#SPFBO Review : The Iron Crown (Dragon Spirits #1) by LL MacRae


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 eighth finalist The Iron Crown (Dragon Spirits #1) by LL MacRae.  Don’t forget to stop over to the Critiquing Chemist to check out their review.


The first in the Iron Crown sets up the story for your basic epic quest with a bunch of strangers eventually coming together in search of answers, all with different motivations, hopes and fears.

As the story begins we meet Fenn as he struggles to survive. Fenn is a young man who seems to have found himself drowning in a bog with no idea of how he came to be there – in fact no idea of who he is as he seems to be suffering from complete memory loss. In rather swift measure Fenn meets with a dragon spirit before being discovered by two females who are travelling through the forest and reluctantly come to his aid.  From there the three, through necessity, find themselves travelling together from the Isle of Salt to the mainland where a number of adventures befall them.

I liked the world imagined by the author.  This is a world of fantasy creatures such as Griffins and dragon spirits that are able to connect to people, imbuing them with power or cursing them depending on their whim. These spirits are usually tied to places such as forests or lakes which unfortunately leads to restrictions, particularly, for example, if the place the dragon spirit is linked to begins to experience decline, ultimately leading to a loss of power for the spirit itself together with the person they are connected to. The Queen is a perfect example of how linking to a dragon can create power.  She personally links to one of the most powerful spirits in the land and for the past five years has kept the country at peace following their turbulent history with the Myr.  The Myr are a strange enemy and one that I’m not quite sure I’ve got a total grip on so I’m going to avoid descriptions.

There are a number of POVs.  Fenn is perhaps the foremost character.  He’s desperate to recover his memories at the same time as staying alive and surviving whatever event landed him in his current predicament.  As it happens there seem to be a lot of similar ‘lost souls’.  People popping up with lost memories and no idea of who they are.  This brings me to a slightly lesser POV, a character called Torsten who is the Master Inquisitor for the Iron Crown.  He’s not the nicest of characters, something of a religious zealot who takes a strange delight in persecuting others and makes it his mission to round up the ‘lost souls’ believing them to be involved in a new uprising of the Myr.  Finally we have Calidra.  A young woman living on the Island of Salt for a number of years following estrangement from her family.  She is called back to the family home following the death of her father and seeks to reconcile with her mother.There are other prominent characters.  In short a love interest, a Priestess, a battle hardened General and a thief.

The plot is a little thin in my opinion and in some respects this feels very much like a set up book, particularly as so many questions remain unanswered at the conclusion and also because all the characters end the story poised for the next instalment.

In terms of criticisms.  I had difficulty connecting with some of the characters, without going into depth they felt a little juvenile, particularly the dialogue, even the General who is a battle hardened character.  A couple of the characters seemed to have no hesitation to draw knives and wave around axes with abandon at the slightest provocation threatening all sorts of repercussions and it felt over the top to me.  I would suggest this is YA but there is some language and certain scenes that I don’t think fit that audience, not to mention the length of the book.  On top of this there was a good deal of coincidental meetings of people along the way which made the place feel a lot smaller than I originally imagined.  Finally, I feel like this needs cutting some.  It’s simply too wordy but more than than it feels drawn out.  Whole chapters come and go and bring very little progress to speak of.  Clearly this is an author who loves the world and characters and doesn’t want to give anything up and I do understand that desire but I think if this was reined in a little the story would pack a much better punch.

Issues aside I recognise that whilst this story didn’t totally work for me I think readers who enjoy an epic quest with dragon spirits and griffins might enjoy this one.

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

My rating 7 out of 10 stars (or 3.5 of 5 for Goodreads)

The Critiquing Chemist rating is 6 stars

Our combined rating is 6.5 stars


#SPFBO Review: The Forever King (The Scalussen Chronicles #1) by Ben Galley


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 sixth finalist The Forever King by Ben Galley.  Don’t forget to stop over to the Critiquing Chemist to check out their review.


If you love your fantasy epic then The Forever King could be just the book you’re looking for.  This is the first in the Scalussen Chronicles and it has an almost old school fantasy feel with battles, magic, mythical creatures, Gods, dragons and plenty of twists and turns.

This is a story from the same world as Galley’s Emaneska series but I wouldn’t say that I had any issues picking this up without having read the earlier novels.  That being said, clearly if you decide to start your reading at this point you will probably unwittingly spoil the earlier series for yourself so be aware of that before you make this your starting point.  So, for example, as much as I’m interested in reading The Written and reading more about Farden’s backstory, I probably won’t backtrack now I’ve started the Scalussen Chronicles.

As the story begins we meet a group of children scavenging wreckage on the shore.  Unfortunately what starts out as an innocent game has grim repercussions and becomes the trigger for bloodshed and destruction.  A number of the children are taken captive and this eventually is the platform used to reveal the duplicity behind the Emperor’s ban on magick.

From here on the fate of the children from the village diverges and we predominantly follow Mithrid who is taken to the rebel fortress.  

I liked the world that Galley has imagined and the magick that he’s come up with.  Magick has been forbidden for many years now, the purge drove magick users underground and many look to the Forever King and his rebel movement to free them from the tyranny of the current emperor.  The irony of course is that although magick has been banned and its use punishable by death the emperor searches for ways to use it himself to strengthen his ranks.  The world is poised on the brink of the war and it takes only one trickster God to push it into action and for the empire’s forces to descend on the rebel fort with the intention to finally wipe out the Forever King.

There are a few characters to follow along with.  Mithrid who is well drawn and goes through a range of emotions.  Grieving for the life she has lost she eventually settles on a need for vengeance that overrides everything else.  Farden is the Forever King – he also struggles with the expectations of others and his role as hero and saviour doesn’t sit easy with him.  Farden is one of a few characters known as the ‘written’ which basically means his back is tattooed with spell runes.  The process of writing a ‘book’ onto a person’s back is a difficult one to survive but having survived it the runes give the written a lot of power and Farden’s magical abilities are practically unparalleled.  Malvus is the tyrant emperor intent on stamping out magick whilst at the same time seeking to create his own ‘written’.  I liked the characters but to be totally honest I didn’t feel like I totally connected with them, or, at least I struggled to initially, probably half the book at least before I felt like I really got on board,  Which isn’t to say I was finding it hard to read because that’s the furthest thing from the actual truth.  I was always happy to pick this up and considering the length of the book it felt like a breeze to read which is a testament to the writing which I liked a lot.

The plot in a nutshell is the age old strife of good vs evil.  I really liked that Galley used the deception/hypocrisy/ propoganda tool as an intrinsic part of the Empire’s rule and the way to keep the general populace in the dark.  Farden has plenty of followers and believers who want to free magick users from the oppressive lives they lead, but, make no mistake, the Empire is a huge force to be reckoned with.  In the past the rebellion has mainly been involved in small skirmishes and hasty getaways but with the appearance of a God on the scene the balance is tipped and Malvus assembles a huge army to wipe out the rebellion once and for all.

In terms of criticisms.  I felt to an extent that some of the world building was a little thin but at the same time I appreciate that writing from an already established world is something of a balancing act. There was also a little foreshadowing at certain points that took away some of the tension and also a slight feeling of things conveniently working out.

Slight issues aside, I felt this was an enjoyable epic-old-school-type fantasy and I would be interested in continuing the series to see where Galley takes these characters next.

My thanks to the author for a review copy.  the above is my own opinion.

My rating 7.5 out of 10 stars (I would round up to 4 stars of 5 for Goodreads).

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


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 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 : Legacy of the Brightwash (Tainted Dominion #1) by Krystle Matar 


LOTBW_FNL_PRINT_6x9Stage 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 the second finalist we read: Legacy of the Brightwash (Tainted Dominion #1) by Krystle Matar.  Don’t forget to stop over to the Critiquing Chemist to check out their review.

Legacy of the Brightwash is a story that definitely left me conflicted.  On the one hand, as I started to read I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the writing and the sharp contrast between that and the world being described.  I mean, literally, I adore the way Matar turns a phrase.  It’s as though she’s writing just for me and I love that feeling.  On the other hand, and whilst I can’t fault the author for the love of this world and the characters, I felt that there was too much padding.  I have no problem reading weighty tomes and at not much shy of 700 pages this is certainly something of a door stopper, but I do have a problem when they feel weighty and for me this one dragged its feet a little.

Brightwash is the name of the river that runs through the City of Yaelsmuir that belongs to a grouping of various states known as Dominion. As the story begins we make the acquaintance of a Regulation Officer known as Tashue.  Regulation Officers work for the Authority responsible for keeping the population within the letter of the law and Tashue is almost regimental in the way he maintains his duty without deviation.  The early chapters set us on the course of a murder mystery.  The body of a mutilated young child washes up on the river banks, the only mark a tattoo on the back of the neck and Tashue is determined to discover the identity of the person responsible for this atrocity.  One thing that seems strangely coincidental is that the body seems to be down river of the facility used to imprison those who have fallen foul of the law.  

By way of background some of the people within the Dominion have what is known as ‘talent’ or quite often the more disparaging term ‘tainted’ is used.  This is a form of ability that gives the users certain specialities and there are also differing strengths of ‘talent’.  For many years the authorities have oppressed those with such ability.  All talent users are required to register with the Authority, they are assigned case officers and regularly monitored.  Talent can be used for operating machinery, lighting street lights or helping to cure diseases or other injuries.  Non compliance leads to incarceration in the Rift, a prison not renowned for it’s gentle approach.  Unfortunately for Tashue his son Jason has been imprisoned in the Rift for three years for failure to comply and he fears that something terrible will eventually befall him.

The world building is really good.  I love the idea of the Dominion and the magic of the talented.  Without doubt this is a grim and seedy world with plenty of morally grey characters.  For the most part the majority of the people feel subdued or beaten down by life apart from the small percentage who live at the other end of the extreme.  

Matar has given her story a political stance with the character Tashue being roped into campaigning being paraded around events and the like as a war hero.  This is not something that Tashue is fond of but he’s manipulated into taking part with all sorts of talk of improvements, more authority officers to help with heavy workloads and perhaps better conditions for his son.

On top of this there is a romantic element to the story with the introduction of Stella Whiterock and her young daughter.  Stella is a woman with Talent  who has captured the attention and heart of Tashue, a feeling that she returns.  This is part of the storyline that feeds into the overall disillusionment  that Tashue begins to experience as his eyes are finally open to the prejudice and harsh treatment of those judged to be different.

Clearly there is a lot to explore here with background stories, political sidelines, the whole setting out of the world and the abilities of those with Talent and I think the author does a great job in bringing all these things together so well.  Why the mixed feelings then?

As I mentioned above, I think this is quite simply too long and whilst it clearly demonstrates the love that Matar has for this world and the characters it feels almost like too much book for the story being told.  As I already mentioned, I loved the writing and was also really intrigued by the mystery but every time I thought things were going to take off they went off on a tangent and this constant roller coaster of tacking along slowly followed by a rush of speed followed by another tack in progress, well, it pulled me out of the read in fact I found myself losing interest.  Also, to be fair to the author, the romance here plays quite a central role, particularly in swaying the beliefs of Tashue and helping to nudge along his disillusionment, and romance is something that I can take or leave.  I don’t mind a romance as part of a story but I prefer it to take a backseat as opposed to being fairly central and I can see that the author was going for a slow burn romance with the gradual build of tension but, again, in keeping with my other feelings this just felt too drawn out.  

Overall, the writing is lovely, the world is intriguing and this is without doubt a character led drama which is something I enjoy.  I think it could be tightened to make the story have a little more punch and I wasn’t enamoured by the romance but this is a personal preference.  I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading this.  This is a talented author and definitely one to keep a close eye on.

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

My rating 6 out of 10 or 3 out of 5 for Goodreads.

The Critiquing Chemist rating is 6 out of 10

Our average rating is 6



#SPFBO Review : We Men of Ash and Shadow (The Vanguard Chronicles #1) by H.L.Tinsley 


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 first review and I think it’s safe to say that the reviews will now start to appear with almost indecent haste.  The first book we will be reviewing is We Men of Ash and Shadow (The Vanguard Chronicles #1) by H.L.Tinsley.  Don’t forget to stop over to the Critiquing Chemist to check out their review.


We Men of Ash and Shadows is a book that I have mixed feelings for.  I think it’s an impressive debut, I loved the dialogue, I think Tinsley creates a grim world indeed with harsh contrasts between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ and there’s an alternate French feel to it with the revolutionary plots.  Of course there is a flip side to that but I’ll get to that shortly.  Firstly a little more about the book.

Our central character is a former soldier turned mercenary named John Vanguard. Vanguard now works for a former acquaintance (Sanquain) who now controls the seedy underbelly of the city.  The story takes a little while to give you a feel for Vanguard, he’s a man haunted by his past who lives with constant guilt that plagues him so badly that he believes he should live a life of suffering.  The work he undertakes is that of an assassin carrying out authorized hits only on those that have stepped outside the law of the criminal underworld in which they live.  Strangely enough Vanguard has earned himself a reputation as a vigilante and the people of D’Orsee have a sort of quiet respect for the work he undertakes.  Yes, he’s a morally gray character but he isn’t without feeling. 

In contrast to Vanguard we have a character called Tarryn Leersac whose family have fallen on hard times.  Once part of the upper echelons of society they no longer have money and their home is falling into ruin.  Leersac looks after his mother who is suffering from what I took to be a form of dementia (but that could be wrong).  He’s a deeply resentful man with a very bad temper (to say the least).  Vanguard and Leersac’s paths eventually cross and for a while there is a mentor/apprentice style relationship in place that I enjoyed and would have liked to see expanded a little more).  This is where we come to the fantasy elements of the story and the reason why both characters are so good at quietly murdering unaware suspects.  They are both able to pass unseen, I’m not talking about totally disappearing like the Invisible Man, more a knack of sorts that allows them to almost blend in and makes people glance over them if you will.

There are a number of other characters that help to populate the story and in fact in typical fashion I found myself liking some of the supporting cast more than the main characters.  I find that this is often the case and I want more expansion from the characters surrounding the central pov – but this is obviously a very personal thing.  As it is the two central characters eventually go in very opposite directions but I won’t elaborate and spoil things for other readers.

The plot starts off with Vanguard looking into the disappearance of a couple of guards and from there gathers into a story of revolution with different forces pulling and pushing in different directions.

The setting has an alternate history feel to it.  This is gaslamp fantasy so it has a late Edwardian or Victorian feel to it.  For me there was also a decidedly French feel to the place although that could just be me latching onto the French revolution and ascribing similarities even though that’s a different period.

In terms of criticisms (or the flip side of the coin that I mentioned above).  Well, this is a relatively short book, which I don’t have a problem with except that in some ways it felt like I didn’t get enough time with everyone.  I felt like Leersac’s issues spiraled very quickly and the ending, although I admit it was entertaining, felt a little rushed.  There’s a lot of head hopping which at first I found a little irritating, but, to be fair, I did become accustomed to it very quickly.  I have to admit that I felt a little disappointed with some of the deaths – hear me out – this is grimdark and so I expect a lot of characters to meet a grisly end, but there was some foreshadowing here and in a way it would have been more of a surprise if some of those built up expectations had been flipped on their head.  This is also quite low fantasy and there’s very little knowledge or explanation of what’s actually happening or why which  in some ways  gave the book almost the feeling of a prequel. I would love to know more about this going unseen ability and if there are others with similar or even slightly different abilities in this world and hopefully this will be explored in further novels.

Overall, I found this an easy read.  This is certainly an author that I would keep an eye on and apart from perhaps a little over ambition which quite often happens with a debut novel I think this was a good start to the series.

I would rate this 6 out of 10 or 3 of 5 for Goodreads.

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

The Critiquing Chemist rated this 6.5 therefore our average rating is 6.5 out of 10

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