Guest Post by Mark T Barnes on Creating Myths + Giveaway

pillars of sand by mark t barnesThis time, I’m just going to gush. I get some good books from Library Journal, and some not so good books from Library Journal. And every once in a while, I get one that absolutely blows me away. That was The Garden of Stones by Mark T. Barnes. I adore epic fantasy, and Garden was one of the best I’ve read in a long time.

I begged 47North for a review copy of book 2, The Obsidian Heart, because I couldn’t bear not knowing where the story went after the towering cliffhanger I was left with. It was every bit as awesome as Garden, and now we have The Pillars of Sand. Read today’s review to see just how much I loved it.

Making Your Own Mythology, by Mark T. Barnes.

Myths are ancient stories shared through generations, both within and across cultures. While history relates the facts of the past, myths reveal the truths of personalities, beliefs, hopes, and fears of times gone by. Myths help us understand why we are who we are, in the context of our journey through history and cultural transformation.

Fantasy worlds in particular benefit from a strong and original mythology as part of the world building process. Not only do they add depth and texture to a story, they provide a framework for the reader to know why things are the way they are. It’s important for our characters to reflect in some way the thinking of their age, which has been formed from cultural mores and social interactions over hundreds of preceding generations.

It’s important to find the obvious in our mythologies and do something different with them. Readers may know the content of many myths, morality tales and fairy tales already, so reward them with something new. Find the anchor points a reader will care about, and identify with, and build a mythology around them. Look at the important concepts of our own culture: how we view birth, life, and death. Love and hatred, romance and vengeance. What do we fear? What do we despise, and why do these things have such a visceral effect on us? Look at topical issues that are important to us today, and weave those into a mythology to make it meaningful and impactful.

Mythology in fantasy literature can also have us think about our own origins as well as the stories we’re leaving behind for generations to come. The myths we make will inform others what we valued, what we feared, and helps them learn the truths of who we were and the mark we left a changing world.

The world of Īa in the Echoes of Empire series has a layered history. All the great world events lend to myths, and how those myths are remembered and used. In the EoE series I tried a few new things:

  • No orthodox religion or deities of any kind. The native inhabitants of Īa practice a form of natural reverence. With the introduction of humans who came from a technologically advanced society with less of a focus on religion, there came the concept of Ancestor worship. As people we have strong feelings towards the people in our lives, and time and new circumstances altered how the dead are perceived.
  • No heaven or hell. There’s no great reward for being ‘good’, nor damnation for being ‘bad’. Such reference points are meaningless when a person is capable of thought, free will, and change. The dead go to a place called The Well of Souls where they continue to be the people they were in life, sans a body. Knowledge of the Well of Souls and the ability to communicate with the dead has taken some of the fear from death.
  • The world is alive and conscious. There have been many empires and civilisations resting one atop the other like sediment. In the distant past the high water mark of a dead civilisation managed to communicate with the mind of the world, changing forever their view of their place and status. Technological industrialisation was bypassed in favour of arcane industrialisation, where energy sources were renewable gifts from the world itself. Humans changed this paradigm, and their defeat in the old wars became a parable for how civilisation should work with a world that knows what’s being done to it.
  • Power perceived is power achieved. The Insurrection and The Scholar Wars showed the world that the arcane sciences are devastating and that not all who hold power, should. Centuries after The Scholar Wars there are still prejudices and laws in place against some uses for the arcane.
  • Tales of ethics and morality. The wars of the past and the blood that was shed has led to the Avān, one of the world’s predominant cultures, forming a rigorous code of conduct and caste system in order to protect themselves, from themselves. Other cultures have beliefs based on great acts of invention, or heroism, or generosity. The greatest heroes in the EoE world are scholars, philosophers, courtesans, etc. Generally people who have tried to make the world better through less destructive means than war.
  • The lessons of war and envy. Though the humans were defeated in the old wars, the Elemental Masters of the time took notice. Indeed it was the introduction of advanced technology that inspired some of the Elemental Masters to try new things with the arcane, and to start truly bridging the gap between arcane science and technical science. This also introduced the concept of Wars of the Long Knife (Wars of Assassins), trial by single combat or arcane power to resolve disputes, government sanctioned and arbitrated House wars, etc.

Seeding the histories of our fantasy worlds with pivotal moments and people, and having those nexus points reflected throughout the years to follow, gives our worlds depth and texture. Whenever I pick up a fantasy novel I look forward to seeing where the writer is taking me, and how well their characters and story are in touch with their myths, legends, and origins.

mark t barnesMark Barnes lives in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of the epic fantasy Echoes of Empire series, published by 47North. The series includes The Garden of Stones (released May 2013), and The Obsidian Heart (released October 2013). The Pillars of Sand is the third of the series, due for release in May 2014. In April 2014, The Garden of Stones was selected as one of five finalists in the 2013/2014 David Gemmell MORNINGSTAR Award for Best Newcomer/Debut, with the winner to be announced in London in June 2014.
You can find out more at, his Facebook page at, or follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTBarnes.


Mark and his publisher, 47North, are generously giving away 5 NetGalley copies of each book in The Echoes of Empire trilogy! If you love epic fantasy, this is your chance to start (or complete) the series.
Because the copies are NetGalley downloads, winners will need to join or be members of NetGalley (which is free).
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Review: The Pillars of Sand by Mark T Barnes

pillars of sand by mark t barnesFormat read: ebook provided by NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audioboook
Genre: epic fantasy
Series: Echoes of Empire #3
Length: 488 pages
Publisher: 47North
Date Released: May 20, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

The epic conclusion of the Echoes of Empire trilogy.

Prophecy declared that corrupt politician Corajidin would rule the Shrīanese Federation, even become its new Emperor?and sinister magic has helped him defy death in order to do it. But his victory is not assured, thanks to clashing rival factions that hinder any attempts to unify the nation. Though he has taken increasingly brutal measures to eliminate all obstacles in his path, the dark forces supporting him grow dangerously impatient. And the harder they press, the more drastic Corajidin’s actions become.

Soon, only his most powerful adversaries will stand in his way: Indris, the peerless swordsman and sorcerer who has long fought to end the Federation’s bloody turmoil; and the warrior-poet Mari, Corajidin’s own daughter and the woman Indris loves. Fate has torn them apart, forcing them into terrifying personal trials. But if Indris can bring to bear the devastating knowledge of the Pillars of Sand, and Mari can rise up as a rebel leader, Corajidin’s enemies will rally?and the decisive battle for the soul and future of the Shrīanese will begin.

This epic tale of intrigue, love, and betrayal, painted in the blood of allies and enemies by Mark T. Barnes, concludes the Echo of Empire trilogy that began with “The Garden of Stones” and “The Obsidian Heart.”

My Review:

The Pillars of Sand is an absolute stunner from beginning to end. Even the opening synopsis that recaps the events of the previous two books reads like an awesome story being told around a campfire, reciting the tales of the legends that have gone before.

Garden of Stones by Mark T BarnesBut don’t rely on that summary if you haven’t read the first two books in the Echoes of Empire series, get yourself a copy of the utterly fantastic first book, The Garden of Stones and then continue breathlessly through the heroes’ valley of the shadow in The Obsidian Heart. You’ll be panting to read The Pillars of Sand just to find out how our heroes, their country, and their world get out of the horrible fix that they are in.

The story is again told from three different points of view, Dragon-Eyed Indris, for whom every faction seems to have a different destiny, none of which he remotely desires; his lover Mariam of the House of Erebus, one of the greatest warrior-poets that Shrian has ever produced, and her father Corajidin, the man who would lead Shrian to horrific greatness at incalculable cost.

Corajidin’s story is much like Macbeth’s; he believes that he has a destiny to rule Shrian, so he brings that destiny about no matter what dark powers he needs to consort with or how deep the madness into which he must descend. He never seems to understand that destiny is a two-edged sword, and that the prophecy he follows also predicts that he will not be able to hold onto anything, or anyone he conquers.

In our terms, he has sold his soul to the devil, but it turns out that he is dealing with beings even more fell than our version of Satan.

Mariam is Corajidin’s daughter, but she was raised to have her own mind and her own purpose. She believes in the ethics and morals that founded Shrian, and not the depths to which her father would sink them. And so she becomes a force for good, or at least better.

Indris is the great puzzle. He has acquired so much power, but he fears, with good reason, to use it. He knows that if he lets what is inside him loose, the power will use him. And so will entirely too many people who have been hiding the truth from him for far too long.

But they were right, some truths are too unbelievable to know. And yet, they must be revealed in order to save what can be saved. However little that might be.

The Obsidian Heart by Mark T. BarnesEscape Rating A+: Mark Barnes did it again. I stood at the bus stop with my mouth gaping open, completely overwhelmed by the ending. Also terribly, terribly sad that I will not get to return to Shrian.

I expected a slightly different ending. I’m much happier with the one I got, but I was expecting something darker. Not that the butcher’s bill in the end wasn’t high, but it wasn’t outrageously high. Sadly, just enough and not too much.

One of the things that fascinates about the story and it’s entire construction; The Echoes of Empire, as a whole, is about the evil that men (and women) do to each other. It is a battle between good and evil, but all the players are some variation of people, not deities or demons. (In some cases they may be dead people, but still people).

Humans and their equivalents do not need any help in finding the path to damnation and destruction. We’re quite good at getting there all on our own.

The Pillars of Sand brings the Echoes of Empire to a beautiful, and shattering conclusion. If you love epic fantasy and have not started this series, I envy you the joy of discovering this marvelous series for the first time.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Guest Post by Mark T Barnes on Starting in the Middle + Giveaway

When I read The Garden of Stones last spring, it absolutely blew me away. It arrived as a review book from Library Journal, and all I can say is that those can be hit or miss. The Garden of Stones was such a big hit that I gave it a starred review in LJ and included it in my Best of 2013 list.  The Obsidian Heart (reviewed last week) is every bit as excellent, and now I’m stalking NetGalley for The Pillars of Sand.

If you love epic fantasy on a grand scale, immerse yourself in this series. You’ll be utterly lost in this world, and never want to come out.

The Past Informing the Present
by Mark T. Barnes

Garden of Stones by Mark T BarnesWhen I was talking to Marlene about the topic of the blog article, she raised a point about how in The Garden of Stones there was the sensation of being dropped into the middle of a story, rather than getting a gentle introduction.

There’s a line in The Obsidian Heart from Mari’s point of view that says, the ripples of today were stones in the waters of yesterday. We form our truths from the facts of what’s gone before. You can’t separate what was from what is. You can only change what will be. It’s Mari admitting that for good or ill, she is who she because of everything she has seen and done in her life up to that point.

My view of characters is that they should have realistic motivations that are rooted to events a reader can understand. We’re all of us born, our values shaped by history, society, cultural mores, our family, and our friends. Who we are in our own story changes as we progress through life and experience what it has to offer. But none of us started out at the beginning of history, we’re only page one of our own story: there are millennia of civilisation across the globe that precede us, with history that shaped the world in which we live. We in turn will add to that history, leaving part of ourselves for others to find.

The Obsidian Heart by Mark T. BarnesFor that reason I designed the world of Īa before I developed the characters that populated it. Like a lot of fantasy novels it started with a map, which I explored and gave names to things. Names, like all language, have weight and meaning. What kind of people lived in a place called Shrīan? Or Tanis? Pashrea, Ygran, or the Golden Kingdom of Manté? How do these different people see each other, and would their histories provide frictions that added depth to the relationships in the story? From the knowledge of the various races, their cultures, and history, the overarching story concept took place. It was only then that I knew what characters I thought would be interesting, and best suited to telling the stories in The Garden of Stones, The Obsidian Heart, and The Pillars of Sand.

pillars of sand by mark barnesThe decision to start an epic story this way wasn’t without risk, and it’s a different approach to a lot of fantasy stories where the reader starts with a younger and less experienced character. But the story I wanted to tell wouldn’t have worked with a naïve character at the helm: if I was being honest with my story they would’ve been mown down before the end of the third chapter. As it was, knowing my world and my story informed my choice of using experienced characters, each with their own fully formed histories. Even so each of the characters grows and changes throughout the series like any person would, influenced by their own actions as well as the events of the world around them.

Starting characters in the middle of a larger backstory, but at the beginning of their own story arc, is also something I’m doing in the two novels I’m working on at the moment. The device gives the characters a context within which to work, as well as a series of events that the antagonists also react to in a different way.

To tell the Echoes of Empire story the way I did, I:

  • Designed the world so that I knew the geography, history, the cultures that existed, and those cultures related to each other;
  • Planned the story based upon the way the world worked, and the meaningful historical events that underpinned the story arcs; then
  • Designed the characters I felt were best suited to tell that tale and to represent the world, both as point of view characters and supporting cast. It also informed the decision to have the antagonist as one of the point of view characters, as he was the cause of some events, as well as suffering in the effects of them.

There’s a lot of work to write a story this way but that work won’t go to waste. The benefit of the process is that I now have a fully realised world with various nations, species of people, culture and thousands of years of history to bring a level of consistency and gravity to Īa. I also have characters who’ve left their mark on the world, which will be referenced in short stories and later books. It ensures that the world is a living one, and gives fans a literary version of an ‘Easter egg’ when they read different stories set in the same world.

There’s no right or wrong way to start a story, only the right or wrong way for the story itself. Every story will be different, depending on the nature of the world, and the people who live in it. We authors ask for readers to take a lot on faith, and trust that we’ve done what we’ve done for a reason. Then all we can do is hope that the decisions we’ve made resonate with our readers and that enjoy what we’ve done.

mark t barnesMark Barnes lives in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of the epic fantasy Echoes of Empire series, published by 47North. The series includes The Garden of Stones (released May 2013), and The Obsidian Heart (released October 2013). The Pillars of Sand is the third of the series, due for release in May 2014. You can find out more at, his Facebook page at, or follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTBarnes.


Mark is generously giving away a signed copy of The Obsidian Heart. And since Mark is in Australia, he is opening the giveaway Internationally. He’ll ship your book to wherever you are!

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Review: The Obsidian Heart by Mark T. Barnes

The Obsidian Heart by Mark T. BarnesFormat read: ebook provided by NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genre: epic fantasy
Series: Echoes of Empire #2
Length: 438 pages
Publisher: 47North
Date Released: October 15, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

A plot to overthrow the Shrīanese Federation has been quashed, but the bloody rebellion is far from over…and the struggle to survive is just beginning.

Warrior-mage Indris grows weary in his failed attempts to thwart the political machinations of Corajidin, and faces the possibility of imprisonment upon his return to his homeland. Moreover, Indris’s desire for Corajidin’s daughter, Mari, is strong. Can he choose between his duty and his desire…and at what cost?

Left alienated from her House, Mari is torn between the opposing forces of her family and her country—especially now that she’s been offered the position of Knight-Colonel of the Feyassin, the elite royal guards whose legacy reaches back to the days of the Awakened Empire. As the tensions rise, she must decide if her future is with Indris, with her family, or in a direction not yet foreseen.

As he awaits trial for his crimes, Corajidin confronts the good and evil within himself. Does he seek redemption for his cruel deeds, or does he indebt himself further to the enigmatic forces that have promised him success, and granted him a reprieve from death? What is more important: his ambition, regaining the love stolen from him, or his soul?

My Review:

Garden of Stones by Mark T BarnesJust as with The Garden of Stones, the first book in the Echoes of Empire series, The Obsidian Heart left me with a terrible “book hangover”. When I turned the last page, I was just not ready to step away from this world. While it’s definitely not a place I’d want to live (at least at this moment in the story!) Shrian is certainly a place filled with compelling stories.

Even though The Obsidian Heart begins with a recap of previous events from the first book, the story as a whole owes some of its intense immersiveness to the way that the reader is dropped into a history that feels like it has gone one for centuries, and will continue after the book is closed, whether our heroes survive their particular tale or not.

The weight of Shrian’s past helps the reader to sink inside the tale.

And the tale that continues from The Garden of Stones is both epic and deeply personal. Lord Corajidin continues on his mad quest to fulfill the destiny he saw in a vision, a vision that told him that he would become the Emperor of a new Awakened Empire, and lead his people back to their former greatness.

But Corajidin’s vision has convinced him that the glory he has foreseen justify any means necessary to come to fruition; even means that his people would consider anathema. Not just political assassinations by the score (the history has precedents for that!) but by dealing with the demon and death-bringing witches of the dreadful Drear.

Corajidin reminds this reader all too much of Shakespeare’s Macbeth; he creates the conditions that the witches foretold because of the foretelling. He doesn’t see that the path his self-fulfilling prophecy has led him down will ruin him and all he thought he fought for in the end.

There are three point-of-view characters in The Obsidian Heart. One is Corajidin, voraciously chewing up everything and everyone in his path to achieve the destiny he believes should be his. Or perhaps has been led to believe to be his. I wonder.

Indris shows us a different side to Corajidin’s dreams of a new empire. Indris is a warrior-mage of the Seq. His order was born two millennia ago to fight the witches that Corajidin is bringing back to prominence. He wants to stem the tide of death and put the evil creatures back in the fell places where Corajidin’s allies found them.

But Indris, as we saw in The Garden of Stones, is also an heir of one of the rival Houses to Corajidin. He could take the throne himself, or at least return to being a leader of his own House. While his only desire is to be his own man and follow his own agenda, too many factions have plans of their own for him, and none of those plans are in Indris’ best interest. Even worse, Indris believes that those plans are not in the empire’s best interests.

While Indris wants to fight Corajidin, there are too many forces arrayed against him who try to force him, whether by physical threats or magical torment, to go down the path of their choosing.

The last perspective belongs to Mari, the warrior-poet daughter of Corajidin. She has never fit into her father’s plans for her, but there was a part of him that enjoyed her defiant spirit. But she believes that her father has gone mad as well as evil, and she betrayed him. Her family has chosen to believe that her betrayal was caused by her affair with Indris, and not by the convictions of her own mind. They want her back within the family fold, whether she wants to be there or not.

The Obsidian Heart is a story built of many overlapping layers. Corajidin’s manipulations to bring about his new Awakened Empire push the action forward, as Indris and Mari fight to remain together and to save what they can. The politics and the magic constructs that underlie the war make for fascinating reader, as each player follows an agenda that impacts the others.

As this installment of the story concludes, one is left breathless, wondering how much more can possibly go wrong for the forces of good. Always a dangerous question, but one that leaves the reader begging for more.

Escape Rating A: The Obsidian Heart is definitely the middle-book in this trilogy. As the story progresses, the situation gets darker and darker for Indris and Mari.

Shrian is a dark and dangerous place. Every person that we meet has their own agenda, and it’s almost always hidden. Indris and Mari spend a lot of this chapter of the story preventing other people’s nefarious plans, both for the empire and for themselves. The entire world they know seems to be arrayed against them. While they are not the only people working towards something like the greater good, they seem to be the required element that pushes so many people to get off their self-satisfied asses and do something about it.

The only thing required for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.

And so many of the plots regarding Indris’ and Mari’s potential futures are worse than nothing. Too many people are using the chaos to forward their own agendas, and they are more than willing to block our heroes from taking forward action.

The political backstabbing and level of assassinations and faked enemies that takes place in order to make Corajidin’s vision come to fruition reads like the layers upon layers of plotting in Kushiel’s Dart. It also reminds me of the original Dune, in that feeling that the machinations are part of a Great Game of politics and empires that has been going on since long before the current story; where this is but a chapter in some greater history.

But the downward progression is reminiscent of one of Murphy’s lesser known laws: Things are always darkest just before they turn completely black. The Obsidian Heart is rather like The Empire Strikes Back, in that the story ends on a breathless down-stroke.

pillars of sand by mark barnesI’m almost sorry that I didn’t wait until May, when the third and final chapter, The Pillars of Sand, is due to be released. Because I want to know what happens next, and I want to know now. But The Obsidian Heart was every bit as amazing as The Garden of Stones.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

A Baker’s Dozen of the Best Books of 2013

2013 blockAs 2013 draws to a close, it’s time to take a look back and attempt to decide which books were the best of the year.

OK, so this list is the best of my year. Why not? Everyone else is doing it!

But seriously, it’s both a surprise and a delight to look back and see which books got one of the rare A+ ratings. Or even just an A. (Along with the discovery that I need to do a better job of tagging to make them easier to find.)

There aren’t a lot of romances on this list. Not because I didn’t read some good ones this year, but because, well “reasons” as Cass says. Mostly because I do a separate list of the Best Ebook Romances for Library Journal every year, and also recap that list here at Reading Reality. So romance gets pretty much covered.

And speaking of Cass, she contributed her trademark snark to this list. Along with a dose of draconic awesomesauce.

These are the books that stuck with me this year. Sometimes to the point where I was still telling people about them months later, or where I am haunting NetGalley, Edelweiss or the author’s website looking for news of the next book in the series or their next book, period.

Cass’s thoughts on her faves are very definitely hers. And her picks probably won’t surprise anyone who has seen her dragon shoes. (Note from Cass: Do you want to see my dragon shoes?! They are amazing!)

Whatever your choices were for this or any other year, I hope you enjoyed every single page of them!

Spider Women's Daughter by Anne HillermanSpider Woman’s Daughter by Anne Hillerman (A+ Review).  This is a case where life parallels art in a manner that is fitting and poignant. In the story, Navajo Nation Police Officer Bernie Manuelito picks up the case after retired “Legendary Lieutenant” Joe Leaphorn is gunned down in front of her outside a local diner. In real life, Anne Hillerman picks up the case of continuing her father Tony Hillerman’s mystery series by changing protagonists, using a female officer sandwiched between conflicting roles to solve the mystery of who shot the man she loves as an honorary father.


How the Light Gets In by Louise PennyHow the Light Gets In by Louise Penny (A+ Review) This was simply stunning, and there’s no other word to describe it. The light gets in through our broken places, and that’s what this 9th book in Penny’s Inspector Gamache series explores, the broken places in every single character involved. These are mysteries, but Gamache is not a detective who solves crimes by examing forensics; he solves crimes by studying people.

Imager’s Battalion (A Review) and Antiagon Fire (A Review) by L.E. Modesitt Jr. One of the things that I have loved about Modesitt’s Imager Portfolio has been his main characters. Both in the original trilogy (Imager, Imager’s Challenge and Imager’s Intrigue) and in this second series, we have a fantasy hero who is a grown up but still has to face the coming-into-his-power scenario. The women in the series are strong and resourceful in their own right, and the political challenges and machinations are never-ending but still make sense. I just plain like these people and can never wait to read more of their adventures. His protagonists make things happen without needing to be king or princeling. Fantastic.

Bronze Gods by A.A. AguirreBronze Gods by A.A. Aguirre (A Review) I just swallowed this one whole and came out the other side begging for more (which is coming, see tomorrow’s post). Bronze Gods is a masterful blend of steampunk, urban fantasy, mystery and police procedural, tied together with some truly awesome worldbuilding and the fantastic partnership of two characters who need each other to remain whole.  This one blew me away.

Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest (A Review) If Bronze Gods is steampunk as urban fantasy, then Fiddlehead is steampunk as epic. Fiddlehead is the culmination of Priest’s long-running Clockwork Century alternate history steampunk epic, and it’s a doozy. She started with poisonous gas knocking Seattle back to the stone age in Boneshaker, and rippling that event into an endless U.S. Civil  War. With a reason for zombies to be part of the mix. Fiddlehead brings it all to roaring conclusion, and almost aligns history back to the world as we know it. Epic alternate history.

Garden of Stones by Mark T BarnesThe Garden of Stones by Mark T. Barnes (A Review) This one blew me away. Library Journal sends me books to review, and it’s hit or miss. This was one that absolutely surprised and delighted me. It is epic fantasy, and the world is not just complex, but the reader starts in the middle. There’s no gentle introduction. You feel that this place is ancient and has eons of history, as do all of the characters. It’s immersive and amazing. If you like your fantasy on the complicated side, with lots of betrayals, The Garden of Stones is a treat.

Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football by Rich Cohen (A Review) These are not the kind of monsters I usually read about, and this was not the kind of review I usually write. But the 1985 Bears were my team, and I’ve never been able to explain why that year was so damn much fun to anyone else. This book does it. And at the same time, I can’t watch a game now without thinking about this book, and what it has to say about CTE and the high cost of playing the game we all loved to watch.

The Story Guy by Mary Ann RiversThe Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers (A Review) This is the one carryover from the Best Ebook Romances list, because it was so good that I couldn’t leave it out. The Story Guy was Mary Ann Rivers debut story, and it was an absolute winner. What makes it so good is that the issues that have to be overcome in this story are real; there are no billionaires or fantastically gorgeous Hollywood types in this tale, just an accountant and a librarian (go us!) who have real-world roadblocks to get past to reach a happy ending, if they can.

The Grove by Jean Johnson (A Review) This one is in Jean’s fantasy romance series, the Guardians of Destiny. And that series is a loose followup to her Sons of Destiny series. I’ve read both, and they are just tremendously fun. The fantasy worldbuilding is terrific, the romance is hot, and her heroines and heroes are always equal. No alpha-holes and no doormats need apply. (Her military science fiction series, Theirs Not to Reason Why, is also marvelous!)

The Human Division by John ScalziThe Human Division by John Scalzi (A- Review) Last but absolutely not least, John Scalzi’s return to his Old Man’s War series. Old Man’s War is one of my favorite books ever, and I pretty much shove it at anyone who even hints that they like SF and haven’t read it. So anything new in the OMW universe is automatically worth a read for me. The Human Division took the story in the new directions that followed from the end of The Last Colony, but left LOTS of unanswered questions. There was quite a bit of Scalzi’s trademark humor, but this is not intended as a funny book like Redshirts. I think this story is going to go to some dark places before it ends. But it’s awesome.

Honorable Mention: Clean by Alex Hughes (A+ Review) I adored this urban fantasy set in a post-tech wars dystopian future. Her flawed hero reminded me so much of the version of Sherlock Holmes in Elementary, but her messed-up Atlanta looked like a bad version of a place we could all too easily get to from here. The ONLY reason it didn’t make the “Best of 2013” list is that I’m late to the party. Clean was published in 2012.

Contributions from Cass:

natural history of dragons by marie brennanA Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan (5 Star Review) because it was THE LITERARY EMBODIMENT OF DRACONIC PERFECTION. There is no more amazing depiction of dragons out there. It easily soared above my previous Dragon Favorites, and utterly crushed the Dragon Posers people are always trying to torment me with.

UPDATE FROM CASS: I invented a new rating scale for this one. I did not give it a mere 5/5 stars – but rather 15 stars. Nothing Marlene read this year hit that level of awesome. Come back sometime in February (March?) and see my feelings on the sequel. 

The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination edited by John Joseph Adams (4 Star Review). Though I was a wee bit nervous when, at the WorldCon Mad Science Panel, certain contributors had some suspiciously specific ideas about how to rain mayhem and destruction down onto the audience. (Someone give Seanan a Hugo just to distract her from setting off an international incident. Please?)

parasite by mira grantParasite by Mira Grant (4.5 Star Review) Parasites freak me right the fuck out. There is nothing more horrifying to me than a society where MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS tell everyone to ingest a goddamn tapeworm as a cure-all. Could I see the sheep doing it? Yes. Which only amps the terror up.

So that’s our list for 2013. What’s on your list?

Review: The Garden of Stones by Mark T Barnes

Garden of Stones by Mark T BarnesFormat read: ebook provided by NetGalley
Formats available: Paperback, ebook, Audiobook
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: Echoes of Empire #1
Length: 506 pages
Publisher: 47 North
Date Released: May 21, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

An uneasy peace has existed since the fall of the Awakened Empire centuries ago. Now the hybrid Avān share the land with the people they once conquered: the star-born humans; the spectral, undead Nomads; and what remains of the Elemental Masters. With the Empress-in-Shadows an estranged ghost, it is the ancient dynasties of the Great Houses and the Hundred Families that rule. But now civil war threatens to draw all of Shrīan into a vicious struggle sparked by one man’s lust for power, and his drive to cheat death. Visions have foretold that Corajidin, dying ruler of House Erebus, will not only survive, but rise to rule his people. The wily nobleman seeks to make his destiny certain by plundering the ruins of his civilization’s past for the arcane science needed to ensure his survival, and by mercilessly eliminating his rivals. But mercenary warrior-mage Indris, scion of the rival House Nasarat, stands most powerfully in the usurper’s bloody path. For it is Indris who reluctantly accepts the task of finding a missing man, the only one able to steer the teetering nation towards peace.

My Review:

This is one of those stories where you feel like you’re getting in at the middle, and it’s not a bad thing. Instead, it feels as if you are being dropped into a fully realized world, that history has already happened that you simply don’t know yet. Shrĩan has always been there, or maybe Dragon-Eyed Indris is an unknown avatar of the Eternal Champion. But his story pulls you in from the first page not in spite of, but because you know that it is definitely not the beginning of the story.

One man wants, not merely to cheat death, but to re-build an empire. As is unfortunately usual, he has decided to let nothing and no one stand in his way; not love, not family, not anything remotely resembling honor or decency. Corajidin of the House of Erebus believes he has a destiny to rule the empire. He has no concept that the empire he is forging with lies and deceit is not what he set out to rule.

Corajidin is a man who is literally losing his soul. Along with his mind.

Indris is the rock in his path. Not because he plans on it, but because others set him on that road long before his birth. Indris starts out believing that he is just helping his father-in-law escape a lethal trap.

But as the story unfolds, we learn that Indris is so much more than just a mercenary, and that he carries the weight of the world in the magic of his mind and the swiftness of his sword. All he wants is to be his own man. Instead, he fights against the oncoming chaos, again, and again.

No matter how often Indris tries to turn away, his destiny keeps coming for him.

Escape Rating A: The Garden of Stones was an immersive fantasy. It felt like being in the eye of a storm. The court machinations of Corajidin and his followers reminded me a bit of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart series, in the way that every single action was political, motivated six different ways, and that he used every single member of his own family in multiple betrayals.

Indris, on the other hand, appears to have been used all his life. Someone seems to be pushing him towards a destiny that he doesn’t want, but is supposedly for the greater good, and he keeps resisting. He has secrets, and most of the important people in his life have secrets from him. But as the central character, he is completely compelling. He wants to save his friends, maintain a reasonable amount of the status quo, because that’s the best thing for his world, and not get sucked in to other people’s plans for him. He also carries a terrible burden of grief that he’s just barely beginning to overcome.

Then there’s Mari, a woman faced with a terrible choice. She can either betray her family and keep her oaths, or the other way around, knowing that her family will still betray her in the end.

Obsidian Heart by Mark T BarnesThe Garden of Stones gave me a book hangover. When I finished, I simply did not want to leave this world–particularly since it ended on a spectacular cliffhanger. I’m haunted by the last scene, and I’ll be haunting NetGalley until The Obsidian Heart pops up.


***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.