Review – Flames of Mira (The Rift Walker #1), by Clay Harmon

The two things that I’ve seen most frequently mentioned by people reviewing Flames of Mira are the setting and the magic system, and while both merit mention, neither are why you ought to read this book. For all of the gritty, brutal, evocative action, the story is one that explores the nature of how pursuit of ends can lead to justifying the use of fundamentally corrupt means, and more to the point how a person with “no choice” but to be complicit in those fundamentally corrupt means may, in fact, always have a choice (if, of course, that choice comes at a cost that one might not willingly pay). So, while you absolutely will revel in the magic and the action (read on, oh ho, read on) and the setting is a spectacular break from the standard SFF fare, the soul of the book is deeper, and more satisfying, and absolutely worth your time.

Clay Harmon gives us the story of a powerful “elemental,” Ig, who is in the service of the ruler of a city state. In many ways, this story feels in some ways like it would be right at home on the streets of New York City when (at least their Hollywood versions) mafia bosses establish territory and feud for control. But, unlike watching the scions of the Corleone family engaging in power politics from someone on the inside, Flames of Mira gives us Ig, an enforcer whose free will is somewhat uncertain. From Ig’s perspective, we delve into his free will, his complicity with evil, and where a soldier’s breaking point on “just following orders” might lie.

Additionally, we observe and explore the steps that “good” people take on a path as they set out for justice, and like the dark and murky depths of the setting, they don’t see the pitfalls along the way.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the setting. This is no jaunt across the Merry old England of Errol Flynn’s dreams, this is the hardscrabble effort of humanity clinging desperately to life in a world that is Jules Verne’s Voyage to the Center of the Earth crossed with Hieronymus Bosch and Dante Alighieri in the midst of a bad bout of ergot poisoning. The world we explore is a shattered, cavernous, subterranean environment of wildly fluctuating temperature extremes (the surface is frozen, and veins of magma flow everywhere, giving the basis for the tag line “Death by ash, or death by ice”). Bioluminescence, forests of fungi, mammoth and horrifying insects, and more populate a place as hostile to the human characters as any I can recall, and sets the dark tone of the story from the first page.

The magic system is also something that gets positive press for being unique (characters bind to and control elements, as in elements from the periodic table) and which is put to use to clever and interesting uses. But more (and more to my personal preferences), it never feels pedantic or formulaic. Interesting characters push their powers in interesting directions and use it do accomplish fantastic and exciting things. Besides, who doesn’t want to see someone get punched in the face with lava?

Do yourself a favor and don’t sleep on this one.

Buy it from your local indie, or from or from the deathstar in Seattle.

Review – Garden of Empire (Pact and Pattern #2), by J.T. Greathouse

One of my favorite things about fantasy series is seeing Book 1 promise a world far larger than what we see between its covers–hint at and tease mysteries and powers and depths and complexities that you as the reader absolutely know are out there if only the author would show us–and then for Book 2 to deliver on that promise. J.T. Greathouse pulls this feat off in Pact and Pattern, and then some.

The rich fantasy empire set up in THE HAND OF THE SUN KING is widened, but more importantly, our view of it changes. Unlike the first book, in GARDEN OF EMPIRE, we get more points of view than simply Alder/Foolish Cur’s. For a book that is inherently about empire and the colonized/conquered populations of empire struggling for place within a system that both exploits and erases them, this perspective shift is incredibly valuable, and incredibly rewarding.

The fantasy itself, the adventure of learning the mysteries of a magic system and cosmology far more intricate than it appears on the surface, pays off as well. By the end of Book 2, we not only see Alder/Foolish Cur’s continuing walk along the pathway he began to trod in Book 1 (with both predictable and unpredictable complications that are just <chef’s kiss>), we are treated to the reverberations of the struggle within the empire as they ripple through so many people we learned about in Book 1 and new people as well.

The story is developed with a wonderful complexity, and as always the prose is luscious. J.T. Greathouse is one of the most effective prose artists that I’ve read in SFF in a long time. He threads the needle between rich, complex, and vivid prose without making the effort seem like an exercise in indulging oneself for the purpose of looking good in an MFA salon. His prose is *readable* and gorgeous all at once, and perhaps it’s the former execution of the latter that’s most impressive.

Do yourself a favor and do not miss this one. Or use this as the impulse to read THE HAND OF THE SUN KING, and absolutely keep J.T. Greathouse on your radar as his career continues.

Buy it from your local indie, or,

or the Seattle colossus

Review – DRAGON – Saladin Ahmed and Dave Acosta

DRAGON is a graphic novel authored by Saladin Ahmed, with art by Dave Acosta and colors by Chris O’Halloran that revisits the story of Vlad Dracula’s timeless evil. It approaches the “classic” Dracula story from an angle I’d never seen before (this isn’t rich British people and a Dutch doctor striving to keep a creeping predator from London). This puts at it the heart of its setting the historical interplay between Vlad the Impaler and the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. Dating back to Bram Stoker, tales of Dracula look west, rather than interrogating the very real interactions between Dracul and the Muslim world to its east. Not so in DRAGON.

Adil is a Janissary commander who has fallen from grace in the wake of enduring the trauma of Dracula’s violence. He finds common cause with Sister Marjorie, a Catholic nun who is also forced from her place in her convent by Dracula’s evil. A third compatriot, another man who exists in the margins travels and who doesn’t fit in the religious or social expectations of the circles where he travels, joins Adil and Marjorie in their task to confront Dracula and end us reign of terror.

In particular, Adil and Marjorie stand out as interesting lenses into their societies as this isn’t Jonathan Harker secure in his societal position working with other men mostly unaffected by Dracula’s predation save for the pain caused over Lucy’s demise. No, Adil suffers from obvious PTSD and seeks some degree of solace in alcohol. When Marjorie’s sister in the convent is murdered by Dracula and Marjorie somehow survives and ends the threat of a risen vampire, she falls under suspicion and is driven from her home. Both Adil and Marjorie’s lives are more or less ruined simply by being exposed to, but not directly victims of, Dracula’s evil.

(The third character deserves a similar analysis, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I will defer).

Interesting character and quest origins aside, the book coalesces onto the path you might expect, team up, travel to evil castle, kill Dracula. It is a satisfying adventure with a grisly tension that held me in place from page 1 to the end.

The tension is due, in no small part, to the fantastic art. When an ambush kills an unsuspecting victim, there is no sanitized death–an arrow pierces the poor man’s throat and we are made to confront the visceral, disgusting, violence. The supernatural evil is rendered in vivid, horrifying, detail–this is no sparkly vampire type of a style. Similarly, the colors are dark, saturated, and lend a sense of foreboding to the entire experience.

If you can find a copy, I highly recommend it. I say “if you can find a copy” because this project came about after a successful Kickstarter. I just received the digital copy (which is the copy I read for this review), and as I set out to write this I wanted to put a link to purchase… but I can’t find one. The Kickstarter includes this language:

“This will be a lavish book, published as a Kickstarter exclusive. An oversized, slipcovered deluxe format hardcover printed on high quality paper and crammed with extras from creators’ notes to concept art to script and pencil pages.

There are currently no plans to release DRAGON in trade paperback or digital. For now, this special event hardcover is the only way to experience the story!”

So, assuming we’re taking the creative team at their word, I’m not sure where to point you to pick up a copy. I hope that at some point the team makes this available in a more widely-distributed format, because it was a great read.

Review – The Uncanny Valley – By Erin Cairns

There are several ways to approach describing THE UNCANNY VALLEY, and any one of them is simultaneously sufficient, yet lacking.  

Do you want a story about androids fighting for acceptance within a society that created and rejected them? A philosophical examination of post-industrial capitalism? A reflection on policing, and cultures of power and protection? A deeply flawed man’s painful first steps on a journey to become something of a better person? Well, those are all themes that Cairns interrogates and (occasionally uncomfortably) asks the readers to reflect on. The subtext, the motifs, the soul of the book is deep.

The plot is also punchy as hell, a thriller with pace and energy and guts that demands you keep turning the pages. Once the mystery starts to layer, the book really begins to rip. So if you’d prefer a protagonist with a penchant for rolling nat-0 wisdom checks as he tries to punch his way to a truth he never thought he’d have any reason to seek? Well, get ready for a helluva ride.

Tyler Shaw is a detective in what reads as a fictional American analogue city. The development of androids led to an economic boom, but a virus that granted them sentience spread to turn androids from simple tools into… what exactly the society and the characters are dealing with, and now the economic collapse has hollowed out the city (we can’t exactly keep manufacturing people… not really, right?). Shaw is working homicide when an android ends its existence (dies by suicide? The way the characters wrestle with applying human language and convention to non-human actors bleeds from the page into the reader, and here’s an example) in a public way–and possibly at Shaw’s prompting–he finds himself embarking on figuring out why. Why would an android end itself (himself? the way that Shaw engages with the pronouns of android characters is important and not at all a blunt object of modern pronoun discourse)? Why would that android do any of the things he did? And why does this feel like there’s far more going on than a malfunctioning android?

There’s a few things about the content that bear addressing. Shaw isn’t cuddly. He’s not a boy scout. He’s a deeply, profoundly, flawed person. There’s no turning away from the ways his flaws code onto real world problems. What Cairns does, should you give her the trust necessary to read this book, is guide Shaw not from flawed to perfect, but from flawed to better. The flaws are just that, flaws. They’re consistently aspects of his character that stand in the way of his goals, they don’t aid him. A surface level read of his character shows him to be “problematic,” but that is obviously the point. The point is the journey.

Similarly, there’s no evading the fact that Shaw is a cop. There are some for whom anything with cops is bad (which is FINE, there’s plenty of books out there for you). But rest assured this is not a fictional hagiography of police or policing. Far, far from it. And, to that end, if you are a reader for whom anything critical of police or policing is a problem, there’s plenty of great fiction for you too. I think, however, for people willing to engage with the gray in the middle of the spectrum, they’ll be well-rewarded.

UNCANNY VALLEY asks a lot of questions about agency, identity, and the changing world, and doing so it asks the reader to engage as well. There’s a cracking mystery with betrayal and stunning revelations beneath the constant threats that turn this into a gripping thriller. It’s well worth your time to read.

Buy it here: Amazon

Review – Bone Shard Daughter, by Andrea Stewart

Andrea Stewart has created an exceptional world with compelling characters, and one that pulls you forward with the questions it asks and implies from the very first page. It’s absolutely worth reading and Stewart is absolutely a writer worth following.

This book is built on a flotilla of mysteries. Whether it’s the long-dead magical race whose artifacts dot the world (and which may or may not be awakening), whether it’s magic powers and magic animals, amnesia and a castle of locked doors, missing loved ones, or what seems to be an existential environmental threat looming over it all, there is no shortage of questions being asked. Ultimately, the vibrant cast of characters seeking answers drive the story and what answers they do (and don’t) find leave me excited to read book two.

The setting feels organic, lived-in, natural. I found simple flourishes like a meal shared among family or the bartering for melons to reveal a culture that is believable and paints color onto the world Stewart has created.

Also, the magic system is unique, visceral, and leaves so much room to explore in future volumes that I cannot wait to see where it goes next. Luckily, Book 2 is poised to release soon.

Pick up a copy from your local Indie bookseller, or from Amazon if you must.

The Bone Shard Daughter –
The Bone Shard Emperor –

The Bone Shard Daughter – Amazon
The Bone Shard Emperor – Amazon