Tag Archives: FirstReads

Review: “Pile Of Bones” by Bailey Cunningham

Title: Pile Of Bones
Author: Bailey Cunningham (Apparently a pseudonym for Jes Battis)
Series: Parallel Parks #1
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Ace, 2013

Every sci-fi/fantasy novel has a learning curve. This one? This one’s got a corkscrew.

Oh, and I got this book in exchange for an honest review through the Goodreads FirstReads program. This in no way influenced this review, except to ensure it exists as I likely would never have read it otherwise.

By day they’re a group of grad students, toiling away at never-ending stacks of grading (or “marking” as the Canadians apparently call it) and trying to figure out just what they were thinking when they decided to join academia. But by night…by night they are whisked away to another world entirely, living out very different lives as characters in the pseudo-Roman city of Anfractus. In our world, Andrew is a slightly introverted scholar of Old English epic poetry. In the other, he is Roldan, a majorly introverted would-be auditor, able to hear and speak to the lares that share Anfractus with its human visitors. In our world, Carl is an overly-confident historian studying Byzantine buttons. In the other, he is Babieca, an overly-confident would-be trovador skilled both at music and theft. In our world, Shelby is a slightly awkward scholar of Restoration literature that has been studied until there’s nearly nothing new left to learn. In the other, she is Morgan, a no-nonsense sagittarius, one of the bow-wielding guardians of Anfractus and the de facto leader of the company. In our world, Ingrid is a single mother studying elementary education. In the other, she’s Fel, a sword-wielding gladiator and one of the many keepers of the peace in Anfractus. It’s all fun and games, until our protagonists find themselves embroiled in an assassination plot that threatens to upset the balance of power both in Anfractus and back in our world….

The idea behind this series is brilliant, and the world created therein is fascinating. The character you assume in the other world is very real, complete with a backstory and distantly-glimpsed memories of a time before you played them, and while there are often a number of striking similarities there can also be drastic differences as well. You might find yourself back in our world marveling at the behavior of your other self, wondering why in the world you said or did something on the other side. One of the more amusing scenes was the moment our characters returned from Anfractus, only to suddenly remember at the same moment that they’d hooked up on the other side. Anfractus may seem like fun and games, a live-action version of Dungeons & Dragons, but it can be deadly as well. Injuries sustained there will follow you home, as will the grudges of those you’ve crossed. If you’re not careful, you can wind up very much dead in both worlds.

Like I said, the concept is fascinating. The execution…can be incredibly frustrating. Anfractus comes with its own extensive vocabulary that is never clearly defined, forcing you to figure things out by context clues. That technique is all well and good here and there, but when employed on this scale it can be just confusing. You even have to figure out that Andrew and Roldan are the same person (kind of) in different worlds and how that works. I actually set this aside for a few weeks after about a hundred pages (things with deadlines take priority) then started the book over from the beginning when I came back to it, and that did help a bit. I enjoyed the first part a lot more when I was able to figure out what was going on. A glossary would have been helpful. For all that, though, I have to admit that I did enjoy the book. The characters were engaging, as nerdy or more than I am myself, and despite what I expected most of the way through, I think I actually will end up trying to get my hands on the other books in the series….so long as I can get them from the library.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity. Strong violence. Awkwardly explicit (yet not graphic) sexual content, mostly of a homosexual nature.

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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: “The Negative’s Tale” by R. Leib

Title: The Negative’s Tale
Author: R. Leib
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Amazon, 2014

Is it better to be overly ambitious and succeed imperfectly, or to nail a solid performance that lacks in spectacular challenges? Mr. Leib apparently believes in the former. The Negative’s Tale is an incredibly ambitious tapestry of a novel, and I’d be lying if I said it fully hit the mark on all counts, but it was pretty fun to watch it try. I should mention that I was given a copy of this book to read and review by the administrator of a Goodreads group I’m a member of, though I’m not sure what his connection to the book is. If he’s the author, he’s working under a pseudonym, and the publisher seems to be Amazon’s Kindle-based self-publishing service. So I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter, I’m just mildly confused.

The central narrative here concerns the attempted murder of Bertie Lindermann, a nearly-immortal engineer on one of the various space stations hanging in orbit around the earth. Apparently someone drugged him, removed his helmet, and pushed him out an airlock. The only person Bertie’s sister-in-law Vice Admiral Eagon Wu trusts to investigate the crime is her estranged husband Allon Wu, a retired Second Navigator. Woven through this murder mystery are multiple threads of flashbacks, mostly telling Allon’s story up to the point we first meet him but also serving to explore a few other secondary characters as well. Can Allon Wu solve the mystery and reunite with his estranged wife? Only time will tell!

As I said before, this was an incredibly ambitious production. The world these characters inhabit is an incredibly interesting one, a world where people with telepathic abilities are trained and employed as navigators on the craft wending their ways between the stars. Wu’s talent as a Dowser is not particular useful in and of itself, but the fact that he’s a rare Negative has no end of uses, allowing him to co-opt the telepathic abilities of others in close proximity. This particular concept is one I’ve not seen before, at least not in wider usage. The idea of people keeping brain-dead clones to allow them almost unlimited longevity is slightly more common, but still a fascinating one. Where the novel misses a step is in the flashbacks. The non-linear nature of the story could be great if done with slightly more adroitness, but as it is Mr. Leib has to occasionally go through a number of contortions to justify sparking particular flashbacks, with varying degrees of success. For example, one of the early flashbacks was prompted by the sight of a particular pin sticking out of the sand. All well and good, but we don’t find out what’s significant about that pin until the very end of the flashback, by which time we have almost forgotten it as an inconsequential detail. Flashbacks featuring other characters occasionally work–such as a character giving testimony of prior events, for example–but at other times are jarring as we leave Wu’s POV for an uncharacteristic side trip. The flashbacks also have the unfortunate effect of leaving us to infer certain information that we won’t learn from the flashbacks until significantly later in the story than when it is relevant. At the same time, the author occasionally lapses into “info-dumping,” which I don’t always mind but some would consider a cardinal sin of sci-fi writing. The mystery itself was decently executed, though I figured out most of what was going on a bit before I think I was supposed to. All told, not bad, just not quite as good as it perhaps could have been.

CONTENT: Some violence. Little profanity, none that I recall at any rate. No real sexual content, aside from an alien mating ritual that is ridiculously non-erotic. One character belongs to a murderous cult, but there’s nothing eldritch there. Just a murderous psycho.

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Review: “The Blood Of Titans” by C. Michael Forsyth

Title: The Blood Of Titans
Author: C. Michael Forsyth
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Freedom’s Hammer, 2013

Meh. I’ve commented before that sometimes these Goodreads giveaways sneak up on you–there have been quite a few where I have to scratch my head and wonder why I ever entered the giveaway for that particular title. There’s even been a couple where I’ve been notified that I won, but have no memory of signing up! Clearly I need to be more careful, and have been putting an effort into doing so. At least in this case I do remember clicking that fateful link, though I can’t recall why. This isn’t my usual fare. As such, my opinion of it was perhaps lower than many others would be. It wasn’t that it was bad, per se, and in fact when I would pick it up the pages flew by fairly quickly. The problem was simply that I had no motivation to pick it up. It would lay there by my bed, untouched for a week or longer before I picked it up once more. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t really engage my interest. I’ll also admit to having a “bad taste in my mouth” (if you’ll pardon the expression) towards the book from the get-go. You see, when I received the book in the mail, it came with the following letter:

I hope you enjoy the novel. If you do, please take the time to post an Amazon Review and paste it on Goodreads as well – but only if you rank it 4 or 5 stars. And let your friends know about it on Facebook and Twitter.
If you don’t like it, well please be courteous and don’t post a review–simply pass it on to a friend!
Best wishes,
Mike

I’m sorry, but that’s not the deal. The whole point of the FirstReads program is to generate honest reviews for the books being publicized. To ask me to refrain from reviewing if I didn’t like the book? That’s just manipulative, and subverts the whole program. Not to mention that you only seem to “win” more giveaways after finishing and reviewing the ones you’ve already got, so….yeah, not going to be following those instructions. Not an option.

Our tale is set in ancient Africa, in a time of glorious kingdoms and stunning betrayals. The coastal kingdom of Kali has long thrived under the rule of it’s king, Babatunde The Good, but now their ancient enemy, the Zimbai people of the plains, stand ready to finally destroy them. Each of the king’s seven sons have fallen in battle, and now he is left with only is daughter Halima. With little choice in the matter, Babatunde has betrothed Halima to Olugbodi, the young king of the Snake People, formidable warriors in their own right, to cement an alliance against the Zimbai. But all is not as it seems….what follows is an adventure full of intrigue, romance, peril and betrayal.

Like I said, the book wasn’t bad. It flowed easily, was remarkably well constructed for what I believe is a self-published work, and (when I got around to picking it up) was a moderately-enjoyable tale. Others would probably rate it higher. It just wasn’t for me. Not being an expert on ancient Africa, I can’t speak to the accuracy of Mr. Forsyth’s research, but I will say that it certainly seemed plausible. By and large the characters were well-rounded, or at least showed hints of being even if the plot didn’t always allow them to display their different facets. Even the villain(s) were more subtle than the simple black hats that so many of us want to write, and for that I give Mr. Forsyth credit.

I did have a couple issues, of course, which I shall discuss below. Minor spoilers may occur, read at your own risk. Longtime readers know that I routinely do this even when I’ve otherwise given nothing but praise to a book, so please understand that there’s no ill will here. Had I gone hunting, I might have come up with more, but these are the ones that are still bugging me.

  • The character of Rashida seemed….inconsistent. Maybe even bipolar. When the plot demands that she hate Halima, she does. When it requires she defend Halima, she does. There is some justification for her behavior (jealousy, grief, or gratitude, depending on the scene), but on the whole I had trouble buying into the extremes of her behavior.
  • The alliance between Kali and the Snake People is explained and makes sense. The inclusion of Zimbai in their attack on the Abaka is not–it is randomly mentioned in passing, then never becomes relevant again and is never explained. Were Zimbai and the Snake People in cahoots the entire time? Did Olugbodi conquer the Zimbai completely in the short time Halima is away? We don’t know. And it doesn’t really matter, I suppose, but little things like that bug me.

CONTENT: No profanity that I can recall. Some violence, occasionally a bit gruesome. Some unexpectedly explicit sexual content.

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Review: “Rated R” by Mike Leon

Title: Rated R
Author: Mike Leon
Series: Kill, Kill, Kill
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Self published, 2014

So, I agreed to read and review this on a whim, based on the synopsis the author posted when he offered digital copies to members of one of the GoodReads communities I’m a part of. Normally I write my own synopsis, but since the official one plays such a prominent role in this review (because of the expectations it created), I’ve decided to use it instead this time. So see below:

Lily Hoffman is trouble. The teenage video clerk is deceptively intelligent, exceedingly beautiful, and boldly prepared to use what she has to get what she wants. She’s not a bad person, just the product of the horrors in her past—and those horrors are catching up with her.

Then she meets a stranger who changes everything. He shows no fear. He performs death-defying feats without hesitation. He kills with merciless indifference while growling out snarky one-liners. He is nothing short of the hard boiled action heroes in the movies Lily loves.

Of course, where there are larger-than-life heroes, there are larger-than-life villains, and the ones hunting Lily’s new friend are like nothing she has ever seen before: machine gun toting mercenaries, an invincible cannibal butcher, a ninja master, and a killer psychopath more bloodthirsty than death itself. As enemies close in from all sides, Lily’s life spirals into a catastrophe that is eerily similar to a big-budget Hollywood body-count movie. And this is one blockbuster she may not survive…

So. My expectations going into this book. Some of them turned out to be accurate–for example, I figured it would earn its title. Had I actually looked at the cover art (much easier to overlook when dealing with ebooks) this expectation would have been strengthened. Others…not so much. Based on that synopsis, I expected some sort of clever meta-fictional tale where one or more of the characters either come from blockbuster action movies or get pulled into said movies a la The Last Action Hero…or something clever like that. And I suppose this kind of works, since the book pretends to be written up as a screenplay, with setting notes at the start of each chapter and closing credits where Mike Leon does literally everything, even things that aren’t required for the production of a novel. But mostly we just have over-the-top action-movie characters existing in a world where that’s not normal. You know how you kind of accept certain things in action movies because there’s an understanding that the rules are different? Cars explode when shot, the character named Karl can be full-out hung with a mass of chains around his neck and still come charging out the building in the last two minutes ready to be gunned down for the last thrill of the film, and Jason shrugs off everything anyone ever throws at him just so the studio can make another crappy sequel. The rules are different. By and large, people in those movies aren’t surprised when it turns out that the ninja can deflect bullets with his sword, or at least don’t react by breaking the suspension of disbelief and comparing him to a movie character. Here, the characters embodying all those action movie stereotypes exist alongside-but-not-related-to the action movies from which the author ripped them. So, I was disappointed in that aspect. Oh, it was entertaining enough, I suppose, but not nearly as awesome as I had hoped. Someone with more accurate expectations would probably star it higher than I did. Also, to be fair, nothing in that synopsis was especially misleading. I apparently just read into it what I wanted to see. If you’re looking for over-the-top violence, sex and profanity, this might be for you. Me? I was hoping for something a little more interesting.

Apparently, despite not being an official series, everything Mike Leon writes features most of the same characters. Thus, this novel brings a number of plot threads from his earlier book Kill, Kill, Kill to a close. I’ve not read any of the others, but that didn’t really hinder the reading experience this time. Normally I would be compelled to hunt down the rest of the not-series, but I think this time I’ll pass.

CONTENT: As the title would indicate, there is strong, bloody violence throughout; explicit sexual content; and R-rated profanity.

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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 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: “Eye Of The Draco: Darkfall” by Kadin Seton

Title: Darkfall
Author: Kadin Seton
Series: The Eye Of The Draco
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: CreateSpace, 2013

I have to admit, this one has me a bit conflicted. On the one hand, there were a number of things that kind of bugged me about this book. On the flip side, I couldn’t stop reading it. Seriously, I read almost half of it at one sitting, staying up long after I had intended to be asleep. Add that to the fact that I only just realized that this was a self-published book, and it definitely earns its four stars. Maybe it deserves five–the things that bugged me are mostly matters of personal taste, after all, but then again reviewing is largely a subjective practice so I’m just going to stick with that rating. I received a free digital copy from the author in exchange for an honest review, but that had no impact on my assessment except to ensure that I got to read the book.

The world as we know it is done for. The Draco, alien invaders from a distant star, struck before we could react, purging the Earth of its inhabitants while leaving our infrastructure intact for their own use. Within days, most of the population was dead. Now the only thing standing between the Draco’s colonization efforts and the utter extermination of humankind are a few small resistance groups scattered here and there. Alison “Allie” Spencer belongs to perhaps the most unlikely of all of these groups–a paramilitary organization of children, commanded by a prematurely-greying nineteen-year-old, spending their days hiding in basements and by night trying in vain to figure out how to hurt the invaders. It seems an impossible task, as the Draco are all but invulnerable to our weapons, but that’s not stopping them from trying. But against the might of an interplanetary invasion force, what can a handful of kids do? They’ll be hard pressed even just to survive, let alone strike back…until an astonishing discovery changes everything….

Like I said, there were a few things that bugged me about this book. The fact that I couldn’t stop comparing it to the TV show Falling Skies, for one thing. For another, a couple high-school science geeks armed with scavenged books, electronics, and a single piece of Draco tech are able to reverse-engineer a connection to the invaders’ wireless power grid while the underground US government is as stumped as ever? That strains my suspension of disbelief. The nineteen-year-old “General” of Sector Three is starting to go grey? Did you really have to do that in order to make him distinguished enough that we readers would respect him? Give me some credit–he’s pretty bad-ass, and I liked him just fine without that incongruous detail.* Most annoying to me, personally, was the interpersonal drama being set up for the next book. I have a deep personal disdain for that most popular of devices in nominally-YA literature, the “love triangle.” Don’t ask me why, I don’t know. It just bugs me. Here, the author is setting up not a triangle but a square, possibly even a pentagram if reports of a certain character’s death turn out to have been greatly exaggerated. Moreover, the book ended on a “down” note that just left me depressed.

BUT…..

Like I said, I couldn’t put it down. The annoyances were minor in comparison with how gripping the plot turned out to be. Sure, some elements were a stretch, but I didn’t really care at the time. It mirrored some elements from Falling Skies, but I liked that show, and a number of those elements are tropes now anyway. And the “love pentagram” really didn’t come into play until the very end. Beyond that, this is hands down the most professional self-published novel I have ever seen. The cover art is far beyond what I’m used to seeing in these cases, even if the eye there depicted once again recalls the Skitters from Falling Skies. I don’t recall seeing a single typo or bungled punctuation mark in the entire book, which is sometimes more than I can say for actual professionally-published books. Most importantly of all, the book was just plain fun. Will I read the sequel when it finally comes out? Most certainly! I look forward to it, in fact….

CONTENT: Occasional R-rated profanity, not prolific but nevertheless present. Explicit but not gratuitous sexual content. Strong violence, consistent with the war being waged.

*While leading a teenage resistance to an alien invasion would most certainly be stressful, contrary to popular myth studies show zero evidence that stress causes grey hair.

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Review: “The Saeshell Book Of Time, Part I–The Death Of Innocents” by Rusty Biesele (LEFT UNFINISHED)

Title: The Saeshell Book Of Time, Part I–The Death Of Innocents
Author: Rusty Biesele
Series: The Children Of Sophistra #1
Rating: LEFT UNFINISHED
Publisher/Copyright: CreateSpace, 2013

I never leave a book unfinished once I’ve started it. Never. Not intentionally, anyway.* But midway through this book, I had a revelation: Life is too short to waste on books that you have zero interest in. When you find yourself actively avoiding picking up the book you’re currently reading, that’s a bad sign. I’ve suffered through several really poor books on the basis of having won them in a giveaway, and feeling obligated to finish them so as to fulfill the terms of the agreement, but in this case I just can’t do it. Had The Doomsday Diaries or The Tarizon Trilogy come up in my queue following this decision, would I still have finished them? Hard to say. They certainly weren’t good, but they were at least readable. In the case of this particular book, I forged my way through the first third, found myself still completely unengaged, and threw my hands up in submission. The desire to know how the story ends is not at all a factor, since even beyond my disinterest I know I don’t care enough to track down the other three books, and so this serial will end (for me) with a cliffhanger anyway. I received a free copy of the book from the author through the Goodreads FirstReads program, and I’m always grateful for free books. I’m just sorry in this case that he got such a poor return on his investment.

The book opens with a brief chapter in which the book itself tells you how to read it, insults you, and threatens to kill you if you damage it.** See, most of the characters are telepathic, and there are different bullets and typefaces used to indicate whether the text is being transmitted on a private channel, an open channel, is a recorded transmission, or is just plain narrative exposition. This could be cool, I wanted it to be cool, but it turned out to just be distracting. There’s a frame story with a young boy (who is apparently the younger version of the main character) and his mother, who has used her fairy powers to drug her husband so that she can read The Book Of Time to their son. Apparently this is an atrocity, but will somehow fix future events in place in the form she wants them to take, except that “Atreyu” (who I take to be either God or an analog of Him) has already taken steps to prevent this happening. Not creepy at all. Apparently The Book Of Time is a paradox and contains all the stories that will ever happen, because the story that follows is supposedly the future. We cut to the older version of Stephan, the young boy, at age thirteen. He and his lover, the nineteen-year-old Tova2, are just hanging around invisible to observe the beginning of the education of two other boys. Ty is nine, sees “ghosts” who tell him secrets, and has some mysterious connection to Stephan. Tyco is eleven, can fire energy beams from his palms, and was somehow engineered by a group of lizards? I didn’t get far enough for them to explain that. These two are being tutored by Elof2, a Tibetan-American teacher. Oh, and apparently both Elof2 and Tova2 are clones of people that Stephan accidentally killed because he doesn’t have control of his powers. It’s a little jarring to hear someone refer to “the time I killed you” in casual conversation with another character, let me tell you. The world that is constructed here has potential to be interesting, as do the characters, but the writing prevents them from reaching more than a modicum of their potential. Beyond the writing, the off-putting factors go on and on; some I could overlook, others would be harder to do so. There’s a creepy pseudo-sexual (possibly actually sexual as well, between the lines) relationship between the thirteen-year-old protagonist and his nineteen-year-old lover. The numbers by everyone’s names could be tweaked slightly to be less jarring, like in the film The Island–Lincoln Six Echo is much less jarring than Tova2, wouldn’t you agree? The characters themselves, far from being as interesting as they’re supposed to be, just fall flat. Stephan is a whiny little teenager, and we have to be constantly reminded that he’s to be their messianic figure so we don’t hate him. Ty is almost as whiny, and the mystery surrounding his nature is also annoying. You can do mystery well, but that involves actually parceling out information as you go instead of taunting your audience with the fact that they don’t know what’s going on over and over again. The illustrations are supposed to be a selling point, but instead they’re just creepy. Initially I attributed this to the black-and-white copy I have, but after seeing the colorized versions on the website I have to conclude that that just makes it worse–everyone has “Sith eyes!” If you’re a Star Wars fan, you know what I mean by that. I hate to break my record, but I just have zero interest in finishing this book.

CONTENT: Mild language, so far as I read. Some disturbing violence. Disturbing pseudo-sexual content. The metaphysics of this universe lend themselves much more to alien life forms and powers granted by their manipulation than they do to occult explanations, but characters who aren’t aware of what’s going on would probably suspect otherwise.

*There have been a couple books that had to be returned to the library mid-stream, but I always intended to check them back out. It just hasn’t always happened….

**Apparently writing your name inside the cover doesn’t count, because my brain remains un-toasted.

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Review: “Doomsday Diaries: The Complete Series” by Aaron Powell

Title: Doomsday Diaries: The Complete Series
Author: Aaron Powell
Series: Doomsday Diaries
Rating: **
Publisher/Copyright: CreateSpace, 2013

I wanted to like this. Really. The author was incredibly generous and sent me a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review, even after I failed to win the giveaway on Goodreads. This is described  as a series, but more properly it’s a serial novel. There’s nothing self-contained about the individual works, and you have to read all four to get the story. There are a couple of other stories set in this same world, starring Luke’s father, but I don’t plan to track them down. I almost never leave a book unfinished, but I was strongly tempted this time. Had I not agreed to do a review, I don’t know if I would have finished. Although, all things considered, Mr. Powell may have been happier if I’d stopped…. My reviews for the individual works are below, while this review will be the collection as a whole.
Doomsday Diaries
Doomsday Diaries II: New World Order
Doomsday Diaries III: Luke The Protector
Doomsday Diaries IV: Luke And The Lion

It all begins with the end of the world. Most of the Earth’s population perished instantly in the nuclear fires set off by the New World Order, the world’s elitists purging the unwashed masses from the Earth in their pursuit of a new Eden that they firmly controlled. Some, like Luke Mitchell and his family, survived in bunkers and shelters prepared against just such a day. Many did not. When Luke and his family finally emerge from hiding, they will find a world that is not at all what they expected…Can Luke find the strength within himself to do what has to be done, to meet his destiny and take down the New World Order once and for all?

Like I said, I wanted to like this, but alas, I found it to be mediocre at best. The plot was needlessly cliched, and the conspiracy theories he draws from make Mel Gibson’s character from Conspiracy Theory look sane. The characters were kind of cardboard, but not always uninteresting. At first we get a good sense of who Luke is, his wants and dreams and so forth, because everything is presented as him writing in his diary a la D.J. MacHale’s Pendragon novels, but as things move forward he becomes less and less believable as a character. Why? Because aside from his libido, Luke has not a single character flaw. He’s set up as an incredibly vanilla Christ figure, so this makes sense in a way, but that’s no excuse for a lack of inner conflict. The only thing Luke is ever conflicted about in the course of the story (at least after leaving the fallout shelter, anyway, which is where the real story starts) is his feeling for the two separate girls vying for his attention–and even that falls flat. I’ll get to that later. It’s no spoiler to tell you that Luke will die at some point, given his status as a Christ figure, but even that he meets with an even keel. Christ himself was in great turmoil over this prospect, to the point of sweating blood, while Luke calmly meets his fate without flinching. I’m all for exploring and reinventing Christ’s story if there’s something interesting to be gained from it,* but in this case it was simply hijacked to serve as a front for an uninteresting New Age parable about how the Universe itself is God, and we are all a part of that. Again, more of that later. There’s an interesting conversation to be had about why all our fictional Christ figures come out looking more like Neo than they do like Jesus, but that’s a bit outside the scope and purpose of this blog. I will grant that Mr. Powell does a little better in this regard than most, even if it does introduce an annoying inconsistency to the character. At one point Luke is revolted by the NWO’s cloning program and the “soulless creatures” it is turning out, and mercilessly guns them down as abominations. (Again, I’ll deal with this particular facet in a minute.) Fifteen pages later he and his men are pinned down by more of the clones, and he begins praying in despair at the violence on both sides. The result is a character you can’t quite accept as genuine.

I have no trouble reading stuff that comes with a different worldview than the one I embrace–in fact, I often welcome the chance to examine the ideas inherent in such narratives and the questions they raise. There’s a group of Christians that choose to wall themselves off from the parts of popular culture that conflict with their beliefs, and I understand that. I’m not a part of that group, and that attitude frustrates me, but I understand it. It’s easy. I choose to engage the culture in conversation and examine the ideas it presents–for example, the discussion Buffy The Vampire Slayer prompts about the nature of evil and the soul. Some of the characters and elements that are inherent to that show automatically disqualify it from the watch lists of many of my brethren, and that’s sad. So when I gripe about the New Age agenda presented in this book, please understand that my problem isn’t that I disagree with it or stand in firm opposition to it–though I do, unflinchingly–but that it preaches. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t tolerate that even when I agree with what you’re shoving down my throat. When I disagree with the line you’re feeding me, and especially when you’re not giving me anything interesting to engage in conversation, I just want to throw up my hands in frustration. Give me angels disobeying God for the greater good (Legion) or attempting to cause the apocalypse in order to cleanse mankind and make us worthy of God’s love (Constantine). Give me a morally complex tale of good and evil (Buffy) or the nature of personhood and identity (Dollhouse). Give me ideas to play with, don’t shove an ideology down my throat. Give me questions, not answers, and most importantly–above all else–present it in the form of an interesting story. Otherwise you’re wasting my time.

Less subtle but no less off-putting: this book is so sexually explicit it borders on pornography. The prologue is simply a graphic scene of Luke masturbating. I don’t object to sexual content when it is presented tastefully and/or to good purpose, but there’s a limit. I was prepared to forgive the prologue due to the fact that it really did a decent job of putting you inside Luke’s head and where he’s at emotionally, very much depressed and wondering how the model died even as he relieves himself. I didn’t appreciate reading about it, but I admitted it’s effectiveness in its assumed purpose. The rest of the material? It was overly detailed, even pointlessly gratuitous. I don’t deny that the characters would act the way they do in the given situations, but I don’t need details! Extra creepy since everyone involved is underage, and with an added creep factor since the main character is basically modeled on Mr. Powell’s son.** Subtlety is an art, and one it seems Mr. Powell has yet to achieve.

Other more minor issues include a “love triangle” that is less triangle than it is bait-and-switch and a complete lack of moral ambiguity on the issue of cloning. Here, clones are “soulless creatures that cannot understand the beauty in the world.” (New World Order, pg. 102) Why? In-narrative, no reason is given. Since they seem to be unquestioningly obedient, you could posit the theory that there’s some mental conditioning or mind control going on, and we know they’re being genetically engineered for certain traits (like a healing factor a la Wolverine), but to me that only makes them more of a victim and has no bearing on the “soul” as it is traditionally understood. If, as is posited here, everyone and everything in the Universe is a part of God then that should include the clones as well. They deserve help and pity, not to be mercilessly gunned down (self defense aside). I could go on for pages here about the nature of the soul and the ethics of cloning, especially if I dug into my archive from philosophy class for the paper I did on the topic, but I’ll spare you. I’ll leave it at this: the cloning factor gave Mr. Powell the chance to do something really interesting here, but he’s beat out by literally every other cloning-related story I’ve ever encountered, including Michael Bay’s The Island (which is really much better than you would expect, given Bay’s reputation. I credit the acting talent involved.) When Michael Bay, king of explosions and eye candy, tells a more morally complex tale than yours, that’s sad.

I don’t want you to think that this was completely negative with no positives. For most of the book I was at least moderately entertained, at least when I wasn’t distracted by my annoyance with the aforementioned issues. In addition, Mr. Powell definitely knows what he’s talking about in terms of military hardware, slang, and maneuvers. Was this enough to save the book for me? No. Not nearly. But it is enough to win the book a second star in its rating.

CONTENT: Hands-down the most sexually explicit novel I’ve ever read. There is graphic descriptions of masturbation, oral sex, and the main character losing his virginity, as well as multiple other acts he witnesses but does not participate in. You’ve been warned. R-rated language, occasional but still present. Strong violence. A preachy, cliched New Age agenda.

*I’m still hunting for a copy of ¡Hero!: The Rock Opera off and on….
**At least, he dedicates the book to his son Luke.

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