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.

TRUEL1F3 (LIFEL1K3 #3) by Jay Kristoff

Mr. Kristoff has an uncanny ability to suck readers into his elaborate world and then leave them hanging on every word until the series is complete. He has done it — again — masterfully in TRUEL1F3, the conclusion of the LIFEL1K3 series. One thing I have absolutely loved about this series is how the character focus one-hundred percent flipped in the midst of book two (well, probably some in book one as well, but that’s going to have to be a deeper dive). For the most part, TRUEL1F3 is all about Lemon Fresh and the resolution of the unlocking of the Myriad supercomputer and the secrets of the Libertas code. Oh, there’s a corporate war getting pretty hot, too.

Let’s just say, there is a whole lot of story packed into these 480 pages.

For me, LIFEL1K3 was a roller coaster of a book, but DEV1AT3 tended to drag a little. The story was still very amazing, but it definitely feels like the bridge of the trilogy. I was a tad worried that TRUEL1F3 might fizzle, but now I see that DEV1AT3 positioned all of the pieces for the wallop that TRUEL1F3 delivered. While I very much appreciate the dynamic between the technologists, the biotech-heads, the lifelikes and the freaks; the storyline that intrigued me the most was the Libertas virus and how much the implications of it distress Cricket.

This book definitely gets far more emotional than the previous two, but I guess that was to be expected in the finale of a series with a pretty emotionally-charged core storyline. This one worked pretty well, though. More often than not, post-apocalyptic dystopian semi-cyberpunk relies wholly on the tech and confrontations rather than delve into the humanity (or meta-humanity) of the characters. For me, this entire series is about how the concepts of humanity can transcend the technology, and Mr. Kristoff has a solid track record of writing amazing inter-character relationships.

Did I imagine I would get teary-eyed about the super-emotional interaction between a girl and her giant warbot best friend? No, but that’s where we ended up.

Pick up this series. It’s a quick read and well worth it.

Bridge of Souls (Cassidy Blake #3) by Victoria Schwab

It’s no secret that Ms. Schwab is one of my absolute favorite authors. One thing that I’m super jealous about is her ability to pivot her mindset to better address her audience. It’s practically a superpower.

Bridge of Souls is the third book in the Cassidy Blake series about young Cassidy Blake, her ghostly best friend Jacob, and the scary situations the two of them get into as a result of Cass’ parents being on-air ghost investigators.

This particular tome takes us to the famously haunted city of New Orleans, and starts to address a bit of the insanity that happened to Cassidy in Paris at the end of Tunnel of Bones.

I really really want to delve into the story elements of this book, but it gets very spoilery very fast, and that’s just unfair to anyone totally engrossed in this series. This series is aimed towards eight to twelve year-olds, so I was super surprised that Ms. Schwab chose to tackle the LaLurie Mansion (look it up, it’s a total shocker), but did so very deftly.

Again, not getting too spoilery, the second half of this quick read gets very emotional very quickly. I would say that I was surprised that “kid lit” almost brought me to tears, but I’m very familiar with Ms. Schwab’s body of work, and her masterful skill at building up emotion. It’s masterful.

At the end of the day, one of the best things about Bridge of Souls as well as all of the Cassidy Blake books is that this is reading material you can definitely read along with your kids. I find it incredibly smart and engaging for all ages, and there is never any point in which the plot or situations are dumbed down — a trend I despise — to avoid “hard questions.” Hell, this entire series is basically about death and dying.

Read this book, and read the entire series. They go rather quickly, but are an absolute delight. Ms. Schwab has said that this may be the last in the series for a while, and I can understand that with her busy docket of current work, but I really hope that she revisits these characters some day. They are absolutely delightful.

Stay Younger Longer (Terrafide #3) by Ryan Hyatt

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

Stay Younger Longer (Terrafide Book 3) by [Ryan Hyatt]

Mr. Hyatt appears to love to wear his readers out, and Stay Younger Longer is absolute proof of it.

Dick White is a journalist in the midst of an ongoing personal crisis who, despite copious idiocy and self-medication, has been given the opportunity to break open the story of the century: the secrets behind the anti-aging drug Euphoria.

It turns out, though, that Dick isn’t the only one interested in the “so-called” cure that has been hinted at. I’d love to say that shenanigans ensue, but that is horribly misleading. Basically, Dick gets himself in and out of a ton of crazy situations and barely escapes with his life a lot.

In context with the rest of the Terrafide books, I was glad that I read this one last. Unconventionally, Mr. Hyatt released these books in semi-sideways order. Stay Younger Longer came first, followed by Rise of the Liberators which outlines a bit of what is going on in regards to the military aspect of things, and then The Psychic’s Memoirs which really puts everything in perspective as to how this all got started. I accidentally read the series in story chronological order and it was very enlightening to see the progression. There are a few instances of story weirdness, but the subject matter more than makes up for any anomalies.

As I have said in previous reviews, Mr. Hyatt is masterful at story and character building. You really want to like Dick White and his semi-dystopian Los Angeles, but you also really don’t want to like him. Dick is an anti-hero who kind of tries to do the right thing, but is more driven by his vices than his sense of righteousness. There are large swaths of this story that deal with Dick just getting into bad social situations that may seem extraneous, but I think they are there to show us just where his brain is really at.

The Los Angeles of Stay Younger Longer is a dystopian future that I really can see us achieving easily. There are a few fantastical elements, but the majority of it is just downright believable. The fact that this book was released in 2015, and some of the elements that are “true” today, six years later, is oddly prescient.

Bottom line, read this book. Hell, read the entire series. I really hope there is another book coming to help fill in some of the questions I have, but I’m happy with where I’m currently at.

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.