A Panel That Changed My Life At Newcastle Noir 2019 Written by Dan Stubbings

me and paul

Men In Black Panel with Paul E Hardisty and Luke McCallin

Most of you who have attended festivals will know that certain panels are more crowded than others. Several reasons can contribute to this. Big names, popular books, reach of the publishers. Yet on Sunday at Newcastle Noir I took a chance I went to a panel where I didn’t know anything about the two writers that were on show. I had never read their books, never interacted with them on social media they were complete unknowns to me. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that when I emerged an hour later I would be in tears hugging one of my best friends saying what the hell just happened in there? My whole world perspective changed forever. It hasn’t left my thoughts since echoing in the background as I go through my daily routines on repeat. I have spent days trying to figure out why this panel had such a profound impact upon me. Stirring my emotions to a level I have never experienced in a public forum previously. As I left the auditorium an electricity sparked in the air people showing facial expressions that pretty much stated what I was thinking inside my head. Never have I left a panel feeling so emotionally drained passed the point of no return.

It felt as if an invisible dam of rage had burst within me flooding out in uncontrollable sobs. I slumped in my chair hidden in the darkness. My head in my hands wondering how I could have been so blind. Questioning everything I had ever been taught, experienced, and absorbed within my thirty years of life. It was like I had been asleep and finally, I was awake. Alive with new possibilities that hadn’t entered my thinking until that moment. That may sound abit dramatic but it’s how Paul and Luke made me feel opening my eyes to a world I hadn’t visualised. Asking me to challenge my own assumptions, look beyond the system I had been subjected to since birth and form my own opinions with new information.

Now to look upon Luke and Paul you would be forgiven for thinking that they are two unassuming guys. Two people you could meet in any bar in the world and happily have a drink with. Paul dressed in a black biker jacket, quietly spoken yet one of them people that then they do speak you listen. Luke reminded me of one of my old university lecturers in his shirt and jacket silently moving among the crowds taking it all in. However once they began discussing their writing, life stories, and what they were passionate about. A spell was cast over the audience enchanting everybody in attendance. All of us hanging on their every word. You could have heard a pin drop. A silent sombre entering the atmosphere not to be disturbed. As they shone light into the darkness peeling back our eyes and ears asking us all to look deeper. At no point however did you feel preached to. I felt as though I was having a pint down the pub with a long-lost friend and didn’t want to leave.

I guess that is the power of stories when they are told properly they speak to you, stir your emotions, and get you to think beyond what you know. That is what the Men in Black Panel did for me. It has changed my whole worldview as a writer and individual. All I would like to say to Paul and Luke is thank you for making me cry for making me feel alive again. Your panel will never leave me. I think I speak for everyone who was there when I say this the tears felt good. I needed them and so did everybody else.

 

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Review of The Unauthorised Biography Of Ezra Maas by Daniel James Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis 

Ezra Maas is dead. The famously reclusive artist vanished without a trace seven years ago while working on his final masterpiece, but his body was never found. While the Maas Foundation prepares to announce his death, journalist Daniel James finds himself hired to write the untold story of the artist’s life. But this is no ordinary book. The deeper James delves into the myth, the more he is drawn into a nightmarish world of fractured identities and sinister doubles, where art and reality have become dangerously blurred…

Review

I will be honest when I was first asked by Dan James to review his book. The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas. I was unsure whether it would keep my attention. It wasn’t what I usually like to read. However, as they say don’t judge a book by its cover. So, I agreed, I am so pleased I did as it has become my book of the year so far for 2019.

From the first page I was swept into a world of red-herrings, encrypted clues, and a life that breathed as soon as you read the first sentence. What I loved most was how Dan was able to blur the lines between reality and fiction. Immersing the reader into a world of mystery and biography writing that the great Hunter S Thompson would of been proud of. It is gonzo journalism at its finest. As the pages ran away from me. I found myself constantly questioning whether I was reading about a real person. Did Ezra Maas totally exist? If so, why hasn’t his disappearance made national headlines? Why hasn’t his family been shouting from the rooftops? What do they really have to hide? These were only a sample of the questions that formed in my mind as I devoured this book in two sittings.

Dan’s voice for a debut novel is charming making you trust him, even though there’s a nagging voice in the back of your head screaming don’t he’s lying. This is a major strength of his writing, and enables him to abuse your trust leading you down paths of drama, intrigue, and double bluffs that makes for an enjoyable thrill ride. Asking you to piece together the numerous clues he presents, and decipher the deeply layered story of the mysterious Ezra Maas. From the premature death of his brother which has a profound affect upon him, to Ezra been compared to geniuses such as Einstein and Mozart. Dan shows us both sides of Ezra. This allows Dan to have your undivided attention from the off as he takes you on a whistle stop tour of Europe and beyond. Making you sprint along the banks of the Seine in Paris to escape an unseen danger to Newcastle’s northern charm. He bares it all without reducing the quality of the plot.

This book bleeds uniqueness. I adored how it was written using many different methods to entice the reader from interview transcripts, diary entries, and James’s own personal notebook where he gives you previously unseen information on the enigma that is Ezra Maas. Including unseen photos and his last known location. These clues only help to feed your excitement further. As you get closer to your goal you begin to wonder could Ezra be an alternative personality for James. A persona he uses to escape from the struggles in his own life. This is what I mean by Dan blurring the lines of reality. Ezra feels real to me. I got lost in his world feeling as though I was talking to an old friend. It makes you wonder where does Ezra Maas end, and Dan James begin or vice versa.

This is a book that you could read countless times and it would still have you questioning your own sanity. I didn’t want it to end. Dan has captured the essence of what it truly means to be a gonzo writer exposing a character to the world that’s undeniably believable. Take a bow Mr James. You get 5 stars. I would give it more if I could. Simply incredible. Read it now it will blow your mind. Dan is the new Hunter S Thompson. I can’t wait to see what he produces next. A fresh new voice in the world of fiction.

I received a copy from the author in exchange for an honest review. This doesn’t affect my views.

 

 

Review of Shallow Creek from Storgy Books Written by Dan Stubbings

Review

After being such an avid reader of Storgy magazine. I was intrigued to discover what the crew of devilish dark minds that run the publication had in store for us from their annual short story competition. I am pleased to say they haven’t disappointed. Enabling readers to face their fears and go into a world entirely of their own making. The Storgy team challenged us to drip our toes into their eerie playground of Shallow Creek. A town with a past many hadn’t survived all we were given through the generous invite of the mysterious Mallum Colt was a character, a location, and a special item that had to be involved at some stage throughout your story.

This blank canvas of options has allowed for unique and original tales to be born. With writers constructing their haunting babies along the way. Diving far into this imaginary town in search of its hidden treasures. This collection is a masterpiece and does the world of story and imagination proud. So strap yourselves in while Uncle Dan tells you all about it.

Sometimes when I open a collection of short stories, I find myself reading out of order. This is usually due to several different reasons it maybe because a certain writer is present, and I have read their previous works and want to see if they have expanded on an existing world or character, or it could be something as simple as a title of a particular story catches my eye. However, with Shallow Creek I found myself glued from the first page to the last.

The reason why this was the case with Shallow Creek is because I experienced something that hasn’t happened since I read Interview with a Vampire for the first time. Every story ignited a fire within me that forced me to absorb every word, dissect every paragraph, and begin my own investigation into every plot twist as if I were an expert detective sent to close an unsolvable crime.

The beauty about this anthology is that even though it keeps a steady pace maintaining your interest throughout. You don’t feel as though you are missing any important details or discarding themes that may become significant later on. Ross, Tomek, and Tony the editors have done an incredible job of assembling this intertwined narrative that exposes us to all corners of Shallow Creek from Devil’s Gorge to the asylum. Introducing readers to a cast of charismatic characters that you hope to never meet in a dark alley by the time you finish your fingers are bleeding with excitement.

What makes this collection stand out in the never-ending sea that is the horror and supernatural genre is the themes that have been highlighted within the context of this spooky old town.

One story I couldn’t stop reading was Behind These Eyes by Alice Noel. A haunting story told through the eyes of multiple characters that centres around the illness dementia. However not all is as it seems and the story takes on a sinister twist. Alice opened an insight into the loneliness and terrifying world of dementia in a way that I haven’t encountered. Weaving threads of deception that make you question whether you ever truly know a person? By the time I finished my hands were shaking.

Arrowhead by Daniel Carpenter was another that stuck with me long after I had finished reading. Its my favourite story within the collection. For me it just has everything mysterious characters, intrigue, and that sense of mystery that allows it to transcend several dimensions of the horror genre. Told through the eyes of a dead-beat Lenny. We are taken into a world of addiction and obsession that gets under your skin. As more of the narrative was revealed you closed your eyes. I adored how Dan was able to fully submerge me into the world he had created in his mind. It was that one story that when I finished I had to reread it straight away just to revel in its mastery. Bravo Dan Bravo.

I am not going to discuss every story in the collection as I would be here all night. There is however one final gruesome tale I want you all to know about. A story called Backwards by Adrian J Walker. A murder investigation with an ending I didn’t see coming at all. To say I was afraid by what Adrian produced wouldn’t even begin to cover it. I will say this though whatever you do don’t read this one in the dark. It reminded me of a demonic cross between Jack Reacher meets the Walking Dead.

This collection has all the aspects that makes me love this genre. From creepy murder mysteries to abandoned shacks in the middle of nowhere. It has something for every reader of the weird and wonderful delving deep into the masters of collective narrative from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice. Yet at the same time creating a fresh perspective on what is achievable within the unexplored depths of the dark.

It receives five stars. Congratulations to all the writers you have constructed something totally unique. I adore Shallow Creek and hope to experience countless visits.

I received a copy from the publishers in exchange for an honest review this doesn’t affect my views.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of Tales from the Shadow Booth Volume 3 Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis-

Welcome to The Shadow Booth, the international journal of weird and eerie fiction.

Volume 3 is published as an ebook and a 200-page mass-market paperback.

Volume 3 contains stories by: Nick Adams, Judy Birkbeck, Raquel Castro, Armel Dagorn, Jill Hand, Richard V. Hirst, Verity Holloway, Tim Major, Annie Neugebauer, Robert Shearman, Gregory J. Wolos.

My Review

Tales from The Shadow Booth is a collection of short stories that I can’t wait to read every year. Volume 3 was no exception. Two hundred plus pages of eerie mind -bending tales that have a way of seeping underneath your skin, forcing you to consider every twist and fright long after you have turned the final page. As it says on the cover enter the Shadow Booth and you will never be the same again. I personally don’t think there could be a more accurate statement about how each volume changes you as a reader and a writer.

Dan Coxon has done an incredible job with the editing compiling a delicious blend of stories that leap off the page. They are so vivid that you feel as though you are watching a collection of movies, with each new tale adding something extra to the mix. What I enjoyed most about this dark tome was that it stayed true to the previous volumes yet at the same time added a new branch to the tree of horror and supernatural. Venturing into landscapes that explore a wide range of cultures and shed light on stories that include love, lost, violence, and the entire spectrum of humanity.

As with all collections there were stories that I enjoyed more than others. However, what I will say is that this volume makes you take your time as you sample each offering delivering a buffet of visionary delights that rival the best in the genre.

Some of my favourite stories from the volume were:

The Cherry Cactus of Corsica by Verity Holloway

It’s a story I have reread numerous times.  It’s a story of concern, experiments, and blood. It hooked me from the first paragraph. It centres around a young teacher who notices some odd behaviour being exhibited by a troubled pupil. As he digs deeper and tries to understand what could be causing it, we are drawn into a world of poisonous plants, strange professors, and beings that genuinely send a shiver down your spine. Verity has been able to create a story that taps deep into readers fears. Tales that used to keep you awake as a child. Yet present the reader with a different idea on some of the oldest beings in the arena that is horror.

I adored how she delicately pulled back the veil between our world and theirs. Making you hold your breath as every character trait and flaw was exposed in a frenzy of delicious prose that made me yearn for more. I didn’t want the story to end. I think she could early turn it into a full novel. If you read one story from this collection read this one, it will change how you view the world.

I Have a Secret by Raquel Castro

This is a hauntingly beautiful story of a boy’s changing relationship with his sick mother and neglectful father. That develops into a compelling yet worrying picture of how all family dynamics change over time. Enabling this narrative to be told from the child’s perspective adds a greater sense of vulnerability and naivety. That adheres to the theme of the volume of showing how we as humans are sometimes not aware of the damaging impact our actions have upon young minds. The supernatural element which runs parallel to the main thread within the story, only heightens the interest as you struggle to protect this child from what is about to happen next.

The School Project by Richard V Hirst-

This story gives you as a reader what you look for when you enter the supernatural and weird genre. What I mean when I say that is it makes the ordinary day to day things take on a sinister twist. The story opens with the author setting the scene an isolated school in a village that has a murky past is about to undergo an inspection from an outsider.  What appears to be your ordinary secondary school soon turns into something much darker. The story reminded me of a mashup between the Manchurian Candidate and Van Helsing. The dark undertones ripple out well beyond the narrative and make you question the origins of your own school days.

Cousin Grace by Jill Hand-

This piece of horror sinks it teeth into you as soon as you run your fingers across the first sentence, causing a sensory explosion within your mind. What appears at first to be unsolved family trauma takes on many faces, forcing the reader to doubt every word that is being fed to them. It is an expert example of how to write an unreliable narrator and opens the collection beautifully.

This volume builds on the legacy of the previous two issues. Pushing the boundaries on what the horror and supernatural community thinks belongs in their field and tastes. It receives four stars and I encourage any readers and writers of creepy disturbing stories to pick it up.

I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This doesn’t affect my views.

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

Review of A Wasteland of My God’s Own Making By Bradley P Beaulieu Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

Djaga Akoyo left the grasslands of her homeland long ago and rose to prominence in Sharakhai’s fighting pits as the famed Lion of Kundhun. What Djaga revealed to no one, however, is the terrible secret that drove her to leave Kundhun in the first place. That secret is brought back to the fore when her sister tribeswoman, Afua, comes to Sharakhai unannounced and threatens to reveal her shameful past, a thing that would upend the life Djaga has worked so hard to build for herself.

Djaga and Afua’s pasts are linked. Afua tells her that with one final bout in the killing pits, both their demons will be excised. But Djaga has more to worry about than Afua’s demons, or even her own. She has Nadín as well, a woman she hopes to share a life with once she’s left the pits for good. But how can she start a new life with Nadín when the terrible acts she committed in her homeland still haunt her?

Djaga must decide once and for all whether she’ll face them, but in doing so she may lose the one she loves.

My Review

After being engrossed by the imagery and vastness of the Song of Shattered Sands series. I couldn’t wait to digest the latest offering a novella focused entirely upon Ceda’s mysterious pit fighter trainer Djaga. A character I have been fascinated with since first reading Twelve Kings. The reason being is because Bradley only gives the reader limited information on who she is and why she is important to Ceda. Shrouding her in mystery and intrigue which you can’t help but want to explore. This novella helped answer some of my nagging questions about her background whilst at the same time create an interesting character development that I hope is explored in further stories.

What I enjoy most about this novella is that it plunges you straight into the action, opening up with Djaga seeing the love of her life Nadin seriously injured in a hospital bed that forces her to make a choice. This sets in motion a chain of events that spans decades. Exploring present day as well as flashbacks from her early childhood where we learn about her fractured relationship with her cousin Afua and discover that Djaga has her own dark secret.  We are given hints of this secret throughout that drives the story forward making you hungry to discover why she ended up never returning to the pits.

This novella has all the elements that make Bradley’s works a must read for any fantasy fan or aspiring fantasy writer. The action beats like a well- tuned guitar slick, clean, gut wrenching, and makes you feel as if you are the one fighting. Throwing every thrust, kick, and punch as you hope for survival.  I think one of the beauties of Bradley’s writing is that it makes you detach from your own world for a few hours. Taking  you into a sizzling sprawling desert that you can’t see an escape from but at the same time don’t want to leave.

This novella is an enthralling entry into the Song of Shattered Sands Universe. Giving us more information on the desert tribes and settlements away from Sharakhai. Which is a refreshing change from the City of Kings. I loved how we got to see a time before Ceda. Enabling me to explore characters that have helped shape Ceda but maintain a uniqueness that makes you as a reader get lost in their stories.  Bradley delivers a banquet of ideas in this glimpse of what I feel could be a much wider arc. Introducing new gods and mythology that I hope he will be able to drip feed into the six books. As I really enjoyed the cost associated with this secret, and what it could mean to Ceda in the long run. The threads in this universe are mind-blowing. If you haven’t read these books yet, please do. 5 out of 5 stars. Magnificent.

I received a copy of this novella from the author in exchange for an honest review. This doesn’t affect my views.

 

 

 

 

Review of A Thousand Roads by John Robin Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

Azzadul, the god-king, the Lord of Light revered by many. When the darkness corrupted him, he became the Dark Lord, feared the world over. His magic, once a gateway to immortality for his people, delved instead into horrors as he sought ever deeper levels of mastery. Children were stolen from their beds, coveted for his blood-rites. When he vanished, it all ended, and the people of the world tried to forget, to move on…

Jak Fuller has always wanted a home. An orphan born ten years after Azzadul’s disappearance, he has wandered far and wide, trying to forget the memory of a burning woman. When he comes to Fort Lasthall, on the outskirts of the Dark Lord’s former kingdom, he hopes to finally settle into a peaceful life. Instead, he finds himself unnaturally compelled by a dark, terrible voice, a voice that knows him, calls to him. A sense of destiny that fills him with fear.

New powers are rising in the dark places of the world. A master of fire-rites called Talamus the Red, arch-foe of Azzadul, seeks to enslave the world with a magic he has been developing for the many centuries of his life. Ready at last, there is only one weakness in his plan, an obstacle he is determined to remove: a boy, bound to an old magic that just might resurrect the power of Azzadul.

The very power bound to Jak, before he was even born…

My Review

Lately I have been looking to widen my reading tastes and discover new stories that haven’t been given a chance.  This has led me to some excellent self-published books that I have been able to review and add to my ideas for my own work. Therefore, I was thrilled to be asked to review John Robin’s A Thousand Roads.

A dark fantasy that forces you to completely rethink how an epic fantasy can be written. Now when I first opened the file from John and saw that his novel was 700 plus pages, I thought to myself what on earth have I let myself in for. However my doubts were soon cast aside as John takes you on a journey that I have rarely encountered within fantasy.

I will be honest though when I first started this complex and epic tale, I thought here we go again an orphan boy, lost gods, and ancient magic. Just another diluted Princess Bride mixed with some Lord of the Rings.  However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. John has been able to create such imaginative world-building, and complex characters that I found myself fully submerged within the story of the main protagonist Jak Fuller.

I wanted to know all aspects of his life. John allows us as readers to do just that. Taking us through every aspect of Jak’s life, from his late childhood when we first meet him entering Fort Last Hall as he moves from place to place with nothing more than the clothes on his back, and a wagon full of disregarded books all the way through to his damaged and scarred adulthood. This is for me is what is so compelling about this book. It moves away from the traditional fantasy narrative of only giving glimpses of a character’s formative years, and instead decides to dive into what Jak has been subjected to throughout his mysterious life. Allowing readers to experience his entire journey and discover why he is the way he is.

John’s talent as a writer truly shines through in these moments. His writing is detailed enough that it doesn’t overwhelm you but gives you just enough to build up an image in your mind of who Jak is and why he is central to everything. John does a fabulous job of slowly constructing Jak’s backstory. As well as introducing characters which will have a large impact upon him gradually. Enabling you to get to know them at your own pace which helps stop you having to check back to remember who they are, and why they have been added. You will find yourself wanting to encourage Jak, scream at him, and at times kill him. As he faced with several painful and hollowing choices.

This is one of the main themes throughout the narrative putting Jak in a position where he is forced to decide and face the consequences of his decision. As he tries to save his world from one of two evils. A powerful deity by the name of Talamus who wishes to enslave the world. There is only one way to stop him and Jak holds the key. However, to save the world from one monster Jak must enlist the help of an even greater one.

By the name of Azzadul. Azzadul vanished ten years however an ancient magic has restored his powers. Once known as the Lord of light his lust for power and immortality caused him to become corrupt and vicious destroying more than he rescued.  This choice however for me is more aimed at the reader as it begs the question as a human how many roads have you stared down in your life wondering which one to take? Wondering whether it will enhance your life for the better or worst and you hesitated or went straight ahead without regret. John does this throughout and I love it.

The chemistry between the two deities Azzadul and Talamus is electric, as they go back and forth to discover who will win this epic battle of wits. Some of the language used is so creative that I felt as those I was watching a Hollywood movie play out in my head. The imagery was so strong. As Jak is thrown in the middle of this mayhem you can’t help but fell in love with him but you will just have to read the book to find out why. This book ventures into dark territories and areas of society that is rarely given the light of day. However, John does it with a tenderness that forces you as a reader to evaluate everything you read with the critical eye of an expert detective. As you continue reading you will soon discover that nobody and I mean nobody can be trusted within A Thousand Roads.

This imaginative and dark fantasy will hold the attention of readers with its complex characters and well-constructed world. My only criticism would be that at times certain scenes were to long causing some of the tension built from previous chapters to be decreased. However, this should not stop people from picking up a copy as it is a highly enjoyable read. It receives 4.5 stars.

Thank you to Alicia Smock of Roll Out Reviews for making me aware of John’s work. Thanks to John for allowing me to review it and sending me a copy. This doesn’t affect my views.

 

Review of Return of the Mantra by Susie Williamson Written by Dan Stubbings

My Review-

I had the pleasure of meeting Susie at Fantasy Con this year in Chester and after a lovely chat about her book. I asked if I could review it for her. Suffice to say it made my Top 20 reads of 2018 finishing in thirteenth place. I cannot wait for the sequel to be released.

Considering when I was putting together my Top 20 I had read 120 books. Return of the Mantra blew me away the moment I opened it. Everything about it was fresh and new but at the same time weirdly familiar as if I had read the story before. Why I kept reading however, and didn’t throw the book against the wall after five minutes is because I loved how Susie was able to flip these familiarities on their head, and give me a whole new level of enjoyment.

I adored the protagonist Suni a strong young girl who is forced to face the harshness of her world after the sudden death of her mother. I have to admit when I first read this I thought here we go a young girl loses her family and has to save the world.  However I was in for a pleasant surprise, as Susie doesn’t do this taking Suni’s story in a direction I completely wasn’t expecting. Suni’s character arc is one of the best I have read this year in any fantasy. Susie’s writing shows that she has given alot of thought to the direction she wants to take Suni’s character exposing a number of vulnerabilities to the reader along the way. These include her attitude towards sexuality, her struggles with abandonment, and the complex relationship she has with her absent father. As the plot develops we see these character traits become more and more dominate as Suni is tested to the extreme in a land ravaged by a brutal ruler who has enslaved his people, and in their warped minds become a god himself. This forces Suni to go in search of Mantra a forgotten god that in her mother’s eyes is the one true guardian of their world.

A character that allows us to see the abuse of innocence in this unforgiving place is Wanda an orphan boy with the power to understand animals. Suni becomes a big sister to him as they go in search of this fairy-tale. This relationship was the one that pulled on my heart strings the most. As Suni fights to protect Wanda’s innocence she is torn because at the same time she must make him understand the true nature of this world and its cruelties. This is every parents nightmare and is a clear theme throughout the book. With each parental figure making their own mistakes along the way some facing worst consequences than others.  It’s a relationship that I hope has more of a central role in the sequel as it has all the feels.

This book has everything I look for within fantasy. Strong protagonists and antagonists, an equal split of genders, diversity, and story-lines that at times reflected a modern day Africa. This is a highly satisfying read with a well developed world, and magic system I cannot wait to see how it continues. Well done Susie 5 Stars.

I received a copy from the author in exchange for an honest review this doesn’t effect my views.

 

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About the Author- Susie Williamson

Susie grew up in the village of Scholes, Holmfirth, in West Yorkshire. She studied at the University of Sheffield and graduated with a BSc Honours in Chemistry, and a PGCE in Secondary School Science. In 1999 she travelled to the city of Omdurman in the Sudan, where she taught English as a Foreign Language. From there she moved to South Africa, where she taught Adult Basic Education and Training, primarily in a township in Kwazulu Natal.

On her return to the UK, she moved to Exeter in Devon, where her childhood passion for creative writing was reignited. Among a collection of varied jobs, including support work at a women’s refuge, she increasingly prioritised her time to write. Inspired by the landscapes of Africa, her passion for women’s equality and representation of diversity, and her love of fantasy books, she began weaving the twists and turns of her first novel.

She lives with her partner, Kate, close to the river Exe and a bike ride away from the sea. She enjoys being involved in community projects, and painting canvases to steadily fill the white-washed walls of her house. Her writing partner is her cat, Mia, who is currently assisting with two fantasy novels, sequels to Return of the Mantra.