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  • 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.



  • 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.


  • 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

  • Friday Indie Review: Flicker by Kaye Thornbrugh

    Okay, this is going to be a new thing here.  Every week, I’m going to do my darndest to get through an Indie book – small press or self-published – in a vain attempt to add some publicity to an already flooded web.  Every Friday, I’m going to put my thoughts on what I’ve read here.  Hopefully, it helps people find some good reads for themselves.

    I’m starting with Flicker, because this one really is kind of an expectation-shifter.  For all of you who think everything self-published is dreck, think again.  Flicker’s a modern fantasy in which our Protagonist, Lee, gets taken into a mystical realm of faeries.

    Lee’s an interesting character, and I have no doubt that Thornbrugh put a lot of herself in there.  There are multiple facets to her personality, and she reacts very differently to different situations.  Thornbrugh does a great job of keeping the wide-ranging Lee feeling like a real teenage girl, and not a cultural stereotype of what a real teenage girl could be.  Props to her for that; I don’t think I could have pulled it off.

    The world Flicker inhabits is much darker than your average girl-taken-to-magic-world story.  Faeries are dangerous, and they don’t actually care that much about humans.  She is tolerated, not welcomed, and her struggles to make her way through the world make for an excellent read.  There’s romance here, between Lee and a Seer named Nasser, who has his own issues.  The romance is handled well; both sides are awkward, fumbling idiots when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex, which again feels much more realistic than your average novel about a teenage girl.

    At least, it lines up with my own teenage experience.  Enough is said about that.

    The real moment this book started, for me, was here:  Lee is given the option to return to her mortal life, and she comes very close to taking it.  Upon confronting the mortal world, we really get an insight into the character, and her dealings with people.

    If what you’re looking for is a character-driven story grounded in realistic behavior (in the midst of magic and faeries and other cool stuff, of course), then Flicker is a good way to lose an afternoon.

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