As I think most of you know, Halloween is by far my favorite holiday. But even I can go for a good Christmas tale. So naturally, a Christmas book that brings a witch into the picture is going to get my attention.

This book tells the story of Cinnamon Mercy Claus, who unexpectedly finds herself journeying to the North Pole for the holiday season. There she meets her grandparents: Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus themselves.

This would be a shocking enough discovery on its own, but she next learns that her grandmother is a witch and that she wants a divorce from the jolly old elf, who has been taking all her Christmas magic for granted. She angrily leaves her bewildered granddaughter in charge of handling all the arrangements for delivering toys to all the children of the world.

This is a lot to take in for Cinnamon, who is more comfortable working in the world of spreadsheets and number-crunching than of magic, but, with the help of the elves, she throws herself into the task.

The book is a lot like those made-for-TV Christmas movies that they broadcast this time of year. Which are not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but I happen to enjoy them. Yes, they can be predictable and sometimes overly-sentimental, but hey, what are the holidays about if not the comfort of something cozy and familiar? It is true that most of the time I prefer darker varieties of fiction, but when December comes round, there’s nothing wrong with little light trifles.

And that’s exactly what this book is; a fast-paced bit of Christmas-themed fun. Read it while eating some gingerbread cookies or something, preferably by a fireplace or under some decorative lights, and you’ll surely be filled with the Yuletide spirit.

[Audio version of this review available below.]

This is the sort of book I rarely read: a fantasy-quest type of story. But it came recommended by Peter Martuneac, so I figured I would give it a try.

Am I ever glad I did! This is a fantastic tale of adventure set in an ancient Eastern kingdom known as Hosa. The book begins with the death of the protagonist, a warrior named Itami Cho. But Cho is returned to life by an extremely creepy child called Ein.

Ein explains that he has been granted the power to restore the dead to life by a shinigami, a type of malevolent spirit. He is on a quest to kill the Emperor of Ten Kings, and to do so, he is recruiting various “heroes” by returning them to life and binding them to his will, forcing them to aid him. In exchange, he promises to restore them to true life when their mission is complete.

It’s a sort of “Dirty Dozen” scenario, as Ein and Cho assemble a team of strong, though not always honorable, fighters. Together they journey across the land of Hosa, fighting all sorts of enemies, from common thieves to demonic entities known as “yokai”; monstrous perversions of living forms into hideous abominations.

What really makes the book great are the characters. Besides the humble and valorous Itami Cho, you’ve got the skilled-but-untrustworthy bandit Emerald Wind, the powerful, hard-drinking “Iron Gut” Chen, and the wise Master, Bingwei Ma.  In addition to these “heroes” (which is what Ein calls them, though some are less heroic than others), there are a host of other supporting characters, including a leprous sharpshooter who joins the party despite still being mortal.

Late in the book, we also meet a military leader called the Steel Prince, and his strategist, Art of War, a mysterious woman whose features are hidden behind a robe and a mask. They’re not in the story much, but I really liked the dynamic between them. The Prince is a brave and charismatic leader who unites his army, and Art of War is the brains behind the scenes, planning strategic maneuvers. Both are essential to the functioning of the entire force.

Ultimately, the book is a story about heroism. Not just about the heroes per se, but also about what it takes to be heroic. In different ways, all the main characters perform great feats of courage and sacrifice, while still coming across as very relatable and human.

It’s a dark and violent tale right from the get-go, with plenty of extremely well-written and bloody battle scenes. The story moves at a brisk pace, and the dialogue and character development are balanced perfectly with the action scenes.

Simply put, this is a marvelous book. I generally don’t bother writing reviews for books that already have hundreds of reviews on Amazon, but this one was so good, I just had to. Even if you’re not big on Epic Fantasy, you should still give this one a try. It’s one of those books that grabs you at the start and never lets go. I’m very grateful to Peter for bringing it to my attention, and I unreservedly recommend it to anyone who likes a good story.

[Audio version of this review available below.]

This is a deeply strange book. It is set in an alternate future in which the Roman Empire still exists, and has evolved into a starfaring civilization. There is also a strong mystical element involving something called the Godstream, which is evidently some powerful, magical energy which grants great power.

And of course, as in the original Roman Empire, there are political machinations aplenty as various noblemen and women scheme for power. There are betrayals heaped upon betrayals, and ever-shifting alliances.

The first half of the book I admit was pretty dense, with lots of world-building I found hard to understand. It may just be my own literal mindedness; but I initially struggled to form a clear picture of what was happening. I did get strong Dune vibes, though, which is on balance a good thing. (Maybe with the exception of imitating Frank Herbert’s technique of frequent italicized thoughts to deliver exposition. But hey, if it worked for Herbert, it can’t be all bad.)

The second half of the book turned into more of a classic adventure type story. If not for the occasional references to philosophy and mysticism, I practically would have thought I was reading a Henry Vogel novel. There is a brave hero fleeing from two competing groups of villains, a beautiful slave woman he rescues in the process, and a wild battle in a gladiatorial arena.

This gladiator scene was the highlight of the book for me. The star is the gladiator Deimos. It’s the only chapter he’s in out of the entire book, but he has a complete story arc in that one chapter.

After that, there’s more mysticism, although it seems less esoteric this time, and more intrigue, back-stabbing, and a final battle. The ending feels satisfying, even though there were still some things I didn’t fully grok.

What to make of this book? Well, at times it was heavy-going. Partly, that’s because of all the Latin terms the author uses to create the setting. I liked this, but at the same time, it made it hard to keep track of who was who. Those more familiar with Roman naming customs may not find this to be a problem.

Then there’s also the mysticism element. I think the author was trying to make a point about philosophy, or maybe even about the nature of divinity, but I admit I couldn’t tell what it was. Again, that might be indicative of my own lack of understanding rather than a problem with the book.

Overall, I found it a tough but ultimately rewarding read. If you like deep sci-fi, with some adventure elements thrown in, I think you’ll enjoy it.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

There I was, poking around one of my favorite YouTube channels, when I saw this video. “Hmm,” I said to myself, “Full audiobook? That implies the existence of a non-audiobook of same.” So I went to Amazon and, behold, there it was.

So, what is The Fall of Alla Xul? Well, it’s presented as a translation of ancient Sumerian tablets recounting the epic quest of Atun-Shei to topple the evil Emperor Alla Xul. The preface includes a whole summary of how the tablets were found, and various scholarly interpretations of them. These interpretations are referenced throughout the book in footnotes as well.

Except… well, you know, my favorite short story of all time is The Repairer of Reputations. I’m a big fan of stories where all is not what it seems. There are layers to this story, and half the fun is in seeing how many different elements have been woven together to make this narrative enjoyable.

Oh, and the titular fall of Alla Xul? Well, that particular scene evoked something else for me, something not out of Sumerian legend at all. But I don’t want to say what it was. Read it yourself, and see if it conjures up any memories for you. I think it’s a clever reference to… something. But then again, it may be just the universal tropes of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. 

All in all, this is a very fun, fast read that will be particularly entertaining for anyone who enjoys scholarly takes on ancient legends, stories-within-stories, and generally weird, esoteric tales. I recommend it. I also recommend checking out that YouTube channel linked above, particularly if you’re into history and/or film.

I heard of this book thanks to Lydia Schoch’s review. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as it looked like a children’s book.

But it’s not a children’s book, not exactly. It is true that it is about a child’s toy, and one of the major characters is a child. But the book has a few PG-13 words in it, and the drama is more intense than you might expect. It’s about a valiant Teddy Bear fighting to defend his owner from a monster living in his closet, and it’s not played lightly or humorously. Sure, it may sound fanciful, but there’s a grittiness to the way Teddy fights against his sinister enemy. He’s a grizzled veteran of many nightly battles against the creature, and it shows. In short, I loved the character of Teddy Bear.

His nemesis, the monster in the closet, was also brilliantly described: a wraith-like being that assumes different forms. The author did a fantastic job describing just enough to let the reader form a picture, and then fill in the blanks with their imaginations.

The book is very short, but it packs a punch. Anyone who enjoys a good fantasy should check out this story.

Truly, the more I like a book, the harder it is to review it. I don’t want to give you my second-hand summary of the plot or the setting; I want to take you into this world to see it. Like previous books of Litka’s that I’ve reviewed, Keiree and A Summer in Amber, Beneath The Lanterns instantly enveloped me in its setting.

The world-building that he put into this thing! It’s breathtaking. I can practically feel myself looking out across the Azere steppes under the Yellow Lantern. Read Litka’s posts here and here about how he carefully crafted this setting.

With just a few lines, Litka can suggest a whole world, a whole culture. Most fantasy books with intricate settings have to spend pages and pages on description. Not Litka. As in his paintings (one of which you see on the cover above), he suggests a great deal with but a few strokes. His work reminds me of Joy Spicer’s fantasy novels in that regard. Spare, yet rich.

But what of the characters, you say? Ah, I’m glad you asked! Beneath The Lanterns features a character who instantly became one of my all-time favorites: Ren Loh, the daring, independent and stubborn daughter of the Empress of Jasmyne, who leads the scholarly narrator, Kel Cam, into one wild adventure after another as they flee toward Lankara.

What I like most about Ren Loh is her sheer audacity. Displaying the recklessness characteristic of most heroes, Loh realizes that “fortune favors the bold” and thus is always at her most aggressive when the odds seem most against her. Sometimes her gambles work, sometimes they don’t, but what a great character she is! Of course, I can also sympathize with Kel Cam, who prefers a quiet, ordered life to the sort that Loh leads. I would probably behave much as he does in his situation, which makes him the perfect Boswell for the larger-than-life Lieutenant Loh of the Lancers.

This is a wonderful journey across a fascinating world. A classic romance, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. As Litka describes it on his blog, “It is not an epic, but… about people caught up in the gears of statecraft, whose main concern is personal survival.”

And yet, somehow, it feels epic. I don’t know how to put it exactly, because it is certainly a very personal story, but at the same time it feels momentous, and not just because of Ren Loh’s status in the political machinations, but in some deeper sense. An epic about the human condition, about duty, about freedom… I could go on, but I can’t do it justice. Just read the book already!

Having now read three of Litka’s books and a good many of his blog posts, I have some understanding of his style and his literary philosophy. And all I can say is, the man is a treasure. He writes these wonderful stories, creates these fantastic worlds from nothing, and he does not do it for fame nor money, but simply because he loves it.

Since you are for some reason still here and have not gone out and downloaded the complete works of Chuck Litka, indulge me in a flight of cultural criticism, beginning by way of analogy.

As a teenager, I drank diet soft drinks all the time. As in, multiple cans per day. Diet Dr. Pepper was my favorite. Then, at some point, I read some articles about what’s in soft drinks, and decided to quit cold turkey and drink water instead.

Many years later, I had a diet soft drink again one day, and it tasted disgusting. “How did I ever drink that stuff?” I asked myself.

Our mainstream entertainments are basically the equivalent of diet soft drinks. What else can you say about an entertainment industry that does this, for example? The spark of creative talent is almost entirely obscured by the needs of marketing in this world, leading to endless reboots and spin-offs that all have this shared quality of soullessness.

If you want to wean yourself from these artificially composed concoctions and seek the pure waters of original stories told with wit and charm, know that the spirit of good storytelling is not dead. It lives in Litka, who tells stories for the sheer fun of it, for the love of the storytellers’ art.

Read his books. Read his blog. Look at his paintings. Above all else, be glad that there are people like Litka sharing their work with the world.

This is the third and final book in the Cassie Black series. If you’ll recall my review of Book Two, I didn’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling Book One. And so now, I face the same problem doubled, because to describe the setting of this book risks spoiling the first two.

Hmm, what to do? Well, I think I’ll start by talking about an element of these books that I neglected previously: the food. To power her magical abilities, Cassie needs lots of sweets, and eats a steady diet of delicious foods throughout the series. I love Painter’s descriptions of her meals. In fact, the one that sounded best of all to me was a description of a salad in this book. Reading this series is sure to whet your appetite.

As for the rest of it? Well, Cassie is snarky as ever, and her sarcastic voice stays with her even into her final confrontation with the arch-villain. The supporting characters are once again enjoyable, and I was especially pleased with how the character arc of the ghostly Tower Warder Nigel turned out.

All told, this is a fun series for readers who enjoy fantasy adventures that don’t take themselves too seriously. Painter’s magical world is entertaining and populated with plenty of amusing characters. The Untangled Cassie Black is a fitting way to wrap it up.

This is a re-telling of the Ancient Greek myth of Perseus, son of the God Zeus, and his quest to slay Medusa. It’s told in a light, witty style, which readers of Pastore’s first novel, The Devil and the Wolfwill certainly enjoy.

Along the way, Perseus meets with various other of the Ancient Greek gods, including Hermes and Athena, and more than a few monsters. And as befits a hero’s journey, he grows from an unsure, often impulsive boy into a brave and wise hero.

I knew next to nothing about the myth of Perseus when I read this book. After finishing it, I looked it up, and in fact, Pastore has hewed fairly closely to the myth. He explains in his afterword that, while many modern re-tellings change things up, i.e. making the confrontations with the monsters more “Hollywood,” (my word, not his) he wanted to be faithful to the source material.

But while he does a fine job at following the ancient story’s plot, there’s still no question it’s a Pastore book, through and through. Fans of The Devil and the Wolf will hear the echoes of Meph and JR in Perseus’s banter with the gods, and the ending, while true to the original myth, has a poetic irony to it that is perfectly in keeping with the overall tone of the book. If you don’t already know the myth of Perseus, then please don’t look it up before reading this. My ignorance of it made the ending that much better.

But even if you are an expert on Greek mythology, you should still read this. Pastore’s treatment of the story is witty and humorous. It fits perfectly with the overall sensibility of the myth.

It’s always tough for me to review sequels. I don’t want to say too much about previous entries, for fear that someone who hasn’t read previous books will stumble upon the review and read spoilers. On the other hand, I can’t talk much about what happens in this book without referencing the first book, The Undead Mr. Tenpenny.

So, I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum, and just say that it’s fairly essential to read the first book before you read this one. If you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean when I say that Cassie Black and her snarky attitude are back in this one. If you enjoyed Cassie’s smart-aleck way of speaking in Book 1, there’s more of it here, only this time transplanted from Portland to the Tower of London.

My favorite aspect of the new setting is Nigel, the ghostly Yeoman Warder and aspiring tour guide, who continually gets his history of the Tower mixed up in comical ways. Most of the characters from the first book also reappear and develop further, including Cassie’s landlord, Morelli; to whom there is more than meets the eye.

I could say more, but I’d be treading into spoiler territory, and I hate to do that for a new series. If you liked Mr. Tenpenny, you’ll like this one too. Both books are perfect for readers who enjoy fantasy adventures with a sardonic sense of humor.

This book begins with a clever hook: the protagonist, Cassie Black, is shocked when the corpses at the funeral home where she works start coming back to life. She quickly learns the reason for this sudden re-animation is that they have “unfinished business.” At first, she’s able to help put them to rest, but when the eponymous Mr. Tenpenny returns to life, putting him at peace proves to be a daunting task that sucks Cassie into a whole parallel world of magic and mystery.

The book is very much in the tradition of fantasy novels like Alice in WonderlandHarry Potter, etc. (There are a few references to the latter throughout.) It’s the classic setup of a seemingly ordinary person who finds themselves in another society where they are of immense importance. From there it’s Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Quest, through and through, but Cassie narrates her adventures with a smart-aleck, macabre sense of humor. The book is suffused with dark humor, of the sort at which Painter excels. 

Cassie can be a little difficult; I won’t lie. There are times when her anti-social personality and paranoia make her tough to relate to. Although, as is explained in her backstory, she’s had a hard life, shuffled among various foster families that treated her quite badly, so it makes sense she would be this way. And eventually, her instincts do point her in the right direction. (Sort of.)

I actually enjoyed the “real” world of everyday Portland most of all; it felt very vivid and interesting. I especially liked the officious government inspector who is investigating the funeral home where Cassie works, suspecting, (quite correctly) that something is amiss.

That reminds me: this is book one in a series, and it ends on a cliffhanger. So, there are a lot of threads that remain to be tied up in future volumes, and I look forward to seeing where it all goes. It’s a fun read for anyone who enjoys fast-paced, somewhat snarky, somewhat twisted fantasy adventures.

[This review is based on an ARC. The Undead Mr. Tenpenny releases today, February 23, 2021.]