We close out the sixth annual Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog-Off with four semifinalists, the highest rated books in our batch. We will share the scores when we name the finalist on Friday, October 30, and the order of the reviews posted this week should not be taken to imply the rankings of our final four. Today we begin with Tales of the Thief-City.

Tales of Thief-City (cover)It’s been years since Rax Darkthorn escaped the hold of the thief-city, Nexi. The death of a friend, and his own addiction to the secrets that permeate the city, draw him back.

In a city of secrets, dying gods, and doors to everywhere, Rax hunts the shadowy figure manipulating events. A trail that’ll lead him to Nexi’s secret.

This highly imagined portal fantasy is told in first person by Rax Darkthorne, a “knowhound”, who tells his tales like a magical Sam Spade. Darkthorne lives in Nexi, a city that floats in a void between space and time at the nexus of the multiverse. The city itself seems to be alive, and it grows by abducting people of various species—ranging from the mundane to the mythical to the alien—as well as buildings, streets, and other edifices. The population survives through trade and robbery via numerous portals through which they access multiple worlds.

Although the city permits its occupants to visit these other places, it never lets them stay, always pulling back anyone who tries to escape for good. Rax is the exception, having learned the secret to getting out, yet when the novel begins, even he is drawn back to Nexi by the death of a friend.

Darkthorn has the ability to see people’s secrets, and he makes his living by divining, keeping, and divulging secrets to paying clients. But the secret of Nexi—how and why it exists—is the one mystery that Darkthorn will solve for free.

Our Thoughts

Overall, most judges loved the snappy dialogue and wide range of characters, from human to angels and demons, succubi, centaurs, gods, four-armed gangsters (as in, thugs with four arms, not prescient mobsters), a clockwork automaton, and a bodiless artificial intelligence. There are a lot of noir detective tropes on display too, from the wise-cracking moppet to the sultry beauty of a client, to the detective with a guilty conscience and an addiction he can’t quit.

We loved the layers of the novel too as it muses deeply on metaphysical and philosophical topics like the nature of the mind and existence itself. Some of us found there to be more telling than showing than we’d like, however, and an unfortunately large number of typos and grammatical errors do a real disservice to this otherwise brilliant work.

Comments from selected judges appear below.


I wanted to enjoy this but a few niggles kept biting at me. The prose style, blending present and past tense, made engaging with the story hard work. I’m not sure if that’s intentional but I feel it detracts from what is otherwise a great story. It wasn’t the kind of comfortable style I look for when I’m sitting down to enjoy a book. Despite this, the premise of a sentient city pinching parts of other dimensions to glue into itself had me feeling fantasy with a splash of Doctor Who and a sprinkle of Carnival Row. There’s even a slight hint of an Altered Carbon dystopia, and all of this still firmly in the fantasy genre. While the style of short stories knitted together doesn’t suit me, I respect the author for embarking on such a story telling journey. I’d have loved it to be better blended into a traditional novel. The dialogue is snappy and entertaining too, flowing with a natural rhythm that was a joy to read.

A. M.

This novel is deep. I loved how the author set it up like a detective show, wherein each chapter is a self-contained mystery but which contributes to the overarching plot, complete with guest stars and returning characters and little bits of knowledge that are each a piece of the larger puzzle. Yet beneath the Sam Spade-style patter (“Not so fast, sister”) and the individual mysteries is a meditation on the nature of knowledge, believe, and memory, both real and artificial, and how all these things together make us—as individuals and as society—who we are. The story is a slow burn, and it didn’t snag my attention the way other titles in the competition did, but I couldn’t abandon it either and had to know how things turned out for the reluctant hero MC, his charming moppet of a side kick, and their world-weary friends. My only critique is the story deserves a better cover and a thorough copyedit to correct numerous typos.


This is one of most imaginative books I have read in a long time. It blends together so many different concepts and, dare I say, genres. Though it is fantasy at the core, there is enough new age philosophy and metaphysics that I can’t help comparing it to the mind-bending gymnastics in nonfiction like Metamagical Themas or GEB. The comparisons and genre-bending don’t stop here. Since this is a set of loosely connected short stories (with a main thread to connect them all), the exploration of the ideas reminded me a lot of some books by Isaac Asimov and Harry Harrison. The characters are as colorful as the concepts themselves and each one remains in the reader’s memories even after putting down the book. The plot is also good with an excellent resolution. I never felt bored during the book—I was invested throughout.


Readers of Robert Jackson Bennett and other books that have sentient cities may enjoy this collection of short stories set in the city of Nexi. I would have enjoyed these more if the tales didn’t jump around, but to be fair the importance of the city remains constant. The worlds connected to the city are intriguing, and I’d like to see more stories about those.


I love the way each story builds on the other in a linear timeline without bouncing back and forth. I felt the characters were well rounded and each developed in a gradual way, as is the world in which they live. They learn and grow and their relationships to one another change and evolve. There’s a lot of subtle, and not so subtle, humor regarding the many different types of beings which inhabit the city. The city of Nexi is a character itself and that is a huge draw for me. The climax is cleverly done, and the author adds to it by resolving the issues of the MC and his personal agenda. Highly entertaining reading.

Total Score: 8.1

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Our judges are A. M. Justice, Alicia Wanstall-Burke, Amanda Cenker, Julia Kitvaria Sarene, Kartik Narayanan, Kerry Smith, Lynn Kempner, and Mariëlle Ooms-Voges. If you’d like to learn more about us, including our likes and dislikes, you can read about them here.

Any queries should be directed to A. M. Justice via DM (Facebook/Twitter).


By A. M. Justice

A. M. Justice is an award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy, a freelance science writer, and an amateur astronomer, scuba diver, and once and future tango dancer. She currently lives in Brooklyn with a husband, a daughter, and two cats. You can follow her on Twitter @AMJusticeWrites.

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