Interview with Author Joseph Sale (Writer of Dark Hilarity, Black Gate Trilogy, Save Game and many more) Interview conducted by Dan Stubbings

DS: Today I am honoured to interview author Joseph Sale on my blog. Thanks for taking the time Joseph.

JS: My pleasure Dan. Thanks for having me.

DS: How did you first get into writing?

JS: I was very fortunate that my mother and father were both very passionate about literature, and so, from a very young age, I was inundated with stories. My father loved the classics, and we read them together before bed. My mother read 2000AD (Judge Dredd and Slaine in particular), and also epic fantasy novels. Words cannot express how important this was for me, growing up. One other important thing to note is that though my father was a writer, and my mother an artist, neither of them ever forced me down one path or another. For a time, I wanted to be a professional fencer, and did make the GB team before I realised that it was not satisfying for me; they fully supported this, and didn’t in any way try to coerce me into being “like them”.

I then wanted to become an actor, and spent a lot of time on stage in my teenage years, which I did thoroughly enjoy, but over time I realised that I was even more interested in the words themselves than in how I was supposed to say them, and I wanted to make little changes (except, of course, when I was performing Shakespeare, in which case I merely stood in adoration). It was after this stint of acting that I really began to sit down and seriously write. What I learned from acting I found useful as a way of getting into the heads of my characters, however. Although most of my experience was with poetry and plays, I found that novels suited my yearning to describe the imaginative settings that I conjured in my head. My first “proper” book was a novelisation of the epic Germanic poem The Nibelungelied. It’s still floating around on the web, though I don’t direct people to it these days! You can tell a sixteen-year-old wrote it

DS: Where on earth did Smiley come from? He has tormented my dreams.

JS: Haha, I’m simultaneously glad and very sorry to have caused you such grief. Smiley… where to begin? Undoubtedly, he is the most important character I have ever written. I suppose the truthful answer is that Smiley came out of the mirror. He’s me, though I didn’t immediately realise this. Craig Smiley is an anagram of Mr Cigy Sale – this is again something I only later discovered with a mixture of horror and delight. In my childhood, my friends and I often fashioned ourselves as epic heroes (you might imagine we were real toffs when I say that, but the opposite is true—we were penniless no-hope nerdy sewer boys—which is why we found the heroic comparison so hilarious). One was Achilles, one was Odysseus, and I was Cygnus, an often forgotten Trojan hero, who, upon death, transformed into a cygnet (hence where we derive the word from). My friends therefore affectionately called me “Cigy”. This was another “in joke” as I was the only one of them never to smoke.

When I was writing Gods of the Black Gate, I had been through a rough patch.  My initial focus was on creating a detective story in the style of True Detective season one. However, increasingly, my focus shifted from the detective, Caleb Rogers, to the antagonist, Craig Smiley. I realised, quite shockingly, that I sympathised more with Smiley than I did with the detective. And, I began to become aware that though I imagined him to be Texan and a soldier, two things I had never been, Craig Smiley was a ciphered version of me. There was a kind of horror and wonder in that moment. Craig represented a part of myself I’d been repressing in trying to come through my personal struggles. Craig was the part of me that really, really wanted to burn civilisation to the ground, and most importantly: who would let nothing, not even the entire universe, stand in his way. Certain life experiences had led me to feel weak and powerless. Craig Smiley was my rage against that condition. He was a mortal that even the gods of the abyss feared.

The thing about Craig Smiley is that whilst he is undoubtedly evil in many ways, he didn’t just represent my “bad side”. He represented a lot of the aspects of my personality that I liked: reckless determination, an ability with words, monomaniacal focus, self-belief of a certifiably insane degree, and so on. I couldn’t hate Craig, because he wasn’t just all my evil poured onto the page. He was something more. He was a synthesis. I think, in a way, he was my mind trying to pose a solution to the problem of my life: this is who you need to become to succeed. And, in a bizarre way, that became true. Minus the sacrifices, of course.

DS: Your new book Dark Hilarity is a deeply personal book I felt was that intended?

JS: You’re very perceptive, Dan. Thank you for reading so closely. It is a very deeply personal book and the relationship between Tara and Nicola is especially true to the reality of one enduring friendship I have had since childhood, a friendship that has defined who I am, and saved my life, in many respects. Some people were a little shocked by some of the early, distressing childhood scenes in the book, but sadly these are very true to the reality we lived growing up.

At my wedding, this same enduring friend made a speech in which he said, “Me and Joe grew up inhabiting worlds known only to us.” We both cried when he said that. I think we knew that fantasy, the worlds we shared, were the only thing that had redeemed us from a truly awful fate. In some ways, the entire book came out of that beautiful line.

DS: In my opinion Dark Hilarity is your best work to date. Your growth as a writer is incredible. How long did it take you to write? What themes or ideas do you hope people take from the text?

JS: You are too kind, Dan. I would like to thank you profusely for being such a loyal and dedicated reader all of these years. It is amazing that someone is there to see that growth, and I’m glad you feel that I’m getting better, it makes the hard work worth it!

Writing Dark Hilarity was extremely difficult. Firstly, it’s the longest individual novel (or indeed book) I’ve ever written by some way. Secondly, it is, as you observed, probably the most deeply personal thing I’ve attempted. It took most of a year to draft, and months of editing. Some scenes were painfully hard to write.

In terms of themes and ideas, I think there are three key ones: the book explores the interrelationship between escapism and depression. I am not against escapism, and as I’ve said before, fantasy and imagination saved my life. But, I also recognise that at some stage we need to confront reality, and our history books are littered with people who failed to do that. Depression is an insidious, poisonous plant that grows in the mind and cannot be easily rooted out. We all respond to depression differently, and I know my resort was often to disappear into fantasy worlds, but though it helped at first, eventually it became no different to hitting the liquor bottle: a way to numb the pain rather than confront it.

Secondly, I think the book explores addiction. There are many forms of addition, and the book touches on some obvious ones, such as substance abuse, but I think it also explores subtler addictions: addiction to escapism, addiction to misery, addiction to failure. All three principle characters (Nicola, Tara, and Jed) have addictions to triumph over.

Lastly, it explores friendship, what true friendship is, and how rare it is. I have been blessed with not just one but many incredible friendship. It is, undoubtedly, the greatest blessing of my life, to be surrounded by love that just keeps on giving and shining. 

DS: The Gods of the Black Gate trilogy has so many themes it is difficult to know where to start. What inspiration stemmed the initial idea that helped spawn in my opinion one of the best dark trilogies in the last decade?

JS: Wow, knowing how much you read, that is high praise indeed. I’m so grateful. Thank you so much Dan, those words will stay with me forever.

As I mentioned before, Gods of the Black Gate initially came out of the idea of doing a kind of homage to True Detective but set in space. However, I quickly realised that there was no way I could possibly rival Nic Pizzolato’s dialogue, or the charismatic duo of McConaughey and Harrelson. Some initial scenes for the book which did not make it into the final draft, between Caleb and Thom, were very flat indeed. So, I had to do something different. Luckily, I didn’t really have to “think” of a solution, because one was already emerging in the form of Smiley himself.

As you can tell by the ending of the first book, I didn’t really imagine I would write anything further about those characters. However, years later, I had a dream in which I was Smiley… I lay in a field of multicoloured grass. Slowly, I got to my feet. There was an alien wind blowing. A small hill rose. I walked through the hill and suddenly found myself looking down on a phantasmagorical city. A realisation pieced by heart with the keenness of an arrow that this city was real, I wasn’t dreaming, I was walking in another world; and in this world I was him. Then I started awake.

The dream shook me, and over the next few days, I began to reflect on it. One of the strangest things is that Smiley had been different. He’d matured, healed slightly. The old Smiley had died, but now he was living again as something else. I realised that there was another story to be told, one that was even more focused on Smiley, and this was a fantasy epic, not a detective serial. This dream, and its accompanying revelations, became the basis for Beyond The Black Gate.

Each iteration of the Black Gate trilogy took me in a new direction; and introduced new themes. However, it was clear that there were emerging patterns to the themes, that they were organically growing out of what came before. The Black Gate trilogy in many ways reflects my personal development, from a hateful wretch who would blow up the world rather than admit he was wrong, to someone humbled and humanised—a man for the first time in his life. Some people have even read this as an evolutionary metaphor: the primal and ape-like brutality of book one giving way to a journey toward primitive civilisation in book two, and finally to true “humanity” in book three. If I had to name one ultimate and overarching theme for the series, however, it would be redemption, not evolution. I’m glad people see different things in it, however, and their reading is likely more valid than my own, in many ways.

Of course, it was never planned as a trilogy, and I almost didn’t write the last book. In fact, I can honestly say that without Christa Wojciechowski and Steve Stred’s encouragement, I might never have attempted it. With the final book, Return To The Black Gate, many times people told me not to do what I was doing: the plot sounded ridiculous, mixing the two multiverses I’d created was a mistake, there was simply no way Beyond could be continued. These doubts were like the vulture that daily savages Prometheus, punishment for his audacity in stealing fire for humankind. I pushed through them, and I will be forever proud of what I produced as a result. And, to be fair, many of the doubters admitted they were wrong, subsequently.

DS: You write both novels and short stories. What are the advantages and disadvantages of both?

JS: I write far fewer short stories than novels, which is quite funny! However, I often find that the ideas which come to me generally tend towards more expansive themes and concepts. My strength is in the “long game”. I think I’ve come to view myself as a writer who rewards patience. I’m of course working on improving my books and making them compelling from word one to the final page, but if you look at my earlier work, many people commented that those books are slightly hard work but worth the effort in the end. I’m quite happy with that, if I’m honest. I’d rather be that way around than gripping from the start but with a disappointing finale. I maintain that the ending to any story is it’s most important part.

Short stories are great for capturing a “moment in time”. They are a deep plunge into a particular feeling. They leave lots to the imagination, which is both their strength but also their weakness. I probably write fewer short stories because I am not as big a fan of reading them. There are some writers out there who write masterful short stories, stories that can take you on an immense journey in just a few thousand words; that is one of the most tremendously skillful things a writer can ever do and I freely admit that I feel I’ve rarely, if at all, ever achieved that level with a short story. However, on the flip side, I often find many writers use short stories as a veil to hide the fact they do not have an ending or answers in mind.

Novels are hard to write, there’s no question. They are marathons, not sprints. They require you to occupy one frame of mind for an extended period of time. When I wrote Return To The Black Gate, I had a piece of music, “Dream 3” by Max Richter, playing over and over again on repeat for months, hypnotising myself into the right frame of mind to tackle such an emotionally heavy story. However, novels are also easier than short stories in some ways because they allow you space and time to work with. I am not a great artist, though I do paint and sketch, and I guess one comparison would be the difference between having a 4’ by 3’ canvas versus an A4 sheet of paper. No doubt that you can do a lot with an A4, but the 4’ by 3’ gives you a lot more room!

DS: Which 3 books do you think everybody should read in their lifetime and why?

JS: Now you’re asking very hard questions, Dan! This is a tricky one. Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism is probably one of my favourite novels of all time, perhaps even one of the greatest novels ever written. The ending harrows and releases me. I should say that My Best Friend’s Exorcism was definitely an inspiration point for Dark Hilarity. The way Hendrix handled the friendship between Abby and Gretchen gave me heart and courage to tackle my own portrayal of a deep friendship. Masterful, human, and unbelievably well-written— this is a book everyone, even those who don’t normally read horror, should read before they die.

The Lord of the Rings has to be on there too. I mean, there will always be people out there who hate on it, who say it’s just silly fantasy, or who say it’s not well written (the Michael Moorcock brigade) but we all know it’s more than that. It’s one of the most profound stories about addiction and friendship ever written. It never fails to reduce me to sobbing. “I can’t carry it for you, Mr Frodo. But I can carry you.” Was a more heroic line ever written? Possibly not.

Lastly, every single person on Planet Earth should read the Sick trilogyby Christa Wojciechowski. Christa is one of my favourite writers of all time. She is one of the greatest writers alive today; a Gothic master reborn in our modern age. Her prose will shake you to the very root and rewire your brain. She has not yet received the credit she deserves for the power of her storytelling and prose, but I think it’s coming.

DS: What does a typical writing day look like for you and how would you describe your writing process?

JS: Recently, my writing process has changed quite a bit. At the moment, I’m actually writing by hand, luddite as that sounds! But I’m finding it very rewarding. I type up what I’ve written after I finish a chapter and then I correct it. This is a very slow process but it is producing a higher quality result, I think. I used to write in the mornings, but that has changed too, and I generally do other work: editing for my wonderful clients, administrative tasks, etc, in the morning, and then I tackle personal creative projects in the afternoon.

In terms of talking about my writing more broadly, I used to be a very meticulous planner, hence why I outlined the Five Act Structure, but now I think that I write in a slightly more “pantser” way, though I prefer to think of it as allowing the subconscious mind to populate the page with ideas. Really good writing can’t be forced. Stephen King once wrote that “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us get up and go to work” and he is right in one sense, but he is also wrong, in that writers do need space and down-time to generate their best ideas. Real writing doesn’t come from the intellectual “head”, it comes from somewhere deeper. The universe itself operates on this principle. Lightyears of dead and meaningless matter all serve as the necessary emptiness to produce the single fertile pinprick of Planet Earth and human life. The greatest inspiration comes from the void, when we’re listening to the internal voice, not allowing it to be drowned out by the endless chatter of modern life.

DS: Who are your influences in your writing?

JS: Tolkien has to be mentioned. Of course, he has influenced so many fantasy authors, but I think more than anything it isn’t Tolkien’s worlds that have influenced me but his writing style. I am more drawn to dark and Lovecraftian worlds that the high fantasy landscapes of Middle Earth, if truth be told, but Tolkien’s way of writing, in turn influenced by the oral poetry of the Anglo Saxons, as well as the Nordic and Germanic epics, is simply sublime to me. There is poetry and meter in virtually every line. Also, The Lord of the Rings is another book about transcendental friendship. There are more than a few parallels between Tara and Nicola and Frodo and Sam.

I’be already mentioned that Grady Hendrix was a huge influence on Dark Hilarity, but another would be China Mieville. You were one of the first people to compare me to China Mieville, Dan, long before I read any of his work, and now I have fallen in love with him, particularly his Bas Lag series, such as The Scar and Perdido Street Station. So, you once again have proved prescient! Mieville’s worldbuilding heavily influenced the scope of Dark Hilarity’s world: Dae’eshta.

I’m also hugely influenced by Clive Barker. I regard him as one of the most powerful and fertile writers of the age; the way he combines horror and fantasy into startling visions is simply awe-inspiring. His prose is spellbinding. And I think he has one of the most vivid imaginations of any writer, living or dead.

One final life-changing book for me was Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. It’s an epic poem, so it’s not an easy read, but for lovers of fantasy, this is what I regard as the original English fantasy epic. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling that sprawls over an epic, bizarre landscape whilst also deftly weaving in an allegorical moral framework. It has some of the most incredible heroes in it, such as Britomart, who is a female knight with an enchanted lance. She sets off from her homeland ravished by the idea of a man she’s never met, whom she glimpses in a dark mirror made by a wizard. It’s Arthurian but far darker than any of the better-known incarnations of those legends. Spenser’s imagination is vast and disturbing, and his feminism is pretty astonishing, especially considering he wrote it in 1590. The monsters in this book will also give you nightmares. I regard Spenser as one of the first writers to truly bring horror and fantasy together in a compelling way.

What’s really fascinating is whilst many have mistaken Spenser’s work for an attempt to butter up the royals and the Queen (the book is, after all, inspired by and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I), something far more interesting emerges when you read between the lines: let’s just say every glorious light casts a shadow.

DS: Who were the easiest and hardest characters you have wrote and why?

JS: I’m going to cheat a bit, because Smiley was simultaneously the hardest and easiest character I’ve ever written. I joked recently in a writer’s mastermind group I’m a part of called Let’s Get Published (which is amazing, by the way, and anyone reading this should definitely consider joining if they’re serious about their writing) that, “It was a lot easier when I had Smiley around: he would just tell me what to write.” And there’s a degree of truth in that. However, sometimes Smiley would occasionally either elude me, or want to take me down paths that would completely destroy the story, and those times were when he was hardest to write. Also, writing him was tiring. He’s a manic depressive, in many ways, as I was, and so he only occupies emotional extremes: frothing rage, soul-crushing despair, galactic triumph. He has no in-betweens, no intermissions, no brake pedal. He is absolute, in every sense of the word. That’s exhausting, after a while!

DS: What advice would you give to writers?

JS: Everyone has to follow their own path, so I don’t mean to prescribe. However, here are some things that have helped me:

(1) Read a lot. Read the genre you’re writing in. Read outside the genre you’re writing in. Keep reading. So many young writers come to me for feedback on their work and it’s clear from the first two pages that they have no idea what’s out there. We can all fall prey to cliché, but when we read widely, we can broaden our awareness, and circumvent it more readily. It also means that your work will have more influences which will give it more of a unique flavour. I am influenced by everything from Japanese anime to epic poetry; everything I absorb is then transmuted into a fuel I can use for writing. The process of discovering your writer’s voice never ends and my writer’s voice has changed over the years and will continue to change. In fact, perhaps the biggest change yet of my entire literary career is about to happen with what follows Dark Hilarity… But still, the more you read, the more informed that voice will become.

(2) Write regularly. I used to advocate writing every day (and used to write daily after my twelve hour shifts at a call centre, without fail) and for some people writing every day is a good practice. Nowadays, however, roughly three times a week works well for me. If you write regularly, you begin to train your mental muscles in the same way as an athlete regularly training before a competition. You cannot expect to write at your best if you leave it months between sitting down to write. You need to be kind to yourself and warm those muscles up and practice. Of course, I understand that time (and indeed energy) is limited for many of us, but writing is worth making the time for, as it will improve every other aspect of your life. Or at least, it has for me. Writing has undoubtedly been a healing therapy. It helps me focus. It de-frags and cleanses my mind. When I stop making time to write, other things begin to fall apart.

(3) Join a writing group. This is quite important. It will give you accountability partners, but it will also give you good times sharing experience and sympathy with other like-minded writers. It generates creative frisson. I’ve mentioned it before but I highly recommend Let’s Get Published. It’s affordable, friendly, and there’s an amazingly good community there. They do weekly write-ins (which makes carving out time for writing even easier), as well as courses on the craft of writing and also the publishing process. Even if you don’t sign up for a professional and paid group like this one, I recommend any writer having some kind of writing community around them. Like I said, without the support of others, I might never have written Return To The Black Gate.

DS: Finally, what is next for Joseph Sale?

JS: I’m currently working on a new book called Virtue’s End, which is unlike any book I have previously written both in terms of style and substance; I think it will be a big surprise for some. I can’t say much more about it other than it’s fantasy and undoubtedly the most imaginatively ambitious thing I’ve ever done. I won’t say it’s my best work, because my readers get to decide that! But I’m very excited to share it with the world and see what they think.

This year I’m also going to be releasing Dead World: Desecrated Empires, which is my dark fantasy narrative role-play game; although to say it’s a “game” is to diminish just how crazy it is and all it encompasses: lore tome, bestiary, world-building toolkit, and a way of taking friends on epic, cathartic journeys, all in one! I should say that an earlier version of this game formed the logic that underpinned my novel Save Game. It’s co-written with my two awesome friends Robert Monaghan and Edward Kennard. For anyone who loves Dungeons & Dragons, it’s simply a must (this is very cheeky, but I honestly think it’s better, and I’m not the only person saying that). There is also going to be some non-writing related Dead World content in the works; I can’t say too much, but look out for some unusual storytelling issuing from the Mindflayer’s domain in the future!

Lastly, I’m going to be doing some pretty cool things with my Patreon, The Mind-Vault, this year. Patreon has been an awesome way for me to connect with fans, to share never-before-released content, and to show a little bit more of my personality and life; to show people what’s behind the social media veil, the real person informing the fiction. If you’re subscribed to my Patreon, you get to hear about all these awesome projects first, and sometimes participate in them! You also get a monthly dose of never-before-seen fiction and videos. There’s already more than 30,000 words of content on there and it grows month by month. If you would like to have a front row seat, and possibly become a co-conspirator, in Mindflayer’s attempt to take over the world, then the Mind-Vault is the place to be!!

I’d like to thank you profusely for taking the time to interview me, Dan. You have asked some of the most searching questions of any interview I have ever done. Thank you.

This interview was conducted over email. I can’t thank Joseph enough for his mind-blowing answers, and for taking the time to answer my questions. It was an absolute pleasure getting to do this. Please check out Joseph’s work today.

Review of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S Villoso Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

A queen of a divided land must unite her people, even if they hate her, even if it means stopping a ruin that she helped create. A debut epic fantasy from an exciting new voice.

“I murdered a man and made my husband leave the night before they crowned me.”

Born under the crumbling towers of Oren-Yaro, Queen Talyien was the shining jewel and legacy of the bloody War of the Wolves that nearly tore her nation apart. Her upcoming marriage to the son of her father’s rival heralds peaceful days to come.

But his sudden departure before their reign begins fractures the kingdom beyond repair. Years later, Talyien receives a message, urging her to attend a meeting across the sea. It’s meant to be an effort at reconciliation, but an assassination attempt leaves the queen stranded and desperate to survive in a dangerous land. With no idea who she can trust, she’s on her own as she struggles to fight her way home.

Review

Sometimes you discover a book that brings much needed freshness to a genre. Well that is exactly what K.S Villoso has produced with her incredible debut The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. This book contains most of the aspects of fantasy that I crave. Epic sword-fights, in depth world-building, morally grey characters, and secrets that can collapse the norms of society at any moment.

What makes this story stand out in my opinion is that Villoso isn’t afraid to slow down the pace of her narrative to allow us as readers to take a breath, and explore Queen Talyien her main protagonist from a range of different angles. Through these slower periods, we are given important information about her personality and history of her families deep ingrained beliefs. This helps the reader to form a clearer perspective of what truly drives Talyien to achieve her goal of trying to reunite her nation. As well as shed light on her complicated legacy from her father’s actions. The voice of Talyien shines through on every page from what excites her to her frustrations. Villoso dumps us in her head, and takes us on a journey that is full of bloodshed, and treachery. Yet at the same time is able to explore her vulnerabilities that make her so easily lead. I couldn’t get enough of her. You can’t help but want to hear her story.

I have to admit during the first few chapters I was worried the story was going to be to predictable. That it would follow the story arcs of many previous fantasies. I couldn’t have more wrong. There were elements that were familiar like betrayals, and family rivalries but they were done with twists that you didn’t see coming adding a new flavour that made you continue reading.

This story contains so many intriguing threads that you feel as if you are floating on an ocean unable to see your hands under the surface. The world is a submersion of the senses. It is as if Villoso has written a personal love letter to the Philippines. I adored this aspect of the book it was so refreshing for me as a reader to be able to explore a different culture, and environment I haven’t encountered previously in fantasy. I was swept aside by the new myths and creatures we were introduced to. They are so well written that you can almost reach out and touch them.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is a highly accomplished first novel. That challenges the norms of fantasy, by incorporating a different blend of cultures, and ideas that enables it to stay true to the pillars of fantasy that the vast majority of readers have grown up with, but injects some added spice that leaves your brain stinging well after the event. At times I was shocked this was from a debut author as it was so well polished. I look forward to reading the next installment, as I can’t wait to jump back into this world. One thing I would like to see more of is exploration into side characters back stories as the cast of characters assembled truly held my attention throughout. It receives 4 stars.

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

Review of Stormtide by Den Patrick Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Blurb

Book Two in stunning Scandinavia-inspired fantasy trilogy The Ashen Torment.

BOOK TWO OF THE ASHEN TORMENT

Steiner, blacksmith, hero, has taken a hammer to the Empire, freeing the dead and children with witchsign alike from their fiery prison. Now he plans to finish what he started.

Kimi, dragon-speaker, princess, must seek her father’s court and win the support of his armies before news of her escape dooms her people.

Silverdust, ancient, dead, journeys to the heart of the empire as a prisoner – to meet the Emperor for what he hopes will be the final time.

Kjellrun, witch, killer, still reeling from the loss of her uncle when she is ripped from her family, fears this power within her. But she must harness that force – and soon – if she hopes to survive.

Scattered by fortune, plagued by danger, Steiner’s crew rise against the dark rule that has cost them so much.

The old gods are waking.

The dragons are free.
May gods help those who bear the sign of the witch.

Den Patrick’s thrilling new series continues in the sequel to the acclaimed WITCHSIGN.

Review

Where do I begin reviewing Stormtide. I have recently being doing a reread in preparation for the final book in the trilogy. I have been blown away. I mean I thought it was outstanding the first time I read it. However this reread has enabled to examine every aspect in more detail, and notice things that I missed the first time around. Den’s writing is spellbinding I felt as if I was exploring the story all over again for the first time. He drew me into the adventure with the same hunger I wanted to read my friends again. I still didn’t notice the twists coming.

Den’s writing allowed me to get lost. To go on multiple adventures with a cast of characters that when you finish reading them you have experienced every emotion. He did this to me twice. Whether it was through sailing with Romola. The baddest pirate in fantasy, who has an air of mystery, and sweetness that makes you want to stay with her longer, or Silverdust outsmarting everyone, to the hilarious personality of Tief. Every character has something to discover. I found myself crying, laughing, and dancing with joy as this little piece of heaven enabled me to escape 2020 for a few days.

What Den has been able to build in this second installment of the Ashen Torment series is nothing short of incredible. Some fantasy series can suffer a boring second book leading to disappointment. In this case its the total opposite. The second book takes this series to new heights going into places unexplored by fantasy. I know that is a bold claim, but I stand by it. I simply can’t remember the last time I was so connected to characters. I cared about all of them. Their stories made them feel like family. The reread was like an embrace from a long lost friend and I couldn’t wait to say hello again over a pint of ale or fighting side by side against a corrupt empire.

This book has it all. A subtle magic system, enchanted weapons, dragon riders, sexy pirates, smart mouthed mythical creatures, and tormented dragons that will have you running for the hills. If that doesn’t catch your attention then let me say this no character throughout the entire narrative lost my interest, and remember this was a reread. I knew what the book was about and still I went through the same breathtaking experience. Screw George RR. Martin. Ashen Torment blows him out the water. I know this, when the trilogy ends I am going to be a wreck. This second installment is a warm hug with a deadly kiss. Read it for yourselves and get lost in a world that you’ll never want to leave. Well Done Den. You get 5 stars. Thank you for my friends. Kimi forever.

Review of Knightmare Arcanist (Frith Chronicles Book 1) by Shami Stovall Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

Magic. Sailing. A murderer among heroes.

Gravedigger Volke Savan wants nothing more than to be like his hero, the legendary magical swashbuckler, Gregory Ruma. First he needs to become an arcanist, someone capable of wielding magic, which requires bonding with a mythical creature. And he’ll take anything—a pegasus, a griffin, a ravenous hydra—maybe even a leviathan, like Ruma.

So when Volke stumbles across a knightmare, a creature made of shadow and terror, he has no reservations. But the knightmare knows a terrible secret: Ruma is a murderer out to spread corrupted magic throughout their island nation. He’s already killed a population of phoenixes and he intends to kill even more.

In order to protect his home, his adopted sister, and the girl he admires from afar, Volke will need to confront his hero, the Master Arcanist Gregory Ruma.

A fast-paced fantasy with magical creatures for those who enjoy the Furies of Calderon (Codex Alera series) by Jim Butcher, Unsouled (Cradle Series) by Will Wight, and Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan.

Review

Today I am honoured to be part of the Knightmare Arcanist blog tour. Thanks to Dave for the invite.

I have to admit that YA fantasy isn’t something I normally read. The book itself begins on a small island filled with magical and mythical creatures that bond themselves to a select few. This enables the chosen ones to access their powers, and yield magic turning these individuals into Arcanists. This position is highly regarded within the fantasy society created within the book.

From the beginning of the book readers are shown the different class systems that exist upon the island. Unfortunately our main protagonist Volke falls into one of the lowest. A gravedigger. Smelling of the dead and covered in dirt he longs for a better life. He is also orphan who has been disowned by most of island’s population due to his parents shady past. We first meet him on a hillside overlooking the crystal blue sea digging a grave. He starts talking about how he will become an arcanist with his adopted sister Illia who herself has a dark past. How he will become a hero proving that he is not his father’s son. As I read this opening scene I was worried that this story was going down the same pathways as other YA that Volke would rise from his low status and bond with a phoenix fulfilling some untold destiny.

Phoenixes are one of the main mythical creatures used throughout the story. The main impact phoenixes have upon the island is every ten years several of them in a large ceremony select who they will give their magic too. However only those of privilege, and knowledge are allowed to enter the contest to try to win the phoniexes favour and yield their magic. The author does a wonderful job of showing this elite system without suffocating readers with info dumps. I couldn’t help but notice as I continued reading this system that it very much reflected our own world, where only a select few are given equal opportunities to succeed. This creates a major barrier for Volke to outcome. Unfortunately for Volke it all ends in humiliation. This twist was a nice change from the author on the usual story-line making you wonder how was it going to play out.

Volke on the other hand isn’t defeated. He will do anything to achieve his goal even if it means binding himself to a Knightmare. A dark and deceitful creature of terror and shadow. Leading him down a path that could destroy everyone’s existence. Because the Knightmare which he has bonded himself to, holds a secret that will put Volke in direct confrontation with his island’s founder Gregory Ruma.

This book has a lot of elements that draw you in. Mythical creatures different from the ones that you usually experience within the fantasy genre. An intriguing magic system that is subtlety woven into the narrative without the need for major info dumps which is always a major plus in any fantasy. These are the positive points of the book.

Unfortunately there were certain aspects I couldn’t engage with. Some of the characters were to one dimensional. What I mean by that is their actions were predictable. Too often falling into the well known troupes of YA that made me move away from the genre as I widen my reading tastes. Characters were to perfect. They didn’t reflect in my opinion how humans or creatures would behave in any walk of life. We all have flaws, insecurities, and bias that make us who we are. Informing our actions either good or bad. At times scenes seemed to easily resoluted with characters trusting one another far to easily. Unfortunately this made the scenes become unbelievable, and left them wide open for betrayal.

This book has a fast paced narrative with a well thought out magic system. This holds your interest during the narrative as you want to find out more. The book is great for helping clean the palate if you have been feasting on tomes of fantasy throughout lockdown. However if your looking for a complex plot, and characters with shades of grey in their personalities then this isn’t for you. A solid YA fantasy with interesting concepts. It receives 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of the book to be part of the blog tour. This doesn’t affect my views.

 

 

 

Review of MageBane By Stephen Aryan Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

MAGIC IS THE ONLY WEAPON AGAINST THE GODS

A plague rages in the streets of Perizzi. Guardians rally to deal with riots while apothecarists struggle to find a cure. The cult of Akosh has been decimated but there are many survivors in the north hungry for revenge.

Elsewhere, new alliances are formed to combat a deity who feeds on pestilence and decay. Gods, Sorcerers and Battlemages must set aside the past to work together – or risk unleashing greater suffering than they can possibly imagine . .

Review

After devouring the first two books in the Age of Dread trilogy, Mage-Born and Mage-Fall. I couldn’t wait for the climax in MageBane. In my opinion Stephen Aryan is one of the most underrated writers working in the fantasy genre today. Throughout this entire trilogy Stephen’s storytelling has become effortless.

I can’t get enough of the characters. Its extremely difficult to tell you which characters I enjoyed most as they all have characteristics I either adore or detest about them with it being the final book in this trilogy. We have some returning favourites from the Age of Darkness Trilogy which is set in the same world.

My personal favourite is the Sorcerer Balfruss. The reason being is because Stephen exposes us to more of Balfruss own insecurities challenging his ideology as he is forced to go against his once trusted friend Garvey, another sorcerer and his dispels who are causing havoc across the realm. As the story develops Stephen shows us both sides of Garvey. His motivations and why he has become disillusioned with his power. Plus he gives us an interesting perspective into Balfruss as he begins to re-evaluate his own position within a world that has changed from what he knows and values. This was one of the most intriguing aspects of the trilogy because both character arcs end with satisfying conclusions and showed that even the best of friends are sometimes faced with impossible choices.

What stood out in MageBane was that none of the arcs were shortchanged. The development of the rivalry between Munroe and Akosh is sublime. This toxic mixture of revenge is played out like an orchestra in harmony with both characters fighting their inner demons in a battle for survival. I simply couldn’t get over how well Stephen fleshed out this dual character arc that made it feel fresh and original. The final showdown between them is in my opinion one of the best scenes I have ever read. The tension and emotional intelligence that shone through in that moment left me in bits.

I was also continuously fascinated with the god Vargus and his budding relationship with Danolph. The warmth and curiosity that both characters showed to one another as they roamed the forgotten places of their world, allowed the reader to dive deep into both characters bringing a much needed tenderness to the narrative, enabling you to catch your breath but still be intrigued about the role they may play in what was to come.

I could go on forever about every character viewpoint as they all left an impression upon me as multiple threads were drawn to a close. However I can’t leave this review without giving a mention to the whirlwind that is Dox. A young orphan girl who ends up sticking to Munroe like glue. Her inclusion in this trilogy has been a joy. I couldn’t get enough of her humour which at times made my belly hurt as I laughed so hard. Her attitude is to die for. A delightful blend between fierce and vulnerability that means that Munroe gets away with nothing. I loved how Stephen developed the relationship between them. If you don’t cry during some of their interactions then simply you don’t have a heart. Dox forever I love her.

One of my favourite elements of this trilogy as it progressed was Stephen wasn’t afraid to destroy his world to capture a moment of sheer heartbreak for any of his main viewpoint characters. This is wonderfully illustrated in Magebane as he brings all the threads he has been setting up in the previous two books together to devastating affect. Taking us through a wave of emotions from the heartbreak of lost to the sweet taste of revenge. This trilogy has built upon the richness of the world that was first introduced to us in the Age Of Darkness, enabling readers to explore areas we were only given glimpses of in the previous books. Answering some long standing questions about much loved characters, as well as creating some equally fascinating new ones. I can’t recommend both series enough. MageBane was fitting end if it is to be the last time Stephen writes in this world. I will miss my friends but thank you Stephen for giving them to me. This trilogy is outstanding and to me you are one of the best writers working today. Thank you for the adventure I loved every moment.

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

 

Interview with KV Johansen Conducted by Dan Stubbings

Today I am delighted to welcome KV Johansen. Author of the Gods of Caravan Road Series for an interview on my blog.

DS: Thanks for being here KV. Its a pleasure to interview you.

KV: Thanks Dan. Its a pleasure to be here.

DS: Lets begin

DS: 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?

KV: I’m a Canadian with an academic background in Medieval Studies and English Literature. I started writing as a kid because I’d always been fascinated with language and with stories. I used to tell stories to my sisters; the natural progression was to start writing them down. They were always fantasy stories; I mostly read stories that were fantasy or had an historical setting (whether by virtue of being historical fiction, like Rosemary Sutcliff, or being stories of an earlier era, like Arthur Ransome), so fantasy seemed to be how I naturally expressed the stories I wanted to tell.

DS: Your dialogue is extremely rich. Do you plan the dialogue, or does it grow organically as you go?

KV: I don’t plan the dialogue in advance. It just flows out while I’m writing. Sometimes I’ll compose quite long bits in my head while I’m walking or driving, too, though once I get back to my computer and start writing them, they’ll shift and go in different directions as the larger story demands, but that’s not exactly planning that some particular characters are going to have a conversation that’ll do X or Y. For me, it’s important to have a good ear attuned to the way that the characters are speaking. They may use certain diction in specific situations, and another mode of speech entirely in a different circumstance or with different people. Speech seems to be part of shaping the character, when I write. I don’t consciously consider how a particular person’s way of speaking will reveal them; it seems to be a fundamental thing that happens naturally as the character grows. I suppose that goes back to this lifelong fascination with language. It’s like developing an ear for music — it’s been something in my head for so long I just do it.

DS: You have wrote stories for all ages from picture books to adult novels. What different challenges did each style of writing present? How did they make you grow as a writer?

KV: I find that remembering being someone of that age taking in stories really helps in hitting the right voice for the audience. In a way, it’s a case of writing for yourself at whatever age or reading level you’re feeling that a particular story is for — telling that past you a story you would have wanted. If you have that memory, it’s a huge help in keeping the tone you need, in remembering what matters and what doesn’t. If you write for the very young you who would have been delighted by “Pippin splashed in that puddle, splish! splash! splosh! until she was muddy from her great big ears to her curly black tail ..” rather than for some imagined adult gatekeeper, you’ll hit the right tone, rather than sounding arch and condescending, which is a pitfall potentially lying in wait for picture book writers.

I suppose one challenge in the children’s novels was that the Torrie books, but most especially my YA series Warlocks of Talverdin, kept edging towards something older and darker as time went on, because I although I had been writing adult fantasy all along, I wasn’t having any luck finding an agent or a publisher at that point in the late nineties and early 2000’s, and the desire to be working on that more kept leaking into other things I was working on, so that I had to keep reining in the complexity — not because children or teens couldn’t deal with it, but because no Canadian publisher was going to let me have that kind of length. It wasn’t what the market in Canada wanted at that time. It drove me to writing Blackdog, to be doing the kind of thing I needed to do that wasn’t able to find full expression in Canadian YA.

I think that in writing the Torrie books in particular, I was reminded of what really mattered to me in a story, and thinking about that consciously became something I could take into my writing for adults. Torrie, more than any other of my children’s books, was me writing for myself.

DS: Who were your writing influences growing up? Which writers would you encourage everyone to read and why?

KV: Tolkien was by far the biggest influence on me. His use of language, and the way the language shifts to suit the mood and the mode, really affected how I expected words to work. Other writers I read who were big influences on me would be Rosemary Sutcliff, Arthur Ransome, Eleanor Farjeon, Mary Stewart (her Merlin, not her romance-thrillers), and Alan Garner. Also, as a teen, Cherryh, McKillip, LeCarré, and Deighton.

I’d encourage everyone to read Sutcliff and Diana Wynne Jones. Sutcliff wrote historical fiction for young people, more often featuring youngish adults, not children or teens, and she took her characters through some pretty dark places in their lives. At least three of her books end with the hero’s self-sacrificial suicide or outright sacrifice, though usually she ends on a note of hope and the carrying on of light into the future, even in those. She wrote with an intense feeling of landscape and of people finding a connection with their land — the one to which they’d come, not necessarily the one in which they’d been born or grown up. She wrote about characters wounded, in body or spirit, who found a way to heal and survive and carrying something onwards into the future.

Diana Wynne Jones, on the other hand, is an author I never read as a child, though finding a blurb for The Ogre Downstairs in the back of some other book in the library (Garner, maybe) I wanted to. I never found a book by her until I was an adult researching the book I was writing on the history of children’s fantasy, which was when I bought and read them all. She was an incredible, awe-inspiring writer in her mastery of story, impossible to predict. She also wrote very complex psychology with incredible lightness of touch. It’s just there, in a way children perceive and understand without consciously thinking about it, and yet by showing these things, her books open up minds a little wider, shed a little light in dark places where you can start to see and think about things you might have been desperately needing to without anyone ever offering you the words. (I’m thinking of one of her more obscure books, The Homeward Bounders, here, and Jamie’s isolation and determination to do what needs to be done to keep his world safe. Or Christopher’s behaviour in The Lives of Christopher Chant and his growing self-awareness when he’s so close to becoming a terrible and dangerous person.) But she’s also very funny and mind-bogglingly inventive. Quite chilling, too, when she wanted to be — Time of the Ghost, for instance.

DS: Are you a plotter or discovery writer or a mixture of both? Which ever you chose what are the benefits of this, and what are the drawbacks if any?

KV: I usually start with a character in a situation and figure out the story as I go along — definitely a writer who has to discover the story along the way. That said, I’ve been trying to work it out more in advance for my next project. I work by writing until I grind to a halt, which usually mean the story has gone down the wrong path, backtracking to where it was working and then writing onwards from there again, so that by the time I get about half to two-thirds through, the first parts may have gone through  five, a dozen or more drafts. By half or two-thirds suddenly I can see everything, this synergy kicks in and its all there and I write the rest really quickly and have a quite polished final draft. However, there’s an awful lot of frustration along the way. I’ve hit twenty-five drafts for … I think it was Gods of Nabban. I’d have to look at my files to see; when I do a major ‘out of cheese error, redo from start’ thing (to steal a phrase from Pratchett) I renumber the file.

I’m not sure if trying to work out the general shape of it more in advance is really working for me or not. I still seem to have been writing and rewriting the start of the new project for endless months, with the variation that each time I do, I have to rewrite the outline as well. On the other hand, for my ‘lit’ project, a real world non-fantasy thing, I did have most of the story in my head before I started, and was able to write a sketchy outline of the structure and then sit down and write the book. It would be nice to take that approach into a fantasy novel, I think. But on the other hand, that was dealing with a clearly established world — Kingston in 2016. I didn’t need to invent it; I just had to make what already existed come alive. That exploration as I go way of writing is a huge part of how I make a world come alive in writing fantasy. I guess the approach that works for me is always going to be the metaphor of a path through the forest, or a tree growing, but I’d like to be able to bring a bit more outlining into it, to cut back on how many drafts I have to write to find my way to the end — to at least have a sketch map when I set out on the journey.

DS: Which characters do you enjoy writing and why?

KV: I  enjoy writing almost all my characters. I think maybe the two I love best to write are Ahjvar and Ghu — the way they interact and bring each other to life for me is something special, but two I particularly enjoyed in The Last Road were Yeh-Lin and Ailan. Yeh-Lin has such a zest for life; she’s been in the series since The Leopard but in The Last Road she really gets to shine, and to show what she’s made of. It was a chance to do her justice as a central figure at last, rather than as someone peripheral to Ghu’s story. Ailan is a new character; he comes in as the young, inexperienced person falling into a story where he’s surrounded by competent hero types, and he’s trying so hard to figure things out, to figure himself out, too. His story is really only just beginning at the end of the book. He’s also someone who brings a new perspective to Ahjvar, both as a point of view observing him, and as a way for me to show some of the changes that Ahjvar has gone through.

DS: Would you mind talking about your upcoming release The Last Road? The final book of the Gods of Caravan Road Series. What can we except no spoilers please?

KV: In The Last Road you can expect things to get darker. The stakes being played for may be the very existence of the gods. There’s an army of religious fanatics advancing on Marakand from out of the west, led by an incarnate god who, in contradiction to what everyone understands of the nature of the gods of the earth, is not bound to his land, and who is destroying the gods and goddesses of the lands he conquers as he comes. You’re going to find out more about the nature of the devils and the Old Great Gods and the relationship between them, and see all the non-human heroes of the previous books come together to stand against what looks like the ending of their world as they know it. You’ll meet some new mortal human characters, too, not just Ailan, whom I mentioned above, but the cowherd turned warrior Jolanan, and Nikeh, an orphan who survived the massacre of her village to be adopted as an apprentice scholar and spy by Yeh-Lin. And you’ll finally get to see what happens when Moth is pushed too far.

DS: Finally, what is next for KV Johansen?

KV: My next project is going to involve a much smaller map, not an entire continent, and a smaller cast of characters, but it will bring the same richness of character and world to its story. I’m hoping it will have a bit of the flavour of ancient legend in the background, vast forests with mysteries in the shadows, and the protagonists, not sure whether they’re the heroes or the villains of the tale, entangled in treason.

DS: Thanks so much KV for your fantastic answers I have really enjoyed interviewing you.

KV: Thanks for your wonderful questions Dan. I have loved being on your blog. Thanks for having me.

This interview was carried out over email. Thanks to KV for doing the interview providing such brilliant answers. I encourage everyone to read her work.

If you would like to learn more about KV and her books. Then why not check out these links below.

kv

K.V. Johansen
http://www.kvj.ca
http://www.pippin.ca
http://thewildforest.wordpress.com

https://twitter.com/KVJohansen

 

 

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.

Mantra-Cover-Front-V5-P2b

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.

cg

 

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.

city of Lies