#SPFBO Review: Norylska Groans by Michael R Fletcher and Clayton W Snyder

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Stage 2 of the  SPFBO competition is now well underway and the Critiquing Chemist and I have been reading the finalists.  Today we post our review for our fifth finalist Norylska Groans by Michael R Fletcher and Clayton W Snyder.  Don’t forget to stop over to the Critiquing Chemist to check out their review.

Norylska

Norylska Groans is perhaps one of the darkest books I’ve read for some time.  Having read both Fletcher and Snyder previously I think I was quite well prepared for the grimfest but for those of you who haven’t read them before I will start this review with a simple ‘heads up’.  This is not for the faint of heart.  That is all.  You have been warned.

In a nutshell this is an alternate history, low fantasy set in a Russian-style-industrial-revolution-era city.  We follow two characters who end up on opposing sides, both simply trying to survive in a world that takes no prisoners and neither of them totally happy with the paths they have followed.  Again, before I say anything further about the plot or writing I must say that I absolutely loved the magic system that these authors have come up with, it’s fascinating, unique and rife with possibility.

Firstly, the characters.  We follow Katyushka Leonova and Genndy Antonov as they take desperate measures in order to try and eke out a better way of life.  Gen, having lost his job resorts to work with the crime syndicate where is role becomes one of violent enforcer.   Gen was a soldier, he now suffers from PTSD and he seems to go into an all consuming rage when embroiled in a fight. Kat seeks work as a secretary but is instead forced into a job with the militia in a strange turn of events.  Kat doesn’t exactly have a wonderful homelife and the rigours of her new job actually start to appeal more to  her than playing the meek and dutiful wife to her insufferable husband.  I have to say that I found myself preferring Kat’s storyline, although the two of them worked very well together when they eventually crossed paths and I particularly enjoyed having a bird’s eye view from two opposing camps.

The world building was solid.  It’s easy to imagine the place, the filth (caused by excessive mining), the grime, the oppression.  It’s a dog eat dog world.  The poor live in ramshackle abodes, shantytowns with makeshift homes thrown together and barely standing.  On top of this the story takes place over winter and there seems to be a constant barrage of snow, ice, slush and just your basic sub-zero and rather unpleasant conditions.  It’s a world of poverty, life is cheap and the poor are plenty.

As I already mentioned I love the magic system.  There are memory stones which serve a dual purpose.  They can imbue the person wearing the stone with the memories of those who wore the stone previously along with storing new memories as each new wearer uses the stone,  When the stone is removed the wearer no longer remembers their actions – which certainly gives a whole new meaning to the ethos of ‘not taking your work home with you’.  There is also the possibility of stones being used to help the wearer feel more confident, or aggressive, etc depending on the combinations used.  I’m probably not describing this very well but it is impressive and it has multiple opportunities for storylines and feeds particularly well into the storyline here.

In terms of criticisms.  Well, I think I could have used a little less detail on the torture – that’s just me and maybe I’m a bit squeamish – but I felt there was a little too much and that combined with the overall large slice of grim reality definitely felt at times a little bit relentlessly dark. I’m not saying that the violence and bloodshed is gratuitous because it actually fits well with the setting and the theme of crime lords and their brutal retributions – just, maybe, give me an idea of just how brutal this world is once and I’ll take that on board and keep it firmly in mind. The plot itself also felt a little light – to be honest, that’s not so much a criticism as a statement because this felt more like a slice of life fantasy and I have to say I had no problems reading it.

Overall,I found Norylska Groans a compelling read and if you love grimdark then this has got to be your next read.

I received a copy from the authors for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.

My rating 7 out of 10 or or 3.5 out of 5 for Goodreads.

#SPFBO Review (6): Black Stone Heart (The Obsidian Path #1) by Michael R Fletcher

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300 books           10 Judges            1 winner

The 1st of June marked the start of the sixth Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (details here.)  My Introductory post is here.  Stage 1 is now complete and the finalists can be found here. My previous five book reviews can be found here, here, here, here and here.  Today I am reviewing my sixth finalist.

BlackStoneHeart

Black Stone Heart is the finalist put forward by The Queen’s Book Asylum whose review can be found here.

I’ve been longing to read this author for some time and in fact have a copy of Beyond Redemption sat glaring at me from the bookshelf.  Given friends and other bloggers reviews I think I picked this one up with exactly the right expectations.  I expected grimdark and Fletcher delivers that in spades.  He also kicks off his story with one of the most intriguing beginnings to a character that I’ve experienced for some time.

Khraen is a man newly awakened as the story begins.  Well, I say a man but I’m not entirely sure at this point, let’s just run with that for now for the purpose of simplicity.  This is a character who seems to have sprouted fully grown from the earth, he has no memory of who he is or why he is here.  He feels drawn to travel in a certain direction, along the way becoming stronger as he progresses from eating insects and grubs to small animals as he becomes more adept. I confess that this opening grabbed my attention completely.  I was fascinated by the character from virtually the first sentence and could barely put the book down and, in actual fact I completed the read in two days if not less.

In terms of the plot, we follow Khraen on a voyage of discovery.  He travels the country seeking pieces of his obsidian heart.  A heart that seems to have been broken into pieces and scattered to the four winds, now being  carried by numerous characters.  Khraen is drawn to the pieces like a moth to the light and with each newly recovered piece he discovers a few more memories from his former life.  Now, you may be thinking, surely the recovery of these pieces of heart involves the death of the character carrying the piece – and yes, you would be right in thinking that.  It appears that there can be only one – or at least that is the case for Khraen – some of the other characters seemed more content to remain incomplete and were living happy enough existences, giving Khraen a wide berth.  Alas, Khraen has other ideas.

What I found fascinating about this is that as we set off on Khraen’s journey he possesses a certain naivety that makes his story enjoyable to read, which isn’t to say that he doesn’t commit crimes along the way, more that he has doubts, his memories are not exactly pleasant and definitely give him pause for thought and yet he continues with his pursuit.

Along the way he is massively influenced by two other characters.  Shalayn, a young sellsword who takes Khraen under her wing and initially shows him the ropes until the two form an attachment.  Shalayn seems to provoke in Khraen the desire to be better.  He struggles with his need to find the rest of his broken heart, knowing that he may become a person she can no longer abide and he definitely keeps secret some of the memories he experiences, not wanting to scare her away.  Henka is a different character entirely.  A necromancer who, for a large portion of their time together, hides the lengths that she goes to in order to maintain her body.  Henka is a driven individual but she wraps up her desires in a need to please Khraen.  She comes across as loyal, almost like a puppy in the way she seeks his affection and approva but I also find her manipulative.

I love the world building here.  We don’t spend great amounts of time in any one place as Khraen searches out his heart pieces but it’s none the less a fascinating place with a long history and I feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface.  There is magic, magic towers and schools, necromancy and demons to name a few, but what felt refreshing for me were some of the smaller elements such as the strange abandoned castle that Khraen was transported to during part of the story and the friend that he becomes reacquainted with.  I don’t want to say too much as this point but this particular ‘friend’ definitely turns things on their head a little, as he’s quite unexpected.

Let’s talk about the characters.  Well, I liked Shalayn, I can’t deny it, she appealed to me immediately.  Henka, well, no.  I confess, she didn’t win me over.  Nor did she try to.  She is unremorsefully herself, a necromancer, and even though she almost starts off with small steps, to gently ease us into her true character, it pretty soon becomes obvious that she’s pretty hideous.  Or is she.  She’s dead, she has no heart, she does what she does to survive.  Although, I guess what I would ultimately question is the fact that she goes to a lot of trouble (by which I mean she murders a lot of people) to maintain a body in pristine condition and to give the impression of a warm blooded living being.  Ultimately I didn’t like her and in his favour I wasn’t totally sure that Khraen was always enamoured.

Khraen?  He’s like his own worst enemy.  He is relentless in his search for heart pieces and memories – even though with each new piece he finds new reason to doubt what he may eventually become.  He doesn’t seem able to resist and the memories are undoubtedly having an impact.  Actions that he would have found abhorrent as he started his journey become more commonplace and easy to accept.  It’s like Fletcher slowly feeds us a character that does more and more horrible things, and yet we seem almost oblivious to just how bad he’s really becoming.  Like he can be redeemed.  It’s your basic ‘frog soup’ really.  Put a frog in hot water and it jumps out, warm it slowly and it sits there never imagining what’s about to happen – much like us unsuspecting readers. (for the avoidance of doubt – I’m going to say that no frogs were hurt, during the writing or reading of this book, or this review for that matter).

Criticisms.  Not a lot to be honest.  The writing is good, the pace is good, the journey is fascinating and thought provoking.  There was definitely an element of predictability to one aspect of the plot, but I don’t find that a real problem.  I did experience maybe a slight change in feelings towards the read around the middle mark, it’s difficult to put my finger on other than I was having doubts by then myself about Khraen which made me ultimately question just how bad he’s eventually going to become.  That being said, this feels like a natural progression and I only mention it because it momentarily seemed to slow me down somewhat (although, given I read this in two days you would be right in thinking this was a temporary blip).

Overall this was very easy to read.  It is very dark so you may want to be aware of that before making your mind up whether to read it or not.  But, it’s also fascinating and aside from all the food for thought what really compels me with this one is that I’ve become as curious as Khraen to find out what he will eventually discover and more to the point, to understand how he found himself buried in the first place with no memories to speak of whatsoever.

I received a copy courtesy of the author.  The above is my own opinion.

My rating 8.5 out of 10 (4 out of 5 stars for Goodreads)

#SPFBO – Not a Review : Finalist Reading Schedule, Book #6

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300 books           10 Judges            1 winner

The 1st of June marked the start of the sixth Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (details here.)  My Introductory post is here.  Stage 1 is now complete and the finalists can be found here .

During Stage 2 I will read, review and score the remaining 9 finalists as will the other judges until a winner is revealed.  As with previous years I have given each of the 9 books a number and randomly selected a reading order.  Today’s post is to highlight the fifth book I will be reading and provide information regarding that particular finalist.  The first finalist I read was Shadow of a Dead God by Patrick Samphire.  This was a great start to the finals and my review can be found here.  My second book was The Fall of Erlon by Robert H Fleming which I posted my review here.  My third book was Shaun Paul Steven’s Nether Light, my review for which can be found here. My fourth book was a Norse myth inspired story called Darkness Forged by Matt Larkin and my review is here.. My fifth book was A Wind from the Wilderness by Suzannah Rowntree and here is my review.  I now have only four books remaining 

My sixth finalist will be : Blackstone Heart (The Obsidian Path #1) by Michael R Fletcher.  This is the finalist put forward by the Queen’s Book Asylum, the review can be found here, and the description is below:

BlackStoneHeart

A broken man, Khraen awakens alone and lost. His stone heart has been shattered, littered across the world. With each piece, he regains some small shard of the man he once was.

He follows the trail, fragment by fragment, remembering his terrible past.

There was a woman.

There was a sword.

There was an end to sorrow.

Khraen walks the obsidian path.

MRFAuthor:

Michael R. Fletcher is a science fiction and fantasy author, a grilled cheese aficionado, and a whiskey-swilling reprobate. He spends his days choreographing his forklift musical (titled “Get Forked”), and using caffeine as a substitute for sanity. Any suggestions that he is actually Dyrk Ashton in disguise are all lies.

Blog (kinda): http://michaelrfletcher.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MichaelRFlet…

Twitter: @FletcherMR

Instagram: fletcher_michael_r

 

 

#SPFBO : Stage 1 Complete

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300 books           10 Judges            1 winner

The 1st of June marked the start of the sixth Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (details here.)  My Introductory post is here.

You can find my updates for batch 1batch 2batch 3, Batch 4 and Batch 5 by clicking on the links and my finalist announcement can be found here.

So, the first stage of the competition is now complete, 10 finalists have been chosen, the finalist page over at Mark Lawrence’s blog can be found here but for quick reference below are all the finalists with links to Goodreads:

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Last Memoria by Rachel Emma Shaw

LastMemoria

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The Combat Codes by Alexander Darwin

TheCombatCodes

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The Lost War by Justin Lee Anderson

LostWar

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Black Stone Heart by Michael R Fletcher

BlackStoneHeart

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Darkness Forged by Matt Larkin

Darkness Forged

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Voice of War by Zack Argyle

Voiceof

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The Fall of Erlon by Robert H Fleming

FallofErlon

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A Wind From the Wilderness by Suzannah Rowntree

AWind

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Shadow of a Dead God by Patrick Samphire

Shadow

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Nether Light by Shaun Paul Stevens

NetherLight

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Congratulations to all the finalists and good luck in Stage 2 😀

#SPFBO 6 – Cover love (9)

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300 books           10 Judges            1 winner

The 1st of June marked the start of the sixth Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (details here.)  My Introductory post is here.  This year I’m aiming to shine a little bit of focus on some of the books either through posting excerpts to act as teasers for potential readers or through posting some of the covers and highlighting the book that way (not just for my own books but other entries).  The invitation is open to all authors from the competition – if you’d like to post an excerpt then give me a shout in the comments.

As part of the competition there was a cover contest.  The details can be found here.

So, this week’s chosen SPFBO covers are below. I didn’t have a particular theme this week and in fact just went for three covers that are very different in style but work for me personally. Which is your favourite:

Queensof

BlackStone

Nightof