Monday, September 24, 2018

Book Review: ACHING GOD by Mike Shel


Title: Aching God

Author: Mike Shel

Publisher: Self-Published

Publication Date: April 9, 2018

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


Auric Manteo is a retired adventurer and former member of a guild named The Syraeic League.  Auric thought that his relic-hunting days were over long ago after multiple family tragedies, including the deaths of his son and later his wife by suicide.  All Auric cares to do now is live out the rest of his life trying to pick up the pieces and hopefully mend the strained relationship that he has with his only remaining loved one, his daughter Agnes.  So it is more than a little unsettling when Auric is summoned out of retirement and called to appear at the Citadel, where he is given a task that is essentially a suicide mission.  It seems that a devastating plague has overtaken much of the land and is spreading at an incredibly rapid pace.  If that wasn't bad enough, Auric's estranged daughter Agnes is one of the many afflicted.  The origins of the plague are believed to be the result of a disastrous mistake where a powerful cursed artifact was taken from its resting place.  This artifact was never meant to be removed and now the gods are apparently unleashing their retribution.  Auric is told he must embark on a mission with a small band of handpicked companions to journey back to the Barrowlands, where he experienced his most traumatic and devastating loss.  For through the Barrowlands lies the dungeon where the cursed artifact was taken, and there it must be returned before the plague finishes wiping out the rest of humanity and with it, his daughter.  To be successful, Auric must battle not only the inhuman creatures that stalk the Barrowlands, but also the demons that still reside within him and are constantly bringing him back to the horrible events from his past that still haunt him to this day.  What the ultimate outcome will be is very much up to how well Auric can beat back the torment and rely on his years of experience as a skilled member of the Syraeic League to attempt to replace what was taken.  His daughter's life and the lives of tens of thousands of potential plague victims depend on it.  

I've seen ACHING GOD described in many book review outlets as a LitRPG book.  I kind of quibble with that representation, quite frankly.  While it definitely has a LitRPG feel at times, this is at heart a solid Sword and Sorcery novel much in the same vein as Dave Duncan's Seventh Sword series and Michael Moorcock's Elric saga.  I thought that ACHING GOD was a fabulous example of how world-building can be incredibly effective in setting the atmosphere and mystery of the book.  As I was reading I was consistently intrigued by the Barrowlands and what terrible secrets they contained.  Shel does an excellent job of setting things up and revealing subtle hints about the relics and the history behind the relic hunters of the past.  The tension slowly builds and once Auric and his companions finally make it to the Barrowlands to begin carrying out their mission, the action is breakneck and the bad guys are just scary as hell.  This is really where the book excels I thought, the downright brilliant representation of the creatures who inhabit this blasted land.  Shel writes incredibly vivid battle scenes and doesn't describe the carnage in a half-hearted manner, it's brutal and I loved every minute of it.  When people die in the ACHING GOD, they die in excruciating detail and not peacefully.  Auric is yet another tortured main character, but he's by no means shallow or cookie-cutter the way that many are.  He has experienced a ton of grief in his life and his battle to hang on to the last vestige of family that he has left, his daughter, is heart-breaking and absolutely motivates his actions.  Because of this, he's an easy character to cheer for.  I found myself completely invested in wanting him to succeed in mending his relationship with Agnes while at the same time also trying to stop the plague that could ultimately wipe everyone out.  The fact that this is a debut self-published novel by Mike Shel is astounding to me because it is written with a seasoned-author's vision and eloquence.  I had a very minor issue with the pacing at times but by no means did it detract from me liking this book a whole heck of a lot.  Because ultimately when the book really gets into high gear about midway through, all of that buildup pays off in a big way.  So do yourself a favor and pick up ACHING GOD by Mike Shel.  If Sword and Sorcery with a pinch of LitRPG and Horror sounds good to you, then this is the book you should be reading right now.  Also, keep an eye out for book two of the Iconoclasts series Sin Eater sometime in the near future.  Personally, I can't wait!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Book List: MY TEN FAVORITE SFF BOOK COVERS

So I was perusing Twitter one day last week and an author that I follow posed an interesting question.  This author asked "what is the ONE KEY FACTOR that makes you decide to read a book?"  I thought about it for a while and for me the thing that ultimately makes me read a book is the summary or synopsis.  If it sounds like the type of story that I would enjoy, that is what makes me want to read it.  What does this have to do with book covers you may ask?  Well, while the summary is what makes me decide whether or not to read a book, the book cover is what gets my attention to pick it up in the first place.  A standout and beautiful book cover is the shiny lure that attracts me before the description either hooks me or doesn't.  Shortly after this Twitter encounter I started thinking about book covers that are some of my absolute favorites and I decided to make a quick top ten list.  Now I want everyone to know going in that these aren't book covers that I necessarily think are "the best", "the greatest", or "the tops all-time".  Listed here are book covers that captivated me and are still to this day my favorites.  Please don't get upset if you don't see The Hobbit, LoTR, Narnia or any of the other giants in here. I limited my list to the years that I have been alive just so that I wouldn't have to include the classics as they are a given when it comes to the beauty of some of their covers.  What I wanted to do with this list is share some cool covers that I hold in high regard for both their artistic style and also for how well they represent the actual story "between the covers".  Anyway, here they are in descending order, my ten favorite SFF book covers:





10. THE GARDEN OF STONES (2013) by Mark T. Barnes: This is a book that totally exemplifies reading a book because the cover art just jumped out at me.  Occasionally I will skim Netgalley in search of cool advance reader copies and I remember my eyes just going right to this cover in the midst of all the others.  The cover artist Stephan Martiniere really did an unbelievable job here of capturing the brutal opening scene of the book which drops the reader right into a civil war between the various factions of races on the continent of Shrian.  Love this cover and the book was fantastic as well.  If you get a chance to read it, you should definitely check out all three books in Barnes' Echoes of Empire trilogy.





9. THE CHOSEN (1999) by Ricardo Pinto:  I was working at Borders Books right around the time this book was released in hardcover.  The section that I was tasked with maintaining coincidentally was the Fantasy/Science-Fiction section.  I distinctly remember reaching into the box of stock and pulling this book out with my jaw agape as I stared at the cover.  I immediately used my employee discount, bought it, and took it home that night.  The cover artist for THE CHOSEN is Mark Harrison and he depicts beautifully the dark priests who are the antagonists of this great dark fantasy.  Unfortunately this series, which is called The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, is currently out of print.  Sad really because it is one of the more original fantasies that you will ever read and also involves gay main characters, which at the time was pretty bold and groundbreaking in the genre.  An awesome cover though and one that will hopefully once again grace the shelves of bookstores.





8. CHILDREN OF THE SERPENT GATE (2005) by Sarah Ash:  This is actually book three of The Tears of Artamon series by Sarah Ash but it is definitely my favorite cover of the trio.  The serpent gate in the foreground with the erupting volcano in the background is such a vivid and cool image for this series finale.  The cover artist for these books is Stephen Youll, a favorite of mine who has done so many great covers over the years.  This is another series that is among my favorites and I highly recommend it for readers who are looking for a different setting in their fantasy read.  This entire series takes place in an icy land with a definite Russian feel to it.  Love the books and love the artwork just as much.  





7.  OTHERLAND MOUNTAIN OF BLACK GLASS (2000) by Tad Williams:  Also book three of a series, this one being the third book in Tad's four volume Otherland series.  All four covers are amazing and created by the great Michael Whelan.  Michael is featured prominently on this list and for good reason, he's one of the best cover artists ever.  Whelan captures the theme of this book perfectly with the depiction of the facing Sphinxes and the mysterious "bird woman" rising in between.  The artwork is simply stunning and I just love everything about these covers.  Tad's books always seem to have very good cover art and this one is no different.  





6. BLACK SUN RISING (1992) by C.S. Friedman:  This cover is for book one in Celia Friedman's Coldfire trilogy.  Yet another stupendous cover by Michael Whelan which shows warrior priest Damien Vryce standing in front of a sinister-looking castle on the planet Erna, with the all-controlling force the fae surrounding him.  This is another that I bought just because of the cover art and it blew me away when I first read it.  A combination of SF, fantasy, and vampire fiction.  And it is all combined extremely well into a fantastic and thrilling series.  Definitely recommend reading the entire trilogy if you haven't yet as I believe it to be one of the best-written series in the genre.  And the covers rock too, especially this one!





5.  THE MISTS OF AVALON (1983) by Marion Zimmer Bradley:  Absolutely in my top 5 books of all-time and also one of my favorite book covers.  Recently there has been a new cover released but that is blah in my opinion.  This will always be the definitive front cover as created by cover artist Braldt Bralds.  The image of Morgaine riding a white steed while holding the shimmering sword in front of her is a haunting image that really sets up the atmosphere of the book.  A timeless image that should have never been replaced with the newer more-generic front cover art.  I absolutely adore this artwork and it remains a favorite.





4. THE JACKAL OF NAR (1999) by John Marco:  Book one of my favorite military fantasy series ever and one that sadly flies below the radar of many readers, The Tyrants and Kings series.  The cover art for this book is incredible and also very telling when it comes to the overarching theme.  Doug Beekman perfectly depicts the soot-covered industrial city of Nar as main character Richius Vantran looks on in the foreground with his men.  The image is at once vibrant, ominous, grim, and beautiful.  It's so hard to capture all of that in one piece of artwork but this one does it magnificently.  If you love the Malazan books, I whole-heartedly recommend picking up this series and reading it.  It doesn't get near enough the recognition that it deserves, and oh the artwork!





3.  GARDENS OF THE MOON (1999) by Steven Erikson:  This cover is for the 2005 reprint and was created by Steve Stone.  This evening image of a dark tower with a single candle-lit window shrouded in a moonlight mist is so haunting.  I'm a sucker for dark artwork like this, I think it takes me back to my boyhood Dracula's Castle days.  Everyone knows how great this series is, so I won't bother to recommend it.  It stands as one of the monumental works of fantasy alongside George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire.  The updated covers are brilliant, this one being my favorite of the lot for its wonderful simplicity.





2.  THE FADED SUN TRILOGY (1978-1980) by C.J. Cherryh:  This attractive cover art by Michael Whelan is for the 2000 omnibus release of this tremendous series.  The Faded Sun series is another one that is kind of under the radar with most people.  Cherryh is definitely more known for her Foreigner series but this is an example of her best writing in my opinion.  A brilliant science-fiction series with an Asian caste-system at its core, it is one of those series that is a must read as far as I'm concerned.  This image of the Mri warriors watching a human colonist spacecraft as it lands on their planet is rendered in gorgeous detail.  



And my favorite SFF book cover is.............................................







1.  HYPERION (1990) by Dan Simmons:  Without a doubt my favorite cover art of all-time and also my favorite science fiction book of all-time as well.  The image of the menacing Shrike juxtaposed with the pilgrim boat as it makes its way across the surface of the planet Hyperion is breathtaking.  It was actually nominated for the 1990 Hugo award for best original artwork but just fell short of taking home the prize.  The cover artist for this glorious work of art is Garry Ruddell.  I love the use of color and the sun shining through the metal blades of the Shrike's body.  It's the perfect cover in every way and encapsulates the theme of the book as well as the series in its totality.  



And that's it!  I hope you enjoyed checking out my ten favorite SFF book covers.  Like I said before, by no means is this a definitive list that should be regarded as gospel.  It's just my own personal list and I'm sure you may disagree with many of them.  But I hope that you at least found it interesting and maybe even got turned on to a book or series that you may not have known about until now.  As always, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Book Tag: READING HABITS


Here's an engaging Book Tag that originated at Thrice Read and was recently shared by Lisa over at the amazing blog Way Too Fantasy.  It deals with reading habits, which is an interesting topic for bloggers as we all have different styles and techniques when it comes to how and where we read our books.  I had a great time reading her answers and thought that it would be fun to share my own thoughts as well since right now I'm in-between book reviews.  Anyway, here are the questions along with my answers:


Do you have a certain place at home for reading?


The answer to this is pretty much anywhere and everywhere.  Having two little girls running around the house makes it necessary at times to sneak away and find a quiet, uninhabited corner of the house.  Whether this is the kitchen while making dinner, in bed before I fall asleep, or in the living room as my wife watches something on television.  Heck, I steal time pretty much everywhere i can, even in my car when I'm waiting for my daughter to get done dance class or Greek school.  When you love to read you will find just about anywhere to make it happen, and that is especially true when it comes to me. 


Bookmark or random piece of paper?


My reading is broken down about 80% eBooks and 20% physical books, so I don't get a chance to read a lot of hard copies.  When I do get a hard review copy though, I really try to use a bookmark if at all possible or something that resembles a bookmark.  Random pieces of paper don't really do it for me.  I like having a bookmark with a blank side and a side that has some sort of printing or artwork on the other so that I know that the side with the artwork is facing the page where I left off. 


Can you just stop reading or do you have to stop after a chapter/a certain amount of pages?


I always like to leave off at the beginning of a new chapter.  There are a number of reasons for this but the biggest one being that I don't want to stop in the middle of a particular scene of action or dialogue.  It would be like walking away from a conversation that you are having with someone right in the middle of it.  Makes no sense right?  I find that the times that I absolutely have to stop reading in the middle of a chapter for whatever reason, it is harder for me to remember what is going on in the book when I return to it and most of the time I end up rereading the chapter so that I can get my bearings again.  I'm sure that some people can do this without an issue, but for me I try to leave off at the end of a chapter and where another begins.


Do you eat or drink whilst reading?


This is almost mandatory when it comes to my reading sessions.  I always like to have some sort of beverage (most of the time an adult beverage) close at hand while I'm reading.  A nice cold beer or glass of really good red wine is definitely a welcome reading accessory.  I also find that it relaxes me and puts my mind in the proper state that I need to be able to process the material that is in front of me.  Obviously I don't drink to excess because that would be kind of counterproductive when reading and understanding what you just read is paramount to being able to write a thorough and cogent review.  But a nice beverage or two only adds to the enjoyment in my opinion.


Multitasking: Music or TV whilst reading?


So I know that this is a big no-no for most readers and especially reviewers.  I guess I'm in the minority when it comes to this because some sort of media device is always on in our household at all times.  It comes with the territory of having a busy schedule and kids that are constantly needing some sort of stimulation to keep them from getting bored.  My wife also really likes to unwind after a long day by chilling on the sofa with the TV on.  I actually don't have a problem reading while listening to music or watching television.  Am I saying that it's what I would prefer?  Absolutely not.  But I am pretty good at being able to look up every once in a while to catch something funny or cool happening on TV and then get back to focusing on my reading again.  I think that growing up in a big Italian household where the preferred volume of conversation at all times was HIGH has also helped me in a way to be accustomed to that and to be able to read with a lot of noise going on around me. 


One book at a time or several?


Before I truly began to be serious about reviewing books and maintaining a blog, I was most certainly a victim of the reading multiple books at a time syndrome.  When you love reading as much as I do, my eyes would always be drawn to another book that I wanted to read even though I was in the middle of one or two already.  But now I find that I simply cannot write an effective review if I am reading more than one book at a time.  And frankly, I wouldn't want to do that because it is unfair to the author and their work that I have agreed to review.  I do get frustrated at times that I am not reading fast enough and I need to pick up the pace because the big drawback to reading one book at a time is that your backlog gets pretty out of hand. And as that backlog grows, the pressure to constantly move on to the next book that I have to review grows as well.  But I have gradually come to terms with it and realize that I have a busy life that only allows me to do one review every two or three weeks.  So that's my pace and I have to stick within that time frame to be successful at what I do. 


Reading at home or everywhere?


As stated earlier, I will read wherever I can depending on whether or not the opportunity is available to me.  Some of the places that I've read are: the waiting room of a doctor's office, the barbershop, the DMV, in my car (not while it was moving of course), on an airplane, at my daughters' dance school, at the soccer field, etc...  I think you get the point that I can read in many different places.  Of course my preferred will always be in my home on my comfy sofa, but I simply can't go anywhere without bringing a book with me and often times, will try to steal a chapter or two of reading no matter where I may be at any given time.


Read out loud or silently in your head?


I'm not the type of reader who can read out loud and retain what I just read.  I feel like I concentrate too much on my voice and how I sound.  I read and retain much better if I am reading silently in my head and that has always been the case.  Plus, I don't think it would fly in my house if I was reading aloud all of the time.  My wife would probably throw something at me to get me to stop.


Do you read ahead or skip pages?


Wow, I can't even process this question.  Skipping pages is blasphemous in my opinion.  If I am not into a book, I will either tough it out and keep reading in the hopes that it will get better or I will simply abandon the book if it is that terrible.  But skipping pages is a shortcut and dishonest because you are not getting the full context of the story.  And writing a review when you skipped pages is absolutely unfair.  I would never write a review for a book that I didn't read in its entirety.  It's just not ethical or the correct way to handle your business as a blogger as far as I'm concerned.


Breaking the spine or keeping it like new?


As a person who has worked in a bookstore and who now works in a library, breaking the spine is a cardinal sin.  I barely open a new hardcover book because I want it to look as new as possible when I'm finished reading it.  I've seen people who actually bend the book in half in order to be able to read it one-handed and I literally cringe in horror!  I have always treated books with respect, honestly I don't even allow my children to treat their children's books poorly.  I just have always seen books as art and art should be preserved if at all possible. I also want the spines of my books to be pristine because I have them prominently displayed on my bookshelf.  I understand that there are times that you are going to find an old copy of a book that may be extremely rare and the spine is cracked, that's fine, but if it is a fairly new book please respect that cover and spine!


Do you write in your books?


Absolutely not.  What I will do if I'm reading a physical book is make notes on my phone or even take a photo of an important passage with my phone that I can refer back to when I'm ready to write my review.  Under no circumstances is it okay to write in a book in my opinion.  Maybe a college textbook that you've purchased but not something that you are going to reread over and over for pleasure.  Again, books are art.  Why would you deface them?  With eBooks it's even easier because I can highlight the passages that I think are important and then email them to myself to print out as notes.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Book Review: PRIEST OF BONES by Peter McLean


Title: Priest of Bones

Author: Peter McLean

Publisher: Ace

Publication Date: October 2, 2018

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟


Army priest Tomas Piety has come home after three years of fighting in a war that he didn't sign up for.  Before being shipped off to the bloody battlefield, Tomas was a very important man in the city of Ellinburg. Some might say he was the only man that really mattered.  He is the de facto leader of a powerful crime syndicate that once controlled every aspect of Ellinburg society.  Nothing happened in Ellinburg that didn't first go through The Pious Men and their boss Tomas Piety.  One thing becomes increasingly obvious to Tomas upon his return to his home city, and that is things have changed dramatically in Ellinburg during the time that he's been away.  The first thing that he realizes is that all of the businesses that he and his Pious Men once controlled have been taken over by another faction, seizing upon the vacuum that The Pious Men left behind.  This is understandably enraging to Tomas since he's been off fighting and bleeding in a war for his Queen, only to be undercut and have his business operation taken over by a shadowy group who have their own specific motivations.  These motivations are murky at best, but could soon be revealed now that a confrontation is almost inevitable between the tow groups.  The Pious Men are left with only two real options: leave things as they are and simply blend back into society as returning war heroes or engage in an all-out power struggle to take back what was unjustly (in their minds) stolen from them.  Let's just say that Tomas Piety isn't the type of man to take something like this lying down and he simply cannot allow this to stand, if only to save face with his people.  Tomas, along with his emotionally unstable brother Jochan and his second in command Bloody Anne must begin hatching a plan to begin to take back each tavern, gaming house, and brothel that they once controlled.  Complicating matters even further is the governor of Ellinburg, who doesn't particularly relish what he knows is coming. And what is surely coming is a bloody power play that could potentially cripple the city, leaving corpses strewn across his streets.  Tomas knows that he must walk a fine line so as not to run himself and his crew afoul of the law, while still somehow avenging the audacious infiltration that has taken place in his absence.  In the end one true fact emerges, the war that Tomas once fought on foreign soil for three long years never ended even after their victory.  Rather, it has just continued in another form on his home turf of Ellinburg.  Can Tomas summon the leadership skills that he acquired during that bloody conflict to rally the Pious Men in an overthrow of the outlanders or are they ultimately just too strong and organized to be beaten?  And even more problematic to consider, could these interlopers have friends in very high places that don't want them to be taken out?

I knew that I was going to be in for quite a ride with this book when Peter McLean immediately kills off one of the characters in gruesome fashion within the first few paragraphs.  I thought, "okay, time to buckle in!"  In PRIEST OF BONES, we are introduced to this strikingly powerful main character named Tomas Piety.  The first thing that I was struck by was how Tomas is portrayed as an unforgiving and sometimes brutal leader of men, yet he has recently taken the cloth of priesthood and in so doing becomes a follower of "Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows". When he is reunited with his brother Jochan after the war, Jochan actually laughs openly at the idea that Tomas is now a priest.  I knew at this point in the story that Tomas was going to be one heck of a complex character and very far from one-dimensional.  With every decision that he makes and with every thought in his head, it is obvious that he is now somewhat influenced by his newly found religion.  The first-person narrative is so effective and really gives you a great sense of how he sees things on a personal level.  At the same time, Tomas has lost none of his overbearing personality and brutality when it comes to his territoriality issues and claims to what he believes are rightfully his. He's a guy who doesn't take very kindly to being challenged. Tomas also has the inane ability to lead and enjoys the unwavering support of his crew through a delicate balance of harsh discipline and also praise, as he shows when he divvies out money from his private stash after The Pious Men conduct a successful raid to take back some of their lost territory.  The secondary characters are so incredibly well fleshed-out and are vital to the story as with Tomas' second in command Bloody Anne.  Anne has lived a very tortured life and we get a definite taste of that in a couple of scenes where she bears her soul.  We also get treated to the disturbing reason why she has been given the unusual moniker "Bloody" Anne.  Then there's Jochan, who tends to be a thorn in Tomas' side as he can be quite unstable most of the time.  This only gets compounded when his jealousy that Bloody Anne is chosen as Second to Tomas instead of his own brother comes to a head.  This little personal battle between brothers serves as a very nice conflict within the overarching conflict in the book, and is something that you have a creeping feeling will be somewhat problematic for Thomas down the road.  From the start, I was drawn into the drama between The Pious Men and the invaders who had taken over their former territory.  Just as an aside, I think the whole "Godfather" angle is a bit overplayed in some of the descriptions of this book, as this is still a very Fantasy-rooted story and I never once got the feeling that I was reading about Michael Corleone.  It's definitely more Scott Lynch than it is Mario Puzo in my opinion.  The confrontations between the two battling factions are so stunningly vivid in their descriptions, some not even involving physical violence but rather subterfuge and political maneuvering.  PRIEST OF BONES gave me many moments of jaw-dropping surprise, there are twists and turns aplenty in these 350 pages.  What I originally thought was going to be a Grimdark battle royal became in reality a multi-textured, mystery-infused, character-driven novel that shows you the best and worst that human nature can exhibit under extreme duress.  I finished my review of  Ravencry right before starting PRIEST OF BONES and I was kind of dubious as to whether or not another book could match its intensity and prose, let alone so soon after the fact.  I'm so happy to be able to state that Peter McLean has given us one hell of a story to savor that is absolutely at the lofty level of my previous read.  Merely classifying this wonderful book as Grimdark, or Grindark, or Low-Fantasy does it a disservice in my opinion.  PRIEST OF BONES defies classification in that it is a phenomenal story with sensational characters and should be read by everyone who enjoys bloody great books.  If I didn't have such a huge backlog of upcoming reviews that I needed to finish, I would go back to page one and read it all over again to see if I could pick out anything new.  Incidentally, for those wishing to pick up a copy of PRIEST OF BONES, the official U.S. publication date is October 2nd.  Now that we are on the doorstep of September, it shouldn't feel like too much of a wait until release day.  Grab this one as soon as it is officially available and add it to the top of your reading list, you won't regret it.  

Cover Reveal: TALES OF KINGSHOLD by D.P. Woolliscroft

I am extremely pleased to present the official cover for Tales of Kingshold, the brand new upcoming release in D.P. Woolliscroft's incredible Wildfire Cycle!  The book is scheduled for a mid-November publication date.  The first book in this series Kingshold was one of my favorite reads this year and is currently still in the running in the 2018 Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off contest.  And now without further delay, here is the absolutely stunning new cover for Tales of Kingshold....





"I am Mareth and I collect tales - tales that do not make the official histories. Join me and learn the secret stories of those who sparked the wildfire. Stories from our past, from that fateful summer and its aftermath."

If you loved Kingshold, discover the next installment in the epic Wildfire Cycle.
Tales of Kingshold, Book 1.5 of the Wildfire Cycle, includes four novelettes and six short stories.


NOVELETTES:
Of Buccaneers and Bards (previously published separately) 
Vin Kolsen’s chickens have come home to roost. A bar fight turned serious has landed him in the gaol of a two-bit fishing village awaiting the magistrate and his noose. When a stranger becomes his cellmate, it signals the beginning of a wild ride from galley slave to pirate captain.  This is the untold story of how an optimistic pirate took the first step to becoming King of the North Sea Corsairs, with a bard named Mareth at his side. 


All That Shimmers
Deep beneath the surface of the earth live unspeakable horrors, safely trapped away. 
But when an inquisitive dwarf releases a specter, who will stop it from wreaking havoc in Unedar Halt?

Hollow Inside
The Hollow Syndicate, the most feared guild of assassins on the Jeweled Continent. And the most exclusive school in all Kingshold.
When a dead syndicate member is deposited on the doorstep in a handcart, a position among the graduating class opens up.  Finabria is still a year away from completing her studies. Will she really compete in the upcoming trials?

Visions
Neenahwi promised her brother she would undergo the Quana, the coming-of-age ceremony for her tribe. 
Four days in the wilderness with a hunger she hasn't felt in years. 
The visions may provide some answers about her purpose in life, but she's not going to like what she hears. 

SHORT STORIES:
Twin Lies
Florian— soldier, mercenary and future friend of Motega— is a man with a past.
As he and a new recruit watch the smoke rise above the liberated city of Redpool, Florian recounts how he joined the army and acquired some surprising nicknames. It’s a story about being there for your family when it counts, but not living up to your own high standards.

The Pie Man Cometh
Two men, long ago friends and now enemies. 
Two sisters, desperate to bring change to Kingshold and to prove themselves to each other. 
Can the sisters solve the riddle of what happened to the old friends and resolve past grievances to get their plan back on track?

The Working Dead
Mareth hates the undead. 
When one crypt-diving job ends, another comes along: banish the shadow of a necromancer from the town of Stableford. 
And though Mareth hates the undead, the money is too good to turn down. 

From Father to Daughter
The unredacted letter Jyuth gave to Neenahwi on the night before his departure.

Jyuth on Magic
Jyuth, the greatest wizard that Edland has ever known. For the first time, excerpts from his hand-written journals shed light on the secrets of magic. 

From the Desk of Lord Marchial Eden
The last thing seen of the former Lord Eden was the trail of dust as he fled Kingshold. 
Discover what befell him afterward through his own correspondence. 

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Book Review: RAVENCRY by Ed McDonald


Title: Ravencry

Author: Ed McDonald

Publisher: Ace

Publication Date: August 21, 2018 (U.S.)

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟


When I first read Ed McDonald's debut novel Blackwing back in the Fall of 2017, I remember distinctly thinking to myself that it was going to absolutely detonate onto the Fantasy landscape with a thunderous explosion.  As a reviewer, it's always neat to read a book by a new author and just know instinctively that it will leave a huge mark with the rest of the book-buying public before too long.  The book had so many elements that made it a blockbuster waiting to happen.  The setting was intensely dark, the history was rich and complex, and the characters had personalities that jumped off the page and made you feel the widest range of emotions imaginable.  Add to that the fact that Ed's writing is so vivid and moving, and you had the makings of one of the best Fantasy books and series to come along in quite some time.  The most accurate quote regarding Blackwing that I've ever read comes from one of my favorite Fantasy authors Anthony Ryan.  Ryan said about Blackwing, "Upon starting Blackwing, it quickly gained the rare distinction of being one of those books that felt as if it had been written especially for me."  Not only is that incredibly high praise from a very accomplished author in the industry, it is also exactly the way that I felt when I read it last year.  So when I discovered that book two of the Raven's Mark series RAVENCRY was being offered as an advance reading copy by the publisher Ace, I immediately put in a request.  I just had to know how the story continued after that phenomenal first book.  After a long month and what seemed like an eternity, I opened my email to find out that I had been approved to receive a copy and I practically jumped out of my shoes I was so elated.  I wondered if Ed could match the brilliance of Blackwing or even somehow surpass it.  It just so happens that my receiving a review copy also coincided with our family vacation to South Carolina, so I was more than a little excited that RAVENCRY would be accompanying me on the beach for a solid week of reading and relaxation. Just a quick warning to those who haven't read the first book, there may be some spoilers ahead in my review, so please keep that in mind should you choose to continue reading.  And now without further delay, on to RAVENCRY...

RAVENCRY begins about three years following the aftermath of the catastrophic events of book one.  The Blackwing are in a state of flux, their master and one of the Nameless, Crowfoot now fighting the Deep Kings on another plane of existence and Captain Ryhalt Galharrow left beaten both physically and mentally by the brutal encounters with the Darlings and Drudge in the previous book.  Ryhalt is admittedly grayer and more battle-scarred in this installment.  He is also absolutely haunted by the loss of his beloved Ezabeth, who fell during the chaos that erupted along the Misery years earlier. To say that he is still struggling mightily with that loss is an understatement and it definitely comes through in his demeanor and actions throughout the story. Valengrad is a shambles and is being torn apart at the seems by continuing instability and political infighting.  Making things worse is a cult calling itself The Order of the Bright Lady has also taken root in the city, only serving to further destabilize the area.  The Bright Lady being a mysterious figure who her followers say has come to save those who remain following the previous carnage. The identity of The Bright Lady and the reasons why she has garnered such a following in such a short amount of time are very much a mystery. With this as a backdrop, Ryhalt Galharrow is sent a message from Crowfoot through his raven telling him that Crowfoot's lair has somehow been breached and something of vital importance may have been taken from it. Ryhalt's worse fears are confirmed when upon arriving at the lair he discovers that Crowfoot's powerful wards have all been destroyed and dozens of guards slaughtered in an apparent theft.  Ryhalt knows instantly that whoever did this had to be a sorcerer or being of immense and incalculable power and the thought that someone or something could even do this is unthinkable.  It is discovered that the artifact that was taken was something that if in the wrong hands, could make the holder of it almost immortal and impervious to any harm.  Ryhalt has his suspicions of who the culprit may be and knows that he must find them soon and reclaim the artifact before it can be put to the worst of uses. In addition to this he must also find a way to deal with the constant bombing of Valengrad originating from the Misery that is killing people by the hundreds every night.  There is a feeling deep in the pit of the Blackwing Captain's stomach that the Deep Kings and the Empire are amassing at the border for one final assault that could spell the end for Valengrad, and every soul living within it.  Can the Blackwing avert this disaster and will Ryhalt be able to find whoever stole Crowfoot's artifact before disaster strike?  What part does the Bright Lady play in all of this?  The answers to these questions await you in this pivotal second book of The Raven's Mark.

My first thought when I finished the last page of RAVENCRY was how in the world was I going to write a review that would even come close to doing it justice?  No matter what I come up with, this book needs to be experienced not simply described.  But since I am a book reviewer, I will do my best with the words that I have available.  To say that RAVENCRY is a triumph would be to do it an injustice.  As fantastic as Blackwing was, this book only serves to double down on the emotion, the misery, and the tortured characters who you live and die with at every turn of the page.  Ed McDonald has done something that very few writers can do in that he has crafted a second book that is even better than the first.  No small feat when you consider the high standard that was set with his debut offering.  Where Blackwing was a masterful piano concerto, RAVENCRY is a blistering symphony replete with violent eruptions of woodwind, string, and timpani.  McDonald makes you feel the impact of every bomb hitting the city of Valengrad, sympathize with the plight of every character, root for the heroes as they do everything in their power to thwart the evil that awaits them beyond the Misery.  This book has zero wasted words, every scene is important to what happens next and quite often it is something that jars you to tears and assaults your senses.  RAVENCRY will leave you physically and emotionally exhausted when done but at the same time glad that you decided to take the entire journey from beginning to end.  And just like George RR Martin, Ed McDonald can't help but have you fall in love with the characters and get emotionally invested, only to see them tested in the most violent and torturous of ways.  It truly is an art that few authors can pull off in such an economy of page count.  If you enjoy deep Fantasy writing that matters, please pick up RAVENCRY.  The book will be officially available for purchase in the U.S. on August 21st.  I would recommend reading book one Blackwing before starting this book however.  The background gained from the first is essential in experiencing the full impact of the events that occur in book two.  Thank you Ed McDonald for giving us such an incredible world to live in for a while.  Can't wait to see what comes next!

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Book Review: THE BLIGHTED CITY by Scott Kaelen


Title: The Blighted City

Author: Scott Kaelen

Publisher: Self-Published through Amazon

Publication Date: January 15, 2018

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟1/2


Ever since author Mark Lawrence began his Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off contest in 2015, I have been reading some absolute gems in the Fantasy genre that may not have ever gotten the notoriety they richly deserve had it not been for SPFBO. I have gone off in the past with regard to how wonderful this development has been for Fantasy and also the book industry in general.  So many of the books entered in this year's SPFBO were already on my radar before they were announced as entries. Since the announcement though, I have tried to read as many as humanly possible. I had seen brief flashes of marketing about THE BLIGHTED CITY, book 1 of The Fractured Tapestry by Scott Kaelen, by way of some of my followers' retweets on Twitter. The ominously dark cover was the first thing that quickly caught my eye, and then I did a little more research on the plot which sold me even more on wanting to check it out. I began following Scott on Twitter and eventually requested a review copy because I thought it was something that I would really enjoy based primarily on the amazing description and the reviews to date. Scott very graciously provided me one not long after my request and as a result, I rushed it right up near the top of my "to review' list. And so, on to the book. 

Somewhere in the Blighted City of Lachyla, a powerful and mysterious gemstone is buried in an underground graveyard within the Gardens of the Dead.  Legends say that the walking dead roam the catacombs, guarding the unholy city from those who would exploit it and loot those treasures entombed with the dead.  Dagra and his fellow guild members Jalis and Oriken are well aware of what the legends say, but that doesn't deter them from accepting a lucrative contract from a woman named Cela Chiddari to venture into the fabled city and steal back the gemstone. Cela claims the gemstone is a vitally important family heirloom that should have never been buried within the cursed city in the first place. The job pays top money, five hundred dari to be exact, which is impossible to refuse given the paltry contracts that the guild members have seen trickle across their doorstep lately. Complicating matters is that their destination of Lachyla is a fallen kingdom that is shrouded in mystery and has been wholly deserted for hundreds of years. The history of Lachyla has been largely forgotten, and so this just adds to the danger that may await the three companions as they attempt to sneak into the crypts stealthily and escape without detection from whatever manner of godless creatures still stalk the area.  As they enter the Gardens of the Dead, Dagra can't help but feel as if something isn't right about their surroundings.  He continually senses movement inside the catacombs and even stumbles across footprints in the dust that appear to only be going in one direction - OUT of the crypt.  How could that be?  Surely if the footprints only point outward it could only mean one thing, it wasn't a fellow explorer's footprints but someone or something already inside the crypts leaving.  At this point, the companions want to complete their mission as fast as possible and leave to collect their money.  But as they finally uncover the gemstone and begin to pry it off the wall where it is embedded, they notice frail-looking figures begin emerging from the mist among the gravestones, slowly approaching their location. It is now clear that the legends are not legends at all, and that in their avarice to acquire a quick payday, the three of them have stumbled across an infernal boundary where the line between the living and the dead is forever blurred. Now, just making it out alive becomes the one and only mission. Can the three escape what looks like a growing army of the undead and whatever other manner of monsters await them on their escape route out of the underground hell that they find themselves in?  I can only say that you will be treated to a fantastically dark and macabre journey if you decide to read this book and find out.

Upon reading the opening chapters of THE BLIGHTED CITY, I made the remark on Goodreads that it reminded me a lot of one of my favorite dark Fantasy books of all-time, The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells. The shadowy atmosphere and the whole thievery angle were very reminiscent of the feel of that wonderful book. I stand by that assertion now that I have finished Scott Kaelen's book and I add to it that while bearing similarities, THE BLIGHTED CITY stands on its own when it comes to an exceptional Fantasy read.  One of the things that I loved about the book was the city of Lachyla and the mysterious history of its cursed past.  I am an absolute sucker for a great and multi-layered history when it comes to the stories that I enjoy.  When an author takes the time to build a solid history, I believe that it adds so much depth and mystery that just make it a joy to read.  Scott Kaelen has accomplished that tenfold with THE BLIGHTED CITY.  Another aspect that I thought made this a compelling read were the characters and how they interacted with each other.  This is a book that has spurts of action and then significant lulls. If put into the hands of a less adroit author, the lulls could lead to moments of boredom. That is never the case with this book and that is completely due to the characters and how they spend those down moments. The dialogue is crisp, the personalities are unique and bold, and the way that they behave faced with the most inexplicably horrific creatures hunting them is an amazing thing to behold.  This book had virtually every box checked off that I love in a great Dark Fantasy read.  The mystery of the city is always present in the story, making the reader yearn to find out more about it.  Scott also ratchets up the tension quite a bit and where the story really excels is in the development of the story itself and the characters that make it a truly wonderful book to read.  If you are looking for a really good book that has creepy undead antagonists, heroic protagonists, and world-building that is of the highest quality, I recommend Scott Kaelen's THE BLIGHTED CITY without reservation.  It truly is a fun read that will have you wanting to find out desperately how things turn out.  This will definitely be an intriguing series and I will absolutely snatch up book 2 as soon as it becomes available.