Author: Justin Bowers

Justin is a purveyor of fine code, a collector of many many things, and a sympathetic reader. Aside from here, you can find his inane rantings on Twitter at @aquaphase or on Goodreads. Justin can be reached here.

Rise of the Liberators (Terrafide #1) by Ryan Hyatt

*** This book was provided to me by the author for a fair and honest review ***

Rise of the Liberators (Terrafide Book 1) by [Ryan Hyatt]

Ray Salvatore is an out of work Marine who is about to lose his house in the midst of the Greatest Depression. Ray is completely screwed and very desperate about his lack of control over his situation.

Out of the blue, Ray is called up with an opportunity to take care of his family for life, and, head up a new military secret weapons project. All he has to do is wage a little war.

The secret project that Ray gets involved in is the Liberators: huge armored mecha that are unlike any military hardware on Earth. Ray’s job is to get up to speed on the ins and outs of the system(s), and then lead a group of moderately misfit Marines in learning how to effectively use the Liberator.

Questions abound, but Ray is focused on the task at hand and trying to whip his soldiers (often unconventionally) into shape to take on Iran.

While I really enjoyed this book and the character and scene building, there is a story split about halfway through the book introducing a new character, a new situation, and an entirely new set of technologies and problems. While this story arc does circle back to the primary one, I think it would have better been developed as a complimentary story (Terrafide #1.5, perhaps), and not in the primary novel.

That being said, Mr. Hyatt is exceedingly good at building up semi-dystopian urban environments. There are a lot of unique characters to juggle in Rise of the Liberators, and Mr. Hyatt does so deftly. Having already read Terrafide #2, I knew a little of what to expect from where Rise of the Liberators was going, but it was a damn enjoyable ride.

I mean, who doesn’t love giant robots?

A Hidden Burrow Near Barcombe (The Dryad’s Crown, #2) by David Hopkins

A Hidden Burrow Near Barcombe: Book Two of the Dryad's Crown by [David Hopkins, Daniel Decena, Francesca Baerald]

Mr. Hopkins has done it again. While the serialized releases of his Dryad’s Crown series are excruciating because of the waiting, A Hidden Burrow Near Barcombe really made the wait worth it.

Previously we were introduced to the semi-mysterious Silbrey, her family, and her near-insane past. She, and her two children have settled down in a farmhouse next to a forest that seems to provide some comfort to Silbrey and her restlessness.

Gydan, Silbrey’s daughter begins to hear voices that beckon her to come into the woods and provide rescue. I’ll just leave the recap there, because it gets really really spicy after that.

A Hidden Burrow Near Barcombe turns out to be the story of one wallop of an extended fight, and an opportunity of discovery.

In the conflict that breaks out, you can definitely see the framework of Mr. Hopkins’ tabletop role playing game experience. The staging and posturing was perfect, and, unlike other authors who try to choreograph combat, there was always a clear vision of how the fight was positioned. This is a difficult skill to execute without muddying the scene with “lost” combatants or just general chaos.

Now that we have a second book in The Dryad’s Crown, a grander story is slowly starting to unfold. I cannot wait to see where it takes us.

As I said in my previous review, the worldbuilding that Mr. Hopkins has melded together is one of wonder. To make things even more amazing, this tale occurs in a world of his design, Efre Ousel, which he has amazingly created as “open content” in the hopes of fostering a collaborative community of storytellers with the goal of building on each others’ work. The potential gives me shivers.

There is already a wiki and a D&D 5e compatible campaign setting. I just can’t wait to see what the community comes up with.

Heroes Die (The Acts of Caine #1) by Michael Woodring Stover

For many years this book has been put in front of me as a “You loved ‘X,’ have you read Heroes Die?” In typical me fashion, I avoided it because there was just an aspect to this book that didn’t appeal to me. This past month, I sucked it up and forced myself to overlook the things that seemed “annoying” about this book and just motor through it.

Heroes Die is the story of the renowned killer of many things in the land of Ankhana: Caine. Caine is a swashbuckling anti-hero who is best known for pretty much destroying the line of succession in Ankhana and sending the land into political chaos.

In reality, Caine is Hari Michaelson from Earth and a mega-superstar who draws massive audiences to his wild adventures via experience-share technology and broadcasts streamed from the unknowing parallel Overworld.

In this story, Hari/Caine must go into Overworld to rescue his estranged wife Shanna/Pallas Rill. Pallas Rill has gone somewhat off-grid in Ankhana (a very very bad thing), and Caine, trying to get her back in his life, dives into the mystery with violent zeal.

Arching over all of the swordplay is the weird meta-story of what is going on in the “real” world. In a 1984 meets Brave New World, society is ruled by a very strict caste system, and there is a whole heap of drama that Hari/Caine has generated/discovered, and this plays out in tandem with what is going on in Overworld.

For me, this book was a very slow starter. I almost put it aside twice while grinding into it just from lack of anything in the story that really grabbed me.

Once I started to see where the story intended to go, I became far more engaged, but I feel like entire storylines, such as Berne’s, could have been vastly shortened or even eliminated. Yes, Ma’elKoth is a ruthless and super-powerful Emperor, but do we really care about his Master Work, or is it even really relevant to how things eventually play out?

I will Give Mr. Stover this: he’s pretty masterful at world-building. I have enjoyed his Star Wars novels in the past, so I was prepared for his style of writing and how his visualizations are.

Will I read the other Acts of Caine novels? At this point, I’m just not sure.

In the Ravenous Dark by A.M. Strickland

** This book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review **

It’s no secret that I have a severe love for YA Fantasy novels. I was already excited about taking on In the Ravenous Dark just from the synopsis, and, let me tell you, it is pure gold. Hell, this book brought me to actual tears a couple of times; I was that dialed into it.

The story opens up introducing young Rovan. Rovan and her father hold a very deep secret that could destroy their family if the knowledge slipped out: they can wield blood magic.

In a slip-up, Rovan’s father ends up dying to protect her from the ruling class of Thanopolis and that is really where the story takes off.

Twelve-ish years later a very mischievous Rovan ends up slipping and using her magic in public to save a friend/lover, and she is dragged into the royal court to adhere to their rule of being paired with a spirit guardian. This is where it gets really wacky. It turns out her father did not perish, and was forced to marry into the royal family to protect and propagate his bloodline: the source of his magical history and power.

Because of her proclivity to the power, Rovan is plopped right into a society she doesn’t understand, and really doesn’t like. She does, however, pair up with a couple of the other royal bloodmages: Lydea and Japha. Rovan takes on the full power of her bloodline which results in her father’s death, and she stays at odds with her mysterious guardian: Ivrilos.

At this point, there is a massive plot twist that I would feel disingenuous sharing, so I’m just going to say pick up this book.

Ms. Strickland powerfully built a complex world with all manners of details that really warrant more exploration. Rovan is the perfect little pain in the ass hero, and her interactions with Ivrilos, Lydea and Japha are downright legendary. This book was an extremely fun read, and the attention to picturesque detail is downright stunning. I really really really hope this is a first book in a series, because I can’t stand the thought that the motley band of bloodmages is at the end of their tale.

Sirgrus Blackmane Demihuman Gumshoe & The Dark-Elf by William Schlichter

** This book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review **

Sirgrus Blackmane Demihuman Gumshoe and The Dark-Elf

I am a D&D nerd. I also am a big fan of urban fantasy, and appreciate a little bit of the gumshoe schlock of the classic Raymond Chandler school of pulp fiction.

Sirgrus Blackmane Demihuman Gumshoe & The Dark-Elf really nails it in all of those genres and was an absolute delight to discover.

The story opens up with us meeting Sirgrus Blackmane, a Dwarf who, after the Great War in Europa against the Orcs, opened up a detective agency with his war buddy, Craig Mason. It turns out, though, that Mason had a whole lot going on regarding the rum-running organized crime bosses in town that Sirgrus just wasn’t privy to.

The story opens with Sirgrus being escorted by the cops to a busted illegal whiskey barrelhouse. Of interest to Sirgrus is one dead Craig Mason. On top of all that, Sirgrus finds himself investigating the death of a singer from The Dark-Elf that seems to have some very interesting ties to Mason’s death.

Oh, all the while, he’s also trying to figure out what Mason promised these mob bosses, and how he can fix the situation without getting killed. Yeah, it’s not a fun situation for our hero.

Mr. Schlichter sets up this story masterfully. It has all the hallmarks of great pulp fiction, with the added twist of the Demihuman slant. The world-building is wonderfully on-point, and I really wanted to know a lot more about the Great War and the aftermath. One sign of a really well thought fictional world is the ability of the reader to see that it really could expand well beyond the pages of the book they are reading. So much was hinted and teased that I really hope we have more Sirgrus Blackmane adventures in the future. There are definitely a few loose ends that need to be addressed.

The Horror of Supervillainy (The Supervillainy Saga Book 7) by C. T. Phipps

** This book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review **

The Horror of Supervillainy (The Supervillainy Saga Book 7) by [C. T. Phipps]

Once again, dropped right in the middle of a well-established series. The Horror of Supervillainy, however, really worked out incorporating new readers.

Designed as a complete homage to the comic book world of superheroes and supervillains, The Supervillainy Saga series plays fast and loose with character development, tangible timelines, and, most importantly, recaps. Mr. Phipps starts the story with a foreward that explains directly to the reader just what comics have inspired this book, and how our main character, Gary Karkofsky, got into his current situation, and, briefly, what that situation is. Kudos for the recap, it has a super “True Believers” feel to it.

Jumping into the story, we find Gary, aka Merciless: The Supervillain without Mercy™, attempting to maintain a conversion from villain to hero, and, oddly, getting hired by a talking raven to go rescue the President’s daughter from Dracula. Yeah, that’s one hell of a setup.

From there, the hilarity ensues.

Gary is one of those perfectly balanced characters. By his own admission, his alignment is Chaotic Neutral, and that just allows for a whole lot of fun to happen. Couple this with Gary constantly spouting smart-ass pop culture references while being accompanied by companions from other timelines/dimensions, and it really falls into that familiar comic book scenario. Having had a significant comic book habit for a very long time, it is absolutely obvious that I am the target audience for such an adventure.

And now, of course, I’ve fallen for it. Mr. Phipps has succeeded in piquing my interest in the previous six books. Mission accomplished, sir.

What really gets me is the very serious tone and plotting that happens around all the goofiness in this novel. There is some very fantastical superhero-y things going on, but there is also some very serious morality issues being addressed. Maintaining that balance with the high “fun factor” of this book is no small achievement.

I guess, from here, I’ll be off to find out a bit more about Gary.

The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould

** This book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review **

There are books that I read that absolutely hit all of the right buttons for me. The Dead and the Dark is definitely that kind of book.

Logan Ortiz-Woodley is a recent high school graduate living with her dads; waiting patiently to turn eighteen so she can set out into the world to discover herself and where she belongs. At the start of the story, Logan, along with her dad Alejo Ortiz are packing up for a short-term move to Snakebite, Oregon — where her dads grew up — to meet up with Logan’s other dad, Brandon Woodley. Adding a little twist to the mix, Alejo and Brandon are TV’s ParaSpectors, ghost hunters with a pretty opinionated following.

Things in Snakebite are weird. While Alejo and Brandon grew up there, and eventually left (under semi-weird circumstances that is poked at through the entire novel), not much else has changed over the years. Of note, though, is a malevolent shadowy evil called the Dark that seems to be involved in the disappearance of at least one local teen. There is definitely something going on in Snakebite that involves the history of Alejo and Brandon, and Logan is going to get to the bottom of it.

Supernatural YA mysteries are my absolute bread and butter, and The Dead and The Dark does not disappoint. Yes, there are a couple of plot points that are a touch clichéd, but, for me, that is what locks it right into the genre. You have to have these signposts in order to say “Welcome to this familiar ride. Just wait until you reach the twists.” And boy howdy, there are some twists.

Ms. Gould really nailed this one in regards to little town attitude, teen angst and a whole lot of institutional hate and mistrust. Most of the way through the book I found myself questioning why the Ortiz-Woodleys would ever put up with what they are going through, and why they wouldn’t, rather, just find another location to scout. It is painfully obvious that Snakebite is not a place anyone should be. It seems to be an absolutely awful place, but it sure makes for some compelling reading.

Bottom line: if you like spooky queer YA, then do not sleep on this one. The Dead and the Dark is Ms. Gould’s debut, and I could not be more excited about what she puts out next.

The Court of Miracles (A Court of Miracles #1) by Kester Grant

Imagine a story of the inner workings of Parisian criminal guilds wrapped up in a loose homage to Les Misérables and Jungle Book. That is exactly what Ms. Grant has pulled off with The Court of Miracles.

Our main character, Eponine (Nina for short), is a super-talented member of the Thieves Guild and is on a mission to both save her adopted sister Cosette (Ettie) from and destroy the Flesh Guild. Ettie has caught the eye of the Tiger (not a Survivor reference) who leads the Flesh Guild, and Nina is already chapped at him because he took her actual sister into service several years back.

What follows is some serious criminal high jinks, and a broad swath of literary liberty with the characters of Hugo’s Les Mis.

This YA gem was truly a joy to read. The absolute spark between Nina and Ettie’s personalities, coupled with Nina’s preternatural ability to get in and out of the most heinous of situations, seriously drives this novel in an entertaining rollick.

There is some time-hopping that occurs, but, in a tale such as this, that is absolutely to be expected. As the years progress, we see Nina becoming more mature and far more driven to her goals. One thing I greatly respected is that Nina is not always successful in her wild gambits: something I see less and less of these days from other authors dealing with their protagonist(s). In my mind, these trip-ups help painfully carve even more facets onto Nina’s vivacious personality.

While Ms. Kester took the liberty of setting up shop in a preexisting world, she does not shy from leaving her own mark on it. All the visuals, sounds, tastes, and smells of Louis XVII’s Paris — and a lot of the seedy underbelly — are laid out like a buffet for the senses, and, truthfully, a lot of it is quite unsavory.

This is a book worth picking up. Better yet, snag the audiobook which is masterfully executed by Ajjaz Awad and John Lee.

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

** This book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review **

Sorrowland opens with our protagonist, Vern Fields, out in the woods giving birth to twins all by her lonesome. Yeah, that’s an opening that will grab your attention.

If that were not enough, there is a malevolence — Vern calls it the Fiend — in these woods that harrows Vern and taunts her with offerings of baby-symbolic death: constant dead animals with accompanying baby accessories.

What we learn of Vern in the first half of the book is downright horrifying. She is a 15 year-old Black albino, very visually impaired, and raised in (and escaped from) a Black-centric compound/cult/commune known as the Blessed Acres of Cain.

I hate reviewing books where I feel like any little bit of detail I give could give away a major plot surprise, and Sorrowland is definitely this kind of story. There are minutiae galore, but, in an amazing display of story organization, Mx. Solomon has a wonderful little path for each and every one of them. The “everything in its right place” person in me adores this.

Ok, back to Vern. Over the next few years, Vern raises her two children — Howling and Feral — in the wild woods with zero human contact aside from the continued harrowing by the Fiend. Howling and Feral grow bigger and become more wily and rambunctious in their free environment, but Vern senses that she is going through some changes.

All the while, she is in constant fear of being discovered by someone who will drag her and her children back to the Blessed Acres of Cain. Back to the horrors of Ascensions, daily “vitamin” shots, and general tyranny under the gaze of her husband who is the leader of this commune.

And that’s it! That’s all I’m letting you know. Just let me tell you that shit definitely escalates from there.

I’ll be brutally honest, when I started it, I wasn’t really in the right headspace to appreciate the nuance of how this story was setting up. It wasn’t until I realized that there was a much bigger tale here than one of just mere survival that I was totally missing. Mx. Solomon deftly sets up a grim tableau and then proceeds to stack piece after piece upon the stage in a slow build of mystery, intrigue and mild horror until it seems that no outcome will be remotely acceptable in the “happy ending” category.

For me, Sorrowland is a story about the myriad aspects and facets of self-reliance. Never before have I experienced a character that so defines the concept of “grey area” in personality and actions as Vern Fields. I often found myself shaking my head at her sheer obstinance, but, as I began to realize that Vern only trusted Vern (and sometimes not even that), her methodical approach in a fuzzy world was what she equates with survival.

Don’t even get me started on electricity food.

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

I’ve been hearing about this novella through various outlets for a few months, and it sat on my stack longer than I would have preferred for a “short” piece of fiction.

Normally, I take breaks from “big” story undertakings to cleanse my palette with something easy to consume. Ring Shout is far from easy to consume.

Set in 1922 Macon, Georgia, the story opens with our main character, Maryse Boudreaux sitting atop a cotton warehouse in downtown with her two comrades-in-arms and best friends, Chef and Sadie. The trio is watching a Fourth of July Klan march proceed below them whilst planning out a special surprise for a pack of Klu Kluxes.

In this particular tale of alt-history and horror, Klu Kluxes are fantastic beasts of immense strength and hate who hunt down black citizens with animalistic fervor. Sadie and her friends hunt them.

As Ring Shout progresses, we learn that — as in many tales of good versus evil — there is a new resurgence in Klan evil that is rising up surrounding a new showing of G.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation that is getting ready to be shown at Stone Mountain, and Sadie’s group aims to disrupt and stop it.

Diving deep into the mystical, it appears that Griffith created the film to entrance a nation of white people into spreading more and more Klan hate, but Sadie has her own brand of mystical support to help stop it.

As social commentary, Ring Shout is pretty damn powerful. Rather than make light of the highly overt racism that was paraded around in the early to mid 20th century, the situations and stories help create a more rational picture of the mistrust and animosity that existed between the races.

As a horror story, the novella hits all the suspenseful highlights. There are mysterious monsters, Lovecraftian otherworldly overlords, and a whole lot of cultural lore and tradition. The monsters are made all that more terrifying by the ideologies they represent, and the “big bad” is about as terrifying as it gets.

I was often reminded of Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country as I was making my way through this one. While there is a lot of the same themes and tone, there are decided differences, in my mind, that make Ring Shout a more raw experience.

Whether you are a fan of horror or not, Ring Shout should definitely be on your reading list.