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  • 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



  • Blog Hopping – Four Questions for the Writer

    Thank you to the amazing and talented Phyllis Irene Radford of http://bookviewcafe.com and http://ramblin-phyl.livejournal.com for inviting me on this blog tour.

    Phyl answered the questions below and then picked out three other victi– err, authors– to answer them next.   I am honored to have the opportunity, so without further ado:

     

    1) What am I working on?

    I’m currently working on book three of Frog and I’s urban fantasy Gift of Grace series, tenatively titled Falling From Grace.  It has a lot of changes from the previous books for our main characters, as well as some fallout from the last book as well. (Pun totally intended, for those who have read book 2.)

     

    2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

    My work differs mostly because it is done as a collaboration with my husband, Frog.  He writes one perspective, I write the other, and then we trade chapters back and forth all of the way through the book.   We usually outline the book in acts, since that gives us both an idea where our characters need to start and end their part, and any major goals for that arc.  I love this loose outline because it means that our characters can still go off and do something crazy we weren’t expecting while still trading the plot back and forth.  As long as we can bring our folks back around to the target by the end of the chapter, it’s all ok.

    This style of writing also gives our main characters two very distinct voices, because they really do have two different people standing behind them.

    The magic system in our books also differs from others in the genre, because it is entirely based on summoning.  Being a magic user means you’re able to send or receive types of energy.  Magic doesn’t create anything new, it just moves around things that already exist.

     

    3) Why do I write what I do?

    Mostly because it’s a lot of fun.  I write stories I would love to read.

     

    4) How does your writing process work?

    Where I start is probably the most different from other writers.  Basically, I think about where my character left the last book, or what I want to convey about this character (if it’s a new series), and then Frog and I will throw ideas and events back and forth together until we have an outline that sounds like a lot of fun to both of us.  Then we’ll decide which character is going to start the book, and which chapters absolutely have to be told from one or the other’s perspective.

    After that, it’s much like any other writer’s process.  I sit down and I make words appear on the page until that page is full. Then I go to the next one.  The next day, I may open that chapter and decide I don’t like 25% of the words, and pull them out, replacing them slightly shinier words.  Then I add more words onto that, until eventually I have all my chapters.   Then Frog and I line our chapters in order and do a full edit, checking to make sure Grace isn’t standing at the edge of a bridge at the end of one chapter, but mysteriously crouching in the middle of the road during the opening scene of the next one.

     

    For next week, I thought I’d send you over to central Washington and northern Idaho where we have some very talented writers:

    Voss Foster, vossfoster.blogspot.com
    Voss Foster lives in the middle of the Eastern Washington desert, where he writes speculative fiction.

    Adriane Ceallaigh, www.adrianeceallaigh.com
    Adriane Ceallaigh, Author of Unbound: Kayla Blackstone Book One, enjoys knitting and managing the Central Washington Authors Guild.

    Kaye Thornbrugh, kayethornbrugh.blogspot.com



  • 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.

     

      four



  • Friday Indie Review: Zirkua Fantastic by Voss Foster

     

    I have oft spoken at cons about the importance of clean language.

    The written word is simply a medium.  For the most part, you want the words to leave the page and enter the brain with as little resistance as possible; the actual act of looking at the sentence and putting together the meaning should be a nigh-invisible act for your reader.

    Voss Foster is a writer who has mastered this art.  He has perhaps the cleanest language of any book I have reviewed on this site, and it’s a skill I deeply envy.  This is going to be a book I point other people at to demonstrate what really good, clean language looks like.  Reading Foster’s writing is an osmotic process, and I blew through the 164 pages of this book in little to no time.

    So, that said, let’s talk about plot.  Zirkua Fantastic is about art, the sacrifices we make for our art, and the power it has.  The circus itself is a mystical entity of dedicated performers, each of whom willingly sacrifice a portion of their life for their art.  This seems sinister at first, but what Foster pulls off is a way of making that sacrifice seem creepy and sinister while simultaneously heroic.  Underneath all of this, of course, is a ritual that binds a chaotic god, and the art of the performers is the thing that holds him in check.  That said, it also means the performers themselves are bound, mandated to continue to perform.

    There’s a kind of beautiful metaphor here.  It is the art of the circus that holds back the god of chaos – a god whose freedom will mean war, strife, and terror for all humanity.  I’m a fan of art-as-power metaphors, and Foster gives us a strong one.  Humanity has the choice between a travelling circus and war; Foster is not-so-subtly suggesting that maybe the world should choose more circuses.  It’s a hell of a statement.

    Underneath all of this we have the romance.  It’s a good story – the magically bound performer is in love with one of the vendors who follow the Zirkua about.  There’s nothing terribly outstanding about this romance (I do not count the fact that it is homosexual to be abnormal in the least).

    Which brings us to the part where I talk a little about the bad stuff.  I mentioned above that Foster is the master of osmotic writing.  His words are hard to notice, and that’s a truly great thing.  That said, there are times in a book where you want to slow the reader down and let them breathe.

    I’ll use the opening moment as an example.  In this, our protagonist Tobias is juggling some hoops.  Foster conveys this information with his usual deftness; it takes three lines or so  to describe.  Then, he moves on to the next piece of information.  In a book that’s really about the power and necessity of art and sacrifice, that opening basically lets us know that Tobias juggles some hoops.  He slips, isn’t too good at it, but recovers.

    I want more from this scene.  Starting mid-performance is fine, but not with the flourish.  Let us feel Tobias’s breath rise and fall as the hoops move through the air, let us rejoice with him in the pure exultation of his art, let us feel with him when he slips, and let us cheer for him when he gets it right.  Don’t just tell us what happens; really let us feel the pace of the performace.  After all, the book is about the power of this performance.  It’s central, vital to the plot.  The reader should feel that power right from the start.

    The overall story is conveyed skillfully, but there are simply moments (like that) where a scene that I know should be vivid and intense simply moves by like so much more text.

    All that said, Foster is growing as an artist, and Zirkua Fantastic proves it.  This book isn’t perfect, but it’s worth killing a summer afternoon with.

    three



  • Friday Indie Review: Unbound by Adriane Ceallaigh

     

    Up for review this week, we have Unbound, which is the debut work from author Adriane Ceallaigh.  It is an older release, so she also has some other novels out as well.

    I’m going to start this review by stating up front that I enjoyed this read, and it kept me entertained all the way through.  Adriane has set up a very complex and treacherous world for her characters to navigate.

    Unbound is set in a dark and gritty contemporary fantasy landscape where the supernatural is always present and accepted.  In this world the “things that go bump in the night” are all real, and generations of mages have been captured for their magic.  The mages we meet in the opening scene of the book have been bound as slaves for a very long time.   The description in the book reminded me of controllable zombies with powers.  Even after finishing the book, I am honestly not sure if the controlled mages are actually undead (at least sometimes) and kept moving by their magic, or just extremely filthy and unkempt.

    There are two  jobs the slaves, often called mage-hunters, appear to be commonly used for. One is to hunt down unbound mages to add to their master’s power base;  the other is to act as the hitman/brute squad for their master.

    The main character, Kayla Blackstone, is a supernatural bounty hunter and runner.  This is different from a mage-hunter, because Kayla relies on a magical sword and potions/items to capture her prey, and only takes on new contracts or work when she wants to.  She tries to avoid the mage-hunters and their masters all together, operating on the fringes of the supernatural world.

    This staying-under-the-radar plan goes sideways for Kayla when one of the local kingpin creeps, Keaton, notices her efficiency.  He decides to offer her a job of the not-so-optional variety.   She turns him down anyway, which results in her house being burnt down by his mage-hunters with her daughter and husband inside.  Keaton uses her grief at this loss as an opportunity to give her a mind-wiping magical potion, and convinces her she has been working for him all along.  This book becomes a tale about her trying to get out from under his influence and find herself again.  It’s also about the people she meets during that journey.

    Which bring us to my one issue about this story.  Basically everything I’ve told you so far happens by the end of the first chapter.   The pacing in the book is incredibly fast, and rarely slows down to give the characters, or the reader, time to truly digest and react to what just happened.

    For me, the breakneck pace in this book resulted in both a positive and a negative.

    On the positive side:

    Opening the book to finishing it only took me two hours at most.

    The world and story concept definitely drove me forward and kept me turning the pages without thinking of putting the book down, because I wanted to find out what happened next.

    But on the negative side:

    Because there’s no down time between events (or very rarely), the characters’ reactions sometimes felt rushed or even a little manic. There’s also a few occasions where one character will state a new plot point while another character ignores what was said, since there’s been no time to set up whatever is happening anywhere else.  I still enjoyed the read, but that did make suspension of disbelief a little bumpy at times.

    I do have to give Adriane props here, that even when I felt the pacing was the most hurried, I still wanted to know what happened next.

    Lastly, I’m actually leaving the book with more questions about the world than I had when I started.  This may be a result of the sprint-like pacing, or it may be intentional on the author’s part, given that this is book one in a series.  Either way, I’m left with the feeling that there’s so much more about this world and these characters that needs to be explored.

    Let me be clear: There are already some really cool concepts in this story and it is definitely worth the read; I just feel like the story idea would have popped even more if the book had given the reader a little more to chew on and the time to do that.

    This is a debut work, and I felt it shows so much promise along with the things that show there’s some room for growth. I’m looking forward to when the next Kayla Blackstone book comes out, because I really want to see how the author handles the questions she’s left unanswered.

    Hopefully we’ll also see a lot more growth from these characters in book 2.  All in all, it’s still a good read, and I’m very happy I picked it up.

    three



  • Friday Indie Review: Brightly by Kaye Thornbrugh

    Welcome back – the move is over, the website hack is taken care of (though we’re still rebuilding our backlog of posts).  Time to get back to the business of indie books.

    What better way to re-launch than with the sequel to the book that started our reviews here?

    I’ve met Kaye Thornbrugh at a couple of good cons by now, and I’ve always enjoyed hanging out with her.  I liked Flicker, her first book, but there were some rocky points that needed shoring up, and I pointed that out.  It was a good book.

    She’s learned a lot about the art of writing a novel since then.  Brightly isn’t a good book – it’s a great one.

    Flicker set up the world in which these characters live; the magic shop, the odd jobs.  It let us see how Kaye’s magic system works, and filled us in on the backstory to her characters.  For some authors, that’s all there is; an origin story.  For Thornbrugh, it feels like the origin work was something she needed to tell in order to start telling us cool stories in that world.  Brightly has more character growth, more interpersonal dynamics, and frankly more fun now that the reins are off.  Her writing has all the glee of a dog that’s managed to escape from the backyard and really get out into the world.

    Let’s start with the main character, Lee.  Lee’s still something of an apprentice; she knows enough to know she’s outmatched and outgunned, but she’s working on that.  Lee’s internal dialogue is given to us, and we really feel what it is to be a teenage girl.  She’s emotional, sure, and that’s to be expected.  There’s a trap that many authors fall into here – that this blushing awkwardness should immediately spring, fully-formed, into an epic and/or tragic romance.  Thornbrugh isn’t excluding the possibility of that, but the way she handles Lee’s emotional state at any given time makes you feel like you’re looking at an actual person instead of a character from a romance novel.  Lee’s emotional experimentation and fumbling is endearing in a way that makes her character that much more sympathetic.

    And then there’s Filo.  I love Filo.  Here’s a kid that’s in roughly the same position as Lee, except that he’s got a lot more ability to get things done.  Filo’s problem is the Spiderman dilemma – with great power comes great responsibility.  He’s constantly trying to pass himself off as not-a-teenager, because to do otherwise would mean he couldn’t get his job done.  There’s a scene towards the very beginning of the book when Filo and Lee deal with some atrocity in a neighborhood basement.  The lady who owns the house is very grateful to both of them – so grateful she offers to call CPS and get them help.  Filo can’t take it, of course – that would get in the way of him doing his job, but the fact that this lady sees the vulnerability under Filo’s facade of easy competence makes the reader become attached to Filo as well.

    Nasser, Lee’s master in the arts of magic, is a more distant character.  This is pretty intentional; we’re looking at Lee’s POV, and as a result our perceptions of Nasser are filtered through Lee’s hormonal responses to him.  It’s hard to feel a direct connection to this third part of our protagonist triumvirate, because what the reader feels instead is a greater connection to Lee in the presence of Nasser.  He’s a good character, but the real magic comes from Lee dealing (badly) with her attraction to him.

    The world’s getting larger, too.  Flicker really set up the dynamics of the shop; Brightly almost immediately takes us away from that locale and into more fabulous settings.  As the titles imply, it’s flashier, hipper, and just a heck of a lot of fun.  The world we’re exposed to becomes something of a cross between Harry Potter and The Magicians, a place of wonder and magic, but one where the danger is a little more real-feeling.

    Flicker and Brightly are well named.  Flicker gave us the beginning glimmers of what Thornbrugh could do; Brightly has managed to pull it off with aplomb.

    Friday-Indie-Logo Three point 5