Sci-Fi

Book(s) Review: The Case Files of Justis Fearsson

Book(s) Review: The Case Files of Justis Fearsson

The Justis Fearsson trilogy is yet another great example of David B. Coe’s imaginative fantasy worlds and character-driven stories.

The Summer of Too Much Sci-Fi

IMG_8066.JPG

This past spring I attended JordanCon, ready to refill my to-read book stack. As I met up with author friends and was introduced to new ones, I found myself spending nearly $200 on books. I had saved up for the con, so I had no shame. Since JordanCon is a sci-fi/fantasy convention, naturally, I walked away with a massive stack of the genre to occupy my reading for late spring/summer. In addition, I went on to purchased a number of other sci-fi/fantasy books outside the con, which included Stephen King’s IT, and the Star Wars Thrawn Trilogy. Little did I realize how reading so much of one genre would leave me literarily deprived. 

Upon completing a handful of my books from JordanCon, I was feeling great about my purchases. Not only were they a good refresher from the emotionally heady texts I had to read for AP Literature, but the particular books I read were smart, inventive, and gripping. Once summer vacation began, I started reading IT purely out of anticipation for the film which would release in September. The first thing I discovered about IT was how slow it was, and its length; it’s an extremely long book. I express a number of complaints about IT in another piece I wrote over the summer, so I’ll spare you my whining. I forced myself to gruel through 50 pages a day, which took about two hours to complete, and even at that rate it was a full month before I finished the book. I was fatigued by the time I finally completed it, and (funny story) I have yet to even see the film since it has released

After I completed IT, I was more than looking forward to reading some much shorter sci-fi books, which I began around the end of June. I got to a point where I was averaging one book a day. I still had a massive stack of books to get through, and college was a little over a month away. This was my problem: all the books were science fiction or fantasy, so I quickly became bored with them. Each book I picked up felt all too similar to the others, bringing little to nothing new to the table. I struggled to write good reviews for the books, and I feel some of my reviews were a little too scathing. I knew I had to finish the stack before college, but I had no desire to even pick them up. I would make myself sick grueling through page after page, and reading soon became a chore than a refreshing hobby. I found that there was so little diversity in what I was reading, as well as a shear lack of literary merit, sci-fi and fantasy was no longer fun, and just felt like junk-food. 

Let’s get one thing clear: there is nothing wrong with reading science fiction and fantasy. I don’t actually believe the genre is junk food, as some would argue. But for my situation, I simply burned myself out. I know plenty of people who only read sci-fi and fantasy who don’t experience this "reader’s block", as some call it. But I’m a versatile reader and writer. I enjoy writing sci-fi/fantasy and other genre fiction, but I also experiment with pure fiction. My writing is most passionate in essays like this one, and I’ve dipped my toes into poetry since coming to college. I also love reading all different kinds of books, from genre fiction to pure fiction, histories, celebrity auto-biographies, self-help; you name it. I love reading and learning new and diverse things, and this was the root of my problem. 

There comes a point when I read too much sci-fi and need to shake things up. Rather than attempting to tackle a massive stack of sci-fi/fantasy books all at once, my to-read list must include varied types of literature. But for me, reader’s block doesn’t only apply to sci-fi/fantasy. Since starting college, most of the texts I’ve been required to read are highly philosophical in nature, or lean toward the pure fiction side of literature. I’m now starting to experience reader’s block in that genre, so to counteract the block, my next leisure book will likely be a more simple, sci-fi/ fantasy novel.

Science fiction and fantasy make for great books; they are among my favorites. But for me personally, reading stays fresh by reading a variety of different subjects. Reading is the best way I retain information, and I’m someone who loves to learn different things, as well as gain literary merit. Now, just because genre fictions doesn’t contain "literary merit" doesn’t mean one can’t reap benefits or lessons from it. Readers simply have to experience different genres for themselves and find their niche. It all starts with turning the first page. 

-David Brashier; Boone, North Carolina; October 2017

Book Review: Thieve's Quarry

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

Book Review: The Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 2: Kron

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

Book Review(s): Architects of Destiny and Veil of Reality

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

Book Review: The Scholar, The Sphinx, and the Fang of Fenrir

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

Book Review: The Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 1- Earth

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

Book Review: Fire With Fire

(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

Book Review: Darth Plagueis

James Lucano ventures to an unknown area of the Star Wars mythos in Darth Plagueis.  It’s a piece of Star Wars lore very few can say they are familiar with, as it was only alluded to in one of the better sequences of Revenge Of The Sith.  However upon reading this novel I can not only say that the mysterious Sith Lord is not only one of the most interesting characters in the Star Wars mythos, but the narrative around him is one of the most compelling stories I’ve read in a novel for a long time.

The character of Darth Plagueis is typically overlooked or unheard of among casual Star Wars fans due to the lack of information provided about him in the films.  But anyone who has read this novel should shutter at the mention of his name. Readers follow Darth Plagueis throughout vast portions of his life and learn about how he was raised, became a powerful political figure in the galaxy, and eventually a Sith Lord.  What makes Plagueis’ character work is self confidence.  He thinks he’s too big to fail, and even when he encounters a flaw in the plan, he goes to desperate measures to mediate the situation.

Another great aspect to Plagueis’ character is how he explains The Force in relation to both the Sith and the Jedi.  The Jedi are never at any point perceived as a good thing in this novel, and readers are convinced that perhaps the light side isn’t such a good idea in and of itself.  Plagueis does this by showing that not allowing emotion to play a factor in one’s use of The Force doesn’t allow the user to achieve its full potential.  Anyone who has watched the films gets the gist of this concept, but the way Plagueis handles the situation makes me want to turn to the dark side.  I never want to be a Jedi after reading this book, and I can only question the reasoning behind staple characters such as Obi Wan and Qui Gon Jinn, and how they would willingly submit to an organization such as the Jedi Order.  The book perceives Jedi training in a negative light, and for a good reason too.   Why would anyone want their emotions suppressed for the sake of good?  The dark side wins in this regard.

One of the best things about Darth Plagueis is the way it sets up the events of the prequel trilogy, and the finale actually occurs during the events of The Phantom Menace.  We get to see Darth Maul’s origins, the formation of the clone army, and how different aspects of the so-called "Grand Plan" were funded through Plagueis’ political power.  The best part?  Palpatine’s training.  We witness Plagueis’ acquaintance with Palpatine from his youth, and the imagination is challenged to somehow find a look for a young version of the lovable Sith Lord.   I don’t think any two perceptions of him will be similar.  We see how the dark side works through Palpatine’s training as he is driven to such desperation by Plagueis he has no choice but to submit to him.  As a Sith Lord, we see how Palpatine formulated his rise to power as the Supreme Chancellor, and the novel wraps this in a clever way by making the laughable events from The Phantom Menace not only understandable, but serious. 

Darth Plagueis, though it has some lull spots, is one of the best books I’ve read in awhile.  It manages to take a character the Star Wars fanbase knew little about and make him one of the most interesting characters in the Star Wars mythos.  It utilizes the Star Wars galaxy to its fullest potential and isn’t afraid to harp on issues that publicly defaced the saga in the prequels.  If anything, this guy deserves a solo film, and I wish that Disney would consider making this novel canon again, as right now it’s considered to be in the "Legends" lineup of novels.  Though for now it remains non-canon, any diehard Star Wars fan should give Darth Plagueis a read.  It’s fun, compelling, and will give readers a better appreciation for being Star Wars fans. 

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2016