NEWS: NOTNA Available for Pre-order!

JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (6)Notna, my debut foray into urban fantasy and the paranormal, is now available for pre-order across several prominent ebook formats. The book, my fourth full-length novel, will be out in ebook and paperback on Tuesday, Oct. 10.

Pre-order Notna today on Amazon, Apple iBooks, Kobo, Nook and Google Play.

About Notna
History’s most peaceful race created one of its deadliest weapons.

Forged in the Living Flame by a long-extinct alien race, The Gem of Notna is the stuff of legends, on par with Pandora’s Box or the Holy Grail. But once archaeologist Dr. Jack Corbett stumbled upon the crystal deep in the Amazon, he triggered a whirlwind of events and found himself neck-deep in a centuries-old holy war. The Divine and the Underworld have been locked in a virtual stalemate for the past three hundred years, and the Gem of Notna could be the key to breaking it.

With the gem in his possession, Jack discovers a world of monsters and gods, as well as an entirely different plane of existence that watches over our own. Old grudges resurface, fallen warriors are reborn in the most violent of ways, but at the end of the day, the fate of the world may well rest in Jack’s hands.

J.D. Cunegan (BountyBlood Ties) introduces Notna, a supernatural fantasy epic that will leave readers flipping through the pages with every twist and turn. Grand in scale and steeped in the very comic book lore that lured Cunegan to writing in the first place, Notna proves that anyone can save the world – or die trying.

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.
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EXCERPT: Notna

In part to celebrate World Book Day, I present another excerpt from Notna, my upcoming urban fantasy/paranormal book that will be out in paperback and ebook on Oct. 10. Bear in mind, this is a work-in-progress and that any mistakes are my own.

JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (6)

 

Prague, Czech Republic

St. Vitus Cathedral was visible from the Vitava River, towering over much of Prague. With the sun as bright as it was on this bright April morning, the cathedral shined, especially the sea green edifice atop the main tower. The temple of Gothic architecture was housed within Prague Castle, and it was the final resting place of many a Bohemian king.

St. Vitus was a magnet for tourists, dozens of whom were milling about the grounds. Cameras hung from their necks, and many of the visitors stared up in awe at the rose window on the front of the cathedral. Tourists not wearing cameras had instead pulled out smartphones, squinting into the sun as they tried to frame just the right shot on their screens.

One tourist who held neither camera nor phone, a brunette woman, instead sat cross-legged at the base of a fountain with a large sketch pad splayed over her lap. She stared intently at the cathedral, chewing on her lower lip as the pencil tucked in her left hand scratched back and forth over the paper. Pamela Daly occasionally glanced down at her work, making sure she was capturing the church’s architectural elements.

This may have been Pamela’s Spring Break, but she still had to nail her final on Gothic architecture at the end of the semester. These sketches were going to go a long way toward fleshing out that section of her research paper. As much as Pamela detested art history, the fact was she wouldn’t graduate from Syracuse if she didn’t pass classes such as this.

A group of children ran through the square, chasing after a dirty, ratty soccer ball. Their laughs and shouts of glee carried through the square, and Pamela couldn’t help the smile spreading across her face even though she couldn’t understand their native tongue.

A flash of light erupted from the sky, and was gone was quickly as it had appeared. Everyone briefly glanced at the sky, including Pamela. The pencil dangled between her fingers as she used her free hand to shield her eyes from the sun. A flock of birds flew from one grove of trees to the next, crossing St. Vitus on the way.

Everything appeared to return to normal.

With a shrug, Pamela returned to her sketch. The soccer ball skipped along the cobblestone ground. Tourists snapped pictures of the cathedral and took selfies with their smartphones. The sound of Pamela’s pencil scratching against the rough paper was the only sound that filled her ears, even as something in the back of her mind told her to glance at the sky again.

Mouth agape, Pamela stood. Her pencil and sketchpad both fell to the ground. Her eyes widened, and Pamela brought up a hand to cover her mouth.

“Oh, my God!”

The horror in Pamela’s voice caught everyone else’s attention, and as they looked to the sky, they saw a human figure plummeting toward the Earth. Women gasped, grabbing children as the men stared in silent horror. The children watched in wonder, a few of them smiling and pointing.

“Angel!” One of the children jumped up and down like a kid discovering presents under the tree on Christmas morning. “It’s an angel!”

The figure crashed through the top of the cathedral, and the gasps from the onlookers turned into shrieks and cries of horror. The body burst through the main tower, leaving a gaping hole and showering pieces of stone and other debris onto the ground. Tourists scattered to avoid the debris, some of them stopping just long enough to scoop up the children who were still staring.

As everyone else distanced themselves from the cathedral, Pamela ran toward it. Her body began moving before she could stop herself, and she abandoned the sketchpad lying open on the ground. She could hear the body crashing through the buttresses and the ceiling of the main worship hall as she shoved her way into the church. With a grunt, she pushed the heavy double doors open with her shoulder.

Pamela paused for a few seconds to catch her breath and allow the throbbing in her shoulder to subside. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the dim of the cathedral, in stark contrast to the bright sunlight outside. Starting to walk again, Pamela silently thanked herself for leaving the heels in her suitcase.

Pamela weaved her way into the worship hall, jumping with a start when she heard a groan from a pile of rubble near the altar. The stained-glass windows called out to her from the corner of her eye, and in more normal circumstances, she would’ve allowed her curiosity to get the best of her. Even the Mucha window, in all its colorful glory, was begging for her attention.

Pamela passed by John of Nepomuk’s tomb, giving it a passing glance before pained groans again called her attention to the altar. She dropped to her knees, tossing aside a few bits of rubble and waving the dust out of her face, only to gasp when she saw a man lying face-down on the floor. His silver breastplate shone in the sunlight beaming through the hole in the roof. His brown leggings were tattered and covered in burn marks. His dark hair was matted to his face and tied back into a ponytail.

Looking up at the ceiling, Pamela frowned in confusion. Not only was it unclear from where the man had fallen, but he had clearly plummeted a great distance. No one should have been able to survive a fall that far, especially after crashing through stone and wood along the way. In some ways, the man appeared to be in better shape than the cathedral.

But how was that possible?

The man groaned again, rolling onto his back with a grimace. More debris fell to the floor around him, the resulting dust causing Pamela to break into a small coughing fit. By the time it passed, she locked eyes with him; they were blue, impossibly so. Blood ran from his nose and a cut on his right cheek oozed even more blood.

“My God,” she muttered with a shake of her head.

The man erupted into a coughing fit of his own, rolling onto his side. Something silver caught Pamela’s eye, and she looked down to see a blood-soaked sword on the ground. Its gold hilt shined brighter than anything else on the altar, even the candle holders in the center. She squinted; an angel ascending to the heavens was carved on the handle.

“Are you…” Her frown deepened. “Are you alright?”

For the first time, the man acknowledged her. He glanced wearily at Pamela before nodding and rolling onto his back once again. Aside from the cuts on his face, the man didn’t appear to be injured, which was impossible on so many levels.

He sat up, the wounds closing before Pamela’s eyes. His eyes still held a faraway look, and the stubble on his face was at least a week old. Pamela glanced over her shoulder, confident that no one had followed her into the cathedral. Was it because they were off calling for help, or had they gone about their day assuming the man had died?

Probably the latter, which begged the question: how was he still alive? And where did he come from?

“Wow…”

Her eyes went skyward again. The man’s eyes followed.

“That was some tumble,” he muttered. “What happened?”

The man lowered his gaze, fully taking in Pamela for the first time. His lips opened, but no words came out. With his mouth agape, the faraway look returned.

Pamela frowned as dread built in her stomach.

“Well, uh,” Pamela paused. “What’s your name?”

The man furrowed his brow, chewing on his lower lip. For the first time, char marks were visible on his breastplate. Pamela’s heart sank when saw them, resisting the urge to reach out and run her fingers over the marks. If the man didn’t understand how he wound up face-down in a church in Prague, perhaps he didn’t know much of anything else.

“I,” he began, his frown deepening when the words caught in his throat. His eyes widened when they locked on Pamela’s. “I don’t remember.”

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: E.A. Copen

It’s been a while, but it’s time for another Author Spotlight! Today, I bring you all one of my favorite self-published urban fantasy authors, E.A. Copen. She is the author of the Judah Black series, as well as the Fairchild Chronicles, and she has even more projects coming in the next few months.

Let’s talk to E.A.

What was your inspiration behind writing the Judah Black series and its offshoot, Kiss of Vengeance?

They came from two very different places! When I started writing the Judah Black novels, I knew I wanted to have a heroine who was real. She’s got problems. Some are supernatural, bust most aren’t. Most importantly, I knew I wanted to write about a mom because too many stories just end when the female lead gets married or gets pregnant. Stories don’t have to end just because your heroine is a parent. I wanted to write about a mom who could still kick ass and somehow managed to raise a son in the process.

Kiss of Vengeance rose partly out of my frustrations as a writer (mundane things like writer’s block and deadlines), as well as something personal I was going through. I knew I wanted to explore the world of the fae, which Judah doesn’t interact with much, and to also tell a story from the other side of the law. While discussing something completely different with a friend of mine, he uttered the phrase “reluctant white knight” and the idea is sort of born from that.

You’re one of my favorite urban fantasy authors. What draws you to that particular genre, and – specifically in terms of the Judah Black series – what made you combine that genre with elements of other genres, such as mysteries?

Aw. Thank you.

Mostly, I started writing urban fantasy because I love to read it. I write the books I think I’d like to read. As an adult, I watched Supernatural and fell in love with the monster-of-the-week type story, but also with the writers’ ability to use the small plots to create a larger plot.

And they have elements of other genres too, like westerns and dystopia. Mainly that’s my own fandoms bleeding through. I love a good western, and dystopia is my favorite book genre to this day, aside from urban fantasy.

So many of my favorite characters anymore are female – Buffy Summers, Kate Beckett, Sydney Bristow, I could go on and on and on. What drove you to create Judah Black, and what stood out to you about her even from the day you first created her?

I wanted to write about a mom and it wouldn’t be far off to say I was inspired at least in part by my love of Dana Scully in X-Files who could be feminine while still being a force to be reckoned with. She had her career and she was very serious about it.

Judah’s a little different, though. She gets thrown into fighting things way outside of her weight class. Instead of upping her powers all the time so she can go kill all the baddies by herself, I give her a team. The people who love and support her throughout the series is really what makes her unique. Lots of heroines out there can defeat monsters and play the lone gunman. Judah’s strength comes from the people she has in her life.

Character vs. plot: the seemingly endless debate over which is more important for a good story. Which side of that debate do you fall on?

Character, definitely. There are probably hundreds of werewolf murder mysteries out there. What makes a reader stick around isn’t plot. Most plots have been done before. You stay for the characters. When a reader finds a character they connect with, it’s like magic. You’ve got to have someone to root for.

Are you a heavy plotter, or do you just let the story take you where it will?

The only plotting I ever do is a one- or two-sentence summary that names the protagonist, antagonist, and their goals. I used to try to outline, but I found that once I plotted everything all out, I lost interest in finishing. To me, once it’s down on paper it’s done. I like having the excitement of not knowing everything that’s going to happen.

Kiss of Vengeance takes place in the same universe as the Judah Black novels, but it has a completely different feel and sometimes feels like it’s an entirely different genre. How did that book come about, and what are your broader plans for this universe going forward?

Kiss of Vengeance is about finding who you are when your back’s against the wall and everything you’d normally use to define yourself is stripped away. When I was writing it, that’s sort of what I was going through in my personal life. I had to find a way to describe who I was without resorting to my go-to list of mother, wife, writer. Plus, I just love film noir and wanted to see if I could pull it off.

The universe can certainly expand. I’d like to do more Fairchild books, but it is a little harder to write Dal’s stories because he lives in a brutal criminal underworld. Because of some events that happen in upcoming books, I also opened up the possibility of doing another series in the same world set in Alaska and leaning heavily on Inuit mythology. There’s also a prequel novella and some prequel short stories I’m working on to eventually release. One day, I’d love to go back and explore all that happened during and before the Revelation. I hope I get that chance.

Without giving away too much, where do you see the Judah Black series going from here? I understand Playing With Fire’s coming sometime this fall?

Well, there’s always been something of a political sub-plot in the series. As the crimes get more publicity, regulations will get tighter. Eventually, that kind of treatment can only lead to one thing. That is, if the werewolves, fae, and vampires can figure out how to get along long enough to fight back. They are monsters, after all. They just can’t seem to get along. And of course, Judah can’t ever keep out of trouble. Whenever she sees a loose thread, she has to unravel it. It’s going to get her into even more hot water in the highest echelons of government, both on Earth and in the fae.

Playing with Fire is sort of the kick-off book for that. It’s the first glimpse I give my readers into how deep the rabbit hole goes. I’m hoping to have it out in October of this year.

What are some of your favorite books?

In no particular order, my current top 5 books would be:

Dangerous Ways by R.R. Virdi
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
River Marked by Patricia Briggs
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Ask me again next week and I’ll have a new list. Books tend to rotate in and out of it depending on my mood. When someone asks me my favorite book, my answer is always “the one I’m currently reading.”

 

Beasts of BabylonIn addition to the Judah Black series and Kiss of Vengeance, Copen will have a new release on Aug. 1: Beasts of Babylon. This entirely new story is already up for pre-order on Amazon.

Gunslinger Anastasia Thorne won’t stay dead.

Ten years ago, monsters murdered Anastasia and her children. Now, she’s back to hunt down the monsters responsible. She knows their names, their faces, and even where they’re hiding.

There’s just one problem. No one in town believes her.

When the sheriff refuses to help, Anastasia strikes a deal with the notorious outlaw, Jesse Gallagher instead. The pair ride into the mountains in search of vengeance, but the hunters quickly become the hunted. With the sheriff hot on their trail, ghouls on their heels, and werewolves and skin stealing monsters in the mountains, Jesse and Anastasia quickly find out they’re outgunned and in for a long night.

It’s going to take more than silver bullets to put these monsters down.

 

Now let’s see what I think of Copen’s work so far.

Guilty by Association (Judah Black #1)

Three things I love:Guilty by Association

1) Kickass ladies;

2) Genre mash-ups; and

3) Stories that start off as one thing and end up being something else entirely.

Guilty by Association, E.A. Copen’s debut, checks all three of those boxes. Special Agent Judah Black, new to a middle-of-nowhere stretch of Texas stuffed to the gills with the supernatural, finds herself staring a classic whodunit in the face — only this time, the victim is a werewolf. Before long, though, the case turns into something much larger than even the victim, and the result is an entertaining, engrossing read.

Copen treats us to an entertaining cast of characters, and even though I’ve never been a particularly big fan of werewolves, a few of them wound up being personal favorites. Judah Black sometimes reads as a cross between Buffy Summers and Kate Beckett (two of my all-time favorite female ass-kickers), and I can already tell she’s a character who’s going to stick with me.

Part murder mystery, part urban fantasy, part conspiracy thriller, Guilty by Association does a masterful job of creating and laying the foundation for a rich, vibrant supernatural world. Even if the setting makes Sunnydale seem like a bustling metropolis, Copen has done a fantastic job of showing us just enough of the world to get us interested; I’m beyond glad that I already have the next two installments in my collection, and hope there will be even more down the line.

Books like this are why I will vehemently defend independently-published books. Indie authors are some of the most creative, most daring individuals I’ve met, and when they create stories like this, we’re all the better for it. To me, Judah Black is every bit the equal of, say, R.R. Virdi’s Vincent Graves, and I’m glad to count myself among one of Copen’s biggest fans going forward.

Okay, enough blabbing; I’ve got to read Blood Debt. If you haven’t read Guilty by Association yet, do yourself a favor and change that. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Rating: *****

Blood Debt (Judah Black #2)

Blood DebtConsidering how much I loved Guilty by Association, despite my distaste for werewolves, I was chomping at the bit to read Blood Debt given my affinity for (…almost) all things vampires. And as I suspected, E.A. Copen’s second entry in the Judah Black series doesn’t disappoint, offering yet another action-packed mystery and enough character moments to add depth as well as bite.

Yes, that was totally intentional.

To my pleasant surprise, a fair number of players from the first book also appear in Blood Debt giving Judah’s admittedly small world a much larger feel. Even so, there are enough newcomers to keep things fresh, including magick wielder Mara and the mysterious vampire-but-not-really-sorta-kinda Abe. As much as I enjoy Judah as a protagonist, having interesting side characters along for the ride turns an entertaining read into a certified page-turner.

The side stories are plenty — almost too much so, as it felt like one of the side stories got dropped around midway through the book in favor of the main plot — but again, they help flesh out Judah’s character and world.

A common critique of the mystery genre (and a valid one) is that it often feels paint-by-numbers, that it hits all the typical notes without offering anything that would provide depth and/or resonance. Copen’s series doesn’t fall into this trap, and the result is a world that is simultaneously otherworldly and intimate. She’s knee-deep in a world of monsters, yet the reality of her life is so intimately personal that the scope never once overwhelms the reader.

Blood Debt was a fantastic follow-up to Guilty by Association, and Copen has quickly established herself as one of my favorite indie authors. I’m anxious to read Chasing Ghosts and hopeful that the wait for the series’ fourth installment is a short one.

Rating: *****

Chasing Ghosts (Judah Black #3)

Chasing GhostsIf Guilty by Association and Blood Debt, the first two novels in E.A. Copen’s Judah Black series, were worldbuilding affairs, the third book — Chasing Ghosts — puts all the puzzle pieces together in an emotionally fraught, highly intense adventure that wraps up the initial arc and sets up what promises to be an exciting future.

Everything that made Guilty and Blood fantastic novels is back for Chasing Ghosts; Copen is clearly growing and maturing as a storyteller, and she’s fine-tuned each of the characters’ voices. Judah is quintessentially herself, but she is so much more, as she progresses both on her own and with regards to several of the relationships she keeps.

Chasing Ghosts is, fair warning, an emotional gut punch. There are at least three occasions where this book practically moved me to tears, and there’s something viscerally satisfying about that. Yes, we often read to escape, but we also read to feel. Copen gets us to feel for several of the key players in this tale, while simultaneously taking us on a journey that twists and turns far more than I had anticipated.

The depth Copen has given not just Judah, but several of the other important characters, really helps flesh out Paint Rock — a world that, on its own, doesn’t really amount to much. Paint Rock makes Sunnydale seem like a bustling metropolis, but the reservation’s inhabitants more than make up for the lack of scenery.

I’m excited to see where this series goes from here, even though Chasing Ghosts would make a fitting end to a trilogy. Judah Black is one of my favorite characters, and Copen has established herself as one of my favorite independently-published authors. If TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayerand Supernatural tickle your fancy, then this is a series you should be reading.

And if not? Hell, read it anyway. Cause it’s really, really good.

Rating: *****

Kiss of Vengeance

Kiss of VengeanceKiss of Vengeance might take place in the same universe as E.A. Copen’s Judah Black novels, but it is a much different story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the worldbuilding this short story offers alone is worth the price of admission. Fortunately, Copen gives us a solid story and memorable characters to go along with this.

First a caveat: there will be a few passages that might be uncomfortable for some readers. The violence is graphic and there are occasional moments and mentions of sexual violence, both against adults and children. Nothing explicit, but it exists, so it’s worth mentioning.

In short, this is a mafia revenge story with a supernatural flavor. Dal is an enforcer for a fae crime family in Boston, and he finds himself on one hell of a revenge kick after he finds his wife and daughter murdered. The rest unfolds like you would expect such a tale to unfold: lots of blood, lots of anger, lots of angst.

But Copen still manages to weave a satisfying tale, because the characters are what drive everything. Dal is very much a Frank Castle-like figure, and those allied with him and those opposing him are each memorable in their own rights. The characters (even a pleasant cameo from the Judah Black series) make this tale.

If you’ve read Copen’s Judah Black books, Kiss of Vengeance is a chance to revisit that universe and find something different. If you haven’t, this isn’t a bad place to start. It’s a short, quick read, and I’d like to see what comes next. Copen is quickly becoming one of my favorite indie authors, and this is another strong entry.

Rating: ****

All of Copen’s works are currently available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats; be sure to visit her Author Central page to pick up your copies. Also, be sure to check out the new audiobook version of Guilty by Association.

The Best Books I Read in 2016

In many ways, 2016 has been a crap year. So many of our beloved pop culture icons and celebrities passed away. America somehow managed to wind up with an inexperienced reality TV star Nazi as its next president. A personal favorite of TV declined in quality before ultimately being canceled.

But there were some good things about 2016. I published two books, Blood Ties and Behind the Badge. I got the ball rolling on Behind the MaskBetrayed, and the fantasy epic Notna. And I read some damn good books.

Whittling down to the five best books was no easy feat; you’ll see why once we reach the Honorable Mention portion of this post. Note that this list encompasses the five best books I read in 2016, not necessarily the five best books that came out in 2016.

Now, without further ado…

5. Grave Measures by R.R. Virdi

Grave MeasuresWhat do you get when you combine ColumboConstantine, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer? You probably get something a lot like Virdi’s Grave Report novels. Virdi’s urban fantasy detective series is fast-paced, whimsical, and dangerous, and Grave Measures is every bit as good as its predecessor, Grave Beginnings.

Vincent Graves finds himself in a mental hospital this time around, and he only has but so much time to figure out whose body he is inhabiting and what was responsible for that body’s demise. All of the snark and mystery of Grave Beginnings is back in Grave Measures, and along the way, we’re treated to a much larger, richer world than what we saw in the first novel.

I feel like this is the sort of story Joss Whedon would be proud of, and as Virdi continues to establish himself as one of urban fantasy’s best writers, I’m in love with the fact that he’s filling the void left by the Buffyverse. Nothing will ever top the Slayer, but Vincent Graves has certainly carved his own niche in a genre that sometimes feels a bit overcrowded.

Grave Measures is available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle.

4. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneErnest Cline’s geek opus is a fantastic romp through the bastions of popular culture and geekdom over the past 50 or so years, and if that was all Ready Player One had going for it, it would still be a damn fine book. Fortunately, Ready Player One manages to pack enough excitement, adventure, and heart into the story surrounding the plethora of pop culture references that Ready Player One becomes a modern-day classic.

The MMO world Cline created for this book would put World of Warcraft to shame, and Wade is a fantastic protagonist. But more than anything, this book is fun. It’s adrenaline-soaked, nostalgia-fueled entertainment — and ultimately, isn’t entertainment one of the biggest reasons we read? The sort of escapism we often seek is at the core of Ready Player One, and Cline never loses sight of that essential fact.

You cannot divorce the narrative from geek culture; without one or the other, the entire thing wouldn’t work. But it does work, and it is easily one of the best books I’ve read — not just in 2016, but overall.

Ready Player One is available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, and Audible.

3. No Safe Place by Mary Head

no-safe-placeThe romance The Only One might have been Head’s first novel, but No Safe Place was clearly her true labor of love. A fast-paced thriller that follows FBI agent David Cole as he works to rescue his kidnapped daughter Hannah, No Safe Place was published through the Kindle Scout program — and whereas most books of this nature focus far more on what is done to the victim and leave the other details lying in atrophy, Head succeeds in diving into the heart of the story.

Hannah’s kidnapping is not the focus of this tale; instead, we are treated to the way her kidnapping affected not just her father, but characters who are close to both David and Hannah. We’re concerned less with what is being done to Hannah and more with what she does and how she handles herself during the ordeal. No Safe Place is such a subtle twist on the damsel-in-distress trope that you might not notice it until after the fact, but once you do, the story will be all the richer for it.

A sequel is in the offing, a book that will be light years different, but much like No Safe Place, I’m confident it will keep the heart of the characters intact — because after all, that heart was what made No Safe Place work to begin with.

No Safe Place is available in paperback and Kindle.

2. A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

a-torch-against-the-nightThe follow-up to the excellent An Ember in the AshesA Torch Against the Night builds upon Tahir’s dystopian world of Martials and Scholars. Whereas the first book introduced us to Elias, the newly-minted Mask with a heart, and Laia, the slave girl determined to save her brother, Torch builds on them both while also introducing us to the POV of Helene, the newly-named Blood Shrike who is now tasked with tracking down and executing her best friend.

Three different POVs could have been a mess, but Tahir does a great job of balancing them all and making sure Elias, Laia, and Helene each maintain their unique voices and perspectives. The Helene chapters alone make Torch a better, more complete tale than Ember, and this is how sequels are supposed to work: take what was great about the first book and build upon it.

Tahir’s battle scenes are exquisite, and the drama is so palpable that the pages fly by. There is plenty left on the table for future books in the series, and I will likely be at my local bookstore the day the third book comes out to get my copy.

A Torch Against the Night is available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, Audible, and audio CD.

1. Dangerous Ways by R.R. Virdi

dangerous-waysI know, I know… the same author with two slots on this list? Well, when the books are that good, they’re that good. Dangerous Ways takes us to the same universe as the Grave Report novels, but it ups both the scales and the scope. Jonathan Hawthorne and Cassidy Winters treat readers to a fantastic romp through the dimensions — and Virdi treats us to a tale that is at once intense, emotional, whimsical, and engaging.

Even though this opus comes in at a George R.R. Martin-esque 600 pages, it’s among the easiest reads I encountered in 2016. Pages flew by without my noticing it — which is probably the greatest indicator of how good a book can be. Some books that large can be a chore, but Dangerous Ways was anything but.

The amount of time and care Virdi put into Dangerous Ways is evident from the first page, and it is without hesitation that I consider this the best book I read in 2016.

Dangerous Ways is available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle.

Honorable Mention: Floor 21: Descent by Jason Luthor, Dirty Deeds by Christy King, Untamed by Madeline Dyer, The Martian by Andy Weir, Bounty by Michael Byrnes, Sleeping Sands by C.A. King, Tomoiya’s Story: Escape to Darkness by C.A. King, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: R.R. Virdi

It’s time for another Author Spotlight! Today, I bring to you Dragon Award-nominated urban fantasy indie author extraordinaire R.R. Virdi — who as of today has released his latest, the fantasy opus The Books of Winter: Dangerous Ways. It takes place in the same universe as his Grave Report novels, but it’s an entirely new tale that’s sure to be as intense and entertaining and delightful as everything else he has written.

About the Book:

dangerous-ways

Jonathan Hawthorne has lived over a century beholden to one rule: do not meddle in mortal affairs. He’s broken it twice. So when he crosses paths with Cassidy Winters, he’s forced to interfere again.

Strike three. And the third time’s not the charm.

Hawthorne is swept along as Cassidy slips through the cracks in reality.

And being hunted by bands of monsters doesn’t help.

To find the answers they need, they’ll have to play in a dangerous world. One where the odds and rules are stacked against them. They will have to navigate magical courts, queens and lords all while trying to keep Cassidy out of their scheming hands.

If they fail, she will end up a pawn in a plot that will consume them all.

Hawthorne will have to face the consequences of his past, and risk his future to ensure Cassidy can have one of her own.

For a man with all the time in the world–it seems to be running out–fast!

Dangerous Ways is available in ebook, paperback, and hardcover formats.

Let’s talk to R.R.!

What was your inspiration behind writing the Grave Report series and Dangerous Ways?

The Grave Report was initially a CIA thriller series in the vein of Burn Notice/the Bourne books meets Memento. Originally, the urban fantasy series was going another route with another name all too close for comfort to another one. Eventually, something happened and the previous (urban fantasy) thriller was scraped and the two merged, with me needing to move over the character’s name and restart my plot. Eventually, the idea of Vincent Graves starting in a grave from the CIA plotline… needed a more paranormal reason. 😉 From there, well, you know it goes and has gone on to do.

The Books of Winter: Dangerous Ways came as… a dream and desire to expand on my urban fantasy universe in a way that Vincent Graves and his time constraints don’t allow for.

You’re one of my favorite urban fantasy authors. What draws you to that particular genre, and – specifically in terms of the Grave Report series – what made you combine that genre with elements of other genres, such as mysteries?

I’m a mythology buff. Have been since… ever. I love the idea of creating and toying with mythos in an urban setting. The genre allows me to make and play with the everyday — the mundane and make it fantastical. It’s a fun ride. The idea you can look out the window and wonder what happens if there are monsters and magic lurking out there — today?!

When reading your work, I find myself having a lot of the same experiences I have when watching episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not just because of the monsters and demons, but also because you have this uncanny ability to juggle the melodramatic and the whimsical. You strike that balance better than most. Where does that ability come from?

I think it comes from just that. I grew up watching Buffy, Firefly, reading Spider-Man comics and things of the sort. Spider-Man is a character with unending life pressure, horrors, and more. Yet he still cracks jokes and lightens the mood when he can. It’s about being a person. Sometimes, a lot of the times, life is and can be hard. It doesn’t hurt to crack a smile and make others do the same, even in the darkest of moments.

Character vs. plot: the seemingly endless debate over which is more important for a good story. Which side of that debate do you fall on, and how do you approach character when your protagonist’s identity changes from one book to the next?

I normally do have a very loose plot in mind; I’m a pantser, no outlines. But, but, I allow for my characters to lead the story within reason. So far, none have run so far away that I couldn’t save it. Mostly it’s gentle nudging if Vincent and the cast decide to break off the path. But I believe in the letting the characters (people) grow and dictate the story. It’s worked for me so far.

Are you a heavy plotter, or do you just let the story take you where it will?

The most I ever have for a novel is: Book one, Vincent Graves has 13 hours to so and so. Will he do the thing before something bad happens?! (Add in random thoughts as I have them. This is the monster of the week. This is the meta plot advancing stuff. Few scenes I have and I like.)

So far, the formula has worked and led to one award win, one of the largest possible award nominations for an author (the Dragon Award at DragonCon), and I’m selling fine. If it ain’t broke… you know the rest.

You’ve said that Dangerous Ways takes place in the same universe as the Grave Report books, yet it’s still its own entity. What are your plans for this fictional universe going forward? How many other Grave Report books are you planning to write?

Yup. Dangerous Ways is the first in The Books of Winter. They’re larger, more on the scale of epic, urban fantasies set in the same universe. The plan for that series is four to five larger books. The Grave Report books are a tad smaller and faster paced, as they’re paranormal investigator thrillers. I’m aiming for, and have slated in my head, around 20 – not counting standalones and novellas/short stories.

These two, by the way, are at this moment the first of eight or more series in this expanded urban fantasy universe. 😉

You’re almost as famous for your inspiration and positivity toward other authors as you are for your own writing. How important is it for you to lift up other aspiring authors, and do you see it as paying it forward in a sense, given how much support you have among the indie writing community?

I think that’s the most important thing I can do, even more so than writing advice/technique itself. That comes with time and practice to all. But, if you lose motivation, if you give up… it’s over. I want to keep people writing because it’s the only reason I’ve gone on to do the things I’ve done. Without the uplifting and motivational things to come my way, I’d have quit long ago and never have gotten the chance to experience the crazy triumphs I’m enjoying now. And I’m still growing, so there’s more to come I believe.

What are some of your favorite books?

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time books. The Chronicles of Siala by Russian author Alexey Pehov.

Thank you for having me and your work too (if you haven’t checked it out, readers, do so) is wonderful and rather unique!

(J.D.’s note: Thank you for that!)

Now, to recap… my reviews of both Grave Beginnings and Grave Measures, the first two novels in the Grave Report series (which are also now available in hardcover!).

 Grave Beginnings

Grave BeginningsI hardly ever breeze through books anymore. That’s not an indictment of the quality of the books I read, but between a full-time job, writing/editing three manuscripts at once, and several other interests, it takes a bit to hold my interest and focus enough to actually tackle something on my TBR list.

But Grave Beginnings sucked me in immediately, and I found myself reading one of the best, most interesting murder mysteries I’ve read in a long, long time. R.R. Virdi has created a fantastic world and — perhaps more impressively — a protagonist that has no solid identity, yet is easy to root for. I’ve read my share of novels written in first-person that don’t quite measure up, but the first-person narrative is perfect for this book; the nature of the protagonist allows for narrative freedom in first-person that likely would not be present if this were a third-person book.

The marriage of murder mystery and supernatural works far better than it might seem in theory, and the result is a fast-paced, irreverent read. The cast of characters is relatively small, as the book focuses more on moving things along and less on making sure we keep track of all the particulars. In the mystery genre, it is far too easy for a case to either be wrapped up too quickly or to drag on too long, but the case in Grave Beginnings doesn’t suffer from that, and the conclusion of the case itself was satisfying like an old-school episode of Buffy.

(Aside: it occurs to me that, technically, every episode of Buffy can be considered old school nowadays. Yeah, I feel old…)

The best part to me, though, was the teeth the end of the novel provided the character. It was a clear direction moving forward for the series, and it has me looking forward to the next installment. I read the Kindle version of this novel, but now that a paperback edition is available, I’ll be adding that to my collection in the near future.

Long and short of it, Grave Beginnings is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and I wholeheartedly recommend it for fans of mysteries, supernatural stories, both, or neither. This is simply a fantastic book.

Rating: *****

Grave Measures

Grave MeasuresOne of the reasons I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show, not the movie) so much was the seamless way in which the tone constantly shifted. From tense to humorous to heartbreaking and back again, Buffy managed to weave all of life’s great and terrible emotions into a fantastic tale that still felt personal.

R.R. Virdi clearly has that same ability. Grave Measures, the follow-up to the fantastic Grave Beginnings, does the same thing. The stakes feel higher this time, even if Vincent Graves finds himself confined to an insane asylum, tracking down something that’s killing patients. Much like the first book, Grave Measures is whimsical, hard-hitting, intense, and emotional… and every bit the page-turning romp Beginnings was.

One need not to have read the first book to follow along with Measures, but those who have will be rewarded. The return of Camilla Ortiz was a pleasant surprise, and she has quickly made herself a personal favorite — even as great as Vincent Graves himself is.

There are no overly shocking revelations in this book, but a novel doesn’t need to be shocking to be a quality read. There are plenty of breadcrumbs sprinkled along the way, fodder for future novels in the series, and I’m looking forward to seeing how everything unravels going forward.

Virdi is a master at ensuring Graves has a voice all his own — easy enough to do in the first-person narrative with a protagonist with no true identity. Still, Graves has a depth all his own, even with the snark and the one-liners, and his personal code — which has evolved over the course of the first two books — makes him more of a hero than I think he’d admit to.

If you loved Grave Beginnings, you’ll love Grave Measures just as much. Even if you didn’t, Virdi has created a fantastic universe full of rich, interesting characters who are easy to root for. This is sort of Columbo meets Constantine, with a little bit of Buffy sprinkled in for effect… and the result is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Seriously, read this book.

Rating: *****

In addition to the Grave Report books and Dangerous Ways, Virdi has his work featured in three anthologies: The Longest Night Watch: A Charity Anthology for Alzheimer’s DiseaseThe Longest Night Watch, Volume 2: A Charity Anthology for the Alzheimer’s Association, and Stardust, Always: A Charity Anthology for Cancer Research (in memory of David Bowie and Alan Rickman). In supporting these anthologies, you’re not only reading some fantastic work, you’re helping out some worthwhile causes.

Follow Virdi on his (shiny redesigned) website, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter.

BOUNTY Book Trivia!

Some random odds and ends about my books, just because:113526_1220471073309_full

-Ezekiel, one of the principle villains in Blood Ties, is based largely on System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian. Specifically, this look:

-I didn’t decide Paul Andersen’s ultimate fate until it was time to write that chapter of Blood Ties. My thinking was that by keeping it even from myself, it would add to the mystery within the narrative – and if it was surprising and emotional for me, it would be the same for my readers.

-I first created Bounty back in 1997, whebounty-colorn I was still in high school. Suffice it to say, she has changed quite a bit over the years. For one thing, she wears a lot more clothing.

-I created Detectives Watson, Blankenship, and Stevens for Blood Ties solely to make the book longer and give me more options for subplots.

Bounty was originally a spin-off from Notna. That’s obviously changed, but both stories inhabit the same fictional universe. In fact, there will be a few Bounty Easter Eggs in Notna (mid-2017).

-The main plot in Behind the Badge is based on the real-life case of Freddie Gray, the African-American Baltimore man who died from injuries he suffered while in police custody – where he was subjected to a “rough ride.”

-I chose Baltimore as the setting because I wanted a major metropolitan city that wasn’t New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles (all of which are overused, IMO). I like Baltimore’s location on the East Coast, and its proximity to Washington, D.C. gives me a lot of interesting plot options going forward.Beckett gun

-The similarities between Jill and Castle’s Kate Beckett are no accident; discovering that TV show and character were a big reason I was finally able to finish Bounty and get the series rolling.

-In her original incarnation,Jill had a bounty hunter aspect to her character – hence the name Bounty. That went away over the years, and now, her vigilante name comes courtesy of a writer for The Baltimore Sun (see the digital short Boundless).

Good News, Everyone!

Another NaNoWriMo, another win!

For the third straight year, I eclipsed the 50,000-word mark in the annual writing exercise. With that said, the first draft of Notna — at 58,000 words — is about half-finished. Still, the book is on track for a mid-2017 publication, which would mean each of my last three NaNo projects would go on to become published works.

Bounty was my 2014 project, and I used last year’s NaNo to write Behind the Badge.

And aside from the winner’s t-shirt and all of the other goodies that come with winning NaNo (including a discount code for the fantastic writing program Scrivener), NaNoWriMo establishes writing as a daily habit. That, perhaps more than anything, is why I’m so strident in my support of the program.

While I’m on the subject of the Jill Andersen series, a couple nuggets:

Bounty is the Book of the Month for December! Just in time for the coming holidays, this is your chance to pick up my debut novel and join the discussion (of which I might be a part from time to time) on Facebook. And if you enjoy Bounty, the next two books in the series — Blood Ties and Behind the Badge — are currently out as well.

Surprise the superhero fan in your life this holiday season with my Jill Andersen novels, which are available in both paperback and Kindle. Paperback editions are available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble (online only), and CreateSpace (BountyBlood TiesBehind the Badge).

The fourth novel in the series, Behind the Mask, is finally back underway. Originally slated to come out next month, I’m now targeting a mid-2017 release. The manuscript needed a complete revamp, and I’ve forced myself to at least create the bare bones of an outline. My inner pantser is screaming about being betrayed, but the story was in serious need of direction.

That’s the problem with completely retooling a series; it invites chaos.

Speaking of betrayal… the fifth novel in the series, which I hope to have ready by the end of 2017, will be titled Betrayed. I already have the cover for the book, and the blurb is ready to go… but the blurb would spoil Behind the Mask, so I’ll just hold off on that for the time being.

But I will unveil the cover in the coming weeks.

Also, we are roughly two weeks away from the release of a new book from one of my favorite authors: indie fantasy author R.R. Virdi will be releasing his latest opus, Dangerous Ways, on Dec. 14. The Kindle and paperback editions will be available that day, and there may or may not be a hardcover edition in the works.

Be on the lookout — not just for the book, but for my latest Author Spotlight, which will go live that day. And you know that once I finish reading Dangerous Ways, there will be a review.