Blood of the King by Bruce Blake

A DRM-free epic fantasy tale about a bloody coward (to understand the joke read further… or just disregard my awful sense of humour)

The Rating: 
Mature Content Rating: R (Sexual content, language & disturbing imagery)

Can a coward save a kingdom? This is the big question being asked by Bruce Blake in his novel Blood of the King.  You may know a coward or two, you might even be a coward or two… (but that would make you two people?) You are, however, not the one on trial.  Our protagonist’s name is Khirro, a farmer made to fight in a battle that soon turns into something more than your common kingdom feud.

The Good:

Have you ever been in that position where you are reading/watching something and the protagonist gets him/herself in more trouble than they can handle?  This is often times what makes a good story, but what if the character has been proven to be unexplainably invincible?  That’s right, we have all been there thinking, “I know they are going to get out of this.  You just can’t kill off a main character.”  Such thoughts take away from the peril of the situation, and sadly we are more often correct than not.  Bruce Blake has no qualms about killing off characters, when it makes sense.  As many Dark Fantasy stories go, Blood of the King is not afraid of death and any of the other more depressing things in life that will fill the reader with that sense of dread, or the gut wrenching feeling that there is no rose garden with some thorns… a lot of thorns.  Blake uses words to craft a world that comes alive, sometimes revealing more of an awful scene than some would like, but he does it in a way that makes you want to hold onto that book for dear life as you watch the characters living out their own nightmares.

Not only does Blake have a handle on how to write wonderful prose, but he doesn’t let it bog the story down.  Blood of the King starts in the middle of an all out war and from there progresses on a journey through a land of terror that make you think twice about carrying some mystical vile of blood to the ends of the earth.  (I hope that you would think twice about this already, but for those of you who don’t…)  Beautiful imagery, intense action, and intriguing plot are woven together in a way that keeps things moving and sets the world alive.

Words might be what make up a book, but they aren’t everything.  Books need story and characters, two things that Blood of the King is gushing with.  The reader will learn a lot about the back-stories of many of the characters introduced throughout this epic tale.  Ever wondered what motivated the characters is a book, or wish that there was more meat when it comes to the whys of some of their psychological quirks?  Bruce Blake will not leave you wondering.  The author reveals said information in a variety of ways, but something that is magnificently used (thus deserving special attention) is dreams/visions.  Khirro is reminded of his past by certain triggers in scenery, the words of mannerisms of his motley crew, but more importantly is informed through vivid dreams/visions.  These scenes are what makes Khirro come alive and are the biggest selling feature of Blood of the King.

Have no fear.  Khirro is not the only character that the reader will learn about.  Some titbits are dropped about other characters along the way, but most important, the antagonist(s).  Khirro gets most of the attention, but the POV changes to the perspective of the bad-guys often enough to give the reader an inner circle view of their motivation(s) and watch as they creep closer and closer to their goal(s).  There is no crazy high-wizard twiddling his thumbs in a dark tower until Khirro walks in and says, “I’m here to slay you, Evil Man!”  The reader gets to know the antagonist(s) in parallel to Khirro and his crew… and not all of them are as they seem.

The ending is very well done, giving that sense of suspense and final resolution that make for a stomach-knotted conclusion that is the selling point of many thrillers.  Such a strong conclusion does still pleasingly leave some unanswered questions that will make the reader want to come back for book 2 and book 3 after finishing this title.  The final chapter is almost a tease for what is coming next in the series, but ties up a few unanswered questions enough to leave that sense of intrigue for the reader to chew on until they click the “Oh my goodness, buy it now” button at their favourite distributor for book 2.

The Bad:

I must say that I loved learning about the character’s back-stories in this book.  It isn’t too often that the reader is able to get into so many character’s heads… but sadly a lot of this isn’t revealed until later on in the story.  The beginning has a fair amount of hand waving when it comes to “so, why are you coming on this quest again?  And don’t say, ‘because I feel like it,’ or ‘because you look like you need a hand,’ because those aren’t real answers.”  A lot of the party members with Khirro are thrown together in a poorly implemented, “let’s do this thing” moment to the point where the reader isn’t totally convinced of the reason that any of them (including Khirro) are there.

Along similar lines, Blood of the King suffers from the classic, “don’t you remember this magic thing” syndrome.  What is that, you say? Well, Khirro carries the blood of the dead king in a vial.  He is tasked to bring the king back to life with it.  That is okay, but the blood has some weird “let’s fix this problem” powers to it.  Don’t know where you are going?  Let the blood lead the way!  Mortally wounded?  Let the blood heal you!  Don’t know whether to trust that person or not?  It’s okay.  The blood says that they are a good person.  I excused this with some reservations until a reveal at the end that will squash a lot of the reasoning behind it… For the sake of remaining spoiler free, I will not say any more.

Another big issue I had with Blood of the King is the primary female character.  At first she seems like someone that Bruce Blake wants to spend a lot of time developing.  She is portrayed as strong and the sort of “I can take care of myself” sort of woman.  Sadly, save for a few scenes, she is essentially useless, and her DIY mentality fades over time.  It’s almost like Blake forgot who she was.  By the end she puts off that damsel in distress vibe that she is adamantly opposed to upon her introduction.  She does a little bit in developing Khirro’s character, but I feel like the book would have almost been stronger without her.  She seems to only add some “Oo, that is sexy” moments, and they come fairly more frequently for my taste.

Conclusion:

Despite a few hand waving scenarios and poorly developed female character, Bruce Blake tells a wonderful story.  The prose is magnificent, the action is wonderful, and the characters back-stories are truly informative and enlightening.  If you like fantasy and don’t mind a darker story with some mature content, feel free to enter the dream world of Khirro, travelling with him through whatever perils may await you in Blood of the King.

Where you can find it:

Smashwords
Amazon (COM) (CA) (CO.UK)
Diesel
Kobo

Kinshield’s Redemption by K. C. May

The Rating: 
Mature-content Rating: PG-13 (for profanity, sexually suggestive language, and fantasy violence.)

The Good:

A beautiful end to a beautiful series. K.C. May does it again. After being less than impressed with the conclusion of Well of the Damned, it was great to see that this book tied the series off with a nice little red bow at Christmas time. It struck me while reading this book that K.C. May does not have a lot of the things in her writing style that usually make me fall in love with a book. I am enraptured by beautiful prose that paint the scene with words as easily as a painter’s brush. I like to feel my mouth water with the roasted chicken on the spit, or feel the goosebumps as snow whips through tired boughs of trees. Beautiful feeling can be experienced through well crafted prose that does not bog the story down, but adds to the flavour of everything being experiences.

Don’t get me wrong. K.C. May does not write bad prose, but this is never what drew me into her writing. Half way through this book, while I was enjoying it so much, I stopped and scratched my head, “What is it about May’s writing that makes me not want to put the book down?” I’m sure it is a lot of things combined… the short chapters that keep things going. The jumping POVs between prominent characters that gives me a fully formed idea of what is going on in everyone’s head(s), but most importantly it is story and characters that sell this book (and the the Saga as a whole). When Gavin was telling stupid jokes about making his own bubbles in the bath I had to sigh and say, “Oh, Gavin” with the rest of the characters in the scene. Why? Because after reading four books with the man, I feel like I know him. Every character has their own mannerisms that make them distinct from each other to the point that even simple scenes with Gavin entertaining his family can be the most memorable of moments.

The plot comes together well, and even the small holes I found in it had nothing to do with the plot at all, but the character flaws of those engaged. I found myself talking to the character, saying things like, “Why are you doing that! I know a better way!” or “No, stop being a moron.” Sadly though, my words did not reach their ears, and poor choices were made, the consequences being discovered too late.

The Bad:

Conclusion:

This is not just a book, it is an adventure with well rounded characters and a plot that will enrapture you from beginning to end. Similarly (though not really at all) this is not a review, but a praise fest of Kinshield’s Redemption, the Kinshield Saga as a whole and K.C. May for capturing my imagination for more hours in a row than is healthy or sane.

Where you can find it:

Smashwords
Amazon (COM) (CA) (CO.UK)
Kobo

The Cutting Room by Edward W. Robertson

A DRM-free sci-fi thriller. Travelling through time, one episode at a time.

The Rating:
Mature Content Rating: PG (Moderate to strong language)

Every episodic adventure that I have seen out there gets flack.  There is this idea that somehow each episode should be stand-alone enough to make an impact all on its own.  Let me ask you a question.  If you read the second, third, or fourth book in the series without reading the first, does it always make complete sense?  There is always that feeling that you are missing something (well, most of the time… some series keep each book as a stand-alone).  Now, let’s think about television.  The idea behind episodic content is that it is episodes in a series.  Yes, there are those TV shows that you can just jump right into and it doesn’t really matter whether you have been following it, but I find this to be more the exception than the rule.  The beginning of a season usually starts off pretty slow as some new concepts or characters are introduced, but as the episodes ramp up to a conclusion, things get a little harry and you just have to keep going to find out what happens next.  This is the case for The Cutting Room.

For simplicity’s sake (and the fact that I will say no more about the tired debate of episodic content) I will treat the complete season of The Cutting Room as a single entity.  Yes, you can read a single episode, just like you can watch a single episode of a TV show… but is that really satisfying?  Okay, enough of that. What is this book/season about?  Time travel.  After reading it, I briefly thought, “it this is about time travel, could I read the episodes in any order I want?  Can I travel back and forth through the season and still have it all make sense in the end… as much sense as time travel makes anyway?”  Sadly no, but this has nothing to do with the book.  Enough idle rambling.  Let’s get to the review.

The Good:

The Cutting Room consists of six episodes.  Each episode tells a different portion of the same story, in the same way that a book split into “parts” or “sections” would. Edward W. Robertson uses this episodic style and mixes it with time travel in a way that sets each episode apart from the last yet still tied together to tell the same story throughout the season.  Each episode has a different setting as Blake Din travels through the different parallel dimensions of the earth in search of nasty time travelling criminals.  Little does he know that there is more to his job as a Cutting Room employee than catching the baddies.  Every episode brings a fresh feel of its own as the reader is taken through settings spanning from the wild west, to a post-apocalyptic wasteland, to outer-space.  How can the same story be told in so many different settings?  Find out by reading The Cutting Room.

After reading the first episode I was intrigued by the concept and so went out and bought the whole season.  The story continued on, almost as if the first episode was a prologue of sorts and had no real lasting effect on the rest of the season.  This troubled me somewhat, but I set it aside as a minor gripe… until I finished The Cutting Room.  The mystery is in how this first, seemingly disconnected episode fits into the over-arching plot.  That is a mystery that I will not spoil for you, but suffice it to say, though Episode One seems disconnected, it is not.  The season concludes beautifully, tying everything together with just enough left over to keep the reader interested in a Season Two ends up coming to the shelves.

There were a few times that some witty humour came through in the dialogue and I found myself laughing as I hope was intended.  (What other intention would humour have?)  I would have, however, liked to see more of this.  Most of humour came in the dialogue exchanges between characters, and Robertson’s writing style opted out of choosing to include lengthy dialogue section, which I feel would have been quick enjoyable if they were present.

The Bad:

I wasn’t sure to put this under “the good” or “the bad” so just consider it a general comment I suppose.  A lot of the nitty-gritty of events that happen in The Cutting Room are glossed over.  Days will pass within the span of a single paragraph, not allowing the reader to be as invested in the world that they are to be placed in.  Granted, world building must be difficult when each episode essentially has a different world, and purple prose could easily bog down the action and plot element, but I would have liked to see more description of the world around Blake Din and the other characters in the season.

Even though there isn’t a lot of description, there are still times when the story seems to slow to a near crawl while the characters figure out the mystery of everything going on.  Often times the characters are left clueless as to what to do next, so they wander around aimlessly and take the reader with them through meaning strolling until something happens.  Some episodes move along faster than others, and the slowest portions come in the middle, which is honestly the best place for them.

It seemed like the scope was a lot larger than maybe it needed to be.  Entire sections are dedicated to particular elements that have little bearing on the over-arching plot.  They aren’t poorly written, but get a lot more focus than seemed necessary.  The plot is the driving force of this season, but sometimes I feel like it took a back seat while the characters ran around figuring out what it actually was.  Granted, this allowed for some character development moments, but they were short-lived and detracted from the focus of the season as a whole.

Conclusion:

All in all, I don’t have many complaints about this book/season.  Usually specifics stand out to me about what was exceptional and what was not so great, but nothing really stood out to me while reading The Cutting Room.  I enjoyed it, and the use of the episodic model added an interesting element to things that really worked in the favour of the writing style.  If you like all things time travel, this book is for you.

Where you can find it:

Amazon (COM) (CA) (CO.UK)

The Pale Hand of God by S.M. White

A dark tale of swords, prisoners, kings, and gods

The Rating: 
Mature Content Rating: R (Strong sexual content, grotesque imagery, violence, and mild language)

Anyone who thinks that the justice system today is too lax should take a look at The Pal Hand of God.  These days, depending on the prison, criminals get free room and board, daily exercise, and the only painful thing is that they have to wear that awful colour of orange all day!  Talk about fashion suicide!  What will your friends think?  Criminals today get given fresh clothing on their arrival and shown to their rooms.  In The Pale Hand of God, fresh criminals are given a sword and told, “You’re gonna need this!”

The Good:

Though I have never been in a prison and cannot tell you first hand what it is like, I have heard it is no picnic (unless you bring a red and white checkered blanket with you I suppose… but that would just clash with your orange jumpsuit!)  S.M. White lets you know what it is like in the clergy-controlled prison city of Iban Su.  You can almost feel the grit and taste the blood as you enter this city of dread with  Lainn Sevai.  The description is so rich that every sentence shows you the face the demon that is this book.  As you enter deeper and deeper into that grotesque maw, you realise suddenly that this isn’t reality but just a book.  That is when you slap the beast in face and say, “you are just make believe, silly!  You thought you could eat me?”  Everything from the scum on the ground to the stars sparkling in the sky high above the shadow-encased buildings has a character of its own, and draws you right into the world of S.M. White’s mind.  Not only is the description glorious, but it sets every scene in a way that readers and writers alike will be in awe of (except for me, obviously.  I’m immune to such treatment. 😉 ).

The Pale Hand of God is a little bit longer than many of the indie books I have been reading recently, and it is a welcome change.  White really takes the time to get in the heads of his characters and informs the reader enough of their back story to make motivations believable.  Because it is such a dark story, you really feel awful for the characters while learning about what has happened to them and watching what is happening to them as an external observer, powerless to do anything.  Internal monologue runs rampant, beautifully filling out a scene with the characters therein.

S.M. White concludes the book well, wrapping things up and answering many questions, but leaving just enough of a taste to make the reader want more… and thankfully there is more!

The Bad:

I really wanted to like this book more than I did.  The writing it top notch, but unfortunately the book is not.  It starts out very strong with multiple chapters from the point of view of Lainn Sevai inside the prison city of Iban Su.  Everything is going along well (or maybe not so well in Lainn’s case) and then all of a sudden… POV change!  Now, it doesn’t just change to the POV of a character we have already met, or even a character in any way related to what is happening with Lainn Sevai.  Instead, we are shipped half-way around the world to some epic battle about to ensue between characters we didn’t even know exist.  There is little cross-over between the “two stories” that are being told except that they are in the same book, and the same world.  By the end, things come together, and the reader can see how it all makes sense, but it takes most of the book for this to happen, so the reader is left hanging wondering what is going on.

A sister problem to the first is that a lot of characters are introduced in quick succession after the initial burst of good setting from the POV of Lainn Sevai.  There were so many characters, names, and POV changes all at once that I began to not care about what was happening and just wanted to get back to Lainn Sevai.  It also doesn’t care that some of the character have similar enough names to be confused with each other so that the reader is not actually sure who this new character is without doing some back checking into previous chapters or just pressing on in hopes that it will make sense eventually.  Once weeding through all of this mess (first 100 pages or so) and the characters are all introduced, the book continues on fairly smoothly, but the initial execution is very poorly done.

Look at this prison city, look at this guy who’s life sucks…

Oh, by the way there is a king and another king, and two empires at war, and a stolen princess and…

Oh, and there is this guy who is supposed to do… something, but then gets rolled off a cliff in a cart for no apparent reason…

But this is about a prison city isn’t it?  Okay… so back to that then…

…And somehow this is all part of the same story!

Conclusion:

All in all, I enjoyed this book and will probably be purchasing the sequel.  I am absolutely in love with S.M. White’s writing style and the hearty descriptions that he pulls off with little more effort than picking bananas out of your teeth.  If you push through the initial messy POV confusion issues it is well worth your time.  If you like dark fantasy and don’t mind some strong mature content, you will not be disappointed.  Oh, it’s also free, so no harm in checking it out. 😉

Special Note:

S.M. White has informed me that any books he publishes from this point on will be DRM-free.  He was initially unaware of the evils of DRM and thus originally published them with it.  Concerning the DRM-state of the author’s books he has said, “Amazon won’t let me change the DRM state of a book once it’s published, so that’s why The Paruus Histories haven’t gone DRM-free. The Lonely Man is DRM-free as will be the rest of the books I release.”  You can, however, get both The Pale Hand of God and The Dark Arm of God at Smashwords now DRM-free.

A special thanks goes out to S.M. White for supporting the DRM-free community.

Where you can find it:

Smashwords

A Question of Will by Alex Albrinck

A Science Fiction story free of spaceships, aliens, and DRM

The Rating: 
Mature Content Rating: PG for violence

OATH NUMBER ONE: I vow to never knowingly share with any non-Aliomenti human the unique knowledge, technology, and power of the Aliomenti.
OATH NUMBER TWO: I vow to never knowingly share with any non-Aliomenti human the existence of the Aliomenti.
OATH NUMBER THREE: I vow to never enter into a committed relationship of any type, most notably marriage, with any non-Aliomenti human.
OATH NUMBER FOUR: I vow never to be the biological parent to any child.

I hereby state my understanding that any humans involved in the breaking of the Four Oaths shall suffer death at the hand of an Aliomenti assassin.

Every society has certain laws that are morally particular to the society around them.  Generally speaking murder, thievery, rape, and chasing kids with shotguns are considered unacceptable by society.  Despite this, wrongs occur every day in varying degrees (for instance, I haven’t seen that shotgun wielding lunatic in a while) and every poor choice has a consequence.  Alex Albrinck has developed a secret society where knowledge of and general fraternisation with outsiders is forbidden.  This may not seem that out of the ordinary (as far as secret societies go) but disallowing marriage and child-bearing isn’t often on the “Thou Shalt Not” list.  Will Stark, a self-made multi-billionaire philanthropist, is happily married and a proud father.  Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but he is mistakenly suspected of being an Aliomenti and thus must serve the consequences.  An assassin has come to kill his family.

The Good:

Right out of the gate, Albrinck throws the reader into the action while we watch Will Stark fighting for his life and the life of his family.  If you generally put a book down for it being too slow out of the gate, A Question of Will will give you no problems there.  The first third of the book reads more like an action-adventure with a sci-fi focus that leaves just enough draw and mystery to keep the reader engaged.

The Point-of-view use in A Question of Will was very intriguing.  It starts out as your standard third person perspective with chapter/section breaks splitting things up when the POV changes, but this isn’t always the case.  Sometimes the words just flow and all of a sudden you notice that the POV had changed.  It is wonderfully and sometimes subtly done in a way that did not feel slapped together or disorienting.  For the amount of books that I have read with major POV-confusion issues, I was impressed at how Albrinck has a good handle on the proper way to implement multiple POVs, and do it well.

The tech/magic in A Question of Will is wonderful.  All Aliomenti have a certain “Energy” reserve, and the more Energy you have, the more you can accomplish.  There are many things that this Energy can do, and I have a feeling that we have only seen the tip of the ice-burgh in this first instalment of The Aliomenti Saga.  I will not comment on specifics, however, so as to not spoil any of the goodies therein.  Despite the fact that the source of the tech/magic is mundanely named “Energy,” at least it wasn’t some crazy 16-syllable word that no one will remember.  I will leave the decision to you whether calling it “Energy” is wonderfully simple or just lazy.

Now, we get to the selling feature of the book.  (Maybe I should have mentioned this first! 😉 ).  A wonderful twist comes in the last third of the book that made me so excited I just had to finish it right then and there!  I was a little bit afraid that certain plot elements introduced at the beginning of the book would be left unexplained, thus forcibly roping the reader into a sequel, but this fear was quelled and made me no longer waiting for the revelation but longing for more.  The ending is set very well, leaving just enough unanswered to wet your whistle for the sequel, but answering enough to give it a concise and believable conclusion.

The Bad:

Despite how good this book is, and the fact that it start right into the action, I was less than impressed with it at first.  The initial action, though exciting, is drawn out by the variety of POVs.  The quick changes doesn’t leave the reader confused (per the norm) but instead forces re-explanation of things that have already happened.  The reader sees the assassin coming for Will Stark, then Will sees it, then his wife dreams it, then the assassin does it, then the police witness it… etc.  Once getting past the initial third of the book, this problem is no longer prevalent, but the beginning is left a little rough and uninteresting because of it, despite all the action happening.

There is quite a bit of tech/magic in A Question of Will and it is explained very thoroughly, so thoroughly in fact that entire paragraphs can be skipped in order to prevent getting tired of the long, drawn-out monologues.  The reader is not left questioning any of the inner workings of Energy, but it comes across in a very “tell” instead of “show” kind of way.  Have you ever had a friend explain to you the rules of a game, but they are so complicated that your eyes glaze over during the rant and you really don’t get what he is saying at all?  Finally, you throw up your hands and say, “let’s just play, and if I have a question, I will ask.”  This will probably be your response as a reader while your eyes glaze over words of meaningless explanation in favour of saying, “If I have a question, I will ask.”  The problem is that Albrinck isn’t around to answer your questions… so I guess you have to read the boring description of the tech/magic anyway, or just go without.  Once everything is out on the table it picks up again for the satisfying conclusion, but the second third of the book drags a lot because of this over-explanation problem.  I hope that in subsequent books in The Aliomenti Saga that this problem will be eliminated as “Energy” has already been very thoroughly explained, in perhaps more depth and detail than was necessary.

Conclusion:

A Question of Will might not grab you at first, but it is worth sticking with until the end.  Sloshing through some repeated scenes and dry tech/magic explanations will be well rewarded by a conclusion that makes you want to go out and buy book two of The Aliomenti Saga right away.  Despite some pacing issues, the story is rewarding enough to make Alex Albrinck an author that you won’t soon forget, and might want to come back to with books 2 and 3 in this series.

Where you can find it:

Amazon (COM) (CA) (CO.UK)
Kobo

 

Mark of the Mage by R.K. Ryals

A quick YA Fantasy read speckled with some romance

The Rating: 
Mature Content Rating: PG (mild language and fantasy violence)

Have you ever wanted to marry some random guy just to escape certain death?  Maybe you wanted a tattoo on your wrist, but your mom just wouldn’t let you get one.  Perhaps you enjoy staying in the dark recesses of the library reading books all day where the coffee is bad but those plush couches by the fireplace make everything better.  (All libraries should have these.  Why have all sorts of books and no comfortable places to sit down and read them, right?)  What if, one day you find said library boarded up with a big sign on the front door.  “Do not enter, especially you.”  What do all of these things have in common (other than the obvious, which is… is there an obvious in this situation)?  There all things that happen to Drastona Consta-Mayria in Mark of the Mage.

This sixteen-year old woman has more troubles on her plate than being blessed with some crazy why-is-it-so-long name.  She is a mage and a scribe, two things that sentence you to death in the fantasy world that R.K. Ryals has created.  Her step-mother thinks it best to get her head out of the books, marry some fine gentleman, and ignore the inevitable wrist branding she will obtain for being a magic user.  (Ah… it’s all coming together).  Do, what do marriage, tattoos, and boarded up libraries have in common?  Just ask Drastona.  She know first hand.

The Good:

This book is branded as a YA fantasy romance.  I don’t read much YA and I read even less romance, but the first couple lines of this book drew me in enough that I had to read it.

“The smell. Wet ink, old parchment, and leather.  The smell consumed me, weaving its way through my nostrils and down to my eternally ink-stained fingertips. It was an old, comforting smell. The smell of new beginnings, of adventure, and of disappointment.”

This is just a snippet of what I think is the best thing this book has going for it since sliced bread. (Not that there is much of that in this book.  Does dry unappetising bread count, because there is some of that in Mark of the Mage… okay, unimportant.  Let’s get back to it.)  The hearty descriptions are wonderful, and if it wasn’t for the beautifully crafted scene in the first couple pages of chapter one, I probably wouldn’t have read it.  I did read it, though, and enjoyed how the word wafted together like charcoal of the oven and the smell of the loaf within playing with my nostril in an appetising rush of delight.

I will not spoil too much, but any good story must have conflict and any good character has had a tragedy or two.  A tragedy near the beginning of the book shapes Drastona into the woman that she becomes, playing with her mind throughout the book in a memorable and meaningful way.  The reader gets to see how this tragedy effects Drastona with every page turn.  Sometimes when something bad happens the character moves on too quickly, or because of point-of-view choices the reader doesn’t get to experience how it effects the protagonist throughout.  The reader will not soon forget this tragedy that shapes Drastona, and neither does she.  The constant reminder of her past makes the character come alive in a way you don’t often see.  It effects her world view, who she trusts, and how she acts or reacts to those people and the world around her.

I was a little bit concerned as the book drew to an end.  It seemed like Ryals would just put in a final period and say, “Taadaa!  Read the next book you sucker!” but this is not the case.  Though there is still much left undone at the end of Mark of the Mage, the conclusion was satisfyingly believable.

The Bad:

With all of that good you only rate it 3 stars!  Indeed.  Are you really for me to tell you why?  First off, this is not really a “romance” as it claims to be.  There is magic, talking animals, dragons, all those nice fantasy things and it is about a Young Adult (which seems to be the only criterion for dubbing something YA) but it doesn’t really have any romance.  Yes, there is a boy and a girl and they may have feelings for each other, but that hardly plays a role in the grand scheme of things.  There are some strange “Oh no, he touched me” and “look, a shirtless man for no reason” scenes, but this doesn’t make it romance.  I wasn’t looking for the nitty gritty details akin to adult romance or erotica, but was at least expecting something of substance.  Some of characters ask things like “do you like him” and silliness like that that seems thrown in just so Ryals would slap a “romance” tag on the final product.  It was like the author was sitting on the fence as to whether to put the romance in or not, and what is there seems juvenile and is not a real factor for the characters or the plot.  When I was a 16-year old (granted I wasn’t a 16-year old girl) I remember “romance” and the like being a big deal in my life, but this doesn’t come through when writing about the romance in this 16-year old’s life.

The plot was extremely uninspired.  If you have read any book or seen and movie of any kind, you have heard it before.  Person x is “the one” and there is some silly prophecy that says they are to save the day.  It was not bad, but is very over-done and thus came across as your standard “let’s go save the world while talking to animals… also dragons” type of story.

This is a short book and things moved very quickly.  No sooner was I in one place that all of a sudden the chapter is over and I am being introduced to some new plot element or story marker.  There was a lot more the author could have done with character/world development and description.  For Ryals’ ability at creating great description, I was surprised by how little of it there was in favour of getting the plot over with.  It just felt like the author really wanted to fast-track to the end the entire time.  There was a lot more room for expansion that I felt was an opportunity poorly waved off.

Conclusion:

Mark of the Mage is a decent coming of age YA fantasy story about this unlikely hero who is going to save the world.  Despite the over-used plot and sloppily thrown in romance, this book holds some promise that I hope future instalments in the series continue.  Drastona and her struggles will keep you reading while the good description speckled in with wet your imagination with the beauty a few simple words can provide.

Where you can find it:

Smashwords – $2.99

The Macabre Collection by David Haynes

A DRM-free collection of Victorian Horror

The Rating: 
The Price: $3
Mature Content Rating: R (for brief sexual suggestions and overtly disturbing images)

Travel with me, if you will, to January 10th, 1866.  Top hats are everywhere, pocket-watches are falling from the sky like rain… and people are dying: death by disease and death by intent.  What is happening on the streets of Victorian London?  More importantly, what is happening inside the minds of those who roam the streets by day or night, allowing the macabre entertainment of the day to become all-consuming.

The Macabre Collection is an omnibus of three “books.”  Mask of Macabre, Ballet of Bones, and Seance of Souls.  The first two instalments in this collection of books are collections of short stories, the third being a novella… but is the formatting of the content what you are reading this review for?  Certainly not.  You want to know what lies beneath the cover of this dark collection, and whether it is worth your time.  Short answer: yes.  Long answer…

The Good:

The first thing that stood out to me while reading this collection was the writing style.  Mask of Macabre starts by telling you it is January 10th, 1866, and this is certainly not a lie.  Not only does David Haynes tell us the date, but he draws us into that time using some kind of other-worldly mechanic: words.  The #1 tool at any writer’s disposal is their words.  They can be used in many different ways – some good and some bad – but it is imperative that they are understood.  Haynes sets the scene right from the first sentence, bringing us back to a time when macabre entertainment and all things wild, dark, and disturbing were normative.  Not only is the story set in the past, but Haynes somehow manages to get his head into the time so completely that even his writing style takes on the flavour of the era.  He is right up there with H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, the flavour of words holding many similarities to the horror authors who have gone before us.  David Haynes is able to integrate so well into the time that the reader is no longer sitting on their couch sipping iced-coffee from whatever mug they could find clean that day, but is standing out in the snowy streets of Victorian London, afraid of what may be lurking in the shadows.

Though both Mask of Macabre and Ballet of Bones are groups of short stories, they are not just a random smattering of Haynes writings slapped between two covers.  Not only are they set in the same universe/world/time as each other, but one story builds off of the next in a refreshing, engaging, and unique way.  All of the stories in this collection are in the same world, but each book focuses on a different character, telling their story from a variety of different perspectives.  When starting the second story in Mask of Macabre, I wasn’t sure how (or if) it would be connected in any meaningful way.  By the time I reached the end of the third story I was so drawn in that I wanted to know what happens next (not next in the strictest sense of a natural chapter progression, but next nonetheless.)  It goes without saying that each short story has its own conclusion – as any story should – but the package of Mask of Macabre and Ballet of Bones each tell their own story in their own right.  By the time the “conclusion” of the first book roles around, you see how everything comes together and may say “clever” or applaud Haynes with a slow clap.  The problem is that the writing style does not allow for such cultural relevances as a “slow clap” and Haynes, being stuck in Victorian London, would not understand the implications of such applause.

Each short story on its own comes together with some grotesque ending in the final paragraphs which reveal a lot about the over-arching story.  The reader is enjoying a nice little day on the beach (or rather a dark day on the streets of London) and all of a sudden everything makes sense.  The sun comes up, and the shadows of the night are lifting revealing the twilight demons who have been stalking there.  The final paragraphs of each story often left me with an appropriate gross feeling vs. the simple darkness the rest of the tale emanates.  It’s like walking through a swamp at night, not thinking anything of it, but when someone shines a light you can see the slimy mess that you are really walking through.  The almost abrupt realizations that are thrown at the reader upon story’s end reveal just enough about the over-arching story to keep you interested, but not enough to be obvious.  Even after finishing the entire Macabre Collection, there are still a few things that I was scratching my head about, but not in a bad way.  David Haynes does not believe in hand-holding, but allows his readers to think for themselves.

The Bad:

No matter how good something is, there is always something that isn’t perfect.  Fortunately the opposite is true as well.  Concerning Mask of Macabre and Ballet of Bones, each short story within these books are from a different point of view.  There is some character cross-over and the connectivity of the stories is astounding, but though the POV changes add some flavour, they don’t allow for as much character development as I would have liked.  Because of the different format in Seance of Souls, this is not the case.  Haynes does a good job of getting the reader into the POV character’s head, but sometimes I wished that there was more going on within their head before the story came to a close, knowing that I wouldn’t hear anything from them again, or if I did, it would be under very different circumstances.

Though each book has a distinct conclusion of its own, I wasn’t as impressed with the conclusion of Ballet of Bones.  The book was not un-entertaining, but I do feel that it is the weakest of the collection.  It is through much pondering that I come to a conclusion as to why this is.  Mask of Macabre and Seance of Souls are more closely connected to the over-arching story than Ballet of Bones is.  Yes, there is some character cross-over, and yes Ballet of Bones is still set in the same world, but it tells a distinctly unique tale of its own.  Seance of Souls brings up a lot of things that were introduced in Mask of Macabre, answering some questions and asking even more.  The close relation of the first and third instalments was excellent, but I feel that Ballet of Bones fell a little bit when it came to this.

It should go without saying that if you don’t like the grotesque, you probably shouldn’t read horror, but I will comment on it here.  The extremely disturbing content of this book could put a lot of people off, thus limiting the collection’s audience immensely.  Despite this fact, taking away the overly grotesque aspects would take too much away from the feel, and never did it feel too over-the-top or gross just for the sake of it.  The disturbing “images” were less overt descriptions and more psychological disturbances which are as much as, if not more so, off-putting (for some).

Conclusion:

All in all, this is an excellent collection, and I highly recommend to anyone who likes a dark tale (especially if you are tired of the zombie hordes and over-used ghost children).  If you are not turned away by potentially disturbing content and like to get your hands dirty in the mind of some pretty disturbed individuals, this book is for you.  Also, if you have ever read and H.P. Lovecraft and enjoyed it, this book will make you feel right at home.  The psychological turmoil of the characters is believable and David Haynes never ceases to draw you from your reading chair, placing you right into the scene with his beautifully crafted words.

Special Note:

Through a conversation with David Haynes it has come to my attention that he will no longer be releasing any book with DRM attacking them (yes, attacking).  Most of his works are currently available DRM-free somewhere, but from now on Haynes’ works will be released DRM-free everywhere!  Thanks you Mr. Haynes for joining the DRM-free movement and treating your readers with respect and courtesy.

Where you can find it:

Amazon (COM) (CA) (CO.UK)
Kobo

Wanderer’s Escape by Simon Goodson

A DRM-free space exploration adventure

The Rating: 
Mature-Content Rating: PG-13 (mild language and brief sexual content)

Kids often have very active imaginations.  As adults we reach for dreams that are potentially attainable, but kids don’t care how realistic their dreams are.  Adults will dream of being screenplay writers, but kids will dream of being dinosaurs.  Adults will dream of being astronauts or maybe one day meeting Captain Kirk, kids will dream of being spaceships and visiting distant planets.  Whatever stage of life you are in, that dream can become a reality.  Simon Goodson takes on a wild ride through space where we get to experience what it is like to be a spaceship.

Okay, so this isn’t quite accurate, but the premise is close enough.  Wanderer’s Escape is about a spaceship named The Wanderer and it escapes!  Imagine that!  Not only does the wanderer escape, but Jess and some of his slave friends go along for the ride.  Soon they are caught in a world much bigger than they could have imagined while confined in that slave camp, and Jess not only learns what it’s like to captain a ship, but to be one with the ship.  Need more explanation?  Read the book.

The Good:

With a book about a spaceship connection with the protagonist, the relationship must be good.  Fortunately, Goodson know what he is doing when it comes to the relationship between Jess and The Wanderer.  Jess’s mind is connected with the spaceship in a neat and intriguing way.  At the beginning it almost feels like Jess is the ship’s computer.  You know in all that sci-fi media when character ask the computer for information?  Jess doesn’t have to do this, because his unique connection with the ship just feeds him the information he is thinking about.  No more using words or anything.  Who does that in the future!  We all have a telepathic connection, right?  As the book progresses, the ship begins to form a character of its own and the reader learns that it has things it won’t do and even desires.  The reason to read this book is because of the strange and wondrous mental connection between ship and captain.

Not too soon after Jess and his crew escape enslavement, things start happening that at first threw me off, but end up working well into the characters and plot.  Without spoiling it, I will simply say that throughout the book you will encounter a number of interesting plot twists which are executed beautifully.  Once the plot picks up it does a fairly decent job of directly the reader where intended making for a mostly believable and somewhat engaging space travel book.

The Bad:

Despite having a great concept and an okay plot full of fun twists, the book fails in quite a number of area.  It starts out really rough, but eventually gets better.  By a third of the way through I was almost ready to set it aside.  The characters were flat and unbelievable, doing seemingly ridiculous things without any real forethought or warning.  Most of the characters just break out into crying fits for no reason, keeping the reader disconnected from the emotional intentions of the scene.  Often characters will just go along with something to progress the plot and they seem to care about each other way too much for a couple of strangers who happened to be enslaved together for a time.

If you can get through the rough first 80 pages or so, the book gets better.  The over-trusting protagonist is revealed, exposing a character flaw that is leant on like a crutch for the rest of the book.  (Is this the author’s clever way of realizing his protagonist is unbelievable and using that to further the story, or he just waving his hands a little bit too much.  I will leave that for you to decide.)  If it wasn’t for the first third of the book, I probably would have rated this 4 stars because I enjoyed it quite a bit after almost giving up on it…

There is a little bit of the classic tell-instead-of-show problem, but it only happens a few times and can be mostly excused.  Some of this is because the book remains strictly from Jess’s perspective so certain characters have to tell Jess what they did so that the reader is informed instead a POV switch hindering the flow.  Though I enjoyed the lack of POV muddiness that many books suffer from, Wanderer’s Escape suffered from some of the issues that go hand-in-hand with POV rigidity.  It was also interesting to me that there is not much description in the book at all.  This seemed more odd to me because of the POV choice.

Does every good concept have to have a flaw?  It seems like whenever a book has a great concept, it is executed well mostly… but not all of the time.  Thought the ship’s connection with Jess is great, and the ship itself is quite amazing, there are a few times where Goodson waves his hands to get out of a tight corner.  As the characters learn more about the Wanderer their new-found knowledge seems to plug right into what they need way too often.  Jess wonders if there is a way to do x and because of his “connection” with the ship, it automatically fills in the hole with a solution based on a previously unknown ability that the Wanderer has.

Conclusion:

At the end of the day, this book was okay.  The characters get more believable as the story progressed, and by the time I reached the climax, I found myself enjoying it quite a bit.  If you like a good space-exploration story with a few plot twists and can get past the rough beginning, this book is thoroughly enjoyable.

Where you can find it:

Amazon (COM) (CA) (CO.UK)

Bad Radio by Michael Langlois

A DRM-free dark sci-fi action adventure… with zombies?

The Rating
Mature Content Rating: R (for strong language, violence, and graphic images)

I don’t do this often, but every once in a while I count my blessing: food in my belly, a roof over my head, not being chased by worm-infested humans… Abe Griffin might be able to count these blessings, except for the last one, but I hope that you can count all three of these blessings.  If you haven’t guess already, this is yet-another-zombie-apocalypse-book… and yet not.  They are not “zombies” in the purest sense of the word and the world is only ending because some big baddy is trying to destroy it… Doesn’t that sound like the plot of almost every book out there?  Though this book has that end-of-the-world-running-from-ugly-things feel, it is not your standard must-fight-to-survive-against-the-undead-horde.  Bad Radio is a wonderfully crafted tale of loyalty and vengeance on the backdrop of a social commentary about the human condition.

 

The Good:

Michael Langlois knows how to set a mood.  Bad Radio opens with an old man waiting for life to end.  The scene progresses in a slow meaningful manner as the reader gets a taste of some back story and who this Abe Griffin character is.  Suddenly the scene changes and we are sitting on the edge of our seat within the final paragraph before the “Chapter 2” heading.  Not only does Langlois know how to set a scene, he also does a beautiful job of ending them and causing the story to progress in such a way that leaves the reader wanting more.  Most chapters end on a cliffhanger, which would be bad enough, but a lot of them (especially near the beginning) end with something crazy about to happen which was unforeseen until a few sentences before the end.  For the sake of not revealing spoilers, I will use some fictional examples that may get the point across.

Scene 1: An old man.  A wooden boat.  A fishing pole, line loosely dropping beneath the surreal water.  A nice relaxing fishing trip.  The line goes taught.  Did he catch something?  A tiny fish on the end of the line.  As he reaches out to grab his prize of the day, he is already thinking about how it would taste slowly cooked over the flames.  Suddenly a meteor lands on the tail of the boat and the man disappears beneath the water.

Scene 2: A mother. A stroller.  A beautiful baby.  A beautiful day.  Cool breeze, warm sun, bird’s chirping.  “There’s nothing better after a long day of work than a nice stroll in the park.  Wouldn’t you agree?” She leans down to kiss her child on the forehead.  Though she knows he cannot answer, sometimes she just like to talk to him.
“No, I wouldn’t agree.” the reply does not come from the lips of her child, who is yet too old to speak.  A man steps out from behind a nearby tree, and points a gun at her child, a cruel smile not disguising the intent.

The chapters are often short and end in ways that keep the reader glued to the edge of their seat to see what is coming.  Many times while reading, I had no idea what was going to happen next, and almost expected some outlandishness thing to come out from the recessed of Langlois creative mind to jump into the scene.  The problem is that his mind is not mine, so when I expected things to happen, they didn’t, and when I didn’t expect anything, the most outlandish thing happened leaving many chapter closing with these words on my lips, “What is happening in this book!”  It’s so crazy, it’s good.

As I previously mentioned, Langlois is amazing at mood-setting.  Whether it is a high-octane action scene or more slow paced, the reader feels like they are in the scene, living it not only through the eyes of the characters, but through their hearts.  The descriptions are rich, hearty, and effective.  A scene isn’t often bogged down or slowed by the description used, but instead it makes the scene come alive with vibrant flavour.

The book is split into two parts, each with their own characters and mood.  The “parts” are not distinct from each other, but employ a definite change in the mood of the story.  At the end of part one, a sub-plot is complete, but the story is far from over.  I wasn’t so sure what the point of splitting this book into parts was until I got through the second part.  The solid shift in mood between parts one and two give a new flavour to the story, and splitting it in two was a nice touch which re-guides the reader as new scenes and characters are developed.

The Bad:

The first half of the book is the strongest, by far.  Part one leads the reader on a journey of discovery about the characters and world without letting the action drop.  There are many on-the-edge-of-your-seat moments that draw the reader right in, and the descriptions are amazing.  I feel that part two fell behind on this a bit.  It is not bad, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is just not as good.  Once part two gets going, there are a lot more action sequences which are split up with seemingly meaningless chapter breaks.  The reader still gets that edge-of-your-seat feel, but for completely different reasons.  Instead of the suspense of what is going to happen next because of crazy and innovative chapter endings, the suspense is held by ending chapters in the middle of the action.  Though I still enjoyed the short chapters in the second half, I don’t feel like they were used as well as they were in part one, and often I felt like I had to keep reading just so that when I came back to it I wouldn’t be lost in the middle of a scene.  Instead of chapters ending at well-crafted commercial breaks, they seemed to come simply because they were required by the television network after x number of words.

As you can tell by the mature content rating, there is a lot of strong language and graphic images in this book.  The swearing was quite off-putting for me.  I understand that people swear, especially when they are angry, but the frequent use of the F word disturbed me.  Because of the nature of the story, there are a lot of gruesome scenes, and Langlois has no qualms about describing them in all their grotesque detail.  This didn’t bother me specifically, but I do think that maybe the gut-wrenching descriptions were a bit over done at times, and this could put a lot of people off.  Every book must find a good balance between reality and readability.  Bad Radio was leaning a little bit too hard one way.

Conclusion:

If you are not bothered by strong language and gruesome description, this book is for you.  A high-octane tale of people going to save the world from the “big baddy.”  Though this may sound over-used, Bad Radio is anything but traditional.  Be prepared for a wild ride through mood-setting descriptive scenes and a strange world with strange magic to discover.  Whether you are looking for the magic of the world, or the magic of words bringing a story to life, this book is for you.

Where you can find it:

Amazon (COM) (CA) (CO.UK)

Thread Slivers by Leeland Arta

A fantasy tale about people dressed as daggers… (no, just called Daggers)

The Rating
Mature Content Rating: A-14 (for intense profanity & brief sexual content)

Thread Slivers“My master, the great mage is missing.  I need your help, Lebuin!”

“Are you sure he didn’t just cast an invisibility spell?”

“I’m sure.  I think he was captured, or maybe killed.  I was supposed to meet him here.”

“So… you were playing hide and seek, and want my help?  Sorry Ditani, that is a private game that I will not take part it.”

Okay, so none of this actually happens in Thread Slivers by Leeland Arta.  Call it creative license, call in humour… or just ignore it if you didn’t think it was that funny.  There is a lost mage in Thread Slivers, however, so… that’s a similarity.  A newly promoted mage, Lebuin, is to go out into the world and find out new things about magic, and Ditani wants his help on a search & rescue missing.  Also, there’s a hired knife and they meet up in the street… so that’s a thing.

 

The Good:

You can tell while reading that Arta really knows his world.  There is a lot of detail put into cultural and religious concepts, currency, the way people dress, etc.  Within minutes of reading, the world becomes alive and believable.  This isn’t just another case of throw some heroes in a fantasy world aaaaaaand go.  The book even has a fairly extensive glossary at the back to let you know about Lands/People, Gods, Places, Titles/Positions, People and Things, and even an entire section dedicated to the currency.  The books also includes two elegant, well crafted maps.  Arta clearly spent a lot of time shaping his world and making feel alive and believable.  I applaud the author for enormous time and effort put into this.

Never before have I read an e-book with pictures in it.  I am sure that they are out there, and though I cannot comment on the effectiveness or quality of such, I can say that it work well in Thread Slivers.  Each chapter is prefaced with a graphic which ties into the events to unfold.  Each chapter has a title (seems to be less common these days) and a pre-graphic which builds the tension and excitement for what’s coming in the pages to follow.

At the beginning, every other chapter is from one of two character’s perspectives.  Often times I have seen this done, and it almost feels like two completely different stories until a lot more pages are behind the reader.  In Thread Slivers, right from the start, the POV changes with each chapter, they feel connected.  As the pages unfold and more characters are introduced, Arta maintains the togetherness feel of the story.  A few times when a chapter started I was thinking, “I don’t know anything about this POV character.  Why am I looking through his/her eyes now?”  Soon, however, all my fears subsided as the new POV blended seemlessly with a character I know about.  POV changes are often done very poorly, but I felt that Arta did an excellent job at keeping the story flowing and together, regardless of whose eyes we are looking through.

The story is excellent, and I think that comes from the roots of a well-crafted world and the characters there-in.  All of the characters have their own history, backstory, and personality because of it.  The biggest draw for Thread Slivers is how complete the world feels, thus fuelling the plot.

The Bad:

This book sounds really good, so why only 3 stars?  The biggest issue that this book has is pacing.  You can tell, while reading, that Arta really cares about his world, his characters, and has a great story to tell.  Because of this, the author describes the dress of every character, the exact look and shape of every weapon, giving a lot of detail that you don’t often see.  Though this is not bad in itself, it does make the writing drag quite a bit.  Another pacing issue comes with POV changes.  Often Arta skips backwards to talk about something that was happening at the same time as the previous chapter, but from someone else’s perspective.  This means that the story takes a lot longer to get off of its feet that was necessary, as Arta keeps pulling us back saying, “Wait, before we move on, you need to know x.”

I feel like Arta had so much of this planning and world-building set up, that the plot fell by the way side.  Oh yes, there is a good plot, but you will have to read a lot of the book before it becomes evident.  Once the plot is set, a lot of sections are skipped over simply to get the characters from A to B so that the story can go on.  It feels very strange that there is so much backward movement for extra explanation of certain things and then, out of the blue, giant sections are glazed over while the author waves his hands and says, “stuff happens…. aaaaaaaaaaaand moving on.”  Though fleshing out some of these sections would require a lot more words to be added to the book, that is not necessarily a bad thing if it keeps the pacing more solid throughout.

The author had so many concepts, characters, and plot points to fit into the first book that it doesn’t eve have an ending.  Oh yes, you reach the last page, but in the last couple chapters, so many questions come up and none of them are answered that the reader is left not only hanging, but falling.  I knew while reading that the whole plot wouldn’t be summed up by the end (based on the number of pages and the scope of the story), but I was at least hoping for some minor plot points to be concluded.  I realize that the book is meant to be number 1 of a trilogy, and is being marketed like that from the start, but that’s not an excuse to leave something unfinished.  My guess is that when it’s done it feel like a “this trilogy should have been one book” type of deal.  If that means that your one book is the size of The Lord of the Rings, that is okay.  (Side note: LOTR is just one book, not 3.  It had to be split in 3 at the time of publication so that the binding would keep the pages together, because there are so many pages, and the technology was not up to snuff.)

Conclusion:

If you love a world that feels real and alive and characters that draw you in, this book is for you.  The author’s passion for his tale comes through, and a lot of thought has been put into this book.  The writing style is magnificent, and if it weren’t for the giant pacing issues, this would have been a 5 star book.  All in all, good job Leeland Arta, and I look forward to seeing how the story continues.

Where you can find it:

Amazon (COM) (CA) (CO.UK)