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.]

I ended my review of the previous book in this series with the words, “Martuneac is a promising author. I’ll definitely be reading more of his work.” Zombie apocalypse books aren’t a genre I normally read, but the characters and writing in His Name Was Zach were strong enough to hold my attention and make me pick up the sequel.

And what a sequel it is! The foundation Martuneac laid in the first book really pays off in a number of ways in this sprawling epic. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you all the details, lest I spoil both books. But, I’ll do my best to give you the flavor of it.

Our protagonist is, naturally, Abby, the teenaged girl from the first book, who is struggling to survive in the harsh wilds of the Midwest, infested by zombies and small gangs of people struggling for self-preservation with varying degrees of brutality.

For reasons which I can’t say without spoiling the previous installment, but which will be obvious if you have read it, Abby can no longer rely on Zach, the man who raised her, and has to fend for herself. Her Name Was Abby picks up right where the first book left off, with an unrelenting post-apocalyptic world, full of violence, betrayal, and in general a reversion to the anarchic condition of life that Thomas Hobbes described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

This nightmarish world, in which no one can be fully trusted and the worst survive while the best perish, takes a major psychological toll on Abby, whose own hands are far from clean at the end of the first part of the book.

But then, she finds her way to something approaching civilization. And this is where the book takes a turn. For a long time, I’ve wondered why this series is categorized as “dystopian.” Maybe it’s me, but I don’t consider zombie apocalypse books dystopian. (I’m not really sure why. They’re certainly not utopian!) But once Abby reaches the West, she finds an area where the government remains in control.

And when I say “in control,” I mean police-state level control. This is where the book starts to resemble what I think of as a dystopia, as the reconstituted government under President Cyrus Arthur uses patrols of an elite military unit, the DAS, to terrorize the civilian population.

In fairness, we are talking about an outbreak of zombies here. You can see it would take a firm hand to reassert control in a situation like that. As other apologists for other tyrants have said, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” In the case of President Arthur, “breaking eggs” includes a naval bombardment of San Diego. (This incident is only referenced a few times in passing, but somehow I found it one of the most haunting bits of world-building lore in the entire book.)

Abby quickly joins a resistance movement, where she meets a young man close to her own age named Hiamovi, the grandson of the movement’s leader. Abby is, understandably, slow to trust, but eventually she and Hiamovi fall in love.

Unfortunately, nothing good ever seems to last for Abby, and she soon finds herself infiltrating the DAS on an undercover mission that takes her into the very highest levels of the government, and into a relationship with President Arthur’s own son, Derrick.

And that’s about as far as I can go without spoiling things. It’s too bad, because what I’ve summarized so far is just the setup for a thrilling final act, full of suspense, action, and even a remarkable love triangle. It’s really well-done, and pieces that have been hinted at going back to the first book start to fall satisfyingly into place.

For instance: if, like me, you were wondering how the government was managing to keep firm control of the Western half of the country while the East collapses into zombie-barbarism; that question is answered quite clearly in the later parts of this book.

To recap: the first quarter of the book is pure survival-horror, brimming with relentless violence and a constant sense that Abby is living on a razor’s edge, kept alive by a combination of sheer luck and an ever-increasing willingness to betray her own moral code for the chance to see another sunrise.

Then the book transforms, fairly smoothly, from a zombie-horror book to more of a spy thriller. Spy thrillers are more my usual fare, so for me, this was a pleasant surprise.

So, would I say the book is a zombie book with some spy thriller elements, or a spy thriller with some zombie elements?

Answer: it’s neither.

Her Name Was Abby has another facet to it beyond the zombies and the cool high-tech espionage. It’s actually a surprisingly deep psychological portrait of Abby. More specifically, of how Abby tries to cope with all the horrific trauma she’s experienced from a young age.

Now, I get it: almost all thrillers have a Protagonist With A Dark Past™. Many, many books have a flawed anti-hero who is running from some kind of horrible event that has left a scar on their psyche. And it almost always feels forced and fake to me.

But Abby’s feels genuine. I can’t really explain it. Somehow, though, Martuneac conveys her mental state in a way that seems real. Her PTSD flashbacks are vivid, and the way she struggles with feelings of depression, rage, doubt, and guilt are all viscerally powerful.

Abby’s journey is a moving one, and whereas in the previous book she relied heavily on Zach to save her, in this one, she has no one else to turn to. As one character, one of my favorites in the book, says, “If your life is going to be saved, it must be you who does the saving.”

The book has many good lines, but I can’t quote most of them because they would also spoil important plot developments. In general, let me just say that Martuneac’s style of writing is very interesting to me. I do think most modern fiction critics would argue it relies too much on “telling” rather than “showing” and we all know the standard rule about that.

However, I’ve never been completely onboard with this rule. (Yeah, yeah; if you watch the Writers Supporting Writers videos, I’m sure you’re just shocked by this.) I know what people mean when they say it, but at best, it’s badly phrased. Because all fiction is actually telling, never showing. The art is in making people feel like you’re showing them something.

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying Martuneac tends to use what I think of as an older style of narration that is often detached from the immediate thoughts of the characters. Some people might not like this approach, but personally, I found it kind of refreshing. There is such a thing as too much immediacy, and I feel like a lot of modern fiction has it. Probably because most writers have had the “show, don’t tell” rule drilled into them.

This is a really good story, and one that should have broad appeal. While I do think it’s better to read the series in order, I will say that if you like thrillers but are positively allergic to the zombie genre, you could start by reading this book without reading His Name Was Zach. That’s what H.R.R. Gorman did, and if it’s good enough for Gorman, it’s good enough for me.

And one more thing about Zach. Despite the fact he’s not in this one, his presence still can be felt throughout this book. Like Abby, I often found myself wondering what Zach would think of this or that. I’m always impressed when a character looms large even when not actually “in” the story as such.

I’d like to say a lot more about this book, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Hopefully I’ve piqued your interest enough that you’ll want to check it out, and after you’ve read it, you can come back here and discuss it in detail.

[Audio version of this post available below]

This is a novel with layers. Superficially, it’s a “chick lit” relationship novel. The narrator, Dr. Sarah Phelan, says as much in the first chapter. This layer is a classic romance of a woman falling in love with a man who at first seems to be Mr. Perfect, but who has hidden Byronic depths.

The difference with this book is, Dr. Phelan is aware of how her story fits into the conventions of the genre, and repeatedly makes meta references to what part of the standard story she’s in, or acknowledges different tropes that she encounters.

And she has more going on in her life than just her relationship with her new beau (name: Dylan Cakebread). She’s still getting over her ex-husband, who has become a published author, and dealing with a long-running feud with her sister Ella. Fortunately, she has the support of her close friend, Jules, whose chatty, gossiping manner made her a treat every time she appeared.

But there’s more to this book than a mere girl-meets-boy light romance. It’s deeper than that, and it doesn’t always hew to the conventions of the genre. In fact, it’s not really a “genre” book at all, though of course at first glance it appears to be. Like other Brennan books I’ve reviewed, it’s not one you can easily pigeonhole.

Also like other Brennan books, it’s full of memorable lines. Like Dr. Phelan’s comments on a certain genre of fiction:

“I think there’s really only one enormous thriller out there now, made up of the hundreds of thousands of them that are published every ten minutes or so, and our job as readers is to somehow knit them all together.”

And then there’s this line from Jules’ husband, Wayne:

“Everything is unsustainable,[…]We’re living in the Apocalypse Years, right? Nobody knows when the shit’s gonna hit the fan, but it’s pretty obvious that it is.”

Occasional Soulmates was published in 2014, and this line reminded me of Brennan’s later novel, Eternity Began Tomorrow, an environmentalist political thriller that painted a picture of the year 2020 almost as insane as the real one.

Like Eternity Began Tomorrow, Occasional Soulmates doesn’t conform to the genre it superficially appears to be. It winds up going in a very different direction than I expected, but I should have known it would. Brennan never falls back on tired clichés, and always strives to surprise his readers.

If you like clever literary fiction that has more to it than meets the eye, this is a good read. Also impressive is how well Brennan writes his female protagonist. As Audrey Driscoll said in her review, “Either Mr. Brennan is a mind-reader or he had really good intel from women. I loved the girly-gossipy tone of the narration, especially the parts where Sarah and her best pal Jules dissect relationships and classify men.”

I couldn’t agree more. Writing female characters when you’re a male is quite tricky, but Brennan manages it beautifully. This is just one more reason why this book is worth your time: Brennan is a master of the craft, and it shows on every page.

[Listen to an audio version of this post below]

This was the first Burke book I heard of, but as it’s the second in the series, I had to read the first installment, Burke in the Land of Silver. I loved it, and eagerly anticipated reading this one.

A bit of background: Burke is like a Napoleonic-era James Bond. (I actually think he’s more like Patrick McGoohan’s “Danger Man,” but hardly anyone remembers that series.) A spy for the British who monitors and sabotages the activities of Britain’s main geopolitical enemy, France.

Unlike Land of Silver, which was based on the true story of the real James Burke, Burke and the Bedouin is a fictionalized account, though most of the major events, such as Napoleon’s army clashing with the Bedouin and the Mamelukes, and the climactic Battle of the Nile, are real, and it is no doubt true that Britain would have had men like Burke present in Egypt.

The book is a bit faster-paced than the first one, and it seemed like there were fewer characters. That’s not a negative, though; just a difference in style. This felt more like an old-fashioned desert adventure story, compared with the political intrigue and machinations of the previous entry. Fortunately, I love a good desert adventure, so that’s all to the good.

And like the previous book, there are definitely times when you have to question just who you should be rooting for. Burke is a very likable protagonist, with a clear sense of personal honor and bravery, so he seems like a straight-up hero… but then you get a scene of him torturing a young French surveyor for information, or spreading sensational lies about the French among the Bedouin. Of course, he’s not doing this randomly–he’s a soldier, in a war. Ugly stuff happens, and people just have to deal with it.

The book does a great job of conveying the sheer brutality of the era. It’s easy to romanticize the Napoleonic wars, especially if you learn it as the history of dashing, larger-than-life figures like Nelson, Wellington, and of course, the Corsican himself. The everyday reality of it was much nastier, and this book captures that well.

If you enjoyed the first one, this book is a worthy sequel. And while it is true this would work as a standalone book, I would strongly recommend reading them in order. Fans of historical fiction, spy thrillers, and adventure books alike should all check out the Burke series.

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.

Another book I picked up through Lydia Schoch’s weekly Twitter thread of free books. This is a military sci-fi novella, and military sci-fi is one of my favorite genres, so of course I had to check it out!

The book tells the story of Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay, a deep-space pilot exploring an uncharted system. A stunning discovery and a narrow escape only land her in deeper trouble with the corporation she works for, leaving her with few options, save one that leads her into a series of interstellar fighter battles as part of the Navy of Humanity.

Floribeth (“Beth”) is fun protagonist to root for, and her fellow pilots make for enjoyable sidekicks. At times, I had a little difficulty keeping track of all the secondary characters, so making notes may be helpful. But all of them are entertaining and real, so that’s not really a problem. As long as I’m enjoying the characters, I don’t mind if I have trouble remembering who’s who.

I also had a bit of difficulty visualizing some of the action scenes. Sometimes, trying to picture what deep space combat would actually look like can be a bit daunting. (I had the same problem with the book We Are Legion (We Are Bob.)) That may just be a commentary on the limits of my imagination, though. Overall, I really liked the fast pace and the camaraderie among the pilots. It made me think of Rogue Squadron, which is always a good thing. And the motives of the different corporations and governments are well-thought-out and plausible.

The book is the first in a series, and having read it, I’m eager to read more of these. Fans of sci-fi, or just adventure in general, should definitely give this one a try.

Mark Paxson has often said that he writes in order to see things from other perspectives. The Dime is a great example of this. There are three main characters: Sophie, a teenage girl, now in a wheelchair after the car crash that killed her parents; Lily, her sister, who has been her guardian since turning 18, and Pete, a boy Sophie’s age with a violent alcoholic father and a distant, uncaring mother.

The three are brought together by a chance encounter between Pete and Lily at the Five & Dime where the latter works. Together, they are forced to navigate their difficult circumstances, and confront a lot of personal trauma and pain.

The book is told from the perspectives of all three, supplemented by the voices of secondary characters, such as Pete’s mother, the owner of the Five & Dime, a boyfriend of Lily’s, etc. The book is great at showing multiple people’s perspectives. Often, characters I initially disliked became more understandable once I heard their side of it. Not always likable, but at the very least, pitiable.

This book combines many of the features of Mark’s previous works: the almost poetic character study found in The Irrepairable Past with the many different perspectives and people woven throughout his short stories collected in Shady Acres and The Marfa Lights. Elements of both are in The Dime. It’s a focused portrait of specific characters and also a portrayal of a whole world.

If you like the idea of getting in somebody else’s shoes and walking around a bit, of seeing the world through new eyes, then The Dime is a good book for you. It’s a powerful, emotional, and ultimately uplifting story, told with empathy and thoughtfulness.

One other thing: the book is dedicated to a writer named Zoe Keithley. I’ve only read one of Keithley’s books so far, but it haunts me still, as one of the most emotionally powerful books I’ve ever read. Two of the most memorable pieces of imagery used in The Dime were inspired by her literary techniques, and I can definitely see it, because they have a way of staying with you long after you close the book.

But I won’t say what they are! The Dime is more driven by characters than plot, it’s true; but even so, I wouldn’t want to give away too much about it. You must meet Sophie, Lily, Pete, and the rest for yourself. Inhabit their world; get to know them a bit. What is the point of books, after all, if not to learn to connect with other people?

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.

“Harrowing” is the best word to describe this fast-paced short story that serves as a prequel to the novel His Name Was Zach. The book is told in first-person, from the point of view of the title character, a young girl whose normal life is interrupted in horrific fashion.

As befitting an introduction to the world of His Name Was Zach, the book is intense and not for the fainthearted. Martuneac does a great job conveying the sheer terror of the speed at which Abby’s world collapses. Some of the techniques he uses in the text are quite ingenious, creating a memorable atmosphere in a brief space.

This is a very short story, and I think it is probably best read as a prologue to the main novel. I had already read the novel before reading this, but even though I knew what would happen, it still pulled me in.

There is one thing about the story that I felt could use a bit of expansion, but I can’t discuss it without major spoilers.  Let’s just say it concerns Abby’s reaction to a very traumatic event. She seems to accept it very quickly, more so than I would have expected. However, this is just my interpretation, and there’s no doubt that different people process traumatic events in different ways. (This is, in fact, one of the major themes of this series.)

I highly recommend this to fans of dark, post-apocalyptic stories. It’s a good intro to a gripping series.

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.