SPFBO 2020
Nether Light by Shaun Paul Stevens - Book Review
25, Apr

Having left their homeland of Krell, Guyen and his family have to make new lives for themselves. Struggling to cope with their refugee status and the prejudice he encounters, things become worse when the state takes him from his new home and looks to profit from his emerging talents.

Voice of War (Threadlight #1) by Zack Argyle
22, Apr

Voice of War is the first book in Zack Argyle’s Threadlight series and a finalist in this year’s Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO #6). I have heard very good things about this book on social media where it has received plenty of high praise, and so went in with high expectations. Although it has some great characters and a cool magic system that is central to the plot, it unfortunately did not quite live up to the hype for me. 

The main protagonist Chrys Valerian is definitely one of the best things about the novel. Chrys is a Sapphire threadweaver meaning he has the ability to push on magical threads of light that boost his strength, speed and manoeuvrability. As one of the three high generals in the nation of Alchea, he is tasked with rooting out the Bloodthieves, a self-explanatory group fond of kidnapping threadweavers. He must balance this responsibility with that of his responsibility as both a husband and soon-to-be father. At the same time, he harbours a dark secret; he shares his mind with that of the Apogee, a demon / alternate personality that earned him his reputation and rank during the War of the Wastelands. Chrys is constantly haunted by the Apogee in a similar way to how Malus Darkblade is plagued by the demon Tz’arkan in Warhammer Fantasy. This internal conflict makes for some of the best moments in the book. Chrys is a brilliant character and I found myself fully invested in his story from beginning to end. 

Laurel is the youngest of the three protagonists. She is a free-spirited threadweaver from the hidden tree-top city of Zedalum in the Fairenwilds. Like Chrys, she is a Sapphire threadweaver. She serves as a messenger spy for her people. Carefree and curious, it is not long before she finds herself a hostage of the Bloodthieves which ultimately leads to a meeting with Chrys, a meeting that changes her life forever. I found Laurel to be the weakest of the three main protagonists due to her plot armour and clichéd rebellious nature. There is nothing wrong with using the trope but Argyle doesn’t do anything readers haven’t seen before, which is fine, but it just felt mediocre here. Nevertheless, I did warm to her eventually as I came to appreciate the subtle theme of addiction that underpins her story. It leads to some very questionable decisions especially towards the end and it will be interesting to see where her story goes in the next book.

Lastly, there is Alverax. He serves as an excellent contrast to Chrys and Laurel in terms of setting, plot and ability. The first time we meet him he wakes up in a pit of bones in the middle of the desert with no memory of how he got there. Over the course of his chapters we see him slowly regaining his memory while discovering his abilities and clashing with the rulers of the free city of Cynosure. Whereas Chrys is extremely sombre and Laurel doggedly rebellious, Alverax is very charismatic. He is the most likeable of the three and I really enjoyed his chapters. In fact, they work very well on their own. If Voice of War was just about Alverax, I would happily pick it up. 

There are other character viewpoints scattered throughout the novel, including from the perspective of one of the book’s villains. I always enjoy reading these viewpoints. Unfortunately, the villains in Voice of War are nothing special. There are perhaps three in total but only one is given any sense of conviction in their actions. Another only makes an appearance for a couple of pages before disappearing altogether. 

This leads me to the other main issue I had with Voice of War and that is its structure. There is a fine line between unorthodox and disjointed and I am disappointed to say that I found it leaning more towards the latter.  For example, just as the story is starting to build momentum with some very cool revelations, it completely switches to another story and we spend about five chapters with a character that we first met for a single chapter about a third of the way through the novel. It took me completely out of the main story when things were starting to get really interesting and I was becoming invested. And when we do finally get back to it, all sense of momentum is lost. However, Argyle does pick it back up right before the end though with a very good ending that makes me want to read the sequel to find out what happens next.

Overall, Voice of War is a bit of a mixed bag. It has some truly great characters and a very cool magic system that is absolutely essential to the plot. However, its villains and pacing hold it back from being the great book it could be. 

Booknest’s official score for Voice of War is 7/10.

Black Stone Heart (The Obsidian Path #1) by Michael R. Fletcher - Book Review
15, Apr

I had heard a lot of good things about Black Stone Heart, so my expectations were high going in. Obviously, as a grimdark writer myself, I knew it would be right in my wheelhouse, as long as it delivered. But of course, it is often the case that high expectations have a way of souring our enjoyment of things. After reading Black Stone Heart, I can assure you, that was NOT the case. I loved this book! It’s probably my favorite read in over a year. It got its hooks in me right away and did not let up.

A Wind from the Wilderness (Watchers of Outremer #1) by Suzannah Rowntree - Book Review
08, Apr

A mingled Christian army marches toward Jerusalem. Marching with them are a time-displaced Greek boy and an independent Turkish girl who between them might change the course of history. 

Shadow of a Dead God (Mennik Thorn #1) by Patrick Samphire -
23, Mar

Shadow of a Dead God by Patrick Samphire is a finalist in this year’s Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO #6). Part fantasy, part crime fiction, it follows the adventures of Mennik Thorn, a freelance mage working odds jobs who finds himself the prime suspect at the centre of a series of magical murders after a botched robbery. When I picked up this novel I was admittedly expecting a sombre story about a tragic character involved in a grisly murder in a cruel city. A fantasy noir of sorts. It does have these elements but Shadow of a Dead God has so much more going for it, including an excellent magic system, great characterisation and plenty of humour. 

 ‘If I had known that within five hours I would be arrested for murder, I would have stayed in the pantry.’

When we first meet our protagonist, Nik, he is sweating it out in a kitchen cupboard waiting for a pair of ghosts to appear, questioning his life choices. I immediately warmed to Nik and became invested in his story. He is witty, sarcastic, and often borders between being humble and self-deprecating. He isn’t the most powerful of mages but uses his limited talent in intelligent ways. He is not always the most reliable narrator either, and has a habit of keeping information from the reader until it is convenient to the plot. This was a little jarring at times, but generally I didn’t mind and just went with it. The most admirable thing about Nik is his unwavering loyalty. He will go to the most extreme lengths in order to protect his friend(s). Which leads to Benyon Field. 

‘Benyon Field was sprawled out on my couch like a weasel that had lain dead in the sun for too long…’

Ah Benny, what an absolute class act. A thief indifferent to money, preferring favours over payouts, he is Nik’s best (and only) friend, and the catalyst for Nik’s actions throughout the course of the book. Early on, he asks Nik to help him with a robbery which unequivocally fails and leads to him ending up on Agatos’ version of death row. Nik spends a large part of the story working against the clock to save Benny, and the extreme lengths he goes to in order to achieve this shows how important their friendship is. They are more than friends; they are blood brothers. Family. And the banter between them is pure comedy gold. Which leads to Sereh. 

‘Being around Sereh always felt like tiptoeing through broken glass. If broken glass could leap up off the floor and stab you through the eye before you could blink.’

Sereh is Benny’s daughter and a child prodigy with 100 sneak. Initially, I found her cringey, even a little unbelievable, which I know sounds ludicrous considering this is the fantasy genre. It is more to do with how she is introduced than her actual character. My feelings towards her gradually changed especially after one particular heart-warming scene which reveals that she isn’t quite the cold-hearted killer she appears to be. She is also a little like Nik in that she is deeply loyal to her father and will stab the entire world to rescue him. 

There are other characters worth mentioning, including the surprisingly reasonable Captain Meroi Gale of the Ash Guard (more on them later) who Nik finds himself completely infatuated by; Dumonoc, the ‘politest’ barkeep in the genre; and Mica, an ambitious mage and rising power, who happens to be Nik’s half-sister. There are also Agatos’ major players – Carnelian Silkstar, the Countess and the Wren – whose behind-the-scenes motives often impede Nik in his investigations. 

Alongside a great cast of characters is a fully realised and fascinating world. The entire story takes place in the ancient city of Agatos, a multi-cultural urban jungle that feels lived in, and which Samphire breathes more and more life into throughout the story. Unfortunately, this often came in the form of large info dumps that I felt an urge to skim through, especially when they appeared at the beginning of chapters. Also,  the lack of a map feels like a missed opportunity. Not only would it be awesome to see Agatos drawn in all its glory, but it would be a great way to keep track of the various locations Nik visits in his investigations and add a further layer of involvement for readers. (Please note that this last point does not impact the review score)

 ‘We were earthworms, dung beetles, tiny, unnamed, crawling, squirming microscopic organisms of the godly soil. We didn’t have magic of our own. We fed off the decaying effluent of dead gods.’

Another strong feature of the novel is the magic system. In Samphire’s world, magic relies on three things: ‘the availability of raw magic, our ability to shape it, and the amount of power we could handle’. Every mage is different, not just in terms of power levels but also in how they perceive and sense magic. Some smell it, others, like Nik, see it in colours. One common denominator is that magic is like a muscle which can tire from overuse. There are consequences. Depending on how much magic a mage wields at any one time, they will experience anything ranging from a migraine to the worst gods-forsaken hangover imaginable, which can leave them extremely vulnerable in certain situations. And Nik gets himself into quite a few of these situations. The magic system is further balanced out by the Ash Guard, who are pretty much the anti-magic police. Their name comes from wearing the ashes of a long dead god whose ability to neutralise magic made him anathema to all the other gods. As such, his ashes can nullify even the most powerful mages and serve as a deterrent to preventing a mage-packed city descending into absolute anarchy. 

On one final note, I did have two major issues with Shadow of a Dead God that are best discussed together. The villain and the ending. Sadly, the revelation of the true culprit behind the murders lacked the shock value I was hoping for and felt anti-climactic. Furthermore, once the villain is finally revealed, they are dealt with within the space of a single chapter. Following this, the story ends abruptly and there is a lot less closure than I hoped. It feels rushed and left me disappointed, especially when I had become so invested in Nik’s story, and I admit it did slightly sour my overall enjoyment. 

Overall, Shadow of a Dead God is a very good book. Aside from my issues with the villain, ending and info-dumps, there is a lot to love here, including great humour, brilliant characterisation and an excellent magic system. 

Booknest’s official score for Shadow of a Dead God is 8/10.

The Fall of Erlon (The Falling Empires Saga #1) by Robert H. Fleming
19, Mar

The fall of Erlon is an epic flintlock fantasy which draws heavy inspiration from the Napoleonic era. I enjoyed the large cast and the sweeping sense of history in the making, but ultimately the pace of the novel faltered in the middle, before regaining some of its momentum toward at the end.

Darkness Forged (Legends of the Ragnarok Era #1) by Matt Larkin - Book Review
09, Mar

Returning home from a hunting trip, brothers Slagfid, Agilaz and Volund are shocked to find their wives gone, their wedding rings abandoned. But the rings seem to direct them towards the missing women, sending the men on a quest to be reunited with the women they love.

Last Memoria (Memoria Duology #1) by Rachel Emma Shaw - SPFBO 2020 Finalist Review
08, Feb

A character-driven story about memory thieves, murderous vines and the search for redemption. 

Last Memoria is the first book in Rachel Emma Shaw's dark fantasy series, The Memoria Duology, and a finalist in this year's Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off. Set in a grim fantasy world of memory thieves, tyrants and murderous magical vines, it tells the tragic intertwining tale of Sarilla, a memory thief seeking redemption for the horrors she has committed by her king's command, and Falon, a young nobleman who will do anything to regain the memories that were stolen from him. 

The Combat Codes (The Combat Codes Saga #1) by Alexander Darwin - Book Review
02, Feb

Every page of the Combat Codes is infused with an intimate knowledge of martial arts. The characters, the world building, and the plot all revolve around hand-to-hand fighting… and the authenticity shows. This story is full of hard-hitting action scenes and honors a warrior’s code. A lot of individual enjoyment will depend on how well these themes resonate with the individual reader. It’s a sci-fi underdog story and a great fit for fans of Red Rising, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Enders’ Game, or the hero academy trope. 

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*I was assigned this book to review for the first round of SPFBO2020*

 

This is my first introduction to JA Andrews' books, and I must say, I'm impressed. Dragon's Reach ticked off a lot of boxes for me: memorable characters? Check. Engaging plotline? Check. Believable character arcs? Check. Surprise twists? Check. 

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