“Convergence” by Michael Patrick Hicks – An SPSFC Review

The SPSFC started with 300 books and narrowed it down to 30 semi-finalists. I’ll be reviewing every semi-finalist, as well as several books from other group’s slush piles that looked interesting to me.

Convergence by Michael Patrick Hicks

Jonah Everitt is a hired gun who steals memories for others after killing the people who made those memories. After one kill gets him in trouble with the Wrong People, he becomes embroiled in a complex web of politics, narcotics, and international espionage.

The premise should clue readers in to what they’re getting into. This is a cyberpunk mystery along the lines of Altered Carbon though with bigger implications. It has a lot of the same gritty feel, but that grittiness comes along with plenty of content warnings. Sexual violence, extreme violence, mild misogyny, and drug abuse are rampant throughout the novel. It’s not a pretty world, and it’s hard to know where Hicks himself might come down on some of the “yuck factor” content therein. The world is just there, it’s rarely reflected upon or critiqued.

The characters are similarly there. None of them stood out to me in any major ways, but they get the job done as far as the plot goes. The story itself is, again, what one might expect from a cyberpunk thriller: a smattering of future tech-y stuff combines with Forbidden Power and the big political minds want to get their hands on it. It makes for a read that never slows down.

Convergence is a thrilling read. For readers less turned off by some of the content noted above, it will likely be a great read to get into a new series.

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SDG.

“The Hammond Conjecture” by M B Reed- A Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC) Semifinalist Review

The first Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC) has finished, but I’m still finishing reading and reviewing all of the semi-finalists! Check out my SPSFC Hub for all my posts and reviews for the contest.

The Hammond Conjecture by M B Reed

Hugh Hammond awakens, ostensibly injured and with memory loss. He’s an agent for MI6, and the world suddenly feels… wrong. But are his memories false, or is the world, or is something else happening?

Readers follow Hammond and a few other characters through the course of the novel, ultimately seeing the story across the course of years and unveiling more and more of the truth behind the events occurring therein.

My biggest problems with the novel are that it seems to be far too soft on Fascism and has some scenes that set off my “yuck” factor regarding men and women. In one of the latter, a man and wife are reunited after the wife was off at an SS convention–yes, that SS. Anyway, the husband thinks it’s time to get it on, but she doesn’t. He bitterly imagines all the SS agents chasing his wife the whole time she was there because she was on birth control and therefore apparently more desirable than their own spouses or other women. He gets angry at his wife for this imagined scenario. It’s a pretty gross scene, in my opinion, and not the only one that took me out of the story in that fashion.

The plot itself has some delightfully funny moments, with Hammond’s spy exploits often showing him as a kind of hapless Indiana Jones or James Bond. the way the ultimate reveals are slowly rationed out makes it interesting to keep finding those nuggets of information, but I’d have liked to have them feel more impactful than they initially do.

The Hammond Conjecture was not my favorite read. I think a lot of the style struck me the wrong way, but I could see where it might find an audience. Fans of alternate history and humor might want to check it out.

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SDG.

“A Touch of Death” by Rebecca Crunden- SPSFC Review

We’re now in the round of semi-finalists for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC), and I’m reading and reviewing all of the semi-finalists! Check out my SPSFC Hub for all my posts and reviews for the contest.

A Touch of Death by Rebecca Crunden

Far in the future, humanity largely lives in a single Kingdom with totalitarian rule. Catherine, Thom, and Nate struggle with the strictures of the society. Then, a latent disease is awakened.

I admit I found this one a bit difficult to get into. The characters were fine, but with little explanation for why the world got to where it did 1000 years from now or what remnants were left behind, I struggled to understand why the world was constructed as it was. It could just as easily have been a world completely different from our own rather than being in the future. Indeed, that might have made it even more interesting, because the way the world is revealed so far in this book, there’s little doubt about where latent disease may have come from, even if it’s not fully revealed here.

Catherine and Nate spend much of the novel arguing about what to do next and the implications of what they’ve run into. I actually didn’t mind this aspect of their characters. While it’s a bit trope-y, it’s a comfortable trope for me that I actually enjoy. Indeed, the characters were the most interesting aspect of the book.

A major problem I had with the book is a lack of clarity regarding the major questions about what’s going on. The “who/what/where/when/why” questions about what happened to the world are left extraordinarily vague. Meanwhile, events needed to keep the plot going seemingly drop out of the sky. Modern (read: stuff that would exist in 2022) things just pop up whenever needed. But at other times it reads like a weirdly Medieval feel. The tone is all over the place, making it a confusing read.

A Touch of Death will have readers wanting more. It left this reader wondering if there was enough there to tantalize me into reading the next book. It certainly left enough questions packed into it to sustain a longer series.

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SDG.

“Broken Ascension” by Dave Walsh- A Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC) Book Review

We’re now in the round of semi-finalists for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC), and I’m reading and reviewing all of the semi-finalists! Check out my SPSFC Hub for all my posts and reviews for the contest.

Broken Ascension by Dave Walsh

Drake is an artist on a ragtag ship full of strange personalities as they fly through a warzone from the now ended human-Gra’al war. When they discover a package on a Gra’al ship that contains a baby, the crap hits the fan as they have to go on the run for a Gra’al Warlord bent on reigniting war between species.

Reading that summary, many sci-fi readers will immediately think a kind of Firefly or Becky Chambers-esque found family crew with a heart, and they wouldn’t be too far off from the feel of the novel. If that’s your jam, I can almost guarantee you’ll find Broken Ascension a read worth checking out. It’s definitely my kind of novel, with plenty of action to go along with a plot that keeps everything moving along at a good clip.

One typical thing about books in this subgenre is having that ragtag crew of adventurers feel unique and over-the-top without really being too over-the-top (“I don’t know… fly casual!”). One twist in this one is that apart from the found family vibes here, Drake’s dad is also on the ship. The crew is full of personalities, but some of those personalities fade into the background of the adventures of Drake and the Gra’al babe, Bruce (it makes sense as a name in the book). That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it keeps the plot tightly focused, but it did make me want more from some of the other characters, a few of whom we only get glimpses here and there of what their personalities might be like or why they’re along for the ride.

The adventure itself is worth taking, with questions about war, justice, and xenophobia abounding. What would it take to heal scars of war, particularly in the immediate aftermath? While these questions never take over the plot, they’re welcome additions to supplement the story’s frenetic pace with some thoughtful moments. Another notable thing I appreciated was the treatment of religious questions. Walsh takes an even-keeled approach, neither heavily favoring nor strongly condemning religion generally but rather presenting it as a fact of life and reality for many people and species. It’s a good approach that makes it feel more realistic.

Broken Ascension is great for readers who enjoy space adventures. It’s got plenty of edge-of-your-seat action, but also has deeper characterization, for some, than might be expected.

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SDG.

“The Dinosaur Four” by Geoff Jones- A Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC) Book Review

We’re now in the round of semi-finalists for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC), and I’m reading and reviewing all of the semi-finalists! Check out my SPSFC Hub for all my posts and reviews for the contest.

The Dinosaur Four by Geoff Jones

A café in Denver is suddenly ripped from the pavement and dropped into the Cretaceous period in the same place, along with several diners. The people inside have to figure out what happened, avoid the dangerous dinos, and see if they can get back home.

The action gets going basically immediately, as the characters encounter a small array of dinosaurs and dinosaur-adjacent wildlife. As anyone who is even vaguely aware of how massive dinosaurs are and how deadly even small ones appear to have been, the implications should be quite ominous. What made the book the most fun for me is how it’s a kind of inverted Jurassic Park. Instead of humans bringing dinosaurs to life and dealing with the implications, here it’s humans going back in time (accidentally) and being trapped in a world with dinosaurs. Survival is not guaranteed.

The plot moves on at a good clip, and Jones introduces one element that basically slaps a timer on the events happening. I thought that was a good move because it added a sense of urgency to the story which was already fast paced. This turned up the action to frenetic in the best possible way. I found myself burning through the book quickly because I wanted to know what would happen next.

One of the characters seemed especially gross to me. There was latent and overt misogyny coming through that character’s viewpoint, to the extent that at first I almost wondered if it was narrative voice. Suffice to say that is not the case. The incel vibes are intentional, but they’re part of a building plot throughout the book that came to a satisfying end. I only point this out specifically because it was initially very off-putting for me, personally, and wanted other readers to know to persevere.

The Dinosaur Four is a hugely enjoyable romp. It’s the kind of read that’s excellent while enjoying the weather outside or flying on an airplane. It’s not going to make you think too hard. Instead, there are dinosaurs, there is action, and it’s fun to read. Recommended.

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SDG.

“Iron Truth” by S.A. Tholin- An SPSFC Finalist Review

We’re reading finalists for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest, and I’ll have reviews up here for every single one! For more coverage of the contest, including many, many reviews and some interviews with authors, check out my SPSFC Hub!

Iron Truth by S.A. Tholin

Iron Truth is a doorstopper of a science fiction novel. The plot primarily follows two characters on a far-off planet. One, Joy, was stranded there when her ship crashed while she was in cryogenic sleep; the other, Cassimer, is a soldier searching for a secret on the planet.

The characters are strong, and fully formed. They develop immensely over the course of the novel. Looking back over the expanse of pages, it is awesome how Tholin moves the characters in ways that make sense. I would say Joy and Cassimer both feel fleshed out, with motivations that make sense or don’t, just as those of real people do. Other characters get viewpoint chapters later, and I admit to not enjoying them as much. At that point, my investment Joy and Cassimer was too strong to be set alongside others.

The world-building is also a strong point. The Primaterre organization, in which Cassimer is a soldier, has many things akin to Warhammer 40,000. Its demands of allegiance, purity, and railing against heresy are highlights. The world never felt derivative, though. The similarities are superficial, and indeed some later plot reveals make the whole thing kind of stand on its head. I could get lost in this world, and did get lost (in a good way) at times as I read the book.

The novel’s main problem is, in fact, its length. I don’t mind long books. What makes the lengthiness of the novel problematic is that so much of it is unnecessary. I legitimately think that 50% of this novel could be cut without meaningfully losing any plot, character-building, or world-building. That’s a huge problem for a book of this length. At times, I found myself forcing myself forward because I just wanted something to happen. Tholin does string along multiple high points throughout the story. Some twists hit extremely hard, and others reveal major plot details. These were major highlights of my reading time, often leading to me pausing or a while to mull them over. But these moments are so spread out that it gets difficult at times to forge onward. The world and characters make it worth reading, but only with some frustration at how much it seems should be cut.

Iron Truth is a frustrating read. Its highs are among the highest in the whole contest. But those highs are distributed among lengthy–very lengthy–portions of story in which little-to-nothing happens. With a major round of editing, I believe this could be one of the best reads in the contest. As it stands, it is uneven. I enjoyed my time, but felt I spent too much of it here. Recommended for fans of massive worldbuilding space operas.

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SDG.

“In the Orbit of Sirens” by T.A. Bruno- An SPSFC Review

We’re reading finalists for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest, and I’ll have reviews up here for every single one! For more coverage of the contest, including many, many reviews and some interviews with authors, check out my SPSFC Hub!

In the Orbit of Sirens by T.A. Bruno

Humans are on the run, seeking refuge on a remote planet that holds more threats than it might initially seem. In the Orbit of Sirens is a space opera that features fantastic world-building and plenty of action to keep the story moving.

The major threads in the story are about the human refugees, a mysterious illness spreading among them, the resident lifeforms of the planet they landed upon, and an ancient threat that endangers them all. There’s a lot going on in the book, in other words, and with that comes a broad assortment of characters and settings. Space opera is absolutely the right description for this book. It’s got the drama and depth of an epic.

The story itself builds throughout the book, just as the world humans are exploring is built around them as the reader continues. The world-building is a huge strength of the book, as is Bruno’s penchant for pushing the plot along with punctuated action whenever it seems to be on the verge of getting too slow. As readers learn about the birdlike Auk’nai, the indigenous population of the planet, they discover a grand culture and nature populated in realistic ways. If there’s one area that I personally felt was a weakness, it would be the depth of the characters. There are many of them, and some of them don’t get enough development to make them as interesting as I’d hoped they’d be in such a rich setting. While they aren’t the deepest people brought to print, Bruno makes good use of them, including some surprising moments near the end. I also thought the book nailed the ending, leaving more avenues for exploration without it feeling like a letdown or a clear cliffhanger “gotcha” moment.

There are a surprising number of elements found in this book, too. There’s a helping of first contact, a little cosmic horror, a dose of space opera, and some thriller sprinkled on top for good measure. It makes the book feel fresh all the way through. The stakes are raised throughout the book, but I also struggled to get a full grasp on exactly how urgent the plight of humanity was in the novel. Was this a localized threat or was it truly a cosmic, possibly extinction-level threat that was happening? I do know that this book was enough of setup to get me interested in the next one.

A note about the audiobook, for those who enjoy them: I thought the reader for this one, Michael Reimer, did a fine job. It wasn’t too slow–an issue I often have–and I appreciated his range with voices and small effects here and there. Those looking to supplement their reading with some listening would do well checking this one out on audio.

In the Orbit of Sirens is a great space opera with enough world developed to set up for future installments. I found it an exciting read, and one that I’d recommend to other fans of the genre.

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SDG.

“Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for Hire” by G.M. Nair- An SPSFC Review

We’re reading finalists for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest, and I’ll have reviews up here for every single one! For more coverage of the contest, including many, many reviews and some interviews with authors, check out my SPSFC Hub!

Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for Hire by G.M. Nair

Michael Duckett and his roommate Stephanie Dyer are Private Investigators–they just don’t know it at the beginning of the book. Duckett just wants to get a date, get the girl, and move on with life. Dyer wants… well that seems to change on a whim. When people start disappearing and others start demanding Duckett and Dyer investigate, they get roped into a plot that’s bigger than either of them anticipated.

I think credit where it’s due is important, and I want to say that the cover for this book and its tongue-in-cheek title were hugely enjoyable. Every time I see the cover, I get a little smirk. Kudos for a well-designed indie book.

Anyway, the meat of the novel is its comedy. The plot is there mostly as a vehicle for throwing the characters into ridiculous scenarios where their synergy (or lack thereof) can be tested. There is some character development through the novel–Michael perhaps learns some about himself, and Stephanie shows she’s not entirely useless–but the rubber hits the road on their comedic interplays. Many of the scenes read as though they’re set pieces to launch a clever line from one or the other character. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Nair’s sense of humor struck me, at least, in the right ways. It does, however, get a bit stretched out over the course of the story. I felt some relief when one major plot reveal happened that allowed a focus less on the humor and more on a plot that was happening.

Readers who like plot as a vessel for comedy should be right at home here, and it’s a sub-genre with a venerable tradition in science fiction. Nair doesn’t bring the acerbic bite of satire to the table; instead, the comedy here is more slapstick or character comedy. It’s a read that would do great on a beach or a plane ride: it’s light, fun, and leaves readers feeling satisfied afterwards. Those looking for a strong plot or serious science should look elsewhere.

Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for Hire is a fun romp that fans of comedic sci-fi should read. It brought a lot of smiles to my face, and I suspect other readers would feel the same.

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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.

SPSFC Book Review: “Monster of the Dark” by KT Belt

We’re now in the round of semi-finalists for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC), and I’m reading and reviewing all of the semi-finalists! Check out my SPSFC Hub for all my posts and reviews for the contest.

Monster of the Dark by KT Belt

I’ll be honest: I didn’t know what to expect going in to this one. The story hooked me from the beginning, though, and didn’t let go from there. Carmen Grey is a potential Clairvoyant, a post-human with psychic powers. She’s taken from her parents, who are all-too-willing to let her go, to be trained at an underground facility for what humanity will face in the stars.

The story is a kind of coming-of-age story as it follows Carmen from a young age through young adulthood. Some of these sections are extensive, such as when the 5-6 year old Carmen is learning how to fight. The intensity of her training means the plot doesn’t really let up for this whole first part, and it’s easy to sit down and binge read this section as you want to know what’s going on with Carmen and whether Janus, her “handler,” will ever reveal more about what is happening. There are a few hints of a wider world here, but they are very few and far between. Belt keeps readers interested by remaining intensely focused on Carmen and the glimpses we see through Janus of other things happening. There is apparently some kind of alien threat that they need Clairvoyants to fight, and the hints about possible conflict between Earth and other humans make for an intriguing world that never fully opens in this book.

The hyper-focused nature of the plot starts to get a little repetitive in the middle section, where I was like Carmen in thinking that Janus and others lacked knowledge of what was happening next. Belt delivers action throughout this part, but it starts to lack the character reveals and wonder that the earlier sections had. The last 20% or so of the book was especially confusing to me. It felt like the first 50% or so of the book had built up to a potentially epic finale, with Carmen coming out and stomping on aliens or, at least, her captors. I don’t want to spoil much, but those expectations were very much subverted. Although I’m not sure I was a fan of how it ended, I will say I’m basically desperate to read the next book and find out what’s next for Carmen and others.

Monster of the Dark is an intriguing first volume in a series. It’s impossible not to be enthralled by Carmen’s story, but it would have been nice to have a bit more payoff for the broader world in this book.

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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.

SPSFC Interview: Edward Nile, Author of “Ironshield”

I’m a judge for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC), and wanted to spotlight some of the authors in the contest! Edward Nile is the author of Ironshield, a dieselpunk epic set in a war-torn world.

Edward Nile Interview

What was your gateway to speculative fiction? How did you decide to write it?

This is where I give the normal answer that I’ve been a lifelong lover of fantasy blah blah. It’s a cliché because it’s true. As a nineties kid, some of my first memories were of cartoons and television shows like the Power Rangers. I swung plastic swords and collected Transformers (No prizes for guessing why I write about giant robots) and generally was absorbed in stories, whether it was what was on the screen or what I made up in my own head while bashing figures together. I’d spend unhealthily long hours making stuff up until the sun rose. From Beast Wars to Gargoyles to Reboot, I devoured it all. A love of traditional fantasy followed. One of the very first movies I remember being engrossed in that wasn’t a Disney cartoon was DragonHeart when I was about six or seven. So, around that age I started drawing a lot, making up characters and scenarios to fuel my addiction to escapism. By the time I was twelve I was dead set on becoming a comic book creator. Anime was a huge influence at the time, with Escaflowne and Gundam Wing being two of my earliest discoveries. By age fifteen, after reading all the popular fantasy and sci fi everyone was reading at the time, I’d scrapped the comic book dream in favor of wanting to write my very own Robert Jordan-esque door stopper fantasy novel. And here we are.

And here we are.

I love that people can come to speculative fiction from childhood but have different influences. Can you tell us about your inspiration for your fantasy world?

After a hiatus from writing I tried to reinvent one of my darling stories from when I was 15. Scrapped it. Tried a dystopian sci-fi, wound up shelving a first draft that will never see the light of day. Moved on to an attempt at urban fantasy/horror. At this point I realized I needed to work on something unique just to keep myself motivated. I’d had an interest in dieselpunk for a while. Trench warfare always held a fascination for me and my reading was veering steadily from fiction to military history. I started listening to podcasts about WW1 and WW2 and picking up just about any book on the subject I could find. Then it was the American Civil War. Now, my shelves are crammed with books about just about every conflict from the Crusades to the Vietnam War (I’m currently reading an excellent book about the Anglo-Boer conflict and have a tome about the Crimea waiting for me). So, pretty quickly I knew I wanted to write something that reflected this newfound interest in 19th and 20th century warfare. Still being a fantasy nerd, I wrote my first published novel, “Bloodlight”, to be a blend of fantasy and dieselpunk. But before “Bloodlight”, I wrote a little short story called “The Worm Sleeps.” A vignette set in a dystopian future in which a mech pilot operates an old rust bucket, juxtaposed with the more advanced, futuristic machines of his comrades. This piece (which I’ve since thrown on Amazon with one of my fantasy shorts for a dollar) was a test run for me. I wanted to write about mechs, but I wanted them to have all the grit and grime of a WW2 tank. Fast forward about a year. “Bloodlight” is being prepped for release, and I’m at a friend’s place leafing through Shelby Foote’s series on the Civil War. And the scene just springs to mind, of a hulking gray mech standing in a dusty road, being challenged by a man with a field gun. Everything just grew from there.

I thought I sensed some of the historical background of both the Civil War and World War I in “Ironshield.” It’s good to know I wasn’t far off! How long do you expect the Ironshield Saga to be, and what other projects do you have up your sleeve?

I think any time an author taps into a world and story with this kind of scope, it opens the way for an almost infinite number of ideas. After all, the history of humanity and armed conflict is such a vast cornicopea of information it’s literally impossible to write or read everything involved. Doubly so for me, because while there are historical inspirations to “Ironshield” it is, at the end of the day, a fictional world I’m writing. I can do whatever I want with it, combine inspirations from just about anything. I have material for the Ironshield Saga to last for more books than I can count. Originally, I envisioned at least 4-5 large, numbered entries in the main series, plus a ton of smaller novels and novellas such as “Old Bolts” to flesh out the world further. And that’s just in the first era of “Ironshield.” I have plans for an urban detective story set a century or so after the main events I’m currently writing about. A series built around a central character in a steadily advancing dieselpunk world, complete with new technologies and the implications they come with. That being said, I have to be realistic with my time and my efforts. “Ironshield” clocked in at 170k words. “Iron Wrath,” coming out this June, is over 200k. These are large books with a lot of story to them, and I have to balance their production with real life obligations. Knowing that, it’s likely I’ll have to switch gears to another story setting at some point for my own sanity. There’s an epic fantasy book I want to write, as well as a dark fantasy western and a ton of other projects I really want to work on. More ideas and stories than I can reasonably complete in a lifetime. Of course, when this writing thing starts paying some of the bills, I’ll be able to put more time in (ha!).

Can we circle back for a moment and discuss a side topic? WWI and some of the other influences you mentioned were heavily influenced by colonialism. In “Ironshield,” some of that colonialism appears as a possibility in how both the Xangese people and the native inhabitants of the continent are treated. How are you wrestling with the history of colonialism and the evils thereof within this fictional setting?

What “Ironshield” wrestles with, if it “wrestles” with anything, is monarchy and centralized power. Xang, a monarchy ruled over by a king, has neglected its hold on a nearby island chain, which has since developed its own identity and considers itself a separate entity from Xang, even though they share a language and other cultural background. As far as Arkenia is concerned, why shouldn’t they? Why should someone miles away who knows nothing of the everyday lives of a people get to make blanket declarations about how they live? This was the basis of Arkenia’s Revolution, after all, the desire not to have a distant authority tell them what to do, what to believe etc. As far as the native tribes, I only really get to explore one fringe group, a cargo cult called the K’Tani, who worship machines, falsely believing the Arkenians had used their Warsuits (mechs) to save them from colonial rule. In fact it was their own freedom the Arkenians wanted, and the benefits to the tribes came as an unintended bonus. If my book was to be more focused on an anti-colonialist message, I’d be writing a different story. “Iron Wrath” has been delayed two years because I had to scrap an outline that was, in part, unworkable due to my trying to cram too much political realism into the narrative. Having real-world inspirations is great, but I’m writing books about stompy robutts. Everything that goes into the plot, therefor, leans toward said stompy robutts in some form or another. If an aspect of the world doesn’t tie into that, it doesn’t get explored too deeply on the page. Hence we only really see the tribe that is most directly involved with these machines.

I appreciate how the setting clearly has so much going on behind the scenes, too. Of course, the big draw for me was the stompies, too! How can readers connect with you?

Readers can follow my page, MechWizard Press on Facebook or shoot me a message. There’s also a blog where I give updates. I recommend readers hit “follow” on my Amazon author page and/or on Goodreads to get updates on my releases. Iron Wrath, the sequel to Ironshield is out as of June. If anyone wants a great short novel to read in the meantime, and wants some more background on characters appearing in Iron Wrath and future installments, I recommend they check out “Old Bolts” which was a semi-finalist for SPFBO 7.

Thanks for the interview and the thoughtful questions!

Thank you for your insightful comments!

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SDG.