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.]

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Best of 2013

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 it was reviewed here on the blog.

Here are the winners for 2013:

Erin: I'm going to go with Realmgolds by Mike Reeves McMillian. It's everything that a reader could want in a steampunk novel. It combines politics, innovation, social unrest and the fight for basic freedoms in a compelling story. And the books in the series are even better.
Black Book Rob: Black Book: Volume 1 by Dylan Jones, is my pick for the best of 2013. It had a cool blending of genres (Western, sci-fi, and fantasy) that you don't often see in traditionally published books. However, be aware that it's a serial novel made up of three "episodes." You'll need to buy future volumes to learn the characters' ultimate fates.

A Calculated Life - Original CoverDED: It should come as no surprise that my selection for the best book of 2013 is Anne Charnock's A Calculated Life. It is an excellent character study of a young augmented woman named Jayna who works for a global trends analytical firm. Her journey of self-discovery is what makes this story. Charnock deftly bonds the reader to Jayna by granting us unfettered access to her mind, thus making us her mute confidant.

Since my review, the novel was picked up by 47 North, Amazon Publishing's speculative fiction division, and nominated for the 2013 Philip K. Dick Award.

We reviewed 24 stories last year and rejected over 170. Considering that we were closed for seven months, that's still a fair amount of submissions.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Mondays With Mephistopheles: 9am-Rhys by Dan O'Brien

Mondays With Mephistopheles: 9am-RhysMondays With Mephistopheles: 9am-Rhys is a short story written by Dan O'Brien. It covers one session Dr. Abraham Rogers—he insists his patients call him Abe—has with one patient, Rhys.

You can probably guess from the title that Abe's patients aren't the regular human kind. However, through this session we learn that even supernatural beings have their hangups and need the help of a psychologist.

Abe and Rhys have a clever exchange. Abe tries his best to get Rhys to come out of his shell while Rhys resists. Rhys counters with his acerbic outlook on humanity and modern culture, particularly with its unhealthy obsession with his kind.

O'Brien's writing is solid. His characterization is splendid. But all that being said, this piece doesn't work for me as a standalone story. It reads like a chapter in a book. There is no resolution; the session ends and so does the story. I re-read the story twice just to make sure I didn't miss anything. While I liked the story, ultimately I was left unsatisfied. It needs to be in a book either about Abe's patients or one resolving Rhys's dilemma. But I would read either book.

Mondays With Mephistopheles: 9am-Rhys is available from Amazon. You can learn more about the author and his works through his website.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Mainstream Praise for an Indie Author

A Calculated Life - 47North coverThe 2013 Philip K. Dick Award nominees were announced on Friday. Have a look at the first book on the list. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Nah, I can't wait.

Readers of this blog will recall that A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock was reviewed here last year. Several weeks later, it was picked up by 47North, Amazon's publishing imprint. And now, it's been nominated for the prestigious Philip K. Dick Award. Congratulations, Anne!

Anne's success is yet more proof that indie authors should not be shunned merely because they lack the backing of a traditional publisher. I don't deny that indie publishing is a veritable haystack full of poorly edited manuscripts and lousy covers, but there are needles, make that diamonds, that can be found.


Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Girl in the Photo by Wally Wood

Surgeon Robert Emmerling’s death at age 86 in The Girl in the Photo’s opening chapter serves as a catalyst for a series of discoveries by his two children. While clearing out their father’s home, David and Abbie find a memoir he had written about being stationed in Japan during the Korean War, years before he met their mother. It describes his involvement with Masami, a woman he met there. David and Abbie also turn up Masami’s photograph and a letter she had written to Dr. Emmerling after he returned to the U.S. This previously unknown episode in their father’s life raises questions for the siblings: Why did the romance end, and what happened to Masami afterward?

The novel draws the reader into this family’s story through plot elements that span past and present-day action. In the present, Abbie and David deal with their grief, pursue the truth about Masami and try to resolve dilemmas in their personal lives. But the past mingles freely in the form of frequent flashbacks to the siblings’ childhood and the memoir, whose chapters are interspersed with the main text of the novel.

During the events described in his memoir, Dr. Emmerling exhibits some of the same qualities he did while raising David and Abbie. Central to his character is the tendency to pass judgment on others. His memoir recounts Dr. Emmerling’s efforts to discourage a fellow military doctor from marrying his Japanese girlfriend. He enumerated various reasons for his objections to their marriage, such as cultural differences and the prejudice that a Japanese wife and children would be subjected to in the U.S. during the 1950s. He concluded, “Face it – marrying a Japanese woman is taking someone from a third-world country and expecting her to make it in a first-world country.”

David and Abbie’s recollections also depict a judgmental, controlling man who made his children feel inadequate. David recalls the confrontation in which he told his father that he didn’t have what it took to continue with his pre-med studies.
Dad wouldn’t let that pass. “Of course you’re good enough. You’re smart enough. You’re not trying hard enough. You’ve got to try harder.”

David looked to his mother at the other end of the dining room table for understanding and support. “I am trying! I’ve been trying all year. I just can’t do it.”

“You’re not stupid, David,” said Dad. “I refuse to believe you can’t pass second semester chemistry.”

Abbie too has memories of unsavory aspects of her father’s personality. She had been selected to perform in a school musical, but his reaction shocked Abbie, who remembers,
He said, “I understand you want to sing a duet in public with that colored student.” I didn’t know what to say. He never paid any attention to what I was doing in school. “You may not,” he announced. “I absolutely forbid it.” … I was crushed. I couldn’t believe my own father was so prejudiced. I probably said something like, ‘”Why?” He wouldn’t look at me. “I’m your father,” he said. “As long as you live in my house, you’ll do what you’re told. The subject is closed.”

On the other hand, the memoir illuminates aspects of their distant, unemotional father’s character that David and Abbie never knew existed. It reveals him to be capable of tenderness, rage and confusion – things they did not witness while growing up. Describing how he feels when he’s with Masami, Dr. Emmerling writes in his memoir,
At these moments, I feel as if I’ve briefly come truly alive. This is the only reality I crave. Not the hospital. Not the operating room. Certainly not the war and the endless train of wounded GIs. Not whatever is to come after this time – the States, a hospital affiliation, a career, a wife, children, a home, two cars, country club membership. None of that could ever be as real as this.

Further muddying the waters are flashbacks in which Dr. Emmerling unexpectedly behaved with great kindness toward those in trouble. As a result, he initially appears to the reader as a man rife with inexplicable inconsistencies. But through the shifts between present and past, the author gradually assembles the various pieces of the puzzle that is Dr. Emmerling’s life. Behavior that seemed incomprehensible earlier in the book makes sense in the context of subsequent revelations. Along with David and Abbie, the reader comes to an understanding of a complex man whose character was indelibly marked by the profound experience he had in Japan.

This novel’s greatest strength is its characterizations. Dr.Emmerling emerges as a flawed, often unlikable but fully realized human being. The reader can easily imagine how he might react in any situation. The characters of Abbie and David are also painstakingly constructed. The reader learns about their relationships, their careers, their triumphs and their disappointments. Their father’s influence reverberates in their lives, and the reader can trace his impact on their choices.

The memoir’s descriptions of Korean-War-era Japan and its denizens are richly detailed and effectively transport the reader to another time and place. In some sections of the book, however, the level of detail about Japanese culture is somewhat excessive, and readers may find their interest flagging through these passages.

Overall, The Girl in the Photo is an absorbing tale whose characters remain vivid in the reader’s memory long after the closing chapter.

This book is available from Amazon.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Collegium Sorcerorum: Thaddeus of Beewicke by Louis Sauvain

It is a summer of the Dark Ages when an old vagabond appears in Beewicke offering the parents of the boy, Thaddeus, the promise of a fine education and a trade for their son. Gold exchanges hands and the stranger and the boy go off in the old man's cart, pulled by the sentient mule, Asullus.

On the journey, he is joined by two others recruited by their new Master—Anders of Brightfield Manor, a scholar, and Rolland of Fountaindale, a street thief. The three boys are unaware they are all the ultimate descendants of this very same Sorcerer.

Silvestrus begins the instruction of his charges by stating that the use of Sorcery is governed by Belief. If one has the inborn talent and the strength of Belief, one’s desires can take form—assuming any size, any shape and for any purpose. But he also warns them that each use of Sorcery shortens a Sorcerer’s life span by an unknowable quantity. The old man pronounces one last requirement—before he or she can command the use of Sorcery, a youth must first be intimate with a beloved.

Their quest for the College is perilous and on the way they are beset by beasts, brigands, a Demon, a black-haired Courtesan, the King of the Moths, tree fiends, ghost legions and Greensward Aelvae as they seek to achieve their final goal—the ancient and revered Collegium Sorcerorum.

Much in the same vein as The Hobbit, Collegium Sorcerorum: Thaddeus of Beewicke is a travelogue.  Louis Sauvain has built a spectacularly detailed world (with maps and illustrations to boot) and he doesn't skip a chance to celebrate it.  He treats the reader to a dark age filled with fairy, demons, and all sorts of magical creations.

Thaddeus finds himself overwhelmed by this world as he has been swept away from Beewicke in order to be trained as a sorcerer by Silvestrus.  He acts very much like what you'd expect from a typical teenager for the most part.  Even though Thaddeus is the main character, Rolland (another apprentice) often steals the show (literally).  He is a great character, almost reminiscent of a young Locke Lamora.

I found myself enjoying the author's use of the Latin language.  So often in fantasy, we are subjected to made-up magical/fantasy languages that really are just bastardized versions of Latin (I'm looking at you, J.K. Rowling!).  Sauvain uses the Latin languages for all things he deems important.  It was a nice little tidbit to have added to the book.

One of my main sticking points was Asullus, the talking mule.  Sauvain gave him a backwoods type dialect that he transcribes onto the page.  While this is nice for flavor every now and again, there are long passages where Asullus just talks and talks and talks and I found myself skipping them only to come back and have to re-read them because Sauvain uses him as an info dump to fill the reader in on the story.

Here's an example of his speeches:

"Hmm.  Well, I see ye'll no' be lettin' me go till I spills it, will ye? All right, but donno' be tellin' the old man where ye heard this. This is just 'tween ye, me, an' the feed bag, aye?..."

This particular speech goes on for twenty or so lines. Asullus isn't the only one who is wordy.  So many times, the characters (especially Silvestrus) repeated the same things in short order.

Another issue that I had was the large cast of characters.  In my opinion, Sauvain wasted too much time on temporary characters who show up for just a couple of paragraphs or a chapter and don't really add anything of value to the story.

The idea that sorcery is connected with sex is an intriguing concept but one that feels out of place in a book that has very much a young adult genre feel to it. Though the actually sex takes place "off camera", so to speak, I feel it is often rushed and handled poorly.

For example, Thaddeus's first sexual encounter happens at the behest of some fairies who "thank" him for saving their queen by getting him drunk and the screen fades to black, but he is too embarrassed to talk about it later with Asullus.

For all its flaws, it was still an interesting read.

Collegium Sorcerorum: Thaddeus of Beewicke is available from Amazon.

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