Short Story Review: The Sycamore and the Sybil

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I really ought to review more short stories. I mean yeah, sure, that would mean I’d have to read more short stories but that’s not the point. Well, it is kinda the point. Anyway, I want to tell you about a short story in the March/April 2020 issue of Uncanny written by Alix E. Harrow called “The Sycamore and the Sybil.”

It’s a story about a woman who turned herself into a Sycamore tree along the banks of the Big Sandy River, and another young woman named Kat who is pursued by a “wolf,” a man who isn’t the best of men. It’s a story about fighting for yourself, and women who aren’t going to let themselves be mistreated and abused anymore. It’s a story about women helping women. And it’s a story about spells and witchcraft and…well…magic.

I read “The Sycamore and the Sybil” when it was first published as I tend to read anything by Harrow as soon as I can get my hands on it. I loved it at the time and tweeted about it

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So that’s basically my review…

“It is painful and stunning and powerful. Harrow wields magic in her stories gifted by the muses. Read, dance, and burn it all down.”

What I didn’t know at the time was “The Sycamore and the Sybil” is set in the same world as The Once and Future Witches. 

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Yep…Harrow snuck something by us back in March, a quick peak into the witchy setting she created in her most recent novel set to be released later this month.

In my review of The Once and Future Witches I noted how it,is more like some of her short stories, poetic at times and still very rich, but more pointed and focused on a mood or emotion.” When I wrote that I was thinking partly about this story! It was sitting there in the back of my mind as one of a few examples of Harrow’s short work and how tightly focused they can be in relation to mood and emotion and the way they just hit you in the gut. Harrow was casting a little spell months in advance and we didn’t have a clue.

“The Sycamore and the Sybil” is set in Crow County along the Big Sandy, one of the locations of The Once and Future Witches. In it you’ll find a number of references to things in the novel, some overt and others very subtle. If you read the short story first you’ll get a hint of what’s in store for you when you read the book…but just a hint. If you read the book first then turn to the story you’ll find all manner of things to make you smile and maybe even shed a tear as you remember events and characters from the novel. Either way I recommend you read both because they are fantastic.

Anyway, just wanted to pass that along. Hope you enjoy the read.

– Jason

Book Review: The Once And Future Witches

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I laughed, I raged, and I cried. The Once And Future Witches is magic on the wings of Autumn, ash and roses on the air, and the promise of a new world birthed with will, and words, and way.

Alix E. Harrow has done it again. Fresh off the heels of the beautifully written The Ten Thousand Doors of January, comes a book that is even better! Continue reading

Book Review: Of Honey And Wildfires

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I sat down on a recent Wednesday night to start reading Of Honey And Wildfires. This would be my third read for Self-Published Fantasy Month and the first book from Sarah Chorn I’d ever read. I was relaxed, in a good mood, and looking forward to the read because I’d seen nothing but great reviews for Sarah’s books. But I also knew from those reviews that I might be in for some feels. Reader…I wasn’t prepared.

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Book Review: Tavern

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This review was first posted to the Self-Published Fantasy Month event site on Sunday September 13, 2020.

I love action oriented fantasy and I love character driven fantasy. Those two don’t often go together. But when an author melds the two it can be pretty amazing. Tavern is one of those rare fantasy books that melds one part action and one part character oriented fantasy but then goes and adds a big heaping dose of heart to make you fall in love with it.

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Cover Reveal: Shadow Debt

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I have something special for you today!

As many of you know I love to read self-published fantasy, and my gateway book for self-published fantasy was Gedlund: A Tale of The Verin Empireby William Ray. Gedlund was followed up by The Great Restoration and featured one of the characters from the original story. Now Ray has completed book three in the Tales of The Verin Empire series and today thanks to Ray and the fabulous team at Story Tellers On Tour, I get to share the cover reveal for Shadow Debt with you!


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“Glynn Sorley is sheriff of Keat’s Field, a tiny settlement in an otherwise lawless frontier. With the discovery of diamonds, her town is flooded with fortune-hunters looking to strike it rich. It’s also a target for competing colonial powers, savage goblin tribes, and outlaws.

A rustler on the run from the law stumbles across his father’s mysterious legacy – a weapon of immense magical power. He uses it to ravage across the territory as the notorious outlaw Gentleman Jim.

But the weapon’s power comes at a terrible cost, and Keat’s Field may just have to pay the price…

This third Tale of the Verin Empire returns us to the world of Gedlund and The Great Restoration. It explores a frontier trapped between competing nations, where goblins reign and a lone sheriff fights to keep the peace.

Drawing inspiration from L’Amour’s  Comstock Lode, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and our own late 19th century, Shadow Debt continues William Ray’s bold, critically acclaimed reinvention of classic fantasy in a world of memorable characters and unique perspectives.”

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Book Information

Shadow Debt by William Ray
Series: Tales of the Verin Empire (#3)
Release Date: September 20, 2020
Coming to Kindle, Kindle Unlimited, and in paperback
Genre: Fantasy
Age Group: Adult
Cover art and design: Ramona Marc: (https://jolua.com/)
Interior chapter illustrations: Tom Parker: (https://www.patreon.com/tomparkerillustration)

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Author Info

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William Ray is the author of the Tales of the Verin Empire; including Gedlund (named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2016), The Great Restoration and the forthcoming Shadow Debt.

Originally from North Carolina, he currently lives in Reston, VA with his wife and dogs. A graduate of Ithaca College, and Wake Forest’s School of Law, he has worked in television, retail, patent prosecution, trademark law and other irrelevant nonsense. To paraphrase Lloyd Alexander, however, if being a life-long lover of fantasy literature qualifies one to write it, then he is well qualified indeed.

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Author Links

Website: https://verinempire.wixsite.com/website
Twitter: https://twitter.com/VerinEmpire
Facebook: https://facebook.com/VerinEmpire
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15504802.William_Ray

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Book Review: The Blood Tainted Winter

Swords and axes clash while Valhalla calls in T.L. Greylock’s epic norse inspired fantasy The Blood Tainted Winter.

The Story

“Raef Skallagrim wants to take the sea road. His ship is fast and sleek, his crew skilled and eager, and they will seek out new lands and win fame in the eyes of the gods. But Raef’s father refuses to allow the journey and when a stranger brings word that the king is dead and a gathering has been called to choose a successor, Raef must set aside his dream for his duty to his ancestral lands and his father.

When factions split at the gathering to choose a successor, Raef finds himself mired in bloodshed and treachery. Forced to make an uneasy alliance with a man he does not trust, Raef must navigate the tides of a war among three kings while seeking revenge for cold-blooded murder.

But winter has come early to Midgard, and even the gods will feel the cold.” – Goodreads blurb

This is my first review for Self-Published Fantasy Month 2020 and I chose a great book to lead off with. I mean c’mon, who doesn’t like Viking stories? OK, fine I’m sure some of you don’t like Viking stories but whatever. I like Viking stories and that’s what matters today. More importantly this book has more going for it than just being a Norse inspired tale; it’s a story of betrayal and revenge, love and trust, friendship and enemies…with fierce battles and Norse gods thrown in for added fun.

As I already said, I  was excited to dive into this Norse inspired read. I can’t say I know a ton about Norse lore (um…next to nothing really) so I have no idea if Greylock got her stuff right when writing this book, but I really enjoyed it. And what’s interesting is there’s really no seafaring in this book. The protagonist Raef wants to set sail but never gets the chance because life (or death rather) happens. What we get instead is a story about a land caught up in the midst of civil war while multiple contenders for the throne battle it out to see who ends up on top. And by battles I mean battles, big and small. There’s plenty of stabby stabby (or choppy choppy because ya know…axes) for those of you who really love a good fight in your fantasy. Throw in some deities, half-gods, magical weapons and some freaky supernatural oracles and armies and BOOM a fun frolicking read is at hand!

And then there was the end…an end that could really be the end for everyone and everything…and it just ends!!!

Characters

So besides the choppy choppy, what else about the book stood out? Let’s start with our protagonist Raef. I found it interesting that I liked him because truth be told he isn’t very likable at first. He’s young, moody, and a little whiny, and he doesn’t always make good decisions. But that’s also kinda what I liked. By that I mean he isn’t perfect and has to really grow into his new role from being the son of a lord to being the lord proper. He still makes rash decisions and It allows for some good character development which takes some time to bear fruit. He has character flaws that he can’t always help falling into and that has consequences. Stories that play out consequences to actions are always a plus for me. 

There are a number of other characters in the book and if you were to ask me any areas where I was disappointed it might be here. Not in any of the characters themselves, but that we don’t get to see more of them. Specifically some who become close companions of Raef like the mysterious and elusive Vakre, and the shield maidens Siv and Eire. These three characters become bound up in Raef’s story and every time one appeared I perked up. They just added the right amount of extra flavor to any scene they were in. And with each there was this omnipresent sense that we don’t know enough about them, that there’s something hidden and maybe even questionable about them. Throughout the narrative I wondered whether Raef should trust them or not. It made for some good tension and I loved it. And I wanted MORE. I really look forward to seeing where these relationships go in future installments.

Writing and POV

What I noticed almost right away was how easily the book read. I don’t mean that it’s dumbed down and has easy vocabulary. What I mean is it FLOWED. It was just so easy to pick up, read, and keep reading. Greylock’s writing style just kept my eyes flowing over the words. I didn’t encounter weird stops or things that yanked me out of the story. I know this probably sounds simplistic but a book that just flows is so much more pleasurable to read than one that doesn’t. It set my mind at ease and let me relax and escape from the craziness of the world around us right now which is impressive given this isn’t a peaceful book.

The Blood Tainted Winter is told in the third person and always through Raef’s lens. This was an interesting change for me because it seems like most books I read these days if told from just one POV end up being in the first person. I’m happy with either one, but this seemed like a fresh change when it really isn’t (if that makes sense).

Magic System

What magic system?

OK, that isn’t right. There is magic in The Blood Tainted Winter it just isn’t really wielded by humans. What magic that is present is the power of the gods and it’s really only seen when the gods are interacting in the world. Let me say while magic systems are one of my favorite aspects of fantasy I LOVED this low magic world. It really helped the Norse mythological background come to the fore where humans are at the mercy of the gods and their power. 

The only time when a mortal has a magical power is if they possess a magical weapon or artifact…which is something handed down from the gods…so still the power of the gods. And while these artifacts and weapons are powerful they are not all powerful which means the characters must still survive on their wits and strength and relationships.

I take it back…there’s another exception to the rule about mortals and magic, and that’s when you encounter a half-god. These children of the gods live very long lives (maybe immortal themselves? Not sure) and seem to have other potential abilities. So they are more powerful than humans but still not on the same plane as the gods.

World Building

I’ve already discussed a number of the elements of the world Greylock has created in The Blood Tainted Winter but let’s dive in a little more. At its heart the story is set in Midgard which in Norse lore is our material plane of existence. But nothing indicates this is our earth; it’s Midgard, wherever that happens to be, which allows for a completely new world to be explored.

Beyond that its an early medieval period like you’d probably expect. With everything else I’ve described so far I guess I’d say it’s more sword and sorcery than anything else, but that doesn’t really seem to fit. It has epic world-wide implications and elements that begin to play themselves out but at the same time it feels very localized and sort of low fantasy. We aren’t shown anything of the world beyond the large kingdom within which the events take place. Is the rest of the world the same? How big is it? Those questions aren’t really answered in this installment which like I said gives it a more intimate feel.

Within this setting Greylock offers up a world filled with fortified towns spread among farms and villages in localized regions all ruled by lords and their allies and soldiers. There are mysterious oracles and half-gods who walk the earth while the true gods wield their influence in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It’s a world where the geography really has a big impact on the story. Amidst all this everyone tries to live their lives in an honor and debt bound world where dying with your weapon in your hand is of paramount importance to assure your entrance into Valhalla. Then throw in a magical god-enhanced supernatural army and well…things begin to get intense.

Themes

The Blood Tainted Winter is a tale of betrayal and revenge. Those dual themes drive Raef’s character and his actions throughout the book. They are what order his thoughts and decisions for better or worse. In a constant dance with those two elements is the theme of friendship. Raef and his companions develop a friendship, each unique, and each driving Raef to different actions. What comes out of that mix is another theme, that of trust. Who is truly a friend; who is an enemy; who can be trusted. Because throughout the book Raef doesn’t really know. He thinks he knows but deep down can he be sure? And as a reader can we be sure? Greylock does and excellent job of keeping you guessing at whether Raef is being set-up and used, or if his friends really have his best interests at heart. You think they do, and you want them to, but there’s always something that leaves you uncertain and keeps you wondering.

In Conclusion

By this point it should be obvious I enjoyed this book. If you were unsure of that let me say I REALLY ENJOYED THIS BOOK! I’m a huge fan of fantasy battles and this one had plenty to keep it exciting. I’m also here for revenge stories coupled with the uncertainty of who you can really trust with all of the tension and danger that instills. And then there’s the added bonus of sitting down with a well written book that can just take you away to another realm for a while, a book that helps you forget about the world we are living in for a few hours at a time, a book that just lets you escape. The Blood Tainted Winter was all of that for me at just the right time.

I’m really looking forward to picking up book two in The Song Of The Ash Tree to see what Greylcok has in store for Raef, for Midgard, and for me.

– Jason


I won a copy of this book in a giveaway by the author. 

This review first appeared on the Self-Published Fantasy Month event site. If you’re interested in the event and all the reviews and other exciting things going on in September give us a follow at selfpublishedfantasymonth.com.

4 of 5 Stars

Author: T L Greylock
Series: The Song of The Ash Tree – First Edda
Publisher: Self Published (Grass Crown Press)
Publication Date: November 20, 2015
Format: Paperback
Pages: 368

What I’m Reading: Of Honey And Wildfires

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Wednesday night I started reading Of Honey And Wildfires by Sarah Chorn.

“From the moment the first settler dug a well and struck a lode of shine, the world changed. Now, everything revolves around that magical oil.

What began as a simple scouting expedition becomes a life-changing ordeal for Arlen Esco. The son of a powerful mogul, Arlen is kidnapped and forced to confront uncomfortable truths his father has kept hidden. In his hands lies a decision that will determine the fate of everyone he loves—and impact the lives of every person in Shine Territory.

The daughter of an infamous saboteur and outlaw, Cassandra has her own dangerous secrets to protect. When the lives of those she loves are threatened, she realizes that she is uniquely placed to change the balance of power in Shine Territory once and for all.

Secrets breed more secrets. Somehow, Arlen and Cassandra must find their own truths in the middle of a garden of lies.” – Goodreads blurb

It’s my third read for Self-Published Fantasy Month and I’ve been looking forward to it for a while.

I only managed to finish a few chapters and had to stop. I couldn’t read anymore. I just couldn’t. I had to set it down and walk away. Why you ask? Well…

Yep. Gutted. And the book had just started. It just hit me hard. I seriously got up, poured myself a finger of bourbon, sat down and sipped a while. I don’t claim this was healthy, but <sigh> I did it anyway. I was thinking of picking the book up again but Sarah Chorn replied to my comment with this…

So I decided nah…I’ll stop for the night.

It isn’t often that an author has an impact with their writing and use of language and emotion in such a short span of pages. Those kinds of authors are out there. Alix E. Harrow comes to mind. But they don’t show up every day and plop down in your favorite reading chair with you and settle in. Sarah Chorn did that on Wednesday night and I was wrecked.

I have no idea if the rest of the book will live up to the first few chapters. I have no idea if I’ll need a new bottle of bourbon before this read is done. I have no idea if I’ll end up loving it or hating it before it’s all over. But what happened to me on Wednesday night doesn’t happen often, and I thought you should know about it.

– Jason

Self-Published Fantasy Month 2020 Kick-Off

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So, in all the excitement of the past couple of days I totally forgot to post here about the kick-off of Self-Published Fantasy Month!

September 1st marked the beginning of Self-Published Fantasy Month. I’ve mentioned it here on the blog and on Twitter in recent weeks and months and it’s finally here!

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ve hosted Self-Published Fantasy Month here on the blog for the past couple of years. In a nutshell it is an attempt to bring attention to great self-published fantasy. In the past it has mostly consisted of book reviews and the occasional author interview or guest post. Other bloggers would take part at times as well. This year I branched out and asked a few other bloggers to give me a hand and form a team to put on the event. And wow, it is SO MUCH BETTER THAN IT EVER WAS BEFORE!

I don’t want to spend a lot of time and word space on it here. Instead I want to direct you to the event website selfpublishedfantasymonth.com. There you’ll find everything you need to know about what’s going on. But here’s a quick overview of what you can expect:

  • Book Reviews
  • Guest Posts
  • Author Interviews
  • Daily Instagram and Twitter photo challenges
  • Podcasts
  • A Read Along
  • Book Giveaways

And there are many ways you can participate too. You can write reviews (and get a reviewer badge for your blog), join the read along, participate in the daily challenge, enter the giveaways and more. For more detail see the event Kick Off Post for information. Then follow us on the platforms below…

Webpage: selfpublishedfantasymonth.com
Twitter: @SelfPubFanMonth
Instagram: @selfpubfanmonth

I hope you’ll decide to join us for what I hope and expect to be an amazing event.

– Jason

Review Redo: The First of Shadows

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Recently the Self-Published Fantasy Month Team posted a list of some self-published fantasy recs for those who have not read much self-published fantasy and don’t know where to start with finding a good book to read. Our hope was to offer up a few suggestions each while admitting the list would leave out a bunch of great books and authors. I hate leaving out great stories so I decided to re-post the reviews of all the self-published fantasy books I’ve really enjoyed over the last few years. Over the coming days and weeks I’ll be re-posting them here in the lead up to Self-Published Fantasy Month. My hope is you might find one that catches your interest for September! Continue reading