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.



276 pages $4.99 on Kindle

Author:  David Crosby. Mr. Crosby is an award-winning photo-journalist making his novelist debut with this book, first in his Will Harper mystery series.

Former journalist Will Harper struck it lucky when Aunt Dotty kicked the bucket and left him enough to kiss his job goodbye and buy a boat. Then his luck runs even hotter when the attractive French-speaking owner of the run-down marina where he parks his boat gets romantic. But they’ve got trouble with a capital “T” because evil developers want the city fathers to wield the weapon of eminent domain to bulldoze her marina and put up a million dollar staircase, ADA-compliant, of course, in the middle of their new development. With the help of a hotshot lawyer who owes him a favor and armed with his journalistic sleuthing skills, fearless and generous Will swings into action to help his new lady friend.

First, the fun. It’s a sun-drenched Florida coastal setting, with ramshackle bait shacks, live aboard boats, lazy boozy meals, flowered shirts, greedy developers, corrupt local politicians and scary tattooed “muscle.” My apologies for bringing current events into a review, but I write this review in the heat of the 2016 presidential campaign, where it’s the Donald and his eminent domain wielded against little old ladies so he can build a casino parking lot vs. Bernie fighting for the revolution of the little guy against Big Money. Mr. Crosby has written a timely book, and built a fictional world around a real and current issue. He’s definitely fighting for the little guy, or in this case, the lovely Sandy of the French accent who is in danger of losing her marina to the evil developers. The author demonstrates a good grasp of the legalities of eminent domain and the strategies of evil developers and does a solid job of helping the reader understand them as well. He also knows his way around journalism and boats.

Somewhat confusingly, the book is marketed as a mystery. It is not a mystery, or at least it is not mysterious. The villains are introduced straight off as villains, rather selfish and ham-handed villains in fact, and the only mystery is how and when they will receive their come-uppance for being so villainous and dastardly. “Million Dollar Staircase” is not so much a mystery as it is the introductory pilot for what looks to be a private detective series built around the dashing, justice-minded, generous, brave, gentlemanly, independently affluent and conveniently skilled Will Harper. Think of it as an extended character sketch with some fun action sequences as the bad guys are foiled and brought low.

I like Will, although I question his judgment at times…in ways I cannot detail without spilling plot beans. He makes some very strange decisions. Let’s just say I found myself chanting “Call the police!! Call the police!!” several times. I guess hard-boiled detectives-to-be don’t instinctively do that when confronted by awkward corpses. He’s a nice guy, a gentleman, smooth enough with the ladies and treats them well, which is also appealing, but he lacks a certain cluefulness about the fair and mysterious sex. I liked him enough to want to pull him aside a couple of times and just tell him, “Dude, she’s just not that into you…” His difficulties with love form a kind of subplot as a backdrop to all the legal proceedings and action sequences.

Mr. Crosby is a good storyteller, although I’m not sure he’s demonstrated his mystery chops with this book. (Need more…mystery.) I would also quibble with his dialogue style, which is naturalistic to the point of being too real—greetings and small talk–and not as effective as it could be in showing character and pushing the plot along. Minor typos and formatting issues distracted slightly. He’s a great world-builder. I could feel the Florida mugginess and taste the seafood. I enjoyed his little guys and gals vs. the Big Bad Money Boys plot. His characters are colorful and memorable enough if not particularly complex. The story is conveyed with a warm, earnest upbeat feel, gliding calmly over the occasional murders and kidnappings and difficulties in romance with a gentle humor.

Mystery fans looking for a new series should check out Will Harper, perfectly positioned at the end of Book 1 to start solving crimes and mysteries, although Mr. Crosby’s ability to create mystery and tension remains, in this first pilot book, as yet unproven.


The Hoarder’s Widow

Author: Allie Cresswell . This is Ms. Cresswell’s 5th novel.

354 pages, $8.50 Kindle, $12.99 paperback

We meet our protagonist Maisie at the moment of her transformation from wife to widow as her husband Clifford Wilde makes what can only be described as a spectacular exit from his role as husband, protector and, as the title gives away, hoarder. Author Allie Cresswell’s language delights throughout from the fiery first page, as she swiftly, concretely and vividly dispatches poor Clifford, allowing him a brief moment to explain himself before launching into the main adventure, Maisie’s long-delayed blossoming into the person she was meant to be.

Long confined and nearly entombed by her husband’s towering piles of broken treasures, we meet Maisie as she must deal with the logistics and shock of widowhood. I did not expect such a delightful journey from such a sad and soggy beginning. Though the rains fall often in this tale set in a lonely house at the end of a lane in the English countryside, Maisie’s personal journey and the friendships, knowledge and family she gains along the way are as warm and bright and comforting as a shiny copper kettle calling the reader to tea. The story is infused with a deep empathy and tenderness for the flawed and difficult personalities struggling with their challenges, whether it be Maisie coming to grips with what she has lost during her years with Clifford and the secrets she must face, or her hen party of new friends squabbling, or her limited and awkward grown children fluttering around her, casualties as much as she was of their father’s odd tendencies.

I do not wish to rob readers of the pleasures of meeting the emerging Maisie and her new friends, so I will not describe them except to say that their interactions provide wonderful moments of humor and poignancy as they accompany Maisie on her journey to her new life. Ms. Cresswell possesses a deft and elegant touch in creating her vivid characters both major and minor, all cracked pots and imperfect, but treated as worthy of happiness even so.

The plot may be simple, but it moves along at a comfortable clip, moving inexorably forward as Maisie uncovers old secrets and makes new friendships. Along the way, Maisie and the reader explore family, those families we are born into and marry as well as those we create with our friends or claim through duty mingled with forgiveness and understanding.

Film producers working with actresses “of a certain age” who complain of the lack of juicy parts for women of middle age would do well to grab this book and imagine casting Maisie and her friends. I can see a delightful ensemble piece, full of heart and insight into human foibles, anchored by Maisie and filled out by her friends, a must-see cozy film for those of us who long for something on the big screen without car chases or space aliens.

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys superbly written, character-driven fiction. There is nothing flashy in this simple tale, but it is a rich and filling feast of real and complex characters muddling through life’s challenges and finding their way forward together. I would write more, but I need to go find out what else Ms. Cresswell has written, and settle in with a cup of tea and another of her stories. I loved this book and gave it a five.



We want to help other indie authors succeed. What every indie author needs most is reviews, so we were excited to stumble across the various indie review groups on Goodreads.

Here’s what we learned:

Search under “Groups” on Goodreads for review groups. Some are genre-specific, some are anything goes, and some are divided by content rating.  All provide a way for independently published authors to earn those oh-so-important first reviews through non-reciprocal reviews. Reciprocal reviews will get your reviews taken down quickly on Amazon and most sites, so they are a major no-no, as are sock puppet reviews you wrote yourself and reviews by your mother or best friend.

These review groups put group members together who each review several books and receive the same number of reviews back, but without providing reciprocal reviews. Think of a circular firing squad. Others have a sign up sheet and you review the person above you on the list. The genre-based groups are great, because at least you have an idea of the genre you will review, but they are tough to get into at first.

Ting Tang TonyYou want to be careful which group you sign up for, as you can find yourself far from your comfort zone. For instance, we will NOT be signing up for the 18+ erotica/graphic violence/anything goes group. No, no, no. We peeked, and we can only report that the self-publishing world includes some pretty out there stuff.

Religiously themed authors, YA authors and others who would not feel comfortable reviewing or being reviewed by a tougher, more secular and adult crowd in a regular non-erotica adult group can join a “Clean” group. Non-fiction authors may also find the “Clean” general groups a good fit.

We recently completed reviews for a Clean review group, and were delighted at the breadth and quality of the offerings. Indie publishing is alive and flourishing. We would like to take a moment to introduce you to the four indie authors we encountered through the review process and their self-publishing strategies. Aspiring indie authors can find something useful in the examples of all four.

Gloria Ng
Gloria Ng

Non-fiction, children’s and spirituality author Gloria Ng caught our attention for the terrific author’s platform she has built to share her fiction and non-fiction work with readers. She helpfully included links within her book to additional free and relevant works and used other techniques to build a platform for sharing her work and ideas. Gloria’s “mission and expertise is to inspire and create a culture of peace toward self-care, people care and earth care. She supports people fully employing their passion and purpose toward sustainability and thrive-ability.” We review her book here.

Alex Morritt

Author, poet, lyricist, travel writer and indie publisher Alex Morritt and self-described “cultural observer” has solved the problem of marketing short fiction through his self-published short story collection and other works. He’s a minimalist, content to have his work out there and accessible, without burning up too many cycles on marketing and promotion. Reading him, one feels he’d be fun to chat with over coffee, or to invite to your writing group. Our review is here.

Ronesa AveelaRonesa Aveela, which is a pen name for freelance artist and writer Anelia Samovila and writer and baker Rebecca Carter, brings us, of all the startling things, a beautiful book on Bulgarian myths, legends and folk. With recipes! This delightful book, full of hand-drawn colorful images, shows how personal passion and creativity can find their way into the world through independent publishing in a book too esoteric and niche to find a home with a traditional publisher seeking a mass market. Knowing this book exists in the world just makes us happy, and should inspire any other would-be indie authors out there with a heart project they want to share with the world. Review is here.

Tamara Hart HeinerTamara Hart Heiner, the prolific author of favorably reviewed young adult novels, knows her genre and her target audience and focuses like a laser on providing great writing for those young readers. She has written 17 (!!!) short young adult novels over the past five years. A master of both quantity and quality, she’s a great example of what focus, discipline and a few short years can do to build an author brand. She writes with great empathy and insight about the concerns of her young target readers and has clearly built a good and sturdy home in her chosen genre. Our review is here.

Non-fiction. Short stories. Cultural exploration. Young adult. What a varied feast, and how well presented. Each author provided useful information or entertainment, and they all shared their work in clean, well-formatted prose. We truly enjoyed exploring their work and “meeting” these authors we would not otherwise have encountered. Hurray for indie publishing!




The Extraordinary Ordinary Life of Cassandra Jones
Tamara Hart Heiner
72 pages

I was given a free copy in exchange for a fair and honest review of this independently published work.

This first episode in Tamara Hart Heiner’s Walker Wildcats Year 1 series focuses on the trials and tribulations of a fifth grader uprooted from her life in Texas and set down in the Ozarks in Arkansas. This well-written and sensitive portrayal of pre-teen society is engaging and real, capturing all the angst of that first walk down the new school hallway, finding someone to eat lunch with that first day and navigating the perils of making friends and getting in with the right group. Young readers going through a similar experience will find a great example in Cassie’s adventures, whether it is dealing with two best friends who hate each other, or handling unfair grownups who shout too much or being sad when not allowed to bring home a puppy. Great for young readers.


Light Love Rituals

By Ronesa Aveela, 158 pages, $3.99 Kindle

I was given a free copy in exchange for a fair and honest review of this independently published work.

This comprehensive and exhaustively researched book on Bulgarian myths, legends and folklore is a handcrafted labor of love. Organized around the calendar year, the book works its way through the seasons and festivals of each year and shares with the reader the blended pagan and Christian roots of each festival and custom. Using the device of a local family experiencing and learning about each custom, the book also shares local recipes, traditional clothing, tragic love stories and funny bits of folklore with the reader. “Did you know?” inserts share such useful information as the correct wood for driving through the hearts of vampires, the days you really don’t want to die because you will turn into a vampire and other snatches of folk wisdom. Delicate pencil drawings in vibrant colors and ornate designs illustrated nearly every page of the book.
Opening the book was like entering a riotous colorful bazaar of information, all about Bulgarian folklore and myths, going back to the times of the Thracians. The authors deny any claims to scholarly accuracy or academic methods, but the careful and thorough research they did is obvious. They list in the back of the book several pages of links to additional information. I had to chuckle at the line mentioning that the links functioned at the time they did their research, noting that they share with the U.S. Supreme Court the problem of managing “link rot.”

I found the classification as fiction confusing, as this is very much a non-fiction book comprehensively listing and explaining myths, legends and folklore. The authors used the device of a fictional family to illustrate the different customs, but they were clearly embedded in a non-fictional book. For any researcher interested in Bulgarian culture and folklore, this book should be a first step. I was glad to discover the subtitle “Bulgarian Myths, Legends and Folklore” on Amazon when I went to check out the book there, as my free version had only the not-very-descriptive Light Love Rituals title and I worried about discoverability for the book without a clear hook to Bulgarian folklore and culture.

The writing itself was clean and well-edited, and obvious care had been taken in the formatting, with words of the text carefully framing the images and special note sections. The fictional family sections were sometimes a bit stilted, in the way that an “exposition dump” in a novel can feel forced rather than natural, but for the most part, the writing was fluid and had a joyous, light and often humorous tone that was a pleasure to read. There was a home-made quality to some formatting choices, like the insertion of calendar pages to show festival days, but never was there sloppiness or lazy editing.

The recipes for traditional foods looked mouth-watering, with photos of key steps and final presentation to illustrate each recipe.

Review: For travelers, students, mythology and folklore fans who are interested in Bulgarian/Thracian folklore and culture, this is a terrific resource. This book is also a vibrant, joyous example of the wonderful, creative niche offerings from passionate authors that can come into the world through independent publishing, works that would otherwise never make it past gate-keepers looking for the big market opportunity. I had minor issues with a few formatting and writing choices, but overall found the book to be carefully and lovingly crafted, with a vast wealth of interesting information to share.


Impromptu Scribe
Alex Morritt
127 pages, $0.99

This collection of short stories by British author Alex Morritt offers a smorgasbord of delights.

Whistling through each of the thirty or so short stories is the ghost of the author, not mentioned in the text, but present in the viewpoint, the gaze, the objects and people noticed and ignored in each story. I found myself seeing past the characters on the page and wondering about their creator, about this man, a well-traveled wanderer, lonely perhaps, when he finds himself between romantic interludes, with an eye for the elegant, the well-turned out, who notices the magnificent facades of the buildings in the affluent parts of town, the dust in the rural market, the asymmetry in the hang of a perfect rocker’s smoking jacket hidden away in a thrift store.

The stories carry the reader through a dizzying array of locations and characters. Paris in Le Marais, Italy, a courtroom in Hollywood, a fancy restaurant, a rural English village, Milan, a prison cell, a war zone, a Guatemalan marketplace, a truck full of hopeful undocumented immigrants, Mexico City in the nicer parts. The characters are compassionately sketched, even the bad ones. These pages contain the child molester, the ladies’ man in various forms, snappy dressers, a peasant boy, a dishonored daughter killed by her father, a terrorist, an old British veteran visiting the poppy-filled fields of Amiens for the last time, a terminally ill base jumper, a vengeful babysitter, a pair of lovers feasting before the feast, a dog with a discriminating nose and a foot fetish …

The stories are mostly told from a decidedly male viewpoint, an honest and open one, delivered with a sheepish shrug for any sins and a sense that any female outrage is expected and already factored in and accepted as one accepts with stoic calm both sunshine and storm as Heaven shall find it meet to dispense one or the other. The author writes of the transgressions of men, men who are cads, unfaithful men, preying men, men who pray for the empty seat by the pretty girl, men who listen not well to their wives’ instructions, men who like their lady doctors and long for the visits of their nurses, men in love with their cars, men who long for a just-so artisan poncho, men who long for their dead wives, men robbed by thieves and by time, men abandoned by neglected wives, men with guns, men in disguise.

Some favorites from this box of chocolates: “Hubert and Hector,” “Words in the Wind,” “A Silver Lining,” “Poncho Man.”

The editing and formatting are clean and tidy, unmarred by errors, and the writing is poetically beautiful at times. I am not a reader of short fiction—my taste runs more to the epic—but I can well imagine a dozen or more of his vividly drawn characters taking flight and headlining novels of their own should the fancy ever take them. Perhaps this talented traveling writer will tarry somewhere a little longer someday, and stretch out a short story into a longer one, even a novel, perhaps of experimental format where his characters meander in and out of each other’s lives. I am certain this traveler with so keen an eye could construct a worthy journey through a longer story for his readers should he ever choose to do so.

As for those reviewers who carp that he has bundled up his writing group stories and made a book of them, I can only reply that they should go forth and do the same if they have even a handful of stories as fine as the best of these. Would you not buy a man a cup of coffee in thanks if he told you a charming tale and made you laugh?


Birth Formations: What Multiple Home Births Teach about Living, Laboring and Mothering in the Now (New Moms, New Families Book 2)

by Gloria Ng  (Author) $2.99

I was given a free copy in exchange for a fair and honest review of this independently published work.

This 74 page volume is the third book in healing arts practitioner, writer and mother of three children Gloria Ng’s “New Moms, New Families” series. As the author describes her book, it is “a nuts-and-bolts approach on how to actualize the New Age concept of living in the present moment before conception, during pregnancy, throughout delivery and in the midst of postpartum motherhood for the busy woman who desires to do and have it all.”

The author brings all three of her identities—healer, writer, mother—to every page of her book with passion, intelligence and eloquence. She is a clear and articulate writer, and the book is well edited and well-formatted. She begins by recounting some of her healing background before heading into the heart of her discussion, the labor, delivery and mothering experiences and ideas she wishes to share with other mothers-to-be. She ends with an open call to live a fulfilling life in each moment, integrating mothering with all the rest that life has to offer. She also generously shares her poetry and smaller essays with the reader through links embedded in her book and on her website.

I struggled a bit to review this book, not due to any jarring defect, but rather due to its unclassifiable nature. It is part memoir of her years birthing and mothering her three children, laced with insights into her struggles and joys in that role and her personal discoveries about her own cultural background, growth and history. It is a bit like a “The Mother’s Way,”  a la Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” a structured book of exercises  for probing one’s life through meditations, writing exercises and daily practices in order to unleash the blocks that hold us back as writers or mothers. Every now and then it is a practical guide to the modern first world woman’s birth experience, with the hospital five minutes away, the midwife on speed-dial, the birthing tub fired up and ready, hubby well-trained on where to massage and when. Then there are the New Age incense-scented passages that glide in and out of the text. My tension over how to classify the work eased somewhat when she used the word “experimental” to describe her writing. “Aha!” I thought. “So this is what ‘experimental’ writing is.”

The label does not help me much though, as I still grapple with how to evaluate the work. As mentioned above, it is well-written, lucid and intelligent. As a reader, and perhaps one who is overly fond of knowing what I am reading and what to expect, I found myself confused and caught off balance at times by the shift from memoir to breathing exercises to in-depth practical discussions of when is labor going badly enough that you must bail and head for the hospital. I believe Ms. Ng is capable of writing an excellent memoir, an excellent New Age guide to labor and birthing exercises and practices for body and soul, and a practical “what to do when you are expecting”-type guide. I’m just not entirely sure that all these things belong in the same volume.

One other concern is the possibly polarizing way Ms. Ng chose to open her book, spending several chapters on the New Age ideas and practices of rebirthing to resolve past traumas, the importance of affirmations and other New Age ideas. She boldly outlines core premises like the idea that we must resolve past birth trauma in order to live free of the shadows it casts on our lives. Some readers who do not accept that premise and others in the same vein may be turned away at the gates of her book before it really gets rolling. On the other hand, those who do hold to such ideas will feel very comfortable and press forward.

The author then in her own words negates the need to resolve past trauma through these practices by discovering that such practices are irrelevant to the mission at hand, that of actually birthing a baby. “In other words, I can choose how I deliver my baby no matter whether I needed to complete birth traumas or not…the act of birthing seemed to be completely independent of one’s psychosocial and emotional past. Everything started from now, as if the past didn’t matter at all. Only the future mattered.” This I find to be an eminently sensible observation, and an excellent place to begin the book without running the risk of driving off the non-New Age adherents who might otherwise get a lot out of the rest of the book. This is of course the author’s choice, to be more or less inclusive and approachable versus quite clear in her viewpoint, but I found her choice to risk excluding the non-New Age reader interesting as she dwells somewhat in the memoir sections on her own struggles with cultural inclusion/exclusion.

Review: I believe the book will connect best with first time mothers-to-be who are open to New Age thinking and who wish to know vicariously as much as they can about the realities of laboring, birthing and new mothering. Ms. Ng is generous and open with her struggles and setbacks and inspirational and caring in how she shares the path forward that worked for her. The book shines brightest for me in the memoir-like sections where she shares these struggles and joys.

A star score is an irrelevant measure applied to a highly personal multi-faceted account of an individual’s felt experience. But a score I must give, and so I offer a blended score of 4, attempting to capture the experience of admiring the writing, the intelligence, the passion and the honesty (5); feeling confused at the kaleidoscope of genres vying for my attention (3); and finding much sensible and inspirational advice in the mix useful to new mothers (4).


Author: Peter Tieryas. This is Mr. Tieryas’s third novel, and is hotly anticipated by much of the science fiction press.

Genre: Science fiction alternate history

Length: 400 pages

Summary: Beniko Ishimura is a man with a tainted heritage, a tangle of conflicting loyalties to navigate and dangerous colleagues and companions. He’s a game censor in a dystopian totalitarian regime, charged with hunting down dissidents who reveal their disloyal behaviors and tendencies through their gameplay choices. Playing the part of a ladies man and a bit of a slacker, falling far behind in the promotions race, he needs to decide who he can trust and who he must fight in a shadowy world of secret police, yakuza and loyalty enforcers.

Set in a mind-bending version of the 1980s in Southern California, Beniko’s adventure navigates a world in which the Axis won World War II and divided the United States between them, with the Japanese ruling the West Coast and the Nazis the Eastern United States. Beniko’s parents were liberated from a Japanese internment camp only when the Emperor dropped a nuclear weapon on San Jose, wiping it from the map. Flashing forward to Beniko’s timeframe…When a subversive video game positing that the United States of American actually won the war starts appearing everywhere, he teams up with a single-minded Imperial agent to find and stamp out the source of the dissident game. Their journey takes them into the dark underbelly of the Japanese regime, revealing dangerous truths they must confront about their government, each other and themselves.

Review: I came to this book with high expectations, excited about the author, the high concept plot about an alternate history in which Japan won the war, the video game angle and the bold comparison to a favorite Philip K. Dick novel, The Man in the High Castle. (Note: I read United States of Japan two months before publication in ARC form, headed by a prominent note that final editing and formatting had not taken place. While there were a few distracting typos and formatting glitches in the version I read, the strengths and weaknesses of this work are clear enough in the current version that I will ignore editing details in this review on the assumption they will be cleaned up before final publication.)

Tieryas tells a tale of ambitious scope and scale and creates a vividly imaginative high tech world of porticals (super smart phones), mecha robots, viral weapons and insanely sadistic torture instruments. Never mind that video games were just crawling out of the primordial ooze of Pong and mobile phones were still the size of workboots in the real late 1980s. If the Japanese had in fact won the war, I am certain they would have gotten on with developing these gadgets much faster. Without revealing details, let us just stipulate that the author has a vivid imagination for technology, setting and cruelty. I will never look at ants the same way again.

Tieryas is a visual writer, big-screen ready, who takes the reader to each clearly delineated scene in memorable fashion, whether it be the seamy cyber-yakuza gangster hangout, the antiseptic torture chamber, the huge shiny shopping and gaming arcade or the super-sized mecha battleground. He’s also a solid story-teller, developing complex and well-motivated characters who pursue their agendas believably enough in the elaborately imagined world he has created. Even his smaller side characters have complete backstories and unique goals, all of which adds texture and color to his richly detailed world. He mixes a punk-colored, neon-lit Japanese social scene set in appropriately modern gender-equal host and hostess bars with details of Southern California settings twisted inside out, like an upmarket Compton, and Catalina Island, a sunswept destination for pleasure boats in our world, converted into a labor and torture camp in his dark vision.

It’s probably politically incorrect to notice such things in 2016, but I also admire Tieryas’s development of his female characters. Akiko, an intensely loyal and single-minded Imperial agent, charged with enforcing internal discipline and rooting out the disloyal, is a fully realized character with subtle and shifting motivations and goals. While she possesses, of course, all the overachiever fighter skills and gender-transcending attitude and courage of the modern Lara Croftian female superhero, she also has a rich inner life and very much plays out her own agenda rather than being a mere foil for Beniko. The early-discarded girlfriend, the red-headed/blonde/constantly shifting babe-alicious Tiffany is also interesting and intelligent with her own busy and complex existence and goals, even if her main early function appears to be cheerful sexpot companion. Without revealing details of her evolution, she turns out to be so much more. It’s a pleasure to find this level of development lavished on female characters in what one might expect to be a pretty male-dominated flat character robot gamer world. In fact, Beniko, the slacker and ladies man, comes off as somewhat underdeveloped and passive in the first half of the book, partly in comparison to the active and dynamic Akiko and Tiffany. Akiko more than holds her own as an equal protagonist throughout the story without ever lapsing into the trope of the love interest, an admirable choice.

I find much to recommend in United States of Japan: the high concept plot, richly detailed tech world, complex characters and a certain gritty, dark atmosphere that permeates every page. Tieryas also drives a fast pace, moving swiftly from action to discovery and forward, always forward, with dialogue alternating with his vivid visuals to keep the action moving.

However, I am forced to admit I did not enjoy the book as much as I had hoped. Aside from the minor distractions of the editing and formatting lapses, which I am ignoring, I found his writing style fell somewhere between annoying to downright distressing, jarring me out of immersion in his terrific world and hurling me into a state approaching rage at times. Great storyteller, lousy wordsmith. While 95%–no, 98%!– of his prose is straightforward, muscular, action-oriented and clean, nothing fancy but not bad, perfectly suited to his fast-paced storytelling and chosen genre, every now and then he reached for a literary flourish that drove me nuts, and not in a good way.

“Akiko was in a store that sold memories, [cool, I like this, wonder where you are going, but I’m in for the ride] a mishmash of tawdry emancipation bottled into faked vulnerability and fingernails from forgotten musicians grilled on kebabs of misplaced desire. [Huh? Lemme read that again…kebabs, really? Never mind, I’ll keep going…] If only she’d had better taste, she could have escaped the corpulence of discontent. [wha—? Okay, so it must be a typo thing. Keep going.] But no, her belly swelled [did I miss a mating scene somewhere?] and her finger nails turned into claws as her nose gushed latex paint.”

Hrm. I am left befuddled and speechless.

This sort of passage is a frozen fish smacked across the reader’s face in the midst of an otherwise thrilling ride. To be fair, it was a dream sequence. But still. It happened far too many times, and not just in dream sequences. He has a few other style tics, merely annoying and not rage inducing, like occasional oddball word choices that are not quite wrong but are fairly weird, lapses into passive voice, or occasions when he starts off a sentence with one subject, and sticks in a clause with an unrelated subject at the end. Distracting but not deadly. But the occasional patches of purple prose, the abstract metaphors and the use of $500 words where $5 words would do must go, or readers will rise up like the Americans and revolt.

The other main difficulty I experienced as a reader, beyond suffering from the occasional bouts of purple prose, was feeling alienated from Beniko and Akiko. I found myself struggling to stay connected to them or care what happened to them for much of the first half of the book because, let’s face it, these were tough people doing a tough job in a dark and dystopian world, and that sort of thing takes its toll. They cannot be Disney princesses cavorting with cute bunnies while bluebirds sing overhead. But it took me to 50% through the book before I had a spontaneous experience of caring for Akiko and feeling empathy for her position and fully 60% through before I had the same experience for Beniko.

By the end, Tieryas had won me over for both characters, and I do not want to spoil the experience for readers by explaining why, but I fear many readers will not persist far enough to reach the payoff. I would encourage readers to persist, but the purple prose problem, while minor in the grand scheme of things, exacerbates the character alienation problem because the readers begin to mistrust the author’s character decisions partly BECAUSE the prose is so annoying.

In the author’s defense, I note it is probably worth trusting an author who takes such care with names and fusses in the early chapters with the details of names. Beniko’s mother Ruth, which means “compassion, or empathy with the suffering,” and his father Ezekiel, named for the Old Testament prophet who foresaw both the fall and the redemption of Israel did not, could not have, accidentally given their one and only son a girl’s name without reason, a name that can mean “red child” or “child of goodness” if you continue the cultural mashup and use the Latin meaning of bene and the Japanese meaning of “child” for ko. These are all very strange names for Japanese Nissei; they were not chosen randomly by the author.

My struggle with this issue of alienation from the major characters leads me to one final observation. As I said above, I did not enjoy reading this book. This tale is dismal, distressing and paints an unrelieved portrait of the hypocrisy, the violence, the fear, the self-doubt, the mistrust and unending stress of living under a totalitarian regime.

My lack of enjoyment points not to a fault in the book, but rather to its strength AS a portrait of life under a totalitarian regime. My distress was the distress of the characters forced to live in such a dark world. The author created in me the reader the experience of living in his bleak world. His marketing people want to claim the mantle of spiritual successor to Philip K. Dick because of a superficial resemblance to another tale set in an alternate history where Japan has conquered the U.S. West Coast.

Fair enough, and probably one that will sell books, but I believe the more relevant comparison is to George Orwell’s 1984. I also disliked the experience of reading 1984 but have found it lingers in my memory and my thoughts long after my visceral recoil from the reading experience has faded. So too, I suspect, will United States of Japan linger with readers, for Tieryas has done his historical homework. Under the glitz and eye-candy of the grand mecha fights and cool gangster sets is a powerful portrait of life under the all-seeing eyes of the secret police in wartime Japan. His characters are not particularly Japanese, and his regime is not particularly Japanese, but his depiction of life under a totalitarian regime rings true, frighteningly true, and this truth, in the end, is where the value and merit in his tale lies.

Recommendation: Read it if you have a strong stomach for gritty dystopias, love a good mecha fight, sexy strong women, video games and late-blooming heroes. I’m giving this ambitious, memorable and flawed work four stars out of five, an approximation attempting to blend five stars for scope, theme, ambition and historical roots and good fast-paced page turning plot; four stars for having complex characters but maybe making them one notch too hard to care about early on and three stars for purple prose lapses.



Blood Ties: Book 1 of the Blood War Chronicles

Author: Quincy J. Allen

Length: 276 pages

Genre: As the author puts it, a Western Steampunk Epic Fantasy. As this reviewer elaborates, a genre-blending mashup of Fantasy, Paranormal, Steampunk and Western.

Summary: Half-clockwork gunslinger Jake Lasater and his blue-eyed mulatto riding partner Cole McJunkins storm through a clockwork Weird Wild West battling werewolves, Chinese Tongs, crazed European soldiers and a deadly clockwork mercenary called Ghiss aided by a talented horse with a mighty kick named Lumpy, a beautiful Chinese tinker magician named Qi and his fast-on-her-feet ward Skeeter. Oh, and in the mix there’s a savvy mad emperor and sexy mysterious noblewoman in need of assistance as well.

Set in a vaguely post-Civil War American West, Jake’s adventure begins, after a few preliminary poker games, gunfights and assassination attempts, when he receives a telegram from Qi asking for his help on a job in San Francisco. San Francisco, where the Chinese Tongs who tried to kill him are headquartered. But does our hero turn down an opportunity to head straight for danger? Of course not! “Well, son, lemme tell ya…when a lady like Qi Lau Xing sends you an urgent telegram asking for help, you pretty much get off your tail and lend a hand. You’ll understand better when your suspenders are a little further from the ground.” Without spoiling the rest of the story, let it be said that mayhem and swashbuckling ensue, introducing a vibrant and well-drawn world, peopled with vivid characters and setting the stage for epic adventures to come in later stories, as this one rollicks to a cliffhanger ending.

Review: I enjoyed this book, straight up. Definitely a genre-blender, with steampunk showing up in airships, half-clockwork repaired veterans, green goggles and top hats everywhere, paranormal touches in the occasional werewolf, magicians and enchanted guns and prosthetics, and old school Western appearing in beautifully detailed Old West scenes sent ever so slightly askew by all the madness, like calculating whether your mechanical arm can draw faster than his when the poker game goes awry. If you are a genre purist, prepare to be appalled. If you can roll with author Quincy J. Allen’s mad mix, prepare to be enthralled as he builds a beautifully detailed, creative and markedly visual world.

Why did I enjoy it? Pace. Characters. World-building. Writing.

The dominant pace is breakneck page-turning madness, as we race from one shoot ‘em up to the next, with major battle scenes every other chapter or so, lovingly detailed in Wild West meets Steampunk tropes. But this skilled author knows when to slow the dance down and savor a moment, for high stakes poker games, encounters with lovely ladies or moving moments with Jake and his ward Skeeter. It’s a fast read, with snappy dialogue driving the action.

Author Allen’s characters are beautifully detailed, nuanced and vividly memorable. Our hero Jake is noble and good, in spite of the tough hand he’s been dealt, and skilled at vanquishing bad guys, but only the ones who earn it by making life hard for others. Not a bad philosophy. Cole McJunkins is loyal, quick-thinking and equally skilled at bad-guy vanquishing, and accepts his friend’s despised “machiner” half-clockwork nature as generously as his friend accepts his mulatto skin in a racist time. Skeeter is a fun character, a rebellious but fabulously skilled and street-savvy teenager who, guess what, breaks rules but is grown up enough to handle the consequences. From what I’ve seen so far of this author, I would guess Skeeter has bigger roles to play in future episodes of this epic adventure. Then there is the alluring Qi, magician and tinker, too busy with her own life and missions to take up as our hero’s girlfriend. I’ll leave it to readers to discover on their own Ghiss, mad Emperor Norton and the European lady in need of assistance, not to mention Grandfather Chung, just to mention the more important ones. But what’s great about this writer is even the one-off small characters carve out their own moment, like Marshal Billie Sisty—female, someone who could “speak softly and still know how to work a leg iron when the situation required it”—who had to reprimand Jake for shooting within city limits, although she did allow that he “did the wrong thing for the right reason…or is it the right thing for the wrong reason.”

On world-building, maybe I’m partial because I am from Colorado like the author, and he obviously loves Colorado and its colorful Old West heritage and uses that knowledge masterfully to create a firm foundation for the crazy world he goes on to build. From an overnight stay in the Horace Tabor House to quaffing a brew at the Colorado Brewery, Allen knows and loves the real Colorado, even as he covers it up with steampunks and werewolves and half-clockwork villains and heroes. He’s a visual writer, lovingly detailing the gadgets and gehaws, but never slowing the action down to do so. As mentioned above, he proudly refuses to color between the genre lines, or pick a genre for that matter, so buckle up for a few chapters as you rollercoaster from Old West to steampunk to paranormal, but trust that you will know and understand the rules of his mad world and they will eventually make sense. This is probably not a good book for someone who likes their reality real or objects to enchanted mechanical arms, but it’s a great book for someone who is delighted by creative surprises every few paragraphs.

And the writing. It is fine, damn fine. Writing in my mind is five things: the plot, the characters, the world-building, the prose and the quality of the editing. The dull stuff first—editing. I won’t suffer bad grammar or typos. I found one skinny little typo, which is miraculous in a newly published novel, so I take my top hat off to the author for delivering such clean prose. Full points for great well-motivated characters, a rollicking fast-paced plot plausible enough in its own madcap way and a beautifully detailed world, which leaves us to discuss the actual prose. I love this writer’s dialogue and humor. His style reminds me of my favorite Robert E. Heinlein stories, with swashbuckling, wise-cracking heroes, tongue-in-cheek at times with a knowing awareness and humor that leavens both dangerous and moving moments. Allen takes even the tiniest moment and gives it a little sparkle. Like when our hero has to jump naked from bed into a raging gunfight and find a way to present himself with some modesty a few minutes later to a beautiful woman, covered only by his holster. Or his description of a small moment in a card game:

““You’re called, mister,” the cowboy added.

Cole sighed and turned over his hole card. It was a king. The cowboy turned pale first, knowing he was beat, and just as Jake suspected, his face went from pale white to crimson in that slow transition far too many drunken cowboys get right before the shooting starts. Jake could see the alcohol coaxing liquid backbone into the cowboy.””

Recommendation: Read it if you are a fan of steampunk or Weird Wild West genre fiction. You will love the vivid characters, rollicking plot, madly creative world and snappy dialogue. May not have quite enough magic for fantasy and paranormal fans, and I promise there is far too much madness going on for those of you who like your reality real. As my motto is “Reality is for those who lack imagination,” call me a fan. I’m looking forward to the next installment in this madcap universe of the Blood War Chronicles.