‘Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma’ by Brian O’Sullivan


Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma is one of ten novels in the final round of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) 2016. The review was originally posted on Fantasy-Faction on 4th December 2016; updates on the contest’s progress can be found here.


Brian O’Sullivan’s SPFBO offering – Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma – was something of a bumpy ride for me, at least at the beginning. Upon reaching the end of the first major chapter I felt as though nothing had really happened. However, by that point, I did know the entire detailed history of several minor characters… as well as Bodhmhall’s vegetable patch.

Fionn: Defence of Rath Bladhma by Brian O'SullivanI was just 12% in when I first started to jot down notes condemning various aspects of the book. Oddly enough, my complaints echoed the pattern of unevenness which I also found in Larcout: a solid opening, followed by a disappointing shift in tone and location. I felt so strongly about the first chapter following the prologue that I began highlighting passages in the book and making notes in preparation for this review. Looking at these notes now, my early complaints seem to boil down to three main issues.

Firstly, a simple pet peeve: the dreaded Physical Description.

By anybody’s reckoning, she was a striking woman. Tall and slender with a generous mouth and intelligent, brown eyes, her looks had been spared the ravages common to many of her contemporaries: the trials of childbirth and the arduous physical labour required to sustain the community. Daughter of Tréanmór, rí of Uí Baoiscne, Bodhmhall had enjoyed a privileged childhood in the fortress of Dún Baoiscne, something she increasingly appreciated as the years rolled by.

As you can see, the prose itself is highly competent. However, I found myself continually irked by repetitive sentence structures:

Off to her right, on the western ridge, a murder of ravens suddenly took flight, crowing up from the trees in an angry flutter of wings. With a shudder, Bodhmhall forced herself to open her mouth and stuck out her tongue to taste the air. Almost immediately, she withdrew it with an expression of revulsion. […] Absorbed in her contemplation, she barely noticed this fresh disruption. Startled, she turned…

This infuriating repetition is the second issue. The third – and most prominent – is the infodumps. The narrative frequently devolved into history lectures that had me skim-reading many a page and the openings of certain paragraphs left me sighing with impatience:

“Even after all these years…

“Many years later…

“Twenty-five years later…

“Over that time…”

History, geography, economics – the author appears keen to ensure we have a firm grasp of… well, everything. But for me, the most awkward instances of this would occur each time we’re introduced to a new character. For example, Bodhmhall walks past a warrior standing on guard duty. She does not interact with him; nonetheless, we’re treated to a detailed account of his personality and his place within the ráth’s hierarchy.

A tall and pleasant youth, Aodhan had inherited his father’s easy manner but was already …

This continues for almost an entire page. The same thing happens with the character of Cairbre shortly afterwards. It’s clear that Cairbre is some kind of adviser when he comes to speak to her, yet the author insists upon dedicating a page and a half to his not-so-abridged life story.

At the time, I found this method of compartmentalising Fionn: Traitor of Dun Baoiscne by Brian O'Sullivanof characters to be very odd and more than a little jarring; as though Fionn is a wiki, and every time a new character is mentioned the reader is forced to follow the hyperlink and read their character summary before being allowed to proceed. In short: after a promising prologue, I felt completely let down by the first chapter. Unnecessary physical descriptions of the protagonist, repetitive sentence structures, and pervasive infodumps made for a difficult (and frustrating) reading experience.

Thankfully, it soon became clear that most of my complaints were present (or at least noticeable) only in Bodhmhall’s problematic first chapter. My disappointment promptly dissipated once I reached chapter two, and was (more or less) kept at bay for the rest of the book.

I’ve since read Jared’s review of Defence of Ráth Bládhma, in which he talks about the book’s ‘functional’ tone and observes that it continues throughout the entire novel. After careful consideration, I can confidently say that I disagree with this assessment. In my opinion, the ‘functional’ tone and overly-detailed prose are limited to Bodhmhall’s chapters and reflect her character’s worldview as opposed to the author’s style. As the leader, it’s her place to worry about the details; and as a druid, it’s imperative that she possess a wealth of knowledge about her land and people.

That said, it’s only by contrast that we come to appreciate Bodhmhall’s calming narrative voice. The alternating PoVs of Bodhmhall and her lover, Liath Luachra, complement each other perfectly; Liath Luachra’s brusqueness and humour provide a pleasant counterpoint to Bodhmhall’s grave pragmatism. Her grim sarcasm is particularly welcome:

Ah, yes. The Great Wild backs down when I tramp through its forests. Wolves shit themselves and slink into the undergrowth at my passing. Even the Faceless Ones, the ghosts of hazy glades, hide and tell each other fearful tales of the dreaded Liath Luachra who will come through the shadows to take their heads.

You can probably guess that Liath Luachra’s chapters were by far my favourites. Tough, tenacious and unflinchingly truthful, Liath Luachra is an admirably strong female protagonist. Her own inner conflict – between her past and present self, her loyalty to Bodhmhall and her own sense of right and wrong – is as engaging as her woodland exploits, and her fighting scenes are stark and exhausting.

The attack on the ráth itself was, I felt, a little bit anticlimactic, largely due to one or two instances of foreshadowing that never actually came into play. And the supernatural elements –the sinister ‘Tainted One’, Bodhmhall’s gift – played a disappointingly small role. However, besides being a captivating sub-plot and fuel for nightmares, I get the impression that there’s a much larger force at work, and that the Tainted One’s assault on Ráth Bládhma was only the beginning. And besides: Liath Luachra’s pulse-pounding finale more than made up for whatever else may be lacking.

Liath Luachra: The Grey One by Brian O'SullivanThe actual scale of Ráth Bládhma’s story might be modest, but this only serves to magnify the importance of events and the significance of each life lost. Even the battle-hardened Liath Luachra thinks twice before taking on an opponent, even one who is unprepared. Second century Ireland is cold, dirty, brutal and ugly, and its inhabitants’ moment-to-moment fight for survival even more so.

In fact, this sense of realism is one of the things I enjoyed most about both PoVs. Both protagonists have their faults, and each have their weaknesses. Bodhmhall is the spiritual leader of the community at Ráth Bládhma; as such she faces constant doubt and a ceaseless barrage of difficult decisions. Liath Luachra is a skilled warrior, but she’s haunted by dark memories and is far from invincible.

I admire the way O’Sullivan does what he feels is necessary to tell his story. Defence of Ráth Bládhma is not dense or complicated, but nor does it compromise to pander to more casual readers. This includes making the choice to retain aspects of the book that some readers will understandably find fault with.

For instance, the chapters are very long. While this isn’t something that bothers me personally, I understand that for some it can make reading feel like a chore. In O’Sullivan’s case, however, this structural choice suits the story perfectly. By giving the reader plenty of time to fully immerse themselves in each PoV – rather than jumping about from one to the other – the author ensures that the book is built around character relationships as much as external conflict (another aspect on which Jared and I clearly disagreed!).

The chapters may be long, but the book itself is relatively short. Once I’d overcome my initial teething problems with the first chapters I found myself flying through it, eventually realising that even the character infodumps (or ‘wiki entries’, as I referred to them earlier) have a purpose: to keep the focus on the two central characters, both of whom I developed a strong emotional connection to.

I realise that much of this review focuses on the negative. This is because I suspect that in other circumstances I might not have persevered, and am keen to assure anyone encountering similar issues that the book is in fact well worth continuing with. In actuality, I LOVED this story. The first thing I did after finishing it was to head over to the author’s website – on which I discovered a bloody fantastic pronunciation guide (with audio clips!) – and add the rest of his Fionn Mac Cumhaill books to my wishlist.

‘Larcout’ by K.A. Krantz


Larcout is one of ten novels in the final round of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) 2016. Updates on the contest’s progress can be found here.


I’m not sure what I was expecting when I chose K.A. Krantz’s novel to be the first SPFBO finalist I read and reviewed… but it certainly wasn’t what I got! Even now, I’m not entirely sure that words can do justice to such a surreal reading experience… but here goes.

Larcout is… bizarre. It’s confusing. It’s uneven, and it’s disorientating, and it’s awesome. Above all, it’s most definitely unique.

Kasthu. Roborgu. Inarchma.

“Live. Learn. Burn.”

This maxim – held by Larcout’s protagonist and repeated throughout the novel – is just as relevant to the reader’s journey as it is to the story. Kasthu (live): just go with it. Roborgu (learn): all will eventually become clear. Inarchma (burn): be prepared to have your own preconceptions – of the book, the characters, and the genre itself – annihilated.

Blood-beings can be chattel or char.

The opening pages very nearly turned me into char. Frowning, squinting, grumbling – I read, re-read and re-re-read them, struggling to comprehend just what the hell was going on. Once I’d (sort of) figured it out, however, I was hooked. Chattel to the story, you might say.

I read the first chapter with increasing interest, savouring the details of this unique and fascinating new culture and its intriguing protagonist, Vadrigyn. A blighted land with six – six! – suns, a cruel and winged fire-blooded race known as the Morsam, a sentient sea that keeps them prisoner, and a half-breed outcast with both strength and intelligence – I loved it.

Each ridge in her vambraces was a piece of a Morsam who had challenged her right to live. The ones she currently wore were far from her only pair.

Yes: I absolutely loved the first chapter. But then…

… after a brief and violent scrap with her hated brethren Vadrigyn is magically transported to an arena, where she and others are expected to engage in combat before an audience of unseen spectators. After meeting a flurry of new characters and ‘passing’ the test, our protagonist is again uprooted and replanted somewhere new – this time to the insular Jewelled City, where she learns that she’s now ‘bonded’ with a mentor named le Zyrn. More, the bond can’t be severed until Vadrigyn passes her Trial of Identity… or until one – or both – die.

Larcout by K.A. KrantzI’ll be honest and say that I read these chapters with increasing incredulity (and raised eyebrows). Having looked forward to an account of Vadrigyn’s survival techniques and anticipated her cunning escape from the cruel and unforgiving land of her birth, instead I got to watch as she was bundled on the deus ex machina express straight into the Hunger Games and then on into the Capitol – all in the space of a single chapter.

Thankfully, things stabilise somewhat from there on in… though I can’t say I’m a fan of the jewelled city itself, which is a bit too fanciful for my liking. Repetitive and simplistic descriptions oversaturated with the names of precious stones abound; yet I somehow struggled to envisage the layout of the city itself, despite continual references to its different tiers.

However, I did appreciate the ways in which the city’s political, economic and geographical circumstances resonated with today’s issues and tense global climate.

This is about opening the gate and re-engaging in trade with our neighbors. It makes dire predictions about famine and plague descending upon the dome, and urges civil war if the gate remains closed. It accuses the Order of Minds of deceiving the populace, of tricking our people into believing we are prosperous as an isolated nation.

Brexit, anyone?

For me, this aspect of Larcoutian culture also has echoes of the Ministry of Truth from 1984: after all, the Order of Minds can provoke conflict, influence emotions and even alter memories, effectively controlling the desires and behaviours of the entire populace. This facet of the story is, unfortunately, not used to its fullest potential, and is relegated instead to a convenient feature of the plot to be called on only when necessary.

On the other hand, the fact that every Larcoutian citizen eventually develops some sort of similar supernatural talent is almost awesome enough for us to overlook this slightly disappointing unevenness. In addition to the Order of Minds, Krantz also gives us the Order of Stone (who can manipulate the earth to extract precious materials, and who are trained to use their powers for combat as well as construction) and the Order of Body (healers, essentially). The subtleties of each order – not to mention the convoluted way in which families are intertwined by the unpredictable mentor-acolyte bonds – adds yet another layer of conflict to the story, which is confusing but fascinating.

And it isn’t just the Larcoutians who possess these talents; our heroine has some fantastically lethal gifts of her own, not least of which are the Dorgof. The Dorgof – deadly, venomous parasites fused to the bones and muscles within Vadrigyn’s forearms – burst forth from her palms whenever she feels threatened, and make it impossible for any other living creature to make physical contact with her hands.

 Death by her touch was not instant, but it was assured.

As you can imagine, these living weapons make for plenty of vicious and bloody fights. Even when Vadrigyn refrains from calling on the Dorgof, her own Morsam strength and self-taught skill in battle make for some equally violent scenes – many of which I couldn’t help but picture in the slow-motion-blood-spray cinematic style of a Zack Snyder movie or an episode of Starz’ Spartacus.

Vadrigyn pivoted. Her fist connected squarely with the nose of the closest fool… and punched through the back of his skull. Blood and brain oozed down her wrist and stained her vambrace. The body reduced to sand, leaving her with a skull bracelet.

Fragile blood-beings.

Vadrigyn is a brilliant heroine because she’s strong in other ways, too. Resourceful, pragmatic, adaptable – our protagonist is quick to learn (roborgu) and becomes increasingly open-minded as the story progresses. She’s also surprisingly loyal, as well as (unsurprisingly) honest; and best of all, she sticks to her principles whilst also demonstrating a rare willingness to listen to reason.

The biggest issue I have with Vadrigyn’s character is the fact that she adapts a little too quickly to her sudden transition from Agenwold to Larcout. Though she’s at a huge disadvantage in every situation, she rarely proves to be less than competent. She dons women’s clothing and learns to dance with minimal resistance; and her grasp of Larcoutian politics and history is somewhat inexplicable considering that her entire life has been spent in an uncivilised land filled with blood and battle. The reader never really has cause to doubt that Vadrigyn will survive, and this sense of invincibility can, at times, make her difficult to empathise with.

If she could not have freedom, she would have dominion.

However, it’s impossible not to admire such aggressive resolve, and such flat-out refusal to become a victim. This mindset is what really makes Vadrigyn an effective protagonist. I shared her frustration with the Larcoutian women’s complicity in their own weakness; the refusal of even the most forward-thinking of them to understand that power lies not only in the body but in the mind. Vadrigyn is a perfect antidote to the Jewelled City’s strict patriarchy; and watching her demolish expectations, traditions, prejudices and manipulations is immensely satisfying.

I do feel obliged to point out that there are occasions where the author’s over-excited prose makes things more confusing than they need to be:

Vadrigyn stood helpessly frozen as disbelief rode the cold pulsing with every rampant heartbeat, threatening to collapse her skull and explode her lungs from competing pressures.

At times like these I would either re-read the lines until my eyes glazed over, or simply allow myself to drift over such segments until I reached a part less saturated with hyperbole.

It’s this unevenness that made Larcout so difficult to rate. In my opinion, the prologue deserves at least an 8; the second chapter, a 5 at best; and so on. An uneven yet well-written tale, Larcout is bizarre and imaginative, with moments of brilliance that shine brightly enough to banish the shadows of confusion that obscure its early chapters. Though far from perfect, I still find myself thinking about it (despite finishing it days ago), and can say with certainty that the sequel will make its way onto my ‘to read’ list.

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

COVER REVEAL! ‘Dragon’s Blade: Veiled Intentions’ by Michael R. Miller


In true Lancashire style, I’m ‘reet chuffed to be part of the cover reveal for Michael R. Miller’s second novel, Dragon’s Blade: Veiled Intentions.

But first, a quick introduction:

Michael R. Miller is an indie author (and all-round decent bloke) from the UK. His debut novel, The Dragon’s Blade: The Reborn King, narrowly missed out on making the final ten in Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) 2016.

However, Miller’s book did win the ‘Best Cover’ award during the same competition – fending off no less than 299 competitors for the top spot!

Dragon's Blade: The Reborn King by Michael R. Miller

Miller impressed us all and demonstrated extreme pride in his own work by putting out such a visually stunning product. The time, money and effort that has clearly gone into his covers continues to show off a level of professionalism that self-published books can (and should) strive to achieve.

Without further ado, here’s the gorgeous, shiny new cover for the upcoming sequel!

Dragon's Blade: Veiled Intentions by Michael R Miller

How gorgeous are those colours? I could stare at this all day long. Simple, bold and colourful, yet with a delicate touch that puts me in mind of the peacock shades of Tiffany glass art.

Both Dragon’s Blade covers are designed by the phenomenally talented Rachel Lawston.

Dragon's Blade: The Reborn King by Michael R. MillerDragon's Blade: Veiled Intentions by Michael R Miller

Here’s the Dragon’s Blade: Veiled Intentions blurb:

Rectar has always had his sights set on conquering the human lands. His demonic invasion of the west is gaining momentum – an unrelenting horde unhindered by food or sleep. Now, only the undermanned Splintering Isles lie between the demons and the human kingdom of Brevia. If the islands fall, the rest of Tenalp will soon follow.

“The Three Races must work together if they are to survive, but they have another problem – Castallan. The traitorous wizard has raised a deadly rebellion and declared himself King of Humans. He believes himself safe in the bowels of his impenetrable Bastion fortress, but Darnuir, now King of Dragons, intends to break those walls at all cost.

“To face these threats, all dragons, humans and fairies must truly unite; yet old prejudices may undermine Darnuir’s efforts once again. And as the true intentions of all are revealed, so too is a secret that may change the entire world.”

The book is set for release on February 10th 2017. You can pre-order it here.

In the meantime, you can grab book one for just £1 when you sign up to the author’s mailing list!

Michael R. Miller

Michael R. Miller is a young Scot living in London and getting stuck into writing his first epic fantasy series, The Dragon’s Blade. Book 1, The Reborn King, made the top 20 books in Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off 2016. The second in the trilogy, Veiled Intentions, releases February 10th 2017.  Michael is ‘that guy’ who enjoys discussing the mad fan theories of Game of Thrones even more than the books or show, and knows more about World of Warcraft than is probably healthy. 

NaNovember!


October has been ever so slightly crazy. I spent countless hours working on a short story in order to meet a submission deadline (which I did manage in the end – barely!). My ‘currently reading’ list is longer than ever before. NaNo is upon us. And the SPFBO has reached stage two!

SPFBO – Final 10!

We have our finalist!!!
Fantasy-Faction's SPFBO2 Finalist: Dyrk Ashton, Paternus

That’s right: earlier last month G.R. Matthews, A.F.E. Smith and myself announced Dyrk Ashton as our pick for Fantasy-Faction’s SPFBO finalist. Dyrk’s novel, Paternus, is a well-written and exciting tale of myths and monsters in modern-day society. We gave it a collective score of 9/10, and are proud to say that it 100% deserves its place amongst the final ten.

Speaking of which… here they are!

SPFBO 2016: the Final Ten!

Gorgeous-looking bunch, aren’t they? I’ve already begun reading Larcout, and I’m also particularly excited about Path of Flames, Assassin’s ChargeFionn and of course The Grey Bastards.

Not that I don’t have enough to read and review already… like:

Nothing is Ever Simple (Corin Hayes #2) by G.R. Matthews

Corin Hayes #1 and #2 by G.R. Matthews

A couple of days ago, my fellow indie writer (and Fantasy-Factioner!) G.R. Matthews released the long-awaited second book in his underwater SF series Corin Hayes. Here’s what I said about book one, Silent City:

Reader beware: if you suffer from thalassophobia (= fear of the sea), prepare to be chilled to the bone. . . because the world of Corin Hayes is entirely underwater.
[…] Short, entertaining and exciting: Silent City is the start of a series I’ll certainly be following with interest.

Read the full review on Goodreads or Amazon.

Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

A bloody, uncomfortable, fascinating read. The first in Michael R. Fletcher’s Manifest Delusions series, Beyond Redemption pulls us into a world where anything is possible . . . so long as you’re insane. Dark, brutal and highly recommended.

Beyond Redemption by Michael R. FletcherYou can read my review on Fantasy-Faction. The sequel, The Mirror’s Truth, is due out in December.

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Back in my late teens I read, re-read and re-re-read Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy (Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen) more times than I could count. The recent release of Goldenhand unleashed a flood of nostalgia, so much so that I couldn’t resist revisiting the series.

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and after a decade away from the series I’m thoroughly enjoying dipping in and out of this one. Sabriel sparked fond memories of late-night reading right from page 1, and I’m looking forward to reaching book two, Lirael, which was always my favourite of the three.

On Writing by Stephen King

This is another book I’ve been dipping in and out of. As such, progress is slow, but I’m picking up snippets of wisdom every time I sit down to read a few pages.

On Writing by Stephen King

Anyone who knows me is aware of my love of metaphors (or, as some would say, ‘overthinking’). In one chapter, King compares writing to archaeology: the story is always there, like a fossil beneath the ground, and writers should use whatever tools necessary to bring it to light. He goes on to say that you wouldn’t start digging with a toothpick; you’d begin with a pickaxe or even a jackhammer, only bringing out the delicate tools when you’re ready to reveal the details.

For someone like me (whose writing process generally involves obsessive plotting, second-guessing and re-writing) this is very relevant . . . as is the part where King opines that plot is “the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.”

Ouch. Point taken. Time to just get on with telling the story. Sound advice (and just in time for NaNoWriMo!)

ARC Happy Fun Times

Because I’m clearly a masochist, I’ve also taken on ARCs from a small selection of awesome authors.

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

Michael R. Fletcher’s The Mirror’s Truth and John Gwynne’s Wrath are both currently adorning my Kindle, and I’m also lucky enough to have been offered an early copy of Red Sister from one of my favourite modern fantasy authors, Mark Lawrence. Positive reviews for this one have already begun trickling in, and I’m really, really excited to delve in to Mark’s new series, The Book of the Ancestor.

Malazan Art of the Fallen

You may have noticed my re-post of the Malazan article I had published on Tor.com in September. The re-post includes even more stunning art from the talented Chisomo Phiri (Shadaan on DeviantArt) and once again I’m encouraging anyone and everyone to go and check out his work.

'Silanah vs Raest': artwork by Shadaan

‘Silanah vs Raest’: artwork by Shadaan

On Righting

In October I ran two free promotions, most recently over Halloween. Danse Macabre now has another NINE (!) 4*/5* ratings and SIX (!) more reviews – as well as a place on its first ever LIST! (Angela Burkhead’s top Halloween reads for 2016).

Danse Macabre Free Promotion Graphic

Danse Macabre‘s success over the last few months has been a real confidence boost. Reading what folks are saying about it (including a recent review by Eric Fomley at Grimdark Alliance) inspires me to write more, which I think is part of the reason I worked so keenly on my short story submission last month. As such, I’ve made the (absolutely mad) decision to sign up for NaNoWriMo once again.

NaNoWriMo 2016 Participant Banner

In January this year I spoke about my ongoing struggles with depression; about why I closed down my original blog, and why I vowed not to bother with NaNo ever again.

After last year’s absolute failure (and its consequences) I’ll admit that the prospect of trying again terrifies me. But truth be told, I need a kick up the arse. This time, NaNo is going to be a tool with which I can hold myself accountable – not a means of quantifying failure.

So this year, I’m going to beat NaNo. Because I’ve made a promise to myself that this year I’m going to do it right. (Also that if I make it past 50k words by November 30th, I’m allowed to reward myself by finally starting a(nother) new game of Dragon Age: Inquisition.)

If anyone else is participating and wants to add me, you can find me here. Good luck to all, and see you on the other side!

FREE ebook: ‘Danse Macabre’


Danse Macabre: October Free Promotion GraphicAs I mentioned a couple of weeks back, it’s been a year since I self-published my little novelette Danse Macabre. To celebrate, it’ll be free to download throughout the next two days! (13th and 14th October)

The Amazon UK link is here. You can also click here to see some of the awesome reviews left by folks over on Goodreads.

Danse in your birthday suit!


One year ago I published my novelette, Danse Macabre. In honour of its first birthday, I made it a brand new outfit:

Danse Macabre by Laura M Hughes (2016 cover)

There are a few (a lot of) rough edges (rubbish bits), but on the whole I’m quite fond of it.

Another way I’ll be celebrating is by making it FREE to download for four days this month:

  • 13th-14th October
  • 30th-31st October

… so if you know anyone who might enjoy it, feel free to spread the word… and PLEASE also remind them that reviews and ratings on Amazon and Goodreads really are an author’s best friend!