Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Witchwood Crown, by Tad Williams



I am a great fan of Tad Williams' work, in all its many incarnations. The Witchwood Crown is his most recent release and is a fitting continuation of the original story featuring four great characters, Simon Snowlock, Miriamele, Binabik, and Jiriki.

But first, THE BLURB:

The Dragonbone Chair, the first volume of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, was published in hardcover in October 1988, launching the series that was to become one of the seminal works of modern epic fantasy. Many of today’s top-selling fantasy authors, from Patrick Rothfuss to George R. R. Martin to Christopher Paolini credit Tad with being the inspiration for their own series.

Now, twenty-four years after the conclusion of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Tad returns to his beloved universe and characters with The Witchwood Crown, the first novel in the long-awaited sequel trilogy, The Last King of Osten Ard.

More than thirty years have passed since the events of the earlier novels, and the world has reached a critical turning point once again. The realm is threatened by divisive forces, even as old allies are lost, and others are lured down darker paths. Perhaps most terrifying of all, the Norns—the long-vanquished elvish foe—are stirring once again, preparing to reclaim the mortal-ruled lands that once were theirs....


MY REVIEW
:

This book is not a light read. Tad Williams' work is brilliant and complex because he understands the character arc and the importance of agency and consequences. Change and growth or degeneration happen to each character over the course of the story—no one is allowed to stagnate. With a character-driven plot set in a fantasy world, the growth of the characters is the central theme. The events, shocking and yet unavoidable, are the means to enable that growth.

The story opens some thirty years after final passages of To Green Angel Tower. Many events have occurred in that time, leaving scars on those who have lived through them. Prince Josua and his family have vanished. The League of the Scroll is no longer what it was, death and age having taken most of the people who had the knowledge. Simon and Miriamele have lost a son to a deadly fever, and are deeply concerned about the behavior of Prince Morgan, their grandson and heir. They have reservations about their son’s widow and fear her influence has ruined him. They also fear for their very young granddaughter, Lillia.

There are other problems for Simon and Miri to contend with. Political unrest, lack of hospitality and rudeness by the King of Hernystir, trouble in Nabban, and rumors that the Norns are stirring. Simon, who has always been gifted (or cursed) with prophetic dreams, is no longer dreaming. A council is held, and it emerges that Binabik the troll also has concerns.

Prince Morgan is more than just a womanizing young noble, but he doesn’t know it. Jiriki and the Sithi will have a large part to play in Prince Morgan’s journey, as they did in his grandfather Simon’s journey to manhood. Whether or not Prince Morgan is the kind of man his grandfather is, remains to be seen.

The Witchwood Crown is an epic fantasy which will put some hoity toity literary purists off. It is literary, illuminating the internal lives of the many characters, and is centered upon how the perception that the king is dying has gendered plots and plans for coups among many factions. This lack of focus on one primary hero will put off the genre purists who need more noise and sixty-second sound bites in their literature. Those readers will find it difficult to follow the many threads.

Osten Ard is a place of contrasts. Dark, in many ways Gothic, negotiating the rough waters of this dark-age world is not easy. The three main cultures differ greatly from each other and are worlds of extremes. These contrasts drive the plot and frame the story in such a way the world of Osten Ard seems more real and tangible than this world. The room in which I read grows colder when the Norns breeze into the narrative.

In the years since the original publication of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Tad Williams has matured as an author. His prose is beautiful, almost poetic yet not going there. Harsh, lush, and carefully designed with layers of allegory and subtext, some readers will find the narrative too literary, difficult to read. Williams has a large vocabulary and sometimes takes the long way rather than dumping you into the fray immediately. He isn’t afraid to use compound sentences, which makes it an adult read. Other, more avid readers, like me, will devour it, savor it, and think about the deeper concepts long after closing the book on the final page.

I give this novel five stars for its complexity, maturity, and sheer originality. A powerful narrative, this book left a different kind of mark on me as a reader than the original series did. That series is young and brash, detailing the early days of kitchen boy who became king. A young and brash author wrote that first amazing series. This book is mature, not only because the author has matured in the craft but because the king is older—it shows us who that boy became, what kind of man he is, and offers us a glimpse of who might succeed him.

I look forward to the next chapter in this very large
story.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Hope Store, by Dwight Okita @dwightokita



A poet and playwright, Dwight Okita’s debut novel, The Prospect of My Arrival, a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, was one of the more absorbing sci fi novels I’ve ever read. So, I was quite intrigued when I saw he had a new novel out, The Hope Store.


But First, THE BLURB
:

Two Asian American men, Luke and Kazu, discover a bold new procedure to import hope into the hopeless. They vow to open the world's first Hope Store. Their slogan: "We don't just instill hope. We install it." The media descend. Customer Jada Upshaw arrives at the store with a hidden agenda, but what happens next no one could have predicted. Meanwhile an activist group called The Natural Hopers emerges warning that hope installations are a risky, Frankenstein-like procedure and vow to shut down the store. Luke comes to care about Jada, and marvels at her Super-Responder status. But in dreams begin responsibilities, and unimaginable nightmares follow. If science can't save Jada, can she save herself -- or will she wind up as collateral damage?


MY REVIEW
:

Okita’s cerebral yet poetic prose is gentle and approachable, even when depicting the harsher realities of his worlds. Set in a Chicago of the future, the story opens with Jada Upshaw, an amazing, multidimensional character. A well-educated woman, Jada is, at the outset, intent on killing herself. Her despair and confused emotional state is laid bare, but shown with the delicacy and respect Okita brings to all his characters.

Luke Nagano describes himself as “a boy with a big heart but no idea where to put it.” This holds true through the entire novel, as Luke himself is the embodiment of hope. Of Japanese descent, Luke is a native of Chicago, and is deeply rooted in Midwestern American culture. He is deeply in love with Kazu Mori, a rock-star scientist from Tsukuba, Japan. Luke’s thoroughly American blundering through life causes him to make occasional missteps, inadvertent cross-cultural clashes which create tension. Kazu is forgiving, but is completely dedicated to his work. Their love/work relationship drives the plot, also creating tension.

The relationships and thoughts of both Jada and Luke are shown throughout the narrative, but Luke and Jada still have secrets from the reader, keeping me turning the pages.

Okita shows the actual science behind the Hope installation with masterful strokes. Instead of devolving into a drawn-out explanation that most readers would skip, he offers just enough information about the key elements, a framework for the reader to hang their imagination on.

Beyond the great characters and the futuristic setting is the deeper story. Hope, the lack of it, the desire for it, and the lengths we will go to acquire it is what drives this tale. Intrigues, private agendas, and in some cases, desperation drive the story to a satisfying, logical, yet still surprising, finish.

I highly recommend The Hope Store. I found it cerebral, sexy, and thought-provoking, as all Okita’s work is.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Damn Fine Story, by Chuck Wendig





Today I am discussing Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative, a book on writing craft, written by Chuck Wendig. Or should I say a book on storytelling craft? Wendig is famous for having written the New York Times bestseller, Star Wars: Aftermath, as well as the Miriam Black thrillers, and numerous other bestselling novels. He has also written numerous books on writing craft.

But First, THE BLURB:



HOOK YOUR AUDIENCE WITH UNFORGETTABLE STORYTELLING

What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho‘okipa Beach have in common?
Simply put, we care about them.
Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.

Using a mix of personal stories, pop fiction examples, and traditional storytelling terms, New York Timesbest-selling author Chuck Wendig will help you internalize the feel of powerful storytelling. In Damn Fine Story, you'll explore:
  • Freytag's Pyramid for visualizing story structure - and when to break away from traditional storytelling forms
  • Character relationships and interactions as the basis of every strong plot - no matter the form or genre
  • Rising and falling tension that pulls the audience through to the climax and conclusion of the story
  • Developing themes as a way to craft characters with depth
Whether you're writing a novel, screenplay, video game, comic, or even if you just like to tell stories to your friends and family over dinner, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling - and how to write a damn fine story of your own.

MY REVIEW:

As a writing craft book junkie, I can’t walk past any book that purposes to discuss the dirty little habit of writing. Chuck Wendig is well-known for his pithy way of expressing things, but despite the in-your-face rawness of his delivery, he does know how to tell a great story, and he does it with outrageous hilarity.

This book takes the writer beyond the essentials of writing craft (grammar, sentence structure, etc.) and into the deeper elements of storytelling, rhythm, cadence, and breaking the rules adored by the more fascist writing-group gurus. He does this to encourage you to develop your own storytelling style. 

If you have ever checked out his blog, terribleminds, you will know that Wendig calls it like he sees it. As an avid reader and a strong supporter of Indie authors, I'm pleased to see a book emerge that details the elements of good storytelling, phrased bluntly and with enough humor to keep things interesting.

I highly recommend it, if for nothing else, its sheer entertainment value. You’ll get your money back in the wildly sarcastic humor of the footnotes alone.

Monday, May 15, 2017

SNOW: Stories of Forbidden Love, Wattpad Anthology



I have lately begun to rediscover my love of the short story, whiling my Sunday afternoons away on my back porch, reading the many wonderful anthologies that are beginning to grace the digital shelves at Amazon. Reading short stories allows me to sample an author’s work without investing in a longer book by an author whose work is unknown to me. Also, it allows me to read work written by authors whose work I know and love. This week, I am talking about SNOW, Stories of Forbidden Lovean anthology of tales written by Wattpad Stars. These authors have some of the highest rated works on Wattpad, with millions of fans all over the world.

But first THE BLURB:
One cabin. Sixteen stories of forbidden love.
With an online audience of over ONE MILLION combined followers, and hundreds of millions of reads on their stories, the SNOW ANTHOLOGY showcases talented Wattpad authors from around the globe.

Journey into the woods where you will discover a cabin surrounded by snow, filled with secrets…
The SNOW ANTHOLOGY features sixteen original novellas and novelettes in multiple genres, including Young Adult, New Adult, Contemporary Romance, Historical Romance, Urban Fantasy, Supernatural and Paranormal.

Brought to you by USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR KELLY ANNE BLOUNT and available for a LIMITED TIME ONLY! Don't wait for the snow to melt before you uncover these stories of love, loss, and self-discovery.

MY REVIEW:
All the stories in this volume are excellent, well-written, and in some cases, deeply thought provoking. At no time did I feel compelled to skip forward. Several stories, however, stood out above the others, in my opinion.

The first that struck a chord in me was Red Snow, by Debra Goelz. This is a true fairy tale, harsh, violent, magical, and mysterious. Children are disappearing in the forest, for reasons both frightening and sinister. I wanted to know more about Daphne, and why she was tied to the forest as she was. Eugene, the man who’d been changed to a snake, was really intriguing also. Goelz presents the situation, doling out information in just the right bits so that when the final denouement comes, it is both in keeping with the tone of the tale and satisfying.

The second story that resonated and left me thinking was Faun, by Gavin Hetherington. Faun is another fairy tale, this one featuring a boy of sixteen, who is on a Christmas vacation in a cabin the woods with his family. Freddie is at odds with them over something that fundamental to him but which deeply offends his father and has been ostracized. After a quarrel at dinner, he runs away into a blizzard, finding his way to a nearby village. What he finds in the village is both moving and heartwarming.  

The third story that I want to talk about is by one of my favorite authors, Shaun Allan. The fact that his work was featured in this anthology was why I purchased it in the first place. Wings is a journey into despair and the need to be loved. Megan has been given a second chance, and opportunity to bring love into people’s lives and change the world. But her own emotional pain is too much, and she begins to find satisfaction in bringing misery to the world. Shaun Allan has a knack for getting deep into the dark corners of the human psyche, which is why this tale resonates with me and why I seek out his work. What begins as a quest for personal revenge soon takes a form Megan is completely unprepared for, threatening the world she knows, and deep inside still loves. Allan illustrates the growing darkness of Megan’s soul and a rising sense of doom with a deft hand, illuminating the darker places in our own souls, the places we would prefer not to look.


I enjoyed this anthology from start to finish and highly recommend it. SNOW, Stories of Forbidden Love, is available from Amazon for your Kindle.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Into the North, by Lindsay Schopfer



I haven't been able to read as much lately as I would like due to my own writing schedule, but every now and then I find the time. Today's book is one written by Indie author, Lindsay Schopfer. Because I enjoyed the first book in the series, The Beast Hunter, I was asked to be a Beta Reader, which I normally don't do, as many times I point out things a reader will find distracting, and then the author doesn't like me anymore. 


However, Into the North is a fitting sequel to Keltin’s first adventure. Both are stand-alone novels, so you don’t have to have read The Beast Hunter to know what is going on.

But First, THE BLURB:

Professional beast hunter Keltin Moore is returning home a changed man. With a new apprentice and a lifetime of experience gained in faraway Krendaria, he prepares to settle into his old life of being a small town hero. But when gold is discovered in the far north, Keltin must again leave his home in order to protect the prospectors from the beasts ravaging the gold fields. Arriving in the boom town of Lost Trap, Keltin soon discovers that there are dangers beyond beasts in the frozen north. A local gang has established themselves as the resident Hunters Guild and will not tolerate any competition. Meanwhile, a specter haunts the gold fields. A legendary creature known as the Ghost of Lost Trap stalks the snowy countryside, testing Keltin and his friends to their very limits as they try to hunt their most dangerous beast yet.

MY REVIEW:

Like Schopfer’s other work, this novel is well-structured, with creative environments, good tension, and deep characters. It is a complex tale, layered with political and ethical themes. As in The Beast Hunter, the technology is all that which we would find available in any late 19th century steampunk tale, but there the similarity ends. Keltin is a beast hunter, and the Ghost of Lost Trap is not your average Edwardian creature. The creatures in this series are some of the most horrific things I have seen outside of an RPG, all of them fun and dangerous.

Keltin Moore is still slightly flawed, and still intriguing. He still has family troubles and will likely always have trouble getting along with certain members of his own species. He lives in a world of diverse sentient races of people, and the prejudice and political intrigue stemming from that diversity is central to their culture. One of my favorite characters is Bor’ve’tai, a member of a species called the Loopi, and he makes a return.

A bounty hunter, Keltin is used to working alone, but now he has an apprentice—Jaylocke, the Weycliff Wayfarer. Jaylocke is, at times, hilarious, and is a good foil for Keltin’s intensity. The people they meet along the way and the relationships they forge with other species are the core of this story. Lindsay Schopfer’s knack for showing a good story really shines, as the action driven plot, rather male-dominated but multicultural society, and solid, well-drawn characters of many different species make this novel a good read.

As I mentioned above, I received an advance copy of this book as a Beta reader, and enjoyed it very much in that incarnation. I must say, I liked the finished product even more. I highly recommend it as an action adventure.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

EPIC FANTASY *With Dragons, by Stephen Swartz








Indie author, Stephen Swartz’s recent novel is an ambitious project, titled EPIC FANTASY *With Dragons. I had the opportunity to be a beta reader and liked the book in its proto version very much. I’m just going to say at the outset—this is not your grandma’s epic fantasy.


But first, THE BLURB:

CORLAN, MASTER DRAGONSLAYER, the best in the Guild, the best in the Burg!

And yet, returning from his latest expedition, Corlan discovers jealous rivals have conspired with the Prince to banish him from the city.

Sent into the Valley of Death, Corlan conjures a plan. He and his new sidekick, a runaway boy from the palace kitchen, will trek the thousand miles to the far end of the valley, where a vast marsh provides nesting grounds for the dragon horde. Once there, Corlan vows to smash dragon eggs and lance younglings, ending dragon terror once and for all time.

As dangers, distractions, and detours harry him along the way, Corlan learns ancient secrets that threaten to destroy everything in his world. Even with the aid of wizards and warriors, he must use all his guile, his bravado, and the force of his stubborn will just to survive - and perhaps return home - no matter how the gods challenge him with their harshest tests.


MY REVIEW:

I liked the early draft but enjoyed the book in its final form immensely. The world it is set in is barbaric and exotic. Corlan is a solid character, a great protagonist who is unlike most squeaky clean, modern heroes. In a purely human way, Corlan has faults and blind spots. But he attracts an odd assortment of people, wonderful characters who force him to see the world more realistically. In his travels, Corlan becomes a worthy hero, but never loses his human nature.

Swartz’s dragons are most definitely not the friendly sort of dragon Anne McCaffrey wrote about. It is Earth as we know it, but it is a future Earth radically altered by genetic tinkering. What the world was like before the genetic apocalypse is no longer even a part of their history. It is a place where dragons constantly fly overhead, snatching children and livestock, setting roofs on fire, depositing their waste everywhere. To combat such a menace, an elite corps of “gamekeepers” has evolved, and Corlan considers himself the best.

The society Corlan lives in is mysterious and dangerous. The perils are not always obvious at first glance. Violence is a fundamental part of life. At the outset, Corlan is arrogant and full of himself. He is possessed of that raw self-centeredness that many of Roger Zelazny’s greatest protagonists embodied.

All of the traditional tropes of epic fantasy are present: the princess, the wizard, the kitchen boy, the warrior, the traitor, the thief—all the usual suspects are in place, but with Swartz’s unique twist. The various cultures, the wonderful creatures he rides, all have roots in what is familiar, yet they are taken to an extreme, bringing a uniqueness to this tale.

Swartz’s prose is heavy with words, immediately establishing an atmosphere of barbaric splendor. Corlan’s purely human hubris, the unusual and mysterious settings, the people he meets who help him along the way—all these elements combine to make a story unlike any other.

Naka Wu is a wonderful character, as is Tam. Without them, Corlan would be just another dead failed hero. Corlan suffers from an over active libido, which he soon realizes is not in his best interests. In Corlan, the Heroes’ Journey is both a physical and a mental one, culminating in a complete spiritual death and rebirth.

I highly recommend this book to fans of epic tales and the hero’s journey.




Friday, March 17, 2017

Broken Numbers, by Dean Lappi



Broken Numbers is the long awaited third book in Dean Frank Lappi’s Aleph Null series. I can't tell you how much I was looking forward to this book, and I was NOT disappointed!
But first, The Blurb:

Trith, Circle, Zranh, Raith, Death
With those enigmatic words from the Black Manuscript, Sid begins his journey to the Trith Nation where he hopes to find clues to help him regain his power of Numbers. He is joined by Crowdal, who agrees to take Sid and his friends back to his home, a place he does not want to go. But to get there they must travel through the dangerous and unexplored lands of the north where there are things that are better left undisturbed.
A half a continent away, Melinda must learn to control the time-shifting powers of the Zranh that flow through her and come to terms with her destiny before she can reunite with Sid, Crowdal and her other friends.
A young Fahrin Druin named Drax is chosen by an ancient master of Numbers and is given unimaginable powers to do one thing – search for and destroy the Aleph Null.
And Tris, the supremely powerful Black Robe of the Oblate, has had the Black Numbers inside him since he ripped them from Sid in the Srithian Wood, but he cannot control them. So he uses the unlimited resources of the Oblate to recruit armies from three of the most powerful kingdoms in the land to hunt and capture Sid so he can finish tearing his old friend’s mind apart for the secret to the Black Numbers.
Can Sid figure out the meaning behind the strange words inside the Black Manuscript and regain his power of Numbers before it is too late?
Join Sid and his friends on another non-stop adventure into the unknown.


My Review:
Violent and graphic, this series combines elements of horror, with a magic system based on mathematics and sexual energy. After a brief prologue bringing us up to speed on the Korpor (one of the most frightening creatures in fantasy) Lappi opens the story with our protagonist, Sid, considering the death of his mother and loss of his magic.
Sid, the Aleph Null, is a deep character, a man whose life has been seriously altered by events beyond his control. He has been traumatized by incidents that occurred in his early childhood, yet he remains kind and caring of others. He is desperate to get his numbers back, but knows it won’t be easy.
On the run from Tris and the Oblate, Sid and Crowdal, Agnes, Writhgarth, Tulman, and Nik have survived an epic battle and are on their way to Crowdal’s homeland, the Trith Nation. Crowdal has unfinished business in his country that he would prefer to avoid, but it’s a measure of his love for Sid that he agrees to lead him there. Sid’s former childhood friend and now leader of the Oblate, Tris, has managed to rip away the Black Numbers from Sid, a partial victory, but he won’t rest until Sid is dead.
The plot is hard-hitting, filled with twists and turns. Nothing is simple, and every step forward brings another step back. Despite the setbacks, Crowdal and the others remain strong in their support of the Sid, both as Aleph Null and as their companion.
I like Lappi’s magic system. It is based on mathematics which are referenced obliquely, the mystery of which makes the system highly believable for me. This makes it seem both mystical and realistic.
Lappi’s villains are truly evil. Tris is consumed with his own glory, a power-mad despot verging on insane. Volatile and deliberately cruel, his loyal followers know their lifespan is measured by their ability to satisfy his requirements, and he requires a great deal. He is obsessively focused on destroying Sid.
The Korpor is equally horrifying, but easier to understand because it is simply acting on its nature—it’s doing what it was created to do.
What I love about this series overall is the way Lappi portrays the camaraderie and friendships of Sid and his core group and sets them in places and situations that are almost familiar yet foreign, and unimaginably dangerous. The two previous books in this series are Black Numbers, and Blood Numbers, and both are gripping.  If you are a fan of dark fantasy and haven’t yet read this series, I highly recommend it. Broken Numbers is a fitting installment in the saga.