Welcome back to my continuing series of lazy, er, uh, I mean innovative THREE-CHAPTER REVIEWS, where I read the beginning of various works and give my impression of whether or not the beginning works and, consequently, whether or not to keep going. {Note: for an explanation of the philosophy of all this, see HERE}.

I will be comparing the first three chapters of three different Dark Fantasy novels: Eyes of the Grave (EotG), by Chelsea Callahan, King of Shards by Matthew Kressel; and Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Before I start, it’s worth noting that this sub-genre of “Dark Fantasy” is something of a loose concept. The basic idea is that “Dark Fantasy” shares characteristics or tonalities with Horror fantasy (some peel off “Dark Fantasy” as only being set in an entirely fantastical world, similar to the distinction between “High” and “Low” Fantasy with Low Fantasy stories taking place in our reality, but I won’t do that). I will stick with the basic idea that all of these stories are supposed to have, to quote Wikipedia: “disturbing and frightening themes” and/or “a gloomy dark tone or a sense of horror and dread.”

The most obvious examples that come to mind are the original prototypes that many of us are exposed to first: Poe, Lovecraft, and, more recently Stephen King. So, that was where my head was at, when I began these. Let’s jump in:


Eyes of the Grave (EotG)
Goodreads: 4.5, Kindle: 4.5

This is a contemporary (2019) novel by Chelsea Callahan. It didn’t (technically) pass my ‘first paragraph test, but this is a piece where an extra paragraph of moody exposition doesn’t deflate. The author is committed to setting a ‘PI noir’ tonality, and in that she largely succeeds. By page six, we’re already revisiting memories of the client who’d come to the protagonist’s office just two days before, like any good, old, hard-boiled PI case.

We are introduced to the protag as she’s breaking into a cemetary, only to have her discover one dead person too many. The protag is one Rebekah Devereaux. Private Investigator. Precognitive. And, discreetly to most, a magician. We also very quickly meet her estranged-but-very-much-in-love husband Jackson (who happens to be a Police Detective) and her cousin, Shado, the ME. The characters and their interaction are punchy and believable. It’s a fun read, as folks are working things out.

And ‘working things out’ is exactly what is going to have to happen, as Rebekah is trapped in a vision where she is going to kill Jackson. This happens in a future she is very much trying to avoid.

The magic system is also well worked out, too, from what we can tell that early in the story.

This far into it, “Dark Fantasy” seems a bit overblown as a description. But this ‘Occult Detective’ (a noble sub-genre in its own right) piece might just be setting the stage for some much darker stuff later on. Either way, the writing is good.

The pacing is fast and very genre-centric. We are given world-building info and characterizations without too many writerly flourishes. This isn’t necessarily a problem.

However, it does lead to one small criticism: you see, this is setting up like a mystery/suspense. Which is fine. But, that old adage of how the best mysteries keep the protagonist in the dark and not the audience, is starting to creep into my thoughts. We are—more or less—finding things out (about the murder of her potential client, etc) as Rebekah does. If three more chapters come and go and this is still the case, for me it would start to be a problem. At this point, it is just a minor concern on the horizon.

EotG (thus far) is a solid, and very fun, read. I’m not as smitten with it as the aggregate reviews above seem to indicate I will be. But, hey, there’s time. I do like how it starts.

~~~~> My 3Ch Review
The first three chapters: 7.0/10.0
Keep reading, yea or nay? Press on, for sure. Werewolves (oh, didn’t I mention that?), and Voodoo Magic, and the mysterious murder of a dame in a cemetery? C’mon, what’s not to like?


Under Heaven (UH)
Goodreads: 4.2/Kindle 4.6

Also a very fun read, this was a contrast to the previously mentioned work. Although it also isn’t really horrific enough to warrant the “Dark Fantasy” label, this is on the other end of the literary v. genre spectrum.

The protagonist, one Shen Tai, is a prince who’s gone into a self-imposed exile on a battlefield mountain between kingdoms, on a mission of burying the dead from the last battle fought there. The pace reflects his situation and many passages are devoted to the exposition of the minutiae. Indeed, Kay is such a master that the entire first chapter is world-building (it’s set in a slightly magical version of historical China) via navel-gazing—a definite no-no to most authors. But, it is seamless, here.

The supplies, at new and full moon without fail, had kept him alive—and had arrived only through extreme effort several times, when wild storms had bowled down to blast the frozen meadow and lake.

He milked the two goats, took the pail inside and covered it for later. He claimed his two swords and went back out and did his Kanlin routines.

He put the swords away and then, outside again, stood a moment in almost-summer sunshine listening to the shrieking racket of birds, watching them wheel and cry above the lake, which was blue and beautiful in morning light and gave no least hint at all of winter ice, or of how many dead men were here around its shores.

Until you looked away from birds and water to the tall grass of the meadow, and then you saw the bones in the clear light, everywhere. Tai could see his mounds, where he was burying them, west of the cabin, north against the pines. Three long rows of deep graves now.

He turned to claim his shovel and go to work. It was why he was here.

In the opening chapters—rather than supplying him and otherwise leaving him alone, as they had done the first couple of years that Tai lived among the ghosts—the rest of the world finally intrudes. An assassination attempt, and a royal gift of hundreds of horses (which is even more likely to get him killed) are aimed at him. So, he is forced from his exile and returned to the world and its intrigues.

Guy Gavriel Kay is the most decorated of the authors that I’ve reviewed so far. For example, he’s the only one who has a novel (Ysabel) that’s won a World Fantasy Award for ‘Best Novel’. And, for the record, in 2011, UH was also nominated for one. This story actually does not clock in with the best ratings, necessarily, with readers, though (Eyes of the Grave does better). So, it’s good to understand that going in. This isn’t necessarily geared for a broad audience. But there is not a lack of action or interesting plot. The main character’s personality is drawn well enough for us to care about his dilemma and that’s the key.

~~~~> My 3Ch Review
The first three chapters: 7.5/10.0
Like many non-U.S. authors (Kay is Canadian, but, for me, this also happens a lot with British writers), if I can steel myself and settle-in for the slower pacing, I can be reasonably sure this will be a fine novel. Keep reading, yea or nay? Of course you’re going to finish it! I look forward to completing it, myself.


King of Shards (KoS)
Goodreads: 3.5, Kindle: 4.0

Hilariously, of the five works I’ve reviewed thus far, this is the lowest rated on Amazon and Goodreads. This demonstrates you just how meaningless online, mass ratings can be. This book is MARVELOUS. As in “wonderful” and “full of marvels”. Really, I cannot say enough good things about it.

If the cosmology behind this story’s world-building was a champagne tower (and—spoilers—it sort of is), then the novel’s opening epigraph is the pour:

“The Legend of the Thirty-Six

There are thirty-six just people who sustain the world, thirty-six hidden saints who quietly perform small acts of kindness and righteousness. So concealed are these saints that you or I could be one and not know it. Each of their small acts serves to uphold the world, and it is said that if not for their merit the world would be destroyed. Because in Hebrew the letter lamed is 30 and the letter vav is 6, we call these righteous ones the Lamed Vav.”

The magic system, as you might have noticed, is largely based on the Jewish faith. Which puts a fun spin on things when characters who have knowledge of Judaism suddenly find that they also have arcane knowledge, too.

I hesitate to tell you this; but, there are demons and vampires, witches, cosmic creators, and Daniel certainly fits the bill as a “chosen one”. The reason I hesitate is because that I don’t want to give the impression that this is yet another mass-marketed romp through any of the above-mentioned tropes. No, the characterization here is so magnificent that, by the time you realize that one of the characters fits into one of the above labels, it doesn’t matter. The realization just adds nuance and helps you fill in the details. Imagine that.

The book starts on a wedding day. Daniel’s wedding day. Daniel Fisher is a nice guy. And, so, it’s a real shame that his wedding doesn’t go off as planned. But, hey, when it is all said and done, it isn’t the end of the world.

Of the three novels’ beginnings I’m talking about here, it easily has the most action, the best characterization and the most interesting world-building.

And, I did finish it. So, I can tell you: even though it is a ‘Book One…’, it manages to have a solid resolution that justifies it being its own story—thereby, bypassing one of my favorite pet peeves.

All said, Matthew Kressel might just be a modern master. While, unlike Kay, he hasn’t won any, yet: he is a multiple Nebula, World Fantasy Award, and Eugie Award nominated author.

I look forward to reading the rest of the “Worldmender Trilogy”!

~~~~> My 3Ch Review
The first three chapters: 9.0/10.0
From the first page, it strikes a wonderful balance between beautiful writing and masterful genre-fiction storytelling. Just read it. I had to finish it, first thing, before doing anything else. It’s like that. (Oh, and it delivers in the end, also).

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