Fantasy Book Critic
Fantasy Book Critic
Order the book HERE
Read the first seven chapters HERE
Read Civilian Reader’s review of Executive Privilege
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s review of Supreme Justice
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s review of Capitol Murder
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s interview with Phillip Margolin
AUTHOR INFORMATION: Phillip Margolin is an ex-criminal defense attorney from the New York School of Law. He has had nearly a quarter century of experience working as defense attorney in Portland, Oregon and has all sorts of criminal cases appear before the United States Supreme Court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, The Oregon Supreme Courtand The Oregon Court of Appeals. He was the first Oregon attorney to use the Battered Women’s Syndrome to defend a abused woman. Two of his books and a short story have been made into movies. He lives in Oregon state.
OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Charles Benedict—criminal defense lawyer, amateur magician, and professional hit man—and Private Investigator Dana Cutler are on a collision course set in motion by Benedict’s greatest sleight of hand trick yet: framing a millionaire for the murder of his much younger wife.
Ten years ago, Horace Blair fell in love with Carrie, the prosecutor in his DUI trial. After a torrid courtship, he persuaded her to marry him and to sign a pre-nuptial agreement guaranteeing her twenty million dollars if she remained faithful during the first ten years of their marriage. The week before their tenth anniversary, Carrie disappears and Horace is charged with her murder. Desperate to clear his name, the millionaire hires one of D.C.’s most brilliant and ruthless defense attorneys, Charles Benedict, who, in a twist of fate, may be the very man who killed Carrie.
Meanwhile, private investigator Dana Cutler is in the Pacific Northwest on the trail of a stolen relic, a medieval scepter dating from the Ottoman Empire. Hitting a dead end sends her back to Virginia perplexed and disappointed—yet, the jewel-encrusted specter may be the key to the twisting case of Horace and Carrie Blair.
It’s the perfect crime, unless Dana Cutler can conjure a few tricks of her own to take down a cunning psychopath and expose his diabolical plot—before he can work his deadly magic on her.
FORMAT/INFO: Sleight Of Hand is 312 pages long divided into Sixty chapters over three parts. Narration is in the third person via Dana Cutler, Charles Benedict, Horace Blair, Carrie Blair, Stephanie Robb, Frank Santoro, Gregor Karpinski, and Sarah Gelfand. This book has a self-contained plot line, but also contains characters that have appeared in previous books and has a few minor references to certain past events from those books.
April 9, 2013 marks the North American Hardcover and e-book publication of Sleight Of Hand via Harper Collins.
ANALYSIS: After discovering Phillip Margolin via Wild Justice nearly a decade ago, I have made sure never to miss any of his amazing mystery-thriller books. Phillip Margolin is a master storyteller and often comes up with complicated plots that feature a vast character cast. With this new standalone book, hebrings back a character from his previous published Washington trilogy. Dana Cutler is the main protagonist of this tale, which borrows some plot points from the classic Maltese Falcon storyline and is the author’s ode to it as well.
The storyline characteristically begins in Margolin fashion with various disticnt plot threads; the first one focusses on Dana who is still doing what she does best and trying to stay out of mortifying cases as shown in the previous trilogy volumes. Fate and the author it seems have other plans for her as she soon finds out. The storyline also features a very fascinating character in the form of Charles Benedict who is a defense attorney to many shady characters but does it with such suave and charm that it often belies his deadly wiles. The second plotline deals with Carrie Blair who is the wife of Horace Blair and soon to receive twenty million dollars with their impending separation. Things however never go as planned and of course the stage is set for a confrontation of minds between Dana and Charles.
Their entanglement occurs in ways that are very unpredictable and almost entirely unexpected. The plot is twisted and of course laden with several surprises that will keep the reader motivated to flip the pages and figure out the main mystery. This is the main aspect of Phillip’s writing that I so adore, besides Jeffrey Deaver, its only Phillip Margolin who consistently comes up with these fantastic plots that have me guessing while not seeming to be rehashes of his previous books (John Grisham I’m looking at you). When dealing with a large character cast, characterization is very vital to the success of its plot and this book is no deviation from that successful formula. Besides Dana and one minor character, everyone else is a new character and a fully rounded one at that.
In regards to character cast, reader, who have read the previous books wherein Dana was featured will love this new twist in her professional life whereas for new readers the author gives enough background details for them to understand her and her psyche. Also the author takes care not to spoil the previous books beyond what was mentioned in their blurbs and even so only some details of the first book of the trilogy gets mentioned. I quite liked this aspect as this way for older readers, there was no rehash of previous events which they are familiar with and for new readers the previous books remain unspoiled. In regards to Charles Benedict, the character while fascinating does some things which would be hard to believe in a real-life court of law. In this regard I think the author was just trying to create a flamboyant character and so I can overlook some of these discrepancies in regards to his tricks.
Lastly there’s the pace of the plot, which makes the read a lively one and constantly prods the reader forward. I thought that this book was one of his better paced ones as the author had complete control over his story with all the twists and revelations. No page seems to be wasted with any side digressions and everything that is revealed is of importance to the end climax. Readers hopefully should enjoy this twisted ode to Dashiell Hammett’s masterpiece which while not fascinating as the original still delivers as a thrilling story.
In regards to any negatives with this story, it reminded me a bit of Proof Positive in regards to the final climax and plot resolution. Perhaps some readers might feel that it is a generic storyline and so experienced readers might not find it entirely to their liking. Overall though there’s not much for me to complain or point faults at with this book. Readers have to keep in mind that this is no literary novel but a mystery thriller that has aims to keep the readers guessing till the end and entertain them wholly. On this front the book and author have succeeded entirely.
CONCLUSION: I thoroughly enjoyed this story and while Dana Cutler wasn’t one of my favorite characters in the author’s previous work. In this book I thought she was a good protagonist to anchor the storyline. Sleight Of Hand simply confirms Phillip Margolin‘s place among the top rung of Mystery/Thriller writers with the addendum that he’s also one of the most under-appreciated ones.
Read On Machines And Talking Birds (A guest post by Charlotte E. English)
Read The Kaiser Affair – A fantasy thriller and travelogue to The Drifting Isle Chronicles (A guest post by Joseph R. Lewis)
Drawbacks to this tale are that it features a slower paced storyline as compared to The Kaiser Affair or Black Mercury however those story lines demand such a fast pace. With this story, it will depend on the readers to decide whether the pace matters in the enjoyment of this tale or not. Lastly some characters are mentioned and make an appearance and leave the stage very quickly, this is due to the fact that they are making cameos. Such appearances might confound certain readers and it will be good if they read this overview post by Joseph Robert Lewis to get a better sense of the story and world presented within.
Order NO RETURN HERE
Read Zachary’s guest post The Debut Novel: A Series of Intentions
Read Civilian Reader’s Interview with Zachary Jernigan
AUTHOR INFORMATION: Zachary Jernigan was born and brought up in the United States and has lived for most of his life in the western half of the country. He has a BA in Religious Studies from Northern Arizona University (2005) and an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program (2011). His short fiction has appeared in a variety of places, including Asimov’s Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and Escape Pod. He has previously worked in a variety of fields and avoids seeking management positions. He currently lives in Northern Arizona and No Return is his Debut novel.
OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: On Jeroun, there is no question as to whether God exists–only what his intentions are.
Under the looming judgment of Adrash and his ultimate weapon–a string of spinning spheres beside the moon known as The Needle–warring factions of white and black suits prove their opposition to the orbiting god with the great fighting tournament of Danoor, on the far side of Jeroun’s only inhabitable continent.
From the Thirteenth Order of Black Suits comes Vedas, a young master of martial arts, laden with guilt over the death of one of his students. Traveling with him are Churls, a warrior woman and mercenary haunted by the ghost of her daughter, and Berun, a constructed man made of modular spheres possessed by the foul spirit of his creator. Together they must brave their own demons, as well as thieves, mages, beasts, dearth, and hardship on the perilous road to Danoor, and the bloody sectarian battle that is sure to follow.
On the other side of the world, unbeknownst to the travelers, Ebn and Pol of the Royal Outbound Mages (astronauts using Alchemical magic to achieve space flight) have formed a plan to appease Adrash and bring peace to the planet. But Ebn and Pol each have their own clandestine agendas–which may call down the wrath of the very god they hope to woo.
Who may know the mind of God? And who in their right mind would seek to defy him?
FORMAT/INFO: No Return is 292 pages long, divided over five parts which is further divided into twenty-three chapters and a prologue and epilogue. Narration is in the third-person primarily via Vedas Tezul, Churli Casta Jones, Berun, Pol Tanz Et Som, Ebn Bon Mari and Adrash. This book can be read as a standalone and has resolves most of its plot threads.
ANALYSIS: Zachary Jernigan’s No Return is a debut that drew my attention to it like a moth to a flame. The blurb detailed a foreign world and races that was simply too enticing for a fantasy fan like me. The author was kind enough to send me a copy and I started reading it with high anticipation but not knowing what to expect.
The story is set on the world of Jeroun wherein a single habitable pan-continent is the focus of the entire tale. It is a world wherein a God named Adrash has existed for eons and now has left humanity and other races bereft of his divine presence. The world since then has developed in interesting ways after Adrash nearly destroyed it by causing two of his artificially created spheres to slam onto Jeroun’s surface and caused an ice age of sorts. The two main religions that have arisen due to these actions are Adrashi and Anadrashi that espouse either rule of Adrash or rule of man. Both these factions have long clashed with each other causing further rifts and doubts to arise. Adrash since then has created a spheres that he aligns in a fashion of sorts, which has been titled “the Needle” and threatens to wipe out Jeroun’s inhabitants. This has lead to an interesting development and now we find ourselves in midst of the story wherein all the characters are trying to achieve what they think they should.
Vedas Tezul is a warrior of the 13th order of Black Suits who is also the most adept fighter amongst them and is chosen to be their representative for the decennial tournament at Danoor. Churli Casta Jones is a warrior who has her own reasons to travel to the Danoor tournament but she’s not alone and will have to learn to trust other warriors again. Berun is a constructed man and therefore not entirely human but he shares within his mind, memories of his creator and will have to decide whether he is his own person or just a creation. Pol Tanz Et Som and Ebn Bon Mari are royal outbound mages who regularly make trips into space to observe Adrash and the Needle. They however have their own plans to accomplish and they will do anything everything to get their way. These are the main POV characters and the reader will have to ascertain what each and everyone wants.
This book is one of the weirdest and simply terrific fantasy-SF hybrids that I have ever come across. Firstly kudos to the author for coming up this plot and ensconcing a complex world, races, and magic system within such a slim volume. The author also retains a certain simplicity to his tale by not making it overtly obtuse a la Erikson or R. Scott Bakker. This was one aspect that I liked a lot, not that the author has made this story an overtly simplistic one as there’s a lot going on and packs quite a wallop within its pages. It focusses on religion, group mindsets and the way of life as evolved due to circumstances (as seen uniquely on this planet) and all of which makes for a very fascinating story.
His world and storyline are definitely unique in the sense that they combine different genres and themes to give us a story about finding the truth (be it about life, religion, one’s role, etc). The author has to be lauded for his effort in undertaking such a different story as he also tackles various issues brought forth by religious viewpoints that differ drastically, ethnic and racial tensions and much more. He however has managed to combine all these difficult queries within the folds of his story in spite of the single volume nature of the tale. The author also takes a very vivid view towards the sexuality of his characters and writes some exotic scenes featuring alien anatomy. For a few readers who aren’t used to such frank scenes, might not be able to fathom it entirely but again it will be upon the reader’s perspective in regards to the judgment of these scenes.
If there is a drawback to this story then it would be the way the story ends, the reader will want to know more about the world and the characters introduced within. In this regard while the story ends on a climatic note, certain threads left open will cause some consternation for readers that are engulfed within the story. I was one among them and therefore I would very much like to know more about the future and past of this strange alien world. Zachary Jernigan has spoken about this aspect in his guest post a bit as well in his email correspondence. Hopefully most of the questions about the world and its history will be answered in a companion volume and so I’ll among the first to grab it whenever its written.
CONCLUSION: Zachary Jernigan writes with a flair for the weird and makes it endearing enough for readers to feel familiar with it. No Return is a magnificent debut that straddles fantasy and SF genres seamlessly and makes itself into a jewel faceting both fields. I completely loved this debut and will have very high hopes from Mr. Jernigan for all his future works based on the raw talent that is showcased within. Make sure you don’t miss this one as this book will be definitely featuring highly in my year end lists.
Fantasy Book Critic
Order the book HERE
Enter to win a fantastic art piece by Larry Rostant based on the book (see image below)
AUTHOR INFORMATION: Luke Scull was born in Bristol and has lived most of his life in the British Isles. Luke also designs computer roleplaying games and has worked on several acclaimed titles for Ossian Studios and Bioware. Luke began his career, as a hobbyist game designer, who was selected by Bioware as one of his modifications to Neverwinter Nights, became a hit. Since then he has worked as designer on the Neverwinter expansion, Mysteries of Westgate, and an unreleased expansion for The Witcher role-playing game. He currently lives in Warminster with his wife and this is debut.
OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: The grey granite walls of Dorminia rise to three times the height of a man, surrounding the city on all sides save for the south, where the Broken Sea begins. The stone is three-foot thick at its weakest point and can withstand all but the heaviest assault. The Crimson Watch patrol the streets even as Salazar‘s Mindhawks patrol the skies.
The Grey City was not always so. But something has changed. Something has broken at its heart. Perhaps the wild magic of the dead Gods has corrupted Dorminia’s Magelord, as it has the earth itself. Or perhaps this iron-fisted tyranny is the consequence of a lifetime of dark deeds…
Still, pockets of resistance remain. When two formidable Highlanders save the life of a young rebel, it proves the foundation for an unlikely fellowship. A fellowship united against tyranny, but composed of self-righteous outlaws, crippled turncoats and amoral mercenaries. A grim company. But with the world entering an Age of Ruin, this is not a time of heroes…
FORMAT/INFO: The Grim Company is 464 pages long, divided over forty-one titled chapters. Narration is in the third-person primarily via Davarus Cole, Brodar Kayne, Yllandris, Sasha and Tarn. This book is the first volume of the The Grim Company Trilogy. UK cover art is provided by Larry Rostant.
March 1, 2013 marked the publication of the UK Hardback edition of The Grim Company by Head Of Zeus and the e-book was previously released on February 1, 2013. The book will be published in the US in September 2013 by Ace-Roc books.
CLASSIFICATION: The Grim Company series is a dark epic fantasy series that can be best summed up as Joe Abercrombie‘s grim wit & gritty characterization meets James Clemens’ Godslayer Chronicles!
The story begins with a prologue event that is mentioned in the story rather scarcely but plays a very important role in the eventual build-up of the story and its main plot points. We are introduced to Davarus Cole, self-thought hero, fledgling revolutionary and a narcissistic fool all rolled into one. Davarus believes himself to be a hero destined for greatness as was his father Ilarius Cole and he has a special dagger to fulfill his destiny as well. Brodar Kayne is a barbarian from the High Fangs in the North fleeing his homeland for reasons revealed later in the story. He’s a formidable swordsman that is accompanied by a surly twin-axed warrior who goes by Jerek the Wolf. Both these Northmen are reputed warriors and will soon be caught up in destiny’s claws. Yllandris is a sorceress and concubine to Magnar, king of the High Fangs whose hunger for power will see her scale all opposition both mental and magical.
Then there’s Eremul the legless wizard who’s cruelly but rather aptly titled Half-mage. He resides in Dorminia trying to live as decent a life possible given his circumstances. Few know of the hatred that powers him and fewer still know his true intentions. Then there’s Barandas, Supreme Augmentor and Salazar’s most trusted warrior who lives as honorable a life possible among scum and is the lone lotus in a pool of mud. Lastly there is Sasha who is from the same group that Davarus belongs to but is more devious than Davarus will ever be. There are a few other characters that are given the spotlight in minor amounts but this is the main character cast. Lastly there’s the world itself, which bears explanation, as its also equally vital as one the POV characters.
Here’s the gist of the magic system and the world history. Precisely five hundred years ago, a score of wizards invaded the realm of the Gods and tried to defeat them. Amid this brazen attempt only thirty-odd returned and were heralded as MageLords who supplanted the godly pantheon they themselves had killed. This Deicide shifted the power onto the humans elevating them to a completely different evolutionary level however the world fell apart in the process and the divine magic is also slowly being depleted. These MageLords fight among themselves to hoard more power and therefore the known world is constantly in a state of flux. Chief to the story are Salazar the ruler of Dorminia, The White Lady of the City Of Spires and Mithradates the Shaman of the High Fangs, there are others who merit a brief mention but do not come into play in this volume. The main reason for the war between these mages is over the hoarding of crystals that serve as repositories of wild magic.
This is the primary setting of the story and was the biggest draw of the storyline for me. This crumbling world wherein Deicide (I don’t know why but I like that word a lot) occurred and now the Age of Ruin is ascendant, is like manna for world-building geeks. It partly reminded me of the world showcased in the Godslayer Chronicles by James Clemens and like Clemens; Luke Scull gives his own slant to a world wherein the Gods are dead at the hands of their creations. Secondly the characterization is pretty top notch, even though the author uses fantasy stereotypical characters such as aging barbarian, disgruntled low-level mage, handsome fool, and devoted warrior fighting for the wrong cause. He makes these characters their own and while we might find their facsimiles in previous books by fantasy legends such as David Gemmell, Glen Cook & Joe Abercrombie, these characters aren’t diminished in any way by such comparisons. With a rather large character cast, the author competently handles all his characters and gives different viewpoints in the various happening of the story.
The characters are what make this story irresistible as we are given access to characters across the moral spectrum, most of them are grey to begin with but it is even more fun to read about character conflict and moral underpinnings with characters such as Barandas, Eremul, Yllandrius and Brodar Kayne. The author gives us tremendous insight into their thoughts and not to mention several large doses of snarky humor and witty dialogue. This will be the point that will remind a lot of readers of Joe Abercrombie and to a lesser extent even Scott Lynch. Not to repeat comparisons from previous reviews but it’s very easy to say if you like J. Abercrombie‘s or S. Lynch’s work then this title is a shoo-in for you. That’s no knock on Luke’s writing and plotting skills but a genuine compliment that his debut is refreshing enough to offer his own twists on things while adhering to regular fantasy tropes. Lastly the pace of the book and plot twists definitely aid in the read as the reader is constantly switched from POV characters as well location to give us a panoramic feel to the story. The climax while being as complete as the first volume of a trilogy can be offers enough crumbs to entice the reader for the next volumes.
I didn’t think that there were any negatives to this debut however on an objective note, people tired of gritty storylines and morally grey characters will not find anything to alter their opinions here. Secondly while the author goes for a very grim outlook in his dialogue, some of it just comes across as awkward at a few instances. While this point is certainly subjective for readers, I felt that this could be overlooked as a minor debutante foible. Lastly this debut is very characteristic of “grimdark fantasy” so be forewarned before picking up this debut. However for those thinking on giving this one a pass, know that you would be missing out on one of the best debuts of this year for sure.
CONCLUSION: Luke Scull delivers a fantastic story that is ripe with action, strong characterization and a tight plot. This debut novel will have most readers turning pages as quickly as possible and leave them eager for the sequels. The Grim Company is truly an EPIC fantasy debut that shows all the characteristic strengths of the genre whilst managing to avoid almost all its pitfalls. This is one debut not to be missed and marks Luke Scull as one of epic fantasy’s talented debutants.
Thomas Clarin is a divorce lawyer whose profession has fostered a deep and abiding distrust of marriage, preferring instead to “play the field.” Thomas Loos is a somber widower intensely mourning his wife’s death. With Clarin’s flirtatious, roving eye and Loos’s complete disenchantment with the world around him, it would seem these men had nothing in common. But after a fateful meeting in a crowded Swiss restaurant, the two strike up a conversation that unearths unnerving coincidences.
With brilliant ease, Werner’s meticulously rendered story begins quietly at first, then grabs its reader, refusing to let go. On the Edge, widely acclaimed by reviewers as a treasure of contemporary German literature, has been published in 15 different countries, and has sold over 400,000 copies in Germany alone since its publication in 2004.”
“Everything’s turning. And everything’s turning round him. It’s insane, but I’m even tempted to think that he’s sneaking around the house right now—with or without a dagger. Although he’s supposed to have left, and I’m just hearing crickets and the distant barking of dogs in the night.”
After this dramatic introduction by the narrator – womanizer mid-thirties Swiss divorce lawyer Thomas Clarin – he starts recounting how he drove to his mountain villa for a long weekend to write a paper on Swiss divorce law history, only to to go to a nearby famed restaurant terrace and due to its being busy, sit at a table with an older, powerfully built 50′s man, who at first ignores him after giving Clarin tacit permission to sit at his table. However after Clarin, outgoing, sociable, charming as his many conquests and “theory of dating” show, introduces himself, the older man starts paying attention and tells him his name is Loos as they start discussing stuff:
“Well, first, as I hinted, the discussion was all ‘God and the world,’ but then we gradually got more personal, more intimate, you could say. For example, he asked me about my life as a bachelor and then along the way about my love life.”
Loos is mourning his wife, dead one year ago after a bout with brain cancer and Clarin slowly falls under his spell:
“I met a man by chance at the Bellevue in Montagnola, a remarkable man, a little over fifty, a classical philologist. We got to be friends of a sort, talked with each other for two evenings long. His name was Loos, Thomas Loos, physically a bear of a man. He had come down here, as he gradually revealed, to commemorate his wife, his dead Bettina, whom he revered like a saint—it came across as crazy to me. He was unquestionably disturbed, from time to time almost unbalanced—then completely normal again and impressively sharp-minded, especially when it came to proving how awful the present age is, how unbearable the world—the only thing he valued was his wife, his happy marriage”
While the first part with its sort of “angels on the pinhead” discussion read like the ruminations of privileged white males from prosperous countries who never felt real deprivation and I started thinking “meh, these guys should have been born in a poor country and see if they would have their smug talk then…”, slowly the novel started going into the past of both Clarin and Loos and then it accelerated to an even higher level, by the last third becoming just a masterpiece of misdirection and twists and turns.
Fantasy Book Critic