Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company.

It’s the perfect venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends, brought back together to celebrate a wedding.

A night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare as secrets get dragged out and relationships are tested.

But the house has secrets too. Lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.

And she gets lonely down there in the dirt.

Effortlessly turning the classic haunted house story on its head, Nothing but Blackened Teeth is a sharp and devastating exploration of grief, the parasitic nature of relationships, and the consequences of our actions. (taken from Amazon)

Brooding and dark, Nothing but Blackened Teeth drew me in and kept me off-balance. Always on the precipice of scary, it never quite tipped over. Instead, it stayed an eerie book, one that has crawled its way into my head. I’ll be thinking about it for a long while, reliving bits and pieces of the creepy story.

Nothing but Blackened Teeth follows a group of friends who decide to rent a Heian-age mansion for an odd sort of wedding celebration. The thing is, they’ve heard it’s haunted. That’s the draw for them: they’re hoping to experience the otherworldly and the disturbing. Well, wish granted.

The story goes that originally a woman’s fiancé died on his way to marry her at the mansion. She decided to be buried alive so that she could wait for her husband like one does, I suppose. Women continued to be sacrificed, one per year, so that the buried bride wouldn’t be lonely. In all honestly, the origin story for the haunting is the part that I found to be the weakest. It just didn’t inspire that anticipatory shiver that I was hoping for.

None of the characters are particularly likable and at first, I found myself viewing them through the slasher-film lens. You know: this one will die first because they sleep around, this one next because they don’t believe in the danger, etc. However, such was not the case. The tropes became jumping-off points for complex, multi-faceted characters, each with their own flaws and fears. Half of the fun of Nothing but Blackened Teeth was watching the complicated relationships fray and slowly dissolve as the characters’ pasts caught up to them.

The story begins with Cat, a woman who is still coming to grips with an unspecified mental illness. It has affected her past and she is still in the midst of learning to cope with it. There’s Phillip, the charismatic and super rich sponsor of the mansion rental. There’s Faiz and Talia, the engaged couple. Cat and Talia have beef, and their issues with each other add to an already tense situation. Last, there’s Lin, who is a master pot-stirrer. It’s these tangled relationships and hidden emotions that really elevate Nothing but Blackened Teeth to the fascinating tale that it is.

Author Cassandra Khaw played with motifs of relationships and mental health in ways that felt a little reminiscent of Shirley Jackson (if Jackson had a penchant for gore). There were times when I wondered what was happening and what- if anything was being imagined by one character or another. Nothing but Blackened Teeth is a riveting book, perfect for fans of creepy tales with a little extra bite.

This review was originally published in Grimdark Magazine. You can find that here.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

Linus Baker is a by-the-book case worker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. He’s tasked with determining whether six dangerous magical children are likely to bring about the end of the world.

Arthur Parnassus is the master of the orphanage. He would do anything to keep the children safe, even if it means the world will burn. And his secrets will come to light.

The House in the Cerulean Sea is an enchanting love story, masterfully told, about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place―and realizing that family is yours. (taken from Amazon)

The House in the Cerulean Sea is the sweetest, coziest, most delightful book I’ve ever read that also includes the antichrist. Okay, let me try again. That first sentence paints a rather odd picture. This book is wonderful. It’s comfort in written form. It’s a reminder that happy endings (or maybe happy beginnings) exist, often found in the most unexpected of places, if only we’re brave enough to look.

Linus Baker has worked for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (or DICOMY) for years and years. He does his job by the letter and is very good at it. He gives his all for it. Then he goes home and is quietly lonely, with only a cantankerous cat for company. When the bigwigs at DICOMY send him to a little island to evaluate a home for magical youth, he expects more of the same. Do his job. Do it by the letter. Go home. However, things don’t go as planned, with absolutely fantastic results.

Linus is blown away by the children he meets. They’re unlike any other and they are their own little family. Among them is a six year old antichrist (who also likes to sing and dance to old records), a large boy with a small amount of self-confidence, and a…something, whose only goal in life is so delightfully simple and sweet that I fell in love with him immediately. Caring for the children is Arthur Parnassus. Kind and quiet, his protective love for the kids endeared me to him right away.

Of course, I have to mention Linus Baker. He feels he does his job well and that’s enough. He doesn’t see the effect he has on those he meets and he doesn’t realize his worth. He quietly helps everyone and is the sort of person this world needs more of. He listens without just waiting for his chance to speak. He always manages to say the one thing a person needs to hear, and he does it without realizing how much he’s changed that person’s outlook. He is wonderful. I so badly wanted him to discover his place in life, and find contentment. Following him through the book was a joy.

And the writing! Oh, how I loved it! It painted a picture not only of the setting, but of the emotions of the characters. Linus’ story started in shades of gray and slowly shifted to a beautiful cerulean blue. The little details scattered throughout elevated this book to piece of art, and there is a poem within that will stay with me for a very, very long time. It was incredibly moving.

I really could have just said that The House in the Cerulean Sea is pretty much perfect. My ramblings really haven’t done it justice. My copy is now sitting on my “favorite books of all time” shelf, where it rightfully belongs. So…who should read this book? Simply put: everyone.


The Reluctant Queen (The Queens of Renthia #2) by Sarah Beth Durst

The Reluctant Queen is available now. It is the sequel to The Queen of Blood, so there will be some slight spoilers for book one which I’ll try to keep as minimal as possible. You can find my review for Queen of Blood here.

The Reluctant Queen is an engrossing addition to the Queens of Renthia trilogy. The story continues in a way that I did not expect, but which makes perfect sense. Daleina has some disturbing news: she’s dying. As queen, she alone has the power to command the spirits that inhabit the land, to keep them from destroying everyone in Renthia. Without a queen, the lives of each human are forfeit. Daleina sends her champions (think King Arthur’s knights) to hopefully find and train an heir-because time is running out.

Here’s where things get complicated: Ven, the champion that trained Daleina, does find a candidate- one who is more powerful than anyone he’s ever seen. Naelin, who hides this power, is a mother focused on raising two healthy, happy children. She has no interest in traipsing off to be trained to use her power, and she definitely doesn’t want to become a queen. However, she might not have a choice: other candidates are mysteriously dying and things aren’t necessarily what they seem.

Being a mom myself, I loved Naelin. She knew where her priorities were and she made no bones about it. I felt horrible for her when she realized that the only way to protect her kids was to learn to protect everyone. Naelin’s kids were her whole world, and it was gut-wrenching when they were in danger as a direct result of her power.

This book moved a little more slowly during the first half, but it was never boring. The character development was fantastic. I loved getting to know more about Champion Ven, who grew in leaps and bounds between book one and the end of book two. There was an entirely new facet of his character revealed that added an extra layer of humanity to the plotline.

Sometimes in fantasy books, child characters are either incredibly annoying, or incredibly one dimensional. Neither of those things happened here. The children were fully developed characters, and they definitely contributed to the story.

The second half of the book ramped up until it became a breath-taking confrontation. I honestly didn’t know how things would end up and I loved every nail-biting moment. Once again, author Sarah Beth Durst showed incredible creativity in both her spirits and how they interacted and fought. Add in political intrigue, an epic battle, and some major backstabbing, and it’s safe to say that The Reluctant Queen has become one of my new favorite fantasies. This is a fantastic series for both fantasy veterans, and those who are just dipping their toes into this wonderful genre. I highly recommend it.

The Tropening: Book Tropes that I love (or hate)

“Colloquially, people use the term trope to mean recognizable elements of storytelling that audiences associate with specific genres. Like clichés, tropes act as storytelling shorthand and can apply to both plot lines and character types.“- SuperSummary.com

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about things I love (or hate) to see in books. There are clichés that I see as overdone and lacking, but there are also some that I’d love to see more of. I’m kind of changeable that way. It’s always just a matter of preference, of course, but here are some that I love and some that I’m sick to death of. That being said, there are exceptions to all of these for me. As long as the trope is well written, I’m flexible.

“I’m immortal!“- Authors spend a ton of time on their characters, so of course it’s hard to say goodbye. However, when a character is being constantly put into situations that they shouldn’t survive, and they survive anyway, it lessens the stakes of a book. If you don’t want to kill your character (completely understandable), maybe don’t chuck them into the depths of hell, light them on fire, and have a squad of rabid Jello Jigglers attack them.

On the flipside- I love when a character is brought back from the death, or the brink of death (once!) and it changes either them or another character irreversibly. Used correctly, that makes for some major character development. An author that knows when to save a character and when to let go is awesome.

Mental illness as a criminal motive- I’ve read a few mysteries/thrillers in the past year where the villain’s sole motive was that they were “psychotic” or had a mental illness of some sort. To me, that smacks of lazy writing, not to mention that it perpetrates a harmful stereotype. People with mental illnesses are not automatically dangerous or violent. Dovetailing off of this: I would love it if authors wouldn’t use suicide as revenge. Just stop.

On the flipside- I love when mental illness is represented accurately and well. So many people struggle with mental illness of some sort (myself included) that it is a breath of fresh air to see it written as something other than an excuse for horrible actions. Some authors that have done this amazingly are Ricardo Victoria, author of The Withered King, and Heidi Heilig, author of For a Muse of Fire.

Love Triangles (octagons, hexagons, or other shapes)– Of course I have to mention this. I can’t stand one person mentally making a pro/con list regarding which of their wanna-be lovers is best. Let me say something: if you’re waiting with bated breath for someone to choose you over ye random rival, just walk away. No one should be compared to someone else like that. And Wishy Washy obviously isn’t mature enough to be in a relationship anyway.

On the flipside- I love seeing a friendship grow into something more. Not as a main plot point; I think it’s pretty well established that I’m crotchety regarding literary romance. But seeing two characters who respect each other and enjoy spending time together become closer is pretty great.

One person against the world- I can’t stand it when a character immediately loses every single person they care about and it becomes the catalyst to take on the world. Alone. That’s boring. Give me a tragic backstory, sure. I’ll even take a whole slew of corpses left behind, but give the character someone to interact with.

On the flipside- If the main character picks up allies/co-workers/found family after losing someone or even on the way to take bloody revenge for losses, I’m totally good with that. I just want to have a chance for that character to grow.

The dreaded info dump- I’m not a “here it all is at once” kinda girl. I’ll either lose interest or miss something incredibly important. My brain just doesn’t work well with a ton of new information all at once.

On the flipside- I absolutely love it when information is shared naturally throughout a book, especially when a world is fully developed. I love reading about different histories and mythologies in fantasy or science fiction books, I just don’t want all the information to be chunked at me at once.

Anyway, there’s really no point to this post, except as a way to generate conversation. What do you think? What are some tropes that you love? What about tropes you hate?

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke


Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house―a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known. (taken from Amazon)

Bizarre and beautiful, Piranesi is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Susanna Clarke crafts an unforgettable tale of solitude, loss, and finding oneself in unexpected ways. While it was difficult to predict where the story was going (or indeed, where it started), I was swept away by it, and happily wandered the corridors of this labyrinthine book.

Piranesi has always lived in the House. At least, he thinks so. A flooded place filled with statues, birds, and the ever-present tides, he is mostly content. However, he is alone, aside from the Other. The Other is a mysterious figure whom Piranesi has agreed to look for a Great Knowledge with. What follows this simple premise is something new and entirely unique.

I can’t tell you much about the plot because I’m honestly still going through things in my mind. I would say that it’s convoluted, but the opposite is true. There are very few answers given throughout the book, making my imagination work overtime to fill in gaps in the narrative. Who is Piranesi? Who is the Other? What and where is the House?

As with the rest of Piranesi, the people are intentionally vague. A picture unfolds slowly, and little details are fleshed out, revealing amazingly deep characters. I honestly have no idea how Susanna Clarke was able to bring so much to life with so few words. The book is told almost entirely through journal entries, so physical descriptions of the characters were understandably few and far between. Normally that would really irk me, but I found that a character’s physical description matters much less in Piranesi than in other books I’ve read.

In a complete turnabout from the characters, there was a plethora of descriptions surrounding the House. It was done so well that I’m still half-convinced I’ve been there. I could hear the bird wings. I could smell the salt water. I could feel bits of seaweed in between my toes. It was astounding. To read this book is to become fully immersed in a different, introspective world.

It is absolutely impossible for me to compare this book to any other, including the author’s previous book. It stands alone and, while it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, I’m planning to revisit it soon. I highly recommend Piranesi to readers who appreciate beautiful prose, who like open-ended books, and who want to be swept away.

 

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Thank you to Angela Mann at Orbit Books for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. This book is available now.

Filled with intricate plotlines and political intrigue, The Bone Shard Daughter was enthralling, but still problematic. The high stakes (and high body count) drew me in; the constant switching between points of view took me out of the narrative.

Emperor Shiyen rules the Phoenix Islands through a network of constructs controlled by his bone shard magic. This magic comes at a high price to the empire’s citizens, a price that many are unhappy paying. The emperor is ostensibly using this magic to protect his people from the Alangua, an ancient enemy that most feel does not still exist. Are his motives truly altruistic, or is there something else happening beneath the surface?

There are several points of view found throughout the book. Lin’s storyline is arguably the most important. She is the daughter of the Emperor, desperate to prove her worth to her father and earn his trust. Only by discovering his secrets can she hope to someday succeed him and lead his empire. However, the more she tries to learn, the more dangerous those secrets become. The lies build up, and he has eyes everywhere. He is a dangerous man to cross, and Lin needs to find a way to survive his machinations and figure out what he is hiding. I have to say, I was absolutely stunned by where Lin’s storyline ended up. However, while Lin was technically the main character in the book, I found myself only sort-of invested in her character until about halfway through. Once her plotline got going, it raced along at a breakneck pace, but it took longer to get there than I would have liked.

There are a couple of other characters of note, but my favorite was Jovis, a smuggler turned accidental hero. I loved his storyline so very much! At the time of the book, he has spent seven long years searching for the ship that carried off his kidnapped wife. He has also managed to find himself on the wrong side of both the emperor and the Ioph Carn, a brutal crime syndicate. While trying to avoid both a bounty and assassins, he rescues a child. He does it for purely monetary reasons, but that is not what people see. It reminds me a bit of a certain hat-wearing hero of Canton…but I digress. As his reputation spreads, his legend grows. I loved watching the internal battle between Jovis’ desire to find his missing love, and his strong – if odd – moral compass. I am also incredibly curious about Jovis’ found companion and who – or what – he is.

The way the narratives eventually bled together was brilliant. Along the way, the reader is introduced to a truly fascinating world, with a history both complex and unique. The mythology was fully developed, and I felt like I had merely dipped my toes in, with much more to come.

Despite the many things I loved about The Bone Shard Daughter, I did have a couple things niggle at me. First, I did not care about Sand’s or Phalue’s storylines. At all. I was always tempted to skip the chapters told from their points of view (I never did, though). They did end up being useful in furthering the story, but I still was not a fan.

My other complaint is the way the chapters ended. Each chapter ended on a cliff hanger, whether it really needed to or not. Often, the next chapter in a particular character’s viewpoint would jump a bit ahead, not really explaining how the character got out of whatever scrape their previous chapter had ended on. It became confusing at times. I am not entirely sure why the author felt the need to end every chapter that way, but after a while I found myself sighing.

Despite my slight annoyances, I enjoyed the book. The last half ramped up quickly, and I am anxious to see what happens next. The turning point that took the book from setup to the meat of the story was brutal and unexpected. I loved it. I recommend this book to those who do not mind a slower buildup and appreciate a complicated storyline with political leanings and a fair bit of magic.

*This review originally printed in Grimdark Magazine.

Live and Let Read: My Thoughts on Banned and Censored Books

This week is Banned Books Week, so I’m taking this opportunity to talk about something that I have a strong opinion about: banning and censoring books.

“We must always be careful of books and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us.” (Cassandra Clare)

Let me start with a little backstory here. The banning of books is nothing new. In fact, it’s believed that the first widely banned book in the U.S. was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, banned for having a “pro-abolitionist agenda” (via lithub). While there are several varied reasons for banning or censoring books, sexual issues, age appropriateness, and the inclusion of witchcraft are pretty common. At one point, the poetry collection Howl (which is brilliant, by the way) was actually put on trial. The defendants had to prove that it had “literary merit.”

You’d think that, in this day and age, book banning or censoring is over and done with. Nope. The face of book banning may have changed, but there are always books being pulled from shelves or school libraries for all kinds of reasons.

Now, where do I stand on book banning and censorship? I am unequivocally against it. If you don’t agree with an idea a book is presenting, you absolutely have the right to choose not to read it. But denying others the right to make that decision for themselves is a slippery slope. Who should get to decide what content is appropriate for everyone?

The wonderful and-yes, sometimes scary- thing about books is how incredibly powerful they can be. They can comfort, educate, and challenge us. Books have the magical ability to both show us how vast this world is, while at the same time reminding us, that maybe we’re not so different or alone after all.

The list of banned and challenged books (a challenged book being one that a group has attempted to have access of removed or restricted) is huge. It includes ‘classics’ such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Catch 22. Children’s books as ubiquitous as Where’s Waldo and A Light in the Attic have also made the list. Unsurprisingly, Harry Potter is one of the most commonly challenged book series to date. Of course, don’t forget to add the Bible to the list: often challenged for violent content.

In fact, speaking of Harry Potter, I was told at one point that I needed to meet with someone to discuss my “unhealthy obsession with witchcraft” simply for reading those books. I was twenty eight years old at the time. See what I’m talking about when I say that book banning or censoring could become a dangerous slope?

I proudly say that I read banned and challenged books. My kids read them (I was so excited when they were introduced to Where the Wild Things Are). In fact, if you’re a reader, chances are you’ve enjoyed a book that’s been challenged or banned- whether you were aware of it or not.

There are many experiences that I haven’t had, shoes that I haven’t walked in, or situations that I haven’t dealt with…but books can help me understand and empathize with those who have. They teach us compassion and broaden our horizons. So, are they dangerous? I should hope so. After all, growth and change generally are.

What about you, Reader? Do you think books should be banned or censored? What “questionable” books have you read and loved? What books have changed you or caused you to see things differently?

Now, go live dangerously. READ.

*For more information about commonly challenged books over the years, check out http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10).

Image Credit: Grant Snider

Self-published fantasy authors: an interview with Geoff Habiger and Coy Kissee

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about Joy of the Widow’s Tears?

Geoff: “Joy of the Widow’s Tears is the second book in our fantasy detective series, the Constable Inspector Lunaria Adventures. In this book, Reva and her magic-user partner, Seeker Ansee Carya, are sent to investigate a potential double homicide, but when they get to the crime scene, both of the victim’s bodies have disappeared. The case is off to a bad start, and it gets worse when Reva is suspended for the way she handled the arrest of some adventurers. Reva figures that the time off will be good, since her boyfriend, Aavril, has just arrived back in town after spending months at sea. Unfortunately, Reva learns that Aavril has been promoted, and will be returning to sea instead of staying in Tenyl like he’d promised. Meanwhile, Seeker Carya investigates a missing persons case and soon discovers that his missing persons, and the missing murder victims, have all become seemingly invulnerable zombies with very strange powers. Reva must work outside the law to stop the mad cultist who is controlling these undead before they are unleashed upon the city.”

What first inspired you to write? What drew you to writing fantasy?

Geoff:” I would say that I just have an overactive imagination. I always made up stories when I played as a kid, and I realized I could tell these stories to other people. My interest in fantasy came from Dungeons & Dragons. Being able to play games in worlds filled with magic, monsters, and dragons, fueled my interest in reading fantasy, but also in writing it.”

Coy: “Reading. Once you read enough books, on varied subjects, by different authors and in different genres, you start to think “I can do that”. What drew me to fantasy – the short answer, Gary Gygax. I have vast roots in Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs. Plus, I’ve always liked other legends from real life, like King Arthur and Robin Hood.”

When working on a book, what comes first for you–the characters or the plot?

Geoff: “Yes. They both seem to come about at the same time. Sometimes the plot comes first and a character is developed to suit that story. Other times, it is the character that comes first. For us, more often than not, it is the character that comes first. In the Reva Lunaria series, it was Reva who came first. Our basic premise for the series was, “In a world of magic and monsters, how do the cops solve crimes?” We couldn’t figure out what the stories would be, or what the plots were, until we knew who Reva was. What kind of person is she? How does she act and react?

For our other series, a vampire gangster series that starts with Unremarkable, the basic plot came first. Once we had that, then we found a character, in Saul, who fit into the story that we wanted to tell.”


Did you base any of your characters on yourself in any way?

“Not intentionally. One of the characters (Ansee) is the same height as Geoff and seems to be as timid and cautious as Geoff is, though that wasn’t intentional. We just wanted somebody who could contrast with Reva. On the other hand, Reva very much has Coy’s personality. That does make it pretty easy to write her, since Coy just needs to know how he’d act in a similar situation. But we didn’t start out planning her that way, it just works that her forthrightness and determination, and inability to suffer fools, really matches with Coy’s personality.” 

What was the hardest character or part to write?

“For Coy, it is the exposition, writing the back story, information, and other details that give depth. For Geoff, the hardest parts to write are the dialogue, making sure that characters remain true to their own voice and don’t all start sounding the same.

Characters come and go, and if the dialogue isn’t right – if you can’t experience them and get the essence of that character – then you probably need a new character. Coy is very good at making sure that the character’s essence is there and remains consistent throughout the book. Geoff likes the exposition and background, writing the setting and description of people and places. He makes sure that the stage dressing is there for the characters to perform within. We think that our skill sets really complement each other and that really makes our writing click.”

You mesh fantasy with a detective character: what are some challenges with that? What is something you love about putting those two types of books together?

“One challenge is that, when you have a prevalence of magic, you have to prevent the solving of the crime from being too easy. It’s not good if your magic user can just cast a spell and identify the murderer. We have to make sure that there is enough mystery, enough of a challenge, like you’d find in a traditional (non-fantasy) mystery novel, so that the mystery will unfold as the story progresses. To make sure that we don’t let this happen, we have created rules for our magic system, to give us a framework for the world and to make sure that our characters still must face challenges and overcome struggles to be able to solve a crime.

Why do we put them together? They’re fun! We both love detective stories and fantasy stories, so putting them together just made sense. Plus, it’s a shift in the paradigm. It’s not just another detective novel, and not just another fantasy novel. There are so many books in each of those genres already, so in a world of fantasy and mystery, how do you stand out? For us, it was to put them together. Might we have alienated some readers of each genre by doing that? Probably. But have we gained some readers who didn’t know that this was a thing and it was missing from their lives? Heck, yes. And we love meeting them.”

Is it easier for you to write a villainous character or a hero? Which is more fun?

“The villain is easier, hands down. Their motivations are simpler, and generally they don’t have to be as complex as the heroes (though having complexity does give depth). Plus, with villains, we usually don’t have to have deep back stories, or try to interweave multiple sub-plots, character interactions, or other things that our main protagonists have to deal with from book to book.

As to fun, for us it is some of the minor characters that pop into the story, who are neither the hero nor the villain, that are the most fun to write. With them, we are not constrained by their motives or their actions, and we can play them however we want. We sometimes play these minor characters for humor, but we can also play them as over-the-top characters to help contrast with our main characters. In this series, we have several characters that are fun to write. Rhoanlan is a pawn broker, a known fence for stolen items, and a confidential informant that Reva uses. He is based on Sidney Greenstreet’s character of Signor Ferrari in Casablanca – a man who has his fingers in many places, has the pulse of the city, seems to know more information than everybody else, and will give it up for the right price. Rhoanlan has been in both books in the series so far. In Joy of the Widow’s Tears, we introduced several other minor characters that are a lot of fun to write. Pfastbinder is a cleric of Banok, the god of chaos, and this gives us immense freedom in how we play him, and in how he interacts with the other characters. Another new character is Amaryllis, who is a costume designer at Pfenestra’s Playhouse, and is another resource that Reva sometimes uses if she is in need of a disguise. Amaryllis is a blend of Nathan Lane’s character of Albert from The Birdcage and Edna Mode from The Incredibles. This makes Amaryllis very easy to write, and a lot of fun.”

I know you also work in publishing. Does that affect your writing process at all?

“Only in the sense that it means that Geoff has less time to write. It doesn’t really affect the actual writing process itself. We still plot our stories (we are both plotters) and then Geoff usually writes the first draft while Coy then fixes all of Geoff’s mistakes, corrects the dialogue, and makes sure that it is a coherent story.

Where being a publisher really helps is in what happens after the story is written. The publishing company (Shadow Dragon Press, which is an imprint of the main company, Artemesia Publishing, LLC) handles the expenses for editing, cover design, etc., as well as distribution and marketing. Geoff treats himself and Coy the same as he does all of the other writers he publishes, giving just as much focus to their stories so that there is no playing of favorites.”

Lastly, I’m always curious? What is your favorite book (and you can absolutely say your own!)

Coy: “Currently, John Dies at the End by David Wong.”

Geoff: “Without Remorse by Tom Clancy because it is a great character study.”

Author Bios:

The writing duo of Geoff Habiger and Coy Kissee have been life-long friends since high school in Manhattan, Kansas. (Affectionately known as the Little Apple, which was a much better place to grow up than the Big Apple, in our humble opinion.) We love reading, baseball, cats, role-playing games, comics, and board games (not necessarily in that order and sometimes the cats can be very trying). We’ve spent many hours together over the years (and it’s been many years) basically geeking out and talking about our favorite books, authors, and movies, often discussing what we would do differently to fix a story or make a better script. We eventually turned this passion into something more than just talk and now write the stories that we want to read. 

Coy lives with his wife in Lenexa, Kansas. Geoff lives with his wife and son in Tijeras, New Mexico.

The Ventifact Colossus by Dorian Hart

Banished to an otherworldly prison for centuries, the monstrous Emperor Naradawk is about to break free and wreak havoc upon the world of Spira. The archmage Abernathy can no longer keep Naradawk at bay, and has summoned a collection of would-be heroes to help set things right.

Surely he made a mistake. These can’t be the right people.

Dranko is a priest-turned-pickpocket, expelled from his church for his antics. Kibilhathur is a painfully shy craftsman who speaks to stones. Aravia is a wizard’s apprentice whose intellect is eclipsed only by her arrogance. Ernest is a terrified baker’s son. Morningstar is a priestess forbidden from daylight. Tor is a young nobleman with attention issues. Ysabel is an elderly farm woman. Grey Wolf is a hard-bitten mercenary.

None of them are qualified to save the world, but they’ll have to do. Even Abernathy himself seems uncertain as to why he chose them.

What starts with a simple scouting mission soon spirals into something more far-reaching and sinister. The heroes will contest with dream warriors, evil cultists, sentient gemstones, and a devious yet infuriatingly polite gentleman with a perfect mustache, on their way to a desperate encounter with the unstoppable: The Ventifact Colossus. (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to the author for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. It’s available for purchase now.

One of the things I love about fantasy is that you can take a commonality – like a group of unlikely heroes – and make it something new and different. In The Ventifact Colossus, author Dorian Hart created a world that is full of adventure and heart. Brace yourselves, folks: this is going to be a rave.

Where should I start? First of all, the characters were fabulous. The book opens with Dranko, a priest-turned-thief who just happens to also be part human, part goblin. He’s bristly, but a good guy underneath a tough exterior. You can tell he’s been kicked around by life a bit. He finds himself with an unexpected new employer: a wizard who has gathered a ragtag group of possible-heroes. Dranko ends up traveling with several others, each with their own personality and struggles, in an attempt to prevent a very bad thing (no spoilers from me). However, as much as I loved the storyline, it was the well-written characters that won me over.

There is a three-way tie for my favorite characters. Yes, I know that’s a bit ridiculous, but I can’t narrow it down more than that. I thought Dranko was fascinating and had hidden depth. Every time I thought I figured him out, a new facet of his personality would be revealed. I also loved the kindly older woman, Mrs. Horn. She was so sweet, but had a steel backbone. She wasn’t a fighter, like some of the others, nor was she a healer, but her role was vital to the group nonetheless. And Ernie! Oh, how I loved that character! He was a jumble of low self-esteem and a huge heart. Watching his character grow and evolve was so much fun!

I love how interconnected everything was. One thing would have ramifications for others that I never saw coming. It was never done just for convenience though, and the world never felt small. On the contrary, the world was vast and felt Tolkien-esqe (ish?) in that I knew there were things left undiscovered and yet to be experienced. I’m very excited to be continuing the story in book two.

Perhaps my favorite thing about The Ventifact Colossus is its underlying theme of hope and the goodness of people. Don’t get me wrong: the stakes are high, and the author definitely loves making the reader emotional (I’m still salty about a particular scene), but the pages didn’t scream, “Doooommmm!” at me every time I opened the book.

This is the sort of book that reminds me why fantasy is my favorite genre. Come for the adventure, stay for the amazing characters. I highly recommend this one.

Self-published Fantasy Authors: An Interview with L.A. Wasielewski

Amazon.com: The Alchemist: Dawn of Destiny (The Alchemist Trilogy ...
Today, I have the pleasure to interview L.A. Wasielewski, author of the Alchemist trilogy. Thank you for taking some time to chat with me!

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about The Alchemist trilogy?

“The Alchemist Trilogy is the story of Ryris Bren, a talented alchemist with a secret—he possesses the power of magic. It’s not something you can learn by studying, you need to be born with it. In his world, being able to use magic is viewed as a curse, and you’re taught from birth to hide it—or risk being hunted and killed. Maybe by magic hunters, maybe by vindictive citizens. He has a family heirloom, an amulet, that keeps the magic hunters away. At least, that’s what his Gran told him, and he’s been conditioned never to take it off. Ryris decides he wants to spread his wings, gain some independence, and expand the family businessand he convinces his father to allow him to open another shop in the capital city, Keld, far away. One day, after his move, he decides to go to a northern town to harvest a special ingredient from mountain caves, and his life changes forever. (This is where I’ll stop…because I’m obviously sassy and don’t want to ruin book secrets…hehe) Life changes, the world changes, and he realizes he’s been a part of whatever is happening since even before his birth. Alchemy! Forbidden Magic! Necromancy! Shape-shifting! Monsters! Giants! Ghosts! Swordfights! Violence! Sass! Snark! …and pie!

These books are adult dark fantasy, not recommended for readers under 16 or so, just because of dark adult themes, violence, blood, gore, drug use, and some implied hanky-panky. There are also several planned side-projects, one of which is with test readers right now and will be released after Book3 comes out in 2021. The Alchemist: Dawn of Destiny (Book1) and The Alchemist: Dark Horizon (Book2) are available now in paperback and e-book, and free on Kindle Unlimited.”

What first inspired you to write? What drew you to writing fantasy?


“I started writing fanfiction in high school—but I didn’t know that fanfic was actually a thing. I loved the game Phantasy Star IV (just dated myself, I guess!), and decided to write a story about it while “paying attention” in my 12th grade economics class. It was posted (briefly) on a website, but it’s gone now and will never see the light of day again. EVER. That’s how bad it was. But…the passion to write never left me. College happened, marriage happened, kid happened. As a stay-at-home mom, I needed an outlet for some creativity, and I decided to give fanfiction a try again. This time it was Final Fantasy VIII. Some of my best and dearest writing friendships blossomed from that time. I wrote Final Fantasy VIII, Star Trek AOS (New Films), Final Fantasy XV, and Fallout fanfic. (I still do even now…it’s a great way to distract myself if I get blocked, plus it’s just fun!) Writing fanfic was a great way to hone my skill, learn to edit properly, and really challenge myself.

As far as writing original fantasy? I had always LOVED reading fantasy books. My gateway series was The Darksword Trilogy by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I then moved on to their DeathGate Cycle and Dragonlance. Margaret Weis is, by far, my absolute favorite author, and she’s definitely been an inspiration. Two girls from Wisconsin, writing about magic! I also enjoyed the Swords series by Fred Saberhagen. I was always drawn to traditional epic fantasy—medieval settings, dragons, magic, swords and sorcery, etc. So, when my (then) 7 y/o son wanted me to come up with a story for a game he wanted to make and write a strategy guide for—I tapped into my love of old-school fantasy to create an idea for him. He wanted it to be a fantasy-type game and I came up with a story about a magical princess in crystal armor in a cave. That small kernel would eventually become The Alchemist Trilogy. I wrote a small story for him and realized, hey, this is surprisingly good! I bet this could be a book! I was working part-time in retail, not really contributing to the family income or anything, and my husband (bless him!) said if I was really serious about writing a book, I could quit the job. You can just guess what I chose! That was Summer 2015, and the first book in The Alchemist Trilogy was released three years later.”

When working on a book, what comes first for you–the characters or the plot?

“Honestly? A little of both. With The Alchemist Trilogy, (as seen above) it was the story first (as tiny of a kernel as it was…that original idea blossomed into so much more) and then the characters. Poor Ryris didn’t even have a name in the outline for a very long time. When I’m working on outlining a project, dialogue tends to come to me in chunks, and I weave it into order within the story I’m working on in my mind. I craft the scene/chapter around the dialogue. Then I can fill in the missing pieces with more plot/story and link it all together into one cohesive arc. “

Did you base any of your characters on yourself in any way?

“Ryris suffers from anxiety, which I definitely struggle with. I think it helped me flesh him out more, make him relatable. When he’s having a bad day, I know how to help him on the page. And vice-versa, I know how it feels to be anxious and/or panicky, and I think sharing those feelings with him allows me to better represent it in the books. It’s like, “I get it, dude. I feel ya.”

There’s also a secondary character that makes their first appearance in Dark Horizon (Book 2) that is absolutely a sassy, snarky mix of me and one of my dearest friends, Paige. I’ve told her many times that this particular character was written pretty much to entertain her.”

What was the hardest character or part to write?

“Character? Definitely Lyrax. But for the life of me, I can’t pinpoint why. I LOVE writing horrible, terrible, malicious characters. But for some reason, this guy was just never living up to his potential in terms of just how awful he could be. My husband (who is the most brutally honest and incredible editor/CP I could ever ask for) was the one who really took to him. He just “felt” his voice, you know? Once we started working together on Lyrax, he came to life in a way I never imagined possible. And that, as they say, is that. He’s menacing, devious, manipulative, and a total creep…and he’s perfect.

As far as “part” of any books, I’d have to say the entire 3rd volume in the series. From the beginning, I KNEW this one was going to be tough. It was the least outlined of the three (I heavily outline everything), so I knew I was already going in at a disadvantage. Then, all these new ideas came to me and my husband, and, while they were fantastic, really threw a wrench in what I had planned. (It worked out in the end and this book is going to be fab, but at that moment, I felt really defeated and discouraged.) Then, to really smack me in the face, I was hit with massive writer’s block. It got to the point where I was so disillusioned with the whole project that I hated it. I never wanted to look at it again. And I knew that’s when something had to change. So, I took a break—a long one. Like, months. And, slowly, ideas started to come about how to work with what needed to be done. In January 2020, I had my a-ha moment, sat, and re-outlined the whole damn thing over the course of two days (from a certain point in the story—the beginning was totally fine and didn’t need to be tweaked, really) and was ready to go. I gave myself six weeks to finish the book. I had a deadline on myself, because I wanted to have it ready for January 2021 to debut at a local fantasy and gaming convention that I exhibit at every year and needed to make time for several drafts/editing/test readers/more editing/finalization. I buckled down and finished the draft with a few days to spare. That was March 3rd, 2020. And then—COVID-19 hit. Anxiety was skyrocketing, my child was no longer at school all day, and we were all cooped up in the house. My motivation—and energy—to write was utterly destroyed. As my publishing deadline of XMAS 2020 continued to encroach, my will to write was still nonexistent, and I was more and more certain I wouldn’t be attending the convention in January 2021 because of the virus. (That’s still up in the air at this point.) I knew something had to give. So, I removed my publishing deadline. A weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It didn’t help my motivation much, but just knowing that I didn’t HAVE TO get it done by a certain date was a relief. No matter how much I wanted to write, most of the time, I was too anxious, stressed, or depressed to do so. And when I did get a tiny spark of motivation, I was interrupted by the child, or he wanted me to entertain him. (Mom life, right?) It literally wasn’t until this last weekend (August 14th-15th) that I had a massive breakthrough. I had been planning on adding more content to the 1st draft and had been struggling with getting one of my new outlined ideas in chapter form. And—just like that—it hit me. I wrote two chapters in two days and made more progress in those days than I had in over eight weeks. I’m hopeful now that I can keep this motivation and “mojo” going and plug on! Book3 (as yet still untitled because titles are the bane of my existence) will hopefully be released mid-2021.”

I love books featuring alchemists! What caused you to give your character that profession?

“Ryris was originally a scholar of history, to be honest! He was going to go off to the university to accept a teaching position and had this book from his childhood that was full of fantastical tales that sent him on a path of exploration. The story in the book contained what some viewed as possible history (Ryris) and what most viewed as fairytales (pretty much everyone else). He was determined to prove it—and the faculty advised him not to meddle. His classes were, in part, going to be about this history/fairytale. This was how he would have still ended up in the situation where he’d encounter [that life-changing event], but I realized he’d be having to lug this damn book around wherever he went! That idea went out the door super quick. I also felt like having him be a scholar kept him tethered too much and didn’t give him room to spread his wings. So, he needed a new profession. The decision to make him an alchemist was an a-ha moment. I play a lot of Elder Scrolls Oblivion and Skyrim, and always loved the alchemy aspect. When I envisioned what Ryris’ world looked like in my mind, it had an Elder Scrolls-type feel to it. So, making him an alchemist was a no-brainer. It allowed me to give him a lot of opportunities for adventure, and I could come up with all sorts of incredible potions, ingredients, and effects of said potions. I can’t imagine him as anything else now. Alchemy is in his blood—and I guess it always was. I just had to realize that! And, thinking back, this book series would have exploded on the launchpad had I kept him as a scholar. Alchemy has such an important role for so many reasons in this trilogy. There literally would be no story without it. Man, am I glad I made the decision to pluck him from his original profession! Best choice ever!”

Is it easier for you to write a villainous character or a hero? Which is more fun?

“It’s easiest for me to write snarky, sassy characters. Sometimes that’s the hero, sometimes that’s the villain. I always want my books to have a good element of humor, especially since they tend to be pretty dark in a lot of places. Gotta liven it up sometimes! A well-placed smartass remark almost always does the trick!

I do tend to be quite mean to my characters—both physically and emotionally—so writing the villain is fun because I can come up with all kinds of ways to hurt people. Wow, that makes me sound like a horrible person! (…and I don’t care…hehe)”

What do you do to “get in the zone”?

“Before COVID-19, I had a routine. Drop my kid at school, pick up dinner ingredients at the store, come home and make coffee, and write. Mornings always seemed like my most productive time. For the longest time, I needed absolute quiet—no music, no tv, nothing. But, especially with the 3rd book, I started to use Pandora to help me find a mood. Book3 was written to a lot of E.S Posthumus, Moody Blues, ELO, Toto, and Jethro Tull!

Now, with everyone in the house and no real time to myself, it’s less about finding my zone, and more about stealing any moment I can get. Usually, it’s when the kid is engrossed in a video game, but even then, he’s constantly talking to me so it’s hard to work. And, after bedtime, I’m usually too tired to try and write! So, these last five months have been challenging.”

Lastly, I’m always curious? What is your favorite book (and you can absolutely say your own!)

“Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Forging the Darksword. It was the first fantasy book I ever read and started my love of fantasy novels. The concept of magic was uniquely approached in this series, and I instantly loved it. My copy is an original (bought it at Waldenbooks back in the day!), and is so old and worn, that the cover is taped on and the pages are yellowed and brittle! It’s definitely well-loved. I tend to re-read it (and the other Darksword books) once every couple of years.”

LA pic   Author Bio:

L.A. Wasielewski is a gamer, nerd, baseball fan (even though the Brewers make it very difficult sometimes), and mom. When she’s not writing, she’s blasting feral ghouls and super mutants in the wastelands, baking and cooking, and generally being a smart-ass. She’s very proud of the fact that she has survived several years with two drum kits in the house—and still has most of her hearing intact.

You can find L.A. Wasielewski here: