Poison by Sarah Pinborough

Poison is a beautifully illustrated retelling of the Snow White story which takes all the elements of the classic fairytale that we love (the handsome prince, the jealous queen, the beautiful girl and, of course, the poisoning) and puts a modern spin on the characters, their motives and their desires. 

Poison by Sarah Pinborough will take you for a wicked ride through fairy tales as you have never before imagined them. It is a fresh, and slightly naughty twist on the stories we all know and have grown up with. It has a comfortable familiarity as many different characters, tales and settings are twisted, bent, and woven back together with Pinborough’s signature on them. A signature that brings the characters to life and makes them much more real and relatable while retaining their fantastical traits that have always defined them.

No longer are the dwarves a people happy to mine all day for the benefit of others. Now they are lower class citizens, enslaved by the kingdom, taking on a rougher, dirtier appearance than we are used to. But Pinborough manages to still portray them as a people full of fun and camaraderie. And of course, their beloved friend, the princess called Snow White is still much loved by people and nature, but now she has a more carefree, reckless way to her fun in the forest. And a penchant for enjoying all of the earthy pleasures afforded her.
What fairy tale could be complete without an evil, wicked witch of a stepmother? The evil Ice Queen out to destroy the innocent little princess? Well, maybe not quite so innocent in this tale, but you get the idea. Her part in this is quite enjoyable as we get more insight to her motivations and evil ways than in fairy tales.  No longer is the evil witch just evil for the sake of being evil. She becomes a real character, who is self absorbed and loveless, traits that have caused her to resort to her slightly evil ways and decisions.
Pinborough’s twists also provide cameo appearances by a number of familiar characters after they have been through her wicked fairy tale reconstructive process.  I don’t want to include any spoilers, but will mention Aladdin! His appearance and contribution is by far my favorite of these cameo transformations.
So in a version like this, the reader can’t help but wonder will Prince Charming show up to save the princess and sweep her off her feet? What will she make of him if he does? I can only recommend you read to find out for yourself, because while everything is so familiar, the characters have been redefined in a way that will leave you guessing. This is not your Disney fairy tale. It is much, much better. And much more wicked. 

Poison is available now from Gollancz.


About the Reviewer: Lisa spends her days programming in Java, living the exciting life of a cubicle ridden software engineer. When not at work, she enjoys her time with her husband and two boys. She spends the rest of her free time playing on multiple indoor soccer teams and of course reading, reading, reading. She is ‘new’ to the fantasy genre, having read her first fantasy book in 2010. After reading more and more fantasy, she is now hooked and can often be found around the internet searching for her next book and adding titles to her ever increasing TBR list.

Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

‘We are here Fitz, you and I, to change the future and the world…’

Fitz dreams of Red Ship Raiders sacking a coastal village, leaving not a single man, woman or child alive. Tortured by this terrible vision he returns to the Six Duchies Court where all is far from well.

King Shrewd has been struck down by a mysterious illness and King-in-waiting, Verity, spends all his time attempting to conjure storms to confuse and destroy the Red Ship Raiders. And when he leaves on an insane mission to seek out the mystical Elderlings, Fitz is left alone and friendless but for the wolf Nighteyes and the King’s Fool with his cryptic prophesies.
So, once again I try and review a book that has been reviewed countless times in a plethora of different ways. I have to try and find a way to get you to pick up this book and read it. Because I really, really want you to read it.

Royal Assassin is the second book in The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb, originally published in 1996 by Voyager Books. If you’d like to read my review of the first one, Assassin’s Apprentice, you can read it here.

I’ll open with full disclosure. Royal Assassin is firmly ensconced in my top three favourite books. Don’t ask where. That’d be like asking a woman her age.

We return to Fitz, who you’ll recall was poisoned by his uncle, Regal. His recovery is long and, as you’d expect from Hobb, very painful. He is forced to reassess his life choices and where his future may lead. In the end it leads back to Buckkeep, to King Shrewd and Prince Verity, to Molly and to the Fool.

King Shrewd is terribly sick with an unexplained wasting disease and Prince Verity is cloistered in a tower, using the Skill to keep the Red Ships at bay. Fitz gradually becomes closer to Verity and has to use his assassin’s skills to serve him better. Fitz must battle to keep forged ones away from Buck and battle to protect the people he cares for from Regal.

This is an unrelenting and dark tale, noticeably more so than Assassin’s Apprentice. We see some of the very few happy moments of Fitz’s life, but Hobb uses these to raise him high only to dash him down further and deeper than he’s ever been. By the end of this book you know that Fitz is never destined to be happy, never fated for anything but suffering. He is subjected to some of the most excruciating situations you’re likely to find in any form of literature, with the rare added bonus that this is made to feel so real. Most times when the main character of a tale is in danger you never really feel concerned for their safety, but even though this is told in the first person, I was terrified for him.

If this is your first time reading this then you are about to meet one of the best supporting characters in fantasy. I won’t talk too much about him as it would become spoilerific, but Nighteyes often steals the show. His view on the world is animalistic (well, he is a wolf, after all) but he unintentionally offers some wonderful philosophical views on Fitz’s situation which actually made me think (which scares me…).

Nighteyes is used in another way, too. Through him we explore the Wit, one of the most underrated magic systems in fantasy. It feels really organic, because neither Nighteyes nor Fitz

know what the hell they’re doing, so we learn along with them, stumbling and bludgeoning as they go.

So, look, I could talk about the prose (amazing) or the character development (stunning when you remember this is told in first person), but I covered most of that in the Assassin’s Apprentice review. For what it’s worth, the sequel does it even better.

Instead, let me tell you of the emotional impact. I’ve mentioned that I feared for Fitz’s safety, but I was proud, angry, sad, desperate, disgusted and pretty much any other emotion you can name. I ran the whole gamut of emotions time and time again. And this wasn’t just for Fitz. I felt for Molly. I felt for Burrich. I ached for the Fool. I felt for them all at one time or another.

So please, read this series. The pace can be a little slow and difficult in parts and Regal still feels slightly out of place in terms of his persona, but you are so richly rewarded for your perseverance. And let me know your feelings on the ending…


About the reviewer:
Alex can be found in the rolling hills of Oxfordshire, splitting his time unevenly between fighting crime and raising two little boys (which is surprisingly similar). When he does find a spare moment he crams it full of fantasy or basketball, and due to rapidly ageing knees it’s mostly fantasy these days. He’s trying to learn the writing craft through sheer bloody mindedness and dreams of the day he has to do nothing else. If you’re so inclined you can watch him stalk writers on Twitter – @shep5377

The City by Stella Gemmell

The City is ancient, layers upon layers. Once a thriving metropolis, it has sprawled beyond its bounds, inciting endless wars with neighboring tribes and creating a barren wasteland of what was once green and productive.

In the center of the City lives the emperor. Few have ever seen him, but those who have recall a man in his prime, though he should be very old. Some grimly speculate that he is no longer human, if he ever was. A small number have come to the desperate conclusion that the only way to stop the war is to end the emperor’s unnaturally long life.

From the mazelike sewers below the City, where the poor struggle to stay alive in the dark, to the blood-soaked fields of battle, where few heroes manage to endure the never-ending siege, the rebels pin their hopes on one man—Shuskara. The emperor’s former general, he was betrayed long ago and is believed to be dead. But, under different aliases, he has survived, forsaking his City and hiding from his immortal foe. Now the time has come for him to engage in one final battle to free the City from the creature who dwells at its heart, pulling the strings that keep the land drenched in gore.

Simply put, Stella Gemmell’s The City is awash in blood. The story lays out the gory ravages of a centuries old war to both citizens of the city, as well as all those that oppose it. This war has come to a point where there can be no winners. Each side has dehumanized the other and will fight until there is no one left to lift a sword. Which does not seem far off. Generations have been lost and life within the city walls has become so harsh and abhorrent that children have been relegated to a hard life in the underground tunnels, passageways, and sewers, fending for themselves.
The City is more about the city than any one person and it is very much a good vs. evil tale without moral ambiguity. At least that is how it seems. The Emperor encapsulates the role of ‘Evil’. All though, it is an Evil somewhat unknown because he has been sheltered and isolated from even his own people. He has been ruling since before anyone can remember and

appears to have lost all compassion for his people, if he ever had any.

The individuals are a collection of people that help illustrate the current state of discontent, desperation and the desire to know a time of peace, to see an end to the ages old war. Their struggles and conflicts unfold for the reader during this critical time. A plan is formed to overthrow the Emperor to restore peace, the question remains; is the plan trustworthy? And who is really orchestrating it?
There are many things to love about this story. Gemmell’s illustration of the city is just one example. She has created a fascinating city that has grown by building upon itself over the ages. A river that use to run through the city has over time become buried, and part of the passages below, filling and flooding areas creating danger for Dwellers (the people that live underground) and shifting which passages are usable or safe to travel.

It is very much an exciting epic fantasy that just feels good to read. I believe it’s the type of story that holds many fantasy fans within the genre. In fact, up until about 75% of the way through, I had few complaints and much enjoyment. However at this point, there were a number of things that I felt detracted from the story as a whole. Without spoilers, I will just say, that there were some shifts in character that I found jarring as well as convenient coincidences. There were convenient coincidences prior to this as well, but at some point, it seemed to cross the line for what my willing suspension of disbelief could handle. Perhaps I should just view it as the fate of the world within the story and put my complaints of coincidences aside because overall, it was a tale worth reading.

The City is available now in the UK from Bantam Press, and will be available in the US from June 4th 2013, from Ace. 


About the Reviewer: Lisa spends her days programming in Java, living the exciting life of a cubicle ridden software engineer. When not at work, she enjoys her time with her husband and two boys. She spends the rest of her free time playing on multiple indoor soccer teams and of course reading, reading, reading. She is ‘new’ to the fantasy genre, having read her first fantasy book in 2010. After reading more and more fantasy, she is now hooked and can often be found around the internet searching for her next book and adding titles to her ever increasing TBR list.

Interview with Ben Galley

The Emaneska Series by Ben Galley, is drawing to a close with the imminent, simultaneous release of the final two installments, Dead Stars Parts 1 & 2
Follow the links to see our review of the first two parts in the series, The Written and Pale Kings.
Ben has been kind enough to grant us an interview, where he talks about the origins of Emaneska, jaw dropping cover art and what the future may hold. Enjoy!

WBR – Thanks for making the time for this Ben; this must be a very busy time for you at the moment! What three words would you use to describe The Emaneska Series?
BG – Brutal. Non-stop. Epic.

WBR – You cheated a bit there, but I’ll let you off! Can you talk us through how you got started with the Emaneska Series? 

BG – It was a culmination of a few elements that gave birth to Emaneska. First off, I’d been looking to escape my gloomy day-job and achieve that old childhood dream of being an author for some time. At the same time I was inhaling every fantasy book I could find, rediscovering my love of the genre. Then, as clichéd as it sounds, the name Emaneska popped into my head one day, along with the inspiring tag-line of ‘Lord of The Rings meets Sin City’. That was it – I had a name, a direction, and I started writing the first chapter that very night. It was as simple a genesis as that. I haven’t looked back since.

WBR – You’ve become something of a self publishing guru, but how did you make the

decision to publish your books yourself, rather than go the more traditional path? 

BG – I originally wanted to go the traditional route, but while writing the book, I began to grow worried about the idea of rejections, of giving up my rights, and also the length of time the process takes. I began to research alternate ideas after seeing an advert for something called ‘Self-Publishing’. The more I researched, the more I became enamoured with the idea of going DIY, of going indie. It was fortuitous timing, as this is the first time in history that self-publishing is a financially viable option for success. Self-publishing providers were beginning to pop up all over the place, and through a lot of research and experimentation, I negotiated my way to market cheaply, quickly, and professionally, just as I’d wanted.

WBR – You also help other authors to find out how to self publish their work, is that a part of your career you enjoy?
BG – I’m a zealot when it comes to helping others. I believe that the manner in which I published my books was a very successful and accessible one, and it’s a route I’m keen to share. For instance, a lot of authors think that going indie costs a lot of money – up into the thousands. I published ‘The Written‘ for around £400, and all from one laptop. As soon as I began to make headway with the books, I knew it was time to start helping others. There’s a lot of mistakes to be made in this new landscape, costly and serious mistakes, and no author should fall foul of them when there are so many opportunities now available.

WBR – The covers of your books are fantastic. Were you trying to break the rule of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover?’
BG – Thank you very much! I very much was. I judge books by their covers all the time. Especially now, when the market is so wide and packed. The cover is your sales pitch, just as much, if not more, than your blurb or reviews. I knew that to make sales, I had to have an absolutely rocking cover. One that hinted at the genre, but also stood apart by being unusual for fantasy and visually entrancing. I used Crowdsourcing via a site called Crowdspring to find a truly original graphic artist called Mikael Westman, whose concept for my cover physically made me sit bolt upright and my jaw hang loose.

WBR – You’ve used a lot of ‘mainstream’ mythological creatures in this series, why did you decide to use things like dragons and vampyres in your world instead of going full on fantasy and creating an entirely new set of creatures? 

BG – I wanted to toy with a number of stereotypes, especially with the vampyres. It was a time when Twilight and dark romance was crowding shelves, and I wanted to use a creature that readers would feel familiar with, but also feel that they’re being introduced to something new, something alternate. Dragons for me was a prerequisite. I’m obsessed with the beasts, but once again I wanted to treat them differently, and give them a few idiosyncrasies that might not have been written about before.

WBR – You’ve referred to the Emaneska Series as ‘A Trilogy In Four Parts,’ Why have you decided to release both Dead Stars Part 1 and Part 2 at the same time?

BG – I wanted to be fair to my readers, and also be different. I know from personal experience that there are fans out there capable of inhaling one of my books in a night. I also know how frustrating it can be waiting 6 or 12 months to finish a series. It can be even more frustrating when you’re left on a cliff-hanger. Dead Stars had to much material to be one book, but also was too fluid to be split easily. I decided that it was time to push the boat out and try a double release.

WBR – Now that the series if over and you’ve said your goodbyes to the citizens of Emaneska, how do you look back on the last four years? 

BG – With absolute fondness, and also a bit of guilty pride. I’ve achieved a lot in the last four years, and I’m very happy with what I’ve learnt, what I’ve published, and how it’s been received. I also understand now what authors like King and RR Martin mean when they say they are still learning and growing as writers. Emaneska is the start for me – I’ve got so much more to do.

WBR – Your Kickstarter campaign was very successful and you first graphic novel of The Written was fully funded. How is that progressing and is Kickstarter something you will explore again? 

BG – Thank you again. The graphic novel of The Written is going very well at the moment. We’re compiling all the concept art, ready to start building up the first chapter. We’re looking towards a release in Autumn or Winter this year. It’s a different direction for Emaneska, but so many people are eager to see and read it, I know I’ve made a good choice. Mike Shipley is an incredible artist. Once again, I’m very lucky to have come across him. If you haven’t seen any of the art you can find it on my Facebook Page (www.facebook.com/bengalleyauthor). I fully intend to use it for funding the next graphic novel for Pale Kings

WBR – What’s next for Ben Galley? 

BG – A bucket-load of sleep and a holiday I think. I may even mix the two. Then it’s straight back to the laptop. I will be writing a standalone fantasy that will be very different from Emaneska in many ways. Can’t wait to try something new.

WBR – And finally, what book are you reading at the moment?

BG – At the moment I’m rereading the First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. Outstanding books!

WBR – Thanks again, Ben! 

Ben can be found online at his website, www.bengalley.com and you can follow him on Twitter @Ben Galley.  

The first two books in his Emaneska series of epic fantasy, The Written and Pale Kings, are available now. The concluding parts of the saga, Dead Stars, will be simultaneously released on 31st May. 

Sharps by K.J. Parker

Sharps is the latest standalone novel from author K.J. Parker, a critically successful, but perhaps not as well-known commercially fantasy author. I’d never heard of Parker until I got a little deeper into the SFF community, where I started hearing the name repeated again and again from other major bloggers, like Justin Landon over at Staffer’s Book Review and Jared Shurin at Pornokitsch. It seems like Parker is just on the verge of becoming an enormous success – an author that’s always been a well-known secret within genre circles, but just not quite there when it comes to the average punter in the bookshop.
Parker writes what you could perhaps term “fantastical histories”. The worlds Parker writes in are 100% fantasy creations, but they don’t tend to involve much (if any) magic or fantastical creatures – rather, Parker uses these worlds to explore ideas and topics that are parallel with our own current affairs. The novels explore the fundamental workings of a range of topics, from politics to economics; engineering to individual power and the nature of good and evil. But although Parker explores these ideas on societal levels, s/he uses individuals to tell the stories. These may be tales with broad-ranging ideas, but the characters are at the centre. And going by Sharps, they’re just damn good stories.
Sharps is the story of two countries: Scheria and Permia. They have long been at war, but for the first time in a rather bloody forty years a truce has finally been called. They are not at peace yet, though. Talks are in place and a diplomatic mission is sent to Permia by the Scherians. For both countries share one central interest – fencing. Scheria puts together a team of its best fencers to tour Permia, with the mission supposedly being to try and unite both countries with this shared interest. A force of goodwill. But things really are not quite that simple.
With Sharps, K.J. Parker takes a sometimes serious and often satirical look at warmongering, organised sporting events and the art of diplomacy. The novel follows almost exclusively the group of fencers sent into Permia, following the points of view of each one at different points. There is the most central of these, Giraut Bryennius, a young man who is forced at pain of death to go with the party into Permia. Addo Carnufex is the son of General Carnufex, Scheria’s most renowned commander (and perhaps throughout the world), Iseutz Bringas – the only female member of the team, Jilem Phrantzes – a former champion and the team’s administrator, and finally, Suidas Deutzel, the Scherian fencing champion – and a real scene-stealer throughout the novel.
Through the eyes of these central characters, we see the foreign country of Permia, and Parker very much limits us to seeing only what the characters do – a country where something isn’t quite right. Nothing seems to go quite to plan and there is clearly more to their diplomatic mission than they are being told. Parker manages to create a tense atmosphere through this sense of just never knowing what’s really going on. The novel twists and turns, Parker only ever showing us what s/he needs us to know, until everything becomes so convoluted and tangled up that it becomes difficult to see where it’s going. But then, right in the final 50 pages, Parker unravels the knot in an ingenious piece of plot structuring, and everything becomes clear.
There were areas, particularly in the middle of the novel, where I struggled. Mainly this was through frustration at misunderstanding the situation, but Parker does have a knack for gauging the reader – the characters are always frustrated with you. What kept me reading was Parker’s outstanding dialogue. Much of the novel’s structure – it’s worldbuilding, plotting, foreshadowing – all come from the dialogue. Parker shies away from copious description, and instead opts to allow the characters to do the telling. And it’s hilarious. I haven’t laughed so much at a novel since some of the older Discworld novels. It’s biting and satirical, but always incredibly funny.
Sharps is like a medieval/early-modern roadtrip through a war-torn, primitive country, with (of all things) a sports team at the centre. It’s not the easiest novel to read, and at times it can become quite dense (despite its average length) with worldbuilding and intrigue which doesn’t always make sense until the bigger picture is revealed. But in that lies Parker’s strength – intrigue. This is an author that is not afraid to write in a structure that only ever reveals what s/he wants you to know. It’s a fun, satirical, darkly funny and at times, thought-provoking read – and I’d have to agree that although there may be better Parker novels out there, it’s only a matter of time until K.J. Parker gets the recognition s/he deserves.