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.

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.

Surveillance by Alexander & Lynette Sofras

This short story discusses a future in which people of genius-level intelligence become government property. Any unusually smart children are regularly assessed to determine if they meet the criteria. The protagonists, a couple that lost their first child to an untimely death, are trying to protect their brilliant second child from government intervention.

The premise is a stock one in science fiction, and nothing about its presentation in this story stands out. The story is too long, the dialogue is too formal and thus sounds unnatural, the authors outright tell us what the protagonists are thinking and feeling, and the twist at the end is a pointless cliché that does not fit with the rest of the story.

First, I should say that I have a strong bias against novellas. They occupy an unhappy space between true short stories and novels, and although some are great, most tend to end up being short stories that spend too much time meandering. In this case, although the story was labelled a short story, its multiple chapters led me to consider it more of a novella, and it suffers from the lack of focus that many novellas do.

The story has one point with a twist at the end, but because of the amount of time the authors take to deliver their message the entire thing struggles to hold the reader’s interest. There’s too much padding, and the entire work suffers for it. For a short story to work, every sentence has to be on point and, as stated, the novella tends to encourage authors to plug in excess words. It’s a trap that many writers fall into.

Second, the dialogue in this work is overly formal. On the one hand, all of the characters are highly educated individuals, but on the other the dialogue sounds like the authors speaking, not the characters. This drains the life from the character and renders them sterile instruments whose sole purpose is to deliver the authors’ message.

Third, the authors have a habit of telling the reader what the characters are thinking. Although doing so is appropriate under certain circumstances, it is usually better to show the reader what the characters are feeling through physical reactions and their interactions with other characters. Although there is a good amount of this in the story, the authors still give away too much by outright telling the reader how the two main protagonists feel about each situation.

Finally, the twist at the end of the novel does not fit with the rest of the story. It transforms what was a relatively uneventful traipse through a common theme in science fiction into a different but similarly uninteresting one in a throwaway paragraph at the end. I will not reveal what the twist was, but it was tacked on and added nothing to the story. Instead of knocking me on my hind end, it made me roll my eyes.

It is difficult to write a good short story, and the authors of this one failed to do so. They handicapped themselves by writing something closer to a novella and a short story and inherited all of the problems that come from doing so. I give it a 2/5.

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

Wednesdaymeter by Dean Carnby

In a bland world of cubicles, a supernatural force known as contamination is gradually undermining reality. It has brought with it the ability to use magic by consuming fruits and vegetables, but their use is restricted in a society dominated by plant-users who masquerade as polygons. These polygons rule each city as a corporate fiefdom.

This is an odd but interesting hook for a novel. Unfortunately, the author fails to communicate anything of significance regarding the setting, the characters, or the overarching plot until the last tenth of the novel. The other ninety percent felt like an abstract painting produced solely for the author’s amusement that the reader is only begrudgingly allowed to experience. Poorly described scenes and wonky pacing compound the issue and leave the book an indecipherable mess.

Every work of fiction involves a dialogue between the author and the reader. An essential part of that dialogue is communicating enough information about the world to the reader so that she has a coherent lens to view the characters and events of the story through. This is particularly important in works of science fiction and fantasy because the world the reader is used to, and its basic rules, are usually different. Often, it’s difficult to balance informing the reader and leaving enough unknown to maintain a sense of intrigue.

In this case, the author created a wholly unique world and magic system that only shares some vague aesthetic similarities to the world we’re used to. Although not a problem in and of itself, a world like this requires a lot of heavy lifting to bring the reader up to speed, and the author utterly failed to do so. I spent the vast majority of the book frustrated because, until the end, I didn’t have a clue what was happening.

The novel is laced with hints, but they only make sense at the very end of the book. As far as plot and intrigue goes, this normally isn’t a problem, but in this case I had such a small amount of information about the world and characters to work with that I could not begin filling in the blanks. It could have been interesting instead of confounding, but until the final pages of the book I was left wondering what the point was.

The second issue with the book is the author’s use of description and language. Very few of the scenes have a firm base that allows the reader to visualize them. Instead, the author immediately leaps into soaring descriptions of the strangest parts of the scenes and more or less leaves the reader to make everything else up. Mundane objects and surroundings are generally mentioned, not described. This often causes the book to read more like a fever dream than a work of fiction.

Additionally, the author gets a bit lofty with his use of vocabulary and commits the literary sin of trying to be too clever. This is a matter of my personal taste, but I prefer the complexity in a novel to reside with the setting, plot, and characters, not the sentence structure and use of vocabulary.

My final issue is the pacing. The author jumps between a wide variety of character perspectives which, in a novel with as unusual a premise as this one, only serves to dilute and confuse things. Worse, every character leaps from crisis to crisis at a manufactured pace. I felt like many of the events in the novel happened because something was needed to fill the space, rather than because another chase scene, or another break in, or another catastrophe was necessary to the plot. There’s little time for the world to grow on the reader or the characters to become anything more than an odd collection of plot devices and contrived twists.

Ultimately, it feels like the author had a fascinating dream, rolled out of bed, scribbled it into a book, and then failed to render it in language the rest of us can understand. There was the potential for something unusual and fascinating, but it was not realized. This one is a 2/5.

If you want to check out a copy of the book, you can pick up one here.

Luckbane by Tony Breeden

First, the hook: in a future dominated by megacorporations, a virtual reality MMO with permanent character death is one of the major forms of entertainment. Longtime players are ranked based on the points they score in the game as well as their popularity with a viewing public that can watch play sessions. Despite that, the players themselves are more or less anonymous. The hero, Jarrod, plays the most popular character and is selected to travel to an actual world that has been created in the MMOs image to play his character in person.

The hook is the only thing about this novel that stands out. The rest is bog standard fantasy/sci-fi that fails to deliver in its execution. The author spends the bulk of the time telling the reader about the world instead of showing it, an overuse of action sequences leaves the setting little room to breathe, and the characters have no depth.

As fun as the hook is, the author presents the setting in long, descriptive paragraphs that outright tell the readers everything they could ever want to know, and more, about the world. There are few instances in which the author actually shows his readers how the world works. Instead, he feeds the readers just enough to make it to the next action sequence.

Part of the problem is that the author is essentially trying to take the reader through three different worlds simultaneously. First, there is the world of the MMO and the characters within it. Then there is megacorporate Earth. Finally, there is the world on which the real version of the MMO is taking place later in the book. All of this leads to a lot of clutter, and the author never figures out how to present all of this information to the reader well.

In addition, this is a run and gun novel in which there’s little breathing room between each action sequence. Most scenes resolve themselves in some kind of fight or other form of direct conflict. While this isn’t a problem on its own, the author is trying to build a world with this novel, not just enough of a world to connect the action sequences. This leaves the book on uneven footing, like a chemistry teacher trying to conduct a history lesson with explosions.

Finally, the characters are stock archetypes without any nuance to set them apart. Part of the humor in the book is that they’re mostly MMO characters, so of course they have silly names and are over the top. Unfortunately, the joke stops there and the author never really digs down into each character to reveal something beneath the stats on a character sheet.

Even the main character is your typical chosen-one everyman. Of course he’s had a memory wipe, is immune to stasis sickness, has no idea how famous his character is, is a janitor that has the physical skills of a master thief, has a corporate princess seeking his company, he is the representative of the common man versus the corporations, etcetera. He’s a bundle of clichés, not a character. The only difference between him and the other characters is the amount of fantasy/sci-fi chicken stock they were boiled in.

There are other issues with the book: the author shifts between too many character perspectives, he saps mystery out of the story via foreshadowing, the characters shift between emotions at an unrealistic pace, and he uses ‘growled,’ ‘sputtered,’ ‘sneered,’ and the like instead of sticking with ‘said.’

All of that aside, the basic idea was a fun one, and the writing was decent. I didn’t have to fight to get through to the novel, though I found myself skimming rather quickly. I give it a 2/5.

If you’re interested in picking up a copy of it, you can nab one here.