Monday, September 27, 2010

Review: Powerless: The Shadowing by Jason Letts

Rating: 4.1 out of 5

“Heroic? The only heroes are the people who happen to get it right when everyone is watching.”

When we talk about heroism, about doing the right thing, are we doing so because it’s honorable or simply to be rewarded for doing something we think to be so? What does it mean when we look inside ourselves and find out we really don’t know who we are, that those we trust are less than trustworthy, that those efforts to gain acceptance through the previously mentioned gallant acts are meaningless? Do we let the pain and suffering define us, or do we rise up against the torrent of doubt and push to define ourselves rather than allow the situations we’ve found ourselves in to define us? And which way is the correct one?

These are some of the core questions asked in “The Shadowing”, the second book of the “Powerless” series by Jason Letts. It is the tale of Mira, the lone girl with no special abilities in a world where every other person has a superpower of one type or another.

This novel begins where the previous book, “The Synthesis”, left off; with the students, fresh off their confrontation with the baddies who attacked Mira’s house, saying goodbye and ready to head off to become “shadows”, or apprentices, in order to further learn to become experts with their powers. (As a side note, I did have a bit of a problem with this method of beginning the story. I felt there should have been at least a month or so gap between events. The way it's written seems a little rushed. Luckily, however, this awkward tone dissipates quickly and the story picks up steam again.) They disperse, heading off to learn their craft and ready themselves to fight in a war that is their mutual destiny.

It is in these training sequences that this particular novel shines. The teachers are all fresh characters, and to see the way the main protagonists – Mira, Aoi, Vern, and Will – change is accomplished with clever plotting and more than a trace of subtlety. The rancher who guides the hotheaded Aoi, for example, is a man of such calm that at times he seems to be a pillar of stone in a raging windstorm. To see his affect on a girl whose temper and angst had previously ruled her life was to witness the birth of a woman from a little girl. It was achieved with sensitivity and respect for the characters, which for a writer is sometimes very hard to do.

But it is the changes that occur within Mira that are the crux (and heart) of this tale. She heads off to find the only individual she thinks can help her – Flip Widget, the author of the science manuals that have guided her life, whose name is both humorous and, as you glance deeper into his character as the story progresses, deeply prophetic.

She is put through trials she barely survives, given information that rocks the core of her world, and in the end discovers a supposed truth about herself that causes her to question her place in the world – which, as for any of us, always comes down to our place within our own families, because when it comes down to it, our families ARE our worlds.

Seeing the change in Mira as this chapter of a much larger tale reaches its climax is heartbreaking. This was a girl of such innocence and drive, and when the innocence is ripped from her, the remaining ambition is driven in murky and sometimes unforgivable directions. And yet we can understand the thoughts that run through her head, the anger she feels, because each and every one of us has been betrayed at some point in our lives. Each of us has felt the slaughter of our self-definition and the desire to lash out at those who’ve wronged us, even if they aren’t around. And by the last page, as Mira is gazing at the sky, crying and wondering whatever she did to deserve the torment forced upon her, we are right there with her; disbelieving, cynical, and, more than anything, sad.

I have to say, for a second installment in a series, this book goes to some unexpectedly dark places. I appreciated it so much. In that way, it’s a step ahead of its predecessor. However, in other ways it lags behind. A sensation of innocence prevailed over everything in the first book, and the dialogue suited that tone. In this one, however, it becomes a bit stilted at times; robotic, almost like reading one of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” scripts. I assume this was because the writer had a difficult time transitioning them from adolescence to young adulthood. It is an awkward transition, and for this reason I am willing to overlook it. Just as the characters are learning about themselves, author Letts is learning about them at the same time. I have a feeling that come the next installment, this issue will have been worked out, and all will flow smoothly. After all, it was simply something I noticed, not a distraction.

One other thing I feel I must mention is the writing style. Once more, this is a book told in third person omniscient. As I’ve stated over and over again, this can be more than a little distracting and maddening, and those who are sticklers for point of view must be forewarned. Now, being that this is my own brain, I can choose to ignore the things that annoy me if I think the story itself is good enough. On the other hand, as a reviewer I have a responsibility to the reader to point out the flaws, and so I will.

Despite this, however, I still loved the book. It’s a wild romp through the treacherous maze of the teenage mind as adulthood lurks right around the corner. It’s about desiring to choose the right path and being able to forgive yourself if you fail to do so. There is pain, there are fleeting moments of joy, and behind it all there’s the growing portent of an evil that will surely swallow these brave young people whole if they don't rise up to the challenges ahead of them.

In all, it’s a book I enjoyed very, very much. I feel adults will get as much out of it as the YA crowd it's written for. I look forward to the next book, and can’t wait to see whether Mira and her friends can overcome the horrors that await them. I have a feeling that the losses will only mount as the series moves onward. In that way, whoever reads this book should cherish those innocent moments that still exist, because in all probability, they aren’t going to last long.

Yes, this books gets a resounding, “Go and buy it!” from this humble reviewer. So do it already!

Plot - 9

Characters - 9

Voice - 7

Execution - 7

Personal Enjoyment – 9

Overall – 41/50 (4.1/5)

Purchase The Shadowing for the Amazon Kindle

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Review: Down the Drain by Daniel Pyle

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

There is something to be said for the slam-bang horror tale. You know the type – they drag you in, shake you around a bit, and then pull away, never once telling you why everything that happened, happened.

While reading “Down the Drain”, a fast-paced novelette by Daniel Pyle, I was struck at first by how strange and audacious the storytelling was. Hell, the first chapter is told through the viewpoint of a cat! From there, it moves onto the main character, Bruce, a lonely independent contractor whose bathtub seems to have a thing for cat-flesh and penises. Short story even shorter, Bruce is accosted one night while bathing, the accursed tub doing things to him that might not be printable on a family blog before giving birth to something even stranger than a living, breathing hunk of porcelain.

This is a very straight-forward, action-driven tale. And it’s also fun. The scares are there, and the creepiness, but it’s the sense of humor – and the desire to shock you – that shines. I laughed out loud and cringed at the same time while I read it – especially during a scene involving a waggling phallus and the contemplation of how far away is a safe enough distance from a man-eating bathtub.

Never once is a reason given for the bathtub’s actions, and that’s okay. Sometimes, you can be given a larger chill by not knowing than if the author were to give you an unsatisfactory explanation. I love this style of storytelling, though I’m not very good at it, myself. Therefore, I have much more respect for those who do.

“Down the Drain” is a rumpus of uncomfortable horror. It goes by quickly, and will grab you in places you’ll never expect and jiggle you around a while. It’s an extremely enjoyable ride, no matter how short it is. I personally guarantee fun will be had by all who read this…unless you’re bothered by naked men running around and defending themselves from man-eating bathroom fixtures, that is.

Plot - 9

Characters - 8

Voice - 10

Execution - 9

Personal Enjoyment – 9

Overall – 45/50 (4.5/5)

Purchase Down the Drain for the Amazon Kindle

JOA Interview - David Dalglish


This is the first of what I plan to be an ongoing series of interviews with some of the writers I have reviewed, artists, and others in the publishing industry. David Dalglish is the author of four books - The Weight of Blood, The Cost of Betrayal, The Death of Promises (all from the Half-Orc series) and A Dance of Cloaks. You can read more about his work by visiting I have read and reviewed the first three listed, and they are not among my favorite new works, they're at the top of that list. The following interview was conducted through a series of emails between the author and myself.


Journal of Always:
Hello there, Mister David.

David Dalglish: Howdy Rob.

JOA: First, I must start this with a generic question every writer must be asked. What were the circumstances in your life that convinced you writing was to be your choice of career?

DD: Nothing actually convinced me it was going to be my choice of career. I loved writing, and I knew I was good at it, but I felt the odds of getting 'published' were pretty lousy. I mean, prior to putting my work out on the Kindle, I'd had a grand total of two short story sales. Much as I wanted to believe myself a superstar, it's hard to imagine actually making any significant money without much to back it up.

When I bought my wife a Kindle, and we devoured books on it for several weeks straight, I decided this thing was going to be huge. At this point I had three of my half-orc books written, in various state of edits and whatnot. I saw I could upload them for free, so I hammered the first into a workable state, found myself an awesome cover artist, and then uploaded it. Did I think I was just launching a career? Hahahhaha. No.

JOA: On that note, it should come as no surprise to you that I love the half-orc series. To me, it is everything a fantasy tale should be. Please tell us the humble beginnings of the story - how you came up with the characters, where the idea of your world came from, when you decided it would be a five-part series, etc.

DD: Heh, humble indeed. A friend of mine kept telling me about this text-based online computer game. It was very role-playing focused, and he told me of all these crazy things he was doing. Well, he'd made a half-orc necromancer named Qurrah. I wanted to make his brother. That was it, the grand creation moment for my two brothers; heck, one of them wasn't even my own creation!

I did get permission, btw. My friend knows that my Qurrah is not his Qurrah. Anyway, we started up our little story-arc. I met my wife-to-be playing this game (a spry little elf named Aurelia), so needless to say I have some fond memories. Eventually we started a war between the brothers, one that had hundreds of characters pledging allegiance to one or the other. And then one of the moderators took over Qurrah, hijacked the storyline, and then vanished halfway through.

We were devastated. Qurrah was reduced to some boogie-man draining the blood of children. I decided then that the story I wanted to tell was just too big for a game. I took all the characters, made my own simple little world for them to play in, and then started anew.

Of course, part of me hates telling this story. There's a big stigma on crappy indie fantasy writers just "retelling their D&D campaigns" as one reader put it. Perhaps I fall in that category. Ah well. The moments I wanted to retell weren't "omg look how many skeletons we killed in this dungeon." No, I wanted to give life back to moments such as when Harruq returned home to find his daughter sick in bed, her mind lost to insanity, while all his friends and family could only stand and wonder until a shadow of Qurrah appeared over the bed, threatening death if he was not given what he wanted...

JOA: That's actually quite a funny story. And it completely ties in with my next line of questioning. The scenario goes like this - early on in my own writing career, I struggled mightily when attempting to create characters. For a long time, all I could do is take people I knew (family and friends) and turn them into my focal points. In the time since those early days, I've done a much better job of separating the reality from the fantasy in my fiction. Has this been an issue for you? Do you pull from the folks you know for characters? And if you do, how much do you attempt to create the separation between real life and fantasy? Do you feel it even matters?

DD: For a little while, I started worrying that I wasn't that great at making characters. Almost all of mine were based off of characters my friends had made, in various games like World of Warcraft or D&D campaigns. Tarlak is clearly my older brother. Qurrah is my previously mentioned friend. Aurelia and Tess were both my wife's creations. But I think this helped in that I had a solid idea of who these characters would be when I created them and put them into the story. More importantly, I felt like I had an obligation to these characters. I had to keep them true to who I knew they were. I think that respect and admiration bleeds into my writing, whether I'm aware of it or not.

But at the same time...these characters are mine. I know that. Perhaps Tarlak is based on my older brother. You know what? Far as I know, he can't hurl fireballs from his fingertips. He hasn't fought a duel to the death with a mad goddess. Even though they may start out similar to someone in real life, the story should quickly take over, crafting the character into something else entirely. But every now and then, through a comment or joke, you might see flashes of that inspiration.

JOA: Speaking of inspiration, there is a great amount of darkness in these books. What inspired that? Are you trying to make a greater point about the world, or simply having fun telling a rock-em-sock-em story? Not that it matters either way. I'm just curious.

DD: You kidding? I didn't have a clue they were so dark. (What does that say about me?) Seriously, it wasn't until I started getting reviews in that I had a chance to see my stories through outside eyes. My very original goal when I started was to have Qurrah become one of the most awesome villains ever. I wanted him on par with Raistlin Majere and Darth Vader. That means he has to, you know, do something bad. Is this a shock? Are we really so accustomed to dark lords hiding in the center of their fortress, doing nothing worse than having a big sign over their head saying "Bad Guy, Come Defeat Me!"

Course, now I look back at a trail of dead and shake my head and wonder how many I'll have left alive at the end of this series. And now I've started questioning whether or not Qurrah will truly become that villain he was meant to be...

JOA: When it comes to Qurrah, in "The Death of Promises", he seems to have done just what you've said and gone the Darth Vader route, completely to the dark his own stubborn way. Can you give the readers some idea of the direction he'll be headed come the next book?

DD: He's getting desperate. He's basically severed his ties to his brother and their friends, and willingly chosen to sacrifice the whole world for the sake of himself, Tessanna, and their child. It's amazingly selfish, to be honest. The problem with being so internally focused is that should that tiny little world he creates actually crumble, well...he'll be left with nothing to cling to, nothing to believe in, nothing to live for. Qurrah hasn't hit rock bottom, not yet. He will. Count on it.

JOA: In my review of The Weight of Blood, I mentioned how my own understanding of the brothers and their plight, when reflected against real-world problems in war-torn, impoverished areas, aided in my ability to sympathize, and sometimes even understand, their horrendous acts. Not that I condone them, just that I think I get where they're coming from. From your experience, do you think this might be a tripping point for some people? How many folks have expressed displeasure as to these acts, and what would you like to say them in response?

DD: I've had readers post reviews just to warn people that children are killed. I've had others say they wished they could administer lethal injection to my main characters. More baffling, I've seen readers think Harruq is a bad guy, or an anti-hero...and still think that even 2-3 books in. The worst is when people think that I am actually condoning or approving what happens. People do bad things, even good people. I firmly believe that.

I also believe in the ability for people to change. Those that don't, that think once you've done something horrible you deserve immediate cosmic punishment, probably aren't going to get far in my book. To them, I just like pointing out that the New Testament of the Bible was written by murderers, thieves, tax know, the lowest of the low. That enhances concepts like grace and forgiveness, not cheapens them. Forgiving someone who did pathetic little white lies and petty crimes? Easy. Forgiving a murderer? That is real power.

JOA: Changing directions now. You've recently released a new book, "Dance of Cloaks". It is set in the world you've created for Harruq and Qurrah, and involves active character in the series, and yet, if I'm informed correctly, it stands on its own. Correct me if I'm wrong, and please take a moment to tell us about the novel, itself.

DD: I wanted to write a novel that was a standalone, something people could read without having to dive through my entire series to get the whole story. I also wanted to try toning down the over-the-top magic and combat, get rid of all the various races, and try to write a dark, gritty, realistic story of humans warring against themselves. I also wanted to try a lot harder at creating a believable world, one with a rich history of various factions. With the half-orcs, it sometimes feels that the only real powerful people of note are either with the Eschaton, or with Velixar.

Anyway, I tossed in a lot of the minor characters mainly because since the book takes place six years before Weight of Blood, many of them would be hanging around. I introduce them as if you wouldn't know them, though, so there's no worry of someone getting lost or confused if they haven't read the half-orc books. It also gives some of them time to shine without that glory-hog Harruq dominating the show.

JOA: That Harruq. He just can't get enough of the limelight, can he?

One final question, Dave. What does the future hold for Mister Dalglish? Besides the last two half-orc books, what else do you have in the works?

DD: I've got a novella almost finished titled Guardian of the Mountain. It's a little bit of backstory of the character Mira from book 3, as well as a damn good horror story in its own right. I've also got something very different for me. It's a collection of short stories titled A Land of Ash, all following the lives of ordinary people struggling against a cataclysmic eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera. The first of these is already out there for free on Smashwords, as well as included in David McAfee's The Lake and 17 Other Stories.

JOA: Thank you so much for your time. It is appreciated, and I hope all who read this can come away with a little better understanding of what lies beneath this fantastic run of books.

DD: Thanks for the interview, Rob. I hope I didn't bore people too badly!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The White Hairs by Noah Mullette-Gillman

Rating: 4.1 out of 5

A couple reviews ago I spent some time describing stories and their ideas and how sometimes the potency of one doesn’t match the other. However, one type I failed to list are the tales whose ideas are fully fleshed out, meaty, and beautiful, yet whose writing lags a bit behind. For a perfect example of this, I can point to “Atlas Shrugged” or “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand. These are two books whose concepts are striking in their completion, yet the function and form of the stories don’t quite measure up. In instances such as these, the lack of literary prowess is easily ignored – at least by this reviewer – for it is what they have to say that is important.

I found myself thinking of these types of tales while reading “The White Hairs”, a novella of surprising depth by author Noah Mullette-Gillman. Within is presented the story of Farshoul, a yeti-like creature who lives in the icy mountaintop regions of some unnamed place in some unnamed (though somewhat modern) time. He and his people have lived atop these mountains for centuries, isolated from the human race. They are an unexpectedly sophisticated race of beings, seemingly more advanced than man in terms of intellect and spiritual understanding. As is their right of passage, these White Hairs, as they’re called, “travel” – or astral project – to both further their understanding of the nature of their souls and help to strengthen their sense of community. It is here, during one of these traveling ceremonies, that we first meet Farshoul.

Farshoul has a different experience than his brethren. Whereas they dance about and interact with each other while away from their bodies, he can see none of them. He goes off on his own to explore, and through this exploration he discovers what it is like to be the wind, sees the forces of nature at work in ways beyond his imagination, and even comes to respect the way humans band together to create beauty during the more dire and hopeless moments.

The problem is that Farshoul’s experience is so outside those of his peoples’, they don’t believe him. They say he is imagining things, that the rituals might be dangerous for him. This causes him to go out and experiment with the process on his own, which leads to him being away from his body for a long period of time and eventually running across a demon who wishes to devour the very soul he is flittering about within. It is due to this confrontation that Farshoul is stripped of his sight, of his feelings, of his innocence, and is left to exist for the next thirty years as a shell of the being he once was.

(To add to this, I have to say it is a brilliant metaphor for growing up as a spiritual being. We grasp on to our religions as children, and they are perfect. Yet we grow older, and we see the ugliness out there, even in those we trust. Our faith is diminished, and that virtuousness is gone. Just as with Farshoul, food doesn’t taste as good, play isn’t as fulfilling, and people begin to look untrustworthy. Call it growing up if you will…I’ll call it Gaining Harmful Knowledge, and just like Farshoul, we spend the rest of our lives trying to reclaim that lost innocence.)

I wouldn’t be doing this book any justice if I didn’t mention how darn beautiful it is. The imagery is ethereal and salient. The reflections are complex and sometimes somber. We are shown the world through the shadow of a ghost, and are left to feel the pain of this astounding creature when he is reduced from his previously innocent and naïve adventurer into an angry and often violent stoic.

The ways the ideas themselves are presented are cause for attention, as well. There are many put forth; some are explained, some aren’t. And yet, there is no sense of finality to any of them. It is almost as if the author measured all the belief systems in this world of ours, considered them equally valid, and now tells us, “who are we to say there is only one way?” This, along with the fairy-tale, otherworldly feel that the tale possesses, doesn’t just border on brilliance. It becomes so.

However, there is a downside to the book, and that is the writing. At times it flows smoothly, other times not so much. The author is taken to overuse of adverbs, at times placing them so close together they become redundant. The tone can go from intricate to childlike and back again, without the flow of the tale justifying the shift. I found this a little frustrating, but in the end, I chose to ignore it as far as my enjoyment of the story was concerned, because it had so much magnificence to offer. As a reviewer, however, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't point them out.

In closing, I have to say that this little gem is definitely worth the read. And the lack of proper structure and pacing doesn’t ruin the experience. If anything, all it accomplishes is to take a book that could have been great and makes it very, very good.

It is my hope that author Mullette-Gilman will revisit his text and rework it. It would make me quite proud if these previous two paragraphs are rendered moot. Because this is something that I feel should be digested by folks of all ages and creeds – and it would be fantastic if these folks would have no reason to find fault.

Plot - 9

Characters - 8

Voice - 7

Execution - 7

Personal Enjoyment – 10

Overall – 39/50 (3.9/5)

Purchase The White Hairs in:


or for the

Amazon Kindle

Monday, September 20, 2010

Review: The Death of Promises by David Dalglish

Rating: 4.7 out of 5

“To the abyss with it all. I just want to burn stuff.”

For anyone who’s been following this blog, it should be readily apparent that I hold the Half-Orc series by David Dalglish in the highest regard. I love the characters, the darkness, the action, and the passion his work portrays. I read them in quick bursts, usually finishing in less than three days, and this book, “Death of Promises”, the third in the series, was no different.

This novel is a bit of an oddity. We pick up the story shortly after the last one ended, with Qurrah Tun and his batty goddess-girlfriend, Tessanna, off in search of a mythical spellbook he hopes will be able to cure his lover’s fractured mind. He takes hold of the book, only to discover that it is not what it seems; it is not a tome of spells, you see, but the journal of Qurrah’s old master, Velixar. Just like everything else in this book, there are layers upon layers of manipulation and underhanded motives.

The reason I say “oddity” is because the author takes a huge risk here. For the first half of the novel he focuses not on the heroes of the story – the Eschaton, which includes Qurrah’s brother, Harruq – but instead on the antiheroes. He outlines Qurrah’s further descent into madness, reintroduces Velixar, who has risen from the grave yet again, and demonstrates how their combined powers of darkness sweep the land, bringing a vile sort of order to the chaos that surrounds the forgotten realms, where those cursed by the gods now live. It is risky, and also very brave, storytelling. Some might bristle at this development, but I appreciated it. Especially after the emotional end to the last book, it made sense to go in this direction. That one was Harruq’s chance to shine, to show us his depth of caring and forgiveness; this is Qurrah’s opportunity to radiate the darkness he clutches inside him. That juxtaposition is necessary. If this is indeed a redemption story, then we need to see how far down the rabbit hole the villains will go. And let me tell you, they go far.

Come the second half of the novel, all the old particulars are back in force. In fact, the last third of the text is dedicated to a single, huge battle – the invasion of Velderan by the forces gathered by Qurrah, Tessanna, and Velixar. It is an intricately written series of skirmishes and mass combat, and it comes off as both exciting and concise. In fact, in a lot of ways the final battle reminded me of the siege of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, if you took away the monotony and uselessness to the overall story arc. This fight means something. It’s harsh and brutal. It encapsulates everything that makes the brothers different, and shows us how much they’ve grown into their distinct personalities since The Weight of Blood opened this world to us all.

As with the rest of the books in the series, author Dalglish presents his themes of choices, both good and bad, love and obsession, and the nature-versus-nurture argument that rages between the brothers and their opposing views of the world. However, in this episode, he introduces another theme, one that I appreciate more than any other: the dangers of religious fanaticism.

Most every character in this book is a fanatic. From Lathaar and Jerico, the paladins of Ashhur, to Velixar and the dark paladins of Karak, there are divergent beliefs that clash with each other around every turn. This, when it all comes down to it, is the reason this war starts in the first place. Kind of a “My God is bigger than Your God” type of bloody argument. It rings true, not only to this fictional world, but to our own, as well. And when you look at the construction of the characters, you can see that the most balanced of them, the ones most comfortable in who they are, are the ones who hold their faith not as a be-all-end-all, but as a leaning post for the thoughts and situations that trouble them. Harruq and the Eschaton are this way – strong in their faith, but open to other viewpoints and understanding of their free will. Qurrah is also this way, though through his descent we can see the fanaticism start to trickle in, which makes him all the more dangerous. And at the end of the day, it is those who are able to harness their different faiths, to meld old and new ways into something positive, that saves the day and offers our heroes at least a glimmer of hope for the future.

Just as with the other books in this series, the writing is pretty much spot on. My only complaint is that one major character – Tessanna’s mirror opposite, the goddess-made-flesh named (appropriately) Mira, is a bit wooden. However, this is remedied by the confrontation between the two of them, where again the subject of faith is explored. It is a beautifully written scene, and makes a character that had been previously uninteresting shine. But what does this have to do with faith, you ask? It seems the goddess Celestia, who created these two, had a plan for them. Their combined power, while locked in conflict, would destroy the inter-dimensional portal Qurrah and Velixar opened, in the hopes of freeing their god Karak from exile. But Mira’s free will, and her unwillingness to die for the cause, changes things. At first glance, it seems as if Mira made a mistake. The portal is still open, and demons are spewing forth into their world. However, on a more philosophical level, it makes perfect sense and could one day lead to the salvation of all their people. The gods are locked in an eternal struggle, constantly using mortals (and immortals) for their own means. It’s a vicious cycle, one proven by the fact that Tessanna and Mira, these “daughters of balance”, are not the first of their kind. They’ve appeared before, whenever the scales tip in either Ashhur or Karak’s favor. It’s manipulative, locking those on the surface into constant discord between contrasting sides of the same coin. But now, that balance has been obliterated. Now, we see that it’s not up to the gods to decide the fate of the world, but the people, themselves. In a place where free will exists, this is the only acceptable way for the conflict to end, and I’m glad to see it’s been done this way.

Yes, folks, “Death of Promises” is a fantastic book. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of “Cost of Betrayal” in certain regards, but is its equal in others, which makes it great, something that should be read. It’s a wham-bang thrill ride that will make you think and feel. The emotional threads are still there, and they still grasp you with their tentacles and pull you in even further.

Just like Qurrah, take a dive in and see how far down the rabbit hole goes. You won’t be disappointed.

Plot - 9

Characters - 9

Voice - 10

Execution - 9

Personal Enjoyment – 10

Overall – 47/50 (4.7/5)

Purchase "The Death of Promises" in:



Amazon Kindle Format

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Wicked Heroine: Legend of the Shanallar Book I by Jasmine Giacomo

Rating: 2.8 out of 5

I like ideas. I like a well-written novel. Sometimes, I run across novels where these two aspects don’t mesh. Some are well-written but lack imagination. These, I give a shrug to and move on. Some, however, have ideas so interesting that I want to like them, even though the construction of the plot might leave much to be desired. The latter, to me, are the most frustrating of all books. They’re written just well enough to be passable, but not good enough to bring those brilliant ideas to the forefront, to give them the power and importance they deserve.

“The Wicked Heroine: Legend of the Shanallar Book I” by Jasmine Giacomo is one of these books. On the surface, it has everything – a legendary and immortal figure who influences the course of history, an expedition that forays into cultures foreign to the protagonists and highlights the differences between the peoples, a government conspiracy, a deep and secret evil that seems to be bubbling to the surface, sea monsters, sword fights, and a preternaturally gifted young girl who might be more than she seems.

The story follows the adventures of three main characters – Geret, a young and brash prankster who is set to be made prince, Sanych, the aforementioned talented young girl, and Meena, the legendary and immortal Shanallar, herself. They set out on a quest from Geret and Sanych’s homeland of Vint in search of the lost (and imminently dangerous) Dire Tome, a book of magic that Meena, in one of her many previous identities, had hidden away to protect the world from the dangers that lie within. They journey across their continent and into the sea, in search of the land of Shanal, the birthplace of Meena and burial ground of the Dire Tome, itself.

Along the way they encounter many adventures. There is political intrigue, as the reasons for the quest seem questionable at best, even to those partaking in it. There is the budding brotherhood-hatred relationship between Geret and Salvor, a young Lord who accompanies them on the quest. There are the tales told through flashbacks and those Meena speaks of that discuss the history of this world we’ve been entered into, which in and of themselves could be complete, fleshed-out books. There are the previously stated sea monsters, whose encounter with the protagonists makes up the most entertaining part of the book. And there are themes of innocence lost and valor that each character must deal with.

As for those characters, they are pretty well fleshed out. Meena, in particular, is interesting. Her demeanor is gritty and more than a bit rude, which flies in the face of normal conventions when it comes to wise immortals. She has a chip on her shoulder, people annoy her, and she isn’t shy about letting them all know as much. Geret is likeable in an “ignorant jock” sort of way; he’s the type of fellow one might know who’s supremely gifted yet just naïve enough to let himself get walked over. And Sanych…she’s an idiot savant, the female Rain Man. Gifted with memory and intellect yet socially inept. I mean, when do we not root for a character like that?

These characters change throughout the book, and those changes are consistent with the way they’ve been presented. But the problem I had with author Giacomo’s writing wasn’t the characters, but the construction of the tale.

First of all, it is horribly overwritten. One could probably cut about 10% off the word count by eliminating unnecessary adverbs alone. There are extended segments describing droll information regarding locations the characters simply pass through. Long stretches pass without anything happening. On more than one occasion, I found my vision blurring as my eyes scanned the text. In fact, I was a full seventy-five percent through the book before the pace picked up and the action got going. To be completely honest, the author should have cut the word count by a third or more. It would’ve made for less distracting reading.

Also, I mentioned earlier ideas and how many were present in this book. Yes, they are there, but in many ways they’re ignored or used as meaningless plot devices to explain away a character’s relevance. For example, there is a fabulous little tidbit about a forced wedding ritual (demand?) where the subject of the engagement is placed under a spell where if they give their love to another, if they’re unfaithful, that the person they are unfaithful with will die, leaving the purveyor of this infidelity to deal with the consequences. It was a shocking revelation, one that could’ve been used to make a nice statement about humans and our responsibilities to others, and I was eager to see where this plot point went. Well, it went nowhere. It was almost as if the characters (and author) said, “Oh, isn’t that nice?” and went along their merry ways. I just about pulled my hair out with that one.

Oh, and the ending. It didn’t wind down as much as fizzle. Sure, I understand that this is the first in a two-book series, but there has to be at least some resolution. In many ways it felt as if I took this long, drawn-out journey, and nothing happened. Kind of like strolling down a dirt road in Nebraska. The land is flat and uninteresting, and unless you are clued in to all the little things going on around you (if you’re even interested in them), it’s not very exciting.

As for the writing style itself, once again I find myself reading a book written in third person omniscient. When will folks realize that constant head-hopping from paragraph to paragraph is more than a little bit irritating, not to mention frowned upon? Find a character to tell the story or section through and stick with it, please.

Overall, I will say that although the book frustrated me, and wasn’t completely satisfying, I still took something away from it. Like I said, it is the first book in a series, so perhaps the later volume will clear up some of my misgivings – if I pick it up. But, again, the ideas...that’s what makes it so maddening. There is so much there, so much that could’ve made this a wild, thrilling, and original ride. But it wasn’t, and in the end, my enjoyment – and the novel’s grade – suffered.

Plot - 7

Characters - 9

Voice - 5

Execution - 3

Personal Enjoyment – 4

Overall – 28/50 (2.8/5)

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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Review: The Long Last Call by John Skipp

Rating: 4.7 out of 5

I read The Scream in eighth grade, and The Bridge in high school. I adored both of those books, and they helped build my love of horror. These novels were penned by John Skipp (with an assist from Craig Spector), the guy who pretty much invented the splatterpunk genre.

However, in the time after The Bridge was released in ‘91, it was years before I heard from him again. As far as I could tell, the only appearance Mr. Skip was as the editor of the two “Books of the Dead”, which are the seminal compilations in the world of zombies. And oh, did I miss him.

Well, he’s back. (Actually, he has been for a time, but I’m a bit, er, clueless when it comes to actually seeking things out.) This past week, I was handed a copy of The Long Last Call, in paperback from Leisure Fiction, and I dove in head first.

This particular tome actually contains two novellas – the title piece, “The Long Last Call”, and “Conscience”, which was released in 2004 (unbeknownst to me). I will review them both here, in that order.

In “The Long Last Call”, a strip club off the beaten path in Podunk America is visited by a strange (and oily) visitor. There are the requisite characters for such a setting – the sleazeball owner, the grumpy bouncer, the old hick regulars, the guy who stops in who doesn’t belong, and strippers who snort a ton of coke or are paying their way through college or are simply dumb and blessed with stunning beauty. Yes, these characters are simple, but they work, because this story isn’t about making some grand social commentary (at least not at first). No, this is a slam-bang tale of horror, and we’re all better for it.

The patrons of Sweet Thangs are taken for a ride when that dark (and oily) stranger strolls in with a bucketload of cash. He feeds into the characters’ inherent greed and desperation, intent on proving that all people are corruptible and at their core dreadful, until a twist at the end throws everything on its head. It was quite interesting to see the interplay between all of these characters, both despicable and not. This book would work beautifully if were nothing but a social experiment, but it is much more than that.

The writing style is one I haven’t seen in a long time. It is brisk and fast-paced, leading you from one sentence to another without giving the reader a chance to breathe. The use of ellipses is brilliant. You flip through the pages one after the other, excited to see what sort of depravity Skipp will show you next. It’s a small book, and simple, but it does its job well, which is all you can ask for.

Whereas “The Long Last Call” aims to shock you, “Conscience”, the second of the novellas, wants to do so much more than that. It wants to make you think, to make you consider the frailty of your own soul and those of the people around you.

To say I was shocked by what I read in this second novella would be an understatement. It is the story of Charlie, a killer-for-hire working for a clandestine organization that specializes in ruining the lives of the affluent. (Think “Access Hollywood” run by Don Corlione) He is a miserable sod. He hates life, he hates people, he hates his past and his future. He kills folks without thinking twice and waxes poetic about how the whole world has gone to hell. He also reflects with passion about his first love, his dog Rex, and this is the first clue we are given that there is more going on underneath Charlie’s layers of hatred than we realize.

I won’t go too far into the plot of the book, because to do that would be to ruin the surprise it has in store. And oh, what a surprise it is. I was utterly floored by the revelations here. It read like a tale of Poe for a new generation. It was sweet, it was harsh, and it made me THINK, DAMMIT. Actually, if I had to think of two words to describe it, they would be “hideously beautiful”, because the novella itself is a contradiction, which makes it really close to what we, as people, have always been.


In fact, I’ll go even further and say that this might be one of the most perfect stories I’ve ever read. My one and only complaint is that more info about the organization Charlie works for wasn’t presented, but that could be another novel for another day (I hope it is). The writing is spot on, there are sufficiently violent and gruesome scenes, the voice is sublime and cynical, the main character changes in a way that makes sense once the hidden meaning of everything is revealed, and it has something beautiful to say. Let’s just say that, by the end, my eyes were welling up. For a work of art as cruel as this is, to have that purity underneath, that sense of lost innocence that might someday be regained, is something to be greatly admired.

So yes, folks, John Skipp is indeed still one of the best horror writers out there. And with these two stories, he proves that, with age, comes wisdom and understanding. His unveiling of the human condition in these tales says that much…and more.

They’re well worth the read. You’ll love every minute. I know I did.

The Long Last Call

Plot – 9

Characters – 8

Voice – 10

Execution - 9

Personal Enjoyment – 9


Plot – 9

Characters – 10

Voice – 10

Execution - 10

Personal Enjoyment – 10

Overall – 94/100 (4.7/5)

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Review: Flaming Dove by Daniel Arenson

Rating: 4 out of 5

This will be my first review that uses my new rating system. I am now judging a book by four criteria – plot, character development, writing style (punctuation, grammar, use of writing devices, etc), and how much the story affected me. These will all be best-of-twenty-five, and when those scores are added together, I come up with the overall rating.

There, that should explain it.

All of which brings me to my latest review – “Flaming Dove” by Daniel Arenson. Now, I read and reviewed Mr. Arenson’s first novel, “Firefly Island”, some time ago. I loved that book. It was everything I was searching for in my fiction. So when his latest book arrived in my Kindle, I thought, “oh yes, here we are, give me more.”

Flaming Dove is the story of Laila, a woman born half-demon, half-angel, during the outset of Armageddon. She is the quintessential loner, existing on the outskirts of what society is remaining after war between heaven and hell broke out on earth, with only her trusted wolf, Volkfair, for companionship. She is surly and a creature without a place to call home, a fact that the novel drives into your head early and often. She fights with modern weapons and kills angels and demons equally, reinforcing the point that she is a woman who belongs to no one. She is, to make a long story short, a wild card in this seemingly endless war.

It seems that heaven and hell have come to a stalemate, you see, and the opposing generals, Beelzebub (who has killed Lucifer to take hold the mantle of hell’s ruler) and the archangel Michael, his brother, are desperate to find an edge, or a loophole, that they can exploit. And both of them look to Laila as being that edge. From the beginning, the battle is on to lure her to one side or the other. Who should Laila choose, being that no matter who wins, she is pretty much screwed? This, to me, was the most interesting part of the novel. This is a creature that has no stake in the outcome, and yet that outcome means everything. It was quite entertaining to watch her flip and flop through her decisions, trying to come up with a satisfying answer to the hardest question of all: where do I belong?

There are huge battles and small, sincere moments that lure the reader in. Most superbly done are Laila’s attack on hell for the former and the struggles of Laila’s sister, the angelic Bat El, as she experiences love for the first time – with a demon, no less – and weighs the consequences of her ultimate decision.

Here it is. Decisions. Much as with Firefly Island, decisions made and not made once again compose the root of Arenson’s novel. Unlike that previous book, however, I found myself not as interested in the outcomes of these decisions. And the reason for this is simple.


This is a story of angels and demons pitted against each other. In the whole length of the book, there were two humans introduced, and only one of which who was in any way important to the plot. This confused me. This is Armageddon we’re talking about here, the ultimate face-off to decide the fate of man. And yet, there are no people to be seen. This struck me as an odd way to approach things, for what we get are two opposing sides fighting for what is pretty much a useless, destroyed hunk of rock. Now, I understand that humans have fought for much the same thing over the history of our species, and I assume the point was to paint both sides as being no better than we are – flawed, deceitful, full of pride, and easily wounded. This is all well and good, and I applaud the effort, but the problem a tale such as this has is that you’re fighting the religious stereotypes that have been passed down for thousands of years. Angels reflect the good, demons the bad. Sure, there are biblical stories of angels being less than completely pious, but still there is the assumption that, come the end of the day, they are righteous. To paint them as otherwise is a slippery slope and difficult to pull off.

In certain ways, the author does succeed. I found myself caring about all the peripheral characters, Beelzebub and Bat El more than all. And this took skill. However, with both sides being flawed and hard to root for, not to mention almost indistinguishable from each other, the novel must rely on Laila to carry the word of the day.

For the most part, she is up to the challenge. She is presented, as I said earlier, as a jaded loner. Actually, in almost every way she is the picture of humanity, which makes the decision to cut out the human element of the plot all the more bothersome. Because at the end of the day, though she is much like us, she is still a powerful (and immortal) being with claws, wings, and a halo of fire. This makes her, even in her state of emotional unrest, somewhat difficult to relate to, which also makes the themes the author is trying to get across fall a bit flat.

As for those themes, I get it. There is no such thing as pure good and evil. However, I simply don’t feel like it was unveiled well enough to strike a poignant chord in me. Also, these themes, as well as other things, are repeated, time after time, which can get a bit tiresome. I understand that Laila has no home, that she feels as if she doesn’t belong anywhere. I understand that blades glint, scales shimmer, and both angels and demons have wings. To bring these points up time and again makes the writing stagnate, which doesn’t aid when trying to keep a reader entrenched in the writer’s world.

Now, I understand that this review sounds like I’m blasting the novel. I’m not trying to. I did enjoy it, only not as much as I thought I should have. You see, Arenson is a supremely talented writer. Even with what I see to be bad decisions in regards to the plot and execution of the story, it is imminently readable. The battle scenes are epic, the dialogue flows smoothly. The characters were fleshed out and believable. The emotional chords between a girl who’s never loved and a man who’s loved too much are heartbreaking. The ending shocked me with its power. (Though this book will forever end at chapter 21 for me, because the last chapter seemed like piling on, preaching, and trying to set up a possible sequel) But I wanted more. Especially after reading Firefly Island, I expected it.

At the end of the day, even with all my ranting, Flaming Dove is a good book. It will keep you turning the page and make you care for the people who inhabit it. My problem is that it’s not great.

But then again, that could be only me. You might think differently. So check it out, because even with its faults it is worth the price of admission.

Plot – 9

Characters – 7

Voice – 9

Execution - 9

Personal Enjoyment – 6

Overall - 40/50 (4.0/5)

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