Friday, August 26, 2011

Rachel Tsoumbakos, 'Emeline and the Mutants'; Jim Bernheimer, "Confessions of a 'D' List Supervillain'

This week I am reviewing two books by indie authors. Both books are urban fantasies and both books are wonderful examples of the high quality of some of the work that is out there. Also, both books appealed to the rabid gamer that lurks inside of me!
Emeline and the Mutants by Rachel Tsoumbakos
Emelineand the Mutants by Rachel Tsoumbakos is a post-apocalyptic fantasy that manages to mix all the usual elements of traditional fantasy, such as fairies and trolls, with the modern urban fantasy themes of vampires and were-wolves. It the first book by Australian author Rachel Tsoumbakos, and is a worthy first novel. I foresee great things from this author!
The premise of the story is that a successful vaccine for Aids has been embraced but now the unintended side-effects of it have caused mutations, in humans and most animals. The virus that causes the mutations is extremely contagious, and the remaining healthy populace now lives in easily defensible conclaves, surrounded by walls and other defenses. The protagonist, Emeline is a strong female character who hunts and kills the undead and other mutants who prey on the healthy populace. There is blood, and there is gore, and there are adult situations, but Tsoumbakos manages to work them into the plot seamlessly so that while the violence is sometimes shocking, it is a necessary part of the story.
Emeline is a hard girl with a soft center. The story begins with her brother Warrick going missing and presumed dead. There is a conspiracy by the government, and everyone else has their own agenda, which makes for a tale with many twists and turns.
The story of Emeline and the Mutants is one that should appeal to all fans of the ‘Resident Evil’ series, especially those by Keith R A DeCandido, and is one that I could see appealing to fans of the Final Fantasy rpg game empire. As a long-time gamer, I enjoy this sort of a tale. I found the plot absorbing, I cared about the protagonist and the other characters, and found that the action was both violent and fun.
This tale was a bit of a change for me, as I normally do not read Urban Fantasy; so much as I do Epic Fantasy. I am glad I took the chance and bought this e-book!

'Confessions of a 'D' List Supervillain' by Jim Bernheimer
I enjoyed this take on the age-old hero vs villain story. In 'Confessions of a 'D' List Supervillain' indie author Jim Bernheimer has created a dystopian world where mankind relies on superheroes to save them, and the most popular superheroes are The Olympians - 12 common people who were chosen to wield the powers of certain of the Gods of Olympus.

Conversely there are the supervillains, and Cal `Mechani-Cal' Stringel is, by his own assertion, not one of the more successful of them, but he gets by.

The world has been taken over by alien bugs the size of grasshoppers that have attached themselves to every one's neck, reorganizing the world into a hive society of junkies addicted to the bugs in the desperate way that a junkie is addicted to heroin. When they are removed from their victim's neck, the victims are just as desperate as a gutter-dwelling junkie to get them back. The bugs have infected society to the highest levels, which would not have bothered Cal except for the fact that they are seriously messing with Cal's ability to be the moderately successful villain that he enjoys being. Because he works from inside of his mechanical suit, Cal has managed to avoid this fate. Out of necessity, he finds himself trying to get the 'good-guys' back on their feet and back to saving the world like they are supposed to be doing.

As superheroes go, The Olympians are as unlikeable and evil a bunch of shallow, self-serving stars as you could ask for. The supervillains, on the other hand, are actually the better human beings, because they are honest about their motives.

I don't normally like first person, present tense point of view in a story, because I find it difficult to get into into the story. But once I got past that initial issue I have to admit, this story captured and held my interest. Just as I reported in my July 8, 2011 review of
'TheMagic of Recluce', which is also told in the first person, it soon became a non-issue because the story carried me away.

The adventures that Cal has as he tries to re-hab the Olympians and save the world are quite entertaining. There are some adult themes, but though there is nothing graphic I recommend this as a fun adult read. Fans of all things superhero and those who love comic books will love this book. Also available as an audio-book, this is a book that will appeal to the superhero in all of us!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Alison DeLuca, The Night Watchman Express; Mercedes Lackey, Arrows of the Queen

My sincere thanks to Johanna Garth for awarding me the Blog on Fire award! You can read her entertaining columns here, at Losing Sanity

(BTW, Johanna is also the author of the book Losing Beauty, an updated version of the Persephone myth, and I must say that is an amazing urban fantasy in and of itself. I will definitely be featuring that book at a later date! )


Alison DeLuca hits the ground running in the opening chapters of 'The Night Watchman Express', and the story never stops moving until the last page. Miriam, an unhappy young girl is orphaned when her wealthy industrialist father dies. With no other family, her father’s business partners, the Marchpanes, become her guardians. The Marchpanes immediately move into Miriam’s house, and take over her father’s rooms. (Mrs. Marchpane is deliciously evil.) They make their attempt to gain full control of Miriam's money and her father's company.

Gradually, Miriam begins to find common ground with the Marchpane’s son and their other young ‘guest’ when a nanny who is both wise and skilled in certain magics is hired. Mana is a woman who is of a race of people, who are considered to be second-class citizens, and contrary to the Marchpane’s hopes, she turns out to be exactly what both Miriam and the two boys needed.

There is a reluctant camaraderie that develops between Miriam and the the two boys. The three of them do a certain amount of exploring the grounds of the estate, and discover a strange machine that her father has constructed. Another interesting thread is also Miriam's strange emotional attachment to her father's typewriter-like machine, which she has claimed for her own since his death, and keeps hidden in her room.

The Marchpanes are not pleased by Mana’s good influence on Miriam, and they fear her. They fire Mana and get rid of Miriam.

Nightly Miriam has heard the mournful Night Watchman Express, a mysterious train that passes close to her home, on its way to a sinister place called Devil's Kitchen where children are enslaved, and become subjects of evil experiments. Though she has never known where it actually went, the sound of it has terrified her.

At last, in an effort to be rid of her and gain full control of her fortune the Marchpane’s have her kidnapped and placed on The Night Watchman Express.

In the course of her adventures, Miriam becomes a strong young woman, and her resourcefulness and courage make for a great adventure. Mana is much more than she appears to be on the surface, and the two boys have parts to play in the story. All of the characters are clearly drawn, and the threads of the story are woven seamlessly through each of the protagonist’s stories to make a wonderful fantasy adventure.

The story is told almost as if it were a fairy tale, but it has a gritty steampunk quality that makes it a perfect rainy weekend read. There is danger, there is darkness, and suspense; there is a serious good vs. evil plot. I found that I was thinking about the characters at the end, and wondering what was going to happen next. This story captured my interest from page one, and kept me reading all the way through it to the end. I enjoyed it immensely, and I am looking forward to reading more of DeLuca’s work.


Arrows of TheQueen’ By Mercedes Lackey  begins with the Companion Rolan choosing a new rider, Talia. Rolan is a special being that is visually like a horse, but is more like an angel in that they are messengers of the Goddess.    Together, they journey to Haven, capital of Valdemar. She lives with a clan of Holderkin, a socially and religiously strict group which believes in female submission and polygynous marriage. On her 13th birthday, she boldly rejects an offer of marriage, declaring her desire to be a Herald and she is punished severely. Because she does not really know anything about the Heralds, or how they are even chosen, Rolan places a temporary block on her memory until he can get her to people who can explain everything.

When she arrives in Haven, Talia is informed that because she has been chosen by Rolan, she is to be Queen’s Own, a special Herald who advises the Queen.  Since she is so young, and still must be trained, she is given the task of caring for the Heir, Elspeth.  Elspeth is a spoiled brat, and has been manipulated by an evil nursemaid.  Talia is also an Empath, and her training in that area of talent is very important. 

There are many twists and turns to this tale, and as Talia grows, the story matures too.  Talia’s story, and the world of Valdemar is compelling and drawn in such a way that one is captivated and I, for one, could not put the book down once I picked it up.  As I frequently say, I only review books that I love, and this book hooked me to the point that I have purchased every single Mercedes Lackey book ever written, and I have enjoyed every one of them!  ‘Arrows of the Queen’ is the first book in a trilogy. None of them are excessively long, and I highly recommend this series of books!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Marion Zimmer-Bradley 'The Mists of Avalon'

I chose to reread The Mists of Avalon this week because it is one of the greatest epic fantasies of all time, and because it was sitting there on my bookshelf wondering why I hadn’t picked it up before this. This book was a watershed moment in fantasy literature for me, and my own writing has been heavily influenced by the many epic  works of Marion Zimmer Bradley.
First published in  1983,  Mists of Avalon is a wonderful retelling of the Arthurian legend. The main protagonist is Morgaine, who watches the rise of Uther Pendragon to the throne of Camelot as high-king. When she was still a young child, she was taken to Avalon by High Priestess Viviane, her maternal aunt, to become a priestess of the Mother Goddess. While in training, she sees the rising tension between the old Pagan religion and the new Christian religion. At the age of fourteen, she is given in a fertility ritual to a young man whom she later discovers is Arthur, her half-brother.   Morgaine conceives a child, Gwydion (who will later be called Mordred), as a result of the ritual. She conceals his existence from Arthur.

After Uther dies, his son Arthur proves himself in battle and ascends to the throne.  Morgaine and Viviane give him the magic sword Excalibur and a bespelled scabbard as gifts from the country of Avalon.  Using the sword, which is a pagan weapon, Arthur succeeds in driving the Saxons away. But when his wife Gwenhwyfar is unable to carry and deliver a living child, she is convinced that it is a punishment of God: firstly for the presence of pagan elements(a position which Morgaine deeply resents), and secondly, for her forbidden love for Arthur's finest knight Lancelot.  Hating herself for her forbidden love for Lancelot, Gwenhwyfar becomes a religious fanatic, and the relationship between Avalon and Camelot becomes hostile.

The story is compelling at the outset, and it captivated me from page one.  Upon finishing this book I immediately re-read it!  Zimmer-Bradley immerses you in the culture and mores of the mythical Britain of the seventh and eighth centuries.  The thoughts and feelings of each character are clearly drawn, and so are the places and the societies in which they live.  The over-riding themes of love and treachery make for a tragedy with tremendous political ramifications.

There are good and wise men and women and there are greedy, shortsighted men and women, and all are depicted with an impartial eye in this tale. The flaws and the strengths of each character are drawn with compassion; and the personal choices that those in power make change their society for all time.  The clear and visible change in the cultural values of pre-christian Britain is vividly portrayed, setting the place of women in the society of Britain for the next 1,200 years. Within the two generations that this book spans, we see women going from having a respected voice and power in their society, to being relegated to the position of chattel; property of their husband and having less of a voice than his cattle.  The Mists of Avalon is masterfully woven to make a novel that sets the standard for Arthurian literature, and raises the bar for writers of fantasy in general.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Tad Williams, 'The Dragon Bone Chair'

Tad Williams' masterpiece, the Dragon Bone Chair is the first book in the epic fantasy series, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.  I first read this book when it came out in 1988 and had to re-read it again immedieately upon finishing it. This book and indeed the whole series had a profound impact on my own style of writing.

Just like the best and most enduring of love affairs, The Dragon Bone Chair begins a bit slowly, as the author establishes the background to the tale. However, once you are into it, this book is sheer magic.  The main protagonist is Simon, a fourteen-year-old kitchen boy and servant in the great castle Hayholt.  He is not really very enthusiastic in carrying out his duties as a kitchen-drudge in the royal household during last days of the long reign of King John Presbyter. However, he is overjoyed when he finds himself apprenticed to Doctor Morgenes, the castle's healer and wizard. Simon alternates his time between his chores as a drudge and learning to read and write, taught by the good doctor.  Upon the death of the great King John, his son Elias, whom many say is a tool of the evil cleric Pryrates, becomes king.

Soon after he takes the throne, King Elias' brother Josua, whom Elias hates, vanishes and no one is sure if he went voluntarily or was murdered. Elias is blinded by his desire for power.  He creates a pact with the undead Sithi ruler, the Storm King, who plots to regain his lost realm through a pact with one of human royal blood.

Simon accidentally stumbles into the castle dungeons and discovers that Prince Josua is being held captive.  He and Morgenes conspire to rescue the prince. Simon and Morgenes are successful, and Josua escapes, but Elias' soldiers, led by Pryrates, storm Morgenes' office, and Morgenes is murdered by a dark magic. Terrified and confused, Simon is able to flee the castle through a secret passage at the back of the doctor's office. With only with his mentor's biography of the good King John for companionship, Simon is lost and despondent.

In the process of escaping the Hayholt, Simon witnesses Pryrates and Elias performing an evil ritual with some strange white demons. 

Simon rescues a member of the Sithi from a trap, and receives a white arrow as a token.  At the same time he is befriended by a troll, Binnabik, who travels with Simon to Naglimund where they hope he will find safety.  While traveling they save a servant girl and her sister from wild dogs, and meet a witch who helps them escape the soldiers who are pursuing them.

Upon arriving at Naglimund Simon discovers that the serving girl whom they saved is actually Miriamele, the only child of King Elias.  She has run away to join her uncle Josua. 

Simon finds himself on a quest to recover the magical blade, Thorn which once belonged to the greatest knight in their history.  In the process, he runs into the Sitha Prince that he had rescued from the trap, and Jiriki joins Simon in his quest.

This story is so well drawn and plotted that I found myself thinking about it when I was not reading it.  There is a large cast of characters, but I found it fairly easy to keep them straight because they are drawn with attention to their individual personalities.  The characters are all the more real because they each have flaws and weaknesses.  That is why this take on the age-old tale of the kitchen-boy who is really a hero is fresh and wonderful.   Of course, there is an Appendix in the back with the names and pronunciations of all the characters and places.

It is clearly book one in a larger series, and Simon's adventures are absorbing and exciting.  The beasts are fantastic as are the representatives of the various races who come to Simon's aid. Their magics and their cultures are clearly drawn; and the  story-line is the most compelling and addictive book I've read in a long time.

The intertwined stories of Simon and Miriamele is told in a way that is detailed and very real.  Williams has painted his world with such detail that reader feels as if Osten Ard is a real place, and you feel as if you know it well. I had to get the rest of the the books in the series downloaded to my Kindle, as I couldn't wait to re-read the whole series.