Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Best of 2014!

Well as the year draws to a close I thought I should join the blogging herd and make the seemingly obligatory 'best of' post for you all. I shall refrain from ranking... all you need to know is that I really enjoyed the books shown below... and that you should all go out and buy yourselves a copy of each of them as soon as possible.

Well... here goes...

These books all blew my mind for different reasons... Unwrapped Sky was a joy to read... full of challenging ideas and wonderful language... The Mirror Empire challenged the traditional boundaries of epic fantasy with intriguing protagonists and narrative that included bear mounts and sentient plants... The Incorruptibles was a beautiful mashup of steampunk, fantasy, and western that had me gripped... Bound was a kick ass and fast paced story that scared me (Three Sisters anyone?) and thrilled me at the same time... and finally The Emperor's Blades combined everything I love about epic fantasy into one awesome package... a sprawling tale filled with history, intrigue, magic and warfare. 2014 was certainly a cracking year for speculative fiction... and 2015 is shaping up nicely as well!

Happy New Year everyone! 

Monday, 29 December 2014

Book Review - Red Rising by Piece Brown

I approached Red Rising with excitement and anticipation... and sweet mother of God was I not let down! 

Red Rising tells the story of Darrow, a Helldiver on Mars. Darrow is a Red, one of a caste of people who are relegated to living deep in the bowels of Mars under the notion that they are working (by mining gas) to make the surface of Mars habitable for future generations. Except this is a lie. It turns out that Mars has been habitable for generations, and the Golds are maintaining the lie in order to protect their system of slavery and castes. 

Inevitably Red Rising will be compared to other dystopian books like the Hunger Games... with the poor protagonist rising up against the rulers, a competition, and the Institute... but trust me... Red Rising is better... oh so much better. 

Red Rising starts slow, but quickly picks up and reaches amazing levels of darkness, depravity, and horror. I absolutely loved the world that Brown created. The descriptions of the futuristic society on Mars, with its varied cultures and peoples, blew my mind. I also found the early chapters, where Brown introduces Darrow and describes his job as a Helldiver, to be fascinating (albeit a little slow). What propels this book into awesome territory however is its narrative. The dialogue alone ripped my emotional state to shreds, and I felt gaping holes appear in my heart at Darrow's plight as events unfolded around him. There is a certain rawness and hardness to Red Rising that works horribly well as you work through the story. By the end of it I was an emotional wreck, trying to deal with all the chaos that was unleashed. 

Red Rising also captures perfectly the lengths humans will go to to hurt each other and to maintain their power. I was shocked at how depraved and cruel some of the characters were, and it certainly added to the poignancy and keen sense of darkness that lingered all throughout the story.

I also loved reading about the rivalries between the Houses, and I adored how Brown took the reader to the frontline as the rival competitors attempted to best each other, and as Darrow's attempts to bring down the system that has caused him and his caste so much pain unfolded.

All in all Red Rising is one of those books that comes along and just slaps you in the face... gripping yet also terrible. I could not put it down, and I cannot wait to read the sequel Golden Son.

4 out of 5 stars!

Book Review - Bound by Alan Baxter

I picked up Bound, by Alan Baxter, on the recommendation of a friend. I owe that friend a few drinks now. 

Bound is about cage fighter Alex Caine, a man who can see his opponents moves before they make them. Following a successful fight Alex is approached by an Englishman called Welby, who knows his secret and wants Alex to help him unlock the key to an ancient and powerful grimoire. Drawn into a world filled with magic, violence, and a chaotic Fey godling called Uthentia, Alex must harness his innate magical ability and fighting skills to prevent the end of the world as we know it.

Upon finishing Bound my first thought was 'damn.'

My second thought was that if Stephen King and Jim Butcher ever had a love child then it would be Alan Baxter.

Finally, my third thought was that Bound is a seriously entertaining read.

Full of dark, gritty and bloody goodness, Bound is possibly one of the best debut novels I've read in many years. Cracking action and dialogue propel the story along at a fast pace as the reader journeys from the cages of the underground fighting scene in Sydney to the icy wastes of Iceland. I loved the fight scenes, and I could tell they were written by someone who has trained extensively in hand to hand combat and martial arts. I almost felt the bones being broken and smashed at times throughout the book, and their realism kept me enthralled. The world in which Bound is set was also gloriously gritty and full of things that go bump in the night. Dark horrors exist everywhere (the Three Sisters for example), and the world is full of mythical and supernatural creatures such as gargoyles and the Fey.

Alex Caine was also a fascinating protagonist. Flawed in many ways but still noble and honest, he was a believable hero who I couldn't help but cheer for as the odds kept stacking up against him. His rages, lust, frustration, and mistakes throughout the story only added depth to his character and made him more human. His dialogue and interplay with the other characters (like Silhouette) throughout the novel were also loaded with wit and humour that had me chuckling well into the night. 

The other characters and creatures in Bound were also interesting. I loved the idea of the Kin, and the dark horrors like the Three Sisters and the Subcontractor. However, the two characters I absolutely adored were the evil duo of Mr. Hood and Miss Sparks and their Black Diamond Inc. They are the perfect narrative foil for Alex and Silhouette, and their dark and twisted relationship and actions brought a real nefarious essence to the story that was both creepy and strangely thrilling as well. 

All in all Bound was a bloody excellent read. I cannot recommend this book enough to fans of Butcher and Wendig.

4 out of 5 stars!


Friday, 19 December 2014

Australian Speculative Fiction... Thriving or Dying?

I had lunch with a very good friend of mine yesterday. Naturally, our conversation filtered from one topic to another... until I asked him if he had read any good local authors lately?  

"Local... pffttt... all the good stuff is from overseas lately... I don't even bother anymore with Australian fantasy writers." 

I was gobsmacked. Shocked. Even a tiny bit pissed off. A primal and nationalistic anger flared within me. Before I could air my indignation he summarised his thoughts precisely to me. 

"The scene has been dying the past ten years... it's like flogging a dead horse... so why bother?" 

We moved on in conversation, but my thoughts kept coming back to this statement. It bothered me. A lot. It also sprouted all sorts of thoughts and questions in my head.

Was the local speculative fiction scene dying? Has the quality declined this past decade? I mulled over all of this on my way home and all of last night. 

The short answer I came up with..


The longer answer in my opinion is this. Speculative fiction is going through a rebirth period here in Australia. This rebirth has been brought on by the rise of digital publishing. We are now living in a time where local publishers, such as Twelth Planet Press or Couer De Lion, can now reach global audiences via the Ebook market. In Australia, as Keith Stevenson correctly pointed out to me, we are seeing digital imprints and companies popping up everywhere. Digital is the new black. And it is a hell of a lot cheaper then traditional publishing. There is a reason why Pan Macmillan (via Momentum) and HarperCollins (via Voyager Impulse) have got into the digital market. It has enabled them to, like other specialist digital publishers, get their products and authors out there whilst cutting the large overall costs of traditional publishing.

Digital publishing has also enabled independent writers, such as Mitchell Hogan, to carve out their own successful niches (Hogan for example has sales in the tens of thousands for his Sorcery Ascendant books, and an Aurealis Award as well) within the book market. We are now seeing a wave of new authors coming through who are using the digital market to their benefit professionally and financially.

Will we still see new writers take the more traditional route of publishing? Of course... but we will now also be able to access and enjoy writers in the digital market who may not have yet broken into the hardcover and paperback markets.

But what about falling book sales you might say. Fair point, but let me explore it a little. Book sales have dipped and declined over the past few years for book shops. I am not disagreeing with this statement. However, the figures show that in 2013 the total number of books sold or downloaded in Australia in fact went up. Yes, book shops are struggling, but that is because we now have so many other options in which to purchase our reading material. We are now living in an environment whereby the access for readers has never been better. Does it suck for traditional booksellers? To an extent, yes. Should traditional booksellers evolve with the changing market? Yes, I believe they should. Will they die a horrible and painful death, bankrupt and penniless? I highly doubt it. Real books are still an integral part of any reader's life, and there will always be a market there. Booksellers, like publishers and authors, just need to keep evolving as the times change. So is the scene dying? Hardly... it has never been more diverse and vibrant... and it is growing!

But what about my friend's initial point... that all the good speculative fiction comes from overseas.

Well... to put it bluntly... bullshit.

Yes... there are some cracking international writers on the scene at the moment. Again I am not denying this. I absolute adore the works of authors like Kameron Hurley, Mark Lawrence, Robert J. Bennett, Ann Leckie, Brandon Sanderson and Joe Abercrombie (to name just a few). But there are some bloody good local authors as well! Alan Baxter, with his dark and brilliant Alex Caine books, or Rjurik Davidson's Unwrapped Sky, which somehow managed to weave a beautiful tapestry of revolution, freedom and magic. Or what about YA writer Jessica Shirvington, whose sales and popularity have led her books to be linked to Steven Spielberg and Hollywood. Or Karen Miller, whose Falcon Throne novel combines political manoeuvring and bloodshed on an epic scale. I could go on and on and on with examples.

Like the scene itself, our local writers have never been more diverse and vibrant. Back in the 1990s I could probably name, off the top of my head, 10 Australian speculative fiction writers (Sara Douglass, Garth Nix, and Traci Harding spring to mind just quickly). Now, I could probably reel off at least 50... probably more.

So really... my friend needs to return to reading Australian writers and embrace the local scene. It will  be of benefit them both!

Some authors you should check out (there are heaps!!!) include -

Mitchell Hogan
Joanne Anderton
Alan Baxter
Karen Miller
Jessica Shirvinton
Glenda Larke
Rjurik Davidson
Ben Peek
Garth Nix
Greig Beck
Keith Stevenson
Margo Lanagan
Kristyn McDermott
Trent Jamieson

This list names just a few... take the time to explore our rich and diverse scene!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Week in Review

Hello Everyone!

Well... it's that time of the year again... the festive season is ramping up, and people are stressed out of their minds! 

Despite my attempts to escape the bedlam I have still been flat chat. Family gatherings, massive feasts of food and booze, house renovations, Christmas shopping and a sick child have all conspired against me. This has meant my blogging has been irregular as of late, and for that I apologise. 

My plan to have a regular series of blogs and opinion pieces have been put on the back burner until after Christmas, when I will have more time and energy to devote to them. Still, I did manage to post a couple of reviews... my thoughts on Vicious by VE Schwab and Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson can be found by scrolling down. 

January is looking to be a very busy month for Smash Dragons. I can confirm that we will be featuring interviews with Dan Adams, Rjuirk Davidson, and Ben Peek. I am also organising other interviews for early 2015 as well. At this stage my targets include Karen Miller, Trudi Canavan, Jo Anderton and Alan Baxter. Wish me luck! 

I can also confirm that my regular opinion piece 'Piercing My Cranium' will begin (I promise... I really do). I will also be posting reviews of Alan Baxter's Bound and Obsidian, Pierce Brown's Red Rising and Golden Son, WC Bauer's Unbreakable, and Snorri Kristijansson's Blood will Follow. I am hoping to also obtain (once it's released) a copy of Brian Staveley's Providence of Fire to review. Like said earlier, January is going to be very busy! 

This Christmas I made an effort to try and support local writers by only purchasing their books. I firmly believe we need to nurture our talent here in this country, and one of the best ways to do that is to dip into your wallet to support them. It makes writers and publishers very happy, and it keeps great storytellers in the business. I would implore you all to do the same. A few more sales can be the difference between staying in the game or leaving for some writers. 

So what am I looking forward to in 2015... wow... so many things! Joe Abercrombie coming to Australia... Neil Gaiman as well... finally getting my library/office renovated and set up... going on a big holiday with my wife and daughter (been planning for awhile now)... and reading so many new books. 

Here's a quick list of books I'm excited to read in 2015:

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson
Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley
The Stars Askew by Rjurik Davidson
A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab
Leviathan's Blood by Ben Peek
Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky 
The Skull Throne by Peter V. Brett
Those Above by Daniel Polansky
The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis
The Liar's Key by Mark Lawrence
Queen of Fire by Anthony Ryan
The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milan
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Fool's Quest by Robin Hobb

There are so many more... but it would take forever to write! A cracking year ahead!

Finally, we here at Smash Dragons would like to thank you for your support. I have received emails from all over the world, and it warms my heart to know there are thousands of speculative fiction lovers around the world just like me! I just want to wish you all a very merry Christmas and festive season. Stay safe, be merry, and eat and drink lots of good food and booze!

Kind Regards,


Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Book Review - Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson

Unwrapped Sky tells the tale of the city of Caeli-Amur and it inhabitants. The Houses who rule Caeli-Amur have guarded their power jealously. But in the bowels of the city a group of seditionists are plotting to take control and overthrow the Houses. As events unfold and spiral out of control, and violence and terror erupt, only one thing is for certain... the city of Caeli-Amur will change forever. 

Review - 

Where do I begin... perhaps with an opening statement?

I LOVE this book!

Seriously... it was that good. Any review will not even come close to expressing just how much I enjoyed reading Unwrapped Sky, but I suppose I will give it a shot anyway! 

Unwrapped Sky is an original, riveting, and mind bending read. Wielding beautiful and poetic prose, Davidson weaves an epic tale of power, class and revolution that crosses over genres ranging from fantasy through to steampunk and new weird. I loved so many things about this book. Davidson's use of language had me savouring each and every page, and I adored how his wordplay filled me (a English and History teacher) with warmth and fuzziness as I worked through the story. 

The city of Caeli-Amur and the world building in Unwrapped Sky are incredibly well done and detailed. I fell in love with Caeli-Amur early on, and as I read I could easily visualise myself strolling down its streets taking in the sights, smells, and sounds. Davidson's characters are fascinating and diverse, and his use of points of view drive the story brilliantly. The reader views the revolution from all sides and from all levels of society, and his characters are as 'grey' as possible. This made them incredibly interesting and accessible to me, and I really enjoyed how there was no one true protagonist or antagonist. Did I mention the Minotaur's? No? Well there are Mintotaur's as well... FREAKIN MINOTAUR'S! This was a entirely new level of awesome for me... and I found Davidson's use of different races wonderful and gripping. The magical system in Unwrapped Sky also blew my mind! As a magic system nerd (Sanderson is my Lord!) I supped happily and heartily on Davidson's thaumaturgy, with its system of mathematics and ideograms (the harvest of Minotaur body parts for magical works was both gory and strangely satisfying). The story in Unwrapped Sky also moves along at a nice place. It does become slow in some parts, but I found that I didn't mind those sections as they were still beautiful to read and integral to the overall story. The action was well written and gripping, taking me on an emotional roller coaster ride of laughs, cheers, and tears. 

Arguably, however, the best part of Unwrapped Sky is is breadth and scale. Davidson has taken on everything in this book. Caeli-Amur is firmly sat in a wider history that stretches (yet remains relevant to current events in the book) far into the past. Add to that everything ranging from philosophical discourse and revolutionary and class theory through to freedom and love and machinery and myths, and you barely scratch the surface of what Unwrapped Sky has to offer. And it works! It works bloody well! 

Unwrapped Sky has raced up to the top echelon of my favourite books of all time... it has satisfied me on so many levels that even now I find myself going back to certain scenes and chapters just to reread them and enjoy. I suspect it will also become one of the books I read once every year just so I can relive its beautiful and fascinating story. 

A truly magnificent story, and from a fellow Australian too (bonus points solely for that). I cannot wait for the next instalment!

5 out of 5 stars! 

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Quick Update

Hi Everyone!

Just a quick update for you all... I won't be putting up my 'piercing my cranium' feature until next week now. A sick daughter, and family visiting for the holidays has slowed up my posting the past few days. Keep an eye out for it next week! 

Also, my upcoming reviews include Brave Men Die by Dan Adams and Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson. I will also be interviewing both authors, and chatting to them about their work and the genre in Australia. I cannot wait! 

Happy holidays, and stay safe good people! 



Book Review - Vicious by V. E. Schwab

I must admit I am ashamed I have never read any of Schwab's work before. In fact my first exposure to her was only recent, via a preview of her upcoming novel A Darker Shade of Magic. I scouted around online and found that she had published a few other works, most notably Vicious. One quick purchase later and I was ready to jump into a world of ExtraOrdinaries, and boy, am I glad I did. 

Vicious tells the tale of two friends turned enemies after they develop superhero powers via experimentation gone wrong. The main storyline opens ten years after these initial events, as both friends attempt to finish what they started in the past by killing the other. 

I loved this book. Schwab has crafted an incredibly thoughtful and thrilling tale that bucks the normal stereotypes of a superhero novel. Victor and Eli are masterful protagonists, delightfully (and scarily) human superheroes who are not burdened by the ideals of your Superman's or Captain America's. They experience rage, jealously, anger, and depression. They are broken psychologically in many ways, and this in turn makes them believable and addictive. Their portrayal sucked me in and refused to let go, and I experienced many 'what the f***' moments as the story unravelled before my eyes. 

I also loved the pacing and structure of Vicious. Schwab employs a technique whereby the reader's questions (Why is Victor in jail? Why is Eli on a killing spree of EO's) are answered via recollection and memories. I thought this worked extremely well, as the reader jumps back and forth between the past and present in order to fill in the dots. This added to the intense mystery and tension that was woven throughout the book. The plot moved along at a fast pace, and the action and narrative are top notch (even more incredible given Schwab has only been around for a few years I think). I literally was on the edge of my seat as I read, waiting to see the final fates of Victor and Eli play out. 

Vicious is arguably one of the best superhero books I have ever read. I adored how Schwab turned the common tropes of the genre on their head, weaving a dark and epic tale that is terrifyingly human.  I look forward to more masterful works from her! Incredible... absolutely incredible!

You must read this novel! 

5 out of 5 Stars.


Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Book Review - Book of the Dead by Greig Beck

Description - 

Sinkholes are appearing all over the globe... birds are falling from the sky... and people are disappearing. When the government starts to investigate these phenomena they discover more than they bargained for... Cthulhu is rising... and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. 

"And the Earth shall fall before they... rise." 

Review - 

I will admit I was excited when I first heard whispers (or should that be guttural squelching from shoggoths?) of this novel. Hardcore military adventure fiction... with Lovecraftian tones... oh hell yes! Sign me up and take my money! Did Greig Beck deliver on my excitement upon reading... is the Pope a Catholic? Of course he did! 

Beck has crafted an amazing tale filled with dark horror and violence. The world building and pacing were superb, and the story was filled with squeamish terror and gut wrenching action from start to finish. His characters were well fleshed out, and I loved the reappearance of Kearns and Senesh in this story. Beck's exploration and use of the Cthulhu mythos was also well done, creating a deep sense of foreboding and terror deep within me as a turned page after page (probably didn't help that there were violent storms raging outside at the time! I literally could imagine Cthulhu peering down at me as lightning rippled across the sky behind him). I was grabbed from the first sentence and engrossed in the story until the very end. Even now I still find myself thinking about the possibility of the old ones. That's how I know that Beck has done a tremendous job... the story is lingering in my mind a week after reading! 

As a homage to Lovecraft Beck has produced a work to be proud of. The best military horror I have read all year... and Beck's best work yet. 

A must read for military horror and Lovecraft fans! 

5 out of 5 stars.


Thursday, 4 December 2014

Book Review - Clash of Eagles by Alan Smale

Description - 

Clash of Eagles tells of the tale of of an alternate world where the Roman Empire has not fallen, and the continent of North America has just been discovered. Hungry for land and gold, the Emperor has sent Praetor Gaius Marcellinus and the 33rd Roman Legion across the ocean to invade the newly discovered lands.

Marcellinus and his men expect an easy victory over the native inhabitants, but the 33rd Legion clashes with an unique civilisation armed with weapons and strategies that no Roman has ever imagined. Suffering a cataclysmic defeat, Marcellinus is spared by his captors and kept alive for his military and strategic knowledge. As he recovers and learns more about the native inhabitants, he finds himself drawn into their society and their way of life. But threats, both Roman and Native, are growing on the horizon, and Marcellinus finds himself struggling to keep the peace as the continent surges towards bloody conflict. 

Review - 

I am the first to admit that I love alternative history. I have demolished the works of Turtledove with glee in the past, and sat late into the night pouring over the historical nuances of Bernard Cornwell. One of the things that I loved about those works was their ability to transport me into a radically different world and keep me riveted. Does Clash of Eagles stand up to the works of those authors? In some ways yes, and in others no. I loved many things about Clash of Eagles, but I also found myself noticing things that I felt let the story down. 

Firstly, the battle scenes were well done. Historically accurate (Smale could have taken some more poetic license though, and depicted a Roman Army that had evolved more in terms of weaponry and tactics... it is after all 1218AD in the novel), interesting, and action packed. I could almost feel myself standing in formation with the legionnaires at times, and the tactical nuances of the natives were crafty and fascinating (their use of air attacks and how fighting the legion changed them for example). This leads me to my next point. Smale's world building is great in some parts, and washed over in others. I found his passages on the native inhabitants (mainly the people of Cahokia, or the 'Mound Builders') intriguing and richly detailed. I became immersed in their great civilisation that once existed on the banks of the Mississippi, and I enjoyed the massive impact (cultural and technological) that Marcellinus had on their society. His passages on Rome were, in comparison, washed over. It is 1218AD in the novel, and the Roman Empire has not only repelled the barbarians but continued to conquer and expand its empire (for example Briton and Scandanavia are Roman provinces). We get very little meat on the bone in regard to these events. How did the Roman Empire survive? What were the ramifications of that survival? Smale just blazes through this and, in my opinion, avoids detailing what could have been an incredibly fascinating part of his novel (especially seeing as this is one the cool things about alternative history... the 'what ifs'). 

The characters of Clash of Eagles are also a little hit and miss. Marcellinus was an excellent protagonist, whose narrative kept me turning the pages in anticipation of what was coming. I especially enjoyed how Smale highlighted the cultural divide between Marcellinus and the Cahokians, and their attempts to communicate with each other were very funny at times. Smale's native characters are also extremely well done, with a richness and depth that I found very reminiscent of the Native Americans in the movie Dances with Wolves. In opposition to this I found Smale's depiction of his Roman characters (and other non-natives for that matter) to be a little shallow and lacking in the depth. Again I just wanted a little bit more on the bone to satisfy that alternative history nerd within me. 

I enjoyed the overall pacing and plot of the story. At times the story did slow down, especially in the parts detailing Marcellinus initial introduction to Cahokian society. After that though the plot moved along nicely and I found myself more locked in the further along I got. All in all Clash of Eagles is a solid alternative history with tones of Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans. Yes, it has some weaknesses, but overall it was an enjoyable read and one I would recommend to fans of Cornwell, Turtledove, and Clavell. 

3.5 out of 5 Stars


Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Interview - Justin Woolley


I am stoked to be able to bring you the next installment of our series 'Aussie Authors in Focus'. This week I got to chat with rising star Justin Woolley. Justin has recently published the wonderful post-apocalyptic novel A Town Called Dust, and I am over the moon to have the opportunity to be able to chat to him about this and various other things. 

Onwards to the interview... 

Justin Woolley, welcome to Smash Dragons! Tell us a bit about yourself, and your novel A Town Called Dust.

Thanks for having me Matthew, it's good to stop by. A little bit about me, well, I'm an author (obviously) but also an engineer and have at one time or another been a teacher and a magician. I've always made up stories and written them down. The older I got the more I realised I probably wasn't going to stop doing this so I might as well have a crack at getting serious.

'A Town Called Dust' is my debut novel, a post-apoclyptic story set in the Australian desert where the remnants of mankind live protected from undead ghouls by a giant fence, until the fence falls.

What motivated you to become a writer? The private jets, flash cars, or buckets of money?

Well it's probably my desire to have a flying car constructed entirely of chromed 100 dollar bills. Or maybe it was the fact I've just always loved stories, both reading and writing them. I couldn't imagine my life without writing. Without imagination the world would be an awfully dull place. 

Where did you get the idea for A Town Called Dust from? What were your main challenges in getting this novel off the ground and published?

Like every book 'A Town Called Dust' is a combination of many, many ideas, some I'd been stewing on for a long time and some that just popped in as I wrote. There was no single moment of inspiration but I suppose if I had to narrow it down to the real core drive to write the book it would have been my time spent working as a teacher. I wanted to write a story for young readers. I wanted to engage young people, particularly reluctant readers, and I wanted to set the story against the amazing landscape of the Australian outback. 

My main challenge was the same as many writers face. I had to balance full-time work and writing a novel. I had to find enough time to sit down and write the book and that can be a struggle. For anyone who is trying to do this don't be disheartened by how difficult it is at times. It takes a lot of commitment and resilience to write a book. I had false starts at writing a novel before but this was the one I was determined to finish. 

A Town Called Dust seems to sit on the fence between YA and Adult fiction. Was this done on purpose to make it accessible to both markets? 

Good question, and the answer is probably a vague combination of both yes and no. I'm an adult (although I'd call myself young at heart which I suppose is a nice way of saying I'm immature) but I'm writing books for young adults. I think the natural result of this is a layered narrative, aspects of the book are very purposely targeted toward the young adult audience and others are perhaps simply a reflection of myself being an adult. The result is a book that is accessible to both markets. I'd also add that young adults are extremely sophisticated readers, this is why such a large amount of adults read young adult books, it's not a reflection of the maturity or reading level of the adults, it's a reflection of how complex young adult books are, often more complicated and dealing with heavier themes than a lot of adult literature.

So I guess what I'm saying is I wrote a book I would want to read, even now as an adult, but while doing so I focused on issues that resonate with all of us but are especially important to young adults, things like feelings of isolation, dealing with authority and being told what to believe and how to behave. 

Lynn and Squid were particularly fascinating protagonists, and I enjoyed their journey throughout the novel. Did you construct their characters from the start (and know their endgame) or did they evolve naturally as you wrote the novel? 

Thanks Matthew, I'm glad you found Lynn and Squid interesting and enjoyed their journey, I can't ask for more than that as an author! When it comes to writing I'm a planner, probably comes from being an engineer as well but I won't start a book until I know where it will end and what the motivations of the characters are. So yes, I constructed Squid and Lynn before I began writing but of course things change and the characters grow. During the writing of the first draft I began to get a much better handle on the voices of the characters and their deeper feelings about their place in the world and this led to changes in their behaviour in some situations and a tightening of their characters during the later drafts.

The world building in your novel was well executed I thought, and I was over the moon to finally read a dystopian novel with a real Australian feel to it. What attracted you to write a novel with an Australian and dystopian setting? 

Again thank you. World-building has always been a very enjoyable part of the writing experience for me. Ever since I read Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels as a teenager and feel in love with the world he created I knew I wanted to build worlds. I've always put a considerable amount of thought and effort into my worlds.

Dystopian fiction has always resonated with me both as a reader and a writer. It is a genre that allows us to examine much of the human condition. It lets us ask questions about who we are as humans and how we would behave if the world around us collapsed. It can reflect the good and the bad in humanity's urge to survive. The main reason I chose an Australian setting for my own post-apocalyptic dystopian novel is because the landscape of central Australia, that vast arid desert, lends itself so well to the feelings of a post apocalypse. It is a place where it already feels like you could be the last people on the planet. 

So, why zombies? 

I love zombies. From Night of the Living Dead to The Walking Dead to World War Z. I've been a fan of the zombie genre for a long time - at least I'm a fan of zombies done well. I thought I had something unique to add to the genre. 

For a more writerly answer I suppose zombies relate to our fear of the overwhelming. The endless horde that just keeps coming and coming, no matter how many you kill they won't stop. We all feel like we're being overwhelmed sometimes and this relates to that fear. The other aspect of zombies I find intriguing is the threat they pose, facing down a zombie is truly facing down death, the living dead. Not only is it metaphorical of trying to overcome death but fall victim to a zombie and you end up a walking corpse, trapped in death forever. 

Your novel deals with some particularly fascinating issues. The notion of power, and its ability to corrupt, is a major theme throughout the novel. Was this based on your own views and experiences of power?

You're right that power is a recurring theme, particularly the clash between the church and state for control of the populace. What I set out to do, more than looking at the way power corrupts individuals, is the way that individuals with power corrupt large organisations. This is a theme of the book particularly directed at young adult readers. It reflects the feeling of being controlled by authority, a feeling that is common in young people as they grow to be more independent but not quite fully independent. It's easy to feel this way even as an adult when told how to behave and what to believe. This is how power is reflected in the book, not so much as corruption but as control. 

A Town Called Dust is not your first published piece. Can you tell us a little about your other works? 

I've had a few short stories published both online and in print, mostly science fiction and fantasy pieces but also an autobiographical piece. I've also been writing comics for a number of years and have had short comics published in anthologies and I've got two graphic novels currently in development. One, 'Nemesis', the story of a young boy who wants nothing but to be the next great supervillain but perhaps isn't as evil as he thinks. The other is 'King and Country', an alternate history revolving around a resistance group in Nazi occupied London. 'King and Country' is being released by Australian publisher Gestalt Comics and hopefully isn't too far away. 

What future projects have you got lined up? 

At the moment I'm mostly focused on writing 'A City Called Smoke', the sequel to 'A Town Called Dust'. It's due for release next year. I'm contracted to Momentum for two books but the Territory series is a planned trilogy so if everything goes well there will be a third book (A World of Ash). So I'll be spending a little bit more time in the world of Squid and Lynn yet.

After that, well, I've got too many ideas and not enough time!

Hypothetical situation... you have been selected with 99 others to make the one-way journey to colonise Mars. You can only take, due to weight and space restrictions, three hardcover books. What titles would they be and why? 

I'm terrible at answering these sorts of questions because I'm not good at having favourites, or at least I have too many! I'll give it a shot though. Given that I'm heading to Mars the first book I'd choose to take is 'The Martian' by Andy Weir - it's a terrific science fiction story thats something like Apollo 13 meets Robinson Crusoe. If something goes wrong there might be some decent tips in there on how to survive. Second, I think i'd take a copy of 'Atlas Shrugged' by Ayn Rand. This is a book I've never read, but one I've always wanted to. It's also some 1200 pages long so would full up some time on a one way trip to Mars. Lastly, I think I'd take 'The Lord of the Rings'. I don't think I need to explain why, fantasy classic that can be read over and over again.

Finally, best advice you can offer for people looking to get their work there? 

Finish what you start. That's the best piece of advice I can give. If you don't finish a book it's not going anywhere. It sounds simple but finishing a novel is difficult and it's something you need practice at. 

Justin Woolley, thank you for talking to Smash Dragons!

Thanks for having me!

If you would like to learn more about Justin, please drop into his website at http://justinwoolley.net

He is an incredibly friendly bloke... I promise! And I implore you all, jump online and purchase his novel A Town Called Dust... it's a bloody good read!

Monday, 1 December 2014

Book Review - Willful Child by Steven Erikson

I have never read any of Erikson's work before (I can hear the Malazan people sharpening their knives already!), but the premise of this book caught my eye. A Star Trek spoof... full of humour, antagonistic aliens, artificial intelligence and more... sign me up! 

From the opening pages we are introduced to the tone of the book... space is fucking big! Rather then tell a story with an overarching plot, Erikson has opted to write a book full of episodic moments... ranging from first contact and time travel through to antagonistic aliens and galactic alliances. Following the adventures of the spaceship Willful Child and its motley crew we flit from one point to another, and it very much felt like I was reading an 'R' rated version of a Star Trek season on television. Surprisingly, I found this format worked well, and it helped to add to the hilarity of the characters and their actions as they tried to deal with treacherous double crosses, intergalactic war or crazy aliens. 

Captain Hadrian Sawback, Erikson's main protagonist, is both ridiculous and funny. An obvious parody of Kirk (with a dash of Zapp Brannigan), Sawback is the source of much of the humour throughout this novel. At times his narrative and actions had me laughing out loud, and at other times I just shook my head and thought 'oh god he didn't just say that'. As a reader I found myself switching between loving him and hating him. His saving grace is that is so oblivious to his behaviour (much like Sheldon Cooper or Zapp Brannigan) that you can't help but love him. Add to this the other crew members of the Willful Child (all chosen for their beauty by Sawback), some crazy (in both appearance and behaviour) alien characters, and you have a fairly good recipe for a science fiction spoof. 

In my opinion Erikson has pulled it off. The humour is often slapstick in nature but also at times very subtle. Erikson has also managed (again I am told this is a feature of his writing) to weave a commentary on gender issues and human nature into his text. Would I recommend this book to everyone? No. I think some readers will be offended by some of the humour and characterisations (Erikson does walk a very fine line at times), and I also think that the novels pacing and style will further deter others. For Malazan lovers, or people who just like a good chuckle at outrageous behaviour (Zapp Brannigan in Futurama is a great example with his constant attempts to woo, bed and conquer), then this book is for you!

4 Stars out of 5.


Sunday, 30 November 2014

Week in Review

Greetings Everyone!

It has been another hectic week here at Smash Dragons... with lots of things happening in relation to the blog and speculative fiction in general. 

Firstly, my two part interview with author Matt Karlov went live! Matt was kind enough to take the time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions... and I have heard back from a number of people saying just how much they enjoyed reading his responses. Hopefully this will prompt more buzz and sales for his debut novel The Unbound Man, which I can't recommend highly enough! Do yourself a favour and check it out on Amazon. 

In relation to this I can also announce that the next author to be interviewed by Smash Dragons will be Justin Woolley. Justin has recently released A Town Called Dust, a post apocalyptic novel with an Australian feel. With cracking action, fascinating protagonists, and an interesting setting it is has all the marks to become a raging success. Oh and it has ghouls people... UNDEAD GHOULS! I loved it, and I can't wait to talk to Justin about it! 

Secondly, my stockpile of ARCs and books to read has grown steadily these past few days. Thanks to Netgalley, I now have the following two titles to enjoy and review:

I cannot wait to dive into both them. I have been a fan of Greig Beck's since he first released Beneath the Dark Ice, so I am salivating at the prospect of his latest effort. There will be reviews coming in the near future, so keep a look out! 

Finally, the first blog from the series 'Piercing my Cranium' will go live later this week. It will be a series of opinion pieces about topics that I feel strongly about. The blogs will range far and wide, and it is my hope to generate conversation and healthy debate with their posting. The first entry will be a personal piece about the impact of reading on my life, and how it has shaped and changed me over the years. I hope you enjoy it! 

And before I love you and leave you, in news...

Jim Butcher's new steampunk series The Cinder Spires is moving ahead at speed. The draft of the first book, The Aeronaut's Windlass, has been sent off for its first edit. 

A teaser for the next Star Wars flick has dropped... and boy has it divided fans... check it out at the link below and see for yourself - 

The Aurealis Award entires close in just over a week... be sure to get your work in on time! Also, please support the awards by donating your money or time (or even both!). Please visit their website for more information.

And finally, Anthony Ryan's Queen of Fire (US) cover has been released, and it is gorgeous! 

Thanks everyone... and remember...

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Book Review - Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick

At first this book sat in my to read pile for awhile. I always intended on getting to it, but some other book always popped up. Eventually I got around to picking it up, and boy am I annoyed that I didn't sooner! 

Among Thieves tells the tale of Drothe, an informant and 'heavy' for a local gang leader in the city of Ildrecca. When there is a problem (or suspected problem) within the organisation, Drothe is brought in to investigate and clean it up. When Drothe stumbles upon a much bigger mystery involving a relic whilst conducting one of these investigations, he finds himself caught up in a deadly and dangerous game that could shatter the criminal underworld of which he is a part.  

This book is, to put it simply, amazing. Brutal and uncompromising, it opens with a scene of torture that grabs you and then refuses to let go. As you read the novel you almost feel like your there standing next to Drothe, intimidating people and patting them down as you go about your business for the boss. At times I even found myself thinking about what move Drothe and I should make next. That is how immersed in the story I became. The fight scenes are, for lack of a better term, amazing. You can really tell that Hulick is a WMA practitioner with experience in fencing. I was delighted with how they played out, and again I found myself strategising on how I would handle the situations Drothe found himself in. The story itself is a ride of ups and downs and twists and turns. Witnesses and leads appear and then fall through, friends quickly become enemies, and we are always aware that things can quickly turn to shit fast! Drothe is a witty, funny, and likeable character despite the fact his business is usually involves torture and murder. His narrative had me glowing in pleasure, and the insights into his thoughts gave him a real depth of character. Yes, his business is bloody and hard, but god you still love him! By the end of the book I was just wanting more... and I found myself going back to sections just to reread a particular fight or turn of phrase.

I would happily reread Among Thieves tomorrow, and it has quickly jumped to be one of my favourite reads of the year! I will be hunting down the sequel quick smart. If you love Lynch, Abercrombie, or Polansky then you have to check this out! Seriously... if you don't... Drothe will get you! 

5 out of 5 Stars!


Disclaimer - image is the property of RoC.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Book Review - Murder at the Kinnen Hotel by Brian McClellan

Disclaimer - I received a copy of this novella from Brian McClellan in exchange for an open and honest review. I would like to thank Brian for that opportunity. The image is the property of Brian McClellan.

I am the first to admit that I am a Brian McClellan fan. I was blown away by his debut Promise of Blood, and I adored his follow up the Crimson Campaign. I will also admit that I have only recently started to explore his novellas (becoming a father took a lot of my reading time!). My first experience of the Powder Mage novellas (Forsworn) left me a bit flat. I sadly found I couldn't relate to the characters, and a lot of the excitement and tension that McClellan usually excelled at was absent. 

Murder at the Kinnen Hotel is the exact opposite. Focusing on Adamat, this novella is a fascinating insight into his former career as a police investigator in Adra. McClellan has weaved an intriguing tale of murder, politics, and sorcery into a small space. I was hooked from the initial pages, and couldn't put it down until I had read how the story unfolded. The main protagonist, Adamat, has always been a strange character for me. At times I have loved him and his journey amidst the upheavals occurring around him, and at other times I have found his parts in the novels to be lacking. 

I am happy to report that his novella has fleshed out his character more, and I can now look forward to rereading those parts in a new light. We are gifted a greater understanding of Adamat and his motivations, and are also shown an insight into his past (and at the same time future) relationship with Ricard and others. Adamat, despite his knack, is not perfect. He can be rash, pigheaded and prone to bouts of anger. He can also be hated amongst his peers, and even resented greatly despite his obvious prowess at police work. This made him seem so much more accessible to me.  

I loved the subtle 'crime-noir' feel of this novella, and how Adamat (the 'perfect detective' with his knack) was paired with White (Adran Royal Cabal operative) to hunt down a rogue powder mage amidst a great murder mystery. The action was explosive, and the conspiracy behind the murders taking place top notch. The story was really well paced and structured, and I found the conclusion very satisfying in how it linked up with the timeline of McClellan's Powder Mage universe. 

All in all this novella deserves its five star rating. It will please all of those fans of McClellan's previous work, and will draw new fans in due to its accessibility to readers. Highly recommended!

5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review - Low Town by Daniel Polansky

I first stumbled upon Low Town whilst hunting through boxes of second hand books at a garage sale. The title caught my interest, so I looked at the blurb. Detective thriller set in a fantasy world... within seconds I was handing over my money and salivating at the prospect of reading it when I got home. Unfortunately life got in the way for a few weeks, with work and a sick child taking precednece. However when I finally did get around to reading it I was not disappointed!

Low Town is set in a fantastical world that is dark, gritty, and bloody. The main protagonist, Warden, is a middle of the range drug peddler and user with a chequered past. When children start showing up murdered in Low Town, his past catches up with him as he is pulled into solving the mystery behind the murders gripping the city. Low Town reads like a crime novel. Warden is your typical over the hill detective... past his prime, weary of life, and generally bitter and cynical of the world around him. What makes him different from other crime protagonists however is how he is wielded by Polansky. Using first person narrative, we are immersed in the thoughts and motivations of Warden as he attempts to solve the riddles of the murders. We slowly learn about his past through his encounters, dreams, recollections and actions. We also learn just how little we know about him. Who is he really? Where did he come from? What is motivating him? These mysteries drive the story forward at a great pace, and keep the reader wanting more with every page read.

Combined with this narrative we have gripping action and bloody realism. Warden is not some all conquering hero, he cheats, lies, and plays dirty. Children die, innocents get caught in the crossfire, and Warden often gets the living shit kicked out of him by drug rivals and opponents. Polansky's world building is also top notch and gritty. I could almost taste the scents of Low Town, and feel the cold from the storms as they roared in. This realism added depth and tension to the story for me, and reminded me of Abercrombie and his work.

There were some flaws with this novel (use of stereotypes like and a twist that was relatively easy to work out), but they were so inconsequential to me that barely warrant mention. I was that entertained whilst reading this!

A bloody good debut. If you love fantasy or crime fiction then this is well worth your time.

5 out of 5 stars.


Disclaimer - Image is the property of Doubleday.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Interview - Matt Karlov (Part 2)

And here is part two of my interview with author Matt Karlov. I hope you enjoy reading! 

The fighting and action in your novel was, I thought, very realistic. One scene that springs to mind occurs early on in your novel where a magic user is overwhelmed and killed by assailants wielding swords. Do you think realistic and gritty action is more interesting, or even necessary in today’s reading environment?

I think it's possible to look at action and violence in fiction from several different standpoints.  We can think of it in terms of realism: for example, do we realistically show swordfights that only last a minute or two if you're lucky, or do we write about unrealistic but epic duels that go for hours?  We can think of it in terms of explicitness: do we describe every slithering organ spilling out of the dead man's belly, or do we elide some or all of those details?  And we can think of it in terms of truthfulness: do we show the inherent ugliness and horror of violence, or do we present it in a more superficial or cartoonish way?  There's a degree of connection between those standpoints, of course, but it's also possible to get them confused.  (An interesting writing exercise is to think about how you might convey one of those aspects without using the others: say, truthfulness without explicitness, or vice versa.)  And there's also the danger of focussing so much on any one of them that the reader gets jarred out of the story.

There's certainly been a turn toward grittier writing in recent years, particularly in fantasy with the rise of 'grimdark'.  People sometimes characterise these stories as being rooted in cynicism, but to me they seem more like expressions of anguish.  Steven Erikson has described his own writing as being, in some ways, a howl of despair; in Daniel Abraham's view, the power of George R. R. Martin's series derives from the sorrow infusing almost every scene.  My take on this is that fantasy is starting to leave behind its pre-modern worldview and embrace the existentialism that pervades our society.  In other words, I see this primarily as a search for truthfulness; that is, for stories that resonate with our experience of life.  Many people now can only believe in a story if the world in which it's set reflects the complexity and ambiguity — and, yes, the grittiness — of the real world.

That said, I think there's still plenty of people out there with an appetite for the traditional style of fantasy, and indeed for other styles beyond the traditional / gritty dichotomy.  In the end, even grittiness is only a partial view of reality.  The world is a big, complex place, and fantasy as a whole is increasingly coming to reflect that — and that's great!

I must admit, I am a sucker for maps in fantasy books! I was delighted to pour over those that were included in The Unbound Man. Did you design them yourself? And did you draw inspiration for them from any particular countries or continents?

I love a good fantasy map too.  One of the very first things I did before writing The Unbound Man was to sit down and draw a map of the continent that would eventually become Kal Arna.  My starting point was actually the northern coast of Australia, but inverted so that land became water and vice versa.  You can still kind of see the Cape York Peninsula in the shape of the Bay of Bracha.  I kept adding details to the map until it felt like the kind of place where interesting things could happen — and then I started thinking about what those interesting things might be.

The maps that come with The Unbound Man are the work of Maxime Plasse, a wonderfully talented freelance cartographic artist.  Max took my rough sketches and turned them into a beautiful set of maps which I think fit perfectly with the novel.

A question from left field... If you could steal and harvest the brains of three other fantasy authors to use for writing, who would they be and why?

Top of the list would have to be Steven Erikson.  The scale and scope of his stories, the depth of his themes, his mastery of the craft of writing — any one of these would be remarkable in its own right, and he's got all three.  After that the choice gets trickier.  Daniel Abraham, perhaps, for the deep empathy he has with his characters?  Joe Abercrombie, for his dark wit and compelling characterisation?  Janny Wurts, for her intricately detailed plotting?  Or maybe someone from outside the Western tradition for a completely different perspective on writing — Haruki Murakami, perhaps?

Of course, I'd only harvest those brains if I could put them straight back afterwards with no ill effects.  Otherwise it would mean no more books from some of my favourite authors, and there's no way I'd take that deal.

What was your first exposure to fantasy fiction? Mine, for example was when I was a kid and a neighbour gave me a tattered and beat up copy of The Hobbit.

The Hobbit came very early for me as well, courtesy of my father.  Another book I remember from childhood is Watership Down, which to me is like traditional fantasy in almost every way except that it's set in the real world.  Then came The Lord of the Rings, of course, which for a while as a teenager I would re-read about once a year.

I think I still have that copy of The Hobbit somewhere — it's a battered old green hardcover, the dust jacket long since gone, with some of Tolkien's original colour drawings included at various points in the text.

Branching out from that.. what do you think about the state of fantasy and speculative fiction at the moment? We seem to have a very diverse blend of subgenres and authors that are popular right now. Do you think that the Australian scene differs from the world in any way?

As a genre, fantasy seems to be in excellent health.  Popular interest in fantasy was given a huge boost by the success of the Lord of the Rings movies and Harry Potter, and we're now seeing a further rise in interest thanks to the Game of Thrones TV series.  I take the increasing diversity within the genre as another sign of health.  Fantasy is finally breaking free of its traditional roots, not only philosophically with the rise of gritty fiction and the like, but also culturally and even structurally.  It's an exciting time to be a reader and a writer of fantasy.

Australian fantasy is part of that, of course, and it's great to see more and more Australian SFF authors finding success.  I also think the Australian SFF establishment is much more accepting of self-published writers than is often the case elsewhere.  Mitchell Hogan and Jackie Ryan won Aurealis Awards this year, K. J. Bishop won one last year, and Andrea K. Höst has been a finalist on multiple occasions.  Perhaps the Australian scene is still small enough that we know we can't afford to get too caught up in how other SFF writers choose to publish.  Whatever the reason, I think it's a good thing.

What is sitting in your ‘to read’ pile right now? What future releases are you most looking forward to?

There are so many books I'd like to read that I'm not sure where to start!  I've been making an effort to fill in some gaps in my SFF reading by seeking out classics of the genre that I haven't yet read.  The next one in that category will probably be The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.  As for new releases, I'm keen to read Steven Erikson's new novel Willful Child and find out what he does with a Star Trek spoof.

What are you working on at the moment?

Right now I'm working on the first draft of the follow-up book to The Unbound Man, tentatively titled The Lordless City.  I'm also polishing up a short story which is set in a slightly different part of the same world.  The short story will hopefully be published early next year; the novel will take a little longer!

In five years where do you see yourself professionally?

I've never really been the kind of person to make five-year plans.  Life just seems too contingent and unpredictable for that.  That said, I'd certainly like to have finished the Undying Legion trilogy by then and be well on the way to cooking up some new stories.  As for sales and all the other things that are usually seen as markers of success, ultimately that's out of my control.  Of course it would be great to give away the day job and write full-time, but will it happen in five years?  Who knows?

Finally, best writing tip you have ever received?

I don't remember where I first heard it, but one piece of advice that's stuck with me is this: write the stories that only you can write.  Each of us has our own combination of abilities and experiences, insights and obsessions, hopes and fears.  The only method I know to write something worth reading is to delve into that stuff that's deeply, uniquely yours and figure out how to put it on the page.  None of George R. R. Martin's fans like his work because he's 'the next Tolkien' — they like it because he's the first, last, and only George R. R. Martin, and he's worked out how to infuse his writing with the unique perspective that only he has.

Matt Karlov, thank you for talking to Smash Dragons! 

My pleasure! Thanks for having me! 

The Unbound Man is out now... and we here at Smash Dragons highly recommended it! Please click on the link below for more information.