Review: “Vacui Magia,” L. S. Johnson

Pros: The stories that make you go ‘wow!’
Cons: Some minor confusions
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Typically in an anthology like Vacui Magia: Stories, you expect to like some stories, not like others. Because of this I rarely give anthologies a particularly high score. In this case I’m going for a 4.5. With the exception of a couple places where I couldn’t quite get all of what the author was trying to communicate, I absolutely loved this anthology. It’s dark and winding, and meant for readers who don’t mind thinking a bit about what they’re reading. (That sounds obvious, but sometimes people just want something simple and straightforward.)

One of my favorite stories was the first one: “Little Men with Knives”. A school cafeteria worker leaves food out for the dwarfs so they’ll clean and arrange her house all neatly. If she ever forgets, they play tricks on her. In this one we see what happens when she starts to realize that maybe the little guys could do more than housework. And eventually we start to wonder whether the little men are really what they seem to be.

There’s a tale of conjuring and golem-creation which is incredibly absorbing. There’s a situation in which a creature has split itself in two, the better to feel and understand the universe. Unfortunately that split is having some side effects. Another tale about a woman who received a disturbing injury keeps things quite creepy.

A tale of grape vines on tainted land, and what’s happened to the woman who used to keep the land whole and fertile. Now it’s said she had congress with some sort of devil, and brought ruin down upon them.

There’s also a tale in the 1700s of a girl who entertains thoughts of marriage, who ends up a ‘kept woman,’ and is finally given over to a brothel. She’s building up a lot of rage after some… issues. The solution to her troubles is a wonderful one.

Vengeance, sorrow, curiosity, guilt–Vacui Magia is a heady mix of dark tales with moments of wonder.

 
NOTE: Free book provided by publisher in return for honest review

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Review: “Age of Myth,” Michael J. Sullivan

Pros: Fascinating world-building; good characters
Cons: Some blatant unanswered questions
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

In Michael J. Sullivan’s Age of Myth: Book One of The Legends of the First Empire, Raithe’s father Herkimer is slain by one of the Fhrey, who are thought to be gods. One of that god’s slaves, Malcolm, hit him over the head with a rock, and Raithe killed him and took his sword. This sets them both on the run. Persephone was the wife of Reglan, the chief of a village (who just got killed by a huge bear–her only living son met the same fate). Persephone is forced out of any position of influence by the new chief and his wife, although some still look to her for advice. Raithe and Malcolm end up in Persephone’s village, as does Suri, a young girl who is also some sort of mystic. While not all Fhrey have god-like abilities, some do. And the rest are much better-armed and -trained than the non-Fhrey living in their tribes and villages. It’s inevitable that someone will come seeking the death of the man now known as the ‘God-killer’. Persephone and Raithe work together to protect the village from the oncoming danger.

 

Arion comes to the village to find out what’s going on. She’s a master of the Fhrey “Art”–i.e., the ability that makes most people think of them as gods. She’s also 2,000 years old. At first the village is terrified of her, especially since a handful of Fhrey (not ones with the Art) have joined up with the villagers for their own reasons. Gradually we find out more and more about all of these people. The characters in the book are well-drawn, with plenty of conflict, regret, fear, and rage. The ultimate bad guy is a bit stereotypical except in appearance, which I thought gave him at least a little bit of originality.

There’s a character called Trilos. He only shows up a couple of times and only in context in the land of the Fhrey. His sole purpose seems to be to figure out how to open a door that cannot be opened. I assume that’s meant as fodder for the next book. It would have nice to know at least a little more about that, though.

The pacing is good, and I didn’t feel as though any character relationships were artificial in any way. There are three types of people involved, and watching them be wary and confused about how they fit together was great. Several interesting secrets pop out along the way, drawing people both closer together and farther apart, depending on the relationship and context.

 

Book provided free by publisher for review
Expected publication date: June 28, 2016

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Review: “The Seeker Star,” Susan Jane Bigelow

Pros: Wonderful characters and plot
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Please note that it’s pretty much impossible to review this book without giving away details of where we left off in The Daughter Star. If you haven’t yet read that, go read it and decide whether you’d like to go further afterwards.

In Susan Jane Bigelow’s The Seeker Star (Grayline Sisters Book 2), we get to see a lot more of Violet Grayline. She’s the sister who’s supposed to be walking the Gideon tight-and-narrow–getting married, having babies. She manages the first part, but finds out she can’t have babies. Luke, her husband, immediately divorces her and she gains only a very small payment from the divorce proceedings. Her beliefs regarding how she’d live her life have been crushed.

Of course Violet wallows in self-pity for a while; I feel like she earned that right. Eventually she ends up sitting down with her Aunt Melody.

But Melody kept dropping hints here and there in her magnificently unsubtle way.

Finally Melody offers that if Violet will bring home her missing sisters, Marta and Beth, Violet can have Melody’s house. A mysterious General Winter starts to keep an eye on Violet, referencing the fact that the Grayline girls are all under watch. Violet doesn’t want to leave to find her sisters, but her own stubbornness keeps her going. (She’d give Marta a run for her money!)

Violet goes through being kidnapped and being freed; being caught by Tercia, an enemy of Marta’s who’s keeping Beth hostage. Beth no longer seems like herself, but Violet is determined to do something to get her free. Even on Earth–now that the sisters know Earth was never destroyed–things have gone wrong. The Abrax did everything they could to blend with humans in order to save their race (the blended creature is called an Alil), but for some reason births have gone way down and they’re dying out despite all of their best efforts.

 

One of my favorite concepts in this book is that the Abrax, which are in the process of evolving into energy beings. aren’t welcoming that change–they believe it’s just another form of death! I don’t think I’ve ever seen this version of events before; always it seems like aliens are gung-ho to turn into energy beings as the next step in their evolution.

There is of course a “Human First” coalition on Earth. It’s not surprising that it’s there, but even the name of the group itself is familiar.

Violet comes up with an idea to bring the Alil to Nea, but things get extremely dangerous once the humans figure out how to damage the domes over the Alil cities, and then drop a whole lot of nuclear missiles on those cities. Violet wants it to be as easy as bringing them and asking for asylum, but of course it isn’t that simple. Violet is going to have to find a whole lot of strength inside of her to take chances, maybe make some mistakes, but ultimately save an entire race from extinction.

My only negative is that we really didn’t learn much that was new about Beth. She was a convenient goal for Violet and Marta, but she doesn’t feel like she’s actively a part of this tale.

The ending gave me goose pimples. I love this series so far, and hope there’s a next installment!

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Review: “The Daughter Star,” Susan Jane Bigelow

Pros: I’m loving Bigelow’s books!
Cons: Very small detail gripes
Rating: 5 out of 5

Susan Jane Bigelow’s The Daughter Star (Grayline Sisters Book 1) is a fantastic read. To put it in perspective, as soon as I finished reading this book I bought the sequel (“The Seeker Star”).

In Earth’s history, aliens called the Abrax approached the humans. They needed a certain element present in Earth’s atmosphere; they would have to burn the atmosphere away in order to collect it. They also explained that in not too long, another alien race would want the same thing, and wouldn’t bargain for it. Instead, the Abrax offered to send the humans through two “Windows” to two other suitable planets. Adastre is bright and beautiful. Its gravity is lower than Earth normal, so the people grow tall and willowy. Nea is home to poisonous plants of all kinds, has higher-than-Earth gravity, and in essence is where the ‘lesser’ working-class people went while the rich people populated Adastre.

Naturally some humans refused to leave and would be left to burn. Captain Turn is the man who made contact with the Abrax, and he was the man to press the button that killed off the rest of Earth. In the Grayline family, it’s family belief that they’re descended from Captain Turn’s daughters. And that pedigree makes it easier for them to sense, see, and communicate with the Abrax.

Marta Greyline, who ran away from her religiously strict home of Gideon in order to become a Trade Fleet pilot, is sent home while a new war between Adastre and Nea boils over. She can’t get out of Gideon fast enough (their expectation is that she’ll settle down to a proper marriage and start popping out kids), so when she’s summoned by the Nova Emergency Fleet to pilot supply runs for the war effort, she immediately agrees. What she doesn’t expect is her sister Beth’s unspoken plans to use the event to join the fleet as an engineer. She has her own reasons for wanting to leave Gideon and Nea.

 

I was invested enough in Marta that I felt her frustration in Gideon, felt her anger at people trying to sabotage her choices, and then felt her elation as she found a new way to get to space again (when she left, my notes just say: “yay!”). She’s one of my favorite characters in some time. I like the fact that she’s crude and rough, sometimes mystified at why her methods don’t get the best results. I felt a bit protective of her by the end of the book. She’s bullish and stubborn, and I absolutely loved her.

Beth and Marta end up falling into the company of a handful of people who call themselves Shadow Runners. When they reach the Shadow Station, everything seems strange. There’s only a small group of people for such a large station. They don’t seem happy to see the new people, even though they themselves rescued Beth and Marta. They’re hiding an awful lot of secrets, ones which can’t help coming out eventually.

The Abrax aren’t around so much lately, but it turns out that there are still a few hidden away.

The plot is riveting, the characters totally pulled me in, and I kind of want to read this volume again to get some of the less-obvious details.

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Review: “The Binding,” Nicholas Wolff

Pros: Fascinating background
Cons: There’s a lot to keep track of; poor assumptions
Rating: 3 out of 5

Nicholas Wolff’s The Binding introduces us to psychiatrist Nat Thayer and police detective John Bailey. Bodies are piling up, and Nat and John, old friends, are trying to figure out what’s going on. Eventually they have to face up to the fact that what’s going on can only be explained through supernatural means.

I have to get this off of my chest first: one of the side characters turns up dead (hanged). Even though his hands were tied everyone’s assuming it’s a suicide–to the point where the police are trying to figure out how he tied up his own hands. Note that there’s nothing else that in any way indicates this must be a suicide. Nothing. Not. A. Single. Thing. Even after stab marks are found on his back, he still ends up labeled as a suicide. Argh! This is part of a pattern. This is not the only place in the book where the characters assume something without enough reason. It seems like the author is so set on putting forward a certain narrative that he overrides the characters’ own senses and intelligence. There needs to be enough evidence to back up character assumptions.

Things start going a bit crazy–bodies going missing from the morgue, more people dying. A fascinating piece of backstory comes out from several generations earlier, regarding a series of incidents in Haiti. The book takes place in a little town where many people can easily trace their family lines back to that fateful trip. This is one of the best parts of the book, in my opinion. It starts to shed some light on what’s going on. Usually I don’t want a book to suddenly jump through time and space in the middle, but Wolff kept it interesting enough to keep hold of me.

I found some elements toward the end a bit confusing, and lost track of some people. There were bits and pieces that felt insufficiently explained. The pacing hiccups here and there. Ultimately, however, I appreciated the ending and how it worked out the way it did. (Sorry for the vagueness–obviously I don’t want to give the ending away.)

Book provided free by publisher for review
Expected publication date: June 28, 2016

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Review: “Casimir Bridge,” Darren D. Byer

Pros: Excellent characters and world-building
Cons: *grumble* semi-cliffhanger *grumble*
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Darren D. Byer’s Casimir Bridge (Anghazi Series Book 1) is the story of Mandisa (Mandi) Nkosi. She’s a journalist who covered an intense fight in a Nigerian town, only to have her superiors block the story with no warning. Mr. Andrews (of a company called TSI; he has now gone into politics) and his fixer, Erik Hallerson, have been bankrolling the current Euramerican Coalition president. Unfortunately they aren’t getting their money’s worth from him, and he’s started to do some foolish things. Meanwhile, on the planet of Eridani Prime (it has an Earth-like atmosphere), Jans Mikel, head of a rival corporation (AIC), is making progress turning Eridani into a bustling metropolis. AIC has lost a handful of ships to unknown causes fairly recently. Mikel not only knew the crews on those ships, but his not-quite-wife, Sophia, was on the latest of them. This time there’s evidence of an attack. Meanwhile, Danny (Jans’ head of security and number two) believes that they have a serious leak in the company.

 

It took me some time to warm up to Mandi as a character, but then I’m not overly fond of pushy journalist characters. I definitely came to like her as things went on. Although she keeps running into people who know or know of her mother Gisela, Mandi hates her mother for leaving her as a child. The entire text was very coy about dribbling out hints regarding Gisela, and when it looks like we’re finally going to find out what’s going on there, the author conveniently gives us a “to be continued”. ARGH. It’s a comparatively small cliffhanger, but well, patience is not my virtue. I also have some memory problems, so I’ll inevitably forget to look for the follow-on, or I’ll remember but then be unable to remember half of what was in the first book. It doesn’t help that in Casimir Bridge the author is remarkably coy about any details regarding Gisela, and it gets old. There are questions that characters didn’t ask but should have, as far as I can tell for no reason other than delaying the reveal.

More on characters: I love Andrews’ “fixer”, Erik. He’s smart. He’s technologically savvy. It’s a great break from the typical fixer-character. I also like that Jans Mikel really cares about the people who work for him. Sure he pushes them hard, but he’ll bend over backwards to keep them doing well. Grae is another character I love. At first the attraction between him and Mandi seemed a little forced, but over time I found it easier and easier to buy into. I became very invested in the characters, to the point of shedding a few tears when something bad happened.

Overall, I found myself very invested in the book. I breathed a sign of relief every time the good guys outmaneuvered the bad. There were a couple of coincidences that I found difficult to buy into, but I don’t want to go into spoilers.

I’m annoyed with the semi-cliffhanger. The author has been so very coy with information about Gisela that when we see her in the distance and, boom, he ends the book before we can get anything, it’s annoying and kind of a let-down.

 

NOTE: Found free on Amazon through review request by publisher

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Review: “Moving In,” Ron Ripley

Pros: Some nice touches that are unusual for the genre
Cons: Just little things here and there
Rating: 4 out of 5

In Ron Ripley’s Moving In (Moving In Series) (Volume 1), Brian and Jenny have just moved into a house in New England with plenty of farmland and a barn. They’ve barely moved in when the weird stuff starts happening. They hear a poacher’s gun going off, go out to check on him, and find him inexplicably dead. Their basement door keeps opening on its own and seems to exhale cold air. Then the furnace technician finds a false wall and a family graveyard in their basement. The supernatural forces at work on the farm waste absolutely no time before hunting the new owners–but some of the ghosts have a different agenda entirely: they want to be freed from the farm and the dark force that trapped them there.

 

There are some nice bits of humor in this tale, and I like the fact that we have a slightly older couple (37 and 40 years old) without kids. That’s unusual for haunted house tales.

Plus, there was the stress of the move and the whole dead poacher thing.

The characters are a bit of a weird mix between a few stereotypes and surprisingly many full, fascinating people. Most of the stereotypes were limited to side characters, like the ex-cop who can’t give up his donuts despite the diabetes, who can’t get past the suspicion that Brian and Jenny must have killed the poacher who died on their land. I really like Brian–he doesn’t believe in this sort of thing, and believes even less in the spiritualist friend of Jenny’s (Sylvia), but he doesn’t waste time being stupid once it’s in his face. Speaking of Sylvia, her estimate of “9+” ghosts with some extras hanging around the edges is waaaay off, and though iron and salt make good weapons against the dead, they’re hardly foolproof. Some of the ghosts are even nice–silent Mary pours Brian an unexpected drink. Sam, a living man who was childhood friends with “Paul,” one of the nastiest spirits, ends up helping out as well.

“Screw this … This is my house now.”

Sylvia sends her friend Leo Moreland to help out Brian and Jenny by trapping the ghosts and then helping them to find their way to where they’re supposed to go. He’s very odd, but effective. Unfortunately he’s also running out of time–if he doesn’t get home in time, another powerful ghost may be released. I like Leo. His oddities don’t in any way prevent him from being a sympathetic character, nor do they make him infallible. He is a great conduit for upping the stakes, though!

I was expecting your run-of-the-mill haunted house story, and I’m happy to say I got something better. I’m a bit dubious about the follow-on, which seems to involve Brian becoming some sort of ghostbuster, which would seem to indicate a strong tonal change. Still, maybe I’ll take a look at it just to make sure.

NOTE: the author has some free short stories on his (Ron Ripley’s) website.

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Review: “Lies of the Prophet,” Ike Hamill

Pros: Fascinating plot and interesting characters
Cons: I’m left with a couple of questions
Rating: 4 out of 5

In Ike Hamill’s Lies of the Prophet, we find out that Gregory is a man who came back from the dead. Now that it’s happened once, people are praying around or experimenting with dead bodies, as people hope that their own loved ones might return. Lynne has recently begun to see things. She sees “Sparkles” that are somehow related to the passage between life and death. (This delightfully leads to use of the phrase, “zombie Sparkle”!) Lynne has been hired by the mysterious “Veyermin Group” and teamed up with Jenks. She’s being paid to sing out if she sees anything weird that others might not be able to notice. In another part of the story, Carol is convinced that her two-year-old daughter is an evil Changeling swapped in for her real baby. And Marta, well, Marta thinks Gregory abandoned her, and she will kill anything and everything–by the hundreds–that stands between her and Gregory. Add in a resurrected cat, and things get crazy.

 

Gregory’s people kidnap Lynne at one point because Gregory believes Lynne will kill him. This backfires in the obvious manner, but with unexpected results. It seems that within the last two years the world has gone crazy and no one yet knows what to do about it. Since it’s all fairly mysterious–and those involved have many secrets to keep–it seems entirely reasonable for things to still be chaotic.

I like the personalities involved here. Marta starts out as a housewife in an unhappy marriage, and blames Gregory when he leaves (he’d been their neighbor originally, then came to stay with them when he got resurrected). Gradually, and chillingly, this leads to her discovery that she can kill with a thought. Meanwhile Lynne appears to be Marta’s opposite: she can heal, although it seems to be dangerous to her to do so. I really liked that there was more than one thing that pushed Marta over the edge; she didn’t start off knocking out corpses by the dozen. As horrifying as I found her method of exploration (animal death as well as human), her handling of the terrible mess didn’t strike me as being in any way out of character. I do wish Jenks had showed up in more of the book than he did, just because he’s a fun personality.

There are some fascinating details that show the reader how interconnected all the weird stuff really is, but unless I missed/forgot something (which I admit, is not out of the question), I never entirely figured out the beginning and ending details of the zombies. I love how they behave though, and what it turns out they’re after.

This is a fun, occasionally confusing, dark look at how vulnerable our entire world would be if we had even a few people running around with terrifying powers.

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Review: “A Darker Sky,” Mari Jungstedt, Ruben Eliassen

Pros: Great characters
Cons: Some small loose threads
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

In Mari Jungstedt and Ruben Eliassen’s A Darker Sky (The Canary Island Series), Erika is toward the beginning of a two-month yoga retreat. After going out one evening, she’s found dead and posed like a famous painting. Three people are doing everything they can to catch the killer: Diego Quintana (the Chief Inspector from the small town), Sara (a journalist), and Kristian (a consulate employee who used to be a police officer). Diego is an old friend of Sara’s, making it easier for Sara and Kristian to keep up with what’s going on.

 

It’s pretty common at this point to have first-person point-of-view sections for the serial killer. It lets the reader in on his or her mindset, as well as additional clues, without having to give the perpetrator away (if done well). Unfortunately it seems to be trending lately, and it’s often done poorly. In this case I really like it. Because of it, we get to see that this is not a stereotypical serial killer. There is no sneering condescension toward the police. There is no arrogant lack of concern. We get to see that this killer is nervous and scared, and fully expects the police to catch up with him at any moment. It’s a great way to take an overused device and make it useful again.

The pacing at the beginning is quite good. It’s a slow exploration of the characters and locale, and it made the story more personal. While the pacing does pick up later, this tale is more about the people than the police work. Speaking of which, I really liked most of the characters. There are some stereotypes, but even they tended to get a little more detail here or there.

One of my favorite moments was a scene in which the serial killer clearly wanted to do the stereotypical serial killer monologue but gets thwarted. Given how ubiquitous those scenes are, I loved this break from tradition.

I only had two problems with this book: some of the little plot threads or minor characters seem to go missing, and some of the back-and-forth time jumps confused me (especially those centered around Adriana).

 

NOTE: Book provided free by publisher for review
Expected publication date: June 21, 2016

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Review: “Titanborn,” Rhett C. Bruno

Pros: It’s an interesting setting
Cons: Enemies fairly faceless; Malcolm can get annoying at times
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Rhett C. Bruno’s Titanborn picks up in 2334, three hundred years after a meteorite ‘crippled’ the earth. Some people stayed to work through it; others left the planet. In particular, the Ringers have lived in a low-gravity, sunless environment, on their own, for enough generations that they look significantly different: they’re tall, pale, and gangly. Worst of all, they’ve lost their immunity to most of earth’s bacteria and viruses. They go everywhere wearing masks, and they’re stuffed into quarantine wards the moment they come down sick. Earthers get better treatment, better jobs, better resources. So the Children of Titan, or Titanborn, are ready to start a bloody revolution in order to change things. Action in space is run by several mega-corporations, and they send Collectors to deal with situations their own guards can’t handle. Malcolm Graves is a collector for the Pervenio corporation, and they’ve saddled him with an unusual partner. Zhaff is young, seemingly emotionless, and uncannily quick. To Malcolm’s surprise, he finds they can work well together. Is the combination of Malcolm’s experience and intuition with Zhaff’s vast knowledge and keen training going to be enough to stop the terrorists?

 

The setting reminds me a bit of the series “The Expanse”: off-world people physically altered by generations in space, check. Those people are on the bottom of the heap, check. They’re more than happy to kill an Earther when possible, check. There’s a vaguely noir feel, check (although that’s stronger in the TV show than in this book). If you like that series, you might find a similar enjoyment from Bruno’s book.

Malcolm is a decent character, but definitely gets annoying at times. (He likes to gloat.) He wasn’t my favorite point-of-view character, but he wasn’t too bad either. Zhaff is a little too robotic, particularly at first, but he does improve. The enemies are largely faceless, and some of the characters behave a little… oddly. Characterization is not this book’s strongest suit.

There are some interesting surprises going on. One seemed a tad too convenient and far-fetched. Some of them were good surprises, however. The plot is interesting, and the pacing is good. There isn’t a lot to make Titanborn stand out from other books in the genre, but it’s a decent entry into the field.

 

Book provided free by publisher for review
Expected publication date: June 21, 2016

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