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Review: “Robin Hood: Demon’s Bane–The Mark Of The Black Arrow” by Debbie Viguie & James R. Tuck

Title: The Mark Of The Black Arrow
Authors: Debbie Viguie & James R. Tuck
Series: Robin Hood: Demon’s Bane #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Titan Books, 2015

Dark days have come to Sherwood. King Richard has sailed for the Holy Land to do battle with the forces of darkness, taking with him the best of England’s strength. In his absence, darkness has taken root across the land aided by the would-be king John and his right-hand, the demonic Sheriff of Nottingham. Those loyal to Richard and the forces of light face an uphill battle as they try and protect the innocent from the heavy hand of the usurper. A man can be killed for standing against the king, but a legend? A legend can inspire hope even in the darkest of times. It is time for the Hood to once more protect the people of England….

Just when you thought you’d seen every incarnation of the Robin Hood tales imaginable, Debbie Viguie and James Tuck pull this out of the hat. This time around John is no petty tyrant, concerned only with how much gold he can ring from the people and aided by cruelly efficient human agents. This time John is a servant to the forces of darkness, determined to break the spirit of the people and deliver all the world to darkness. Unless, of course, our heroes can stop him….Enter Robin Longstride, youngest son of Richard’s right hand. He’s more at home hunting in the forest than trying to fill his father’s shoes, but with the elder Longstride off to the Holy Land Robin hasn’t much choice. The only bright spot in being called to the castle is the chance to see the king’s niece, Maid Marian. The king’s ward since the death of her parents in a tragic fire, Marian was supposed to serve as an adviser to John in Richard’s absence. John…has a different idea. Robin’s cousin, Will Scarlet, is far more comfortable at court than in the woods, but his task is far more dangerous–to stay in the usurper prince’s confidence, saying nothing while horrors are perpetrated before his eyes. The book walks a bit of a tightrope between dismissing and wholly embracing the power of the Church, but I think that is appropriate for the time in which it is set. There were undoubtedly good monks and church leaders, like Friar Tuck and the Cardinal, but there were also brigands hiding in their ranks. Then too, it is politically incorrect (not to mention historically inaccurate) to cast the Crusades as a struggle between Good and Evil. Not that this book is all that concerned with historical accuracy–it is far more concerned with staying true to the traditional narrative, which is deeply flawed in historical terms. King Richard spent little time in England at any time during his reign, and certainly little resembled his benevolent character from most Robin Hood tales. John did die in Nottinghamshire, but it wasn’t his headquarters. He was just passing through when he took ill. I’m not saying this is necessarily a weakness to the book, or even that I’d take it a different direction if I wielded the pen, just that like most Robin Hood legend it smacks far more of fiction than it does history. It was an unusual tale, but very fun. I look forward to the publication of the rest of the trilogy with great anticipation.

CONTENT: Strong, occasionally disturbing violence. Some crude language, mostly PG-13. Moderately-explicit sexual content. Strong occult content, from demons to necromancy.

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Review: “Serenity–Better Days and Other Stories” by Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews, Jim Krueger, Zack Whedon, Patton Oswalt, Will Conrad, Chris Samnee, & Patric Reynolds

Title: Better Days And Other Stories
Writers: Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews, Jim Krueger, Zack Whedon, & Patton Oswalt
Artists: Will Conrad, Chris Samnee, & Patric Reynolds
Series: Firefly/Serenity (Serenity: Better Days #1-3, The Other Half from MySpace Dark Horse Presents #13, Downtime from USAToday.com & Serenity: Float Out one-shot)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 2011

I mentioned my love of Firefly/Serenity last time, when I reviewed Those Left Behind, didn’t I? Anyway, if you’ve not checked it out yet you really should. Better Days is the second collection of Serenity comics, featuring a three-issue miniseries and (if you get the second-edition hardcover) three other hard-to-find tales to boot.

Most of this volume is set either during the television series or in the interim between the show and Those Left Behind, based on the characters present and their relationships. Better Days finds our favorite crew of ne’er-do-wells knee-deep in a heist, just like a thousand times before. Except this time…this time they strike it rich. Our crew can handle misfortune just fine, they do that all the time. But success? Success just might be the death of them…. As with the previous miniseries, this one felt like it was ripped from the screen, almost like it was supposed to be an episode of the show. The writing was spot on, and the art was awesome. The Other Half is a short little tale featuring our heroes attempting to transport a fugitive to meet his friends…while Reavers try and eat their faces. Again, the dialogue was stellar, and the central focus on River was a nice change. Downtime is another short episode, this time following our cast as they attempt to wait out a snowstorm keeping them from taking off. Difficult as it is to pull off in a story this short, every character gets at least a moment to shine. The art isn’t quite as pretty this time out, being a bit more impressionistic, but I enjoyed the tale nevertheless. Finally, and most heart-breakingly, Float Out is a one-shot tale set after the film and featuring the friends of a certain fallen character toasting their memories of him. I’ll refrain from further discussion in the interest of avoiding spoilers for those who’ve yet to see it, but that final page might just make you tear up all over again at the demise of [REDACTED]….

CONTENT: Mild profanity, unless you can read Mandarin Chinese. Then I imagine it would be R-rated. Strong violence. Occasional sexual content consistent with the show.

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Review: “The Circuit: Executor Rising” by Rhett C. Bruno

Title: Executor Rising
Author: Rhett C. Bruno
Series: The Circuit #1
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Diversion Books, 2015

(EDIT: The book has been given another proof-reading and re-released by a different publisher, so the author asked me to update the information found here. I’ve not seen the new version, but I’m told that the only difference is that it’s been proofread once again to catch those pesky typographical errors that seem to always slip past even the best of us.)

Reading works from debut authors can be a game of Russian Roulette, especially if the book has been self-published (This book is not, in fact, self-published, but I thought it was for some reason.) You sometimes find a gem, and other times you wind up beating your head against the wall wishing you’d never won that giveaway. This time, I’m pleased to say, I found something quite enjoyable. Unlike most of the relatively-unknown books and authors I’ve featured in these reviews, I didn’t actually seek this one out. Mr. Bruno was apparently trolling Goodreads reviews, found the one I did of Ancillary Justice, and figured I’d be a good candidate to review his own book. He was incredibly courteous, and of course I cannot speak highly enough of anyone who gives me free books, but beyond that the book was actually very enjoyable. Not perfect, there are some minor quibbles to be hashed out, but very enjoyable nevertheless.

It’s been five hundred years since the Earth was rendered uninhabitable, but humanity remains unbowed. We’ve spread throughout the solar system, scrounging and scraping a meager living wherever we can aided by the Kepler Circuit, a series of space stations set up by the Ancients of Earth before the planet burned. The stations of the Circuit are linked by the Solar Arks, traveling at nearly the speed of light from world to world distributing supplies and resources without bias. Most of the solar system is controlled by the New Earth Tribunal, a fanatically religious sect forged around the idea that the Ancients ruined the Earth with their technological and scientific hunger for knowledge that was not theirs to attain. They believe that all humans are linked together into a New-Agey collective spirit that remains tied to the Earth, and that someday the Earth will heal itself and we will be able to return home if we prove ourselves worthy. This has not, of course, stopped them from continuing to mine the Gravitum from the core of the Earth, allowing for humanity’s continued existence away from our home planet. Cassius Vale is an ex-Tribune, exiled to his home on the moon of Titan for heresy until the Tribunal is forced to ask for his help dealing with a string of attacks on their transports. Little do they realize that Vale himself is responsible for the attacks, or that these hijackings are only just the beginnings of his plan to bring down the Tribunal he has come to hate. ADIM is an android built in secret by Vale to further his plans. The Tribunal has outlawed all robotics research, declaring such artificial life to be abominations that have no place in helping us reclaim the Earth, even waging a genocidal war to wipe out as many of them as possible. ADIM is wholly devoted to his creator, and for his part Vale sees ADIM as a surrogate son. Together, they may very well bring down civilization as the Tribunal has shaped it for centuries. Sage Volus is an Executor for the Tribunal, operating behind the scenes to find and destroy their enemies wherever they hide. Her latest mission takes her to Ceres Prime, the asteroid colony that constitutes the largest threat to Tribunal domination of the entirety of the solar system. Talon Rayne is a Ceresian miner, formerly a general and bodyguard for one of the clan leaders who dominate the colony before a failed assassination attempt left him slowly dying and obsessed with providing  a better life for his daughter before he succumbs. These four characters are on a collision course with one another, and when the dust finally settles fate only knows who will be left standing.

Like I said, I really enjoyed this. It was really a great story, especially for a debut work. The prose was simple but cinematic, and you could “see” everything that happened very vividly. I understand the author is currently studying screenwriting, so the visual focus may have something to do with that. The characters were well-formed and complex, not the two-dimensional cardboard cutouts that populate the horde of mediocre fiction the age of internet publishing has unleashed upon us. There were minor issues of grammar, punctuation, and word choice, but much less than I’ve seen in other Indie works. (“He was a shadow of his formal self” vs. “former self,” things like that.)

I did have two character-related complaints; one a matter of taste and one I think is more a case of semi-universally accepted practice. I’ll start with this latter one: Cassius Vale is too perfect. He’s an interesting character, don’t get me wrong–I was fascinated by his character, sympathized with him, even occasionally found myself rooting for him despite my misgivings with his work (I’ll address that in a minute), but he really had little standing in his way. No, that’s not it exactly. He had all kinds of things standing in his way, a whole slew of obstacles to overcome before he can unleash his plan to bring down the tribune…and every single domino falls just the way he plans it. Every single thing that happens is according to his design, or at least easily dealt with. He’s got an incredibly complex scheme running here, and not a single wrench gets thrown into it. Maybe this isn’t as much a problem as I think it is; it certainly didn’t significantly detract from my enjoyment of the story, but I would have preferred to see him have to adapt on the fly to changing conditions in order to achieve his goals. A more minor complaint, more a matter of taste, is that while I enjoyed all of the POV characters found here, I found most of them very hard to root for. Cassius Vale is a snarky antihero with a tragedy in his past, and I think I’ve adequately demonstrated my weakness for those characters, but he’s ruthlessly pursuing a vendetta that cost countless innocent lives. ADIM is awesome, but working towards the same ends as Vale. Sage Volus is a kickass secret agent, again with a tragedy smouldering in her past, but she’s completely drank the Tribunal’s Kool-Aid and believes their crap wholeheartedly.* I like these characters, but I don’t necessarily want theirs goals to be achieved. The only character I can root for without reservation is Talon Rayne, and even there I have to wonder what use his bosses have for the Gravitum shipment they’re forcing him to hijack. But who knows, other readers may see this same issue as one of the strengths of the book–heaven knows that it can’t be easy to write a character you like even if you don’t want him to win.

The world Bruno has created here is incredibly complex, and I believe he at least is very familiar with its ins and outs. I could have used a little more information at times though. I had serious questions about a number of things as I read. Most of those were eventually answered, but having that happen sooner would have been nice. I would have been significantly more confused than I was if it weren’t for the book’s blurb that set the scene. That said, Bruno did manage to almost completely avoid that dreaded practice of “infodumping.” For some, that’s a cardinal sin. I don’t believe so myself, if it’s done well and manages to be engaging, but enough people have embraced that doctrine that a writer must think twice before employing it. Thankfully, he also managed to avoid the rookie mistake that many a writer has fallen prey to in their efforts to avoid this dreaded practice: characters telling each other things they should already know in an effort to inform the reader. “As you know, Bob, if Doctor Neffario manages to get his hands on the MacGuffin device he’ll end life on the planet Damsellus!” I would have liked to have been told what exactly happened to leave the Earth a barren cinder–it’s somewhat implied that it was a result of mining the core for Gravitum, but if that were the case I think the Tribunal would stop the mining as part of their efforts to make the Earth habitable again. Unless that’s just rhetoric to keep the unwashed masses in line, of course.

Some of the science is wonky, or at least under-explained–you can break the rules of physics, but you should acknowledge doing it and offer some explanation. Some examples: the ease of communication between Vale and ADIM, even across vast distances. Elsewhere in the book it is implied that distance affects the ease and clarity of communication, but ADIM has a communicator with seemingly infinite range built into his head? Seems like that device should be pretty big, if it’s possible at all in this universe. Or maybe not, it just seemed a little inconsistent to me is all. Then there’s the Circuit itself. Everything is described as if it stays stationary relative to each other, but all of those planets are orbiting the sun at different speeds. I assumed the Circuit was a teleportation network like the Stargates in that universe, but it’s revealed towards the end that instead they are space stations that allow the Solar Arks to pick up and drop off people and cargo without ever slowing down from their near-light speed. The routes of those Solar Arks take must be convoluted as all get out and subject to some killer calculations. Again, not insurmountable, but some acknowledgement of the issue and a throwaway line about how it works would be nice.

CONTENT: R-rated language, pervasive but not gratuitous. Some brutal violence. Some fairly strong sexual innuendo, but I don’t recall it becoming very explicit.

*Do I detect the mold of Mara Jade in this character? Methinks I do! That’s okay, if you have to imitate somebody, Timothy Zahn is one of the greats. There are other loans from Star Wars, such as the name Talon (not-Karrde) or the Hands and Executors (though their roles are modified/flipped.)

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Review: “Saint Odd” by Dean Koontz

Title: Saint Odd
Author: Dean Koontz
Series: Odd Thomas #7
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Bantam, 2015

It all ends here. The three (or twelve, depending on how you look at it) year journey of everyone’s favorite fry cook now draws to a close. It should be no secret by now that I’m a huge fan of Koontz and his most popular character, and this final entry in the Odd Thomas saga was no exception even if a few elements left me underwhelmed. That said, it’s obviously not the best place to start the series.

If you measure a man by the enemies he makes, Odd Thomas counts among the giants. Several months ago his path crossed that of a malevolent cult of Satanists, this time ones that were actually tapped into some nasty supernatural powers. With the help of some new-found friends he thwarted their plans that day, but in doing so has painted a bulls-eye on his back. He is now their number one target…and it’s no secret who he is and where he comes from. If someone wanted to hurt our heroic fry cook, hitting Pico Mundo is a no-brainer. So, warned by a dream that is clearly more than the result of too much pizza, Odd is drawn back to his home town for one final confrontation. This time, what the cultists have planned will make the events at the mall years ago look like child’s play….

Like I said, I liked this one. I was a little underwhelmed by the eventual revelation of just exactly what was up with Annamaria, but I suppose that was only natural since Koontz has been teasing us with it since 2008. Given the eventual revelation, I think maybe he made it just a little too interesting for his own good–after that buildup, the answer was surprisingly uninteresting. The book could also have used a main focal villain as opposed to the faceless cult, and the series celebrity ghost cameos were also sadly lacking here. Other than that, I was more than happy with the book. Odd’s trademark humor was in evidence, as was the heart and soul that we have come to expect from the series. As a conclusion to the series, it was fairly satisfying if perhaps a little abrupt–you get the idea from previous books that there’s some grand service he’s going to have to perform for Annamaria before their adventure ends, but I guess that was me (and everyone else) reading too much into it. Maybe now Koontz will finally finish the Moonlight Bay trilogy?

CONTENT: PG-13 grade profanity, pretty standard from Koontz since his return to the faith. Strong violence, occasionally disturbing. No explicit sexual content, but there are some references to the subjects of rape and child molestation. As far as occult content goes, this is pretty comparable to the earlier books in the series. Odd sees the lingering spirits of the deceased, both benevolent and malevolent. The cultists serve a reputably-nasty demon, though the entity itself stays “off-screen.” I had no objections, but to each his own.

THE ODD THOMAS SERIES, BY DEAN KOONTZ
Prequel: You Are Destined To Be Together Forever
Book I: Odd Thomas
Book II: Forever Odd
Book III: Brother Odd
Book IV: Odd Hours
Interlude: Odd Interlude
Book V: Odd Apocalypse
Book VI: Deeply Odd
Book VII: Saint Odd
Manga Prequel Series
Odd Passenger (Non-Canon Webseries)

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Review: “The Darkest Path” by Jeff Hirsch

Title: The Darkest Path
Author: Jeff Hirsch
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Scholastic, 2013

This is kind of a difficult one to review for me. Why? Funny you should ask. When I first finished this, I went into Goodreads to rate it (as I do) and was all set to give it three stars. Then I started thinking about the book and it’s merits, and had to adjust that to four. As most of the different reviewers out there have stated, the premise of the book feels like it’s been ripped from the headlines. (Whether it feels like it “could really happen” or not is a slightly different matter, but I’ll get to that later.) The plot moves along quickly, the action is fast paced, and the chapter breaks spaced diabolically in order to keep you reading. The characters are mostly fully-realized and three-dimensional. So why my initial three-star impulse? For all the things that the book does well, I still didn’t like it all that much. I can’t fully explain that, but I’ll do my best later in the review. Full disclosure: I received an uncorrected proof from the publisher in exchange for an honest review as part of the Goodreads FirstReads program.

In the world of The Darkest Path, the United States is a nation divided once again. The Glorious Path, a militant, technophobic cult, has seized control of the southern half of the country. Those living under their control are given a simple choice: join or die. Callum Roe was captured when he was only nine years old, and has spent the last six years doing whatever he has to do in order to protect both himself and his younger brother. Pretending to follow the Path is easy compared to some of the other things he’s had to do, especially his last mission to infiltrate a fort of US holdouts near the front lines. Things are looking up for Cal and his brother until a split-second decision makes him an outcast and wanted fugitive. Now the only hope he has is to cross the border between the Path and the US….but the path ahead of him is long and full of obstacles. It’s going to take an incredible amount of luck–not to mention all of his questionable survival skills–to emerge unscathed at the end of his journey.

Like I said, I’ve got wildly mixed reactions to this book. Cal was fleshed out and three-dimensional, but I found it very hard to actually like him. He’s pretty selfish, doing anything, saying anything, threatening anyone with anything if it gets him closer to freedom. I’m not saying he’s wrong, I’m not even saying I don’t understand him, but I found it kind of hard to like him sometimes. The plot was fast-paced and engaging, and a number of the issues that are dealt with are very timely, but I wasn’t buying the premise. An American veteran has an epiphany while over somewhere in the Middle East on tour and forms a militant cult when he returns? This cult then manages to take over almost half the country, and is poised to strike the final blow to the tottering, corrupt, decadent United States? I just don’t buy it. I also don’t buy the characterization of the US Military only being interested in protecting the affluent. In fact, while a number of similar elements merely annoyed me, I was genuinely offended by the depiction of the US armed forces. I’ll grant that the depiction of most of the individual troops was better than that of the organization as a whole, but that came too little too late. I was also annoyed by the obvious “Occupy Wall Street” (or its equivalent) bias evident in how the flaws in our society have escalated by the time the story occurs. Don’t get me wrong, the system needs some work, but dang! This author has a very dim view of where the next few years will take us, that’s all I’m saying. In all fairness, I recognize that this is solely my own political bias sneaking into my reactions, which is one reason I gritted my teeth and upped the review. If I were less annoyed, I might even praise the author for managing to depict a character caught between two very flawed governments at war with each other. Alas, I’m far too annoyed for that.

CONTENT: Some profanity, occasionally strong. I don’t recall it being R-rated though. Some strong violence, including animal cruelty at a couple points. Brief sexual innuendo, nothing too severe. The story features a cult, but nothing occultic, if you get my drift.

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Review: “The Book Of Apex Volume IV,” Part 3

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 my first post, I looked at some of my favorites from the anthology. This time, I’ll look at more of those that didn’t make the cut. Not that they’re bad, some of them are great, they just didn’t “do it” for me like those others did. 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…..

Also, go check out part one of this review series. There’s a giveaway!

  • A Member Of The Wedding Of Heaven And Hell, by Richard Bowes (****)
    This one almost made my favorites list. I’m still not sure why it didn’t. According to Mr. Bowes, the hosts of Heaven and Hell never leave their respective realms anymore. Instead, they recruit humans who show certain predispositions, imbue them with a measure of their power, and employ them as proxies in their endless cold war. Now both Heaven and Hell are in an uproar, as a wedding between two of their agents prepare to wed…. CONTENT: Brief sexual innuendo, non-explicit. The implication that one character may have been molested as a child. Mild violence. Mild language.
  • Copper, Iron, Blood And Love, by Mari Ness (***)
    This is a tale of the raven’s daughter, one of seven children born to a woman in the village of Sandel and the only one to survive their mother’s madness. This is also a tale of the blacksmith’s daughter, who loved the raven’s daughter for saving her life. There is also a poet, a singer, or a prince, depending on who you talk to. First off, I didn’t really like this one that much. I didn’t “get it” when I was reading it. On reflection, however, it is growing on me. The vagueness that annoyed me at first glance now looks more like Ms. Ness taking on the tradition of folk tales and how they are a little different every place you find them. It’s an exploration of how stories evolve, and maybe a comment about never really knowing which one is true. I’m still not a fan, but I can at least appreciate the craft and technique here. CONTENT: No language. Implied violence. Possible implication of a character having been molested.
  • Love Is A Parasite Meme, by Lavie Tidhar (***)
    (Ostensibly) the last two people on an Earth devastated by unexplained disaster set out to forget certain words they deem useless. I didn’t really get pulled into this one, whether it was the never-explained fate of the rest of the world or the fact that I was put off by the titular declaration concerning love. I did like the ending, but not enough to redeem the experience. CONTENT: Harsh, R-rated language throughout. No violence. Non-explicit sexual content.
  • Tomorrow’s Dictator, by Rahul Kanakia (****)
    Science has cracked the secret of mind control and brainwashing. Visit the right therapist (or whatever they call themselves where you’re from,) one little adjustment and voila! That smoking habit that’s stubbornly refused to be beaten? Gone forever. That job you despise? Now you love it. Perfect, right? And just perfect for that cult you’re trying to start that is having trouble keeping your converts committed…. CONTENT: Mild sexual innuendo. No language. No violence.
  • Winter Scheming, by Brit Mandelo (****)
    Harvey is disturbed, haunted by a relationship gone wrong. To tell you more would be to invite spoilers, and I really don’t want to do that. Instead, I’ll simply say that this strange story involves reincarnation, a taciturn bird lady, a golden owl, and an act of nearly divine retribution. Shutting up now…. CONTENT: Strong lesbian sexual content. Violence, evocatively described. Harsh R-rated language. Reincarnation counts as occult content, right?
  • In The Dark, by Ian Nichols (****)
    There is a darkness that lives deep in the Earth, hungry for the dark and dreary dreams of humanity. The miners know this, and so they sing songs bright and cheerful to keep the darkness at bay. But not all who travel through their lands are familiar with this timeless enemy, and there are those who love nothing more than songs of heartache and pain…. There was a beauty to the prose of this story that I’m sure I can’t do justice to in description. I really enjoyed it, and it narrowly missed making my best-of list. CONTENT: Implied sexual innuendo, but nothing explicit. No language. No real violence, though there are some frightening elements that I’ll not elaborate on because spoilers.

This is the third 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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