Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Book Review: Bright of the Sky by Kay Kenyon

Bright of the Sky by Kay Kenyon is the first book in The Entire and the Rose series. Subsequent novels include A World Too Near, City Without End, and Prince of Storms. Bright of the Sky was (and still is) a free Kindle giveaway, which is how I obtained this gem. Free is always easy; you didn't pay anything for it, so if it doesn't live up to expectations, no big loss. Fortunately, Bright of the Rose did not disappoint.

The novel is a blend of science fiction and fantasy, the latter coming into play because the technology is so far advanced that it might as well be magic. The setting is reminiscent of such series as The Chronicles of Narnia or the Thomas Covenant Chronicles, both of which feature characters who travel from our world into one that is both wonderful and strange. What Kenyon does, however, borders on brilliant: instead of journeying with the main character into this other world for the very first time, we quickly learn that our main character, Titus Quinn, has already been there. This sets things up in an entirely different way than if he's just come into the Entire (the name for this otherworldly dimension). The catch is that he doesn't remember much about his previous stay, and only once he's back and immersed in the Entire's strange culture do bits and pieces return to him. As readers, everything is new. But with Titus as our guide, we're able to skip over some of the minutia and get right into the good stuff. That's the brilliance of Kenyon's approach.

The only thing that Titus does remember for sure is that he didn't enter the Entire alone: with him were his wife and daughter. They did not return with him, though, and so Titus spends much of his time trying to convince others back in his own world that he isn't crazy, that there is another world or dimension that he somehow traveled to, and that his wife and daughter are still there. The opportunity to return final presents itself when your somewhat atypical greedy corporation steps in offering to send Titus back in exchange for his performing some reconnaissance for them. It seems space-time works differently in the Entire, and they think it can be used to speed up interstellar travel. Titus agrees, and off he goes.

The Entire is an odd place based loosely on feudal Chinese society. Ruled by the Mantis Lords, or Tarig, there are humans and many others races there, but all are kept in a sort of subjugation by the Tarig, who are the creators of the Bright, an energy source that makes the Entire possible. Our world is called the Rose, because while those of the Entire view it as a thing of beauty, they also have seen its thorns. Interaction with the Rose is forbidden, and punishable by death, as is aiding someone like Titus who's come from there. Titus does find allies, though, those who are tired of the Tarig yoke. HIs journey becomes one of deception and subterfuge as he avoids detection at all costs while trying to determine the fate of his wife and daughter.

Titus comes across initially as a bit of a bitter kook. He was ridiculed and discredited upon his return to our world, so he chooses to live a life of solitude until given the chance to return to the Entire. He is ruled by guilt over leaving his family behind, though, and so he desperately wants to return. This desperation sets him up ultimately as a sympathetic character whom I wanted to succeed. As the story unfolds and Titus's memories return to him, the fate of his family is both sad and bittersweet. Ultimately, what begins as a sort of rescue mission for Titus becomes something else entirely as old enemies emerge and secrets are revealed. Suffice to say that Kenyon resolves some threads while leaving others spinning on the loom for the next two books in the series.

I give Bright of the Sky a solid thumbs up and I plan to continue with the series.

Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder

Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder starts out flat out hard to understand. Not the writing, or the language, or even the plot (though it does take a while to fully unfold). It's the world itself that took me way too long to comprehend. The setting is a sort of blend of science fiction and steampunk and takes place on a planet called Virga. Maybe 'planet' is the wrong word. The description on Amazon defines Virga as a "planet-sized balloon", which is about right now that I think about it. But that fact was never understood, at least not by me. I figured Virga for a gas planet because there is no surface, but, to confuse things a bit more, there are artificial suns within the 'balloon'. People travel about inside this balloon using ships armed with rockets and protected by hosts of flying motorbikes. At one point, they travel to the outer (inside) edge, but can go no further. There is a sentient, all-powerful race outside the balloon, and presumably they're the ones who keep the people inside (?). Again, confusing.

All that strangeness aside, Sun of Suns is a surprisingly entertaining novel: Hayden Griffin wants revenge on the man responsible for killing his parents and forcing the subjugation of his nation. Admiral Chaison Fanning of Slipstream is that man. But as Hayden gets close to the admiral, intent on killing him and selling his own life in the process if necessary, he comes to learn of a threat more dangerous than Slipstream that the admiral intends to meet head on. Forced to join Fanning's crew from circumstance if nothing else, Hayden finds himself growing attached to certain Slipstream crewmembers and unwilling to carry out his original mission.

Schroeder has quite the imagination when it comes to world-building. I only wish he'd stopped for a moment to explain it a little better. While the novel does meander a bit—the main plot points are not revealed until the reader is well into it—a riotous, action-packed ship battle at the end almost makes the whole experience worth it. Add Sun of Suns to your reading list. It’s a five book series, so plenty of time for explanations of how things work later on.

The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett

The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett got off to a great start, but ultimately didn't do it for me. This is a book I'd read a lot about, and so I began reading with a certain amount of pent-up expectation. The concept is great: humans have lost much of their past, including technology and magic they once used to nearly drive the demons that rise from the ground each night into extinction. They survive now only because enough of the warding magic was preserved to protect their houses where they are forced to hide each time the sun goes down. Once, there were attack wards, but those have long been forgotten. Until the Warded Man returns, a legendary figure from a bygone era who not only walks the night, but preys on the very demons who hunt humanity.

If only Brett had launched into the story like that, I think it would have worked much better. Instead he takes us on a long voyage beginning with Arlen's childhood (Arlen eventually becomes the Warded Man), the loss of his mother, and how it drives him to leave his village one day with no concern for the demons that he knows will kill him as soon as the sun sets. He survives that first night, and others, until he arrives at a city where he is taken in by a Messenger, someone who braves the night to bring news and supplies from one village to another.

The story also deals with the upbringing of two other characters: Leesha and Rojer. Leesha becomes a medicine woman and Rojer a Jongleur, a companion to Messengers and an entertainer. Their individual stories are interesting enough. Suffice to say their paths cross with that of Arlen's or, rather, the Warded Man, since that is who Arlen has become by the time the three meet, and together they stage the largest assault on demon-kind the world has seen in a very long time.

While I did enjoy Arlen's transformative journey, I felt that introducing the Warded Man as a more undefined entity might have worked better. Instead, by seeing the Warded Man's origin story laid out in such detail, it takes away all of the mystery surrounding him.

Rojer seemed almost an afterthought at times. He fills up some pages, but was he truly needed? I have my doubts.

Leesha… a likeable character with a deep personality but I had an issue with a plot point in which Leesha is raped. I don't know what the deal is, but this is the second time I've read a somewhat recently released fantasy novel where a rape "happens" (I won't even call them scenes because they are both dealt with after the rape has occurred; the event itself is completely skipped over). The other was Sprunk's Shadow's Son. In both novels, the rape is so unnecessary to the story that I have to wonder if it wasn't the publisher who strongly encouraged (made) the author put it in. In Leesha's case, in particular, the character goes to great lengths at times to "save herself" for that perfect man she might meet someday (she winds up finding herself attracted to the Warded Man, something I did not get at all; it seemed really forced) only to find herself in the most ridiculous of circumstances and raped. The ridiculous circumstances are when Rojer, an experienced traveler, tells a group of perfect strangers what route they intend to take and, oh, by the way, I'm the only one guarding this fair lady.

Not that The Warded Man is all bad. The whole idea of demons rising every night is top-notch. Brett explains their existence and how humans lost the ability to fight them well-enough, also. I think he really had what could have been a grand series here. Unfortunately, I think he fails to execute and I don't think I'll be picking up the next book in the series.

Book Review: 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.

Book Review: 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.