Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Review: The Submersion: Powerless Book 4 by Jason Letts

Rating: 3.7 out of 5

I’ve been following Jason Letts’s Powerless series from the very beginning, when we were first introduced to Mira, the girl with no special talents in a world where the rest of the population is graced with super powers. I immediately found it a thoroughly entertaining and innocent ride, one that carried with it that sense of wonder and purity until the end of book 2 and into book 3, where events grew exponentially darker by the page.

So here we are at book four, The Submersion, one episode away from the climactic moments, and while there is still a lot of darkness, a bit of that purity has been retrieved.

The Submersion begins a short time after The Stasis ends. Mira, Vern, Chucky, and Aoi are sequestered in one Sunfighter labor camp while Will, Mary, and another character (who will go unnamed because I was shocked to see them and it would be a spoiler) are in another. They struggle through each day in quite depressing and depraved conditions, trying to keep their spirits up in a world that is trying to destroy them inch by painful inch.

This small band of survivors from Corey Outpost, the only ones who know how to offset the Warlord’s sway, are in constant peril. Their fellow townsfolk, those who’d been their friends and neighbors up until one book ago, have turned against them. Even Kevin and Jeana, Mira’s parents, are opposed to them, which helps to heighten the feeling of dismay. These two, through the first three books, were always points of light in an increasingly dark story; now that they’ve succumbed to the poisonous influence of the Warlord, their actions and words drip with venom. It makes for rather depressing reading, and this reviewer in particular wanted to bash them over the head just so I wouldn’t have to be reminded just how far the tone of the series has fallen.

The main plot of The Submersion has to do with the Sunfighters’ quest to build a giant ark, so the Warlord can sail across the nameless sea and bring his influence to those who might lurk on opposite shores. It also deals with the survival instincts of our young heroes, how they deal with day-to-day pain and attempt to foil the plans of the evil ones before it’s too late.

Now, I did enjoy the book. It has everything I’ve loved about the series from the start, from the characters constantly growing as individuals to the undercurrent of mystery surrounding why these people have been blessed with powers in the first place. Aoi, the strong girl who can absorb energy, and Chucky, the young man who sweats oil, in particular, have seen vast amounts of growth, to the point where they are the two best characters in the book, outshining even Mira.

I also enjoyed the darker elements, the ways the Sunfighters torture Mira and friends. It’s sadistic and cruel, and helps bring about an aura of hopelessness. And when the innocence begins to return, in the form of a birth that demonstrates the cyclical nature of life in all its wonder (and acts as a metaphor for always holding those who’ve passed close to your heart), I started to really get invested. I was so excited by what transpires afterward that I felt I should’ve been jumping for joy by the end of the book.

But I wasn’t…at least not completely. This is where we start to run into some of my problems with the narrative. While dialogue has never been a strength of this series, it’s often been easy to overlook. But in this instance, the clunkiness of the speaking parts tended to distract me from the story. There were also a couple instances of individuals acting completely out of character, seemingly just to ratchet up the tension, that didn’t strike me as authentic. And there were also certain aspects of the plan Mira comes up with that stifled me, being that they were over-explained and dwelled upon for much too long, especially in the planning process.

That being said, the beginning and climax worked wonderfully. It’s almost as if Letts was bored with the middle and simply trudged along, which is completely understandable in any series. But when it picks up its pace…man, does it pick up. The culmination of everything that happens leading up to said climax is wonderfully written, thrilling, and rang true with the tone of the series.

If only the whole book, like The Stasis, could’ve been like that.

That being said, The Submersion, while imperfect, is a necessary chapter in the long tale of Mira and her quest for self-discovery. Much of the time it hits the right notes, and I can sincerely say that the themes of friendship, family, perseverance, and the stalwartness of clinging on to hope are seriously important for any teen to come to understand, especially in this progressively me-first society. So pick it up, ingest the message, and look forward to the conclusion, because the way it’s set up promises that the next installment will be epic.

Plot - 8

Characters - 8

Voice - 8

Execution - 6

Personal Enjoyment – 7

Overall – 37/50 (3.7/5)

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Review: A Gnome Problem by Michael Crane

Rating: 3.3 out of 5

Michael Crane is an author with a wicked sense of humor. Just from reading his drabble collections (Lessons and Lessons II), you can easily see his sarcastic wit and ability to transform threatening, potentially harmful situations into a form of dark comedy. He’s gifted in turning a phrase and uses an economy of words to get his point across. In short, I think he’s brilliant.

When I purchased A Gnome Problem, his novelette, I expected much of the same, only in a wider format. And I wasn’t disappointed in that. The story follows the adventures of Pat, a pathetic down-and-outer, after he receives a panicked phone call from his buddy Spencer, who goes on to explain that he’s being tormented by gnomes. Garden gnomes. See? Already it’s hilarious.

Pat heads out to Spencer’s house, confronts his friend, thinks he’s just nuts, and then, when he discovers there really are gnomes attacking his friend, goes about trying to solve the problem.

That’s as much as I’ll give you for plot, since this is a short piece and revealing any more would be tantamount to full disclosure. And the story does work. It made me laugh multiple times, especially when Pat starts getting irritated when no one involved will listen to his advice.

And yet this is where I ran into problems with the tale. Pat, as a character, is a bit flat. Yes he’s funny, yes his quips are delivered with aplomb…but there doesn’t seem to be anything beyond that. The running plot about his girlfriend leaving him did nothing for me, and I couldn’t help but think that if the story had been written in third person instead of first, it might have come off much, much better. As it is, he’s an unreliable narrator in a tale that needs a reliable one.

Also, the ending really rubbed me the wrong way. When it finished I said, ”What…really?” Not that the conclusion is bad by any means. It isn’t. But it felt unsatisfying, as if the author had too many ideas in his head and couldn’t figure out how to use them all, so he used the simplest version he could think of. Not to be cruel, but that’s what the end felt like. A cop-out. There were so many different places the author could’ve taken it in either direction, darker or more hilarious. It demanded to be expanded upon, to be more fleshed out. But alas, it didn’t happen.

Now, of course, I can in no way state that this is a bad story. It’s not at all. I did genuinely enjoy myself, just not as much as I thought I should. Crane has oodles of ability, and I really enjoy reading his prose. If anything, the poor rating has more to do with my high opinion of his talent, with my expectation for what he produces, than anything. And I simply don’t think this tale stood as tall as it could have…ne, should have.

That being said, I would still recommend this novelette and not feel the slightest bit bad about doing so. You’ll end up laughing and cringing more than once, and by the end, I think you’ll want more more more. Because if A Gnome Problem does nothing else, it serves to demonstrate how well Crane can tell a story. He most certainly has the potential to be great. If you’re like me, you’re rooting for his next offering to fully deliver on that potential.

Plot - 8

Characters - 5

Voice - 9

Execution - 5

Personal Enjoyment – 6

Overall – 33/50 (3.3/5)

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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Review: A Dance of Blades by David Dalglish

Rating: 5 out of 5

Sequels are tough business, especially when the first book of a series is extremely well written. There’s a ton of pressure to put out something equally as good, and there’s a good chance readers could walk away disappointed because the author wasn’t up to the challenge.

After reading A Dance of Blades by David Dalglish, the sequel to last year’s A Dance of Cloaks, I can tell you with all certainty that this particular writer accomplished just what he set out to do.

Blades starts out five years after the end of Cloaks. Early on we find Aaron Felhorn, the son of Spider Guild leader Thren who now calls himself only Haern, living on the streets and waging his own personal war of attrition against the thief guilds of Velderan. Gone is that sliver of innocence that Haern tried so hard to hold onto in the first book, replaced by an undying need for vengeance against the man who sullied his life. And when I say need, what I really mean is obsession, because that’s truly what it is. Haern hates his father and all those like him so much that he cannot help but paint every thief he runs across with the same blood-drenched brush.

As for those thief guilds and their never-ending battle with the Trifect, the powers-that-be in the land, all is not going so well. It seemed the aftereffects of the Bloody Kensgold, where Thren tried to wrest power away from the businessmen, has left all parties worse for wear. The guilds are in shambles, shamelessly murdering and stealing from any they wish, while the Trifect, themselves, are struggling. Alyssa Gemcroft, now the leader of the Gemcroft estate after the assassination of her father, is particularly stressed. She’s sent her son Nathanial to the north for protection while she constantly wards herself from poisoned food and the fortune her family has lost to the thieves that surround them at all times.

The thing she most needs, at least according to her advisors, is a husband. She eventually acquiesces after Nathanial is killed, apparently by the Watcher (Haern), which introduces us to the main villain of the piece, Arthur Hadfield.

Hadfield is a very strange baddie, at least when it comes to Dalglish’s work. He’s in no way supernatural, he has no otherworldly power or strength, and isn’t the face of some great and secret organization. All he is, is an opportunistic scoundrel who wants nothing but more power. That might make him the weakest of Dalglish’s villains to some, but to me, he’s the best because he’s so real. Arthur’s like a crooked politician with no moral compass, and he attracts like-minded men to his side, such as his right-hand-man Oric. Let’s just say I hated both these characters with a passion, their deeds and thoughts (or lack thereof), and that made me love them…if that makes any sense.

As for Alyssa, she’s come a long way from where we saw her in the first book. She’s a strong woman now, leading her people and doing just what leaders are supposed to do – making the tough decisions, even if they turn out to be wrong. After she discovers her son has been killed, she takes it upon herself to personally dispatch every criminal in the entire city, and hires countless mercenaries to carry out her request. What follows are a series of hellish nights as the streets of Velderan are filled with blood.

Let me say this right now – Alyssa Gemcroft very well may be the most brilliant character Dalglish has ever created…and I don’t say that lightly. She bucks trends and stereotypes and displays power and weakness in equal measure. Throughout the entire book, there is never once a mention of her beauty – it’s simply assumed that she is. As a character she is so well conceived that she almost overshadows the other particulars in this tale of deceit, violence, and woe.

Almost, but not quite.

There are characters aplenty to care about in this novel, just as in the first. We get to see the coming to power of Deathmask (who appeared in the last couple Half-Orc books), and he gobbles up every scene he appears in. We are also reacquainted with Veliana, the lady-behind-the-curtain of the Ash Guild, and Zusa, the mysterious, cloth-wrapped woman who assists both Alyssa and Vel from her place in the shadows (yet two more imminently strong female characters…I have a feeling Dalglish is trying to get to something about women banding together being more powerful than any force in the universe). Also, as readers we get to meet the Eschaton once more, Tarlak and Delysia and Brug, along with Senke, Haern’s former mentor. For those who’ve followed this author’s work, it’s a wonderful homecoming of sorts; to those who haven’t they are introduced to some pretty entertaining personalities that have been sorely missed.

But of course, with all this being said, A Dance of Blades is Haern’s show, and he doesn’t disappoint. We get to see him evolve as a person throughout the length of the novel, from angry outcast to bitter vigilante to, finally, an accepting adult who comes to understand his role in the world. I think, during parts of the book, I forgot a very important part of Haern’s makeup – he’s still a child. He’s at most eighteen years old, and as a father of a son near that age, I can honestly say that none of them have anything figured out. Life is a big, confusing, sometimes hellacious ball of experience, and it takes time to come to grips with that…especially without an elder guide, which is why I found Haern’s progress as an individual to be so profound. Though he does develop friendships by the end, most every decision he makes, he makes on his own, with very little input from others. This shows the strength of character we see when he appears in Dalglish’s earlier novels, and also demonstrates just how capable of righteousness in the face of cruelty he can be.

As the second book in a series, A Dance of Blades loses some of the innocence from the first installment, as I mentioned earlier. However, it more than makes up for that with the amount of brutality and self-sacrifice that is demonstrated within. The three-night battle between the mercenaries and thief guilds is atrocious, and there is very little care for who’s guilty or innocent. There is also one particular scene that turned my stomach, as a kind family is cruelly assaulted by Oric and some more of Arthur Hadfield’s men. Though Dalglish handles the visuals and presentation respectfully, we still get to witness the horror of these actions, and imagine the repercussions for the victims. So when you add all this in together with Haern’s mad fixation on killing every thief he can get his hands on, I guess you can say that this is a book about the loss of innocence…or a fall from grace, if you will.

Which is important in any work of fiction, because of course you have to fall before you can get back up.

In all, A Dance of Blades is a more than worthy compliment to its predecessor. In most ways it even surpasses the first book, which I didn’t think possible. It’s a novel full of treachery, disturbing images, underhanded dealings, war, and desperation, but it also shows the reader how, even in these trying times, there is still a capacity for love and friendship in the world. It says we don’t have to be alone, even if we’ve become monsters to ourselves, because no one worth a salt is ever beyond redemption.

With that, I can honestly say that this is the second-best book Dalglish has ever written, just a fraction of a percentage point behind A Sliver of Redemption. Who knows, perhaps when the final book of the Shadowdance trilogy comes out next winter, he might outshine himself again.

Knowing this author’s work the way I do, I wouldn’t put it past him in the slightest.

Plot - 10

Characters - 10

Voice - 10

Execution - 10

Personal Enjoyment – 10

Overall – 50/50 (5.0/5)

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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Review: Freeze by Daniel Pyle

Rating: 4.8 out of 5

I usually start out these reviews with a bit of exposition about select themes I find within a given book, but this time I’d like to focus on something that is, in itself, a part of writing.


Some writers know theirs. Some don’t. With the best authors, you know who they are from the moment you read the first sentence. It’s a comforting, and important, trait to have. King has it. Robbins has it. Layman and Lovecraft had it. Hemingway had it in spades, as did Fitzgerald.

And so does Daniel Pyle.

From the second I picked up Freeze, this author’s new novella, I was immediately sucked in. I felt the same exact way I did when I opened Down the Drain and Dismember, previous works by Pyle – like I was about to be taken on one massive, wildly-swinging ride of terror. Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed.

Freeze is the story of Warren and Tess, an older couple living high in the mountains with their dog during the snowstorm of the century. There are strange goings-on about the house after the power goes out, adding to the feeling that this isn’t your garden-variety blizzard. A window breaks, showering Tess with glass. There are strange sounds outside. The family car has been seemingly vandalized. And all the while the cold and isolation creep in on this tight little family, until finally, after an emergency, Warren is forced to try and brave his way down the mountain in search of help. Little does he know, there are strange beings waiting for him out in the frigid wilderness, creatures that would love nothing more than to tear him apart.

The plot is very basic – couple trapped, flees from monsters, fights monsters, encounter terrors they never thought imaginable. However, it’s the way the story is constructed – the voice I spoke of earlier – that makes this such an entertaining and unrelenting read.

Pyle does something very interesting here, and it’s a way of constructing a story that I appreciated to no end. He makes the setting, the weather, the storm and cold, as important a character as Tess, Warren, Bub, or the strange creatures outside. I read this book outside, sitting in ninety-degree heat, and on more than one occasion I found myself shivering. That, my friends, takes copious amounts of talent. The seclusion of Pyle’s words wraps around you, the wind blows inside your ears, and you can’t help but empathize with what these poor characters are going through. In effect, we are placed directly in their shoes, made to feel their fear, anger, and desperation.

In many ways, this book reads like an episode of The Twilight Zone with a little Tales from the Darkside mixed in for good measure. Nothing is explained, the ending is open to the reader’s imagination. All we’re left with are the sensations involved. It’s like being plunked in the middle of a nightmare scenario and forced to fend for ourselves, which is refreshing, and also common with Pyle. Just as in Down the Drain, there isn’t page after page of details about the nature of the monsters. They’re there, they’re frightening, and that’s all you need to know. Is that enough? It damn well should be.

There is only one aspect of the writing that I didn’t like, and it’s the single issue keeping it from receiving a perfect score. On more than one occasion, the internal dialogue of the characters’ seemed to be too much for the given situation. There were a couple examples of ill-timed, ironic thoughts that I, personally, don’t think would go through the mind of someone experiencing that kind of terror. It slowed the momentum for me a bit when this occurred, but thankfully this only happened a few times, five at most. I can forgive an author for trying too hard sometimes, and that’s what those little snippets felt like to me. And it could also just have been my mood at the time, so my point dockage is very small.

In conclusion, Freeze is a gem of a short novel that will leave you panting by the end. It’s the perfect creature feature, hitting all the right emotional notes, making you care, cringe, and rattle your teeth at the same time. And once you finish, you’ll never be able to hear a scratch at your window on a cold winter night and pass it off as nothing again. There will always be that nibble of panic in the back of your mind that says, but what if…

Which is the type of effect that all horror – hell, all fiction – should aim to accomplish.

So congrats to Daniel Pyle, because he’s created something wonderful.

Plot - 10

Characters - 10

Voice - 10

Execution - 8

Personal Enjoyment – 10

Overall – 48/50 (4.8/5)

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