The Broken Eye

War. Revenge. Intrigue. Secrets. Magic. Everything you love about Brent Weeks' Lightbringer Series continues in THE BROKEN EYE.

This is what you've been waiting for.

Like I said with THE BLINDING KNIFE (EBR review), trying to read BROKEN without having read the previous books will leave you lost and floundering, the sequence of events lacking real impact. If you love epic fantasy with complex characters, creative world-building, and fast-paced action, then yes you should read this series, starting with THE BLACK PRISM (EBR review) (read the first three chapters for free here!). What follows will contain spoilers if you read them out of order. You have been warned.

At the end of BLINDING everything changes for our heroes. Gavin has lost his ability to draft and now finds himself a slave on a pirate ship's galley. Kip escapes sociopathic half-brother Zymun to return to the Chromeria a changed man. Teia finds herself mixed up with a group of fanatic vigilantes, her ex-slave status in jeopardy. Karris mourns the disappearance of her husband, but must find a new purpose to her life as the wife of the Prism.

A lot happens in BROKEN, covering months as Gavin tries to escape, Kip continues his training, and Lord Guile manipulates the politics of the Chromeria. Without Gavin there and the White's health quickly deteriorating, no one can check Lord Guile's ambitions. But I'll be honest with you, despite a lot happening, BROKEN feels like a middle-of-the-story novel. The pace slows for almost the entire book as characters' situations are suspended in uncertainty. Will Gavin escape? Should Kip trust his grandfather? What is the White's plans for Karris? Is Teia entrapping herself to the Order of the Broken Eye?

Part of the cause of this slower pacing is a focus on the politics of war and power. Certainly there's the Chromeria, but what happens when the Prism disappears and there's a vacuum of power? What happens when a (supposedly) altruistic Color Prince makes his way through the various countries to free them from the thumb of an oppressive Chromeria--but will do anything and kill anyone in order to achieve his goals?

Another reason for the slower pace is the in-depth character development. After two books of setting up our characters and who they are, BROKEN delves into what makes our heroes tick. I really, really enjoyed this about BROKEN, when usually extra characterization is something that drives me batty because nothing happens--fortunately Weeks's characterization is never boring. I was hooked as I watched Kip struggle with the changes in Lord Guile and try to reconcile the loss of his father with his current standing among his peers (as a result of the last battle in BLINDING)--all with his usual snark. I loved that there was more Karris screen time and how she becomes involved in the White's spy network. Teia is a fascinating character whose self-doubt isn't annoying, and she fights to overcome it in realistic ways. Weeks is fantastic with his female characters, they are truly well done. Gavin's struggle to not be bogged down by discouragement in his situation was frankly inspiring. Unfortunately, though, we don't see much of Liv, and only hear secondhand accounts of the Color Prince's army and their exploits. But I'm hoping that in following books we aren't left in the dark about our villains.

There isn't as much world-building this time around as in the last two books, although there's some new tidbits that will satisfy even the most staunch epic fantasy readers. Weeks carries forward the loose threads from BLINDING and adds to them, weaving into the story exciting new possibilities.

Weeks also seems to have more control of his action sequences, making it feel less showy and more like what I'd expect from these characters and what we know they can do--alone and as a team. There was tension, excitement, surprises (Weeks can't help himself when it comes to his twists and surprises). And of course the consequences that we may not yet see the whole of for some time. As a result the conclusion, as in past books, was amazing and game-changing. I'm eagerly anticipating THE BLOOD MIRROR...2016 can't come fast enough.

Recommended Age: 14+
Language: A few f-bombs per chapter
Violence: Several violent episodes, variously bloody
Sex: Referenced; teenage hormones

Find this exciting series here:

THE BLACK PRISM

THE BLINDING KNIFE

THE BROKEN EYE

Night Broken

The latest in Patricia Brigg's Mercy Thompson series has her heroine face her most terrifying adversary yet. This opponent is tougher than the river devil that almost killed her; more cunning than the local vampire queen; and a better baker than Mercy herself: Adam's ex-wife Christy.

Christy comes running to the Tri-Cities werewolf pack for a reason. She's being stalked by a dangerous playboy she met in Vegas who won't take "No" for an answer, who's knocked Christy around, and who may have been the one to kill her boyfriend. Unfortunately he turns out to be more than your run-of-the-mill psycho guy, and it's Mercy and the pack who must deal with the fallout.

Seriously, this series only gets better and better. In NIGHT BROKEN Briggs isn't afraid to shake things up for Mercy, who despite being a confident woman experiences some self-doubt when faced with the near-perfection that is Christy. Many of the pack feel protective over their alpha's ex-wife, her skills of manipulation and victimhood even messes with Mercy's head. It's been no mystery that some of the pack don't like Mercy and feel that a coyote shifter doesn't belong in the hierarchy. Will Christy successfully worm her way back into Adam's good graces and cause havoc with Mercy's standing in the pack?

Then, of course there's the mystery surrounding Christy's stalker. Where did he come from? Who is he really? And why is is so focused on Christy? Is he somehow related to the killings the local police want to pin on the werewolves? The clues begin to stack up and when Christy's stalker visits Mercy at her garage she discovers that he's more than he seems...a lot more, and it's scary enough that she wonders if they will ever be able to solve Christy's problem.

We get to see old friends and meet a few new ones. Other than the pack regulars, we get to see Stephan back in form, Tad returns as cool as ever, and even Coyote has to be called for help when a Grey Lord comes asking for the fae walking stick that used to follow Mercy around.

I enjoyed watching Mercy as she moved through the story, reacted to events, interacted with friends and enemies, and then proceeded to do what she does best: doing whatever it takes to keep her family safe. If you're a fan of the series then NIGHT BROKEN is a must read.

Recommended Age: 14+
Language: None
Violence: A couple of scenes, one kind of gruesome
Sex: Referenced

Find this awesome series here:

MOON CALLED

BLOOD BOUND

IRON KISSED

BONE CROSSED

SILVER BORNE

RIVER MARKED

FROST BURNED

NIGHT BROKEN 

Blood and Iron

I've been thinking about the concept that lies at the crux of this review for quite a while now. I've come across it a couple times in the recent past--the most recent while watching Disney's Frozen--and each time my realization as to why I wasn't enjoying the story as much as I should have been eluded me for quite a while. Hopefully I've learned something about this concept after having seen it in action for the third time.

BLOOD AND IRON is the first in a new fantasy series by Jon Sprunk and feels like a step in the “larger” direction after his Shadow Saga novels. This novel immediately felt bigger to me, as the story being told was about large-scale wars, and nations, and phenomenal cosmic powers (bonus points for the reference on that last one...).

The story begins with Horace--a soldier from the west--in the midst of a storm at sea, and en route to a war with the foreign Akeshians. Instead of war though, he finds his way to solitary capture, enslavement, and then to opulent establishment. This due to the fact that he's a latent sorcerer, and comes into power after coming to this new land.

Also at the forefront of the story is Jirom, an ex-mercenary from far-off Zaral, that is biding his time as a gladiator until he can find his way to freedom. Quickly though he meets Horace and is affected by him in a way that he can barely describe. Their meeting and time together is brief, but after they part he finds himself seeking out this man from the west.

Two women also share some of the page time, although considerably less than Horace and Jirom. Byleth, queen of Akeshia, and Alyra, her hand-maiden and court spy for forces outside of the reigning nobility.

The strengths of the novel are easily the amount of action and overall pacing. These are strengths that Sprunk brought from his previous novels. The dude knows how to write action. The story jumps from one scene to the next and there's always something happening. If I'm being honest, some of the action near the beginning of the book felt a little forced. With Horace getting overly angry and lashing out without thinking about what he was doing. Almost like something was driving him to be angry, and I was hoping that it wasn't just the author needing to throw some more action in. A couple times I was pretty surprised when Horace's captors didn't just off him, as other slaves around him were getting some pretty steep punishments indeed. Still, good action, good pacing.

Something that Sprunk improved on in this book over his previous trilogy was his descriptions. There were very few times when I was reading and wouldn't know where a character was, or who was in a scene. Especially some of the more large-scale descriptions about the countryside through which Horace traveled while getting to his ultimate destination were well-done. They portrayed a good sense of scale for the world in which the characters reside.

World-building was completed on a similar scale, although not in quite as much detail. There is some sense of history and larger battles being fought between forces both external and internal to Akeshia. This aspect could definitely have been better and would have been the perfect fit to Byleth's character, if more time had been spent with her.

One of the weakest aspects of the book was the magic system. Horribly cliched: earth, wind, fire, and air-based magics, with a bit of a void-magic to boot. Even though there is time for Horace to be taught, for him to develop his powers (which is good--I hate it when newbies are never really newbies), the magic falls completely short of being anything approaching interesting. Only very basic ideas about how the magic is controlled are approached, and it felt like anything he could come up with could feasibly be whipped out at a moment's notice. The magic saves Horace's bacon repeatedly with him having no notion of what he's doing or how he's accomplishing it. Quite frustrating.

The crux of the problems with this story falls to a single issue: this story doesn't belong to Horace. It is, in fact, Queen Byleth's. In much the same way that the story in Frozen belongs to Elsa (Think about it--if you've seen it. Whose choices does every significant branch of that story turn on? Elsa's. Also, it's no coincidence that the story is based on Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen. Aka: not Anna.), the story told in BLOOD AND IRON belongs to Queen Byleth and not Horace.

And yet, Horace is ostensibly the main character, as he gets the most face time in the book. Even the summary on the back of the book focuses on Horace and the changes that he's going to make to Akeshia. The really difficult part is that Byleth gets so little POV time that it's hard to even realize that it's her story until nearly the very end. Even more difficult is the fact that Horace and Jirom don't even feel like secondary characters, because they're not directly influencing anything to do with the main story line. Instead, they end up feeling kind of like cameras, sent to show us what is happening along the way. Horace hangs out with Queen Byleth and we see what she is doing and what is going on in court, and Jirom hangs out with a group of rebels and we see what they are doing in the battle against the ruling nobility. This makes Horace and Jirom boring, even if we do see lots of action and interesting things through their eyes. Alyra was a great secondary character though, with her own motivations and fears, that interacted with the queen's story at a very basic level.

Although I gave this one a fairly low rating overall, I think that things could totally be saved by addressing the single issue of who the story belongs to. There are some really good aspects of this novel and others that show marked improvement over previous books. I mean, come on. If Disney can make a mistake like telling a story from the wrong character's perspective, then I think anyone can. The important part will be the process of learning from the past and doing better next time, and that is something that I think Mr. Sprunk has proven that he can do. Because he's done it with every book he's written. Progress and improvement are hallmarks of the best.

Recommended Age: 16+, profanity and violence
Profanity: Somewhat sparse, but it can got strong a few times
Violence: Crazy violent during the battles and gladiator fights
Sex: Some implied relations, no scenes though

BLOOD AND IRON

Grunt Life

I’ve been on the look-out for novels similar to those of Larry Correia's Monster Hunter series and Jonathan Maberry's Joe Ledger novels. I love the mix of Military Thriller with SF/Fantasy/Whatever. It didn’t have to be magic, but I needed something that was contemporary, actiony, and with speculative elements in it.

Enter Weston Ochse’s GRUNT LIFE. Ochse is best known these days for SEAL TEAM 666, and because of the movie deal that was announced, his name was already in my head when GRUNT LIFE arrived, courtesy of Solaris. I was still waiting for my copy of SEAL TEAM 666 to arrive in the mail, so I figured I’d give GRUNT LIFE a chance in the meantime.

The novel is told using the First Person PoV in the head of Benjamin Mason. He’s career military, but has reached the point where he is about to take his own life. This is the opening scene of the novel. It’s not white-knuckle, but rather sobering. Instead of dying (spoiler!), he is recruited to be part of a special military task force—Task Force OMBRA. Why? Because aliens have already begin invading—a bug-like race dubbed the Cray. OMBRA has been quietly dealing with their advance scouts for a while, but they fear the main invasion is coming.

And it does.

The first half of the novel is about the members of the task force—all damaged in some way, shape and form—training and prepping. The second half is about the Cray invasion. It’s all very harsh and brutal.

Ochse has an excellent narrative voice. Line to line, paragraph to paragraph, page to page. It’s all extremely smooth. I never had to go back and reread a section for clarity—though I did reread sections because of how much I enjoyed a turn of phrase, or a character moment. The action—and there is a TON of it—is super clear and effortless to follow.

But what this novel really comes down to is the characters. The grunts. Without good characters, this novel would have failed utterly, no matter how well done the action was. Ochse does some very interesting things with his main character, Mason. Typically, the main character of a novel like this would be the good guy. The one that everyone likes. Everyone else has the real character flaws. Not so here. Mason is a bit of a jerk. He’s self-centered. He’s not the favorite of his squad. This gives huge opportunities to present the reader with character growth, and Ochse takes advantage of it.

The side characters are all interesting in their own ways, and it’s cool to have their backstories revealed as the book progresses. I’m not going to get into those detail much, since it’s best if you read them yourself in the novel. The main thing here is that all the characters have different politics and religious outlooks. It would have been real easy for Ochse to make these people one-note with respect to belief systems, but he didn’t. And I never felt like I was having the author’s personal views shoved onto me—something that has been a huge problem in fiction lately.

Honestly, I don’t have hardly anything negative to say. If there is one quibble, it’s that there are a few times where characters don’t quite react like they’ve been built up in the novel. You come to expect certain reactions, and then when those reactions don’t happen, it’s super jarring. But that’s it.

Weston Ochse is an awesome author. I put his stuff next to Correia and Maberry without hesitation. While I was curious about Ochse’s work before, now I’m excited to read it. All of it. It's pretty easy to see that Ochse is one of the better authors for action SF out there, and GRUNT LIFE was an absolute blast to read.

Recommended Age: 17+
Profanity: A bunch.
Violence: Tons. Extremely well described.
Sex: Conversations about it, one very brief—but undetailed—scene.

Go pick up GRUNT LIFE. You’ll love it. Here’s your link.

GRUNT LIFE

The Eldritch Conspiracy

Celia has been asked to be a bridesmaid at the wedding of the century: her siren cousin the princess Adrianna is marrying the king of Rusland. Celia has been chosen not simply because she's Adrianna's cousin, but also because the bride-to-be has already survived one attempt on her life and Celia's bodyguard experience may just save the day.

You see, not everyone in Rusland is pleased about the upcoming nuptials, and are convinced that Adrianna has bewitched their king using dark siren magic. And they'll do anything to stop the wedding.

But that isn't the extent of Celia's problems: she's on the outs with former co-worker John Creede, her boyfriend Bruno's ex-girlfriend is determined to get him back, and her own gran is hiding an unpleasant secret from her. Celia does what she can to get by, but it seems that life is ganging up on her.

THE ELDRITCH CONSPIRACY is book 5 of the Blood Singer novel series by Cat Adams, and continues the story of Celia Graves, who does bodyguard work for a living, but as of book 1 being attacked by a vampire changed her life: she's not only part-vampire, but her siren abilities were  awakened.

The opening chapter is confusing, and I had to re-check the series order to make sure I didn't miss a book. Her relationship with John Creede has become strained and we find that her relationship with former flame Bruno is back on. I felt like I was dumped into the middle of the story, and the love triangle isn't ever really addressed in this book--here's hoping it will be in the next, because it's the development of such things that lady readers want mapped out in a series like this.

I also had a hard time keeping track of characters, it's been over a year since I read the last book (EBR review for ISIS COLLAR here) and I got lost easily with not only the characters, but also events from past books. A little refresher here and there would have helped, but maybe it's just me.

The good thing about this particular book is that plot itself is handled better than even previous books, the progression of events felt more natural and less arbitrary. Also, Adams' characterization across the series is well done, with Celia's progression and even the progression of secondary characters: they grow and change, for better or worse.

The series is only now growing on me, and here we are on book 5. It's taken a while to get to this point, when I'm usually the kind of person to drop a series if the first book doesn't pique my interest--but that's the concession we EBR reviews make for our readers. I will be reading TO DANCE WITH THE DEVIL soon and hope that ELDRITCH is a sign of things to come.

Recommended Age: 16+
Language: A handful of instances
Violence: A few fights, nothing gruesome
Sex: Referenced

The books in the Blood Singer series:

BLOOD SONG

SIREN SONG

DEMON SONG

THE ISIS COLLAR

THE ELDRITCH CONSPIRACY

Dark City

Do you remember the first F. Paul Wilson book you read? I do. For a lot of us, it was THE TOMB. I was working at Waldenbooks, stocking the shelves, and I came across the paperback. I took a moment (totally on company time) to read the back, and then I proceeded to stash to book away so I could buy it at the end of my shift. I read the novel. I loved the novel. I've been a fan ever since.

DARK CITY is the second novel in the Repairman Jack: Early Years Trilogy. I read and loved the first novel, COLD CITY (see the review here), and I kinda figured I was going to enjoy this one as well. Shocker: I loved DARK CITY.

This novel picks up directly after the events of the first one in the trilogy. Jack is figuring out who he is, and who he wants to be. He's learning the art of the "fix". And true to form, he is roped into extraordinary events.

What I liked most about DARK CITY was seeing Jack really becoming an active participant. He was kind of taken along for a ride in the first novel, and here we get to see him make tough choices, and clever choices. All of that ruthlessness we see in the other Repairman Jack novels? Well, we get to see some of those origins here. For example, we finally get to see how Julio ends up with the bar. It's classic Jack, and deliciously fun to read as Jack's plan unfolds.

The first novel dealt with Jack's involvement in the breaking up of a child trafficking deal. It was pretty dark, and very brutal. In this novel, Jack is dealing with the consequences of those actions he took. I don't just mean in a physical way with people trying to exact revenge upon him (though there is that angle here too). The whole business causes a mentality change. Consequences of morality, and mentality. It's here that we truly see the Jack that we will know and love in later novels.

I'm not going to lie, I was having trouble with a mob side-story that runs through the novel. At first it felt aimless, and I was beginning to wonder if it was filler. And then Wilson brought it firmly into one of Jack's "fixes", and then solidified it as being important in the next novel. It takes a special and experienced kind of author to pull of something like that. Having read a lot of Wilson's fiction, I think it shows more than anything that he is still progressing as an author. Think about that for a moment. There are a lot of authors that tend to rest on their past success. But I never feel that way with F. Paul Wilson. I always feel like his newest novel is his best effort, and that he is always looking to wow the reader.

It's hard to talk much about this novel without getting into specifics about both it and it's predecessor. Here is what I will say: he manages to tie mob stories, terrorism, Jack's "fixes", child trafficking, and his ever-present Secret History of the World into one streamlined plot. That's what we read the Repairman Jack novels for, after all. The action, the characters, the "fixes" great and small. It's all here with rough edges--not because of poor writing, but rather because of great writing.

Seeing the unrefined Jack is what makes this trilogy so much fun.

I'll point this out again: if you have ever felt the prospect of reading this series to be a bit daunting, start with the Early Years trilogy. It is a terrific place to start for the first time, or to be refreshed on how awesome this character is.

Recommended Age: 17+
Profanity: Well yeah. A bunch.
Violence: There wasn't anything really gory in this novel. It's violent, sure, but it's never over the top.
Sex: No explicit scenes, but Jack's "girlfriend" is super crass. So is Jack's gay friend.

Here are your links. Go get 'em:

COLD CITY
DARK CITY


Corporia

When I was a kid, I read T.H. White's THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING. I recall reading it twice, back-to-back, never quite getting enough of the legend of King Arthur. There is something inherently awesome about those stories, something that pulls at me. Anything that has a sliver of Arthurian legend in it automatically piques my curiosity.

I was recently sent a copy of Mark Plemmons' Role-Playing Game core book, CORPORIA, with a polite request to give it a peek. I don't normally review RPGs, not because I don't like RPGs (I do), but because I'm never quite sure how to review them. However, in the case of CORPORIA, I'm making an exception.

Check out this first paragraph from Chapter 1 of the book:

"Corporia is a tabletop role-playing game set in "The City", a future metropolis ruled by an alliance of powerful mega-corporations. Players take on the roles of members of the Knightwatch, the elite supernaturally-powered special operations unit of the Watchman private security  company, under the the auspices of its mega-corporate entity Valyant and Chief Executive Officer Lance Martin - the reincarnated Sir Lancelot du Lac. The Knightwatch resolve extreme incidents involving manifestations of other-dimensional energies (aka the Flux), including mutated humans, monsters from other dimensions, and corporate experiments gone wrong."

So yeah. think Cyberpunk King Arthur. That's all I needed to know.

Let's go down the list of chapters to give you a good idea of what you'll find in the book, as well as any particularly cool things or particularly bothersome things. I'll keep it as spoiler-free as possible since, after all, my ultimate recommendation is that you should buy this book and play it with your RPG group.

Chapter 1: The Basics
Pretty straight-forward. This is where it details out the absolute basics of the setting, what role-playing is (eeeeeeeasy there...keep it PG:13. I'm talking about gaming you dirty-minded....), and the basics on how to play the game (what dice to use, etc.). honestly, there isn't much to talk about here. It's pretty clear what kind of dice to roll, and when.

Chapter 2: Human Resources
This is where it gets fun. One of the main reasons I am in a constant RPG group, and the main reason I got into playing in the first place, is because of character creation. I love the aspect of making a new character and creating that back story.

In CORPORIA, the character creation is both awesome and a bit muddled. Plemmons has given players a gajillion character archetypes. They are seriously so incredibly varied that my mind immediate started pulling together imaginary groups that could have endless combinations. Yet at the same time, when I went to create a character from scratch as an experiment, I found I didn't quite know where to begin. It wasn't until I'd read the entire book (the character creation chapter twice) that I realized what exactly to do. And a lot of that came from a summary that was found at the very end of the book. All the information is here, but it needs to be organized better, and worded a bit clearer. That said, with an experienced GM, this wouldn't even be an issue. My concern is with a brand new group where everyone is starting this game for the first time.

Chapters 3 & 4
These chapters deal with all the accessories you get for your character. Assets, spells, weapons, etc. The cool thing to me was the augments section. It is obvious a lot of thought went into these sections. I'm not going to go into it too much, but I found them pretty awesome.

Chapter 5: The City
My favorite section of the book. This chapter deals with all the different districts in The City. It is shocking to me just how deep the info is here. It would be easy to overlook it as "fluff". That would be a huge mistake. While there is fluff here, there is a TON of data. Simply reading the description of each district made my mind whirl with potential story ideas. And I don't just mean for GMing a game. But for fiction set in the universe. For modules. For the fun of pure imagination. This section was absolutely incredible for me.

Chapter 6: Game Mastery
This game makes it very easy to get started in an adventure. all of the prior chapters lead very nicely into this one. I'll leave it at that.

The Book
Let's talk about the book itself. RPGs aren't just about the info in them. Look at any Legend of the Five Rings book and you will see that they are pieces of art. So how does CORPORIA stack up against the rest?

The book's size is slightly smaller than your average RPG core book. I don't mean just in thickness. In actual dimensions. Honestly, at first I was a little put off by it. but then I began reading through the book, and found that it was actually a lot more comfortable to hold and read than other core books. I don't know that I want all RPG books to become this size, but I don't have any issue with it anymore. The paper used seems a bit thin, almost like a magazine, but overall it isn't an issue.

The cover art is striking. A knight set against skyscrapers. It pretty much pulls together the whole theme of the book. The art on the inside, however, is not my favorite. Rather than using original art, it is all photography and, essentially, cosplay. While I imagine it is way WAY cheaper, I just wasn't a fan. I'm used to this style of art from Flying Frog's games, but here a lot of it just seemed cheap. My hope is that in a subsequent version it can all be replaced with actual art...cause this setting deserves it.

At the end of the day, I think your group will decide if this is a good RPG. A good group will have an amazing time with this game. A bad group will ruin any game, no matter how good.

I personally think this is a killer RPG. There are so many ideas here. So many ways to play this game. While there are some things that bothered me about the book itself, those have no impact on the actual GAME.

Simply put, there just isn't an experience out there like this one. Anywhere.

Get the book here:

CORPORIA

Copperhead

Helen thinks she can't do anything right. Of course those realizations are all after the fact. Take, for example, the marriage to her husband Alastair six months ago. At the time it was the best possible thing for her, and she even thought she could grow to really love him. But lately she's discovered he's not who she thought he was.

A lot of that is due to his new involvement with Copperhead, a group of men who want to rid the city of fey and dwarvven. Completely. In IRONSKIN, Helen discovered the dangers of the fey personally, so her fear is genuine. But she's still of the "live and let life" philosophy and finds Copperhead's methods alarming.

In a desire to be useful, Helen agrees to help her sister Jane convince the fashionable ladies of society that keeping the fey faces that make them beautiful actually put them in danger. But will she mess this up, too?

Set in an alternative England of the early 1900s, you can jump into COPPERHEARD without having read IRONSKIN. It's a fun series with interesting characters and a well-plotted mystery. The first book was told from Helen's sister Jane's PoV, but here she takes a back seat. I especially enjoyed Helen's PoV voice, her wry observations, and her personal struggle to understand herself and the people around her. She's not as feisty as other heroines, but that doesn't make her contributions insignificant. Rather like Eff Rothmer in THE FAR WEST; but where Eff is thoughtful and conscientious, Helen is determined and competent...if rather vain. The secondary characters were well-drawn and fun to read, particularly the flamboyant Eglantine and her menagerie of hangers-on.

The one thing I wish I knew more about was the fey. There's more here about the Great War than in IRONSKIN, but the story doesn't expand much beyond talking about a Fey King (there used to be a queen) who punishes fey by ripping them apart and leaving blue vapor bits around town. Fey energy is used for lights and other devices. We do learn that fey can take over a person who has fey on their body...say a fey face like Helen and the society ladies. And how magic in her face gives her emphatic abilities. Fortunately there were enough details that the story made sense.

Connolly deals with themes of racism, women's rights in marriage/divorce, and suffrage with a subtle hand. She blends these issues in a story about women who are capable in a world that would pass them by. And by the end you will see Helen for the heroine she doesn't know she is.

Recommended Age: 14+
Language: None
Violence: Some; one scene is more amusing than scary
Sex: Vague references

Find this series here:

IRONSKIN

COPPERHEAD

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl

Gideon Smith's father is a fisherman, and one day the ship returns to port in Sandsend, England, without his father or the crew. Determined to find out how a ship could lose its crew on a calm sea, Gideon begins to hear reports about monsters appearing in the local caves. He happens across a Mr. Bram Stoker, who is searching for inspiration for a new story. But Gideon's obsession with World Marvels & Wonders, a penny dreadful that recounts the heroic exploits of Captain Lucian Trigger, at first makes Bram wonder about the believability of Gideon's story.

They part ways: Gideon to London to look for Captain Trigger and Bram to investigate the arrival of a Russian ship without its crew. We are thrown into an adventure with vampires, mummies, automatons, dirigibles, and Egyptian artifacts. The characters are varied, with a cast of recognizable heroes: the inexperienced but enthusiastic youth, the cynical reporter, the mentor, the woman dirigible pilot, the pirate, and etc. The world terrain is different than we're used to, steampunk technology is everywhere, and yet much of it is still familiar.

GIDEON SMITH AND THE MECHANICAL GIRL uses these with flair in a pulp fiction style. The main character is likable, but even our heroes have their dark sides, who despite their foibles can overcome their weaknesses to save the day. It's a story of love, hope, redemption, and what makes a true hero.

So why did it take me so long to read this book? Why did I drag myself through each chapter and PoV?

GIDEON SMITH is not a bad story or poorly written. In fact the prose is pretty nice, the plot engaging and twisty enough to keep you guessing. There are so many cameos, such as Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Google her, seriously), Bram Stoker, Walter Jones (Henry's father), and so many more, many of whom I found amusing if somewhat distracting.

It's an entertaining enough read, but Barnett adds things that give it a dark edge which turned me off to the story. It's really a personal thing, you may not be bothered, and perhaps even like the realistic dark side of people and events. For example, the reporter was a crass, profane guy who was obsessed with the female form in a way that was juvenile and not funny. Or the married man knowingly being drawn into circumstances that hurt his reputation and strained his relationship with his wife. References to the automaton's sexual slavery. There are other examples. I guess I didn't see how such additions made the story better and all it did was make me want to put the book down because it caused me to distrust the characters when I should have been compelled to keep reading about them.

Another problem was the pacing, which suffered up until the end as characters move from place to place, make discoveries, cross paths, and etc. This is just the style of Barnett's storytelling, the prose more interested in detail of movement than actually moving the story along. I think the voice/prose/style is great for the genre, but because I felt that disconnect from the characters the story felt slow.

Barnett makes up for the pacing by the last quarter when events start snowballing and we make discoveries that build on what's come before. By the exciting end you are rooting for Gideon and you may even want to check out the sequel as a result.

Recommended age: 17+
Language: Yes
Violence: Fairly frequent, although not gruesome
Sex: Referenced, one character in particular is quite crass

Find this first book for a new series here:

GIDEON SMITH AND THE MECHANICAL GIRL

And the sequel is out:

GIDEON SMITH AND THE BRASS DRAGON

Skin Game

I've often wondered how long Jim Butcher can keep it up. After all, how often have we all seen just how difficult it is for an author to be good for two books in a row. I'm not saying Butcher is perfect--I personally feel that he has two pretty weak novels in the Dresden Files--but that's two weak novels out of FIFTEEN. Good heavens.

And let me be clear. SKIN GAME is not a weak novel. In my opinion, it is among the best of the series. It has a lot of what made books five, six and seven incredible.

First off, there are gonna be some light spoilers here for the previous novel, COLD DAYS. There's no helping it. So if you haven't read COLD DAYS, stop here, read that novel, then read SKIN GAME. You'll be all set, and will had a ton of fun.

SKIN GAME is a heist novel. With Harry in the service of Queen Mab as the Winter Knight, he often has to do the dirty work. This time that dirty work involves working for Nicodemus Archleone and the Order of the Blackened Denarius. If you recall, the last time Harry dealt with Nicodemus, well, things didn't go well for our heroes. Especially Michael Carpenter.

Mab lends Harry out to Nicodemus in order to fulfill a bargain she made. What follows is quite simply your typical heist novel. Except for the item being stolen is the Holy Grail. And they are stealing it from Hades. So yeah, other than that, totally what you'd expect.

SKIN GAME is easily my favorite Dresden Files novel since PROVEN GUILTY. I think it has to do with Butcher finally getting back around to some of the best stuff in the world he has created. The Order of the Blackened Denarius. The Knights of the Cross. Michael freaking Carpenter. Butters. Karrin.

Think about it. Most of these parts? We haven't sen them since book ten, SMALL FAVOR. I know there are reasons, but geez. I was going into withdrawals. Michael and Harry have always had the best kind of rapport, and to see it in full swing again, was completely awesome. I was also happy to see how Karrin reacted to Harry. Look, the "will they, won't they" thing has toed the line for a LONG time. It's addressed directly in SKIN GAME (not gonna say which way).

Say it with me, folks. Character growth. All the messing up that TURN COAT did has been more than made up for (I'll just pretend that novel never happened). Michael, Karrin, Butters (holy crap, Butters!), and most importantly, Harry. There is significant growth in this novel. Significant.

Humor is back and in full form. Nearly every joke is timed perfectly. Only one felt forced (and unfortunately it was used over and over). The action is fast and hard-hitting. One of my new favorite characters makes his debut--Goodman Grey. The pacing in flawless. Yeah. This novel is completely awesome.

SKIN GAME is Jim Butcher at his best. I loved it. I loved what it accomplished, and I loved what it set into motion. With the fifteenth novel in his series, Butcher manages to keep the fire alive. More than that, he stokes it to a white-hot blaze. There is no settling here, and never once did I feel Butcher was taking the easy way out. It all felt completely natural. I haven't been this excited for the next novel in the Dresden Files in years.

Recommended Age: 17+
Profanity: About normal for a Dresden novel. Can get really strong, but mostly sticks to mild profanities.
Violence: Very much so. Poor Harry gets his butt kicked a lot in this one. And that's the mild stuff.
Sex: One fairly explicit scene. Lots of references.

Go grab it folks:

SKIN GAME

The Lives of Tao

Roen Tan is a truly ordinary guy. He's got a software-coding job he tolerates, his roommate is smarter and better-looking than he is, he visits the bars on weekend, could use a gym membership, and can't bring himself to asking out that cute co-worker for a drink.

Until one fateful day when Tao, an alien stuck on Earth for thousands of years, is forced to find a host body ASAP--he cannot survive long in Earth's toxic environment--and Roen is it. This event changes Roen's life completely as he is thrown into a war between aliens, with his own life in the crosshairs. He must train while his identity is still unknown, or else risk dying and sending Tao on to another host.

THE LIVES OF TAO follows Roen's training and brings us up to speed on the Quasling's secret war among the humans. While humans were barely a thought, the Quaslings were stranded on Earth and were key in human development; sometime during the Middle Ages, they broke into factions, their differing philosophies of human development the reason. You can blame WWI and WWII on their struggle, and even events such as a the Spanish Inquisition. You'd think that beings who have lived for thousands of years would know better.

Personally I think this is more a guy book. I'm sure there are some women who'll enjoy it, but I found THE LIVES OF TAO goofy, campy, and boring. Chu tries to make Tao sound wise, but it doesn't come across naturally--like a high school kid trying to sound wise without having really lived it.

The prose was pretty utilitarian. There was enough description to get by, but the emotions felt tacked on, as though his editor told him to add some in before the final draft, or else Roen would have felt like a robot (he still kind of did). Roen has conversations with Tao in his head, but I couldn't always tell the difference between this and what he does say out loud, so that was awkward and confusing. It's easy to compare Chu with other Campbell Award nominees, such as Max Gladstone, and look at a couple pages of only the prose--it's easy to see that Chu has a long way to go before his prose loses its awkward choppiness.

Roen himself wasn't a very exciting guy. Not that he had to be exciting, but he didn't have much more than a standard personality. I guess that was the point, kind of like the T.V. show Chuck, how the regular guy ends up becoming an agent. But TAO falls flat. Does he have any hobbies? Interests? The secondary characters fare even worse, with Roen's roommate a mere caricature, his girlfriend woefully undeveloped, and even Tao the wise one himself felt bland.

The story is ok, even a little fun what-if. And I understand the point of the story as Roen deals with his new-found knowledge as well as the new military life that doesn't suit him at all. But it was so boring. I just didn't care about Roen doing another tai chi training, or splurging on pizza because of a rough workout, or his crush on trainer Sonya (the host of another alien). It all felt like a meandering lead-up to what should have felt like an exciting, explosive ending, except that his description of action is a perfunctory and bland recount of what fist went where.

My biggest gripe is what the entire story ends up revolving around: Tao forces himself on Roen, who ends up having to train and completely turn his life around for some alien with unknown purpose. How's Roen supposed to know Tao is actually the good guy? Roen ends up becoming a solider in a war he didn't sign up for and for which he's woefully inadequate, no matter how much training he gets. Just doesn't seem like something a nice alien would do to some poor shmuck.

Read THE LIVES OF TAO and vote for it if it's better than the other stuff on the Campbell Award Nominations list, but I doubt it is.

Recommended Age: 14+ pretty safe stuff for your teenage boys
Language: Not much
Violence: A fair amount, but not gruesome
Sex: Vague references

Find this book here:

THE LIVES OF TAO

GIVEAWAY!

UPDATE: Thanks to all those that entered! There were a lot more of you than we anticipated... Pretty sure that speaks more to the awesomeness of Brian McClellan and Daniel Abraham than to us here at EBR...

...oh who am I kidding. This was because of us!

Here are the winners:
THE WIDOW'S HOUSE (when released) - Joel Prinster
THE CRIMSON CAMPAIGN - Erin Terry

Congrats to the winners! And a HUGE thank you to Orbit for letting us give these novels away!

That's right! Lady elitists and gentleman elitists, step right up!

So, how awesome is Orbit these days? Answer: completely. They put out some of the best quality fiction on the market, and a number of my favorite authors write for them. There are two novels that I cannot wait to read and review, and you all should be feeling the same.

And Orbit is kindly letting Elitist Book Reviews give a copy of each of those away.

Yeah, baby.

Before I tell you the books, here are the rules:
1) Email us at the web address on the blog.
2) Put "Orbit Giveaway" as the subject line.
3) In the body of the email, put which of the two novels you want, and why.
4) USA entries only.
5) Love EBR for the rest of your life.

Pretty simple.

So here are the novels:

THE WIDOW'S HOUSE, by Daniel Abraham. If you haven't been reading this series, I encourage you to stop everything (unless you are driving. If that's the case, what are you doing checking the internet WHILE DRIVING!?). I love these novels more than just about anything  being put out these days.

THE CRIMSON CAMPAIGN, by Brian McClellan. Brian is a good friend of mine, and his novels are excellent. My biggest nomination disappointment this year was that he wasn't nominated for the Campbell Award. But hey, he won a Gemmell. Seems like the better deal.

Contest ends next week, on July 8th.

Hugo 2014 Novelette Nominations

This year's nominations are all very different and good in their own way, but only one really stood out to me and will get my vote (read them yourself and decide which one is worth your vote!). We'll cover the others first:

"The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" by Ted Chiang (Subterranean, Fall 2013) at first threw me off because it reads like an essay--which is essentially what it is, but it's merely another way to tell the PoV character's story. Technology has made perfect memory available to every human being via a product called Remem that not only records one's life, but you can instantly search for events and replay them. Had an argument with your wife and she swears you're wrong? Simply run a search and find out. In parallel, Chiang tells the story of Jijingi, a young man from a simple village who learns writing from a missionary. Chiang's prose is easy to read, the tone conversational. We follow the thought process as the PoV character works through the issues involved in instant memory and insists that sometimes it's better to forget, otherwise forgiveness is difficult. But then he learns an important lesson about himself as a result of instant memory...and for most readers it's that revelation that made this story nominatable, but to me it felt disingenuous and preachy. I finished it without the satisfaction I usually expect at the end of short works.

"Opera Vita Aeterna" by Vox Day (THE LAST WITCHKING, Marcher Lord Hinterlands) is a fantasy about magician-elf Bessarias who travels to an abbey to discover how men of faith obtain power to perform their miracles. He asks to stay and learn, but the abbot makes him promise not to use his magic while there. An unlikely friendship is formed as they discuss theology and other topics, and Bessarias discovers a love of illuminating sacred texts. But his stay there is interrupted once a year as his demon familiar attempts to convince his elf master to return home. Here the prose isn't as clean as the other authors', Day tends to wander in his story and wording, giving "Opera" a fairy-tale feel. While it was interesting, I didn't find the story as compelling as it could have been, mostly as a result of a lack of attachment to the characters.

"The Waiting Stars" by Aliette de Bodard (THE OTHER HALF OF THE SKY, Candlemark & Gleam) was hard to follow at first, the plot not telegraphed early on--which threw me off since it's a short work. Fortunately, the author is able to say a lot in few words, and the story begins to blossom when we meet Catherine, who is stuck in an institution, the circumstances unclear as to why she's there or why she yearns to travel out into space. At the same time Lan and her cousin Cuc work to rescue their family spaceship from the Outsiders, who've captured the ships and the Minds that power them. De Bodard weaves a compelling story as we attempt to understand the mystery of Catherine's situation and also the interesting culture of Lan and Cuc. I finished the story feeling like there's so much potential in the world-building--the shortness of "The Waiting Stars" was a disappointment because there was still so much to learn about these fascinating people (not necessarily a bad thing!).

"The Exchange Officers" by Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jan-Feb 2013) is about an American space station where the "astronauts" are avatar-like proxies that are controlled by military "Operators" from a safe distance on Earth. The Chinese have decided to try to take over the incomplete space station, and Chopper (Warrant Officer Dan Jaraczuk) and Chesty (Warrant Officer Mavy Stoddard) are the only Operators able to fight back after the initial EMP. Torgersen jumps from action to flashback--where they meet and begin training with the proxies. He has complete control of the story, it never lags, but still gives you the information you need to begin liking these characters and understand the delicacy of their situation. It's a fun story with an unexpected ending--my second favorite of the nominations.

"The Lady Astronaut of Mars" by Mary Robinette Kowal (maryrobinettekowal.com/Tor.com, 09-2013) tells us that humans have been settling Mars since the 1950s, all thanks to the lady astronaut Elma. Now Elma is in her 60s, long past the age for any more space missions, no matter how badly she wants to go. But even if there were to be a mission, her beloved husband Nathanial only has a little while longer to live. Then she's approached by the director of the Bradbury Space Center on Mars for a solo mission from which she might not come back. Now she must make a painful decision: leave Nathanial before his death and feel guilt over it for the rest of her life, or turn down the mission and regret her one last chance to be in space again. Kowal is a beautiful writer, full of emotion, even if it's not the grand epic variety--I think it's the closer-to-home stories that touch us best. Here Kowal moves us to Mars where one would think that life would be different, but then shows us that no matter where we go the human experience remains the same. I teared up because the story so lovely.

So maybe I'm a sap for a sweet love story, even if it's for a couple of geriatric astronauts, but "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" gets my vote for the 2014 Hugo.

Veil of the Deserters

VEIL OF THE DESERTERS is the sequel to SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER by Jeff Salyards, a Sword & Sorcery novel that earned a spot in our Best of 2012 lineup. The first book in Bloodsounder's Arc unexpectedly blew me away (so much so that I read it and reviewed it twice) and I've been waiting for the sequel ever since. In the time that has passed I've read a lot of books but SCOURGE has managed to remain vivid in my imagination.

I've also come to understand (if not completely agree) with some of the criticisms leveled at the first book. This time I've got some criticisms of my own to share, though they hardly kept me from loving, what is shaping up to be, one of my favorite fantasy series of all time.

Here's the Amazon book description:

 Braylar is still poisoned by the memories of those slain by his unholy flail Bloodsounder, and attempts to counter this sickness have proven ineffectual. The Syldoonian Emperor, Cynead, has solidified his power in unprecedented ways, and Braylar and company are recalled to the capital to swear fealty. Braylar must decide if he can trust his sister, Soffjian, with the secret that is killing him. She has powerful memory magics that might be able to save him from Bloodsounder’s effects, but she has political allegiances that are not his own. Arki and others in the company try to get Soffjian and Braylar to trust one another, but politics in the capital prove to be complicated and dangerous. Deposed emperor Thumarr plots to remove the repressive Cynead, and Braylar and Soffjian are at the heart of his plans. The distance between “favored shadow agent of the emperor” and “exiled traitor” is unsurprisingly small. But it is filled with blind twists and unexpected turns. Before the journey is over, Arki will chronicle the true intentions of Emperor Cynead and Soffjian.

So VEIL OF THE DESERTERS picks up immediately after SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER leaves off. VEIL is a much larger book (nearly twice the length) but in a lot of ways it reads like the next installment in a serial. Those who complained about the length and ending of SCOURGE can consider this PART II. Neither of these books should be read as a standalone, nor should they be read out of order. This isn't a condemnation (this is a series after all) so much as it is an observation. With this sequel Salyards further develops the characters and their relationships with the world and with each other.

The characters were my favorite part of the first book. Told from the perspective of Arki, readers learn to love and loathe the Syldoon soldiers. The beautiful prose brings Arki to life. If you're going to tell a story from the perspective of a scribe it's best to make the writing reflect that and Salyards succeeds on this front. He strings vivid sentences together with a mastery I consider unrivaled, even among my favorite authors. The world portrayed in these novels could be called grimdark -- characters bear surnames like Killcoin, inns go by titles such as the Grieving Dog and there's a Forest of Deadmoss, the capital of the Syldoon empire is called Sunwrack, and the gods are deserters -- but there's an undeniable beauty that can be attributed to the prose.

In his short time with Captain Killcoin and the crew Arki has endured personal loss, though he is still an outsider. The Syldoon don't trust him and the arrival of two Memoridons, magicians that manipulate memory, only serves to pique further suspicion. Those who complained about the lack of female characters in SCOURGE (despite the presence of Lloi, a wonderfully realized character) will find much to appreciate in the Memoridons. Both are strong characters with agency, but for different reasons. Soffjian is sister to the prickly Captain Killcoin, and she can match him verbal blow for blow. Then there's Skeelana, a woman out of her element, much like Arki. These two new characters provide new opportunities and dangers for our narrator to navigate through.

Those who survived SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER make a return. Captain Braylar Killcoin continues to be vastly compelling. I've never read a character that better exemplified bipolar disorder. It's impossible to predict Braylar's moods and there's an aura of danger that permeates his every action and word. The presence of his sister throws a wrench into all of his careful scheming and we even get a glimpse of Braylar's back story.

With VEIL OF THE DESERTERS Salyards spends time building on all the delicious bite sized morsels he teased at in the first book. We get to learn more about the Syldoon and their recruiting practices, the Memoridons and their magic, Bloodsounder with its ties to the Deserter Gods, and even the governing practices in the Capital of Coups. All of these details and more create an irresistible and absorbing setting. Reading SCOURGE I suspected that what at times appeared to be the trappings of typical Eurocentric fantasy concealed something much deeper. It's good to see that I was not mistaken. And still I want more. Visiting the Syldoon city of Sunwrack, Capital of Coups, was marvelous but short lived. Such a grand city(the likes of which has not yet been experienced in the series) deserves a larger section of the book for exploration. I get the feeling that we're still only catching a glimpse of what Salyards has in store and I hope the series is long lived so that we can delve into all its nooks and crannies.

There's plenty of action (as to be expected when dealing with the Syldoon) and Salyards treats it with all the weight and authenticity it deserves. Fighting is fast and bloody, tides turn and fortunes reverse, and a slip of footing can mean the difference between life and death. No one is ever safe in the George R.R. Martin fashion, as Salyards made evident in SCOURGE. Previously this series was of the Sword & Sorcery sub-genre but with the exclusion of Bloodsounder it was missing the Sorcery. The addition of the Memoridons brings the heat. The memory magic practiced by Soffjian and Skeelana brings some interesting possibilities to play and I'm excited to see that develop as the series continues.

My biggest complaint about VEIL concerns the dialogue. I cannot deny that Salyards writes flowing dialogue that is sharp. The problem I encountered while reading VEIL is that no matter how well written it is it can at time feel repetitive. There's too much parry and riposte to feel completely natural. It makes for entertaining reading but after a while you can start to predict the general structure of conversation. I believe that SCOURGE balanced this a lot better, though perhaps it became more apparent to me reading VEIL because the sequel is so much longer.

In all other areas VEIL OF THE DESERTERS is bigger and better. There's more action, more character, more world building, more danger, more plot development, more everything really. Salyards is hitting his stride, dodging the sophomore slump and playing the long game. Readers get some answers and pose new questions, all the while rooting for the unlikely hero Arkamondos and his deadly allies within the Jackal Tower of the Syldoon Empire.

Recommended Age: 16+
Language: Heavy and frequent.
Violence: Heavy and bloody.
Sex: None.

Here are your links:

SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER
VEIL OF THE DESERTERS

Prince of Fools

When I read PRINCE OF THORNS, I was blown away. I know, I know. I've said this a time or two. Or twenty. It's no secret that Mark Lawrence has become one of my favorite authors. His novels are a breath of fresh air, and are an absolute pleasure to read. And so now we come to the start of a new series set in the same world as Lawrence's other novels. PRINCE OF FOOLS.

As much as I loved The Broken Empire trilogy, I knew that I wanted something different with Lawrence's latest. I wanted the same quality of writing, and new and amazing characters. But it didn't want it to feel like he was writing an...imitation...of Jorg. I know that sounds odd. I know that sounds like I set my expectations at an absurdly high level.

From page one, PRINCE OF FOOLS the same incredible quality of writing.

The novel had new, amazing characters.

It was completely different from Lawrence's prior novels.

PRINCE OF FOOLS takes place concurrently with The Broken Empire. If there is one slight quibble, it is that I had trouble, in the beginning, placing this novel in the timeline. I wasn't sure when this was. And then all those concerns went away. We are introduced to Jalan Kendeth, the Red Queen's grandson, and thus a prince. But he's fairly far down the line of succession, so he spends his days in the beds of as many women as possible. Until, of course, everything goes wrong when he is introduced to the Viking, Snorri ver Snagason.

The most immediate difference in PRINCE OF FOOLS is tone. Where Jorg was essentially an irredeemable character--which turned off many a reader--you don't ever get that sense from Jalan. Misguided? Sure. A coward? Well, Jalan certain thinks that of himself. There is a more humorous tone throughout the entire novel, and it manages to always be perfectly timed. I found myself laughing out-loud numerous times at Jalan's internal and external musings.

Don't get me wrong, this is still dark fantasy. Things are grim. People are dying left and right. But PRINCE OF FOOLS is certainly more fun than the prior trilogy. This contributes to the pacing, which is Lawrence's most effortlessly paced novel yet.

What this story amounts to is a quest of sorts. Jalan and Snorri end up joined together by magic. While Snorri wishes to find his missing family, Jalan ends up coming along because he's rather forced to. It seems simple enough, but as the story progresses, it also unfolds into something much, much more deep and potentially sinister.

I love the characters in PRINCE OF FOOLS. Jalan never ceased to make me laugh, and his attitude of "run away" was refreshing in a fantasy novel. Snorri is the perfect counterpoint--intentionally--to Jalan. The balance between the two is incredible. Where Jalan provides the comedy and the moral progression of the novel, Snorri reminds us why Lawrence is known for writing dark fantasy. That's all I'm going to say about that. I don't want to spoil anything.

Perhaps the best thing about PRINCE OF FOOLS is how it opens up so much more of the world. It is grounded in the "present" where The Broken Empire had such a focus on how the world got to where it's at. As a result, if has a more "fantasy" vibe to it than the prior novels.

I'm going to say this, and I don't say it lightly. I love PRINCE OF FOOLS just as much as I loved PRINCE OF THORNS. I didn't think I could be any more impressed by Mark Lawrence, but I find myself mistaken. Lawrence proves, with PRINCE OF FOOLS, that he is one of the best in the business. Period.

Waiting for the next book is going to be pure agony.

Recommended Age: 17+
Profanity: What you expect from Lawrence's novels, but a bit less frequent.
Violence: Holy crap, yes. All sorts. It's more visceral in this series. More immediate.
Sex: Alluded to, talked about, initiated, but not quite shown in detail.

Get this book. It's incredible. You don't even have to have read the prior series.

PRINCE OF FOOLS

Weak and Wounded

I was in the mood for some Horror short fiction the other day. Fortunately, Cemetery Dance sent me over a small collection from one of their regular authors, Brian James Freeman, that seemed like just the ticket.

WEAK AND WOUNDED is the name of the collection, and in it are five horror stories.

The interesting thing about Freeman's brand of Horror, in my limited experience thus far, is a more grounded type of Horror. I had my first reading experience of Freeman's work in TURN DOWN THE LIGHTS with the story, "An Instant Eternity". It was one of the stories I liked the most in that collection, and it really made me anticipate reading WEAK AND WOUNDED. I wanted to see if the style I saw in that story would feed through this collection.

The following is from Cemetery Dance's webpage:

In "Running Rain," a devastated husband and wife try to pretend life can somehow be normal again after their son becomes a victim of a serial killer known as The Riverside Strangler... but the dark secrets they're keeping from each other push their relationship to the brink.

In "Marking the Passage of Time," a couple approaches the end of the world in their own ways as the clock ticks down and they try to figure out where all of the time has gone...

"Where Sunlight Sleeps" is the tale of a grieving father and his young son, both dealing with a shared loss the best they can, who take a trip down a memory lane lined with jagged edges and vicious traps...

On "The Last Beautiful Day," a devoted husband returns to the scene of the worst day of his life by volunteering for a job that is both morbid and profound.

"Walking With the Ghosts of Pier 13" is the story of a young man visiting the beach front amusement park where his brother died during a terrorist attack. He wants to understand why a madman came to this place and blew himself up and killed so many innocent people... but the answer to that question might not be the only thing waiting for the young man when he starts walking with the ghosts.

Of all those stories, my favorite was "Running Rain". Don't get me wrong, all the stories were good. "Running Rain" was great. It's the kind of story that has me looking at my own writing to see how I can improve. I keep trying to pick my second favorite story, and I change my mind every time. Each has merits. What I love about all these stories is the way in which they are all grounded in a version of reality.

What Freeman seems to understand is how to make every situation utterly horrific. These stories are very personal Horror rather than monster-centric. I know many people that would scoff at this brand of Horror, and to each their own I suppose. To me, these stories were far more terrifying because they seemed more...I don't know...close to home. Certainly not all of Freeman's stories will follow this narrative vein, but I love that he can write this type of story so incredibly well.

I would also point out that there is a haunting quality to the way Freeman writes. "Where Sunlight Sleeps" and  "The Last Beautiful Day" really demonstrate this. It's a bit hard to write about in reviews of short stories without spoiling anything, so trust me. These stories are terrifying in their own way, and will haunt you.

If there is an issue with this collection, it is that it is hard to find. It sold out at Cemetery Dance. Hopefully they will make it available as an ebook. It is an extremely quick read due partially to length, but mostly to not wanting to put it down.You can find it on ebay and Amazon, fortunately, but probably not for long.

WEAK AND WOUNDED is a terrific collection, and one of the Horror anthologies that has stayed with me most, and caused me to simply nod my head in appreciation. Freeman is an incredible author, and I cannot wait to read more of his work.

Recommended Age: 16+
Profanity: Only in one story, and it's brief
Violence: I'm not gonna say much here, but it's what Freeman DOESN'T show that stands out
Sex: Nope

WEAK AND WOUNDED

Reflected

Silver and her mate Andrew are the alphas of the Roanoke werewolf pack, the largest in North America. But they're more than just that, they've been sworn fealty by the alphas in all the other packs in North America, as well. There's a benefit to having two alphas--they can  divide and conquer, which comes in handy when there's an entire continent to manage.

When Andrew leaves for Alaska to intervene in a case for the human mother of an infant Were, Silver must manage everything else that comes up: the pregnant alpha of a sub-pack with a recalcitrant beta, a roamer from South America coming through her territory, and a step-daughter who doesn't know what to do with herself that doesn't involve causing trouble.

Her fragile mind handles Were issues fine, but when she deals with humans she risks looking insane--and that doesn't even include exposing the reality of Weres to the outside world. This makes her an obvious target of the vengeful European pack from Madrid whose balance of power was diminished in book two, TARNISHED (EBR review), as a result of her and Andrew.

The different thing about Held's book in the Urban Fantasy genre is her deep exploration of Were culture and behavior. I enjoy reading her take on it and the problems caused by the culture that have to be dealt with. It's something she handles with finesse across all three books. Silver is the star of the series, I find her fascinating as a broken Were who despite everything still has the dominance and confidence to be an alpha in her own right. She is insightful to others' problems and understands her own limitations.

But while I enjoyed SILVER (EBR review) and TARNISHED, REFLECTED felt flat for me.

It's pretty simple, really. Andrew spends 95% of the book off-stage (he's pretty cool and I wish we could see more of him). And while REFLECTED is told much from Silver's PoV, here Andrew's daughter Felicia becomes the central figure. It's been three years since the events in TARNISHED, so now Felicia is eighteen and must decide about the next stage of her life, whether she becomes a roamer, get a job, or go to college.

I don't dislike Felicia, but I also don't particularly enjoy her character. I'm coming to the realization that I haven't found many teenage girl characters I've truly liked (a hold-over from high school drama? dunno), and Felicia is more of the same wishy-washy, secretive behavior that makes this mom of a teenager go batty. I haven't been a teenage girl for...a while...and even when I was a teen I was more rational that most. So take that for what it's worth.

Even then, I think I have some grounds for being annoyed at Felicia's behavior with the roamer and the raw deal she gives Silver. The solution wasn't hard, she eventually finds it in the end after some colossally dumb behavior. Is the plot contrived? I think so. Did Felicia carry this story? She doesn't have Silver's charisma, that's for sure. These issues might have been glossed over by a YA audience, but the graphic sex scene at the start ruins that notion or else I might have let my teen read it. Perhaps the drama would have made more sense to her.

Recommended Age: 17+
Language: Minimal
Violence: Some fighting and blood
Sex: A detailed scene opens the novel; other references (more than in the previous novels)

Find this series here:

SILVER

TARNISHED

REFLECTED

Steles of the Sky

It took me a while to catch on to this series by Elizabeth Bear.  I'd seen reviews when the first book, RANGE OF GHOSTS, came out, including here at EBR (see that review here).  I even saw the second book in the series, SHATTERED PILLARS, come out and also reviewed here (see that review here).  The books started to sit in my mind a bit.  It took a while, but they sounded like something I needed to be a part of.  So late last year I finally got RANGE OF GHOSTS (loved it), and for Christmas I received SHATTERED PILLARS (fantastic) so that I could be ready to go when the last volume STELES OF THE SKY came out.

I got STELES OF THE SKY in the mail and tore into it.  I was excited to spend more time with the fabulous characters that Elizabeth Bear had created.  This is one of those series that starts off pretty simply.  We followed Temur on his journeys.  We watched him find Edene and love her.  We watched the wizard Samarkar save Temur's life and start to journey with him.  For the first book it seemed that this was mostly Temur's and Samarkar's story (with occasional interludes from the bad guy, Al-Sepherthe, and Edene).  SHATTERED PILLARS expanded the series and we grew to know more about Hrahima the Cho-tse tiger (a very cool character), and Hsuing the warrior priest with a vow of silence.  I mean, it just kept getting better and better.

I can happily say that STELES OF THE SKY wrapped up the series nicely for me.  The stories build into one another flawlessly.  Bear leads us through this wonderful land at a brisk, but even pace that never left me confused.  There are some big great scenes in this one, scenes that I was really waiting the whole series for.  I left feeling sad that I wouldn't get to spend more time in this world with these characters.  That's what series are all about really, right?  We find a world that just entrances us, characters that are fun to read about and see what they are up to.  One book won't satisfy us so we need more, we need duologies and trilogies and ten book massive series just so we can go back again and again (like vacationing in your favorite spot over and over again).  This is a fun vacation spot to enjoy folks.  I wish I had a brochure to show you all that this trilogy offers...but you'll just have to stick with the reviews here at EBR for now until you buy the novels yourselves.  I would tempt you into it with beautiful vistas, and stunning moments.  The people you'll meet!  The sights you'll see!  You're just gonna have to take my word for it I guess.

The only problem I had with this last book (and it's a small thing in relation to the whole) was strangely enough, the lack of Temur.  He was the character I started with.  He was my first and most important window into this world, and as much as I enjoyed the other characters (and I really did) I kind of missed Temur in this one.  It felt like he got shoved to the sides for a bit of the book and I wanted to experience some of these events through his eyes.  I wanted to see it and feel it with him.

I nitpick.  This series is really great.  It took me awhile to catch on but hopefully you (my dear readers) are smarter than me and already know what I've just finished figuring out.  THIS SERIES ROCKS!

Age Recommendation: 16+
Language: There are a few words, a scattering of F words (less than 10 I think) and little else
Violence: Never described in much detail even in the battle scenes
Sex: Mentioned a few times, never shown in detail

Here are your links so you can enjoy the series as much as we do here at EBR:

RANGE OF GHOSTS
SHATTERED PILLARS
STELES OF THE SKY

Tin Star

Stranded on an alien space station when she's left behind by her colony ship, Tula is never able to contact them again. She must now learn to survive as a lone human among less than friendly aliens. Tula prepares for the day when she can have her revenge on Brother Blue, the man who left her behind, and who was responsible for the disappearance of the colony ship.

She begins to think she will never get off the station until one day, three years after being stranded, three humans arrive and are stranded themselves.

TIN STAR is easy to read, the prose smooth and surprisingly gentle for the subject matter. We are introduced to the station, the aliens, and the politics in an almost off-hand way. Not like they're unimportant, but that Tula's real attention is somewhere else--so explaining the details of the world she lives in and those who populate it take second fiddle. As a result the world-building feels incomplete and at times it's hard to truly visualize Tula's surroundings as the story progresses.

Tula is clever, but also isolated. Stranded as a girl, she spends her teenage years having to depend on her own self for survival. She learns how to communicate with the aliens in ways that they understand--even becoming friends with a few of them--and how to use trade to get what she needs. Since the book is told from her PoV we're limited to understanding the secondary characters, especially the aliens, and as a result their actions don't make sense until explained after the fact. This makes character interactions sometimes feel contrived, and it's those very interactions upon which a credible conclusion rely. (Hint: the ending, while exciting, wasn't exactly credible.)

The prose and forward movement of the story hides deeper problems. I found the same issue in THE 5TH WAVE (EBR review): the narration was so smooth and confident it was easy to accept the events and behaviors as real. Until you stopped to think about them, that is. The one thing THE 5TH WAVE did well that TIN STAR doesn't is the emotion. Tula talks about events so blandly that it gives readers too much distance. For example we know she wants revenge on Brother Blue...but do we ever really feel her rage?

I didn't hate this book. It was still an interesting read, and YA readers who are new to Sci Fi may find TIN STAR a good introduction to the genre without being overwhelmed. But just warn them that not all Sci Fi is this bland.

Recommended Age: 14+
Language: None
Violence: One vague fight
Sex: None

Find this book here:

TIN STAR

Three Princes

It's the year 1877, but not like we would recognize. Egypt's capital Memphis is the center of civilization, its Pharaoh the lord over Europe, Africa, and much of Asia. Scott Oken and Mikel Mabruke are agents of the Pharaoh, even though they have royal titles of their own (like the Pharaoh, they are descended from Cesar and Cleopatra). They travel the world to secure intelligence for the empire, to keep it safe and strong.

Oken is called home from an assignment and Mabruke out of retirement to be sent on a special quest for the queen: to discover what the Inca king is up to. Some suspect he's building a rocket ship that will go all the way to the moon, and the queen of Egypt doesn't want to be left out of the endeavor.

As Oken and Mabruke travel across the ocean to the cradle of western civilization, they discover that the plans are much more nefarious than expected--of course.

I liked this book on the surface, it was entertaining and clever, particularly the technological elements. The prose was lively and the novel itself was easy to read...only if I didn't think too much about it. After it was over and I had some time to understand what really happened, I was disappointed. Wheeler sets up the story well enough, with lots of initial details to suck you in, and with plenty of exciting situations our heroes must find their way out of. Unfortunately, despite all that effort, THREE PRINCES falls frustratingly short.

It falls short in the world-building. Since it's an alternate history novel of Egypt and Maya civilizations that continued instead of collapsing, Wheeler attempts to show how they would have modernized. But even an amateur historian like myself was left with a lot of questions. There are references to people like Queen Victoria, Galileo, and so on, but how can they exist in a world where England and Italy did not evolve in a way where they would be the same as in our world? How did the Maya not collapse? How did Egypt retain its power and spread? What events allowed this to happen? I wasn't expecting a history book, but some hints would have been helpful so I could find this alternate world more believable.

While I enjoyed Oken as the PoV narrator, I never once felt like I could take the characters and situations in THREE PRINCES seriously. Maybe that's what Wheeler intended, a sort of cartoony off-the-wall zaniness. Maybe a campy kind of Egyptian James Bond. I don't know, but it still didn't quite work. Everything was too perfect: all the food was delicious; everything was luxurious and well-made; the bad people were not only insane they were stupid and easy to defeat and had no clear motivations; the women were all beautiful and clever; the heroes were smart and perfectly justified and a little too modern in their sensibilities. It didn't feel like a real place or that these people could have existed.

And isn't that the point of alternate histories? To explore the 'what if' and to carry it out in a way that would follow logical conclusions based on reasonable hypothesis? The premise is there and it's cool, but the story relies too much on coincidence to give it the structure it needed to carry the story to a reasonable conclusion.

Recommended Age: 16+
Language: Almost none
Violence: Scattered and some blood, but not particularly graphic
Sex: Implied and referenced

Find this book here:

THREE PRINCES