The Silver Portal, by David J. Normoyle: A Review

Five weapons of power. Magic gone wrong, and instead of five trained warriors bonding to WeaponsofPower-Final-Smallthe weapons, five disparate young people from across the land become the weapons-bearers. Magically linked to the weapons, each must learn its powers and its responsibilities, evade those who want to use them for ill, and find each other across a wide and dangerous land. David J. Normoyle’s book The Silver Portal, the first book in a planned series, introduces us to the five protagonists: street urchin Twig; would-be-adventurer Lukin; noble Suma; Mortlebee, outcast from his religious community, and rebellious Simeon. Each character stands as individuals; each has their own difficulties with their unexpected weapons. Struggles with trust, ethics, personal convictions and the expectations of upbringing are central to each character’s growth and development through the story, but not in a heavy-handed or preachy way. Instead, these dilemmas are an integral part of the story, handled for the most part deftly and naturally.

The writing is competent and fluid, and at the right level of difficulty for the young-adult target audience. Readers are introduced to the history, politics and magic of the world in a gradual manner, often learning along with the characters. Although in a couple of places I found myself wishing for a deeper understanding of the history, enough is given to flesh out the story and the motivations of characters.

I found the plot a bit rushed towards the end, given the fairly slow development of during most of the book. But as part of a series, the pacing may be less uneven when the book is read as an introduction to the world and the characters rather than a stand-alone story. Overall, 4 stars, for a worthy addition to young-adult fantasy.

Hollo: The Gatecaster’s Apprentice, by Devon Michael: A Review

“There was a pool of darkness in the midst of the light, where the wind had come in Hollo The Gatecaster's Apprentice fullaccompanied by a shadow, a shadow with shoulders and a head that stretched into the lighted space on the floor at the bottom of the stairs.”

Reminiscent of Neil Gaiman, of the darkest episodes of Doctor Who, of some of the madness of Tim Burton, Devon Michael’s Hollo: The Gatecaster’s Apprentice is an artfully told, dark, and frightening coming-of-age tale with a twist. Hollo, the title character and protagonist, is a puppet made of wood, but one that can think and feel and move autonomously, created by her ‘father’ Fredric. (This might remind you of Pinocchio, but it shouldn’t.)

When Hollo reaches her twelfth birthday, Fredric takes her out into the world, a place far more complex and menacing than her sheltered world of Fredric’s house and the metal-casters workshop next door. Here she first hears the name Bander-Clou, and the words ‘Zygotic Pneuma’. Just what is she? And who is her father, really?

Clock-work soldiers of metal and wood pursue her. Hollo befriends a human girl; statues come to life; elemental forces protect her. Hollo’s world is under siege, and she is caught in a larger story, one older than she but one to which she belongs, and one in which she has an integral part to play. Michaels writes fluidly and effectively, his words invoking horror, happiness, fear and joy, the pacing moving the plot along quickly, but not so quickly the world-building is overlooked. This is a well-realized and developed world, one that the author leads the reader into by hints and clues: the reader learns the world along with Hollo.

Characters are well-developed, especially Hollo, whose innocence at the beginning is lightly but effectively shown, but also the supporting cast, from the malapropistic statue ‘The Countess’ to the marvellously conceived Lightening Man. And they all have a role to play; none of these characters, some of whom would not be out of place in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, are superfluous to the story.

Hollo: The Gatecaster’s Apprentice earns a rare five stars from me. I didn’t want to put it down, and yet conversely I rationed myself as to how much I read on any day, so as to savour the book and anticipate where it was going: it was far too good to read in one gulp. One caveat: in the e-book version I read, there were a few production errors, and a few errors that slipped through editing. In several places ‘won’t’ was written as ‘wont’; the common error of ‘broach’ for ‘brooch’ appeared a few times, along with the newly-frequent (in my experience of 55 years of reading) confusion of ‘piqued’ with ‘peaked’. One’s interest is piqued (excited); one’s interest in something can ‘peak’ (reach a height). Both can be correct, but are often, these days, confused. BUT: sometimes, as I wrote here, the overall quality of a book or a movie outweighs a few production errors, and this is one of those few cases. Regardless of the (easily-corrected) errors, Hollo deserves five stars.

I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Throne of Lies, by Sara Secora: A Review

On long-haul flights, I occasionally watch animated films, usually from Disney/Pixar, enjoying their satisfying simplicity; they’re a pleasurable, escapist way to pass a couple of hours. Throne of Lies, from new author Sara Secora, falls squarely into this category. If you’re a fan of Disney’s princess films, you’ll like this book.

Princess Amethysta Serelle of Northwind is the heir to the throne….but she doesn’t want to be. Betrothed to a man she dislikes, bored and irritated by the restrictions on her life, and puzzled by the odd and frightening things that happen when strong emotion grips her, she attempts to escape the expectations of her parents. Her journey of self-discovery is both aided and frustrated by her newest personal guard, the disturbingly handsome commoner, Soren.

Throne of Lies is a charming fairy-tale incorporating many of the aspects of classic, Disneyfied fairy-tale, but with a modern twist. Fingers are pricked on thorns, apples are eaten, shoes are tried on…but these are all peripheral to the story, background reminders of the genre. Nor is it the cautionary fairy-tale of the Brothers Grimm: there is nothing terribly dark here, although one scene does not flinch from the realities of what can happen to a young girl alone. But not all apparent monsters are what they seem, either.

The ARC I read had the usual number of production errors, which is to be expected from a pre-publication version. There were also a few grammatical errors, odd changes of tense within sentences, and non-traditional uses of words that affected flow and comprehension. The story, I felt, was a bit slow to get going; there are some early scenes that are too detailed or drawn out without substantially adding to either the world-building or the plot; this might discourage some readers.

I would have recommended this book for readers eleven and up, but two scenes in the book suggest that thirteen and up is a better age recommendation. My personal rating is 3 1/2 stars; this will be 4 stars on Goodreads and Amazon.

Playback Effect, by Karen A. Wyle: A Review

In Playback Effect, Karen Wyle has created a not-very-distant future in which technology has taken virtual reality down a different path, allowing users to experience emotion – whether exhilaration, fear, pleasure or loss – recorded during actual events, through a special helmet. Protagonist Wynne Cantrell, a lucid dreamer, creates and records dreams for this market, allowing customers to experience her emotions and reactions from her purposeful dreams.

When Wynne is a victim of a bomb, planted in a fountain designed by her husband, Hal Wakeman, suspicion falls on Hal and quickly translates to conviction. The punishment in this future world is simple: the criminal is forced to experience, through helmet technology, the suffering of his or her victims, recorded at the crime scene by special technicians. Hal begins his punishment by experiencing Wynne’s emotions, only to be reprieved by the governor.

Hal works to clear his name, reluctantly working with a detective who is not-so-secretly in love with Wynne. But as he does so, he notices his own world-view and reactions changing – or is it just him? Is there an unrevealed side effect to experiencing another’s emotions?

All of could have been the premise for a nuanced and considered examination of how and what we can ever hope to understand with regard to another human being, and what being privy to the true reactions and emotions of another could – for good or bad – mean for human relationships and self-knowledge. While competently written for the most part, I found Playback Effect basically bland. Characters seemed not to have any real difficulties, even in what should have been tense and emotion-ridden situations; too often I felt I was being told what Wynne or Hal – or other characters – were thinking or experiencing, rather than being shown.

After the resolution of the major conflict of the story, the novel becomes a bit disjointed as it attempts to clear up loose ends and create a happy and hopeful ending; the story may have benefited from more time explaining Wynne’s new dream work and its uses. I would classify Playback Effect as a romance novel, using a technological twist and some legal wrangling as the catalysts forcing a reaction in Wynne and Hal’s relationship, not a science fiction novel. Fans of Nicholas Sparks (I am not among that group) are likely to find Playback Effect satisfying. Three stars.

The author provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Devil’s Breath, by Jon P. Wells: A Review


Private security consultant Ian MacRae agrees to do a favour for a friend, meeting a low-level informant in Baghdad, a meeting that propels him into a complex and terrifying search for the truth of what happened at Chernobyl in 1986…and a frantic race to stop world annihilation.

Devil’s Breath is an enjoyable thriller, the pace rapid and the writing competent and well-tailored to the genre. Author Jon P. Wells brings together the thirty years’ past events at Chernobyl and modern-day headlines, weaving them together to create a plausible story. Like many of its genre, the plot is a bit dependent on some coincidences and connections, but no more so than most thrillers, and there are sufficient twists and turns to keep the reader guessing.

The main character is attractive: the protagonist, Ian MacRae, specializes in security analysis for non-governmental organizations working in remote and dangerous areas. Other characters are a bit two-dimensional, but again, in a way typical for the genre.  An occasional minor inaccuracy in facts – Dreamliners have two engines, not four, as one example –  could detract from the verisimilitude for some readers.  Devil’s Breath is easily as good as many thrillers available as airport paperbacks, and certainly better than some, and would translate well onto the screen. Four stars.

The author provided me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Child of the Light, by D.M. Wiltshire: A Review

Child of the LightChild of the Light is the first book by indie author D.M. Wiltshire. Falling squarely into the fantasy genre, Child of the Light is set in a well-realized world, Gaitan, where north and south have been at war for generations. Cael, the prince of the north, is suffering from an agonizing illness that is beyond the knowledge of the Master Healer, Caldor. The answer may lie in the medical knowledge of the province of Morza, but in one searing moment on the night of the 200 Year Moon, Morza – and all her people – are destroyed by a flash of light: a judgment from the gods, or a celebration gone horribly wrong?

When Caldor and his friend Foe go to investigate, they find two things: the healer Naygu’s book, hidden, safe, and written in a language Caldor can’t read, and the footsteps of a child, leaving the devastated city. Could this only survivor hold the key to the book and the healing of Cael?

Child of the Light is competently plotted and written. The author has woven together familiar constructs from fantasy, but in a way that presents them, not as stereotypes, but as valid and necessary aspects of Gaitan. None of the fantasy aspects felt imposed: there are dragons, not because a fantasy series needs dragons, but because they are simply part of Morza’s culture. The pace is slower than many current fantasy books, but as a reviewer I prefer this to rushed and incompletely realized stories where action takes precedence over character development and world-building. I was still left with many questions about Gaitan and its history and culture, but not in a frustrating way: I am confident these questions will be answered in future volumes. The main characters, Caldor and Foe, and the child Liora, are well-rounded, characters who develop over the story.

This is the first of a planned series, and so while most conflicts and challenges specific to the central characters are brought to a conclusion, other threads of the story are not, and the book ends with a tantalizing hint of future developments.

Niggles? Not many. There are the occasional awkward (to me) sentence or paragraph transition, and a couple of times I thought chapter structures, in terms of how the action developed in that chapter, had some misplaced scenes. A production error in the paperback version I read had one chapter single-spaced where the rest are more widely spaced. Fairly minor issues that didn’t detract from the overall story.

I’m giving Child of the Light four stars. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes true fantasy, or is looking for a change from dystopian futures. The sequel, Children of Sirphan, is in process, and I look forward to following the series.


The author provided me with a copy of this book as part of a contest prize.  This is an honest and unbiased review.

Book Reviewing Update

I am accepting books for review again. But….

I (reluctantly) need to become more selective about what I review.  Between the work I do as an editor and beta-reader and the reviewing  (and the rest of my life), I’m not finding enough time for my own writing.  And I am a writer first, as I know you will all understand.

So while I am not closing the door on reviewing, I will be accepting fewer books.  When you submit a review request, please include a few pages or link to a preview, as well as your webpage/Amazon/Goodreads links, and tell me a little bit about you as a writer.  If you already have a fistful of reviews, I may decline; if I think I can’t do justice to your book, I will decline. I don’t want to add to the stress of marketing/publicizing indie books…believe me, I know about it.

And I promise this…I will reply to you.  Maybe not immediately…but if this page says I’m accepting books for review, then I will reply, even if I’m declining to review your book, and I will let you know the reasons for my decision.

Otherwise, the general premise of what and how I review remains the same.


I AM SLEEPLESS: Sim 299, by Johan Twiss: A Review

i am sleeplessAidan is a prime. Primes have special powers, but each of those powers comes with a price, a defect that limits the prime in some significant way. Except for Aidan: his multiple prime gifts have not come with any defects, except that he doesn’t sleep.

Aidan, in his sleepless hours, meets secretly with General Estrago, who provides him with forbidden books for reflection and discussion, but additionally, Aidan spends his time working through the levels of the simulations designed to prepare each coterie of primes for battle against the Splicers, the creatures that sent this race from their home planet in search of safety. Aidan has reached Sim 299, the top level and a level higher than any other prime.

In attempting to conquer the challenges of Sim 299, Aidan must seek the assistance of both his friends and his enemies among the prime coteries, endangering them not only in the simulation but in real life. As the battles become all too real, Aidan uncovers a web of secrecy, betrayal and rebellion at the highest levels.

I AM SLEEPLESS: Sim 299 is science fiction for the young adult/new adult reader. It is fast-paced, and the world-building unfolds competently through both the narrative and through ‘quotes’ from a character’s book at the beginning of each chapter. The concept of cohorts of young people being trained for battle is familiar from books such as Ender’s Game, but that very familiarity helps the reader in accepting and believing in the story, which is at its heart a quest story.

A couple of things niggled at me. I would have preferred the information about each type of prime, their gifts and defects, to have been presented at the beginning of the book, not at the end: I found that trying to sort out what each prime was capable of distracted me a bit from the flow of the narrative. As well, Aidan’s world contains beasts which are apparently hybrids between (for the most part) familiar animals: the cobramoth for one. These animals are charmingly illustrated in the book (by the author’s wife), but I wanted an explanation for them. Are they genetic modifications? I would also hope for some stronger female characters in the sequel; in this first volume they seemed to me a bit more like adjuncts than full participants in the story.

I AM SLEEPLESS: Sim 299 is the first book in a series. It ends with the story not complete: Aidan and his friends have overcome one challenge, but many more lie ahead. The characters and the conflicts presented were compelling; I look forward to the next installment. My overall rating is 3 1/2 stars for this debut novel.

The author provided me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.  The opinions expressed here are mine alone.