‘Emperor of Thorns’ by Mark Lawrence


We’ve followed him for ten years of his life. We’ve lived his journey from the storm-struck thorns to the throne of Renar, and still Jorg Ancrath can surprise us – in good ways as well as bad.

Follow me, and I will break your heart.

Winner of the 2014 David Gemmell Legend Award for Best Fantasy Novel, Emperor of Thorns concludes the groundbreaking Broken Empire trilogy by Mark Lawrence. Jorg is now aged twenty; the Hundred have been summoned to a Congress to decide the matter of the next emperor. The throne has sat empty for over a hundred years, but Jorg plans to remedy that with his secret knowledge, stalwart companions and unique brand of tact and diplomacy.

“I’ve been to Congression before, Makin. I know what games they play there. This year we’re going to play a new game. Mine.”

In addition to the upcoming Congress, an even bigger challenge awaits. The Broken Empire must prepare itself for the biggest threat to humanity since the Day of a Thousand Suns: the invasion of the Dead King’s armies.

Emperor of Thorns follows the familiar ‘Lawrence’ structure. Flashbacks interposed with present-day events create suspense, builds tension and reveals key information at critical moments. However, there is also a new addition: a third-person account of the necromancer Chella (a character who was central to the storyline of the previous book but was only ever seen from Jorg’s point of view). Though I wasn’t particularly keen on this new POV, it certainly makes for some interesting insights into Chella’s character, and gives Emperor of Thorns (Broken Empire #3) by Mark Lawrenceus inside information about the Dead King and his legions.

Some of the most entertaining parts of the Broken Empire trilogy are the tales of the road, and we are treated to a fair few of them here. Typically grim yet delightful, these anecdotes about Jorg’s younger days among his road brothers reveal much more about Jorg’s tragic, twisted childhood. Secrets that have so far been only partially revealed or hinted at – such as Jorg’s burning hatred for the clergy – are now fully unveiled in harsh and uncomfortable ways. Lawrence continues to display a penchant for putting the ‘dark’ in ‘dark fantasy’, but somehow the horror and violence is never simply gratuitous. Instead, it’s used to deliberately manipulate the reader’s emotional response and force us to acknowledge that his protagonist has been brutally moulded and pushed to similar violence by these horrific external events, rather than just because of his “dena”.

On a slightly less grim note, one of my favourite aspects of this book is its scale. Lawrence shows us more of the Broken Empire than ever before. King of Thorns introduced us to the rocky highlands of Renar, Maladon in the icy north, and the fetid swamps of Cantanlona, and Emperor of Thorns takes us even further. From the lifeless wastelands of the Iberico to the desert city of the mathmagicians, from the silent horrors of flooded ghost towns to the affluent city of Vyene, Lawrence spoils the reader with haunting yet spectacular imagery.

Lawrence’s third novel is a joy to read, filled as it is with amusingly casual turns of phrase, poetic internal monologue, and brilliantly integrated reminders of past events – and hints about things to come. The  author also delights in leaving delicious clues for the reader regarding the true nature of Jorg’s broken world (my personal favourites being the hilariously sanctified “guardian” of the Gilden Gate, the martial teachings of “Lee”, and of course the ironic original function of the empire throne itself).

Emperor of Thorns is a spectacular finish to a brilliantly original fantasy series. Does Jorg find redemption? You’ll have to read it and find out. Think you’ve guessed how it’s all going to end? I can guarantee that you haven’t.

Interview with A.F.E. Smith


Author Photo: AFE Smith (Darkhaven)A.F.E (aka. ‘Afe’) is celebrating the recent release of her third Darkhaven novel, Windsinger. Published by Harper-Voyager on 23 February 2017, Windsinger continues the tale of dark magic and darker political conflict that began in Afe’s previous novels: Darkhaven, and Goldenfire.

She writes for Fantasy-Faction; she’s just published her third full-length novel; she’s a part-time robin and a full-time editor; and she’s currently also rearing two children. How does she do it? Why does she do it? I tracked down this elusive author (who, by the way, assures me that the initials ‘A.F.E.’ hide a dangerous secret that can never be revealed) and settled down for a chat with the beautiful mind behind Darkhaven.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

(LMH): Thanks for joining me, Afe, and congratulations on the recent release of Windsinger! (Which, as you know, I absolutely LOVED.)

How does it feel to have not one, not two, but THREE of your own books released into the wild?

(AFE): In all honesty, I don’t know quite how I feel about it. It’s a lot like having children, I suppose: a mixture of the very good (pride, amazement, satisfaction at having created a fully formed being independent of yourself) and the very bad (terror, stress, constant guilt that their imperfections are your fault, a helpless frustrated misery every time someone doesn’t like them).

That’s not a very upbeat answer, is it? Let’s go with … great. It’s great!

Your Goodreads bio ever-so-casually states that you ‘happen to be a robin some of the time.’ I have to ask: why only *some* of the time? And why a robin? It’s too small to be your Changer form. Is it your spirit animal? Your animagus form?AFE Smith: robin

I can’t be a robin all the time because they’re not very good at typing and they don’t like chocolate. So I mostly stick to being a robin online and leave the real world to my human form.

I think it’s probably more of a daemon than an Animagus. Which probably means I’m a witch, because bird-daemons tend to belong to witches. Yeah. A witch who blushes a lot, so has the most embarrassed-looking bird possible as a daemon. Makes sense.

(Can you tell I’m super excited about the recent announcement of Philip Pullman’s new book?)

I would never have guessed. 😉laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Robins are always busy doing something. Flitting around, building nests, eating snacks, looking colourful… How do you manage to balance your writing career with a full-time day job AND two small, dependent humans?

With immense difficulty. Sometimes it feels like I’m doing too many things to be good at any of them. The writing gets done in lunch breaks and after the children have gone to bed, so it’s very patchy. I’m usually short on sleep and my house is a mess.

Why do I do this? I don’t know. Half the time I don’t even enjoy it. But you know how it is: if you’re a writer, you write. You write on the backs of receipts. You write in the shower. You write inside your own head. You just do.

I have to admit I’ve never written in the shower. But yes, I know how it is. Also, my house is a mess… and I don’t even have kids!laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

You work as an editor in your day job, right? Do you feel like this helps (or hinders) your own writing process?

Yes, I’m an editor. I think my job hinders my reading more than my writing. I’m so used to reading words slowly and carefully at work that I find it hard to sit back and get swept away by them when I’m reading for pleasure. Not like when I was a teen and inhaled books through my eyeballs. And if there are typos, my work brain kicks in straight away and the moment is lost. That’s when I find myself mentally editing the book instead of reading it, which isn’t what anyone wants.

Why do I do this? I don’t know. Half the time I don’t even enjoy it. But you know how it is: if you’re a writer, you write. You write on the backs of receipts. You write in the shower. You write inside your own head. You just do.

When I’m writing, though, being an editor is both good and bad. Good because I’m pretty sure the manuscripts I turn in are as clean as they can be. Also good because I understand the editorial process, so I don’t get precious about making changes. But bad because my instinct is to word everything perfectly in the first draft. I have to force myself to go with the flow and not trawl back over every line to make sure it’s correct.

Sounds to me like you’re an editor’s dream!laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Can you give us a brief insight into how you came to be traditionally published? Was it, as they say, a matter of luck? Or was it pure talent? Hard work? Magic?

It’s magic, isn’t it?

I would say a mixture of all of them. There’s no denying that luck plays a key part in any author’s career. You and I both know there are far more good books out there than slots on a publisher’s list, so a lot depends on the subjective opinion of whoever happens to read your manuscript. Having said that, most people can’t get far without at least some hard work and talent, either. They’re like the other two corners of the triangle.

(I find questions like this hard to answer, because I’m always afraid that in reality I’m pretty talentless. Somehow I believe every bad review and none of the good ones … er, except yours, of course. Impostor syndrome is real and living among us in the form of a robin.)

There’s no denying that luck plays a key part in any author’s career. You and I both know there are far more good books out there than slots on a publisher’s list, so a lot depends on the subjective opinion of whoever happens to read your manuscript. Having said that, most people can’t get far without at least some hard work and talent, either. They’re like the other two corners of the triangle.

The actual story is that Voyager were holding an open call for submissions, back in … 2012? And I submitted – that was the magic part, I guess, because I had a months-old baby at the time and something must have kept him asleep long enough for me to do it – and the rest is history.

That’s incredible! (Also, please let me assure you once again that you are the opposite of talentless.)laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

As co-judges in this year’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, you and I are both aware of the ups and downs of self-publishing. With that in mind: what, for you, has been the biggest advantage of signing a *traditional* publishing deal?

Weeelll … semi-traditional. I’m digital first, which means some of the more obvious benefits of traditional publishing don’t apply to me. Having books in physical stores, for Darkhaven by Afe Smithinstance. Or marketing budget (though I believe not many authors see much of that, these days).

So the biggest advantage was really the validation it gave me. Which sounds a bit stupid; I know some of my self-published author friends would scoff at it. But I’m never convinced that anything I’ve written is good enough (see also: imposter syndrome). If I hadn’t been picked up by Voyager, I’d probably still be tinkering with Darkhaven, and Goldenfire and Windsinger wouldn’t exist.

(You might argue that Darkhaven could use a little extra tinkering. But there’s nothing to say it would have been the right sort of tinkering, if I’d kept on doing it myself, so on balance it probably worked out better this way.)

Definitely. Darkhaven is very, very good, but Goldenfire is bloody brilliant. For me, part of the enjoyment was in seeing you evolve as a writer throughout the series.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

For readers unfamiliar with your work, can you tell us a little bit about it?

What is the one question every author has to be able to answer in a concise and compelling way that makes their book sound like the best thing in the world, ever? This one.

What is the one question I always find the hardest? … Yeah.

Yeah, sorry about that… Why *do* you think it’s so difficult?

I think it’s because each of the books is about one thing, and the series as a whole is about something slightly different. The books are kind of fantasy mysteries, I suppose. Darkhaven is your straightforward whodunit, except that the murder victim is the overlord of a small country and has the power to shapeshift into a large dragon. Goldenfire is about preventing an assassination plot. Windsinger focuses on the need to uncover a traitor before war breaks out. Each of those stories has a defined beginning and end within the confines of a single book, so in theory you could pick up any one of them without reading the others.The Darkhaven series by A.F.E. Smith

The series, on the other hand, is about the tension between tradition and progress; about the conflicting demands of loyalty – to yourself, your family, your country, your god; about technology versus magic; about revenge and justice and whether they can ever be the same thing; about love. It starts off small, but it gets bigger as it goes along. And I think the same can be said for the characters themselves, metaphorically speaking. Each book is set several years after the previous one, so there’s plenty of scope for growth.

Or for future books set in between, perhaps? 😉laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Many elements of Darkhaven – unusual magic, hidden identities, shady assassins, kickass characters – put me in mind of the excellent V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic.

Who would you say are your main influences? (And are there any authors whom you dream of being compared to?)

My influences are pretty much everything I’ve ever read. I think that’s true of all writers. We can’t help but pick up bits and pieces of the things we encounter and fit them together to form something new. Like decorator crabs.

Authors I love: Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Jacqueline Carey, Patrick Ness, Juliet Marillier, Katherine Addison, Neil Gaiman …

But recently I read The Curse of Chalion (I know, late to the party), so now when I grow up I want to be Lois McMaster Bujold.

(Note to self: read The Curse of Chalion. It’s been sitting on my shelf for years. Save me some breadsticks at the party, okay?)laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Back to Darkhaven: which character in the series do you feel you identify with the most? And was he/she your favourite character to write? Why?

I don’t know that I identify fully with any of my characters. I think there’s a danger that if you create a character too much like yourself, you’ll end up wanting to give them all the best lines and never dream of killing them off. No-one likes a character who’s basically an author insert.

Having said that, there are bits of me in all the characters. Of course there are. Ayla got my stubbornness. Tomas, my apparently contradictory traits of paranoia and a desire to believe the best of people. Ree is the part of me who thirsts to prove herself, and Penn got my social awkwardness (poor Penn). (LH: I love Penn!)

My influences are pretty much everything I’ve ever read. I think that’s true of all writers. We can’t help but pick up bits and pieces of the things we encounter and fit them together to form something new. Like decorator crabs.

The most fun character to write is always Naeve Sorrow, who is the most unlike me: capable of anything, takes no shit, and doesn’t need to prove herself to anyone because she knows she’s awesome. I guess that’s why it’s fun. She also happens to be the character who everyone seems to like best, which confirms my melancholy suspicion that my imagination is way more interesting than I am.

Or that Naeve Sorrow is your superhero alter-ego lurking deep down inside…laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

It occurred to me quite recently that the premise of book one, Darkhaven, has similarities to the tale of Rapunzel. In particular, Ayla Nightshade bears every sign of embodying the ‘damsel in distress’ trope. The books are otherwise quite progressive in terms of themes and characters; why did you choose to portray her in this way?

There are two possible answers to that. I think both are true.

The first is that when I wrote Darkhaven, I hadn’t really found my voice as a writer yet. I’d been absorbing all these tropes without realizing it (I’m not sure I even knew tropes were a thing), so it was natural that some of them would find their way into my writing. I think we all go through that stage. Tropes are tropes because they appear regularly in the media we consume, and if you’re not aware of that, you simply internalize them. It wasn’t until after I wrote Darkhaven that I really started thinking about this kind of thing. (You could say, in a meta kind of way, that this is another example of the tension between tradition and progress that the series tries to grapple with. But maybe that would be pretentious.)

Tropes are tropes because they appear regularly in the media we consume, and if you’re not aware of that, you simply internalize them. It wasn’t until after I wrote Darkhaven that I really started thinking about this kind of thing.

The second, which is perhaps fairer to myself, is that I think it would have been unrealistic for Ayla to be any other way, given her upbringing. At the start of Darkhaven, she’s basically been trapped in one place her entire life. She’s grown up with a father who shows her no affection at all and forbids her to do much except prepare to be a future mother ofGoldenfire (Darkhaven #2) by A.F.E. Smith Nightshade heirs, and a brother who she loves but who she’s going to be forced to marry against her will (yeah, the Nightshades aren’t the most functional family). And maybe her mother would have been a counteractive influence to all that, but her mother is dead. So although she’s angry and determined, she’s emotionally stunted and lacks the skills to get much done, on a practical level. Perhaps it’s unfair to call her altogether a damsel in distress. She wants to fight, and she does keep fighting. She’s just not very good at it.

I guess all this goes to show that you can have a good reason for the presence of a problematic trope. Whether it’s sufficiently good is up to the individual reader. Still, I hope it’s clear that I don’t think ‘all women’ are damsels in distress. I have my wise-cracking, kick-ass female characters too (hello, Naeve Sorrow). And Ayla herself changes a lot over the course of the series, as she grows into herself and her abilities and leaves her father’s legacy behind.

Absolutely, which is another reason I’d encourage readers to proceed with the series.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

In Goldenfire (book two) you introduce Ree (one of my favourite characters). You could argue that the ‘woman overcomes odds to prove she can fight like a man’ trope has been used many a time before. What makes Ree’s story different?

I think the interesting thing about Ree’s story is that it forces her to confront her own prejudices as much as other people’s. Often, implicit in a ‘woman proves she’s as good as a man’ narrative is the belief that it’s better to be like a man, to be strong in traditionally masculine ways. Being ‘feminine’ (or rather, possessing what have typically been considered feminine traits) is seen as a weakness. And that’s exactly what Ree believes, to start with. The flip side of her desire to prove herself in a man’s world is her belief that only a man’s world is worth being in. So when she encounters a girl who giggles and dresses in lace and uses her sexuality as a tool, she automatically despises her. But, of course, that makes Ree just as guilty as the boys whose mockery she’s fighting against: first, because being pretty and flirtatious isn’t mutually exclusive with being a warrior, and second, because choosing to forge a path that typically isn’t taken by your gender doesn’t make you somehow superior to someone who chooses a more traditional path. Equality isn’t about replacing one set of constraints with another.

Well said!laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Afe, there’s a strong emphasis on identity in your novels. In particular, Goldenfire uses romantic relationships in order to foreground issues of sexual and personal identity (to the chagrin of some of your readers).

Furthermore, your books feature several gay protagonists – which is still (sadly) somewhat revolutionary in a series that appears to target Young Adult readers – while Windsinger also introduces an asexual character, who suffers shaming and abuse from his father for his ‘abnormality’.

Were any of these aspects a result of conscious decisions on your part, or did they arise as a natural part of the characters’ development?

Oh, certainly a conscious decision. I think writers have a responsibility to make a conscious decision about the gender, race, sexuality, etc. of their characters. Because if you don’t make a conscious decision, you make an unconscious one. You default to whatever you’ve learned to think of as the ‘norm’.

I think writers have a responsibility to make a conscious decision about the gender, race, sexuality, etc. of their characters. Because if you don’t make a conscious decision, you make an unconscious one. You default to whatever you’ve learned to think of as the ‘norm’.

The odd thing about sexuality, in particular, is that portraying people of different sexualities is often seen as somehow a political decision, whereas making everyone heterosexual isn’t. And I think that’s because of the default position I just mentioned – if you’re not making a conscious decision, you don’t realize it’s political. But the truth is, not questioning the default is as political a position as anything else, because it’s only those of us who conform to the ‘norm’ who can afford not to question it.

The other aspect of this, though, is that I didn’t want sexuality to be the focus of the series. Books about what it’s like to be LGBT+ in a society that isn’t fully accepting of that are valuable and important, but I think it’s also valuable and important to have books that present diverse sexualities as an accepted and unremarked fact. Because if you can offer a world where straight isn’t the ‘norm’ but just one way of being – as intrinsic and irrelevant to a person’s character as eye colour – then maybe we can start to question our own norms. I think both kinds of book are needed.

The odd thing about sexuality, in particular, is that portraying people of different sexualities is often seen as somehow a political decision, whereas making everyone heterosexual isn’t.

Having said that, you correctly point out that Lewis’s asexuality results in shaming and abuse. But that’s a result of the family he comes from and the expectations he’s under. Most ordinary people in Mirrorvale would have just as little reaction to asexuality as they do to any other kind of sexuality, but among wealthy families who expect their children to marry and procreate for the good of their bloodline … well, again, it’s that tension between tradition and progress.

Exactly, and it’s pretty clear to the reader that Lewis’s father’s behaviour is not only unjust but also illogical.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Your novels are wonderfully diverse. One of my favourite aspects of both Goldenfire and Windsinger is the way you empower sexual and racial minorities by ensuring that they’re represented with nuance and compassion.

Reading Windsinger, I felt particularly strongly about Zander, the immigrant who finds himself isolated and displaced when his adopted country descends into war with his country of birth. Why did you choose to explore this theme?

Again, there are two answers to this. (I’m terribly indecisive, can you tell?) (LH: Never! :p)

Windsinger (Darkhaven #3) by A.F.E. SmithThe first answer is that I wrote Windsinger at a time when I was struggling with myself and with the world. I was sinking in and out of depression, trying to keep my head above water even though half the time it didn’t really seem worth it. (Depression is great at making everything seem pointless.) And, you know, there was a lot going on in the world that contributed to that. Still is. It feels as though in many countries, people have descended into the mindset required for war: the one that labels whole groups of human beings as other. And I think one of the frightening things about that – and this is something Zander experiences – is how close to the surface that mindset turns out to be. We do it with people of different ethnicities, cultures, religions. Different genders and sexualities. We’re perfectly capable of labelling every single person who doesn’t support our own political party as stupid, unworthy, lesser. We mistrust anyone who isn’t like us – when if you cut the categories fine enough, we all end up in a category of one. Anyway, it preyed on my mind enough that it found its way into the book.

It feels as though in many countries, people have descended into the mindset required for war: the one that labels whole groups of human beings as other. And I think one of the frightening things about that – and this is something Zander experiences – is how close to the surface that mindset turns out to be. We do it with people of different ethnicities, cultures, religions. Different genders and sexualities. We’re perfectly capable of labelling every single person who doesn’t support our own political party as stupid, unworthy, lesser. We mistrust anyone who isn’t like us – when if you cut the categories fine enough, we all end up in a category of one.

The second answer is that a lot of what happens in Windsinger is a natural result of what happened in the previous two books. War has always been on the horizon for Mirrorvale. And the seed of people’s attitudes towards Zander was there in Goldenfire. So it’s the logical next step for the character and the plot. I think exploring themes only works if they come out organically.

I agree, and I think Windsinger is a must-read in today’s climate – it’s eye-opening, for sure.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

I admire and respect the fact that you explore social issues in a way that highlights the problematic aspects – the barriers, as it were – as well as the ultimate ideal. (You touched on one example earlier when you talked about Ree fighting against the sexist, misogynistic attitudes of her male competitors, yet unconsciously inflicting that same scorn and prejudice on her fellow women.)

Going forward, are there any other issues that you intend to tackle in a similar manner?

The thing is, I don’t really set out to tackle issues. They just emerge from the plot. I think if you set out to write issue-based fiction it can become kind of preachy. It’s the difference between “I’m going to write a book about prejudice!” and “I’m going to write a book about war, murder, kidnap, airships and flying unicorns that also happens to touch on what it’s like to be discriminated against because of where you were born.” I hope very much that I fall on the right side of that line.

So the answer to your question, I guess, is that I don’t intend to tackle any issues. But I fully expect them to emerge, because characters are people, and people are messy and interesting.

Agreed, and I for one look forward to seeing what emerges in future!laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

If there was a single message you’d like readers to take away from the first three books – what would it be?

Hmm. That’s a tricky one. Do my books have messages? I guess there are one or two buried in there. The importance of trying to understand other people, maybe. Of approaching them as individuals, rather than categorizing them by the ways they are different from you. Of continuing to have faith in people, generally, no matter how misplaced that faith may feel when the world seems to be going to hell …

To paraphrase, I guess Tomas Caraway has it right: “Anyone can hate. It’s love that requires courage.”

Spoken like a true hero!laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Now for one or two lighter questions before we wrap things up…

First – I’ll admit I was surprised at the minor role Ayla’s shapechanging ability plays (in the first two books, at least). What made you want to write about shapechangers and not, say, dragons?

I tend to write my magic small. By which I mean, I’m not really interested in spectacle so much as people. What’s interesting about shapeshifters is that they’re basically humans who have an extra ability. A superpower, if you like. But the thing about being a human with a superpower is that your powers are only as strong as you are. So, for instance, it makes sense to me that in the first book, Ayla – who has barely been allowed to use her power due to her father’s dislike of the form it takes – wouldn’t automatically think to wield it, even in a dangerous situation. Her natural instincts have been suppressed. But you see as the series continues that over the years, she becomes more and more comfortable in her own skin, and therefore more and more able to wield that power effectively and listen to herself. You can read that as an analogy to whatever you like. She’s every person who’s ever had part of themselves suppressed by a disapproving upbringing.

I tend to write my magic small. By which I mean, I’m not really interested in spectacle so much as people. What’s interesting about shapeshifters is that they’re basically humans who have an extra ability. A superpower, if you like. But the thing about being a human with a superpower is that your powers are only as strong as you are.

But the point is, if I’d written about dragons, they’d be dragons. Powerful and alien and not at all subject to human frailty. Which is of course excellent, in its own way, but not what I was interested in writing about.

While we’re at it, then: what’s the significance of Ayla’s Changer form?

Within the books, it represents a break from tradition. The discovery that an impure/hybrid form might actually be more powerful than the handful of pure forms historically preferred by the Nightshade line. (You can read that as a comment on the importance of opening yourself up to new influences and new ideas, if you like. I think it’s clear by now which side I tend to favour in the battle between tradition and progress, though I wouldn’t come down fully on either side.)

Outside the books … the significance is pretty much golden winged unicorns are awesome.

‘Golden winged unicorns are awesome’ is also an excellent message for people to take away from the books.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

You’ve said about the robin… Changers, however, are HUGE. What would your changer form be, and why?

OK, so the five pure Changer forms are Firedrake, Unicorn, Hydra, Phoenix and Griffin. And there are hundreds of hybrid forms as well, many of which don’t have names (see: Nightshade desire for purity). I’m kind of shy and grumpy, so I’d probably be a Unicorn/Hydra hybrid. Which I imagine as one of those horses you get in heraldry where it has front legs but then the body turns into a snake. What’s that called? *Googles* Apparently, a hippocampus. A hippocampus with a unicorn horn.

(After I wrote that, I had the urge to create a cheesy ‘What’s your Changer form?’ quiz. And since it’s always advisable to listen to one’s urges, I went ahead and did it. So if you’d like to find out what your Changer form would be, you can do it here. Turns out, according to my own quiz, I’m a Feathered Serpent. So there you go.)

Hieracosphinx

Move over, hippocampus lady – I’m a hieracosphinx!

And finally… what can readers expect to see next from A.F.E. Smith? Do you have plans for more Darkhaven goodness? Or something entirely different?

I have plans for four more Darkhaven books. However, whether or not those plans ever come to fruition depends entirely on whether the first three sell enough to make it worthwhile for my publisher to contract me for more. Publishing is a business, after all.

Authors I love: Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Jacqueline Carey, Patrick Ness, Juliet Marillier, Katherine Addison, Neil Gaiman …

But recently I read The Curse of Chalion (I know, late to the party), so now when I grow up I want to be Lois McMaster Bujold.

In the meantime, I’ve been working on another project, a young adult fantasy series, the first of which is being considered by an agent right now. (One of the downsides of my route to publication was that I bypassed finding an agent, which I wouldn’t recommend if you’re at all interested in getting into – and staying in – traditional publishing. So I’m trying to rectify that.) The new series is quite a complex beast, so I hope it will find a home.

Well, I wish you the best of luck in both endeavours. Whatever happens, I look forward to seeing more of your stuff. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat . . . and congratulations once again on the new book!

laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Windsinger is the third book in A.F.E. Smith’s exciting Darkhaven series, and you can order it NOW.afe smith robin

‘Darkhaven’, ‘Goldenfire’ & ‘Windsinger’ by A.F.E. Smith


You could be forgiven for assuming A.F.E. Smith’s debut is a tame, fluffy tale about a magical unicorn. I assumed the same. But trust me when I say that there’s *nothing* tame or fluffy about Darkhaven.The Darkhaven series by A.F.E. Smith

Firstly, let’s get one thing straight: that’s not actually a unicorn. It’s an alicorn; a hybrid of the ‘pure’ Changer (shapeshifting) forms of griffin and unicorn. Why does it matter? Because the Nighshade family pride themselves on the purity of their unique bloodline.
According to its current patriarch – who follows the Targaryen-esque approach of, um, ‘keeping it in the family’ – his daughter’s alicorn form is as shameful as her rebelliousness is unacceptable. (He himself takes the ‘pure’ form of a mighty firedrake, because ‘nothing keeps Darkhaven by Afe Smithpeople honest like the fear of a fire-breathing lizard turning up on their doorstep.’)

And so Darkhaven kicks off with a prison break. Ayla Nightshade, assisted by her brother Myrren, escapes from the citadel – on the same night as their father is brutally murdered by a Changer. Obviously, this looks bad for Ayla, who spends the rest of the book trying to survive long enough to clear her name. But the search for answers turns up some uncomfortable truths about Ayla’s ancestors… and a few dark secrets about the goings-on within Darkhaven’s walls.

Ayla is dynamic and determined; a bit of a ‘damsel in distress’ type, but the writer makes it clear that this is situational – a product of her isolated upbringing rather than any fault in her character. But while Ayla is a likeable enough protagonist, the true stars of the story are Tomas Caraway (a disgraced former Helmsman and struggling alcoholic) and Naeve Sorrow (a mercenary).

In fact, Sorrow is (for me) a highlight of the entire Darkhaven series.

‘I come in peace,’ Sorrow drawled, offering him the knife hilt-first. ‘This was just in case I met anyone I didn’t like on the way.”

Essentially a murder-mystery in a fantasy setting, Darkhaven is a solid debut; not quite great, but certainly very, very good. Goldenfire, on the other hand, is brilliant. Characters who were sketched out in Darkhaven are filled in and brought to life in Goldenfire, as is the steampunkish city of Arkannen. Furthermore, the entire world feels much more three-dimensional, as Goldenfire’s plot is inextricably interwoven with its politics and economicsGoldenfire (Darkhaven #2) by A.F.E. Smith (as well as its characters, of course).

Set three years after the events of Darkhaven, Smith’s second novel explores the idea of an inherent conflict between tradition and science when Ayla Nightshade’s position of absolute power is challenged by an assassination threat from the neighbouring country of Sol Kardis – whose number one export just happens to be firearms. Darkhaven’s struggle to reconcile the inevitable technological advances of an industrial revolution with the need for gun control is a really fascinating underlying aspect of the story. (It’s particularly thought-provoking when political dissenters apply words like ‘tyrant’ and ‘monster’ to our very own Ayla Nightshade.)

Goldenfire is, in many ways, a self-aware deconstruction of judicial and societal issues. It’s also a well-written (and bloody exciting) mystery novel that uses its killer plot and engaging characters to unravel these issues in a succinct, honest and wry – if cynical – manner. I really admire the skill with which Smith carefully picks out narrative details to highlight problematic issues – such as feminism – without ever sounding preachy.

Ree flinched as a dozen heads turned her way. She could see how they expected this to go. Either she and the other girl would become great friends and form their own exclusive little circle separate from the rest, or they’d be bitter rivals who constantly vied to beat each other in training. Those were the only two narratives open to her. That was what happened when you were part of a minority: to everyone else, your identity was intimately bound up with the group you belonged to.

The extract above is taken from one of Goldenfire’s early chapters. In it, Ree Quinn – a noble-born girl from the provinces – is disgruntled to learn that she’s not the only person vying for the distinction of becoming Darkhaven’s first female Helmsman. In her desperation to separate herself from other women and escape the sort of sexist abuse she anticipates receiving from the male hopefuls, she herself unwittingly inflicts that same misogynistic attitude on her female peer. Ree’s hypocrisy isn’t immediately obvious, and just as she learns the error of her ways, so too does Smith ensure her readers emerge a little bit more enlightened than before.

Suspenseful and cleverly crafted, Goldenfire is a massive step up from Darkhaven (and is actually my favourite book of the series so far). From start to finish, every page is pure adventure, and the new characters – Ree, Zander, Penn, Miles – are a welcome and dynamic addition to the existing cast. (The return of Naeve Sorrow is also a HUGE selling point, obviously.) Furthermore, while it builds on the events of Darkhaven whilst also Windsinger (Darkhaven #3) by A.F.E. Smithsubtly setting the stage for Windsinger, the plot of Goldenfire is wonderfully self-contained and its resolution wholly satisfying. It also left me with a big, goofy smile and a desperate urge to read more.

Luckily, Netgalley obliged with an e-ARC of book three, Windsinger – the awesomeness of which I’ve been shamelessly touting on social media for the last couple of weeks. Because even though I thoroughly enjoyed the fast-paced story and light-hearted tone of Goldenfire, there’s no arguing that Windsinger is a better, more fulfilling book.

Chillingly relevant to today’s social and political climate – which, I think we can all agree, is a particularly ripe breeding ground for contention – Windsinger is darker and more serious than its predecessors. The stakes are higher – for Ayla, for her citizens, and for Mirrorvale itself – and issues which had hitherto been present in the background now take centre stage.

‘People are far better at noticing how they’re different than how they’re the same. I see it year after year when I’m training new recruits. And war only brings it out more strongly. It turns everyone into patriots.’ One corner of his mouth turned up. ‘Not that I object to people being proud of their country, obviously. But there’s a difference between that and hating everyone else’s.’

Racism lurks below the surface of Goldenfire; it’s the driving factor behind the Helm’s suspicion of Zander, who is an immigrant from Sol Kardis. In Windsinger, this prejudice is right there in front of us, devolving into discrimination and violence as soon as diplomatic relations between Mirrorvale and Sol Kardis collapse.

The day after Sol Kardis declared war on Mirrorvale, a woman walked right up to Zander in the streets of the fourth ring. ‘Kardise scum,’ she hissed at him. And spat in his face.

[…]

‘For the Mirrorvalese to turn on us that quickly, that violently … it makes me think, maybe they hated us all along. Why else would they be so unable to separate a country from its individual descendants? Maybe they never looked at me and saw a person. Maybe they always just saw a Kardise boy.’

Smith uses Zander’s chapters to foreground incidences of hate crimes in a way that the reader can’t ignore, and heavily emphasises the fear and loneliness that accompany life as a minority. She deliberately juxtaposes these chapters with those of other characters – who are utterly oblivious to the various sorts of bigotry taking place right in front of them.

Zander approached the street vendor. Easy to see, now, why the youths had picked on him. By the colour of his skin and the cast of his features, he could have been Zander’s older brother.

‘Are you all right?’ Zander asked.

The vendor’s gaze flicked up, then quickly back down again. ‘Sod off.’

‘I just wanted to … I mean, I’m Kardise too, so …’

The man’s head lifted again, a scowl touching his features. ‘I’m not Kardise. I’m Mirrorvalese.’

‘I’m sorry, I –’

‘Just stop talkin’ to me, will yer? Anyone sees us havin’ a chat, they’ll think we’re plottin’ a murder.’ He turned his back on Zander and began to walk away, flinging a glare over his shoulder. ‘A pox on you and your bloody country.’

If Smith has shown us anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as good and evil; only shades of grey, shadows, and perspective. But sometimes, when you believe strongly in something, even the most hardened and morally-ambiguous person will see the necessity of taking one side to prevent the other from succeeding.

Sorrow propped her head on her hand and sighed. First he accuses me of trying to do the right thing, and now he tells me he trusts me. What am I, a fucking priestess?

Still, she was working against the kind of people who thought peace with an old enemy was a betrayal, rather than a genuine chance for change. The kind of people who would happily engineer a war, because they’d never have to fight in it. The kind of people who could use the phrase Kardise scourge to refer to ordinary citizens of Mirrorvale, getting on with their lives, who happened to have one or more foreign-born ancestors somewhere in their family tree.

Yes: if there was ever a right side, she was on it. That had to count for something.

Yes: even Naeve Sorrow – a notoriously unscrupulous mercenary – has a better sense of right and wrong than a huge percentage of Arkannen’s average population. Again, though, Smith doesn’t sermonise about morality; nor does she belabour the point. Amidst the frank conversations and philosophy are much wryer (yet equally discerning) observations about the dangers of judging people by their appearance or country of origin.

He looked sad. ‘It’s hard to believe of her. She always seemed such a sweet girl.’

Sorrow rolled her eyes. ‘Your problem, Tomas, is that your natural paranoia is in constant tension with an almost pathological desire to believe the best of people. Sweet tells you nothing. Fuck it, I could be sweet if the occasion demanded.’

They looked at each other. Caraway’s lips twitched. Sorrow glared at him for a moment before conceding. ‘Maybe not. But you take my point.’

Finally, characters like Sorrow and Caraway and Zander are full of hard-won wisdom, and Windsinger has important messages for all who’re willing to listen.

If one man in a hundred is a traitor, and I allow that knowledge to close my heart to the other ninety-nine, who is the winner then?

Insights and social commentary aside, Windsinger is a tense, exciting continuation of one of the most entertaining series I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Smith’s writing is powerfully emotive (Windsinger had me shedding tears in more than once place) and her storytelling has rapidly evolved from good to great to WOW.

Though it does take a much more serious turn in book three, the Darkhaven series is nonetheless 100% fun. With a diverse range of sympathetic characters and a metric fucktonne of page-turning action, A.F.E. Smith’s Darkhaven novels will leave you breathless, with a grin on your face and your heart aching for more.

Windsinger (Darkhaven #3) is available now.lauramhughes-sig

This review was originally published on Fantasy-Faction on 10 February 2017.
Darkhaven, Goldenfire, Windsinger by A.F.E. Smith

‘King of Thorns’ by Mark Lawrence


Anyone will tell you that the middle part of any trilogy is usually the weakest; that it functions mostly as filler between books one and three, a tiresome interlude between the start and the big finish. Not so with King of Thorns: it’s fast-paced, tense, action-packed, and has several thrilling plotlines that make for a more exhilarating read than even the trilogy’s first instalment, Prince of Thorns. No wonder it was shortlisted for the 2013 David Gemmell Legend Award (losing out to Brent Weeks’ equally worthy The Blinding Knife).

“I made mock of the dying at Mabberton and now their ghosts watched me burn. Take the pain, I said, and I will be a good man. Or if not that, a better man. We all become weasels with enough hurt on us. But I think a small part of it was more than that. A small part was that terrible two-edged sword called experience, cutting away at the cruel child I was, carving out whatever man might be yet to come. I promised a better one. Though I have been known to lie.”

As you probably know, King of Thorns is the second instalment in Mark Lawrence’s post-apocalyptic, dark fantasy (aka. ‘grimdark’) Broken Empire trilogy. Picking up the story of Jorg Ancrath four years after the events of Prince, Jorg is now King of Renar, and must King of Thorns by Mark Lawrencedefend his position against popular Prince Orrin of Arrow. However, due to earlier events Jorg has had certain memories removed from his mind (convenient, I know). These memories are revealed through a series of flashbacks in a style similar to that of the novel’s predecessor, but much more cleverly and intricately crafted. The ‘present day’ plot of the novel is centred on Jorg’s plan to defeat the Prince of Arrow; a plan which is progressively revealed throughout the story and leads us with ever-increasing momentum towards the adrenaline-filled finish.

Prince Orrin is everything you’d expect to see in a traditional epic fantasy. He is handsome and moral, gracious and brave, and above all he wishes to secure peace and prosperity for the empire . . . and we spend the entire novel rooting against him (well, I did). I really like the fact that the author has managed to deconstruct traditional fantasy archetypes to such an extent that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ become merely a matter of perspective. Orrin is the golden fairy-tale prince, and yet somehow our Little Jorgy – severely flawed and of dubious morality – manages to emerge the hero.

I’ll be honest: the first time I read this book I had two major issues with it, the first being the flashbacks. There are four (I think) different time frames/points of view, and I initially felt these to be chaotic, distracting and occasionally repetitive. I felt that they detracted from my enjoyment of the main story by disrupting my sense of time and place. I got that they were being strategically placed to build towards the big reveal, but felt that there was too much back and forth within the narrative.

Now, having read this book a second time, I find it difficult to reconcile my initial response with what I’ve just read. For a start, I realise that the sense of dislocation is deliberately evoked in order to create an empathic link with Jorg: we feel but a tiny fraction of what it must be like to be suddenly hit by a memory you have no recollection of having lived through. Secondly, the ordering of the flashbacks is anything but chaotic. The narrative is artfully constructed so as to reveal crucial plot points at strategic moments, as well as to both shock and tease the reader; and what I had at first thought to be random revealed itself instead to be a complex web of memories cunningly fashioned by the author in a way to make one gape with admiration.

King of Thorns (Jason Chan art) by Mark Lawrence

Artwork by Jason Chan

My other initial problem with the book was that I didn’t enjoy the ‘Katherine’ chapters. I found the saga of her diary entries to be an unnecessarily dull counterpoint to Jorg’s narrative, and found myself wishing her journal pages had never been found. Of course, reading the novel again made me realise why her chapters are a vital part of the on-going Sageous plotline, and her sad words resonated far more poignantly because I was aware of how it was going to end. I’m more willing now to accept Katherine as a necessary part of Jorg’s story.

I’ll admit: there were parts of this book that I found difficult to read, and which I know have caused outrage amongst readers elsewhere on the web. A scene which I’ll refer to only as the Justice of King Olidan actually hurt me to read, even more so the second time because I knew it was coming and was powerless to stop it; and yet, I found myself elated that Jorg was able to re-live the memory and re-evaluate the lessons he thought he’d learned from the experience. The fact that the reader is made to experience such feelings is a testament to the author’s ability to feel, and to write in a way that makes others feel too.

On a similar note, King of Thorns feels a lot more personal than Prince, perhaps because scenes such as these allow the reader to connect more with the protagonist: Jorg has stabilised a little and matured emotionally, and we live through this transformation as much as he does. There is also a lot more focus on his internal struggle with the way he has lived so far – here’s a powerful example:

“I told Coddin that stubbornness led me to climb, and perhaps it did, but there’s more to it. Mountains have no memory, no judgments to offer. There’s a purity in the struggle to reach a peak. You leave your world behind and take only what you need. For a creature like me there is nothing closer to redemption.”

I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking that this is some kind of sappy coming-of-age drama, by the way. I mentioned in my review of Prince of Thorns how the first book came under fire by those who were outraged by the immoral actions of the central character within the first few pages; if those same people have decided to read King of Thorns I’m guessing they’re currently rolling in their graves after choking on their own moral indignation. There’s some dark stuff here, darker than the first book, with enough creepy situations and haunting images to give you nightmares for a month. There’s action – lots of action! – and the flashbacks are written in the present tense, which really draws you into the moment and uses the “elephant of surprise” to keep you on the edge of your seat, right up to the eventual reveal of the final heart-breaking secret.

I’m hopeful that the final instalment in the trilogy, Emperor of Thorns, will prove to be as good as this one. What with the subtle transformation of Jorg’s character, the driving themes of memory and destiny, and the intriguing foreshadowing of the Dead King, I can’t wait to read it. According to Jorg,

“A time of terror comes. A dark time. The graves continue to open and the Dead King prepares to sail. But the world holds worse things than dead men. A dark time comes.

My time.

If it offends you.

Stop me.”

I don’t think I’ve ever shivered with anticipation before; but after reading those closing lines, how could I not?

This review was originally published on halfstrungharp.com on 23rd September 2013.lauramhughes-sig

‘The Violent Century’ by Lavie Tidhar


A tale of conflict, espionage and superheroes that takes place during some of the major global conflicts of the 1900s, The Violent Century is unlike anything I’ve ever read (except, The Violent Century by Lavie Tidharperhaps, the Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis). Often compared to Alan Moore’s Watchmen; suffused with the moody intrigue of a John le Carre novel; and written in a postmodern style similar to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Lavie Tidhar’s standalone novel explores the hypothetical role of superheroes in historical conflicts, focusing particularly on World War II.

For starters, the author uses a series of interrogation scenes to frame the main narrative, during which a central character gradually reveals the sequence of events that brought him to that point. Tidhar’s superheroes, or ‘Ubermenschen’, are an exaggerated (and deliberately stereotyped) representation of the role and ideologies of their respective countries in each of the conflicts. From Britain, there’s Oblivion and Fogg; shadowy and furtive and seemingly innocuous. From the USA emerge Tigerman and Green Gunman, ludicrously costumed and arrogant. From the USSR, there’s the Red Sickle; from Transylvania, Bloodsucker and Drakul and . . . you get the picture. These characters, along with the author’s masterful use of setting and atmosphere, really create a distinctive feel of each historical era, from post-war Berlin to the Eastern Front, the Afghan desert to WWII Transylvania.

The Violent Century is almost certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s easy to see why many readers have been put off by the style, and disoriented by the disruptive time jumps. For me, however, the concept – and the incredible atmosphere – kept me immersed, and after a short while the unusual narrative style reads just as fluently as anything else. My only criticism of the story is that a lack of emotion connection with Fogg meant that the final payoff wasn’t quite as emotionally charged as it was probably intended to be.

Overall, though, the good stuff far outweighs the bad. Tidhar’s tone is enjoyably cynical yet wry; his underlying message – that the world would have turned out in exactly the same way even if superheroes *did* exist – is depressing, yet oddly reassuring; and the finale is sad, cathartic and incredibly hopeful. All in all, The Violent Century is a memorable story that will stay with me for quite some time. Definitely worth a read.

This review originally appeared on halfstrungharp.com on 5 May 2014.lauramhughes-sig

‘Rivers of London’ by Ben Aaronovitch


As a born-and-bred northerner, I’ll admit I had doubts about how much I’d enjoy a book based entirely around the life and culture of London . . . but against all my natural instincts I found myself completely charmed by Rivers of London.

Rivers of London (Peter Grant #1) by Ben AaronovitchActually, perhaps ‘charmed’ isn’t quite the right word; rather, being whisked along on this peculiar journey down unfamiliar streets left me blinking and befuddled – in a good way! Rivers of London is refreshing in that it never pretends to be anything other than it is: a shamelessly daft, irreverent and slightly ridiculous story told through a funny and engaging first person narrator.

Peter Grant is a regular dogsbody in the London Met until, in the face of all probability, he’s informed that “yer a wizard, ‘arry!” and is roped into joining the hidden arm of the police that deals with cases of supernatural lawbreaking. Grant’s first case as a ‘real’ copper is to find out who – or what – is snatching bodies and forcing innocent people to do unspeakable things. Readers should consider themselves warned: Aaronovitch doesn’t shy away from violence and swearing!

Rivers of London’s plot is enjoyably bizarre and very entertaining. There are moments of disjointedness where it feels as though the story may be losing its thread, but it always picks up again and for the most part skips along smoothly. The novel’s irreverent tone and down-to-earth characters go a long way towards combating stereotypes, as does the author’s self-awareness of the clichés he is drawing on (cue sarcastic comments and humorous Harry Potter references).

To his credit, though, Aaronovitch mostly steers clear of clichés and tends instead to go for the unexpected. Ghosts? Yep, they’re real, only they’re a lot chattier and, well, cockney-er than you’ve ever seen them before. The goddess of the river Thames? She’s a Nigerian woman with a huge family and a fondness for custard creams. And the villain? Well, I won’t say anything about them, except that I never saw THAT coming. The way the protagonist just goes along with it all, resigning himself to his fate with a sigh, actually makes the magical aspects feel normal and totally credible: every time something new happens, be it a nest of vampires or a time-travelling ghost, instead of rolling their eyes the reader just shrugs and thinks, ‘oh, okay, cool.’

Rivers of London is a LOT of fun (did I mention that already?). I get the impression that I’ve barely scratched the surface of Aaronovitch’s crazy world, and I look forward to the day the stars align and I finally have time to read book two, Moon Over Soho.lauramhughes-sig

‘The Copper Promise’ by Jen Williams


The Copper Promise is a classic fantasy romp; a sword and sorcery tale of epic quests, fallen heroes, plucky sellswords and fearsome dragons.

The Copper Promise by Jen Williams (UK Cover)After unwittingly unleashing an ancient horror from a buried citadel (oops!), three unlikely heroes – noble Lord Frith (whose family were murdered and who himself was tortured after being overthrown by rivals); Sir Sebastien (an exiled knight with a troubled soul); and Wydrin (a sassy mercenary also known as the Copper Cat) – must seek out long-lost magic in order to atone for their bloody daft mistake and save the world.

Jen Williams’ story is a lot of fun. The Copper Promise is full of action and magic and just the right amount of grit and gore . . . and it’s entertaining enough to make you overlook certain instances of deus ex machina (need to travel somewhere in a hurry? Take these magical flying griffins!). Although several threads of the story are so contrived as to be reminiscent of quests in a Dungeons & Dragons game, the flighty pace and likeable characters (particularly Wydrin) make the reader more than happy to turn a blind eye.

The pacing of The Copper Promise does suffer a little bit from its uneven structure. As I understand it, the story was originally written as a series of four novellas; this version of the book is similarly split into four distinct sections. While this means for quite fast pacing and lots of exciting moments and mini-climaxes, it does make the final events of the book seem a little anti-climactic. (The wild chase through the skies, though very exciting, felt a little rushed.)

Most of all, though, it’s nice to read the first book in a series that can actually be read as a standalone. Far too many fantasy authors recently have cut me up with sudden and dramatic cliffhangers at the end of their books (I’m looking at you, Brian McClellan). The Copper Promise is refreshing in that it’s self-contained, and ends with a sense of resolution while at the same time inviting (rather than demanding) a sequel.

I’m currently reading Jen Williams’ latest novel, The Ninth Rain, and am massively impressed by the increase in quality. While I did enjoy The Copper Promise, I think I’d find it hard to return to the Copper Cat and co. now that I’ve sampled the Winnowing Flame trilogy… but who knows? The Iron Ghost has been sitting on my shelf for two years now, and perhaps its patience will be rewarded one day. Either way, a review of The Ninth Rain (released on 23 February 2017) will be appearing on this site very soon!lauramhughes-sig

Review originally published on halfstrungharp.com on 15 August 2014.

‘A Darker Shade of Magic’ by V.E. Schwab


I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit that I bought this book solely because of its cover.

Actually, no. I’m not embarrassed at all. That’s what covers are for, isn’t it? And this is one seriously gorgeous cover! I mean, look at that bad boy:A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Luckily, there’s an equally gorgeous story lying behind it. A Darker Shade of Magic is filled with beautiful settings and bloody magic, cross-dressing thieves and nefarious villains, magical utopias and fearsome dystopias – not to mention fun adventures and several heroic attempts to save the world. Or I should say worlds, of which there are four. Each of the four worlds – closed off from one another after terrible past events – are completely different, yet all have a single common point: the city of London. Each of these Londons (not all of which are actually called London) is vastly different from the others: Red London is a magic-infused paradise, Grey London is akin to early 19th century England, White London is dangerous and filled with half-starved cannibals, and the less said about Black London the better.

A Darker Shade of Magic focuses on two incredibly likeable characters: Kell, a powerful magician and adopted member of the Red London royal family; and Lila, a dirt-poor thief from Grey London who dreams of adventure. An unlikely pairing, but one which works together well, travelling between Londons to thwart the villains trying to bring doom upon both their worlds.

The relationship between Kell and Lila is an integral part of the story; much of the novel’s humour arises from their interactions and the dry way in which they antagonise one another. However, their relationship is not the sole focus of the story – much to the author’s credit. A romance storyline between the two could easily have taken centre stage, and yet this particular element is remarkably downplayed and subtle. Instead, A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwabit’s more about how Kell and Lila gradually come to trust one another, and how their initially antagonistic relationship develops into something stronger through their mutual desire to put things right and save the world(s). There’s just a hint or two that there may be more than just friendship on the horizon, which is both realistic and lovely at the same time.

No, the true focus of the novel is on its plot rather than its characters; and while I would have liked to have been given more insight into each of the characters as individuals, the author nonetheless does a credible job of developing them both whilst remaining focused on the events. The plot itself is relatively straightforward, but with enough twists and turns thrown in to keep the reader guessing; and the writing is flowing and engaging. In fact, certain parts of the prose – not to mention the descriptions of setting, as well as the somewhat nebulous nature of the magic itself – put me in mind of Susanna Clarke’s excellent novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Schwab’s novel is not as accomplished nor as ambitious as Clarke’s behemoth – indeed, A Darker Shade of Magic’s strength is in its fast pacing and tightly-focused plot – but its spirit is much the same, as is its focus on magic’s darker, subtler side, and its potential to bring out both the best and the worst in people.

While many aspects of the novel are somewhat dark and sinister (as the title suggests), the story itself is a whole lot of fun. The strong pacing and short chapters – as well as the likeable characters and compelling plot – conspired to make me finish the book in just two sittings, and I’m really happy to have discovered a new author as a result of my shallow over-appreciation of fine cover art. Even better, I’m confident that the sequels will prove to be just as good (if not better!) than book one . . . and that they’ll look equally pretty on my shelf.lauramhughes-sig

‘They Mostly Come Out at Night’ by Benedict Patrick


This review originally appeared on Fantasy-Faction on 20 January 2017.


They Mostly Come Out at Night by Benedict Patrick

You may recognise this book. You should recognise this book. At least, you should if you’ve been following the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off and/or are part of Fantasy-Faction’s social media circles.

I myself have been desperately enamoured with Benedict Patrick’s debut novel since I first laid eyes on its cover last year. Jenny Zemanek did such a stellar job of its design that They Mostly Come Out at Night came joint-second in the SPFBO2 cover contest (ahead of 297 others!), tying with Timandra Whitecastle’s Touch of Iron and losing out by only two votes to Michael Miller’s The Dragon’s Blade.

To Patrick, it must seem as though he’s cursed to always be the ‘almost’ winner: They Mostly Come out at Night seriously impressed SPFBO judge Sarah Chorn of Bookworm Blues (who called it ‘delightfully weird’ and ‘completely unique’) in the first round, but once again missed out on becoming a finalist by a hair’s breadth. (In case you’re wondering, Sarah’s finalist was Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma by Brian O’Sullivan, which I also reviewed for Fantasy-Faction not too long ago).

But ‘not winning’ is by no means the same as ‘losing’. In an industry where a hundred thousand subjective tastes blend (and clash…) to determine the overall ‘quality’ of a piece of writing, success is not easily quantified. Is success at the Olympics defined only by who took home a gold medal? Of course not. There are all sorts of other considerations: age; level of experience; personal circumstances; even the conditions on the day of the event. Likewise, as patronising as it sounds, there are many, many authors who’ve entered the SPFBO and emerged as ‘winners’ regardless of where – or even if – they placed overall. And Benedict Patrick is one of them.spfbo-lauramhughes-small

I’ve said before that self-published novels are judged using different standards to others; that reviewers are much more likely to consider and comment on details such as cover art, copyediting, and even typesetting. Unfair as this seems, it does help the average potential reader to easily distinguish the naff from the good . . . and the good from the great.

Let me assure you that, in all respects, They Mostly Come out at Night is as professional a book as you’ll find in today’s market, regardless of platform or publisher. Layout, design, cover, editing – every technical aspect is stunningly sharp, from the precise detail of the chapter headings to the bold, striking cover art. I’m sure readers will agree that such accomplishment deserves to be not only acknowledged, but spotlighted too.

In fact, while we’re here, can we just take a moment to appreciate the gorgeousness of *that* cover?They Mostly Come Out at Night by Benedict Patrick

Impressive as it is, though, a great cover means very little without a great story to accompany it. Is Benedict Patrick’s sexy-looking debut actually all fur coat and no knickers?

The short answer is ‘hell, no!’ The long answer is that Patrick’s story is as superb as its cover is stunning; that such a fantastic debut deserves nothing less than to be as beautifully presented as this one has been.

At first glance, the conflicts within the story seem ridiculously simplistic; the protagonists, frustratingly obtuse. The author also quite often presents his story in a manner that is far more ‘tell’ than ‘show’, which some will doubtless find fault with. However, discerning readers will soon realise that all of the above are, in fact, very much deliberate. That the narrative is crafted to sound like a bedtime fable is a clear (and fitting) stylistic choice – and a skilfully executed one, too, hidden as it is behind the ‘actual’ fairy tales that appear as interludes between the main PoV chapters.

Dark as they are, these interludes are told in a manner that somehow manages to be wry, and eerie, and endearing – all at the same time. Though some are less sinister than others, these fairy tales have more in common with the Brothers Grimm than Walt Disney. The Magpie King and Artemis the trickster feature heavily in the stories, which are not only cunningly placed but also much more significant than they first appear.

Most importantly, They Mostly Come Out at Night managed to do something that, for me, very few other fantasy books ever have: it incites fear without being ‘scary’. If you were to ask me which other books left a similar impression on me throughout my reading life, I’d easily be able to give you just two: The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett, and Sabriel by Where the Waters Turn Black (Yarnsworld #2) by Benedict PatrickGarth Nix. For me, no other author has managed to truly capture that sense of danger in the night; of terror at sunset’s approach, and an atmosphere stained with that deep-rooted and pervasive fear of the dark. Reading Patrick’s tale of monsters and Magpie Kings marked the first time in years that I’ve experienced that primal dread, that familiar foreboding – all without ever feeling as though I’d crossed from the realms of fantasy into horror.

The very first entry in Patrick’s darkly fantastical Yarnsworld universe (which he expands further in his second book: Where the Waters Turn Black), TMCOAN is a standalone novel that wraps up in a surprisingly tidy fashion . . . though anyone seeking a typical fairy-tale ending should look elsewhere. Nonetheless, it’s a satisfying denouement and a strong conclusion to a debut that is as gripping as it is unique. Patrick writes with imagination, skill and confidence, and it’s clear that They Mostly Come out at Night is the beginning of something brilliant.lauramhughes-sig

‘Assassin’s Apprentice’ by Robin Hobb


My memories of Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy are muzzy. Having read it a solid decade ago the only thing I could remember about the trilogy was that it was Quite Good. Clearly, I never had the urge to revisit the characters or even to read any of Hobb’s other books. After re-reading Assassin’s Apprentice, however, I’d like to officially revise my initial opinion.

But first: an introduction!

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin HobbThe Farseer trilogy is so-called after the royal family of the Six Duchies. The Farseers have ruled for hundreds of years, and are unique amongst the kingdom in that they possess the Skill – a hereditary ability that allows them to initiate mind contact with (and potentially manipulate) other people. Used (for the most part) to defend the kingdom against pirate raiders, the Skill is feared and respected as the sole province of royalty.

But the Skill is only one side of a coin. On the other side – the darker side – is the Wit, aka. the ability to communicate with animals. The Wit is considered to be a perversion of the Skill; those who wield it are labelled ‘tainted’ and reviled. Anyone with the Wit foolish enough to make it publicly known is promptly lynched by neighbours who believe them no better than the animals with which they share their thoughts and feelings.

Six-year-old Fitz turns out to have both the Wit and the Skill. But as a bastard of the royal line, many consider him unworthy of both. Furthermore, he must keep his Wit hidden, or risk disgracing the house of Farseer – and seeing himself horrifically punished. Assassin’s Apprentice details Fitz’s life over the next ten years or so, where he’s trained as a – you guessed it! – assassin’s apprentice. He also learns the arts of swordplay, Skilling, and the mastery of horses and hounds; but in spite of his achievements, almost no one – including himself – can see beyond his ‘shameful’ illegitimacy.

The focus of Assassin’s Apprentice is on Fitz and the conflict that surrounds him. He’s training to be a loyal assassin, yet can’t ignore his own sense of morality. He desperately wants to learn the Skill, but despises the cruel man who is teaching him. And he struggles to understand how he should feel about his father’s eccentric but well-meaning widow, Patience, who was responsible for his father’s decision to abdicate his claim to the throne and retire from the castle after learning of Fitz’s existence. Perhaps the Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobbmost defining of all is his ongoing conflict with the stablemaster Burrich, who loves Fitz like a son and yet is repulsed by his use of the Wit to the point where he will no longer speak to Fitz at all. Hobb makes us genuinely care about Fitz’s relationships, both good and bad, so that his mind-contact with his new puppy is just as exciting to read about as his altercations with his enemies.

But there are plenty of harsh challenges for Fitz, with many sad moments and passages that are genuinely moving. I found these parts of the story to be both emotionally draining and satisfyingly cathartic (in a good way), and am not ashamed to say I was actually reduced to tears on more than one occasion. Then there’s the assorted cast of truly reprehensible antagonists, in particular Galen and Regal, at whom my mind would boo and hiss whenever they appeared on the page. Seriously, they both made me furious. And that’s not even mentioning the true baddies of the story, who are currently operating in the background: the Red Ship Raiders are a constant threat to the coastal villages of the Six Duchies, and the ‘Forged ones’ – vicious zombie-like beings who are all that remain of the Raiders’ victims – are a chilling adversary.

Both the plot and the characters are well-rounded and captivating, as is the setting and worldbuilding. But the novel’s main strength is its narrative voice. Hobb writes with a consistently pleasant, engaging tone that makes Assassin’s Apprentice a joy to read from beginning to end. Her flowing, almost poetic prose makes the story light and effortless to read, and brings to the fore a likeable and sympathetic main character who is in many ways the opposite of Rothfuss’s Kvothe. Like Kvothe, Fitz is conscious of telling his own story; unlike Kvothe, Fitz is brutally honest, and his self-deprecating narrative includes all the damning facts about himself and his own actions. I can’t believe I’ve let him sit and gather dust for so many years without knowing how his story ends!lauramhughes-sig