The Justis Fearsson trilogy is yet another great example of David B. Coe’s imaginative fantasy worlds and character-driven stories.
Faraway Faltyr and the Finders Keepers are officially back. With two astounding Cycle of Ages novels under his belt, the fantasy author with an edge, Jeremy Hicks, is back at the helm of his series with its third installment, Delve Deep. While Finders Keepers and Sands of Sorrow challenged the boundaries of fantasy and genre-blending, they were no strangers to clunkyness at times. In addition, the goals of the Finders Keepers and the lore of Faltyr never felt fully complete, like something was still out of reach. While the ambitious Delve Deep continues to exhibit some of these staple issues of the series, it manages to make massive strides in improving upon its predecessors. Not only has Faltyr and its lands and peoples come full circle, but the characters we know and love officially have something to fight for in what is now a truly masterful fantasy series.
Delve Deep picks up some time after Sands of Sorrow left off, and it shows because readers have a bit of catching up to do, especially if they haven’t read some additionally published Cycle of Ages short stories. Yes, before Delve Deep, Hicks wrote a number of short stories in Farawy Faltyr which are alluded to quite often in this novel. Unfortunately for me, I hadn’t read those stories before picking up this one. Granted, reading them isn’t necessary to enjoy this book, but the number of times they are referenced is jarring. Mention of short stories aside, we meet Finders Keepers in the city of Frasmauth, in hiding from their last skirmish in Sands of Sorrow. When it’s discovered that their lives are threatened by the forces of Oparre, Dor conveniently discovers that his master has determined a way to win the dreaded Blood War and ensure a peaceful end to the current Cycle of Ages. In case the simple runaway plot of Sands of Sorrow didn’t have high enough stakes for you, what the characters attempt to accomplish in this installment certainly will. In order for Finders Keepers to reclaim Dor’s lost items from the last book and end the Blood War, they must travel to Delve Deep, a city which may or may not exist. According to Yax, Delve Deep will enable them to essentially fast-travel to the sacred Spire, key to winning the War, as well as increase their numbers. Taking a dive in the dark, the Finders Keepers set out on yet another journey, this time beneath Faltyr to the Underworld.
The plot is a mouthful, and the book’s length can be daunting. It is easily bigger than the first two books combined, but Hicks thankfully devotes the first fourth of the novel to reintroduce the story in a small setting. This is key because Delve Deep increases the scale of the series, profoundly bigger than what was established in the first two novels. The book’s opening gives the reader time to re-acclimate to the characters, what they’re up to, and their goals and aspirations. Most of the opening scenes are just the Finders Keepers sitting around and talking, or talking while fighting each other. The chemistry they share is great, and it’s especially crucial for establishing the main trio, now a quartet, consisting of Dor, Yax, Bruexias’ daughter Tameri, and the Elven Queen, Shy’elle. Granted, a lot changed in Sands of Sorrow to the look and feel of Finder’s Keepers, so it was refreshing to see them in the simplicity of Frasmauth. The town is used as a platform introduce the conflict, to which the grand main adventure takes off.
The second quarter of Delve Deep unfortunately feels very side-quest-y. The Finders Keepers have not only acquired a massive roster of characters since the second novel, but they have even more characters to recruit in order to accomplish certain tasks. Entire chapters are devoted to finding this-or-that person so they can find this-or-that thing. It moves at a sluggish pace for the middle of the first act, and doesn’t spur any excitement until the characters are finally looking for the device which is central to accomplishing their goal. Thankfully, once they are finally determining how to acquire said item, the story becomes more high-stakes. It is this portion of the novel which lends itself to some innovative action scenes, and even expounds upon Faltyr’s lore and technology down to individual cultures.
It is here when Delve Deep exposes one of its greatest issues: too many characters. Much like the beginning of Sands of Sorrow, Finders Keepers increases its numbers exponentially, unfortunately just to kill off a multitude of them before the story is halfway through. Granted, a large roster is needed in order to accomplish certain tasks, but there is little emotional weight due to the Walking Dead style of mass execution. Unfortunately, some of the characters the main ensemble goes out of their way to find have very little presence or weight in the long run, and some are quickly killed off. Certain romances and connections are made which didn’t exist prior to this novel, and they are easily the most forgettable parts of the story, acting as nothing more than unnecessary drama or filler to be mediated later.
Thankfully, many of the disposable characters are surrounded or led by the main quartet, which at least keeps things interesting. There is also a handful of side characters who serve important roles in the story, as well as balance some of the clutter. The book continues to introduce more characters in the latter half of the book, but they are in fewer numbers and carry much more emotional weight. I just can’t see why the same can’t be said for those introduced in the former half.
But for as many disposable characters as the book contains, the main quartet never fail to impress. The circumstances they’ve been through and their familial connections give them a chemistry like no other. For such a small group, their diversity is a prime testament of a team of differing individuals who can learn to work together. It’s at this point when readers know that the main characters are the backbone of this series. The ways in which they are tested throughout the novel and their ability to still love each other at the end shows just how well developed they are. What makes this group so unique is that the individuals who make up the whole are by no means orderly, run-of-the-mill fighters. It is mentioned throughout the novel that they are mercenaries, not a trained army, and this one word dominates among the group. They have no formal experience, but lots of different abilities and skills. They’re simply trying to make a broken system work, and while they fail along the way, they eventually learn to get it done. That’s called drama and conflict, and that makes great storytelling.
Sir Fredrick and the Protectorate Mage, Marduk, from Sands of Sorrow return in Delve Deep, establishing themselves as the main villains of the series. While they are just as loveable a duo as in the last book, they never encounter the Finders Keepers. The reader keeps expecting them to eventually catch up to and fight the Finders Keepers like last time, but they never make contact. Unfortunately, their arc in this installment is almost completely unrelated to the heroes, and mostly serves to expose their plans to the reader and set up future novels. They also appear less and less towards the story’s second half, and their absence may leave some wanting. Nevertheless, both of them (and especially Fredrick) eat up every scene they’re in.
Keeping momentum of this suspense is another aspect Delve Deep masters. When the main characters establish their plan in the beginning, the reader naturally expects that they will see their goal to the end, climaxing in an epic battle with the villains. But despite the immense length, Delve Deep keeps the reader on edge and occupied for its near-400 pages, not even realizing that the goal is only halfway accomplished. This is a great way to write a book, and leaves much to be expected from future stories.
Delve Deep is as inventive as ever with its use of the Aether, the magical force of COA. The Aether continues to evolve in this installment as we learn of its capabilities and the abilities it can enable its bearer. The action descriptions of these abilities are also top notch. It’s satisfying to hear Yax use his wand to take out a gruesome ghoul with a hot streak of light. Hicks really pushed the limit with action scenes this time around. Shock factor also feels most earned in Delve Deep. Hicks is no stranger to pulling massive explosions or gargantuan dragons out of nowhere on the reader, but here, most of the shock factor is built up, or is used in ways the reader isn’t expecting. The weaving of these action scenes as well as the emotions around them is also top-notch. Part of what makes the build-up and climaxes earned is the circumstances surrounding them and the characters.
While the Aether’s power is expound upon in many ways which feel appropriate in Delve Deep, there are other instances which caught me completely off guard. One of the key elements of Faltyr is that most any technology is powered by the Aether. Most introductions of new technologies in this installment were done at a steady pace which made them feel appropriate to the world, or at least allowed me to adjust to them. After all, the lore and technologies we’ve been exposed to thus far in Faltyr feel like that of a typical fantasy world. But there were many instances in Delve Deep in which a technology was introduced which felt ripped straight out of real life. It took some time for me to grasp how such a familiar technology fit into a fantasy world, or at least the rules it had previously established.
And that’s one of the more jarring aspects of Delve Deep: many times it seems to have trouble separating fantasy from reality. Like I said, a lot of technology feels like technology familiar to a modern reader. Now, there’s nothing wrong with expanding the lore of a world or universe, but then there is expanding a lore straight out of left field. That, or I simply need to remind myself of the limits and rules of Faltyr and all that the Aether is capable of producing. But while the technology is one thing, dialogue and character mannerisms are another. There are a lot of dialogue and exchanges in Delve Deep which feel blatantly modern. Don’t get me wrong, there has always been some use of modern humor and wordplay in COA; the Finders Keepers are rag-tag, dirty people and are no strangers to banter. But there are some uses of it here which just feel downright inappropriate, even in a more civil sense. When one character is introduced early in the novel, much of her internal monologues and thoughts revolve around a book she has recently published. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the exchanges sound like a meeting between an author and a publishing house executive in New York City. It’s completely out of nowhere and sounds more like a conversation I would have with published authors in real life, and moments like these recur numerous times throughout the book. Granted, none of these moments ruined the novel for me, but at times they pulled me out. It’s certainly jarring when one is reading along in an age-old fantasy world and suddenly the characters discuss something like sports terms used in modern-day. While this is mostly a nitpick, the occasional hiccup in tone occurred just a little more than occasionally in this one.
Despite some minor flaws here and there, Delve Deep is still a fantastic book. When it reaches the location of its title, the payoff doesn’t fail to impress. In addition, the task Dor was originally ordained with is far from complete. The Blood War has yet to be won, and Finders Keepers merely found themselves in (one of many) a skirmish blocking their path, if not a truly epic one. It shows that this world is pitted against them, and it is never going to be in the favor of their likes. It’s a satisfying conclusion to a story which leaves much to be anticipated in the next installment. But for now, I can faithfully say Delve Deep is the best of the series.
With three novels under his belt, Hicks has quite the franchise going. I’m now eager to read those additional short stories, as he now has his own “expanded universe” going for the series. If anything, it looks that Cycle of Ages has quite the potential for an expanded universe beyond the page. For now, I simply can’t wait to see what the series has to offer next; I just might go back and read the first two novels again. In the meantime, I can’t recommend these books to you enough. Check them out, they are truly worth your time.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; January 2018
You can purchase Delve Deep from Amazon here.
You can find other Cycle of Ages stories here.
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
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
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
Not that I’m writing a serial here, but, the last couple of book reviews I have posted discussed what can make and break sci-fi and fantasy novels. I’ve pointed out similarities among books of the genre, how they can get too complex, sometimes require experience from a reader, or completely rip at the seams of what they try to create. The reason people enjoy fantasy novels is because they are written in universes which readers can immerse themselves in and escape reality; to create that which cannot be created, or see that which cannot be seen. Rarely, and I mean rarely, does a fantasy novel simply say "Shut up. It’s friggin’ fantasy. We can do whatever we want and have all the fun we want." The Scholar, The Sphinx, And The Shades of Nyx by A. R. Cook understands this statement perfectly.
Scholar and Sphinx (as I will refer to it throughout the review), is one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had with a fantasy novel, period. It’s a story which throws reality out the door and fully embraces the fact that fiction can do whatever it wants. Though it introduces some of the most bizarre concepts and imagery, it is grounded and can be grasped by a reader of any experience. Despite its zaniness, it isn’t a tripped-out story which only few will enjoy. It’s like it takes place in the mind of a child; it’s bizarre, yet it is passable because we understand how bizarre a child’s mind is.
Scholar and Sphinx follows a teenage boy named David Sandoval who desires to work as an architect in France. On a journey to an internship, he encounters a traveling band of gypsies who, through a misunderstanding, take him captive. It is here when David discovers that the gypsies have something to hide; their leader is a sphinx from a mystical world known as the Curtain. David accompanies the gypsies into the Curtain where he discovers that the Sphinx (whom he names Acacia) has a secret weakness to her which could risk the balance of the Curtain, her family of gypsies, and everyone she loves. With his newfound, yet skeptic care for Acacia, David vows to find a means of curing her, on what will be the trippiest road trip of his life.
The fact of the matter is that Scholar and Sphinx isn’t a "love letter" to fantasy. It doesn’t borrow elements from the likes of Tolkien, Lewis, and Jordan, or every other fantasy writer who came before, though it is no stranger to dragons and the like. Rather, it tells its own story by embracing the fact that fantasy can do whatever it pleases, and doesn’t back down. The Curtain is a truly undefined realm which can aid or curse its inhabitants at any given moment. Humans can be like animals and vice-versa. There is no definition to the way things are because there doesn’t have to be. Yet, despite this boundless, imaginative world, the lore is grounded and down-to-earth. Anyone can understand it without having to memorize a laundry-list of terminology which can’t be pronounced. It’s a simple story which invites readers to embrace the absurd and escape reality.
What makes this such a powerful book is its main duo. I know it’s cliche to say that characters are "well written" or whatever you may call them. But Scholar and Sphinx understands relationships so well that it can be extremely emotional without having to orchestrate dark, emotional scenes which stick out like a sore thumb. The genius is in the dynamic of its two main characters. David and Acacia are unique because one has a handicap, and the other is so affected by his new reality. The emotion between them doesn’t need to be romance-driven because there is no real romance between them. It’s the right balance between two characters who are so awkward together that they can’t get along as a team, and two characters with a cliched, gushing romance between them. This struck many emotional swells throughout my reading, as I empathized with what such bizarre characters were going through. There’s a particularly emotional moment in the first act when David is coming to grips with what he has to overcome for his loved ones. Though the book never reached a similar emotional high, this scene stuck with me the most.
Ultimately, where Scholar and Sphinx succeeds is in it’s accessibility. Truly anyone can read this fantasy book and enjoy it. Even children. This would be a great book to introduce youngsters to fantasy outside the world of mass-marketing. Another reason which hi-lights this is the fact that Scholar and Sphinx is clean, which is very unconventional for the genre. Though it goes to dark places, it doesn’t have to be crass or "dirty" to be funny, dramatic, or emotional. I love stories like these which aren’t afraid to refrain from sex, swearing, or unnecessary violence to have an edge or be entertaining. It relies on its story, characters, and world, and that’s all it needs.
It was difficult to come off my read of Scholar and Sphinx and then delve into a more complex sci-fi novel. It proves that fantasy can be simplified and accessible to those less familiar with the genre. It would be stellar if works in different fiction genres could take this route and embrace itself in an easy to read story which introduces novices, yet be thoroughly enjoyed by veterans. It’s a rare book which I can say I have no gripes with. Give it a read, and appreciate the accomplishment that is this book.
You can purchase The Scholar, The Sphinx, And The Shades Of Nyx from Amazon here.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; June 2017