Monday, January 25, 2016

King Ruin by Michael John Grist

Standing in the ashes of his final battle with Mr. Ruins, at the edge of the floating slums, ex-Arctic marine Ritry Goligh thinks his long nightmare is finally over. His family are safe, his soul is his own, and at last he can go home.

Then comes an explosion that makes no sound, but blows all his thoughts to shreds. In an instant Ritry is prey again, hunted by a power so vast he can’t even comprehend it. This is King Ruin, and before him all Rit can do is run, so far and so fast he starts to forget who and what he is.

Soon half his mind is gone, the King is closing in, and the souls of billions are at stake. Because King Ruin wants the Bridge, a direct path into the minds of every living thing, and only the lost and broken Ritry Goligh stands in his way.


King Ruin picks up right where Mr. Ruins left off. Ritry doesn't get to savor his victory or even go home to see his family. He's right back in thick of it with a foe that is far stronger than Mr. Ruins.
Previous cover
Previous cover for King Ruin
Before I get into the review, I'd like to comment on the covers. Mr. Grist decided last year to redo his covers as sales for the Ruins War series had dropped off. It got him to thinking that maybe the covers weren't conveying enough of the mystery of the books. I disagree, but that's just one man's opinion. Anyway, this isn't the first time he's revamped his covers.

The series of covers I saw all featured scenes from their respective books—the skyscraper picture above is rather chilling in retrospect. The new covers are more focused on characters. Mr. Ruins himself is featured on the new version of his titular cover (new cover added to bottom of review). However, I don't recognize the person on this new King Ruins cover. The two red suns are pertinent though. I could make a guess on the character, but the appearance doesn't match up with the description in the book.*

On with the review
Current cover
Current cover for King Ruin
As I mentioned above, the book picks up right where the previous one left off. Ritry fights for his life only to find himself captured by Don Zachary, an organized crime boss of the skulks from the first book. Ten percent of the book has gone by before Grist lets Ritry and the reader take a breath. But it isn't long before Ritry is on the run again.

The marines return and are just as important to saving Ritry's life as they were in the first book. I won't spoil their connection to him if you haven't read the first book. But for those who have, their mission here is just as surreal and mysterious as before. Me and Far are missing, which is puzzling to the rest of the chord. But by doing so, Grist permits the reader to get to know the other members of the chord—Me and Far were the focus of the first book. Grist keeps their absence a secret until the story nears its climax, when all is revealed.

Mr. Ruins, Ritry's foe in the first book, was a bit of a mystery. While he offered an explanation for his obsession with Ritry, I felt like there was something more. He seemed to be hiding something, but with the conclusion of that book, I didn't hold out much hope of finding out. Fortunately for the sake of the story, Mr. Ruins makes a return, and we get to the truth behind Mr. Ruins' sadistic treatment of Ritry and others.

Whereas Mr. Ruins was a sadist, King Ruin is a ghoul. If we take it that power corrupts, then as power grows so too does the level of corruption. King Ruin does things to people that would make Josef Mengele proud, if not envious. Grist forces the reader to bear witness to some of these horrors and to the suffering that King Ruin's crippled victims struggle to recover from. It serves a purpose; this isn't torture porn. King Ruin is a being that feeds upon pain. He would starve to death without it. If you're one who is easily upset by disturbing imagery, then heed the "horror" tag I applied to this review.

Just as Grist revealed the origins of Mr. Ruins, so too does he reveal the ghastly origin of King Ruin. It makes sense. It might seem like this is just Ritry's battle against a bigger and badder foe, but King Ruin's reach knows no bounds. He strips everything from Ritry. Everything. Ritry must sacrifice his connections to everyone he loves, lest King Ruin find them and make them suffer too.

Unfortunately, my experience was marred by typos and punctuation problems. If he had hired a proofreader, I believe that the manuscript would've been much cleaner. Maybe the story has been edited since I received my copy. Anyway, if typos aren't the sort of thing that catches your eye, then don't sweat it. Just enjoy the story.

King Ruin is a journey through desolate post-apocalyptic wastelands, both physical and mental, full of madness and pain. At times surreal, it is also visceral. The overarching message I get from this story is that our pain defines us. The memories of that pain form strong bonds that entwine our souls. It twists us. If it doesn't break us, it shapes us into something different, possibly evil. In turn, we inflict that pain upon others, whether we wish to or not. Only love and forgiveness can break the cycle. And if we can find redemption for the pain we've caused, we can rest in peace.

For more information about King Ruin or Grist's other works, please visit his website.

* I spoke with Mr. Grist about her. She is whom I thought she was, just a different interpretation than the one I had.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Best of 2015

Each year, the reviewers here at the New Podler Review of Books pick the book (or books) which we feel are the very best independently published (or small press) works. The only other requirement we have is that the book was reviewed here on the blog during the calendar year.

First off, I'd like to give an honorable mention to Rob Steiner for Citizen Magus and Muses of the Republic and M. Terry Green for her Chronicles of White World series. I thoroughly enjoyed their books, but as I was proofreader for them, I was disqualified from reviewing them here. Definite bias there.

There were five books I reviewed here on the blog that were in the running for best of 2015. I could take the easy way out and nominate all five, but that would be a cop out. Unfortunately none of them stood far enough apart from the pack to make this an easy decision. So I had to decide if what I considered a flaw would be just a petty gripe to other readers. In the end, I decided that the book I chose would be one that I could unequivocally stand behind.

Without further ado, this year's winner is:

book cover for Tethered Worlds: Blue Star Setting

In my review of the first book in this series, Unwelcome Star, I complained about the length of the book, not relating to the protagonist, and a battle scene that went on for far too long. I decided that story length was my problem and not one with the books. I think that most readers consider 500+ page books to be a plus rather than a minus. And young adult characters are always in fashion, so ignore the middle aged grumpy guy.

My appreciation for the first novel grew after I read the second book in the series. The myriad new names and terms that Faccone dumped on us in the first book paved the way to enjoying Blue Star Setting. By then, I had a better appreciation of the effort that went into what I'd thought were tangential or out of place story fragments. Faccone had a long range plan for this series, and he needed to lay the groundwork from the outset. It's in this book that you can start to see it coming together.

One thing that I praised from the start was Faccone's world building. Each world and faction is fully rendered with a rich history. Technology has blossomed into a myriad of forms. There are several factions struggling against one another to achieve their objectives. And while there are many characters, both human and AI, each of them is a unique individual with quirks and personality. It can be a bit overwhelming at first getting up to speed with all of this, but it's worth it. For space opera fans, I'd say you owe it to yourself to check out both books and join in the adventure.

For more information on Unwelcome Star and other books in the Tethered Worlds universe, please visit the author's website.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Tethered Worlds: Blue Star Setting by Gregory Faccone

book cover for Tethered Worlds: Blue Star SettingJordahk Wilkrest no longer has the luxury of believing he isn't special. His family line can work mystic technology, something fewer and fewer can do. Not only that, but his grandfather was a user of tremendous ability called a “Sojourner.” Jordahk has used mystic himself to get out of jams, something happening all too frequently of late. But he's still fearful of the dangerous technology, and for good reason.

Then, without warning, Jordahk's grandfather shows up again. The trail of their previous adventure is being followed. Their old friend and the mysterious girl under his care are in the cross-hairs of the power-hungry Archivers. But two men and a crazy robot aren't exactly a crack rescue force. And as the clues come together, they realize a much greater threat is gathering. One that calls for a legendary ship and the power of a Sojourner.

Too bad the ship's buried behind enemy lines in a system oppressed for two centuries. Can Jordahk revive the spirits of those subjugated in a war lost generations before? And what of the girl who's increasingly showing near-impossible abilities? Somehow Jordahk has to lead her, get the ship, and warn the free worlds of impending doom. For who's more vulnerable than those who wrongly believe their armor is impenetrable?


This is very much a middle book in a trilogy or a series. That's not a slight, just a fact. While there are enough references to the first book Tethered Worlds: Unwelcome Star, it's obvious to the reader that there's another story out there (definitely worth reading, I must say). And the way this book ends, although the events in this book come to their own conclusion, the overall story arc has (at least) another book in it.

I didn't feel as overwhelmed by this book as I did the first. I'll chalk it up to being somewhat familiar with the characters from the first book—Jordahk and his family being the easiest to recognize. I had a better understanding of the pantheon of villains in this one too. Faccone does a better job of differentiating them. And they didn't all wear black hats. One was definitely gray, probably brought about by the events that transpired in Unwelcome Star. Some of the minor characters from the first book are gone, replaced by new ones. Faccone did a good job of fleshing them out.

Blue Star Setting clocks in at a whopping 548 pages, even longer than the first book. The length of the novel gave Faccone the space he needed to render those minor characters, but he's still providing us with scenes that go on for far too long. "Brevity" is not in this author's toolbox. I think he could've gotten away with a 15% shorter book by trimming or cutting action scenes.

There are also scenes in both books that don't factor into the main story at all. They seem to be included only because they take place in parallel to the events on the main stage. I'd be inclined to suggest cutting them, but it turns out that Faccone does this to set the stage for events that will happen much later down the road. For instance, one of the new characters is Khai. She was in stasis during Unwelcome Star, so I didn't get why Faccone bothered to include the events pertaining to her rescue. Turns out, she emerges in this book and plays a major role in how this story plays out. Another example is Rewe, a villain. I didn't really gather his purpose in the first book, but in this book, Faccone offers two key scenes showing the development of his character into a major antagonist for a future book. Faccone is definitely a man with a plan.

As I mentioned in my review for the first book, this is a meticulously detailed universe. Faccone's world-building is top notch. The setting is rich in history with amazing technology that lives up to its "mystic" moniker. And I get the sense that he has even more in store in the next book(s) in this series.

Ignore my curmudgeon talk. While I bemoan its length, particularly the battle scenes, the pacing of the story doesn't drag. Faccone certainly gives the reader her money's worth. Blue Star Setting is a welcome addition to Faccone's Tethered Worlds series. It's more big and bold space opera with a hero you can root for as he grows to fill some very big, yet well worn, shoes. Highly recommended for space opera fans.

For more information on Blue Star Setting and other books in the Tethered Worlds universe, please visit the author's website.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Should Book Reviewers be Paid for Promoting Your Book?

Image from Boyd LoganOver on the Tenka International blog, Michael Norton wrote a post entitled "Book Reviewers Don’t Charge Enough, And Why You Under-Appreciate Them". In it, he explains the importance of book reviews in promoting one's work. While on the surface that seems like a no-brainer, he emphasizes the importance of book review blogs and how they help to spread the message about your book.
Book reviewers are the people who take the time to set up a website and cultivate a dedicated audience. They are under-appreciated by most independent authors, because most writers have no idea how to effectively market their work, and thus fail to see book reviewers as what they are: hubs, trusted by pre-established audiences, that directly influence awareness and conventional opinion of a writer’s work.
Norton then attacks the idea that book reviewers should be giving it away for free.
Many reviewers read and write for free, under the insecure belief that admitting that they’re professional critics detracts from their credibility—but I think this is the wrong mentality. As written: time and energy are resources that reviewers deserve to be paid for, especially if that reviewer is going to be a critical factor in determining whether or not a writer’s work sinks or swims in the market.
He acknowledges that there will be charlatans, but we all know that they already exist. But he emphasizes that if a reviewer is completely honest and transparent, then there's no reason why one shouldn't proceed in this direction.

Paid reviews are still controversial. The members of the Podler Staff debated it via email a few years ago, ultimately deciding not to do it. And a few years before that, Podler wrestled with the idea of doing it. He later rescinded that decision, but the dissenters on his staff had already quit.

Besides the complications brought up by money versus integrity, there's the problem with indie author budgets. Indie authors typically don't have a lot of money to spend on their book—although some don't spend anything. The smart author will hire an editor to proofread her work and a designer to handle her cover. Even if she finds affordable options, she's likely to spend a few hundred dollars (typically more) on those two. Coming up with money for marketing, whether it be for banner ads or book reviews, may be asking too much. As most indie authors sell less than a hundred copies of their book, getting that return on their investment may be a tall order.

From a reviewer's perspective, I appreciate Norton's acknowledgement for what we do. In just a few years, I've seen many a "labor of love" run its course. The blogosphere is littered with dead book review blogs. People burn out. The demands of family and work and other real world matters take priority. Free books are wonderful, but you can't redeem them for diapers or use them to pay the electric bill. Of course, only a select few might be able to review enough books to make any sort of living from it. I'm not one of those people. Still, I wonder if some kind of hybrid system could be achieved.

I think that the Self-Publishing Review has a good system in place. They offer a variety of packages based on one's budget. From my perspective it looks like a lot of work, but it seems to be working for them.

What if this blog offered "fast track" book reviews? I admit that we're slow; we're down to one book per month. It might go a little faster if I didn't take on 500+ page behemoths. But if I were to be paid to review books, then I'd have justification to spend my whole day reading. I do that now with proofreading and editing. The turnaround time would be vastly improved: 4-8 hours/day reading instead of 1. We'd churn out a lot more book reviews. For those not willing to pay, I'd leave the free option open, but they'd have to wait the usual month or so for their review.

But what about integrity? No one complains about The New York Times reviewers. Is it because they're paid by the newspaper and not by the publisher? Probably. In general, we don't like to give out bad reviews. We pre-screen books, hence the first three chapters request. Books that have major grammatical and structural issues automatically get rejected. That wouldn't change. We only read books in genres we like; I wouldn't start reading paranormal romance novels even if you paid me. We point out the flaws, and we'd have to still do that. Ultimately, you would have to decide if we retained our integrity.

We have no immediate plans to adopt a paid reviews program. This is just me thinking out loud. After 5+ years, I'm burning out on reviewing indie books (my traditionally published TBR pile is now too big and I've missed out on a lot of good books), and I know others here have as well (Note the shrinking "current contributor" list). We can't seem to attract new reviewers despite our flexible rules. Why join someone else's blog when you can start your own? We've had people do both, which I see as a value add. Maybe a cash incentive is in order. Or is it a slippery slope? I don't know. I do know that there's a good chance that we're going to go on long term hiatus, and based on other blogs that have done that...well, they tend to make that hiatus permanent.

\_/
DED

Image Credit: boydlogan.wordpress.com

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Ethnic Albanians Need Not Apply by Nathan Shumate

Book cover for Ethnic Albanians Need Not ApplyPlumbing the depths of forgotten illustrations as grist for the mill, the cult webcomic CheapCaffeine.net is here presented in its first print collection. These first 300 cartoons introduce running gags and recurring characters—the Martian, the Egyptian embalmers, and of course the irrepressible Grievance Gorilla—in a daily dose of surreal, postmodern wit. And now, in semi-permanent dead tree format, accompanied by behind-the-scenes factoids and a smattering of bonus content!!1!, these moments of ephemeral non-sequitur humor can be gifted to luddite relatives, ensconced on the back of the toilet, or placed in studied casualness on a coffee table to impress attractive houseguests!

CheapCaffeine is a webcomic written by Nathan Shumate, a very busy man. Besides providing a new comic every weekday, he publishes Lousy Book Covers.com (a showcase of how not to make book covers), hosts CoverCritics.com (crowdsourced constructive criticism for book covers), designs book covers through Thrifty Book Covers, and is the captain of small press, ColdFusionMedia, where he publishes his work and anthologies featuring other authors. With such a full plate, how does he find the time to draw a comic? Well, he doesn't. He's turned the artwork duties over to the public domain. CheapCaffeine is built upon old illustrations from newspapers and other sources which have been digitally scanned and thrown on the Web.

As XKCD and Tree Lobsters have shown, one does not need complex drawings or even original images to have a successful comic. It's all about content and context. Could Shumate have drawn the strip from scratch? Sure. But instead, he's hit upon a great idea: Use old images from yesteryear and juxtapose historical settings with modern problems to bring the funny. For example, an illustration of a Victorian era couple in the study becomes the visual basis for a wife complaining to her husband about his credit card charges to "hoochieworld.com".

I think it will appeal to those who appreciate Monty Python. A lot of the humor makes use of absurd situations and a knowledge of contemporary culture and government without being partisan or political. Some examples: Senator Bear makes the suggestion that the country should adopt the honey standard, a Martian rates Earth's best food (hint: Dr. Oz would not approve), and the Brotherhood of Mad Scientists gets harassed by a government inspector for health and safety violations.

I'm going to stop here. Writing about humor can be so unfunny that it can ruin what it seeks to praise. And that's the last thing I want to do, besides hang out with Grievance Gorilla. So, to learn more about Ethnic Albanians Need Not Apply, visit the publisher's book page or check out the comic online.

NOTE: The reviewer purchased this book.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Book Excerpt: Citizen Magus by Rob Steiner

A few weeks ago, we revealed the cover for Citizen Magus, the first book in a new series by Rob Steiner. Today, Steiner has granted us permission to reveal the first chapter of the story. Enjoy!



Book cover for Citizen MagusCITIZEN MAGUS
by Rob Steiner


CHAPTER ONE

My name is Remington Blakes, but people in 6 B.C. Rome call me Natta Magus.

Why?

For starters, I am a fully trained, licensed, and insured magus from twenty-first century Detroit in the American Union. Second, I needed to feed myself somehow after I got stranded in ancient Rome, so I set up my own magus shop on the Aventine Hill. What Roman would hire Remington when they could hire (cue epic echo) Natta Magus. It means something like "artisanal wizard" in Latin, so I guess you could call it a marketing decision. But there were times like now, running through Rome's crowded streets on my way to stop a magical murder, that I wondered if there were safer ways to earn money. Like joining the legions.

Gaius Aurelius Vitulus, my Praetorian friend—perhaps my only friend in Rome—stopped ahead and gave me an impatient frown. I once saw him make a corrupt quaestor spill his guts with just that frown. He was a few inches shorter than my six-foot two-inch frame, but he had the intimidating build of a twenty-something man who spent the last ten years in the legions. When I caught up to him, he said, "The sun is setting, and we're still a mile from the temple."

"I'm going as fast as I can," I growled. "These damned sandals are killing me." Eighteen months in Rome and I still longed for the rubber-soled sneakers I wore back home.

"Your dawdling will kill Celsus Maximus," Vitulus grunted, and began weaving his way again through the crowds and labyrinthine Roman alleys.

Vitulus was dressed like any other citizen of the equestrian social rank—a white woolen tunica with two narrow, vertical red stripes down the sides—but his bearing and the well-used, pearl-handled gladius on his belt made the crowds part for him. The gladius was a gift from his father upon his ascension to manhood on his fourteenth birthday. I once asked Vitulus why he didn't brush the stains off the pearl handle, and he said that the stains remind him the gladius was a tool and not a bauble. I tried not to think of how many men he'd killed with it during his days in the legions.

I'd known Vitulus for about a year, and all I can tell you is that by contemporary Roman standards, he's a huge Boy Scout. He values honor above all other virtues, always keeps his promises, will fight to protect the innocent, but won't hesitate to kill his enemies. A year ago I had helped Vitulus and his boss, Praetorian Prefect Salvius Aper, with a "delicate matter" involving supernatural forces. They'd come to me ever since with more "delicate matters" that gods-fearing Romans didn't want to believe in.

Take the case of Celsus Maximus, the famous gladiator whose murder we were racing to prevent. Now I abhor slavery like anyone from my time, so when Vitulus came to me for help in finding Celsus, I turned him down. I had hoped that Celsus had escaped the bloody gladiatorial games that Romans loved. But then Vitulus told me that a clay tablet had been left in Celsus's empty quarters. It said that Celsus would be killed unless "Remington Blakes, the one you call Natta Magus," shows up alone at the Temple of Sterquilinus outside the Porta Ostiensis by sundown. It warned of dire consequences if I brought anybody with me.

Well that piqued my interest. Only two people in ancient Rome knew my real name. Vitulus was one. The other was the all around bastard who abandoned me in ancient Rome in the first place, my former friend and mentor from the twenty-first century, William Pingree Ford. He'd been using his magus powers in Rome over the last eighteen months to try and change history, and I'd done my best to clean up his messes. But he always stayed a few moves ahead of me. I had to catch him, so I could not only stop him but make him send me home.

Was it a trap? Maybe. He'd passive aggressively tried to kill me last year by sicking daemons on me, though I think that was more to distract me from his real plot to kill Caesar Augustus. I stopped him, but that's another story.

No, this was the best lead I'd had on him in months, and I couldn't ignore it.

Which is what worried me.

"I don't understand how Celsus could be captured," Vitulus said as I came even with him again. "He's a cunning warrior."

I dodged a flock of sheep heading to the Forum and blinked the sweat out of my eyes. My Detroit Wolverines baseball cap, which helped me focus my magic, was soaked in sweat from my jog through Rome's stifling and close streets.

"Magic beats might every time, my friend," I said. "If William is behind this, then Celsus may not have had a chance. We need to—"

I stubbed my open toe on a stray rock and unleashed a string of modern curses. Vitulus eyed me with amusement.

"Is that how you curse in 'Anglish'?" he asked.

"English," I said, limping next to him. "Latin curses don't feel as good." And I hope I'm not here long enough for them to do so. "As I was saying, we need to figure out why William would kidnap Celsus of all people and use him to lure me to this temple."

"If your former mentor wants to kill someone famous," Vitulus said, barely breathing hard, "he couldn't have found anyone more famous than Princeps Augustus himself. Celsus has over a hundred kills in the arena in just the last year alone. He rarely ever gets wounded, and he's refused the wooden sword of freedom four times. He's the most remarkable gladiator in over a generation."

Listening to Vitulus rattle off Celsus's kills reminded me how I'd rattle off the stats of my favorite Wolverine ball players. It was kind of disgusting and once again illustrated the huge cultural gulf between my friend and I.

"Yeah, well, a good sword arm is no match against a well-formed sleeper spell," I said.

We rounded the corner and almost ran into a wedding party. The bride's father, dressed in a brilliant white toga, led the procession. Female slaves marched behind him and in front of the bride, throwing multi-colored flower petals at her feet. A deep-yellow veil covered her head, and she wore a white robe bound at the waist with a woolen belt. Her attendants and family marched behind her, likely on their way to the groom's house and the next stage of their ceremony.

These processions were common in Roman streets, and my heart cracked a little each time I saw one. I had missed my own wedding in the twenty-first century two months ago. I'm trying, Brianna, I thought. All my will and focus is bent on getting home to you. I missed her so much that I saw her reflection in every pool of water I passed. Her long brown hair always pulled back in a ponytail; her circular, wire-framed spectacles perched on the end of her nose; sparkling green eyes; mischievous grin; the goose flesh on her soft skin when I touched—

Focus, I had to focus. Daydreaming about Brianna had almost killed me during my recent jobs with Vitulus.

We passed the procession and stepped onto the brick-layered Via Ostiensis, where I felt like I could breathe again. For an empire renowned for its efficient roads and imperial administration, the Mother City was a maze of meandering, claustrophobic alleys and haphazardly built wood and brick tenements. Even native Romans got lost if they tried navigating the unlit streets at night.

"Have you given more thought to my invitation?" Vitulus asked as we continued jogging.

I winced, expecting this after passing the wedding. "Still thinking about it."

"What's there to think about? It's my wedding. I'm meeting Claudia's family tomorrow to negotiate guests, so I want to add your name to that list. I don't know about your Detroit, but here in Rome it's considered an insult to refuse a wedding invitation, especially from a friend."

Oh, it's insulting in my time, too, I thought. But how could I explain to him that passing a stranger's wedding procession made me want to sit in my shop all day writing sad poetry and sighing. Watching a friend get married would be a figurative gladius shoved into my heart.

"I know, and you deserve an answer," I said. I licked my lips. "I have to decline. You know I can't make any oaths that would tie me to this century or it'll be all the more difficult for me to get back home. Accepting a wedding invitation is an implied oath that I will be at a certain place at a certain time. What happens if I discover a way to get home tomorrow?"

Vitulus gave an exasperated laugh. "Then I'll release you from your 'oath'!"

"Yes, but what if you're not around to do that? I can't take that chance. I'm sorry."

Vitulus continued jogging in silence, his teeth clenched.

Accepting a wedding invitation wasn't considered an Oath with a capital "O" in any magus class I'd ever passed. Only strong Oaths, like marriage vows might keep me here longer than I wanted. I'd even turned down Salvius Aper's clientela offer, essentially giving me a full-time job in the Praetorian Guard, because I'd have to swear oaths to serve him that might conflict with my Oaths. Swearing an Oath is like putting a tattoo on your soul. It's there for life. Sure there are ways to remove it without fulfilling it, but they hurt like hell. So if you even think you might not follow through with an Oath, it was best not to swear it in the first place. If I went back to the twenty-first century without fulfilling it, my aura would be forever tarnished, and then good luck finding a job or making another friend again.

So even I knew my excuse was lame.

We exited the Porta Ostiensis on the south side of Rome and jogged another half-mile before stopping. Vitulus pointed to a hilltop with a small circular building on top. It was a few hundred yards away and surrounded by plowed grain fields. The building had a red-tiled roof and square windows that ran along the entire circumference. It looked more like a tool shed than a temple.

"The Temple of Sterquilinus," he said, "the god of fertilization. Most people go to the Temple of Ceres these days, so it's fallen into disrepair."

"So he's the god of manure?"

Vitulus shrugged, and then said, "I still think it's foolish for you to go alone."

"Probably," I said. I mentally checked the enchantments that held my ball cap to my head and my components belt around my waist were set. The familiar tingle in my hairline and my hips said they were. "But the letter said he'd kill Celsus if I didn't come alone. And William couldn't have chosen a better spot to ensure my loneliness."

Vitulus's hand tightened on the pearl hilt of his sheathed gladius as he studied the temple. "If you think this is a trap, then why are you going? Why risk your life for a gladiator you've never met?"

"Because this is the best lead I've had on William in months." I put a hand on his shoulder, and he turned his eyes back to me. "And I want to go home."

He nodded reluctantly.

"Besides," I said, "William has had plenty of chances to kill me over the last year and a half. If he wanted me dead, I'd be dead. He wants something else from me."

"Then may Fortuna walk with you," Vitulus said.

I nodded to him, turned my black Wolverines ball cap around so the bill was pointed backwards, and started toward the temple. This prepared my body to cast a spell at a moment's notice.

The Temple of Sterquilinus may have been forgotten, but the manure he represented sure wasn't. It was planting season, so the stench and crunch of desiccated dung beneath my sandaled feet made my nervous walk toward the temple all the more unpleasant. When I arrived at the base of the temple hill, I noticed the walking path that I could've taken from the Via Ostiensis to the temple door.

"Son of a..." I muttered, and then kicked the manure and dirt off my sandals and bare feet. Only a bath later would get them clean. William would just have to deal with my smells.

I walked to the top of the hill, glancing to the west as I did so. A sliver of orange sun still shone above the hilly horizon. I had made it here before sundown. I hoped I wasn't too late for Celsus.

The entry into the temple had no door and was dark. Nothing like an abandoned, spooky temple to raise the hairs on your neck. My Wolverines baseball cap would block my presence from any lurking spirits that might try to feed on my magic, so I wasn't worried about them. It was the living that concerned me, and William in particular. What I said earlier about my belief that he didn't bring me here to kill me was well reasoned...until my lizard brain threw spark grenades at that logic.

Maybe he's tired of you stopping his plots and wants to kill you now in the middle of a manure-sown field. Maybe he's finally lost what's left of his mind. He admitted in our last meeting months ago that he wanted to erase the knowledge of magic from twenty-first century humanity. In my future, magic was ubiquitous and powered the world; erasing it would plunge the world into a dark age that I couldn't imagine. For someone who wanted to do that, murdering a former student wasn't too far-fetched.

Well I wouldn't get any answers by standing outside soaking up manure reek. I marched through the open entry and into the dark temple.

The meager light from the windows and a second open entry across from me helped me see a dozen wood benches surrounding a stone altar in the middle. A large man with a shaved head wearing a brown tunica stood before the altar with his back to me. That was not William, unless he'd grown three inches and put on fifty pounds since I last saw him.

"Celsus Maximus?" I asked, my eyes scanning the rest of the empty room.

A throaty chuckle came from the large man. I shifted my eyes to him and every cell in my body seemed to ice over. There was something terribly wrong with him.

"That is not my name," the man said in a Germanic accent. "The Romans gave me that name when they enslaved me."

He turned around. I first noticed the small body he held in his massive arms. It was a dark-haired girl, no more than thirteen. Her face looked serene, but the left side of her neck was a jagged mess of dark red flesh, muscle, and exposed white bone. A second girl lay near the man's feet. She was younger than the first and her eyes were closed, but I saw no wounds and she was still breathing.

My eyes fled from the two girls to the man's face. His entire mouth and chin were bright red, and his teeth were impossibly large, gray, and jagged. "My name is Octric," he said, "and I no longer kill for the pleasure of a Roman mob." Blood oozed from between his teeth when he grinned. "Now I kill for my own pleasure."

©2015 Rob Steiner

To learn more, check it out on Amazon.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Book Excerpt: Shattered by M. Terry Green

Book cover for ShatteredLast Monday, we revealed the cover for Shattered, the third book in the Chronicles of White World series from M. Terry Green. This week, Green has granted us permission to reveal a sample of the story. Enjoy!

Shattered by M. Terry Green

“What's wrong with your father?” Thirteen asked.

As usual, Miyu stood tucked against her side. Although the eight-year-old was small, there was barely room at the bow for one person. She wore a parka, three layers of thermals, and goggles to stay warm, but still preferred the wind to the comfort of the cockpit. Turning the opening of her hood to face aft, she looked at her father.

As he had since they’d taken the slaver sloop, Cord piloted the ship. Thirteen hadn’t questioned it. Her eyesight was needed forward. Though the trimaran was iceworthy, it had no sounding buoy. Without the sound and flag warning system, any vasses that lay ahead would have to be sighted. While Thirteen waited for Miyu’s answer, she continued to scan. Although the freezing air was crisp and clear, visibility was limited. This close to the volcano, the fractured plateau allowed views of several clicks, not hundreds. Cord steered the sloop around jagged, tilted, and towering blocks of ice. Even the surface they sailed on was veined with cracks. Like most ships on the Pacifica Sheet, the trimaran’s heavy steel blades were made for speed, not the sharp inclines and drops of a direct course.

Although slavers, not Skulls, would be their worry now, Thirteen scanned for them out of habit. Her eyes lingered on the volcano.

“I think Papa is mad,” Miyu said.

Thirteen frowned and considered Miyu’s face. Where Cord’s was long and angular, hers was heart-shaped and full, chin and nose small beneath her big dark eyes. But with the amber lenses hiding them, it was hard to read her.

“Why would he be mad?”

Miyu’s only answer was a little grimace and a shrug.

Thirteen returned her gaze to the ice, but her thoughts stayed with Cord. This was quiet even for him. The closer they got to Helado, the more he stopped talking. But why mad?

The lopsided slopes of the volcano were so close that Thirteen had to look up. If Cord could add another few knots, even with the tight steering, they might make port this evening. But without asking, Thirteen knew he wouldn’t try. He was far too cautious.

Through the two light layers of thermals over her chest, she touched her sister’s silver pendant. Tomorrow would be the day—tomorrow morning by the look of it. Thirteen couldn’t help but smile. Sierra was in Helado.

Where in the city, Cord seemed to know, though he had yet to say. But even if he’d named a certain district, a street, or even a location, none of it would have meant much. All Thirteen knew of Helado was slave processing and the coliseum. Once upon a time, they had been her whole world.

As the volcano loomed, the mounting dread of it did too. Though time in the hold of a slaver ship had been daunting, the volcano was where the true nightmare had begun: her separation from Sierra, branding, and sale. It was different now, but she would have to be on guard. It was swarming with sailors. She would have to wear a cap and goggles at all times, and never look anyone in the eye.

But at the same time, the weight of years was about to lift. She would rescue her sister, take her from the life of slavery Thirteen had escaped long ago. How many volcanoes, miles, and slavers had come between them, she couldn’t remember. But it was all ending here, where it had begun.

The scar between her shoulder blades tightened, but she shook it off. She tilted her head left and cracked her neck, then right.

The mainsail and headsail alternately billowed and flapped as Cord maneuvered the sloop. They zigged and zagged between frosty, sculpted columns, precariously perched boulders, and aqua-tinged pyramids. But at times they sailed due east. In the late afternoon, the trimaran threw its long silhouette out in front, the mast’s thin shadow pointing like a needle. The blotchy sails had held up. Their mottled, ghost shades undulated over the fractured ice. They just needed to last another day.

“Half a day,” Thirteen muttered.

“What?” Miyu asked.

Thirteen smiled down at her upturned face. “Nothing.”

Miyu’s faint eyebrows gathered together for an instant, but only for an instant. Her ready smile spread—until she shivered.

“You’d be warmer in the cockpit,” Thirteen said, her white hair buffeted by the gale that drove them. She knew better than to suggest Miyu go below. Neither of them wanted to be there.

In response, Miyu hugged her around the middle. No longer caught off guard, Thirteen smiled and patted her back the way she’d seen Cord do. She glanced at him, manning the helm.

Back at the Skull depot, he’d been right to pick this ship. Though the sloop hadn’t been able to fly, it’d been sturdy. With any luck it would blend into slaver traffic as they neared the volcano. It had all worked out. Thirteen scowled as she returned to scanning.

What did he have to be mad about?

• • • • •

Cord judged the sky’s dimming light. There was another hour of sailing at most. Off the bow, a few points north of east, the damned volcano soared. It dominated the landscape, demanding to be looked at. The jagged spires of its wrecked rim jutted skyward, a mix of jet-black basalt and gleaming ice. Though he couldn’t see it, the city of Helado waited on its irregular and sheltered slope. They had yet to sight it and also yet to be detected. He could still turn around, veer off north or south, away from what waited there.

Thirteen took that moment to glance back at him. He went stock-still. But it wasn’t her silvery irises or their reflection of the setting sun that gave him pause. It was her smile. As Miyu hugged her and Thirteen turned away, Cord went cold inside, with a chill that bordered on numb.

Again he glared at the volcano. He had to do this—and not just for her.

Though it was the last place in all of White World he’d wanted to see again, it would have to be. He owed Thirteen his daughter’s life. This was his end of the bargain, and it was time that it was delivered. It was almost past time. Only by the slimmest of margins had they escaped the slaver fleets. Though Cord couldn’t deny Thirteen’s knack for survival, someone would inevitably catch up. He glanced aft.

Though the enormous vasse and devastated plateau lay far behind, a pursuer might yet appear. While Thirteen looked ahead, Cord couldn’t stop glancing behind. He had to assume the slavers had survived.

Another hour of sailing wouldn’t amount to much distance, but he would take every advantage he could. Thirteen’s luck wouldn’t hold forever. His had already come to an end.

©2015 M. Terry Green

To learn more, visit Terry's website.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Cover Reveal: Shattered by M. Terry Green

M. Terry Green has revealed the third cover in her Chronicles of White World series, Shattered. The series takes place in the distant future whereupon an ice age has buried our civilization. Humanity has survived, but it's as cold as the environment that it lives in.

Book cover for Shattered

As with the other covers in this series, it was created by Tom Edwards.

To learn more about this book and the rest of the series, please visit Green's website.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Boys by Scott Semegran

book cover for BoysThese are the stories of three boys living in Texas: one growing up, one dreaming, and one fighting to stay alive in the face of destitution and adversity. There's second-grader William, a shy yet imaginative boy who schemes about how to get back at his school-yard bully, Randy. Then there's Sam, a 15-year-old boy who dreams of getting a 1980 Mazda RX-7 for his sixteenth birthday but has to work at a Greek restaurant to fund his dream. Finally, there's Seff, a 21-year-old on the brink of manhood, trying to survive along with his roommate, working as waiters and barely making ends meet. These three stories are told with heart, humor, and an uncompromising look at what it meant to grow up in Texas during the 1980s and 1990s.

The collection opens with Wiliam's story, "The Great and Powerful, Brave Raideen". It's a short story with a predictable plot element, but it's nicely done. The characters are honestly portrayed; the dialogue genuine. It demonstrates the dual fickle-forgiving nature of children and the power of play.

Sam's story, "Good Night, Jerk Face", comes next. It's a novelette that ends rather abruptly. Semegran builds up the tension between Sam and his parents over Sam's desire to buy the car of his dreams, but it just fizzles out. There's also the potential for conflict between Sam and his boss over the restaurant's delivery van, but that too gets shrugged off. The title of this story implies some kind of confrontation. While Semegran explains who says it, we never find out why. To his credit, Semegran does a good job at capturing adolescent anxiety—learning how to drive, talking to girls, working menial jobs.

The remainder and bulk of the book is "The Discarded Feast". Seff and his roommate, Alfonso, work at a chain restaurant barely getting by on their meager earnings. The story covers their adventures at work and outside of it. A good deal of their free time is spent smoking cigarettes, drinking cheap beer, and wondering if they'll be able to come up with the money for next month's rent. If it were a movie, it could serve in a double feature with Waiting, but the characters are far more realistic.

This isn't so much a story you get wrapped up in for plot; the events pertaining to the story's title make up a fraction of the content. Rather, you tune in for the characters. Everyone has a story, and the people that Seff meets tell him their stories. Some are more interesting than others. I get the feeling that these are people that Semegran met when he was Seff's age, and he felt compelled to honor them by relating their stories here.

Boys is a collection of stories that reads more like a fictionalized memoir. It would've benefited from a run through by an editor to draw a bit more focus in content and to clean up the grammatical mistakes (mostly comma usage). Semegran gets points for realistic characters even if the book falls short on the storytelling.

Scott Semegran is also the author of The Meteoric Rise of Simon Burchwood and The Spectacular Simon Burchwood. For more information about these works, check out the author's website.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Cover Reveal and Kindle Scout Campaign for Citizen Magus

Rob Steiner has started a new series: the Journals of Natta Magus.

Book cover for Citizen Magus

Here to tell us more about the book and its Kindle Scout campaign is Rob Steiner.

I’m really excited to announce a Kindle Scout campaign for my new novel, Citizen Magus.

Remington Blakes, a magus from a 21st century where magic powers the world, has a big problem. His former mentor, William Ford, stranded him in ancient Rome without a memory as to how or why. Well a guy has to eat, so he’s forced to eke out a living as a magus-for-hire among Rome’s plebeians. But when Ford conjures daemons to kidnap a senator’s young daughter, Remi tracks him to the Germanic frontier to not only rescue the child, but learn the terrible secret behind why he left Remi in Rome.

The campaign works like this: Readers can nominate my book for a publishing deal with Kindle Press. If Kindle Press picks up my book, your nomination will earn you a free copy once it’s published. The more nominations I get, the better my chances for a deal and a free ebook for you.

Nominating is easy, quick, and a great way to support new authors (check out the other campaigns on the Scout site, too). Please see my campaign page for more details.

Thanks in advance for your support!