Spellslinger – Real Magic

spellslinger_frontalSeries transitions can be rough. This year Sebastien de Castell stuck the landing as he wrapped up his astounding Greatcoats quartet and sealed it as one of my favorite series. Simultaneously he has launched the first book in his second series, Spellslinger. It is always interesting to see the direction that authors go post-series completion. Some authors love to stick with that they know and make spin offs (which there is nothing wrong with). Others like to try something new and start from a blank slate. Spellslinger falls into the second category and I was curious to see if de Castell could recreate the magic of Traitor’s Blade or if it would fall flat. I am impressed to say that Sebastian did neither of those things; instead creating something with a different voice than his other work but just as wonderful.

The concept behind Spellslinger is one of my favorite in recent memory: a boy who is failing at being a mage instead becomes a magician. Our lead, Kellen, is a young mage who is currently trying to pass his mage trials to become a Jan’Tep. He has until his sixteenth birthday to complete a series of texts to be recognized as one of his tribe’s magic wielding upper class. If he fails to pass these texts before his rapidly approaching bday he will instead be relegated to the almost slavelike underclass of his tribe who are forced into servitude of the Jan’Tep. Kellen’s magic is pretty terrible, but he has a sharp wit and keen mind and supplements his weak spells with the skills of a traditional real world stage magician (sleight of hand, illusions, misdirection etc.). Using all these skills and his keen mind he might just be able to escape being forced into a life of servitude.

Spellslinger is a young adult book, but I think that the only place it is noticeable is the subject matter it focuses on: a young boy trying to pass tests and find his place in the world. Sebastien treats his readers as adults and I think this book will be loved by people of every age. As I mentioned before, when I went into Spellslinger I expected a similar narrative structure to The Greatcoats: funny and charismatic characters that run around solving all the world’s problems with their upstanding morals – but with magic this time. Instead Kellen is a more subdued character than de Castell’s others, but that is likely because he grows and changes as a person as the book progresses in a wonderful way. The book is still funny, fun, and an adventure to read, but Spellslinger places more emphasis on worldbuilding and the protagonist’s personal story than The Greatcoats did.

Speaking of which, the worldbuilding is incredible. Spellslinger is not a very long book but Sebastien establishes a deep and enrapturing world in an impressively short amount of time. In addition, the cast of characters in the book is great. The cast feels fresh and new, both from his other series and the genre as a whole. There is a sub-theme running through the book surrounding turning fantasy tropes on their head, and I love it. One example is that instead of getting a magical animal familiar like his fellow mages, Kellen gets a business partner. It adds absurdity and humor that I love to the story, and makes it one of the most memorable I have read in years. There are so many books out there about the ‘Chosen One’ rising up to save the world, that Kellen (who reads like budget Harry Potter, and I mean that with the highest level of praise, I promise) really stands out and instantly found a place in my heart. On top of all of this, the plot of the book is fantastic and had me on the edge of my seat from page one, and I read it in a single sitting. Much like the late and wonderful Terry Pratchett, de Castell is a masterful author who weaves deep and poetic ideas and points into his humor and this trend continues in this novel. His comments on family and friends hit hard for me and the book managed to make me both laugh out loud and cry within a few pages.

de Castell is one of the best authors of our generation and it is wonderful to see that his enormous talent is not restrained to a single series. Spellslinger is a tremendous success in its own right that I encourage you to pick up as soon as possible, but it also shows that de Castell will be an author I follow for the rest of his career. I ecstatically recommend Spellslinger to everyone and I eagerly await the sequel, Shadowblack, later this year,

Rating: Spellslinger – 9.5/10

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Kings Of The Wyld – An Interview With Nicholas Eames

30841984If you haven’t gotten your hands on Kings of the Wyld yet, by Nick Eames, then you are missing out (review here). It is definitely going to be one of my top books of 2017 and every other reviewer and blogger I know is talking about how much they love it. On top of Kings being an amazing book, Nick is a great guy who kindly agreed to answer a slew of interview questions we sent him. Some of the questions and responses are mildly spoilery – so I would skip this and come back if you have not read the book yet (which you should, immediately. Seriously go read it). The questions and responses are below!

Compared with those belonging to Clay Cooper, how does your arsenal of shrugs measure up?

Not even close! Clay tends to underestimate his own intelligence, and so relies on shrugs to avoid saying something foolish. I, on the other hand, sound foolish all the time.

The Rot is a major part of the world, and character development in your story. Are you drawing from personal experience or was it more of a thought experiment for you?

The latter, for sure. The Rot—and the arbitrary menace it represents to the mercenaries of Grandual—is vaguely representative of the STD’s (including HIV) that afflicted many ‘Golden Era’ rock stars. It’s not something you are guaranteed to get when you venture into the Heartwyld, but it’s always a risk.

It actually played a lesser role in the original draft of KINGS. Thankfully, I was asked to flesh out the story a bit during revisions. The result was a few very poignant scenes that it’s hard to imagine the book without.

Can dragons swim?

Great question! The answer is yes—about as well as dogs can swim. They cannot, however, breath underwater…

How many band names were inspired by real bands?

Most of them were inspired by songs, since using direct band names (outside of a few exceptions like Neil the ‘Young’) is a little on the nose. Some cool (in my opinion) examples are the Wheat Kings (A Tragically Hip song) and Courtney and the Sparks (named for the Joni Mitchell album The Court and the Spark).

A lot of people think Saga is a reference to the Canadian band of the same name. In fact, it was the name of a sword that belonged to the main character in an unpublished book I worked on for almost a decade. Saga is an homage to that.

Were there any monsters you wanted to include but didn’t? If so can you give us a peek?

Ha! I think I got them all. I can tell you, however, that a major plot point in book two revolved around fighting a dragon. But then I thought: “Nope. The dragon’s been done.” So it’s going to be something quite different—but just as deadly.

You admirably managed the difficult combination of emotional and comedic throughout the book. How did you manage to have such a humorous book still resonate so strongly?

Firstly, thanks for saying so. I think two things contributed to this. One is that I’m a hopeless sap, so even though I tried to make the book humorous and lighthearted the whole way through, I can’t help but try and add poignancy here and there. It’s in my nature—and I think life can be funny and sad and scary all at once, so I’d hoped this book would reflect that.

Ultimately, I owe a great deal to my agent and editor, who suggested which scenes were perhaps so ridiculous that they undermined the more serious aspects of the book. To their credit, they let me keep a few of them anyway (Moog tripping over his robe on the hillside, Moog throwing honeyed hams at his enemies, etc). Alas, because of them you’ll never see Moog eating a urine-soaked carrot from a vegan cannibal’s vegetable garden. It’s all about balance…

Who is your favorite band member?

Clay, for sure. Moog is a very close second. But honestly, I love each of them so much.

Will we ever visit Clay’s inn in future books?

*nods enthusiastically* I’m not at liberty to say, sorry. Another great question, by the way. I really appreciate the interest in the lives of these characters beyond the book.

Did you write Kings simply in order to make a really bad portal reference?

You mean a REALLY AWESOME portal reference? That joke just materialized out of nowhere as I was writing the scene and I am so very grateful it did. I know some of these references take readers out of the book—but a lot of things (waiters, stop lights, falling asleep) take you out of a book. It was important to me that fellow gamers could read this book and think, “This Nick Eames guy…he’s one of us.”

I stayed up unreasonably late on a work night in order to finish the last 30% of your book. What’s the most ill-advised thing you’ve done due to the fact you couldn’t put a book down?

That’s amazing to hear! Thank you for saying so. And an easy question to answer! I was working in a restaurant while reading THE VIRTUES OF WAR by Steven Pressfield, and was starting my shift just as Alexander the Great was pulling off his brilliant ruse at Guagemela. Instead of putting the book away, however, I STOOD THERE READING IT in the middle of the restaurant—which was, in my defense, mostly empty! Boy, did I ever get in in trouble. Totally worth it.

So it seems Clay has a lot of difficulty keeping his weapons for more than a chapter or two. Was this a commentary on an aspect of his character (a rough man who deep down doesn’t really want to fight, and just wants to protect) or was this more of a running gag a la Jain and her band of oddly dressed thieves?

The former. Clay’s whole deal is protecting people, although he does hurt a lot of people with that shield, come to think of it. It was definitely a risk writing a huge final battle in which the protagonist can’t actually use a weapon, but I think it works wonderfully, since you get to see each member of the band—Clay included—do that they do best.

If Saga came out with an album, what do you think the album art would be?

Probably the cover of the book. The artist (Richard Anderson, who is amazing) was given the mandate of making it look like one of those old album photographs where the band is standing around looking as if they didn’t stage the shot at all, and I think he nailed it.

That, or just Blackheart’s scarred and weathered face. That might be cool, too.

Sticking with the band analogy that was ever-so-subtly peppered throughout the book, if Gabe is the frontman/lead singer, what instruments would the rest of the bandmates play?

Subtly? Were we reading the same book!? I kid, I kid! Again: awesome question! It goes like this: Gabriel on vocals/guitar, Ganelon on lead guitar, Clay (the forgettable one) on bass, Matrick on drums, and Moog on keyboards/triangle/cow bell.

Scenes involving certain characters were often influenced by the instrument they represent. While writing Matrick’s fight against Larkspur’s thralls, I listened to Led Zeppelin’s Moby Dick (essentially a 20+ minute drum solo) on repeat. The same goes for Ganelon. There is a very specific live version of the Stairway to Heaven guitar solo that I’ve probably listened to a thousand times and had in mind whenever Ganelon was destroying people.

Kings of the Wyld has an interesting structure as a series. I noticed that the sequel no longer follows the cast from the first book, but their children instead. Was it hard writing a book knowing you would have to say goodbye to the original cast at the end? Do you wish you had more time with them?

Not really. In fact, some people interested in publishing it asked that all three books feature Clay and his bandmates, so I was glad when Orbit didn’t insist on it. The truth is, KINGS OF THE WYLD is about that ‘one last, great adventure’, and to drag it out would seem disingenuous to both the characters and the story I was trying to tell.

A few characters from the first book will show up in the second (and also the third) but in a setting where mercenaries are representative of rock bands…Well, sticking to one band would kind of be like listening to, say, Black Sabbath all the time. In book two, it’s time to meet Guns’n’Roses…

Are there any other music genres you would want to make a fantasy novel around? Country? Smooth Jazz? EDM? Would you consider adding in bands from other music tropes into the current world?

As insinuated above, the second book explores a world where new bands wander into the house after old band kicked the door in. Whereas my writing soundtrack to book one consisted largely of 60’s folk and 70’s rock, book two draws influence from 80’s punk, rock, and pop. So goodbye Floyd, Zeppelin, and Dylan (I’ll miss you, truly) and hello Queen, Van Halen, and Pat Benatar!

Any notable pet peeves? Overstuffed napkin holders? Dogs that act like cats? Smart cars?

Commercials that market cleaning supplies to women and BBQ’s to men. Fuck that noise!

Do you read fantasy yourself? Do you have favorite books or authors you recommend? Was there any other book that inspired you to write Kings of the Wyld?

I read all the time, almost every day. My favourite author—hands down—is Guy Gavriel Kay, and I would start with TIGANA or THE LIONS OF AL-RASSAN if you haven’t read him before. His books are slow burns, but impossibly beautiful, and I’ve never, ever read anyone near as good. Also Scott Lynch, Pat Rothfuss, and Joe Abercrombie—in case you’ve been trapped under a rock and haven’t read everything by each of them yet. Also Lila Bowen’s WAKE OF VULTURES and Seth Dickenson’s THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT are recent favourites.

As for what book inspired me to write mine? READY PLAYER ONE, by Ernest Cline. It was a face-paced, shameless love letter to everything the author loves. So, too, is KINGS OF THE WYLD.

Thanks for the questions!

 

Well I know I am pumped as all hell for book two, Bloody Rose. Thank you Nick for taking the time to talk with us, and for making such a fantastic debut novel.

Tyrant’s Throne – Goodbye For Now

30317594As I have gotten older I have noticed a change in my reaction to the conclusion of series I love. When I was younger, I would buy final books the moment I could and then power through them immediately, dying to know what happened next. Now, I look at them nervously with a little sadness as I think about how I won’t be getting any more. I usually sit on the book for awhile, savoring the coming end and thinking about all the good times with the series I have had. This was particularly true with Tyrant’s Throne, by Sebastien de Castell, the last of The Greatcoats series. If you have read any of my past posts you will know I absolutely adore this series, and I was terrified to start the finale. On the other hand, once I opened the first page of the book the worries washed away from me as I leaped into the wonderful mind of Falcio val Mond once more.

When we last left our heroes, they had just survived death by the narrowest of margins in a conflict that left their country in shambles. Once again they find themselves the janitors to the world biggest mess, but their country has been broken so many times at this point that the pieces are starting to look unrecognizable. After three internal conflicts, Tristia is now facing its first external conflict: Avares. Their barbarian neighbors to the northwest have raided Tristia for centuries, but an unknown force has united the country under one banner to invade Tristia once and for all in its moment of weakness. While Falcio tries to put Aline on the throne, they must bring together a group of individuals who hate one another to keep Tristia from being wiped off the map.

One of my favorite books of all time is Legend, by David Gemmell, and de Castell seems to have taken a page right out of his magnificent book. An age old threat, coming together to become an unstoppable force that must meet the immovable object of our protagonists. Once again de Castell has raised the stakes of his series with a fantastic new villain, and he has pulled together the threads of his past four books to create a very memorable conclusion. Tyrant’s Throne has everything you love about the previous books; heartbreaking moments, laugh out loud humor, a lovable/hateable cast of characters, a fascinating world, and a fantastic author’s voice. However, Tyrant’s Throne also brings its own voice to the chorus that is the series and presents us with a new and terrible theme: the corruption of Falcio. It was a direction that I did not expect Sebastian to take – and it left a horrible oily slick feeling on my brain while I was reading it (In a good way?). Falcio is so very close to achieving the goal that he has spent his life reaching towards, putting the daughter of his king on the throne. As he gets closer, he finds that he might be willing to break the ideals that he espouses in order to end the conflict once and for all. The exploration of Falcio and his adherance to his own rules was masterfully done, despite the sickening feeling it gave me. De Castell did an incredible job of devising scenarios where there just was no way to win and left you (and Falcio) to wonder what was the best way forward.

As I mentioned before, the final villain is fantastic. It was a perfect antagonist to conclude the series, and it felt like an excellent final foe for our trio. The book has a number of heartfelt moments that hit me hard, and while the book favored less humor than its predecessors due to a more somber tone; the book still had me in stitches repeatedly. De Castell still impresses me with his ability to work profound ideas into such funny characters, and I always love how deep these books can be while also remaining a fun swashbuckling romp. There was very little not to love with Tyrant’s Throne, but I do feel that the final battle was a little less climactic that his previous novels. The series finale sees a shift in focus from our trio of leads to the greater cast as a whole, and while I thought it was masterfully done I liked the tight focus on Falcio more.

That being said, my complaints with Tyrant’s Throne are a small footnote on an essay of why I loved it. The thing that impressed me most was the ending of the full series. De Castell manages to close out his story in a beautiful and magical way that also leaves the door wide open for him to pick the story up at a later date. He manages to do the rare thing of giving our cast full closure on this part of their lives, while also looking to the horizon and paving the way for a return of our greatcoats in the future. Sebastien continues to build his world and reveal new secrets about how it works, right up until the last page. While our trio might be done, the future looks exciting and interesting for our cast – and I would love to come back and see them soon.

So Greatcoats, it has been an incredible journey – and I thank you for allowing me to accompany Falcio on it. While this is certainly an end for the story of our greatcoats, I hope it is not THE end. So I will say goodbye for now and I hope to see your shining hearts again soon. As the door closes on one of my all time favorite series, I will be turning to de Castell’s new book Spellslinger to keep me company. For all of you who have not picked up The Traitor’s Blade yet, well have I got a recommendation for you…

Rating:

Tyrant’s Throne – 9.0/10
The Greatcoats – 9.5/10

Kings Of The Wyld – You Get What You Need

30841984This year has been absolutely packed with fantastic sequels, and new series from authors I love. However, in the midst of all the literary titans releasing their work it is important to not overlook the new players entering the game. Every year I have a couple of dark horses on my release tracker that are new books from debut authors that have drawn my attention based on their description. This year one such book is The Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames. The premise of the book immediately hooked me: in a world where fantasy adventuring parties function like modern day rock bands, a famous band must do a reunion tour to save the leader’s daughter. The only problem is that the members are all old tired men, and they haven’t spoken to each other in a long time. As far as premises go, this is the most intriguing I have seen in awhile, but does it live up to its potential or fall flat?

For me the main draw of this book was the characters. For starters, a large part of the cast is made up of old men and women, something that I wish more authors would do. The band is made up of five characters, each of whom are deeply fleshed out and wonderful to read about. The first half of the book is about getting the band back together. It consists of the group slowly traveling to new locations, fleshing out the world, and re-recruiting the band. The mini-arcs do a great job bringing each band member to life and endearing them to you. All of them are old-timers with a lot of regrets, each not having quite gotten what they wanted out of life. The support cast is also just as good with several recurring characters I was always excited to see show up. The cast is so diverse and imaginative that I can’t picture a reader picking up Kings of the Wyld and not finding someone that they identify with.

On top of all of this the world and plot are nothing to scoff at. As I mentioned earlier the plot is about the band reuniting to save the daughter of their frontman, Gabe. However, the band did not leave on the best of terms (particularly Gabe) and they have a lot of issues to work through. While they work out their personal problems, the group must also deal with the fact that Gabe’s daughter is trapped on the other side of a siege by a huge army; An army that is comprised of classic fantasy monsters and myths. See, in Kings of the Wyld creatures and humans do not get along, competing for space and resources. To deal with this conflict, bands go out and make a name for themselves killing monsters and defending humans. The monsters have been losing ground for ages and have tired of the arrangement, forming a horde to sweep over humanity. While the horde continues to rout opposition, human nations cannot get past their differences and grievances to organize a response. This backdrop, combined with the personal struggles of our band, make for a read that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

The book is a lot of fun. It has an emphasis on humor that makes it a great and upbeat read, while also taking itself pretty seriously so that it has a lot of immersion. The band theme worked out a lot better than I thought it would with various members of the party filling out roles in a traditional band from bass player to booking agent. The world was also designed very well to the point where the existence of bands of adventurers felt natural. The book also has a soundscape that Eames put up on his site that I am a huge fan of. I have to say I have always felt lukewarm about Led Zeppelin, but thanks to the soundscape I have had them on repeat for a month. As I mentioned, the book is very funny and feels like it was written with the goal of entertaining. Despite this, I found the book to be surprisingly impactful in many instances. There is a particular scene in which two lifelong friends find out that one has been hiding essentially that he has cancer from the other, and the reactions and writing broke my heart. Eames feels like he is trying to put a smile on your face, but never goes for the cheap laugh and never sacrifices the story for the sake of humor.

No review is complete without me assessing a book’s flaws, but Kings of the Wyld does not have many. My main complaint would likely be that the book felt a little less tight and polished towards the end. While the narrative during the first half of the story felt focused and smooth, I thought that the last quarter of the book felt a little hectic and didn’t quite have the level of emotional impact that the first three quarters did. That being said, the ending is still fantastic and I am just complaining about some loose stitching on an otherwise beautiful narrative tapestry.

I am excited to announce that we have a new player on the fantasy scene with a lot of potential. The best debut I have read in awhile, Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld has everything I love in the fantasy genre with some original twists and angles. Thanks to this book I can’t stop listening to classic rock and I am counting the days until we get a sequel. The Quill to Live estatically recommends Kings of the Wyld, it will put music in your heart.

Rating: Kings of the Wyld – 9.0/10

Fool’s Gold – A Few Too Many Quirks

27415414I have said it once, and I will say it again, I will give a positive review to any book that can get me to regularly laugh. It is impossible to not enjoy yourself if you are cracking up while you read, which is why humor fantasy has a special place in my heart. Which is why when I saw Fool’s Gold, by Jon Hollins, advertised as a hilarious heist story along the lines of The Hobbit meets Guardians of the Galaxy, I purchased it immediately and entered it into our book club. The question of humor books are always threefold: Is it actually funny? Is the book well written and interesting enough to stand without its humor? If no, is the humor good enough to forgive it it’s mistakes? Join me as I break down this new fantasy comedy and whether it lived up to its hype.

Is it actually funny? Short answer, yes it is. Fool’s Gold tells the story of a group of five individuals down on their luck in a land oppressed by dragons. They all end up in a moonlit cave together by chance, and formulate a plan to rob some of the dragon overlords in this corner of the country. It goes poorly, in a hilarious manner. The humor in the book had me in stitches often. While the plot follows three increasingly difficult heists, the soul of the book is in its cast of five thieves. First we have Will, a farmer who had his life taken from him by a dragon’s taxes and who dreams of revenge. Next there is the mercenary duo, Lette and Balur. Lette is a merc with a heart of gold searching for a better way to live and one last score. Balur is a hunk of muscle looking for a good time and to prove he is man enough to kill a dragon. Then there is Firkin, a crazed older alcoholic looking for his next drink after he had his life ruined by the dragons. Finally there is Quick, a scholar, and the straight man of the group acting as the conscious of the team. Each of them is funny in their own way, but the majority of the heavy lifting for me fell to Lette and Balur. They were consistently funny and any section surrounding them proved to be a great time for me. Will’s sections were usually great, but very occasionally had parts that fell flat. Firkin was rarely funny, but I also rarely had a problem with him and he ended up feeling very neutral as a character. I wanted Quirk to fall into a damn lava pit and die as soon as convenient, but we will come back to this.

Is the book well written and interesting enough to stand without its humor? Definitely. Despite my problems with Quirk, the character writing was generally decent and the worldbuilding was incredible. Fool’s Gold only takes place in a small corner of Hollin’s world, but that corner is absolutely brimming with life and culture. The dragons themselves were very interesting, and I really liked the short vignettes into their minds. The book is filled with pop culture references (such as the chapter titles like “We need a bigger boat”) and satire about the fantasy genre which I found fun. The heists themselves are exciting and amusing, and though I thought the grand finale could have been a little more grand (it was a slight bit obvious what was happening, making the reveal so-so), I was definitely satisfied with the plot and wanted more. The big issue I had with the book was with one of the five leads, Quirk.

Is the humor good enough to forgive it it’s mistakes? Other than being a tad repetitive, the major issue for me with Fool’s Gold is that Quirk is an unenjoyable character to read about. Quirk is a mage with a sordid past who tried to remake herself into a scholar who studies dragons. She acts as the straight man to the group, trying to steer them towards the greater good and ridiculing them when they act selfishly. The major issue with this is Quirk has massive self-control issues, and then is very self righteous about how great she is – which none of the characters give her a hard time for. It makes her an unpleasant and condescending POV to be around and it sometimes sucks the fun out of the book. I sense she was written this way to be satirical, but I think she falls short of her role and ends up simply being unenjoyable.

However, despite my complaints I definitely think Fool’s Gold is a good book and a blast to read. With some small adjustments to the pacing, plot, and character identities it could go from good to great and I am excited to read the sequel, False Idols, sometime this year. It is has some minor issues, but the world is exciting and the humor is on point. If you are looking for some good laughs and a fun heist, pick up Fool’s Gold and give it a spin.

Rating: Fool’s Gold – 8.0/10