Steampunk Thriller Book Review: Mission Clockwork

When I committed to getting my new reviews up on time and working on a new series of articles for the ADHD and Writing series, I didn’t expect a nasty bout of food poisoning to deliver me into pneumonia (dunno if they were related, but it sucked either way) and to be unable to even get out of bed for over 2 weeks. So yeah. That sucked.

I’m back and functional again, so here’s the (long overdue) review of Arthur Slade’s Mission Clockwork, a steampunky alternate history thriller set in London at the dawn of the Industrial age.

The story opens with a prologue-type first chapter, where the brilliant Dr. Hyde is propositioned by an attractive young woman with a claw for a hand about working on a secret new project. It’s clear he’s setting up the antagonist here, and the resulting scene involving feeding his “prized” hound a terrible concoction and watching it tear itself apart is suitably creepy.

In the next chapter we’re introduced to the first of our two protagonists, a deformed young man with shape-shifting powers named Modo. Modo has been adopted and trained for most of his life by the enigmatic Mr. Socrates, his wet nurse Mrs. Finchley, and his Indian guard, Tharpa. He goes through various combat exercises and basic education, and then Mr. Socrates tells him he has a special mission. He hops in the carriage and Mr. Socrates dumps him on the street, telling him it’s now his job to survive there.

He sets up shop as a private detective and is contacted by a young woman who tells him she’s looking for her brother, who is a member of the Young Scientists society in London. He follows the man and nearly dies in the hands of the scientists, only to discover the woman was not who she appeared to be.

This young woman’s name is Octavia, and she’s our second protagonist. Also a lower-ranked member of Mr. Socrates’ society of spies, she was sent by him to test Modo and see what sort of information he’d be able to bring back. The two of them end up having to work together to solve the mystery of disappearing children and murderous aristocrats causing havoc in London.

I can’t talk too much more about the plot with spoilers, as it’s a bit of an unfolding mystery throughout, but I will say I found Slade’s writing style engaging and interesting, though there was quite a bit more passive language than need be in some of the early chapters. The characters were interesting, and I like the steampunky twisted fairy tale/alt history angle the story takes on as it progresses.

The pseudo-romantic subplot between the two protagonists was a bit disappointing, especially given the deception on Modo’s part throughout the book. I was really hoping he wouldn’t go there, and it made me sad when he did. That said, the action scenes were memorable (think Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame blended with old school sci-fi like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and interesting, and I never had a hard time picturing what was happening or where the characters were in space.

The climax was fun and action-packed, with a character death tease and sacrifice arc that made me smile. The “science” behind it was a little thin, and I wonder how much Slade thought through the rules of his steampunk science before he wrote the book. Am I curious enough to pick up the second one? Maybe. It was a short, fun read and I’m glad I read it. But I’m not sure if it gets me into the all-out binge reading mindset that some of the previous books I’ve reviewed have.

4.0/5, worth picking up if you want a light read, but nothing really groundbreaking or original here.

Paranormal Thriller Review: Frostbite

Frostbite is a prequel short story set in E.J. Stevens’ Ivy Granger Detective universe.

Given how short the story actually is, it’s hard to talk too much about the plot without spoiling it. It opens with a short prologue in the form of a tourists’ pamphlet talking about the sort of paranormal shenanigans someone visiting Ivy’s hometown might expect. We then open in Ivy’s detective office, with an older female client begging Ivy for help dealing with a haunting at her home.

At first she and her partner shrug off the haunting theory as an orgy from a type of fae that often infests houses, but as the woman describes her concerns, she ultimately piques their interest and they accept the case.

What follows is a unique take on paranormal activity and a touching look at what someone will sacrifice for those they love. As short of a time as I spent with the characters, I found myself drawn in by their world and some of the unique creatures and ideas presented within the haunted home. Some of the imagery was disturbing, but not in a torture porn or particularly gorey way. More…unsettling.

It’s hard to get a feel for an author’s overall style in such a short work (though frequent readers of short stories will likely argue with me), but I will say that the concentrated dose of creativity in the climax alone piqued my interest in the rest of the series. I wish the author would have spent a little more time on the mystery and let me linger in the house a little while longer, because although satisfying, the climax felt a little rushed with the buildup that led me there.

4/5 stars, looking forward to checking out more of Stevens’ work.

Epic Fantasy Book Review: Fire in the Dawn

Fire In The Dawn is a dark, fascinating epic fantasy from Justin Fike, the first in his Twin Skies trilogy. It blends epic fantasy with multiple sets of cultural practices and mythologies from throughout Asia, which gives the entire book an interesting pan-Asian flair.

We open with a beautiful prologue involving a human character journeying to the world of the Velynn, the sky gods and goddeses that rule over Fire In the Dawn‘s world. The character demonstrates the magic of the four elements of Fike’s world, and with his incantations and motions we get some beautiful philosophy and poetry to go with the demonstration of magic.

Fast forward to Chapter One and we meet our protagonist, Kyren, the son of the fallen Emperor who was betrayed by one of the more powerful Se’gin (read: nobility) families working below him. We see him posing as a Rai’gin (read: peasants, no last names, lowest of the low) servant with a mental disability and musing over the fate of Rana, a beautiful Daynan (also known as Nightkin, dark-skinned remnants of another tribe that once populated the region and now has few remaining survivors) woman he has a massive crush on but cannot approach due to the aforementioned disguise.

Later in the story we discover that one of the families that had betrayed his father wants to ascend to the role of regional governor/representation in the Council of Five, the ruling body under the now Shogin, formerly emperor.

The author’s depictions of how these announcements fall out and how politics work within the world are stunning, as are his depictions of the minor characters I can’t talk about too much without spoiling future chapters.

I definitely got the sense of a fully developed world and the author’s confidence moving within it. Even the line-level writing is original and compelling, and I particularly enjoyed the little snippets of poetry, history, prose, and philosophy that head each chapter and hint at the themes contained within. Although Kyren is hot-headed and impetuous (and I disliked how much of that was attributed to his race, but we’ll get there in a moment), I found myself sympathizing with him and his plight as the book went on.

The magic system itself is well rendered and original, clearly borne of a great deal of painstaking research into the cultures he mimicked and used as the basis for his world. I’m not sure whether I can quite call appropriation here or not, but for what it’s worth I enjoyed my time spent within the world and look forward to the second book when it comes out.

I also particularly loved the climax of the novel. Although much of what happened was abstract and difficult for the character (and the reader, through the character’s confusion) to comprehend, the descriptions were stunning and my emotions rose with the peak of the text. I’m definitely looking forward to the release of the second book in the series sometime later this year.

4.5/5, well worth your time and attention.

Epic Fantasy Book Review: City of Shards

City of Shards is the debut novel in Steve Rodgers’ Spellgiver series, an epic fantasy with strong sword and sorcery overtones. I’d initially tried to get the review out for release day on the 30th, as the author was kind enough to provide me a review copy, but unexpected guests delayed my ability to finish it.

And boy was I upset about the delay!

The book opens with the story of Larin, a young orphan boy taken in by his uncle Akul, who resides in the temple of Emja, the supreme human god. When he’s around 10, he starts exhibiting strange behavior involving thrusting his fist in the air and shouting a phrase in an arcane language at the sky. Alarmed by this, his uncle secludes him in the store room of Emja’s temple, lest the priests ever discover his strange fits.

Fast forward to Larin at sixteen, and things get a bit worse for him when he manages to anger Oarl, a bully/gang leader who all but rules the Wormpile, the slum where Emja’s temple resides. He makes friends with a young thief who can stand by his side because he can “outrun everyone else in the Wormpile,” so Oarl’s men can’t touch him. When the bully gang finds out about Larin’s fits, they take to tormenting him specifically for the purpose of forcing them out of him, much to his chagrin.

Larin’s life shapes up for the better when his father contacts a sorceress. She creates a charm for him that stops the fits, and with his newfound freedom, Larin sets about taking revenge on those who hurt him. The campaign is short lived when the six-legged god of chaos and pain Morphat begins tricking the Wormpile residents into training at his temple of pain and misery, and Larin discovers his true purpose: bringing the mad demon king Haraf back into the world.

I can’t go too much deeper without spoilers, but I loved this book for all the reasons I wanted to love Breakers of the Dawn. Later on in the book we get some scenes from the point of view of an indigen (six legged monsters banished in a prior war to the icy part of the continent) general, and the creature genuinely felt both inhuman and relatable.

The writing style was gorgeous without being over the top, and despite how many unique concepts I was introduced to over the span of the novel, I never found myself lost. The magical system was well explained and I never found Rodgers breaking any of his own rules, which is a major plus. The idea of a god war between factions isn’t new, but the way this one was presented certainly was, and I found myself hooked into Larin’s (and later minor characters’ whose POV we explore from a quarter of the book onward) struggle right away.

All his characters were well developed, and the villain, once revealed, is bone-chillingly creepy without being overly generic. If I hadn’t been interrupted unexpectedly, I’d probably end up binge reading the whole thing in a night or two.

The book’s formatting was well done, though I did find a bit of odd line spacing between the chapter images and chapter headers. It didn’t bother me any, and for all I know it was an early copy glitch.

5/5, can’t wait for In the Claws of the Indigen.

Historical Sci-fi Book Review: Sarah Canary

I don’t often review traditionally published books on this blog, but I felt the desire to do so after reading Sarah Canary by Karen Jay Fowler for my Reading Like a Writer book group. It was written the year I was born, so it’s not as though there aren’t a ton of reviews already out there.

The story opens with Chin, a Chinese migrant worker who was brought to the Pacific Northwest (where the story takes place) on a slave ship so he could be forced to work on the railroads going West. He runs into the “ugliest woman he’s ever seen,” in the forest, and because she’s making such a racket and he’s the one who discovered her, his father orders him to get rid of her.

She runs off into the woods and he chases her, thinking she’s a “ghost lover” that will grant his wildest dreams if he treats her nicely. She ends up in an insane asylum and he’s captured by a group of white people after passing out in a graveyard following the chase. When he awakens, she’s nowhere to be seen, and he’s in a jail cell with a native American man (consistently referred to as an Indian) named Tom who killed a Chinese man. The white people want Chin to kill Tom because they believe that it will keep Tom’s tribe from attacking their town, even though the white folks were the ones who ordered the killing.

Chin is forced to spend the night with Tom and gets to know him. Tom demands Chin show him something he’s never seen or he’ll kill him, and Chin, unable to do so, is saved by the hooting of an owl that Tom considers his totem spirit. They share a deep conversation, and come morning Chin is forced to hang Tom in front of the town for his freedom.

This is the strongest emotional moment in the book, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was incredibly difficult to read, given that I myself am from an indigenous tribe from this area. The problem is, after such a strong start the book slides rapidly downhill. We get two more point of view characters, an insane man named B.J. (who ended up being my favorite character for his silly antics and surprisingly deep, if random, insights into the world around him), and a historical feminist named Adeleine.

After the scene with Tom, Chin continues to chase Sarah Canary from the asylum at Steilacoom, Washington through Oregon and eventually into California, where race riots and Chinese lynchings are becoming the norm. The problem I had with this, though, is that almost everything that happens feels like it’s just happenstance. He stumbles in and out of his troubles (as do the other two main characters), and after he stops believing Sarah is a ghost lover, his motivations become clouded and I couldn’t understand why he’d keep risking his life for this clearly disabled woman.

An antagonist outside of the racist and sexist culture doesn’t really emerge until 2/3 of the way through the book, and by then we don’t have enough time to get to know his motivations beyond just being a caricature of legitimately evil white men at the time. I know the author intended for the book to be read as sci-fi to sci-fi readers, but you really have to dig deep into a few specific scenes to see the speculative influence, and even then the author seems hell bent on making sure you doubt the sci-fi interpretations by the next scene.

Although the writing style is gorgeous and the interior monologues of the characters quite poetic, their lack of agency and the book’s terrible pacing made me doubt I’d keep reading if it wasn’t for my book club having assigned it.

3/5 for the writing style alone. I know she had to have gotten better later, but this one just didn’t do it for me.

YA Urban Fantasy Book Review: Shadow’s Wake

Shadow’s Wake is the debut novel in the Ruadhan Sidhe series by Aiki Flinthart. The author sent me a pre-release copy and shared an interesting tidbit: she learned how to throw knives so she could sketch out the action scenes better! That alone was pretty cool, but once I dug into the book, I knew I’d found something special.

The story opens with a young Rowan Gilmore backed into a corner at ChristChurch by two armed men who want to kidnap her for reasons she doesn’t understand. Her friend, Sarah, reveals the men threatened her mother and forced her to give up Rowan’s location. Angry and hurt, a dark power awakens within Rowan, and she ends up killing her attackers in cold blood.

Flash forward to the modern day, and we find Rowan and her mother Anna in Australia two years later. They haven’t had any signs of being pursued, and Anna is getting romantically involved with a mysterious Mitch in her company. Rowan, while training in the employee gym, makes the aquaintance of Mitch’s son Paul, who she accidentally knocks out in self defense. She’s able to convince him he fell and escapes having to explain her unusual strength, but ends up being forced to meander her way out of a date.

Paul, who isn’t used to being told “no” for anything, gives up after a mini-fit of disappointment and leaves. On her way home, Rowan gets mugged by two men and defends herself. Here she meets Fynn, a mysterious young man who seems to know something about why the men from her childhood were after her. Problem is, he has an agenda of his own.

What follows is a fast paced urban fantasy with strong sci-fi elements, combining Celtic myth, science, and young adult themes into a powerful action narrative. I really enjoyed the first person writing style and strong authorial voice that Flinthart employs throughout the novel. It kept me turning pages long into the night, as did the complex motivations of her supporting cast.

I also loved how Flinthart deftly avoids the “love triangle” trope so often foisted on female-led Urban Fantasy these days, and how she didn’t shy away from the sexually charged nature of some of the encounters between Fynn and Rowan.

The one complaint I have is that Paul felt a little underdeveloped, and the ending was less enticement and more cliffhanger. One of the major subplots in the book, the meaning of the mysterious word ocair, is left unsolved by the end, which was a bit of a disappointment. I would’ve kept reading to the next book either way, and it felt more like a tease than good storytelling.

5/5, thoroughly enjoyable read. Looking forward to the next one!

Science Fiction Book Review: Breakers of the Dawn

Breakers of the Dawn is a sci-fi thriller by Zachariah Wahrer. It’s the first book in his Breakers series.

It’s an incredibly ambitious blend of the hard sci-fi, thriller, and space opera genres, and for all the big ideas Wahrer presented and the intriguing characters I saw the story through, I really wanted to love it. But let me back up a bit.

The story opens from the POV of our first protagonist, Felar, a hardcore military woman who rose to the ranks on her own merits in the Ashamine military, as she presents information about what Initiates (read: recruits) in the lower ranks can look forward to if they work hard enough. She’s immediately accosted by a former classmate who failed out of the Founder’s Commando (think of them as like Special Ops) training regiment and believes that Felar slept her way to the top. He ignites a fight between her and his top student, then she blacks out as she’s accosted again by a group of men she can’t fight off. We’ll get back to that in a minute.

Next, we meet Wake, an engineer working in the Ashamine mines who is falsely accused of sabotaging (or neglecting, the charges aren’t quite clear) lifts running up and down the mountain he works on. The accident happens off screen and in the past, though he does have a dream sequence that sort of explains it. Someone neglected safety procedures and ten miners died. He’d submitted a bunch of requests for better parts, was instructed to use the faulty parts, and the accident stopped waiting to happen.

Next on the list is Maxar, a convict (don’t recall learning his crime) forced to fight in brutal cage matches on the Bloodsport asteroid for the amusement of the upper class in Ashamine society. He plans and executes his escape later on, but here we simply learn a bit about him and his attitudes toward the empire.

Then, we meet Tremmilly, a foolish and rather naive woman from a backwater planet who grew up underneath the thumb of one of the many Ashamine cults not officially recognized by the government. Her caretaker tells her a prophecy involving 5 people (you can see where this is going) and that she happens to be one of them and must bring them together to stop the mysterious Breakers. We don’t yet know what or who the Breakers are, but the beginning of the prophecy sounds menacing enough to Tremmilly to spur her on her later adventures.

POV number 5 is Lothis, a young boy who has lived his entire life in a single room, with a single routine, and knows nothing but that room, that routine, and the AI training him. He becomes far more important later, but this chapter simply introduces him.

POV 6 is the Founder, the dictatorial leader of the Ashamine empire. We find out right away that all is not as it seems with both the war against the psychic insect race the Entho-la-ah-mines, nor with government as it’s supposed to be run in this world. He orders an underling to put down a rebellion, but we don’t find out much about the plan until later, when the underling leads a chapter of his own.

POV 7 is Cazz-ak-tak, an Entho who has been sent back to the human-overtaken Entho homeworld on a special mission. In his introductory chapter we’re introduced to the concept of the Great Thought, a psychic pool where all the Entho minds in the universe can meet, and where collective joy and sorrow is shared across the peaceful species. We also find out that the Ashamine empire has acted as an effective terrorist cell against the Entho species, and that this has turned out terribly for all involved.

The aforementioned Founder’s underling is also a POV character far later, but for spoiler reasons I can’t speak much about his role in the plot. His chapters along with Cazz’s, Lothis’s, and Maxar’s were among the more vivid and interesting in the book. That’s about all I can say about him.

As I mentioned earlier, I love a lot of the cool ideas and tropes Wahrer played with in this book, but the whole thing ended up bogged down by passive language and telly storytelling. As soon as I started getting invested in a character or scenario, I ended up dealing with a barrage of over-explaining about how they felt or thought about something, or passive recounting of what the “had done” prior to the chapter. Overuse of gerunds (“ing” verbs) abounded and all in all, the clumsy writing style made it hard to read. It’s nothing a good writing group or competent line editor couldn’t fix, but since I had to read it as written, it did drag down the whole experience.

Also, Felar is raped in that first chapter, but apart from being a reason for her transfer to another planet, the trauma is never really addressed later in the book. She just kinda… forgets it. And that upset me being a rape survivor myself. I’ve known women in the military who were raped. No amount of training makes you just “shake it off.”

All of that said, the world Wahrer built is what pushed me through to the end. I won’t spoil much, but I will say he did leave a bunch of dangling plot threads for the sequel.

3/5 stars. If you can get through the clumsy writing style and some of the problematic themes, I think it has potential.

Dystopian Thriller Book Review: No More Heroes

No More Heroes is a dystopian thriller by Roo Macleod, the first in the Heroes series. It takes place in England, specifically London’s Ostere district in the far future, so both setting and character voice were refreshing for dystopian thriller.

It opens with Ben Jackman describing the horrors of life on the street in Ostere. He’s soon pulled aside by an old friend-turned-enemy of his, Marvin, who gives him a bag for safekeeping and asks him to get it to his mother-in-law. Shortly afterward, bombs go off in the town square, and he’s sent running for his life. He ditches the bag, not realizing its importance, and when he returns it’s gone. Everyone he knows seems to want that bag. He’s a marked man from then on, both by the richest men in the area and the cops, as well as his own gang when they find out.

And that’s most of the plot. The author’s writing style is gritty and unique, but I found myself struggling to get into the story to begin with. I didn’t learn much about Ben besides his angst until almost a third of the way through the book, and that’s about when I became interested in what was going on with the bag and what fate might befall his friends. In some places I felt like there were too many characters to keep track of, all with one and two syllable names that sounded similar or at least weren’t said enough times to give them significance.

That said, his action sequences were fantastic. Once I did get into the rhythm of the story, I found myself drawn into the more action-heavy portions, and loved that the author didn’t make Ben into a practical superhero in every encounter. There were several where he laid low and described things as he heard them, waiting for other factions to play things out rather than jumping in and risking his life. You’d think that would make for a boring story, but in this case it was fitting with the character and added increased tension to those scenes. Well done.

I also got a strong sense of the setting from the protagonist’s monologues. There were some truly unique (if vulgar) turns of phrase in some of them, even if a few felt like we’d shifted out of first person into a sort of omniscient just to capture the ambiance.

I figured out where the bag was and what was in it before the author intended, but I could also chalk that up to good foreshadowing and writers’ intuition. To sum up, the strongest points were setting, writing style, and well written action sequences. The weakest parts were character development, pacing, and sometimes overly lengthy dialogue sequences.

The ending also wasn’t quite satisfying, as several plot threads were left dangling for the next book in the series. All in all it was an enjoyable romp, but as a character driven author and reader, it wasn’t quite what I’d usually read.

4/5 stars, great for people deep in the action genre, but expect a slow build if you’re looking for strong characters.

Urban Fantasy Book Review: Broken Realms

Broken Realms is a fast-paced Urban Fantasy by D.W. Moneypenny, a former journalist who currently lives in Portland, Oregon. It’s the first installment in the five-part Chronicles of Mara Lantern series.

The book opens with Mara Lantern (our reluctant protagonist) arguing with a good friend about her younger brother’s insistence on using an old cell phone to make believe communication with their dead father. Mara is a gadget whiz, a grease monkey who delights in older technology with all its moving parts despite the current era’s determination to march toward the future.

She boards a plane heading back home to Portland and things get…weird. Flashing blue lights, sudden altitude change, rapid shifts in the other passengers, and then she’s faced with a clone of herself carrying a glowing blue object. This other self is pursued by a teenage boy trying to talk her down from using said object for purposes we don’t find out until far later. Mara reaches out and touches her other self, an explosion happens, and suddenly she awakens on the side of the river with passengers from the flight all floating around her.

No casualties. The press hails it as a miracle, but all is not as it seems. Here we meet our next set of protagonists, two investigators trying to solve the mystery of the plane crash. I can’t get too deep into their plotline in my synopsis or I’ll end up entering spoiler territory, but suffice to say their scenes generate conflict and intrigue when we do get them, as they suspect Mara of being the cause of the explosion.

The author’s writing style is clean and functional, descriptive when he needs to be and passable when he doesn’t. I live in the Pacific Northwest region and have visited Portland many times. He captures the feel of the city quite well and I enjoyed that aspect of the story. The side characters Ping and Sam (again, spoilers if I get too deep into their identities) ended up being far more interesting and believable than the protagonist.

Her character arc centers around accepting that the Universe is bigger than she is, and that she has near god-like powers to shape it. During the first half of the book her doubt is believable, but as the story goes along, I found myself more annoyed and disbelieving than tense when she continued to refuse to accept the truth before her eyes until the VERY end. The side characters and fantastic world building carried me through, but I’d be lying if I said the tension in the story had anything to do with the protagonist’s fate toward the end.

3.5/5, I borrowed the next two and plan on reviewing them. If the series doesn’t get any better, I’ll probably drop it.

Weird Western Book Review: Coilhunter

Coilhunter is a Weird Western by prolific indie author Dean F. Wilson. It’s the first in his Coilhunter series. The third book just came out last week, and all three are on Kindle Unlimited as of this writing. I plan on reviewing all three for reasons you’ll see below.

The story opens with a scene familiar to devotees of spaghetti Westerns. A lone lawmaker, made steampunk by the presence of an air filtering mask, waltzes into a saloon where a group of men are busying themselves with a poker game. He’s looking for an outlaw, and his mere presence strikes fear into the hearts of all four men. What follows is a quick action sequence where the Coilhunter showcases his gun-toting prowess and brings the body into the lawman’s office, only to find that his usual payment officer has disappeared.

This leads him to hunt down the people who murdered his friend…and eventually the people who murdered his family.

The writing style is a bit distant and many of the scenes felt ripped from the movies rather than realistic, but this is often the case for modern Westerns and Weird Westerns in particular, so I didn’t let it bother me too much. That said, some segments (particularly in the beginning) got a little tell-y, and I didn’t feel like I really sank into Nox’s point of view fully until around a third of the way through.

The world is rich and imaginative. Creatures encountered in the mines and through the desert on Nox’s journey felt threatening and (mostly) realistic, and even the minor characters were engaging and interesting. Dean’s real talents showcase themselves in dialogue. For a “man of few words,” Nox ends up speaking with others quite a bit, and his tongue-in cheek wit and no-nonsense approach to being his own lawman won me over by the end.

The greatest weaknesses in the piece came in toward the beginning and end. The opening tone was distant and as mentioned previously, I had a bit of a hard time sinking into the story until deeper in than I would’ve liked. The ending felt quite rushed and the final scene felt a little cliche, though I’m still interested in seeing where the series ends up going as a whole.

All and all an entertaining read.

4/5, I’ve already borrowed the next two and plan on reviewing them sometime next month.