Enhanced: Book 6 in the Freya Snow series: A Review

The most accomplished and polished book of the series.

Enhanced, the sixth book of the Snowverse series by L.C. Mawson, is the most enhancedaccomplished and polished book of the series. Freya Snow, the magical, autistic, bi-sexual protagonist, has grown up; no longer a frightened and unsure teen, she’s a competent, capable woman no longer afraid to ask for help. And she falls in love for the first time.

Freya is still young, so she’s still growing into her powers, and still determining her place in the magical universe. Her self-understanding and her willingness to accept responsibility have matured along with her (or are those parts of the definition of maturity?). But she’s still making mistakes, of course, or there wouldn’t be much of a story!

I found this book to be tighter in terms of story structure and pacing than some of the earlier books, more focused and with some needed reminders of previous occurrences that influence the events in Enhanced. Freya’s central conflict regarding her Dark and Light bloodlines is furthered without dominating the story.

The author has created a complex and evolving world in the Snowverse, and I definitely recommend reading the books from the beginning to fully appreciate the character and conflict development. Five stars for Enhanced.

Regolith, by H. William Glenbrook: A Review

I liked half of it and not the other half.

I am of two minds about this book (a debut science fiction novel by author H. Williamregolith Glenbrook), because I liked half of it but not the other half. Two interconnecting stories make up Regolith: one is a fairly standard ‘spaceship crew fighting aliens’ story; one is a tale of corporate research, in-fighting, and one-upmanship that provides the climax and ultimately the back-story to the other half.

The half I liked is the ‘battle against the aliens’ story. It’s a pretty standard shoot-em-up for the most part; while set in space, it could have been set in any troubled area of the world, with a few changes in technology.  Written in spare, staccato prose, it still manages to convey emotion as well as action.

The corporate half, while ultimately necessary for the denouement, I didn’t like. Subject to too many clichés and wooden characters, as well as awkward dialogue, it might have been better addressed as a prologue to the main story, dealt with in a few pages of exposition until necessarily being reintroduced near the end of the main narrative.

While overall the story could be read as a metaphor for every misguided intervention in world politics made by various governments and countries over the centuries, three stars is the best I can do, and perhaps generously, for this debut novel.

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

Shaman Machine the Mentor, by Trenlin Hubbert: A Review

I find myself contemplating the themes of, and questions raised in, Shaman Machine the Mentor well after I finished the book. They are not superficial questions, but ones that ask us to think about the meaning of ‘humanity’.

On one level a meditation on sentience and consciousness, on another a story of shaman-machineexploration and adventure on a water-world, Shaman Machine the Mentor contains some beautifully-written and insightful passages:  “A commotion of scraping chairs opened a slim gap of welcome.”; or, “I grew up in a house filled with chaos,” he replied. “I was crowded out by indifference.  There was no room for a child in there.”

Both these passages occur in the first third of the book, where the writing is noticeably stronger than the rest of the narrative.  After a promising beginning, introducing us to the robot Chance, the wandering free spirit Ziggy, and the contained city in which Ziggy tries to find some semblance of freedom, the story extends outward to encompass another group of characters, and then another, and a different world.  In this widening of the scope and themes, the story loses its centre. The core characters in the next two-thirds of the book, the troubled architect Alex and the bot Chance, are trying understand each other and their worlds. Alex uses shamanic drugs and alcohol to try to still his critical, sarcastic mind but refuses to accept a different reality when it’s presented to him.  Chance uses its programming and its capability to learn from conversation to expand and encompass the new experiences presented to it. The machine appears to be master to the man.

There’s a good novel in Shaman Machine the Mentor. The book would have benefited from a developmental editor who could have guided the author towards a tighter and more focused narrative. As it stands now, there are too many events that don’t seem to really add to the story and an almost scatter-gun approach to events which the reader then needs to tie together. Some of the technology as proposed was fascinating but not fully fleshed out: the use of sound-clips from a new world to create interwoven agglomerations of spheres as the building blocks for a new city on that world, for example, should have been more important than it was, given the world’s reaction to that city. I wanted to know why the sentient beings of this world reacted as they did to a city based on their own ambient sounds, and how (if) that technology was used as they moved forward.  And while the ending is ultimately beautiful and appropriate, it is reached as an epilogue.

But regardless of its flaws, both the structural ones I have discussed and its need for a copy-editor to weed out inappropriate commas and semi-colons, and the very occasional mis-used word, I find myself contemplating the themes of, and questions raised in, Shaman Machine the Mentor well after I finished the book.  They are not superficial questions, but ones that ask us to think about the meaning of ‘humanity’.  Overall, 3 stars.

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

Witch (Freya Snow Book 5) by L.C. Mawson: A Review

Witch is perhaps a more thoughtful book than earlier installments, with less physical action and more development of, and insight into, Freya’s character and personality.

Witch is the fifth book in the Freya Snow series, following the experiences of autistic, bi-witchsexual, non-human Freya as she learns to navigate both the human world and the world of magic, discovering the complexities of both.

In the human world, Freya has a job as a barista; in the non-human world, she is mostly concerned with finding a way to lift a curse that has placed a friend into a coma-like state. As she solves this problem – with noticeably more skill in negotiation and communication than in earlier books – she also learns more about herself, her non-human family and her place in the hierarchy of magic. Freya’s friends play a larger part in this book; her human family is barely seen, and this is appropriate given Freya is older and more independent.

Freya’s developing maturity is paralleled by author L.C. Mawson’s development as a writer. Witch is perhaps a more thoughtful book than earlier installments, with less physical action and more development of, and insight into, Freya’s character and personality. The ending of Witch is indicative of Freya’s ability to accept responsibility, moving her from adolescent to adult.

Four stars to a pivotal installment in the series. For an overview of all the Freya Snow books, I suggest the author’s site here.

Points of Possibility, by Norman Turrell: A Review

a fine collection of short stories ranging through most aspects of the fantasy/sci-fi genres, perfect for Hallowe’en…

Norman Turrell’s rich imagination encompasses pure science fiction, fantasy, steampunk points-of-possibilityand horror, and in his short story collection Points of Possibility he considers the world from all these viewpoints. Competently crafted, the stories range from brief vignettes (From the Grave to the Grave, Little Angel) to more traditionally structured stories (Paranoia, The Muse).

Several of the stories have complex societies, not our own, for their setting, and the events of the story are not always sufficient to answer the reader’s questions about that society. In itself that’s not a bad thing; a brief glimpse into a different world structure can be both tantalizing and thought-provoking, but in the story Court I found it insufficient to make the story satisfying, whereas in It Came from Pluto there was no such lack.

One other fairly minor niggle was a tendency in some stories (the final paragraph of Change of Mind, especially) to tell us, rather than show us, what is happening in the mind of the protagonist (compare its last paragraph with the last paragraph of Little Angel, where the words of the protagonist there serve to give full realization to the horror, rather than just describe it). But overall, this is a fine collection of short stories ranging through most aspects of the fantasy/sci-fi genres, perfect for Hallowe’en (or any other time). Four stars.

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

Wonderworld: The Musical, by Brett Schieber & Tree: A Review

This is a story about overcoming fears and obstacles, about believing in yourself and your talents.

Independent reviewers can be asked to review some strange and wonderful works, but Wonderworld is the most unusual independent project to cross my desk. I’m not even sure what to call it: there is a book, but there is also a YouTube video, and an audio-book musical, and songs to be downloaded from iTunes. And it’s all – well – wonderful.

wonderworld

Wonderworld is the story of Max, a boy who has difficulty relating to the real world. He prefers his fantasy world, the world he creates in his art. Max could be a lot of the students I used to work with: maybe he has an anxiety disorder, maybe he is on the autism spectrum, maybe he’s just really shy, but it doesn’t really matter. Authors/composers/artists Brett Scheiber and Tree (aka the musical duo Arcanum) and illustrator Simona Poteska have meshed words, music and art to bring Max and his difficulties to life in a way that children and adults can both understand. The story isn’t told in a complicated way (but neither are Max’s fears and feelings diminished); the songs have straightforward messages and are easy to learn, but aren’t cutsey children’s songs, and the artwork captures Max and his fears in style that is neither too dark nor too upbeat, but that fits the mood of the story perfectly.

This is a story about overcoming fears and obstacles, about believing in yourself and your talents. It could be argued that this process is simplified in Wonderworld, but no more so than the story of the redeeming power of faith and love is simplified in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Were I still working in education, I can think of a dozen situations where I’d have used Wonderworld in both classroom and individual situations.

Wonderworld has been produced with artistic integrity and professionalism. I’d also say it’s been produced with great love and deep empathy. I’m giving it 5 stars.

You can watch Wonderworld on YouTube, and download the audiobook musical and each individual song (including instrumentals) on iTunes, Amazon, and Bandcamp. The hard cover, full colour book is also available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and https://store.bookbaby.com/book/Wonderworld-The-Musical.

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

Xan and Ink, by Zak Zyz: A Review

Once the author had his characters where he wanted them, the story found its feet.

Many fantasy books start out well but lose their way somewhere in the middle. Xan and Ink does the opposite: I found the first third of thxanandinkcovere book fairly rocky going, but once the author had his characters where he wanted them – trying to stay alive in the insect jungle of Kalparcimex, caught up in the feud between the Ranger Xan and the sorceress Ink – the story found its feet.

Banished brothers Sandros and Gregary, and their companions Brakkar and Osolin, are on a quest, to find a way to rid Joymont of the insectine creatures that are destroying it. Chance takes them in search of the legendary Xan, scholar and ranger of the Kalparcimex, to ask for his help. Both the world and the characters the author has created are complex and multi-layered, and we are given only glimpses of the back-story and motivations of the four sworn to find help for Joymont. We learn the most about Osolin, the escaped, condemned slave. Nor do we learn much more about Xan or Ink, except hints and little tastes of what made them who they are, and the past history between them. I found this intriguing; others may find it disappointing. We are only beginning to understand the complexity of the characters when the book ends, but as the ending demands a sequel, more may be revealed if that sequel is forthcoming.

The insect jungle, the Kalpa, is one of the most unusual and creative ways to pit the environment against the protagonists that I’ve come across. The insects – ranging from annoying to fatal, from mindless to sentient – are antagonists that most of us can easily imagine – anyone who’s hiked in a mosquito-laden wetland, or fought off blackflies or sand-fleas or leeches (or the black wasp of Uganda that stings just for the love of it) – can extend that experience to the horror of the Kalpa. It had me shuddering more than once.

Sexually explicit, this is a book for adults, not younger readers. Xan and Ink was far from the usual fantasy that crosses my desk, and I appreciated it more for that. Four stars.

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

A Star-Reckoner’s Lot, by Darrell Drake: A Release-Day Review

Darrell Drake’s historical fantasy A Star-Reckoner’s Lot introduces us to the mythology of Sassanian Iran.

We are used to fantasies that involve either the magical, fey beings of Northern Europe, or star-reckonerthose of Victorian horror novels. Darrell Drake’s historical fantasy A Star-Reckoner’s Lot introduces us to the mythology of Sassanian Iran, its beings of good and evil, and the complex idea of star-reckoning, a type of sorcery that channels the warring powers of the heavens to the benefit – or detriment – of humankind.

Revolving around three main characters: Ashtadukht, the Star-Reckoner; Tirdad, her cousin and bodyguard, and Waray, a half-div (half-demon, more or less) stray befriended by Ashtadukht, A Star-Reckoner’s Lot is a long story in terms of passing time; it unfolds in a series of vignettes; the reader may sometimes have difficulty in grasping the immediate importance of the events, or the connections between them. Nor is the reader given much backstory; the world, both seen and unseen, its characters, and the interactions between them unfold gradually, but the story moves inexorably towards its climax and conclusion.

Ashtadukht is a difficult character to get to know, and perhaps too a difficult character to truly like, stoic and bitter, but our understanding of her and what drives her develops over the story; in the end, we understand her, and likely have sympathy for her. Tirdad is perhaps the least developed of the three main characters, but he too is a character of dimension faced with difficult choices. Waray, the half-div, is on the other hand the most developed character: at times appealing, at times annoying, and at times amusing, all those facets hide a depth of sorrow and regret, and a desire for redemption that drives her.

It would be easy to read A Star-Reckoner’s Lot as a simple adventure set in an unfamiliar mythos, but the themes of love and honour, exclusion and belonging, and regret for the prices paid for actions raises it above many fantasy novels. Do not be misled by the author’s light hand (and occasional bad puns); this is a story with some haunting imagery and deep themes, and not one I’m going to forget quickly. Five stars.

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

A Year of Reviewing: My Top Ten

I’ve reviewed 65 books in the last twelve months: these are my top ten, in alphabetical order.

I wrote my first review on this site a year ago this week. Since then, I’ve reviewed 65 books. These are my top ten, in alphabetical order. All these received 5 stars from me; coincidentally, this were the only 5-star reviews for the year, so I didn’t have to make a decision of what to include or leave out!

Citizen Magus, by Rob Steiner

Falcon Boy, by Barnaby Taylor

Hollo: The Gatecaster’s Apprentice, by Devon Michael

Magic of the Gargoyles, by Rebecca Chastain

Prophecy by Benjamin A. Sorenson

Sailor to a Siren, by Zoë Sumra

Sapphire Hunting, by J SenGupta

The Quantum Door, by Jonathan Ballagh

The World, by Robin Wildt Hansen

Tom Cat, by Amy Holden Jones

A Noble’s Quest, by Ryan Toxopeus: A Review

If it is adventure you are after, The Noble’s Quest has it in spades.

Elves and dwarves, men and halflings, gnomes and orcs…this is a high fantasy story in thea-nobles-quest tradition of Terry Brooks, with gaming influences also apparent. Fast paced, and with a unexpected twist towards the end, A Noble’s Quest suitably entertained me. The gaming influences, I think, are most apparent in the pace of the story, and the characters’ self-awareness, tending towards ‘kill now, think about it later’ rather than the more reflective nature of some fantasies.

But if it is adventure you are after, A Noble’s Quest has it in spades. Thomas and Sarentha, the two protagonists, are peasants working as lumberjacks until Thomas accidentally kills the boss’s son. Forced to flee, they are caught up in a quest that involves an ancient map, the branch of a magical tree, and silver dragons that breath frost, not fire. (I liked that dragon, a neat inversion of the usual.)

There’s a bit of a fan fiction feel to parts of the world Ryan Toxopeus has created, strengthened by his use of the terms orcs and mithril, but to some extent Middle-Earth belongs to the generations now, part of a shared consciousness and the foundation of much of high fantasy, whether the authors realize that or not. The characters are a bit predictable (well, most of them – no spoilers!), but that’s less important in a story shaped by the adventure, not by the personalities. Sometimes the solutions to problems seemed a bit ‘deux ex machina‘, especially towards the end, again reflecting (in my opinion) the influences of gaming.

A Noble’s Quest is followed by its sequel, A Wizard’s Gambit, which I will be reading as soon as I get through my backlist! Overall, 3.5 stars from me for The Noble’s Quest, which translates to 4 on Goodreads and Amazon.

I received a copy of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.