Thursday, July 29, 2010

Review: The Weight of Blood by David Dalglish

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

What would you get if you turned Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser into a pair of half-orc brothers, gave them severe inferiority complexes, moral ambiguity, and massive tempers, and then threw in a powerful religious zealot who sways them closer to the dark side than any individual should ever be comfortable with?

Why, you’d have “The Weight of Blood” by David Dalglish.

“The Weight of Blood” is an extremely dark fairy tale that tells the story of those aforementioned half-orc brothers, Qurrah and Harruq Tun. As far as main characters go, I don’t think I’ve ever seen their likeness. Sold separately into slavery by their orc mother early on in life, they eventually escaped and found each other again, only to grow up without guidance on the streets of a town called Veldaren, scavenging for food and learning that sometimes in life, when you come from nothing, it’s better to kill than be killed. Qurrah is a spindly and coldly intelligent sort whose greatest passion is to become a powerful sorcerer. Harruq, on the other hand, is a large-bodied and (sometimes) kind-hearted oaf who exists seemingly only to protect his physically weaker brother. The dialogue between the two borders on hilarious in the early going, when they’re still nothing but vagrants. But there is something darker in them, mostly in regards to Qurrah, which begging to be released. They are archetypal antiheroes, existing on the periphery of a society that wants no part of them.

The story starts off with a bang, dropping us in on the brothers as an army of orcs attempts to invade Veldaren. It is here that we first meet Velixar, a necromancer and master of the dark arts, who eventually takes the brothers under his wing. Through Velixar, we also are presented with a sizeable chunk of the world Dalglish has created, which is notable if for no other reason than it gives the reader a frame of reference to draw upon further down the road.

The novel is chock full of intense and extremely graphic battle scenes. It would be easy to get lost in the action if these scenes weren’t expertly crafted, which they are. The actions the brothers take from the onset vary from miscreant to downright evil. They butcher women, children, whole families, mostly without batting an eyelash. Even when one of them seemingly finds love, through the appearance of a beautiful sorcerer elf named Aurelia, this does little to stifle the loathsome behavior. Qurrah and Harruq appear to be brutes, ostensibly without a soul, and they act as such.

That statement is not quite true, however, and herein lays the brilliance of the world author Dalglish has created. This is a story of their fall and hopefully redemption, though as a series, once we reach the end it is still in the early stages. But the hope is there that these two will find their way. We get to see inside the brothers’ heads, and what we find there, though disturbing, allows us to feel a glimmer of gallantry. They are capable of love – this much is evident by the way they feel about each other – and any being who can experience that emotion in its fullest and most vulnerable can eventually learn to harness that inner goodness. All they ever needed was guidance, something that was denied them through unfortunate circumstances beyond their control.

And this is where we come to the crux of the fable that the author is telling us. In many ways, the brothers’ situation mirrors events we see all the time in the “real world”. They have nothing, they are starving and ostracized. Everyone looks down on them. They wander through life without a purpose save staying alive. When one looks at it like this, is it any wonder that when a stranger approaches the destitute pair and offers them a life that has meaning they leap for it? They who have nothing are promised the world. They who’ve been looked at as the lowest of the low are told they will be worshiped as gods. They who have had to scrape and claw are given gifts of such power that they become death incarnate. When viewed from this vantage point, can we not understand, even sympathize, with the plight Qurrah and Harruq have been forced to deal with? If we, as civilized humans, were put in the same situation, would our morality not begin to wither and die after a while? This rings true with what happens every day in certain parts of the world. It is almost the very blueprint for terrorist recruitment. And at the end of the day, that is what the brothers become. Terrorists. They target not only the enemy but the young and innocent. They strike from the shadows, seeking to assist a greater agenda that they either don’t or can’t understand.

This is a very dark book, so take that as a warning. If you don’t like the images of flayed arms and legs, decapitation, or bodies reduced to quivering masses of blood and innards, stay far away. However, if you appreciate a well-told story that pulls you into its world and won’t let you back out, this is the novel for you. It is unrelenting and fast-paced. It makes you care about the characters, no matter what bad deeds they may perform. And, best of all, it allows you to feel hope that the characters will turn it all around, and through something as simple as an act of kindness.

In short, I loved “The Weight of Blood”. The title says it all. It’s about the inherent price of violence, the duty of family, and the pressure to do what’s right. I would definitely recommend it. As far as fantasy goes, I feel you’d be hard pressed to find one that equals its scope and passion. I, for one, can’t wait to get pulled into the next volume.

Click the links below to purchase the book on Amazon in

Paperback or

Kindle format

Plot - 10

Characters - 10

Voice - 7

Execution - 8

Personal Enjoyment - 10

Overall - 45/50 (4.5/5)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Review: Firefly Island by Daniel Arenson

Rating: 4.8 out of 5

Life, when we sit back and look at it from a certain point of view, is all about pain, our reaction to it, and the transitions that help us overcome it. From this perspective, there are sacrifices every person must make in order to reach that place in existence where we can appreciate love, joy, security, and even sorrow and death. In many ways we are defined by the choices we make. And, at the end of the day, we must forgive ourselves for making the wrong ones, because if the final result is an inner peace and sense of community and togetherness, then those bad decisions had just as much to do with our accomplishments as the good ones.

Firefly Island, the breathtaking novel by Daniel Arenson, is all about decisions. It’s all about pain and torment and horror and, at the end of the day, love. It’s a dark fairy tale about the lengths we will go to in order to prove our devotion to our siblings, our friends, our communities, our fathers. And, finally, it’s about mistakes. Horrible, world-shattering mistakes whose ramifications reach far and wide, affecting even those on the periphery we wouldn’t expect.

The story takes place on an island split into five separate and (oftentimes) warring states. Each state is unique, in that the different populaces hold different abilities, or “magic”, as it’s called. The isolateded communities look down on interracial breeding. In some places, those that do are outcast because they create “impure” offspring, children who hold fragments of the abilities both their parents have. In each community there is born, once a century, a “Firechild” (dubbed so because of the belief that the fireflies inhabiting the island have imbued the people with these magics). These are beings whose powers are the penultimate of their individual races.

Aeolia, a sixteen-year-old slave girl, is one of these Firechildren. She has the ability to merge minds (and possibly even souls) with any person within close vicinity. Whatever she feels, they feel. If her body dies, theirs does, too. In the novel, she is sold into slavery by her callous father very early on, and grows up for the next ten years, until the bulk of the tale begins, never knowing freedom, until one day, in an intense and heartbreaking scene, she achieves it by doing the one thing she promised she would never do – breaking a vow to a person she loves more than anything.

Along her travels after achieving freedom, she meets others much like her. This is a fast-moving novel, and sometimes their interactions can feel rushed, but in the end it works because author Arenson understands that in a fantasy tale like this, it’s the scope of the adventure that matters and not the minutia that can bog a story down. He handles it beautifully – we understand that Aeolia will fall in love with a man she’s just met because she’s never known love, only pain and despair. We know that two other characters will become romantically entangled, though they’ve never met, because they’ve dreamed of each other and this is a work of fantasy. And in fantasy if a vision tells you something, you believe it. Hell, this happens in real life sometimes, as well.

As I said earlier, however, this is a novel about pain. It drips from virtually every page. The awfulness people do to each other is affecting and oftentimes purely evil. We see five different communities all battling amongst each other, all on the brink of civil war, and in certain cases look at the others as being lesser than themselves. If there’s a better allegory for the dangers of racism, xenophobia, and jingoism, I haven’t seen one.

As I said, there are a LOT of horrors acted out in this book, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t beauty, as well. As a character, Aeolia embodies what it means to be human. She is at the same time weak, strong, lost, cowardly, brave, indecisive, firm, forlorn, and lustful. She’s a living contradiction. The choices she makes (here we are talking about choices again) in the name of decency are often times not so decent, and it is this sort of dichotomy that makes a story interesting and real. And yet she is a gorgeous person. We can see this, and we want her to succeed. She’s not perfect – not even close – and yet neither are any of the other characters. In fact, one could look at even the villains of the piece and find, at some point in their development, a sense that you might want to root for them. This makes for great conflict, as well as tension. Not to mention it’s simply great writing.

What I also appreciated about this particular example of fiction is the way it plays with genre conventions. It is fantasy, of course, and yet it has more of a historical feel, even though there are monsters and magic. There are promises made between characters, clichéd promises you’ve seen a thousand times since the onset of that little ring-carrying person with hairy feet, and yet Arenson doesn’t always allow those promises to be fulfilled. There are so many twists and turns, so many characters, that you truly don’t know what to expect. And yet, when you finish and look back on it, you realize that the directions he took make perfect sense. Even the end, which I found to be a bit formulaic at first, I grew to appreciate and even love when I went back and read it again. There is so much darkness held within these pages, so many atrocities, that the characters deserved to finish up with a respite of sorts. The author has a message to tell, and it comes through loud and clear, and it wouldn’t have worked if the story had ended any other way. Again, that’s just great writing.

My only problem with the book isn’t really a problem, but a longing for more. I wanted to know the history of Firefly Island. I wanted to know the legacy of the Firechildren throughout history. If they come about every hundred years, are the outcomes always the same? Have the Stonesons (those who control minerals) always hated the Esirens (psychic types like Aeolia)? Was there once a single monarchy that split, weakening the masses by isolating individual talents? Again, these are questions that could be answered in another book, or not at all if Arenson so chooses, because this particular novel works without these things being explained. So why did I mention it? Probably because it’s not in my nature to go through an entire review without being at least a little critical.

To wrap it all up, I LOVED THIS BOOK. I’m not usually one for fantasy, but I couldn’t stop reading it. It’s really that good.

Check it out. You won’t be disappointed.

Firefly Island in the Kindle Store

Plot - 9

Characters - 9

Voice - 10

Execution - 10

Personal Enjoyment - 10

Overall - 48/50 (4.8/5)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Review: Cameo the Assassin by Dawn McCullough-White

Rating: 4 out of 5

At the end of the day, the art of writing fiction comes down to simply this: telling a good story. Sometimes there are other aspects involved, other points to be made. Yet, if those points of contention aren’t held within the framework of a tale interesting enough for the reader to endeavor, they will be words used for naught. They will remain unread.

More on this later.

First of all, it’s synopsis time. Cameo the Assassin is the story of, well, an assassin named Cameo. She is a woman with eyes white as a corpse, the best killer of a group called simply The Association. She resides in her tower when not off stalking her next victim, drinking copious amounts of liquor and being generally a miserable sod. She is a legend in her time, seemingly much older than she appears, never questions orders, and uses very unusual (and unknown to her employer) methods of both finding her prey and keeping herself safe.

Cameo seems content to live out her life in whatever perverse way she can, until she runs into a pair of highwaymen (coach robbers) while they hold up her carriage. These two men are named Black Opal, a “dandy” who wears too much makeup and enjoys women’s clothes (seemingly in an attempt to compensate for his scarred appearance) and Bellamy, a lawyer-slash-poet-slash-playwright turned criminal. When our heroine meets these two, and falls into line with them, her known life takes a turn for, if not worse, at least very, very different.

It is with these two characters, and one who comes later, that the joys of this little tale are met. Cameo herself is a one-note creation – and she has to be, especially when one considers her backstory – and cannot carry the novel on her own. Which is why having two enjoyable, fleshed-out characters such as Opal and Bel is important. In many ways, they steer the plot more than the main character. Cameo does what she does because she doesn’t have a choice in the matter. Opal and Bel, however, have free will, and they use that will to choose and follow a dangerous killer, for reasons of love. This is beautiful, it is necessary, and it’s also interesting, because many times it’s hard to figure out who exactly loves who. That guessing game in particular is quite fun.

The world that Dawn McCullough creates is one of magic and monsters, along with the type of technology one might see at the beginning of the nineteenth century. There are vampires, witches, corrupt royalty, and killers for hire, all plotting, both together and separately, to bring down our small band of antiheroes. This is something I really liked, as well. There are very few purely “good” characters in the book. All are deeply flawed, and some downright contemptible. They change very slightly, if at all, and yet seem to develop at least a sense of honor and duty, which presents itself in the loyalty they have to each other. I found this to be unusual and pleasing. It isn’t often that I’ve read a book like this.

Now, onto what I started out this review saying.

“Cameo the Assassin” is an adventure novel, and one that works, but that isn’t what I found to love the most about it. No, it’s the underlying message that snatched me by the eyelids and forced me to look deeper. You see, to this reviewer’s eye, Cameo the character isn’t just an alcoholic killer. No, she is much, much more than that. She is a metaphor for the battered woman; a survivor, dead on the inside, strong in a certain way, with a knowledge of all the horrible things that have happened to her, and yet always, around every corner, she is a slave to that pain and the men in her life who inflict it upon her. She was a rape victim, an abuse victim, and a victim of the supernatural, and she allows them to define her. Even her relationship with Opal, who is outside that sort of misogynistic realm, is defined by his feelings for her, and not the other way around. This shows great character weakness, and is sorrowful in its reality, though presented in a fantastical way. This is my favorite part of all, and a reason in and of itself to pick up this book.

Now, one might wonder, with all the praise I’ve heaped upon this book, why I gave it four stars instead of five. I do this because of the only problem I had with the novel, which is the way it was written. It is constructed in third person omniscient, which is to me the worst of all points of view. We jump into and out of every character’s head from one paragraph to the next, which can be 1) confusing, and 2) irritating. Now, I understand that it isn’t technically the wrong way to do things, but I personally can’t stand it, and think it’s actually a bit lazy, so I’m docking a point.

With that being said, I still loved it, which should tell you something about how good the story is. It’s definitely worth the couple bucks it’ll take to try it out, and I think anyone who reads this review should do just that.

Cameo the Assassin's Amazon page

Plot - 9

Characters - 10

Voice - 4

Execution - 7

Personal Enjoyment - 8

Overall - 40/50 (4.0/5)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Review: A Galaxy At War by John Fitch V

Rating: 4 out of 5

Have you ever read a novel and gone through about a hundred different opinions of it before you finished? Have you ever started out disliking something, grew to appreciate it, then loathe it, have it grow on you once more, become ready to throw it away, and finally put it down, wait a few days, and then say, “I’m not sure what I read, but it just might be brilliant?”

This, in a nutshell, was my experience reading “A Galaxy At War” by John Fitch V.

“A Galaxy At War” is the story of Ryann Germayne, a pilot for the GFS (Galaxy of Free Systems). It seems that the GFS rules its universe with a sort of aluminum fist. It makes demands on the planets under its control and will not let them govern themselves, and yet though most of the book they seem a bit weak and pathetic for what is portrayed as a powerful political entity.

Long story short, the Rebels are fighting back against the cruel rule of the GFS, and Ryann and his wife, Joslyne, who is the gunner on their ship, The Tub, traverse space, trying to hold back the Rebels any way they can.

At first, I thought this book was a parody. There are so many clichés throughout the first third of it. You have the witty banter between Ryann and Joslyne (“hotshot” and “flyboy”?), a robot assistant who can speak hundreds of languages, and political intrigue that really isn’t that intriguing. Add to this the humor that comes from the overuse of the term “photonics” (why is it red and green and what does that mean?) and the fact that everyone’s favorite drink is “stimu-tonic” (what, coffee’s not good enough in space?) and you have the perfect ingredients for satire.

However, after a while, those elements disappear and the tone becomes muddled. Allegiances flip-flop for seemingly no reason at all. There are severely over-explained plans that are far from complex and yet presented as such. During this time, I seriously considered putting down the book.

Come the end, I was glad I didn’t.

Something strange happened along the way while I was rolling my eyes at the text. All of a sudden the tone became dark and serious, and the writing reflected as such. The characters’ previous actions began to make sense. It all came upon me quickly, as if I hadn’t been paying attention the whole time and it only just then popped into my brain and screamed at me to look closer. It became more than a space opera, turning into something meaningful, something that would make the 9/11 conspiracy theorists proud.

So I didn’t write my review immediately afterwards and sat on the book for a few days. In that time, it’s gained greater notoriety in my head. The themes make sense, and the humor does, too. I think I finally understand what Mr. Fitch was trying to accomplish with it, and in the opinion of this reviewer he pulled it off.

In other words, try out A Galaxy At War. By the time you’re done, I think you’ll have enjoyed it…though it might take a while to figure out why you did.

Check out the book's Amazon page here

Plot - 9

Characters - 7

Voice - 8

Execution - 8

Personal Enjoyment - 8

Overall - 40/50 (4.0/5)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Review: Powerless Book I: The Synthesis by Jason Letts

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

First off, let me say that I dislike the term, “Young Adult Fiction”. This particular tag labels a work as childish, only for children or “young adults” (duh!). I recently read an article that said if Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” were to be published for the first time today, it would most likely be labeled as such. This is sad, because I have a feeling there are many YA books out there that are fantastic reads, and yet adults may pass them by, thinking the material to be beneath them.

Jason Letts’ “Powerless Book I: The Synthesis” is one of those books.

The story is simple and yet brilliant. On an earth much like our own, the whole of the populace has been granted super powers (for lack of a better word) since birth. All, that is, except our heroine, a precocious sixteen-year-old named Mira.

Mira has been kept isolated by her loving parents for all her life, surrounding their house by a wall of impenetrable mist to keep their vulnerable baby safe. Life goes on as usual for this family until, one night, a face appears to Mira through the clouds. This sparks her curiosity about the outside world, and leaves her parents with little choice than to unveil the reality of existence to their daughter.

From there, the storyline follows a fairly predictable trail. Mira goes to school, meets her classmates, makes friends (and possibly enemies), and generally experiences the growing pains that would accompany a person who’s lived their entire life locked away from the rest of humanity. However, when I say “predictable”, I don’t mean “bad”.

The wonder of this novel isn’t the storyline, but the feel of the characters. These are teenagers we’re talking about here, and though they are as selfish, vain, and insufferable, as teenagers usually are, there is also a layer of righteousness in each of them. We can see it, just beneath their surface, even if those acting out the deeds on the page cannot. It was truly inspiring to see, and I felt myself being thrown back into my own late teen years, wishing that in my own trials and tribulations I could’ve made the same bright and insightful choices that the characters here do.

The novel’s setting is magical, though in a subdued sort of way. There are many times where the reader will shift from a realm of high fantasy, what with the village square and the sealed fortress, where everyone walks (or flies, or teleports, or whatever else) to where they have to be through lush forests, to modern-day realism, where there is a knowledge of batteries and mechanics. This is not a stretch. Think about living in a world where everyone can do such wonderful things with their bodies. There would most likely not have been an industrial revolution, as there are folks who could perform certain tasks (a la shaping metal with the slightest touch or lift heavy objects from a distance with nothing but flick of the wrist) with relative ease. This doesn’t mean that science is dead; no, on the contrary, science exists, and it is very much the same, but it is pushed to the background because, with all these wondrous gifts, it is relatively unnecessary.

This is an innocent book and, as I said, simple. And it is also the first of a series. Like some of the other great works dealing with children (from Harry Potter to Buffy the Vampire Slayer), we should understand that as the volumes build and the characters grow older, the product will become darker and more adult. This is why the early books – or episodes – of these particular series should be cherished. Though they grew in scope and reached exciting and satisfactory endings, there is still, when one looks back, a sort of melancholy that emerges. We understand that we’ve known these characters since they were naïve and impressionable, and it hurts just a little to see their innocence diminish through their troubles and the sorrow of reaching adulthood. We should always remember that innocence, that clarity of youth, because without it, we become nothing but hollow shells.

“Powerless Book I: The Synthesis” captures all of this, and more, and promises that there will be even grander adventures right around the corner.

In short, I adored this little novel. It is well worth the read, and I am truly excited for the upcoming volumes to be released. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars – the docked half-point existing only because I thought the ending a bit hokey. Not bad, just hokey.

But it’s fantastic, anyway. I invite all to check it out. Only available on the Amazon Kindle.

Powerless Book I: The Synthesis by Jason Letts

Plot - 9

Characters - 9

Voice - 9

Execution - 9

Personal Enjoyment - 9

Overall - 45/50 (4.5/5)