Genre: Fantasy/Gothic Fantasy
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Familiarity in a story can be a double edged sword. It may be comforting to the reader like in romance novels purchased at the grocery store, to others it may be annoying and trite; to always know what is coming next, to not be surprised and maybe even at length be talked down to or taken for a simpleton. Naturally this might be dictated by what you read. An experienced fantasy reader with books by Stephen Donaldson, Ursula K. Leguin or Peter Beagle on their shelf might find Rowling’s Harry Potter books repetitive and borderline plagiarism. That isn’t to say that the end goal for most writers is to not turn out something new, it may be more about if the end result matches that very goal.
Eric Scott Fishcl’s Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show begins in a familiar setting, that of a traveling carnival at the end of the 19th century. To most readers a setting we know well, or at least have an idea of. It comes complete with a barker selling snake oil, a strong man, a singer and freaks. That is where the normalcy, if that can be an accurate description for a carnival, ends. The barker is Dr. Potter himself and the medicine he is trying to push is the Chock-a-saw Sagwa, a tonic that supposedly cures most ailments. He has not concocted it himself, instead there is another doctor, a Dr. Morrison Hedwith of Portland, behind the miracle drink. The Sagwa is the centerpiece of this tale of personal misery and broken figures trying to fight their obvious obstacles. As with most tonics of the age the Sagwa that Dr. Potter sells is useless, but there is a formulae that has other, more sinister effects, ones that he, the strongman Oliver, the Chinaman Fan and the proprietor of the show Lyman Rhoades desperately need. All of them are beholden to Dr. Hedwith due to dark events in their pasts and are therefore forced to help him in his twisted experiments rooted in alchemy. The very fragile balance in the medicine show is constantly threatened as the members regret their decisions, but Lyman exacts vengeance upon them regardless of their usefulness to the mission.
Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show is an excellent example of how to use tropes that have worked well in the past, and by disregarding those that have not successfully creating something fresh. The setting is reminiscent of TV shows like Deadwood or Ripper Street, a general melancholy with a sense of not being able to get out of ones current situation. The descriptions and language are used in a masterful way. The reader becomes instantly immersed in the sadness and sorrow of the characters and the world they inhabit, but there is a beauty and serenity in it, very much like the poems by Baudelaire who is oft quoted by singer turned prostitute in the book. The tempo is fast paced without ever feeling rushed, composed like a thriller the story moves along with ease without ever simplifying words or uncomplicating the plot. It speaks to Fischl’s ability to trust the reader and speaking to the reader’s intelligence. He makes no excuses and the characters suffer and go through hell without mercy and it is refreshing.
Fischl is great at using a variety of tropes belonging to just as varied a genre of literature; The western, the Gothic romance, the urban fantasy, the thriller and classic horror and he uses their various strengths like a master craftsman carrying a toolbox filled with the best tools for a job. The characters are easily recognizable as being plucked from Gothic Horror of Victorian style. The crazed and unethical aristocrat, the young innocent damsel, the idealistic young hero, a horrible assistant and a slew of other figures that make up a rich gallery.
There is a lot that Fischl does right with this book. It is a story about broken people, seemingly feeling like they have no hope and a man preying on them for his own sick and twisted reasons. One could easily see the story being picked up by FX or HBO, it’s that kind of story. That is one of the truly interesting aspects, it has a contemporary feel, the way the tale is told. Fischl has his finger on the pulse of what is going culturally be it TV or genre fiction, but in a late 19th century setting. It melds the credibility of human interest with a fantastical element written well enough to suspend ones disbelief. In the end it makes for a great and wonderful read that won’t disappoint those used to fantasy, horror or suspense.
Familiarity is a double edged sword, a trap that an author might fall into if they are not careful. The waters are tricky to navigate when using tropes from genre fiction, but the ship that Fischl commandeers keeps the reader dry and he does not wreck on the reefs of repetitiveness and triteness. Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show takes what is familiar and makes it original and engaging.
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release Date: 3 January 2017
The most common trope in the realm of fantasy literature has to be the battle between god and evil. It is as prevalent as the heart’s desire or the yearning to be more than one is, it is also what gives the protagonist the vehicle to make that change. In The Wood Beyond the World, regarded as the first fantasy novel, the hero Golden Walter battles an evil witch to save a princess and Frodo and his friends need to defeat the vile Sauron by destroying his proxy the one ring in Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings. These two books may be the two most important works in the genre and cement the idea of good vs evil. Once the genre moved into the modern era and the rise of a darker version of it began to appear with books like Grunts, where the orcs are heroes and Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy where those who appear to be the heroes are not quite that. To turn tropes on their ear, flipping the script as it were, is what keeps genre fiction interesting and relevant.
The Last Sacrifice does this as well, and that might just be its core strength, the uncertainty of who to route for. To some readers, those who only read books for the familiarity of themes and tropes, this might break the trust between sender and receiver, but in this case that audience may just find that need satisfied as well.
When Brogan McTyre returns home he finds that his family, wife and three kids, are gone. In their place are four gold coins, the calling card of the Grakhul a tribe of people living on the outskirts of civilization. Hidden away in an are known as the Gateway the Grakhul, protected by the Five Kingdoms, sacrifices people to appease the Gods, leaving behind their calling card; one gold coin per person abducted.
Enraged Brogan and his friends raid the Gateway and the keep hidden inside it, but all in vain, his family has already been thrown into the bit. In a fury of revenge he kills all the Grakhul men and takes the women and children to sell them into slavery. The problem is that the dead and captured are not the real threat, they are mere worshipers of the Undying, the He-Kisshi, seemingly inhuman immortals who demand the sacrifices to live, but also to keep balance in the universe. A chase ensues as Brogan and his men hit the road, all the while chased by the Undying who want their followers back.
Moore’s story is an interesting experiment in the fantasy genre. He tells several parallel stories from several different vantage points, each with its own protagonist. There is little judgement from the narrator when it comes to deciding who is in the right here and it makes the reader sit on edge when trying to figure out who to root for. Each character is driven by desire; Brogan to find his family initially and then to escape the He-Kisshi, the He-Kisshi to find their followers and exact revenge, but also to restore balance, Myridia, a Grakhul woman wants to find a new place of sacrifice to continue her work and so on. There are very many different paths to follow and story lines that all intersect in the end. Brogan’s action set in motion such a slew of events that all threaten to culminate in one great climax. In the end it might be so that his need for revenge may destroy the entire world.
Moore plays his cards close to the vest and the information about how the different stories connect literally trickle through the pages creating suspense and thrills. As a reader this isn’t the only thing that immerses the tale in mystery. The fact that there are no real descriptions of the characters’ appearances or clothing and the sparse portrayal of the surroundings. Moore paints a vivid picture of what the characters do, feel or sense and the same is true for the milieu, but not how it appears and it allows the reader to delve deep into the self to conjure up images. It also allows relatively inexperienced readers of the genre to venture into the story without the preconceived ideas about what the genre is.
As stated earlier in this review the battle between good and evil often stand at the center of many a fantasy story, but in The Last Sacrifice it is difficult to pin down who belongs to what side. They all seem to have their own interpretation of who is right and who is wrong, and in the end that is the strength of this book.
Fantasy is one of the genres that a lot of people have issues with. The reasons for this may be the fantastical elements, the shattering of the suspension of disbelief that may occur when a farm boy can slay dragons or the mere fact that the desire of the heart displayed in the tale is difficult to relate to. The best, of any genre fiction, are the stories that create something new, something different. In some fantasy novels it can be a strong sense of reality like the books by Joe Abercrombie, a female hero who puts a common myths on its ear like Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon or it may, while still using the genre specific tropes and themes, place the setting in an inventive area like Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings or Lays of Anuskaya, and that is what Will Panzo does in the Burning Isle.
The spellcaster Cassius shows up on the island of Scipio, a hotbed, described as a slum, of criminal activity mostly due to the fact that the inhabitants are unable to live in other parts of the Republic. The council that is supposed to run the island are more or less for show as the power is divided by the gang leaders Piso and Cinna. They, themselves are at war for the ultimate power of the island. Cassius is unknown when he comes to Scipio, having spent years in training at another island. He displays great power of the runes, that spellcasters control through gauntlets, the magical source in this world when he manages to kill a man during a prizefight. This catches the eye of Piso and they form a relationship wherein Cassius begins doing jobs for the mobster. It becomes more and more clear that Cassius has more plans than just running errands and he begins to stir the pot by doing jobs for Cinna as well. The violence begins to escalate until it surely must boil over.
There are a lot of things to enjoy in Panzo’s tale of treason and conflict in the underworld. Firstly he places the story in the new setting of a sort of Roman world, complete with words and classifications used during that era and when one initially reads the book it easy to believe that it’s a historic fiction. It creates a link between the reader and the author as a lot of the terms and concepts are easily recognizable and most everyone has an image of Rome and the people therein. Panzo’s language is also sharp and would appeal to a great spectrum of readers and not much is lost between sender and receiver among the pages. The plot in itself is simple enough, yet the actual goal of the protagonist is not revealed until half way through the story and this is good, although the first half reads like a sandbox type of game in the vein of Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto. This does get tiresome at times as it feels like Cassius only moves from place to place aimlessly, but as it advances his agenda and reasons become clear, and this is done in a very clever way. Though the Republic as such is never really revealed the history of Scipio is dealt with and the reader is privy to the background of the gangs on the island. Scipio, home to those rejected by society on other islands, becomes a representation of nations today where the government is no more than a faceless puppet and those who actually rule threaten to tear it apart due to their own petty personalities and egos. Cassius becomes a kind of vigilante in the den of corruption and violence, a representative of the people, the anti hero reminiscent of the old hard boiled detective of yore. As such he isn’t all powerful, he may be a great spellcaster, but he is often injured or hurt and this way he retains his humanity and Panzo manages to keep the suspension of disbelief intact.
There is so much that is good in The Burning Isle, from its language, to its setting and to the character development. We recognize the tropes, the people, the intrigue and the setting, but from different places. It’s all so familiar, yet we have seldom witnessed it in this constellation and that is what makes it unique and a great read.
Publisher: Dreaming Big Publications
Books based on role playing games are not unheard of, they might be less common today, or less of an intricate part of the fantasy genre as they were in the heyday of Forgotten Realms or DragonLance, but one does come across the odd Warhammer 40k books and for what its worth they are fairly decent. Plushinomicon is one such book, a collection of short tales set in the fantastical world of Teddy Bear Island. Teddy Bear Island is an RPG created by Orcs Unlimited and was created through a Kickstarter campaign. The world of Teddy Bear Island is very much like any old fantasy world, filled with the same old creatures one might encounter in Dungeons and Dragons like elfs, dwarfs or orcs. It is also filled with something different, something very different; stuffed animal zombies and they all live on the island, once created by a Fluffomancer. As a role playing game this concept does open up to several interesting possibilities and certainly hilarious problem solving scenarios.
Plushinomicon is in short a collection of ten short stories by a variety of authors and among them even the editor herself. The stories all center around Teddy Bear Island, it might be about getting there for one reason or another and adventures on the very isle itself. There is a wide variety of characters all typical heroes that are easily recognizable to those familiar with the fantasy genre.
It is futile to try to recap the short stories within the pages of Plushinomicon and they might just be directed to those who have played the game or who may be interested in doing so. Most of the stories are structured the same way and with a minimal amount of intrigue, in short, they are very quick reads that don’t challenge the reader at all and it comes across more like a collection of adventures that the authors have played through themselves and found funny enough to share. Unfortunately the authors aren’t given enough space to create compelling tales to excite and scare the reader and that is one of the big downfalls of this collection. Of course there is some understanding that this is all based in a strange world that maybe isn’t supposed to be taken so seriously, but there is still an overwhelming feeling that more could have been done.
Though the prospect of villainous zombie plushies sound like an entertaining way to spend some time these stories are not close to other RPG based counter parts and one would most likely be served better to pick up a DragonLance or Forgotten Realms.
Publisher: DAW Books
Prequels are an interesting cultural affair. In movies the have been used to extend the life of a franchise, maybe the actors are too old or just not interested in continuing, maybe it is a promise once made to fans that the background story will one day be revealed, only to fall short i.e. Star Wars 1-3 or Prometheus. In literature it is something different; a device an author might use to further explore their created world, to tell those tales merely hinted at in a fleeting moment between two characters or to widen the intrigue. In his Tales of Egg and Dunk, beginning with The Hedge Knight, George R.R. Martin gave his readers a taste of his world before A Song of Ice and Fire takes place. He explained those things his original series could not, for such a departure would have made little to no sense.
Bradley P. Beaulieu, perennial favorite at the Guild office, has now also released a prequel to his Arabian Nights fantasy Twelve Kings in Sharakhai and is therefore subtitled The Song of Shattered Sands 0,5.
In this book the reader is treated to a tale from Çeda’s past, before the events of Twelve Kings take place. She has already made a name for herself in the fighting pits, and is referred to as The White Wolf. Çeda becomes involved with an ehkreh, some form of demonic entity, by the name of Rümayesh who lures her into her lair in order to steal her memories. Çeda finds herself fighting to not reveal her inner secrets, ones that may very well ruin her, to the crowd that Rümayesh has gathered. She’s in luck and is saved by two godling children; Hidi and Makuo and that is where she thinks the adventure ends, but alas that is not so. The White Wolf finds herself drawn in deeper and an intricate part of the ehkreh’s destiny.
Of Sand and Malice Made is a fun foray into Çeda’s history. It hints at some of her secrets and the conflict within her and the community in which she lives. The world of Twelve Kings comes alive in a vibrant blend of smells, colors and sound that complements the first book in a wondrous way. Çeda becomes somewhat of a classic picaro in the desert landscape and guides the reader through her reality filled with mischief, dangers and exotic people, like a child showing off her new room to first time visitors. Beaulieu’s world complements his protagonist and she does the same to the backdrop that houses her. His descriptions of places and people has been his strength throughout his production and without it his fairly fairly simple intrigue would fall flat. He uses tropes more common in the setting of a 19th century coming of age novel and places it in a world foreign to that kind intrigue, taking a page from Stephen Donaldson.
To those who have read Twelve Kings Of Sand and Malice Made is a welcome return to the dry climate of Sharakhai and satiates the thirst whilst waiting for the next installment. For a new reader it may well be a good starting point before delving into the complexity of the Shattered Sands series. The book is shorter than most fantasy fair and the story less elaborate, but nevertheless enticing.
Of Sand and Malice Made cements Beaulieu’s position as the next big thing in fantasy and makes us hunger for more; more Çeda, more Sharakhai and more hot desert sun.
Series: Part one in The Ellderet Series
Publisher: Tomes & Coffee Press
Kira Vidal is a Deadbringer, one of the last of his kind. As such he has been gifted with certain necronomic abilities like unwillingly making objects rot or decay, raising and speaking to the dead. The Deadbringers in this world have all been eradicated due to these abilities by the so called Sanctifiers and it is prudent for Kira to mask his true form. Therefore he works as a mortician, the perfect occupation for someone with his skills, in the city of Opulancae with his uncle Eutau. Eutau is the one who keeps Kira’s secret safe through his own contacts with a place called the Bastion, but he is the keeper of a secret of his own.
Kira and his uncle are lured into a trap when trying to resurrect and question a dead woman and as this is happening he reveals what he is. Forced to leave the city Kira and Eutau become hunted by Sanctifiers across the country, the future uncertain.
Markoff has with The Deadbringer managed to build a world with great depth and background. The history the Deadbringers, the Sanctifiers and creatures like Kataru is intriguing and sparks the imagination as does the city of Opulancae and the universe that houses it all. Unfortunately that is where it ends; as a spark. Markoff tries to cram to much into this first book without delving into any of it. The story of Kira Vidal, a person whose name indicates it to be a woman at first read, is lost in a treacle of story making progress like dragging oneself through mud. The story is promising enough initially and sets a pace early on that captures the reader, but this is halted ones the chase begins. Hints at certain events or significant facts are dropped at regular intervals and that is all well and good, but there is never anything to hook the reader to these things. It peaks ones interest, but not is given to satiate the hunger and making the reader want to proceed.
The writing style is also on the wordy side and it is easy to get lost in odd sentences and overambitious use of words. One rarely becomes invested in the characters and when tragedy befalls them one does not care, this coupled with the fact that focus is switched from Kira and Eutau to the Sanctifiers who hunt them is quite confusing. More is said about the apparent antagonists than the hero. This also adds to the sensation of becoming tired while reading the tale and in the end it hurts what could have been quite a good book.
-C. Marry Hultman
Sharakai, nicknamed The Amber City, is a bustling metropolis of trade and culture surrounded by desert sand. It is ruled with an iron fist by the Twelve Kings, mythical leaders who one day came from the desert to take control of the city. The Kings are cruel dictators who rule the citizens through the Silver Spears and the more elite Blade Maidens.
Even though the Kings’ powers are absolute and to cross them is to meet with certain death there is an underground movement to oppose them. Among those seeking to usurp the Kings is Çeda, a young woman who fights in the bloody pits under the guise of the White Wolf. The driving force behind her war against the Kings is the brutal murder of her own mother several years earlier. On the holiest night of the year, a night when no one is allowed outside for fear of death, she and a partner sneak out to deliver two important packages.
This sets in motion events that might bring the Kings to their knees and bring some much needed freedom to the people of Sharakhai.
In the first installment of his The Song of Shattered Sands series Beaulieu stays true to the writing style he displayed in The Lays of Anuskaya trilogy. Once again he brings the reader in to a unique world with a unique hero, as well as a twisting plot. There has long been a need for a reinvigorating of fantasy as a genre and Beaulieu taps into this in spades with his new book.
Çeda, the main protagonist, is unique in herself. This humble reviewer’s experience over the years has been that female characters are doomed to play one of three roles; The Princess, The Warrior or The Witch and never may those roles mix or she must die. Added to this fact is that heroines often must utilize a male figure to be successful in her endeavors, although this is more a part of popular literature than it is exclusive to fantasy. Beaulieu’s heroine is not one of those characters. She is more akin to her European counterparts found in the books of Tobias Landström, Christina Brönnestam and trail blazed by Bertil Mårtensson in the early part of the eighties. A warrior not afraid to take what she wants or play on her sexuality without becoming cliche or tired. She is a breath of fresh air in a genre that too often falls into stereotypes no matter how much it tries.
This also true of the setting of Sharakhai. The descriptions of the desert city and its people brings the avid reader of Sword and Sorcery to the world of Howard’s Conan or Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and the busy market may well make the world traveler remember the Medina of Tunisia. One can almost feel the heat from the bright sun or the throng of bodies and that is the beauty of this narrative. It is what is unique with the choice of environment. Most fantasy books are so often set in a standard medieval world where readers and writers have come to an understanding of what creatures should live there and what they look like, just as what a tavern looks like or any such things. Beaulieu opens up something new, much like he did in the Anuskaya trilogy, and invites us to become entranced by the journey he takes us on.
He does this with his convincing writing style and to keep reality close at all times. No matter what happens and what strange creatures the characters encounter it is still all very believable. Much of it due to the characters’ inner thoughts and backgrounds, how they deal with real life issues, such as how to avoid pregnancies.
A lot more could be said about Twelve Kings in Sharakhai and there already has, but the best endorsement that can be given is that you read it for yourself. It would be ashamed if the things that make it unique would go unnoticed, because it is a real treat to read with adventure, political intrigue as well as a great deal of humanity.
Twelve Kings in Sharakhai is now available as a hard cover, e-book and audio book from
Publisher: Delacourt Press
Genre: Young Adult/Urban Fantasy
In an alternative Scotland three teenagers; Quin, Shinobu and John are at the end of their training. Training for a very special role. The role of Seekers, an ancient order tasked with carrying out various missions around the world. The world of the Seeker is a closely guarded secret which the young apprentices aren’t privy to until the day they take the oath. The training is rigorous and somewhat dangerous, led by the fathers of Quin and Shinobu and involves the use of whipswords, weapons that can take the form of any sharp object as well as a whip and the dreaded Disruptor a canon that fires sparks that kills the victim in a most torturous way.
Quin and John are in a romantic relationship which they keep secret from Quin’s father Briac, who strongly dislikes John. Even though John by birth has the right to train as a Seeker, Briac decides to send him home on the eve of the initiation ritual.
That day becomes a turning point for all three youngsters. Quin and Shinobu finally find out what it is the Seekers actually do and John returns to his grandfather and realizes what Briac has been keeping from him and why he was thrown out. For his two former companions the realization of what it entails to be a Seeker comes as a shock and creates doubt in them about what they are doing and when John returns with a vengeance to claim his birthright; an artifact called an athame used to open up portals to other places, they run instead of fight.
The three teenagers go their separate ways; Shinobu becomes a drugged out thrill seeker, Quin a healer with no memory of her past life and John travels the world trying to find what he believes to be rightfully his. Unavoidably their paths must cross again and more secrets about the Seekers and what happened to John’s family will be revealed.
Dayton has with this books managed to create something very interesting. It stands out when it comes to other books in the Young Adult category. It has a more in depth plot than contemporary books such as Twilight or the Mortal Instruments series and is more akin to Pullman’s His Dark Materials than the previously mentioned. The language is strong, rich and varied and though the tale of revenge, romance and intrigue is as old as the hills Dayton manages to weave this tapestry in a new and ingenious way.
There is history here, both in the back story of the Seekers themselves, but also in each character as they slowly unravel. They are all plagued by sins, both their own and those of their ancestors and as a reader one is treated to the secrets one small step at a time. Dayton also respects her readers enough to not dumb anything down and this allows the book to be appreciated by a wider audience. There is a darkness to Seeker that gets to the reader on a personal level, dealing with death, drugs, alcoholism and abuse, all done in a very smart way.
Seeker is, by all accounts, a stepping stone for those who have graduated from books by Meyer, Clare or Rowling and want to advance in their reading. It’s a great read for both young and not so young adults.
A few days ago Stranger Comics posted a pitch trailer for the animated version of The Untamed, with voice over work by Sean Bean. It looks very interesting as it is produced by Film Roma (The Simpsons, Hellboy Animated, Ultimate Spider-Man). Hopefully we will see this on the small screen very soon