Tag: Fantasy Fiction

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.

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.

The Cleveland Heights LGBTQ Sci-Fi and Fantasy Role Playing Club by Doug Henderson

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

I’ve been thinking a bit about how to approach reviewing this novel. Let me be very clear, I absolutely loved it, and I really enjoyed the very raw and emotional struggles and triumphs Mr. Henderson very smoothly navigates in it.

My quandary comes from approaching this book without discounting the very heartfelt issues presented within. Yes, this is a LGBTQ+ focused story, but, while the viewpoint is presented from and about largely homosexual characters, the core story presents situations and feelings that are far more inclusive.

Plus, its about the amazing glue that a game of Dungeons & Dragons sticks people together with.

Ben is a young man of twenty-five who lives in his parents basement with his cat — Onigiri — and spends his time thrifting and selling old toys and collectables online. Ben is openly gay, but has never really had a real relationship. Ben is also a member of a gay gaming group at a Cleveland-area local comic book and gaming shop along with the other primary characters of this story.

This is the annoying part of any of my reviews where I tell you that I’m not going to tell you anything more about the story, but, in this case, I think that it is particularly important not to. The primary charm for me, aside from the amazing role play that happens during the gaming sessions, is how each character, and their story, unfolds in the context of where everything opens.

The Cleveland Heights LGBTQ Sci-Fi and Fantasy Role Playing Club (a title that I absolutely love and is an utter mouthful) is about how each of these individuals set up their personal orbits: how each of the characters sees themselves, and the whos and whats they surround themselves with.

Everything in this book seems so incredibly personal to me, and, while I started out trying to identify with it as a gamer, I realized very quickly that the identification really came from being a normal human with human doubts, fears and desires. This story loops way out into the day-to-day hopes and angst of just being a member of society in a harsh reality, and then circles right back in to the semi-controlled comfort of the Thursday night gaming session. There is even a little jab at discrimination that doesn’t exactly land where the reader thinks it might land.

This was a hidden gem for me. I really thought there might be more “in-world” parts of the book, but I found myself turning more from that aspect being the core of the story to seeing as the neutral ground each of the characters could work out their inter-personal issues with. Kudos to Mr. Henderson for presenting probably the most realistic — to my experience — gaming session presentation I have ever read about in a work of fiction.

This one is a real winner.

The Psychic’s Memoirs (Terrafide #2) by Ryan Hyatt

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

I’ll tell you one thing, The Psychic’s Memoirs jumps right into it as a detective drama. Above all, I think that’s what it is at it’s genre-jumping core.

Ted Kaza and Lydia Jackson are LAPD detectives who are investing the disappearance of a girl who just happened to very accurately predict the earthquake that hit Los Angeles six months ago and basically destroyed the city. The “powers that be” want a word with Miss Alice Walker, and she’s nowhere to be found.

The next genres come tumbling into play quickly thereafter: superhumans, multi-verse theory, global espionage, political uprising and last, but not least, alien invasion and mecha (major bonus for that).

I’m not going to share too much about this story because if you aren’t hooked by chapter seven, then you probably won’t finish it. I was a tad worried as each new outrageous situation unfolded, but it really works for and with Mr. Hyatt’s style.

This is a dystopian future book that seems somewhat less dystopian and a tad more scary at the same time. I find it quite realistic that there could be violent clashes in the street with ragtag gangs up against police and military forces while the average Angeleno is just going about their normal day-to-day.

Mr. Hyatt’s writing style is very well thought out, in my opinion. Scenes are very well set and the attention to situational details really enhances the personality quirks of the primary characters. Above all, you really get to understand what bothers each of them. That’s not something I think I’ve seen in many other books, but it’s incredibly humanizing.

Another thing I really appreciated was the way that interpersonal relationships were portrayed. Not every potential conflict had to be that way, and there were a couple of very interesting surprises on that front that threw me for a slight loop. Again, very humanizing.

I will say, The Psychic’s Memoirs does go “meta” at a certain point. At first I thought it was a nice little easter egg, but it turns out to be pretty core to the story. I haven’t decided if the device is hilarous, genius, or lazy. I’m not sure I’ll ever decide.

Regardless, The Psychic’s Memoirs is a solid read. It’s fast-paced, and really pushes the reader along with a lot of action and intrigue. This is obviously just the first part (or second, actually) of a broader story involving Kaza, Jackson, Walker, and others, so I hope I get to read more of it soon.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

I learned from reading The Once and Future Witches that Ms. Harrow is an excellent storyteller; a writer capable of weaving delicate wisps of plot and story that intertwine innocently until they don’t.

I was hesitant, however to pick up The Ten Thousand Doors of January because it was her first novel, and I just enjoyed Witches so damn much.

Boy am I a moron.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is the story of January Scallar: the semi-ward of a wealthy Vermont businessman/collector/eccentric. January doesn’t really fit in this world. She is basically holed up in Mr. Locke’s Vermont mansion while her father travels the world building up Locke’s collections of interesting artifacts.

As the story progresses, we start to learn that there is quite a bit more going on surrounding Mr. Locke, January’s father, and January herself. There are a multitude of worlds hidden behind random doors all over this world.

As I do not like to spoil any novel I read, I’m going to leave the synopsis at that.

As I mentioned earlier, what strikes me in reading Ms. Harrow’s works is the rolling and organic way her storytelling develops. Both of the works I’ve read from her, and especially this one, showcase and absolute love of the storytelling tradition and her adroit way of pulling in the reader as if in conversation. I absolutely love this style and I wish there was more of it.

The sensory descriptions in this book absolutely lend to the style. All of the smells, sounds, tastes and textures come to life in a flowing language that gently cradles the reader like a warm hearth. Cheesy description, but apt.

I know that Ms. Harrow has stated a few times that she has no plans of revisiting the tales of January and the multitude of doors, but, with so many doors, who says that intentions have to be stated?

The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry by C.M. Waggoner

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

The Ruthless Lady's Guide to Wizardry

It’s very hard to start in on a review of something as magical as The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry because it just has so many facets and layers.

At first glance we get the feeling that one Miss Dellaria Wells is pretty much a hopeless case. An uneducated fire witch subsisting in the back alleys and barrooms of Leiscourt, just trying to find a way to keep a roof over her head and, sometimes, take care of her mam.

As this book really gets rolling, we find Delly stumbling her way into a very high paying job to watch over — with a passel of other more “high society” witches — a bride-to-be at a statuesque manor outside of Leiscourt.

Oh, but that’s just the start of it.

As the story ensues, we find our Delly embroiled in all manner of plot and chicanery. All of which I dare not share here as to keep the surprises to you, the reader.

In this book, Ms. Waggoner builds a robust semi-Victorian world full of class struggles, new love and some of the absolute best language I have come across in a very long time. Where else are you going to find a perfectly acceptable use for the word “enkittenated?”

I was very much reminded of Jen Williams’ The Copper Cat Series, and, especially the titular character of Wydrin. Delly and Wyd would probably be at each others’ throats a scant few pages in.

This is a book that you will not want to put down, nor want to finish. The characters all have amazing depth (even the dripper trash), and the personalities practically ooze off the page.

It would be a releftin’ shame if Ms. Waggoner did not continue to dabble in this world she has so lovingly built. I really cannot wait for more.

Oh, and then there’s Buttons… (bong)

Tragic Fools (Children of Ankh #5) by Kim Cormack

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

Tragic Fools (Children of Ankh Series Book 5) by [Kim Cormack]

One reading peeve of mine is being dropped into the middle of a multi-book series without having read the previous books. I tend to read a lot of series, so I approach each one with a “will this stand on its own” approach. Sadly, most of the time the answer is a resounding no.

Ms. Cormack, however, has taken a very might swing at it with Tragic Fools.

I was drawn to this book by a quick blurb describing paranormal abilities, immortals, and colorful mishaps: all things I thoroughly enjoy. What I did not expect was almost slapstick irreverence and enough bawdy ribaldry to make a vicar blush.

Granted, I do not (yet) have a full understanding of what the various Clans in the Children of Ankh’s endgame is supposed to be, but damn I enjoyed the widely mixed variety of characters and situations. Throughout the constant death, emerging powers and nigh constant demon slaying, the reader can really get a feel for this totally misfit band of Ankh immortals and how they approach the tasks they are given. Do they do things right and/or efficiently? I would guess never. Are they entertaining and enticing as hell? Absolutely.

Quite honestly, I cannot wait to read the other books in the series. The childish humor and amazingly well thought out paranormal aspects of the various situations that Ankh gets themselves into have made me a fan. Plus, I’m not hooked in on seeing if the newbies can get through Testing.

The Midnight Circus by Jane Yolen

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

To say that Jane Yolen is a legend is putting it lightly. Ms. Yolen has won just about every Science Fiction award available, and has such a prolific body of work that it is almost too daunting.

When I was given the opportunity to preview The Midnight Circus, I jumped at it. Made largely of previously published short stories along with the notes and poems that inspired each of the sixteen stories, The Midnight Circus is a collection of pure magic. The ease with which Ms. Yolen weaves such masterful tales and builds such amazing worlds is nigh sickening. Be it a twisted retelling of the Red Riding Hood tale, or stories of mermaids and wild princesses, Ms. Yolen transitions and build upon each short story in a way that captures the full attention of the reader and leaves them wanting just a bit more.

The most impressive thing to me, however, was he wide variety of cultures represented in this anthology. Everything from a retelling of the Exodus story to Scottish folklore to stories about Russian Jews is represented here. Each and every one with a unique character and character stance authentic to their settings.

Jane Yolen truly is a Queen of storytelling.