Steven Kelliher, ‘Valley of Embers’ (review)


Review originally posted on Fantasy-Faction on 11th September 2016.


“Tough to be young or old in this Valley of ours.”

The night is dark and full of terrors, especially for the besieged inhabitants of the Valley of Embers. In Steven Kelliher’s secondary world only a handful of walled towns remain as the last bastions against the night, and the dwindling population of Emberfolk struggle to defend their secluded homes from the Dark Kind.

Fellow Factioners may have noticed that we’re currently participating in a little thing called the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. Here’s an important thing I’ve learned from judging: there are a LOT of self-published fantasy authors clamouring for attention. So many, in fact, that it’s hard to distinguish between those that deserve further notice and those who don’t. With this in mind, even the smallest flaws can turn out to be deal breakers in our decisions about which ones to continue reading; and we’ve found ourselves taking into consideration elements that we probably wouldn’t glance twice at in a traditionally-published work.

Is it unfair that indie authors have to work harder than others to earn our regard? Certainly. After all, there are a huge number of self-published individuals who take their craft very seriously, investing time and money to produce a professional final product. But the truth is that for every one of these, there are a hundred others who’ve cut corners. Many first-time authors rush into things, publishing an early draft without bothering with beta reads or edits. Others forego the services of a decent cover designer or even a less-decent one. And then there are those who splash out with amazing cover art in the hope that it will compensate for a shoddily-formatted, poorly-written or uninspired story.

Looking at Valley of Embers, you’ll forgive me for initially suspecting the latter. I mean,Valley of Embers by Steven Kelliher just look at that cover. Look! Can you blame me for being a bit wary? Looks too good to be true, right?

Wrong! In addition to its impressive and lovingly-commissioned artwork, Valley of Embers boasts an attractive and professional design both inside and out. Appearances really do matter, and in terms of superficial features Kelliher has really knocked it out of the park. The story itself is slightly less spectacular, but is engaging and original nonetheless.

The underlying threat of dark creatures that only attack at night is strongly reminiscent of Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle. However, unlike Brett’s post-apocalyptic world, Kelliher’s Dark Kind are a relatively new phenomenon; and there are some townsfolk who remember the times before the monsters showed up.

An exciting premise, for sure. Kelliher makes the most of it by giving us a taste of combat on the walls right at the beginning, introducing us to protagonists Kole and Linn through their skill and familiarity with night-time battle. This straight-to-the-point introduction works well on the whole. But the quickly-escalating battle and the cryptic-but-hurried discussions that follow seemed (to me, at least) kind of stop-start. This may be entirely down to personal preference. In fact, I expect that plenty of readers will be enamoured with such a whirlwind opening. And why not? Kelliher’s action scenes are great (if occasionally confusing), his settings vivid and varied and his characters likeable.

True, the action is well-described. But for me the combatants are a little too blasé about the nature of the enemy: perhaps it’s the coward in me speaking, but I would expect to see a certain amount of terror in the defenders regardless of how accustomed they are to their daily nightmare.

Furthermore, what begins as a fast-paced and intriguing story gradually becomes somewhat uneven, and overall the pacing is a little ‘off’. Key events lack impetus due to too much or too little build-up. One or two major battles outstay their welcome; and more than a few exposition-heavy scenes could probably have been cut without detriment to the story. (In fact, some of the dialogue actually obscures rather than explains: the swapping out of noun phrases – Dark Kind, Eastern Dark, Sage, Sentinels, Night Lord, White Crest – is often confusing, and the characters’ conversations about the Valley’s history tend to involve as much repetition as they do clarification.)

If that seems like a whole lot of negative – well, welcome to the brutal world of self-publishing, where little gripes become big gripes precisely because traditionally-published novels have taught us to take their absence for granted. Don’t get me wrong: not once did I feel less than compelled to keep reading. But in many instances I was keen to read on because of my interest in the story rather than the specific scene in front of me. Most of the pacing issues would likely be fixed if exposed to an editor’s stern attention, as would the occasional homophonic typo, odd description or anachronistic simile.

If there’s anything the SPFBO has taught us it is that the more successful indie authors are those who have taken their reviewers’ criticism on board and used it to improve their craft. Standards are high. The writers who constantly strive to meet – and to exceed – those standards are the writers who eventually get noticed one way or another; while those who settle for second best will inevitably linger in perpetual obscurity. Having read Valley of Embers, Kelliher strikes me as one of the few with the potential to rise to the top; and while it’s evident that there is still room for improvement, so too is the fact that we have a talented new fantasy writer on the scene.

In spite of my whining I am very much invested in the story Kelliher has begun. Though not without flaws, Valley of Embers is a solid debut and a promising start to a new series.

Marc Turner, ‘Red Tide’ (review)


Marc Turner is without doubt one of the most talented fantasy authors to have debuted in recent years. His latest offering, Red Tide, is the thrilling third chapter in the six-book Chronicles of the Exile, and is guaranteed to leave fans of this series absolutely blown away.

Red Tide (UK cover) by Marc TurnerRed Tide begins just days after the events of book two (Dragon Hunters). The Sabian Sea is too dangerous to sail, and the Storm Isles are floundering in the chaotic aftermath of Dragon Day. But one city’s misfortune can easily become another’s gain, and it’s clear that the opportunistic rulers on both sides of the Dragon Gate intend to take advantage of the situation . . . if only to fight each other for the scraps.

Right from the outset Turner presents us with greed, murder and betrayal . . . in other words, everything you’d expect from a civilisation founded on greed, murder and betrayal. We catch our first glorious glimpse of the Rubyholt Isles: a notorious conglomeration of pirate communities, tenuously led by a greedy, murderous and treacherous Warlord. Within just a few pages Turner manages to introduce not only a brand-new, Viking-like culture, but also two compelling new PoV characters – both of whom are on opposite sides of a tense and unprecedented political conflict. Needless to say the conflict soon escalates, whisking us away to the city of Gilgamar and the schemes of Emperor Avallon and Emira Mazana Creed. Readers should expect to see some familiar faces from Dragon Hunters, as well as other (possibly half-forgotten!) ones from When the Heavens Fall (book one).

Perhaps the most notable thing about Turner’s writing is his versatility. The Chronicles of the Exile boasts a wonderful variety of styles, scopes, characters and tones, which makes each successive instalment feel strikingly different from the last. This gives it quite an experimental feel – particularly since the first two books not only feature entirely different characters and settings but also seemingly-unrelated plots – which is refreshing rather than disorienting. The complex, sweeping epic of When the Heavens Fall is vastly different from its sequel, Dragon Hunters, which is set entirely on and around the island city of Olaire and is written with a much lighter tone.Red Tide (US cover) by Marc Turner

Red Tide has more in common with the latter than the former, continuing the nautical theme and returning once more to the southern coast of the Sabian sea. Most importantly (particularly for those who were bewildered by their seeming lack of connection) Red Tide draws together some of the disparate elements of the first two books. He does this gradually and subtly, which I guarantee will lead to more than one ‘ah-ha!’ moment (or, if you’re anything like me, a flickering lightbulb moment of slow-dawning realisation).

Turner pulls each separate character steadily and irrevocably into the central conflict, then flings obstacles at them whilst also pushing them irresistibly towards one another. In contrast to the masterful slow-build of When the Heavens Fall, Red Tide is far more fast-paced: the tone is lively, and the action is consistently gripping. Best of all, Turner doesn’t exploit every single potential combination of characters. Instead, he teases us with near-meets, creating ‘what if?’ scenarios and then holding them tantalisingly out of reach.

Personally, one of my favourite aspects of Red Tide – and of the entire series – is the way the author conveys the sheer scope of his world without ever going overboard (see what I did there?) with the details. He uses brief conversations, cryptic naming traditions, local legends and stunning scenery to hint at a vast backdrop of unknown elements. In Red Tide, the focus lies on what lurks under the sea: readers can look forward to terrifying glances of The Rent (a vertigo-inducing black hole beneath the waves), the Dragons’ Boneyard (along with its chthonic web-spinning denizen) and of course the deadly coming-of-age trial known only as the Shark Run. Turner gives us the impression that a vast amount of history and lore is straining to just burst into the story and cause untold chaos. Most impressive is his ability to do this without deviating from the main plot whilst also (conversely) raising more questions than he answers.

Why should you pick up this series? Well, if I haven’t managed to convince you how effing fantastic the latest release is, just take a look at the reviews for books one and two. You’ll find a lot of favourable comparisons to other authors in the genre – and it’s easy to see why.

For a start, When the Heavens Fall is threatened by the presence of immortal, crazy-powerful supernatural beings. Turner’s descriptions of these – understated, yet chilling – strongly bring to mind the Taken in Glen Cook’s Black Company. Then in Dragon Hunters the author entertains us with the sort of quirky, rock-hard, dark-humoured characters you’d expect to find dwelling in Steven Erikson’s Malazan series.

Red Tide brings the best of both. Furthermore, the Abercrombie-esque diversity of the characters – be it Amerel’s unforgiving pragmatism or Romany’s sardonic humour; Senar’s wry indecision or Galantas’s arrogant charm – ensures that every PoV has its own way of entertaining the reader (incidentally making it very difficult for the reader to choose who to root for!).

“What was she thinking? This couldn’t be murder; this was war. Killing wasn’t murder if you stole the victim’s country while you were at it.”

So, if you enjoy the novels of Glen Cook, Joe Abercrombie and Steven Erikson, chances are you’ll love Marc Turner’s stuff. But though the series does have plenty in common with First Law, Malazan, Black Company and others, the world Turner has created in The Chronicles of the Exile is deep, unique and entirely his own. Turner’s star is on the rise: Red Tide is his strongest outing to date, and one of the finest fantasy novels of 2016.

A Motherfuckin' DRAGON


If you’re still undecided about starting the series, you can read a Chronicles of the Exile short story for FREE over on Tor.com.

This review was originally published at Fantasy-Faction.com on 19th September 2016.

Hola, October!


Signed and Cactigraphed Books by Tom Lloyd, Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie

Guys – it’s October already! September flew by so quickly, probably because it was even more spiffing than August.

For starters, I attended my FIRST EVER SIGNING (!!!), a Gollancz event at my local Waterstones on which I wrote up an excitable little piece earlier this week. Basically I got giddy at meeting the Bear and co., and for the rest of the evening it was subliminal selfies (copyright: Steven Poore) and happy cactigraphs all round.

The entire evening reinforced my determination to join a traditionally-published (and fun!) team such as Gollancz

… a determination which was bolstered by yet another handful of amazingly kind reviews on Goodreads! I published Danse Macabre in October 2015, and the reviews it’s acquired over the last twelve months have been unanimously positive. As you might imagine, this has done wonders for my confidence in my own writing ability; self-publishing my first ever finished piece of fiction is perhaps one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Danse Macabre by Laura M Hughes

Speaking of self-publishing: the #SPFBO is nearing the end of its first round! Four of the ten participating blogs have announced their finalists, with more soon to follow.

Over on Fantasy-Faction we eliminated another two entries. I wrote a fond review of Off Leash by Daniel Potter, which you should definitely check out along with A.F.E. Smith’s fantastic review of A Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope.

Our remaining three semi-finalists are Dyrk Ashton (Paternus), Amy Rose Davis (Ravenmarked) and Aderyn Wood (The Raven). We’ve actually picked our finalist… but aren’t quite ready to announce them yet. 😉

SPFBO Semi-Finalists: Fantasy-Faction's remaining three

It isn’t just SPFBO stuff I’ve been covering for Fantasy-Faction. In last month’s round-up, I shared my excitement at receiving an ARC of Red Tide by one of my favourite modern fantasy authors, Marc Turner. The book was amazing (as if that was ever in doubt), and as well as reviewing it I also had the opportunity to interview Marc as well!

And that’s not all! Earlier in the month, Tor.com published an article I wrote about The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

My First Article for Tor.com

The article – which marks my first ever piece of paid AND solicited non-fiction writing! – is essentially a rundown of the major characters introduced in Gardens of the Moon, and seems to have received a very positive response on the whole. (Better yet, I have at least four more articles for Tor.com lined up over the next six months or so. Watch this space!)

The gorgeous illustrations in the GotM article are all provided by the talented Chisomo Phiri (aka. Shadaan). You should definitely check out his spectacular portfolio on DeviantArt!

'Blacksword Visits' - Malazan Art by Shadaan

artwork by Shadaan

In other news, I’m currently working on a short story, which I intend to submit to Ragnarok’s upcoming Hath No Fury anthology.  But more on that next month . . .

Happy October!

Ruth Nestvold, ‘Yseult’ (SPFBO review)


Yseult reached the semi-finals in the 2nd annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. This review was originally published on Fantasy-Faction on 31st August 2016.

***

A Tale of Love in the Age of King Arthur. A fitting subtitle, but in general one that is likely to discourage more readers than it attracts.

Romance in fantasy is a contentious issue. Lots of readers (myself included) are relatively indifferent to it, and neither seek it out nor avoid it. On the other hand, I’ve seen many an online discussion on the topic in which the majority of comments fall into two categories: ‘love it’ and ‘oh dear god MY EYES’. And this is a real shame, because it means that the latter will always miss out on well-written, beautiful stories such as Yseult.

Ruth Nestvold’s retelling of Tristan and Isolde is a solid adaptation that manages to capture the mischief and high spirits of Béroul’s original translation, as well as evoke a convincing sense of Arthurian Britain. From the humble roundhouses of Eriu to the dramatic promontory of Dyn Tagell, Yseult is rich in vivid settings that draw us in and anchor us firmly in the characters’ place and time.

Yseult by Ruth NestvoldNestvold’s writing has a charming quality, suffused with the quiet confidence of long familiarity with her characters and the world in which they play. The tone and style – along with the carefully-researched druidic, Celtic and Roman place names – sound authentic but not archaic; and while I did find myself a little bewildered at times (particularly at the start!) the wonderfully comprehensive glossary quickly cleared up any confusion.

Another aspect of Yseult which I admire is the skillful way the author maintains a cohesive timeline – without feeling the need to fill in all the gaps. The first section in particular is very well structured, cutting between important scenes with minimal disorientation; and the epistolary-style segments are a nice way of bridging the later chapters in a way that avoids repetition and unnecessary detail. On the whole, the pacing is similarly controlled, though some of us felt that it was perhaps a little *too* languorous in places. This, along with the occasionally ponderous prose, was the main issue cited by those of us who struggled to engage with Yseult. In fact, it was the only real sticking point on which we just could not seem to agree!

Speaking for myself, the issues I had with the book arose from what I perceived as unevenness. The entirety of part one – which is excellent, by the way – centres on the trials and inner strength of Yseult’s mother in addition to the childhood and adolescence of Yseult herself. So when the fabled romance finally began in part two I was somewhat taken aback by the way it was presented. It begins sweetly, and is interwoven with other events that keep the story rolling. But when our two protagonists finally get frisky, the frequent use of (for example) words like ‘ass’ and ‘cock’ when describing sex scenes felt jarring and not at all consistent with the subtle character development, beautiful Irish words and mellifluous descriptions to which I’d become accustomed.

Not only does it feel as though the sex scenes were written by a totally different author, the story itself seems less compelling the more it focuses on Drystan and Yseult. In fact, I almost abandoned the book at one point: despite thoroughly enjoying part one, I began to find the story tedious. Increasingly frequent repetition – particularly the author’s fixation with describing Yseult’s ‘moonlight’ hair and Drystan’s ‘forest-green’ eyes – started to really grate on my nerves. But it wasn’t until I reached the 44%-mark that I realised – with much disappointment – I just wasn’t enjoying Yseult enough to justify continuing with it.

Thankfully, I went back to it a few days later; and after a bit of perseverance I started to realise that Nestvold’s ‘tale of love’ encompasses far more than ‘just’ romance. Each and every character is motivated by different kinds of love, sometimes simultaneously and often conflicting. Yseult finds herself torn between her romantic love for Drystan and filial love for her mother, cousin and son. Marcus is motivated by self-love; Kurvenal, by platonic love for his best friend. Arthur is driven by love for his country, and everywhere deeds both good and evil are committed in the name of love and loyalty to one’s religion.

On the whole, Yseult is strongly reminiscent of Mary Stewart’s fantastic Arthurian Saga: a patient, introspective narrative that concerns itself mostly with magic, politics and belief. Nestvold takes the same murky time period, adds a familiar legend and then remoulds it with enough creative flourishes to make it feel fresh and original. The author develops her characters well (although antagonists such as Marcus and Andred are too-quickly painted as unsympathetic villains) and makes sure to give them and her readers a suitably poetic send-off at the last.

The Verdict: After reading a swathe of SPFBO entries that tended more towards the traditional/epic we found this historical fantasy to be a rather captivating change of pace. However, while we all agreed it was well written, not all of us found it engaging. We acknowledged that others’ opinions would likely differ as vastly as our own, which is why we’ve made the decision to eliminate Yseult in favour of others with the potential to appeal to a broader audience.

Daniel Abraham, ‘The Dagger & the Coin’ (series review)


The Dagger & the Coin Quintet by Daniel Abraham

 
Reviewing an entire series in one fell swoop can be tricky. Luckily, I’ve got the perfect metaphor to carry us through this one . . . but more on that in a moment. First, here’s a quick introduction for those who’re not familiar with the series.

The Dagger and the Coin is a fantasy quintet that blends myth, violence and political intrigue to create an entertaining and thought-provoking tale about what can happen when absolute power is placed in the hands of one man. Daniel Abraham shows us how quickly and unexpectedly a kingdom can dissolve into chaos and war, and how easy it is for an entire civilisation to succumb to fear and prejudice.

What I like most about Daniel Abraham’s writing is his clean, engaging style. He doesn’t dazzle us with descriptions or confuse us with cleverness. Instead, he patiently draws us in with easy prose and a conversational tone that eases the reader into a familiar, close relationship with each character.

And now on to the metaphor (which, by the way, I intend to mangle extend past recognition by dragging weaving it through this entire ramble review). Here it comes.

Sometimes spectacular, often laugh-out-loud funny and always engaging: Daniel Abraham has crafted a character-driven series that becomes stronger and more complex with each instalment . . . kind of like a river. No, really.The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham

Let’s start at the beginning (or should I say ‘source’?): The Dragon’s Path, in which various characters’ lives first begin to trickle downhill and mingle together. Abraham does a creditable job of introducing the protagonists – including Cithrin (a banker’s apprentice), Marcus (a jaded mercenary) and Geder (a quixotic nobleman) – using alternating PoV chapters. Most of these the reader will continue to follow throughout the series . . . and through both sides of the conflict.

Right from the get-go, Cithrin and Geder are established as the ‘major’ characters. Already embarked on radically divergent paths, events soon begin to shape their thoughts and personalities in very different ways that nonetheless force both to shed their innocent naïveté. That Abraham juxtaposes Cithrin (representing trade, or ‘coin’) and Geder (symbolising war, or the ‘dagger’/‘dragon’s path’) isn’t immediately obvious in The Dragon’s Path; but it soon becomes a pivotal part of the saga.

Some readers dislike being thrown into a secondary world and bombarded with unfamiliar names and races and cities. I’ll admit that I found The Dragon’s Path a bit confusing at first! But while it takes roughly the first half of the book for the characters to fully begin to form, the other aspects of the world soon fall into place. Abraham sacrifices clarity at the beginning in order to convey the diversity of his world in a more organic way, and I guarantee it won’t be long before you’re familiar with all thirteen races: pale, slender Cinnae and black, chitinous Timzinae; sharp-toothed Tralgu and tusked Yemmu; otter-pelted Kurtadam and the elusive Drowned. (For those who are interested, Abraham actually has a handy guide on his website – creatively presented as a historical record!)

Aside from his agreeable prose, another distinguishing feature of Abraham’s writing is his depiction of female characters – something that he also carries over into The Expanse, his co-written SF series published under the pen name James S.A. Corey.

Both female leads in The Dagger and the Coin are strong in different ways (none of which, thankfully, involve clichéd and improbable skill with sex or weapons) and are equally as well-drawn and likeable as Naomi, Bobbie, Avasarala and co in The Expanse. Cithrin, although very young, is well-versed in her knowledge of banking and finance, and skilfully uses this knowledge to turn many poor situations to her advantage; while the much older Clara exploits her gender’s inferior position within society to acquire items and information that her husband and sons aren’t able to access.

The Dragon’s Path does an excellent job of setting future events in motion, and in hindsight gives the reader some intriguing hints about the bigger picture. It also successfully establishes characters and setting, and Abraham displays impressive originality in terms of worldbuilding. But he also isn’t ashamed to embrace the familiar, and so the perplexed reader will soon find themselves grounded by a comforting backdrop of classic fantasy elements that I like to think of as the author’s gentle homage to the genre.The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham

This is particularly evident in book two, The King’s Blood, in which mercenary Marcus and apostate Kit embark on a quest to find a magic sword and kill an evil goddess. Agreed, this sounds like the clichéd plot of an old role-playing game; yet seeing these two cool characters paired up on a wild adventure is actually a LOT of fun. The fact that Abraham acknowledges the cliché with a few dry remarks from Marcus is a perfect example of how he’s using The Dagger and the Coin not only to pay tribute to traditional fantasy elements but also to mess around with (and poke fun at!) our expectations.

If the events of The Dagger & the Coin are a river with The Dragon’s Path as their source, then The King’s Blood is the young river stage: downhill (obviously…), and increasing pace rapidly. Book two takes a somewhat darker turn and remains more or less focused within the city of Camnipol, where social and political discord is beginning to form cracks in this once-stable capital.

The King’s Blood unfolds the tale of Camnipol’s gradual descent into civil war, which we witness through two main PoVs – each on a different side of the conflict. These two characters (who shall remain unnamed because SPOILERS) are really well-written: in The Dragon’s Path both were likeable for different reasons, but now we’re presented with a new side of them. Both have their reasons for doing what they do, but it’s difficult to decide which is right and which is wrong. The ambiguity of the characters and the fallout from their decisions – not to mention the reader’s conflicted emotional response to certain characters’ story arcs – creates a darker tone than book one, seeping subtly into the narrative and setting the mood for the rest of the series.

On a lighter note I think most readers tend to be pleasantly surprised by how interesting Cithrin’s chapters are. Even for someone like me (i.e. someone who can barely look at a bank statement without getting cross-eyed) the details of her financial schemes actually become one of the most exciting plot points. But although Cithrin plays a crucial role in future events, she spends much of book two waiting in the wings.

The Tyrant's Law by Daniel Abraham

No matter, though, because there’s another character in The King’s Blood who may surprise you. Clara, the middle-aged wife of Baron Dawson Kalliam, receives a lot more page time here than in The Dragon’s Path. Mother to four children, Clara’s main purpose is maintaining the house and participating in social events with other wives of the rich and powerful. This might not sound like the makings of an interesting character, but in reality it’s a breath of fresh air from the morally-grey ‘grimdark’ antiheroes that populate (and dominate) so much of recent fantasy. Lady Kalliam has a unique perspective on events; she’s a very brave and sympathetic character, and the way she deals with her trials and tribulations while still remaining gracious is lovely to read about.

As you can tell by now, Abraham’s protagonists are the undisputed stars of the stage. But likeable characters alone are rarely enough to win over most readers. That might explain why the adjective I see most often used to describe the Dagger and Coin series is ‘good’ . . . which, while positive, is about as lukewarm as praise gets. I suspect that the relatively slow pace is the main reason many people aren’t blown away by the series early on, and it’s true that neither The Dragons Path nor The King’s Blood could ever be described as ‘rip-roaring’.

However, those who persevere will find that the series isn’t so much slow as it is slow-burn; and The Tyrant’s Law, the middle novel in the quintet, is like the first major set of waterfalls in our story-river’s (remember the river?) path. As in the first two books the story and the action begin slowly and build steadily. But there’s a turning point around the halfway mark when The Tyrant’s Law starts to thrum with a real sense of urgency, and the final quarter begins a brilliantly tense convergence between two of the characters.

The world of The Dagger and the Coin seems to exist in spite of the story, not because of it. It’s vivid but organic, which (for me, at least) is the most vital aspect of convincing, immersive worldbuilding. The Tyrant’s Law is the first book in the series where the diversity of the different races becomes a contentious issue, and the fact that we the reader have already spent two books peacefully co-existing with those who are now reviled makes us feel especially uncomfortable with the rising bigotry.

Geder’s chapters are particularly powerful here, and the tragic-comic story of his unwitting rise to power continues to be fantastically told. The transition of a clumsy, loveably inept minor noble into a hateful yet well-meaning tyrant has been so subtle and seamless that it remains hard not to feel sympathetic towards him . . . whilst also wanting to smack him ‘round the head with the flat of Marcus’ culling blade. Geder’s volatile, pliant nature (and the sinister figure who’s taking advantage of it, of course) tends to be the catalyst for most of the events from here on in.The Widow's House by Daniel Abraham

It really is compelling to see how Geder – blinded by good intentions and personal insecurity – drags an entire country along behind him as he stumbles over the edge of each waterfall. And if The Tyrant’s Law is the tumbling waterfall, then The Widow’s House is unquestionably the calmer, middle stage of the Dagger & Coin story-river. Languid and meandering, it is a marked change of pace from the excitement of book three. However, it continues steadily towards the end of its journey: calm on the surface, but shedding innocent corpses in its wake like silt deposits and leaving the ground behind it irrevocably altered.

Once again, the protagonists are the most engaging feature of The Widow’s House; and once again, Geder Palliako edges into the lead as my personal favourite. The Lord Regent is child-like and peevish, petulant and bitter . . . yet strangely sympathetic at the same time. He’s the nicest of people, and he’s the villain of the piece; a tyrant who simply does not realise he’s a tyrant. A social outcast for most of his early life, he’s so desperate to be liked that he’s blind to the fact that everyone is terrified of him. He’s ruled by his own insecurities, which are fuelled and manipulated by Geder’s most trusted ‘friend’: Basrahip, the spider-priest pulling Geder’s strings in an attempt to turn Camnipol into a platform for the chaotic cult of the spider goddess.

Meanwhile, the insidious currents of treachery finally start to draw the other PoVs together. Cithrin’s chapters are often the most interesting: I mentioned earlier that she is the ‘coin’ in The Dagger and the Coin, and she uses manipulation and money (rather than force) to undermine her enemies. This thread of the story focuses entirely on economics, and is well written and original. (I actually would have liked to see Cithrin’s manoeuvring play an even bigger part. Perhaps we might see a spinoff at some point in the future, Mr. A?)

So. Geder is intriguing, Cithrin is cunning . . . but the real darling of The Widow’s House is Clara. Brave, practical and loyal, her chapters always make for a pleasantly easy read – a trend which continues into book five, The Spider’s War.

The Widow’s House may have lulled us into believing that The Spider’s War will be a quick, smooth strait that takes us through to the end . . . but not so in our Dagger and Coin river. Just as you think you’re nearing the mouth you realise too late that there’s one more unseen waterfall. Only those who survive the drop will crawl from the wreckage to finally paddle down the delta and float off in their own separate directions.

From the very beginning of The Dagger and the Coin, Abraham uses Geder’s story arc to paint an increasingly horrifying scenario of a world where absolute power is held by one man alone. Nowhere is this more apparent than the final book. It’s hard to be specific without vomiting spoilers (or spiders) all over the page, so I’ll switch to vagueness for this last part.

What a finale! The Spider’s War is a worthy – though somewhat bittersweet – ending to an original and (at times) unpredictable fantasy series. Abraham demonstrates how alternating PoVs *should* be used: switching back and forth with skill and cunning, heightening tension and uncertainty in the build-up to the big finish. Moreover, he also takes the time to thoroughly wrap up surviving characters’ story arcs in a variety of (mostly) satisfying ways, striking a fine balance between breathless action and patient closure.The Spider's War by Daniel Abraham

There isn’t much else I can say without repeating myself. The characters are developed consistently and intriguingly (although, amazingly, they can still surprise us . . . even after spending five books in their company, and even when their actions are in no way at odds with what we know about them as a character), and the writing style remains as engaging as ever. The Spider’s War is certainly one of the strongest Dagger and Coin instalments, and is pretty much everything you could ask for in a finale. And while there’s nothing remotely resembling a cliffhanger, there are plenty of plot threads that are tied off less tightly than others – welcoming (but not demanding) an eventual return to the Dagger & Coin universe.

But for now, that river has run its course. I highly recommend Daniel Abraham’s work to any and all readers of SFF, and I’ll certainly be taking a look at his Long Price Quartet in the near future. Some people say the best writers are the ones who, at the end of a series, leave you desperate for more. However, much rarer (and arguably more special) are the voices and the tales that we choose to revisit. And having finished The Spider’s War I know for a certainty that I’ll be returning to Cithrin, Clara, Geder and co. in the future. I miss them already.


Review originally published on Fantasy-Faction on 17th August 2016.

Salut, September!


September makes me happy for two reasons. Not only is it the month in which summer finally fucks off, but it’s also the month of my birthday! And its arrival calls for a quick recap of what I’ve been up to in August.


G.R. Matthews, Forbidden List (trilogy)

The wonderful G.R. Matthews (author of Silent City and The Forbidden List  trilogy) kicked things off with an interview at the start of the month. Matthews runs a ’10 Quick Questions’ series each week, featuring a range of awesome indie authors, and invited me to join him for rambles and randomness. You can read it here.

CEVAK

As promised in last month’s roundup I’ve finally made time to beta read my good friend and writing buddy Kareem Mahfouz‘s work-in-progress (and future bestseller). The big finale is shaping up to be Awesome (yes, capital ‘A’) – so Awesome, in fact, that I cobbled together another dodgy-looking graphic for one of my favourite characters.

In other news, the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) is well underway, and I’m having a whale of a time discovering new indie voices along with my fellow judges: A.F.E. Smith, author of Darkhaven and Goldenfire (Harper Voyager); and the above-mentioned G.R. Matthews.

I recently wrote my first ‘elimination article‘ for Fantasy-Faction explaining why certain entries just didn’t make the cut, and also contributed to the subsequent post that announced our final seven. Even more recently we eliminated Terminus by Ryan Howse, shortly followed by Ruth Nestvold’s Yseult; and the final seven became a final five. We have until next month to pick our *drumroll* FINALIST, after which we’ll then read and rate the other nine that made it through. Exciting!

SPFBO - Fantasy-Faction's Final Five

In addition, I finished reading The Spider’s War by Daniel Abraham. Abraham is becoming a ‘go-to’ author for me: his work is consistently fun to read, with reliably solid characters and easy prose. I reviewed The Spider’s War on Fantasy-Faction, along with the rest of the Dagger and Coin quintet (which I highly recommend!).

Thiefbreaker-seven-lines-facebook

Once again my own writing progress has taken a hit. But on the plus side I’ve resolved to cut down on the amount of planning I do, and to not worry about writing things chronologically. (I like to call this the ‘patchwork quilt’ method.) I’m also giving myself the freedom to work on other things alongside my main WIP, which is a lot of fun. There are two other projects I’m currently messing with: a third-person, multiple PoV novella; and an experimental first-person piece which I may write as a serial. Both are set in secondary worlds; but while the novella will focus on the rising tension among a group of thieves who are being hunted, the serial is a humorous dialogue-driven travelogue/detective story.

And speaking of writing . . . At the beginning of August, a lovely lady named Bridget McGovern dropped me an email out of the blue. Much to my surprise and delight, she invited me to contribute an article to Tor.com – which should be appearing on the site sometime this month!

Just one more exciting thing before I go. One of my favourite modern fantasy authors, Marc Turner, sent me an advance review copy of his upcoming novel, Red Tide. Published on September 20th 2016, Red Tide is the third instalment of Turner’s epic fantasy series The Chronicles of the Exile. Not only will I be reading and reviewing this in time for its release date – I’ll also be interviewing Marc himself! Questions will cover a range of topics – from reading and writing to other (less relevant) things – and both the interview and the review of Red Tide should be up on Fantasy-Faction within the next few weeks.

So, September: d’you think you’ll live up to August’s levels of awesomeness? *rubs hands together*

Tweet - Red Tide ARC

Aloha, August!


I can’t say I’ve ever used the word ‘awhirl’ in casual conversation before – well, apart from just now – but I’ve spent the past month awhirl in Cool Book Stuff™. Such as . . .

Cool Book Stuff™ #1

I’m now officially a member of the Fantasy-Faction team!

Fantasy-Faction

I’ve followed the site – co-edited by Marc Aplin and Jennifer Ivins – for years, and have always admired the quality of its articles and the regularity of its reviews. I’m flattered and grateful, excited and proud beyond belief to be able to call myself part of the team. (I’ve got a PAGE and everything!)

Cool Book Stuff™ #1.1

And as if that wasn’t amazing enough, I now get to join in with the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (#SPFBO) for the first time. And as part of the F-F judging panel, no less!

SPFBO2 Banner by Matt Howerter

graphic by Matt Howerter

I’m a bit late to the party, but playing catch-up has been a lot of fun. I’ve read, scored and commented on the opening chapters of at least ten submissions, many of which have pleasantly surprised me. In fact, there’s more than one that I’ll probably go on to read even if it doesn’t make it through this round.


Cool Book Stuff™ #2

As you can probably guess, my own writing has taken a bit of a back seat whilst I focus not only on reading and reviewing, but also beta reading.

It’s been pretty much one year exactly since my first ever writing buddy (Kareem Mahfouz: notorious whiskey-sponge with the enviable power to pull entire storylines out of his arse as he writes) sent me the first prologue of the first draft of his first novel. Now – twelve months and 192,000 words later – I have the final part of his first draft to read and feed back on, which I’m REALLY looking forward to.

In fact, I got so excited by the story that I made a thing inspired by Kareem’s favourite character:

'Mouse'

Remember the name: Kareem Mahfouz. You heard about him here first, people!


Cool Book Stuff™ #3

Danse Macabre by Laura M HughesMy own word count may have ground to a temporary halt, but the reviews for my novelette, Danse Macabre, have been unexpectedly flooding in!

It’s a very small flood, I’ll grant you. But quality beats quantity every time.

Seasoned reviewer James McStravick shared his thoughts over on his blog, The Observant Raven; and the excellent T.O. Munro (author of Lady of the Helm) penned a particularly detailed and thoughtful review in which he called Danse Macabre “well-written”, “ingenious” and “captivating”.

To be honest, I’m still in shock. Awesome-shock.


Cool Book Stuff™ #4

Since my Kindle (Mr. Norrell) appears to have gorged himself on ALL THE THINGS over the last few months, I’ve compiled some of the best-looking indie books he’s found into a reading list:

Indie Reading List, August 2016Just look at those bad boys! Norrell’s definition of ‘new’ is somewhat questionable – I’ve had some of those books since the last SPFBO! – but still. Enticing, eh?

Right now I’m working through The Spider’s War by Daniel Abraham (which is great, by the way), but it shouldn’t be too long before I get around to this little beauty:

Valley of Embers by Steven KelliherThat’s an eARC of the upcoming Valley of Embers by indie author Steven Kelliher. The first in the Landkist saga, it’ll be available to buy on 16th August 2016 from Amazon.


That’s it (for now). July, I’m sorry to see you go. You’ve been a really positive month for me. August, you– oi! August! Listen! You have a lot to live up to, so you’d better start right now.

Oh! And for those who’re interested in the brilliant SPFBO, I urge you to take a few moments to check out the main page on Mark Lawrence’s site. Like, right now.