Ephemera by Paul S. Kemp

Ephemera by Paul S. Kemp is a collection of previously published shorts that the author collected together into a new, single volume source available in Amazon's Kindle store. Kemp is the NY Times bestselling author of the popular Erevis Cale novels and stories.

As the sub-title indicates, these are dark tales. You won't come away feeling good. You'll experience murder, rape, injustice, and torture. But Kemp handles each of these topics with a certain finesse, neither overdoing it nor throwing in something just for shock factor. There may be some unsavory happenings, but they're each integral to the story in question.

The collection consists of just over 200 pages and includes the following stories:

  • The Signal (available as a free download from the author's blog): A hard-boiled detective story with a Lovecraftian slant.
  • One Thousand and One Words: A reporter's visit to a reclusive enigma's mansion may be his last.
  • Marlboro Man: A story about a very unangel-like angel.
  • Confession: Two brothers go to summon a demon.
  • The Spinner: A nautical tale about wrongdoing and self-sacrifice.
  • Stillborn: A witch's tale of sacrifice.
  • The Sixth Floor: A short but chilling story of zombies and survival.

I found each of the stories enjoyable (maybe that's the wrong word given the content; let's say instead the stories and characters did an excellent job of luring me in). The only exception might be Marlboro Man. I don't object to the blasphemy. The story itself just didn't leave me as haunted or as satisfied as the others. My favorites were The Signal, The Spinner, and The Sixth Floor. The last, while the shortest, is also the most chilling. It's a nice send-off for what is a very well written, haunting collection of shorts.

Reiffen's Choice by S.C. Butler

Reiffen's Choice by S.C. Butler is a story that reminded me most of a cross between Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. The former because the cast of characters includes a young girl and two young boys, and the latter because the world of Reiffen's Choice is very much traditional fantasy though with some flavoring of its own.

The young adults in this tale are Reiffen, the exiled heir to the throne, Avender, a commoner who is also Reiffen's friend, and Ferris, the headstrong girl who rounds out our Harry Potter-like trio. This edition of the novel was published in 2007, so I don't think I'm being unfair in making this comparison.

Butler distinguishes himself by adding in a Shaper by the name of Redburr, who most often appears as a bear but also as a bat, an eagle, and even a man. Presumably he can take any shape, though these are the ones he makes use of in this first novel of what is a three book series. Also, there is Nolo, a Dwarf who is a bit unlike the usual dwarves we are all familiar with. Dwarves in Butler's novel are limited in number; there are only eight hundred or so, and no women. Their skin is as hard (or harder) then rock and they are completely immune to the effects of magic.

The villains in this tale are three wizards determined to use Reiffen to gain the throne that Reiffen himself will never possess. To this end, they kidnap the boy, setting off a chain of events that culminates in Avender, Ferris, Redburr, and Nolo setting off to rescue him. While Reiffen is tempted by the three wizards, those four make the arduous journey to the wizards' stronghold. Some of the story is taken up with this journey; it's easy to see why tales of this nature fell out of favor as once you've read enough of these sorts of stories, well, the traveling and discovering new places wears thin. Still, while there is definitely some text that could have been cut, it all flows along well enough.

The novel is billed as "YA". While I would recommend it as such, I also didn't think it was only for young adult readers. It's a good story with some interesting characters and ideas. If you're looking for a three book series that has hints of the traditional fantasy many of us grew up with, I'd give Reiffen's Choice a look.

The Disunited States of America by Harry Turtledove

The Disunited States of America by Harry Turtledove is an alternate history tale in which the Constitution of the United States was never written. The resulting fallout is that the "united states" become the "disunited states," with each state going down its own road. Advances in society, technology, etc. all occur at different rates within each state. Some still have slavery. Others have achieved the relative amount of equality we enjoy ourselves. Still others have reversed the white/black dichotomy altogether; blacks are masters over whites. War amongst the states is frequent. California is one of the most advanced and powerful of the states; no one messes with them.

Beckie lives in this alternate world. Justin, a Crosstime Traffic traveler, is from our timeline, but he comes to this variation of the U.S. with his mother on a sort of educational fieldtrip. Justin and Beckie, both teenagers, meet and hit it off. Chaos ensues as they find themselves mixed up in an escalating war between Ohio and Virginia. For Beckie, it's about surviving so she can return to her family in California. For Justin, it's about getting back to his own timeline.

The Disunited States of America flows along well enough, but for all the premise of travel between alternate dimensions, not much is really done with it. Justin arrives, he has some adventures, he leaves. But it's a quick read, which explains why I finished this novel at all (alternate history is not my usual thing) despite there not really being a lot of science fiction meat to chew on. I almost put it down, but at that point I was so close to the end I went ahead and pushed through.

The Disunited States of America is the fourth book in Turtledove's Crosstime Traffic series. If you are looking to start with this series, perhaps you’d be better served by starting with book one and going on from there.

Shadow's Son by Jon Sprunk

Shadow's Son by Jon Sprunk is both the author's debut novel and the beginning of a new trilogy about the principal character, Caim, an assassin with a noble heart. The character is unique in a couple of ways: he has a ghostly familiar in the form of Kit who only he can see and he possesses a mysterious power that manifests itself in the form of shadows.

Told in the vein of Paul S. Kemp's Erevis Cale or R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt Do'Urden, Caim is a man who has taken up the knives of an assassin because it's what he's good at. He has rules: he doesn't kill women or children, and only takes contracts on those deserving. How the latter is determined is a bit subjective; this sort of vigilante justice inevitably bags the wrong man every once in a while.

Shadow's Son gets off to a rousing start. Caim is in the middle of a job that quickly degenerates into a chase and kill escapade as he refuses to allow his target to get away. From there we begin to learn more about our main character: why he's chosen this life, who his friends are (he doesn't have many), and what aspirations he harbors, especially of leaving the assassination business behind one day.

There is an ensemble of other characters: the beforementioned Kit who shadows Caim's every move, Jospehine, whose father is assassinated under suspicious circumstances and who is forced into an alliance with Caim, Ral, a rival assassin, and three principal villains who I unfortunately found to be caricatures of each other, with the only one displaying any sort of uniqueness being Leviticus because he shares some of the same shadow powers that Caim possesses.

I thought Shadow's Son started out great. But it quickly degenerates into a very predictable, cliché-ridden story. Bad boy hero is really a good guy deep down who develops an impossible relationship with the rich girl whose father he's accused of murdering. Also, he has a dark past tied up with a heritage he insists on denying even though it's pretty obvious there's some truth to it. In the end, he must embrace this heritage and save the city.

As for the characters, Caim often comes across as too noble to have ever gotten mixed up in such a sordid career. Josephine is your typical rich girl who is tougher than she looks; she has some character development, but I wasn't convinced. Kit, who might have been the most interesting of all, has potential that is never fully explored as she conveniently disappears so that Caim and Josephine can get to know each other a little better. The three villains… they're mean, greedy, and power-hungry in equal amounts, but fairly shallow from a motivation perspective.

Shadow's Son is akin to a blockbuster summer movie that almost works: good entertainment but not something that's going to make you think or feel hungry for the next installment. I'll see what Sprunk has in the works for the next book in the series and if it sounds intriguing enough I might pick it up. He at least leaves Caim's future adventures wide-open with the ending of this one.

Through Wolf's Eyes by Jane Lindskold

Through Wolf's Eyes by Jane Lindskold follows the basic Tarzan theme: a feral child living amongst the animals (in this case, wolves) is discovered by an expedition and brought back to civilization. The child, a young woman known by wolves as Firekeeper but by humans as Blysse, is thought to be the daughter of the king's brother. Turns out the king has no heirs. As a monarch approaching the end of his years, he is pressured by various parties to make a selection from amongst his eligible relatives. If he doesn't choose, civil war is a very real possibility. The return of Lady Blysse throws a wrench into the plans of those factions and individuals vying for the king's favor as she quickly makes an impression upon the elder statesman.

The story would seem somewhat predictable from there, except it isn't. Not that it is a terribly complicated plot, but Lady Blysse/Firekeeper does not simply step into the role of the king's heir. In fact, when offered the responsibility, she turns it down. From that point on, the suspense is raised a notch as the reader is left hanging nearly until the end before we learn who the king has selected. It may very well be Blysse; everyone assumes it is. I won't ruin it if you decide to pick this one up, but let's just say the not knowing creates some contention amongst otherwise already strained relations.

The writing in Through Wolf's Eyes is excellent. At times suspenseful, funny, and intriguing, it is only because the story unfolds so very slowly at times that keeps me from giving this novel a stellar review. It is most definitely a competent, well-told, and interesting story. But it really lags about midway through as Lindskold spends too much time developing relationships between Blysse/Firekeeper and various other members of the royal household. It reminded me mostly of a Bujold story: interesting characters, a well-developed world, and a smooth, easy-to-read story. But it takes some time before the place Lindskold is leading us to become apparent.

Don’t let the cover fool you, either. It’s dated and could use a refresh, but it’s in no way an indication of the quality of writing or storytelling inside.

There is some history or backstory that Lindskold discusses at times but doesn't explore too thoroughly: long ago, "high" animals coexisted with humans. Blysse brings two such high animals with her in the forms of Blind Seer, a very large wolf, and Elation, a peregrine falcon also larger than the norm. Blysse can communicate with both animals, and they can communicate back. It is something people do not question nor challenge. They just accept it as the sign of madness they believe it is. Lindskold could have gone further with these animals in terms of their prior relationship with humans and possibly she does in a later novel.

Through Wolf's Eyes is the first book in a series that spans at least five novels.