Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Book Review: 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.

Book Review: 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.

Book Review: 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.