Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by J K Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 31, 2016

Summary: It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.

While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.

Review: I’m a big fan of the Harry Potter series. The books have their problems, there’s no denying that, but overall I find them a good set of stories that age along with the kids they’re intended for, have some good humour, and are just fun to read. It’s a universe I enjoy jumping back into every now and again, for the comfort and nostalgia that the books bring.

That being said, I opened The Cursed Child with some amount of trepidation. The story was pretty much over at the end of the original seventh book, plus this was all in screenplay format, and everything I’d heard said it was merely so-so.

And at the end? I rather agree with that sentiment.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is less the story of Harry Potter and more the story of one of his kids, Albus. Coupled with the cutest damn Malfoy to ever exist, Scorpius. After being sorted into Slytherin because of reasons that aren’t exactly adequately explained (seriously, most of the character traits that sound Slytherin-eqsue largely came about as reactions because he was sorted into Slytherin), Albus feels like he doesn’t really have a place within his family, nor does his father understand him. He has a strongly biased view of his father, similar in many ways to how Draco Malfoy’s bitterness toward Harry demonstrated through the core series. After overhearing a conversation between Harry and the ailing Amos Diggory, Albus decides that he can do something that Harry himself was never able to do: save Cedric. He thus drags Scorpius along on a time-traveling adventure to save Cedric from Voldemort.

And if that sounds like any number of fanfics out there, you won’t be far off the mark.

Be warned: from here on out there are going to be a crapton of spoilers for this story, because I have a lot to say about it and many things won’t make sense unless I talk in detail about the plot. If you don’t want spoilers, then don’t highlight the invisible paragraphs. I also assume you’re familiar enough with how to rest of the series went, so if you’re not, then spoiler warnings for that too.

The whole thing is a quick read, thanks to the fact that all you’re reading is dialogue and stage directions, which is nice because it means you’re not actually sticking around too long within any given section that may or may not actually make sense. Albus and Scorpius decide that the best way to prevent Cedric’s death is to make sure that he doesn’t make it to the final task in the Triwizard Tournament, thus never encountering Voldemort in the first place. Solid plan. So they decide to use the world’s last Time-Turner to go back in time, and steal his wand in the first event, evidently ignoring the idea that this may result in him being roasted to death by a dragon anyway.

Accomplishing this sends them rocketing forward into a different timeline. One in which Ron and Hermione never married because they went to the Yule Ball with each other and realised after one dance apparently that it wouldn’t work out (ignoring every bit of jealousy Ron displayed prior to that event, and Hermione’s feelings to boot), Hermione turns into a clone of Snape in terms of personality (openly calling Albus an idiot in class, for instance, and this personality shift is never explained but I think we’re supposed to assume it’s because she’s secretly bitter about Ron marrying someone else, I guess…), and other minor changes to the timeline. Plus Cedric still died, so Albus and Scorpius take a trip back in time once more and try to head Cedric off at the second task instead.

And here’s where the plot starts to fall apart in a huge way. They decide to humiliate Cedric in that task, which evidently doesn’t sit well with him, because humiliation made Cedric decide to be a Death Eater. And to kill Neville. Who consequently never killed Nagini, and thus Harry couldn’t eliminate all the Horcruxes, and Voldemort survived and took over.

But here’s the thing: that sounds utterly unlike Cedric. We see little of him in the fourth book, but what we see doesn’t make me think that people laughing at him would make him go Dark. Also, this timeline’s existence relies on the notion that absolutely nobody but Neville could kill Nagini (this is Scorpius’s explanation for why Voldemort took over, which goes counter to something he says later about prophecy and destiny being mutable and able to be thwarted; you can chalk that up to it being his realization, but that means he was likely wrong about Neville being that sole key figure in Voldemort’s downfall, so then we’re back to the question of why that timeline happened in that way to begin with). Snape lives and is helping Hermione and Ron subvert Voldemort and his Dark government, which also makes no sense because a) Hermione and Ron have no reason to trust him that we can see (the reason they knew he was secretly working for Dumbledore all along is because of Snape giving his memories to Harry just before he died), and b) if we assume everything else played out the same except for Neville’s absence and inability to kill Nagini, then by the time that happened, Snape was already dead, killed by Voldemort to get the Elder Wand.

…Maybe Trelawney’s prophecy was secretly about Neville all along…

Then we get to the second half of the play, which involves — I kid you not — Voldemort’s daughter having manipulated this all along in order to fulfill a prophecy to bring back her father. This involves her going back in time in order to convince Voldemort to not attempt to kill the Potters, thus never causing the backlash that semi-killed him and created the protection around Harry, and thus preventing the creation of the only person that could apparently kill him in the future.

An interesting idea, but similar to the issue with Neville, it also assumes that nobody but Harry could ever have killed Voldemort. That nobody else could ever have discovered the secret of his Horcrux collection and worked out a way to destroy them. I’m sure it’s supposed to be playing on the idea that one person really can make a world of difference, but it comes off more like saying only that person can make a difference. Prophecies are flexible, but things are only ever supposed to work out one exact way.

And it may seem nitpicky to say, but this scene breaks with book canon, because everyone who traveled back in time to thwart the thwarting saw the Potters exit their house.

Their house that was established to essentially be invisible to anyone who didn’t expressly know where it was, as divulged by a Secret Keeper.

This bit makes more sense if all you’ve ever known of the story was what the movies told you, because that didn’t get brought up in the movies at all. But in the books, it was a huge plot point that the Potters knew they were targets, and so a powerful spell was cast on their home to make it secret. Peter Pettigrew knew that secret, and told it to Voldemort, which is how he knew where to go that fateful night. You could argue that because the spell wasn’t in effect when Harry found it during the book’s timeline, then it didn’t matter if anyone else knew about it when he told them, but at that point in the past, it was under a spell. It wouldn’t be a very safe sort of secret if people who already knew about it kept knowing. Then Voldemort could have just tortured their mailman for information. Nobody should have been able to see them leave the house at that point.

And yet…

The whole thing with Delphini being Voldemort’s daughter was just painful, to be honest. It’s hard to imagine Voldemort condescending to even do that, but according to the timeline Delphini admits to, she was born shortly before the Battle of Hogwarts, which means that her mother (Bellatrix Lestrange) was heavily pregnant through many scenes she appeared in and yet nobody noticed. She also fought in that battle soon after giving birth, because apparently women bounce back from that like it’s nothing.

This is part of my biggest problem with the story in The Cursed Child. Not only does it make some truly impressive leaps of logic when it comes to the rippling effects of small changes to the timeline, but it also outright ignores established canon. It’s not the first story to do this. It certainly won’t be the last. But it’s extremely frustrating every time it happens, because I can never shake the feeling that if it’s a plot hole I can spot, the creator should have been able to spot it with greater accuracy.

Maybe it’s just easier to assume that this whole this canonizes multiple universes, and that bookverse and movieverse are both just canon on different timelines. That doesn’t erase my other issues, and it does call into question issues of canon within the movies themselves, but it at least can explain away this one problem.

As for characterization, well, some characters were fairly on point. Others? Not by a long shot. Ron gets turned entirely into the comic relief guy in the primary timeline; running the joke shop would be one thing, but figuring that a snack in the Hogwarts kitchens takes priority over finding his missing nephew? Cedric, when encountered in the maze during a time travel event, talks like a knight from a bad fantasy novel. When we see Snape in the Dark world timeline, he acts like he’s really Sirius pretending to be Snape. I already mentioned Hermione’s random personality switch; she acts like she’s really Snape not even attempting to pretend to be Hermione. Harry and normal!Hermione were pretty decent and recognizable, but I think the book’s biggest saving grace was that most of it surrounds characters who didn’t already have established personalities to begin with, so nothing about them really seems out of place.

For my part, I loved Scorpius. The word adorkable fits him perfectly. I enjoyed seeing more development of Draco, not just as an antagonistic counterpart to Harry but as a loving father and a grieving husband who made some monumental mistakes in the past but not without reason, and not without redemption. Albus may have been a bit of an emo teenager, but I could relate to him to a degree, that sense of feeling out of place around the people who are supposed to give you stability, feeling lost and alone and like only one person in the world actually gets you. I loved seeing the conflict between him and Harry, the rifts that come between people even in good families. I liked the idea that people can still love and support you even when you don’t always get along. So even while some characters were mere caricatures of the people I’d come to expect, there was still enough in other characters to make dealing with them a treat.

Then there’s the Trolley Lady. I just… good gods, the Trolley Lady. That scene was one long “WTF did I just read?” moment.

In the end, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was a story that was fun so long as you don’t think too hard about it. It had some plot holes you could drop a piano through, but it also had some good moments, and some lovable characters to discover. It’s worth reading for curiosity’s sake, but I wouldn’t take it too seriously, nor expect much of it, because it fails to deliver. I feel a bit saddened by the fact that I’m essentially saying you won’t be that disappointed if your expectations are low, but that really does sum up how I felt about this whole screenplay. It was okay, but not great, and not a patch on the core series.

SPFBO Review: The Grey Bastards, by Jonathan French

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Rating – 8/10
Author’s website
Publication date – October 16, 2015

Summary: LIVE IN THE SADDLE. DIE ON THE HOG. Such is the creed of the half-orcs dwelling in the Lot Lands. Sworn to hardened brotherhoods known as hoofs, these former slaves patrol their unforgiving country astride massive swine bred for war. They are all that stand between the decadent heart of noble Hispartha and marauding bands of full-blood orcs. Jackal rides with the Grey Bastards, one of eight hoofs that have survived the harsh embrace of the Lots. Young, cunning and ambitious, he schemes to unseat the increasingly tyrannical founder of the Bastards, a plague-ridden warlord called the Claymaster. Supporting Jackal’s dangerous bid for leadership are Oats, a hulking mongrel with more orc than human blood, and Fetching, the only female rider in all the hoofs. When the troubling appearance of a foreign sorcerer comes upon the heels of a faceless betrayal, Jackal’s plans are thrown into turmoil. He finds himself saddled with a captive elf girl whose very presence begins to unravel his alliances. With the anarchic blood rite of the Betrayer Moon close at hand, Jackal must decide where his loyalties truly lie, and carve out his place in a world that rewards only the vicious.

Review: Every once in a while, you come across something that makes you sit up and take notice. You read a book and make a mental note that the book’s author is one to keep an eye on. Jonathan French is one such author, after having read The Grey Bastards.

Take a band of half-orcs, people typically born of interspecies rape, and give them a hard land that nobody else really seems to want. Tell them that they’re the only things stopping a second war between orcs and humans. Have then breed and ride very large boars as their mounts. Then throw in an idealistic young half-orc named Jackal who sees that his leader is making strange and unwise decisions, especially after a mysterious wizard arrives, and you get a story of action and intrigue that had me turning pages long past the time I should realistically have gone to sleep some nights.

It’s not a comfortable world that French sets up in The Grey Bastards. It’s full of violence, racial conflict, and if men treating women with anything but respect is something that rankles you, then you’re going to find a lot to dislike here. Women are often treated like walking genitalia, good for nothing but keeping a man’s sexual urges satisfied. Most of the female characters here are whores, with two exceptions: Fetching, a female half-orc who earned her place in an all-male band of fighters by not taking crap from anyone and giving as good as she got; and an elf named Starling, who says nothing in an intelligible language and doesn’t actually do much related to the plot. It’s probably not a book that will rate highly on the lists of those looking for books that feature equality between the sexes.

And I’m often pretty sensitive to that when it crops up in books. But for all that, I found myself really enjoying The Grey Bastards, even when some of the story (or rather, what some of the characters did and said) made me uncomfortable.

The story we get to see is from Jackal’s perspective, a half-orc who has ambitions of leadership but who doesn’t dare challenge the current leader, known as the Claymaster. That is, until the Claymaster starts making some very questionable decisions, and Jackal wonders if the old man is past his prime as is actually more of a danger to his people than a good leader. A newly-arrived wizard seems charming enough at first, but then begins having far too much influence over the Claymaster. Plans fall apart, they go nowhere, and Jackal decides it’s high time he challenged the Claymaster for leadership after all.

And here’s the fun thing about The Grey Bastards. Every time I thought an event would have a particular conclusion, it didn’t. I expected that challenge to go a certain way, and it didn’t. I expected a big reveal about a certain character, and it was about someone else. And those things made perfect sense in context; they didn’t seem designed to make a reader think one thing would happen while the author secretly mocks them for being unimaginative. French’s storytelling made everything flow well, with surprised working as well for the characters as they worked for the reader. It all kept me on my toes, and was a big reason I kept reading. I wanted to see what I’d be surprised by next, what expectations would be broken, and where the story would ultimately lead. The brutal world that French created had a certain charm to it, partly because while the Lot Lands of Jackal’s home are admittedly a wasteland between a rock and a hard place, Jackal loves them and is loyal to their defense and it’s hard to not let some of that rub off on you. You may not like the world or what kind of people it has helped to shape, but you can’t ignore that Jackal’s sentiments about it all have an effect as the story progresses.

The Grey Bastards put me in mind of something that Jeff Salyards might have written. The banter between characters is similar, full of crude camaraderie and foul-mouthed exclamations. The balance of idealism and experience is there, alongside the whole “things are far more complicated than they seem and you don’t know everything about everything” that I’ve seen in Salyards’s writing too. And my reaction to the works were so similar, making me think that while both Salyards and French are writing about things that you’d think wouldn’t appeal to me, given my other taste in novels, in the end I was surprised and impressed by just how much I’d enjoyed the stories contained within the pages.

So on that note, I can say that if you’ve read Salyards (or other authors like him) and enjoyed those books, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy French’s The Grey Bastards too. It’s a wild ride on the hog, filled with brutality, battle, and bravery. It’s coarse and crass and also loveable, and after this, I have high hopes for what French might do in the future. This was an excellent introduction to his work, and I’m pleased to have gotten it as part of my SPFBO book package. It’s a fine example of why you shouldn’t underestimate self-published authors or write them off as “not good enough;” The Grey Bastards is the kind of novel you dream of finding when you’re looking for underappreciated and worthy works.

SPFBO Review: Thread Slivers, by Leeland Artra

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Rating – 7.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – May 25, 2015

Summary: She craves fame. He wants freedom. When their worlds crumble, even survival may not be an option.

The world is driven by wizards, gods, and an imperial space marine 20,000 years into our future. Fame-hungry female mercenary Ticca is willing to skirt the edges of her warrior’s code if it brings her the fame she desires. Her hopes of making a name for herself by spying on assassins are dashed when she’s forced to kill the assassin she was hired to watch.

Lebuin is a rich journeyman mage who’s just discovered his new rank involves actual journeying. He hires Ticca to help him advance to master and return to a life of comfort as quickly as possible. He’s willing to spend all he has to make it happen, but the mage and his mercenary get much more than they bargained for.

Trapped in the crossfire of a vast power game, Ticca and Lebuin must survive a battle between rulers, guilds, and gods. In a land of magic and technology, they’ll need to give everything to keep the world and themselves in one piece.

Thread Slivers is the first book in an epic fantasy/speculative sci-fi trilogy set in a distant future. If you like heroic, humorous, and exotic characters in a world that mixes elements of paranormal and hard sci-fi, then you’ll love this beautiful, original, and thought-provoking adventure.

Review: Ticca is a mercenary who wants to make a name for herself. Lebuin is a sheltered mage who finds himself targeted by people who want him gone. The two are thrown together, trying to uncover why a powerful mage was murdered and what secrets they both carry, all while trying to stay one step ahead of the dangerous people who follow them. Meanwhile, Duke, a powerful… werewolf-type person, has his own plans for the world, plans that involve taking down the reigning Princes and bringing back the history he once lived.

Thread Slivers is a complex story, or rather a complex mix of stories that all tie together in various ways. A good story should have more to it than just a straightforward and uncomplicated A-to-B plotline. And when it does all come together, it’s rather satisfying to see the way all the stories intertwine and become more cohesive. But I have to admit, at first, it didn’t seem like there was much cohesion at all. We start off from Ticca’s perspective, then later switch to Lebuin’s, and they’re the focus of the story for a while. Until other characters start coming in, and sections are chapters are told from their points of view, and I spent a good chunk of the book wondering who most of them were and why I ought to be interested in them, because their aspects of the story seemed almost incidental compared to what Ticca and Lebuin were focusing on.

But that isn’t to say those viewpoints served no purpose. They do. Without them, so many events and revelations would come from nowhere, and the story would come across like a big mess with poor planning. And that was, thankfully, avoided. But even so, it sometimes took long enough for it to become clear that the viewpoints were serving a greater purpose than just adding detail and flavour to the story, so I found myself often wishing that I could just get back to the main arc.

Especially because so many characters often engaged in monologues, both internal and external. Makes for tough reading sometimes, when you see it from every character you encounter.

But once you settle in for a slow build-up, Thread Slivers does end up pretty satisfying. It’s the kind of book that demands you put your expectations aside before you get going, I think, in part because while this appears at first to be secondary-world fantasy, it’s actually far-future fantasy, that kind of uncommon fantasy novel that takes place many centuries from now, a possibility of what may. But without knowing that in advance, some aspects of the novel seem a little sloppy, such as people saying Latin phrases. I admit I raised an eyebrow when a character said, “Semper fi,” because, similar to my reaction to Shakespeare being mentioned in Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, I had to wonder what a thing specifically from this world and its history was doing so incongruously in a fantasy novel. It can take a reader by surprise, and the surprise isn’t always a pleasant one.

That’s something that strikes me more than it strikes most others, though, I think. For other readers, this mention may just be glossed over and won’t be thought of again. They jump out at me, however, and I had to take a step back to look over the book’s summary to see that it is indeed meant to be that way, the world is meant to be a far-future one, and it wasn’t just an unthinking oversight on the author’s part.

Thread Slivers is an interesting fantasy novel, once you get into it. It takes a long time to really get going (the first half of the book felt like little more than set-up for when the story actually began), but the characters are interesting and rather varied, and Artra’s writing style flows well. There was clearly plenty of planning and detail that went into the creation of this world, and it pays off in the end. Not one to go into if you’re looking for something light and quick, but if you’re into books that slowly sink their hooks into you, then this is one you ought to check out.

The Graveyard Apartment, by Koike Mariko

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Author’s Goodreads page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 11, 2016

Summary: Originally published in Japan in 1986, Koike’s novel is the suspenseful tale of a young family that believes it has found the perfect home to grow into, only to realize that the apartment’s idyllic setting harbors the specter of evil and that longer they stay, the more trapped they become.

This tale of a young married couple who harbor a dark secret is packed with dread and terror, as they and their daughter move into a brand new apartment building built next to a graveyard. As strange and terrifying occurrences begin to pile up, people in the building start to move out one by one, until the young family is left alone with someone… or something… lurking in the basement. The psychological horror builds moment after moment, scene after scene, culminating with a conclusion that will make you think twice before ever going into a basement again.

Review: Don’t read this book alone at night.

Let me repeat that. Don’t read this book alone at night!

That’s what I did. I kind of regret it, especially with the ending being what it is.

This dark and atmospheric novel isn’t my first dive into Japanese horror, though it’s definitely one of the better J-horror novels I’ve read over the years. The Graveyard Apartment, translated into English by Deborah Boliver Boehm, tells the story of a small family moving to a new apartment they’ve just purchased in Tokyo, an apartment that sold for a low price because of its location next to a graveyard. It’s not an ideal place to raise their young daughter, but the price was right, and it’s convenient enough for work and school, so Teppei and Misao are fine enough with living there. That is, until strange events start occurring, and their daughter Tamao gets mysteriously injured in the basement, and everyone in the building begins moving away…

Koike’s writing brings Japan to life, and Boehm’s translation adds those little explanatory touches to some concepts that those in the West might not be so familiar with. Happily, those bits are few, and only when necessary, letting the reader absorb the culture and atmosphere contextually, which I vastly prefer compared to when translators feel the need to either hold my hand and explain absolutely everything, or else don’t bother to add appropriate notes at all. This combo allowed me to take a mental visit to the spookier side of Japan, and the little idiosyncracies of Japanese life, without leaving my house.

Even if you can’t necessarily identify with Teppei or Misao, you certainly do feel for them. They’re trying to live a normal life, to give their kid the chance to get a good education, live in a good neighbourhood, not spend more than they can afford, and for all intents and purposes they are an utterly average family. They’re not supernatural thrillseekers, nobody’s secretly a psychic or a medium, but neither are they stuck on denying the paranormal nature of events in the building once they encounter them. Teppei probably has the hardest time with this, denying Misao and Tamao’s feelings over the matter, until he’s forced to confront it, which seems to me like a fairly classic presentation in horror fiction: women encounter the supernatural first and follow their uneasy feelings about it, while men take longer to convince and their eventual acceptance is the tipping point where things start to get serious.

While it may bother some readers that the cause of the haunting was somewhat vague and largely theoretical (probably caused by initial construction disturbing the bones of those buried nearby, but that doesn’t explain everything behind the paranormal events that plagued the apartment building and its residents) or that the ending was so downbeat, personally, I rather liked that some of it was open to interpretation. The characters themselves only had hints about what happened before they arrived, and had to put pieces of the puzzle together on their own; the reader knows as much as the Kano family, and even they, right at the end, aren’t entirely sure of everything. As for the ending, well, at a certain point you start to realise that there are really only two choices for how the story will end: either some too-convenient thing will rescue the lone family trapped in the apartment building, or they don’t get out at all.

I don’t consider that too big a spoiler because the horror genre isn’t typically about feel-good endings. A feel-good ending would have been so contrived and counter to the tone in the rest of the novel, and as you flip through those final few pages, the odds of it happening get slimmer and slimmer until all that’s left is to figure out how it happens, rather than if.

And then there’s the very last page, and if it doesn’t send even a little tingle down your spine, you’re made of sterner (or more cynical) stuff than I.

Horror fans are really in for a treat when they read The Graveyard Apartment, especially if they’re horror fans with a taste for non-Western settings or like expanding their horizons to include other cultures. It has good tension in all the right places, has a fantastically creepy atmosphere, and is overall just a damn good ghost story. Seek it out and prepare to avoid basements for a long time.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

SPFBO Review: Song of the Summer King, by Jess E Owen

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Rating – 8/10
Author’s website
Publication date – July 12, 2012

Summary: Shard is a gryfon in danger. He and other young males of the Silver Isles are old enough to fly, hunt, and fight–old enough to be threats to their ruler, the red gryfon king. In the midst of the dangerous initiation hunt, Shard takes the unexpected advice of a strange she-wolf who seeks him out, and hints that Shard’s past isn’t all that it seems. To learn his past, Shard must abandon the future he wants and make allies of those the gryfons call enemies. When the gryfon king declares open war on the wolves, it throws Shard’s past and uncertain future into the turmoil between. Now with battle lines drawn, Shard must decide whether to fight beside his king… or against him.

Review: I judge YA novels a bit differently than I judge adult novels. That isn’t to say that I expect less of them; often I find that I end up expecting more, because so many YA novels recycle the same old story elements and tropes that I’m quite bored of by now, so my standards for a good YA novel have gotten pretty exacting over the years. But when it comes to writing style, for instance, there are different expectations for a YA novel than for anything else.

When I first started reading Song of the Summer King, I’d forgotten that it was a YA novel, and so at first the writing style came across as a bit stilted, a bit more juvenile than I’d hoped. It made for an awkward beginning, not because it was badly written, but because my expectations were skewed. I mentioned this primarily because that awkwardness was part of my overall experience, even if I came to realise my error pretty quickly.

But once I remembered that oh, right, different set of expectations at play here, I settled more firmly into the story and started to really enjoy what was playing out on the pages.

Shard is a gryfon in a conquered pride. He can’t remember his father, can’t remember a time before the conquerors came, and he is loyal to the current king, a red gryfon named Sverin. On Shard’s first hunt, he encounters a wolf named Catori, and despite wolves being enemies to gryfons, he listens to her advice and emerges victorious. Shard gains the attention of Sverin, and his place within the gryfon pride seems to be on the rise, but so too is his unease about that place, his past, and the future to come.

It’s rarer to find YA fantasies than it is to find YA urban fantasy or YA dystopias, so I tend to keep my eyes open for this sort of book. Maybe there’s the assumption that secondary-world fantasy just won’t appeal to teens, I don’t know; it sure would have appealed to most of the SFF-loving friends I know when they/we were teens. Extra points for me in this case, because I found four-legged creatures fascinating, so give me an entire book where all the characters are gryfons or wolves? Yes please!

I thought it was interesting the way the author pulled elements from Norse mythology to construct parts of the story. I’m no expert on that particular branch of mythology, but I know enough to recognise a few names and a couple of references to particular myths. That aspect of the story made me even more curious as to how it was all going to play out, especially in future novels. (This is the start to a series I definitely want to see through to the end; unlike a lot of YA I’ve been reading lately, I don’t feel burned out on the subgenre after reading Song of the Summer King, and that’s an increasingly rare occurrence for me!)

It’s a small world that Owen paints in Song of the Summer King, taking place on only a small handful of islands. There are hints at a wider world beyond, but so far Shard’s world is small, limited, a suitable backdrop for a character who learns that he has much to learn. Shard is inexperienced but not innocent; he can fight, he pushes his boundaries, he doesn’t meet the world with wide-eyed wonder but with confusion and aggression and the attempt to figure out how all these new things fit into his worldview. He’s actually an interesting character, a good one for the reader to ride along with, because he’s neither a blank slate nor somebody who just accepts the yoke of destiny that the universe places upon him. He doubts, he refuses, he makes mistakes. And by the end, his character growth is reflected in the world around him; the next part of the story seems like it will involve places much further away than the Silver Isles, and Shard will once again have to grow.

Some of the characters, however, I found a bit two-dimensional. Particularly the antagonists, which amounted to anyone who disliked Shard, really. Halvden didn’t like him because Shard was Vanir, born of the pride that was conquered by the Aesir. Hallr didn’t like Shard for much the same reason. Sverin seemed every inch the cold calculating king, and while Shard himself sought to prove his loyalty, Sverin turning on him was no surprise. It was an inevitable confrontation. Unlike the others, though, Sverin at least had the benefit of being a bit more ambiguous in his approach to Shard, until he let his hatred of the Vanir overtake him. But for the most part, if a character disliked Shard? It was obvious, and you weren’t meant to like them, and they weren’t meant to have any reason that didn’t boil down to general prejudice. That seemed to be the whole of Hallr and Halvden’s characters, really.

For my part, I thought Song of the Summer King was an enjoyable novel, fast-paced and fun and filled with adventure and discovery from an uncommon character. None of the characters here are human, or even humanoid; you’re dealing with a book filled with gryfons and wolves and birds, and exploring what lies between them and unthinking savage animals. Owen has hooked me on Shard’s quest, and I want to spend more time being entertained by the far-reaching adventures of these gryfons. This is a novel to pay attention to if you’re a fan of YA fantasy, and I expect there are quite a few people out there who will enjoy it just as much as I did.

Fix, by Ferrett Steinmetz

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 06, 2016

Summary: “America’s long sent its best SMASH agents overseas to deal with the European crisis. As of today, they decided dismantling your operation was more important than containing the Bastogne Broach. Now you’re dealing with the real professionals.”

Paul Tsabo: Bureaucromancer. Political activist. Loving father. His efforts to decriminalize magic have made him the government’s #1 enemy – and his fugitive existence has robbed his daughter of a normal life.

Aliyah Tsabo-Dawson: Videogamemancer. Gifted unearthly powers by a terrorist’s magic. Raised by a family of magicians, she’s the world’s loneliest teenager – because her powers might kill anyone she befriends.

The Unimancers: Brain-burned zombies. Former ‘mancers, tortured into becoming agents of the government’s anti-‘mancer squad. An unstoppable hive-mind.

When Paul accidentally opens up the first unsealed dimensional broach on American soil, the Unimancers lead his family in a cat-and-mouse pursuit all the way to the demon-haunted ruins of Europe – where Aliyah is slowly corrupted by the siren call of the Unimancers…

Review: When you read the books in this series back to back, you end up torn apart by the end, after the rollercoaster ride of emotions and tension and revelation. It took me a while, after finishing Fix, to pick myself up and put myself back together. The story is tight, the surprises keep coming, heartstrings keep getting tugged…

Dammit, Steinmetz, how do you keep doing this?!

Fix takes places years after the events in The Flux. Aliyah is now 13, and together with Paul, Imani, Valentine, and Robert, the group seek to find a place where Aliyah can be herself and be safe. Paul, especially, wants Aliyah to experience life as a typical American teenager, the joys and sadnesses that most people experience, instead of the constant battle against her magical inclinations.

But all doesn’t go according to plan when Aliyah gets carried away and accidentally does ‘mancy in front of her new friends, and the ensuing chaos causes a broach. SMASH and the Unimancers get into the mix, demanding that Paul give up and give himself over to them. Paul refuses, of course, because who would want their personality tortured away in order to become part of a vicious magic-hating hive mind? But when Aliyah finds herself bound to the Unimancers, the whole world flips on its head, and nothing — absolutely nothing — is what anybody thought it was.

Some books in a series, even final books, you can go into without having read the previous entries. This isn’t the case with Fix. Even if somebody explained the backstory to you, there’s so much you’d miss out on by skipping right to the end, so many subtleties and other assorted pieces that aren’t essential to understanding the story as a whole, but that add so much. You’d miss out entirely on the impact of the Valentine/Robert romantic subplot. You’d miss the terror of Paul’s decline, since you wouldn’t see just how he started out in the first place. Definitely a case where I’d say the ‘Mancer series is much more than the sum of its parts, and Fix is a glorious ending to the trilogy that’s open-ended enough to leave the possibility for more stories while still capping off the main storyline.

I wondered, at some parts, how many people would read Fix and cry out that it’s horrible because Steinmetz dared to even mention certain things. (“There’s a lesbian here; stop shoehorning gay people into my fiction!” “A trans character gets mentioned; ugh, that’s just terrible!” “You mentioned a functioning triad; you’re trying to bring down traditional marriage values!”). Aside from the fact that it’s good sometimes to even have a couple of throwaway lines that imply yes, people do come in all shapes and sizes and behaviours and flavours of being, claiming such things would entirely miss a huge point that gets brought up multiple times throughout Fix: there are multiple ways of doing things, no one way is absolutely right for everybody, and sometimes the best way to heal the world is to adapt to the new things that occur rather than trying to force it back to the old way. I can’t say for sure that Steinmetz was going for that kind of social commentary during the novel’s final scenes, but it’s certainly applicable, and I, for one, appreciate that.

It was interesting, in that regard, to see a different strategy evolve for taking care of broaches. Paul’s way worked initially, to convince the universe to follow the rules that kept it stable before, rules that Paul believed in even without knowing what those specific rules were because he believed in rules and order so very deeply. But that way only worked for him sometimes, and when confronted with a bigger change to the world — the European broach — there was need for a different strategy that involved adaptation rather than reform. That tied in well with the idea that one way of life, one way of thinking, didn’t always work for everyone, such as Aliyah finding her place within the Unimancers even when Paul didn’t like their way of doing things.

Overall, Fix takes a lot of preconceptions and gleefully tears them to shreds, scattering the confetti of old beliefs and daring characters to figure out what to do now. ‘Mancy forces the universe to bend to new rules, and now it’s like the universe is fighting back, not with broaches and the destruction of physical laws, but by taking mundane occurrences and forcing broken characters to adapt. How well do you handle it when your daughter falls in love with another girl? How do you cope when your partner regains emotional stability (and loses their ‘mancy) when you’re still proud of the way you’re so powerfully flawed? What do you do when you can’t protect those you love? Things that can happen to anyone, regardless of magical ability, regardless of time or place, but that can knock you for a loop regardless. Fix is a novel of push-and-pull, give-and-take, figuring out where you fit in the world, or whether you have to carve out your own place. Whether you’re Paul losing control over his life because you keep losing what you had, or whether you’re Aliyah finding out that you fit best in a place those who love you would never want you, or you’re an uncertain Valentine who needs to be needed, the world pushes back at you and sometimes you have to bend and sometimes you have to tell the universe no, this is where you are, and this is where you’re staying. Honestly, for all the heartache I felt while reading Fix, for all the times the subject matter hit extremely close to home in a painful way, it’s a very hopeful novel, because in the end what matters is the ability to adapt and find your place.

So do I recommend this series? Hell yes! To one and all! It’s a powerful story, a take on magic and obsession that crosses boundaries and paints new pictures of a reality that could have been and could yet be. It’s a brilliant piece of urban fantasy, and adventure that stays with you long after the last page has been read and the cover closed, and Steinmetz has done something great here. The characters are beautiful and flawed, the writing tight, the story fast-paced, the whole thing evocative and emotional. And I love it. It’s the kind of urban fantasy that doesn’t come along often, a diamond in the rough, and Fix was the best possible way to end it all.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Flux, by Ferrett Steinmetz

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 06, 2015

Summary: Love something enough, and your obsession will punch holes through the laws of physics. That devotion creates unique magics: videogamemancers. Origamimancers. Culinomancers.

But when ‘mancers battle, cities tremble…

ALIYAH TSABO-DAWSON: The world’s most dangerous eight-year-old girl. Burned by a terrorist’s magic, gifted strange powers beyond measure. She’s furious that she has to hide her abilities from her friends, her teachers, even her mother – and her temper tantrums can kill.

PAUL TSABO: Bureaucromancer. Magical drug-dealer. Desperate father. He’s gone toe-to-toe with the government’s conscription squads of brain-burned Unimancers, and he’ll lie to anyone to keep Aliyah out of their hands – whether Aliyah likes it or not.

THE KING OF NEW YORK: The mysterious power player hell-bent on capturing the two of them. A man packing a private army of illegal ‘mancers.

Paul’s family is the key to keep the King’s crumbling empire afloat. But offering them paradise is the catalyst that inflames Aliyah’s deadly rebellious streak…

Review: I was intrigued by the very concept of magic when I first read Flex. The idea that someone’s obsession can be so powerful, so focused, that it can warp the universe, essentially telling reality that no, I believe so strongly that this is how things should happen that indeed it does. That the consequences of rearranging the laws of reality like that is that reality can break down and extradimensional beings can break through and cause untold havoc. I can’t say it appealed to me in the sense of wanting to be a ‘mancer like that, but I can say that, as someone who has struggled with keeping their passions and interests in check so that others don’t get bored/intimidated/weirded out because I’m not being socially appropriate, I can at least say that I can relate a little to what it might be like for someone to have something they cling to that powerfully. And from there I was drawn in.

Last time, we saw Aliyah become the youngest ‘mancer in history. We saw Paul struggle desperately to shield his family from the danger of his ‘mancy, fail to hold his marriage together, defeat and survive any number of deadly issues. This time, in The Flux, we see Aliyah a little bit older, still conflicted about her ‘mancy, trying to make sense of the world that has created her and where she fits in it. Paul, for his part, uncovers a sort of safe haven for ‘mancers, but that safe haven comes at a price, and it’s one that Valentine, at least, doesn’t really want to pay even as Paul argues that it’s best for Aliyah’s sake. The King of New York has his own agenda, one that often intersects with Paul’s desires, and it’s plot twist after plot twist as the story unfolds and everybody suffers along the way.

Everything I liked about Flexis back in The Flux. Valentine is still a kick-ass awesome woman who doesn’t need to be model-thin to be that way, perfectly at home with her kinky sexual expression, a friend to Paul and mentor to Aliyah, and I love her to death because she’s the kind of character SFF needs more of. Paul is still a devoted father who doesn’t do things perfectly and makes frequent mistakes, but he tries to make amends and does what he thinks is best even when it’s a hard call. Aliyah goes through moment of being far too bratty and then far too insightful, but I also admit that’s what happens when you have a troubled kid who has plenty of evidence that the world really is out to get her, who has powers that are hard to control, and when the only person to give her what she wants is a psychopathic pyromancer. I’d be bratty myself, no matter what my age, if all that was heaped on me.

Steinmetz is very good at writing a believable reality that you fall into. Whether it’s through the little name-drops of brands to centre a reader on familiar things in the world, to characters that tug at your heartstrings (who didn’t feel emotion at reading Paul’s attempt to leave Aliyah for her own safety, or at the fate of K-Dash and Quaysean?), it all feels so very real. There’s more to realism than just a high level of detail and clear descriptions, and Steinmetz knows how to bring it all together to create a strong world that readers care about. It’s been a long time since I’ve read an urban fantasy that I want to share with people as much as the world that has ‘mancers in it.

Speaking of emotion, really, The Flux has it in spades. It’s an emotional roller coaster from beginning to end, mostly thanks to Aliyah’s development. Aliyah starts off with her continuing love/hate relationship for ‘mancy, which turns into disdain for those who can’t do ‘mancy and thus, to her mind, will never understand her and she won’t understand them, to being angry at her father for all the times he needs to be saved. But the real heartache for me was seeing Aliyah’s relationship to Imani, her mother. Aliyah craves her mother’s love and attention in the same way most young children do, but at the same time is truly afraid that if Imani discovers Aliyah is a ‘mancer, Imani will want to kill her. And given some thoughtless comments that Imani or David made in the past, her fear isn’t an overreaction. It’s heartbreaking to see that kind of conflict in anyone, let alone such a young child.

The story in The Flux feels like it’s got a bit of second-book syndrome. It is a complete story in its own right, a good continuation of the events in Flex, but it feels more like an interlude, the necessary setup and establishment for things that need to happen in the third book later. There was plenty of tension, great pacing, the snappy dialogue I love so much, but a lot of it felt like a book in which this character gets introduced, that realization occurs, to prop up a novel to come. This doesn’t make it a bad book — far from it! — but it does make it feel less important than the first novel, by far.

But I’m in love with the world that Steinmetz has created, and the characters within it, and the overarching story in this series so far is pulling me along at breakneck speed and I don’t want to stop. It’s a wonderfully creative take on magic, has a weird and varied cast of characters, and I can’t wait to dive into Fix to continue the story!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

SPFBO Review: Demi Heroes, by Andrew Lynch

Buy from Amazon.com
Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – March 20, 2016

Summary: Lucian Huxley wants to be a hero. To be the one who kills the dragon, defeats the rabid horde, and slays the princess. No, wait, saves the princess. Right now his job is to clean up after Moxar Lightshield, the real hero. Real heroes don’t do their own dirty work. That’s where Lucian and his companions, or anyone else willing to put their lives on the line for a trivial amount of money, come in. In a world filled with magic, unruly bandits, and fearsome ogres, Lucian has his work cut out. But this time the Company has offered him the chance to make his dreams come true. Will he succeed and become the hero he’s always wanted to be? Or will he fall at the hands of the God Killer?

Review: I was initially on the fence about this book. On one hand, the writing was decent, and the early few chapters hinted at something I hadn’t actually seen before in my years of reading fantasy novels. On the other hand, books intended to poke fun at things and be humourous often fall rather flat with me, and there’s as much chance that I’ll dislike them for the humour as I’ll like them for the story.

Demi Heroes turned out to be one of those books that I liked. Largely because it riffs on some concepts that many storytellers rely on as a given. People will always be in the right place at the right time. Things will work out in the end.

Demi Heroes is the story of Lucian, and the group of Company workers who basically make sure all that actually happens. They’re the ones who make sure that the Hero of the story doesn’t get held up by wrong directions (unless, of course, that leads to the Hero’s story being more compelling), that the ancient artifacts are in place when the Hero arrives at the ancient temple, that the villains provide a challenge but never so much threat that the Hero’s death is a certainty. They are they unsung grunts behind every Hero’s quest, the hidden hands of the masterminds who profit from the tourist trade when Heroes take down tyrants and defeat vicious dragons. Heroes always have help, even if they’re unaware of it.

Only now, the Company Lucian works for wants to approach things in a slightly different way. Instead of clearing the way for current Heroes and making their lives and stories that much better, they want to start from scratch, chronicling the rise of a Hero from his beginning, not after he’s already gotten underway. Lucian is offered the chance to fill that role, to become a man who can change the world and have stories told about him and have a team of his own working behind the scenes to make it all come together in a way that others will want to hear about.  But only if he does well in his latest job to help Moxar Lightshield take down the villain who seeks to kill a god.

This is a book for people who always ask why only the hero’s story gets told, why we don’t see the story from any perspective but the one to whom it’s all really happening. (Largely because doing so tends to not make for the greatest story, as interesting as it could be if done well…) Lucian’s story is a wonderful cross between watching a play and getting to peek backstage to see behind the scenes. Lucian himself isn’t a capital-H Hero the way the Company defines them, though nobody can deny that his “stagehand” role puts him in the hot seat as he faces down bandit hordes and ogres and unfortunate political incidents in order to further Moxar’s story. Lucian and his team have their task, but they’re picking up clues about the God Killer as they work too, and more than once Lucian wrestles with whether it’s better to keep your head down and do your job, or whether advancement and ethics mean doing something completely different and taking a more active role in what is supposed to be someone else’s story. There’s a fun meta-aspect to it all, reading a story about a story-maker (or perhaps it would be better to compare him to an editor?), who is both hero and aspiring Hero, trailing in a Hero’s wake while doing heroic things in the process.

Demi Heroes relies a lot on tropes, unsurprisingly. Company-aided Heroes are paragons of goodness and strength and morals, always bearing the burden of defeating evil wherever it may be found, which is practically a textbook definition of the kind of hero we see in many stories through the ages, and also the kind of hero that has fallen further from favour in recent years as readers crave more nuanced and morally-grey protagonists in their fiction. The story takes a bit of a satirical tone when it comes to those classic tropes, as even in the context of the in-book world those Heroes are to no small degree molded, almost custom-made, for the people who want to hear stories about them and feel inspired. They’re archetypes, not real people doing things that real people do. It’s not that the Hero didn’t kill a dragon, but the dragon was drugged and not as dangerous as it would normally be, so that the Hero can properly kill it and make people feel good about Heroes.

But even as the book pokes fun at tropes and archetypes, it falls prey to them with pretty much every other character. These days, admittedly, it’s hard to write a character that isn’t tropey, since so many things have been done that even inversions of tropes have becomes tropes themselves. The know-nothing know-it-all. The mage who can’t properly use magic. The bard who can’t sing. The man whose appearance is brutish and terrifying but really he wants to heal people instead of hurt them. They’re not really clever inversions, not any more than someone writing a vampire who feels faint at the sight of blood. Funny for a moment, until you realise that dozens of people before you also thought it was funny for a moment when they did it. Lucian and his party aren’t much more original than the character of Moxar Lightshield.

Which, honestly, may well have been Lynch’s intent, since making fun of classic character roles is a big theme here, as well as looking behind the scenes at the people who make stories happen. Lucian’s party may well have consisted of such characters specifically because the Company wanted that kind of party around, because they were characters they felt people wanted to hear about. So we have a storyteller writing about a company of storytellers trying to tell a story about people aiding in creating a story. It’s all very head-twisty and fun, and I think the fun of the implications made up for the characters not always being particularly strong or original.

Demi Heroes doesn’t bring much new to the table, but it does bring an uncommon twist to an old story, and it was certainly fun to read. A bit slow in places, but curiosity to see how it all played out kept me going even when I felt things were lagging a bit, and Lynch’s writing was fairly smooth and decently detailed to boot. If you’re in the mood for some humour in your fantasy, then give Demi Heroes a try.

SPFBO Review: The Dragon Scale Lute, by JC Kang

Buy from Amazon.com
Rating – 6/10
Author’s website
Publication date – February 29, 2016

Summary: Kaiya’s voice could charm a dragon. Had she lived when the power of music could still summon typhoons and rout armies, perhaps Cathay’s imperial court would see the awkward, gangly princess as more than a singing fool. With alliances to build and ambitious lords to placate, they care more about her marriage prospects than her unique abilities. Only the handsome Prince Hardeep, a foreign martial mystic, recognizes her potential. Convinced Kaiya will rediscover the legendary but perilous art of invoking magic through music, he suggests her voice, not her marriage, might better serve the realm. When members of the emperor’s elite spy clan– Kaiya’s childhood friend and his half-elf sidekick (or maybe he’s her sidekick?)– discover mere discontent boiling over into full-scale rebellion, Kaiya must choose. Obediently wedding the depraved ringleader means giving up her music. Confronting him with the growing power of her voice could kill her.

Review: I want to start off this review by stating outright that I’m not really qualified to talk about the accuracy of various cultural aspects of this novel. I have no background in Chinese studies, little knowledge of Mandarin Chinese beyond, “Yes,” “No,” “My name is [name],” and, “I want tea,” and I do not have any Chinese ancestry. So it should be left to people wiser and more knowledgeable than me to say whether or not this book has a good portrayal of Chinese culture at any point through China’s history. I’m not the one to make that judgment.

The story is based on historical China, at least, though for me it lies somewhere between historical fantasy and secondary-world fantasy, given that as much as there are referenced to the country being called Cathay, the Great Wall, and a load of other little things that peg it as historical, it also makes references to multiple moons, which makes me think secondary-world. Either way, the feel is very much “ancient China,” with a few other cultures thrown in for good measure. It does make it a welcome change from the glut of western-based fantasies, for certain.

I do like Kang’s writing style. it’s fluid, it’s clear, and it moves the story along well. There’s some good detail in here that manages to balance giving the reader a good image of an unfamiliar culture without bogging the whole thing down with too much description in an attempt to explain everything that might not be 100% clear to every reader We don’t need to know exactly what Dian-xia translates to in order to pick up that it’s the formal title of the princess.

From the description, the story is largely about the young princess Kaiya, though to be perfectly honest, Kaiya’s part in the novel could have been skipped without losing very much. She has magical talent that manifests through music, reportedly powerful enough that she could subdue dragons, but for the most part, her chapters involve her mooning over Prince Hardeep, a visiting noble from Ankira who has little personality and spends his time on the pages trying to guide Kaiya into doing exactly what he wants her to do. The story happens to Kaiya, not because of her, and it gets tedious to read. Pretty much until close to the end, the most contribution she makes to the story is to agree to marry an abusive lord for political reasons. And practice musical magic while thinking longingly of Hardeep.

Kaiya may play a greater role in the story in the rest of the series, but here she’s largely passive and not particularly interesting. Even looking at it from the standpoint of young romance, I couldn’t really get into her sections. Hardeep wasn’t that interesting or developed, and it seemed like her only interest in him stemmed from his good looks and the fact that he was nice to her. And from that she’s willing to go along with dangerous and troublesome ideas for literally no other reason than because he says so. We don’t really see anything from his perspective, so all we see of him is through he eyes of someone besotted, and even that doesn’t make him compelling.

Far more interesting were Tian and Jie, who have far more defined personalities, infiltrate political plots, take part in espionage and combat and all sorts of things, and generally do more to uncover the meat of the plot than Kaiya does. I would have rather read the whole story from Jie’s perspective, honestly, than flip back and forth between her and Kaiya. She takes a more active role through the whole book, is sarcastic, is in a great position to provide commentary on how people don’t take her seriously because of her presumed maturity… Seriously, Jie was the star of this book, not Kaiya.

There’s a rather unique cultural mish-mash going on in this book that is worth talking about, and I feel I can at least comment on it even if I don’t make any “this is wrong/right” judgments. While the story is told in a Chinese-inspired area, and there are mentions of other places that I believe are inspired at least by India (and possibly a couple of other places I couldn’t entirely identify), there’s also some pieces of western Europe and its mythologies thrown in. Both Asian- and European-style dragons are said to exist. There’s mentions of elves and dwarves, and though no really solid description is given of either of them barring the fact that elves have pointed ears, it seems a fair assumption that they’re the elves and dwarves that we think of when we think of Lord of the Rings, for instance. These people aren’t commonly seen in the book, having their own homelands and own affairs to tend to, but they do show up every now and again. Often with Cathayi names, though that might be a nod to the culture they’re all hanging out in rather than their actual names, I’m not sure. Regardless, there are enough references to other places and cultures that The Dragon Scale Lute feels like it’s taking place in one small part of a much larger world, which is something that I often see ignored in fantasy novels. Unless characters are actually traveling that larger world, any multiculturalism tends to get left by the wayside, and it was good to see something where that wasn’t the case.

While the overall combination of political intrigue and magic and a non-western setting definitely made this book stand out to me, I think its real weakness is the utter lack of character in Kaiya, who is ostensibly the main character of the whole story. The writing was decent, but it wasn’t enough to really keep me going through sections in which nothing related to either plot or character-building actually happened, and that spoiled what could otherwise have been a really good book, especially considering that Kaiya’s POV was about half of the novel. Maybe it would appeal to younger readers or those who enjoy a mooning one-sided romance, but that’s not the sort of story that appeals to me, and that aspect rather spoiled it for me, unfortunately.

SPFBO Review: Touch of Iron, by Timandra Whitecastle

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – May 13, 2016

Summary: Is the Living Blade real or just a legend?

With it… Prince Bashan could win back his kingdom. Master Telen Diaz can free himself of the burden from his past. Owen Smith sees a once-in-a-lifetime chance to gain untold knowledge.

…but for Noraya Smith, the Living Blade will bring nothing but suffering and sorrow.

Review: First off, I want to take a moment to praise the person who did the cover art for this book. I don’t usually talk much about cover art, but this is an exception largely because it’s notable that a self-published book has such high-quality art. When most people think self-pub, they usually associate it with covers that look slapped together in MS Paint, or that have okay art on the cover but not really the sort of art that one usually associates with book covers. But let’s be perfectly honest here; if you hadn’t seen that this review was for a book associated with the SPFBO, would you look at that cover and think that it was a traditionally-published book, with all the associated work and assistance that goes into getting an awesome-looking cover? I know I would.

And it’s interesting how that can be the difference between attracting readers and not. As much as we saw we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we do exactly that all the time. We see a book’s cover and we decide from there whether we even want to look at the back-of-the-book description. It’s the first impression, that one that you don’t get a second chance to make. And so far as I’m concerned, it’s worth pointing out when books do that well, especially in a field where the pervading stereotype is that they don’t.

Anyway, enough about cover art. What did I think of the book itself?

The story centres around Nora, a young woman who left her village with her twin brother, and who runs headfirst into trouble pretty much immediately. She encounters Diaz, a half-wight pilgrim who is assisting a fallen prince in attaining the legendary Living Blade, the sword that once cut down the gods and that will allow the prince to regain his throne. But there’s opposition, naturally, and Nora is half-pulled into a deadly quest and half walks there willingly. But as much as Nora moves forward and seeks the training she desires, she can’t entirely escape the past that shaped her all along.

Whitecastle writes an interesting world in Touch of Iron. It’s not stand-out unique, but it does play with some interesting elements. I admittedly haven’t seen too much with wights (outside of books based on fantasy RPG worlds, that is), let alone half-wights, so that was an unexpected addition to the story. The way twins were handled also caught my attention, with their relation to certain deities. Not the first time I’ve seen anti-twin sentiments in a secondary-world setting, but it’s another rarity — at least in the books I’ve read over the years — so it was cool to see. Both the issue of half-wights and the viewpoint of a twin allow for some good presentations of prejudice and racism to show through, although it was fairly minor, and mostly dealt with through hiding and contemplation of what people might think, rather than showing any overt animosity toward certain characters. Nora has strong feelings about people not abandoning newborn twins to the elements, as is tradition, but she only openly opposes such treatment in one scene, and doesn’t really force the issue with others who believe that twins are cursed or unworthy.

Not that I can blame her. Not everyone is made to fight every fight, and Nora’s cause wasn’t the equal treatment of twins. If expedient, she would pretend to be somebody’s wife, or student, or whatever was needed at the time; it wasn’t her priority to force the issue at every step, however much it may have rankled her. It was more important to find the Living Blade, to be trained by Diaz, to survive.

Of course, this “you can’t right every wrong” attitude in especially difficult to deal with when rape is involved. And it comes up more than once. So, consider this a bit of a trigger warning in regard to this book: if that sort of treatment of rape is one that’s particularly triggering for you, then maybe this isn’t the book for you. It’s difficult to read, in any case, and as much as I can understand the cold practicality behind not being able to save someone from being raped to death if all it will accomplish is you dying too, that doesn’t make my blood boil any less.

I found Diaz talking about his heritage to be something that provoked reflection, and it resonated with me to a degree. I’m paraphrasing, but he talks about how humans consider him half-wight, and wights consider him half-human, and so he fits in nowhere. That struck a chord, and I imagine it will do something similar to readers who feel torn between two halves of themselves, be it culturally or racially or through some other aspect of themselves.

Though while the world that Nora moves through isn’t a monoculture (there are regional differences in dress, food, manners, etc), there are strong common threads through every place that we see. Every area she travels feels the same way about twins, for instance, and for the same reasons. Every place knows the same legends, about the same gods, with no real differences, or even slightly different interpretations that fit their particular subculture a bit better. It’s hard to tell if this is due to a lack of more detailed culture-building, or because it’s difficult to tell the scope of Nora’s travels. Though at one point she spends months going from one place to the next, that could be only a small part of the world, equivalent to, say, crossing the United States. You’ll find differences between the east coast and the west coast, but not so many that you’ll find an entirely different and unfamiliar way of living. It may be that Nora’s travels only take her that far, when the rest of the world is much larger and much more varied. It’s hard to say.

Whitecastle’s writing is a treat to read, polished and with good flow, even pacing, and a good balance between realistic dialogue and observant narration. I loved the dialogue that Whitecastle writes, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s probably my favourite aspect of her writing. Her characters live through their words, they pop off the page and feel like real people you might talk to on the street, and I loved that! Definitely a skill worthy of praise, right there.

One weakness that I saw in the novel, however, was a general lack of character motivation, or at least my understanding of it. There was plenty of action to drive the story along, lots of events to keep things moving, but I found myself struggling to figure out why any of it was happening in the first place. I mean, yes, there’s a fight scene because bandits are attacking, but why are they attacking? Owen wants to be a pilgrim, but why? Master Cumi betrays everyone, but why? Reasons are given, but they don’t really seem to explain what properly motivated the character in the first place. Especially with Master Cumi. We know that she uses a type of magic that’s seen as evil (in part because of the potential it has to harm as well as heal, but her reason for betraying people seems to be little deeper than, “I’m tired of pretending that evil isn’t inside me, mwahaha!” We don’t really see her be dissatisfied with healing instead of harming. We don’t see her struggle with moral choices. We don’t even see her mutter angrily under her breath. We just see her arrange for a buttload of people to die so that she can go somewhere else and openly practice the kind of magic she uses, instead of hiding it. So we get an explanation, sure, but because we see no real demonstration of her motivation beyond her outright saying it, it feels hollow and weak, and entirely unlike the character we’d gotten to know by that point. Character motivations sometimes get revealed much later on into the story, but by that point they often feel like afterthoughts, because we’ve seen so little of what’s been pushing characters to do anything beyond reactions through most of the story.

Aside from that, though, there’s a whole lot to like about Touch of Iron, and at least at the moment, I think Whitecastle’s novel stands a strong chance of being passed to the final round in the SPFBO. And even if it doesn’t go further, it’s still a good novel that’s worth reading, and there’s plenty of potential for the story to go further. Touch of Iron is a self-published novel that could go far, carried on the strength of Whitecastle’s writing.