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.

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.

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.