Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: The Ryel Saga by Carolyn Kephart

Rating: 4.9 out of 5


Most of the time when I pick up a book and see this in action, I roll my eyes and mutter, “Oh, no.” There are just way too many authors that fall in love with their own words, with their ability to craft clever phrasing. They overdo it and overdo it until you just can’t stand to look at the endlessly droning sequences of words any longer. This is usually the result of a writer who’s trying to emulate “traditional” literature without understand what that is in the first place. I’ve struggled through a few of these types of books, and it never ends well.

However, there is a rare breed of verbosity that stems not from self-indulgence, but the uncanny ability to turn a manuscript into magical, epic poetry. In these instances the words are necessary. They build atmosphere, envelop the mind, and spiral the reader into a world they could’ve never imagined.

That, my friends, is Carolyn Kephart’s The Ryel Saga in a nutshell.

I have to admit that at first I was a little wary of this book. It’s long (twice my usual 120k word count limit), it’s wordy, and the plotline spirals in many different directions, seemingly at once. But what I failed to take into account as I first dove in was that this is the work of an author at the top of her game, a writer who fully understands human emotion, doubt, and yearning, a woman who knows how to build a world and recognizes that there are many, many different types of beauty…even in darkness.

The Ryel Saga is named after its main protagonist, Ryel Mirai, a wysard (aka magician, sorcerer, mage) from the mystical city of Markul. He leaves the city in which he’s been raised since his early teen years (when he was lured from his home in the Steppes by his uncle Edris) when he is offered a vision of his dearly loved mother, stricken with sickness and dying. Being well-trained and powerful in the use of the Arts (the Markulian term for magic), and having been trained to be a healer, Ryel brings it upon himself to save her.

Along the way he discovers that he is being sought by a daemon named Dagar, an old sorcerer of dead magic (I guess you could call him a necromancer) whose soul (or rai, as it’s called in the book) lives on even after his body has been destroyed. It seems Dagar wants Ryel’s body, and he’ll stop at nothing – and stoop as low as he can, making Ryel’s life far beyond miserable – to make that happen.

Ryel has other adventures, as well. He uncovers lost family, finds out information about his beloved uncle Edris that rattles his world and turns him into a man possessed, falls in love, thwarts a revolution, starts a revolution, uncovers the mysteries of his Art and its legacy, suffers an ancient malady, and finally fights in a massive battle to save not just the city of Almancar, but the entire realm, as well.

There. I’ve just compressed seven-hundred pages of plot into three short paragraphs. Of course this isn’t everything there is to it – there are intricacies aplenty woven throughout the story – but if I were to make this an actual recap, the review would be fifty pages long.

And besides that – and though this might be funny to say – the strange thing about The Ryel Saga is that the plot, as complex and well thought out as it is, is almost a secondary aspect of the book. Actually, now that I think about it, it might be third in line.

The first thing that grabbed me about the book was the scenery. I mentioned at the beginning how this reminded me of poetry, and the settings are what made me think of this concept. Each city and realm visited is so vividly described that they come to life in the mind’s eye. But, oddly, there is a lot left to the imagination, as well. This might sound like a contradiction, but it’s not. From the sway of the Steppes grasses to the mists surrounding Markul to the gardens and excesses of Almancar to the filthy, deprived buildings in and around the cursed city of Ormala, most everything is explained…so much so that what is left out feels mystical, such as the feel of the street under foot or the gust of the wind on a character’s face. It’s a strange sensation to have while reading…and a wonderful one.

The second, and most fantastic of all, are the emotional ties that bind the characters, both to each other and themselves. There is love aplenty – between siblings, lovers, old rivals, even enemies. There is hatred, shown the most in disease and the scars that result from a life filled with torment. (Two characters, the brothers Essern, beautifully illustrate this point. Look out for their characters. My two favorites in the entire book, after Ryel, himself.) There is the anguish of loss, and the hope that some how, some way, those lost loves might be returned to you. There is longing, for life, love, and family. There is honor amongst heroes, and none among the religious.

And this, as a matter of fact, might be the most profound aspect of the story. In the world of Destimar, religion is as much a bane on the populace as would be cancer on the human body. Religious leaders use their preaching to motivate, organize, and manipulate their charges. And yet the text does not lose sight of the everyday person’s need for belief. I completely loved and appreciated this facet of author Kephart’s storytelling. She comes across as evenhanded, highlighting the wonders and necessity of faith while at the same time illustrating via her fantasy world the way leaders throughout history have used the peoples’ desire for understanding and salvation to turn one sect against the other, triumphing the longing of the many in order to heighten the gains of the few. She doesn’t form an opinion about this and isn’t preachy; she just presents it as simple fact. Though truth be told this reviewer thinks she tips her hand at the end and lets us know, in the tiniest of ways, how she might actually feel about the subject of spiritualism and conviction. I could be wrong, but that’s the way it seemed to me.

Above all else, The Ryel Saga is the story of faith – faith in one’s self, in one’s principles, in one’s ability to overcome. Ryel is the embodiment of this. He believes in his quest. He may doubt himself at times, but he never truly falters. He knows what he’s capable of and trusts in his Art, his magic, and his capacity to learn. In fact, throughout the whole book he never stops learning. He’s like a giant sponge, an advocate for the quest for knowledge, of the viewpoint that to gain knowledge only leads to the desire for more knowledge, and that in the end, we can never stop, but we’d be damned to a life of slow death if we stopped trying.

In case any reading this review need it spelled out for them, despite my initial misgivings, I fell in love with this book. The Ryel Saga is a poignant, touching, somber, and exhilarating read, all in one. The sentiments are real, the small scenes take priority, and the action sequences are tastefully done. In a lot of ways it’s like going on vacation to the island of St. Thomas. You know it’s ornate, you know it’s a commitment, and yet once you get there you can’t help but sit back and enjoy the experience. Reading this book is just like that – like sitting in the sun, letting the emotion of the moment grab you, and allowing it to take you where it may. To run your eyes over each word is a grand event by every definition of the word grand. Let it capture you, let it overwhelm you. Once you reach the end, you’ll understand that you’ve undergone something rare, something beautiful, something you might only see two or three times in your life.

At least this reviewer did. And it’s definitely an experience I’ll never forget.

(Final note to say I docked a single point from the execution grade because of some minor formatting errors, aka a few missing quotes and some character name confusion. These weren’t major issues, however, so the damage is minimal. Definitely does not take away from the enjoyment of the story. Obviously.)

Plot - 10

Characters - 10

Voice - 10

Execution - 9

Personal Enjoyment – 10

Overall – 4.9/50 (4.9/5)

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review: Lessons II by Michael Crane

Rating: 5 out of 5

Here we are again, folks! Time for another collection of shorts by the incomparable Michael Crane.

Just as with the first volume, Lessons, Lessons II contains upwards of twenty-five "drabbles", complete stories told in exactly 100 words. Also as with the first book, every story the author crafts is entertaining and well worth the read. They suck you in immediately and then punch you in the gut.

I don't know if people really understand how hard it is to write these types of stories. One has to create atmosphere and characterization using an economy of words. And yet here it's pulled off beautifully.

In many ways a collection like this is like a songbook. You have different stanzas and verses, all reflecting a similar theme in different ways. There is horror and comedy, and a twist at the end of nearly every one. From "Solution" (my favorite) to "Punishment", they're small illustrations of everyday problems solved in the most extreme and brutal of ways.

In other words, this is a damn good little collection. My only hope is that the author will start putting out longer works, because his voice needs to be heard in a more fleshed-out format. I, for one, would line up to buy it.

Two great big severed thumbs up from me!

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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Review: Die Already by Kipp Poe Speicher

Rating: 3 out of 5

A while back I read this author's first foray into self-pubbing, and let's just say I didn't like it one bit. However, the writer showed a great amount of class (not to mention professionalism) by not only accepting what I wrote in the review, but presumably using my rather harsh words as a motivational tool to better his work.

So when Speicher contacted me again and asked if I'd take a look at his new offering, I readily agreed.

Die Already is a short story about a man who has a curse - when he's around, nothing ever dies. This curse has followed him since childhood, marking his life until one day the most horrible outcome he could think of happens - and he's left to wonder what he should do about it.

This is as much as I'll get into the plot, because this story is short (@1500 words) and I don't want to give away too much.

As for things I liked about the story, the author has certainly grown since I've read him last. His vision is more vivid, his voice stronger, and his ideas - well, let's just say he's a pretty imaginative chap. Die Already has a plot that could be made into something truly special. It's creative and creepy and atmospheric.

Which brings us to the bad. For as creative as the idea of the story is, it still reads as just that - an idea. It's not fleshed out anywhere near enough to be considered a complete tale. A little more exposition and a lot more fleshing out of characters and situations would do it very well, indeed. As presently constituted, scenes fly by much too quickly for the reader to gain any sort of emotional attachment to the narration, which is a shame. There's a lot of potential here, but as it is it's an overwritten piece of flash, when the idea begs to be so much more than that.

This isn't to say it's horrible. Definitely not. It's good, but just good. I'd love for the author to take this little tale of terror and turn it into a masterful work of fiction. It has that sort of potential, it just hasn't reached that point. Yet.

Available in Ebook format at

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review: The Usurper by Cliff Ball

Rating: 0.8 out of 5


Okay, I feel like I need to start out this review with a pair of declarations. #1) As I’ve said many times before, I do not enjoy giving out bad reviews. My aim with starting this blog was to promote independent authors, to dig through and find those little pieces of brilliance that might have gone unnoticed, not sell myself by being trite and cruel. Please keep that in mind. #2) I almost didn’t write the following review. After reading this book, I seriously considered contacting the author and saying, “Sorry, but I can’t.” However, I was sent a copy to provide a thoughtful, honest analysis of the story, and I feel like I owe it to everyone – myself, the author, and the readers – to follow through on this.

The Usurper by Cliff Ball is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. It’s billed as a political thriller, but it’s actually a mash-up of current and past events, altered ever so slightly to tell an extremely convoluted and not at all coherent story. To say I was conflicted about this whole experience is an understatement. To give you a picture of some the reasons, let’s first take a look at the plot.

The story of The Usurper begins in Mexico, where this hippie named Ann decides (for reasons beyond my understanding) to offer her services to the Russians in order to help “take down” the United States. She’s brought in and meets her KGB handlers, then gets shipped around the world. Long story short, she’s given the “mission” of fathering a child that will destroy the US from within.

She has a son with a Black Russian (joke intended), and he’s trained in all things communist. He eventually moves to the States from the Middle East, attends school, is a miserable and not likeable person. As if things weren’t confounding before, this is where they devolve into farce. Mister Jackson, he who’s an agent for communism, is sent to Chicago after graduation, where he becomes a community organizer, marries a woman (another Russian agent) who possesses “a scowl on her face that would scare off most of the male population”, attends a church run by an anti-American preacher (and yet another Russian agent), and then becomes Senator before making his move on the White House and eventually brings to an end the American way of life.

Hm. I wonder who that’s supposed to be. To me, this tool – tweaking the lives of real people to fit your own storyline and agenda – is dangerous. My own personal feelings on the matter are thus – if you want to write a fictional historical thriller, keep it to the past…or at least make it different enough so that the particulars aren’t readily apparent. It’s disrespectful to the parties involved to so obviously paint them as “evil incarnate” just to satisfy the author’s need to get his or her point across. I feel the same way about the litany of “ripped from the headlines” television shows. How about we show folks a modicum of respect?

Anyway, that whole tangent is somewhat beside the point, because even with this, if the book had been written well, I probably would’ve liked it. But it’s not. There are problems aplenty, whether in regards to style, grammar, characterization, or plot. There is very little that makes sense. It’s all a bit maddening.

First of all, the structure of the story itself is tortuous. There are numerous sections dedicated to recounting history – everything from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Oklahoma City bombing to 9/11. These sections are meant to drive forward the plot, to demonstrate how the KGB has infiltrated almost every aspect of the world, but all they did for me was make me want to turn the page faster.

In style, this book reads like a bunch of drunken right-wing conspiracy theorists sitting around a campfire playing top this. “Some useful idiot hippy goes over to communism.” “Two hours later she meets Khrushchev.” “Yeah, well three hours later she runs into Gorbachev on a plane.” “Okay, but a year after that Putin becomes her liaison.” “Eighteen years later her kid goes to Harvard, where every professor is a KGB operative spouting socialist propaganda.” See what I mean?

If these were the only problems, that’d be one thing. But they’re not. Not even close.

The sentence structure is spotty. There are run-ons galore. Comma usage is inconsistent at best, deficient at worst. Every usage of the word “but” is surrounded by them. For example: I wanted to enjoy this book, but, found it difficult to do so. After a while, I just decided to ignore it.

With all this said, though, the characterization in The Usurper is the absolute worst aspect of the book, perhaps the worst I’ve ever read. In fact, to call them characters at all would be an insult to even the most poorly constructed characters in the history of literature. They’re nothing but bits of clay spouting rhetoric (in ultra-stilted dialogue), whose opinions change only on the whim of where the author wants the story to go next.

“How can you say that?” you might ask. Well, to illustrate my point, let me give you a passage direct from the book. (The setup: Ann, the hippie at the beginning, is brought to the airport to meet the man who will father her child. This is what happens when she sees him.)

She didn’t think she was a racist, but, she realized that she might still hold some of that attitude and those unfortunate viewpoints. The realization of it all really horrified her. She let out a sigh, and meekly said, “I didn’t know he was going to be black.”

“Is that a problem?”

“For me, yes, yes it is. I would prefer his kind not touch me.”


Also, as another just-as-glaring example, there is a soldier who comes home from war and joins the new Civil Defense – basically an army policing the American people. He doesn’t question it when Jackson orders a nuke dropped in Kansas. He doesn’t question when the former president and his family (who somehow survived the nuke falling on top of their concrete bunker) are pulled out and unceremoniously executed. But he sees a church burned down, and that’s what makes him realize something’s wrong? This is beyond silly. In fact, it’s almost insulting.

And did I say the dialogue was stilted? Here’s an interaction between Gary, now in high school, and Tim, yet another Russian agent his own age, to help illustrate my point.

“Putin was right when he said they had everything covered. Are you supposed to help me take down the United States?”

“Me? My dad would like me to, but, I prefer causing terror by placing bombs in front of post offices and other federal buildings. If we stick together, we could rule this school.”

I just about lost my lunch laughing when I read these lines. Heck, this happened so many times during the course of reading this book that it became one long guffaw-fest. In fact, as I was reading I was struck by the thought that maybe this book was supposed to be funny. Was it satire? So I went back and looked at the descriptions on the internet, and no, no mention of satire or comedy. This was a book presented as a serious political thriller, when it’s everything but. In the spirit of full disclosure, had that been the case it would’ve received a much higher rating (though still low because the writing is so off)…but alas, it’s not. And to me, that’s faulty advertising.

I could go on and on like this. The “my clippings” feature on my Kindle is chock-full of entertaining quotes. However, I won’t because it just seems like piling on in a way. Just know that this novel really makes little sense. It’s entertaining in the same way that Plan Nine From Outer Space is – because it’s completely inept.

I know this might sound cruel, but it’s my honest opinion. A lot of reviewers are speaking in hyperbole when they state that so-and-so might be the worst book they’ve ever read, but in this case I can say that’s the truth. There were many times that I couldn’t decide if I was glad or offended that this book is out there. I ended up deciding on the former. This is a book every author who is considering self-publishing should read. It’s a living instructional booklet on how not to go about constructing a novel. From the horrible characters to a philosophy as balanced as a Michael Moore documentary to the atrocious and tacked-on (and not at all foreshadowed) “twist” ending, there’s a lot here to take in. Let it be a lesson to all. It might entertain you like it did me, but there’s a big difference between laughing at a book as opposed to laughing with it.

At least that’s how I feel. You might see it differently. Who knows?

Plot - 1

Characters - 0

Voice - 1

Execution - 1

Personal Enjoyment – 5

Overall – 8/50 (0.8/5)

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