Posted in Literature

Review: Gunmetal Gods

Gunmetal Gods (Gunmetal Gods #1)Gunmetal Gods by Zamil Akhtar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

NB: This review is also available on Black Dragon Books. Please consider using them for your SFF and Horror book purchases. 

 

What use is winning if we lose everything in the process, even ourselves?  This is the question that runs central to Gunmetal Gods by Zamil Akhtar. We see a war brought to the doors of Sirm; one that has been hundreds of years in the making led by a man, Micah, who is driven as much by vengeance as faith. On the other side, we have Kevah, a retired Janissary famed for his daring victory over a deadly mage ten years prior to the events in Gunmetal Gods. Both Kevah and Micah have lost loved ones, both have suffered and among all the parallels between them it is hard at the start of the book to know who to root for.

While the similarities between the two men continue throughout the book, the way they define themselves shows in their actions and after certain events, you’ll know which you’re meant to be backing. Nevertheless, Akhtar has done an amazing job at demonstrating how the two sides of any disagreement will make sense to those who are fighting over it.

There is loss and death in this story as well as love, friendship and hope. Where it differs from other dark fantasy I have read is in the systems of magic and gods, which is where Akhtar has let his imagination run wild. From Eldritch-looking, giant, physical gods, to goofy looking Kinn, the chicken-eagle-boy (you’ll see), there’s a lot that’s visually exciting to get your mind into with Gunmetal Gods.

This book took me by surprise quite a few times. I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy it as I’m not too fussed about Lovecraft, nor have I read much matchlock/flintlock fantasy. On both counts, my doubts were assuaged. The plot and pacing also surprised me a few times, bringing events that I was expecting to be end-of-book forward left me wondering where we’d go next: never was I disappointed. This is a well-written dark fantasy that will take you on a hell of a ride.

4 Stars

Posted in Literature

Guest Post: L.L. MacRae on ‘Dragons: Friends or Enemies?’

As part of the Escapist Book Tour for The Iron Crown, I asked author, L.L. MacRae, for her thoughts on dragons. 


Dragons.

Love them or loathe them, they’re a staple of the fantasy genre (and to be honest, one of my most favourite things in the world!).

Whether it’s a tiny, palm-sized dragon fiercely guarding a single gold coin (its entire hoard!), or a titanic behemoth whose wings blot out the sun, dragons inspire awe and wonder in equal measure. Even if they can be somewhat clichéd. 

In early stories, they were usually some faceless threat that had to be defeated by a brave hero. From Humbaba being slain by Gilgamesh to Maleficent turning into an all-powerful green fire-breathing dragon end boss, or a major antagonist like Smaug, they were often painted as the enemy of people, or simply a natural obstacle that our protagonists had to overcome/outsmart/outright defeat.

There has been a shift in the reasoning for slaying dragons; something more than simply rescuing some poor princess. Now, they’re hunted for their scales/bones/blood—for use in magic spells, potions, alchemy etc.—or they are the perfect chance for an upcoming young warrior to prove themselves in a battle to the death.

Whatever the reason, dragons have a history of being humanity’s enemy.

But even as an enemy—be they nothing more than apex predators or worshipped as gods—dragons can either influence a story in a significant manner or be relegated to window dressing in the fantasy world.

Personally, I love when they impact the world, and in my own writing (Dragon Spirits series, World of Linaria series), this is very much the case! In fact, in The Iron Crown, the magic-drenched world of Tassar simply wouldn’t function without them!

I’m grateful that the time where dragons existed solely to be slain by the hero on their way to rescue a princess is over. Authors are discovering and adding more facets to their draconic stories, and these days you can find stories where they add far more to the plot, or even take centre stage as a character.

And these are the stories I love. 

Far more interesting is when dragons impact the world—be it in a magical or ecological sense (Dragons of Terra by Brian Naslund is a great example), are shapeshifting, dominating creatures that run business empires (Heartstrikers series by Rachel Aaron excels at this), are more animal and naturalistic, with their own hierarchies and castes (E.E. Knight’s Age of Fire series), or are the classic animal companion (everything from His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novak to Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb, and countless books in between!)—when this happens, you know you’re in for a great read.

Dragons are a force to be reckoned with. Magical or not, they are powerful creatures in whatever format they appear, and this makes them formidable enemies allies when stories turn the “dragon/evil monster” trope upside down and explore new paths. 

Friendly dragons—Haku (Spirited Away), Toothless (How To Train Your Dragon), Falkor (Neverending Story)—who befriend protagonists and aid them in their journeys, or help provide character growth and development, have created generations of dragon lovers (myself included)!

Sometimes, they are used as a trump card in violent conquest, such as Drogon/Viserion/Rhaegal (G.R.R.M.’s A Song of Ice and Fire), which leans more into their destructive, powerful nature, and reminds us that despite being on our side, they are still creatures deserving of respect.

Turning dragons into allies always makes for a great story, especially when authors delve into reasons why, and methods how. Whether it’s training wild dragons, bonding with and riding dragons, or even saving the “last” dragons to protect or save the world. 

Dragon riding schools are just as exciting as magical schools, same as fighting atop the back of a dragon is just as thrilling as charging into battle as part of a larger army!

For me, stories where the motivations of a dragon are stronger than the, “angry monster to be eventually killed,” are far more interesting. 

Of course, there are always dragons who are indifferent, too, and that’s another curve ball. 

These dragons are simply an awesome force of nature, acting in their own interests, and see themselves above the petty disputes of people. Allying with dragons (even temporarily) can throw in brilliant twists to the story. Shenron (DBZ), a magical, wish-granting dragon, is just as likely to aid an antagonist as much as a protagonist, and cares very little for either side.

This indifference provides a unique flavour to any dragon, and thus makes the story more compelling any time they appear.

Whether they’re with people or against them, dragons add that special something to a fantasy story, and I adore them in all their alignment flavours.

P.S. I HIGHLY recommend every dragon mentioned in this post!


Lauren is a fantasy author of character-driven stories and epic adventure. Her books usually contain dragons, eclectic characters, and are typically fun and hopeful. 

She lives in a tiny village in the UK, has a degree in Psychology, and was a professional copywriter before going full-time as an author—swapping corporate copy for magic and dragons!

She has previously published under the name L.L. McNeil.

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/20896392.L_L_MacRae
Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/llmacrae
Twitter: https://twitter.com/_LLMacRae
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/_llmacrae/ 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LLMacRaeAuthor

The Iron Crown, book one in the Dragon Spirits series, qualified as a finalist for SPFBO 7 and signed copies of The Iron Crown are available directly from MacRae’s site: https://llmacrae.com/shop/p/theironcrown or at The Broken Binding: https://www.thebrokenbinding.co.uk/product-page/the-iron-crown-l-l-macrae

 

Posted in Literature

Review: Brave New World

Brave New WorldBrave New World by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Brave New World was first published in 1932 by a man who was nominated for a Nobel Prize on nine separate occasions, so you can imagine that much of what can be said about Brave New World has already been said. It is used as set texts in school curricula and has had innumerable books, articles and research papers written about it. In context, this review is but a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to express my thoughts on this, one of the top three dystopian classics.

I am always wary around titles that have been deemed ‘classics’ as history has taught me that I usually find them quite disappointing. There is an element of that here as my immediate thoughts upon finishing the book were to wonder if it were really a dystopian novel or just a philosophical thought-experiment from the 1930s. I found the treatment and portrayal of women in the book to be quite frustrating and very misogynistic. Huxley seems scared stiff of women and their potential for sexual liberation and so paints them in an damning light and punishes them terribly. 

Huxley’s misogyny has been criticised and acknowledged on a much wider scale, for example, Higdon wrote that it plagued much of Huxley’s work pre-1931 and continues on to summarise exactly what I was feeling: 

A careful consideration of Lenina’s attitudes, decisions, and actions shows that the overlay of misogyny careened Huxley into contradicting his ideas, into failing to see that Lenina is more heroic in her resistance to the Fordian world than are the men his narrative praises, and into taking an unearned and mean-spirited revenge on Lenina. In brief, Lenina’s resistance goes unnoticed in the novel because of the novel’s misogyny. (Higdon, 2002)

Higdon also brings in criticism from other scholars, including Deanna Madden:

…in an enlightening general discussion of misogyny in dystopias, Deanna Madden concludes that the men in Brave New World “have a spiritual dimension that the women lack … mired in the physical, the women interfere with or prevent the men from achieving spiritually” and that “Huxley’s misogyny has its obvious roots in a more general inability to accept the body.” (ibid.)

All this leads to bitter aftertaste from reading Brave New World but isn’t the only reason I didn’t get on with it.

Huxley attempts to paint a dystopian society as one that is anti-technology, anti-war, pro-happiness, pro-eugenics, pro-sexual freedom and pro-heteronormativity. It’s a complicated set of contradictory values, particularly when he introduces John the “Savage” from a reservation with no technology, plenty of violence, racism, zealotry and good-old misogyny. Both worlds in Huxley’s novel are unpleasant. Both are dystopias, but in Huxley’s rationalising we should want to live in the world with shame and violence because that’s were God lives. John’s moralising and evangelising are both ham-fisted and tedious. He has grown up in a world where his mother was an outcast who was beaten and slandered for her ‘promiscuity’; where John was an outcast because he was fair-haired and the son of the “she-dog”. Yet he believes his world is better because it contains God and Shakespeare. It’s not a convincing argument.

That is the main problem I have with Brave New World: none of it presents a convincing argument. In any direction. His “civilised society” is at odds with itself as he’s thrown all his own fears into the mix and with them his biases and illogical reasoning. The same thing is true of the “savage” society, which leaves the reader with no real side to settle on. The most sympathetic characters are the ones most maligned by the author (the women), so you find yourself constantly reading against the flow of the narrative. 

Overall, yes, it was well-written for the time. It has tried to bring voice to the concerns of a rich, intellectual man in a time where a eugenics movement was taking hold in Britain, technology was advancing owing to the events of a World War, while the whole region was brewing towards another one. I can understand those fears in that context but Brave New World is not nearly as relevant today owing to it’s major flaws in both narrative and the values it espouses. For these reasons, I can’t give it a higher rating than I already have.

3 stars

 

References:

Higdon, David Leon. “The Provocations of Lenina in Huxley’s Brave New World.” International Fiction Review 29.1/2 (2002): 78-83.

Posted in Literature

Review: Dreams of the Dying

Dreams of the Dying (Enderal, #1)Dreams of the Dying by Nicolas Lietzau
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Some of you may have spotted on Goodreads that I read Dreams of the Dying and never reviewed it. Don’t worry, I have reviewed it and a full and comprehensive review can be found at Grimdark Magazine, here: https://www.grimdarkmagazine.com/review-dreams-of-the-dying-by-nicolas-lietzau/

I’m very pleased and excited to say I’m joining the Grimdark reviewer team with this, my debut review! 

Posted in Literature

Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society

The Kaiju Preservation SocietyThe Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A spectacular modern-day sci-fi romp through an alternate Earth with mountainous creatures and a bunch of nerds trying to study them. Jamie, our narrator, stumbles into a job as a lifter of things for KPS but, for some reason, doesn’t ask what KPS stands for. Upon arriving at his new workplace it becomes apparent: the K means Kaiju. Jamie and three other newbies to the company become quick friends as they try to wrap their heads around their new surroundings and the ‘animals’ they’re going to be protecting.

Life on Kaiju Earth is a lot more exciting than lockdown COVID Earth back home: with everything on the planet trying to eat you while you try to study it, there are some close calls, although Jamie seems to take it all in stride. As a massive sci-fi nerd himself, he has the mental capacity to perceive of such a reality and so it’s all not quite as much of a mind-melting shock as it could be.

Scalzi’s writing is quick, chatty and funny, and this is the perfect book to decompress with. It’s cool – there are giant monsters – it’s fun – there’s some great action – and, it has some heart too as the crew genuinely care about each other and the Kaiju around them. Capitalism rears is ugly head and threatens everything on both Earths and our team of plucky newbies take it upon themselves to fight back and save the day. They might not have a plan, per se, but they’ve got the right attitude.

The Kaiju Preservation Society is wonderfully written, includes diverse characters (without making a scene about it) and has a nicely cynical view of US politics back in 2020/21. Plus, Kaiju. I mean, what’s not to get excited about there? As Scalzi himself says in his note at the end of the book, this is a story to feel better after the shit few years we’ve had back in reality. It’s not meant to be a genre-breaking masterpiece for the ages; it’s meant to be fun. In that, Scalzi has certainly excelled himself.

5 Stars

NB: You can also see this review on Black Dragon Books here: https://www.blackdragonbooks.co.uk/?p=11926

Posted in Literature

Review: The Coward

The Coward (Quest for Heroes, #1)The Coward by Stephen Aryan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Coward takes a look behind the heroes in their tales and sagas to reveal who the real people behind the songs and daring deeds are. Written primarily from the point of view of main character, Kell Kressia, The Coward sees a damaged man thrust back into the world of heroism he had been hiding from for the last ten years. Once, he desperately wanted to be a hero and tagged along on a quest with eleven (11) men to defeat an Ice Lich in the Frozen North that threatened the Five Kingdoms with failing crops, famine and death. Only Kell returned and he is not keen to repeat the ordeal. Now, the weather has turned sour again, crops are failing and the King has summoned Kell to save the world once more. 

Kell takes us on his second epic quest as he relives some of the horrors he faced as a teenager. Along the way, he is joined by a rag-tag group of misfits each with their own reasons for following him into the grim Frozen North. What they experience and what they find out in the icy wasteland surprises even the cynical Kell. Meanwhile, the head of the church of the Shepherd, Reverend Mother Britak, is manipulating events in the Five Kingdoms to bring about a holy war to bring all in line under her one true god.

Through Kell’s story, Stephen Aryan examines feelings of fear, courage and obligation, as well as the physical and mental toll heroism takes on the individual. Kell describes symptoms much akin to PTSS and it is a refreshing – albeit dark – take on epic fantasy giving it a touch of realism. We explore the tragedies of death, loss and the grief that goes with it but also friendship, belonging and love. The Coward packs a lot into its pages.

If this sounds heavy, fret not, as the prose is accessible and short chapters will have you sailing through it in no time. This could easily be read as a standalone if you’re worried about waiting for book two (The Warrior) but there’s still enough there to set the stage for a sequel. My only real criticism is that, for a traditionally published book, there were quite a few editing/proofreading misses and mistakes. The overall experience made up for it but nevertheless it did lose some points in my mind over this (I was reading the paperback version, these issues may have been rectified in digital copies or later printings).

4 Stars

Posted in Literature

Review: Prince of Thorns

Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire, #1)Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Note: I’ve kept this one short given the popularity of the series and the length of time it’s been out. It’s hard to provide a no-spoiler review that doesn’t cover what everyone before me has already mentioned.

This was Mark Lawrence’s debut and first in The Broken Empire trilogy where we follow Jorg, a prince to one of a hundred kingdoms all vying to become Emperor and reunite the lands. He’s also a character who has suffered some unimaginable hardship and loss. He has seen terrible things and it broke him as a child so that now, as a young man, he is whip sharp and hardened.

Prince of Thorns is a fast-paced dark science-fantasy (grimdark, specifically) following Jorg and his road brothers as he tries making his first advances to be King. I knew this was going to be a Sci-Fantasy before starting out but if I hadn’t there are plenty of clever little nods to it that Lawrence has worked into the prose before the point where it becomes readily obvious. At times, you can tell this was a debut and the writing could use a touch more polish though this doesn’t impact on the story.

Lawrence has made some interesting choices as to what has survived through the years to reach Jorg’s time. You will recognise names like Plato and Nietzche but nothing more modern; you will likely recognise ‘Jesu’ as a version of Jesus where the ‘s’ has been dropped over time and of all religions it seems Catholicism in particular is what has endured into the era of the Broken Empire. Sadly, it seems nothing like feminism or other concepts of equality have made it through the millenia as succession is still a man’s game and the trappings of patriarchal capitalism remain everywhere. While those do represent some disappointing missed opportunities what does comprise Prince of Thorns remains a satisfying dark fantasy tale that serves as a keen character study.

4 stars

Posted in Literature

Review: We Are The Dead

We Are the Dead (The Last War, #1)We Are the Dead by Mike Shackle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When you think of a rollercoaster it’s fast, frenetic and a little bit scary, which is what you’ll get from We Are the Dead without having to queue for two hours first. WATD is the debut novel from Mike Shackle in his grimdark series The Last War, following its characters through the dark and deadly life in an occupied territory as they try to resist the enemy and take back their country, Jia.  The book’s main storyline takes place over a span of eight days, which adds to the fast-paced nature of it, and follows five main points of view: Tinnstra, Jax, Dren, Yas and Darus.  

Tinnstra is a young woman consumed by fear and a desperate desire to live but not necessarily the courage to fight for it until she gets caught up in an escape attempt that could give all of Jia hope for a future of freedom.  While the blurb on the reverse of the book only specifically mentions Tinnstra, she is not the sole focus of the story; nevertheless her arc presents a refreshingly honest take on violence and war. After all, if you look within yourself, would you really have the courage to fight an unwinnable war knowing it would cause your certain death? Or, would you be petrified and forced to run and hide?

Dren’s story – aside from Tinnstra’s – shows some of the most growth. From a reckless, rebellious teenager, hellbent on killing the enemy no matter the cost, to a young man who can see the bigger picture and the part he has to play in it. The character development across the board is excellent and Dren’s is possibly my favourite.

There is plenty of dark, grim and gritty content here too. Everyone suffers some sort of familial loss, even if in one case it’s a twistedly happy affair. There is death on a mass scale, betrayal, failure, torture and the ever-present looming darkness of fear. This is still a tale of rebellion and resistance despite all the odds going against our Jian friends and a brilliant read that is more than it seems.

Some TW/CW for the book: suicidal ideation, sexual assault, mentions of and attempted r*pe, torture 

5 stars

Posted in Literature

Review: Of Blood and Fire

Of Blood and Fire (The Bound and the Broken, #1)Of Blood and Fire by Ryan Cahill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of Blood and Fire from Ryan Cahill is a great debut, marking the start of The Bound and the Broken series, which proved an addictive read. It is a classic epic fantasy with a modern interpretation. Though this starts off in familiar territory – with 3 young men, as close as brothers, on the eve of their manhood trial, which inevitably goes awry and the village bully gets involved – it is very much worth the read. 

The central characters are ones you can care about and root for. Calen, Dann & Rist are our three freshly-proven young men who get caught up in a kerfuffle with the big bad Empire after they befriend the mysterious Erik who is travelling incognito with his brother and father. After coming to the aid of their new friends, our main boys are landed in the shit and it gets worse before getting better.

Along their journey these three make discoveries about themselves and the world around them. They witness a baby dragon hatching – the first in over 400 years – they meet elves, giants, dwarves and are chased across the continent by a Fade hellbent on destroying the aforementioned baby dragon.

Without giving too much more away there are stakes, there is loss, there is wonder and awe in this book. At times there are some words used that feel a bit jarring or out of place where a simpler descriptor could have sufficed but I think Cahill shows a lot of promise. Book 2 in the series, Of Darkness and Light, is already out and the third installation is due later this year (Of War and Ruin) so you won’t have to wait long to continue the story. Cahill is also planning to release a novella set in The Bound and the Broken world prior to Book 3’s release to keep eager fans ticking over.

I would recommend reading the prequel novella, The Fall, as it clues you in to some of the language and magic of this world and gives a good sense of the epic proportions the main series is heading for. Did I mention there are dragons?

4.5 stars