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 two 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.

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?

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. 

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.