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.

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…my post to Twitter was this…

“Holy f—! If I could write a review of just the first Cassandra chapter. I’m gutted. I want to quote half of it. Deep breath and maybe a drink before I carry on.”

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 replied to my comment with this…

“Brace yourself. Writing this book flayed me emotionally.”

So I stopped 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 it on that Wednesday night and I was wrecked.

The Story

“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

Of Honey And Wildfires will take you on an emotional journey. It’s a book about pain and loss and mourning. It’s also a book about discovering yourself and fighting for what is yours. It’s the kind of book I really love; the kind that takes you through the wringer a bit, makes you think about your life and it’s highs and lows, then sets you down afterward to let you ponder what was, what is, and what can still be.

Characters And POV

The story is told from three points of view. The first is that of Cassandra, the daughter of a notorious outlaw who is sent to live with relatives at a young age. The second is Ianthe, a young woman suffering from consumption and Cassandra’s best friend. The third is Arlen, the son of the mogul who owns and controls all of Shine Territory. Cassandra and Ianthe’s narrative is told in the first person and Arlen is told in third person which makes for an interesting read and interpretation. I have a guess as to why this was done but I’m holding back so as not to give what may be a spoiler.

“You have made me out to be a monster. I ask, what is a monster if not a warning against the dark? I have done you a service. Perhaps you will recognize that, someday.” – Cassandra p. 7

Chorn takes these three points of view and and weaves them together in an interesting way. All three begin the story from different timeframes and work their way up to the present. Cassandra starts at age five, Ianthe at ten days ago, and Arlen at two weeks prior. Little by little each narrative makes it’s way to the present and fills in a tragic backstory until they come crashing together at the end.

Interspersed with these points of view are additional short “interview” chapters, where characters are speaking to some unknown interrogator about some event the details of which are uncertain. It all combines to convey the sense that something of importance has happened but you’re uncertain if it’s good or bad, only that underlying it something tragic has occurred. 

All three characters are written with a depth and soul that will grab you, make you feel their humanity, and gut you. It’s a testament to Chorn’s writing that she can do this even with Ianthe’s chapters which are always no more than a page or two and focus on her gaze and view of Cassandra.

There are trans characters in this story as well as same sex relationships. These characters and relationships are written beautifully and without stigma. I hesitate to say more because it will give things away, but suffice it to say these characters, their orientation and relationships are written with love at their core.

Writing

Chorn’s writing is atmospheric and magical. I don’t know how else to say it. It conveys emotion throughout; at one moment heartfelt love and devotion, and at another pain and anger. Nothing is wasted and everything moves you to the next scene, the next element of time, the next emotion, while building up the tension all the way to the end. You know things can’t turn out well but you have to keep turning the pages because you HAVE to know where the story is leading you; you HAVE to know what it is building to; you HAVE to know how the tragic tale will end.

World Building And Magic System

Of Honey And Wildfires is a Western themed fantasy. By that I mean the American West of the 19th century which also means it is fantasy, but not in the typical sense. So I guess it falls into the Weird West subgenre. In this world based on our own but not our own, a prospector Matthew Esco discovered a shine field on a vast tract of land out west. Shine is much like oil, but so very different. Shine has power; the power to heal, the power to purify, the power to so many things. It also has the power of addiction. It affects those who are close contact with it for prolonged periods of time causing them to have skin and hair color of every shade of the rainbow. It will make rotten food safe to eat again, and can heal wounds and stave off infections. It’s burned in lamps for light, and in fires for cooking. It’s even used as ammunition for weapons instead of bullets.

This shineland has been sealed off by powerful means so that nobody can cross the boundary without an antidote. Those inside the barrier when it was erected are stuck, and those outside can’t get in. Not without permission from the company that runs the shine business. It’s a monopoly on a product and a drug that everyone wants. People inside the barrier work to produce it (at dangerous cost) and those outside can’t get enough of it. Shine is the magic system, and the cause of the conflict in the narrative.

I know a lot of what I just said could go under the STORY section above but I mention it here because this is the worldbuilding for the most part. The world outside the barrier is mentioned here and there but really it’s what’s inside the barrier and the existence of shine that sets things in motion and drives the conflict. It’s a low fantasy story with a simple plot device used to great effect. 

Themes

I’m always looking for themes in fantasy reads because too often fantasy is assumed not to have any. A few stood out to me with Of Honey And Wildfires, including family, child labor, and exploitation (of both natural resources and people). But for me what stood out the most were themes of pain, and loss, and mourning. In truth many if not all of the other themes can be wrapped up into these. From page 1 until the very end the reader is on a journey through an emotional wringer that explores the effects of bad decisions, ego, and evil alongside the tragedies of situations people are born into and have little control over.

Yet set against the despair the above themes can invoke is that of hope. Sprinkled throughout are instances of the characters casting their gaze toward something better and greater, whether it be the canopy of the moon and stars above and what they might represent, to the gaze of a lover for their beloved. Indeed the title Of Honey And Wildfires within the context of the book casts a view toward the hope of goodness and purity that emerges though the other side of suffering.

Conclusion

I know this review is long…it seems I can’t help but write long reviews. I’m glad you’ve stuck with me to this point. I’m not sure what else I can say in closing except that you should read this book. It is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year, self-published or otherwise. Of Honey And Wildfires doesn’t just tell you a story or take you on a journey, it makes you feel. Books that give you the feels are the best kind in my opinion. With this read Sarah Chorn has landed on my automatic buy list, and friends let me tell you that’s a short list.

– Jason

As of the writing of this review, Of Honey And Wildfires has also been listed as a semi-finalist in this year’s Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO).

5 of 5 Stars

Author: Sarah Chorn
Publisher: Self-Published
Publication Date: April 30, 2020
Format: Paperback
Pages: 307

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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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

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

Review Redo: Blood of Heirs

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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

Review Redo: Fortune’s Fool

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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!

Tonight’s installment is reposted from March 23, 2020 when I actually changed a rating for the first and only time from a 4.5 to a 5.0 Stars.

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Review Redo: Chasing Graves

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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!

Today’s installment is Chasing Graves by Ben Galley. I reviewed Chasing Graves back in June of 2019 as part of a massive blog tour with TheWriteReads. Continue reading

Review Redo: Kingshold

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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!


Regicide, politics, assassinations, pirates, magic, demons, and giant draco-turtles are just taste of what’s in store for you in this solid and entertaining self-published debut from D. P. Woolliscroft. Kingshold made it to the semi-finalist round in the 2018 Self-Published Fantasy Blogg Off (#SPFBO) hosted by author Mark Lawrence and it’s easy to understand why. Offering a fresh take on revolution and dynastic change in fantasy literature this first book in the Wildfire Cycle sets the stage for an imaginative and rousing new series.

THE KING IS DEAD.
LONG LIVE THE PEOPLE.

“Mareth is a Bard, a serial underachiever, a professional drunk, and general disappointment to his father. Despite this, Mareth has one thing going for him. He can smell opportunity. The king is dead and an election for the new Lord Protector has been called. If he plays his cards right, if he can sing a story that will put the right person in that chair, his future fame and drinking money is all but assured. But, alas, it turns out Mareth has a conscience after all.

Neenahwi is the daughter of Jyuth, the ancient wizard who founded the Kingdom of Edland and she is not happy. It’s not just that her father was the one who killed the king, or that he didn’t tell her about his plans. She’s not happy because her father is leaving, slinking off into retirement and now she has to clean up his mess.

Alana is a servant at the palace and the unfortunate soul to draw the short straw to attend to Jyuth. Alana knows that intelligence and curiosity aren’t valued in someone of her station. But sometimes she can’t help herself. And so. she finds herself drawn into the wizard’s schemes, and worst of all, coming up with her own plans.

Chance brings this unlikely band together to battle through civil unrest, assassinations, political machinations, pirates and monsters, all for a common cause that they know, deep down, has no chance of succeeding – bringing hope to the people of Kingshold.” – Goodreads blurb

Let me add a few more details not mentioned in the blurb above. All this is basically laid out in the first chapter or two so these are very minor spoilers. Jyuth (ancient wizard who founded Kingshold) has killed the king and queen. He apparently does this every so many generations when the monarchs get to screwing up really, really, bad. Each time he selects a new monarch and begins a new dynasty. This time he’s had enough and has decided maybe he doesn’t make the best choices, or maybe it’s inevitable that monarchies go bad after the first few generations. Either way he’s now decided to institute a republic with a new Lord Protector elected from the populace. Anyone may stand for election, but to vote you have to put up 1000 gold crowns held on deposit by Jyuth until after the election. What follows is the story of how this city and nation rise up to choose their leader and fend off pressures from abroad.

I really only had two issues with Kingshold and I’m gonna talk about them first to get them out of the way.

Early Pacing

I thoroughly enjoyed Kingshold but I have to admit it was hard to get into at first. I’m not sure exactly what it was, but the start of the book was a little slow, which seems like an odd thing to say since the opening chapter deals with the death of the city’s ruling king and queen. But yeah it took a little while to really get going. I say this in case you’re a reader who sets a book down if it doesn’t grab you quick. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it often is a good indicator the rest of a book may be no different. Kingshold on the other hand does pick up the pace and once it does things really get interesting.

Modern Anachronisms 

The second thing that bugged me a little in Kingshold was the use of some modern anachronisms, specifically words or turns of phrase that just seemed out of place. The first time I noticed it was on page 3 with the use of “stogy” for a cigar or other item to smoke. Another was the use of “style points” to describe someone’s attempt to get away from a charging juggernaut, likening it to a dance. These are just two examples, and while the book isn’t filled with anachronisms like these they would pop up here and there and it kind of made me skip a beat.

Now, I know there’s an argument to be had that this is fantasy and you can do whatever you like with it (for the most part), and that characters in fantasy settings probably wouldn’t use half the phrases we do because they’d have their own that match what would be their unique languages, and really the idea is that what we’re reading should be thought of as more of a translation from their language to ours so the author uses our phrases to convey meaning…yeah I get that. At the same time there really are times when using what feels like a modern phrase just seems out of place. Again, the book isn’t filled with them, but they did make me pause a bit when reading.

So what did I like? Well…

The Overall Plot

I mean this one seems like a no-brainer, if you like a book you probably liked the plot. What I really liked about it was the idea of overthrowing a monarchy and replacing it with a republic…and all the turmoil that would inevitably ensue. I’m sure other authors have tackled this topic in fantasy but I haven’t read them. This was new and fresh for me and a welcome change to the usual “the king is dead, long live the king” manner of succession.

Woolliscroft doesn’t make the transition happen easily. I mean otherwise we wouldn’t have a story. There’s the expected political maneuvering – this is very much a political fantasy – characters immediately put their name in the hat to run for Lord Protector and begin the dirty work of attracting followers and votes. Those running for office not only have to fight for support and votes, they have to survive street brawls and assassination attempts and all the civil discord expected when the old guard is brought down and others want to step in to fill the void. Soon it isn’t just the elites, those who are accustomed to the title “Lord” who believe they should hold power. Before long the people begin to wonder what it might be like to wrest that power for themselves, with one of their own as their representative. Well then things really do begin to get interesting.

All of the political infighting in the city of Kingshold occurs within a larger though less explored narrative of the wider world. Woolliscroft gives us just enough information about the other kingdoms and empires that inhabit the world to whet our appetites for the larger story sure to come in later books. By the end some of those other realms begin to play a part in the story of Kingshold in pleasant and surprising ways. Oh…and did I mention pirates!?! Yeah…there are pirates! And one big scene devoted to them was one of my favorites in the book…a city wide pirate…with a…well…I don’t want to give anything more away.

But mostly this story plays out in the city of Kingshold and it revolves around the coming election and the efforts some will go to in order to be elected. Like I said, political maneuvering, street brawls, assassinations; the good stuff. This where we get to the second thing I liked about Kingshold…

Characters

There’s a range of great characters in this story. At first they seem a little hard to keep up with but there’s a glossary in the back to help you keep track. And really there’s only a few we follow as the story is told from their POV. Inevitably you’ll like one more than another. My favorite was Mareth, the bard. He probably has the most developed story arc and character growth. Truth be told at first he isn’t very likable. Or at least you could say you could be disinterested in him. He’s a down on his luck bard, drunk more often than not, past his prime, and living what little he can on past glories. As the story progresses his character starts to bloom into something more, but he keeps some of that rough edge he had to begin with.

Neenahwi is the mage Jyuth’s daughter. Well, adopted daughter but daughter no less. She is a mage herself though not nearly as powerful as her father. She is forced to step-up now that her father has announced he’s going into a form of retirement. She’s angry about it and makes her feelings known. But she doesn’t let that stop her from trying to help in the turmoil that’s coming to Kingshold. 

Alana is a young girl who has landed a job in the palace and whether by good luck or ill is tasked as Jyuth’s servant. She’s smart, courageous, and wise beyond her years. What’s more she has a bit of pluck, all of which helps her as she soon finds herself in the midst of palace intrigue and political campaigning.

Though we get occasional glimpses of story line from other perspectives it is these three who drive most of the plot and their POV we see the narrative through. They kind of form a triumvirate of views, one from the nobility, one from the peasants, and one who sort of bridges the space between the two. That’s not an exact representation but it’s close in terms of where the characters are at in their lives.

World Building

You might think there isn’t much in the way of world building in this novel since it’s set mostly just within the city of Kingshold, but you’d be wrong. As I mentioned above, Woolliscroft does explore the larger world. There are the mountain dwarves just outside of the city, and Kingshold’s rival empire Pyrfew. These two get the majority of the additional page time not devoted to Kingshold itself, and both play a significant role in the story even if not seen at first. Both nations complicate matters for those in Kingshold and throw uncertainty into the mix of the political chaos of the election.

But where the book shines in its world building is the exploration of Kingshold itself. We get to explore the city from top to bottom, from palace to slums, and each ward in between. We encounter characters from different wards and districts each of whom has had their life shaped by the place they live. The various districts of the city introduce us to the nobility, the guilds, and the common people. It is in the way they interact (or don’t interact) that provides part of the overriding tension in the outcome of the election, who will stand for office and who will vote.

The various guilds in Kingshold provide nice bit of depth to the story and to the world that is the city. And it’s one of these guilds that is my next favorite part of the book…

The Hollow Syndicate

The Hollow Syndicate is a guild like no other for it is a group of murderers for hire…an assassins guild! I loved every time this group found a spot on the page. A semi-official or perhaps unofficial group that maintains the power and respect due to any legitimate guild organization. If someone takes out a contract with the Hollow Syndicate it’s considered a legal transaction. You want to murder someone and get away with it…hire the Hollow Syndicate. Any suspicious death could be due to their actions and when candidates for Lord Protector begin to die you can be sure The Hollow Syndicate is suspected. They are led by Lady Chalice (love that name btw), a female assassin nobody, not even the ruling nobility wants to cross. The Syndicate is always lurking in the background, acting in secret most of the time and then leaping onto the page in a flash to vanish into the background again. I wanted more of this guild and hope they appear in future books.

Conclusion

It did take me a bit to get into this novel but once I did I was hooked. With a fresh take on regime change in fantasy, characters to admire, a city brimming with districts to explore, and action enough to keep you turning the page for more, Kingshold won’t disappoint. I’m looking forward to more from Woolliscroft in this series, and I’m in luck because book 1.5 Tales of Kingshold is already out, offering a mix of novelettes and short stories adding depth to the characters and events just introduced. I expect more great things from Woolliscroft in the coming years.

4 – 4.5 of 5 Stars*

*I had a hard time choosing so maybe we go with 4.25

Author: D. P. Woolliscroft
Series: The Wildfire Cycle #1
Publisher: Self Published
Publication Date:  April 2018
Format: Paperback
Pages: 506

Review Redo: The Half Killed

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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!

Today’s installment is The Half Killed by Quenby Olson. I first saw this book in my Twitter feed and fell in love with the cover. Then the author held a giveaway of a physical copy of the book. I entered and won! It turned out to be one of my absolute favorite self-published books. Continue reading