The Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) Finalist Review: “The Mortal Blade” by Christopher Mitchell

I’m a judge for the first-ever SPSFC (Self Published Science Fiction Contest), but couldn’t help noticing the parallel SPFBO (Self Published Fantasy Blog-Off) contest happening. I always love finding some new indie authors and books, so I decided to read through the finalists of that contest and review them on my site. As always, let me know your own thoughts in the comments.

The Mortal Blade by Christopher Mitchell

The Mortal Blade follows several characters on their journey in a city that has an eternal siege from green skinned goblins. The only thing holding back the hordes appears to be the intervention of a massive dragon, whom the people of the city revere and take care of. Characters include a shape-shifting assassin, a new ultra-powerful warrior who takes the fight to the horde, a fairly stuck up nobleman, and a down-on-her-luck solider hoping to not join the cleaning crew.

At first, the diverse array of views makes several chapters verge on baffling at times as readers have to re-orient themselves to the new characters. Each character, however, is interesting enough to carry the story on his or her own. Mitchell strips away a lot of the filler that some epic fantasies have–almost a necessity given the number of main characters he’s developing–and presents a no-frills approach to epic fantasy. This approach is clear in the world-building. For example, the city in which the plot takes place is intriguing, but Mitchell doesn’t info-dump about it, either through characters or narrative. Instead, readers learn about the city only through individual characters’ viewpoints. There are no massive walls of text describing the political mechanics going on behind the scenes. Instead, readers get only what they “see” through characters’ eyes. As a setting, it works because the question of the Eternal Siege looms over it, making the city interesting because of the sense of impending doom.

The “no-frills” approach also characterizes the novel more generally. Mitchell takes readers straight to the action time and again. This doesn’t mean there is no room for reflection or character development, but it does mean some of the standard trappings of epic fantasy like lengthy descriptions of the setting, characters’ clothes, etc. aren’t there. This is both a blessing and a curse, as it gets readers right into the thick of things time and again, but also makes it hard to slow down and orient oneself as one reads it.

Mitchell weaves an interesting tale here that ultimately brings some characters together while also bringing up additional plot threads and broader conflicts. This city has quite a bit going on in it, and I was all-in from the beginning to several excellent hooks tied to each character’s story arc. Doing some more research on the series, I found that this book is the first book in the series, but part of a much larger series that has been ongoing before it. I will definitely be reading more, but not sure where I’ll start next.

The Mortal Blade was a fun–even refreshing–read. The characters give readers a great vision of a powerfully wrought setting. Meanwhile, the fairly relentless action and use of magic makes it feel like a fully-realized fantasy world. Recommended for fans of epic fantasy, especially if they like urban fantasy settings.

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Links

Fantasy Hub– My hub for links to posts about fantasy works on this site. Hugo and other Award nominees, vintage fantasy, indie books, and more!

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

“Empire of the Vampire” by Jay Kristoff- A superb dark epic fantasy

I found out about Empire of the Vampire some time ago on Twitter, but I forgot for a bit and didn’t think to pick it up until I saw it locally. I grabbed a copy based on the internal flap. I haven’t read a lot of vampire fiction, so the thought of fighting against a Vampire Empire sounded kind of cool. Little did I know that I’d be diving in to one of my favorite books of the year.

The story-within-a-story follows Gabriel de Leon, a vampire hunter known as a Silversaint, who uses the combination of silver tattoos and vampiric powers to take the battle to the undead as he tells his story to a servant of the Vampire Empire itself. The autobiographical story takes place across several different timelines, and Gabriel picks and chooses which parts of the story he’s telling at different times, in part to spar with his vampiric opponent/recorder. Thus, the sparring between Gabriel de Leon and the vampire historian Jean-François comprises the “present day” storyline that is almost entirely composed of vignettes of them talking over how to tell the story, what drinks to have, and a few other intermissions while Gabriel tells the rest of the story.

Through this lens we see Gabriel’s early life, his entry into the Silversaints as a vampire hunter, and his search for the Grail in order to end the eternal night known as daysdeath and possibly bring an end to the ever-expanding reign of the vampires. Each of these stories has its own set of characters, some of whom recur in the others. Readers aren’t presented them in entirely orderly fashion, either. While the individual strands of story are largely told front-to-back, Gabriel skips from one strand to the other throughout his long night of discussions with Jean-François. Each of the strands of story is utterly compelling in its own way, such that I never minded when the thread was changed because I knew that I would be diving into another grim yet fantastic story.

Yes, the world is grim. Gabriel himself seems to have lost his faith, he’s foul-mouthed, and there’s plenty of blood, gore, and sex mixed in. The book is very much not for anyone who doesn’t want lots of cussing, violence, and sex in their books. I’m not personally all about those things in my books, but they don’t bother me. I enjoyed the grimdark story. How can the world not be grim, though, when humanity is a dying species and the dead are closing in on all sides? Gabriel is joined by a cast of characters that largely reflects his own interests–nuns, other warriors, and his sword each has a role to play. The large book manages to give each character plenty of screen (page?) time, so readers interested in deep characterization will be pleased. While I saw several of the plot twists regarding major characters coming, there are enough twists that I was outpaced by several of them. Additionally, the character development that happens through the book feels utterly realistic. When a character makes a major change, it’s earned such that as a reader you know it makes sense.

There are several other things that set this book apart in my mind. One is Kristoff’s alternate theology and vampirology. While the trappings of high church are familiar to many–either due to reading enough fantasy with similar themes or just being familiar with it because of being associated with a churches or theology (as am I)–Kristoff takes a spin on all of it by inventing his own theology. Each part of it is like a twist on Christian theology, with a Redeemer who is slain for others (on a wheel, flayed), its orders of monks and nuns, and its relics. As someone interested in theology, I found the brief asides about what could be considered sinful, what it means to be sinful, and more to be great spins on wider real-world theology discussions. I don’t want to spoil too much, but even smaller things like heretical beliefs are incorporated and changed with Kristoff’s own spin on things. It’s a fascinating look at theology in an alternate world. Another way this book is set apart is the fairly diverse representation of love.

Kristoff also developed an interesting way to diversify vampiric powers, both based upon the age of the vampire and upon which bloodline from which they sprung. This gives the bad guys more diversity than they may otherwise have had, and, because of how the plot works, does the same for the “good guys.” Finally, it’s set apart in its prose. While it’s not the strongest prose I’ve read in a fantasy novel, the way Gabriel talks has its own voice that got into my head and wouldn’t let me stop. I read the book in a marathon, unable to put it down in between necessary tasks for several days until I finished it.

Huge Spoilers this paragraph. One thing I did feel somewhat let down by was how swiftly Gabriel went from defending Dior to being willing to battle his own lifelong friends in order to do so. I think it may become more clear on a re-read, but that’s the one aspect that as a reader I didn’t think we got the necessary buy-in before Kristoff made the twist happen. I’ll be hugely curious to see what happens in the aftermath of the last 100 pages or so of this book. End huge spoilers.

Empire of the Vampire is one of my favorite books of the year. I know I’ll be picking up the next one when it comes out, as I eagerly anticipate diving back into this rich world and knowing more about its superb characters. I highly recommend it to you, dear readers.

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Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Indie Highlight: “The Sovereign of the Seven Isles” by David A. Wells

The “Indie Highlight” is a series of posts in which I shine the lights on Indie/Self-Published books that I believe are worthy of your attention. I’ll be writing reviews and recommending them, along with providing links on where to get the books. This is a special edition post for Indie April!

The Sovereign of the Seven Isles by David A. Wells

“The Sovereign of the Seven Isles” is a lengthy epic fantasy series by David A. Wells. Some time ago, the first book popped up as free on Kindle, and I snagged a copy. With Indie April approaching, I decided to finally dive into the series, and read the first book, Thinblade. I quickly followed up by reading the second in the series, Sovereign Stone. I can’t yet comment on later books in the series, as I’ve yet to read them. But I already got the third book from Kindle Unlimited, so I will be continuing this series fairly soon.

The core thrust of the series is a story of prophecy and expectation regarding the Sovereign of the Seven Isles. It’s a setup that will seem familiar to fans of epic fantasy, and so far the series doesn’t diverge much from what one would expect going in. There is ancient family expectation woven seamlessly into ancient evil and, as I said, prophecy.

So far, what makes the series stand out is mostly that it has been so conventional. Normally, that would be a point to potentially un-sell a novel for me, but there’s a sense of comfort reading these books that comes from being a longtime fan of fantasy. It’s easy to sit down and churn through half the book in an afternoon because it just feels like entering into a fantasy world that doesn’t ask too much from its readers. There are a lot of characters, but it’s never overwhelming. More importantly, the action keeps up at such a brisk pace that some of the flaws regarding narrative or prose are easy to ignore for the sake of continuing to the next major point.

The first book, Thinblade, has Alexander working to find the titular blade, which is so fine that it seems to be able to slice through or destroy just about anything. By the second book, the importance of this blade is tempered a bit by Alexander learning he must also have sound strategy and skill. It’s a coming-of-age story in the middle of world-rending events, and fans of fantasy will be quite comfortable.

Wells has written an intriguing world, and for fans of epic fantasy, it’s easy to recommend this one to give a try, especially if you have Kindle Unlimited. I recommend these especially for those looking for some epic fantasy that don’t also want to spend actual hours trying to figure out the world or memorize all the names going in. Sometimes I love books like that–but we all need a break once in a while. These books are a good bridge book for those breaks between heavier reads. The first book, Thinblade, is still just $0.99 on Kindle, so it’s worth a try if you’re interested. Let me know what you think!

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

“A Queen in Hiding” by Sarah Kozloff – An unexpected epic fantasy

Sara Kozloff’s “The Nine Realms” series has been hyped up as a chance for fantasy readers to binge an entire epic fantasy series over the course of just a few months. The whole series is being published over the course of four months, with a book each month, starting in January 2020. I’m writing this in February, and the second book is already in hand! A Queen in Hiding is the first book in the tetralogy, and it does not disappoint. I want to hype it to you, dear readers, so you can go get it and talk about it like I want to! I’ll try to keep the SPOILERS minor, but if you prefer to avoid spoilers, I’d say get this book if you like your epic fantasy to take a few new directions while still scratching that itch.

First, I love how unexpected some of the plot points were in the book. There was an early scene in which Cerulia meets a young peasant, and how this is woven into the plot later. It was such an innocently perfect scene of kids befriending each other–the kind of scene that is almost never found in epic fantasy.

Second, I loved the plot taking place quickly over the course of years rather than days. There’s certainly something to be said for intricate, intimate details of every aspect of each character’s life for months (you know which series I refer to–there’s a wheel, and time, and stuff, and yes I love it), but there’s also something refreshing about skipping ahead and learning more about the character through snapshots of life. I wonder if the other novels will go back in time at all or whether this whole series will be an extended, decades-long rumination on the coming-of-age, exile, and perhaps eventual rule of a Queen? Because that would be awesome. Either way, I’m excited.

Third, the characters were fascinating and worked in ways that  felt real. They messed up, they made mistakes, they loved, they cried. It was wonderful, heartfelt, and genuine.

Those three points summarize my love of the first book of Kozloff’s series. I have the second book in hand, so I look forward to diving into it ASAP! Let me know your own thoughts in the comments! And if you haven’t read it, I encourage you to check out this new epic fantasy.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.