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Conjurer’s Counsel & Critique

  • Shadow’s Law, by Utkarsh Sharma
    by Urkarsh Sharma

    In a moment of insanity, the city fall into chaos. The abomination escapes. Shawn must race against time as the abomination systematically purges the city of evidence. Shawn is beset by enemies on all sides as police, FBI, monstrosities and the karma police duke it out in the city. Each group in the desert city feels that Shawn is the most likely culprit.

    Shawn must make alliances and cheat his way to victory against all parties to survive. As his life’s work falls apart, he must decide how much he is willing to gamble to go through with his goal.

    A Note for the Author of this book, should you be about to read this review:

    Take everything here with the understanding that I am not a professional editor, just a reader of books giving their opinion. Keep writing. Don’t let anything I say stop you from that. Read what I have to say, think on it, take from its criticisms what you can and try to improve your writing for the next book. You wrote a book, that’s so much more than most people manage, so you’re already off to a good start. Keep doing it. If you’re the type who doesn’t handle criticism well (like myself), perhaps have a close friend or family read this and relay the major points to you from someone who knows how to make the barbs not sting. Best of luck and keep writing!

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    Shadow’s Law, by Utkarsh Sharma was an intriguing concept that felt like it didn’t quite hit the mark when it came to execution of the writing. The opening scene was good, written in a way that it captured the readers attention. And the first introduction with the Sasha and Ben, the Fortune Hunters, was also a nice interaction, as the reader got to see what happens when two completely independent plans collide head on at the worst possibly moment. It was everything after that that felt like it didn’t quite work as well as it could.

    The book very much felt like it was intended to be a sort of getting-the-team-together type of book, where Shawn was meeting Ben and Sasha and they were supposed to be learning to cooperate and trust one another while hunting the big baddy. However, there wasn’t enough time actually spent with the three characters all together for this to occur convincingly. And, likewise, if the book was meant to be more of a hunting-the-baddy-but-he-gets-away-to-be-continued type of action styled book, then there weren’t enough high-action, danger-inducing moments later on in the book to pull this off either. Which left the book wallowing in what felt like an awkward middle ground between the two. Lastly in relation to the plot, the book kind of just ended abruptly. There was no cliff hanger teaser of what was to come, no resolution of current conflicts with other left to be solved in a future book. Shawn and Shasha went off to try and find Ben, Sasha walks into a building with Shawn about to follow her, and The End. It was abrupt and took me by surprise. I was expecting them to go and find Ben, rally their resources and come up with a plan for what they were going to try and do next to hunt the big baddy (which could have lead nicely into a book 2 later on), but instead, the story just stopped. I found it disorienting and rather unsatisfying for the end of a book.

    The main characters as individuals were decently depicted. We were given plenty of background history on them, sometimes a bit too much, but I’ll get to that in a moment. They were believable in their actions, showed internal conflict about what they were doing, and were able to work through their thoughts to come to decisions, even if it wasn’t necessary a decision they were happy with. The side characters were a bit of a different matter. There were a lot of cases of side characters acting in very awkward, unnatural ways just for the sake providing information to the reader. Sometimes that information was completely unnecessary to the plot, which made the awkwardness all the more notable. And that leads into my final comments on some of the oddities of the writing style, but first, I want to give you a brief example of the most egregious case I saw of this type of situation occurring, as it’ll make my explanation of what I mean by unnecessary details easier to understand.

    The example: Shawn was hiding out eaves-dropping on two henchmen that were walking down a street to their hideout. Just before they enter the hideout, they stop and have a long and detailed conversation about just how many comrades they have, and where they’re posted that evening. Then they suddenly come to their senses, scold each other for talking about such details out where anyone might hear them, and go into the hideout. This was awkward and unnecessary for a lot of reasons.

    So the writing style… This is probably where I took the most issue with this story, as there were a lot of seemingly small things that all combined together to make the whole story not as good as it could have been. I’ll start with the unnecessary details things first. From the example I just gave, the only real information the reader (and Shawn) got from that was how many enemies to look out for, and where they might be located. In certain situations, this might be useful information, but in Shawn’s case, it wasn’t really. All it did was tell him there were still enemies about and that he needed to be alert for (even though he wasn’t near where the other enemies were said to be and as far as I could tell, didn’t particularly have plans to head that direction either). Considering he had generally been in hostile territory the whole day and night at this point, I think it was  a moot point that he should have been on alert for enemies, and continuing to be so. The same effect probably could have been achieved with a off-handed comment from the henchmen as the went inside about their comrades not being off patrol until later in the evening  ( and so that’s why they couldn’t go drinking, or play games, or something like that).

    This type of excessive, unnecessary detail was a prevalent problem throughout the entire book, with plans or intentions often being way over logic’d or over explained. When writing a book, it’s vitally important that an author learn to trust their readers to be able to make connections and reason about the logic behind actions themselves. This can be helped along by providing backstory for the characters, so readers can understand there motives and work through why they would do something, but not every decision a character makes has to be explicitly explained. Give the backstory and motives for a character, and let the reader connect the logical dots themselves. Holding their hand through the process can feel very annoying and tedious to a reader. I know it did to me.

    Next, the backstory. While I was really happy to be given a lot of nice information about the backstories of the characters, their histories, their motives, what led them to where they are now, there were several instances where this information was provided in duplicate, where once would have been more than sufficient. Most obvious example was that’s Shawn entire history was told by him to Ben and Sasha, and then was also conveyed when he had a dream about it that night. One of these options would have been sufficient. I probably would have leaned towards keeping the retelling by Shawn to Ben and Sasha as it fit in rather naturally with meeting them and trying to rationalize his actions to them to get them to trust him. The dream just felt a bit out of place relevant to the rest of the story. Side note: when using dreams in books, things don’t have to make logical sense. Example: a person can be allowed to understand a language they normally wouldn’t without any reason why. The foreign language doesn’t need to be subtitled in the dream for them to understand it, which is how this book chose to depict it. Dreams are illogical, let them be so in the story. It makes them feel more dream-like.

    A final note on writing style and details, make sure any facts based in reality are accurate. I’m a scientist, so this in particular stands out to me like a sore thumb. The example here was that Shawn took amphetamines and charcoal at the same time (the charcoal was supposedly to counteract the side effects of the amphetamines). Charcoal absorbs pretty much everything. It won’t just selectively negate the negative side effects of a medicine, it negates the entire effect, which is why it’s used to treat overdoses when pumping a person’s stomach, or to nullify accidental poisonings when someone ingests a toxin. So taking amphetamines and charcoal at the same time was pretty much pointless. What made it worse was that the reason he took the amphetamines was another one of those not quite necessary details that I felt could have been achieved a better way.

    Overall, the book had a good premise and an interesting idea. I think it would have benefitted greatly from several more rounds with beta readers providing feedback, and a strong editor’s hand to help guide what information and details were and weren’t necessary to the plot. I wish the author the best with their future work. Keep at it!

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  • The Hidden King, by E.G. Radcliff

    Aed dreams of escaping the misery of the Maze, the dismal city of his birth, but his love for his makeshift family – his partner, Ninian, and an orphaned boy named Ronan – compels him to stay.

    When a crushing tragedy forces a new beginning, Aed determines to break out of the Maze once and for all – but not before deeply buried secrets flare up with formidable consequences.

    Setting out for the legendary White City fueled by hopes of a better life, Aed discovers a beautiful world hiding unexpected danger. Navigating a treacherous path of friendship and deception. Aed must embrace a legacy he had never imagined in order to protect the only family he has left.

    Overall Impression: Positive

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    The Hidden King, by E.G. Radcliff was a wonderfully enjoyable read. With complex characters navigating a unique world, it was interesting to see how they dealt with the challenges life throw at them. I was especially impressed with how quickly the author was able to get me invested in the well-being of the characters, and how strong an emotional response they were able to draw out because of it.

    The plot was a little predictable for me, since I was able to guess fairly early on what the revelations at the end of the book were going to be. I found this didn’t make the story any less enjoyable though, as I still looked forward to seeing how the character realized for himself what I already suspected, and how he would deal with it when he did find out. There were also what I assume as some nice teasers that will lead into events later in the series (who was the red eyed person he spotted watching him? Someone important?).

    The writing style was a nice combination of descriptive where it needed to be and spare where it didn’t to let the readers imagination fill in the blanks with their own images. The author painted a dark and dingy world contrasted against the impossibly bright and perfect world of the White City and used some nice variety of vocabulary while doing so. I always like a book that makes me have to look up the definition of a word or two.

    I’m actually hard pressed to come up with many direct criticisms of the book. While it wasn’t the most winding of plots, nor the deepest of dives on character morality and development, I feel the book was exactly as much of those as it needed to be to convey itself to the read and not get bogged down. My only minor suggestions are that I would have maybe liked to spend a little more time in the Maze, whether with Ninian and Aed, or through the eyes of other characters throughout the course of the book. I think it might have highlighted the differences between the two cities more thoroughly. The story could have also gone the route of contrasting not only the dark of the Maze with the light of the White City, but could have also delved into the glints of good among the dark of the Maze to compare with the hidden evils in the White City. Ninian acted as a bit of that glint of light in the Maze, but I would have liked to have seen it explored a bit further.

    One other aspect that possibly could have been developed a bit more would have been learning more about the history of the fae, particularly their interactions with the humans, and why it’s lead to the feelings about them that currently exist. There were moments in the book where I forgot they were part of the world, until a plot point that involved them reminded me of it, and I suspect they are going to get a lot more relevant to the story in future books.

    Overall though, I truly enjoyed reading The Hidden King, and would highly recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of fantasy stories. I’m looking forward to reading The Last Prince when it comes out.

    – written by Whim Shifter (Book reviewer @TheNovelMarket)

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  • Winter’s Wolf, by Tara Lain

    Winter Thane was raised on the two cardinal rules of werewolf existence: don’t reveal yourself to humans under penalty of death, and there’s no such thing as a gay werewolf. It’s no surprise when his father drags him from his wild life in remote Canada back to Connecticut to meet his old pack in hopes it will persuade Winter to abandon hi love of sex with human males. Of course, Dad’s hopes are dashed when they come face-to-face with the gay werewolves in the Harker pack.

    Winter takes one look at FBI agent Matt Partridge and decides bird is his favorite food. Partridge is embroiled in an investigation into drug dealing and the death of a fellow agent. He can’t let himself get distracted by the young, platinum-haired beast, but then Winter proves invaluable in the search for clues, a move that winds them both up in chains and facing imminent death. Winter quickly learns his father’s motives are questionable, the pack alphas are a bunch of pussies, humans aren’t quite what they seem, and nothing in the forests of Connecticut is pure except love.

    Overall Impression: Positive

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    Disclaimer first, this book is actually book three in a series, even though it is not advertised as book three anywhere, either on the book itself or in the book details information. When I see this with books, I assume it means the book is intended to be able to be read as a standalone book. While the book is understandable when reading it without having read the previous two books, in my opinion, it definitely suffers for trying to make itself a stand-alone read. Most of the characters other than the main ones are characters previously introduced in books one (The Pack or the Panther) and two (Wolf in Gucci Loafers). Their introductions in Winter’s Wolf feel somewhat shoehorned in, with mini info-dumps to try and catch the reader up on the critical aspects of their background. There are also quite a few of these characters that are all introduced to the reader for the first time in book three, in a relative short amount of time, making it a little difficult to keep track of them. Throughout the entirety of Winter’s Wolf, I found myself having to consciously keep remembering which character was which. It wasn’t until I went back and read the first two books in the series that the characters started to feel more natural in the story, and I think overall, the series would have greatly benefitted from advertising itself as a linear series, rather than trying to make all the books standalones. To any interested readers, I strongly recommend reading the books in order: The Pack or the Panther (Book 1), Wolf in Gucci Loafers (Book 2), Winter’s Wolf (Book 3).

    Winter’s Wolf was overall a fun read. While it had some small aspects that I felt could have been done better, or at least differently, the characters themselves were interesting, well fleshed out and enjoyable to read about. I found myself feeling invested in their lives and rooting for their success in their endeavors. This review is about Winter’s Wolf, but I actually think Winter might have been my least favorite of the main wolf characters. Not that I disliked him, I just found the history and personalities of Lindsey, Cole and their partners far more interesting (I’m a sucker for the conflicted and socially-guilted characters).

    While I liked the character development, there were a couple oddities I wanted to point out. One was that the werewolf packs were described as being almost universally homophobic. Winter’s Wolf didn’t really establish this very well, other than simply stating it, which made it feel very awkward, and like it was more there just to be a (in my opinion, unnecessary) conflict point. After reading Pack or the Panther and Wolf in Gucci Loafers, the general ideologies of the packs were better established, but it still felt like it was an unnecessary conflict point. I feel that most of the events that occurred could have been driven simply by the individual character’s motivations, such as an alpha wanting a biological heir to hand the pack down to (something a gay couple couldn’t produce). The homophobia of the packs also caused some strange character developments between Winter and his father, Damon. Early on Damon consistently says things that indicate he doesn’t like that Winter is gay, but his actions don’t really seem to back that up, and half-way through the book, Damon is suddenly just okay with his son being gay, with no real catalyst event to cause the change of heart (at least none that seemed compelling to me).

    The plot of Winter’s Wolf (and the previous books) was rather substantive, especially for a romance book. There were a lot of pack politics going on between the two main packs, mixed with some mystery detective scenarios that added nice tension to the development of the relationships between the main characters. Perhaps the only oddity I found noticeable with the plot was that there were a few instances of uncanny coincidences, something not uncommon in series where each book follows a different romantic pair that all know each other. I didn’t find any of the coincidences world breaking.

    I’ve read a lot of romance novels, both paranormal and otherwise, and once thing that stood out in this series was that the writing style was rather different from a typical romance story. For me, I wasn’t a super big fan of it. It came across as a bit overdone, almost corny or cheesy at times (ex: there were a lot of odd euphemisms used for their cocks). While it didn’t detract from the story that much for me, it was noticeable enough for me to mention here. Another thing about the writing style was that the characters seemed to have a lot of backstory that had happened prior to these books, and this often felt like it was being told to the reader rather than show. It’s left me wondering if Tara Lain possibly has other books published that feature these characters from before when this series takes place. If so, that would explain some of the more narrative telling of the characters histories, and if not, then I would have like to have seen more of these events that shaped their personalities as scenes in the book, rather than just recapped or retold mentions. Even in romance books, which the focus is often more on the sexy times and the immediate relationship between the two characters, I still like in-depth character building.

    In summary, I greatly enjoyed reading about the Harker Pack, and I think anyone who likes explicit, gay paranormal romances will likely enjoy the Harker Pack books as well.

    – written by Whim Shifter (Book reviewer @TheNovelMarket)

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  • The Death Mark, by Buster Shadwick Jr.
    Authored by Buster Shadwick Jr.

    When an ominous symbol starts to appear at the scenes of “accidents” around the world, an equally large investigation is needed to solve the mystery.

    Who is responsible? How do they do it?

    Caught in the middle, we find Mr. Paul Lambert, a pragmatic, often cynical, computer technician, working behind the scenes at a terrorist watch center.

    Through Paul’s jaded eyes, we see the world turn upside down, as the impossible meets reality.

    Is he ready for the responsibility? For the changes? Are any of us ever ready… really?

    A Note for the Author of this book, should you be about to read this review:

    Take everything here with the understanding that I am not a professional editor, just a reader of books giving their opinion. Keep writing. Don’t let anything I say stop you from that. Read what I have to say, think on it, take from its criticisms what you can and try to improve your writing for the next book. You wrote a book, that’s so much more than most people manage, so you’re already off to a good start. Keep doing it. If you’re the type who doesn’t handle criticism well (like myself), perhaps have a close friend or family read this and relay the major points to you from someone who knows how to make the barbs not sting. Best of luck and keep writing!

    Overall Impression: Negative

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    Unfortunately, I did not really enjoy this book, and it was a struggle for me to finish it. This was largely because the story felt like it progressed very slowly, with few major events occurring that pushed the plot forward and I didn’t feel particularly invested in the main characters.                         

    The plot mainly felt like a short story that was made longer in an attempt to make it into a full-length novel, and the attempt did not work well. It had an interesting premise, but most of that premise was relayed to the reader through narrative telling, rather than being shown through the actions and decisions of the characters. This is most notable by the fact that the majority of the substance of the plot occurred in the epilogue of the book, in a deus ex machina type of fashion. The majority of the plot prior to that was thin and consisted largely of watching Paul do almost the same thing day to day and occasionally being told he’d discovered a new power or ability he had. There were some developments in his interaction with the detectives investigating the cases, but all of that could have been left out of the book and it would not have affected the understanding of the revelations told to the reader in the epilogue.

    Some improvements to the plot I would suggest would be that it need the events leading up to revelations about the death mark to actually have some meaning or consequences, either to the world, to the characters, or to the beings causing all this chaos. Those aspects need to be explored in the book itself and not left to the reader to interpret based on the epilogue alone. I’ll try not to leave too many spoilers here, but some questions the author should try to address would be: Why do the beings behind this care? Why are they doing what they’re doing? And chaos for chaos’s sake is not usually a good motive unless you’ve already strongly established a character as being a chaos-creator and shown their history and backstory as to why they’re like that. People (or any intelligent being) don’t just do things just because. Something in their past, sometimes many, many small things, led them to be that way. If they’re intelligent, they learn. If they learn, they evolve and change their personalities with time. Even immortal or godly beings follow this, it may just be on a much slower scale, or may take much more drastic events to make it occur, but all of this needs to be explored within the story, being shown through actions, reminiscings and retellings (only when appropriate!), or through their observations and interactions with the world around them.

    Other questions to think about: Do the events being described in the story matter to the plot? If the scene were removed, would the reader still be able to understand the story? If the answer to that question is yes, then does the scene give the reader deeper understanding of one of the characters, enabling them to better sympathize with them, or better understand their motives for doing what they do? No? Then the scene likely isn’t necessary and the space would be much better used showing the reader something else.

    As for the characters, I generally just found them uninteresting. Initially I thought Paul might be an interesting characters, a socially anxious introvert who we were viewing the world through his eyes, but he rapidly turned into a very self-aware/self-centered person that bordered on feeling like a bit of a creep, especially with the randomly interjected comments from him about the appearance and attractiveness of women around him, or the awkwardly described sex encounters. There was also the strange “perfection” of his abilities. Name something that a twenty-something year old man would want to do (be super athletic, attractive, have great sexual prowess, etc.) and Paul eventually ends up having them, which jars badly with his supposed lack of self-confidence as he seems to randomly vacillate between being an social awkward introvert and an overly confident jerk (best work I could think of for how he comes across).

     Likewise, I was uninterested in Paul’s girlfriend, Kate. Her presence in the story seemed to offer little other than being the force that coerced and almost forced Paul into helping with the investigation against his will by guilting him into it. She also seemed unsympathetic to any of Paul’s struggles, and the relationship between them developed rapidly, unrealistically so in my opinion, with little real trust connection being built up between them that I would expect for the type of sensitive and important situation going on in the story.

    Overall, there was a lot of filler dialog between the characters that could have been put to much better use giving insights into stronger character motives, character building in general, event foreshadowing or mood setting, and general world building. If what the character is saying or thinking doesn’t offer one of these things, or isn’t directly necessary for the reader to understand some aspect of the plot, then it shouldn’t be included, as it just bogs down the story. As a final comment, mundane characters in and of themselves can be okay to include in a story, but their thoughts and their insights into the world around them must be interesting to the reader by themselves.

    One thing I did really like about the book was the styling of how the internal and external thoughts were written and formatted, and how they intertwined with observations of the outside world, though I was not thrilled with the substances of those internal thoughts. The writing style itself did suffer from the dialogue and word usage being repetitive. Paul said “wow” so many times… The actions of the characters themselves were also repetitive, such as the appearance of Paul’s turtle dream-friend every time he fell asleep and his daily morning routine repeatedly being described in unnecessary detail. Same rules apply for this as for a character’s internal thoughts. If it doesn’t offer the reader something new, it probably doesn’t need to be included.

    Overall, while I had a lot of negative things to say about this book, I want to encourage the author to keep writing. The epilogue offered an interesting concept for a subsequent book. If this story had been written as a short story, a teaser to a longer series, or even as the opening prologue to a book that explored the motives, meddling and machinations of the beings behind all of this, I think it would have served it’s purpose well. Weaving the view of a mundane human man in between the actions of more powerful beings would be a nice contrast, and even doing so with a human with unnaturally powerful abilities, if done right, could be remarkably interesting. I hope the author continues writing, and I will be curious to see how they grow through their stories.

    – written by Whim Shifter (Book reviewer @TheNovelMarket)

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  • Taghri’s Prize, by Peter Grant
    Book Authored by Peter Grant

    Taghri has left the Sultan’s army to seek his fortune – and he seizes the opportunity when it knocks. In the confusion of a pirate raid on a trading caravan, he kills their leader and captures their ship. The vessel is now his prize of war… but some prizes may be more trouble than they’re worth!

    Nestled among the gold coins in the captain’s cabin is a stolen Temple sacrificial knife, whose Goddess is now paying close attention – too close! – to its new owner. Among the slaves he’s freed is a princess, formerly being held for ransom, who comes with political and personal intrigues all her own. Even if he survives the attention of both, there’s also a pirate lord out there, hell-bent on avenging the death of his son.

    It’s going to take all of Taghri’s skill, experience and cunning to survive winning this prize!

    Overall Impression: Positive

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    Taghri’s Prize is an enjoyable adventure in a past pseudo-historical time following an ex-military type as he finds his way through his next endeavors to establish himself as a person of importance in a new city. The story is fictional, but much of the culture and settings are based on real historical occurrences. It was interesting to learn about some of the more basic things about a different culture, like the names for different types of Arabic clothing and ships from the time, and Taghri himself was a unique character to see the world through.

    While I found the characters interesting and fun to read about, the development and rational for their motives behind some of their actions were not very strongly established. I would have greatly enjoyed seeing more of Taghri from before he left the Sultan’s army, to give me a better understanding of how the man had changed from the time he was a soldier, and the events, dilemmas and challenges that led to him having such a drastically different view of the world than other people in his culture, especially when it came to how he views the treatment of women. In some ways, it almost felt like the author was hesitant to delve into tackling the sensitive subject of the way women were treated as property in the historical culture in which this story was set, so instead, they simply wrote Taghri as someone who treated women with a more modern level of equality and respect instead, without convincingly explaining how he came to view them that way. I feel the story would have been better served either by having Taghri’s persona adhere more normally to the culture expectation, perhaps with his respect for the princess being a source of confusion and conflict for him as to why he felt the need to treat her differently, or the author needed to commit to the challenge of discussing and dealing with the ways women were treated in older times, and what would have led Taghri to treat them differently.

    Similarly, I would have like to see a slower and more detailed accounting of the development of the relationship between Taghri and the princess throughout the book, as this seemed to be what the author wanted to be the driving factor for many of Taghri’s differences in behavior from other men around him. The lack of time spent inside either Taghri or the princess’s thoughts as their relationship developed was noticeable, with so much of Taghri’s behavior supposedly driven by his interactions with the princess.

    The plot itself was very cohesive, well-explained and was full of fun action scenes and descriptive details about the military strategies and tactics. My only complaint was that sometimes I felt like I was being told the exact same thing (sometimes almost word for word) two or three times as Taghri relayed plans to multiple members of his crew. In the absence of similarly detailed handling of the characters interpersonal interactions and general events in more casual, non-military situations (such as some of the political dinners and meetings), the hyper-detailed military descriptions felt a little out of place.

    The plot also seemed somewhat predictable, with a bit of deus ex machina at work, but since there was a goddess (and maybe some gods?) sticking their fingers into mortal things, I can forgive quite a bit of that. Taghri as a character seemed to be the type to have a plan for everything, which sometimes made the story feel a bit unbelievable, as Taghri never seemed phased or taken off guard by anything. Some of this might have been corrected if Taghri’s backstory in the military was more established and more thoroughly explained why he was like this, and what had led to him being such a critical and tactical thinker.

    I definitely liked the writing style of the book. It used a nice variety of descriptive language and didn’t feel repetitive or overly simplistic, aside from the previously noted repetitiveness of some of the military strategies. The writing was clear and easy to understand what was going on and I always knew which characters were speaking. As a side note, a glossary of some of the Arabic specific words, such as the names of clothing pieces or boats that were used might have been nice, since I had to look all of these up online.

    Overall, I enjoyed reading Taghri’s Prize and would recommend the book to anyone looking to take an adventure with a deviously-minded, well-intentioned man looking to earn his fortune and win the heart of a princess.

    – written by Whim Shifter (Book reviewer @TheNovelMarket)

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