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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Interview with Anna Stephens (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website

Order The Stone Knife over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

Read Fantasy Book Critic's Review of The Stone Knife

Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Godblind

Today as The Stone Knife is released into the world. We are very lucky to have Anna visit us at FBC to chat about her new epic fantasy story. So read ahead to know more about the peninsula of Ixachipan, the Songs Of The Drowned series, & what you can expect from this new amazing saga

Q] Anna, welcome to Fantasy Book Critic and thank you for your time. How are you doing amidst these troubled times?

AS: Hi Mihir, and thanks so much for having me! I’m not doing too badly, thank you. I have lots of projects to keep me busy – in fact, I probably have a few too many! The pandemic and lockdown hit my productivity pretty hard and I’m not managing as many words usual, but I’m still writing and spending far too much time goofing off on social media. Whoops. 

Q] Could you please tell us what inspired you to write in the first place, and describe your journey to becoming a published author?

AS: I was raised with a love of books and some of my earliest memories are of bedtime stories and our weekly trip to the library every Saturday morning, so I’ve always loved the written word and its ability to transport you out of yourself and somewhere else. I’ve always had a very vivid imagination and a strong creative streak, and I love the idea of being able to entertain people but without actually having to be in their presence to make a fool of myself while doing so! (Not that I mind making a fool of myself; you should see me at book conventions. I’m a one-person car crash most of the time.) 

Creative writing was my favourite part of English lessons, and when I was 14 I told my best friend my dream job would be as an author, and she always encouraged me to pursue that. It was a long and arduous journey, involving some truly terrible drafts of truly terrible stories, a lot of rejections from literary agents, a few short story successes, a part-time Literature degree, and an awful lot of luck. My agent, Harry Illingworth, tweeted he was looking for Joe Abercrombie-esque epic fantasy just at the point where I’d completed a good draft of Godblind – so the stars aligned and the gods smiled and I submitted it to him. We went through a round of edits before he sent it out to publishers, and here we are! 

Q] While most fantasy writers are comfortable writing in their debut milieus, you have gone against the grain and are writing a new story set in a completely different world. What was your line of reasoning behind this bold step? 

AS: Sheer stupidity. 

I love the Godblind universe and a lot of my best friends live there (the ones that are actually still alive) but I’d spent so much time writing in that world – I wrote the first draft of Godblind 13 years before it was published – that I was honestly worried that I didn’t have any other stories in me. That I’d write this one trilogy and then never be able to move past it. So I wanted to challenge myself and, wow, did I ever do that, because a new universe is hard.

I wanted to stick with what I’m good at – the stabbing – but put it in a bigger, more ambitious setting. I wanted to experiment with magic and monsters; I wanted to draw out bigger, more important themes; and I wanted to challenge myself. 

I spent most of every day of drafting The Stone Knife cursing myself for attempting something new, but now that it’s done, I’m really proud of how it turned out. It was a steep learning curve, but I’m glad I persisted.  

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of the Songs Of The Drowned series occurred. How long have you been working on it? What were your inspirations for the story and what were you aiming for with it?

AS: I had a vague pitch – which turned out to bear little resemblance to the finished book – in 2018, and I started working on it in between drafting and editing Bloodchild, so it’s still pretty new in my head and while I know the ultimate ending for the next two books and the shape of the overall story, I’m still feeling my way through exactly how it will look and how we’ll get there – which is always the most fun and yet the most frustrating part of writing for me. 

I wanted to write something that wasn’t ‘white, medieval Europe with magic’, because I’d sort of done that with my first trilogy. I wanted a different environment with challenges of its own, that forced people to live in a different way, a different form of symbiosis with their environment. 

And I wanted to examine Empire and colonialism from both inside and outside those power structures and look at how people with privilege are blind to it and how it skews their thinking and behavior. There’s a great line in one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, where Granny Weatherwax says “sin, young man, is when you treat people like things” and that’s always stuck with me. 

But I also wanted to examine a different sort of society, separate from the issues of colonialism. I wanted to see what a society that didn’t have defined gender roles looked like, a society that didn’t even understand the concept of homophobia or patriarchy, and those themes became some of the most rewarding to write. It was also interesting to see how the Empire of Songs could still be a horrific place despite holding these same values, and that made them a far more complex and nuanced enemy. 

Q] The Songs Of The Drowned while being a bit dark is so much different than your grimdark debut with regards to characters, plot bleakness and language. Did you feel that this story needed to be drastically different from your debut or was this just what the story required? 

AS: I think it’s partly a result of my evolution as a writer and partly out of a desire to write something with a much broader scope. The Godblind trilogy was quite small, inasmuch as it focused on Rilpor and Mireces. The Stone Knife covers an entire peninsula, a dozen different peoples and customs, and much bigger themes. 

With the idea of the song running through the narrative, I wanted to allude to it occasionally with richer descriptions than I’ve used in the past, and to really draw out the relationship between people and nature by focusing a little more on the environment and how characters live within it. As a result, the language I use in various places is definitely different to how I wrote the Godblind trilogy, and it was a nice challenge to stretch my writing muscles that way. 

Q] Once you started writing this trilogy/series, how much of the entire journey was planned and how much of it evolved organically? Was the ending planned from the very beginning? 

AS: I’ve got a definite end point for the main plot, and for how book 2 will come to its conclusion. There are certain events I know need to happen to push the narrative along, and broader themes and character journeys I want to explore, but other than that, everything is up for grabs. 

Up until a month ago, I was sure of which characters would live and which would die and when, and I’ve completely revised that now in a bout of feverish excitement about how many readers I can make cry this time around. So it’s fair to say, everything’s pretty fluid at this stage. 

Q] Could you give us a progress report on book 2 and outline your plans for the series as a whole (will it be a trilogy or longer)?

AS: I’ve got a rough draft of book 2 finished, and I’m in the process of refining and rewriting large parts of that in line with the edits we made to The Stone Knife and how they’ve impacted the plot and timeline. This is pretty common for me, in that the draft I’ve already got will undergo extensive changes based on ideas or edits to the previous instalment. 

The plan is for the overall narrative to be completed in three books, and I don’t think that will change until something goes drastically wrong – or perhaps drastically right! 

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

AS: The Stone Knife is set on the peninsula of Ixachipan, which is a hilly, heavily-forested tropical environment. The Empire of Songs has slowly conquered all but two of the lands and peoples of Ixachipan, and have finally set their sights on Yalotlan and Tokoban. If they can conquer these lands, they will have brought the whole peninsula under the song. At that point, their ruler, the Singer, will cast a great magic to wake the world spirit. 

In the Empire, the holy Setatmeh are water-gods who control the rains and the crops and the harvest, who keep the world in balance and are a link with the world spirit and the song. They are worshipped and sacrificed to. In Tokoban and Yalotlan, however, they are known as the Drowned, and they are the peoples’ greatest threat. 

The Stone Knife follows the Tokob characters Xessa – a warrior against the Drowned; Lilla – a warrior against the Empire; Tayan – a shaman; and the Empire characters Pilos – commander of the army; Enet – an ambitious politician; and the Singer himself. There’s one other point of view character, but I can’t talk about them because spoilers!  

Q] I want to ask you about your characters and not just the main POV ones but even the ones that only make fleeting appearances. What goes through your mind when you create them? How do you make them so complex and believable?

AS: It’s important to me that even my ‘villains’ are three-dimensional, real people. Cartoon villains twirling their moustaches and being bad for the sake of it are never, to me, convincing. I want to know what goes on in their heads, why they’re doing bad things. I want to understand their motivations and I can’t do that if I don’t explore their character in depth. I think my only truly detestable character so far is Galtas Morellis from the Godblind trilogy – he absolutely delighted in being bad and tormenting people. But even he had his nuance – he had a massive inferiority complex and that drove him to delight in others’ misfortune and revel in the power and influence he accumulated. Without that nuance, he would have simply been a Generic Bad Guy and utterly forgettable. 

Everyone else – from that series and this one – are just people who genuinely believe that they’re doing the right thing. The Pechaqueh of the Empire of Songs honestly believe that they deserve to be at the top of the social strata because of the Singer and the song. They believe that bringing everyone under the song and into their religion will be good for them and that they’ll be better people as a result. They can’t conceive that they might be wrong, or that they’re causing untold harm by their actions. 

As for my point of view characters, I tend to begin with a defining trait or characteristic and have that the core of their personality, but I make sure to build in all the other quirks and flaws as well, both good and bad. Pilos, for example, is a deeply honourable man fully embedded in a corrupt regime and unable to see it. He cares for each and every one of his warriors, whether they’re elite Pechaqueh like him, or lowly slave-warriors from a conquered tribe. He’s a good man, a decent man, but he doesn’t grasp that even having slave-warriors is a bad thing. 

Q] What are you writing currently and what can your fans expect to read next from you?

AS: I’ve got a Black Library novella coming out in November as well as The Stone Knife, centered around Trisethni, a witch-aelf and a Daughter of Khaine, the Lord of Murder. She’s an assassin with a penchant for poison and slaughter, and she was a lot of fun to write, especially in light of what I’ve said above. She’s not a very nice person, and it was a challenge to make her sympathetic and relatable that I really enjoyed. 

Other than that, I’ve got some more work ongoing with Black Library and, of course, book 2 of Songs of the Drowned is due out next November. 

I’m also working on a super-secret project that should hopefully come out next autumn as well! 

Q] 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 elevator pitch for The Stone Knife?

AS: I write stories about people pushed to their limits and how they deal with it, about their worlds being upended and them having to find themselves and their purpose in the ashes, how everything they once thought was true might in fact be a lie. I write about love and duty and religion, about finding yourself and your purpose. I occasionally write happy endings, but only in the wake of a lot of emotional devastation. 

For The Stone Knife, I’d pitch it as “A story of empire and conquest, where one people’s gods are another’s monsters, and the only truth is the people who stand by you.”

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?

AS: Oh, I don’t think we have long enough to talk about all the books I love! Fantasy, sci-fi and historical fiction/historical fantasy are my favourites, as well as a fair few of the classics. I was a big fan of The Dragonriders of Pern series as a kid, but also the Duncton Wood books by William Horwood. I loved Tales of Farthing Wood and Watership Down – which may have some bearing on why I always aim to destroy my readers – but also Tolkien and Pratchett and Murakami

Authors I really want to shout out about that I’ve read and loved lately: Tasha Suri, Jen Williams, Evan Winter, Tade Thompson, Alix Harrow, RF Kuang, Stewart Hotston, Kameron Hurley, Fonda Lee … this too is an extensive and non-exhaustive list. 

Q] One of the perks of being an author is that you get to read books before they get published. I’ve noticed that you have blurbed some fabulous ones by Evan Winter, Devin Madson, Peter McLean, & Justin Lee Anderson. Which upcoming titles has you had the pleasure of reading recently?

AS: Woo hoo, I get to shout about new books! The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan and The Councillor by EJ Beaton are three that I’ve read recently and are all spectacular and beautiful and devastating and critical of the right things in the right way.

I’m currently beta-reading a superb fantasy by Stewart Hotston that requires publishing immediately, it’s so good, oh my god. 

Q] Thank you for your time and for the answers. Any parting thoughts/words that you'd like to share with your fans & readers?

AS: Thank you for reading! Wear a mask! Black lives matter

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of the author herself. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Stone Knife by Anna Stephens (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Order The Stone Knife over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Anna Stephens is the author of the Godblind trilogy: Godblind, Darksoul, and Bloodchild, which are published through HarperVoyager in the UK and Commonwealth, and Talos Press in North America. A literature graduate from the Open University, Anna loves all things speculative, from books to film and TV, including classic Hammer and Universal horror films, as well as DnD and the chameleon genius of David Bowie.

As a practitioner of Historical European Martial Arts, with a focus on Italian longsword, and a second Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, she’s no stranger to the feeling of being hit in the face, which is more help than you would expect when writing fight scenes.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: For generations, the forests of Ixachipan have echoed with the clash of weapons, as nation after nation has fallen to the Empire of Songs – and to the unending, magical music that binds its people together. Now, only two free tribes remain.

The Empire is not their only enemy. Monstrous, scaled predators lurk in rivers and streams, with a deadly music of their own.

As battle looms, fighters on both sides must decide how far they will go for their beliefs and for the ones they love – a veteran general seeks peace through war, a warrior and a shaman set out to understand their enemies, and an ambitious noble tries to bend ancient magic to her will.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Stone Knife is Anna Stephens’ new foray into the world of epic fantasy and it’s as different from her previous trilogy in terms of her world, characters, and darkness. I had enjoyed her Godblind trilogy but with this new trilogy focusing on Pseudo-Central/South American culture, I was very, very excited to read it.

This new book starts out with a people in disarray and running from a rapidly expanding empire. The main story is set in the peninsular lands of Ixachipan. The Empire of Songs has conquered everything and everyone in these lands with their powerful musical magic. However things haven’t gone entirely dire as two forest tribes are still resisting the empire’s ambitions. The Tokoban and Yalotlan tribes are feeling the encroachment as well as the refugees who are slowly trickling in from the conquered lands. The book’s first third portion further expands on this setup and we are then treated to a start of a magnificent epic story.

What’s really striking about this story is by now if you think this is going to be a simplistic good tribes versus empire story then you will be sorely wrong. The story first three four chapters focus exclusively on the Tokob tribe and again as we are lulled into a singular way of life and the characters. The author brilliantly and quickly shifts the spotlight directly into the Empire camp via Etne & the Singer. Then quickly we learn that Empire of Songs aren’t necessarily all that evil as we might have imagined them to be (though they are championing slavery). We find that the invaded tribes have a strange and brutal method of honouring their gods. The empire's Gods are very much abhorrent to these forest tribes as is their way of living. So in some way, the Empire is trying to bring a change (of sorts) however it's left up to the readers to decide what's good and bad. Such complexity and more is inherently jampacked in this EPIC fantasy story opener.

Why I loved this story so much because of three things that Anna Stephens did superbly:
- Plot
- World
- Characters

The plot of the story is complex, mired in grey morality and gives us both sides to a conflict that will shake the known world in its entirety. I can’t thank Anna Stephens enough writing such a fantastic story that’s as epic as among the annals of fantasy literature but also complex enough to rival the famous stories written by Messrs.’ Martin, Abercrombie & Mses' Friedman, Bear. Since this is book one, we are given a fantastical opening into a conflict that will bedazzle and frighten all the same. Plus the way the book ends, it sets up the future books really strongly.

The worldbuilding done in this opening volume is stupendous to say the least. I commend Anna for giving us a non-European setting. This subtropical world is one of dense foliage, damp watery marshes, and weird, dangerous creatures. Beginning with the descriptions of the swampy and forest foliage, then to the attire as well the cultures that are open to differing sexualities and physical abilities. All in all, this world is new, strange and entirely enticing for a worldbuilding junkie akin to myself. In every chapter, Anna Stephens gives us some new information about the people, the flora and fauna and it all builds up as the climax approaches. Lastly I want to give another shout to her for creating such disturbing monsters which inhabit this world and using them sparingly to increase the terror in the story.

Lastly going on the characters, this story has a multi-POV structure and it lends itself beautifully to the story as we get in-depth looks from both side of the struggle. We get to see the lives of the following characters Xessa, Tayan, Etne, Lilla, Pilos, and The Singer. They are a complex lot with differing views on life, battle and conquest. There’s also a whole host of secondary characters as well as the animal kind who don’t share the same sentience but are cool nonetheless. I enjoyed how the author explored both cultures from the eyes of these characters and even though some are noble like Pilos, they have their blinders on horrid things like slavery. This and more dichotomies are very keenly explored by Anna thereby causing the readers to be further enmeshed within the characters' lives and the struggle that's ongoing.

This story builds up the conflict by layering the story with enough details and quite detailed POVs which help in providing context and give us a rich storyline where neither side is the clear cut heroes. They both have differing shades as is true in most geopolitical shindigs. The book is also quite grim and dark in many places as it doesn’t shy away from showcasing aspects of cannibalism, torture, violence towards both human & animal kind. This is not to say that all of it just to throw the readers’ sensibilities askew. It’s presented within a very realistic world and it’s never meant to titillate.

The only thing which prevented this story from being a five star read for me was the pace of the story. As I previously mentioned, this is a big book and the first third of the story has quite a buildup wherein the pace is sacrificed for the sake of excellence in characterization and worldbuilding. For me, this wasn’t such a bad thing, however for many readers, the slow start might dampen their enthusiasm for the book. This is a sad thing as the plot is really a terrific one.

CONCLUSION: The Stone Knife is a unique story that combines epic fantasy, distinct new cultures and world building on a scale that is hitherto unseen so far. Anna Stephens has given us a dark gift that heralds her as one of epic fantasy’s newest and most acclaimed writers. Don’t miss out on this opener in a new saga, it promises to get darker and more violent but you will be thrilled all the way along.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Infernal by Mark de Jager review

Official Author Website
Release Date: November 26, 2020, page count: 384, publisher: Solaris
Order the book HERE(USA) or HERE(UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFO: Mark isn’t sure if his love of writing led to his love of gaming or vice versa, but his earliest memories involve both. He now spends his time trying to find a balance between these and working a full time job in the City, a process made slightly easier by his coffee addiction. An ex-MP in the South African army, Mark now lives in Kent with his wife Liz (herself a published author) and their lazy dog in a house that is equal parts library and home.

OVERVIEW: Infernal is fun. It’s also over-the-top and pulpy, but I loved it. Stratus wakes in an unfamiliar place, with no memories of his past. And just in time before local vultures rip him into pieces to enjoy the meal. 

Things escalate quickly, and Stratus finds himself engaged in an approaching war with evil forces. He has no interest in people and their conflicts, but the fickle hand of fate cares little for his plans and goals. Especially that he has peculiar, inhuman, skills. Preternatural strength and a knack for sorcery allow him to decimate his opponents. Those who try to trap and hurt him disappear in a shower of blood. Interestingly, tasting brains allows Stratus to gain insights into the past of his fallen opponents.

I need to emphasize that despite gritty and violent moments, Infernal remains darkly humorous. Sure, not everyone will enjoy the grim humor, but I found it hilarious. Like this exchange between Stratus and Tatyana, the second key character:

Tatyana stared at me without saying anything for long enough that I began to wonder whether I had said it aloud, or simply thought it. As I was about to repeat myself, she turned her gaze to the dead man, then back to me. ‘You’re going to eat him,’ she said. She made it sound like a statement.‘Just his brain,’ I corrected her.‘His brain.’‘Are you repeating everything for a reason?’

In a way, Stratus resembles Drax the Destroyer - he has no sense of humor, he doesn’t understand sarcasm or metaphors. Subtle jokes skip right past him. Something about his earnest tone and deadpan delivery is comic, especially in his back and forth with Tatyana. The smell is his strongest sense - Stratus sniffs people without realizing it’s creepy as hell for them, and it results in solid situational humor.

Because the story is told only through Stratus’ POV, we don’t get any unnecessary exposition. It also means secondary characters remain underdeveloped, but I didn’t mind. We discover the world through his eyes and nose, and because Stratus isn’t human, he sees things from an alien perspective. Frankly, the big reveal of his identity is hardly surprising, but I won’t spoil the fun for you. I’ll just say the foreshadowing, while not subtle and rather in-your-face, entertained me a lot and helped me to picture him. 

Infernal gives an old school fantasy vibe but plays with tropes. It blends non-stop violent action with horror and grim humor. I couldn’t put it down, but I need to point out its weaker parts. Jager’s writing is uneven. I found his similes awkward and sentence structure surprising in places. The beginning, while entertaining, is repetitious, and the story doesn’t pack a lot of really surprising twists. It’s simple and unpretentious, and I guess that’s the reason why I enjoyed it so much. Readers looking for depth and complexity may find it disappointing.

Personally, I'll read the sequel as soon as it's available. I love the amnesiac hero trope, and Jager nailed it. Join me if you fancy following an inhuman with a fractured mind.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Interview with Benedict Patrick

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

SPFBO Finalist: Black Stone Heart by Michael R. Fletcher review

Official Author Website

Order Black Stone Heart over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Smoke and Stone
Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen (reviewed by Caitlin Grieve)

Order the book HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR WEBSITE: Essa Hansen grew up in beautifully wild areas of California, from the coastal foothills to the Sierra Nevada mountains around Yosemite, before migrating north to the Canadian Rocky Mountains. She has ranched bison and sheep, trained horses, practiced Japanese swordsmanship, and is a licensed falconer. She attended the Vancouver Film School and works as a sound designer for SF and fantasy feature films. Essa lives with her British Shorthair cat Soki in the San Francisco Bay Area.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: When a young man’s planet is destroyed, he sets out on a single-minded quest for revenge across the galaxy in Nophek Gloss, the first book in this epic space opera trilogy debut — perfect for fans of Revenger and Children of Time.

Caiden’s planet is destroyed. His family gone. And, his only hope for survival is a crew of misfit aliens and a mysterious ship that seems to have a soul and a universe of its own. Together they will show him that the universe is much bigger, much more advanced, and much more mysterious than Caiden had ever imagined. But the universe hides dangers as well, and soon Caiden has his own plans.

He vows to do anything it takes to get revenge on the slavers who murdered his people and took away his home. To destroy their regime, he must infiltrate and dismantle them from the inside, or die trying.

FORMAT/INFO: Nophek Gloss was published on November 17th, 2020 by Orbit Books. It is 448 pages split over 50 chapters. It is told in third person from Caiden's point of view solely. It is available in paperback and ebook formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS Caiden has spent his whole life being a simple mechanic doing a simple job, with no plans for anything bigger. But when his entire settlement is killed, Caiden is forced to flee for his life. After literally stumbling onto a spaceship, he discovers his planet is only one of thousands in the multiverse. Adopted by an eclectic crew, Caiden adjusts to this vast new life, but is driven by a singular goal: revenge on the group who killed his family. He will have to leverage new technology, questionable alliances, and a rare ship with a unique power if he’s going to accomplish his goal, but what cost will prove too high for his revenge? 

Nophek Gloss is an absolutely mesmerizing piece of world-building. After a harrowing opening, the reader joins Caiden in being nearly overwhelmed with new aliens, ships, alliances, locations, and more. The sheer size of the worlds the author creates isn’t an onslaught, but a deep pool you are thrown into, and it is a delight to get your bearings. I absolutely loved being in a setting that was completely foreign to me, getting to know the rules and the aliens and everything in between. 

Readers will need to throw their original conception of the multiverse out the door. Here, multiverse doesn’t mean “parallel universe” as it has come to be defined in popular culture. Instead, it means that there are other, self-contained universes outside the main one that have their own physics, biomes, etc., not all of which are suitable for all species, and crossing between universes can be a dangerous or even lethal situation. Caiden falls in with a group of explorers called passagers, those who chart regions and exchange the knowledge back home for money and resources. 

The first half of Nophek Gloss I absolutely devoured. With its devastating opening and imaginative worlds, I kept wanting to see more and more of these universes. The back half of the book didn’t click quite as well for me, ironically because it was so fast paced. The first half of the book revels in introducing the reader to the world, spending all of its time on just a few days, so when events started moving in the back half, it felt oddly rushed. It frequently felt like a problem was introduced one chapter and resolved by the next one, with no chance for the tension to simmer and breathe. Combined with Caiden, who spends most of the book (deservedly) being an angry, impulsive character, and I felt myself falling off a bit. 

That said, this is still a fantastic adventure and worth a read for those who love big sci-fi worlds. There are plenty of emotional moments scattered throughout the rushing action, and one theme of “found or forced” with regards to friendships absolutely tugged at my heartstrings as Caiden struggled with feelings of isolation in this giant galaxy. For a 400 page book, Nophek Gloss is a book that moves incredibly well, and sets up tantalizing new adventures in future books.

Monday, November 16, 2020

SPFBO: Interview with Michael R. Fletcher

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

COVER REVEAL DEUX: Thorn Of The Night Blossoms by J.C. Kang

I have found that one of the benefits of self-publishing is total control over pricing and marketing. It’s one aspect which deters some aspiring authors, while at the same time being a challenge which many experienced hands embrace.

For me, it’s been a humbling learning experience. When a book fails to gain traction, an objective postmortem can reveal a lot. Furthermore, self-publishing allows for second—and in the case of my Thorn of the Night Blossoms, a third chance.

Here’s the original cover and blurb:

For an imperial assassin, assignment as a courtesan in the Floating World seems like a waste of her talents... until killers target her clan sisters.

In the legendary Floating World, wars are waged with wit, the strongest soldier can be bound with threads of silk, and flesh is the currency by which life, death, and freedom can all be purchased.

Half-elf Jie doesn’t mind her temporary assignment as a Night Blossom in the most sought-after house. It’s perfect cover for her real work as an assassin in the emperor’s service, and keeps her close to one who matters most. Her life belongs to her clan, but her heart lies with clan junior, Lilian.

Lilian’s talents trade stealth for sensuality, poison for poetry. With looks as sharp as any blade, she can coax information from any man, and still leave him paying for the pleasure. She’s enthralled many a noble, none more important than the warlord who can calm a brewing insurrection. Only her sweet whispers can secure his obedience to the throne.

But now, his increasing abuse has Jie seeking a new assignment for Lilian—even if it means their separation. When killers target clan sisters, and the seeds of rebellion find fertile soil in the Floating World, Jie must choose between loyalty and love.


While my regular readers snapped it up, sales fell far short of previous releases.

I considered:

1.      The idea of a male author writing F/F relationships in a courtesan setting might turn a lot of people off.  Jury is still out on this.

2.      Blurb is too wordy. Usually, I try to keep my blurbs to under 200 words; but I loved this blurb, which my awesome author buddy JC Nelson came up with. His idea, and one which I agreed with, was that it captures the vibrancy of the aristocratic red light district setting. I felt it could help ameliorate the possible skeeviness engendered by (1).

3.      The story sucks. For the most part, it’s been getting 4 and 5 stars from book bloggers. Also, the read-through rate from Book 1 to Book 2 is higher than any of my other books. So, it can’t be that bad?

4.      The story is too short.  At 27k words, or about 150 pages, readers don’t want to drop through

5.      The cover doesn’t draw the eye… and specifically, the right eye.  When analyzing advertising statistics, this was the clear: I was getting one click for every 1,000 impressions on Amazon Ads, one click for every 120 impressions on Facebook.  For my other books, it’s 1/350 on Amazon, 1/30 on Facebook.


So, take 2.  I kept the same blurb, while commissioning a new cover.

Ad clicks went WAY up.  However, I was smacking myself in the head for what you can all see here. The clicks AND sales were coming from Harem readers. These are generally younger males looking for self-insertion narratives. Indeed, Facebook ad analysis showed clicks were coming from males 18-25. Nothing wrong with that, and a sale is a sale, right? There are some authors making a bank off this audience.

The problem is, we’re pretty certain Amazon monitors how fast and far people read a book, and that factors into their recommendation engine algorithm. Thorn of the Night Blossoms would not appeal to Harem readers. The wrong reader means bad reviews and possibly bad recommendations.

Because of this, I panned in with the cover art to show less skin.

It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was a temporary fix as I went to my illustrator for yet a third cover.

In the meantime, I thought about who my stories’ most enthusiastic audience is.

My reader group mostly has women in their late twenties to early forties, who have been drawn to the stories by resilient female characters. Many found me through the Dragon Songs Saga box: 

Then, I looked at the books they click on in my newsletters:

I see a trend!

Sadly, no woman wears armor in Thorn of the Night Blossom—it’s a rogue story: Ninjas meet Kushiel’s Dart.

Thankfully, there was another book that is in these books’ Also Boughts:

With this in mind, I went to my artist with this image:

He came back with this sketch:

His first color sketch:

I was concerned with the bright pastel colors would give it the wrong vibe, and too much cleavage showing might make it look like a romance. I shared it on the Facebook group, Indie Cover Project with the general question, “What genre do you think this is?”

I was getting the answers I was looking for: Asian-themed fantasy, though I got some choice comments.

My artist’s follow-up got the darker tones, but yet to cover cleavage.  I mocked it up with typography, with one close up like Phil Tucker’s Chronicles of the Black Gate which would bring out the details and cover exposed flesh.

I went to both a secret cabal of Fantasy authors, and also to a Facebook Group with authors who write books like Oath Taker and Daughter of the Shades.

The eminent May Sage came back with the best advice: the exposed cleavage will turn off certain readers in my target audience.

My artist was already late, so when he sent me the final version, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Because at Amazon image size, I knew people wouldn’t notice my amateur photoshop adjustments.

Without further ado, here is the Brand New, Hopefully Last Cover of Thorn of the Night Blossoms:

Friday, November 6, 2020

The Preserve by Ariel S. Winter (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Order The Preserve over HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Ariel S. Winter was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Shamus Award, and the Macavity Award for his novel The Twenty-Year Death. He is also the author of the children’s picture book One of a Kind, illustrated by David Hitch, and the blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie. He lives in Baltimore.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Decimated by plague, the human population is now a minority. Robots—complex AIs almost indistinguishable from humans—are the ruling majority. Nine months ago, in a controversial move, the robot government opened a series of preserves, designated areas where humans can choose to live without robot interference. Now the preserves face their first challenge: someone has been murdered.

Chief of Police Jesse Laughton on the SoCar Preserve is assigned to the case. He fears the factions that were opposed to the preserves will use the crime as evidence that the new system does not work. As he digs for information, robots in the outside world start turning up dead from bad drug-like programs that may have originated on SoCar land. And when Laughton learns his murder victim was a hacker who wrote drug-programs, it appears that the two cases might be linked. Soon, it’s clear that the entire preserve system is in danger of collapsing. Laughton’s former partner, a robot named Kir, arrives to assist on the case, and they soon uncover shocking secrets revealing that life on the preserve is not as peaceful as its human residents claim. But in order to protect humanity’s new way of life, Laughton must solve this murder before it’s too late.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Preserve by Ariel S. Winter is one of those big concept Sci-Fi thrillers that by its very existence calls to mind, those amazing stories by Michael Crichton. Ariel’s most recent story scores very, very highly in its innovative approach and I couldn’t wait to jump into the story brimming with high anticipation.

In a world where humankind has been wiped out due to an unnamed plague, the remnants of mankind are ruled by robotic AIs. Humanity has been slowly petering along but the robotic overlords have been supporting humanity and trying to make sure that humanity doesn’t die out. The main protagonist of the story is Police chief Jesse Laughton who while living in Baltimore became a highly sought after human detective. For his famed insight and ability to read human emotions, a task that his robot/cyborg allies were hard pressed about. His partner is Kir, a cyborg who’s closely allied with him and enjoys a bond as close as possible with Laughton.

The basic premise of the story is set in a humans-only preserve in South Carolina which is called SoCar preserve.  Mankind has been given an opportunity to try to live without its AI overlords and things are dicey as it is. When the worst calamity occurs, a murder of a black marketer which inflames tensions between humans who want to live under their own and AIs who don’t trust the humans and of course want them to be under their thumbs. That’s where the story really just takes off and we the readers are thrown right into this crazy, sordid mix.

Right off the bat, I have to say the premise of the story is its biggest selling point and the author gives a riveting plot. The characterization especially the human and the non-human kind is also very strong considering how the story is focused through Laughton and Kir’s eyes. These are the strongest parts of the story. The main plot however is a murder mystery and plays out solidly like one. The book isn’t a big one being about 250-odd pages, however it does a lot of stuff within those 250-odd pages and ends on a climatic note. 

The underlying themes of the story are some of the basic ones that one has come to read or view:
- What makes us human
- What does it mean to be “alive”
- Are carbon and silicon really that far apart on a molecular level
- Are humankind doomed to repeat the mistakes of their past
-      Does the future of mankind become better with AI’s involved in the decision making

This and many such thought provoking questions are very much streamlined into the plot and character arcs. I have to laud the author for being able to give us so pack so much themes and heavy morality in such a thin book.  The pace of the book is also on quicker side and there’s very little sections in which it drags.

Overall for me this story was a very enjoyable one with its scenario and how the murder mystery unfolded. But what prevents it from being as good as the Michael Crichton ones is that the world building is a bit scant. We are told about this premise and shown the world but very little gets explained as to how it all came to be. As a worldbuilding junkie, that was a sore point for me. I’m willing to go along for the ride but I do need to be shown that this scenario isn’t just window dressing. This is where the story could have been developed further at the risk of adding more pages and perhaps slowing down the pace as well. The ending was a bit predictable and a non-gloomy one (which in the year 2020 is very much appreciated). I think that there’s more to this world and the author can definitely develop a series here and thus deepen the world and characters within. Also on a side note, I believe this book is ripe for a limited TV series adaptation as that medium will be able to add the worldbuilding depth as well as add more characters to the overall story. 

CONCLUSION: The Preserve as a SF story gets high points for its brilliant concept. As a murder mystery and with the protagonist duo, it’s a bit more predictable and doesn’t do too much of the ordinary. Is it worth your time, I would yes most certainly. At a slim 250 pages, this SF thriller is one of the better thrillers I’ve read and certainly makes me want to read more of Ariel S. Winter’s future works.
Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Scarlet Odysssey by C.T. Rwizi Review

Official Author Website
Order Scarlet Odyssey over HERE
Monday, November 2, 2020

Exclusive Cover Reveal and Interview: Dragon Mage by M. L. Spencer (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Today we have the exquisite pleasure of hosting of a cover reveal from one of the most talented authors in the grimdark field. She's been one of the most hardworking people that I know of and she now will be venturing into the EPIC side of things. Hence we are beyond exhilarated to present the cover for M. L. Spencer's upcoming epic fantasy DRAGON MAGE. She also spoke about a few things about this new standalone story of hers and so without further ado...

Q] Hi Melinda welcome and thank you for this lovely opportunity to host this cover reveal. How have you been in these troubled times?

MLS: I’ve been well, Mihir. My family has been taking COVID seriously, so we’ve been pretty safe. I’m a science teacher, and I’ve been doing distance learning, which has been challenging but overall has turned out better than I had expected it to.

Q] 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?

MLS: I always wanted to write fantasy. Like, always. I started off writing little books in the 3rd grade and completed my first novella in middle school, winning the county Writing Celebration. Then I just kept going, writing my first novel in college. It was always my dream to become a fantasy author, to the disgust of all my creative writing professors who thought fantasy as a genre was pretty worthless. I wrote Darkmage back in 2004 and shopped it around to agents, but I only got one bite from someone who wanted to break it in half, and I didn’t want to do that. 

Looking back on it, I should have. It was a grimdark book kind of ahead of, or at least at the start of, the whole grimdark subgenre, so it probably would have done well. But I just stuck it in my closet and forgot about it until 2011, when I decided to self-publish it.  Of course, I knew nothing about marketing or self-publishing back then, so it just languished on Amazon for years until I finally re-released it in 2017.

Q] I loved the cover for DRAGON MAGE. It hearkens back to the classic epic fantasy covers. What were your pointers for your artist when you were starting out? What were the main things that you wished to focus on in it?

MLS: I really wanted to write a classic epic fantasy—the kind I used to love back in the 80’s—and I wanted a cover that really broadcast that. I did a lot of cover surfing on Amazon until I had a composite of a few covers that I thought were the direction I wanted to go in. I handed those to my artist Tum Dechakamphu as examples, and he really exceeded my wildest expectations.  I also have to give a shout-out to Shawn T. King for giving the cover that 80’s kind of look with the border and typography.  It really hearkens back to Dragonlance and other 80’s fantasy novels that I adored.

Q] Could you tell us about the inception of DRAGON MAGE & the world within and what was/were your main inspiration(s) for it?

MLS: I wanted to write a book in which the main character falls on the autism spectrum—kind of to show the world the potential strengths of being neuro-atypical. I never knew I was “on the spectrum” until I was an adult. I led a pretty difficult childhood and was very socially isolated, and I just never understood why. It was very painful. When I found out that I have what we used to call Asperger’s, basically high-functioning autism, it was like a great lightbulb turned on—an epiphany—that explained all the great mysteries of me

But seriously. I would never trade it for anything, because along with giving me some rocky terrain to overcome, being neuro-atypical has also been what I consider my greatest strength. It gives me an obsessive focus that allows me to tackle projects single-mindedly, way past the point where I think most people would throw in the towel. When I wrote Dragon Mage, I wanted to create a character who could demonstrate that being on the spectrum doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, and it can even be a great strength. 

Q] Is this story set in the same world of your previous series or is it a new one?

MLS: Nope. It’s an entirely new world, one I have been worldbuilding for literally years. 

Q] Will DRAGON MAGE be heralding the start of a new series for you or is it a standalone story?

MLS: Right now, it’s a standalone. It’s an enormous book and it took everything I had out of me to write it. I really didn’t want to commit myself to a series unless it sees some success. I know that sounds cheesy, but there it is. If I do decide to expand it into a series, it won’t be contrived, as I left my character room to grow. But it doesn’t have to go anywhere. It’s entirely self-contained.

Q] Let’s talk about the world that you are creating for this saga. It seems to be a bit medieval in origin but that would seem too simplistic. Can you talk to us about the world that DRAGON MAGE is set in? What are curiosities (geographical, mystical, etc.) of this world?

MLS: I had this idea for a split world—one in which the world of magic has been separated from the world of men. So, a little background: during a war between the gods, the world of Dragon Mage was cleaved into two reflections of itself: the World Above and the World Below. Most things magical ended up in the World Below, including dragons and most people with magical ability. In the World Above, those with magic have been hunted pretty much to extinction. I wanted the world of men to be hyper-realistic, and the world of magic to be very fantastical, so I started doing my research, reading tons of anthropology books. I really threw my all into the worldbuilding. 

The World Above is actually a collection of cultures that are mostly under the domination of the Abadian Empire, which exercises a pretty stifling colonialist control over the territories it has conquered. The book starts off in a Northern European setting, then moves southward to a more Middle Eastern/Mediterranean setting (actually modeled after Moorish Spain). The cultures of the World Below are constructed, and most of the characters are non-white.

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 DRAGON MAGE?

MLS: The books I’ve written up to this point have been pretty grimdark, so I am definitely veering away from that into epic, or even high fantasy. Dragon Mage is more of a Coming of Age novel. I really felt the need to get out of grimdark. Honestly, it was kind of getting me down.

A one-line pitch for Dragon MageA misfit boy must save the world of magic from the world of men.

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

MLS: Readers can expect a very compelling main character with a huge heart and a ton of courage. The book is very character-driven and far more about the bonds of friendship than about good versus evil. It’s a pretty big book—265,000 words—but it’s very fast-paced with a lot of twists and turns you probably won’t see coming. And dragons. 

Definitely dragons!

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

MLS: I just hope people who read this get a better understanding of what it’s like to experience the world as someone who is neuro-atypical and get a better appreciation for those who are. Aram’s experiences are basically my own; I really channeled myself into him. Not that my experiences represent everyone on the spectrum, but hey. They’re what I know. ☺


Official Book Blurb: Aram Raythe has the power to challenge the gods. Too bad he doesn't know it.

Aram thinks he’s nothing but a misfit from a small fishing village in a dark corner of the world. As far as Aram knows, he has nothing and less, with hardly a possession to his name other than a desire to make friends and be accepted by those around him, which is something he’s never known.

But Aram is more. Much, much more.

Unknown to him, Aram bears within him a gift so old and rare that many people would kill him for it, and there are others who would twist him to use for their own sinister purposes. These magics are so potent that, when they are recognized, Aram finds himself granted a place at an academy for warrior mages training to earn themselves the greatest place of honor among the armies of men: dragon riders.

Aram will have to fight for respect by becoming not just a dragon rider, but a Champion, the caliber of mage that hasn’t existed in the world for hundreds of years. And the land needs a Champion. Because when a dark god out of ancient myth arises to threaten the world of magic, it is Aram the world will turn to in its hour of need.

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of the author herself. 

Sunday, November 1, 2020

SPFBO 2020 (Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off) finalists and our approach

As avid fantasy readers, we love discovering new voices and hidden gemsSPFBO contest gives us such a possibility and we’re thrilled to participate in it for the sixth time. The first stage of the contest has just ended.

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Click Here To Order “The Boy Who Walked Too Far” by Rob J. Hayes!!!

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Click Here To Order “Spit And Song” by Travis M. Riddle!!!
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Click Here To Order “The Arkhel Conundrum” by Sarah Ash!!!
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Click Here To Order “The Company Of Birds” by Nerine Dorman!!!
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