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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

"Castle Hangnail" by Ursula Vernon (Reviewed by Cindy Hannikman)

Visit Ursula Vernon's Website Here

OVERVIEW: When Molly shows up on Castle Hangnail's doorstep to fill the vacancy for a wicked witch, the castle's minions are understandably dubious. After all, she is twelve years old, barely five feet tall, and quite polite. (The minions are used to tall, demanding evil sorceresses with razor-sharp cheekbones.) But the castle desperately needs a master or else the Board of Magic will decommission it, leaving all the minions without the home they love. So when Molly assures them she is quite wicked indeed (So wicked! REALLY wicked!) and begins completing the tasks required by the Board of Magic for approval, everyone feels hopeful. Unfortunately, it turns out that Molly has quite a few secrets, including the biggest one of all: that she isn't who she says she is.

This quirky, richly illustrated novel is filled with humor, magic, and an unforgettable all-star cast of castle characters.

FORMAT: Castle Hangnail is a standalone children's fantasy novel. It stands at 384 pages and was published April 21, 2015 by Dial Books.

ANALYSIS: Ursula Vernon is one of my favorite modern children's authors. Her series, Dragonbreath, is absolutely brilliant from the well-thought out characters to the fun drawings, and not to mention the funny dialogue between the characters. When I saw Castle Hangnail was coming out, I knew I had to give it a try.

Castle Hangnail is a bit different from Vernon's Dragonbreath series. It has interesting characters and beautiful drawings, but it strays from the all-to-familiar format of the loveable Dragonbreath series.

One of the first noticeable differences is the format of the book. Dragonbreath isn't really an early reader/chapter book, but it is definitely designed for the younger audience. Dragonbreath comes in a half graphic novel, half novel format. The font is large and bold, and the entire book wraps up in 200 pages give or take. Castle Hangnail is a bit different.

Castle Hangnail has illustrations, but they supplement the story instead of help tell the story. There are numerous chapters that have no illustrations at all. The font is still easy to read and the story flows nicely, making it ideal for younger readers, but not to the point where it feels as if it is a childish book.

Unfortunately, this difference is where one of my "issues" – if you could call it that – comes in. I'm not 100% certain who the ultimate audience is for this novel. It is written for a younger audience, but the nearly 400 page novel might seem a bit overwhelming to those that would be its target audience.

Is the storyline okay for older readers? Yes, but I could easily see a few of the older readers finding the story childish or silly. When I refer to 'older' readers, I'm talking about older middle grade readers. The difficulty in identifying a target audience may result in this loveable novel being overlooked or passed up by readers who would otherwise love it.

What I do love about Castle Hangnail is that it does provide a bit of fresh air to the children's fantasy genre. There seems to be an all-to-common need to make children's books darker, scarier, or more violent. Castle Hangnail has its conflicts as it isn't all rainbows and butterflies, but it does so in a way that isn't violent or ultra-extreme.

This stray from violence or darkness makes it a great book for those readers both young and old who are just looking for a fun read. After all, it has a solid plot that works for even those that are young at heart, the characters are detailed and loveable, and the pace is just right.

I will say I loved the characters in this book. They weren't funny, but they pulled at my heart strings and I just formed instant connections with them. I truly wanted to be Molly's friend by the end of the book. I even wanted to have my own set of minions – even a goldfish! Vernon really fleshed out all the characters without overcomplicating them, which made them even more loveable (or unlovable in the case of the bad guys).

If I had to pick a favorite part of the book, it would definitely be the mish-mash collection of characters. They just worked for me and really made this book a fun, fun read.

Overall, I loved Castle Hangnail. I felt it was a solid novel with a solid ending. Of course, there could be other novels, which I would love to see, but for the most part it is a solid standalone novel. It isn't the same as Dragonbreath, but it certainly will leave you with a feel good feeling at the end of reading it.
Monday, October 5, 2015

SPFBO Round Two: A Soul For Trouble by Crista McHugh and mini-author interview (Review & interview by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order A Soul For Trouble HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Crista McHugh is a NYT bestselling author of fantasy and romance who currently lives in the Audi-filled suburbs of Seattle with her husband and two children, maintaining her alter ego of mild-mannered physician by day while she continues to pursue writing on nights and weekends. She is an active member of the Romance Writers of America and Romance Divas. She has also previously worked as a barista, bartender, sommelier, stagehand, actress, morgue attendant, and autopsy assistant and she’s also a recovering LARPer.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: When you’re a witch named Trouble, chaos follows.

Arden Lesstymine (known to everyone as Trouble) likes attention as much as the next girl, but this is getting ridiculous. When an insane stranger is murdered at the inn where she works, Trouble becomes the next Soulbearer for the disembodied god of chaos, Loku. Yes, it comes with the ability to channel the god’s limitless power, but at the cost of her sanity — literally.

Now she has a sexy but cynical knight claiming to be her protector, a prince trying to seduce her to his cause (and his bed), and a snarky chaos god who offers a play-by-play commentary on it all, whether she wants to hear it or not. To make matters worse, a necromancer wants to capture the soul of Loku for his own dark purposes, and the only way he can get it is by killing her first.

FORMAT/INFO: A Soul For Trouble is 342 pages long divided over thirty-seven chapters and an epilogue. The narration is in third person via Arden (Trouble) Lesstymine, Ser Devarius Tel’brien, Prince Kell and Sulaino the necromancer.

February 7 2012 marked the e-book and paperback publication of A Soul For Trouble and it was self-published by the author.

ANALYSIS: This book was one of the winners of round 1 of the SPFBO contest. I was intrigued about it, as Tyson M. had enjoyed it quite a lot. Tyson’s reading choices have worked for me in the past and I was excited to start my SPFBO round 2 with this book. Beginning with this book and all my other round 2 reviews, I’ll be also doing a mini-Q&A with the author so be sure to catch Crista’s answers at the end of this review.

The story is a wild mix of epic fantasy and romance, Crista McHugh really kept me entertained with her spin on the farm-boy fantasy trope. We meet Arden who is aptly named Trouble, who serves as a barmaid in her uncle's tavern in the land of Ranella. She's a stranger in a strange land because her father disgraced her mother as he left her pregnant. She finds herself visibly different than the local populace by virtue of being a blonde person in a land of brown-haired, brown-eyed folks. In the first chapter itself we find her getting into mortal trouble when the immortal soul of the chaos god Loku enters her body and marks her as his next soulbearer.

Thrown into the mix is Loku's soul protector knight, Ser Devarius Tel’brien of Gravaria who is also an elf and has held his position for many decades. Hunting for Loku's soul and his chaos magic is a necromancer called Sulanio. Faced with magic that's forbidden in Ranella, a mad god in her head and a knight-protector who confuses her, Arden (Trouble) does her best to face the struggles of her heart and her mind. Running away from Sulanio she will have to control Loku and his lascivious thoughts, get a grip on her new found magic and make the right choice between two men who torment her heart.

This story was a delight to read, as I knew in advance that this was a fantasy romance so certain elements of the story would be blown up. With that in mind, I didn't mind how the author portrayed Trouble and her hearty problems. There's a love triangle involved and while I'm not sure whom the author intends to have Arden end up with. The overall story enticed me enough to keep reading and look forward to grabbing the sequels too. The main thing I enjoyed about the story was the fantasy elements that were strewn throughout. The author also keeps the story fast-paced through two-thirds of the book and the book loses some steam in last one-third as the plot becomes entangled with certain courtly matters as well as the love triangle in question.

Overall this story was a fun read as Loku kept appearing at odd intervals and making the most inappropriate suggestions and commentary. I would have loved to see more of him. This book is built for a certain audience and for those who love some romance in their stories, this story will scratch your itch nicely. As a fantasy reader primarily I was able to enjoy the story and not mind the romance as it's ensconced within the story neatly. The story does make Trouble out to be person ruled partially by her emotions but then from time to time she shows her mettle by doing things that make it root for her. Both the male leads are quintessential romantic lead material that showcase different personas for Trouble to be attracted to. I thought the author could have written them better but I would be interested to know how Romance readers find them to be.

The story doesn’t have many action sequences and but the climax does its best to compensate for that. There’s an end twist which surely sets up the next book nicely and that was a solid plus from a storytelling perspective. Drawbacks for this story are that this story focuses on romance solidly and that for fantasy readers that might jar their reading experience. The story also doesn’t quite expand on the world history and magic system. I don’t think that the author wanted to go that route but for most fantasy fans that might be where the book lacks quite a bit.

CONCLUSION: A Soul For Trouble was a fun read for me and I'll be interested to read the sequels to see where to the author takes the story. It focuses strongly on the romance but not entirely at the expense of the fantasy elements. Crista McHugh writes smoothly and injects enough energy into her story to keep the readers entertained. This was a solid 7.5 star read for me and I will be looking to read the sequels as well.


Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. For starters, please introduce yourself, tell us what inspired you to write and describe your journey to becoming a published author.

CMH: Thank you for having me! I’m Crista McHugh, an NYT bestselling author of fantasy and romance. I started writing when I was in high school, inspired by all the books I read and how I would add my own twists to them, but I really didn’t start writing for publication until I after I was done with med school and residency. I sold my first story in 2009 to a small press romance publisher, and I’ve been steadily publishing since then, both through publishers and self-publishing.

Q] Please talk to us about the inception of A Soul For Trouble? How did this story come to be? What was your inspiration for it?

CMH: A Soul For Trouble was born from a series of discussions in the fantasy forums of Absolute Write. I’d met some fabulous writers there, and one day, we were talking about souls residing in other bodies, and I got the idea of disembodied soul trapped in another person. But not just any soul—the soul of a chaos god.

Q] In A Soul For Trouble, you have elements of fantasy and romance mixing easily. What was your intent with the amalgamation of these genre elements?

CMH: I’d originally started out writing fantasy, but I wasn’t getting any nibbles on my book at that time. Meanwhile, I’d started writing (and selling) paranormal romance books to different publishers, so I started to incorporate more romantic elements into my fantasy stories. At the time I wrote A Soul For Trouble (2009), love triangles were huge, so I veered into that territory.

Q] Please tell us how you heard about the SPFBO contest and what motivated you to enter it.

CMH: Someone had posted at link to the contest, and I decided to see how ASFT would fare in fantasy contests. Its sequel, A Soul For Chaos, had already won multiple awards in romance contests, but there were so few fantasy contests that took self-published books.

Q] What were your expectations going into it and now that your title has been chosen for round 2, what are your thoughts?

CMH: I’m excited, especially when I see the other titles that have made it to this round. I worried that most hard core fantasy readers would be turned off by the romance, but I’m also glad that they gave it a chance and that it’s made it this far.

Q] So for someone who hasn't read any of your novels, how would you describe the type of stories that you write, what would be your pitch for the Soulbearer Series?

CMH: For the Soulbearer Series, I’d pitch it as insane god trapped in a mortal witch’s body. Or, as I put it in the logline, “When you’re a witch named Trouble, Chaos follows.”

Q] So when and how did the idea for the Soulbearer series first come about, how long have you been working on it, and how much has it evolved from its original conception (if any)?

CMH: I started writing A Soul For Trouble in 2009, and since then, I’ve added three more titles to the series. I knew how the romance would end. I knew what would happen to Dev and Kell. However, when I sat down to write the 4th book (which is the first in a new trilogy of stories I’ll be working on over the next few years), I decided to pick on a minor character from the third book and make his life a little more chaotic. I’m still working out the kinks as to what happens next, but expect more trouble from Nelos, the god of law.

Q] A Soul For Trouble is book 1 in the Soulbearer Series. What can readers expect from books 2, 3 & 4? Is the series complete?

CMH: As I mentioned before, I’d only set out to write three books in the series, but readers asked for more, so I decided to add on three more volumes, starting with A Soul For Atonement. Because there was no way Loku would let his dear little Soulbearer have her happy ending, after all. The title for the next book is A Soul For Fear, and I hope to get to it by the end of 2016.

Q] In the Soulbearer books, your protagonist shares her body with that of a troublemaker god called Loku. How much of him is based on a certain famous Norse trickster?

CMH: Quite a bit, actually. There’s a reason why sort of named him after Loki, the Norse Trickster. He’s mad. He’s power hungry. And he never lets people forget that he is still a god. But I also drew from other chaos and trickster mythologies. For example, I borrowed some of the attributes of the Coyote from Native American lore, and I modeled the plane of chaos loosely after Tartarus from Greek mythology

Q] You have an extensive bibliography with a strong romance focus. With this series how did you delineate the fantasy elements from the romance ones? What was your compass as to how to mix them up?

CMH: If you look at many fantasy books, there are many romantic couples. Westley and Buttercup. Aragorn and Arwen. Eowyn and Faramir. Rhapsody and Ashe. Janelle and Daemon. Richard and Kahlan. I just happen to like a little more of a happy ending in my stories than say… George R. R. Martin.

I’m actually in the process of splitting up my fantasy from my romance. I have two fantasy series with romance (The Soulbearer series and The Deizian Empire series) under Crista McHugh, but my fantasy books with far less romance (and more fighting and gore) will be under C. A. McHugh. That way, when readers will know if they are getting a kissing book or not. I’m planning on releasing a few more books under my fantasy pseudonym in 2016, starting with a free short story to my newsletter subscribers later this year.

Q] In closing, do you have any last thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers?

CMH: Thank you for inviting me and for reading this far. I’m excited to see the outcome of the next round, and I hope readers will give Arden and Loku a try (especially since the first book is FREE).
Sunday, October 4, 2015

GUEST POST: On Building A World by Matt Karlov

Sometimes I think we fantasy authors are crazy. We sit down to write a story, and we think: the world, well, it's not bad. There are parts of it I quite like. But it's not quite right for my story. How will I solve this problem? I know! I will invent a whole other world.

I mean -- what? Me and my tiny meat-brain? Create a whole world? It's insane, right? And yet, it's not. We've seen other people do it, and we've connected with some of those worlds and stories in a way that we've rarely connected with anything else in our lives. And some of us think: maybe I can do that too.

I've always loved fantasy. When I started to consider writing The Unbound Man, it went without saying that it would be fantasy. Because, crazy as it might be, an invented world allows you to tell stories that simply can't be told anywhere else. Anything is possible. All you have to do is put in the work to make it believable.

Sounds great in theory. But it turns out that going from 'anything' to 'this specific thing' takes even more work than you might imagine.

I don't know how other fantasy novelists build their worlds. I suspect that, like Tolstoy's unhappy families, each of us is crazy in our own way. If you're thinking of building a fantasy world of your own, I can't tell you how you should approach it. But I can tell you a little about how I built mine.

See that dot next to the squiggle?

One of the very first things I did was make a map. Maps are great because they're not just about geography -- they reflect history, politics, culture, and more. Nothing fires the imagination like a good map. So I began to draw, and I asked myself questions as I went. Start, perhaps, by marking off a small section of land and optimistically labelling it the Kharjik Empire. Delusions of grandeur, or the last remnant of a much greater realm? Call another section the Free Cities, but note that it was formerly known as Coridon. What prompted the change: a rebellion, a war, something else? Why are those plains in the middle not claimed by anyone? How do those people in the Jervian Protectorates feel about being 'protected'? What's up with those islands to the east and west? And so on.

Much, much later, I would hire the wonderfully talented Maxime Plasse to turn my rough sketch into the map you see here. At the time, I just kept adding to the map and to my notes until one day I looked at what I'd drawn and thought: Yes. This looks like a place where interesting things could happen.

It's all about the story!

The thing about building a world for a fantasy novel is that the world isn't really the point. The point is the story you want to tell. So, once I'd developed a suitably inspiring map, I dived into the characters and the plot, adding to the world as I went. I already had some ideas about what this particular story would be, but it still took a lot of thinking and several false starts before I arrived at an outline I was happy with.

Several things gradually became clear. The main character had a particular hatred of coercion and an unusual obsession with freedom. Placing the story in the so-called Free Cities would make for an interesting thematic counterpoint, and would give me the kind of sophisticated urban backdrop that the narrative required. The presence of (nominally) non-political factions was also looming large: merchant companies, groups of sorcerers and scholars, and other organizations would wield as much influence in this part of the world as city governments.

Regional infrastructure would be a blend of convenience and messiness: the region's recent unification as Coridon would give its cities a shared currency, for example, while message services between cities would largely consist of merchant courier networks, most of which would also deliver private letters for an appropriate fee. And hovering over it all would be the shadow of a long-dead empire and the relics it had left behind.

You can do what, how?

I'd always planned to set The Unbound Man in an world with early Renaissance-level technology. I'm far from the first to write that sort of fantasy world, but at the time I hadn't read the likes of Joe Abercrombie or Scott Lynch, and the idea felt fresh and exciting. I gradually worked through the specifics of what the technology would look like. There would be gunpowder in the form of cannons, but few if any personal firearms. The printing press would have arrived, but it would not yet have made hand-scribed documents obsolete; a significant portion of the population would still be illiterate. And the culture would be experiencing more subtle shifts as well. For one, people would be starting to pay attention to clocks -- indeed, a table clock for one's own home would be quite the fashionable purchase.

Equally important, and vital to any fantasy setting, was how to approach magic. I knew I wanted my magic system to stand somewhere between the extremes of being utterly inexplicable and completely systematized: it needed enough structure to be understandable, but not so much as to strip away the mystery. Sorcery, perhaps, could be built in a manner roughly comparable to a physical device, and grounded in some physical substance.

It would be rare enough to be special, but still readily available for those who could afford it. Groups of sorcerers would sell ensorcelled items, from relatively cheap sparkers (used to light lamps) to the rather more expensive chill-chests (whose refrigeration properties would require constant refreshment). Certain particularly distrustful people would have developed a way to nullify a sorcerer's powers -- this would be even more expensive, but would provide an important brake on sorcery. And this model of magic would also fit well with the story, the plot of which was by now becoming increasingly clear.

The fun stuff!

With some of the bigger decisions made, it was time to start writing the actual story. And with that came a whole new set of opportunities to flesh out the details of the world and the characters' experience of living in it.

I particularly enjoy reading fantasy novels in which the world bears some marks of an intellectual and artistic history. Many fantasy novels make a point of highlighting great kings and generals from their world's past -- their Julius Caesar, you might say, or their Alexander the Great. It's less common to hear about that world's Plato, or Herodotus, or Michaelangelo. Less common, but certainly not unknown: Steven Erikson and R. Scott Bakker are two who do this in different ways, and who not coincidentally are two of my favourite authors. I decided to follow in their footsteps and sprinkle The Unbound Man with small examples of the intellectual life of the world -- historians, fabulists, prophets, skeptics, and others -- and the more entertaining or thought-provoking, the better. These would also offer opportunities for thematic resonance and counterpoint, not to mention humour!

I also wanted to play in a few areas that had been somewhat neglected by the traditional school of Euro-centric fantasy. I live in Australia, so the plants and wildlife I'm most familiar with are Australian. Well, no problem! The world of The Unbound Man soon had an abundance of eucalypts and lorikeets. But not exclusively so -- I also wanted to set aside space for some North African-inspired cuisine: flatbreads, tagines, and the like. And I was tired of every second fantasy world possessing some variation of coffee, so I decided that my characters would drink chocol -- a luxury beverage, imported at some expense from across the sea.

But what about...?

There's more, of course. I haven't even mentioned race or class. I've barely touched on religion. Some of these have a significant presence in The Unbound Man; others, less so. But there comes a time when you have to step back from the setting and tell the tale you've come to tell. A world is huge, and even the biggest, fattest fantasy novel is tiny by comparison. And a novel is neither an atlas nor an encyclopedia. It's a story. When all is said and done, the world is just a place for the story to happen.

Or maybe not. In fantasy -- in every genre, really -- the world is an essential part of the story. In a way, stories are like each of us: individual, yes, but shaped more than we can imagine by the world in which we live. Trying to separate a story from its world would be like trying to separate you or me from 21st century Earth. Without a world to live in, a story -- or a person -- would be just an idea.

Which means that maybe this crazy idea that I can sit down and build a world isn't so crazy after all. Maybe this is actually a gift that the real world gives us, one that goes some way towards making up for so many of its frustrations and shortcomings.

Here, in this place we all share, there's always room for one more world.


Official Author Website
Order The Unbound Man HERE

Like every child, Matt Karlov was raised on stories of the impossible, from the good parts of Sesame Street, to The Hobbit, to Watership Down and beyond. As Matt grew older, he had the good fortune to retain his taste for the fantastic, which soon developed into a deep love of speculative fiction in its many guises. He has been struggling to make room on his shelves for new books ever since.

Matt has been a software designer, a web developer, and a business analyst. He lives in Sydney, Australia. The Unbound Man is his first novel.

NOTE: All maps courtesy of Maxime Plasse and Matt Karlov.
Saturday, October 3, 2015

"Spelled" by Betsy Schow (Reviewed by Cindy Hannikman)

OVERVIEW: Fairy Tale Survival Rule #32: If you find yourself at the mercy of a wicked witch, sing a romantic ballad and wait for your Prince Charming to save the day.

Yeah, no thanks. Dorthea is completely princed out. Sure being the crown princess of Emerald has its perks—like Glenda Original ball gowns and Hans Christian Louboutin heels. But a forced marriage to the brooding prince Kato is so not what Dorthea had in mind for her enchanted future.

Talk about unhappily ever after.

Trying to fix her prince problem by wishing on a (cursed) star royally backfires, leaving the kingdom in chaos and her parents stuck in some place called "Kansas." Now it's up to Dorthea and her pixed off prince to find the mysterious Wizard of Oz and undo the curse...before it releases the wickedest witch of all and spells The End for the world of Story

FORMAT: Spelled is the first novel in a series of books. It is a YA novel that is a mish-mash of fairy tales, romance, and adventure. It stands at 352 pages and was published June 2, 2015 by Sourcebooks Fire.

ANALYSIS: All too often when we see the worlds 'fairy tale retelling' it is simply an author taking the same old story – say Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty – and tweaking it just a little bit. Essentially, these authors are adding a tiny twist to make it their own, but the story is the same.

Spelled by Betsy Schow is a fairy tale retelling that breaks that trend. But whether or not that is a good thing will depend on what type of reader you are and what styles of writing you enjoy.

Before I even begin to analyze Spelled, I want to note that this is not a book that is for everyone. Spelled is like a YA version of Ever After High. It has cute little nicknames for things that represent the fairy tale world's version of things, such as a band that is very similar to One Direction or a cellphone that looks and acts just like an iPhone.

In addition to the cute little nicknames, the characters also constantly curse, but they do so in fairy tale style. For example, the characters will constantly say "Well pix me" or "Mother of Grimm". These sayings are cute the first few times they are done, but they are overdone. The overuse of these cute phrases/cursing may be just enough to turn off most readers.

If the fairy tale cursing and cutesy nicknames didn't turn you away from the novel, there is the writing style. Spelled is written in a sassy, extremely causal style that includes a lot of clich├ęs, side comments, and attitude. Readers expecting a straightforward, no-nonsense novel probably won't make it through the first few chapters.

That being said, if you can make it through the sass, the nicknames, and the fairy tale cussing, there is an interesting novel awaiting you. Betsy Schow has taken a little bit of everything from all the Wizard of Oz novels and sort of thrown them together to form a hodgepodge of a story. Longtime fans of Wizard of Oz will certainly see the similarities between some characters and their original counterparts, but for the most part Spelled is its own novel in both character development and plot elements. Think of Wizard of Oz and other fairy tales as more of a guidebook for the story.

I will admit, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this mishmash of characters and stories. I appreciate what Schow was trying to achieve and I think it is absolutely wonderful that she went outside of the box, but I don't feel there was enough here to judge. Here's the problem, I found the first half of the book a bit annoying and very, very slow. Just when I went to set it down, it picked up and I really enjoyed the last half of the book. The enjoyment could be because the best character – Hydra – was introduced and she really made the novel.

I feel as if Schow started to find her footing and pacing in the last half of the novel. This redeemed Spelled for me and makes me actually consider reading the second novel. Unfortunately, it might be too little, too late. Most readers are either going to have abandoned the novel before it got good. This is unfortunate as it started to turn into a halfway decent novel.

Overall, I really feel Spelled is a book you have to try for yourself. Either you are going to like it or you aren't. There really isn't going to be an in between. I think those going into the novel thinking it is a 100% retelling of the Wizard of Oz will be disappointed, but those that know it isn't like that may be able to have the open minded thinking that could make this an enjoyable book.  
Friday, October 2, 2015

Esoterrorism by C. T. Phipps (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Esoterrorism HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: C.T. Phipps is a lifelong student of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. An avid tabletop gamer, he discovered this passion led him to write and turned him into a lifelong geek. He is a regular blogger, reviewer for The Bookie Monster, and recently signed a deal with Ragnarok Publications to produce the urban fantasy series, The Red Room. C.T. Phipps is also the author of The Supervillainy Saga, the first book of which, The Rules of Supervillainy, was released this June.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: There are no good guys in the world of shadows...but maybe some bad men are better than others.

Derek Hawthorne was born to be an agent of the Red Room. Literally. Raised in a conspiracy which has protected the world from the supernatural for centuries, he's never been anything other than a servant of their agenda. Times are changing, though, and it may not be long before their existence is exposed.

When a routine mission uncovers the latest plan of the magical terrorist, the Wazir, Derek finds himself saddled with a new partner. Who is the mysterious but deadly Shannon O'Reilly? What is her agenda? Couple this with the discovery the Red Room has a mole seeking to frame Derek for treason and you have a plot which might bring down a millennium-old organization. Can he stop the Wazir's mission to expose the supernatural? And should he?

FORMAT/INFO: Esoterrorism is 456 pages long divided into forty-two chapters and a prologue. The narration is in the first-person via Derek Hawthorne exclusively. This book is the first volume in the The Secret Files Of The Red Room. Cover art is provided by Eloise J. Knapp.

July 4th, 2015 marked the e-book and paperback publication of Esoterrorism by Ragnarok Publications.

CLASSIFICATION: Esoterrorism  is James Bond meets Hellboy meets The Dresden Files.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Esoterrorism by Charles T. Phipps caught my eye for two solid reasons, one it was a urban fantasy thriller that promised mayhem and magic in a startling mix and secondly it was published by the Ragnarok folks whom I know to have a special eye for dark stories in any genre.

The story is seen entirely through our protagonist Derek Hawthrone, an agent for the organization known as The Red Room. It’s an organization that is massive and is very family-oriented (literally). However their family dealings are more akin to those of the Borgias and their sole intent is to keep the non-magical populace of Earth unaware of the supernatural creatures, races and their shenanigans. Derek is an agent who has been initiated into the organization since a long time and has had quite many capers. Most of them have led to the dissolution of his marriage, deaths of his partners and friends and lastly left him with a cynical but funny worldview. His newest partner Shannon O’Reilly turns out to be more than he thought she would be and she’s definitely off the Human charts both in physical appearance and magical prowess.

Their mission is to track down the Wazir, a terrorist magical caster whose notions about humanity and magic tend to run counter with those of The Red Room. He’s however slippery than a wet eel and doubly dangerous. Derek and Shannon have to figure whether they can trust the other person, who’s the mole in The Red Room organization (because in stories like these, there’s always a mole) and hopefully save the world. As far as spy thrillers go, this is the normal route. What adds extra spice to the story is the presence of magic and the entire paranormal creature spectrum and how the author focuses the story through Derek who can give Frank Trigg a run for his money with his corny jokes, ribald wit and thorny attitude.

Here’s why I enjoyed this story, Charles T. Phipps go all out with his story tropes and manages to subvert them just about to make this story fresh while also giving nods to the fantastic stories that have come before. He also sets the story within the prism of urban fantasy which adds nuance to the story as we come across a myriad cast of creatures and forms of magic. The author has to be lauded for his pan-continental use of magical creatures and oddities. He truly makes it feel like a chaotic world akin to our one with the additional feature of magic that shakes the equilibrium. Avoiding the use of vampires and by focusing on rarely mentioned creatures such as the Lillin, Rakshasas, etc made this story stand out for me.

The pace of the story is another positive factor, beginning from the first couple of chapters; the author takes the readers by their lapels and races them though a story that has a decent number of twists and has a whole lot of action. The story is meant for fun and it goes all out for making sure that readers experience it to the fullest. For those interested the author has spoken as to how he tried to deconstruct the world-weary hero and femme fatale tropes, and he’s done it in a way that doesn’t obstruct the story in its premise. The pace of the story never slackens and we are constantly on the move to find out what happens in the climax and who’s the person pulling the strings.

For things that didn’t quite work for me, some of the world history and background setting are scarcely mentioned but never quite revealed. I don’t know if this was intentional on the author’s part (so as to save it for later volumes) or simply sacrifices made for not slackening the pace. I felt that the world and magic system could have been better fleshed out. There’s also in the middle when the story does get a tad slow wherein the main characters are trying to figure out another character’s possible betrayal. I thought that could have been due to the fast pace of the story before and after, which made that section seem slower.

CONCLUSION: Overall I very much enjoyed Esoterrorism as it was written with few things in mind, if you are looking for a fast-paced, action heavy thriller, then Esoterrorism will hit the bullseye. If you are looking for a change from the usual urban fantasy smorgasbord then Esoterrorism might do it for you. As for me, I was looking to read something new and exciting and Charles T. Phipps provided that in spades. I can’t wait to read the sequel volumes Eldritch Ops, and Operation: Otherworld. Give this book a try, I’m sure you will be hooked as well.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

GUEST POST: Epic Fantasy: Dinosaur or dynamo? by Erin Lindsey

Game of Thrones won twelve Emmys last week, shattering the record for most trophies in a single year. Pretty extraordinary, when you think about it. Fantasy hasn’t staged a coup like that since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2004. The ever-building momentum of HBO’s juggernaut proves, if extra proof was needed, that fantasy has stormed the mainstream.

It’s a phenomenon that’s been building for a while now and shows no sign of slowing down. Television is positively bursting with speculative fiction, a trend that’s largely matched in Hollywood. What’s particularly interesting about it, though, is that while much of this exuberant growth is distinctively modern – post-apocalyptic, contemporary and urban fantasy, superheroes created by mutations and technology gone awry – the heavy hitters are still pretty traditional. Take Game of Thrones. The vast majority of SFF shows on television today are sci-fi, contemporary fantasy, and comic book adaptations, and yet none of them comes close to the commercial and critical heft of Game of Thrones.

In this modern world of ours, one show rules them all, and it’s the epic fantasy of the bunch. Same goes for movies: in the more than ten years since The Return of the King, we have yet to see anything that rivals The Lord of the Rings trilogy for sheer impact. Meanwhile, many of the biggest names in fantasy literature are churning out epic fantasy as their bread-and-butter and enjoying tremendous success in doing so. In other words, when it comes to that most amorphous and precious of currencies – cred – epic fantasy is still the big name on campus, to such an extent that many hardcore SFF fans seem to think it’s the only genre that qualifies as “serious” fantasy.

This has caused a certain amount of consternation among those who see epic fantasy as something of a dinosaur, an essentially conservative branch of genre fiction that never really evolves. And I get that – insofar as you consider “epic fantasy” and “traditional fantasy” to be synonymous. But the thing is, they aren’t. Epic fantasy needn’t be traditional. It can evolve; it is evolving. Epic fantasy shouldn’t be caught in the crossfire of a debate about “traditional” vs. “progressive”, because it can be both of those things – or neither. “Epic” isn’t a point along the spectrum of “old school” to “contemporary”; it’s merely a question of narrative scope. It’s perfectly possible to put a modern twist on epic fantasy – to offer, in the words of blogger Jared Shurin, “all the high fantasy comfort we love, but with fresh, high quality ingredients and contemporary presentation”.

Not only is it possible, it’s happening. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least four ways epic fantasy is evolving:

1) Diversity - Depending on how you define it, the list could stop right here. For the purposes of this post, though, I’m referring to diversity in protagonists. Granted, we haven’t come nearly as far as we ought to on this, but I sometimes feel that we don’t sufficiently recognize the progress we have made (which actually does a disservice to the cause overall, since it’s dismissive of the pioneers). There are loads of wonderful epic fantasies with females at the helm, and increasingly persons of colour and LGBT characters too. Not only that, some books are taking a refreshing angle on gender itself by showcasing very different gender roles. Again, we’re not nearly where we should be on this, and epic fantasy is admittedly behind the curve compared to many other genres, but we’re moving in the right direction. That means we should keep up the pressure – and recognize the progress that’s been made.

2) Non-European cultural reference points - Another generalization we hear a lot: epic fantasy is rooted in medieval Europe. Well, no. The Epic of Gilgamesh, seen by many as the first great work of literature (period), is from the Middle East. The Egyptians and Indians got in on the fun way before the Greeks showed up, and by the time Beowulf arrived on the scene, the battlefield was already littered with bodies. There is nothing especially European, let alone medieval, in the pedigree of epic fantasy. Okay, you say, epic fantasy might not be rooted in medieval Europe, but it’s certainly mired in it. To some extent, maybe, but that’s changing. From Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven to Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy to Bradley Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, different cultural reference points are cropping up all over epic fantasy. If you haven’t found them, maybe you haven’t been looking hard enough.

3) Subverting classic tropes - Plenty of epic fantasy still boils down to some variation on the hero’s journey. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As I’ve argued elsewhere, “trope” isn’t a dirty word; these things are classics for a reason. But sometimes the books you think are reveling in old tropes are actually subverting them in new and refreshing ways. I’m not going to get specific for fear of spoilers (in case there’s anybody left out there who hasn’t read Mistborn or A Song of Ice and Fire), but some of the biggest epic fantasy series of recent years have played mercilessly with our expectations, capitalizing on years of tradition to lead us to a very specific place – before dropping an anvil on our heads. Whether you go in for that sort of thing or not, it’s undeniably part of the dialectic pushing the conversation forward.

4) Contemporary themes - The best example I can think of here is The Hunger Games, with its unflattering and essentially antagonistic portrayal of the media as manipulator of the public, manipulated by the ruling class, and thus a powerful tool of oppression. It’s not strictly new, but it’s contemporary in the sense that it’s so very characteristic of our time, a fear that resonates with a broad audience in ways that it wouldn’t have even a couple of decades ago. Another example, just off the top of my head: The Traitor Baru Cormorant, a book about an accountant trying to overthrow an empire from within. Epic, certainly. Traditional, not so much.

More and more, epic fantasy is broadening its horizons in new and exciting ways. It’s evolving. For it to evolve further, we certainly need more diversity – and here I’m using the word in its broader sense, to encompass characters, worlds, themes, etc. But diversity is already out there, and that’s something to celebrate. It’s also tremendously reassuring, because it proves just how versatile the genre can be, how much exploring is left to do.

Sure, some dinosaurs still roam the earth. But plenty of others have sprouted wings, and they’re taking us along for the ride.


Official Author Website
Order The Bloodbound HERE
Order The Bloodforged HERE
Read "Five Things I've Learned About War" by Erin Lindsey (Guest Post)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Erin Lindsey is on an epic quest to write the perfect vacation novel for fantasy lovers. THE BLOODFORGED, Book 2 of the Bloodbound trilogy, releases on September 29. She also writes fantasy mystery as E.L. Tettensor. You can find her on her website, or on Twitter @etettensor.

NOTE: Game Of Thrones cast picture courtesy of M. Blake and Reuters. A Song Of Ice And Fire cover montage by Matt Roeser.
Monday, September 28, 2015

GUEST POST: Genesis of The Spider in the Laurel by Michael Pogach

I didn’t come up with the title of this article. My publisher’s Publicity Coordinator emailed me and wrote: “Fantasy Book Critic would love a post about the Genesis of The Spider in the Laurel.” Here’s the thing. She had no idea just how perfect a title that is for a piece on the origins of this novel.

In the beginning, I was a short story writer. Not genre. Literary fiction. Cerebral stuff mostly. Almost all of the action in the protagonist’s head as he or she deals with whatever conflict is there, be it relationships, war, life, death, whatever. So when I decided to try my hand at a novel (a decision which I’ve tried to recall numerous times without any success; I truly have no idea what made me finally say, “That’s it. I‘m writing a novel”) I wanted to get physical. It was going to be an Indiana Jones styled adventure.

The first draft went untitled for about half a year. As it neared completion the need for a title grew, so one night my writers group and I kicked around ideas over pizza and drinks. The winning title was: Genesis Lied. The premise of the novel, at that time, was wrapped up in a linguistic quirk of the Book of Genesis which says, “Let Us make humankind in Our image.” I seized upon the plural “Us” and “Our” to posit that there had once been two Gods. But one had overthrown the other and presented Himself as the only God in Heaven.

Yeah, I know. I’m going to piss off some people with this.

Anyway, I got to liking the title Genesis Lied. And I focused my first revisions on strengthening that thematic focus. In time, I even began querying the book as Genesis Lied. It didn’t sell. But I did get a handful of generous and blunt personalized responses. The idea of the book was well received. The pacing of the action was good, they said. But the main characters didn’t carry the novel.

Back to the drawing board. And the pizza and alcohol. I spent another year revising. The word count went from 80,000 to 103,000. The scope of the novel’s reinterpretation of religion was scaled back. The main characters were redefined. Their relationship became central to the book. The storyline came alive. Only after this did I go back at the religious background. I broke out of Genesis. I sought out older mythologies which influenced the Bible. I invented and reinvented new evolutions of belief. I developed an entirely new view of ancient man’s relationship with the gods. Finally, I changed history.

In tomorrow’s America, belief is the new enemy. That’s the catch-phrase for the book. But I needed a reason for my future America to be secular. A reason for it to have outlawed all faiths and expressions thereof. I looked for times in US history that the nation had been united in a goal. The two best examples were after Pearl Harbor and after September 11, 2001. I chose the latter.

The timeline I built from that day forward involved an America with a singular purpose in the early 2000’s. Eliminate all fundamentalists. And if that meant eliminating all religion, so be it. There was, of course, a war. The secularists won. And out of the darkness of terrorism and extremism, was born the beacon of the Citizens Republic of America.

Raise your hand if you know what happens in fiction when a new government takes over on the promise to build a perfect, harmonious future. That’s right: dystopia!

The book’s new focus in hand, I needed a new title. The Spider in the Laurel is actually a line from a Herman Melville poem titled “The Ravaged Villa.” I’d found the poem while building the story’s new mythos. Part of the thread the heroes follow is an obscure fairytale I invented which features a devilish little golden spider hiding in a laurel crown and whispering into the princess’s ear that it can grant her greatest wish. We all know how that’s going to go, don’t we?

Well, the fairy tale had already taken its name from the poem. And when I made a list of potential new titles for the novel, the fairytale’s title was the most striking of the bunch. Genesis Lied became The Spider in the Laurel.

I started out trying to write an Indiana Jones adventure. And somewhere along the way, I developed a whole new world that was part V for Vendetta and part American Gods. And at the heart of it is a historian who is being forced to destroy the relics of history, and a believer who has trouble believing in anything but herself and her guns. Whatever the title, I hope you’ll read a few pages. Then maybe some more. And, with a little luck, find yourself drawn in.


Official Author Website
Order The Spider In The Laurel HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Michael Pogach began writing stories in grade school. He doesn’t remember these early masterpieces, but his parents tell him everyone in them died. He’s gained some humanity since then, even occasionally allowing characters to escape his stories alive. Michael lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and daughter. The Spider in the Laurel is his first novel.


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