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The Self-Published Fantasy Blog-off Post 1: Priest & Under a Colder Sun

The Self-Published Fantasy Blog-off Post 1: Priest & Under a Colder Sun published on No Comments on The Self-Published Fantasy Blog-off Post 1: Priest & Under a Colder Sun

About the Contest

The Self-published Fantasy Blog-off (SPFBO) is sponsored by Mark Lawrence and carried out by 10 hard-working blogs. You’ve probably heard of Mark Lawrence. He’s written a few books.

The contests itself is explained HERE.

The ten finalists are listed HERE.

And these are the ratings given to the books so far HERE.

Galleywampus is not directly involved in this contest. However, I will read and review the ten finalists. And maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll be invited to officially take part in the contest next year. I know I want a tower of independently published novels myself.

I’ve decided to write two reviews per post. This first post will feature Priest by Matthew Colville and Under a Colder Sun by Greg James.

The books at the SPFBO are also being rated by the blogs, so I determined to add my own ratings to the mix. I gather that these ratings are on a 1-10 scale. I am comparing these books to my own general preferences, and these preferences tend toward the center. I don’t often assign a 9 or a 10, unless the book truly blows me away. I also don’t assign 1-3 ratings often, unless the book is really, truly something that I can’t find a good thing to say about it. Most of the books I review fall into that 4-8 range.

Reviews

priest

Priest by Matthew Colville is an interesting work of fiction. I was often left uncertain about what would happen next. It is a bit like a work of noir, but that isn’t quite right. “A fantasy hard-boiled” is on the cover, and that’s partially what I experienced. It reminds me a bit of an episode of an old crime program, or a locked-room mystery. We know that something happened, and we know the end result. This is sort of a “whodoneit.” We don’t know who did it, or why, or even specifically how it was done. The protagonist isn’t given much to work with.

My biggest complaints, honestly, are that 1) Heden, the protagonist, was often needlessly cruel to the knights, in ways that felt slightly out of character based on some of his previous actions, and 2) he’s terribly obtuse. These areas work as both strengths and weaknesses of the work. I think the book would have been significantly shorter and we would have observed much less of interest if Heden had used this old adage by Epictetus: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” He wants to swing in, get his answers, and go back to his self-inflicted hermitage. That’s not the job he was asked to do, it isn’t the job that would have simplified his and others’ lives, and it wasn’t what was in the best interest of the story.

The book is not a typical fantasy. It isn’t really a quest narrative, and it certainly isn’t a “coming of age” story. The protagonist isn’t a teen or twenty-something. In these areas, the book is a breath of fresh air. Fantasy isn’t a genre for endless Tolkien revisions.

I enjoyed the work. There are some interesting characters throughout, the mysteries within the forest are intriguing, and I’d really like to step down into that basement. There were parts that remained unwritten, which is fine; there are more books.

Rating: 6.5

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Under a Colder Sun by Greg James is a bit of grimdark (or dark fantasy, maybe sword and sorcery) fiction with a Conan-like protagonist in Khale the Wanderer. Not young Conan. Old Man Conan, if he also had sorcery at his disposal and immortality at hand. Khale is a badass. He is more complicated than first laid out for the reader, and I appreciated that complexity. Sure, he’s a “bad guy” but he has layers.

The protagonists are not particularly likable. These aren’t good guys trying to kill bad guys. These are mostly just bad guys. The motivations are realistic (to the story) and their actions fit their worldviews. I didn’t really have anyone to cheer for, with Khale being the most interesting.

There are some over-simplified characters that feel like they are the archetypes of, rather than depictions of, full-on characters.

The story is written well. While there are some areas that I feel like I’ve read before, there was some new as well. Ultimately, this book wasn’t really my taste. But it is worth a go if the basic concept catches your attention.

Rating: 5.5

Review: Rend the Dark by Mark Gelineau & Joe King

Review: Rend the Dark by Mark Gelineau & Joe King published on No Comments on Review: Rend the Dark by Mark Gelineau & Joe King

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About the Book

From the authors’ website:
The great Ruins are gone. The titans. The behemoths. All banished to the Dark and nearly forgotten. But the cunning ones, the patient ones remain. They hide not in the cracks of the earth or in the shadows of the world. But inside us. Wearing our skin. Waiting. Watching.

Once haunted by visions of the world beyond, Ferran now wields that power to hunt the very monsters that he once feared. He is not alone. Others bear the same terrible burden. But Hunter or hunted, it makes no difference. Eventually, everything returns to the Dark.

Review

This is the second novella written by Mark Gelineau and Joe King in their ongoing, over-arching series, Echoes of the Ascended. One of the interesting things about this wider series is that there are four distinct series under the Echoes of the Ascended banner, all taking place in the same world. Each has a different feel.

The first novella, Reaper of Stone, which we reviewed HERE, had a high-fantasy face, and followed Elinor as she became a Reaper.

This second book is about a monster-hunting acolyte. It has more of a horror-fantasy vibe. A little more like a Van Helsing. Some of the gruesome aspects reminded me a bit of The Monstrumologist, though this is distinctly a different tale.

Ferran is the protagonist here, or at least one of them. We follow him, beginning with his childhood, from his humble origins in an orphanage. He sees monsters. The people who run orphanages hate it when the little blighters under their control see weird, disgusting, scary monsters, so when he freaks out upon seeing that the juggler isn’t what everyone else thinks he is, the orphanage is not pleased.

We get a really cool passing mention of the lead characters from the other three story lines Gelineau and King are working with: Elinor, Alys, Roan, and Kay. Though the stories are each separate and self-contained to some degree, it is enjoyable to see little glimpses of where the world intersects for these characters.

Ferran is eventually taken in by a group of people who hunt and kill the blackhearts, and he is trained. By the time we meet him again, he’s not a scared child hiding from the juggler. He’s a badass monster hunter, complete with a chain in one hand and something like a naginata in the other. We meet some other characters here, but giving too many details here will give too much away. The most interesting of these others is Mireia, who acts as a spiritual bard; her songs seemingly aid the flow of battle in the group’s favor.

If large spider-things scare you silly, you’re going to have a bad time. Or, a good time, if you like being scared. Same thing with zombies, or things like zombies. Puppet-people. Monsters in people suits. Because that’s what’s being hunted here. Dark times.

I’m excited to read the third book, which sounds like a sort of noir-fantasy hybrid. I love hybrids. I enjoy noir titles. You’ve probably noticed that I read a lot of fantasy. I’ve enjoyed the first two novellas in the Echoes of the Ascended series. I won’t be reading quite as many titles in November (hello NaNoWriMo) but the first Alys title, Best Left in the Shadows, will be coming out in November, and it is on that list.

About the Authors

Mark and Joe have been writing and telling stories together for the last 25 years. They share a love for the classic fantasy tales of their childhood. Their Echoes of the Ascended series brings those old epic characters and worlds to new life.

Author Links

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Review: Fires of Man by Dan Levinson

Review: Fires of Man by Dan Levinson published on No Comments on Review: Fires of Man by Dan Levinson

Fires of Man cover

About This Book

Supposedly the war between Calchis and Orion ended decades ago. But upon reporting to an isolated Orion army base for basic training, Private Stockton Finn learns the war still rages; only the weapons have changed, and Finn has been selected to become one of them.

Across the border, Calchan farm boy Aaron Waverly learns how determined his country is to win the war when he is abducted by a sinister government operative known as Agent. Trapped and learning to use deadly powers he’s never before imagined, Aaron struggles to reconcile his ephemeral faith with his harsh new reality.

As the two nations hurtle toward a resurgence of open hostilities, Finn and Aaron, Agent, and two Orion officers and former lovers—Nyne Allen and Kay Barrett—must prepare themselves for the inevitable clash. Meanwhile, Calchan archaeologist Dr. Faith Santia unearths a massive lost temple in the frozen tundra far to the north, which hints that the brewing conflict may only be the first of their worries…

Excerpt

1.
AGENT
He ran toward the edge of the cliff.

The sun beat down upon him as his limbs pumped. Earth crunched beneath his feet, and a breeze blew across his black-stubbled scalp. His breathing was calm, meticulously measured.

When the ground slipped away, he felt only anticipation.

Plummeting, the man inhaled. Power flooded into him, thrilling, delicious. He reached out with that power, warping reality with an energy born from the depths of his being. Suddenly . . .

He winked out of existence . . .

And then reappeared at the base of the cliff.

Ahead lay a farmstead, suffused in noontime light. Past its assorted buildings—barns and silos, stables and chicken coops—a field of wheat swayed like the hair of some sleeping giant.

It would burn soon.

Through his years of service, he’d been called many things: “raven”; “hellhound”; “black-hearted bastard.” There was but one epithet that mattered—the one he’d earned with blood, and devotion.

He was “Agent.”

A man with no name. A man who owed his nation everything.

Just then, he spotted his quarry—a teenage farmhand named Aaron Waverly. The boy had power—strong power, according to the readings.

Agent dashed toward the farm; dry winds kicked dirt and debris over his steel-toed boots. The expanse of greenery blurred past. He moved swift as a shooting star, his power saturating him with speed and strength.

When Waverly turned, and saw, it was too late.

Agent teleported behind Waverly, and struck once, at the base of the farmhand’s skull. The young man swooned, and Agent caught him, slung him over his shoulder.

“Stop!”

A frown split the crags of Agent’s face.

Before him stood a girl, no more than sixteen, a pitchfork clutched in her fingers. She was a pretty thing, her blonde tresses tied back in a ponytail, her face darkened by hours in the field. She was an innocent. Agent did not relish the thought of ending her. “Run,” he said.

“I’ll scream.” Her eyes flitted to the silenced pistol at his side. She hesitated.

He laid a hand on the gun. “Run,” he repeated.

She ran.

He drew his weapon and shot her in the back of the head.

She pitched forward, hit the ground, dead. Blood spread in a widening pool around her. Waverly groaned, eyelids flickering. Agent holstered the gun and looked at the girl. Killing civilians was distasteful, but she had seen him. He’d had no choice.

Now, time to go.

Agent stepped toward the nearby barn, and pressed his palm against the red-painted planks. He sent his power into it, and a ripple spread through the wood, like a pebble striking the surface of a pond. Furrows of heat fanned out from his fingertips, crackling furiously.

He turned away and teleported to safety.

Back atop the cliff, he paused to watch his handiwork.

Review

Fires of Man is a difficult book to review. There were some elements that I really enjoyed, and there were a few that puzzled me enough to leave me frustrated and unhappy. I’ll get into all of that.

There are shades of X-Men here: look, it’s like this. The youth develop powers, and these powers are often dangerous, right? These young people, in this case, are called Psionics. The protagonist (of these chapters) is Finn. He’s a younger sibling of several rough-and-tumble brothers. The Psionics are discovered by people in a satellite who sit around all day looking for bursts of power, and then people are sent to grab the newly special kids and, well…they need to learn how to control these powers, obviously. Anyone can see that. They need a nurturing environment in order to learn how to use these baffling but amazing abilities (shooting laser-like flames from their hands, super-speed, super-strength, shields, that sort of thing). And then these young people can become useful members of society, much less dangerous to themselves and others than they were before they took their own talents in hand. In a sane world, it makes some sort of sense.

Unfortunately, these young people don’t get a nurturing environment. They get conscripted by the military and trained with some tough love. There’s no Professor X here to make sure they are given a balanced and mentally healthy education. These kids are essentially trained like the lovable losers in the Vince Vaughn movie “Dodgeball.” They get shot with tennis balls and are told to throw up a shield. If they can block three balls, they get to take the day off. Most of them don’t get to take the day off. They are put into tight quarters with a bunch of other burgeoning tweens and teens, and expected to behave. Of course, you then have some issues with bullying, because every high school has ’em. Also, if you wash out, you’ll probably end up dead. Psionics are not allowed to return to civilian life. Good luck!

The basic concept there is intriguing. I like it. I enjoy Levinson’s skill in the written word. There are some really interesting things in this part of the book. I’ve read a few strong YA and NA titles lately, like Jenna Lincoln’s The Protector Project and Jacinta Maree’s Soulless. The basics of this portion fit in well there. I have some quibbles about some of the character traits–I don’t like the trope of the nerd who can’t help but stare at a girl, or the violent outburst that is rewarded by the pretty girl because she has low self-esteem and has never had someone stand up for her before. Yeah, there are people like this, and the characters are meant to be flawed, I’m sure. But I worry–and I’m a worrier, so I see that this is an issue for me that won’t be for some others–that this trope slips a little into the girl-as-reward thing. I probably dwelt too much upon it, but sometimes it happens. But moving beyond my own highly-responsive empathic abilities, this would make quite the YA series.

One oddity for me, though, is the book’s intended audience. If the whole book was about Finn and the Psionic teens, I’d say this is a YA book. Even Aaron, the kidnapped teen from the excerpt, could make his way into that book. There are some liberal F-bombs and some brutal, bloody passages dribbled about like chocolate syrup on vanilla ice cream. But YA is a broad realm of reading tastes, and books with “adult” language and violence are certainly viable in that market.

But then we also follow a few adults around–a noble Orion military officer and his tough-as-nails former flame, for example. Teens read about adults. These adults have very adult concerns. Relationship drama and fancy dinners, passive-aggressive arguments and things unsaid. I enjoyed these stories, too. I have a soft spot for the noble military officers in a lot of works (I am currently thinking of Django Wexler’s Marcus in The Thousand Names particularly,) so Nyne was one character I found myself excited to explore. One scene that really gripped me involved Nyne as he left a club and encountered a young man who had overdosed. Nyne’s emotions in this scene are powerful, and his reactions are realistic for his character. But it almost feels like a different book taking place in the same world at the same time–the adult ballast to the unstable teens. Though the adults are at least as unstable as the teens.

We follow a lot of other characters, third-person limited, over-the-shoulder style. We have those I’ve already mentioned: the noble commanding officer of the military and his tough-as-nails former flame, and Finn. We also have an archaeologist, a brutal Calchan called Agent–the man who shoots a girl in the back in the excerpt, he’s a bad (but complex) dude–and a boy, Aaron, who is kidnapped (this occurs in the excerpt above) and forced into a Calchan military unit.

This is a book about people first. Yes, it does feature a war between nations, and war and battles dominate the second half, but this isn’t about the nations or about war. The characters are individual from one another, and there is a lot to like about them. They grow and change. They aren’t perfect, and that’s good. The villains are deeply disturbed. Good people do bad things for the wrong reasons, and bad people do good things for the right reasons. Complexity abounds.

I am left with a lot of questions. The book ends with a lot unsaid, but another book is on the way. We’ll find out more. And there is enough going on, enough of the iceberg beneath the sea, that further books are absolutely supported. The world building is deep.

For some, this book will push all the buttons and move along in all the right ways. It wasn’t quite that book for me. I am glad I read it. I find myself curious enough about where the stories will twist in the next installment to consider moving forward with the series.

The book is currently available at Amazon as well as your favorite book retailer.

About the Author

51tHGgkCExL._UX250_Dan Levinson is a NY-based writer of speculative fiction. Trained as an actor at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts, he also writes for the stage and screen. He grew up immersing himself in fantastical worlds, and now creates them. In addition to the Psionic Earth series, he is also the author of the upcoming YA fantasy novel The Ace of Kings, first book of The Conjurer’s Cycle.
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Author Links

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Book Spotlight: The Whisper King by Wil Radcliffe

Book Spotlight: The Whisper King by Wil Radcliffe published on No Comments on Book Spotlight: The Whisper King by Wil Radcliffe

The Whisper King cover

From the Jacket

There is a monster sleeping deep inside of you, and The Whisper King is
coming to wake it up…and rip it out!

My name is David Kinder. And this is my story… every goddamn bloodstained word of it.

About 25 years ago when I was six my parents died in a car crash. I was bounced around a few state homes until they finally settled me at Meripitt Hill, an orphanage just outside of Lansing, Michigan. It was there that the shadows started visiting me. Not normal shadows. These shadows moved on their own accord, and whispered strange, alien things to me. Scared the piss out of me.

Wasn’t until Donna Elizondo moved to Meripitt Hill that my life started to actually become bearable. She became my best friend. Taught me to love music and to dance. That kept the shadows away. That kept me safe.

For two years we were an epic story of two. We danced. We laughed. Hell, I suspect I was falling in love with her, if kids could really know what love is.

But then she was taken away from me. Adopted.

That’s when the shadows returned for me. That’s when they took me to the Shadow Mountains to serve the Whisper King.

For ten years I learned how to fight. How to kill. I even learned how to transform myself into a Cuthach…a monster. There were thousands of us being trained there. Thousands of us learning to reach deep inside and unleash the monsters in our guts.

When a spot opened in the Whisper King’s elite guard, the Silent Heart, I was chosen to fill it. But first I had to take one final test. A test that would determine once and for all if was destined to be man or monster.

About the Book

The Whisper King was released July 24th, 2015 by Necro Publications. Purchase at Amazon or at your favorite book retailer.

Excerpt

So I was sent to a group home called Merripit Hill, just outside of Lansing, Michigan.

That’s where a deep, God awful misery was born into my soul. The place itself wasn’t so bad. No one ever beat us. Thet fed us three squares a day. And except for the fact that the activities director made us watch a worn videotape of Finian’s Rainbow nearly every Saturday afternoon, there was no cruel treatment of any kind.

But where human cruelty was lacking, other tormenters made themselves known.

Quick Thoughts

According to the author, he wrote this book as a result of having night terrors as a child. These terrors inspired his story of David Kinder.

This book is a dark fantasy, has a sardonic, straight-forward, often-funny first-person protagonist, and is obviously intended for adult audiences. What’s not to like?

About the Author

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Wil Radcliffe first met the Whisper King when he was five-years-old. He heard the rasping voice late one night, pulling him from a fitful and bitter slumber. It was then this mysterious tyrant charged young Wil with a lifelong mission…to terrify his fellow mortals with tales of deep, primal horror. And Wil has obeyed. Because he hopes the Whisper King has beer. And while he waits for alcoholic rewards he lives a fairly ordinary life with his wife, daughter, and son in some cold, dark place in a realm ringed by skeletal trees and murky lakes. On some maps it is called “Michigan.”

He is also the author of the dark fantasy novel, The Whisper King, and the young adult fantasy series, Noggle Stones.

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Review and Giveaway: The Dragon Engine by Andy Remic

Review and Giveaway: The Dragon Engine by Andy Remic published on No Comments on Review and Giveaway: The Dragon Engine by Andy Remic

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First thing: that’s a hell of a cover.

Second thing: stick around through the completion of the review because Angry Robot has supplied us with 5 COPIES of The Dragon Engine to give away. According to Angry Robot, the books can be shipped internationally. One winner per household. 5 total winners.

REVIEW

I don’t typically read Grimdark. I have seen George R. R. Martin listed as a Grimdark author, and I’ve read him. Some others, too. However, after reading Remic’s The Dragon Engine, I’m starting to wonder if Martin’s monochrome rainbow of humiliation and violence isn’t nearly grim or dark enough for the classification. Martin’s characters–well, some of them–have redeemable qualities. There isn’t much to redeem many of the characters of The Dragon Engine. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, necessarily.

The first chapter doesn’t really prepare the reader for what eventually comes in this novel. It started out feeling  a little bit like a Dragonlance book: adventurers meet together in a tavern to reminisce about the good old days in the military. They plan an epic adventure together, to journey to the supposedly abandoned Dwarven kingdom to retrieve some priceless artifacts that just might provide immortality.

We have the bombastic, axe-wielding warrior, Beetrax the Axeman. The best of all archers, Talon.  The swift ninja assassin, Sakora. The lordling swordsman and former Champion of the Guard, Dake, and his not-good-enough-for-daddy wife, Jonti Tal, a former soldier as well. And finally, the magical healer, Lillith, whose gentle femininity is a foil to Beetrax’s masculine bravado. This first chapter reminds me an awful lot of some well-written Pathfinder campaigns I have witnessed. It isn’t particularly dark or grim. The book can go anywhere from here. And it goes dark.

From this point forward, though, we’ve got some really heavy stuff happening. Rape, abuses of power, torture porn, psychopaths coming out the wazoo, and hyper-violence: brains and blood and guts galore. Warriors reciting cheesy poetry, a Church of Hate and a Church of Purity, assassins and slavery and plentiful use of the sort of language my mom used when I was growing up. The sort that got Zest bar soap, or maybe Irish Spring, rubbed into my teeth if I repeated it. You know the sort.

The abandoned places are not abandoned. The Dwarves have been driven by an intense form of isolationism, germinated by their former status as the slaves to men. The Dwarves, though, have in turn ensaved the Dragons. And the dragons are not pleased.

Everything here is amplified: the hate is the deepest hate, the pain is the most excruciating pain, the love is the loveist doveyiest love, the death is the bloodiest death.

Ultimately, I need to say that this wasn’t my sort of book. I read a lot of epic fantasy, military fantasy, modern and urban fantasy. I wasn’t sure what to expect here, but this wasn’t it. I think there are some people who will love this book, and I hope they read it. There’s a lot here to like, and I know several people who would hack off their left arm for a copy of this book.

The Dragon Engine is written by Andy Remic. It is published by Angry Robots Books. Release date: September 1, 2015.

Purchase The Dragon Engine at AMAZON.

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