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  • Friday Indie Review: Dawn of Steam: First Light

      There are people in this world who are going to love this book without reservation.

    I am not one of them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

    Let’s start with this:  There’s a gentleman’s wager on the table in 1815 about what unexplored areas of the world look like.  Our intrepid hero must recruit a crew and go exploring in order to satisfy the wager.  On the way, he is beset by some weird stuff.  Things happen.  Things that have capital letters, like the Year Without a Summer.  The other guys in the wager are looking to cheat. So, we’ve got a setup here for a possibly good if a little trope-heavy steampunk novel.

    But there’s a couple of problems right off the bat. To begin with, the tech level feels wrong.  When I see a title like “Dawn of Steam” and the time period (1815), I am envisioning the early beginnings of steampunk tech.  Call me crazy, but if we’re going for an alternate-history steampunk (and we most definitely are, here), it feels like we should at least place the tech at the right level.  Steampunk is generally Victorian, because that’s the age where steam really takes off as a technology.  That age begins in 1837.  To be sure, there were steam engines before that, but those engines were highly experimental and dangerous.  The first public railway didn’t open until ten years after this novel is set. Now, steampunk is definitely alternate-history, but I’m never given a sense in this book of what exactly the heck happened in our history to create this alternate.  Someone must have invented the steam engine far, far earlier than normal history; I want an explanation for that!  As it sits, the tech feels like it’s been cut-and-pasted from a steampunk archetype warehouse into 1815, for no better reason than the author thought it would be cool.

    This, however, is not the primary problem with the story. The primary problem is the method by which the story is told.  Now, I get how authors can get bored with traditional novel formats.  I get that there’s a temptation to use an alternate format in order to show your creative side.  Hell, I’ve even written a short story in an alternate format.  So I get the temptation.  But this entire novel is a cobbled-together set of letters, diary entries, notations, advertisements, and other primary historical sources.  It’s built to be a collected set of things about this guy, compiled at some point after he has his adventures. In other words, our author has put a painstaking effort into making sure that his book reads like the things textbooks were invented to make more interesting.  There’s perspective-shifting, there’s headaches, and generally speaking there’s a great deal of trouble to grind through the book and extract some form of a story from it.

    There’s also a great sin of a prologue, in the form of the compiler’s note (followed by the second prologue from the publisher).  This prologue is not only long-winded and unnecessary, it essentially tells you everything you need to know about the book.  We find, from this prologue, that our hero was a great adventurer who managed to see and record his observations of these different places.  It manages to simultaneously be unentertaining while telling the reader it’s ok that you don’t want to keep reading, because I’ve just told you everything that’s going to happen.  You can stop now.  When we talk about prologues at our next con panel, this will be the prologue I point to as a demonstration of how poorly these things can go.  If you’re going to read this book, do yourself a favor and skip this part.

    I said at the beginning of this review that there are people in the world who are going to love this book.  Let’s get to that.  Dawn of Steam can be an immersive experience.  It really is the equivalent of trying to sift through primary historical sources to figure out what happened.  In that way, reading the book becomes something of an academic effort, much like the ones the characters are making.  For people who love Steampunk because they absolutely love the setting, Dawn of Steam is going to be a great read.  It is a book whose very language wraps you up in the setting.  Cook does a great job of using the voice of his primary-source pieces to give a true feeling of authenticity to the whole thing, despite the inappropriate tech level.

    I personally feel like this book needs an illustrator and an oversized print edition.  It’d be perfect as a coffee-table book, a conversation started.  Something to flip through idly while the host is up getting a new pot of tea ready.  The feeling of setting is really that pervasive. The problem is, that feeling of setting comes at the expense of getting to the plot, the characters, or anything else that makes one give a marmot’s whistle about a book.

    If you just like to feel steampunky, and you’re not looking for a plot, then you’ll love this book.  If, however, you’d like the setting to serve the story and not vice-versa, look elsewhere.

    Friday-Indie-Logo-One-Point-Five



  • Friday Indie Review: Wednesdaymeter by Dean Carby

    Let’s get weird for a second.

    One of the great beauties in indie publishing is that authors can carry strange ideas to places that traditional publishing simply won’t go.  I’ve reviewed some extreme books on this site, books with unique premises and twists on our standard speculative-fiction fare.

    All of these books seem pretty normal when held up next to Wednesdaymeter.  I am relatively certain that, prior to sitting at his keyboard for any given drafting session, Dean Carby dropped a whole bunch of acid.  If, at some point during the writing of this book, the phrase “well, I really want to get some writing done but first I need to score some more LSD” wasn’t uttered, I am shocked.  This book is just weird.

    Magic comes from eating plant matter and wasted time.  Thus, fruits and vegetables are strictly controlled.  Entire companies are set up for the purpose of wasting their employee’s time in order to power the magic of the people running the company.  What’s more, sentient polygons have brought in a kind of police state to the whole world.  Yes, I said sentient polygons.  The whole thing feels like Office Space and Dilbert if they had been written by Terry Pratchett.

    This is not necessarily a bad thing, and fortunately someone let the drugs wear off before doing the editing.  The prose is good and clean, and the individual scenes are very well-written, with one flaw.

    There is one hell of a learning curve to this book.  The first chapter tries really, really hard to introduce the reader to the magic system with a little action scene.  The problem we have is that it’s making this introduction through the eyes of an experienced plant user, who doesn’t really feel the need to tell us why all this works.  Sitting down and figuring out what the hell is going on in this book is a steep, steep challenge, and it takes a lot of slow reading and putting things into place.  When you are this far out on the limb, you really need a story device to coax the reader out there with you.

    This is where the book falls down.

    So, Wednesdaymeter is good, but not great.  If it had gently slid me into this world, I would be telling you this is one of the best indie books I’ve read.  Instead, I get the feeling that the author is assuming I’ll drop acid before I read the book.  Maybe that would make it easier, I’m not sure.  Not having any LSD around, I won’t be finding out anytime soon.  Still, if you like things on the weird edge of indie publishing, then I say it’s still worth jumping off that edge and reading Wednesdaymeter.

    three



  • Friday Indie Review: Take One With You by Oak Anderson

     

    Take One With You is a concept that immediately intrigued me.  To read the blurb, I get the impression that a very interesting set of ethical dilemnas are going to be presented.

    The basic premise here is this:  there are people in the world who are suicidal.  There are also people in the world who are evil.  The suicidal people, as well as people who simply like to stir up trouble, have started a movement to convince people that, if you’re going to kill yourself anyways, you should do it in a way that also kills someone evil.  You should take one with you, or TOWY as the book calls it.

    In starting this movement, of course, our main characters basically become murderers on the same level as Hitler.  Millions die as the result of the TOWY fad.  They seem pretty proud of it.

    The book opens with a gruesome scene of a TOWY suicide.  There’s a really nasty rapist who seems incapable of thinking about anything but rape.  Now, I’ve met a lot of rapists in my time, and none of them were like this, so there was something of a blow to my suspension of disbelied.  Still, Anderson makes it very clear that this is a person of no redeeming quality.  Melissa, the sister of one of his victims, then seduces this guy (who seems to be dealing with the problem of how he is going to go about raping someone who appears to be consensual) into taking her out on a motorbike at a hundred miles an hour.  Then she tips the bike, and we get a really gruesome portrayal of the death of Mr. Rape and Melissa.

    The writing here is well done.  If you’re into the snuff-film style of writing, then you will certainly enjoy the gory detail.  Oak Anderson paints his scene well, with a level of detail that I have to appreciate even while it nauseates me.

    Ok, so, we have this great opening scene.  It’s a bit of an in medeas res, a scene with no major characters in it (because they’re both dead at the end), but a scene that snaps us into the gory results of what we’re going to be talking about.  It is at this point that Oak Anderson takes us back in time, over three years, to the beginnings of the TOWY movement.  Here we meet our protagonists, Charlie and Sarah.  Then Anderson displays some fundamental novel-writing issues that essentially end one’s ability to effectively track the plot.

    After the first scene, chronology goes out the window completely.  That three-year move back in time is just the first in a series of chronological bounces the author makes.  It’s not just that his chapter headings spell out the eventual result of the TOWY movement as soon as we start reading them, but that he is constantly telling us what is going to happen.  This is a trick I see short-story writers using all the time - the chronology bounce.  In a short story, it’s used to keep the reader guessing and provide a feeling of disorientation that, for the length of a short story, can be interesting.

    For the length of a novel, it’s not so much interesting as it is a combination of confusing and spoiler-y.  The end result is this:  I know what major events are going to take place in the book before they take place, because Anderson is constantly telling me they’re going to take place before they do.  Guess how much suspense and intrigue that lands me with when the things actually happen?  If you guessed any positive number, you are incorrect.

    So, chronology is a problem.  Now let’s talk perspective.  Anderson’s perspective whips between character and character in the space of a paragraph.  It’s disorienting as well, and it makes it almost impossible to follow the story.  This story is written from the perspective of everyone, and that’s a significant problem for me as well.  It’s really hard for me to form an emotional connection to these characters when I’m constantly jolted out of their head and into someone else’s.  I’m not saying it can’t be done - it clearly can.  But it’s a real bitch to pull off, and I see this technique fail more times than I see it succeed.  Omniscient perspective is the souffle of writing. Extraordinarily difficult to pull off, decent-tasting when done correctly.  And you could have easily made quiche instead.

    The bones of this story are good.  It’s an intriguing premise, and frighteningly possible-feeling.  Anderson has built a terrifying beast, and I’m actually kind of glad his book is so badly written, because I would be worried about life imitating art if this thing got popular.  The idea behind TOWY is at once terrifying and perfectly logical, and I love Anderson for trying to explore it.  If he took this thing to a story editor for a couple of polishes, fixed his perspective issues and then ironed out his chronology, it would be amazing.  As it is, the characters become flat and uninteresting.

    In short, I give Anderson points for having a good story, but I take them away for not being able to effectively tell it.  Thus, I end up with:

    Friday-Indie-Logo-One-Point-Five



  • Friday Indie Review: The Lost Enforcer by Irene Radford and Bob Brown

     

    Caveat to my readers to begin this:  I am not without prejudice when it comes to these authors.  I consider them both friends, and have been camping with them on a number of occasions.  In fact, I appear as a character in The Lost Enforcer, albeit briefly.  The name of the animal is changed away from “Frog,” though.  Which is to say, I may be biased toward it.

    That said, this book is a pretty decent hoot.

    The Enforcers are an interstellar, semi-autonomous police force.  In terms of galactic politics, this presents a number of issues.  Over a hundred years ago, Enforcer Jakai managed to shoot down a spacecraft belonging to the power-mad warlord Dorno Ben Sant, but he had to sacrifice his own ship to do it.  Ever since, Jakai and Ben Sant have been in a sort of stasis, waiting.

    Until (of course) now.  Ben Sant has taken control of a Palestinian rights movement, posing as the returned Mahdi, the Twelfth Prophet, here to lead glorious Islam into the…well, you get the idea.  He’s harnessed the fundamentalist crazies in an effort to grab power for himself.  Jakai, awakened by a couple of backpackers in the Cascade Mountains, is out to stop him.

    There’s a whole passel of characters to deal with.  The Intergalactic Parliament is in political conflict with the High Council, and if you’re wondering what that means then join the club.  I couldn’t figure it out either, but I decided to liken it to the difference between the UN General Assembly and the Security Council.  That’s a wild guess on my part.  But there’s certainly intrigue, and everyone is lying to everyone on the high-sided political climate.  Back on Earth, first contact has been made, botched, and is now turning into a diplomatic kerfuffle.  Everyone has their finger in the pie, everyone thinks they know what’s best, and everyone tends to just make the situation worse.

    This is a fun, fluffy read, and I enjoyed it.  It does have some problems, though.  To begin with, I had a hard time really getting into any of the characters.  The plot is interesting, but the characters themselves flash by in such a dizzying haze that I tend not to care about them.  I get that Cody, our backpacking earth girl, is something of a protagonist-ish figure, but honestly she’s not a character with a hell of a lot of agency.  At various points in this book Cody is captured by aliens, kidnapped from those aliens by another alien, and smuggled across the Mexican border by…well, by aliens, but in the illegal-immigrant sense.  She lacks agency through most of the book, and what she gets towards the end kinda feels too-little-too late.  That, and she totally leads on any guy attracted to her to get what she wants, which is kind of despicable.

    The book flashes POV characters so quickly that is can be hard to keep up with it.  Someone you were just in the head of is, a page later, being referred to with descriptors only.  It’s not impossible to sort out, but especially at the beginning I had to go back and re-read a couple of times to figure out who my perspective character was, where the change happened, and to reset my expectations.  A lot of these shifts happen mid-action-scene, which ups the level of disorientation.  It didn’t kill the book, but it felt unnecessary.

    All of that said, the action in this book is a hoot.  It is a comedy of errors, with nobody getting anything right.  It is one colossal pooch-screw after another, and it’s fun to watch all these characters fall flat on their faces.  It’s a book that should be approached as a fluffy, fun summer read, but it is a very fun summer read.

    Friday-Indie-Logo Three point 5

     



  • Friday Indie Review: Dark and Day by Israel Grey

     

     

    I’m honestly still trying to figure out where to start with this one.

    Let’s try here:  Dark and Day is a post/pre apocalyptic story of a cold war between magic and technology.  It is exactly as weird as that sounds, and pretty much you can judge whether you want to take on this book by your knee-jerk reactions to that sentence.

    We’re on an alien world.  This world apparently rotates around its sun in a geosynchronous fashion, such that the same side of the world is always pointed toward the sun.  In other words, there’s one side of the world that’s always daytime, and one side that’s always night. hence the title of the book.  It gets weirder, though, as everyone on the Dark side has been raised in a propagandist world of hatred for “Day-Enders,” and (you guessed it) everyone on the Day side has similar issues with the Dark.  The Day views technology as evil, and practices exclusively magic.  The Dark sees magic as dangerous and corrupting, and instead focuses on technology, with crews of people piloting mechs into battle (because, of course mechs).

    I did some writer’s workshops with Jerry Nordley this spring, and when I did I noticed his evaluation style was different than mine.  The first thing Jerry does when he reads a story is evaluate the believability of the speculative elements in the tale.  He really wants an internally consistent world, one that makes sense on an instinctive level.  So I recognize that people like this exist, and to them I say walk away from Dark and Day.  The setting elements of Dark and Day make about as much sense as the setting of any of the Final Fantasy game series – they are there, and the reader is asked to accept them and move on.

    That said, I love me some Final Fantasy, and I had no problem hand-waving at all the stuff that doesn’t make sense (like, say, how does anything grow on Dark side).

    The book is really about propaganda, religion, and the depths to which humanity can sink if it places faith over humanity.  Our hero Jonothan (or Jono) discovers that “good and evil” have been all too categorically defined, and he’s in a race to stop the annihilation of basically everyone on this world.  The devout self-destruction of the cultures on Dark and Day side reminded me of nothing so much as the portrayal of the two major superpowers in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

    So far, I’ve compared this book to Final Fantasy and Dr. Strangelove.  For those who know me, you’re starting to realize that I actually enjoyed the heck out of this book.  It was really a fun read.

    Jono is a great character.  He starts the book as a weak, broken child.  Everyone makes fun of him in his Dark-side home, because when he first came to town he was mistaken for a marauding wizard.  He’s basically been kicked around his whole life, and he’s looking to start doing some kicking himself.  Fortunately, he’s brilliant.  In the technology-driven Dark side, academics is the path to success, and Jono can get what’s coming to him by essentially drinking the Kool-aid.  Of course, his beliefs are challenged, and his intelligence starts to put together a comprehensive picture of the world.  That, in turn, sends him off on this journey to try to reconcile the two sides of this Cold War at what would be the equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    The book is also littered with small pieces of art, which showed up quite nicely on my Kindle.  It was certainly a nice touch.

    OK, to the problems with the book.  This thing needs to see a line editor.  About once every other page, there’s an error that jolts you out of the flow of the words.  It’s not so bad that I couldn’t read the book, but it is noticeable and frequent that one has to pause and deal with a problem.  That’s not the sort of thing I want to see in a work that’s priced at $7.00 on Amazon.

    In addition, there’s a tendency on the part of Grey to call a rabbit a smeerp.  Some portions of his world require new terminology; the idea of “day” is replaced with “wake,” which makes sense as there is no diurnal rotation of the sun.  But there’s these things called “muscows” that are large, milk-producing, herd animals.  I get that he needed a new lexicon in places, but it feels as though Grey simply got a little carried away with it.

    In short, this isn’t a perfect book.  But it is a hell of a lot of fun.  Some people are going to screen themselves away based on this review, but if you’re not turned off by the flaws I’ve listed then you’re going to have yourself a good old time running around this weird freakin’ world with Jono.

    three



  • Friday Indie Review: Horded by Frances Pauli

     

    Horded is the second book in Frances Pauli’s Kingdoms Gone series, and I have to say I liked it even more than the first one.  Several years have elapsed since the events in Unlikely, and this book deals with what happens to Maera, the young, thoughtless girl who would have done anything to win the attention of the villain in the last book.  Being the villain of course, Vane uses her as a convenient tool to get what he’s after, even though she’s too young to realize what’s just happened until much too late.

    With that said, it’s not absolutely necessary to read Unlikely before Horded; it just gives you a little more background on the main character and the setting, as pockets, thistledown, and dust are not re-explained for the first-time reader.  For this story, those things are pretty easy to pick up from context.  Maera herself has obviously done some maturing and introspection in the years that have passed since the last book.

    Maera has spent the last few years travelling from town to town, trying to stay away from the gangs that fight over the pockets and remnants of the old magical Kingdom that used to be.  Her experience has taught her that magic leads to fights over who controls  that magic, and she wants none of it.

    Drifting and trying to make amends after being outcast from her old life, Meara’s finally found a town that hasn’t been tagged by one of the gangs, with no magical traces to attract that kind of riffraff.

    Or maybe not?   One evening she sees the Weaver’s wife put coins on the lip of the well, and two gray arms reach out from the sky above the well, take the coins, and leave a package.  The town has a pocket after all, right smack-dab in in the middle the town square.  Every time she looks at the pocket, she feels strange, like it’s sending out some kind of rhythm or pulse to pound around in her head.  She goes home and starts packing, but before she can leave a Gobelin pops out of the pocket, kisses her in front of the whole town, and gets dragged back into the pocket by another Gobelin.  But not before one of the villagers manages to put an arrow into the Gobelin kisser.  Always kind of the social pariah, now Maera is the center of attention, and the town is out for Gobelin blood.

    Our other viewpoint character for this book is Tal, a rather unlucky, unblessed Gobelin whose younger brother appears to have inherited all the good genes from their parents.  Including now finding his “Tir Talis” or “beating heart,” even if that individual does happen to be human.  Tal is just trying to get his brother away from the human “witch” who’s enslaved him, but his brother is not cooperating.  Not by a long shot.   Tal gets dragged from one calamity into another as his brother insists on bringing this human with them.  A human who doesn’t even know what  it means to be Gobelin; a human the horde is not going to approve of.

    Unlikely’s review has apparently been eaten in the great website hack of 2014, but Horded mirrors the lyrical, mythical feel that I really liked in the first book, and builds on it.  The author’s prose is seamlessly blended with rich imagery, nuance, and a kind of timeless quality.  I also really enjoy getting to see so many divergent fairy tale-like landscapes.  With all of the “Tir Talis” running around, this one does feel a bit more like a romance, but since one of our viewpoint characters is outside of that relationship, watching the effects of this magical bond on his brother and Maera, it falls short of being the true focus of the book.   Maera and Tal are actually very similar characters in their self-loathing, poor self-esteem, and immediate willingness to assume all blame.

    In that regard, they operate  as a foil for each other.  Usually, I would say that you have two very different characters to use as a foil, but somehow the author makes it work in this case.  Like looking into a mirror, Maera and Tal highlight the flaws in each other’s internal logic, and while we don’t get to see into Tal’s brother’s head, as a character that obviously puts a lot of trust and faith in both of them, he provides a kind of background counter-point to their rather pessimistic views on everything.

    For me, I think the true message of the book was one of healing and realizing your own potential– even if that potential is outside of societal norms.  I think the author’s done something really amazing here by taking what are honestly fairly standard fairy tale elements and themes, and layering so much deeper meaning into them, that the story eventually ends up somewhere totally unexpected.

    I really enjoyed Unlikely, so I am glad to report that Horded did not disappoint, and holds together even better than the first book.

     

    Friday-Indie-Logo Three point 5



  • Friday Indie Review: Shadow of the Winter King by Erik Scott de Bie

    Let me start with a bit of a caveat:  I may not have the most neutral of perspectives when I review a work by Erik Scott de Bie.  When we first began to be authors, Erik was one of the authors who was flat-out supportive of us, even showing up at the first reading I ever gave despite it having a horrid time slot.  He’s a supportive, classy guy, so I’m bound to be favorably inclined to him.  Does that color my opinion of his work?  I would be shocked if it didn’t, but I’m giving the opinion anyways.

    Ok, with that solidly out of the way, let’s talk about the book.

    Shadow of the Winter King is de Bie’s break with his Forgotten Realms books and his foray into the world of indie publishing.  As much of a move as that is, it’s not hard while reading the book to rename a couple of things and imagine it as one of those books.  This is old-school sword-and-sorcery fantasy.  You can immediately pick out the characters that are going to be important via their connection to a magic sword.  Does this person have a magic sword?  Ok, then they’re going to be pretty central to the plot line.  The magic swords vary in flavor and abilities, but we are assured that (despite their seeming proliferation) they are very rare and valuable items.

    That kind of old-school flavor always gets a nostalgic reaction from me.  Along with that old-school flavor we have a grim-dark antihero protagonist (wielding a magic sword, of course) who is on a quest to kill the evil sorceror (+evil sorceror sword).  In order to help him do this, he has recruited help in the form of the woman who once betrayed him and the entire kingdom (whom the antihero promptly returns a magic sword to).  All of this leads us into a classic situation where there really aren’t any good guys, just temporary allies.  There’s a sense throughout the book that, at any point, any one of these characters could pop off and murder any of the other characters (using a magic sword).

    I can tell you right now that, if there is any murder, it will be described in amazing detail.  De Bie’s writing style leaves little to be desired in terms of setting the stage.  One smells the dank, nasty taverns and the horse-apple-littered roads.  The action scenes in this book are well-scripted and beautiful.  So many books skimp on the action scenes these days that Shadow of the Winter King really feels almost cinematic.

    Ultimately, though, whether you enjoy this book is going to boil down to taste.  Let’s do word association.  “Grim-dark assassins and wagonloads of magic swords.”  If you’re a speculative fiction fan, you had one of two reactions to that phrase.  Either you thought “sweet,” or you thought “really?”  I’m one of the people who just accept the banality of the subject and enjoy the feel anyways – my reaction is “sweet,” but I comprehend the fact that it ain’t for everyone.  If you’re like me, though, and you think that phrase sounds awesome, then jump on the de Bie wagon and go for a ride.  Don’t expect to learn valuable lessons, but do expect for the bodies to hit the floor.

    After, you know, being stabbed.  With magic swords.

    three



  • Friday Indie Review: The Red Eye by K. W. Taylor

    The Red Eye is the debut novel by by K. W. Taylor.    I went into this book wanting to like it.  I really did.    The premise of the book, according to the blurb we received, was that it would be about a late-night radio talk-show host who debunks legends, myths and the arcane.  This becomes a bit of a problematic embarrassment for him when he slowly gets dragged into the arcane world himself.

    The character introduction actually went off really well, too.  This author grabbed me with her description of the hungover deejay puttering to work in his Volkswagen Rabbit.  Here’s the introduction we get to our main POV, Brody, and his attitudes:

    “Comin’ up, the midnight ramblings of a voice from beyond,” George droned. “Phone lines open up in ten, so call up and talk to me. Two two nine…” He rattled off the phone number, and I rolled my eyes.

    “Voice from beyond.” Shyeah. Whatever, dude. I’m a goddamned skeptic, not a psychic.
    Nobody understands my show, not even the other deejays.

     

    I love a strong intro scene.   From the first couple pages it was apparent the author knew how to use the English language, and she was starting to set up something interesting.

    The problem for me, is that much like the other deejays, once I got into the book I didn’t understand Brody either.  The intro to the book sets up someone who is a self-described career-skeptic, who has a history of debunking the paranormal, who has won himself a whole show devoted to disproving things that go bump in the night, and isn’t afraid go toe-to-toe with anyone who says differently.

    With giving Brody that kind of background, I wanted to see him kicking some ass and debunking something at the beginning of the book.   He can be rude; he can be snarky– the author’s set up a guy that doesn’t care who he pisses off, and is perfectly OK with rolling into work 20 minutes late and hungover, no matter whose feathers it ruffles– but to pull off that kind of strong introduction this character has to show us that intense, analytical mindset in action.  It’s what allows him to poke holes in others’ (obviously erroneous) beliefs and enjoy doing so.

    Instead, we see none of that.  The first call of the night freaks him out, and even though this is a caller he’s supposedly had verbal sparing matches with for months, we aren’t shown any of that.  Instead, he kinda believes her and cuts the call short, while he hurriedly reassures himself she’s just being a kook.  Here’s the kicker: all the caller says is that he’s pissing people off in the arcane community, and he may not like the consequences.

    Ok. Well. Yeah. Of course, he is.  That kind of goes with the territory.  The character you’ve just introduced me to, who I was hoping to read about, wouldn’t give a flying flip who “in the arcane community” he pisses off.  He doesn’t believe in it!

    Which led me, the reader, to this chain of thought:

    Wait, a minute.  This can’t be right. This guy talks to fanatics who believe in the arcane for a living.  They are probably 99% of his callers. If he gets spooked by a repeat caller, where is his skepticism?  If he doesn’t even argue with her, or try to spar, how does he debunk anything?   How does he even have a show?

    To be clear, nothing in the least spooky has happened to Brody’s character at all at this point in the book.  And here is my biggest, ultimate problem with this book.  Brody is not a skeptic.  Brody doesn’t become a skeptic.  Let’s go back to Webster’s dictionary.  A skeptic is:

    a person who questions or doubts something (such as a claim or statement) : a person who often questions or doubts things

    Brody just kinda hopes the arcane isn’t reality.

    For example, Brody confronts a stalker who turns out to be his repeat caller, and instead of assuming like any other reasonable human, that’s she’s just a crazy stalker– which would be still scary enough on its own– he immediately buys into everything she says.

    Instead of thinking, “Wait a minute.  This is a stalker who’s just admitted to following me around for months, and could easily have found any of this information by chatting up my estranged ex-wife, talking to my landlord, hell on Google, or even going through my trash like any other sham psychic,”  he immediately jumps to the conclusion that she must be on the level, even though he doesn’t want to believe it.  The author doesn’t even try to show us any kind tap-dance from Brody that might indicate he doesn’t buy her story hook, line, and sinker.

    This is topped off with Brody’s assistant telling him that George (the announcer from our little introduction piece) tried to make a human sacrifice out of her on their first date.  Guess what.  He believes that too.  No problem-o.    Not even a glimmer of, “While I’m sure that was very scary, and you have every right to avoid him, are you sure that’s what really happened?  And really, why the hell didn’t you go directly to the cops, change jobs, etc?”

    There is no skeptical mindset to this character at all.   Brody is a believer who had a crisis of faith, and now the arcane is coming to reclaim him.  I’m thinking that he made up all of the debunking on his resume, so he could stay up late at night and drink.

    This flaw (which I’m obviously having big trouble with) gets compounded because once Brody does finally start to get some answers, the author clumsily cuts out mid-dialogue and withholds all of the new information from the reader while continuing the scene. This results in a disappointed reviewer.

    And I quote:

    “This gets a trifle complicated,” she said.”Let me see if I can explain.”

    And boy did she ever. When she was done, I didn’t know what to believe anymore.

    Nothing… nothing in my dull but happily quiet life would ever be dull or happy or quiet anymore, not if everything she said was true.

    She held out the candle, and her gaze pierced me with expectation and a glimmer of hope.

     

    And the scene continues with no attempt at actual explanation whatsoever.

    Say what?  Brody gets some kind of breakdown about what’s going on (as I give up on him ever being a skeptic, sigh. Brody loves him some hearsay), and the audience doesn’t even get to go along for the ride?  That’s just not cool.   It’s OK to withhold information from your readers, dramatic tension depends on it, but you can’t have a scene in which someone deliberately and blatantly reveals information to your POV without also giving it to the audience.  You can break the scene before the information is divulged, you can hint that information may have been given, and have it occur not in the scene, but you can’t intentionally exclude your audience from something the POV is currently experiencing.

    Guess what? Telling your reader, “Now the character learns all kinds of information, but I’m not going to show you,” throws your reader right out of the scene. It excludes them from your story.

    One good thing I can say about this book is that the prose is easy to read.  The imagery is often spot-on and interesting.  I just wish the characters were as consistent, and the book didn’t try so hard at being spooky and abstruse.  Possibly some readers will be able to get over the fact that Brody isn’t a skeptic, or the author’s tendency to wave information in front of the reader before jerking it away, Charlie-Brown-style– presumably in the pursuit of more mysteriousness.  Obviously, I couldn’t.

    So final thoughts on this one: This book had a great premise with lots of potential, but failed to follow through. It could have been great.  Instead, it is rather disappointing, and not really recommended.

     

     Friday-Indie-Logo-One-Point-Five

     



  • Friday Indie Review: Dragon Gate by Gary Jonas

      Those of you who’ve been following the site for a while know that I am an absolute slut for Gary Jonas books.  I space out my reviews of his, so it doesn’t feel like I’m just playing on the fanboy fiddle (even though that’s exactly what I’m doing). And so I will start with my gushiness:  Dragon Gate is another really good book from Jonas.  It’s the third of the Jonathan Shade books, which have been an overwhelmingly awesome series to date.

    This time, Jonathan’s still dealing with the issues accrued back in Acheron Highway.  There’s a bundle of them. I don’t want to get into the details, because frankly a lot of them would be spoilers for those of you who haven’t read Acheron Highwayand all of you should.  It is still, to date, the best book I’ve reviewed on this site, and I don’t want to lay down spoilers.

    There’s a family from another dimension here on a mission of vengeance.  In order to pay back some of the debts Jonathan racked up back in Acheron Highway, Jonathan and his crew get stuck with the task of protecting the yahoos that initially pissed them off. This is complicated by the fact that the soon-to-be-victims aren’t really enthusiastic about the protection. This is a solid book.  It’s a good ride, like all the Shade books, and it’s a lot of fun.

    Everything I’m about to say I say in comparison to the rest of Jonas’ work.

    After the amazing experience that was Acheron Highway, Dragon Gate is something of a letdown.  Jonas appears to be trying to branch out, and so he tells the story from multiple perspectives.  We rotate our vision from Jonathan to his companions and the people they’re protecting.  This, sadly, has the effect of weakening the Jonathan Shade voice that’s part of the charm of the series.  It’s an interesting intellectual exercise, to be sure, but it makes the experience of reading the book a little more watery than his first two offerings.  This feels less like a Jonathan Shade book, because that’s only a fraction of what’s going on.

    The story is good.  The plot, the twists; they all hold up nicely, and this is still a very, very good book.  Again, Jonas’s writing is such that I don’t want to give too much away.

    When I post a score on this blog, it reflects my experience reading the book.  It’s about how it made me feel to read it.  When that’s altered by some personal bias, I try to at least point that out in the review.  In this case, I’m pretty sure my enjoyment of this book was lessened simply because I came into it with ridiculously high expectations.  Jonas has been doing nothing but improving since I started reading his books, and I just naturally assumed that this book would be better than Acheron Highway.  In fact, here’s a quote from my review on Acheron Highway:

    “Normally, at this point, I’d tell you to go read this book.  But don’t!  First, go read Modern Sorcery, the first book in the Jonathan Shade series.  You’ll like it, and then you’ll get to this book and realize that Jonas is constantly getting better.”

    The problem is, when the book I’m instinctively comparing you to is Acheron Highway, you’ve got a really, stupidly high bar to clear.  And Dragon Gate doesn’t do it.  Dragon Gate is, independently, most likely a Four-Giant-F book.  It is very, very good.  But I couldn’t get that out of it, because I was constantly lamenting the fact that it wasn’t as stunningly great as AH.

    So, all of that said, what’s my recommendation with this book?  You should still buy it and read it.  Dragon Gate is still a must-read, because it’s independently a very good book, and because Jonas doesn’t look to be stopping the Shade books any time soon.  I am unfairly docking it half an F for not being as good as its predecessor, which is a bar that no other book on this site has had to clear.  This means I’m holding Gary Jonas to a standard that I simply don’t hold other authors to, simply because those authors aren’t Gary Jonas.  This book is most likely just as good as many of the other four-star books I’ve reviewed, and you should definitely go read it.  But I couldn’t give AH more than four, so I have to give Dragon Gate something less.  As a result:

    Friday-Indie-Logo Three point 5



  • Friday Indie Review: Shadows of Asphodel by Karen Kincy

    This week’s review is Shadows of Asphodel by author Karen Kincy.   I met Karen at Norwescon this year, and before I went to her reading, I really had no concept of what the term “Deiselpunk” meant, other than a vague relation to Steampunk.  By the time I left her reading, I knew I would have to pick up and review this book.

    The story is dieselpunk; it has airships, electricity, occasional firearms and fossil-fuel powered vehicles.  But honestly, what drew me into this book so whole-heartedly was the author’s alternate-history retelling of the early 1900′s historical conflicts in Europe.  She spins the historical setting not only with her magical fantasy elements, but by telling it from the viewpoint of an American mercenary who has no clear allegiance to any of the factions.  She twists that historical paradigm even further by making this mercenary (Ardis), obviously half-Caucasian/half-Chinese and female.

    What impressed me about this book is the author makes all of that absolutely believable the whole way through.

    The world and the characters truly felt dynamic and drew me into the story on page one, and I stayed right there in the world with the characters until the last page.  This is one of the few books I’ve picked up this year which I can honestly say I’ll probably reread at some point, just for its sheer entertainment value.

    Anyway, onto the premise of the book:

    Ardis has traveled to Europe and hired herself out as a mercenary to Austria-Hungary, while she follows her own personal mission to find a man she believes to be her father.   She doesn’t have much to go on: instructions from her mother to look in Europe, a fake name and a brass locket with a picture of her mother and her presumed father inside.

    She’s found work as a bodyguard and contract-killer for the mages who have used a combination of magic and technology to create a “hex” over Austria-Hungary. If you’re inside the hex, firearms don’t work.  That suits her just fine; she prefers her sword Chun Yi.  Or, at least she does until she finds herself standing on the battlefield next to a dying necromancer.

    According to legend, you never want to be the one  to kill a necromancer, since their spirit will haunt yours forever.   She can’t trust that his spirit won’t mistake her for his killer, so she really has no choice but to take him prisoner and try to get him healed.  On the upside, maybe she can could turn him back over to the order of necromancers or his family for a ransom.   Of course, it turns out that Wendel, (the-no-longer-dying necromancer) is not worth money, and a there are several really good arguments for him being a liability. Ardis is stuck with him anyway.

    This story does fall in the outer boundary of the romance genre, since the resolution of one of the major plot points relies on Ardis being in a particular relationship, but it does not contain by any stretch of the imagination a “standard romance plot” or fall into the traps that cause many people to avoid the genre as “bodice rippers”.   If anyone’s going to be doing any ripping in this book, it’s usually Ardis herself, and in any given scene, she’s more likely to have her sword, Chun Yi, sticking out someone’s back.

    While the romance is there, it was very tastefully done.  It didn’t get in the way of the plot or the world the author had created, but instead seamlessly blended in to the general milieu of airships, hexes, automatons, and necromancy.  I believe even those who usually shy away from anything labelled “romance” would still find this story an enjoyable read.  There are several sex scenes, but they don’t overwelm or take up the majority of the story.  In fact, if sex makes you squeam-ey, you can totally skip over those scenes and still be ok.

    Not to mention that Ardis’ romantic interest (and general partner in crime) is a snarky, fly-by-the -seat-of-his-pants necromancer with an Absinthe habit.  Wendel, the wise-cracking-corpse-raiser, is not exactly who you usually expect when someone says “romantic lead.”

    Still, whether you’re a reader of romance or not, feel no fear and go pick this book up.  It’s just a darn good read that should satisfy both audiences.

    All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and hope that the author lets me go back to the world again soon.   You can bet I’ll be picking up book two when it comes out.

     

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