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 Bookshop.org 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,

Bookshop.org

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 – 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 – Bookshop.org
The Bone Shard Emperor – Bookshop.org

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

Review – The Urashima Effect – E. Lily Yu

I only just saw this 2013 story recently, and it’s the kind of story that… lingers. It’s short, only a little over 3,000 words, and worth every one of them.

E. Lily Yu published “The Urashima Effect” in Clarkesworld, where it is available to read right this instant and you’d be a fool not to do so.

The story takes place in two parts. Primarily, a researcher and solo advance landing party for an interstellar colony wakes up from deep sleep and acclimates to his environment as the ship begins decelerating from relativistic speeds. The second part of the story is the recordings that the researcher’s wife left for him to pass the time during his deceleration, which tell a folktale that carries much more of a message that mere entertainment.

As I said, it’s the kind of story that lingers. It’s precisely the kind of cerebral, soulful, SF that I love, and I’d recommend it to anyone.