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)

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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

Fantasy

Angry Robot; August 9, 2022

379 pages (paperback)

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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.

TL;DR

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)

Standalone

Science Fiction

Orbit Books; July 12, 2022

391 pages (paperback)

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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.

Thello.

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.

TL;DR

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?

The Martyr – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

Covenant of Steel #2

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit; June 28, 2022

526 pages (paperback)

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9.0 / 10 ✪

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

Devotion is inherently nonsensical

Once an outlaw and vagabond, Alwyn Scribe has moved up in the world. Former scribe of the Covenant Company, he now serves as spymaster and sworn protector of Lady Evadine Courlain, the Risen Martyr, whose visions of the apocalypse—called the Second Surge—have divided the kingdom around her.

Evadine’s status as a living martyr has put her at odds with both the Crown and the Faith. Though behind her stand rank upon rank of her converts; barely fed, untrained, fanatics. The Crown and Covenant possess enough of a standing army to make a bloody fight of it, should it come to blows.

Which it has not—yet—as Evadine remains a loyal subject. It seems there exists a plan to see her dead without a bloody revolution, as soon Alwyn and the company are dispatched to Alundia to quash a rebellion; a faith that sees Evadine as more of a whore and heretic than her own. Here they are set up in a ruin and commanded to raise the King’s banner, distribute a list of traitors for deliverance, and hold until the King arrives with his army. Such is basically a death-sentence and all know it. But what choice do they have?

Here Alwyn finds more than just a war for the faith, a division of kingdoms. While he’s never been sure what to think of Evadine—whether she is a sycophant or insane—he knows she remains sworn to a better future. Despite their link, (or because of it) maybe that is something he can follow, to the end.

A man who isn’t truly a king stands ready to greet a woman who isn’t truly a martyr.

I have often reflected upon the notion that the worst thing about having true friends is missing all of them when they’re gone.

The Pariah was one of my favorite books of 2021, an introduction to Alwyn Scribe: outlaw, pariah, prisoner, scribe, liar. The Martyr takes Alwyn in a different direction. Heck, it opens with him as a knight. Well, kind of a knight. In fact, it actually opens with him laid up with a cracked skull and a hallucination taken up residence in his head. It’s quite an up and down for old Alwyn, beginning at the outset of the Pariah, and I am happy to report that it carries on throughout the second book. Never a dull moment.

A nicely paced novel cobbled together with solid world-building, fascinating characters, and an interesting premise—yeah, it ticks all the boxes for me. There is a slight pacing issue over the second half, and the story took me a good while longer to get into this time around, so I didn’t love it quite as much as its predecessor—but all in all it’s another marvel. The mystery of the Sack Witch grows to another level, as does Evadine’s status and what it means for the continent. Alwyn’s status, on the other hand, often changes chapter to chapter. Never a dull moment, as I said.

And… yeah. I’m not really sure what else to say about this. It’s good. Read it? I mean, that’s pretty much my recommendation, especially if you enjoyed the previous one. And if you didn’t enjoy the previous one… why not? Read it again and enjoy it this time. Then read the Martyr. I cannot wait to see where the story goes from here!

Our Crooked Hearts – by Melissa Albert (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Paranormal, Witches

Flatiron Books; June 28, 2022

345 pages (ebook)

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9.25 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Flatiron Books & NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

The Suburbs – RIGHT NOW:

Ivy’s summer break kicks off with an accident, a grounding, and a break-up. But there’s also a mystery to it all. The mystery of what happened that night; who that girl in the middle of the road was; why she was naked; and how she knew Ivy’s name. To find the answers, Ivy must pick apart everything that she thinks she knows about herself, her life—and her mother.

The City – BACK THEN:

Dana has always been perceptive, if not creative. But then she had to grow up quick. Didn’t have time for what-ifs, childhood, or fantasies of monsters and magic. Well… maybe there was time for a little magic.

Because Dana has always known she’s had a little bit of magic within her. She knew it from the time she was born, but really only came into it with the help of her best friend, Fiona. The two were inseparable from the moment they first met, from what their mutual gifts awakened in one another. When Dana meets Marion, for a moment she thinks she’s found another kindred soul, another piece of herself. But that moment does not last long. And while she discovers that the magic she’s always known she had can be so much more when she’s among other practitioners, witches, friends—she also learns the cost of betrayal and greed. It is a price she may have to pay in blood.

Or rabbits.

It might’ve begun with Dana, but this story is years in the telling. By the time Ivy comes into the picture the story has lulled, but soon it flares strongly to life once more. Both will just have to hope that the secrets at the heart of this shared story won’t tear their family apart, or their lives along with it.

So. Magic. It is the loneliest thing in the world.

It’s going to be hard for me to put into words just how much I enjoyed Our Crooked Hearts. I pretty much devoured this one, cover to cover, sleep be damned. The creepy, tense thriller that comes from next to nothing. The dark undercurrent of the story to start that grows and grows until the darkness begins to bleed into every part of the tale. The mystery of both mother and daughter—one told in the past, one in the present; one trying to solve this riddle, the other very much attempting to keep it hidden; a naked girl, a coven of witches, a dark secret. The shared story, told in two parts, each one teasing their own secrets out one piece at a time.

It was… oh so satisfying!

While the story itself is no slouch—nothing that’s been overdone or is too long or confusing or convoluted—the characters of Dana and Ivy are definitely the reason to read this. Or, I guess, their shared story is. It’s this link between the past and the present—that so many stories try, to only marginal success—that makes Our Crooked Hearts the amazing tale that it is. Mostly alternating chapters—one in the past, one in the present—up until everything starts going a bit pear-shaped. Both stories are exciting, mysterious and tense, highly interesting and entertaining, but it’s the way they play on each other that makes it so much better. The way the characters interact between timelines, where their problems and personalities conflict or overlap. The way they play off one another—something you can only really find in stories with two main protagonists (not that this only has the TWO, necessarily).

So, you see, it is the strength of the story after all!

Well, that and its characters.

The world is one very much like our own—I mean, it could well be our own. But there’s a darkness to it, something like a shadow creeping on its edges. Very much like what you’d find in the Hinterlands, which a lot of sense given the author. A delightfully dark tale, one fans of Schwab or Kingfisher will enjoy.

The romance, however. It’s not great. It… never really felt real to me. More like a childish crush that we just continued because we felt like it was the thing to do. Because we didn’t have any other prospects. It’s very much a love borne out of convenience, if history. And while it may not have made a ton of sense at any time in the story, it made even less sense in the end. Fortunately, the romance is a bit of an afterthought—it’s not vital to the plot. Less of a plot point, more of an addendum.

TL;DR

While I didn’t come to Our Crooked Hearts for the romance, I wasn’t asked to stay for it either. Instead, author Melissa Albert presents a world very much like our own, albeit with an ever-so-dark twist—one you may not even notice until it starts creeping around the edges of your vision. What unfolds is a story of a daughter and her mother. One of shared meaning and love. One of darkness and regret. One of mystery and secrets. One that is sure to thrill, but also make you think. One with blood, and rabbits—and often both at the same time. To be honest, I’m not sure what made me stay with Our Crooked Hearts. Maybe it was the delightful darkness. The amazing story. The equally amazing characters. The mystery. The magic. The tension. The secrets, and where they led. There were so many reasons to stay and only the briefest of disappointments when it came to the romance—not something I really read books for anyway. So try Our Crooked Hearts for basically every reason, as it’s an incredible read. Just maybe not the romance.

The Barrow – by Mark Smylie (Review)

Sword & Barrow #1

Grimdark, Fantasy, Epic

Pyr; March 4, 2014

587 pages (paperback)

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8.5 / 10 ✪

With the long-awaited release of Black Heart earlier this year, it was time to revisit the world of Artesia via The Barrow, a prequel adventure to the comics/graphic novels that I’ve not yet read. What I remembered about the book I read back in 2014 could’ve filled… well, a paragraph? A short one, at least.

Deep and extensive world-building. A highly addictive read full of adventure, magic, darkness, intrigue, and bloody fights. Also, very graphic sex.

Which… yeah, is basically the Barrow in a nutshell. But let’s go a little deeper, shall we?

To find the Sword, unearth the Barrow. To unearth the Barrow, follow the Map.

Stjepan Black-Heart, murderer, royal cartographer, and adventurer, is desperate for success. But then he’s traversed the whole of the Middle Kingdoms—even escaping their bounds, and crossing the continent itself. But for his greatest adventure, he must turn to somewhere oh so close to home.

When asked just who she was, Erim wasn’t sure what to say. But after a trip to Manon Mole, she would’ve said she was Stjepan’s man. Only hiccup being that she ain’t a man at all, but a woman masquerading as one. What she may lack in confidence, Erim makes up in skill. Her skill with a blade, specifically. But this latest adventure may answer a few questions for her—if it doesn’t kill her first.

Harvald Orwain is the youngest son of a once great house, determined to retrieve his family’s honor. He’s also a troublemaker, thief, and architect of the crew’s current mission. After all, only a miracle can resurrect their family name. A miracle, or a mythical sword.

The sword Gladringer is one of the most legendary blades in creation. Used by the last Dragon king to slay the Wormlords and their hell-forged swords, it was lost by a lord known forever as the Fumbler, and fell out of hand and into legend. However, rumor has it that it was taken up by Azharad, an evil warlock without equal, and was buried with him in his barrow when he fell. Many adventurers have set out to find this blade, and only a few returned empty-handed.

Because most never returned at all.

The problem with the barrow is, while it’s thought to exist in the Bale Mole, its precise locale is lost to time. And the Bale Mole is as vast as it is deadly. And yet Harvald and Stjepan have hope. Because they have found something that no one else has.

A map.

But even with a map, a quest into the Bale Mole is fraught with danger. They’ll need a some weapons, some talent, some expendables—they’ll need a crew.

Gilgwyr is a brothel owner and exceptional pervert. The only thing he likes more than sex is power, and the coin to enable it. Leigh, a magus who may not be the evil wizard he was exiled for, but he’s definitely gone a little bit crazy in his years alone. Arduin Orwain is the scion of Harvald’s house, brought low by scandal. Annwyn is the beautiful cause of said scandal. Godewyn Red-Hand is a mercenary, murderer, rapist, and professional asshole. But where the crew is headed, they’ll need all the help they can get.

Wilhem Price and Sir Colin Urwed were walking around the Ladies’ Tent, marking a sentry circle, scanning the field and hills around them, when they heard something like a whisper come up from the hill. They turned and looked up the hill just in time to see a plunge of dust jet out from the entrance to the barrow some six hundred paces away up the stone steps. The two of them took a few steps toward the hill and stopped, then looked at each other.

A bloody, violent, brutal romp through half the empire to the tomb of an evil necromancer. Absolutely filled with violence, lore, graphic sex, and “oh FUCK” moments. Supported by tension, mystery—and lore the likes of which is rarely seen. Did I mention the graphic, graphic sex? It’s like, I mean, I can’t judge personal preference or taste but… it’s borderline too much. Beastiality, incest, consenting adults and all that. I mean, it’s definitely noticeable, especially in the beginning. But then the adventure takes over.

This is the dark fantasy you always wanted. Or never wanted to see. Or… probably somewhere in between.

And if the graphic sex didn’t scare you off, the gratuitous violence probably won’t either. But, to be fair, it really isn’t the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s definitely grimdark level combat, but Smylie doesn’t have the bloody red streak that you’ll see in Abercrombie and Lawrence. But he does have his own personal touch (what with the all sex and such).

The adventure, the quest is the reason to come and the reason to stay. Set in a world of deep lore and meticulously built from the ground up, Artesia is truly a wonder, say what you will about how it comes across. There’s just so much to it—the depth keeps going. Sometimes this was borderline too much as well; unwanted info that otherwise spoiled the mood, or more likely the pace, though I really couldn’t find myself caring overly much about it. This is the Barrow’s charm, you see. You take one with the other. And to go on this legendary adventure, you’re going to have to pick up a bit of its history. History that was mostly quite entertaining. I only ever really noticed it near the end. Otherwise, I didn’t care.

The adventure itself… well, it’s a treasure hunt through a kingdom of lords and thieves. Of whores and ladies. Of magic and mystery. Of darkness and… darker darkness. It’s everything that you ever dreamt when you first read Narnia and though “hmmm that doesn’t seem realistic”. It’s a treasure-hunt with all the blood and sex and battles and undead and intrigue and mythos and more. It’s a hell of an adventure and a hell of a read.

And it’s just the beginning.

Black Heart, the second Sword & Barrow novel by Mark Smylie, is currently available in three parts as an ebook, but has yet to be picked up by any publisher. If you’re curious about the story there, I’ve a bit of a series of posts about it. I’ll throw the links in down at the bottom. The final entry in the Sword & Barrow, Bright Sword, is in the works. Smylie has said he’s started working on it already, and with Black Heart finally releasing, I’m actually hopeful we’ll see it in the next few years.

• Black Heart Updates •

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Equinox – by David Towsey (Review)

Standalone / Noob #1

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Head of Zeus; May 12, 2022 (UK/EU)

368 pages (ebook)

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6.5 / 10 ✪

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.

In a world where identity changes with the rising and setting of the sun, you can never know who to to trust, or just what anyone is hiding. With two beings within the same body, relationships between night and day have been stretched to such an extreme that they might be different worlds altogether. But when one personality changes to another—the world remains the same.

Christophor Morden is a special investigator of the King of Reikova. Awoken early one night, he is called to the city prison where he’s confronted by a grisly sight. A young man has ripped their eyes out in a fit of madness—though the madness might be justified. Why? Well, because behind their eyeballs, teeth were growing.

What Christophor hopes is an aberration turns out to be more common than any would like to admit. Rumors and strange tales out of the south—of witches and magic, of demons and unfaithful, of a war brewing on the kingdom’s borders. But the only thing he can substantiate are the teeth. The teeth are very much real. And they didn’t come into the boy’s eye sockets naturally.

And so he is dispatched to Drekenford—a village on the southern border—to hunt down whatever’s responsible for this dark magic. But what he finds there will cost Christophor—in more ways than one.

Alexander understands his night-brother’s call as a special investigator, but that doesn’t mean he likes it. A musician himself, Christophor’s day-brother often haunts the common houses, theaters, and taverns of Esteberg, where he plies his trade. Yet when Christophor is sent south, Alexander has no choice but to follow. Though what he finds there may cost Alexander more than his trade. For when his night-brother unearths the witch, Alexander will end up doing everything in his power to save her, the King’s justice be damned.

The unfaithful lose sight of themselves;
The sword shrivels to flakes of snow;
The law devours its history;
The stone moves on water;
The broken heart bleeds gold.

The more time I spent in the world of Equinox, the more it grew on me. Starting out as a fairly generic city in a generic world, it instantly loses points with the recycling of various real-world subjects to cover where its own world-building breaks down. I’m really torn on this—it’s very much a love/hate relationship; there’s a really good story within and what it does well is done really well, but… well, you’ll see.

Catholicism is the dominant religion of the kingdom, a fact that isn’t remotely explained despite all the questions it brings to mind. Did Christ have a night-brother? Is the whole night/day cycle mentioned in scripture? Is this actually Earth rather than a different world? None of these are answered. In fact, the author seems to go out of his way to avoid these questions, as any debate that comes to center on religion at all gets shut down quickly. The whole night/day cycle suffers the same fate—and so we never get more than the barest glimpse into why or how this system works. While it’s a fascinating concept, the lack of literally any explanation surrounding it ruin what could’ve been an innovative and unique twist.

Honestly, with the amount of questions the system alone raises that are completely ignored, I feel like I could write a whole new book. While I’m assuming that’s the reason the author doesn’t address the subject at all, it just comes off as lazy. He should’ve addressed one or two of the more important points, rather than completely ignoring them all.

For example: how does the body function on zero sleep? Is the day/night thing recent, or eternal? How does an unchanged Earth religion account for literally any of this?

Throughout the text, the various day/night personalities complain about their counterparts. Like it’s a new thing. Like it’s not written into religion (which, if it had been around very long at all, it must’ve been). Grrrraaahhh—writing the review for this is making me rage at the dozens of unanswered questions I have about the concept. Which I’ll try not to address any further.

At its heart, Equinox is a story of witchcraft and witch hunting. Chistophor lives in the shadow, but walks with the light—having arrested 34 witches over his lifetime. And yet this might be the most dangerous of the lot, as it puts he and his day-brother at odds. Despite my issues with the world, the unanswered questions, the characters, the development, the unanswered questions—I know that there is a good story somewhere in here. Even with all the issues I had bouncing around in my head, I never once thought of abandoning this. I was able to buckle down and focus on the story, and let it drink me in.

And so brings the third book in as many days that I’m on the fence about. I had some issues with this book (okay, LOTS AND LOTS of issues), but I legitimately enjoyed it too. There were some parts that were a bit cringeworthy, but they were few and far between. The day/night cycle was fascinating, despite being unformed and unfounded. The world was interesting as well, despite being a bad copy of Earth. The end was good, despite the ending being a bit confusing and hectic. I love the cover, but I’m not sure it’s worth the price. If you were going to rip it off and stick it on the wall—…maybe? But as a book to display… I’d really prefer if it were better.

The Bladed Faith – by David Dalglish (Review)

Vagrant Gods #1

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit; April 5, 2022

470 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

8 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit for sending me a lovely physical ARC! And additional thanks to David Dalglish for taking the time to chat with me a bit more about it! All opinions are my own.

How did one weigh one atrocity against another?

According to David Dalglish, this is his 20th novel (something I’m not going to measure or question at all and just go with)—and what better way to mark the occasion than with a review…? Okay, okay, I guess I could’ve got him a gift or something. Might have to, after this goes live. Because while I did quite like the book, it wasn’t quite the adventure that the Keepers was, nor the chaos of Shadowdance.

But we’ll get into that later.

When Prince Cyrus was twelve, the Everlorn Empire came to his shores. A quick and decisive battle later, his fleet was demolished, his city burned, his gods defeated, and his parents killed. Taken prisoner to legitimize the Empire’s rule, for two years Cyrus was paraded about as the captive prince, until the execution of his gods gave him an opportunity to escape.

Now, holed up in the Thanet countryside, Cyrus is given his one chance to strike back at the Empire that took everything from him. The fledgling resistance—such as it is—needs a figurehead to legitimize their cause, and the former prince is perfect for the job.

But, his road to revenge isn’t to be an easy one. For while the island needs an heir, the path to freedom is not paved with diplomacy. Not entirely, at least. Instead Cyrus is secretly trained to be a killer: a god of blood and fury, wielding twin sabres and hidden behind a skull mask and cloak.

The Vagrant rises to protect Thanet, and to see its invaders to the shores.

But not all is as it seems. Cyrus’ god-given right to rule is not as solid as he once thought, and the mantle of the Vagrant isn’t the heroic role he imagined. Soon he will discover the real weight of his duty—and the price of his vengeance.


“You took from me everything I loved. My parents. My kingdom. Even my gods. I can’t unmake the loss, but I can make you hurt. I can make you afraid.

“And you will come to fear me, monsters of the empire. You will fear the Vagrant Prince when he comes to reclaim his crown.”

He lowered his swords. A smile cracked his stern expression to match the one on his mask. He laughed to himself, mood unable to remain serious for so long.

“Hopefully.”

As tales of vengeance go, the Bladed Faith is the start of a pretty good one. An impressionable boy willing to do whatever it takes to avenge the deaths of his parents, his gods, his kingdom. Willing to kill for Thanet’s freedom, even at the expense of his life. But the deeper he goes down the rabbit hole, the more he questions it. The more he learns, the more it haunts him; the lives he’s ended, the path he’s taken, the secrets he’s found. There’s a very real sense, throughout the book, that Cyrus is keeping it all together through sheer force will, maybe bound by scotch tape and bits of string. His mental heath is way past questionable even before he was imprisoned by the invaders that destroyed his whole world. That he’s just going to come to pieces at some point, some point soon. And the secrets that he learns—I mean, I can’t give anything away here, but it sets up an epic conclusion, one I truly did not see coming.

And while it’s great to see an author address the health and stress and mental battles coming with killing so much (and that becoming a “heartless killer” isn’t something that a person can just turn on and off with no repercussions), I would’ve actually liked to have seen a bit more of it. Let me explain. When you really get into it, the Bladed Faith boils down to two key aspects: fight scenes, and the exhaustion that comes after. I mean, yeah, there’s some set-dressing, some political intrigue, some world-building and lore and whatever else. But the key moments—especially after the halfway point—boil down to the fight, and what follows it.

It’s really hard to complain about the fight-scenes. It’s not like some books where that’s all there are, or others where they are too few and too far between. Plus Dalglish writes them so well! There a good amount of battles, scraps, prowling rooftops, ambushing soldiers, screwing up and having to fight their way out. When the battle is raging, the battle-lust is high. But when the red leaves their eyes—especially for Cyrus—the aftermath is near as intense as the actual fight. That said, it feels… incomplete, somehow. See, there’s usually a cutaway between the fight and the exhaustion that follows. A break in the narrative that occurs just at that point where it goes from “kill kill kill” to “what have I done?”. I think that’s one of the reasons it never felt really fulfilling to me. The other being that none of Cyrus’ heartfelt moments after seem to come to fruition. And while I understand the reasoning behind the latter, I don’t so much for the former. When it works—as it does quite often—there’s nothing to complain about. When it’s done well, it really gets you thinking, considering the story from a new perspective. But it doesn’t always work. There’s a… for a book that strives so much to detail the emotions of its protagonists, this seems like a strange tactic. Just a break when emotions are running their strongest, or their weakest; when the battle-lull sets in, and the lust fades. Yes, there’s plenty of time spent examining what happens after, but it’s “some time after”, not “directly after”. I suppose what I’m objecting to (as it’s not even that obvious to me) is the break in the range of emotions. We’ve had the highs of the battle. Then there’s a break. And now we’re dealing with the lows of the experience. This is predominantly what I remember happening (there are a few that go: highs of battle, then a lull, then a break, or lull to full downturn, but really nothing that encompasses the whole thing)—I suppose all in all, it seems a rather minor thing to harp on, but in a book that seems to spend so much time on the emotions of becoming a hardened killer, it really doesn’t ever seem to focus on the entire range of emotions.

For the resistance against such an enemy as the Everlorn Empire, whose borders span pretty much the known world, the tiny isle of Thanet is the perfect setting. We don’t have to focus on the world in its entirety. There aren’t a lot of unconnected POVs placed strategically amidst a vast sea. We focus on a little island a hundred leagues from the mainland, and the whole of the story takes place here. While there is lore about the rest of the empire, especially the farther we get on, the reader only has to really focus on Thanet. I really liked this; I thought it worked really well. While I was curious about the larger world (I always am—I can’t help myself), I was happy enough to concentrate on this one part of it so long as the story centers there. Now the author has hinted that the Vagrant Gods trilogy could just be one piece of a much larger tale—one that surely would involve a glimpse of the much larger world—there are no specifics at this point. And while I will admit that some fantasies that span the entire globe do turn out to be AMAZING, they can be quite overwhelming at first. And some readers can burn out on them quite quickly. The smaller, more centralized story here shouldn’t suffer the same. And while some readers will invariably DNF this, it’s likely not the number had it been a universe-spanning, millennial-long tale of truly epic proportions.

TL;DR

I’m not sure what the future holds for the Vagrant Gods, but I know I’m on-board for it. While it’s not the perfect execution in my mind, the Bladed Faith deals with far more than the stabby-stabby bits of an impressionable youth turned hardened killer. There’s quite the range of highs and lows, emotional and mental fortitudes, and long, hard looks at oneself within. And though the emotional range is a little lacking to what I might’ve liked, it’s far more than that of other books and media where our protagonist flips a switch between killer and average guy like it’s nothing at all. This story of vengeance takes place in the secluded corner of a truly vast empire, and rarely stretches beyond its shores. Yes, there is a bit of lore and history of the Empire and its wars, but for the most part our attention remains glued on Thanet. And I loved that. I thought it worked quite well as the introduction to a possibly grander story. It doesn’t overwhelm or distract the reader with dozens of POVs over thousands of miles; it concentrates on this little isle, so long as the story centers here. Which it does throughout the Bladed Faith, at least.

I’d also suggest carrying on after the main attraction to read the author’s note. These are hit-and-miss, often little more than kudos to everyone who made the book possible (which is great, I’m not criticizing them), but Dalglish’s often include much more. The writing process; his state of mind; how the story evolved, sometimes even through publication. I always love reading these, and this one is no different. In it, he describes the tale that the Bladed Faith could have been. What it started out as, and how it became what it is. Honestly, I’d love to post the entirety of it, but I’ll have to talk to the author first. Or, you know, you could just buy the book and read it then;) I will have a little Q&A later this week where I ask things about what this series could’ve been, and why it wasn’t—so maybe check back for that in the meantime.

Seven Deaths of an Empire – by G.R. Matthews (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Solaris/Rebellion; March 29, 2022 (paperback)
Solaris/Rebellion; June 22, 2021 (ebook/hardcover)

550 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

9.5 / 10 ✪

“There is no right and wrong, no black and white. Life is not such a simple thing.”

Think Gladiator, but with magic.

General Bordan was born into nothing, but after a life dedicated to the Empire, he has achieved what little thought possible. He governs the army, the might of the Empire. Other than the Emperor and his kin, he may well be the most powerful man in the Empire. But he is also its most loyal servant.

When the Emperor is killed fighting the tribes in the north, Bordan must do all he can to protect the heir to the throne until the Emperor’s body is returned to the city. Then, with the amulet of office in hand—and the powerful magics within under their control—the heir can ascend the throne and assume control of the Empire. But until then nothing is guaranteed. Rebellion is brewing in the countryside. Assassins lurk in every shadow. And worse, politicians surround the royal family, hiding forked-tongues behind their honeyed words and silky smiles.

Apprentice Magician Kyron and his master are assigned to the late Emperor’s honor guard, tasked with seeing the body home to the capital. Mistrusted and feared by many of their own folk, the magicians are both revered and hated in equal measure. But magic is necessary for this task, for keeping the body from decay requires it. And so their presence is tolerated, if little else. But with many leagues between them and the capital, Kyron and the guard face the greatest danger of all. For whomever controls the Emperor’s amulet controls the succession—and the Empire is not lacking in those hungry for power, be they foe, or friend.

“If you stopped struggling to get free, the guards would not beat you,” Astenius pointed out.
“Life is struggle,” the warrior said.
“We only stop when we are dead,” Emlyn finished and the warrior’s gaze snapped around to her.
“Who are you to know the sayings of the forest?”
“I am of the forest,” she answered.
“Yet you stand with them,” he accused.
“Not through choice.”
“Then you struggle.”
“I am not dead yet,” she answered.

“Why attack us?” Astenius asked once more.
“You are here to be attacked,” the man answered.
“How many of your warriors were with you?”
“Not enough,” the warrior answered.
“How many more are there?”
“More than enough.”

“Are you sure you wish to do this?” Astenius said to the trapped warrior.
“I struggle,” the man replied, gritting his teeth.
“I applaud your bravery,” Astenius said, sweeping his hand to point at the brazier, “but your stupidity astounds me.”
“Life is disappointment,” the man said.

Seriously, Seven Deaths of an Empire reminded me so much of Gladiator that I often found my self picturing events from the book overlaid with scenes from the movie. The battle against the tribes in the forest. The legion’s return to the capital. While there’s no fight in the arena, the novel does include a Colosseum, even though we never get a good look inside. Fact is, Seven Deaths of an Empire was ripe for the picturing beneath scenes of Gladiator in no small part because—as you will see once you read it—the world was inspired heavily by the Roman Empire.

Only with magic.

The magic system is quite a basic one, but as enthralled as I found myself with the story, its lack of creativity never really bothered me. This adheres to the law that the only ones who can wield magic are those born with it. This in part seems to be why magic users are hated, feared. Jealousy breeds resentment, they say. And the church and magic never really gets along—in this world or any other.

The two POVs were quite good at getting the story across, each in their own way. Kyron is a bit young, a bit whiny—but this is his coming-of-age tale, and he’ll grow on you once you get used to him. His character might even develop over the course of the story. Bordan, on the other hand, is an old hand. He’s guided the heirs to the Empire for years, as he once was like kin to their father. He is patient and humble, and though his faith is not what it once was, he has faith in the Empire above all else. This is his true strength, but also his greatest weakness. Unlike Kyron, this story does not serve as Bordan’s beginning. It is his swan song. But will he live to see the Empire crumble, or die keeping it intact?

There are a lot of questions that come up over the course of the story, as the past is hinted at and slowly revealed; as loyalties are tested and friendships forged; as the Empire is caught in the wind, and teeters on its foundations. There are many vines in this, and not all will end up bearing fruit. Still, it was quite a thing to see them all come together at the end—and, while not all is cleared up, the overwhelming majority of my questions were answered. All the big and burning ones are, at least. In writing this review a week or two later I was able to come up with a couple that weren’t returned (though I really had to think about it), but none kept me up at night after finishing the story.

TL;DR

Seven Deaths of an Empire may be 550 pages, but to me it went by in a blink. Although it did take a little while to get going. But where it took me 3-4 days to read the first hundred pages, it took me one day to read the rest. Two very strong leads (though they’re both men; it didn’t bother me, but then I typically connect better with male characters, being a guy and all) made the story no effort at all to get into. It’s so reminiscent of Gladiator that I found myself overlaying scenes from the film with the world I’d constructed in my mind. The forests of Germany. The roads of the Empire. The obelisks and Colosseum and wonders of the capital. It really is quite like the Roman Empire but with magic. A thoroughly engrossing read, almost the whole way through. I took a couple points off for the build-up, but clearly nothing that ruined the story for me. Thoroughly recommended! Just don’t expect a happy, sunny story—as this is a dark fantasy, very occasionally bordering on grim.

Return of the Whalefleet – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

Darkstar Dimension #2

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Self-Published (Kickstarter Edition); December 12, 2021

length/page count N/A

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.0 / 5 ✪

Please beware minor spoilers for Flight of the Darkstar Dragon (Darkstar Book #1)! Or maybe just check out my Review for Flight of the Darkstar Dragon first;)

Just what is the price of survival?

This is the very question First Officer Choi Minjun and her crew have been trying to answer. For months they’ve been trapped in the mysterious Darkstar dimension, with its violet oceans and glowing fish, floating rocks and peculiar gravity, turtlemoths and gigantic dragon alone for company. They’ve made a kind of home for themselves with the rift’s only other human resident—Brightest, an old man who was been living in the dimension for decades—but it is a far cry from New Windward.

Although… they’re not technically “trapped”. Min and the crew of the Melodious Narwhal can leave whenever they want. In fact, they’ve been doing it for months—traveling to and from the Darkstar dimension via the numerous rifts that orbit the star itself. Unfortunately, while these rifts visit upon untold worlds, none of them will return the crew to their home.That can only be reached through a particular rift, one that only comes once every few years. And until it does, the Narwhal will be staying put.

But Min and the crew have been busy.

There’s not enough to live on in the Darkstar dimension. Other than a few tiny islets and oceans full of tasteless, glowing fish, the place is fairly sparse. Thus the crew have been busy scavenging from other dimensions—while chronicling their experiences within.

While traversing the rifts is rife with danger, it is also myriad in wonders. The best example of this is the Whalefleet: a race of interdimensional travelers sailing across the sky upon the backs of massive, luminous whales. Their passage has continued for months; a constant and aloof, untouchable by the crew despite their best efforts.

But it turns out Min and her crew weren’t alone in the dimension after all. When a mysterious force reaches out and attacks the Whalefleet, the crew is faced with an impossible choice: stand-by as these peaceful travelers are wiped out, or intervene and risk the attention of the ancient horror that haunts the Darkstar—one not even the dragon is willing to face.

“He?” Min said, looking at Loom again, unable to find any… features that would suggest a particular gender. “Loom is a ‘he’?” She lowered her voice, feeling the colour rush to her cheeks. “How can you tell?”

“Silly. He’s glowing green, isn’t he? Clearly a boy.”

If you haven’t read any of Benedict Patrick’s Yarnsworld before, know that his novels often have an eerie, unsettling feel, complete with dark overtones and a story that doesn’t always work out too well for anyone. It’s often not bleak enough to be grimdark, but it’s certainly not your classic “and they lived happily ever after” fantasy. It’s dark fantasy-horror, pure and simple. When Flight of the Darkstar Dragon released, it seemed as though the author might be graduating to something else. This book featured a perilous but triumphant story, with themes of hope and perseverance playing a major role. But if you took that as a sign the author was turning over a new leaf, Return of the Whalefleet has just adequately dashed these hopes.

But while Book #1 seemed to be presenting the Darkstar as a temporary prison, it was one with limitless potential for adventure, exploration, and discovery. Sure, there would be danger, but also thrills, boons, and maybe even a new way home within the rifts. And if everything else failed, the crew could always escape to the (relative) safety of the Darkstar.

Only the Darkstar isn’t the haven that it appeared. Sure, there’s the dragon the size of a small moon to consider, but it turns out the real horrors have always been there, lurking just out of sight the entire time. There’s definitely more of a horror vibe to Flight of the that seemed to be absent from Return of the. But again, if you’ve read the author before this series, this shouldn’t surprise you. And shouldn’t disappoint either.

It’s not a huge leap, and one that returning fans should take in stride. I found that this darker overtone made the place seem like more of a challenge, more a test of survival than the adventure its predecessor depicted. It’s a little like the jump from Lord of the Flies to Pincher Martin. If you loved one, you probably loved the other; but which did you enjoy more? Both are about survival, but one has much more to distract the reader from this—and the other is much darker. But even if I were challenged, I’m not sure I could say which I enjoyed more. Yes, I know they’re unrelated story-wise, but both books are in the same vein and by the same author. Plus they relate really well to the question at hand. That being: Flight of the was inauspicious but ultimately hopeful while Return of the is much more morose albeit with the same adventure and thrill—but which is better?

While I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as I did its predecessor, it wasn’t down to the darker twist to the tale. Instead, it’s how the story seems to get sidetracked from the main event, particularly by exploring the rifts themselves. And this shouldn’t be the case, particularly because there’s no reason this should be a problem. If the plot to this was simply “explore and survive” á la William Golding—I’d be down with it. But the main setup at the end of Flight of the Darkstar Dragon really implied that the Whalefleet would take center stage—something that the title itself all but confirmed. And yet, we’re too distracted to notice it for way too long.

The beginning and the end focus on side issues, details that—while interesting—don’t directly connect to the tale Return of the is trying to tell. That being the return of the Whalefleet. Also I think the buildup in the previous book about the Whalefleet’s majesty and awe was a bit of a letdown, as this just didn’t wow with its description of the travelers’ procession. That said, had Flight of the not built my expectations quite so much, and the title of Return of the made me anticipate these more—I don’t think it would’ve let me down quite like it did. Just like I doubt I’d’ve noticed the off-topic distraction but for the book’s size. Yet there’s more than enough to love about Return of the Whalefleet: new allies, new enemies, new adventures, history and development of our returning cast and crew. The ancient horrors themselves were a particular favorite of mine; the entire buildup was amazing, but when they were described in detail it cast a noticeable chill up my spine. The haunting descriptions of these will stick with me, I think, more than so many one-offs in other books. Not that these are a one-off—that remains to be seen.

TL;DR

If you’d never read Benedict Patrick before, you might be forgiven in thinking that the Darkstar series took an abrupt 180 from its start in Flight of the Darkstar Dragon. If you had, on the other hand, the creepier, darker tone to Return of the Whalefleet shouldn’t surprise you. In fact, it might even come as a relief; a sign that the author still has it, can still tell a spine-tingling tale. Either way, this entry certainly marks a turning point for the series. But just where it’s headed exactly… I don’t know. Despite the change of tone (or perhaps because of it) this is still a great read. While held back by a slightly longer detour from the main plot than you might see in other books of its length, when the author does focus on the Whalefleet and the story surrounding it, I had no problem becoming immersed in it. The setting continues to be vibrant (albeit a wee bit more shadowy than before), the plot intriguing, and the overall adventure a thrill. While it’s not quite as good as its predecessor, I have no problem at all recommending Return of the Whalefleet! If you’re new to the series, I would definitely start with Book #1, but returning fans should be able to dive right in. Look out for Book #3—The Game of Many Worlds—hopefully releasing sometime in the next year. Can’t wait!