The Closing of a Book.

Today is Halloween. For Wiccans (and pagans of a similar bent), it’s also Samhain, a time of the wheel turning, of endings and beginnings, saying goodbye to the old and looking forward to the new. So it’s fitting that I’m making this announcement today.

This book of Bibliotropic has come to an end. The last chapter has been written.

I’ve been regularly reviewing books for almost 6 years now. Over half a decade. Almost 20% of my life. In that time, I’ve reviewed over 400 books, most of which I’ve enjoyed. I’ve met some incredible people who have supported me and who I now count among my friends, people who show up when I write things because somewhere along the way I started writing things that people were actually interested in reading. Bibliotropic has, to varying degrees, been the focus of my life for a substantial amount of time.

But, melodramatic as it may sound, all things must pass. So too must this.

It’s not that I no longer want to review books. It’s that reviewing takes a surprising amount of time, especially when you want to write regular reviews and keep steady blog content coming. It’s been a wonderful time, and I’ve enjoyed doing it immensely, but over the past few months, I’ve found that I just don’t have the same passion for it that I used to.

But more than that. I have, for as many years as I can remember, wanted to be a published author. The biggest reason I want to step back from Bibliotropic is so that I can focus on my own writing. So that maybe one of these days I’ll be the lucky one who’s on the edge of their seat hoping to $deity that a bookblogger actually likes what I wrote and is willing to say so in public, instead of always being the one to say that about the writing of others. I want to knuckle down and tell my own fantasy stories, and to do so without feeling guilty that whenever I sit down to write, I’m taking away time that I could spend reading so that I can write another review instead.

But you can’t do something for almost a fifth of your life and then just suddenly drop it and never look back. I’ll still read books, and talk about them on Twitter and Facebook, and tell everyone I know when I find something really good that I want more people to read. Books will always be a major part of my life, and now, I think, so will talking about them. Most of that talking will be more informal than I’ve done here.

But I know that every now and then I’ll read something that will make me want to write a formal review again, make me want to talk in-depth about it because it made an impact. So I will still end up writing new reviews here now and then. Just… not very often. Maybe a couple a month. Nothing resembling the regularity that has been the norm here for a few years now. Just whenever I feel like it. And probably more like mini-reviews some of the time, too.

I’ll probably also still host guest posts and giveaways when the opportunity arises, because that requires so little from me that it won’t feel like a stressful thing to still keep up with. I will still always love to give signal boosts to authors and books who are awesome and who I think deserve more attention.

So this book may be closed. But that doesn’t mean the story’s over.

Here’s to the passing away of the old, the marks it left upon us, and the welcoming of the new. To brighter tomorrows ahead. To the stories that have yet to be told.

Happy reading, everyone!
~ Ria

(PS – If you want to keep supporting me and the stuff I do even when it’s not directly related to book reviews, then it would be awesome if you considered buying something from the Bibliotropic Etsy store, where I sell handcrafted items relating to books.)


Without Light or Guide, by T Frohock

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 3, 2015

Summary: Always holding themselves aloft from the affairs of mortals, Los Nefilim have thrived for eons. But with the Spanish Civil War looming, their fragile independence is shaken by the machinations of angels and daimons…and a half-breed caught in-between.

For although Diago Alvarez has pledged his loyalty to Los Nefilim, there are many who don’t trust his daimonic blood. And with the re-emergence of his father—a Nefil who sold his soul to a daimon—the fear is Diago will soon follow the same path.

Yet even as Diago tries to prove his allegiance, events conspire that only fuel the other Nefilim’s suspicions—including the fact that every mortal Diago has known in Barcelona is being brutally murdered.

The second novella in T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim series, Without Light or Guide continues Diago’s journey through a world he was born into, yet doesn’t quite understand.

Thoughts: By this point, I’m no stranger to Frohock’s writing, and I know fairly well in advance that I’m extremely likely to enjoy what she does. And given that the previous novella in this series, In Midnight’s Silence, tripped all the right triggers with me, I was very eager to get my hands on the sequel and continue with Diago’s story.

Without Light or Guide doesn’t disappoint. Picking up very shortly after where the previous novella left off, Diago’s loyalty to some of the Nefilim is still uncertain, to the point that even though those closest to him believe that he won’t betray them, Diago himself is unsure. His heritage is against him, his history is against him, the fact that he feels unwelcome makes him pull away further, and really, I feel for the guy, because that’s a lousy situation to be in. And when people who used to associate with him start turning up dead, he appears even more suspicious in the eyes of those who already weren’t inclined to think the best of him. And Diago’s father, Alvaro, beckons to Diago for purposes unknown…

As terrible as it is for Diago to be stuck in the middle in a completely different way than he was last time, it was also interesting to see how he copes with it all. The people most important to him believe him him, as I mentioned, which provides a point of stability when doubt plagues him, but we get to see some of the internal struggle as he battles with the push and pull of various expectations. And it’s not so much that he feels temptation to side with daimons as much as it is that he feels the urge to fall back on old habits and run from the things that are causing him problems in the first place, even if that means leaving good things behind. Maybe it’s a little bit of me forcing my own issues on a character, but I see in him a man who wants very much to reconcile so many parts of his life and keeps getting shot down.

It was the major scene with his father that really got to me, in that regard. Diago wants, in a way, to put some things behind him and help Alvaro despite their awkward history, and then when Alvaro betrays him once again… It was the kind of thing that hit very close to home with me, because I’ve experienced that pain of reaching out to someone again and again and being disappointed every time, to the point where you have to eventually turn your back on family and see them for the flawed individuals they are. You owe them no loyalty when they repeatedly betray you.

I mention this for a reason beyond just the personal: one of the marks of a good author is their ability to make you feel. Even if you haven’t been in a similar position to Diago’s, you can’t help but have your heart ache just a little bit during that scene, and with the following emotional rise as Frohock dips a toe just a little bit into the cheesy side of things and has the power of love save the day. Evocative prose bring it all to fantastic life on the page, and you feel every up and down as the story flows along and Diago’s journey continues.

I love this series. Frohock’s storytelling shines as she tells a story of redemption and love and faith, all wrapped together with angels and demons and music and vivid history. It’s a series with a low level of investment and such a high payoff that if you enjoy any of those things, or just enjoy dark fantasy in general, then you’d be foolish to overlook it. Without Light or Guide is a brilliant follow-up to In Midnight’s Silence, hands down, and I’m already eagerly anticipating visiting all the characters again in the next installment.

(Received for review via the publisher.)

SPFBO Review: The Weight of a Crown, by Tavish Kaeden

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Rating – 8/10
Author’s website
Publication date – August 9, 2011

Summary: Thousands dream of it; still more die for it. Yet, how many can truly bear it?

After centuries of bitter conflict the realm of Esmoria is at last united under the banner of a single king. On the surface the realm appears to be enjoying its first taste of peace, but lingering resentment and the untimely death of the new ruler threaten to return Esmoria to political chaos.

Meanwhile, in the farthest reaches of the frozen north, a dethroned monarch’s plot for revenge awakens a long-forgotten evil. As darkness and treachery descend upon the realm, a young escapee from a forced labor camp, a disenfranchised soldier, and an epileptic engraver’s apprentice find themselves at the heart of the troubles.

Thoughts: I seem to have saved some of the best of the SPFBO novels for last, entirely inadvertently. I have to say, though, it was a great way to close out the challenge! The Weight of a Crown may not have been the absolute best book I read, but it was pretty high up on the list, and for the faults I could find with it I have to also admit that I had a very hard time putting it down.

The story revolves around 4 main characters: Bokrham, regent to the Blood Marsh throne, struggling with the politics of having to hold a kingdom strong against threats both from without and within; Jeina, a convict sent to a labour camp to atone for her crime, who stumbles upon an ancient secret and has to flee for her life; Xasho, a Curahshena warrior who stumbles across some fascinating and life-changing weapons after a military blunder, and Nicolas, once apprentice to an engraver but now associating with the only one who can both explain the strange quality to his seizures and keep them from killing him.

You’ll notice this is the point where, in my reviews, I typically mention how their separate stories all come together to make a cohesive narrative. The reason I didn’t do so there is because it takes about half of the book before you really start to see hints of how their stories might be connected, and it’s not until after two thirds of the book have passed that everything comes together. Until then, it feels like you’re reading a book of entirely separate stories that just happen to take place in the same world. And in the early sections of the book, where each chapter ends with an exciting event or a question or some form of impending change, the constant flipping back and forth between multiple utterly-disconnected characters did leave me wondering why I should care about them. I felt like the chapter endings were supposed to be more impressive, to have you on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen the next time that character’s chapter comes around, but it didn’t really do that for me, not for quite a while.

So is this a drawback? Well, yes. While multiple character perspectives are fine, especially when they all come from very different backgrounds and see things in different ways, having there be little or nothing that connects them makes the overall story very hard to grasp. I could tell you, at the halfway mark, what was happening in every individual’s story. But the overarching plot of the novel? Not a clue, at that point, and that’s a lot to expect readers to hang in there for.

It also means that it’s difficult for me to mention just about anything about said overarching plot without spoiling events that will take readers most of the book to actually reach.

And yet I still really enjoyed this book. The chapters were short, which was a drawback in terms of character development but it also meant that “one more chapter” syndrome was very easy to fall into. Kaeden’s writing style was very fluid, very engaging, and not knowing what was going on until relatively late in the book, I found myself enjoying the journey to that discovery. For me, it was one of those books that pulls you in very easily, the kind that, when you do stop reading, makes you wonder just how so much time could have passed because it didn’t feel as long as it was. It’s amazing how much that kind of readability can make up for other weaknesses.

So where do I stand on The Weight of a Crown? Given that I enjoyed it so much, I’ve got my eye on the sequel, for one thing. For another, I have to say that this too is a book that shucks off perceived limitations of self-published novels. If you work under the assumption that all self-published novels are ones that weren’t good enough to be taken on by traditional publishers (which clearly isn’t the case, but bear with me on this), then I’d swear that this one did come from a traditional publisher. The quality’s there, as is the effort, and the potential for improvement. So this was a fantastic book to end the SPFBO challenge on, and one that I’m very happy to have been able to read. It may take a while to really get going, but it’s worth the time you put into it, and I’m curious to see how Kaeden’s writing career will further develop.

SPFBO Review: Bloodrush, by Ben Galley

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Rating – 8.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – December 16, 2014

Summary: “Magick ain’t pretty, it ain’t stars and sparkles. Magick is dirty. It’s rough. Raw. It’s blood and guts and vomit. You hear me?”

When Prime Lord Hark is found in a pool of his own blood on the steps of his halls, Tonmerion Hark finds his world not only turned upside down, but inside out. His father’s last will and testament forces him west across the Iron Ocean, to the very brink of the Endless Land and all civilisation. They call it Wyoming.

This is a story of murder and family.

In the dusty frontier town of Fell Falls, there is no silverware, no servants, no plush velvet nor towering spires. Only dust, danger, and the railway. Tonmerion has only one friend to help him escape the torturous heat and unravel his father’s murder. A faerie named Rhin. A twelve-inch tall outcast of his own kind.

This is a story of blood and magick.

But there are darker things at work in Fell Falls, and not just the railwraiths or the savages. Secrets lurk in Tonmerion’s bloodline. Secrets that will redefine this young Hark.

This is a story of the edge of the world.

Thoughts: I’m not much for westerns. They just don’t really interest me. So while I had it on good authority that Bloodrush was a good novel, I saved it for one of the last books of Round 2 just because I expected that it really wouldn’t end up being my thing after all.

So colour me surprised when it turned out that I really loved it!

This is more than just a fantasy with western elements. This is alternate historical fantasy. Or possibly it would be better to say that it’s a parallel universe rather than just alternate history, since alternate history tends to imply that a major event went a different way and history branched from there. This is alternate in the way that His Dark Materials is alternate; there are plenty of parallels, you feel generally comfortable knowing the place and time, but there are enough differences to make it stand out and the culture is noticeably affected. Whether you’re taking a stroll through London’s Jekyll Park reading about the politics of England’s Prime Lord and Queen Victorious, or you cross the Iron Ocean to visit the New Kingdom of America, Galley’s vision of a twisted past shows much care and attention to detail. The more small changes were unearthed, the further I fell happily into the book, because it was another layer for me to explore.

Tonmerion Hark, known to his friends as Merion, has been sent away against his will, following the murder of his father. For reasons unknown to him, he has been sent to live with his aunt in Wyoming, an ocean and a country away from the Empire he grew up in, until he comes of age and receives his inheritance. But the circumstances of his father’s murder are mysterious, and Wyoming is a terrifying place on the frontier and is filled with strangers and angry creatures, and Merion quickly finds himself with another ten questions for every answer. Together with Rhin, his faerie companion and exile in his own right, they won’t stop until they get to the bottom of the mysteries now plaguing Merion’s new American life.

While Tonmerion is only 13 at the outset of the book, this isn’t what I’d label a young adult novel. The tone is darker, more detailed and mature, and though the detail of blood and gore is kept to a tasteful level, details of dissecting mutilated corpses isn’t something you’d typically find in books where the protagonist is Merion’s age. So if you start off hoping to find a YA story within these pages, however creative, you’re probably going to end up disappointed. This is an adult fantasy with a young adult protagonist, something that isn’t commonly done but that Galley did very well. You can’t help but roll your eyes at Merion’s entitlement, which comes across very well as a young rich man who suddenly finds himself in what he views as an uncultured place full of ignorant people not giving him his due. He straddles the line between innocent ignorance and outright arrogance, which gives him the overall feel of being a lovable young jerk with the potential to grow.

Mention must be made of the magic system in Bloodrush, which involves ingesting blood in order to gain powers or abilities from the source. The power to do this runs on Merion’s bloodline, and to read that, you’d think that the his discovery of this would be one of those things that’s a huge surprise to him but not to the reader because of course the protagonist has to have magic when magic is available. The thing of it is, you go through more than a quarter of the novel before you even start to pick up hints that there’s something going on that involves blood, but full details aren’t really revealed until later, so it’s a slow building of small hints that creep up on you. I didn’t figure there would be magic at all in this book, or at least not magic that wasn’t Fae-oriented. Galley has this fantastic ability to bring you into it all so slowly, so carefully, that you don’t quite realize your view of the world is shifting until it’s shifted.

But for all that, Bloodrush isn’t a slow burn kind of novel. It starts off by throwing you into the thick of things and keeps bringing new situations in with a steady pace that begs to have you keep reading just one more chapter, just one more, so you can keep the story going and find out what’s happening now.

Echoing my comment on What Remains of Heroes, I can easily see this book getting enough interest that traditional publishers might want in on the action. It’s unique, it’s highly entertaining, the pacing is superb, and the characters varied and a lot of fun to read about. This is one is one of the best of the bunch, definitely worth paying attention to, and if it’s not one of the top 3 SPFBO novels, I’ll be extremely surprised.

SPFBO Review: What Remains of Heroes, by David Benem

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Rating – 8.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – April 17, 2015

Summary: Lannick deVeers used to be somebody. A hero, even. Then, he ran afoul of the kingdom’s most powerful general and the cost he paid was nearly too much to bear. In the years that followed, his grief turned him into a shadow of his former self, and he spent his days drowning his regrets in tankards of ale.

But now an unexpected encounter casts Lannick upon an unlikely path to revenge. If he can just find the strength to overcome the many mistakes of his past, he can seize the chance to become a hero once more.

And with an ancient enemy lurking at the kingdom’s doorstep, he’d better…

Thoughts: Every so often, when reading self-published novels, you run across one that makes you wonder why the author chose to buck tradition and go with self-publishing as their main option. Was it because self-publishing was quicker than sending manuscripts to agents and/or publishers and hoping for the best? Was it because they saw an opportunity to make a greater financial return on their efforts? Was it because they did apply with agents and publishers and their novel was turned down?

I sincerely hope it wasn’t the last one. David Benem’s What Remains of Heroes is exactly the kind of novel that breaks down the stereotypes about the quality and content of self-publishing, and makes me think that if a traditional publisher did pass on this one, it was to their detriment.

Lannick is a man who used to be someone. Loving family, prestige, captain of an army. Until he made a mistake and paid the price, and now spends his days drunk and in debt. Until he makes another, more costly mistake, and finds himself thrust into a plot of old gods and new heroes. Bale is a priest, channeling magic in the name of the goddess of light, studying forbidden histories and legends that turn out to have more than a grain of truth to them. Through good luck or ill, he is sent to investigate the murder of the head of his religion, to uncover the truth about strange dealings and religious secrecy. Karnag is a mercenary, the man who killed the head of Bale’s order, whose companions now watch in confusion and fear as he turns aside from his old life and heads toward a new frontier of blood and carnage as war approaches, following the new voices and urges in his head that tell him his hands will never be stained with enough blood.

Within the space of half a chapter, I found myself wanting to keep reading with no interruptions. What Remains of Heroes dips into the darker side of fantasy without being overly depressing or brutal. There’s plenty of violence, don’t get me wrong, but it’s in appropriate levels for the various situations, and none of it feels like the author was trying to be dark and edgy for the sake of being dark and edgy. Each of the primary characters feels, to a degree, out of place in the world at large, even if they have their place within their particular microcosm, and especially with Lannick and Bale there seems almost a desperate attempt to make sense of where they fit in, what their role in. Karnag’s struggle is of a similar but different sort, trying to adjust to how he has changed and why, and Fencress’s challenge is, in part, figuring out what happened to Karnag.

It’s worth taking a moment to express here that while there’s a serious minority of female characters in this book, and Fencress’s story is very much entwined with Karnag’s, Fencress herself is not some cardboard cutout character, intended only to show what’s happening with Karnag. Her role starts small and grows much larger as the story continues, and she is very much a solid well-defined character in her own right. I loved reading her chapters, because she’s a great character, and also the type of female character that doesn’t get showcased very often in male-dominated fantasy. Most female characters in such books are either prizes or backdrops for the hero, or else they’re good fighters or mages and can hold their own in a fight, absolutely, but are also held up as an ideal, a paragon of light and good. Fencress is a mercenary, at home with intimidating and putting knives in people if they stand between her and her goal, and she knows it. She’s nobody’s ideal and she has no interest in pretending to be so, and for that, I love her.

There’s some good worldbuilding in here, too. It, like many other books I’ve encountered in this challenge, is built on a foundation of medieval European fantasy, but that’s no a bad thing, and there’s still plenty of scope for originality within those bounds. And Benem works to create a dark fantasy world that’s manages to be familiar without feeling overly stereotyped, complex without being bogged down in complications from attempts to add too many never-before-seen things. It may not be the most original setting, but it is well crafted, and it feels as complete as any other good fantasy world I have encountered. It doesn’t break any boundaries, but it’s very good at being what it is.

Benem’s writing shines amid a sea of lackluster novels, and it’s no surprise to see that What Remains of Heroes passed to the second round of the SPFBO challenge. It’s a strong first novel, impressive and well done, and it’s got wonderful appeal to fans of dark traditional fantasy who are looking for some new voices. This was a fantastic find, and I’m already looking forward to the second book in the series! I expect that What Remains of Heroes will be a strong contender for the crown in the SPFBO, when the final scores are tallied.

SPFBO Review: Shattered Sands, by W G Saraband

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Rating – 6/10
Author’s GoodReads page
Publication date – August 7, 2015

Summary: For years, Tamazi felt she was nothing like the other slave-girls. It was not until her master disappeared, the Great Vizier of the desert kingdom of Rilmaaqah, that a power older than the sands themselves took hold of her; a power that could finally free her, or enslave her forever.

Rilmaaqah is in chaos. The fires of rebellion spread, and the winds of change threaten the Mageocracy, as the common people rise with the courage to claim their share. But the sands hide many things, and it falls to an unlikely group of people to put a stop to death, before she sings her lullaby to the living.

Thoughts: I can’t say that Middle Eastern-inspired fantasy is popular these days, exactly, but I do seem to come across more and more of it as time goes on. Shattered Sands falls firmly into that category, which makes it a welcome change from most of the other books in the SPFBO, which are largely the European-based fantasy that has become a genre standard.

The story is an interesting one, and it starts out grabbing the reader’s attention rather than allowing for a slow build. There is a power struggle in Rilmaaqah, political lines one the verge of shifting. Moreso when the ruling vizier vanishes, taken by force, and the only person who comes close to being a witness is his slave, Tamazi, who stood outside his door when the disappearance happened. Tamazi, who seems like little more than what her surface shows, until an unforeseen event shows her to be something far more. Running parallel to her story is that of Sabra, a young woman whose father has died under mysterious circumstances, and who, without his knowledge of tonics, is now prone to debilitating headaches that belie a far more serious and interesting condition. As these two go about their journeys of discovery, alliance shift, war approaches, and magic seems to be at the centre of it all.

I’m a fan of non-European inspiration in fantasy worlds, so Shattered Sands definitely delivers in that regard. But more than that, Saraband takes the obvious inspiration and builds upon it, not simply transposing one region from this world into a secondary world, but using it as a foundation to build something more concrete and stand-alone. It is more than just its source. Saraband plays with language in a way that looks, at first glance, purely like Arabic, but there are enough differences to say that the language, too, is built upon a solid foundation until it becomes something new in its own right. I love seeing the little touches like history and geography, things that don’t have to be there per se, but that make for a much more interesting setting when they are. So kudos to Saraband for putting the work in where worldbuilding is concerned.

So why the relatively low rating if the world is interesting and the story is good? Because, in short, this book just wasn’t ready. It suffers from an all-too-common problem with self-published novels: a lack of editing. This ranges from very odd turns of phrase (such as a comment that rumours don’t “make [someone] justice”) to incorrect word usage (“recipient” was used when “receptacle” would have made far more sense”), common mistakes in similarly spelled words (“then” versus “than”) to just plain missing words (“I’m a servant Emperor Apion”).  The language often had a rather stilted feel to it, too, which is somewhat forgivable since it lends well to an epic story that seems like a story, rather than a series of epic events that one is watching or participating in, and given the setting, the author may have been going for an Arabian Nights feel in that regard. Also I’m aware that English is not the author’s primary language, which can make writing a large story that much more difficult.

However, I feel that just underscores the need for solid editing, rather than excusing a lack of it.

Shattered Sands definitely has great potential, and I can see why it made it to the second round of the challenge. There’s a great story in here, one that was entertaining to read, but the lack of editing makes it a contributor to the notion that self-published books are rushed to market sooner than they ought to be, and I can’t recommend it much when part of the job remains undone. I can, however, see returning to this book and rereading it if it gets the editing it needs. Good stories deserve quality treatment in that regard, and this book deserves better than to suffer for its lack.

SPFO Review: Priest, by Matthew Colville

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Rating – 8/10
Author’s GoodReads page
Publication date – May 28, 2010

Summary: After years spent in the inn he bought and never opened, Heden is drawn out, and sent into a dark forest to investigate the death of a knight.

Nothing is what it seems. Why was Heden chosen for this mission? Who killed the knight and why? Why won’t anyone talk to him? As the Green Order awaits Heden’s final judgement, he finds his morality, perspective, and sense of self are each challenged and then destroyed.

Perhaps nothing, even right and wrong, can survive in the haunted wood.

Thoughts: There’s a certain amount of truth in the stereotypes about self-published fiction. It’s less likely to be as well-edited as traditionally published work. There a lot of bad stuff out there that you have to slog through to find the good stuff. But the good stuff is worth reading when you find it.

This, my friends, is the good stuff.

Heden’s a man with a mysterious and undiscussed past, and man who owns an inn that never opens, who does favours for the church and clearly has a history with them but who seems to see religious dealings in more of a practical light than a spiritual one. He’s a man who knows that the expedient thing isn’t always the thing that saves you the most trouble in the end, a man who baffles people around him by his mix of action and inaction. A man who is chosen by the church of Cavall to investigate the Green Order, and why this reclusive group of knights who have lived in isolation for centuries are dying out, and what that means for the church and for Heden himself.

There’s a high degree of cynicism that goes along with this story, shown primarily in Heden’s dealings with the Green Knights themselves. The Order holds true to knightly ideals, for good and for ill, which is bound to be frustrating when an outsider comes in and starts demanding that people explain themselves when they’ve vowed to keep silent about the deal of their Knight Commander. For all that none of them are comfortable with what happened, and know that Heden is there to judge and to bring justice if he can, they stick to their code and refuse to reveal the truth, a conflict of interest that makes Heden seem to want to beat his head off walls at times. At what point does being loyal to an ideal absolve you of betraying someone who holds to that same ideal? The reader’s frustrations mirror Heden’s as he and the Knights talk circles and get nowhere for much of the book.

Which admittedly was not the most fun to read, and I think a few conversations would have been better cut or at least condensed. Conversations about nothing tended to drag on for pages, and while it certainly gave me a good feel for what Heden was going through, it slowed the story down. And considering Heden’s on a bit of a time limit to solve the Green Order’s problems (without absolution, the Knights can’t leave in defense of a soon-to-be-attacked town, and without truth, Heden can’t give absolution), slowing down the story to focus on circular conversations may not have been the best move.

One thing I really loved about Priest is the way I just fell into the world, a comfortably familiar fantasy setting while still showing signs of personal tweaking by the author. While the book largely focuses on human characters, there are plenty of non-human races mentioned all over the place. Urq, who are not just orcs with a weirdly spelled name but instead seem to resemble trolls from the Elder Scrolls games, aggressive and bred for battle and hatred of other races. Brocc, a sort of anthropomorphic badger people. Polder, which I kept picturing as a cross between a gnome and a hobbit. Little tweaks all over to make the world feel original, fleshed-out and full, while still being a very clear traditional Western-based fantasy.

The biggest drawback this book had, aside from the frustrating circular conversations and the way every piece of information practically had to be squeezed out of characters, was the modes of speech. Now, I like the way the Knights had their cant, talking with “thee”s and “thou”s because that’s how they believe knights should speak. I thought that was a nice touch. But it’s always a bit strange to hear characters say, “Okay,” when you’re dealing with secondary-world fantasy. And people said that a lot in Priest, jarring me out of the reading groove whenever it happened.

I can rationalize this to an extent by my usual belief that characters in secondary-world fantasy are not speaking English, so their words on the page are, essentially, a translation for the reader’s sake. And so I can stretch that a little further to say that when characters said, “okay,” it was in place of a similar slang term in the affirmative, one that’s used as commonly there as “okay” is here. But it still felt out of place, a modern interloper.

But really, those are minor nitpicks when you compare them to the way I just fell into this story and didn’t want to leave it. This is the sort of novel people ought to pay more attention to in the self-published piles. It’s not perfect, but it’s a cut above most of the rest, and it’s a great example of the treasures that can be hiding behind other offerings. I enjoyed Priest from the first page, the tone of the writing and the way the characters came to life so quickly, and I have to say that this one leaves my hands quite well-recommended.

SPFBO Review: Sins of a Sovereignty, by Plague Jack

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Rating – 6.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – June 12, 2014

Summary: From their prisons, the old gods watch, and wait.

Calcifer, the arrogant and obtuse sorcerer turned monster hunter, wants nothing more than to bleed his country of its gold, and return to his lover. When she is assaulted and her mind is left in tatters, Calcifer seeks vengeance by any means necessary.

Sir Clark Pendragon has murdered more men than he cares to remember. Tired and battle scarred, the old knight just wants to live out his last days in peace. When he is needed to stop an assassination, Pendragon is ripped from his retirement and sent north to save his country one final time.

Shrike, keeper of Amernia’s secrets, spends his days combing through letters in search of blackmail. Cunning, and with a mind sharper than a blade, Shrike’s luck is slowly running out, as sinister shadows conspire against him.

War is coming to Amernia, and the Blood Queen stands at the heart of the chaos. A wave of hatred ripples across her country, and she maintains order with fire and fear. The rift between rich and poor, human and nonhuman, divides the kingdom more everyday, as a spectral rider streaks across the sky, heralding the death of kings.

The fates of Calcifer, Pendragon, Shrike, and the Blood Queen are hopelessly intertwined, and new alliances will be forged and broken as war threatens to tear Amernia asunder.

Thoughts: Just because a war has ended doesn’t mean that those who fought on one side or the other have lost their reason to fight. Nor does it mean that everyone fighting on a certain side fully believed or believes in the cause. War is a complicated thing, whether it came before or is coming soon, and Sins of a Sovereignty delves into those complexities on both a personal and political level.

Minerva Roselock, known as the Blood Queen, won the last war, and with that victory came the subjugation of elves, dwarves, faelings, and all manner of sentient non-human life now more commonly and cruelly referred to as subhumans. Second-class citizens at best, non-humans don’t take kindly to this treatment, especially in a land that was once theirs and was taken from them, and fighting on their behalf is a group known as the Wild Hunt, vigilantes and strikers-from-the-shadows and all of them with the goal of beating back human dominance and recovering what was once theirs.

This is a book that should have worked for me. Unfortunately, it didn’t.

I’m not sure if the reason it didn’t work for me was because of timing, and this just not being the kind of book I wanted to read when I was trying to read it, or whether the problems I had would have been there no matter when I read it. It can be hard to tell just what type of subjectivity is occurring at times like this, and sometimes I can’t pin it down better than anyone else could.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to enjoy about Sins of a Sovereignty. The author clearly put plenty of effort into worldbuilding, and there’s plenty of hints at a fairly robust system of deities, magic, culture, all of the hallmarks of a good and developed fantasy world. Much of the culture seemed derived from standard European-influenced fantasy, along with the descriptions of various non-human races (elves with pointy ears, dwarves who deal with mining and weapons), but there were some layers that added interest, such as the way uncontrolled magic could overload a person and begin their mutation into a hellion, a sentient demonic race.

I think it was the characters, largely, that kept me from getting as into the story as I’d hoped. There was a decent cast of characters, but only a few of them really got much in the way of development. Clark Pendragon, knight and favourite of Queen Roselock, joins the Wild Hunt because… actually, you know, I was never entirely clear what he was doing half the time. Sometimes it seemed like he was playing double agent, sometimes like he’d been banished, sometimes like a large but unmarked time had passed and everyone else assumed he was dead but he didn’t know that… The motives for his actions throughout the entire book were an utter mystery to me. Maybe I missed something early on that made it all make sense, I don’t know. It did take me a while to realize that the copy I have ended up poorly formatted (a result of me having to convert it from .mobi to .epub, I suspect), so abrupt scene changes that I had to put out of my head early on because they made little sense were likely due to that. Chalk this one up as a lesson to new writers, I suppose: poor formatting can kill a reader’s understanding of what’s going on, so always check to make sure it’s formatted properly for multiple devices.

(I want to stress that this wasn’t a problem caused by the author’s inattention to detail. It just resulted in some problems for me that influenced my overall opinion of the book, especially until I figured out what was happening.)

Shrike, the Queen’s banished spymaster turned agent for the Wild Hunt was the character who got the most development, I’d say. And I didn’t find him to be that interesting either. On the surface, I could see a gruff somewhat foul-mouthed dwarf with a grudge against Roselock, and ample motivation to end her reign. And it would be easy to say that underneath he’s more than that, because of course he is, but I felt like I had too little context to understand what lay underneath, where it came from and how it related to the rest of what I see of him. Calcifer, an elf with an uncommon and painful past, an elf gifted by a god and given the power to contain hellions in a magical tankard, was fascinating and I felt like I understood him best of all, but more attention seemed given to Shrike and Pendragon than to Calcifer.

Different things can make or break a novel in different ways for different people. That this book didn’t sit well with me shouldn’t be taken to mean that it’s a bad book, or that it’s poor quality. On the contrary; Plague Jack’s writing is the best I’ve read so far in the SPFBO challenge, and the story told between two warring sides, neither of whom are wholly good or bad or without their moral ambiguities (grey–and-grey morality is the order of the day in Sins of a Sovereignty), and that aspect of it is fascinating. But a story is carried by its characters, and when I have a hard time sussing them out, it’s similarly difficult to let the story, no matter how good, pull me in and draw me along. The writing is good, the story is fairly well nuanced, and I’m always a fan of books where the lines between good and bad are blurred, which is exactly what this novel is all about. It just wasn’t a book that resonated well with me, so I can’t say that I really enjoyed reading it.

But taking into account the fact that my opinions may well be coloured by irreproducable circumstances, if you enjoy dark fantasy and want something that dips into the shadier sides or morality, then Sins of a Sovereignty might well scratch that itch for you.

GUEST POST: Amelia Smith on Kazuo Ishiguro’s THE BURIED GIANT

Today, SPFBO author Amelia Smith is dropping by to give us her thoughts of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Buried Giant.

I used to think that fantasy was a genre, and that I knew what it was about. Then I tried to write a nice, quick, pulpy fantasy novel, and discovered that I had no idea what I was doing. That was almost a decade and a half ago, and the boundaries of the genre haven’t gotten any less blurry for me.

I had read fantasy novels, dozens of them. My favorites included C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which I’d read multiple times in elementary school, and The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley (which I’ve since tried to re-read, and didn’t like it as much as I used to). What I was aiming for was a mix of imagination and allegory, but apparently that wasn’t enough. I needed a plot and characters, too, so I got those. I drafted, revised, rewrote, and revised again. Then I looked around, only to discover that this so-called genre wasn’t what I thought it was at all.

Within speculative fiction, there are dozens of sub-genres with non-overlapping or barely overlapping readerships, from shifter romance to literary fairy tales to hard sci-fi to “Tolkien knock-offs.” My husband and I both read speculative fiction, but he reads mostly Lovecraftian short stories while I lean towards literary fantasy novels. I also read literary fiction, and sometimes the literary stuff is as fantastical as the fantasy. I mean, why isn’t Salman Rushdie’s work shelved in the fantasy section? Why isn’t Jo Walton in general fiction?

The line between literary fiction and fantasy is blurry, but sometimes an author tries to cross over (sort of) and trips up horribly. I’d heard good things about Kazuo Ishiguro, so when the buzz got going about The Buried Giant I checked it out. It was not what I would call a masterpiece. In some ways, it was like looking at my own first efforts to write fantasy, but also reminiscent of Phantastes by George MacDonald (first published in 1858) a book I fought my way way through recently because of C.S. Lewis’s gushing introduction to it. Phantastes was rich with allegory and description, not so strong on the forward drive of plot. The Buried Giant had a slow, foggy atmosphere which hearkened back to that Ur text of 20th century fantasy.

Ursula LeGuin criticized Ishiguro for his reluctance to embrace the fantasy genre, which led to the highest profile discussion I’ve seen of the literary/fantasy genre divide. People got a bit worked up about it. I got a bit worked up about it. I saw fantasy – the Tolkien knock-off kind – shelved with general fiction at another local library. I asked why. No one seemed to know. As it happened, one of the local library book clubs was reading The Buried Giant, so I went along to the meeting. The members of the group were mostly women well over the age of 70, and on the whole they didn’t love the book, but their big objections had very little to do with the world-building or genre-bending. Instead, they wanted to know was what the author was trying to do, what the message of the book was.

They seemed to be looking for allegory, one of the reasons I got into writing fantasy in the first place. I’ve been thinking more about plot and such lately, but that drive for allegory is still part of the process. It was a prominent characteristic of much of the fantasy I read early on, and I sometimes still see it, though more often in those books which land on the literary/general fiction shelves despite their fantastical elements. There’s probably more action and adventure on the genre bestseller lists.

Sometimes, I’d like to see all the segregated genres lumped back into general fiction at my local library. People who “don’t read fantasy” are missing a lot of good stuff, stories which they would probably enjoy. Meanwhile, the genre shelves themselves contain a huge variety, and I often find myself jumping up and down explaining to people that no, it’s not all sexist Tolkien knock-offs any more. I don’t think it ever was.

authorphoto400sq-300x300Amelia Smith writes articles about Martha’s Vineyard, books about dragons, and blog posts about nothing in particular. To learn more about her, visit She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

SPFBO Review: Under a Colder Sun, by Greg James

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Rating – 7.5/10
Author’s Facebook page
Publication date – August 23, 2014

Summary: Khale the Wanderer: dark warrior of legend, a reaver with a demon’s soul.

King Alosse: ruler of Colm, willing to risk everything to save his city and its people.

Princess Milanda: an innocent, kept pure since birth, unknowing of her fate.

Neprokhodymh: the cursed city of sorcerers where Khale must make a choice that will scar him for life, or fall into darkness forever.

Thoughts: Under a Colder Sun is one that I thought I might not really enjoy in the beginning. It starts off with people seeking out a fierce warrior with a reputation for darkness and violence, on behalf of their king Alosse , because the kingdom is in trouble and Alosse thinks that Khale can turn the tide of war. It started out dark, and while I have no problem with dark fantasy, it seemed in the first few chapters to be a book likely to go grimdark for grimdark’s sake. A wartorn country, soldiers entering a bandit camp seeking a man with a lousy reputation who might be the kingdom’s last desperate mixed-blessing hope. The tone set by the first few chapters didn’t make me feel downtrodden, it just made me feel like I didn’t really want to read another crapsack world.

But I pushed through, and pretty much once the first couple of awkward chapters are out of the way, the story picks up very quickly, and the true quality of the book begins to show.

Alosse tells Khale to kidnap his daughter Milanda and take her to Neprokhodymh, as a sort of sacrificial offering for the power to save his kingdom. Khale and Alosse have a history together, one that was kept secret, and as a last request from one friend to another, Alosse tells Khale to kill him. Naturally the dead king’s loyal soldier, Leste, takes exception to this and vows to take revenge on Khale for the murder. Milanda isn’t exactly happy about being kidnapped or the death of her father and she’s stuck in the awkward position of despising Khale for his actions while needing him for safety in a dying world she’s never really set foot in before.

The world that James sets up is a fascinating one. The gods that people worship are gods of death and decay, each of them having their spheres of influence as gods do, and the world around them is corrupt and rotting, full of darkness that grows. You don’t get to see the full effect of all of this, because the story is relatively short, but in a way I found that to be satisfying in its realism. To explain more than had been explained would have required some info-dumps that likely would have been quite out of place, but the world still feels complete enough to have more stories told in it. Things aren’t always what you expect, good people can do bad things, and vice versa, and there’s enough of all of this to keep you reading, wondering what the next reveal will be.

The book’s shortness is its downfall, though aside from what seems like a really interest corrupt world, much of the rest of a story’s scaffolding goes underdeveloped. The characters felt to me as though they had little motivation to do half the things they did, beyond the story needing them to. They didn’t feel very fleshed out, though the seeds of some amazing characters were definitely there. Khale was the most developed of them all, which makes sense given that it’s really his story, but there were enough other characters around that had such potential that I wish they’d been given the same treatment.

That and the ending, I suppose, which has a huge reveal thrown at the reader with pretty much no lead-up or explanation. I don’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling a lot of the story for interested readers, but it felt both over-the-top and anticlimactic at the same time, giving the impression that it was a rushed ending and detail was left out that possibly the author didn’t realize. I understand that can be a tricky thing to manage in writing, since what makes perfect sense to the one telling the story who is aware of all the details might not come across very well to a reader who doesn’t really have access to the author’s brain. It may just be me, I may have missed something along the way that made the ending make more sense, but from a personal standpoint, it just came out of left field and was a bit of a wtf-moment.

But really, for such a short book, and after a lackluster beginning, I ended up pleasantly surprised. If dark fantasy is your thing, then you’ll probably enjoy your time spent with Under a Colder Sun, which contains the main novella plus two short stories. Khale is a man with a dark and legendary past who is interesting to read about, the writing is pretty good (and contains a Skyrim reference that made me chuckle aloud), and overall it was a pretty decent short book.