Willful Child – Steven Erikson

I’m not even sure what compelled me to pre-order Willful Child by Steven Erikson, at the time I had never read anything of his. (Don’t worry, I’m actually working my way through the first Malazan book now.) Actually like so many other things I had totally forgotten about it, so I didn’t even know what I was getting into when it arrived. I started reading, and struggled to stop. It’s not often that I’ve laughed this much while reading. The whole book is a roller coaster, jumping from one thrill to the next.
Willful Child is a homage to the glory days of Star Trek: The Original Series. The book follows Hadrian Alan Sawback the captain of the Willful Child “bravely going where they really shouldn’t.” Hadrian is a standing for Kirk, although he takes all of Kirks traits and magnifies them. You could almost argue that it’s the way any rational outsider would look at Kirk, at least if they, like myself, had only watched the highlights of TOS.
Willful Child starts with a Hadrian receiving a commission on a new top of the line ship, with a hand picked crew. In this case hand picked refers to Hadrian choosing only the most attractive women in the service to serve under his command. He spends a large portion of the book trying to sleep with various members of his crew. Given orders to investigate a counterfeit sports apparel smuggling ring, (Can you think of a better way to set the tone for this book? I sure can’t.) the Willful Child departs Earth’s solar system only allowing for a brief delay to transform a group of alien colonizers of Neptune into sendoff fireworks.
Hadrian brings chaos, and an unparalleled willingness to engage the enemy in fistfights wherever he goes. He refuses to use a personal shield because without danger life’s no fun. His preferred method of subduing an enemy ship is to teleport to the bridge and fight the enemy captain, ignoring trivial matters like size discrepancies and reasonable tactics. Obviously, Hadrian brings this same attitude to every situation he faces to incredible results. And I mean incredibly entertaining, not incredibly effective.
Erikson creates a hilarious homage to the Star Trek universe with Willful Child. If you liked Redshirts, if you grew up with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or if you just love Star Trek you’ll enjoy Willful Child. I can’t suggest strongly enough that you get your hands on a copy. You’ll thank me.

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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.

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.

Six Tolls of the Bell and Other Mystery Stories by Marco Barbaro

Six Tolls of the Bell and Other Mystery Stories by Marco Barbaro is a small collection recently translated from Italian into English. The three stories are of the horror vein and are The Chosen One, The Ring and the Swamp, and Six Tolls of the Bell. I will first give some notes on the overall presentation and then get into the individual stories.

When looking at the book’s Amazon page the first thing that stuck me is that the title was not properly capitalized. I fixed it here simply because it bother me. Then, while reading the book, I realized that it contains no mysteries, only horror stories. My first impression was not a good one. I don’t know if it was an issue with the translation or the original Italian, but there were at least two instances where someone was referred to as “Mr. ***.” We all use placeholders in our writing, but there should be no indication of them in a published book. From the beginning I was given the impression that the work was put together haphazardly.

Barbaro also includes a personal introduction to each story. I’m not sure that I like this technique. Having some background knowledge of what inspired the author didn’t really add anything to my enjoyment of the story. I could see doing a sort of Twilight Zone type introduction, and maybe that’s what Barbaro was trying to pull off, but his execution didn’t work for me.

Now, let’s get on to the stories.

The Chosen One opens with a man waking up strapped to a marble slab in a cave. He looks around and sees candles and incense. Before long a hooded figure comes in and tells him he’s due to be sacrificed in twenty hours. Ok, I’m hooked. A cool premise, where I know nothing about what’s going on. Dark and creepy already; it’s exactly what I want from a horror story. From here the story proceeds pretty well. The writing is not superb, but doesn’t hinder the execution of the story. The story builds well and I liked the climax. What I didn’t like is that after the climax Barbaro felt the need to include all the details of how the main character ended up on the slab. With a few paragraphs he takes away all of the mystery. The story would be significantly better without the last page.

This issue of over explanation rears it’s head again in the next story, The Ring and the Swamp. Here we open on a serial killer who is dumping bodies in a swamp, but is followed on his way back home. Soon we meet a detective investigating the murders. I’m not really sure what role the detective plays in the story. The conflict is really between the serial killer and the monster hunting him. Again, I can’t stress enough  how much I enjoyed the concept. Unfortunately it gets bogged down with unnecessary elements that dilute the important parts of the story.

Six Tolls of the Bell suffers from a different issue. First, the majority of the story is told to the main character. Honestly, I don’t think that this helps with a horror story. When the main character is barely paying attention to the story why should I care? Now, when the story is proven true later I suppose it could be an interesting tug on the emotions. However when it gets to the ending, where all of the main characters fears are proven true, the action is rushed. The tug of emotions that could have been established is ignored. Another opportunity wasted.

Overall Marco Barbaro has some really good, and genuinely frightening ideas. Unfortunately the ideas are crippled by poor execution and a lack of attention to detail. Barbaro is just starting out as an author, hopefully he can refine his craft in order to bring his ideas, which I really enjoy, to life with the skill they deserve.

If you are interested in checking out the stories (and you can get them via Kindle Unlimited) here is where you can find Six Tolls of the Bell and Other Mystery Stories.