Reviews

Fantasy and sci-fi book reviews.

Review: Shadow of Time, by Jen Minkman

Shadow of Time (2013)
By Jen Minkman
How did I get this book? The author sent me an advance review copy in exchange for an impartial review.
Available on Amazon.

Disclaimer: Jen Minkman is an online acquaintance of mine; some months ago, she reviewed my first book.

Shadow of Time coverOkay, I’m just going to come right out and say it: Shadow of Time is my favorite paranormal romance ever! What did I like so much about it? Its seriousness.

I don’t mean to make Shadow of Time sound like a bore. It’s not in the least. It’s an involving, well written story with characters I cared about and rooted for at every turn. It’s exciting, with threads of mystery and action/adventure underlying the romance in a stimulating way. It’s also movingly sweet and tender. And the paranormal elements are c-r-e-e-p-y!

No, by “serious” I mean that the book carefully situates its romance plot in Native American history so as to make the characters’ future matter not just to them and their friends/families, but in a bigger way.

When I first realized Shadow of Time‘s hero and heroine were a Native American man and a white American  woman, I was a little worried. I’m not a fan of Native American romance as a subgenre. (Not aware that there is such a subgenre? Oh yes, there very much is. Google it and check out the hundreds of books Goodreads-shelved as “Native American romance.”) Here’s Sherman Alexie lampooning the subgenre:

I was a little Spokane Indian boy who read every book and saw every movie about Indians, no matter how terrible.

I’d read those historical romance novels about the steroidal Indian warrior ravaging the virginal white schoolteacher.

I can still see the cover art.

The handsome, blue-eyed warrior (the Indians in romance novels are always blue-eyed because half-breeds are somehow sexier than full-blooded Indians) would be nuzzling (the Indians in romance novels are always performing acts that are described in animalistic terms) the impossibly pale neck of a white woman as she reared her head back in primitive ecstasy (the Indians in romance novels always inspire white women to commit acts of primitive ecstasy). (quoted from “I Hated Tonto (Still Do)”)

That pretty much says it all. So, I thought, is Shadow of Time going to be one of these? That would suck.

Well, it’s not. Not in the least. I don’t want to go into too many details, because they’d be spoilers, but I will say this much: Minkman has done her research. Serious, in-depth research into Navajo language, mythology, place, and history. The romance she’s crafted is inextricably woven through with the tragedy, bravery, resistance, survival, and present-day life of the Navajo people. The Native Americans in Shadow of Time are not exoticized. They’re normal people trying to lead normal lives in the complicated junction where Native American culture meets the steamrolling force of white America.

That’s what I mean by “serious.” This is a book that combines the joyful escapism of the romance plot with some serious historical heft. It’s satisfying on multiple levels at once. What a treat. I loved it.

Needless to say, I highly recommend this book. It’s appropriate for adults and young adults, including (I think) readers on the younger end of the young-adult spectrum.

Review: Vampire Underground: Rescue, by Anthea Kage

Vampire Underground: Rescue (Book 1) (2012)
By Anthea Kage
How did I get this book? I downloaded it when it was available for free on Amazon.
Available on Amazon.

Vampire_underground_rescueThis book is a lot of fun. A steamy paranormal romance novella, Vampire Underground: Rescue does a great job balancing hotness, story, and world-building. The result is a satisfying romp.

Tess seems to be your everyday office girl, but by night she’s something else entirely. Her day job at the Vampire Disposal Agency is merely an opportunity to gather information for the opposing side — the vampire rescue movement, which is dedicated to saving vampires from execution at the hands of the government, which has wrongly convinced most of the population that vamps are too dangerous to be allowed to live.

Author Anthea Kage draws on strands of recent American history and culture, including the initial hysterical reaction to the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and homophobic parents’ rejection of their gay children, in constructing this novella’s world. She does a nice job of it. The vampires’ persecutors run the gamut from the grossly prejudiced and vicious to the virtuous but misinformed to the willfully blind. The vampires, far from the dangerous blood-suckers of much urban fantasy, are hounded and frightened young people much in need of help. Though vampires here stand in for a real-life persecuted group, the underlying seriousness of the message comes through.

Kage balances this nice set-up with some good characters: Tess, wrapped up in her rescue activities due to her own personal history, has gone too long without physical companionship. When her day job and her real job put her in close proximity to two very different (and, of course, very attractive) males, she finds herself unable to resist. Some hot, fun sex ensues. These portions of the book are a blast.

What Kage has pulled off, here, can’t have been easy to do. The book’s set-up, and the is-there-a-mole-in-the-organization? plot that runs through it, are serious stuff, but the erotic and romance elements are relatively light-hearted. Tess isn’t angsty; she’s not plagued by self-doubt. She doesn’t moon over things. Yet the book’s serious and exuberant elements don’t clash. Instead, there’s enough substance to hold one’s mind and enough titillation to satisfy one’s … well, you know. Non-mind.

Definitely recommended! The book’s sequel, Vampire Underground: Resistance, is available as well. I’ll certainly be picking it up!

Review: Wheezer and the Painted Frog, by Kitty Sutton

Wheezer and the Painted Frog (Mysteries from the Trail of Tears) (2011)
By Kitty Sutton
How did I get this book? I bought it.
Available on Amazon.

This book is a wonderful find. It’s an involving, well written, well plotted story about a thirteen-year-old Cherokee girl, Sasa, who investigates the mysterious death of her young brother in the barren new settlement to which her tribe has been relegated after walking the Trail of Tears. Sasa teams up with a preternaturally intelligent Jack Russell terrier she rescues and names Wheezer, as well as several older people in her community. She’s also assisted by Wheezer’s original owner (a virtuous young white man named Jackson) and a few others. As the investigation continues, Sasa and her friends uncover a cruel plot to steal funds intended to purchase supplies for the relocated Cherokee, who are facing an approaching winter and have no means of feeding themselves.

The book is a mystery-thriller hybrid: the reader is in on some of the villains’ machinations, but not all of them. It also strikes me as a hybrid between children’s and young-adult fiction. The bad folks are relentlessly wicked, and the good people are without fault, a type of characterization I associate with work intended for young readers. On the other hand, Sasa’s age and maturity, as well as the book’s more graphic descriptions of death and injury, seem aimed at older kids (in the fourteen- to seventeen-year-old age range, I’d say). The cover, in both its shape and sweetly drawn central figure, looks appropriate for a children’s book. Yet other elements, including Sasa’s little brother’s death and the book’s setting in the aftermath of the U.S. government’s genocidal relocation of the southeastern tribes, probably make Wheezer and the Painted Frog inappropriate for young children. Lastly, while much of the book is told from Sasa’s point of view, we also see a lot of material from Jackson’s point of view, and he’s much older — well out of young-adult territory — and has more adult interests.

This generic hybridity strikes me as one of the book’s great strengths. It’s simply not like most of what’s out there. On the other hand, it may also make marketing the book more challenging. We read in a very pigeon-holed way, these days, and readers tend to enforce generic boundaries pretty firmly.

I hope Wheezer and the Painted Frog doesn’t go unread for such reasons because it’s terrific. Sasa is a strong and sympathetic protagonist, and Wheezer is a real charmer. Furthermore, the novel puts Native American history front and center. I bet that’s all too rare a reading experience for the average American teen, and it shouldn’t be.

Sutton has now published the second book in the Trail of Tears Mystery series, Wheezer and the Shy Coyote. I probably won’t get to it for a while — I’m quite behind on my reading and reviewing. But it’s certainly in my TBR piles, and when my daughters are old enough, all the Wheezer books will end up on their reading devices as well.

This review will be cross-posted to Amazon.

Review: The End Is Near, by Harry Ramble

The End Is Near (2010)
By Harry Ramble
How did I get this book? I bought it.
Available on Amazon.

The End Is Near is a work of literary fiction focusing on the sad-sack character of Nathan Huffnagle — his tragic past, his weird present, and his mysterious and possibly very short future. The novel opens with Nathan in the hospital. He’s landed there following a botched attempt at suicide by shotgun. Left without the lower part of his face, Nathan has been reduced to writing down everything he wants to say. If this sounds macabre, it is, but that’s not the novel’s only mood. At turns appalling, funny, sad, and uplifting, The End Is Near is far from a one-trick pony.

Ramble’s narrative artfully weaves Nathan’s story out of three strands: his present-day interactions in the hospital with visitors, doctors, nurses, and what Nathan believes to be ghosts and Death itself; the “suicide journal” he kept leading up to his attempt; and a new document he writes at the behest of his ghosts, one in which he tries to uncover a truer account of why his life has turned out so badly. These three sources work wonderfully together: the suicide journal tells the story of Nathan’s wretched childhood — his dysfunctional family and his sadistic torment at the hands of a bully named Randy Trent. The new narrative tells the story of how Nathan took Randy and several others hostage in an auto-parts store and came to the point of suicide. The hospital interactions provide motivation and reveal Nathan’s changing states of mind and self-understanding. Ramble’s ability to bring these different strands — each with its different tone — together so clearly and productively is extremely impressive. This is novel-crafting at its best.

As Nathan’s new narrative takes shape, we get to know both him and Randy Trent much better. As expected, the situation is not as simple as the bully-and-his-victim cliché would suggest. I won’t say more, here, lest I spoil your read, except to admire Ramble’s utter refusal of easy answers and cheap redemption. His characters feel deeply real in their combination of understanding and lack thereof, in their ability and inability to articulate their thoughts and feelings. Even relatively minor figures, such as Nathan’s mother and sister, have a wonderful tangibleness — we don’t get to know them well but are left feeling as though they’re real people we glimpsed in passing. As with Ramble’s ability to construct narrative, his ability to create character it stunning. This is a book that reminds us to look for the admirable in unexpected places: in resiliency; in the halting growth of self-knowledge; in plain-spokenness; and in the ability to draw a moral line somewhere, even if it’s not in the most optimal place.

I also greatly admire Ramble’s work with setting. In writing his suicide journal, Nathan tends to visit the sites of his childhood miseries. Each of these locations is described with subtlety and realism, and they’re all set in the larger environment of a depressed post-industrial town, a hopeful Levittown gone to rot and despair. Ramble doesn’t have to overcook Nathan’s story by spelling out its questioning of the platitudes of family and community; his setting does it for him.

Ramble’s prose is excellent — clear, straightforward, and error-free. Formatting and editing are flawless. I would suggest adjusting the book’s cover for the electronic environment: the small, pale title and author name are probably fine for a paperback, but are illegible on screen.

Harry Ramble’s End Is Near is outstanding. I recommend it in the highest possible terms.

This review will be cross-posted to Amazon.

A Banned Sorcery Review: Nameless, by Dawn Napier

Bryce Anderson likes to swim the vast and deep seas of Amazon’s self-published sci-fi and fantasy, occasionally bringing back sunken treasure. Find his reviews and fiction at Banned Sorcery.

Nameless
By Dawn Napier
Genre: modern-day dark fantasy
Length: 67,000 words
Words per penny: 336
Available on Amazon.

Rating: +5 Awesome

Plot summary (spoiler-free):

A young woman named Sharon finds a strange little girl on her doorstep, and takes her in. The stubbornly nameless child is one of the fairyfolk, and is being hunted by dark powers, both fairy and mortal. When the child is kidnapped, she must go to the fairy world and rescue her with the help of her slacker brother, a sexy Catholic priest, and a magical granny with mad embroidering skillz.

Review:

It would be difficult to recommend this book highly enough. Writing, characters, plot, and dialogue are all top-notch, better than most traditionally published fiction. The story kept me hooked from beginning to end.

The book is full of adventure, with a good love story, and enough theological musings to keep your brain occupied, without ever slowing down the main story. Napier’s Underhill (the fairy world) is a strange place with a logic of its own, a place where everything is beautiful and anything can be deadly. The fairy kingdom is populated with beautiful, dangerous spirits who use magic and wiles to lure unsuspecting mortals to … well, everyone has their own deadly and/or sexy agendas.

It was with a heavy heart that I discovered that this is Dawn Napier’s only published work. Fear not, though. She’s working on another.

Write faster, you! Also, use more bigger words. Be obfuscatory, dammit! (Sorry. Inside joke. My first contact with her was during a brief online argument over whether Fifty Shades used inappropriately large vocabulary.)

Caveats:

The book deserves better cover art. A few stick-in-the-muds … er, I mean gentle souls … might find some parts blasphemous or disrespectful towards Catholicism. Jesus is pro-gay marriage, and he swears.

Review: The Fighter King, by John Bowers

The Fighter King (2010)
By John Bowers
How did I get this book? I bought it.
Available on Amazon.

cover imageJohn Bowers has written an impressively constructed, gritty sci-fi that blends several genres: military novel, political allegory, and Bildungsroman. His writing is sharp and clear, with natural-sounding dialogue and snappy, economical phrasing. His prose is error-free.

The book’s main character, Oliver Lincoln III, is a young man who identifies as pacifist, even though his father runs a major arms company known for its excellent space fighters. To Oliver’s way of thinking, such craft should only be used for planetary defense. The novel’s main plot takes Oliver from his native Terra (which seems to be the future Earth) to one of the many planets humans have colonized, Sirius. He’s there to sell his company’s fighters to the Sirian military. While there, Oliver comes to suspect that the Sirians have designs on another human-colonized planet, Vega. As the plot progresses, Oliver moves away from his pacifist impulses.

He moves about as far as you can get, actually. The strongest parts of the novel, I thought, were those that follow Oliver on the battlefield. Bowers does a terrific job portraying warfare’s disturbing mixture of camaraderie, horror, frustration, terror, and excitement. It’s through this meaty central portion of the novel that Bowers generates a convincing coming-of-age story as we follow Oliver from where he starts — as a nice and bright but naive and pudgy young man — to where he ends up —  as a fit, tough, morally righteous, yet very humane warrior.

Meanwhile, the novel’s subplot follows events back on Terra, where Oliver’s family worries about his fate and where his best friend, Henry Wells, pursues a related political agenda.

I’d categorize The Fighter King as “soft sci-fi.” Though Bowers gives us a world with FTL travel, laser weapons, and anti-grav devices on vehicles and elevators, the emphasis isn’t on the tech. It’s on warfare and politics. Battlefield strategy relies on trench lines, infantry ground assaults, and field artillery, giving those scenes a WWII, rather than futuristic, feel. The novel’s gender politics also remind me more of mid-20th-century sci-fi: almost every woman Oliver encounters is a sweet, guileless, gorgeous babe, and he’s irresistible to them — even near the beginning of the novel, when he’s not just short and balding, but also pudgy. I thought this element of the novel was rather charming — sort of Captain Kirk-y — though I can imagine some readers finding it tad annoying that the female characters don’t have a bit more heft. I believe other books in the larger Fighter Queen Saga have more central female characters.

The novel’s political subplot, especially the heavy use of allegory therein, did strike me as weaker than the main plot. Bowers inventively aligns the Sirians with the mid-19th-century U.S. Confederacy. He does this both allegorically — his main character is named Lincoln, etc. — and by proposing a literal connection: Sirius was colonized in part by racist groups from the American South (Bowers gives the Sirians southern accents), which then took over the planet, subjugating and enslaving other colonizing groups. This racist civilization is aggressively imperial (there’s also a Nazi connection, as the Sirian president is named Adolph). Their militarism is motivated by their desire to acquire new “product” for their slave trade. They seem to be primarily interested in enslaving women, and the peaceful planet of Vega is known for its genetically engineered beauties.

In Bowers’s hands, this set-up yields a passionately political novel: pro-human rights, anti-racist, and pro-military. That message comes through convincingly in Oliver’s experiences, and I liked it. But the Henry Wells subplot makes the latter parts of the novel heavy-handed. Wells, as a member of Terra’s Senate, is trying to push through a bill that will hugely increase funding to the planet’s military. His reasoning: the Sirians are a major threat, and peaceful planets, such as Terra, have let their militaries go entirely to seed. When Sirius comes for Terra, which he believes it will, Terra will fall. Opposing him are a group of “pacifist” senators, many of whom are obvious allegorical stand-ins for contemporary political figures (Jacques Kennedy = Ted Kennedy, William Boxer = Barbara Boxer, Dianne Weinstock = Dianne Feinstein). Once he gets started on the allegory, Bowers really lets go: his Jacques Kennedy has a “smug, alcohol-bloated face” (Loc. 7676), “pale, rheumy eyes” (Loc. 8949), “a face as puffed as his silver hair” (Loc. 8938), etc.

As a reader, I’m bugged by this sort of thing. First of all, I feel as though I’m being hit over the head with Bowers’s point:  This novel may seem to be set in the future, but really I’m making a point about the contemporary U.S. Get it? Get it?!? GET IT???!!! I did get it. I got it from Oliver’s experiences and realizations in the main plot. But when we move into such blatantly obvious allegory, I begin to get a little offended as a reader. Does the author, I begin to wonder, think I’m not quite smart enough to get connections that are painted a little more subtly? I sometimes have this reaction to left-wing artists as well, folks like Michael Moore and Oliver Stone. For instance, about halfway through Born on the Fourth of July, I began to feel I was being repeatedly hit over the head with the mallet of The Point because Stone thought that was the only way to make me notice there was one.

Also, the allegory seems to draw Bowers into some really thin characterization. If this author is passionately hawkish and believes it’s both foolish and irresponsible not to have a strong military — fair enough. But the political figures who oppose Henry are so sniveling, so hypocritical, so awful, so completely without redeeming features, that they lose all depth. For instance, it’s suggested that Kennedy opposes Henry’s military spending bill not because he’s a pacifist who privileges social over military spending, but because he’s secretly pro-slavery:

a few years ago, on one his annual “fact-finding” tours of Sirius, someone with a high-powered camera holographed him on a party boat fucking slave girls. … He also has an estate in Tennetucky that reportedly gets stocked with fresh girls every time he visits. The man’s a real lecher. (Loc. 9015)

Not only do the people opposing Henry have no good arguments to make whatsoever, but they’re actually actively evil. I think it’s the closeness of the fictional material to its real-life analogue that pushes Bowers into this sort of thing. His hatred of the real Kennedy is so profound that the senator’s analogue in the novel becomes little more than a mustache-twirling, bwa-ha-ha villain. It’s only in the allegory that we see this; in the main plot, Oliver has a fair amount of interaction with a slave-owning Sirian man who was once his college roommate, and that figure is far more subtly drawn than the cardboard senators.

That’s the thing about allegory: it only works well if the vehicle — the fictional story — has enough life of its own to exist richly and meaningfully apart from the tenor — the real-life analogue toward which the fiction is pointing. Here the tenor has reared up and poked through, taking over the whole show and leaving a notably thin patch in the fiction.

Fortunately, the subplot is a relatively small part of the overall book, and the main plot is very strong.

I notice The Fighter King has been given a new cover, which I think improves on the silhouette-style art the book had when I downloaded it. The book’s formatting is good, but there are scattered small glitches, the kind caused by non-standard characters that the KDP conversion program doesn’t know what to do with. Those characters end up as little boxes with question marks inside or other  strange characters. They certainly don’t impeded understanding; they’re cosmetic.

An edited version of this review will be cross-posted to Amazon.

Review: The Aberration, by Bard Constantine

The Aberration (2012)
By Bard Constantine
How did I get this book? I bought it.
Available on Amazon.

The Aberration reimagines our world as subject to incursions from a sort of demon realm. Defending us is an ever-shrinking group of chosen (or maybe cursed!) people. Reborn again and again, these people fight off each incursion, or “aberration.” Every aberration puts the whole world in danger. So far, the demons have failed to win, but over time, our side has taken heavy losses. The situation has become dire.

This taut, well structured, novella-length horror story provides a great reading experience. The book makes use of a tried-and-true horror plot: a small, varied, and nicely drawn group of characters are besieged by monsters in a creepy environment (a mechanized flour mill, in this case). Constantine’s third-person narration moves fluidly among various points of view — the hero’s, those of several of the other characters, and that of the police captain investigating the aftermath of the story’s main events. The monsters are well realized — I found the initial shape of the “Others” particularly shudder-inducing … brrrr — and the fight scenes are handled clearly and tightly. The Aberration is a very satisfying read, standing out as new and creative while meeting the expectations of its genre.

The book does have minor writing errors. Semicolons are misused at times, and some sentences, especially early on, have verbiage that probably should be trimmed away, given the spare, direct prose common to the genre (“The television uttered garbled idioms, hypnotic suggestions that died futilely within his unheeding ears …”). But most of the writing glitches are simple proof-reading issues (stuff like “its” vs. “it’s”); a quick run-through from a pro would catch these and lend the book the polish it deserves. Overall, the glitches didn’t impede my reading experience. The story and characters easily transcend them. And the ebook’s formatting is perfect.

I think Constantine could improve on the book’s cover. He’s used an abstracted, collage-like artwork depicting warriors, and it no doubt looks terrific on the paperback — disturbing, yet classy. But when it’s shrunk down to thumbnail size, it’s impossible to make out what you’re looking at, and seen in black and white on my Kindle screen, even enlarged, it’s pretty much a muddy blur of indecipherable shapes. The media just aren’t doing justice to it, and that might make the book less attractive to readers. And that would be a real shame — this is a book that should be read.

An edited version of this review will be cross-posted to Amazon.