Book Review: Snakewood by Adrian Selby

Who here is tired of me reviewing books yet? Yeah, I’m not tired of it either. I was really intrigued by the synopsis of Snakewood.

Mercenaries who gave no quarter, they shook the pillars of the world through cunning, chemical brews, and cold steel.

Whoever met their price won.
Now, their glory days are behind them. Scattered to the wind and their genius leader in hiding, they are being hunted down and eliminated.
One by one.
I  did read through to the end, but there was a lot that this debut novel suffered from. It also did several things passably. Let’s start with the good. The world building is interesting. If you pay attention to the small details there is a rich a vibrant world hidden in the prose. The initial mystery of what happened was also enough to keep me reading through to the end, even if some of the reveals about specific characters felt terribly telegraphed. On the flip side, maybe those reveals were just foreshadowed really well. If I ever re-read, I’ll have to look closer to determine. Whelp, that’s enough praise.
The book itself is too long for the story it’s trying to tell. There were several portions that just felt extraneous and I felt like the story could’ve improved from some precise trimming. Losing about 10% might have helped speed up the pacing so that it didn’t feel like so much of a slog to get through. My other major complaint was the characters. You can call them realistic characters, but none of them were likable characters. The protagonists that the novel works with don’t really redeem themselves in any way by the end of the tale. It’s hard to care about them when they’re all equally as bad as the antagonist that’s hunting them down. Finally, a minor complaint: the voice of the different characters didn’t really differentiate themselves enough for my liking. Different points of view told in the first person narrative all ended up blending together a bit.
So who should read this novel? Someone who has patience for a long winding narrative and unsympathetic characters presented in a novel and fairly interesting manor would probably enjoy this novel. Fans of low fantasy and novels that are presented as found text may also enjoy this novel.
Who shouldn’t read this novel? If you’re looking for a straightforward narrative with lots of magic, you should probably steer clear from Snakewood. I would also avoid the novel if you’re looking for something with a quick pace that leaves you wanting more after each chapter.
And now, just some final thoughts. This wasn’t a terrible book. I feel like it set up a lot of promise for a future novel with a subplot that wasn’t resolved in the current novel. The world is interesting, and I think Adrian Selby is going to offer some good quality in the future.
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Book Review: The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree by S.A. Hunt

The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree is the first book in the Outlaw King series by S.A. Hunt. It follows the main character, Ross as returns from deployment abroad and eventually ends up in the world that his father wrote some cult classics about before dying at the start of the book. So where do I begin with this? I read it fast. Not the fastest I’ve ever read a novel, but faster than most novels usually take me. This only took me about a week from start to finish. While I was reading it before bed, I would consistently find myself saying, “I have time for just one more chapter…” In other words, the pacing on this is amazing. There was only one portion where it flagged a bit about midway through the book, but it immediately picked back up.

Ross as a character is fully realized. He’s likable. We start off seeing him at a low point. Then it gets a little bit lower. Then he gets sucked into the world of his father’s fantasy novel and he begins his slow upward climb. The first portion of the book reads almost like a modern day thriller while the last portion reads like a fantasy with some elements of New Weird. Interspersing the chapters are little one page excerpts of the fictional novels that Ross’s father wrote that give you a bit of back story on the world. S.A. Hunt manages to avoid massive info dumps like this, which is something I can appreciate.

It’s like a less rambling The Dark Tower with a supporting cast that you root for. Not all of the imagery was spectacular, but none of it was mediocre, and the descriptions contained in the climax of the novel served the book well. So now we’re getting to the point where I give the bottom line.

Who should read this book? If you’re a fan of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, you’ll probably enjoy this book. They share enough in common without The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree feeling derivative. If you like portal fantasies you should definitely read this book, as it fulfills that type of narrative in spades. If you’re a fan of imaginative fantasy with a slight surreal tint, read this book. Hell, if you trust my judgment in books- Read. This. Book.

Who shouldn’t read this book? If you’re looking for a weird west or fantasy wild west, this probably won’t fit your need exactly.  Sure, it’s got elements of it, but it’s like putting a circle peg in an octagonal slot, it’ll fit inside, but it’s going to rattle around annoying without the proper edges. But you should probably still read this book. I mean, it is good.

Book Review:Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

I remember the first time I read the The Hobbit. I was young. I didn’t understand much of it. Despite that, it managed to take me into another world that at one point I essentially ripped off in a terrible work of proto-fiction that thankfully has been lost to the annals of time. The younger I was, the easier it was to get lost in worlds in that manner. The older I got, I kept chasing that dragon, as it were, but something got lost along the way. Currently, I find it much easier to lose immersion in something, and I’m happy to say that Throne of the Crescent Moon was the first book in a while that gave me that same feeling that I had back when I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel all those years ago.

The book is the first book of The Crescent Moon Kingdoms series, but it’s one-hundred percent self-contained. The Crescent Moon Kingdoms is an Arabian fantasy, which probably helped with me staying immersed. It didn’t feel like I was treading the same old tired tropes despite one of the main characters, Doctor Abdoulla Makhslood, being what amounted to the wizened old wizard. The story felt fresh. It was lively. I found myself lost in the bustling city of Dhamsawaat.

Abdoulla felt fully fledged from the introduction to him drinking at his favorite tea shop to his turbulent relationship with the Madame of a brothel. Saladin Ahmed excellently caused me to care about each of the point of view characters he introduced- be it Abdoulla’s dervish assistant with superhuman capabilities or his lifelong friends and fellow (retired) ghul hunters. The characters aren’t the only reason to read through Throne of the Crescent Moon.

Ahmed does an excellent job of making the world real as well. For the most part, the narrative is limited to the city of Dhamsawaat. Abdoulla and Raseed, his aforementioned dervish assistant, make a brief foray out of the city, but a majority of the story takes place within. The living conditions of the different parts of the city aren’t overly elaborated on, but there are enough hints and references that you can paint a picture of it in your head. My only major disappointment with the story being so focused on Dhamsawaat was the lack of a map for the city accompanying the book.

If you’ve read my other book reviews, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve complained about pacing fairly often. This was something that I felt the book handled most adeptly. Events unfold throughout the book that manage to ratchet up the threat level in steady doses while keeping the overall story moving. These threat level increases also grow organically and work with the flow of the story.

All of this being taken into account, I’d wholly recommend Throne of the Crescent Moon to anyone who is looking for a break from the tedium of faux medieval European fantasy worlds. It’s fresh. It’s new. It’s a good read. Hell. Pick it up even if you’re not looking for a break from the norm.

Book Review: Glorious: A Novel of the American West by Jeff Guinn

When I was younger, my favorite Back to the Future movie was the third one. Some of my favorite memories with my father are weekends where there would be one of the many spaghetti westerns on television. High Plain DrifterThe Good The Bad & The UglyTwo Mules for Sister SaraSupport Your Local Gunfighter/Sheriff. I enjoyed watching them with him. When I was really young, I would sit and listen as my mom read The Little House on the Prairie and the following novels to my sister.  So it’s really kind of perplexing to me why I never fell into western novels as I got older.

Originally I was going to read something that was considered a western classic, Riders of the Purple Sage or something along those lines. And then I found Glorious sitting on the shelf. Having spent a decent portion of my life living a short drive away from Saint Louis, the fact that the novel started there and followed its main character Cash McLendon as he made mistakes in Saint Louis that drove him out to the frontier territory in Arizona made me decide to pick it up instead.  McLendon isn’t really a sympathetic character. Throughout the novel, he’s greedy, selfish, and ignorant. He’s probably one of the most realistic and fleshed out characters I’ve read in a novel. He easily could have been part of the cast of villains had the novel been written from Sheriff Joe Saint’s point of view in place of McLendon’s.

Spoilers follow:

McLendon, however, does become a better person by the end of the novel. Not by much, but just enough that you don’t hate him, even though he’s still naive for all his social skill. It’s this character growth that makes me at least interested in the followup novel, Buffalo Trail.

The plot is mostly about McLendon trying to escape the trouble he found in Saint Louis and his attempts to pick up from where he left off with a girl he had known and spurned. He doesn’t end up getting the girl in the end, and actually manages to find a proxy for the rich man in Saint Louis that he pissed off, and manages to equal piss off the rich owner who’s trying to push all the town founders out of Glorious so that he can become rich when the town booms because of a silver find. Most of the events throughout the novel seem to revolve around Cash alternately endearing himself to and pissing off different people. All of the actual action comes through in the final act.

In the last fifty some odd pages, it seems like there is no hope for our protagonist and his friends. Right up to the last few pages, in fact, things feel hopeless for them. Then Guinn sets off the loaded gun from the first act of the play. The god descends from the machine. Everyone is saved. Except for Cash McLendon. He has to flee again.

It’s not exactly what I was expecting from a western novel. There were no extended gun fights. The Apache threat in the novel is a product of the main antagonist’s plot. The protagonist doesn’t even know how to ride a horse or shoot a gun. He rides off into the sunset, technically, but not with the girl on his horse. It was an entertaining read, and the pages flew by. I just had different expectations from what the story told. Eventually, I’ll probably pick up Buffalo Trail. But I’m not eagerly awaiting its release later this year.

-Crouse

Book Review: Killing Floor by Lee Child (Jack Reacher #1)

So I’d been thinking about my book reviews recently, and how really they’re just meandering diatribes about my thoughts and feelings about the particular book that I happened to have finished reading. I thought briefly about changing that, and then remember I don’t necessarily want to be a professional book reviewer. I remember reading a book review of some book or another and think, man, this looks like a book report with some complex star rating algorithm attached. So yeah, I’ll keep doing it my way until someone complains. That being said, today you get to read-think my word-thoughts about a book that’s nearly two decades old- Killing Floor by Lee Child.

I remember seeing the Jack Reacher movie in theaters nearly 3 years ago, and to be honest it was a fun action romp. It’s part of the reason I grabbed Killing Floor on a recent outing to a local bookstore. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and I’m not sure you could really accuse this novel of being either of those. It’s outside of my normal milieu as it were, which was my other goal with picking up the book. On the plus side, I also know it’s fairly successful, so maybe I could learn something from it.

For those of you who need a brief rundown of the plot, Jack Reacher is an ex-military policeman who gets caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and dragged into a murder investigation. The rest of the book is pretty much just how he: A) Gets himself out of being a suspect and B) Helps Deal with the murderers in question. You’d think that this franchise having been turned into an action movie that there would be a lot of fight scenes throughout. That’s not really so much the case with it though. Honestly there are three or four fight scenes over the course of the novel that take place. Not to much, but just enough to keep it from being talking heads throughout.

Lee Child does a great job with first person narration. If I ever want to point out an example of first person narration done well, this will definitely be one of my go-to’s. Another thing that he does well that I’m going to keep in mind with my own writing is that he kept raising questions.  Even when he answered an initially raised question, he would have the answer lead to more questions, and also, more actions, as Jack Reacher is attempting to figure out the answers to these questions just the same as the reader.

That being said, I’m not rushing off to grab the next in the long line of Jack Reacher novels. While I did enjoy the book, I just didn’t get super invested in Jack Reacher as a character. There’s no emotional investment in his success, especially after the way a subplot fell flat on its face in the last pages of the novel. I think the other problem was that it all got wrapped up too neatly at the end. So it didn’t really leave me wanting more. There’s another lesson there. A trite, hackneyed lesson.

I’ll probably grab another Jack Reacher novel eventually. Killing Floor was well written and worth the ride, but I’m not clamoring for more or anxiously anticipating new novels like I am with some of my favorite authors from Science Fiction & Fantasy.

-Crouse

Book Review: Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

I guess I’ll start off this review by saying that I’m a filthy savage who still haven’t gotten on board with e-readers. Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy first popped up on my radar at the start of 2014. I fruitlessly attempted to track down a physical copy of the book for a few months. When I finally did manage to pick it up, I got about halfway through before I set it down again for other reads. I’ve finally finished the last half of the first novel in the Powder Mage trilogy.  Based off of this opening paragraph, you might think that I did not care for Promise of Blood.

That would be a huge mistake. First of all, I love the premise of the world. Two out of the four point of view characters are a refreshing change from all the prophesied farm boys saving the world and grumpy anti-heroes. Secondly, the brief hiatus during my read was mostly due to the pacing. McClellan alternates between bouts of tension building and action like an amusement park ride. McClellan just had the bad luck that I had stopped reading for a time on a chapter that was more rising and less action.

The action and the twists that take place in the book are fairly compelling. The two viewpoint characters that I was most invested in were Tamas, the leader of the coup that fells a monarchy, and Adamat, an investigator with an eidetic memory who Tamas contracts to solve something at the beginning of the novel.  By far, my favorite viewpoint character was Adamat. Adamat filled a sort of Columbo or Inspector Poirot type role in the novel, and it felt like his chapters did the most to move the plot towards its real action.

Tamas’s son Taniel is the third main viewpoint character, but unfortunately he felt the most like a generic fantasy type character in contrast with the creative world that McClellan has created for his characters. Despite being a veteran of conflict in a foreign conflict, Taniel Two-Shot, as he’s known, just didn’t do much to grab my attention, and it seems that most of his chapters were the ones that built up toward the climax of the novel. And then there was Nila. I kept waiting for something to culminate from her viewpoints, but mostly it feels like her story line and plot thread are just bridging into the future volumes.

So now for the paragraph that pretty much everyone skips to for any review ever, thus ensuring that the final opinion of a reviewer always appears at the end and never the beginning. Promise of Blood is a fine first entry in a trilogy. It provides a fresh premise, and the final action in the last few chapters kept me turning the pages until the very end. I had been on the fence about grabbing the next book in the series until I got to the final act, now, I’ll just be along for the ride.

-Crouse

Book Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

So, in keeping with the reviewing of books way too late, I’ve decided to review pretty much every book I read for the first time. I’ve just recently finished the second novel in Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series. I’d like to start off by saying that I absolutely loved The Lies of Locke Lamora. If you haven’t read Lynch’s debut novel and are a fan of incorrigible, yet lovable, rogues, you should do yourself a favor and purchase it from your retailer of choice in your format of choice immediately. That being said, I wasn’t as in love with Red Seas Under Red Skies.

I was really excited to read it. I had heard that its setting was mostly tropical, and hailing from Florida I’m a sucker for Florida kitsch and anything quasi-tropical related. Comparing Lynch’s second novel to his first, it just felt that the setting felt somewhat lacking. Whereas Camorr felt like a living, breathing city with its own idiosyncrasies, Tal Verrar just didn’t have the same life to it. The pirate boats felt more alive in the novel than the actual cities. I believe it may be because of the limited scope of the main characters actions in the city.

The other major issue I had with was the pacing. It got off to a slow start, continued at a slow crawl. And finished in a rush in the last hundred or so pages. Part of this is due to the fact that Locke and Jean are not really putting there own plans into effect like they did in the first book, but overall they are only reacting to plots put into effect by something they did in the initial novel. I kept waiting for Locke to unveil some brilliant plan, but nothing really ever came to fruition. Even the master plan that Locke and Jean are working on at the beginning of the book doesn’t truly conclude in favor of our heroes.

I think the only reason I really enjoyed the book is the fact that Lynch has crafted such wonderful characters. Jean Tannen and Locke Lamora are a couple of the most fully realized characters that I’ve read recently. So despite the slow moving pace and the lack of agency they exhibited over all in this book, I still wanted to read on to see how it all worked out for them. I kept turning the pages hoping for that big pay-off from Locke.

The final hundred pages did hold a lot of resolution for the multiple plot threads that Lynch peppered throughout the entire novel. On top of that, there was a particularly poignant character death that caused the room I was reading in to become extra-dusty and led to a dust-related bout of lacrimation. Lynch also expertly leaves one plot line open to ensure that the reader, assuming they enjoy the two main characters, will pick up the next book Republic of Thieves.

The takeaway from this is that you should read The Lies of Locke Lamora. If you grow attached to the characters, carry on with Red Seas Under Red Skies. The characters are strong, and the ending, when it finally arrives, has some punch to it.