The Justis Fearsson trilogy is yet another great example of David B. Coe’s imaginative fantasy worlds and character-driven stories.
I purchased The Keeper of Lost Things for the purpose of discussing it in a book club, which is something I had never done before. I enjoyed the prospect of reading a book with no clue of what I was getting into. With that, there were certain elements early in this book that concerned me. It had a tone similar to some heavily philosophical books I had to read for my college seminar at the time. It dabbled in philosophy, what we make of life, and tea*. Thankfully, Keeper of Lost Things not only took these elements in a different direction, but had a lot of fun in doing so, making for a stellar novel.
The Keeper of Lost Things follows the story of Laura, caretaker of the deceased Anthony Peardew. Laura discovers a life-long secret of Anthony’s upon his death: He hoarded away anything he found that another person had lost, and tried to find its owner. When Anthony’s will states that he wanted Laura to take ownership of his home and return his lost items, Laura is lost for words. She fears for her inability to fulfill the dreams of a man she loved so much. Thankfully, with the help of a gardener and a girl across the street, Laura overcomes her concerns and takes up the task with them as a trio. With their encouragement, she’ll learn along the way how Anthony’s life and lost things can build confidence in her own life, as well as confront an unhealthy past.
The best part of this book is that it is all-around feel-good. There were very few points in this book when there wasn’t a broad smile on my face as I read it. Sure, it has drama and moments in which the main character is struggling. But Keeper takes the road less travelled by many contemporary best-sellers and avoids leaving the reader gut-wrenchingly downtrodden. Okay, not all novels do that these days, but the majority are out to shock, and leave the reader feeling uneasy. I can only help but feel that Ruth Hogan felt there was too much of this in modern fiction and decided to write this happy-go-lucky book.
Don’t get me wrong, Keeper of Lost Things does deal with grim details like death and the meaning of life, but again, in ways the reader wouldn’t expect. This book places the death of one of its most central characters at the very beginning of story, yet in death this character still leaves a depth of impact on the characters which are still alive. It gives the feeling that the character’s death wasn’t in vain, but breathed a new life into them. The book even makes use of some playful elements in its philosophical musings. The reader is led to believe that a ghost inhabits the house, but in a fun way rather than haunting. Additionally, a lot of the big, heady questions are put in simplistic terms by a character with down syndrome.
One thing this story does much better than others is its handling of a handicapped character. Sunshine, the girl who lives across the street, has a form of down-syndrome. Most stories would use this handicap as nothing more than a crutch, something to invoke an emotional response in the reader. Instead, the handicap is seen more as a happy accident in this case. Sunshine is able to put to terms** much of what Laura can’t as she questions her role in Anthony’s story.
Another cleverly used element the book employs is the telling of a parallel story in another time period. However, the connection between the story of the past and the story of the present aren’t very obvious. There are a few paralleled elements, but the characters are entirely different, almost like reading two books at once. I kept wondering if these were present-day characters under different names, or if a younger present day character would appear and meet these past characters. Miraculously, that never happened. It isn’t until the last few pages that these two stories are brought full circle, and it invokes the greatest emotional response the book could possibly rip from the reader. The second story is also by no means boring, and its vagueness never feels annoying. Usually when a book switches between two different time periods with little to no context I can’t help but grow annoyed as the story chugs through. But here, I never found myself moaning "Oh great, this again" with the other tale. Its characters are just as genuine as the main story, and the struggles they encounter are interesting, not your typical run-of-the-mill conflict. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the two main characters’ relationship is unconventional, and complicated. It carries its own drama simply from its difficulties.
I can do nothing but appreciate this book. It invokes nothing but feel-good-ism and leaves the reader with an encouraging message. So many books these days are out to reach deep within the reader and bring out the worst in humanity, or the most sorrowful. This book reaches within you, but in a good way. As we discussed in my book club, it’s refreshing to read a book of general fiction for once that doesn’t leave you on a down note. Keeper of Lost Things is full of lovable characters on a simple journey that will leave readers appreciating life more. Give it a read for an uplifting tale.
*As a tea drinker, I find it annoying just how often fiction writers these days like to write about tea.
**Sunshine also makes a lot of playful mockery of the 'tea' element seen so often in literature, pointing at just how loudly its used.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; December 2017
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
I continually find Young Adult fiction to be a gamble, and many agree with me. The idea of grown adults writing from the perspective of teenagers has become a bit of a controversy. All too often, YA novels come off as over-exaggerated, philosophical TV meals filled with excessive rebellion and far-out youth fantasy. This isn’t to say that there are no good products in the YA genre. Some YA books have defined generations, and some even contain literary merit and messages that resound beyond their intended audiences. Hunger Games, anyone? But for every one of those, there is always a slush-pile of bland YA which, while they receive renowned critical praise, don’t mix well with the majority of real teenagers.
Jesse Andrews is a prime example of wheat from chaff when it comes to YA. His first book, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, was not only a major critical success, but was adapted into a highly well-received film. The book was a investing examination of death from a teen perspective, accompanied by characters and dialogue which felt real for young adults, not fictional young adults. His second book, The Haters, just might be even better.
The Haters is the account of Wes, Corey and Ash, aspiring musicians who ditch a jazz camp in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. They all love many different types of music, but at the same time always find excuses to hate on said music. They particularly hate their jazz camp, which is why they play the runaways, start a band, and go on an unplanned tour. The shenanigans which follows is a hilarious, yet heartwarming journey of a band trying to find its footing in its music style, all while learning more about each other and their own convictions.
Haters hooked me early on with the very subject of its title: loving on music, yet hating on music. Though it’s an astoundingly obscure concept, it’s one I found relatable. I love a lot of different music genres and artists; I’m versatile in my preferences. Yet I can see a lot of flaws in those same artists, or can at least understand why other people hate on them. For instance, my favorite artist is Phil Collins. I love his songs for his unique, passionate voice and stylistic sounds, as well as his use of drum machines which made him famous. Yet I can also understand why he isn’t perfect, and why other people wouldn’t find him to be that captivating of an artist. He’s victim to a lot of corporatized music between TV, film, and his excessively popular Disney soundtracks. He also tends to be too pop and not enough rock, which many argue is what made him go off the deep end. I stand firm in why I like him, but I can see eye-to-eye with those who don’t. This isn’t something I’ve communicated with people before, let alone heard other people bring up. It’s a concept that only Andrews can feasibly put to paper, and in a relatable way, too. He has such bizarre ideas but he can make them so down-to-earth through his characters, which is why he has mastery of the YA craft.
The Haters has what many other YA books don’t, and that is real characters. They aren’t fleeting rebels whose dialogue only consist of self-centered, snarky comments about everything in existence. They feel like real people, and a real group of friends. Their conversations between each other feel like ones I would have with my own friends. What is important to note is that these conversations feel like real teenage conversations, not how young adults think teenagers speak to each other. They also don’t spew re-heated philosophy in all their dialogue. While such works of fiction should contain some reasoning and philosophical thought of young minds, there are some books I read in which the characters think they are modern-day, moody teenage Aristotles.
In terms of the plot, while the concept of taking a, mind me, very spontaneous road-trip seems far-out, the way in which it is executed didn’t leave me questioning it. It simply happened. Part of this is because Andrews is to-the-point in executing the plot. We don’t spend much time at the jazz camp so the story can gain some momentum. The road trip itself puts the characters in a variety of situations as they attempt to make a name for their band, as well as contend with group conflict. In addition, The Haters is quite the funny novel. I haven’t laughed this hard at a book in quite a while. Not only is the dialogue hilarious, but Wes’ internal monologues contain all sorts of scatter-brained ideas and Andrews even employs clever graphics to express his feelings. Wes, Corey, and Ash encounter a colorful cast of characters on their journey who are equally hilarious. Some want to help them and some want to kill them, and the variety of ways everyone goes about doing so make for a laugh-out-loud piece.
By the time The Haters reached its end, I was left wanting. This is something difficult for a book to do, especially YA fiction. It doesn’t give the reader full closure as to how the group would have become a band, but leaves a desire to see them as a band and succeed. It smartly leaves us asking questions, yet longing to see what could have been with these characters.
Jesse Andrews is making a real name for himself in the YA scene, and with only two books under his belt. Given the success of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I wouldn’t be surprised if The Haters is given a film. In fact, I really want to see a film adaptation. I definitely want to review Me and Earl at some point. It’s a very well crafted book for its subject matter and the audience it is intended for. Is The Haters better than Me and Earl? Perhaps not. All said, it is much funnier, faster paced, and more light-hearted. But Me and Earl tackled such a pressing issue and has resonated with a major cult-following. The Haters will hopefully hold its place with Andrews’ reputation. It’s YA at its finest, and a book that I feel many will find entertaining.
-David Brashier; Boone, North Carolina; September 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
This piece marks the start of a new series I am dubbing "Random Purchase". This is where I give a review for a book I have purchased…well…randomly. Now, said criteria doesn’t necessarily mean that I walked into a book store, pulled a random book from the shelf, and bought it. You see, the way I typically go about purchasing a book is by planning ahead; I know what I want to purchase, mainly because I have a limited amount of money. Usually when I go to the book store, I plan on purchasing a book from a prominent author I’ve stumbled upon online, or I’m purchasing a book by an author or a series I’ve already read. I will usually do the same at conventions, but I also do a bit more strategizing at those as I can easily spend upwards of $200 on books at a single con.
The criteria for a book worthy of one of these "Random Purchase" reviews is that I couldn’t have planned to purchase it going into my visit to the bookstore. This means it is more likely to be purchased in a brick-and-mortar independent book store than a big-box Barnes and Noble. The book could catch my attention from its cover, the summary on the back, or a faint recognition of the author who wrote it. I also could have seen it featured on a "bookstagram" account and thought "I oughta’ get that." Bottom line: a "Random Purchase" is considered on the fly. This not only creates a sense of mystery and surprise when I read the book itself, but I also get to tell the tale of how I found it.
Today’s random purchase is Mindreader by C. Terry Cline, Jr. I purchased Mindreader from Foggy Pine Books in Boone, North Carolina, a charming store which I highly recommend you check out if you’re in Appalachia. There are no indy book shops in Huntsville, so I was high on the excitement of simply getting to be in one and, naturally, felt the need to buy something. Of all the books in the shop I picked up this little gem. That purchase was made in March of this year, and it sat on my shelf until last weekend. As it lay lingering in my stack of to-read books, I was beginning to regret my decision of purchasing it. It was on the fly, out of excitement for being in my first indy shop, and it was obviously a bit more expensive having been purchased from one. I also didn’t know why a "C. Terry Cline, Jr." had any place on my shelf, as I longed for a little consistency amongst my collection of authors. All in all, I was thinking I would just grind through Mindreader and then sell it or donate it once I was done. I am overjoyed to say that I immediately reversed that decision upon closing the book, as it’s among the finest pieces of modern literature I have read. It’s a fiction which contains a little bit of everything, and lessons we can all learn from.
That is why I was stunned to learn that there is little information available on Mindreader. I wanted to research the book a bit before writing this review to see what its public response was like, and any societal impact it may have had. But I was surprised to find nothing of the kind. Here’s what little I could gather:
C. Terry Cline, Jr. was born in my native state of Alabama in 1935. He wrote multiple works of fiction starting 1975 until his death in May of 2013. There is very little information on the internet about him or his works outside of what Goodreads has to offer, and an obituary article written in honor of his passing. Mindreader has only had 2 editions: the first when it was initially released, and a paperback version with new cover art which released in 2016. Most of Cline’s books have received new covers since his death, as his wife, Judith Richards, has since been promoting his works. Mindreader has a handful of scores on Goodreads, but there are no written reviews to be found anywhere; not even on Amazon.
Mindreader, at its core, is a work of fiction. One simply can’t shove it into a single genre. It’s a suburban mystery. It’s a sci-fi supernatural mystery, too. It’s a psychotic drama. It’s an action-thriller. It’s the Cold War meets Jason Bourne. I could put this book on too many shelves for me to count on my two hands. The narrowest I could place it is dystopian, but even then it doesn’t reach extremes like that of Bradbury or Orwell.
Mindreader follows the life of David Morgan, a man gifted with the ability to read minds. How did he gain this ability? The story thankfully leaves his origins mostly a mystery to the reader, allowing us to ask those questions ourselves. The science behind his abilities are also just vague enough to incur a sense of awe, while providing just enough of an explanation to feel grounded. Not only can David read other’s minds, but he can influence them. In addition to controlling others’ thoughts, he can also literally bend peoples’ brainwaves, making him appear invisible or seize any noises he makes. David keeps his ability under wraps until he is introduced to a German psychologist named Rudolph Schmidt who has secretly been watching him his whole life. With the world ripping at the seams amidst the Cold War, David feels more and more of a need to use his ability to oust the conflict. He travels the world making speeches and influencing the masses, gaining a larger and larger following. When his cult grows too large, making him feel like a god among men, David must learn to keep his example restrained, or else risk the destruction of the entire world by what he sought to abolish.
Mindreader’s premise should be campy, tasteless, and closer to that a of a science fiction novel. It instead yanks the reader out of reality and into a fictionalized Cold War America which lives and breathes simply by mental delusion. The first act wisely introduces readers to David through his family life, career, and his living out the American dream. This not only allows readers to know David on the most basic emotional level, but eases them into his supernatural mind reading powers. As the turmoil of the American and Soviet nuclear crisis reaches its boiling point, David feels called to aid humanity in its plight with his augmented brainpower. This allows the second act to gradually depict him traveling around, spreading his knowledge among the masses so that his reach is out of control by the third. David struggles in the third act to contain the mess he has created so that he might restore what he originally tried to achieve. Mixing in elements like David’s family conflict and Schmidt’s stalking of David’s secret make for great drama amongst great storytelling. It’s a plot which manages to come full circle in all it sets out to convey, with all character arcs receiving closure.
What makes Mindreader such a convicting novel is the way it handles such convicting commentary. Mindreader and David himself have a lot to say on humanity, politics, leadership, religion, and most importantly, war. It explores what really leads man to go to war and how the effects of war are held in bitterness generations down the line. It focuses not so much on the physical consequences of the actions of people of power, but the mental, emotional motivations behind them. It gives an ideal example of how man should respond to such heinous acts of greedy government, but also owns up to the fact that greedy government isn’t likely to change its position. When those in power are truly put to the test under the greatest emotional duress is when they finally gain their humanity and consider what is best for the people. It’s a highly emotional payoff to a conflict which escalates for the entire book. The curt resolution to follow it made me drop the book to the floor. The manner in which Mindreader addresses the nuclear crisis of the late 20th century begs the question of what if everyone in the world had read this book at the time? How would it have changed people’s opinions? So many other books, films, and creative content of the Cold War quickly became products of their time and their messages simply lacked timelessness. While in many ways Mindreader’s commentary is a product of the early 1980's Cold War era, it equally applies to the world today. In times marked by political and ideological divisiveness, Mindreader shows what really leads to such bickering and how politicians can take advantage of us to lead to inevitable war. With such convicting commentary, Mindreader never gives too much, or feels too blatant. It manages to intertwine its commentary with its emotional swells in what is a rare combination of message and storytelling.
For all Mindreader has to offer, I must say it is now among my favorite books. While this review has mostly focused on the message it offers, there is so much more to it. Like I mentioned earlier, it has sci-fi, drama, dystopia, Jason-Bourne-esc action-thrills, and a blanket of Cold War culture. It’s a book which progressively treads new waters while appropriately tying it all into a great story.
You can purchase Mindreader from Amazon here.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017
D.B. Jackson lands yet another marvelous historical fantasy in Thieve’s Quarry, the second installment of his Thieftaker series. Thieftaker is among the greatest historical fiction series out there, let alone historical fantasy. A story in a genre blend which is easily campy, leeching off of the mere presence of prominent historical figures, manages to not only tell its own story, but reverently live and breath its chosen setting. The dialogue and writing style of the Thieftaker books feel like they were pulled straight from revolutionary-era manuscripts, while also retaining readability. Like much of Jackson’s work, it’s a fantasy which manages to rise above the rest.
Thieve’s Quarry opens with Ethan Kaille on a standard hunt for a stolen good. When his mission is intercepted by Sephira Pryce, a grim series of events force him to use magic in order to save an innocent man. This reveals his conjuring abilities to Pryce, causing her to hire her own conjurer to combat Kaille. When a mass grave is discovered on one of His Majesty’s ships at the dawn of the British occupation of Boston, Ethan is consulted to determine who committed the murder, as there are no physical signs of death among the bodies. As Ethan tracks down suspect conjurers, each culprit is murdered one by one before he can even reach them. Convinced that the killer is a greater threat than he anticipated, Kaille keeps his friends close and his enemies closer, going so far as to warn Sephira Pryce for her own safety.
Quarry’s greatest feat is the development of Ethan Kaille. He shows a genuine concern for his arch nemesis, Pryce, and even works in junction with her to take down a more dangerous threat. It makes him the better man in what is otherwise a bickering conflict. Kaille also struggles with his convictions on the subject of the British occupation. In Theiftaker he was a loyalist, disgusted by the Sons of Liberty and their antics. Here, when the British enter Boston, Kaille sees nothing but injustice all around him as regulars quarter themselves in peoples’ homes. These changes in his motivations will likely lead to further character development in future books, and possibly turning him into a brash revolutionary.
Many old faces from Thieftaker return in Quarry, but with just enough face time to make way for plenty of new ones. Kaille seeks help from a variety of individuals from high-on-the-hog aristocrats, to bottom-feeding bar owners, to revolutionaries and crooks alike. Their presence breathes life into Jackson’s Boston, making the world all the more believable. Just as in Thieftaker, Boston feels like a place the reader can step into. Jackson’s understanding of the landscape of the town in its pre-revolution glory is on full display, as well as his knowledge of colonial customs. It creates a story whose characters are just as enjoyable to read about as its own world, not growing too detailed or monotonous.
The series once again manages to hold its own in Quarry, despite its setting being among the most popular periods of history. Quarry could have so easily taken advantage of the plethora of historical figures involved with the Sons of Liberty, yet takes a more reserved approach by only making use minor figures and events. It proves that it can tell its story with its plot, characters, and spirit of its setting, rather than copping-out for the reputation of the Washingtons and Franklins of the time. I’m sure as the series nears the revolution, more familiar faces will begin to appear. But two books in a row with such minimal use of major historical figures proves that the series means business.
Where Thieve’s Quarry ultimately shines and manages to surpass its predecessor is in its pacing. As great as Theiftaker was, it was a bit sluggish in the manner it handled its mystery, at least compared to its sequel. There is no wild goose chase to be had in Quarry, as Ethan Kaille makes a relentless chase for justice and for his own life. New developments lie around every corner, as Kaille races against the clock to take out a killer before even more innocent are murdered, and even his own friends. It is between this and the development of its characters that makes Thieve’s Quarry a great sequel, not simply a rehash of the first book or a "Season 2" of the series.
As someone who has read a decent amount of fantasy, the Theiftaker series is among the most quality. D.B. Jackson is a truly talented writer. Theiftaker is a premise which should be silly as all get out, but the amount of history and fantasy it offers and the ethos in which the series is written gives me confidence to recommend it to both historians and fantasy fans alike. Yet its appeal reaches beyond those two groups, which is why I can’t help but recommend the series to anyone looking for some quality reads.
You can purchase Thieve’s Quarry from Amazon here.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017
My latest reading endeavor brought me to The Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 2: Kron. I reviewed the first installment of the series, Earth, a over a month ago. Those of you who read my review of Earth know that my feelings toward it are mostly negative. I felt the book had a lot of potential, but miserably failed to achieve that potential. The first act was solid, introducing great sci-fi concepts and what felt like genuine characters. The pace plummeted in the second act as the story grew increasingly more boring in what was essentially a wild goose chase with no destination. Because the story wasn’t going anywhere, the characters grew more and more obnoxious as their comical personalities were all the book had to work with. The third act presented an overblown climax which didn’t feel earned, and ended on a unfulfilling cliffhanger.
I have since gone and read other opinions about Earth, both positive and negative. The positive reviews praise it as a page-turner, a outstanding sci-fi piece, and even "an achievement". The negative reviews exposed a number of issues with the book which completely went over my head in my initial review, but I couldn’t help but agree with them.
One of those issues is that the characters take the stakes of the story too lightly. They are essentially tasked with saving Earth, and they approach the conflict with all the youthful drama one could expect. This youthful whim was acceptable in the first act because the the characters had no prior exposure to the alien technology they were forced to bear. As they learned of their destiny as Earth’s saviors, their lackadaisical attitude continued and ultimately came off as "high school drama", as one reviewer put it. It turned what would have otherwise been a high-stakes sci-fi action drama into a Disney Channel original comedy. One of the few characters who took their circumstances seriously (who I particularly enjoyed) was unfortunately killed off in the end.
Another issue which was littered throughout Earth which I failed to elaborate on in my review was how nearly the entire ensemble is influenced by their sex drive. I mentioned that one of the characters was lusty, but it failed to dawn on me how almost the entire main group was like that. It’s like they fail to realize that the fate of the world is at stake because they are constantly (and I mean constantly) looking for the next opportunity to get busy.
Braker and Hicks gave Earth a plot with very high stakes, but their own characters didn’t own up to those stakes out of their own ambition. I credit various reviews on making me realize these quite jarring aspects of the book which went overlooked. In case I already didn’t like the book enough, there was no question that I loathed it after reading said reviews.
…But that isn’t to say I wasn’t open to more.
Like I said before, I felt that Earth had a ton of potential going for it. Simply the fact that there was a second novel meant another opportunity for the story to reach that potential. And, in many ways, Kron does live up to that potential…for the most part.
Fundamentally, Kron is lightyears better than Earth. For one, it is a significantly shorter novel, byover 100 pages, in fact. This not only makes it a less taxing read, but the book itself is much easier to hold in my hands (though after reading IT, I can’t complain about the physical size of any book). The book did a surprisingly good job reconnecting me with characters I felt skeptical revisiting. Overall, the book is more enjoyable and eventful than its predecessor. But where it really hits home is in one particular aspect:
The plot! Kron’s plot is so much better than Earth’s. Rather than a meandering, dull plot which has little occupy itself with, Kron manages to not only find a good story, but expound upon so many questions presented in the first book. The first act, much like Earth, is strong. It’s relentless, action packed, and reconnects the reader with the characters. The first act (and the book as a whole) keeps things fresh by executing a device which Earth didn’t utilize enough: switching perspectives. It understands that the kind of story it is telling, in order to keep the plot moving, must present itself from various perspectives. The most investing parts of Earth were when the perspective shifted to the enemy aliens on their planet, but it rarely did so. Kron’s first act shows us what occurs on the enemy planet frequently, as well as how it plays out with events on Earth. The perspective also shifts between three different human teams combatting the aliens and how their roles contribute to the main goal.
While Kron’s first act and overall plot are far superior to Earth’s, it unfortunately suffers from two blemishing issues: execution and character development.
First, the issue of character development. Kron's focus is once again on the main character from Earth, who hasn’t changed a bit since his last outing. He is still lusty, crass, and treats every issue lightheartedly. This didn’t excite me in the slightest, especially given that a good number of the tolerable characters from the first book are killed off in the opening chapters. In fact, a number of the most likable and interesting characters from the first book are seen little to none in this installment. Overall, most of the characters have learned to treat their circumstances a little more seriously, but the main character is still too lackadaisical toward the stakes, allowing his lust to get in the way of his decision making. There are also a number of relationships which failed to cross over in the sequel. Characters who I swear had nothing to do with each other in Earth are suddenly gushing over each other in Kron. Unless I missed something at the end of Earth, these romances came completely out of the blue (not that Earth made me care that much about character romances, anyway).
While the plot of Kron is near-perfect in my opinion, its execution and presentation are downright awful. As I stated before, the first act is flawless. The characters are still fighting the threat from the first book, and a group of them are transported to the enemy planet, which was already interesting enough. The second act, much like in Earth, takes a plummet in terms of the pacing, and its subject matter is much worse. Again, the plot itself is great, it’s the presentation that’s lousy. The beginning of the second act introduces the concept that humans and an alien race will have to breed in order to bring peace and produce a superior race to triumph in their plight. I have absolutely no problems with this concept, and I have no doubt that it’s been brought up in sci-fi before. The way in which this event is depicted is entirely too graphic, and it tainted the book for me.
The entire first half of Kron’s second act is a massive, over-the-top, unneeded orgy. The amount of sexual detail the book dares to explore in executing this plot is some of the most perverted literature I have ever read. In case delving into the sexual fantasy they choose to explore isn’t disgusting enough, the simple fact that the human character finds pleasure in it completely pulled me out of the novel. There was a way to present this which didn’t have to be so explicit. It is one thing for a book to contain a brief sex scene which produces drama that echoes throughout the rest of the story. It is another thing to spend chapter after chapter devoted to describing the sexual experience. The former creates a more dramatic and emotional payoff. The latter gives into the mindlessness of human pleasure-seeking rather than trying to tell a good story aided by a dramatic moment.
As someone who takes the execution fiction literature seriously, I have always held to this philosophy: sex has its place in literature, but if the story is completely driven by it then I may as well be reading erotica. That’s exactly what this book is: space erotica. Illustrious use of sex, likejuvenile use of swearing, and mindless use of action, can easily be used in excess as a cop-out to make a work such as a book or film more appealing to an audience, rather than diligent effort to make a quality story. It just shows laziness on the creator’s part.
Now, those who object to my position will probably think "You shouldn’t be reviewing this as a sci-fi book, but an adult sci-fi book". "Just because it wasn’t what you expected doesn’t give you any right to be angry". Well, I have every right to be angry, for a number of reasons. For one, Amazon lists Kron as "Science Fiction", not "Erotic Science Fiction" (which is another category on Amazon; I checked). Another thing is that I personally met the authors of this book at a convention, and bought it from them there. They specifically gave me a disclaimer that one of their other books which I was about to buy was heavy in adult content, but said that the GSC series were pure sci-fi. What’s more peculiar is that Braker, in the author’s note, encourages readers to check out his other works for more erotic sci-fi. They gave me no disclaimer that GSC contained erotic content. I bought these books because I was told they were sci-fi and I wanted to read sci-fi. I didn’t want alien erotica.
The second act fails to recover from its little sex-trip. This act, much like in Earth, is intensely slow with little to nothing going on. The alien world, which I found so interesting in Earth and in the first act of Kron, miraculously manages to be even more boring than Earth. The second and third acts rarely switch perspective to the characters who remained on Earth. I couldn’t believe myself, but there were parts when I wanted to scream "Go back to Earth!" after the boredom that was the first book. The second act does manage to escalate toward the latter half and the entire third act is mostly solid, yet once again fails to hit the landing at the end. There are also dozens of events which are introduced but are never revisited. There was an entire chapter introducing an assassin character whom I thought was going to be really cool, but she is never even mentioned again. The book almost spreads itself too thin in all it tries to accomplish in building a universe, or trying establish plots to be executed later in the series.
Believe it or not, I do draw a healthy share of positives from Kron. Much like the last book, it continues to introduce astounding sci-fi concepts, and unlike the last book, actually explores them. Again, I had no problem with the idea of cross-species alien hybrids in a work of fiction. It was the way it was presented which ruined my experience. Admittedly, some of the consequences the characters face as a result of their cross-breeding are handled well from a dramatic standpoint. I was just always reminded of the dark places the second act dared to venture because of it. Also, the queen of the aliens, who ultimately executes the plot, is a really great character. She’s easily the most complex and well-thought out character in the book, and her backstory is the most enjoyable to learn about. It’s clear that the authors did a good job with making her genuinely care for her people, willing to go to great lengths in order to ensure their survival. Her goals and sympathy cause her to change her positions a bit, and it’s always great seeing characters get out of their comfort zones.
But as many odd-job positives I can find about the book, there are still many negatives. The story as a whole lacks focus, and is really confused in terms of how it presents the characters’ goals. In one sense, it creates some indecisiveness in the reader as to who they should side with, but it confused me just as much as it confused the characters. I didn’t know who they should side with, who was on whose side, and why there was so much uninspired double-crossing and backstabbing around every corner. This, combined with the number of confused relationships, creates a divisiveness among the characters which fails to track, let alone produce drama. There are also a number of instances in which the writing style was downright jarring. Too many times Braker and Hicks were telling me what the characters felt, or the how the circumstances of the plot were playing out, rather than showing me through physical emotion and drama. I got tired of reading "he felt this", "she felt that", and "this had to happen in order to do this", as the characters mulled over circumstances and relationships I simply didn’t care about.
So, what’s the verdict with Kron? Is it worse or better than Earth? Well, I would say both are equally flawed, but I’m indecisive as to which is worse. Earth, as long and boring as it is, is at least more focused. Kron is more exciting, more action packed, shorter, and more enjoyable to read. But it lacks focus, making it confused and difficult to follow as a whole. Plus, I don’t know if I’ll ever get past those scenes. It is more than evident that Braker and Hicks both have a real vision for these books. The effort shows in the overall plot of the two books and the dozens of inventive sci-fi concepts they explore. There are numerous tidbits which show this effort, such as how well the character of the queen was handled. It’s also clear that they have a genuine fanbase for their stories. But for me, I wouldn’t recommend these books in a heartbeat. They are simply too flawed in my opinion for me to consider them good books, let alone good sci-fi books. If you’re into raunchy sci-fi rather than focus and substance, certainly give these a shot. Other than that, I can only recommend that you give them a pass.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017
We are back to sci-fi with this review. As much sci-fi as I’ve been reading lately, I was afraid I’d be moaning "Here we go again" with these books. I was glad to be proven completely wrong. Word on the street is that Amy Duboff is on the rise to a high spot on the sci-fi literature totem pole. The first two installments of her currently seven-part series, Cadicle, are proof of this claim. In two extremely short books, Duboff establishes a wildly original story with a scale spanning lightyears and generations which instantly earns the status of 'saga'.
The first book, Architects of Destiny, had me hooked from the first page, and not because of what the bare story had to offer. The book’s greatest feat is that it is 100% character-driven. With this, good character interactions through dialogue and emotion are deeply important, and Duboff understands this perfectly. Through what is basically a mock-lightsaber fight in the opening scene, the interactions between the hero and his trainer present believable characters with believable relationships which echo throughout the rest of the novel.
In case the fact that the book is character driven doesn’t immediately force me to recommend this book, the story itself is well orchestrated. Its initial premise is familiar. Cris Sietinen wants something more out of life, so he escapes to the stars, joins a smuggling crew, and tours the galaxy. In many ways, it is Luke Skywalker’s ambitions with a new coat of paint. If the characters and their interactions weren’t as good, I probably would have lost interest. Yet in time, the story fledges out to something much greater.
We learn that Cris is heir to a wealthy dynasty obsessed with upholding its lineage, and willing to resort to any means of doing so. Cris also has a telekinetic ability which is virtually outlawed, and he is recruited by the only organization which will train him with his gift. Excitement takes a back seat as Cris trains in his telekinetic abilities, while behind the scenes his life is being secretly controlled. Turns out he plays a much larger role in the fate of the universe, a fate which involves a secret war against an alien race. It also turns out that he might not be the solution to the conflict, but someone further in his own bloodline.
Architects of Destiny is very much a prequel. It is very short, only about 150 pages, and I managed to read it in a day. But what I got out of such a short read was truly remarkable. It is difficult to put to words how Duboff manages to establish such high stakes and such a massive universe in just one book with a story that isn’t world-driven.
Veil of Reality, to my wondrous surprise, begins roughly twenty years after Architects of Destiny. Cris now fathers a son, Wil, who shows even greater achievement in telekinetic ability. Wil is kidnapped, and Cris flies to unknown reaches of space to find him. His pursuit leads him to discover the war which he was never meant to know about, and further, the role he plays in it. Cris learns that his entire existence has been engineered for generations, and that his own son is the savior to end the war, essentially wiping out an entire race.
Veil of Reality spends a lot of time grinding through the technicals of the story. This allows for time to see Cris and his son react to their orchestrated destiny. Wil’s youthful whims of tackling a massive undertaking make him naive, despite his giftedness. Cris comes to grips with the fact that he has to take a back seat in this plot, while also being tortured by the notion that the reason for his family’s existence is a lie.
The supposed villains are given highly relatable arcs in Veil of Reality. The government officials residing over Cris hate to break the bad news to him, yet are steadfast in their goal. They know the consequences and the pure evil of their actions, yet are committed to a cause for the sake of humanity. It’s a believable position. The alien villain in the war is also willing to find a compromise with the humans, to which many of his subordinates passionately disagree. It makes for a lot of conflict, and thus, a lot of drama.
The first books in the Cadicle series hit the mark in many aspects. I’ve already gushed over characters, but the story is also handled well. The more original take on the planet-bound youth who desires something more is a smart move. The simple fact that there is such a massive time gap between the two books allows for major shifts in character since they have changed over years. This keeps things interesting so that the original ensemble isn’t simply presented with a new conflict out of the blue.
Though Cadicle is a character-driven saga, it isn’t a one-size-fits-all story. This is one instance where a series truly needed to be a massive sci-fi epic, and thus earns the title of 'space opera'. The scale and stakes of the story can only be fathomed in a massive world which spans galaxies. Yet despite such a massive world, like I mentioned earlier, the books aren’t world-driven. Cadicle could have easily relied on sci-fi tropes like space battles, blaster shoot-outs, or other material staples of the genre to be an enjoyable story. The series instead uses these tropes sparingly in order for the reader to appreciate such moments more. It reminds me of use of lightsabers in the original Star Wars trilogy. As much as lightsabers are a staple of Star Wars, they weren’t used that much in the original trilogy. Presence of a lightsaber typically implied a special moment, one which could be appreciated and not overused. Cadicle uses its exciting action scenes sparingly in order for the reader to appreciate them more. It instead relies on its characters and story to keep the momentum going. On the flip side, it isn’t a story completely driven by discussion of politics which become boring or impossible to understand. It’s a rare instance which manages to find the right balance of both the physical and emotional side of a story which blends so well together that makes for a great narrative.
Duboff already has a great series going with just two books. She has crafted a saga with Cadicle which is littered with potential for prequels and obviously sequels, as there are five more books in the series. It’s an expansive universe with a surprisingly "down-to-earth" story. Rather than relying on the tangibles of its genre, it uses the scope of its own world to its full advantage for the sake of the narrative. It’s the makings of a timeless sci-fi series which is sure to rise above the rest.
You can purchase Architects of Destiny from Amazon here.
You can purchase Veil of Reality from Amazon here.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017
What is the typical go-to means of describing a good sequel? You guessed it! Simply refer to it as "the 'Empire Strikes Back' of the series". I would say the same for The Scholar, The Sphinx, and The Fang of Fenrir, but I’d like to draw an analogy from another ’80’s film series: Back To The Future. Back To The Future is its own self contained story which hints at a continuation. Back To The Future Part II functions on its own as a sequel, but the ending drives on the fact that the over-arching story of Back To The Future needs to be concluded in a third installment. This is very much the backbone to the plot of the second novel of the Scholar and Sphinx series, even though the device somewhat works against it.
Fang of Fenrir begins eighteen months after Shades of Nyx. David Sandoval is happily married living in Paris, and business is well. When a creature arrives on David’s doorstep which inflicts him with accelerated aging, David instantly knows something is up involving the Curtain. He is sent on a journey to find a means of curing his aging, only to discover that a dark creature is after him and something he owns. David is accompanied by a new ally, a witch named Baba Yaga, who begrudgingly agrees to assist him on his quest. With Baba's help, David scrambles up his former allies from the Curtain in order to discover the beast that’s after him and how to defeat it, all while being pursued by some familiar faces.
Anyone who gushed over the whimsical and nonsensical fantasy world Cook presented in Shades of Nyx will love it all the same, if not more, here. After such a zany first installment with off-the-rails logic, I had no idea how such a world could be more imaginable, but it still manages to deliver through awe inspiring mythology and magic. The mythological elements in particular work to Fang of Fenrir’s advantage. So much of the world and characters rest on a diverse range of humanity’s mythologies which seamlessly blend in a world where Thor may as well sun-bathe with Ra.
The world of Scholar and Sphinx is also much darker this time. With more threatening villains poised against the characters, the darker tone feels appropriate. The first novel played it safe for the most part, and while the second is still clean and appropriate for children, it does deal with some darker, sometimes gorier themes. It’s still nothing younger readers won’t grow used to after reading the first book.
The introduction of Baba Yaga was much needed, as she is an all-around lovable character. Her magical abilities feel appropriate to assist the characters when necessary. She is with David for a majority of the plot and her presence brings something new to the story. They have great chemistry together, almost better than David and Acacia in the first book, and they both console each other in their weaknesses and struggles.
The reason I feel so strongly for Baba’s character is because, aside from our hero, David, the returning ensemble from Shades of Nyx doesn’t bring much of anything new to the table. A. R. Cook’s ability to express genuine emotion and bonds between the characters is still present, no doubt. But the relationships between the returning characters don’t really evolve. This is especially jarring, given how well David and Acacia’s relationship was handled in the first book. I was without a doubt excited to see so many faces return, but most of them are the same people they were at the end of Shades of Nyx. After so much outstanding character and relational development seen in the first book, there was much to be desired from the sequel.
Where Fang of Fenrir ultimately falls flat is in its plot. This book, for it's length, needed to be more jam-packed with some excitement. I get the feeling that this and the third book should be one long arc, but are instead split into two shorter parts. The story opens strong, and the entire first act is very well orchestrated. The darker tone is on full display, and readers get a sense of the stakes threatening the characters. The second acts becomes sluggish after its opening, and mostly involves characters going to various parts of the world to find items with little to no action. With that, the climax, though well handled and grand in scale, doesn't feel earned.
The goals of the villains are also extremely confusing. Not only is there a new villain, but a villain from the first book returns, and a reincarnation of another villain from the first book appears as well. It's a great match-up, and all of them essentially have the same goal of defeating the hero characters, but they also seek control of the world in their own ways. It’s unclear who is manipulating who to achieve the other’s goals, and which of them has more power over the others. It not only creates a disconnect between the reader and the villains, but it gives the hero characters too much busy-work and exposition in order to defeat them which is why the second act can be so slow. I have no doubt that the villains will come full circle in the third novel, but there could have been some more clarity in this one.
Don’t get me wrong, though I have my gripes with the plot and character development, Fang of Fenrir is far from a bad book. Much of what was good about Shades of Nyx is still there, and there is plenty of it to be enjoyed. The cliffhanger at the end has me curious and excited as to how the series will conclude. Perhaps I simply need to finish the series to appreciate the overall arc. But with a slow second act, minimal character development, and some confusing villain goals, it leaves much to be desired after such a strong predecessor.
You can purchase The Scholar, The Sphinx, and the Fang of Fenrir from Amazon here.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017
It’s always a joy when a novel labels itself as one thing, yet manages to deliver something a little more than that. The first installment in The Galactic Satori Chronicles, Earth, manages to do just that. It’s a "space opera" which is a little more down-to-home in its story and characters. This should be expected, given that the title is 'Earth’, yet it simultaneously introduces an inventive, expansive universe for a space opera. Unfortunately, we don’t get to encounter much of that universe, which makes me question how this book can be a space opera.
Earth follows the story of eight individuals on Earth who are predestined by an advanced alien race called the Aliri to save Earth from impending doom by a malevolent alien race called the Kron. It sounds confusing, but it’s easy to grasp. The Aliri enhance the humans with superhuman abilities in order for them to outrun and outwit the Kron. The story follows the group as they discover their newfound abilities, learn to use them, and learn to work as a team, all while discovering their destiny of saving the planet. It’s a gripping, awesome concept which had me hooked from the get-go. The execution of the concept was less than stellar.
Firstly, allow me to elaborate on the positives of this book, because there are many. In terms of sci-fi, it explores a lot of interesting ideas about alien races and how they would seek to destroy or aid us. It explores the concept of aliens controlling us from lightyears away all while tackling our mental flaws. It also lends itself to the idea that aliens will destroy us from within, by hiding among us and influencing our leaders’ decision making. It also introduces the idea that aliens aiding us might have to harm us to ensure our survival. On top of this, everything about the alien species’ cultures is damn interesting. Whenever the perspective shifts to them is when the book is at its best, and I was all ears. Unfortunately, we don’t stay with the aliens very long.
The book spends the majority of its pages following the savior group, and these sections are mostly busywork. Don’t get me wrong, there are still positives to be drawn. First off, the entire first act is well handled. We get to know the characters as they interact with the mystery of the aliens, meet each other, and ultimately encounter the aliens. The entire second half of the first act is the main octet learning how to pilot a spaceship, and, though it drags some, it’s cool when executed. The characters work off of each other and their interactions feel genuine given their situation. Secondly, I care for each and every one of the characters. They are written as genuine people, and I sympathize with their backstories and circumstances. The biggest problem is that the story drives too much on these characters’ personality traits, and not enough on telling the story.
The book constantly reminds us who is who by giving each character an obnoxious quirk which the dialogue and/or narrative constantly rails on. One of the characters is lusty, and the reader is constantly reminded that he is lusty as he goes after every girl he lays eyes on. This character happens to be the main character, and his lust isn’t resolved by the end. Had there been some kind of resolution to this trait, it would have made his lustiness worthwhile; but there isn’t, so it’s just filler. The fact of the matter is that the reader doesn’t have to constantly be reminded that a character is smart, or a dweeb, or lusty, or heartbroken. It spends so much time leeching off these character traits that the story has very little momentum. Because of this, when the characters return to Earth and leave the spaceship, the second act goes downhill because it is almost completely character driven with little to no sci-fi elements present. The book explores destiny and self-discovery, which isn’t a bad thing, but when obnoxiously written personality types are all there is to be explored, it makes for a dull story.
This leads to what is without a doubt the biggest problem with this novel: It’s too damn long. Had Earth not spent so much time on the characters’ personalities, it could have easily been at least 100 pages shorter. This book is also victim of going into too much detail during action scenes. I don’t need to know everything a character is doing with a weapon as they are trying to use it. Just tell me what’s going on in the action scene. The book is inconsistent in this respect because I recall dozens of events which were described summarily because the writers knew it would go into too much detail. Why can’t that be exercised throughout the whole book? The length really becomes a sore when the resolution finally arrives, which is unfulfilling and leaves much to be desired. It also blatantly informs the reader that there will be a sequel, giving zero clues at to what it will be about, as well as undermining the fact that it failed to answer many questions posed throughout the story. Also, for a book called Galactic Satori Chronicles, it fails to even address what the Galactic Satori is, or are.
Where Earth ultimately falls flat on its face is its failure to pursue what would have been a great concept which was delivered upon a silver platter. Every time the aliens are at the forefront in the story, it is investing as hell. The problem is that we rarely, and I mean rarely, encounter these aliens. Instead we have to spend time with enjoyable, yet poorly handled characters as they slug through a poorly handled story. Had the aliens been more liberally used in the plot, I have no doubt this would have been a much better novel.
Earth, as an introduction to a series of books, failed to deliver and hook me as a reader. What concerns me is that Earth has a sequel, which I own and intend to read. My sliver of hope is that the title and cover indicate that the characters will be traveling to (and hopefully interacting with) the aliens and their planet. Also, this is Nick Braker and Paul Hicks’ first novel, and writers always gain experience from their first work to their second, so I am open no doubt. Here’s to hoping the sequel will be a more worthwhile story.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; May 2017
(Minor Spoilers Ahead)
Sci-Fi and Fantasy are two genres of literature which are, in many respects, one and the same. At least, they are capable of playing off each other. A sci-fi novel can be a massive space opera, but also use magic, an element of fantasy. Likewise, a fantasy novel could have dwarves and trolls battle each-other in submarines, an element of sci-fi. The two can also cross-genre with horror, noire, mystery; the possibilities are endless. Whereas horror or mystery describe the context of a plot device, sci-fi and fantasy describe a setting.
With that, it’s no wonder that since I started attending sci-fi/fantasy literary conventions for writing advice, I’ve come across a healthy share of sci-fi and fantasy novels. As a novice to the genre, the more I read, the more similarities I notice. Don’t get me wrong, it should be expected that stories of these genres share certain elements like use of magic, or faster-than-light travel. But at the point these elements are so similarly used as plot devices from novel-to-novel is when both genres tend to get stale for me. This is why it is innovative for sci-fi and fantasy to cross-genre with horror, romance, or noire in order to spice up a good story. I’m always looking for how a sci-fi or fantasy novel can change the game in terms of telling a story, while appropriately retaining elements which distinguish the genre. If what I’m reading is a run-of-the-mill dungeon crawl or pew-pew space opera, I’m tempted to shelve the book.
Fire With Fire by Charles E. Gannon is exactly the kind of story I am referring to; a sci-fi novel which tells a unique and engaging story, while pushing the boundaries of originality within the genre. Despite being among the longest novels I’ve ever read, its angle on already over-used sci-fi tropes brings a fresh and new experience to well-worn readers.
The story follows an investigative reporter who reanimates from 14 years of cryo-sleep. He is immediately recruited to train as a soldier to investigate shady business on a human-inhabited planet. What he discovers is that intelligent alien life exists on this planet in the form of small, animal-like creatures which inhibit human-like conscience. The reporter then relays his findings to a coalition of Earth’s governments, only to then be made a wanted fugitive for everything he knows. When he is recaptured by the government, he is asked to do the unthinkable: act as Earth’s ambassador in communicating with alien species.
What makes Fire With Fire work is that it takes the typical trope of humans discovering life beyond Earth, approaches it from a diplomatic angle, and makes it interesting as hell. Though it is by all means a space opera, readers shouldn’t expect many pew-pew action scenes and massive space battles. It is a story which examines how humanity and other alien species would act to cooperate and ensure the survival and wellbeing of every race, despite their drastic differences. It’s a high-stakes Cold War in space which, surprisingly, puts readers on edge.
Fire With Fire is not for the faint of heart, however. This novel requires some decent reading experience. Novice readers should be cautious, and certainly read some sci-fi novels before tackling it. The reason being is that it goes into excessive detail with technology, space diplomacy, alien mentality, sovereignty of Earth and space governments; the list goes on. What’s so peculiar about this novel is that it handles space politics so well. Most sci-fi stories which attempt to tackle politics are typically boring or poorly handled. Despite all of its detail, Fire With Fire’s space politics manage to feel fresh and suspenseful, without overhauling commentary of Earth’s historical and modern-day equivalents. The reason it works so well is that the team of human diplomats is chock-full of interesting and lovable characters who have charm. There’s even some playful banter among the team, given their dire circumstances, yet it knows to be serious when it is appropriate. It’s a massive slap in the face to the Star Wars prequels, a trilogy which was crippled by boring space diplomacy and even more stale space diplomats. Here, despite being exceedingly more detailed than that of the Star Wars prequels, Gannon manages to make intergalactic politics work.
Despite containing a slew of space opera tropes, Fire With Fire manages to bring forth a plethora of originality in its more material elements. Certain aspects of technology, though a little wordy at times, feel fresh and new having been present in the genre for so long. The alien species, much like Arrival, aren’t little green men or humanoid; they have very original designs and even more original psyches. Gannon took time to consider how a truly alien species would interpret information, and react in certain situations. It gives the aliens a sense of predictability, but also leaves the reader guessing the more reclusive species next moves.
Despite my praise, I do find FWF to have a few flaws. Firstly, sometimes the novel can be too detailed. There are certain scenes in which I was asking myself "Do I really need this process explained to me?". This is especially evident when characters are in an action scene which is meant to be quick and suspenseful, and Gannon takes time to give an overly detailed explanation of the technology the characters are using. It’s not needed, and kills the momentum of the scene. Also, the third act, though without a doubt the best, needs to be shorter. It could cut fifty pages if it had simply moved the story along a little faster and not been so repetitive and dragged out.
Though it contains a handful of bugs, I was ecstatic of my experience with Fire With Fire. I got to listen to Charles Gannon speak at JordanCon 9 in April of this year, and it was quiet the interesting session. I was skeptical at the length of his books, but I more than breezed through FWF because it is written so well. It makes my panel experience with Gannon all the more cherished. I definitely recommend this novel for experienced sci-fi readers, and I encourage you to explore Gannon’s intricate world. I am more than looking forward to its sequels.
You can purchase Fire With Fire from Amazon here.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; May 2017
Upon reading Robert Bailey’s first novel, The Professor, I felt it was quite the thrilling tale, and it is a novel I highly recommend. I took some time before picking up the sequel, Between Black and White. Little did I know that I would finish it in four days, something I’ve never accomplished with a book of its size.
Between Black and White picks up immediately following the events of The Professor, from the perspective of a side character from the first book. Bocephus Haynes is convicted of a murder he is convinced he didn’t commit, despite all evidence mounting against him as the culprit. With nowhere to turn, he summons The Professor to try his case. The Professor isn’t convinced he can try a murder case, a field he’s completely inexperienced in, but he bites the bullet and takes it on. With the help of his new legal partner, Rick Drake, The Professor begins to uncover clues about the case which could provide an alternative to the evidence and the culprit. However, much like the last novel, there are demons on the other side who don’t want The Professor to succeed, and are willing to take violent measures to do so. It’s a race against the clock for The Professor and his team to keep their friends close and their enemies closer, as the life of their client is at stake.
The Professor was able to take a simple civil case and turn it into an adrenaline trip. Right from the beginning, the novel pulled the reader into what would otherwise be a boring case. The story was backed by genuine characters and a real understanding of the law on Bailey’s part. The antagonists were absolutely ruthless, and the power of heroic characters was what ultimately allowed the good guys to succeed. Between Black and White shaves away any flaws from The Professor, and amplifies the good stuff. Between is absolutely non-stop in its plot, character development, action, and suspense. It expands the premise from the first novel and introduces new characters, while capitalizing on what made the first novel great.
What specifically makes Between better than The Professor is that it knows how to handle its story and characters with elements of law. The Professor spent a lot of time investigating the case and on the trial itself. In Black and White, the investigation takes up less time and is usually blended with some action to keep the pace going. The trial, while even more high-stakes than its predecessor, doesn’t take up much time either. The characters from the first novel are also greatly expanded upon. In addition, Black and White also has more villains, many of whom don’t reveal themselves until late. The Professor’s villain was that of a puppet master, whereas Black and White has more of a group of villains conspiring against the heroes, an element which is advantageous for this type of story…
One thing I mentioned in my Professor review was that the novel made great use of dramatic irony to keep the reader interested. This element is still used here, but to a greater effect. In The Professor, the reader knew what the villain’s plan was as the story delivered the clueless reaction from the heroes. Black and White is more sparing with its information. It teases, but it still leaves the reader asking questions and adds to the element of surprise.
I can do nothing more than recommend that you read Between Black and White, but read The Professor first. It is an absolute roller-coaster ride from start to finish and doesn’t let up. The characters are lovable, the law elements are once again handled very well, and it contains one of the most shocking character revelations I’ve ever read. Do yourself a favor, support an author, and read this book. You won’t regret it.
You can purchase Between Black and White here.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; March 2016
I’ve always wanted to write a legal thriller ever since discovering the likes of John Grisham. Legal thrillers can be captivating, authors who write them can roll stories out in their sleep, and they make big bucks. To some extent, they can be considered "snack books" (as my English teacher says), or books with no literary merit and basic covers, because they are so common. I don’t read legal thrillers that often, but I can only wonder how legal authors keep finding inspiration when the genre has such a presence in the book world. The effort it takes to write one is even more staggering to me, as the qualification is that you, obviously, have to be or previously been a lawyer. Otherwise, prepare to take the BAR exam or spend money on extensive research. But even then, it’s amazing how lawyers who aren’t involved in criminal law can write good crime thrillers.
Robert Bailey is a civil defense lawyer in the Huntsville area, who is two books into a legal thriller series. His first novel, The Professor, involves a pre-law teacher at the University of Alabama getting laid off from his job through an unusual series of events. Down on his luck and jobless, The Professor is approached by an old friend who asks him to be the plaintiff in a suit against a trucking company, as one of the company’s drivers collided with the suer’s family and killed everyone involved. The Professor turns down the case and hands it over to a former student of his, insisting that he is too old to get back into trial law. When his student is duped by a system rigged against him, The Professor suddenly finds himself at the helm of the biggest case of his career.
The Professor is a no-nonsense page turner. It keeps the reader invested by throwing in as much suspense and mystery as possible. The story involves a perfect example of how companies try to get away with murder, literally. Dramatic irony is cleverly used throughout the story as our main characters are fooled out of victory. There are countless moments where the reader simply wants to reach inside the pages and tear the villains to shreds. All the while, Bailey ties every scenario together. The firing of The Professor, the lawsuit, and all those involved are addressed by the end of the story. There’s even some emotional struggle tied in from the main characters. Though Bailey covers the main details, there are still a few areas unaddressed. The ice is almost spread too thin in terms of the number of characters involved in The Professor’s trial, and a few instances left my head scratching. However this is Bailey’s first novel, and these characters could show up again in books following, so I won’t be too quick to judge
Bailey also panders to his Alabama audience by visiting many locations in the state, and even southern Tennessee. I was reluctant to invest myself in the story, as it’s clear from the get-go that it’s set against the backdrop of UA, something I’ve grown up seeing my entire life; it’s cultural in this state. To me, it’s dull and boring, but Bailey’s story is so investing the location doesn’t matter in the long run. Even then, though I’m overly familiar with these locations, it doesn’t change the fact that they are still close to home.
I can’t imagine how one balances a law career and the creative capacity to write a novel based on that career, but Bailey doesn’t leave any boxes unchecked. He knows law inside and out, and The Professor shows that he is invested in what he does and can use it to tell a great story. Though some aspects of the novel seem basic or nuanced, and there a few grammatical issues, it doesn’t keep the story from feeling any less compelling. Even if crime novels aren’t your thing, give this novel a read for a guaranteed good time. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.
You can purchase The Professor here.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; November 2016
Harper Lee refers to Joseph Heller’s World War II novel Catch-22as "The only war novel [that] makes any sense." At a glance, Catch-22is the exact opposite of sense. The looping dialogue, while intended for comedy, can easily confuse readers as to which character is currently speaking and what they are speaking about. There are so many characters that it’s difficult for the reader to keep track of who’s who. Outlandish events occur out of nowhere, and sometimes an entire chapter builds up to an anticipated outcome only for the last sentence to throw in a resolution completely out of left-field. While most of these elements are, again, played for comedy, the average reader can easily be confused. Joseph Heller is known for his literary style of making readers laugh while keeping a dark undertone behind his humor. While Catch-22 is littered with many confusing elements, the comedy behind it provides the reader with "healthy confusion"; readers may be completely oblivious to what is going on, but they at least gain a laugh from the dialogue or hilarious events. However, another way this confusion could be interpreted isn’t so much attributed to Heller’s style, but the concept of a Catch-22 itself.
“Catch-22” is a term used for a situation which is impossible for an individual to escape from because of contradictory rules. In the novel, Catch-22 is Heller’s made-up military law which is paradoxically designed to keep U.S. soldiers from returning home from Axis-occupied Italy. Characters attempt to explain Catch-22 throughout the novel, but the concept only becomes more and more difficult for readers to grasp. The clearest explanation is during a conversation between the main character, Yossarian, and Doc Daneeka. Yossarian pleads to Daneeka to ground him from bombing missions, but Daneeka continually refuses his request because of Catch-22. Catch-22 basically states that a soldier can only be grounded from missions if he is considered insane. Soldiers that continually fly more missions are considered insane because they express no reluctance to impending danger. Soldiers who do try to avoid missions are sane. The "catch" of Catch-22 is that soldiers are only grounded if they specifically ask to be, but if they do so then they are trying to avoid missions so they are considered sane. Such a confusing ordinance calls for an equally confusing book.
The paradoxical frame of the law is most obviously reflected in dialogues between the characters. Characters often discuss the reasoning behind their actions, but their dialogue constantly loops so the conversations never reach resolution. For instance, early in the novel, Yossarian’s friend, Dunbar, attempts to explain to him why he puts crab apples in his cheeks. When Yossarian asks why Dunbar puts crab apples in his cheeks, Dunbar responds, "Because they’re better than horse chestnuts [in my cheeks]". Yossarian asks why Dunbar doesn’t like horse chestnuts in his cheeks, and Dunbar’s response is that he can just use crab apples. The conversation loops like this on end with only slight variations, such as when Dunbar says he’d substitute horse chestnuts for crab apples if the latter aren’t available. The book is littered with conversations like these, and they all harken back to the very subject of the title. As Yossarian puts it, "That’s some catch, that Catch-22".
Another aspect of the novel reflective of Catch-22 is the very names of the characters themselves. For a novel which often discusses red-blooded Americanism, the character’s names are very un-American. Names like Yossarian, Dunbar, Daneeka, Milo, Cathcart, Korn, Clevinger, and Nately, don’t sound like names you’d expect to hear out of wartime 1940’s America. The names mentioned here only scratch the surface; there are dozens upon dozens more outrageous and difficult to pronounce names throughout the novel. There is not a single conventional name mentioned, and it can be difficult for readers to keep track of who’s who because of so many names being tossed around. To make matters worse, some characters only appear briefly for a scene early in the novel, only to have a more significant role later on. Readers can easily forget who the character was and suddenly have to remember who they were all over again.
At a glance, these names may appear to be played for comedy; with such a comedic book, funny names seem appropriate. However, the case proves differently rather quickly. With so many long, unconventional names being repeated throughout the dialogue, simply reading the text becomes sluggish. Stephen King, in his book, On Writing, discusses how shorter names in literature make for more practical reading, and can even shorten the length of a novel. Heller throws this entire concept out the window. He even goes to the extent of mocking his cumbersome use names in an entire chapter developing the character Major Major. Major Major’s full name is Major Major Major, and the novel comedically explains how he got his name. However, to the reader, Major Major’s backstory can be both funny and a chore to read. Anyone who glances at the pages of this chapter immediately notice how many times the word 'Major' appears and having to keep track of the number of Major’s used in a row is confusing. To make matters worse, Major Major is promoted to the rank of Major by the end of the chapter, making his full name Major Major Major Major. Other scenarios employ this same device of using multiple confusing names to explain a series of events which only adds to the confusion of what the characters are discussing. After a period of time, readers become less concerned with putting a face to every name and instead focus on the events happening at present. With all the fluff Heller adds to the text, this approach is more beneficial in order for the reader to understand the story by the ending.
On the one hand, Joseph Heller is just a funny, crazed writer. In another view, he ingeniously plants readers into the boots of his main character, Yossarian. Yossarian is evidently crazy in the novel, which only makes readers question why he is never grounded. By the end of the story, it’s determined that Yossarian isn’t technically "crazy", per-say; he’s just plagued by a crazy world filled with crazy people where crazy things happen. Yossarian’s ultimate struggle is going to bat with Catch-22, the one thing keeping him from his goal. Heller highlights Yossarian’s pain by making his readers literally feel it. The uncanny events, paradoxical dialogue, and confusing character names immerse the reader in a literal Catch-22 where there is virtually no escape from conflict, the conflict being confusion. We are just as confused as Yossarian. So instead of readers delving into a story about Catch-22, Heller lets them experience Catch-22 for themselves.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; November 2016
D.B. Jackson presents a compelling tale with his novel Theiftaker, a pre-American Revolution historic fiction…with magic. On paper, nothing could sound better.
In Jackson’s novel, Ethan Kaille is a down-on-his-luck thieftaker in colonial Boston. A theiftaker is someone who retrieves stolen property for money. Ethan’s dirty secret is that he is also a conjurer, and can use organic material around him to cast spells. The novel opens with Ethan tracking down a target he’s been hired to pursue, in which we see Ethan’s extent of mental, physical, and magical ability. This opening chapter does well to establish the character and his broad range of skill. We also see right from the start that the magic in Jackson’s world isn’t the clean-cut magic we’re used to seeing in the likes of say, Harry Potter. Jackson’s magic is crude, and doesn’t always work for novice conjurers. It requires energy and effort which gives the conjuring characters a taxing factor in their ability, and are by no means invincible. In addition, we learn that Ethan has to cut himself whenever he conjures because blood produces the most effective spells, so use of magic always comes at a sacrifice. This raises the stakes for the character to the extent of forcing Ethan to choose between self sacrifice or what is an otherwise more comfortable journey. The big question is always which will grant him his life.
Once the story gets moving, we learn of Ethan’s hardships as a theiftaker, and that he’s new to the business. He faces the challenge of dealing with a substantial rival theiftaker, Sephira Pryce, who essentially has mooks all over Boston hunting Ethan down to keep him from stealing her work. This takes a dark turn for Ethan when he is hired to retrieve a stolen article from the daughter of a wealthy merchant, who is willing to pay him substantially for his efforts. Ethan has never taken up the task of solving a murder mystery, but is willing to try. Not only does he discover how threatened he is by conspirators of the murder, but Sephira Pryce is out for blood since he has accepted a high-paying contract which would otherwise belong to her. Throughout the story, whenever Ethan is close to finding another clue, Sephira and her mooks get in the way and he has to start from square one again. And whenever Ethan encounters Sephira, it’s no quick beat 'em up. Ethan is almost always outnumbered 10 to 1, and he must refrain from using magic or will otherwise be accused as a witch. When Sephira’s men beat him, he suffers the consequences. This isn’t like the movies where our hero can take a beating and get back up again unscathed. When Ethan is beaten, he is practically immobilized. His bones break, he gets bloodied up, and has trouble breathing. His injuries get in the way later in the novel when he’s at his most desperate. While Spephira and her men are a substantial threat in the story, it’s rarely explained how she has so much power. We understand that she essentially owns the streets of Boston, but we never know why. Additionally, while it’s mentioned multiple times that she’s a thieftaker, we never see her do any theiftaking, which I feel would’ve made her character a little more fledged out. I may be getting ahead of myself as there are more Thieftaker novels after this, but it would’ve been nice to see her style of thieftaking in this book. Even then, this is only a minor nitpick compared to the rest of the novel.
Ethan also goes to bat with another conjurer throughout the story who quickly proves to be far more skilled than himself. The conjurer is never physically visible, which makes thwarting him all the more difficult. In these instances, Ethan has to get creative with his conjurings, and readers witness the full extent of magic within Jackson’s world. The conjurer never allows Ethan to walk away on two feet. The spells this mysterious figure uses on him are violent, and Jackson’s descriptions make the reader feel the pain Ethan is going through. These are some of the best and scariest portions of the novel, which strangely enough make the reader feel like their in Ethan’s shoes.
Jackson’s Boston is one of the most believable reading environments I’ve ever been placed in. Having taking place nearly 250 years ago, it feels like I’m actually there and can talk to the city’s inhabitants. I can feel the grime and dirt, and can smell the smells. Jackson’s similes and metaphors are also kept within the time period. There are no modern-day comparisons or comparisons that could work for any point in history. For example, there’s a part where Jackson describes a character’s dialogue as "a statement that would’ve made King George wince". Something like that ins’t necessary per-say, but it keeps the story within it’s setting, and is a nice little touch. The believability of this world is once again thanks to the way Jackson describes it. We see authors do this all the time, but Theiftaker feels like a place I can actually go to and interact with. Jackson takes us to every nook and cranny of Boston through Ethan’s adventures, meeting colorful characters and exploring new locations, which only adds to the believability of the world.
Thieftaker lends readers to a vast number of characters, which most fantasy novels would have issues handling for casual readers. However most every character in Thieftaker feels genuine because they add weight to the story. No character is shoe-horned in simply for the sake of adding something that wasn’t there before, or as a cop-out to advance the plot. It’s because they hold so much weight that we feel that they’re actually there.
For a novel that takes place in Revolutionary America, there aren’t that many references to typical American Revolution tropes, and for me, that’s a good thing. Most settings in this era would have Ethan amidst the Boston Tea Party, or fighting redcoats as a vigilante. Ethan is most nearly the exact opposite. He simply doesn’t give a damn about taxation without representation, and is just trying to do his job. He will take sides with the patriots or loyalists if it means not having to discuss politics so he can get on with business. This is a fresh look at a character in this era, as most Revolutionary characters always side with the patriots, and it’s interesting to see someone who’s neutral for once. There are also few major historical figures of the time. There are no George Washingtons or Thomas Jeffersons here. Rather, most figures of this status are given as little as a mention, such as Paul Revere or John Hancock. The most significant figure who appears is Samuel Adams, and even then he isn’t front and center throughout the novel, and is instead used as a means to relay information to Ethan in the latter half of the story. This is how it should be. Theiftaker is willing to stick to it’s own story by using its setting as a backdrop, and not rely on historical figures for history class nostalgia. While I’m sure that Ethan will encounter more historical figures in future novels, as there are more in this series, for a first installment this was a very smart choice. It shows readers that the story knows what it is doing independently, and doesn’t have to rely on nostalgia for the sake of getting history buffs’ attention.
Thieftaker is an engaging novel which engulfs readers in a believable world, and manages to stick to it’s plot throughout. There’s no fluff in the story, and every character adds weight, which is a rare thing for novels with such a vast number of characters to achieve. Though a lack historical characters, any red-blooded American fantasy lover should get a kick out of this novel, as well as casual readers who aren’t into fantasy. Definitely a tale for the ages.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; June 2016
Purchase Theiftaker from Amazon.
This week, I read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. I’m a massive Bradbury fan as it is; Fahrenheit 541 and Something Wicked This Way Comes are among my favorite books. His social commentary in 541 has become a staple in American school systems, but his visions of the dystopian future of humanity are not what makes him a great author. Simply the style of his writing is enough to pick up a book and read it. The words put a smile on my face as to how quirky they are written, yet are somehow cohesive. He can convey massive stories with very few words which is why his name has become what it is today. The Martian Chronicles is no exception of a massive story that takes less than a week to read.
The Martian Chronicles is the story of Earth and Mars; two very different planets that turn out to be very much alike. The novel is nothing but segmented short stories, all of which contain different characters which have nothing to do with other characters in other short stories. This is because Bradbury is not trying to tell the story of individuals, but the story of two planets.
The book was written in the height of Cold War hysteria, and the fears of a massive nuclear war that would de-civilize Earth. Humans who wish to avoid such a war move to Mars in giant rockets. Bradbury establishes Mars as a planet civilized with its own beings and civilizations, which are abandoned, killed off, and destroyed over time, as more and more humans colonize the planet. We see the effects on the people of Earth as Mars becomes a more desirable place to live. Consequently, the more people colonizing the planet, the more the government soon attempts to take over. As tensions escalate on Earth, the "Martians" must decide weather they are to stand their ground, or give in to their humanity. All of these events are depicted in short stories that are entertaining, funny, action packed, and suspenseful. There is never a dull moment, and the seemingly limitless boundaries of the planet are open to endless interpretation by the imagination.
Bradbury tells us the large-scale story of Earth and Mars through the eyes of little humans who are concerned only with their own affairs. His characters may not know it, but they are contributing to a grander cause within the novel. It’s clever storytelling like this that continues to make Bradbury’s work worthwhile, and another must-read for generations to come.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; April 2016
Tarkin is the first Star Wars novel I’ve read. One of the best things about Star Wars is that it convinces you to root for the villains as equally as we would the heroes. If not, at least empathize with them. This is exactly what Star Wars: Tarkin accomplishes. It shows us the goals of the Galactic Empire from a unique perspective we haven’t seen in the films, and persuades us to hope Tarkin succeeds in achieving the Emperor’s dream.
I would point out the condition of this book, to begin with. I spent no more time on this book than any other novel I’ve read, and it’s been through the same conditions as those books; Just look at this thing. This book has undergone more abuse than any other book I’ve read, and it’s not even that long. The cover art is badass, but the book itself didn’t hold up from a durability standpoint. I’m sure it’d be even more flimsy if I lent it to a friend.
The first third of Tarkin is exposition for the character. It’s amazing that a book about an Imperial officer, who played a minor role in A New Hope, could be so interesting. We learn of Wilhuff Tarkin’s past and trials he endured as a youth, having coming from a very wealthy family. We learn his influences, and what made him the cold hearted Moff we know him to be. We also learn of Tarkin’s involvement with the Republic when Emperor Palpatine as merely Chancellor. Reflections from Tarkin’s past are fully evident in the character’s mannerisms throughout the story.
The book isn’t all Tarkin, however. Darth Vader is a fully prominent character in the story as well. We learn more of Vader and Tarkin’s pasts as partners, Tarkin having fought under Anakin Skywalker’s command in the Clone Wars. Tarkin, having no experience with the Sith or the Dark Side, offers an interesting perspective as a viewer of Vader’s use of The Force as a bystander.
Vader and Tarkin are found in early stages of the Empire we know from the original Star Wars trilogy, and we watch the two argue as to how it should be governed. Vader shows envy to Tarkin early in the novel, as the two are sent on a mission together at the command of the Emperor. When an early group of rebels steal Tarkin’s ship, the Carrion Spike, Vader and Tarkin have no means of communicating with the Empire, and must work together to get the ship back. It is here when Tarkin realizes that Vader uses The Force to help him recover his ship, and the two continue to form a stronger companionship as the story progresses. There comes a point when Vader nearly treats Tarkin as his equal, but he refrains from doing so, maintaining his position as the Emperor’s right hand man. This is another thing the book does a great job of; we understand each of the character’s goals, and the lengths they will go to achieve them. Darth Vader, despite the black mask shrouding his face, becomes a frighteningly relatable character.
Throughout the story, the novel switches between Tarkin and the rebel cell which has stolen his ship. The rebels are a nice group of characters as well. They understand that they will most likely fail to succeed at any offensive against the Empire, but are still willing to give it a try. They have their own conflicts as failure becomes more inevitable, but still hold enough friendship to hold together. My only gripe is that the group is pretty large and, being Star Wars, they are all different alien races, so it can be hard to keep track of each individual member. Even then, that’s just a nitpick, and one of the few I have with this novel.
Another great thing about the novel is the sheer amount of Star Wars lore the book contains. Taking place before the rebellion, the only history of Star Wars is that of the prequel trilogy, and the expanded universe built around it. There are multiple references to Attack of the Clones, The Clone Wars series, and Revenge of the Sith. Say what you will about the prequels, they still offered a plethora of lore to build upon the series, which has spawned its own following, two (technically three) TV series, and plenty of reading material. When the story may briefly drag, Tarkin still provides a lot of interesting Star Wars history to keep readers invested.
If you’re a weathered Star Wars fan interested in reading the novels, Tarkin is a great place to start. It’s a short read with a compelling story about an overlooked character, that gives an interesting perspective of the universe we know and love. Given that Disney and Lucasfilm are releasing Star Wars anthology films in the coming years, Tarkin would be a great material to adapt for the platform. The only question is who would stand in for the late Peter Cushing, who portrayed the character perfectly in A New Hope, a performance on full display in this book.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; March 2016
Homer Hickam, for those of you who don’t know, is an outstanding author. I think that is more of a biased statement, as he is a local author where I’m from. Hickam is famous for his classic memoir Rocket Boys, which I highly recommend you read. In 1999, Rocket Boys was adapted into the critically acclaimed film, October Sky, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. I have spoken to Hickam at a local event, in which he has told me directly, twice, that the film adaptation ruined his life. Like countless authors, he hates the movie version of his book. Of course no one can blame him. I’d get personal if a big-budget Hollywood production company took my baby and butchered it into something completely unlike I envisioned. I personally like the film, as do almost everyone who has seen it. It’s by no means a cinematic triumph, just a "good little show". I will likely review it sometime in the future.
Hickam’s claim to fame has ridden entirely on the coattails Rocket Boys. Hopefully, that is only until now. He hopes that his most recent novel, Carrying Albert Home, will be a classic for generations to come. Hickam also hopes to spark the birth of a new book genre he has dubbed the "Family Legend" genre. Basically, the author writes an entire book about a legend in their family. The fact that it is a legend, allows the author to write anything he possibly wants to put in the story, "…some of which is untrue, but is all true."
Before talking about the novel, I must first talk about the physical book itself. The artwork on the dust cover is purely classic, capturing art style the period of the novel accurately. The painted image gives a physicality to what I’m about to read, rather than a vague, obviously corporate-designed cover I won’t care about.
Secondly, just look at the book without its dust cover. It’s meant to be a period book, and the colors and font on the cover capture this beautifully.
Moving inside, everything from the font to the artwork and photographs draw the reader in to something that is both special, and more personal than the average best-seller. In case the story itself wasn’t great enough already, the physical novel is a surefire keepsake for passing down many lines of generations.
Hickam’s "family legend" is a heartfelt story about his own mother and father as a young married couple. His mother, Elsie, owns an alligator she has named Albert, which was given to her by her youthful sweetheart, Buddy Ebson. Yes, that is the real Buddy Ebson who starred on the show The Beverly Hillbillies. Elsie has loved the alligator her entire life because of its connection to Buddy. Her husband, Homer’s father (also named Homer), grows tired of Albert running amuck around the house. When the final straw is played, he gives Elsie the choice between him or Albert. She chooses to take her husband, provided that they return Albert to Florida, where he belongs. Homer and Elsie pack their bags, and set off toward Orlando from their small town of Coalwood, West Virginia. From there, it’s a grand adventure through Depression-America filled with action, romance, joy, terror, and most importantly, love.
The novel is nothing but literary goodness. Not the hidden-meaning-philisophical-truths goodness; just goodness. In that, there’s no badness in it (the opposite of goodness). There aren’t any moments that drag, and every character is colorful and diverse. Hickam’s crass banter among the characters allows for great humor, and moment after moment that puts smiles on faces. Despite having an average page count, the novel seems long because of the numerous misadventures the characters get themselves into. Some are short, some are longer, but they all move Homer and Elsie’s story along. While it may appear that Albert is the star of the show, the alligator is implemented more as a backdrop to the arch of Elsie and Homer’s love for each other; questioning weather they do happen to still love each other, or not, and what alternatives they are willing to take without the other, if they are willing to resort to those alternatives at all.
This is what makes great story-telling. Two individuals, unsure of their love for each other, have to spend a thousand-mile journey together. It's more of a journey of self-discovery, while tangling in hilarious plots to meddle with their romance. The romance itself isn’t slow or forced, rather, it moves intertwining with the events of the story, to keep the plot rolling at a steady momentum.
Given that this is a family legend, Hickam is given flexibility to put whatever he wants into an already interesting idea for a story. That in mind, readers are in for some crazy stuff. Homer and Elsie encounter robbers, protestors, famous figures in American history, pirates, and even ghosts. In case their encounters weren’t enough, the characters are thrown unexpectedly into various occupations over their lengthy journey such as becoming a professional athlete, a rail-road manager, sailor, and flying as pilots. Each of these sections in the story is divided, and is introduced with Hickam giving his personal account of when he heard the specific part of the story from his parents. This provides an interesting dynamic; Encountering Homer’s aged parents as the story was revealed to him, coinciding with their younger selves in the core plot.
My personal connection to the novel, was getting to be one of the first people to recieve book itself. Homer Hickam held the launch party for 'Carrying Albert' at the Rocket City Lit Fest here in Huntsville. In his press conference, he talked on and on about the backstory behind writing the book, all which is revealed to the reader as they progress through the story. There I got a signed copy, and spoke to Homer about his novels.
There is little more I can say about this book than recommend it to you. You’ll be supporting an author with a lot of soul to his penmanship. It’s a fun, heart-warming story that leaves the reader with only happy thoughts. You will smile, laugh, cry, and more importantly, feel stronger towards your family and those around you. Give this one a read and treat yourself to a destined classic.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; January 2016
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