The Heart of Stone by Ben Galley

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The Heart of Stone is Galley’s eighth novel, and is my introduction to his writing. Task, a four hundred year old stone golem, has been killing on the field of battle for centuries. It was what he was built to do, and he does it well. But he is also an intelligent and empathetic being, and the years of war have chiseled away at him, eroding his humanity.

Task’s personal story is one of redemption, but the overarching theme of the book is about free will. Task must learn to break his magic bonds and do what is right. Lesky must learn to break the bonds of fear and rank and follow her own path. And the armies and generals must learn that, sometimes, you might just be the bad guy without knowing it and you have to choose not to obey your own orders.

This is also a book about faith. Not religious or spiritual faith, but a deeper, more personal faith in ones self and in those around you. Task must learn to trust people – people he has been systematically programmed to kill – and the people around him must learn to trust him – despite their fear of what he could do. Lesky and Task both have to rely on their instincts and rely on their hearts to make the hard, but correct choices – they must have faith, that when all around them say they are wrong, that they are right.

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When he isn’t writing award winning Dark Fantasy novels, Ben also runs a highly successful self publishing consultancy.

It was the protagonists that made this book work for me. I loved Task’s little rebellious moments where he was able to push his boundaries and display some resentment. I genuinely rooted for the character. Despite being a Dark Fantasy novel, and one set in the midst of a raging war, the highlights for me were the more subdued moments. Those were where Galley shined the brightest. The moments when Task made friends in the camp, joining in their card games, or his developing friendship with Lesky, a girl who tends the stables. In fact, if anything, the book would have been better if it had focused almost solely on Task and the girl – their relationship was the best part of the novel.

One area that the book could have used more work on, I felt, was setting up the overarching conflict of the book. The antagonists fell flat, especially with the Countess. Her motivation wasn’t clear which I found distracting the first few times she was talking to the ‘enemy’, unsure of how she got there. The first time she killed someone, it was so out of the blue, and ritualistic, that I was seriously confused. Not shocked or surprised, but just confused. The military general, a typical Bully-in-charge type character, didn’t feel enough of a real threat to me, and in fact, the main villain of the story wasn’t particularly clear until much later in the novel. Instead of being a sudden reveal, it felt more like a random change in direction. If there had been foreshadowing leading up to this reveal it may have had more impact and even amplified the tone of the world.

Speaking of world… though he has a well crafted fantasy world, he missed opportunities to let us, the reader, share this knowledge. Fantasy animal names were used without once describing them, and I found this both frustrating and distracting. It took me out of the moment when I had to stop and decipher from the context what sort of creature was being mentioned. And it wasn’t just the animal names I found distracting. Nomenclature, in general, does not seem to be Galley’s strongest asset. The names of characters and places felt a little too quickly put together, and though some of these names do get an explanation, it isn’t until towards the end of the book.

But these issues are minor details. The most important aspects of any book are the protagonists and the writing itself. With the main character being a literal stone war machine, I was impressed that Galley was able to avoid turning the book into a splatterpunk farce – though the gore was visceral and dripping, it was used sparingly and spread throughout the book… just like Task’s victims. The rationed violence, and the fact that Task was a complicated and reluctant destroyer, gave weight and depth to the fight scenes that many novels lack.

Despite having flaws, they were not significantly detrimental to the story or to my enjoyment of it. Ben Galley created complex characters that faced real problems, inside and out, and the dialogue was well-written. I was carried along with Task, right to the end of his journey, and I enjoyed the trip. A very good book, and an excellent addition to any Dark Fantasy lover’s bookshelf.

You can purchase The Heart of Stone on March 30th 2017, or you can pre-order it now. For more information visit Ben’s website.

The Sovereign Hand by Paul Gilbert

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An epic adventure of High Fantasy and High Stakes; deserves a place next to Pratchett or Goodkind.

Set amidst a backdrop of steam and coal smoke, high magic and complicated politics; the bustling metropolis of Thorn faces an impending evil and only a group of five heroes, summoned by fate, can stop the cataclysm. The sovereign hand is a masterful work of depth and breadth. Paul Gilbert has created a deep backstory and a rich world, often seen lacking in most fiction, that is on par with Game of Thrones or Sword of Truth. Various races and species co-exist in a noisy city rife with politics and crime and culture, and it is from these crowded streets that our five heroes are chosen by fate to become The Sovereign Hand; a select group of individuals trained to fight against evil.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book filled with many classic D&D or Pratchettesque tropes; goblins, kobolds, lizard-men, minotaurs, wizards, priests and thieves. Some of these elements are severely under-used, and other’s feel out of place and forced; the book starts with the integration of the Taurean peoples and the end of conflict, and this idea is followed for many chapters before being completely abandoned. It has little-to-no bearing on the plot and is more of a distraction than a neccessary part of the book; in fact the first half of the book (particularly the first quarter) is so heavy on uneccessary world-building and exposition that it was difficult to become emotionally connected to the world or the characters; I had no clue what was going on or who the story was talking about. The language was overdone in the first half as well – obscure allusions and similes that don’t work and just leave the reader confused and distracted. The raw talent of Gilbert is buried and drowned beneath the verbose excess; this is one of the most over-written books I have ever read.

However, once into the second half of the book things began to pick up. Suddenly there was a clear plot; I knew who characters were, they had clear goals and even, eventually, an antagonist. By this point, however, I had had little investment into the characters, so motivations were vague and confusing and important elements of the book seemed to spontaneously erupt onto the pages, leaving me lost and confused. The climax was excellent – though there were unanswered questions and unfinished plot-points which left the ending of the book feeling flat and unsatisfying, with an unfinished feel.

This is Paul Gilbert’s first book and shows incredible potential to be a top-shelf competitor in major bookstores in the future. Hopefully the next book will be more tightly written and won’t meander as aimlessly as The Sovereign Hand often did, leaving the reader feeling lost and wondering if the author knew where his book was going. 7 / 10 stars.

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White Dwarf Magazine

gw-60249999302White Dwarf was first published in 1977  and, edited by Ian Livingstone, specialised mainly in Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games. Eventually, when Games Workshop began producing their own miniatures, the magazine branched off from D&D to be it’s own separate brand, dedicated to Games Workshop products.

Almost 40 years later and the magazine is more popular than ever, and is a major source of inspiration for artists, writers, gamers and model makers worldwide. Each issue of the magazine serves to market the latest Games Workshop products, mainly: Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Warhammer 40,000, Lord of The Rings, Necromunda and The Black Library. The Black Library is the stand-out division as it produces novels, audio-books, graphic novels and comics, all centred within the Warhammer Games Universe with under 700 different novels and anthologies so far.

White Dwarf magazine also has game reports written up into a fictional account of battle, short stories to expand on backstory for product lines, and incredible artwork – often there are detailed sketches and concept art or full colour paintings. White Dwarf is a fantastic source of inspiration for anyone interested in Science Fiction or Fantasy.

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Raven, Swordmistress Of Chaos by Richard Kirk

tumblr_nf54wuwoos1snghrzo1_500Interestingly, Richard Kirk was actually a pseudonym for two writers – Angus Wells and Robert Holdstock. Both these writers have an impressive bibliography; Wells having a rich background in fantasy and westerns, and Holdstock with an even more impressive background in Celtic, Nordic and mythic fiction. It is not known which elements of the book either contributed to, and not being familiar with either of these writers their styles are indistinct while writing as Richard Kirk.

Raven is a classic Barbarian/Dark Fantasy novel in the same vein as Druss The Legend, Conan (or more on a more aesthetic level,) Red Sonja. The book starts with our other main protagonist – Spellbinder – who finds Raven fleeing a life of rape and torture as a slave, hunted by slavehounds across a barren wasteland. A giant black raven intervenes and fends off the slavehounds, and Spellbinder takes this a sign that she is of immense importance.

He trains her and then takes her on a pilgrimage to an ancient artefact believed to be a fallen God. It is here she hears her destiny spoken to her from the artefact, and it promises her vengeance against her raper if she quests for an artefact of great magical and spiritual importance. She accepts this destiny and Spellbinder leads her on a great adventure filled with pirates, beastmen, wizards, and sex.

Judging from the cover of this book I assumed it would be an overly-sexed adventure that read like a bad 70’s science fiction film. It was actually surprisingly well written, though one of the authors had a penchant for over using adjectives and in particular had an affinity for platinum (platinum armour and weapons and jewellery appear in almost every chapter). The (male) authors tried to create a female hero that was strong and independant; and this translated into a cheesy 70’s character who uses her sexuality and her ‘fragile female exterior’ as weapons of distraction and negotiation, and this often comes off as more of an exploitation of Raven instead of an empowerment. (On a sidenote, the best female leads in fantasy fiction, in my opinion, are those in Le guin’s EarthSea series and Goodkind’s Sword Of Truth series.)

What I also found surprising about this story, is that Raven took a backseat to the story. The true main character was Spellbinder, whilst Raven stands at his side or in the background. It’s ironic, that in trying to create an independent heroine, what they manufactured instead was a woman so objectified by the authors, that she functions little more as a plot device in her own story. All the major action revolves around Spellbinder, and in the possibly most exciting action sequence in the book (Spellbinder versus the monstrous leader of Beastmen in the jungle) it actually takes place off page, and what we read about is Raven nervously waiting whilst Spellbinder defeats the monster and recovers the artefact.

However, towards the end of the book Raven does start to develop her own gravitational pull and the story is drawn back towards her. The action focuses on her and she almost develops as a character. But then the book ends. I read this book with the expectation of it being a cheesy 70’s barbaric fantasy, and keeping these things in mind, it didn’t disappoint. It was exactly what I expected, perhaps pleasantly downplayed in some parts, and though the characters were a bit two-dimensional with little development, the world was nicely realized and was enjoyable to travel through. I would recommend this book to any fan of fantasy, not because it is great, but because it is not. Sometimes we need to read an enjoyable average novel to more thoroughly enjoy the more well written modern novels available.

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The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

hobbit_coverPublished in 1937 to critical success and several awards, The Hobbit has endured generations as a beloved classic children’s story. One of the first true fantasy novels, it is (with The Lord of The Rings) undoubtedly the most influential piece of literature on the fantasy genre, setting the tropes and cliches that endure within the genre even now.

To accurately review this novel is difficult, as it carries much nostalgia and it becomes too easy to compare it to The Lord of The Rings or to compare it to the film adaptations. It is also important to remember, despite it’s impressive prose and fantastic and often dark and violent elements, that this is a children’s story, and thus it shall be reviewed as such, not as an adult fiction book.

“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” These are the opening words of which Tolkien first wrote on a blank page he uncovered when marking School Certificate Papers whilst working at Pembroke College.

The Hobbit is an episodic quest about a quiet and unassuming character – a Hobbit – named Bilbo Baggins. He is recruited by the wizard Gandalf and a band of twelve dwarves to accompany them across the world and retrieve treasure from an ancient dwarven city inside a mountain guarded by a dragon. It is a simple premise, like most children’s stories, and has an uncomplicated plot. Each chapter introduces a character or creature and a new location, and the protagonists must overcome the obstacles and journey onwards to the next chapter.

The story, however simple the synopsis, is actually complex for a children’s book. It deals strongly with themes of heroism and the main characters all have strongly defined complex arcs. These arcs include descents and recoveries which are neither labeled as good or bad, just accepted as part of the human (or dwarf or hobbit) experience.

Bilbo, as the starring protagonist, matures emotionally and intellectually throughout the book. Rather than each episode merely being filler between the first and last pages, they each serve to teach our Hero a lesson and throughout the book his layers of naivety and wholesome innocence are stripped away and replaced with stoic layers of wisdom, leadership and even disenfranchisement. Bilbo’s character experiences a thorough evolution throughout the book, and by the last chapter he is almost unrecognizable from the first.

This kind of full realization of a character learning through his experiences so thoroughly and fully was an unexpected facet when the book was first published. Readers, children and adult alike, were pulled uncontrollably along with the story and critics couldn’t stop raving about it.

The real genius of the book, however, is the true main character. It is not the powerful wizard Gandalf, nor the Hobbit Bilbo, nor the Dwarf King Thorin nor any of his ilk. It is, in fact, the world itself. Tolkien was a master world crafter, and the geographies and cultures and histories of Middle Earth are the true main characters. It is a fantastic milieu where the story itself is a machine to drive the world.

“There was a dim sheet of water no longer overshadowed, and on it’s sliding surface there were dancing and broken reflections of clouds and of stars. Then the hurrying water of the Forest River swept away all the company of casks and tubs away to the north bank, in which it had eaten out a wide bay. This had a shingly shore under hanging banks and was walled at the eastern end by a little jutting cape of hard rock. On the shallow shore most of the barrels ran aground, though a few went on to bump against the stony pier.”

The locations range from his ideal visage of Britain, to the desolate and war-ravaged lands that take inspiration from the war zones he saw in Europe during WWI. And within these lands are the rich cultural heritages of peoples present and gone that Tolkien had been constructing since before the war had ended.

Again, though the story is simple and contains only the barest hints of unrealized sub-plots, the writing is superb. Throughout the book Tolkien’s mastery of prose creeps through and inserts itself, childish encounters described with fiercely accurate details and fairy-tale landscapes that are so fully imagined and well described that it puts many adult fiction books to shame. The prose here is unassuming and does not patronize the reader. Settings and events are described in a fluent and matter-of-fact way, which accepts the reader and invites them into the fictional world, rather than trying to compensate for the burden that they seem to most narrators.

It is an encompassing read, and is an excellent introduction to Middle Earth as it is a pivot point in the universe upon which all of Tolkien’s stories lead to or are based upon and influenced by the events within. The Hobbit is a fine vehicle for which Tolkien was able to market Middle Earth, and one for which enabled him to create The Lord of The Rings and change the face of literature forever.

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Debt Of Bones by Terry Goodkind

tg_debtofboThe Sword Of Truth series is one of the biggest fantasy franchises there is. The first entry in the series, Wizard’s First Rule, is the highest paid first book from a Fantasy author, and the series has sold over 26 Million copies worldwide in 13 languages.

Debt Of Bones is a novella that explores one of the defining historical moments of the Sword Of Truth series. It was first published as part of an anthology – Legends – in 1998, but was later published in hardback and paperback.

We are introduced to one of our main characters, Abby, as she waits amidst the throng of supplicants waiting for a chance to have an audience with the First Wizard – Zedd. Upon meeting him she is surprised to find he is young – not old and wizened as one might expect – and is engrossed in a dozen conversations at once as he orchestrates military and political strategies to defend their lands from the evil D’Haran empire.

Abby’s daughter is captured by the enemy forces and her hometown has been razed, and thus she desperately seeks The First Wizard’s help. She brings him an artifact – bones – that carry the magical essence of a debt that he is bound to honour, and demands he save her child.

But Abby learns that The First Wizard has greater concerns – such as the lives of millions of innocent people if the D’haran advance is not stopped, and cannot afford to risk the war to save one woman’s daughter.

The story shows fans of the Sword Of Truth series Zedd’s conjuring of The Great Barrier that separates the three lands of Midlands, Westlands and D’hara that we are introduced to in Wizard’s First Rule. And as always with a Terry Goodkind story, we are challenged with the uncomfortable question of what would we do in this situation, as Abby and Zedd fight for their lives, the lives of their children the lives of the homeland.

It is a story of betrayal, redemption, honour and duty. Goodkind has a rare mastery of dialogue – it is expositional and yet drives characters and plot all at once. The way he describes magic use is like a cross between art and physics – beautiful, intricate and complex.

All of Goodkinds works carry an addictive strength that leaves you craving more once you have finished. Debt of bones is a short novella – disappointingly short, as Zedd is one of the most interesting and popular characters, and the origin of the Borders is such an integral part of Midlands history (it is an event that essentially sets the rest of the series into action) and I feel it deserved it’s own full length novel to explore properly.

That been said – Goodkind is masterful and manages to create a compelling story with characters you invest in within a small span of pages (112 pages.) It is a great read for Sword Of Truth fans who will love to know more about the First Wizard Zedd and the origins of the Barrier.

For readers new to Goodkind, I would recommend reading Wizard’s First Rule first, and follow the series chronologically. You will instantly become enamoured with his world and those who dwell within, and when you then read Debt of Bones you will get so much more out of it.

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Thieves’ World: Beyond Sanctuary By Janet Morris

7155Thieves’ World was originally an anthology of short stories created by Robert Lynn Asprin in 1978. The concept was that a setting was provided and rules were established, and then writers given the privilege to establish their own characters and stories within this shared world.

Lynn Abbey, one of the co-editors of the original anthologies, revived the series in 2002 with her novel Sanctuary. For a full list of all entries into the series, I recommend the Wikipedia page, as the list is enormous.

Thieves’ World is a Dark Fantasy novel – a saga of sword and sorcery in the tradition of Conan The Barbarian, or Druss the Legend. The world is full of wizards, demons, dark-magics, gods, barbarians, prostitutes and thieves – It is as colourful as it is bloodthirsty and with a huge wealth of backstory to draw on.

This book is my introduction to the series, and to be honest, the first chapters felt like I had walked into the middle of a conversation – I didn’t know who or what was going on, though I soon got the gist of it.

I felt the first quarter of the book suffered from too much exposition – the author seemed obligated to acknowledge all source material by dropping as many names and ideas in as possible. This did help me to visualise a rich and complex world, but at the same time it was distracting and I often got lost. Most of this info dumping was irrelevant, and many things were not brought up again.

However, once the exposition was out of the way and the plot could take over, the author found her voice more clearly. Janet Morris writes eloquently and once you become accustomed to the small quirks of her writing style, it becomes almost lyrical; the world becomes less distracting and more interactive, the story gains depth and the characters become easier to invest in.

Our main character is Tempus – he is an immortal Demi-God leader of a band of mercenaries who trek out from the city of Sanctuary to battle against demons and wizards and Gods. I forget exactly why they do this, or what their motivations were. The groundworks of this book were laid in the confusing and somewhat rushed first quarter.

However, on a genre as stylistically defined as Dark Fantasy, many of the characters were too similar in archetype, and I often found myself back-reading to find out just whom I was reading about. But, I repeat, once the chaos of city life is left behind, the story flows like a deep river, and you are swept away and carried with it.

If you are not familiar with Dark Fantasy, consider it thus: In Beyond Sanctuary the main characters are savage barbarians who are just as blood-thirsty and rapacious as their enemies; the demons they fight are just as vile and self-serving as the Gods that they worship; the world they inhabit is filled with wastelands and storms and magical realms populated by flesh-tearing beasts and witches and all manner of hell-spawn.

Half the outer wall was crumbled; debris and bodies were everywhere. Tempus’ eyes were smarting from the sulphurous fumes and the stench of rot that set in once these ancient foes met death. His sword glowed pink and dripped with acid blood and wherever he stepped ichor, in grainy puddles, ate into the paving stones.

I enjoyed Beyond Sanctuary and look forward to reading more in this series. Good dark fantasy is hard to come across, and this series has the benefit of dozens of authors over many many decades fleshing it out and developing the world and the characters.

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