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.

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Review of In the Vanishers Palace by Aliette De Bodard Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Blurb:

In a ruined, devastated world, where the earth is poisoned and beings of nightmares roam the land… 

A woman, betrayed, terrified, sold into indenture to pay her village’s debts and struggling to survive in a spirit world.

A dragon, among the last of her kind, cold and aloof but desperately trying to make a difference.

When failed scholar Yên is sold to Vu Côn, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Côn’s amusement.

But Vu Côn, it turns out, has a use for Yên: she needs a scholar to tutor her two unruly children. She takes Yên back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death. Vu Côn seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yên comes to see her kinder and caring side. She finds herself dangerously attracted to the dragon who is her master and jailer. In the end, Yên will have to decide where her own happiness lies—and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Côn’s dark, unspeakable secrets…

Review

After discovering Aliette’s The Tea Master and the Detective this year I have been on a one man mission to read as much of her work as possible. So I was absolutely thrilled to receive a early review copy of her new novella In the Vanishers Palace. A dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast with an interesting twist the beast is a shape-shifting female dragon one of the last of its kind. I couldn’t wait to dive into this fast moving narrative.

When Yen is sold to one the last remaining dragons in her world Vu Con. She expects the worse, unexpectedly however she is tasked with tutoring Vu’s two unruly children, as time passes Yen finds herself developing feelings she never expected for Vu as more of Vu’s personality is revealed to her these feelings deepen. I adored how Aliette developed the relationship between Yen and Vu Con. Showing that even though Vu is a dragon she still struggles with secrets, and a longing to be accepted in her world. As the story unfolds Vu becomes almost human in our eyes making us wonder what truly is a monster? You cant help but begin to root for Yen’s and Vu’s relationship as you become engrossed in this charming tale these scenes come to life like a movie reel inside your head.  You can imagine every second of their interactions. My words simply cant do them justice. Please pick up the book, and appreciate them for yourself they are stunning bravo Aliette. 

The blending of Vietnamese myths within the narrative only further heightens the enjoyment as you read on with ravish. It may only be 145 pages in length but Aliette has been able to craft a wide spanning world that ensnares the senses, enabling her to expose both light and dark details of this dystopian world with a sensitivity that is quite simply astonishing. I loved the description of Vu Con’s lair as it grew within my mind every detail building on the last, becoming so vivid I felt as though I could almost reach out and touch it.  This book is a must read for writers wanting to learn how to write LGBT characters in a sensitive, and unpatronising way that gives real weight to the characters, and pushes the narrative forward. 

It receives 5 stars as Aliette’s writing continues to leave me wanting more. All I can say is buy it you won’t regret it.

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

 

Review of Lancelot by Giles Kristian Written By Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

The legions of Rome are a fading memory. Enemies stalk the fringes of Britain. And Uther Pendragon is dying. Into this fractured and uncertain world the boy is cast, a refugee from fire, murder and betrayal. An outsider whose only companions are a hateful hawk and memories of the lost.

Yet he is gifted, and under the watchful eyes of Merlin and the Lady Nimue he will hone his talents and begin his journey to manhood. He will meet Guinevere, a wild, proud and beautiful girl, herself outcast because of her gift. And he will be dazzled by Arthur, a warrior who carries the hopes of a people like fire in the dark. But these are times of struggle and blood, when even friendship and love seem doomed to fail.

The gods are vanishing beyond the reach of dreams. Treachery and jealousy rule men’s hearts and the fate of Britain itself rests on a sword’s edge.
But the young renegade who left his home in Benoic with just a hunting bird and dreams of revenge is now a lord of war. He is a man loved and hated, admired and feared. A man forsaken but not forgotten. He is Lancelot.

Set in a 5th century Britain besieged by invading bands of Saxons and Franks, Irish and Picts, Giles Kristian’s epic new novel tells – in Lancelot’s own words – the story of the most revered yet reviled of all Arthur’s knights, the warrior who fought at his lord’s side – yet stole his wife. This is the story of the of one of the great figures of British myth and legend – a story ready to be re-imagined for our times.

My Review

After reading and watching countless material on the King Arthur legend. I was intrigued to see what new insight Giles Kristian would bring in his new release Lancelot. I am pleased to report that he hasn’t disappointed, breathing fresh air into a tale that is as old as the British Isles themselves.

The focus on Lancelot’s early life is what held my attention throughout this book. Giles has been able to write really interesting threads regarding Lancelot’s upbringing, and personality. Which gripped my attention in ways that I hadn’t encountered from previous works on Lancelot and Arthur.

This enabled me as a reader to reassess my previous conclusions about Lancelot, and explore his character with fresh eyes that forced me to see the man instead of the legend. I found this incredibly satisfying, and found myself becoming more emotionally invested in Lancelot as a character than I had previously when reading his legend. As the story progressed I was pleased to see Giles move away from the traditional narrative of Lancelot. His scandalous affair with Guinevere that destroyed his relationship with Arthur, and almost Camelot.

Instead Giles has chosen to examine sides of him that normally wouldn’t come into consideration. This change in narrative has allowed Giles to take us on a journey through Lancelot’s  tortured past. Giving the reader insight into his training, his relationship with his father, his time living with a certain individual called Merlin. As well as his nurturing of a hawk that he is grossly unprepared for.

Some highly emotional, and beautifully written scenes from Giles within the book occurred when Lancelot was developing his bond with the hawk. Training it to become a vicious friend who he could never be parted. Giles has a way of making even the most simple scene come to life, slowly drawing you in, making you lower your guard, before ripping apart your soul at a later date. When I finished I felt I had run five marathons back to back it is that intense.

Of course Arthur is mentioned. You couldn’t have one without the other. However even in the scenes with Arthur at no point do you get the feeling that he is the main focus. Giles keeps your mind firmly fixed on Lancelot. By creating more mystery within his character, making you wonder who truly was the man we know as Lancelot? And could he actually be real?

This enthralling book moves at a delicious pace hitting the reader with a buffet of sensory delights from vivid fight scenes, shipwrecks, and characters that burn into your soul.  You hear every clash of swords, smell the richness of the blood, taste the bitterness of the sea as it hits your lips, feel the pain and anguish that Lancelot goes through, and visualise the harshness of the land in which our characters walk.  The writing is food for the soul. It  seems to sing off the page, as you race to keep up, and discover how the boy became the legend in all his gory detail. This is a historical epic at its finest perfect for fans of Ben Kane, and Bernard Cornwell. 5 Stars.

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

 

Review of Tales from the Shadow Booth Volume 2 Edited By Dan Coxon Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis 

The booth juts at an angle from the sand, the canvas taut beneath the weight of the drifting dunes. Janet almost passes it by. But it’s the sign that snags her attention. Painted in rust-red onto three pieces of driftwood, the sun-bleached planks lashed together with lengths of twisted blond twine, it looks surprisingly fresh. Enter the Shadow Booth, it says, and you will never be the same again.
The Shadow Booth, a journal of weird and eerie fiction, returns for Volume 2! Drawing its inspiration from the likes of Thomas Ligotti and Robert Aickman, The Shadow Booth explores that dark, murky hinterland between mainstream horror and literary fiction.
Volume 2 contains new stories by: 

Chikodili Emelumadu
Dan Grace
Kirsty Logan
Johnny Mains
Ralph Robert Moore
Mark Morris
Gareth E. Rees
Giovanna Repetto
George Sandison
Anna Vaught
Aliya Whiteley

Enter the Shadow Booth, and you will never be the same again…
Review

This collection of dark and eerie tales from several contemporary and diverse writers is a readers dream. Once I started reading I couldn’t put it down. Every story has its own uniqueness that draws you in and forces you to keep reading with each one seeming to build upon the last.

Three stories from the collection that stood out for me were:

We Are the Disease by Gareth Rees. An eerie tale set abroad a ship trapped in the Arctic ice. As more crew members become effected by their isolation they begin to see and witness strange creatures and behaviours. Throughout the story Gareth had me on the edge of my seat making me wonder is this real, or is it the crew giving into their basic fears, which is making them create these sightings. Throughout the entire story your never quite sure what is the disease? Gareth’s voice and writing style is simply gripping. I could almost feel my fingers burning as I turned pages racing to finish.

The next was My Father’s Face by Giovanna Repetto. A tale about a man who has lost his memory and how he fights to get it back. As the story unfolds however we begin to question is this person trustworthy, and what are they hiding. It moves at a neck-breaking speed and makes you question everything you thought you knew about family. It was my favourite story in the collection. The voice is so unique. I want to read more by this author I loved it.

The final story was Feasting;Fasting by Anna Vaught. A story featuring elements of tradition horror and supernatural. A strange house, an unusual family, and a small village with a story to tell at no point does Anna give away who they are, what they are, and why they are there. She allows you as a reader to draw your own conclusions, and decide for yourself who these people are, and what their story is. It is a totally different take on the haunted house narrative.

This book has something for everyone. Unique writing styles, cultures, and author voices that make it stand out from the crowd. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys the weird and wonderful. The three stories I selected are only glimpse of what awaits. Go and check it out. It gets four stars. It is a highly polished read.

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

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 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.