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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: “John Constantine, Hellblazer: The Family Man” by Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, David Lloyd, Dave McKean, Ron Tiner, & Sean Philips

Title: The Family Man
Writers: Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman & Dick Foreman
Artists: Ron Tiner, David Lloyd, Dave McKean, Sean Phillips, Steve Pugh, Dean Motter, Kevin Walker, Mark Buckingham, Mark Pennington, & Tim Bradstreet
Series: John Constantine, Hellblazer (Volume IV, Issues #23-33)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2012

This volume of the ongoing Hellblazer comic series proved to be a mixed bag, not in terms of quality but in terms of subject matter. Much like the first volume, but in this case it was all tied together by a larger narrative. It was, I think, my favorite volume so far….which is a bit chilling, since this was undoubtedly the most messed up volume yet as well. At any rate, I’m finally seeing what everyone raves about with this series.

John Constantine knows how to handle a supernatural threat. Usually, that’s run like hell, but still. He faces down the things that go bump in the night on a regular basis, has stared into Hell and had Hell stare back. He bears the scars of these encounters, both physical and mental. But now? Now Constantine is up against his most unnerving enemy yet–a strictly vanilla human serial killer who specializes in slaughtering entire families. Fresh from the near-apocalypse caused by the government’s runaway “fear machine,” and needing a place to lay low, Constantine drops in on an old friend and finds himself in the middle of a mind-bending meta-fictional romp. A few weeks later, a mysterious figure shows up at the door in search of Constantine’s missing friend. This encounter will plunge Constantine into a deadly game of chess for his very soul…. In between the moves of that deadly game, we get some guest appearances. First off, Grant Morrison and David Lloyd spin a tale of nuclear horror as a town and the new missile base just up the road both fall victim to a sinister experiment. Then Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean take an issue to explore the human need for affection and just simply being noticed. Later, Dick Foreman spins a yarn about a madman’s dream to take over the world using an unlikely vehicle for his ambitions.

Like I said, this volume mostly holds together pretty well. We segue in from the previous volume, then move on to set up the chance meeting between Constantine and the Family Man. From there, Constantine tries to ignore the fact that he alone knows the killer’s identity, having a couple side adventures that allow for some guest teams and (I presume) Delano to catch up his schedule before the main showdown and cleanup. It meanders a bit at the end, perhaps, but that mostly serves to allow the next volume to start on cue instead of rambling about first. I’m fine with that. Random Neil Gaiman appearances are always appreciated, and Dave McKean’s style complemented the story being told quite well. I wasn’t quite as fond of the Morrison/Lloyd tale, but that may have been a byproduct of its very obvious political leanings, and I found the Dick Foreman story pretty forgettable, possibly because the art rubbed me the wrong way. At any rate, I’m sticking with the series for a while longer. I see we change lead writers for the next volume, so that will be interesting….

CONTENT: Some strong language, PG-13 grade. Some semi-explicit sexual content, including implied molestation, incest and rape as a city gives in to all of its suppressed desires. Strong violence, very gory in a couple places. Very little occult content this volume though, considering the series as a whole.

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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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