Dragons and a Complex and Nuanced Tale of Frenemies

Author: C. Esther

YA Fantasy, 248 pages. $9.99 paperback, $2.99 Kindle

Disclosure: I received this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

When I finish a book, I close my eyes for a moment and ask myself, “What stands out? What do I first think of or feel having met this story and these characters and this world?” In the case of YA fantasy author C. Esther’s “Oasis in the Clouds,” the first book in her “When Worlds Collide” series, the answer came fast and strong.


Esther portrays for her readers the most fully realized dragons I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting in literature, with distinct personalities and a well-developed role and history in the world. Close on the heels of the several dragons Esther introduces to readers would be her gift for showing us the reality, a moment-by-moment gritty reality, of riding those dragons, and learning to control one’s magical powers and other joyful duties of being a fantasy heroine. Thanks to Esther, I now know what it is to ride a dragon, to see magic particles take shape and learn how to shape them myself. For this, I thank her with my whole heart, for she has gloriously captured the essence of fantasy in making these experiences so real for readers.

The story itself is a classic fantasy journey quest, of an heir who must recover her birthright and claim the destiny intended for her. Various skills must be discovered and mastered, allies befriended, enemies sought and overcome, and the world restored to its rightful order. All very well and good, and having read and forgotten more stories of this type than I can now remember, I can attest that this part of the journey is straightforward and solidly done if predictable enough.

More unexpected and special, though, is the unique relationship between heroine and villain in this story. Using the devices of the need to recover stolen memories from the villain, and the heroine’s inborn ability to retrieve selected memories of her forebears, the story is structured to give us an uncommonly deep understanding of the villain and the villain’s motivations, an understanding made richer by the friendship the two once shared. I often had an odd but distinct sense that the author’s personal experience may be closer to that of the villain than of the pampered princess heroine Niri, for Wicca Melody’s anguish over her terrible choices was so sympathetically and believably portrayed and the reasons, twisted though they may be, behind her choices deeply rooted in the villain’s own vividly portrayed personal suffering. Out of sympathy for the Wicca Melody, I found myself rooting for some kind of rapprochement between Niri and her former friend, knowing all the while that in the realpolitik of a proper fantasy world, where villains must be overcome, my hope was a foolish and vain one. Major kudos for creating a sympathetic villain along with a likable enough heroine and a complex and nuanced relationship between the two frenemies.

I also found myself thinking long and hard about the ending. I don’t want to write a review with spoilers, so I’ll have to speak around things a bit. The predictable punishment of the villain at the end of such a fantasy story occurred, yes, but in a fresh and, I must say, somewhat disturbing way. I found myself pondering how I felt about the heroine after she executed such a punishment on her rival. Without sharing where I came down on the matter, I will say the author’s decision on this matter was neither obvious nor expected, and certainly falls in far more interesting and morally ambiguous territory than one usually finds in more typical black and white YA fantasy. As for the outcome for the heroine at the end of this book’s quest, I have both hands clapped over my mouth lest I spill any beans regarding the wholly unexpected and magnificent choice the author made for Crown Princess Niri. Well done, brava!

The book itself is obviously lovingly written and carefully edited, although the honest part of the review compels mention of a few nits on writing style and craft. While punctuation and spelling are otherwise flawless throughout, the writer or editor occasionally mangles homonyms (taught/taut, phased/fazed) or tosses in modern business memo jargon, e.g. “process the information.” The nit that caused this grumpy old curmudgeon the most distress was the use of “Crowned Princess” in place of “Crown Princess.” As citizen of a loud democratic republic that long ago overthrew our monarchical chains, perhaps I am mistaken in believing “Crown Princess” to be the correct term for an heir to the throne whose royal parents are still alive and ruling, for if she were crowned, then she would be Queen Regnant and no longer Royal Princess. But these are the difficulties of a pedant and not those of most readers.

On more of a style and personal preference side, I found the writing style to tend toward over-explaining at times, whether on dialogue tags, emotions or facts that we already knew or could easily guess. Perhaps that extra attention to explaining the whys and wherefores of a story is necessary in fantasy for young readers, but the tendency occasionally slowed the flow and pacing of the story for this reader. However, I forgot all my complaints every time the dragons took flight or Niri learned a new skill, so in the grand scheme of things these nits are unimportant and will not harm the reading experience for most readers.

Recommendation: wholeheartedly recommended for young readers of fantasy, especially those who have longed to meet a dragon. I can still taste the wind blowing in my face as my dragon dives and I desperately hang on lest I fall. Thank you to the author for sharing this experience with me.


A worthy addition to the epic fantasy canon by Joe Jackson.

446 pages, Kindle and paperback

“If it so pleases you, we will fire dance in his honor.”

This story is a treasure, a work of art, a labor of love and a magical artifact. Weighing in at 446 pages and something near 200,000 words, Joe Jackson’s first foray in epic fantasy nails both epic and fantasy. Featuring the rare strong female lead, who is not human but demon-hunter, black and winged, but simultaneously all female and all warrior, Jackson’s world and heroine are fresh and unique.

First, to the naysayers. Yes, the story starts slow. For the world-building is intricate, detailed, lovingly crafted and real. I know Kari’s world, for I have now smelt it, tasted it, heard it, learned of its gods and demons. I call this not fault but beautiful slow-building power and solidity, a concreteness and reality that make Jackson’s world as real to me as Tolkien’s or Le Guin’s or Salvatore’s worlds. Is there too much explanation and back story and arcane detail? Possibly. But if you are a reader who is looking for your next great fantasy world and characters to fall in love with and pursue through hundreds of rich and glorious pages, you will not mind the slow pace of the first half or the detailed descriptions of races and lands and history but rather will revel in them.

For gamers, of both the dice or digital tribes, you will instantly know the distinctions between rogues and wizards, healers and tanks. If you, of those tribes, enjoy the RPG part of MMORPGs, you will love this book. And if you are a dice-throwing D&D fanatic, you will have found your ancestral home. If you have no idea what I am talking about, this beautiful rich world and its gloriously complex and detailed heroine may not move you, and so you should pass by, and read something simpler and less demanding. But if you are of either of those tribes, then you must make this journey, alongside Kari, demon-hunter.

I do not want to give away details of the plot, or Kari’s relationships with her fellows the Silver Blades, or her fascinating back story, for these are pleasures due the worthy reader. But any book that begins with a bath and a double god-hammer and ends with a fire dance promises a strenuous and adventurous journey, slow though its start may be. The fighting is rare but physical and visceral, with a Special Forces concreteness that makes the moments memorable. The sex is loving and based in relationship. The conversations are between real and distinctive characters, with individual motivations and agendas.

Jackson has fashioned an amazing world and a brilliant heroine. I look forward to the next installment in the Eve of Redemption series and highly recommend this work to fans of epic, gargantuan fantasy.


Author: Noah Nichols, musician and writer

392 pages, paperback and Kindle

This absurdist, surreal, adult black comedic satire starts off with a bang, or more precisely, a violent and ultimately fatal series of head butts and only accelerates from there. In a completely wacky world where the internet suddenly vanishes leaving behind befuddled consumers and, oddly, the ability to text, a memorable mayhem-loving set of characters confront their new reality and come to terms with the gaping hole in their lives left by the missing internet. I don’t recommend this book to the faint of heart, or anyone who gets his or her panties in a twist over, oh, lessee…racism, misogyny, graphic violence, casual murder, profanity or domestic violence. Wait, I may be unfair, or at any rate unbalanced, on the misogyny charge, as male characters also receive the ultimate in male suffering by way of strategic kicks and knee strikes.

But having offered fair warning to the faint of heart and panty-twist-prone, freely admitting I was…horrified (one searches for a more neutral word, and fails, honesty being the key value here) …as I read, and noting that I received this book free in exchange for a fair and honest review, I have to say this mad twisted tale summoned from me solid admiration for craft and artistry. My favorite read this year? Nope. Something I can recommend to anyone I personally hang out with? Probably not, but then I am an old fuddy-duddy and quite comfortably so. But is this a humdinger of a ride, conducted by a skilled and mad writer? Most definitely. Will it find an audience? Is this writer worth reading? Yes and yes, I believe so, with some admitted fear and trepidation for the fate of civilization as we know it.

Without spoiling the experience for future readers by sharing specific moments from the book, allow me to share some observations from my own personal journey through shock and awe.

I’m a quiet reader. Sedate, well-behaved. I don’t snort and laugh out loud, grimace and moan when reading. My husband had to send me into a different room while reading this because I was shrieking, laughing, snorting and going “no, no, no, noooooooo…you can’t do that!” Mostly cries of horror and offense, yes, but any writer that can rip me out of my solemn ways like that gets points, even if I am terribly offended, which I was.

Points must also be given for a timely exploration of our society’s device addiction. To the critics who do not feel this was the most realistic exploration of what would happen if the internet vanished, I can only reply that they are absolutely correct, but I*don’t* think realism is what Mr. Nichols was going for in this work.

I was struck by echoes of Quentin Tarantino movies like “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill” and “Inglourious Basterds;” or Frank Miller’s “Sin City;” or the shoot-‘em-up balletic violence scenes from the Wachowski brothers’ (or are they sisters now? they were brothers when they made it, so how does one manage this courteously and correctly, gah!) “The Matrix;” or even, stretching a bit here–and not wanting to besmirch the more-heart-less-violent Coen brothers–but some of the speeches in Coen brothers’ movies like “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Words are weirdly twisted, turned inside out, used gloriously (?inglouriously?) wrong, but deftly, with rhythm, with a beat, and not just on the hip hop and rap passages. I found myself reading passages aloud because they had a delightfully dance-y beat to them.

Mr. Nichols also used story structure in an intricate and pleasing way, with short chapter-vignettes, at first seemingly unrelated, introducing a dizzying array of characters all confronting the No Net disaster. Eventually the characters and their stories interlock in interesting and unexpected ways, often with a small jolt of very real and tender human feeling, made all the more moving because of all the violence and offense and mayhem that had preceded such moments.

And the hand-drawn line art work—naïve, but intricate and illuminating, by artist James King. Very odd, to be sure, but of a piece with the writing and structure. I have to give points for the flamboyant and fiery out-there-ness of the writing and the art.

So, how do I grade this thing with stars as I am required? It’s a stumper, folks, so I will think out loud for you so you can make your own decision. I can easily defend a one-star score, just to scare off the many people who will be terrified and spontaneously combust if they attempt to read this. This needs to come with some kind of “don’t let the children or delicate adults read this” warning sticker. But I can also completely agree with the folks who give it five stars for the over-the-top and knowing writing style and moments of completely beautiful heart-felt humanity mixed into the mad stew that is this book. Be a waffle with a three-star review? That feels cowardly and wimpy, and three is kind of my go-to score for something that either lacked punch or had distracting craft flaws in spite of otherwise great story-telling, which doesn’t fit on either score. This book packs a whole platoon of punches! The book is well-edited, engaging, comes with weird original art and wacky but deliberate, knowing and original word choices, is brilliantly structured and tells a clear enough story with cartoon-y but vividly memorable characters. I cannot give that a three. I also cannot give something that upset me so much a five. (Noah, dude, watermelons, really?!?) So…Mr. Nichols, a four it is, but a very well-earned four, star-dusted with shattered fragments of a five, with my apologies as a newly hatched reviewer for not being able to bring myself to overcome my own reading preferences enough to bestow the mighty five star.


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