Strange Cargo by Patrick Samphire

What do a smuggling gang, a curse that won’t go away, and a frequently lost dog have to do with each other?

Answer: they’re all here to disrupt Mennik Thorn’s hard-earned peace and quiet.

As the sole freelance mage in the city of Agatos, Mennik is used to some odd clients and awful jobs. But this time, one of his clients isn’t giving him a choice. Mennik might have forgotten about the smugglers whose operations he disrupted, but they haven’t forgotten about him. Now he is faced with a simple ultimatum: help them smuggle in an unknown, dangerous cargo or flee the city he loves forever.

Time is running out for Mennik to find an answer, and things are about to get completely out of control. (Taken from Amazon)

Mennik (Nik) is back and in even bigger trouble than usual, in the third installment in the Mennik Thorn series. Strange Cargo was one of my most anticipated books of the year and it did not disappoint. It was awesome, unsurprisingly.

I am a sucker for books featuring down-on-their luck rapscallions who can’t seem to stay out of danger. Whether it’s a smart mouth at the wrong time, or a penchant for chasing trouble, these kinds of characters keep me smiling and guessing. Mennik Thorn is high on my list of favorite trouble-finders and each book in the series makes me like him more.

After the events of Nectar for the God, book two in the series, Mennik is on the outs with his best (and some would argue, only) friend. He’s also unfortunately on the outs with a group of smugglers. Seeing as they’d happily see him dead, they choose the next best thing and pressure Mennik into a job protecting an item they plan to smuggle into Agatos. Of course, if he ends up dead in the process, that’s just a perk for them, right?

Not only does this “job” not pay, but it’s also incredibly dangerous. Once Mennik learns what it is he’s helping smuggle in, things go from sideways to dangerous. I won’t ruin the surprise, but it’s a doozy. The stakes keep going up from book to book, keeping me interested and wondering what fresh hell Mennik will find himself in next.

I love that Mennik always has another side problem that he’s trying to solve while the main story arc takes up most of the attention. In this instance, Mennik’s less-than-enthusiastic client is none other than the cranky owner of the crap bar Mennik frequents. Their passive-aggressive conversations entertained me to no end.

Mennik is a brilliant character, a study in contradictions. He tries to do the right thing, but he rarely knows what the “right thing” is. He’s smart-mouthed and mocks pretty much everyone but he is equally mocking of himself. He would probably have a longer life expectancy if he didn’t feel the urge to help people (even when they serve him subpar alcohol), but he can’t seem to stop helping anyway. Oh, and he might as well write Killed by Curiosity on his headstone now and get it over with.

Of course, his character does not exist in stasis. He has grown and changed since book one (Shadow of a Dead God), although he remains delightfully disaster prone. Strange Cargo doesn’t highlight that character growth quite as much because it is shorter (more of a novella than a full-fledged novel). In some ways it shouted “side quest” but it still managed to pack in revelations and world development aplenty.

As always, the writing is phenomenal. Everything is brilliantly described, painting vivid pictures of both Agatos and its inhabitants. The dialogue is witty, and things move at a quick pace. Strange Cargo showcased all the things that I love about the series and made me hungry for more. Book four in the Mennik Thorn series can’t come soon enough!

*Review originally appeared in Grimdark Magazine

Ordinary Monsters by J.M. Miro

Charlie Ovid, despite surviving a brutal childhood in Mississippi, doesn’t have a scar on him. His body heals itself, whether he wants it to or not. Marlowe, a foundling from a railway freight car, shines with a strange bluish light. He can melt or mend flesh. When Alice Quicke, a jaded detective with her own troubled past, is recruited to escort them to safety, all three begin a journey into the nature of difference and belonging, and the shadowy edges of the monstrous.

What follows is a story of wonder and betrayal, from the gaslit streets of London, and the wooden theaters of Meiji-era Tokyo, to an eerie estate outside Edinburgh where other children with gifts―like Komako, a witch-child and twister of dust, and Ribs, a girl who cloaks herself in invisibility―are forced to combat the forces that threaten their safety. There, the world of the dead and the world of the living threaten to collide. With this new found family, Komako, Marlowe, Charlie, Ribs, and the rest of the Talents discover the truth about their abilities. And as secrets within the Institute unfurl, a new question arises: What truly defines a monster? (Taken from Amazon)

With a premise that is reminiscent of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, with a hint of X-Men thrown in for good measure, Ordinary Monsters could have easily gotten lost in a crowd of similar books. Instead, its evocative writing sets it apart from so many other “extraordinary children” storylines, while author J.M. Miro confidently subverts expectations.

The plotline seems simple enough: there are two kids with special abilities referred to as Talents, being hunted by a mysterious being. At the same time, there is a duo of detectives (ish) who have been given the task of finding these children and taking them to a special school for those like them (seems pretty similar to Professor X’s school, right?).

Where the book differs from other stories in this vein is its execution. Ordinary Monsters is darkly beautiful, grimy, and gothic with an ugly underbelly that rears its head when least expected. It’s unsettling and thought provoking. I was engrossed and almost repulsed, in equal measure. There’s an undercurrent of hope, even among the bleakest parts of the book.

Ordinary Monsters uses multiple points of view, but it is never confusing or distracting. There are Marlowe and Charlie, two children with Talents. Charlie can glow. Marlowe can heal himself of any physical hurt. Unfortunately for him, the emotional pain isn’t also healed. His introduction was heartbreaking, to say the least. Then there are several other characters who play roles of varying importance. What I loved about this was how even the smallest of interactions could have a profound impact on the personality or choices of a main character.

I definitely had some niggles. The plot could be a little convoluted at times, and there were subjects touched upon that I prefer to avoid (description of rape being the main one that most bothered me). If there was a content warning section in the book, I missed it. However, these unsavory topics were not used for “shock value”, and they weren’t dwelled upon. Take from that what you will.

As in life, things were complex and messy. There was no absolute good or absolute bad. Each character had their own drive and motivation, and many characters were morally conflicted at best. The story went far past surface level, examining what makes people tick.

While the book wasn’t perfect, it was a fascinating read. It impresses with its immersive, gothic atmosphere and its nuanced characters. Ordinary Monsters will worm its way into your head and keep you thinking. Pick this one up if you like exploring the dark corners of the human psyche and are drawn to the mysterious and unknown.

SPAAW- Small Places by Matthew Samuels

This week marks the second annual Self-published Authors Appreciation Week (#SPAAW), a weeklong event celebrating self-published authors. Please feel free to join in the fun by shouting about your favorite self-published authors on your various platforms.

Jamie is a lonely, anxious kid when he has a run-in with a witch in a remote Somerset village. He’s almost forgotten about it thirteen years later when unpredictable storms and earthquakes hit England – and that’s the least of his worries. Suffering from anxiety, terrible flatmates and returning to his family home after his mother is diagnosed with cancer, he’s got a lot on his mind. But Melusine, the witch of flesh and blood, lures him back with the offer of cold, hard cash in exchange for his help investigating the source of the freak weather; something’s messing with the earth spirit, Gaia, and Mel means to find out who – or what – it is. As they work together, travelling to the bigoted Seelie Court and the paranoid Unseelie Court, meeting stoned fauns and beer-brewing trolls, Jamie must reconcile his feelings about the witch’s intentions and methods all while handling grief, life admin and one singularly uptight estate agent. (Taken from Amazon)

Smart and funny, Small Places is a wonderful addition to the fantasy genre. The book follows Jamie, a man who has just found out that his mom has cancer. He goes back to their little village to see how he can help, and falls into an unexpected adventure. As he tries to juggle the ordinary stress with the “what on earth is happening” stress, Jamie is thrown into one logic-defying situation after another. Buckle up, everyone. This is going to be a rave.

I loved everything about Small Places! From the story arc to the characters, everything was fantastic. Author Matthew Samuels has crafted a genius story, one that immediately drew me in. His cast of characters were quirky and creative. There were some of the more common fantasy creatures, but every single one subverted stereotypes and became creative twists on the norm, unique and different. Some were definitely creepy, and others made me laugh way too hard. I ended up reading snippets out loud to explain the snort-laughing. There’s a particular conversation involving vaping that had me rolling on the floor…

Jamie is one of the most likeable main characters I’ve read who also happens to be believable. A little lost, and inundated with some of the harder things in life, Jamie is just trying to make it through, taking each day one situation at a time. He gets drawn into a problem of the fae variety when he agrees to help a witch in exchange for a potion that might help his mom’s health.

The witch in question, Melusine, is cantankerous and snarky. She also kept the story moving smoothly, giving information in a way that made sense but felt natural. There was no dreaded info-dump; instead, knowledge is given throughout the book as needed, which is how I prefer it. I loved her slippery view of morality. I never knew where she would land on any given issue, or how far she was willing to go to achieve her goals.

My favorite character, though, is Merovech. A tinkerer with a child-like sense of wonder, and a penchant for inventing dangerous gizmos; they packed an emotional wallop. I loved every single scene they were in. They also caused what might be my favorite quote in the book (which I will not spoil by sharing here, don’t worry).

I loved the combination of ordinary and flat-out bizarre, the day-to-day grind and the unexpected. In fact, it probably would just be easier to say that I loved everything about Small Places. I am desperate to read book two, and I’m rather peeved that I have to wait (patience is not a virtue that I have in abundance). Matthew Samuels is a talented writer and Small Places is an excellent book.

Book Spotlight: Pyramidion by G.E.

I always love it when I get to shout about a book that intrigues me, one that has a new and unique premise. Today, I’m excited to spotlight Pyramidion by author G.E. Newbegin!

The premise:

What if everything you thought you knew was a lie?

“Seek the Pyramidion.”

After losing his whole world in a car accident, Luke Nixon falls into a pit of despair, only to find himself receiving advice from his dead wife in his dreams. He soon ends up under the care of an ancient organisation and learns that he and his family are of an ancient bloodline – and that his daughter is still alive.

Unsure if he can trust them, but lacking any other choice, Luke is left with only one option: to rescue his daughter. However, it’s no simple task following a breadcrumb trail across multiple continents, through the spirit realm, and ultimately bringing Luke face to face with gods and demons. (Taken from Amazon)

I was fortunate to be able to talk with G.E. Newbegin about Pyramidion, his writing process, and urban fantasy. You can find that interview here. And pick up a copy of Pyramidion!

Purchase link:

Amazon

Fantasy Focus: Urban Fantasy Featuring G.E. Newbegin

This year I’m focusing on some of the amazing subgenres that fantasy has to offer.  So far I’ve focused on comedic fantasy,  romantic fantasy,  grimdark, and epic fantasy.  This month I’m excited to be focusing on urban fantasy. 

I am privileged to interview G.E. Newbegin,  author of Pyramidion. 

Hi G.E.! Thank you for being willing to chat about urban fantasy with me!

 

No worries – glad to!

 

Will you introduce yourself and talk a little bit about Pyramidion?

 

Sure – I’m G.E. Newbegin, a newly self- published Australian author, with two books released and another not far off. I live in Melbourne with my wife and two kids and I talk about cybersecurity for a day job. If you’re wondering – yes, I’ve tried to write sci-fi, but sci-fi is HARD. So I gave up.

Pyramidion was my debut novel, which I released in June 2021. It took me about a year to write, edit, rewrite again after my editor pulled it apart, typeset and ultimately publish, all of which I did while working from home. So… if your readers are thinking about what to do with their downtime while working from home? Don’t work more, write!

I wanted to write a horror fantasy, but as I worked through the story, it turned into an action-adventure that some readers have compared to Indiana Jones. While that character wasn’t a direct influence, I will happily accept the comparison!

Pyramidion tells the tale of Luke Nixon, who is propelled on a globe-trotting adventure (and beyond…) after seemingly losing everything, encountering gods and demons along the way. There are some common themes with this kind of story (secret organisations, bloodlines, alternate history), but it’s my take on these ideas. It’s fun, but can be dark in places, just like real life.

 

Pyramidion has the concept of a huge loss, which propels Luke on a life-changing adventure. Do you think a strength of urban fantasy is that it allows for a realistic exploration of themes such as loss and grief?

 

Honestly, I think most genres can explore these same themes, but being set in more familiar territory means readers can empathise more readily. Adding “fantastical” elements means you can explore things in ways that reality might limit you…

 

How would you define urban fantasy?

 

It’s a tricky genre to define, because in some ways, an urban fantasy could be any fantasy set in a city, but I generally define the “urban” component as a “contemporary setting” – so, any fantasy set in a familiar, modern setting. Pyramidion is set in the real world, but there are fantastical truths hidden from the populace.  Stories like Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Twilight, the Sookie Stackhouse novels, and many more besides can be considered Urban (or Contemporary) fantasy, among others – books tend to fit into several molds.

 

What drew you to writing urban fantasy?

 

To be honest, it was simply the idea that came to mind, and it worked best for me. Since I wanted to touch on “real” themes, such as mythology and religion, for example, I found it easier to set the story in modern times. There was a point I was considering setting the story in a world of my own, but given I wanted to use real myths and legends, it probably wouldn’t work.

I’ve just released a second book in April (“The Fathomless Sky Lake” – a novella, not the sequel to Pyramidion, which I am working on right now), but this time I’ve decided to go all in on fantasy – in fact, even the sequel to Pyramidion will lean further into fantasy. I guess it depends on what suits the story more.

 

What were some obstacles to writing Pyramidion?

 

Being my first novel, motivation was the biggest obstacle. I’d considered myself a writer since I was a child, but all I had to show for it was a bunch of half finished manuscripts (most of which have been lost to time).

The other obstacle was research – how much do you REALLY need to know about something in order to write about it effectively? You can quite easily waste time going down a rabbithole that you really don’t need to. On the other hand, not enough research can stand out to some readers. So there’s a need to balance different kinds of work – the only work that gets you closer to finishing is the writing itself.

 

What were some successes?

 

Finishing the book in the first place. Convincing myself I could do it. Building the courage to put it out in the public eye.

But for me, the biggest success was having strangers – people I have never met and probably never will – read my book. That was a success in itself, and every bit of feedback, both good and bad, encourages me to work harder.

 

Who are some of your favorite authors?

 

I mostly read sci-fi, horror, and fantasy, so many of the usuals would top my list – JRR Tolkien, GRR Martin, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Joe Abercrombie, Gene Wolfe, Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, Mark Lawrence, Jim Butcher, Richard Morgan… And if I can recommend a new author I’m enjoying at the moment, Christopher Ruocchio, who has released a really riveting and well developed space opera with his Sun Eater series.

Where to purchase:

Pyramidion

Fantasy Focus: Urban Fantasy Featuring Jamie Jackson

This year I’m doing a new series on my blog: Fantasy Focus. Each month, I’m focusing on a different fantasy subgenre. Fantasy is such a broad genre with so many different things to offer. So far, there have been focuses on Comedic FantasyRomantic FantasyGrimdark, and Epic/High Fantasy.

Today, I’m privileged to talk with Jamie Jackson, author of the Adventures of a Villain-Leaning Humanoid series.

Hi Jamie! Thank you for joining me to talk about urban fantasy!

First, will you tell readers a little bit about yourself?

So, I’m basically Doug from Up.  I’m easily excitable, loud, and often distracted.  I love fantasy and science fiction but will read any and all genres I can get my hands on.  I’ve worked backstage in theater and behind the scenes documentaries about movies and TV shows are my favorite things to watch.  I’m also married to an awesome and supportive man, have three kids, and two dogs.

Will you talk a little bit about Fear and Fury?

So, it’s the first novel in my urban fantasy superhero series, Adventures of a Villain-Leaning Humanoid.  It has a 4th wall-breaking 1st person narrative, Greek mythology retelling, and a cast of ruthless, morally grey heroes going up against some epic villains.  The first book is essentially Meg’s “origin” story, when a previously unknown villain makes her his next target, she has to turn to the heroes she’s spent her life trying to avoid for help.

I love that your main character, Megaera, is a “self-described not-a-hero”. How did you get in the “zone”, so to speak, when writing a more self-centered character?

I’ll be honest, I have no idea.  I like to think that I thought about if I was hero, what kind of hero would I hope to be, and then wrote the opposite of that.  But she just showed up as a petty, and somewhat self-centered person to start with.

Your book is considered urban fantasy. How would you define that subgenre?

I would say urban fantasy is anything occurring in a modern setting that has fantastical elements, either magic, superheroes, the paranormal, etc.

What first drew you to writing urban fantasy?

I wanted a world that had cell phones.

In truth, it’s a genre I enjoy reading, and for my first real novel I wanted to write something where there wasn’t going to be an overwhelming amount of world-building.  When it’s a universe like ours, we already know most of the rules for how things work, so for a project I was attempting while involuntarily homeschooling it was the ideal genre to write in.  And the idea for Meg had been knocking around in my head for a while already. 

What are some difficulties with writing urban fantasy?

Realism! You have to balance the line of what could realistically occur in our world with modern elements like technology and still being able to exaggerate it without losing your readers benefit of the doubt.

What are some strengths in this subgenre?

I think one of the strengths is that since it occurs in the modern world, it can be easier for readers to relate the situations the characters get into.  And as a whole I think we would love for there to be magic in the modern world, and urban fantasy gives that to us.  It’s also flexible with the amount of creatures, mythology, and magic you can put into your story. The genre runs the gamut from werewolves and vampires to the fae and gods and goddesses being a part of those worlds.  And it tends to blend sci-fi, fantasy and horror.

Who are some of your go-to authors?
Craig Schaefer, Rachel Aaron. I’ve read the majority of Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series. Right now I have a huge backlog of indie author books I’m working through, but the authors of the ones I have read are all on my instant buy list.

Purchase links:

http://mybook.to/FearandFury

http://mybook.to/TormentandTarnish

http://mybook.to/ScornandSorrow

Fantasy Focus: Urban Fantasy Featuring Peter Hartog

This year I’m doing a new series on my blog: Fantasy Focus. Each month, I’m focusing on a different fantasy subgenre. Fantasy is such a broad genre with so many different things to offer. So far, there have been focuses on Comedic Fantasy, Romantic Fantasy, Grimdark, and Epic/High Fantasy.

I’m excited to have the opportunity to interview Peter Hartog, author of The Guardian of Empire City, an urban fantasy series.

Hi Peter! Thank you for being willing to talk about urban fantasy with me!

First, will you introduce yourself to the readers and tell them a little about yourself?

Thank you for inviting me! My name is Peter Hartog, and I’m an over-the-hill self-published urban science fantasy author with two teenage boys, a demanding day job, and a house full of three rescue cats and an 80-pound golden retriever named Ollie. How my wife manages to keep us all straight is a testament to her incredible organizational and management skills, as well as her infinite patience. I don’t know where I’d be without her steering the ship.

I grew up in Massachusetts (go Ashland Clockers!), then moved to Georgia two years after my graduation from Brandeis University. Got married, got divorced, stumbled into a career in underwriting, got remarried and now enjoy the many misadventures of raising two crazy boys along with our fuzzy menagerie.

I’ve loved storytelling since I could walk. Growing up with my older brother in the late 70s, when we weren’t outside rolling in the dirt, playing catch, riding our bikes, or just exploring the world, we read books, assembled model warships, played with action figures, and generally built stories around what toys we had. I’d act as the narrator, and my brother would always be the hero. We had space adventures, superhero battles, even pretended we had a talking zoo.

Stories have always captured my imagination, whether I write, watch, listen or read them. I’m a proud card-carrying nerd (I keep a Harry Dresden business card in my wallet) who still sits around a table and rolls dice on Sunday nights with his gaming group of over 30 years. When I’m not working to save humanity one commercial property insurance policy at a time, I’m reading, watching shows and movies (Star Trek > Star Wars), listening to music (I’m forever stuck in the 80s), playing tennis, cooking, cheering on my New England sports teams, GMing or playing in tabletop games, and occasionally putting virtual pen to virtual paper.

Will you talk a little bit about The Guardian of Empire City series?

Both Bloodlines and Pieces of Eight follow homicide detective Tom “Doc” Holliday and his eclectic crew of investigators as they attempt to solve the strange and unusual by any means necessary. The stories take place in Empire City, one of fifty-two walled human enclaves that survived World War III and the horrors that followed. As a result of massive nuclear detonations weakening the fabric of reality, magic returned to the world as well as one-way portals that infrequently introduce new and sometimes frightening interdimensional beings. One such group, called Vellans, are intelligent, civilized humanoids who fled from their alternate Earth to find refuge on Holliday’s Earth.

After years of recovery from the war and pandemics that followed it, and through the aid of Vellan technology and knowledge that taught humanity how to harness the power of magic into usable energy, humanity endured to what it is today. The people of Empire City have jobs, there’s trade and travel with other enclaves, and life goes on.

And with all that also comes politics, greed, taxes, marriage, divorce, and murder.

The GoEC combines the genres of urban fantasy with science fiction and crime thriller to provide an exciting blend of whodunnit and magical shenanigans.

If I’m being honest, the GoEC series came out of nowhere. Prior to writing it, I was an avid fan of the classic fantasy stories by the usual suspects. I read plenty of classic literature in high school and college, but my go-to escapism was the pure fun of high fantasy. I ran dozens of D&D campaigns for my friends. I even managed to write five chapters of a fantasy novel, but it never went anywhere.

Like many urban fantasy authors, I’ve read Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden. I’d grown tired of sword-and-sorcery stories. While they weren’t necessarily cookie-cutter, my mind grew bored. Dresden was a refreshing read. It combined the mainstay elements of what I had been enjoying for decades colorfully painted upon a modern-day canvas. From the pop culture references, the humor, the larger-than-life villains, the crazy cases, the series’ appeal was immediate.

Around the same time, I’d begun watching the television shows Person of Interest and The Blacklist. From there, my mind started churning with possibilities.

I realized I wanted to create something different, a genre-mashup that combined the stories I’d grown up with coupled with the familiarity of today’s world. But it wasn’t enough. Butcher had already covered that with Dresden, so I thought further on what I could add to separate myself from the gold standard of urban fantasy. Did I succeed? You be the judge.

Around the spring of 2014, I started writing a story about a down-on-his-luck private investigator working out of Boston. It didn’t go anywhere because it felt too much like Dresden fanfiction.

But the seed that had been planted when I first read Dresden germinated further in my subconsciousness.

I began asking myself a simple question: “What if?”

What if, instead of having a modern setting, the world had evolved in some ways, remained the same in others, and history diverged?

I loved the glitzy, glittering cityscape scenes and massive scope of Ridley Scott’s futuristic and dystopian vision in Blade Runner. I’d never played Shadowrun, never read Gibson’s Neuromancer (it’s on my TBR), never read any cyberpunk. But I started seeing images of a dystopian New York called Empire City. I imagined what life would be like after a nuclear holocaust. Why humanity would want to restore civilization, how people would come together either to return to what they once knew or gather beneath the banner of some other socio-economic and/or religious focus.

And then I sprinkled magic on top of it.

I took these ideas, wrote an outline, developed side characters, and approached my gaming group with the idea of GMing it. The concept of writing a novel, let alone two, hadn’t even entered my mind. The players came up with character ideas (all of whom are represented in the novels in some form except for Doc Holliday), I built the world around them, and the Special Crimes Unit was born. The game ran about a year and was a smashing success. After the Bloodlines game, I developed two more cases: Pieces of Eight and The Devil’s Share (my current WIP).

Enamored by the games I ran and the setting I’d created, I began novelizing Bloodlines in 2016. For once, the words came easily to me. No longer stymied by writer’s block or a lack of inspiration, I made steady progress until I self-published in 2018.

As for the stories themselves, I leaned heavily into the tropes that I’ve loved since I was a kid: the down-on-his-luck hero with a heart of gold; the crusty, inveterate heavy with a dark past; the mysterious and ethereal alien; the sharp, ebullient kid with a shadowy dark-side. Villains embraced their villainy. There’s good and bad, and stuff in-between. Pulpy dialogue, cinematic scenes, flowery writing, bad jokes, pop culture and music references.

I know the GoEC series isn’t ground-breaking. It’s not unique, nor is it the greatest fiction you’ll ever read (although I do think it’s pretty good, but I’m biased that way). At the end of the day, my imagination craved a change of scenery. I’d been stuck in a rut, gotten bored with the same old-same old, and needed something new.

So, I followed some of the best writing advice I’d ever been given: write what you want to read.

Your series focuses on a detective solving mysteries of the fantastical nature. Did writing the case element present unique challenges? 

I’d never written crime fiction. I don’t personally know anyone in law enforcement, either. I had no idea where to begin. But the internet can be a wonderfully helpful tool, and research is your friend. I read police procedurals, searched the NYPD website and associated websites, watched copy shows on television and on film, and tried to provide just enough realism in the stories for the average reader. Are there mistakes? Probably, but so far no one has pointed them out.

I also have the benefit of writing urban science fantasy which means I can bend or break the rules. The setting isn’t 21st century New York. The NYPD has its policies and procedures, but that doesn’t mean Empire City’s police shares the same. Sure, there are reflections, but I can diverge however I want. Funny thing is, I tried to keep that aspect of the stories grounded as best I could.

Holliday starts off thinking he’s dealing with an ordinary, yet weird, crime. And as the reader tracks his progression, they’ll see how his view shifts considerably but only after he experiences the extraordinary. Despite possessing his own magic (with its own problems), and living in a world powered by magic, I developed a skeptical, world-weary main character whose arc takes him to where the reader expects him to go.

One of the most interesting aspects of my research were autopsy reports. The gruesome, yet clinical detail involved, a fresh reminder of humanity’s awful capacity to harm one another. It wasn’t just the science and nuts-and-bolts side of things. Reading sample reports and how the medical examiner conducts their job was both enlightening and frightening.

While both stories involve magic, Empire City’s world-building uses the mystical as a pragmatic foundation for its existence. Simplistically, magic is an energy source drawn from Nexus nodes, previously invisible vessels of power brought to light because of multiple catastrophic nuclear detonations. Holliday remarks early in Bloodlines how the Vellans (interdimensional beings who found refuge on Holliday’s Earth) taught humanity to harness the Nexus nodes, saving civilization from ruin. The average citizen considers magic akin to electricity. Magic is used to heat water, power machinery, keep the lights on. 

This blending of magic and technology granted me a lot of freedom. Moments such as examining the crime scene, reviewing the remains at the medical examiner’s office, sifting through digital files via holo-technology, and digging through the victim’s home and personal effects came off as both hand’s on and clinical minus the sense of the arcane despite magic being omnipresent. Yet, like himself, Holliday is aware of others who can wield magic to uncanny effect, and not just to turn the light off in the other room.

I’m hopeful this grounding of Holliday’s reality to give the reader a sense of place and time is balanced by the fantastical elements that comprise the rest of the story.

Your series is considered urban fantasy. How would you define that subgenre?

To me, urban fantasy is taking magic, magical creatures, magical places, magical items, and everything associated with those things, moving them from castles and dungeons, airships and dragons and dropping them into a 21st century (or later) modern day setting.

As you’ve read previously, I consider my books to be urban science fantasy because my timeline is set in an alternate future. When exactly, I leave vague. But it’s not too distant that the 21st century and everything that came before was forgotten. 

What first drew you to writing urban fantasy, as opposed to another type of fantasy?

I never expected to write the GoEC series. I figured I’d eventually put together a classic high fantasy story because that’s my first love. But the words wouldn’t flow. The ideas never stuck. The characters all fell flat.

Then Special Crimes and Detective Tom “Doc” Holliday popped into my head. The words quickly followed.

I think the familiarity of New York and Boston helped the most. Rather than create a world from scratch, I picked on places that I’ve enjoyed visiting. By transforming them in some way, I get to play in a familiar sandbox and mold it into something else just for the fun of it.

What are some struggles with writing urban fantasy?

Authenticity. If you’re going to use New York City, then the setting needs to live up to the alternate “reality”. Sure, I’ll change specific places, but the reader needs to know they’re still in New York, regardless of the year or what’s happening in the story itself. Dialogue is another challenge. You want readers to hear the distinctive accents, to see the neighborhoods and how they reflect the character and architecture that has defined New York as the melting pot for so many beautiful cultures, past and present. 

What are some strengths to this subgenre?

Urban fantasy is like tofu. Tofu by itself doesn’t have much of a flavor (at least, not to me), but when you combine it with other seasonings and sauces, tofu takes on the best (and worst) of those aspects.

The urban fantasy sandbox is deep and varied. It allows the blending of so many fun genres, and if balanced correctly, creates the potential for a deep and meaningful setting and story.

Who are your go-to authors?

In my formative years, the list icnludes JRR Tolkien, Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, Ray Bradbury, Michael Moorcock, Barbara Hambly, and Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman.

Lately, I’ve been reading Michael Connelly, George RR Martin, Jim Butcher, Andy Weir, Fonda Lee, Patricia Jackson, and Ben Aaronovitch.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out the TREMENDOUS talent of a host of indie and self-published authors out there including Douglas Lumsden (who writes my absolute favorite urban fantasy series everyone should read), Jonathan Nevair, T.A. Bruno (a 2021 SPSFC Finalist!), Krystle Matar (an SPFBO7 Finalist!), Jeff Speight, Peter James Martin, and Leigh Grissom.

Is there anything on the horizon you’d like to talk about?

I’m slowly working my way through The Devil’s Share, the third book in The Guardian of Empire City series. It’s been slow going because my day job has been brutally busy, but I still manage to write here and there. I have a wonderful critique group who keeps me on my toes and sharp and are some of the most supportive writers I’ve ever met, thanks to Twitter. 

The audiobook for Pieces of Eight will be produced at some point in 2022, as well. I’m also toying with the idea of merchandise, specifically coffee mugs. For anyone who knows Holliday, then you understand. And if you haven’t read Bloodlines and Pieces of Eight, what are you waiting for? 

About Peter Hartog:

A native son of Massachusetts, Peter has been living in the Deep South for over 25 years. By day, he’s an insurance professional, saving the world one policy at a time. But at night, well, no one really wants to see him fighting crime in his Spider-Man onesie. Instead, Peter develops new worlds of adventure influenced by his love of science fiction, mysteries, music and fantasy. Whether it’s running role-playing games for his long-time friends, watching his beloved New England sporting teams vie for another championship, or just chilling with a movie, his wife, two boys, three cats and one dog, Peter’s imagination is always on the move. It’s the reason why his stories are an eclectic blend of intrigue, excitement, humor and magic, drawn from four decade’s worth of television, film, novels and comic books.

Website: peterhartog.com

Twitter: @althazyr

LinkedIn: Peter Hartog

Books:

mybook.to/BloodlinesEBook

mybook.to/PiecesOfEight

Fantasy Focus: Urban Fantasy Featuring Matthew Samuels

This year I’m doing a new series on my blog: Fantasy Focus. Each month, I’m focusing on a different fantasy subgenre. Fantasy is such a broad genre with so many different things to offer. So far, there have been focuses on Comedic Fantasy, Romantic Fantasy, Grimdark, and Epic/High Fantasy.

Today I have the privilege of chatting with Matthew Samuels, author of the excellent urban fantasy, Small Places.

Hi Matthew! Thank you for being willing to talk about urban fantasy!

My pleasure! Thank you for having me on your site 😊

Will you introduce yourself to the readers and talk about your writing a little?

I’m Matthew Samuels, and I write sci-fi and fantasy; I’m the author of the solarpunk / hopepunk exploration books Parasites and Dusk, and urban fantasy title Small Places, which is about a guy who meets a cranky old witch, who is investigating the source of highly irregular weather in the UK. I live in London, UK.  

Small Places is interesting in that the main character, Jamie, is dealing with adversity in his “real life” which is sort of echoed in the adversity in the fantasy element. How did you go about keeping that balance between the two kinds of struggles?

Despite the challenges that writing urban fantasy presents, it does also lend you a hand, because you can reflect on how regular people would act if confronted by these things. So yes, Jamie meets some fantastical creatures and a witch, but his mum is also very sick and there’s a girl he likes in town, and these things are always going to creep into your mind, however all-consuming the other stuff is. Sometimes – like in real life – one of these things takes up more brain space than others, and other times, things get completely pushed to one side and Jamie feels guilty for forgetting about it. I’m not quite sure if there’s a trick to keeping this balance; it’s really just about trying to keep it believable, given everything that’s going on! A good editor definitely helps – my partner read Small Places quite carefully, and some parts of the book changed quite a lot afterwards. 

I really loved the divided attention and subsequent feelings of guilt that Jamie experiences in Small Places. It’s such a completely human reaction. Do you feel that urban fantasy allows for a deeper exploration of the human condition?

Yes and no – I don’t think it’s unique to urban fantasy. Some of my favourite reflections on the human condition come from sci-fi books like the Rama series by Arthur C Clarke and the Galactic Mileu set by Julian May, but I also love what Charles de Lint has to say about absolution, forgiveness and dealing with difficult circumstances in life, in an urban fantasy setting. I do think that sometimes genres outside of low fantasy can get sucked into the ‘we’re in a supernatural setting, so we should focus on heroes and adventure and all this amazing stuff’ but if the Marvel Universe has shown us anything, it’s that adventures are more satisfying and believable when they’re about ‘real people dealing with issues who happen to be superheroes, rather than superheroes just being superheroes, which I think is where some of the DC films come unraveled. Urban fantasy is in a good place to start these reflections because you’re dealing with regular folk from day one, rather than people who regularly leap tall buildings and zap aliens, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s exclusive! 

Small Places is an urban fantasy. How would you define that subgenre?

In my mind, urban fantasy is a section of low fantasy, which takes place in ‘our’ world. Urban fantasy is distinct from the likes of Harry Potter only because it takes place in urban environments, rather than separate places like Hogwarts (or in the countryside!).  

What drew you to writing urban fantasy?

One of the first fantasy novels I read growing up was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the idea that there could be something fantastical just around the corner was an absolutely magical prospect to me. After I’d read it, I spent quite a lot of time poking into old wardrobes or opening doors several times hoping that there’d be something back there! As a teenager I watched the BBC adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, absolutely rapt for much the same reason (I don’t think it’s aged well, but the book is obviously fantastic) and then discovered Clive Barker’s Weaveworld as an adult, not to mention Charles de Lint, Erin Morgenstern and Laurell K Hamilton. 

Perhaps more to the point, urban fantasy stretches your mind in a way that other genres don’t, because of the possible believability (more on this later!) – after all, there are weird, wonderful and beautiful things in the regular world. I used to spend quite a lot of time in a club called Shunt, which was a performing arts club underneath London Bridge Station, with just the strangest selection of artwork and things to explore. There’s also the Vaults under Waterloo, and experiential events like Secret Cinema. I’m quite a big fan of urbex photography (in particular, RomanyWG’s work), which continues to be an inspiration for any long-forgotten places that I’m writing about. 

When you put all of this together, urban fantasy has the ability to conspire in your mind and whisper ‘what if…?’ in the dark hours of the night.  And I’ve always written, for as long as I can remember (I still have some of my early works which I’d describe as either ‘loving fanfic’ or ‘hideous and derivative’ depending on my mood) and with inspirations like that, how could I not want to write in the genre?

What are some obstacles to writing urban fantasy?

Believability is key. When you’re blending the real world and a fantastical world, there’s the question of ‘why haven’t they been detected’? The memory charms in Harry Potter are a bit of a quick fix around this, but in Small Places, we have very well hidden and virtually inaccessible faerie realms. The first rule of the faerie is often ‘stay out of the way, but in an urban setting that’s much, much harder. Books like the Rivers of London series bypass this by simply having the magical world ‘out’, whereas in Neverwhere it hides much more carefully, and has people fall between the cracks and vanish if they do pick up on it, which is a slightly terrifying prospect.

I agree with you on that! The idea of a person just disappearing mysteriously if they pick up on the “other” hidden in plain sight is definitely a scary one. Did it take some time to decide how your faerie realms would exist in conjunction with the real-world setting?

Yes, it was a tricky one because – especially in very urban settings like London – it’s hard to do anything completely out of sight! Neverwhere gets around this very neatly by having people just ignore the things that are uncomfortable to them (which we all do sometimes) but it was hard working up a mechanism that would be secure, unlikely to be triggered by accident, and also relatively easy to conceal. The ‘fantastical combination lock’ idea eventually appealed because it seemed to tick a number of those boxes all at once, whilst still giving some narrative flexibility. 

What is the best thing about writing urban fantasy?

It’s really the same thing: believability. If you’re writing something fantastical that’s also set in the real world, there’s a small chance that a question worms into your brain – as Morpheus says in The Matrix, ‘like a splinter in your mind’. That question is ‘what if there is something else?’ and I think that’s both terrifying and wonderful to consider at the same time. The other (non-low fantasy) genres are great escapism, but urban / low fantasy can just feel a bit more real. I’ve walked past the spot in London where Richard meets the Marquis de Carabas for the first time in Neverwhere, and I love that flicker of slightly disquieting recognition that you get, that feeling of ‘well, maybe?’ that sticks around no matter how old you get.

You also write science fiction (books one and two in The Navigator series are available now). Are there similarities between how you write for those two genres? Or are they completely dissimilar? 

There are definitely common elements in terms of the need for good plotting and characters, but with sci-fi, you have a lot more flexibility because you set the rules. Being able to create entire planets, space stations and alien creatures gives you a lot more wiggle room than being stuck on earth in a contemporary setting!

Who are some of your go-to authors?

Where to start? 😊 As well as the guys I’ve mentioned previously, I’m a huge fan of Iain M Banks, Jacqueline Carey, Julian May, Steph Swainston, Jay Kristoff, David Wong, Becky Chambers, Brandon Sanderson and Laini Taylor. I’ll also read outside SFF, and am a big Tana French and Stephen King fan.

Do you have anything interesting coming up that you’d like to talk about?

 I’ve just published the second book in the Navigator (Sci-Fi) series, and was hoping to continue my other long-suffering urban fantasy title, Wild Court, which takes a fantastical look at the decline of empathy in society, and is two-thirds written, but my brain has refused. Instead, I’ve been spending time planning out a high fantasy title exploring the war between heaven, hell and mankind, featuring a devious demonic heroine with a disability who teams up with a captured warlock’s apprentice in an effort to escape from hell. I’d done some planning on it a while ago, but had a sudden realization about the MC, then things started to fall into place, and before I knew it, I’d written four thousand words of plan. There’s still a fair bit to do, but I scribbled down the opening line “When I was growing up, I had six brothers and sisters; by the time I was 16, I’d murdered three of them” and knew it was something I really wanted to explore more.

That’s a killer line, in multiple senses of the word. I’m excited!

Thank you 😊

To Purchase Small Places:

UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dusk-Matthew-Samuels/dp/B09XSZPLWK/
US: https://www.amazon.com/Dusk-Matthew-Samuels/dp/B09XSZPLWK

Fantasy Focus: Urban Fantasy

This year I’m doing a new series on my blog: Fantasy Focus. Each month, I’m focusing on a different fantasy subgenre. Fantasy is such a broad genre with so many different things to offer. So far, there have been focuses on Comedic Fantasy, Romantic Fantasy, Grimdark, and Epic/High Fantasy.

This month the focus is on urban fantasy, with fantastical elements showing up in the most unexpected of places. Below is a list of urban fantasy authors to check out as well as links to all of the interviews. The list is far from complete: tell me who I need to add!

Fantasy Focus: Urban Fantasy Featuring Matthew Samuels

Fantasy Focus: Urban Fantasy Featuring C. Thomas Lafollette

Fantasy Focus: Urban Fantasy Featuring Peter Hartog

Fantasy Focus: Urban Fantasy Featuring Satyros Phil Brucato

Fantasy Focus: Urban Fantasy Featuring Jamie Jackson

Fantasy Focus: Urban Fantasy Featuring G.E. Newbegin

Ilona Andrews- Kate Daniels series

Holly Black- Book of Night

Patricia Briggs- Mercy Thompson series

Satyros Phil Brucato- Red Shoes

Jim Butcher- The Dresden Files series

Cassandra Clare- City of Bones

Neil Gaiman- Neverwhere

Kim Harrison- the Hollows series

Peter Hartog- The Guardian of Empire City series

Kevin Hearne- The Iron Druid series

Jamie Jackson- Adventures of a Villain-Leaning Humanoid series

C. Thomas Lafollette- Luke Irontree & the Last Vampire War

Seanan Mcguire- the October Daye series

G.E. Newbegin- Pyramidion

Matthew Samuels- Small Places

C.L. Schneider- Nite Fire

David R. Slayton- White Trash Warlock

One Foot in the Fade (A Fetch Phillips Novel) by Luke Arnold

Welcome back to the streets of Sunder City, a darkly imagined world perfect for readers of Ben Aaronovitch and Jim Butcher.

In a city that lost its magic, an angel falls in a downtown street. His wings are feathered, whole—undeniably magical—the man clearly flew, because he left one hell of a mess when he plummeted into the sidewalk.

But what sent him up? What brought him down? And will the answers help Fetch bring the magic back for good?

Working alongside necromancers, genies, and shadowy secret societies, through the wildest forests and dingiest dive bars, this case will leave its mark on Fetch’s body, his soul, and the fate of the world. (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Orbit Books and Angela Man for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion. One Foot in the Fade is available for purchase now.

This is the third book in the Fetch Phillips series, so there might be some spoilers for the first two books. You can find my reviews for those books here: The Last Smile in Sunder City and Dead Man in a Ditch.

I knew from about twenty pages into book one that I’ll read anything by Luke Arnold, up to and including a pamphlet on beige paint. His writing is that good. I obviously had ridiculously high expectations for this latest installment in the Fetch Phillips novels, and One Foot in the Fade more than delivered. Buckle up, folks: this is going to be a rave. Or you could save yourself the trouble and buy the entire series now, which is the better option.

One Foot in the Fade continues on where Dead Man in a Ditch left off, with a much more motivated and slightly more capable Fetch taking the small bit of hope he’s seized and holding onto it for dear life. Thanks to a friend of his, Fetch’s sign has gone from an advertisement for a P.I. to a declaration: “Bringing the Magic Back”!

After sniffing the slightest possibility of a return to before everything went to crap, returning magic has become Fetch’s driving goal. He’s following every lead and hunting down any hint of a way to make that happen. Which is how he ends ups embroiled in what is either an almost-miracle or a very grisly murder. The answer leads Fetch on a journey both physical and emotional.

One Foot in the Fade takes the series from a grimy noir-fantasy to something completely new and different. I didn’t know what would happen next and I loved it. From duels (aka fights with self-important rich men who hold all the cards in life) to a not-quite-a-corpse, to an unfortunate encounter with a monster of legend, there was plenty of danger and action to be found. However, the heart stopping action scenes weren’t what held me enthralled. Rather, it was the incredible character growth to be found in Fetch.

Fetch Phillips has become one of my favorite characters in fantasy. Ever. His staunch refusal to give up, even when he’s convinced himself that he has, is heartbreaking. His grasp at the smallest glimmer of hope is relatable. And his palpable loneliness and the way he slowly learns to open himself up to the possibility of friendship is amazing and a privilege to read. Despite this being a fantasy setting, or maybe because of it, Fetch is one of the most supremely human characters I’ve read.

One Foot in the Fade has everything I want in a fantasy book. The story is engrossing, the descriptiveness of the writing is brilliant, the characters are all wonderful, and the ending made me tear up. A perfect blend between fantastical creativity and fascinating character development, One Foot in the Fade hooked me from page one.