Review of Beyond the Black Gate by Joseph Sale Written by Dan Stubbings

Review

Gods of the Black Gate was one of my standout novels for 2018. A delicious dark abyss of murder, manipulation, and creepy that made the dark demon within my heart sing. To say I devoured it would be an understatement. I inhaled it in two sittings. I personally thought that it stood up brilliantly as a standalone. However, I did have some unanswered questions about Rogers and the man that has haunted my dreams Craig Smiley.

Therefore, I was delighted when Joseph informed me he was writing a sequel called Beyond the Black Gate and did I want a review copy. I jumped at the chance. I couldn’t wait to fall back into this oasis of dark treats that hasn’t left me since the first book.

The good news is Joseph has outdone himself. Creating a plot and world that oozes off the page in a lake of light and dark exploring character flaws, environments, and chilling dialogue in such detail that engages readers from the first page. Taking them on a mind-bending adventure that straddles multiple genres from horror, fantasy, and detective mystery. As chapters unfolded, I found myself imagining a lovechild mixed between Frankenstein and The Harry Bosch books written by Michael Connelly, as our cast of disgruntled, damaged, unwanted heroes try to understand their own views on the reality they find themselves in.

Every chapter added something interesting pulling you deeper in the abyss of madness that Joseph has created. Whether it was a new complicated character, landscape, or a peer into the minds of the multiple viewpoints Joseph utilises throughout the narrative. You couldn’t help but be enthralled as he opened windows to ideas you quite simply didn’t know were possible. Joseph has been able to go beyond the perimeters and troupes of specific genres, and engineer something that is a work of art.  I can’t wait to see what he produces next. He is fast becoming one of must-read writers I love his words.

Beyond the Black Gate opens with Rogers down on his luck sat at a bar not knowing what to do next. His nemesis the evil mastermind Craig Smiley is gone murdered by his own hand. His years of torment at the hands of Smiley finally at an end. He should feel complete. His demons extinguished, and yet he can’t seem to shake the feeling that something isn’t quite right.

This thought takes us as a reader into world of wonders that ensnares the senses, and opens dark corners of our own minds that we never knew existed. As he brings back the demon that is Craig Smiley. This revelation scared the shit out of me. How could Joseph bring him back. What was going to be the next chapter within his demonic story? It had me both intrigued yet at the same time worried that Joseph would stray away from what makes Smiley so terrifying. I shouldn’t of been concerned. Joseph adds another layer to Smiley that makes him more manipulative and cunning than I ever thought possible as he goes on a quest through his own personal hell in search to understand why the gods betrayed him?

An element I wasn’t expecting however and was pleasantly surprised by in the evolution of Smiley was the relationship he creates with a character called Pheona. A mysterious woman that has her own story to tell. Joseph gives hints throughout about her true identify however your never quite sure if he’s telling the truth. I greatly enjoyed this subplot as I tried desperately to join up clues, as both her and Smiley hide their true natures from one another making you wonder who would be the first to strike a deadly blow. This produced an interesting dilemma, allowing for some detailed dramatic scenes which added wonderful characteristics to both individuals, making you as a reader explore this dynamic further to find out how it all ends in this ever-changing landscape of disillusions and fears that rapture the fundamentals of Smiley ideology.

As I continued to turn the pages, I couldn’t help but begin to draw comparisons with Dante, and Egyptian mythology when reading Smiley’s trek through the vivid and desolate landscape of his self-imposed hell as he is presented with his sins. These scenes are written so expertly that you feel as if you’re Smiley encountering these threats having your mind invaded with dark thoughts as you fight to become you once again.

Every character’s story from the first entry in this universe is developed with quirky and explosive consequences that drove the plot to a frightening but satisfying conclusion. I adored how Joseph showed our characters different struggles whether it was survivor’s guilt, or alcoholism. Joseph can explore these complex issues with sensitivity and the precision of an expert surgeon. Taking us into his world effortlessly, moving the goalposts of what we should except from fantasy and mystery.  This is a delicious cake of complex character development and world building that you hope never ends.

I love Joseph’s voice and how he makes shivers run down my spine with the smallest amount of description. Beyond the Black Gate is a wonderful sequel, and answered all my questions. You won’t be disappointed well-done Joseph. 4.5 Stars.

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Review of Nothing Else Remains by Robert Scragg Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

When Max Brennan’s estranged father and then his own girlfriend go missing in quick succession, he turns to his old friend Detective Jake Porter for help. As Max is then attacked in his own home, Porter and his partner Nick Styles waste no time in investigating. But when their main suspect turns up dead, alongside a list of other targets, it seems the case is much bigger than it first appeared. With events spiraling, can Porter and Styles catch the killer before another victim is claimed?

My Review

Robert’s debut What Falls Between the Cracks was number five on my list of great reads in 2018. So, when I got an early copy of his new book from his publishers to review. Suffice to say my TBR pile went out the window, and Nothing Else Remains went straight to number one. Two sittings later after only putting the book down because I had to eat, sleep, and work I was breathless. This next chapter in the legacy of Porter and Styles is charming, stylish, and quite frankly a feast of crime writing goodness that you simply can’t resist sinking your teeth into. I know writers worry about second book syndrome, but Robert has nothing to worry about he has written a blinder. Nothing Else Remains is the type of book that got me into crime writing in the first place.

The reason I say this is because the writing is effortless. Every word of dialogue is hard-hitting driving the plot forward like a formula one driver navigating corners at speeds that make your teeth grit. As Robert presents us with a variety of plot twists, and character developments that make you become deeper involved with this lovable duo than you ever thought possible. However, what truly makes it reach new heights in my opinion compared to his debut What Falls Between the Cracks, a book that I absolutely adore is the progression of his writing style and what he chooses to focus on as a writer. Robert draws us in with not only murders, but a sinister abduction of his close friends’ wife that as the plot develops, we discover has more lays than meets the eye.

What I enjoyed most that was different from his debut was that Robert gave us multiple viewpoints on every crime that is committed. From Porter and Styles, the suspect, and the victim. This dynamic allows us as readers to better understand everybody’s motives for wanting to bring these crimes into focus, as well as holding an uncomfortable discovery for one of the characters that could change the whole complexion on what is to come. Yet even though these scenes are well written and keep you on the edge of your seat.

This wasn’t the main reason why I couldn’t put this book down or at times made me throw it against the wall. As I dived deeper into this book Robert began to expose aspects of Porter and Styles relationship, and personalities that we hadn’t encountered till now. From how Porter is dealing with his wife death, to how Styles is juggling his wife’s pregnancy and the pressures of work. Robert tears open wounds that make us begin to question can our duo stick together through their toughest case yet or will the strain of untold secrets take them to breaking point.

I adored how Robert drew out the secret between them right until the end, keeping you guessing as to where he was taking their relationship, and whether it was going to change for the better or worse. For me this story arc truly showed Robert’s skills as a writer. Creating an environment so that Porter and Styles made you feel every emotion possible. These scenes did exactly that. I laughed, I cried, I shouted, I thumped the air with joy. This duo has all the feels. I love them like brothers.

On another note I must mention his development of Evie Simmons. After she returns to the force a changed woman following her tragic incident. Robert descriptions of her internal demons as she struggles to come to terms with whether she is still up to the job, and not appearing weak in front of her colleagues, or her overbearing father who never approved of her joining the police makes for interesting reading, and gives a unique character perspective showing that even strong individuals have their vulnerabilities, making you wonder what could happen to Evie in the long term.

Robert has produced a crime novel that has absolutely everything strong character back stories, unique crimes, suspects, flashbacks to earlier time periods for all major characters, that help create a detailed insight into their struggles, and triumphs that flow seamlessly into the plot. I simply can’t speak highly enough of this book. I will say this however if it doesn’t win at least one award this year crime writing isn’t worth its salt. Its that good. Robert Scragg is a master storyteller and, in my opinion, will be one of the most talked about names in crime writing for years to come. I can’t wait for book three well done Robert another cracking read. Go out and buy it now you won’t regret it trust me. Five stars simply isn’t enough.

I receive a copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. This doesn’t affect my views.

 

Interview With Fantasy Author Shona Kinsella – A new female fantasy voice you should be reading. Interview carried by Dan Stubbings

Shona Kinsella is the author of Ashael Rising, Petra Macdonald and the Queen of the Fae. As well as monthly fantasy serial illustrated Joe Slucher. This interview was done over email. She is the first author I had the privilege of interviewing. I am honoured to have her on my blog introducing you all to her work. 

Ashael Rising Cover

DS: For readers who aren’t familiar with you as a writer or your works would you mind telling us a little about both please? As well as how we support your work?

SK: Hi, I’m Shona Kinsella and I’m a fantasy author. I have a few very different projects that you can read and support. I have a dark, Scottish fantasy novella out with Fox Spirit Books called Petra MacDonald and the Queen of the Fae. It doesn’t easily fit into a category of fantasy. It’s set on a small Scottish island in the modern day, but it involves travel to the realm of the Fae and uses a lot of Scottish folklore.

I also write an epic fantasy serial which is illustrated by the very talented artist Joe Slucher. Each month we release a chapter and an accompanying illustration. It tells the story of a young woman who sells her soul to a god in exchange for him saving her people but there’s a lot more to the bargain than she expected and the people around her are less than grateful for her help. You can check that out and support it at www.patreon.com/Miranyasoath

And finally (for the moment) my main work is an epic fantasy trilogy called The Vessel of KalaDene. The first novel, Ashael Rising, was published by Unbound in 2017. It’s about a stone age medicine woman who has to protect her people from soul-sucking invaders from another world. It’s about hope, and our relationships with each other and with the land we live in. It’s about doing the right thing, whatever the cost. You can buy that from Unbound or from most bookshops. The second in the series, Ashael Falling, is crowdfunding now and you can read an excerpt and pledge your support at http://www.unbound.com/books/ashael-falling

DS: Tell us about your writing process? Are you a plotter or are you a discovery writer?

SK: I am a discovery writer all the way. When I sat down to write Ashael Rising, I had one character and an image in my head and the entire trilogy rolled out from that. That’s often how it works for me, I start with a character and then I figure out what sort of world made that person and what sort of story fits them. The closest I’ve ever come to an outline is a page of bullet-points covering the main beats I want to hit with the story.

 

Petra e-cover

DS: What made you decide to go with Unbound? What freedoms has this allowed and what are some of the drawbacks?

SK: Unbound was set up by three guys who had worked in various aspects of publishing, and who felt that the industry was becoming more closed, harder for new voices to break into, harder to get published if you were trying to write something outside of the norm. They’re a publishing company and of course they want to make money, but first and foremost they want to publish books that they love. And they believe that readers should get a say in what books are made available.

I went to Unbound because I really respected their ethos. Crowdfunding with them serves two purposes – it removes a lot of the financial risk from them, allowing them to publish things which they believe are important, but which might not be a commercial success and it lets the author find their audience before the book is published. It lets reader and author connect in a way that’s really unusual and in some cases, it lets the reader play a part in the actual shaping of the book. I love that connection and think it’s really valuable to have.

Being published by Unbound let me keep a lot of creative freedom that I may not have had with a bigger publisher.

There aren’t many drawbacks, in my experience. Crowdfunding is hard but is very rewarding. I think for me the main drawback is that, as a smaller press, there’s really not much of a marketing budget, meaning that I have to do all of that myself and it’s not something I’m very good at. I do think it’s a valuable skill for me to learn though and I believe it will serve me well in the long run.

DS: What do you think makes a perfect fantasy novel and why?

SK: Characters. They don’t have to be perfect or even likeable, necessarily, but they do have to be engaging and well-rounded. I think that sometimes fantasy authors get so caught up in building a world that they forget what readers really care about is people. I want to read about interesting characters doing interesting things and no matter how brilliant the world building is, if I can’t connect with the characters, I’m not likely to enjoy the book.

DS: The world in which Ashael Rising happens is extremely vivid. Where did the idea for the world come from and can we except to see more in later novels?

SK: About eleven years ago, I had a dream in which I was a warrior fairy, warring against evil magicians and all these years later, I can still remember the final image from the dream. That image was the seed of Ashael Rising. Now, there are no warrior fairies in the book and almost nothing actually bears any resemblance to the dream but that was the start. So, I had that image and Ashael when I started writing the book. I have an interest in Palaeolithic human life and I’ve read a fair amount about that time period so that’s why Ashael’s people are stone age hunter gatherers.

You can definitely expect to see more of the world – and its peoples – throughout the second and third books as Ashael’s story expands to include the rest of KalaDene. I also have some vague ideas of maybe a later stand-alone book set on KalaDene many generations later.

DS: Your book moves away from the traditional fantasy hooks of parents and loved ones dying which is something I adored about this world. What made you decide that you wanted strong and caring guardian characters for Ashael?

SK: Technically, Ashael is an orphan so I guess it kind of falls into that trope, but she does have a mother-figure in Bhearra, and she has close ties to her friends and community. I wanted to tell a story about our connections to people and places and how those connections shape us. I think that in modern life, many people feel disconnected, unrooted, and I wanted to look at a life that offered something different from that narrative. Ashael may be the chosen one, but she can’t do anything to save her people alone. All of her strength comes from knowing who she is, understanding her place in the world and being lifted up by her relationships.

DS: Mythology and religion are deeply rooted within the world. The winged ones being a favourite of mine. How much of your mythology was influenced by world mythology, and how much research did you carry out?

SK: I have always had an interest in myth and folklore and I’ve been reading versions of it for as long as I can remember so I didn’t have to carry out a great deal of research since it’s all kind of seeped into my brain over the years. So, I would say that most of KalaDene’s mythology and religion is influenced by our world but in a more subconscious way.

It was important to me that the religion be deeply rooted. I think in many fantasy books the religion that’s worked out as part of the world building is what I think of as the orthodoxy – what the church or temple, or authorities of the world have ordained. I wanted to write about the orthopraxy – the religion that people live with, the daily rituals and mutterings to the gods and the way it actually touches their lives.

DS: Ashael Rising is book one of a planned trilogy, is that correct? Without giving to much away book one ended on abit of a cliff hanger. So, what can we except in book two? No spoilers please?

SK: Yes, Ashael Rising is book one of a planned trilogy. I plan to start writing book three in April and will hopefully have it finished by the end of the year. Ashael Falling, which is book two, sees Ashael settle into her new role and begin to come up with a plan to end the threat of the Zanthar on a more permanent basis. There’s a lot of travel in book two, opening up some more of KalaDene and getting to know some of the non-human peoples a bit more. Ashael faces a lot of hard times and book two is a bit darker than the first book. We also see a bit more of Zan and learn more about the culture of the Zanthar and the stakes for them.

DS: Which authors would you compare your writing style to? Which authors have influenced your writing career?

SK: Oh, that’s really tough to answer. It always feels arrogant for me to ever compare myself to other authors. My editor compared me to Raymond E Feist and Trudy Canavan in my editorial report for book one and that was a huge compliment. I feel that I’ve been influenced by Raymond E Feist as one of the earliest adult fantasy authors I read and one of my favourites over the years. Janny Wurts and LE Modesitt Jr have also influenced me. Probably many others in a less conscious way. I always look to Stephen King for how to write brilliant characters and Terry Pratchett for writing with multiple layers and George RR Martin for politics and political maneuvering.

DS: There has been an increase in female fantasy writers, and female protagonists’ novels produced in the last year. Some have been well received, and others have faced in my opinion unwarranted criticism. What do you feel has caused this increase and what more could be done to make women’s voices heard?

SK: I’m not sure if there’s been an increase in the novels published or if it’s been more of an increase in visibility. I think that there has been a huge amount of effort made by women in publishing to raise and support other female voices.

What more could be done? I don’t think that’s an easy question and I think it’s probably something that needs to be addressed at multiple levels. I think publishers need to look at their list and make sure that they’re including diverse voices – in every way, not just more female voices. We also need to hear more LGBTQ+ voices, more PoC voices, more non-western voices. But those books don’t just have to be published, they have to be marketed in such a way that the public will notice them.

I think booksellers have to look at where and how books are placed in the shops. I think readers need to push themselves to read outside their comfort zones (and I include myself as a reader in this). I think that men need to raise women’s voices and recommend books by diverse authors and about diverse protagonists. And I think we all need to be a bit less lazy when we make recommendations to others. I think we can generally assume that authors like Brandon Sanderson and George RR Martin have many ways of finding readers – we should be looking to recommend authors that get less press instead of falling back on the same five names over and over again.

DS: Inclusion and representation is a much-discussed topic at the moment in the arts. Do you as a writer feel pressurised to write diverse characters or do you see it as an opportunity to improve your understanding of a culture?

SK: I don’t feel pressurised at all to write diverse characters, but it is something I challenge myself to do. I believe that we, as a species, learn empathy by putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes and I want to do that as much as possible in my writing. I believe that everyone should get an opportunity to see themselves in stories, and not just as a side character.

It’s not so much that I see it as an opportunity to better understand a culture since, so far, I haven’t written anything based on a real-world culture. It’s more that I see including a variety of diverse characters in my work as an opportunity to improve my writing. I don’t want to find myself telling the same stories over and over again, which is what would happen if I didn’t write about diverse characters.

Thanks to Shona for doing the interview. It was a pleasure to have you on my blog. Why not check her out on Twitter: https://twitter.com/shona_kinsella and buy her books they are awesome.