Okay, so this review will be a little bit different from any others that I have written, mostly because along with reviewing the book, I want to talk about the manipulative marketing techniques the author appears to have employed in order to boost sales of his books. This review will contain spoilers, mostly because this review is (hopefully) intended to prevent people from supporting an author that seems to resort to these tactics. In many ways, the situation is reminiscent of the Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem, who conned her way onto the NYT Bestseller List by bulk buying copies of her own book.
Throughout the kingdoms of Gylem, one rule stands above all others: Beware the Bardenwood!
Stableboy and town menace, Arden Ford, probably wouldn’t have lived to see his teenage years if not for his grandmother, the beloved village innkeeper. Though he was considered a pest to most, he could always count on her to get him out of trouble. That was until his seventeenth birthday. Ard always doubted the tales of witches, ghouls, and hungry spirits that lurk within the piney shroud of the Bardenwood, but he never dared to step foot past its edge. Everything changes when he finds himself summoned into the forest by a strange girl and a trail of toadstools.
Deep in the forbidden Bardenwood, whose edge sits just beyond his home, Ard learns that a world of magic exists, but only by a thread. Magic is dying. Once it does, the balance of nature will tip and mankind will follow closely behind. What’s worse, the kingdoms of Gylem face a threat from within that could upheave the entire realm if the disappearance of magic doesn’t accomplish it first. To save the Bardenwood and the kingdoms of Gylem, Ard must perform a ritual and free a magical king from imprisonment. A king that, if freed, can restore the balance of nature and bring magic back to the lifeless Bardenwood. The ritual, however, requires the use of blackstone… a rare gem widely regarded as myth.
As Ard sets out on a quest to find blackstone and free the mysterious king from imprisonment, he finds the superstitious tales of the Bardenwood he heard all his life were told to him for a reason— a reason he may discover too late. Some trails need never be trodden.
I’ll start by saying that I bought this book on Kindle Unlimited, for the sole purpose of reviewing it. I probably would never have heard of it, but Faecrate, a book sub box with a looooong history of problems, recently announced that they would be including an indie book in their September box. They didn’t immediately announce the book, but readers quickly guessed that it was The Blackstone Ritual, a book written by “Swearingen Durham” (honestly I gave myself a migraine with the amount of eyerolling I did at this name) who just so happens to be the book box owner’s husband. Now, what is wrong with supporting your spouse, you may ask? It sounds like a nice idea at first, except that the box bulk buys a load of books from the publisher, and obviously the author not only profits off these sales, but also gets to count them towards their overall sales. So they’ve just guarenteed something like 2000 sales of his books, and the author and Faecrate owner get double the profits from this. Also keep in mind that monthly boxes only have 12 slots per year for books, so they’ve chosen a family member over a whole load of authors who would enjoy that support. The book is meant to be YA, and is 275 pages long, which is barely a novella. It’s currently on Kindle Unlimited for free, but it will cost you £10.49 to buy a physical copy, which is just insane. Those subs also haven’t chosen to buy the author’s book, it’s being put in the box anyway. I don’t think I’d have a problem with them doing a special edition box for the book, it would still show support and would bring attention to it, but I think there’s something morally iffy about the clear nepotism here.
The other thing is that it raises doubts about the quality of the book. It could have been great, but because his wife is choosing his book over others, it makes people wonder if the book has been selected because it was good, or because he’s a family member. And now, having read the book for myself, I can honestly say that it was not good. It was not even slightly good.
Honestly, I do usually feel a smidge of guilt when I tear into a book, especially if it is a debut novel, and even more so if it’s self-published or indie. I understand that there’s a real person behind the words, and usually I know that someone has ultimately tried to write a book– they’ve sat at their computer for hours to put this out into the world. At the same time, this author has done some shady enough things that I wanted to bring them all out into the light and explain to my blog readers why they shouldn’t read this book– both because the author is morally questionable, and because the book itself is really poor quality.
Before I get into it, I wanted to bring attention to the fact that the author dedicates the book to himself. If this isn’t the sign of an inflated ego, I don’t know what is. This, more than anything else I’ve said so far, should clue you in to what kind of book it’s going to be.
Firstly, it’s supposed to be YA. Ard is a 17 year old protagonist. Yet, it does not read like a YA book at all. Firstly, there’s the length of the “novel”. Now, I’m not hating on short books, but YA novels are typically kinda long, and fantasy in particular is usually longer than contemporary. This is because you need to fit in a whole load of world-building, plot and character development. So it raises red flags that it’s under 300 pages. The language is also woefully simplistic, repetitive, and just boring. The names of places for the most part are okay, but then you stumble across something like The Buttered Bum Pub or the Sore Swallow Inn. Obviously they’re meant to be immature little jokes, but it makes the book sound more like something I’d expect from a David Walliams Middle Grade novel than from a YA. If the author’s joke taste level seems to plateau at “fart jokes” level, you know it’s going to be immature. And it was. Ard is also way too young in terms of maturity to be a YA protagonist. He’s a prankster, with some really stupid and basic pranks, and he’s just not really mature enough to sound like a 17 year old. His dialogue and thoughts are very basic, he’s not very bright, and he acts a lot like a petulant child most of the way through the book. Obviously, teens can behave in all of these ways, but put them all together and I’m just not buying it. I could’ve accepted him as a twelve year old, maybe, but not somebody who is pretty much an adult. Again, the whole thing reads like a very basic and not very interesting MG.
Ard is also just a terrible person. He has no real character arc throughout the novel– literally the only time he “grows” is when he stops treating his companion, Kinn, like a piece of shit. He does prank people less but I’m guessing that’s because he’s too busy, rather than because he doesn’t want to. He’s hypocritical (he hates being pranked), obnoxious (earlier in the novel he acts like he’s superior because he can read and write), and he’s a boring, boring protagonist. Also, he often chooses to prank girls because they’re mean to him because he’s scrawny, and obviously there’s that whiff of incel behaviour there too. He gets given powers on his seventeenth birthday, which is the most predictable thing ever.
Other characters like Kinn, get little development. Kinn is basically a poor man’s Samwise Gangee, who follows Ard around with a devoted loyalty he doesn’t deserve, calls him Sir, and spends most of his time being a bit cowardly and hungry. He’s obsessed with food. That’s his whole character. Emagora, who was, in some ways the most interesting character in this whole book, is a giggling witch in a forest who Ard instantly falls in love with. Though he never states he loves her outright, he does say he “adores” her eyes, and “loves” an expression she gives him, even though he’s known her for all of two minutes. Gran, whose entire personality seems to be summed up in “she’s kind and cheeky” offers up dialogue which is so accented that she reads like a drunk Hagrid. I get that colloquialisms are a thing, but spare a thought for the poor reader who has to decipher a sentence when every single word is shortened.
And then there’s the Hound Queen. And if there was ever a clue that the author was a guy, look no further than his descriptions of the queen, whose appearance is “a sight that burned forever in the darkest parts of a lusting heart”. When Ard meets her, partway through the book, she’s wearing clothing so thin that he “could see parts of his queen that he’d never seen on any woman before”. Also, she’s curvaceous. We know this because everything about her is described as curvaceous, from her hips to her mouth.
Which brings me to the point about stereotypes. It’s funny that so many of the five star Goodreads reviews that I’ve seen for this book (more on that later) talk about how “Swear” is subverting old tired tropes when his novel is brimming with fantasy stereotypes. So far I’ve mentioned the kind grandmother, the stableboy (Ard) who becomes the “Chosen One”, the loyal to a fault best friend (
Samwise Kinn), the beautiful and seductive evil queen, and the witch in the forest. It’s so predictable and adds nothing of value to the fantasy genre.
Furthermore, there’s a fair few similarities to other novels, which again suggests a lack of originality. The beginning, where Ard is a stableboy whose world is upturned when his guardian is murdered and his home is destroyed is near identical to the beginning of Chris Paolini’s Eragon. I’ve already talked about how Kinn is just a bad version of Samwise. There’s also a line of dialogue that was (perhaps unintentionally) cribbed from Harry Potter (where Ard jokes that he’s starting to freak out himself), and the competition in the middle of the “novel” is a version of The Hunger Games where competitors volunteer to kill each other for entertainment. I’m not necessarily saying that this author has intentionally copied these things– after all, none of these things I’ve mentioned are entirely original to begin with– but it’s worth mentioning that the fact that it has all of these elements in there shows exactly how unoriginal a story it is.
The plot twist towards the end of the novel does nothing to change this. Again, people keep saying how unique and original it is, but it was obvious from the start, and I suspect many people who have actually read a YA or MG book recently will be able to see it from a mile away. The good witch in the forest turns out to be a bad witch, who tricks Ard into completing the ritual to bring back the Child King. The evil queen who tried to arrest Ard and sends a hound after him is actually not the bad person we’re led to believe. Except, it doesn’t really make sense. Ard is a Thorn, meaning he’s a super special cookie who has superhuman strength and speed, hearing and a sense of smell. There aren’t many Thorns around, because the queen keeps killing them off. Thorns are the only people who can do the ritual to wake the Child King, which is why the witch lies to Ard and tells him Thorns are supposed to protect the King, but actually it turns out Thorns are his enemies and the only people capable of killing him. So why does the queen send a hound after him? It makes no sense. I wondered at first if I’d gotten confused– maybe the queen really was evil and she wanted Ard dead, but then why wouldn’t she just find a way to complete the ritual, since she has the super rare ingredient she needs to complete it. All she would need is a Thorn to do that, and it turns out she had one all along, he’s just enchanted to be the hound she sends after Ard. And if she really is good, and just wanted to stop Ard from unleashing a demon child into the world, why not just fucking explain that in the first place? But nope, she sends a giant, fanged dog after him, which unsurprisingly paints her in a bit of a bad light.
There’s a lot of moments in the story that just don’t quite add up or are just inconsistent. Most of them are thankfully small in comparison to the end twist. For example, at the start of the novel, Ard is scared of witches. There’s a sense of superstition in the world– women accused of being witches could be executed. Which is fine. When Ard encounters Emagora, he is initially terrified of her when she says she’s a witch. Except, when she talks about magic, he scoffs and tells her magic doesn’t exist. But then, why would he be afraid of a witch if there’s no such thing as magic? Also, his ability to ‘super smell’ things is always brought out whenever it adds to the plot- Ard can smell the lemon that soldiers use to polish their uniform (despite standing across the road in a stable, which is presumably very smelly), but for some reason this super nose is only ever a positive, useful thing, and never a problem. There’s also a scene when Ard first visits a market in Mossa Castille, where he marvels at how the people are so rich that nobody steals because they can afford stuff. Except, y’know, people don’t have to be poor to steal. Also, a page or so later, he encounters a beggar, which kind of goes against everything he just said.
There’s also a moment when Ard appears to have boundaries– he’s not a thief unless his life depends on it. Which would be honourable, except… he goes on to say that one of his “pranks” involved taking things from people without their consent so they’d pay attention to him. He says he returns those things, but it’s still stealing?
I’m not mentioning worldbuilding much because there is practically none. For someone who has likened his work to things like Game of Thrones, and Lord of the Rings, the author does a shocking job of fleshing out both his characters and his world. Sure, some of the magic is mildly interesting but again it’s nothing creative. And there are references to things such as deities which are just dropped in there, never to be expanded upon or mentioned again. I get a bit of a sense of geography from this first novel, but nothing about culture. There’s different groups of people at the end, but again these were kind of just shoved in there without any earlier foreshadowing or acknowledgement.
As for the writing itself, it is needlessly clunky and filled with purple prose. Almost everything is described with an accompanying adjective, sometimes with two. And apparently the author has something against the word “said” because almost every little bit of dialogue has a descriptive tag– Ard groaned, Ard chuckled, Kinn snickered. These are also often paired with an adverb. There are adverbs everywhere in this book, and they’re often pointless, slowing down the pace or just telling us what we’ve just been shown. They’re also sometimes used incorrectly. My favourite example of this is: “How am I going to get my hands on blackstone, Emagora?” he asked frustratingly. As I’ve already pointed out, there’s also a lot of clunky sentences which turn mushy in the mouth, which is especially frustrating during fight and chase scenes: With clenched teeth, he glared at the final contestant who was now getting up and recovering from the dirt being thrown in his eyes. This is so clunky and needlessly passive. It could have easily been written as: With clenched teeth, he glared at the final contestant, who stood up, wiping dirt from his eyes. There are so many examples that I could give, but in the interests of avoiding plagiarism claims, I won’t. I’ll also throw in that there’s many moments where the author tells us something that basically just confirms something he’s just shown us. When Ard first encounters Emagora in a dream, she’s floating several inches off the ground. “Swear” describes this, only to then add on a sentence to say “she was levitating”, like his readers are too stupid to understand what’s happening. I’m highlighting the whole clunky and purple prose thing, not only because it’s annoying (it is) or because it’s a classic sign of an amateur writer (which again, it is) but because, again, his book is only 275 pages. A good writer could feasibly manage to cram an awesome fantasy novel into a short length, but not if they do this. All the extra words seem like a poor attempt to pad out the word count, which makes me think that the author actually wrote a much shorter novel, realised he could never get it published as a YA fantasy at that length, and decided to do the lazy thing of chucking in a load of unnecessary words. It doesn’t add to the book at all.
There’s also a LOT of grammar issues. Again, I’m trying to be somewhat understanding, but it’s telling that “Swear” has publicly admitted that the book was rejected by publishers 50 times. It doesn’t read like an edited novel at all, it feels very much like he’s cut corners in the hopes of hurling it out into the world as quickly as possible so that he can strut around and call himself an author (and again I say this knowing that he and his wife have commissioned things like cosplay of the book, and then shared it without mentioning that it was paid for to make it seem like it’s really popular and people love it). Tense change is a big problem, and he frequently switches from past tense to present or even future. For example, “Swear” writes that the Bardenwood is named for the “hundreds of bards that spew stories of what lies between the pines, the whole wood was off-limits to anyone except the woodcutters […] Some villagers say the trees uproot themselves every night and rearrange so that travelers become lost inside”. Here, he switches from past (prior to the quote) to present. It happens frequently throughout the book.
Which brings me to my main point– The Blackstone Ritual was not ready for publication. It either hasn’t been edited at all, or is not sufficiently edited by a professional. The writing is clunky and weak, and this suggests that the book was not long enough for publication and the author should have added more substance to the book, especially since the worldbuilding and characters are so lacking. Instead, it feels like the author has cut corners to make his dream happen sooner, and has relied upon Faecrate to sell the book. Which is sad, because, for all of my ranting, I do think that this could have potentially been a good novel if the author had just tried harder to improve it and donated a bit more time to it. And that’s sad, because it shouldn’t be about the author achieving their dream faster, it should always be about putting out the best possible version of the book into the wide world.
I know I sound overly harsh in this review, but honestly, what I’ve seen in the book community about this book has both alarmed and enraged me. Because, when I clicked on the Goodreads page for this book, I initially saw that it had nothing but five star reviews. Initially, this seemed like a great thing, but then I started to look at it more critically, and what I (and others) saw was a pattern emerging– many of these five star reviews are suspicious. Some are from the author’s friends and family or people they work with– several are from Faecrate reps and the box itself, as well as the cover artist (who also happens to be on the staff of the publisher too), some of these reviewers acknowledge their bias, while others do not. Others are people like the cosplayer they commissioned to cosplay as Ard. More of the reviews appear to be from friends and family and while I don’t want to outright say they haven’t read the book, the comments are incredibly vague and don’t say anything about the novel itself. Many of these reviewers have only joined Goodreads recently, and have only reviewed this one book. Again, I’m not saying that friends and family can’t support the author. But the whole review process requires honesty, and not being upfront about a connection with the author is manipulating readers into thinking this book is better than it is. Of course, there’s now a slew of one star reviews trying to combat this, and again I will point out that not all of them are from people who have read the book. But as a person who writes YA, reviews YA, and studies YA as a profession, I’m appalled at the ongoing campaign to con people into buying the book through fake reviews and arguments with other reviewers. Again, this is sad and hurtful, because I know so many people who are authors, who put in all the hard work and effort into polishing a book and then the marketing and publicity. And I don’t think it’s fair that so many authors fail to stay floating in the industry, when there appears to be a groundswell of support for an author whose work is not really ready to be seen by the world, and who seems to be, at the very least, turning a blind eye to the problematic behaviours of his supporters.
Overall, I’m giving The Blackstone Ritual a 1/10. My advice is to not bother with the book, and to not support an author like this. Please, go read a book by an author that deserves your time and money.