Pilgrimage to Skara by Jonathan Pembroke #SPFBO


skaraPilgrimage to Skara is the third book I read from the nine finalists of the #SPFBO. It’s a story that follows a journey, over harsh terrain in search of magic.

As the story begins we make the introduction of Pell Wendt.  Pell is a farmer but clearly there is more to him than at first meets the eye which becomes immediately apparent when he receives two visitors who want him to take on a quest.  Pell was a pathfinder, which means he took promising young people out to shrines where some form of magical ability would be bestowed upon them.  This isn’t a possibility for everyone mind, this is only for those who have passed an initiation test that shows they are able to wield magic.  Pell accepts the mission even though this is a more dangerous journey than any he has encountered before and the chances of survival are slim.  The young hopeful, Kellie, is the daughter of the Baroness of Kettiburg.  The usual promise of riches are made but the motivation for Pell accepting the challenge is that he was once in love with the woman who is now Baroness and although she left him in pursuit of her own ambitions he still carries a torch.

On the face of it this is the type of fantasy that I enjoy.  The promise of a journey over unforgiving terrain in search of magic whilst encountering dangers and difficulties along the way.  I do love this type of tale and in fairness I thought the book got off to a good start, but, ultimately, this one didn’t work quite as well as I’d hoped.

I’d say that the world here is post apocalyptic – although that might be the wrong description so please feel free to correct me.  Collum is broken up into the Hightown and Lowtown – no surprises that the former is filled with vying nobles, all jockeying for position and power.  Lowtown is filled with the peasants who the nobility barely deem worthy of notice even though they cleary do all the work.  The whole place feels, for want of a better word, unhappy, disillusioned and on the bring of disorder.  Life is hard, food is difficult to grow and beyond the safety of the walls lies the Outlands and the promise of plague.  The Lowlands are dangerous and populated with barbarians.  It’s not groundbreaking world building but it’s easy to read and form a picture in the mind’s eye.

In terms of characters.  We mainly follow Pell and Kellie, obvious I suppose as they’re the ones on the pilgrimage.  Neither of them come across particularly well although both of them have back stories that colour their actions.  Pell’s history has been harsh.  We eventually discover that he was at one point a fairly ruthless criminal until he found his true calling was to take potential magical adepts through the outlands in search of shrines of power.  He fell in love but ultimately the relationship failed and at this point, discouraged and miserable with life in general Pell took himself off and lived a life of solitude on the remote farm where we first made his acquaintance.  Kellie on the other hand has led a spoiled and pampered life at court.  She’s betrothed to a young man from one of the other noble houses which will effectively help to form a strong alliance and secure her house’s position.  When it is discovered that Kellie has magical promise her ambitious mother will  do anything to ensure that her daughter gains the magic within her grasp – even if it means putting Kellie’s life in danger to do so.  So, we have Pell undertaking a quest for the love of a woman who spurned him and Kellie undertaking the same quest because her hand has been forced by the same woman.  Finding out that her mother’s ambitions outweighed her affections was something of a blow to Kellie.  Both of them are consequently unhappy and coupled with their own prejudices this leads to animosity along the way.

On the face of it this is a book that I very much expected to like but as much as I wanted to love this there were elements that just got in the way.

As I mentioned above this isn’t a particularly unique idea but it’s still a good one.  A quest, a travel to find magic, an embittered adventurer and his young charge.  Tropes became tropes for a reason but there has to be something else thrown into the mix.  I liked the writing, it’s easy to get along with, not overly descriptive or filled with info dumps, but at the same time it just didn’t wow me.  The pacing was good and there was plenty of action but again the threat didn’t feel real and the problems felt easily overcome.  The characters were a little bit cheesy and the dialogue stilted.  Pell is constantly being referred to as ‘the best’ (he even describes himself as the best – no false humility there) – he’s been in retirement for 20 years.  How is it possible in those 20 years that he’s still the best?  Okay, I could overcome my disbelief if Pell’s actions spoke of his brilliance along the way but he was anything but impressive.  This is one of those examples in writing of being ‘told’ something and therefore being expected to run with it.  I don’t want to be told that Pell is the best, I want to read it through his actions, his creative thinking, the way he gets out of a difficult situation.  Show me he’s the best don’t tell me.  I never found myself liking Pell and to a certain extent that’s fine, you don’t have to like everybody you read about in fact it’s unrealistic to expect to like everyone. It’s more that I found myself constantly querying his motivations and actions.  And, then, of course, the young girl falls hopelessly in love with him.  Again, fine.  This I could understand in some respects although it’s a particular trope that I could really have done without.  He’s protecting her, even rescuing her on occasion – but, again, it just didn’t ring true.  Why on earth would she fall in love with him?  I just can’t get my head around it because none of his actions along the way ever made that scenario a possibility – other than, again, being told so – I needed convincing along the way and it didn’t happen.

This isn’t a bad book, it has some very good ideas, and I’m not against anti-heros or flawed characters – but, for me this had too many things that I felt like I was constantly railing against that prevented me from really immersing myself in the story.

I gave this book 4 out of 10 which equates to 2 of 5 stars on Goodreads.  Sadly this simply didn’t work out for me and so it’s not a book that I would ultimately recommend.

My thanks to the author for a copy of this book.  The above is my own opinion.




Chaos Trims My Beard by Brett Herman #SPFBO


chaosChaos Trims My Beard is the second book I read from the nine finalists I am due to read as part of the #SPFBO and I can say from the outset that this is a very entertaining number.  Not only does it have a crazy title and an equally matched cover but the content absolutely lives up to the expectations created by both.  In other words there is plenty of chaos and a little bit of beard trimming is thrown in for good measure.

Chaos is a crazy book to review and I’m not totally sure that I’m going to do it justice or resist the urge to overcomplicate things, but I’ll give it a go.  The story gets off to a fairly speedy start.  Our main protagonist, Edwayn Sattler  (half dwarf) is working at a society shindig when all hell breaks loose.  One of the partygoers, overrun with magic, has become a human fireball and is tearing the place up.  Edwayn intervenes, chasing the guy down and using the magic stashed in his beard to bring the fireball to a stop (I confess this is all a bit unusual given that Edwayn is part of the catering staff not security – but go with it).  Far from being the hero of the moment Edwayn finds himself an outcast, unemployed and worse, being chased down by local law enforcers.  At this point he makes the acquaintance of two unusual characters, one a suicidal ghost called Elara who needs Edwayn’s help to finally free herself from the world and the other a ratman called Venrick the Unabashed, or ‘This One’ as he likes to call himself, who also enlists Edwayns help.  From here on out the story turns into a fast paced conspiracy, far too many ‘overruns’ are taking place and Edwayn and ‘This One’ are in a race to stop more before the city spirals into chaos.  This is a cheeky blend of noir/urban fantasy that brings a hell of a lot of creativity to the story and is definitely a world that I would return to if future instalments were planned.

To the world building.   This is a fascinating concept, a world where magic was unleashed following a cataclysmic event known as the ‘burst’.  The world is occupied by all sorts of fantasy critters such as orcs, ogres and trolls not to mention many others.  The majority of the action takes place in New Sketlin – which the best description I can come up with is a world on top of a world populated, or held together, by lots of bridges.  Basically Sketlin proper is the original city state, this was built on top of creating New Sketlin, effectively a city in the clouds, and a place for the rich and privileged.  It’s a precarious world full of prejudices and one that threatens to crumble at any moment.  The magic is well thought out and uses elements such as rock and water with people consuming ‘dust’ to help fuel their everyday needs.  To be honest there’s so much more to the world than I could possible fit in – I would suggest that before reading this you flip to the back and scroll through the glossary.  It’s actually relatively short, full of useful explanations and written by Edwayn himself is a witty narrative in itself.

The Characters.  Undoubtedly my favourite aspect of the story.  The way that Edwayn and Venrick play off each other and the resultant dialogue is very amusing.  I also wouldn’t mind making friends with my own ghost if she turned out to be half as useful as Elara.  Basically, I cared about them all – I even cared about Edwayne’s beard, which is practically the fourth character in this scenario.

The plot is a bit chaotic with all sorts of action, arrests, dramatic escapes and other fast fuelled escapades. Strangely enough I think in some respects this is maybe the weakest element of the story – and that isn’t because it’s not a good plot, or interesting or well thought out even – more that it becomes a little bit lost in everything else that is going on here.  There’s such an abundance of invention and creativity that the plot could probably have been simplified a little, it’s just mind boggling fest at times and I almost found myself losing focus on what the story was actually about.  Also, really difficult to explain but there are definitely moments where the tension and the plot just loses momentum – which sounds like a contradiction given all the chaos taking place.  I think overall this could probably be edited to make the story sharper and improve the pace.

Overall I had a really good time with Chaos Trims my beard.  The dialogue is highly amusing, the characters are fun, I wouldn’t mind partaking of a drink or two at the Bawdville and frankly I think this would make a fantastic adaptation onto the screen.  It would be eye catching and dramatic to say the least.

In terms of criticisms and probably what brought the story down in terms of my overall star rating.  I think it’s too ambitious.  It needs to slow down a little bit.  It has the feeling of a series in the making, but one where everything is being crammed into one book and it’s just too much to take on in one sitting.  If you think of other urban fantasy the fantasy world and characters are built upon a little more with each instalment which allows you to get to know things in a more realistic way.  I would definitely recommend you read the glossary and wish that I’d read it before starting the story – but, strictly speaking, you shouldn’t need to read a glossary beforehand (imho) this should be something that grows naturally as the story unfolds and these descriptions of Edwayn’s would be better incorporated into the body of the book.  There are also lulls which had me dragging my feet a little.  I felt like one moment I was tearing through the book, eating up the words as fast as possible only to find that there was then something of a lull – the pacing needs tempering a little bit.

I think with some decent editing to unravel the above issues this could be the start of a winning series.

I’ve rated this a 7, which equates to 3.5 on Goodreads.

My thanks to the author for a copy of the book.  The above is my own opinion.

#SPFBO Finalists: My second book


Below is a round up of the ten finalists that have been put forward in this year’s SPFBO (Self Published Fantasy Blog Off).  A link with more information about the competition can be found here.


My first book, chosen randomly was The War of Undoing and my review and rating will follow shortly.  My second book is Chaos Trims my Beard by Brett Herman.  This book was Fantasy Faction’s finalist and their review can be found here.   This sounds like an unusual book that’s going to be a lot of fun.

A little bit more about the book:

Chaos Trims my Beard by Brett Herman

chaosEdwayn Sattler is a half-dwarf with a beard and a dead end job. One night when serving drinks to the city’s rich and famous, a fiery playboy loses control of his magic and goes on a burning rampage. After some ill-advised heroics aided by the magic that lives in Edwayn’s beard, he finds himself unemployed and socially exiled. With no other job or friends to fall back to, he signs on with an inscrutable ratman sporting a badge and a fetching hat, and together they dive beard and whiskers first into a magical murder conspiracy that threatens to consume the city.

Armed with sub-par wits, a dry sense of humor, and a handful of magical tricks, Edwayn encounters conflagrating cops, smooth-talking trolls, shadowy corporate enforcers, and an air-headed vixen with a fatalistic streak. When his easy-going life spirals into a thrilling, darkly hilarious tale of intrigue and deception, Edwayn will find out just how close this newfound chaos will trim his beard.


#SPFBO Finalist

Today I’m announcing my finalist for the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off.  300 self published books, ten bloggers, one winner.  Brainchild of Mark Lawrence the SPFBO is in it’s third year and is going strong.

This year I’ve found it difficult to make a choice.  I had four books that were competing equally for my attention.  I’ve read and reviewed them and even been back and reread the beginning of each book over again to try and help choose a winner.  The four books in question (with links to the reviews) are:

Jack Bloodfist: Fixer by James Jakins

Today is Too Late by Burke Fitzpatrick

Empire of the Dead by Phil Tucker

The Archbishop’s Amulet by Watson Davis

I will say that having more than one book tied neck and neck is downright not good.  I hate having to choose between them but that’s the deal.

There can be only one

My winner is: Jack Bloodfist: Fixer by James Jakins


I liked all four of the above books for different reasons and I would definitely continue reading future books from all four authors.  What really stood out for me with Jack Bloodfist was the fun I had reading it and I hope the other bloggers enjoy it as much as I did.

I would just like to say a huge thanks to all the authors who took part.  Putting your work out for such scrutiny and potential criticism must be difficult and I applaud you all.  Thank you. 😀


#SPFBO Review : The Archbishop’s Amulet (The Windhaven Chronicles) by Watson Davis


archThe Archbishop’s Amulet is one of my remaining four books for the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off and my final review.  I will be choosing a winner later today but wanted first to review each of my final books.

This book certainly falls into the category of grimdark.  Don’t be fooled by the younger age of some of the main characters, this is downright harsh, dark and brutal.  Thankfully, at the same time the author does manage to give you this tiny edge of hope that keeps you clinging to the pages and reading on willing things to work out.

At the beginning of the book we witness an exchange between some traders and the Onei tribal leader of the Brightfox Clan.  This is our first sighting of Caldane, the chief’s son who is currently in training to be a Shaman.

From there we jump forward.  War has swept the nation and the Nayen Empire have conquered virtually all in their path.  Caldane’s tribe has been all but annihilated and he is being held a prisoner, a slave of the Empress.  His only thoughts lead to escape and survival.  The Nayen regularly use slaves in their dark magic, sacrificing them in part of their rituals to call demons and gather power.  Caldane has managed to survive these sacrifices simply by the strength of his own magical ability and has in fact been unwittingly contributing to the sacrifices by lending his own magic to the proceedings.

As Caldane attempts to escape one night he finds himself taking an extra person, a young boy called Rucker, also desperate to escape.  Let’s face it – everyone would want to escape this hell.  The escape attempt ultimately fails, what Caldane could have achieved alone is not possible with a much younger child in tow, but when he is returned he overhears something that gives him a whole new purpose.  His mother still lives and is being held captive by General Silverhewer at the fortress in Windhaven.  The knowledge that his mother is alive gives Caldane a whole new purpose and he once again breaks free, this time accompanied by more than one child.

From here the story becomes a fight for survival.  Caldane has taken an amulet that belonged to the Archbishop Diyune, a gift from the Empress that was vital to the rituals.  Of course this makes his recovery essential and all the forces of the enemy are being used in his pursuit including an army of orcs.

The main character is Caldane.  He’s resourceful, capable and tough.  He hasn’t had a pampered upbringing and as a result he’s able to look after himself.  His companions are Cole, Rucker and Aissal.  Cole has led a life of privilege, Rucker is little more than a chlld who wants to return home to his parents and Aissal a young woman, blue skinned and apparently alien.  I’m not totally sure that I understand enough about Aissal to speak confidently about her.  Like Caldane she shares a magical ability that gives her healing abilities.  I liked her as a character although she does come across as hopelessly optimistic in the face of such evil.

What works here is the way in which the friendships develop, Caldane knows that he’s hampering his own escape and yet he starts to form a bond with these others becoming almost responsible for them and wanting to deliver them back to their homes.  Don’t get me wrong, sometimes they just annoyed me, running wilfully into danger – but then they’re little more than children so of course they’re not always cautious.  Again, I realise that I’m talking here about a good few of the characters being children and that might seem off putting but this isn’t a young feeling book, it’s just a book about desperate characters trying to escape from dreadful slavery.  The range of characters extends to many more than this small group and the beauty of them all is they feel real, they run the gamut from good to evil but they’re not as simple or straightforward as that.

The world building.  Well, at the risk of sounding redundant this place is not a place you want to go to.  The new rulers hold sway (obviously I suppose), but more than that the conquered are dominated completely, subdued and in fact controlled, little more than puppets, they’re not just beaten, they’re literally broken. Life is cheap in this new order, blood and souls essential for the dark magic.  It’s a statement to the evil that people will commit in the name of ambition.  This isn’t just about conquering people it’s almost like whole scale massacre and ruin.

Overall this was a thoroughly engrossing read.  It gets off to a great start, the hook of Caldane and where he is, why, what’s going on, and, then getting on board with the whole idea of him breaking free.  Frankly, I just wanted him to run for the hills and keep running but the story is about more than just running away.

In terms of criticisms, well, this can be quite bloody and violent – the initial scenes, with the cleaning up after the sacrificing – may not be for everyone.  However, it’s not all bloody guts and graphic details, there’s a very good story going on here.  The other quibble I had was the ending felt a little rushed but that’s probably just me expecting it to go on a little longer and I certainly did want more – the ending doesn’t feel complete, it’s clear there’s more coming and I would like to know what happens next.

Overall I thought this was a really intriguing story.  It definitely compelled me to read on quickly and once I started I knew that I had to carry on.  I would certainly wish to read a follow up if one was forthcoming.


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