Review of The Duchess of the Shallows

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The Duchess of Shallows“ is the story of an orphaned girl with a not-so-simple-past who embarks on a path to join The Grey, an underworld organization specializing in information brokering, spying, and thievery. The key to achieving her goal involves a challenging entrance exam: a medieval Oceans Eleven style robbery of a rich baron’s treasure.

The story brings to mind other recent fantasy about the gritty underside of re-imagined medieval cities — cities populated by ubiquitous gangs, ruthless thugs, noble thieves, perverted nobles, corrupt city guards, and lovable whores. You’ll see some similarities in setting to Brent Weeks’ “The Way of Shadows”. I also felt slight shades of Douglas Hulick’s “Among Thieves” in the plot and setting.

The Good

There’s a lot to like about The Duchess of the Shallows, especially considering it’s an indie book. The authors spend a good deal of time building up an interesting world. There are various competing factions in the seedy underside of the city – from the The Grey (criminal organizations, shrouded in secrecy – basically a thieves guild), The Red, a gang of murdering extortionists, to the various cults scattered about the city areas.

It feels like an interesting city, one that you do want  to explore. There’s always something exciting – or dangerous – just around that alley corner.

The world portrayed is one of grit and dirt, where bad things happen and happen often. There’s references to sex (though not descriptive), both the heterosexual and homosexual; there’s violence and there’s a lot of prostitution. Again, the authors shy away from the actual details, but it’s all there in the background.

What the authors do not shy away from is the hard stuff of the underworld life — the supporting character Lysander for example, works part time as a male prostitute. Combined with his martial competence and his natural street smarts, Lysander’s rather unusual side occupation breaks the fantasy mold of a typical hero. Kudos to the authors here for doing something different in this regard.

The writing – for an indie published novel – is not bad. I’ve certainly read indie fantasy fiction with a lot worse prose. There’s nothing fancy or lyrical about the prose and while there are occasional chunky descriptions and uneven sentences, as a whole the prose is good enough for the telling of the tale.

The story too is generally an interesting one — you do want to finish reading the book to see how the Duchess accomplishes her goal.

As a whole, the Duchess of the Shallows is a fairly short novel – for the most part there is no rambling (except for all the heavy descriptions and flashbacking used to world build), no pointless wandering, no writing for the sake of filling page counts. What happens in the story is central to the plot and the heroine is always doing something to further her goal. There’s not a lot of meat to the story other than the stated goal of joining the thieves guild and carrying out the robbery, so if you want to see more of the world and find out more about the character, you’ll need to continue on with the other books  which flesh out the city, the character, and the world much more.

The Bad 

While there are many good points to the story, there are also a number of issues that detract from it. Frankly, I feel many if not all  are fixable if the book had a proficient editor to catch these.

The writing suffers from too much exposition, either through the protagonist’s thought explanations to her random childhood flashbacks. The last chapter, in fact, details directly to the readers the impact the plot events have on the wider story as a whole; I felt vaguely patronized after this.

The flashbacks as a narrative device are very jarring and completely halt the flow of the story. The authors do a good job at the start jumping right into the action, but afterwards the plot and story occasionally halt while the protagonist experiences yet-another-flashback.  I get the authors are trying to build up the heroine’s backstory here, but the way it’s done detracts more than it adds and many of the flashbacks fill out unnecessary detail that’s not relevant (or could be revealed by action or some other means that flows better).

The authors occasionally shift the narrative between two (unexplained) personalities, Steel and Silk, who jumped out of the shadows and into the writing without explanation when the protagonist faces difficult situations — a sort of metaphor, I realized, for the author’s current state of mind. But. I had to actually backtrack through the story looking to see what this ‘Steel’ and ‘Silk’ were, thinking they were specific characters I skimmed over. This was confusing and seriously halts the narrative.

The worldbuilding felt it was heavily inspired by the old-school Forgotten Realms books; the  city districts, the sub-districts, the power groups, the various gangs, and even job occupations are given specific over-the-top fantasy names. Get used to nomenclature like the Grey, the Red, the White, the Shallows, the Deep, the Foreign Quarter, Lightboys, the Uncle, the War of the Quills, the Color War, etc. With all these fantasy ‘names’ being tossed around in such a crowded space (we are talking mostly about a city here not an empire or a large swath of land and kingdoms), at times the city felt like it came straight from one of the Neverwinter Nights video games. This works for a video game, but if you are trying to come up with your own fantasy world, it comes off as unoriginal.

The characters also tend to fall into the cliché category — now considering most of the fantasy genre is one big cliche, this is not a bad thing, if the story strong, the characters awesome or something about the tale is fresh. There’s nothing wrong with doing the typical thing here, but if you are not going to innovate in some way, then you’ve got to have a solidly written tale or something else going on to make up for it. While the author tries to do a few new things (a sidekick character who’s a male prostitute), the novel is mostly filled with archetypes straight out of a RPG video game.  The heroine, herself, we’ve seen countless times across endless books. I was looking for something a bit unique to be done with her, but Duchess falls into the typical ‘spunky female hero’ category — the self-driven girl with a hidden past who’s been unfairly tossed from the top to the bottom of the social rung, who though a series of fortunate events works her way back into power to seek revenge or uncover the WHY of her original fall.

The Final Word

As a whole ‘The Duchess of the Shallows’ is not a bad book at all, especially considering its indie origins. Published books often have a team of editors cleaning up the writing in the draft; this is not the case when you are an indie author self publishing. So some slack here is given. The book is certainly readable.

Indeed, while there are some major issues with the book, these could be fixed through the help of a skilled editor revising the book. So the skeleton of a good book is here in The Duchess of the Shallows, but you have to dig down a bit to find it.

If you are a fan of gritty underworld fantasy about spies and whores, about gangs and thieves, and you don’t mind a slower story, you’ll likely enjoy The Duchess of the Shallows. Note that this is the first book of a series, and the scope of the novel mostly serves to just introduce the heroine of the tale — so you’ll need to invest in the next couple books in the series to see a far  more fleshed out world and character.

All in all, there’s a good tale here to be told in The Duchess of the Shallows; readers with a bit of a patience who enjoy fantasy about the underworld and thieves guilds will probably like the book; let’s just hope the authors clean things up in the next few books to make the story a bit more accessible to the reader.




Review: Wide Open/Deep Down/Strange Country by Deborah Coates

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Wide Open,” “Deep Down,” and “Strange Country” are all part of the same series by Deborah Coates.  I found the whole series to be enjoyable but offer this advice: read the books in order.

These are set in small-town South Dakota. Many people are cattle ranchers, lots of them drive big trucks and SUVs, there are plenty of lonely, deserted roads, and the people living in the area know how to use guns and fix farm equipment. That probably sounds like a strange collection of details, but these details made the setting seem authentic, like something the author either researched or had firsthand knowledge of. It was easy to get immersed in the world.

Our POV character for the first two books and part of the third is Hallie Michaels, an Army sergeant on leave from Afghanistan who comes home to South Dakota. I thought this was an unusual choice for a heroine, but it works here for a couple of reasons. First of all, Hallie has experience going into dangerous and unknown situations. Second, she’s from this place but she’s been gone for a couple of years. Things have happened while she’s been away and she’s not quite up to speed.

An important recurring character is Boyd Davies, a sheriff’s deputy who is new to town since Hallie left (he’s a POV character for part of “Strange Country”).

The reason Hallie has returned home at the beginning of the series is that her sister died. The official story is that it’s a suicide, but Hallie doesn’t believe that because Hallie can see ghosts — and her sister’s ghost is one of them. So part of “Wide Open” is a mystery: what happened to Hallie’s sister?  Early on, it’s easy to forget that you’re reading fantasy. But stick with it, because more supernatural elements are present in the second half of the first book (and beyond). The action and suspense really pick up in the second halves of all three books, making for a tense reading experience (I mean that in a good way — the author conveys atmosphere, emotions, etc., quite well).

We’re introduced to some new characters in book 2, including Laddie Kennedy, a Gulf War veteran who has the ability to talk to the dead. We get a good deal of his backstory and he has a lot more depth than side characters normally do. We also learn more about Boyd’s background in “Deep Down.” This background information is introduced in believable ways — whispered conversations about Laddie’s bad luck, Boyd telling Hallie about his past.

We also learn in “Deep Down” that there’s more to the supernatural than just ghosts. The first hint of this comes in the form of numerous black dogs that only a few people can see; these dogs are harbingers of death. There are also reapers, who are people who have died but who still have strong connections to the world.

Strange Country” continues in the same vein as the previous books.  There’s also a mystery in the mundane world in this one – someone is murdering local residents, and Boyd has to find the culprit.  A few additional supernatural elements are introduced in this volume, and I love the way they’re tied in to events described or mentioned in past books in the series.  The (mundane) mystery investigation is again very well done. While I wasn’t surprised by the identity of the culprit, I didn’t necessarily see it coming, either.

Further, Hallie has a quest that involves tying up some of the loose ends from book 2.  The only thing I wasn’t thrilled about was that she seemed to have an easy time fulfilling this quest — the build-up was bigger than the payoff.  However, Hallie’s internal conflict before the end of her quest was an interesting look at her character.

One theme that is apparent in these books is that supernatural events are tied to both people and places. Some of the entities we meet are tied to Boyd’s past and some of them to another character’s past (Pabby, around whose house harbingers have gathered at the beginning of book 2). I like what the author’s done with it. It offers an explanation as to why so much supernatural stuff is going on in such a small, remote town.

Another thing I like is that the books have self-contained stories with clear beginnings, middles, and ends, and yet each successive book gives a few more details about the world and incorporates information from previous volumes. It’s nice to see resolution to most storylines at the end of the book (there are two loose ends in book 2 that get tied up in book 3).



Review of The Red Knight by Miles Cameron

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the red knight


The Red Knight, book 1 of the Traitors Son Cycle,  is the debut novel by Miles Cameron and burst on the fantasy scene in 2013. It made quite a few waves when it was released. And those waves, I feel, are with good reason. It was one of the strongest releases last year, and one of my personal favorites. This year, book two The Fell Sword, was released (which I have also read, and quite enjoyed and to be reviewed later).

The Red Knight is what happens when you take the knight society from The Once and Future King, mix in the grittiness and complexity from A Game of Thrones, toss in squad warfare elements from The Black Company and drop in a large dose of a Bernard Cornwall historical fiction novel.

The result?

A surprisingly good novel that pays a lot of homage to historical fiction while being entirely an epic fantasy novel. And it’s an exciting read to boot.

The Characters

There’s a wide cast of characters, with chapters each broken down by POV. Of course the primary perspective is the titular hero, The Red Knight, who is a young, somewhat arrogant but immensely talented mercenary commander. Besides jumping from hero to hero, the POV also shifts occasionally to the main antagonist of the story, which adds another dimension to the tale. It really helps flesh out the story and the villain.

On the surface, the Red Knight is a young, perhaps inexperienced commander, but as the story progresses, you find there’s a lot more then meets the eye to this young commander.

The author does a good job with the characters. They are all complex with realistic motivations. No cardboard cut outs. Yes, many of them are what you expect (Princess in need of saving, the hero, the villain, the sidekicks, the supporting cast, etc), but the author does a good job at fleshing them out so they are three dimensional.

The Worldbuilding

The author’s strongest hand is shown here. It’s very clear the author is writing about what he knows and loves made into a fantasy novel: medieval history. It’s a perfect fit all round. There’s an absolute amazing amount of detail going on here in the novel regarding medieval way of life. You see it in the way the author describes the towns, the castles, the characters’ dress, etc. It’s pretty clear the author is a history buff. And indeed, the author has a medieval history degree, which is very much present. It’s clear this is not written by an author who’s ‘making up medieval fantasy stuff’; there’s a lot of real structure behind the fantasy elements here. Of course, this being a fantasy novel the medieval world is layered over with fantasy elements such as magic, monsters, and so on.

Overall, the author gets an A for world building – it’s starkly realistic while being true to history. You see a number of realistic European settings/cultures made into fantasy versions. If you pay attention, you can probably recognize some of the places directly from history (though the author puts his own fantasy twist on them).

The Writing

The writing is good. It doesn’t wax lyrical like a Gaverial Kay novel, do strange things with language like a China Mieville book, nor aim for sarcastic wit like an Abercrombie read. But the words are good, the sentences strong, and the author has a knack for describing the world so it’s entirely fleshed out in your mind. The various minutia of living in a drab medieval world are brought fully alive.

The combat scenes are particularly well done. The author specializes in historical combat reenactments (you can see on his website pictures of the author wearing real knight armor and shooting bow and arrows), and it very much shows in his descriptions of combat – this is a guy who knows his shit. Trust me, by the time you finish this novel, you know exactly what it’s like to wear a full set of plate armor, to have aches and pains from swinging a sword, and to be unable to stand after combat and to feel the pain of riding in harness for hours at a time. These small little details create a rich reading experience, especially if you like to soak in these little, but highly realistic details.

If you like epic fantasy, you’ll like this. The overall tone of the novel is gritty and depressing. If you are fans of the grittiness of Martin’s novels or the forlorn feeling you get following the trials and tribulations of Glen Clark’s Black Company or you like the detailed descriptions of tech/siege warfare in the Mazalan Books, or hell you like any historical fiction of the likes of Bernard Cornwall, you’ll LOVE this book.

The Final Word

A remarkable debut overall. In a somewhat stale subgenre (epic fantasy), The Red Knight manages to do something new by combining epic fantasy and detailed historic reality. There is clearly a lot of homage paid in this novel to medieval historical fiction genre, especially the style written by the likes of Bernard Cornwell and T. H. White.

The novel is not perfect by any means – there are too many characters and it’s annoying having a POV jumping around like crazy from character to character. The magic system, while interesting and novel, is confusing as hell at first. It’s not until book two in the series that the magic system really starts to make sense, so you might have to bear with trying to understand it until you read the next book (The Fell Sword). If anything, the author struggles with throwing ‘too much’ into a story; there are so many things going on with human politics, inimical monsters having power struggles, POV, character back stories, and the main plot that things can get a bit muddled. But I found things improved in Book 2.

Book two, The Fell Sword, came out this year and continues on with the story, improving on some of the failings in the first book. I can’t wait to read the third book. If you are looking for an epic fantasy that really ties a lot of real historical fiction into the fabrics of the story (with a twist of course) written with the historical reality that would make Bernard Cornwell proud, that throws in some of the complexity, grittiness, and realism of Martin’s A Game of Thrones, check this book out. It’s currently one of my more favorite new fantasy series to come out the past couple years.

Along with The Blood Song by Ryan Anthony and The Promise of Blood by Brian Mcclellan, and The Thousand names by Django Wexler, The Red Knight is one of the best debut novels the past couple years.

If you want to read a compelling epic fantasy, fantasy with a lot of action, violence, and magic, gritty fantasy, or just a fantasy read that you can’t tear yourself away from, be sure to check out The Red Knight on Amazon!

Review by Ben from BestFantasyBooks.com