Spellbound SpindleThis fantasy novel begins with a group of magical beings known as “gem elves,” who are betrayed by one of their own, Marlis, who has become a servant of a dark goddess named Gadreena. 

Marlis slays one of the elves, and flees into the mortal world. There, she curses a child. The curse mandates that the child will fall into an endless sleep once they turn 16 years of age and touch an accursed spindle. 

The gem elves provide help to the family that raises the child, but they are unable to track down Marlis, whom they cannot sense in the mortal world. Eventually, sixteen years later, the gem elves and the mortal families are again drawn into conflict with Marlis, who has been hiding in another kingdom, and seducing their king with her dark magic.

I don’t read a lot of fantasy, partly because so often it’s very slow-going. Refreshingly, this book, like Spicer’s other novels, moves at a brisk pace and doesn’t bog down. There are perhaps some elements that could have been more fleshed-out, and there is a rather large cast of characters. As Lydia Schoch noted in her review, it’s helpful to make notes of all the characters to keep track.

As with Spicer’s other books, I appreciate the sparse descriptions that allow the reader to imagine the world for themselves. 

My favorite parts were the chapters about Marlis who, though undeniably evil, isn’t simply a cardboard villain, but shows flashes of real emotion that make her understandable, if not exactly sympathetic.

This is a fun read, filled with references to mythology and legend, as well as some good old-fashioned sword and sorcery in the climactic showdown. A good book for anyone who enjoys fantasy.

Hannah the HuntressThis is a fast-paced, supernatural horror adventure laced with film, TV, and literary references. Hannah and her friends are teenagers in a small-town that is abruptly attacked by monsters of every description–zombies, vampires, witches etc. Fortunately, they are assisted by the wizard Merlyn Morningstar and Hannah’s mother Sarah, both of whom have seen a thing or two in their day.

There are violent, bloody battles, punctuated by snappy, sometimes fourth wall-breaking wisecracks. There are sword fights, and wizards’ duels, and at least one extra-dimensional excursion.  I think the overall concept may be an homage to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but having never watched that, I can’t be sure.

One thing I particularly liked about the book was the depiction of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Especially the monster: Colonel Karl Hesse, a Prussian soldier in life, before falling into the mad doctor’s clutches. He’s portrayed as a towering, powerful and heavily-armed one-man army. I adore the description of him lumbering up a hill clad in his old cavalry uniform.

In fact, one of my complaints is that he’s not in the book enough. Although, this may be unfair, because I’m not sure I could get enough of him even if he were the protagonist.

The action is, as I said, very violent. Most of it has sort of a cheesy, comic-book or low-budget horror film vibe for most of it, although there is one scene, very close to the end, of true horror that is very disturbing. Indeed, as this book is the first of two, and ends on a real cliff-hanger, I am hopeful that the wrongs done in this scene may be righted in the subsequent volume.

Now, apart from the violence, which was rather more than I typically enjoy but your mileage may vary, there are a few little technical issues. There’s a bit of a formatting oddity on Kindle that makes paragraph breaks appear randomly. This was slightly confusing at first, as I thought a new section was starting when it wasn’t, but I quickly got used to it. There are also a few typos, although by no means a huge number for an indie book. As I always say, that’s the beauty of e-publishing–you can always go back and fix these things.

But don’t let these minor nitpicks dissuade you from reading it. If you’re a fan of supernatural horror, and the zombie genre especially, this is a book you will enjoy. And if you like the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, you definitely shouldn’t miss it, as this tackles the classic story in a very clever way.

Gossamer GlobeThe Gossamer Globe is a very unique book. It has elements of many genres, from political thriller to swashbuckling adventure to biting satire. And the author combines all these in clever ways to make something very original.

The book tells the story of a woman named Lucia Straw, who is being elected as the first Prime Minister of the nation of Zatoria. Zatoria has just abolished monarchy and replaced it with democracy. But as Lucia’s party is celebrating their victory, she receives a message from a rival candidate, Kailani Rhys, accusing her of stealing the election. This casts a pall over everything as Lucia deals with the pains of installing a new parliamentary government.

I love humorous stories about small groups of revolutionaries seizing control of the state. I think it started with my love for Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Grand Duke, a comic opera about a troupe of bumbling actors who take over a grand duchy. The Gossamer Globe has that mood to it–Lucia and her inner-circle all stumble through trying to rule a country, and it’s extremely amusing to read. Before I read it, I saw a couple reviews hinting that it had some funny parts, but that’s an understatement. This book is hilarious, and what’s best of all is that the humor comes organically from the characters’ personalities. Funny lines turn out to not be mere throwaway gags, but jokes that are built upon. I think my favorite example is Lucia’s friend Jevan’s amusing storytelling style.

But it’s not just a silly comedy. It’s also a well-thought-out political satire. I won’t go into too much detail, but the “gossamer globe” the title refers to is a sort of wondrous new technology that has caused major disruption to the Zatorian way of life. This concept is handled very thoughtfully, portraying the new technology as neither an absolute good or evil influence, but simply a technological disruption that the government is only beginning to reckon with.

Ah, the government! That brings me to the core of the book–the struggle for power, the competing philosophies, and all the Machiavellian machinations that drive the plot forward. Lucia chooses to keep the former Queen around in an advisory capacity, and this move proves to be quite controversial. The ex-monarch–now referred to simply as “Ms. Battenbox”–was one of my favorite characters, and the scenes in which she offers her political analysis and shrewd strategizing are absolutely terrific.

All the dialogues are very well-written. I could practically hear the characters speak their lines in my head as I read. It all flowed so well. Also, Evans has a masterful command of how to use profanity. It’s not often, but on the rare occasions when the characters use strong language, it packs a punch.

And then of course, there’s all the sword-fighting.  As the cover suggests, swords are a big deal in this book. I was worried this might come off as a gimmick, but it doesn’t at all. Sword-fighting is clearly a huge part of Zatorian culture, and it makes sense that many disputes are settled this way.

Actually, this is a good time for a word about the cover. It’s not that I dislike it. It’s a fine cover. But it wasn’t the image of the world that I imagined as I was reading the book. It’s probably just my own bias, but I am envisioning this as a steampunk-ish, Neo-Victorian or Edwardian world, and the swords as elegant, rapier-like weapons. I’m not sure what kind of sword that is on the cover, actually; it looks like some sort of falchion or scimitar, maybe? If there are any sword enthusiasts reading this, further information on this point would be appreciated.

However you choose to envision the weaponry and the environs in general, this is a rich, magnificently-constructed world, populated with vivid and enjoyable characters. It’s also an excellent depiction of how politics works at the highest levels. There’s a point where one character is descending into frenzied paranoia, issuing ridiculous commands as the whole structure of the government seems to be collapsing. It feels timeless, like a satire that could have been written about any bad government in history, going back to the time of Rome. It’s the same vibe I get when reading George Orwell’s writings on totalitarianism–this is a pattern of behavior that transcends time and place.

Evans manages all this while still telling a fast-paced, funny, sexy, bawdy, and clever story, in a rich and interesting world. Simply put, I loved this book, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys speculative fiction of any variety. It’s brilliant, and best of all, it’s free. That’s right, you can get it through Amazon or on Smashwords for free. There’s absolutely no excuse. Give this brilliant novel a try.

Scout's HonorI love classic science fiction. It may seem corny to some, but there’s a wonderful charm to those vintage pulp stories of science fiction’s Golden Age.

Scout’s Honor is a flawlessly-executed homage to that era. Conventional wisdom about judging books notwithstanding, this is one case where the cover tells you exactly what this is: a love-letter to the space-faring, swashbuckling adventures of yore.

The protagonist is Terran Scout David Rice, who crash lands on the planet Aashla, and soon finds himself fighting to protect the beautiful Princess Callan  from raiders, kidnappers, and armies of rival kingdoms. The inhabitants of Aashla are primitive compared with the advanced technology Rice possesses, but even with his technological superiority, he finds himself needing all his strength and wits to survive.

Along with the princess and her guard, Rice sets out on a fast-paced adventure full of dangerous beasts, alien thugs, and court intrigue. There are airship battles and gladiatorial duels in sewer tunnels. And of course, despite the breakneck pace and the constant danger, Rice and Callan find themselves falling in love.

The story is told in bite-sized chapters, each of which ends with a cliffhanger. I loved this.   Just when one threat seems eliminated, a new one appears. It’s relentless, but in a fun way. I was always eager to see how Rice and company would escape each unpleasant surprise.

Description is minimal, but there is enough suggested through the action that I could picture the scenes effectively. There are a whole host of supporting characters who were quite entertaining in their own right. Martin Bane was a particular favorite of mine; I enjoyed the way his character developed.

There are times when I just feel like escaping into a fun imaginary world, and Scout’s Honor is the perfect way to do that. It’s easy to read, hard to put down, and an all-around delightful way to spend a few hours for fans of sci-fi and fantasy alike.

Moon Goddess 2Moon Goddess is about a young woman named Lamorna who is forced to flee her home with her infant brother, pursued by the soldiers of the lord who holds sway in the region.

With the guidance of a mysterious wise woman, Lamorna is aided by spirits and manifestations of an ancient goddess, whose followers and rituals differ greatly from the harsh patriarchal religion of her upbringing.

This book is steeped in mythological elements. As Spicer documents on her blog, she put intense research into this, from the world in which the story takes place to the wolves to the legends. Moon Goddess is rich with folklore references and fragments of old religions.

This is important, because for the most part, the description of the world in which the story takes place is minimal. As with Spicer’s The Cursed Gift, the focus is on the characters and what they say and do, with little excess verbiage about the setting. This is probably controversial, but personally, I love this about Spicer’s work. It reminds me of what Paul Graham said about Jane Austen: “She tells her story so well that you envision the scene for yourself.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a world this rich made with so little description, but I was very impressed by it. The only point where it was an issue for me (and I realize this won’t make sense until you read the book) was that I would have liked to have read more about the Wild Horde, which has a relatively small, but important role in the story. It’s such a cool concept; I’d have liked to know more.

One other nit-pick: while most of the book was from Lamorna’s point of view in close third person, there were a few chapters told from her fiancé’s perspective, in the same style. There’s nothing wrong with this, except it came relatively late in the story, and felt a little jarring, since it is clearly Lamorna’s story.

That’s a minor point, however. All in all, I really liked Moon Goddess–it’s fantasy, but with sufficient grounding in folklore that it felt authentic. It’s mystical and mysterious, but without its characters ever being totally overwhelmed by the supernatural elements.

Moon Goddess1

Also, there have been two different covers of this book, and they are both great. The current one is pictured above, but I had to include this one as well.

I like the current cover, especially because all of Spicer’s book covers follow a certain pattern that makes them look like a true collection. That said, this earlier cover also has its charms. So vivid and evocative!

Whichever cover you prefer, though, this is a great read for fans of fantasy stories with strong mythological elements.

CGThe Cursed Gift is a fantasy novel about a young woman named Leah, a warrior in training and daughter of the King of in a place called Orenheart. Leah’s day-to-day life of combat drills, horseback riding and the drama of being young and in love is disrupted after brigands attack her family, and a mysterious figure named Shalyer appears to threaten the kingdom.

Shalyer is an unfortunate soul, whose tragic past leads him to make a deal with a sinister supernatural beings, the leader of whom is known as Belosh. Belosh is a demon lord who toys with the fates of mortals, chiefly through granting them the power of magic, which the gods have long forbidden them. Belosh drives Shalyer and Leah into conflict, ultimately leading them into a showdown.

As Leah tries to resist the temptation of the dark powers the Demon Lord has granted her, the kingdom increasingly becomes threatened by brigand gangs. Meanwhile, the youthful romances, indiscretions and heartbreaks among Leah’s fellows begin to cripple them, leading to misunderstandings, fights, and worse.

Eventually, Belosh creates a situation where Leah is forced to choose between saving her family or resisting the allure of giving herself fully to the Demon lord. There are more brigand attacks, an extremely memorable funeral scene for a fallen warrior, and, of course, a dramatic final confrontation.

While high fantasy is not a genre I read often, I enjoyed this story and the world in which it is set. One thing that really stood out to me was the description—or more accurately, the lack thereof. Fantasy (like Science Fiction) usually requires a good deal of background and world-building, which means lots of description. But that’s not the case here—there was very little, and that was fine with me. I was impressed at how easily I could visualize things without having to have it all spelled out. It made the book an easy, accessible read. 

I admit this might not be to everyone’s tastes—my rocky relationship with description in fiction is well-known, and perhaps other readers will wish for more detail about Orenheart, Kurabar, and other locales in the tale.

Personally, what I wanted more of was detail about some of the supporting cast. Leah is a strong character, but so are many of the others, especially Shalyer, and I would have liked to know more about them. Also, there is one sub-plot involving King Edmon which never seems fully resolved. (It’s not that it’s unclear—we readers know the whole story, but some of the relevant characters don’t, and it seemed to me like something that would need to be discussed.)

Still, it’s clearly meant to be Leah’s story that’s being told here, and in that regard Spicer definitely succeeded. While preparing this review, I came across this post on Spicer’s blog in which she discusses her process in writing The Cursed Gift. She wanted to write a fantasy that didn’t feel overlong or dragged-out the way so many of them do, and that’s exactly what she did.  It’s a tight, well-paced tale that doesn’t bog the reader down with minutiae. I definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy or adventure novels.

patchwork warriorsI don’t read a lot of epic fantasy. But when Audrey Driscoll recommends a book, I pay attention, regardless of genre.

Of Patchwork Warriors begins with a glossary of terms used in the world of the novel, which is called the Oakhostian Empire. These include amusing words like “kerfluffeg” and “blimping,” a mild obscenity, as well as terms like “Stommigheid,” which is a peculiar sort of ether—indeed, sometimes called “the Ethereal”—which is not entirely understood. It’s something like the Force in Star Wars, but it has a Lovecraftian element as well, in the sense that messing with it can summon unspeakable monsters from beyond the known world.

Naturally, a villain by the name of Lord Ragithyl is trying to do exactly this, and so creates a ripple effect across the empire, catching the attentions of Meradat, one of the Custodians, (a sort of religious order) the LifeGuard, (the army) as well as merchants, mercenaries, and an eccentric young woman named Karlyn, who has a nose for evil spirits related to Stommigheid—or, in her colorful dialect, “storm-higgle.”

Karlyn and Meradat travel together, and eventually meet a LifeGuard named Arketre Berritt, a medician. Karlyn and Berritt gradually become friends, as their adventures lead them to a port town under attack. In this attack, they meet a woman named Trelli, who has unwillingly gained mysterious magical Stommigheid powers which among other things, make her hands glow red and blue. The three women are gradually drawn into discovering and combating the wicked Lord Ragithyl’s plot, as well as political jockeying from various factions of the empire.

It’s a strange tale Llewellyn weaves, with lots of different threads to it, but the heart of the book—and for me, the best part—is the banter between the three main characters. Berritt (Or “Flaxi,” as Karlyn calls her) is very likable, Trelli’s down-to-earth, good-natured personality is relatable, and Karlyn… well, Karlyn is almost indescribable. From her obsession with fire, to her keen sense of smell, to her bizarre jargon, she’s a unique character. Sometimes she was annoying, but she was supposed to be, and like Trelli and Berritt, I grew to like her in spite of it all.

The book ends on a satisfying note, but still leaves a lot to be explored in the sequel. It’s actually supposed to be a four-part series, I believe.

The language in this book is very clever, and Karlyn is only the most obvious example. As Audrey mentioned in her review, some of the invented swear words are quite addictive. I applaud Llewellyn for that. 

The big flaw is the familiar trouble with most indie books: typos. I felt they were more numerous here than in the average indie, although that may be an illusion simply because this book, as befits an epic fantasy, is longer than average. And because of Llewellyn’s creativity with the language, it sometimes makes it difficult to follow some passages. The typos seemed heaviest in the middle of the book—the beginning and end were smoother.

Beyond that, there were times when it was confusing as to what was happening, and some of the concepts relating to the Stommigheid were so abstract, it was tough to visualize. One thing that I would have found helpful would be the inclusion of a map of the world at the beginning. I know the Oakhostian Empire is based on Europe, but that wasn’t enough for me to get situated. Certain groups were similar to European nations, but that still didn’t give me a good idea of where things were relative to one another.

But despite these flaws, Llewellyn obviously put a lot of time into building this world. More than any novel, it reminded me of the famous fantasy RPGs of yore: Planescape: Torment, Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Pillars of Eternity and so on. Even the lead trio fits into the mold of classic RPG archetypes: Berritt is a healer/soldier, Karlyn is a quintessential rogue, and Trelli is a mage. 

In fact, as I think about it, I really want to play an RPG set in this world. Chris Avellone or Josh Sawyer ought to see if Llewellyn will be willing to license a game adaptation.

I originally was going to end my review there, adding only that I’ve already started Volume 2, Our Skirmishers of Lace, Steel, and Fire, and then link to Llewellyn’s blog.

But, alas! The blog no longer exists. In fact, going to the post where Audrey originally re-blogged the news about the launch of Volume 2, which was how I discovered the series, I find all that’s there now is Audrey’s text—Llewellyn’s post is gone, along with the rest of his blog.

It bothers me when a blog vanishes. I don’t like to be nosy, and no blogger is obligated to keep their work around if they do not want to. But all the same, it makes me uneasy when years’ worth of writing just vanishes. It disturbs both the blogger and the historian in me. I only read a few posts of Llewellyn’s, but I enjoyed those that I did, and had been planning to read more about his process once I finished the first volume.

In retrospect, perhaps Llewellyn’s conception of the Stommigheid is not so abstract after all; for we blogger-folk are met upon an equally precarious and mysterious plane of existence.

But enough! If you like epic fantasy, consider giving Of Patchwork Warriors a try. After all, I don’t like epic fantasy, and even I thought it was fun, in spite of its flaws.

Star_Wars_The_Last_JediYes, it finally happened. I watched it.

As some readers may recall, I was, shall we say, not impressed with the first film in the Disney Star Wars series, The Force Awakens. It was so bad that I had no interest in seeing any of their subsequent efforts.

But then I started to hear things about The Last Jedi. It’s controversial and polarizing. The alt-right is griping that it’s full of preachy progressive politics. There are hundreds of YouTube videos made by angry fans complaining about multiple aspects of the film. At the same time, I also heard elements of the film’s plot compared to the game Knights of the Old Republic II, which I consider the greatest Star Wars story ever, and one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever experienced.

This sounds like fodder for an interesting review, I thought. Could be a lot to talk about here. I enjoy writing reviews, and I am no stranger to unorthodox opinions on Star Wars movies, whether it’s my hatred for Force Awakens or my defense of the prequel movies. I wondered how I would react to this most divisive Star Wars film.

Well, there certainly was no lack of things to talk about. This is going to be one of my signature long, sometimes meandering reviews, so settle in for the long haul and prepare to read my thoughts on The Last Jedi.

(more…)

51GOZPH3rhL._SY346_I stumbled across the author’s blog by chance while at KingMidget’s Ramblings. I was excited to see that she, like me, was a fan of Weird and Lovecraftian fiction, and I read her spot-on analysis of the short story The Repairer of Reputations, which I love. And so I decided to check out The Friendship of Mortals, the first entry in her series featuring Lovecraft’s corpse-reanimating doctor, Herbert West.

The plot broadly follows that of Lovecraft’s original episodic short story until the end, but with numerous edits, alterations and additions. It is a “reimagining” (or “reboot” in modern lingo) rather than a mere retelling. For one thing, it’s far longer. Lovecraft’s original seems like a mere outline in comparison.

Very often, when people say their work is “Lovecraftian” what they mean is that it has some names or artifacts from Lovecraft’s mythos, or perhaps that their tale concerns large alien monsters resembling sea creatures. Very few writers imitate Lovecraft’s tone, which is detached and serious. Usually these wannabe Lovecraft stories are written in the somewhat flippant manner of a Stephen King narrator, with a few references to “Cthulhu” and “Abdul Al-Hazred” thrown in.

Within a few pages of Friendship of Mortals, I was blown away by how well Driscoll managed to imitate HPL’s style. The tone, the pacing, the careful descriptions of everything from people to books to the architecture in Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham – all of it was there, just as in the canonical stories of Lovecraft himself. While Friendship of Mortals may take its general plot and characters from one of Lovecraft’s shorter (and generally less well-regarded) tales, its style and pace resemble his longer and more developed works, particularly The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

This would be impressive enough on its own, but Driscoll manages another feat: she explores the psychology and backstory of not only West, but the narrator (unnamed in Lovecraft’s original, but here named Charles Milburn) and other characters of her own creation. And though the human element was something that Lovecraft, for good or ill, deliberately minimized in his stories, Driscoll examines it, and does it well, without ever becoming unfaithful to his style.

Each of the major characters—West, Milburn and Alma Halsey, Milburn’s lover– are given detailed backstories and for the most part behave in believable and consistent ways. The romance between Milburn and Halsey was particularly impressive, because Lovecraft never wrote romance. In general, one of the major red-flags that a would-be Lovecraft imitator is about to become decidedly un-Lovecraftian is the introduction of sex or romance.

But Driscoll somehow pulls it off. As I was reading the love episodes between Halsey and Milburn, I thought to myself “If Lovecraft had written romance, it would have been like this.” That might sound like a joke, given Lovecraft’s antipathy toward all emotions except fear, but I mean it as a sincere compliment: Milburn and Halsey’s affair, while being relatively explicit, still seems in keeping with the period setting, both in terms of how it is described and what the lovers actually do.

Driscoll reinvents the vignettes of Lovecraft’s serial, changing or removing certain details here and there, fleshing out the views of the sentimental and romantic Milburn and the rational, calculating Doctor West, and then bringing them, over the course of West’s increasingly disturbing experiments, into conflict. Minor characters are just as vividly-drawn as the major players, from one of West’s numerology-obsessed professors to his overbearing businessman father.

Driscoll plays down the horror and violence of the original, but the relatively little space given to the monstrous results of West’s experiments renders them more powerful as a result. It’s dark and disturbing stuff, but again, true to the spirit of the source material.

I have a few quibbles: the book is lengthy and slow-paced, which readers expecting a thriller may find forbidding. But I doubt Lovecraft fans will be put off by this, as HPL could take his time with a story as well, and part of his style is its slow, gradual pace. A feature, not a bug, in other words.

In the last quarter of the book, the psychological character-development aspect takes center stage over the plot and horror elements, which some readers may find disappointing. Milburn’s philosophical musings, while quite interesting, begin to overtake all the other components at this stage.

One other note: there is one scene in which a character uses a racial slur—it’s perfectly logical for the time and circumstances, but nevertheless it is shocking enough to see on the page that I think I ought to warn readers about it. But again, anyone who has read HPL’s own works will have seen far worse, alas.

But these are all ultimately minor points, which don’t detract much from the book’s many virtues. The Friendship of Mortals is the first in a series, and I’m eager to read the next installment. It’s certainly a must-read for Lovecraft fans, and I think it works quite well even for readers to whom things like the “Necronomicon” or “Cthulhu” are meaningless, provided they like a good psychological drama with tinges of the supernatural.

I can’t stress enough the magnitude of what Driscoll accomplished here—she took one of H.P. Lovecraft’s lesser short stories and made it into his greatest novel. I say “his” just because she imitates him so well that at times, I swear I could forget the author’s identity, and believe that HPL really had returned to flesh out his tale of the amoral re-animator and his increasingly reluctant assistant. Like Dr. West, Driscoll has made her subject live again.