Tag: Review

“Shadows of the Flame” by Lydia C. Golden Review

Shadow of the FlameShadows of the Flame

Author – Lydia C. Golden

Published – 2008

I picked this book up last month at the Raleigh Super Con. Down in the artist alley section they had a ton of tables set up with independent comic artists and writers, as well as several prose authors. The author was selling books and gave me a pitch about a girl who is training with an assassin and it may have regrets about what she signed up for. That was good enough for me, and I picked up a copy and put it near the top of my reading list. Imagine my surprise at adding it on Goodreads and seeing the book was published in 2008 and (as of this writing) only had three readers. I got the impression she was doing ok selling books at the convention so hopefully the number of copies in circulation starts going up and some additional scores and reviews accompany them.

Shadows of the Flame feels like two separate books, and also feels like the first book in a series that would require at least three books at the current pacing to wrap up the story. Fauna is a young child and the last survivor of a village massacre and decides to pledge herself to the assassin Sarrak until she is 15, doing whatever he requires of her in exchange for learning the skills that will allow her to get vengeance. The first half of the book mainly follows these two characters and tells a very engrossing story that has the reader hopeful that Fauna will develop into a fantasy heroine under Sarrak’s expert tutelage, but also cautious that Sarrak will destroy who Fauna is in the process. The first time the cast increases it brings in a female mentor for Fauna, but likely not in the manner the reader will expect.

The familiar tropes of the fantasy genre are all present, including the use of magic, prejudiced villagers, and mysterious other races. Despite the tropes, the plot was not predictable, which ends up being its greatest attribute and Achilles heel all wrapped into one. As a stand alone book, the story takes turns that don’t follow the course set out by the initial action, and the end of the book is nowhere near the end of several characters stories. Around the halfway point, the plot gets away from Sarrak and Fauna, and instead follows several different characters. There’s a former prison guard, whose life is ruined after the death of a loved one. There’s the handmaiden and her soldier boyfriend who get wrapped up in palace intrigue. There’s the three palace guards who get wrapped up into another story, and then split off. There’s the stable boy who works in the town. There’s the traveling salesman who is looking for love. One of the characters is possibly a murderer.

That’s enough side action for an 800 page novel or for a book series. With this being a stand alone book at 444 pages, the result is that some of the plots gets shelved or incomplete resolutions at the end. While I loved the first half of the book, the second half was enjoyable but also frustrating. The side stories ranged in quality, none of them as interesting as Sarrak and Fauna. The culmination of Thomas and Jocelyn’s story was as exciting as anything in the book and serves as the actual climax. On the opposite side was a plot about a character taking over a smuggling ring that did not pull me in with its central character who was never developed enough to feel credible as a worthy or deadly protagonist.

Overall I’d give the first half of the book Five stars and the second half 3 stars, so I’ve averaged it out here to a four. I think I would appreciate this book more if I knew a sequel was being released because the unfinished story lines certainly detract from my enthusiasm for rereading or recommending to others. The writing here is good. Golden does a great job of building suspense and creating atmosphere without wasting words on excessive description. With any independent book I tend to be critical of editing/publication. I only caught one typo reading this (a wrong instance of you’re vs your), and the font was easy enough to read. The cover did suffer from the frequent self published flaws of becoming easily bent while reading (and could probably use a sprucing up in the graphic design department). I just hope that if Ms. Golden does write a sequel to this (or additional fantasy) that I find out about it so I can read further in the series.

4-star

“Sharpe’s Honor” by Bernard Cornwell Review

Sharpe's Honor

Sharpe’s Honor: Book Sixteen of the Richard Sharpe Series

Richard Sharpe and the Vitoria Campaign, February to June 1813

Author:  Bernard Cornwell

Published:  1985

Coming off my favorite installment to date in the excellent Sharpe’s Enemy, any book that followed was bound to feel like a let down. That was certainly the case with Sharpe’s Honor, the sixteenth chronological book in the Richard Sharpe series, but overall this was still a book I enjoyed. I think the worst aspects of this book came from a new theory I have that Bernard Cornwell comes up with clever words to attach to Sharpe’s name for book titles, and then writes the book trying to shoehorn as many allusions to that word as possible throughout the book.

Taking place in the closing months of the Spanish conflict between Britain and France during the Napoleonic Wars, Major Richard Sharpe is the target of a plot by the French intelligence officer Pierre Ducos. The Whore of Gold, Richard’s object of lust from prior books, Helene is the mechanism for the plot who sets everything in motion by sending a letter to her husband accusing Sharpe of making a drunken attempt at raping her. Helene’s husband then challenges Richard Sharpe’s, ahem, honor by challenging Sharpe to a duel. When Helene’s husband ends up dying, Sharpe ends up exiled on a secret mission that involves deadly Spanish partisans, breaking into a nunnery, prison escapes and wagons full of riches beyond imagination.

With any book series that are this lengthy, I appreciate when there is a deviation from one book to another that is memorable or changes the series. While Sharpe’s Honor lacks the major character deaths or military promotions of other books, it does affect the overall series in three manners. **Slight Spoilers Follow** First, Patrick Harper ends up married and has a baby on the way. Unlike Sharpe’s earlier marriage, it seems at least possible that these characters will travel with the army beyond this book. Second, Sharpe loses his longest tenured possession, one that connects him to the most powerful man in his world, but gets it replaced with something much more extravagant. **End of Spoilers** Finally and most importantly, this book ends the Spanish conflict and it looks like French soil is on the horizon. The Sharpe books thus far have spent extensive time in India, before hopping around to places like Denmark and Portugal, but it feels like we’ve been in Spain the longest and the change of scenery should help add some excitement in the next chapter.

The best scene in this book is probably Sharpe’s excursion into a Spanish nunnery. While the prison scene featured some of the most violent and destructive descriptions to be found in a Sharpe book, the mysterious solution provided for Sharpe felt far too convenient in the timing of and execution of it all to really register as believable. The nunnery relied instead on a quick decision by Sharpe to shift the blame away from himself that was both very funny and very clever. Since Sharpe is basically a superhero at this point, anything that shifts the story away from him outfighting his opponent stands out by comparison.

Besides the less than thrilling prison escape (which again, was preceded by an amazingly brutal action sequence), this book also loses some points by relying on three villains that all pale when compared to either of the two villains from the previous book. Pierre Ducos seems to be Sharpe’s long term villain at this point, which is unfortunate as the best Sharpe villains have been those that try to best him at his own game on the battlefield. Ducos is closer to Father Hacha (the Inquisitor) and El Matarife (the sadist Spanish partisan), the villains that Sharpe must overcome in this book, as all three have no real loyalty or qualms about killing innocents to stop Sharpe. While I’m still loving this series, and even enjoyed Sharpe’s Honor, I’ve got it ranked as the 9th best in the first 17, which puts it in the bottom half in terms of quality

4-star

“The Lone Ranger: Vindicated” from Dynamite Comics Review

Lone Ranger Vindicated

The Lone Ranger: Vindicated from Dynamite Comics

Writer:  Justin Gray

Artist:  Rey Villegas

Published:  2015

Vindicated is listed as a standalone Lone Ranger adventure, or at least it lacks the number on the side of the trade paperback to indicate where it should fall in the reading order.  I’ve read about all of the Dynamite line of this series, and I’d just recommend reading it after Vol. 8: The Long Road Home, which I believe is where it came out chronologically.

 The story of Vindicated is that a small town bank has been robbed, and then the insurance money sent to the town is also robbed, and it’s possible that some of the higher ups in the town are all in on it.  As far as originality, it’s fairly run of the mill and I have a feeling I’ll forget about it before I get around to reading the next Lone Ranger trade.  The most memorable aspect of this volume is the attractive woman that takes an interest in our title character.  The rest of the plot being go generic, the only place this book develops the characters in a meaningful way is showing how juvenile John is in his interactions with women.  Even Tonto has to point out to him both when a woman is interested in him, and when he should beware of one.

 Beyond those few scenes (which while funny, also have the negative result of making the hero seem less convincing as a credible threat to evil… maybe James Bond’s polyamory is on to something), the only parts of this book that really stood out were the fantastic art by Rey Villegas.  Dynamite has always done a great job with the art on this book, and several pages reminded me of the great Cassaday covers from earlier in this series.  There are some great pages in issue four involving a shooting display any a dramatic entry through a window that were as exciting visually as anything I’ve read this year. Unfortunately in the service of only a so-so story, it’s an overall forgettable installment.

3-star

“Night Terrors” by Alice Henderson Review

Night Terrors

Night Terrors (A Stake Your Destiny Buffy Book)

Author: Alice Henderson

Published:  2005

Maybe I’m biased because I made it through this book to a happy ending on my first try, but this was my favorite of the Stake Your Destiny Buffy books. I wrote in my review forKeep Me In Mind that “the entire thing reads like a long dream sequence (I hate dream sequences).” Night Terrorsactually featured a lengthy dream sequence so now I’m reevaluating my stance on the topic. I think the problem with Keep Me In Mind was that the entire book felt like a training drill with zero stakes (sorry, bad pun… how about consequences) for the reader. In Night Terrors I was making what I felt was the best choice each time but I constantly felt like I was leading Buffy to her death as the plot got weirder and wackier.

The plot of Night Terrors is that people around Sunnydale are getting sleepy, and feeling paralyzed in their sleep but feeling as though they are awake. It starts off affecting Buffy but spreads to others like Angel and her classmates. As Buffy feels like something is sitting on top of her, and that she’s not alone in her room, she lies paralyzed and unable to do anything about it. Once the feeling has passed, we’re given the choice of going to find Angel, going out on a patrol, or studying for a test that day that we’ve so far neglected. The choice is simple enough, but right away the book at least gave options that felt either more authentic to how Buffy would behave in the tv series or that an average reader would consider in her place (the previous Stake Your Destiny books have seemed addicted to offering a day spent with Cordelia right out of the gate).

**Slight Spoilers follow**

I flipped around when I was finished and saw other happy endings possible for the reader, and since it’s difficult to review this book without giving away the track I followed, reader beware. I started off patrolling before ending up heading toward the gym at Principal Snyder’s direction. Before I got there I decided to check on a crying student. After I learned more from the Scoobies, I decided to sleep and confront the Night Terror right away (my thinking being that staying up would just lead to a later confrontation with a tired and weakened slayer). After entering the dream world, I tried to locate Willow to communicate with the other spirits. When that was a dead end, I decided to Trust Ned, the man from Planet X who worked with the Lava people and build a dreamcatcher to catch the Night Terror.

For those following along, yeah that took a turn well away from anything in the series. I can only say that the alternative options presented to me seemed like tricks by the enemy, and that my path resulted in a happy ending. Spending about one third of this story in an anything goes dream world actually felt more like an episode of the tv series than one would thing just from reading that recap. In particular, it felt like the season four finale where Willow, Buffy, and Xander are encountering the First Slayer in their sleep.

**End of spoilers**

Besides feeling like a fun episode of the series and rewarding my obviously excellent choices based on years of watching the show and reading the books and comics, Night Terrorsalso benefitted by not having the ultra predictable page numbering problem present in some of the other Stake Your Destiny books. I jumped into the last 200 pages fairly early and often my two choices were close enough in page numbering to not give away which way the book was steering me. Although I wouldn’t put this book up there withDune or East of Eden, I’ve now read all of the Stake Your Destiny books and this was the only one that I didn’t come away from with grievances, and I actually had a really fun time reading it. That earns a perfect score from this reader.

3-star

“Birth of an American Gigolo” by Deek Rhew Review

Birth of an American Gigolo

Birth of an American Gigolo

Author: Deek Rhew

Published: 2016

I picked this book up at a convention in Raleigh where we spent some time chatting with the author and his wife (Erin Rhew, also an author). Both were very nice, so we decided to pick up a few of their books. I’m always a fan of people that not only write something for others to read, but go out there and publish it, promote it and try to sell it to the masses. This is a novella, at 111 pages it is a brisk read that you could definitely finish in one sitting. The book is told mainly via third person narrative from the perspective of Lindsey, a woman who learns that her husband has cheated on her. Instead of divorce or even straight forward revenge, Lindsey takes this situation as an opportunity that the reader follows along throughout the rest of the story. The book switches perspectives on two occasions, once to Dios (the handsome Peruvian man that Lindsey utilizes in her new venture) and once to Angel (a grocery store clerk who falls for Dios).

Without spoiling too much, the book features a pretty decent amount of sexuality. Both Lindsey’s immediate reaction and her long term plan all involve handsome younger men. My biggest problem with the book was that although the Rhew spends plenty of time on the sexual education of Dios, he glosses over much more of what could have been more interesting scenes in terms of Lindsey’s meeting with the sheriff, the recruitment of individuals in her binder, or even the special accounting arrangement of quid pro quo services. As a novella, it’s understandable that not everything will be described in detail; however the plot of the novella certainly seemed to offer plenty of opportunities for humorous or suspenseful scenes that Rhew has decided to skip in favor what’s instead present.

The characters in the book are also fairly shallow, with Lindsey and Dios both in the market for using others for their own personal gain, and Lindsey’s husband is fairly oblivious of his own faults. My favorite section of the book was where Angel falls for Dios but I never bought it as a situation that would require Lindsey’s intervention. Despite its faults, the story left me wanting more development and that’s always preferable to one that I’m just hoping for it to end. Rhew has found a story worth telling, based on that I’d try more of his work.

3-star

“Quasar” #46-60 by Mark Gruenwald and Ron Marz

Quasar 60

Quasar #46-60 by Marvel Comics

Writers – Mark Gruenwald, Ron Marz

Artists – Andy Smith, Grant Miehm, John Heebrink

Published 1993-1994

**Note, this review is for Quasar issues #46-60**

The final 15 issues of Quasar felt like an encapsulation of the things that made this an entertaining as well as frustrating series. Once again, Quasar gets pulled into a crossover that, reading this series on its own, leaves the reader with little understanding of the story line and even less invested in the outcome. Along with Andy Smith and Grant Miehm, John Heebink comes on board as artist for several issues and provided competent though certainly not flashy work. As the series wrapped up, each of the recurring characters got to complete their character arc: Makkori learned that being fast isn’t everything in life, Kismet found a purpose besides reproducing with Quasar, and Kayla…. well, let’s talk about Kayla.

I mentioned in my earlier reviews that the most enjoyable part of this series for me was Quasar’s development of a relationship with Kayla. Her character took a superhero twist at the end of the last batch of issues, which I didn’t particularly care for, but it ended up being the core conflict throughout these last 15. By my count, there was only one issue throughout this series of 60 comics that featured Quasar and Kayla on a full issue adventure together, and probably only 2 dates shown that the characters go out on. That’s pretty slim to hang the weight of a superhero story conflict on, and I think Gruenwald missed an opportunity to make the readers more invested in the characters and the relationship by never letting it appear on the page. (I say Gruenwald as he wrote 59 of the sixty issues, this last group of issues also features a standalone story by Ron Marz that was quite fun but is completely out of place with when it is taking place in the larger story arc.)

Still the payoff to the Quasar/Kayla arc ended up being one of the best issues in the entire series. Overall, I’d say because of the buildup to it, issue #58 was my favorite issue of the series, but because it required reading a lot of so-so comics to get there, the first three issues (#1-3) would be better reads as stand alone stories. As a Marvel Cosmic character, I’d agree that Quasar belongs in a lower tier than characters like Silver Surfer, Adam Warlock or Nova in terms of quality of stories and iconic appearances. His replacement with a female version in the Abnett and Lanning cosmic era was a good idea that has also not been capitalized on. Quasar may be destined to be a character that never becomes recognizable outside of fans of 1990’s comics, but I can’t exactly argue that it’s undeserved.

3-star

“The Running Man” by Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

Running Man

The Running Man

Author:  Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)

Published:  1982

I read this book as part of a larger book collecting the first four books published with Richard Bachman as the credited author. Through those four books, King published two books about men snapping and doing violent things (Rage and Roadwork) and two dystopian future books that revolve around contests where the losers are killed if they stop moving (The Long Walk and The Running Man). I hated the two books about men snapping and really enjoyed The Long WalkThe Running Man was certainly closer in quality to The Long Walk but reading it second I couldn’t help but feel that the whole book had a very familiar quality to it.

For fans of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie (1987), reading the book version is an entirely different story with very few similarities. I found that to be a plus as the story was very unpredictable and I was always guessing about how the book would progress. Gone are the gladiator figures with high tech weapons and costumes, gone is the superhero physique of Arnold, gone even is the arena that the game takes place in. In the original King work, the concept was very different. A man is given a several hour head start and needs to stay alive for 30 days. He can go anywhere and do anything to stay safe, but he must mail in two tapes a day to the games people (which requires him going to a mailbox or post office). Although there are some professionals hunting him, they are normal guys like Ben Richards (the protagonist). The super high rated television program that is the basis for this contest edits the tapes that the people send in, and motivates people to report where the runner is in exchange for cash rewards.

As in the film, the show is a symbol of the oppressive government that lies to the rest of the populace, and the runners are made out to be terrible criminals when they are not actually criminals. Beyond that there is also a bad guy named Killian, and there’s another runner playing at the same time who is not given much story time. Overall I preferred the film version, though whether that’s because I saw it first or because this book reminded me of a less interesting version of The Long Walk I can’t say for sure. There are a few plot points that also didn’t work entirely well for me but they require some major spoilers to discuss.

**Major Spoilers follow**

Richards is basically the ultimate Running Man contestant, per the people that run the games. They decide this after he’s succeeded for 8 days. OK, so nobody’s ever made it for 8 days before and this is some exciting show people watch every night? Also, the show would basically be a news program as the videos runners send in are often devoid of any words or action. It’s not like there’s even a lot of people to interview, as typically the ones who blows Richards cover are taken and interrogated right afterward. The entire thing kind of fell apart for me at that point in terms of a credible future society. At least with The Long Walk there was the possible thrill of an ESPN sports like broadcast for the action. Also, if the games people knew Richards was bluffing as soon as he got on the plane, it seemed very stupid to allow Richards to have additional leverage by allowing the plane to take off rather than making their proposal with the plane still on the ground. (I also find it interesting that Rage is a book that has been pulled from distribution due to its controversial subject matter, while Richards final solution, something very reminiscent of certain tragic events from 2001, hasn’t led to the same controversies.)

**End of Spoilers**

King utilizes a countdown device to title the chapters, beginning at 100 and working his way down to zero. Upon finishing the book I’m not sure why this device was used, and even the choices for where to end certain chapters felt random. The book lacks any interesting supporting characters, as nobody sticks around for more than a few pages to assist Richards; even those that do assist him usually do so with little explanation for why they risk themselves. Despite its faults however, The Running Manworks on some levels because it is pure plot and reads at a brisk pace. Out of the 100 chapters, 98 of them are rooted in desperation or action, with only two short dream chapters that felt slightly out of place with the rest. As a quick read it’s fine, but I also understand why it’s not a book that people mention when discussing King’s best work.

3-star