Author Interview: Ray Zdan

...At that time, I was living in London and had a lengthy daily commute to my work in Kent. It began as a mere attempt to improve my language skills and to kill some time. Then, a dozen of pages later, it got a spark which I couldn’t ignore – the text began a life of its own, and I found myself as an amused observer, keen to find out what was waiting behind the corner...

Book Review: Asunder by Liz Steinworth

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Length: 257 pages

Self-Published

Genre: sword & sorcery

Asunder is Liz Steinworth's debut novel. She painted the cover a few years ago and then, like so many writers struck by muse, felt the itch and couldn't rest until she'd put the story of the thief, Alden, and the princess, Mayli, on paper. Asunder is a far more developed debut than many, with a supporting world that's deeper than at first glance. I read an ARC of Asunder, so any issues I bring up, especially concerning typos and structure, could be sorted out by the time it hits the shelves, so bear that in mind.

Setting

Asunder is set in a secondary world which I believe is called Vatan. Just as we don't go around talking about Earth by name in real life, the characters don't mention the name of their planet, so for the purposes of this review we'll just call the world Vatan, though I'm open to being corrected. Asunder is set a few years after a war's end, which seems to have completely destroyed one kingdom. There are a few kingdoms relevant to the plot – Brimley, the vanquished nation, whose citizens are considered liars, traitors, and just generally scum. Then there's Ammos, a hot-climate nation who emerged victorious from the war, as well as Dregg, which seems to have annexed Brimley's lands after it fell, Hiore and an island somewhere between Brimley and Hiore called the Cad Island which is basically ruled by anarchist pirates. The setting is fleshed out to a fairly good degree. Some aspects of the political system and geography aren't very clear, but it doesn't detract too much from the enjoyment of the book.

Characters

The story centres predominantly around a thief named Alden, who is a part of the reigning Thieves Guild, and Princess Mayli Drake of Ammos, who is en route to marry one of the royal family of Hiore when the story begins. The book switches points of view many times throughout to include perspectives from Kira, one of the other members of the Thieves Guild, and Prince Briar of Brimley who is serving as guard captain of Dregg after his country's demise. Mayli and Alden get most of the page count from their perspectives. They are developed and reasonably well fleshed out, though both skirt the line of being cliched as often as they don't. Alden's moods are changeable and brooding and often come off as immature or unnecessary. Mayli is mostly portrayed as clever and overall quite likeable yet still grates occasionally. I found myself enjoying Prince Briar the most out of all of them, though even he had his moments. Kira has a fairly dark backstory that alienated me a fair bit due to its overuse against women in fantasy.

Plot

The Thieves Guild is tasked with kidnapping Mayli from her carriage as she travels from Ammos to Hiore and handing her over to an unknown third party. They succeed in the ambush, but when the other thieves are sleeping that night Alden is overcome with honour and decides to abscond with Mayli so as to save her from whatever fate her kidnapper has in store for her. The rest of the plot revolves around Alden and Mayli evading recapture by the Thieves Guild, and the tactics the Thieves Guild employs to thwart them. There is also a fairly major romance subplot, which is tiresome but not entirely uncommon in fantasy like this. Most people probably won't have an issue with it, I'm just a weirdo who doesn't like romance all that much.

Writing

This is the only part of the story that I feel falls a little flat. A lot of the prose is great, but there were significant typos in the ARC (which, again, may be fixed by the time it's released), but many parts of the last half of the story felt like they dragged on a bit, as they centre more around the budding romance than the action plot. There's also far too much foreshadowing of a particular piece of information after around about the halfway mark, to the point that I was frustrated that Mayli hadn't guessed it, as she's mostly quite clever and resourceful, and the clues were hanging thick enough in the air to choke on. The pacing is good in the first half but definitely drags in the second half, and switching between points of view becomes a little tedious, as often each point of view is only granted a few paragraphs at times, though in other parts the character gets longer for us to see through their eyes and it's not so bad in those parts.

Afterthoughts

Overall a good effort. I enjoyed it greatly, as it's not especially heavy or dark in most parts and it was refreshing to read something that didn't hammer home the doom and gloom like many commercially available fantasy novels of late. The romantic dance back and forth was not to my taste at all, as it reminded me of series like The Vampire Diaries and True Blood in the way the characters behaved, but I know that a lot of people enjoy that so I'm not going to rag on it too hard. I do feel that the majority of the issues will be smoothed out as Liz refines her craft and delves deeper into the creative reserves she undoubtedly possesses to find more polished material. I'm happy to give it four stars.

Author Interview: Liz Steinworth

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Q. Walk me through the process with Asunder – which came first, the cover or the story? How did it evolve from there into the glorious double-whammy of art and writing that it is today?

A. The story began March of 2014. I had been living temporarily in an artist loft in Lowertown, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for two months to participate in the bi-annual art crawl which had been a goal of mine since I was six years old. While I was there, I networked with a photographer in the building named Patrick Clancy and asked my cousin Dominic Pitera to model for me. Together we constructed a photoshoot to capture this underling mood I wanted to express with a cloaked figure. I still remember the moment of moving Dom’s arm in, telling him to tense his veins, and then smirk to get the reference photo that birthed my main character Alden. The next day I began painting it, desperate to express the passion. A week and a half later, with thirty hours invested, I had painted ‘Burden’. After that I was inspired to continue exploring this character and discover what his burden was. For two years I played with the idea, let stories play in my mind, designed kingdoms, families, and enemies, all for fun. January 2016 I realized that I had the makings of a novel and so I bought a laptop, Microsoft Word, and began laying out everything I had brewing in my head. I wrote for a year and edited for another. During this time Burden had been a working title of Asunder, using my original painting as its cover. However, after completing my story I realized that book one was about my other main character Mayli and her experience. So, I accepted that I needed to paint ‘Asunder’ and let Burden be book two.

 

Q. You seem to have so many creative skills – writing, painting, cosplaying... how have your other creative skills influenced your writing and story development?

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I live and breathe my fantasy world. My personal style is dark yet beautiful, setting off the mood and vibe of my book overall. My paintings decorate my home, especially ‘Burden’, which hangs proudly in the living room. The rest of the décor is a chic yet rustic homey castle vibe with a flare of Morocco. Mixing the two styles is my main character Alden’s favorite things, especially when it comes to food and tea. Almost every day I brew what I call Brim Tea, Alden’s special blend of Earl Gray tea with notes of lavender, vanilla, and orange peel. I practice bo staff and archery, though I can’t claim that I am anywhere near as skilled at the bow as my character, Princess Mayli Drake. I dress in a style I call Modern Medieval, using dresses like tunics with pants underneath, waist belts, unique boots, and a hooded vest I use as my purse. I cut my hair short up top and long at the bottom like my character, Kira. When I can get away with wearing a cloak, I do. Being able to express my passion in so many ways helps me feel close to Vatan and the characters who live within it. I call myself a method author in that sense.

 

Q. Tell us more about Vatan, the fantasy world Asunder is set in. What's the first thing that new readers should know about Vatan?

A. Vatan means Homeland in Turkish. It is a place I feel at home and at peace as it is a unique mix of lands from places I call home: Minnesota and California. I grew up in Minnesota, where there was an abundance of lakes and trees, places to explore and let my mind wonder. This is where I pull inspiration for Brimley and Northern Vatan. When I moved to California at age nineteen I was introduced to a land far different from where I grew up. A hilly place, with a dry climate and beautiful weather. Ammos. I’ve also pulled inspiration from my travels, specifically from my short trip to Morocco. I fell in love with the beautiful Moorish architecture and mesmerizing sand dunes where I drew inspiration for not only Ammos, but also the lost city of Gezmek.

 

Q. What cultural value do you see in writing/reading/storytelling/etc.?

A. Stories are an escape. They are a place to feel comforted in your ideals without judgement. I hope my stories will help give others the same sense of comfort as writing them did for me. Books are also a brilliant way to teach others values in life. I have a fan who has bonded to my character Alden. He sees my paintings of him and reads the excerpts I share and is always inspired. Once he messaged me after being teased at school, asking “What would Alden do in this situation?” Alden. Not me, but my character. There is nothing more I could ask for in life knowing that I have created a role model. In a way Alden, Mayli, Kira, and Briar are all role models to me as well. Oftentimes I will be in a situation, feeling weak, scared or frustrated. Then I shake it off, thinking of them and the trauma I put them through and how they always work to fight past it. It is an endearing feeling.

 

Q. What makes your book stand out from the crowd?

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A. That not only am I an author, but an artist. I want to attract a reader to my book because of my cover, have them pick it up and then buy it, realizing that the artist is also the author. I believe this will happen again and again because of the level of dedication it takes to go learn how to paint traditionally, stick to an idea and then express it so profoundly it won’t be shrugged off. Many have already said “If you can paint like that, I can’t imagine how wonderful and creative the story is!” I can’t imagine a better way to introduce readers to my world than through my own eyes.


Asunder

Book One of the King's Renegade 

Alden knew life in the Shadowen Thieves Guild would cost him greatly, but when their next mission means abducting Princess Mayli Drake of Ammos, the price was too high. Defying the guild, Alden sets out to return Mayli safely home in hopes of restoring peace with the kingdom of Brimley.

Mayli feels as though her life has torn asunder after being taken capttive. However, if she is to survive, she must come to trust the renegade thief loyal to her mother’s killer. As Alden pleads for Brimley’s innocence, Mayli begins to question what she thought she knew about her kingdom’s enemies.

 

Asunder, Book One of the King's Renegade will be available for purchase on the 11th of May 2018. Pre-order here: >>LINK<<


About the Author

Liz Steinworth

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As an artist, I’ve always wanted to express more than what a series of brush strokes could offer. One can view a piece of art and arrive at their own conclusions about what the mood and meaning of it is, but they can’t ever truly know. This feeling gripped me hard ever since I began my painting ‘Burden’ in 2014. As I painted, I was compelled tell the story hiding behind the character’s hood. And so, I wrote.

Social Media links:
www.theartofliz.com
www.facebook.com/AuthorLSteinworth
instagram.com/theartofliz
twitter.com/liz_steinworth

Book Review: The Theater of Dusk by Lizbeth Gabriel

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This time I'm reviewing the short story collection The Theater of Dusk by Lizbeth Gabriel. I don't read a lot of short story collections, so it was nice to read something a little different this time around. The Theater of Dusk consists of thirteen short stories, each self-contained, stand-alone narratives. Technically, everything is on point and professional. I found no typos, the formatting was professional, all that jazz. The cover is pretty good as well – it doesn't necessarily illustrate the content within, but that's trickier with collections versus novels.

I was on the fence about reviewing this one, since not all of the stories are fantasy in the swords and dragons sense of the word. I was also a little thrown by the trigger warning in the book's description on Amazon, as it includes a warning specifically about gay sex, which doesn't seem like it needs a separate warning to all the other types of sex.

As much as there is to enjoy about these stories, there's a little bit to critique as well. It's tricky because it's a collection of short stories rather than a long form novel, which is what I'm more used to reviewing. Most of the stories just felt like Internet fiction writing but in book format. None of them stand out in any way from each other despite having different characters and settings. A lot of the mature content seems gratuitous, and overall it just seems like the stories were better suited to being warm up exercises than short stories.

There's an art to writing good short stories that's quite different to writing longer books, and a lot of it centres on having something unique and easily understandable, whereas these mostly blend into one another. The first story is confusing and relies too heavily on info-dumping. Most of them open as if they're the beginning of a longer piece and only last a page or two, without much pay off by the end. The characters are quite flat and difficult to become invested in due to the short amount of page time each gets. 

I may be marking it more harshly because two of the stories apparently won competitions, and structurally and grammatically it's mostly fine, but overall they're just fairly lacklustre short stories. I am willing to concede that it might be down to taste, but I have read some superb short stories in my time, some of which I still remember in detail, whereas I'm having that 'they're already blending together into nothingness' that I get after reading average stories. Im not the most prolific reader out there, but I've read enough at this point that only the truly spectacular stories stand out in my mind, and the rest fade quickly in my mind.

But I'm interested to know what others think, so drop a comment below if you've read this collection and let me know what you thought of it.

Book Review: Poker Kingdom I: The smile of the harlequin

Poker Kingdom I: The smile of the harlequin has a really original premise. Set in a land named Poker, it is divided into four kingdoms: hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds. Each kingdom contains within it an Element of great power (earth, air, fire, water). It's opening line is pretty great too - “You'll find no greater honesty than in a crowd of drunks.” That's the sort of fantasy I can get behind, for sure....