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
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

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, 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 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


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

Our SPFBO short-list

We are taking part in the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off, a competition where we – and many other fantasy websites – receive 25 self-published fantasy books and are given the difficult task of selecting just 1 to put forward to the next stage.

Fergus and I approached this task in this way – we read the first chapter of each book and noted down those books that both impressed and engaged us. We then compared notes and found that we were in agreement on 5 titles. They were:

  • What Remains of Heroes (A Requiem for Heroes #1) by David Benem
  • The Penitent Assassin by Shawn Wickersheim
  • Whill of Agora by Michael James Ploof
  • Paladins Redemption by Kade Derricks
  • The Unseelie Court (Frotwoot’s Faerie Tales #1) by Charlie Ward

Mark Lawrence, who has the unenviable task of organising everything, thought it would be a good idea to mention some of the recurring issues we found with some of the entries, in the hope that feedback might prove useful. Should any of the authors of the 21 books that did not make the short-list require any additional feedback please email and we will be able to provide a little more information.

Obviously the first thing that should be mentioned is that Fergus and I like some sub-genres more than others. Some of the books that were submitted were not written with us in mind as their target audience. There isn’t much we can do about that I’m afraid – we simply like what we like. But if the book was well-written with an engaging story and characters it passed the first hurdle.

So here are a couple of snippets from our notes, to give a taste of why some books were passed over.

“Repetition of words throughout chapter, e.g. believe was used 5 times in the first 10 lines” – a reader can be lost as quickly as the first paragraph. I recently read a book which contained 5 similes on the first page – the sky wasn’t just black, it was as black as the deepest level of the largest ocean… and so on.

The complaint that appeared most was that the structure was poor, the writing sub-standard. The first book I rejected read like a bullet-point list, its structure being sentence, full stop, sentence, full stop – there was no flow, no celebration of a beautiful language and it had all the charm of a power-point presentation.

“Dry and uninspiring” was noted down next to a story. This means that after the first chapter we just has no interest in the story or its characters.

Many of the books were rather difficult to read, mainly due to how they were written. It’s not enough to just have a good story, the way in which it is told is of equal importance. Many books were often either under- or over-written, proving it really is a delicate balance. I’ve been running this site for nearly 10 years now and I’ve begun to notice something – many of the best authors have a work history including journalism or editing, jobs where one can become both skilled and comfortable with words. Many have also done a creative writing course. However, what I would find interesting is to be able to read a manuscript by someone like Robin Hobb before the editors got their hands on it. Robin Hobb writes beautifully but how much is natural and how much is thanks to the often under-appreciated skill of editors?

Then of course there comes the problem of having read the book before. I think every author wears their influences on their sleeve but sometimes it’s a little too on-the-nose. If, in the first chapter, you feel like you are reading a re-tread of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Twilight then it is unlikely that you will feel well disposed towards it.

In summary, the books that made the short-list had 2 things in common.

  1. The were written with a fair degree of skill, care and attention to detail.
  2. The story, locations and characters were both engaging and well-written.

When reading the very best stories you barely think about the author behind the work. Ideally the only time you give them any thought is when eagerly getting your hands on more of their work.

Congratulations to the 5 authors who have made the short list and thank you to all who submitted their work. Here are some nice words from Fergus to end on:

Dear Authors,

Firstly, I would like to say it takes courage, dedication and conviction to finish a story and a fearlessness to put it out in the world for others to read. You have accomplished something many dream off, but have been unable to achieve as yet.

Unfortunately, being a competition we can only go forward with the novels that resonated with us. For those who did not make next stage in our decision process, it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to read your work. Confidence, fortitude and belief in your story will see you through and we wish you every success in the future.

Kindest Regards

The Fantasy Book Review Team

Stephen King’s Mr Mercedes read by Will Patton

Mr Mercedes audio-book cover imageThe following is a review of the audio-book edition of Stephen King’s Mr Mercedes, a cat and mouse thriller narrated by Will Patton and first released in June 2014.

Author King and narrator Patton recently joined forces for Dr Sleep, the author’s last publication (that review can be found here), and a sequel to his classic The Shining. So I felt in safe hands as I began the latest offering from an author whose output remains as varied and engaging as ever.

Stephen King opens books well. I guess you could say that he is an expert in manipulating the ‘hook’, that magical something that draws the reader in within the first chapter and holds their interest for the remainder of the book. And Mr Mercedes utilises this ‘hook’ as well as any King novel. Picture this – it is very early morning, mist reduces vision to only a few feet and outside a job fair (this novel is set during the recent recession) job-seekers have queued to be first in line when the doors open, seeking to secure one of the few hundred jobs on offer. And from out of this mist suddenly emerges a powerful Mercedes motor car, clown-masked driver behind the wheel, which ploughs indiscriminately into those crowded close together at the front of the line, killing eight and injuring and maiming many others. This masked perpetrator was never caught.

I don’t know about you, but this opening caught me hook, line and sinker.

Moving on from this stellar opening the story jumps ahead a few years and the detective who led the hunt for the Mercedes killer, one Hodges DET RET, is now retired, overweight and contemplating suicide. But a taunting letter from Mr Mercedes arrives through his letterbox and any thoughts of suicide are banished as the retired detective finds himself reinvigorated and determined to catch the maniac who had eluded him while active. And so begins a game of cat and mouse as Hodges and Mr Mercedes mess with each others minds and lives.

The first half of Mr Mercedes is excellent, just as good as all of King’s recent books, by which I refer to 11.22.63, The Wind Through The Keyhole, Joyland and Dr Sleep. And as I’ve mentioned is all my recent King reviews – he is writing as well as he ever has. But then things, in my opinion, begin to take a bit of a turn for the worse and a rather lame, but fortunately brief, romantic interlude is followed by rather weak secondary characters, which I can only call caricatures, being elevated to leading roles in a manner that seemed scarcely believable. This made the second half of the book a let down. And I think many other King fans might agree that the book loses its way after the midway mark, it just wasn’t up to his usual high standard.

But it would be unfair to concentrate on the negatives as there is much within that is classic King, the product of a craft mastered over decades. And Hodges is not an alcoholic which was refreshing. There is as ever a strong focus on characterisation and back-story development (initially) which allows for a strong emotional attachment between the reader and characters written on the page. King also has a gift for building tension with his narrative.

Will Patton’s narration was once again very good, doing full justice to the leads of Hodges and the Mercedes Killer. He is a first rate narrator.

So my summary would be that a cracking first half is followed by a weak second. But every review is subjective and others may experience the book differently.

Recommended, but with caveats.


Mr Mercedes (unabridged) by Stephen King
Narrated by Will Patton
Length: 14 hours, 21 minutes
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Mr Mercedes is available only from