Author Archives: dementedchris

The Trident of Merrow by Amber Marshall and Kristopher Lewis (2011)

Smashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

3/5 stars

Toshala Flemmish has been waiting for her chance for years. A tomboyish steam mechanic, she has been beneath the notice of Germaine Billings since they were children. Today is different. Today, Tosh has a new dress, a new look, and will not be denied. Unless of course she’s kidnapped by pirates at the behest of a monster from her childhood nightmares. Now Tosh is getting the attention she’s wanted all along as her father sends Germaine in pursuit of the pirates. The race through the seas and skies begins, and unless she can escape, Tosh will be sacrificed to resurrect a demon god who will plunge the island nations of Aquan beneath the ocean.

Readers who enjoy their adventure stirred with some romance will find much to like in The Trident of Merrow. The story moves swiftly, following two separate crews:  the Sea Drake, where Tosh is imprisoned by the pirate Jebediah Blud and a powerful Strega witch with an agenda, and the Gallows Jig, captained by Tosh’s childhood friend Germaine . From mutiny and sea monsters to airships and ancient rituals, The Trident of Merrow delivers action at a blistering pace.

The first pages immediately throw the reader into Tosh’s world: not just a mapping of the circumstances surrounding her current life but also a taste of the place she inhabits. She and her father live in Kingsport but their lives and trade revolve around the Shardsea. By the end of the chapter (it must be noted that the chapters are relatively short), Tosh’s adventure is already well underway. The action is instinctive. It sweeps the readers from the sea into the air; one can almost hear the John Williams soundtrack.

I liked how the magic elements were handled here. Ships employ a weather mage, with limited but useful abilities to calm huge waves or dispel a fog, but who can also appeal to and negotiate with various elementals to help them with more difficult tasks. I also enjoyed reading about the melding of magic and technology; at one point they even use it to create the Aquan equivalent of a missile.

Another interesting aspect of the story is its mythology. Aquan gods and goddesses are binaries: brothers and sisters are also rivals locked in battle. For instance, the Strega witches worship the Abyssal Lord Merrow as the god of the sea while sailors believe in Tryta, the Harlot Mother of Tides. I thought this framed the other binaries of the narrative quite nicely: magic and technology, the Gallows Jig and the Sea Drake, the Rozinante and the Colossus, Germaine and Massimo.

Unfortunately, Tosh is not as strong a character as she first appears to be. It’s evident that the authors tried to distance her from other literary damsels in distress by making her useful and allowing her attempts to rescue herself from her captors (she’s a steam mechanic, with life skills that come in handy once in a while). But there’s something about her that just falls short of being a compelling and relatable lead. It seemed rather unfortunate that the story’s main conflict revolved around Tosh and Massimo when they could be counted among the weaker characters.

However, that doesn’t diminish the impact of the other characters in the story. The Brinhold twins, Brion and Gage, are colorful members of the team who present interesting perspectives. Their backstory alone paints an intriguing culture and dynamic that I hope can be further explored should the authors choose to expand the book into a series. There is also Ama, the resident Manic Pixie Girl-type, an endearing addition to the story even if she only appears in the latter half of the book. Even Germaine, the knight errant, has moments of conflict and introspection, which surprised me because I had expected him to be a one-dimensional character. They might all fill certain stock roles, but they evade the predictability of their tropes just enough to ensure that the story remains memorable.

Despite the non-stop adventure, readers are constantly reminded that The Trident of Merrow is also a romance. In fact, it ends with a realization on Tosh’s behalf regarding the nature of love: not as a rosy-colored, sugar-coated fantasy [but]… seeing someone at their worst, a filthy keening animal. Wise words, but when concluded by someone whose own romance unfolds like the nautical equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome, it just doesn’t deliver the desired impact. It’s actually the romances in the story that prevent me from fully enjoying the story; sometimes it can get cloying, other times just plain confusing.

Though The Trident of Merrow winds down to a predictable conclusion (the final confrontation with the Big Bad seems almost anti-climactic), there are a lot of moments in the journey that are exhilarating. Young adult readers will enjoy this alternative to the sword-and-sorcery medieval fantasy, and even older ones won’t regret a brief afternoon spent lost among the waves of the Shardsea.

You might like this if you like…
Pirates, airships, brooding emo boys, krakens as pets

Scriber by Ben S. Dobson (2011)

Smashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

5/5 stars

When a group of rebels called the Burners launch a series of brutal attacks across the Kingsland, disgraced scholar Dennon Lark is pulled out of his self-imposed exile and back into the very search that sent him into hiding to begin with. His research into the kingdom’s lost history may just hold the truth behind the Burners’ strange sorcery—and explain why so many of those thought killed in the attacks have joined the rebels who destroyed their homes. But only the King’s infamous warrior niece Bryndine Errynson and her company of female soldiers trust him enough to help him find answers before the rebels burn the Kingsland to the ground.

Racing against time and pursued by forces beyond their understanding, Dennon and Bryndine may be the realm’s only hope—but in order to preserve the Kingsland’s future, they must first uncover its past.

Despite being firmly of the medieval European vein, Scriber is an epic fantasy that manages to deliver freshness, deftness, and a fair dose of gender sensitivity to the genre’s tropes. It moves from mystery/scavenger hunt to epic battle to morality tale but does it in an effective and seamless way.

What first drew me to it was the choice of Dennon Lark, a historian, as the narrator. A fitting choice given his profession, though he is far from the kind of protagonist that most epic fantasies require. Dennon spends far too much time being afraid of his own shadow. His cowardice is often mentioned in the book -– from his desire to hide from the world after a personal endeavor turns tragic to his fear of Sylla, the self-appointed bodyguard of Bryndine Errynson.

A counterpoint to him is Bryndine, niece to the King and generally shunned to Hester Prynne-like proportions as a blasphemer for taking up arms and leading a company of female soldiers. She is the story’s heroic trope, given bulk and battle ferocity to make her appear physically unattractive, but with a steadiness of character and purpose that made me cheer for her at every turn. Her actions are tolerated only because she is of noble blood and even among people she saves, she is neither admired nor thanked. Turn Bryndine male and the character loses much of its vulnerability and pathos.

I like how Mr Dobson gives us protagonists we can get behind and uses both Dennon and Bryndine to show different kinds of bravery, different kinds of battles, different kinds of heroes.

Even the warrior women are given nuanced roles. There are about twenty of them but the author knew how to write for them, how to introduce them to the reader so that you are never overwhelmed. Mr Dobson made sure that you paid attention to the right ones at the right times. One that particularly stood out was Wynne, with her hopefulness and desire for learning, and at the end of the book I really did feel as if I were part of this company.

I felt completely immersed in this world. Here, scribers like Dennon are tasked with recovering the kingdom’s forgotten history, lost during a Forgetting instigated by a King who had razed all books and knowledge to the ground. It’s a monumental task but one that Dennon approaches with passion and devotion, and snippets of all that he has discovered, as we ll as his thoughts, are revealed in brief passages before each chapter. But in spite of this, the world-building in Scriber is never bulky. In fact, I would go out on a limb and say that every detail mentioned had something to contribute to the plot and wasn’t just included for flavor or scene-setting. (Let me know if I’m wrong.) Every little thing seemed to matter; nothing felt wasted.

I’m always up for a good series, but I’m a reader who is more impressed when a story wraps itself up satisfyingly in just one take. My only real concern with Scriber was how quickly the characters seemed to jump to conclusions while putting clues together. But that is little compared to how the story works itself to a glorious and emotionally-charged climax. Scriber ticks all the right boxes and reminds me that with indie releases like this, epic fantasy refuses to be just another tired and battle-worn genre.

You might like this if you like…
Band of Brothers, medieval zombies, scavenger hunts, underdogs, unsung heroes

Battlehawk by MP Ericson (2011)

Smashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

3/5 stars

Galchai joins his father in the northern mountains in a bid to raise a rebel force against the army that occupies their homeland in the south. He leaves his brother Hauel behind to be raised among their southern kin. When Father dies, Galchai claims the kingship, and sends for Hauel as his champion. But Hauel is no longer the admiring younger brother – he is a swordsman with ambitions of his own. The brothers must overcome their rivalry and lead their own army to victory, or else their people will never be free. Heroic fantasy novel.

I’d say that Battlehawk may be the one to try if you like a quieter sort of fantasy, but somehow that statement doesn’t seem to give justice to the action in this book. Though the novel doesn’t have any dungeon-crawling or dragon-slaying, it still boasts of its fair share of sword fights and battles, calling to mind the weight and grimness of early European history.

The novel flows easily, at least at first. I like how in the first eight pages, the author throws you in the middle of the story and expects you to pick it up quickly without burdening you with massive info-dumping. I think it was this kind of restraint that encouraged me to pick this novel up in the first place. It does well to open with Hauel and Galchai as children. Not only does it show the family dynamics, but it also allows the reader more insight into the protagonists’ personalities than the rest of the novel does. I also applaud its treatment of a kingdom in exile, beggared by the years.

Unfortunately, the transitions were a real problem for me. As the brothers grew older and the various tribes and rulers moved closer to the brink of war, I was kept guessing on how much time had really elapsed between events. I had a smoother time reading the first third of the book, leading me to eventually give up on constructing a more concise timeline.

I was also anticipating a pay-off that never really materialized. Based on the story summary, I thought I’d see a definitive showdown between Galchai and Hauel. I had to remind myself that not every difference of opinion must lead to outright conflict or confrontation.

There were other minor details that bothered me. The first page speaks of ‘a door hooked open,’ and to my mind, a door can either be hooked/latched or open, but never both at the same time. A few pages down, a duel between Hauel and his cousin Robar concludes with ‘After that, it was all over. Within moments, Hauel lay on the ground, panting and writhing (page 5)’. But it is Hauel who wins that fight and not Robar. Maybe these can still be corrected in future versions of Battlehawk.

My biggest regret, however, is the minor role given to women in the book although the ending foreshadows a change of direction. Unfortunately, this feels like too little, too late. If one of the lessons of the novel is that society must not exclude feminine wisdom and perspective, then why did it seem like every decision made by women in this novel — at least decisions that the protagonists listened to — led everyone to harm? I wish that there wasn’t such a wide disconnect between intent and application so that the conclusions made at the end of the book are properly justified.

I still think that Battlehawk delivers a fairly enjoyable reading experience. The battle scene towards the end of the book is something I commend. Ms Ericson gives it proper treatment. She doesn’t just turn it into a cut-away scene or dismiss it in a summary. Instead, she allows the action and the drama time to steep and then utilizes these into a fitting climax for her story. In the end, I think Battlehawk would have rated higher if I had found the rest of the novel consistent with its promising beginning and moving conclusion.

You might like this if you like…
Epic fantasy with more swordplay and no sorcery, Guy Gavriel Kay-lite, medieval warfare and strategy

Look Homeward, Clockwork Angel by Elias Anderson and E.C. Belikov (2011)

Smashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

3/5 stars

Stanford Parker has a choke-hold on the legalized slave industry. Breeding his brand of clones for whatever horror his clients may have in mind—from hard labor to spare organs—there’s no questioning his product’s quality. But his days may be numbered when someone hires the crew of the airship Masamune to put him out of business. Violet: the gun-slinging airship captain, Moriarty: a disgraced former Inspector, and Tibbs: a genius inventor struggling with a ‘pheta addiction, have a tall order in front of them in bringing down Parker’s heavily defended ranch. They have a plan, but a secret from one of their pasts will endanger the mission; tensions between Violet and Tibbs over differing moral ideals will heighten; and Moriarty’s inquisitive nature will draw him to ask: why haven’t they met their client?

Look Homeward, Clockwork Angel is the first in a series of Steam Punk novellas and stories chronicling the harrowing post-apocalyptic adventures of the crew of the airship Masamune and the lives they touch along the way.

Though the premise makes it look like your standard-issue adventure fare, Look Homeward, Clockwork Angel plumbs unexpected depths to make the reading experience quite worth your while. The prose is certainly hardworking. It never lets the reader forget its steampunk roots as it weaves generous descriptions and terminologies into the alternative western story. I didn’t feel that there was an excess of information provided; the wordbuilding was on-key. Unfortunately, there are times when the text descends into dry, almost didactic narrative of the tell, not show variety (‘Moriarty now sat down to a hot meal and thought back at that fiery day, seven months ago, when what was now his family, for better or worse, had come together’ p20) and forced sentiment (Violet compares a suitor to ‘a lone rose in the middle of a pallid desert wasteland’ p32). Thankfully, the uneveness doesn’t last long. At 30,000 or so words, things tend to move pretty quickly. Aside from an obligatory origin chapter, the action is managed well, each move calculated, nothing wasted.

I was ready to write this off as a run-of-the-mill action-adventure story when the last few chapters happened. This is when things really get interesting, and it switches the dynamic of the story from a oneshot adventure session into a harsh moral dilemma. Although there are already hints of issues cropping up in previous chapters (most intriguing for me was the Augmentation Society and its implications), what occurs in the last third of the book is a major turning point not just for the story but for the world it inhabits.

I thought the characters here were a mixed bag. Take Violet, the captain. I don’t adhere to the school of thought that to escape female stereotypes, a beautiful woman must be anti-female; in this novella, Violet hates dresses and heels, hates being ordered for, hates being reminded that she is a woman. Even when her past is revealed and in the light of what had happened to her, I believe we can expect more challenging characterizations from our authors than the shopworn variety. I’m also not convinced of Moriarty’s role in this enterprise. I’m guessing his presence in the triumvirate is to be the moral compass, the everyman that may give the readers familiar ground, but so far there is little development in his area. The most intriguing character in my opinion is Tibbs, whom at first I had written off as a mere third wheel. In the course of the novel he had leaped to the forefront as a gamechanger. Most of your questions about the characters are answered by the time the novella closes, and I appreciated that the authors didn’t feel the need to tease the readers more than was necessary.

One thing that greatly bothered me in this book was the way Violet, Moriarty, and Tibbs treated Harris, a secondary character who had the job they needed to fulfill theirs. Suffice to say that it left me just as horrified as what Parker had been doing at his ranch. Whether it had been deliberately made to add to the existing issues of the book or not, it had me reassessing my opinion of the crew.

Let’s talk marketing and branding for a moment. Judging books by their cover is a reader-response that most authors must deal with. Look Homeward, Clockwork Angel‘s own cover is cleanly-executed but it has grim and serious quality to it. While it does echoes the heavier themes that the novella bravely tackles, I also think the tough alternative western, action-adventure aspect of the novella could be further highlighted to draw more interest to the e-book. Another suggestion would be tighter editing. The western slang adds color and can’t be faulted, but the novella could use another editing eye (with careful attention to comma use).

In the end, despite my problems with the uneven prose, I still found this a solid effort and a laudably courageous start. It looks like there is plenty to look forward to — both in action and in character growth — as the rest of the series unfolds.

You might like this if you like…
Steampunk; alternate westerns; action-adventure; Firefly

Coffin Dodgers by Gary Marshall (2011)

Coffin Dodgers by Gary MarshallSmashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

4/5 stars

Eighty is the new thirty. Nobody’s having babies, the old massively outnumber the young and the hip crowd has become the hip replacement crowd. Twentysomething barman Matt Johnson would be bored senseless if someone wasn’t trying to kill him.

When Matt isn’t playing silly pranks on his elders with his colleague Dave or laughing at Dave’s dating disasters, he’s trying to summon up the courage to ask best friend Amy out on a date. Then Matt narrowly escapes a car wreck, and he discovers that his accident was no accident. Someone’s murdering young people, and dozens are already dead. Can Matt, Amy and Dave stop the killings? The answer involves guns, gangsters, an angry bear and plenty of irate pensioners.

Crafting a believable mystery based on an oddball premise can prove to be a challenge, but one that Gary Marshall embraces with tongue-in-cheek wit and panache. Coffin Dodgers is a light, fast-paced mystery punctuated with genuine comic moments and the usual concerns of a twentysomething life: boredom, work, romance, and the presence of beer. It slightly borders science fiction, with mentions of newspapers with video clips and cars that take care of everything but the steering (although if those were already common occurrences in your part of the globe, you can always chalk it up to my third-world ignorance), but as a whole I feel that Coffin Dodgers is still hewn closer to an alternative present than a truly futuristic sci-fi scenario.

One of the most impressive things about Coffin Dodgers is its conversational tone. Matt is an effective narrator, drawing the reader into his life with ease. He brings familiarity into a world where the bingo hall is one of the most packed places during the weekends. In fact, it’s not just Matt — his friends Amy and Dave are realistically drawn as well. Their banter feels genuine and unaffected, insanely proliferating the novel with nicknames for the people around them (Sleazy Bob, the Yellow Man, Rodeo Rick, to name a few). Their fun and reckless spirit is consistently carried throughout the rest of the novel, encouraging me to imagine Coffin Dodgers unfolding as a movie, that crazy sleeper hit with actors of the indie-slacker persuasion.

This debut novel starts out strong, quickly establishing the mood and parameters of this new world. In just a few wry paragraphs, Marshall outlines the reasons and consequences behind the silvering of the population — one that almost feels plausible. He is also quite careful in letting Matt and his friends function within the scope of their capabilities. They are able to act, reason, and attempt to unravel the conspiracy without calling on James Bond’s arsenal. Their go-to gadgets? Camera phones, online-bought bugs, a sound engineer’s equipment. Again, plausibility in just the right amount.

Coffin Dodgers moves quick enough to let you forget some of its flaws before you realize they were even there. My main concern is that the characters are pretty much WYSIWYG and have little development throughout the course of the book. The antagonists, in particular, are quite cookie-cutter and do nothing to save this book from its predictability. While I can’t fault the book for its pace, I can’t say the same for the way it wraps up the mystery. You know that moment in an action movie when the hero is confronted by seven thugs and you just wonder why the other six are politely waiting their turn instead of rushing at him all at once? I had similar moments while reading this. I felt that the antagonists were just missing that ruthlessly smart gene that would have evened the field. I understand that the ridiculousness of the situation is created by using current universal stereotypes of the elderly, but I was a bit disappointed that longevity in this world didn’t amount to much bad-assery.

Despite these hiccups, I really commend Gary Marshall for coming up with a well-written (and well-edited) debut mystery. There are moments in the book that subtly move into the realm of social commentary without having to try so hard. Irreverent tone notwithstanding, it feels much more polished than the usual indie e-books that I’ve come across — definitely worth an afternoon read.

You might like this if you like…
Conspiracy theories; hating on mini-golf and Bingo nights; Shaun of the Dead

I’m not surprised that Gary Marshall knows how to write. Really write. He works as a freelance journalist, columnist, author, copywriter, scriptwriter and radio talking head. I guess that’s why he knows so much about sound engineering, too. You can check out his latest novel here.


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