Wednesday, July 16, 2014

First Stone by Gary Ballard

First StoneForensic psychologist Dr. Jack Carter wakes from a semi-catatonic state in a mental hospital with no memory of the previous year. His wife, Sarah, has disappeared, and as the last human being to see her alive, Jack is the prime suspect in her disappearance. Without a body and with no physical evidence to prove foul play, the lead investigator and Jack's friend, Bill West, must continue to search for the truth even if it means fingering Jack for the crime. When a serial killer in West Virginia's coal country claims to have killed Sarah Carter, Bill and Jack rush to the crime scene. What they find is a deeply disturbed man with no memory of his crimes or of taking credit for Sarah's death. As Jack tries to decipher the mysterious series of runic symbols the killer carved into his slaughter house, he unlocks a deeper cosmic mystery that goes beyond anything he could imagine.

First Stone is the first novella in Gary Ballard's Stepping Stone Cycle, a "modern interpretation of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos." Naturally, I'm curious about all things Lovecraft, including new tales by authors playing in the Master's non-Euclidean sandbox. Of course, should anyone defile that sandbox, I would feel compelled to warn everyone to stay away. Fortunately, that isn't the case here.

The novella opens with Carter waking from his semi-catatonic state. As a nice touch, Ballard has Carter re-discovering his senses and the world around him. He questions the words we attach to objects, the length of time, and his own body. There are elements of knowledge still functioning within his brain, but we don't know if these are all a priori nuggets or the undisturbed bedrock of memory. Either way, slipping back into one's body isn't as simple as getting back on a bike after years away.

A good chunk of Lovecraft's work involved the protagonist setting off on an investigation to uncover the truth to a bizarre circumstance. In this regard, Ballard follows a similar path. His protagonist is a forensic psychologist, a solid choice for going out to crime scenes and dealing with those whose minds may have been damaged by things that dwell in the dark.

Ballard invests a good deal of time developing his characters, and it pays off. You really get to know Carter and root for him to find the answers to Sarah's disappearance. His friendship with Bill plays easy. And Ballard develops the small town West Virginia characters, too. It would've been easy to let them be two-dimensional stereotypes, but Ballard invests in their backgrounds to make their personal stories real.

While Ballard is playing in Lovecraft's sandbox, he doesn't play with his toys in quite the same way. Ballard sticks with his own writing style. Yes, he teases you with a survivor's testimony, has you listen to some preaching about the unfathomable darkness, and flaunts mysterious objects. The obligatory fhtagn and R'lyeh utterances are thrown in, too, but the story flows like a crime drama rather than cosmic horror. It's an interesting twist on presenting Cthulhu Mythos fiction and might serve as a bridge for psychological thriller fans to get a glimpse of the Old Ones.

Like quest fantasies and space opera epics, this isn't a tale that will be wrapped up right away. Patience is the key here. Ballard explains that he's writing the novellas like episodes in a TV series. Short-term mysteries are solved in each novella and clues to the overarching plot (What happened to Sarah Carter?) will be provided as the mystery deepens, but to get it all you'll have to read all of season one (Episode Two was recently released).

All in all, it's an entertaining and quick read. I'm left wondering just how far Ballard intends to go with this series and if he'll deliver the goods at the end of the season. I got the feeling that he was holding back, not wanting to give too much away so soon. But like many a good writer, he dangles the line out far enough to hook you in.

For more information (including sample chapters, series concept, and where to buy the books), visit the author's website.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Cover Critics

Over the last couple of years, I've written about how important it is for an indie author to have a good cover for their book. I've invited several indie authors here to talk about the process they went through to get their covers, whether doing it themselves or hiring a professional. M. Terry Green pointed me in the direction of affordable, professional designers who offer pre-designed and customizable covers—the growing list can be found by clicking on our "Book Cover Designers" tab.

While we've seen a decrease in the number of bad covers submitted here, there seems to be no shortage of lousy covers out there.

So I'm going to throw another resource at you:

Cover Critics

CoverCritics offers a snark-free environment (the host, Nathan Shumate, prohibits it) where indie authors can receive constructive criticism of their book covers before they go to press. I'm heartily recommending that any indie author who designs their own covers, isn't sure about a cover they purchased, or just wants some feedback submit it there (it's free) before publication. When you visit the site, you'll see from the comments what's good or bad about the designs. And actual graphic designers are among the commenters. Even if you're not at that stage yet, you'll learn a lot from what's discussed there.

\_/
DED

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Justice, Inc. by Dale Bridges

Justice, Inc.Imagine a future where orphan children are adopted by international corporations and forced into indentured servitude, where zombie viruses are spread through heterosexual intercourse, where Osama bin Laden is cloned by the thousands for public execution. Welcome to the world of JUSTICE, INC. No one is safe. Nothing is sacred. And all sales are final.

Justice, Inc. is a collection of short stories written by Dale Bridges and published by Monkey Puzzle Press. It is due to be released on June 20th.

All in all, this is a solid collection of 21st century American satire.

"In the Beginning: An Introduction" sets the tone for the collection with Bridges explaining how he came to write these stories. If it's divine inspiration, there's certainly a bit of playful smirking—and possibly spirits—involved.

There are bits of flash fiction that serve as appetizers for the normal length stories. While "Texting the Apocalypse" doesn't have any direct links to "Life After Men", its sniping characters would fit right into the latter story. Shallow, materialistic mean girls maintain their 21st century valley girl identity until the bitter end and would likely commiserate with the protagonist as she bemoans the loss of her purse more than her zombified ex-boyfriend.

"The Villain", another short piece, imagines how a pair of bros who have acquired super powers figure out who the hero is and which guy gets to be the sidekick. It isn't anything you see on the big screen.

Generational discord is an underlying theme in "The Generation Gap", "The Other Ones", and "The Time Warp Café" and each story explores it differently. "The Generation Gap" is playful. "The Other Ones" is sinister. "The Time Warp Café" adds in the dilemmas of immortality. How do you explain youthful rebellion to a new generation of immortals?

In "The Girlfriend™", socially awkward Derrick buys an artificial companion to combat his loneliness. Assembly required.
At first, it felt bizarre to be handling body parts in this manner, like a remorseful psychopath who had chopped up his lover and was now trying to undo the crime.
Bridges deftly manipulates our feelings towards Derrick. Having a girlfriend, even a robotic one, changes him. But as Derrick's outer personality undergoes a transformation, his inner self betrays him.

"Welcome to Omni-Mart" is another story where a man's relationship with artificial life transforms him. Leonard, one of those aforementioned orphans forced into indentured servitude, inherits Peter, an InstaBaby, which is an artificial life form that grows from infant to adult in a single day. Leonard is meek and obedient after growing up at Omni-Mart, not to mention terrified of the world outside (he actually lives in the store). He lives in fear of his bullying boss, Barry, and he pines for fellow orphan, Cynthia. Peter forces Leonard into confronting elements of his self that he's been too afraid to face.

The collection's namesake piece, "Justice, Inc.", is the kernel of Bridges' work. James Hamilton and his wife, Sarah, are struggling to have a child. She lost her brother in 9/11 and sees having a child as the only way to cure her depression. The longer it takes, the worse it becomes, and it's putting a tremendous strain on their marriage. James works for Justice, Inc., a company that provides a unique way for Americans to deal with the sort of grief that comes from national tragedies induced by evil men. And in Dubya's America, it totally makes sense. James uses his job to formulate a solution to his wife's dilemma.

Justice, Inc. lives up to its billing. Dale Bridges has channeled his acerbic vision of American corporate dystopia into enjoyable satire. Of course, it is advised that readers share a similar perspective in order to appreciate Bridges' wit. Those readers bearing any similarity to the characters skewered in these stories will chafe at his spot on portrayals.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Magic’s Heart by Thomas Oliver

If you write about a quest to deliver a magical object to a far-flung destination and thereby save the world from evil, you had better be up to the challenge, for your brave travelers unwittingly toil in the shadows of Frodo and Sam. Thomas Oliver makes a credible foray into this formidable subgenre with Magic’s Heart. This novel’s would-be heroes are a close-knit family whose members each possess a distinct magical talent. Seventeen-year-old Aliya has an affinity for bodies of water and the creatures that inhabit them. Her twin brother Crick has highly developed outdoor skills honed through years of exploring. Their brother Yori, 11, has the most advanced abilities of anyone in the family – he can detect magic and read the thoughts and feelings of others. The remaining family members, including parents Orlando and Siu and grandmother Abetta, each have their own magical specialties.

Yet they live in a region in which magic has come to be suspect. The Darkness is gathering strength, and the leaders in the nearby city of Immelus rely on military might to protect the people of the region. Url, an elderly friend of the family who has dedicated his life to studying the origin of magic, believes that the only way to combat the Darkness is to find the Heart of Magic. After an arduous search of a subterranean cave, Url and the family members find the Heart, which turns out to be a gemstone approximately five feet in diameter. The group formulates a plan to deliver it to a legendary stronghold of magic, the city of Iala. There it would be incorporated into a magical torch on the Tower of Elliad. This torch, in theory, would be a weapon sufficient to defeat the Darkness. As Url explains,

“When the Heart brought Magic into our world, it also, unintentionally I believe – brought something else. Something far worse.  A darkness from beyond our world and our understanding, attracted through the stars to the Magic of the Heart like a terrible moth to the light of a distant flame… it brought the horror around which the Black Wind exists. The true Darkness itself; ever hidden, ever unknown, ever terrible… Sometime after the first Magic was found, the first breaths of the Wind appeared. They started small and isolated, hovering around the borders of our world like wolves around a flock, picking off the weak and unwary. But over the years these breaths grew and came together in one vast storm, engulfing horizons and destroying towns and cities and their peoples within as quick as sound. And all the time it looked inwards, in towards the light. In towards the Heart, seeking it, craving it… The Heart is the key – the only key, beneath us this whole time – to ending the Black Wind! It is the one and only thing which can bring to us the peace our world has lived without for so long! The Heart is our freedom!”

But the group must brave hundreds of miles of wilderness, the Black Wind, and an assortment of other threats to reach their destination. They are joined on their quest by Tarryn, a young guardsman from Immelus, and Aulan, a mysterious, otherworldly outcast.

A quest can be a tedious thing, fraught with empty miles, bad weather, hunger, exhaustion, and often a growing tendency among the travelers (and sometimes the readers) to ask, “Are we there yet?” Magic’s Heart tames the inherent tedium of a long journey by revealing a fully realized world with its own geography, politics, and bestiary. The travelers encounter friends and foes along the way. They enter and quickly retreat from the dead city of Irraigon, devasted by the Black Wind years ago. They sojourn for a time in the Undervalleys, where an entire society dwells underground to avoid the perils of the encroaching Darkness. They meet up with waterfaeries, scarravers (ants the size of wolves, with deadly pincers), and stalkers, which are alchemically altered humans whose wailing paralyzes its hearers with terror.

Throughout their journey, the group struggles to understand the Heart’s capabilities and the role of magic in their world. Magic is not without its pitfalls. A recurring theme is corruption resulting from the lure of magic’s power. Tarryn describes to the others how the leaders of Immelus hoard information about magic: “Any knowledge that’s ever been passed down to the main of the City and the rest of the Heartlands has been sieved and corrupted a hundred times over by the Council… Anything which may benefit them in some way, either then or sometime in the future, they hold back for themselves. There’s so many centuries of history and secrets hidden within the City, they’ve probably forgotten half of it themselves…”

This novel is intended to be the first in a series called The N├║minway Chronicles. There is much to admire in this ambitious opening installment. The author has clearly lived and breathed the world he describes for a very long time, imagining it down to the smallest detail. There are grand concepts and epic struggles, and it’s apparent that much more remains to be revealed about this world in the coming volumes.

The execution, however, is not flawless. Parts of the novel dragged. The chapters describing the search for and retrieval of the Heart of Magic from the cavern are a prime example of this. Another quibble I have is with the character of Yori. He is characterized as possessing the greatest magical talent of anyone in the family, yet he spends significant stretches of time withdrawn and afraid, brooding silently on the growing danger instead of making himself useful. To put it bluntly, I found him annoying. Finally, some of the prose was a bit challenging because of word choice, punctuation, and sentence construction. I think a good editor could make a profound difference.

When the travelers finally reach Iala, the novel really takes off. These final chapters are the strongest in the book. They introduce the most memorable secondary characters, culminate in a satisfyingly cataclysmic conclusion, and effectively set the stage for the sequel.

For more information on Magic's Heart, visit the author's website.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Shadowcursed by Gelo Fleisher

Bolen is a thief, plying his trade under the spires of an ancient and sprawling city. Worried that he's growing too old, Bolen has lined up a risky job, just to prove that he can still pull one off.

Tonight, he's going to break into a nobleman's vault and help himself to its contents. What he doesn't know is that inside is the key to a secret as old as the city itself.

Kings have killed for it, demons have coveted it, priests have prayed for it, and in a few moments it will be in his hands. And when it is, the adventure of his life will begin.


I was drawn in by the protagonist, Bolen. He's a guy in his 40's who realizes that he doesn't have the dexterity or strength that he once had. As a guy in his 40's, I can totally relate to that. Screw all these fantasy novels with young men at the peak of physical shape; let's hear it for the middle-aged guys whose bodies have succumbed to time and gravity!

Credit Fleisher for capturing a man stuck at the moment in his life where he realizes his mortality. Except for a few stints down at the docks, he's been a thief his whole life, an occupation for the young and nimble. He looks around and realizes he has nothing to show for it, save his reputation. While he's been successful enough to still be alive and have all his limbs, he hasn't accrued any kind of savings to cover old age. That assumes he doesn't die in the gutter, penniless and alone. He should move on to something less risky, but the irresistible lure of one more job, one more big payday, beckons him.

And it is this predicament that tears him up inside. After a life of thievery, Bolen is full of regret. Having survived the hubris of youth, he acknowledges that what he does is wrong, but feels powerless to change. He seeks forgiveness from the local church and a way out of the only life he's ever known. He soon discovers that he has become a pawn in the city's power struggle. But even pawns can play a decisive role in the game.

Fleisher skillfully details Bolen's city, paying attention to the places that the common folk inhabit: wharves, churches, taverns, nobles' houses. It is a fully realized world, and apparently there's a video game, too.

Bolen's fate is settled before the end of Shadowcursed. There's no endless series of books to slog through. In fact, Shadowcursed is a novella. Fleisher advances the story at about the right pace, with an appropriate amount of action and intrigue. It isn't all soul searching, though that is the underlying story.

All in all, Shadowcursed is a seldom seen (in fantasy) excellent character study of a middle-aged thief stuck at the crossroads of life. Fleisher constructs a easy to visualize setting with a very real protagonist who must choose between one of the fates dealt to him or craft one of his own.

For more information, including where to buy it, visit the author's blog. Or you can just go straight to Amazon.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Chained by Fear by Jim Melvin

Chained by Fear, book two in Jim Melvin’s Death Wizard Chronicles, begins the story of Laylah, the beautiful sister of the evil sorcerer Invictus.  Invictus has imprisoned Laylah in a magical tower, hoping that she’ll one day become his queen and rule the world of Triken with him. 

Laylah, however, happens to be the sane one in the family.  She’s repulsed at the thought of marrying her own brother, let alone spending her life with a depraved lunatic with god-like powers.  She’s locked away for seventy years—her demon blood gives her long life—before finally escaping with the help of Invictus’s former allies.

While on the run, she meets Torg the Death-Knower, a powerful wizard in his own right.  We last saw Torg in Forged in Death, after he had escaped Invictus’s vile prison and made some roguish friends.  When Laylah and Torg meet, sparks fly.  Literally.  They are drawn to each other in a supernatural passion that neither can explain.  They only know that their fates are entwined and that they will live or die together.

But Invictus has something to say about this.  He unleashes his hideous minions to retrieve Laylah and finally destroy the Death-Knower, the one being in all of Triken that can oppose him.

When you pick up a Jim Melvin novel, you know you’re in for two things:

(1) Melvin excels at world-building.  Triken’s cultures, magic, and monsters all resonate with real-world mythologies.  But Melvin adds unique twists that make them at once familiar and alien. 

(2) Melvin’s Death Wizard Chronicles are adult fantasy.  Make no mistake, this series is far more G.R.R. Martin than J.R.R. Tolkien due to its sexual content and violence.  However, I did not think the sex and violence were gratuitous, and I thought it helped illustrate either the depravity or kindness of the characters. 

Chained by Fear resolves a minor quibble I had with Forged in Death.  Torg was too powerful in book one, and nothing could hurt him unless he allowed it.  It’s the challenge that Superman's writers have dealt with for decades: how do you make readers worry about a character who can’t be hurt? 

Melvin solved this by giving Torg cherished friends.  He may not die if he fails, but his friends surely will, and in gruesome ways.  Torg’s adventures were far more harrowing this time around, and gave him the chance to demonstrate his honor and strength while he protected the people he loves.  Melvin nicely sets up a character in Torg who is the polar opposite of the wicked Invictus.  

And the fact they love the same woman will make their inevitable battle viciously personal.  I’m looking forward to it.

Highly recommended.

Chained by Fear, and the Death Wizard Chronicles, are available on Amazon.


[Note:  Chained by Fear was purchased by the reviewer.]

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Mandragora by H.D. Greaves

Mandragora by H.D. GreavesA ribald and irreverent tale from the Italian renaissance - Add a conniving servant and his amoral master; a murderous priest and his equally homicidal sidekick; an odious mother-in-law; a beautiful but barren wife wed to an ancient attorney; and a potion brewed from the root of the Mandragora, a plant alleged to help women conceive, and you have a prescription for pandemonium, especially when Mandragora (known in less reputable circles as “God’s Little Joke”), possesses a fatal flaw: after a woman drinks the potion, her body becomes a temple of poison. The first man to have sex with her will be dead in seven days. What's a man to do?

Based on Niccolo Machiavelli’s play, The Mandrake, this is a tongue-in-check story of a rake desperate to sleep with a certain woman, a husband desperate for a child, and a wife desperate for control of her own life.  The heart of the novel lies in the question, “Does the end, when a noble one, justify the means, however wicked?”

The story starts with a hanging, and who doesn’t love that?  I’m reminded of another great historical fiction tale that does this well, Pillars of the Earth, which starts (and ends) with a hanging.  This immediately pulls the reader into the setting, and the story making them curious about how these characters got here and how they relate to or foreshadow events surrounding the main characters.  Greaves holds up his end of the bargain, keeping the reader’s attention with one crazy scheme gone wrong after another.

In addition, Greaves expands on the characters in the original play, making them well rounded and more believable rather than the caricatures of the original play.  The servant, Siro, is now the catalyst for Callimaco’s antics rather than just being strung along.  With this transformation of Siro, the need for another facilitator of the plot is now almost non-existent.  So the character of Ligurio (a marriage broker and the “brains” behind the plan in the original play) is instead a downtrodden, almost destitute, filthy con man that Greaves uses to illuminate the darker reality for the non-elites of the time period.

One of the things that I enjoyed most about Greaves’ writing style was his conversational storytelling and his often wink, wink, nod, nod asides to the reader.  Occasionally he would break down the fourth wall to address the reader directly, such as:

“Regrettably, this cannot be said of lechery itself, for since evil was created at the beginning of the world lechery has been an all too common sin (as you and I, being virtuous, know very well).”

While I enjoyed this writing style, it became one of the things that I began to dislike at times.  Greaves had great lines such as:

“A hanging without music is as boring as a Borgia banquet without at least one goblet tainted with poisoned wine.”

But then at times it felt a bit much:

“So pitted by the corrupting hand of Man and so pockmarked by Church dogma, how could it ever be the honest face of The Truth:  Truth unbiased, factual, and as clear as cool water drawn from a deep and unpolluted well."

The supplemental material at the end of the book was almost as interesting as the story itself.  Like many great works of historical fiction, Greaves provides a list of discussion questions for book clubs and reading groups.  I found these questions to invoke thoughtful contemplation.

It is hard to believe that this is H.D. Greaves’ first published novel (he had written several short stories).  Mandragora is a well-written, well-edited, funny, and thoughtful comedic tale that, while it may divert at times from Machiavelli’s play, stays true to the original.

I, personally, am looking forward to his current work in progress: Clizia – A Tale of Scandalous Surprises.

You can learn more about H.D. Greaves and his works at Smashwords.

For more reviews from the Bookworm, stop by the Bookworm's Fancy!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Adam Copeland's Kickstarter

Adam Copeland, fantasy author and friend of the blog, has launched a funding campaign for Ripples in the Chalice, the sequel to his debut opus, Echoes of Avalon, on Kickstarter.

If you read Echoes of Avalon or are a fan of historical fantasy a la Marion Zimmer-Bradley, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Windfall by Colin Dodds

WindfallSeth Tatton is a "middle-of-the-pack attorney" struggling to help his suburban family keep up with the Joneses. Through his firm, he becomes a fixer; he gets things done no matter what the job entails. He's clean, methodical, and a stickler for detail. The opening of Windfall introduces us to Seth and his accomplice, William, while out on a job. Seth is clearly in charge and instructs William to wait in the car while he approaches a target that can help cover up a murder committed by a client. Posing as a police detective, Seth conducts the interview with aplomb. His knowledge of the law enables him to play the part, extracting all the information from the target for Seth to construct the perfect coverup.

Seth's boss is part of a cabal of the wealthy and political elite who are scheming to take control of several western states and secede from the Union. Culled from the political chatter that's out there now, I wouldn't be surprised if it went down like this. The cabal recruits governors, senators, CEOs, assorted VIPs and military figures with the promise of them becoming a cadre of new Founding Fathers. Unburdened by D.C. debt, this new country will be prosperous thanks to an unusual shale oil discovery. All they need to do is put the right people in positions of power and arm the militias. But secret organizations need skilled specialists on the ground to make things happen and that's where Seth comes in.

As Seth completes each assignment, he picks up bits and pieces of the cabal's plan. He's drawn deeper inside the organization and meets the key players and listens to their plans and dreams. Part of him is on board with the plan; part of him questions whether it will lead to a bloodbath.

While it might seem that Seth is a cold-blooded killer, he isn't. He buries his guilt deep down inside with the help of alcohol and something that dwells within him. It was this paranormal element that drew me in and makes this thriller stand out from every other political thriller out there. This entity is his steadfast companion. It suggests courses of action and prods him forward on an amoral path that will see Seth rise to greatness.

Seth is assigned to keep an eye on Sarah, the plaything of a powerful Senator in the cabal. She's a mess and Seth falls for her, much to the chagrin of the thing within him. She threatens to unravel the Gordian Knot that has kept his conscience in check. Dodds could've played the old devil on one shoulder, angel on the other bit but doesn't. Instead, Dodds sends Seth stumbling along a hazy path of morality with a malfunctioning compass that takes him through a maze of airports, hotel rooms and casinos in search of his identity.

While the novel's focus is on Seth and his mysterious companion, Dodds gives us an interesting bunch of characters. Even those that have a bit part to play are well-defined, leaving the reader to wonder if they'll be back for more. But the crux of the novel is the relationship dynamic between Seth and the thing that dwells within him. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about Seth's companion from its point of view and how the two came together. Rather than relying on some cheap cardboard cutout of evil, Dodds crafts a unique being with an intriguing origin story.

Besides some comma issues, my only real complaint would be with the climax. There are three figures that Seth needs to deal with on his journey, but he only handles two of them. The third is taken care of by someone else. I would've liked to have seen him handle all three, but the way the story unfolds it would seem that the logistics weren't possible. While I would've liked to have seen how that went down, considering what that character shared with Seth, I still found the ending satisfying. I don't want to spoil it, but Mr. Dodds and readers of Windfall will know who I am talking about.

Windfall is not your typical political thriller. Dodds deftly weaves in a solid paranormal thread that explores ambition, myth and morality in an indifferent America without resorting to pulpit thumping or cardboard villains. His protagonist wanders through the amoral battleground of the American political class with a spirit guide whose theme song could very well be "Sympathy for the Devil".

For more information about Windfall, check out the author's website.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Tattered Banner by Duncan M. Hamilton


The Tattered Banner by Duncan M. Hamilton is not your typical rags-to-riches fantasy story, but it does start out as one. 

The hero, Soren, is plucked from a starving street urchin’s life by a famous nobleman to attend Ostia’s prestigious Academy of Swordsmanship.  Magic is outlawed in Ostia, so the Duchy’s best and brightest become master swordsmen to move up in society. 

It’s an opportunity that’s too good to be true, and Soren recognizes this.  He becomes the hardest working student at the Academy because he knows that one failure could throw him back on the streets; something his rich, noble classmates don’t have to worry about.  It soon becomes clear that Soren has a magical “Gift” with a blade that enables him to defeat almost anyone he faces despite his limited training.

That’s where the story turns away from the typical hero’s journey.

The Tattered Banner is not about undertaking quests or vanquishing dark lords, but how one young man survives from day to day with only his wits and his Gift.  Soren’s journey throughout the book is like a series of random encounters—something happens to him, he makes a choice, and then he blasts off into a totally new direction.  His adventures are certainly thrilling and had me turning the pages.  I suppose random encounters are what real life is like.

Which leads to my one criticism.  The Tattered Banner is well told, but I felt like there was something missing: an overall goal for Soren to work towards that ties everything together.  Soren simply tries to survive from one unrelated situation to the next.  He has an intriguing magical skill with the sword, but that doesn’t seem to be at the top of his “to do list” to investigate.  I was hoping the book would make that Soren’s overall goal, and show how it conflicted with Ostia’s anti-magic laws.  But it never happened.

Though Soren makes some poor decisions, I still rooted for him, nonetheless.  He never forgets that he was once a starving orphan on the streets, which makes you understand his actions when he does things that are, at best, morally questionable.

The Tattered Banner is book one of a series, so I hope future volumes will explore the mystery of Soren’s magical Gift with the sword.  I did enjoy the book very much because of its action and interesting characters, despite my reservations about the plot structure.  

Highly recommended.

The Tattered Banner is available on Amazon.

[Note: The Tattered Banner was purchased by the reviewer.]