Category Archives: Novels

Review: “Darkstorm” by M.L. Spencer

Title: Darkstorm
Author: M.L. Spencer
Series: The Rhenwars Saga Vol. I
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Stoneguard Publications, 2016

Thought I had posted this already. I received a copy of this in exchange for a review. Now I can’t find any information on it to link to, be it Amazon or Goodreads, which is a bit frustrating for purposes of this blog. Oh well…..

Eons ago, the nation of Caladorn and the kingdoms of the Rhen existed in harmony. Those days are long past. Though they still share a root philosophy, at least so far as the nature of magic is concerned, relations between Bryn Calazar and Aerysius are far from friendly. Braden Reis is a Master of the Lyceum, sent to Aerysius as an ambassador in a last-ditch attempt to prevent war . . . but all is not as it seems. When an Acolyte from Aerysius’ Hall of Watchers stumbles upon an unholy conspiracy involving the demonic power of Xerys, Prince of Chaos, Braden finds himself embroiled in a struggle against the most powerful members of both Colleges of Magic for the future of his entire world. If he fails, Chaos will reign supreme. If he succeeds, it may mean the end of the world as he knows it.

The world presented in Darkstorm is fascinating, to say the least. I initially feared Caladorn would prove the stereotypical fantasy land where women are forced to rely on men to protect them, but this wasn’t quite accurate—that only proves necessary if the woman in question has little status. There are many powerful women in Caladorn, though a good deal of their status and prestige seems to be founded in how alluring they are able to make themselves. Aerysius seems to be a bit more founded on equality, but as we spend a comparatively short time there I cannot say for certain. Fantasy tropes pop up left and right, but usually cast in a new light or employed in interesting combinations that dampen any potential annoyance.

The characters shown here are without fail three-dimensional and complex. One seems inconsistent at times, but that turns out to be intentional. Braden Reis is a man of convictions, with blood on his hands despite (or because of) his strong moral compass. Braden’s lover, Master Sephana Clemley, holds a similarly steady morality despite serving a rival nation. Faced with evidence of corruption infecting both their orders, Braden and Sephana barely hesitate before seeking the truth. Also caught up in events is Sephana’s apprentice, Merris Bryar, whose nosiness tips the Masters off to the conspiracy in their midst, and Braden’s wine-sotted brother Quinlan. Even the antagonists prove complicated, and their motivations understandable even as we deplore their methods. We aren’t even entirely sure they’re wrong, in most cases.

Bottom line, this was an amazingly entertaining read. I do have some issues with the ending, but I cannot discuss them without courting spoilers, and so will leave off with merely that vague caveat. I look forward to seeing more in this trilogy when the time comes.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity. Strong violence. Strong sexual content. Magic, though mostly fantasy-based as opposed to occultic.

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Review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” by Alan Dean Foster

Title: The Force Awakens
Author: Alan Dean Foster
Series: Star Wars: Episode VII
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2016

Okay, let me be incredibly clear about this: the rating above applies to this novelization only! I loved the movie, with just a couple minor quibbles to complain about. It was incredible. This book? Sadly mediocre.

Hey, look at that! I managed to make this review almost spoiler-free even without trying to!

Thirty years after the events of The Return Of The Jedi, it seems that the more things change the more they stay the same. The Rebellion has become the New Republic, now the dominant power in the galaxy…at least for the moment. After the death of the Emperor, the Empire fell prey to numerous revolutions and uprisings, signing a peace treaty with the New Republic before melting away and reforming in the Unknown Regions as the First Order. Now, faced with a Senate that is unwilling to risk war and mounting evidence of First Order skulduggery, Leia Organa has formed the Resistance in the image of the Rebellion of old, a private military force to keep an eye on their old enemies. This would be so much easier if Luke was anywhere to be found, but in the wake of a particularly heart-wrenching family tragedy both he and her husband Han have disappeared….

I’m not sure what happened here. Alan Dean Foster is an accomplished author, both of original works and novelizations of films. As I noted above, I absolutely loved the movie. So what went wrong with the book? Let me put it this way: if I hadn’t seen the movie already, this would prove far from satisfactory. While I projected the amazing performances from the film onto the characters as presented in the novel, even managing to carry that through the “deleted scenes” as it were, they would have been fairly uninteresting if I were experiencing them here for the first time. The writing was fairly (though not completely) emotionless when it came to exploring the characters, or perhaps it just pales in comparison with the onscreen performance backed by John Williams’ score. (EDIT: I think this was a huge part of my issue. A number of my favorite moments in the film weren’t captured in full effect here, possibly because Foster was working from a screenplay and not the finished film, which would of course not reflect any added nuance of character injected by the actor. Other scenes are more fully rendered.) Part of the problem is that we almost never get into their heads. That’s why I was so excited to get my hands on this–there are a number of places in the movie where I really wanted to know what a given character was thinking. Normally, this would be the province of the novelization. Not this time. We get a couple snippets of thought, but mostly obvious stuff. Was this a forced tactic by those in charge of maintaining the secrets yet to be revealed? Maybe. I’ll admit that I was hoping for more clues on certain theories, especially Rey’s backstory.

Of course, there are good things to find here too. Numerous sequences that were cut from the film, such as more with Leia, Rey’s first encounter with snow, or a scene where Unkar Plutt tracks down Rey and the Falcon on Takodana. Usually these scenes offer illumination to other moments in the film, such as Rey reminding herself to flip the safety off on her blaster before firing. Too, Foster puts in a valiant effort when it comes to making other elements feasible. Starkiller Base gets a pseudo-scientific explanation for its power and firing mechanism, and Finn has trouble figuring out which tools Rey needs because of their disorganization, not because he’s unfamiliar with mechanics. Then too there are a few more hints regarding the resolution of certain mysteries. Kylo Ren finally realizes Rey’s true identity just before they commence their battle (meaning he’s still one up on us), and Snoke drops several more hints regarding his origins that still fall far short of revelation.

Bottom line: I’m not telling you to give this one a miss, but I am telling you to see the movie first. That experience will add some much-needed flavor to this one.

CONTENT: Mild to no profanity. Mild violence, occasionally heart-wrenching. You know the part I mean. Little to no sexual content.

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Review: “Star Wars Annual #1” by Kieron Gillen & Angel Unzueta

Title: Star Wars Annual #1
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Angel Unzueta
Series: Star Wars Annual #1 (Official Canon)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Marvel Comics, 2015

I’m annoyed by comics stories that don’t have a proper title. It makes things like this more difficult. Ah, don’t mind me. I’ll get over it….

Rebel agent Eneb Ray has spent years in deep cover on Coruscant as a minor revenue official. It’s not the most glamorous assignment, but it does allow him access to information on Imperial shipping that he can feed to the Alliance. Eneb Ray will be the first to tell you he’s no hero…until a small collection of Alliance-sympathetic senators are scheduled for execution. On orders from Princess Leia, Ray infiltrates the prison only to find himself presented with an unprecedented opportunity–the Emperor himself is scheduled to arrive in under an hour….

This was a pretty good story. As a one-shot it has little relation to the events of the ongoing series, and its not entirely clear when exactly this is set other than sometime after the battle of Yavin. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. Ray was an interesting character to get to know, and I look forward to hopefully seeing him show up again in the future. I think given the early setting and our knowledge of later events I can say without spoilers that the assassination attempt goes poorly, in no small part due to the machinations of Palpatine. You simply don’t outwit that guy, not usually. Bottom line: this story is non-essential but well worth the read.

CONTENT: Mild violence, no gore. No sex or profanity.

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Review: “The Prison In Antares” by Mike Resnick

Title: The Prison In Antares
Author: Mike Resnick
Series: Dead Enders #2 (The Birthright Universe)
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Pyr, 2015

Colonel Nathan Pretorius is the best agent the Human-led Democracy has in their war with the alien Transkeii Coalition. Fresh from a suicidally-difficult mission behind enemy lines that went off without even the slightest setback, Pretorius and his team are given a new assignment: rescue or eliminate a scientist captured by the Coalition before he loses the entire war for the Democracy. This time around the team is joined by Iris “Irish” Fitzhugh, a psychologist tasked with determining whether or not their target has given up vital information before being rescued. The rest of the Dead Enders all reprise their appearances from the previous book: contortionist and thief Sally “Snake” Kowalski, cyborg strongman Felix Ortega, computer genius Toni “Pandora” Levi, part-alien empath Circe, and the alien shapeshifter (kind of) nicknamed Proto.

The Prison In Antares is the sequel to Mike Resnick’s 2014 novel The Fortress In Orion. Resnick has an impressive reputation in the sci-fi community, with five Hugo wins and over thirty nominations, so I had high hopes. Too high, as it turned out. The first book was marred by a plot where a seemingly-impossible mission was pulled off without a single setback or casualty. This time around Resnick has at least somewhat improved on the failings in the last book, but not enough. This time the mission doesn’t go off without a hitch, there are setbacks and obstacles that the team must deal with, and the mission isn’t without casualty either. Unfortunately, some of that difficulty comes about because the apparent intelligence of the characters seems to have been markedly reduced between books. Casualties, when they do occur, spur from characters making idiotic mistakes instead of meaningful moments of self-sacrifice or calculated risks to achieve a desired end. The book is still fun and entertaining, and Resnick’s reputation suggests that this series is not representative of his work, but I’d start someplace else in his bibliography.

CONTENT: Moderate amounts of violence, occasionally gruesome. Occasional R-rated language. Occasional sexual innuendo, nothing too explicit.

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Review: “The Fortress In Orion” by Mike Resnick

Title: The Fortress In Orion
Author: Mike Resnick
Series: Dead Enders #1 (The Birthright Universe)
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Pyr, 2014

As some of you may know, I review for the San Francisco/Manhattan Book Review in exchange for free books. I’m usually careful not to inadvertently get myself dropped into the middle of a new series. Then I requested The Prison In Antares, not realizing it was book two in a new series. So I hastily tracked down The Fortress In Orion to catch up before I set in. Now I find out that everything Resnick has ever written is set in the same universe! (Okay, just most of it.) I’ve got a lot of reading to do….

The (mostly) human Democracy is at war with the alien Transkei Coalition, fighting a war that they may not be able to win. Colonel Nathan Pretorius is the Democracy’s go-to man for crazy, impossible missions…when those missions haven’t left him in the hospital growing a new spleen. This next mission? This one is going to top them all…. The Democracy has managed to clone a replacement for General Michkag, the top Transkei commander. Its up to Nathan and whatever fools he can convince to follow him to capture if possible, kill if necessary, the real Michkag and leave the friendly one in his place to try and bring the war to a peaceful conclusion. The odds of this mission ending in death for the entire team? Not worth thinking about. Failure isn’t an option. Pretorius and his Dead Enders are just going to have to find a way to infiltrate The Fortress In Orion….

This one…this one has me conflicted. I really liked the characters, every one of them felt well-realized and interesting. The setup was good, and had the potential to be a great story. But you know what you need for a great story? There’s this literary device called Things Going Wrong. You see, its just not interesting when everything goes to plan and the good guys carry off their allegedly difficult, nay, impossible mission without a hitch or casualty. Its far more interesting when the crap hits the fan and everything goes wrong but they somehow manage to squeak out victory anyway. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens here. Occasionally a wrench gets thrown into the works, just for flavor, but since Pretorius is following a careful plan of winging it anyway that never seems to matter. Something went wrong? Give me three pages and I’ll turn it to my advantage. There’s never any real danger or tension, despite everyone saying how dangerous everything is. I’m not giving up on Resnick, his reputation is too shiny for one book to tarnish, and I’m obligated to read the sequel anyways, but I will admit this was a disappointment. On the other hand, he managed to keep things moving along at such a clip that I didn’t quite notice until the ride was over that there was never any real danger. The tongue-in-cheek tone was also pretty great.

CONTENT: R-rated language, not gratuitous. Mild sexual innuendo. Occasional violence, sometimes disturbing.

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Review: “The Untold Tale” by J.M. Frey

Title: The Untold Tale
Author: J.M. Frey
Series: The Accidental Turn #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: 2015, REUTS Publishing LLC.

There is very little Forsyth Turn doesn’t know. As Shadow Hand, the king’s spymaster, he wages in secret the war his famous older brother carries out in songs and tales told in every tavern throughout the three kingdoms. Kintyre is everything an epic fantasy hero is made of—strong, brave, and oblivious to what’s going on around him. While Kintyre is off gallivanting about the world with his loyal sidekick and magic sword, slaying first and asking questions later if at all, Forsyth quietly manages the family’s holdings and keeps up with the mountains of paperwork generated by his legion of spies. Through this legion, Forsyth knows nearly everything there is to know about the world he lives in…which is what makes the girl so fascinating. Rescued from the clutches of the evil Viceroy by Forsyth’s men, Lucy Piper (Pip to her friends) is brought to Turn Hall to recover from the tender attentions of the Viceroy’s sidekick and torturer Bootknife, attentions that have left an intricate lattice of artistic scrolling vines carved into the flesh of her back. For anyone to have resisted Bootknife long enough for the carvings to become so intricate is alone enough to earn Forsyth’s attention and respect, but Pip also represents a complete mystery. In a world where Forsyth can usually match a face to its family heritage at a glance, Pip’s bronzed skin and the shape of her eyes are like nothing he’s ever seen. Then too there are the things she cannot know but does—such as the fact that mild-mannered minor nobleman Forsyth Turn, Kintyre’s worthless younger brother, so shy and graceless, is really the Shadow Hand of the king. Could it be true? Could the Viceroy really have managed to call down one of the legendary Readers, one of those all-powerful beings who watch all that happens from on high? But surely not. Readers, the Great Writer, the world being born from the nib of a pen, that’s all just mythology and nonsense…isn’t it?

“Yeah, yeah,” you say. “It’s a metafictional world, the girl is trapped inside her favorite book, we’ve seen that before.” Well, yes. I suppose you may have. It does bring Inkheart to mind, though that was sort of the polar opposite to what’s happening here. Such a metafictional narrative is itself a fantasy trope, if not a widely used one. But that just strengthens my point. J.M. Frey is a master of the fantasy trope, both the good and the bad. The central conceit here is that The Adventures Of Kintyre Turn were written by a stodgy (and frankly, downright lecherous) old man who ripped off, er, faithfully followed every single convention of his genre when creating the world his characters inhabit. Women exist solely to be damsels in distress, fainting at danger and then falling into the arms of the Conquering Hero. Minorities and non-humans are scattered through for flavor, but only in background roles or to be the Exotic Other. Quests all follow a certain formula. These tropes are so ingrained in the fabric of the world that they remain true even when the author isn’t writing. By dropping in an outside observer, Frey is able to really examine each and every one of these tropes even as she makes use of them herself. The result is truly incredible, a novel that is by turns hilarious and heartrending, at times a love letter to the entire genre, at others a biting indictment of its more appalling conventions. Beyond its agenda, though, the fact remains that this is simply a stellar book. The characters, while initially suggested to be little more than the stereotypes they inhabit, are all real living breathing people, and whatever you think you know about what’s going on is just waiting to be upturned. I would recommend this book to anyone with a healthy love of the fantasy genre, or just a love of good stories. I do offer fair warning, though, there’s quite a bit of sexual content in the back half of the book. It’s necessary to what Frey is trying to do here, but does render the book unsuitable for certain audiences.

CONTENT: Intermittent R-rated profanity. Strong violence, occasionally gruesome. Moderately explicit sexual content, scattered throughout the back half of the book.

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Review: “Star Wars–Rebels: The Fake Jedi” by Martin Fisher & Bob Molesworth

Title: The Fake Jedi
Writer: Martin Fisher
Artist: Bob Molesworth
Series: Star Wars: Rebels
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Egmont UK Ltd, 2015

Here’s another Star Wars: Rebels short! This one was first published in Germany (sensing the trend?), translated and published in the UK in Star Wars Rebels Magazine #3, and should be published stateside eventually. Until then, happy Googling!

This one is a solo adventure for Kanan as he is forced down by the Empire on a strange planet. Taken in by the locals, he is taken to their lightsaber-wielding leader who, despite his weapon, is no Jedi. Of course, this is when the Inquisitor decides to show up looking for Kanan….

This one wasn’t bad. The story was predictable, but that’s par for the course on these I’m thinking. As with previous stories illustrated by Molesworth, I think his art is perfectly serviceable and possibly better than these comics could reasonably hope for. Is this one essential reading? Not really, but it was fun nevertheless.

CONTENT: Mild violence. No profanity. Scantily-clad alien women, not played for titillation.

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