Daniel Potter, ‘Off Leash’ (SPFBO review)


Off Leash was a semi-finalist in the 2nd annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. This review was originally published on Fantasy-Faction on 12th September 2016.


Off Leash by Daniel Potter
A few weeks ago, the SPFBO team decided on our seven semi-finalists. In some cases, the decision was easy. But when it came to Daniel Potter’s entry, Off Leash, we were uncertain as to whether or not it could hold its own in the next stage of the competition.

Why did we have doubts? Simply put: it’s an insane urban fantasy tale about a man who turns into a cougar, and we didn’t know what to make of it. Words like “strange” and “different” got thrown around very liberally during our group discussions. Off Leash is shamelessly, even proudly farcical, and I think we all had doubts about whether Potter was a serious SPFBO contender. We mistook the author’s light-hearted humour and sarcastic self-awareness for a lack of gravity – perhaps even of commitment – and we were absolutely wrong.

“Just great. I lose my voice but I get to keep my spare tire? Further proof that the universe itself is a sadistic bastard.”

It didn’t take long for our reservations to melt away. Potter’s jaunty prose and irreverent tone soon had us chuckling (and occasionally groaning) whilst turning the pages. Protagonist Thomas Khatt (geddit?) reacts to his improbable circumstances with dryly humorous observations, many of which involve his own newfound ineptitude at performing basic tasks.

“The stealth gig that cats are known for? We’ll file that under a learned skill and not a standard feature.”

The premise is batshit crazy. But its comedic potential is undeniable and Potter exploits it well, milking each scenario for every last drop of humour but very rarely taking any joke too far. It helps that Thomas, the protagonist, is quite cynical about the whole situation at first – mirroring our own scepticism, in fact!

“For a moment I feared I had fallen into a Disney film and the kitchen appliances were about to burst into song. I gave the toaster a withering look just in case.”

The narrator’s engaging voice brings to mind Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant, while the ceaseless flow of droll observations is reminiscent of the style of Sir Terry Pratchett. Whether or not you’re familiar with either author, my point is that in Thomas Khatt, Daniel Potter has created a protagonist who is a *lot* of fun to hang out with.

“Dogs rolling on their backs might be submission, but for us cats, it’s more a statement of ‘I will fuck you up’.”

Big cat or not, like any good protagonist Thomas would never have survived his first day on four paws without the help of a few secondary characters. In this case it’s Rudy the pyromaniac squirrel, and an ostracised Irish witch named O’Meara.

No, really.

“Wide eyes stared down at me from a face framed with fire-red hair. Her blue eyes followed the theme, the color of burning gas on a cook top.”

As you can see: surrealism (and hilarity) aside, Off Leash is very competently written. With the exception of a few proofing issues, it is also well edited. The story is well-paced and intriguing, and the narrative voice is distinctive, engaging and consistently entertaining.

“[the house] seemed to be trying to convince the smaller house to scooch out of the way by threatening to sit on it.”

With its on-point descriptions and funny-bone-tickling turns of phrase, Off Leash is perhaps the most entertaining SPFBO entry we’ve read so far. Admittedly, we had gripes. A few of Potter’s action sequences hurtled by so quickly that we were left unsure as to what was going on. And the ending somehow didn’t feel quite as climactic as we’d anticipated – though that’s perhaps because we’d been spoiled by the book’s rollicking pace up until then. One of the only entries written in first person, Off Leash is bold and it stands out from the crowd; and overall it’s a highly enjoyable read.

Potter’s debut may be a slightly unorthodox entry in a competition dominated by writers of ‘traditional’ fantasy. But that doesn’t make it any less than 100% professional. The editing, the cover design, the formatting, the interior art, the extra short story included at the end – all combine to complement the story and produce an end product that any author would be proud of. In the end, the deciding factor was not the book but the potentially divisive responses from the other nine judges in the final round. While Off Leash was a very strong contender, we reluctantly agreed that, of the few entries still remaining, it was probably not the most likely candidate to win. On the upside, though, we also agreed that we’d definitely like to read more of the Freelance Familiars series in future.

The Verdict: Consistently entertaining, slightly silly, and all around light-hearted tongue-in-cheek fun…though not entirely devoid of grimness! We enjoyed Off Leash’s quirky and irreverent tone, and overall we laughed at its absurdity far more often than we rolled our eyes at it. The author’s prose is direct and engaging, and while we weren’t initially convinced by the premise, the book’s voice and sheer personality quickly won us over.

Steven Kelliher, ‘Valley of Embers’ (review)


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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