Friday, October 12, 2018

The Kaiser Affair - Joseph Robert Lewis

   2013; 224 pages.  Book 1 of “The Drifting Isle Chronicles” trilogy.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Steampunk; Fantasy; Paranormal.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Bettina Rothschild and Arjuna Rana are two of the finest detectives in Eisenstadt.  They work super well together, which is no surprise since they also happen to be husband and wife.  Bettina supplies the beauty and the brains, and Arjuna contributes the brawn and several other useful skills, including having a photographic memory.  Both of them are deadly accurate with their coilguns.

    So it’s no wonder when the head of the Ministry of Justice, Gisele Kaiser, calls them to her private office and commissions them to take on an ultra-sensitive case.  It seems that one of the city’s foremost art-thieves has just successfully managed to brazenly escape from the maximum-security Torghast Prison.

    There are a couple of rather bizarre things about the case though.

    For starters, breaking out of Torghast is no small feat.  There are multiple guards to bribe, and gangland criminals to hire to assist in the getaway.  That takes money and connections, neither of which a mere burglar is likely to have.

    Then there’s the request by Gisele Kaiser that the investigation be handled in utmost secrecy.  Well, that’s somewhat understandable, since the art thief’s name is Ranulf Kaiser, Gisele’s brother.  If word gets out about this, the political scandal will be enormous.

    But the oddest part about the case is the timing.  Ranulf Kaiser had just about completed his prison sentence.  He was due to be released from prison in less than a month.

    What’s so important that he’d jeopardize his entire future by escaping now?

What’s To Like...
    If you’re a fan of Steampunk, you’ll love The Kaiser Affair.   World-building is a Joseph Robert Lewis forte, and he doesn’t disappoint here.  There are some neat gizmos: you can drive around in (steam-powered) autocarriages; shoot  your coilgun at criminal lowlifes, and if you’re daring enough, take a flight in the just-been-invented autogyros.  There’s a huge “drifting isle”, called Inselmond, floating  about a mile above Eisenstad, and if you listen carefully enough, you’ll find that all sorts of birds can talk, which sometimes makes them a very convenient source of information.

    Legends abound about how and why the drifting isle got there, and there’s even speculation that it might be populated.  No one can tell, because all you can see from earth is the rocky bottom of it.   There’s also talk about some sort of secret society of assassins in Eisenstadt, called “The Shadows”.  But nobody’s ever seen them, so who knows if it's true or not?

    I liked the strong female leads for both the good guys and the baddies.  Ditto for the fact that Bettina, although still rather young, has to use a cane to get around.  Perhaps this is a subtle tip-of-the-hat to Robert Heinlein, who used to frequently endow his heroes with disabilities in his Sci-Fi stories was back in the 1950’s.  Education-wise, Bettina has earned a degree in Chemistry and one of the other female characters has a PhD in Mechanical Engineering.  It’s a neat world where women are just as educated as the men.

    The pacing is brisk, and there’s lots of action to keep you turning the pages.  There is an element of Fantasy also woven into the story:  some of the weaponry is magical, and you can consult astrologers (called “starcasters”) if you want, although their helpfulness is at times limited.  Along with all the thrills and spills, Joseph Robert Lewis also touches on a serious theme – racial prejudice – and I thought this was a very nice touch.  Finally, the banter between our two protagonists is often hilarious and always witty.

    There are 23 chapters, plus an epilogue, covering 224 pages, so it’s easy to find a good place to stop reading for the night.  The R-rated stuff is limited to a couple cusswords, one roll-in-the-carriage, and some implied (but never carried out) mild bondage.  The settings are limited to Eisenstadt and the Drifting Isle, but that allows the author to develop both sites in detailed fashion.   Everything builds to a suitably exciting ending, with a twist or two in it that I didn’t see coming.  The Kaiser Affair is a standalone story, with all the story threads tied up nicely.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Riparian (adj.) :  relating to or situated on the banks of a river.

    “A murder of ravens, a parliament of owls, a brood of chickens, and a flight of swallows,” Bettina said.  “But a flock of birds. A flock.
    Arjuna looked up from his waffles slathered in syrup, butter, and strawberries.  “I’m sorry, what?”
    “A flock, Arry,” Bettina sipped her tea and peered thoughtfully out through the cafĂ© windows at the bright morning light on the bust street outside.  “I know what a murder is, and a parliament, and a brood.  They’re all real words.  But what is a flock?”
    He smiled and finished his coffee.  “It‘s a word, dear.  Try not to overthink it.”  (loc. 443)

    “I asked you, what is that thing in your hand?”
    The tall Dumastran turned his head and looked at the shining silver bow resting on his shoulder as though he were seeing it for the first time.  “Oh this?  Yes, well, Strauss smashed my poor little coilgun in  that miserable tomb, so I had to make do.”
    “Make do?”  Bettina cleared her throat.  “Dear, when one makes do in a miserable tomb, one usually manages with a dusty old rock or a filthy old bone.  One does not make do with an ancient recurve bow, doubtlessly forged from strange alloys using long-lost metallurgical secrets.”  (loc. 2226)

Kindle Details...
    The Kaiser Affair currently sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  The other two books in the series, Black Mercury by Charlotte E. English, and The Machine God by MeiLin Miranda, both sell for $3.99.  Joseph Robert Lewis has a slew of other Fantasy e-books to offer, ranging from free to $2.99 apiece.  I read the Aetherium series a few years ago, when it was just a trilogy and the books had different titles.  It is now a (completed) 8-book series, and you can pick up the Omnibus edition, containing all eight stories for $9.99, which is a really good deal.

 A mind like a library, the body of an angel, and the stomach of an adolescent.  Two out of three aren’t bad, I suppose.  (loc  582)
    The Kaiser Affair has fabulous world-building, lot of action and adventure, and fascinating characters.  Yet one important thing is missing: a compelling storyline.  As other reviewers noted, this really is just a 225-page chase scene.  Entertaining, yes.  Epic, no.

    At the end of the e-book, there’s an “extra” that perhaps sheds some light on this.  Titled, “A Note about The Drifting Isle Chronicles”, it gives the background of how the story came to be, which is a rather unique process.

    First, a group of writers with diverse genre focuses got together and spent weeks doing the world-building.  Once that was finished, each author took a separate piece of this new world (which essentially is just Eisenstadt and Inselmond) and wrote a novel in whatever genre they specialized in.  The result was a trilogy having three different authors.

    I can think of two other writers who have tried something similar, albeit in both cases, it was aimed at encouraging Fanzine Fiction.  John Scalzi developed one in his Old Man’s War universe, and Eric Flint did one in his 1632 alternate dimension series.  My impression is that neither one went over particularly well.

    I suspect that any “shared” setting has an inherent weakness: nothing earthshaking can happen.  For example, Joseph Robert Lewis can’t annihilate half the population of Eisenstadt with a neutron bomb, because two other authors are using the same setting and would have to accommodate such an event in their storylines.  Thus, you're limited to penning stories that don't disturb the world-building and don't kill off any of the main characters.

    Whether this had any impact on this particular collaborative world-setting I can’t say.  But I note that in the end, only three writers used the world that they (and others?) built, and ANAICT none of them ever penned a second novel set in it.

    8 Stars.  There may be nothing “epic” about the storyline in The Kaiser Affair, but I still enjoyed it from the first page to the last.  Joseph Robert Lewis can probably write a story about paint drying that will still keep a reader turning the pages.  If you can be happy with a Steampunk story that doesn’t involve saving humanity, then this book's will be a delight.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Just Add Water - Jinx Schwartz

   2011; 414 pages.  Book 1 (out of 10) of the “Hetta Coffey” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Murder-Mystery; Comedy; Romantic Suspense; Women's Fiction; Women Sleuths.  Laurels : “Eppie Award – Best Mystery” Winner at some point (more on this in a bit).  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Hetta Coffey is on the prowl.  She’s looking for good-looking, rich, eligible men, and if they’re eligible and rich, frankly, that “good-looking” qualification can be overlooked.  Anything from young to old is fine, although middle-aged candidates might fit best, since Hetta is in that category, and she’s usually with her best friend and fellow-prowler, Jan, who is younger, perkier, curvier, and usually gets the pick of the prospective pack of suitors.

    The trouble is, despite diligently hitting the local bars and nightclubs, the pickings of the prospective packs of suitors have been rather meager lately.  Part of this is Hetta’s fault, she still hasn’t gotten over getting dumped a couple years ago in Japan by one dastardly, smooth-talking (and married!) bastard named Hudson Williams.

    But perhaps the average bar in Oakland, California is just not the best place to find quality potential lovers.  So maybe the time has come to find another pick-up perch.  Hey, I’ve got an idea!  How’s about going to a Yacht Club?  They serve lots of booze there, and all the clientele are going to be rich, boat-owning sailors.  In fact, there’s only one drawback...

    To get into those clubs, Hetta will have to own a yacht.

What’s To Like...
    Just Add Water is the Book One in the Jinx Schwartz “Hetta Coffey” series.  I read Book 6 last year (it is reviewed here), so it was neat to now go back and read how the overarching storyline began.  With the exception of the first chapter, which is actually a prologue, Just Add Water takes place in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, a lot of it on water.  I was tickled to see that Half Moon Bay gets a brief mention.  I’ve been there.

    The book’s cover boasts it winning an “Eppie Award – Best Mystery”, but there isn’t a lot out on the Internet about that laurel.  I gather “Eppie” is related to the acronym of a now-defunct group called “EPIC”, which stands for “Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition”, and that they closed up shop this past May.

    Having read two books in the series now, I’m gradually getting the feeling that it’s better to read these books as Women’s Fiction stories, than as Mysteries.  You’ll have more fun following the crazy lives of Hetta and Jan than trying to figure out whodunit.  Here, the murder-mystery itself doesn’t even show up until 52% Kindle, which means you’re clueless about the relevance of the prologue until you’re more than halfway through.

    If you like perky female protagonists, you’ll love meeting Hetta.  Witticisms just flow from her lips.  Jinx Schwartz works a bunch of French phrases into Hetta’s dialogue thoughts, and I always like that.  Hetta and I also learned to be wary of anyone whose nickname is “Dilly”.

   With the exception of the prologue, the book is written in the first-person POV (Hetta’s), and the 414 pages are split into 50 chapters, so you can always find a good place to stop for the night.  There is a bunch of cussing, but I thought that fit in well with Hetta’s sassiness.  Just Add Water is a standalone tale, as well as the first book in the series, and there’s a heartwarming Epilogue that ties up one of the threads.

Kewlest New Word…
Contretemps (n.) : a minor dispute or disagreement.

    “Men ‘n’ dawgs.  Dogs ain’t worth a diddlydamn until they’re five, and men ‘til they’re fifty.  Canine maturity must have something to do with getting their pockets picked at an early age.  And they skip the infernal midlife crisis stuff.  Must be why dogs don’t buy corvettes and yachts.”  (loc. 370)

    Chills.  Fever.  Dizziness, nausea and delirium.
    Recognizing the symptoms, I hoped it was simply a reoccurrence of childhood malaria, but I suspected the dreaded love bug.
     I was right.  Malaria, after several days of pure horror, goes away.  Love’s repugnancies burrow in.  Why can’t I throw up and get it over with?  And if falling in love is painful, falling into unrequited love is downright agony, although I’ve always found it does wonders for the waistline.  (loc. 3579)

Kindle Details....
    Just Add Water sells for $3.99 at Amazon, which is the price for all the other nine books in the series.  Jinx Schwartz offers two 4-book bundles of the series for $9.99 apiece, and has one or two other books, unrelated to this series, available in the $0.99-$3.99 price range.

The world would be a much safer place if foreplay and hindsight could be reversed.   But boring.  (loc. 2573)
    The ending is a mixed bag.  It’s suitably exciting and the Ultimate Evil wasn’t who I expected it to be.  OTOH, figuring out the reason why Hetta’s boyfriend jilted her was blatantly easy.  And if you’re hoping to figure out the whodunit before Hetta does, forget about it.  There aren’t any clues strewn about, and Hetta doesn’t give the whole thing much attention.

    The manuscript needs another round of editing.  I can overlook spellchecker errors, particularly when reading something self-published and/or by an Indie author, but forgetting how you spelled the name of a company you just made up (is it Comtec or Comptec?) is sloppy, and misspelling Mean Joe Greene’s last name is just downright sacrilegious to this Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

    Also, there’s a fine line between being wittily snarky and being annoyingly rude, and that line gets crossed a lot in Just Add Water.  One example: when a minor character who is Japanese gets introduced into the story, the background given is that he has a neighbor who’s Korean and he hates him because, well, you know, all Koreans are racists.  If this had been critical to solving the murder-mystery, then that would be justified.  But it wasn’t, which means it's just crass. 

    Finally, it doesn’t take a Fox newscaster to discern what the author’s political views are.  That might be okay for a political drama novel, but when I read a mystery, I’m interested in figuring out who the perpetrator is.  I don't care to know the author's political views, and I'm just as sure the author doesn't give a sh*t about mine.  Slipping one’s personal political views into the plotline isn’t clever, it’s amateurish.  

    7½ Stars.  Despite the right-wing bent to the book's banter, I still enjoyed Just Add Water.  So Just Add 1½ stars if, when you look in the mirror, your neck is red.

Monday, October 1, 2018

On Giants' Shoulders - Melvyn Bragg

   2009; 360 pages.  Full Title : On Giants’ Shoulders: Great Scientists and Their Discoveries, from Archimedes to DNA.  New Author? : No.    Genre : Non-Fiction, Science, Mathematics, Science History.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    I think it’s fair to label Melvyn Bragg a polymath.  Wikipedia lists him as being a broadcaster, a scriptwriter, an interviewer, a presenter, and a novelist.  He’s won 18 prestigious awards in these various areas, and his published writings include novels, non-fiction books, children’s books, and screenplays.  

    My friends in England tell me he’s a well-known TV personality; his career began in 1961, and continues even into the present, Mr. Bragg now being 78 years old.  I know of him from reading one of his non-fiction books back in 2016, titled “The Adventure of English” which is reviewed here

    As brilliant as he is, you’d think he’d be a nuclear physicist or a brain surgeon or something.  But in the introduction to this book, he confesses that he avoided anything even close to science throughout his schooling.

    But there came a day when he wondered if he was missing out on something by eschewing all things scientific.  After all, you never see an unhappy chemist, a math whiz who hates doing differential equations, or a physicist who’d rather be driving a truck.

    So he made it a point to look into a history and culture of Science.  He contacted some of the most eminent present-day scientists, and quizzed them to find out what made them tick.  He aired a series of programs on British radio, with the interviews and the feedback he received.  From there, he chose his personal top dozen scientists of all time, and asked his newly-befriended scientific peers what they thought of his choices.

    And then he wrote On Giants’ Shoulders so he could share his discoveries with the rest of us.

What’s To Like...
    Melvyn Bragg’s list of his 12 "greatest-ever" scientists, along with his sobriquets, is:

01.) Archimedes (287-212 BC) “The first Scientist”
02.) Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) “The Columbus of the Stars”
03.) Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”
04.) Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1797) “The Revolution does not need Scientists”
05.) Michael Faraday (1791-1867) “The Great Experimenter”
06.) Charles Darwin (1809-1882) “The Conservative Revolutionary”
07.) Jules Henri PoincarĂ© (1854-1912) “The Man who discovered Chaos by Accident”
08.) Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) “Science or Art?”
09.) Marie Curie (1867-1934) “A Woman’s Place is in the Lab”
10.) Albert Einstein (1879-1955) “The first Celebrity Scientist”
11. & 12.) Francis Crick (1914- ) & James Watson (1928- ) “The Meaning of Life”

    There’s also an introduction, where Bragg discloses that the book’s overall motif will be “Science for the non-scientist”, plus an “afterword” final chapter, in which the author and his science friends contemplate what might happen in the next hundred years of science.  For the record, since I am a chemist by profession, I’ve heard of all of the people on Bragg’s list, except #7 (“Chaos Theory”), #11, and #12 (“DNA”).

    This is not a science textbook.  Bragg has no intentions of teaching you how to replicate DNA, or the physics behind the theory of Multiverses.  Instead, he focuses on the impact each scientist’s work had on the world they lived in, and discusses with his colleagues questions like:  a.) What if said scientist had not made his major discovery?, b.) What kind of drive did that scientist have that led him to his breakthrough?, and c.) Upon whose shoulders was that scientist standing in order to make his discovery?

    Both the author and his contemporary scientist friends refrain from gushing over these twelve greats, and I liked that.  Einstein is called “lazy” by some, since he never bothered to prove any of his groundbreaking theories.  He merely wrote them down and left it to others to do the verifying.  Galileo’s famous trial by the Inquisition was not a “Science vs. Religion” issue, the Church was mad that he trashed the biblical “the Sun revolves around the Earth” theory while admitting he couldn’t disprove it.  Lavoisier, guillotined during the French Revolution, lost his head because he was a hated tax collector for the King, not because he was part of the nobility.  Darwin never once used the term “Evolution” in his writings; and the term “scientist” didn’t come into use until the 1830’s.

    On Giants’ Shoulders is written in English, not American, so you have plural maths, are educated in the sixth form (I still don’t know what that means), are sceptical, have fervour, and might contract leukaemia.  Melvyn Bragg starts each chapter with a page-long timeline for each scientist, along with a portrait.  Those extras were really neat.  Finally, despite the “heaviness” of the subject matter, I found the book to be a fast read.

Kewlest New Word ...
Fatuous (adj.) : Silly and pointless.
Others : Synoptic (adj.).

    Faraday did not invent the electric motor.  Faraday did not invent the electric light bulb.  Faraday did not invent any particular technology and in fact Faraday himself would have been most horrified most probably at the imputation that he was a mere inventor.  As far as Faraday is concerned, he is a discoverer of great natural philosophical principles.  He is certainly not going to be engaged in the rather sordid business of inventing, which is something that craftsmen or entrepreneurs or people who are not gentlemen do.  (pg. 145)

    We are told that the universe came into existence about fifteen billion years ago with the Big Bang.  On our earth, for most of the four thousand million years it has been in existence, there was no living creature or thing.  If we equate the age of the earth to a twenty-four-hour day, the first signs of life appear after the twenty-third hour and human beings emerge in the last few minutes before midnight.
    The analogy of the clock is often used.  It seems to me to carry a fatal pessimism.  For when midnight strikes – is that not the Apocalypse, the end of everything?  Why could our few minutes not be the first of another fifteen billion year adventure?  (pg. 360)

 We are better at predicting events at the edge of the galaxy or inside the nucleus of an atom than whether it will rain on Aunty’s garden party three Sundays from now.  (pg. 187)
    I can't think of anything to quibble about in  On Giants’ Shoulders, but if you’re not of a scientific mentality, and/or don’t want to be, then reading chapter after chapter about  mostly dead mathematicians, physicists, astronomers, and chemists might get tedious.  Ditto if you were looking for someone who can make learning about Quantum Physics so easy a caveman can comprehend it.

    OTOH, there are some very interesting “speculative” questions about science posed, that are  worthy to be thought about.  Such as:

    If the (ancient) Greeks hadn’t invented science, would it have ever happened at all?  (pg. 16)
    If we razed the planet clean and started again, would Homo Sapiens inevitably turn up, or would it be purely a matter of chance?  (pg. 176)

   It's rather interesting to see the diversity in the answers that Bragg's science friends come up with.

    9 Stars.  On Giants’ Shoulders is my second Melvyn Bragg book, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both of them.  I haven’t ventured into his fiction books yet, but I'm now tempted to go out and try to find one, just to see if he is equally adept when making things up.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

All Things True - Greg James

   2018; 102 pages.  Book 3 of “The Chronicles of Willow Grey” trilogy.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Young Adult Dark Fantasy Adventure (per the author and sounds good to me); Coming of Age.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    The Voyage of the Pale Ship is over; young Willow Grey has returned to Tirlane!  Or what’s left of it, after the evil Lamia and her unstoppable minions have devastated the fair land, killing anything and every living thing they can find.  Vibrant, green plant life has been reduced to brown-black dead fields, and the corpses of animals, large and small, lie strewn everywhere.

     A few creatures remain alive: mostly those that are fleet of foot and have found handy places to hide from the marauding predators.  Willow hopes to come across some of these, to aid her in her quest, since her beloved mentor, guide, and most of all, friend in this strange world, Henu the Wealdsman, did not make it to the end of the voyage on the Pale Ship.  Now Willow must face her Fate alone.

    Alas, only Doom lies ahead for her.  The Lamia is many times more powerful than Willow, and commands legions of fearsome and merciless beasts to do her evil bidding without question.  Yet it is Willow’s lot to face the Lamia in a battle to the death.

    It’s a struggle that Willow cannot win, and the outcome can only be her death.  Yet the puzzling words uttered by both Henu and the wise old healer Starababa keep echoing in Willow’s mind.

    “Your time with us is nearly over.  Remember, it is not death if you accept it.”

What’s To Like...
    All Things True is the final episode in the trilogy The Chronicles of Willow Grey.  The author labels it a “Young Adult Dark Fantasy Adventure”, and that seems apt to me.  The tension has been building for two books now, and it is time to face the Lamia.

    The storytelling style is the same as in the other two books:  there are lots of critters to meet and greet (most of which are deadly), lots of places to visit, zero slow spots, and lots of magical objects to ooh-&-aah over, including the thule which every creature good and evil covets.

    The amazing thing is that Greg James packs all of this, including the final showdown, into 102 pages, which my Kindle says I should be able to read in just slightly more than one hour.  That makes it a novella, but don’t think of it as a quick read for a book report that’s due tomorrow – this is not a standalone novel, and there isn’t much of a backstory supplied, so you'd have to read the whole trilogy.  Indeed, since the other two books in the series are each less than 200 pages in length, this series screams to be marketed as a bundle.

    There aren’t a lot of characters to keep track of, and since there’s a war-to-the-death going on, the mortality rate is somewhat steep.  Willow finds a couple new companions to aid her in her quest, and the lessons she’s learned during her voyage with Henu have turned her into a formidable mage, at least when confronted with beasts other than the Lamia.

    The book is written in English, not American, which I always enjoy.  So things are meagre, feathers may be moulted, and you might apologise for your lack of armour.  The 102 pages are divided into 17 chapters, and a beautiful poem that serves as the Epilogue.  This is a YA book; I recall only a single cussword: at one point an evil critter calls Willow a “bitchling”.

    There are some neat extras at the back, including a map of Tirlane and a glossary, which comes in quite handy, even for those of us who have read the earlier books.  The Table of Contents is also there, and I can't for the life of me figure out why that wasn’t at the front of the book.

    “She’s still here then?”
    “She will be until the last trace of life has left Tirlane,” Nastonik said, “which could be any day now.  The Behemoths will not rest until they have consumed everything that draws breath.”
    “D’you think she can help us stop them?”
    “Stop them?  My, my, you are either ambitious, or very stupid,” Nastonik said.
    “You don’t have to be rude.”
    “I am merely blunt.  A Beorhan says what a Beorhan sees.”  (loc. 535)

    “I’m surrounded by nothing but death.  Viril and Nastonik, I fear I will lose them too.”
    “Then, you must lose that fear and let it go.  Fear is a part of life but if we live according to it, that is no life at all.  It is said our time is like a narrow sliver of light, much like this candle’s flame, caught between two kinds of greater darkness; the time before we are born and the time after we are gone.  All we have is this and so often we spend it unwisely.”  (loc. 569)

Kindle Details...
    All Things True currently sells for $2.99 at Amazon, the same price as the other two books in the series, The Door of Dreams and The Voyage of the Pale Ship.  Greg James has a slew of other novels, novellas, and novelettes available, all of them in the $0.99 - $2.99 range.

 “Were you thinking bringing home a two-legged stray would be enough of a good deed to make the rain turn to vittles?”  (loc  113)
    Ah yes, what to say about the ending without lapsing into spoilers?

    It is a satisfying conclusion to everything that’s been building for three books now.  It contains a twist that I can only describe as stunning, yet is, in retrospect, quite logical.  It is powerful and poignant; at the same time both positive and dark.  Chapters 16 and 17, plus the Epilogue poem, left a lump in my throat even as they reconciled all the strange things that have been happening since the first page of Book One.

    Okay.  I’m done gushing now.  You can read the reviews of the first two books in the series here and here.

    9 Stars.  I'm guessing, but I get the feeling that The Chronicles of Willow Grey is a Labor of Love by the author, possibly for one Natalie Kaleva, to whom this book is dedicated.  All Things True particularly resonated with me, as I have recently experienced a similar situation in my life.

    Then again, it all could be just a storyline that Greg James dreamed up, and he’s simply that skilled of a writer.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Sword of Unmaking - G.L. Breedon

    2013; 264 pages.  Book 2 (out of 3) of The Wizard of Time series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Time-Travel; Fantasy, YA, Coming of Age.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    It’s true, it’s true!  The long-awaited “Seventh True Mage” has appeared, in the form of one Gabriel Salvador, much to the delight of the Council of Time and Magic, aka the “Grace Mages”, who frankly, right now, are getting their butts kicked in their struggles against the evil "Malignancy Mages".

    Let’s hope their efforts are not in vain; the fate of the world that you and I live in depends on it.  For if the Malignancy Mages succeed in destroying the Great Barrier of Probability, the universe as we know it will end.

    Sadly, the appearance of the Seventh True Mage is not enough to tip the balance in the struggle over to the good guys.  It merely means the Grace Mages aren’t getting getting whupped up on quite so thoroughly.  Ah, but the baddies aren’t a bunch of dummies.  They fully realize that as long as Gabriel lives, their victory is a little less certain.  So their path forward is clear.

    They just need to use their superior numbers (the forces of Evil always have the numerical advantage) to locate Gabriel, then attack wherever he is with an overwhelming and irresistible force.  And kill him.

    Maybe this time he’ll stay dead.

What’s To Like...
    The Sword of Unmaking is the second book in the finished “Wizard of Time” trilogy, and the book picks up about a year after Gabriel has been in training to be a mage at the dinosaur-era Windsor Castle.  In Book One he was a newbie; now he’s grown to be probably the most powerful spellcaster at the castle, although learning to control, focus, and effectively use that magic is still a challenge.

    The style in Book 2 hasn’t changed.  There’s still lots of time-travel, still lots of mage-fighting, and still lots of nods to historical eras and events.  Best of all, G.L. Breedon isn’t afraid to take on “temporal paradoxes” that should inevitably crop up in any time-travel tale.  (Eg. : Can I go back in time and kill myself?)

    The writing style and the storyline are both good, particularly if you’re a YA reader, which I’m not.  There’s an abundance of wit, mostly in the dialogues, that will entertain readers of all ages.  A major new “white hat” character is introduced – the erstwhile Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, who also happens to be a gifted Heart-Tree Magic mage.  The info-dumping has been improved, and there is less ink devoted to the mechanics of magic than in Book 1, which is a plus.

     Being a history buff, I loved the historical settings: Vienna back when it was just a couple of huts, Paleolithic South Africa, 13th-century France, and Roman-era Turkey.  There is also a somber visit to the (World War 2) Auschwitz death camp, and I liked the way the author worked in some serious musings on Nazism, its inherent hatred, and the perils of “looking the other way”.

    There is some light romance in The Sword of Unmaking, albeit nothing graphic or lewd.  Gabriel experiences his first kiss at 46%, then experiences his first kiss at 52% as well.  Time-travel has some fascinating paradoxes.

    The ending is suitably climactic, and has a nice twist in it (every ending should have at least one nice twist) to set up Books 3.  The story ends at a logical spot, so it isn’t a cliffhanger.  Not all the plot threads are tied up: we still don’t know who betrayed the castle or the fate of Aurelius.  Presumably, those will be addressed in the final book, The Edge of Eternity.

    “The sooner we start, the sooner we’ll be finished.”  Gabriel climbed the stairs of the porch.
    “Half an hour walking in the woods with the most famous philosopher king in history and that’s the best aphorism you come up with?” Teresa teased as she took Gabriel’s hand.
    “He doesn’t really speak in aphorisms,” Gabriel said.
    “Am I really that famous?” Aurelius asked, his eyes suddenly shy.   (loc. 7628)

    Gabriel reached and pulled Teresa down into a kiss.
    “You are such a romantic idiot.”  Teresa shook her head and pulled back from Gabriel’s kiss.  “The castle is under attack.  There are Dark Mages everywhere.  You’re leaking blood like a punctured wine sack, and you want to kiss!”
    “You are really annoying when you’re right.  Hand me my sword, please.”  (loc. 8673)

Kindle Details...
    The Sword of Unmaking sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  The other two e-books in the series sell for the same price, or you can get all three as a bundle for $4.99, which is quite the savings.  If you have the patience, G.L. Breedon occasionally and generously discounts some of the books to free.  He has four other e-books available, including the starts for two more series, ranging from $2.99 to $4.99.

“We must have faith.”
“I prefer certainty, but I suppose I’ll take what I can get.”  (loc. 5489)
     The quibbles are trivial.  I saw through the baddies’ castle-attack ruse immediately, but I suspect many YA readers will find the ploy to be delightfully fiendish.

    There is no backstory, so you really should read Book 1 first (which I did), and then read Book 2 right afterwards (which I didn’t).  In fairness, if you buy this trilogy as a bundle, then all three books are at your fingertips.  Alas, my reading habits don’t involve reading multiple books by any author one right after another, but hey, that’s a personal problem.

        7½ StarsThe Word of Unmaking kept my interest throughout, and that’s no small feat for a Book 2 in any trilogy.  But I can’t quite call it a page-turner.  I think this is one of those series that will appeal immensely to its target audience - YA male readers – but may be a bit simplistic for adult lovers of time-travel stories.  But only “a bit” too simplistic.  Since I have the bundle version of this series, I'm sure I'll be reading Book 3 in the not-too-distant future.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Blue Labyrinth - Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

   2014; 520 pages.  New Author? : No, and no.  Book 14 (out of 17) in the Agent Pendergast series.  Genre : Thriller; Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Someone has delivered a message to FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast.  It's kinda like a Halloween prank; They rang his doorbell, then ran away before he answered the door.

    But instead a burning sack of poop, they left the body of Alban, Pendergast’s most lethal enemy, trussed up, and oh, so dead.

    Yet this is a bittersweet occurrence, because Alban also happens to be one of Aloysius’s sons.  And although they are estranged – Alban has promised to kill his dad  - the fact remains: this is, or was, his flesh and blood.  There’s no doubt that the message has been delivered, and in a most unmistakably stunning manner.  But there’s just one problem.

    Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast has no idea what the message is.

What’s To Like...
    Blue Labyrinth is the 14th book in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s immensely popular “Agent Pendergast” series, and definitely a step up from the previous book in the series, White Fire, reviewed here.  Aloysius Pendergast is back in the spotlight, and two of my favorite supporting characters – Constance Greene and Margo Green - replace Corrie Swanson as the female leads. Detective Vincent D’Agosta returns as a major player too, and that’s a plus.  Also back is the New York Museum of Natural History, which was the setting for Book 1 in this series, Relic, reviewed here, and was how I first got hooked on this series.

     The book is mostly set in New York City, with a couple of side trips to the California desert, upstate New York, Brazil, and Switzerland.  There are three murders to investigate: a.) Pendergast’s son, b.) a technician at the Natural History Museum, and c.) the wife of a doctor from way back in the 1890’s.  They seem unrelated, but if you're a veteran reader of this series, you know that three threads are intertwined, and will inevitably merge down the line.

    As usual, the action starts immediately (Alban’s body appears on page 5), and the pacing is lightning-fast.  At long last, a lot more about the dark, dirty secrets of the Pendergast family tree are revealed, and about the enigmatic Constance Greene as well.  We are introduced to one of Aloysius’s forefathers, Hezekiah Pendergast, and he's  quite the character.

    There are a lot of references to earlier books in the series, including my favorite baddie, Diogenes, although if this is your first Agent Pendergast book, you won’t be lost.  I enjoyed learning some more phrases in French and Portuguese, the latter of which included, if I'm not mistaken, a couple handy cuss phrases.  I loved the quote from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as well as the nod to Caravaggio, who’s probably my favorite painter this side of Salvador Dali.  I had my doubts about the uber-powerful “Triflic Acid”, which figures into the storyline, but Wikipedia confirmed its existence.  I’m embarrassed to say that as a chemist, I’d never heard of it.

    As always, there's a lot of violence and a fair amount of cussing in the book.  Blue Labyrinth is a standalone novel, despite being part of a series.  The chapters are Pattersonian in length, 78 of them covering 520 pages.  All the main threads are resolved, and I look forward to learning even more about the many skeletons in Aloysius’s closet.

Kewlest New Word ...
Diener (n.) : a morgue worker responsible for handling, moving, and cleaning a corpse.
Others : Wicking (a verb).

    “I’ve decided I want that ticket, Goodman Lickspittle.  I am going to contest that ticket, in court.  And if I’m not mistaken, that means you will have to appear in court, as well.  And at such a time I will take the greatest pleasure in pointing out to the judge, the lawyers, and everyone else assembled what a disgraceful shadow of a man you are.  A  shadow?  Perhaps I exaggerate.  A shadow, at least, can prove to be tall – tall indeed.  But you, you’re a homunculus, a dried neat’s tongue, a carbuncle on the posterior of humanity.”  (pg. 289)

    “I’ve … been having a nightmare.  It seems never to end.”
    His voice was dry and light, like a faint breeze over dead leaves, and she had to lean in closer to catch the words.
    “You were quoting the libretto of Don Giovanni,” she said.
    “Yes.  I … fancied myself at the Commendatore.”
    “Dreaming of Mozart doesn’t sound like a nightmare to me.”
    I …”  The mouth worked silently for a moment before continuing.  “I dislike opera.”  (pg. 301)

“You just put your boot so far up his ass, he’ll have to eat his dinner with a shoehorn.”  (pg. 78)
    The quibbles are minor.  One thing that hasn’t returned for a long time is the “is it natural or supernatural?” mysteries that made the early books in the series so captivating.  Of course, there’s still the matter of Constance Greene seemingly recalling her life in the 1800’s while not looking a day over 25 years old, and I can’t see that not having a this-worldly cause.

    The ending, while certainly action-packed and filled with tension, felt over-the-top to me.  I like unexpected turns as much as the next reader, but really now, a pair of civilians taking out a whole squad of highly-trained mercenary goons?  Good help is apparently hard to find these days, especially “bad good help”.

   It was too easy to figure out who would live and who would die, even among the minor characters.  If you're rotten to the core, don’t like Aloysius or Vinnie or Margo, or are just plain naturally obnoxious, you’re unlikely to be breathing by the end of the book. 

     Finally, and sinking even deeper into the depths of nitpicking, I have no idea what the book’s title refers to.  I don’t recall any labyrinth, blue or otherwise.

    8½ Stars.  Pay no attention to my quibbles.  Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are a top-notch writing team, and my expectations for their Agent Pendergast books are sky high.  I found Blue Labyrinth to be a page-turner, and the next book in the series, Crimson Shore, is already loaded and waiting on my Kindle.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Pride and Honour - Nathaniel Burns

   2013; 362 pages.  Full Title : Pride and Honour – The Battle for Saxony.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Dark Ages; Middle Ages, Sneaky Proselytizing.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Hey, tell me everything you remember from History class about The Dark Ages.

    Let’s see now.  They started upon the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 AD.  They went on for a long time.  They were …um… pretty dark.  And they lasted until the Renaissance began.

    So they were around for a thousand years or so.  Do you remember studying about any specific events that happened in Western Europe during that time period?

    Well, I remember William the Conqueror going over to England and kicking butt at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  And some time afterward, King John signed the Magna Carta at Runnymede.  That’s about it.

    How about a guy named Charlemagne?

    Oh yeah!  The Pope crowned him king on Christmas Day, but don’t ask me the year.  He founded the Holy Roman Empire.

    Well done.  And where was this kingdom?

    Well, duh!  It’s called the Holy Roman Empire.  So of course it was in Italy.

What’s To Like...
    Pride And Honour chronicles the 13-year-long struggle (772-785 AD) by King Charles of the Franks (aka “Charlemagne”) to subdue the Saxon tribes in what is present-day Germany.  There are three protagonists: King Charles, leader of the Frankish armies; Sturmius, an abbot who reprsents the Papal interests; and Widukind, who emerges as the sole lord in all of Saxony who can unite the squabbling tribes against the Frankish invaders.  Sturmius and Charles, although allies, have a complex relationship.  They seek the same end – the subjugation of the Saxons – but for different reasons, and each “uses” the other to serve his purposes.

    There are a slew of characters – Saxons, Franks, Danes, Swedes, Papal legates, and even an Anglo-Saxon from across the channel.  A “Cast of Characters” at the beginning would’ve been helpful, but I kept track of them via a long list of notes.  There is a map at the beginning, which helps the reader get oriented; but many of the cities, forts, and scattered kingdoms aren’t on it.

    I liked the fact that almost all of the main characters are “gray”, neither pure good nor pure evil.  The exception may be Widukind, but he has to contend with the fact that the Saxons are doomed to lose the war.  Sturmius reminded me of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, and that’s a plus.

    The genre is first-and-foremost Historical Fiction, and I was surprised by how many of the characters and events were drawn from history.  Charlemagne really lived, of course; but so did Sturmius and Widukind, as well as many of the lesser nobles cited in the book, and the desecration of Irminsul really occurred.  You can read all about them in Wikipedia.  I was mildly bummed that there was no “real versus fictional” Afterword section.

    The setting had a nice “Dark Ages” feel to it, and it's always fun to read a story based in the time-&-place that I know very little about.  I liked the attention given to how the clergy influenced political matters.  Such was the case way back then, and trying to convert pagans was more a matter of who held the sword, than who had the most persuasive spiritual argument.  More on this in a bit.

    I found the ending to be so-so.  The aim is noble: the author seeks to demonstrate that the bonds forged between the Franks and Saxons proved to be of critical importance to the existence of the newly-expanded kingdom.  But our three protagonists are all gone by the time this "proof" takes place, and for me, this whole justification was too drawn-out to keep my interest.   I think it would’ve been better to limit it to being an Epilogue a couple pages in length. 

    The book is written in English, which I always like, so you get words like Honour, manoeuver, lacklustre, amock, and ageing.  Pride And Honour is a standalone novel, and not part of any series that I can tell.

Kewlest New Word ...
Baldric (n.) : a belt for a sword, worn over one shoulder and reaching down to the opposite hip.  (Google-Image it).
Others : Gode (n. ) : By context, a Saxon priest, although that definition doesn’t show up in a Google search.  And BTW, you are hereby warned not to Google-Image this one.

    “Charles will do as those before him have done.  He’ll come and defeat a levy or two.  Then he’ll go home, and we will do as our fathers did, and invade the Frankish kingdom.  Another peace treaty will be drawn and the peasants between Eder and Diemel be made to pay.  And we will again be at peace.”  (loc. 494)

    The heat in the eyes wooing her burned into her body, and her heart like hot coals. But she did not give ground.
    “I need you, Fastrada,” his words emerged almost in a groan.
    Her answer was calm and clear, “If the Lord King needs a woman, there are enough noble ones here who would willingly help him make it through the night.”
    Charles abruptly swept a cup from the table with his right hand as if pushing someone away.
    “I need you, Fastrada,” he said in a determined tone.
    The woman glowed.  (loc. 3834)

Kindle Details...
    Pride and Honour sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  I don’t think there’s a sequel, nor any other books in this setting by Nathaniel Burns.  He has a couple other standalone novels, but his magnum opus is a 10-book series titled The Mummifier’s Daughter,  with each book in the series selling for $2.99.

“When you come with your knights and your swords, you come to conquer, not convert.”  (loc. 763 )
    Alas, Pride And Honour comes with some serious issues.

    First of all, commas and semicolons keep popping up all over the place.  This was a formatting glitch, not any grammatical shortcoming on the author’s part, but it was distracting as all get-out.

    Added to this were spelling changes to a number of names.  Gottrick became Gottrik, and then became Gotrick.  Egbert morphed into Egberth.  The Oborites changed first to the Obodrites, then to the Odorites.  And Throsuk went to Thoruk.  Since the reader is usually unfamiliar with all the names, these switches are positively confusing.

    More serious, as several other reviewers have noted, is the preachiness that pops up in Chapters 35-36.  It's ill-fitting, self-serving, and boring.  Listen, if you’re going to write a religious fiction book, fine.  But at least have the integrity to then list that as the book's genre.   You’re not doing God’s will by sneaking a couple chapters of evangelism into your Historical Fiction book.  The truth is, She isn't keeping score.

    5½ Stars.  At its heart, Pride And Honour is a wonderful tale, fleshing out a piece of history that most of us know little about.  But an editor needs to be brought in to address the weaknesses cited above.  The result can be a remarkably interesting book.