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Thursday, July 30, 2020

SPFBO: The Third Reaping & Semifinalist Update by Adam Weller


Read Fantasy Book Critic's First SPFBO Update
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Second SPFBO Update

Hi, everyone! My name is Adam Weller, and this is my first year teaming up with Fantasy Book Critic. I’m a regular contributor at Fantasy Book Review, which was one of the ten judges for SPFBO4 a couple of years ago. It was a lot of work to organize and publish all the reviews and blog posts, so I’m thankful to Mihir, Lukasz, and David for letting me infringe on their turf this year and handle all the dirty work.

I was intrigued when I drew my initial lot of eight books out of our assigned thirty. I was pleased to pull a couple of titles I had been hoping for, as well as a couple of offbeat, non-traditional titles I could sink my brain-teeth into. But the thing that interested me most about my lot was how little fanfare these books had received to date. The book with the highest number of ratings on Goodreads had only twelve people rating it. Only twelve people, out of all eight books! Five books from my selection had five or less star ratings, and two books had zero ratings and zero reviews. One of those books was recently published, so it is understandable, but the other book was published more than two years ago. How could this be? What other mysteries behind these stories was I about to unravel?

My favorite aspect of SPFBO, and the reason why I review books at all, is to find stories I love and nag everyone I know to read them. Seeing these books had such small Goodreads audiences to begin with, it lit a fire inside me to find these books larger audiences that would appreciate them. I hope I’ve done my job, as I’ve written reviews of all eight books below. Sadly, I had to eliminate six of them, but I will announce my two semi-finalists towards the end of this post.

I encourage all of you to take a few moments and find one or two that might appeal to you. So instead of buying that extra cup of coffee tomorrow, why not invest in some fantasy entertainment from all across the spectrum?

Let’s get started!


Bloodline: Rise by Jonatan Håkansson

Official Book Blurb: A decade of peace coming to an end, the rumour of a queen’s return.

When the Iron Jarl waged war against the mountains eleven years ago it was to free the north of the clans’ tyranny. Left in their wake, however, was but mistrust and twisted ambitions. A fickle balance upheld by the old families now toppled over as a witch is found within the Willslocks’ lands.

A bloodline at stake, the haunting words of a life taken. The oath has been broken and the winds whisper of war. What fate awaits the Grayrat house in this realm where legends linger?

REVIEW: This book lays the foundation for what feels like a sprawling epic to come. It is well-written, but there was one thing that nagged the back of my mind while reading it: the plot seemed far too familiar to the first book of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

The book focuses on a Ned Stark-like character, the head of a powerful house in the far north. The house is one of a few ruling families, with familiar squabbles and alliances. At one point, an opposing Lannister-like family talks about repaying their debts. There is a supernatural threat beyond a mountain range border that is rearing their heads. The head of the house also has several children who are assigned different tasks across the land, hoping to save the world and stay honorable even though they’re making enemies left and right. There’s a city of slavers that one child wishes to free. There’s even a royal twin brother and sister who have an unusually close relationship.

I don’t believe all of these similarities are intentional—at least, I hope not--but it was still difficult for me to enjoy the story when so much of it felt so familiar. There are certainly some original threads to it; witchcraft and cursed blood and some clever politicking kept the story interesting and never dull. And if you haven’t read A Game of Thrones, you will certainly enjoy this story. Even if you have read A Game of Thrones, and you like all of the ingredients mentioned above, then you’ll surely enjoy this story.


Death of the Invisible Financier by R.D. Henderson

Official Book Blurb: Paul Bloom wants to make his own way and stop grinding for a criminal organization. The higher-ups in the organization are lining their pockets thanks to Bloom and he was getting just a pittance. The catch is he doesn’t want the higher-ups to learning he wants to make his own way.

Mettle Coyle, an elf and financier, is finally able to get out from under his aunt, who was beloved by everyone at their family-owned investment and financial firm and died under mysterious circumstances, and seized control of the firm with the goal of lining his pockets at the expense of his partners or investors. Paul Bloom, his associates, and Mettle Coyle join other criminals in engineering a confidence scheme which most likely ensure each of them a nice tidy profit.

REVIEW: This book has a promising opening. Right away, I was impressed by how polished the book felt. There’s a particular tone that Henderson was aiming for, and it was something that I was drawn to immediately. But the repetitive format of each chapter, the lack of character depth, and the sheer disposability of most of the cast made it extremely difficult to enjoy this story as much as I wanted to.

This book has some interesting ideas, but its execution just wasn’t for me. It’s been described as The Sopranos or The Wire meets D&D. I wouldn’t go that far, but I understand what he was going for: it’s almost entirely scenes of dialogue, with barely any exposition, and only a touch of live action that lasts a fleeting moment or two. This format might work in TV, but it didn’t work for me in a book format. Most of what happens has already happened between chapters, and it’s just referenced. The reader doesn’t experience it firsthand.

There’s a few other talking points about this book that can be discussed. It would make an interesting buddy-read, since it really is different that most other books I’ve read, and that’s truly saying something. I don’t know exactly what that something is, but for a book that I didn’t necessarily enjoy all that much, it has inspired me to want to write a lot about it.

Why not check it out for yourself?


The Alchemy Dirge by Ryan Howse

Official Book Blurb: In Aeon, everything can be had for a price.

In this city of guilds, conspiracies, and artifice, the cost can be more than gold.

Salai Pavane, alchemist and inventor, wants to create a printing press to lift his fellow citizens to a better world. Desperate to fund his invention, he pushes the boundaries of alchemy to sell on the black market. In doing so, he accidentally produces the most dangerous weapon the world has ever known.

Success is more dangerous than failure. Now he’s pursued by anarchists who want his formula, the Ministry who wants him imprisoned, and assassins who want him dead.

REVIEW: Although this is the second book of the A Concerto for the End of Days series, it serves as a standalone piece. It focuses on two characters. Salai is a talented alchemist, living in a slums of a floating city, crafting tools and armor for the local military. He is also nearly finished with his life’s work: an invention that has the potential to change how information is stored and shared across the populace, which could upend society’s class structure. Naturally, there are those who wish to steal and suppress his work. But Salai must also deal with a dangerous alchemical weapon he created by mistake that has fallen into the hands of a terrorist group led by witches and corrupt freedom fighters, all looking to squeeze Salai for everything he is worth.

Ilher is a longtime friend of Salai, a merchant by day and a black-market trader by night, dealing magical items, books, wards, illegal weapons, and information to both the police and criminal organizations. When a foreign ambassador from an enemy country arrives into town, Ihler’s trust and social allegiances are tested, and he finds himself caught in the middle of way more than his job description ever entailed.

This book brought to mind the civil unrest and factional divides found in Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Divine Cities trilogy, mixed with the city-as-a-character feel of Gareth Hanrahan’s The Gutter Prayer. It was full of exciting scenes and interesting ideas, and there were some great set pieces that had me fully drawn into the world. The lead characters were painted in detail, and pieces of the world-building had some fine touches. I did, however, feel like there were a few too many ideas introduced that we didn’t get to explore. It felt like Howse bit off a little more than he could chew, especially where the book ended. Apparently there are no plans to continue this thread of the story, so I’m a bit confused as to some decision-making in the final act. Also, there were no female lead characters; there were only two female supporting characters of any note, and we didn’t learn that much about either of them. They served a purpose in supporting the MC’s, but not much else.

This is a fun and fast-paced adventure with an original setting, some unpredictable events, and a hint of something much larger planned ahead. If any of that sounds good to you, then give this one a go!


The Wound Of Words by Deborah Makarios
Order the physical book over HERE

Official Book Blurb: There are words which change lives...forever.

Andrei just wants a chance with the girl of his dreams, but he knows she's keeping a secret from him - an imperial secret, a disturbing secret, and one that will not leave Andrei and his love alone.

Now he's on the run from a murderous monster, with only one chance to save himself and those he loves: hunt down the heart of the dreadful curse that has fallen on the Czar and find a way to end it for good.

Followed by nine feet of animated stonework, a petrified exhibitionist, and his grandmother's sullen apprentice, he must struggle through winter's deadly chill to uncover the truth before everyone he knows is changed forever.

REVIEW: This book is not something I would have normally picked up from the blurb alone, as the tone of it didn’t appear to be my usual cup of tea. But thankfully, it landed in my SPFBO6 slush pile, and it surprised me in the best way possible: it started well enough, seemingly a low-fantasy romance I could invest in. Then a few chapters in, it takes a surprising hard left turn, and the humor, mystery, and overall weirdness doesn’t let up until the final pages have been turned. The plot twists are never at the expense of the characters, who are as varied as they are memorable. It’s a hodgepodge of clever madness and I welcomed it with open arms.

With a title of The Wound Of Words, one would hope that dialogue would be one of the stronger aspects of the story. I thought it was where the book shines the brightest; it features some of the sharpest and most creative uses of dialogue in recent memory. There are some parts of the story where words are used as weapons, so the verbiage, use of sarcasm and hyperbole, cadence, and tone all play especially important roles in the story. Our heroic companions of wildly different personalities have funny enough conversations on their own, but when you add this feature into the dialogue… let’s just say that some events are difficult to predict.

Another aspect I appreciated was that the level of violence was kept to a bare minimum, yet the story still held a high level of danger and excitement. This is a refreshing turn from the type of books I’m normally drawn to, so it was all the more impressive that I was absorbed in its mystery and consequences without thinking there was anything lacking from the story.

If there’s one thing I had to nitpick, I’ll mention that the first few chapters took a bit to reel me in. The writing and the characters held my interest, but the plot didn’t pull me in early on. Perhaps it was an intentional choice to misdirect readers, so the shift in gears would have had a greater impact when it occurred.

At the time of writing this, The Wound Of Words had zero ratings or reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. Makarios’ previous book, Restoration Day, has only two ratings and one review since its publication in 2018, even though it was nominated for the Vogel Award for Best Novel last year. It is with no trepidation that I call Makarios a hidden gem in the self-publishing world. Since she has decided to publish her books under the Creative Commons license—she wrote an author’s guide to the Creative Commons license, which you can read here—only the paperback versions of The Wound Of Words are available on Amazon, but e-book versions are available for purchase worldwide through her Smashwords page.

The Wound Of Words is a wonderful book. It is extremely well-written, with beautiful prose, and rich, lively characters who are smart, flawed, humorous, and distinct. The story pulls you through one mystery after another as it transports you throughout a Russian-inspired winter countryside. I encourage you to pick this story up, even if looks to be outside your comfort zone. It is an easy recommendation, and a standout story that reads like a combination of a Russian fable, a witch-tale, and something completely original and undeniably entertaining.


I, EXILE by David M. Samuels

Official Book Blurb: Exiled into a wasteland because of a heist gone wrong, Emelith vows to hunt down the one responsible. Except not all is what it seems in the haunted realm of the Cauldron.

REVIEW: This story is a fast-paced, plot-heavy adventure about a heist gone wrong, an exile to a desert wasteland, and a threat from a powerful opponent that could spell doom for all the land. While the story elements feel a bit too familiar at times, I was engaged and having a blast tearing through this book at a rapid pace.

If you’re a fan of playing RPGs, whether it’s a computer game or a D&D campaign with friends, you’ll very much enjoy this story. Most of the book felt like you were guiding your character through a quest of varying locations, ‘NPC’ encounters, and lots of thrilling monster battles.

While the plot was a fun trip, the characters were a bit too thin. There was more depth added toward the end of the book, but it would have been better to share more of this development at the beginning so I could have cared more about character motivation and cheered or jeered them on.

There are a few convenient “just-in-time!” moments, and injuries didn’t seem to slow the party down, but the story moves so quickly onto the next challenge that it’s hard to dwell on anything for too long. Overall, I, Exile a fun sword-and-sorcery adventure that feels like a RPG campaign in book form. Fans of R.A. Salvatore or the Dark Sun D&D realm would especially enjoy this. Recommended!


A Dark Inheritance by Todd Herzman

Official Book Blurb: Torn apart by a raid on their village, three siblings must find their way back to each other.

But a dark force stands in their way—one they can't fight alone.

REVIEW: What sparked my interest right away about this book is Herzman’s approach to the story itself. This is a sprawling world, with multiple continents, oceans, islands, rulers, and lots of history. But when we start the book, we know nothing about any of that. And it stays like that for some time.

We see the world through three siblings, aged 19, 15, and 12. The story begins, when they’re woken in the middle of the night to find out that their small village has been invaded by raiders and set aflame. What would you do? We dive right into the action, but since we’re seeing the world through the children’s perspectives, we experience the fear and newness of the situation; we don’t know what’s going on, and we have little knowledge of what happens outside our village that we’ve never left. So the story starts small. But as it develops, the world opens up to us through these children and their experiences. There’s no long-winded or forced exposition dumps. It’s a natural education for all three POVs, and it paints the world in believable ways.

Unfortunately, those ways are rough going. One discovers how blood mages gain power through enslavement firsthand. It’s not how you want to spend a Friday night. Another sibling is determined to find what is lost, and chooses the path of wisdom through the powers of nature. The third sibling discovers their power by the sword, the seas, and the soul. The supporting characters all have pasts and motivations and goals of their own, and there’s plenty of big mysteries to reveal.

Herzman’s prose is similar to Brandon Sanderson. He delivers concise and direct sentences that get the job done. Its lean tone makes for a highly digestible read, often leading to numerous one-more-chapter-okay-maybe-two-more late nights. The build-ups towards chapter cliffhangers come early and often, and the rotation between the three POVs are consistent, so if you want to know what happens next, you’ll have to read three more chapters to find out. It’s a sneaky, but reliable dig at the reader to keep them stuck to the pages. It worked.

One issue that stuck out was that a number of reveals were projected pretty far out, or were easily predicted. Some big ones were a nice surprise, but I think some re-wording and less mentions of certain elements earlier in the story might have a more successful impact of certain events when they dropped. It didn’t take away too much enjoyment from the story, but it did linger a bit after it was over. I also hoped the ending played out in a different direction, but I’m glad this was only book one of a series.

A Dark Inheritance is not a story that will subvert any tropes or carve out many new ideas in the genre. However, what it does set out to do, it does it very well. I had a great time reading this story; I was fully engaged with the plot and loved all three characters, each having distinct personalities where it seemed like they actually acted their age. The more I read books with younger POVs, the less common I find this to be, so I commend Herzman for a fine job of pulling me into this new world. I look forward to seeing how the next chapter is going to play out. You should get on board, and find out, too.


The Blood Stone: The Curse of the Drakku #1 by Jason J. Nugent

Official Book Blurb: He slays dragons for a living. Now he's on a mission to wipe them from existence. Lailoken longs to slit the throat of the beasts who abducted his wife. And with the winged monsters raining havoc on the northern lands, the vengeful dragonslayer's bloody skills have never been in higher demand. Finally granted the chance to rescue his long-lost love in exchange for a dangerous, magical gem, he sharpens his sword for the quest of his life.

Venturing deep into enemy territory to collect the dragon-killing artifact for his fanatical leader, Lailoken prays that he'll have one more chance to hold his beautiful bride. But as his single-minded hunt for revenge reveals a darker truth, he fears he may be fighting on the side of evil.

Will Lailoken reunite with his love and slay dragonkind, or has he unwittingly triggered the realm's destruction?

The Blood Stone is the first book in the fast-paced Curse of the Drakku fantasy series. If you like intriguing magic, powerful dragons, and honorable heroes, then you'll love Jason J. Nugent's epic adventure.

REVIEW: We open the story with a tactical battle as a group of dragonslayers, mages, and rangers have joined to take down a dragon and capture its essence. These battles have been going on for generations upon generations, as the lifeblood of the dragon is what powers much of the magic that humankind depends. The lore of the land is that the dragons (and halflings) are responsible for the land becoming barren and ill-supporting of life, so the humans have been trying to kill these dragons for centuries to restore their land back to health.

But here’s the kicker: the more dragons they kill, the worse the land gets. Somehow, they still think that wiping out all these creatures is solving the problem, instead of making it worse. Until one talented dragonslayer communicates with an elder dragon and learns that everyone might have been doing things wrong for the last thousand years. Meanwhile, a mage’s trainee discovers some ancient, hidden powers that should have stayed buried, and his dreams of power only grow stronger by the chapter.

This book was just not for me. I won’t go into too much detail, but I just couldn’t connect with it. However, it has a classic 1980’s sword-and-sorcery feel to it, with dragons, magical artifacts, evil mages and the like. If that sounds like it could be up your alley, then you, kind reader, have found your next book.


Timberwolf by Dominic Adler

Official Book Blurb: In Stassia, loyalty to the Party means survival. And Axel Geist – rogue, self-styled ladies’ man and accidental political prisoner – is determined to survive. Even if it means selling his soul to the Old God Bassarus, Lord of Deceit and Duke of Hell.

When Bassarus orders Axel to volunteer for Stassia’s warrior elite, the black-uniformed Timberwolves, he joins a labyrinthine security state. A traitor, deep inside the regime. A world of play or be played, kill or be killed… Stassia’s destiny turns on Axel’s treachery and lies.

Timberwolf – a dark fantasy of espionage, love, war and betrayal set in a world similar to, but entirely different from, our own.

REVIEW: This story is bananas. I’ve never read anything like it. I’ve never even heard of anything like it, so right off the bat it gets monster points for originality. The closest I can come to describing it is a ‘late 1930’s pseudo-German/early Holocaust military fantasy.’ Yeah, one of those.

Axel Geist is your first-person POV throughout the story. He narrates a brief chapter summarizing his youth, but by the end of chapter one, he’s a political prisoner at a Party-run concentration camp, sectioned off with other anti-Party groups such as homosexuals, free thinkers, and intellects. This country is a fascist state, and the mask the separates it from the rising superpower of 1930’s Nazi Germany is paper thin. The name are German, and the soldiers respond with “Jawohl!” It’s not a subtle book.

We follow Geist through years of forced labor, and eventually, the horrors of the military. The Party is hell-bent on invading everything around them, and the prisoner-soldiers from the labor camps are the first to the field. Anyone who runs gets mowed down by their own sergeant.

The war scenes itself are gritty and difficult, with panzer tanks, automatic weapons, munitions, and all the death and gore that comes along with it. It’s almost easy to forget that you’re reading fantasy until the moment that Geist’s team breaks through a gate, and instead of finding more enemy troops, they run into a warlock and his monstrous creation. Imagine facing that on the beaches of Normandy. Once the fantastical is introduced—and it does take a decent chunk of the book until we get there—Geist somehow ends up getting involved with some ancient gods of this world, and must now stifle his own code of ethics to do what he abhors for the good of his people. It’s messy, and complicated, and James Bond-esque, and an incredible amount of fun.

This story takes some commitment. There are so many events packed into this one novel, and they keep coming without much of a break. Now that I can reflect on all the major events of the story, it feels like one long James Bond/Mission Impossible mashup film mixed with a Wolfenstein video game with the Titanomachy to seal it all together.

I came across a couple of aspects with the story that didn’t sit right with me. First and foremost were the female characters. Nearly every single woman in the book either needed to be saved, or ended up being in love with Geist, or in most cases, both. It got a bit eye-rolly by the time I got to the end. Also, there’s a bit of a lull in the second arc of the story, around a quarter to halfway through. The world-building is appreciated, but at times I felt like I was reading an entirely different book. I also didn’t love the writing in the final arc of the book, but I won’t go into details, and most of that is subjective opinion anyway.

In summary, Timberwolf is a book you’ll have to read to believe. This is a hefty book with a lot to say, a ton of style, and Alex Geist’s narrative voice is one you won’t soon forget. If you have any inkling for an action-packed military fantasy-thriller rife with political allegory and increasingly mad set pieces, then Dominic Adler’s Timberwolf is a must-read.

DECISION TIME: So my two semi-finalist selections are:


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Deborah MakariosThe Wound Of Words, and Todd Herzman’s A Dark Inheritance (Hollow Fate Book #1)

*** Congratulations to you both!!! ***

It was very difficult to eliminate a book I enjoyed as much as Timberwolf in the opening round. It came very close to becoming my second semifinalist, but I feel like I made the right decision. I do hope that many fellow readers, bloggers, and authors give it a go, as I’ll be singing its praises for a long time to come. I must also state that in a different draw, The Alchemy Dirge and I, Exile could have both been my semifinalists as well. I believe I got a disproportionate selection of high quality books this year, which were all a pleasure to read, but torturous to eliminate.

I’d like to thank Mr. Adler, Mr. Nugent, Mr. Samuels, Mr. Howse, Mr. Håkansson, and Mr. Henderson for sharing their stories with us.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Interview with A.J. Vrana, author of The Hollow Gods





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



No, no, thank you! I’m born and raised in Toronto, Ontario to Serbian diasporic parents. In addition to my writing, I am a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, and my research focuses on the supernatural in Japanese and former Yugoslavian fiction and its relationship to violence. I’m also lucky enough to live with two ridiculous rescue cats, Moonstone and Peanut Butter, who are adorable and definitely aliens. I love shiny things and make jewelry from semi-precious gemstones like labradorite and moonstone, which features heavily in my pet naming conventions and within my fiction. 



Saturday, July 25, 2020

As I Was on My Way to Strawberry Fair by Raymond St. Elmo




Buy As I Was on My Way to Strawberry Fair HERE(USA) or HERE(UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Quest of the Five Clans series and The Scaled Tartan
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Origin of Birds in The Footprints of Writing
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Stations of Angels

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Thunder Heist Cover Reveal Q&A with Jed Herne (interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)



Official Author Website
Read the first two chapters of The Thunder Heist

Today we are joined by young Aussie author Jed Herne, who has chosen Fantasy Book Critic to exclusively reveal the cover for his new epic fantasy caper titled The Thunder Heist.  We chat about the process he went through in finalising the cover as well as how he came up with the plot setting for this terrific new series. Read ahead to find out more about The Thunder Heist and checkout the cover below....

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

JH: Thanks for having me, Mihir!

Funnily enough, I didn’t always want to be a writer. My huge goal in life was to be an architect. I even went to architecture school for four years before dropping out to be an author. There are definite parallels between architecture and fantasy writing, though, so it was well worth it (and it’s given me my awesome part-time day job of designing playgrounds).

But in terms of writing – I’d always been interested in storytelling, but the moment where I first really wanted to be an author happened when I was fifteen. We’d just returned to school from the holidays, and my friend, Aiden, had written a fairly detailed short story. I thought that was cool, and I didn’t want him to one-up me, so that afternoon I went home and started writing The Aeon Academy. Three hundred and sixty days later, I somehow had a novel – a middle-grade urban fantasy story about a young boy who goes to a school for superheroes. It was derivative and sloppy, but I didn’t care. I’d discovered something that occupied my daydreams and actual dreams and most moments in between, something that felt exciting and important to explore. The characters felt real, the world building was liberating (I loved drawing maps of the school and the city) and learning how to plot a whole novel was so much fun.

I spent five years re-writing The Aeon Academy. For at least two-drafts, I wrote it all again from scratch. Heavens, it needed it. In the first draft, I only introduced the villain in the third last chapter! Eventually, it reached a point where I didn’t think it would get any better – but I knew it wasn’t good enough. I was totally fine with that, because I’d heard authors say you normally have to write a few trunk novels before you start producing anything good (which is one of the best pieces of advice I think a young writer can hear). Plus, all the mistakes and lessons learnt in The Aeon Academy set me up to write much better stories in the future. Heck, when I started my next novel, Across the Broken Stars, I wrote the first draft in 60 days, which is a far cry from the 360 days it took for The Aeon Academy.

From there, I spent a few more years writing before deciding to self-publish. Why choose the indie route? Well, I’d done all this research on traditional vs self-publishing, and instead of sitting there to keep thinking about it, I wrote a short novella, called Fires of the Dead, which would give me a low-stakes way to experiment with self-pubbing. Within five months of having the idea, the book was out in the world. It hit 70% of the financial target I set for it by the end of 2019, and so I decided that not only was the indie route viable, but that the indie pathway appealed to my creative polymath tendencies. Closing out on the topic of what inspires me to write, in terms of a verb, (and this is going to sound a little pretentious, so forgive me), comes back to something I learned in architecture school. My professor shared this quote from Ignasi Sola-Morales, who said that good architecture connects people to a deeper reality. I think stories do the same. At its best, a narrative isn’t about escapism – it’s about connecting us more deeply with what it means to be human. For me, there’s such a sense of deep meaning and purpose to exploring this in my writing.

Now, that’s not to say I’m writing anything particularly literary or ‘important.’ If anything, self-styled Big Important Books often have the least sense of truth to them. I write action-packed fantasy books with wildly different worlds, and you can read them and have an entertaining time, never think about them again, and I’ve made my peace with that. But I also think that for people looking for something else – dare I say, something a little deeper – that’s what I strive to explore as well. Being able to explore the complexities of the human condition is an endless source of motivation to me.

(And on a side note, I think that’s what makes your Martins, Abercrombies, and Sandersons so successful – they get that it’s not about Lots Of Action or Deep Spiritual Meditations, but instead it’s about doing both, in a way that 1 + 1 doesn’t equal 2, but instead equals 11). And besides all that pretentious literary stuff … writing is just so darn enjoyable. When a story clicks into place, when you understand a character, when an idea springs into your head – it’s so giddying. With a keyboard and a screen, you can craft worlds that would take billions for a movie director to create – all from the comfort of your home!

Q] Many congratulations on the stunning cover for The Thunder Heist. Can you tell us who the artist/illustrator for it is and if you had any input towards it?

JH: Thank you! My artist is the incredible Ramón Ignacio Bunge, who I emailed after discovering him on DeviantArt. Typography for the cover was by yours truly.

I had a lot of input on the design, which included writing the initial brief, providing Ramón with example covers that I liked, and drawing a scrappy version of what I wanted the composition to look like.

Oh, I just realized I still have the brief somewhere … here it is!




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

JH: It was mainly about adding more detail and getting said details closer to how I imagined them. For the most part, 90% of the work was done in his initial sketches, and from there we mostly focused on finessing things to make the final composition more cinematic and accurate. Rather than talking about the process, why don’t I follow that well-worn writing-advice trope, and show you instead?



^ Ramón’s first cover sketches.



^ The final sketch version, taking my favourite elements from the three initial sketches.



^ Weighing up the different colour choices.



^ After noticing there was something weird with the perspective, Ramón re-aligned the image.



^ And with some last details, the art was done.

Q] Can you tell us about The Thunder Heist? What is it about? Is it a standalone or the first book in a series?

JH: The Thunder Heist comes from me taking dozens of things I love and mashing them up into what I hope is a fast-paced and unpredictable story; the kind of thing a keen fantasy reader might smash through in one or two days. There’s pirates; sea monsters; elaborate cons; swashbuckling characters; high-octane, mad-max-style action; conspiracy; mutants; a floating city right out of an architect’s dreams (or nightmares); and of course, a heist.

Now, that’s just a random list of things that inspired it. But to actually tell you what it’s about …

It’s a heist story set in a floating city-ship, made from thousands of boats all chained together. This city-ship is powered by a device that pulls electricity from lightning, kept inside an unbreachable tower. And our protagonist, Kef Cutmark – pirate, monster slayer, and generally swashbuckling individual – is here to steal it. Not for money, or fame, but for revenge.

If you like the cons of Gentlemen Bastards, the morally complex characters of The First Law, and the worldbuilding of anything Sanderson writes, you might enjoy it :)

It’s the first book in the Twisted Seas series, and it’s also a standalone. While it sets up a wider story world and introduces you to key characters within that world, it can be read with complete satisfaction all by itself, with no big cliffhanger endings. My structural model is Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope. It works great as a standalone, while also setting up a (hopefully!) interesting story universe with endless places to explore.

(Art by Ramón Ignacio Bunge, typography by Jed Herne)

Q] How many books are planned for The Twisted Seas series?

JH: I don’t know how many books will be in the series as a whole, but at the moment I’ve got rough outlines for 5 or 6, along with a few options for how I want to end the thing (which could happen after a few books, or after a lot).

In terms of the reader experience, it’s going to be like the Jack Reacher, Skullduggery Pleasant, or Dresden Files books. There will be overarching character throughlines and development between the books (and we’ll be following the same characters throughout the series), but you could also drop into, say, book 4 in the series and read it as a perfectly good standalone, without requiring major knowledge of the other books (although it will certainly help, and I think once you’ve met the core characters, you’ll want to see more of their adventures).

This might be a slightly hard balance to achieve, and we’re still in early days with the writing, so who knows how it’ll play out. What I can confidently say, though, is that book one is a self-contained story. While it will hopefully have readers excited to keep exploring the world of the Twisted Seas, if you read The Thunder Heist (Twisted Seas #1), it is a self-contained narrative with a distinct beginning, middle, and end.

Q] The concept of humanity being forced onto the seas while terra firma is overrun by monsters is a very cool concept. Can you tell us about the inception of this idea and what other things inspired you?

JH: Thank you! For a few years I’ve been thinking about the idea of a monster-infested land, with little bastions of safety carved out in human settlements on the coast. You know, that kind of frontier allegory, where both reward and risk lie inland. I’d even sketched out a fairly detailed outline for a story in this setting (which I will get around to writing one day), but for the most part it was one of the many story worlds and ideas floating around in the back of my head.

When it came to thinking about the Twisted Seas, I wanted to explore an ocean-based world. How would living constantly on water – with no ability to visit land – affect cities? Politics? Warfare?

There was one issue with this, however. Why would people be restricted to the water? Initially, I thought the Twisted Seas would be inside a giant, dormant volcano, with the cliff walls surrounding the Seas being several kilometers high – too high to climb out of. But there were still some logical issues with that setup.

Then I remembered my monster-infested-land idea. If I filled a world with land-bound monsters that ripped anyone apart the moment they stepped foot on the shore … well, that would certainly incentivize people to stay as far away from the coast as possible. And from that, I had my justification for forcing humanity to live on the ocean.

Q] Let’s talk about the world that you are creating for this saga. The story is set upon a floating city. Can you talk to us about the world that The Thunder Heist is set in? What are curiosities (geographical, mystical, etc.) of this world?

JH: The Thunder Heist is set in the Twisted Seas; a huge expanse of monster-infested water, with most people living in floating city-ships made from thousands of boats all chained together. Legend says that humanity is descended from the Star Sailors, a technologically-advanced people who crossed the skies and the stars in their floating ships – until something brought them crashing down to Entoris (the world of the Twisted Seas).

Using the wreckage of the Star Sailor’s ships, the first settlers constructed boats after discovering that the monster-infested land was too dangerous for habitation. From there, hundreds of years have passed, with humanity eking out a living on the Twisted Seas. Almost all knowledge from the Star Sailors has been lost, and there is much contention over any information about them.

Three primary factors have allowed humanity to survive a hostile life on the Twisted Seas: alchemy, mutants, and the Debris Belt.

Of alchemy, enough rudimentary knowledge of chemicals and transmutation has enabled humanity to access and produce enough resources from survival, based only on what they can take from the seas. There is debate over whether alchemists are scientists, magicians, or a combination of both.

Of mutants (genetically modified people) there are several types. Through alchemical and cultural processes, mutants exist as a slave-like underclass to serve common humans. The main two mutant types are Gillers, whose ability to breathe underwater allows them to be used for ocean-floor mining, which provides the iron to make new boats. The second main mutant species are Wingers, whose ability to fly makes them well-suited for conveying messages between the various city-ships. There are other mutants as well, although they are rarer.

And lastly, the Debris Belt. When the Star Sailors encountered the cataclysm that sent them crashing down to Entoris, the rubble from their ships formed a floating debris ring that orbits around Entoris. Scrap metal and precious relics fall from this ring into the Twisted Seas, where they are swiftly hunted by scavenger crews. From there, these resources are processed and used for boats, weapons, and other goods.


Q] This book is the third one you’ve published along with a few short stories/novellas. What can you tell us about your previously published work?

JH: My two other books are Fires Of The Dead (novella), and Across The Broken Stars (novel). They’re both fantasy books.

Fires Of The Dead follows Wisp – a magician who can control fire. Now, there’s lots of fire-based magic out there, but I’d like to think my magic system is a little bit different. I call it pyromancy, and it involves drawing energy from fires to make your own flames. Pyromancers create a bond with a fire by dripping their blood into a flame (i.e. into a campfire), and once they’ve bonded with this fire, they can draw energy from it to warm themselves, shoot flames, and do other kinds of cool sorcery stuff.

In Fires Of The Dead, Wisp leads a misfit thieving crew into a desolate, ashen forest to steal a dead sorcerer’s skull. But his crew aren’t the only ones on the hunt, and the forest isn’t as barren as it seems ...

Across The Broken Stars is about a cowardly war deserter who seeks redemption by helping a young fugitive search for a mythical safe haven. It’s set in a world where people live on discs floating in space, with a rich mythology and lore that our protagonists have to use as clues for their quest for the safe haven. Reedsy Discovery said that “if you are looking for an epic fantasy that has a unique setting, this is it,” which was so flattering that I shall post it here without shame :)

As you can probably tell from those book descriptions, and from The Thunder Heist, I love to push the boundaries with world building and try my hardest to create unique settings – no medieval European fantasy stuff here!

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

JH: I write fantasy stories set in unique secondary worlds, featuring morally complex characters. If you like inventive magic systems and settings you haven’t explored before, mixed with a lot of unflinching grittiness, you’ll probably enjoy my stuff.

For The Thunder Heist, it is (no surprises here), a heist. Think Ocean’s 11 but in an oceanpunk fantasy world. Here’s the blurb:

A relentless thief. An impossible heist.

Meet Kef Cutmark. Pirate, monster-slayer, scourge of the Twisted Seas.

After a lifetime of running from her past, she’s returned to Zorith – a tangled jungle of a thousand boats, all lashed together to make a floating city-ship. Zorith is powered by a device that draws energy from lightning. Mysterious, unique, and locked in an unbreachable tower, it’s the envy of Zorith’s rivals.

And Kef? She’s here to steal it.

If she can take the device and cripple Zorith, maybe she’ll find justice for all the hurt the city has caused her. But with an unreliable thieving crew, hunters closing in, and her past bearing down upon her, failure looks more likely. And if she fails, she’ll never find peace again.

Q] Many thanks for your time Jed, I’m looking forward to reading The Thunder Heist. Do you have any parting thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers?

JH: Thanks so much for having me, Mihir! It was a lot of fun.

If you’d like to read the first two chapters of The Thunder Heist for free, and be notified when it releases in September/October 2020, you can sign up to my author email newsletter here. If you don’t want to join my email list, you can follow me on the socials instead:

Twitter: @JedHerne Instagram: @JedHerne Youtube: Jed Herne - Writer

Thanks again for the interview, and thanks to you – the reader – if you’ve made it this far!

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


OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: A relentless thief. An impossible heist.

Meet Kef Cutmark. Pirate, monster-slayer, scourge of the Twisted Seas.

After a lifetime of running from her past, she’s returned to Zorith – a tangled jungle of a thousand boats, all lashed together to make a floating city-ship. Zorith is powered by a device that draws energy from lightning. Mysterious, unique, and locked in an unbreachable tower, it’s the envy of Zorith’s rivals.

And Kef? She’s here to steal it.

If she can take the device and cripple Zorith, maybe she’ll find justice for all the hurt the city has caused her. But with an unreliable thieving crew, hunters closing in, and her past bearing down upon her, failure looks more likely. And if she fails, she’ll never find peace again.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

SPFBO Semifinalist Interview with Alexander Darwin (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)



Official Author Website
Order The Combat Codes over HERE

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

AD: Thanks for reaching out to me! To start, I’m a lifelong fantasy/sci-fi fan. Most of my childhood memories involve playing D&D in my parent’s basement or finding some forgotten corner to read about dark elves until my eyes blurred. I practiced martial arts throughout my childhood as well, but I did not start in earnest until university, where I began training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

This is when I realized magic truly existed: a person half my size could mystifyingly control my body as if I were a small child. The art captivated me. I’ve been practicing and teaching Jiu Jitsu for nearly two decades now. It is a central part of my lifestyle, a practice that balances me, an art that I can teach my kids, and a place where fantasy and reality merge for me. The journey of learning martial arts is like the process of gaining experience points in an RPG!

Q] What inspired you to be a writer in the first place, what experience you went through in finishing your book, and why you chose to go the self-publishing route?

AD: I think I always knew I would be a writer, as I’ve been fascinated with the storytelling process since my childhood. But I wasn’t really a writer until I unearthed the worth ethic taught to me by martial arts. I found that writing is best viewed as a skill that needs constant improvement. It needs to be drilled, trained, and improved on like martial techniques. Prior to that realization, good writers simply existed to me in some void; like they’d always been good at their craft. The work and practice they needed to put into their creations never crossed my mind.

Now, that mountain of work is always top of mind when I read my favorites. As far as self-publishing… I didn’t have the patience to go through the entire agenting and publication process. I really just wanted to get my work out to readers as fast as possible! I know it sounds a bit rash looking back, but I had a strong urge to just move forward at the time.

Q] Many writers have a muse, who directs their writing, and others do not seem to be affected the same way. Which group do you fall into? What is your main motivation and source of inspiration?

AD: I don’t think I have a muse. And I think the concept of a muse doesn’t work great for me… it exerts a sort of artificial pressure to please that negatively affects my writing. I see the output of my creative process as the sum of my lived (and read) experience, combined with the training I’ve put in so far as a writer. Though I’m a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I only see myself as a novice as a writer, with many skills yet to be developed.


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

AD: The idea for The Combat Codes has been floating around my mind for quite a while. Basically, it answers the question: what would a world look like where war did not exist and instead disputes were resolved with one-on-one, martial combat? I wrote the first book in 2015, but didn’t finish the sequel until 2019 (primarily because during the hiatus I needed to focus on becoming a new father).

Q] The Combat Codes is the first volume in the Combat Codes saga. Could you give us a progress report on the third book, offer any blurb details about it and outline your plans for the series as a whole?

AD: I’ve outlined the entire series which could end up being either three or four books, depending on how book three comes out. I’m currently drafting book three, but I’m also working on a standalone book which has been very useful to help me practice some new skills as a writer.

Q] Why did you decide to enter SPFBO?

AD: As a reader I’ve very much enjoyed the finalists and winners of SPFBO over the past few years. I think the contest has really pushed the bounds of recognition for self-published SFF authors, and displayed the great diversity and quality of work out there. For some strange reason, I never thought of entering The Combat Codes into SPFBO until I actually published book two of Combat Codes.

Q] It is a tad difficult to classify your book. If I had to come up with an elevator pitch for it, I would try “Ender’s Game meets Fight Club” knowing that it doesn’t capture the essence precisely. What’s your elevator pitch? Is there a specific sub-genre you would classify it as?

AD: I’ve attempted to come up with some sub-genres for Combat Codes, although looking back most of them fall short and come off a bit market-y. For example, “Fight-Punk.” There’s also been some comparison to Ender’s Game (which I feel both elated and underserving of), so I’ve tried to run with that a bit. Another pitch I’ve heard and used is: “Harry goes to Hogwarts, but learns Mixed Martial Arts instead of wizardy


Q] Let’s talk about your book’s genre. Technically it’s SF as there’s almost no magic. Your world settings also seem more like secondary fantasy (with elements of Japanese terms such as Daimyo). Can you tell us more about the world, the history of the Daimyo wars, its nations and the peculiarities about it?

AD: I’m a big fan of the Final Fantasy and other jRPG series (another obsessive childhood past time). I really enjoyed how Final Fantasy mixed technology with magic in a fun and seamless way, so I think the world of the Combat Codes is very influenced by that game series. The Combat Codes has no spells, but I do treat the martial progression in the story like a magic system; I try to introduce the nomenclature for techniques early on and then sprinkle them throughout the story.

I also have a fondness for Kurosawa films and anything Samurai, as you can see from the feudal-based system. The premise is: the world had a sort of arm’s race which eventually resulted in near total annihilation The nations made a pact to end the arm’s race (and war all together) by instead training champions to represent each nation in the “Circles.” These champions, called the Grievar, fight so that the rest do not have to, and abide by a strict set of scriptures called the Combat Codes.

Q] One of the things I noticed in your debut was the martial arts sequences were pretty amazing and realistic. They are also an integral part of the plot and nearly all the characters focus on honing theirs. Could you tell us about the research which you undertook before attempting to write these scenes? What were the things which you focused upon and any fascinating things that you found amidst your research?

AD: This was the fun part for me! I’ve trained an assortment of martial arts over the years, primarily BJJ (submission grappling) and Muay Thai (kickboxing), and, outside of this pandemic I used to teach combat sports regularly. The tough part of the process was trying to balance the technical realism of fighting with readability for those who are unfamiliar with mixed martial arts. I did not want to bog readers down with techniques and gratuitous fighting scenes. I tried to use the fights as ways to create stakes as well as progress the characters / narrative.

Q] The world within the Combat Codes saga seems to have different races such as the Grievars, the Daimyos & the Bit-Minders. Can you tell us more who they are & what are the key differences between them?

AD: I’ve had a long interest in anthropology, in particular the evolution of modern humans. It’s simply amazing to me that there once existed a world where Homo Sapiens lived alongside close relatives like Neanderthals, Denisovans and Floresiensis (hobbits!). It seems the reality of our humanoid past is getting closer to Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds.

I always am interested in how fantasy authors account for the evolution of the various races. At what point did dwarves and elves and humans “split,” for example?

So in my stories I always try to create a strong evolutionary backbone to the various races. Grievar and Daimyo and Bit-Minder may seem quite different in modern day, but perhaps in the past they split from a common ancestor.

Q] Will we find out more about Cego’s siblings? Barring the climatic ending and what we learn about Cego’s origins, will the sequels reveal more about Silas and Sam?

AD: Yes! I don’t want to give anything away, but even in Book Two: Grievar’s Blood, much more is revealed about Cego’s past and family. His origin is a central theme that carries throughout the saga.

Q] Cover art is always an important factor in book sales. Your cover is cool and on point. Can you tell our readers about the idea behind its inception & how you worked with your designer for the finished product?

AD: I wanted something simple and symbolic. The Combat Codes cover depicts an arm bar (the BJJ technique). And the cover of book two depicts a rear naked choke. I plan on each cover showing a different technique used in the Circles (and in mixed martial arts).

Q] Please tell us about the books and authors who have captured your imagination and inspired you to become a wordsmith in your own right. Similarly, are there any current authors you would like to give a shout out to?

AD: There are so many! Early on I was an avid reader of D&D based worlds; I devoured R.A. Salvatore, Weiss and Hickman, and all the other authors of Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms. I’m a currently a big fan of Brandon Sanderson, Emily St. John Mandel, Tamsyn Muir, Sebastien de Castell, and Mark Lawrence.

Q] Thank you for taking the time to answer all the questions. In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers?

AD: I really appreciate being included in this year’s SPFBO, and value the time each reviewer is investing in new and upcoming authors. And thank you to the readers of Combat Codes so far, I’ve always had the view that even a single reader that enjoys my books means I’ve had success as a writer.

NOTE: All artwork courtesy of the author. Dystopian double leg artwork courtesy of Ryan Best.
Monday, July 20, 2020

A Testament Of Steel by Davis Ashura (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website
Order the book HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFO: Davis Ashura is a Physician by profession but an author by choice. He was inspired by his love for epic fantasy and his south Asian cultural heritage to begin writing. He has published eight books and one collection so far. He lives in North Carolina with his lovely family and loves to drive muscle cars.

OFFICIAL BLURB: A young man with no past must progress into a warrior out of legend.

Cinder Shade’s life begins on a fateful afternoon at the bottom of a well where he awakens, bruised, battered, and bereft of all memory. His only understanding is a driving imperative—to protect those who can’t defend themselves and become a warrior worthy of the name.

He discovers within himself a peculiar gift, one in which the codes of combat are made evident and the language of steel is made clear. When he earns a place at a prestigious elven warrior academy, Cinder fights to enhance his knowledge and perhaps even humble the proud elves who believe no human is their equal.

His hard-earned skills are put to the test when strange rumblings emanate from deep in the Dagger Mountains. Monsters out of myth emerge. And so does something far worse . . .

An ancient god. The world believes this deity long dead, but he is very much alive. And he remembers his enemies all too well. Even if they don’t remember themselves.

FORMAT/INFO: A Testament Of Steel is 654 pages long divided over thirty-nine chapters and an acknowledgements section & an Author’s note. Narration is in third person via Cinder Shade, Princess Anya and a couple other characters. This is the first volume of the Instruments Of Omens series.

July 20, 2020 will mark the North American paperback and e-book publication of A Testament Of Steel and it is self-published by the author. Cover art and design is by Andreas Zafiratos.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Davis Ashura is an author whom I got to meet at Dragon Con a couple of years ago and since then I’ve read both the first volumes of his previous two finished series. With this book, he has initiated his master series a La Sanderson with his Stormlight Archive. Also this would be his ode to Tolkien, & Jordan for installing the love of epic fantasy in him. I was mighty excited for this book and as promised, it was a big Jordanesque tome.

The book begins with a small village called Swallow wherein due to an attack of a snowtiger, leads to the death of a family. However there’s one survivor, a young clubfooted boy named Cinder Shade. Barely escaping the attack due to a fall down a well. He survives the fall but loses all of his memories. Turned out by his villagers, he travels with a priest named Deepak to the town of Swift Sword wherein he hopes to stay in an orphanage. Thus begins the epic journey of the amnesiac boy named Cinder Shade as he discovers there’s more to him than just his disability. He will find out how to become a warrior and try to gain admittance to the most elite warrior academy of Yaksha Sithe. Thus begins this first fascinating volume.

The story as written by Davis Ashura is a very simplistic one but it’s very, very absorbing. The story begins with a very narrow focus and slowly but surely reveals that there’s more to Cinder and the world known as Seminal. We are introduced to the other races such as Elves and Dwarves who view themselves as the “Blessed race” from humans and Dwarves. While the dwarves are forces to keep their motivations secret and act tough while wanting peace. I liked this racial exploration which was conveniently woven into the story rather than told to us.

The story is very much an immersive one as it features aspects of the amnesiac narrator as well as the marital academy tropes and I loved how the author explored them. Going onto the main aspect of the book which I loved was the world building and the hints of the magical apocalypse that have occurred in the past. The author has also laced pointers about his previous books as apparently characters and the magic are related in a big way. You don’t need to have read any of his previous works to be able spot them. He’s made this new world and series a very accessible point infact, after reading this one, you would be very much inclined to check them out.

The characterization beginning with Cinder Shade is very solid and while this is mostly a singular POV. The secondary character cast is very strongly presented and while we don’t get many other POVs. Cinder’s narrative focus is plenty good. However this singular POV also hinders it a little bit as we only get to see things from his perspective. Also with Cinder progressing the way he does, we don’t really get to see much of his internal feelings as he’s very much buttoned down. The author is going for a certain angle with the amnesiac approach but he makes sure to present his vulnerabilities.

I think the author showcases some aspects of avatarhood and reincarnation but not outrightly so. I loved how the author utilizes his Indian cultural roots and mythology and creates an epic fusion of Tolkienesque fantasy alongside Indian mythology & culture. I liked this aspect as an Indian as I rarely find such a unique aspect in epic fantasy genre. There’s the usage of certain Indian terms such as Prana, Nadi, Chakra which are easy to understand from a Desi perspective but will not be a hurdle for western audiences.

The action sequences are another strong focus of the story and due to the marital academy storyline, we get some spectacular individual sequences and towards the last quarter we get many more epic battle sequences. I enjoyed how the author built up to them and promises to have the action get more and more audacious in the sequels. The author also laces some wonderful nods to several popular culture stories and movies. I caught a few such as Harry potter, Captain America Civil War etc. But those with a keen eye can find plenty more.

For the drawbacks about this book, they aren’t outright but there’s a few niggles. Firstly the pace of the book is a bit on the sedate side. From the beginnings of the book, we are taken through the story and shown a lot about the world and its inhabitants. This comes at the behest of the story’s pace, while it does pick up in the climatic chapters. The book’s massive page count and its pace can make the read to be a bit arduous. Lastly Cinder as a character while fascinating is very much a cipher due to the story’s demands (amnesia & very little reveal about his origins). This can be a bit frustrating to some readers especially since when we complete the volume. We get only bits and pieces about what and who he might be. Not a big dealbreaker but can be irksome for a few readers. Lastly the narrow scope of the POV characters and with them majorly being from Cinder himself. We do get a stilted view of things due to Cinder being a bit stiff on the emotional front (understandably so from the story’s perspective).

CONCLUSION: Bringing together fascinating elements from Tolkienesque fantasy and Indian mythology, Davis Ashura has written a fascinating, new type of epic fantasy which is heroic, action-packed and very accessible for those looking for their next new epic fantasy fix. A Testament Of Steel focuses a lot on steel (both literal and metaphorical), and provides a sharp story that will have readers markedly awaiting the next installment to see what emerges from the brilliant mind of Davis Ashura.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Ashes Of The Sun by Django Wexler (reviewed by Caitlin Grieve)


Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Thousand Names
Read Fantasy Book Critic's interview with Django Wexler

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFO: Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Seattle, where he now lives with his wife, cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not writing, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts. He tweets about books, cats and history at @DjangoWexler

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Long ago, a magical war destroyed an empire, and a new one was built in its ashes. But still the old grudges simmer, and two siblings will fight on opposite sides to save their world in the start of Django Wexler's new epic fantasy trilogy.

Gyre hasn't seen his beloved sister since their parents sold her to the mysterious Twilight Order. Now, twelve years after her disappearance, Gyre's sole focus is revenge, and he's willing to risk anything and anyone to claim enough power to destroy the Order.

Chasing rumors of a fabled city protecting a powerful artifact, Gyre comes face-to-face with his lost sister. But she isn't who she once was. Trained to be a warrior, Maya wields magic for the Twilight Order's cause. Standing on opposite sides of a looming civil war, the two siblings will learn that not even the ties of blood will keep them from splitting the world in two.

FORMAT/INFO: Ashes Of The Sun will released on July 21st, 2020. It is 592 pages split over twenty-six chapters, along with a prologue and epilogue. It is told in third person, alternating between Maya and Gyre. It will be available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats via Orbit books.


OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Twelve years ago, five-year-old Maya was taken from her family to be raised by the Twilight Order, protectors of the realm whose members are gifted with the ability to channel and manipulate deiat. It is the Order that clears out plaguespawn and hunts down practitioners of dark arts. To present-day Maya, there is no nobler calling. But what Maya doesn't remember about her childhood is that the day she was taken was the day her family was effectively destroyed. Left with the ruins, her older brother Gyre has vowed to destroy the Order that so casually wields technology and power that it denies to regular humans on the grounds that it is "too dangerous" for them. When rumors of an incredibly powerful relic begin to surface, both Maya and Gyre begin to investigate, unknowingly putting them on a collision course as they race to obtain the item before anyone else.

Ashes Of The Sun exists in the grey space between science-fiction and fantasy, creating a world that felt fresh yet familiar at the same time. The book frequently brings to mind the quote "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The people of this world live in the literal ruins of the peoples who came before them: the Chosen and the ghouls. A terrible war centuries ago destroyed both civilizations, taking their knowledge of technology with them. The remaining humans have survived over the centuries by picking through the ruins and scavenging what they can, only able to make some of it work. As a result, "arcana" can be used to describe everything from alchemical creations to blaster guns to the ability to channel elemental powers.

The resulting world-building is the kind that is easy to sink into. There are towering ruins of crashed skyfortresses, communities that live in tunnels and swap recovered bits of arcana, land features that are the destructive result of massive weapons once used by previous civilizations. It's rough, and grimy and with the constant threat of plaguespawn attack (and the descriptions of plaguespawn are the stuff of literal nightmares). I enjoyed how the world had old and new mixed all into one, but most importantly, the world felt lived in, with attention given to how different pockets of humanity adapted to the ruins around them.

As for the characters that inhabit this world, they are solidly done, particularly lead characters Maya and Gyre. The chapters alternate between their POVs, as Maya contends with a conspiracy within the Order, and Gyre reckons with how much collateral damage he's willing to accept in his quest to bring the Order down. I really appreciated that each POV showed two completely different sides of this world, almost literally night and day in difference. I also want to shout out Kit, a young woman who enters Gyre's life to offer him a deal on behalf of a third party. Kit loves to exist on the knife's edge of life and watching her make snap decisions and roll with the consequences was a treat. Meanwhile in Maya's POV, Beq is a cinnamon roll that I will defend with my life.

There is also great use of magic and battle sequences in Ashes Of The Sun. As the Order relies on a bladeless hilt that channels energy to form the actual blade, I know it is easy to compare these warriors to another famous franchise. But even here, the author has given the magic a twist. Every warrior of the Twilight Order manifest their powers differently. Maya conjures fire, her mentor uses air and wind, still another manifests his attacks through sonic thunderwaves. And that power isn't just limited to the blade, but to actual attack magic as well, making for some spectacular fights, particularly in one duel sequence between two characters.

CONCLUSION: Ashes Of The Sun evokes the expansive feel of some of my favorite sci-fi shows, the kind of world-building that gives you a sense that this place has History (and from what is teased in the lore, it most certainly does). The struggle for the future of the Dawn Republic is just beginning, and I'll be eagerly waiting to see how it unfolds.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Endsville by Clay Sanger (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski & Mihir Wanchoo)


Order Endsville over HERE (USA)HERE (UK)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Clay Sanger is a professional technogeek by day and a writer of fiction and whatever else strikes his fancy the rest of the time. A life-long lover of all things wild, Clay spent much of his early adulthood wandering the four corners of the country in search of the weird and wonderful, the dark and the light. As chance would have it, he found them. The rest is a tale yet to be told. After meandering far and wide he returned to his native Ozarks where he lives with his dazzling wife, their sons, and a menagerie of mythical creatures both real and imagined.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Welcome to Los Angeles—where the secret worlds of the criminal and supernatural collide. Crime and black magic pay. In the City of Angels, no one does it better than Gabriel St. John and the House of the Crow…

Led by their enigmatic street captain Gabriel, the Crows are a secret coven of high-rolling occult gangsters operating out of Los Angeles. A gangland king by the name of Dante Washington enlists their aid to recover 34 million dollars in cash—stolen from him by what appears to be a hostile sorcerer.


The Crows battle through a vicious cycle of betrayal, violence, and black magic while on the hunt for Mr. Washington’s missing money. In the end, allies prove to be enemies, and there are much greater things at stake than covering up a multi-million dollar gangland heist.


OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (Mihir): Endsville is a debut that feels like it’s specifically written to counter most (if not all) of what the urban fantasy genre has to offer. I was intrigued by the blurb and bought a copy. The story focuses the St. John family consisting of Victor, Fiona, Gabriel & Delilah and the house of the Crow.


Situated in Los Angeles, we are introduced to the all four of the family members and their individual strengths and foibles. At the same time, we get a sense of the wider world and the criminal world within. The main plot begins with when the Crows are offered a wholesome bounty to sort out a crime from an overlord by the name of Dante Washington. The readers are given an in-depth insight in to each of the four family members with Gabriel and Delilah sharing the lion's share of the spotlight. Victor and Fiona while being equally important don't get as many POV chapters as their children. Gabriel is a high ranked member among the house of the Crows as his tattooed insignia indicates (see the cover). Delilah on the other hand doesn't have any visible insignia but she shares a lot of the gang's secrets and motivations behind their actions. She is also a magical heavy hitter and does take on the more arcane aspects of their family’s needs. Gabriel is a person who keeps his emotions bottled up thoroughly and Delilah is on a similar path (though not to the same degree). She also has a sordid past which gets touched upon in this opening volume. Both the siblings are shown to self medicate in various ways (legal and illegal). Victor St. John has a presence about himself and his children as well as his gang members acknowledge it while giving him the respect he deserves. Fiona is more of a proper matriach but doesn’t have as much of an in-depth role in this opening volume. There's a few other other characters who the readers can RAFO. These characters are very much like the Lannisters (with their dysfunction) in this absorbing crime drama.


Endsville is dark, hell it’s about a family who presides over a biker clan and certainly draws some glorious comparisons with Sons Of Anarchy. This story is very epic in scope and major props to Clay Sanger for his glorious descriptions of gang heraldry and culture. The best part of the story for me was the characterization, beginning with the St. John family, each member is a distinct persona with one hell of a backstory. We get some solid ideas about each of them and then some. There's also other characters who are introduced such as the Watch as well other arcana users who I hope the author explores more of.  The author has just barely scratched the surface with this stoty and it very much felt like this was the grand opening to an epic crime noir story but laced with magic and horror. The world and gang heraldry which is introduced is very, very well depicted. I really liked this aspect and it reminded me a lot of George R. R. Martin's ASOIAF with the gang slogans (similar to the house mottos) as well as gang logo (a la house sigils) & tattoos which take on extensive meaning as they increase in their size and colour . The author has taken pains to really allow the readers for an immersive experience and I can't thank the author enough for it.


The plot has numerous threads and with each POV change, we get another facet of life and a newer sub-plot to follow. I like this multifaceted approach as that's rarely been done in the urban fantasy genre. There's also the noir approach to the plot and while this isn't a procedural, the story is heaped in a crime-infested LA that will feel at home for most noir/mystery readers. I loved how the author showcased Los Angeles and how magic has shaped the world within and around it. Lastly the pacing as well as the author's writing style are pretty distinct. The pace builds up quickly from the first couple of chapters and never lets up. Clay's prose is hard-hitting, he aptly showcases these terrifying, flawed characters but yet makes them seem human and understandable. The writing has a lot of imagery to it and I loved how we could taste the grittiness as well as get a strong sense of how complicated the world is.  This was a perfect debut in my estimate as I had next to no complaints about it. However it’s not for everyone, those who have a hard time with gritty stories, grey-to-dark characters and lots of violence should avoid this book entirely. For those readers for whom these factors sound inviting, this book is gonna blow your mind and then some…


CONCLUSION: Exciting characterization, epic plot scope and a unique story made this debut land a special place in my heart. I can’t wait to see what Clay Sanger does in the sequel. Hell after reading this story, anything else that he writes becomes a must read for me. 

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (LUKASZ):
"We’re bad people... We lie. We cheat. We steal. We kill. So long as we take out the trash and keep the peace with the other liars, cheaters, thieves, and killers, nobody really cares."
Endsville is the first in a new series, Outlaw Arcana, from Clay Sanger, author of a few short stories published in various anthologies. I’ve read none of his stories and I don’t remember how and why I pre-ordered his debut novel. I woke up one day, opened my Kindle and there it was. 

The story occurs in Los Angeles and introduces readers to the House of the Crow. Led by their enigmatic street captain Gabriel, the Crows are a secret coven of high-rolling occult gangsters. A gangland king enlists their aid to recover 34 million dollars in cash—stolen from him by what appears to be a hostile sorcerer. 

On the hunt for missing money, The Crows battle through a vicious cycle of betrayal, violence, and black magic. Allies prove to be enemies and relatively simple mission turns into something much more sinister. 

The
St. John family's members have no redeeming qualities. Fierce and brutal, they’ve built their occult crime dynasty on ruthless laws and sense of loyalty. Anyone who joins Crows becomes part of a highly dysfunctional and toxic family. They care for each other and share strong bonds but have no mercy for disobedience, traitors, enemies, and the outside world. The story is split in three main POVs:

Gabriel St. John: Crow‘s street captain. Brutal, efficient, traumatised. Drinks a lot, sleeps around, rides Harley. Sounds flat? Probably. Nothing further from the truth though. Gabriel is one of the most intriguing anti-heroes I know.

Delilah St. John: a gifted occult practitioner struggling with a few addictions.

Victor St. John: Lord Crow, head of the family. Always calm, composed and calculating. You don‘t play with him because when you do bad things happen. Victor emanates power and stands out as a fascinating character.

I found them fascinating. Each character feels distinct, each of them brings to the story their own individual aspect. Victor remains mysterious and composed when all hell breaks loose and that makes him fascinating. He bears a resemblance to Mr. Church from the Joe Ledger novels or John Marcone from the Dresden Files. Gabriel and Delilah are deeply flawed and traumatised individuals. Sanger’s writing speaks to me on a visceral level. He understands how to write inner darkness better than most and this skill makes Delilah and Gabriel’s chapters a dark treat.

Clay's writing is smooth and articulate. He doesn‘t shy away from slang, bad language, or sharp sentences but it all works. His pacing is excellent. Endsville is a page-turner with no lags.

Despite significant length the book feels directed and purposeful. There were just few places where I could have said something in the book might not be essential to the story at large. 

I never expected to fall in love with bad guys with no redeeming qualities, but I did. Sanger’s world is terrifying and brutal, but also complex and fascinating. It convincingly portrays flawed individuals who struggle with substance abuse, occult addiction, toxic and abusive family relationships and living a life of crime. 

An excellent book, but approach it with caution. It contains lots and lots of violence (including mentions of rape), sex and bad language. 

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