The Justis Fearsson trilogy is yet another great example of David B. Coe’s imaginative fantasy worlds and character-driven stories.
Faraway Faltyr and the Finders Keepers are officially back. With two astounding Cycle of Ages novels under his belt, the fantasy author with an edge, Jeremy Hicks, is back at the helm of his series with its third installment, Delve Deep. While Finders Keepers and Sands of Sorrow challenged the boundaries of fantasy and genre-blending, they were no strangers to clunkyness at times. In addition, the goals of the Finders Keepers and the lore of Faltyr never felt fully complete, like something was still out of reach. While the ambitious Delve Deep continues to exhibit some of these staple issues of the series, it manages to make massive strides in improving upon its predecessors. Not only has Faltyr and its lands and peoples come full circle, but the characters we know and love officially have something to fight for in what is now a truly masterful fantasy series.
Delve Deep picks up some time after Sands of Sorrow left off, and it shows because readers have a bit of catching up to do, especially if they haven’t read some additionally published Cycle of Ages short stories. Yes, before Delve Deep, Hicks wrote a number of short stories in Farawy Faltyr which are alluded to quite often in this novel. Unfortunately for me, I hadn’t read those stories before picking up this one. Granted, reading them isn’t necessary to enjoy this book, but the number of times they are referenced is jarring. Mention of short stories aside, we meet Finders Keepers in the city of Frasmauth, in hiding from their last skirmish in Sands of Sorrow. When it’s discovered that their lives are threatened by the forces of Oparre, Dor conveniently discovers that his master has determined a way to win the dreaded Blood War and ensure a peaceful end to the current Cycle of Ages. In case the simple runaway plot of Sands of Sorrow didn’t have high enough stakes for you, what the characters attempt to accomplish in this installment certainly will. In order for Finders Keepers to reclaim Dor’s lost items from the last book and end the Blood War, they must travel to Delve Deep, a city which may or may not exist. According to Yax, Delve Deep will enable them to essentially fast-travel to the sacred Spire, key to winning the War, as well as increase their numbers. Taking a dive in the dark, the Finders Keepers set out on yet another journey, this time beneath Faltyr to the Underworld.
The plot is a mouthful, and the book’s length can be daunting. It is easily bigger than the first two books combined, but Hicks thankfully devotes the first fourth of the novel to reintroduce the story in a small setting. This is key because Delve Deep increases the scale of the series, profoundly bigger than what was established in the first two novels. The book’s opening gives the reader time to re-acclimate to the characters, what they’re up to, and their goals and aspirations. Most of the opening scenes are just the Finders Keepers sitting around and talking, or talking while fighting each other. The chemistry they share is great, and it’s especially crucial for establishing the main trio, now a quartet, consisting of Dor, Yax, Bruexias’ daughter Tameri, and the Elven Queen, Shy’elle. Granted, a lot changed in Sands of Sorrow to the look and feel of Finder’s Keepers, so it was refreshing to see them in the simplicity of Frasmauth. The town is used as a platform introduce the conflict, to which the grand main adventure takes off.
The second quarter of Delve Deep unfortunately feels very side-quest-y. The Finders Keepers have not only acquired a massive roster of characters since the second novel, but they have even more characters to recruit in order to accomplish certain tasks. Entire chapters are devoted to finding this-or-that person so they can find this-or-that thing. It moves at a sluggish pace for the middle of the first act, and doesn’t spur any excitement until the characters are finally looking for the device which is central to accomplishing their goal. Thankfully, once they are finally determining how to acquire said item, the story becomes more high-stakes. It is this portion of the novel which lends itself to some innovative action scenes, and even expounds upon Faltyr’s lore and technology down to individual cultures.
It is here when Delve Deep exposes one of its greatest issues: too many characters. Much like the beginning of Sands of Sorrow, Finders Keepers increases its numbers exponentially, unfortunately just to kill off a multitude of them before the story is halfway through. Granted, a large roster is needed in order to accomplish certain tasks, but there is little emotional weight due to the Walking Dead style of mass execution. Unfortunately, some of the characters the main ensemble goes out of their way to find have very little presence or weight in the long run, and some are quickly killed off. Certain romances and connections are made which didn’t exist prior to this novel, and they are easily the most forgettable parts of the story, acting as nothing more than unnecessary drama or filler to be mediated later.
Thankfully, many of the disposable characters are surrounded or led by the main quartet, which at least keeps things interesting. There is also a handful of side characters who serve important roles in the story, as well as balance some of the clutter. The book continues to introduce more characters in the latter half of the book, but they are in fewer numbers and carry much more emotional weight. I just can’t see why the same can’t be said for those introduced in the former half.
But for as many disposable characters as the book contains, the main quartet never fail to impress. The circumstances they’ve been through and their familial connections give them a chemistry like no other. For such a small group, their diversity is a prime testament of a team of differing individuals who can learn to work together. It’s at this point when readers know that the main characters are the backbone of this series. The ways in which they are tested throughout the novel and their ability to still love each other at the end shows just how well developed they are. What makes this group so unique is that the individuals who make up the whole are by no means orderly, run-of-the-mill fighters. It is mentioned throughout the novel that they are mercenaries, not a trained army, and this one word dominates among the group. They have no formal experience, but lots of different abilities and skills. They’re simply trying to make a broken system work, and while they fail along the way, they eventually learn to get it done. That’s called drama and conflict, and that makes great storytelling.
Sir Fredrick and the Protectorate Mage, Marduk, from Sands of Sorrow return in Delve Deep, establishing themselves as the main villains of the series. While they are just as loveable a duo as in the last book, they never encounter the Finders Keepers. The reader keeps expecting them to eventually catch up to and fight the Finders Keepers like last time, but they never make contact. Unfortunately, their arc in this installment is almost completely unrelated to the heroes, and mostly serves to expose their plans to the reader and set up future novels. They also appear less and less towards the story’s second half, and their absence may leave some wanting. Nevertheless, both of them (and especially Fredrick) eat up every scene they’re in.
Keeping momentum of this suspense is another aspect Delve Deep masters. When the main characters establish their plan in the beginning, the reader naturally expects that they will see their goal to the end, climaxing in an epic battle with the villains. But despite the immense length, Delve Deep keeps the reader on edge and occupied for its near-400 pages, not even realizing that the goal is only halfway accomplished. This is a great way to write a book, and leaves much to be expected from future stories.
Delve Deep is as inventive as ever with its use of the Aether, the magical force of COA. The Aether continues to evolve in this installment as we learn of its capabilities and the abilities it can enable its bearer. The action descriptions of these abilities are also top notch. It’s satisfying to hear Yax use his wand to take out a gruesome ghoul with a hot streak of light. Hicks really pushed the limit with action scenes this time around. Shock factor also feels most earned in Delve Deep. Hicks is no stranger to pulling massive explosions or gargantuan dragons out of nowhere on the reader, but here, most of the shock factor is built up, or is used in ways the reader isn’t expecting. The weaving of these action scenes as well as the emotions around them is also top-notch. Part of what makes the build-up and climaxes earned is the circumstances surrounding them and the characters.
While the Aether’s power is expound upon in many ways which feel appropriate in Delve Deep, there are other instances which caught me completely off guard. One of the key elements of Faltyr is that most any technology is powered by the Aether. Most introductions of new technologies in this installment were done at a steady pace which made them feel appropriate to the world, or at least allowed me to adjust to them. After all, the lore and technologies we’ve been exposed to thus far in Faltyr feel like that of a typical fantasy world. But there were many instances in Delve Deep in which a technology was introduced which felt ripped straight out of real life. It took some time for me to grasp how such a familiar technology fit into a fantasy world, or at least the rules it had previously established.
And that’s one of the more jarring aspects of Delve Deep: many times it seems to have trouble separating fantasy from reality. Like I said, a lot of technology feels like technology familiar to a modern reader. Now, there’s nothing wrong with expanding the lore of a world or universe, but then there is expanding a lore straight out of left field. That, or I simply need to remind myself of the limits and rules of Faltyr and all that the Aether is capable of producing. But while the technology is one thing, dialogue and character mannerisms are another. There are a lot of dialogue and exchanges in Delve Deep which feel blatantly modern. Don’t get me wrong, there has always been some use of modern humor and wordplay in COA; the Finders Keepers are rag-tag, dirty people and are no strangers to banter. But there are some uses of it here which just feel downright inappropriate, even in a more civil sense. When one character is introduced early in the novel, much of her internal monologues and thoughts revolve around a book she has recently published. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the exchanges sound like a meeting between an author and a publishing house executive in New York City. It’s completely out of nowhere and sounds more like a conversation I would have with published authors in real life, and moments like these recur numerous times throughout the book. Granted, none of these moments ruined the novel for me, but at times they pulled me out. It’s certainly jarring when one is reading along in an age-old fantasy world and suddenly the characters discuss something like sports terms used in modern-day. While this is mostly a nitpick, the occasional hiccup in tone occurred just a little more than occasionally in this one.
Despite some minor flaws here and there, Delve Deep is still a fantastic book. When it reaches the location of its title, the payoff doesn’t fail to impress. In addition, the task Dor was originally ordained with is far from complete. The Blood War has yet to be won, and Finders Keepers merely found themselves in (one of many) a skirmish blocking their path, if not a truly epic one. It shows that this world is pitted against them, and it is never going to be in the favor of their likes. It’s a satisfying conclusion to a story which leaves much to be anticipated in the next installment. But for now, I can faithfully say Delve Deep is the best of the series.
With three novels under his belt, Hicks has quite the franchise going. I’m now eager to read those additional short stories, as he now has his own “expanded universe” going for the series. If anything, it looks that Cycle of Ages has quite the potential for an expanded universe beyond the page. For now, I simply can’t wait to see what the series has to offer next; I just might go back and read the first two novels again. In the meantime, I can’t recommend these books to you enough. Check them out, they are truly worth your time.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; January 2018
You can purchase Delve Deep from Amazon here.
You can find other Cycle of Ages stories here.
Book Review: Monsters in Appalachia
Monsters in Appalachia is a short story anthology which dips into the lives of folks inhabiting the eastern mountains of America, and both the literal and figurative monsters they interact with. Its message is simple: Monsters can be real, frightening creatures, or people in our lives, or things we can’t necessarily see or put words to.
Where Monsters in Appalachia shines is in its depiction of the Appalachian peoples. Sheryl Monks has a full understanding of the region’s dialect, as well as the hardships its peoples face. The people in these stories are battle-worn by the struggles faced by many of those living in the mountains, and their relationships with their companions show it. What gives the characters life are their scars and flaws. No one is totally desirable and in many ways they know it. While the grit and depth of Monsters’s characters is its strongest suit, they are also unfortunately its only strong suit.
Most every story in Monsters in Appalachia is forgettable. Aside from the occasional instance which gave me some shock, memorable moments in these tales are few and far between. When I finished the book, I scanned the table of contents to try and see if I could remember something, anything from these stories, to no avail. The most memorable moment comes in the last story, which is easily the best, but mainly because it is so out-there from the others.
Monsters does a good job of communicating the fact that the people of Appalachia aren’t run-of-the-mill, and doesn’t depict the tourist destination many view the mountains to be. Living in Appalachia takes sacrifice and comes with the understanding that dangers will be faced, and for many this reality is forced upon them. But when this message is communicated in such similar terms from story to story, only the theme of the anthology becomes the wheat separated from the chaff.
Monsters in Appalachia did not stick it for me. While I applaud the passion of the author, I can’t help but point out how forgettable these stories are, and how similar many of the characters and their circumstances feel. The anthology also suffers from being too vague at times, almost feeling like a poetry collection. What little there is to gain from it, in my opinion, isn’t worth the $17 price tag for a relatively thin book.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; December 2017
One Amazing Thing was assigned to all incoming freshman at my university as our summer reading book. When we received the novel at orientation, we were given a brief pitch. The speaker described that the book involved a group of characters trapped in a room amidst an earthquake, and that each character in the room comes from almost every culture on earth. As the emotional tensions of the disaster escalate, the characters begin opening up to one another through telling a story shaped by their past, culture, and worldview.
A number of freshman faces winced at the idea, as such a concept sounded forced. Some students started reading the book before the first day of orientation was up. One freshman told me: "I find it hard to believe that this diverse a group of people would happen be in the same place at the same time." When I pitched the book to others who were curious about my college endeavors, they couldn’t help but feel skeptical, again thinking that the a notion of such a mixed group of characters seemed staged and far-out.
I was surprised that what I found hard to believe wasn’t how the characters came together, but how the major plot line was executed. One Amazing Thing takes place in an Indian visa office in an unnamed American city. Each of the characters are either working in the office, or are desperately trying to get to India for one reason or another. As the book explained to me how such a varied group of characters came to be, I no longer focused on the odds of such an event occurring, but on what the story was trying to tell me.
The author does a beautiful job of portraying how the group interacts with each other. Some of the characters are atheist, some are Christian, one is Islamic, a handful are Hindu, and one is Buddhist. But behind everyone’s religion, worldview, and even skin color, is a past. Everyone’s past has defined who they are, and how they interpret the world around them and react to certain situations. As the earthquake rattles what is a normal day for the group, everyone is insistent as to how they shouldcollectively or individually handle their circumstances. The Vietnam veteran, trained in survival skills knows what’s best for everyone, even if they aren’t guaranteed survival. The Muslim believes Allah will save them, and grows jealous of the soldier, insisting that he is a holy man who will lead them to freedom. One man is simply trying to take a few drafts from a cigarette, despite the dangers of starting a fire amidst an already dire situation. Everyone’s perspective is given validity by the author, who gives a thoughtful depiction of how such a group of people would interact, and where conflict lies between ideologies.
Because there are so many characters with different views, the story shifts perspective often. This keeps things fresh by not spending too much time with a single character, who each view situations with narrow-minded ideas. The story also doesn’t repeat the same event twice with multiple characters. So often books chose to repeat the same event through different eyes numerous times in order to provide different perspectives. While this device can work, it is often tedious, especially for books that switch perspective throughout such as this one. Yet Divakaruni maintains momentum by allowing readers to view an event through the thoughts of one character, leaving the others’ perspectives a mystery. Such gaps allow the reader to ask questions.
When the story was originally pitched to me, I found the main plot relatively easy to grasp: Reaching an emotional breaking point, the characters begin to open up to each other by sharing their past. I thought that this concept would have transitioned easily, but the actual initiation of the characters’ sharing their stories is abrupt and feels all too whimsical. Given Divakaruni’s elegant writing style (making what seems like a far-out concept so down-to-earth), I expected a smooth transition. Instead, the characters’ decision to tell stories plays out more like suggesting that everyone hold hands and sing "kum ba ya" under the stress of death row. It just doesn’t feel natural amidst the dire situation of an earthquake, where help may or may not make it in time. There was a way to initiate this action, but this simply didn’t feel appropriate.
Aside from the rocky transition, each story presented is beautifully written, emotional, and just as diverse as the characters themselves. One is that of a 1950’s Sandlot-esc tale of a youth, quickly making an emotional turn with a more Stand By Me vibe. One is that of a love story amidst oppression by a communist regime. One is a tale of seeking asylum from religious prejudice. Every story involves a form of suffering, which allows the group to realize among themselves that no one has it perfect. Whether they are an A+ college student with wealthy parents, a lower-class shop owner, or belonging a minority group oppressed by a fearful government, everyone suffers in their own way. This allows them to break down their barriers by realizing that they are not the only ones who face hardship. Everyone’s story reveals how they found their way into the visa office they are in, which for many of the characters means that they are trying to get to India. As they wrestle with ideas such as fate and actions they take in life, doctrines of Hindu religion come into play which ever slowly form everyone’s reality. The fact that each character’s circumstances culminate to India and its culture is appropriate, as Chitra Divakaruni is Indian.
While One Amazing Thing is a beautiful story, it doesn’t quite stick its landing. It does what all great forms of literature do by forcing the reader to ask questions, yet it doesn’t provide quite enough closure in some areas. Also, the ending is rather abrupt. After such a mature story, the ending feels more like that of a whimsical young adult novel of youth fantasy, right down to the last few paragraphs.
One Amazing Thing managed to surprise me in many ways. It allowed me to grasp a seemingly unbelievable concept, and regard it more as a what-if situation, yet one which is more realistic than we may think. It gives us hope that, amidst times of divisiveness, people of different backgrounds can recognize their similarities of sin and suffering, and exercise sympathy. It also manages to tell wildly diverse, stylized tales in short chapters, showing off Chitra Divakaruni’s talent as a writer. Through the individual stories, readers can learn to appreciate the subtle nuances of their own stories. On the whole, One Amazing Thing is an inspiring novel which should shine a light for the world as a collective, and inspire individuals to appreciate their lives.
-David Brashier; Boone, North Carolina; September 2017