Charming (Pax Arcana #1) – Elliott James

17333338

Summary:

John Charming isn’t your average Prince…

He comes from a line of Charmings — an illustrious family of dragon slayers, witch-finders and killers dating back to before the fall of Rome. Trained by a modern day version of the Knights Templar, monster hunters who have updated their methods from chainmail and crossbows to kevlar and shotguns, he was one of the best. That is — until he became the abomination the Knights were sworn to hunt.

That was a lifetime ago. Now, he tends bar under an assumed name in rural Virginia and leads a peaceful, quiet life. One that shouldn’t change just because a vampire and a blonde walked into his bar… Right?

Review:

Is it too much to ask that a guy named Charming have at least a little bit of charm? Just a touch? I wouldn’t have even minded had James taken the Into the Woods route of “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” Because honestly, he’s got none at all. And when a major subplot of this book is about a flirtation with Sig (the blonde referenced in the summary) and the jealous of her almost-ex, and there is absolutely no chemistry there, that’s a problem. In fact, I felt at arms length from Charming this entire book. As much as I knew his story, I still felt like I didn’t really know him or care about him or about his plight.

It’s a shame too, because I rather like the bones of the book: back during the Black Death a group of elves made a deal with the Knights Templar: protect the humans from the supes of the world and in exchange they got spared. There was definitely some thought put into the piece as James clearly not only knows the base legends around the vampires and the wolves, but also mentions a few tweaks I hadn’t read about before, like vampires being only able to drink from their own blood type and the like. It makes for a great set up for an Urban Fantasy world.

That said, aside from the way I felt at a distance from the narrator – even though he was narrating directly – there were a couple of style issues here that impeded my enjoyment of the book. At one point we meet a vampire from New Orleans (okay, not everything is unique) and he had his dialogue spelled out phonetically. You practically had to read it aloud to make any sense of it. The character didn’t last long, but it was still extremely annoying, especially since he’d already pointed out how thick his accent was. For me at least, it was enough to get the point across. Another style choice I didn’t care for was the occasional conversation that would go like this.

“XYZ” I said. Well I wanted to say it, but because of [reason], I actually said “ABC.”

These asides were infrequent enough to become accustomed to them, and didn’t add enough to the story to justify the interruption of the flow of the story. Either commit all the way, or just don’t go there.

I could go on about Sig and her creepy boyfriend, but I honestly don’t feel a need to. That story goes exactly how you expect it to, and while the plotting is good – a change that happens to John towards the end of the book feels like it’s been building up nicely throughout – the absolute lack of connection with John makes this enough of a slog that I can’t recommend it just on those merits alone.

Like I said, the core of this book is absolutely solid. Male-lead urban fantasy is rare, so it gave me high hopes for it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I love me some good world building, but if you don’t give me a narrator that I care about, the rest is for naught.

Verdict: A Reluctant Skip It

Available: Now

Blackguards – Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries and Rogues edited by J.M. Martin

23156342

Summary:

ROGUES. ASSASSINS. MERCENARIES.

Coin is their master, and their trade, more often than not, is blood. These are BLACKGUARDS.

Whether by coin or by blood…YOU WILL PAY.

(You can see the full author listing here)

Review:

First off, hello again! Two weeks goes by so slow, and yet so fast 🙂 As I indicated in my last review, vacation didn’t mean no reading, it just meant slower reading and slower writing. Now I’m looking to get back into the swing of things, and I thought a good way to do that is to look at a Kickstarter-funded anthology that I first referenced late in 2014 when talking about my experience with the crowd-funding site and creative projects, like this one.

As of the date I wrote this, I have received the e-book version of the anthology. The physical books were supposed to start shipping on 3/31. As of 4/16 mine does not show as shipped and I am waiting for a response from the creator as to when I might get it. If anything relevant comes of that conversation, I’ll update it in time. Fulfillment has been good, not great. Though a bit slow (was quoted for 12/14, and it’s now 4/15 with no physical copies as of yet), the book did grow by 50% so the extra time is understandable. Communication hasn’t been the best I’ve ever sen, but he did include plenty of photographic evidence of things moving along, which does go a long way for proving the legitimacy of a project. As when I wrote that article, I believed that something like this: an anthology assembled by a professional editor with experience and stories written by professionals is the kind of project to support if you want the best odds that you’ll see something on the other end.

So anyway, Blackguards is what I expected the G.R.R.M – edited Rogues anthology to be: a collection of fantasy stories centered around roguish characters. Right off the bat, that may be enough for some to go check this out. Other pluses on a pure structural aspect: It’s also a collection of entirely new stories, a nice bonus as most anthologies are collections of previous works, and not new tales. I’ll also say that unlike some anthologies, the introductions to the stories are nice and brief, never outstaying their welcome. Authors got enough space to provide context for their tales or what series their stories are from, so new readers can track down the related works. It worked well. Finally, all the stories come with a title illustration. The art may or may not to be of your taste, but it’s a nice feature.

As for the content, I’d have to stay that overall, the quality is pretty dang high. As always, there are a few stories that won’t quite do it for you (and I admit, the two fan submissions that were included in the book were among the four or five that I skipped over), but generally speaking, it’s pretty good. My major complaint is that outside the one contemporary story and the two or three tales set in specifically places and times, most of the stories are very traditional faux-medieval fantasies, so over the course of the 750ish pages, there’s a feeling of sameness that can be a drag. I’d liked to have seen the inclusion of some urban fantasy or maybe some paranormal just to shake things up.

Overall, this is a very solid anthology series, and it’s an easy recommendation, especially for those who’ve never bought a collection like this and aren’t sure that it’s there thing. I think this group of authors did a good job writing stories that would be accessible to all, and not just their fans. Of course, if you haven’t been swayed by this kind of thing before, this won’t change your mind.

Verdict: Buy It. I’d probably recommend getting your hands on the e-book version if you have a reader. At 750 pages and 6 x 9 print size, this is a monster of a book, and an e-reader is just going to be more comfortable to read.

[Edited 5/11 – Having gone out in the last batch of books, my copy finally arrived today. Anyway, the quality of the book itself is very high and easily of the quality of anything else you’d find on the shelf. I particularly how the introductions are on an actual introduction page (as opposed to just a paragraph separated from the text) and the artwork definitely benefits from being on the larger format than my Paperwhite. All told it’s a job very well done and I feel I got my money’s worth. That said, my recommendation of the digital copy still stands, especially if you’re like me and do a lot of your reading while you are out and about: the book is just too big to comfortably travel with.]

#TVDChicago Write Up

Hey all!

My blog is still on vacation as far as reviews go – I haven’t done much reading on this vacation – but I wanted to write up some thoughts on the con, as kind of a companion piece to my How to Convention page, going into more details about how this kind of con works. This is kind of wordy, so I shall be kind and place it beneath a cut 🙂

Continue reading

Desert Rising – Kelley Grant

Hey everyone – just a heads up that I will be going on vacation, and so too will my blog. Although I’ll certainly be reading, I’m not going to worry about trying to post, though I’ll almost certainly save my thoughts to post upon my return on April 27th. Happy reading all!

22836665

Summary:

“It frightens me, knowing the One has called up two such strong individuals. It means that there are troubled times in our future, and you must prepare yourselves.”

The Temple at Illian is the crown jewel of life in the Northern Territory. There, pledges are paired with feli, the giant sacred cats of the One god, and are instructed to serve the One’s four capricious deities. Yet Sulis, a young woman from the Southern Desert, has a different perspective – one that just might be considered heresy, but that is catching on rather quickly…

Sulis’s twin Kadar, meanwhile, is part of a different sort of revolution. When Kadar falls in love with a woman from a Forsaken caste, he finds he’s willing to risk anything to get these people to freedom. But with Sulis drawing a dangerous level of attention from the deities, and war about to break out on two fronts, change may not come as easily as either twin had hoped.

An astonishing debut, Kelley Grant brings to life a powerful new epic fantasy tale of determination and self-discovery.

Review

I’ve said in the past that one of the better aspects of the Harper Voyager Impulse line is its lower price point: it encourages you to take chances on books that you might not otherwise look at, or, in the case of a book such as this, a book that has flaws, but enough originality to balance it out.

There is some fun to be had with this book: I like the idea of the four deities speaking through humans, and that the humans can channel the powers of the gods when needed. There’s a very Greco-Roman feel to the whole affair. Bonding with the feli isn’t entirely unique, but you really can’t go wrong with giant cats either.

That being said: the world feels generic. The vaguely Middle Eastern setting isn’t taken advantage of. There is the one empire that is subduing the other, and of course the empire is evil and condones slavery while the good guys treat all people of all levels equally. It’s a bit preachy and it’s been done before and not overly compelling. I’m also not sold on the machinations of two of the deities. While the premise of war is intriguing, making one someone who preys on the pledges is…yeah. And it doesn’t feel like the have any nuance either. There’s nothing that makes them sympathetic, and given that she does change point of view to tell their portion of the story, there’s no reason she couldn’t have given them more depth. If they don’t have depth again they’re not compelling. I suppose you could argue that they are petty because their gods are petty, but if that was the aim, then I’m not sure that we needed this point of view at all then. I don’t know.

So yeah, it’s a mixed bag. There’s definitely enough there to give it a look, but for epic fantasy, it could stand to be a little more epic.

Verdict: Borrow it

Available: April 21st

Positive – David Wellington

22547942

Summary:

In the bestselling vein of Guillermo Del Toro and Justin Cronin, the acclaimed author Chimera and The Hydra Protocol delivers his spectacular breakout novel—an entertaining page-turning zombie epic that is sure to become a classic

Anyone can be positive . . .

The tattoed plus sign on Finnegan’s hand marks him as a Positive. At any time, the zombie virus could explode in his body, turning him from a rational human into a ravenous monster. His only chance of a normal life is to survive the last two years of the potential incubation period. If he reaches his twenty-first birthday without an incident, he’ll be cleared.

Until then, Finn must go to a special facility for positives, segregated from society to keep the healthy population safe. But when the military caravan transporting him is attacked, Finn becomes separated. To make it to safety, he must embark on a perilous cross-country journey across an America transformed—a dark and dangerous land populated with heroes, villains, madmen, and hordes of zombies. And though the zombies are everywhere, Finn discovers that the real danger may be his fellow humans.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome meets World War Z and I Am Legend in this thrilling tale that has it all: a compelling story, great characters, and explosive action, making Positive the ultimate zombie novel of our time.

Review:

It’s not uncommon to see me review books about vampires or angels and demons. Heck, I’ll even dip my toes in werewolves and shifters now and again. What you won’t see from me are books about zombies. For the most part, unless you’re talking the original witchcraft flavored varient, zombies are creatures of horror, not fantasy. As a monster, zombies are little more than animals in a human body and as such they don’t make for compelling characters. Despite a novel existing because of zombies, zombie novels are never <i>about</i> zombies and as such, they just don’t hold much appeal for me.

But, as is my wont, occasionally I feel the need to read something a little bit different and when solicited with a pitch for this book, I decided to give it a shot. And if based on this introduction, you’d guess that I have practically no experience with zombie novels, you’d be right.

Therefore, I have to say that it’s a bit disappointing that for a genre I never read it (nor watch, for that matter) this book feels like it hits the beats I expected it to hit, by the time the focus shifts to something that feels a bit more unique, it may well be too late because you simply may not care at that point. You see, the first half of the book is spent hitting all the basic notes of the genre: guy who is not zombie is thrown out of the protected enclave he grew up because of the chance he might become a zombie. He discovers that life outside of said enclave is incredibly dangerous, not only because of the zombies, but because of the humans that choose to live out there. He has to learn both how to survive, but to keep his humanity in a world where violence, slavery and subjugation of women are the norm outside of the enclaves.

The second half of the book the story becomes less about his struggles and how he inadvertently becomes a leader of men who wants to try and create a new life for the people him, branded and unwanted by the clean population, plus the story of a cult that brings in human sacrifice because they can. It’s a bit more interesting than the first half for sure, but it still feels somehow lacking, something I have to attribute to Finn himself.

As a character, Finn is fine. He’s certainly likable enough, but that’s as much due to the fact that he’s only one of the decent humans you meet for a large stretch of the first half once the story picks up. He’s not quite a goody-two-shoe, but he certainly has this sense of nobility and honor and whatnot that, while admirable, does seem questionable given that he is of the generation born after the zombie-virus hit and he’s never known a world where such morality could have existed in. I get that he was raised in a relatively safe area, but still. He feels too much of our time, or of what we should aspire to, and not like a product of his time. He wouldn’t be as hard as some of the characters he meets, but still. I don’t know that I quite buy in to it.

At the end of the day, I don’t know that this book feels like an “ultimate” zombie novel. Is it a good zombie novel? Sure. Are the characters or the story so compelling to make them truly memorable? Eh. I suspect that actual fans of the genre might not find too much here to write home about. Those of us who don’t normally dip our toes in this sandbox may still like it however: though there is action and there is violence, this book is more of a survival story than a slasher fic so it may be a good place to start to see if you want to dig deeper.

Verdict: Borrow It

Available: April 21st

Note: The violence, while not the most graphic I’ve ever seen is still up there on occasion and there’s some disturbing implications about how women (and little girls for that matter) can be treated by some of the looters. While it isn’t enough for me to want to call this an 18+ title, I would still suggest this book is better for the 16+ crowd.

Moonlands: Steven Savile

25002838

Summary:

Fifteen-year-old Ashley has a complicated life. There’s no doubt her overachieving parents love her, but they are wrapped up in their own worlds for so much of the time it leaves her feeling like she’s alone.

Like a lot of teenagers, Ashley dreams of other worlds, but unlike a lot of teenagers her world is about to collapse as rifts to an ancient Fae Kingdom begin to open all around her. With the arrival of of a supernatural hit-squad intent on killing her, and an unexpected inheritance, Ashley’s London is about to become a magical and mysterious warzone where the prize is Ashley herself.

Ashley has to find out the secrets of her own life before she is killed. Balancing ancient prophecies, schoolwork and the love of her life is difficult to say the least! Take part of the wonderful world of Moonlands.

Review:

This is a solid little bit of young adult fantasy. It’s a fairly basic tale of a girl who thinks she’s nothing special – not smart, not pretty and whatnot, finding out that of course, she is. And this is set in a world that takes familiar fantasy elements – faeries, werewolves and what have you – and at least does a good job with making the Moonlands feel especially lush. Ashley herself is a pretty likable protagonist too, she feels like a teenager but she grows up when she has to, even if she’s aided by some convenient magic towards the end. While it’s nothing unique, it does at least have a nice little twist on why the villain is villainous, which is nice. I know this sounds rather generic – and to be honest, the book is – but this is one of those cases where that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

There are some minor quibbles to be had though. First the author insists that we know the book is set in 2012. There’s a reference to Twitter and tweeting and a throwaway line about Ashley listening to music that speaks to “being a teenager in 2012.” I’m not sure why he did this: while having it be known that London is in fact a modern one is mildly important (if nothing else to contrast it against the world of the Moonlands), there’s no need to go that specific. This book is solid fantasy with the tiniest hint of steampunk. Knowing it’s 2012 vs. 2002 does absolutely nothing for the story and ultimately those references just stick out like a sore thumb . The bigger quibble is that there is some definitely borrowing of ideas from Harry Potter. There’s a Knight Bus analogue. A bank that she visits to get her bequeath from a deceased aunt was clearly based on Grimmauld Place in the sense that it’s wedged between two buildings and non-magical people have no clue that it’s even there. It is a bit confusing as to how they exist given that it’s made quite clear that London has next to no magic, but there you go. Finally, there’s a creature that saps you of happiness and a will to live before killing you. Hello, Dementors. These aren’t book-breakers, but it is disappointing that there is such blatant copying going on.

Finally, the end of the book implies that there will be a sequel. I don’t see anything on Goodreads to indicate that said book is about to come into existence anytime soon, but that this book is getting a re-release does make one suspect that it’ll come along at some point down the road.

This book shatters no molds, and does feel a bit trope-y (let’s just say you’ll know that one enemy will flip to the other side well in advance of when he does) but it’s enjoyable and if you like the idea, you may enjoy it.

Verdict: Borrow it.

Available: April 17th

William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace: Star Wars Part the First – Ian Doescher

23278646

Summary:

O Threepio,Threepio,
Wherefore art thou,Threepio?

Join us good gentles, for a merry imagining of Star Wars: Episode I as only Shakespeare could have written it. The entire saga starts here, with a thrilling tale featuring a disguised queen, a young hero, and two fearless knights facing a hidden, vengeful enemy.

‘Tis a true Shakespearean drama, filled with sword fights, soliloquies, and doomed romance…all in glorious iambic pentameter and coupled with twenty gorgeous Elizabethan illustrations. Hold on to your midi-chlorians: the play’s the thing, wherein you’ll catch the rise of Anakin!

Review:

There can be something refreshing when the book is exactly as described on the tin: this is exactly what it sounds like, a Shakespearean retelling of The Phantom Menace.

Without question, this is probably the best version of this story you’re going to see: Doescher unquestionably has a better ear for dialogue that Lucas does, and everyone’s inner voice is a better actor than Jake Lloyd which immediately makes Anakin more likable. Plus, Doescher manages to find a way to give Jar Jar Binks, a character created to be denied dignity, some dignity. The illustrations in the book are a nice little bonus and do a good job of blending the feel of the characters while giving them a 15th century twist.

That being said: this is still The Phantom Menace. You can only do so much with a story that has some serious inherent weaknesses. Even with improvements to Jar Jar, he’s still ultimately Jar Jar. He and all the Gungans still ultimately sounds like they did in the movie and are still inherently annoying, so it is something to keep in mind.

Ultimately as good as this book is (and he has done a great job), I still do feel that this is a niche title: one that I see only really appealing to Star Wars fans and Shakespeare. For the latter, you might well be better served by checking out the books he’s done for episodes IV, V and Vi – they’re just better stories. For the former, if you’re someone whose idea of enjoying Shakespeare is either watching an adaptation (like Empire or Ten Things I Hate About You) or you insisted on getting the copies of the plays that updated the vernacular to modern English, you may want to borrow this instead, because if you aren’t a fan of the poetry, the fact that it is Star Wars might not be enough to win you over. It’s something to keep in mind.

Verdict: Unless you’re a die hard fan of both Shakespeare and Star Wars, Borrow It

Available: April 7th