Closer to the Heart, by Mercedes Lackey

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

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 6, 2015

Summary: Herald Mags, Valdemar’s first official Herald Spy, is well on his way to establishing a coterie of young informants, not only on the streets of Haven, but in the kitchens and Great Halls of the highborn and wealthy as well.

The newly appointed King’s Own Herald, Amily, although still unsure of her own capability in that office, is doing fine work to support the efforts of Mags, her betrothed. She has even found a way to build an army of informants herself, a group of highly trained but impoverished young noblewomen groomed to serve the highborn ladies who live at Court, to be called “The Queens’s Handmaidens.”

And King Kyril has come up with the grand plan of turning Mags and Amily’s wedding into a low-key diplomatic event that will simultaneously entertain everyone on the Hill and allow him to negotiate behind the scenes with all the attending ambassadors―something which had not been possible at his son Prince Sedric’s wedding.

What could possibly go wrong?

The answer, of course, is “everything.”

For all is not well in the neighboring Kingdom of Menmellith. The new king is a child, and a pretender to the throne has raised a rebel army. And this army is―purportedly―being supplied with arms by Valdemar. The Menmellith Regency Council threatens war. With the help of a ragtag band of their unlikely associates, Mags and Amily will have to determine the real culprit, amass the evidence to convince the Council, and prevent a war nobody wants―

―and, somewhere along the way, get married.

Review: Stories about Mags seem to be Mercedes Lackey’s current passion when it comes to Valdemar, as there are currently two series involving this character in a central role. I don’t think any other character of hers can claim an equal amount of time in the spotlight, and previously, starting a new series in the Valdemar timeline, even if familiar characters were involved, typically switched to a new primary character or characters. I think the only other character who could come close to claiming that would be  The Herald Spy series in general offers a bit of a break from that tradition.

Which is fine enough, since Mags finds himself tangled up in numerous kingdom-changing issues. But for my part, I find Mags one of the least interesting Heralds to read about. Much of what he does seems small in comparison to things done by other characters in other novels. Vanyel was the most powerful and last Herald-Mage for a long time in Valdemar. Elspeth was central in bringing magic back to Valdemar. Even Karal, who mostly got caught up in events bigger than himself, was instrumental in saving the world from the backlash of a historical magical apocalypse. Mags? I think so far his biggest claim to fame is all in the title of the series: he’s a spy. He works in secret to uncover events and does his job in stopping enemies to the Crown.

Maybe this is what Lackey meant all those years ago when she said she’d someday write stories about a more typical Herald, one less involved with giant world-changing things.

Closer to the Heart is told from both Mags’s and Amily’s viewpoints. Amily, being King’s Own, is heavily involved with court intrigue, whereas Mags does his part to don disguises and ferret out wrongdoing in other parts of Haven. When word reaches them that a rebel force in a neighbouring kingdom is acquiring and stockpiling Valdemaran weapons somehow, it’s up to them to uncover the truth behind the plot. And that involves confronting some painful memories for Mags, as the mystery takes him back to the heart of mining country, where he was once enslaved.

That’s the meat of the plot. There are definitely side plots, as are typical in Valdemar stories, and mostly they consist of the little ways that Amily and Mags seek to make initiatives that can improve lives for people. Mags has his group of messengers that report anything odd to him, and makes connections with a neuroatypical man who has the uncanny ability to make anything. Amily gets involved in a program to train overlooked and underappreciated women as handmaidens, so that they’re offered opportunity for advancement and are also well-placed to be eyes-and-ears for additional wrongdoings amongst the nobility. Little steps toward social improvement, which are great, though I can only assume that at least whatever Amily set up with her handmaiden project doesn’t pan out in the long-run, because this is something that’s never mentioned in any form during books that take place further along on the Valdemar timeline.

All of this sounds like an interesting story with plenty of social commentary and the notion of small ideas that, with proper support, can change lives for the better. And on its own, this would be a pretty good book. Nothing amazing, but still enjoyable, the kind of book that makes for good comfort reading.

But this is the second book in the series that feels like a one-shot rather than a piece of something larger. In the first book, Amily and Mags foil a Romeo-and-Juliet-esque plot that could have resulted in noble families warring or else being utterly destroyed. In this book, they foil a plot that might have seen Valdemar and Menmellith go to war over someone’s dislike of a political situation. And that’s it. Unlike the first series starring Mags, where each book generally told a contained story and yet contained hints of a larger overarching story to come, the Herald Spy series has so far just been a couple of self-contained stories with no connection to each other beyond characters and linear sequence. There’s nothing to tie them together. There’s no hint that Amily and Mags are part of anything larger than any other Herald, which begs the question of why are we reading about them? Yes, Heralds do wonderful things and, for many readers, have an element of wish fulfillment (I’m sure most Valdemar fans have contemplated being Heralds at some point), but there’s nothing here that’s made me go, “Ah, yes, this is why we’re reading about these two instead of, say, Jakyr or Lena or even Dia.” Who are all doing their own important things too.

I’ll be honest; while I enjoyed this book as I was reading it, and felt the usual comfort I get from diving back into Valdemar, a mere two weeks after finishing it, I couldn’t remember what happened. I had no touchpoint. I couldn’t think of what happened in Closer to Home and remind myself that the story established there continued on. And that’s its biggest downfall. Closer to the Heart is adrift, with no plot connections to tie it to anything else that’s happened previously. It doesn’t feel like part of an actual series. On its own, taken as a one-shot that happens after the Collegium Chronicles, it would be a pretty good and enjoyable story, because you don’t expect it to tie into anything else. But in context, knowing that it’s part of a series, it comes across poorly, with no central plot arc to bring it all together, and I’m left mostly with the impression that Mags’s story would probably have been best ended after the final book in the Collegium Chronicles.

I hate to have such a mixed opinion of a Valdemar novel. They’ve brought me so much comfort and enjoyment through my life, and even now I’ll still reread trilogies I’ve already read a dozen times over, because I enjoy them that much. I like many of the themes the books address, like social justice, optimism, the ideal that those who have authority over us are held to higher standards. Those things will always appeal to me, even in my darkest times, because they give me hope that great things can arise from the darkness and then thrive. But I’m starting to feel burned out on Valdemar, because the past few books have offered me very little in that regard. The elements are still there, but it feels more superficial, like there isn’t really a story that needs to be told anymore. I’m not going to say it’s just a cash-grab, because maybe the sequel to this book will surprise me by being a masterful showpiece of how disparate story elements can come together if you’re patient, but even so, a multi-book slow burn is a lot to ask of readers, and the books about Mags have held none of the excitement I came to expect from the Valdemar novels over the years. Not since Foundation, anyway.

You can argue that this series is all about personal growth, but really, other characters in other series manage personal growth just fine, and they do so while being part of a larger story. Also, you don’t see much personal growth from them. You see social development and the implementation of ideas more than you see any development in either Mags or Amily’s characters.

In the end, I’m of the opinion that Closer to the Heart is okay, but don’t expect much from it. It’s got a message of hope to it, and it’s interesting to see Mags confront the idea that a mining community can be anything but what he experienced of it, but it’s a story best appreciated for its surface elements and not for what you may hope lies underneath. And also best taken out of context and respected for being the one-shot it really is, rather than part of a series.

SPFBO Review: The Grey Bastards, by Jonathan French

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
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

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
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 SFF Divide: On the Assumed Validity of Science Fiction Over Fantasy

Listening to other people talk can teach you a lot.

Not only lately, I’ve been hearing more people talk about women in SFF, examining their role and place, the biases against them, the opinions of them, and so on. My reaction to this varies between, “Nothing new here,” and, “It’s about time more people talked about this,” depending on my mood, but something was recently brought up that tangentially made me think about the views of sci-fi and fantasy as genres themselves, and the perceptions thereof.

In Bronwyn Lovell’s article, Science Fiction’s Women Problem, she says the following:

There is a perceived hierarchy of merit operating in these classifications as well: “hard” sounds masculine and virile, while “soft” connotes a weaker, less potent, feminised form of the genre. This is why “hard” science fiction is more likely to be considered among the “best” science fiction, and why the “soft” science fiction that more women tend to write doesn’t often make the cut.

In 2013, the judges of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Britain’s most prestigious science fiction prize, disqualified a number of submitted books on the basis that they were not “technically” science fiction. They were deemed by the judges to be fantasy – a genre that does not require the realism of science – which has twice as many female authors compared to science fiction.

Which is absolutely worth paying attention to for the issues it brings up about gender, and I in no way want to sideline that conversation. I mention it as context for my thought process, the jumping-off point from which my brain went, “Hang on a second, there’s something else here that I want to think about too.”

It relates back to something an old friend of mine once said. She strongly disliked fantasy as a genre, because, in her mind, there were no rules. In fantasy, magic could just do anything. No rules, no consequences. No realism. It didn’t make sense. So she didn’t like it, because fantasy, by its very nature, was not grounded in reality.

And sure, some fantasy is like that. But in fairness, it tends to be poorly-written fantasy that falls into the category of, “Screw the rules, I have magic.” Not all fantasy even has magic: I’ve read more than a few novels that may as well been classed as historical fiction for all they involved magic and monsters (that is to say, not at all), and all that really placed them in the fantasy genre was that they take place in a secondary-world.

But Lovell does have a point that science fiction tends to viewed as superior because it’s supposedly grounded in fact, whereas fantasy can just spring from the fevered imagination of some nobody who doesn’t have to know anything about how things work because magic can take care of all that. Fantasy is seen as softer. Science fiction? Well, that involves science, which involves intelligence and understanding and curiosity, not just making things up at random.

Only that’s a huge problem of assumption. And not just because some fantasy novels don’t employ Magical McGuffins.

The way I see it, it boils down to the preconception that science fiction is more intelligent and thus superior because it involves science. Even if it involves science that doesn’t make sense. The assumption that most readers make, even unconsciously, is that if there’s technology involved that works even when our current understanding says it shouldn’t, that in the future we just figure out new ways of making it work. We bridge the mental gap because we assume that technology = science = always correct according to the laws of the universe.

We don’t give magic the same benefit. Even if it accomplishes the same thing. A teleportation spell will always be less realistic than a Star Trek-esque teleporter, because the world we know doesn’t have that kind of magic in it and probably never will. It may eventually have that kind of technology, and so that possibility makes it, to the minds of many, more grounded in reality.

But none of that erases the way fantasy is devalued. All that does is point out our flaws of assumption when it comes to science fiction. What about the science of fantasy?

First, we’re going to have to look at the definition of science:

a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general law; systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation; skill, especially reflecting a precise application of facts or principles; proficiency; knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.

That’s according to dictionary.com, which works as well as any dead-tree dictionary I could pull from my bookshelf.

So what prevents that definition from being applied to fantasy?

Absolutely nothing.

As many fantasy writers have demonstrated.

Again, it comes back to assumptions. Science is organized, and magic (and therefore all of fantasy) is chaotic. Uncontrolled, random, imprecise, because it’s nothing we can measure and confirm. But we can’t confirm and measure that future-tech teleporter, either, so that bias must get thrown out the window or else we must admit hypocrisy.

Let’s say you have a secondary world where people can do magic and accomplish great feats such as healing the sick or making rocks float or conjure invisible protective shields to save them from an assassin’s thrown dagger. Throw in a unicorn or two, for good measure, and a dragon, because everybody loves dragons. Typical fantasy fare.

Now let’s say that magic has been used on this world for the whole of recorded history, and people past and present have devoted time and effort to figuring out how it all works. They know magic’s limitations, they know its side-effects, they know what it can and can’t do.

Is that unscientific just because they don’t know that magic can light a candle by agitating the molecules in a certain area to create heat, thus igniting the candle’s wick?

Looking at our own scientific history, it’s easy to think, without really thinking, that anyone who hasn’t reached the conclusions we reached is ignorant, or undeveloped. But by the definition of science, it’s still scientific in nature for monkeys to know what plants make them sick after seeing other monkeys get sick from eating them. Observation and experimentation.

We too often conflate science with technology. Advanced technology, at that; looms used to weave cloth are technology, machines based upon scientific principles. Hell, Jacquard looms are basically some of the first computers, using punchcards to create patterns on a power loom (yes, the same kind of punchcard that used to be used in computer programming even in the 1980s). Jacquard looms were invented in 1801, back when science still considered disease to be caused by “bad air.” But often when we think of computer science, we don’t start that far back, and especially with textiles now being considered a typically “womanly” think to be concerned with, it seems almost uncomfortable to think that early computer technology was just being used to quickly weave the cloth for pretty clothes.

But science is so much more than calculators and rocket ships. Look at Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series, which deals with the biology of dragons. And I’ve read hard scifi that involves vampires who react badly to crosses. Having vampires in it didn’t make it less science fiction, nor any of the science it used less credible, but if we’re judging based solely on common content

Sometimes it’s the exceptions that prove the bias.

I’ve noticed increasingly that “speculative fiction” is coming into its own as a category that seems in many ways to blend the two aspects of science and magic (or the supernatural, as we define it). If a book takes place in the future of this world, for instance, and involves magic or something similar to it, then it’s often classed as speculative fiction, that umbrella term for “what if” stories that don’t seem to fit into either science fiction or fantasy. It’s not science fiction, even if there’s technology more advanced than what we have now, because it doesn’t fit some classic sci-fi tropes, but neither is it fantasy, because it takes place in this world and doesn’t deal with either the present or the past.

(Which is another indicator I’ve noticed, actually. Sci-fi almost exclusively deals with the future, whereas something under the fantasy umbrella, if it occurs in this world, takes place either very recently or else in the past. There’s almost no historical sci-fi. There’s very little post-apocalyptic fantasy unless the technological advances in history were made by some very-long-ago civilization and nobody understand anything about it anymore. When something crosses those lines, it tends to be notable.)

But speculative fiction as a genre name sounds far more credible than fantasy. It sounds like somebody’s asking hard questions about what is, or what could be, in a way that we assume fantasy never even contemplates. It sounds more intellectual, and is more likely to be taken seriously. Not quite as seriously as science fiction, because it’s softer and more human and less sterile, but definitely more serious than fantasy.

But we might not even need such a category if we didn’t tend to dismiss the importance of fantasy as a genre quite so much. Fantasy might not have robots in it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t tackle difficult topics. Is deconstructing racism more hard-hitting if it involves lizard-like people from another planet instead of lizard-like people from an island 200 miles off the south coast of Fantasia?

If life lessons are only worth learning now when robots are involved, then we have a serious problem on our hands.

Magic can have clear rules and definitions. It is not by default some unscientific thing, so long as it’s approached scientifically. The technology in science fiction can come as much from a writer’s desire for convenience as any enchanted amulet. Science fiction and fantasy both have a number of interesting things to say, wonderful stories to tell; the same faults can be found spanning both. And it’s entirely unfair to dismiss one genre as superior to the other because of our strange assumptions about what science actually is.

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

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
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.

SPFBO Review: Beneath the Canyons, by Kyra Halland

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 6/10
Author’s website
Publication date – November 4, 2014

Summary: Cowboys and gunslingers meet wizards in this high fantasy series inspired by the Old West. Silas Vendine is a mage and bounty hunter, on the hunt for renegade mages. He’s also a freedom fighter, sworn to protect the non-magical people of the Wildings from ambitious mages both lawless and lawful. It’s a dangerous life and Silas knows it, but when he comes to the town of Bitterbush Springs, he finds more danger and excitement than he bargained for…

In Bitterbush Springs on the trail of a dangerous rogue mage, Silas meets Lainie Banfrey, a young woman both drawn to and terrified of her own developing magical powers. Though Lainie has been taught all her life to hate and fear wizards, she and Silas team up to stop the renegade who has brought her hometown to the brink of open warfare. The hunt takes them deep beneath forbidden lands held by the hostile A’ayimat people, where only Silas’s skills and Lainie’s untamed, untrained power can save them from the rogue mage and the dark magic he has loosed into the world.

Review: Westerns are really hit-or-miss for me. I don’t have a spectacular amount of interest in them as a genre or subgenre, though I do admit that the setting can hold some appeal for certain types of stories. I wouldn’t say that Beneath the Canyons is a story that can only be told with a wild west setting, since it has many elements that appear in dozens of other stories, but it wasn’t incongruous. It fit, it wasn’t jarring, and I can’t say that I minded it in this case. The story overrode the setting, so to speak.

The story uses the alternating viewpoints of Silas — a bounty hunter and mage come to investigate reports of a rogue mage and bring them to justice — and Lainie — a girl who lives and works on a ranch in the Wildings, hiding her own magic from the fearful and superstitious townsfolk. Strange things have been happening in the town of Bitterbush Springs, something to do with the wealthy man Carden, and both Silas and Lainie get mixed up in events that take them into uncharted territory.

Being a setting based very much off old tales of the wild west, the world in Beneath the Canyons is very familiar. There’s civilized country, there’s the frontier where men and women tough it out to get by, the whole shebang. Which is great if that’s the kind of setting that really appeals to you. For my part, though, some of the worldbuilding seemed lackluster, and like it was the same old building with just a new coat of paint on the outside. The world’s religion might be pantheistic instead of monotheistic, but society still plays by the Judeo-Christian societal rules we’re used to thinking of: no sex until marriage (unless you’re one of those women), women are subservient to men, men wear pants and women wear skirts/dresses, and so on. It wouldn’t have taken much to mix things up a bit, and it would have added something to the story, something to distinguish it and make it stand out.

And I completely understand that mixing it up probably wasn’t what the author was going for. For people who are really into this kind of setting, they like it as it is, with all the bells and whistles that typically come along with it. It’s part of the genre. I get that. This is purely a matter of personal taste. It was nothing I hadn’t seen before, and not in a genre I particularly have a thing for, and so all those bells and whistles just didn’t do it for me. It felt uninspired in that regard.

I was of two minds when it came to the whole “science/magic” dichotomy. On one hand, it’s a parallel of the science/religion controversy that some people face. On the other hand, both aspects of that are based on an utterly flawed idea of what science actually is. In Beneath the Canyons, science is used as a shorthand for certain kinds of technology. Sewing machines, things powered by electricity, etc. People who use magic eschew ‘science,’ and vice versa, each side believing the other to be inferior. Really, though, if magic has quantifiable results, it can be called a science. And not all technology is anathema, or else humans would still be living in caves and eating whatever they could shovel into their mouths instead of having axes and saws to cut wood and build houses, stoves to cook food, looms to weave cloth for clothes and blankets, and so on. Call it a pet peeve of mine, but it bothers me when people use science and technology like the two terms are completely interchangeable, and then ignore so many things that involve technology we take for granted because it’s been around for so long.

Whether this was intentional — for instance, if it was meant to show that people generally dislike what they don’t understand and often don’t use the correct terms for things — or if it was a mistake on the part of the author, I can’t really say.

The bulk of the story revolves around trying to uncover the mystery of the ore that Carden wants miners to dig up, that he’s paying them a small fortune for. Why does he want it so badly? Is the ore related to the reports of spooky things happening at night around Bitterbush Springs? And what of the A’ayimat, the blue-skinned people who live in forbidden land beyond the town’s boundaries? The story unfolds at an even pace, and Halland’s writing is smooth and uncomplicated, making the story feel quick and easy to digest. There’s some action, but most of the story is mystery rather than brawls in the saloon or shoot-outs at the corral.

From the first couple of chapters it’s pretty clear that the intended romance is between Silas and Lainie, and to be honest, I really couldn’t feel it. I can see her being attracted to him, since he’s a stranger from far away and there’s always that appeal, plus he discovers her secret magic, so he’s in close confidence, but beyond that, what develops throughout the story is more akin to a friendship than a romance. They don’t see much of each other until closer to the end, when the plot gets hairy and people are in danger, and then Silas pulls the, “I think I loved you the moment I met you,” and I didn’t see anything there beyond brief infatuation at best.

When all is said and done, Beneath the Canyons wasn’t a bad novel, but it wasn’t anything great either. The story itself was interesting even if the setting didn’t do much for me, and though I had my other issues with it, it’s definitely on par with numerous other books I’ve read in my life. I may not go back and read it again, but I don’t regret reading it now. If Westerns and fantasy trip the right triggers for you, then Halland’s novel will probably entertain; don’t let me sway you away just because it wasn’t really my thing.

 

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.

Strangers Among Us, edited by Susan Forest & Lucas K Law

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

Forest’s website/Law’s page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 8, 2016

Summary: There’s a delicate balance between mental health and mental illness . . .

Who are the STRANGERS AMONG US?

We are your fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and lovers. We staff your stores, cross your streets, and study in your schools, invisible among you. We are your outcasts and underdogs, and often, your unsung heroes.

Nineteen science fiction and fantasy authors tackle the division between mental health and mental illness; how the interplay between our minds’ quirks and the diverse societies and cultures we live in can set us apart, or must be concealed, or become unlikely strengths.

We find troubles with Irish fay, a North Korean cosmonaut’s fear of flying, an aging maid dealing with politics of revenge, a mute boy and an army of darkness, a sister reaching out at the edge of a black hole, the dog and the sleepwalker, and many more.

After all, what harm can be done…

Review: I was thrilled to hear about this anthology, and yet disappointed at the same time when I realized that it wasn’t exactly getting much advanced attention, especially when social reform and visibility for those with disabilities are hot topics on so many lips these days. Maybe it’s because the book’s primarily Canadian, I don’t know, but either way, I haven’t heard nearly as much as I’d hoped about this anthology, and it’s a damn shame because it’s a great collection filled with powerful stories from some amazing authors.

And with Strangers Among Us shining the spotlight on mental illness and society’s outcasts, well, let’s just say that it has some material that hits pretty close to home.

Some background – I’ve struggled with mental health issues pretty much since hitting puberty. A diagnosis of depression and poor treatment of that when I was a teenager kicked off the whole thing. Throw in a batch of neuroatypical issues as I grew older (obsessive-compulsive tendencies, Tourette syndrome, social anxiety, other things that put me squarely on the autism spectrum, and an unpleasant dose of psychotic depression — also called depressive psychosis), and yeah, it’s no surprise that awareness of mental health issues is important to me. I could go on at length about how all this has affected my life, but I know that’s not really what you’re here for. You’re here for the book review. But I wanted to make it clear that I have experience with being one of society’s outcasts myself. I know what it’s like to doubt your sanity, the very essence of yourself, and I know what it’s like to face discrimination from others over said issues. It’s not fun. The more awareness that can be raised about what mental illness is actually like, the better.

Plus, I’m all about trying to share Canada’s great literary talent. This entire anthology is written by authors who are Canadian or who have a connection to Canada; some of the stories are set in Canada, which is a nice change of pace when the majority of what I see in SFF takes place in the US (or what used to be the US) when it’s set in this world.

So Strangers Among Us focuses on issues just like that. They’re all written by authors who write speculative fiction, and indeed most of the stories sit under the genre headers of fantasy or sci-fi, but not all of them. One rather memorable story is about a man who cannot leave his apartment, who spies on people through a payphone, learning about their lives and fantasizing about heroically saving an abused woman, until the time comes when he is pushed beyond his agoraphobia and steps outside to actually do so. Nothing fantasy or sci-fi about that, but it was a strong story nevertheless, and it definitely earned its place among all the others.

There were a couple of stories that dipped into the old well of, “People see things that aren’t there, only wait, those things actually are there and that person’s really special!” A dangerous well to dip into, really, since there have been so many stories done in the past that almost present that as a handwave to mental illness, downplaying what many people actually suffer through in the attempt to provide some sort of supernatural reason why these people aren’t ill, just misunderstood. The stories that did that, though, did it well, I’m happy to say. One, which blended multicultural mythologies in a school setting, legitimately did feature a character who could see things others couldn’t, but that story didn’t seem to tackle mental illness so much as it tackled the idea of being deliberately outcast from ones peers. Another, in which a young Irish girl could see fay and was later diagnosed as schizophrenic, of course turned out to be schizophrenic, but the story didn’t say that schizophrenia isn’t a real condition. It absolutely is. It’s just that some people get misdiagnosed with it because that’s what fits the pattern of modern human understanding.

There’s a sense of both fear and hope in each story. Fear of the unknown, the things we can’t understand, the things that seem different; hope for a better experience and for better understanding. The little boy who can’t speak and would probably get a diagnosis of autism were he not living in a secondary world, he’s sold like an object and overlooked as being too stupid to understand, until someone hurts him and the things and people dear to him and he gets his revenge, however subtle and historically overlooked that revenge may be. The thread of mental illness that runs through generations of family, tearing apart relationships as a sister feels excluded and ignored by those around her as she sees how that commonality brings others closer together. A dystopian future in which the imperfect are Culled, either killed outright or else just cast into the wastes beyond civilization, only to find that there’s a future out there, and people who are accepting and accommodating of those who aren’t what society deems normal. The person who has no bionic upgrades or implants, referred to as a dog, is the only person awake to repair damage to a spaceship, and he’s forced to wake up someone whose upgrades are offline in order to assist him, forcing that person to be thrown into his unaugmented (and, by that society’s standards, pitifully disabled) world. There’s the idea that mental illness can strike at any time, to anybody, and it can change your life, but in every story there’s a repetition of the idea that it doesn’t mean you’re down for the count. You can contribute. You can make a difference. You can maybe make all the difference.

It’s rare that I find an anthology that I like every single part of equally; there’s nearly always one or two stories that just don’t resonate with me the way the others do. And this is no exception, really. There were, I think, two stories that just didn’t do it for me, though objectively they were still quite good. They just weren’t to my taste. Some stories took a little while to get going, but I ended up liking them in the end, more than I expected to. And I can’t deny that the subject matter they tackled was important enough to keep me reading each one even when I wasn’t enjoying them as much as I’d enjoyed others.

Overall, I’d say this was a fantastic collection of short stories, and one that’s absolutely worth reading, even if mental health issues aren’t a pet passion of yours. The publisher donates a portion of the profits from this book’s sales to mental health initiatives, too, which is a wonderful bonus, and it makes me doubly glad that I was able to get my hands on this and be able to spread the word about it a little bit more. It’s an important collection, a great one to dive into, and that uplifting thread of hope that ran strong was, to be perfectly honest, what I needed during a stressful time. Definitely check this one out if you can; it’s worth it, and you won’t be disappointed.

(Received for review from the publisher.)