Category Archives: Novels

Review: “Down The Dragon Hole,” by Morgon Newquist

Title: Down The Dragon Hole
Author: Morgon Newquist
Series: The School of Spells and War #1
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Silver Empire, 2016

If you’re looking for a quick, fun read, might I suggest giving Morgon Newquist’s Down the Dragon Hole a try? It’s not a full novel, clocking in at only about forty pages, but it’s definitely entertaining and I plan to read the other four novellas currently in existence. You can find it on Amazon for $2.99 as of this writing, or you can sign up to write a review through BookSprout and get a free ARC copy if that’s your thing. (EDIT: This was a limited-time offer, apparently. I missed the chance to read the next several of these for free.) It’s possible that the couple typos and errors in word choice I ran into are fixed in the Amazon version, but I can’t verify that one way or the other.

Alis is a librarian in the magical side of the legendary School of Spells and War. It’s a quiet existence, doing what she’s good at and not putting her in any undue danger of adventure…until the day she tries to make an idiot warrior stop standing on her shelves yelling about a dragon. Not that Cahan hurt her – he’s far too honorable for that, or for her liking. It’s just that he was right. Before Alis can finish reprimanding him, the wall explodes in dragonfire. Alis and Cahan find themselves trapped, with nowhere to go but out the new hole in the wall. Now Alis is trapped outside the school (which has gone into bunker-mode) with the idiotic warrior who she grudgingly has to admit is not at fault for the dragon’s arrival. That doesn’t mean she has to be happy about his company…but with nothing better to do, she agrees to help him solve the mystery of why a dragon from the age of myth is suddenly flying around the countryside. Unfortunately, the dragon isn’t the only magical monster to return from the depths of myth…

This first entry in the series isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it doesn’t have to be. The world the author creates here is as of yet a fairly generic fantasy world – there’s magic, but for some reason magical creatures have largely been relegated to the days of old…until now. Then there’s the school, old enough that it was the only school around when it was founded, not really needing a name and so now just referred to as the School of Spells and War. Bit of a trope, but these things are tropes for a reason. The noble warrior Cahan and the timid but surprisingly brave and capable wizard-librarian Alis are not at all static characters, as Alis especially evolves and comes out of her shell over the course of the story, but they are straight out of central casting. The dragon is pretty standard, though the Formless are less common. Maybe a D&D thing? I haven’t had the chance to explore that the way I’d like. Are all these stock elements a problem? Not for me. I expect to get to know these characters a bit more in the future chapters of their story, and like I said, tropes serve a definite purpose. I enjoyed this little romp, and I can’t wait to revisit this world.

CONTENT: No profanity that I can remember. Mild violence and peril. Mild sexual innuendo (Alis announces that she’s not having sex with Cahan immediately before agreeing to help him figure out what’s going on, for example). And in case you didn’t pick up on this, there’s magic of the standard fantasy variety, nothing remotely resembling the occult.

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Review: “Star Wars: Leia, Princess of Alderaan” by Claudia Gray

Title: Leia, Princess of Alderaan
Author: Claudia Gray
Series: Star Wars (Canon)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Disney Press, 2017

It’s no secret that I’m a huge Star Wars geek, and thus it was practically inevitable that I would read this book. Almost as inevitable that I would like it. I’m easy that way. Even so, this is a high-quality Star Wars book, and a must-read if you want more of an insight into Leia’s character. As part of the lead-in to The Last Jedi, it also drops some hints about characters and locations that we would later see onscreen–most notably the abandoned Rebel base on Crait and the character of Amilyn Holdo. Is it essential for that purpose? Not really. We barely see Crait in the book, and the differences between sixteen-year-old Holdo and the character she would grow to become onscreen are very stark (which isn’t to say that this isn’t relevant to the events of that film – more on that below). It was fun to get a glimpse of a younger, less-sure version of Leia, however, and there are several moments that really add to the characterization of both her and her parents. As part of discussing this book, there will be spoilers for The Last Jedi. Sorry, but that’s unavoidable. Go see it already!

We meet Leia as she turns sixteen, formally taking up her role as crown princess of the planet Alderaan. In order to take up that role, she has to perform three challenges – one for her mind, one for her body, and one for her heart. This proves to be harder than she thought, however, as the galaxy is becoming an increasingly scary place. Her challenge of the mind is to serve in the apprentice legislature on Coruscant, vital training for taking up her father’s role as Senator, but it soon becomes clear that the tasks the Empire funnel their way will have dire consequences for innocents across the galaxy. Her challenge of the mind is to fund philanthropic mercy missions to those in need, but those in need are often those being oppressed by the Empire, and the Empire doesn’t take kindly to her meddling in their business. With her parents increasingly busy and distracted with affairs they refuse to discuss with her, Leia feels alone and lost. Her challenge of the body proves a welcome distraction from these weightier issues, however, as she trains with a group of fellow delegates her own age to climb the mountain overlooking the palace. Leia particularly becomes friends with Amilyn Holdo, a somewhat loopy young woman obsessed with astrology and death, and Kier Domadi, a shy but handsome fellow resident of Alderaan who wants to be a historian. Will Leia be able to navigate the intricacies of Imperial politics without either destroying the lives of innocents or being accused of treason? Will she somehow manage to restore her close relationship with her distracted parents? Will she find love? Read on to find out!

This was, in a word, excellent. Claudia Gray has a lock on Leia’s character, as revealed both here and in her previous Star Wars novel, Bloodline. Anyone who is interested in getting a better look at Leia’s formative years should look no further. We get an early look at the icy calm that falls into when things go badly (turning her icy calm following the destruction of Alderaan into character development, not a fault in the script for the original film), explanation of Vader’s comment about mercy missions, and the beginning of her animosity with Tarkin. Also explored is the early days of the Rebel Alliance, with Bail and Breha Organa, Mon Mothma, and others all striving to shape the policy that will define their movement. This is a transitional period between the collection of senators we see meeting in Revenge of the Sith and the nascent Alliance featured in Rebels and Rogue One. 

Will this appeal to folks who aren’t fans of Star Wars? Frankly, no. The book relies on you knowing what has come before in several scenes, and what will come later in others. You need a solid grounding in the movies, at least the prequels and A New Hope, and Bail Organa’s character will have more depth if you’ve seen The Clone Wars as well. Plus, the whole fact that this is somewhat laying the groundwork for The Last Jedi. There’s foreshadowing and dramatic irony galore, from the heartbreakingly ironic final line of the book (I won’t spoil it) to a moment that calls back to the end of The Phantom Menace to nearly give a side character a heart attack for reasons that are a complete mystery to Leia but are quite clear to anyone willing to connect a couple dots. Holdo largely exists here to backstop her character and help explain why Leia trusts her so much in The Last Jedi, but she also has a central role in some of the events of this tale. Unlike the icily serene presence she will grow into, however, here Holdo’s characterization is basically Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series – loopy, obsessed with things like astrology and mortality, and dressed in the most ridiculous manner possible. New character Kier Domadi, on the other hand, is introduced here to contrast Leia’s eventual romance with Han Solo. Domadi is the “anti-Han,” polite, refined, humble, and respectful. The only thing they have in common is that they would die for Leia with no hesitation. Given that he appears nowhere else, I’ll let you guess how that romance turns out. Bottom line: this isn’t going to reveal any secrets you can’t live without, but it will help you better understand the characters and events of later stories.

CONTENT: Mild innuendo – there’s some kissing, maybe an implication that things go further, but this is a YA novel. It’s not at all explicit. Mild violence, never gratuitous, though occasionally heart-wrenching emotionally. PG-grade profanity.

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Review: “Altered Carbon,” by Richard K. Morgan

Title: Altered Carbon
Author: Richard K. Morgan
Series: Takeshi Kovacs #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2003

This is probably the most interesting idea for a science fiction story that I’ve encountered in quite a while, and if you can handle all the grimy, squalid detail of this cyberpunk masterpiece, I heartily recommend it. On the other hand, this is pretty solidly in the noir category, so if the staples of that genre are going to put you off, maybe give this one a miss. And yes, I did go find a copy of this as a result of seeing trailers for the Netflix series. I’d never heard of it before! Not sure how that happened, but I’ve rectified it now.

By the twenty-fifth century, mankind has conquered death. Everyone on Earth is implanted with a cortical stack, a small disk at the base of your skull that stores everything that makes you…well, you. Your memories. Your consciousness. You. You die, they download your stack and stick you in a new “sleeve” or body…if you can afford it. Most can, at least once, but aging takes a toll. At the end of the day, most people refrain from more than a couple lifetimes. There are, of course, exceptions. The truly rich can afford to clone themselves and keep a small stock on hand for emergencies, complete with a period off-site stack backup in case of catastrophe. These fortunate few are referred to as Methuselahs or “Meths” by the masses, after the biblical figure who lived nine hundred and sixty-nine years, and most view them as slightly inhuman. To be sure, watching a few centuries of history march by does give most of them a slightly different take on the world and society – they tend to disregard the “little people” even more than the rich and powerful here in the twenty-first.  Of course, this societal revolution has impacted literally every element of the world. Travel? Beam yourself across the stars instantly and have them sleeve you in a new body halfway across the galaxy. Or across the globe, if you’re really impatient. Prison? Nope. Criminals are simply stuck on the shelf for the length of their sentence, their bodies sold off as bargain sleeves unless a loved one can pay to keep it mortgaged. Your sentence is over, you get resleeved into whatever is available. You went in as a twenty-year-old black man? You might come out a middle-aged white guy, or vice versa. Murder isn’t as much a thing, since “you” are your stack, not your body, and thus far more durable. Cases of “real death” do occur, but mostly it’s “organic damage” and the victim can be resleeved in time to testify about their own attempted murder.

This is the world of Takeshi Kovacs. Once a crack UN Envoy, specially trained to be sent all over human space to fight minor wars, now Kovacs is a mercenary and a criminal for hire on the fringes of the Protectorate. After dying in a hail of gunfire on Harlan’s World, Kovacs understandably expects to be on ice for a century or two. Instead, he finds himself resleeved on Earth. It seems a Meth, Laurens Bancroft, blew his own brains out a couple weeks ago…or at least that’s what the police report says. Bancroft, now in a new sleeve, doesn’t believe it. He doesn’t remember the night in question, but he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t try to kill himself, and if he did want to kill himself, he’d have done it right so he couldn’t be resleeved. If Kovacs manages to figure out who actually had Bancroft killed, he’s a free man in a designer sleeve on whatever world in the Protectorate he desires. If he fails…well, that’s not a good idea. Kovacs might be inclined to take the police at their word – every single piece of evidence points to Bancroft vaporizing his own head – if not for their stubborn resentment of his presence. Not to mention the hitman who knows his name and (new) face on a world he’s never visited in his life. Someone doesn’t want Kovacs to find out the truth, which means that there’s truth to find. Tipping him off to that fact was their first mistake. Pissing him off was their second. They may not get a third….

As I said before, this book was superbly executed. The worldbuilding is spot-on, and I can’t think of a single arena where Morgan didn’t think through the implications of the tech he was unleashing on his fictional world. There are throwaway lines left and right that hint at a larger world and history at play here, and I want to explore them all! I wasn’t a huge fan of the religious subtext, though. Morgan is pretty anti-religion here, especially Catholicism. The Catholic church has decided that your soul cannot be separated from your body, and so resleeving yourself is forbidden. And since there’s no special provision for an alternative punishment, Catholics that are sentenced to any time in storage – even a week – are as good as dead. Reasonable bit of extrapolation there, given real-world trends in Catholic doctrine, but Morgan (through Kovacs) is really vitriolic on the subject. It’s also a huge plot point, as Catholics make perfect targets – they can’t be resleeved to testify at trial, so you’re likely to get away with whatever crime you commit against them. Thus, there are several brothels that unofficially only hire Catholic girls in case they have to make them disappear. (No word on how prostitution can be made to square with their beliefs.) Protestants aren’t mentioned, though I think that debate within my branch of the church would grow rather heated as well. Muslims don’t come off well either, especially in Kovacs’ flashbacks to the fighting on an Islamic world, Sharya.

CONTENT: Strong R-rated profanity throughout. Graphic violence, including virtual torture where a character is downloaded into a mainframe, in a simulated female sleeve, and repeatedly raped, beaten, and mutilated to death, only to have the system reset. This isn’t described in great detail, but is pretty disturbing nevertheless. Graphic sexual content, including the torture scene described above. Some pretty heavy drug and alcohol use – fictional drugs, not describing the effects of anything that actually exists (to my knowledge), but still. Bottom line: not for kids or the faint of heart.

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Review: “The Name of the Wind,” by Patrick Rothfuss

Title: The Name of the Wind
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Series: The Kingkiller Chronicle #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: DAW, 2008

Somewhere, in a small village in the middle of a land burning with the fires of revolution, there is an inn. The innkeeper is a massive man, with hair red as flame, but most of the time he seems remarkably unremarkable. A relative newcomer to this tiny village, an outsider, but otherwise not worth particular notice. Except…every so often, when he forgets himself or thinks no one is watching, his eyes light with an inner fire that seems it could set the world ablaze. The name he gives his new neighbors is Kote, but he was born Kvothe, one of the Edema Ruh, and that name is spoken in whispers across the land. Kvothe the Bloodless, they say. Slayer of dragons. Musician without compare. Kingkiller. Come listen in, as Kvothe tells the long and twisting tale of his life and adventures….

Beautiful prose, an interesting world, and a complicated hero combine to make this an excellent read. It’s massive and arguably a bit rambling, but well worth the effort. Rothfuss weaves a web where even the smallest detail could have dire implications for later events, as Kvothe is recalling things with the 20/20 vision granted by hindsight and the narrative flair of his Ruh heritage. There are secrets here, and mysteries, but you’ll have to work for most of them. Some would argue that Kvothe, the young man of the main tale, is perhaps a bit too precocious for belief, but this offers an interesting contrast to the broken failure of a man he sees himself as in the frame tale. I very much look forward to continuing this series and finding out how that change was affected, even as I know that the third book is notoriously overdue…

CONTENT: Probably some R-rated language, but I honestly don’t remember any. PG-13, for sure. Definitely some violence, ranging from the fairly dark and a bit disturbing to harmless mischief. Some sexual innuendo, but nothing explicit yet. Later books? Not sure. Mild fictional drug content. There’s definitely magic and talk of demons, but it’s not occultic. The magic is part of the fabric of creation, and the demons are superstitious interpretations of monsters from the land of the Fae…which doesn’t do much to comfort those slain by them, to be sure.

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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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