Review – Gravity’s Revenge by A. E. Marling

Gravity’s Revenge is the third book of the Enchantress series, and continues the development of Elder Enchantress Hiresha, Tethiel the Lord of the Feast, and others.

This book is by far the most straightforward of the three, following a basic fantasy quest/action storyline.

Premise
The story opens with Hiresha escorting the daughter of her maid, Janny, up the magical Skyway to the Academy of enchantresses. On their way we are treated to both explanations and demonstrations of the Academy’s gravity-defying design. Hiresha also witnesses its failure as she sees the form of a young enchantress hurtle past to her death.

Just getting the other Elder Enchantresses to acknowledge the possibility of a failure of the college’s enchantments is Hiresha’s first problem. The Academy’s design is attributed to the Opal Mind – the Goddess of Intellect and Creativity. Despite the fact that they know how the magic works, suggesting the possibility of its failure is tantamount to heresy.

Before anything can be done about the possibly failing magic, another wrinkle is added to the tapestry – Bright Palms have ascended the cliffs and intend to take the Academy hostage in order to force concessions from the government. In short order, Hiresha is cut off from her stash of gems, her Spellsword bodyguard, and most of the rest of the academy.

The Final Step to Independence
Because Hiresha is so thoroughly cut off from her normal sources of support, she is at her most active and independent. This completes a character arc that began in Brood of Bones where she is almost entirely dependent on her maid and spellsword to accomplish anything. In the middle book, she has cast off many of the comfortable and confining trappings of pomp and title, but still leans heavily on her maid and spellsword. In Gravity’s Revenge she is forced to rely on herself to overcome both physical and mental obstacles.

The Theme of Moral Ambiguity
All three of the Enchantress books ask us to consider the nature of goodness, and what it really means. Like in real life, there are no wholly good or evil organizations in the Lands of Loam. Few characters present as wholly positive or negative, either. Gravity’s Revenge tackles this question head-on. The Bright Palms consider themselves the protectors of the innocent, but their methods can be callous to the point of villainy. The Academy is a center of learning and progress, but it’s hidebound and elitist. Even the Lord of the Feast, patriarch of a family of monstrous predators, finds himself acting on behalf of the greater good.

Gravity’s Revenge is a an excellent book, with a strong heroine and disturbing villains. Marling’s command of the language continues to mature, and the writing in this latest outing is solid – lyrical in places, without being stilted or obtuse. If you like action-packed adventures and books about characters trying their best outside their comfort zones, this one is for you.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Brian Keene’s “Blood on the Page”

Blood on the Page is an excellent collection of short stories. I’m a fan of Keene’s longer works, but this collection contains some of the best writing I’ve yet to read from the man.

It’s always difficult to give a collection a single rating, because no author on earth has ever been blessed with perfect consistency. I chose a four, because 1) that’s my overall impression of the read, and 2) that’s where I’d put the majority of the stories. Some were sublime, inching into 5-star territory. Others were more mediocre, earning a 2 or 3.

Unfortunately, some editorial errors made it into the final product – in particular a few misuses of apostrophes. Though jarring, there were only a handful, and they do not greatly take away from the experience.

If you are a fan of horror, gritty life experiences, and general creepiness, you owe it to yourself to give this one a shot.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Old Blood’s Fate by Michael Merriam

Old Blood’s Fate by Michael Merriam is a fast-paced urban fantasy with heavy elements of thriller and romance.

Jack Clausen is a Creek man transplanted to Minnesota from his native Oklahoma. After a trip back to his old stomping grounds to write a travel article, Jack ends up on a crashing plane with Emma (a magically gifted flight attendant) and Old Coyote.

After mysteriously surviving the plane crash, Jack is soon caught up in the schemes of Coyote an the other First People of North America.

I liked the way this story was executed. Jack’s character is important enough to warrant the attention of the powers present in the book. At the same time, he is not so powerful or wise as to make his struggles meaningless or unrelatable. The Animal People do a good job of combining “regular guy” qualities and ancient wisdom and power, like the best myths of most peoples. The “fate” aspect of the book is definitely present – something that I usually don’t care for. However, it’s not heavy handed, nor does it result in a feeling of inevitability or fatalism. Instead, it manifests as a tendency toward coincidence, and a drawing together of the major actors in the story. I found it a very tasteful way to handle it.

The romance subplot is important, but doesn’t overpower the rest of the plot. The progression of the relationship is very believable, as well. The sex scenes are pretty hot – fans of Merriam’s earlier work will notice they are considerably more graphic than his usual “cut-to-curtains-blowing-in-the-windows approach.

There are questions left unanswered by this book, and I liked that. It would have been too pat to answer ever question that was brought up, and would have weakened the overall impact of the story. Whose theories about the story’s major problem were correct? What will the overall impact be of the way the problem was resolved? These things are left open ended, or totally unaddressed, inviting the reader to think about them for himself. They also leave room for Merriam to expand on this setting and these characters, without being locked in to an obvious next step. (In fact, I believe I recognize at least a couple of characters as having already appeared in one of the stories in the collection Shimmers and Shadows.)

Unfortunately, my eBook copy of the story suffered some copy editing issues. Nothing that prevented me from enjoying the story, but a few that broke the flow of my reading.

In summary, I definitely recommend this book for fans of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and folklore based tales.

Rating: A solid 3.5 stars.

Review – The Devil’s Hand by M. E. Patterson

M. E. Patterson appeared on my radar completely by happenstance. He was one of those random Twitter adds that you can never remember after the fact. Either he added me based on the other people I follow, or I saw him mentioned in a Twitter post and checked his profile out myself. I was immediately intrigued by the description of his first novel, The Devil’s Hand. I used to play a bit of online poker for real money, and was actually beating the game. So an Urban Fantasy novel where the protagonist is a poker player appealed to me.

It took me a while to get around to reading it. I always seem to have either more books than I can handle at a time, or less money than I want to spend on them. Somewhere there exists a happy medium, but I haven’t found it. I finally got around to it last week, and I’m pretty glad I did.

Trent Hawkins is the so-called Luckiest Man Alive. After surviving a horrific plane crash, he goes on to capitalize on his luck in Vegas. Not unexpectedly, casino bosses and the Gaming Commission take a dim view before long. He and his wife leave Vegas, broke and blacklisted. That’s where we come in. Trent and his wife are headed back to Vegas so she can take a dream job. Things immediately begin to get weird.

A rain of fish and a hail storm herald the couple’s arrival in Las Vegas. Odd things are happening in the shop of an old friend of the family. And when a vagrant preacher comes to the children’s hospital where Susan works to try to capture a girl to whom he has no connection, the ride really begins.

Along the way, questions are answered, like “why is Trent so lucky?.” Others are raised. We’re left with a sense of closure on the current story, but an impression of what else may be to come. The Devil’s Hand is the first book in a series called Drawing Thin, and I plan to keep reading.

The writing in Devil’s Hand is evocative and sturdy. The storyline is face paced and stays interesting. The forces moving behind the scenes turn out to be familiar fare for urban fantasy and horror readers, but in an interesting permutation that’s similar to but not quite the same as many others I’ve read.

The book’s big stumbling block, like many other indy offerings is in editing. There were a few places where misspellings and the like made it into the final version of the book, and one notable instance where the declared outcome of an important hand of poker was different from that described by the action. To Patterson’s credit, when I mentioned this on Twitter he owned up to it and sent me a link to the material that had been erroneously cut, and which will be added back in the second edition.

All told, I give The Devil’s Hand 4 out of 5 stars for engaging action, well realized characters, and a refreshing take on familiar supernatural elements.

The Devil’s Hand at drawingthin.net

M.E. Patterson on Twitter

Review – Gown of Shadow and Flame by A. E. Marling

Gown of Shadow and Flame - CoverI finished Gown of Shadow and Flame last night. It’s an ambitious novel for young adults that takes on genre tropes in an interesting way. It’s set in the Lands of Loam, the same general setting for Marling’s “Enchantress” novels for adults.

What It’s About

The book tells the story of Celaise, a town girl embarked on a trial, and Jerani, a member of a plains herding tribe. Celaise has been sent on a mission to contain the growing threat of a bizarre creature called a “headless” or a “rock-back” before they overrun the plains and attack the cities. Jerani’s people are some of the most sorely afflicted. Jerani is one of the tribe’s warriors, and has had to take full responsibility for his family much earlier than usual because his parents are both gone.

Described this way, it sounds like a standard quest novel. I suppose it is, but it has some very nonstandard participants.

Celaise is a Feaster, a person gifted (cursed?) with the ability to weave illusions that inspire fear. They take that fear and distill it into their Black Wine which grants them greater power and strength. This is the first way that the book departs from the standard tropes. Feasters are predators, and Celaise is no exception. Usually, a similar protagonist like a vampire would be reformed, regretful, and conflicted. Celaise’s only regret is that the Lord of the Feast has forbidden her from feasting on humans during her trial. She’s an active predator, and hates and distrusts her fellow humans. She’s only helping these people because the Lord of the Feast can (and will) hurt or kill her if she disobeys. The Lord himself asks her to do it because he doesn’t want the creatures bothering him and the other Feasters in the city.

Jerani is treated as an adult in his tribe, though a young one. He’s a conscientious father figure to two younger siblings, and mostly happy with his lot. Doing the chores of a mother and a father takes its toll on him, but until the rock-backs start massing, he’s pretty content. There are rivalries with other warriors, and a girl who won’t look his way. Missing are the usual rebellion against authority, desires to get away and general lack of direction you frequently see with older teen protagonists in YA novels.

The setting itself adds another layer of originality to the story. The Lands of Loam show a mixture of influences from south-west Asian and African societies in the real world, with a healthy dose of originality thrown in. Jerani’s plains-people are a simple and low-tech society whose lives center around their herds of huge-horned cattle. They live on the slope of a volcano (which they consider their goddess, the Angry Mother), trading the added fertility for crops and grazing for the occasional need to rebuild the village after an eruption. They distrust outsiders and their strange, sacrilegious ways.

Celaise has to find a way to use her power against the bizarre rock-back creatures, headless beasts with mouths on their chests and eyes on their shoulders, without being able to feed on humans to replenish herself. She can’t allow the Greatheart tribe to learn she’s a Feaster, or they’ll drive her away at best, or kill her. She will need to overcome her enormous distrust of normal humans to work with the Greathearts and eliminate the threat. And finally, she has to figure out what the strange beasts are afraid of, or her magic will be useless.

Jerani becomes the liaison between his tribe and the beautiful stranger that comes among them. He thinks she may be an avatar of their goddess, or one or Her attendant beings. His younger brother is pushing hard to be accepted as a man and a warrior before he’s ready. And their father hasn’t been right since their mother died.

How I Liked It

After a bit of a shaky start, I ended up loving it. The characters (with a couple of exceptions) are complex and enjoyable. The setting is unusual and captivating. The choice to use an unrepentant murderer as a protagonist was interesting in itself. Celaise and Jerani’s arcs of growth are believable and engaging. The clash of cultures was predictable in some ways, but original in others, and left me quite content.

Marling’s fantasy is all informed by a healthy sense of the creepy and disturbing. The rock-backs continue this trend with their bizarre anatomy and faceless insectoid implacability.

I felt like this book worked on multiple levels. The most obvious is the quest-story. At the same time, Marling is dealing with questions of responsibility, maturity, and growth for Jerani. Trust, independence, and chemical dependence are themes that concerned Celaise. (There’s a definite correlation between the amount of Black Wine she’s been using and her mental processes.) Individual desires and growth vs. societal expectations and tradition are a fairly common theme with young adult protagonists in both adult and YA books, but Marling deals with his without resorting to iconoclasm or mindless conformity.

But…

The sheer amount of unusual or outright strange stuff is a lot to digest as the story gets going. In addition, he starts out just before things get bad in terms of the rock-back encroachment. Trying to get Jerani and Celaise into their respective places in the story, he switches back and forth between the two perspectives in the first chapter repeatedly. All these things together resulted in a bit of a herky-jerky feel at the start. It was more than worth it to ride this out, because once the stage is set, the story unfolds very well.

Summary

Title: Gown of Shadow and Flame
Author: A. E. Marling
Recommendation: Definitely recommended
Rating: 3.5/5

Disclaimer: I received a reviewer copy from the author.

Indie Author Review – “Fox Bride” by A. E. Marling

I reviewed this earlier in the month on Goodreads, before I had decided when or if to post reviews here. Marling has been one of my favorite indie finds this year, so I decided not to let Fox Bride pass without a review.

The second story of Hiresha the enchantress lives up to its predecessor and then some.

This book takes us to a new city, Oasis, the capital of the empire that contains the Enchantresses’ academy.

While attending a party there, Hiresha is singled out by the Golden Scoundrel, an ancient god/king believed reincarnated into the body of a fennec fox. Due to his attentions, she is told she must marry him.

Hiresha’s attempts to escape this fate are complicated by a vindictive theft plot against the priests and the fennec. In addition, Tethiel the Lord of the Feast is also in the city, and believes they have a Soultrapper to contend with.

I felt that this book was better than the first (which I also enjoyed) due in large part to the maturation of Hiresha’s character. Her interactions with Maid Janny come off more as affectionate exasperation than Brood of Bones‘ prudish peevishness. She treats her Spellsword as a person more often than before. She’s far less concerned with appearances and propriety than she was in BoB as well.

As well as her personal growth, the enchantress takes her fate in her own hands a bit more this time around. I won’t spoil it, but it does include a new wrinkle in the use of her powers that I felt was well done.

The people and city of Oasis are an excellent example of taking a real world environment and modifying it for your own purposes, and making it truly complex instead of a pale veneer of stereotypes.

An excellent sophomore outing from Marling. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Fox Bride at Amazon.com ($2.99 or free w/Kindle Lending Library)
A. E. Marling’s Blog

Indie Author Review – “The Black God’s War” by Moses Siregar III

It’s my intent to review books here from independents and small press. I also only intend to review books I enjoyed. If you’re interested in a more complete idea of my reading habits and opinions, check out my Goodreads profile. For the first, I give you a Greek/Indian inspired secondary world fantasy.

The Black God’s War by Moses Siregar III

As the title suggests, Black God’s War includes involvement from Gods. I don’t generally go for books like that. They’re heavy on predestination and the like.

This book was quite different. The story focuses around a war between the countries of Rezzia and Pawhelon. The gods of Rezzia have told them it’s their holy duty to spread knowledge of the Lux Lucis, their ten gods, to the rest of the world. Rezzia has chosen to do this by conquest. Pawhelon is a country focused on internal spiritualism, and their sages (wizard/monks) say there are no gods, and that Lux Lucis are just projections created by the Rezzians. Their war has been going on for 10 years, and the heirs of each country are coming of age and getting involved.

The older daughter of the Rezzian king has been visited by the eponymous Black God since her mother died in birth with her younger brother. She blames him for the death of her mother, and for most of the bad things in her life. The younger brother was born with markings that make him an important religious feature of Rezzian life.

The cosmology of the book is interesting. Both sides’ magic seems to depend on their concepts of what is beyond humanity to be correct, but both work. The Pawhelons see the Rezzian gods just like the Rezzians do, on more than one occasion. However, the Pawhelons are also able to counter and even overcome the power of the Rezzian gods as well. We are left with the certainty that the gods exist, but no certainty about their godhood, their motivations, or the worthiness of their goals.

I found the characters to be well conceived and well written. I didn’t find any particular side in the war to be clearly “the good guys” or “the villains.” There were likable characters on each side, as well as people worthy of dislike.

I felt that the work bore the stamp of classic myths and religious texts, such as the Mahabarata and the Illiad.

All told an excellent start to a series, that also ends with the conclusion of a smaller story within the larger arc.

Moses’ Blog: Science Fiction & Fantasy Books
Black God’s War at Amazon.com (Just $1. Go get it!)