Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Woodland Folk in Dragonland (Tony Wolf)

The Woodland Folk in Dragonland
(The Woodland Folk series)
Tony Wolf
Rand McNalley
Fiction, YA Picture Book
***+ (Okay/Good)

The Woodland Folk in Dragonland
DESCRIPTION: For centuries, the primitive villagers of Dragonland, where the Dragosaurs rule, had no idea that, just beyond the high mountains surrounding their home, lay the green world of the woodland gnomes. Then the evil gnome Franz kidnapped the hapless Dragonsir for vengeance against his own people. Thus two worlds collide in a conflict that may lead to all-out war.

REVIEW: An older picture book, I unearthed it during reorganization efforts. The illustrations brim with imagination, full of fun little details that create a whole, if distinctly blunt-edged and cartoonish, world. The story itself feels very old-fashioned, however, with simple stereotype-based characters acting out a plot in which nobody really gets hurt (even if naughty little dragonlings get spanked by their mother - but their skin's tough, so the audience is reassured that it's not so bad.) The bad gnome even has an over-the-top German accent. Still, the pictures are fun, and it brought back some nice memories, even if it doesn't hold up particularly well for adult readers.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragon World (Rob Brown) - My Review
Usborne Fantasy Quests (Andy Dixon) - My Review
Sir Toby Jingle's Beastly Journey (Wallace Tripp) - My Review

July Site Update

The previous seven reviews are now archived and cross-linked on the main site. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Becoming a Dragon (Janice Light)

Becoming a Dragon
Janice Light
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Mariana only wanted to retire in peace and comfort in a small, quiet town, trading her mercenary sword for an innkeeper's apron. But Lord Roland's cruel regime and constant tax increases have broken the back of the land. Worse, he even steals the tributes meant for the dragons, the traditional tithes required to keep the beasts away from human lands, ignoring the warnings of the few remaining dragonspeakers. Now word is coming that Lord Roland himself is on his way to wring the last drops of blood from the town. If only there were a way to teach the arrogant man what horrors his greed will bring on the people...
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: This short fantasy tale reads fast, but doesn't linger long in the memory. Light creates a world that has potential, here, but doesn't quite place me inside it. The characters serve their purposes, acting out a plot that, save one or two minor twists, plays out about like one expects. It's not a bad little tale, in the end, but it just didn't do much for me.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragon's Keep (Janet Lee Carey) - My Review
Dragonheart (Charles Edward Pogue) - My Review
Here, There be Dragons (Jane Yolen) - My Review

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Clockwork Cathedral (Heather Blackwood)

The Clockwork Cathedral
(The Time Corps Chronicles, Book 1)
Heather Blackwood
Triple Hare Press
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Felicia Sanchez, a medical student, just wanted to get home after her shift at Tulane Hospital... but suddenly a man on horseback appeared in front of her bus. She jumped out to help him - and the bus vanished, leaving her stranded in the middle of 1850s New Orleans. Only this isn't quite the past as she learned it. Steam-powered omnibuses share the streets with horse-drawn carriages, and the cathedral features clockwork automata displays beyond anything she's heard of. With no idea where she is or how she got here, she must rely on a strange and stubborn man, whose experiments may have inadvertently pulled her from her own place and time.
Professor Seamus Connor has built a respectable life for himself in America - no small feat for an Irish immigrant, especially one living under an assumed name after breaking out of prison. His life might be even better, but his former friend (and cellmate) Oren McCullen stole the plans for the peroxide-powered engine they designed and parlayed it into a fortune. Furthermore, he somehow increased its power output far beyond what should be possible; it was Connor's tinkering with a McCullen engine that created the rift through which Miss Sanchez passed. The woman seems little better than a barbarian, with entirely unsuitable clothing for a female and no manners to speak of, but he can't shirk his obligation to her - but for his meddling, after all, she wouldn't be stuck in a time that has little use for women, especially learned Hispanic women.
As Seamus and Felicia attempt to unravel the mysteries of the time rifts and the McCullen engines, it soon becomes apparent that greater factors are at work, with ties to a recent presidential assassination and a brewing war that could have devastating consequences for the whole world.

REVIEW: This tale of steampunk and time travel starts slow, and seems reluctant to build momentum. Felicia starts out an innocent victim, if annoyingly slow on the uptake about her transference to another time, but I got irritated with her as I got to know her better. One of the first things she does, when she accepts that she's in the 1850's, is nag Seamus about why he isn't taking a stand against social injustices like slavery. If she had been shown to be an activist in her own time (which isn't quite ours, just as this past isn't quite her past), it might've made sense, but instead it comes across as an ungrateful house guest nagging the host about the state of their garden when her own garden has more than a few weeds in it itself. Seamus, meanwhile, is so blinded by his time's views on women and minorities that it constantly surprises him when she fails to conform to his expectations of ineptitude... though at least he's shown to be a man too lost in his own head to really have noticed a woman before now. A subplot involves Henry, a homeless girl posing as a boy on the streets, who ran way from her aunt and uncle because of abuse and molestation. Instead of the outrage and rush of concern that I should've felt on reading this, I only rolled my eyes; yes, child abuse in any form is a horrific thing, a trauma that never quite heals, but the perverted uncle and evil aunt have become such tired cliches by now that I expected it long before it was revealed. Is that really all authors can think to do to traumatize women and girls? The series title, Time Corps, telegraphs the arrival of a mysterious agent who seems intent on helping Seamus crack the McCullen engine riddle, yet who also actively refuses to help, bound by inconsistent and contradictory rules. He keeps teasing like that too-clever guy in the room who only asks questions he alone knows the answers to, then just grins and shrugs and refuses to even hint to help his frustrated audience. Why should I care about him or his loosely-implied colleagues? Furthermore, why should I follow a series about them? As for the alternate timelines, the more I learned about them the less sense they made. If they'd been direct parallel worlds with minor variations, it wouldn't have been so bad, but then there turn out to be significant anatomical differences between people from Felicia's world and Seamus's, leading me to suspect that they might not even both be Homo Sapiens Sapiens... which makes it highly improbable that their histories should so closely parallel each other's, down to the same last names for important historical figures. As all this is sorting itself out, more or less, the story clunks and rattles along with far too many explanatory tangents between plot points, eventually reaching a pyrotechnic finale and a conclusion that completely forgets one of Felicia's key motivations. While I found some elements of Blackwood's tale intriguing, and her steampunk-flavored antebellum New Orleans had some nice imagery, I just couldn't connect with the characters, and the story didn't engage me enough to tempt me for further Time Corps adventures.

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Nick of Time (Ted Bell) - My Review
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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Dragon Killer (Rob May)

Dragon Killer
(The Dragon Killer series, Book 1)
Rob May
Rob May, publisher
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Kalina Moonheart is a woman of many talents: gambler, thief, spy, and - long ago - dragon slayer. In a world where the old gods lay dead and only the Dragon remains to terrorize the populace, that is no small feat, yet Kal is content to live in the shadows. Besides, she keeps plenty busy in the service of her secret patron, Senator Benedict Godsword. Her latest task takes her far from the sprawling city of Amaranthium to the swampy island of Baribu. Rumors of dragon attacks have trickled back to the mainland; as Godsword has a private gold mine nearby, he has a personal stake in the matter. When Kal arrives, however, she finds something far more dangerous and cunning than any scaled beast, a danger poised to challenge the whole of the republic itself.
An eBook-exclusive title.

REVIEW: This book has the potential to be an exciting action-adventure tale in a fantasy world, but undermines itself at several points. Character depth isn't a priority in these tales, with Kal and the others she meets tending to fall into familiar roles. She's a carefree soldier of fortune with a strong moral code (that doesn't preclude the odd petty theft or night on the town), her patron acts as a father figure, her green partner Rafe dreams of elder-day glories and knighthood, and so forth. Even her enemy has the requisite sob story that almost - but not quite - justifies his actions. These givens aside, there's a fair bit of action with a nice, if thin, fantasy veneer, and if some developments seem rather out-of-the-blue and the general course is predictable, well, it's still competent enough given the formula. May also seems a little too fond of the shocker chapter ending that isn't explained until the page is turned. What really undermines the story, though, is how it keeps cutting backwards (and, in one inexplicable incident, forwards) in time, spending far too long explaining the origins of Kal's monicker in a sequence that probably should've been its own short story. These flashbacks are drawn out through the entire story, running alongside the current tale of her investigation of Baribu. Each timeline effectively stalled out the momentum of the other, as I had to hold up at each jump to remember where I was and what was going on. As a freebie download, it wasn't bad, but I'm not interested enough in the world or the characters to continue with this series.

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The Emperor's Edge (Lindsay Buroker) - My Review
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Monday, July 14, 2014

Concrete Evidence (Rachel Grant)

Concrete Evidence
(The Evidence series, Book 1)
Rachel Grant
Janus Publishing
Fiction, Romance/Suspense
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A year ago, trusting the wrong man ruined Erica Kesling's life. An underwater archaeologist desperate for money, devastated when her own mother stole her identity and racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, she foolishly signed on with the treasure hunter Jake Novak... and wound up blackballed on the West Coast for his artifact smuggling venture. Fortunately, the rumors haven't spread as far as the East Coast giant Talon & Drake - and it's here that she may finally have a chance to bring down Jake and clear her own name. Even better, she might bring down some of Jake's customers with him, in addition to doing important work for Talon's Menanichoch tribe. At least, that was the plan, before she got saddled with the world's laziest - and sexiest - intern, Lee Scott.
Lee's ties to the Talon family go way back. When Joseph Talon, Jr. suspected someone of using the company to smuggle artifacts out of war-torn Iraq, he called in a marker and sent Lee in to investigate, posing as a twenty-something playboy slacker. The name Erica Kesling is at the top of his suspect list, but the rot runs deep, and it's Lee's job to quietly root it out before the senior Joe Talon announces his run for presidency. A tall order, but nothing Lee can't handle, if he keeps his cool. The problem is, the moment he meets Erica, the job turns red hot.
Brought together by lies, bound by an unexpected and undeniable passion, how much betrayal can two hearts withstand?

REVIEW: This title promises danger, deceit, and sizzling passion, and it delivers in full. Erica and Lee get caught up in an intricate dance of half-truths, each unknowingly sharing a common goal as they try to ignore the sparks that fly whenever they're in the same room. Though both are wounded souls, they can and do stand on their own two feet, instead of the old idea of a fainting flower waiting to be swept up by a savior who solves all their problems. Most everyone in the cast turns out to have a hidden agenda, playing out in a tautly-written plot incorporating smuggling, money laundering, Native American history (and our country's shameful efforts to eradicate whole cultures), archaeological investigations, war crimes, and murder... not to mention bucketloads of sexual tension. Everything ties together in a thrill-ride of an ending. I enjoyed it more than I expected to, and wouldn't mind reading another title or two in the series, time and budget willing.

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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Valkyrie Rising (Ingrid Paulson)

Valkyrie Rising
Ingrid Paulson
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Ellie lives her life in her older brother Graham's shadow... and, at sixteen, she's starting to chafe under his overprotective attention. At least she'll get away from him for a while this summer, when she visits her grandmother in Norway - him, and his best friend Tucker, whose good-natured teasing has taken on a peculiar edge lately. In Norway, she can just be herself, or so she hopes. But something strange is happening in her grandmother's little town. Boys are disappearing, sometimes in broad daylight. Locals mutter dark rumors about old myths, even going so far as to accuse her grandmother of witchcraft. But the strangest things seem to be happening not around Ellie, but inside her, as a mythic legacy wakes in her very blood. The old gods stir, and the Valkyries - immortal warrior women from the halls of Valhalla - walk the world again in search of worthy heroes. Ellie doesn't want to believe the stories, but she has no choice, as she discovers that she herself is a Valkyrie.

REVIEW: While admittedly not the most original tale, relying on a tried-and-true young adult fantasy formula, it's nevertheless a well-told story with a nice dash of Nordic flavor. Ellie's a typical insecure teen girl, unsure of herself as she crosses the line between girl and woman, a crossing made even more awkward by her peculiar ancestry. Once again, we have a grown-up who chose ignorance over information when raising a potential heroine, though at least in this case it was Ellie's grandmother, whom she only ever saw on holidays, and not the mother who lived with her for sixteen years: since the magic apparently skipped a generation, it's entirely plausible that Grandmother Hilda didn't even realize what Ellie was until the summer's events woke the old blood. The girl has to work out much of what being a Valkyrie is on her own, not helped by the interference of the god Loki or her own conflicting impulses. As for the other characters, they do their jobs, even if they aren't particularly unique. Graham's the golden boy who has to learn how to let his sister grow up, and his best friend Tucker, despite some late-breaking hidden secrets, is the boy next door whose affection takes Ellie (if not the audience) by complete surprise. Action, setbacks, and deceptions abound as the plot snakes its way through a land where myths run as deep as the fjords, winding up with a climax that practically promises a sequel without actually committing to anything. Once again, while I can't say the general story or the characters are anything new, I enjoyed reading it.

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Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Godling Club (Stephen Penner)

The Godling Club
Stephen Penner
Ring of Fire Publishing
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: On her fourteenth birthday, Jeni Tanaka finally has a chance to join the coolest clique in school, if she can impress them with her party. That means telling her best-friend-since-forever Kyle to show up an hour late (not that she doesn't like him, but he's about a zero point five on the popularity meter), and giving her own mother the brush-off (even when she's being all goopy about some strange gift she means to give her daughter at the exact moment she was born), but this is too important for sentimentality: her social life, and therefore her future, is at stake. Then, on the very cusp of success, everything falls apart. Some unknown force attacks her, sending her into a seizure (and chasing away her one chance at coolness) as she struggles to fight it off. Then a strange boy shows up, introducing himself as the "godling" Tommy Bluehorse. He tells that her mother's been kidnapped, and that the force was actually the spirit of a Japanese creation goddess seeking a new host - turning Jeni herself into a godling like Tommy. By rejecting the deity, Jeni has inadvertently destroyed the balance between creation and destruction; using her mother, the goddess's former host, an evil man aims to exploit this unbalance for untold power. Jeni, her uncool friend Kyle, and the mysterious Tommy race to stop him, but they may already be too late... especially when everyone else has a god's power to draw on and Jeni has nothing but herself.

REVIEW: A lightweight fantasy adventure, The Godling Club leans too heavily on silliness and cliches, to the point where I could almost hear the dippy TV movie soundtrack as I read. Jeni starts out unlikeably obsessed with coolness, a shallow introduction that made it hard for me to care about her. Her best friend, Kyle, comes straight from the stock bin of Goofy Sidekicks, though in many ways he's more useful throughout the book than Jeni herself is. Then again, Kyle isn't the only stock character or situation she encounters. The whole crisis that kicks off the plot could've been avoided with a simple heart-to-heart with her mom some time before the last minute - or even an upbringing that honored her Japanese ancestry, leaving hints in her subconscious - yet somehow everyone blames Jeni for defending herself from a psychic attack she didn't see coming. (Yeah, she's a shallow and selfish kid, but frankly her mother bears a fair share of the blame for the fiasco. The woman had fourteen years to say something, after all.) But it's part of the formula for this kind of story that adults don't tell kids things they need to know until it's too late. The group circles the globe, contacting godlings from various cultures... of which, inexplicably, there are only twenty-four, hosting twelve creation and twelve destruction deities, despite the myriad cultures on Earth from which to choose. Along the way, personalities clash, stale attempts at humor abound, and enemies pop up at the most convenient times, complicated by the possibility of traitors in their midst. Through most of it, Jeni's fairly oblivious, ignorant of cultures and the powers of the various godlings she encounters... making it a bit hard to swallow when she suddenly grows a backbone and steps up to square off against the bad guys. By then, at least, the momentum had picked up and some of the silliness had died down. In the end, while I can't say I was wholly satisfied with the tale, it just barely managed to squeak by with a flat Okay rating... though it was right on the line.

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Foundation (Isaac Asimov)

(The Foundation series: The Foundation trilogy, Book 1)
Isaac Asimov
Del Rey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: For twelve thousand years, the Galaxy has lived in peace and prosperity as a unified Empire... and all but a few ignore the signs of rot and stagnation at the very heart. The people turn inward, resting comfortably on the achievements of the past without pushing towards a better future. The visionary Hari Seldon, with his controversial psychohistory project, uses mathematics and probability to predict the future - and it is grim, indeed. When the Empire collapses, many thousands of years of interstellar barbarism await before the first glimmers of hope reappear. The wheels of human history turn vast and slow, and while they may not be stopped, they might be nudged. While the fall is certain, the intervening years of darkness might be condensed to a mere millennium. This begins the story of the Foundation, a steadfast collection of scientists and believers on the galactic rim struggling to fulfill Seldon's directives in the midst of threat, war, and treachery.

REVIEW: First conceived during World War II, this seminal series by one of the genre's most notable (and prolific) writers takes on fresh significance in the twenty-first century, with reports of actual computer programs similar to Asimov's psychohistory successfully predicting world events. The idea behind the story remains compelling: no matter how dark things get, or how grim the future looks, Benevolent Science (and White Men, not to mention nuclear power that seems to have near-miraculous abilities without today's toxic waste) will eventually save us.  My jaded twenty-first century self has a little trouble with that - especially given recent court rulings that place "sincerely-held" beliefs as sacrosanct beyond the science that proves them wrong - but it must've been nice to believe, especially with a war displaying humanity's worst aspects rattling on Asimov's very doorstep.
Ultimately, this is a book about ideas. While there are brief bursts of action, most of the warfare and bloodshed takes place elsewhere. The characters tend to be interchangeable names acting out roles in Seldon's grand plan, with the good guys and the bad guys fairly easy to distinguish. Women exist to be housewives, mistresses, or - in the case of the only named female - vain and power-hungry shrews, and ethnic minorities evidently never made it into space at all. But such were the times when Asimov wrote it. Considering that this was largely a political chess game played out between grandmasters on an interstellar tale, told largely in dialog exchanged over desks, it held my interest better than I'd expected it to, with fairly accessible writing and short chapters. I don't know that I'm interested enough to follow the series any further, though.

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