CSFF Blog Tour: A Draw of Kings

The kingdom of Illustra is faced by a two-front war. Or a three-front war. It depends at how many different points the foreign hordes can force their way into the country. Illustra needs to find their soteregia, their savior-king. Then they will crown him. Then he will go and fight for them.

Then he will die, and save them.

Every time they cast the lots to find the savior-king, the lots say Errol and Liam, each name as many times as the other. So Illustra prepares for war, and goes out to battle, all the while waiting for something to reveal the truth, to untwist the Gordian knot. Who is soteregia, and why does the cast of lots fail?

A Draw of Kings is the final book in The Staff and the Sword trilogy, written by Patrick W. Carr. Here Errol’s journey – begun as the village drunk two books earlier – finally ends, and here they discover at last who the Soteregia is.

Carr handles a large cast of characters, and honors all the principals with a true part to play in the story. The narrative is complex, as the characters divide into three storylines, for a while widely divergent from each other. There was a little confusion to this at the beginning, when it took Carr several chapters to return to one storyline. (Two missions actually began on a ship, and at one point I forgot they were different ships. I remember when I figured this out. Huh! That’s why Martin wasn’t around during the storm!)

Even at the beginning, I appreciated the multiple storylines, where the characters pursued the same goal with different quests and in different theaters. It suited Illustra’s many troubles.

It also allowed Patrick Carr to display the vastness of the world he has created, from Ongol to the steppes to Illustra herself. Finally, the different storylines gave the assemblage of characters space to work and to shine.

The most important part of any story is the end. Ending a story that has sprawled across three books and a thousand pages is especially hard, and hardest of all is ending a story you yourself have tied into a Gordian knot. But Patrick Carr succeeded in crafting a satisfying ending, in cutting through his Gordian knot, and it is this success, of all his successes, that is most impressive.

A Draw of Kings had a strong religious element that still felt somewhat to the side of the action. I enjoyed picking out the real-world parallels (I caught a nod toward Calvinism!), and I was moved by Errol’s final conclusion regarding the mercy of Deas. I wish that part of the book had been stronger, though perhaps the story didn’t have room for it.

The flaw of this book was a favoritism towards Errol that infected the other characters. They were partisans for Errol, and occasionally it made them act less than what they were. Adora was wrong to invite Antil to dinner, only to prod and taunt him; if you make someone your guest you need to treat him as a guest. Far worse was the archbenefice, who punished one man’s insolence to Errol by having his teeth broken.

Worst of all was Martin. He expressed his willingness to “search church law and tradition” for a way to execute Antil. Justice is rarely served this way. I have already determined I want to kill you, so all that’s to do now is to scour law and tradition for some technicality on which to do it. And with Illustra on the brink of annihilation and the church having just regained holy Scripture that had been lost for centuries, Martin made a priority of “correcting perceived slights to Errol on behalf of his predecessor and Rodran”.

Yet this flaw was ultimately a minor one, and A Draw of Kings is not only the last book of its series, but the best. It seals The Staff and the Sword as a rich and compelling fantasy, the sort of story that suggests a thousand other stories to be told.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

CSFF Blog Tour: One Realm Beyond

Cantor only ever wanted one thing: To be a realm walker – to travel from one plane to another, helping, discovering, adventuring, with an impressive dragon by his side.

All right. He wanted two things. One he will certainly get.

One Realm Beyond is the first book in Donita K. Paul’s Realm Walkers series. The shape-shifting mor dragons are a classic fantasy element, but overall the book had sci-fi flair to it. The “realms” were given a more or less sci-fi explanation; even the special powers of the realm walkers struck me as more superhuman than supernatural.

The setting of this novel completely engaged me. I enjoyed the various bits of technology, I enjoyed the political intrigue and the educational “rounds”, I enjoyed the fantasy mix of races – dragons and humans and Brinswikkers. I enjoyed the idea of the realms and the realm walkers.

The characters were even more engaging. Bridger and Bixby charmed me at once, and the more I saw of Totobee-Rodolow, the more I appreciated the uniqueness of her character – supremely confident, supremely knowledgeable, and almost exaggeratedly feminine. Cantor was the straight man of the foursome, which made him less flashy but not less needed. Somebody has to be normal.

One of the interesting pieces of this story is how the dynamics between the two young realm walkers and their dragons work out. Cantor is persuaded to accept a dragon as a “temporary constant” (now there’s a contradiction in terms), and Bixby persuades a dragon to accept her as a temporary constant. Bixby ends up with the sort of dragon – elegant and sophisticated – that Cantor dreamed of having, and Cantor gets an offbeat, diversely talented dragon who is much more like Bixby than himself.

Religion was a persistent theme of the story, but by no means an overstated one. Primen (their name for God) is mentioned a good number of times, but always in ways that seem natural to the characters and their situations. (In a brief but fascinating moment of complexity, a character who has been studying “Primen’s Guide” denounces realm-walking as witchery.)

One chapter revolves around going to sanctuary – an obvious church equivalent. And what is interesting about that is that even fantasy novels with religion generally have no church equivalent. Going to church (or the synagogue, temple, etc.) is such a constant in real-life religion, and so rare in fantasy-world religion, that I have to congratulate Donita Paul for the chapter.

The plot of One Realm Beyond moved only gradually to the main point; it took a while for the story to find its dramatic center. I noticed this as I read, but it never really bothered me. I was enjoying myself anyway. It is such a fun book, such a light-hearted book, with entrancing characters and a terrific setting. I like fantasy, and I like sci-fi, and I hold a special fondness for well-done science fantasy – which is what One Realm Beyond is.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Greetings From the Flipside

Hope Landon has had a hard time. When she was a little girl, her father disappeared mysteriously; when she was a teenager, her unique mother left her wondering if it was possible to drop dead from cringing too often. As an adult, she’s been stuck in the nothing-town Poughkeepsie. And now, just when she thinks she’s about to escape her life, her fiance jilts her on her wedding day.

Then somebody steals her car. There’s a hospital involved soon enough.

And Hope is about ready to give up on hope.

Greetings From the Flipside is the second collaboration between Rene Gutteridge and Cheryl McKay. I read their novel Never the Bride a few years ago and loved it. So as soon as I heard about Greetings From the Flipside, I wanted to read it.

There’s a lot of humor in this novel, as I had hoped; Hope is an entertaining narrator, and there are many funny moments. At the same time, an undercurrent of seriousness flows through the story. The characters seem, most of them, to be struggling.

Greetings From the Flipside has an unconventional structure: The beginning and ending chapters are in the third-person past tense, but the majority of the chapters only begin that way; then they flip to first-person present tense.

Here I am going to plunge into what I believe, after looking at the reviews, is the most controversial part of the book. I think the spoilers are light, but those who want to be spoiler-free should probably skip to the end of the review. Now, here we go:

Hope spends the majority of the book in a coma, and the third-person narrative at the chapters’ beginning takes place in what we call the real world, and the first-person narrative is the dream-world of Hope’s coma. Briefly, the main character spends most of the story unconscious. Some people disliked this.

I think it worked, and for several reasons. Due to the medical fact that comatose people can have some awareness of what is happening around them – and perhaps also to the suggestion of another realm – the two worlds do interact. The same drama plays out in each of them. Hope’s adventures, in one sense, never happened, but the central question of the story – Will she come back? – was answered in them.

Another reason it worked is that the authors made it fun. Sometimes it was funny to see the real world breaking into Hope’s dreams; sometimes it had the fun of a mystery. (I knew those random letters added up to something.) I came to look for any cross between the real world and the coma-world; their overlap fascinated me.

The novel’s overall theme is one of hope: Jake holding onto hope, though he sometimes doubted, and Hope ready to bid a snarky good-bye to hope, although she had, deep down, a scrap she couldn’t let go. True and false hope both take their turns on the stage.

Greetings From the Flipside executes a unique concept with deftness, all the while mixing its serious questions with humor. The style is engaging, the writing is skillful, and the characters are sympathetic – altogether an original and compelling romance.

CSFF Blog Tour: Outcasts

The Safe Lands are many, many things. Safe is not one of them. Visitors must try hard and diligently not to contract the thin plague. Everyone is studiously tracked by the governing authorities, who live by the principle of three strikes and you’re out. Permanently.

And those who manage to make it to forty are liberated, though no one knows what this means beyond “never is seen again”.

Outcasts is the follow-up to Captives, the first book in the Safe Lands series – YA books written by Jill Williamson. I concluded after reading Captives that it was, as one of the characters said of the Safe Lands, fascinating but discouraging; I hoped that, having established the libertine dissolution of the Safe Lands, the series would move on a bit.

And it has. Oh, the Safe Lands are as libertine and dissolute as ever, but there is not so much effort at portraying it, not so much effort at bringing the mores of Glenrock into collision with the mores of the Safe Lands. Everything is more settled in the second book. The characters know better now where they are and where they stand; they’re moving on into the fighting.

Still, revelations continue. The most striking thing about this series is the level of world-building. So complete, so realistic, and so complex is the world of the Safe Lands that the story naturally peels layer off of layer. The made-up slang – so easily a stumbling block in books like this – is one of the most memorable and enjoyable elements of the world-building.

The characters, too, are rounded and complicated. The villains are usually not sympathetic, and the heroes are not always likable – parenthetical statement for those who have read the book: Levi, I’m looking at you – but they seem like real people.

I have a couple criticisms (beware of spoilers): Omar’s final, big fall – the kiss with Kendall and vaping afterward – was unnecessary. I don’t think it made any real difference to the plot, and with the similar incidents earlier in the story, it contributed little to Omar as a character. I didn’t see the point. For that matter, I didn’t see the point of the whole Kendall/Omar/Shaylinn love triangle.

More spoilers: I could not see Otley’s motivation for killing Rewl when he knew that it was the brothers who had led the girls away. And I wouldn’t even mention it here except that that shooting became the basis for a crucial turning point. The climax pivoted, ultimately, on Otley’s decision to shoot Rewl, but the decision is too weak to support such a pivot.

Outcasts is a first-class dystopia – realistic characters in a riveting but believable world that brings all sorts of ideas into play against each other. I am planning to continue with the Safe Lands series; this is a world still to be explored – beginning with what, exactly, it means to be liberated.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Goddess Tithe

There is one thing Munny is determined to do, and that is to return to his mother with the white peonies. No storm, no danger in the ocean shall stand in his way.

Except, maybe, Risafeth, the vengeful goddess who demands her blood tithe. Her wrath is roused against Munny and all the crew of the Kulap Kanya by Leonard the Clown, who stowed away and has not drowned for it.

Goddess Tithe is a novella written by Anne Elisabeth Stengl, taking place within the larger scope of the Tales of Goldstone Wood. The novella is 120 pages and illustrated; the illustrations are full-page, black and white, and – by my judgment – quite well-done.

I stumbled across Leonard while reading Heartless; I have not read Veiled Rose, the larger story that contains Leonard’s quest. I enjoyed Goddess Tithe just the same. This is not really Leonard’s story, and the question of the book is not what he will do, but what others will do with him.

The heart of the story is with Munny, with other characters adding flavor and the captain adding mystery. As in other Anne Stengl stories I have read, the characters are full of life, thrumming with their own purposes and emotions and traits. They draw you along into their stories – sometimes with sympathy, sometimes with interest.

Anne Stengl beautifully captures Faerie – the wonder, the beauty, the terror. The things she imagines and brings to written life are captivating. The dangers she brings for her characters out of Faerie are unearthly, effectively menacing and unnatural. There is a way besides violence to build fear and suspense, and Stengl finds it.

Goddess Tithe is a short work, within the breadth of a larger one, which may account for my one complaint against it. I would have liked to learn more about the captain, though I understand why I didn’t. I understand, too, why the story of Munny and his mother was ultimately unfinished. But I think I could at least have learned what Munny’s true name is, especially with so many stories only hinted at.

Goddess Tithe is a lovely novella – beautifully written, full of heart, with the wonder and terror of Faerie. I recommend it, and not only to readers of the Tales of Goldstone Woods.

CSFF Blog Tour: Merlin’s Shadow

For being such a little guy, Arthur has all kinds of people after him.

The High King, who is technically his uncle, wants to kill him. The Picts regard him as a bit of plunder. The arch-druid wishes to avenge a blood-grudge on him. And Atle … let’s not even go there.

All in all, they turn Merlin’s vow to protect and serve Arthur into quite a challenge. While the whole world seems to conspire to tear Arthur away from him, it also conspires against his happiness. From his mother’s loss, to his blindness, to his father’s death, to his disfiguring scars, from slavery to unaccountable hatred – well, should anyone wonder if Merlin loses himself in a storm of doubt and fear?

Merlin’s Shadow is the second book in the Merlin Spiral, and also the second book written by Robert Treskillard. Authors’ second books are usually better than their first, which is only to be expected. A little more curious, but also generally true, is that the second book in a series is better than the first. The Merlin Spiral follows this pattern.

The plot of this book was so well-woven, with loops and twists I hadn’t expected but which made sense. Dangers were alleviated and then replaced; often, curiously, what saved them from the present danger was the next danger. Merlin’s storyline was wonderfully balanced against his sister’s. At a few points they crossed, but usually they ran alongside each other, and in some way mirrored each other. I think both Merlin and his sister faced the same temptation in the end.

I enjoyed the blend of history and legend in Merlin’s Shadow. Both the fantastic parts and the historical parts were interesting, and they were tied together seamlessly. In addition, the many backgrounds were fascinating: the sea, snowy islands, the abandoned Roman wall, forests and valleys.

Thematically, this book dealt a lot with suffering and with those good things we so naturally and even rightly want. But we can see, through the characters’ decisions, how even good desires will lead us astray if we don’t give God His place above them.

The violence in Merlin’s Shadow was relatively small-scale (i.e., it usually involved only a few people, and not large battles). Still, the episodes were fairly frequent and, together with a few brutal images, made the book too grim. I think it would have been better for trimming some of the violence.

But that is the only caveat I have to offer. In everything else, Merlin’s Shadow impressed me. The story, the characters, the settings were all well-done. The spiritual themes were profound and flowed naturally from the story, and there was a lot of beauty in the writing itself. The Merlin Spiral is a compelling take on the Arthurian legends.

Last month Robert Treskillard gave me an interview for this blog tour, and I’m excited to share it. I’ll post it in two parts, tomorrow and the day after.

An addendum: I signed up for a CrossReads book blast, realizing only afterward that the date was squarely in the middle of this blog tour – something I’ve avoided before, since mixing a blog tour with a totally unrelated book blast violates my sense of order. But both are scheduled and so both will go ahead.

So if you come back to read Robert Treskillard on his Merlin series, and come upon a post about Amish Christmases, just enjoy the irony. I’m trying to.

A Call for Reviewers

After years of living out his adventures on the pages of SALT Magazine, Christian Holmes has entered the world of e-publishing. Two of his adventures are now available on Kindle Amazon: Inspection and Sweet Green Paper.

I am putting out a call for reviewers – for anyone who will, in exchange for a book, post a review on Goodreads or Amazon (preferably both). Review copies will be given in MOBI, e-Pub, or PDF.

The Adventures of Christian Holmes is a series of short detective stories, lighthearted and appropriate for younger audiences. If you are interested in reviewing one or both of these stories, e-mail me at info[at]shannonmcdermott.com. Please specify what format you would like, and where you plan to post your review.

Inspection (Adventures of Christian Holmes 1)

An interloper arrives at the CBI, claiming to be a data-collector from headquarters. Christian Holmes, together with Greg Belden, is assigned to help him.

As they work with the outsider, their doubts grow. Who is he, and what did he really come for?

More than one man will be tested, when inspection comes.

25 pages (estimated length)

Amazon page

Goodreads page

Sweet Green Paper (Adventures of Christian Holmes 2)

Christian Holmes is on the trail of a thief. It’s another day in the life of his private detective agency—until he’s shown a picture of the thief’s accomplice, and recognizes his own cousin.

So he partners with his cousin in pursuit of a thief and the more elusive truth. All sorts of lies are told, when the reward is sweet green paper.

Christian Holmes is a detective series, offering humor and moral themes.

33 pages (estimated length)

Amazon page

Goodreads page

Review: Catch a Robber

Skitter always was kind to Pibbin – talking with him, giving him beetle cookies, taking care of him after a bird pecked him. When – in an apparent case of mistaken identity – the rabbits held Skitter captive as a thief, and demanded the real thief and the stolen necklace before they would let her go – well, what was Pibbin to do?

The only thing a friend could. Catch a robber. Even, even if it takes him out of Friendship Bog and into Shadow Swamp.

Catch a Robber – the fourth Tale of Friendship Bog – is written by Gloria Repp. The book is 116 pages, and very nicely laid-out – with well-drawn illustrations, wide spacing, and a fairly large font. It’s sold for “Ages 8 and up”, and I think it’s ideal for children who are ready to stretch beyond picture books but for whom a full-length novel is still too daunting.

As in Trapped, the writing style is crisp, with few long sentences and probably no complicated ones. But the writing is skilled, and there are some lovely images and expressions. “Peeper-voices chimed like tiny bells in the bushes”; one passage had a snake that curled downward “like a smooth, shining ribbon,” and another that “arranged himself into a black coil and gazed at the rabbits with bright, hungry eyes.”

The story is good and the characters are excellent. Nisk, Keena, the shrews, the Big Red, Mee – all riveting, in their own way. (The bit with Mee was marvelous, building tension and intrigue through a fascinating character.) Gloria Repp excels with characters who are – how can I put this? – not quite normal. Nisk is good, I don’t doubt, and likeable as a character, but his mind is somewhere off the beaten the track.

It’s a little funny, on reflection, that among the main antagonists of this children’s book are rabbits. (Note that I don’t say villains; they’re not quite that.) But in the book itself, it completely works. I didn’t question it for a second, wasn’t drawn out of the story at all. In large part this is because Gloria Repp succeeds in framing the world as it is for her characters. To a little frog like Pibbin, rabbits are large and noisy and strong.

A word on the illustrations (done by Michael Swaim, I should note): They really are well-done, a very pleasant halfway point between a cartoon and realism. They are also appealing to children; I know because when I showed one of the Friendship Bog books to my youngest sister (four last month), she turned the pages, looking at the illustrations, and finally asked, “How do you read this thing?”

Catch a Robber is a superb children’s book – a good story with writing and characters adults can appreciate along with children. It’s also entirely wholesome, and I would recommend it to parents and teachers without reservation.

Catch a Robber is available on Amazon; to learn more about Gloria Repp and her work, visit her site.

I received a review copy of this book.

Review: Trapped

A blue star is a lovely thing. So lovely, in fact, that Pibbin would, for the cause of getting one, hop into a dark tunnel, unsure if he would meet a nice chipmunk or a hungry snake.

Until he stumbled into a net, and the shouting started. After that, it really was time to go home.

Trapped is the third book in the Tales of Friendship Bog, written by Gloria Repp and illustrated by Michael Swaim. It’s marked for children six and older. 109 pages, with a large font and generous spacing, and illustrations scattered throughout, Trapped is a book well-designed for children.

The plot is fairly simple, but engaging. The central conflict of the story – the disappearance of a baby squirrel, one character’s little brother – is quite enough to keep readers invested until the end. The characters are sympathetic; a few – such as Cheeco, Zip, and Nisk – you wonder about, but it’s the sort of wondering that makes them intriguing. And I have to say I found the peepers charming.

Trapped has a brief, forthright writing style, in keeping with the age both of its protagonists and its primary audience. But the images of the book, however brief, are still evocative, and I enjoyed them – the wind “stirring through everything on the ground”, a tunnel slanting “up again, as if it had remembered where it was going”, Pibbin fearing “a long, thin weasel creeping after him, with its quick paws and teeth.”

And then one of my favorites: “Moonlight still gleamed at the end of the tunnel, and the moss on the stump smelled wonderful, as if beetles lived in it.” Part of the fun of this one is that it takes you into the viewpoint of this little frog; obviously anthropomorphized frogs are fundamentally human in their viewpoint, but it’s fun to see a froggish touch, too.

Which brings me to another point: This story is intended for children, who will no doubt enjoy it more than adults would. But there is much in it that appeals to adults, and sometimes to adults even more than children. I think the befuddled and befuddling Nisk is at least as enjoyable to adults as to children, and the humor of Ma Chipmunk’s devastating emotional support has an adult sensibility.

Trapped is an excellent children’s story – heartfelt and engaging, with a charming style and likable characters. Highly recommended.

Trapped is available on Amazon; to learn more about Gloria Repp and her work, visit her site.

I received a review copy of this book.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Shadow Lamp

Can you think of anything more frightening than the End of Everything, the total collapse of the universe?

I can. I saw that TV show where the aliens sent ships to burn up every nation on Earth, city by city. If we’re all going to die, the universe collapsing frankly sounds like an easier way to go.

But can you think of anything more complete?

In The Shadow Lamp, the fourth book of the Bright Empires series, Stephen Lawhead finally reveals what is at stake: everything. This is the great advancement The Shadow Lamp makes on the Bright Empires saga. Otherwise, the book mostly builds – on the largest ideas of the series, on the established characters. It explains much – from the Omega Point to the nature of the multiverse, from the Burley Men to Charles’ change.

Gianni’s metaphysical exposition was, I think, the singular misstep of the book. For one thing, it contained statements a Christian would have to take with generosity. (“The future is not controlled in any way” – yeah, okay, if you want to sum up your views of free will and the nature of Time in that misleading way.) For another, Gianni’s address sounded curiously like the vague philosophizing of the Zetetics, whom I do not believe Gianni had ever met until about five minutes before his speech.

Gianni was a priest. Yet in this exposition, he didn’t talk as if his intellectual foundation were in the creeds of Christianity or in the Bible; he didn’t speak the language of Scripture. He spoke like – well, like the Zetetics, who are recognizably theistic but not demonstrably Christian.

The threatened annihilation of the universe, like so many elements of science fiction, requires a small suspension of disbelief. On an intellectual level I found it compelling; on an emotional level, not so much. Paradoxically, the annihilation of the universe is a less disturbing idea when you have a religion that makes a doctrine of the terrible end of the world. When it comes to “harrowing visions”, The Shadow Lamp has nothing on Revelation.

As characters talked about the awful cataclysm of the universe collapsing, it reminded me of the biblical picture of the heavens and earth wearing out like a garment. “Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same” – God goes on. And so will we.

But at the end, Lawhead finally got me. Not that the final vision he gave made the threat seem any more dire, but it moved me from thinking about the annihilation of the universe (God and us remaining) to “what it would be like to witness the End of Everything”.

The end was the best part of the book, and probably the only part that was truly marvelous. The hinted cause of the multiverse’s destabilization was both surprising and satisfying, and it carried delicious potential. The epilogue was a tremendous portrait of Christ’s love meeting the dark heart of a lost man, and it also suggested an incredible possibility.

The Shadow Lamp is not the best installment of the Bright Empires saga, but it is a vital one. And it accomplished the necessity of any book in a series, and the great mark of success in a novel: It left me wanting more.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.