Saturday, April 30, 2016

REVIEW: RAT QUEENS VOLUME 2: THE FAR REACHING TENTACLES OF N'RYGOTH

INTRODUCTION 
The Queens come back for a second helping and they hold nothing back this time. There's more blood, more irreverent dialogue, and borderline pornographic levels of nudity. When I reviewed RAT QUEENS VOLUME 1: SASS AND SORCERY I praised the volume's constructive approach to feminism and how much each of the characters shined, but criticized it's lack of focus when it came to the central narrative. I certainly didn't think it had a bad story, it was just clear to me that there were bigger things coming and that most of the first volume was meant to simply develop the characters and define the world. For what it was trying to accomplish, I think it did a marvelous job and was very excited to jump into this series' second volume.

HOW I RATED IT 
4/5 I definitely liked RAT QUEENS VOLUME 2: THE FAR REACHING TENTACLES OF N'RYGOTH every bit as much as I enjoyed the first installment. It does address some, but not all, of my issues with the previous volume, and there were a couple of new little problems that I had. It's a fantastic read overall though that builds off of the first five issues quite nicely.

CHARACTERS
There's a lot more depth to the characters
this time around
Our queens are back and better than ever. In this volume, we get a even more insight into who these  young woman are and what they're all about. In some cases, this is conducted through flashbacks, but in Dee's case, a new character to the scene actually brings her past into the present. It was amazing to see her contend with the person she used to be and the life she lived before becoming one of the Rat Queens. There's also a lot more that gets revealed about the cult-ish religion that she used to belong to and still struggles with walking away from. A lot of the stranger elements of her character are explained through this sub-plot which made her much easier to connect with this time around. I also really enjoyed the character that made this all possible. He was a real even-keel kind of character which contrasted quite nicely with the typically hyper or sarcastic personalities of other characters in this world. There's also another new character named Lola who's just a straight-up badass, though sadly, we never get to know much about her.

Violet and Hannah each get some flashbacks to earlier parts of their lives near the end of the volume. It was cool to see earlier versions of these characters and get to bear witness to some of the moments which have led them to where they are now. Hannah's flashbacks were by far the most compelling since they were so devastatingly sad, but they also explained her relationships with two of the characters in the present which was nice.

The one main disappointment came in the form of Sawyer. He was a character that promised to be a pivotal part of this volume after the events of issue five. Instead, he basically walks right into a trap and is either seen chained up naked to a portable ... thing that people get chained to (I guess), or naked with Hannah in both present and flashback sequences. He never actually does anything and I was more than a little confused by why I needed to see so ... much of him. The use of him just felt kind of weak - it's like they needed to get him out of the way so that other characters could get a little more face time.

Such beautiful destruction!
WORLD/SETTING 
Palisade is as fantastic as ever. There isn't really all that much more of it that is shown than what readers got in VOLUME 1, but new little bits of the world do come there and help make it feel a little different. This is largely thanks to the cult-based characters that appear and start either wreaking havoc or trying to restore balance. There is also a far more cataclysmic ending conflict in which pieces of the city are smashed into rubble. This level of destruction is something readers haven't really seen before since most of the battles so far have either been on a smaller scale or occurred outside of the city's walls. It was very exciting to see the city in a far more intense state of peril this time.

Further adding to the world are the brief flashbacks we get of Hannah's and Vi's past. The dwarven city where Violet grew up looked beautiful and regal in a way that other Palisade does not.  The streets of Hannah's youth were starkly dirty and provided a lot of insight into her character, while the mage academy she later attends offers a glimpse into a very different stage of her life. There are again some shots of places a bit outside Palisade's walls which all looked great as well. Overall, this is still just such a stunning fantasy world and I was very glad to see a little bit more of it.

PLOT/TONE 
I think it's largely in this area that this series continues to falter with me a little. I liked that we got a bit more of a narrative pull this time around. There's a clearer threat to Palisade and the Queens and everything kind of revolves around this central plot point. I loved that things were far less scattered, but because of the story's emphasis on building it's characters, there are still a lot of little diversions that pulled me out of the primary story arc. I don't think this is a terrible thing, it's just that I really like getting into a story and it's tough to tell one with so many fantastic characters and not veer off the main path here and there. That said, the final battle was every bit as epic as it needed to be and I felt like it wrapped everything up quite nicely - that is until the cliffhanger on the very last page.

If I had any other issues with this aspect of the work, it would be that it felt like both the writer and the artists were trying SOOO hard to make this feel more edgy. From the language to the flagrant sexuality, it just felt kind of forced and less casually irreverent than the first volume.

ARTWORK
Somehow this series managed to get even more beautiful! Every page is just brimming with painstakingly detailed artwork and I felt myself stopping to admire the view on more than one occasion. It is important to note though that the style actually changes after the halfway mark. It's not
A Look at the style of issues 4 and 5
a dramatic switch, but it's certainly a noticeable one. I'm not really sure if there was any particular reason for the swap, but I enjoyed the second style almost as much as the first.

Where I had the most issues with the visuals was when it came to all the nakedness. This installment focuses a lot on the relationships between characters and while I liked that, I also felt like they went a little too far with some of it. There are subtle and far more elegant ways of depicting intimacy between characters, but there seems to be very little interest in  doing so here. Breasts, butts, and even partially obscured men's genitalia are all seen again and again and again. Now I know subtlety has never been this series' motto, I guess I could have just done without shots of Sawyer's you-know-what. Like, thanks, but no thanks. While I'm on the subject of him I also just don't get why he needed to be naked at all in the scenes where he's captured by an old enemy. Those shots would have been every bit as dramatic if he was wearing some pants, or at least some medieval undies, literally anything really. Fortunately, most of these panels are from the abdomen up save for a couple. This is probably the best example of how unnecessary some of the nudity is, but there are certainly other scenes that characters didn't really need to be exposed in for readers to have gotten the full effect from them.

CONCLUSION 
Better in some ways and a little grating in others, RAT QUEENS VOLUME 2: THE FAR REACHING TENTACLES OF N'RYGOTH is a very worthy successor to the first part of the series. It's too bad that the creators felt the need to push the foul language and nudity to the point where it felt unnatural, but they did manage to tell a much more cohesive story overall this time around which is what counted the most for me. I'm not totally sure where the series will go from here, but I'm very excited to find out!

RAT QUEENS VOLUME 2: THE FAR REACHING TENTACLES OF N'RYGOTH is available in paperback and eBook formats on Amazon.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

REVIEW: THE GOBLIN EMPEROR

INTRODUCTION 
This is a review that I've been putting off for a while now mostly because of my mixed reactions to it's level of complexity and the amount of time the story takes to ramp up. But now that I've had ample time to think on it, I think I'm finally ready to share my thoughts. I read THE GOBLIN EMPEROR by Katherine Addison for the 2015 BookTube SFF Readalongs and had a hard time getting through it initially. I set it aside for a little while so I could read other things, not so much because this was bad, it was just rather heavy to get through and I had some other reading goals at the time. I did come back to this though and am very glad I did. My impression of the fantasy novel after reading the first half was that it was a somewhat overly complex world filled with a lot of dreary political intrigue and characters that were too cold to connect with in the ways that matter. I found myself struggling with the utter hopelessness of it all and didn't find myself routing for anyone, even the main character, Maia. Upon my return to the story, I did gradually get into a spot where the characters began to show a bit more humanity (a funny notion given their being goblins and elves) and the plot points began to weave together. It's the kind of book that probably takes a bit too long to pull readers in, but those who are patient enough to stick with it will likely be happy that they did.

HOW I RATED IT 
4/5 Although I initially had a hard time getting through this, what seemed like a miserable and hopeless tale gave way to one of the more heartwarming stories I've read in a long time. The slowness of the first half is definitely a necessary evil in order to feel the back half's full impact, but there are some other minor woes I had along the way as well.

CHARACTERS
The cast in this story is ginormous! There are so so many characters and most of them are recurring in one way or another. There are honestly so many that I couldn't even hope to try and list them in this review. It doesn't help that they have absolutely absurd names that while unique and fitting to the world, were way to bizarre for me to remember a lot of the time. This made figuring out who certain people were very difficult as I'd only memorized a handful of their names. I know fantasy names can be tough and yes it was nice to not have generic European names used, but the spelling of these people's identities was a bit too much to resonate with me which is a shame since I usually like stories that have a lot of minor characters running around. For a good portion of the novel, they all also kind of felt like the same type of person. The world of the court is one of cold calculation and rigid discipline which doesn't leave much room for basically any of the aspects of a character that make a fictional persona worthwhile. Eventually, the differing personalities start to show through as Maia breaks down those walls through both intentional and unintentional means. Even Maia himself has never really known love aside from the love he received from his long deceased mother. This makes him an equally dislikable character at times which did not help me at all when trying to connect with this story.

What I did find interesting from the get-go was the fact that no humans seem to exist in this world. It's mostly just elves and goblins which form this sort of black-white racial tension. There's definitely some interesting commentary on race and sovereignty though I'm not sure if the author was making any deliberate statements on racial issues or not. Maia is effectively an outcast to both races because he is half of each. This is particularly troublesome given his father's royal elven blood and the fact that he is the sole heir to the throne once his father and brothers die at the start of the story. I liked the inequality that's depicted here, both in terms of race as well as sex. It was certainly painful to see discrimination featured so heavily in a novel, but watching characters overcome it made for a very interesting and rewarding plot point. All of these characters both elf and goblin have a lot of personal challenges to overcome and I think that watching their journey through this process is part of what eventually redeemed them to me as a reader.

WORLD/SETTING 
I've seen this described as a steampunk fantasy setting, but in actuality it's far more of a Victorian-esque fantasy kingdom that readers mostly just get to see the inside of. There's no major landscapes which are explored, nor are there really very many steampunk elements to speak of. There are airships seen and mentioned throughout as well as a major clockwork invention that becomes a big plot point later on, but for the most part this is just a story of court intrigue and political chess. Now, that doesn't make this any less of a novel, it's just something to be aware of going in. The main fantasy element is in the fact that all of the characters are either goblin or elf, or in Maia's case, a combination of the two races. Aside from some skin, eye, and hair color and texture differences, both species are pretty similar though it seems as though goblins are also generally shorter than elves. What is most enjoyable about having the characters belong to mythical races is that this opens up a host of different visual elements that you wouldn't get with an all human cast. The use of ear position to convey emotion and the unique eye colors that both species can have were my favorite things about the author's choice to use these species and they definitely made the world feel like something I'd never get anywhere else.

Although readers never really get to step outside the court much, it still serves as a wonderfully large and exotically beautiful fantasy location. Everything in the court is extravagant. From the robes worn by royalty, to the glittering halls, and even the dinnerware, everything is described in the most expensive-sounding way I can imagine. This is a world of material excess and it's impressive how Addison can maintain this lavish veneer throughout the novel. The magnanimity of the court also helps make sense of the initially superficial characters and it's colorful vibrancy offers a nice contrast to the shady political dealings that take place.

PLOT/TONE 
The point of the story is really that we get to see these characters grow. Their icy exteriors do slowly melt away and the reward is in seeing how the court warms up under Maia's rule. The main problem with this type of narrative is that you kind of have to start off by disliking everyone in order to see them grow and become better people. I have a lot of respect for the author's desire conduct this kind of transformation on such a large scale, but the major drawback is that it takes her a long time to set it all up. This is one of those situations where I don't know that I have a proper critique in terms of what I would have liked to see done differently, I guess I just wanted to have some little shreds of hope dropped a bit earlier on so I had something more concrete to cling to while it all unfolded. It's actually pretty incredible how different the mood is in the first half from how things go in the second. After the grueling first half, things look brighter and brighter and I began to feel much more invested in it all. I just wish this turnover would have hit me a little sooner than it did because I might have been able to finish it a little quicker and realize what a great story this actually is a bit sooner than I did.

CONCLUSION 
Slow and steady wins this race. This is simultaneously the most rewarding and most dreary book I have ever read. Things take a long time to get into a spot where they can unravel into something special. It's hard not to admire Addison's capacity to construct a complex set of personal development arcs yet also easy to criticize her for the overarching narrative's lack of focus early on. This is the type of book you just have to be patient with when going in. It's not as fast paced or snappy as other stories in this genre nor is the cast as instantly iconic as many fans of fantasy are probably used to. Good things do come to those who wait in this case though and the happy parts probably felt a lot more compelling because of how bleak I found things to be at the onset. If you like stories with a lot of depth and complexity and are okay with waiting things out for a while, then I think you'll  like this a lot. If you're looking for a story with a faster paced or a bit more instant gratification on the narrative or character development side of things, then you may struggle with this. Ultimately though I'd recommend it to anyone since the story does end up being quite moving.

THE GOBLIN EMPEROR can be found in whatever bookish format you desire on Amazon.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

BOOK TALK: UNCANNY MAGAZINE ISSUE 5: JULY/AUGUST 2015

INTRODUCTION 
As part of the BookTube SFF readalongs, I picked up the July/August issue of UNCANNY MAGAZINE. The group was really only reading "The Midnight Hour," which appears as the first short story in this e-magazine, but I figured I'd just read through it in it's entirety since it's a lesser known publication which actually appears to have gotten it's backing from Kickstarter. I've been in the mood for some good short fiction for a good while now so I was very much looking forward to seeing what this had to offer.

I've departed from my typical review format for two reasons. One is that this is an anthology type work which spans some very different pieces by a host of different writers. Due to this, it would be pretty tough to share my thoughts in the typical Characters, World/Setting, Plot/Tone format since those categories would be different for each story and wouldn't make sense for the poems, interviews, and essays that come at the end of this publication. The second reason is that I just really didn't like it too much and I don't want to spend a whole ton of time tearing apart a small magazine like this one. So for these reasons, I'll use the Book Talk format, but still give this magazine a rating as well as share my thoughts on what I liked and didn't like about this collection.

HOW I RATED IT
2/5 The unfortunate truth about this publication is that there are several pieces which are really pretty good, but there are even more that I just was not at all a fan of.

THOUGHTS
The story I came in here for, "Midnight Hour," by Mary Robinette Kowel, was decent. Because it was up for the best short fiction category in the BookTube SFF Awards, I did expect quite a bit more of it than I got. This kind of isn't fair since it's a fine story and everything, but I guess that's the price that comes with getting a bunch of high-praise press. Ultimately my biggest problem with the dark fairy tale inspired drama was that I wanted more. It felt like I was reading excerpts of a longer work that weren't spliced together as gracefully as they could have been. So as entertaining as I found it, it just left me a little too unfulfilled for me to be as crazy about it as others were.

One that I was fair more fond of is called "The Rainbow Flame," by Shveta Thakrar. It's a lot more focused in that it has a more definitive beginning middle and end. It's also a bit trippy, but in an enchantingly colorful way. There were definitely a couple of things about it that didn't completely resonate with me, such as a forced romance which is felt sort of slapped in at the last second, but overall, it was an enchanting enough tale that I think it will stick with me for a while to come. Other than this, the only other real standout for me was "A Year and a Day In Old Theradane," by Scott Lynch. This I'd say was more of a novellete in that it is far longer than all of the other stories. I don't actually know what the word-count of it is, but I was very happy to have a longer piece of short fiction thrown in, especially since it was such a good one. The characters were charming and the world was as colorful as a comic book. The story takes a little while to build up, but once things get going, the narrative has a nice little pull to it. This was by far my favorite story in the magazine and almost made up for all of the disappointments that I'm about to delve into.

"Ghost Champaign" by Charlie Jane Anders and "Woman at Exhibition" by E. Lily Yu weren't necessarily bad stories in terms of writing style or characters, they're just super weird. Both are far more in the realm of paranormal/horror than they are fantasy. Obviously, there's a big market for that kind of thing, but I'm definitely not a part of it. Both just left me feeling kind of empty and wondering what the "point" was. "Woman at Exhibition" in particular was far too surrealist for me to really appreciate it in the way that the author clearly intended me to. Both stories had some cool ideas going on, they just didn't connect with me in the ways that matter most. There was also "The Half-Life of Angels" by Sarah Monette which I think would be considered either flash fiction or micro-fiction. Whatever the proper naming, it was really just two short paragraphs which were artsy and probably thoughtful, but might have resonated with me more if it was crafted into a poem or something since there wasn't really a story to it.

Then comes "Catcall" by Delilah S. Dawson. Now the part of me that appreciates what it means to put your work out there for all to see really wants to just skip even mentioning this story. But the fact is I just hated it so much because of it's flagrant and baseless sexism. It follows a young woman who's not drop dead gorgeous, but pretty enough for others to notice. Basically every single dude this chick comes across is a rape-y, creepy, grabby, disgusting reptile of a human being. There's business men, dads, and just regular losers hanging around the gas stations. Even her fellow classmates sexually harass her. Obviously not every guy is particularly nice, just like how not every female is what you might call a lady. Just because the misrepresentation is flipped such that it tears men apart doesn't make it not sexism. It's still bad and it doesn't deserve a place in serious fiction. And honestly, even the main character felt like a bit of a caricature to me so I ultimately stopped reading about halfway through this piece. Maybe that discredits my ability to give any type of opinion, but since I can't remember the last time I walked away from a piece of fiction with no intention of coming back, I guess I feel pretty comfortable with putting in my two cents.

Rounding out this magazine's offerings are a bunch of essays, some narrative poems, and a couple interviews. The interviews were with the two authors I disliked the most so I basically skipped those (the one with Delilah S. Dawson made me sick after just the first couple of interviewer prompts). The essays were okay. It's a nice touch to have essays on fiction in a literary magazine, but they weren't so great in execution. They were stiff and seemed a lot more concerned with pandering to political correctness than expressing a unique opinion or perspective that I haven't seen in a hundred other places already. Two were even almost identical in that they both spoke to diversity and inclusion in Marvel and DC's lines of comics, movies, and games. The one called "Ethics or Reviewing" was kind of interesting, but it was more about the business of reviewing professionally rather than aspects of a review that are or are not ethical. Since reviewing is just a hobby for many, it's really not as relevant as it could be. By the time the poems came around, I'd mostly checked out of this publication. I did glance over them quickly and they seemed fun, if a bit lacking in terms of depth or special poetic structure. I'm sure if I'd been more into the other content, I would have given these a fairer shake, but free verse poetry isn't normally my thing anyway.

CONCLUSION
In the end, this magazine has some good things, some bad things, and a lot of stuff that's in between so far as my tastes are concerned. I think it's a well-composed publication and it's quite professionally done for something that appears to be funded through crowd-sourcing. It definitely does offer some things that mainstream magazines do not in terms of diversity, particularly on the feminism and/or LGBT side of things. The more accepting aspects did feel a bit too in-your-face for me and I generally don't enjoy feeling like someone is telling me how I should think about life/the world no matter what the message is - I guess I'm sort of a rebel like that (?). In my opinion, the pro-diversity message only really comes off well in "A Year and a Day In Old Theradane," It's just where it felt the most natural and the least distracting from the story being told (or point being argued). There are many who will probably be a little more enthusiastic about this publication than I was and I do absolutely recommend you check it out if only for those stories which I've praised above. Non-mainstream publications have to find their niche and it's entirely possible that UNCANNY just isn't totally in the vein of what I like.

UNCANNY MAGAZINE ISSUE 5: JULY/AUGUST 2015 can be found as an eBook on Amazon.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

FLASH FICTION: AN EPISODE OF DEATH


\\\\A Thunderous Applause////

=================
| An episode of death |
=================

I bow my head and pinch my eyes shut, doing my best to keep everything quiet and dark, but nothing can drown out the roar of the crowd that sits above me. My breathing comes sharp and my muscles feel tight. I exhale deeply and make short hops up and down while I shake my arms out. Then I hear footsteps coming towards me. My hazelnut eyes pop open before I take a few steps over to the barred door. I see the guards come down the narrow corridor. They wear shimmering silver armor – which is the only thing in this dingy prison that shines. There’s a savage spark in their eyes as they slip the key into my door and unlock it with a clank.
"Time to go, kid," one of them says hoarsely.
They each take one of my arms and tug me along gruffly in the direction that they came from. The passageway opens into a chamber where they toss me onto one of the benches which line either side of it. I peer through the thin iron bars of the gate in the front of us into the dusty arena. The crowd wriggles in an indistinct mass of flailing limbs and bobbing heads, their voices pouring into one droning echo. The guards strap on light, metallic shin-guards over my leather calf-high sandals and slip equally thin gauntlets onto my bare wrists. Then they pull me up and hand me a battered round-shield and a sword dulled by repeatedly sloppy sharpening. It’s troubling that this is all I will enter the ring with: some worn weapons, flimsy armor and nothing else except for a tattered subligar. It’s hardly a modest or well-protected way to enter into a fight, but it’s how they shove me into the arena all the same.
This is when I see my opponent for the first time. He’s a young man like me with a light build and earth-colored hair. His sky blue eyes peer over to me as we step into the tight arena from opposite sides. He’s equipped in the same way as me except that he carries a spear and has a leather guard covering the right side of his chest. I wonder why they wouldn’t give us even just a little bit more to wear and then I realize that this way they can watch us bleed better. They can see every cut and stab even from a distance. He and I, after all, are no one. We’re just slaves to a lanista entering into a humble facility of death. We have nothing to offer this crowd except for a strong fight and our own blood.
I accept this when I meet my opponent in the center of our sand battleground. Looking into his piercing eyes, I realize that I don’t just need to avoid death, I need to kill him. I knew this all along of course, but this is when I know it. His eyes stay locked on mine. Perhaps he’s coming to the same realization as I am. Maybe he's done this before. I note the reach that his spear might grant him and decide that I will need to make the most out of my dented shield. We circle each other, plotting one another’s demise.
Then I see his sharp eyebrows pinch together and he lurches forward at me. I step to the side with my shield held up to avoid the thrust of his spear. He pulls the weapon back just in time to block my swing with the iron neck of his weapon. The metal clanks together and sends a sharp vibration through my sword arm. I recoil in shock. My opponent takes a couple of steps back as well, his arms are flexed in pain. This is when I recognize that we are both novices. I believe now that I have a chance.
He throws the tip of his spear at me, this time I duck low and use my shield to deflect the assault. I shove the end of his weapon to the side and slash at him while he’s vulnerable. He tries to back away, but I manage to slice through his thigh, leaving a gash which oozes blood. He screams out in agony and I can hear the crowd's dull moan turn into an excited roar at the sight of his injury. A savage impulse moves me to charge forward. His footing is no longer as strong as it once was. He favors the hurt leg and limps when he has to move. His spear strike is not weakened, however, and he manages to graze the lean flesh beneath my ribcage. I cry out as I stagger to the side – my shield held high. The crowd howls again, but not for me this time.
When the next strike comes, I roll away, the sand clinging to my sweaty torso. Then another comes which I use my shield to defend against. I realize his strikes are getting weaker as more of his blood drips down his leg and seeps into the discolored sand. I repel his next blow with my sword and leap forward to slice open the bicep of his dominant arm.
His wounded limb falls to the side, dragging his weapon down with it and leaving his torso undefended. Without thinking, I shove my sword through his abdomen. He falls against me with a grimace and a groan before collapsing against the sand with a muted thud. A thunderous applause echoes around me. It’s the sound of victory, but also that of defeat. This isn’t the Imperial Coliseum, it’s just a small theater where no-names fight, but in this arena here and now, I am a god. I now know the glory of victory, but also the pain. As I glance down at the defeated body lying on the ground, I realize those pale blue eyes will never leave my mind.


Text and Image copyright © 2016  by Derek Bailey

Saturday, April 16, 2016

UPDATE: FLASH FICTION IS COMING TO THE BLOG

My initial motivation in creating this blog was to promote myself as a writer. I'd read in several places that book-related blogs are one of the best ways for an author to have social outreach to readers as well as other writers. When I contemplated starting one, I'd already written up a few reviews on Goodreads so I had some content to get me going and I'd used Blogger before so there was basically no learning curve in the actual construction of this blog. So I threw up what I had for reviews and made sure to add in a page about my book, Digitarum as well as any other published works I would come out with in the future. I didn't know if I'd like blogging about books whether they were mine or someone else's, but now that the blog has been around for a while, I can definitely say that this is something I enjoy doing very much since it has allowed me to share my thoughts as both a reader and a writer. 

Ever since I got an awesome day job, I've been a little less active with my writing. Partly, this is because I have less free time, but the other part is that I simply don't feel as dire a need to push my writing career forward - it's more like a  hobby I take really seriously now. I am working on something new currently and have been for a while, but it's turned out to be a much larger endeavor than I realized so I'm taking my time with it. But I do want to try and share some of my writing while my main project is in progress and I've been toying with the idea of offering free fiction on the blog for a while, so I've finally decided to bring in some flash fiction! The first couple of stories will be appearing very shortly, but while I'm wrapping them up, I figured it might be best to share some information about flash fiction and why I've decided to make it a part of my blog:

WHAT IS FLASH FICTION?
Flash fiction is a piece of prose that is written in less than 1,000 words. That's not a lot of real estate to work with so these tend to by hyper-focussed pieces of fiction that are often snapshots of a person place or thing at a particular moment in time. They can, of course, be a bit broader, but those tend to be harder to pull off.

WHAT ISN'T FLASH FICTION?
Flash fiction is not narrative poetry. While flash fiction stories certainly do tend to play with narrative techniques, they are always still in the form of prose. 

WHY WRITE FLASH FICTION?
It may seem silly to write stories that are so small. After all, there isn't much space to build a world or develop a character, but they can be fun, snappy little bits of entertainment. Writing this kind of a story is pretty challenging and it is an interesting exercise in looking at the core elements of a story and scaling them down. 

WILL I WANT TO READ THESE STORIES?
Maybe, I guess that depends on you. If you go in with an open mind, flash fiction pieces can be fun. They don't take much time to read so even if you don't like them, you haven't lost all that much. They'll also be posted for people to read freely so they'll cost even less money than they do time.

DOES THIS MEAN THAT THE BLOG WILL BECOME MORE ABOUT POSTING SHORT STORIES?
Absolutely not! The blog's main source of content will definitely still be in the form of reviews and other bookish posts. I'm hoping that the addition of intermittently posted short prose will just offer a little extra spice to things. First and foremost, the blog will always prioritize reviewing books over promoting my personal writing pieces.   

HOW OFTEN WILL THESE FF PIECES BE POSTED?
I have no set schedule for them really. They'll kind of just show up every now and then as I complete them. Each one will also be accompanied by a simple, heavily stylized, piece of artwork which will serve as their "cover." 

WILL THERE BE ANY KIND OF THEME THESE STICK TO?
Yes! They will all have a vaguely Greco-Roman feel to them. They won't depict real people or be historically accurate at all, but they may remind you of movies and such which are set within this era. 

CAN I GIVE FEEDBACK ON THE STORIES THAT GET POSTED?
Feedback in positive, negative, or just thoughtful form is always welcome and appreciated. Reaching out to me on Goodreads or just commenting on the stories themselves are both ways which they can be done. 

WHERE CAN I SEE THEM?
These stories will be content exclusive to the blog. They'll appear as regular posts just like reviews as well as in the new "Free Flash Fiction" tab of the blog.

Hopefully this news is as exciting to others as it is to me. I look forward to sharing little bits of my writing and hope that others find some joy in reading through them.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

MINI REVIEW: PERFECT STATE

INTRODUCTION 
Last year I read SIXTH OF THE DUSK, a novella by Brandon Sanderson, as part of the 2015 BookTube SFF Awards. While I didn't think that any particular part of Sanderson's writing stood out, the culmination of how he wove all the pieces together is what struck me. It all came together to form one of the most memorable stories I've ever read. This year, another one of Sanderson's novellas made the shortlist for best short fiction and I bought it on Kindle without hesitation. PERFECT STATE looked like it would be even bigger and bolder than SIXTH OF THE DUSK so I got pretty hyped to read this. Thankfully, Sanderson struck gold a second time for me with this one!

HOW I RATED IT 
5/5 This took me on one of the most creative and cerebral narrative joyrides I've ever taken. It was fun, it was innovative, the imagery was lush, and there's a certain glamour to everything. It's a must read for basically anyone.

CHARACTERS
Kai is the main man of this novella. He's kind of your typical every-man, but on steroids. See he's the supreme ruler of his world. He's conquered all of the rival kingdoms and factions, won the adoration of his people, and is practically indestructible. Most importantly, he's content. In the absence of wars to win, he's devoted himself to studying the art of lancing which is basically this world's form of magic and the main source of his demigod-like power. That contentment changes when he's summoned by the people who control his world and others like it. They want him to meet a woman from a different world and make a baby with her. The motivation behind this plot point is a little odd for reasons I'll get to, but Kai's adventure begins when he has to depart from his home-world and step into one that isn't ruled by someone of his kind. It's instead a kind of meeting ground where special people like himself can meet up on neutral ground where things are a bit more sanctioned than usual. It was great to see a medieval-type character enter into a bit more modern a world for the first time and watch him adapt to the new surroundings. It's even cooler to see how he interacts with a woman who is every bit his equal in that this is really the first time he's ever had to encounter anyone as excellent as himself. Their interactions are quite entertaining and the way that their relationship comes to a climax left me absolutely breathless.

There are some other great characters in this too, though most have very small roles save for the main antagonist who is a mysterious figure that operates from the shadows. It was nice to have a relatively sizable cast in such a short work of fiction and while many characters aren't all that developed, they are vibrant enough to make a distinct presence.

WORLD/SETTING 
What's most interesting about this world is that there are actually a bunch of different worlds. Most are just referenced, but readers do get to see two of them: Kai's medieval homeworld and the classical urban citys-cape that reminded me of a Sherlock-eque London with a few technological upgrades. Both are very well described and have polar opposite feels to them. Kai's world is a magical fantasy utopia while the neutral world is starkly grounded and dreary, but in a strangely vibrant way. The idea of a universe where worlds can be this different is something I've never really seen in a work of fiction (except maybe in something like Disney's KINGDOM HEARTS (videogame series) or WRECK IT RALPH (animated film)). It's definitely something that is a rare treat for a science fiction and fantasy fan like myself and I only regret that there wasn't a bit more of this universe that I got to explore.

PLOT/TONE 
Readers find out very early into the story that none of this is actually real, at least in the way that we might consider reality. Kai is what's called a "liveborn" which means that he's a real person, or at least a part of a person. Due to overpopulation, many people's minds are extracted into jars where they soak in proteins and live out their lives in simulated worlds tailored to who they are and what they're best at. The rest of the "people" in Kai's world are simulated entities that while self-aware, are also not truly living. Unlike Neo, Kai can't just take a colorful pill and escape The Matrix. This IS his reality, even if it is just a fiction designed to challenge and entertain him. It's this truth that forms the bond between Kai and his date. Both are a little disillusioned with the fact that they can only ever live in this artificially constructed reality. While there are certainly some nice perks to existing in a universe where everything is possible, there are also some heavy implications to the fact that their lives are always manipulated by people in charge of the simulation so that they are always challenged, but never so much so that they can't overcome the obstacles set before them. This source of philosophical conflict ramps up at a smooth pace that quickly escalates into the heart-thumping climax and thought-provoking conclusion.

CONCLUSION 
Sanderson's novellas are just too good not to read. They're creative, well-constructed, and more than worth what little time they take to get through. I did feel like there was maybe a little more of the story that could be told, but at the same time, there's a whole mess of great ideas that are introduced and then neatly wrapped up within the span of some relatively small narrative real estate. Without a doubt, this is short fiction done right. I think I need to dive into a bit more of Sanderson's ASAP.

PERFECT STATE can be found in Kindle and audioBook formats on Amazon.

Friday, April 8, 2016

REVIEW: ILLUMINEA (THE ILLUMINEA FILES 01)

INTRODUCTION 
When I read STORMDANCER (THE LOTUS WAR BOOK 1) I was blown away by Jay Kristoff's aching melodrama and vibrantly stylized prose. While I still need to read the rest of that trilogy, I was also very intrigued by a more recent book with his name attached to it. ILLUMINEA (THE ILLUMINAE FILES #1) is a collaboration between Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman. At a superficial level, it's a space opera starring two teenagers and a psychotic artificial intelligence. There are also shades of a Z virus, corporate corruption, and Battlestar Galactica style space combat thrown in for good measure. But what separates this seemingly typical piece of science fiction literature is HOW the story is told (more on that in just a bit). Basically, I'd been interested in this book since it came out, but finally had an excuse to pick it up when the BookTube SFF Awards group placed it on their 2016 shortlist. When it came time for them to do the readalong for this one, I gladly joined in and was very happy that I did.

HOW I RATED IT 
5/5 I think this one will be kind of a hit or a miss for most (obviously it was a hit for me). There is some really brilliant stuff here, but there are also some rather trope-y elements that will drive some folks up a wall. If you can look past the most generic YA elements of the work, then you'll see a compelling narrative that's graced with lush visual embellishments.

CHARACTERS
Like I mentioned before, there are really only three characters of much note. There's Kady Grant, a computer whizz who sports pink hair and has some issues with interpersonal communication. Her ex-boyfriend, Ezra Mason is a bit more outgoing and a little less anti-establishment. They're an interesting pair since readers actually meet them right after they've broken up. The day it all fell apart for them also happens to be the day that  their world is assaulted by a shady corporate superpower's fleet. They're rescued though and ushered off-world where they find themselves stuck on different space vessels. At first, this is a blessing for them, but as they gradually start to make up over inter-ship instant messaging, the separation becomes a curse. For the most part, their interactions felt authentic, if a bit too typical of a YA relationship. Still, it felt real because there was genuine hurt felt on both sides in spite of a young puppy-love that burns hot throughout. That said, their immaturity does show through at odd times and in weird ways. Moments where that happens are definitely a little jarring because what was cute in one situation feels very out of place in a different one and the authors seem to struggle with working the characters' lighthearted youthfulness into the dire events that happen around them. The same can be said about the myriad of minor characters that show up in the various "files" that tell the story. Most of them are adults, but there are times where they sound as ridiculous as the teens. While it's good to have a tonal consistency, I'll admit that their lines felt a little off sometimes.

Then there's AIDAN, one of the ship's artificial intelligence system. It gets damaged during the initial battle and begins to go off the rails as it tries to repair itself. AIDAN is a bit of a late bloomer since we don't see much of him in the first half of the story. There is a pretty shocking event that happens which results in his getting shut down. There's a lot of chatter about him, but very little of his character is actually defined until the crew is forced to turn him back on. When this happens, the flow of the story takes some dramatic turns and readers are treated to one of the finest characters that synthetic intelligence has to offer. A good number of the "files" that appear from this point on actually belong to him. They show readers his though logs and invite them into his twisted logic system. For a  YA book, things get pretty darn dark once this thing comes alive. He really cleans house and initiates a spiral of death unlike pretty much anything else I've ever read. The writers really killed it with this character so far as I'm concerned and he's probably the most interesting member of the cast by far.

WORLD/SETTING 
For the most part, there isn't really much of a "world" here. The only one we ever get to see is a small mining planet which is thoroughly under siege before the "files" are ever generated. Much of what readers come to know about it is based on recorded interviews with Kady and Ezra as they detail their actions during the course of that catastrophe. Beyond that, the world so far as this story is concerned is comprised of the confining vastness of space and three starships which house the refugees from Kady and Ezra's home planet. It's kind of cool that each of the ships has a very different feel to it. One is a small science/medical vessel, one is more of a lightweight civilian shuttle, and the other is a military-grade destroyer. Sadly, only the latter two get much in the way of description, but some of the files do cover what the third is like. They make for interesting locations to since they are more an extension of the characters' plight than anything else.Don't get me wrong, there's definitely a lot of love that went into fully realizing each one, it's just that the characters take center stage here for the most part. Only a certain number of the "files" make mention of what the interior of these shuttles look like and I mostly had to rely on the diagrams of them to envision what they look like on the outside. They do make for an excellent stage for the action though, especially since there's a sense of vulnerability about being stuck on them that this book loves to play up, thus increasing the tension of already tense scenarios.

PLOT/TONE 
By now, I've made reference to a number of different aspects of this book's plot. One key piece of this is the way the book uses "files" to weave the narrative. There are different types of them mixed up throughout the course of the novel from video analysis to personal IMs, official messages to transcripts of recordings, and as I mentioned before, AIDAN's thought logs. The variety of these files makes it so that nothing ever really felt stale.They were similar enough to feel cohesive, but also offered some nice changes in perspective. My favorite type is certainly those that are pulled from the AIDAN core, but all of them are pretty good. It's an interesting way to go about telling a story overall and it gives off a certain feel that I don't think you'll find anywhere else. The sheer sense of speed and intensity I got while reading this is definitely something I've never experience when reading any other novel.

I've stated before that this DOES have some more juvenile overtones and I think if there is one area where the book will fall flat, it is in this younger tone. Some may also have criticisms about the characters, but ultimately I think a lot of those issues are going to tie back into the immaturity that is prevalent in the contents of the files. From my perspective, everything just came off as larger than life and I enjoyed the dorky teenage bits. I think without them, this actually might have been too adult for my tastes since, like I've mentioned, this is an insanely dark, violent and sometimes graphic piece of science fiction. It's so dark that I often forgot that this is technically YA. I know I read a lot of messed up stuff when I was in this age group (mostly thanks to the "classics"), but to me, this genre is supposed to come with a certain level of innocence that I find is rarely ever the case - maybe this is just a sign that I'm getting old...

THE VISUALS
Worth a section unto it's own, the visuals in this book are just stunning. The prose is filled with explosively colorful descriptions and unforgettable imagery. But more than that is literally the way the pages look. Each type of file is formatted differently and employs graphic effects to compliment its content. Sometimes this is done through incorporating simple black and white images, but most of the time it's achieved through all sorts of typographical effects and subtleties. There is also some incredible word art to be found at different points. Then there's just plan old art, mostly in the form of diagrams of the space ships. I have the hard cover edition of this book and even the cover is constructed with a mind-boggling level of creativity and careful design.  There's just a TON of effort that went into how this book looks and it's this visual component that made reading it an indulgence that I am not to forget anytime soon.

CONCLUSION 
This is one of those books that readers are just going to have to try for themselves. It's definitely got it's quirks, so I can't promise that you'll love it. All I can say really is that I loved it. The things most people take issue with didn't phase me too much and it's just so easy to praise this book for all of the things that it gets right. This book was an absolute treat to read through and I think most of the "haters" are missing out appreciating its unique offerings. It's definitely not the most believable, plausible, original, or grown up piece of science fiction to ever be put into print, but it IS the type of book that is totally unlike other books. It's the type of book that can blow readers away if they approach it with an open mind and can appreciate a book as a piece of art.

ILLUMINEA (THE ILLUMINAE FILES #1) is available in just about every format known to readers on Amazon, though I strongly suggest you get this in either a Hardcover or Paperback edition since I don't think you'll get the full experience with any other format.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

REVIEW: DESCENDER VOLUME 1: TIN STARS



INTRODUCTION
Every now and then, I come across something so unexpectedly good that it just blows me away. I've had a couple of these occurrences as a result of my participation in 2015's Booktube SFF Awards Readalongs which are hosted by the Goodreads group of the same name. Last year, I enjoyed books like RAT QUEENS VOLUME 1: SASS AND SORCERY, and SIXTH OF THE DUSK. During this year's readalongs, I began with DESCENDER VOLUME 1: TIN STARS, a graphic novel I'd never heard of before. It's published by Image though which is the same comics distributor that prints the RAT QUEENS series and it looked really cool when I checked it out, so I decided to give this one a chance.

HOW I RATED IT
5/5 The art, the characters, the world, the story, everything just left me stunned and wanting the next volume in my hands immediately (sadly, it's not out just yet). In the meantime, I at least get to write about how fantastic this graphic novel is and all the reasons why everyone who's a fan of science fiction and/or comics should give it a try.

CHARACTERS
Poor Tim-21!
One of the things that was pretty interesting about this work is that there isn't really a main character. There are certainly a bunch of really important ones, but this also doesn't have the power-team feel to it at all. What you get instead is a bunch of individuals who each have their own thing going for them, all of which are involved in something much bigger than themselves. There are about five (and a quarter) of them in total, but the two that are the most developed are Dr. Quon, a man known as the father of robotics and Tim-21 an android designed to be an empathetic child's companion. After the shocking turn of events that mark the beginning of issue 1, both of these characters' lives are changed forever and certainly not for the better. Tim-21 finds himself on an abandoned mining colony. All of his human company is dead after a tragic accident and in the years that he's been powered down, the galaxy has turned against synthetic organisms of any kind. For all purposes, Tim is a child -  a child who finds himself scared and utterly alone save for his yippy dog-bot pet thing (the quarter of a character). Dr. Quon on the other hand is a different sort of washed up. The world suspects that he has something to do with the giant space robots that nearly destroyed every living thing and shattered society as they knew it. That's a pretty heavy burden to bear and as the reader, I was never really sure if maybe he DID have something to do with the calamity that the story opens with. There's a lot that gets revealed with both of these characters and while I'll obviously not spoil any of it, I will say that it was very rewarding to slowly uncover more about who they are. Dr. Quon, in particular, is a very interesting figure because readers get to see him at some very different stages in his life. Seeing him as a college-age student, young man, and middle-aged man felt like something I've never really gotten in a comic before. I know super hero stories tend to do flashbacks to childhood/youth, but those tend to be big jumps in time. The only other kind of time jump I've seen is when a comic portrays events that aren't all that far back from the main story arc which therefore results in the character(s) not looking all that different. The three iterations of Quon offer some particularly interesting insight into who he is and it's even just visually cool to see him in several different stages of adulthood.

Part of a fantastic flashback sequence
Rounding out the crew is a strangely alluring female space commander, her brutish right hand officer, and a large mining bot known as Driller. Driller is a character that's so simple, he actually feels deep. Because he's a robot designed for really only one thing, he often describes himself as being too dumb to do something. The most heart-wrenching of these moments is when he is trying to repair Tim-21 after he suffers a good deal of damage and is on the verge of shutting down permanently. Lacking the capacity to fix the little robot, Driller is sent into something as akin to panic as a robot of his programming can achieve. He also has a fatal distrust of all organic beings given that he has seen them hunt down and disassemble his kind. The other two characters I listed before are mostly just okay. The captain is visually interesting given her bright red hair and alien complexion, but her stern, militaristic veneer keeps her from being all that interesting on a characterization level. There are some little breadcrumbs dropped that hint at future developments involving her, so I wouldn't rule her out just yet as being compelling, she'll just be a bit of a late bloomer at this point. Her officer on the other hand is pretty dull despite how impressive he looks physically. There's always a chance he could wind up surprising me in a later volume, but at this stage he's kind of just got the big tough guy thing going for him and not much else.  

WORLD/SETTING
By far, one of my favorite things about this series is the world. It's one of the few pieces of science fiction I've ever seen in any medium where the shiny futuristic setting remains that way. Sure, the world is kind of torn asunder right away, but the glimmering white of the futuristic imagery doesn't just dissipate after five seconds of enjoying it. And not everything is whitewashed either. If you are a fan of darker, dingier locales, then this work also has you covered in that regard. The place where readers first meet Tim-21 is pretty gloomy, and there is a planet later on in the volume that is sort of a wasteland/junkyard type desert world. There's also some other types of scenery that pop up in different flashbacks from cozy bedrooms, to high-tech laboratories, and even an exotic alien ruin. There's just a lot of variety and each and every location is rendered with lovingly crafted artwork. In fact, it's the art that really makes all of these locations feel as special as they do, but more of that in just a bit.
Opening with a bang

PLOT/TONE
This is a story of a utopic, science fiction universe being thrown into disarray. The catalyst for this chaos is a surprise galaxy-wide attack by robots whose chests are the size of planets. They bring destruction across the galaxy, very nearly wiping it out entirely. But there are survivors and the central galactic government works tirelessly to try and restore order while also preparing for the inevitable return of the mysterious robotic entities. If you haven't guessed it by now, this is a remarkably dark story-line, but not one that's entirely hopeless. A lot of the light comes from Tim-21's innocent outlook on life. He's only really ever known love and warmth so while he wakes up alone and hurting, he remains optimistic things can somehow return to the way they used to be. There is also the constant dropping of new hints at what might really be going on which kept me always wanting to read onward and find out what answers would be divulged in the next chapter. While the end of this volume ultimately leaves off with a bunch of different questions, there is one major revelation that dramatically changed the way that I now view the plot. It's a clever development too because while it left so much unanswered, it also turned everything on its head so much that I don't think I could have handled any more truth drops. There's a very complex web that's being spun here and it's only just beginning to unravel. I think this is one piece of fiction that I'll be revisiting to try and see if there are any things I missed the first time which might give me hints into what will come next.

Some stunning cover art featuring the
main characters
ARTWORK
Since this is a visual medium, the quality of the artwork can really make or break my enjoyment of a graphic novel and in this case, the art just kills it. There is a somewhat watercolor sort of style to the art. It's definitely not actual water color, but it's as close an approximation as I've ever seen in digital illustration and the effect it creates is so beautiful. There's also a vague anime feel to it. It's a LOT more intricately detailed than an anime style, but the way that characters' faces look and even just some of the atmospheric elements do distinctly take inspiration from the iconic Japanese art-form which gives all of the art an even more unique quality. Like any comic, there are definitely some panels that just don't look quite as good as others. They're the more mundane shots, the ones that kind of get rushed along and unfortunately, the water color style doesn't hold up too well when this happens. Shots where this is the case can look very sloppy and even unfinished in some spots. This isn't a huge problem, since I would say the vast majority of the imagery is painstakingly detailed, but it is worth mentioning that when a particular section is bad, it's REALLY bad. I'll also call out that it didn't really affect my overall enjoyment of this book. I get that not every panel is going to be a masterpiece and a few bad images here and there is a small price to pay when the other 80% of the book looks as good as it does.

CONCLUSION
This is not only one of the best comics I have ever read, but also one of the most compelling pieces of science fiction literature that I have had the privilege to indulged in. You definitely have to have a stomach for a little bit of gore intermittently, be into space-centric science fiction, and like graphic storytelling as a medium in order to enjoy this to the fullest, but if all of those sound like things you like (or can at least tolerate) then you should definitely pick this up. It has so much to offer readers and after finishing it, I can honestly say that I think there is so much more still to be delivered. I really do think this is an absolute must-read and that it's only the start of something even greater.

DESCENDER VOLUME 1: TIN STARS can be found in eBook and Paperback versions on Amazon.
  • I would recommend going with the paperback since the artwork is too good not to put on a shelf and there are a couple of full-page spreads that may look a little weird on an eReader.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

UPDATE: THE GIVER QUARTET!!!

One of my all-time favorite pieces of fiction is Lois Lowry's THE GIVER. But there's more to the story than just one book. The problem is that I've never actually read any of the three companion novels so recently I arranged to fix that by purchasing the gorgeous 20th anniversary box set of the entire series. Thanks to a combination of a coupon code and a timely sale on Barnes and Noble's website, I was able to pick this up for a pretty decent deal.



Even the box is beautiful!

I don't know when I will be diving I to these, but I'm definitely looking forward to diving back I to one o my favorite books and then reading those that follow it up.