Battle for Honor: Gates by R.J. Brousseau

Gates is a straightforward fantasy novel that follows an avatar of the Guardians, the tenders of the cosmic balance and the like. The forces of evil have, through their ambitions, cast the world out of balance with the help of a bunch of racist, pure blooded elves to the point that the world is about to erupt in a genocidal war in which the gods and mortals alike will be culled. Although the story’s presentation intrigued me somewhat, the writing style and the author’s insistence on outright telling the reader who exactly each character is, what is going on, and even what is going to happen completely gutted any sense of mystery the novel initially built up.

First, the writing style is an odd jumble of tenses, periodically jumping between second and third person present. In general, using the present tense in any sort of fiction is tricky, and it takes a lot of work to make sure you don’t jumble your tenses and confuse the reader. It requires more precision than the third person, a lot of skill on the part of the author, and it has to overcome the fact that most fiction tends to be in written in the third person past tense.

The problem here is that the author didn’t use the present tense well. It feels more like the book is a stream of consciousness, or an extended outline or rough draft, than it is a novel. Periodic errors mingle the tenses, and the author’s tendency to start talking directly to the reader mid-paragraph further exacerbates all of the problems inherent in the use of the present tense. Some of my favorite books are written in the present tense, but they’ve also been painstakingly edited. It’s harder for both the author and the reader to keep straight in the present tense, and in this case, it just doesn’t work.

The real problem with the book is that the author outright tells the reader every last detail about the world, the characters, and the plot. Honestly, the novel reads more like a source book for a pen and paper roleplaying game than it does an actual novel.

First, the world. The author falls into the trap of going on long, narrative asides to flesh out the world. Instead of the information arising naturally, each time the scene starts in a new place the author tells the reader every last detail about it. There’s never a since of exploration or discovery. Instead, the author takes the reader through a guided museum tour, with everything in sterile, glass cases to be looked at, understood, then set aside in time for the next exhibit. One of my absolutely favorite things about reading fantasy is being transported to new worlds, and telling me everything about one rather than letting me figure it out on my own strips away much of my ability to enjoy the novel.

Second, Mr. Brousseau does the same thing with the characters. When the Dwarven paladin and his friends get introduced, the author outright runs through who each person is. The characters are more the role they fill in a Dungeons and Dragons party than actual characters, and what there is of them the author tells us. There’s no need to seriously consider them or to inquire into their motivations, and the same holds true for every single character in the book. Rather than showing us inner conflict and uncertainty, the author simply explains each character to us in detail and without passion. It’s the difference between meeting someone exciting and a dissection.

Finally, there is the plot itself. There are chapters which explicitly explain what the villains are currently doing, what they’re planning to do, and how they’re planning to do it. There are there different villainous groups, each with their own motivations, who are busy tricking each other. But when the book goes straight to conversations between the gods behind the entire conflict, then has chapters explicitly discussing what the Guardians are going to do to fix things, and then follows with chapters explaining how the villains are going to betray each other, there’s really not much reason to keep reading. The plot itself is an enjoyable genre staple, but it’s presentation is so transparent that the entire story could have been told as a bedtime fable.

The final problem is the main character, Marcus, gets visions from the gods so he knows what’s going to happen in the future. There are several scenes where he simply tells the other character and the readers how things are going to go down, and then they happen that way.

All of these problems are a shame, because despite the mashed up use of tenses and the fact there was absolutely no sense of intrigue or mystery to the book, I still enjoyed watching events play out. I’m always a fan of the “ancient hero rises from the dead and badasses his way through the world” plot, so I really did looking forward to seeing him get on his feet and kick butt. This book could have been a fantastic sword and sorcery genre piece, but instead, the spark of imagination was buried deep beneath all of its flaws.

There’s a real spark in this book, and there are moments where it shines through, but the flaws in the presentation of the story, both in the technical writing itself and in the broader way the author presents information to the reader, come dangerous close to snuffing that spark out. I give this one a 2 out of 5.

If you want to give it a read, you can pick up a copy from Amazon here.

The Last of the Time Police: The Time Authority Book 1 by Kim Johnson

Mr. Johnson’s book follows two bumbling gentleman who, through a combination of dumb luck and the poorly run wrap up of the agency tasked with guarding the sanctity of the time stream, end up as the last ‘timenauts’ left. By their powers combined, they ensure a mundane task to fetch a candy bar becomes a world-ending catastrophe.

The author does a solid job of delivering more hits than misses when it comes to his jokes, and the story itself is well paced and well executed. There aren’t too many surprises, but it’s a solid and straightforward adventure story that’s a quick read and a good way to while away an afternoon. The problem is that, like any book that’s a part one of two, the ending ends up being an outright to-be-continued. Also, several of the running jokes in the book get a bit overused by the end of it all.

First, let’s take care of the problems I had with the book. It’s a part one of two which isn’t necessarily a problem, but there was never a moment that felt like it really wrapped things together and set up the next book. There was, however, a scene earlier in the book that gives a reader of how things work out for several of the characters. Unfortunately, the book never actually got the characters to that scene.

The other major plotline, with a historical figure key to why things are going catastrophically wrong, did wrap up quite well, and it was the note that the book ended on. Still, I felt that the author really needed to get his main characters closer to completing their initial task, fixing their machine, than he did. This left the ending in a sort of no man’s land for me where it was halfway towards doing everything I felt it needed to.

That being said, I’m also rather stubborn about expecting a certain degree of resolution regardless of how many parts are left to come, and a to be continued ending sits better with me when a book is lighthearted because there’s nothing I need to recover from.

There are a few running jokes in the novel that get overused and get old after a while. That’s not to say they weren’t entertaining at first, but they were repeated too often. They went from being jokes to becoming nonsensical ways in which the world worked. The humor needed more variety than it had to keep me guffawing, but it certainly kept me smirking and tittering here and there.

The author also gave away the characters’ mental states now and then with descriptive language that took away from the humor. At several points in the book he had a bunch of additional text slapped onto a sentence that would have read much better without the text. These were missed opportunities during which the author would tell us that the characters were frustrated or confused. This was already evident what was going on, so putting this kind of stuff in there added unnecessary padding to the humor that took away some of its bite.

Fortunately, the humor in the book works more often than not, and it kept me smiling. It’s not easy to write a joke that reads well, because unlike a conversation or a routine you don’t have all of the cues from your audience to let you know how you’re doing and what to adjust. You just have to fire the joke out there and try to structure the text so that it lands with the impact you want it to. As a result, there’s little middle ground in written humor.

Mr. Johnson manages to find it, however, delivering a good number of jokes that didn’t make me laugh but did keep me smirking. More importantly, he got a proper laugh out of me at least once every chapter or two.

The author also did a good job of staying in control of his narrative. He kept plots running in three major timelines, as well as a handful of minor ones, which isn’t the easiest thing to do. There was never a point where I felt confused or the plot felt muddled. It played out at a solid pace, everything made sense, and it galloped along like a good adventure should. Pacing is one of the most important things to an adventure novel, and Mr. Johnson nailed it.

The story itself is also a solid one, with a couple of flairs that I found amusing. Nothing happened that ever quite surprised me, which was unfortunate, but there was also never a moment where the way things transpired disappointed me. I think the author could have injected a bit more depth into the whole affair, and it would have made it a stronger, funnier book. But, on the same note, what he wrote does a great job of being a lighthearted adventure that easily carries the reader along from start to finish.

Ultimately, despite a few jokes that ran too long or got softened by a bit of verbal excess, the book was consistently humorous. The plot moved at a good clip and kept me entertained and that, combined with the story and the length of the book, make it an ideal candidate for an afternoon read. This is the sort of book to read for a bit of adventure after the end of a long day. It’s a fun way to take a load off and worth checking out. It’s a solid 4/5.

You can nab a copy of it from Amazon here, or from Smashwords here.

We are Wormwood by Autumn Christian

We are Wormwood doesn’t deal in certainty or easy answers, and it doesn’t offer the reader a clean, straightforward resolution. What it does do is take the reader on a journey through a surreal world where the prevalence of madness, drug abuse, and supernatural events makes it impossible to have a tidy perception of what reality actually is. Tying it all together is Lily, a troubled young woman fighting for self-realization. It’s a dark story, but one that has a genuinely uplifting ending. More importantly, the writing is absolutely phenomenal. I mean it in the best way possible when I say this book knocked me on my ass.

There are only two problems with the book that bear mentioning. The first is its scope. Although it focuses on Lily, so much of questionable reality happens frequently enough that it’s difficult, as a reader to properly orient yourself. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it really helps put the reader in the same position as the characters and thus makes it much easier to empathize.

The downside is that you can never quite tell what the ultimate goal is. Lily is always aiming at a moving target, and for a good portion of the book she’s driven more by the need to escape her past and deny what’s happening to and around her than she is to take action. Again, I don’t want to say this is a bad thing so much as it requires a reader to be comfortable with disorientation, and once Lily takes control and figures out what it is she’s fighting for, her previous uncertainty makes it that much more satisfying.

Second, this book isn’t for everyone. The writing is fantastic, but it doesn’t yield its secrets easily. If you want a narrative that’s neatly laid out and lets you gallop along on a straightforward adventure, this book just isn’t for you. If, however, you want to read something that’ll draw you in, play with your head, and leave your brooding every time you set it down, it’s up your alley. Throughout the book, what’s actually happening is always open to question. There’s no correct answer, just the one that you supply which seems best to you.

Now, on to the good stuff. The writing itself is fantastic. Ms. Christian has a great deal of talent, and each scene, independent of the rest of the book, is a pleasure to read. In a way, reading through the book is like walking through an art gallery that’s been well planned, each painting seamlessly setting the next one up. I enjoyed the story, and I loved the way I never quite had a firm grasp on what was happening, but had there been no plot the word candy alone would have been a pleasure to read.

Although I loved the writing, what really made the book was how well Ms. Christian presented her characters. They’re all strange, intriguing people that could, in the hands of the wrong author, have been too bizarre for the reader to relate to. Fortunately, Ms. Christian presents them as people. Bafflingly strange people at times, but for the most part people the reader can empathize with.

Also, there’s genuine warmth to the way she writes her characters. I wanted to see Lily succeed because I cared about her, not because I hated the villain or because I wanted to see how the story turned out. Honestly, it didn’t matter to me how it ended, as long as Lily was happy. It’s difficult to make a reader truly care about a character and what happens to them, but Ms. Christian repeatedly managed to make me do so.

The book also has an uplifting slant. It’s a frantic, grim novel that earnestly deals with drug abuse, madness, abandonment, suicide, and things dreamed up in nightmares. Despite that, once Lily finds what it is she wants and needs, she does everything she can to keep it. Despite all that’s happened to her, she still dares to hope. There are a lot of books that try to be dark and end up grinding reader down, but this book is genuinely grim while at the same time maintaining enough hope to keep you going. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but Ms. Christian manages it well.

The superb writing, the warmth the author writes her characters with, the way she plays around with the reader’s perception of reality, and the fact that what’s real and what isn’t may not even matter at the end of the day, all work together to make for a fascinating novel. Lily is a genuinely enjoyable character, and the world Ms. Christian weaves is bizarre and intriguing.

To properly enjoy the book, don’t read through it as if everything’s a metaphor, and don’t struggle to connect all of the pieces. Instead, treat it like a good surreal painting. There are themes, and there’s a message, but there are also a lot of things there that are unexplainable. If you try to focus on each one, you’ll miss the bigger picture. This is the sort of book that you read once, sleep on it, and let the pieces start falling into place in the back of your mind until you form your own interpretation of what happened. And be sure, you’ll need to form your own. The author presents a world of intriguing possibilities and leaves it for the reader to work out what’s what.

This book is going to take you down the rabbit hole deeper than you anticipate, and when it spits you out the other side you may not know what the devil just happened. But you will know you had a damned good time getting there. I give this a 5/5.

Treat yourself and pick up a copy from Amazon here!