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A blog about books and other things speculative

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SPFBO 2017 Review: The War of Undoing by Alex Perry


The War of Undoing
Author:  Alex Perry
Series:  Kyland Falls 1
Publisher:  Self-Published, April 2015
Format:  Trade Paperback and eBook, 618 pages
List Price:  US$19.99 (print); US$2.99 (eBook)  

SPFBO 2017 Review: The War of Undoing by Alex Perry
‘My name is Tay Raining, and this is my brother Ellstone. I wonder if you’ve heard of us … I have a birthmark shaped like a question mark on my hand, I think it might mean something but I’m not sure what. My brother is probably important too, though I can’t imagine how. I’m rambling now, sorry. The point is … the point is, we are the Rainings, and we’re here to save you.’

War is brewing in Kyland, as the shadowy, spell-weaving vumas rebel against the human government, but both sides have secret weapons at their disposal. The humans’ secret weapon: a plan that could be the undoing of the world. The vumas’ secret weapon: three young humans abandoned in the smog-shrouded town of Tarot – Tay, Ellstone and Miller Raining. The Rainings could be the key to winning the war, but first they’ll need to work out whose side they are really on…

The War of Undoing takes readers on an exciting journey into a world on the brink of tearing itself apart. It is the first book in the Kyland Falls fantasy series, and is Alex Perry's debut novel.



Qwill's Thoughts

The War of Undoing by Alex Perry is a difficult book for me to review... in some ways. I enjoyed the premise of the novel and the flow of the story for the most part, but disliked most of the main characters either part of the time or most of the time. I don't know if this novel is Young Adult but it certainly read that way to me since the majority of the main characters were teens.

This world is divided into humans and vumas. Humans have no inherent magic and vumas do. The humans have oppressed the vumas - limiting their use of magic and where they can live. The leader of the vumas is fed up. This is a story of a changing world, of haves and have-nots, of oppression by the haves and brewing revolution by the have-nots, of fear of the magical by those without magic. It's also the story of 3 siblings - Tay, Ellstone and Miller Raining who were abandoned by their parents and how that affected each of them.

The book is divided into chapters by POV characters - Tay, Ellstone, Miller, and Kisli Thomas. The voices were not that different. There were a few times that if I did not know who the POV character was (from the chapter headings) I would have been confused. The characters are just enough different that this is not usually a problem. I also feel that at least 2 of the characters were stereotypical just to show the opposite sides of the conflict. Tay and Ellstone looked at the vumas as either their saviors or their mortal enemies. I believe that the story would have benefited tremendously from more nuanced characters.

I enjoyed the worldbuilding quite a bit. The author gives enough background to the growing conflict that it was understandable. There were some terrific non-POV characters as well. I'd love to read more about the exploits of Gramor Eretol, a vuma. The pacing is generally good and the battles and skirmishes were very well done.

I give The War of Undoing a 5.

SPFBO 2017 Review: Devil’s Night Dawning by Damien Black


Devil’s Night Dawning
Author:  Damien Black
Series:  The Broken Stone Chronicle 1
Publisher:  Damien Black, July 2016
Format:  Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 650 pages
List Price:  US$17.99 (print); US$4.99 (Kindle eBook)
ISBN:  9780995492806 (print); ASIN: B01J5WHFVU (eBook)

SPFBO 2017 Review: Devil’s Night Dawning by Damien Black
As a kingdom teeters on the brink of war, two witch hunters fight to stop a warlock before he unleashes an ancient evil…

For centuries, the Argolian Order has protected the mortal vale from the dark forces of the Other Side. Now the barrier between worlds is breaking down, and two monks must survive a civil war before they can stop the wizard responsible.

When Adelko is assigned to legendary exorcist and witch hunter Horskram, he expects an adventurous life. Death by adventure isn’t what he had in mind – but it seems the only outcome when they learn of a sorcerous theft that threatens the world.

The thief wants to silence them – permanently. And so Horskram and Adelko flee from one danger to another as the Jarl of Thule leads a rebel army against the King of Northalde, plunging the realm into conflict.

And on the Other Side, demonkind reawakens…

The Broken Stone Chronicle is a riveting tale of war, quest, magic and horror for fans of medieval fantasy, sword and sorcery, dark fantasy and epic fantasy. Buy a copy now!

Finalist in the Mark Lawrence SPFBO 2017 competition



Doreen’s Thoughts

In Damien Black’s world, an evil witch ensorcelled a hero into performing a number of tasks to increase her power, including the creation of a headstone to store that power. Once freed from the enchantment, the hero defeated the witch and broke the headstone into several pieces. Each piece was taken separately and hidden far away, to prevent the headstone from ever being reunited. However, a master monk, Horskram, discovers that the piece being guarded by his abbey has been stolen, and he and his acolyte, Adelko, set out to the next hiding place to see whether the theft was a fluke or the first in an effort to reunite the headstone.

The trials and tribulations faced by the monks in their journey are only as small part of this novel. Divided into three sections of about 15 chapters each, the story has about 10 other characters, some of whom interact with the others. In particular, I liked Lady Adhelina, the earl’s daughter being forced to marry against her will, and Vaskarian, the reckless squire with the fiery temper. Each of the characters are well-rounded, and their actions and words all support the characterization given to them.

Set in something similar to medieval times, Black does a terrific job describing the architecture as well as the armature of the knights. He even uses archaic terms that I had to look up to ensure the correct meaning. The fight scenes were dramatic without being too graphic. Overall, this added to the atmosphere of the novel.

In some regards, Devil's Night Dawning reminded me of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, with its multiple character perspectives spread across a large worldview. But I think Black would have benefited from a good editor. Sometimes his chapters seemed to go on too long. He used a lot of exposition from Horskram to Adelko to outline the history of the world as well as that of the missing headstone. The first time it took several pages of quotes from their spiritual books to defeat an evil possession; however, each subsequent attack seemed to take longer, which could make sense, because the entities were stronger and more dangerous. In the end, it just made it feel longer to read.

I give Devil's Night Dawning a 6 out of 10.

SPFBO 2017 Review: Sufficiently Advanced Magic by Andrew Rowe


Sufficiently Advanced Magic
Author:  Andrew Rowe
Series:  Arcane Ascension 1
Publisher:  Self-published, February 26, 2017
Format:  Kindle eBook, 625 pages
ASIN: B06XBFD7CB 
Other fomats:  Trade Paperback

SPFBO 2017 Review: Sufficiently Advanced Magic by Andrew Rowe
Five years ago, Corin Cadence’s brother entered the Serpent Spire — a colossal tower with ever-shifting rooms, traps, and monsters. Those who survive the spire’s trials return home with an attunement: a mark granting the bearer magical powers. According to legend, those few who reach the top of the tower will be granted a boon by the spire’s goddess.

He never returned.

Now, it’s Corin’s turn. He’s headed to the top floor, on a mission to meet the goddess.

If he can survive the trials, Corin will earn an attunement, but that won’t be sufficient to survive the dangers on the upper levels. For that, he’s going to need training, allies, and a lot of ingenuity.

The journey won’t be easy, but Corin won’t stop until he gets his brother back.



Tracey's Thoughts

Sufficiently Advanced Magic by Andrew Rowe opens as the protagonist, Corin Cadence, mentally prepares himself to enter Serpent Spire on his Judgement Day. Since the giant tower is nothing more than a series of trials designed to judge a person's skills and abilities, Corin is understandably uneasy. These tests, designed by the goddess Selys, involve magical puzzles, dangerous monsters, and intricate traps. Failing isn't an option for Corin; he plans to exit the tower alive.

Along with the other youths that enter the Judgement Day gates, Corin is hoping to earn an attunement. These marks are said to be a sign of the goddess' blessing, and even more important, they give the bearer magical powers. Corin also has more personal motive; he hopes to discover information pertaining to his brother Tristan, who entered the Serpent Spire five years earlier but never returned.

The book's opening is fantastic. Corin's adventures in the Serpent Spire both excited and intrigued me. I loved the traps, puzzles, and the beings that Corin faced before earning his attunement. Author Andrew Rowe's introduction really brings his world, the tower, and its occupants to life. Which may explain why I was disappointed after Corin exits the tower and enters the Lorian Heights Academy of Arcane Arts.

Lorian Heights is a school of magic where the student body attends classes while working to improve their magical abilities. Becoming more powerful is a paramount goal for Corin who plans to eventually return to the tower to look for clues of his brother's whereabouts. Although the magic and its source in this world are vastly different, there are just too many parallels to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to ignore. For instance, the professors at Lorian Heights, much like those at Hogwarts, are cryptic, often gruff, and very seldom helpful. Another similarity is Corin's group of friends, who much like Harry's, come from diverse backgrounds and are at their strongest when they are working together. Finally, Lorian Heights comes under attack by monsters on multiple occasions, reminiscent of events created by JK Rowling. For me, this middle portion of the story is unoriginal and lackluster.

One of my favorite parts of speculative fiction is character development. Corin Cadence is determined, enterprising and innovative. His major fault is the he is emotionally distant. Corin is very aware of this flaw and constantly worked on it throughout the story. He also invests a huge portion of his time on inventing and improving magical devices designed to boost the bearer's powers. This starts out interesting, but on both counts Rowe spends too much time on the details which become tedious. Much more likeable is Sera Cadence, Corin's half-sister. Her relation with Corin is near perfect and the peaks and valleys of their interactions are a highlight for me. I also really enjoyed her experience in the Survival Match battle arena.

No concrete spoilers, but in the finale, Rowe takes his characters back into the tower and the story once again shines.

Bottom line: Sufficiently Advanced Magic begins and ends on a high note, but the middle drags. Andrew Rose produces some amazing, adrenaline-filled action sequences, but the meat of the story is just too bland for my tastes.

I rate Sufficiently Advanced Magic as a solid 6.

SPFBO 2017 Review: Pilgrimage to Skara by Jonathan S. Pembroke


Pilgrimage to Skara
AuthorJonathan S. Pembroke
Publisher:  Self-published, July 28, 2016
Format:  Kindle eBook, 289 pages
ASIN: B01JB0ATU0 

SPFBO 2017 Review: Pilgrimage to Skara by Jonathan S. Pembroke
Finalist in the 2017 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off contest!

It has been nearly two decades since Pell Wendt abandoned the power and prestige of Collum. Ruled by the semi-divine Ajudicar, the city had been his home all his life, but no longer. Spurned by the woman he loved, the former pathfinder, adventurer and criminal walked away from his life of escorting promising youngsters to the shrines of power, and retreated to his farm in the Sogras, to live a life of bitter and brooding rejection.

Now, House Kettiburg has reached out with a an offer he can't refuse: a pilgrimage to Skara, a mythical and dangerous shrine far out in the barbarous Outlands, for the supplicant Keilie - the daughter of the very woman who rejected him.

Trapped by the love his heart cannot deny, Wendt agrees to the pilgrimage and finds himself embroiled in intrigue and betrayal, with far-reaching implications for himself, Keilie, and the tattered remains of the human race.



Qwill's Thoughts

Pilgrimage to Skara by Jonathan S. Pembroke centers on the journey to Skara that Keilie, the daughter of the Baroness Kettiburg, must undertake. Baroness Kettiburg, Vyma, lives in the Hightown part of Collum and is extremely politically powerful among the other Hightown families/factions.

Pilgrimages are led by Pathfinders. In this case Vyma wants Pell Wendt who, though retired, is the best Pathfinder that ever lived. Vyma and Pell have a history - they had a multi-year relationship that ended badly and left Pell deeply shattered and heartbroken. He gave up the pathfinding life and became a farmer far from Collum. Pell still has not gotten over his love for Vyma.

Pell agrees to take Keilie to Skara - a place that no one has been to in decades. If they survive the fraught trip across dangerous lands, facing unknown challenges, dangerous monsters, and uncivilized tribes, Keilie will receive her gifts at Skara. The gift giving and the shrine at Skara are more SF-ish than Fantasy. There is quite a lot of SF in this novel.

Keilie for me was an undeveloped character. In the novel she very quickly changes from the spoiled rich girl to a much more grown up and wiser young woman... who falls in love with Pell. This despite the fact that Pell is still in love with her mother and he is old enough to be her father. In fact Pell thinks at one point that Keilie should have been his daughter. She doesn't care about his prior relationship with her mother. I have to say that this disturbed me a bit. You'll have to read the novel to see if Pell ever returns her affections.

Of all the characters Pell has the most complete backstory. He's the typical anti-hero with a bit of heart. As messed up as he is by his past and lost love, he does want to get Keilie safely to Skara and then home again. He mostly left his unsavory past behind when he began to study be a Pathfinder. However his ruthlessness has never left him and is on display throughout the story.

Many of the other characters were vaguely portrayed, but I viewed them simply as backdrop for the pilgrimage. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what happened to the world in novel to make it the way it is. It occurred to me (and I could be wrong) that a highly advanced human civilization destroyed itself most likely with weapons that cause radioactive fallout - journeying outside the protected areas causes the Boiling Death, which, when finally described in the novel, sounds a lot like radiation sickness. An area that abuts a huge ocean is glass (nuclear weapons tested in desert areas turned sand mostly comprised of quartz to glass, etc.). I found the worldbuilding very interesting and would have loved to learn a bit more about what happened in the past to create this post-apocalyptic world.

Nonetheless, the pacing is quite good and there are several well done battle and fight scenes. There are some intriguing political machinations that take place in Hightown but are given too short shrift for me. Pilgrimage to Skara is a novel with a lot of promise and is a mostly enjoyable and quick read. 5/10

SPFBO 2017 Review: The Crimson Queen by Alec Hutson


The Crimson Queen
Author:  Alec Hutson
Series:  The Raveling 1
Published:  Alec Hutson, November 2016
Format:  Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 422 pages
List Price: US$15.95 (print); US$4.99 (Kindle eBook)
ISBN:  9780998227603 (print); ASIN:  B01MRTK9NF (eBook)

SPFBO 2017 Review: The Crimson Queen by Alec Hutson
Long ago the world fell into twilight, when the great empires of old consumed each other in sorcerous cataclysms. In the south the Star Towers fell, swallowed by the sea, while the black glaciers descended upon the northern holdfasts, entombing the cities of Min-Ceruth in ice and sorcery. Then from the ancient empire of Menekar the paladins of Ama came, putting every surviving sorcerer to the sword and cleansing their taint from the land for the radiant glory of their lord.

The pulse of magic slowed, fading like the heartbeat of a dying man.

But after a thousand years it has begun to quicken again.

In a small fishing village a boy with strange powers comes of age…

A young queen rises in the west, fanning the long-smoldering embers of magic into a blaze once more…

Something of great importance is stolen – or freed – from the mysterious Empire of Swords and Flowers…

And the immortals who survived the ancient cataclysms bestir themselves, casting about for why the world is suddenly changing…



Tracey's Thoughts

Keilan, a boy with special abilities, comes from a backwater fishing village in a kingdom where magic is forbidden.When a cleric visits to spread the word of the god Ama, Keilan is singled out as a possible sorcerer. Soon after, a paladin named Senacus is sent to verify the allegation. Senacus is one of the Pure, a sect with powers of their own, who have taken vows to seek out magic in the name of Ama and destroy it. The paladin senses Keilan’s abilities and explains to the boy that he must return with him to Chale where he will suffer the cleansing ritual. If his heart is true, and he survives as Senacus did, he would join the ranks of the Pure. Keilan is terrified because the odds of surviving the ritual are slim. As Senacus and Keilan journey back to Chale, they are waylaid. The queen of Dymoria has heard of the boy’s talents and has sent a small force to retrieve him. Senacus, outnumbered, relinquishes the boy, and thus begins Keilan’s eventful journey to The Crimson Queen.

I love the idea of the Crimson Queen. Cein d'Kara, the queen of Dymoria, is a highly educated, innovative, and powerful sorceress who offers sanctuary to those persecuted because of their abilities. She has created a school of magic and works tirelessly to protect her kingdom from those that would destroy it. Dymoria is diverse and bursting with colorful characters that bring the city to life. Hutson’s world-building is outstanding and the compelling plot moves along at a good pace with a few unexpected twists and turns thrown in for good measure.

Although I really do like this story, I feel there are a couple of missteps. One minor quibble: Keilan stumbles across a shirt made of light-weight material that reminded me way too much of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mithril. One major quibble: Hutson’s treatment of his female characters.There are three strong females, so why am I disappointed? *Spoiler alert: in the climactic battle between good and evil, a clash of wills between two very powerful women, Cein d’Kara, touches upon the antagonist’s black deeds of murder, yet venomously shouts, “You should be an empress, and instead you spread your legs...”

Really? The Crimson Queen is angry about the sexual choices of her adversary? More than the murdering of innocents? I don’t buy it. The story would be so much more interesting for me if his female characters received better insults than ones that demean their sexual activities. Hutson is much more inventive when he is writing for his male characters. For instance, I really enjoy Senacus’ inner turmoil and Keilan’s growth as both a character and a magister apprentice.

Although this story isn’t perfect, it is immensely entertaining. I would highly recommend this book to lovers of the fantasy genre; it was fun to read, has great action sequences and I grew to care for the characters. The Crimson Queen shines and earns an 8.5 out of 10.

SPFBO 2017 Review: Where Loyalties Lie by Rob J. Hayes


Where Loyalties Lie
AuthorRob J. Hayes
Series:  Best Laid Plans 1
Published:  May 2017
Format:  Trade Paperback and eBook, 372 pages
List Price:  US$12.99 (print); US$3.99 (Kindle eBook)
ISBN:  9781545581926 (print); ASIN:  B071D6KB7D

SPFBO 2017 Review: Where Loyalties Lie by Rob J. Hayes
Everybody knows Drake Morrass is only out for himself.

As the fires of a dying city burn on a distant shore, Drake sees an opportunity to unite the other pirate Captains under his flag and claim a crown for himself. If he is to succeed he will need allies and the Oracle named Keelin Stillwater, the best swordsman in the isles, as Drake's right hand.

With enemy ships sailing his waters and setting fire to his cities, and the sinister Tanner Black threatening to steal the throne before Drake has even sat in it, Drake must somehow convince the other Captains that his best interests are also theirs.



Doreen's Thoughts

Captain Drake has decided he wants to become king of the pirates, despite Tanner Black holding the de facto title. However, Drake’s brother, the Oracle, predicted Drake would live a long life as the Pirate King, and Drake has been planning for years on how to make that happen. With the Five Kingdoms having decided to end the pirate scourge forever simply by killing everyone in the Pirate Isles, Drake has a chance to unite Captains, crews, and islanders all under his command.
Unfortunately, everyone knows that he is always out for himself, so when he attempts recruiting other Captains, there is a great deal of resistance. In addition, the Oracle stated that Drake needed to recruit Keelin Stillwater as his second-in-command to be successful, and Keelin cannot stand Drake. All of this creates a great deal of tension in the novel which Hayes handles well.

Hayes has written a rollicking pirate’s tale with interesting characters facing complex morale situations. Although Captain Drake is far from altruistic, he recognizes that he needs to begin to give priority to others, and during the second major attack, he is the first to start boarding the townspeople on his ship to rescue them and commands Keelin to do the same. Keelin has secret priorities of his own that allow him to align his fate with Drake, despite despising the man; however, as he watches Drake begin to take command and rebuild a pirate homeland, he cannot help but become truly supportive. Keelin’s childhood sweetheart and daughter of Tanner, Elaina Black is torn between loyalty to her father and loyalty to Keelin, whom she loves; but when Keelin appears to be in love with another, there is a question about how far she will go to punish him. Nearly every major character has serious questions about where their loyalties ought to lie.

All in all, Where Loyalties Lie was strongly written, with several different arcs in the story-telling, enough world-building to capture a reader, and only enough unanswered questions to warrant a second novel without creating frustration in the reader.

I give Where Loyalties Lie a 9/10.

SPFBO 2017 Review - Jack Bloodfist: Fixer by James Jakins


Jack Bloodfist: Fixer
Author:  James Jakins
Series:  Jack Bloodfist 1
eBook:  Kindle eBook, October 17, 2015
Publisher:  Robber's Dog Pub, February 17, 2017
Format:  Trade Paperback, 240 pages
List Price:  US$10.00 (print); US$2.99 (Kindle eBook)
ISBN:  9780997900118 (print); ASIN:  B015P90ZR8

SPFBO 2017 Review - Jack Bloodfist: Fixer by James Jakins
Jack Bloodfist fixes things. That's what his card says, anyway.

When the orcs and goblins of Summervale, Virginia need something done they call Jack.

He's the one who convinces the local PD to ignore any tribal violence. The guy who makes sure the goblins aren't evicted whenever they do something decidedly goblin.

He also does the little things that no one else is willing to do. Like handing keys over whenever a prodigal son returns, or identifying the body of said prodigal.

Then there's the occasional murderous paladin and his vengeful god to deal with.

All in a day's work.



Doreen's Thoughts

Jack Bloodfist is an orc; well, really a half-orc, half-goblin with a large tribe/family for whom he is responsible. He acts as a fixer – negotiating and coordinating deals and problems among his tribe/family and between them and the humans. His people had been led to this world by the wizard Jackson Smith, either as a reward or as a refuge after having assisted Jackson in some adventure, and they have lived quietly among the humans without much fanfare and with few humans even knowing about their existence.

Unfortunately, history has come back to haunt them in the form of Arthur Shield, another wizard and a paladin for the god, Saban. Arthur is prepared to destroy Jack’s family for a grievous offense against Saban. He begins a murderous spree, and Jack is drawn into the search for him. Like the reader, Jack learns about the backstory of his family and the reason for the offense during this hunt.

Jakins has done a good job of establishing a distinct voice in his main character, Jack. As a first-person speaker, his voice is characteristic of a relatively mellow individual who starts out in-over-his-head and then rises to the occasion. Most of his secondary characters are well-rounded as well, using action and the story itself to flesh out those such as the detective, Denelle Halldorson, and the love interest, Mogayne.

My only criticism involves the framing of the story. The first three chapters switch from first person to third person and finally back to first person. Jakins uses third person again whenever he discusses Arthur or Jackson. This would not normally be a problem, but the third person chapters read so very differently from the first-person ones. The chapters involving Arthur seem necessary to explain how the character gets from point A to point B. But the chapters involving Jackson almost read like a separate story altogether, and there is very little that ties them to the main story other than the character and the fact that he is a wizard. The story would have been stronger and tighter, had Jakins found a way to include those characters more naturally into the novel. I give Jack Bloodfist: Fixer a 7/10.

SPFBO 2017 Review: The Way Into Chaos by Harry Connolly


The Way Into Chaos
Author:  Harry Connolly
Series:  The Great Way 1
Publisher:  Radar Avenue Press, December 18, 2014
Format:  Trade Paperback and eBook, 364 Pages
List Price: US$15.99 (print); US$4.99 (eBook)
ISBN:  9780989828420 (print); 2940150226999 (B&N eBook)

SPFBO 2017 Review: The Way Into Chaos by Harry Connolly
A 2017 SPFBO Finalist!

BOOK ONE OF THE GREAT WAY: The city of Peradain is the heart of an empire built with steel, spears, and a monopoly on magic... until, in a single day, it falls, overthrown by a swarm of supernatural creatures of incredible power and ferocity. Neither soldier nor spell caster can stand against them.

The empire's armies are crushed, its people scattered, its king and queen killed. Freed for the first time in generations, city-states scramble to seize neighboring territories and capture imperial spell casters. But as the creatures spread across the land, these formerly conquered peoples discover they are not prepared to face the enemy that destroyed an empire.

Can the last Peradaini prince, pursued by the beasts that killed his parents, cross battle-torn lands to retrieve a spell that might--just might--turn the battle against this new enemy?



Melanie's Thoughts

All of Peradain have gathered at the Festival awaiting the opening of the portal to bring through their guests, Evening People. But it wasn't the Evening People who came through.....instead supernatural creatures flow through wreaking havoc, killing the King and Queen and nearly everyone there. Only a few escape including the young prince, his friends and his teacher, the Tyr Tejohn Treygar. The empire that was so powerful no longer exists as the beasts spread across the lands killing as they go while the prince flees trying to find a way to stop the invasion. A small group of teenagers up against killer monsters? The world is in chaos and the future looks bleak in Connolly's The Way Into Chaos.

This was the second of the SPFBO 2017 finalists that I read and it's description as an epic is very accurate. There are a lot of characters in a big empire with diverse races and religions. It's clear that Connolly has a vibrant imagination.  There is a lot of story to tell and Connolly packs a lot into 300 + pages. The story unfolds at a frenetic pace as the Prince and Tejohn escape the beasts and although the pace evens out midway through it is still pretty fast paced throughout.

Connolly introduces several characters at the very start during the invasion of the beasts and it is challenging to keep track of who is who. Characterization and pace are my two main criticisms with this novel. I had no idea what was going on for the first third of the story as soo many characters were introduced all at once and Connolly doesn't explain their relationship to each other, the society, the classes or certain character's magical powers until much later on. In my opinion this story was crying out for a hero. Epics, especially high fantasy, really need that one character where, as the reader, you are totally invested in them and their quest. While I thought that the two main characters - the teacher Tejohn or the teenager Cazia Freewell were written to play that role they weren't developed sufficiently for me to feel that I was invested in them. In fact, I found them rather dull and irritating, especially Cazia. Overall, I found this a challenging read and not due to the sophisticated plot. Had Connolly spent a little longer fleshing out Tejohn and Cazia and set up the background a little earlier it would have been a cracking read. For me The Way Into Chaos is a 5/10.

SPFBO 2017 Review: Chaos Trims My Beard by Brett Herman


Chaos Trims My Beard: A Fantasy Noir
Author:  Brett Herman
Publisher:  Self Published, March 2017
Format:  Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 460 Pages
List Price:  $14.99 (print);  $3.99 (Kindle)
ISBN:  9781517008307 (print): ASIN: B06XTD7C9N

SPFBO 2017 Review: Chaos Trims My Beard by Brett Herman
Edwayn Sattler is a half-dwarf with a beard and a dead end job. One night when serving drinks to the city's rich and famous, a fiery playboy loses control of his magic and goes on a burning rampage. After some ill-advised heroics aided by the magic that lives in Edwayn's beard, he finds himself unemployed and socially exiled. With no other job or friends to fall back to, he signs on with an inscrutable ratman sporting a badge and a fetching hat, and together they dive beard and whiskers first into a magical murder conspiracy that threatens to consume the city.

Armed with sub-par wits, a dry sense of humor, and a handful of magical tricks, Edwayn encounters conflagrating cops, smooth-talking trolls, shadowy corporate enforcers, and an air-headed vixen with a fatalistic streak. When his easy-going life spirals into a thrilling, darkly hilarious tale of intrigue and deception, Edwayn will find out just how close this newfound chaos will trim his beard.



Melanie's Thoughts

For Edwayn it's just another night in his crappy low paid job. As a half breed - half dwarf, half human - his career options are limited. Edwayn lives in a society where half breeds are the bottom of the social pile while the Fae and mages are the elite. Edwayn can hardly wait for his shift to finish. Collecting glasses at a wealthy fae's party is just a way to pay the bills but when one of the guests turns into a living torch Edwayn steps in to try to save the day. What he doesn't realise is that this act heroism means that he is on someone's hit list but he doesn't know whose....all he knows is that he has to lay low. It's not too long before he gets approached by dapper ratman, a rat with a badge no less, who offers him the opportunity to discover what is going on. With the help of his luxurious beard Edwayn, the ratman and a not so friendly ghost set themselves up against the establishment to try to uncover what is going on and to stop anyone else from dying. There is only one thing between Edwayn and the chaos around him....his big luxurious beard....will it be enough? Read it and find out for yourself.

I read Chaos Trims My Beard as one of the finalists for the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2017 but had I come across it myself I would have wanted to read it. The description reminded me a tiny bit of Tee Morris' Billibub Baddings series which I loved, although the story itself was very different. Edwayn was an approachable character and, bad hygiene aside, he was almost likeable. Herman creates a world for Edwayn that seemed almost as much science fiction as it was fantasy. Poor Edwayn really gets put through the wringer and this is a story with a lot of action. I have to say almost too much action. Oddly, despite all of the action, the story still drags in the middle for several chapters. I was quite engrossed at the start, liked Edwayn, and liked the start of the mystery and who wouldn't like a rat wearing a fedora with a jaunty feather? However, I got the impression that Herman wanted to make the story longer than it should have been so added in more chases, fight scenes and near misses than were needed to fulfill the plot. I have to admit I was skimming a bit in the middle but by the final few chapters Herman had created an excellent and exciting ending to the story.

While I found the pace to be a bit off Herman's ability to make interesting characters is spot on. Edwayn was well developed, as were his relationships with a few of the secondary characters. The thing that I found the most interesting about this book was Edwayn's beard. Herman describes the beard in such a way that it could almost be considered a character in its own right. I thought this was quite unique.

Overall, I liked Chaos Trimmed My Beard but didn't love it. I feel that it could have been a bit more polished had it been beta reviewed or proof read a few more times before it was published. I give Herman's Chaos Trimmed My Beard a solid 7/10. Best of luck to Herman in the finals.


*******


Note: We've been informed that Chaos Trims My Beard has been edited so those of you purchasing now will receive a more polished copy than what was provided for the SPFBO.

SPFBO 2017 - The Qwillery's Finalist


SPFBO 2017 - The Qwillery's Finalist

The Qwillery is pleased to announce our finalist for the 2017 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off:

Tiger Lily by K. Bird Lincoln with a rating of 7.5.


K. Bird Lincoln

Tiger Lily
Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 322 pages

SPFBO 2017 - The Qwillery's Finalist
"A beautifully-written genderbending tale of rebellious girls, shifting disguises, and forbidden magic, set against the vivid backdrop of ancient Japan."
--Tina Connolly, author of Ironskin

Lily isn't supposed to hunt game in the Daimyo's woods. She's just the cook's daughter. It isn't her place to talk to nobility. And she definitely isn't supposed to sing the forbidden old, Jindo religion songs.

But Lily was born in the year of the Tiger, and can't ever be like other village girls. In the woods snaring rabbits one day, she finds instead the Daimyo's son, Ashikaga, wounded, in the gooseberry brush. When the Pretender Emperor's men arrive to kill Ashikaga, Lily, desperate, sings a forbidden Jindo song.

The song wakes a powerful spirit – as well as Ashikaga's interest. The prickly lord has hidden secrets of his own and a burning desire to prove himself to his father. He will stop at nothing to defeat his father's greatest enemy.

All Lily wants to do is take care of her sisters. But the Pretender-Emperor's forces are drawing near, and now the Daimyo's son knows she communes with Jindo gods. She wants to trust Ashikaga when he swears he will not tell her secret, but he is a noble – and Lily only a peasant. Lily's heart is leading her down a dangerous path. She may have to defy her father, Ashikaga, and even the spirits themselves in order to defeat the Pretender-Emperor's magic and keep safe all that she loves.



Review and Rating

K. Bird Lincoln’s Tiger Lily is a quiet gem of a story, with each chapter heading based on tanka poems from the Japanese Classic Poem Tome, the Manyoshu. Lily herself is an awkward teenager living with her twin sisters and younger brother in a small village associated with the Ashikaga Shogun, a powerful warlord controlling the north of Japan. In Lily’s world, the Japanese emperor has dictated Buddhism to be the country’s religion, ignoring the spirits, or Kami, of the Jindo belief system. In the south, another has declared himself emperor in support of the Jindo system.

As the book opens, warriors from the Pretender Emperor are chasing Ashikaga Yoshinori, the young son and heir of the Shogun. After saving Lily from that threat, Lily herself becomes the rescuer when the lordling is wounded and left to die in the woods.

Lily’s mother had been a Jindo believer who worship and spoke to the Kami of the stream running near the village. As Lily is forced to first hide and then help fight the seeking warriors, she sings songs she remembers from her childhood, and the Kami from the stream respond and help her.

With gratitude a hugely important trait in their society, Yoshi summons Lily to the Great House, and from that, they enter a teasing relationship, with the lordling making comments intended to get a rise out of Lily, and her Tiger personality making her unable to keep her temper, forcing her to respond.

When Lily meets the leader of the rebelling soldiers, Prince Norinaga, a believer in the kami with the ability to shape-change into a fox and call other fox spirits to fight in his battles, she is somewhat torn between the prince and her lordling. The prince supports her abilities and offers her the chance to use them openly, while the lordling’s loyalties should force him to decry her ways and turn her over to be killed.

Halfway through the story, there is a reveal which cannot be discussed without major spoilers. Suffice to say it significantly changes the dynamics of the relationships.

The final battle is set on the high slopes of Asama-yama, an active volcano with its own Kami, a dragon. Yoshi’s plan is to use Lily’s abilities to take the mountain and defeat the Fox Prince and the Pretender Emperor himself, while Norinaga has invited Lily to change sides and support the group that acknowledges and worships the Kami.

The writing in Tiger Lily is simple but precise, with the chapter headings beautiful poems themselves that always have some relationship to the actions in the chapter. In this story, the year of one’s birth has a major impact on one’s personality. As a Tiger, Lily is forthright and outspoken, attributes not normally considered to be romantic. The relationship that grows between Lily and Yoshi is sweet and tender. Yoshi’s secret is an incredible one that would get him killed and should turn Lily away, yet her personality supports her loyalty.

The setting of this novel and the richness of the time period are very enjoyable. The story of the reluctant heroine, Tiger Lily, is described with such realism that you could almost be convinced she was an actual person.


7.5/10





Our semi-finalists (in alphabetical order by author):

M. R. Anthony

SPFBO 2017 - The Qwillery's Finalist
Soldiers' Redemption
First Cohort 1
Kindle eBook, 355 pages

The land is torn – the savage Duke Warmont sends his armies to murder his rebellious people. The soldiers of the First Cohort have lived through it all – two hundred years of fighting for a man they despise. Their captain, Tyrus Charing, knows that something has to change. His men grow tired of eternal bloodshed.

There is hope for them – a saviour has come and she needs good soldiers in order to overthrow the Duke.

As the First Cohort try to pay for the sins of their past, they discover they’ve taken on far more than they could have imagined. The Duke does not care how many die, so long as he stays in power. Amongst his generals are sorcerers of great power, and an inhuman brute of callous evil, all of whom are eager to face Charing on the battlefield.

Soldiers’ Redemption is a dark fantasy epic, about strength, loyalty and an unwavering determination to beat the odds.




Review and Rating

M. R. Anthony’s Soldiers’ Redemption is a dark story. He sets the reader into his world with very little exposition and lays out key pieces slowly throughout the tale. Early on, the reader is introduced to Captain Tyrus Charing, who commands the First Cohort, but it takes a while to learn that these soldiers have dedicated and sacrificed their lives to an evil Emperor in return for eternal life. It only slowly becomes apparent that they are virtually zombies with no need to eat, drink, or sleep unless they desire, and the ability to continue fighting even with their throats cut or limbs lost. They have been fighting on behalf of the Emperor and his Duke Warmont for over two hundred-fifty years, trying to keep down rebellions in the north of his lands.

But Charing has noticed that his men are becoming world-weary, tired of fighting townspeople whose only offense is the desire to be free. Anthony does a good job of indicating Charing’s own weariness and almost disgust with the atrocities of other imperial staff, when he is relieved after taking control of one of the rebellious cities. It is apparent that Charing holds his soldiers and himself to a higher standard, fighting for a cause, even if that cause may not be great.

However, word has come of a Savior, who could consolidate and lead the rebellion. When one of the Duke’s pet sorcerers takes the Cohort to search for the Savior, they find her. She is a young teenager living peacefully in the hills. When the sorcerer attempts to kill her, Charing and his men come to her aide. Charing, sensing a power in the Savior that may compare to the emperor’s, commits himself and the Cohort to her service.

Although young and inexperienced, the Savior is determined to free the North, and the First Cohort are willing to support her drive. As they start heading towards the first major Northeastern city, they begin encountering more of the Duke’s leaders, and the battle is engaged.

Anthony’s description of the battle violence is specific, but not overly graphic. Individual fights are described well, as are the strategies that Charing and his commanders use. It is obvious that Anthony has choreographed the fights carefully, describing how individual soldiers taken on an enemy and how groups work together to take over another enemy group. He also demonstrates how the Savior’s magical powers allow her to engage groups of soldiers at a time, as well as engage the individual sorcerers as well.

Throughout the story, Charing begins to change from caring about nothing but his own men to caring about the farmers, wives, and children in the cities that are being affected by the battles. At the start, he describes how his men have no doubts and no fears because they have faced death itself and no longer have anything to fear. He also describes how they talk amongst themselves about experiences they had as real men – good meals, good wine, fine women - but never about anything they have experienced since their deaths. Anthony uses these to demonstrate not only the Cohort’s weariness, but Charing’s own as well. He also goes on to show how Charing’s key staff members acknowledge and mirror the changes in Charing as he begins to care more fully

As the story progresses Charing is forced to divide the Cohort and send parts of the group elsewhere, until near the end, the focus is on only the Captain and fifteen men. In a city called Gold, the small group finds itself surrounded and outnumbered, running a guerrilla-style warfare at night by going out and harrying the occupiers. The Captain and his men keep experiencing defeat and withdrawal, but his men maintain their good spirits despite the overwhelming odds, even making wagers on which solider will die next. These spirited men are completely different from the men in the first chapter who might have briefly talked about a long-ago meal but whose humor and joy in life was completely lost.

In the final pages of the novel, Charing suffers a devastating loss that makes him question his decision to rebel in the first place. Anthony has certainly demonstrated the “redemption” described in his title, but the question remains: where does the captain and the First Cohort go when redemption seems useless?


6.0/10





D.K. Holmberg

SPFBO 2017 - The Qwillery's Finalist
Soldier Son
Teralin Sword 1
Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 315 pages

Endric wants only to serve, but he's destined to lead.

As the second son of the general of the Denraen, Endric wants only to fight, not the commission his father demands of him. When a strange attack in the south leads to the loss of someone close to him, only Endric seems concerned about what happened.

All signs point to an attack on the city, and betrayal by someone deep within the Denraen, but his father no longer trusts his judgment. This forces Endric to make another impulsive decision, one that leads him far from the city on a journey where he discovers how little he knew, and how much more he has to understand. If he can prove himself in time, and with the help of his new allies, he can stop a greater disaster.




Review and Rating

Soldiers Son is the first novel in the The Teralin Sword fantasy series by D.K. Holmberg. This novel is set in the same world as Holmberg's Lost Prophecy series, but in an earlier time frame.

The main character, Endric, is the black sheep his family. His father is the general of the Denraen forces. His older brother, who he looks up to, is also a leader in the Denraen. Endric, however, apparently doesn't understand what it means to be Denraen. He's pushed to grow into his role as soldier and perhaps future leader by various methods. Unfortunately Endric does not have the self awareness yet to learn from all of this. He continues to push back against his father and those in authority in various unproductive and childish ways.

Endric is devastated when a tragedy hits his family. He sees no response to the tragedy from his father and that exacerbates his already foolish behavior. In his grief, he makes some truly unwise decisions and continues to exercise poor judgment. He is very impulsive.

Throughout a great deal of the novel Endric comes off as whiny. It's hard to love a novel when you really can't stand the main character. Holmberg does give glimpses of who Endric hopefully will become initially through his interactions with his friends and the deep relationships he has formed with them.

As a backdrop to Endric's behavior there is a growing threat facing the Denraen and the people they protect and the world in which the live. Endric will have to grow up a lot faster than he is if he is to be of help to the Denraen and find his real place in the world.

Holmberg's writing and worldbuilding is very good. There are some exceptional fight scenes and the pacing is quite good. Holmberg has created an interesting and often intricate world as the backdrop to Endric's story.


6.5/10





James Jakins

SPFBO 2017 - The Qwillery's Finalist
Son of Thunder
Thunder's War 1
Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 278 pages

In the country of Sohlgain, all young men are expected to chain a dragon and claim its charge. For Berun Toirnach, the eldest son of the nation’s ruler, this means venturing onto a dragon reserve and hunting a wild dragon. A tradition his family has upheld for generations.

The aftermath of this hunt will shape Berun’s life. He is given a position as a Thunder Priest and gifted the power to control lightning, Berun must decide what to do with this new power. Will he use it selfishly, or will he use it for the benefit of his country?

Years later, in an attempt to escape responsibility for a short time, Berun and his friends take a trip to the idyllic beachside city of Hurthow, where an ancient festival is celebrated by locals and foreigners alike.

But the safety and warmth of the sun and sand is an illusion. Dangerous enemies wait, hiding behind smiles and cold eyes.

Soon the lives of Berun’s friends and family are put in danger, and the young prince must rely on his power and his allies, old and new, to save them. His father's most trusted bodyguard, a disgraced assassin known for his skill and ruthless precision. A young God Mage and her companions. And a coward with a power he's afraid to use. All of them will be needed to save those threatened.

But time is against them and their enemies have secrets of their own.




Review and Rating

Berun, the oldest son of the ruler of Sohlgain, looks forward to chaining a dragon, the time honoured right of passage to adulthood. When he manages to chain a wild dragon he gains powers that no one would have ever imagined, including Berun. Still in his teens Berun becomes a Thunder Mage and unsure how best to use his newly found powers. Unfortunately, before he has the chance to learn to channel his powers properly Berun, his pampered brother Rei and their friends come to the notice of a gang of criminals. When Rei and their friends are kidnapped its up to Berun and a motley collection of allies to master their powers and save the day.

Jakins has created some interesting aspects to the world in which Berun lives. For example, power is generated from dragons that are farmed in a similar way as we farm cows. He has also created a complex magic system with different tattoos called Knots that give the wearer different abilities such as enhanced hearing or strength. However, in my view the world building is let down by the characterisation. There are simply too many characters and too many that are one dimensional and uninteresting. Berun's brother Rei is one of the characters that the story could have easily have done without and I kept expecting Yol, the antagonist, to shout MWAHAHAHA every time he thwarted one of the good guys plans.

When I started this story I thought it was going to be another fantasy aimed at younger readers however, there are soo many characters combined with a fair amount of violence that it confused me as to what the genre was supposed to be. I wanted to like this story but didn't. I couldn't drum up any interest or empathy with any of the characters and with so many of them you really needed to like at least one of them to stay interested. I am afraid there was a significant amount of skim reading near the end. This could have been a really good book with few characters that were better developed.


5.0/10





Matt Moss

SPFBO 2017 - The Qwillery's Finalist
The Path of Man
Soul Stone Trilogy 1
Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 271 pages

The war has just begun.

The Dark Society has finally emerged from the shadows after years of silence. Their mission is clear and they won't stop until the Order is destroyed.

The Order has been waiting for this day. The Prophet has already assured their victory.

Buried within the riddles of an ancient text lies a place of legend that contains an unspeakable power. Many believe it to be a myth. But if the rumors are true, the Dark Society may already know of its location.

Arkin's world is changed forever when a stranger rides into town. Suddenly, he's thrown into the age-old war between the Order and the Dark Society. Choices made in the past ripple through time as Arkin puts the pieces together. His choices will determine the future of all as he follows the Path of Man.

The Soul Stone Trilogy:
Book 1 - The Path of Man
Book 2 - The Shepherd of Fire
Book 3 - Coming 2018




Review and Rating

The Path of Man by Matt Moss is the first novel in the Soul Stone Trilogy. It's tells a story of the struggle between the Order (good) and the Dark Society (not good). The Order has training grounds in Grand Highlands for members of the Order. The Prophet leads the Order in Grand Highlands. The Dark Society is led by Victor and its base Sanctum is hidden away, but not for much longer. There are plots put in motion and double crosses in the works. This is very much a good versus evil story with magic.

The Dark Society is more or less a mirror to the Order with several breakaway former members of the Order among its ranks. They are clearly up to no good and seek the full destruction of the Order. Victor wants absolute power and he will do anything for it. He also wants a book titled 'The Path of Man', which holds clues to where to find the legendary Garden of Stones. In the Garden are supposed to be various stones which imbue the user with special abilities. Whether the Garden is reality or myth is unclear. What is clear is that stones with magical abilities do exist as a few are used during the course of the story.

Several characters are introduced and multiple points of view are used - Arkin, the son of Levi (who had the book The Path of Man); Lucian a former friend of Levi's; Paul, the Prophet; Victor, the head of the Dark Society; Lyla who wants to be a doctor; Cain, a trainee with the Order and others. There are secondary characters that we get to know a bit as well.

We get to see a great deal of the workings of the Order training camp, which is interesting. We see developing relationships and camaraderie and we see new rivalries developing. Moss provides enough background so that the world is understandable and that old rivalries (Lucian and Levi), which are having effects now, are clear. The relationship between Levi and Lucian reminds of what may be developing between Arkin and Cain.

Moss provides some surprises with the political and religious plotting taking place in the capital, Kingsport. These are background to what is happening with the Dark Society and show how much it has insinuated into all aspects of life.

In The Path of Man events are put in motion that will reverberate throughout the series. The character development s good, but with so many characters it's difficult for many of them to have real depth. The action and fight scenes are well done. The world building is good. On the whole, The Path of Man is a nice start to the Soul Stone Trilogy.


5.5/10





Pauline M Ross

SPFBO 2017 - The Qwillery's Finalist
The Dragon's Egg
Brightmoon 6
Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 259 pages

A stand-alone epic fantasy set in the Brightmoon world…

Garrett has been many things in his time… street hustler, warrior, professional gambler, spy. He’ll do whatever is asked of him, legal or not. Now he’s paid to search for those with a touch of magic in them. But magic is unpredictable and hard to find, and he doesn’t have much luck until he meets Dru, whose family claim she hatched from a dragon’s egg. She looks different, doesn’t say a lot, and likes to talk to the chickens, though they don’t listen much. There might be real power behind her strangeness, if she could only learn how to reach it.

When Garrett is asked to escort Dru on a journey, accompanied by a scholar, a princess, a guard and a priest, it seems like a simple enough mission, until they fall into the hands of raiders. Garrett has lived on his wits all his life, but he’ll need all his talents, and a little magic too, to get them out of this mess and reach safety.

If he can manage that, maybe he’ll find out the secret of the dragon’s egg, and the girl who hatched from it.




Review and Rating

On a distant shore, dueling dragon's drop a pale green egg. It is recovered by a goatherd, who in his obsessive desire to possess a dragon, creates a hatching fire so large, the flames consume him. His final attempt at hatching the egg was successful, but instead of a dragon, a little girl is found sitting unharmed in the hot ash. The goatherd's family raise her as their own, but Dru is not like other children. At thirty, she still resembles a young girl and coupled with her magical abilities, the family decides they must bring Dru to see the Guardian. The Guardian understands that there is a greater mystery about the child, and chooses some of her trusted advisers to accompany Dru on a journey to discover who or what she really is.

I was immediately thrown for a loop because the book starts off in a third person format and inexplicably changes to first person in chapter two. It took me a little while to realize that Garrett, the shady jack of all trades with his own bit of magic power, is the story's protagonist. Once I got going, however, it was smooth sailing.

The Dragon's Egg is a quest of discovery. Who or what is Dru? The story starts off strong. Dru comes from simple folk who know nothing of magic. She is brought to a sophisticated and educated place where she is deemed as special. In order to learn more about the girl, a team is selected to accompany her to distant magical scholars. But reaching their destination is more difficult than it seems. Among some of their mishaps, the travelers are captured by pirates and sold into slavery. Fortunately, Garrett, the Guardian's right hand, is able to procure their freedom. Almost immediately the group, which shrinks by one member after each dangerous encounter, are jailed by hostile authorities. This formulaic arrangement throughout makes the story very predictable.

Speaking of Garrett, he is absolutely the most fun. He is the life of the story and Ross does a great job making him both likeable and slightly despicable. He treads a fine line between self-interest and duty, responsibility and loyalty that I found refreshing. His relationship with Dru and to a lesser extent the other characters are undoubtedly the highlight of the book.

The Dragon's Egg is Book 6 in Ross's series The Brightmoon Annals. It is definitely a standalone but I haven't read any of the other books in this series. This leads me to wonder if reading more of the series would have changed my feelings. I think the story has some fantastic elements. However, I found it to be highly predictable and I wasn't really invested in what was happening to the characters, with the exception of Garrett and Dru. The Dragon's Egg has all the essentials to be a pleasurable fantasy, but unfortunately, it lacks a powerful bite.


6.0/10

SPFBO 2017 Review: The War of Undoing by Alex PerrySPFBO 2017 Review: Devil’s Night Dawning by Damien BlackSPFBO 2017 Review: Sufficiently Advanced Magic by Andrew RoweSPFBO 2017 Review: Pilgrimage to Skara by Jonathan S. PembrokeSPFBO 2017 Review: The Crimson Queen by Alec HutsonSPFBO 2017 Review: Where Loyalties Lie by Rob J. HayesSPFBO 2017 Review - Jack Bloodfist: Fixer by James JakinsSPFBO 2017 Review: The Way Into Chaos by Harry ConnollySPFBO 2017 Review: Chaos Trims My Beard by Brett HermanSPFBO 2017 - The Qwillery's Finalist

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