COVER REVEAL: Ben Galley’s CHASING GRAVES: Book One of the Chasing Graves Trilogy

We at FantasyBookReview are thrilled to announce the start of a new trilogy by resident favorite Ben Galley, and we’re able to share its cover today.

Presenting CHASING GRAVES, coming December 7th, 2018 (eBook and paperback.)

PREORDER now available!

Chasing Graves cover by Ben Galley

Blurb:

Meet Caltro Basalt. He’s a master locksmith, a selfish bastard, and as of his first night in Araxes, stone cold dead.

They call it the City of Countless Souls, the colossal jewel of the Arctian Empire, and all it takes to rule is to own more ghosts than any other. For in Araxes, the dead do not rest in peace in the afterlife, but live on as slaves for the rich.

While Caltro struggles to survive, those around him strive for the emperor’s throne in Araxes’ cutthroat game of power. The dead gods whisper from corpses, a soulstealer seeks to make a name for himself with the help of an ancient cult, a princess plots to purge the emperor from his armoured Sanctuary, and a murderer drags a body across the desert, intent on reaching Araxes no matter the cost.

Only one thing is certain in Araxes: death is only the beginning.

Cover Art: Chris Cold (https://chriscold.artstation.com)

Cover Design: Shawn King (http://www.stkkreations.com)

Website and more info: www.bengalley.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/bengalley

Facebook: www.facebook.com/bengalleyauthor

Keep on the lookout for an official review in the coming weeks. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

– Adam Weller

SPFBO4: Semi-finalist Selections & Eliminations

This is my first year as a SPFBO judge, and I’m grateful to Mark Lawrence and the FantasyBookReview team for letting me voice my opinions on their forums. I’m especially grateful to all of the incredibly talented authors that have submitted their work for this contest. Regardless of who wins, I hope everyone who participates walks away with something positive — whether it be more readers, new writing ideas, or new contacts in the fantasy community.

I was given a batch of ten random books and agreed to select two to move onto the semi-finals. This process was much more challenging than I had predicted. Several of the eliminated books could have easily been swapped into a semi-finalist position, and I would still be happy with the results. My final decisions were drawn from a combination of personal enjoyment, originality, and lasting appeal, along with a few other factors. Although the following books have been eliminated, I truly believe there’s a large audience that would enjoy many of these selections. If any of them sound interesting, I encourage you to give them a shot!

Below are mini-reviews of each of the seven eliminated books. I have also linked their full reviews if they exist.

Vincent, Survivor

Vincent, Survivor by O. L. Eggert
This story is an apocalyptic urban fantasy/horror novel about a family dealing with a race of minotaurs that have appeared on Earth with plans to decimate the land and annihilate mankind. The titular Vincent and his ex-con brother Dante team up with their grandmother and a newly-discovered relative to discover why our world is suddenly going to Hell. This book started off intriguing, but as I progressed, two main issues irked me: the characters were completely unlikeable and quite dense, and there were too many confusing plot points that broke the narrative. The mind-numbing choices that the characters kept making became too frustrating to read, and the dialogue was oddly mean-spirited. I’m not sure if it was intentional sarcasm that flew over my head, but the family members kept weirdly insulting each other as they traipsed through their neighborhood’s genocide. The tone shifts were odd, the plot holes kept getting bigger, and I didn’t find myself wanting to root for any of the protagonists. So, this is one of the few books that I didn’t finish.

Mabus

Mabus by Dean Rencraft
I am struggling to come up with something positive to say about Mabus. The plot follows David, an orphan of potentially mythical circumstances, who has been accepted to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) along with his foster brother. They immediately treat all women as sexual conquests and refer to them as “stalkers” and “bitches.” May I remind you that these boys are MIT students? David eventually starts working with his professor to develop a new, powerful artifical intelligence, but the dialogue between these apparently genius minds was unconvincing, and I found myself struggling to stay interested. There were no female characters of any agency, and the behavior of its male characters left a bad taste in my mouth. This was an uncomfortable read, so I decided not to finish it.

A Season of Pure Light

A Season of Pure Light by CJ Erick
The prologue of this story reeled me in immediately: a brother and sister are attempting to emigrate from an oppressive, fascist-like planet to a new world with “golden opportunities.” The siblings experience a harrowing ordeal that sees them barely make the escape ship as they head toward the newly-settled planet, but they must face various conflicts, both domestic and alien, in order to survive. Erick’s writing is gripping and intense, and the story hums with tension right out of the gate. Unfortunately, I had to eliminate this book from contention because it is purely science fiction, and this contest is for fantasy novels only. I would like to return to this book, as I think Erick is a promising writer and I’m curious how the story will continue. This is a book I’m quite comfortable recommending to fans of adult science fiction. It has gleaned many high marks from reviewers on both Amazon and Goodreads.

Angel of Destruction

Angel of Destruction by Virgil Debique
This story is about a human assassin with selective amnesia who is trying exact revenge on a rogue Angel who is responsible for various tragedies in the assassin’s past. The book incorporates multiple planes of existence, faeries, dwarves, elves, battle arenas, disturbing pleasure houses, cloud kingdoms, and other fantastical elements both familiar and new. Although this book was well-plotted, it needed some (any?) female characters with agency. All females either needed to be saved, or their sacrifice served as a plot device to further the goals of a man. This book in its current form is also in dire need of editing. Spelling and grammatical errors adorn every page, and it made some passages difficult to interpret. I wasn’t quite sure what the author was trying to say when parts of the sentences repeated itself, or it trailed off into something unrelated. I do think that there are the bones of a good story here, but I can’t recommend it unless it undergoes another revision.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/Virgil-Debique/Angel-Of-Destruction.html

Scrooge and Marley, Deceased: A Haunted Man

Scrooge and Marley, Deceased: A Haunted Man by Jonathan Green
A short but engaging sequel to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” picking up a year after the original ended. Ebenezer Scrooge reunites with the spirit on his dead accounting partner Marley on Christmas Eve, but this time, Marley wants Scrooge to help him grant peace to the wronged spirits that haunt London’s snowy streets. They immediately find themselves embroiled in a murder mystery, with a culprit that borrows heavily from another famous 19th century tale of gothic horror. Green does a remarkable job of emulating Dickensian prose, which is no small feat. This story felt like a natural continuation of “A Christmas Carol” and Green impressed me with his ability to paint the London setting and its various characters with familiar detail. The driving mystery of the story, and its resolution, came very quickly and a bit too conveniently. However, this is a very short read, clocking in at under 70 pages. Anyone curious to read a modern take on “Dickensian fan-fic” with a horror-crossover twist would certainly appreciate this story. Although it initially seemed like this book would be outside my wheelhouse, it ended up being a wondeful read. I strongly recommend it, though its brevity and niche subject matter prevented me from pushing it forward to the next round.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/Jonathan-Green/Scrooge-and-Marley-Deceased-A-Haunted-Man.html

Servant of Rage

Servant of Rage (Bloodrage #1) by A.Z. Anthony
This is another book that just missed the cut. I described it as “Highlander meets the Dothraki.” When a god-like immortal decides to end his own life, his terrible lightning-based power is divided up across the world amongst various horse lords, nomads, and all sorts of dangerous warriors. ‘There can be only one,’ as the last survivor of these gifted warriors will reap the power’s full benefits. But as each challenger falls, the rage that resides within the remaining heirs grows stronger, and harder to control. Is ultimate power worth the sacrifice of your humanity? Anthony keeps this entertaining and violent story moving at a breakneck pace, setting up the long game early in the story and jumping right into it with both feet. There’s not a ton of nuance or deep characterization of the supporting cast, but if you enjoy fights to the death, quickly-evolving magical abilities, and more than a touch of the ole’ ultraviolence, this book is a ton of fun. I’ll be checking out the sequel.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/A-Z-Anthony/Servant-of-Rage.html

Dragonshade

Dragonshade (The Secret Chronicles of Lost Magic #2) by Aderyn Wood
I’m more than bit sad to eliminate Dragonshade. This book is exquisitely detailed, with rich characters and a fully-realized setting. Clocking in at 864 pages, Wood takes her time in describing family histories, cultural developments, warrior clans, enemy kingdoms, cutthroat politics, royal hierarchies, prophetic dreams… and even a full chapter dedicated to duck farming. While I enjoyed reading this epic, high fantasy story about several kingdoms teetering on the precipice of war, I found that its progression unfolded very slowly. Wood is a skilled writer and it’s easy to see how much love and care she has put into this book, but I think its plot could have benefitted from a bit more focus and efficiency. At times, the relentless dearth of information, expansive world-building, and huge cast of characters felt like too much to digest. I enjoyed the plot, and Wood has some wonderful and original ideas, but ultimately this came down to just liking a couple of other books a bit better. However, if you enjoy epic standalone stories that are immersive, and you have the patience for it to blossom, then this is story you will likely enjoy. This book was a strong contender for a semi-finalist spot, and it would not surprise me if other reviewers would have chosen this to advance in my stead. Out of all the books eliminated, I believe this one to be the most impressive.

—————–

And now, the winners! Since there were so many excellent entries, I decided to select three semi-finalists instead of two. My three semi-finalists are:

City of Shards

City of Shards (Spellgiver #1), by Steve Rodgers
This was the first book I randomly selected to start my SPFBO4 reading journey, and it took me by complete surprise. It is a book that focuses primarily on a boy who is forced to choose between two awful fates for his country, while attempting to survive in a city that is slowly being taken over by a disturbing religious sect. There are wonderful, lifelike supporting characters and an imaginative race of ‘others.’ This is a sweeping epic of a story that has all the right elements. The world-building is intense from the get-go, so be prepared to highlight passages for later referencing. But there’s an excellent balance of action, mystery, and lore that kept the chapters flying by. Chapter 12 in particular is still stuck in my head, many months later. I had to pause my reading schedule to immediately dive into the sequel after finishing this book.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/Steve-Rodgers/City-of-Shards.html

Revenant Winds

Revenant Winds (The Tainted Cabal #1), by Mitchell Hogan
In my full review, I called this book “an impressive and intriguing start to a series that deftly weaves magic, religion, and demonic vengeance into a story about seeking your identity and true purpose in life.” This is a grim yet compelling tale that tells a story through three interesting protagonists: a conflicted yet dedicated warrior-priest-healer-sorcerer (whew!), a near-immortal mercenary who wants to transcend to godhood so he can fulfill his love for his goddess, and a runaway noble’s daughter who is a gifted thief-for-hire. These characters find themselves inextricably bound to seek out an ancient cave for very different reasons. What they find could save or doom their world. My money’s on “doom.” This series has excellent potential, and Hogan is one of self-publishing’s rising stars.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/Mitchell-Hogan/Revenant-Winds.html

The Endless Ocean

The Endless Ocean (The Inner Sea Cycle #1), by Toby Bennett
A thrilling and imaginative tale that weaves pirate battles, Earthen mythology, multiple realities, hive-mind witches, and so much more into something truly unique. Brother and sister orphans are gifted students, learning telekinesis and sea navigation, when they are pulled into a series of terrifying confrontations that are linked to an ancient, rising evil. I think it best for the reader to discover each development on her own, so I’ll leave the remaining plot description sparse. While the character development is overall a bit on the shallow side, the story makes up for it with its originality, thrilling set pieces, and engaging mysteries. This book is constantly pushing new ideas, shifting environments, and compelling story arcs with each chapter. It has a certain “wow” factor that has struck a lasting chord with me. I believe this to be one of the first published novels of Bennett’s writing career, and he has since written a sequel that I will be reading in the very near future.
Full review:
http://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/Toby-Bennett/The-Endless-Ocean.html

—————-

Congratulations to Steve Rodgers, Mitchell Hogan, and Toby Bennett! I’m excited to share these books with the rest of the FBR review team. Why not buy copies for yourself and tell us what you think?

— Adam Weller (@swiff)

Fantasy Book Review Revisits A Trial of Blood and Steel

As I slowly climb into my mid-30s I’ve begun to take stock of my life. For over ten years I’ve been reviewing fantasy books, and this year marks my tenth year reviewing with Fantasy Book Review. The first book I ever reviewed for Lee (FBR’s editor in chief) was Brisingr by Christopher Paolini (please, don’t go back and read that review). I’ve tried valiantly over that time to keep up to date with the newest and best new books that have come across my doorstep or my email inbox.

However, over that time I have not often been able to re-read any of those books that I fell in love with the first time through. I’ve occasionally re-read a book, here and there, but I’ve never had the opportunity to re-read entire series’ and have rarely had the chance to just read for my own pleasure, without also having to critique the book as I go.

So, sometime earlier this year I decided that I would try and refocus my reading habits a bit – spending as much time re-reading as I spend reading new books.

Joel ShepherdThere were two contenders for what I would re-read first, and in the end Australian author Joel Shepherd won out with his four-book series ‘A Trial of Blood and Steel’. The first book in the series, Sasha, was originally published all the way back in 2007, and I was immediately hooked (though not as in love as I would soon come to be). The series has sat on my shelves since he finished his quartet in 2010, and I have often included Joel Shepherd as one of my favourite authors. So much so, in fact, that I recently began reading his sci-fi series, ‘The Spiral Wars’, which started off with the first book in 2015, Renegade.

In other words, I’ve been reading Joel Shepherds work, on and off, for almost a decade (I reviewed Sasha in 2009, and the final three books in 2012). I’ve now read him in my early-20s and in my early-30s; I’ve read him writing fantasy and science fiction.

And this most recent re-read of his ‘A Trial of Blood and Steel’ only confirmed my belief that Joel Shepherd is one of the most underrated talents currently writing.

Note: Spoilers will follow for the entire series. If you don’t want spoilers, read the original reviews before reading the books.

The Importance of Family

One of the first things you’ll notice about the eponymous character of Sasha is her loyalty to those around her over that of her blood relatives. At first this might seem odd, but the story quickly begins to reveal a family dysfunction the likes of which Jerry Springer could only have hoped to encounter. Those that Sasha considers family are obviously those of the town of Baerlyn, and the larger community of Goeren-Yai. Conversely, internal politicking and differing world views mar the relationships her blood family – as well as the death of their oldest brother, Krystoff – and familial bonds are broken asunder.

This, however, is not the whole of it. Shepherd does not create a family situation as a helpful character trait which occasionally affects Sasha’s decision-making.  It’s not the answer to a character biography sheet: “Family status – it’s complicated.” Rather, the relationships between her family – both between her and her father and siblings, as well as the relationships between her siblings and father towards one another – are integral to the entire quartet of books, and do not rely on any constant expression of said relationship. There is no simple answer that neatly divides family members into different camps.

Of course, the most obvious contention is between Sasha and her older brother Koenyg. This continues, in one form or another, throughout the entire series. Wylfred is absent the entire series, and only occasionally referenced – the excuse being that he is training for the priesthood. This leaves four other siblings – Damon, Alythia, Sofy, and the youngest brother, Myklas.

What follows over four books is some of the most realistic and captivating family drama that you will encounter in fiction. There are no absolutes and no obviously bad or good people. Each family member is given their own time and space to grow and to express themselves, and as a reader it is up to us to make our own judgements regarding who is right or wrong in any given situation. In one book Damon might be the principal sibling to interact with Sasha, or it might be Alythia or Sofy. Admittedly, Koenyg and Myklas do play particular roles and, as such, do not get as much “screen time”, but this only solidifies Shepherd’s authorial control over the situation.

Because, no matter what your long-held opinions about the siblings by the time you reach the final pages of the books – no matter how much you like Sasha or dislike Koenyg – nothing prepares you for Koenyg’s final words of the book. It is a literary masterstroke, reshaping the reader’s entire perception of an entire character in the context of his final words. Very few characters in fantasy literature can affect the reader’s assumptions of them retroactively, but Shepherd manages to weave the royal family of Lenayin in such a way as to remove any chance of simple answers.

As the author explains in my interview with him, “Koenyg remains entirely consistent to his worldview,” in that final scene. And while Koenyg’s worldview is clearly shown throughout the book, the character’s motivations are not as clear-cut, and are only really clarified in his final moments.

A Fighting Retreat

Another aspect of A Trial of Blood and Steel worth noting is the overall style with which the entire series is told. By this I do not mean the literary genre or how the author strung his sentences together. Rather, I’m referring to the overall scope of the series, which I describe as a large-scale fighting retreat. Each book puts the defenders more and more on the back foot, and by the fourth book of the series, Haven, everything is on the line.

But the fighting retreat starts much earlier and looks much more like victory than it will inevitably be revealed to be. The events of Sasha would appear, for all intents and purposes, to be a significant and great victory for the forces of good – in this case, “good” being defined as the cause of the Goeren-Yai, the Udalyn, Sasha, and her allies, while the “bad” is pretty much everyone else, in this particular instance. But by the time the book ends – and especially as you re-read the series – Joel Shepherd leaves the impression that not all is as it seems to be, and we’re left uncertain exactly what Kessligh has been up to and what he has accomplished.

As Petrodor starts out, it would appear that he has accomplished little – and it only goes downhill from there. At every stage of Petrodor it seems, for a moment at a time, that the “good guys” get the upper hand only to have it ripped out from underneath them – often with devastating consequences and bloody body counts. While things do not go well for the good guys for the majority of Tracato or Haven, I still feel as if Petrodor was the book that left me feeling most like they were fighting a losing battle. Every step in the right direction is almost immediately undermined and before long the entire hillside is aflame with fighting, giving the scenes a very Spanish-style Les Misérables vibe to it.

I was particularly moved (and, subsequently as a reviewer, impressed) by the relationship between Sasha and Rhillian, the enigmatic serrin – Joel Shepherds version of elves, but so far removed from the idea of fantasy elves that there are more dissimilarities than there are similarities. The immediate friendship that sparks between the human and serrin does not have the ring of authorial contrivance to it, rather, it seems to echo a meeting of minds, a connecting of two souls eternally intended for friendship. Their inherent differences – where they come from and their individual world views – only deepen the bond and make its severance all the worse.

That Shepherd doesn’t allow this relationship to stagnate – to rely on a single paradigm – is again proof of the author’s willingness never to allow things to remain the same lest they grow stale. And exploding out of every interaction between the two characters from then on is a palpable tension that leaves the reader feeling as heartsick as Sasha and Rhillian are portrayed to be. Their reunion in the opening sections of Haven is made all the more emotional because it was not hurried, not drawn forward to cosy readers, or given short-shrift in the moment.

But this emotional peak is immediately put into perspective – like a hiker surmounting a peak, only to reveal the greater heights beyond. What is assuredly a massive turning point is revealed to be less momentous and game-changing than the books’ participants may have hoped for. The initial victory is again turned into a harried and hurried return to the long fighting retreat which will eventually account for about two whole books in length.

The whole series plays out as one long, seemingly-unending fighting retreat. Nothing is ever as it seems, and even the final confrontation is left with strings dangling.

An End That’s Not An End

Fantasy authors (and fans alike) are renowned for never wanting their series to end. At times this can be so pervasive and obvious that it starts to detract from the story and past accomplishments.

Joel Shepherd obviously left some doors open when he finished writing Haven, the final book in the series, and you could theoretically mark him down for that. I don’t know why you would want to – anyone who made it to book four is most likely already a fan and wants more. Even the way that Shepherd closes out the last pages of the book have the air of someone planning to dig deeper someday. Point-of-view narrative is swapped for hindsight narrative and there are definitely some open-ended questions left unanswered.

But having read Joel Shepherd elsewhere, specifically in his The Spiral Wars, I can’t mark this against him. As I said, I simply want to read more of Sasha and her friends and countrymen, and I want to know more about the world. The serrin navy is apparently formidable, but they never get a chance to show it. The entire series takes place on a single continent – surely there’s more, right? And what happens to Lenayin in the aftermath, because the North are surely unhappy with how things turned out.

In a way, I’d be perfectly content if Shepherd doesn’t return to Lenay. I get to read his work in The Spiral Wars which, in my opinion, is giving A Trial of Blood and Steel a run for its money in terms of class and skill. They are completely different while at the same time being obviously written by the same author. You can tell! There is that same melancholy perception of the world or universe around characters that comes from overthinking one’s worldview, or the worldview of those around you. It’s a fantastic theme that is strong, but not heavy-handed, in A Trial of Blood and Steel, and subtle, but not invisible in The Spiral Wars.

In the end, though, what I really want is more writing by Joel Shepherd. I’ll take it wherever I can get it, because I honestly think that he’s one of the best writers going around at the moment. He absolutely doesn’t get the credit he deserves, and I really hope that more readers discover him soon. Whether you’re a fantasy fan, a sci-fi fan, or just a fan of beautifully crafted words strung together in an amazingly tended world, Joel Shepherd is one of the most inventive and captivating writers of the 21st Century.

Audiobook review – Alien: Out of the Shadows

The audio dramatisation of Tim Lebbon’s Alien: Out of the Shadows is great fun, both eerie and atmospheric while staying mostly true to the Alien legend we know and love. Laurel Lefkow voices Ripley but at times you’ll be forgiven for thinking it’s Sigourney Weaver herself as it is such a great impersonation, and one that I think works perfectly.

But before the review – here’s the synopsis of the story that unfolds over four and a half hours:

As a child, Chris Hooper dreamed of monsters. But in deep space, he found only darkness and isolation. Then, on planet LV178, he and his fellow miners discovered a storm-scoured, sand-blasted hell – and trimonite, the hardest material known to man.

When a shuttle crashes into the mining ship Marion, the miners learn that there was more than trimonite deep in the caverns. There was evil, hibernating and waiting for suitable prey. Hoop and his associates uncover a nest of Xenomorphs, and hell takes on a new meaning. Quickly they discover that their only hope lies with the unlikeliest of saviors….

Ellen Ripley, the last human survivor of the salvage ship Nostromo.

Alien: Out of the Shadow audiobook cover

This is an adrenaline-fuelled story and once it has picked up the pace it never slows down. The cast are excellent, with special mention to Lefkow again plus Rutger Hauer and Corey Johnson. The production values are very high (no doubt thanks to the classy Dirk Maggs) and the sound effects really make you jump and are superb are raising the tension to unbearable levels.

There are many, many positive elements. But there are also a few negatives – the story can feel a little unlikely in places and sometimes a little lessening of the pace and some character and location building would have been preferable, in my opinion. I guess the shortened nature of an audio dramatisation is that there is a lot to fit into a relatively small amount of time. I think a lot of listeners will wish it was longer, which is a complement.

But overall this is a triumph and fans of the great radio adaptations such as The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy and the BBC’s Lord of the Rings will love what they find here. I’d give it 8.5/10.

Alien: Out of the Shadows: An Audible Original Drama
Written by: Tim Lebbon, Dirk Maggs
Narrated by: Rutger Hauer, Corey Johnson, Matthew Lewis, Kathryn Drysdale, Laurel Lefkow, Andrea Deck, Mac McDonald
Length: 4 hrs and 31 mins
Performance
Release Date:26/04/2016
Publisher: Audible Studios

Alien: Out of Shadows is only available from Audible

Disability in fantasy

Susannah Dean (Dark Tower books)

A post by Peter Newman, author of The Vagrant and The Malice

Although The Vagrant is known for having a silent protagonist I’m going to talk about someone else in the series today, a character known as Tough Call.

Tough Call is the rebel leader of Verdigris, who sets up her group headquarters underneath the city when it is overrun by demons. A child of the old administration, she opts to fight rather than bend the knee. Moreover when she comes into contact with one of the demons, she elects to cut off her own arm rather than succumb to the taint. The taint, in case you’re wondering, is something that surrounds the demons and can alter any human, animal or plant that it comes into prolonged contact with, mutating them into strange half-breed creatures. At the lowest end of the spectrum this could mean the loss or gain of nails and hair. At the highest, it could mean growth spurts, shifts in skeletal structure, loss of emotional control, organ failure, additional strength, additional limbs, or death.

Rather than gamble, Tough Call elects to remove the arm entirely before the taint can spread. In doing so, she becomes a symbol for the resistance.

In Tough Call’s case, her disability is a badge of pride, a tribute to her strength of will rather than something to be pitied or hidden. It’s never the focus in the scenes she’s in and it certainly isn’t the primary thing about her. When we first meet Tough Call she’s in a difficult position, fighting a virtually un-winnable war and making some dubious choices in order to survive and keep her people safe. She also happens to be a middle-aged woman with one arm. That’s it.

When I was writing The Vagrant and The Malice, I didn’t set out to include characters with disabilities, they just appeared as I was writing. There are three prominent characters that suffer from a physical disability which, given the number of people in the books and the kind of world it is, seems like quite a low number.

It got me trying to think about other characters in fantasy with disabilities, and the majority that come to mind are villains. Chances are if a character has a scar, a missing eye, or a hook for a hand they’re against the heroes rather than with them. And if the hero does have a scar, it’s often a ‘sexy’ scar to demonstrate toughness without disfiguring too much, or one that is located on their back or thigh, easily hidden beneath clothing. In film, we often have a shot of the (usually male) hero’s back which is covered in aesthetically placed scars, but most of the time these marks are out of sight and out of mind.

In fact I really struggled to think of any disabled protagonists in the fantasy I’d read recently (with the exception of Bran in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and Xinian in Jen Williams’ Copper Cat books) though this may be more an indictment of my memory or lack of reading than the genre as a whole.

Feel free to set me straight in the comments as I’d hope there are a lot more positive examples out there, though please don’t include characters with magic or technology that renders their disability irrelevant. The classic example being blind characters that have such advanced other senses that they aren’t disadvantaged all.

If you’re a writer reading this and, like me, you’d like to include more characters on the disabled spectrum, there’s a great post by Elsa S. Henry on Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds blog about writing blind characters, and this one by Elspeth Cooper on the Bookworm Blues blog about disability in fantasy is interesting too.

© Peter Newman, May 2016
www.runpetewrite.com

The Malice is available from May 19, 2016. Review coming soon…

Snippet from the front cover of Peter Newman's The Malice

In the south, the Breach stirs.

Gamma’s sword, the Malice, wakes, calling to be taken to battle once more.

But the Vagrant has found a home now, made a life and so he turns his back, ignoring its call.

The sword cries out, frustrated, until another answers.

Her name is Vesper.

Purchase on Amazon

If you have any comments to make on this topic, please leave using the form below.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, read by Stephen Fry

Sometimes books and narrators are perfectly matched. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and the voices of George Guidall and Frank Muller is one example, Guy Gavriel Kay’s works and Simon Vance another. And we also have Stephen Fry and Harry Potter, which is a match made in heaven.

It’s surprising to find that the first book in J. K. Rowling’s series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, will celebrate its nineteenth anniversary this year so a review of the audiobook in 2016 may seem a little odd. But there is a good reason, and that is that all seven audiobooks are finally available on Audible.co.uk, with whom I have a yearly membership.

One thing I will say before the review itself is that a good narrator can make an average book better and a poor narrator can make a good book seem average. This is why reviewing audiobooks is often so difficult. But this audiobook review is easy as the first Harry Potter book is excellent and Stephen Fry nails it.

There’s not much you can really say about Harry Potter that has not already been said. I’ve always found it a delightful book, wish-fulfillment of the highest order and written with great energy and humour. The children (and the millions of adults like myself) that found themselves spellbound by this book didn’t just want to read about Hogwarts, they wanted to go there. It is the Hobbiton of its generation. Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone is a lovely story which draws on the elements I have always enjoyed – we have the young, unsuspecting hero in a horrible situation with horrible people (the unforgettable Dursleys) discovering that he is not quite as ordinary as he believed. And in short order he finds himself at the most wonderful school of magic with friends (for life), a brilliant assortment of teachers and more adventure, thrills and danger than you could shake a wand at.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone audiobook cover

But what makes this audiobook so wonderful is that it is a wonderful story read to you by a simply wonderful story-teller. I’m old enough to have followed Stephen Fry through the decades and have seen pretty much everything he has been involved in. I have seen him on screen with Robbie Coltraine (Hagrid), Emma Thompson (Miss Trelawney), Kenneth Branagh (Gilderoy Lockhart) and I find it charming to think that he is doing impersonations of close friends when he voices these characters. He also produces excellent voices for Harry, Ron and Hermione, who are the most important of all as they feature is what must be every chapter of the book. Harry’s Uncle Vernon, Dumbledore and Miss McGonagall are other great voices that stand out. There is simply no weak link in Fry’s narration and to create such unique and rich voices for what, over seven books, becomes a very large cast indeed, is a remarkable achievement.

Audiobooks simply don’t come much better than this. If Harry Potter is not your thing then fair enough, this won’t change that, but if Harry Potter is your thing and you want someone to read it to you while you drift off to sleep, wash the dishes, go on a run or drive to work (which is where I did my listening), then this reading is simply sublime.

Don’t believe me? Then head over to Audible.co.uk and listen to a 5 minute sample.

Review: The Official A Game Of Thrones Colouring Book

A Game of Thrones interior illustration

When my Mum informed me that she needed to borrow some of my Derwent colouring pencils, I was a bit surprised. Turns out, however, that adult colouring has taken the world by storm. Bookstores all over the world are now selling colouring books for adults, with themes from intricately drawn flower mandalas to cats.

And A Game of Thrones.

The Official A Game Of Thrones Colouring Book is an marvellous selection of intricate drawings that will keep any adult colouring extraordinaire busy for hours (and the rest of us for days).

Done very much in the style of decades’ worth of fan and professional art inspired by a fantasy book series – including art by the world-famous John Howe, who is renowned for his The Lord of the Rings artwork, and his subsequent heavy-involvement with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movie trilogies – the nearly-50 original black and white drawings found inside cover everything from House crests, dragons, wolves, battles, and your favourite characters.

Even if you are just starting out into the world of adult colouring, this book will be an absolute blast – and all the more fun if you are a fan of A Game of Thrones.

Spotlight: Dawn of Wonder by Jonathan Renshaw

Dawn of Wonder (The Wakening: Book 1)

Winner 2015 CIPA EVVY awards for Fiction/Fantasy
Current finalist 2015 Writer’s Digest Self Published Book Awards for Genre Fiction
#1 Bestseller in Epic, Historical and Coming of Age Fantasy

Dawn of Wonder by Jonathan Renshaw

When a high-ranking officer gallops into the quiet Mistyvales, he brings a warning that shakes the countryfolk to their roots. But for Aedan, a scruffy young adventurer with veins full of fire and a head full of ideas, this officer is not what he seems.

The events that follow propel Aedan on a journey that only the foolhardy or desperate would risk, leading him to the gates of the nation’s royal academy – a whole world of secrets in itself.

But this is only the beginning of his discoveries. Something is stirring in the land, something more ominous than the rising threat of hostile nations. Fearful travellers whisper of an ancient power breathing over Thirna, changing it, waking it. In the very heart of these stirrings, Aedan encounters that which defies belief, leaving him speechless with terror – and wonder.

You can purchase Dawn of Wonder from Amazon:

Jonathan Renshaw is a former high school English teacher and music producer who now writes full time. He is currently working on the epic fantasy series, The Wakening, launched in May 2015.

For more information on Jonathan Renshaw and his work, visit www.jrenshaw.com

Formulae

To begin, I will discuss hamburgers. What has this to do with formulae in books? Well not a lot, I just felt like playing some hunger games.

Your basic burger has a few essential elements that exist for it to be a burger. You have the meat patty, the cheese, the bread bun, the sauce and probably some salad. You can get a burger with these elements from many different places. You might go to McDonalds or a similar fast food place and get a general, mass produced burger. Yes, the sauce was more likely made in a chemistry lab than a kitchen, and the patty’s content of actual beef is questionable, and the cheese is processed, and you will get the very same quality burger at pretty much every single instance of that fast food place (they don’t call them mass produced for nothing), but fundamentally there is nothing essentially wrong with this. You can eat it and enjoy it, and there are times when it might be very welcome indeed.

Of course, you could go to a more serious restaurant and get a more serious type of burger with the same elements, but with a massive shift in quality. You could have a patty made of prime steak, locally sauced farmhouse cheese, and handmade sauce on a fresh baked bun. If you’re used to this gourmet type of burger, you will probably think less of the mass produced, fast food variety, for all you might still enjoy them for what they are.

Of course, not all burgers come with just cheese and sauce. Even in McDonalds, you might have one with bacon, different sorts of relish, chicken or fish instead of beef. Some burgers might take the concept to whacky levels with jerk sauce, pickles, cream, maple syrup, and goodness knows what. Usually, the more experimental, crazier combinations will come with better quality individual ingredients, though not necessarily always, and of course some experiments might or might not be successful.

As you might have guessed, all this talk about burgers is a metaphor. What’s a meta for? Making people think you’re being clever when you’re actually just lying badly. The fantasy genre has always been full of formulae and archetypes. It doesn’t matter whether it’s hopeless children with special powers, wizards with beards telling innocent peasants their destiny, or square jawed space captains rocketing into the unknown bravely travelling where nobody had previously travelled. Epic and high fantasy in particular is prey to such tropes and formulae, indeed pre-Tolkien most high fantasy was of the Conan the Barbarian, extremely mythological and archetypal sort. I have often thought in fact that aside from his amazing body of work Tolkien’s greatest gift to the fantasy genre as a whole was showing how an epic, high fantasy tale of good and evil, war and magic can also include human, flawed, and likeable characters.

To an extent, with the rise of role playing games these archetypes reappeared somewhat, since obviously for a role playing system people would need to choose a class or type of character to play, and such classes and types are now almost archetypes of their own from leather clad two weapon wielding rangers to effete, glass canon mages.

It’s not just in epic fantasy however that these character archetypes are used. Noire detectives chasing after a fem fatale, rogues with a heart of gold (and possibly the fastest ship in the galaxy), tough lady gunslingers or beautiful courtiers (of both genders) playing dangerous politics plus a host of others, indeed odds are if you can describe it coherently with a couple of adjectives and a noun and people know what you’re talking about, it’s a character archetype!

Neither do these archetypes have to be specifically character based either. An ending that returns to status quo, a huge battle in which the young protagonist’s family are slain leaving them free to journey into the wilds, a monster lurking in the dark, a young hero rescuing a beautiful and mysterious lady whom he falls instantly in love with, a magic MacGuffin which the evil forces are searching for to gain ultimate power, there are far too many of such tropes to list, indeed there is a large and extensive website devoted to just that endeavour.

I have often seen someone dismiss a book as “formulaic” or “just a typical example” but one question I have found myself wondering about is why is this a bad thing? After all, just as a person can enjoy a standard burger of the cheese and sauce and patty variety described above, surely a person can enjoy a formulaic book?

Some people directly equate formulae with sexist, racist, homophobic or other negative cultural stereotypes. This might be true for several formulae, although I believe myself the relationship between formulae and stereotypes is a little more complex (particularly since critics of this sort often concentrate on their favourite cultural stereotypes and completely forget many others) and unless a person really stretches the idea of harmful assumptions there are many formulae and tropes that fall outside them, particularly in a genre that can explore any and all other worlds, societies or circumstances. After all it’s a little difficult to claim how the idea of a school for teaching magic or an alien invasion is in itself racist or sexist.

For myself, the issue that really irritates me with formulae is very simply one of predictability, and how that predictability alienates me from the characters emotions and reactions to the plot.

It doesn’t matter how much Count Von Cloakenstache cackles as he ties Princess Pauline to the railway tracks if I know the actual chances of her being hit by the train are zero I feel no tension whatsoever. I have in fact been divorced from the action entirely.
This doesn’t even have to be about life or death situations, if I know two characters will end up together right from the boy sights girl moment, I have little investment in their growing romance because I can see where it will end. There is no use the boy thinking “does she love me” when I know simply from the fact their eyes have met across a crowded room that she does, and even if she is set to marry someone else that it will never actually happen and she’ll end up with the boy after all.

For some people this level of predictability makes for safety, but for me I prefer a world where characters are not safe, where bad things happen to good people, and where I simply do not know where the story will go, where what happens to the characters for the first time is also being read about for the first time by me.

Like the creators of the crazier types of burger mentioned above of course, some writers thrive on knocking formulae on their heads.

I’m pretty sure that not only would George R R Martin have Pauline squished by the train, but also he’d have Dan McDashing end up receiving a severe injury while trying to save her and then (just to mess with our minds even further) reveal that Pauline’s family had actually been involved in the bloody murder and torture of the Countess Von Cloakenstache, a fact Pauline was fully aware of.

However, I find it isn’t just a question of equating how good a book is with how much an author can divert from formulae, or indeed how nasty she/he can be to the characters in a book. Indeed some modern writers have made dark and depressing torment of their casts almost a formula in itself (I was greatly impressed when Patrick Rothfuss refused to follow this particular track in Name of the Wind).

After all, some experiments, like the above mentioned burgers with cream might simply not work, while on other occasions a book that is deeply formulaic and has a lot of standard tropes I might find I am completely emotionally invested in despite my ability to predict it’s plot.

This is because of the most major part of cooking or writing – ingredients! It doesn’t matter whether your cooking a classic burger or one that is wildly off track, if you start with low grade ingredients, however good your recipe or your idea, you’re not going to make it come out well. In the same way, if a book  stands out in its writing style and the portrayal of its characters, if an author can make me feel that sense of connection, tension and emotional investment with the characters even though I am fully aware what turns the plot will take, then the book will succeed despite the fact that it contains tropes or formulae.

A perfect example of this is the original Ian Fleming James Bond novels from the sixties. Sexist as heck, jingoistic in parts, racist, homophobic in places. Villains with world dominating plans, gadgets, a hero who is close to invincible and who always gets the girl, indeed the books and the accompanying films have inspired a whole genre and countless tropes in themselves. The problem? Fleming writes so dam well. I defy anyone to read the centipede scene in Doctor No and not get a creep on the skin, to not get a little romantic at James’s courtship of Tatiana on the Orient Express in From Russia with love, or not cheer James on during the underwater battle in Live and Let Die. The writing is exotic, exacting and colourful, indeed even though I largely gave up on spy fiction and action thrillers after my mid teens and switched to fantasy and science fiction full time, the James Bond novels are the only things from that period of my reading life I have re-read since.

So, formulae are like anything else (burgers included), fine if done well, occasionally fun to experiment with, but ultimately it all comes down to the ingredients. If a person just slaps something together out of pre created, low grade materials, like McDonalds, you’re probably going to end up with something sweet, none too satisfying and mass produced – okay if your mildly hungry but probably not something that will stick with you once it’s passed through your system.

Likewise, be your formula ever so creative, if your ingredients are bad, you’re not going to impress. However, for someone who can source the best quality ingredients, prime characters, high quality dialogue, a full, satisfying plot with a well paced flow, it doesn’t matter if they’re working to a classic theme or experimenting wildly, it’ll still come out as most tasty.

Our #SPFBO champion

Over the last few months Fergus and I have read steadily through our five short-listed Self-Published Fantasy Book-Off entries and we are pleased to announce that a winner has been chosen.

Before we announce the winner, here are our thoughts on the four other excellent short-listed titles.

Runner-up: Frotwoot’s Faerie Tales (The Unseelie Court #1) by Charlie Ward

Frotwoot's Faerie Tales coverThe Seelie and Unseelie Courts are at war. On one side: Noble knights, fighting for freedom. On the other: Not-so-noble terrorists, fighting for the right to rule. Caught in the middle: A very confused, very lost teenage boy. His name is Frotwoot Crossley. And he’s about to find out that, somehow, that’s not even the weirdest thing about him…

Our thoughts: We found this to be a charming and pleasantly irreverent story which both older children and teens should love. It is a very well-written story ideal for readers who have already enjoyed The Narnia Chronicles by C. S. Lewis and The Chrestomanci series by Dianne Wynne Jones.

Runner-up: The Penitent Assassin by Shawn Wickersheim

The Penitent Assassin book coverThirty years ago, when Mallor was a child, he was the sole survivor of genocide. Five years ago, while pursuing his revenge he was ambushed and killed. His goddess offered him a chance to return on the condition he became her assassin. Mallor agreed. Now, he is back, in the dank city where it all began using an old identity to hunt down a list of old foes, but thirty-six hours before his revenge would be complete, he learns a couple of things; he has a daughter, she’s been kidnapped by a sadistic magic abuser and the price for her release would not only ruin all of his plans but also kill his goddess. Mallor is nobody’s hero, but can he sacrifice his daughter to save his goddess, or will he forsake his faith and his need for revenge to rescue her instead?

Our thoughts: We found that the darkness that lurked at the edges of this book added greatly to its appeal. The narrative constantly raised questions that we wanted answering, such as ‘who are the dark replicants?’ and ‘who is/was Mallor?’. Full of unexpected happenings, twists and turns this is a very good book with great anti-hero that Gemmell fans will enjoy.

Runner-up: Whill of Agora (Legends of Agora #1) by Michael James Ploof

Whill of Agora book coverIt is the year 5170 in the land Agora, where humans, dwarves, and elves have existed in peace for centuries. Now, however, the human King Addakon has invaded and waged war on neighboring Isladon. The once peaceful Kingdoms of Agora are on the brink of continental war. The Dark Elf Eadon, and his army of Dragon-Elf crossbreeds, the Draggard, threaten to conquer all kingdoms.
Enter young Whill, a nineteen-year-old ranger with battle savvy and untapped abilities. Having spent years roaming Agora and training with his mentor Abram, Whill has become a bright intellectual and a master of combat. What he seeks most, however, is the identity of his birth parents. Instead, he finds a tumultuous terrain and a prophecy placing him in the center of the struggle. Along the way, Whill encounters an equally inspired group of companions that are matched in skill and mission. These include Rhunis the Dragon Slayer, the young Tarren, the fearless Dwarf Roakore, the beguiling warrior Elf Avriel, and the powerful Zerafin. As Whill joins forces, he forges bonds far mightier than their escalating travails. With high adventure and fierce friendship, Whill of Agora will capture your imagination and grip your heart during every super-charged escapade that Agora’s bold and grinning brotherhood embraces.

Our thoughts: We both liked this one a lot, in fact we both thought it was the best-written of the five shortlisted. However, we also felt that lacked its own stamp of uniqueness, the individual elements and concepts that set a fantasy book out from the rest. The story had all the ingredients of a first-rate fantasy tale: a hidden hero, an oncoming war and old secrets long kept. Reading this book brought back memories of old stories we loved, in particular the Shannara and Wheel of Time novels. But in the end this is why it was not our winner. However, we would both heartily recommend Whill of Agora to anyone who is looking for classic fantasy in the vein of Jordan, Brooks and Eddings.

Runner-up: Paladin’s Redemption (Kingdom’s Forge #1) by Kade Derricks

Paladin's Redemption coverPaladin, Traitor, Outcast, Mercenary… Dain Gladstone has been all of these. From childhood he’s been groomed for battle and trained in the Light. When war came he was branded a traitor and exiled for a treasonous act of mercy. To make his way in the world Dain has sold his skills to the highest bidder. But now he’s grown tired of war, tired of fighting for causes not his own, and he’s got a plan. Galena… rumors fly of a great fortune there, one buried beneath the snow-covered mountains, one vast enough to purchase an entire kingdom. Dain isn’t the only one seeking Galena’s riches. Men and elves and orcs all have plans of their own. Fortune has a way of twisting fate and turning the finest of plans on their heads.

Our thoughts: This book begins very well with a grimness to the character, landscape and story which felt fresh. But as the narrative progressed it entered into more common fantasy areas with golden elves, brown elves, orcs etc. providing a fantasy brew of Tolkien, Feist and Word of Warcraft themes, which will appeal to many.

Winner: What Remains of Heroes (A Requim for Heroes #1) by David Benem

What Remains of Heroes book coverLannick deVeers used to be somebody. A hero, even. Then, he ran afoul of the kingdom’s most powerful general and the cost he paid was nearly too much to bear. In the years that followed, his grief turned him into a shadow of his former self, and he spent his days drowning his regrets in tankards of ale.
But now an unexpected encounter casts Lannick upon an unlikely path to revenge. If he can just find the strength to overcome the many mistakes of his past, he can seize the chance to become a hero once more. And with an ancient enemy lurking at the kingdom’s doorstep, he’d better…

Our thoughts: Surprisingly this was not the pick of the bunch after the first chapter. If the book has any flaws they are – in our opinion – found in the first chapter where a couple of major plot elements don’t quite feel right. But from chapter two onwards it was like reading a fantasy pro with years on experience and large publishing house behind them. We both bought into the characters and the story and that is really all it takes – once an author has achieved that with a reader much of the hard work is done. Added to this was a wry humour that worked really well and world building that felt, well, like a real world being described. The book strengthened with each page and was, we felt, the best book we read as part of the self-published fantasy blog-off.

And so there we are, What Remains of Hero is the book we are pleased to put forward to the next round of the competition where we would like to wish David Benem the very best of luck.

And to the four runner-ups: Thank you for submitting your work, we really enjoyed it and both Fergus and myself will be reading it to completion in our own time.
Lee and Fergus, July 2015