BOOKS!  Where are the great books? 


Camber of Culdi - Katherine Kurtz

Camber of Culdi was originally published in 1976, following on the heels of the thrilling exploits of the young King Kelson Haldane in The Chronicles of the Deryni trilogy. In Deryni chronologically terms, however, this novel is the oldest, going back in time to shed light on the mysterious Saint Camber, who is reviled and revered in equal measure by the populous of the Kingdom of Gwynedd in Kelson’s time.  And here readers come face-to-face with this Deryni legend.


The ruler of Gweynedd at this time in Camber’s life is the young Imre; his ancestor Festil I, the Conqueror, having brutally overthrown the human kings centuries before, seizing power for the Deryni race.  These very human-like people living along side the population, normal in every way except in their extraordinary mental powers which are rumored to be magic.  And while the Deryni overlordship of the land has not been all bad, it has taken a decidedly downward turn upon the ascension of Imre, who is a horrible racist (He views humans as nothing more than livestock to be worked, taxed, and killed as needed.) and more than a little insane.  These qualities having caused Camber MacRorie, Earl of Culdi, to retire from court; his duties to the crown passed to his eldest son, Cathan, who has been fast friends with Imre since childhood.


This self-imposed retirement of the Earl seems to be for the best.  The quiet life suiting him, allowing Camber to spend his days on ecclesiastical and historical study as well as family time: his daughter Evaine mainly, though he is close with his sons Cathan and Joram too.  The greater goings-on of the kingdom still of interest to him, but his belief that younger men should guide the king into more prudent rulership.  But then two events occur simultaneously: Imre decreeing that innocent humans must die in punishment for the murder of a Deryni, and an elderly human on his deathbed passing along a deadly secret to Camber’s son-in-law Rhys Thuryn.  These unrelated events setting off a chain reaction which forces Camber of Culdi to contemplate betraying his ruling monarch and, perhaps, the Deryni race itself!


Having read this (and the other Deryni novels) as a teenager growing up in the 1980s, picking up Camber of Culdi again after all these years was both a welcome return to a childhood haunt and a trepidatious homecoming  for an older, more cynical me.  And, after finishing my re-read, I have to admit being both pleased and disappointed with the novel, though I definitely feel more of the former rather than the latter.


On the pleased side, I have to point to the wonderful world of the Deryni, which I still found as engrossing and as entertaining as it was decades ago.  This fantasy version of medieval Europe filled with royal houses, political machinations, and the unique Deryni.  What set it apart from other series is Katherine Kurtz’s wholesale inclusion of the Catholic Church in her story; medieval Christianity fully in place with Jesus Christ having died on the cross, his followers having spread across the world, monasteries and militant orders dotting the landscape, and the learned quoting Latin Psalms.  This inclusion of religion allowing the author to capture the true nature of this historical setting, to show the clash of secular and religious powers, and to juxtapose the dual nature of devotedly religious people committing horrible deeds in the name of secular power.


On the disappointed side, I have to acknowledge this group of characters were a bit of a letdown for me (though, to be completely honest, I never loved them as much as I did Kelson, Morgan, and company).  Camber always seemed more a saint than a real person.  His children Cathan, Joram, and Evaine (as well as other confidantes like Rhys) had brief flashes of personality, but never received a real opportunity to grow into anyone truly special.  King Imre and other “bad guys” were penned as fairly one dimensional creatures, easily labeled as the “insane tyrant”, “the “evil temptress”, or the “scheming liar.”  And there was a complete absence of female main characters, though that might be a result of the time period when the book was first published more than anything else.


Overall, Camber of Culdi is a fine fantasy read filled with political scheming, dynastic intrigue, and a touch of magic, set in a wonderfully developed faux-medieval Europe with a fully realized Catholic Church.  For longtime lovers of the Deryni novels, it will be a joyful return to a familiar home, replete with iconic characters and an easily followed tale told in Katherine Kurtz memorable style.  To those new to the series, I would encourage them to read the first trilogy, The Chronicles of the Deryni, before delving in here, because the revelations in this book could ruin very important plot elements there.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.


Entertaining Urban Fantasy

Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel - Gail Z Martin

Vendetta is the second book in Gail Z. Martin’s Deadly Curiosities series (though there are also several story stories and novellas as well). Set in Trifles & Folly, the antique shop of twenty-something Cassidy Kincaid, it chronicles our heroine’s urban fantasy adventures, as she uses her psychometry gift (knowing an objects history after touching it) to continue her family tradition of aiding the “Alliance.” This shadowy group led by a 600-year-old vampire named Sorren, whose goal is to safeguard the mortal world by acquiring and disposing of dangerous supernatural artifacts.

As the tale begins, Cassidy along with her friend and assistant Teag Logan find themselves investigating an abnormal amount of spirit activity in Charleston. Not that ghostly visits are rare; in fact, they are fairly common in this haunted, southern city: some appearing regularly; others coming and going. But things are different now; the spirits themselves in an uproar, terrified by something in the otherworld.

Normally, Sorren would lend help to Cassidy with a situation this large, but he has his own problems. Hundreds of years of undeath having caused him to acquire a lot of enemies; most of them forgotten (or almost forgotten) by Sorren. One of that shadowy multitude is now attacking Sorren’s other holdings, causing him to be absent when his help would have been very welcome in South Carolina.

With her immortal mentor absent, Cassidy calls in some outside experts; several Root Workers lending a hand getting to the bottom of the escalating weirdness enwrapping Charleston. Their investigation leading the group to an ominous conclusion, one which threatens the entire population of Charleston!


Because I have only experienced a handful of urban fantasy, I tend to compare every new novel I read to those which came before it, and because of its feel, I have to place Vendetta on the shelf next to Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden. Cassidy reminding me of Harry in many ways, especially how she is learning to deal with her powers and adapt on the run as supernatural crisis after supernatural crisis envelop her. Even the story itself is very Dresden-like, filled with non-stop action, focusing on Cassidy and her friends struggling to unravel mysteries, then avert imminent disaster. All of which really means this novel is a pulse-pounding adventure on par with (arguably) the best urban fantasy in the business.

One of the stellar qualities of this novel is Gail Z. Martin’s portrayal of Charleston. Here the city is a huge part of the narrative. Much more than a mere name for the setting but an integral component of the story. Its history rendered in exquisite detail. Each character living with its embrace, exhibiting the intricacies of its unique culture. Ms. Martin succeeding in capturing the essence of this place, showing it in all its southern glory. Vendetta truly fulfilling the promise of urban fantasy by making the “urban” environment just as much a part of the tale as the “fantasy.”

The characters are the only strength. Cassidy is a strong, skilled, and capable young woman; someone who is powerful but not overpowered, complex but not moody, approachable but mysterious, knowledgeable yet willing to take advice. Her friends are all unique, original, and more than willing to take turns lending aid to our heroine; they are never one dimensional in any way, but bursting at the seams with untapped potential and hidden history; all of it just waiting to be explored.


The only criticism I would level at Vendetta is the pacing; at certain points in the narrative, it is very slow. For instance, there are many chapters devoted to investigating the current supernatural crisis: clues are uncovered, leads are followed, and revelations are made, but it doesn’t result in anything other than a few fights and another mystery to resolve. Nothing wrong with that, but Cassidy and Company’s new riddle is too similar to the last one, resulting in a feeling that you’ve read all this before. All of which results in this story feeling too long, too drawn out for the payoff at the end.

Despite this one flaw, Vendetta succeeded in being an entertaining urban fantasy with an amazing setting, supernatural mysteries, compelling camaraderie, satisfying diversity, and raw emotions. Cassidy and Company braving the realistic haunting of the city, dealing with hurt, pain, and loss. Hints of romance do swirl around a bit, but it isn’t the true heart of the story. Rather, this is a tale about saving the world, or, at least, saving Charleston, South Carolina, which was a very fine read in my opinion; one all urban fantasy fans should give a try.

The publisher provided this book to me for free in return for an honest review. The review above was not paid for or influenced in any way by any person, entity or organization, but is my own personal opinions.



Chains of the Heretic: Bloodsounder's Arc Book Three - Jeff Salyards

As the concluding chapter of Bloodsounder’s Arc, Chains of the Heretic is a rousing and fitting finale; one which thunders out of the gate, determined to shed light upon every shadowy mystery and to resolve every plot line. This journey of Arki from naive scribe to trusted member of Captain Killcoin’s Syldoon company ending the only way it could: with both tears and optimism for a new beginning. But, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself; let me set the stage for this grimdark lovers delight.

Fans of this series recall how Scourge of the Betrayer set the table; Mr. Salyard’s introducing young Arkamandos (Arki for short) desperate to belong to an epic endeavor, some notable enterprise worth chronicling. And imaging he has found such with the rough and rugged Captain Killcoin, he eagerly sets off into the Kingdom of Anjuria upon an unknown mission, quickly finding himself immersed in political machinations, eye-opening violence, and legendary magical mysteries; his only desire to survive it all.

In Veil of the Deserters , the Syldoon mission in Anjuria comes to a dramatic climax, as the Captain’s estranged sister, Soffjian, arrives, recalling him to the capital upon the orders of Emperor Cynead. This summons sets off a chain of events which leads Arki deeper into the strange world of Captain Killcoin; his childhood, his rift with his memory witch sister, the exotic and dangerous world of the Syldoon Empire, and the mystery of the Captain’s unholy flail. Each of these facets of the Captain’s life shifting and merging into a dynamic and mesmerizing grimdark adventure, which triumphs in its realistic characters, true-to-life combat, and believable situations.

But now, in Chains of the Heretic, it must all end. Arki’s time with Captain Killcoin, Soffjian, and all the other Slydoon winding down. The quest to uncover the truth behind Bloodsounder’s magic, its true use, and the key to freeing the Captain from its unholy influence still at the forefront, even as the group finds itself fleeing from the city of Sunwrack, determined to find deposed Emperor Thumarr and aid in his revolution; their every move thwarted by imperial troops, who continue to drive Killcoin’s motley group toward the Godveil, where they will be trapped.

But there is one last, desperate hope. The cryptic lore discovered by Arki in moldy tomes pointing to a possible use for Bloodsounder. At least, the young scribe believes so — if he can convince Captain Killcoin to attempt it. But there is no promise it will work, and even if it does, Arki and his comrades might find themselves in even worse straits than facing their Syldoon enemies, because who can say what lies on the other side of the Godveil!

First off, I have to say this was a great book. A really amazing grimdark. Especially if you found the first two installments of the trilogy to your liking, because — likeScourge of the Betrayer and even more so Veil of the DesertersChains surrounds itself in the realistic trappings of a magical, medieval world, focuses on the people involved in the tale, and actually sets out to tell their stories without any shortcuts or deus ex machina. While it isn’t historical fantasy by any stretch, the loving details and accurate portrayals of the world and the people makes it seem so real that at times it will seem like you could hop a plane and be there in a few hours to tour the ruins. And for me, being able to fully immerse myself in a fantasy and believe it is real is the first step to falling in love with the narrative.

The second, necessary element of a great fantasy is the characters. No worries there, because Bloodsounder’s Arc has always had those.

Arki is the easy to empathize with youth, caught up in events way over his head, but willing to learn, fight to survive and, perhaps, find his place among his companions. He isn’t an instantaneous god-like hero by any stretch of the definition, but rather a real person whom you grow to like and pull for.

Captain Braylar Killcoin is so many things: the foul-mouthed soldier (Who can forget his constant “honey-cock” insults to one enemy), the rough but complex man (His past reveals so much), the harsh but fair mentor (Arki learns many hard lessons from him), and the dedicated soldier (The ending of this trilogy makes it very clear.) Each side of him turning Braylar from a simple caricature into a fully-rounded man, whom you find yourself frustrated by but always willing to forgive.

Soffjian is Braylar’s feminine side. She is still harsh, sharp as a honed blade, determined to the point of stubbornness, and unforgiving of anyone’s weaknesses, but her interactions with Arki and her brother show multiple facets of her personality. Little tidbits of humanity and her long suffering for what she is (A memory witch remember) slowly bubbling to the surface, making her a very interesting character to read about.

There are many more, but those are the big three in my eyes, and they are definitely the stars of the show.

Lastly, a story must have a compelling plot which actually pays off in the end. Lord of the Rings is the epitome of this for me personally. Tolkien taking his hobbits from their comfortable hobbit holes through the horrors of war and to fiery Mount Doom before bringing them home again — changed forever by their journey. Other series have attempted to emulate the same formula, but failed in my opinion (*Cough* The Dark Tower by Stephen King *Cough*) because their conclusions resolved nothing. But with Chains of the Heretic, Mr. Salyards hits the mark closer to Return of the King than that other unnamed (wink) series, because all the plot lines in Bloodsounder’s Arc are basically resolved here, converging together into a conclusion which not only nicely wraps up the story but acknowledges that this is merely the beginning. The start of a whole new chapter in not only Arki’s life but the other surviving characters as well, which is so realistic since life is exactly like that.

I give Chains of the Heretic and Bloodsounder’s Arc my highest recommendations; it really is one of my favorite grimdark fantasy series. While I could nitpick about small details in the narrative or bitch about this resolution or that one, I chose not to do so, because this novel should be appreciated for all the things it did so well, and I look forward to seeing Arki and friends again in the future and growing to know them again.


The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse -- YA Style!

Riders - Veronica Rossi

Riders is a YA fantasy novel from Tor Teen which is set in our present world. The story revolving around mysterious creatures who might be angels or might be demons. The problem is that our protagonist Gideon Blake, eighteen year old U.S. Army Ranger, doesn’t know which is which. Actually, he doesn’t really know what is going on most of the time, because he discovers he might have died and been resurrected as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse!

Wait, wait. I’m getting ahead of myself, because, as the book opens, we don’t know any of that. In fact, the beginning of the book is actually the end. Yeah, you read that right. Ridersstarts at the end. Gideon Blake waking up in an interrogation chamber, tied to a chair, gagged with his head covered and no idea where the hell he is at. And it is only through his conversations with his interrogator that the story begins to come into focus.

First, we discover that young Gideon has had a rough few years: his dad dying unexpectedly; the lose sending him into a downward spiral of trouble; and ultimately it causing him to join the military to straighten out his life. And it does. Or, at least, it had until a horrible training accident occurs. An accident which should have killed Gideon . . . but didn’t. Or did it? Gideon isn’t quite so sure.

After finding his way back home to California (ostensibly to stay with his mom while he recovers), the nagging belief that he actually died spurs Gideon into action. Well, that and a feeling that something mysterious is going on around him. And once a group of strange people show up at a party, speaking cryptic and exhibiting some bizarre powers, Gideon finds himself thrown together with a beautiful but frustratingly secretive girl who wants him to help her save humanity from an ancient evil which she herself barely understands.

From this setup the fun begins. Gideon and his companion journeying around to find others like him. The truth about his situation slowly coming into focus (though much of it is still in doubt even at the end); his fellow horsemen knowing more – and less – than himself; and the conclusion to this episode demanding a sequel as soon as possible.

One of the main things I found interesting about Riders was the structure of the narrative. Veronica Rossi doing a wonderful job using the “ending” as a jumping off point that immediately built tension and excitement from the first line. That coupled with Gideon himself telling the story through his first person responses to his “interrogator” was a clever and refreshing way to tell this sort of tale.

Another thing which set this book apart from other YA faire was the great characters, specifically how they actually speak and act like young adults. I mean, we can all agree there are YA books out there where the characters resemble thirty year olds rather than teenagers, right? Not that those books are bad, but it is really refreshing to read about people who fit their age. Gideon, in particular, was a fun narrator; his insecurities, his emotions, and his flaws amazingly realistic and entertaining.

Even though Gideon was the star of this show, I have to just go ahead and admit that the coolest thing about Riders was the horses. The four horsemen of the apocalypse have to have cool horses, right, and Veronica Rossi definitely gives them some. Each horse distinctly original, exhibiting their own individual badass powers, and gifted with a unique personality which slowly shines through.

After saying all those great things about the book, I’m sure many of you wonder why I only gave it three stars. Simply put, the reason is that too much of the time I kept wondering why Gideon was doing what he was doing. I mean, his acceptance of his “mysterious” fate seemed a little too easy and too quick, and his instantaneous decision to travel around with a complete stranger (No matter how attracted he is to her.) was a bit of a head-scratcher. Plus, it seemed a bit silly that he never really understands what the hell is going on – even when he begins training to fight “demons.” All of these things really detracted from my enjoyment of the story.

Overall, Riders was a fun YA fantasy book. It definitely isn’t your typical angels versus demons story, and Gideon is a really entertaining protagonist. While I can’t say it reinvented the YA wheel, Veronica Rossi entertained me enough that I will be picking up book two to see where she goes from here.

I received this novel from Tor Teen in return for a honest and unbiased review. The opinion you have read is mine and was not influenced by anyone else.



Downfall of the Gods - K. J. Parker

Downfall of the Gods is a novella which attempts to be a clever and witty portrayal of the antics of a pantheon of gods; a pantheon which is very similar to the ancient Greco-Roman deities. No, the divine names are not the same as in the Greek myths, but it is fairly obvious who each divinity is here: their child-like petulance, mind-numbing mischief, and bipolar personalities giving them away. But while many immortal beings strut across the stage, the real star of this show is the musings of one goddess, detailing her philosophical journey of discovery regarding religion.

Artemis . . . (Ahh. Well, she isn’t ever called Artemis, but that is who she appears to be, so I’m going to call her that.) So, anyway, Artemis begins this story by walking into her temple after a long, hard day of being a prostitute and finds that a rather important member of her divine flock is prostrating himself before her huge statue, begging for forgiveness. It seems he has plotted and killed his close friend, who slept with his wife and constantly mistreated him, but now he has truly repented of his evil deed, wishes he could take it back and is begging for forgiveness. There is a problem: Artemis has no intention of forgiving him, because the murdered individual was her favorite musician!

Actually, I misspoke, because there is another, even more pressing, problem. You see, no matter her divinity, Artemis has rules she must abide by. Divine covenants forged between the gods and their human followers that provide for forgiveness upon repentance. And no god or goddess is above these rules, which is why Artemis is soon summoned before her father!

Needless to say, daddy Zeus isn’t happy with his headstrong daughter. Their discussion (and Artemis’ inner monologues) detailing what is expected of her, the serious drawbacks of godhood and the rather uselessness (at least, in Artemis’ eyes) of mankind’s devotion to god(s) in the first place.

Eventually, however, (after much philosophical arguments) a compromise between Zeus and Artemis is brokered: the goddess agreeing to grant forgiveness to her follower IF he completes a quest to the halls of the dead and brings back his victim’s soul. A journey which Artemis will accompany him on, providing her divine guidance and support — whenever she feels like it.

Thereafter, the tale zigs and zags between Artemis’s interactions with her divine family (Who appear to be about as worthless as she continues says they are.) and her human follower (Who is about as blindly devoted to her as anyone could be.) Each scene serving more to provide reasons to pontificate on the ridiculous of religion than to actually create a compelling narrative or develop realistic characters. In fact, nothing terribly exciting happening throughout (other than philosophical musings on religion) until the rather ironic ending is sprung like a mouse trap upon the unsuspecting (or, should I say, the suspecting) audience.

If one was to look for strengths and weakness in this novella, the strength would undoubtedly be the goddess character herself. She is a very fitting, well-crafted narrator, who muses upon and bitches about religion, faith, and the inherent limitations of any divinity upon the fate of the world. And through the uncovering of her personal inadequacies and her ridiculous arguments, the story develops from a rather quest oriented tale to a full blown religious satire, or religious parody, which does its best to encompass all religions in its virulent mockery.

As for the weakness, it would be the fact that this is a religious parody. Whether you are a believer in some form of religion or not, no doubt, we can all concede that the exercise of faith is a very personal experience which people become very attached to and do not enjoy being ridiculed. Anytime a person makes light of, mocks, or labels a person of religious belief as ignorant or illogical for feeling a certain way, I personally find it in poor taste. It really is the same as telling a joke about minorities or same sex couples or over weight people or anyone else, and to me, it isn’t clever or witty or funny in the least. And here, the author spends over a hundred pages making arguments regarding the idiocy of religion; every epiphany of the characters further espousing the useless of god(s) and the need for mankind to cast aside such illogical beliefs in divinities. Perhaps some part of the narrative in this vein could be understood, but after finishing this novella, I felt as if I’d spent an hour reading a sermon for atheism rather than a fantasy story.

All in all, Downfall of the Gods is a fine read IF you undertake it understanding what it is. This is a religious satire, a religious parody, which definitely has an agenda to cast religion in all its myriad forms as illogical, adolescent, and ridiculous. Nothing wrong with that as long as you agree with that form of discrimination. If, however, you — like me — are searching for a rousing fantasy adventure story to excite and awe you, then this one is probably something you should skip.

I received this book from Subterranean Press and Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank both of them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.



Rend the Dark (Echoes of the Ascended: Ferran) (Volume 1) - Mark Gelineau, Joe King

Rend the Dark is the type of genre blender stories which I adore. Specifically this novella takes horror and fantasy themes, mixes them all together and concocts a powerful brew which is insightful, suspenseful, and meaningful. All the while, Mr. Gelineau and Mr. King also find time to give enough nods to world building and characterization to make this far from a one-and-done story, but rather serve as a true launching pad for a brand new series, one which demands to be followed to the end.

In the short prologue, Ferran, an acolyte of the Order of Talan (or “witch hunters” as most call them) is introduced; his life long ability to see the hidden demons who haunt the world bringing both sorrow and determination to his life from a young age. But while Ferran recalls his past, his eyes look to the future, and as he eventually hefts his short spear in one hand and wraps a long silver battle chain around his other, a reader’s pulse begins to pound, as this would be hero sets off to help rid the world of its hidden tormentors.

Once the main story begins, however, a new point of view character is quickly introduces: Hileon the magister. This ordinary government agent is anxiously waiting the arrival of strangers to his territory. His mind is a whirl, his fears are great; even the presence of his friend and fellow magister Riffolk as well as the formidable warder Aker is not sufficing to set his mind at ease. The reason is fairly simple: strange occurrences and disappearances are happening.

Naturally, on cue, two strangers appear. One is Ferran; the other is his fellow witch hunter Mireia. The two having been summoned by Warder Aker, who fears that worse than bandits are loose in the march. And when demons are mentioned as the possible culprits, poor Hileon’s legs grow weak from even contemplating something so awful, and he and Riffolk attempt to shout down even the remote possibility of such beings even existing. But soon circumstances bring the matter into focus, taking Hileon, Ferran and all the rest down into the depths of darkness and despair, as the true nightmares of the world arise around them!

To my eyes, the beauty of Rend is two fold: it is short in length but filled with depth. Or, in other words, Mr. Gelineau and Mr. King gift readers with a quick, horror-infused adventure story in a fantasy world, which is amazingly well developed. How they accomplish this is truly mesmerizing. A statement here, a flashback there, a short comment, and this fantasy world and its denizens quickly begin to materialize before your eyes. All the while, you hardly notice it occurring because you are so focused on the terrifying situations which our main characters are attempting to navigate their way through. And while I could complain about the story not being long enough, I won’t, because I’m completely sold on the authors’ vision and fully intend to ride this amazing novella series until it ends!

I received this book from the authors and Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank both of them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.



City of Blades - Robert Jackson Bennett

With City of Blades, Robert Jackson Bennett fully embraces the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Blades exemplifying all that was beloved about City of Stairs : the same espionage-like narrative, similar weaving of fantastical elements with straight ahead mystery, and philosophical overtones, but adding to it a new setting, a unique mythos, and a very personal journey for the main character. All of these things perfectly meshing into yet another amazing story in this series.

Naturally, as our tale begins, years have passed since Shara Komayd faced down the last remaining Continental Divinities in the city of Bulikov, uncovered a horrible truth about Saypuri’s savior, then used her newfound knowledge to blackmail her way back to her home country to begin her ascent to political power. But Blades isn’t about Shara. Our main character is the now retired Turyin Mulagesh.

This tough-as-nails soldier’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed since the unfortunate incident in Bulikov. First, a rising wave of promotions followed Bulikov, one which finally crested upon Mulagesh’s posting as general upon the powerful Saypuri military council. But once there, she very suddenly and very mysteriously retired. Now, she resides upon a small out-of-the-way island, eking out a rather humble life on her military pension and fighting with her neighbors. It might not be glamorous or politically exciting, but it is all that Mulagesh has or desires to have.

Then things change. Suddenly. The arrival of an emissary from Prime Minister Shara Komayd bringing bad news.

Through an unfortunate bureaucratic bookkeeping error, Mulagesh doesn’t have her required number of years to justify her government pension. A circumstance which will cause her monies to be cut. All of which means she will no longer be able to afford to be retired and pay for her home.

But the crafty Shara has a proposition for her old friend: complete an undercover operation on the continent and the problems with the pension will go away.

What choice does Mulagesh have? None, honestly. And without knowing exactly what is expected of her, our one-armed general agrees to be aboard a naval vessel on a date certain, where Shara herself will give her the mission details.

And Shara does . . . well, in a way. A recorded message à laMission Impossible confronts Mulagesh upon her arrival onboard; one which sends her to the continental hellhole of Voortyashtan (The place you only get assigned to if “you sleep with or kill the wrong person.”) to investigate the disappearance of a Saypuri operative. Her secondary task to complete the ongoing undercover operation into whether a super conductive material in the hills nearby is a geological miracle or a remnant of the Divine!

This fairly simple sounding mission soon morphs into a life changing journey for Mulagesh. First, she has to confront the backward and barbaric city of the ancient goddess of war: Voortyashtan, the floating port of the Divine (which now lies more underwater than above it), where Saypurians are hated even more than in Bulikov. And, once there, she is reacquainted with her old military commander, General Biswal, whose reintroduction into our retired general’s life brings back horrible memories of a war and her own actions in it that she would sooner forget. But the most horrible of all, she is immersed in her races’ ancient hatred and fear of the Sentinels, the followers of the goddess of war, who meted out unspeakable slaughter upon Saypuri for generations and who might not be as dead as everyone believed they were!

What is truly outstanding about City of Blades is the meshing of fantasy and mystery themes. Obviously, City of Stairs did this extraordinarily well, but I personally wondered if Mr. Bennett could catch lightning in a bottle twice. But he has. And he has made it look easy. The fantasy world and the magic in Blades playing a pivotal yet complementary role to the mesmerizing questions and sleuthing that Mulagesh undertakes. Every action and clue uncovered by her steeped in fantastical trappings but so modern in tone that Blades reads like a new genre altogether. It really is amazing to once again sample this new fantasy flavor which Mr. Bennett has quickly made his own.

But the modern tone is exactly what some readers might find a bit off-putting in this story. While City of Stairs was cut from a similar narrative cloth, the divine nature of the city of Bulikov, the missing gods, ancient relics, and general fantastical feel of every narrative twist and mysterious discovery kept that story firmly grounded on the fantasy side of the ledger. Blades is a bit different. Definitely, the “divine” is still central to the plot; relics play their part; the Continental Divinities are touched upon; but this book spends a great deal of time dealing with warfare induced post-traumatic stress syndrome, confronts the issue of what exactly is unforgivable in war, delves into questions of familial love,and even dabbles a bit with the proper way to treat one’s former slave masters. All of these plot elements very well constructed and enjoyable. However, they are very modern issues. Issues most readers read and see in the news every day and listen to pundits debate ad nauseum. And whether they wish to explore them again in a fantasy will definitely be a personal decision only they can make.

All in all, I found City of Blades to be a satisfying sequel to City of Stairs. Mr. Bennett crafting an intriguing mystery set in his remarkable post-Divinity world; a place where the people use modern technology like guns and telephones, but are still constantly confronted by vestiges of the more supernatural past when real gods walked the world and “magical” swords, wielded by divine warriors, ruled it. Mulagesh’s personal journey of discovery and espionage is never dull; new clues and problems arising at seemingly every turn, causing both her and the reader to agonize over who and what is the cause of all the mysterious goings-on. All leading up to a rousing conclusion which provides enough twists and turns as well as emotional outcomes to end this fantasy mystery on a exhilarating and thoughtful note.

I received this book from Broadway Books and Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank both of them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.


Fantasy Novella Took Me By Surprise

A Reaper of Stone - Mark Gelineau, Joe King

A Reaper of Stone is a special novella. A story which has enough going for it in every area (characters, world building, and story) to make it one of the best short works of fantasy fiction which I have read in a while. Full of colorful drama, thoughtful introspection, and selective action, Mr. Gelineau and Mr. King have crafted a tale which left me wanting more of everything!

The tale begins with a short prologue introducing our main character, Elinor, as seen through the eyes of her friend Conbert. The two meeting one another in the most spectacular of ways.

From here, the story flashes forward several years. Conbert and Elinor now mature individuals cast back together by the “reaping.” This ancient customs sees the King’s Reaper (Elinor) and Royal Engineer (Conbert) on a royal mission to dismantle the ancient, powerful keep of Last Dawn when the royal bloodline comes to an end there. And while these old friends are honorable adherents to their chosen professions, they both feel particularly loath to take down this bastion of law and order in the wilds.

Our protagonists’ angst comes less from any love of Last Dawn and more from their dislike of the soon-to-be lord of this land a fellow by the name of Lord Piersym and his “Razor” Ephed. Both of these individuals represent all that our friends find disgusting and worthy of hate about the kingdom’s arrogant nobility and their “First Blades.”

This hesitance soon grows as Elinor befriends the remaining followers of the deceased Lady of Last Dawn and uncovering a secret which forces her to make a fateful decision!

All in all, A Reaper of Stone was more than I expected. Not only did the authors tell a short, engrossing story, they also endowed it with enough depth and weight of history to turn this land and its people into a living breathing fantasy world. Something which I really wasn’t expecting from such a quick read. The only criticism I can level at it is that the fun was over much too quickly.

I received this novella for free from the authors and Netgalley in return for a honest and unbiased review. The opinion you have read is mine alone and was not influenced by anyone else.


Surprisingly Funny Book

The Marvelous Land of Oz - L. Frank Baum, David McKee

Like many people my age, I actually remember when The Wizard of Oz movie being shown on network television every year was an event. I mean, we didn’t have VCRs (Let alone Netflix) back in the dark ages, so if you wanted to get a glimpse of Oz, you had to plan your social schedule around being at home in front of your television at the appropriate time, and for many years I always did. But that movie is all I knew about Oz.

I really hate to admit that I never took the time when I was growing up to try to find any other Oz stories. It wasn’t that I didn’t love Oz, because I did, but it wasn’t a priority likeStar Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica. And when I finally did discover there were other books in the Oz series, I wasn’t too terribly interested in walking the yellow brick road anymore. I was too mature. Too cool. Too … self absorbed.

Flash forward about thirty-five years.

My kids have watched The Wizard of Oz several times in their lives, then my youngest son gets really hyped (at least for a little while) about the soon-to-be-released The Great and Powerful Oz movie. So, deciding to ride the interest, I find this book and give it a go as a bedtime story.

The tale takes place a short time after Wizard, focusing on the adventures of a young boy named Tip. But things don’t start out marvelous. Instead a reader finds Tip leading a rather uneventful and arduous life on a farm, but soon he escapes from his unhappy existence and takes to the road determined to find his destiny.

Quickly, things get interesting: Tip growing close to his companion Jack Pumpkinhead and meeting some new people like the Wooden Sawhorse, the Highly Magnified Woggle-Bug, and the amazing Gump. Old friends like the Scarecrow, Tinman, and others even show up. And, naturally, we have new enemies to thwart like the evil witch Mombi and General Jinjur and her army of rebellious young women.

Never having read any of the Oz books, I have to say I was surprised by how humorous this story was. I won’t go so far as to say it was laugh out loud funny, but it had lots and lots of puns as well as humorous lines. That in itself made my kids and I enjoy reading the book together, causing it to be a fine bedtime story, but it also really helped to fan the flames of excitement for more Oz just before the release of The Great and Powerful Oz movie.

Even with that being said, the favorite parts of this read were the sections where the Tin Man and Scarecrow are the stars: the scenes of their bumbling around bringing back many good memories of watching the classic movie as a child. So if you enjoyed the classic movie, give this a try; it is worth the read.


Beautifully Written Book

Only the Stones Survive: A novel - Morgan Llywelyn

This was my first foray into Morgan Llywelyn’s Celtic historical fantasy novels. Sure, I’ve seen them on the bookshelves here and there, heard of the awards the author has garnered, but I’d never taken the time to open one up and experience the vivid worlds which she crafts so effortlessly. Now, I find myself regretting that decision.

In Only the Stones Survive, a reader is carefully deposited upon the island of Eire. Here the ancient tribe of the Tuatha Dé Danann (Who might be extraterrestrial or supernatural in origins!) shepherd over the peaceful land, living in harmony with nature and preferring to be left alone by all those mariners (traders and settlers) alike who would disturb their harmonic existence. To this end, they have set aside their ancient weapons of destruction, only using their magic in limited ways to shield the emerald isle from would-be invaders.

Into this endless rhythm of the seasons and eternal peace grows Joss. This young Danann is our narrator, introducing the carefree existence of his youth, the peaceful nature of his people, and their shadowy origins. And it is through Joss’ eyes and through his words that Morgan Llywelyn carefully and beautifully portrays the end of his civilization.

When Joss is still considered a child among his people, seafarers from Iberia first appear. These poor, desperate Gaulic tribes have gambled their lives and the future of their people on building boats (Most are not worthy of the title ship.) and setting off in search of the fabled island of Eire, where they intend to settle and build a new life for themselves. And while they are war-like and savage in their ways — at least as compared to the softhearted Dananns –, their motives are rational enough and familiar enough that it is difficult to hate them completely, even the worst of them.

As the story quickly grows from this beginning, the narrative highlights the struggle of people against people. Each race endowed with their good and bad qualities; each desperately attempting to survive and thrive in their chosen way; and each the antithesis of the other until there appears to be no hope of peaceful co-existence.

For me, the most memorable element of this book was the beautiful writing. It isn’t complex or filled with wonderfully crafted sentences as much as it is lyrical in nature. As I read, Llywelyn’s words reminded me of a poem recited or a melody sung. The whole book transcending the specific story being told and instead becoming a living, breathing epic.

The other notable feature was the many philosophical features of the Danann’s conversations.

“Time is an illusion with a purpose.”

“Live your life in the expectation of sudden joy, Joss.”

The Danann’s preferred “the steady glow of serenity to the destructive tarnish of commerce, whereby everything was bought and sold and nothing was ever enough.”

These were merely a few of favorites, which I underlined and bookmarked. Not everyone might enjoy these types of conversations between characters, but I found them very refreshing, uniquely compelling, and immensely insightful as I had to watch the old give way to the new.

The only criticism I could level against the novel would be that the characters are not as important to the tale as the historical events taking place. Or, to put it another way, the story is about the clash of two cultures, not Joss or any other person’s role in it all. Sure, many people are tightly woven into the tale, catalysts for one important event or another, but they are caught up in the events, not controlling them, which caused me to view them as swimmers attempting to ride the crest of a wave even as they sense it is heading to its inevitable crash onto the shore.

All in all, I found Only the Stones Survive a wonderful introduction to Morgan Llwelyn’s Celtic tales. The beautiful, lyrical writing drew me in, and the clash of cultures kept me turning pages, as I wished against all hope and logic for Joss’ world to remain unchanged. But, then again, every ending is merely a new beginning, and so it is in this one as well, as a fresh, beautiful world arises from the ashes of the old.

I received this novel from Forge Books in return for a honest and unbiased review. The opinion you have read is mine and was not influenced by anyone else.



A Crown for Cold Silver - Alex Marshall

Immediately after finishing this novel, I rated it 3.5 star. Now, after mulling it over for a few weeks, I'm downgrading that to a 2.5 star rating for reasons to be explained.

A Crown for Cold Silver was a book seemingly tailor made for my tastes; a grimdark-esque, epic fantasy which throws you directly into a complex story, demanding that you quickly acclimate yourself to the setting and characters, as multiple points of view are used to create a rich, new world filled with unique races, strange cultures, and a deep history. At least, that is how I envisioned it. And for the first two-thirds of the novel, I enjoyed Alex Marshall’s first foray into the Crimson Empire well enough, but then the negative elements of the story overcame the positives, sending my enjoyment of the narrative into a nosedive until it eventually crumbled into oblivion after a very disappointing ending. I’ll explain why in a moment. First, let me describe the set up of this fantasy tale.

A few decades ago, a tough-as-nails revolutionary called Cold Cobalt aka the Banshee with a Blade and the First Among Villains lead her Five Villains and their home grown army across the Crimson Empire, fighting to destroy the monarchy and uplift the downtrodden people. And through skill, trickery, and pure luck, Cold Cobalt succeeded in her coup and crowned herself Queen Zosia of the Crimson Empire. May her enlightened reign last forever!

Only one problem: Zosia didn’t particularly like being queen. She found the politics and constant scheming by the remaining nobility and the Black Pope (leader of the Burnished Chain religion) insanely annoying, and when her idealistic dreams for social reform and uniform justice for all began to fail, she did what she did best: She challenged someone to a duel to the death, winner take the Empire.

In the years since Queen Zosia lost that duel, the Crimson Empire has been in perpetual turmoil. The current Queen and Black Pope fighting a bloody civil war (which has only recently ended); Zosia’s Five Villains taking part for a while before disappearing from the world stage; and the commoners whom Cold Cobalt sought to aid finding themselves beaten down more than ever. Out of this chaos, a new revolutionary movement has arisen, proclaiming in pamphlets and graffiti that ‘Zosia Lives!’

Far away from the social unrest and brewing revolution lies an isolated mountain hamlet. The people there are poor but proud, and they have avoided the civil wars, paid taxes to which ever side demanded them. When a regiment of troops arrive unexpected, they do not come for cows or goats or crops, but for blood; their mission to send a message to someone; someone they do not even know. Their subsequent acts of horrible savagery shattering the idyllic life of an aging character, who is then driven from the shadows of domestic bliss, forced to charge out into an unfamiliar world seeking bloody revenge, looking for old friends and allies, and desperately trying to recapture the old magic which once came so easy. This individual never suspecting that the war to determined the fate of the Crimson Empire – and the very world — has already begun!

Well, it sounds pretty damn good when I describe it like that, right?

And A Crown for Cold Silver did start out great. At least, in my eyes, it did.. The beginning chapters quickly and effortlessly capturing the trauma and determination of our main character. The writing style, the prose, was amazing, detailed yet crisp, leading me to favorably compare the book to one of my favorites: George R.R. Martin’s Mi>A Game of Thrones. Needless to say, I believed great things awaited me among the pages of this grimdark-esque fantasy.

Then things began to happen. Small missteps really. But they began to add up quickly. Soon, enough had arisen that I felt frustration take hold of me. Eventually, there were so many issues I had to encourage myself to finish the story. And, now, I find it difficult to write this review, because I know the negatives will greatly outstrip the positives, and I really hate to speak negatively about a writer’s work. Obviously, I can and have done so, but I don’t enjoy it; it doesn’t make me feel good. Since I’m a reviewer by choice, however, I feel it only fair to let people know the issues I had with A Crown for Cold Silver, and then they can decide for themselves if they agree or disagree with me.

First, the story was too slow. In sections, it literally crawled. I blame this on too many points of view. We go from a handful at the beginning to a plethora of characters by the end. While it certainly isn’t unusual for an epic fantasy to have multiple characters, A Crown for Cold Silver really over did it, causing the story of each person to really stagnate, as they waited for their time in the spotlight. Sure, there was a minor amount of character development, but not nearly enough considering the length of this novel.

Second, I never connected with any of the characters. Let me talk about main and supporting characters separately. Please understand that I’m using those designations loosely, because there were so many point of view characters it is difficult to pin down who the lead actually was.

For my part, I assumed the “main” character was the old-badass-coming-out-of-retirement-to-get-revenge. Naturally, I envisioned significant character development as this person dealt with a huge personal tragedy, reconnected with old friends, faced previous enemies, tried to fit into a different world, and schemed for revenge. What I got wasn’t even close. The character never developed after an amazing opening introduction. Instead, this person traveled around telling everyone “Hey, I’m a badass!” rather than actually doing anything remotely badass, then spent the rest of the time being made a fool of by lesser characters, propositioning sex from any girl who gets close for more than 5 seconds, and reminiscing about smoking, drugs, sex, and the epic skill of pipe carving. (Yes, pipe carving seems to be a big thing.) Honestly, by the end of the story, I really did not like this person at all, nor did I care if they lived or died.

As for the “supporting” characters, they were a mixed bag, but the one constant was that they were fairly unlikeable. One of them is a recovering drug addict who is a repetitive screw up, but he never seem to learn from his mistakes; another is a young man (Think Saul Silver from the moviePineapple Express) who wants to find his way in the world, but never knows how to do anything except smoke “weed”; a third is a young princess determined to prove her maturity by acting like a brat most of the time, smoking “weed”, sleeping with whomever she pleases, and refusing to listen to anyone older than thirty; and another is a religious warrior whose deformities and magical abilities mark her as a freak, but who deals with her outcast status by satisfying her sexual fetishes at every opportunity. Perhaps it is just me, but none of these guys were the least bit compelling, amusing, or complex, nor do they grow or develop at all. There were several other minor characters mixed in with these, but none of them really amounted to much other than being moving scenery.

Third, the plot twists began to loose their “WOW!” factor after a while. Twists and turns, shocks and surprises, they are part of what makes a story great. But they have to be used sparingly, or they become pretty meh. I mean, honestly, hasn’t George R.R. Martin’s tendency to kill every Stark . . . uh, I mean, main character gotten fairly pedestrian after five books? It has to me anyway, because I know it is going to happen, so there really isn’t a big “WOW!” moment, but rather an “Oh, that again” moment. And that is how I felt inCrown, because every few chapters there was another revelation about this character being someone else or this character having a hidden motive. After the third time of someone taking their helmet off and saying “Look I’m not really John Doe; I’m Jim Doe!” I just began to roll my eyes.

Fourth, the supposed gender equality. I’m all for gender equality. Strong men, strong women. Nothing better than two equals dealing with one another. Sure, some characters will be stronger than others, but no Richard Rahl-like supermen in a 2015 fantasy books, right? And I was really hopeful Crown was going to deliver a world without gender inequality. What Alex Marshall does, however, is merely replace the dominate man of yesteryears with a dominant woman and proudly declare, “Look, look, gender equality has been delivered.” I really hate to point this out, but that isn’t gender equality, merely role reversal, and it isn’t anything but a female power fantasy, the same as old school fantasy was all about male power fantasies. I mean, this is the twenty-first century, and our gender equality is a woman rescuing a male prostitute from the whorehouse and marrying him – because he is so good in bed? Or, maybe, it is a female head of household with a mustache, smoking a pipe, and ordering everyone around while her husband isn’t referred to at all – except as a sperm donor? Perhaps, it is another female who is betting on whether – she can get a certain man in bed? Or the female warriors being more skilled, more deadly, more clever, more everything than their male counterparts – even their so called equals? It goes on and on. Yay, fantasy gender equality. Ain’t it so original. Just change “he” to “she” in any story, and it is now gender equal, because our hero is Ricki Rahl, not Richard Rahl!

Fifth, the world building turned into a hodgepodge of real world cultures pieced together rather than a new, fresh world. Every culture in this book can be easily matched with its real world counterpart. The Burnished Chain and its Black Pope are so clearly a fantasy version of the Catholic Church and the Pope that it isn’t really funny. One country has Korean names and a Korean culture. Another has Indian names and Indian cultural references. It goes on and on. Some reviewers have labeled this tendency by Alex Marshall to just pick up and place real world cultures into the story without modifying them at all (except for gender equality and diversity modifications, of course) a “linguistic short-cut” to allow the author to have full grown and familiar cultures without having to bog a reader down in world building, and I can understand that, but I don’t like it. I have had issues with Glen Cook doing this same thing in his Instrumentalities of the Night series, which is so clearly thirteenth century Europe that it almost reads like historical fiction, and if I’m not willing to let my favorite fantasy author get away with it, I’m not overlooking this tendency by pseudonym Alex Marshall.

Sixth, diversity. I always get bashed, insulted, and generally trolled for pointing this out, but diversity means that lots of different lifestyles are portrayed in a story. That is diversity. Saying a story is diverse when every character is a bisexual and is promiscuous is like arguing that Lord of the Rings was diverse when every single person in the story is a heterosexual in a married relationship. It just isn’t true, and it is downright silly for you to argue that it is. And, unfortunately, Alex Marshall chose to follow the current discriminatory pattern of non-diversity by filling this tale with gender-swapped house-husbands, mustached female husbands, overpowered female warriors, weak and stupid men, and a world where every single person whose sexual preference is mentioned is bisexual. Guess that is our current excepted form of diversity: no heteros. Damn, seems eerily similar to years ago when no one could be homosexual in a fantasy, doesn’t it?

Seventh, the ending left me underwhelmed. I’m struggling to find the right words without giving away spoilers, so with that in mind, I’ll merely say the conclusion was rather stale and blah. The buildup to the confrontation wasn’t especially riveting; I wasn’t given any reason to care which side won; the foreshadowing for the first big “WOW!” moment (Oh, yes, there are two.) didn’t peak my interest very much; and when the characters were in danger, I didn’t care if they lived or died, because I’d been given no reason to like them. Even the second big “WOW!” moment, which was suppose to set up the next book, was fairly ho-hum.

Honestly, this novel is a real paradox to me. It is a story which I enjoyed immensely at the beginning, comparing it favorably to George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, then gradually lost patience with as it grew less and less compelling until now (after several weeks of mulling it over before writing this review) I’m struggle to find more than one good quality (The prose is wonderful.) to praise. Weird, I know. I feel the exact same way. But that is exactly where I find myself. So, as for the question of whether you should give A Crown for Cold Silver a try, all I can suggest is you read lots of reviews (both good and bad) and make an educated decision based on what you enjoy reading, because, as I type this, I have no idea if I will continue with this series or not. Take that for what it is worth.


Rousing Fictional Biography of a Viking King

The Golden Horn - Poul Anderson

I’m a fan of history. Any history really. I love it all. But tales of the Vikings have always been one of my favorites, especially when they are filled with examples of their legendary prowess as warriors. Well, in The Golden Horn, Poul Anderson gives me just that and more, as he takes a close look at one of the most famous Vikings of all: Harald Sigurdharson (1015-66), who became Norway’s King Harald III.


The tale begins with a teenage Harald fighting along side his older half-brother, Olaf the Stout, at the Battle of Stiklestad. This uprising against King Olaf caused by his devotion to the Christian faith and his constant restrictions against the old ways of worship. The naive and untested Harald discovering first hand the brutality of war and the fickleness of fate.


Unfortunately (according to you perspective, I suppose), the battle goes ill for Olaf, resulting in the king’s death and causing young Harald to flee into exile. His path eventually taking him to Russia where he becomes a mercenary to the ruler of Novgorod before he eventually finds his way to Constantinople where he is determined to become the commander of the Byzantine Varangian Guard. All along the way, Harald fights varies battles, makes innumerable friends and allies, and constantly plans to return home to press his claim to the throne of Norway.


Throughout this near biographical story, Poul Anderson attempts to highlight for a reader both the tough-as-nails warrior mentality of Harald as well as showing that he had other, less celebrated qualities. To this end, Mr. Anderson clearly illustrates the future king’s fiery, Viking temper, his unwavering determination, and his absolute confidence in his own invincibility, but he also highlights his deep devotion to his friends and loved ones, faithfulness to those he owes allegiance to, and his heartfelt desire to finish the work of his half-brother by bringing Christianity to his people.


The only criticism I have of the book is that, at times, the author told me about Harald more than he showed me. The narrative reading more like isolated snapshots of this man’s life than as a linear movie. Not that I don’t understand the need to skip weeks, months, or years when telling this initial chapter in Harald’s long, life story, but I felt it could have been handled a bit more smoothly to produce a more immersive experience.


All in all, The Golden Horn was exactly what I expected it to be: an exciting romp through this period of history with a group of Vikings. How could I not enjoy seeing the world from the frosty Scandinavian lands to the mild climes of the Mediterranean? It was filled with exotic locals, interesting people from the past, and even an emotional and bitter struggle between the old Norse religion and the new Christian church. Sure, it skipped forward in time occasionally, but even that annoyance didn’t detract from me enjoying this tale of King Harald III.


Fine Historical-Fiction

The Shards of Heaven - Michael Livingston

The Shards of Heaven is a wonderfully written work of historical-fiction; one which is able to evoke the awe and majesty of the final days of the Roman Republic while mixing in enough fantastical elements to create something fresh and original. Enjoyable alone, it is the first installment in The Shards of Heaven series and loudly proclaims a new voice in the genre, a writer whom we will all be reading for years to come.

The story begins immediately after the fall of Julius Caesar at the hands of disgruntled senators. Rome is in chaos; the specter of war looms over all. The figures at the center of the political maelstrom are Caesar’s grand-nephew and adopted son Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus; his supposed biological son Caesarion by the Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra; and his ally and a renowned general Marc Antony. Each of these titans of history playing a pivotal part in a dramatic assassination attempt immediately after Caesar’s death

Once the frantic beginning is done, Shards skips ahead in time to the period before the final war of the Roman Republic, focusing on Prince Juba of Numidia. This young man is another adopted son of Julius Caesar; his biological father having fought unsuccessfully against Rome in northern Africa and having died rather than be captured; and while Juba plays the dutiful Roman and subservient brother of Octavian, deep down he is neither, but rather a hater of Rome who is diligently plotting his revenge against it. A revenge which depends on him locating and wielding the god-like powers of the Shards of Heaven; an artifact which legend says is the Trident of Poseidon and perhaps the Staff of Moses.

While Juba’s quest proceeds, the narrative weaves a vivid picture of a Mediterranean world sitting upon the edge of a precipice; war seemingly inevitable, as Octavian eyes the eastern lands which Mark Antony and his paramour Cleopatra hold in trust for Caesarion and their own children. All that is needed is a spark to begin yet another war in the Roman Republic. A war which will sweep aside the old and usher in the new!

As a lover of history and a student of Roman history when I was in college many decades ago, my favorite aspect of Shards was its amazing portrayal of this epoch in time. The Mediterranean world literally comes to life before your eyes. The Rome Republic and Ptolemaic Egypt shown in their true historic brilliance. Dr. Livingston delving far below the surface of each to reveal their unique natures, distinct qualities, and the huge differences which separated them from one another. And for a few hours, I actually felt like I had walked in the streets of both Rome and Alexandria, which is something I will never forget.

Characters are the other highlight of this story. The faithful rendition of many familiar legendary players is extremely well-done. Octavian, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra literally burst off the pages here, mesmerizing in their grandeur and perplexing in their faults. But even more impressive than them were the other – lesser known – characters such as Caesarion, Juba, and Cleopatra Selene. Each of these youths grow before your eyes into living, breathing individuals caught up in titanic events, desperately attempting to live through it all, and it is through them (more than their more well-known co-stars) that Shards’ real story shines.

My only criticism of the novel would be its assumption that readers have a rudimentary understanding of this period of Mediterranean history. As I mentioned, the beginning is fast and furious, introduces the names of Cleopatra, Caesarion, Mark Antony, and Octavian, but then fast-forwards ahead to a world where Octavian rules in Rome and Mark Antony and Cleopatra rule in Egypt. How all this occurred isn’t really explained except in the most basic ways. Not knowing how Octavian and Antony and Cleopatra arrived at this moment in history won’t necessarily keep you from enjoying Shards, but it does make it a tad bit more difficult to understand why these people are acting as they are.

Fantastical elements, engaging characters, a vivid world and a fast-moving plot, Dr. Livingston has endowed The Shards of Heaven will all these elements — and many more. It really is a historical-fiction novel which should not be missed, and I’d highly recommend all lovers of intricate, epic stories to give this amazing novel a try.

I received this novel for free in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. The thoughts you have read are mine alone.


Great Beginning to the Next Big Thing in Epic Fantasy

The Emperor's Blades - Brian Staveley

After reading fantasy for most of my life, I’ve seen more than a few “Next Big Thing” come along. Some of those hyped novels and series have lived up to the tile, but more than a few have crumbled under the expectations. At least, in my eyes they did. And so when I kept seeing people rave about Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, I was a bit skeptical, fearing another letdown if I let myself get sucked into the frenzy. Well, after finally breaking down and reading it, I now realize all that waiting and doubting was a huge mistake, because this is the real deal in epic fantasy; the Next Big Thing in the genre; the series I can see myself eagerly following for years to come!


The Emperor’s Blades follows along behind three of the Emperor’s children: Kaden (the heir), Valyn (the soldier), and Adare (the politician). Each chapters shining the spotlight on one or the other in turn, highlighting their unique struggles, as they are on the edge of maturity yet still trapped in their childhood roles. Sure, there is a bit of resentment of their duties and future roles as their father’s heirs, but their stories are definitely not young adult angst-fests or full-fledged “coming-of-age” tales, but rather a situation where the protagonists just happen to be young adults.


As the heir, one would expect Kaden’s story to be centered on court life and political machinations, but Mr. Staveley sidesteps that tired narrative device – instead placing the future Emperor in a monastery on the fringes of civilization. His thoughts and concerns more on news from the outside world and not being beaten by his master for yet another failure in his monastic training than royal ambitions.


Valyn, on the other hand, leads an exciting life as a “special forces”-type warrior. His training and the infighting of his fellow cadets turns ugly early and often, as he attempts to become one of the most feared soldiers in the world. If there is truly a “coming-of-age” narrative in the book, I’d point at Valyn’s chapters, because there is a love interest, tough choices, and some emotional turmoil from an unexpected lose; all of which means Valyn displays more angst than his siblings.


The final “Blade” in this trio is Adare. This tough, intelligent young woman is knee-deep in political turmoil. As the only child of the Emperor still in the capital, she is quickly engulfed by an upheaval in the government, using her position as a member of the royal cabinet to not only weather the storm but dish out her own punishment to those who have done her wrong. This embroils her in an ugly and very compelling showdown with a powerful religious leader and an alliance with a seemingly friendly politician.


All in all, every one of these siblings is a likable, strong, intelligent, and interesting character; each well-rounded, complex and fully capable of carrying their part of the story. Valyn definitely gets more page time, followed closely by Kaden, but even Adare, in her limited appearances, is very interesting, making a reader long for more time to spend tagging along behind her. So, while many times multiple points of view are distracting in an epic fantasy or have interesting and uninteresting parts, all three of these hold their own, making the story a pleasure to read from beginning to end.


Naturally, the other character in any epic fantasy is the world building, and Brian Staveley unveils a vibrant, living, and breathing fantasy wonderland in this book. Asian-tinged with sizable dollops of magic, the Annurain world is slowly revealed through the organic teachings of the older characters in the narrative, not through massive info dumps or long “Council of Elrond” like dialogue. And while the depth and breadth of the history and lore are substantial and the magic palpable, Mr. Staveley does a wonderful job of keeping it all just beyond reach, hinting at even more amazing things waiting right around the corner, promising to let you in on the next big secret if you merely stay the course and follow along behind these three characters, who are themselves slowly untangling the mysteries which you yourself long to know.


As for the villains, they are numerous and unexpected. No all powerful and completely obvious Sauron-like caricatures here. Nope, each of our young stars deal with their own very different enemies. Whether that be arrogant fellow cadets for Valyn or mysterious creatures for Kaden or powerful high priests for Adare, Mr. Staveley crafts each one differently, shading them in unique ways, so that our Blades are never confronted with the same situation as their sibling a few chapters before. And when the conclusion to the novel finally rolls around, the unveiling of exactly who and what the real villains are and what they are doing might just surprise you.


Like I said, this is a book I really fell in love with. Once I became engrossed in the story, I could not stop reading. The characters, the world, the grittiness, and the fast-paced plots held my attention, causing me to stop looking at the clock as I desperately mined this narrative for the answers for all the answers to the questions my mind kept creating. Nope, I didn’t get on this bandwagon at the beginning, but now I intend to ride it as far as Mr. Staveley will take me, because Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne is the Next Big Thing out there in my opinion, one which has room for a few more fans if you’d like to jump on next to me and take a fantastic ride.


I received this book for free from Tor Books in return for a fair and unbiased review.  The thoughts you have read are mine alone.


Classic Fantasy You Should Try

Dragonsbane - Barbara Hambly

Dragonsbane is a novel I read upon release back in 1985. Obviously, the world was a different place back then, I was a different person (young teenager) and fantasy was of a different flavor. Even at the time though, I knew that Barbara Hambly had gifted her readers with a refreshingly mature fantasy which would stand the test of time.


In the northlands, Jenny Waynest is a not-so-young-anymore sorceress, half-trained, who splits her time between learning her craft and raising her children. The father of Jenny’s brood is Sir John Aversin, and he isn’t your typical backwoods noble. Rather, he is a man of learning, who prefers studying old scientific tomes on engineering and pig farming than fighting. Be that as it may, he and Jenny have been forced on occasion to slay some vicious monsters – including a dragon! And now John is widely known as “John the Dragonslayer” though it hasn’t changed his and Jenny’s life very much.


Then young Gareth shows up.


Gareth is a southerner from the Empire. (The Empire which abandoned the northlands once the mines dried up, leaving their old subjects to the mercies of the northern savages.) Now, though, a huge black dragon has taken the Deep of Ylferdun, killing or enslaving all its inhabitants. Gareth having been sent on a quest to bring the only known dragonslayer back to the Empire to save his people. Only, Sir John isn’t quite what Gareth expected in his shining hero, and he certainly never expected him to be involved with a plain looking, plain spoken witch.


Desperation finally leads Gareth to accept John and Jenny for who they are; the three braving a dangerous journey back to the Empire to confront the dragon. But once there they find that Sir John and Jenny are viewed as a huge joke by the royal court, the king might be under the sway of a beautiful witch, and the dragon could be much more than a savage beast.


“Traditional fantasy,” I hear some of you saying to yourself.


So why do I recommend Dragonsbane so highly?


When I was a teenager, I loved the book for its escapism and adventure. Simple enough, right? Because Ms. Hambly takes the traditional fantasy tropes, twists them about a bit, adds some complex characters like the dragon (He was a favorite of mine at the time!) and turns this familiar dragon slaying quest story into a new and exciting adventure. Pure sugar-coated fantasy fun!


As I’ve matured (i.e. become middle aged), what brings me back is the depiction of John and Jenny. These guys are so familiar to my own real life: two middle aged people in a committed relationship with kids. Yes, they still love one another – even though they drive one another crazy – but they are both struggling with regrets, specifically the realization that due to circumstances they are never going to achieve their lifelong dreams. Yes, that causes Dragonsbane to be sad at times (though John and Jenny’s plight went over my head when I was thirteen), depressing even, but Ms. Hambly handles it all so deftly, so delicately that there is more joy and hope than doom and gloom, as this couple lives their life together.


I’m pretty tough on books. Hard to impress. Difficult to sway once my mind is made up. Perhaps my lifelong love of Dragonsbane is so deeply ingrained in my psyche that I can’t see its faults, but in my eyes, this is as close to perfect as a traditional fantasy adventure can get, and I’d encourage everyone to give it a try.


Fast-Paced Steampunk Fun

Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper - David Barnett

Steampunk. Alternate history. Victorian fantasy. David Barnett’s Gideon Smith series can easily fit into any of those sub-genre of speculative fiction. No matter the label, however, one thing holds true for Mask of the Ripper and its predecessors: They are each rousing tales of daring-do with memorable characters who will sweep you away into adventure after adventure.


As frequent readers already are aware, the first two books of the series took our young Gideon Smith from daydreaming about pulp adventures in his home town to living them in exotic locals such as Egypt. Amazing discovers were made; heroes were uncovered as fakes; vicious enemies revealed and vanquished, and through it all, small town dreamer Gideon Smith became the new “Hero of the Empire” — a position of importance and one which granted him instant celebrity status in jolly old England. Only one problem, whenever there is a crisis, Gideon can’t hide from the requests to fix it already.


As Mask of the Ripper begins, our weary hero has settled down in London, attempting to enjoy some well earned rest and relaxation from world spanning adventures – at least for a short time. Sadly, it is not to be though, for trouble seems to follow poor, old Gideon . . . or he follows it. (I’m not sure which, but you get the idea, anyway.)


The problem Gideon now finds himself confronted with is the mysterious murders taking place in London. These horrendous deaths have become a nightly occurrence. Prostitutes gruesomely slain. People near paralyzed with fear. And the name plastered across the headlines is Jack the Ripper!


Naturally, the masses turn to their “Hero of the Empire” and his friends (Rowena Fanshawe, Aloysius Bent, and Maria the Mechanical Girl) to save them from the nightmare. And though he is initially reluctant, Gideon eventually succumbs to the pleadings and sets off alone to uncover the true identity of this murder. A personal guest which very quickly goes awry.


When their friend takes this action, Rowena and Maria find themselves cast adrift; each walking their own path of inner discovery and gritty adventure. Tests of their own inner fortitude unexpectedly arise, forcing them to confront head-on their own demons and brave the most untenable situations.


And Aloysius . . . well, he does what he always does best: find a good angle to play and be around to help when absolutely necessary.


There is a lot to love about Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper. Filled with non-stop action, steampunk fun, and a surprising amount of character development, Mr. Barnett begins the process of evolving this series beyond just Gideon Smith. Sure, our plucky hero is still the star of the show, but Rowena and Maria are now given very emotional and powerful story lines, narratives which transform them from near sidekicks (though I never viewed them as such) into co-stars. A decision which opens up infinite possibilities for the continued growth of the series into the future.


If I was forced to name a deficiency of the novel, the only one I see is that it is different, and while change is good, it is still change. Here the transition from the very straightforward adventure tale of Gideon to that of the “Hero of the Empire and Associates” is deftly handled, but without a doubt, Mask of the Ripper is different from its predecessors in its perspective. Not necessarily a bad thing, just a different thing, and frequent readers will have to decide if they enjoy the new recipe or not.


As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed this new and improved Gideon Smith. Fun, insightful, filled with humors comments and rollicking action, it was the perfect steampunk . . . err, alternate fiction . . . ahhh, Victorian fantasy novel to sit down and lose myself in.