Kingshold by D. P. Woolliscroft – Book Review (Blog Tour!)

Published by: Self-published
Genre: Epic Fantasy

Series: The Wildfire Cycle #01
Format: ebook
Review Copy: Courtesy of TheWriteReads, as part of the Kingshold Blog Tour!

Kingshold was difficult to get into – so difficult, in fact, I hate to admit that if I wasn’t part of this blog post, I might not have gotten past the opening third…which would’ve been a pity as there is plenty I enjoyed further on! For that reason, before I get into the review proper, I’ll take a little while to tell you about the issues I thought plagued these first hundred and thirty pages or so.

The first 30%

The beginning felt bloated. Exposition-heavy dialogue distracted from the characters and their motivations, traits and roles in the story.  There’s a lot which yells out “boilerplate fantasy” here, in terms of archetypes and descriptions both – from the ancient mildly Bayaz-esque wizard who pulls the strings of a kingdom and does as he wills to the burly torturer who says “M’Lud” instead of “My Lord”. All planets have a north, I know, I know. The issue of the descriptions to start with is, they all felt like I’d read them a hundred times before. I prefer a well-crafted image, which fleshes out one memorable trait as compared to what the reader often comes across here, a dozen forgettable adjectives.

It’s overwritten – but even then, I enjoyed some of the characters from the start. Take for instance the Lord Chancellor Hoskin, whose wry amusement at the expense of others put a smile to my face. What I found lacking early on was subtext – so many issues are presented bare and without a hint of subtlety. It’s almost as if the author didn’t quite have the faith early on that the readers might pick more subtle cues from his characters; Woolliscroft felt the need to be blunt about characters’ motivations and goals this early on, and I wasn’t won over by that.

Once I passed the 30%, however, I started getting into Kingshold.

D. P Woolliscroft has comedic timing, something I got quite a few hints of early on. It really blossoms once you get to know the characters better and as a result, I chuckled throughout. I found more than a few of the intimate moments between the cast touching, as well.

The dwarves deserve a commendation – several small details given them by the writer differentiated Woolliscroft’s take in memorable ways compared with the usual portrayal you get in fantasy. Some sweet details about their homes, their forging techniques, their thermal baths – all things you have got to love.

In terms of characters, I enjoyed their growth over the span of the book. Chancellor Hoskin transformed from a nervous bookworm to an acidic arsehole, and I loved every minute of it. I won’t touch upon all of them, but the bard Mareth was also a lot of fun to watch grow from a semi-capable drunk to someone with vision and a desire to elicit change, as was the servant Alana, whose duties in serving a wizard his breakfast really help her find her place in the world. The wizard in question has a daughter, Neenahwi, who has several satisfying moments in her own right.

The prose holds this book back – too often, words feel out of place; dialogue or descriptions are overwritten and bloated. As I said, it’s serviceable but it lacks a certain amount of stylization – particularly in terms of dialogue, which comes off as unintentionally ironic from time to time – which is what makes the best examples of the epic fantasy subgenre exceptional. The language lacks exactness, and often makes the mistake of being too passive: “There have been some of the younger dwarves who have gone missing.” This sentence could easily be reworked to something dynamic like “Some of the younger dwarves have gone missing.” Shorter, easier to read, better.

Another small qualm I have with the novel is, it’s got a number of punctuation errors and typos, a few missed words: “She’d come into their group like a whirlwind, full of confidence of the like Alana only dreamed [of].” Annoying, that.

With a round of close in-line edits, these issues could have been fixed. Kingshold has a strong core of ideas, a cast of likable protagonists and plenty of heart. It’s a pity that some of it comes across as sloppy, bloated and over-written because the potential for this one to be brilliant is there. So many of the ideas Woolliscroft presents are ridiculous amounts of fun! One of Kingshold’s chief exports, for example? Assassins. How does it work? A legal framework is in place and all, and no one bats an eye!  “…It did prove useful that there was a certain understanding between the branches and the head office here. Made him wonder why the other cities would countenance their existence. But he supposed a score of deadly assassins had a certain special kind of lobbying power.” See? Fresh and funny!

My score for this one is 3.5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads, or a 7 out of 10. Kingshold offers a pastiche of many of the traditional themes and motifs of epic fantasy and while it takes a while for them all to mix fully, once they do, Woolliscroft offers an engaging read despite a number of issues.

You can follow D. P. Woolliscroft over at: www.dpwoolliscroft.com
Or check out his Twitter – @dpwoolliscroft and Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/dpwoolliscroft/

The Shadow Saint by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan – Book Review

Series: The Black Iron Legacy # 2
Published by: Orbit
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Grimdark, High Fantasy
Pages: 567
Format: e-book
Review Copy Courtesy of NetGalley

If you haven’t read The Gutter Prayer and don’t know if you want to, read my review of it here.

The Gutter Prayer was an exceptional debut – no matter how hard I thought about the story, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it! In The Shadow Saint, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan opens up Guerdon to all-new existential threats, which our cast of new and returning heroes are sorely lacking in preparation for; while some characters were dearly missed, their absence keenly felt at one time or another, the cast swells with memorable new names.

I spoke last time of how Guerdon was akin to a living being, a city of immense character equalled by Dickens’ London in Bleak House, for example; what I had not foreseen back when I first drew the comparison was that one of the major characters of the first novel would literally transform into a large part of the city. Following the Gutter Miracle which took place during the culmination of the first novel, Guerdon has undergone a transformation; the so-called New City is a triumph of one man’s will, an organism made of stone with a benevolent will of its own. But some things remain the same:

Feverish, pugnacious, the city is alive in a way she hasn’t seen since before the Crisis. She can almost forget that, less than a year ago, this square was besieged by monsters. When the gutters ran with blood, and the sky filled with vengeful gods.

Time and again, Hanrahan shows mastery over character voice. Eladora’s introspections are an academic’s curiosity through and through (I would know); the spy, meanwhile, thinks exactly as a spy would, studying every angle, observing every situation, looking always for an edge to gain on everyone else for his own purposes. His masks take on a life of their own, personas he puts on and then discards. Some stick, however, and this allows us to touch upon a topic of great interest to me – just when does pretense turn to reality? The spy’s point of view is masterful – not since Sins of Empire have I come across such a compelling shadow operative. And this one, with all due respect to Brian, would run circles around Michel. 

The Haithian, Terevant’s, way of viewing the world is that of a poet in a soldier’s uniform. I adored the story of this failed officer, a failed younger scion of the powerful Everesic family, as he sought to redeem himself in the eyes of kin and country, only to realize…but no, that would spoil something, wouldn’t it? “He dislikes feeling hollow. He wants to be on his way already, to fill himself with purpose.”  Terevant has a lot going for him, and his storyline is satisfying from beginning to end.

I took great pleasure in Eladora’s stolen moments of thaumaturgical studies, the magic system Hanrahan employs is interesting and costly to the caster:

She clenches her first, slowly, imagining the spell paralyzing a target, holding them in unseen chains of sorcery- but then she loses control, the magic slipping through her fingers. For a moment, her hand feels like she’s thrust it into an open fire, the unseen chains suddenly turned to molten metal, her skin blistering. A spell gone awry can discharge unpredictably – if she swallows the power she’s drawn down, she can ground it inside her body, risking internal damage. If she lets it go, she might ignite something, and this cramped backroom in the IndLib’s parliamentary office is crammed with papers and books.

But a little magic is far from the most interesting skill Eladora acquires. Her evolution through The Shadow Saint marks the best character arc Hanrahan has written yet and I look forward to seeing how it’ll resolve in the third book of the series. There’s a lot of her former teacher Ongent in Eladora – as much, perhaps, as the effects of the Thay blood she was so uncomfortable with, in The Gutter Prayer.

The spy – his endgame is such a good fucking mystery. I’m proud of calling his true identity about mid-way through. Still there was plenty to surprise me, and I wish, I really wish I could gush about how cool all of it is – but I dare not.

What I missed, more than anything else, was the active part the Alchemists’ guild previously took in the political and social life of Guerdon. The horrid Tallowmen are gone, and so are the other vat-grown monstrosities that so chilled and thrilled me and many others. A little something was teased out towards the end of the novel, to do with a certain alchemist who appeared  previously – which gives me hope that this most devious of players on Guerdon’s political board will make her return before all is said and done.

The Keeper Church, meanwhile, features prominently throughout. I, like Eladora, missed Aleena, the fuming, cursing, flame-wielding saint of the Church; the Keeper Gods have kept busy after her fall, and have made themselves a fair amount of crazy idiot saints. Fanatics, plenty of fanatics – and you’ll love to hate them, just as I did.

I appreciated what Hanrahan showed us of the world outside the city of Guerdon – the necromantic empire of Haith, a place in which the dead have long since outnumbered the living, once the greatest power in the world – now in retreat before an enemy that defies even their countless undead hordes; glimpses of Ishmere, with their mad gods, thirsty for ever greater expansion. Oh, and a cartel ran by dragons is a thing. Wicked, I know.

Supporting character, whether new or returning ones, left an impression. Politician and reformist Effro Kelkin makes a return after his miraculous survival, attempting to finagle his way back to power. I love the man, and this description encapsulates everything great about his character: “He manages to be simultaneously the wily old trickster who knows how to pull every lever and work every cheat in the system, and the firebrand who’s going to burn it all down and build something better…A better tomorrow, if only you’ll believe in him – and yourself. No guilds, no gods – just honest hard work, charity and integrity.” Great character, possibly born in the wrong world. Other supporting characters I cheered for include the Haithian war hero Olthic, brother to Terevant, who works to make an ally of Guerdon, no matter the results of the oncoming election; a career politician who switches affiliations faster than I switch hairstyles; Ramegos, a brilliant thaumaturgist whose knowledge is indispensable to the IndLibs and Eladora alike; and Emlyn, a child-saint whose story is intricately linked to that of the spy.

I continue to fall in love with this world and characters, the more I think about them. As I revisit the hundred passages I’ve highlighted for one reason or another, I am awed by the mastery Hanrahan shows – in quality of his prose, in the mastery of voice, in the deep worldbuilding he’s woven into this story of saints and mad gods. This is my book of January 2020, no doubt about it. My score for The Shadow Saint is 5/5 stars. The Black Iron Legacy series is worth every hour you’ll put into it, every minute. Every fucking second.

This review was originally published over at Booknest.eu.