Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review: Best Laid Plans (Shader Book II) by D.P. Prior

Rating: 5 out of 5

Sequels are a tricky business. I consider it a rarity when books actually get better after a fantastic opening volume. Off the top of my head, I can only think of three series that hold this distinction: King’s The Dark Tower, Dalglish’s Shadowdance Trilogy, and of course the Harry Potter books.

In other words, with Best Laid Plans: Shader Book II, D.P. Prior has joined some pretty select company.

Best Laid Plans picks up the story of the events on Sahul (and in other, more surreal locales) with the characters in dire straits. The undead army of the liche Dr. Cadman has overwhelmed Sarum, the Templum fleet is approaching Sahul, and Deacon Shader, our hero, is, well, dead…none of which will stay true for very long.

To say this book has a busy plot would be an understatement. At my count, there are at least nine storylines going on at once: Deacon’s experience in the afterlife, the struggles of the White Order, the survival of those trapped in Sarum, Cadman’s angst and rise to efforts to retain power, Maldark the dwarf’s guilt over his past, the dreamer Huntsman’s continuing education of Rhiannon’s brother Sammy, Sektis Gandaw’s quest to assemble the statue of Eingana and begin the unweaving, Shadrak’s growing importance to the whole (possibly) preordained events unfolding, Shader’s resurrection and subsequent quest, and Emperor Hagalle’s double-handed dealings. Throw into this mix vast battle sequences, and you have a piece of literature that could very well have become disjointed and confusing in a lesser author’s hands.

Yet Prior is up to the task in this opus, and the narrative he builds is a fascinating one. There is mythology and philosophy, questions as to the nature of reality and time, scathing observations on government and religion, and even a few references to modern-day events and objects that bring this beyond the realm of just a great epic fantasy adventure. All of these tropes and points meld together, creating a work that is exciting while at the same time thought-provoking.

This book questions everything. While there are certainly protagonists and antagonists, these characters are as far from being cardboard cutouts that you can get. Perhaps the greatest achievement is the way Prior allows us, through differing points of view, to see inside the minds of virtually every major character and allows us to develop at least an inkling of empathy for them. Even the despicable Cadman and the perhaps more-despicable Gaston (who performed a virtually unforgivable act in the first book) are given time to show they’re real, flesh-and-blood people with doubts and fears and even remorse. It allows them, the characters, the move the plot forward rather than the plot moving them, which for a work that deals a lot in fate and preordination is a feat in and of itself.

The battle sequences were well thought-out and exciting—much more so than in the first book—and particularly the scenes that take place at sea, while Deacon is attempting to find the albino who stole his pieces of Eingana, are captivating. They’re a mixture of new and old, a melding of science fiction and Tolkien-esque fantasy that is truly original and awe-inspiring in scope. There were very few times where I became confused, and even on those rare occasions all it took was a small step backward to realize that I’d simply missed a sentence or misunderstood the usage of a certain word or phrase.

In conclusion, I can say that Best Laid Plans not only matches Cadman’s Gambit, the first book in the series, but enhances it. This is a book chock full of imagery both beautiful and hideous, with a mixture of genuine comedy in places to break up the despair and tension. It was a beast of a story to read, one I didn’t want to put down. And by the time I reached the cliffhanger ending, I wished more than anything that I had the third book on hand so I could get right to it.

That’s right, folks, D.P. Prior has crafted a wonderful mythology that goes perfectly with his spot-on writing. This is a series that should be savored like a fine scotch, one whose sweetness lingers in your mouth long after you’ve swallowed.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Top 15 Books of 2011

Well, I'm a tad bit late to the game here, but better late then never, right?

Once again, I looked over a great deal of outstanding fiction over the past year, and here are my top 15 (well, sort of 16) in ascending order.

(Disclaimer: All of this is according to me, of course. Obviously there are many books I haven't read.)

#15 - Spirit Storm by E.J. Stevens (4.5) - Lighthearted but meaningful, the second book in Stevens's Spirit Guide series came this close to being much higher on the list.

#14 - The Stasis: Powerless book 3 by Jason Letts (4.6) - The best book of the Powerless series, full of despair and dark emotion.

#13 - The Miracle Inspector by Helen Smith (4.7) - A fantastic literary exploration of dystopian Britain. Darkly comedic and unsettling.

#12 - Draculas by Blake Crouch, Joe Konrath, Jeff Strand, and F. Paul Wilson (4.7) - Quite simply, this was hilariously gory fun.

#11 - Anomaly by Thea Atkinson (4.7) - Heartwarming and disturbing at the same time, a fascinating (not to mention revealing) look at addiction and the nature of sexuality.

#10 - Freeze by Daniel Pyle (4.8) - A short, powerful story that left me breathless.

#9 - The Gods of Dream by Daniel Arenson (4.8) - This hallucinatory look at the world of our sleep is meaningful and full of wonderful description.

#8 - The Ryel Saga by Carolyn Kephart (4.9) - A work of epic fantasy that is almost poetic in its prose and pace.

#7 - Jenny Pox by J.L. Bryan (4.9) - In the first book of his Paranormals series, author Bryan creates a work that very much stands up to the likes of Carrie and Weaveworld.

#6 - A Dance of Death and A Dance of Blades by David Dalglish (5.0) - Okay, so I'm cheating a little, but since these two books are the 3rd and 2nd in a trilogy, and are both now available in an omnibus, I figured I'd combine them here. Let's just say that Dalglish's Shadowdance books are so well-written and plotted that he'll have a hard time topping them in the future.

#5 - Dismember by Daniel Pyle (5.0) - A truly compelling journey of horror into the broken mind of a man who only wants his family back.

#4 - Cadman's Gambit (Shader Book I) by D.P. Prior (5.0) - With a compelling mix of science fiction and hard-boiled fantasy, this book captured me from the first sentence and wouldn't let me go.

#3 - The Infection by Craig DiLouie (5.0) - I'm a sucker for zombie fiction, and let's just say that DiLouie's opus is a new take on the end of the world and just about as good as it gets.

#2 - A Sliver of Redemption by David Dalglish (5.0) - Sure, his later series may be tighter and more refined, but as far as emotion goes—and I'm a sucker for emotional threads—Dalglish has never been better than in the final novel of his Half-Orcs series.

And finally...


#1 - Burying Brian by Steven Pirie (5.0)

My favorite author over the last 20 years doesn't disappoint with his follow-up to Digging Up Donald. It's a hilarious and poignant journey of one inept man's attempt to save humankind, and heaven, from themselves.

And that's it, folks! Here's to a great 2012, to great books and great writers, so go out there and read!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Review: The Legend of Witchtrot Road (Spirit Guide #3) by E.J. Stevens

Rating: 4.7 out of 5

Man, do I love E.J. Stevens. She has such a pure innocence in her prose, as if she’s capturing just what it means to be young and in love and also, at the same time, have the weight of the world on your shoulders.

In The Legend of Witchtrot Road, the third installment in her Spirit Guide series, Stevens steps back a bit. The far-reaching story arch that encompassed the first two books is still present, but it is allowed to linger in the background, to heighten naturally. As a storyteller she reins herself in, focusing on the tale at hand rather than building her world outright.

In many ways, The Legend of Witchtrot Road is very similar to a midseason “event episode” of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yuki, our main character who smells the dead, has her own Scooby gang, and together they must solve the mysterious death of a classmate, whose untimely end came on the Witchtrot Road of the title. The road itself is steeped in myth, superstition, and dark history, and if the always stalwart Yuki is going to have a semblance of peace from her classmate’s lingering ghost, the answers to the mystery need to come quickly.

This is a tale of social conscience and, just like the great television show I mentioned earlier, takes some of the more pressing concerns facing our nation’s youth (bullying, eating disorders, the proliferation of drugs in the community, etc.) and presents them in a fantastic manner. It’s a type of storytelling that’s pure in intention and beautiful in message, especially when presented in a professional manner, which E.J. Stevens does with every book she puts out.

Now, even though the specifics of Yuki and company’s world aren’t explored in-depth, as I already stated, they are still there. There are some interesting developments when it comes to Simon (perhaps the best character in the series), and also certain events that made me, the reader, question whether or not Yuki and werewolf boyfriend Cal will indeed have the happily ever after they’ve seemed, until now, destined to live.

Yes, The Legend of Witchtrot Road is a fantastically na├»ve, touching, and thoughtful novel. Stevens continues on her journey as a writer, and you can plainly tell when you read the words she puts on the page that she continues to grow. The author has a wonderful story to tell, one that I thoroughly enjoyed and will certainly be passing down to my own daughter. To me, this is a coup of the YA genre, one that shouldn’t be missed.

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Review: Livin' La Vida Papa by Louis Mack

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Being a father, I understand the parental duty. However, given the fact I’ve always had a job, I don’t have a clue what it would be like to be a stay-at-home dad.

And now here comes Louis Mack, in his hilariously real Livin’ La Vida Papa, to fill in those gaps.

This is a tight and amusing read, as the author—who is himself a rather well known horror novelist writing under a pseudonym—intersperses bits of his personal experience in raising his daughter and infant son between offering advice to young parents that is surprisingly sincere despite its mirth…or perhaps because of it.

Each personal anecdote is humorous and sometimes gag-inducing, while at the same time imparting a sort of innocence and sense of self-exploration that is refreshing. It’s a short read as well, one you can read in perhaps a couple hours. This briskness allows the words to pack an even greater punch than they would have if this was some four-hundred page magnum opus.

So yeah, Livin’ La Vida Papa is a darn good experience. I recommend it to young fathers, to writers who falsely assume that if they were just able to stay home all day they’d get that much more accomplished, and, well, just about everyone else. It’s funny and heartfelt, and no matter what, you’re guaranteed to come out of the experience with at least one story you can rest assured no one else will have heard of.

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