PAGES OF TIME

Imaginative addition to time travel genre

374 pages, $3.99 on Kindle. Science fiction time travel.

Kudos to author Damian Knight for imagining a novel and creative time travel mechanism and using his invention to stir up a nasty brew of terrorism, coercion and ambition whipped up by villainous foes who can only be defeated by a brave sixteen-year-old boy. In this debut novel, Damian Knight slyly sets us down in mundane family drama, slowly turns up the heat to scorch us with family tragedy and then ratchets up the pace and the stakes when he eventually deposits us on the run in a thriller world of gun-brandishing spies and counter spies with national consequences in the balance.

“The Pages of Time” is a high concept story, deriving its power and engagement from the clever mechanism Mr. Knight has imagined for enabling time travel. Like all good magic, this mechanism has costs and limitations. Even when mastered, its powers are not enough to allow our young hero Sam to escape a terrible, soul-charring choice. The ending is spectacular, worth the ride and only visible a page or two before it explodes in the reader’s face. While the story is a standalone, Mr. Knight has set up an industrial-grade titanium hook into a great sequel or series.

The book is smoothly written and scrupulously well-edited, aside from a few rather Germanic capitalization choices here and there which perhaps obey British rules foreign to this American reader. I did not like the writing, smooth and perfectly copy-edited though it was. A screenplay of the same story, plot and characters would be a fast-paced delight, vividly highlighting Mr. Knight’s intricate plotting, memorable visuals and thriller genre black-and-white villains while moving the story along to its brilliant finish. The screenplay version by its very format, conventions and constraints would burn away the distractions and digressions that mar an otherwise good story. Take a blow torch to most of the side character descriptions, most of the domestic drama, most of the “hello, how are you?” chit chat, most of the backstory digressions, most description of mundane moments like the decisions of what tea biscuits to eat or the full read of flight captain’s take-off speech, and the camera would show us clearly and easily where we are in space and time, leaving only a spare and fast-paced imaginative and innovative exploration of time travel and its consequences set in a high stakes thriller world.

On the page as written as a novel, a reader can easily struggle with jumps between heads and time locations. “Is this the young version of that character?” “Are we in present time or the past?” Upon a careful re-reading, to make sure I understood, I saw that Mr. Knight in fact diligently marked these transitions with reminder clues, but his pathfinding breadcrumbs were often obscured by extraneous detail or side dramas or random conversations that did not keep reader focus pinned firmly on the core drama of his story, a teenager’s battle to save his family from the terrible destruction visited upon them by using his powerful–but in the end tightly limited–time travel ability.

My peevish quibbles aside, “The Pages of Time” is a solid addition to the time travel bookshelf, and Mr. Knight exhibits in this first book a great natural gift with plotting, world-building and sheer imaginative scale as well as disciplined care in the editing and presentation required to deliver a quality book. I look forward to his next book in the series.
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I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

THE WONDER: BLOOD RED

Madness and Mayhem: a droll and entertaining start to a steampunk fantasy series

210 pages, $2.99 on Kindle, steampunk fantasy

James Devo’s debut steampunk fantasy “Blood Red” is a meticulous marvel of madness. I loved it. I’ll tell you why, of course, for this is a review, not a fan girl rant, but it’s the sort of fun, fantastic, quirky read one could work up a good fan girl rant about. I received a free review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and I am so very lucky that I did.

I like steampunk, I like fantasy and I like clever British humo[u]r. So, yes, I admit I was pre-disposed to enjoy this book for genre reasons, for it delivered all three in spades.

The steampunk was lightly done, found mostly in the vaguely Victorian/Edwardian speech and costumes of the characters, settings and the use of steampunk mechanical devices to overcome magical devices. The fantasy was yes, I must use the word, fantastic. Devo developed an intricate and yet stunningly simple magic system, of green, red and blue Wonder, magical substances manipulated by hyperphysicists, of course. For bonus points he developed a fantasy world with layers of backstory and varied settings discovered in pleasing droplets as our heroes and villains pursued their various and often nefarious ends. I finished the book a few days ago, and yet beautiful and terrifying visuals still linger in my brain, from hordes of onrushing Humps, masked Immolators, a Cathedral somehow leaning down and then springing back up, a crystalized world, and a fine library where cognac and fine port are served to gentlemen and pushy adventurous ladies on luxurious leather chairs. I wish I could forget Mandrell’s final state, but alas, he haunts me still.

Best of all was Devo’s humor and skill at sketching characters. Within these pages, look forward to lots of droll character development, very British, dry and funny as hell, from the unfortunate aristocrat Mandrell to the equally/less/more unfortunate warrior Tork, depending on how permanent you prefer your death. Let us not overlook the relentless and insatiable Laurel, the noble and tragic Hilt and all the others of this double ensemble crazy cast of characters. I cannot pretend I was able to keep straight all the characters, but as a rough guide for readers, there’s a bunch of good-ish guys and gals and a second bunch of bad-ish guys and gals, and both groups, with occasional team-switching and double-crossing, are in competitive pursuit of this book’s McGuffin, a Gargoyle key, which is eventually obtained and then in the second half of the book, put to use to reach somewhere previously unreachable, with momentous outcomes in the balance.

I loved the voice and writing. It was just right for the genre, mood and pace of this story, with little bon-bons of delicious humor embedded in what could have been the most prosaic and dull of moments. Devo somehow managed to maintain a rather frenetic feel in the pacing as we rush from battle to siege to oasis to battles anew while still slowing down for bite-sized morsels of back story and character sketching and relationship development that are the delight of this book. The story was rather fractal in nature, if I can use the word that way, in that the big over-arching plot was there, writ large (“Find the key. Use the key. Enjoy the consequences”) but along the way we had many mini-plots and mini-situations unspooling and allowing for more humor, depth and complexity. Don’t for a moment trust the author’s summary guide to characters and terms at the end of the book. It is half-truths, lies and exaggerations, mostly serving as a lame excuse for more humor. Watch the chapter headings carefully, to remind yourself where and when you are, for it can get overwhelming and you could easily get lost without a map and timepiece. That way you will not miss the freeway turnoff to the sad tale of Maisy, one of these fractal side-tales that, I kid you not, brought me to tears at the noble sacrifices made. It was an echo of every great soldierly sacrifice made on behalf of hapless civilians, up to and including Aragorn riding out against the horde when the keep has fallen to give the civilians time to escape.

On craft and presentation, I liked the layout and found the book quite well edited and clean. I am usually quite harsh about typos, and oddly enough the author seems to have misplaced some periods here and there, but spells perfectly and, other than the missing periods, punctuates well. The Humps must have made off with the missing periods, or the Trade stole them to swap for blue Wonder.

Recommendation: Ordinarily I would knock off a star for such craft sins, but I genuinely enjoyed the ride so much I could not bring myself to do it, as my personal enjoyment level was a six on a five point scale. Five stars, for wit, humor, world-building, pacing, wordsmithing, superb and memorable characters and a series I plan to read in full as a paying customer. Highly recommended for fantasy and steampunk fans looking for a new series, as well as anyone fond of British humor. Not recommended for stiffs who take everything too seriously, as they will find it appalling. Not for young and innocent readers, although I believe they would greatly enjoy the originality, creativity, creatures and humor of this world, as children enjoy William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride” although it was written for adults. Perhaps parents could read aloud to their children and edit Mandrell’s difficulties on the fly to something more family-friendly.

CRY FOR ME ARGENTINA

Ordinary people living through extraordinary times–an English couple in Argentina before the rise of Peron

Historical fiction. 353 pages, $4.90 on Kindle

Debut novelist Phyllis Goodwin’s sweeping tale of two ordinary young English people who meet and marry in Argentina between the wars, and all the history that swept around them as they built their simple lives together, accomplishes the most important thing a story can do, in my humble opinion, and that is to move the reader to care about those characters and their story. As the revelations of the final pages fell into place, I found my throat choking up as unpretentious and non-heroic human souls faced truth and responded with courage and humanity. I will not spoil the journey for the reader, but thank the writer for the gift of sharing that journey.

The book could use a good scrubbing by a tough love editor, for sins of punctuation, telling-not-showing, inclusion of extraneous details, point of view shifts and oddly telescoping time shifts within single paragraphs.

And yet, even with all these technical flaws freely admitted, there is much to enjoy and value in this story. Without the story ever bogging down into a history lesson, the reader absorbs much of the rising tension of that time period as the world convulsed not once but twice in world wars, and then once more the reader experiences the tension of the rise of the Peron movement after WWII through the main characters in Argentina. The author’s feel for setting was rich and nuanced; I too love jacarandas, their color and their scent, and have chickens and dream of a duck pond. The characters are individual and unique and memorable, their motivations clear and sharp. Perhaps there are too many lesser side characters cluttering the main narrative, and a sharper editing knife would pare a dozen away, but even the smallest walk-on part seemed to reflect a real individual, not a type, and to echo a variation on an experience in the main characters’ lives in some way. Perhaps all those side characters and meanderings through unrelated stories are not so extraneous after all. The naturalistic style of the narrative, while frustrating at times as it insistently dwelt in details that seemed to take the reader away from the main current of the story, enhanced the sense of real people and real place that is a major strength of this work.

Recommended: for historical fiction readers interested in the role the English played in Argentina in the first half of the twentieth century. I would not consider it a historical romance in the classic genre sense of the term, although the main characters’ clean romance and married relationship is real and believable.

I received a free copy of this work in exchange for a fair and impartial review.

SHINING ONES: LEGACY OF THE SIDHE

Legends of the Sidhe walk the earth again in a modern Irish world

342 pages. $2.99 on Kindle.

Author Sanna Hines’ “Shining Ones: Legacy of the Sidhe” deliciously blends Celtic myth, family drama, old-school questing and classic conflict between (mostly) good and (probably) evil in this epic fantasy. Undergirded by meticulous research and a bold willingness to mix and match old legends with modern blended family challenges, the story kicks off when Julia, a teenager with some odd skills and confusing parentage is kidnapped, and an ever-growing collection of Dananns and friends must rescue her.

Hines’ characters are legion, vivid and individually detailed and motivated. There are too many to keep track of, and I state this firmly as fact, not criticism. (Nobody yells at G.R.R.Martin for having too many characters.) Hines further torments her readers by having her characters sport both English and Gaelic names, change names, hide identities, bear nicknames and occasionally shapeshift. Yes, I cursed Hines out more than once trying to figure out who was who, but as the onion gets peeled and our band of adventurers digs deeper into Hines’ richly imagined world revealing new layers of history, legend and family ties, keeping track of everyone and their loyalties is half the fun. Side-plots of romance and family drama abound as the motley crew pursues the quests of the main narrative of saving Julia and the world as they preferred it remain. Without spoiling discoveries for the reader, I will remind readers that your mother’s advice to treat everyone you meet as important and worthy is well worth bearing in mind as you meet new characters.

The world-building is superb. From the genetics of Formorian and Danann matings and the transmission of talents, to the biology of longevity, through the portals that transport our unruly band of heroes from the United States to the Irish isles, to the complex and internally consistent magic system and the realism of urban and rural modern and legendary Ireland, Hines has created a rich and compelling world.

The craft level here is fully polished and professional, from the story-telling and world-building to grammar, punctuation and formatting.

Recommendation: for fantasy readers interested in Celtic myth and legend, who love a richly detailed world and the complexity of a huge cast of characters and an ultimately nuanced battle for the future of the world, where good and evil are shaded in gray and not simplistic black and white. While several main characters are young people, this is no dumbed down YA fantasy ruled by mighty and precocious teenaged Chosen Ones, but instead features characters of all ages with adult concerns and challenges. If you are looking for an easy read, you’ll hate this. If you are looking for a richly detailed world and characters so real you feel you could look them up and visit them, you’ll love this book. Some readers may find all the characters overwhelming; for my part I loved the complexity of the world, the conflict, and the new discoveries about the characters that emerged along the journey. If you love modern fantasy, read this book and watch this talented author to see what she does next.

GUNPOWDER ALCHEMY

Historical fantasy lightly flavored with essence of steampunk and a delicate romance

287 pages. $4.99 on Kindle

Historical romance novelist Jeannie Lin’s foray into steampunk, “Gunpowder Alchemy,” offers readers a rich cultural and historical feast along with adventure, restrained romance, dragon airships, pirates, rebels, imperial princes, revolutions and old-school conflicts over loyalty, duty and honor. Lin’s tale is intelligent, innovative, culturally authentic, engaging and well told.

First, a word about genre. “Gunpowder Alchemy” is steampunk, but not your usual steampunk fare set in England or the U.S. Wild West with feisty Victorian ladies running around in corsets pursuing adventures in dirigibles with their clockwork mechanical friends and their Babbage computers.

Instead, our story is set in 1850 China, during the turmoil of the Opium Wars, and our heroine is a fallen Manchurian aristocrat, living hidden in the middle of nowhere after her father, the Chief Engineer to the Son of Heaven, was executed for failing to fight off the overwhelming military forces of the West. Our heroine, to feed her little brother and opium-addicted mother, must venture into the big city to sell the disgraced family’s last possession of any value. Adventure ensues, set against a historically accurate portrayal of the times, a turbulent and violent chapter in China’s history as that sophisticated empire collided with the brash and militarily superior Western powers.

Some critics have complained that Lin’s story is not steampunk enough, to which I can only reply that they are missing the point of steampunk. The heart of steampunk–and here I refer to steampunk beyond its manifestation as literature or steampunk as a science fiction genre to the wider cultural steampunk movement of the last few years–revolves around its fascination with technology, whether it be in the steampunk Do-It-Yourself/Maker movement or the re-imagining of a better past seen in more mainstream steampunk stories. The whole story grapples with the moment in history when China had an existential need for the technology to fight off the foreign invaders, and deals with characters who for various motivations and in different ways, struggle with that overwhelming challenge using every skill of engineering and science at their disposal. Lin’s story is MORE than merely steampunk, in that it also offers an engaging and authentic experience of a culture and a time period unfamiliar to many Western readers. So to steampunk, add “historical fiction,” ‘historical fantasy,” “alternate history” and yes, Lin’s forte, “historical romance,“ to the other genres that could also be used to describe elements of this novel.

Lin’s characters are a product of her chosen period, geography and their class and station in a rigidly status-conscious culture, not modern yellow-faced white Anglo adventurers marching through historical sets. Lin’s grasp of the history and culture of that period in Chinese history is confident and authentic, and provides much of the pleasure in reading this tale. The romance thread is beautifully and delicately portrayed, with all the constraints of that time pressing down on the growing attraction between the lovers. To our coarser modern tastes, the lovers’ restraint may seem quaint or sweet, but I found it moving and real in its context. The devastation opium wrought on the Chinese people of that time is vividly portrayed in the opium-addicted mother of the heroine, as well as the ravaged and violent victims of a mysterious form of amped-up tainted opium (somewhat reminiscent of Cherie Priest’s zombie army, formed in a different way, so take that, steampunk-genre-doubters!) The cultural meaning, pride and suffering associated with the custom of foot-binding is touched upon as well, with a marvelous steampunk solution woven into an important plot point.

The world-building is meticulous, whether in its descriptions of a rural village or the bustling urban centers, both the Chinese and the foreign quarters. Technology is of the time, augmented occasionally with delightful steampunk inventions blended with, for example, traditional Chinese medicine methods. I’m a round-eyed pale waiguoren, but one armed with a degree in East Asian Studies and a smattering of Mandarin, and I truly enjoyed experiencing the history and culture Lin depicted so masterfully. Where she made linguistic or historical simplifications in support of drama and pacing (always the right choice!), she did so with intelligence while preserving the essential truth of the culture and history.

Finally, the writing and craft are smooth and well done. Lin’s writing is clean and spare, not ornate, with just enough detail to keep things concrete without slowing pacing. I have an old-fashioned preference for stories told in the third person point of view, but I found myself adapting quickly to the protagonist’s first person point of view as Lin unobtrusively engaged me in her story. I found myself questioning my own preferences as I enjoyed the immediacy of her first person POV.

Recommendation: for historical fiction fans interested in China, for sweet historical romance fans, and yes, for open-minded steampunk adventure fans willing to try something other than same-old Anglophile steampunk. Each of you will find a tale well-crafted, full of unique and interesting characters set in an unfamiliar and vividly real world. I’ve already downloaded the next book in the series, to see where Lin and her characters go next!

COVER DESIGN AWARD!

Congratulations to Biserka Design, the awesome team behind this cover. They’ve been awarded a gold star, one of four runners up to the April winner out of 96 entries, by Joel Friedlander of The Book Designer. See for yourself here!

Here’s our entry and the judge’s commentary:

Stephanie Sorensen submitted Toru: Wayfarer Returns designed by Biserka Design. “The design also credits Phelan Davion and Michael Lars for the samurai image used and adapted by the designer. Biserka Design has a Facebook page. No plot summaries, but the designers nailed the genre (steampunk set in Japan) and the heart of the brief–samurai with dirigibles!”

Toru: Wayfarer Returns
JF: Samurai with dirigibles, what’s not to love? This cover has it all, with great atmosphere, the mystery of that looming airship, and the seriousness of the samurai at the center. 

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For the photo used by the designers, check out Phelan Davis’s site.

Now check out the cover one last time, big enough to see and savor!

Tōru 1600x2500 (3)

SALVATION’S DAWN

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.

NO NET

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.

BRIDGE THROUGH TIME

348 pages

A campy romp through space, time and family by Canadian fantasy and YA novelist Scott Spotson.

In this sequel to YA and fantasy author Spotson’s science fiction debut (“Life II”), the eldest son born in the “wrong” time stream to time traveler Max Thorning must set things right and restore the universe to its rightful order.

Burdened with an excessively high IQ and severe ADHD, along with frequent night terrors and a nagging sense he doesn’t belong “here,” Kyle Thorning nonetheless overcomes his father’s depression, his parents’ divorce and his personal limitations to become a world-famous PhD in physics and land a position at CERN, the famous particle physics lab in Switzerland. He even scores a hot physicist girlfriend and seems poised for success and happiness. But events beyond his control have been growing alongside his stellar career, namely the stealthy global takeover of the entire planet by four-legged, four-armed, multi-colored aliens called the “Darsians.” One things leads to another, and eventually Kyle realizes the magnitude of the destruction his father Max Thorning caused by going back in time and creating a second time stream, one overrun by Darsians slowly tightening their grip on his planet by addicting humanity to super strong cidda coffee and enthralling them with integram virtual lives. Can Kyle save humanity–and his father’s life–by finding the means to go back in time and set things right before it’s too late?

Buckle up for a campy ride. Spotson’s writing is fast-paced and clear, well-formatted and cleanly copy-edited. The story starts a bit slow, giving needed space to catching up readers who may have missed the first book, but shifts into a trot by mid-book and gallops to an exciting finish by the end. Spotson “helicopter parents” his verbs with generous doses of adverbs for extra oomph, quite never trusting them to carry the weight of the action unaccompanied. Characters, male and female, spend a good deal of time with tears rolling down their faces, drawn in cartoon-y over-the-top ways, melodramatically nervous, terrified, enraged, grieving or otherwise discombobulated much of the time. I wondered if I had wandered into a middle-grade story, with all the exaggerated emotion and adverbs, but the occasional bouts of romance (committed relationship, discreet, “off screen”), the moments of parental worry about the impact of divorce on children and the physics duel at CERN tugged me back up into a YA-to-adult targeting. To be clear, his writing style drove me nuts, but I found myself unable to put the story down. I had to find out whether Kyle succeeded or failed, and how it all went down. And if that isn’t the definition of engaging, dear reader, I do not know what is.

On what to rate this time travel tale, I am honestly flummoxed. I have to assume the adverb-and-hysterical characters thing is a consciously chosen style, since the world-building is intelligent, the story-telling robust, the copy-editing excellent, and the occasional bursts of physics quite fun. You have to give the man extra points for coming up with not one but two separate ways to travel through time, after all, while working neutralinos, anti-Higgs bosons, Casimir effects and slit experiments gone rogue into the story. I happen to have a minor in physics, and his physics are nonsensical hand waving, but exuberantly delivered with Trumpian compelling effect. The aliens, while central to the plot and eventually revealed in all their glorious villainy, seem almost an afterthought in this family-centric tale of a son’s quest to save his father and the universe. Five seems too high for a book with this many adverbs, histrionic characters and weeping spells; three stars too low for something this well copy-edited and exuberantly over-the-top campy fun. I can see the B-movie version, shot for a skinny budget, of this noble tale of courage and sacrifice in the war against the aliens. Four stars, recommended for precocious children with ADHD who like physics and time travel stories and for adults looking to discover the next campy cult favorite.

THE DRAGON’S CASTLE

A fresh and engaging take on the making of a wizard, this second book in the Apprentice Series by prolific and award-winning fantasy, science fiction, YA and spirituality writer James Cardona shows his fantasy and YA background.

604 pages, $4.99 Kindle, $24.99 paperback

Bel, a new graduate of Lasaat, the elite school for wizards, now serves as apprentice to forest archmage Nes’egrinon. Before he can even recover from wounds suffered in the quest to win his mage staff, Bel and his master must answer an urgent summons and rush to the capital to help King Thrashel save his throne and his realm. Bel and Nes’egrinon are soon plunged into a cascade of challenges: succession battles, wizardly corruption, multiple hostile armies and the much-reviled foreign avian wizards, not to mention mighty creatures bent on humanity’s destruction. Bel must also face his own greatest personal challenge, his love for Shireen, the woman he can never have if he is to achieve his full potential as a wizard.

Written for a young adult audience, this second book in multiple-award-winning author James Cardona’s Apprentice Series covers familiar ground—the training of a wizard—in fresh and engaging ways. Older and more mature than Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts, Bel and Shireen must together grapple with the terrible trade-off at the heart of their quest to become wizards, the requirement that they abandon all hopes of love and marriage, even as their love rekindles and grows ever deeper and more passionate. More earnest, dutiful and altruistic than the edgy, cool, pot-smoking, alcohol-guzzling magician college students of Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” series, Bel and Shireen must make life-changing decisions while learning their wizardly powers, dodging various enemies and watching their elders grapple with the consequences of their own youthful decisions. Less formidably confident than Mother of Dragons Khaleesi from G.R.R. Martin’s “The Game of Thrones” series, these young apprentices are approachable, fallible and engaging heroes, their interactions with each other and their masters leavened with a gentle humor as they struggle, fail and rise to try again and make wise decisions without half the knowledge and wisdom they need.

Uniquely wonderful is the author’s ability to take the reader into the minds of the young apprentices as they struggle to learn their craft, whether it be sensing the forest and the life force of all the creatures it contains, sending oneself out into the world or peering into another’s mind. Even more thrilling are the moments when the reader gets to experience the same skills now masterfully exercised through the viewpoint of their experienced masters at the fullest extent of their powers. Author Cardona exercises a rich and vivid imagination, taking the reader on an exciting, well-paced and always surprising journey through a complex and concrete world. Whether it be political maneuvering, pitched battles, magical fights or courtly marriage ceremonies, Cardona tells his tale in memorable detail.

I admire the complexity and depth Cardona brings to this young adult tale and the respect he has for his readers. He does not insult his young readers with over-simplification and a dumbed-down vocabulary. Relish with me “the fetor of death,” for example. Or the speech of the Tundric officers, with their echoes of the poems of the Icelandic Viking sagas like “game of iron” or “swords covered in the dew of men’s blood.” His political setting of warring realms under outside threat carries echoes of the warring but inter-related Anglo-Saxon realms on the eve of the Viking invasions that eventually unified England. He explores the ancient and persistent trade-off between a spiritual vocation and an ordinary layman’s life through both his young apprentices, standing on the precipice of their decisions, and through the lives of their old masters, who have had to live with their decisions. While his heroes are moral and generous, they are also prey to selfish urges, lapses into cowardice and thoughtlessness. In short, they are very human and real. And oh! He does marvelous things with the great creatures awakened in his story.

Definitely a worthwhile and engaging read, but a few problems bear mentioning. Typographical slips and jarring word choices and repetitions occasionally marred my experience of this magical adventure. Language choices veered from courtly formality (“My good king!”) to contemporary informality (“you know,” “neurotic kook”). I was unsure whether these were attempts at humor or just sloppy style. I hate sounding pedantic about such details when the story, world and characters are so well imagined and engaging, but I believe it hurts the cause of indie publishing when self-published authors release work that does not meet traditional professional editing standards.

In spite of my gripes about these small flaws, I would strongly recommend this series to young fantasy fans for its unique and memorable spin on the path of the wizard and the vividly imagined experience of being a wizard.

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