Book Review – United States of Japan & Mecha Samurai Empire by Peter Tieryas

A new book review?  On two books at once?!  What madness is this!  But yes, dear readers, it’s time for me to bust out my reading cap this year and get back in the swing of things.  I posted on my Goodreads Profile that I was going to be trying to read at least 26 books this year (one every two weeks) and after seeing a tweet posted by WriteLeeWrite on twitter that posted some book titles I knew I had to check one (Mecha Samurai Empire, specifically).  Also can I just say I am proud of my 2019 Challenge Results?

Imagine my surprise when I found out it was part of a loose series and there was a book called United States of Japan set before that, and an upcoming book called Cyber Shogun Revolution.  The author Peter Tieryas did confirm on twitter that while these three books are set in the same universe they are not really connected narratively.  But I will get into that.  Let’s talk about these two books!

United States of Japan

The basic premise of this book (And really the series) is that the Allies lost WW2.  America has been effectively split in half between Japan and Nazi Germany.  The East Coast belongs to the Nazi’s, the West, the Japanese Empire.  The book opens with the final moments of the war coming to a close and a bunch of Japanese Internment camps being freed by the Imperial Army.

From there the book fast forwards to the 80s, and we meet our protagonist Beniko aka Ben.  He is head of the Office of Gaming Censor and a Captain in the Imperial Army, where he basically has to monitor all the “poritcal” games (cell phones, basically) and make sure there are no thought crimes or dissent happening.  He is quickly shown to be pretty blasé about most things, a sort of go with the flow character, but he does show some irritation about certain events like being passed over for promotion and the like in the military.

However, things change for him after he gets a mysterious phone call from an old general he knows asking him to give his (The generals) daughter a proper Christian burial rather than a standard Japanese / Shinto one.  This call ends up getting Ben mixed up in a strange case headed by the Tokko, the empires Secret police, involving terrorists calling themselves the George Washingtons who are somehow distributing a portical game where the US won WW2 rather than the Japanese.  From there, Ben and the Tokko Agent Akiko dive into the underworld of The USJ to determine who created the game, its purpose, and along the way uncover dark secrets about the Empire.

There is a lot going on here, and the themes of the book deal with honor, resistance, race, loyalty, and so much more.  It’s very political, and has some disturbing bits involving graphic depictions of torture which I did not expect.  Peter clearly knows what he is talking about however, and he doesn’t glorify ANY of the atrocities that occur in his world on any side.  The idea of a police state, with heavy monitoring and thought crimes being dealt with (and with only one outcome generally) show a bleak possibility of our own future.  This book is kinda like the Bourne movies in a lot of ways, now that I think about it.  High stakes espionage and mysteries abound.

The twists and turns do not let up and I could not put the book down, with new revelations about the characters and their pasts coming at just the right moments to make you go “WHAT!  OH THAT EXPLAINS IT!”.  The ideas presented with futurized tech in the 80s are also fascinating to me.  If you are a fan of alternate history and sci fi, well you should read this.  It’s very much a “crime thriller” styled book, so keep that in mind.  Frankly I don’t want to say too much more as a great deal of my enjoyment from the book was the mystery and world building.  Akiko, as a character, took a little while to grow on me but she eventually did, and Ben was just a trip to learn about as the book progressed, especially as his personal history was slowly revealed.  The ending was bittersweet and a bit abrupt, but overall a solid finale.

Within 24 hours of purchasing this book I finished it, and was instantly wanting to jump to the second book, Mecha Samurai Empire.  So I did.

Mecha Samurai Empire

Set this time in the 90s, and about 10 years after the events of United States of Japan, Mecha Samurai Empire is the story of Makoto, aka Mac, and his dream of becoming a world class Mecha Pilot.  This is a VERY different book from the last one.  First, its told in a first person rather than third person perspective.  We see the world from Mac’s point of view, and we see his life from his high school days right up to him achieving his goals and the results of all his hard work paid off.

It opens with Mac seemingly giving the readers a tour of his life.  He likes to go to the Arcade with his best friend and spend his time playing portical games.  Mac is a War Orphan, his parents killed in the 2nd San Diego conflict (Which we see the beginnings of at the tail end of USJ), and the government had assigned him a foster family and has been paying for his schooling.  His goal, his dream, is to become a Mecha Pilot and get into BEMA.  However, we are also shown that he is a rather average student as far as his studies go, and while he is solid at the simulations and games he really isn’t suited, at least as far as his school is concerned, to be a Mecha Pilot.

After events take place during his High School his life gets much more complicated, and we follow him as he works his way through his life to eventually becoming a Mecha Pilot.  We learn more about his history, secrets about his parents are revealed, and we get to see him interact with lots of interesting characters.

As a character, Mac is interesting.  He has a goal and a singular focus on that goal, and his life does not make that an easy thing to achieve.  You cheer for him as he struggles against all odds, against a system that seems dead set to prevent him from achieving his goals.  We see how war orphans are treated in the USJ and the sorts of things that are still taking place even if the timeline has advanced.  We also run into characters from the first book, who interact with Mac and take an interest in him.

Further, the background plot of the book deals with a new terrorist organization called NARA as well as rising tensions with the Nazi Germany half of the world.  Eventually this plot is brought front and center and Mac has to deal with old friends and issues that occurred in his life earlier in the book.  The climactic battle is a full on assault by the Nazi’s with their horrible Biomechs (Which are fully explained and let me tell you, its messed up!) against Mac and his friends, set in the city of Berkley.

A big part of this book, obviously, are Mecha.  The depictions of their combat, the various types of Mecha that USJ uses, and the pomp and circumstance around the Pilots are excellent.  A high point of the book for me is the BEMA Mecha Tournament that occurs about 60% of the way into the book.  Watching Mac cut loose and show just how good of a natural pilot he is was awesome, as was seeing how he handled the various opponents.  Also, later on there is a ton of video game references that had me laughing.  Double Dragon, Chrono Trigger, and Mega Man 2 are all referenced as well as some other stuff like Godzilla and Anime.  Also the nature of the ending sequence and the team make me think of Super Sentai shows.  And the ending, this time, was on a more positive note, even given the nature of the final battle and all that takes place.  Mac’s journey was, in the end, worth it.

Overall Thoughts

 Both books are very well written, but I preferred Mecha Samurai Empire overall.  The style of the book, its focus more on a single character and that characters journey, and the plot and ending make it the better of the two.  However, I strongly suggest if you are interested in this series to read the first book first.  While in truth the two novels are not directly connected plot wise, the fact that characters from Book 1 show up and play a major role in Book 2, plus the fact that Book 1 really holds the worlds backstory, makes it almost needed reading in my opinion.

There is also a third book on the way titled “Cyber Shogun Revolution” that is due out  3/3/2020 and may already be out by the time you find this dear reader.  Given how much fun and enjoyment I got out of these previous books I am most assuredly going to pick that up, and possibly update this review with it once I have read it.

You can pick up both these books on Amazon, and if you are a fan of Anime, Mecha, Sci Fi, and Thrilling adventure, I strongly urge you give these a shot.

The USJ Series on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07T3HSM91?ref_=series_rw_dp_labf

The Camp Halfblood Novels (Percy Jackson, The Kane Chronicles, Magnus Chase, and More): A Series Review

Ok this is going to be very long post so strap in and get ready.  While the Dresden Files and Sandman slim are both long unfinished series (15 books and 10 books respectively) they each have one handy thing in common: They follow a single protagonist and their journey through their life and the world around them.
However, the novels of Rick Riordan which I always call the Camp Halfblood novels, currently sit at 22! full novels plus a few cross over short stories, and feature multiple protagonists, in multiple groups, but all in a single shared world that is connected.  Yes, this is an absolutely massive series of books, and the wild thing is that all of the books are in the same universe! How is that even possible? How does that work?  Well for this Series Review I am going to break down each grouping of books, give some general thoughts on how they feel and play out, and then talk about how it’s all connected at the end. I am going to try to avoid any form of spoilers because, honestly, these are personal favorites of mine and I really think you should read them yourself. If you want a TLDR Summation of Rick Riordan’s books? GO READ THEM.  RIGHT NOW. Start with the Lightning Thief, and just don’t stop till you hit the end. If you are a fan of Urban Fantasy, Young Adult, and Mythology you NEED TO READ THESE BOOKS.
Additionally I will not be touching on the various short story collections for each mythology, as those are not really main series stuff and serve mostly to flesh out the mythology of the Greek, Roman, and Norse worlds that exist in these books as well as give some secondary characters the chance to shine. They are good, but they are not part of the main “Meta Narratives” if you will.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s begin!  Mind you, at the time of me writing this the Trials of Apollo series is STILL being released. I will update the post when its finished with any changes in my opinion on that series.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians (Series 1, 5 Books)
Where everything started, these 5 books consist of “The Lightning Thief”, “Sea of Monsters”, “The Titans Curse”, “The Battle of the Labyrinth”, and “The Last Olympian”.  These books are all told from the perspective of teenager Percy Jackson who starts the series at 12 years old and by the final book has reached 16 years old.  Percy is a Demigod, ie the child of a mortal parent and Greek God.  Rick Riordan cemented himself, at least for me, as a modern day classic author.  Each of these novels can stand on their own and tells a complete story, but to really understand the struggles of Percy, you need to read all 5 in order. They each detail a different point in his life, the struggles of dealing with Greek Mythology in the modern world, and the people he meets along the way. These books also touch on a variety of topics many young adult novels used to shy away from. Loss, revenge, absent parents, mental illness, disabilities, and more are touched in solid ways that doesn’t shy away from the hard truths. Percy, like many Greek Demigods, has ADHD and Dyslexia for one, and its explain that these are because his brain is hard wired for both battle and reading ancient Greek.  Percy is also a fairly likable character. He makes mistakes, as do his friends, but in the end he does what’s right for the world at large.
The series also does a great job modernizing classic Greek mythology and tales. We see the various gods such as Ares, Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Hermes, and more. We learn about the Titans such as Kronos and Atlas. We learn about Circe and Calypso, and Daedalus, and get to see Percy and company deal with tons of classic monsters from the Minotaur to the Furies!  Everything works exceptionally well and fits together with the modern world.
Percy’s journey, like many classic Greek tales, isn’t really a happy story and is more akin to a tragedy. While the ending to the series is great and ties up everything, it also opens things up the next 5 books in the Olympian Series via a new “Great Prophecy”, which is called the Heroes of Olympus series.  But before we get there? We gotta get through the Kane Chronicles!
The Kane Chronicles (Series 2, 3 Books)
This trilogy consists of “The Red Pyramid”, “The Throne of Fire”, and “The Serpents Shadow” and details the adventures of Sadie and Carter Kane, a brother sister pair who are of mixed race.  Where the Percy Jackson series deals with Greek (and later Roman, but we will get to that) Mythology, and Magnus deals with Norse (Again, we are getting there), the Kane series deals with Egyptian mythology and follows a very different structure.  First, we have two narrators over just one, with Sadie and Carter switching off to tell their story from their own points of view.  Further, these stories are treated as recordings that were found and transcribed by the author which is an interesting narrative device.
One major difference is just how, well, depressing these books get.  While Percy Jackson and the Olympians can get dark at times, and have some bittersweet moments, it still tends to end on high notes. But the Kane’s story? Almost nothing ever seems to go right, and everything seems to spiral out of control the further and further into the story and world you get.  Now, at first there is no mention of the world of Percy Jackson, and until the next little block of stories (the Demigods and Magicians Crossover series) you would never have known that The Kanes and Percy existed in the same shared universe.  Further, the way the Egyptians work with the Gods is VERY different.  Rather than being Demigods, the Kanes and the people like them are able to directly access the power of the Egyptian Gods like Isis, Horus, Thoth, and so on.  They are, in essence, wizards.  There is a lot of spellcasting, a lot more focus on magic and the rules of magic, and at times these books almost feel like a kids version of the Dresden Files.  I do enjoy how the books again tackle things like loss, mortality and chronic illness (there is a character who is basically dying of cancer, although its called a curse), dealing with racism and being of mixed racial heritage, being different (the Dwarf God Bes makes an appearance in the novels and is central in Book 2) and so on.
I will admit as well that I am not as in love with these books as I am with the Percy Jackson and Magnus Chase stuff. I find the world, while interesting, to be bogged down in the details of Egyptian mythology a bit too much, and the super dark tones and depressing narrative to be something I just don’t enjoy coming back to.  The trilogy does tie up everything pretty well and ends on a mostly positive but still rather bittersweet note, and I would not be against seeing more of the Kanes in the future (there are hints at the end that leave the world open to being returned to) especially if the books were a bit more positive, but if there was any block of books you could safely skip in the Camp Halfblood world, this and the novella crossover series would be the ones. The books themselves have no connection to Percy or Magnus until the Crossover, and that crossover series is really only there to establish and connect the two world together.  There is a comment at the end of the last book talking about working with Demigods against a greater threat (which sounds like a setup for a major crossover event) but so far nothing has come of it.
Now, logically I should do those crossover novellas next, however I want to jump ahead and do the next set of Percy Jackson novels, the Heroes of Olympus.
The Heroes of Olympus (Series 3, 5 Books)
And now we return to the world of Percy Jackson. This series consists of 5 novels, starting with “The Lost Hero” and then continuing with “The Son of Neptune”, “The Mark of Athena”, “The House of Hades”, and ending with “The Blood of Olympus” and whooooo boy, this is a wild series.  First, one change is that the books are no longer written in First Person perspective (IE I talked to Sadie) but rather third (Percy looked at Nico), and this is because the cast of main characters and viewpoint characters expands from JUST Percy Jackson to SEVEN/EIGHT total demigods. We have Percy, Annabeth, Leo, Piper, Jason, Frank, Hazel, and sometimes Nico.  There is a ton of stuff going on here. The first two books each deal with a different group of three (Book 1 has Jason, Leo, and Piper while Book 2 is Percy, Frank, and Hazel) as viewpoint characters. These books, much like the Kane books are very dark, but at the same time somehow feel more hopeful. The heroes seem better equipped to deal with the situations they are dealing with as well as their own personal issues, and the very real possible destruction of the world at the hands of the primary villain.
These books deal with the same themes as his previous works: loss, mental illness such as imposter syndrome, personal identity, sexuality, love, duty, and sacrifice. Nothing is held back in these novels either, with the battles feeling like the heroes could lose at any time and the stakes feeling major pretty much constantly.  Obviously, now, we know that they don’t fail because Trials of Apollo exists, but the way everything plays out, the things that the 7 have to endure is frightening and a little disturbing at times. House of Hades specifically is incredibly messed up with what Percy and Annabeth specifically have to deal with in their portion of the book, although Mark of Athena is also several levels of messed up when dealing with phobias and the like.  I do want to take a moment to also mention a specific scene in House of Hades involving Nico and Jason.  It’s a moment where the duo have to meet and deal with Cupid to obtain a magical item that is very important to the quest, and it’s one of the most gut-wrenching and heartbreaking moments in the series as well as some massive character development for the duo.  Additionally, some old characters from the first 5 books also show up again, and new alliances are formed and new love is found.  Hell Book 5 even adds a new Viewpoint character which grants a new perspective on things.  Its gripping, exciting, and while at first it seems like it’s going to end on a downer, the surprise at the end wraps up everything nicely for everyone.
The characters also each get their time to shine, to show off their abilities, and to grow as people and heroes, which is good considering we have 7 bloody viewpoints that are shifted through almost on a chapter by chapter basis. Each character also has their own voice and personality which shines through their perspectives as well.  It’s really well done and I was always able to follow the group and their trials easily enough.  It’s just…excellent fiction all around and a fantastic capstone to the story of Percy and company.  After the trials our heroes faced in these novels they deserve a chance to rest.
So how does one follow up such a crazy 10 book story?  Why, by changing to a new Pantheon, a new tone, and this time connecting it directly in the main books to the world of Percy.  I am talking about the magic of Magnus Chase, my favorite of all the Rick Riordan series.
Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard (Series 4, 3 Books, connects with Percy Jackson, runs concurrently with the Trials of Apollo to a point timeline wise)                
         
Straight up, this is my favorite 3 books in Riordan’s entire catalogue thus far.  The series includes the books Sword of Summer, Hammer of Thor, and Ship of the Dead.   The adventures of Magnus and his friends through the Nine Worlds is exceptionally written and deals with a lot of various topical issues such as gender, sexuality, disabilities, friendship, toxic relationships, prejudice, racism, and more.  Further, Magnus himself is actually not a fighter, not really anyway.  He is quickly revealed to be a demigod of a Vanir god, which are the more nonviolent gods in the Norse pantheon (Thor and Odin are Aesir, which are the more warrior / militant gods for example) and is actually more along the lines of a healer and support member for his group of friends.  The characters and the way the story plays out are what make this adventure so much fun as well even when it gets dark and depressing.  Magnus himself starts the series as a homeless kid living on the street since his mother died, and we quickly find out that Annabeth Chase (yes, Annabeth from the Percy series) is his cousin and is looking for him.  From there Magnus, well, dies.  This is not a spoiler as the book literally opens up with him telling you the story of how he died.  He is then taken to Valhalla by a Muslim Valkyrie (yes, really) who is related to yet another Norse god.  From there he goes on adventures dealing with Loki (because who else is going to screw with the Norse pantheon but Loki) and all of that madman’s schemes in an attempt to start Ragnarok and hasten the end of the Nine Worlds.
I can’t really go too deep into this without spoilers, but let me just say that Alex Fierro is one of the best written characters I have ever encountered.  He/She (Alex is Genderfluid you see) is feisty, strong willed, and takes no prisoners whatsoever.  Hearth and Blitz are also amazing. With Hearth being a Deaf Elf who is trying to relearn Rune Magic and Blitz being a Dwarf who wants to open a fashion store selling boutique handcrafted clothing items.  And both use their skills to aid their friends, and deal with their family traumas throughout the books as well.  And everyone here is dealing with some trauma let me tell you.  Hearth in particular is really depressing due to how his family has treated him, but he does overcome it over time with the help of Magnus and company.  Samira is another one that is pretty unique, being a person trying to balance her two worlds (her life in the mortal world and her job as a Valkyrie).  And the ending is one of the most unique ways to end such an adventure honestly, and it made me laugh quite a bit.  The representation of the Norse gods as well is hilarious.  Odin as a motivational speaker, Heimdall obsessed with his Phablet of Doom, Thor with his goats and obsession with mortal TV shows, ect.  All done in great detail with perfectly fitting updates to modern times.  Also Magnus does fall for someone in the books (because of course we gotta have romance) but it feels natural and the person whom he falls for might surprise ya!
Honestly, what I hope to see here is more of Magnus in the future, maybe a full crossover with the Olympians given his ties to the world and relationship with Annabeth and Percy by the end.  This series is heartwarming, gutwrenching, and is the best of the bunch so far.  And now, finally, let’s talk Trials of Apollo.
The Trials of Apollo (Series 5, 5 Books, 3 released at time of writing)
This is the most recent series by Riordan, and is currently (at the time of writing this) still ongoing.  There are a planned 5 books, and currently only The Hidden Oracle, The Dark Prophecy, and The Burning Maze have been released to date.  The upcoming book is titled The Tyrants Tomb, and right now no one has any idea what Book 5 will be.
I am going to lay it out there that, when I first read The Hidden Oracle I was not sold on this series at all.  Apollo, at the start, is really hard to like as a character.  I found him annoying, self centered, egotistical, and unwilling to learn.  Which, when I thought about it and as I got further in both that book and the series as a whole, made sense.  You see, Apollo, due in part to the events in the Heroes of Olympus, has taken some of the blame for the war with the Giants and Zeus has cast him out of Olympus and into the body of a mortal to try to correct some errors and mistakes.  However, we discover that something MUCH more dangerous is going on in the world, as it seems that both the Oracle of Delphi AND other ancient oracles have been taken by an unknown enemy which has caused the power of Prophecy to no longer work for our heroes.
The villains in this series are absolutely horrifying, and nothing about their historical characters are held back.  If you were not familiar with these folks before reading this you will get an accurate portrayal of them let me tell you.  As the series moves forward, however, Apollo (as Lester) starts to change and learn.  He starts to grow fond of Meg, a demigod who befriends him early on and becomes his keeper.  He meets up with characters from the previous books such as Percy, Leo, Calypso, Annabeth, Jason, and so on.  They never take center stage but all serve to show us how they have been growing since the Giants war, and most get involved in some fashion or another with Apollo’s own quest to free the ancient ways of Prophecy from the hands of the baddies.
By Book 3, The Burning Maze, I was hooked and willing to go along for the ride.  Apollo at this point, while still a bit of a coward and still a bit of whiner due to not having his godly powers, was starting to finally grow on me.  Plus, he started to show flashes of, well, humanity.  Also, some of the events that take place in The Burning Maze were soul destroying and I did not see Riordan doing what he did.  He basically pulled a George RR Martin on one of his characters and I about flipped my shit.  Seriously, while it was mentioned that something MIGHT happen to this character in the book, by this point stuff like these threats had occurred a few times and never had panned out the way you would expect em to. At least the character went out showing their nobility and grace.  And seeing the threat actually happen the way it was prophesied was perfect.
I am actually excited for The Tyrants Tomb, and with its upcoming release I am eager to see how things progress.  This section WILL be updated once that book is released to discuss it in specific, but for now, Trials is ranked prolly 3rd or 4th in my love of his books.
Demigods and Magicians crossover collection (3 Novellas, Features Percy Jackson and Annabeth Chase, as well as Sadie and Kane Carter)
These are pretty much a trio of Novellas that have Percy and Annabeth team up with Sadie and Kane Carter to deal with a threat. The first book is Percy/Kane, second is Annabeth/Sadie, and the third is all four. Honestly, its completely skippable as a series and you won’t miss much doing so.
My Personal Rankings
For fun I want to end this massive series review with my own personal rankings of the series.  Mind you, they are all worth reading in my opinion, but if you were only going to choose one or two, here is how I would rate them.
  • 1. Magnus Chase
  • 2. Heroes of Olympus
  • 3. Percy Jackson
  • 4. Trials of Apollo
  • 5. Kane Chronicles
  • 6. Percy/Kane Crossover Novellas

A Look at Sandman Slim: Series Review

After finishing the Dresden Files, I felt the need to finally sit down and complete the current (as of April 2019) set of books written by Richard Kadrey, known as the Sandman Slim novels.  This series, much like Dresden, is an urban fantasy series featuring an eclectic cast of characters headed by a magical private investigator.  Further, reading both series back to back made me realize just how much they have in common in style, while their tone is so vastly different.
First, Sandman Slim is the story of the life of James Stark, aka Sandman Slim, the Monster who kills Monsters.  At the start of the very first book we are treated to Stark crawling out of a flaming hole into a graveyard, with an explanation that he just escaped Hell after being trapped there for 11 years.  The reason for his entrapment was a group of people who were part of his Magical Circle having consigned him to Downtown, led by a man named Mason Faim.
Early on you can tell that these books are not going to be happy go lucky or even optimistic.  Stark as a character is pessimistic, violent, and angry about pretty much everything.  He is brutal, and really only has one skill and that’s killing things.  However, as the books progress and we learn more about who Stark is, how the mythology of the world is setup, and why things are the way they are the fatalistic tone of the world makes sense.  Things are, in a phrase, fucked up yo.  In fact, one quote that Stark uses in a later book that has stuck with me is that Life is a journey all about carrying a barb wired covered basket of shit, and trying to find someone who can help you carry your shit while you help carry theirs.  Stark himself does grow as the books progress, becoming slightly more attached to his friends, and he does show a softer side.  Some fans are unhappy about this but I prefer my characters in a long running series like this to grow and change.  No one is static.  By the end of the latest book Hollywood Dead Stark has gone through a sort of rebirth and is ready to kick things back into action, and I was happy as to how things had progressed up to that point.
Now, what really fascinated me as the fact that as I read the Sandman Slim novels, I started to notice a surprising number of similarities in style / world building / tropes to Dresden.  Stark and Dresden both are magic users, and both do private investigative work.  However, Stark calls himself a magician, and Dresden calls himself a wizard.  Both have a pair of potential love interests (Candy and Bardo for Stark, Susan and Karrin for Dresden) and those love interests are similar as well!  Susan and Candy are both “monsters” while Bardo and Karrin are both mortals trained to deal with Supernatural threats.  Both series features bars (The Bamboo House of Dolls for Stark, Macnally’s Pub for Dresden) that are used as central meeting points for the protagonists and their friends.  Both have friendly Bartenders (Carlos for Stark, Mac for Dresden).  Both book series have men of faith (Father Traven for Stark, Michael Carpenter for Dresden).  Both have magical “Councils” that are in charge of the hidden world (The Sub Rosa for Stark, The White Council for Dresden).  Both feature father figures for the protagonists (Vidoq for Stark, Ebenezer McCoy for Dresden).  Hell even the story paths for Stark and Dresden are similar in a lot of ways, with both characters late in the books having a major event (the SAME SORT OF EVENT IN FACT) happening to them, removing them from their respective worlds for a long period of time, and they later come back to find everything different and yet the same and having to deal with the fallout of their absence.
Dresden did come out way before Sandman Slim so I am not surprised to see Butcher’s influence on Kadrey.  Additionally, the Sandman Slim novels are very different in tone vs the Dresden books.  The stories Kadrey tells here are much more brutal, violent, bloody, and pessimistic.  Stark is not afraid to kill, not afraid to use magic to kill, and unlike Dresden there are no laws of magic that prevent him from throwing down.  Also, most of the Stark novels deal with the concepts of Heaven and Hell and the goings on in both locations, rather than featuring a broader mythology like Dresden with its Fae, rogue wizards, and other supernatural creatures.  With Stark you tend to get Heaven and Hell and Elder Gods more than anything like Vampires and Werewolves and such.  Oh and a lot of government interference as well.  Turns out the US has its own supernatural agency.  Honestly I would like to see more of these sort of creatures and event, and maybe see the series evolve a bit away from the endless constant war of Heaven and Hell, but I do not see that happening any time soon simply due to where the overall plot has gone.
Structurally the series is much like Dresden.  You have a giant meta plot centered around Stark’s life and adventures, with smaller groups of books making up Arcs.  The first 3 books could be the Revenge Arc, the next 3 could be the Old Gods arc, the 3 after that could be the Afterlife War arc, and then the latest book (at the time of writing this) Book 10 could be the start of something very new.  Further there has been the Wormwood Meta Plot as well pretty much the entire time that sort of ties the world together.
Overall I adore the Sandman Slim novels, and feel that for any fan of Dresden who likes the way those are written but wants something grittier with a much darker tone, they should look to the adventures of James Stark, the Monster who Kills Monsters.  I am eager for Book 11 whenever that happens just as much as I am for Book 16 of Dresden, and I wanna snatch both books up the instant I can.
My next Series Review is going to be on the insanely large (last count I think it’s up to 22 novels and novellas with a 23rd coming soonish) Camp Halfblood series by Rick Riordan, which can be broken up in to a bunch of smaller groups of books but is all set in the same shared universe.  Good thing I love these books.

A Look at the Dresden Files: Series Review

I love reading and have loved it since I was a child when my mother read me the entire Lord of the Rings, starting with the Hobbit.  I have a Goodreads account, I participate in the yearly reading challenges when I can remember, and I even on occasion write book reviews that you can find on this here site.  And one genre I have been enjoying a great deal as of late is Urban Fantasy.  Urban Fantasy, for those unaware, is fantasy that takes place in the modern world.  You get angels, demons, vampires, wizards, gods, and so on alongside the modern world and environments, and one of the best examples is the long running Dresden Files series written by Jim Butcher.

At this point, I have read this series (all 15 books in it at the time of writing this) around 3 times running now.  I own them on my Kindle account, and while I could sit down and review each book individually, I figured it would be a bit faster to sit down and talk about the series as a whole and why I enjoy it.

First, one big thing about me when it comes to long running series in books is that I want each book to both be connected to the larger “meta narrative” (ie the narrative that connects the entire series and world) as well as have their own individual stories in each book that the characters must resolve before the end.  I want to be able to pick up a novel in the series at any time, and be able to get a full complete story out of it.

Not many authors in the world of fantasy can do this.  Just go back and read my review of Feist’s King of Ashes book to get an idea on how I feel about a book only being a single part of a story without a story of its own.  Thankfully, most Urban fantasy authors seem to be capable and willing to create this sort of setup: Each book telling a story while also being connected to the larger plot, similar to how episodic TV works if you think about it.

The Dresden Files, for example, tell the story and life of Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only Wizard you can find in the phone book.  While most people write him off as a sham, he is in fact a real wizard, able to conjure fire and shields, track people with magic, the works.  He has a little office, and lives life mostly as a private investigator working with the Chicago Police, specifically their “Special Investigations” division, which deals with unique cases involving, well, the supernatural.

Each book in the series generally deals with a single event or problem occurring in the world of Dresden, while also connecting to much larger “arcs”.  For example, I would call the first 12 novels, starting with Storm Front and ending with Changes, to be the “Vampire War” arc as events in each book build up to the climax found in Book 12.  Book 13 starts the new arc, which personally I call the “Formorian” arc due to the new threat that emerges after Book 12.  Also, strictly speaking, all 15 books have ANOTHER Meta Narrative going through them on TOP of the Arcs!  That one I call “The Black Council” which will make sense once you get far enough into the series.

Most of the books in the series are solid entries, however there are some issues and most fans agree that the first 2 books which are Storm Front and Fool Moon (and some feel even book 3, Grave Peril) are pretty weak and a little problematic.  Butcher is clearly trying to get a handle on his writing style early on, trying to find a voice and trying to build the characters.  Further, not every book is going to cater to people.  Some books deal with the Faerie courts, others with black magic, others with faith, and others with Vampires.  I for example am not a huge fan of the Faerie driven ones simply because I find the idea behind the Faerie courts to be dull but I LOVE the ones dealing with Faith, but they are all still well written novels for the most part.

Dresden, also, can be a bit of an issue as a main character.  You see the world through his eyes, in first person (it’s always “I talked to Murphy” not “Dresden spoke to Murphy” and not everyone likes that) and Dresden himself is a bit of a chauvinistic person.  He acts like he thinks a “gentleman” should act, rushing to help damsels in distress and trying to protect and defend them against the world.  Comically, Dresden is cognizant of this and recognizes that it is a problematic outlook but also states its hard wired into him.  Further, the ladies in the Dresden Files on a whole are NOT Weak.  Karrin Murphy, one of the first major supporting characters (and in my eyes, a main character in the later books) is an incredibly scary and powerful woman who has had to fight and claw her way to her position in the police department, taking everything opportunity she is given and owning them.  She practically forces Dresden to let her into the supernatural world later on, and proves time and again that despite being a mortal she can stand shoulder to shoulder with the horrible monsters out there.

Thankfully, as the books progress and time moves forward, Dresden himself grows as a character.  He starts to trust people, willing to let them into his life and world, and willing to trust that they can handle themselves.  He is still a stubborn, pig headed, and rash individual at times, but at his core he has a good heart.  And it’s wonderful to see slow consistent growth of a character over time, especially given how he starts in Storm Front.  Also, Dresden frequently does NOT use magic to solve his problems.  More often than not, he beats his opponents by outthinking, out witting, and out planning them.  Magic, at least on Dresden’s side, is used more as a way to get information.  Now, he does throw down a few times, and it is spectacular when he or his enemies do, but just as often it’s his human side, and his allies, that get the job done in the end.

The other major thing about the Dresden Files is the world and how it is built up around Dresden.  We get to see a world not unlike our own, but built with monsters, dangers, and all sorts of creepy supernatural things built into it.  The supporting cast are also phenomenal, both Dreden’s allies and friends and the villains and horrors he goes up against.  A personal favorite are the Knights of the Blackened Denarius, which are a group of evil beings who each hold one of the 30 pieces of silver from the days of Christ.  They are…terrifying and evil and amazingly well written.  Nicodemus and his crew are one of the best sets of villains out there in fiction for me BY FAR, and the development they have as the books progress is amazing.  The things we learn about Nicodemus and how far he is willing to go to achieve his goals in Skin Game are both disturbing and a little sad.  I felt bad for the guy by the end of that book.

Overall I adore the Dresden files, and if you are looking for a good series of books I heartily recommend them.  Just be aware that the first few books (Storm Front, Fool Moon, and Grave Peril) can be a bit difficult to get through, but as the series goes on, as the characters and world mature and grow and as Butcher’s writing becomes more and more confident, I promise you that you will be hooked on the adventures and trials of Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, Wizard for Hire.

You can view the entire Dresden Files series right here on Goodreads, and I highly suggest you do so if this Series Review caught your attention at all.

You can also find me on Goodreads right here if you want to see what I am reading, and how I rate other novels as well as occasional reviews (I post most of my reviews there as well as here so you won’t miss anything, just the star ratings).

Now as a note: I have never watched the TV Series that they made about the Dresden Files.  I have no views on it, but if you want to get an idea about that show I can suggest “Here there be Dragons: The Dresden Files” by Nash Bozard (his Here There be Dragons is just good stuff in general) as an overview on that series.  It doesn’t sound like anything I would like at all, especially based on how they changed things like Bob the Skull and the order of episodes.

 

The Second Super: A Review

I have a love of good superhero fiction.  One of my favorite series for example is Cape High by RJ Ross, a long series of Novellas detailing a super hero high school.  Every so often I go on Amazon and the Kindle Store trying to find more good supers fiction, and I ran across this one where the excerpt caught my eye.

“When the first superhuman is a villain, it’s up to the second to become a hero…

Seventeen year old Kane Andrews is just another one of the billions of people on Earth who watch as Richter, the world’s first superhuman, goes on a rampage. All the worlds military cannot stop him, no matter what they throw his way.

Until, with the whole world watching, Kane surprises himself by flying up to catch someone the supervillain has thrown off a building.

The second superhuman is born.

With no idea of the extent or magnitude of his powers, Kane has a long way to go before becoming the first superhero. He must stay one step ahead of both Richter and the rest of the world while he figures out how to take down his nemesis. Time is running out though, and Richter will do whatever it takes to make sure he’s Earth’s only superhuman.”

That premise, where there is only one super and he has gone full villain and a second is born in response caught my eye.  It made me think of things like the Reckoners series.  So I grabbed it and began reading.

This was an incredibly fast read.  I finished the book over the course of a day, reading it on my breaks and lunches.  The pace of this book was scorching fast, and I never really got to know the main character Kane, aka Tempest, or Richter.  I got glimpses into Kane’s life and how he came into his powers, and then before I knew it I was at an action scene or a major event, and then before I knew it I was past it and on to something else.  Because of this blistering pace I never had a chance to really dig into or get to know the characters here.  Kane is given a love interest for example, but beyond one scene where they admit their feelings to each other, I am never really given a reason why he likes her other than “she’s hot”.  I am never shown really much of anything of Kane’s life pre awakening, and once awakened the pace of the plot never slows down even for a moment.

However, the actual story here is solid and complete.  We get the story of Richter vs Tempest, how they meet, how Tempest awakens, and how the battle between them ends, with hints of a larger story at the end, both in the end of the fight between Richter and Tempest, and in the epilogue / final chapter.  This is clearly a novella designed to work in a larger series, and it tries to entice you to read more.

One thing I really enjoyed were the action scenes.  They were written well, tight and controlled and gave me a real clear image on how Tempest viewed the world when his powers were going full steam.  The idea that the first super has gone fully rogue and the hints to his backstory here are also very interesting, and the world building is excellent as well.  In fact, in a technical sense the book was well done.  No wasted words, no overly flowery descriptions, no grammar or spelling errors that I could catch.  I just wish the plot and story were given time to breathe so I could get to know the world and the characters better.

Much like the Abel Book I reviewed in my last post however, this is something that felt almost like a palate cleanser.  It’s a super-fast read, and I don’t know if I will ever return to it nor am I sure I will continue with the next book or the prequel detailing how Richter came to be.

I think it’s a decent buy at $3 at least, and I did get some enjoyment out of it.  If you want to give it a try you can pick it up at Amazon right here, and I rated this a 3/5 on both Amazon and Goodreads.

Bloody Rose: A Review

This book had a lot to live up to as the follow up to Kings of the Wyld.  Taking place 6 years after the events of that novel, this book follows a young girl named Tam who is obsessed with the Bands who travel from arena to arena fighting monsters for entertainment.  Let start with the excerpt right away:

“A band of fabled mercenaries, led by the infamous Bloody Rose, tour a wild fantasy landscape, battling monsters in arenas in front of thousands of adoring fans, but a secret and dangerous gig ushers them to the frozen north, and the band is never one to waste a shot at glory . . . even if it means almost certain death. 

Live fast, die young. 

Tam Hashford is tired of working at her local pub, slinging drinks for world-famous mercenaries and listening to the bards sing of adventure and glory in the world beyond her sleepy hometown. 

When the biggest mercenary band of all, led by the infamous Bloody Rose, rolls into town, Tam jumps at the chance to sign on as their bard. It’s adventure she wants – and adventure she gets as the crew embark on a quest that will end in one of two ways: glory or death. 

It’s time to take a walk on the wyld side.”

First and foremost, this book has a completely different feel from the previous entry in this series, and that’s not a bad thing.  In the 6 years following the events of Kings of the Wyld, the world has drastically changed.  Mercenary Bands are now very much like Rock Stars, with screaming fans and groupies, and taking tours along an Arena Circuit from town to town, killing monsters while fans watch, and then having insane parties afterwards.

The story can best be broken up into 3 sections really.  The first 40% is the final tour of the band Fable, led by the daughter of Golden Gabe himself, Bloody Rose.  Tam, our main character in this entry, becomes Fable’s bard, tasked with following along in their footsteps and chronicling their adventures in song.  The band consists of Blood Rose and her lover Freecloud, Brune the Shaman, Cura the Inkwitch, and their booker (manager) Rodrick.  Tam herself is a likeable character, clearly a girl who wants to see the world and one who, like many, idolizes the Bands and what they do.  The characters are well written, and enjoyable, but not quite as likable for me as the first group.  Brune for me is my favorite however.

This “tour” section of the book, where we get to know the characters, is my favorite part.  Eames has been on record as saying his inspiration was “What if adventuring parties were like rockstars” and this section embodies that ideal.  This is sex, drugs, and glorious combat on an insane scale.  They even have Argosies, which are basically touring vans.  No joke, it’s hilarious.  Also, the band names that pop up during this section are clearly references to 80’s music like the Duran Brothers, The White Snakes, the Men with Helmets, the Iron Maiden, and so on.  You can clearly tell where Eames got his influence in this book way more than the previous one.

The next 30% is the Bands last actual job.  You see, Fable actually takes dangerous contracts, unlike the vast majority of the bands now.  Rather than just plying their trade on the Arena Circuit, they make an effort to take on contracts to deal with actual threats in the wilds.  This makes Fable unique when compared to their contemporaries.  While the idea behind the last contract is interesting, with Fable going after a mythical creature that no one else believes exists, the pace here slows down a bit too much for my liking.  The first section was a blistering pace almost the entire time, and then suddenly it’s like Eames slammed on the brakes and decided to take it slow and steady.  We get a TON of backstory and character development here, which I loved, showing how each member of Fable is broken in some way.  Each of them bears scars and issues from their pasts, even Tam.  However, this part of the book really felt like pure setup for the final 30% of the novel, and while there was a nice twist here that tied the events of this novel together with the first, it still felt a bit too slow and plodding for my liking.  Even if the set piece that takes place here is absolutely amazing.

The final 30% is a roller coaster of emotions.  The pace picks back up and rockets towards the finale, and the book redeems itself well here.  The final battle that takes place is just as much a crazypantsnanners clusterfuck as the final battle in the first one, and again Eames shows his skill with writing by wasting nothing here.  Every moment is described perfectly, letting you visualize exactly what is happening.  Also the ending is perfectly bittersweet, and I loved it.  It tied up the story of the two books nice and neat.

My only real issue is with that middle 30%.  It dragged at times, and as much as I enjoyed Bloody Rose and would recommend it to fans of the first (I mean, the stories ARE connected, even if it doesn’t seem that way at first) I would not rate this as highly as Kings of the Wyld.  Much like Rose, this book lives in the shadow of what came before.  I give this a 4/5 and if you liked Kings, read this.  It is well worth your time.  You can purchase this on Amazon HERE.  I would not however read this without reading the first, as some events and references would lose their impact.

Kings of the Wyld: A Review

This has to be the best fantasy novel I have read in a very long time.  I found this book by sheer accident, looking up “Best of Fantasy 2018” lists for new stuff to read.  What I actually found was its sequel “Bloody Rose” which I am currently reading as I write this.  The praise I found heaped on that book caused me to go looking for the first, and here we are.

Kings of the Wyld is very much a “One Last Job” type of story.  It details the final adventure of a band of mercenaries called Saga, a group that is held in high esteem, that bards sing about, that legends are written about.  However, Saga has long been disbanded, something like 19 years at the start of the book, and they are all old men who have moved on with their lives.  Let’s start with the excerpt as always.

“Clay Cooper and his band were once the best of the best, the most feared and renowned crew of mercenaries this side of the Heartwyld.

Their glory days long past, the mercs have grown apart and grown old, fat, drunk, or a combination of the three. Then an ex-bandmate turns up at Clay’s door with a plea for help–the kind of mission that only the very brave or the very stupid would sign up for.

It’s time to get the band back together.”

Our main character is Clay Cooper, and can I just say how NICE it is to see my name (Clay) used for a good guy for a change?  In almost every form of media I have run into, if someone is named Clay / Clayton they are always villains!  Every stinking time!  Further, the way Clay Cooper is described resonated with me. A big mountain of a man, slow and steady, who cares deeply for his family and worries he will never live up to the standards he believes a good person should be.  And inside he holds a monster, a terror he tries to keep under control.  And during fights that monster comes out and it’s a sight to behold in the novel.

The plot of the book is one where Gabriel, aka Golden Gabe, the frontman of Saga turns up on Clay’s doorstep one evening, begging for aid.  Turns out that Gabe’s daughter Rose has run off to form her own Mercenary band and fight against an horde of monsters at a far city called Castia.  And that battle is not going well. Gabe, feeling horrible for getting into a fight with his daughter and causing her to run away, begs Clay for assistance with getting Saga back together, crossing a dangerous wilderness called the Heartwyld, and rescuing his daughter from an impossible situation.

The story is told from Clay’s perspective mostly, and as we meet the other members of Saga, we learn about the history this fabled band had, the things they accomplished and the way people hold them as true heroes.  But we also learn that they are all by and large broken men, whose lives after the band broke up were not always the best.  Matrick, former rogue turned king has found his life to be very hectic since marrying a princess.  Moog the Wizard lost his husband to a disease from the Wyld called the Rot, and seeks to find a cure for it to prove that it can be beaten.  Ganleon, well I don’t want to ruin his reveal but he is a troubled man by and large.  Clay just wants to get things done and get home, away from adventure, and worries that he will die away from his love and his child.  And Gabe, of course, is both a beaten down former shell of himself and a man driven to save the one good thing in his life.

The characters are by far the best part of this story.  Each one has their moments to shine, their personalities showing in everything they do.  My personal favorite is Moog, who is driven to near obsession to prove that this horrible disease that took his husband away can be beaten.  Clay is my second favorite, and he is unique in that he fights primarily with a badass shield called Blackheart.  Even the supporting cast around Saga are awesome, and we learn a great deal about the world they inhabit and the way things have changed since they last adventured.  This book reads like an amazing dungeons and dragons campaign quite frankly, some of the set piece events that occur made me think of a DM sitting there going “Ok that is an absolute crazypantsnanners idea, let’s try it!” and somehow the party makes the roll every time.

The pacing of the story is near perfect as well.  Every moment, every scene, either expands the world, characters, or moves the story forward.  Its rich in detail but it never gets bogged down in it.  There is also a surprising amount of humor here, frequently between the characters, and it helps make it feel like they are old friends getting back together for one last party before their lives drift away again. Oh and our villain is actually likeable!  In fact, I found myself agreeing with him at times, and I understood how he must have felt living the life he had to in order to survive.

The writing is excellent as well in a technical sense.  Action scenes move forward with a blistering pace, everyone again getting their moment to shine, both the heroes and the villains.  The world building is amazing and if Eames ever put out a Setting Book for say dungeons and dragons I would be hard pressed to avoid purchasing it.  Hell I purchased the sequel and started reading it the INSTANT I finished this one, so hungry was I for more of this world.

Finally, the ending sequence of this book is absolutely batshit insane in the best way possible.  It tied up everything for the story of Saga, and left some mysteries and events open for the Sequel.  Suffice to say, the only complaint I have with this novel is that it ended.  I wanted to learn more about Saga, I want to see how they got together, their early history, the events that made them the men they were in this world.

Hopefully Eames goes back and does a prequel sometime showing just that. I will be there for it, for sure.  This gets a solid 5/5 on Amazon and Goodreads from me, and if you are a fan of fantasy you owe it to yourself to enter the Wyld, and ride with Saga.  You will NOT be disappointed.  I promise you.

Purchase Kings of the Wyld right HERE 

Captivity, The Memoirs of Abel Mondragon Book 1 – A Review

This is going to be a fairly short review, simply because the book (novella, really) is pretty short as well.  I picked this up because I know the author from twitter, and decided to finally give him a shot after the absolutely HORRIBLE book that was King of Ashes.  Dear god that book is still making me angry.  ANYWAY!

This is not the worst nor the best thing I have ever read.  Its solid average work, and I enjoyed my time with it for the most part.  Let’s start with the Excerpt from the Amazon page:

Abel was forced into a world of magic and mystery when he and his brother were abducted from their humble farm. Now, he begins a lifelong struggle for sanity and survival as he learns how to harness new and bizarre magical abilities while trying to piece together just why he was chosen by his captors, the Covenant of the Grey Raven.

My issue with this book centers on the pacing.  The book is told as a retelling from the main character Abel’s point of view, and early on the book moves incredibly quickly with very little time given to actually learn, connect, or grow to understand Abel himself.  At the start its established that he has, in essence, a perfect existence. He is a talented chef who can make anything, better and faster than anyone in quantities too great for most to handle.  He is near top of his class with only one student better then him who is also his clear “love interest”.  His mother loves him, he has a great connection to his brother who also loves him, and his father encourages him but is a tad distant.  However, all this is TOLD to us, not shown.  We never get examples of the love between the brothers or from his mom,  it’s simply stated “I have a great connection to my brother who runs a farm” for example.  Its spelled out for the reader, and done incredibly fast.  I just found that I couldn’t connect with Abel in this early introduction, and when the inevitable horrible things began to happen to him, seemingly without reason (or explanation to Abel OR the reader) I really didn’t feel anything for him.  I couldn’t bring myself to care beyond going “Well that’s kind of messed up I wonder why they are doing this to him?” and that’s just because, again, I am not given time to get to know the character.  It’s hard to care about someone you barely know when reading a novel.

However, as the book went on I did start to finally get a sense of Abel as the pacing slowed down.  A kind soul, in a horrible situation, with a past that may not be as clear cut as he originally thought it was.  It took roughly half the book before I finally started to connect with Abel and in a book this short that might be a deal breaker for some.  This is one of those cases where the phrase “It gets better” applies, although I am not a fan of that sort of thing personally.  I prefer things to hook me early and keep me going.  The 50% mark is also where things really start to pick up, with hints at Abel now being more then what he was at the start showing up.  Also it’s around this point that we start being SHOWN rather then TOLD things about Abel’s past, with one instance involving a little girl in a market as Abel sells cookies, and another instance between Abel and his brother regarding a sheep who has to be put down.

The writing is well done in a technical sense thankfully, with good use of word choices and such (but limited world building because again the book is pretty short), and once things finally start to get going and the greater picture starts to form things do in fact get interesting.  Overall it’s a solid beginner entry from an indie author but not something I could see myself coming back to and rereading later as I might do something by Sanderson, Riordan, or Butcher for example.  I cannot say much more about this book without spoiling things, but I can say I did not feel like I wasted my time with it.  It was a good palate cleanser between denser reads for sure.  The quick pace is both a blessing AND a curse in that regard.  On the plus side the cover art is damn good for an indie book.  Frequently they are a mess but this one is just a good solid piece of art.

Also, I will give it this: It’s got an ACTUAL STORY TO IT, as well as being part of a series!  Thank baby Odin.  I can at least promise you that if pick this book up to give it a try, you will at least get a full story contained IN this book PLUS the possibility of a continuing narrative should you give Book 2 a try.  I personally, however, am not sure I want to try Book 2.  Perhaps down the road if I need another palate cleanser / short read I will give it a shot.  I am also not sure it’s worth $5 as it stands.  It might be better priced at $2.  But for a first outing I can honestly say I have read MUCH worse stuff in my time, and this is a pretty decent, if average, story.  On Amazon and Goodreads I am giving this 3/5 stars.

If you want to pick up the book yourself (Support Indies people!) then you can do so on Amazon RIGHT HERE

The Storm Runner – A Review

I love mythology.  Legends, heroes, gods, monsters, all of it.  I have since I was kid, when I read stuff like Beowulf and the Odyssey in middle school on my own.  I dare say that mythology is what got me into fantasy really, the idea that there are these powerful forces and things out there from ancient time.  Suffice to say, when I ran across Rick Riordan and his Lightning Thief when it first released, I found myself entranced.

Since then I have devoured all his books, and a few months ago I started checking to see when his next book was coming when I discovered his new “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint, which he created to help feature new Young Adult authors who wrote similar stuff to him, books with a focus on modern mythology.

The Storm Runner is the first one from that Imprint that I decided to grab, and I am glad I did.  This book is an excellent read, start to finish, with a good focus on Maya mythology and features exactly what I was hoping for: A spunky hero, gods, monsters, sarcasm, sacrifice, and heroism.  Also it was a lot darker then what I figured it would be.  Now, there will be a minor spoiler further in the review, so if you want a TLDR summary here it is: Go buy this book if you like any of Riordan’s Demigod stuff because it fits right into that world.

Let’s begin my review, as I always do, with the amazon excerpt:

A contemporary adventure based on Maya mythology from Rick Riordan Presents!

Zane Obispo spends every day exploring the sleeping volcano in his backyard. “The Beast,” as he calls it, is the one place where he can escape other kids, who make fun of him because he has a limp and walks with a cane.

After a twin-engine plane crashes into The Beast, a mysterious girl named Brooks shows up at Zane’s doorstep, insisting that they meet at the volcano, where she will reveal a terrible secret. Zane agrees, mostly because beautiful girls like her don’t usually talk to him. Brooks tells him that the volcano is actually a centuries-old prison for the Maya god of death, whose destiny is directly tied to Zane’s. No way, Zane thinks. He’s just a thirteen-year old nobody, and destiny or no destiny, he wants nothing to do with any of it, especially some god of death.

But Brooks opens his eyes to the truth: magic, monsters, and gods are real, and Zane is at the center of an ancient prophecy that could mean the destruction of the world.  Suddenly finding himself entangled in a web of dangerous secrets, Zane embarks on a quest that will take him far from home and test him to the very core.

Feisty heroes, tricky gods, murderous demons, and spirited giants are just some of the pleasures that await in this fresh and funny take on Maya mythology, as rich and delicious as a mug of authentic hot chocolate.

So this story is centered our Zane, a young boy living in New Mexico with his mother and uncle.  Zane is fairly unique in that he is a disabled protagonist.  One of his legs is shorter than the other, and no one has ever figured out why.  Because of this, he walks with a cane and its explained that he is frequently bullied by other kids in school.  When the story starts, he is finishing a year of home schooling and facing the prospect of having to go to a private Catholic school.  He is generally accompanied by his 3 legged Boxer / Dalmatian dog named Rosie, who I adored.

Oh, and he has a Volcano in his back yard called the Beast.  Yes, really.  And it’s important.

I felt for Zane.  I grew up being bullied nearly constantly myself, although mine was due to my weight and hobbies at the time.  I understood him and his contrary nature, his need to prove himself and his desire to avoid school.  He is incredibly well written all things considered.  He does end up having to go to school, meets a girl named Brooks, and then things start going off the rails really quickly.  Turns out, according to Brooks, that Zane is not quite human.  He is a supernatural, and is destined by prophecy to unleash the ancient Maya God of Death Ah Puch from where he was imprisoned.

Now, here is the little spoiler I do have to mention.  This particular event occurs about 20% of the way through the book.  SPOILER ALERT: Despite everyone around him trying to stop it, Zane does indeed release the God of Death and even makes a bargain with him in an effort to save those who cares about.  And the rest of the story is all about Zane, Brooks, and Zane’s uncle Hondo’s journey into the world of Maya Mythology in an attempt to STOP Ah Puch from getting revenge, and also along the way finding out just who Zane really is.  It’s an adventure and a half and my only real complaint is that it eventually ended.

Also, I am STILL very very upset about Rosie.  The author knows what she did.  And yes, it all ends up ok at the end but I AM STILL MAD.  YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID CERVANTES!

Anyway!  This book is just completely fantastic.  What surprised me was how dark it got at times.  While Riordan’s own work features dark / adult bits at times, Maya mythology itself is actually pretty messed up.  I mean, it’s a mythology borne from a culture that involved human sacrifice, so I am not surprised that its monsters and gods are not very pleasant at all.  It almost felt a little like a Horror Fantasy book at times.  The descriptions of several of the horrible demons from the Underworld alone were freaky, as was the depiction of an area called “The Old World” later in the book.

The characters, by and large, are all awesome as well.  Zane’s uncle Hondo is a personal favorite.  A janitor at night, Hondo is a huge pro wrestling fan and goes full on nuts when trying to help his nephew throughout their journey and I adore it.  My only real issue is with Brooks.  Now, Brooks is written great and everything and she is consistent, but I don’t like her as a person.  She frequently holds information back from Zane in an effort to “protect” him, but all she ends up doing generally is making things worse.  Zane is a contrary sort of person, and he clearly wants all the information before making decisions, but when people refuse to give him that, he attempts in general to prove them wrong.  I have the same tendency and it does get a person in trouble, so folks like Brooks, who always hold things back, irritate me to no end.

The pace of the story is also excellent. There is no waste here, every section has a purpose to either let us know about the characters more, or about the world they inhabit, or move the story forward.  It’s all just good stuff.  I also like the portrayal of the Maya Gods in this quite a bit.  Ah Puch is…creepy, scary, and horrible all at the same time while also being smooth as silk.  Thankfully, the book is also a complete story despite also having a twist ending / surprise ending during the Epilogue, which was a welcome addition!  Also, as a note, I did not expect the twist at ALL I was completely surprised, and I am betting you will be as well.  And it perfectly sets up the sequel.

Suffice to say I am eagerly awaiting the sequel to this, and there is a sequel coming.  So if Ms. Cervantes reads this and wants to give me an advanced copy I would not say no.  Just saying!  You can purchase The Storm Runner on Amazon HERE, and I rated this a 5/5 on both Amazon and Goodreads.  Also if this is the quality I can expect from other “Rick Riordan Presents” titles I am in for a treat I can promise you that. There is already books involving Hindu mythology and Korean mythology out that I aim to get to at some point!  Also the Korean Mythology based on, Dragon Pearl, is Fantasy Sci Fi?  That’s wild!

King of Ashes: A #Book Review

I am not sure exactly if I have read the same book as most people on Amazon or Goodreads seem to have read, as there is almost universal praise on those sites.  I can say, that for me the story of Throne of Ashes is virtually nonexistant.  You see, the vast majority of this book focuses on our two (maybe 3?) main characters: Declan the Smith, Hatu the Orphan, and Hava the…Assassin I suppose is the best term for her.

Before I start digging in, let’s begin (as I often do with my book reviews) with the Excerpt from the Amazon / Goodreads Page:

The first volume in legendary master and New York Times bestselling author Raymond E. Feist’s epic heroic fantasy series, The Firemane Saga—an electrifying tale of two young men whose choices will determine a world’s destiny.

For centuries, the five greatest kingdoms of North and South Tembria, twin continents on the world of Garn, have coexisted in peace. But the balance of power is destroyed when four of the kingdoms violate an ancient covenant and betray the fifth: Ithrace, the Kingdom of Flames, ruled by Steveren Langene, known as “the Firemane” for his brilliant red hair. As war engulfs the world, Ithrace is destroyed and the Greater Realms of Tembria are thrust into a dangerous struggle for supremacy.

As a Free Lord, Baron Daylon Dumarch owes allegiance to no king. When an abandoned infant is found hidden in Daylon’s pavilion, he realizes that the child must be the missing heir of the slain Steveren. The boy is valuable—and vulnerable. A cunning and patient man, Daylon decides to keep the baby’s existence secret, and sends him to be raised on the Island of Coaltachin, home of the so-called Kingdom of Night, where the powerful and lethal Nocusara, the “Hidden Warriors,” legendary assassins and spies, are trained.

Years later, another orphan of mysterious provenance, a young man named Declan, earns his Masters rank as a weapons smith. Blessed with intelligence and skill, he unlocks the secret to forging King’s Steel, the apex of a weapon maker’s trade known by very few. Yet this precious knowledge is also deadly, and Declan is forced to leave his home to safeguard his life. Landing in Lord Daylon’s provinces, he hopes to start anew.

Soon, the two young men—an unknowing rightful heir to a throne and a brilliantly talented young swordsmith—will discover that their fates, and that of Garn, are entwined. The legendary, long-ago War of Betrayal has never truly ended . . . and they must discover the secret of who truly threatens their world.

That excerpt promises so very very much in this novel, and for me it failed to deliver in spectacular fashion.  Also that excerpt basically tells you almost the entire “plot” to the book!  But let’s talk about some of the good here.

First, the world building is excellent.  I love the ideas presented here with the landmasses, the 5 kingdoms (although 4 once the book really gets going), the way magic is introduced, and how the characters interact and treat each other.  A lot of time is spent specifically on the Kingdom of Night and its “Hidden Warriors”, who Hatu (the orphan) has been training with.  You learn a great deal about how this kingdom of what are essentially criminals works and how they interact with the world around them, and it’s very cool.  It’s also very similar to the Mockers and Nighthawks from his earlier Midkemia works, and the Kingdom feels at times like a combination between the two.

For the most part, I enjoyed the characters as well.  Declan the Smith is a genuinely good man, who has a clear motivation in his life.  Hava (a Nocusara in training and friend of Hatu) is a legit badass lady, and outside of one chapter is treated as equal to any other person in the organization.  The other characters that we meet as we go through the book are all equally characterful and interesting.  The few villains we meet in the novel are fascinating, and the way magic seems to be setup is also fascinating as well, but hardly mentioned.

However, this is the only positives I can really say for the novel.

Let’s start with my biggest single issue to this novel: The pacing.  I read this on my Kindle app on my phone, and from about 20% to about 65% of the book…there is no movement really on the plot.  There are a couple of very small hints or events, yes, but the vast majority of the book early on is spent on Declan and Hatu’s lives.  We literally go through their day to day experiences, focusing on their thoughts and feelings which would be fine…if they didn’t keep being repeated.  Very rarely do the sections devoted to their thoughts ever change.  Declan first “conflict” is to stay or leave his home, and then once he leaves his home its if he wants to start a family or not.  There are hints that greater things are happening AROUND him, but they do not happen TO him.

Hava for the most part is a side character, but a focus of Hatu’s throughout the book.  She has one single chapter devoted to her…and it’s all about her being trained to be a Powered Woman, aka a Geisha, aka an assassin who uses sex, flattery, and the like to get their way and information.  Now, prior to this, it is established that she is a complete badass who can hold her own against anyone, and in fact is better than Hatu frequently in fights.  But for some reason she has a chapter all about learning to have sex…and that she doesnt enjoy it nor is good at it?  It’s very weird, and out of left field.  There is a bit at the end of the chapter where she kicks the shit out of a spy, but after that she is hustled out of the school and its never spoken of again.

Hatu, however, is even worse.  It’s made clear that this is a child with anger issues, and it took me until 70% of the way through the novel to find out WHY he has such issues.  Most of the time with Hatu, barring a couple of specific events that set things up, is spent with him trying to figure out his sexual feelings towards Hava.  He clearly wants her, but doesnt understand why.  Whole pages are spent repeating these feelings and issues, pounding them into the readers head.  And then suddenly, around the 80% mark of the book, he has an “awakening” out of nowhere, and becomes calm, with sudden new powers.  By this point the reader knows WHY he can do all this, but its very sudden with almost no lead up.  Its like a literal switch is flipped inside him.  He goes from “MUST HOLD HULK SMASH IN” to “Oh neat I can do all these new things thats cool he I can sense people and stuff thats not scary or weird at all!”.

Additionally, repetition is another serious issue here.  Frequently Feist will repeat things, about how the Nations are organized, or Hatu’s rage, or how Hatu’s friends are the only ones who can calm him, ect ect ect.  Over and over the same things are repeated almost as if Feist is worried that we, the readers, missed them.  It’s like “HEY HATU HAS FEELINGS FOR HAVA DO YOU GET IT YET DO YOU WELL IF YA DONT HERE ARE 3 MORE PARAGRAPHS ABOUT THE TIME HE GOT A BONER IN FRONT OF HER!”

No, really, I had to read about his first boner.  Twice.  Once got the point across, the second instance was completely unneeded.  In fact, I dare say with some editing you could cut at least 40% of the book right out, and the entire story would remain unchanged.  There is that much pointless fluff here.  Also it feels at times there is a weird obsession with sex and sexuality at times in the book.  For seemingly no real reason.

The small hints, the small conflicts, here and there, pointing at a larger “threat” are mostly lost in between this repetition of banal events and the endless amounts of fluff the apparently 500 pages in print this book contains.  In fact, it was only when I reached 85% of the way through the book that things started to actually pick up and a conflict, a STORY, FINALLY started to emerge.  Up until that point, the book was all about the lives of Hatu and Declan, and the mundanity of it all.

And the ending?

THERE IS NO ENDING!  Straight up this book has no actual ending to its “story” and once I got to the end and realized what had happened, it hit me.  This book is a 500 page PROLOGUE for an actual story and conflict that will only be apparent in Book 2.  Thats all!  And there was even a little twist in the Epilogue which was so bloody trite it felt insulting, as if to say “Tune in next week to see what happens to Hatu and company!”  Only next week is a year or more away!  Oh, and the first time Declan and Hatu “the two whose fates are to be intertwined” dont meet until the last 10% of the book, exchange a couple of words, and then part ways!  How is that….I dont…ARG!

I bought this book because I loved Feist work on the Midkemia novels.  In fact, the first Computer RPG I ever played was Betrayal at Krondor which he wrote.  But this?  This is a mess from start to finish for me, and frankly I am sure as hell that I am NOT going to pick up the second book.  Further, I cannot in good faith recommend this book to anyone looking for a good fantasy novel.  There is stuff that is good here…but it’s just surrounded by so much pointless fluff that you end up getting lost.  Nevermind the fact that it has no actual ending.  If this had been edited more, cut down to maybe 300 pages with an actual ending and all the repetition gone, I could see myself enjoying it a whole lot more.  But I am also of the opinion that any book, even one part of a Trilogy or Series, needs to have its own story, its own beginning middle and end.  And this one fails to achieve that.  It’s a 500 page prologue and introduction into a larger world with a larger conflict.  In and of itself, it tells no real story.  It’s just “The life and times of Hatu and Declan”.  And for me, that’s not enough.

And for those curious, if you want a good example of how to do a series right?  Read Rick Riordan’s Camp Halfblood books or The Dresdan Files by Jim Butcher.  Each book in those series are their own story and at the same time part of an overarching narrative.  You could pick up any book in either series and get a full story from start to finish.