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Review: “The Commons, Book I: The Journeyman” by Michael Alan Peck

Title: The Journeyman
Author: Michael Alan Peck
Series: The Commons #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Dinuhos Arts, 2014

Wow. When you agree to accept a free copy of a book in exchange for writing a review of it, you always hope it will actually be good. I hate returning the author’s kindness with a negative review, but I also can’t lie to my readers (all three of them!) and tell them that something is good when it’s clearly not. If you’ve been around this blog for a while, you’ll have seen the results. If a book deserves to be skewered, I skewer it. This book? I’m not kidding you when I say that I couldn’t put it down. It was that engaging, and I heartily look forward to seeing what happens next in this universe.

Somewhere between life and death, there is the Commons. When you are on the verge of death, your soul enters the Commons, where you must complete a Journey or quest to decide your fate. Succeed, and you may be allowed to recover and reclaim your old life. Fail, and you succumb to fate and go on to judgement, for good or ill. The Commons is a shifting place, its geography and some of its inhabitants drawn from your memory and subconscious. Other inhabitants could be scraps of memory left over from other people’s Journeys, or even errant souls on their own Journeys. The Envoys serve to guide souls through this shifting landscape, helping to shield them from the worst of its dangers. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. There is now only a single envoy still at his post, and he’s not seen an assignment since time immemorial. In the interim Mr. Brill, a corrupt corporate baron, has subverted the entire system, capturing souls and draining off their essence to fuel his own power. There are a few who remain free of his power, but even they enjoy freedom simply because they would be more effort to bring in than they are worth. Should they oppose him, that would change, and the result would not be pretty. Things look bleak for those who remember the way the Commons used to be….until Paul Reid arrives following a midnight bus crash. For some reason, Brill commits a disproportionate amount of his forces to recovering Paul’s fellow passengers from the crash, but even so Paul manages to escape with the help of Jonas Porter, the last envoy who has finally received another assignment. For some reason, Paul is special. For some reason, his Journey has the potential to put a kink in Brill’s plans for good. But with Brill committing everything he’s got, Paul’s going to need all the help he can get. He could use an army. What he’s got is an old man with a renewed sense of purpose, a silent Shaolin monk, a mummy in sunglasses, a goth girl with a living tattoo who happens to be the most beautiful thing Paul has ever seen, and behind the scenes the assistance of an Iraq vet and her autistic son. For the sake of everyone in the commons, they’ll have to be enough….

As I mentioned, I couldn’t put this down. The chapters were generally short, perfectly timed to fill a break at work, and suspenseful enough that when reading before bed I invariably spent longer than I’d intended before hitting the pillow. The characters were engaging, and even though you’re kind of thrown into things without much of an explanation, if you stick with it everything will eventually become clear. The book is written for a young adult audience, but I didn’t find that to be at all offputting. There are a number of heavy themes dealt with through the course of the story, and the book doesn’t pull any punches. It honestly reminded me of something Neil Gaiman might write, and that’s high praise indeed. As befits the first book in a series, the plot was mostly tied up, but with that one little thread leading off into the next story to keep you hooked. I thought it was very well done, especially for a book that I suspect was self-published. The publisher shares a name with a location/element from the story, and when I enter the publisher into Amazon this book is the only one that comes up. The good news? I would have had no idea if I weren’t researching the book for this review. It was that well done, even down to the professional-looking cover. Mr. Peck deserves a hearty congratulations on his achievement, and you deserve to read this book.

CONTENT: Mild language. Some violence, occasionally strong. Some sexual innuendo, notably a flashback where Paul saves one of his fellow street kids from being raped (you have to read between the lines, they were both getting beat up, and from the direction of his female friend he hears “elastic being ripped”) and some flirting, but on the whole it was pretty clean. Nearly the whole story happens in a fantasy setting, but there are some significant philosophical claims made. It’s not a Christian novel, and so the metaphysics of the story are unsurprisingly inconsistent with a Christian worldview, but I don’t believe that should disqualify it from consideration.

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Review: “The Book Of Apex Volume IV,” Part 1

This post doubles as one of the “stops” on the Book Of Apex Blog Tour organized by the Little Red Reviewer, where we all read and discuss The Book Of Apex: Volume IV Of Apex Magazine (*****). This anthology collects all the stories published in Apex Magazine issues #30-44, the first fifteen issues since Lynne M. Thomas took over as editor for the magazine. In this post, I will be examining my personal favorite stories from the anthology. The great thing about Apex Magazine is that their stories are all available online, so if you are intrigued by a story you can just click the title and it will link you to that story on their website! I’d be interested to hear your opinions as well, so feel free to leave a comment telling what you thought of a particular story…..

    • The Bread We Eat In Dreams, by Catherynne M. Valente. (*****)
      The first story in the collection is a surprisingly haunting tale of a demon banished from Hell. Gemegishkirihallat, or Agnes, as she’s called these days, begins our story as an exile not only from Heaven but from the diabolical realms as well. In Hell she was the master baker, baking the bread for the nobles of the Underworld, bread that would be used to torment the famished souls of the damned with the sweet delicacies they would never be allowed to taste, the bread we eat in our dreams. In Hell she had camaraderie, friends, or as near to friends as a demon is capable, even lovers from time to time. In Hell, she wasn’t alone. Here on Earth, this is not the case. She is a demon alone, without the companionship she craves, and when people eventually come to this abandoned piece of land that will one day become New England she will be unable to resist their companionship. But when a demon lives among Puritans, the end result is nearly inevitable…. Agnes’ tale draws most of its impact from the way Ms. Valente spins her prose. She sucks you in from the first paragraph, painting an incredibly vivid and evocative picture that dares you to even try and look away. The conclusion is built slowly and gently, piece by piece from the beginning of the story, so gently that you don’t even consciously register until the end that this is the central question of the whole tale: what in the seven rings of Hell could a demon do to deserve banishment from that unholy place? This is certainly a different take on demons, and I’m not sure what to think of it theologically, but I am definitely intrigued. I urge you to give this story a try. CONTENT: Sexual content, non-explicit. Mild violence, not too disturbing. The main character is a demon, so there’s a bit of an occult flavor.
    • So Glad We Had This Time Together, by Cat Rambo. (*****)
      Another very strong story, this time told as the protagonist writes to tender her resignation from the TV network she works for. As she composes, we’re treated to her recollections of the past year or so. She has been one of the leads on a new show, Unreality Television, which is basically Big Brother with a vampire, a werewolf, a medium, a guy who’s demon possessed, and a couple normal humans to pull in audiences. Everyone knows they exist, somewhere in the shadows, but nobody has ever pulled them into the light….until Unreality Television, that is. The result? Ah, now that would be telling. I really liked this one–especially for the ending, true, but I was hooked long before that. I’m going to chalk it up to the writing, Ms. Rambo’s voice and the tiny hints she drops that everything is not as it seems. I’m not sure what else to attribute it to, since the story is most certainly a lot better than how I’ve described it…. CONTENT: References to violence and sexual content, but nothing explicit. Mild language.
    • The Second Card Of The Major Arcana, by Thoraiya Dyer. (*****)
      The Sphinx walks the streets of Beirut, searching for the one who awoke her from her millenia of slumber and asking riddles of all she interacts with. The penalty for failing to answer is a swift and sure death. To what purpose was she awoken? Read on and find out… Pointing out that this is a story about the Sphinx may be a minor spoiler, unless you either know your tarot deck and catch the reference in the title or you pick it up from the continued riddling, but I can’t really describe it otherwise and it’s a minor spoiler at worst. So why does this one make the list where others did not? I honestly can’t say, except that I really enjoyed it. CONTENT: Mild violence, in that people die when they fail to answer her riddles. No language or sexual content. Does the sphinx count as an occult figure?
    • Decomposition, by Rachel Swirsky. (*****)
      What can I say about this story without giving things away? It was incredibly disturbing, for one thing. The tale of a man driven by vengeance, and what form that vengeance takes…. Very well written, very disturbing. Be forewarned, there are even hints of necrophilia in this particular tale. Not for those with a weak stomach. CONTENT: Brief language. Mild violence. No overt sexual content, though there are some innuendos and a hint of necrophilia. Strong occult content.
    • The Silk Merchant, by Ken Liu. (*****)
      A young man sets out to redeem his father’s name and prove that the legendary Shimmersilk actually exists. Yet another disturbing tale that has made it into my favorites list…I must be a secretly twisted individual or something. I called the ending, but that doesn’t have to serve as a black mark. CONTENT: No language. No sexual content. Little overt violence, but several very disturbing ideas and revelations.
    • Ironheart, by Alec Austin. (*****)
      In a dark future, a dark past, or a dark parallel world humanity is at war with the Fae. This war has raged for years, fueling and fueled by dark magic and necromancy. With no more adults to feed to the war, children have been pressed into service. Fallen soldiers are revived with necromancy and sent back to the front to fight and die again. Usable parts are “Frankensteined” together and sent back out. The way the war was described, terms used and the dynamics of how the stalemate had cemented, I can’t imagine that the first World War was not an inspiration here. CONTENT: Strong violence, sometimes disturbing. Harsh language. Sexual innuendos, non-explicit.
    • Sexagesimal, by Katharine E.K. Duckett. (*****)
      In the afterlife, all you are is memory. It is your currency, your very existence, until you’ve used up all your memories and simply cease to exist. For Teskia and Julio, this is very dangerous because all of their memories are shared. And Julio has inexplicably fallen ill…. This story was…haunting, is I think the best word. I didn’t particularly like the ending, I prefer things to be more hopeful than that as a rule (don’t worry, no spoilers) but the story had grabbed me so tightly that it made my favorites list anyway. I’m not sure what the time stamps signify, I wasn’t able to puzzle them out. This could be the fact that I was reading a challenging story after a truly crazy day at work, but oh well. If you figured it out, please enlighten me! CONTENT: No profanity. Some sexual innuendo, but nothing explicit. No real violence, but one scene is fairly disturbing for reasons I’ll leave unexplained because spoilers.

  • Weaving Dreams, by Mary Robinette Kowal. (*****)
    Eva is a witch. A witch with a doctorate, in fact, and her current project is assisting a local historian in attempting to learn all he can about the area’s past from the local population of Hidden People. She’s being careful, following all the rules…or so she thinks. As it turns out, she and Giancarlo have inadvertently upset some major players in the faerie realm, and they’ll have to think fast unless they want to pay the price…. I enjoyed this one. I usually do enjoy stories featuring different takes on the fae, especially after the wonderful things the Dresden Files has done. I found out in searching out the link that this is actually a revised version of the story–the first version had some serious accidental racism and reinforcement of negative tropes, which was exactly what the author did not want to do. If you’re interested, check out the link. It’ll get you to the author’s blog where she talks about the revision and the reasons behind it. CONTENT: No profanity. Mild sexual innuendos and flirting, nothing too explicit. No overt violence, as such, but some discussion of it.
  • Sprig, by Alex Bledsoe. (*****)
    At a renaissance faire in Bristol, a young boy misplaces his parents and begins talking to one of the fairies. The ending is perhaps a bit predictable, but I loved the story anyway. It was very cute. CONTENT: Mild sexual innuendo–very mild. No profanity or violence.

This is the first post in a series of reviews of individual stories from this anthology. The other posts can be found as follows:
-Part One (My personal favorites….)
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Apocrypha (The reprinted stories from the relevant issues, not included in the anthology)

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