This Land Book One: That Ribbon of Highway by L.S. Burton

The plot in this novel is a well tread one. The big evil (aliens) comes, people huddle inside of a building (monastery) trying to survive, and they end up snarling down each others throats. As is usual, the bulk of the story is how the characters cope with a nihilism-inducing crisis. Dense writing, unlikable characters, and a dour tone devoid of any hope until the last two pages of the book make this novel more tedious than enjoyable.

First, the writing. It’s not poorly done, and some stretches of the book stand out, but for the most part the author gets lost in overly elaborate descriptions of the commonplace. This drags down the pacing of what’s already a slow book, and it quickly becomes difficult to keep reading. Besides the ink that gets spilled describing every nook and cranny, the other problem is an excessive use of vocabulary that, while accurate, isn’t well suited to long prose if too much of it gets used. What works in a 5,000 word short story and a novel are two different things. Again, the words themselves weren’t the problems. It was their abundance.

Second, the characters. There are only three who stand out. The rest are, for the most part, petty little villagers who the monsters do a favor when they eat. Most of them felt like scenery to me, rather than people who I had any investment in seeing survive. I ultimately felt that their purpose was to die while Stephen,, the main perspective character, watched.

Of the characters who do stand out, Stephen, Allison, and Homer, two are utterly unlikable and the third only rises above the caricature of a senile old man for one segment of dialogue. Stephen is a man who made a lot of mistakes by being a generally bad person and came to the monastery to sort through the m. The problem is, the armor he wears is that of a sarcastic, know it all, vicious ball of disdain. The only thing there is to like about him for most of the book is his constant suffering. He deserves it.

The second character, Allison, wants to die and is willing to kill everyone else in the building so she can finish having her existential tantrum. She’s one of those people who just isn’t strong enough to make it through life but relishes tearing everyone else down until something is kind enough to extinguish her miserable self. She gets treated cruelly on many occasions and, like Stephen, she’s earned every single moment of ill treatment.

It’s rare I read a book with characters I so thoroughly despise. The author did an outstanding job of characterizing them. The problem is, Stephen is the main perspective character and Allison is the second most important one in the novel. There’s no relief from them, and, spending the whole book with them right in my face, I had absolutely nobody to root for.

Homer stood out for the one moment where he finally came down hard on Stephen and explained just how much of a miserable sack of man he was to him. I nearly fist pumped. I wanted to see Stephen destroyed. He and Allison were, given their prominence, characters to endure, not enjoy. Again, the writer did a great job with them, but there was never any other character that really served as a counterbalance. Daniel, Stephen’s ‘friend,’ never registered with enough impact to do the job. Moving on.

Third, the tone. There is almost no hope in the book. When anyone survived in the end I was legitimately surprised, because, based on the tone, I expected the whole thing to resolve with them feebly flailing against the inevitable before receiving their reward of a horrific death. The characters are cruel and petty, they never make any progress, and their trapped in an old, decaying monastery bathing in their own despair. The only humor comes from tertiary characters, and it’s not particularly funny or long lasting.

If this was a short story, that tone would be fine. But for a novel, it makes it very difficult to care about anything when the plot is just an endless parade of misery. It’s not until the very end of the book, when Stephen stops using his guilt as a reason to inflict himself on others and finally makes peace with himself, that there’s a faint glimmer hope. Without anything before that, though, it was too little, too late, to salvage the relentlessly grim, slow story.

As much as I hated Stephen, the author knows how to write well enough that, when Stephen finally had his moment of grace, I was pulled in. It’s a shame that the author used too much flowery, descriptive language and an excessively dark tone, because there was an interesting story at the heart of it. And, sentence by sentence, the writing was of decent quality. The author has the ability to write well, I just don’t think it shone through in this novel.

This one gets a 3/5.

Hand of Chaos by J. Hamlet

Anna Wei, a mage, works for the NSA division that handles magical incidents. The forces of Hell sponsor the CIA, the forces of Heaven sponsor the DoD, and the NSA is caught in the middle, serving Chaos and making sure neither side prevails. What’s already a complicated situation gets worse when a rogue necromancer sponsored by Plague goes on a killing spree as part of a catastrophic ritual.

This setting covers familiar ground, but the author does a good job of putting a spin on it that makes for an engaging world. None of the factions are caricatures, the component-based magic is interesting, and the story arc is spot on. That said, the author spent too much time explaining the world, and individual scenes fell victim to an excess of flowery language. Even so, the book was a much better ride than I expected.

Angels, demons, and wars between them have been overdone, but this book thankfully puts an entertaining spin on things that held my attention. In this, the forces of Hell are as often disenfranchised outsiders as psychopaths, and the forces of Heaven tend to be too sure of themselves, even when that leads to atrocities. The people serving Chaos comprise a somewhat sane middle ground.

More importantly, it’s a cold war. There have been eras when one side or the other was riding high, but neither has ultimately prevailed. The fact that things never become an all-out war does a lot to keep the setting interesting. In addition, the members of all three factions have good reasons for doing what they are. I never felt a character was evil just to be evil. Everyone has, if not good reasons, then at least understandable ones for what they do. The main antagonist is almost a sympathetic character, even though he’s also a ruthless killer.

The magic system was a pleasure to read. First, it’s component based, but the author really understood how to communicate that system in an enjoyable manner. I haven’t read a magic system that I could feel running through my fingertips like this one in a while. Second, each school of magic requires certain mental states to be cast. Light magic requires overbearing confidence, fire requires rage, earth requires Zen-like calm and patience. Together, this makes for well-textured magical battles.

The story arc never surprised me, but it was a well-oiled machine that did what it needed to. It’s a pretty straightforward thriller that shifts between the villain and the people trying to stop him, but each rise in the action happened exactly when it needed to, and the conclusion neatly wrapped up all of the threads. It made sense. And, most importantly, the author resisted the urge to cut off in the middle of things and promise the conclusion in another book. In the land of self-publishing, a decent number of books don’t contain an entire plot, just the first half or third of it. Thankfully, this author understands how to finish a story well and set up the next one.

All of that said, the strength of the setting is also a weakness. The author spends a lot of time going into details about the world that, although interesting, aren’t necessary to the plot and clutter up the book. I’d find myself getting tired halfway through a chapter because of these asides, although they were interesting enough to keep me from going into full on skim mode.

The author also has a bad habit of using too much flowery language to describe things. Any given page might have a wonderful description, but there would be two others that, when taken together, made the whole thing a bit over the top. In addition, there were scenes were too much time got spent describing each part of the action at length, which bogged down what was otherwise a well-paced brawl.

Both of these problems are solvable, but if the author doesn’t address them in future books, the series will rapidly wear out its welcome. For this first novel, though, these issues didn’t take away too much from my enjoyment. I didn’t expect to enjoy this novel nearly as much as I did, which was quite the pleasant surprise.

If you want a good fantasy thriller/suspense novel with an interest take on what could have been overused themes, this is one for you. I give it a 4/5.

You can pick up a copy from Amazon.

 

The Thought Readers by Dima Zales

Darren is a young man with the ability to step out of his body into a frozen mock-up of the world called the Quiet. While there, he can manipulate any physical object he desires to gather information, but upon exiting he returns to the real world at the exact moment he left it, and none of the physical changes take hold. Thus, he can explore as much of the world as he want in what amounts to a paused state, reading entire novels and rifling through a hundred people’s pockets in what to us is less than a millisecond. The novel kicks off when he discovers a young woman in an Atlantic City casino who shares this power.

Although the book has an interesting hook and is a snappy read, it feels more like an extended introduction than a full length novel. Too much time gets spent explaining Darren’s powers and fleshing out the world. Besides Darren, none of the characters amount to anything more than shallow caricatures. Finally, the novel reaches an abrupt climax that solidifies the sense that it’s a lengthy introduction to a longer book.

For most of the novel, the reader is either being told how Darren’s powers work, how people with his powers fit into the world, or the motivations and backgrounds of the various characters. It felt like reading a dossier concerning the world rather than a story set within it.

Even when there’s action, it’s constantly broken up by trips to the Quiet. Rather than walking the reader through every one, it would have been more interesting to show us the results without telling us what Darren had learned. He could use the information and then let the reader in on what it was in the first place, or just hint at it. The difference is akin to having Sherlock Holmes tell us exactly how he’s solving a case as he does so, rather than springing it on the reader at the end. As it is, there was never a sense of mystery.

In addition, Darren is the only character with any depth. The story is told from his perspective in the first person, so the reader has ample time to get to know him, and there are some interesting quirks to his character that make the process entertaining. Unfortunately, all of the other characters have neatly assigned roles. There’s a hacker, a love interest, a mad scientist whose job it is to dump more information about how the powers work, etcetera. That’s not a problem on its own, but nothing interesting happens with the characters to make them stand out.

The one that bothered me in particular was Darren’s love interest. She cries, scowls, tantrums, and smart-alecks her way through the book, but never in a way that makes her feel real. Sure, she has a rough past that would stress someone in her position, but her emotional reactions did not feel natural. It was more like the author flicked a switch in the middle of a scene. One moment she would be self-assured, the next nearly in tears over the same event that theoretically toughened her up in the first place.

Finally, there’s the climax. The book ended right at the point that the story had moved past all of the information dumps and started rolling ahead. There’s a kidnapping, a rescue, and a quick twist that, in most books, would mark the end of the introduction. Here, however, it marks a “to be continued” that left me unsatisfied. It was a taste of what the second book will hold, a book that, as set up, I find far more intriguing than the one I read through.

It’s unfortunate that the novel has the issues that it does, because there’s a genuinely entertaining story buried beneath them. It left me wanting more like any good rainy day read should, and I still found the whole setup interesting despite the flaws. That said, I have to give this one a 3/5.

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

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.

Litain the Thief by A. J. Lumaren

This short story follows garden mage who is infatuated with a noblewoman. She, on the other hand, holds him in slightly less esteem than her chamber pot. Being the man that he is, he decides to aid her and her lover by stealing a bit of a holy flame from its temple. The one thing this story has going for it, the subversion of the usual formula of courtly love, doesn’t make up for the problems with the content and format of the story.

I’ll start with the good. In most tales of medieval chivalry, you have knights doing ridiculous things to impress a woman whom they’ve chosen as their lady. The relationship is in most instances a chaste one, rendering the love purer (in the medieval mindset). The knights were usually upstanding individuals by the standards of the day. The author of this novella does a good job playing with and twisting this formula.

In this instance, the knight and his lady are petty, she focused on herself and the knight on his debts. The lady’s garden mage, Litain, occupies the role typically held by the knight in this kind of story. Due to his station his imagined relationship with his lady will always remain chaste. He embarks on a perilous journey on her behalf with the understanding she won’t even acknowledge his existence if he succeeds.

Litain succeeds, bit the sacred flame curses both the lady and her knight so that their appearances reflect the people they really are. The result isn’t pretty. Litain suffers no ill effects besides his own guilt, but he returns to the temple to confess his crimes. He is forgiven, although lady and her knight are left to their fates. It’s an interesting spin on stories involving courtly love.

Now, onto the content. A good short story has one point, a lone message it delivers to the reader. Anything in the story that doesn’t efficiently work towards this goal is wasted space. In this instance, meandering and unnecessary descriptions as well a tedious monologue in which the knight lays out a dilemma the reader already knows drag out what is a simple story at its heart. Worse, the characters lack personality and there’s no sense of urgency driving the narrative forward. The author not only wastes a lot of space, but also creates something as interesting as a prescription for antibiotics with what’s left.

Additionally, the author uses too much flowery language. Although the descriptions of Litain’s gardening, the appearance of the various characters, and the environs they occupy are decently written, they do absolutely nothing to move the story forward or set the tone. Descriptiveness is only useful if it helps set the mood. If it’s doing nothing more than telling the reader what something looks like at length, it has no place in a short story. The best writing in the world won’t save a three paragraph description of biscuits.

On top of these issues, the story never finds its stride, a problem made worse by the fact that it is divided into seven chapters with multiple breaks in most of them. There wasn’t enough relevant content to format it as a novella. Any time you’re writing a story that is essentially one thought and find yourself constantly breaking up the text with formatting divisions such as chapters, odds are you need to trim down the content and refocus on the one thought you’re trying to communicate to the reader.

Ultimately, this could have been a somewhat interesting story that played with the traditional formulas of courtly love. Instead, it amounted to little more than a pleasant description of gardening followed by a clumsy morality tale. I give it a 2/5.

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