The Wizard and the Rat by Aaron C. Engler

As a fan of Victorian and neo-Victorian settings which depict oppressive urban squalor, I liked this book. That is to say… I wanted to like this book. I liked some of the characters and I liked some of the scenes, and I was impressed by the quality of the writing in places, but too often I felt like I was being led away from the story’s strongest points in favor of fleeting distractions.

An example of this would be the telling of the story’s two titular characters, the Wizard and the Rat. Either of them alone would have been a protagonist compelling enough to carry this tale along, and together they end up carrying the narrative, but that requires roughly one-quarter of the book’s length to set up. The first 100 pages are a dizzying dance card of shifting character perspectives, often exacerbated by sudden flashbacks, dream sequences, and extended internal monologues.

Both of these characters have a tendency to daydream or get distracted, a problem only hampered further by the author’s eagerness to keep adding new characters, locations, or concepts to the story with little introduction. Is that an advanced spacefaring alien race? Maybe! We don’t really know, do we. Does that piece of important-seeming plot gristle just tossed onto the reader’s plate actually impact the course of events in any way? Who knows, who cares! Here, have another prolonged flashback.

The pity of this is that, when motivated enough to care, the author has quite the talent for describing detail. The problems arise from the fact that he seems to have so little interest in doing so. The act of laying a stable, coherent foundation for the reader to grab onto seems secondary to the impulse of leaping up to grab whatever thought seems most striking in the moment. This creates a frantic, breathless kind of hopscotch from concept to concept, epiphany to epiphany.

An example: early in the story, our young urchin protagonist (Rat) is gazing up at the sky from a rooftop. The reader is treated to several paragraphs of internally monologued exposition regarding the character’s feelings and memories about that sky, but only after all that’s done do we get a brief, passing description of what the sky actually looks like to the observer.

This is one of the book’s refrains: the external world is often discussed, but seldom as anything more than a backdrop to the passion play of the two leading men. One of the story’s main environments is an industrial slum, its factories are mentioned more than once early on, but they’re never actually shown. Rat spends a fair amount of time scampering around the city, and the gloomy spectre of industry often looms large in the background… but it almost never shows its face.

We see the sadness, we hear about all the misery, but where’s the belching smoke? The coal cinders? There’s a brief mention of ash and smog early on, but the grime of the slums seems to exist only in the hearts of its denizens. No mention of soot in the air comes again until page 146, and that’s only a brief mention of what the air outside of the city is like without it.

So… what was the air of the city like with it? When the protagonists pass through a hub called River Junction, the river is described as being both central to the hub and filled with poison. No mention is made of what that poison is, what the color or smell of the water is, how high it is, what purpose it serves, etc. It’s just another detail, invoked in passing and left behind just the same.

These are the details which stick in my craw because, in my opinion, the story is at its best when it commits to a location and a steady cast. The author has some potential for creating characters, the Vermin (urchins)can be touchingly human in their own base way. Rat’s personal journey is far more interesting than the multiplicity of high concept intrusions battling for the reader’s attention. When that character is on the prowl, just being Rat, the narrative is at its best. It moves along at a good clip, it’s rich with detail and pathos, and the story requires little external reinforcement to be interesting. Sadly, these moments are few and far between, quickly overtaken by long fits of narrative exposition.

I was more engaged by Rat’s struggles to survive on the streets of Haven than I was by his attempts to save the world. I wanted to learn more about his crew of fellow orphans than I did about the cast of ancillary wizards and assassins propping up the main plot. More than anything, I wanted to see and feel more of this world. There’s a short scene with a back alley drug dealer that was one of the story’s best works of conversational dialogue. Some of Rat’s memories of lost love, and the humble-but-grim threats of life on the street, do a lot to humanize the character, and bring some much-needed focus to the story. There are genuine moments of gold here, buried under all the exposition.

The Wizard and the Rat shines most as a gritty, character-driven tale of survival and personal growth in the face of abject hopelessness. If the author had spilled more ink framing that struggle by bringing the world around it to life – rather than always reaching out for the next big thing – I wouldn’t have as much to complain about as I do. Maybe I’m just resentful. The author shows his capacity for a deft touch, and there were moments that truly moved me, and so I can’t help wondering what might have been if a little more restraint had been shown.

To me, there was more magic in the Tower of Ruin, last refuge of the orphans, than in all the wizards’ city of Tandos.

Final score: 3/5. Reviewed by Eric Kandel.

The Lady Astronomer by Katy O’Dowd

Three eccentric siblings living in Bath, England get pulled into a grandiose scheme to construct a giant telescope. Lucretia, a hat maker and astronomer, Freddie, her brother and a hopeless businessman, and Al, the youngest and a clockwork inventor, face everything from court politics to rock-hard tea biscuits. That’s to say nothing of the other adventures, mishaps, and catastrophes standing between the trio and their telescope.

Unfortunately, a host of issues makes it difficult for the reader to appreciate this novel. The plot is a series of predicaments rather than a chain of connected events, the frantic pace never allows the reader time to adjust, a host of characters prevent each other from standing out, and the cluttered writing obscures the finer details. The author’s passion, though clear, is insufficient to offset the various problems.

The telescope’s construction is a framing device rather than the central thrust of the plot. Although it serves as an excuse to periodically move the characters around and set certain events in motion, it’s usually in the background playing second fiddle to a manufactured crisis. This prevents the story as a whole from being particularly focused, and only a handful of the one to three chapter dilemmas the characters encounter are ever entertaining enough to stand on their own. The result is a loosely connected series of events which fail to engage the reader.

In addition, the pacing never leaves the reader a moment’s peace to digest what has just happened. There are rarely more than a handful of paragraphs separating one flurry of chaos from the next. Worse, a decent portion of the events feel contrived, such as when Lucretia’s pet lemur and owl repeatedly wreak havoc for no other reason than to make sure something is happening. More prolonged, frequent breathers would have done a great deal to even the book out.

There is also an overabundance of characters. The vast majority are irrelevant caricatures who are of momentary importance at best. Those who have a higher purpose, Lucretia and her siblings included, never have a chance to establish themselves because of the other characters clogging the pages. Worst of all, Lucretia has little agency and instead spends most of the book reacting to the people confronting her. A later segment in which she’s held captive is particularly bad about this.

My final issue with the novel is the amount of general clutter. I’ve already mentioned the excess of adventures and characters, but the dialogue and description of Lucretia’s physical surroundings presented similar difficulties to me. Before I continue, I should mention that the era and style of literature is not one I’m fond of unless it’s being written by Oscar Wilde, so there are friendlier audiences than me.

That said, most of the dialogue runs around in polite circles without amounting to much of anything. Even when a character has something important to say, his or her words make an artificial fuss beyond what the manners of the era require. As for the description of the world, it focuses on fantastical details instead of the mundane ones which could make the otherwise fairy tale take on England more tangible. As its stands the bizarre world gets in the way of the story rather than assisting it.

All of these criticisms aside, the author’s passion shines through. Her writing speaks of a genuine joy in the act itself, but it isn’t enough to rescue this work from the issues plaguing it. The loose plot, frantic pace, excessive cast, and general clutter undermine the end product. I give it a 2/5.

If you want to give it a read for yourself, you can find a copy at Amazon.

Nasferas: The Begotten by Nate D. Burleigh

Alien refugees crash land on Earth, tear off their skins, and turn into vampires. There’s not much point in summarizing the plot because, for all of its wrangling, it amounts to little more than an escape, a kidnapping, and another escape. There are plenty of made up words, bad accents, and people running around with swords, but the details are not interesting enough to merit further discussion.

Any narrative about vampires faces an uphill climb, but several problems sabotage this novel’s hopes of standing out. Awkward pacing derails the plot’s momentum, excessive description clutters the text, a dozen characters too many infest the pages, and the dialogue reads as smoothly as a machine translation. That’s not to say these are the only problems with the book, just the worst offenders.

First, the pacing. The author spends almost half of the book getting the aliens to Earth and introducing an unwieldy cast of teenagers. The perspective regularly shifts between the two groups, dulling any intensity or momentum that either narrative manages to gather. Worst, most of that time is spent with tedious slices of life as the aliens come to terms with events and the teenagers try to bang each other. A quick prologue followed by the kids stumbling upon a crashed spaceship would have accomplished the same amount.

Besides being tedious, this slow introduction doesn’t leave enough room for the main action of the book to play out. The moment the aliens land, stretch, and encounter the teenagers, a black chopper full of soldiers shows up to cart off the vampire ladies for forced breeding. The rest of the book devolves into a mad dash as the characters do their best impressions of headless chickens. The action is rushed and amounts to nothing more than a body count and an ending which resolves nothing.

Second, we come to the excessive details the author provides:

“The bright lights illuminating the room again reminded Katelyn of tanning booth lights. She’d always been pale skinned and every summer she bought a few tanning sessions in order to gain a base so she wouldn’t burn to a crisp. And she’d hated every minute.”

The easy way to say this: the lights came back on. This paragraph occurs as Katelyn is fighting her way out of the evil lair she ended up in. Paragraphs like this are typical, each one a digression throwing off the already uneven pacing. A bevy of unnecessary metaphors and similes deal the finishing blow.

Third, the number of characters. By the time you total the teenagers, the aliens, the miscellaneous folk on Earth, and the bad guys, there are easily thirty named characters you have to keep track of. Even if each one was charming and nuanced, that’d be too many. Worse, the author’s focus wanders between them and wastes precious time that could have been used developing the ones that matter. There are multiple instances where a character’s death is presented as a tragedy, but it’s actually a relief since there’s one less name for the reader to keep track of.

Finally, we come to the dialogue. This first example comes from one of the vampire aliens:

“Because, in the open like this, I should be able to connect subconsciously with my Aunt’s thoughts. She communicated with me on the plane and said they were under attack again. Now without a link, I fear the worst.”

The second example comes from the rootinist, tootinist, Southern boy the author could write (the asterisk replacing an ‘i’ is mine, but the rest is a direct quote):

“‘Holy fluckin, mother lickin, chicken egg suckin … did you see that, Dave?’ Jimmy Boy asked excitedly. ‘I saw the grenade comin’ my way and thought. Holy sh*t-fire Jimmy boy, you in deep crapola now. The same second I looked over and seen this here manhole and dove, Dave. Head first. Like I was jumpin’ off a mother fluckin diving board at the city pool.’ He laughed. ‘Done cracked my head open, I reckon.’”

The biggest problem is that the author does not write speech patterns or accents different from his own particularly well. The teenagers fare better, but their frequent interactions with Jimmy Boy and the aliens derail most of the dialogue. It’s better to write no accent than a bad one because it risks putting off readers who know how it should sound. I’m from the South, and Jimmy Boy might as well have been an alien judging by the authenticity of his accent.

A book about vampires is a difficult sell, and nothing about his one distinguishes it from the others. Uneven pacing, excessive detail, overabundant characters, and awkward dialogue prevent it from being more than just another vampire book. I give it a 2/5.

Nab a copy from Amazon if you’d like to take a gander.

Knightfall: Book 1 of The Chronicle of Benjamin Knight by R. Jackson-Lawrence

This novel follows Benjamin Knight, a teenager and scientific prodigy. An experiment gone wrong sends him to a distant, post-apocalyptic future (though in truth a pocket reality). It’s a land of crude steam engines and feudal lords where most if not all remnants of the past are long forgotten. Before he can adjust, Ben’s technological know-how plunges him into the middle of a conspiracy he doesn’t understand.

If that synopsis sounds familiar to you, you probably shouldn’t read this book. Its first and greatest flaw is that it brings nothing new to the table. The second is the author’s tendency to signal everything that’s going to happen well ahead of time. Finally, every character is a bland archetype, and Ben himself has as much agency as a potato.

Neither the setting nor the plot hit any new beats, and it only takes a few pages for the whole thing to become predictable. Of course the experiment goes wrong. Of course nobody is who they seem. Of course there’s a villain who gets off on torturing people, because why wouldn’t he? There’s a war, a princess equivalent, and a long journey that mostly involves camping and running from the villains. You could say the same of many adventure novels, but there’s nothing in this one to make it stand out.

The setting doesn’t contribute much, either. The author spends an unnecessary amount of time describing the world, which spaces out the action too much. Although I initially dismissed it as another post-apocalyptic future, further discussion with the author revealed that it was in fact a pocket reality reflecting Ben’s own imagination. This never really shone through in the book, at least not in a way that stood out to me, which is a shame since it had far more potential than what I initially believed the setting to be.

The second major problem with the book is excessive foreshadowing. Each chapter begins with a journal entry of Ben’s that, for all purposes, tells the reader exactly what’s going to happen. Instead of framing the story, it gives it away and then leaves the reader to trudge through what follows to its inevitable conclusion. Additionally, most of the twists are given away within the chapter well before they happen. As a result, the book reads more like an extended synopsis than it does a novel.

Finally, the characters. There’s an evil vizier, or whatever you want to call him, who is rubbing his hands together the moment he comes onto the page because he’s so proud of being the villain. He murders, betrays, and tortures with abandon since that’s what all evil, power hungry people apparently do. There are other archetypes as well, the broken woman violent in her grief, the grizzled old warrior, the upstanding young man breaking under the strain of leadership. None of them are realized beyond the most basic confines of their respective archetypes.

At last, we come to Ben. He spends the entire book as a captive or useless lump asking questions about the world for the reader’s benefit. The main characters are the people around him. They’re flat but at least do more than wander around being injured, lost, or confused for an entire book. Ben is little more than a plot device, a Pez dispenser spitting out technology whenever the author feels the need. As written, he should have been a secondary character rather than the focus of the book.

A predictable plot, muddled setting, excessive foreshadowing, and one dimensional characters sabotage this novel before it has a chance to build any steam. This, topped off with a to-be-continued non-ending common to self-published fiction leaves little to be recommended. I give it a 2/5.

If you’re interested, you can pick up a copy from Amazon.

Status Update

Hello there!

If you’ve followed this blog in the past, you may notice that things are in the process of being fiddled with. I’m currently streamlining the layout in preparation for future content.It will be some time before I do more than generate book reviews, however.

Speaking of reviews, I plan to complete them at a quicker rate than I have over the course of the past two years. My current estimate is that it will take me approximately a year and a half to get my backlog of reviews to a reasonable level. To help with this, I’m bringing on an additional reviewer. Between the two of us, the goal is to have something up weekly.

Thank you for your patience!

-A. Crommich

The Rodeo of Doom by Miguel Lasala

This novella is a send up of modern culture written in the absurdist genre and set in the relatively near future, give or take a few centuries. The protagonist is Henry Fields, a curmudgeonly old man who hoards his supply of life extending drugs and veers off into wild harangues on the flip of a dime. The only things he cares about are his Camaro and having a good time, until an alien conspiracy robs him of his immortality and his car.

Although many of the individual scenes in the novella are amusing, it never comes together into a coherent whole. It’s difficult to sympathize with any of the characters, the use of the absurd revels in itself rather than contributing to the story, and the plot is an excuse to have certain scenes occur and only loosely holds itself together.

First, Henry Fields is little more than a caricature of the antisocial wise man that revels in pointing out society’s ills but does little to address them. His baseline assumption is that the world is going to crap and inevitably doomed, and his only stake in it is sucking as much enjoyment as he can out of the fragments before everything goes up in flames. He drinks, he screws, and runs afoul of society and alien conspiracies. Unfortunately, Henry never develops enough for the reader to care about him, and the characters surrounding him are little more than props.

Second, the novella does not use absurdity well. For the absurd to stand out a story needs to slowly progress from the mundane into the absurd, or it needs to keep one foot firmly planted in mundanity so that the absurdity truly stands out and contributes to the whole. Without this the entire thing ends up being little more than an incoherent fever dream that might or might not have a point.

The author uses vulgarity and attention to grody details to try and keep the story grounded in some measure of reality. Done right, the real aches and pains of a man in a world gone mad can be just the thing to balance out the nonsense surrounding him. Here, however, it only amounts to swearing, bodily functions, and gore. Their overuse saps them of any potency, and as such they fall flat and merit little more than a shrug.

Third, the plot unevenly leaps from one series of events to the next with little connecting them besides Henry himself. One moment he’s roaring his Camaro away from an angry mob, the next he’s in a porn shoot, the next he’s blowing off a dead man’s hand with a .45 to get a Super Bowl ring, and then he’s riding a bull in a rodeo while aliens prepare to go Independence Day on it. Henry tumbles from one bizarre event to another on his loosely connected adventure with little intention, meaning, or point.

Although this novella was periodically amusing, it lacked that touch of mundanity and coherence that makes absurdist satire stand out. One dimensional characters and an unevenly paced plot drug it down and didn’t leave much to be enjoyed. It’s unfortunate it didn’t work out because I like when writers take risks with their fiction. I give it a 2/5.

If you want to take a gander, you can pick up a copy from Amazon.

Before the Flood by John Sherman

This is a book about the second coming. It follows Thomas, a jaded reporter, addict, and preacher’s son, as he unravels the story around a mysterious boy named Manny. At first, Thomas’s primary source is Beth, Manny’s adopted mother, but Thomas’s compulsive need to know the truth pulls him deeper until he encounters Manny, his disciples, and those trying to destroy them. The ultimate conflict, though, is whether Thomas will allow himself to believe.

If you aren’t a fan of religious themes, this isn’t the book for you. If those don’t turn you off, then it’s a well written rendition of the second coming that does a better job than most of avoiding condescension and excessive sermonizing. That said, two issues keep the book from standing out. First, the story is straightforward and feels more inevitable than it does interesting. Second, its framing as a series of flashbacks and quasi-parables deprives the book of any sense of immediacy. Although individual scenes are enjoyable, the whole ends up being flat.

There aren’t any unexpected turns in the narrative. Manny is the second coming whose purpose is to eventually punish mankind for its sins, Thomas is an atheist-via-abuse whose finds his faith again, and Beth is the mother struggling with her child’s divinity. There are apostles, the devil, and trials which test Manny’s commitment and faith, but everything plays out how you would expect it to.

It’s a shame that’s the case, because the book is full of small, thoughtful moments that inject more compassion than one would usually expect in this kind of story. It’s far more about the struggles of faith than it is hellfire and punishment. In fact, the only self-righteous character is the devil.

The story’s framing robs the book of most of its vitality. Instead of riding along on Thomas’s shoulder as he went deeper into the rabbit hole, I felt like I was reading his diary. This put an unnecessary amount of distance between the reader and the story, and since Thomas is about as textbook a lost-his-faith-and-finds-it-again character as he can be, the author really couldn’t afford to frame the story in a detached way.

The problems with the novel are a shame because I feel there was a more interesting story to be told. If the author had been willing to subvert the second coming narrative instead of dressing it in new clothes, or had told it from a different perspective, he could have done much more with it. Unfortunately, because each segment of the story was a parable with a predictable outcome, no amount of good writing was able to make it engaging fiction.

If you want to read a well-presented religious story concerning the second coming that doesn’t deviate from your expectations, this novel is worth a gander. But, besides a few interesting moments, nothing stands out as new or particularly unique. I give it a 3/5.

If you want to take a gander, you can pick up a copy from Amazon here.