Indie Review: Sarvet’s Wanderyar by J. M. Ney-Grimm

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf the last book I read sated my taste for sword and sandal fantasy, Sarvet’s Wanderyar fits the bill for another craving: epic fantasy. J. M. Ney Grimm is a master at this genre, and I’ve been a fan of her work since the first paragraph I read; this book has been on my to-read list for quite a while, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Sarvet is a young woman who suffers from a sort of palsy in one leg. Because of this, she’s held back; she’s relegated to menial chores, coddled by an overbearing mother, and–she believes–prevented from achieving her dreams. Sarvet’s need to prove herself drives her to request a Wanderyar–a year of exploring the world on one’s own–which is reserved only for young men. She’s tenacious and determined from the start, so her coming of age isn’t something that happens to her so much as something she forges for herself. This gives her a certain strength of character that’s lacking in a lot of literature. It’s easy to cheer her on and revel in her journey.

Sarvet’s disability is introduced very nicely. Subtle hints before coming out and saying it makes for a reveal that’s not surprising, but not really expected either. A good set up for what will be an important plot point; she doesn’t beat you over the head with it, a sin that is far too easy to commit in writing. This also puts the focus more on her character and less on the disability, making for a nicely rounded heroine that’s easy to sympathize with. That, in turn, makes this much more than a run of the mill coming of age novel–it’s an entrancing story with a character you care about, and desperately want to succeed.

Sarvet, for all her determination and will, is also a tad naive. This serves the story well; it sets her up as a young woman who, despite her disability, doesn’t realize just how difficult life can sometimes be. Failure is a very real consequence for her, and it’s all the more tangible because of her adolescent exuberance. You get the feeling that if she falls, she’s going to fall hard–but even if she recovers there’s an “I told you so” in the wings. The lesson is not so much in learning to succeed on her own as that sometimes, a little control is necessary.
This leads into the mother, Paiam. She’s fiercely protective of Sarvet, and while this overbearance serves as her call to action, Ney-Grimm does a good job of tempering and justifying it. Paiam  isn’t just a controlling mother; Sarvet’s resistance is making that control seem more pronounced than it is. At first I saw Paiam as the clear antagonist, but I came to sympathize with her. This makes for a complex interaction between the two characters that rages almost completely in the subtext–very clever on Ney-Grimm’s part, and very effective. In fact, I sense that there’s a whole other story for Paiam, and I’d love to see her developed in another book.

Once the action gets moving, the reader is thrown into a wild set of circumstances that move further and further away from Sarvet’s familiar, tame world. It’s an escalation that nicely reflects the issues one faces in growing up; problems seem insurmountable until they’re not–and completely trivial in retrospect. There’s a certain shift in tone here as Sarvet goes from climbing  a mountain to living among pegasi, and it serves well to show the stark differences between youth and adulthood. The metaphor may not be subtle, but it fits.

(On a side note, one of my favourite things about Ney-Grimm’s work is her treatment of fantastical creatures. She definitely doesn’t disappoint here–the pegasi seem ethereal but remarkably wise and strong; gentle but fearsome; creatures of light and gauze that are somehow the most real things in the world.)

As usual, the worldbuilding in this book is quite well done. Ney-Grimm has built a cohesive “universe” in which most of her stories take place, and each book explores similar but unique facets. I was a bit confused by some of the terms early in the book–holidays referred to as “Other-joy” and “Lodge day”–but the meaning became apparent as I progressed through the story. After I finished the book, I read a post on Ney-Grimm’s blog that explains that this lack of background is intentional. I can see her point, and agree with it–the worst thing you can do in worldbuilding is to bog the reader down with details that are, to a point, window dressing.
Otherwise, the worldbuilding is handled very well. It’s subtle in the first few pages. There’s a lot of information presented in a laid back, almost conversational way. While it left some questions for me, there weren’t enough gaps that it hampered my understanding, and what questions I had were answered before I got halfway through. Readers less familiar with Ney-Grimm’s “world” may have more of a challenge, but it’s nothing that would impede.

The moral of the story–beyond the coming of age themes–seems almost Taoist: resistance can sometimes cause more problems than it solves. It’s okay to stand up for one’s principles, but it’s the stiff branch that breaks in the wind. On the other hand, flying with the wind allows you to master it. It’s a powerful lesson used to great effect.

In the end, I have nothing but good things to say about this book, and wonder why it took me so long to get to reading it. I’ve always enjoyed Ney-Grimm’s work, but I particularly like this book–it’s one I can imagine one day reading to my children at bed-time, a fantastical adventure with a strong moral lesson. Absolutely worth a read!

J.M. Ney Grimm writes fantasy with a Norse twist. You can find Sarvet’s Wanderyar and other books of hers on Amazon, Kobo. iTunes, and B&N. She’s also on Twitter, and keeps a blog on writing (and often cooking!).

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Indie Review: Wrath of the White Tigress by David Alastair Hayden

One of my favourite genres to read is fantasy, and I’m partial to a certain sub-genre: sword and sandal. I love the Conan stories, and so I’ve been looking forward to a book that has a similar flavour: Wrath of the White Tigress by Davaid Alastair Hayden. Hayden has a unique flair for fantasy that’s pulpy in all the right ways. These are tales of sword and sorcery you would have found in Weird Tales or other magazines from the days of yore.

I don’t usually pull quotes from a book in a review, but I’ll do so here because it reflect the story so succinctly. It’s a conversation between the main character, Jaska, and his saviour.

“I’m thoroughly corrupt. I don’t deserve life.”
“You did evil, that’s true, but you weren’t in control of your actions, weren’t you?”
He shook his head. “I should have been.”

Jaska is a Palymphar, a sort of knightly order that ostensibly stands for right and honour–but which has become decadent, violent, and corrupt. Jaska is the worst of them, and his…indulgences…are legendary. As the book opens he’s sent by his master, Salahn, to capture the temple of the White Tigress, a powerful goddess which Salahn wishes to imprison. Jaska is waylaid by the high priestess of the temple, Zyrella. After an altercation with the White Tigress herself, Jaska is converted to the cause of rescuing her.

What follows is an adventurous romp involving a sea battle, spoiled cities, wolven creatures, oracles and prophecies, and lots of bloody battles. This book is just fun–but it’s also pretty hardcore. Hayden writes a series of young adult novels that take place in the same world, but White Tigress is certainly rated M for mature. There’s sex, blood and gore galore, and the book makes no apologies for it. But at the same time, I wouldn’t say it’s gratuitous–it fits in with the tropes of the genre (without the flagrant sexism of the Conan stories).

One thing that really stuck me about this book–and Hayden’s writing in general–is the amount of research that’s been put into it. It’s obvious that he has an affinity for Eastern culture, and things such as weaponry and meditation techniques feel authentic to the book, while serving as a respectful nod to the cultures that inspired them. Quite a lot went into the world building, (something I’ll touch on in an upcoming interview), and it comes through as a well thought out and vibrant setting. It lends a unique aura to the book; it’s not Persian or Indian or Chinese, but a cohesive combination of them all.

Also impressive is the way magic is presented. As I’ve mentioned before, Hayden uses an intriguing system of magic: spirits of  a long dead race have been captures in stones called Qarvra, which allow the wielder to command powerful spells. Some are more adept than others, and this gives a nice range of powers that can be tapped into. It’s an elegant system; all too often magic is used as a deus ex machina, but not here. It adds a crucial element to the book without becoming center stage.
Alongside the use of Qarvra is another system: Star magic. This is shown only once or twice, and it’s enticing–I certainly want to see more. Nalsyrra (who also appears in Hayden’s Chains of a Dark Goddess,) is Ojaka’ari, a mysterious creature who is granted extreme power by the Star Spirits. She’s in the service of Salahn, but her fealty is to the Star Spirits, who grant her the gift of prophecy. She’s a compelling character, and I wish she had been explored more fully, but what we have of her is tantalizing. But, to go into her story any further would have taken away from the book’s plot, and we couldn’t have that!

The characters are, by and large, great. Jaska is well written and the anguish over the choices he’s made in the past is a clear call to action; Zyrella is a sensual and strong woman who serves as a great foil for him; Ohzikar, a templar devoted to Zyerella, has a wonderful arc in his dealings with Jaska. Even characters with small roles like the oarsman who befriends Jaska or Nalsyrra’s lover are well developed and interesting.
There are some flaws, however. Salahn, despite being a great villain, is rather flat. He’s totally evil, and besides on small passage that shows a bit of redemption for him, he’s single minded. He’s easy to hate (good in a bad guy), but he’s not complicated. This is especially apparent because Jaska is such a wonderfully drawn and complex character.
There are also quite a lot of characters in the book. That’s to be expected for a story of this scale, but by the end of the book I found myself wanting to know more about interesting figures for which there’s little time for development.

The only other real issue I had was that at some points, the Point of View changed rather regularly within a chapter. This didn’t happen too often through the book, but when it did it was jarring; sometimes I wasn’t sure who was “leading” the story, and found myself going back a page or two. It doesn’t really disrupt the narrative, though, and if such passages were separated by some sort of divider it would have been crystal clear.

Finally, the ending. No spoilers, I promise! I rather liked how everything was tied up by the end; there’s a certain amount of tradgedy I didn’t see coming, and it fits the world and tone of the book very well. Sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want them to, even if you are a hero. It’s a well placed surprise, and one that rounded out a very enjoyable story.

All in all, Wrath of the White Tigress is what I’ve come to expect of Hayden’s work–thoughtful, exciting, and filled with adventure. There are a lot of nice little bits of worldbuilding here and there that really put a stamp on his style and voice. And it’s just plain fun–the fight scenes are awesome. Check it out!

 

Wrath of the White Tigress is available on Kobo and Amazon, along with several other great tales from the same world. You can also find David A. Hayden on Twitter, or on his own blog

Indie Review: Killing Freedom by Ryan Casey

There’s precisely one thing I don’t like about reading–plowing through a book so quickly you lose the chance to savour it. Now, if it’s a good book, I don’t mind too much, but it’s always a tad disappointing when you get to the end and realize you swallowed it whole. You can never go back and chew it slowly, wondering what the next mouthful will bring.

Although I’m a fast reader, it’s not often that I finish a book in one or two sittings. But with Ryan Casey, it’s becoming something of a habit. I devoured his newest novel, Killing Freedom, reading most of it while waiting for my plane at the airport; his trademark tension and the breakneck pace of the book was too much for my palate to resist–down the hatch!

In all seriousness, Killing Freedom is yet another success for Casey. I’m quite fond of him as a writer–there’s a youthful exuberance  behind his words that belies his passion for the art, but it’s tempered with a very mature voice. He feels like a seasoned author, despite releasing his first novel only last year. And while this newest offering is–in my opinion–not quite as well honed as What We Saw, it’s by no means the Curse of the Second Book. It’s an excellent offering, and well worth the $3.98 price tag.

Ostensibly, the book is about a hired killer who’s having a change of heart–but really, it’s the characterization of Jared that drives it. He’s in a tough spot: he kills people for a living but yearns to be free. As several characters in the book point out, it’s not the kind of job you just walk away from. But he feels he owes it to himself (and his sister) to at least try. This kind of character driven plot can be challenging to do well because you need to be sure your character is strong, well developed, and easy to sympathize with. This is doubly difficult if your character is an anti-hero like Jared.
But Casey pulls it off. He does a great job of making the reader care about Jared’s predicament, despite the evil things he does. There’s another hitman in the book, Frank, that acts as a nice character foil–he does the same job as Jared, but takes perverse pleasure in it. Best of all, Jared’s better at the job. The first scene they share is a great moment in the book because it demonstrates what Jared could have been, but for the grace of God, if you will. It’s that subtle difference that makes Jared believable, and makes the book work. 

As I read the book, I noticed a very quick change in Jared–no spoilers, but he’s sent to kill a family, and starts to doubt whether it’s the right choice. His early interactions with the family is the only thing that didn’t work well for me. Jared’s change of heart seems almost too quick–though looking back on his arc, I think that’s more because I was blowing through the book so quickly. Moreover, he seems a bit naive in his thinking that things can change, that this family will be the difference. He also seems to worry a lot about getting caught, making him seem unconfident in his own abilities. Of course, Jared needs this dilemma and second guessing to move his character along, and I don’t fault Casey for the way it’s written. It’s just that Jared seems to take a few things at face value which perhaps–as a seasoned killer and man or the world–he should be more cautious about.

Of course, there’s another way to look at it too: Jared’s simply so desperate to get out that he can’t see the forest for the trees. When all you can see is that one glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, it’s easy to miss the dangers that lurk on the way there. This interpretation works better for the book, though in all honesty it’s only something that became apparent to me after I finished reading.

All of the “set up” for the character development takes place in the first third or so of the novel–then there’s an Incident, including the scene with Frank, and everything goes to…well, there’s trouble. This scene is very disturbing, but not because of the violence (which is there in spades). It’s due to that difference between Frank and Jared, and how they respond to violence against the innocent. It perfectly highlights why Jared needs to change–his call to action, as it were. It’s a riveting scene, all the more so because you get a sinking feeling that it won’t end well.

From here on, the book is a roller coaster of circumstance as Jared tries to keep ahead of his choices. I don’t think I’m spoiling it by saying there are more failures than successes, because that’s what makes Jared’s journey so believable–he just can’t catch a break. This in turn informs the pace of the book, which gets more and more intense as it builds to a climax I almost saw coming, but desperately didn’t want to read. I won’t even touch on that scene for fear of ruining it for the reader–but suffice it to say a choice is made that upset me enough I had to put down the book and take a bit of a walk. And yet, Casey made exactly the right move–it’s the defining moment of Jared’s character, and justifies the entire story.

On that note, I should mention the book’s violence. It’s not gratuitous, which is admirable because it easily could have been a very bloody book. And while there is a good deal of violence, it never feels out of place, serving to further the plot as well it should. It;s the characters reactions to violence that make the impact here; the blood is secondary.

I haven’t touched much on the plot specifically because, to my mind, it doesn’t really matter. Of course it’s the plot that makes the story, but in the case of Killing Freedom, it’s the character that makes the book.

I’m going to use an odd analogy here, so bear with me: Star Trek is such a great series because, despite it being science fiction, the science part of it doesn’t really matter. You could take a good Star Trek episode and wash it clean of all mention of science and technology and space utopia, and it would still be a good story. The science fiction part is just a convention, a consequence of the genre, and while it certainly helps put those stories into context, they don’t rely on it.
In much the same way, Jared has hard choices to make, and he’s in a difficult situation, but that situation could be something different from hitman and the character would work just as well. What Casey has done here is create an Everyman, a universal figure we can relate to, even though his occupation is something we’d never have direct experience with. It’s not common that you find such a character in a book, and while the way he’s written isn’t perfect, it’s really damn good.

You can pick up Killing Freedom on Amazon. Ryan Casey is online at his blog, and on Twitter. Visit the Amazon and Kobo stores for more of his library.

Site Update–And Why I Only Write Good Reviews

Just a quick, no nonsense post today–but an important one. I’ve made a long-awaited addition to the blog: look up, and you’ll see a link to a page where I’ve collected all the Indie Reviews I’ve written so far on Speaking to the Eyes. Since I decided to focus on Indie Reviews back in January, it’s proven a good direction for this blog–and this is the next logical step.

I’ll update it as I add new reviews to the site, and eventually I intend to fill out the page with links to Amazon or Kobo where you can buy the books I’ve reviewed. In the meantime, the list contains everything I’ve reviewed so far, listed in alphabetical order.

So…why are they all good reviews?

Fellow Indie and favourite on this site, J. M. Ney-Grimm, sent me a link to a blog quite a while back about writing only good reviews. She said it fit right in line with what I was doing, because I don’t review books I don’t like. I’ve unfortunately lost the link, but in a nutshell it said: don’t waste your time being negative.

Reviewing a book is a time consuming process. The scholar in me hopes I make it look easy–but really, it isn’t. Besides reading tons of books (something I’ve always been good at!), you have to read them with a critical eye. You need to take notes, pay attention to little details like plot holes, typos, the coherence of the World, and so on. At this point, reading ceases to be recreational–it’s a job.

Now, don’t get me wrong–I still love doing it, and I enjoy every word I read. There’s the old adage that if you love what you’re doing, you won’t work a day in your life, and that’s the case here. Some of my fondest memories of University were of holing myself up in the library for ten plus hours doing research for a paper. I get an honest thrill out of explicating literature, finding little connections and “ah-ha!” moments in a book, and learning why good fiction works.

But what it all boils down to is that reviewing a book takes a good amount of effort. And, quite frankly, it’s a lot less enjoyable when I’m reading a book that just isn’t that good. And I’ve come across many–I’d estimate that 1 in 5 Indie books that I’ve read are just tossed aside, unreviewed (though never unfinished). It’s not that they’re not worth reviewing–and in many cases, I can see great potential in what really amounts to a poorly edited or constructed work. I’d rather just enjoy the book for what it is (good or bad,) and not worry about working at it.

And there’s another–very important–aspect to this. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. One of the most valuable lessons I learned in University about critiquing literature is to avoid the “poison pen syndrome.” If you don’t like something, that’s fine–but don’t be a dick about it. There are hundreds of examples of poison pen reviews out there, and they serve absolutely no purpose other than raining on the author’s parade. If someone writes a bad book, they shouldn’t be bullied and mocked for it–they should be encouraged to try again.

I choose not to review poorly written books because it wouldn’t help anyone. It wouldn’t do the author any good to see that I didn’t like their work–if they even care what I think. It wouldn’t help my enthusiasm for writing this blog. And it certainly wouldn’t help push readers toward Indie work, or help sell books.

So there you have it. If you’ve ever read through my reviews and wondered why I tend to gush about how good a book is, that’s you’re answer. I enjoy each and every book I review on this site, and I’d recommend them all. But, to quote the master of reading advocacy, you don’t have to take my word for it…pick up an Indie book today and see for yourself!

 

Indie Review: Chains of a Dark Goddess by David Alastair Hayden

The more I get into Indie fiction, the more fantasy I find myself reading.  And there are some great fantasy writers out there–not the least of which is David Alastair Hayden. I previously reviewed Hayden’s Who Walks in Flame, and praised it for its uniqueness. As I was writing that review, I was reading Chains of a Dark Goddess–it’s past time to visit that book!

Chains opens with a delicious premise: Breskaro Varenni, Knight Champion of the goddess Seshalla, hero of crusades and greatest warrior of the age, is betrayed by his trusted allies and murdered. Then, he’s brought back from the dead to exact revenge at the behest of an evil goddess. Sounds like a great antihero type story, right?
Well it is, and it would be a perfectly enjoyable read if Hayden stopped there–but he doesn’t. As the protagonist, the reader is immediately set up to sympathise with Breskaro—but this actions through the book make it difficult. This is a good choice, as it eschews the tired cliché of the antihero. Breskaro is evil, no doubt about it, and driven in part by bare revenge as he is, his motives are questionable. But there are good things about him too, and every once in a while he drops his guard to show a tender side that suits him well. There’s a running implication that he’s as evil as he is because of what he endured in death, but I think he was a bit of a prick in life, too. He’s certainly not a man to admire, but that’s what makes him such a great character. As a nice counterpoint to Breskaro the character of Esha is a delight. She has a youthful exuberance that infects everyone around her, even our undead warrior—and in that, she gives him one of his few shreds of humanity. There’s something special about her that’s not addressed until the end of the book, and I have to say I was surprised at it.

The use of a death mask to cover Breskaro’s decaying features seems like an obvious choice—but is no less awesome for it. It’s a terrifying image, but it also does well to give some pathos to his character; he knows he’s repellent, and though he never says it, seems almost ashamed at his appearance. At the same time, this action gives him depth—he fully intends to use his frightening visage to manipulate others. He’s not a cut and dried superhero, and has faults like anyone else.

The world of Pawan Kor–as mentioned in my other review–is vibrant and creative. It’s one of those fantasy settings that seems like a place you could actually visit; it’s real enough without losing the elements that make it fantastical. There’s a detailed history, though a lot of it is implied or described in other books. I’d have liked to see more of that history explored, but there is a sense of mystery about the world because it isn’t…and enough of it is that it keeps you intrigued.
The way Hayden describes how magic works is especially fascinating. It is based on the power of an ancient race of wizards how have ascended to beings of energy, locking themselves in crystals called qavra. These crystals can be used by their descendants to wield powerful magic, resulting in almost a possession by the ancients. Those who are not direct descendants can still call on that power, though it’s weaker. Effectively, the crystals become an implement and a source of magic. It’s a clear and elegant explanation with an old school pulp fantasy flair that also explains why magic is uncommon.

The thing I like most about this book is the way it explores religion. Hayden treats this subject very well; he doesn’t beat you over the head with it, and it’s not even (really) the theme of the book. Instead it’s an undercurrent that sweeps the reader along, almost without them knowing it; if you pay attention to it, it adds an important dimension to the narrative, but if you don’t, the plot stands on its own.

The main idea here is that faith is different from dogma, though the two are seldom separated. The Church of Seshalla has completed three crusades and is about to start the fourth, all in the name of “converting the heathens,” and the devotees of the church follow the edicts of the Matriarch (leader of the church) blindly and absolutely. At the same time, it’s made clear that the dogma instituted by the Church—however well intentioned—isn’t necessarily in line with the teachings of their Goddess. It makes for an intriguing subplot that, as mentioned, hovers just enough below notice that if you disregard it, you lose nothing. Which is a prudent decision on the author’s part, religion being the inflammatory subject it often is.

On the other side of things, we spend most of the time in the book among the heathens, and they’re portrayed as such—liars, thieves, assassins and sorcerers. This is another masterful stroke of Hayden’s; by making the “bad guys” unpalatable, they, like our protagonist, are harder to sympathize with. But with the way the plot is set up, we can’t cheer for the Church either. The result is a complicated mess of grey—there’s no good guy or bad guy at all, just people with different interpretations of the truth.

Such a complex moral question can’t be answered—or, at least, you’ll get as many different answers as people you ask—which makes it somewhat universal. A reader can pick up on what they want in this book, and while we’re certainly meant to root for Breskaro against the Church, the Matriarch and those who wronged him, those antagonists are just as likable and even sympathetic in their own way. And that is the trick to creating great conflict, and a great story.

You can find Chains of a Dark Goddess at Amazon and Kobo. Also look for David Alastair Hayden on Twitter, Goodreads, or at his website. Hayden has several other books set in the world of Pawan Kor–be sure to check them out!

Indie Review: Of Ants and Dinosaurs by Cixin Liu

I love dinosaurs.

I wouldn’t consider palaeontology a hobby, and I can’t say I do a lot of research into it–but still, dinosaurs are cool. I love the child-like wonder that comes with them, and the sheer majesty of these enormous creatures.
I’m also fascinated by ants. They have an incredibly complex social structure, have developed a sort of culture, and even a rudimentary “collective intelligence.” Remarkable creatures–so when I came across Of Ants and Dinosaurs by Cixin Liu, a story that threw ants and dinosaurs into a symbiotic relationship in a fantasy/science fiction tale, I couldn’t say no. Nor was I disappointed.

The very premise of this novella–a society of ants and dinosaurs that cooperate symbiotically–was enough for me to put down the $0.97 for it. I expected a light hearted story, a fanciful tale of imagination like something out of Jules Verne. It is that, but the story is also a succinct allegory of cooperation, trust, and suspicion. It would present well to young adult readers, but the message works just as well for adults.
The story begins with a tyrannosaur enjoying lunch…until he gets a blob of meat stuck in his teeth. A colony of ants sees the problem and helps him dislodge it–they actually stream into his mouth to pick it apart while the dinosaur holds his lip back with a claw, how awesome is that?–setting the foundation of an alliance. Over the centuries, this partnership grows as both societies thrive, fitting into their own niches. Ants are masters of micro-circuitry, creating a technological infrastructure the dinosaurs couldn’t hope to because of their size. Meanwhile, the terrible lizards build huge machines of travel and industry, alongside a complicated political structure. The ants have fine motor skills and hard science; the dinosaurs have imagination and ambition. Held apart, neither would get very far, but put together they are more than the sum of their parts.
That in itself would make for a nice story about the value in sharing skills, but it’s when their alliance breaks down that we get some real meaning and conflict. There’s a nice contrast between two dinosaur societies as they develop nuclear weapons (and something even more powerful), causing an arms race and cold war that could only end in mutually assured destruction. But this is only a reflection of the real conflict, as the ants and dinosaurs do the same to each other.

It becomes a cautionary tale, begging the question of how far one should blindly trust, and when it’s appropriate to act in your own best interests. As presented, there are no easy answers. Both races seem doomed from the start because of their attitude towards one another, and I kept saying to myself “if only they could set aside their differences and listen…” Which is exactly the author’s intent, I think. The novella is a well presented moral lesson, one as common as common sense: it’s out there, but nobody seems to pay attention to it.

Suspension of disbelief is a required part of science fiction/fantasy, and in a book written for a younger audience it’s more forgiving. For most of this novella, it’s not a problem–my active imagination not only accepts that ants and dinosaurs could be friends, it does an animated happy dance at the very thought–but there were parts that I found challenging. Mostly, the problem lies in the numbers; the main story takes place some 50,000 years after the “primitive” ant colony and dinosaurs meet. A handful of millennia is an incredibly short time for sentient creatures to evolve into the kind of society presented here–and while it sounds like I’m nitpicking, it’s something that gnawed at the back of my head for the duration. I suspect Liu did this to avoid an “alternate history” book where ants and dinosaurs become the dominant species instead of humans, but I think  (personally) that might have been a better way to go with the story. Still, it’s a tiny criticism–really, the only one–of an otherwise excellent story.

The crafting of the story is well done. At times, it’s a bit heavy handed–there are points where the “show, don’t tell” adage is thrown out the window–and there were some bits that seemed difficult to swallow, even given the not-too-serious tone. Dialogue is a bit too expository at points. But I wouldn’t say that any of this is Liu’s fault–it was written for a Chinese audience–or that of his translator Holger Nahm; those languages being as complex as they are, something is doubtlessly lost in the translation. There are probably thousands of translations of the Tao te Ching, but no single one of them really touches on the nuances of the work. Taking that into account, I’m impressed by this book. I found it refreshing because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, while at the same time presenting a very serious message.

This is the kind of book I’d read to children; the sheer fun of it would make the message easy to pick up on. Of Ants and Dinosaurs is, in short, a wonderfully fun book to read.  Liu has a series of other books available, and each of them looks intriguing and original. I’m eager to read more!

Cixin Liu’s books can be found at Amazon.com. You can also reach him on Twitter

Indie Review: Beneath the Surface by Lindsay Buroker

Someone posted a quote on twitter recently–sorry, I can’t remember who or where it came from!–that said the measure of a good book was dreading to read the last chapter, because you know it’s going to end. I’ve come across many Indie books that had this effect on me–and generally, it’s the same authors who do it time and again.
With Lindsay Buroker, it’s gotten to the point where I’ll put off reading her books, just because I burn through them so quickly. I’ve held onto Beneath the Surface for months, knowing that it’s shorter than most of her work–it’s a sort of “interlude” between books five and six of Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge series–but as book six was recently released, I thought it was time to dive in.

The first thing I love about Buroker’s work is that it’s character driven. I got into the Emperor’s Edge series because of the steampunk flair, but the people really made the book for me. The series features Amaranthe Lokdon, an erstwhile officer of the peace (Enforcer) who’s found herself on the bad side of the law for all the right reasons. She gathers about her a motley band of heroes (including fan favourite Sicarius, deadliest assassin in the realm) in an effort to clear her name. Each of these characters is vibrant and exciting–and despite the large cast, Buroker deftly avoids the all-too-familiar author’s trap of developing one or two at the expense of the rest. All of them are distinctly unique, and insanely likeable. Yes, even the cold-as-ice, dagger-at-your-throat assassin. Actually, especially him.
The second thing I love about these books is that Buroker has chosen to use each one as a focus for one of the main characters. This allows for some dedicated character development as the series progresses, and is part of why each of her characters are so fully fleshed out. Beneath the Surface deals with a newcomer to the group–Evrial Yara, also an Enforcer–as she wrestles with the fact that she’s gotten tied up with these outlaws. At the same time, she finds herself alone with the company fop Maldynaldo, who is pursuing her relentlessly with amorous advances–which she may or may not want to return.

Yara is a wonderful character because she’s a reflection of Amaranthe. Both are well written, strong leading women, but they’re not perfect. They each have doubts and weaknesses, and neither of them realizes just how strong they are. They both come from a “means to and end” mentality–though Yara is longer to come to that conclusion–and honestly just want the best for the Empire and their friends. And both struggle with a “maybe-romance” that is unspoken or unwanted, but too delicious to resist. In many ways, Yara is a “proto-Amaranthe,” and it’s great to watch the group’s leader gently mentor the newcomer. It gives Amaranthe yet another dimension to her character, and it’s even better for the reader as we watch Yara come to some conclusions about life that she otherwise wouldn’t have, but that always lingered beneath the surface.

The plot of this novella concrns some magical artefacts that will destroy millions of lives if the Emperor’s Edge doesn’t deal with them first–and of course, in the process, the group ends up looking like the bad guys. But that’s not really what Beneath the Surface is about. It’s about the things we leave unsaid, the feelings we won’t admit to ourselves until it’s to late, the road less travelled. At first blush, it’s a fun adventure for the crew to keep fans entertained until the next book in the series, but the real treasure is between the lines. There’s more character development and growth in this novella than in other books, and it’s so successful because a lot of it is implied. Buroker has done such a great job over the series of getting readers attached to her characters that we feel 100% invested in what they feel, even if it’s not voiced aloud.

And of course, it’s not just about Yara and Amaranthe. The relationships between Maldynaldo and Books (the group’s picked-on researcher) and Sicarius and the once-Emperor are touched upon as well. Not everything is revealed; in fact some important points are left unspoken. It’s very touching, and almost bittersweet. I have to wonder if, in the next instalment, some of the characters will find that it’s too late to say what should have been said. Which makes me anxious for the next book, but also very excited–it’s the kind of risk that takes a book from simply fun to instant classic.

You can find Beneath the Surface, as well as the rest of the Emperor’s Edge novels, at Kobo and Amazon. The first one’s free! Buroker also keeps an informative blog, and is very active on Twitter.

Indie Review: The Painting by Ryan Casey

The-Painting-Final-600I like to group the horror genre into two categories: Lovecraft and King. Lovecraftian horror is weird, often relies on creatures of a sort, and is terrifying because Lovecraft was a master at “between the frames” writing–he leaves just enough open to interpretation that the reader fills in the blanks, ending up with a story tailor made to the reader’s own fears. Kingsian horror is often weird too–sometimes really out there–but more often than not is rooted in a believable and extremely detailed setting, with natural dialogue and organic characters. It’s effective because it feels so real. In my experience, most horror falls somewhere under one or the other of these categories, but it’s rare that a book does both. Speaking to the Eyes Indie favourite Ryan Casey manages to pull it off with his newest offering, The Painting (The Watching).

King and Lovecraft had very different styles of writing, and The Painting works as well as it does because Casey is able to emulate both while retaining his own unique voice. It’s essentially divided into two parts, which I’ll term the House and the Quest.
The House, consisting of the beginning and ending of the book, the main character–Donny–is set up as a writer desperate to get his creative juices flowing. He’s stagnated on his current book, and comes to an abandoned house in an effort to find some real inspiration. In the house he finds a painting–a painting featuring six mysterious figures who seem to moving closer and closer…and who are definitely watching him.
This part of the book has a delightfully gothic flavour–it reminded me a lot of Poe in the way it’s set up, though it had a nice conversational feel to it rather than that author’s usual stuffy prose. This is an opportunity for Casey to show off–I’ve said before that’s he’s got real talent for creating tension, and it pays off in spades here. It’s creepy, atmospheric, and (in parts) disturbing. In a good way, of course.

But the real character of the book comes through in the Quest. (That’s a bit of a misnomer, but the closest thing I could think of to describe this part without spoiling it.) Donny finds himself is an unusual situation, and needs to find his way out. He elicits help, but the odds are stacked against him–especially since he’s not clear on what exactly is going on. The tension is prevalent here, but in a different way; it’s a sense of foreboding panic that rises to a perfect climax. It’s a great middle to this narrative, and Casey does a great job in making sure that the built up tension doesn’t release too slowly so that it carries through into the last part of the book.
The great thing about the Quest is that it’s very different from the rest of the book. A lesser author would run into some trouble here–it could seem jumbled or incoherent. Instead, the juxtaposition works in Casey’s favour, and acts to strengthen the story as a whole. One of the conceits in this story is that Donny is continually unsure as to what’s happening around him–he questions the things he sees, ascribes it to an over-active imagination, even convincing himself he’s been lost in his own narrative. The differences in tone reinforce that theme.

But here’s the thing: the Quest part of the book is completely different. It’s jarring, and a bit weird–but it actually feels more sane than the rest of the book. This is closer to Kingsian horror. The characters and setting are vibrant, living things, and one has no trouble getting invested in what’s happening. Whereas Donny spends the previous couple dozen pages frightened and trembling (and rightly so), he seems more in control during this part. And yet, he shouldn’t–for reasons I can’t give without spoiling. This juxtaposition, in my mind, is the best thing about this story. It brings the story from a good horror tale to something completely unique–something I’ve come to expect from Casey’s writing.

I think Casey has struck a delicate balance here. If the ‘flavours’ were reversed (King sandwiching Lovecraft), it wouldn’t work; the middle would seem like a fever-dream that’s so out there that the reader can just suspend their disbelief (and connection to the character) until things “get real” again. (Something like Lovecraft’s “Dream Cycle” stories, which never really sat well with me.) By giving us instead a potentially unstable character who finds a bit of stability, we question how authentic that stability is–giving an immense amount of depth to the character. It’s really very well done.

There’s only one thing I can really say against The Painting: there are parts of it that aren’t explained as much as I may have liked. Now, on the one hand, you want horror stories to leave something to the reader’s imagination–that’s why Lovecraft was such a genius. And I’m pretty sure that if the menacing shapes in the painting were explained, it would drain the magic out of the story. In point of fact, the mystery is as it should be, and there are bits that shouldn’t be explained. If I think something’s missing, it’s only because I want to learn more about the world Casey has created. This story left me with questions about what’s really going on, despite the execution and resolution of the plot.

Fortunately, this is only part one of three. The other instalments are coming–keep an eye out for the other instalments of The Watching. I have no doubt the rest will be as gripping as the first.

You can find Ryan Casey online at his blog, and on Twitter. Visit the Amazon and Kobo stores for some excellent reading material. 

Indie Review: Troll Magic by J. M. Ney-Grimm

Troll MagicIt’s no secret on this blog that I have favourite writers. J. M. Ney-Grimm is one of them, and with good reason–her writing style is unique, and engrossing. Up to now, I’d only read her shorter works; I’ve been holding onto Troll Magic for some time, eager to start but wanting to give it my full attention. And it did not disappoint.

On the surface, we have the simple story of lovers trying to overcome the obstacles that keep them apart, but it’s more than that. Troll Magic is a cunning exploration of a very human question: how does one follow their dreams, knowing all the risks that entails and without any promise of the outcome? And more importantly, when should we sacrifice our own dreams for those of someone else? It’s a big question, and one I won’t pretend to be able to answer. You’ll just have to read the book.

There are really three stories going on here: the Trolls (characters who suffer from Troll-Disease), the Family (Lorelin, our main character, as she come of age) and the Court (where Gabris and Panos try to find a cure for Troll-Disease). The meat of the story is taken up by the first two, as Lorelin is recruited by a man named Kellor to help him break free of a curse. It’s a clever reinterpretation of the original Beauty and the Beast tale, though it’s more complicated than that. It’s an exploration of how each of them have their dreams and fears, overlapping at times and always in concert, even when they don’t realize it. There’s a sub-plot here with Helaina (an unwitting and invisible servant in Kellor’s household) and her family, which follows a similar path.
The Court is almost an entirely separate story, to the point where I wondered if it would be best placed in another novel. The experiments of Gabris and Panos are interesting, but don’t seem to have a direct impact on the rest of the story–instead, they provide a sort of foundation that explains why Troll Disease is such a problem. But by the end of the book, the reason for this became apparent; it is a sort of running commentary on the issues of the book. It’s far enough away from the main plot that it gives the reader an objective view of the situation, and it works well enough that I wondered if it needed to be integrated with the rest of the stories after all–although bringing everyone together in the epilogue is a nice way to end the book.
With these three stories come many different characters. While the core cast is manageably small, there are a lot of secondary and tertiary characters. For an author, this can be daunting–it’s all too easy for some to become one sided and underdeveloped–but Ney-Grimm pulls it off nicely. Each character feels like they’ve got their own personality and quirks and the result is a world that feels large and well populated.

Where this book really excels is the presentation. I’ve described Ney-Grimm’s writing style as effervescent, and it’s still the best word I can come up with. There’s a light and lilting tone to the prose that doesn’t diminish from the importance of the story, and gives the whole book a very pastoral feel. It’s evident from her other stories that Ney-Grimm takes a lot of inspiration from Norse culture, which has a rich oral tradition, so it’s not surprising that her books have this sort of voice. Troll Magic feels like a book that should be read aloud at bedtime, or around a campfire. It’s very approachable, and because of that it does a great job of putting across the ideas presented.

Hand in hand with the voice of the book is its pacing. This was, for me, the most interesting feature of the book, and I’m still not sure how to describe it exactly. The best word I can offer is “ponderous,” though I don’t mean it with any of the negative connotations that word can carry. It’s far from a plodding or meandering book–the plot lines and character arcs are followed in nice progressions that take as long as they need to. Instead, the books feels like it’s in no great rush to get where it’s going, while wholeheartedly promising to get you there. As a reader, I felt like I was being led around the story by a guide; sometimes we’d stop so she could tell me about something of interest, sometimes we’d simply linger in a setting to enjoy it for it’s own sake, and sometimes she’d point and whisper “you’re going to like this, pay attention.” It feels welcoming and relaxed.

In fact, the pacing of this book reminds me in a lot of ways to The Lord of the Rings. That is an absolute tome of a book, but for fans of that kind of literature, it’s not daunting at all. Tolkein was a master at filling in details about his world in a way that doesn’t interfere with the story–but if you were to remove those details, the story would be much less than it is. It’s a long book, but the pacing just feels right. As it does in Troll Magic.

Another fascinating thing about this book is the way magic is explained. It’s very similar to certain Eastern traditions: energy is carried along lines in the body to verticies, through which it can be drawn to conduct magic. Troll disease results when too much energy is drawn through these vertices, pushing them off point. This isn’t very far off the idea of meridians in Chinese Traditional Medicine, and it’s natural fit for the world that’s been created. The antophoners (those who practise magic) even use a series of moving meditations to align and fortify their verticies–not unlike Qi Gong or Tai Chi. I find this fascinating because I’ve done quite a bit of research on these systems, and practice Qi Gong occasionally myself. I can attest that it’s both relaxing and energizing, so it’s not a huge stretch for the imagination that such a system could be magical in nature. And yet despite the comparison, this system feels unique to Ney-Grimm’s world, and fits so well that it seems the only possible explanation.

In the end, all I can say is that this is a book you’ll need to read  in order to truly appreciate. I have lots more to say about it, but nothing that can’t be better said by reading it yourself. I’d certainly recommend it. Troll Magic is a book to be savoured and enjoyed.

J. M. Ney-Grimm can be found on twitter, her own blog, and of course at the Kobo and Amazon stores. Ney-Grimm also have a handy reference for all her main characters here.

Indie Review: Two by Brian Rathbone

Brian Rathbone was one of the first Indie Writers I happened to come across. He’s very active on twitter, and has a good philosophy about it: interact, and they will come. He’s a good example of the Indie Writer’s Community, in that he truly encourages it to be a community.

But I digress. Rathbone has a series called The Dawning of Power; it’s a trilogy about the young Caitrin Volker, who discovers a power unknown to the world–a power that could tear her world apart. It was followed up by another trilogy, The Balance of Power–but I’m not going to write about those today, as I’ve only read the first out of six, and don’t feel I could do it justice.

Instead, I want to touch on a couple of short stories by Rathbone. I found these after reading Call of the Herald, (the first in his series), and think they’re a good introduction to his writing style. They’re both free on his website, and on Kobo.

First up is Redtooth. This one is quick, (only twenty or so pages), and an absolute pleasure to read. I wasn’t sure what to make it it until I was well invested in the story–and I mean that in a good way. It starts out with a man tinkering with a delicate piece of technology because he doesn’t want to upgrade (the characterization in the opening paragraphs alone is enough to grasp your attention), then turns into a sort of high-tension chase. The ending turns everything on its head. Normally, if I were to read a book like this I’d say that it jumped around too much, or was unfocused–but Rathbone pulls it off so well that it doesn’t seem that way at all. It’s fast paced, but that’s the way it should be.
The real star of this story, of course, is the protagonist Bob. He has a beloved bluetooth headset–very obsolete–that he can’t bring himself to give up. It’s falling apart, but he insists on buying new parts to continue repairing it, rather than upgrading. The way he’s presented is endearing, and though he’s something of a doddering middle aged man, we love him for it. He always seems a step behind, but that’s what makes his story so entertaining as he’s put on a wild adventure through the city.
The plot is simple: Bob goes to the pawn shop to buy some spare parts to repair his bluetooth, and is “coerced” instead into buying the newest gadget: Redtooth. This is when the real fun begins. As soon as he puts the device into his ear, the reader is treated to an absurdly delightful (and deadpan) conversation with the virtual assistant in the device. What follows is best described as a ridiculous romp, as the assistant sends him on a mission well against his wishes. Bob is baffled the whole way through, adding to the absurdity of the story.
And all of that is wonderful. This story is just plain fun. But there’s a subtle subtext as well–Rathbone seems to be commenting on the technological obsession we’re in the grips of today; innovation for the sake of innovation–or capitalism. Sometimes the tools we have are good enough as they are, and we should leave them that way.

If I have a criticism about this story, it’s that there’s a hint of something sinister throughout that’s never really followed up on. Perhaps I was reading that tone into the story–it’s clearly written to be funny, not sinister–but I felt that angle of the story could have been explored. Of course, if it had been, the humour would likely have been lost to an extent. It’s probably best left alone as well.

Next we have Beyond the Veil. I didn’t enjoy this as much as Redtooth, but it’s a very different kind of story. I read them back to back, and perhaps this story would have benefited from a sort of palate cleanser. But that’s besides the point, and a purely personal observation–it doesn’t reflect on the story itself.

Beyond the Veil tackles a delicate and provocative question: just how thin is the barrier between the living and the dead? And: which side of that veil is more real? There’s a real jarring dichotomy in this story as our main character–Vincent Pels–explores either side. The ‘living world’ is presented as very real and concrete, while the ‘other side’ is fantastical and wonderous. When I say jarring, I mean it in the best way–it should be disorienting for the reader to travel between these worlds, the more so the better. It serves the story, and the point I think Rathbone is trying to get across. We don’t spend a lot of time in the real world, but it leaves an indelible mark on the reader. There’s some very real tragedy here, so it’s almost a relief when we move to the other side of the veil. Here, we’re treated to a fantasy world where Vincent finds himself as an armour-clad knight on a quest to slay a horrible creature–though it’s not quite as simple as that.

This is where things get more complicated. I have to admit that I got a bit lost; the ‘other side’ seems muddled, and jumps around a lot. Landscapes merge into one another and characters are ephemeral. It suits the tone of this world, but I found it confusing. The disorientation could have been intentional–again, it serves the story–but there were a few times when I was left wondering just what happened. It wasn’t until reflecting on the story after I’d finished that it began to make sense.
I’m a bit torn on this. On the one hand (and the more I think about it), it’s exactly what should happen. The veil between worlds is presented as effervescent, porous, and fantastical, and so when we cross over we shouldn’t be surprised that what we see doesn’t always flow as naturally as the ‘real world.’ But as a reader, it was disorienting enough that it left me wanting a more clear explanation. It’s like waking in the morning and only remembering parts of your dream–enough that it’s tantalizingly interesting, but leaving you with something you can never grasp, and which ultimately fades beyond memory anyway.

Of course, it’s quite likely that this is exactly the author’s intent. Not every story should be cut and dried, spelled out for the reader–in fact, the best stories are those that leave enough to the reader’s interpretation that they can make their own personal observations, thus making a stronger connection to the narrative than if the writer did it for them. Ultimately, I think it begs for a second reading, and I may eventually explore it again on this blog. After this first read, though, I would recommend it–as long as you’re interested in some open questions. As a book you need to think about, it certainly fits the bill.

Brian Rathbone is the author of the Godland Series. You can find his books on Amazon and Kobo. Brian is also on twitter, and I’d definately reccomend following him–of only for his ruminations on how much animals can teach us. 🙂