Categories
Fantasy

The Trials of Ashmount by John Palladino (Book Review)

Thank you to Escapist Book Tours and John Palladino for my copy of The Trials of Ashmount! I should specify that my tour stop is on October 30th, featuring the author for a super special Halloween edition of Sunday Brunch!

For now, here is a look at the book and my thoughts below.  Definitely recommended this for dark fantasy fans that enjoy a fast paced read with lots of different things happening!

Bookish Quick Facts:

  • Title: The Trials of Ashmount
  • Series: Tragedy of Cedain #1
  • Author: John Palladino
  • Publisher & Release: Self – June 2022
  • Length: 576 pages
  • Rate & Recommend: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ for dark fantasy fans

Here’s the synopsis:

Cedain is destined to collapse.

Across a world rife with blood, betrayal, and brutality, five people wade through unexpected tragedies.

An egotistical student, a fleeing refugee, a nomadic warrior, a fallen noble, and a criminal in hiding navigate the sinister dealings of politicians, two sudden wars, and nefarious lies that surface at Ashmount-a university dedicated to teaching the five branches of magic.

Survival means adapting or dying.

Fans of Joe Abercrombie and hard magic systems will enjoy navigating a morally gray cast of characters in a world on the brink of collapse.


The first thing I have to say is that this did not feel like an almost 600 page book at all.  It’s extremely fast paced and alternates between five different major points of view that keep things fresh and moving right along at all times.  There are also ‘interlude’ chapters that give insights from side characters.  Each viewpoint is wildly different too so the book truly never gets dull.

Keeping on about the story: it’s definitely a dark fantasy.  I was having thoughts about true grimdark vs. horror-shock elements, of which the author employs a bit of both.  To avoid spoilers I won’t discuss anything specific but there is a lot of violent death of both children and adults, sometimes in vast quantities.  I wouldn’t get too attached to anyone if I were a reader, as evidenced by the list of characters page which is bluntly and hilariously titled “people who may die”.  From start to finish the book was rather hard to put down .

There is a lot to like in the different storylines, despite not exactly liking any of the characters.  Some I certainly respected more than others and it was fun to learn their backstories and see their various forms of resilience despite their worlds falling apart in blood and mayhem.  There are big spells, game like trials, a gladiator type storyline, a warrior, a new knight, wars developing, political alliances and intrigue, just to scratch the surface.  It was also interesting to see the various storylines start to weave together by the end.  None were fully intersected yet but he has the story well and truly set up for the sequel now!  I think the book has something for almost every fantasy fan as long as they can stomach the dark parts.

My favorite aspect was probably the world build.  For such drastically different storylines and climates and with so much going on, the author managed to create wildly different but fully realized regions as well as local flavors.   Whether it’s a school set up on a volcano, a small village where falcons are raised, kids fishing without bait, or desert clans, it’s all there and pretty well realized in both climate and local flavour, as well as regional issues and larger political inner-connectedness.  I love when setting affects the book and here it does in almost every climate, making things feel more real. There’s a lot of history too that ties into current mysteries and conflicts without bogging the story down.

Not that the book was ever slow, but holy cow the ending few chapters!!! I just can’t wait for book two to be released!  I’ve got to know where all these threads are leading. This is a fast read with a bit too much repetition and simplicity at times to come in at a full five stars for me, but despite that I immensely enjoyed the read and would recommend it to any dark fantasy fan!

Stay tuned on October 30th for my book tour stop and author interview!

Categories
Author Interviews & Guest Posts Fantasy

A GrimDarkTober Guest Post: TheReviewBooth reviews The Year of the Witching

Hi everyone and welcome back to more awesome GrimDarkTober content! Brandy is one of my longest running Instagram friends and held up a corner of the now defunct blogging group for years too. I was excited when she said yes to contributing because we tend to have fairly similar reading tastes. Definitely check out her media links at the end of the article! The Year of the Witching is a dark fantasy novel with a decent amount of blood, gore, and Handmaid’s Tale vibes. It’s a great for spooky season and I hope you guys like Brandy’s review! 


About the Book:

  • Title: The Year of the Witching
  • Series: Bethel #1
  • Author: Alexis Henderson
  • Publisher & Release: Ace, 2020
  • Length: 368 pages

Synopsis:

A young woman living in a rigid, puritanical society discovers dark powers within herself in this stunning, feminist fantasy debut.

In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. Her mother’s union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.

But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.

Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.


Review:

The Year of the Witching took its time unfolding the story and it lost me a little here and there when the story slowed down. The pacing of exciting events might be slow but that doesn’t mean that what is going on isn’t valuable information.

Immanuelle isn’t shunned just for her mother’s union with her father – a man of a different race but also because that union took place while she essentially belonged to someone else. Once resigned to her fate and station, Immanuelle begins to yearn for more and I loved that. It made her feel like an actual person waking up from this place that is suffocating and unwilling to accept her as is.

Something settled deep within Immanuelle. It took her a moment to recognize the feeling. It wasn’t the flames of anger stoked,or the cold throes of grief. No, this was something grim and quiet… something sinister.

Wrath.

Immanuelle and Ezra felt a little like fated love to me personally but they at least had to work at it. Being who they were and their religion didn’t afford them many opportunities to become close. It was nice to see a sweet clean romance budding in a YA title – it seems like a while since I’ve encountered that.

I liked this story and I will definitely read the second book that is coming out but it was just an odd book for me. I am really excited to see where this story goes and learn more about the world (not just mostly the town) that Immanuelle lives in. The pacing was weird like I mentioned but it was more than that and I can’t put my finger on exactly what. I just felt a disconnect from Immanuelle’s story.

Overall rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

You can find Brandy online at:

https://linktr.ee/thereviewbooth

https://instagram.com/thereviewbooth

Categories
Fantasy

Gunmetal Gods by Zamil Akhtar (Book Thoughts)

Welcome to my first grimdark review of GrimDarkTober month, featuring Gunmetal Gods! I have seen this book absolutely everywhere since it was published and never felt like I had time to read, which was a sore error on my part. 

This is a wonderfully dark fantasy with some of the most brutal (and frankly disturbing) scenes I’ve ever read.  It’s got a few of my favorite themes including military tactics, religious introspection, gods and djinn causing mayhem, and some really truly grimdark twists of fate.

Let’s take a look at the book!


Bookish Quick Facts:

  • Title: Gunmetal Gods
  • Series: Gunmetal Gods #1
  • Author: Zamil Akhtar
  • Publisher & Release: Self Published, 2020
  • Length: 498 pages
  • Rate & Recommend; ⭐⭐⭐⭐ for dark fantasy fans

Here’s the synopsis:

Game of Thrones meets Arabian Nights in this blood-soaked fantasy epic inspired by the Crusades, featuring Lovecraftian gods, mischievous djinns, and astral magic!

They took his daughter, so Micah comes to take their kingdom. Fifty thousand gun-toting paladins march behind him, all baptized in angel blood, thirsty to burn unbelievers.

Only the janissaries can stand against them. Their living legend, Kevah, once beheaded a magus amid a hail of ice daggers. But ever since his wife disappeared, he spends his days in a haze of hashish and poetry.

To save the kingdom, Kevah must conquer his grief and become the legend he once was. But Micah writes his own legend in blood, and his righteous conquest will stop at nothing.

When the gods choose sides, a legend will be etched upon the stars.


I’m having the worst time reviewing this one because it’s so complex and will do my best to hit all the big points!

The story itself has an absolutely epic scope, covering everything from an old hero’s comeback to ancient gods stirring in other dimensions.  It’s got large scale battles, political machinations, tons of world building, brutality, hope, shifting alliances … I can’t even start to cover it all but I promise I was never bored reading.

The first unique thing is that the two points of view start off as “the good guy” and “the bad guy”.  As the book progresses, both Kevah and Micah navigate this wide range of roles from father to doombringer, not necessarily in that order, and it was crazy to follow them both into that murky morally gray zone.

“He was never cruel and always let the Archangel guide his hands. It all changed after we found the witch. In Nixos, he enslaved thousands and burned a bishop. And then in Kostany, I saw him drown a little girl and trample babies as if they were weeds.” – Aicard, on Micah’s downward spiral

There were a lot of awesome side characters too that we meet and get close to throughout the book.  Whether or not they live is another story, but I enjoyed the time spent with them all the same.

The world building was pretty epic in scope too, especially in the religious context.  The two warring nations are both crusading for their holy land.  I liked how deep the author went into each side’s beliefs and also their questioning of faith when things got … grimdark.  When we actually meet the angels and certain gods, including the truly “Lovecraftian” ones, I could appreciate the scale of havoc they wreak.

We go forward to victory with whatever power we have, whether of the light or the dark

There’s a ton of other world building too like history, stories, lore, food, wartime hardships, customs and poems, past times, seasonal weather, art and architecture. The book really didn’t lack for much at all and it all flowed well.

I wanted more from the Mages but that’s definitely coming in book two.  The magic is tied into either the gods, the djinn, or both, and was pretty epic in scale so far since one mage can do a ton of damage to the army.

You want brutality? Stomping babies. Burning refugees. Cutting off horse’s ears.  Loves and morals and families into the sea or on the sharp end of the sword. This is off the grimdark chart as far as I’m concerned. There’s really no end to the dark in this although Akhtar does give us just enough hope to not completely despair while reading.

“What if there are no answers?” I laughed to distract from the dread spreading through me. “What if the world is as dismal as it seems?” “Then at least we’ll know it. We won’t be lying to ourselves. We’ll drown in the truth, our eyes wide open.”

Overall: this is a great read for GrimDarkTober.  I loved the story. I loved the magic and religions. Loved the character arcs, including some of the more minor character roles.  Loved the shifting political alliances and power struggles. Loved the twists and turns that kept me guessing throughout.  Totally recommend this one for dark fantasy fans with a tough stomach.

Categories
Author Interviews & Guest Posts Fantasy

A GrimDarkTober Guest Post: Dr. John Mauro reviews Norylska Groans!

A quick note from OneReadingNurse: Welcome to the first guest post for GrimDarkTober month! I’m honored to host this review written by Dr. John Mauro of the indie grimdark fantasy Norylska Groans! You can find him on twitter at @DrJohnmauro and locate more of his reviews on both GoodReads and the Grimdark Magazine website. Without further ado, let’s introduce the book and see the review!


Here’s a bit about the book:

  • Title: Norylska Groans
  • Series: N/A
  • Authors: Michael R. Fletcher & Clayton W. Snyder
  • Publisher & Release: Independent, 2021
  • Length: 378 pages
  • Guest Rating: 💀💀💀💀💀

The synopsis via GoodReads:

Norylska Groans

with the weight of her crimes. In a city where winter reigns amid the fires of industry and war, soot and snow conspire to conceal centuries of death and deception.

Norylska Groans
and the weight of a leaden sky threatens to crush her people. Katyusha Leonova, desperate to restore her family name, takes a job with Norylska’s brutal police force. To support his family, Genndy Antonov finds bloody work with a local crime syndicate.

Norylska Groans

with the weight of her dead. As bodies fall, the two discover a foul truth hidden beneath layers of deception and violence: Come the thaw, what was buried will be revealed.


Finally, here is the review by Dr Mauro!

Norylska Groans is a tour de force from Michael R. Fletcher and Clayton W. Snyder, two of the top authors in grimdark fantasy. The story is set in the Russia-inspired industrial city of Norylska, bathed in filth and constantly groaning from its brutal cold and wind—the perfect setting for an urban grimdark novel.

As an avid fan of both classic Russian literature and grimdark fantasy, I loved every aspect of this book. With an assortment of pseudo-Russian slang and an ultraviolent cast of characters, there is also a clear inspiration from A Clockwork Orange.

Much of the book revolves around memory stones, which store memories and even personality traits from the individuals who wear them. Dostoevsky would be impressed with the depth of psychological analysis in this book, as the traits from the memory stones fight against the personality (and often sanity) of those who wear them.

The concept of this book is so creative, combining some of my favorite literary elements from across multiple genres. It’s the type of book that makes me think: “I wish I had thought of this idea.”

But is it grimdark enough? Ummmm…yes.

Fletcher and Snyder cranked the grimdark knob up to eleven, and then kept turning it up until the knob broke off and sank into a pool of blood. This book is manna from hell for grimdark lovers.

If you love grimdark, you need to read this book.

5/5


There you have it!  Stay tuned this month for more awesome grimdark and generally spooky content from a few of my good friends!

Categories
audiobooks Fantasy Fiction Horror

Wizard & Glass by Stephen King (or, why I can’t finish a series)

Ever notice that I tend to get about three or four books into a series and then quit? The fact is that in between ARCs I never had time to read these giant, door stopping books, and once they got above 8-900 pages I was just about out of luck …

Well, this book was one of these clonkers. It took me two weeks to get through it even listening on partial audio (28 hours total 😭) so it’s kind of easy to see where a reader with deadlines gets to these longer books and comes to a screeching halt.

Or maybe that’s just me.  Anyway, the great Mark Lawrence wrote (see GoodReads) that you are either a Roland (and hate Wizard & Glass because no progress is made) or an Oy (you love everything about the journey despite it being a giant flashback).

For once I am glad that I’m taking the time to be an Oy, and this is a more than appropriate kickoff to GrimDarkTober.


Bookish Quick Facts:

  • Title: Wizard & Glass
  • Series: The Dark Tower #4
  • Author: Stephen King
  • Publisher & Release: Grant, 1997
  • Length: 704 original hardcover (my PB around 930 pages) 
  • Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐✨ I’m team “enjoy the journey”

Here’s the synopsis:

Roland the Gunslinger, Eddie, Susannah, and Jake survive Blaine the Mono’s final crash, only to find themselves stranded in an alternate version of Topeka, Kansas, that has been ravaged by the superflu virus. While following the deserted I-70 toward a distant glass palace, Roland recounts his tragic story about a seaside town called Hambry, where he fell in love with a girl named Susan Delgado, and where he and his old tet-mates Alain and Cuthbert battled the forces of John Farson, the harrier who—with a little help from a seeing sphere called Maerlyn’s Grapefruit—ignited Mid-World’s final war

So this book started out where The Wastelands left off, in an epic riddling contest between Eddie and Blaine the Mono. Was I belly laughing at the dead baby jokes? 

Um…. Maybe? I had a cathartic laughing experience at the baby and the SuperFlu one, I have such tied up feelings about pandemics and it’s not usually who I am but I think I just needed to laugh at something particularly horrible.  Some inner turmoil definitely released there, so thank you Mr King.

Anyway, Eddie is probably turning into one of my favorite book characters of all time, even if our main characters essentially drop off the page once Roland starts his story.

It’s creepy, dark, witchy, mystical, had me absolutely cringing at some especially gory parts, and was everything I’ve come to expect from King at this point.  I wanted Roland and Cuthbert and Alain to succeed. It was painful to watch youth and inexperience war against the more hardened players as they uncovered the true goings on in Hambry.

Not going to lie, I’m all for Roland and Susan too.  I was actually pretty broken up about how that all ended.  P.S. none of this is spoilery, it’s all alluded to in prior books.

Character wise – really quick – yes I liked the boys and their personalities. It was nice to finally “meet” them. Rhea the witch is probably the creepiest witch I’ve read in a LONG time, and more than once I had to put it down and go think non-gorey thoughts for a bit.  Sheemie was the real hero in the pages for sure.

One thing that struck me was the level of anticipatory grief that I was having for certain character deaths that actually never occured. They have to happen at some point but not all happened here and for that I was glad, because it was hard enough to read what was already there.

I do wish that King hadn’t essentially gone all Wizard of Oz at the end. It was just weird, and felt a lot weirder than the whole Charlie the Train thing he had going on before.  I won’t hold the ending against the rest of the book but it did put a weird taste in my mouth after such a disturbingly wonderful journey.

Quick note on what I heard from Frank Muller when I was listening – he’s a great narrator and added a LOT to the story, made my skin crawl reading Rhea’s parts!

Long story short: I’m an Oy. I appreciated the journey and am excited to keep reading forward.  When will I have time for the next book, even longer at 931 pages? I hope next month! 


The Dark Tower series so far:

1. The Gunslinger

2. The Drawing of the Three 

3. The Waste Lands


Categories
Fantasy

The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah (Book Thoughts)

I actually finished this book a few weeks ago and my thoughts never coalesced into anything productive.  The Stardust Thief was my last read with the OpenlyBooked Book Club on Instagram and while I enjoyed reading it, I found it extraordinarily hard to focus on.

Whether that’s my state of mind, the pacing of the book, the slow burn, or what, I really don’t know. It took me three weeks to read and became a struggle by the end despite having liked it for the most part.

Let’s take a look at the book and then a few specific thoughts. Also if you have the hardcover make sure to hold it up to Google Lens to hear a message from the author!

Bookish Quick Facts:

  • Title: The Stardust Thief
  • Series: The Sandsea Trilogy, #1
  • Author: Chelsea Abdullah
  • Publisher & Release: Orbit, May 2022
  • Length: 480 pages
  • Rate & Recommend: ⭐⭐⭐ for fans of desert settings, stories about stories, 1001 Nights, jinn magic, and fantasy with clean content

Here’s the synopsis:

Inspired by stories from One Thousand and One Nights, this book weaves together the gripping tale of a legendary smuggler, a cowardly prince, and a dangerous quest across the desert to find a legendary, magical lamp.

Neither here nor there, but long ago . . .

Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.

With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan’s oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie’s past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.

By all accounts and descriptions, I was expecting to be utterly enchanted by this book.  I love stories about stories and storytellers, folklore is my jam, and I love a good lush setting full of tradition and magic and lore. So why did I struggle with this?

For one, the flowery writing style tripped me up when it harshly contrasted with lighter, choppier areas of text. I like purple prose at times but when I’m tired and my brain is already full, overly descriptive writing can bog me down.  Then when she switched to an action scene the sentences became short and often repetitive, which threw me since I don’t think she accomplished the sense of urgency she was going for with the contrasting writing styles.

I did really like the setting and imagery though since the author used the environment to bring the story and journey of the characters to life.  Tying that into the world building we definitely got a good picture of life in the Souk, the oases, the palace, and all the music and food and people contained within.

The magic was definitely the strongest aspect.  Jinn stories are endlessly fascinating and I liked how the various ifrits had different abilities and powers, as did their blood.  Is this a good time to talk about Qadir? No spoilers but I loved his character until the big mystery reveal felt VERY young adult.  I had to go and look at what age group this was for again, as I felt like I was reading a YA at times and other times it did feel more mature.

The characters and their relationships were another strong suit.  I get so sick of reading romance in fantasy and I truly actually loved the themes of unrequited love and friendship. Loulie never got closure with Ahmed, Mazen and Loulie ended up as friends, and Aisha found her own way. Qadir had his lovers soul on hand and I like that the author kept him loyal to it.

Friendship and stories were such a refreshing theme to read about for once.

In general I liked all of the characters too.  Mazen and his child like love for stories and history was definitely a highlight.  When we got into the “parchment pages” of his telling I think there were some of the best parts.

My biggest gripe was the title of the book.  The Stardust Thief was mentioned once, in passing, about a character that wasn’t even one of the main group, and it didn’t fit the description at all. Yeah it sounds cool but with no stardust involved, no one is stealing it either…. So humph.  I’m being cranky, but humph. It also bugged me that the editor let a few things slip like at one point where the horses were gone, and they had been walking for two days, Loulie turned around in the saddle.

So to wrap this up, there is plenty of action, balanced with travels, stories, rich imagery, powerful magic, and good characters & banter  in general should have made this a wonderful and engaging story.  I think my feelings of neutrality are more a reflection on my state of mind than a true representation of the book, and I would fully recommend it to anyone who likes slow burning, character driven stories about legend and lore.

Categories
Fantasy

Book Tour Feature ~ The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

Thank you so much to Berkley Publishing Group (Ace) for having me on the book tour for The Witch and the Tsar!  I feel terrible for missing publication date but was hoping to recover my now defunct Bookstagram account prior to doing the feature, but anyway, here we are!

Let’s just dig right in and take a look at the book, which I fully recommend for fans of historical fantasy, Russian Mythology, and books that feature women of lore.

Bookish Quick Facts:

  • Title: The Witch and the Tsar
  • Series: N/A
  • Author: Olesya Salnikova Gilmore
  • Publisher & Release: Ace, 09/20/22
  • Length: 432 pages
  • Rate & Recommend: ⭐⭐⭐✨  sure if you like historical/Russian fantasy

Here’s the synopsis:

In this stunning debut novel, the maligned and immortal witch of legend known as Baba Yaga will risk all to save her country and her people from Tsar Ivan the Terrible—and the dangerous gods who seek to drive the twisted hearts of men.

As a half-goddess possessing magic, Yaga is used to living on her own, her prior entanglements with mortals having led to heartbreak. She mostly keeps to her hut in the woods, where those in need of healing seek her out, even as they spread rumors about her supposed cruelty and wicked spells. But when her old friend Anastasia—now the wife of the tsar, and suffering from a mysterious illness—arrives in her forest desperate for her protection, Yaga realizes the fate of all of Russia is tied to Anastasia’s. Yaga must step out of the shadows to protect the land she loves.

As she travels to Moscow, Yaga witnesses a sixteenth century Russia on the brink of chaos. Tsar Ivan—soon to become Ivan the Terrible—grows more volatile and tyrannical by the day, and Yaga believes the tsaritsa is being poisoned by an unknown enemy. But what Yaga cannot know is that Ivan is being manipulated by powers far older and more fearsome than anyone can imagine.

This book reminded me a lot of Circe, in that the author went out to humanize and reclaim a mythological witch’s narrative and somewhat succeeded.  It also falls right into that genre of cold, dark, and bloody Russian mythological stories like the Winternight Trilogy in which we desperately need more books.

The story itself is so rich and complex. Yaga must come out of her exile to save Russia from Ivan the Terrible, while finally learning what it means to be both a mortal and part deity.  I loved the story itself even though it was often a slow burn with some dubious pacing.

Bringing mythology into history is always challenging. Gilmore wrote a stunning appendix featuring both the deities and real life historical figures that she brought into the story.  As someone who gets hung up on accuracy vs. interpretation a lot, it was cool to have the author point out where she took the biggest liberties and learn what she found important in the real life historical sense.

The world build & setting is quite well done too.  I have come to expect lots of architecture, idolatry, clothing, food, customs and lore, and lots of cold weather from these stories and Gilmore does not disappoint. I loved it all from the rich imagery of the palaces to the bloody descriptions of the military police riding out and the towns they devastated.  There’s a constantly solid blend of tragedy and hope that I liked quite a bit.

Like any story of Russian evolution, one big conflict was the old spirits & mythology vs the new Christian god. I think this was nailed as Yaga tried briefly to assimilate to court before everything went to hell, where she got a first hand view of everyone’s shiny new Christianity.  Weaved throughout are the descriptions of sprites and spirits, lesser and more powerful gods, charms and other magic.  With characters like Little Hen and Volos, the magic really had a life of it’s own too.  Yaga’s spells and abilities were interesting enough, made more so when she filled the gaps in her learning with a mortal witch and then was able to travel through dimensions of the spiritual realms.  The gods and goddesses obviously had influence and magic too so there was always something mischievous going on.

Lastly let’s meet the characters! Yaga wasn’t the fearsome witch I expected at all. I found her lack of knowledge a bit disorienting at first considering the length of her existence and legendary witchery.  She really had pretty limited skills at first and constantly didn’t know what to do in various situations, but then we see that Yaga had some of the lessons but none of the context from her mother’s teaching. It took a while to build up her experience and characterization.  She gained a much greater awareness throughout the book before fully embracing herself. There were lots of good character arcs too like the Tsar’s descent into tyranny, Vasily as the Russian soldier archetype, Marina, and of course the mediating of all the feelings associated with changing times.

Overall this was a pretty solid debut.  The book got a tad repetitive at times and slowed it’s pace way down to focus a lot on Yaga’s journey. None of it was bad but I ended up docking some points for how it really did feel like a much longer book. That said, I loved the history and magic, the setting and imagery, and in general I am a big fan of Gilmore’s writing! I’ll be looking for whatever she writes next for sure!

⚔️Thank you to the publisher for my early reading copy via NetGalley! All opinions are my own ⚔️


From.the Publisher:

Olesya Salnikova Gilmore was born in Moscow, Russia, raised in the U.S., and graduated from Pepperdine University with a BA in English/political science, and from Northwestern School of Law with a JD. She practiced litigation at a large law firm for several years before pursuing her dream of becoming an author. She is most happy writing historical fiction and fantasy inspired by Eastern European folklore. She lives in a wooded, lakeside suburb of Chicago with her husband and daughter. The Witch and the Tsar is her debut novel. Learn more online at www.olesyagilmore.com.

2268306

Author photo by Nicola Levine Photography, LLC 2021!

Categories
Author Interviews & Guest Posts Fantasy Middle Grade

Sunday Brunch Author Interview Series: Featuring Thomas M. Kane

Happy weekend to you all and welcome back to the Sunday Brunch Series! Episode 26 features Thomas M. Kane, author of many scholarly books and articles as well as the fantasy series Mara of the League!

He was kind enough to join me today to talk about Mara, Cold War history, his time writing gaming material, and tons more!

Without further delay, here he is ⚔️🥞


🍳Welcome to the Sunday Brunch Series! As an introduction, can you tell everyone an interesting fact about yourself that isn’t in your author bio?

🎤 I used to live with a cat who ate paper. He figured out which button to press to make my computer printer eject sheets of it, so whenever he finished with one page he could help himself to another.

🍳What’s your brunch order today?

🎤 Pancakes sound good!

🍳So you also published gaming material? I was interested in learning more about your transition from gaming supplements, to role playing for students, to eventually lecturing on military exercises?

🎤 Yes, I broke into professional writing by publishing articles for role-playing games in Dragon magazine in the 1980s. Roger Moore, who was then editor at Dragon, was incredibly supportive. By the early 1990s, I was writing adventures and supplements for a wide variety of game systems, notably Shadowrun, Cyberpunk. GURPS, Top Secret, Talislanta, Ars Magica and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

A lot has changed in the gaming world. However, I’m thrilled to add that some of my work is still in print. I’m especially pleased to say that Atlas Games is still offering the Cyberpunk and Ars Magica adventures I wrote for them. Atlas encourages an original approach to writing gaming scenarios, with emphasis on character development. My work for Atlas includes The Chrome Berets, a Cyberpunk adventure in which characters wage guerrilla warfare. Greenwar, another Cyberpunk scenario featuring corporate takeovers and South of the Sun, an Ars Magica sourcebook about the legendary kingdom of Prester John.
I also designed wargames for Strategy and Tactics magazine and Command. When I started teaching politics at the University of Hull, I developed a module (i.e., a class) called The Nature of War, which dealt with the human side of warfare. To give students a taste of the confusion and complexity surrounding military command. I ran a week-long simulation of the World War Two German attack on Tobruk. Students took the part of leaders on the opposing sides and spent a week writing battle plans. We then worked out what we thought would have happened if they had implemented those plans in real life. The students often spied on the opposing team and attempted other hijinks which added to the fun.

Meanwhile, as you mentioned, I participated in a Royal Navy wargame called Operation Tropical Endeavour. I also observed a simulated battle involving real tanks at the US Army’s National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin. The NTC trip was especially valuable from a writing point of view, since it was an opportunity to see what military operations look like when you are in the middle of them. Or, perhaps, not to see—one truth which Fort Irwin demonstrates is that modern battles take place across great distances, and that the enemy is usually out of sight.

🍳You also travelled a ton while living in the UK, do you recall having a favorite destination?

🎤 When I was growing up, I really wanted to explore a cave. In Europe, I finally got to. Being deep inside the earth is an amazing experience. Perhaps the most memorable cavern I visited was the Cueva de la Pileta in southern Spain, which features paintings that are approximately 20,000 years old. The paintings are extremely detailed and realistic—more realistic, in fact, than the relatively recent prehistoric artwork found in other parts of the cave.

🍳Let’s talk about your series, Mara of the League!  You likened the Waan conflict to the real-life Cold War, in which to summarize, neither the U.S. nor Russia really wanted to attack each other directly. How did the war translate into a fantasy series for you?

🎤 You are right, that’s one of the most important similarities. Mara’s homeland, the League, is locked in a rivalry with a country called Waan. Both sides know that if they wage a full-scale war, they risk devastating the countryside and triggering a civilization-ending famine. Therefore, they spy on each other and stir up trouble for one another’s allies while trying to avoid direct confrontation.

This standoff has lasted over a century. Most League citizens expect it to go on forever. However, as the story progresses, Mara becomes convinced that Waan’s leaders see the stalemate as no more than a temporary obstacle, and that they are working to engineer a situation in which it can invade the League at an acceptable cost. The question then becomes whether she can convince her rulers to fight back against Waan’s plot in time.

So, the Mara of the League series is mainly an adventure story. The first three books involve espionage and political intrigue. Book Four features military strategy and battlefield action. The series also devotes a lot of attention to Mara’s thoughts and to her attempts to make sense of her world. Like the university class I mentioned earlier, this series is very much about the human side of things.

Anyone who enjoys exciting stories can enjoy this series. Those who are interested in history may notice that Mara is facing situations which resemble crises which erupted in real life. Fans of Cold War thrillers may notice that I’m taking a different approach from many authors in that genre. Sir John Hackett set the tone for many Cold-War-gone-hot books with his novel The Third World War (spoilers ahead).

The Third World War depicts a scenario in which weak Soviet leaders stumble into an ill-considered war with the West. The numerically superior Soviet forces do considerable damage at first, but Western defenders thwart them with superior technology and skill. Soviet leaders then fire one nuclear missile, but when the West retaliates with a single nuclear strike of its own, the Soviet government collapses.

Hackett’s novel is enthusiastic about military hardware. It pays relatively little attention to the ways in which a third world war would touch the lives of its characters, and of everyone on earth. Although Hackett suggests a political scenario which could bring war about, he depicts the Soviet leaders making hasty decisions, with few motives beyond staying in power. He glosses over the fact that the Soviet Union was founded upon a belief system which held that war to the death with the liberal nations was a historical necessity, and which gave them a compelling reason to prepare for such a conflict in a long-term and systematic way. Other thrillers (e.g., Ralph Peters’ Red Army) present the Soviet Union as a more formidable opponent, but even they stick to tried-and-true scenarios of Soviet numbers going head-to-head against Western hardware. A great deal of Western military planning rested on the assumption that something like this would happen in real life. Real-life international relations scholars tended to downplay the importance of Communist ideology as well.

Russia’s mistakes in its 2022 invasion of Ukraine makes Hackett’s depiction of Soviet incompetence seem believable. On the other hand, the increasingly visible ideological splits in contemporary politics remind us that Soviet leaders may have sincerely believed in their version of Communism. Fortunately, we will never know whether Hackett’s vision was realistic.

The Mara of the League series takes advantage of its fantasy setting to get away from arguments about what would actually have happened if the Soviet Union had attacked the West and explores what might have happened in an ideologically-driven conflict where the antagonists know what they are doing.

🍳Whew. What would you say to someone who reads that and says “Wow, I’d love to read the Mara books but I know nothing about this portion of history”?

🎤No background knowledge is required. The story begins with an eleven-year-old girl trying to save her family. She doesn’t know much about war or politics yet. Readers learn along with her.

🍳What prompted you to start Mara off as a tween, and grow her up pretty quickly throughout the series?

🎤As an adult in Book Three, Mara warns her country’s ruler of an attack no one else sees coming. Many think she is wrong, and that following her advice could provoke a civilization-ending war. Her experiences at twelve and seventeen helped her see threats which others overlooked and motivated her to want to defend herself at all costs.

[[She also got used to standing her ground when people thought she was wrong as a young kid! My favorite theme so far is trusting your own logic and intuitions]]

🍳You took an unconventional view of witches which I really liked, and brought a rather realistic fear of magic into the first book.  Why did you choose that take, vs, say, bringing real magic into the series?  Did it fit into the “flintlock fantasy style” a bit more?

🎤So glad you liked it! Mara spends her youth confronting her own country’s injustices. So, much of the story concerns the ways societies respond to dissent, the ways people turn against each other, and the ways powerful institutions keep control. The fact that Mara’s government did not need any evidence of real magic to accuse her aunt of witchcraft was part of the point.

However, real magic may exist in Mara’s world. There’s a scene in which her father claims to have seen it. When I came up with the idea for this series, I planned to include working magic. I planned to have it play a role in warfare similar to the role played in real life by nuclear weapons. As I started to write, I found I could tell the story I wanted to tell relying solely on the real-life problems of feeding armies in the early gunpowder era, so the magic weapons turned out to be unnecessary

🍳I loved the audiobooks and thank you for the chance to listen! How did you connect with your narrator? Was it a positive overall experience bringing Mara to audio?

🎤Again, so honored by your kind words! I beta-read Stevie Marie’s excellent fae-based fantasy Heart of Darkness. A few months later, she posted on Twitter that she planned to start narrating audiobooks. By good fortune, I saw the tweet and responded to it. I am thrilled with her work, and I’ve gotten lots of encouraging feedback. I’m incredibly grateful to have connected with her.
I’m currently listening to Stevie’s Kingdom of Acatalec. It’s a science fiction adventure about a feisty pilot who competes in an illegal drone race to save her friend. Strongly recommend.

🍳Have you read anything amazing recently?

🎤A few months ago, I discovered Gillian Flynn’s thrillers Sharp Objects, Dark Places and Gone Girl. I found her characters relatable and really enjoyed the way she explores their thoughts and feelings. Also very much admire the way Flynn crafts sentences. Unfortunately, she hasn’t written much, so I went looking for other authors who take a similar approach. This led me to discover Paula Hawkins, who is also brilliant. Just started Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, and it looks as if it is going to be fantastic too.

🍳Thanks so much for taking the time to interview! The last question is always an open forum, so please take this space to talk about anything I missed, or anything in the world that you want to share!

 🎤Now that Mara’s series is complete, I’ve written a book about her mother Abigail. Abigail is a seventy-eight-year-old lawyer. As the war between Waan and the League rages around her, she comes out of retirement to defend a teen accused of murder. This fantasy legal thriller is titled The People vs. Abigail Bennet, and it will be available for sale in early 2023.
I also invite everyone to subscribe to my free monthly newsletter at thomasmkane.com. Every issue includes original articles or short fiction. The next issue features a return to Life in a Cup, a series of humorous tales and personal reflections based around experiences I’ve had drinking coffee.


There you have it! Thank you as always for tuning into Sunday Brunch, and do let us know if you enjoyed this interview!

You can find the author and his books online at:

Twitter: https://mobile.twitter.com/thomasmkane11

Website: https://www.thomasmkane.com/

Book sales: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07XWXP1X2/?ref_=d6k_applink_bb_dls&dplnkId=86e72651-f7fe-4546-96b3-f9bfa4db2526

Categories
Fantasy

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett (Book Thoughts)

While I admittedly haven’t done much reading this month, for various reasons, I was finally able to finish Foundryside. The book was an August buddy read on Discord that I was interested in but couldn’t get to on time, and I’m glad I eventually did.

Bookish Quick Facts:

  • Title: Foundryside
  • Series: The Founder’s Trilogy #1
  • Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
  • Publisher & Release: Crown, 2018
  • Length: 513 pages
  • Rate & Recommend: ⭐⭐⭐⭐✨ for fans of the genre that don’t mind a deep dive into magic systems

Here’s the synopsis:

In a city that runs on industrialized magic, a secret war will be fought to overwrite reality itself—the first in a dazzling new series from City of Stairs author Robert Jackson Bennett.

Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle.

But unbeknownst to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving. The Merchant Houses who control this magic—the art of using coded commands to imbue everyday objects with sentience—have already used it to transform Tevanne into a vast, remorseless capitalist machine. But if they can unlock the artifact’s secrets, they will rewrite the world itself to suit their aims.

Now someone in those Houses wants Sancia dead, and the artifact for themselves. And in the city of Tevanne, there’s nobody with the power to stop them.

To have a chance at surviving—and at stopping the deadly transformation that’s under way—Sancia will have to marshal unlikely allies, learn to harness the artifact’s power for herself, and undergo her own transformation, one that will turn her into something she could never have imagined

Alright so this is a steampunk-y heist fantasy with a very scientific magic system, lots of snark, and a group of characters that are typical individuals in an atypical group. Bear with me on this because the brave and tragic male character isn’t usually portrayed as the third wheel to the women and that’s where this book won me over.

First let’s talk about the narrative voice.  I personally do best with third person limited, where you see the world through the main character’s eyes and mind but the story is told by a separate narrator.  I like the style because I tend to view the book as a movie in my brain while I’m reading it, and if the imagery is realized well enough to create a realistic world for me to get lost in, all the better.

So that’s where I think the author really succeeded here.  Whether in the dumps of Foundryside, the commons, the guild areas of money and waste, or even the dungeon, I had no problem visualizing Tevanne unspooling around Sancia. 

To further tie that into the world building, remember my fixation with guild drama that started with Garth Nix? There’s tons of (but never enough) guild drama, politics, scheming, plotting, old customs, new customs, relics and religion and lore to really flesh out the world build.  Most of the slang was world based too.  “Scrumming” seems to be the Tevanni primary cuss word, and the explanation is just perfect 😂

Ok, let’s briefly do the magic system next.  It’s scientific, and it’s the main info dump of the novel. More than once, Bennett takes a deep dive into the science of his glyph/sigil based magic system called Scriving.  The whole point is to convince objects that reality is something else.  I’m just going to say that it’s by far one of the more interesting magics I’ve seen recently. It was extremely well thought out, although I felt like it bogged the pace down at times when instead of focusing on action, the magic took precedence. I’m not complaining but it made me zone out a bit at times and just felt like too much, so I docked half a star. Really, I’m nitpicking though.

For the most part the action and plotting moved along at a good pace, I may have phased out a few times but never would say J was bored reading. There’s more than enough mystery and nuance to keep it interesting where all else fails.

Alright I saved the best for last, let’s see why the characters are interesting. Sancia is a pretty typical thief, a really great thief, down on her luck needing money.  She has a snarky sidekick (Clef) who ends up being an inanimate object that can talk to her.  Then it’s kind of a mixed bag of people introduced and I was surprised at who ended up being important. There’s a cranky old scientist type (Orso) who I hated at first but he ended up being my favorite character. How amazing can a cranky old guy get? Apparently very. His assistant (Berenice) forms a friendship with Sancia and ends up being pretty bad ass herself. Lastly, the son of a Founder (Gregor) who just wants to make Tevanne a better, more just place, but his fate is in the hands of someone else.  Gregor also ended up with the saddest storyline – a good study in characters with deceptive narratives aka you’re not expecting to have your heart ripped out by them but you do.

Put them all together, and you end up with a super cranky and reluctant mentor figure overseeing two absolutely powerful women, with an equally righteous and brave man that while important, kind of ends up being a third wheel to the women. There’s a lot of nuance and development in the group interaction that I really liked.

Ok let me wrap this up before it gets any longer! If you like steampunk, in depth magic, political intrigue, guild drama, dark and ancient forces at work, world building, and random groups of people working together to topple a capitalist society, you would probably love Foundryside.  It’s not a happy book but it’s got it’s moments of darkness, light, torture, hope, misery, redemption, and all of the above. Overall I had a great time reading it and would definitely recommend.

 

 

Categories
audiobooks Fantasy Historical Fiction Middle Grade

The Witches of Crannock Dale by Thomas M. Kane (Audiobook Review)

Thanks to the author for letting me listen to and review the audiobook of The Witches of Crannock Dale! I’ll also be interviewing Thomas Kane on the Sunday Brunch Series soon so keep an eye out for that 🍳🎤

Bookish Quick Facts:

  • Title: The Witches of Crannock Dale
  • Series: Mara of the League #1
  • Author: Thomas M. Kane (Nar. Stevie Marie)
  • Publisher & Release: Self Published, 2019
  • Length: 288 pages (11h48m run time)
  • Rate & Recommend: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ yes for middle grade fans!

Synopsis:
Spies. Witch-hunts. A little girl who asks dangerous questions.

When invaders threaten, eleven-year-old Mara must grow up fast. All her life, her homeland has been on the brink of war with the Commonwealth of Waan. But as bells warn of approaching enemies, her own realm’s knights arrest her favorite aunt for witchcraft. This prompts her to rethink much of what she has been taught about her country. When adults ignore her points, she teams up with unlikely friends in a bid to rescue her aunt and protect her village. Mara must make sense of grown-up politics if she is to save the people she loves.

This is Book One of the political fantasy series Mara of the League.

I thought that for a middle-grade, this one checks pretty much all the boxes for me.  I can’t speak for the rest of the series yet but Mara is 11 here, and the content stays 100% age audience appropriate. Although she is 17 in book two I believe it remains a middle grade age level throughout.

Mara is a very smart and brave little girl who eventually becomes a spy for her country in later books. Here in Witches we are introduced to Mara and her family and learn about the plots and political conflicts happening in the world.  Told in the first person point of view of an 11 year old, I think it’s a marvel that Kane had me interested in the imposter bandit king and how the war will eventually unfurl.

Mara is an easy character to root for as she becomes involved in local issues.  I liked her brother too and the rest of the family.

As I’m obviously not 12 anymore (🤣🤣🤣), when reviewing for middle grade, I tend to look more at whether the book is fast paced (yes), interesting (yes), repetitive (no), and age appropriate (yes). I think it will hold their attention well. It’s also extremely well edited for a self published book so that’s helpful!

Are the themes something I would want my little niece reading? Yes, absolutely. Mara has to navigate complicated adult politics while still doing what she thinks is right. She also learns  that sometimes rules do have a time and place in society, and that actions can have severe and unintended consequences.  I like the sense of responsibility she has towards family and even town & country.

The issue I had is that the audio itself did not hold my interest, likely due to the Authors Direct app and a few challenges that it presented. That was an experience related issue though and I think Stevie Marie was a pretty solid, clearly spoken narrator. I did end up reading on Kindle Unlimited though and was then lucky enough to see the map and drawings.

Overall: I’m excited to keep reading to see how Mara and the war develop.  It’s a solid middle grade read that I think YA can enjoy too since Mara ages fairly quickly in the books. Stay tuned for the author interview!