“Hall of Bones” by Tim Hardie- A SPFBO7 Finalist Review

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.

Hall of Bones by Tim Hardie

Hall of Bones follows the epic story of Rothgar’s coming of age as his clan suffers from brutal attacks from its rival. That rival is powered by dark magic and ancient evil, and the novel reads as a great first entry in a long saga.

The story starts off as a kind of hero’s journey, complete with love interests, numerous rivals, and familial tension. The plot doesn’t stay wholly trope-y, though, as things go off the rails with both political drama among the clans and a greater evil threat to the whole way of life of all those within the world.

It’s easy to get lost in Rothgar’s narrative, in ways both good and bad. The cacophony of Norse-inspired names and places can become overwhelming, even from the first pages of the book as numerous characters are thrown at the reader on every page. On the flip side, the wealth of characters and detail makes the world feel full and robust. I did occasionally feel like I needed a printed off dramatis personae sheet, though.

When the narrative works, it works well. Readers will be drawn into the alcohol-soaked halls filled with revels, the language the people utter, and the dramatic buildup of conflict throughout the story. While the narrative occasionally flounders in the midst of the sea of characters and names that can make even the most focused brain feel a bit muddled. Rothgar’s own destiny is questioned throughout the novel, as he struggles to figure out what the dark dreams he has mean, and what his abilities entail.

Hall of Bones reads like a Viking epic, complete with all the positives and negatives that might engender. Readers wanting to dive into a richly realized fantasy world with a darker turn of magic should check it out.

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Indie Author Interview: Kay MacLeod

I’m delighted to bring you an interview with Kay MacLeod, a favorite indie author of mine. I hope you’ll check it out and be sure to check out her books (links near end)!

Interview with Kay MacLeod

What got you into speculative fiction as a reader, and as an author?

I grew up in a family who loved fantasy. My mum’s an incredible artist who drew and painted fairies, and my dad was always a big reader. He had shelves filled with speculative fiction and it was the passionate way he talked about the books he enjoyed that sparked my interest from an early age. Soon enough, I began reading for myself; The Hobbit, Redwall, Discworld. They captivated me like nothing else.

I devoured everything fantasy related I could get my hands on, expanding my obsession with video games such as Final Fantasy, Pokemon, and Baldur’s Gate. It seemed a natural progression to create worlds of my own at that point, though I only wrote small pieces and mostly drew maps and characters. I didn’t seriously consider writing my own books for a long time. My creations were a way to occupy my time and gave me joy. It didn’t occur to me that others would enjoy them. Until I started to DM Dungeons & Dragons games. The thrill of seeing other people invested in my world and plotlines was amazing. They cared about the stuff I made up and wanted more!

I love that you had a kind of natural progression from Redwall (and others) to DMing and storytelling. In many ways, your background is similar to mine. I was absolutely obsessed with Redwall. You have one series, the Maiyamon series, which seems inspired by Pokémon. What led you to write a gamelit series?

Maiyamon was definitely inspired by Pokémon. I got my first Gameboy with Pokemon Red in 1999 when I was 11 – the perfect age it was catered to. Over the years, I got every new release and still do. But now I’m in my 30s and the story isn’t aimed at me anymore. I’ll never grow out of it, I’m as excited for Scarlet/Violet as I was for Gold/Silver, but I do want something different from the genre.

As an adult, I crave more depth of story and characters, and I figured there was a whole generation of original Pokefans with that problem. So, Maiyamon was born. The main characters are around twenty years old, and I’ve done my best to include more mature themes and conflicts without going too extreme the other way and putting off younger fans. Exploring what would really happen if superpowered animals existed has been delightful, especially looking at how technology would change, or the opposing viewpoints people have on the subject.

To be honest, I adore gaming as much as reading. Combining them is a no-brainer! Even my fantasy books have been compared to Dragon Age (still the best compliment I ever received). Though I’m still working on my Maiyamon novels, I do have some ideas for other GameLit books in the future – a Rune Factory farming style series and a Magic: The Gathering card game inspired story. We’ll see if they go anywhere…

Okay, I gotta say your ideas for other series have definitely gotten me excited! I think having a more mature plot with a monster collecting-type game is going to get more and more popular as people who got introduced to RPGs with Pokemon grow up. You mentioned your fantasy series–what’s the elevator pitch on that?

I have way too many ideas and want to write them all right now! My fantasy series is about an invasion by a spirit race who feed on life energy looking for a new world to consume. To combat them, a group of ten people know as the Constellations are given unique powers which are passed to their first-born child. Some of those parents were better at preparing their children than others… Kitty never questioned why she could bullseye every shot with a bow. Asher assumed the other new Constellations would have been pushed to breaking point to develop their powers like he was. Add in an aloof member of the royal family, and they have to figure out a way to work together to find the rest of their allies before the enemy picks them off first.

There are three books out in The Constellation Saga so far with the final one due after the third Maiyamon book is complete. It’s such a fun series with some of my favourite characters – I often describe it as swords, sorcery, and sarcasm.

It looks like readers have a fun range of works to dive into from you! I know I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read. Where can readers look to find out more/follow you/etc.?

If you want to check out my range, I have a free welcome pack with several short stories set in each world – including an exclusive peek at some Maiyamon history… You can get it by signing up to my newsletter at https://dl.bookfunnel.com/3c5ckf3ld7 All my books are available from http://author.to/KayMacleod And I’m around on most social media sites as @kaymacleodbooks so please feel free to follow or get in touch (especially if you want to chat books, RPGs, miniature painting, or Critical Role).

Thanks so much for your time! I’m looking forward to reading more!


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“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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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.

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Fantasy Hub

Links to my fantasy-related content as well as other major hubs may be found here. Let me know what you think!

Fantasy Book Reviews

The Wheel of Time

“The Wheel of Time” Episodes 1-3 “Leavetaking,” “Shadows Waiting,” and “A Place of Safety”– I review the first three episodes of The Wheel of Time.

The Wheel of Time Episode 4 “The Dragon Reborn”– The best episode yet has a ton of changes from the books, but I talk about why so many of these make sense and why the episode was so enjoyable.

The Wheel of Time Episode 5 “Blood Calls Blood”– We meet Loial!

The Wheel of Time Hub– On my theology blog, I have a great deal of posts analyzing The Wheel of Time books and TV show from a Christian worldview perspective.

Hugo Awards

These posts are a series in which I read through and review every single Hugo Award Winner and Nominee. I also pick my own winner out of the batch, which doesn’t always align. 

1953– There’s only one book, so is it a surprise that I picked it for my winner?

1954- No winner for Best Novel.

1955– This year’s winner is widely considered the worst book to ever win a Hugo. 

1956– Red scare of the best kind.

1957- No Winner for Best Novel.

1958– Only once choice again, but this one was great.

1959– A few contenders, but I picked one that got me thinking.

1960– How could anyone have picked anything but space pirates? I mean really.

1961– The voters got it right on a fantastic novel this year.

1962– The rise of Heinlein. Also, Plato’s Cave.

1963– I dusted off a classic here. (Sorry.)

1964– Easy to pick a winner this go-round.

1965– The voters were perhaps most wrong this year of all the years so far. My goodness, they voted for a yawner over an intense, wild classic.

1966– It’s not fair that these other books had to compete against Dune, because there were some good’ns. 

1967– I cried a lot over my choice of winner here.

1968– Space poetry written by Zelazny. 

1969– I get hooked on Lafferty.

1970– Not the strongest year, but it does feature an all-time classic.

1971– A strong demonstration of why I choose to read lists, as I discover a mostly-forgotten classic!

1972– Yet another year Silverberg should have won the Hugo.

1973– Guess who should have won this year? Yep, and this may have been the biggest miss on SIlverberg so far. 

1974– Honestly I thought this year was a pretty mediocre year. My winner didn’t even break into the “A” grade range.

1975– One of the most singular, fantastic science fiction books of all time won this year’s award. It’s a strong batch, overall.

1976– A weaker year, but I had one fun, hilarious read stand out from the pack.

2020– A fantastic mix of genres and authors, and the first year I’m officially a Hugo voter!

Vintage Fantasy

Other Hubs

Horus Heresy and Warhammer/40K Hub– All my reviews related to Warhammer/40K/Horus Heresy fiction can be found here. Read grimdark to your heart’s content!

Babylon 5 Hub– My links to all my reviews related to the world of Babylon 5. I started with the television show and plan to work through all the novels and comics as well. 

Star Wars Hub– Reviews of many Star Wars: Expanded Universe novels are here, along with a few reviews of the new “canon” novels.

Star Trek posts (I have not yet created a Hub for Star Trek)- I’ve reviewed many episodes of Star Trek TNG and DS9, and this link will let you explore those.

The Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC) Hub– Want more indie sci-fi? Check out my hub for this exciting contest collecting all my posts related to these self-published science fiction books.

The Wheel of Time Hub– On my theology blog, I have a great deal of posts analyzing The Wheel of Time books and TV show from a Christian worldview perspective.

“Raybearer” by Jordan Ifueko – A beautiful, unique fantasy

Let me put it as simply as possible to start off: Ifueko has created an utterly captivating world in Raybearer.

I have been anticipating Raybearer ever since I first found out about it. I followed the author on Twitter before I even knew about the project, so when she announced this debut novel, I was ecstatic. Then, I had it in hand and I… waited. I’m sure other people do this–you want to truly savor a book, so you wait until you feel the time is right and you’re perfectly ready to read the book, even as it calls to you from the TBR (to be read) shelf. I finally thought the time was right, so I grabbed the book on my way to work to read on breaks. But I couldn’t put it down. My breaks flew past, and then I got home. I confess I read the whole book that night, staying up well past when I am normally asleep to do so. “Savor,” indeed. There will be some light SPOILERS below.

Raybearer is a coming-of-age story about Tarisai, a girl whose mother, The Lady, has nefarious plans for Tarisai and others. Tarisai is sent to the capital city with one mission: she must kill the Crown Prince once she’s gained his trust. Here already, I want to pause to point out the subtle ways Ifueko plays with fantasy tropes and turns them unexpectedly into exciting new stories. Tarisai’s origin, you see, was not from a human union, and this results in her having traits that even she doesn’t know the extent of. One of these, The Lady knows all about–Tarisai has to obey the wish of her mother. So my summary above, that Tarisai must kill the Crown Prince, was intentional. This isn’t a predictable tale in which some young woman gets sent, falls in love with the prince, and so decides to shun her evil mother and rebel. No, Ifueko doesn’t give in to tropes. This is a fresh-feeling story from start to finish.

One of the most refreshing and exciting parts of the book is Ifueko’s world-building. The world of Raybearer, from the magic to the way the political system works, is fascinating. The Crown Prince is a Raybearer, and attempting to build his council. He will connect mentally with others to form his council, and they will be unable to leave him without getting a debilitating council sickness. They will love him. Tests, intrigue, and magic work to intervene throughout the novel as we see what will happen to the ticking bomb that is Tarisai’s compulsion from The Lady. Meanwhile, tension builds and hints at broader problems come through the cracks in the seemingly perfect façade of the Crown Prince’s life. All of this adds up to a read that I found completely unputdownable.

Raybearer is a thrilling ride from start to finish. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I hope you’ll pick it up and become as enamored and enthralled by the rich world Ifueko created as I was. The main problem I have with Raybearer is that there’s no release date for the second book. I can’t wait.

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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.

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Re-Read of “The Legend of Drizzt” – The Icewind Dale Trilogy

drizzt-IIIt has been many years (13 or so) since I read the tales of the Legend of Drizzt Saga. For those who are familiar with this series, the name evokes memories of adventurous tales of grand action. For the uninitiated, these books are perhaps the definitive experience for those wanting to read fantasy works set in the universe of Dungeons and Dragons. Nerd hats on, everybody. Here, I review volume II of the Legend, which contains the Icewind Dale TrilogyThe Crystal Shard, Streams of Silver, and The Halfling’s Gem.

The Icewind Dale Trilogy

The “Icewind Dale Trilogy” is a fast-paced fantasy adventure following Drizzt and company as they fight enemies, get pursued by assassins, and more.

Salvatore does an excellent job here of keeping the action moving. The books never seem to drag–a problem that existed in the Dark Elf Trilogy. Here, readers are thrust into action scene after action scene without letting up. This was an excellent decision because that also means there is little time in the whirlwind of activity to reflect on the total coherence of the story. More on that later, but for now it is worth noting that at no point did I feel like these books dragged or that the story had crawled to a stop.

The overarching plot isn’t quite as cohesive and interesting as the Dark Elf Trilogy’s was. This trilogy feels quite a bit like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign with a few points linking all the adventures together. It just is not as tied together as the prequel trilogy. Although enemies do persist and there is a general sense of a broader world, there is little sense I do have to wonder, too, why it is referenced as the “Icewind Dale Trilogy” when, realistically, only the first book deals much with Icewind Dale proper. It’s a minor complaint, but there it is.

The part of the stories that I think I enjoyed most when I read these books so long ago was actually the part I most frequently found myself skimming this time around: the action. I know I already talked about how it is good the books stay fast-paced, and it is. My point, though, is that a lot of the fights feel very similar. Scimitars slash, hammers whirl, axes cut in half, bows fire–all with abandon. But after a while it feels like the characters are just going through the motions. The fights began to get meshed together in my mind, with just settings and a different order of enemies slain to differentiate them. They’re clearly choreographed and thought out, but–maybe this is a symptom of being older–I just wanted more plot.

What Salvatore did do quite well regarding the plot, however, was character development. Each main character (and indeed most of the secondary characters) felt like real people with motivations and personalities that were generally distinct. Whether it was Cattie-Brie or Bruenor, Wulfgar or Drizzt, the characters were all well written and interesting. Moreover, the villains themselves were intriguing and had enough backstory or mystery surrounding them to keep me interested.

Overall, the Icewind Dale Trilogy was a solid read. It’s not going to blow readers away with the plot, but it will provide several good afternoons full of sweeping adventure. And really, that’s much of what fantasy is all about.

The Good

+Good character development
+Glimpses of moral issues
+Interesting villains

The Bad

-Repetitive action
-Weak overarching plot
-Why is it called “The Icewind Dale Trilogy”?

The Verdict

Grade: B+ “It drags at times, but ‘The Dark Elf’ Trilogy is an intriguing introduction to a fantasy legend.”

What do you think?


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!


Re-Read of “The Legend of Drizzt” – The Dark Elf Trilogy

drizzt-IIt has been many years (13 or so) since I read the tales of the Legend of Drizzt Saga. For those who are familiar with this series, the name evokes memories of adventurous tales of grand action. For the uninitiated, these books are perhaps the definitive experience for those wanting to read fantasy works set in the universe of Dungeons and Dragons. Nerd hats on, everybody. I recently decided to re-read the adventure and picked up an omnibus edition labeled “I” for the Legend of Drizzt. Interestingly, they opted to put the prequel, “The Dark Elf Trilogy” first rather than putting them in published order. No matter! We begin our foray into the Drizzt saga with the Dark Elf Trilogy.

The Dark Elf Trilogy

I’m not going to summarize the plot (see summary here [click each book for more summary]), but the basics are that there is a Dark Elf (AKA Drow) named Drizzt Do’Urden growing up in one of the cities of the Drow, Menzoberranzan. He and his father, Zaknafein, do not conform to the moral corruptness and insatiable lust for power that perpetuates in Drow society. Because of this, Drizzt rejects his people and flees into the Underdark, where he meets some friends as he avoids encounters with his deadly family. Finally, he emerges on the surface.

I have to say I enjoyed re-reading the trilogy very much. The world is particularly well developed, with a true sense of vastness and complexity that makes readers excited to explore further. The story also has a pretty broad scope, stretching across years, conflicts, and realms in order to bring it to fruition. The setting is pretty phenomenal.

There is surprising depth to some of the moral issues raised in the book, despite having a fairly simplistic view of good and evil (see characters, below). Drizzt’s struggle to reconcile his moral compass with his upbringing is intriguing, and his father’s own struggles observing Drizzt is emotionally engaging. It’s pretty impressive that Salvatore included a decent depth of these issues in a series that is, at base, a tie-in for a role-playing game.

The action, when it happens, is always intense. Although the action scenes are perhaps not as well-executed as some other stories’, they are engaging and hard-hitting when they do happen. I was never bored or put off by them, which is sometimes hard to do. Too much action or poorly written action is worse than no action at all.

That said, there are some pretty big issues here. The most obvious one is there are major issues with pacing in these books, particularly in Exile. It felt like there were stretches of 50 or so pages in which almost nothing happened. Drizzt is in a tunnel. He is lonely. He encounters a beasty. He is sad. These sections drag on for seemingly interminable lengths and make reading the books at time feel like a chore. Thankfully, the style they’re written in makes them very quick reads, so it is easy to churn through these sections, but it remains a major difficulty with the trilogy.

Another issue is that most of the characters lack depth. There is little backstory or even hints of backstory to them. Characters are sorted into simplistic black-and-white good-and-evil categories that make it difficult to care much about what backstory there is at points. There are exceptions, like Zaknafein, but overall there just isn’t much to care about for the other characters.

Overall, “The Dark Elf Trilogy” is an enjoyable read that I’m glad I took the time to go back through. It’s been a long time since I’ve visited these books, and I’m intrigued about what will come next!

The Good

+Overarching plot very interesting
+The world of the Underdark is unique and well-developed
+Impressive scope
+Surprisingly deep looks at moral issues at points

The Bad

-Pacing issues abound
-Most side characters lack depth

The Verdict

Grade: B- “It drags at times, but ‘The Dark Elf’ Trilogy is an intriguing introduction to a fantasy legend.”

What do you think?