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Friday, October 28, 2016

Fathomless by Anne M. Pillsworth (Reviewed by C. T. Phipps)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Summoned

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Anne M. Pillsworth was born in Troy, New York, but is currently living just outside Providence, Rhode Island, at the head of beautiful Narragansett Bay. Anne is am a member of SFWA and HWA and a rabid Austenite. Anne is one part of the Lovecraft Re-Read Project at Tor Books' website along with Ruthanna Emrys.

OFFICIAL SYNOPSIS: Sean Wyndham has tried to stay away from the lure of magic—the last time he tried to dabble in the dark studies, he inadvertently summoned a blood familiar, wreaking havoc on his town and calling the attention of the Elder Gods.

Still, Sean has been offered the chance to study the occult with a proper teacher and maybe gain a handle on his tempestuous callings. And it seems like a safe choice—overseen by Helen Arkwright, a friend of Sean’s father and heir to an ancient order of much power, founded to protect New England from that which lurks in the coastline’s unseen depths. But will learning theory be enough, when there is a much greater magical secret hidden in Helen’s vaulted library?

Accompanied by his best friend, Eddy, and their enigmatic new friend, Daniel, Sean wades out deeper into mystical legend and shadow. With hints and secrets buried long in family lore, they turn to the suspicious Reverend Orne once more for assistance. But as Sean deepens his understanding of his power, the darkness is waking.

FORMAT/INFO: Fathomless is an alternating persona 3rd person Young Adult urban fantasy novel set in H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos and is the second book in the Redemption's Heir series. The book is 320 pages and was released on October 27th, 2015 via Tor teen.

ANALYSIS: FATHOMLESS is the sequel to 2013's SUMMONED, which chronicled the adventures of Sean Wyndham a.k.a the world's youngest Cthulhu Mythos protagonist. Sean Wyndham became a student of the Black Arts in that novel but was, thankfully, rescued by the Order of Alhazred so he could become a less-than-awful sorcerer. The second book opens up with Sean, his best friend Eddy (don't call her Edna), and their new associate Daniel.

While the first novel dealt with the history of Lovecraft's New England Puritans and magic system, this novel shifts over to dealing with the Deep Ones. Lovecraft Purists will be annoyed that the Deep Ones receive something of a white-washing. These ones are merely the victims of government oppression versus a fundamentalist race of religious fanatics who commit acts of human sacrifice. Still, they're an isolationist and surreal race which Sean and company are ill-prepared to deal with.

The most intriguing character of the book is undoubtedly Daniel, who is arguably a better protagonist than Sean himself. Lovecraft scholars will not be remotely surprised by Daniel's "secret' but there's a giddy thrill watching Sean and Eddy slowly figuring out what is going on. Watching the trio develop their friendship which is endangered by Daniel's "Otherness" is a nice little rebuttal to Lovecraft's xenophobia.

Anne M. Pillsworth is of the school which presents Lovecraft's monsters as often misunderstood as genuinely malevolent. This is both a good and bad thing in FATHOMLESS. While I enjoy revisionist takes on The Shadow over Innsmouth, I also think it feels like the story loses some punch if the Deep Ones are just noble victims rather than dangerous. Plenty of real-life groups who suffered persecution also have darker underbellies to their society because human beings, by and large, suck. I see no reason everyone's favorite race of fish men shouldn't be the same way.

The book also has an extensive subplot about Sean struggling with his frustrated ambition. Having discovered that he's the descendant of Reverend Orne, the Order of Alhazred is less enthusiastic about teaching him sorcery. This plays to Sean's greatest weakness, which is that he is ambitious and cocky about his ability to control magic. He'd rather learn from his evil ancestor than have to wait to master the supernatural.

We also get a firm answer on where Reverend Orne stands in the hero or villain spectrum. The book keeps us guessing right until the final pages, however, which is quite the achievement. Too often, authors give away the mystery of a character or drag it out far too long. Here, the author manages to give us the answers at just the right time and I was surprised by the discovery of the Reverend's secret much more than I was with Daniel. I would have liked to have gotten some more character development from Helen Arkwright but she is a fairly minor character this time around.

CONCLUSION: This is an excellent sequel to SUMMONED and I look forward to the next book. The book is a little too accommodating of the Deep Ones but this is a fairly minor flaw in the grand scheme of things, only likely to offend purists. I think Daniel also adds an interesting new dynamic to Sean and Eddy's adventures.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

SPFBO: Fantasy Book Critic's Round II Finalist (by Mihir Wanchoo)

SPFBO II has been quite a reading event for me, this time around there were 30 books in my lot. From which I narrowed it down to six titles. All of them have been reviewed as of today morning & three of the authors were very kind to answer a few questions as well (a big Thank You to Kristal Shaff, R. J. Blain, & R. D. Henderson for indulging my queries).

Now I must say, this year it was a very tough decision for me as three of those six were tied with each other and edged out the rest. I had a hard time in choosing the eventual winner and so here it is:

The Moonlight War by S. K. S. Perry

What made me choose The Moonlight War was the sense of adventure it conveyed as well as the efficient characterization. Among all the books, it was the book that reminded me of why I started reading fantasy to begin with. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its flaws, it does. But overall it was a close tie between TMW and the other 2 books and this title narrowly won out because of the enjoyable reading experience it provided. I’ll be interested to see what the other judges think of it.

Powers Of The Six earns a silver star and is a solid runner up among all the books I read in my lot. It was right up there besides The Moonlight War with regards to the epic nature of the story and a fun reading experience. Kristal Shaff’s opening salvo is a solid fantasy story that features worthy teenage protagonists who aren’t whiny and will be fun to read for adult readers as well. Be sure to check this book out and keep an eye out for her future works.

Hondus Pointe is my bronze finalist because it is a dark gem of a story. Dealing with gray protagonists and murder and betrayal. This novella was right up my alley and showcased R. D. Henderson to be quite terrific. This book came third because it was of a much shorter length and felt that there was much more (the story continues in six sequel novellas). I think had it been a longer form story, it would have given a tough run to the aforementioned winners. R. D. Henderson marked himself out with his brutal storyline and vicious characters which made for such an enticing noir read.

SPFBO: Nolander by Becca Mills, The Moonlight War by S.K.S. Perry, & The Dungeoneers by Jeffrey Russell (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Nolander is an interesting book with an even more interesting title. It seems to play of the word “land” in a similar fashion as Waylander by David Gemmell. The main story is about Beth Ryder, a young woman living in a small town called Dorf in Wisconsin (possibly).

She’s never been able to hold on to any job due to her panic disorder. She wins a camera in a local contest and while taking pictures of her town, discovers that there’s something off about them. She often finds weird folks appearing in her pictures when no one was there in reality. Mightily confused, and bereft of familial ties (her only blood relation is her brother  but whose wife hates Beth and limits her contact with her nieces). Trying to decipher the cause of these weird photographic occurrences and the people in them leads her to find out about the shadow world and its denizens who cross over.

From there onward, the story goes deeper and deeper in to the paranormal and we discover more about Beth’s past, her family and other town characters. The story begins on a slow pace and does take its own time to reveal all, but once all the cards are on the table. There’s some big revelations handed down in this story and also there’s some big hints about the future. Also this book doesn’t shy away from some dark stuff, to begin with our protagonist is shown to be suffering from panic disorder and while it isn’t classically described. Beth shows enough signs and symptoms for the readers to be sympathetic towards her fight for normality. Also there are couple of other characters who are shown to straddle the boundaries of morality with their acts.

Overall this story is a slow build, the author steadily unveils the story, the characters and the world within. For many readers this might be a turn off, but I thought it was an interesting way to showcase the story and especially present the story from a person who’s suffering from a mental health issue. This was a big plus from the author and given how well she presents Beth. I enjoyed this urban fantasy focusing on two different worlds and how certain characters tried their best to fit in. There were a few negatives to go along with the plus points namely the pace of the story stays sedate throughout and that can take a toll on many a reader. Secondly there’s a lot of things that are left unexplained which can hamper the reading experience. But given that it’s the first novel in a series, this factor is to be expected to some degree.

I thought this was an interesting storyline with a protagonist who is very sympathetic. The execution of the story and sedate pace however detract a bit and thus impaired my enjoyment to the fullest extent.

Order the book HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Moonlight War by S. K. S. Perry caught my eye with its blurb and intrigued me enough with its easy prose and characterization. The blurb describes a quest being undertaken by a group of slightly infamous individuals and the people of two separate nations. The blurb doesn’t give us more details other than it is a sword and sorcery novel and might feature quintessential fantasy tropes. Basically it's a heroic quest fantasy in the vein of David Gemmell but less refined than what the big man would have written.

The story begins with several different POV characters being introduced. First we get to met Tasha O’Brienne, an Omai master swordsman and an outcast who has earned the sobriquet of Hasa-Ni-Do due to an event in his past. There’s Roclyn MacNaramara  who moonlights as a highway robber self-titled "The Dark Gent" as the love of his life ruined his life and name. Princess Setanna, niece to the Kel-tii king, and who thirsts for affection & attention from her uncle but is deprived of it for reasons she has no clue about. There’s Conner of Lanford, an old master-at-arms  just two months away from retirement and who’s forced to undergo a journey at his lord’s bequest, shepherding his lord's son Brenn Shaunsie along the way. Lady Malaki is a seer who happens to be on the same mission for needs beyond her own. Lastly there’s the Ashai group and their lord Myobi who is as mysterious as they come and has an agenda which no one knows about. There are a few other characters (Kieran Brannigan, Mikhy) who seem minor at the start but come into their own as the story progresses and are sure to have major roles in the sequels.  

The story focusses on a nameless land which has two people come together, the Kel-tii and the Ashai who are facsimiles for the Irish & Japanese people. They have been previously been at war but now have an uneasy truce and have come together for the prosperity of both. The story begins when an expedition is planned for Kildonan with travel along the Cowcheanne Way to discover what happened to the three missing caravans and the fighting platoon who have disappeared around there. They will however to overcome mutual distrust and find out what exactly happened to the previous expeditions while also trying to stay alive.

The story while seemingly a sword and sorcery quest novel is a bit more than that. Think of it as a cross between Raymond Fiest and David Gemmell, epic fantasy plot meets heroic fantasy characters. The author makes each character distinct with separate background stories before eventually kickstarting the main plot. Also the plot takes a while to get going for the aforementioned reason of the author setting up each character. However from then  the story pretty much goes into an action overdrive as our protagonists meet with various challenges during the journey. Some are created by the mutual distrust between both cultures, others are created by whatever or whoever has been haunting the Cowcheanne Way.

The main plus point of this book is the characterization, the author really goes out of his way to give us a big character cast and makes them three-dimensional folks. The plot line also hints at quite a few epic things that might have occurred in the past and might lead to bigger things in the future.  While some might accuse the author of utilizing this book as set-up for the sequels and eventual saga. They would be partially correct in that thought, but it's not entirely so. I thought the author tried his best to find a suitable balance between the action and story setup. Lastly the action and plot pace are directly proportional to each other, as soon as the action begins, the pace picks up and then the readers will be racing to its explosive climax. The action sequences quite reminded me of the claustrophobic scenes in Aliens if they were occurring above the ground.

Lastly a major drawback of the book is that author very conveniently tries to make different characters couple up romantically, while one or two would be understandable, but when it occurred more than three times, it just felt incredulous. However for some readers, it might be easy to go with the flow. For me it all seemed rather too convenient happenings than occurring organically.  Another drawback was that there's not much of world-building showcased and for those readers wondering about the Kel-tii & Ashai people/cultures, will have to wait for the sequels to learn more about the dual cultures as well as the reason of their animosity. The world-building definitely takes a backseat to the characterization and action and that detracts quite a bit from the story.

Think of this book as the Drenai series meets Predator if written by Raymond Fiest. For me I very much enjoyed the read in spite of the drawbacks that were present. I will certainly look forward to the sequel whenever it gets published to find out what happens next to the surviving character cast.

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Dungeoneers by Jeffery Russell is a story that I was instantly attracted to on its blurb and the overall image it was projecting. Here was a comedic fantasy book that wanted to take aim at the genre and perhaps shake a finger or two at most of its overused tropes while keeping the reader thoroughly entertained. This was one of the first books I read simply based on the blurb details.

The main plot begins with our protagonist hero Durham, a guard who has almost no future and is currently content with his role in the city. On being given a chance to accompany a group of dwarves on a fortuitous expedition, he jumps at it. The Dwarves however view him with a much different viewpoint. The main plot then hilariously unspools as the band slowly tries to integrate Durham into their ways, while viewing him with distaste and as a bad portent. Durham however fails to see things from that perspective and does his best to be considered part of the Dungeoneers.

The main plot which follows is a mixture of intentional comedy, genre spoofs and just plain hijinks. The story is a wild mix of Pratchett-esque comedy and some plain-old D&D fantasy, while for most readers this will be a fun combination. I didn’t quite enjoy the story as it was meant to be. One of my key distractions was the writing and characterization, which seems a tad amateurish. None of the characters including the protagonist stand out and that can be a drag with any book. What I mean by that is that them seem too caricaturish without having any real persona to them. This made almost interchangeable in my mind and it was hard to connect with them. Also with the plot which is a simple quest littered with insanity, I couldn’t bring myself to laugh along every time as some of the events just seemed repetetive.

Overall I very much wanted to like and enjoy this title but perhaps this book needs a further rewrite and some strong editing. I’m sure there will be readers who must have enjoyed this book tremendously and that is good. However for me, this book just didn’t click and was one of the few that I finished but didn’t care for much of its plot happenings and characters.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

It Takes A Thief To Start A Fire by Rob J. Hayes (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order It Takes A Thief To Start A Fire here (USA) and here (UK)
Get It Takes A Thief To Catch A Sunrise for FREE HERE (USA) and HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of It Takes A Thief To Catch A Sunrise
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Heresy Within
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Colour Of Vengeance
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Price Of Faith
Read Fantasy Book Critic interview with Rob J. Hayes
Read Fantasy Book Critic trilogy completion interview with Rob J. Hayes
Read A Game of ̶T̶h̶r̶o̶n̶e̶s̶ Death by Rob J. Hayes (guest post)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Rob J. Hayes was born and brought up in Basingstoke, UK. As a child he was fascinated with Lego, Star Wars and Transformers that fueled his imagination and he spent quite a bit of his growing up years playing around with such. He began writing at the age of fourteen however soon discovered the fallacies of his work. After four years at University studying Zoology and three years working for a string of high street banks as a desk jockey/keyboard monkey. Rob lived on a desert island in Fiji for three months. It was there he re-discovered his love of writing and, more specifically, of writing fantasy.

OFFICIAL BLURB: Following hot on the heels of the events of It Takes a Thief To Catch a Sunrise, ...To Start a Fire sees Jacques Revou and Isabel de Rosier adapting to life in Great Turlain while competing against murderous fences, shadowy secret police, and a group of thieves who can control the very elements.

We started our lives together with barely a coin to our name. We have won fortunes and lost them. We have stolen the un-stealable, survived plots and schemes determined to see us fall, and saved a Queen from certain death."

"But sometimes a fresh start is exactly what is needed and here we can have just that. Free from devious machinations and troublesome reputations alike. Here we can go back to our roots."

"A good thief gets out without being caught. A great thief makes it look as though they were never there. But we are neither good, nor great. We are the best.”

FORMAT/INFO: It Takes A Thief To Start a Fire is divided into thirty-five chapters and an epilogue. The narration is in third person omniscient via Isabel de Rosier, Jacques Revou, Ada Frost & Inspektor Tobias Breeze. This book while being the second book in the “It Takes A Thief …” series can be read as a standalone.

October 25, 2016 marks the US and UK e-book publication of It Takes A Thief To Start a Fire and is being published by the author. Cover art is by iGreeny & cover design is provided by Shawn King.

ANALYSIS: When I first read It Takes A Thief To Catch A Sunrise, Rob’s story about the adorable thieving couple Jacques and Isabel, was a fun read. The book introduced readers to a whole new world wherein alchemy, French steampunk and a heist plan were all rolled into one exciting plot. The story ended on a solid stopping point and even though it was deemed as a standalone. Fans and readers were clamoring for a sequel and so Rob obliged once he had a solid sequel idea.

The story opens once again with our adorable duo who are planning another heist in the neighboring Great Turlain Empire (read Germany analogue) nearly a year after the events of the first book. This time around though they don’t have anyone shadowing them or even accompanying them to make sure they do it (like in the preceding volume). However as they find out to their dismay that thieving in a different nation has its own risks and this time around they might be screwed over in a worse fashion. The series of events that follow after the most recent abysmal turn of events are deadly as they are being held accountable by a special inspektor and the person who agreed to be a fence for them. All in all Jacques and Isabel will have to dig deep to find themselves out of Great Turlain with their lives intact.

If you find the above description to be a bit vague towards the end, then don’t worry it’s on purpose. I didn’t want to spoil the first plot twist and readers will find out about it at the end of the first chapter itself. Like the first ITAT book, this one also has a twisted plotline but instead of just one faction influencing our duo’s actions, this time around there are three. We are reacquainted with Jacques and Isabel and get further insights in to their successful relationship and working style. They are both the main drivers of the story as together they make a formidable duo and it is just so much fun to read about them. The author has to be lauded for making them flawed and yet so likeable, Jacques can be a know-it-all prick & Isabel can be controlling however the beauty is that they are presented in such a manner that readers will root for them in spite of these flaws. Also rounding off the other characters, is where the author truly excels. Of particular note is a minor character, who remains unnamed and is only referred to as Gunter’s mother, who with just one appearance steals the show so much so that I’m hoping we get a novella or side story about her.

Rounding up the POV character list is Inspektor Tobias Breeze who is as inscrutable as they come and proves to be a worthy adversary to our beloved duo. What I enjoyed about his was that, he’s a closed book to the readers and characters and we only get tiny hints about what his true thoughts are. I hope the author considers going the Tana French route and giving us a story via Tobias or Gunter’s mother. Like the first book, there are multiple plot twists involved and the story does have a quick pace to it. However unlike the first book, there’s a lull in the middle portion of the book as certain events play out. The pace picks up again and we are back to an action-packed, magically enhanced finale.

Following on the pattern of flashbacks from the first book, we get similar flashbacks in this volume as well however they aren’t as far reaching in to the past as was the case with the first book. We are mainly given a look into the time period between the two books and we see how the current events have come to be. Lastly the first book dealt with spycraft, misdirection and subterfuge. While the subterfuge follows in this volume too, there’s an enhanced focus on magic and especially manipulation of the elements. Previously the story focused on Sassaille (France facsimile) & we got to see the cultureal norms and behaviour over there. With this book, we get its neighboring kingdom of Great Turlain & its intricacies (Think Germany but with magic). There's a stark contrast drawn between these two nations beginning with the acceptance of magic in one and the spread of science in the other. There's also other minute differences highlighted such as naming conventions, and simply drinking habits such as tea vs coffee. This was an interesting aspect of the story that each book highlights a different nation, culture while providing an action-packed storyline.

I’ve been enjoying these escapades and the exploration of these vivid but different cultures, however they don’t go quite deep for plot expediency reasons. One of the things that detracts from this volume is that it doesn’t quite mention what’s happening in neighboring Sassaille especially after the events of the epilogue in It Takes A Thief To Catch A Sunrise (currently available for free on Amazon & Amazon UK) . While this helps with the standalone nature of the story, folks like me might feel a bit cut off. The author also talks about the standalone nature of this series in this guest piece. Last but not the least this is a personal request but I very much enjoyed Franseza Goy in the preceding volume and I hope the author decides to bring her back for the third volume as she’s too great a character for a one-off appearance.

CONCLUSION: It Takes A Thief To Start A Fire is a solid sequel and a fun, story about a pair of intrepid thieves who are forced to adept to their unfortunate circumstances. Those who love a good heist story should really enjoy this one as there’s a big twist on the heist trope and there’s also some cool magic involved. Rob J. Hayes certainly proves that he’s no one trick pony with grimdark fantasy & you can add caper fantasy to his ever growing list of genres he’s successfully tackled.

Monday, October 24, 2016

GUEST POST: Lingering In The World — The Appeal Of Writing Epic Fantasy by Ken Liu

I had written and published fantasy stories before The Grace of Kings, but they were mostly magic realist or allegorical tales. Epic fantasy was not a genre that anyone familiar with my short fiction would have associated with me.

So why did I pick epic fantasy for my first novel series?

There’s both a serious answer and a not-so-serious answer.

The serious answer is that I’m interested in foundational narratives and the process of myth-making. Every culture has its own set of foundational narratives, stories that a people tell themselves to define who they are, how they came to be, what values they treasure and want to pass on to the next generation, and what their place in the world is in relation to other peoples and the divine. We Americans have our own foundational myths, and you can see these on display when you take a stroll down the Mall in Washington, D.C., and so do the French, the British, the Chinese, and every other nation. Such myths are, of course, not limited to nation-states. Silicon Valley has its foundational myths, as do lawyers and management consultants. Even families have their individual core stories that are contested and refined and rewritten down the generations. All my short fiction can be read as explorations into the idea of myth-making, of our very human relationship with the intersecting foundational myths in our lives.

Epic fantasy just seemed like the best way to explore this idea. Of all the modes of literature, it is the one where an author can engage in myth-making and interrogate the process of the evolution of these foundational myths without the work falling apart under its own weight. Genres are not terribly meaningful except insofar as they influence the interpretive framework readers bring to books, and readers of epic fantasy are ready to play the game of myth-making with the author and the text.

The not-so-serious answer, on the other hand, is simply that I wanted to spend more time with my characters and my world. With short fiction, just as I come to know a character and the world she lives in, I have to say good-bye. I might have devised all sorts of interesting cultural practices and written pseudo-academic papers on the fauna and flora of a some new planet, but none of that can make its way into 5000 words. A short story is a glimpse, a holiday, a mere taste of a world. And after having done it hundreds of times for my short fiction, I wanted to linger in one of these worlds for longer, to explore its nooks and crannies, and to follow the histories of the characters and their children and grandchildren down the ages.

Epic fantasy gives me the room and time to do that.

In The Grace of Kings, readers are introduced to the world of Dara, a silkpunk archipelago where sentient whales prophesy the future and silk-and-bamboo airships patrol the skies and warriors hefted aloft on giant kites duel for the fate of the islands with massive swords. The story there was focused on men and women who were already, in some sense, larger-than-life. But in The Wall of Storms, the attention shifts to the next generation, when the aftermath of a revolution is fought over by scholars and engineers who must craft a new philosophy of peace from the pieces of an older order shattered by war — while new threats loom on the horizon.

I’m glad I got to spend more time with the world of Dara and the characters who inhabit these islands: cerebral Luan Zya, proud Gin Mazoti, grand-spirited Kuni Garu, farseeing Jia. And I’m even more glad I got to see them grow older and bring up the next generation of heroes and troublemakers. It is exactly what I wanted to do when I started my novel series.


Official Author Website
Order The Wall Of Storms HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Grace Of Kings
Read A Silkpunk Epic: The Grace of Kings and a New Aesthetic
Read Silkpunk: Redefining Technology for The Grace of Kings
Read Silkpunk: playing engineer in an imaginary world

GUEST AUTHOR INFORMATION: Ken Liu is one of the most lauded authors in the field of American literature. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, World Fantasy, Sidewise, and Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards, he has also been nominated for the Sturgeon and Locus Awards for his short fiction. His short story, “The Paper Menagerie,” is the first work of fiction to simultaneously win the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards. He also translated the 2015 Hugo Award-winning novel The Three-Body Problem, written by Cixin Liu, which is the first novel to ever win the Hugo award in translation.

Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, is the first volume in a silkpunk epic fantasy series set in a universe he and his wife, artist Lisa Tang Liu, created together. It was a finalist for the 2015 Nebula Award, and was awarded the Locus Award for Best First Novel. He lives with his family near Boston.

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of Lisa Tang Liu. 
Friday, October 21, 2016

Summoned by Anne M. Pillsworth (Reviewed by C. T. Phipps)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Anne M. Pillsworth was born in Troy, New York, but is currently living just outside Providence, Rhode Island, at the head of beautiful Narragansett Bay. Anne is am a member of SFWA and HWA and a rabid Austenite. Anne is one part of the Lovecraft Re-Read Project at Tor Books' website along with Ruthanna Emrys.

OFFICIAL SYNOPSIS: While browsing in a rare book store in Arkham, Sean finds an occult book with an ad seeking an apprentice sorcerer, from a newspaper dated March 21, 1895. Even more intriguing, the ad specifically requests applicants reply by email.

Sean's always been interested in magic, particularly the Lovecraftian dark mythology. Against his best friend Edna's ("call-me-Eddy-or-else") advice, he decides to answer the ad, figuring it's a clever hoax, but hoping that it won't be. The advertiser, Reverend Redemption Orne, claims to be a master of the occult born more than 300 years ago. To prove his legitimacy, Orne gives Sean instructions to summon a harmless but useful familiar—but Sean's ceremony takes a dark turn, and he instead accidentally beckons a bloodthirsty servant to the Cthulhu Mythos god Nyarlathotep. The ritual is preemptively broken, and now Sean must find and bind the servitor, before it grows too strong to contain. But strange things are already happening in the town of Arkham....

Welcome to the darker side of New England in the first of a new series from Anne M. Pillsworth.

FORMAT/INFO: Summoned is an alternating persona 3rd person Young Adult urban fantasy novel set in H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. The book is 320 pages and was released on June 24th, 2014 via Tor books.

ANALYSIS: H.P. Lovecraft's work has been adapted to virtually every medium possible but it's only now branching out into mainstream genres due to the fact, at least until the Nineties, he was decidedly niche. Due to being an author of nihilistic cosmic horror fiction, it is no surprise that it has taken this long to adapt him to Young Adult works. There have been a few ahead of Anne M. Pillsworth but I believed Summoned to be the best set in the Cthulhu Mythos.

If I were to describe the book, I would probably state it's a combination of Harry Potter and the Cthulhu Mythos with a side order of Scooby Doo. Sean Wyndam is a young boy who dreams of being a wizard like so many other Young Adult urban fantasy protagonists but, unfortunately for him, he doesn't live in the kind of universe where magic is purely functional. Instead, he lives in a world where it produces terrifying monsters and requires bargains for your soul with the Other Gods.

The focus of the book is on the arcane side of Lovecraft's universe, things like Nyarlathotep, Miskatonic University, and Puritan sorcerers, rather than the more tentacly creatures like Shub-Niggurath or the Great Old Ones. I think they could have included a few more Lovecraft references personally as I would have loved to have gotten Redemption Orne's opinion on Joseph Curwen for example. Still, I have to say I liked the amount of detail which the author manages to weave her idyllic vision of Arkham, Massachusetts with Lovecraft's more terrifying world.

The character of Sean Wyndham is a likable young man even if I preferred his best friend in Eddy (actually a girl named Edna). I like how Anne makes it very clear that almost all of what happens in the story is Sean's fault and that he has a hunger for power which comes with his immaturity. It's rare for the author to make it clear their hero shouldn't actually be trusted with as much power as they are but it's a nice change of pace.

Another area this book excells is that it averts the "Adults are Useless" trope. Rather than leaving everything in the hands of the teenagers, Sean's parents and the teachers at Miskatonic University get involved in the process of trying to save his life. I was especially fond of the characters Helen Arkwright and Mister Geldman the pharmacist of the bizarre. I was also intrigued by the Order of Alhazared, which promises to open up many new opportunities for storytelling in future books.

The character of Redemption Orne is probably the most intriguing of the book's creations and we really don't get any insight into whether he's good, evil, or both thanks to the mystery surrounding the character. Evidence exists for multiple interpretations and I am looking forward to having that mystery solved.

CONCLUSION: Summoned is a good Young Adult novel which I think will appeal to readers of that genre. Lovecraft fans may be put off by the fact it's decidedly PG in content but I believe there's plenty who will appreciate the lighter and softer touch.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

SPFBO: Hondus Pointe by R. D. Henderson & Mini-interview with the author (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Hondus Pointe is the first novella of the Nambroc sequence, what drew my eye to this novella was its blurb and what held my attention throughout the story was its quick pace & grey characters.

The plot begins with Nestor deNeffo, a black elf and senior operative in the Nambroc Knives. He’s extremely efficient at his work and soon realizes that there’s more money to be made if one were to be a bit more unscrupulous and were to have no master. So that’s what he does and soon recruits a number of knife operatives who are loyal only to him and follow his profit plan. This book dwells on a wide cast of characters and the repercussions their actions start to have.

This story being a novella is on the shorter side but definitely reads quicker and packs quite a punch. Our main protagonist (or is it antagonist) is as Machiavellian as they come. Nestor deNeffo only wants to get rich no matter the cost to anyone around him. He loves the finer things in life and knowing the high price that they cost. He will do anything and everything including selling information, weapons and other stuff to anybody on the black market. While being such a duplicitous agent, he also has to be careful as to not let his fellow Nambroc colleagues know of his true nature. This premise of this novella and the characters reminded me a lot of the TV series The Shield and its main protagonist (?) Vic Mackey.

Sure Nestor deNeffo is more calculating and perhaps a shade more dangerous but both these characters share similar reasoning for their shady activities. Vic proclaims to be doing it for the betterment of his family and Nestor proclaims the same for the betterment of his own life. As the story consists of only twelve chapters, the story opens up pretty quickly and then as quickly descends into a lot of murder, back-dealings and chaos. The pace of the plot is extremely high as the reader is constantly shunted from page to page wherein the actions shifts from the octane kind to the simmering type before twisting back again. The readers will never be sure where the story is headed and how exactly it will end and that’s the biggest draw, the unpredictability.

I liked this story a lot as it seemed very much in line with stories by Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch and Rob J. Hayes, R. D. Henderson showcases that there are no heroes in this tale. Just various shades of grey that turn more and more towards the black as the story progresses. The novella ends also on a big note and sets up the sequel novella as most readers will want to know what happens next and what will Nestor do?

The only drawback I can think of for this story is the novella format and the world-building which seems to be eschewed for the reasons of plot and pace. Sure there are some tidbits scattered here and there but the world most stays dark as most of the action occurs below ground. I hope in the ensuing novellas the author expands on the world scene and we get to know more. But for now, I couldn’t stop myself from finishing Hondus Pointe as quickly as possible. Folks who love dark characters and plotlines, the Nambroc sequence is exactly what you have been looking for.


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

RDH: Thank you for the warm welcome. Very happy to be here.

I live near Seattle, Washington. I am married and have two boys. I grew up in the Midwest, completed my education in New England, worked for about a year in Japan, and then settled in the Pacific Northwest.

My background includes playing Dungeons & Dragons in high school and throughout college, collecting and reading comic books monthly for the last twenty years, and have a passion for fantasy as well.

Q] Can you tell us what inspired you to be a writer in the first place, what experience you went through in finishing your book, & why you choose to go the self-publishing route?

RDH: Since I was young, I was always interested in being a writer. The problem was I did not really write unless it was school assignments, or papers in college and graduate school. I have always been a reader, and fantasy has always been my favorite genre.

In 2007, I was finally inspired to take the next step in the process to becoming a writer when I had a germ of an idea for a story that I could no longer ignore. The problem was the idea was not clear, concrete, or vivid enough for me to take pen to paper. After awhile, I guess I lost focus and my attention was drawn to the ebbs and flow of everyday life, and forgot about the idea.

In middle of 2009, I read the First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, and I really became enamored with the Northmen characters he created, especially Logan Nine Fingers. I was inspired to read more fantasy, and I read the first two books in the Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch, and I like the plot points featuring cons. I started to put pen to paper because I was inspired by these characters and these plot points. The more I brainstormed, the germ of an idea returned in full-force and became more clear, concrete, and vivid.

The experience I went through in finishing my book started with NaNoWriMo in 2009. I did not have a specific character or plot point, but I wanted to write a fantasy story featuring elves, gnomes, kobolds, halfling, dwarves who could be criminals. One aspect of the story I enjoyed writing was a corrupt and traitorous intelligence operative who was a black elf named Nestor deNeffo with an intelligence service called the Nambroc Knives.

I started writing and accomplished the fifty thousand word goal for NaNoWriMo, and then I kept writing until February 2010 with what I thought could be a potentially interesting story, but it needed to be revised and rewritten to become a better story. I enjoyed writing the first story so much that I continued to write fantasy stories for the next couple of years.

I did not start thinking about publishing until I felt the quality of my writing improved technically and grammatically as well as the qualities of the story, plot, and character.

After my writing and stories improved, I started to research online about publishing. I knew traditional publishing was not for me because it would take too long to get to market. I did not have the patience to endure the time to wait submission process of getting an agent to a traditional publishing company taking my book to market. Self-publishing was preferable because I controlled the publishing process and could publish my books on my schedule.

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?

RDH: I don't have a muse.

I really don't have a specific process or way I get ideas for stories. Sometimes a character or a plot point pops appears to me. Sometimes I get an idea by reading an interesting article in the newspaper or online. Another way is I am reading a novel or non-fiction book and I see an interest plot point and that gets me thinking. I have also gotten story ideas from something I have seen on television or in a movie or film.

My main motivation to write is to get the stories out of my head and into a fixed and tangible form so I can write the next story. My source of inspiration is to write stories that I would like to read.

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of HONDUS POINTE occurred. How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea (if any)?

RDH: The genesis for Hondus Pointe was that part of story was in the original book I wrote for NaNoWriMo in 2009.

After I finished writing the book, a developmental editor read it and told me a story was somewhere in there, but it was hidden in the flat characters, too many dropped story lines, and large and gaping plot holes. She suggested that I pick one major plot point and the applicable characters and develop and deepen them.

I took her advice and ripped the original book to the studs and Nestor deNeffo and the Nambroc Knives made their presence known to me. In the fall of 2013, I started to write the story which ultimately became Hondus Pointe and it was published in January 2015. Yes, the published version evolved a great deal from when I completed the first draft at the end of 2013.

Q] Hondus Pointe is the first volume in the Nambroc Sequence. Could you give our readers an outline of your plans for the series as a whole? Is it complete and what can readers expect from it?

RDH: Nambroc Sequence is a fantasy series featuring Nestor deNeffo, a traitorous and corrupt black elf intelligence operative, who holds an important senior position within the Nambroc Knives. The Nambroc Knives is the pre-eminent black intelligence service in all of the Nether Realm -- self-proclaimed by its operatives -- and based in Nambroc which is a black elf city.

Nestor is motivated by his love of money so he can acquire the finer things in life. He is very comfortable passing state secrets to the enemies of Nambroc as well as being an enforcer and fixer for a local narcotics trafficking organization. The rest of the series features Nestor expanding his criminal activities to the Earth Realm because it enhances the possibility of him making more money.

Nestor engineers a deal of selling a cache of specially-constructed black elven arrows with each of them armed with an explosive component to an unknown buyer in Hartshire which is a city in the Earth Realm. The black arrows are used in the assassinations of several politicians as well as other powerful, wealthy, and influential people in Hartshire.

In Hartshire, Luigi Darkhawk, a mage, has to contend with the fall-out from the assassinations because all of the victims were his colleagues on the Hartshire Noble Council. The noble council is the organization responsible for mediating disputes between criminals as a way to ease the burden on the already over-worked members of the local constabulary.

Luigi is very concerned that one of the black arrows is meant for him. What makes this situation particularly difficult for his is he accepts bribes and other favors from a certain portion of the criminal element in Hartshire because of his love of money so he can acquire the finer things in life.

Readers can expect the Nambroc Sequence to feature standard fantasy tropes such as elves, dwarves, gnomes, kobolds, goblins, and orcs, but with a bent blended both of crime and espionage. Hondus Pointe, the first novella, along with the remaining six novellas in the fantasy series are available in ebook format to download from Amazon.

Q] Your covers have a very distinct look and all together look quite striking. What was your thought process in their creation? Who's the artist/designer for your books?

RDH: Thank you for the kind words.

The person responsible for creating the striking and distinct-looking book covers for all of the novellas in the Nambroc Sequence as well as the Water Falcon Trilogy is Clarissa Yeo of Yocla Book Cover Designs. I told Clarissa that I wanted to have a symbol on the cover similar to the covers of some of recent editions of A Song of Ice and Fire novels and the UK editions of Wheel of Time series. She weaved her magic and created the awesome and eye-catching covers. Clarissa is an overall awesome book cover designer and produces stellar covers.

Not only she a great designer, she is great to work with as well. She produces great work by the promised due date, responsive, and very personable. Please check out her work at her site.

Q] Could you tell us about the research which you undertook before attempting to write this series and what were things which you focused upon and any fascinating things that you found amidst your research?

RDH: I read my interviews of authors of fiction, including fantasy and science fiction, mention they get ideas for potential stories and characters as well as to ensure get the setting, atmosphere, context, emotions, among things just right to make the story interesting, plausible, immersive, and believable journey for the reader.

Following the lead of more experienced and established authors, I read a fair bit about espionage and traitors as well as about criminals and the crimes that they committed for potential story ideas or interesting characters. When I was reading about espionage and traitors, I learned about Lisbon during World War II was full of spies from both the Allied and Axis countries because Portugal remained neutral. Portugal, however, was very important strategically and tactically to both Allied and Axis countries because of its location. Everyone knew everyone was spying on each other, and Portugal secret police was spying on the spies. It was also very difficult for the Portuguese government leaders to remain neutral because of the imminent threat of military incursion from both the Allied and Axis powers.

One interesting nugget of information I discovered in my reading about criminals was Al Capone, the famous Chicago gangster of the 1920s and behind the brutal St. Valentine's Day massacre, was never convicted of murder or any of other numerous heinous crimes he committed, but he was convicted of tax crimes and sentenced to five years in prison. He was sent to Alcatraz which was one of the most secure and isolated prisons locate on an island off the California coast near San Francisco, and housed the most dangerous and difficult felons in America between 1934 and 1963.

Q] What other books have you written? Can you tell us about them and what genres they belong to?

RDH: Besides writing the Nambroc Sequence, I have also written the Water Falcon Trilogy which is also a fantasy series and takes place in the same world but in the Fairy Realm.

Wit Fallo, the first novella in the trilogy, features Wit Fallo, a white gnome and shiftless boat captain, wants nothing more than to retire and enjoy the free and easy life. He accepts the deal of a lifetime when he is offered to be part of a narcotics trafficking operation to deliver narcotics on the high seas on the Earth Realm

Life sometimes does not go as planned.

When circumstances occur beyond his control and three of his associates are killed during one of the deliveries, he is forced to leave the Earth Realm for the Fairy Realm with a hope of a new start and life. The new life is very much like the old life when he is forced to work for a halfling crime lord because he owes the crime lord a great deal of money.

The trilogy focuses on the relationship between Wit Fallo and the halfling crime lord as the white gnome is involved in deals of the criminal sort such as delivering narcotics, passing intelligence and information to the highest bidder, and killing enemies of the crime lord as ways to pay what is owed to the halfling. The series also features pixies, sprites, brownies, elves, dwarves, gold goblins, pirates, mages, and a bard who are involved in crime, espionage, and business transactions.

Wit Fallo along with the other two novellas in the Water Falcon Trilogy, a fantasy series, are available in ebook format to download from Amazon.

Q] Your book deals with some grey and essentially morally unreliable characters. What was your inspiration for the setting and characters?

RDH: The setting was inspired was my interest for Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) role-playing game I used to play while I was in high school and college. I took what I remembered from the setting for the D&D adventures I played as the starting point, and then brainstormed and worked on the setting until I created the setting which is used in the novellas in both the Nambroc Sequence and Water Falcon Trilogy.

The inspiration of using elves, gnomes, dwarves, halflings, orcs, and other standard fantasy type of characters in my stories was also inspired by D&D as well as the drow elves featured in the Forgotten Realms novels written by R.A. Salvatore. The inspiration for creating gray and morally unreliable characters is my interest in television shows such as Sopranos and Breaking Bad and movies such as Usual Suspects, Godfather, Godfather II, and Spanish Prisoner.

I combined my fond memories of D&D with my interests in crime dramas and created characters that are elves, gnomes, dwarves, halflings, and the like who are criminals, spies, and traitors in the Nambroc Sequence and Water Falcon Trilogy.

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?

RDH: The books and authors who have captured my imagination are Noble House by James Clavell, Return of Moriarty by John Gardner, Revenge of Moriarty by John Gardner, and A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin. The Canadian television series Intelligence produced by Chris Haddock also captured my imagination.

I became very interested in incorporating espionage and corporate elements in my novellas after reading the novel written by James Clavell. My interest in inserting both espionage and criminal components in my novellas was due watching the Intelligence television series.

My imagination was captured when I read the two novels by John Gardner featuring Professor James Moriarty, primary nemesis of Sherlock Holmes, as the head of a mafia-type organization in Victorian England.

My interest in gray and morally unreliable characters crystallize after reading the A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R.R. Martin. Martin is the master of creating gray characters and political machinations in a fantasy setting. I do not think I have read anything more surprising, gut-wrenching, and exhilarating as the Red Wedding scene in A Storm of Swords.

The author who got me to think about becoming a wordsmith was Joe Abercrombie after reading his First Law Trilogy and becoming very enamored with Logan Ninefingers and the other Northmen characters he created. These characters are as gray and morally unreliable as can be. I finally decided to start writing for publication was after reading about the Northmen character of Caul Shivers in Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie.

Caul Shivers is the epitome of the gray and morally unreliable character I would like to create.

Besides the authors that I have already mentioned, I would like to give a shout out to the following authors: Michelle West for her Sun Sword series and House War series; Adrian Tchaikovsky for his Shadows of the Apt series; Timothy Zahn for the Thrawn trilogy and the sequel Hand of Thrawn duology by, and James Luceno for Darth Plagueis.

Each of these authors does a tremendous job of including espionage and criminal components in both fantasy and space-opera stories. I recently started to read the Sanctuary series by Robert J. Crane which I find to be rip-roaring and action-paced fantasy series about mercenary company/guild populated with very interesting characters.

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?

RDH: I want to thank the good folks at Fantasy Book Critic for this opportunity as well as the review of Hondus Pointe the first novella in Nambroc Sequence a fantasy series.

I also want to thank Mark Lawrence for creating and sponsoring #SPFBO as an opportunity to get self-published authors to get their fantasy stories exposed to a wider audience. I look forward to reading Powers of the Six by Kristal Shaff, Storm without End by R.J. Blain, The Moonlight War by S.K.S. Perry, The Dungeoneers by Jeffrey Russell, Nolander by Becca Mills as well as many other due to #SPFBO.

Because of #SPFBO, I have learned so much about all the great fantasy being created, and it is amazing.

In the next few months, I plan to publish a four novella series which is the sequel to the Nambroc Sequence. I hope people give them a whirl and find them interesting. Thank you very much.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

SPFBO: Powers Of The Six by Kristal Shaff & Mini-Interview with the author (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read an excerpt HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Powers Of The Six was my first selection among the 30 books that I was alloted. It was a fantasy book that mixes epic fantasy with magical powers and was very reminiscent of the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson as well as the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher but with younger protagonists.

The main plot of the book begins with Nolan who is a scribe and has a sectret that he wishes to hide from everyone. It has been under wraps for the past two years and if Nolan has his way then will continue on to his deathbed. Alec Deverell is a blacksmith’s son wth a temper to boot. He tries to control it but being a fifteen year old, it’s hard for him to know the ways of the world. Both Nolan and Alec meet under trying circumstances however they both will show their mettle in ways they can’t imagine as the world of Adamah finally begins to understand what is truly happening to the powers known as the Shays.

The main plot line begins from this thread and the story focuses on the six Shays which can grant spectacular abilities to mankind. The Shays are for accuracy, empathy, healing, perception, speed, and strength. Most individuals only have one, a few have two and rarely three, there’s only one person who has mastery over all six Shays and that’s the king Alcandor. The king however is a tyrant and a truly evil one at that. The story then basically twists into a quest as Nolan and Alec along with Nolan’s cousin are forced to endure and find out why everyone’s powers are slowly going away?

The main thing I enjoyed about the book was the book’s pace and snappy plot. The story unfurls rather quickly and the readers will be zooming along our intrepid heroes as they fight off evil doers and nasty creatures. This book while seemingly YA isn’t a YA book, it deals with some pretty gruesome stuff. The king is as psychotic and sociopathic as they come, he indulges in some nasty sexual proclivities towards both sexes and most readers will hate him to their core. This book while talking and referencing rape doesn’t showcase it so there’s that. Also while the main plot concerns teenagers, they don’t behave like teenagers. These children are exposed to some dark stuff and they are shown to react accordingly. There is very little teenage angst showcased  however they do behave like teenagers from time to time (as is their wont). The best example of this is Alec in the beginning chapters as he constantly tries to stay out of trouble but manages to find it all too often.

Another aspect which I enjoyed was the characterization, even though we get the story via two POV characters, the other characters Megan, Emery, the highlander, etc. don’t feel two-dimensional. The author tries her best to make everyone seem complex however doesn’t quite manage to hit the bullseye with the villains who come across as boorish and one-dimensional. Lastly the author also does her best with the Shays as we get characters who appear to have superpowers and some of the action scenes are truly fun to read.

Going on to the parts that I didn’t enjoy was the fact the world and magic system isn’t all that clearly defined. There’s a few mentions towards the last third of the story and a lot of plot set-up for the second book but overall the reader is in as much mystery along with the main characters. Then there’s the aspect of the villains, we don’t get much backstory about the king as well his general (who is Nolan’s older brother) as to why they are that way. We are told that they are arrogant and act as such but there wasn’t any clear cut motivation exposed.

Lastly I would recommend this book to anybody who wants to read a fantasy book about teenage protagonists who act mature for their ages and with very little angsty romance. This was a solid plus point for me and I was excited to see how the author setup the world with regards to the Shays and I hope we get further light shed on the magic system in the sequels.


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

KS: Thanks for having me! I was born in Northwest Indiana, pretty much in the shadow of Chicago. I attended Ball State University to study music education after high school. It was during my time in college when I met my future husband. Once we both graduated, I moved out to Iowa to become a wife of an Iowa farmer. After a really horrible year of teaching music, I put that hat away to become a wife and mom to four awesome kids.

I’ve always been very right brained and I juggle a lot of creative balls. From music to crafts, I tend to move quickly from one interest to the next. (I suspect that I am a little ADD). Writing is actually something that has lasted for many years, but during those years I’ve thrown other activities into the mix. The last seven years I’ve also been a professional face painter. It’s a fun and rewarding job.

Q] Can you tell us what inspired you to be a writer in the first place, what experience you went through in finishing your book, & why you choose to go the self-publishing route?

KS: I’ve always loved reading; my first job was in the local library shelving books. My first go at writing was creating a play in my 3rd-grade class—which we performed about the Easter Bunny. It was a memory I’d forgotten until I started writing again.

I gave up writing until about ten years ago. It was a “let’s try this” moment after I’d read the book ERAGON by Christopher Paolini. I found out he was a teenage author and it inspired me to try myself, just for fun. I didn’t realize what a long and emotional journey writing and publishing would end up being.

My book, POWERS OF THE SIX, was a labor of stubborn love. It was originally titled THE EMISSARY, and its first messy draft was over 200k. After trimming it down considerably, I got an agent and we submitted it to many houses. At that time, it was an adult fantasy, but my agent pushed me to turn it into Young Adult because of the voice.

After I changed it to YA, we submitted it again. Little Brown Publishing offered me a rewrite and resubmit. In the end, it didn’t sell and my agent and I went our separate ways. I subbed it to many houses on my own after leaving my agent, including Angry Robot’s open submissions. Again, Angry Robot told me it felt more like YA, so they passed it on to their YA imprint, Strange Chemistry (which is no longer in business).

***This moment in my career was very enlightening. After having someone else tell me my writing was YA again, I realized that my writing voice was much younger than my actual age. I am more of a YA/children’s author, which is why my writing comes across as more streamlined than other epic fantasy books. It was a moment of self-discovery that I am actually… immature. (grin)***

After another rewrite and resubmit, I was rejected by Strange Chemistry. It was a hard time to be that close to success and still fail, especially when two other authors, Wesley Chu and Laura Lam, where with me in the process at that time. Both of these authors were accepted, and have since then moved on to great things. I couldn’t be happier for either of them.

I had planned to self-publish at that point, and I was already working on a cover with an artist. It was then when I was offered a contract with a small press I’d submitted to. The journey with this small press was very long, very painful, and very discouraging. It really sucked the joy of writing out of me for a long time. In the end, I got my rights back and publish on my own with a new title and an awesome new cover by Anne Drury. I couldn’t be happier to be self-published and in control of my work.

I can’t say that I regret the hardships to get where I am today. My book and writing have grown through the experience. I think that even my last, bad publisher, enabled me to grow, as well as it helped me appreciate the freedom that self-publishing has given me. I am grateful for the long journey.

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?

KS: I don’t have a muse. However, I do become depressed if I don’t express myself creatively. This is one of the avenues that feeds my imagination.

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of POWERS OF THE SIX occurred. How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea (if any)?

KS: POWERS OF THE SIX is my first book. The first draft started around ten years ago. It took me several years working on the book to learn different aspects of the craft. I know it sounds backward, that people say to write a lot and throw out your first book, but there is something to be said for reworking and polishing something over and over again. I learned a lot that way. I’ve deleted characters. I’ve deleted chapters. I’ve added layers for world building. I changed it from 3rd person to 1st person and then back to 3rd person POV again. The manuscript has evolved dramatically from where it started. There were long breaks in-between when I worked on different projects, but I kept coming back to POWERS OF THE SIX because I really did believe in it. Input from industry professionals, critique partners, etc. gave me tons of insight to improve. Throughout the changes, the primary storyline has mostly stayed intact.

Q] Powers Of The Six is the first volume in the Emissary Of Light series. Could you give us a progress report on the next book, offer any details about the sequel and outline your plans for the series as a whole?

KS: My second book is already out. It has a much different feel than the first one as it focuses more on relationships, character building, and it has more romantic elements than the first. It is called BLOOD OF THE GUARDIAN. The third book will go back to more fighting/conflict and focus less on relationships, though I’m sure my characters might have a say since they have a mind of their own. Book three is still in the early stages of planning as I am finishing up a separate Middle-Grade project which I am really excited to get out into the world; it’s been really fun to create. However, my writing time has been… complicated this last year since we adopted our youngest son from Bulgaria. Having a two-year-old around the house (as well as three teenagers, one of them with autism) can make personal writing time a challenge.

Q] Your book has a magic system which very much reminded me of the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson with regards to its ingenuity and the differing combinations that users had access to. Can you talk about its inception and how you developed it?

KS: I am a fan of fantasy, swords, and all geeky endeavors. I am also a huge fan of superheroes, especially Superman; he is such a good-hearted boy scout. I wanted to create a world where both aspects exist. So the powers in my world came from different aspects of superheroes: super speed, inhuman strength, mind control, etc. It was fun to combine two of my favorite things. I also have always been interested in rainbows, which is why I incorporated the glowing eyes and the rainbow colors in the story. In elementary school, I did a science project on the spectrum and how white light contains all the colors. Even now, I have a crystal prism hanging in my kitchen to catch the morning light. Ironically, I found out later that my mother has always had Iridophobia, an actual, genuine fear of rainbows. She never let on when I was growing up. I wonder now how she had put up with me as a kid!

Thank you so much for any comparison to Brandon Sanderson! It is truly an honor since he is my favorite author. A funny thing about Brandon. I discovered him by blindly picking up his book, ELANTRIS, at a bookstore when it was first released. One of the main reasons I bought his book was because I was afraid that it might be similar to my POWERS OF THE SIX book (which I was finishing at the time). It was different, of course, and I was glad to discover my new favorite author. I’ve watched Brandon’s career take off over the years, and I’m glad to say I liked him before he became so well-known.

Q] Could you tell us about the research which you undertook before attempting to write this book and what were things which you focused upon and any fascinating things that you found amidst your research?

KS: My husband has always been a great sounding board. He’s a smart man who can tell me when I’m being stupid with facts, such as travel, map-making, weapons, and especially blacksmithing questions (he’s an armature blacksmith/ bladesmith). I also researched on types of boats and even on how to hold and shoot a sling. There is a great forum for slingers that I found (, and they were very helpful and welcoming to all of my questions. One of the guys even sent me a couple of handcrafted slings so I could do hands-on research of my own. I also discovered other details such as musical instruments and eyewear in history. Even though my world is fantasy, I didn’t want information to stick out as strange. Small details can pull someone out of a story, and my goal was to make things as realistic (fantasy-wise) as they can be.

Q] Your book has an intriguing world with some different characteristics. What was your inspiration for the setting and what are your thoughts on world-building in general?

KS: My inspiration for the setting? I guess I started with a generic world, and then I found ways to make it different and layered. Approaching world building in increments was the most helpful to me. I added different aspects during different drafts, building details one on top of another. A person doesn’t need to build a world all at once. Building a house starts with a structure. Then the walls. Then siding and a roof, followed by paint and landscaping. Decor and furniture are added for interest at the end. You can think of writing much the same way. The base, then other aspects, followed by small details to make it more connected and interesting and rich.

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?

KS: Through my teen years, I read a lot of historical romance, most of them focusing on medieval knights. When I started dating my husband (after our first date at a renaissance festival), he shoved the book THE HOBBIT into my hands and told me I needed to read it. I resisted at first, but once I started reading, I threw out my historical romance and picked up more fantasy. I never looked back.

Since then I’ve taken to reading fantasy in a multitude of different ways. My favorite adult fantasy authors are Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn) and Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files). Then in Middle Grade, I’ve read and enjoyed Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson), Jennifer A. Nielsen (The False Prince), and JK Rowling (Harry Potter, of course). I also enjoy Young Adult books from authors such as Veronica Roth (Divergent) and Marissa Meyer (Lunar Chronicles). These are just a few. I enjoy books in all sorts of age groups and styles.

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

KS: I’d love to encourage writers to find others to support them, to keep going when it feels hopeless, and to remember that there are lots of paths to publishing. Work hard and remember there is always room to improve.

I also wanted to bring to let everyone know that my audiobook recently came out. It was a ton of fun to choose a narrator and be a part of the process. Gary Furlong, my narrator, did an awesome job. Check it out if you get a chance.

Thanks for having me on here and for taking time out to participate in the SPFBO. I’m sure that reading 30 books and making this type of decision wasn’t an easy task. Also, thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to speak to your readers. I hope they give POWERS OF THE SIX a chance.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

SPFBO: Storm Without End by RJ Blain & Mini-Interview with the author (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Storm Without End is the first book in the Return Of The Rift King series, the story begins with Kalen who seems to be wrestling with some big internal demons while trying to be as incognito as possible. He’s a bit diminutive in size and so folks often mistake him for being a child. Those who try to inflict harm upon him for believing him to be small, don’t live long enough to change their erroneous ways. He finds himself waking up without boots and at pains to recall how he got into his current state. In the place known as the Rift, there are several guardians who are alarmed at the disappearance of the Rift King and are actively working to figure what happened exactly. If this blurb sounds confusing, then it is exactly what the author intended.

The book drops the reader into the happenings without much of an explanation very similar to the Malazan books. The reader shares the confusion experienced by the main character Kalen as both are trying to figure out what exactly is happening. The Rift is a hot, dry place that separates the sox kingdoms and keep the fragile peace. However with the disappearance of the rift king, all bets are off and nobody knows what exactly is happening. This book actively uses the reader’s vertigo as the author slowly unveils the world and the geo-political rumblings within. While I admired the author’s approach in setting up the story this way, the reading experience was certainly hampered to a minor degree.

Going on to the characterizations, this being a multi-POV book, we do get to see the action unfold from other characters besides Kalen and that is helpful as the world is fleshed out better. Kalen however is the main draw as the readers will be drawn to him the most, he certainly is a big highlight of the book as he struggles to accept his power and the troubles that follow because of it. I loved watching his internal and external struggles and an extra bonus to the author for providing us with a hero who is physically handicapped but does his best even with it. Fantasy books have at large ignored physically handicapped characters and so this was an interesting change. The pace of the story is such that while the readers might feel confused at the beginning, there is enough impetus provided to keep on reading. Plus after the first third, the story picks up properly and then we are racing along all the way to the brutal climax. Another plus point is the addition of sentient horses to the plot and this was another cool feature about the book. I can't wait to read more about them and see their increasing influence across the plot.

Now the things that didn’t make the story work, firstly was the fact that majorly this book felt like a big set-up for the entire series. Some authors like Tad Williams and Kate Elliott can pull such a thing off however Storm Without End suffers because of this feature. Also there’s a lot of world details that seem confusing as those very details only are hinted towards the end.

Overall I feel that this book is a good book that perhaps needed a couple more drafts. It has some telling action sequences, a very likeable hero trapped in desperate circumstances and overall an intriguing plot. I enjoyed it in spite of its minor foibles and will be interested to see where the author takes the story in the sequel. Storm Without End is an interesting fantasy that features a physically handicapped protagonist and hints at darker and more fantastical things to come. 


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

RJB: Hi! Thanks so much for having me. I’m RJ, and before I became an author, I was an office paper shuffler in a marketing department. Before that, I helped people write and customize content on their websites so they’d be found in search engines. Pretty glamourous, huh?

I went to college for approximately half a semester a long, long time ago, broke free of the joint, and moved to a different country to get married to a wonderful man. I’m still married to him over fourteen years later. I own cats. Oh, who am I kidding? The four furballs own me, and they make me like it.

I enjoy painting and playing computer games when I’m not writing or reading a book. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be?) I’m rarely not writing or reading a book, which suits me just fine! I began publishing in 2013. In 2014, I wrote and published my SFWA (Science Fiction / Fantasy Writers of America) qualifying novel, and I joined the organization when they opened their doors to self-published authors.

Q] Can you tell us what inspired you to be a writer in the first place, what experience you went through in finishing your book, & why you choose to go the self-publishing route?

RJB: This is a tough question for me. Until fourth grade, I was essentially functionally illiterate. I could, with work and effort, sound out words. I could form letters with a pencil, but beyond that, I couldn’t do a whole lot more than spell my name and do the absolute bare minimum to not fail a grade.

I wasn’t a very good student. Then, in fourth grade, I got a teacher who understood me and the things that interested me. She gave me a copy of A Wrinkle in Time, and I discovered stories could be fun and intriguing, and that not all books would bore me to tears. By the end of fifth grade, I was reading Stephen King and had progressed to a college reading level. My advancement, such as it was, actually caused me a lot of problems over the years. Without the benefit of the formative education years, everything I learned about English, I learned from books. This meant I had a very… unique… view of basic grammar.

I had to relearn the English language from the ground up sometime during high school. (To be exact, my senior year in my English Honors course, our teacher got fed up that absolutely no one in the class had any understanding of the basics. We could pick apart Chaucer in its original form, but we couldn’t define the structure of a sentence to save our lives.) It was a very interesting experience.

I didn’t start ‘seriously’ writing books until high school, and even then, it was as a passing interesting. I really began pursuing novels after I graduated and moved from the US to Canada. Turns out there’s very little someone can do when they can’t work or go to school while waiting for immigration documentation, so I took up writing, something I could pursue until I got a work permit.

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?

RJB: I don’t prescribe the muse theory, although I do believe my current artist, Holly Heisey, has a direct connection with my general creativity. She makes these gorgeous premade covers, and without fail, many of these have so many stories I could tell using them as inspiration, so I buy the cover… then I end up having to write the novel.

One of my favorite projects, WATER VIPER, came to life this way.

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of STORM WITHOUT END occurred. How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea (if any)?

RJB: Of all the stories I’ve written, STORM WITHOUT END was the most intensive. It began with a desperate need to just sit down and finish a book, so I spent 3 days, two cases of Nestea, and wrote. In that story, I created the Requiem for the Rift King world, and I also created several of the kingdoms.

The Rift wasn’t one of those kingdoms. The Rift came later—much later. Several years after I wrote that first story just to prove I could, I decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month. I reentered the world of the Rift King, once again writing a story in the same world. I didn’t visit the Rift, not yet, but I did create the main political thunderstorm that would form the canyon system and the circumstances leading to the Rift and the events in Requiem for the Rift King.

The following year, I participated in NaNoWriMo again, and I created the other half of the Requiem world and the skreed who would serve as one of the main focal points in Requiem for the Rift King. Still no Rift, though.

The next year, I created Kalen, the main character. I initially called the project TRIAL BY FIRE, and it was absolutely ridiculous. But, I loved the boy who grew to a man in that story, and I wanted him to be something more than the star of an absolutely ridiculous novel with no direction and a lot of fun ideas.

But when I wrote that story, I knew Kalen was going to be something far more—and less—than my initial creation of him. I dove into his next form, and the Rift was born, as was its crippled king. It took me six complete rewrites of Kalen’s story to come up with STORM WITHOUT END over the course of seven or eight years.

Q] You have a sequel out as well called STORM SURGE. Is this the end of the Requiem For The Rift King series?

RJB: No. Requiem for the Rift King is a four book series, including STORM WITHOUT END, STORM SURGE, THE TIDES OF WAR, and REQUIEM FOR THE RIFT KING.

THE TIDES OF WAR is going to be a monster of a book. Every title in the series will have certain events happen, no matter how long it takes me to write the book. I expect THE TIDES OF WAR to be the longest title of the set, as it is the centrifugal point of so much in the series.

REQUIEM FOR THE RIFT KING, however, will be a monster in its own right, too.

Q] Your main character is handicapped (in a very specific way) so as to speak. The fantasy genre has been very deficient in showcasing heroes in such a way. What were your thoughts behind framing the story in this manner? What were you aiming to tell via this move?

RJB: Kalen is handicapped in a lot of ways, both physical and mental. STORM SURGE faces the traumas of his very existence head on, while STORM WITHOUT END very much answers the question of how someone with the handicaps he has can still manage to survive in a world where handicaps often mean death.

I didn’t really go out to address a deficiency in the fantasy genre, although you’re right—there are very few stories where such a deficiency is showcased as something the main character must constantly overcome. In Robert Jordan’s THE WHEEL OF TIME, such deficiencies are waved away and healed. In Jim Butcher’s THE DRESDEN FILES, Harry’s are overcome with time and magic. THE DRESDEN FILES come closest to a real main character being forced to face critical handicaps. But, in the end, his are waves away after a few books, too—or masked with a mantle.

Kalen overcomes his handicaps in a variety of ways, though he does what he does best: whatever it takes to survive. I look forward to writing more about how he is forced to deal with the upcoming changes in his life. Some are for the better. Others prove there is always a price to magic, and it must eventually be paid.

Q] Could you tell us about the research which you undertook before attempting to write this book and what were things which you focused upon and any fascinating things that you found amidst your research?

RJB: The amount of research that went into the series is staggering, but I did it over a decade. I had to research various types of governments and monarchies to have a basic understanding of the diplomacy of nations. How could I build a world that functioned but was also rife with tension and warfare?

The Six Kingdoms is the equivalent of the United Nations, although its formation was… different. Drastically so. I borrowed a lot from history. Nations rose only to fall, and in the ruins of great civilizations, new ones were born. But to build a political landscape, I needed a geographic one, one where I could justify magic, its influences, and how a gigantic scar across a continent could forever change everyone living there.

Hundreds upon hundreds of hours went into building the world. My favorite bits of research involve horses. I combined my two favorite breeds of horses to create the Rift Horses, and the Yadesh… well, trying to figure out how to create those occupied many a happy hour. But if I’m completely honest, the most rewarding piece of research was the extensive amount of cultural studies I had to do in order to create the various societies populating the Requiem for the Rift King world.

Q] What other books have you written? Can you tell us about them and what genres they belong to?

RJB: I’ve written a lot of books. Between full-length novels and a handful of anthologies, I’ve published nineteen titles. All of them are science fiction or fantasy in some fashion or another!

My main titles include stories from the Witch & Wolf world. The main series, entitled Witch & Wolf, is a four book set, with the last installation, SILVER BULLET, scheduled to release late 2016 or early 2017. I’m hoping for late this year. I have several spinoff series in the Witch & Wolf world, as I can’t quite seem to leave that sandbox for very long…

Of the nineteen titles, two are Dystopian Science Fiction and were released under a pseudonym.

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?

RJB: A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeline L’Engle made me love reading, which in turn made me want to write many years down the road. Mercedes Lackey is responsible for my adoration of fantasy horses with a magical twist.

Patricia Briggs got me started on writing werewolves and other shifters. Ilona Andrews is my current love affair with another author, as I’m a huge, huge fan of the Kate Daniels series. I also like the Innkeeper Chronicles they’ve written as well!

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

RJB: Thank you for having me! I’d just like to take a moment to thank every last reader and book lover out there for taking the time to read, no matter the reason. Keep reading and loving books!

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