The Self Published Fantasy Blog-Off Finalists: “We Men of Ash and Shadow” by H.L. Tinsley

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.

We Men of Ash and Shadow by HL Tinsley

In this grimdark gaslight fantasy, readers follow John Vanguard, a kind of mercenary, through the streets of a city where corruption is rampant. Vanguard runs into a would-be assassin and the plot takes off from there.

The story follows Vanguard fairly closely, as he takes on some morally rough tasks. I can’t say I ever really got into Vanguard as a character. I don’t dislike the trope of following someone who’s morally gray or even bad (one series I enjoy follows a Hitman who likes stamp collecting, for example), but there has to be some kind of hook. Vanguard reads to me as a kind of milquetoast down-on-his-luck guy who doesn’t necessarily want to be doing what he does even though he does a lot of it anyway. And because of that, readers are supposed to be empathetic towards his plight or something. I just couldn’t buy into it as much as I’d have liked to.

There are some neat moments of critique of the world, such as the way cities are run and how difficult it is to get in. I thought it was both an interesting piece of worldbuilding and a kind of oblique critique of stratification and wealth-hording. Indeed, the world-building was the highlight of the book.

Overall, though, I couldn’t help but feel that the idea felt a bit stale. That’s not really the fault of this specific book, I guess. At this point in my reading for the SPFBO contest, 3/5 books have been grimdark mystery-esque books in grimy or morally opaque worlds.

Gray morality is the theme of the book, which made it hard for me to really root for anyone specifically. Characters hook up, kill, fight, and more, but sometimes their motivations are unclear for why they act the way they do. There is no small amount of political intrigue, as well, but with those characters also embroiled in the same broad wash of colorless morals, it becomes difficult to truly decide who to root for.

Overall, I thought this novel was a tad more generic in its characters, which made it difficult for me to get into. On the flip side, the many reviews on Goodreads almost all lean towards glowing, so I might just be the minority here. We Men of Ash and Shadows is a morally tenuous fantasy story in a dark world filled with violence. If that speaks to you, give it a shot.

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Links

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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.

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.

All links to Amazon are affiliates.

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.

The Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off Finalists: “Legacy of the Brightwash” by Krystle Matar

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.

Legacy of the Brightwash: Tainted Dominion I by Krystle Matar

Legacy of the Brightwash starts with a body washed up on shore. It’s been brutalized, and it’s a child. I was ready after that opening chapter for a grim fantasy mystery, but was a bit surprised by how Matar delivered it. Tashué is a tinman–a kind of law enforcement officer who for years hasn’t compromised his dedication to law. But as he investigates this mystery, and interacts with those who are on the wrong side of the law throughout the city (including his son), he starts to lose confidence in his dedication to law.

One star of the show is certainly the world Matar makes. I kept wanting to know more and explore more of the city, plumb its depths, and discover more about the way it was being run. Much of this is tapped into by Tashué’s perspective, though I still felt myself wanting more of the city itself at times. How did it get this way? Part of that is the mystery at the core of the book, but part of it is left either to an upcoming book in the series or to readers’ imaginations. The world puts its hooks in and holds on. I found myself thinking about it even when I wasn’t actively reading the book.

Tashué is an intriguing protagonist, and his foil, Stella, has her own motivations that start to get revealed later. As the plot really starts to open up about 40% in, Matar deftly moves it along without losing too much steam. However, I did think it was in this lengthy middle portion that the book started to drag. The pace of plot revelations slowed down, and the story with Stella started to feel more and more like a lost strand. Matar does a good job tying it all back together towards the end, but by then enough other major characters and plot points have been introduced to make it seem like a bit of an afterthought. The will-they-or-won’t-they is strung along just a bit too long, and it got to feeling like it just needed to be resolved. The central mystery went in a direction I most definitely did not expect, but in a good way.

I’d be remiss not to mention a central point of the book, which is how frequently people are willing to use the skills and talent of those they label as “other” or “less than.” This is a truly major theme throughout the book, especially following one character who has the ability to heal but is an outcast because of it. It looms large in other parts of the book, as well. I thought this was a welcome theme and it kept me thinking throughout the book.

Legacy of the Brightwash is a good read for those interested in gaslamp settings and the intersection of mystery and fantasy. It’s a solid entry in the SPFBO.

All links to Amazon are affiliates.

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.

The Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) Finalist Review: “Reign & Ruin” by J.D. Evans

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.

Reign & Ruin by J.D. Evans

Reign & Ruin is, at its core, both a fantasy of manners with court drama and political intrigue in abundance and a romance. The story follows Naime, a Sultana who is trying to bring unity to her nation in the face of many challenges, and Makram, a prince with destructive magical powers.

The setting and world building are major winners in the novel. I thought the way Evans built the world was compelling, and certainly made a great place for the many different scenes of political intrigue to play out. Naime is trying to find her way with her father’s failing mental health making it more difficult for her to keep a grip as others try to wrest powers from her. Time and again, she faces off with others trying to discern her interests and thoughts on her path forward, even as she deflects their advances and those of others trying to force her into marriage or other ways of manipulating her. Readers who are interested in political intrigue will eat this book up. I would say well over 50% of the plot is focused around these kind of court drama/intrigue among various factions, and as a big fan of that kind of story, I was delighted.

Makram’s story is interesting, but he reads more like a side character to me. Maybe that’s because of where my interests lie–with the court drama–but I found it harder to connect with him. It was also somewhat predictable to see where the romance was headed and when at times. I should note the romantic elements include quite explicit scenes.

The fantasy elements aren’t subtle, necessarily, but they don’t drive the plot as they do in some other fantasy settings. There are many different kinds of magic, and one of Naime’s driving goals is to bring the destructive magic back into the fold of mages so that she can unite them and bring peace as the Wheel turns. It’s a neat concept, though I found at times I wasn’t sure how important it all felt. On the flip side, there seems to be much more action-type conflict as a possibility in the future.

Reign & Ruin is a great read, despite its predictability. The world-building and setting are treats for fans of fantasy, and the romance elements add to, rather than distracting from, the main plot. I’ve enjoyed the first one enough to give the second a try once I’ve gotten through other books on my list.

All links to Amazon are affiliates.

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.