Black Heart – by Mark Smylie (Full Book Review)

The Barrow #2 / Black Heart Omnibus #1-3

High Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Self-Published; March 2, 2022

1124 pages (ebook)

Part 1: GoodreadsStoryGraph
Part 2: GoodreadsStoryGraph
Part 3: Goodreads
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9 / 10 ✪

Please beware spoilers for the Barrow.

‘ For in the Middle Kingdoms, the clothes made the man, or the woman, or the woman into a man.

The Barrow of Azharad has been opened, and the famed sword Gladringer found. But for the survivors, there is no rest. Stjepan and Erim travel to Devil’s Tower in search of Gause Three-Penny, and are confronted by the terrible demon that lives within. Something so ancient and cruel to be beyond their worth—except for the sword of legend that one now carries. The sword that, when it kills, echoes a bell toll across the land.

A toll that has now sounded. And the land itself takes pause to listen.

But it turns out that neither gold nor glory led Gause and his crew into Devil’s Tower. Instead, it was the rumor of Nameless: the followers of the devil himself, and the dark pantheon around him. For the Nameless presence is more profound in the Middle Kingdoms than it has been for centuries, and the cults have had their fingers in seemingly every attempt to return the Devil itself, Nymarga, to the world.

But where some like the Black College are more benign, other cults like the Azharaites have their own worries. For example, a never-ending train of human flesh to sustain them. Human flesh that must come from somewhere, be supplied by someone—something Gause and his crew would very much like to know.

While Erim heads north with Gause to flush out the Nameless, Stjepan is summoned back to the capital, where already lords are gathering for war. The seasonal campaign to flush the Rebel Earl from the depths of Manon Mole has arrived, and Black-Heart’s services as the king’s cartographer are required. Though who can say whether or not this campaign will prove any more successful than that of the year before, or whether the Earl’s rebellion will balloon into a full-blown civil war.

Annwyn is a lady no more. Instead, having taken Azharad’s power for herself, she sets up in the Black Tower, overlooking the barrow itself, where she waits for the world to acknowledge her. Only… the lords of the west seems to have some odd opinions about their new neighbor. Rumor is, that Azharad has risen again, and returned to his throne. Something that Annwyn knows is impossible, as she subsumed the sorcerer herself. And yet there’s a confidence to his followers when they proclaim this, even when to her face, that leaves Annwyn cold, and just a bit… uncertain.

Something is happening in the Middle Kingdoms, something that will change the course of history, turning one age into another. But will it be an Age of Gold or an Age of Blood?

’ The thing that sits Azharad’s throne may call itself another name, wear [another face] as a mask, but the thing itself is Azharad. It commands in Azharad’s name. It rules in Azharad’s court. It wants what Azharad wants. ‘

Divided into three parts, each self-published by the author as each part was finished, Black Heart came together over the course of two years. While it can certainly be read in one, at 1124 pages, it’s a bit of a brick, albeit one split in three. Black Heart begins right where The Barrow leaves off, with the survivors of the Barrow of Azharad coming back to civilization. From here it’s a slow build turning to a slow burn, until everything gets rolling and the Nameless mystery unfolds before us.

Deep and immersive, practically drowning in history and lore, Black Heart is both an amazing read and the perfect example on how to build a fantasy world. The world of Artesia has been constructed over the course of twenty years by Mark Smylie, through the Artesia graphic novels, corresponding RPG, and more recently the pair of fantasy books. It’s a dense, incredibly well-built world, consisting of far more than just the Middle Kingdoms, where most of the first two stories take place.

Fresh off a reread of the Barrow, it took me little time at all to get back into the world of the Middle Kingdoms. There are several threads in play—one surrounding the Nameless, another the Rebel Earl, the third the pursuit of fortune, the fourth that of newfound freedom, oh, and the fate of the Middle Kingdoms themselves—each of which come together and split apart before finally building up once more at the close, revealing the mystery in full. While a bit slow at first, it slowly drank me in, especially once the second and third acts come around. Indeed, by the time I got to the third part, I was completely immersed, able to focus only on this story and no other.

I have two minor issues with Black Heart, then I’ll go back to raving wildly about it. The first is the most noticeable: it’s definitely self-published. I mean, the punctuation and language are great, but sometimes you’ll see things you wouldn’t in other traditionally published novels, such as the repeating of a term in its own definition, or a non-menial word two or more times in a single sentence. The length is also a noticeable factor. That is, while the Barrow had certain instances dedicated to lore, in Black Heart they’re all over the place. For the most part this didn’t bother me as it was just part of the world itself playing out. I felt as if events were playing out before my eyes, rather than a storyteller being asked for “just the facts and vital bits, please”.

The other issue is the inclusion of Artesia. Now, if you’ve read the graphic novels (which I have not) you might be aware that her inclusion is building towards something (as these novels serve as a prelude to the Artesia series). I assume that it will build up to the point at which Artesia’s own story begins in full, but in this story her role is… minimal. In all honesty, I’m not sure she adds to it at all—though I suppose I could be proven wrong come Book #3, when it all comes together. Instead, they seem to be just an excuse for the author to revel in hedonism, graphic sex, and cultural orgies.

As I said, neither of these complaints is very big, and both fail to detract from the plot as a whole.

A wizard can be into places at once; that’s what makes them a wizard.

It’s a magic sword. If it made sense, it wouldn’t be a magic sword.


The original, Pyr teaser artwork.

While I had two minor issues with Black Heart, and neither detract from the story at large. They mostly come down to self-publishing editing and what all should be included in the book. But the rest of the tale… no complaints. At Stormlight Archive-length—1124 pages, not including afterwords, forewords, notes, and glossaries—the thing is a doorstop. But a damned good doorstop at that. Simply, the plot is amazing. The world is amazing. The world-building is amazing. The level of immersion is amazing. The pacing is a bit off at times, but mostly measured throughout. I know this isn’t going to make complete sense, but even the white-knuckle parts are measured. Simply, Black Heart is an amazing addition to the series, and—while it might take you some time to get through it all—it was time that I never once regretted, and money well spent. I only hope that the author finds an outlet for the novel soon, and that the Bright Sword doesn’t have to wait another two years.

Notes: This is not a family book. Seriously, there’s too much graphic sex, graphic violence, graphic language, and then other things that aren’t only for mature audiences that I feel probably should be. If you’ve read The Barrow—it’s more of that. If you haven’t read the Barrow, or Artesia, or played the RPG—maybe do that first? At least one of those, preferably. I’ve only read Book #1, so that’s what I’d recommend, but hey, you do you.

The Sword Defiant – by Gareth Hanrahan (Review)

Art by Thea Dumitriu

Lands of the Firstborn #1

High Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Orbit Books; May 2, 2023

550 pages (paperback)

Author WebsiteSocials

7.75 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted a copy of this book in return for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit Books for the lovely ARC! All opinions are my own.

Years ago, Sir Aelfric (Alf) and the rest of the Nine saved the world, cutting down the nefarious Lord Bone and wresting away control of the dread city of Necrad. Only one of the Nine was lost that day—the only noble among them, the one most likely to lead.

In his place, the remaining heroes divvied up responsibilities, with Alf taking it upon himself to make sure the land remained free—patrolling the city’s catacombs, killing the foul monsters that grew from the pits within—with the help of his magic blade, a sword forged by the same dark lord he cut down.

Olva is Aelfric’s sister. When her boy, Derwyn, sets off for Necrad to seek his fortune like his famed uncle, she is desperate to stop him. So desperate that she’ll trust a wanderer to guide her there. She vows to bring her boy home, and kill anything that gets in her way.

Summoned by one of his friends, Alf is warned of a darkness once more looming over the land. But the source of it is the real issue. For rather than a monster from without, this shadow comes from within. From a place only the Nine know. Alf is peerless at killing monsters, but how will he handle one of his supposed friends?

From his city of Necrad, Lord Bone sent forth an evil host to despoil the land. Doom was at hand.

Nine arose in answer. Elf and Dwarf, Men of Summerswell and the Northern Wild, heroes all. Know them now, for their names shall never be forgotten.

Thurn the Wilder, Lath the Beast,

Gundan of the Dwarfholt, Laerlyn of the Everwood,

Blaise the Scholar, Jan the Pious, Berys the Rootless,

Aelfric Bonebreaker, ever faithful.

First among them, Peir the Paladin, Peir the Peerless.

It was Peir who gathered them and Peir who led them.

And at the last, it was Peir who died for them.

*Quote above taken from the ebook, published edition. I maaaay have edited it slightly, as one of the Nine was kinda overlooked. Oops.

I’ve been trying to think of a good description for the genre of the Sword Defiant and mostly been coming up empty. It’s like the traditional high fantasy of Tolkien, with elves and men and dwarves and such, but with the grittiness of dark fantasy thrown in. It’s also what I’d call D&D inspired, with its adventure and monsters and battles. It’s certainly not a new genre, but enough of a mashup of different ones that I have trouble classing it.

This is my first book by the author and I have to admit I’m a little impressed. I mean, it wasn’t a perfect book by any means, but writing is hard. Writing a good, coherent book is hard. While this is far from the author’s first attempt (let alone his first published book), it’s still good to know that there’s a lot out there to explore in case you fancy a trip outside your comfort zone.

I was a big fan of the setting and world-building. The world is well-thought out and executed, deep in its history and lore, and a perfect backdrop for the plot. A fair few years prior, a group of heroes set out to save the world. Though “save” is a matter of debate depending on which side one was on. While the shadow (as it were) doesn’t get a POV in this story, they do have a voice—their troubles and hardships and, to an extent, point-of-view is related through the progression of the tale, to the extent that we are confronted with the difficult question of whether or not the world was actually saved at all.

The characters are… well, a mixed bag. Initially I found Aelfric and Olva a bit shallow and generic. But after quite a bit of journeying and adventure (and since they’re really the only two POVs we have), I did warm up a bit …to Alf. Olva I found to be little more than a mother on a quest to find her son. Which is fine, but that’s it. No other motivations or thoughts. Just a little one-sided. I understand the impulse and the marketability of this. I mean, how many Taken films were there? That being said, at the conclusion of the story that’s all I thought of Olva. As a grieving mother—full stop. Alf showed a bit more depth throughout, but really didn’t come across well. The reluctant hero thing usually comes across pretty well, but it kinda fell flat here. Yes, he puts his trust fully in his friends, which is admirable. But then he hasn’t seen many of them for years—and people change. Plus he knew from the outset that at least one of them was responsible for the looming darkness but it doesn’t change his actions AT ALL. The rest of the heroes are a similar mixed bag. Some show depth and change, others… not so much.

The story itself was interesting, conclusion good, writing itself pretty solid throughout. All in all the Sword Defiant was a good read, but never blew me away. I liked the premise of sentient weapons—a bit like the Seven Swords, by Anthony Ryan—but I wasn’t wowed by the execution of this premise. Alf spends most of the book refusing to converse with his blade, ruining the possible back-and-forth that Guyime and his demon have going for them. Not a bad first effort, though, and I’m definitely interested in where the series will go from here.

March’s End – by Daniel Polansky (Review)


Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Angry Robot; May 9, 2023

400 pages (ebook)

Author WebsiteSocials

I was kindly granted a copy of this book in return for an honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot for the lovely ARC! All opinions are my own.

6.5 / 10 ✪

The Harrows are your typical suburban family. They’re your lawyers, your landscapers, your teachers, your postal workers, your drug-dealers, your students, your friends, your neighbors—everyone you know and love, and everyone you love to hate. They throw the best parties and have place family above all else.

Behind the veil that separates this world from the next, the Harrows rule and protect the March, a kingdom of a thousand peoples—animate toys, sentient lichen, giant snails, anthropomorphic bees, terrestrial nautili, savage wilders, and so many others. Though none can tell you how or why or when they discovered the March, the Harrows have ruled and defended the land for generations, uniting it under a single rule. At a certain age, all Harrows come to the March—and make their place in it.

In the past, the March saw all Harrows make their way through the kingdom, but in the modern day, the clan only consists of two: matriarch Sophia, and her heir-apparent, Constance. Yet two more Harrows exist and have visited the March, but have long since ceased their involvement in such matters; the rebellious Mary Ann, and black-sheep John. However, when Sophia lies on her deathbed, and the March is in danger, all the siblings must return to the fold to defend it. And to uncover the horrible truth lurking in its history.

Each sibling is in it for their own reasons, but all are after the power at the heart of the March, putting them all in competition for its crown. First, however, they must unite to save it. After all, The End is coming, and it will not be stopped by anything less than a miracle.

‘ To love someone is to want them so bad that you would swallow them and carry them in your stomach rather than have them ever go away. ‘

March’s End is one of your old-fashioned through-the-looking-glass fantasies, a world where the rules regarding entry are loose and the bloodlines that govern it are a family affair. It is very much like a dark glimpse into Narnia at its lowest; a place where children go to grow up quickly, not a world where children learn through adventures and friendship. John hasn’t returned to the March since he was a child, Mary Ann since the incident that has defined her entire life. Both have their reasons, and both have avoided the realm to make their way in the real world.

Not that their lives are any better for it. One is borderline delusional, the other an addict flirting with suicide. Constance is the only constant—who stayed when her family needed her, the heir-apparent, who has thrown away her entire life (and marriage) for service to the March. As characters, each is flawed in their own (human) way. Such is each intriguing in their own right. Though some are more resistant than others, all eventually come back to the fold when their mother falls ill. And all return to the March. Constance is known, loved and feared in equal measure, the March’s protector and champion. John is the wildcard—possessed of a strange magic that lets him wield darkness as a cloak. And Mary Ann couldn’t stay away even if she wanted, coming and going from the March practically at will—but even worse, involuntarily, sleeping and waking, at all hours and for any reason. They make for an interesting mix, each bringing a different approach to the same problem.

March’s End is told in two parts: one, in the present day, 2023; the other starting in 2000 and continuing to jump forward through the Harrow children from there on. In general, this made for a rather dry opening, though matters do quickly heat up. Not everything in either timeline involves the March. There are parties to attend, schoolwork to do, jobs and lives and relationships to maintain. We catch glimpses of the outside world and its (mostly vague, unimportant) residents. We focus on their outside lives at first, Mary Ann and John especially. We accompany the children on their introductions to the March, and see the place through their eyes. In addition to them, however, we also gain the insight of Sophia’s husband, brother, and mother from the histories, before coming back to the present to see just how that certain fallout has affected their lives, and the world of the March.

As a kind of dark Narnia, March’s End works quite well—until it doesn’t.

See, imagine trying to distill the magic of C.S. Lewis into a single entry—one not even 500 pages at that. Now imagine trying to put your own personal spin on that, again without lengthening the book at all. Sounds kinda hard, right? I mean, to tell a story under such restraints, you’d have to gloss over… kind of a lot. Which we definitely do. From the inner workings of the March to its boundaries, from even the most basic descriptions of its denizens to the first thing about its ancient evil. Really any kind of pre-2000 history, like, at all. And if you thought the buildup was a bit light on material, the afterword isn’t any better. Let’s say the ancient evil is defeated—well, how? And what was it, anyway? You’d think we would learn at some point. Okay, so let’s say the evil fully engulfs the land, driving the Harrows from it. What then? What’s next for a family torn between worlds, a family that apparently knows know other existence? Again, you’d think we’d find out, but we don’t. Obviously, only one of these comes to pass—and as a dark fantasy, it really could be either one. But the amount of detail the reader receives upon completion of the plot leaves quite a lot to be desired.

It took me a little to get into the the story, but once I did—while disappointed by the overall world-building and lack of lore behind it—I managed to get relatively invested in the tale. But come the end, we are given a skeleton crew, the rough designs for a dhow, and told to sail into the setting sun. Quickly. While the story does technically fulfill its brief, it is only very brief in its fulfillment—and ends up leaving a bitter taste even weeks after completion. There’s just so very little that we’re granted, instead allowed to draw our own conclusions—more forced to draw our own conclusions about so many things that the book just never got around to telling us. Yes, there is a decent ending. Yes, it does a decent job of tying up loose ends. But it is sudden, at best. I had so many more questions about the March, about the Harrows, that were just never answered. Mostly, they weren’t even addressed at any point. Like John’s strange shadow power, they’re often simply taken for granted and not even questioned once.


March’s End is a kind of dark Narnia style through-the-looking-glass fantasy, distilled down into one, relatively succinct, book. If that sounds hard, there’s a reason. It glosses over so much, particularly so much of the world-building, often taking even obscure things as rote, or for granted. While March’s End does tell a complete, even somewhat powerful, dark fantasy tale—it leaves a lot to be desired along the way. The Harrows are what make the March exceptional, at least in so much as anything in the March can be called exceptional. And it kills me to say such a thing about a magic fantasy world. The characters and their interactions are what the book does best, the story itself a bit of an afterthought. The world and its ill-formed creatures are merely forgettable, and anything more about the March is bare-bones at best—a menagerie of half-finished sketches and stick-figures on smudged, paper napkins. Come to the March for the story, for the characters, stay for nothing more.

Empire of the Vampire – by Jay Kristoff (Review)

Empire of the Vampire #1

Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror

St. Martin’s Press; September 14, 2021

734 pages (hardcover)

Author Website • Socials

9 / 10 ✪

Dark, gothic, and foreboding, the Empire of the Vampire is really something. Told in a style I’d almost call Kvothesque—except for it being way too bleak and you know, finished, to fit the bill—this high fantasy epic following the last of the Silversaints, Gabriel de León, takes place in a world where the sun has been shrouded, the grail lost, and the whereabouts of hope long forgotten. I’ve been sitting on this one for a while, even past the point where I figured I’d probably never review it beyond the requisite blurb for the 400-page sampler that I was provided.

And in sight of God and his Seven Martyrs, I do view; Let the dark know my name and despair. So long as it burns, I am the flame. So long as it bleeds, I am the blade. So long as it sins, I am the saint.
And I am silver.

It’s been twenty-seven years since the last sunrise.

Here, in the world of endless night, the monsters rule, and the humans do their bidding. Herded and slaughtered like cattle, mankind is little more than slave to the vampire’s empire, the Forever King’s kingdom having engulfed the whole of the world.

Gabriel de León, last of the silversaints, once the greatest threat to this new world order—now imprisoned and awaiting death. His order was founded to seek out the creatures of the night and destroy them, but it was they who were sundered and driven from the world. A world that now rejects them.

The path he walked has transcended myth to legend, even though he’s still among the living. A tale of epic battles and forbidden love, of kings and queens, of gods and men. He once held the Grail, only to lose it. He once commanded a legion of friends and followers, only to be betrayed. He once had a wife, a family… but no more.

All he can do now is wait for his end—and tell his tale.

“Do you know what irony is, de León?”
“They make swords out of it, don’t they? Mix it with coally and hit it with a hammery?”

Was it good? Fuck yeah it was. Good and violent, full of sex and nudity, swearing and more swearing, bloodletting and mutilations, beheadings and dismemberment, debauchery and any kind of forbidden anything. Just so we’re clear: this is not a kids’ book. If you’re squeamish—don’t read it. If you object to swearing, sex, and gratuitous violence—don’t read it. If you take issue with a slight rewriting (or what some might call a ‘perversion’) of catholic dogma—don’t read it. But if you like, or don’t mind, all these things, combined with an amazing setting, intricate plot, and fascinating story—yeah, maybe read it.

Gabriel was a good, solid character. A bastard, but the kind that you want to read about. That you want to see fuckup on occasion, and kick ass the rest of the time. Of course, he also spends a good chunk of it high or drunk, but no one’s calling him a role-model. He makes an excellent lead. Perfect for this dark, gothic, violent world he finds himself in.

It might take a while to get into, and it might take a while to get through, but it’s worth the time. I’m faaar from the first to read and review this particular beast—and none that I know of have DNFed it, despite its egregious length. Also, if you snag a paper copy, there are pictures to look at.

I feel like I should probably pipe more into this review. Like, some analysis, or things I liked and didn’t. But the short of it is that this was a daaamn good read. And if you don’t object to any of the above reasons to pick it up, then you should definitely give it a try. Can’t offer much more than that.

The Shadow Casket – by Chris Wooding (Review)

The Darkwater Legacy #2

Dark Fantasy, Epic

Gollancz; February 16, 2023

852 pages (ebook)

Author WebsiteSocials

10 / 10 ✪

A man who cannot live with himself is apt to find something to die for.

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orion Publishing, Gollancz, and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

Please beware spoilers for the Ember Blade (Darkwater Legacy Book #1)!

Review of the Ember Blade

The Dawnwardens have returned. The crown prince of Kroda is dead. The Ember Blade has been taken. And the revolution has begun.


It’s been three years since Aren and the Dawnwardens stole the Ember Blade. Since then they’ve been on the run, moving the Blade from safe house to safe house, visiting nobles and private mercenaries, attempting to subsequently kickstart and fund their rebellion. With little to show for it.

Aren himself is growing more and more disillusioned. The cost of the Ember Blade proved to be too high. Conditions in Ossia haven’t improved since the theft, with the Krodans only tightening their grip on the nations. Indeed, suspected spies and traitors have been executed without trial, and Shoal’s Point—the birthplace of both Aren and Cade—has been wiped from the map. Cade himself lies dead, something Aren still dwells on daily. Meanwhile the Dawnwardens have done little to inspire anything, had no tangible success that Aren can see. And the longer they wait the heavier it weighs on him. As does the yoke of Vika’s prophecy. Aren is approaching his breaking point, and can’t see any way to stop it.

The Dawnwardens travel far to the north in an attempt to unite the irascible Fell Folk, and create a stronghold in the hinterlands. Only death and betrayal follows them even here. The Krodans ambush the clans at their annual meeting, and attempt to steal the Ember Blade. Only the timely intervention of a few allies—including one former comrade—saves Aren and the Blade from the Dreadknights’ wrath. But they can only flee in the wake of these abominations.

As matters escalate and tensions rise, the Dawnwardens turn their gaze to a mythic weapon that could destroy the dreadknights and legitimize the rebellion. A weapon that—if it exists—could save, or doom them all.

Heroes were simple. They didn’t trouble themselves with consequences. Those who fell by the wayside in the service were left unmourned, at least in the stories.

But the stories never told of the quiet times. When the heroes laid down their heads at night and the memories crept in. The lonely meals by the campfire, recalling the smiling eyes of those now dead. The cost in death and grief, one piled upon the other until it was too much to bear, and the only escape was the sanctuary of purpose.

They never spoke of what happened when that purpose was fulfilled, and there was nothing to protect them anymore.

It’s been five years since the Darkwater Legacy began, and I’ve to tell you that I’ve been anxiously awaiting the Shadow Casket for some time. Also, I don’t really remember too much from the original adventure, and unfortunately this book does not feature a recap. That is one of two issues I have with it.

The other is that it starts a bit slow.

I mean, that’s to be expected when one can’t really remember the intricacies of the plot. The Ember Blade was stolen, Klyssen thwarted, Cade killed. Otherwise… I’m pretty much in the dark. Luckily, while there is no recap, over the course of the first hundred or so pages, I was able to piece together the events that led us to this point, and gradually regain my excitement for the story to continue.

Which is good, because then it takes off.

Twists and turns galore in this sequel, becoming more and more unexpected the further in you read. This is a dark fantasy epic with an emphasis on the “dark” part. Anything can go wrong. Anyone can die. Anything can happen. The story takes place not over the course of a few days or weeks, but months upon months spent following the Dawnwardens around their fruitless revolt. Klyssen shows up as well, newly demoted and disillusioned with his place in the Empire. As it turns out, he and Aren have more in common than either would’ve ever expected. Spies and traitors abound once more, with everyone acknowledging or indulging their own interests. It’s epic in every sense of the word, and fantastical in more. The places they go, the lands they see—from an island ruled by elaru and ogren (even though I couldn’t even remember what those were!); to ruins swarming with nameless terrors; to a moot of druids; to an internment camp with an even darker secret; to the shores of the Krodan motherland itself.

I feel like I could rant on and on about this book, even though it was a bit slow getting out of the blocks. Even though I was worried about it failing to live up to its predecessor. Even though it took me a bit to come around, a bit more to remember most of what was happening, a bit to fully appreciate the depth of the story, the setting, the world, the lore—I honestly loved it. Pretty much the first and last thing I should say in this review: the Shadow Casket is amazing! An incredible read—easily book of the year thus far.

Friends let friends do stupid things.


The Shadow Casket is the amazing followup to an equally amazing Ember Blade that blew me away way back in 2018. My main (and really only issue with the text) is that five years have passed since Book #1, and Book #2 fails to remind us of the events there-within. Fortunately, with a story as good as this one I retained some knowledge of the plot, and with a read as long as this one I had plenty of time to catch up on some of the more intricate points. Even now, as I worry about what I might have missed in-between the lines, I’m having a hard time maintaining any resentment towards the Shadow Casket itself. This story gets a 10/10 from me. The world, the plot, the lore, the twists and turns, the characters and banter and adventures and humor all come together to make this the shadowy ruin in a valley (the dark fantasy equivalent of a shining city on a hill) that one can only dream of when embarking on a fantastical adventure. Now fingers crossed that the finished product comes with a recap, and the Shadow Casket will have achieved perfection—in my view, at least.

Where the Waters Turn Black – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

Yarnsworld #2

Dark Fantasy, Horror

Self-published; November 16, 2016

218 pages (ebook)

Author WebsiteSocials

8.5 / 10 ✪

”It’s safe?”
Yam laughed. “No, of course not. Have you ever heard a good story that’s safe? What’d be the point?”

Welcome to Crescent Atoll, a remote string of emeralds in a sea of sapphire blue.

Islanders eke out an existence on this atoll, using canoes to travel the archipelago. To exist on the isles is to pay respect and homage where it is due: to the gods and taniwha in turn. Though Leinani they respect and fear the most—the goddess taking the shape of a beautiful woman of fire and flame, or a gigantic volcano at the atoll’s edge.

Kaimana is a young ocarina player, left home young to perform with a traveling troupe in pursuit of her Knack rather than stay and live and die a fisherman’s wife. But when she returns home after two years, she finds something has changed.

A monster—a taniwha—now inhabits her former home. And Kaimana must see it.

When she sees the monster for the first time, Kaimana finds herself inspired, the inspiration sparking behind her eyes, a song burning bright trying to find its way out. She is overjoyed—until the taniwha turns up again. And again.

Soon Kaimana is certain it is not just following her, but protecting her as well. Cast out by her troupe, she and the taniwha must learn to cooperate if they are to survive. Especially after they earn the attention of Nakoa, the god of war, former lover of Leinani herself. Formidable the taniwha may be, but to attract the gaze of a god is surely death. Unless the two overcome it—together.

It’s not safe, out there. There are cannibals, gods, and yes, taniwha. And more. All of which will not let a young woman travel safely alone.

A pretty simple setup: a boy and his dog against the world. Or, well, pretty much that. My favorite Yarnsworld story to date features a girl that befriends a monster, and their adventures together. Honestly, even before the intervention of Nakoa I was hooked. The archipelago setting, the travel, the exploration, the world of gods and demons—it was all I could’ve ever wanted. I probably would’ve loved to have just read about their adventures regardless of any hook.

The two characters that make this a story worth reading are undoubtedly Kaimana and Rakau, her taniwha. This pair, and their interactions, their relationship, is basically one of the two sides of the story—the gods and the atoll covering the other. Interspersed between the chapters again are the tales of the gods. We learn about Leinani, Nakoa, the Birdmen of Broken Island, the atoll’s origin story, and more fables that flesh out the archipelago’s lore. There might even be a few familiar faces—if you’ve read previous Yarnsworld stories.

I’d say that this shows a definitive improvement over the author’s debut—They Mostly Come Out At Night—in both writing and storytelling technique. The pacing is smoother, the language consistent, the characters recognizable, the world deep as the author warms to each in turn. It’s not perfect, but certainly a step in the right direction. The gods and taniwha are so colorful and unique; from Yam, the god of yams, to Rakau, a talking log-dog, to Leinani, a goddess of heat and flame, hot and fiery in equal parts. It’s really quite a nice world the author’s invented—I can see why he returns to it.

Three Yarnsworld novels down—and though most aren’t intended to be read in any certain order, this does have a sequel. I’m definitely looking forward to continuing Kaimana and Rakau’s adventures in the latest entry, To Dream and Die as a Taniwha Girl.

City of Last Chances – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Review)


Dark Fantasy, Fantasy

Head of Zeus; December 8, 2022

545 pages (ebook)

Author WebsiteSocials

9 / 10 ✪

” You’re a learned man. Please tell me where the word ‘negotiate’ can be found within ‘unconditional surrender’. “

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Head of Zeus and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

Adrian Tchaikovsky is one of the more frustrating authors I can think of, as I’m constantly thinking “I need to read more of his stuff”, only to go and acquire some and then give up halfway through. You see, he has an issue of letting his politics and personal beliefs bleed too heavily into his fiction. From there the book just becomes one gigantic rant—which is not something I need more of in my life. It’s not that I disagree with his opinion; it’s that I don’t need to hear it constantly justified in a supposed escapist fantasy.

Enter City of Last Chances, a dark fantasy set in a city of the brink of revolution.

Ilmar, some say, is the worst place in the world. A city swollen with refugees, the once-great metropolis has fallen on hard times, even before it fell to the Palleseen Empire. With the heavy-handed occupation now in its third year, the populace

City of Long Shadows;
City of Bad Decisions;
City of Last Chances.

An industrial city swollen with refugees, Ilmar is truly a melting pot. Or, it was—before the war. Three years prior, Ilmar fell to the Palleseen Sway. Since then, their heavy-handed occupation has begun to chafe. Religion of any kind is forbidden in the Sway, and all priests and clerics are rounded up and summarily executed. Only after their faith is decanted and used to eliminate their deities.

Language is censored as well, with Palleseen officially replacing all other tongues as the staple in businesses, schools, and streets. The Pals seek perfection in all things, and under their rule all the messy differences of the world shall become one.

There are two exceptions, however, problems that the Pals are desperate to snuff out. The first, is the Anchorwood: a once great forest now reduced to but a single grove. This copse holds the secret of another place, for when the moon is full and the shadow of the trees stretches to its greatest point the boscage becomes a portal to another place—an escape for those desperate, or an opportunity for those ambitious enough to take it. Somewhere, on the other side of this portal, lies a city. A realm set at the edge of the world. Or maybe, set on an entirely different world entirely. This place is the home of the Indwellers—and it’s a place the Sway will do anything to reach. Except the path is not an easy one, and is inhabited by monsters—which can only be held at bay through the use of highly specialized wards, which are both rare and expensive.

When a Palleseen higher-up dies in the Anchorwood, there’s more than enough blame to go around. Specifically the whereabouts of his stolen ward and the thief that took it. Also, there is the issue of his assistant—who fled the Wood, followed by a certain kind of monster only found in nightmares. The two were last seen headed towards the Reproach: the second of Ilmar’s dirty secrets.

Where the Anchorwood is a portal to another place full of monsters, the Reproach is a homegrown monstrosity. A borough of Ilmar corrupted and cursed, a place even the Pals fear enough to avoid so much as mentioning it. But now an expedition is assembled to rescue the assistant and (hopefully) retrieve the wards. Only these two acts can hope to right the ship before the city boils over. But only a fool, a wretch, or a madman would venture willingly into the Reproach. Luckily, If it’s one thing that Ilmar has a surplus of, it’s the desperate.

There has always been a darkness in Ilmar. You cannot live with those neighbors without taking something of the dark between the trees into you.

At some point in the middle of this, I had to stop and try to remember what the heck the plot was. In general, this isn’t a good thing, but in this case it was. Or rather… it wasn’t bad. Especially because I couldn’t recall and just had to go back to reading. City of Last Chances is a thoroughly immersive and enjoyable fantasy escape—no matter what’s going on. And there’s a lot.

Between the impending revolution and the dead bigwig there’s actually a lot. The missing wards and the resulting search plays a large role, but there’s tension in Ilmar that has nothing to do with either. Distrust and resentment abound between the factions of the city; the factory workers, the students, the various faithful, those that have given in to the Sway, the gangs and underworld, the refugees, and more. Then there’s the Anchorwood—a nice little twist, that. That on its own makes this a great story, but when you add the Reproach—that’s a wrinkle that helps turn this from a good story to a great one. There’s just so much chaos, so much going on, so many desperate and so much desperation to go around that you never know what’s going to happen next. Indeed, it’s like that with the characters too; for a while I assumed we’d never have the same POV twice, but it’s not like that. It’s just Tchaikovsky establishing that anyone can die at anytime, so don’t get too attached to anyone.

This book is so well written, and there are so many good quotes—so many!

She screamed, and Lemya was screaming too—not in pain but at him. Because this was a rescue, and if there was a Rule One of rescuing, it was not to shoot the rescuee.

While City of Last Chances is a standalone at the moment, there’s so much here that Tchaikovsky could very easily churn out a couple of sequels—either direct or set in the same world—based on the Reproach or the Anchorwood, or even the Sway and its efforts. That said, if you’re new to the author maybe don’t expect it to come to this. I mean, it might, but he writes so much standalone stuff that I wouldn’t expect it. So try to take this novel as it is: a tremendous tale set in an illustrious and darkly imagined world, full of interesting and relatable characters—…who might all perish at a moment’s notice.

It’s true, there’s very little that feels certain in this novel. The characters, the setting, the events; with everything liable to change at a moment’s notice, it lends a real sense of impermanence to everything, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While it certainly distracts from the getting invested in any one particular character’s story, what it does is provides a feeling of desperation to every action, every move. As if it were really the character’s last chance. Maybe not ideal for a fun adventure, but just the kind of thing for a dark fantasy set in a desperate city.


From its characters to its setting, its plot to its setup, its events to its darkness, to all its amazing quotes—City of Last Chances is Adrian Tchaikovsky at his best. A tense, immersive, and often political fantasy that doesn’t get too political, nor too fantastical—though it certainly has its moments, such as the copse of trees that becomes a portal when the moon is full, or the section of the city possessed by an unknown entity from the city’s past. It’s a dark, industrial fantasy done right; the right amount of fantasy, the right amount of realism, and certainly enough escapism to get truly lost in—even if you lose track of what exactly is going on. I can’t recommend this one enough, and can only hope that this signals a turn for the coming future Tchaikovsky novels.

Black Heart: Words on Wind, Adrift on Dreams of Splendor – by Mark Smylie

Black Heart #1 / Artesia #2

High Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Self-published; February 21, 2022

235 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Patreon

Please beware minor spoilers for the Barrow.

Give them a chance to be cruel, and they will love you for it.

You know, for a book I never thought I’d read, Black Heart: Part 1 was pretty damn good. Fresh off a reread of the Barrow, it was good to drop back into that same niche, the groove, and explore more of the highly detailed, immersive world of Artesia. While Part 1 is mostly used for building the coming story, there are a few things I’d like to note.

Other than sex, the same formula as the Barrow
There was no graphic sex or mention of cocks until nearly the two hundred page mark! It was weird. Luckily Smylie squeezed one scene in before the close of Part 1, so if you were only reading this one for the lurid fantasies—take hope!
If instead you were reading it for story- and world-building, yeah, there’s a lot of that. Black Heart uses the same formula that the Barrow did before it. Namely, a bleak starting location, heavy on the action, then a break to build the world and splay the threads wide.

Not a whole lot of repeated POVs.
As a buildup for the rest of the book to follow, Part 1 skips around a lot after leaving Stjepan and Erim outside Devil’s Tower. The story begins right after the events depicted in the Barrow, as the adventurers continue on, searching for Gause Three Penny as they hinted they might at the end of the last book. We spend a bit there, but following their departure, the overall plot zooms out a bit. POVs include the Nameless, the Guilds, the Council, the Lords and Ladies of the city, and another special guest.

Despite the time it took, it’s still the same Artesia
I confess to being a little worried the world would’ve changed after such a long absence. But as I read the Barrow right before this I can tell you for certain that it was just like stepping out of one story and into the next. The world around doesn’t change, nor does the immersion—so it’s back into the breach right away, just like no time has passed.
I’ve never read the graphic novels, but this was the same world I remember from Book #1, no problem.

It’s a good start to Book #2
When it comes right down to it, this is what matters. Whether the story is good or not. And, well, it is. The pacing is a bit slow at times, as we have to read through several new characters while the author builds up the world, but otherwise I had no complaints. Can’t recommend the entire thing yet as I haven’t read it all. But from what I’ve seen thus far, there was no reason to worry!

Coming next, Black Heart: Part II: In the Coils of a Horned Serpent!

The Warrior – by Stephen Aryan (Review)

Quest for Heroes #2


Angry Robot; August 9, 2022

379 pages (paperback)

Author WebsiteSocials

8 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many, many thanks to Angry Robot for sending me a lovely physical ARC, even after the first two got lost in the mail (and I told them not to worry about it)! It was so very nice of them. They are quite nice people, after all! Um and… all opinions are my own.

Kell Kresia, two time Hero of the Four Kingdoms, King of Algany, most famous man alive—is trapped. Trapped in a grand design as the “king” of one of the four kingdoms, a position he fills mostly as a figurehead. Trapped in a loveless marriage, his wife Sigrid was born to rule but for the nature of being a woman, something she has never forgiven the world for. Trapped and surrounded by people and fame, he can’t find any alone time or anonymity among the commonfolk.

So when his old friend Willow shows up requesting for her homeland, Kell can’t wait to leave.

But this isn’t something as simple as a quest north to defeat the Ice Lich. The land of the Alfár is remote and hidden—somewhere humans have rarely tread. More importantly, it is a land out of time; both literally and figuratively, as the passage of time moves differently in this realm, meaning that for every week that passes within, a year or more might pass in the outside world. Then there is the Malice, the strange and terrible affliction that poisons the land.

Meanwhile life in the Four Kingdoms goes on, with Sigrid (and her infant son) ruling alone. Day to day politicking aside, the continent inches ever closer to war, divided on the worship of the Shepherd, the religion that one Reverend Mother Britak would use to create a theocracy. Despite its very nature being based on a lie, the faith continues to push into Algany, its devotees purging any other beliefs in their way. And without Kell’s legend to dissuade her, there may be nothing holding Britak back from the future she desires. Nothing but Sigrid.

Only upon reaching the Alfár homeland of Gilial do Kell and his party realize just how far gone the place truly is. The trees have withered and died, or turned to monsters of bark and branch. The animals have become mindless beasts only sated by blood and meat. The other races of Gilial have fallen into ruin, and are only rumored to exist in any form. While the Alfár are just a shadow of their former glory—a dying, infected species, day by day more and more fall victim to the Malice.

There exists a plan to save Gilial but it is dark and desperate, despicable and deranged. Willow seeks to stop it, something which Kell and his companions—members of his personal guard: Odd, a loner harboring a terrible secret; and Yarra, harboring deep regret—are instrumental to, as humans may resist the Malice better than their Alfár counterparts.

Only upon seeing the state of the land they might wonder—how could the cure possible be any worse than the affliction?

For it to be precious, life has to end. If I live forever and do nothing, then what was the point?

While the first quest broke Kell, the second made him whole. What will this third one do?

Well, at least he won’t have to face the Ice Lich. Or WILL he?

No. He won’t. Instead he’ll face a world unseen by most of humanity, full of vibrant locales and ruined cities and creatures never seen before—all corrupted by the Malice’s influence. It was quite the tale, one that left me wanting to see more of this new world, yearning to see it before it had been devastated by the Malice. What we see in the Warrior is a world laid to waste. Oh, to see it before!

But anyway, the story is a good one. Kell’s is, at least. Full of twists and turns. Challenge and peril. A land full of surprise and opportunity. The story winds its way through this strange land, eventually leading to the heart of the Malice—and to the big reveal. As big reveals go, this may not have been anything game-changing, but it was at least interesting. And the conclusion and aftermath more than make up for any letdown in the mystery department.

The issue I have is not with Kell’s story, but Sigrid’s. Even in the first few pages of her first chapter, you knew where it was going to lead. Well, you knew where Kell’s was leading too. But where Kell’s was interesting, immersive, and exciting throughout—and even sprinkled with a seed of doubt—Sigrid’s only started this way. But at the 3/4 mark, it takes a turn. Everything afterwards seems like a foregone conclusion.

While a great tale and quest, the Warrior ain’t exactly innovative. It’s strongly reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings, albeit an abbreviated, poor man’s version. It’s entertaining, sure; almost everything that it does, this book does well (excluding, of course, the conclusion at home). It isn’t a retelling of LotR, or a fanfic, although the quest is rife with similarities. That said, there’s nothing wrong with doing a little LotR impersonation every now and then. Impression is the highest form of flattery. And LotR is (no matter your opinion on it) the most popular fantasy tale. It would be impossible not to draw similarities between the two. And that’s okay. Because it’s not a clone, a rip-off, or a retelling. The Warrior tells an amazing story with just a little bit of a letdown towards the end.


The Warrior isn’t a game-changer. It tells of a quest—a fellowship, if you will—through a land devastated and barren, to reach some peril at the end and vanquish it. I mean, just stop me here if this reminds you of anything. Or just keep reading. Because while the initial plot is hardly innovative, once you get into it it’s sure immersive. A plague destroying a previously forgotten land. A race against time. A legend with nothing to prove, hunting the Malice that threatens his friends. A new world to explore. An old world to remember. I mean, it’s all quite good. And a worthy conclusion to a fabulous duology!

Ymir – by Rich Larson (Review)


Science Fiction

Orbit Books; July 12, 2022

391 pages (paperback)

Author PatreonSocials

7 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit for the lovely physical ARC! All opinions are my own.

A dark, otherworldly retelling of Beowulf takes place on a dystopian ice-world where the company owns and tells all. A tale of two brothers separated by time, space, and bad blood. Yorick hunts monsters—specifically the eyeless grey terror known as the grendel, that lurk beneath the earth on many company worlds. He left home early, after a spat with his brother that cost him his jaw.

And now he’s back in the one place he hoped never to be again: the ice-world Ymir.

Thello is a mystery. In Yorick’s mind, his homecoming would coincide with his brother’s apology—that or a fight to the death—but upon landing Yorick finds neither. In fact, he hasn’t seen Thello at all, instead greeted by a company man Dam Gausta, his former mentor, the woman who ushered him into the company; and a hulking red clanswoman, Fen, who clearly wants to gut him at first sight. At first Yorick thinks that she must know him—but no, he’s been gone decades, and the Butcher that Cooked the Cradle must be assumed to be well and truly dead by now.

Without his brother, there is only the hunt that matters now.

But this grendel is different than the mindless killing-machines Yorick has dispatched in the past. Beneath that cold, clammy skin there is definitely a very alien mind at work, but there is also something disturbingly human to it as well, something Yorick recognizes and knows all too well.


Written in the style of Takeshi Kovacs, Ymir takes a fast-paced, minimalist story designs of Richard K. Morgan and applies them to a Beowulf inspired tale, complete with nordic themes and terrifying grendels. A dark, gritty tale takes place on both sides of the ice of Ymir, even plunging deep underground in pitch-black tunnels where only those desperate or alien live.

The pacing itself is strange, but it is what the story makes it. It’s the way the story is told; in glimpses—with chapters so short we might as well be visiting the story as opposed to spending a book’s length with it. We jump from action to action, spending just enough time to progress the plot—but no more.

While I loved the dark, gritty feel of the ice-world Ymir, there was never enough of it to go around. When you’re only spending one to five pages in the same place, it’s hard to get a real sense of worth from it. Thus, instead of a full-body immersion, this was like a bath taken in quick dips, where you get a shock of cold that eventually builds up into a deep freeze, but only after a long period. It was an interesting way to tell a story—and not one I entirely enjoyed.

I thoroughly enjoyed the narrative between the two brothers, though it didn’t last as long as I’d’ve expected, coming to a cliffhanger well before the close that felt like a foregone conclusion rather than a mystery by the time it was resolved at the end.


While there was more than enough to like about Ymir, very little about the tale wowed me. It did prove a great read and a good story besides, as well as an interesting and unique retelling/tale based heavily on the epic Beowulf. But there was just too little there: too little time spent in any one place; too little depth on any of the supporting characters; too little backstory on the company, the grendels, Ymir itself, anything of the world to make it feel real. Overall, while I enjoyed pretty much everything I saw from Ymir, I’d’ve liked to have seen more of… pretty much all of it. For what is a tale told in glimpses than no tale at all?