Saran’s Battle by Beth Locke

This book is a straightforward adventure about a stubborn princess named Saran, a dashing rogue named Dash, and a handful of other characters caught up in an endless war over two halves of a magic amulet. There’s nothing wrong with this setup, but the use of stock characters and a bland setting make this book an unremarkable foray into fantasy that doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

I’m going to spend a good bit of time on running through the characters, more than I usually would, because they’re a collection of stock characters that tend to get used to death.

First, none of the characters have enough depth to make them interesting, and the author outright tells the reader everything about them. The two villains usually look at people evilly. Or grin maliciously. Or randomly rape, murder, or torture people because they’re evil. About the only thing they don’t do is grow moustaches and diabolically twirl them whenever they speak.

Uninteresting villains are enough to cripple a book on their own, but there’s nothing remarkable about the heroes to salvage the story either. First, there’s Saran. She’s a stubborn princess who wants people to take her seriously. Then there’s Dash, a dashing rogue. He and Saran fall in love.

On the other side of the divide, you have Prince Terrin, who is the epitome of all that is good and noble. Then there’s his brother Peter, who likes raping, torturing, murdering, and brutalizing underage girls. Because he was born an evil twit. And for course he grins, leers, and abuses his way through the book. Then there’s Rose, their sister, who serves two purposes: to be part of a Romeo and Juliet plot, and to be someone for Terrin to protect and for Peter to threaten to beat and rape.

To be clear, Peter is the sort of villain that, even when written well, I have a lot of trouble reading and enjoying. It’s one of the reasons I can’t really enjoy anything Terry Goodkind writes. If you’ve read it, you know what I mean.

Then there’s Calla, who is recognized as a monster by pretty much everyone in the world. Her reasons for being evil: she was told she has a destiny, and she’s ambitious. The problem I have with this character is that, as stated, she’s so absolutely uncharismatic and vicious that her belief she’s destined to unite the world is laughable. The other problems I have with Calla in particular deal with the setting as a whole.

First, a quick summary of the setting: the world was split into four quadrants, there was some ancient war stuff, and half the world got destroyed. The other half got divided into two chunks, with a no man’s land in the middle where the two kingdoms were supposed to tear each other apart until a victor arose. So, it’s basically infinite war governed by a strict set of rules, and whoever gets both halves of some amulet thing wins. I get the distinct impression that the ancients who set this up were more jerkish than wise.

Note that the war, and the world itself, is supposed to be governed by a strict, arbitrary system of rules that everyone takes for granted. This could be interesting, but the way it plays out, namely via Calla’s actions, really didn’t sit well with me. Calla is one of those villains who, rather than being smart, has the power of deus ex machina.

She breaks the fundamental rules of the war that’s been going on for five hundred years, and the only thing that happens is some stuff glows red. That’s it. In a setting where so much emphasis gets placed on unbreakable rules handed down by the ancients, the fact that there’s nary a consequence to be found the moment a villain breaks them guts one of the central premises of the setting. Additionally, Calla gets injected with enough drugs to kill an elephant, but, because she has no-rules-apply-here powers, of course she just keeps trucking on. To me, this kind of villain has always been more frustrating than compelling.

Another issue with the book is that the author constantly tells the reader who the characters are and what they’re thinking. This is something I tend to harp on, but the use of adverbs and adjectives that explicitly state mental states saps a lot of the mystery out of a novel. Couple that with long paragraphs in which characters explain what they’re thinking and the sort of changes they’re going through, and there’s nothing left to the imagination. This pretty much guarantees that even potentially interesting characters are devoid of the necessary intrigue to engage a reader.

My final criticism is that the book doesn’t have a proper ending. Instead, it ends on a cliffhanger that leaves absolutely nothing resolved. I understand that when a book is intended to be part of a series, not everything will get neatly wrapped up at the end of any given book. Each book, however, should have a complete story that’s part of a larger whole, so that the reader has a sense of finality.

A book isn’t like a TV show that airs every week. The TV show (except for between seasons and the like) ideally delivers content in reasonable intervals that prevents the viewers from becoming frustrated. Books don’t have that luxury, and even with a quick turnover it takes a substantial amount of time to write and polish the next book.

In short, this book is a stock fantasy novel with plain characters, an uninteresting world, and a plot that does little more than tread down a familiar path. The writing isn’t bad, but it does little to elevate the rest of the book. I give it a 2/5.

If you want to take a gander, you can find it on Amazon here.

Death and other Taxes: Part 1 by Robby Miller

At its heart, this book is about Wit’s, a young boy, journey through the land of death after his untimely demise. It’s an interesting premise to launch an examination of death from, especially in that it focuses on the dead, rather than the living, but severe problems with the pacing, coherency, and writing render the book unfathomable, rather than intriguing.

Before I start running through what didn’t work, I do want to make it clear that I am personally not a big fan of allegories, and I consider books like Pilgrim’s Progress to be an exquisite form of torture conjured up by high school teachers to punish students for daring to enjoy the written word. I have a special place in my heart for Chaucer, but even then just particular stories. So, take what follows with a grain of salt.

First, the pace of the book is that of an abstract meander. There’s no sense of urgency to drive the plot forward. Wit’s primary goal is to live again, but he essentially has all of the time in the world to do it. On top of that, he spends most of the book confused and learning life lessons. There are long dialogues about why people act the way they do, about the balance of power in the world, about poverty.

Each one of these is an issue worthy of examination, but they’re presented back to back with very little to break them up. There are periodic bursts of forced adventure, but it always rings hollow simply because what danger exists is of the generally vague, trippy sort that never quite clicked with me as legitimately threatening.

In short, the book itself is a vehicle for a series of allegorical stories connected by Wit’s curiosity and the various ways he tries to make it back to the world of the living. This in itself isn’t a problem, but the stories themselves are so indecipherably dense that it took a force of will for me to turn from one page to the next. Also, the material connecting them was so bizarre that I really couldn’t latch onto anything to orient myself.

Coherency is a big problem in this book. It demands a level of attention from the reader that’s usually reserved for discussing the vagaries German administrative agencies and the obscene alphabet soup they generate. Most of the time, I simply couldn’t read through even one paragraph quickly. I had to stop, frown, and puzzle my way through.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad thing, in moderation, but almost every paragraph was its own logic problem to be worked out, and over the course of a book, that’s an extreme amount of work to subject a casual or even focused reader to. I never felt like the author didn’t know what he was talking about, but I often got the sense that he didn’t particularly care if I followed him. The best analogy I can offer is that I felt like a ten year old having string theory explained to him in terms of mathematical proofs.

The author tried to cover too much ground in too small a space and without enough explanation, and as a result it made parts of the book almost unreadable for me. Again, this is also a type of book that I am already not the fondest of, but even so, this book was a particularly difficult example of the genre for me to process and enjoy. I didn’t feel like I had a reasonable grasp of what was really being discussed until the last chapter, and as a reader I simply couldn’t bring myself to do the work needed to follow the author’s train of thought from start to finish.

The writing style compounds this problem. The author relies on puns, word play, and alliteration to the point that I was walking on the walls. None of these things are bad when used in moderation, but the torrent of them in this book vastly exceeded the amount I could comfortably enjoy.

The way the author puts together the basic sentences seems intentionally designed to go over the reader’s head, even without the issues mentioned above, and he seems perfectly willing to adopt his own language and force the reader to either learn it or remain perpetually befuddled.

An example: “‘Well these mushrooms are growing all over the show,’” said Wit with superfluous eloquence. ‘Maybe they all weep if you poke ‘em?’ And he walked to the next to indulge his elegantly satisfying theory of elephants and fish for tea.”

This is the sort of book that the path to enlightenment in a land of oatmeal would be called the Whey, with those upon it carrying the Wait of their sins, while trying to avoid falling Weigh Down into the Wrong-Way Sea.

Add to this a few instances of missing quotation marks, periods, commas, and the like, and reading the book was a vexing exercise that left me feeling drained after a handful of pages.

All of this is tragic, because there are a lot of interesting, valid messages in this book, and the framework itself is one that could work quite well. And towards the end, I was able to see the book the author meant it to be. Even then, it never got there, but the last segment started to present things in a way that were more readily grasped.

Ultimately, this book tried to do something very interesting, and the surreal world the author tries to present could have been truly fascinating. Poor pacing, a tendency to jump onto any opportunity to confound the reader, and excessive word play rendered large swathes of the book almost unreadable and incredibly frustrating. I give it a 1/5.

If you want to give it a gander, and check out the book page to see what some other reviewers think, I’d suggest checking it out on Amazon here.

The Sorcery Code by Dima Zales

This book is a straightforward, well executed genre piece with a few clever twists that caught my interest. It follows Blaise, something of a mad scientist and a powerful sorcerer who creates a magical being, Gala, for the purpose of giving magic to the commoners. Complications arise, the first of which is Gala herself, a person instead of an object as originally planned.

Despite a few issues, the book accomplishes what it sets out to. It’s an entertaining, quick read with a clever magic system, and it never gets bogged down. That being said, I felt there were missed opportunities where the author could have slipped in a bit more depth, and the character, Augusta, didn’t sit well with me. This is a rare criticism from me, but I also felt there were certain parts where it would have been appropriate for things to be a bit naughtier than they were.

My first criticism of the book is that the story raised a lot of interesting issues but never explored them in a way that really impacted me. The sorcerers are your typical ruling class and happen to think they’re somewhat godlike, and have the power to back it up, so a good portion of the book focuses on Blaise’s desire to balance things out. I felt the author was trying to communicate just how bad it could be to live under the sorcerers, but each time he raised an issue, it was through the perspective of one of the characters who didn’t have to deal with it directly.

There’s starvation, but only one of the main characters actually needs to eat. Then there’s casual cruelty, like the coliseum, but again, Gala is simply a horrified observer that immediately leaps in and tries to fix things. There is also a great deal of talk of how Blaise’s brother, another powerful sorcerer, was summarily executed simply for trying to let the commoners know what it felt like to do magic. This was interesting, but because it happened in the past, it’s not quite enough to really drive home a sense of oppression.

The one scene that really works is when a young, starving woman steals a piece of bread and gets her hand cut off. I feel like the author began to, but didn’t completely, take off the kid gloves, and let the scene start creeping towards truly horrific, but it’s the only instance I can remember.

The author really needed to do more bad things to the characters we followed, or he needed to write in a few truly horrific scenes involving the commoners and those above them. It’s one thing that works so well in George R.R. Martin’s writing: absolutely awful things happen, and it not only fires up the reader to root for the underdog, it also makes her genuinely afraid of what’s going to happen next.

Although the sorcerers are presented as ignorant, arrogant, and cavalier concerning the lives of their peasants, Mr. Zales never made me feel, on a get level, that they were twisted and cruel, and thus the system they represented HAD to be torn down by Blaise and Gala.

My second issue was Augusta, who for a seemingly brilliant woman didn’t exhibit much in the way of rational thought. I absolutely despised her, true, but it was a bit too easy to do. I don’t believe her character was written to hate, but hate her I did.

On the same note, it bothered me that the instant she had her first confrontation with Blaise she became completely unhinged and never gathered her wits about her. She started with a bit more depth than she ended up with, although, given the ending, I’m optimistic she’ll end up doing more than running around in a continuous and arrogant tantrum.

My final problem was, frankly, the sex. It happened rather frequently in the book, but there was rarely more than a sentence implying that a pair of characters had, or were about to, make love. Now, this normally isn’t a problem, but given how the book starts and how, to an extent, it presents itself; I felt those scenes should have been fleshed out a bit more. Not a lot, mind you, just a few more details, a little bit of physical intimacy.

As it was, the scenes felt a bit forced, a stray sentence chucked in here and there because, well, the characters are expected to have sex and so they shall. It doesn’t need much more, and it doesn’t need to be particularly lewd, but it does need enough to inject some passion into it. It’d make the book a more enjoyable read.

Now, on to what worked: the pacing. Dima Zales nails the speed that a fun fantasy adventure should read at. I never got bogged down and was able to get through the entire thing in one day. I have nothing against longer books, but it’s always a pleasure when an author knows the story he or she wants to tell and just does it. I never felt like I was getting info dumps dropped on me, and the details about the world, although I would have liked a few more, were neatly interspersed with the action so as not to be intrusive.

I also loved the magic system. It’s essentially computer programming, and by essentially, I mean it downright IS. There’s a magic realm, then a physical realm. To get the magical realm to affect the physical realm, sorcerers have to use a complex programming language. A recent invention made this simpler by essentially creating a punch card computer, so instead of writing 1s and 0s, sorcerers can code in visual basic.

It was a brilliantly simple magic system, but the moment I figured out what was going on I couldn’t help but grin. Even better, because it works just like complex computer programming, the reader immediately has an intuitive understanding of how it fits into the world, how pervasive it is, how life changing for the people within it. Really, in many ways Blaise is simply trying to give everyone access to computers and eventually the internet, and it’s that free flow of information that terrifies the other sorcerers. It was clever, and I’d like to see more with it.

All told, this book was a fun, lighthearted read. It could have hit with more impact in places, and been a bit sexier, but on the same note it was a pleasant way to breeze through an afternoon. If you want something fun, with enough clever bits to make you smile and chuckle, I’d recommend it. I give it a 4/5.

You can pick up a copy for the Kindle here, or a print copy from here. Enjoy!