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

‘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

‘Prince of Thorns’ by Mark Lawrence


 Let a man play chess, and tell him that every pawn is his friend. Let him think both bishops holy. Let him remember happy days in the shadows of his castles. Let him love his queen. Watch him lose them all.

Consider yourself warned: Mark Lawrence’s debut novel is not for the faint of heart. Prince of Thorns kicks off the notoriously dark Broken Empire trilogy, and readers should embark on Jorg’s journey fully prepared for blood, death and macabre humour of the kind one might find in the novels of Joe Abercrombie.

Right off the bat Lawrence throws us in amongst Jorg’s band of unscrupulous ‘Brothers’, who are not only looting and burning a village but also raping and murdering its inhabitants. (It’s at this point which many a reader has reached the firm conclusion that this merry tale is not to their liking.)

Prince of Thorns by Mark LawrenceSome would say that such a controversial opening chapter risks alienating readers who are familiar with more traditional fantasy openings, and they’d be right. But although it’s risky, that single scene is more than justified by the fact that it cleverly conveys so much about Jorg and his companions more than justifies its casual brutality. Jorg Ancrath has witnessed (and perpetrated) all sorts of atrocities during his transformation from privileged prince to dangerous rogue. Now, he has to confront dark magic, the walking dead and childhood horrors if he’s to succeed in conquering the known world.

Personally, I enjoyed the way Prince of Thorns shattered my expectations, and left me full of questions about the Broken Empire (some of which I’m still waiting to be answered!). Though the opening events well and truly hooked me, it’s the prose that sustained my interest throughout the rest of the book’s early chapters; Lawrence’s narrative style is a wonder to read. The narrator’s voice is distinctive, captivating and intriguingly changeable in line with Jorg’s raging internal conflict.

Jorg appears to be inhumanly detached from emotions (his own, and others’) to the extent that he’s essentially incapable of empathising with anyone around him. Alternately cold, hard, sarcastic, deadpan, humorous – none of these facets of the character are particularly likeable. However, it becomes clear that this is (to an extent) more a persona than a personality; and, while Jorg is clearly ignorant of what is happening to him, we as readers are able to recognise and appreciate the gradual emergence of compunction and sympathy. It’s a subtle development, but one which proves that characters don’t always have to be sympathetic to be engaging.

One minor gripe about the book is that I wish it included more of the Brothers than just the occasional entertaining anecdote or one-liner between chapters. Jorg might not care much about his Brothers, but I wanted to know more about what makes them tick. (Thankfully, Lawrence’s aptly-titled Road Brothers anthology goes a long way towards addressing this… though to my shame I haven’t read it yet.)

In a nutshell, then: Prince of Thorns is a dark novel, but not as dark as others would have you believe. The characters are entertaining, the world is fascinating, and the imagery is vivid and staggering. Many readers find themselves alienated by the beginning, but many more have (like me) read right to the end (three times!) and still come back for more.

FYI: The original review was posted at halfstrungharp.com on 18th September 2013. It was the second review I ever wrote – and Mark was the first author I ever interacted with on Twitter!

‘Beyond Redemption’ by Michael R. Fletcher


Beyond Redemption is a classic Western adventure tale. Three cowboys, bound by a beautiful friendship, return home to their ranch after a hard day’s work only to find—

Wait! I’m kidding.

Heh. Got you.

Beyond Redemption is, in fact, a classic case of DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER. Surreal and bloody, this first instalment in Michael R. Fletcher’s Manifest Delusions series is an uncomfortable and captivating exploration of imperfect characters in a broken world.Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

If someone decided to make a crossover between Inception and Robin Hood set in the Broken Empire, it might look a little bit like Beyond Redemption. Granted, Fletcher’s heroes aren’t exactly the Merry Men:

“We work together. We’re a team. A shite team, but we get things done. We aren’t friends and we sure as shite aren’t lovers. Never forget: I’d kill either of you if there was money in it for me.”

In fact, they might be the least merry protagonists I’ve ever encountered. A fair few of them could easily blend in with Steven Erikson’s grittier creations, while others wouldn’t look out of place amongst Jorg Ancrath’s Road Brothers. And in true ‘grimdark’ fashion, these morally murky men and women are not the exception but the norm.

'Bedeckt': art by Quint VonCanon

‘Bedeckt’: art by Quint VonCanon

Now, the prospect of villainous psychopaths roaming in heavily-armed bands is worrisome enough in any context. But in Fletcher’s world, it’s downright terrifying.

Why?

“The more people who believed something, the truer it became.”

That’s right: in the aptly-titled Manifest Delusions universe, belief defines reality. The more unstable the mind, the more powerful the belief.

I’ve adored this concept ever since I first read Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather: a brilliant tale in which an assassin attempts to murder Discworld’s version of Father Christmas by manipulating children so that they no longer believe in him.

Of course, Beyond Redemption executes this idea with less levity and a lot more dark abandon. Where Pratchett has ‘spare’ belief (leftover from the dwindling Hogfather) that spontaneously spawns quirky-yet-harmless anthropomorphic personifications (like the Oh-God of Hangovers, the Verruca Gnome, the Hair-Loss Fairy and the Eater of Socks), Fletcher instead gives us murderous embodiments of our own paranoias: reflections that become Doppels (identical copies); Doppels that then plot to steal our identity; and of course one man’s master plan to engineer the birth of an all-powerful god through the indoctrination of an entire city.

'The Slaver': art by Quint VonCanon

‘The Slaver’: art by Quint VonCanon

Nothing is as it seems in the world of Manifest Delusions. ‘Reality’ itself is a misnomer; neither trust nor truth exists, because everyone is out only for themselves.

“All communication is manipulation,” said Konig. “All interaction, social or otherwise, is a means of getting what you want. It’s the basis of society.”

Such oh-so-logical philosophising by characters like Konig is enough to boggle the mind and leave even the sanest reader questioning things they’ve always taken for granted – including the very definition of ‘sane’.

In fact, Beyond Redemption might be the first genre novel I’ve encountered that is brave enough to explore different perceptions and consequences of mental illness and psychological disorders in a fantastical context. It’s a difficult subject, to be sure, but anyone who’s concerned about serious issues being reduced to convenient plot vehicles may rest assured that Fletcher has clearly approached the material with gravity (and research).

Far from diminishing the seriousness and severity of such issues, Fletcher brings them to the forefront and makes them literal, tackling them head-on in a refreshingly direct approach. Much like visual depictions of widely-suffered conditions (such as depression, anxiety, anorexia, OCD and agoraphobia) the author gives us obsessions and fears made flesh to better illustrate the nuances of each ‘delusion’. Furthermore, he refuses to use language to obscure or euphemise any of his characters’ conditions, which is why it’s not too difficult for the reader to infer what (for example) a Doppel, a Dysmorphic, a Kleptic or a Therianthrope might be.

'Some men fall apart... some fall to scorpions': art by Quint VonCanon

‘Some men fall apart… some fall to scorpions’: art by Quint VonCanon

Beyond Redemption shows us a reality where none of this is hidden, and delusions are common knowledge. To some extent, Beyond Redemption normalises these disorders; and it does so without erasing their individual complexity – or undermining the suffering they cause.

Admittedly, this portrayal appears to be entirely negative at first. We meet a sociopath, a pyromaniac and a murderous kleptomaniac in quick succession, all of whom are incapable of empathy and prone to sadistic, violent impulses.

But by subtly unravelling their personalities (or should that be personas?) and revealing the psychological reasons behind their mania, the author hints that many – if not all – are themselves victims.

“She’d always assumed she could blame her parents, but what if she’d been born broken?”

Though initially it seems that the characters are defined by their disorders, the story focuses more on how the characters choose to define themselves. Their disorders have a part in shaping their personality, of course. But it’s the characters’ decisions – and whether they embrace, resist, pursue or exploit their own unique brand delusion – that ultimately define them. A subtle distinction, but an important one.

“She’d burn everything someday. Every ounce of hurt their fear caused her would be repaid in full. She’d burn the world.”

Even those with the most exaggerated abilities are much more than their delusions. In the reader’s mind Gehirn is not merely, as the other characters call her, ‘the Hassebrand’; she is Gehirn. Stehlen is not ‘the Kleptic’, and even Erbrechen is not ‘the Slaver.’ (The ‘fat slug’, on the other hand…)

'Gehirn, the Hassebrand': art by Quint VonCanon

‘Gehirn, the Hassebrand’: art by Quint VonCanon

At first glance, Beyond Redemption features rock-hard characters in a rock-hard world:

“Failure may be a harsh teacher, but you tend not to forget its lessons.”

But the more time we spend in their heads, the more we come to recognise and appreciate the author’s laudable knack for making even the vilest, most repulsive characters sympathetic. He accomplishes this by cunningly combining tragedy and comedy:

“You never met your mother? That’s not all bad. Mine sent me away to live with my father. He sent me back after I sold his horse to buy a lute.”

In fact, there’s a continuous undercurrent of black humour that’s as surprising as it is entertaining. This manifests in the well-written dialogue and harsh character banter, but also in the novel’s careful structure. For me, some of the most humorous and effective moments arose from juxtaposed scenes in which one characters’ thoughts or predictions are immediately followed by another’s contradictory (or supporting!) actions – a juxtaposition further enhanced by witty epigraphs that are alternately hilarious and disturbing.

“I heard a knock, and when I answered the door, there I was. Luckily I think much faster on my feet than I do and soon had myself tied in the fruit cellar.”

These increasingly delusional epigraphs – most of which are attributed to fictional ‘Gefahrgeist’ (sociopaths) – foreshadow some of the characters’ fates, and hint at the dangers for those who wield the power of delusion. A delusionists’ powers become stronger in inverse proportion to his or her sanity. But cross too far into insanity . . . and he/she loses themselves entirely.

“His delusions were growing in strength. Soon they would drag him down.”

Like all compelling magic ‘systems’, delusion (ironically) has limitations. Paradoxically, the more powerful the manifestation, the more real (and thus restricted by reality’s laws) it becomes. And so, in a fluid world where anything is possible, Fletcher instead gives us nightmares and gritty realism; a realm of manifest delusions where nothing is clean and even the sacred is profane.

Even the most powerful (and badass) beings are subject to certain physical rules:

“She tried to scream at Gehirn but only a dry croak escaped. She’d forgotten to fill her lungs. It annoyed her. She tried to draw breath and failed. Fire had burned ragged holes in her papery lungs. This would make communication difficult in the future.”

Here, the Cotardist assassin Anomie (who will feature in Grimdark Magazine’s Evil is a Matter of Perspective anthology) is hampered by physical limitations, despite herself being a living (kind of), breathing (sort of), walking defiance of the laws of physics.

'The Mirrorist's Eye': art by Quint VonCanon

‘The Mirrorist’s Eye’: art by Quint VonCanon

Now, you’d think ‘far-fetched’ would be an adjective that could automatically be applied to Beyond Redemption. But Fletcher’s world is far from whimsical, and the small details and down-to-earth descriptions ground the reader utterly in this dangerous, dirty reality.

“Storm clouds spiraled in toward some central point like filthy water draining from a sink.”

Favouring grimy realism over purple prose, Fletcher writes with a brutal straightforwardness that fits the story perfectly. His characters are vivid and well-developed, often surprising us – for good or for bad – by behaving in ways that are at once unexpected and painfully believable. Their voices, too, are distinctive. Whether it’s Wichtig’s hyperbole, Gehirn’s self-loathing or Morgen’s gullibility, there’s little chance of forgetting whose PoV we’re currently inhabiting. Without exception, they’re all fascinating, compelling characters.

In fact, the entirety of Beyond Redemption is both fascinating and compelling. Michael R. Fletcher’s delusions are dark, bloody and shocking. If you haven’t met them already, I’d highly recommend you make their acquaintance. Just . . . don’t get too close to the mirror.

The Mirror's Truth by Michael R. Fletcher (FB header)

The second Manifest Delusions novel, ‘The Mirror’s Truth’, is releasing soon!


This review originally appeared on Fantasy-Faction on October 30th 2016.


(Reviewer’s note: The author uses German and Basque words for his characters and place names, apparently mangling both languages in the process. I don’t speak either one, so apart from a bit of head scratching at the very beginning I didn’t have a problem keeping track. I can see how it might be confusing, though, so here’s a link to the author’s Manifest Delusions Wiki for anyone who’s struggling!)

Janny Wurts & Raymond E. Feist, ‘Daughter of the Empire’ (review)


At the beginning of last year I embarked on a re-read of Raymond E. Feist, beginning (obviously) with Magician and the rest of the Riftwar Saga. But all the while I kept urging myself to read faster. Why? Because I couldn’t wait to revisit one of my favourite series of all time: the Empire trilogy.

The Empire trilogy is a stunning collaboration between Feist and fellow epic fantasy writer Janny Wurts. A drastic departure from Feist’s Middle-Earth-ish Midkemia – with its forests and its mud and its grey skies – we now see the world on the ‘other side’ of the rift. Kelewan: hot and exotic and home to the Tsurani society, an intriguing race who place great emphasis on honour, political maneuvering and social standing. For a Tsurani, public displays of emotion are deemed shameful; treachery is shunned only if the perpetrators are clumsy enough to get caught; and slavery and ritual suicide are the norm.

Daughter of the Empire cover imageForeign, dangerous, exciting: Kelewan is bizarre and colourful, and its inhabitants even more so. The rich and powerful consider it a mark of wealth and status to dress extravagantly, even gaudily, to the point where even their soldiers wear coloured armour to announce their loyalty. Tsurani society is organised into strict hierarchical family units, with the more powerful of these families referred to as Houses. There are hundreds of these Ruling families, each with their own colours and allegiances, and the authors really  manage to convey an authentic sense of a sprawling, ancient hierarchical empire.

To survive in Tsurannuani, all Houses must embroil themselves in the endless political struggle known only as the Game of the Council. Daughter of the Empire introduces Mara, the new Ruling Lady of House Acoma, and follows this untested young woman through the first two years of her rule. Mara strives to protect her ancestral family name, and to gain enough strength and standing to enter the Game of the Council. Daughter of the Empire focuses solely on Mara’s social, emotional and political journey, from sheltered temple initiate to independent Ruling Lady.

Mara is a sympathetic and admirable protagonist. Beginning the Game from a frighteningly weak position, she must use her wits and resources to strengthen her House – making many sacrifices along the way. Worse, her enemies undermine (and underestimate) her since she is a member of the ‘weaker sex’, and she’s forced to compensate by exercising exceptional skill in all aspects of politics, business and high society.

Unlikely as it may sound, readers should expect to be fascinated by the social implications of (seemingly) trivial things: clothing, jewellery, eating, drinking, bowing, smiling, and other things besides. And as Mara becomes more accomplished at handling the various nuances of Tsurani life, so too does she take more risks in order to preserve the honour of her House . . . and often struggles to deal with the moral conflict that comes with orchestrating schemes that are necessary, but also ruthless.

Daughter of the Empire is immersive and flowing, and is thoroughly engaging for its setting and atmosphere as much as its plot. The Riftwar Saga is good, and there’s no denying that Feist has created a beautiful and deadly world here . . . but Janny Wurts really brings it to life. Each page bursts with the rich and vivid settings of Kelewan, evoking smells and sounds and colours. You can hear the calls of the bargemen and see the bustle of the markets when Mara travels to the city. You can smell the akasi blossoms in the evening and hear the needra being brought in from pasture when she returns to the peaceful Acoma estates.

It’s true that there’s little in the way of action (there are very few scenes in the book that can be described as fast-paced!), yet Daughter of the Empire is never plodding or arduous. Many scenes are fraught with a tension that’s just as exciting as outright conflict; and of course, after all the maneuvering comes the payoff. I can assure you it’s well worth the wait to see Mara’s plots finally coming to fruition after hundreds of pages of plotting and pain.

Re-reading Daughter of the Empire after so many years has reaffirmed this trilogy as one of my favourites of all time. Knowing how the rest of the series pans out only makes me more eager to continue with the series, and more enthusiastic in recommending it to others.

Seriously: it’s magnificent.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 28 March 2015).

T. Frohock, ‘Los Nefilim’ (review)


RIGHT NOW is a phenomenal time to be a fan of speculative fiction. Seriously: there’s an insane amount of amazing SFF writers in today’s market, and the modern fantasy reader is spoilt for choice with a selection that would leave Mr. Norrell gobsmacked and which would – if it were all edible – satisfy even Dudley ‘Big D’ Dursley.
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But it’s sadly inevitable (inedible, too – sorry Dudders) that for every Mark Lawrence or Robin Hobb there are a thousand other writers striving to make a name for themselves – lots of whom are probably just as talented, and some perhaps even more so. In the struggle against obscurity, this means that many equally-deserving authors are overlooked by those caught in the gravitational field of the ‘big names.’ And while I’m in no way saying that those successful few are unfairly hogging the spotlight, I am suggesting that sampling the work of lesser-known writers may prove to be less of a gamble than you might think.

Frohock is by no means a newbie to the writing game: her debut novel, Miserere, was published by Night Shade back in 2011 and garnered a relatively small but loyal following. However, Miserere was (erroneously) marketed as religious and YA fiction, neither of which accurately reflect the novel’s content or target audience. Religion features heavily in the story, but it certainly isn’t a ‘religious’ novel: Frohock wasn’t writing from a religious perspective so much as borrowing imagery from lots of existing religions in order to create a vivid and fantastical setting for her dark (and sometimes brutal) tale.

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Miserere is a surreal and enjoyable read that unfortunately still remains in the shadows of obscurity. Since its release Frohock has continued to weave dark fantasy into real-life religion and history. Her three most recent novellas – In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, and The Second Death – have just been published together as Los Nefilim. This wonderful collection is a joy to read: each novella flows seamlessly into the next to form a well-rounded and well-plotted story in three beautifully-titled parts.

A superbly dark and atmospheric fantasy set in 1930s Barcelona, Los Nefilim is a captivating tale of eternal conflict between angels and demons. First off, let me clarify that even though it’s set in pre-WW2 Spain I hesitate in calling Los Nefilim ‘historical fantasy’. The reason for this is that although the historical context has some relevance to the events, and although the settings are consistently vivid and immersive, I feel as though the story itself transcends both time and place: Frohock weaves her tale with admirable finesse using the colourful and tightly-knit threads of her protagonists, who – despite being vividly drawn – are so sympathetic it’s possible to imagine their situation happening anywhere, any time, and to anyone.

t-frohock-midnights-silence-coverLos Nefilim is centred around the character Diago, a troubled but immensely likeable Nephilim of mixed angelic and daimonic descent. Diago and his partner, Miquel, have been devoted to one another for centuries, but both their loyalty and livelihood are threatened when the escalating supernatural war invades their personal lives. Diago and Miquel’s relationship defines – and is defined by – events, and is inseparable from the story itself. Frohock succeeds in pulling the reader deep into Diago’s world: a realm of harsh decisions, few of which can be made without endangering either his lover or his cause.

The best part is that the author doesn’t bash us over the head with the internal ‘true-love-vs.-greater-good’ conflict. Los Nefilim are the very embodiment of human nature in all its shades of grey; and nothing is ever so simple as ‘good vs. evil,’ even when angels are involved.

Especially when angels are involved.

Just as well, then, that the heroes of Los Nefilim are deep, fully-rounded characters who are far too complex to be defined simply by which master they serve; or, for that matter, by their sexuality. Issues of gender are neither downplayed nor dwelt on, and the fact that Diago and Miquel are both men is but a natural part of the story.

(In fact, the author’s egalitarian approach to gender holds up a mirror to our own lives in the least patronising way possible. Simply put, Frohock shows us a society where men are just as vulnerable as women, and often suffer in silence because of unequal and arbitrary gender expectations. She shows us a society in which men are just as likely as women to experience rape, and verbal abuse, and sexual harassment – a fact we all need to recognise and empathise with.)

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On the surface, Los Nefilim could also be regarded as a moral tale about overcoming intolerance: the Nephilim’s secret war does indeed serve as a clever analogy for how homosexuality was stifled beneath the stigma of a god-fearing society. But while this is without doubt a huge part of the story, in my opinion it’s actually far subtler than that. Great speechifiers and glorious martyrs our protagonists ain’t: they are heroes of necessity, not intent. And Frohock doesn’t idealise Diago and Miquel’s relationship so much as naturalise it. Their connection is shown through understated dialogue and non-verbal interactions, and by the gradual emergence of both men’s paternal instincts as they work hard to create a harmonious family unit for Diago’s son.

For me this was a huge relief. In the past I’ve pointed out more than a few female writers who draw on shallow stereotypes of sexual promiscuity and unequal partnerships in an attempt to portray same-sex male couples. Thankfully, Frohock avoids this entirely: she doesn’t ‘write gay characters’; she writes characters who happen to be gay. Contrary to stereotypical beliefs – and exactly like couples of any orientation – Miquel and Diago don’t hump like rabbits, nor are they joined at the hip. And their relationship might be the pivot on which the events of Los Nefilim turn . . . but no one can accuse the story of being ‘too romantic’.

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Frohock writes with precision and balance, and the result is a faultless blend of beauty and brutality, cruelty and love, action and reaction forming a story that is pleasantly complex and satisfying. She lets us hear colours and see music. Her prose is wonderfully lyrical, yet functional. Unlike yours truly, Frohock isn’t one to waffle: she uses the minimum amount of words to say what she needs to say in the most beautiful way possible.

Bear with me. I’m going to try and explain better using an overcomplicated and probably inappropriate metaphor.

Imagine that books are like . . . banquets. No, really: the table is the plot, the tablecloths the setting, the food the story and the centrepiece the characters. Or something.

We’ve all read good books. And we can all imagine a good banquet. Right? Good food, good company, good evening.

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Now imagine the most unique and exquisite banquet you can think of; one with impossibly rich and varied dishes, and with sentient centrepieces that predict the future but only sometimes tell the truth; a banquet where the wine tastes like hope and the sausage rolls smell like betrayal and the ambient hum of conversation sounds like an argument and a marriage proposal and a promise of violence and thunder, and where everything is made more real by the dark riveting rainbow-coloured music of Frohock’s prose.

Dammit. Now I’m hungry. And also a little bit confused.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that T. Frohock is a damn fine writer who uses damn fine prose to tell a damn fine story.

Go and check out her stuff. Right now.


T. Frohock has turned a love of dark fantasy and horror into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. She lives in North Carolina, where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.

You’ll frequently find her lurking on Facebook and Twitter, as well as on her official website.


Blurb

Collected together for the first time, T. Frohock’s three novellas—In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, and The Second Death—brings to life the world of Los Nefilim, Spanish Nephilim that possess the power to harness music and light in the supernatural war between the angels and daimons. In 1931, Los Nefilim’s existence is shaken by the preternatural forces commanding them … and a half-breed caught in-between.

Diago Alvarez, a singular being of daimonic and angelic descent, is pulled into the ranks of Los Nefilim in order to protect his newly-found son. As an angelic war brews in the numinous realms, and Spain marches closer to civil war, the destiny of two worlds hangs on Diago’s actions. Yet it is the combined fates of his lover, Miquel, and his young son, Rafael, that weighs most heavily on his soul.

Lyrical and magical, Los Nefilim explores whether moving towards the light is necessarily the right move, and what it means to live amongst the shadows.

Mark Lawrence, ‘The Wheel of Osheim’ (review)


Have you ever wanted to applaud upon reaching the end of the last book in a series – and not because you were glad it was over? In recent years there have been two outstanding books that have made me want to do just that. The first was Emperor of Thorns. The second is The Wheel of Osheim.
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Yes: that jammy bastard Mark Lawrence has done it again; and by ‘it’ I mean casually rolled out another stunning conclusion to another fabulous trilogy.

I was lucky enough to win a (signed!) ARC of this book via one of Mark’s many and varied competitions. Incredibly lucky, in fact, since if I’d had to wait another two weeks until the release date I would probably have died.

Well. Maybe.

The Red Queen’s War is the second trilogy set within the sprawling dystopian Broken Empire, a setting I can’t get enough of. The first book, Prince of Fools, saw main character Jal dragged to the ends of the earth. Book two, The Liar’s Key, saw him dragged all the way back again and eventually through a doorway into Hell.

This grandest of finales follows a similar pattern, though the journey is much more rewarding. The Wheel of Osheim finally lets us see the slowly-growing fruits of all that travelling in the form of our protagonist’s subtle transformation. For me, this is the point where Jal finally becomes ‘real’: the things he’s experienced have stripped away much of his shallow persona to finally reveal the potential of the man inside. Everything about him feels more natural: as the story progresses his witticisms become a little wiser, his internal monologues a little less self-conscious, and his actions less self-interested. And as he finally begins to accept the burden of responsibility (however selfish or cowardly the reasoning behind it!) he becomes much, much more sympathetic . . . whilst never completely giving up his old roguish habits.

Jal may not be someone you’d describe as a typical fantasy hero. But at its heart The Wheel of Osheim is essentially an epic fantasy tale – complete with unlikely heroes, overwhelming odds and a quest to save the world – cunningly disguised as an insanely exciting travelogue. The pacing is absolutely spot on: there are so many potential ways this book could have spiralled out of control, but Lawrence keeps things cohesive even when the adrenaline is flowing. He treads the subtle line between fast-paced action and breakneck chaos with even more finesse than usual, making this his most well-balanced work to date.osheim-ARC-signed

Another area in which Lawrence consistently demonstrates finesse is in the structure of his novels, and The Wheel of Osheim is no exception. Here, the author cleverly alternates past and present timelines to fill in the gaps since the abrupt ending of The Liar’s Key. He uses the same technique to weave a surprising amount of backstory in amongst the action and intrigue, and in doing so creates a gradually rising tide of pathos and hope that beautifully underscores each individual’s struggle against both good and evil in search of what is right.

Though he seems far too incorrigible to be contained in one trilogy, The Wheel of Osheim is an admirable conclusion to Jal’s saga. Though not as shocking or as visceral as the end of Jorg’s tale, Osheim is somehow more satisfying, tying off each thread with gentle finality – including Snorri’s heartrending tale, woven in and around the main story since book one.

Our protagonists find closure, yes, and although they’ve had to wade through months or even years of sadness to get it not once does the going feel heavy for the reader. The tone remains mostly light and humorous throughout, even when the mood is tense or the subject matter dark. And it hardly even needs to be said that Lawrence’s writing makes every page a pleasure to read: his prose is poetic and flowing, frequently beautiful and never less than engaging. Lawrence is without doubt one of the finest voices in modern fantasy, and The Wheel of Osheim his most outstanding contribution to the genre . . .

. . . so far.


Blurb

All the horrors of Hell stand between Snorri Ver Snagason and the rescue of his family, if indeed the dead can be rescued. For Jalan Kendeth, getting back out alive and with Loki’s key is all that matters. Loki’s creation can open any lock, any door, and it may also be the key to Jalan’s fortune back in the living world.
 
Jalan plans to return to the three w’s that have been the core of his idle and debauched life: wine, women, and wagering. Fate however has other plans, larger plans. The Wheel of Osheim is turning ever faster, and it will crack the world unless it’s stopped. When the end of all things looms, and there’s nowhere to run, even the worst coward must find new answers. Jalan and Snorri face many dangers, from the corpse hordes of the Dead King to the many mirrors of the Lady Blue, but in the end, fast or slow, the Wheel of Osheim always pulls you back. In the end it’s win or die.

Review: Mark Lawrence, ‘The Liar’s Key’


In the run-up to the Gemmell Awards I thought it’d be fun to jump on the virtual bandwagon and re-post my own reviews of the titles I’ve read from the Legend longlist. (I’ve already reviewed Joe Abercrombie here.) Since I’m lucky enough to be currently reading The Wheel of Osheim, I thought it rather appropriate that I post about Mark Lawrence’s entry next.

Mark Lawrence is one of my favourite modern fantasy authors. First he blew me away with his Broken Empire trilogy (Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns and Emperor of Thorns). Then, just when I thought he couldn’t get any better, he unleashed a new trilogy titled The Red Queen’s War, set in the same dystopian universe as Broken Empire. The first book in this series, Prince of Fools, was simply awesome; happily, the series continues in the same vein with The Liar’s Key. Although its hefty length means it’s not quite the mile-a-minute thrill ride Prince of Fools was, The Liar’s Key does allow us more opportunities to catch our breath and spend more time learning about our favourite loveable rogue Jalan Kendeth.

lawrence-liars-key-coverHaving been dragged to the ends of the earth in the previous book, The Liar’s Key sees the spoilt prince of Red March dragged all the way back home again in a variety of dangerous and entertaining circumstances. We’re still following several of the same characters from earlier in the series, including Snorri, a Viking warrior on a quest to reclaim his lost family, and Tuttugu, Snorri’s most loyal follower (who actually prefers fishing to axe-fighting). A couple of new characters are also thrown into the mix: the witch Kara and the orphan child Hennan add a new dynamic to the not-so-happy gathering, and open up new and interesting possibilities plot-wise.

The Liar’s Key is essentially a fantastically insane travelogue, meaning that yet more of the wonderful broken empire setting is unveiled here than ever before. Not only are we shown new places that have thus far only been hinted at – such as the dreaded Wheel of Osheim – but we also bump into a couple of characters from the original Broken Empire trilogy, each instance of which feels like a cross between a celebrity cameo and a reunion with old friends. Jalan himself is an incredibly likeable character despite his somewhat despicable nature, and his seemingly ceaseless supply of sardonic retorts and self-deprecating witticisms makes almost everything that comes out of his mouth immensely quotable. Furthermore I really enjoyed the way in which Jal’s character develops subtly and consistently, and the use of flashbacks to reveal more about his family’s history is done in a really clever and interesting way.

Lawrence’s prose flows effortlessly as always, making every page delightfully easy and entertaining to read. While I didn’t enjoy The Liar’s Key quite as much as I did Prince of Fools, it’s not often I find myself reading a book for the first time knowing that I’ll re-read it at some point in the near future. Lawrence’s Broken Empire books have already proven themselves to be even more clever and entertaining upon re-reading, and I’m certain that The Red Queen’s War will be the same. The world of the broken empire is like a distorted jigsaw puzzle, the pieces of which are scattered throughout each book, and we can’t truly start to put it together properly until we have all the pieces.

Mark Lawrence is as creatively talented as Jalan Kendeth is outrageously likeable, and I continue to be thoroughly entertained by both of them.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 21st July 2015.)


Blurb

The Red Queen has set her players on the board…

Winter is keeping Prince Jalan Kendeth far from the longed-for luxuries of his southern palace. And although the North may be home to his companion, the warrior Snorri ver Snagason, he is just as eager to leave. For the Viking is ready to challenge all of Hell to bring his wife and children back into the living world. He has Loki’s key – now all he needs is to find the door.

As all wait for the ice to unlock its jaws, the Dead King plots to claim what was so nearly his – the key into the world – so that the dead can rise and rule.