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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

NEWS: Pretty Little Dead Things by Mercedes M. Yardley and Straggletaggle by J. M. McDermott

Press Release: “Murder and whimsy.” These things may sound incompatible, but dark fantasy author Mercedes M. Yardley’s latest novel manages to entwine the two concepts with lyrical language, beautiful imagery—and a high body count.

Ragnarok Publications is proud to announce the release of Pretty Little Dead Girls: A Novel of Murder and Whimsy, coming on September 29th. A dark but lovely fairy tale, this is Yardley at her finest: a tapestry of lush imagery, poetic prose, and beautiful violence about a woman destined to be murdered and her flight from Fate’s inevitable—yet seemingly terrible—marksmanship.

Yardley’s fans are no strangers to her lovely, tragic style. She is also the author of the acclaimed novella “Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A Tale of Atomic Love”, winner of the 2013 Reddit Stabby Award for Best Short Fiction, and the novel Nameless: The Darkness Comes, the first of The Bone Angel trilogy.

The creation of Pretty Little Dead Girls was something special for Yardley, however: “Pretty Little Dead Girls was created out of sheer joy,” Yardley says. “I've never experienced anything like it. This novel was written in three weeks. It bled from my pores, it was so intense. But so joyful.”

Hugo award-winning artist Galen Dara was commissioned to create a cover image that would capture the idea of lovely murder. The result, coupled with the design skills of J.M. Martin, is absolutely stunning. So stunning, in fact, that Ragnarok Publications has decided to release a special, limited hardcover edition of the book. Only one hundred of these signed hardcovers will be available, and preorders have already begun.

Also included in the package for the preordered hardcovers is a signed print from artist Orion Zangara, renowned for creating fairy tales with his lavish pen and ink drawings. Dark and evocative, this stunning image by Zangara was made with a particular scene from Pretty Little Dead Girls in mind.

Pretty Little Dead Girls: A Novel of Murder and Whimsy is not just a novel; with the poignant words of Mercedes M. Yardley, and the haunting images of both Dara and Zangara, it is, without a doubt, a work of art. The special signed hardcover edition of Pretty Little Dead Girls: A Novel of Murder and Whimsy, along with the Orion Zangara print, is NOW AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER.

Also author J. M. McDermott is kickstarting his newest standalone dark fantasy-steampunk amalgamation titled Straggletaggle. Here's the blurb for this exciting tale:

 "The clockwork kingdom of Saxonia engineered itself into a machine of the law, refashioning even its citizens’ bodies into cogs and pistons. Before the chirurgeons and engineers splice his brain inside the crown, Prince Hollownot escapes into the kingdom’s flogistan soul, where he sees all possible futures. In one, Princess Sapsorrow can break the law with contradiction and shatter the kingdom. But saving the world from the machine comes at a high price: Her love, her family, and her physical body will all be destroyed."

 "The neighboring kingdom of Bavaria has seen nothing come past the great clockwork wall of Saxonia for centuries until a Straggletaggle appears with an odd physiognomy — maybe human, maybe not — and an incredible tale of escape from Saxonia. She claims ignorance of the nearby fatal airship crash and the exquisite prosthetic foot in the wreckage. When a phonograph wrapped in the shell of a man arrives demanding Princess Sapsorrow’s return, Bavaria's disgraced prince and scientist princess, with their intrepid bodyguard, embark on a perilous mission with the Straggletaggle as their guide, to stop a war that, should it start, can only end with Saxonia turning the people of Bavaria into components of its horrific machine."

With a complex world setting, this book will be a must read for all those readers who are tired of simplistic fantasy stories. So please do consider donating to this wonderful project & helping out a wonderful author at the same time.

NOTE: All images courtesy of the respective authors.
Monday, September 15, 2014

Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie (Reviewed by Will Byrnes)

Official Author Website
Pre-order the book HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: In principio erat verbum!

In the beginning was the word, (well according to John 1:1 anyway) but in the absence of someone writing it down, then printing millions of copies, you might never have known. So maybe in the beginning was the word but right behind it was the printer. Before Stephen King, Dan Brown, JK Rowling or AC Doyle, there was once a major global best-seller, the first one. It had an initial printing of one hundred eighty, and it changed the world.

Alix Christie has given us a look at how the Gutenberg bible came to be, and in so doing has illuminated the image we might have of this seminal work with portraits of the man himself, the era in which he lived, the politics of the time, details of the technical advances that went into development of the movable type press, and a look at the people involved.

When you combine the words Gutenberg with Bible, you might conjure an image of some monkish guy in a garage basement, or barn, banging away at his personal project until Voila! You might also think printing the bible was his first gig. Turns out, not so much. While it may not have taken a village to make the famous big book, it came close. Johannes Gensfleisch, the man we know as Gutenberg, (the name of the town where his mother had been born) had some help. There is no question that he was a genius, and that his notions of using movable metal type ushered in a new age. But he was also a very results oriented entrepreneur. Bit of a slave-driver too, as well as being someone of questionable ethical standards, and maybe not the guy you would want having your back in a critical moment. One of the joys of Alix Christie’s tale is learning at least some of the many challenges of all sorts that had to be met along the way from revolutionary printing notion to reality. She came on her less-than-glowing notions about Gutenberg as the sole source of the genius behind the press as a result of relatively recent research by several European scholars. She goes into details on the book’s site.  

Our window into this world is his assistant. Peter Schoeffer, the apprentice of the title, was a scribe in Paris when Johann Fust, who had adopted him, summoned him back to Mainz (pronounced mīn(t)s) to work as Genfleisch’s apprentice. Fust had seen what Gutenberg might do with his marvelous new machine and committed a significant financial stake to the project. Part of the deal was for Peter to be an apprentice in Gutenberg’s shop. Fust’s intentions were not wholly beneficent. He wanted a spy on the inside. The story of how the bible was ultimately made is given by Peter, relating his history to a monk many years later. We step back and forth between the then (1450-1454) and the now (1485), of the story. This offers the author a way to present some views on Gutenberg from a more objective distance. Well, from a distance, anyway. JG is presented in a rather dim light as seen through Peter’s eyes. 

(Johannes Fust and Peter Schoeffer)

In the world of the late 15th century the Catholic Church was a particularly corrupt and oppressive force, impacting the world of earthly politics to an unholy degree. It was within the power of an archbishop, for example, to essentially quarantine an entire city if, say, the ruling council of that city went against his wishes. The Church was also busy selling indulgences, pieces of paper on which the church had incorporated its imprimatur, and which, once you filled in your name, would guarantee forgiveness in heaven for sins committed on earth. The 15th century variety was a way for the church to raise funds, for things like Crusades and large papal celebrations. As the mass production of these monstrosities could be stunningly lucrative to the church, those in charge had a considerable interest in the possibility of new printing technology. And Gutenberg had to be on his guard to keep the church from learning of his project too soon, lest they seize his entire workshop for their own purposes. Secrecy was paramount, and many tongues needed to be stilled for the project to proceed. This creates considerable tension in the story, even though we know that the book is eventually made. Christie also looks at the local politics of the city, the importance of guilds, and the political push-pull of the elders (think the one percent) vs the workers (in this case, guilds).

The focus on the people involved in the time and place make this a tale of Mainz and men (sorry), and not just a tracking of technological innovation. There is a bit of romance in here as well, as Peter and a local lass become entangled. This offers Christie an opportunity to look at the status of women in the late 15th century and note the life-threatening aspect of childbirth that was much more a hazard then than it is today. Of course the tech stuff is fascinating, as it took considerable trial and error to work out the kinks. Christie is a master of these details. As she should be. She apprenticed as a printer and owns a working press. However, she is equally adept at portraying the many interpersonal tensions and complications in the relationships of the major players.

 "For centuries the ruling class had run the city like their private bank. They’d lent the council sums they then repaid themselves at crushing rates of interest. These bonds they then bequeathed to their own spawn, in perpetuity. Thus was the city fated to insolvency, like half of the free cities of the Reich. Each time the treasury was bare, Archbishop Dietrich would step in, prop up that rotting edifice, enact some other tax that only workingmen and merchants had to bear."

Contemporary issues resonate here. Just as the internet, a marvelous bit of technology, can be put to low or dark purposes, so could the original printing press. In fact an early money-maker for Gutenberg was the equivalent of a penny-dreadful. The selling of indulgences by the Church is echoed today whenever the Department of Justice investigates corporations for malfeasance. What remains clear is that tools, even miraculous ones, are only as good as the people who control them. The stresses between old and new, between powerful and less powerful, between religious and secular power comes through. BTW, one of the reasons Gutenberg opted to produce a bible is that a project that was in the works with church leaders to print a standardized missal fell through. I suppose one might call this an early missal crisis. I wouldn’t, but I suppose some might.

(The Press)

I expect Christie was hewing as closely as possible to the history she is writing about. Peter was a real person, as were all the major and maybe even minor characters in this impressive book. As the fictional Peter here tells his story to a monk many years after the events described, so the real Peter did the same. This is definitely an instance in which the historical aspect of this historical novel is a very powerful element. She even includes in an afterword a bit of what happened to each of the characters after the bible was completed. No, nothing on Dean Wormer.

I have two gripes with the book, neither of them major. I appreciate Christie hewing to history in her re-telling of how the great book came to be, but I did not find the steps forward to Peter’s telling the tale to a monk altogether necessary. Second, one thing you should know about Gutenberg’s Apprentice is that, as informative and satisfying as it is, it is a slow read. At least it was for me. You are unlikely to be taking this one to the beach to while away a few hours. But if you settle in for a longer spell, you will be richly rewarded.Gutenberg’s Apprentice may not be the first book you have ever read, but it will definitely leave a lasting impression.

NOTE: The review was originally posted on Will's blog. Read an informative wiki on Fust and Schoeffer. Author picture courtesy of the author. Gutenberg Bible image via the University of Cambridge library. Johannes Fust & Peter Schoeffer courtesy of Wikipedia. 
Friday, September 12, 2014

City Of Stairs by Robert J. Bennett (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu & Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Mr. Shivers 

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Robert Bennett Jackson currently resides in Austin, Texas. His attempt to write books began with an early fascination with Stephen King books shared by him and his brother. Mr. Shivers was Robert's debut and since then he has gone on to write four more books that mixed several genres & have defied classification in as many years.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions—until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world's new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself—first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it—stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.

Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov's oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country's most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem—and that Bulikov's cruel reign may not yet be over.

FORMAT/INFO: City Of Stairs is 464 pages long divided into nineteen titled chapters and three interlude text sections. Narration is in the Third person via Shara Thivani, Sigurd, Turyin Mulaghesh, Pityr, Morotka, Cheyschek, Vod Drinsky, and other personas. City Of Stairs is the first novel of the Divinities series.

September 9, 2014 marked the North American trade paperback and e-book publication of City Of Stairs (see cover below) via Broadway Books. The UK edition will be published on October 2, 2014 in both hardback & e-book format via Jo Fletcher books.

ANALYSIS (Mihir): City Of Stairs was one of those books that I was intrigued about when the author spoke about how history affects perception and the lives of those living in a city that previously ruled the whole world, oh and also the bodies of dead gods being used as WMDs! After finishing the book earlier this year, I felt this was the first standout out book of 2014.

I'm usually a sucker for stories that sound weird and have cool blurbs such as the one above. To back it up, the author also spoke a bit more about the story's conception over HERE & HERE. Plus I had read the author's previous works which was excellent (American Elsewhere) & not-so-good (Mr. Shivers). This was the author's first stab at something other than what he had written so far.

The story is set in Bulikov, the aforementioned City Of Stairs and erstwhile de-facto capital of the world (or atleast that's what the citizens would have you believe). Bulikov is situated in the continent with several other divine cities, it however is conquered by Saypur, a crumbling outpost which nearly eighty years ago did something so outrageous that it shook the foundations of history and literally changed the world.

A man titled Kaj, slew a god via his machinations in the battle famously known as The Night Of The Red Sands. After which he sailed onto the continent wherein he further slew the remaining gods. Thereby destroying the continent's rule on the world and establishing Saypur's ascendancy as the supreme power.

The story begins in 1719 wherein in Bulikov, the murder of Efrem Pangyui has caused upheaval and led to the coming of Shara Thivani, a middling diplomat who comes to the City of Stairs to find out the real reason behind the murder. She however is not one without any mystery of her own and should her real identity be revealed, then the continent will truly erupt.

Of the many excellences that this book has, none is supreme than the world-building encompassed within. The author has taken pains to create a world that is magical, technologically oriented and sincerely refreshing in more ways than one. Six gods there were: Olvos, Kolkan, Jukov, Ahanas, Voortya, and Taalhavras, their wonders elevated the continent but now their age has gone and it left to diplomats and spies to manage the world. These gods had their own cities that were labelled by their divine names plus "stan". The world-building and the current state of the world is the remarkable part of the story possibly even better than the terrific characterization. Kudos to the author for eschewing pseudo-European templates and creating a world that's complex as our own and incredibly diverse. I couldn't help but wonder at the role-reversal effected by the author in this tale wherein the brown people are the conquerors and have in effect stymied the rest of the world with their scientific progress. The names and locations have a certain Indian & Russian feel to them & I hope to clarify more about this with the author in his interview with us.

After acing the world-building component, Rob J. Bennett brings us down to the action via Shara Thivani and her secretary (this is a complete misnomer for him) Sigrud.  As they try to figure out what is happening behind the scenes. By the way Sigrud truly is a memorable secondary character, his actions and past truly make the scenes come alive whenever he's featured and I sincerely hope in the future books that the author dwells into his past and future. Shara is a remarkable protagonist as it's through her eyes we come to experience the disheveled state of diplomacy and the many sacrifices it demands. The author doesn't stop at these two and gives us a strong secondary character cast beginning with Governor Turyin Mulghesh, who provides some of the black humour in the book with her sardonic observations. The divinities described are also rich and diverse in their viewpoints and it was fun to read about them and their wills.

Lastly there are a few mystery threads to this plot which the author very efficiently unveils and the reader will enjoy all the revelations that are laid bare about the characters, the gods and what exactly happened with the Kaj & his deicidal efforts.  All in all, this book is a rich secondary fantasy story that again is hard to classify whether it's is epic fantasy or a spy story in a fantasy world, or something else. I honestly feel that this book has so many dimensions to it and the more you re-read, the more you find.

(click on the picture above to explore the City of Stairs)

ANALYSIS (Liviu): City Of Stairs is billed as epic fantasy and has clear hints that it will follow its usual storyline, but also accompanied with a very unusual world building that shows the potential of the genre if it moves away from pseudo-medieval Western/east Asian, wizard incantations/spells, trolls, elfs, the dark, the others and the like and tries to show magic as sense of wonder in the sfnal way.  I'm curious where it will go and how it will work in the end, but very intriguing so far; a world with trains and telegrams, but also remains of magical artifacts large and small, mundane and truly weird, while the geopolitics is not the usual pseudo-medieval Western/east Asian either, having a mixture of mostly Indian and Russian sounding names so far, really compelling.

After finishing City of Stairs and it was one of those rare fantasy novels that succeed superbly at being different and showing that it is possible to do new things - I would say that The Last Page was the previous one I felt this way about, with Thunderer and Perdido Street Station were other earlier examples -

On the other hand this book balances finely between "now that's over the top" and "this is arbitrary and anything can happen anyway so why do we care" as it plays its internal logic against the logic of the genre which it ultimately follows, however well - talking about examples and how this balance is fine, the failures (mostly by repetition) of The Iron Council and The Black Bottle show how hard is to keep being innovative and I am curious if the author plans to write more secondary world fantasy, whether in this universe or another.

As lots of things happen and I wouldn't want to spoil the twists, I would just mention that there is everything one wants - drama, romance, battles, fights, mysteries, amazing world building and great character who stay with you and not surprisingly this one vaulted to my top fantasy of the year for now and while it may not stay there as competition heats up in the summer (D. Wexler, A. Ryan, B. Weeks etc), I would say a top ten is guaranteed.

On the negative side a few small things - the use of the word "fascist" which is a specific Earth world coming from Rome, fasces etc so deeply contingent of our particular past is really annoying, the world feels on occasion a bit small, while as mentioned the logic of genre still applies and the villains are villainous, heroes, heroic etc but nothing compared to the wonders inside.

Just a small taste of the wonders of the book - an extract from a list of miraculous things now stowed away in a secret warehouse whose content are of course of great interest to our heroes and villains:

 "368. Shelf C5-158. Glass of Kivrey: Small marble bead that supposedly contains the sleeping body of Saint Kivrey, a Jukoshtani priest who changed gender every night as part of one of Jukov’s miracles. Miraculous nature—undetermined."

 "369. Shelf C5-159. Small iron key: Name is unknown, but when used on any door the door sometimes opens onto an unidentified tropical forest. Pattern has yet to be determined. Still miraculous."

 "370. Shelf C5-160. Bust of Ahanas: Once cried tears that possessed some healing properties. Users of the tears also had a tendency to levitate. No longer miraculous. "

 "371. Shelf C5-161. Nine stone cups: if left in a place where they receive sun, these cups would refill with goat’s milk every dawn. No longer miraculous."

 "372. Shelf C5-162. Ear of Jukov: an engraved, stone door frame that contains no door. Iron wheels on the base. Speculated that it has a twin, and no matter where the other Ear is, if the doors are operated in the correct manner one can pass through one door and come out the other. We speculate that the twin has been destroyed. No longer miraculous."

 "373. Shelf C5-163. Edicts of Kolkan, books 783 to 797: fifteen tomes mostly dictating Kolkan’s attitudes on dancing. Total weight: 378 pounds. Not miraculous, but content is definitely dangerous."

 "374. Shelf C5-164. Glass sphere. Contained a small pond and overhanging tree Ahanas was fond of visiting when she felt troubled. No longer miraculous."

CONCLUSION (Mihir): This book is the overwhelming fantasy favorite for 2014  and all others will have a hard time to eclipse it in my list. I'm glad Robert J. Bennett is also writing a sequel to this, because I truly can't wait to read more about this strange world and the three-dimensional characters that inhabit it.
Thursday, September 11, 2014

"The Bone Clocks" by David Mitchell (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

"Following a scalding row with her mother, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: a sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as “the radio people,” Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life.

For Holly has caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics—and their enemies. But her lost weekend is merely the prelude to a shocking disappearance that leaves her family irrevocably scarred. This unsolved mystery will echo through every decade of Holly’s life, affecting all the people Holly loves—even the ones who are not yet born.

A Cambridge scholarship boy grooming himself for wealth and influence, a conflicted father who feels alive only while reporting from occupied Iraq, a middle-aged writer mourning his exile from the bestseller list—all have a part to play in this surreal, invisible war on the margins of our world. From the medieval Swiss Alps to the nineteenth-century Australian bush, from a hotel in Shanghai to a Manhattan townhouse in the near future, their stories come together in moments of everyday grace and extraordinary wonder."

Arguably the most anticipated novel of the year for me, "The Bone Clocks" fell considerably short of my expectations while having enough goodies to be a very good book and worth reading. After the generally glowing reviews - and for those that were not so, the blame was apportioned on the fact that "respectable" critics hate fantasy and the novel is clearly sff  - the high sales in the first week and the very strong first two parts, I was shocked a few days ago when the novel did not make the Booker shortlist, however when finishing it, I kind of agreed it was not the best David Mitchell despite its ambitious scope.

The Bone Clocks features the usual David Mitchell multiple narrator structure advancing in time and in which one narrator takes over from another and the stories connect - mostly directly here - while the author's versatility as a stylist is again on display as the voices rang true and distinct.

However there are three major problems with the novel:

Despite going into the future and being published in 2014, the book feels like it has the headlines of 2012 and earlier and the world kind of changed since then - well the headlines and dominant left wing narrative narrative changed at least and the book concerns really reflect the Guardian headlines say for 2011-12 ...

The fantasy villains are way too one dimensional and the whole Horology vs Cathar conflict, while very promising when mysterious, degenerates into B-grade pulp towards the end.

The above 2 flaws would have been tolerable especially with the super-strong parts narrated by 15 year old Holly Sykes and Cambridge student and sharp operator Hugo Lamb, while the third Ed Bruebeck part is ok despite the Iraq post-war reporter stuff being a bit out of place, but choosing to devote the largest part of all - and probably about 1/3 of the book total - to Crispin Hershey's voice and the themes that Howard Jacobson did so well last year in Zoo Time - author as fading celebrity, skewering the publishing industry, self-pity and aimless personal life - just put The Bone Clocks into a nosedive from where the Martinus part and the Horology/Cathar back-story which were extremely fascinating, couldn't rescue it as the contemporary action degraded to pulp super-villains against semi-super-heroes stuff lacking any nuance.

Then the last short epilogue/coda like part felt also a bit out of place - emotionally strong and resembling for example the ending of another 2014 major literary sff release - The Book of Strange New Things, but not really fitting with the rest so well.

Overall, The Bone Clocks is very ambitious and has enough goodies to be a very good book and worth reading, but not the best David Mitchell - especially if it's not the first novel of the author one reads as the amazing voice versatility is not as astonishing any more - and quite far from the admittedly humongous expectations I had about it.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Empire Under Siege and Phoenix Rising by Jason K. Lewis (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Empire Under Siege HERE
Order Phoenix Rising HERE
Read Getting Started Is The Hardest by Jason K. Lewis (guest post)

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Adarna Chronicles consists of two novellas so far: Empire Under Siege and Phoenix Rising. What drew me to this series was the subject matter of a “Roman-like empire in chaos” fantasy storyline and also the covers, which are simply striking and drew my eye instantly. The author mentioned what his influences were in writing this historical-ish fantasy series in his guest post previously & it bears a read to see the wide variety of influences. 

The story begins in Empire Under Siege with a full-fledged battle and as actual battles go, the one described is messy, chaotic and slightly difficult to follow. The story has multiple POVs and firstly we are introduced to branch leader Conlan of the Third who’s in the thick of it. Then we get to see the battle from the view of general Felix Martius who leads the legions against the invaders. Seconding Martius is his mentor cum friend general Antius Turbis who saw his brilliance and lent him his support. Lastly there’s Wulf who’s one of the horde (so as to speak) who has to deal with the aftermath of the battle. These are the POVs introduced in Empire Under Siege, for the follow-up Phoenix Rising, the new POVs introduced are Metrotis, Felix Martius’ nephew & an eccentric scholar who tries to extract more information from Wulf and Felix Ellasand, Martius’ wife who faces a deadly foe on her own. 

The story has many threads as seen from the multivariate POV list above, while we get a view from the legionary point via Conlan, we also get the higher-up view via Martius and Turbis. There’s the usual political backstabbing and one-upmanship brewing thanks to the actions of the generals and the Emperor who is troubled by them. Then we get a look from one of the POWs (Wulf) which offers another differentiating view into the happenings. All in all this is an intriguing series as the authors explores the world and the aftereffects of a terrible battle. The author effectively showcases PTSD, political maneuvering and other such movements that would occur in an empire. Of course there’s a lot more afoot with regards to a (possibly) mad prophet and what truly caused the barbarian horde to appear on the borders of the Adarnan Empire

The author slowly exposes the different story angles for the reader to be pulled in various directions. What I enjoyed about the story was this very approach, the reader is never quite sure where the plot is heading and because the episodic nature of the storyline, we are left wanting to know what happens next. What the author truly puts in his best are the characters, with each POV we get to view the world through a different pair of eyes and they are all fascinating. We meet Conlan who is a young soldier, learning that war is never pleasant and soldiers are often at the mercy of their higher-ups. Martius has to walk the fine between his peers and his emperor, giving offense to neither and efficiently manage his soldiers. Wulf is a prisoner who seeks to escape but first he has to gain favor with Metrotis who is crafty to his wiles. 

I couldn’t choose a single favorite but Wulf, Martius, and Conlan’s chapters were my favorites for the amount of twists and intrigue that is slotted in them. There’s some action to this storyline but mainly both episodes focus on building up the mystery of the "Bull, Bear, and Hawk" and also a couple of other threads that the readers will have to RAFO. Lastly I will have to mention the dazzling and Spartan cover art, so kudos to the Deranged Doctor Design chaps for both the covers so far. I can’t wait to see what they do for the third volume tentatively titled “The Great Bear”. 

One area wherein the story is deficient to a certain degree is the world building and the history. Of course the author has put in small hints and clues wherever possible but for world-building junkies, this will be a sub-par effort. Also both the volumes are on the shorter side considering they are novellas and not novels, so readers should definitely take that into consideration before buying them. 

Overall this series is slightly reminiscent of the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher but with less action, low-key magic settings and more of a focus on characters. Think a David Gemmellesque approach to story telling crossed with the Codex Alera world settings . So the story is more character & dialogue focused and with a slightly lesser emphasis on world details. For readers who like this sort of an approach, you will enjoy this story. For others who prefer a bit more meat to their stories, this might not entirely be your cup of tea. However I must say that the story isn’t finished & the author has mentioned that the third novella/episode will be a longer one with more depth as well. I would recommend reading the first two together for now as that way the story makes more sense and feels cohesive. 

CONCLUSION: Jason K Lewis’s Adarna Chronicles are an interesting mix of historical fantasy cast in the Roman empire mold and with the author’s strong focus on characters. This series managed to mark itself out and I would recommend it to all readers looking for a quick read and for lovers of Romanesque fantasy.
Tuesday, September 2, 2014

"The Unfairest of Them All: Ever After High 2" by Shannon Hale (Reviewed by Cindy Hannikman)

 Read FBC's Review of Storybook of Legends Here
 Visit Shannon Hale's Official Site Here

OVERVIEW: It's the aftermath of Legacy Day, the day when the students at Ever After High are supposed to pledge to follow in their fairytale parents' footsteps, and everyone is in a huff and a puff! Raven Queen, daughter of the Evil Queen, has refused to sign the Storybook of Legends, rejecting her story--and putting everyone else's in jeopardy.

The Royal Apple White doesn't want to think Raven is being a rebellious pain, but Raven's choice means Apple might never get the poisoned apple, Prince Charming, and a kingdom to rule. Behind Apple stands the Royals, those who want to play by the book and embrace their stories. The Rebels, supporters of Raven, believe in breaking free from destiny and writing their own stories.

But when the chaos and rivalry land wonderlandiful Madeline Hatter in trouble, Raven and Apple must bring the Royals and the Rebels together to shut the book on their feud before it threatens to end all of their Happily Ever Afters once and for all.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall...Who'e the Unfairest of Them All?

FORMAT: The Unfairest of Them All is the second book in the Ever After High series. While based off of dolls/TV, the story in this novel is not connected and can be read without knowledge of the TV series/dolls. This series is a children's fantasy that contains adventure, magic and storybook characters.

The novel stands at 335 pages and was published March 25, 2014 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

ANALYSIS: The Storybook of Legends was a pleasant little surprise. It was fun, imaginative, and a bit quirky. I wasn't a huge fan of the whole doll/merchandise tie-in, but putting that aside, I realized it was a fun, light children's novel. So, I had high hopes for the second book when it was released. Luckily, I wasn't disappointed.

The Unfairest of Them All picks up right where Happily Ever After left off. All the students are in an uproar because Raven didn't sign the Storybook of Legends. This has caused the school to split into two groups – the Royals and the Rebels. Neither group wants to get along and refuses to back down – that is until a mutual friend is accused of committing a crime she didn't commit.

Madeline Hatter – daughter of the famous Mad Hatter from Wonderland – finds herself accused of committing a crime that could lead her to be exiled and expelled from Ever After High. It is up to Apple and Raven to work together and go through a series of tasks to uncover the truth and save Madeline from exile.

I absolutely loved and adored The Unfairest of Them All. It really took the characters that were introduced in Ever After High and developed them beyond imagination. Readers are shown that there is more to Apple – who appears shallow and superficial. Apple slowly starts to come around to the idea that change can – and sometimes is – a good thing. She still isn't ready to accept that Raven wants a different future, but she is slowly coming around to that idea.

In addition to Apple's character development, Raven develops further. Readers get to see a closer look into Raven's relationship with her mother, and even get a sneak peek into life in the mysterious jail cell that The Evil Queen has been living in.

One of the things that make this series so amazing is that every character, from the main characters of Apple and Raven to the smaller, secondary characters, has a unique personality that shines through the pages. Each character is distinctly their own person with unique likes/dislikes and interests, and Hale does an amazing job of developing them without drowning readers in boring blocks of text.

Another aspect that really makes this series stand out is that there isn't a huge focus on love triangles/dating. It is mentioned throughout the book, but the main focus is on the characters, main plot, and just having a fun book to read. All too often 'tween' books tend to stray into the relationship zone and that is all it focuses upon. Luckily, that has not happened to this series. 

I did appriciate that Hale seemed to cut back on the cutesy language in this book. There was less 'Storybook-isms' in this novel, which made it a lot easier to read. It was one of my quirks in the first book, but it obviously has been toned down in this novel. 

I will admit I am looking forward to the next book in the series. It promises to take readers into Wonderland and out of all the characters and storylines in Ever After High – Madeline is my favorite. I really cannot wait to see where Hale takes this series.

The truth is this – The Unfairest of Them All is not an epic fantasy. It isn't even a super involved children's novel. But, it is fun, light and has a solid enough plot that it will captivate most readers. It certainly is not a book for everyone. Many people will find it shallow, child-ish, and stereotypical, but if you love fairy tales or just want a fun, light read this is the book for you.

Friday, August 29, 2014

"Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief & Sinister" by Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand & Emma Trevayne (Reviewed by Cindy Hannikman)

 Visit Stefan Bachmann's Official Website Here
Visit Katherine Catmull's Official Website Here
Visit Claire Legrand's Official Website Here
Visit Emma Trevayne's Official Website Here

OVERVIEW: A collection of eerie, mysterious, intriguing, and very short short stories presented by the cabinet's esteemed curators, otherwise known as acclaimed authors Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire LeGrand, and Emma Trevayne. Perfect for fans of Alvin Schwartz and anyone who relishes a good creepy read-alone or read-aloud story. Features an introduction and commentary by the curators, and illustrations and decorations throughout.

FORMAT: The Cabinet of Curiosities is an anthology of children's short stories. It features 36 stories written by four authors and accompanied by illustrations. All the stories have a horror or sinister theme to them. The anthology stands at 488 pages and was published May 27, 2014 by Greenwillow Books.

ANALYSIS: It seems like there has been a shift lately when it comes to anthologies. It used to be you could walk up to the bookshelf and it would be filled with children's short story anthology, but over the years that has changed and it became difficult to find anthologies for children. When there was an anthology, it wasn't very good. The Cabinet of Curiosities changes all of that and brings the trend back.

The Cabinet of Curiosities is a packed with 36 amazing and very creepy children's short stories. The basic theme of the anthology is several 'curators' of a museum have gathered together to share the stories behind specific artifacts that have been discovered. Each artifact can be tied to a theme (love, music, food), which is how it is stored and classified in the 'museum'.

I will admit that I found the theme of this anthology a bit confusing. Each of the sections was introduced with a letter from one of the curators. It was difficult to understand what they were talking about or referencing. While the theme seems like it would be a good idea on the outside, it just wasn't executed as well as it should have or could have been.

I think the anthology would have worked just fine without the goofy letters and silly introductions. I think it didn't work because it wasn't until literally the end of the book that it all came together – at least for me. It was like an 'ah ha' moment when it clicked, but it shouldn't take until the end of an anthology for me to understand the theme.

There is an epilogue to the anthology which gives readers a brief 'what happened to….. ' look at some of the characters. I really enjoyed this and really felt it was a unique, extra touch that made the anthology special.

The slight issue with the theme of the anthology aside, I found that the vast majority of these stories were really well written. When reading them, I couldn't help get the feeling that these would make great read-aloud stories for parents of children. Sure, some of the stories were really creepy, while others were just slightly scary, but the vast majority were really, really good.

It should be noted that this anthology – for some adults – could quickly become dull/predictable. If you were to read all the stories in one go, it would feel as if there were a lot of very similar stories. Some of the stories are similar in nature, but I think there is enough diversity that it keeps children - and most adults - interested.

The following are some of my favorites from this anthology.

Generously Donated By by Emma Trevayne
Remember all those field trips you used to go on as a child and were incredibly bored? This short story tells the tale of one child who is bored on a field trip to a museum, but what happens to him on this particular trip will make sure he never takes another field trip for granted again.

The Sandman Cometh by Claire Legrand

A retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's folk tale of Ole Lukoje, this short story will not disappoint. It has just the right creep factor to it without going overboard, and it stayed true to the original fairy tale.

The Book of Bones by Emma Trevayne  

I'm not sure exactly why I loved this short story, but I did. I felt it was original and really stood out from the other stories. It wasn't one that was forced into a category or theme, so that might explain why it was so appealing. It tells the tale of a wizard who is mysteriously digging up body parts and using them for parts of books. There is a unique little twist and a creep-tastic ending that I don't want to spoil.

The Cake Made Out of Teeth by Claire Legrand

A bratty child who gets whatever he wants is finally taught a lesson in this sinister short story. A young, spoiled child finds a bakery and demands that he get a cake from there – that looks just like himself. What happens to him will have you thinking twice about ever ordering a cake that looks like yourself (if you were planning on doing that!).

Overall, I felt the majority of the stories were well written. Some of the stories were just run-of-the-mill scary stories, but there were enough really good ones to make this a good read.

The Cabinet of Curiosities is perfect for reading aloud or for children who want to read independently. It is certainly ideal for the child who wants to stray away from the 'bubble gum and gumdrops' children's stories and venture into the horror genre.


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