Thursday, June 28, 2018

Book Review: KINGSHOLD by D.P. Woolliscroft

Title: Kingshold

Author: D.P. Woolliscroft

Publisher: Self-Published through Amazon

Publication Date: April 30, 2018

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

KINGSHOLD is the debut offering from self-published author DP Woolliscroft and the first entry in his Wildfire Cycle.  Woolliscroft hails from Derby, England and now resides in Princeton, New Jersey (a hop, skip, and jump from my current city of residence by the way).  But I digress.....My attention was drawn to this author when I began following him on Twitter and kept seeing all of the discussion regarding his first book just released this past April.  I was even more intrigued when it was recently announced that KINGSHOLD would be one of 300 entries in Mark Lawrence's highly regarded Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off contest for 2018.  So when offered a chance to receive a review copy by the author himself, I must say that I was very excited to get a chance to read it and write a review before the contest kicked off in earnest.  Upon reading the brief description of the plot, I was even more eager to begin the story as it seemed to be the type of Fantasy book that I usually love immersing myself in.  So I started reading this 500 page tome exactly one week ago and finished late last night.  If the speed with which I flew through the pages is any indication, I think you can make a pretty accurate guess as to how I felt about this book.  And so now a little bit more about KINGSHOLD....

KINGSHOLD is a place embroiled in treachery and upheaval.  The King and Queen were just recently discovered murdered under a cloud of mystery.  The opening paragraphs describe a court in chaos as the different factions and leaders struggle to understand what just took place and who might be responsible.  It is soon revealed that the ancient wizard Jyuth was the one who committed the regicide, but for what reasons is still unclear.  The only thing that is clear is that the monarchy has been abruptly abolished in one night and there must now be new elections to select a Lord Protector of KINGSHOLD who will rule the new government.  Jyuth, King-maker and ever the opportunist, sees a chance to influence the selection while making a bit of coin for himself in the process due to the fact that the only way someone can put vote their choice is by making a substantial monetary donation.  And so the race to become Lord Protector begins with the back-stabbing and double-dealing getting incredibly hot and heavy.  Mareth is a bard of middling renown who is suddenly thrust into one of the biggest eras of chaos that KINGSHOLD has ever seen in its long history.  Mareth is pretty much a drunk and an underachiever, what you would call a slacker by today's standards.  Being a bard, this is his greatest chance to erase all of that and place his selection in the leadership chair should he be able to sing the story that will unite everyone behind his choice.  Mareth believes that fame is just around the corner and all of the spoils and drinking money that go along with it.  Meanwhile, the reason for the King and Queen's assassination is revealed to be because they were engaged in a vile slave trade which was negatively impacting the reputation and governing of KINGSHOLD and which the wizard Jyuth simply could not abide any longer.  As the candidates come forward to vie for the new position of Lord Protector, the political maneuvering begins to get a bit out of control and bribing, killing, and violent rioting become the order of the day.  Suddenly the future of KINGSHOLD may not be at all certain and whether or not there can be an orderly transition at all is very much in doubt.  There are also those outside the confines of KINGSHOLD who see the civil unrest and instability as a very real chance to finally tear down the once mighty kingdom and finally give power to those unfortunate and poverty-stricken who reside just outside its walls.  Will the wizard Jyuth achieve his ultimate goal to raise a Lord Protector to the throne and restore stability to KINGSHOLD or will chaos and anarchy ultimately reign supreme, plunging the kingdom into a much different era where no one is positive of the eventual outcome?  Nothing is as it seems and motivations shift with the wind in this complex yet utterly readable medieval Epic Fantasy by DP Woolliscroft.

Every once in a great while a book just comes out of left field and completely floors me.  KINGSHOLD is one of those very books.  I have to say that the quality of self-published books, especially in the Fantasy genre, has risen to unseen heights recently.  Credit established Fantasy author Mark Lawrence for giving voice and visibility to those authors who ten or even five years ago would have never been given a chance of reaching such a large audience.  It would have been a real crime had KINGSHOLD never been afforded the opportunity to reach the masses because it is simply a wonderful and engaging Fantasy read.  And it surprised the hell out of me with how it grabbed my attention from the first page and then demanded that I keep reading and reading and reading.  One of the many wonderful aspects of this book in my opinion is the way the main character is written.   I kept going back and forth in my head as to whether or not I believed Jyuth was a hero or a villain.  He is portrayed in such a way that you aren't entirely sure whether he has the best interests of KINGSHOLD truly at heart or whether he is simply a selfish lout who is only concerned with furthering his own agenda.  The picture does become clearer as you get further into the book, but it was a masterful job of keeping the reader guessing and not creating the usual cookie-cutter characters that most Fantasy books are teeming with these days.  I would also classify this as Political Fantasy, in that the majority of the plot deals with the election of the new Lord Protector and the strategic positioning of all of the candidates and their backers.  That being said, I was never bored by this and there is quite enough action to satisfy those who crave that as well.  Another element that was interesting was the use of modern day slang and profanity set against a very Medieval Fantasy period.  The contrast was a unique approach and I thought that it lent a gritty realism to what could have been a very stale "same old Fantasy" story.  There are so many things that I loved about KINGSHOLD and I really didn't want it to end.  In fact, I may eventually go back and read it again very soon if I have some time because it was that entertaining a story.  I really hope that both KINGSHOLD and author DP Woolliscroft advance to the finals in the SPFBO challenge.  This is a book that deserves to be recognized as not only one of the best self-published books of the year, but also as one of the best Fantasy books of 2018 period.  It could very well win the whole thing when all is said and done.  All due accolades to DP Woolliscroft, I eagerly anticipate the next installment in the Wildfire Cycle.  Oh, and please write faster!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Book Review: REDEMPTION'S BLADE by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Title: Redemption's Blade

Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Publisher: Solaris

Publication Date: July 26, 2018

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

I first discovered British writer Adrian Tchaikovsky about ten years ago when I had the pleasure of stumbling across his excellent Fantasy series Shadows of the Apt.  It was such a fresh and well-written Fantasy series and as a result I immediately became a huge fan of his, purchasing everything that I could get my hands on as soon as it was released.  Another amazing read from him is his stand-alone Science-Fiction novel Children of Time.  It was so good in fact that it won the Arthur C. Clarke award for best novel in 2016 and was one of my top reads for that year.  So when I saw that his brand new Fantasy title REDEMPTION'S BLADE (due to be published July 26, 2018) was available to request from the publisher, I immediately shot off a request to Solaris and was rewarded a day or two later when it showed up in my inbox.  The beautiful cover just made me want to dive in as soon as possible and so I did that very evening after the kids were asleep.  It was then that I was quickly transported into an amazingly complex world that I did not want to leave and upon turning the last page, I realized that Mr. Tchaikovsky had done it again in delivering a truly original and compelling story that hits all of the right literary chords.

REDEMPTION'S BLADE takes place in a bleak war-torn world where a great battle was fought a decade before between the demigod despot Kinslayer and his vile army and the simple people of Aethani.  The heroes of Aethani were led by their champion Celestaine of Forith who single-handedly killed the Kinslayer's  most powerful and destructive weapon, an enormous dragon that completely decimated every city in its path up to that point.  Celestaine's sword was forged with a powerful magic that enables it to cut through anything, no matter how solid or strong.  After destroying the Kinslayer's dragon beast, Celestaine realizes that the Kinslayer himself can also die and dispatches him soon after piercing his seemingly impenetrable armor with her sword and ultimately saving the forces of good against his treacherous ambitions.  Fast forward ten years into the future and Celestaine is a reluctant hero, lauded for the brave actions she took all those years ago.  She also has the unenviable task of attempting to make peace between her people and the Yorughan warriors who were forced into service to assist the Kinslayer, but were later abandoned after he was vanquished.  Old prejudices run deep though and the level of distrust between the races who once battled each other to the death are extremely difficult to put aside.  There is also the lingering problem of the leftover monsters and minions from the war that are still scattered among the countryside, and many of them either don't know the war has ended or don't care and only wish to continue the killing because that is all they know.  Now leaderless without the Kinslayer to direct them, they have become even more unpredictable and dangerous as they raid innocent towns and kill whatever gets in their way.  Celestaine finds herself with the daunting task of cleaning up the devastation that the Kinslayer left behind and enlists the help of two of her former enemies Heno and Nedlam, Yorughan warriors who fought on the side of the Kinslayer.  They soon embark on a quest to finish eradicating the monsters that still exist among the general populace and to also attempt to mend the fragile alliances that were strained during the height of the brutal war.  Celestaine is torn because she doesn't totally trust her new partners but realizes that she also needs them if she has any hope of mending a fractured land and bringing it back to some semblance of peace and prosperity.  Along the way Celestaine and her cohorts come to grips with exactly the level of atrocities that the Kinslayer committed in the process of waging his bloody war.  Not only did he destroy physical structures and whole cities, but he also left a people who are now psychologically broken and destitute.  It is here where we see the true evil of what took place and it is a very hard pill for Celestaine to swallow.  No longer living in the isolated area of her own town, she is faced with a daunting task of healing what was broken in more ways than she could ever imagine.  The travelling company encounters many obstacles along the way and it is quite clear that although the Kinslayer may be gone, his legacy and influence remain within the vile creatures that are still fighting a war that is no longer being waged.  Whether or not Celestaine and her two Yorughan companions can survive the onslaught will depend on her wit and their brawn, for danger awaits around every corner in this desolate landscape where nothing is as it seems at first glance.

First off, I love the fact that the beginning of this book takes place after the war has already ended and we are thrown into the aftermath and what remains.  There is a sense of mystery involved and immediately as the reader I wanted to know all that took place, but Tchaikovsky does an excellent job of holding much of it back as a plot device to keep the reader engaged and guessing.  Some of the reviews of this book stated that they didn't like this aspect but I actually thought it was brilliantly done and is something that I have become used to in Adrian Tchaikovsky's writing.  If there is one thing that I simply cannot stand it is the overuse of info-dumps.  I believe in the "show, don't tell" philosophy because I just think that it works so much better and provides a much better reading experience.  The world-building in this book is just off the charts brilliant.  Tchaikovsky really lets you feel how hopeless this war-torn land is through vivid imagery that he conveys with every word and paragraph.  I also enjoyed how Tchaikovsky displayed each character's personality through the dialogue.  Celestaine is obviously a hero who doesn't want all of the recognition but it is unavoidable.  She struggles with being the savior of her people when all she really wants is a return to normalcy and to help in any way she can to mend the damage done by the Kinslayer.  The two Yorughan warriors are also nicely portrayed as suspicious of Celestaine yet gradually accepting of her as they continue on their journey. The monsters are really evil, the battles are gloriously bloody, and the forgotten history of this world is only hinted at, making this a great setup for book number two.  Adrian Tchaikovsky just made me appreciate his writing even more with this book as he deftly and smoothly makes the transition from Fantasy to Science-Fiction, and then back to Fantasy.  He writes in both genres with equally incredible skill to boot, which is no small feat.  I thoroughly enjoyed REDEMPTION'S BLADE by Adrian Tchaikovsky and eagerly am anticipating the next book in this series to find out what happens next.  Highly recommended Fantasy with a touch of Grimdark thrown in for good measure.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Book Review: PATERNUS: RISE OF GODS by Dyrk Ashton

Title: Paternus: Rise of Gods

Author: Dyrk Ashton

Publisher: Paternus Books Media

Publication Date: July, 2017

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Dyrk Ashton is a man of a thousand faces, or a thousand jobs at least.  I mean the guy has worn so many hats throughout his life and according to his bio, he's been a Grip, a Production Manager, a Producer of television commercials, an Editor, a Script-Writer, an Assistant Director, even an Actor!  Ultimately when the native of Ohio realized that the movie scene in L.A. was pretty cutthroat and competitive and he was barely making a living, he decided to get his PhD and become a College Professor of Film Studies.  Yeah because most people would do the same in that scenario right?  I mean, the guy is incredibly accomplished and resilient.  It was during his time as a professor that he realized he had some down time to read and subsequently to write a little as well.  I guess he figured he'd done everything else, why not try his hand at this whole Fantasy novel writing thing too?  Well, PATERNUS: RISE OF GODS is the result of all of his life experiences up to this point and I was fortunate enough to be provided a copy by the man himself!  The first blurb I read about the book likened it to a cross between American Gods and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  That's quite the comparison, so when I sat down last week to read the opening chapter, it was with more than a fair amount of anticipation because I truly had no idea what to expect being a newbie to Dyrk's work.  

PATERNUS: RISE OF GODS takes place in the modern world but with mythical creatures and gods running amok and interspersed within society, albeit fairly clandestinely. Fiona, the main character along with her "boyfriend" Zeke is an intern at a local hospital.  She is charged with caring for a patient named Peter, who is suffering from a type of dementia.  Fiona has had a pretty raw deal in her life so far. She is an orphan who is now being raised by her eccentric Uncle Edgar and it is pretty obvious in the beginning of the book that she is a conflicted teenager who is struggling with her identity and self-esteem.  Things don't get easier for her though as the hospital where Fiona works is suddenly attacked by a group of sinister men who it appears are looking for something or someone.  An incredible battle ensues where Fiona and Zeke barely escape, taking with them the patient under her care Peter.  After the inexplicable attack, Fiona is left grasping for answers as to why anyone would want to attack a hospital and hurt those inside?  She takes Peter and Zeke to her Uncle Edgar's home to relay to him what occurred and to hopefully find a way to make sense of all that just took place.  It is then that Uncle Edgar imparts upon his niece and her companions that the world they are living in is not as normal as it may seem at first glance.  Added to this is the fact that there are monsters that are very real and are now hunting them based on an old war that has been raging for thousands of years.  Now Fiona, Zeke, Uncle Edgar, and the mysterious Peter are thrust into a very real battle for not only their own lives, but for the future of the world.  As they flee Uncle Edgar's home to escape the shadowy men who attacked the hospital, they encounter all manner of werewolves, vampires, and mythical beings right out of the pages of Hindu, Sumerian, Japanese, and European folklore.  All the while, Fiona and Zeke are drawn gradually closer as they battle for their lives and we see Fiona really come into her own as a more confident and decisive person.  We are also treated to a little more background on Uncle Edgar and Peter and what role they play in the history's old war among super beings and gods.  Serious questions remain however like, what were the men who attacked the hospital trying to find exactly?  Who is the enigmatic Peter and is he actually something entirely different than his feeble appearance suggests?  What part does Uncle Edgar play in all of this and why now are the gods who have hidden themselves among humanity making themselves known and unleashing hell upon the Earth?  You're going to have to pick up PATERNUS: RISE OF GODS if you want to find out, because I'm simply not telling.

Let me start off by saying, I am not a big fan of Urban Fantasy for those who know me.  In fact, it's my least favorite sub-genre of Fantasy.  So when I say I was blown away in a good way by this book, it really is saying something about both the story and the author Dyrk Ashton.  Admittedly, the book starts out a bit slow.  I believe that this was necessary though to set up the numerous characters and the backstory so that when things finally do hit the fan about a third of the way through, you don't have to catch up and can just enjoy the hellacious ride until the very end.  This book essentially has everything you could want, bloody battles, intense chase scenes, vampires and werewolves (as I mentioned earlier), mysterious cabals, mysticism and folklore, characters who grow as they are tested, and a compelling history that is at the same time immensely interesting.  I also enjoyed the first-person narrative because it really gave the reader a wonderful insight into each character's mindset and motivations.  Often times first-person doesn't click with me but when done well it can really add to the story in a way that third-person simply cannot.  I thought that Dyrk Ashton handled it brilliantly.  In the end this book was just so damn fun to read.  It's always nice to just lose yourself in a book that you don't have to think too much about.  PATERNUS: RISE OF GODS did have shades of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in it but I thought the creatures were more reminiscent of the old Harry Harryhausen films and the 90's TV serial Hercules than American Gods. I truly cannot say enough good things about this book, and knowing that book two WRATH OF GODS is being released next month (July 10th to be exact) is just an added bonus because I want more of these characters and legends. With that in mind, definitely pick up PATERNUS: RISE OF GODS and then book two next month, you won't be disappointed if you love Urban Fantasy with breakneck action and scarier than hell mythic beasts.  Dyrk Ashton, I think you've finally found your calling.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Book Review: THE TRAITOR GOD by Cameron Johnston

Title: The Traitor God

Author: Cameron Johnston

Publisher: Angry Robot

Publication Date: June 5, 2018

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟1/2

Angry Robot Books is a publishing company that just keeps churning out quality authors and books lately.  It has gradually become one of my favorite publishing companies and I have read quite a few amazing titles over the past few years from them.  So when I first saw the absolutely gorgeous cover art of THE TRAITOR GOD written by Scottish author Cameron Johnston, I already had an inkling that I wanted to know more about it.  When I found out that it was being published by Angry Robot, to be released in the United States on June 5th, that took me a little bit further.  When I read the synopsis of the book and quickly learned that it contained daemons, sorcerers, magicians and gods!  Well that only solidified my resolve to search out an advanced reader copy before the impending release date.  And when Angry Robot was gracious enough to supply that very advanced copy, I was ready to jump in feet first.  This is Cameron Johnston's very first full-length book, which makes what I believe he accomplished with this story all the more impressive.  So without further adieu, let me introduce you to this exceptional debut novel, THE TRAITOR GOD.

Cameron Johnston wastes no time in throwing the reader immediately into the action of THE TRAITOR GOD.  Edrin Walker is a magician with a not so sterling reputation in his home city of Setharis.  When you're rumored to have killed a god in your past, this sentiment is fairly easy to understand.  Couple that with a few other shady events in Edrin's earlier life and he has found himself a reviled exile from his home town for the last ten years.  Edrin has the ability to connect minds with other gifted magicians that are like himself and this is introduced very effectively in the story when he senses that his best friend Lynas is in mortal danger back home in Setharis.  This is troubling to Edrin since as the main condition of his exile, the Arcanum leaders of the city promised not to harm his good friends Lynas, Charra and their daughter Layla as long as he didn't ever return.  Things quickly ramp up when Edrin can sense Lynas being stalked by a daemon and ultimately sees him brutally murdered through their connection.  Before Lynas meets his violent end, he sends out one last ditch message to Edrin using his skill.  This mysterious message forces Edrin to return to the home city that shunned him.  The magician is now fueled not only by the desire for revenge at all costs for the treachery and betrayal done to him, but also a by the desperate mission to find Charra and Layla and make sure that the same fate does not befall them as well.  It is now obvious that the terms of his exile have been wantonly disregarded for some reason with all bets now being off, but Edrin seems to like it that way.  First he must sneak into the city undetected, which is not a small task considering that the docks are tightly guarded by Arcanum "sniffers".  Then he must somehow unravel the mystery of who murdered his friend and for what purpose.  Did it have something to do with Edrin's past deeds that caused him to be exiled in the first place?  Or was the murder just a ploy to somehow get Edrin to return home and face one last judgment of sorts?  And what exactly was the mysterious message that Lynas transmitted to Edrin seconds before he died?  We are ultimately left wondering if there is a greater conspiracy at work among the higher-up Arcanum of the city and whether Lynas may have stumbled across something that he shouldn't have.  And now Edrin is thrust headlong into the middle of a maelstrom of battling factions and deceitful interests.  The only question that remains is will he survive and can he save Charra and Layla who also are being hunted by the same evil forces.

This book is like a video game, wrapped inside an action movie, brilliantly told in written word form.  A quick disclaimer: Cameron Johnston does not hold your hand and info dump you to death, so you'd better strap yourself in and get ready for one whirlwind of a fantastic story that does not slow down.  Edrin is a complex main character in that he starts off as an unsympathetic egotist but as the story progresses, his character does as well and you actually can't help but root for him by the end.  It's weird to have such conflicting emotions when dealing with a main character like that.  The mysteries unravel slowly and are only hinted at as the book goes on.  So as the reader, you really have to remain focused on what is going on throughout because this is not a book that allows for many distractions.  I love books that drop you right into the story from the beginning with minimal build-up.  I know that I might be in the minority in that regard, but I just don't enjoy a book that sets things up very slowly.  I guess it might be the impatient reader in me in that I am always looking for the next book to read, so I don't want to feel like I am being spoon-fed a ton of information to the detriment of the story development.  THE TRAITOR GOD was just what I look for in a reading experience.  Tons of action, incredible world-building, bad guys who are reaaaally bad, an intriguing mystery at the heart of it etc...  This book just worked on so many levels for me and I was left wanting more by the end.  I say that not with respect to being unsatisfied with the book's conclusion, but because it was so incredibly good that I wished I had book number two in my hands and ready to go.  By all means, do not cheat yourself by skipping this book.  It has so much to offer for anyone who loves breakneck action in their Fantasy as well as cool villains and magic aplenty. And for those who like a little bit of mystery in their reads, it has a good deal of that too.