Rys Rising by Tracy Falbe – 5/5 Stars

Rys Rising - paperback - front cover

Where do I start? On the surface Rys Rising appears to be your description-heavy epic fantasy adventure, but beneath are characters that you can’t help but be interested in as you follow ambition, vengeance, desire, or vision. It’s multiple POV, the characters’ trials often meet with greater events in the world, and there is much at stake.

What’s at stake?

The Kwellstan Sect is the finest order of magicians of the superior and arrogant Tabre race, though the term ‘power-users’ may be more apt since the author doesn’t use ‘magicians’ much. The sect uses human society, keeping it controlled, and humans worship it in turn. In Jingten Valley, the sect currently takes advantage of the magical power of nature where a race of blue-skinned Rys live and have a natural connection with their valley and its waters. The Tabre are threatened by this potential power and oppress the Rys, keeping them in low positions in ordered society, beneath even the humans.

Dacian, the male Rys magician – the one who hopes

Dacian is a male Rys magician who hopes of a day when Rys can stand beside Tabre, and his Kwellstan Sect teacher Halor nurtures this dream. Despite Halor’s good intentions, his loyalty to Dacian is tested against his subservience to the sect. Therefore, the reality is not so simple for Dacian because he is seen by those high up in the Kwellstan Sect as a dangerous experiment. When Dacian surpasses his teachers in tests their conviction of his danger is confirmed.

We follow Dacian’s fight to prove his race’s innocence to the sect while putting aside his anger, for the greater good. As an acolyte of the sect, he is in the best position to effect change. Throughout Rys Rising Dacian’s control is impeccable, and yet the Tabre do not relax their yoke. If anything, they tighten it. You had to ask yourself whether Dacian was going to give up, lose control, or if he was going to win the moral high ground over the sect. The ‘tests’ they put him through were cruel and sardonic. They were so powerful and enthralling on the book’s page that they actually made me angry when attacks on Dacian’s individuality and independence were dished out by senior sect magicians who show a civilised face to the rest of society.

Rys Rising - paperback - back cover

Onja, the alluring and rebellious Rys

The first Rys we are introduced to is actually the beautiful, alluring, and mystical Onja. Her femininity, beauty, and racial difference seem to cast a spell on Lin Tohs tribe leader Gendahl when he first meets her at a lake, having just lost his entire tribe and family. Onja heals him and protects him, and they develop mutual respect since. They keep in touch via a magical orb she gives Gendahl, which becomes the source of mysticism that he uses to get revenge on the Patharki tribe leader antagonist who massacred his tribe. The orb also helps Gendahl in his attempts to become accepted as a Kez outlaw barbarian: providing legitimate guarding services to rulers and kingdoms in the dangerous wild lands in between.

Onja wanders many forbidden places, towards the untamed human civilisations in the West. Unlike Dacian, she is known by the sect as an outcast and bad Rys, and her attractiveness and disregard for rules make her an ideal subject of punishment. Where Dacian keeps to the strict teachings of the sect, Onja isn’t afraid to experiment with magic. She and most Rys aren’t confident the sect will show anything but disdain to the Rys.

To summarise

Rys Rising is about challenging hidden forms of cruelty and fear as mentioned above, and challenging the rules we enforce in civilised (medieval?) society, such as with women being forced to put aside their preferences and marry enemies to create alliances in wars that were made by men. A good example of this is the daughter of the Sabar’Uto tribe’s King, Demeda, who is closeted inside and forced to have her face and femininity hidden lest it arouse forbidden passions. Like Onja, Demeda yearns for a freedom outside the control of rules and ‘civilised’ society if only so that she can choose her life, rather than live a restricted one as one of the wives of an enemy king. Demeda is actually a sub-character and yet it’s a prime example of how the author is capable of inserting life and personality into all of her characters. Many of her most fascinating characters are troublemakers who defy laws and find themselves in battles or alliances. It’s a refreshing twist on those corrupt groups who make laws only so that they serve their purposes.

Tracy Falbe is also a master of show and tell. She never inundates the reader with unnecessary or background events – there is a short summary and then the emphasis is firmly on the main scenes, easing the reader into the important events and making the events run-on naturally, even after a considerable, and yet pleasurable, break. I can’t praise Rys Rising highly enough. There is much adventure, emotion, and colour in the world. Hopefully I’ll read another Tracy Falbe novel in the future.

Tracy Falbe’s Website

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott – 4/5 Stars

Norman knights have returned from Jerusalem, and now that King Richard is being held captive in Austria – an event that was in no small part helped by his brother Prince John – they are confident that Prince John can rule safely and that the conquered Saxons, yeoman, and Richard’s subjects can be scattered to the winds. Before the Normans returned from Jerusalem, warriors of the Temple, and particularly notorious knight Brian de Bois-Guilbert, aligned themselves with the French and thwarted King Richard’s conquest of Jerusalem. Those Saxon knights loyal to King Richard have yet to return to England to see the state it is in, or so we believe.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott - front cover

Strong and reckless oath-breaker and warrior of the Temple, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, is not one for subtlety, and makes his desire plain for beautiful Saxon ward Rowena as one of a few Norman guests of Cedric the Saxon’s keep in Rotherwood. The heart of the Saxon cause beats strongly in fiery leader Cedric, who detests the plight their Normal conquerers have put them in, never mind King John’s betrayal of his brother Richard and the oppression perpetrated by Norman knights. There is, however, more at stake than the political affairs of England, and of Rowena. In the keep a jousting tournament is discussed, to be held at Ashby de la Zouche to symbolise the ascendancy of Prince John (and so that he can raise his funds) and the Normans over the English Saxons. When the Jewish Isaac of York enters the guest hall and becomes the subject of slights and planned cruelties, one man gives up his seat so he can sit down. This man challenges Brian de Bois-Guilbert’s assertion that King Richard’s knights are second only to the warriors of the Temple: King Richard’s knights are ‘second to none’.

The jousting tournament is competitive. The Norman challengers beat the home team on the field, again and again, and the crowd are losing hope. Then, a mysterious knight appears, determined to fight every single one of the challengers for the defenders’ side. The Saxons and yeoman are emboldened by the knight’s victories and their honour is restored. Shocked Cedric is, when at the end of the joust it is revealed to all that the mysterious knight was none other than his disowned son Sir Ivanhoe, who bestows his favour on Rowena as the Queen of Love and Beauty, throwing a spanner in Cedric’s plans for Rowena to marry a Saxon heir. Prince John struggles to maintain dignity, especially when intrepid yeoman Robin Hood speaks of King Richard as England’s rightful King, and is ordered to prove his archery skills or be wrestled off the field.

I enjoyed Ivanhoe much more than I thought I would. There were unforgettable characters, and clashes in battle. There was that medieval romantic feeling as well, hinted at in a few passages. The reader sees the attraction and longing between Ivanhoe and the daughter of Isaac, Rebecca, and yet they cannot be together because of their different faiths in an intolerant and quarrelsome country. Though Ivanhoe and the Black Sluggard knight were adept in battle and showed valour in joust and siege, I also had a huge admiration for Rebecca’s forthright manner and how she could defend her sex, honour, and faith with a strength that stymied even the immoral/conflicted Brian de Bois-Guilbert whose physical strength and capacity for treachery were great.

The background to the entire story and the competing factions within was fascinating. It was Norman vs Saxon, and in the middle were outlawed yeoman led by Robin Hood and a few knights errant loyal to Richard. Robin Hood’s courage was great to read, and brought excitement and fast pace. The author had a grasp for how each faction would think. The Order of the Temple was originally corrupt before their extreme Grand Master put the Preceptory into order.

On the downside, there were too many references specific to the period in which Ivanhoe was written, in 1819, and though the quaint language wasn’t a barrier to understand most of the story, there were times when it was. After Rebecca is captured, three-quarters through the story, it slows down and is immersed in moralistic arguments. The end was disappointing too, and could be considered deus ex machina. I nearly gave Ivanhoe five stars.

Nevertheless, it is one to keep on your shelf. The excitement, battles, personality contrasts, romanticism, and chivalry made it fantastic.

The Banished by Paul Coey – 3/5 Stars

The Banished by Paul Coey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After reading the prequel to the Age of Endings series, The Messenger, where Falnir went through many trials to deliver his message in a world becoming ravaged by ancient monsters from the north, I had to try reading Paul Coey’s The Banished.

When Ruyen is destined to become a defender of all people, symbolised by a special sword, he makes many enemies: the monsters of the Nameless, Maidens, the King of Elsillore, and many other factions. As evil as the monsters of the Nameless are, their ghastly appearance is an expression of their evil. The evil of humanity, however, is subtle and conniving. Ruyen must navigate both types of evil if he is to not only lead people to challenge the Nameless’ invasion of the north, but prevent falling down the same path his predecessor did; to ruin, slaughter, and public hate.

I wanted to learn more about this small honourable man without much influence in court who is chosen by destiny. Ruyen’s predicament was intriguing and the way he found the sword and responded to the trapped situation he was put in made for marvellous reading. You can expect plot, conspiracies, arguments, and assassination attempts. It’s not until the last quarter of the story that the real action begins when the company are captured by bandits, and are on the run. Let me just say that my eyes were glued to the writing at this point and we saw examples of human evil that put the Nameless to shame. I had to know the outcome, and I still wasn’t sure which way events would turn. This was Paul Coey at his best. When The Banished ended, it ended too soon.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy The Banished anywhere near as much as I did The Messenger. The main reason is personal taste and the nature of the story. The beginning was the least interesting. There were too much back-and-forth arguments and legal procedures that made it difficult to make a connection with the characters, and reading it at times did feel like a legal essay. The author led me through too many doors into understanding his world. I needed a bridge to distinctive character voices and personalities, and I needed major plot simplification. There were times at the beginning when these problems didn’t overshadow the writing. For example, I had already made a connection with Falnir and I liked his response to groups when he is confronted regarding his message. Guilt and regret between male and female characters seems to be a theme that brings out tension in the author’s writing and brought out more passion in main character Ruyen and Kalmanec, just as it did with Falnir in The Messenger.

There was a lot positive about The Banished throughout. The writing was extremely good and well-researched. It’s without a doubt that the author knows his fantasy and can construct an authentic world with authentic and believable language and settings. When the author is at his best, or even his worst, you can see his strengths. I suspect the editing polished it so well there were few, if any, mistakes. Paul Coey is one of the great fantasy authors out there, and he takes his fantasy seriously. I’d recommend you try one of his stories and experience it for yourself because it is an ‘experience’.

Gathering Ashes by Michael Shean – 5/5 Stars

Gathering Ashes by Michael Shean

‘Endless carefree consumption, total comfort, all you can eat, and only at the low, low cost of your human soul and who believed in that anymore.’

In book three of Michael Shean’s dark cyberpunk series, he explores the paths we can take as humanity: to stick with the militaristic war-like foible of the human race or to use the superior technology of the alien Yathi to humanity’s advantage and risk losing a small part of ourselves.

Thomas Walken’s worst fears are realised when he wakes up as one of the Yathi. He doesn’t know his true purpose or what the Mother of Systems has planned for him. Walken must evolve, from a policeman to a spy operative, listening to external intelligence to make considered choices in the greater scheme of things. His new body has the potential to put him on an even keel with his alien enemies, if only he knew how to unlock his capabilities. ‘The magnetic fields around his hands, his arms, the elements that would flash-heat the trapped air into white-hot plasma. His alloy-laced bones, his diamond heart. The poreless white skin beneath his sensory absorptive coating, Nemea invulnerability rendered from flesh impregnated with nanomachines.’

The author keeps the best parts of character Bobbi’s point of view from Redeye (book two)  and combines it with Walken’s ego: ‘I’m hoping to kick ass and save the day no matter what you do to me’. Bobbi is much stronger and confident in Gathering Ashes, bringing together a group of hackers and using reclaimed Yathi as assassins. Though I was more excited with Walken’s ‘no shits given’ exchanges with enemies, it was Bobbi’s personality and character that felt more real. The way she thought, acted, and interacted bore uncanny resemblance to somebody who might have lived in the real world.

Criticism: I couldn’t easily fault Gathering Ashes. The quotations marks were presented inconsistently. Author should maybe cut out some similes, which stuck out in the text next to the already excellent pace and tone of the writing. Ch.12 was exceptionally long. When did Tom see Scalli, did I miss that part? There is a gap in my memory there. Regarding the ‘mysterious horseshit’ perpetrated by god-like AI Cagliostro, I wanted more answers than conjecture to explain who he is and whether he really can be trusted. It’s clear more will be answered in the next book, but some things could have been wrapped up better.

The author has adapted his writing, adding brief backstories, more considered settings, and even crossed into the spy genre with infiltration missions, all of which were well balanced, at the correct length and written with superb quality. The story contained some of the most exciting action I’ve read in science fiction with the right level of urgency, a firm grip of technology, and an understanding of cause and effect. I liked the fact that Gathering Ashes was not a rushed third book, and the author took his time to reacquaint the reader with the setting and characters. The flow was perfect. What else can I say except that Gathering Ashes is a well-crafted sequel that I hugely enjoyed? Each book continues to get better.

Michael Shean’s website

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King – 4/5 Stars

Salem's Lot by Stephen King

Marsten House represents a childhood horror for writer Ben Mears, and he returns to Salem’s Lot to put that horror to rest. Ben doesn’t expect to fall in love with Susan or make friends with teacher Matt, but he is still seen as an outsider and not to be trusted. When a few disappearances occur, it’s natural that the village folk see Ben as the one responsible and he is promptly questioned. It doesn’t help that the subject of his latest story ties him in with the infamous Marsten House.

Purportedly a haunted house story based on Dracula and flesh-eating vampires, Salem’s Lot delivers with an eerie setting and a chilling atmosphere in the first few chapters, with creepy dialogue. There was a lot of planning and research in evidence – an apt background to the unexplained mysteries and horrors of the Marsten House. Stephen King delivered with the right pace, slowing down to add character background or speeding up events to the inevitable discovery … a discovery which the reader suspects but the characters can only fear the supernatural. I thought this part of the narrative was artfully done.

From chapter three it became clear to me that Stephen King likes to delve deeply into the lives and histories of numerous characters. (Salem’s Lot is the first Stephen King book read, so this is new to me.) There were sinister plans in action concerning the renovation of Marsten House, but I did struggle to remember the character names and the respective facts about them, and so could not enjoy Salem’s Lot to the maximum.

SPOILER: I did think the focus of the story switched in a way I was less comfortable with; I wanted to learn about Marsten House and uncover secrets that could link it with vampires but it ended up being more about the latter.

When the focus returned to Ben Mears and the story sped up, I read with relish. The writing had suspense and didn’t need to work hard for my attention. I finished Salem’s Lot not with ‘Ah, isn’t that nice’, but with an equally satisfying ‘I’ve been through some ordeal, and I want to go through it again’.

Stephen King’s website

Ice by Briana Herlihy – 3.5/5 Stars

Ice by Briana Herlihy

Ice is a sequel in the science fiction series Clarity, and is set primarily on the alien ice planet Seoorus populated by humanoids in a not-too-distant future; a future prepared by main protagonist Ren’s time-travelling mother Sanna Grant and her complement Alma Laine. Ice is a big departure from the first book The Watch’s setting: the post-apocalyptic ruins of Earth, rife with Doctors, Filavirus, and the ‘Union’. Instead of learning more about the fascinating world in The Watch, the author opted to expand the setting to include the Cryuuia Galaxy, controlled by the Lamsam-Eothern (Prime Minister) and therefore introduced a new problem for Ren and the crew aboard the ship Clarity: ‘acceptance’ into the galaxy by undertaking a ‘worth’ test.
As was the case in The Watch, Ren is an insecure, compassionate, and somewhat vulnerable character who is constantly assailed by fears. She has to struggle against forced technological synchronisation with the hated Captain Cecelia Laine, which assimilates her will with Cecelia’s and confuses her into trying to do what is best for her new ‘complement’. The synchronisation pairs the inquisitive and cautious side of Ren with the cold, determined, and commanding personality of Cecelia, which hinted to me that in order to grow Ren has to take measures that are averse to her instincts. As a result, her Moon-soul religion of compassion and her adventures with her ragtag friends on Earth may have to be abandoned by Ren, which is not a comfortable prospect for her.

When Cecelia’s infuriatingly accurate predictions go wrong, I read with anticipation an encounter with the superior aliens of the Cryuuia Galaxy. Here, I liked the sinister description of the aliens in the Cry’uuia assembly, and the commanding tone of the Lamsam-Eothern. It made me see the peril Ren and the crew faced if they failed to pass the ‘worth assessment’. They are given a chance to do this when they are exiled to the primitive humanoid planet of Seoorus under the care of the Soolt Tribe.

If I lost interest for a few pages, the author was consistently able to bring forward new ideas or subplots to fuel Ren’s experience on Seoorus. Ren was strongly in touch her with emotions, which gave her an insight into how her friends felt, connecting the lives of a number of distinct and not-so-distinct characters, and prompting her to act to help them all. This is where it becomes apparent that Ren finds it difficult to prioritise what is most important; she can’t save or manage everybody. Ren’s changing priorities and conflicts were fascinating throughout, and formed the backbone of Ice. There was a thread of continuity running through the series in the character Jasmine – who is a tempestuous fighter – and Ren’s growing realisation of her feelings for Rian Sloan, the leader of the group of her fellow vigilantes on Earth.

Criticism: some passages reminded me strongly of Dune by Frank Herbert, especially when Ren and the crew meet the Lamsam-Eothern, who calls them ‘witches’ and demands a test to determine worth; a concept that reminded me of the ‘gom jabbar’; and then exiles them to a barren planet. There were even some giant serpents in these scenes. Thankfully, the author didn’t dwell too long on these similarities and moved on to the story.

When the focus switched from Ren to the point of view of Tove Dunyenya and Oliver Booth, ch.21-22, my interest in the plot waned for those chapters. At 54% through, the pace needed to be turned up a notch. The nature and the presentation of the worth test was cryptic, and I couldn’t become interested in it. Beyond the tribal hunt and Ren’s concern for Jasmine’s sanity little else was happening. Ren’s amazing ability to know how the other main characters felt lessened the impact of events, making them reported rather than allowing me to witness what events were happening. The author can write action and plot scenes, as proven in The Watch, but there were far too few in Ice. Those I remember vividly because they are written excellently were the crew meeting the Lamsam Eothern, an altercation between Cecelia and Jasmine, a brief exciting encounter with another tribe, and the final chapter.

It was difficult to remember the individual attributes of the characters in the humanoid Soolt Tribe, whose names sounded similar and all began with ‘H’: ‘Holnom’, ‘Hsama’, ‘Hmyal’, ‘Hoonomlat’; to name a few. Personally, I found more excitement when the characters were preparing for the worth test, which I waited with bated breath for, and when they weren’t on Seoorus.

Overall, Ice had writing that flowed smoothly, meaningful emotions that are well described, and a main character that evoked feelings of vulnerability and insecurity. Ren grows, gathering an aptitude for learning, feeling anger, mustering confidence, and taking a massive decision to fight for her feelings. There are background histories that add depth to Soolt culture and reassure the reader that the author has taken the time to construct the culture and setting – Halmyiyo’s Cove to name just one. What do I want from another story by this author? A group of characters on an adventure as in The Watch, more close encounters between allies and allies–enemies, more ‘mystery’ and intrigue surrounding humanity’s technological development and its relation to Earth, the Union, the Doctors, manips, Jasmine, Cecelia, and Lamsam-Eothern. It looks like I want more continuity… Nonetheless, Ice was a great fulfilling story and is in many ways the ‘complement’ of The Watch. It would not be wise to underestimate author Briana Herlihy’s incredible writing ability, which I am sure will continue to sharpen as it already has.

Author Briana Herlihy’s website

Catalyst Moon: Incursion by Lauren L Garcia – 1/5 Stars

catalyst-moon-incursion-by-lauren-l-garciaIn a world where supposedly dangerous mages are held prisoner in bastions by trained sentinels, Kali a crippled mage has to be escorted to a healer in Whitewater City. Unfortunately, on the way the sentinels guarding the mage carriage Kali was being transported in are viciously attacked by a wild group of Canderi who fight like no Canderi they have ever seen, and no Canderi the reader has ever seen either…

I’ll start with the positive. Despite my criticism below, the dynamics between Kali and Stonewall, sentinel who is left alive after the attack, are introduced well in chapter three, sketching Kali as curious and contrasting it with Stonewall’s resolve and sense of duty. These characteristics were certainly not original, but were interesting to read. There were several clean well-written passages that proved the author could write well when she wanted (Page 73 and 74 come to mind). The progression of some story arcs and how the character’s relationships changed, as with Milo and Flint, meant Catalyst Moon wasn’t completely nonsensical.

Let’s tackle the first chapter. It didn’t pull me into the story at all. How the reader was introduced to who was who was an issue: ‘Male Sentinel’ is ‘Stonewall’, and ‘Kali’ is ‘Mage Halcyon’ from another character’s perspective. It might make sense after you’ve read the first chapter. ‘Mage Halcyon’ sounded like a reverential name, and throughout the remainder it’s clear sentinels do not revere mages whatsoever – they fear them and look down upon them like dirt. The main scene of monstrous bandits attacking the mage carriage that should have really grabbed my attention and shown what the author could really deliver utterly fell on its arse. In other words, it did not deliver with the import it needed to be, and set a rather disappointing tone for the remainder, which did fail to pick up in meaning and pace. I mean, how did the characters feel when they were being attacked by the bandits? How were they going to get out of the struggle? If it wasn’t an important part of the plot, and it is according to the book description, then why include it in the first chapter?

  • Problem two is the sheer number of character or place names, which only confused the writing and made it nonsensical.
  • Chapter one – chapter five characters: Gray, Kali, Stonewall, Ganister, Pinion, Milo, Beacon, Flint, Rook, Gideon Echina, Sadira, Hornfel, Cobalt, Eris Echina.
  • Place names: Whitewater City, Starwatch, Ea’s realm, Aredia, Silverwood Province.
  • There was apparently a magic power that could send two people and a horse leagues and leagues across the countryside, three days’ journey (really?).
  • Cliches: ‘A chill crept across his skin, one that had little to do with the cold and damp’, and ‘the one has entrusted you with great power, so you must always use it wisely’.
  • Inconsistent vertical spacing between the text was painfully apparent in the interior of the paperback.
  • The spine was the wrong way round so the title and author name was upside down, though this could have been a printing error.
  • Difficult to find and remember the dialogue as it was embedded in the narrative text, as to make it invisible. To make matters worse, sometimes the answer to a question would be several paragraphs down, which stole away the dialogue’s impact.
  • Subplots crowded themselves in between scenes, and insignificant characters cropped up and distracted from the tale.
  • Inconsequential character would spend a chapter discussing scenes that had already occurred or that more important characters had experienced. Which do you think is more important?

Half way through reading it, I was struggling to relate to the circumstances the characters found themselves in. Events repeated those that had already occurred: Kali healing somebody or a Canderi attack on characters I couldn’t empathise with. There were rumours repeated about the Canderi, all the time, which didn’t show me anything new. Kali kept asking Stonewall to take off her cuffs on their journey, but why would she have expected him to agree and free her when she was a prisoner mage?

Conclusion? Meshed between irrelevant writing and subplots, there is a story of a romance between a sentinel and a mage in Catalyst Moon: Incursion and examples of writing that can engage. Unfortunately, it’s not in a structure and format that makes it pleasurable for readers, at this time of writing. It was impenetrable for the discerning reader, and I believe all writing should be there for a reason. I know the author has had both many positive and negative reviews, and I don’t mean to be patronising in the following comments but I feel I should offer my advice anyway for the sake of my own reading experience. Lauren L Garcia needs to either further develop Stonewall and Kali’s plotline or create one or two dynamic characters that can hold the reader’s interest and whose experiences better complement Stonewall and Kali’s plotline. The author shouldn’t be too hard on herself. Her writing isn’t the problem, it’s her story! I understand this may be her first published book, so you can expect some weaknesses, but I hope this critical review can help her identify and improve on them. Catalyst Moon: Incursion was the worst reading experience I’ve had in living memory, in terms of the structure, plot, and delivery.

Lauren L Garcia’s website

Mamluk by James Jackson – 5/5 Stars

Mamluk Emergence by James Jackson

The story of Mamluk is the story of a prototype reptilian soldier stranded on a primitive planet, fighting for survival and learning and using every device at his disposal to launch back towards the safety of the Protectorate empire that created him; a ruthless expanding empire that sends in enhanced soldiers to wipe out indigenous species in expectation of a second wave of colonisation. Along the way Mamluk will witness the growth of a civilisation, make many enemies, and even find what it means to have friendship and mutual respect.

The most compelling aspect was the friendship between Mamluk and a feline predator he names Madcat, especially when they are threatened by groups of savage tribal people that makes you wonder who the real predators are. Through stages of civilisation, in which technology ever increases, Mamluk and Madcat must work together to survive and protect their territory; which starts as a familiar cave but expands at a nice pace to encompass a lava tube, valley, forest, etc. The second half of the story complements the first well, filling it with emotion and purpose and adding significance to the main struggles Mamluk had faced and the people whose lives he touched. In this way there were potent messages in this story, of the impact of individual actions and how they shape the future in terms of war, monuments, and records.

Author James Jackson’s use of the first-person present tense gave him a platform for connecting scenes together with immediacy, thrill, and visual clarity. It enabled him to build Mamluk’s situation without interfering with other plotlines. What suggestions I have for improvement are minor. I’d have liked to learn more about the periods on the planet, or involve more complexities between Mamluk and the main people he comes across; mostly those referred to later on. I didn’t think any more depth needed to be added to the people, beasts, or the environment. The simplicity of the descriptions was why many chapters worked so well in connecting the rest of the plot into a cohesive and comprehensible whole. I did occasionally feel as if there was a bit too much fighting, but I gradually came to accept this made sense as Mamluk’s genetics, training, and his way of dealing with problems; which were abundant because he looked like a monster to the locals. An extra scene break or two might not have gone amiss; it would have disrupted the flow in some chapters; but would have given that extra breathing room between fighting in others.

Mamluk is a concise and well-structured novella that doesn’t try to be too clever by introducing events on a grand scale, instead presenting them in a relatable way through the immediate action Mamluk faces. This is quite despite the fact that author James Jackson has thought a lot about his world-building. For example, in reference to an expanding empire: ‘numerous space-factories churn out a steady stream of defence platforms to fill gaps in the grid as it expands’, shows that he has thought about solutions to his creation. Mamluk is a thoughtful novella that makes you think about what’s really important on a world that appears cruel, barbaric, and yet familiar. The setting surprised me with its familiarity to a medieval fantasy, but thankfully it only dips into the similarities enough to make the second half of the story plausible. Yes, you really need to read the second half to get the full benefit. I’d say Mamluk was a tidy novella overall, with all the elements in their allotted place; a feat I can imagine to be quite difficult for the average author. Supposedly advanced technology wasn’t so much explained, as it was delivered in terms that are well known to most avid genre readers, which made reading effortless. Make no mistake though that it’s quite clear throughout that you’re reading a science-fiction story. With Mamluk, I think James Jackson’s writing has made an impression on me, and has given me confidence he can craft engaging stories with vision, balance, and brevity. I have a newfound appreciation for his writing and hope he continues to think, write, and share his creations!

James Jackson’s website

The Unlucky Man by HTG Hedges – 4/5 Stars

The Unlucky Man by HTG Hedges

I don’t know what my expectations were for The Unlucky Man – I was looking for something dystopian, dark, and that I hadn’t read before – and believe it or not that’s what I got! I’d classify it as an urban dystopian fantasy with supernatural and thriller elements. Ultimately, it’s about ordinary man John Hesker who is talking with best friend Corg when a body smashes on top of their car. They’re questioned by an investigator called Whimsy, who is a man only half-interested in what they are saying and seems to ask his questions ‘on a whim’, so he was well-named. However, it’s not long before the dark elusive organisation called Control will send its most accomplished assassin Wychelo (like a witch with dark unnerving pools for eyes) to kill Jon and therefore hide its secrets. When a disturbing supernatural force is injected into Jon, he goes on the run, over Old Links bridge where there is no law and only savagery awaits.

Well, HTG Hedges has an eye for atmosphere and setting, which places the reader into a three-dimensional world that brought clarity and richness to every description of setting, and was applied consistently throughout. I’d say this was the best feature of his writing, and made me feel as if I was reading something new or rare. The writing from 76% captured me fully, immersing me into complete disorientation, which was the intention, into a graphic hell that was also somewhat pleasant on the senses to witness.

Criticism: it took me a while to remember who the villains were, especially their names and what distinguished them, because they had small parts and mainly from the point-of-view of Jon. Closer to the end there was a touch too much background information on the villains, which though missing before to add mystery, was inserted a little late in this relatively short novel. Third-person omniscient was used to re-shine a light on the villains at 67%, which though I worried the plot was crumbling at this point it did actually put things back into perspective where they had been missing in the car-chases and well-directed action scenes. Third-person and first-person point-of-view was mingled, which lent the story inconsistency and did become more noticeable as it progressed. On that same note, the author was adept at using first-person to add depth, colour, and contrast that I haven’t seen before when reading from first-person POV, but his use of third-person omniscient from 76% was a display of incredible writing. It seems the author needs to decide on where his strengths lie and how to use point-of-view with consistency to deliver maximum impact. I would have enjoyed this more if it was better balanced as well: two-thirds action and one-third background/conclusion didn’t move events forward in a way that I had hoped.

Overall, I don’t think HTG Hedges’ readers will be disappointed by his writing. The atmospheric descriptions, combined with metaphor, worked consistently well throughout. I was often curious where the plot was going, and when things turned chaotic I was utterly absorbed, with mouth agape. Piecing together the sub-elements of the plot didn’t come immediately to me, but when parts did they made sense and piqued my interest. There’s some terrific writing in this.

HTG Hedges’ Website