarkably well done.

Weaknesses


Where The Gutter Prayer is a nigh on neck-breakingly paced book, The Shadow Saint slows things down, and this probably more than anything is what dimmed it for me. As I said in my introduction, the middle portion of a trilogy almost has to be this way because it acts as a bridge between its bookends. However, what The Shadow Saint does at times is get so bogged down with its politics that I found myself struggling to read it. This may work for some, and I think Hanrahan's political writing is well done, I just didn't enjoy reading about it much in the same way that I don't enjoy reading about politics in a newspaper. This is not to say that I don't enjoy politics because I am as political as anyone who lives in a society, but the methods of conveying those politics can often bore me. For me, The Shadow Saint was at its best when it was dealing with its deities, which happens more at the beginning and end of the book than anywhere in between.

The Shadow Saint also suffers in its middle book syndrome by leaving dangling threads - plot lines that aren't satisfactorily explored or concluded. I wanted more with Carillon, for instance, who does not seem as though she is finished with Guerdon or this story. I expect I will have to wait a year or more to see if my wishes for this series are fulfilled by a third book that has a lot of baggage to successfully carry.

Parting Thoughts


I liked The Gutter Prayer more than I liked The Shadow Saint, but that's like saying I like a nice red ale more than a stout - they are both beer and I love them. I think Hanrahan is here to stay as one of the premier fantasy authors of this decade (assuming we are all around to see the rest of it). It would have been a simple and tragic thing to fumble the second book after such a strong debut, but he kept hold and delivered, and I am 100% here for the conclusion of The Black Iron Legacy. I hope some of these characters live to see the end of it - a wish I also hold for all of us readers. Stay safe!




Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Stations of the Angels by Raymond St. Elmo review



Official Author Website
Buy The Stations of the Angels HERE(USA) or HERE(UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Quest of the Five Clans series

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Exclusive Cover Reveal & Q/A: Black Tie Required by Craig Schaefer (by Mihir Wanchoo)


Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Long Way Down 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The White Gold Score 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Redemption Song 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Living End 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of A Plain-Dealing Villain
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Killing Floor Blues
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Castle Doctrine
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Double Or Nothing
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Neon Boneyard
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Locust Job
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Sworn To The Night
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Detonation Boulevard
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Winter's Reach 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Instruments Of Control 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harmony Black
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Red Knight Falling
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Glass Predator
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Cold Spectrum
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Right To The Kill
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Ghosts Of Gotham
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Loot
Here at Fantasy Book Critic, we are always glad to showcase cover art both traditionally and self- published. One of our favourties is Craig Schaefer and his books have the kind of cover art which can rub shoulders with the best of what big publishing has to offer. Last year Craig allowed us to exclusively reveal the cover for his new Harmony Black trilogy and we have been granted the privilege to continue to do so for Black Tie Required (book 2 of the trilogy).

Craig has been extra generous by answering these questions amidst these trying times and so read ahead to know more about what makes this book special (besides that glorious cover), and why perhaps this book should be on your reading lists…

Q) Welcome back Craig & thank you once again for this cover reveal. Amidst the COVID crisis, how are you dealing with the daily stress?

CS: Bold of you to assume I'm dealing with it.

But seriously, as someone who has grappled with clinical depression and OCD my entire life (OCD and a pandemic are a bad, bad combination, folks), it largely boils down to the same coping mechanisms I've always used, plus a lot of personal status checks to monitor myself, and occasional time for self-care. It helps that writing is my main coping mechanism, which...is kinda handy, given that I'm locked down with nothing to do but write.

Q) You have always been forthright about your stress levels & writing schedules. What’s your thought process behind releasing Black Tie Required in these troubled times?

CS: The show must go on. While I've been as worn down as anybody else, dealing with the current day-to-day uncertainty and madness (and toilet paper shortages), not working is not an option. Especially now, really. People need entertainment right now, and while I can't do anything to help with the pandemic crisis, that's something I can deliver. Black Tie Required isn't a weighty philosophical tome; it's a fast, action-packed magical-spy romp, and if it puts a smile on your face and keeps you from worrying about the world for a few hours, I consider that a job well done.

(Cover art & design by James T. Egan of Bookfly Design)

Q) This cover by James T. Egan is very much a special one. It’s in line with Right To The Kill and yet has its own extra sauce. Right To The Kill was an homage to vintage James Bond books ( a La Casino Royale), what would be a similar title for Black Tie Required?

CS: Black Tie Required continues the theme and feel of the last book, sending the heroines on a mission to a glamorous resort where danger lurks around every corner. A hitman is on the prowl, and they have to identify his target before he makes his move; of course, nothing is ever that simple. Expect guns, gadgets, magic-fueled covert operations, and cocktails by the swimming pool.

Q) The golden Basilisk/Dragon promises to be a major plot point for this story. Would this be a literal or figurative theme or will we have to RAFO?

CS: Figurative...maybe? This time out, Harmony and Jessie are squaring off against an international assassin known as the Basilisk -- a cold and remorseless killer who has risen to the top of the demonic House of Dead Roses without so much as a speck of magic or a drop of infernal blood. Is he just that skilled, or does he have lethal surprises up his sleeve? (Spoiler: it's the second thing.)

Q) Black Tie Required is the middle book of your new Harmony Black trilogy. With things heating up in the Daniel Faust books as well. What can we expect from it vis-a-vis the middle book syndrome?

CS: In this book we'll get a look at the wider battlefield Harmony and her team are fighting on, and the growing consequences at stake. The events of the Wisdom's Grave trilogy (and the downfall of Talon Worldwide, a company secretly working on interdimensional portal technology) has left dangerous occult tech in the wild, and governments (and terrorist cells) all over the world are starting to take notice.


Q) Next up for you is The Insider in July & should we expect another self-published release before this crazy year is over?

CS: Yes; Thomas & Mercer Publishing are releasing The Insider in all formats (ebook, paperback and audio) on the 7th of July. And I'm pleased to say that the manuscript for the sequel to Ghosts of Gotham has been delivered to my editor, and we fully intend to have it out for Halloween. I'm currently elbows-deep on the new Daniel Faust novel -- no ETA on that yet but I'm working hard on it.

Q) Thank you again Craig & I can’t wait to read Black Tie Required. Besides thrilling action sequences, snappy dialogue &further reveals about the world. What would be one thing  readers can look forward to when it’s released?

CS: The unknown fate of Daniel Faust's beloved Hemicuda (impounded when he was sent to prison in The Killing Floor Blues, and only seen once after that when Harmony and Jessie took it for a joyride) has been a running joke in my books for some time now. I can promise that by the end of Black Tie Required, you will know exactly what happened to it and where it went.

Will Daniel ever get it back? Well, that's a trickier question, but he's dealing with bigger problems right now. Also, for Wisdom's Grave fans, while she doesn't make an appearance personally, you'll find out what Marie Reinhart is up to at this very moment. It's a very Marie thing.

*---------------*---------------*---------------*



OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Las Vegas, Nevada. For some, a neon-drenched playground. For Harmony Black, a graveyard of bad memories. But when your job is protecting humanity from the horrors of the occult underworld, you go where the mission sends you.

The annual TechTopia conference draws Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, big thinkers, startup investors — and the Basilisk, a former German Military Intelligence officer turned freelance assassin. He’s in town to make a killing, and his target could be any of a thousand potential victims. To protect their source of information, direct action is off the table: Harmony and her team have to identify the target and stage a rescue without the Basilisk — or his mistress, the sadistic demoness Nadine — ever learning that they were involved.

Stranger things are brewing under the neon and glitz. The elite of the criminal underworld are flocking to the city like flies to a rotting corpse, rumors of a secret auction are swirling, and the assassin’s target has ties to Talon Worldwide — a corporation with a foothold on two parallel Earths. Soon enough, Harmony discovers there’s far more at stake than a single life. The consequences of this mission aren’t just global: they’re interdimensional.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

SPFBO Finalist: Never Die by Rob J. Hayes (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski, David Stewart, Justine Bergman and Mihir Wanchoo)



Official Author Website
Order Never Die over HERE(USA) or HERE(UK)


Monday, April 6, 2020

Social Distancing Giveaway Winners Announcement (by Mihir Wanchoo)



The FBC Social Distancing giveaway ended last week and here’s the list of winners who 5 titles each as well as the grand winner who won 10 titles.

All the books have been ordered from Powell’s and some have shipped already. We hope the winners enjoy them and if possible try to leave reviews on Amazon/Goodreads as a small thank you for the authors.

Winners
Titles
Annie C.
Red Sister by Mark Lawrence
The Legend Of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron
An Alchemy Of Masques And Mirrors by Curtis Craddock
Empire Of Sand by Tasha Suri
Ship Of Smoke And Steel by Django Wexler
Ashima S.
Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer
The Queen Of Swords by R. S. Belcher
Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
The Unlikely Escape Of Uriah Heep by H. G. Parry
The Gurkha And The Lord Of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain
Cheryl H.
Spellsinger by Sebastien De Castell
The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer
The Golem And The Jinni by Helene Wecker
Heaven’s Needle by Liane Merciel
A Natural History Of Dragons by Marie Brennan
Emily L.
The God King’s Legacy by Richard Nell
The Sword Of Kaigen by M. L. Wang
Merkabah Rider: Have Glyphs Will Travel by Edward Erdelac
Chasing Graves by Ben Galley
The Library Of The Unwritten by A. J. Hackwith
Kelly M.
The Lord Of Stariel by A. J. Lancaster
The Company Of Birds by Nerine Dorman
Chains Of Blood by M. L. Spencer
Shoggoths In Bloom & Other Stories by Elizabeth Bear
Gideon The Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Kim S.
The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan
The Crimson Queen by Alec Hutson
Jade City by Fonda Lee
Daughter Of The Sword by Steve Bein
The Bear And The Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Marie C.
Ghosts Of Gotham by Craig Schaefer
Paternus: Rise Of Gods by Dyrk Ashton
In Shadows We Fall by Devin Madson
Rumble In Woodhollow by Jonathan Pembroke
Of Honey And Wildfires by Sarah Chorn
Max P.
Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews
The Nine by Tracy Townsend
Rage Of Dragons by Evan Winter
The Wolf Of Oren-Yaro by K. S. Villoso
The Cloud Road by Martha Wells
Ollie B.
Devil’s Call by J. Danielle Dorn
Priest Of Bones by Peter McLean
The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French
Endsville by Clay Sanger
Ashes Of Onyx by Seth Skorkowsky
Rusty M.
The Lord Of Snow And Shadows by Sarah Ash
The Bone Ships by R. J. Barker
Dance Of Cloaks by David Dalglish
The Immortal Prince by Jennifer Fallon
The City Of Golden Shadow by Tad Williams
Grand Winner
Titles
Sofia C.
Circe by Madeline Miller
Theft Of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan
Where Oblivion Lives by Teresa Frohock
City Of Stairs by Rob J. Bennett
Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines
Seawitch by Kat Richardson
Skullsworn by Brian Stavely
Never Die by Rob J. Hayes
The Shadow Of What Was Lost by James Islington
The Folding Knife by K. J. Parker

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