COVER REVEAL: A Star-Reckoner’s Lot by Darrell Drake

How is this a cover reveal? Readers who pay far too close attention will recall that this book made my Top 10 of 2016. Well, Drake has repackaged it and re-released it last week as Part One of a trilogy. I love this cover, if I had an office, I’d have a print of it hanging next to some of Chris McGrath’s work. Anyway, here it is (new blurb for the book below, too).

Ashtadukht is a star-reckoner. The worst there’s ever been.

She commands the might of the constellations… though her magic is as unpredictable as the die rolls that decide its fate. But star-reckoners are humanity’s first defense against divs, so if Ashtadukht is to fulfill her duty, she must use every trick at her disposal—risks be damned.

An excuse. A lie she tells herself. All that remains of a life she should have had. She travels the empire to hunt down the div that brought her world to ruin. The longer her pursuit, the more her memories threaten to consume her. The darker her obsession becomes.

Every spell is a catastrophe waiting to happen, every div a tale of its own, every tale a thread in her tapestry of vengeance. This is the story of her path… a warning to those who would follow in her footsteps.

Ashtadukht is a star-reckoner. The worst there’s ever been. Hers is no hero’s journey.

• • •

A tale of loss and misadventure in a fantasy setting inspired by the history and culture of 6th-century Sasanian Iran.

Want more information? Here’s my original post about the book; the Q & A I did with the author, Darrel Drake; Marian L. Thorpe’s review; and one on Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reviews, too (both of those mentioned things I wish I did). Also, it should be noted that the book is mentioned on Reddit r/Fantasy 2017 Underread/Underrated Novel list.

Or just go buy the book, already.

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The Best Novels I Read in 2016

Yeah, I should’ve done this earlier, but I just needed a break from 2016 for a couple of days. Most people do this in mid-December or so, but a few years ago (before this blog), the best novel I read that year was also the last. Ever since then, I just can’t pull the trigger until January 1.

I truly enjoyed all but a couple of books this year (at least a little bit), but narrowing the list down to those in this post was a little easier than I expected (‘tho there’s a couple of books I do feel bad about ignoring). I stand by my initial ratings, there are some in the 5-Star group that aren’t as good as some of the 4 and 4½ books, although for whatever reason, I ranked them higher (entertainment value, sentimental value…liked the ending better…etc.). Anyway, I came up with a list I think I can live with.

(in alphabetical order by author)

Morning StarMorning Star

by Pierce Brown
My original post
I was a little surprised (but not really) today to see that every book in the trilogy made my year-end Best-Of list — so it makes sense that this one occupies a space. But it’s more than that, this book was an exciting emotional wringer that ended the trilogy in a perfect way. I can’t recommend this one enough (but only for those who’ve read the first two). When I was informed a month ago that there was going to be a follow-up series? I let out a whoop, thankfully none of my family noticed, so I don’t have to feel too silly.
5 Stars

A Star-Reckoner's LotA Star-Reckoner’s Lot

by Darrell Drake
My original post
I’m afraid if I start talking about this one that I’ll spill a few hundred words. Let me just slightly modify something I already wrote and spare us all the effort (that could be better spent actually reading these books). I’m afraid I’ll overuse the word imaginative if I tried to describe what Drake has done here in the depth I want to in this book about pre-Islamic Iran. You haven’t read a fantasy novel like this one before — almost certainly, anyway — but you should.
4 1/2 Stars

Blood of the EarthBlood of the Earth

by Faith Hunter
My original post
This probably should be a dual entry with Blood of the Earth and Curse on the Land, but that felt like cheating. Between the two, I thought that this was a slightly better work, so it got the spot. While remaining true to the Jane Yellowrock world that this springs from, Hunter has created a fantastic character, new type of magic, and basis of a series. I love these characters already (well, except for those I wasn’t crazy about previously) and can’t wait for a return trip.
4 1/2 Stars

BurnedBurned

by Benedict Jacka
My original post
I’m just going to quote myself here: I’ve seen people call this the Changes of the Alex Verus series — and it absolutely is. I’d also call it the Staked in terms with the protagonists coming to grips with the effects that his being in the lives of his nearest and dearest has on their life, and what that means for his future involvement with them. Which is not to say that Jacka’s latest feels anything like Butcher’s or Hearne’s books — it feels like Verus just turned up half a notch. It’s just such a great read — it grabs you on page 2 and drags you along wherever it wants to take you right up until the “He is not actually doing this” moment — which are followed by a couple more of them.
5 Stars

Fate BallFate Ball

by Adam W. Jones
My original post
Since the Spring when I read this, I periodically reminded myself to keep this in mind for my Top 10, I was that afraid I’d forget this quiet book. It’s not a perfect novel, there are real problems with it — but it was really effective. I fell for Ava, just the way Able did — not as hard (and only in a way that my wife wouldn’t mind) — but just as truly. This one worked about as well as any author could hope one would.
4 1/2 Stars

All Our Wrong TodaysAll Our Wrong Todays

by Elan Mastai
My original post
My all-time favorite time-travel novel, just a fun read, too. I will over-hype this one if I’m not careful. So, so good.
5 Stars

The Summer that Melted EverythingThe Summer that Melted Everything

by Tiffany McDaniel
My original post
I’m not sure what I can say about this book that others haven’t — this trip into a magical realism version of the 1980’s Mid-West will get you on every level — it’s entertaining, it’s thought-provoking, the language is gorgeous, the characters are flawed in all the right ways. I wish this was getting the attention (and sales!) that it deserves — I really hope its audience finds it.
5 Stars

Every Heart a DoorwayEvery Heart a Doorway

by Seanan McGuire
My original post
Here’s a book that doesn’t have to worry about attention or audience, it has one — and it’s probably growing. It deserves it. Short, sweet (and not-sweet) and to the point. I may have to buy a two copies of the sequel so I don’t have to fight my daughter for it when it’s released.
5 Stars

Lady Cop Makes TroubleLady Cop Makes Trouble

by Amy Stewart
My original post
Stewart took the really good historical crime novel she wrote last year and built on that foundation one that’s far more entertaining without sacrificing anything that had come before. We’ll be reading about the Kopp sisters for a while, I think.
4 Stars

Genrenauts: The Complete Season One CollectionGenrenauts: The Complete Season One Collection

by Michael R. Underwood
My original post
Yeah, here I am again, flogging Underwood’s Genrenaut stories — whether in individual novellas, audiobooks, or in this collection — you need to get your hands on this series about story specialists who travel to alternate dimensions where stories are real and what happens in them impacts our world — Underwood has a special alchemy of Leverage + The Librarians + Quantum Leap + Thursday Next going on here, and I love it.
5 Stars

There were a few that almost made the list — almost all of them did make the Top 10 for at least a minute, actually. I toyed with a Top 17 in 2016 but that seemed stupid — and I’ve always done 10, I’m going to stick with it. But man — these were all close, and arguably better than some of those on my list. Anyway here they are: What You Break by Reed Farrel Coleman (my original post), Children of the Different by SC Flynn (my original post), Thursday 1:17 p.m. by Michael Landweber (my original post), We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman (my original post), A Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl (my original post), and Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja (my original post).

I hope your 2016 reads were as good as these.

A Star-Reckoner’s Lot by Darrell Drake

This book releases this weekend, go pre-order now (well, not now … wait until you read this).

A Star-Reckoner's LotA Star-Reckoner’s Lot

by Darrell Drake

Kindle Edition, 294 pg.
Darrell Drake, 2016

Read: September 22 – 26, 2016


There are few phrases sweeter to readers than “Stand Alone Fantasy.” Sure, most of us really get into series, but the chance to dive into a world and know that there’s a narrative conclusion just a couple of hundred pages away? There’s something very appealing about that. Throw in a world pretty much like nothing you’ve come across before? Sign me up.

Drake brings us into a world of pre-Islamic Iran — full of social mores that are just as foreign to Western readers as anything that the most imaginative novelist could invent, along with a magic system, a belief system, and a host of supernatural beings that are equally novel. Sure, there’s apparently a decent amount of historical research undergirding the fiction — but just coming up with the idea to base something in this world and to do the research will inspire confidence.

Ashtadukht is a star-reckoner for the King of Kings. A star-reckoner is a magic-user who can harness the power of constellations — the power of stars — to perform their magic. Primarily, their duty is to attack divs, demon-like beings at war with humanity. Ashtadukht (this name makes me so glad for copy and paste, incidentally) is a pretty capable (with some provisos) star-reckoner, but has a reputation for being a bit too lenient with some divs. She doesn’t fight the reputation, but when you see the way she deals with a few divs, you start to wonder what it’d look like if she wasn’t lenient.

At some point, her father becomes concerned for her safety and recruits her cousin, Tirdad, to act as her bodyguard. Before this, he was one of the King’s elite soldiers and can do some pretty heavy damage to a div himself. I really liked Tirdad — his growth throughout the novel, his character, his sense of humor, etc. — I really liked this guy. You’ll likely have a similar reaction. He and Ashtadukht have known each other since childhood and act like it — they know the secrets, the tells, the hearts of the other in a way that only old friends can. It’s easy to believe that he’ll do whatever it takes to keep his cousin safe and successful.

The other part of their party is Waray — she’s a problematic character for some, but man, I liked her. She has some verbal tics — running words together, defining things and people as “šo” this and “šo” that (and just uses the ‘š’ in place of an ‘s’ — see my Q&A with Drake for more). Ever since Gurgi in The Prydain Chronicles, I’ve enjoyed the annoying not-totally-human characters (especially those obsessed with food). I think she’s a hoot — and more, there’s a darkness to Waray, to her past and present — along with her loyalty and her penchant for odd pranks.

The banter, the bickering, and friendship between Tirdad and Waray is one of those things that will attract you to this book beyond the setting and plot. The three of them are a great team, a great found-family, watching their relationship is infectious and utterly believable — you can feel the affection they have for each other, and don’t need to be told about it. There are fantasy novels when you’re told that the characters are old friends and you just don’t believe it (or only believe it because it’s mentioned every couple of pages) but here, you see it develop and grow and have no doubts.

The novel follows the trio all over Iran dispatching a div here and there, hunting for the killer of Ashtadukht’s husband (a div) and struggling against her failing health. There comes a point where things evolve past the “monster of the chapter” structure and everything is really tied together — but I can’t get into it without ruining things. It’ll leave your jaw inches from its typical place and the whole book gets more intense from there.

Drake almost never info-dumps, he drops you into this world and lets you figure out what a star-reckoner does, what a div is, etc. Yes, almost every question is answered eventually — but by the time he spells it out of you, you’ve pretty much figured it out on your own. I loved that. There’s a humor, a heart — and some really disturbing violence — throughout this book. The book is sometimes challenging to read, but always rewards the effort. It’s not a perfect book — but it is so satisfying that you overlook it’s shortcomings. I can’t say I enjoyed everything that Drake did in the last few chapters — but I can’t fault him for them. It’s not the ending I wanted, but it’s the ending the novel needed.

I’m afraid I’ll overuse the word imaginative if I tried to describe what Drake has done here in the depth I want to. You haven’t read a fantasy novel like this one before — almost certainly, anyway — but you should.

Besides, anyone who works a Samuel L. Jackson reference into a book about pre-600 AD Iran deserves a read, right?

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the author in exchange for this post.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

A Few Quick Questions With…Darrell Drake

For the second time this week, sleep won a victory over my finishing a post, so you won’t be reading what I thought about this author’s book (spoiler: it’s something special). Thankfully, however, We get to spend a few minutes with Darrell Drake today before I post my thoughts on his book A Star-Reckoner’s Lot tomorrow–a stand-alone fantasy set in Sassanian Iran (yeah, I had to look it up, too). He’s got like a million things going on in the days leading up to the release this weekend. so we kept things short and sweet so he could focus on the important things. Hope you enjoy.

Bonus technical question: [I don’t normally do this, but I figured it might help readers] What’s that mark over the “s” in Waray’s dialogue? How should readers pronounce that (even in just their heads)?
You’re the first to ask! The mark you’re referring to is a diacritic that goes by the name of caron(ˇ). My original intention was to use an “s” with a line below it, but there arose issues with rendering it on certain devices and in certain file types. All’s well, though, because its replacement (š) serves as the official romanization of the Persian letter Shin, which is pronounced “sh”. Relevant to Sassanian Iran, the second King of Kings to rule the empire was Shapur, which is sometimes written Šapur. In Waray’s case it’s pronounced “sho-“. I figured readers would at the very least realize she pronounces it differently due to the diacritic.
So, you’re on the verge of publishing a book funded by Kickstarter — looking back on it, how was that process? Would you/are you going to do it again? What did you learn from that?
In a word: stressful. It was stressful as all get out. What’s more, I went through the process twice for the same book (about a year apart). The goal set for my initial campaign was a bit too ambitious, and I adjusted accordingly the second time around.

Running a Kickstarter is also very illuminating, because much of what goes on behind the scenes isn’t someone a backer would worry about. It isn’t until you’re in the thick of it that you come to appreciate the work that goes into a campaign (one that intends to deliver anyway). The logistics of backer rewards, trying to reconcile backer rewards with the cost of producing them and what you’re getting from pledges—it’s no small task. You send out many, many e-mails. You get in touch with folks for prospective rewards, for promotion, for research, for advice, for shipping, for packaging, for taxes, for—well, you get the idea. Again, it’s stressful, and so much more than simply throwing some reward tiers together.

While I don’t currently have any plans to do it again, I’d consider Kickstarter for future projects. It’s a powerful platform, and I’d be a fool not to at least consider.

Besides what I mentioned above with respect to what goes down behind the scenes, I’d say it taught me who I can depend on. And that came with some surprises. I have an greater appreciation for those who went out of their way to help on many fronts. These kind souls showed a genuine interest in championing something that’s dear to my heart. Something I’ve toiled over for years. That is no small gesture, and if it were up to me (and not my notoriously unreliable memory), I’d never forget any of it.

Sassanian Iran — I’m sure you’ve been asked before, but I probably won’t be the last: where did you get this idea? Had you previously researched the time/culture — or was this something you had to do after coming up with the idea.
This is where that tenuous memory comes into play. I can give you a general idea, though. Before settling into Sassanian Iran as a setting, I had an idea of the character and her travels. From there, I set off in search of, well, somewhere that stood out. I came across Sassanian Iran in my research into the history of the Middle East—when or where exactly I can’t be certain. But something there led me to the national epic of Iran, the Shahnameh (and later the Hamzanama).

I can tell you with conviction that the former had an undeniable impact on the course of my research. Like any good epic, it delineated the history of Iran, and did so with flair and magic and adventure. Something in there nudged me toward Sassanian Iran. When I learned of its impact on the history of the world, and of the unsung nature of that impact, I delved deeper. In doing so, I found the perfect setting for Ashtadukht. The legends, the culture, the lands, the history: it all fit.

What’s the one (or two) book/movie/show in the last 5 years that made you say, “I wish I’d written that.”?
Breaking Bad ended in 2013, so that counts, yeah? Naturally, I’d like to see success on that scale. More than that, it’s a drama that I sincerely doubt I’ll ever live up to. The narrative is damn brilliant, and riddled with nuances. It’s powerful, it speaks to people, and it is a shining example that a TV series can be art as much as any movie or book.

Figure I should include a book, since I’m an author and all. In this case, I’ll use Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars (without really going through everything I’ve read). He’s a luminary for a reason, one who wields both history and prose better than I ever could. He’s demonstrated as much time and again, but River of Stars is especially beautiful. There’s an earthiness to the characters, a coziness that describes them as real people. They don’t feel the slightest bit fictitious (I realize some are fantasy depictions of real-world figures). He’s a master of his craft. Certainly of historical fantasy.

I’ve often heard that writers (or artists in general) will forget hundreds of positive reviews but always remember the negative — what’s the worst thing that someone’s said about one of your books, and has it altered your approach to future books?
I’m not sure I could pick out the worst thing. I’ve probably tried to bury it for my own sake. But when I first started writing people would often comment negatively on my prose—purple prose, namely. It wasn’t entirely unfounded. Well, I’ve since learned from that, and evolved my writing to work in some of the more inventive words here and there while generally being more relaxed for the most part.

I did have readers sometimes find issues with characters that must have been influenced by their own issues with the world. Too busy trying to find political or social commentary that wasn’t there. I try to avoid that kind of thing.

With your next book on the verge of release, what comes next? Are you neck deep in a draft, or are you waiting for A Star-Reckoner’s Lot to be launched before diving in?
I’m hunkered down with A Star-Reckoner’s Lot, and doing my utmost to make its release a success. Too focused on keeping the book afloat and securing its future to really concentrate on what’s next. Some authors can manage both; I am not one of them. And I don’t want to look back and think that I should have given A Star-Reckoner’s Lot my undivided attention. In most cases, you get one launch. One. If I’m going to screw it up, I don’t want it to be because I wasn’t giving it my all.

Thank you very much for having me, H. C. You brought up some topics I haven’t had the pleasure of discussing, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. May your beard always be full.

Thanks for your time and the answers, Darrel. I hope the launch goes well.