Today’s review features another one of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off Finalists. This will be Fantasy-Faction’s ninth review of the ten finalists and means we’ve got just one left to score over the coming days. Here’s the blurb for City of Burning Shadows, Book 1 in Apocrypha: The Dying World.

Joshua “Ash” Drake is a man in hiding.

Hiding from the past, from the horror of his life as a priest after the gods disappeared.

Hiding from his emotions, denying the nightmares that haunt his sleep and the anger that fuels his days.

Most of all, hiding from the truth—that no matter how much he keeps his head down, no matter how he clings to the echoes of everyday life, his city—his world—is dying.

When a new technology offers salvation to his desperate city, Ash must reach out to people he left behind and step back into the world that almost killed him. But coming out of hiding now could be the worst mistake Ash has ever made.

Because there are monsters in the darkness, feeding the chaos, watching the city burn. And once those monsters know his name, Ash will never be able to hide again.

In the dying world that Barbara J Webb has created there is a diversity of species and an intriguing mix of magic and technology. It is clear that a great deal of thought, and time, has been spent building this world – time well spent, in my opinion. Although the action takes place in just one city, there is a sense of scope to the writing that hints at the history and world beyond.

Told in the first person, we experience the world and the different factions alongside the protagonist. Joshua ‘Ash’ Drake is a priest of a god that has left the world. The magic system is quite interesting in itself, a mix of old and new like the world around it. To cast a spell, at least in the beginning, Joshua must scribble symbols on his NetPad (tablet) to contain and control the flow of magic – it makes a nice change from chanting, boiling cauldrons or mystical staves inscribed with runes.

What begins as a simple investigation, protection job takes a turn for the much more interesting in the last half of the book. There is a lot of world building, character relationship and set-up before the story really takes off, but once it does the pace picks up and it is hard to put the book down. If the rest of the series moves on with that kind of pace, it bodes well.

Other characters, other species, get involved in the story and it is the political machinations between this species/factions that forms the back drop for the story. As does religion. Not in a preachy, my-god-is-better-than-your-god way, but in how the abandonment of the world by the gods and the remnants they left act within the story.

I enjoyed this book, the story and the world it creates. I did wish for the main character to be a little more defined, his voice stronger in the story-telling. Much of the first half of the book was me trying to remember that the main character was male. It may be that all those named Ash I know are female – or may be that I felt the characterisation was a little weak. Or, and cleverly, the author may have done this on purpose; created a world that is so diverse in its species, in its outlook, that gender matters little – and in truth, by the end, it does matter little. The ‘love interest’ for Ash is not quite androgynous but a lot of the description and explanation moves in that direction.

Along the way there is a good mix of twists, turns and surprises. The antagonist’s motives are unclear until the end and the author does a good job of foreshadowing aspects as well as hiding others.

It is the lack of that strong voice that dilutes the experience a little too much for my taste and that prevents me giving this a higher score, still a good 7 though! However, don’t let that detract or stop you giving this book a try. There is a fantastic world created within the pages of this book and, having done all the hard work of setting it up in book one, there is great hope for the rest of the series.


By Geoff Matthews

G. R. Matthews began reading in the cot. His mother, at her wits end with the constant noise and unceasing activity, would plop him down on the soft mattress with an encyclopaedia full of pictures then quietly slip from the room. Growing up, he spent Sunday afternoons on the sofa watching westerns and Bond movies after suffering the dual horror of the sounds of ABBA and the hoover (Vacuum cleaner) drifting up the stairs to wake him in the morning. When not watching the six-gun heroes or spies being out-acted by their own eyebrows he devoured books like a hungry wolf in the dead of winter. Beginning with Patrick Moore and Arthur C Clarke he soon moved on to Isaac Asimov. However, one wet afternoon in a book shop in his hometown, not far from the standing stones of Avebury, he picked up the Pawn of Prophecy and started to read - and now he writes fantasy! Seven Deaths of an Empire coming from Solaris Books, June 2021. Agent: Jamie Cowen, Ampersand Agency. You can follow him on twitter @G_R_Matthews or visit his website at

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