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

Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Review of Gods of the Black Gate By Joseph Sale Written By Dan Stubbings

Review

Joseph has delivered a delightful mix of crime, weirdness, and futuristic literature which at times has you questioning your own consciousness, and deepest fears. The backdrop of Mars in this sci fi/crime masterpiece only helps to heighten the level of intrigue, as disturbing elements of the red planet are brought to life in breath-taking focus.

The story centres around detective Caleb Rogers who is made to relive one of the most horrific moments of his career. A psychotic murderer that he put away seven years ago has escaped from a maximum-security prison on Mars, and he is the only one who can catch him. This leads to a chase against time purging Caleb into levels of obsession where everything isn’t as it seems. As he goes in pursuit of Smiley he is forced to question everything he thought he knew about this demon from his nightmares, and risk everything for his own sanity. Multi -layer subplots help add a delicious ingredient to the dark undertones, making you wonder are they connected or are they separate from the torments Caleb is experiencing. Questioning his own sanity Caleb tries desperately to piece to together why this case has absorbed his life, and who are the Gods of Black Gate? Are they mysterious beings or a cult which this twisted tale seems destined to encounter.

One of the high points for me about this novel is the way in which Joseph has been able to weave such complexity into his characters. Taking you through every spectrum of the human condition anger, despair, obsession, insanity and all that is in between. By the time you have finished, you feel as though your brain has been torn in two. Due to the vivid imagery, and detailed backdrops in which our characters walk.

This dark and experimental masterpiece has all the hallmarks of a weird noir, or grim-dark crime, and reminds me of China Mieville, and Philip K Dick taking your mind through a hypnotising dance as you fight to understand its warped ways. Its receives 4 stars a highly accomplished read.

I received an advance review copy from the author this didn’t effect my views.

Review of Mageborn by Stephen Aryan Written by Daniel Stubbings

Book Synopsis

Thousands died when mages sundered the earth and split the sky.
It was a war that devastated entire kingdoms.
Now one man believes eradicating magic is the only way to ensure a lasting peace. He and his followers will do anything to achieve his goal – even if it means murdering every child born with the ability.

Review

A riveting tale of mystery, intrigue, and at times mind-blowing scale, is what Stephen Aryan delivers in the first of a brand series Mageborn. Set in the same world as his Age of Darkness trilogy, Stephen weaves a complex tale of character driven fantasy always leaving you wanting more. This book was one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and I am glad to say it hasn’t disappointed.

I love the world of Age of Darkness the magic system, characters, environments, and sensory detail stayed with me long after I had finished reading the books. This book adds further to this grand world, providing us with new storylines on characters we were only shown glimpses of in the previous series to peak our interest, as well as revealing some secrets on returning characters such as my favourites Balfruss and Eloise.

This story is set 10 years after the war has taken place after the Warlock was defeated. The mysterious Red Tower has returned run by the Grey Council of Balfruss, Eloise, and Garvey helping to train children who develop the ability to use the source the well of all magic in the world. However, all isn’t running smoothly with growing fear of magic increasing everyday due to the rallying cries of soldiers, under the guidance of the complex Habreel, and mysterious Akosh who is she really? Leading to chaos throughout the West, and other countries as seekers the gold mask wearing mages tasked by the Grey Council, and the Red Tower, to discover children with the gift are attacked. Leading to witch hunts resembling the Salem witch trials, and Medieval England which I couldn’t help noticing as an influence within this story, as the fear and paranoia increases throughout the narrative all magic is threatened. Forcing our characters to make some difficult choices how will it all end?

The story is told from several points of view, giving a wider insight into the world which Stephen has created and allows threads to flow more naturally enabling a fast pace to be maintained. Resulting in epic fight scenes, and snappy dialogue which doesn’t slow down as you frantically turn the page to keep up. Stephen really does put the epic in epic fantasy.

Some of the characters I enjoyed most were Wren a young girl who is from the strict country of Drassia. Where girls are expected to conform, and respect their elders, and when their ability to access the source develops are sent straight to the Red Tower and can’t return home. The reason why I found her to be such an intriguing character, is because at the beginning she is shy just wanting to learn, trying to fit in, and make friends, which she does in the shape of Tianne a sweet timid girl who never says a bad word about anybody, and Danolph who unbeknown to them holds a talent which could impact on them all. However, this all changes when she is attacked by the school bully, displaying a power over the source which causes other students to respect her, and poses questions what can she see within the source, and what does she do that others don’t? You can’t help but fall in love with her vulnerability, and her determination as the story progresses. Forcing her to make some decisions which impact upon her present and her future.

The other character which will draw me back for the next book is Munroe. A powerful battlemage who has a complicated past, and is extremely protective of her family her son Sam, and her mercenary husband Choss.  Choss is another character which Stephen has developed which has me wondering. what did he used to be? As well the way in which Stephen leaves his story in this first installment, tore at my emotions in a way I haven’t experienced with most support characters recently in my fantasy reads. I must know what happens next because trust me it is one hell of a cliff-hanger.

However, getting back to the Munroe the reason why I think she was the one character I raced ahead during the book, so I could read her chapters. Is because of her diversity. She isn’t like most females I read in fantasies. She is a badass with magic, and hot headed which we have seen a lot in fantasy, but what makes her standout in my eyes, is that Stephen has written her with a delicacy and vulnerability which draws you in and makes you follow his cleverly written clues about her hidden past, as well as highlighting her frustrations about her abilities, and trust issues as she goes on missions for the Red Tower. Leading us as readers down many paths asking us who will she discover, and what will she hide to protect what she loves? I loved her such a strong focal point.

This book poses many questions for further additions to this already widespread world. If you love your fantasy to have well structured magic systems, strong female and male characters, mysterious towers, and more subplots than you can count. Then pick up this book a powerful addition to the fantasy genre a 5 star read.

 

Review of How to Stop Time By Matt Haig Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

HOW MANY LIFETIMES DOES IT TAKE TO LEARN HOW TO LIVE?

Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old history teacher, but he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz-Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen it all. As long as he keeps changing his identity he can keep one step ahead of his past – and stay alive. The only thing he must not do is fall in love . .

My Review

This opening paragraph. “I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong. I am old- old in a way that a tree, or a quahog clam or a Renaissance painting is old.” Is all you need to know to make you read on in this astonishing book. It takes you right in opening your mind to endless possibilities. I couldn’t stop reading after those first few sentences.

I must admit that when I first heard about this book. I was afraid it would be another Interview with a Vampire, detailing the exploits of some tormented immortal as they watch the eons of time take hold. However, I was wrong Haig has been able to put his own spin on immortality. Now this doesn’t mean that Tom Hazard our main protagonist is immune from tragedies as his life unfolds. Some of the most emotional scenes involve heartache and pain for Tom. Watching his mother drown for witchcraft, his one true love dying of plague, and the constant trauma throughout the narrative of his missing daughter Marion. Not to mention the subplot of Tom’s involvement with a shady secret society known as Albatross, run by a mysterious figure called Hendrich who wants to help Tom find his daughter but is he a friend or foe?

The way in which Matt Haig can explore the human condition in its various forms is utterly astounding. Asking us as readers the question are we really this self-absorbed, and what really defines a twenty first century individual? As I read I began to question everything I see as important within my life in a positive light. This passage sums it up perfectly. “We are made to feel poor on thirty thousand pounds a year. To feel poorly travelled if we have been to only ten other countries. To feel too old if we have a wrinkle. To feel ugly if we aren’t photo-shopped and filtered”. The words just seemed to stay with me making me want to explore his writing in more depth.  I just loved how Matt was able to add these everyday issues into this genre expanding book.

As the story progressed the images Matt was able to implant into my imagination gave this story new life. As I was taken on a rip-roaring tour of the roaring twenties from high class jazz bars, and swinging piano jigs, onto the globe of Shakespearean England and an enticing tale with literacy genius William Shakespeare himself, before taking us back to modern day London in all its splendour as Tom goes through the perils of being a history teacher. The assault of colour, voices, and themes, just rifled off the page pulling me along for the ride.

This book has it all love, romance, torment, torture, time travel, murder, secret societies and an examination of the human condition in all its forms. My advice: When you pick up this book make sure you haven’t got work in the morning, because you’re not putting it down until dawn is breaking through your curtains it is that good. 5 stars. Well done Mr Haig well done sir indeed.

 

Review of Book of Dust Volume One: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman Written by Daniel Stubbings

My Review

In September the highly anticipated prequel to the masterpiece His Dark Materials trilogy was released. Book of Dust: LA Belle Sauvage. A social media frenzy ensued with people rushing out to buy their copy, hungry to discover how Lyra became the heroine we all remember from our childhood.  I was one of them racing home from work to my pre-ordered copy waiting in my mailbox. Opening the cover with glee as I was plunged back into the parallel world of Oxford and the sensory delights which in my opinion only Philip Pullman can deliver. Unfortunately, I was left feeling underwhelmed.

The main reason being I struggled to engage with the protagonist Malcolm. Forcing myself through chapters I became increasingly frustrated with the character Pullman had created. He just couldn’t stir the emotions needed to make me care about Malcolm’s story. As chapters unfolded I found myself rooting for the villain Bonneville, as an intriguing dark side was revealed to the reader. Begging to be explored by Pullman in more detail, and feeding my imagination on how Bonneville and his deformed daemon would impact so heavily on Lyra’s early life. I would have liked more scenes from his viewpoint as I felt this would have greatly improved major elements within the book. However, when it came to Malcolm for me he lacked development and just felt to overdone within modern-day fantasy. What I mean by this is the typical story of an ordinary boy having their life turned upside down by some unexpected magical power or adventure. Usually I enjoy this. Unfortunately for me Malcolm just didn’t have the uniqueness or magic system I need to make me read on with wide-eyed amazement, leaving me feeling deflated as his preteen adventures developed.

Now don’t get me wrong some chapters are wonderfully written. Giving us unique insight into why the story has taken a certain turn. The enchanted island and the League of St Alexander, being good examples of two chapters which will bring about a lot of discussion from readers on how this will impact on Lyra in the long-term, and raises several questions into the current political climate within our own world. I also enjoyed the development of daemon relationships, between Asta and Ben. Who are Malcolm’s and his companion Alice’s daemons, allowing us to explore the rules of these creatures in more detail.

What lets it down for me is a lack of direction. To long is spent on them floating in a boat as they attempt to escape the flood, with nothing happening but changing nappies and being soaked to the bone. As well I just didn’t enjoy how much-loved characters from the original trilogy are portrayed. A perfect example being Lord Asriel. In this book we see him holding Lyra as a baby on a moonlight walk around a nunnery, being a protective and dedicated father coming to Malcolm’s aid on several occasions. This is in complete contrast to the cold-hearted and at times almost sadistic figure from His Dark Materials, making it for me unbelievable.

Now it may just be that this is the first book in a new series, and my exceptions were too high with all the hype. Of which I am hoping as I adore the original series. I would give this one a 3.5, as I do like the secret organisations and conspiracies which are alluded to in many chapters. Enabling this series to have a more teen/adult feel to it. Unfortunately, this just wasn’t for me hoping for better in book two.