Chasing the Skip

One of the hardest things about being a reviewer is not letting yourself fall into a routine. By that, I mean only reading one type of book, or only reading books you are positive you are going to like. I think it is something most reviewers struggle with when we get sent a pile of novels to read. Hmm, do I choose the Steven Erikson epic...or a novel about fairies in historical London. For me, the choice would seem obvious--Erikson. However, I think it is healthy as a reviewer to read outside your comfort zone. Often times the results are astounding. Reading outside my comfort zone is how I discovered Marie Brennan (fairies in historical London) and Robert Jackson Bennett. It's how rediscovered that elves can be OK with James Barclay, and that YA can be entertaining.

A little while ago I was sent a review copy of Janci Patterson's debut YA novel, CHASING THE SKIP. Normally I would have given this novel directly to one of my reviewers who would be more in the target audience, but I decided it was time for me to read outside my comfort zone again. Why? Because I'm always trying to broaden my reading and become a better reviewer.

Guess what happened? I ended up enjoying the novel. As a reviewer, I love when I take a risk that is rewarded like this.

CHASING THE SKIP follows the PoV of Ricki, a teenage girl who is now stuck on the road with her estranged father. Oh, and her dad is a freaking bounty hunter. As an adult guy reading a book targeted at young females, this immediately gave me a character I could root for. I cannot overstate how important this is for a new author trying to gobble up as many readers as possible.

The novel picks up with Ricki's mother having left nearly a month earlier. Her mom does this from time to time. She just leaves. Ricki will go and stay with her grandmother, but she gets abandoned on a fairly regular basis. This time though it is a lot longer than usual. Enter Ricki's dad. He has virtually stayed out of his daughter's life until recently. Now, the two are on the road together as Ricki's father is on the tail of another "skip"--the term used for parole evaders. As this is a YA novel, it comes as no surprise when the new "skip" is a teenage boy. He's easy on the eyes and slightly mysterious.

I know what you are thinking. This really doesn't seem like the type of story I would normally enjoy. You're right, of course. So let me tell you exactly why I did end up enjoying this novel.

First, CHASING THE SKIP reads extremely fast. I read it in one sitting, before bed, without much effort. It was a nice, easy read that I never felt any desire to stop reading. I think this was because Patterson's writing was very smooth. The story is told in First Person, which helps the reader understand exactly how confused and conflicted Ricki is. This is essential in a novel like this. Additionally, the ease of reading the novel can easily be attributed to how focused it was. There is no wasted space in CHASING THE SKIP. Everything is done with reason and direction--something I feel many YA novels lack.

Ultimately, CHASING THE SKIP is about the relationship between a teenage girl and her father. I think this is why I liked this novel. To me, as a reviewer and reader, the characters are what make any novel work. The setting can be a tad "meh", and the plot can be familiar...but if the characters and their relationships are interesting, then I am able to sit back and enjoy what I am reading. Over the short space of this novel, we get to see tremendous character growth both with Ricki and her father. THAT is what kept me reading. THAT is what made me glad I read this novel.

Now, I'm not going to ruin the ending for you, but I will say that it all felt natural and in-character. It was a tense moment, and paced extremely well. As a father myself, I found the resolution of the father's character arc to be satisfying in every way, and oddly found that I was picturing Ricki in much the same way her father was.

I am not the target audience of CHASING THE SKIP. Not even close. But it is easy for me to recognize and well-written, well-paced YA novel with realistic and relatable characters. What does this tell me? If a guy so far removed from the target audience and be thoroughly entertained by CHASING THE SKIP, then all those YA readers out there are really going to love it. Janci Patterson's debut is well worth your time.

Recommended Age: 12+.
Language: Hardly any.
Violence: Some tense situations, but nothing crazy.
Sex: Nope. Some crude references, but this is a clean novel.


Are you a YA reader who wants a little less genre-fiction? Want to grab this novel? Here is your link:

CHASING THE SKIP

The Broken Universe

Do you guys know who Paul Melko is? No? Then let me introduce you. Paul Melko is great. He writes good, funny, quick-paced Science Fiction novels. I love them. There are times when I’m in the mood for some heavy Hard SF. There are times when I want Weird Fantasy. Then there are times when I want just a fun Science Fiction read that makes me smile as I read it. Paul Melko writes those.

THE BROKEN UNIVERSE is actually a sequel to his novel THE WALLS OF THE UNIVERSE which in turn was a novel length version of his Hugo nominated short fiction story (also called the "The Walls of the Universe"). Instead of just telling you what the THE BROKEN UNIVERSE is about, I’m also going to tell you the set up for THE WALLS OF THE UNIVERSE and why this is such a fun place to be in. In a way, this review will serve as a review for both novels.

THE WALLS OF THE UNIVERSE is a story about Johnny Rayburn. One day Johnny--who works on his parents' farm and is saving up for college--runs into himself. This is another John from another universe who has a device that can skip between universes. Trusting himself, Johnny uses the device to check out another universe. What can the harm be, he can always skip back right? Wrong. The device can only move the wearer forward to the next universe and not back to the previous one. The novel follows the two Johns. One who is trying to understand the device so he can get home and get revenge on being swindled of his life. And the other is an imposter John who starts to try and build a life in the (to him) new universe.

It’s a great book. The characters are fun and easy to relate to. The prose is neat and concise. It’s the type of book that you read and suddenly realize you’ve been reading it for a couple hours.

I won’t give away the ending to the THE WALLS OF THE UNIVERSE or much about THE BROKEN UNIVERSE. Let’s just say that the story escalates beyond what is happening to two Johnnys in this multiverse. There are powers at work and several factions that also know about skipping from one place to the next.

Both books are just plain fun. There’s a nice balance of big ideas and grand schemes mixed in with smaller human moments and actions. The solutions that are come up with in some cases aren’t brilliant mind bogglingly complex schemes, but rather simple elegant solutions that feel real.

Surprisingly the stuff I enjoyed most about the books were the small things, the relatable bits. I’m usually a sucker for a good space opera and weird stuff, but here I found myself wanting to read about these characters and how these ordinary people would deal with extraordinary circumstances.

THE WALLS OF THE UNIVERSE and THE BROKEN UNIVERSE are both great starter SF books (THE WALLS OF THE UNIVERSE was featured in our SF 101 post). If you know someone who wants to give the genre a shot this is as good a way to introduce it to them as any I’ve found. Read them yourself while you’re at it.

Age Recommendation: 14+ maybe. Things get a little more complicated and confusing in Broken Universe.
Violence: A few not very detailed scenes.
Language: A smattering of words, not much.
Sex: Referenced, and not much.


Here are your links to grab these:

THE WALLS OF THE UNIVERSE THE BROKEN UNIVERSE

Flesh & Bone

Jonathan Maberry makes it all look so easy, doesn't he? Book after book is released with his name gracing the cover, and we all snatch them up greedily. Why? Because a Jonathan Maberry novel never disappoints.

FLESH & BONE is no different.

The third novel in the Benny Imura series continues a short time after the events of the second novel, DUST & DECAY. Before I go on, I should mention (in case you have yet to begin this fantastic series) that the Benny Imura series is YA following a small group of teenagers living in a world after the zombie apocalypse has happened. As the first novel, ROT & RUIN, closes, the group of teens sees a jumbo jet flying in the sky. This incident pushes them to go out into the wild to find it.

Like the previous novels, FLESH & BONE follows Benny Imura, Nix, Lilah and Chong. In my review of DUST & DECAY, I said that it felt like that novel was more like an alternate ending to the first book more than a true sequel. I enjoyed the novel, but I still wanted more. I wanted more details. I wanted to see more of the world. I wanted new and different dangers. FLESH & BONE does all of these things, and Maberry literally starts throwing them at you from the first page.

It turns out that in the Rot & Ruin (the name for the wilderness in this series), there is a strange death cult growing in numbers. They go from place to place, settlement to settlement, and...free...people from their existences.

Oh, and there are zombies out there. Lots and lots of zombies. And they are acting far different than usual.

The great thing about this novel, apart from the refreshing plot, is the emphasis on character growth and relationships. Each of these characters have been through a lot, and it isn't until this novel that they really begin to deal with the emotional fallout of the terrible experiences they've participated in. It really becomes a question of loss, and how these characters deal with it.

The villains of FLESH & BONE are very entertaining. To me, Maberry is fantastic at portraying each villain as a unique character with unique motivations. It would be easy, especially in a YA novel (as we've all seen so many times), to make the villains flat and boring. Many authors seem to think that villains in YA novels don't need to be fully developed, and don't develop them. Maberry's villains come to life on the page. Sure, sometimes they are a bit over-the-top, but they are always developed.

As for new characters...well, I can't say much without ruining the surprise. Let's just say one of the new characters introduced brings a whole different light to the series.

FLESH & BONE may actually be the darkest of the Benny Imura series. The toil on the characters is high, and Maberry doesn't pull punches when putting his characters in danger.

I've read a lot of YA lately, and still I find Jonathan Maberry's Benny Imura series sits towards the top of it all. His knack for writing action and character drama makes all his works highly entertaining.

Recommended Age: 13+.
Language: Hardly any.
Violence: Yup. Nothing insane, but some of the situations are pretty terrible.
Sex: Nope.


Here are your links. You should be reading this series:

ROT & RUIN
DUST & DECAY
FLESH & BONE

In the Lion's Mouth

I'm just not getting it. Science Fiction. I hate the fact that I sometimes sound like a broken record, but there's just so little SF out there that I've read to prove me wrong that I just can't help but feel jaded. The up-side is that as long as it's well-written, I'm not going to rip into too much, because if there's one thing that is consistent and good about these books, it's the prose.

IN THE LION'S MOUTH by Michael Flynn is the third installment in his most recent space opera series featuring the inimitable Donovan Buigh.  I wasn't very keen on the second, UP JIM RIVER, but I decided that to be fair, I had better read the first, THE JANUARY DANCER, before diving into this one.  Unfortunately, I needn't have bothered, for I just found more of the same:  a beautifully-written story with a swiss cheese of a plot that ended with me asking, "What was the point of that?"

The story this time around is framed by an agent of the Shadow, Ravn Olafsdotter, and is relayed to Donovan's daughter, Mearana, and his sometime lover, the Hound Bridget Ban, by Ravn because Donovan has, for reasons known to Ravn, gone missing.  Mearana and Bridget are eager to find Donovan, and so they abide the Shadow's presence in their home, instead of instantly killing her as an enemy, and settle down to listen to Ravn's words.

Ravn spins a tale that is varied and complicated.  Told from the point of view of Donovan, instead of through Ravn's eyes (don't ask me how this works--Donovan already has so many people in his head though that it didn't bother me too much that Ravn was, technically, now another one).  Donovan has chosen to return to Commonwealth space, and finds a civil war brewing, in which he becomes somewhat involved.

Similar to JANUARY DANCER, none of the details of the story seem to matter, as the tale jumps from one setting to the next with little to no connection other than through the vague intricacies of the Shadows and Hounds, the two major powers, of known space.  In the end, it is not the story that matters, but the unknown motives of Ravn in telling the story in the first place.  In this way, IN THE LION'S MOUTH was very much like the other two books in the series.  This similar structure was what had led me to the same final question each time:

What was the point of that?

In this case, it seems to be to elicit a particular response from a person of interest.

And that's all.

Sorry, but I just can't get behind that.  Despite the awesome writing, despite the cool history and universe that Mr. Flynn has developed here, despite the way in which--for very small periods of time--he grabs my interest in full by the characters or the world or the events of the story (before, in my opinion, quickly throwing it all down the drain), I have come to the conclusion that this is all nothing more than what I've come to expect, in general, from Science Fiction.  If you, like me, would rather enjoy both the beginning, middle, and end of a story, would rather read about awesome characters and powerful stories, why don't you try some of the Science Fiction authors we love instead.  After this read, I'm definitely going to be heading back that direction.

Recommended Age: 16+, though you should probably recommend something they'll enjoy better
Language: Very little
Violence: Gets pretty gory in the various deaths described
Sex: A handful of references.

Interested in this series?  Find it here:

THE JANUARY DANCER

UP JIM RIVER

IN THE LION'S MOUTH

Hidden Things

I've been on a bit of an urban fantasy kick of late. So much of the genre is about gritty, inner city vampire staking that HIDDEN THINGS by Doyce Testerman registered to me as an original. HIDDEN THINGS isn't urban fantasy so much as a modern rural fairytale. It features folkloric fantasy creatures (dragons and satyrs instead of vampires and werewolves) and tells a moral story. I found this novel approach endearing and as a result I quite liked HIDDEN THINGS despite some flaws.

Calliope's partner has been declared dead. The police are investigating the matter and suspect foul play. Calliope knows little of the case Josh had been working but refuses to accept that he is gone for good...because she has a message on her answering machine from him that was taken two hours after his alleged demise. Now Calliope must travel to Iowa in search of answers with hopes of finding her ex-lover/best-friend/business-partner. The only clue she has is a warning, "Watch out for the hidden things."

Iowa! Surely nothing magical happens in Iowa! What a great setting for an urban fantasy novel! I love it. This isn't your typical, shades of gray, dreary detective story. This is a dustland fairytale, heartland noir of the Springsteen variety. And it mostly works. Because lets be honest, the genre needs a change of scenery. And with all that nothingness out there it seems completely reasonable that trolls and goblins could hide from the information age. It's a sly use of setting and I'd love to give Testerman a high-five for taking advantage of the Mid West.

Calliope Jenkins is an almost immediately likable protagonist. How could you not be with a name like Calliope? She is one badass chick. A disagreeable and scathingly sarcastic female private investigator with confrontation issues. What's not to love? So Calli can be a bit prickly on the outside but she's no Amazonian on a warpath. She is very human. HIDDEN THINGS is filled with brief flashbacks that fill out the details of Calli's past, particularly her relationship with Josh. In any other book the surplus of flashbacks could have been too much but here it works. Her's is a sad past and Josh's even more so. The relationship between the two of them is convincing.

Calliope's guide and companion on her journey to the Hidden Lands is none other than a hobo demon clown. Yeah, you read that right. Vikous might just win an award for Most Sympathetic Creepy Clown in the history of literature. The relationship between Calli and Vikous starts off on rocky ground (poor, poor Vikous) but grows into an unexpected bond.

Vikous is but one example of the monsters that hide amongst us in plain sight. Much that once was is now lost, as Vikous says, "...there's nothing magical in this world anymore - that's the nature of the people who control it." What magic is left is all about knowing how the world goes together, what pieces fit where, and how to rearrange it a bit. Calliope takes all the supernatural stuff like a champ. On one hand this is great. Readers don't have to endure a lengthy denial period, rolling their eyes the whole time as the protagonist struggles to comprehend the nature of the world they really live in. On the other hand she almost seems a little too accepting given some of the awesome and terrible things she experiences.

This leads to another of the few problems I had with HIDDEN THINGS - there's not enough exploration of the fantastical elements. There is a Stephen King influence to this story, but a more streamlined and less pretentious Stephen King. Testerman tells a tale in 300 pages that would have taken King 1000 pages (and a completely unsatisfactory ending) to tell. And for the most part I applaud the economy of prose. The problem is that there is enough material here to fill out a much longer story and delve into some of the deeper details that are underdeveloped. Some of characters (Walker for example) and concepts need more and the story is engaging enough that Testerman could have easily pulled off extra exposition. My last complaint is that as subtly creepy and satisfying as the last chapter is, after reading the epilogue I couldn't help but feel that Calliope hadn't solved the case so much as come upon the answer. For a fan of detective fiction this was a bit of a bummer.

Then again, maybe HIDDEN THINGS isn't so much about the fantastical. The human element is the driving force of the story. You could cut out the magic and still have a powerful story about maturing and relationships and change. HIDDEN THINGS is a modern day fairytale, complete with a moral message that I won't spoil for you. I'm glad I read HIDDEN THINGS and I would like to see Testerman return to Calliope and Vikous in the future.

Recommended Age: 15+
Language: There is cursing, not overdone per se, but there are F-bombs.
Violence: There's a little bit but nothing gruesome.
Sex: Nope, just a little bit of innuendo.

Want it? Get it here.

I would recommend listening to the album “Rise Ye Sunken Ships” by We Are Augustines or “Sam’s Town” by The Killers to get in the mood while reading this.

The Isis Collar

Celia's life hasn't been easy since she was turned into an abomination in BLOOD SONG--not quite human, but not quite vampire, either. At the same time her siren abilities manifested, giving her supernatural skills she only wished she had in a profession (bodyguard) that needs all the advantages she can get.

Be careful what you wish for.

THE ISIS COLLAR starts out with a bomb at an elementary school. Someone really despicable wants to cause a pandemic with a magical necrosis that essentially turns people into zombies. Despite a tip-off, Celia couldn't stop the bomb and is infected, but her vampire side is having trouble beating the infection. It becomes a race against time to find the source of the bomb and an antidote--for herself and for those even less resistant to the disease.

Like before, Celia is a great protagonist with the right amount of attitude and kick-butt skills, who's still a girlie at heart. I enjoyed Celia's romantic entanglements that she can't seem to resolve through no fault of her own. She attracts these men not because she's a fair maid in danger, but because she's a good person trying to do the right thing, who takes her friendships seriously, and is the kind of woman you want fighting in your corner. However, by this point in the series the cast is a little unwieldy. There are new characters with ties to people Celia knows, there are several people from previous books, and even more with back story--all of this would make new readers feel lost.

For some reason Tor never sent DEMON SONG (boo! And I wanted to read it!), although they sent the first two in the series, BLOOD SONG and SIREN SONG . Either way THE ISIS COLLAR is a bit of a letdown after the clean writing of books 1 and 2. We're caught in subplots carried over from previous books that interfere with the pacing. There are also some seemingly random events that matter later in the story, but aren't explainable and still feel random. Heck, we don't even know what the Isis Collar is until the last quarter of the book and it's the title! Adams tries to tie everything together, but the novel still felt like a random sequence of events, making the pacing a little off, even if there was consistent forward movement.

It's less the plot than it's the characters and the setting that will keep readers hooked. It's a world of vampires, sirens, mages, witches, demons, and everything in between. It's a world that's familiar to us and yet very, very different. Adams adds fun details to this world, such as the Isaac's store, where Celia gets her gear altered to hide her guns, but to also purchase magic charms, a special brand of spray holy water, and anything else a girl would need to defend herself from the supernatural.

If you liked the previous books, ISIS is more of the same: same Celia and friends, same pacing and exciting storyline. If you haven't read any, start with BLOOD SONG. As for the series, despite its flaws, its interesting characters and engaging setting is what will keep me reading in the future.

Recommended Age: 16+
Language: A handful of harsher language, but still average for Urban Fantasy
Violence: Plenty of danger from bombs, demons, witches--with the zombie descriptions being the grossest part of the book
Sex: Innuendo and references without detail

The books in The Blood Singer Series:
BLOOD SONG
SIREN SONG
DEMON SONG
THE ISIS COLLAR

Endurance

I like being proven wrong. Well, let my qualify that statement, because I hate being told that I'm wrong.  I do, however, enjoy being surprised by finding out for myself that something is not the way that I thought it was. After reading several short stories and a novel by Mr. Lake, I'd pretty much written him off as someone that I wouldn't enjoy reading any more of.  So having this book land in my pile was an interesting experience to say the least.  As with my most recent foray into Science Fiction, I of course felt obligated to read the first book in the series before I read this one. 
ENDURANCE is the second book in the "Green Universe" authored by the prolific Jay Lake.  I had previously read the first book in his "Mainspring Universe", MAINSPRING, and was less than enthused by what I found.  In essence, great writing, interesting characters, a decent--if slightly wandering--plot, with a horrible lack of an ending.  It is a tribute to Mr. Lake's prose and storytelling ability that he made me forget about that final point when I dove into GREEN and subsequently with ENDURANCE.

The main character of both novels is Green.  Her tale begins as she is sold at a very young age by her father to a foreign man from far across the sea.  She knows neither why her father has sold her, nor where she is bound--only that she doesn't want to leave her home, her family, or her Ox, Endurance.

Catch that reference?  Uh huh.  So did I.  Don't worry about it too much though, as it didn't make very much difference.

GREEN covers the tale of her life as she grows from youth to young woman within the confines of the Pomegranate Court where she is being groomed to be a trophy wife for the nobility of the cities of the Stone Coast.  The abusive teaching methods of her instructors, and her secondary, more lethal Pardine (cat-woman) instructor, mold Green into a woman that is both proper and deadly.  A wicked combination that some would like to exploit.  I loved the book right up until the end, when it took a serious turn into left field.  On Amazon, I found a wide array of reviews all across the board.  After thinking about it for a while, I came to the conclusion that the book was amazing, but lacked any kind of foreshadowing to support the ending.  I didn't necessarily hate what happened.  It was seriously just unexpected.  Despite the title of the second book.

ENDURANCE picks up pretty quickly from the end of GREEN, and deals with several of the political entities that Green interacted with in the first book as they converge upon her at the same time for reasons unknown.  Where GREEN was very intimately structured around Green and her life and growth, ENDURANCE becomes very wrapped up in how all these other various parties influence her choices.  She also has to deal with the consequences of several of the choices she made in the previous story.  One of those choices, has to do with her Ox, Endurance.

This was perhaps one of the facets of the story that I most enjoyed.  Seeing direct consequence to Green's ignorant and/or poor choices impact her life in this book solidified her character for me. Lake does a really good job with Green's character and the way that she interacts with the world around her.  It's so easy to get caught up in this story, and indeed that happened very easily for me.

It wasn't until I finished the book and stepped back that I got annoyed.  Because after all this story, do you want to guess what happened at the end?  Yup.  Big fat orange right over the first baseman's head. Another big "boo" from left field.  I was seriously annoyed. Again? Really? Argh! How am I supposed to like a book that doesn't have a decent ending? If the whole book is bogus, okay, fine. I'm not expecting anything amazing. But good book + a wth ending? How am I supposed to respond to that?  Reminded me of the frustration I had at the ending of PERDIDO STREET STATION by Miéville.  Then again, maybe I'm just jaded.  Fool me once, and all that jazz.

Reading these books has given me one thing though:  a realization that Mr. Lake is getting better.  I mean, he moved from the total lack of any ending at all to an ending that I completely didn't expect or understand.  The sad thing is that he has everything else that a great fantasy novelist needs!  So many ideas and skills to weave these tales that readers like me love to read.  If you can enjoy a book with a poor ending, seriously pick this one up.  If you're more of a reader like me, I'd give the guy another few passes or so.  He'll get it eventually.  Well, hopefully.  I really hope he does because this guy could be one of the greats.

Recommended Age: 18+ (GREEN), 14+ (ENDURANCE)
Language: Very little, but pretty strong at times
Violence: Physical violence, but relatively little blood or gore
Sex: A few strong scenes and references (GREEN) and a few references (ENDURANCE)

Interested?  Take a trip to Lake's Green-land:
GREEN
ENDURANCE

The Dusk Watchman

Oh man. I don't even hardly know where to begin. It seems like only yesterday that Pyr's Lou Anders was talking up this new series he had acquired. It all started with Tom Lloyd's THE STORMCALLER, and Lou Anders was telling everyone who would listen that it was the start of a series that would please all those rabid Steven Erikson fans. Being one of those Erikson fans myself, I was intrigued. I personally picked it up based solely on Anders' description.

Fast-forward several years later, and here we are with the fifth and final novel in The Twilight Reign. THE DUSK WATCHMAN. I had the privilege of reading this novel quite a while ago, and it's been absolute agony not having anyone to talk with about it. I was going to wait for the US release of the novel to write up this review, but I just can't do it. Not enough willpower.

I'm just too dang excited to tell you what I think of this novel, and the series as a whole.

THE DUSK WATCHMAN was incredible. Absolutely stunning. One of the best Fantasy novels I've read.

It's extremely hard to write a review like this. I just want to keep screaming out that the novel is awesome over and over again. I mean, what else do I need to say? Just buy the freaking book! The whole series! Get it for family, friends and strangers! Most importantly, send me the UK versions of books 4 and 5 so I have a matching set!

Then I take a deep breath, and let the reviewer take over.

THE DUSK WATCHMAN takes place right after the carnage of book 4, THE RAGGED MAN. I really, really want to talk about that ending, because it plays heavily into the motivations of Isak, Vesna, Emin and the rest, but that would be spoiling both novels. Instead, let's talk a bit about the themes of THE DUSK WATCHMAN, and the overall feel of it.

First, THE DUSK WATCHMAN deals with consequences. The cast of the series has put themselves on the line countless times, and they've sacrificed literally everything to stop the evil which is now present in the world. And guess what? It hasn't been enough. All that sacrifice. All that pain. All that anguish. It's barely kept The Land afloat. To get a little bit into the plot of the novel (without spoiling any of the surprise), our heroes discover further hints as to a weapon that could potentially alter the downward spiral of the world.

That's all the characters of THE DUSK WATCHMAN have. Hope.

This is a very bleak novel. Every character has been shattered in either their body or mind--or sometimes both. And even with all the death and destruction--and yes, even MORE sacrifice--there is that tiny, delicate thread of hope that has somehow been woven into the novel. If there is one thing that I can point at with Tom Lloyd's progressing work, it is his ability to successfully weave a variety of contradicting emotions into his novels. Every time you read a section with Isak, you will feel this. Every time you read a section from Vesna, you will feel this. All I can do is applaud the author for such a deft handling of heavy material.

In my review of THE RAGGED MAN, I asked for some more variety in the locations the readers would visit. Lloyd did it. He gave me exactly what I wanted, and I loved it. You want details? Too bad. Go buy the novel and read those details for yourself.

The ending. Wow. Just...wow. This isn't just an ending for a novel. This is the ending for an entire series. When an author begins a series, he makes a promise. This promise usually goes unfulfilled. I've read so many series that fail at this critical junction. The endings fall flat, or characters do stupid things so the plot can progress...or we don't even get the final book at all. I've read very few finale novels where the ending made the entire series completely worth it.

THE DUSK WATCHMAN has one of the most insane, awesome endings of any series I've read...and then the Epilogue completely makes you rethink EVERYTHING.  It's the type of ending that you read two or three times, not because it isn't clear, but because it is sooooooo good. Again, it is equally heart-wrenching and triumphant. The last time I felt this satisfied by a series finale was when I read Erikson's THE CRIPPLED GOD.

I suppose that the best compliment I can give Tom Lloyd is that I was 100% impressed by THE DUSK WATCHMAN. He scratched every itch I had, and even a few I didn't know existed. I hesitate to use the word "perfect"...but I'm just so blown away by how this all came together. Is there another word? Stunning? Exceptional? Pick one, and it will likely be true.

I'll just say this: THE DUSK WATCHMAN not only is the best novel in Tom Lloyd's The Twilight Reign, but it masterfully serves as a capstone to one of the most entertaining and enjoyable fantasy series I've ever read. Every fan of Steven Erikson should be reading Tom Lloyd's The Twilight Reign.

Recommended Age: 17+
Language: The characters don't shy away from swearing. It can be pretty strong at times.
Violence: Crazy, crazy violent. But as usual, Lloyd handles it in such a way that it never feels like shock-value.
Sex: I don't remember anything explicit, but there are references.

The US release date for THE DUSK WATCHMAN seems to be November, but it seems fuzzy. Hopefully this means we'll see it then, or maybe (fingers crossed!) a tad earlier. If for some reason you haven't started this series, you need to drop everything and give it a go. The opening novel, like Erikson's work, has a steep learning-curve...but it is worth it. Here are your links to the full series:


THE STORMCALLER
THE TWILIGHT HERALD
THE GRAVE THIEF
THE RAGGED MAN
THE DUSK WATCHMAN

All Men of Genius

The irony of the title of ALL MEN OF GENIUS by newcomer Lev A.C. Rosen is that the main character is 17-year-old Violet. While not exactly a tomboy, she's a scientist at heart and isn't afraid of the grime, oil, and dirt involved in her love of making machines. Unfortunately for her, the exclusive London-based science university, Illyria, doesn't accept women. Violet, however, is reckless enough to concoct a scheme that allows her to attend the university--posing as her twin brother Ashton.

ALL MEN OF GENIUS is Rosen's steampunk re-telling combination of Wilde's "The Importance of Being Ernest" and Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." It's more a comedy of manners than anything resembling the conspiracy mystery he prologues the book with. While fun, creative, and entertaining, I can sum up GENIUS with two words: heavy handed.

The ensemble cast revolves around our heroine, Violet. Violet and her brother are the children of a scientist who travels to America for a year, leaving them to their own devices. She enlists the help of her brother and friend Jack to see the scheme through. We meet classmates along the way, romantic interest Duke Ernest Illyria who is the headmaster, various professors, and other tacked on characters who don't seem to have much influence to the story at large. They are often shallow caricatures, with heavy-handed characterization that sometimes bordered on the silly--on purpose, I'm guessing, considering the comedy of manners angle. To me they just seemed odd. Others may find them more charming.

The majority of the story takes place in London and at the school Illyria itself. In its labyrinthine dungeons, the labs, the common areas, the gardens, and all that. I enjoyed London through the seasons, and Rosen paces the passage of time well. But I still had a hard time picturing Illarya itself anything other than a smaller Hogwarts.

The characters all broadcast early in the book their well-laid plans...and then almost everything happens the way they planned. This heavy-handed foreshadowing makes the resolution not very fun. Sure Violet, as the female lead, has her worries. What if people find out what she is before she can finish the year? What are the strange automatons in the basement? Will people still like her as a woman and not a man? There simply wasn't enough at stake and by the end I was skimming pages just to finish the book, since I already knew how everything works out.

The narrator attempts an old-fashioned voice, but it feels self conscious and awkward, with its tell-not-show info-dumps to quickly establish setting and characters. The prose has its quirky moments and is often charming, but stumbles over itself, thereby slowing the flow of the story. While the omniscient PoV focuses on Violet, it switches between characters in a scene and even sometimes within a paragraph. Rosen does get heavy-handed dealing with themes of one's sexual identity and gender expectations. And I can't help making a petty complaint noting that the frequent use of rather/quite/terribly/etc doesn't automatically make prose genteel.

Much of the science is creative and interesting, but sometimes it has issues. Jack, while clearly talented in his particular field, only takes ten minutes to graft snake skin onto a rat. Violet creates an invention that only requires two turns of a key to provide enough torque to run a large device for three days. Is Rosen stretching the laws of physics here a bit? Sometimes it all just seems too easy.

If you aren't the nitpicky type these problems won't affect your enjoyment of a creative story and its sweet yet mixed-up romances. Overall ALL MEN OF GENIUS is an entertaining bit of work, and I probably look too closely at it with a critical eye. But Rosen tries too hard, and it shows.

Recommended Age: 16+, despite the YA looking cover this isn't for younger audiences
Language: Crude language and a fair about of the harsher stuff, including one very profane rabbit
Violence: One violent scene at the end involving death, but little blood and no gore
Sex: Gay teen romancing and several references to 'inverts'; vague references to rape; frequent references to sex

Think you'd like to give it a shot?  Here's your link:

ALL MEN OF GENIUS

Monster Hunter Legion

It's that time of the year again folks. That magical time signaling the announcement of another book release from the reigning champion of urban fantasy. May I humbly present to you MONSTER HUNTER LEGION, fourth book of the New York Times Best-Selling series written by pulp fiction juggernaut Larry Correia.

Disclaimer: Larry Correia is my favorite author. I am a Monster Hunter/Grimnoir Chronicles fanboy. This does not, however, mean that I will ever give Larry a free pass when it comes to a review. I am a critic first and foremost and I do not believe in coddling authors. That said, MONSTER HUNTER LEGION is Larry's most flawless book to date. Not my favorite of his novels, mind you, but certainly the most complete and substantial.

Hunters from around the world travel to Las Vegas for the first ever monster eradication conference. Not long into the conference a World War II weapon experiment awakes in the desert and goes on a rampage, spurring a race amongst the international hunting community to bag this rare monster. There is trouble brewing and it will be up to Owen Zastava Pitt and his co-workers at Monster Hunter International to prevent a nightmare creature from turning Sin City into hell.

This is book four of the Monster Hunter series, and this series is still going strong. After a brief stint with Earl Harbinger in Northern Michigan during MONSTER HUNTER ALPHA I was pleased to be back under the narration of Owen Pitt, combat accountant. First person narrative requires a strong personality to succeed and I had forgotten just how lovable Owen is. Only Owen could be set loose in Las Vegas with tons of cash and end up at a buffet. The first ever monster hunting conference provides an excellent opportunity to really expand the hunting community. We haven't really seen a lot of competition from rival companies so far in the series, and that makes a large gathering of them that much cooler. Owen turns out to be a bit of a celebrity among the crowd, being the God Slayer and all, and a very disturbing pattern starts to emerge when the hunters start comparing notes...Something very, very bad is on the horizon. Something worse than anything our heroes have faced to date.

The pacing doesn't skip a bit. MONSTER HUNTER LEGION starts out slow but strong. Readers are introduced to new allies and new enemies, including the extremely creepy Mr. Stricken. It would appear that there are some government organizations worse than the Monster Control Bureau and Special Task Force Unicorn is one of them. With our own government playing hardball and an impending war of supernatural proportions inching ever closer, the tension is palpable. Whereas the other books in the series give off a more action-oriented vibe, MONSTER HUNTER LEGION just oozes menace. This is a horror novel through and through. It is just a horror novel where the horny college kids are replaced by heavily armed professionals.

The characters are the best you'll find in the urban fantasy genre or any other. Owen is the very essence of restrained violence with an incredibly dysfunctional family, and yet he is an impossibly upbeat man. No lame anti-heroes here. The things Owen says are frequently funny (there is a ton of humor to balance out all the terror of this book) and his can-do attitude is only tempered by his extraordinary ability to inflict pain on the undead and unnatural. Then we have Owen's wife, Julie, who is living with the ever present threat of her curse. This go-around we don't get a lot of Earl or Agent Franks but that's fine because Earl just had his own novel and the Agent Franks novel is on the way. Skippy and Edward get plenty of stage time. The MHI crew is also joined by Tanya, the trailer park elf. Trip, Holly, and Owen's brother Mosh get some extra depth, which I felt was a nice touch. Throw in a bunch of professional monster hunters from overseas and you have a pretty rockin' party.

Then there are the villains. I already touched on Mr. Stricken, the strange and vile fellow that makes Agent Myers and Agent Franks look like Boy Scouts. I am eager to learn more about Stricken and Special Task Force Unicorn in future entries. I love that the main villain of each book is so completely different. One of Larry's specialties (because he has quite a few) is writing sympathetic bad guys. They may be completely evil, or even lesser degrees of evil, but he always makes them possible to relate to. No mustache-twirling ne'er-do-wells here. The villain this time around has a tragic story from a dark time in American history. At the same time, that doesn't make the baddie any less dangerous. The Big Bad this time is pretty awful, while still only being a precursor for what is to come. And if Owen's past opponents are any indicator the war humanity is facing will not be pretty.

When it comes to Correia novels I save describing the action for the end. Larry is the gold standard when it comes to writing action. I have even recommended that publishers slap a Larry Correia Seal of Approval on books that meet the necessary action requirements. The thing is, the man knows his guns. He knows how to orchestrate beautiful battles with explosions that would make Michael Bay weep. As I mentioned earlier, MONSTER HUNTER LEGION is a little more subdued than its predecessors. This time around the steady build of tension is the primary thrilling factor but you better believe that when the finale comes around it is pure adrenaline overdrive.

Larry Correia is sort of like Raymond Chandler meets H.P. Lovecraft with a fully automatic shotgun. If all the literary snobs want to get together and declare his novels to be pulp then fine, Larry is the King of Pulp. MONSTER HUNTER LEGION is a superb continuation of the series, not the man's best novel to date but easily his most solid. If you have read his books before then you are just reading this review to humor me - you've already ordered this book. If you haven't read any Correia yet and you wonder what Twilight would have been like if Bella's dad had brought out the twelve gauge and plugged Edward the glittery vampire, then this is the series for you.

Recommended Age: 16+
Language: More than I remember from the rest of the series but it's not overabundant.
Violence: Hah! Hahaha! Are you kidding me? This is the man that INVENTED violence.
Sex: Nada.

Want it? Of course you do. While you are at it, grab the first three novels in one handy (and heavy) omnibus. You know, so your set matches.

THE MONSTER HUNTERS
MONSTER HUNTER LEGION.