Orconomics – J. Zachary Pike

I think that one of the most rewarding parts of sifting through self published books is that despite the number of wretched books, and the even greater number of simply mediocre books, you’ll occasionally find a gem sparkling through. It’s for these moments that I write this blog. These are the books that need someone to stand up and shout, nay demand, they receive wider attention. I only wonder how many more books there are out there that I’m missing. If only there was more time to read. Then again, I don’t think there could ever be enough.
    Enough with the opining, let’s get on to the review; it is what you came here for is it not? Orconomics by J. Zachary Pike is the gem I was referring to in my preamble. Like most of my recent reviews I was contacted by Pike to review Orconomics, though I received no compensation and it has no affect on my review. I get daily, and sometimes more frequent, requests for reviews, so I have to narrow down the books somehow. Orconomics instantly grabbed with it’s amazing cover and, of course, the name. I’m currently working my way through Capitol in the Twenty-first Century so any sort of lighter treatment of the subject snatched at my attention. The saying goes don’t judge a book by its cover; but it can tell you a lot about the amount of effort the author put into the publication. With this strong of a cover, and a catchy title to boot, I had no choice but to read Orconomics.
    The book starts off in the middle of your standard World of Warcraft quest, an unnamed warrior has cleared out a band of goblins from a barn and now proceeds to the farmer in order to claim his reward. Setting the tone for the book, the farmer starts to haggle with the warrior over the cost of deed, and if it was indeed completed. As if to emphasize his point, one last goblin suddenly breaks cover and runs off to find cover. After a minute of debate to determine if merely driving off the goblins counts as defeating them (turns out it does not) the warrior gives chase. Luckily for the goblin the chase ends with him waking up a rather hungover and irritated dwarf, named Gorm. While not really taking pity on the goblin, Gorm is irritated by the warrior, makes some snide remarks, and before you know it a fight has broken out and ended. The warrior ends up on the ground. After looting the warrior, as is only proper, Gorm starts out on his way, only now shadowed by the goblin.
    From here the adventure really starts and the fun begins. Don’t let the opening chapter fool you though; there’s more to Orconomics than simple hack and slash. I’m not going to go into the details, I’ll leave you to find those out for yourself, but in Orconomics Pike examines several interesting ramifications of the adventuring world. There were many times that I laughed out loud while reading it, and more than one moment that made me really sit and think. The cast of characters that Pike assembles is fantastic, from a halfing portfolio manager (securitization of potential returns on quest loot is the new big thing) to a famous elvan ranger who’s addicted to health potions. The plot is also well done, with enough twists and turns to keep everyone satisfied, but not so complex that it detracts from the lighthearted feel of the book.
   Anyone who enjoys fantasy, MMOs or role playing should carve out the time to read Orconomics; it’s well worth the effort. You can get Orconomics here.

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From the Sky – Arrival – David McGowan

Arrival, the first installment of David McGowan’s From the Sky series, tells the story of the opening days of an alien invasion. Luckily McGowan understands that this is not enough for a compelling story, and creates a memorable cast of characters to traverse these events. The story unfolds in a rural town in eastern California, far away from any potential outside help.

Barrett Holroyd is the first character introduced, and the most compelling. Barrett is an older man struggling with the recent death of his wife and lingering PTSD symptoms from his time in Desert Storm. When differences with the sheriff caused him to leave the town’s small police force Barrett opened a barber shop. We meet Barrett as he’s getting drunk at the town diner, filling the time by alternating between antagonizing younger patrons and flirting with the owner. When he goes to leave he finds he car won’t start, and so walks the five miles home. The walk ends up taking four hours and begins the strange events of the next few days.

After leaving Barrett we next meet his daughter, sitting at home worrying about him. This really only serves to tell us a little more about Barrett. Then it’s on to the local insane asylum, where we’re introduced to the local psychopath, Earl Buckley. Buckley soon escapes and provides a more human plot in order to counterpoint the alien arrival. Among the other characters we meet are Luke, a teenager torn between his love for his girlfriend and his mentally abusive family, Sheriff Jim Hoolihan, who’s considering retirement more seriously every day, his son-in-law who is a deputy struggling through a childless marriage, and two friends up from the city, Milo and Deke. The large cast of characters shows off McGowan’s strengths and weaknesses.

One thing that struck me almost immediately while reading Arrival was that each of the characters was distinct and had at least one interesting conflict. I really like that McGowan didn’t decided to just tell the story of an alien invasion; he is telling the story of a group of people who have plenty of issues to solve even without an added menace. In fact the aliens really have very little to do with the plot, something that hopefully will be resolved in future books. The story should be about more than their arrival, but I think that they should play a larger part in what happens. This is not to say the aliens do nothing, they provide the characters with information that advances their conflicts and create some interesting situations, but I never felt any fear of them. As complex at the other characters are I hope the Aliens at least gain greater depth in the future.

Dealing with a large cast of characters can be difficult, and it’s here that McGowan shows that he’s out of his depth. While there are good story elements once more than one main character is in the room the perspective starts to wander. The viewpoint switches mid paragraph and the tone that each character set out in their introductory chapters is lost. It’s a shame; setting individual tones was something that McGowan started out doing really well. Along with this loss of tone, and relaxation of viewpoint, as more characters come onstage McGowan starts to miss some continuity details. None are major issues, but it feels as if the book was not proofread enough.

With Arrival McGowan has a good story on his hands and demonstrates a real knack for developing compelling characters. Hopefully with some more practice he can fix some of the execution issues he has when dealing with the large cast. There’s potential here, but it needs refinement. If you would like to check out From the Sky – Arrival by David McGowan you can find it here. It’s on Kindle Unlimited so you can try it out risk free.

 

Disclaimer: McGowan requested this review after finding my site via www.theindieview.com and offered to provide a free copy of his book; though since I have Kindle Unlimited I did not take him up on his offer.

 

Note: As I was putting together this post I noticed the cover image of Arrival has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, except maybe the three points of light. It really looks amateurish. McGowan could use a better cover artist.

Warrior Lore – Ian Cumpstey

Warrior Lore by Ian Cumpstey is a collection of translated Scandinavian folk songs first written in the sixteen hundreds. They detail several episodes of the more marital lore of Scandinavian folklore. I stayed up late one night and read all ten stories out loud, which I think is how everyone should experience them. The only improvement could be if I had been sitting in front or a fine on a winter night.

The stories themselves are entertaining, and include everything from quests to prove one’s fighting ability to Thor cross dressing and getting married. Some are quite depressing and others, particularly the Thor story I mentioned earlier, are hilarious.

I don’t feel qualified to analyse the actual translations; I haven’t studied the original Scandinavian or read any other translations of the original work. There were several places in the poems where the rhyming verse was broken, but I don’t know if this was an issue with the source text or the translation. And I’m sure there are cases where it is impossible to create a translation that preserves the verse in it’s entirety. Overall the poems flowed well and maintained a rhythm.

As I said earlier I do not feel qualified to give a comprehensive review of Warrior Lore, but I really enjoyed reading it and have put Cumpstey other work on my reading list. I hope that he continues to work on bringing more of these delightful stories into English.

You can get Warrior Lore, and you really should, here.

The Narrow Path to War – DL Frizzell

The Narrow Path to War  by DL Frizzell is a debut novel that attempts to straddle the line between western and science fiction. It is the first in a planned six volume set. I was contacted through the Indie View to review the book and received an Advance Review Copy.

The Narrow Path to War starts with an introduction to it’s cast of major players. Alex, a teenage boy who lost his parents years ago and has become emotionally distant. Redland, a marshall sporting a gruff demeanor, and who has yet to discover he has a heart of gold. (Seriously, it’s such a trope I can’t help but expect it.) Daigre, a dishonored warrior from the enemy territory forced to play errand boy for a spy.  From the start it is very difficult to determine how these players will interact, but since I was reading the first book of a planned six book series I assumed that they were the start of the large and diverse cast typical of an epic series.

The world that Frizzell takes us to is unique. Generations ago humans from Earth came to the planet Arion in six colony ships. After landing the technology on these ships soon degraded due to powerful magnetic storms raging across the planet. The humans soon lost the ability to use almost any technology that used electricity. Another interesting feature is the geography of the planet. Hit by a large asteroid it is tilted on it’s axis. Half of the planet is constantly bathed in light, the other half darkness. It is on the light hemisphere that the story takes place. Two large civilizations, the Plainsmen and the Jovians, Alex and Redland belonging to the former, Daigre to the latter. They are separated by a natural cliff wall broken only in one place. Six years ago they fought a war and now an uneasy peace lasts.

However, it is not long before the plot begins to coalesce, and the actors start moving together. It is soon clear that the few characters that we start out with are going to remain for a long time. The book really gets started when Alex discovers his friend being tortured by the spy Daigre is serving. This sends Alex on a journey across the country.

Ok, so we’ve now got the ingredients for a pretty exciting yarn. Of course the characters are starting rather bland, but the world is unique and poised for great things to happen. Unfortunately The Narrow Path to War fails to live up to it’s promise. There’s always a chance that the series improves, but with a weak first book I’m going to avoid it. Though the characters are given plenty of room for growth they have none. Not only do they not grow, but their personalities get annoying. Alex, the teenager who thinks he knows everything, spends the entire book excelling at whatever he does and ordering around adults. Unfortunately he is always on the right path and doing the right things. What kind of teenager is always right?

Another issue I had was with the pacing. Frizzell seems to stumble from one scene to the next without pulling the reader with him. While occasionally the characters will come up with a plan of action and execute it other scenes will be injected that don’t make sense. I don’t think I should ever be trying to figure out how the characters got where they are, at least not in as linear a story as The Narrow Path to War. If the characters were great, which I’ve already mentioned, or the dialog interesting, which is sometimes painful to read, I could forgive the pacing. Unfortunately, though, it’s not even the biggest issue.

The one thing that I have decided frustrates me more than almost anything thing else in a book with decent grammar and spelling is a floating point of view. What I mean is that first the reader is in one character’s head, hearing their thoughts and knowing how they feel. Then, maybe in the next paragraph we are in someone else’s head. Now many people do this, but they use clear delineation between viewpoints. Having one chapter in one viewpoint and then the next in another is common and generally allows the author to tell a grander story. What I’m talking about is seeing the same scene from multiple perspectives while never really being sure who’s head we’re in. Frizzell takes this bouncing to an extreme. He will shift between viewpoints in the same paragraph. He even jumps to unknown characters for a sentence or two of their thoughts. It is totally jarring and makes the book a jumbled mess of a read.

Yet again I let myself get excited about an interesting premise that could not be held up by it’s writing or story construction. The Narrow Path to War is not worth your time at this point. Maybe with a rewrite or two it could be good; the right elements are there, they just need to be put together better.

If you’re still interested in checking out The Narrow Path to War you can find it here.

This Languid Earth – Paul McCormack

I got This Languid Earth as a review copy in order to do a review in this space. I had never read Paul McCormack before; he found me through The Indie View. This Languid Earth is a book that struggles to find a genre. It starts as a paranormal book, then gradually becomes a romance, and then, quite suddenly, it becomes science fiction. I worry that it will struggle to draw the appeal of a wide audience because of this.

The book begins with an introduction to Lyle, a rather typical cubicle worker. We see Lyle throughout a boring day, a life that so many people lead and hate. I immediately thought of Edward Norton in the beginning of Fight Club,  Ron Livingston from Office Space, or even Keanu Reeves from the Matrix, all before the story started. In our first introduction to Lyle he is visited by a ghost who calls herself Nicole and seems to know everything about him. We leave Lyle as he is tuning into the broadcast of a radio preacher. After a long sermon by the preacher, the first of many, we are introduced to Moses, the preacher’s organist and are told how he met the preacher. Once this is done the book then transitions into a series of letters from Lyle and Moses to unknown parties.

As I’m sure you can see This Languid Earth jumps around a lot. I found it to be quite frustrating, it seemed that as soon as I started to become invested in one storyline I was thrown into another. Then, by the time I got back to the first one I had forgotten too much to care. I think the book could have benefitted from some restructuring. If the storylines intertwined they would be more likely to hold the reader’s attention. Intertwining the stories might also help to grab the reader’s attention in the beginning of the book. As it is I struggled through the first half. It wasn’t until then that the conflict of the book was revealed.

The conflict itself was also a let down. The premise is really well thought out, and I like the eventual solution, I just think that it could have used some more attention. McCormack spent a lot of time on a love story that was only one aspect of a complex plot; he should have spent more on the conflict that this love story created. Getting focused on the love story aspect also messed up the pacing. I noticed a tendency for McCormack to get bogged down in details, for example spending two pages describing Lyle’s entire apartment just for it to play no larger role in the later story, and I think this is what happened with the love story.

As Vonnegut says “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action;” McCormack struggles with this. There are entire sections of This Languid Earth that seem to have no apparent purpose. Maybe showing Lyle having “the talk” with his father introduced us to a keystone of his character, but if it did I certainly didn’t pick up on what it was. Many parts of This Languid Earth are a slog to get through, and I think cleaning them up would go a long way to improving the pace of the story.

For all of its faults I still enjoyed This Languid Earth. McCormack creates some very interesting concepts and deals with them in unique ways. I especially like the ending. This Languid Earth has a lot of potential, but I think it still needs some work before it can live up to its potential.

 

If you are interested in checking out This Languid Earth you can find it here.

 

Masque of Shadow – T.A. Miles

Masque of Shadow by T.A. Miles is a dark fairy tale, not my words though they are appropriate, in novella form. It, like most of the books I’ve recently reviewed, was refereed to me by The Indie View, a website that helps connect authors and reviewers. At less than a ten thousand words Masque of Shadow was a quick read.

As is common in books this short the main character, Estelle, is the only viewpoint character. After seeing her younger sister, the only family she has left, die and have her soul stolen by an unnamed monster, Estelle is bent on revenge. She kills herself, and when the same monster comes to take her soul kills it. This sets her off on an adventure through the underworld.

The premise is so unique, and lives up so well to the stories promise of being a dark fairy tale, that I was instantly hooked. The writing is also great. I think there should always be a sense of wonder in a fairy tale, and Miles perfectly captures this feeling. The language is indulgent, but never detracts from the story. Some authors spend so much time trying to craft the perfect turn of phrase that they lose track of the storytelling. Miles never does.

Masque of Shadow has the same emphasis on morals as all fairy tales, but manages to show them in a unique way. There is a romantic subplot that I wasn’t really sold on, but that’s a small complaint. I am planning on looking some of the other books that Miles has written; Masque of Shadow convinced me that she has the talent to make it worthwhile to invest in her other work.

You can get Masque of Shadow, and you really should, here.

 

Shadowcursed – Gelo R. Fleisher

Shadowcursed, by Gelo R. Fleisher, is a fantasy novella about an aging thief. At thirty thousand words it’s not exactly short, but the story was so engaging that I finished it in one sitting. Interestingly the author created a game, or more appropriately mod of Thief, to go along with the novella. I’m not sure if the game is meant to accompany the novella, or vice versa.

Shadowcursed starts by introducing the reader to an aging thief named Bolen. As the novella opens he decides to pull one last heist, while he still can. Afterwards there’s an exciting sequence of the actual heist, including some very good passages that reference Bolen’s age. While I have not been in the aging athlete position, and Fleisher is too young to be there, his writing of Bolen’s struggles with getting older and the effect that has on his body is perfect.

While the heist is in progress Fleisher also brings in aspects of the larger world. The only downside to this is that the world he creates is so interesting that I wish that there was more about it. The concept of a lord driven mad by a curse, and being controlled through that curse, is fresh. Then to have the lord start to regain his sanity is brilliant. During the heist Bolen over hears the mad lord speaking and I was startled by how sane this mad lord sounds. We discover quickly that Bolen stole the object saving the mad lord from his curse. Then the fun begins.

I was really impressed with Shadowcursed. When a book is promoted via a gimmick, in this case a game, I’m always slightly leary. Is the gimmick there as a valid marketing technique, or is it trying to prop up a substandard work. In this case it is simply marketing. Shadowcursed could easily stand on it’s own. In fact my only complaint is that the story is not longer. Another complaint I quickly manufactured was that Shadowcursed is Fleisher’s only work. On his blog there is no mention of anything but his work on further games. Hopefully they come with additional books.

In terms of mechanics I have very few complaints. There are a few too many times where the action starts with Bolen waking up; I think it’s a bit cliche at this point. We could have explored a little more of the Mad Lord’s rise and fall from sanity. There are some scenes with him later in the novella that could handle his madness better. I wish he had done better work on the cover, it seems rather armature and there’s such potential for a really compelling cover.  Still, these are minor quibbles, and more personal preference than hard and fast things done wrong. The prose is good, if nothing spectacular, and the story structure is done very well.

I highly recommend that you check out Shadowcursed. It will only take you an hour or two to read, but the payoff is great. I also hope that Fleisher comes back to writing, I would buy anything else he writes in an instant.

You can pick up Shadowcursed here.