Interview With Susie Williamson Author of Epic Fantasy Return of The Mantra Interview Conducted by Dan Stubbings

Today I am pleased to welcome the incredibly talented Susie Williamson. Author of Return of The Mantra, one of favourite books of 2018 to my blog for another female author spotlight interview.

DS: Welcome Susie. Thanks so much for agreeing to the interview

SW: No problem Dan. Thank you for having me.

DS: Lets begin I am dying to find out more. For readers who aren’t familiar with you as a writer would you mind telling us a little about yourself, and how you first got into writing?

SW: Growing up in a village in West Yorkshire, some of my favourite childhood memories are the Saturday morning ritual of visiting the local library, and returning home with a stack of books to devour. Stories are a gift, and I started writing them as soon as I could write, mostly pages and pages of adventures that never seemed to have an ending. For as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to write a book. Life took many tangents, until I finally found the inspiration, and space, to get serious. I returned from four years living in Africa and settled in Exeter. While taking walks around the river Exe, I mulled over characters and scenes, and soon my door was covered with scribbled on post-it notes. The plan was developing, the characters taking shape, and 300 words a day around various shift work saw the first draft make progress. After several drafts I began to believe I might one day have a book I wrote nestled on my bookshelf. I still live in Exeter with my partner Kate, and my writing partner, Mia the cat. And with Return of the Mantra nestled on my bookshelf, I’m working towards seeing my second book sitting next to the first.

DS: Please can you tell us a little about your writing routine if you have one?

SW: I allocate writing days. I have a tendency to analyse, overthink, and get distracted, so writing on days filled with work or too many chores doesn’t work well. Writing days involve get up, get dressed, and turn the computer on by 8am at the latest. Aside from a midday walk, I’ll stay there until 5ish. I don’t have a problem with self-motivation, and find that just making a start, writing something, anything, gets the creative juices flowing. In the early days I found these stints more difficult to maintain, and disciplined myself by writing to a word count. 300 words at the very beginning, turned into 500 words and then 1000 words. When I hit 2000 words I stopped counting. Then, when I started editing with the mantra, every word must count, I realised that progress involved reducing the word count. Ultimately we all have to find our groove for what works for us, but make a start, write something. You can’t edit a blank page!

DS: You’re quite the globetrotter. How much has your travels impacted upon your writing?

SW: Living in Africa from 1999 to 2003 greatly influenced my debut novel. From the extraordinary sights and sounds of Khartoum to South African township life, the colours of the social and geographical landscapes inspired the world building in my novel. Living and teaching among local African communities, with drumming, prayer and ritualistic chanting the norm, magical realism didn’t feel too big of a stretch. Together with extraordinary African wildlife, the concept of the book, complete with its magic system, was born. Writing Return of the Mantra became a refuge to revisit Africa and relive cherished memories. When I read extracts now, I’m reminded of life in the rural South African township; the smell of bonfires, and cowhide soaking in big barrels of water, then being dragged out to dry in the sun ready for making drums. The seemingly magical rituals of the Sangoma, and the tight bonds between members of the community as they lived with the reality of poverty and violence. I’m reminded of the lush green landscapes and incredible wildlife, and the efforts to preserve it. And then there was the contrasting Sudan, with its arid landscapes, rolling haboobs and much needed rainy seasons. I’m reminded of the old woman roasting coffee beans over hot coals in the market, of the stern Sudanese soldiers upholding curfew, and a gift I received from a Sudanese friend – a matchbox with a big emerald green beetle inside. He told me a story that day, about a game he used to play as a boy, tying string to the legs of these beetles and flying them like kites. This childhood tale is just one example of how I used realism to add depth to the characters and environment in this land of contrasts

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

SW: Primarily, as with any novel, I look for character driven storylines. Beyond that, imaginative settings with a plausible magic system. I look for protagonists that I can root for from the first, someone I can relate to and empathise with. I look for settings that spark my imagination, plot lines and character back stories with depth, and fantastical elements that make sense, that are explained, that have logic. I look for diversity among the characters, written with sensitivity and free from stereotypes, stories that are inclusive and represent our diverse societies. I think the genre of fantasy in particular gives us great opportunities to reflect this diversity.

DS: Your main protagonist Suni is a teenager. Yet you make her endure some brutal experiences. What made you decide to write these scenes for such a young girl, and what do you feel this brings to Return of the Mantra?

SW: I aim to write with representation of diversity in mind, to attempt to reflect society. For me, this is more than looking at gender, race, etc…, but more broadly, including life experiences. In writing my debut, I thought back on my life and the lives of women and girls I’ve known, both in Africa and here in the UK. In the UK I spent five years working in a women’s refuge, supporting women and children fleeing domestic violence and abuse, as well as prostitution. Domestic violence and abuse was discussed at length with students in the Sudan, and this, as well as sexual oppression and violence was sadly prevalent in the South African township. In writing a female protagonist, as well as a number of female secondary characters, I wanted to see women and girls represented, to include real life experiences, to not shy away from the suffering experienced in real life but to also include messages of empowerment. Some of these experiences are more common than many would like to believe, are uncomfortable subjects that are often, conveniently, brushed under the carpet, meaning those who experience them are ignored. Readers look for characters they can empathise with. I wanted to include characters that people I’ve known might be able to relate to.

DS: The relationship between Wanda and Suni are some of my favourite scenes in Return of the Mantra. They are written so beautifully. How much of the relationship did you have to plan out before you wrote it down, and how much grew organically as you went deeper into your fantasy world?

SW: In South Africa, I met a number of young children who were sadly orphaned. In a way, Wanda’s character came to represent these children. Although Wanda is not the main character in Return of the Mantra, his character was one I came to know first. He’s an orphan, yet I wanted his story to be positive; I wanted him to find people he would look upon as family. Suni’s role in caring for Wanda was established in the planning stages. From the first, this relationship was central to the overall storyline. As the story developed, their relationship strengthened, as well as their own roles developing independent of each other.

DS: Please can you tell us about your journey to being published and what made you decide to go with Stairwell Books?

SW: After a number of drafts, painstakingly combing through edits, striving to make the story as good as it could be, I began to realise that I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Then came the doubts. Am I good enough? Can I write? Should I get a proper job? After scouring through a writer’s magazine I came across the writer and editor, Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, offering a professional critiquing service. I dared to hit send, offering up my beloved manuscript for some objective feedback. I found this support invaluable and would definitely recommend writers to get their work critiqued professionally before sending it out. Then, with a tightened manuscript ready, I searched the Writers and Artists Handbook and came up with a list of potential publishers. The rejections came thick and fast, until I began researching companies more thoroughly and narrowing down the list of publishers. Looking into Stairwell Books, I came across a U-tube clip of Rose Drew. As well as writing and publishing, among other things, she is also a performance poet. Seeing her perform one of her poems in the clip, listening to the content, it struck me that she might like my book. And she did. Seeing Return of the Mantra with the others titles of Stairwell Books feels right. Among their selection they look for work that offers good representation and diversity, and stories that make you think.

DS: Return of the Mantra is book one of a planned trilogy is that correct? If so, what can we except in the next two books, and when are they scheduled for release?

SW: Yes, so far it’s a trilogy, but never say never to more… In books 2 and 3 expect new worlds and cultures, and storylines exploring how lands are connected. In book 2 I’m excited to see the development of Wanda’s character, in particular the impact of his past. Written as a split first person narrative, the story is predominantly told through Suni and Wanda’s differing perspectives. As for release dates, with life as in stories, the unexpected happens, and due to a recent illness there has been a delay in the writing. But progress is being made and book 2 is safely in the editing process, so I will keep you posted.

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

SW: I have a collection of Ursula Le Guin’s works which I’ve read and reread countless times. One of my favourites is the Tombs of Atuan from the Earthsea Quartet. The young priestess, Tenar, is born into servitude to the Nameless Ones, destined to live out her days in a dark underground world. When she first meets the wizard, Ged, she thinks he’s a thief. But instead of leaving him to die as she’s supposed to do, she begins to consider the world outside, and dares to question everything she’s been brought up believing. The truth turns her world upside down, forcing her to realise how she was controlled. The fact that she stepped outside, leaving everything familiar to venture into the unknown, is something that stuck with me. She was a heroine, not for brandishing swords and fighting wars, but for her strength in reclaiming her identity. Female characters that break stereotypes, unconventional heroines and heroes, are certainly motivators for my own writing.

DS: You tackle some complex themes in Return of The Mantra. Which ones were the most difficult to write, which were the easiest and why?

SW: The art of fiction is writing believable stories, characters and worlds, and fantasy is no exception. Writing scenes which portray the physical and sexual oppression of young women were the easiest in terms of believability, since I have significant work experience in this area. At the same time, they were the hardest scenes to write, since, like all character writing, they involved getting into character, seeing the experience through their perspective. This was an uncomfortable process.

DS: LGBT relationships feature heavily within the story which I adored. Why did you feel it was important to include this topic in your work?

SW: Readers look for characters they can empathise with. As a gay woman, I am no exception. LGBT people exist in all walks of life, therefore if a story with a cast of characters is to be representative of society, LGBT cannot be ignored. Over time I hope to see more LGBT in stories, in such a way that it isn’t defined as LGBT but rather as mainstream. This goes for all aspects of diversity. In the end, the more people who write, hopefully the more diversity we’ll see.

This interview was done over email. Thanks again to Susie for agreeing to do it, giving some amazing answers.

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Review of Chasing Graves(Chasing Graves Trilogy Book 1) By Ben Galley Written Dan Stubbings As Part of the Ben Galley Ultimate Blog Tour

Honoured to be part of the Ben Galley Ultimate Blog Tour. Thanks to Dave for inviting me.

Book Synopsis

Meet Caltro Basalt. He’s a master locksmith, a selfish bastard, and as of his first night in Araxes, stone cold dead.

They call it the City of Countless Souls, the colossal jewel of the Arctian Empire, and all it takes to be its ruler is to own more ghosts than any other. For in Araxes, the dead do not rest in peace in the afterlife, but live on as slaves for the rich.

While Caltro struggles to survive, those around him strive for the emperor’s throne in Araxes’ cutthroat game of power. The dead gods whisper from corpses, a soulstealer seeks to make a name for himself with the help of an ancient cult, a princess plots to purge the emperor from his armoured Sanctuary, and a murderer drags a body across the desert, intent on reaching Araxes no matter the cost.

Only one thing is certain in Araxes: death is just the beginning.

My Review

Chasing Graves is the first book I have read by Ben. I pleased to report that it won’t be the last. Ben has created a unique world in Chasing Graves going beyond the realms of what I have encountered in the world of fantasy before. The setting of Chasing Graves is what grabbed my attention initially. Araxes. A sprawling city of dark corners, broken laws, and loose morals. Where you don’t know if every step you take is going to be your last.

Ben describes Araxes in all its glory from its ghostly streets to the ruling classes of the nobles that hold this ancient city in an iron grip. Ben taps into all the senses enabling the reader to create a detailed image in their mind of the history and myths that surround Araxes. This was what I enjoyed the most about the book. The reason being is because even though this is a city of magic, cutthroats, ambitious nobles, and politics that you will find in most epic fantasies. Ben uses these well-worn tropes and turns them on their head creating an interesting currency that shows a person’s status within the world he has created. Instead of it being gems, money, and land. It is copper coins and shades which are souls bound to the world after death as a final gift from the gods.

This was a great twist on the Greek myths of the ferryman and the River Nyx. Asking the question of the reader how important is your soul? These sections are written so well from the viewpoint of Caltro Basalt a thief and good for nothing cheat. After he becomes a shade himself when he is murdered on his first night in Araxes by a gang of soulstealers lead by the ruthless Boran Temsa. Caltro is the only viewpoint that is written in first person throughout a book that has several viewpoints. I loved this as it allowed me to explore Caltro’s mind as struggles to understand the reasons behind who he is, how he goes about seeking revenge, and fights for his freedom from his enforced enslavement. We hear all his frustrations, and root for him to succeed as life continues to throw obstacles in his way giving us a unique look into how precious the soul is and how even after death we suffer pain.

The other viewpoints Ben includes in this engrossing epic fantasy is the ruthless Soulstealer Boran Temsa. He was favourite character. I loved the description of him. Straight away I could feel his relentless anger, smell his poisoned sense of the world and taste his hunger to improve his social standing. He drew me in making me want to know more about the criminal underbelly in which he lives and thrives to dominate. He is played off against another wonderfully executed viewpoint the empress in waiting Sisine. She is one determined woman, who will stop at nothing to come out on top in the game of deception that is being woven at the heart of Araxes. Both viewpoints enable the reader to explore all sides of the divide that exists within both characters circles of interest and when they finally meet it is explosive.

The final viewpoint Ben gives us is Nilith. A character that is used to take us away from the intoxicating streets of Araxes. Allowing us to explore other parts of the world in which the narrative is set. I adored the hilarious conversations between Nilith and her dead husband shade that helps bring a much-needed humour to what is otherwise a grim tale. This viewpoint is executed to great effect making you follow the clues to discover what secret Nilith is truly hiding. There was at times a predictability to Nilith’s arc. Yet this didn’t affect my enjoyment or disappoint me when the reveal occurred.

Ben has been able to give some well-worn tropes a new lease of life and at the same time add his own unique stamp to the ever-growing landscape of epic fantasy. This character driven narrative does exactly what it says on the tin. It is perfectly balanced between fast paced action and well fleshed out characters that keep you coming back for more. A highly recommended dark fantasy. Well done Ben. You receive four stars.

I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review and to take part in the blog tour. This doesn’t affect my views.

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Review of God of Broken Things ( The Age Of Tyranny Book 2) by Cameron Johnston Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

An outcast magician must risk his body and mind to save the world from horrifying demons, in the heart-pounding epic fantasy sequel to The Traitor God.

Tyrant magus Edrin Walker destroyed the monster sent by the Skallgrim, but not before it laid waste to Setharis, and infested their magical elite with mind-controlling parasites. Edrin’s own Gift to seize the minds of others was cracked by the strain of battle, and he barely survives the interrogation of a captured magus. There’s no time for recovery though: a Skallgrim army is marching on the mountain passes of the Clanhold. Edrin and a coterie of villains race to stop them, but the mountains are filled with gods, daemons, magic, and his hideous past. Walker must stop at nothing to win, even if that means losing his mind. Or worse…

My Review

After finishing the explosive Traitor God. I was eager to discover how Johnston would continue the journey of the mysterious and at times mildly irritating Edrin Walker. Reeling from the truths he discovered about the Arcanum who rule Setharis and the deaths of two of his best friends in Traitor God.

We find Walker in turmoil hell bent on uncovering how many mages have been infected by the evil Scarrabus that caused the betrayal of a once trusted ally and the murder of his best friend. As the story develops Johnston peels back the layers of these soul sucking parasites giving us an in depth look into how powerful they are and the lengths they will go to accomplish their sadistic mission. I was pleased that this aspect of the narrative further developed. As I had several questions regarding the complexity of the Scarrabus. Where they originated, who is behind their involvement in the downfall of Setharis, and could they really be stopped.

Johnston provides this information in graphic detail making for a story that has you racing to keep up. What I enjoyed most about how Johnston revealed the information to the reader was that at no point did I feel as though I was been drawn in an info dump. The reveals were seamless, moving the plot forward at a neck breaking pace adding gruesome details to the already horrific image of the Scarrabus in my mind. The Scarrabus are a relentless manifestation of pure darkness in the world of Setharis and will have you reading through your fingers.

However, they are only half of the story that Edrin Walker finds himself at the centre of. Even though he pretty much saved Setharis by nearly getting himself killed. He still isn’t trusted by most of the Arcanum. Half want him dead and the others treat him as if he is a cobra waiting to strike. Plus, things are about to get worse when he is sent on a mission to help stop the invading army of Skallgrim with a bunch of mercenaries that would sooner put a knife in his back. First though he must navigate a region of snow-covered mountain passes that house some of the vilest creatures imaginable. Some Edrin though were long buried.

This is a highlight of the world that Johnston has constructed. His mythology is so vivid, and complex that as you keep reading you find yourself in a weird space between fearing these gruesome beings that are hunting our crew of misfits, and at the same time wanting to know more about them to discover the thought process behind this deep ingrained mythology. This is what I enjoyed most about Johnston’s writing. He enabled the reader to go beyond the ruined city of Setharis, which is described in such vivid detail in Traitor God, that you feel as though you would be able to walk through as if it were New York or Leeds. Sampling the sounds, tastes, and smells of this city steeped in magic and mystery.

That had its place in the narrative making for a fabulous murder mystery and revenge backstory that helped set up what is to come making you want to read book 2. However, what makes God of Broken Things better than Traitor God in my opinion is it moves at a faster pace tapping into the mythology and people’s fears in ways that doesn’t stall the plot. At times in Traitor God I found myself saying do we really need to know this. Drawing my attention away from what I was enjoying about the plot. I must stress this is only personal preference Traitor God was still one of my books of 2018.

God of Broken Things got rid of those problems, creating a vicious beast that made it feel as though a Ford Fiesta had been replaced by a Ferrari. Opening our eyes to a range of interesting sections of Edrin’s world that Johnston had only given us glimpses of in Traitor God. As Edrin moves forward within these places we begin to see a clash of cultures relating to how people hold suspicions and legends to their hearts. This causes several problems for Edrin as he grapples with his control over his own magic and how far he can take it before losing himself.

God of Broken Things is a fantastic end to what has been a spellbinding series of engrossing magic systems, vile creatures that still haunt my nightmares, and side characters such as Eva and Cillian that only help to enhance your enjoyment of this brilliantly written narrative. This is Grimdark with a delicious twist and I hope more people sample this dish. It receives 4 stars.

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

 

Interview with Aurealis, Ditmar and Norma K Hemming Award Winning Author Sam Hawke Conducted by Dan Stubbings

In my ongoing quest to make more people read female authors and give them the spotlight they deserve. I am delighted to welcome Sam Hawke writer of the multi award winning City Of Lies for a insightful interview into her work.

DS: Sam thankyou for agreeing to do this interview. Its pleasure to have you on my blog today.

SH: Thankyou for having me. Its great to be here.

DS: So to start us off. For readers who aren’t familiar with you as a writer would you mind telling us a little about yourself and how you first got into writing?

SH:  When I took friends home for the first time as a kid, the first reaction they always had was to gape at the books. Our lounge room had ten foot floor to ceiling bookshelves on the walls, and though this was completely normal to me, it was obvious that we had more books than any of our friends had ever seen in a house before. Which is to say, I grew up in a house completely stuffed with books, with parents who always read to us and took us to the library regularly, and siblings who were big readers; books were always such a critical part of my life that the second I figured out writing them was a thing you could do, it was the thing I wanted to do.

How seriously I took the idea that I would one day be published varied over the years. I was still in primary school when I made my first effort to write a terribly derivative Enid Blyton-esque adventure novel (an upgrade from the previous attempts at stapling lots of paper together and writing Very Exciting chapter names on each one, and not much else), and in high school when I started on my first (bad) epic fantasy. I did a lot of editing for other people during my 20s and then started writing again in earnest when I was home looking after my first kid, because by then I’d figured if I didn’t do it then I never would.

DS: Wow sounds like a fantastic upbringing! Numerous poisons feature heavily within City of Lies. How much research did you do on poisons? Why did you decide to make them so important in your story?

SH: The first idea I had for City of Lies was tied very closely to poisons; Jov and Kalina came to me, more or less as they ended up, inexorably connected to their family’s job. Poisons were part and parcel of the characters, and it was a secondary step to start building a world around them that would make sense of who they were – what kind of society would have the need for a role like that? Why were poisons, rather than any other kind of violence, the attack of choice for powerful people?

I did do a lot of research on poisons, especially naturally occurring ones and poisons that were popular historically (I even had a good wander through a few poison gardens in Europe, which was a lot of fun!), but only as an influence rather than an instructional manual. I used fictional poisons rather than real ones for a couple of reasons. First, since I was writing a relatively low-magic fantasy, I wanted an opportunity to make the world feel different, and flora and fauna are a good non-supernatural way of establishing that feeling of a world not our own. Second, I wanted my readers to be in the same position as the protagonists, so if Jov didn’t know what a poison was, I didn’t want readers to be able to think, ‘oh that’s obviously arsenic’, or whatever, and solve things for him. But having said that, a lot of my fictional poisons are based loosely on real ones to help me along! I left a few clues in the names so keen eyed readers can probably spot some similarities.

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

SH: Ha, there’s no right answer to that. What I might look for in a story might be entirely different from what you look for, or my neighbour looks for, or even a past version of myself looked for. For me it’s always about capturing that indefinable combination of characters and a world I want to spend time with, and a story that makes me feel things that linger past the closing of the book.

Well, that any anything Robin Hobb wrote.

DS: You write some unique viewpoints in City of Lies. Telling the story from the perspectives of individuals tasked with protecting their families. What challenges did these viewpoints present? What made them appeal to you?

SH: Fantasy is full of assassins and warriors and magicians and heroes, and I love these staples of our genre as much as anyone. But I’ve always been very interested in the characters working behind the scenes – the advisers and sidekicks and friends, the Sam Gamgees of the equation – and I also enjoy reading characters who play outside the usual gamut of professions and skillsets.

In particular, having two main characters who lack combat skills was something I wanted to explore because even though I love me a bit of cool fighting, I do think there’s a cultural over-reliance on violence as a solution in fiction. In fantasy so many problems are solved through violent conflicts. If your main characters’ best skills are ‘taking reeeeeally good tasting notes’ and ‘listening quietly’ then you can’t write the same story as if they were bad-ass ninjas. It forces you to think about different ways of telling a story.

DS: Awesome I love that answer. What kind of writer would you say you are and why?

SH: Oh, a disorganised and often reluctant one, I suppose. I love the feeling of having done the work, and I love the buzz of an idea coming together in my head (or, as often happens, solving a puzzle I left myself earlier, because Past Sam is something of a jerk) but how I feel about the actual process of writing is frequently more like something out of “The Unstrung Harp” (Dreadful, dreadful, dreadful!).

DS: What topics would you like to write about in future and why?

SH: I never plan by topic, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you until I start.

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

SH: Ha, I can’t be objective about that – I sound like me to me. You guys will have to make your own calls about who I’m like in style. In terms of influence, I’m sure I’ve taken it subconsciously from all over the place! In terms of what I wish I could do, as I said before, Robin Hobb’s books are everything to me, just… perfection. Everything you need to know about character and consequences, you can get from reading her work. When I was knuckling down and imagining an actual career in this field I also found the array of wonderful SFF writers from the 90s and 00s – people like Katharine Kerr, Kate Elliott, Melanie Rawn, Guy Gavriel Kay, Lynn Flewelling – and particularly the strong crowd coming out of Australia like Sara Douglass, Trudi Canavan, Glenda Larke, Garth Nix and Kate Forsyth, hugely influential. Strangely enough, considering I only ever wanted to write SFF, I also learned a lot about pacing, tension and unreliable narration from reading old Alastair McLean spy novels in my teens!

DS: City of Lies is book one of a planned trilogy is that correct? If so, what can we except in the next two books, and when are they scheduled for release?

SH: It will be a duology, and the sequel, Hollow Empire, is currently scheduled to come out in December 2020, if everything goes well. Knock on some wood for me, would you?

This interview was carried out over email. Thanks again to Sam for agreeing to take part. Thankyou forgiving me such thought-provoking answers.

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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.

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.

Review of City of Lies (A Poison War Novel) By Sam Hawke Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis 

I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me… 

Outwardly, Jovan is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible Heir. Quiet. Forgettable. In secret, he’s a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor’s family from treachery. When the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army lays siege to the city, Jovan and his sister Kalina must protect the Heir and save their city-state.

But treachery lurks in every corner, and the ancient spirits of the land are rising…and angry.

Review

Sam Hawke has been able to create a fantasy world, and plot that challenges the norms of the fantasy genre, and pushes the boundaries to great affect. As a reader I always look for originality in fantasy, as it can sometimes become bogged down in the same old plot lines, and characters. That are enjoyable however most of the time you can kind of predict their next move. However I couldn’t say this about Sam’s debut novel.

It has a delightful freshness and twists that you cannot predict. That ooze off every page with ease drawing you deeper into the world, city, and characters she has created. Her writing style has a uniqueness that you rarely see within the fantasy genre, and one I enjoyed immensely.

From the way she dip feeds information regarding the vast society within her imaginary world, to how much information she gives us on how its governed, and what poisons are at play. Her voice comes through, adding a insightful prose to the descriptions, and dialogue given to the main elements of characters and the world itself.

I also enjoyed the lack of a magic system within the narration. Due to the fact that at times I feel to much focus is given to how magic is used, and controlled within fantasy. However Sam didn’t need this to make her story fast paced and highly enjoyable.

I loved how every chapter opened up with a description of a new poison its symptoms, what it could do, and how it was administered.

At times I feared this would impact upon the tension within the story, as you believed someone was going to be affected by this new poison. However as I read on the poison fell into the background. As you hitched a ride on the coat tails of Jovan or Kalina the two main character viewpoints within the story.

I especially enjoyed how Sam chose to give us different narrations from what we are used to within fantasy. Enabling us to see the perspectives of the people tasked with protecting the heirs of their society, instead of an assassin who is tasked with killing them.

This bought with it beautifully detailed insights, and helped me warm to, and care about the characters deeper than I have in some recent fantasies I have read. Sam hits all the feels, and takes you on an emotional roller-coaster as you fight to understand what is happening.

The whole story takes places in one city however at no point does the scale of what Sam is trying to achieve feel small. In parts it reminded me of RJ Barker’s Wounded Kingdom Series. As readers are taken on a thrill ride of mystery and intrigue, asking you the constant question of whodunnit.

This is a brilliant genre mashup, and I look forward to seeing where this series goes. Also if the opening line to the book “I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me”. Doesn’t grab your attention. Then quite frankly you need to give your head a shake. This book deserves to be huge. Go out and buy it well done Sam.