Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Waiting on Wednesday: Irona 700 by Dave Duncan

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill over at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

Irona 700 by Dave Duncan
Expected publication: August 18th 2015 by Open Road Media

Fantasy at its most enchanting: An original and absorbing tale from a master storyteller about the profound effects of a single life on the battle against ultimate evil.

It is Midsummer Day, the beginning of the year 700, in the city of Benign. All the children born in the year 684 celebrate their joint sixteenth birthday by passing in front of the statue of the blind goddess Caprice—but only one will become the Chosen and join the Seventy who govern and guide the city.

Much to her surprise, Irona Matrinko, one of the many children of an impoverished fisherman, is chosen. Irona 700 moves into the palace and, with the help of a new mentor, recognizes and cultivates her great talent for guiding wars: strategy and tactics, leadership and inspiration.

As Irona gives her life to the city, an ancient enemy, Maleficence, attacks again and again, corrupting Irona’s friends, destroying her lover, and continually defeating her grandest plans for peace and harmony. Along the way, Irona becomes a masterful politician, a shrewd judge of character, and, even at great cost to her personal happiness, a true heroine.

Somehow, despite my best of intentions, I have yet to give Dave Duncan a read. I really have no excuse, especially since he's an adopted Canadian, but how better to help him celebrate the 60th anniversary of his arrival in Canada this week than by finally giving him a read.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Great Self-Published Fantasy Blog-off - The Penultimate Five

A week late but otherwise keeping to plan, I've had time to sit down and dedicate my reading to second-to-last batch of titles in the Great Self-Published Fantasy Blog-off.

To be as fair and consistent as possible with my evaluation, I didn't want to just sneak these in, one at a time, between other titles. My moods and tastes do change regularly, depending on what I've just read (and whether or not I enjoyed it), so ensuring a measure of consistency was key for me in my overall approach.

Once again, I committed to reading the first 50 pages (at a minimum) of each title, with the hope that one or more books in the batch would be strong enough to keep me reading right through the end. Once again, there were 2 titles that kept me engaged to the end.

K. Eric Mauser & Kevin Butterfield – Stormwalkers
This was a solid, thoroughly enjoyable read with a lot of potential for future volumes. It had an epic fantasy sense of scope, some significant hints at greater world-building, and some very nice character development. I was a bit concerned at first that this would prove to be another coming-of-age tale, but it progresses at a good pace, skips over the scenes of tedium and boredom that are often substituted for 'character building, and focuses on the significant moments of Konal's life.

The copyright page indicates this was initially published in 1997, and it shows - mostly in a good way. It has a classic 80s/90s fantasy feel to it, not quite cheesy, but certainly enamored of the genre's most hearty tropes. Where the book floundered a bit for me was in its pacing. After a stellar, raucous opening, full of action and gorgeous magic, it pulls back, leaving the core plot for the second half. There are also a few early info-dumps that I found a little unwieldy, especially with the grand speeches and moments of awkward exposition, but that settles down before the end.

James Latimer – The Winter Warrior
This one, I'm afraid, just didn't grab me. It certainly has promise, and might appeal very much to a different reader, but it just fell flat for me. I didn't find myself warming up to the hero, which is important when the story begins with a mission of revenge, and I felt like too much of the bigger story and overall background was being help in reserve. It might all balance out and become clear before the end, but it just wasn't enough to

Brad Williams – Chadwick Yates and the Cannibal Shrine
Damn, but this was a lot of fun. It feels a bit lighter than I expected, and too often holds back from going all-out with the action and the drama, but has that episodic feel of an old adventure serial. As Brad himself says in the introduction, he has "written a story series to optimize both scope and action." This is a fast paced, rollicking read, and even if that comes at the expense of some character building at times, there's so much imagination you don't even notice.

Ironically, for such a fun bit of pulp, the story does get rather heavy-handed at times. It's not enough to derail the story, and it does serve to establish Yates' character, but it sometimes comes across as a bit too much. The world-building is solid, the narrative itself makes for a very easy, free-flowing read, and the characters are perfect for the tale - noble, heroic, and larger-than-life, but neither perfect nor infallible.

CV Dreesman – The Marksmith
I had a hard time getting into this, and an even harder time sticking with it. It felt rough and disjointed, almost like a first or second draft that needs an editor's touch to help smooth the flow and introduce some narrative bridges. It all just felt very abrupt, even confusing at times, and there wasn't enough character development early on to make me care enough about them to continue on.

Jay Swanson – Into the Nanten
I have to give Swanson full credit for the ambitious nature of his project. This novel was originally blogged in a 'live' format, as if the narrator were capturing his thoughts and experiences in a journal each night. It really sells that feel of a classic travelogue - which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your tastes. Personally, that format just doesn't work. I like to get immersed in a story, to get lost in the narrative, and being bombarded by a series of single-page journal entries tends to wear on my patience. I liked what was there, and I can't deny the creative effort or the quality of writing behind it, but the format was a deal-breaker.

CONCLUSION: I'm torn on this one. I enjoyed both completed reads from this batch, and would recommend them without reservation. Ultimately, however, I think I have to go with the depth of substance over the flash of style and name Stormwalkers my winner this time out. There's a lot going on there, and a lot to draw in a new reader. Even if one or two aspects don't work, there are more than enough that do to balance it out and make for a compelling read.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Fantasy Review: Fool's Quest by Robin Hobb

At one time, the second (or middle) book of a trilogy was a thing to be dreaded - a book to be endured as a necessary sort of narrative bridge, with the built-in expectation that any lack of enjoyment is to be tempered by anticipation for the concluding book to follow. While there have been a few 'new' authors (such as Jeff Salyards and Sebastien de Castell) who have bucked that trend, I really didn't expect the same from an established author like Robin Hobb. After all, her style and her writing are already polished, and she had her growth/development moments almost 20 years and 20 books ago.

Whether or not Fool's Assassin was a stumble depends on who you ask, but I had serious issues with the pacing, the characters, and a few of the core plot elements. It was one of my most disappointing reads of last year, and almost soured me on the whole Realms of the Elderlings saga. Hobb had a serious uphill battle for my appreciation going into the second/middle book of this series, and I tempered my expectations accordingly. So, you can imagine my surprise when Fool's Quest not only proved to be a return to form, it even resolved enough aspects of the first book to make me rethink it and adjust my appreciation for it.

Fool's Quest is an absolutely brilliant book that works perfectly on all levels. It takes the story that was introduced in the first volume, builds upon it, develops it, and sheds new light on what has gone before. More than that, it's also takes the story that was told in the first two trilogies and develops it in some surprising (but welcome) directions. I won't spoil the moment by providing any sort of context, but if you aren't overcome with emotion when Fitz says "The roar of acclaim broke over me like a wave," then you haven't been paying attention to the sacrifices he's made throughout the series.

One of my primary complaints about the first book was that Fitz wasn't himself, and barely resembled the hero I remembered. Hobb tackles that issue head-on here and has Fitz himself acknowledge how far he's strayed under the guise of Tom Badgerlock. It should come as no surprise that he blames himself for the tragedy that struck Withywoods in the first book, and his prolonged period of self-doubt and mourning is just long enough to sweeten the moment when he decides to climb out of his self-pity, take control, and do something about what's happened. He's not quite the nimble assassin of old by the end of this book, but that's okay because he's something better and wiser . . . more patient and more restrained.

Similarly, Chade comes very much to resemble his old self here, and the evolution of his relationship with Fitz is a cornerstone of the novel. Early on, he helps Fitz become acclimatized to life back in Buckkeep Castle, even going so far as to give him some spy duties that serve as both an important aspect of the plot and a nice touch of nostalgia for readers. That relationship changes over the course of the story, however, as we come to understand how much Chade has lost and how much life out of the shadows has changed him. Their roles aren't completely reversed by the end, but Fitz definitely does get the opportunity to step up and do his old mentor proud.

As for the other cornerstone here, I won't lie when I say that I loved every scene with the Fool. Here is a scarred, broken, damaged man, one who has been robbed of everything from his sense of purpose to his sense of future. He's come to Fitz for help, for protection, and for revenge. He's so terrified and so vulnerable that we get to experience another role relationship reversal between him and Fitz. The Fool grows as he heals, prompted by his own desire for revenge, by a surprising revelation regarding young Bee, and by his experimentation with a dangerous cure. His scenes are emotionally exhausting - as they should be - and he proves to be just as stubborn and obsessed as Fitz or Chade could ever be. As Fitz comments at one point, "You are you. Fool, Lord Golden, Amber, and Beloved. You are you, and we know each other as well as any two people can." Everything they've shared, encountered, and done for one another has weight in this novel, casting shadows and coloring every decision that's made.

I complained that the first book felt like an extended prologue of over 500 pages (followed by an opening chapter of about 80), but the story here returns to the pace we're accustomed to with Hobb. That's so say that there are still prolonged long lulls, filled with a lot of talk and a great deal of self-doubt and introspection, but there are also significant moments of action throughout. Things happen here, pushing the story forward, and bringing our characters together. Some of those scenes are small and intimate, while others are more sweeping, but they all work. This is a book that I found myself excited about, from beginning to end, never once lamenting those lulls to build character or reveal the truth behind schemes and actions. It was glorious to properly return to Buckkeep, but I also enjoyed our visits back to Withywoods. More than all that, though, I enjoyed our trips through the Stones the most, especially as they take us to some surprising (and nostalgic) places in the concluding chapters.

Fool's Quest isn't just a return to form for Fitz, Chade, and the Fool, it's a return to form for Hobb herself. This is precisely the kind of novel we were all expecting from the opening chapter of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy, and it has me ridiculously anxious to read the next. The pacing is perfect, the characters ring true, and the world building continues in some delightfully surprising ways. There's a lot of intimate, personal conflict here, and I really wondered how she would resolve it all, but the final chapters are some of the most satisfying she's ever written - and that includes the agonizing cliffhanger we've come to expect.

Hardcover, 768 pages
Expected publication: August 11th 2015 by Del Rey

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary ARC of this title from the publisher in exchange for review consideration.This does not in any way affect the honesty or sincerity of my honest review.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

From the Shelf to the Page: This Week in the Ruins

With my father passing this week, I haven't been around much or really given much thought to the blog, but I did offer up a brief memorial post in his honor; ran a Waiting on Wednesday feature that I had scheduled last week; and wrote up a few quick WTF Friday Reviews late last night (more as a distraction than anything else).


Stacking The Shelves and Mailbox Monday are a pair of weekly memes that are about sharing the books that came your way over the past week, and which you've added to your shelves - whether they be physical or virtual, borrowed or bought, or for pleasure or review.

Having spent the last 6 weeks watching my father waste away, and having begun the whole grieving process last week, I'm giving serious thought to my priorities - both on the page and off. I'll never stop reading or reviewing, but I suspect there will be some significant changes to my approach. I think (no, I know) I've often been guilty of reading first and living second, and I owe it to my family and to my sons to reverse that trend.

On that note, I'm likely going to be closing the door to review submissions, but there will always be titles that I request myself. One request that came through this past week was:

King of the Bastards
by Brian Keene and Steven L. Shrewsbury

Part sword and sorcery, part extreme horror, King of the Bastards is wild adventure across seas, beaches, and mountains full of horrifying monstrosities, dark magic, and demonic entities.

Rogan has been many things in his life as an adventurer — a barbarian, a thief, a buccaneer, a rogue, a lover, a reaver, and most recently, a king. Now, this prehistoric bane of wizards and tyrants finds himself without a kingdom, lost in a terrifying new world, and fighting for his life against pirates, zombies, and the demonic entity known as Meeble. And even if he defeats his foes, Rogan must still find a way to return home, regain his throne, save his loved ones, and remind everyone why he's the KING OF THE BASTARDS.


It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is another weekly meme, this time focused on what books are spending the most time in your hands and in your head, as opposed to what's been added to your shelf.

I did finish reading Fool's Quest by Robin Hobb the night before dad passed, but I haven't had the motivation to sit down and give it a proper review. Hopefully I can manage that sometime this week, but I can tell you that I loved it, and that it's given me a new appreciation for the first book.

With all that's happened, I've still really only scratched the surface of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu, but that's one I'm looking forward to really getting into when I feel like I can sit down, focus, and enjoy the read.

About the only other thing on my immediate radar is The 3rd Woman by Jonathan Freedland, which I'm scheduled to review next weekend as part of a promotional tour. I haven't started it yet, and I'm a little worried about whether or not I can make that tour stop commitment, but we'll see how it goes.

Well, that's it for now. My son wants to duel with inflatable lightsabers, and I can't say 'no' to that.

What's topping your shelves this week?

Friday, July 24, 2015

WTF Friday: Sorcerers, Succubi, and Space Aliens, Oh My!

Every once in a while, as the mood strikes me, I like to indulge in those titles that are a bit odd . . . a bit different . . . a bit bizarre . . . and a bit freaky. These are books that don't get a lot of press, and which rarely get any retail shelf space.

They're often an underground of sort of literature, best shared through guilty whispers, and often with embarrassed grins. These are our WTF Friday reads!

It's been an extraordinarily long, exhausting, emotional week, so I just kind of zoned out tonight and amused myself with some offbeat (and obscene) shorter titles that I didn't need to think too much about.

Fifty Shades of Greyskull is billed as The True Story of How He Became She-Man. As erotic fan-fiction goes, this has got be about as close to the line as you can get without straying into copyright infringement. It's actually rather clever (if more than just a bit juvenile) in the way it plays with the names and characters we all remember so fondly, but it's a lot of fun.

K.T. Savage introduces us to an era where He-Man and the Masterbators of the Universe have long since vanquished the evil Skelet-whore, allowing the planet Cliternia to live in peace. Prince Adam has hooked up with Teetla, daughter of the Sorceress, but has grown bored without a greater purpose. When some kinky sex goes wrong, killing Teetla, the Sorceress curses him to become She-Man . . . and reveals that the only cure is to selflessly sacrifice himself to the lust of Skelet-whore.

Like I said, it's a decent little story that really has fun playing with the iconic cast of characters. Definitely not fit for after-school cartoons, but it's nice to see the bad guys finally get their due.

Kindle Edition, 22 pages
Published February 16th 2015

Taking Jacob & Making Jacob are a pair of stories set in the Darkfallen world of Leona D. Reish. Right off the bat, I love the sense of a greater, deeper, wider mythology that she's developed with her Darkfallen world, even if it's only hinted at here. These are stories that make you want to read more, and uncover that larger story.

Jacob's descent into supernatural submission is well-playing, making the macho rebel slowly give into the sexual whiles of his succubus mistress. He fights it, mentally, but cannot deny the ways in which his body betrays him. It's interesting that Reish allows him to taste a bit of his old self before breaking him completely, and it's that mental/emotional aspect that makes this work so well.

As sex-fueled demons go, Kynthia is quite a treat for the eyes. She's sinister and seductive, but possessed of an otherworldly beauty that makes her impossible to resist. The level of detail here is top-notch, especially in the way she sucks the masculinity out of Jacob, leaving them both to transform before our eyes. It's a story that's both dark and erotic, depraved and explicit, but it never loses sight of the larger mythology. Definitely an acquired taste, but well-worth exploring for lovers of erotic horror.

ebook, 36 pages
Published July 7th 2015 by Leona D. Reish

I Married a Galaxy-Conquering Alien Space Monstrosity is actually a far more enjoyable book than the b-movie title and cover would have you believe. Yes, its erotic and bizarre, but it's also amusingly self-aware, and it embodies Ian Saul Whitcomb's sincere love for the sci-fi genre.

This is a parody of multiple science fiction tropes, most notably those involving alien abductions and unnecessary probing. There's a touch of Star Trek here, along with some perversions of the Alien chest-busters, but it's the level of detail invested in the four-breasted, hermaphroditic Xh'stuk'tes'shei that really puts it over the top.

Here, sex is an act of war . . . a means towards a genocidal end . . . but it does seem like a stellar way to go. Vicky is very much the kind of ageless, godlike alien villainess you'd expect to see in Star Trek, kind of a very NSFW 'Q' released from her prison, and Cale is the lucky man who gets to carry on something of the human race. The sex is extremely inventive and deliberately confusing, but there's a sense of romance and a theme of love that underpins it all.

Kindle Edition, 48 pages
Published September 27th 2014 by Wobbly Cockatrice Productions

Triangulum Stain is pure b-grade schlock, a literary science fiction cheese-fest about an interstellar Attack of the Replicating Alien Dildos. Moctezuma Johnson really plays with the tropes of alien invasion, Area 51, government conspiracies, and the Men in Black, giving it all a sexually subversive spin.

The plot here is pretty straightforward, without any attempt to explain the 'how' or 'why' behind it all. Aliens have infected a small town with a bizarre new STD that drives everyone mad with lust and breeds sentient dildos from the seeds of men. It's silly and completely over-the-top, but it's fun. We get to see the captive action inside an Area 51 type secret lab, along with the wide-scale chaos of a town overcome by alien dildos, with the Women in Black coming to wrestle those alien toys into submission.

There are a few flaws here. A few too many scenes are quickly explained away with the equivalent of a narrator bridging commercial breaks, we don't get those 'how' and 'why' questions answered, and the whole thing just sort of stops with only a suggestion of an end, but it's a read that manages to be both funny and sexy, often at the same time, with tongue planted firmly in cheek (not to mention other places).

Kindle Edition, 54 pages
Published April 3rd 2014 by Girls Carrying Books

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Please excuse my absence . . .

The world lost a great man today, a father, a husband, a grandfather, and a friend. I learned everything I know about being a man and a father from him. 

I'm a better person because of him.

Rest in peace, Dad.

Niagara Falls Obituaries - Robert 'Bob' Milne

While I have a scheduled post or two set up for the coming week, I don't expect to be around much to comment, much less organize my thoughts for a review.

I will be back, I just need some time . . .