The Coward – by Stephen Aryan (Review)

Quest for Heroes #1

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Angry Robot; June 8, 2021

411 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot (#AngryRobot) for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

First, I owe an apology to Angry Robot (who kindly provided me with the ARC)—because I thought I’d published this review but just flat out didn’t. Whoops. My bad!

I first read Battlemage half a decade past—my introduction to Stephen Aryan—and immediately fell in love with the world he’d created. Now, six books and 5 years later, The Coward takes us outside of that original world that Aryan had created and on to a new one. And a new adventure.

A decade ago Kell Kressia set out with the greatest heroes of his generation to stop the Ice Lich and save the world. They succeeded, but the cost was great. He returned alone, scarred and broken, haunted by the things that he had seen and had done. Now, ten years later Kell lives as a simple farmer, hidden in the corner of Algany with only his horse Droga for company. But recently even he has heard tell of stirrings in the frozen north, and a rumor that something has taken up residence in the Ice Lich’s old castle.

It’s not long before the King sends envoys to summon Kell to the capital. They want him to return to the north and defeat this evil once again. The first journey nearly broke him. Only after ten years and hundreds of miles separating him from it has Kell managed to recover—though the horrors he faced continue to haunt his dreams. Another journey would destroy him. Even still, a shadow stirs in the north. And it’s up to Kell Kressia to stop it.

The Coward includes a pair of quest lines, drawn out across multiple POVs. One involves the legend that is Kell Kressia as he makes his way north once again. The other, Mother Britak in the city of Lorzi. Now the one with Kell is quite obvious. The title character upon his titular quest. It is this quest line that the story lives and dies on. Mother Britak however…

I mean, I know what her POV is for. It’s in there to set up Book #2. But has fuck all to do with #1. I mean that literally—apart from a few details of note, mostly in Part 1 (there are 3 Parts to the book; Part 1 takes about 120 pages)—Britak’s storyline has nothing to do with Kell’s own quest, and doesn’t even have the decency to resolve itself by book’s end. And it’s got one of those “One True Faith” tropes, where the church ends up being completely wrong and borderline evil, which I find overused nowadays. As I said, I’m sure it’s setting up the second half of this duology, but in terms of the here and now: it really doesn’t have much to do with the story.

In the last twenty years there had been a steady decline in the number of faithful. People were busier than ever with family and other commitments. That was the reason he’d heard most often but those were just excuses. The truth was, believing in something abstract was difficult.

Luckily, the Coward isn’t about Mother Britak. It’s about Kell Kressia, and Kell’s story kills. It’s quite enjoyable. I really liked it. The world, the characters, their motivations and intentions—it’d be a borderline 5 / 5 from me without all that Britak nonsense. Honestly I have no notes regarding Kell’s storyline. None. Outstanding fantasy. A bit dark, a bit epic—and a whole lot of adventure!

TL;DR

The Coward is an outstanding adventure fantasy following hero of the land, Kell Kressia, on his return voyage to the north. He will save the world, or die trying. Or, alternatively, he’ll just piss off and let the kingdom solve it themselves. I really have no issues with the storyline revolving around Kell. A little darkness, a wee bit of danger, a pinch of epicness—and one borderline worthless POV following Mother Britak. Her story rarely intersects with Kell’s, and can only be setting the table for the followup plot in Book #2. As good as I found Kell’s story, her’s was simply pointless. I mean, it’s written well and she’s interesting enough—but it barely connects and it’s Kell’s that steals the show. Luckily, it’s Kell’s that takes up the overwhelming majority of the novel. Still, there’s more than enough here for me to heartily recommend the Coward. A great adventure with excellent characters, heroes, action, and adventure. The one misstep that is Britak is not enough to ruin the good time.

Infernal – by Mark de Jager (Review)

Chronicles of Stratus #1

Dark Fantasy, Fantasy

Solaris; November 26, 2020

450 pages (ebook)
12hr 54m (audio)

GoodreadsAuthor Twitter

4 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Rebellion, Solaris and NetGalley for the eARC! Any quotes are for demonstrative purposes only, included to help showcase the level of detail and writing style that the author employs, and may not be included in the final, published version. All opinions are my own.

Stratus wakes in an unfamiliar body, an unfamiliar place, with no memories of how he got there, where “there” is, or who he even is. All that he knows is that his name is Stratus—and that a demon lives within him.

Armed with just this knowledge—and a powerful yet volatile innate sorcery—Stratus begins a journey of self-discovery. This journey will take him through Krandin, recently decimated by war. A land that proves less than welcoming to a hulking dark-skinned stranger with amnesia and a powerful hunger. One that includes both horse- and human-flesh.

As Stratus slowly pieces together his history, he discovers a land full of both allies and enemies, some of them from his very past. He also discovers a dark power threatening to engulf the land—a land that despite himself he has begun to care about. But is it worth enough to him that he will help save it, or will Stratus let all fall to darkness to slake his thirst for vengeance?

‘Evil is motivation. You cannot ward against motivation, only the acts that they motivate.’

I’m a bit of a sucker for the amnesiac trope: the one where the main character has no idea who they are and has to piece it together while the world tries to kill them. Interesting enough at the outset, the mystery just ramps up when Stratus’s demon emerges and starts compelling him to strangle horses or describe just how familiar (and tasty) human flesh is.

The narration really helps bring the story to life however, and I can’t rave enough about how great Obioma Ugoala is as Stratus. It lends an impressive voice to this very personal tale, one that just fits so well!

Over the course of the story, Stratus is tested and developed as a character as he slowly discerns his identity. He isn’t alone in this but his is by far the most extensive. It makes sense as this is his tale, but I would’ve liked to see more from the characters of Infernal other than just the two or three that really evolve over the course of the story. Still, those few are strong enough to carry the tale—as most of it falls squarely upon the shoulders of Stratus himself.

The only real issue I had with Infernal was the ending. Yes, I see why it ended in the manner it did (and you will too, should you read it). It makes perfect sense, and really cuts out on the right foot to set up Book #2. That being said—we left a decent amount unresolved. Part of the story is complete, yes, and part of it is just starting. But part cuts out in the middle, with no real resolution even hinted at.

TL;DR

Infernal is an excellent new addition to the fantasy genre, one that makes very few mistakes over the course of its 13ish hours. Stratus is a strong and fascinating character, one whose story you’ll surely become invested in over the course of the tale. The places he goes, things he does are not widely done in fiction, but are passed off as if they’re completely normal. The narrator is excellent and I cannot recommend the audio version of this enough! The only real issue I had was with how much is resolved at its end. Yes, there is an excellent reason it ends like it does; and yes, part of the story is concluded while still setting up Book #2—but I still feel more could have been resolved. It was just very abrupt.

Despite this hiccup I’m definitely looking forward to the Chronicles of Stratus #2—Firesky—due out November 23, 2021.

Also thanks to Rebecca at Powder & Page for recommending this! I thoroughly recommend it further.

Where Gods Fear to Go – by Angus Watson (Review)

West of West #3

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Orbit; December 3, 2019

499 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

Beware spoilers for the first two books in the West of West trilogy

Finnbogi has grown up. During a journey where he fought two rattlecondas unarmed, controlled an army of pigeons with his mind, and made love with multiple women none of which has wanted to talk to him again—the lovable oaf has finally grown a pair and demanded a new nickname.

Now, as Finn the Deep, Finnbogi is slightly more experienced, but still the stupid, horny teenager we’ve come to know and love. But, as the Wootah and Owsla cross the Shining Mountains into the Desert You Don’t Walk Out Of, shit’s about to get real. Or, as real as it can when you’re being chased by Telekinetic Sasquatch (Sasquatches? Sasquatch?).

What’s worse, upon reaching the far side of the mountains, the gang discovers something more terrifying than yetis with mind-bullets: flash floods, tornados, and hordes of terrifyingly huge monsters. And should they survive all of these terrors, the crew will have to figure out how to defeat a goddess who’s already killed all the other gods. Worse, they have to do this all WHILE saving everyone else AND not letting them all die.

Should be easy. Provided they don’t kill one another first.

Well, the end of the West of West trilogy comes both too early for my liking, but also too late. I’ll miss Finnbogi, Sassa, Wulf, Sofi, and the gang, kinda like how I miss how I’m not a dumbass, immature, constantly annoying teen anymore (incidentally, that’s also why I won’t miss them). But also in more legitimate ways. They did some growing up over the course of this trilogy, did the gang. And not just Finnbogi. And not just the Hardworkers. The Owsla have changed too. If you’re after a series with loads of lewdness, swearing, hilarity—but also excellent character development—look no further!

The hilarity and action were pretty much on par with the other books in the series, but there was a serious overtone to everything. The end of the world is looming, and the Wootah are faced with the decision of whether to grow up or die young. And while that’s not an issue for some of them, others may find it harder.

My favorite character remains Ottar. The little savior of the world is proving to be quite adorable—something that you really should’ve noticed on day one—and the hardship thrown on him by the world doesn’t seem to get him down. Sure, he’ll have a bad day (as we all do) but then will shrug it off like the champion he is. So while Finnbogi features some of the more embarrassing, hilarious, and somehow inspiring moments—Ottar has some of the more heartwarming ones.

In the evenings, they ate cactus and Nether Barr’s lizards. Grilled to a crisp, the reptiles were tasty. The old lady helped Ottar make his own net and the boy delighted in failing to catch lizards. When he finally did trap a little striped one with a long tail, he studied it carefully then let it go.

The biggest problem I had with Where Gods Fear to Go turns up at the end of all things. I called the biggest twist, turns out, but not the finer bits of it. And the finer points were rather a letdown. It didn’t ruin the series for me, nor the book even, but rather soured the conclusion a bit. But here—months after I finished the book—I more remember the conclusion for its epic and dramatic twists, battles, romances, and occasional action-packed cutscenes. There are a particular few that come to mind. Point is that while the biggest twist may’ve soured the ending a bit in the short term, it didn’t ruin the series for me past that. I’d totally go back and read it all again (time permitting)! And I’d like to think I’d enjoy everything just as much the second time around.

TL;DR

Where Gods Fear to Go concludes the West of West trilogy, where Finnbogi, Sassa, Sofi, and the rest of the Wootah and Owsla continue their journey west—over the Shining Mountains and across the Desert You Don’t Walk Out Of to the Meadows, that place where the world is ending. And there’s certainly a reason behind it all. Big monsters and natural disasters abound—with a damned goddess at the center of it all. Like its predecessors, WGFtG is heavy on the action, sex, phallic puns, language and hilarity, but with more of a heavy overtone. It’s like the text keeps reminding them: “hey, the world is kinda ending and all, maybe focus on that?” But even the darker twist can’t spoil the fun this story brings. If you haven’t read the series but are intrigued and aren’t bothered by any of the above—hey, maybe give it a try. And if you’ve started the series but not finished—hey, maybe do that. It’s totally worth a look.

The Second Bell – by Gabriela Houston (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Angry Robot; March 9, 2021

304 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.9 / 5 ✪ – Almost perfect!

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Angry Robot #AngryRobot for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

In the mountain village of Heyne Town, there exists a tree known as the Hope Tree. Here, before they are due to give birth, women will leave blankets, food or provisions outside the village—just in case. In case their children are born as stryga.

Stryga (or strzyga or strzygón in Slavic mythology) are children born with two hearts. The first heart is their primary, human one—tying them to humanity and the path of normalcy and righteousness. The second is a much darker heart connected to a second soul, one that indulges its evil desires and preys on humanity. If a stryga were to follow the darker desires of its second heart even once, it would never be able to stop, turning this human into a dark demon. Although, in Heyne Town, all born with two hearts are considered evil and banished upon birth. Thus their parents faced a choice—to abandon their child outside the village; to dispose of them some other way; or to join their inhuman offspring in seclusion, never to set foot in the village again on pain of death.

Nineteen years ago, Miriat and her newborn Salka were exiled from Heyne Town, and taken to the remote haven where all exiled stryga live. Here they live in squalor, unable to leave and hated by the outside world. Here they are taught to control their darker nature, to never once listen to their second heart.

But Salka is young and headstrong. When she is exiled to the far off Windry Pass for a moment of weakness, she must do everything she can just to survive. But as the snow piles high and the temperature plummets, food becomes scarce and predators start to hunt humans as prey, Salka will be forced into a no-win situation: will she use her second heart to survive, or pay the ultimate price for the sake of her human soul?

By in large I really enjoyed the Second Bell. While I’d heard of strygas before, Gabriela Houston introduces a fresh take on the creature more often depicted as a monster in other media. In Slavic lore, it refers to a child born with two hearts and two souls, the second pair of which transforms it into a demon much alike a vampire. In the Witcher, a striga is a child cursed before birth. It is born a demon—a foul-smelling, heavily-muscled monster that runs about on all fours and violently attacks anything that wanders too near its lair. Houston’s take on the stryga humanizes it tremendously compared to these, as the child must only suppress the desires of its second heart in order to retain its humanity. Even so, not all parts of the legend seem to hold true. As with any other story, what is fact and what isn’t is open to interpretation. The villagers in Heyne Town fear and loathe all strigoi in equal measure. Whether or not they have ver indulged their second heart is immaterial. All are evil.

Note: I’ve been talking a lot about stryga being cursed children, born with two hearts. This is true, but not complete. While the affliction dooms from birth, strigoi will grow up like anything does. The only cure (in this book, at least) is death. Likewise, one can’t catch stryga. You’re either born one or you’re not—there’s no in-between.

The Second Bell is all about the story and its characters. Salka and Miriat share a unique relationship that should be quite relatable, and yet unlike any other. While they are obviously kin, only one is human. Her mother is Salka’s link to her humanity—by refusing to indulge her second heart, she feels closer to her mother, to her humanity, but in denying it she feels like she is cutting off a part of her own soul. The Second Bell is therefore a tale of what it means to be human. Salka is Miriat’s child and her whole world. But if her daughter were to listen to her demon heart, would she lose her humanity, the main connection she has to her mother? The Second Bell is also a tale of a mother and a daughter, and their bond.

While the world-building of this story was a bit patchwork, I understand the choice was instead to focus on the story of Salka and Miriat, the story of what it means to be human. Still, I would’ve liked to see a bit more from the world. There are some things—like the tree and the dola and more—though the entire world seems like it was built for ‘men and strygoi, but nothing more. While the story centers on the strygoi, they cannot possibly by the only legend in this land: I would’ve liked to hear about some of the others, if only just in passing. The land itself was often painted in greens and browns and white, rather than showing any real detail.

Otherwise, I really have no other notes. The story was good and thorough and made for a quick and immersive read, while still leaving lasting connotations after the book is finished. I hope to see more from the author and this world!

The Builders – by Daniel Polansky (Review)

Standalone, Novella

Dark Fantasy, Fantasy

Tor.com; November 3, 2015

219 pages (Paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

A stoat, a rat, a mouse, an opossum, an owl, a badger, a mole, and a salamander walk into a bar…

A missing eye. A broken wing. A lost lower half. A deposed king. A whole lot of trauma. And a country that vanished from beneath them.

Years may have passed but the Captain’s scars are still fresh. While the rest of his crew have moved on, many memories of the past linger. So when their leader comes a-calling to reform the band, most are only too grateful to respond. The others may come kicking and screaming, but they’ll come all the same.

Scores will be settled. Blood will run. There’s always time for second chances.

The Builders is another case of anthropomorphism gone very right; a dark, bloody Redwall, if you will. As schemes go, the Captain’s is a good one, but nothing ever goes exactly according to plan. The story is a good one, though I think it’s a bit wasted in novella form. The characters are bloody unique and exotic, each with their own backstory and motivations—that I would’ve liked to have been explored more. I feel the short chapters both help and hinder this. On one hand, with the novella format, it keeps the story moving so that we don’t get bogged down with too many characters being introduced too quickly. On the other, everything’s quite brief. We don’t get the time for backstory and motivation. It’s a thoroughly interesting cast that we have, but don’t ever get to know better.

I really enjoyed that dark cast of this story, right up to the end. It was billed to me as a grimdark Redwall—and delivered quite nicely. There’s quite a bit of dark humor, some interesting twists and turns, and an ending for the ages. It’s all very well done, but left me a bit wanting. Of more, mostly—which is both a good and a bad thing. On one hand, it’s always good to want more. Show’s the author has done something right. But on the other, there is no more. Sure, there’s a short story (half a dozen pages of fuzzy, grumbly animals), but it’s too brief, and not worth much more than to introduce the world. You can read it here, if you’re interested.

TL;DR

Why? It’s only a couple paragraphs.

*grumbly grumbly*

Whatever. Um… good; not perfect. Dark and bloody with matching humor. Truly a dark Redwall. Not enough development or time for it, it feels like we’ve only just met the characters and the story ends. The quick pacing and brief story work quite well, even if they do also frustrate. This was a love-hate for me, but I mostly loved it. Definitely recommended.

Here’s another link to A Kippled Meal, if you missed it.

Those Brave, Foolish Souls from the City of Swords – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

Again, I adore the cover, courtesy of Jenny Zemanek.

Yarnsworld #3

Dark Fantasy, Horror, Fantasy

Createspace Publishing; October 17, 2017

286 pages (ebook)

4.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

When Arturo was a small child, his mother used to tell him stories of the Mistress of the Wilds, of the Black Shepherdess, but especially of the Bravadori of Espadapan. The Bravadori were painted as the Queen’s heroes, protectors of the weak and innocent, saviors of the helpless, monster slayers extraordinaire. As he grew, Arturo always dreamt of becoming one of their number. Occasionally, Bravadori traveled to his father’s estates in search of coin and renown. Upon seeing them, Arturo knew his path was set. He trained hard and dreamed big, until one day he developed his very own Knack in sword-fighting. One day he was finally ready. Packing his blade and mask, Arturo set out for the City of Swords—and destiny.

Yet upon finally reaching Espadapan, Arturo learns that his heroes are nothing like the heroes his mother painted them as. Selfish and ignoble, the masked vigilantes are nothing more than thugs, running unchecked through the city. Unwilling to give up his dream so easily, still Arturo attempts to join their ranks. He is repeatedly mugged, mocked, and beaten. But when he hears tell of bandits terrorizing a nearby village, hope swells in Arturo. For while these swordsmen were nothing like he’d imagined, surely they would line up to defend those oppressed, like he’d seen them do as a boy. And Arturo would finally join their number, defeat the bandits and forge his own legend. Together with a disgraced Bravador and an honorless swordsman, Arturo sets out once more—for destiny.

Benedict Patrick’s Yarnsworld mixes dark fantasy with faerie tales, adding a splash of horror for taste, and adventure for the heck of it. While his debut—They Mostly Come Out At Night—divided me on its effectiveness at combining all four, I assumed that with experience and practice he could hammer out most of those imperfections.

Which he has.

Sadly, it’s not yet perfect, but still a marked improvement upon his earlier work. The POV characters of City of Swords—split three ways between Arturo, Yizel and Reuben—each could solo the story, as all three are strong, fleshed out leads, with depth, backstories, and even development. Unlike Come Out At Night, these characters delivered. Thoughtful, entertaining, and ambitious, I was never sure who was on whom’s side, as each showed mixed loyalties and complex emotions. They felt human in a way that no one did in Yarnsworld #1.

As before, the faerie tales play as interludes between each chapter, something that both entertained and annoyed me in equal parts. Sometimes it was an extra bit of vital lore, but other times it was a distraction from the plot at hand. While most of the time I appreciated the extra bits of world-building, I really could’ve done without them between EVERY chapter.

While the format annoyed me, the aspect of was most torn on was that of the world-building. The initial setup—the land and its backstory—was just lazy. It’s a carbon-copy of the New World exploration by Spain (or, well, most European powers), complete with Spanish-sounding names and places. That being said, the New World is just a backdrop for the tale. While the faerie tales bring the world to life. Admittedly, I’m not too well versed in faerie tales. I’m familiar with some of the most popular ones, and have a working knowledge of folklore from all over the place. Anyway, these tales seem pretty unique to me. And they really help bring the story to life.

I was caught up picturing the masked Bravadori when Arturo first arrived in the City of Swords, and felt his disappointment as if it were my own. I actually shook upon reading through the Black Shepherdess tale, and she haunted my dreams that night. I could hear her wails, her cries; feel the ash as it fell from the sky; the world itself seemed to grow darker when she blacked out the sky. These faerie tales aren’t just good reproductions, they’re incredibly raw and vivid, dark and haunting and… well, REAL. They feel real. Really real.

TL;DR

Those Brave, Foolish Souls from the City of Swords may be a mouthful, but the where the title draws on, the story itself manages to be gripping, dark, and packed with detail. The number one strength of Yarnsworld continues to be its faerie tales, which alternately had me awed or shaking depending on which terrible or heroic figure was being portrayed. Where They Mostly Come Out At Night fell flat, City of Swords delivered with its characters, its language, and its realism. Though the format of including a faerie tale between every chapter ofttimes annoyed me, I also usually appreciated the dark, interesting snippets of lore they provided. It’s a good, dark read just in time for Halloween. More importantly, City of Swords tells a completely different tale from any of the others found in Yarnsworld, so there’s no reason you can’t just skip right to it. I’d definitely recommend this one, and look forward to continuing my trip through the Yarnsworld saga!

The Shattered Crown – by Richard (R.S.) Ford (Review)

Steelhaven #2

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Epic

Headline; April 22, 2014

391 pages (Paperback)

4.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

The second book of the Steelhaven trilogy, the Shattered Crown carries all the weight of the previous installment, but does a much better job of handling it. All POVs return—save one: River’s tale has taken him outside the city and gets little exposure because of it—and even adds an additional character to the mix. While I felt that all the POVs weighed down Herald of the Storm, affecting both its pace and flow, the Shattered Crown rolls along much more smoothly, telling an action-packed story of love, hope, and betrayal.

Janessa now wears the Steel Crown. With few real allies and no real confidants, she is untried and untested. Yet with the Horde looming on the horizon, she must mature quickly. But will the girl become a Queen, or will she burn along with her city, becoming little more than a footnote to history?

Though the shadow of war looms large, life in Steelhaven carries on. The citizens have a choice to make, however. Will they stand in defense for the city, or pin all their hope on mercy from Amon Tugha? It seems that Kaira, Nobul, Waylian and Regulus have all made their choice—but for Merrick, choice is an illusion. While he carries duty and responsibility now, he mind rebels at the very thought of it.

Rag simply wants to be protected. Amon Tugha, the Guild, even the Greencoats (the city guard)—she’s not picky. But due to her choices in Herald of the Storm, life seems more real and death more inevitable lately. And yet, even her choices will help shape the fate of the city. For the Horde is coming, and no city is greater than the sum of its parts.

Herald of the Storm stumbled straight out of the gate. Each of the first seven chapters introduce a new character. That means a whole lot of new faces and backstories to take in, and not a whole lot of opportunity to establish any kind of a rhythm. Now, while the Shattered Crown follows exactly the same equation—the first seven chapters, each with a different POV, though only one of them is truly new—it seems to go much more smoothly than before. I think it’s because we’ve become used to these characters. With a book under his belt, the author doesn’t need to introduce a whole new motivation and backstory for each one. Instead, it’s more—here’re your returning POVs, here’s what they’ve been up to since you saw them last. While it still makes for a slow start, it doesn’t seem nearly as clumsy as it did before.

As usual, this story revolves around its characters. Each (except Regulus) have had a book to flesh out. While I didn’t find each and every one as deep and intricate as the last, there were a few that surprised me with their depth and impressed me with their ability to keep the story moving. I found some, like Kaira and Regulus, to be little more than cut-outs to progress the story. Others, like Rag, Merrick and Janessa, impressed me. Still more, Waylian and Nobul, haven’t made up their minds yet. I’m quite curious to see what will happen in the series conclusion—will every character experience some kind of development? Nobul and Kaira have been pretty stagnant up to this point, with Janessa, Merrick and Rag carrying most of the developmental weight. Will everyone finally progress? Or will some regress? Or will they all just die when Amon Tugha finally gets to the city?

Oh yeah, some spoilers. Amon Tugha doesn’t actually GET to the city yet. I mean, everyone knows he’s coming, but the dude is taking his sweet time. So far we’ve spent two books building up to the epic battle, and I’m more than ready for it to begin. Truth is, I was ready for (and anticipating) it sometime in the Shattered Crown, only for that moment to never arrive. I’d say that’s the largest disappointment in store for would-be readers. But otherwise, nothing’s too bad.

TL;DR

The Shattered Crown picks up where Herald of the Storm left off, but succeeds where the previous entry often disappointed. The story is interesting and entertaining. It takes a darker turn than I was expecting, as if to remind you that Steelhaven isn’t a place of sunshine and posies. There’s action, suspense, intrigue. Love, drama, hope, betrayal. The character development needs some work, and the world-building might as well not exist outside of Steelhaven. But there’s very little outside to pay any mind to—little that relates directly to the story, at least. And the characters of the Shattered Crown are better than they were in Herald of the Storm, which gives me hope for Book #3. All in all, a good read, and a better follow-up to a lackluster debut.

The series concludes with Lord of Ashes.

Magebane – by Stephen Aryan (Review)

Age of Dread #3

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit Books; August 6, 2019

491 pages (PB)

4.3 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Contains spoilers for both Mageborn and Magefall. Also may contain possible spoilers for the Age of Darkness trilogy!

For a guy who hated one of my favorite books, Stephen Aryan can tell a pretty good story. His second trilogy set in this particular world, the Age of Dread continues what the Age of Darkness started, with magic, law, and the gods themselves coming to the forefront for this conclusion.

The Age of Darkness ended in an epic battle for the good of the world, but the Age of Dread features an epic struggle as well—this one for both gods and men. Having carved out a niche for themselves in the corner of Shael, Wren and the others now search for acceptance from a world that continues to hate and fear their kind. When a mysterious illness appears on the streets of Perizzi, it’s up to Tammy to make sure the virus spreads no further. But she fails as the city is soon quarantined, and are left with a choice—will they survive together, or die alone? As Munroe hunts the being that stole her family from her, nothing will stand in her way. Less justice, more vengeance; nothing will save Akosh when the mage catches up to her. For justice is all well and good, but some debts can only be paid in blood. Akosh has fallen far from the goddess she truly is. Hunted on all fronts, she is forced into an alliance with a being even more powerful and ancient than herself. And when even her once ally threatens to turn on her, Akosh must make the ultimate sacrifice to survive. Revealed as something more than mortal, Danoph know travels with Vargus, the one-time Weaver showing him the ropes. But what is Danoph’s task, exactly? And will he be able to fulfill it when the truth is revealed?

I know this was a fairly brief prompt compared to my usual ramble, but at the end of a six book series (that’s two trilogies), I’m not sure who’s where and how much I should be revealing. Hopefully I did a decent enough job of keeping it informative, yet also vague enough that anyone can jump right in.

I’ve really enjoyed these two trilogies—both the Age of Darkness and the Age of Dread—though I know they weren’t exactly giant successes. It seems most of the people I’ve talked to about them read one or two of the first trilogy, but thought they were decent at best, and then dropped off. Well, everyone’s allowed their own opinion, but it doesn’t really matter as I thought they were brilliant!

With five books preceding Magebane, there are so many paths diverging and converging that the story could almost end up anywhere. It was a brief disappointment when instead we arrived at two shared threads, but the conclusion was entertaining enough that I soon got over it. Though not as epic (in my opinion) as the finale of Chaosmage, the ending here was still impressive. An ultimate evil on one side, while a much different evil awaits on the other. It wasn’t exactly what I’d expected given the series’ history, but in some ways impressed me more given that it broke out of the mold it’d kept to up to this point.

The characters and world-building have been strong throughout the series, reaching an impressive zenith as all their threads collide. While we didn’t get as much exposure to either Sorcerer as I would’ve liked in this final book, enough of the other characters starred that I got over the slight—especially when I figured out what the author was up to. While the trilogies both feature so much of the affairs of gods and sorcerers; the world is not built upon them. It’s built on the backs of mortals. Or, I guess, ‘it is in men that we must place our hope.’ Many stories ended here, some are only getting started. I can’t wait to see where Aryan takes the story from here!

TL;DR

The Age of Darkness ended with a bang. The Age of Dread ends in much the same manner. Another epic conclusion concludes another epic series. Part of me was truly disappointed to see it end, but every story must come to an end. As they’ve struggled to adapt and overcome over the course of six books, the characters that emerge from Magebane have seen some things. They’ve been fleshed out, humanized, developed, grown, regressed, both most of all survived. Everything has led to this point—the end of an age. If you’ve not yet begun either series—I’d definitely recommend it. If you’re somewhere in the middle but on the fence about continuing—I’d still recommend it. If not, I understand; there’s always more to read 🙂

They Mostly Come Out at Night – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

I quite like the cover, done by Jenny Zemanek

Yarnsworld #1

Dark Fantasy

One More Page; June 16, 2016

216 pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Lonan is an outcast, accused of leading monsters to his village and letting them in to the homes of his fellow villagers. That night Lonan’s father died, while Branwen—the love of his life—was horribly scarred. Neither his love nor his mother has looked at him the same again. All the while, the real culprit escapes notice, the man and his strange Knack keeping suspicion from him. Now, years later, the village still cowers in their cellars in the dead of night, fearing the monsters that roam above.

The Magpie King keeps us safe…

An old adage in the village of Smithdown, referring to the forest’s king and mysterious protector. But the Magpie King is more myth than monarch—none of the villagers having seen him in their lives. So when Lonan starts having dreams of the young Magpie King, he’s certain his mind is starting to dessert him. Certain, but for one thing.

Adahy is the son of the Magpie King. His father, equal parts ruler and protector of the forest, stalks the night, keeping the villages safe from the monsters that would otherwise prey on them. The King wields mysterious and supernatural power and speed, granted his bloodline by the Magpies. But when a new monstrosity appears in the forest, it challenges everything the King has worked so hard to build. It falls to Adahy and his closest friend, Maedoc, to deal with this foe. Yet the dark history of the forest has more in store for this pair than just what looms before them. What follows is a tale of hope, deceit, and darkness all rolled into one.

Dreaming the course of Adahy’s life, Lonan is clued into this new threat. And those that would follow it. But can he get someone—anyone—to believe him, or will the darkness overwhelm the village of Smithdown, once and for all?

I remember liking They Mostly when I first read it, but it made little impression on me at the time. Back then, I was just getting into dark fantasy, and the story—while dark, while entertaining, while foreboding—also bears the marks of a debut work.

While I found the story of Lonan a bit difficult to care about at first, I immediately took to Adahy and his tale, becoming more enamored with Lonan along the way. The young prince is, well… young. Inexperienced. The story serves much as a coming of age tale for him. At least for a time. Lonan, however, has already come of age. In a village that loathes him, but a few folk are willing to be seen with him. So few of these characters seem real, however, with a majority feeling like cardboard cutouts, introduced to fill space but do little else. Even the love of his life, Branwen, feels like a husk. I would’ve liked to see a bit more on her, on why Lonan likes her, on their lives before the incident. Sure—there’s some development here, just not much. But while I thoroughly enjoyed Lonan’s own adventure, development and growth, I cared little about that of anyone else’s. Though to be fair, there’s only one other character that’s fleshed out to any significant degree.

The character of Adahy seems like little more than an extension of Lonan at first, but grows from a dream into something more real. It was his story that I connected to initially, and this never faded over time. Unlike the village boy, Adahy doesn’t have much anyone in his life apart from his best friend, Maedoc—the whipping boy, punished in the prince’s place when he screws up (yes, this was a thing). While Maedoc too seems under-developed, the two form a special dynamic that both entertained and moved the story along, even as Lonan got a handle on his part in it.

Where the characters of Yarnsworld fell flat, it was the setting that really sold the story for me. A dark land of mystery and monsters, the Forest was equal parts fantasy kingdom, faerie tale, and horror story rolled into one. Though the writing wasn’t perfect—the author occasionally misusing words or mixing them up (e.g. I remember him using ‘gleam’ when he really meant ‘glean’, which may’ve been a typo except that his kept misusing it)—it certainly conveyed the darkness and horrors lurking just off stage, the nightmares wandering the darkness of the land. This cast a presage of foreboding over the Forest, making it seem dark and mysterious, especially at night. During the day, I really liked how it reverted to the typical enchanted forest; still dark, but no more or less than usual. Considering Lonan spent his days here, foraging, it created an interesting dynamic here, something that I actually would’ve liked to’ve seen more of.

The ending of They Mostly was a unique take, that I obviously can’t talk much about. It did feel a little abrupt, just a bit of a disappointment, but didn’t leave any threads unwoven, any stones unturned. All in all, the story was pretty great—an excellent adventure though with a bit of an uninspired conclusion.

The book contains a number of short faerie tales or myths about the Magpie King, Artemis, or the world itself. These work as interludes between chapters. Except for one or two, I found these interesting snippets of lore about the world. It’s possible they might annoy you, but if so, just skip ‘em. While they can add detail, they’re not absolutely essential to the plot.

TL;DR

With a dark, twisted setting and a mysterious, intriguing story, They Mostly Come Out at Night proved to be an interesting debut, before falling victim to some typical debut failings. Hollow supporting characters, failure to capitalize on good ideas, a fairly short and unrefined, if compelling story feature prominently among these. Oddly, the author also occasionally misused words—not misspelling them, but using one when he should’ve another—almost like there was no real editor. Which is possible, but for the otherwise lack of any glaring grammatical or spelling issues. Nothing was enough to distract me from the story, however, as Yarnsworld quickly drank me in. I read They Mostly in two days, and thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. While there definitely were issues, I’d say they’re outweighed by the gains, making They Mostly Come Out at Night if not a must-read dark fantasy, then one to consider reading if curiosity strikes your interest.

The series presently contains three other books, each set in the same world, but unrelated to the first. All also have long names—Where the Waters Turn Black; Those Brave, Foolish Souls from the City of Swords; From the Shadows of the Owl Queen’s Court. A short, free tale—And They Were Never Heard From Again—provides a good intro to the series, which you can check out if you’re interested.

The Last Smile in Sunder City – by Luke Arnold (Review)

Fetch Phillips Archives #1

Dark Fantasy, Mystery

Orbit Books; February 25, 2020

368 pages (ebook)

4.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly furnished with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit and NetGalley for the ARC!

Fetch Phillips has been called many things in his life, though few worse than those he calls himself. He was born nowhere, a settlement that was soon reduced to even less. The sole survivor of the massacre, Fetch was taken in by Weatherly—a human city that wanted nothing more than forget the magic outside its walls. And for much of his young life, Fetch tried. Tried, and failed, to forget the magic. To forget what he’d seen, what he’d heard, what fate had claimed his family. In Weatherly he had a new family, new kin, and a place that he’d never wanted. But in the end, he couldn’t escape the call of the magic—and left Weatherly behind, en route to Sunder City.

Much has happened since then. Too much, for Fetch’s reckoning. He still calls Sunder City home, eking out his living amidst the magical creatures and humans alike as a Private Eye—one available to the magic community only. Or should we say the FORMERLY magical community. For, several years after Fetch’s escape from Weatherly, the magic in Sunder—in the whole of creation—died. But the monsters remain.

Edmund Rye is a teacher at the first school for all the descendants of the formerly magical. Ogre, gnome, elven children rub elbows and play tag with goblins, kobolds, sirens, and dwarves. The professor is a delight, fully committed to his work, the future, and the students themselves. That is, until recently when Rye disappeared.

Enter Fetch Phillips, Man for Hire, contracted to find the professor and if possible return him to his duties. But the deck is stacked against him. For the professor is a member of the Blood Race—a vampire. Of course, when the magic died, the vampires lost their thirst for blood. Except that maybe, somehow, Rye’s has returned. Or maybe he’s just dead, rotting in a ditch somewhere. Phillips doesn’t care—he gets paid the same either way.

But when a young siren girl—and Rye’s prodigy—turns up missing as well, Fetch’s life complicates further. For as little as he cares about Rye, the girl has untapped potential. Something Fetch himself is fresh out of. Maybe something he never even had. And as he begins to give a damn about the case, several inopportune things happen. The ghosts from Fetch’s past begin to turn up in the present. And things that should’ve remained buried come to life. And though the magic is well and truly dead, hope is not quite gone, and neither is Fetch Phillips.

‘ Maybe nobody gets better. Maybe bad people just get worse. It’s not the bad things that make people bad, though. From what I’ve seen, we all work together in the face of adversity. Join up like brothers and work to overcome whatever big old evil wants to hold us down. The thing that kills us is the hope. Give a good man something to protect and you’ll turn him into a killer. ‘

A life without hope is no life at all, but a desperate hope is little better. For a person who has lost all hope is nothing but predictable, but a desperate person is completely unpredictable. And unpredictability begets chaos.

The Last Smile in Sunder City is the fantasy debut from Black Sails actor Luke Arnold. And it is—as you may’ve guessed—a story of hope. Set in a dark but beautiful world, Sunder City is an amazing, if depressing setting. Arnold fills the pages with history and lore, both before and after the death of all magic—filling the story with a sense of desperation, and of hope.

Now where the world-building is pretty solid, the story is somewhat blah. It’s not bad exactly, just straightforward. The mystery itself wasn’t too deep or inventive, and I sometimes lost track of things when Arnold attempted to set the scene. These glimpses into the history of the world were interesting, but ultimately distracted from the plot itself. Where an open world full of side-quests may work well for an RPG, it doesn’t really work for a book. Additionally, sometimes Fetch takes unbelievable leaps in his logic, relating two or more clues that don’t appear to add up.

A deliciously dark setting, combined with a story of hope and hopelessness, make Last Smile a must-read for any fans of dark fantasy. Indeed, I found a world recently relieved of its magic to be an unique and immersive setting, particularly as the main character has his own history surrounding the event. Not only did the Coda cost the world its magic, but it cost Fetch Phillips more than a little bit of himself. The effects that the loss has on the world’s formerly magical inhabitants proved as fascinating as they were horrible, from death and disfiguration to hopelessness and despair. The effect upon mankind were much less severe, with only those few wizards and witches affected by the loss, but now humans are universally loathed for their part in the Coda. A part that you can read about in the book (I’m not giving it away).

While I’d definitely recommend the Last Smile for its world and setting, if nothing else, I must admit I had one notable issue with it. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what era this world was set in. Likely because Arnold has just made up something all on his own; a world that had little need for innovation or technology before the magic left. And yet, there’re things like phones and hospitals and automobiles and police, but no guns or radios or the like.

TL;DR

Set in a dark and dreary world newly devoid of magic, The Last Smile in Sunder City is a solid four star debut from actor Luke Arnold. While the main mystery leaves something to be desired, the journey of Fetch Phillips more than makes up for it. At times seemingly random and disoriented, this amalgamation of history, mystery and lore bespoke of heart, redemption, and—more than anything—hope. And in a world of darkness, even the smallest spark can give light to an even greater hope, no matter how unlikely it seems.

The Fetch Phillips Archives continues with Dead Man in a Ditch, due out October 6, 2020.