Tuesday, January 15, 2019

AudioBook Review: THE PRISONER by Sara Allyn

Title: The Prisoner

Author: Sara Allyn

Publisher: Self-Published

Publication Date: August 19, 2018

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

I don't typically review many audiobooks, but there are times when I'm so swamped with review titles on my TBR that it becomes necessary.  I've been wanting to check out THE PRISONER by Sara Allyn ever since I saw the beautiful cover art on Twitter and Goodreads.  I read the summary and decided that it definitely seemed like a book that I would enjoy, so Sara was gracious enough to provide an audiobook version for me for purposes of this review.  And so away I went intently listening during my many drives to and from work and dropping the kids off at gymnastics practice.

Maria is a pretty normal graduate student, other than the fact that she hears a tree whispering to her in her dreams that keeps trying to lure her into the forest for some mysterious reason.  Maria has what she believes is a dream of her walking into a transport ship of some kind captained by an unknown alien species.  She awakens in a hospital-like room to find that what she originally thought to be a dream was actually quite real.  She has been transported to the planet Olrona, and more specifically to the mountain city of Pegasea.  The city of Pegasea suffered an event in its past history that has severely affected its population.  For some reason females are being born less and less as each year goes by.  Because of this the Pegasean government has enacted a harvesting program to travel to Earth and basically abduct human females and take them back to their planet in the hopes that cross-breeding them with Pegasean males would stimulate the population again and stave off their possible extinction.  The plan fails however since it seems that the biologies of human women and Pegasean men do not provide the desired solution. This leaves scores of human women on the planet as "companions".  Since Pegasean law has very strict laws in place that severely limit the rights of human women, they are reduced to less than benign lives in peace and comfort, but with no real rights or ability to contribute to Pegasean society in any meaningful way.  Maria is distraught when she is paired up with a very influential and high-ranking Pegasean male named Orook who is assigned as her "Keeper".  Now if all of this sounds oppressive, well yes it absolutely is and Maria doesn't accept her new role very well.  Maria's inherent rebellious nature and free spirit soon find her in trouble with both her new Keeper and the dogmatic hierarchy of the Pegasean government.  Yet, throughout the story Maria tries to convince Orook on numerous occasions that the Pegasean laws are backward and utterly wrong.  Orook engages her in verbal debates in an effort to show her that the laws are necessary and "for the good" of the human women who are not familiar with the customs and culture of their new alien benefactors.  Gradually, Maria and Orook begin to form a strange bond in which they find themselves slowly understanding each other and also discovering just a bit of common ground even.  When an unexpected attack occurs against the Pegaseans by an advanced canine predator species that also resides on Olrona, Maria is summoned by the leader of Pegasea to help.  The question arises whether Maria's transport to Olrona was foretold for the very purpose of ultimately helping to save the oppressive alien culture who she so deeply despises.  And what can this human woman with no knowledge of the history and biology of this mysterious world hope to accomplish when everything seems lost and virtually everyone views her as a lesser being?  THE PRISONER is truly a multilayered story that raises important questions about inequality and social engineering that are very relevant to our real world of today.

THE PRISONER is a story that immediately grabs you from the very beginning.  It doesn't take long for Maria to be thrust into this alien world that views her as subservient and not equal to the other inhabitants of Pegasea.  I knew right away that there would be some very sensitive issues tackled as I listened to the story begin to play out.  There are moments where Maria brings up oppressive policies in our own past history when trying to convince Orook that the laws of Pegasea are both wrong and intolerant.  I found myself getting immersed in their conversations as each brought about their own individual arguments on why their beliefs were the correct ones.  I kept waiting for Orook to finally "get it" with regard to how he and the others of Pegasea have been conditioned to treat human women.  The thing that was so fascinating was how Orook didn't even know many of the reasons for the repressive laws against women, but assumed that the predecessors had valid motivations for instituting them and thus just blindly went along with them without question.  It is only when he is challenged by Maria that he stumbles in his arguments and even begins to reflect on his own tacit acceptance of the barbaric laws.  This is a solid Science-Fiction story that also has a crucial social commentary as its driving force.  Sara Allyn has given us an entertaining story that also makes us think about how we treat women, not only on a far away alien planet, but on our own as well.  The restrictive laws of the Pegaseans are not entirely disparate to similar laws that we lived by in our very recent past.  Sara deftly weaves her main message into the dialogue between Maria and Orook and I found it extremely effective in communicating the true moral of the story.  My only small qualms were that at times I felt like the story had too much going on at once to follow easily and I also would have liked the world of Olrona described in more vivid detail.  This story is definitely more character-driven than reliant on world-building but that's not necessarily a bad thing and other readers might prefer that.  I would definitely recommend picking up THE PRISONER if you want a fantastic SF story that also makes you think a great deal.  As a quick aside, the narrator of this audiobook Andrew Tell was excellent and handled the numerous characters' voices with amazing skill and clarity.  I really enjoyed THE PRISONER and I am looking forward to seeing if Sara Allyn takes us back to this world again in the near future.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Book Review: NEVER DIE by Rob J. Hayes

Title: Never Die

Author: Rob J. Hayes

Publisher: Self-Published

Publication Date: January 29, 2019

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Rob J. Hayes is an author who just seems to get better and better with each book that he puts out.  His 2017 book Where Loyalties Lie even won the 3rd Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off contest against some pretty stiff competition.  Rob has always been among my favorite authors so when I saw that he had a brand new title coming out in early 2019, I literally jumped (pretty high I might add) at the opportunity to pick up an advance copy.  Then when I dug a little further and saw that the theme of his new book NEVER DIE was steeped heavily in Asian culture/philosophy, I was even that much more eager to begin reading it.  I read this book over my entire holiday vacation and am so pleased to have it be my very first review of 2019.

The book surrounds the exploits of an enigmatic boy named Ein who was murdered years ago and is now on a mission from the god of death to kill the Emperor of Ten Kings.  We don't know any of the backstory of Ein or why the emperor is his target, but what we do know is that in order to achieve this murderous task, he must recruit four heroes or champions to assist him in defeating this seemingly unconquerable figure.  Recruiting these heroes does come with a big catch, you see they have to die first so that they can be bound to him.  One by one Ein must create a scenario where each of the heroes he thinks can help him will die and then subsequently be brought back to life by him using the power he has been granted by the god of death.  Pretty original plot line for a fantasy story huh?  I thought so too.  Needless to say some of these heroes don't exactly cooperate when Ein attempts to bring them into the fold of his band of warriors. That whole dying thing kind of puts a huge damper on things it seems.  First there is Itami Cho, The Whispering Blade, who is among the quickest sword fighters of the realm and attacks with blinding speed and proficiency.  Next is Zhihao Cheng, The Emerald Wind, who can literally transmit images of himself in different locations so as to confuse his enemy and then close in with the fatal blow while his foe is still trying to decipher who the real one is.   Then we have Iron Gut Chen, who as his name suggests has impenetrable skin that can withstand virtually any sword thrust or physical attack without being hurt.  Bingwei Ma rounds out Ein's dream team and is a master of hand to hand combat, so much so that he has often defeated heavily-armed men with stunning ease just with his bare hands.

These are the warriors that Ein has selected and recruited to attempt the unenviable task of breaching the Emperor's military defenses and hopefully killing him.  Ein has a huge problem though because as with any group where there are various egos vying for supremacy, these legendary warriors do not like each other and don't mind saying so at every opportunity.  Throughout the journey to try to hunt down the emperor, there are constant skirmishes and quarrels as each believes that their role in the group is more important than the others, leading to some interesting confrontations.  Both Cheng and Chen are essentially legends in their own minds at times.  That's not to say that they aren't powerful and skilled fighters, but there is definitely a sense that their reputations may be a bit overblown to say the least.  Cho and Bingwei Ma on the other hand are obviously not only the deadliest of the crew (at least in my opinion) but are also the level-headed half of the four who are often needed when things get a bit out of control.  The question remains however, can this carefully selected band of egotistical warriors meld themselves into the cohesive fighting force needed to take down a powerful emperor?  And will we ever know who Ein really is and why exactly he wants the emperor dead in the first place?  So many intriguing questions arise that do get answered for the most part, but not first without the heavy price of blood, battle, and death.

I would like to applaud Rob J. Hayes for delivering another brilliant book that is also very different in style from the usual fantasy offerings we see.  Here we have a truly unique fantasy world heavily influenced by the "warrior code" of Asian history and culture.  Yet even with a refreshingly unique style of voice and setting, I still felt that at its heart this was very much a fantasy book.  The fantastical elements were always present even though they were delivered in a non-conventional way.  The originality of needing someone to die to recruit them into your team of warriors was so expertly handled and is something that I hadn't seen used before.  The whole time I was reading NEVER DIE I kept thinking, what is he going to throw at me next?   At no time while I was reading this book could I predict what might occur.  I also liked the fact that there were two major dilemmas within the plot.  The first was the actual mission to attempt to murder the emperor, but the brilliance comes when you put together four people who absolutely need to work together and who also REALLY can't stand one another.  So I was constantly guessing whether Ein could even keep the four of them from tearing each other apart long enough to even try to carry out their ultimate goal. Another aspect that I found enjoyable was the incredibly strong female character Cho.  She's obviously the brains of the crew and is also a wicked deadly fighter.  I was continually blown away by how resilient and brave she was in the face of insurmountable odds.   For me this book was so fun to read and a wonderful blend of quest fantasy, ancient Asian folklore, adventure fiction, and a touch of grimdark for good measure.  Hayes has just solidified that he as an author who is constantly reinventing himself and writing fantasy that is wholly original while also damned entertaining.  NEVER DIE is a book that will take you on a full-throttle ride and then leave you wanting about 200 more pages to read when all is done.  It's simply that great and I loved every page.  The book is due to be released on January 29, 2019, so put in your preorders now because you are going to want to read it as soon as it becomes available, trust me.  This is a can't miss story filled with characters who leap off the page and grab you by the throat.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018


So last week I put together a list of my top reads of 2018 and that got me immediately thinking about the SFF books that I am most excited to read in the upcoming year.  These are some of the books that I am looking forward to, but by no means all of them.  Keep in mind that these are books that as of today have confirmed publication dates.  There were a few other books that I would have liked to include on this list, but alas they did not have publication dates set, even though I know that they are due out sometime next year.  So without further ado, here is a list of titles (in order of publication) that I am entirely stoked about and definitely plan to read and review in 2019:

THE GUTTER PRAYER (January 17, 2019, Orbit) by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

Blurb: "A group of three young thieves are pulled into a centuries old magical war between ancient beings, mages, and humanity in this wildly original debut epic fantasy."

This is a book that is getting a ton of buzz right now and I am so excited to get my hands on it.  The description sounds amazing and that cover is just absolutely gorgeous!  Hanrahan's debut is right near the top of my TBR and should be one of my early reviews of 2019.

THE HOD KING (January 22, 2019, Orbit) by Josiah Bancroft

Blurb: "Thomas Senlin and his crew of outcasts have been separated, and now they must face the dangers of the labyrinthine tower on their own in this third book in the word-of-mouth phenomenon fantasy series."

What more can you say about Josiah Bancroft and this brilliantly imaginative series.  The Books of Babel has become one of the monumental series in fantasy and each book is an absolute "must-read" in my opinion.  Can't wait to see what happens next with Thomas Senlin and his crew.

THE RUIN OF KINGS (February 5, 2019, Tor Books) by Jenn Lyons

Blurb: "There are old stories. And then there's what actually happens."

This is another book that I've been hearing a considerable amount of good things about.  I just received a review copy a couple of weeks ago and I plan on giving this one a read in the coming months.  It looks like just the type of epic fantasy, complete with dragons and dire prophecies, that I usually enjoy.

THE PRIORY OF THE ORANGE TREE (February 26, 2019, Bloombury Publishing) by Samantha Shannon

Blurb: "A world divided.  A queendom without an heir.  An ancient enemy awakens."

I am such a huge fan of Samantha Shannon and her writing.  Her Bone Season series is one of the most original dystopian fantasy series I have ever come across.  When I saw that she had a new release coming out in 2019 that was outside of that series, I immediately had to have a review copy.  This is one that I have a feeling that I am going to be totally taken with.

A TIME OF BLOOD (April 16, 2019, Orbit) by John Gwynne

Blurb: "Acclaimed epic fantasy author John Gwynne's second book in his Of Blood and Bone trilogy, an epic fantasy perfect for fans of George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, and David Gemmell."

This is one that I am most looking forward to reading and it is at the very top of my TBR.  In fact, my review copy is in transit as we speak and I have been checking my front step hourly in anticipation of holding this beauty in my hands.  John Gwynne is among my favorite authors and this series is one that has me captivated with every word.

THE WARSHIP (May 7, 2019, Night Shade Books) by Neal Asher

Blurb: "The dangers of ancient technology loom over the Polity in the sequel to The Soldier, Neal Asher's latest action-packed space opera series."

The Rise of the Jain is Neal Asher's latest series and the first book The Soldier was utterly brilliant.  With Iain M. Banks untimely passing, there are very few great space opera authors left these days.  Peter F. Hamilton is one, and for my money Neal Asher is probably the best of the lot.  I simply love his books and he always ramps up the action to a fever pitch.  This one will be a can't miss for me.  

CHILDREN OF RUIN (May 14, 2019, Pan MacMillan) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Blurb: "The astonishing sequel to Children of Time, the award-winning novel of humanity's battle for survival on a terraformed planet."

Adrian Tchaikovsky is aptly-named because his books are usually akin to symphonic masterpieces of the mind.  This is the sequel to his superb Children of Time, which is one of my favorite first-contact SF books ever.  I didn't realize that this book was coming out until a couple of weeks ago and I almost fell off my chair.  Cannot wait!

EMPIRE OF GRASS (May 28, 2019, Hodder & Stoughton) by Tad Williams

Blurb: "Set in Williams' New York Times bestselling fantasy world, the second book of The Last King of Osten Ard returns to the trials of King Simon and Queen Miriamele as threats to their kingdom loom...."

Those who know me also know that I am a complete Tad Williams fanboy.  His Osten Ard books are my absolute favorite of any books that I have ever read.  EMPIRE OF GRASS is the second book in his brand new Osten Ard series that began with The Witchwood Crown.  This is a book that I will be salivating over for months in advance of its release.  And just look at that stunning cover art by Michael Whelan!  Oh man I can't wait to continue with this series written by my all-time favorite author.

PRIEST OF LIES (July 2, 2019, Ace Books) by Peter McLean

Blurb: "Tomas Piety has been many things: soldier, priest, gangster...and spy. As Tomas's power grows, the nobility better watch their backs, in this dark and gritty epic fantasy series."

Peter McLean's War for The Rose Throne series started off with a bang with Priest of Bones continues with this summer of 2019 release.  I am so looking forward to following the further exploits of Tomas Piety and his band of miscreants.  This grimdark series should be one that every fan of the sub genre picks up and savors.  Fans of Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence will also find much to like with McLean's books.  July can't come fast enough!

HOLLOW EMPIRE (December 10, 2019, Tor Books) by Sam Hawke

Blurb: "Moving from poison and treachery to war and witchcraft, Sam Hawke's Poison Wars continue with Hollow Empire, a fabulous epic fantasy adventure perfect for fans of Robin Hobb, Naomi Novik, and Scott Lynch."

City of Lies was an absolute revelation within the fantasy genre this year.  The book really blew me away when I first read it, evoking subtle shades of Robin Hobb's Farseer books.  This is the second book in Sam Hawke's Poison War series and if it is anywhere near as fantastic as book one was, then I'm going to gobble it up.  My only regret is that I have to wait until next December to read it!  If you haven't checked out Sam's writing, you really need to.  She is a shining star in the genre.

THE LIGHT OF ALL THAT FALLS (December 10, 2019, Orbit) by James Islington

Blurb: "The Light of All that Falls concludes the epic adventure that began in The Shadow of What Was Lost, the acclaimed fantasy blockbuster from James Islington."

I love this series and I feel like it is too often overlooked.  The first two books in the trilogy were fabulous epic fantasy romps that really took my by surprise.  Unfortunately this book has been pushed back a couple of times already, but it looks like I will finally get to see how this series concludes come December of next year.  Oh and the covers of these books are absolutely beautiful.  I would love to get prints of them and display them in my reading room.

And that about wraps it up!  These are some of the SFF books that I am very much looking forward to reading and reviewing in 2019.  If you are a reader looking for something new, I would suggest that any of these books and authors would be a great choice.  So look for reviews of these titles in the next year on my humble little blog.  As always, thanks so much for visiting Out of This World SFF Reviews and HAPPY READING! - Nick

Tuesday, December 11, 2018


After going back and forth about whether or not I should compile an end-of-the-year top 10 list of my favorite reads of 2018, I finally relented and decided to create said list. Partly because that's just what you do in the month of December isn't it?  And partly because I truly believe that these books should be recognized once again because they were that good and left quite a mark on me as a reader.  Another point of pride with this list is that it contains many self-published authors, which just goes to show that you don't have to be signed up with a big time publisher to put out work of the highest quality.  Hopefully in 2019 I can read even more self-published titles (I am definitely making a concerted effort to try and do so).  It was really difficult to pick just ten books when I read so many great titles this year, but I have tried to highlight the ten that I thought stood out just a tad more in my mind. So without further delay, and for what it's worth, here are MY TOP 10 SFF READS OF 2018:

10. THE BLIGHTED CITY by Scott Kaelen (Self-Published):  This book made it all the way to the semifinals in Mark Lawrence's hugely successful Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off contest.  And deservedly so in my opinion because it really is a captivating read.  Scott's creepy and atmospheric medieval fantasy with a heavy dose of the undead and supernatural really made this book an instant favorite.  For anyone looking for a different kind of fantasy that doesn't follow the usual farmboy turned hero tropes, look no further than this fantastic read!

9. BLOOD OF HEIRS by Alicia Wanstall-Burke (Self-Published):  This was a book that totally appeared on my radar by accident, but I am so glad that it did.  I was on Twitter one day and Alicia had posted that she was giving out ARCs for any bloggers that wanted one.  Well, I read the synopsis and was all in.  BLOOD OF HEIRS is a brilliant dark fantasy that deals with warring clans, invading armies, and characters who are tested beyond measure as they attempt to discover their true selves.  I highly recommend this amazing book for anyone who likes their fantasy dark, brutal, and with lots of action and intrigue.

8. A GATHERING OF RAVENS by Scott Oden (Thomas Dunne Books):  Scott Oden's masterful fantasy book steeped in Norse Mythology came at a time when I was reading a lot of the same style of fantasy.  To say that it was a breath of fresh air would be an understatement.  If you like fantasy that includes folklore, mythology, gods, medieval locales, and characters who are unforgivingly menacing, then A GATHERING OF RAVENS is a book that you should pick up very soon.  Simply one of the more original fantasy reads I have ever encountered.

7. KINGSHOLD by D.P. Woolliscroft (Self-Published):  This book simply took my breath away when I had the pleasure of reading it earlier this year.  KINGSHOLD is a book that slowly builds to a magnificent crescendo and is to be savored with every page.  If you like your fantasy with a great deal of court intrigue and intelligence, then this book should be at the top of your reading list.  A wonderful medieval fantasy peppered with politics and skulduggery, I loved every paragraph of this superbly-written tome.  I plan on reading the follow-up very soon and can't wait to immerse myself in this world again.

6. PRIEST OF BONES by Peter McLean (Ace Books):  This book was a tremendous read and I enjoyed the grimdark setting.  The thing that separated this book from the usual grimdark fare however was its main character Tomas Piety.  A very complex character who vacillates between the brutality and coarseness of his past self and his newly transformed nature as a person of forgiveness and spirituality.  This was described by someone as 'grimdark with heart" and I couldn't agree more with that assessment.  Definitely one of my favorite reads of the year and one that I highly recommend to fans of Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, and Ed McDonald.

5. RAVENCRY by Ed McDonald (Gollancz):  Speaking of Ed McDonald, his book RAVENCRY comes in at number five on my list.  This fabulously stunning follow-up to his first book Blackwing really solidified him as an author who I must read every time a new book comes out.  This book is at once violent, emotional, action-packed, compelling, and absolutely an assault on the senses.  I described it in my review as "a blistering symphony replete with eruptions of woodwind, string, and timpani."  I think that pretty much sums up the feel of this book.  A true treasure that you should not miss.

4. PATERNUS: RISE OF GODS by Dyrk Ashton (Paternus Books Media):  This book is incredibly hard to describe to someone who asks what genre it is.  It incorporates so many styles: action adventure, urban fantasy, horror, mythology and folklore etc... Regardless of the fact that all of those genres play a part in this tale, Dyrk juggles them deftly and combines them into one seamlessly brilliant story that will have you on the edge of your seat from the opening page to the last.  This book is filled with twists and turns and it made me a huge fan of Dyrk's writing.  Just amazing!

3. FOUNDRYSIDE by Robert Jackson Bennett (Crown Publishing): I am a huge fan of Bennett's Divine Cities trilogy and when this first book in his new series became available, I requested it and then subsequently gobbled it up in a week's time.  FOUNDRYSIDE has the most original magic system that I have read in quite some time.  The setting is dark and atmospheric and the characters are at odds with an oppressive government that looks down upon those who they deem inferior.  There is so much that I loved about this book and I also really enjoyed the fact that it was a total departure in style and feel from his previous series.  I thought that it just served to show Bennett's versatility as an author, all the while delivering as good if not a better story than his previous work.  This is a must-read for any fantasy fan in my opinion.

2. SENLIN ASCENDS by Josiah Bancroft (Orbit):  One of the best success stories in the book industry, SENLIN ASCENDS went from a self-published first novel to a best-selling sensation after being discovered years after its initial release.  This isn't just one of my favorite reads of 2018, it is among the best books I have ever read in my life.  A wonderful fantasy adventure story that tells the tale of Thomas Senlin and his desire to scale and explore the legendary Tower of Babel with his wife on his honeymoon.  When they are separated in the swarming masses visiting the tower, Thomas must find her inside the mysterious and bizarre levels that make up the structure.  Thomas soon finds that he may have gotten a little more than he bargained for as the mysteries of the Tower begin to be revealed in a series of events that may or may not lead to his eventual demise.  Definitely recommended for anyone who enjoys a great overall story, let alone a great fantasy story.

1. A TIME OF DREAD by John Gwynne (Pan Macmillan):  For those who are unaware, John Gwynne's The Faithful and The Fallen series is in my top 10 fantasy series of all-time.  So John was already a favorite author of mine before this first book in his new series was released.  A TIME OF DREAD takes place in the same world as that previous masterpiece of a series and the story is taken to another level altogether in this entry.  This was clearly my favorite read of 2018 and I knew that it probably would be even though I read this one way back in April.  If you are looking for a fantasy read that has it all, I mean all of the check boxes checked, then A TIME OF DREAD should be tops on your priority list.  The second book in the series A Time of Blood is due out in early 2019, so I'm already gearing up to acquire an advance copy of that one.  But definitely read A TIME OF DREAD if you haven't already.  This one ranks right up there with the absolute best books in the genre.

And there you have it, My Top 10 SFF Reads of 2018.  If you are looking for something new to read, maybe you will find something on this list to tickle your fancy.  You really can't go wrong by choosing any one of these fine stories. For those who would like a more detailed review of any of these books, you can find the full reviews in my blog's review archive. I feel incredibly lucky that I got to read so many great books this year and am looking forward to reading even more come 2019.  Hope you liked the list and as always, thanks for taking the time to visit Out of This World SFF Reviews.  Happy reading!  - Nick

Friday, December 7, 2018

Book Review: ALTERLIFE by Matt Moss

Title: Alterlife

Author: Matt Moss

Publisher: Self-Published

Publication Date: Early 2019

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟1/2

I'm a huge fan of books where the characters are somehow injected into a video game or virtual reality situation.  It all started with the Otherland series by my favorite author of all-time Tad Williams.  I was simply blown away when I first read that series because I had never read a plot that incorporated that type of virtual reality storyline before.  The fact that Tad did it so brilliantly didn't hurt.  Recently books like Ready Player One have also served to reinforce my appreciation for this kind of theme.  So when I first came across ALTERLIFE by Matt Moss and saw a blurb describing it as Breaking Bad meets Ready Player One, well let's just say that I absolutely had to read it.  It was upon reading it though that I found out that it was much much more than that sensational description could ever do justice.  Yes, this is a fantasy book with some incredibly fun and break-neck action, but at its heart it is a book about a man who loves his wife and kids so much that he would do absolutely anything for them.  Before I give away too much though, let me talk a little bit more about the plot of ALTERLIFE.

In the opening chapter of AFTERLIFE we meet John Crussel.  John appears to be a man at the end of his rope as he sits in his car outside of a bank holding a gun and deliberating with himself whether he should go in and rob it or not.  John is a decent man who is trying to do right by his family, but just always seems to run into financial bad luck at every turn.  He wants more than anything to provide a better life for his wife and two small children than they currently have.  His family is barely getting by living paycheck to paycheck (which isn't very much) and John has finally had enough.  As he's waiting in line at the bank to commit his illegal deed, he overhears two men talking about a video game and how the one man made an easy $5,000 playing it the previous night.  The game is called ALTERLIFE and there is quick money to be made if you are a good enough player to earn it.  John has a change of heart at the last minute and decides to explore this whole potentially lucrative scenario, after all, John was a pretty good gamer back in the day before adulthood forced him to focus on a more serious path in life.  John immediately borrows some money to purchase the game and the necessary VR equipment he needs, takes a week off from his current meager-paying job, and settles down at a friend's house to start trying to make the fast cash that he hopes will turn his family's fortunes around.  As he logs into the game, he is immediately approached by a few shady characters who may or may not be on the up and up.  ALTERLIFE is basically an epic fantasy-like setting and there are taverns, keeps, and various guilds that battle for prominence.  If you defeat a character or a monster from the game, you earn skill points and virtual money, which can be transferred into your actual real life bank account.  John (who goes by the name Ace in the game) experiences instant success and is even appointed the battle leader of one of the most famous guilds in AFTERLIFE, the Black Knights.  Things all seem to finally be coming together for John and he truly believes that this is the answer to his prayers and financial woes.  At long last he will be the provider that he has always wanted to be for his children and a husband that his wife can be proud of.  John absolutely expects to be able to quit his job and make big money playing ALTERLIFE full time.  But someone in the game doesn't especially care for this cocky newcomer's absurdly quick stardom and in an act of treachery, John is poisoned awakening to find all of the monetary gains he made in the game have been wiped clean.  A devastated John is now left with two choices, give up and go back to his daily mundane struggle to make ends meet, or start all over, find out who sabotaged him and climb the ladder again in his attempt to be the master of not just the game but his own destiny.  It won't be easy though because whoever wants him dead is still somewhere inside ALTERLIFE waiting should he decide to venture back into its dark and ruthless environs.

We all know someone like John Crussel.  In fact, some of us may even BE John Crussel.  A person who feels like a failure in life, wants to do the right thing, but consistently makes misguided or rash choices in doing so that just seem to dig the hole deeper.  John's character was one that I felt such sympathy for immediately because he is a perpetually conflicted soul.  He loves his family above all else and is at heart a good guy, but he also feels the need to lie to those same beloved family members in an effort to conquer the game of ALTERLIFE and make enough money to give them the life that they deserve.  So he's almost a self-loathing person who at once both hates the situation he is in and blames his own inadequacies for putting he and his family there.  There is one scene in the book where he and his wife are looking at their children asleep in their beds and John's wife says, "Look at those miracles. We made those, you and I."  Being the father of two little miracles myself, this particular quote really moved me and it is also the perfect encapsulation of the type of person that John Crussel is at his core.  It's this dichotomy of the loving family man who often pushes the envelope to give his family a better life that really drives the story.  This is where my earlier statement in the beginning of this review comes from.  To call this book simply a fantasy story or a story about a video game is not at all sufficient.  The emotional struggles of John are present throughout the entire story and motivate every single one of his actions.  Oh and by the way, the action and fantasy parts are great too don't get me wrong.  The only thing that kept me from giving ALTERLIFE five stars is that I wish the setting of the game was fleshed out a little more.  And that is coming from a place of me yearning for more of ALTERLIFE the world-building part.  It's actually a compliment because I thought that the brief descriptions that we did get of the setting itself were amazing and I wanted to know much more than what was provided.  So in closing I would just like to make the point that Matt Moss has done something here that should really make people stand up and take notice.  He's written a magical fantasy story that is also deeply rooted in real life humanity.  If you want to know how I feel about ALTERLIFE all you really need to know is that I read the entire book in only four days.  That's how damn good it was.  So preorder this one as soon as you can because it has a planned release date of early 2019.  Books like these don't come around very often, so make sure that you check out ALTERLIFE.  It's a ride that will thrill you and move you at the same time. 

Monday, December 3, 2018

Book Review: THE WINTER ROAD by Adrian Selby

Title: The Winter Road

Author: Adrian Selby

Publisher: Orbit

Publication Date: November 13, 2018

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟1/2

Adrian Selby's name has been on the tongues of many readers lately and it's mostly glowing in nature.  THE WINTER ROAD is the Welsh author's second full-length novel (the first being Snakewood, set in the same world as this one).  It was with a great deal of excitement that I was able to procure an advance copy of his latest novel just as the aforementioned buzz was reaching its pinnacle.  The story of THE WINTER ROAD takes place in an area of land known as "The Circle".  The Circle is structured just as it sounds, with various clan territories laid out in a circular arrangement on the map surrounding a dense forest patch in the middle called The Almet.  The story is told in the form of a dual timeline of then and now, which lends a nice flow to the narrative in that we get to see how things progressed to their current situation through alternating chapters.  I enjoy reading books that use this technique a lot so I was encouraged right from the start that I would probably be sucked into this story.  Main character Teyr Amondsen was once a mercenary but is now a merchant trying to build a life for herself with her husband and young son.  She also has another important desire though, and that is to unite the fractured clans of The Circle by building a trade road that cuts straight through from one end to the other.  Teyr believes by constructing this road that it will not only open up trade among the clans, but also open communication that will be vital to bringing peace to the land once and for all.  The problem is that the road will have to cut through the volatile area of The Almet where a ruthless warlord named Khiese has staked his claim.  Khiese and his warrior Whiteboys (named for the white chalk that they use to paint their face and bodies) have been extending their attacks beyond the central Almet to the outer clan villages, which proves more than problematic for Teyr's plans.  Khiese's goal is to bring everyone under his heel and for the clans to swear fealty to him as the supreme leader of the region.

So it is against this tumultuous background that Teyr and her caravan must set out to begin making plans for the road.  It doesn't take long however for Teyr and her cohorts to stumble upon the first ravaged clan settlement, and it becomes quickly evident that she must deal with the immediate threat posed by the barbarous Khiese before any hope of uniting the clans in peace can take place.  What follows are some incredibly intense battles, both physical and emotional, which test Teyr's will to its absolute fullest.  Teyr is put through the ringer and tested mightily as she struggles with her desire to fulfill her dream plus keep her family together, against merely surviving the relentless and brutal attacks of the Whiteboys.  As she travels from clan settlement to clan settlement she comes across a mostly beaten populace, many of whom have been forced to follow Khiese and his twisted campaign of annihilation.  There is hope though as Teyr is armed with both the knowledge and instincts that she acquired in her past life as a mercenary and also the medicinal/magical properties of special plants which can be brewed to bestow certain strengths and attributes.  Will that be enough to repel the growing menace of Khiese and the Whiteboys, or will Teyr, her family, and her people also eventually bow to the oppressive tyranny that is taking hold across The Circle?   One thing is certain: it won't be easy, not by a long shot.  

THE WINTER ROAD had me hooked from the very first pages.  My initial impression was that this was going to be an incredibly violent and brutal book.  Oh and that it is!  In fact there are sections that are extremely difficult to get through because of the savage violence.  Having said that, it never made me want to stop reading because the violence is a product of the setting and the characters.  The Circle ain't a very nice place and these characters have been hardened by it to the point where the only way to survive in this harshest of environments is to kill first and ask questions later.  The weak do not survive very long in The Circle to be sure.  I was also quite fascinated and connected to the main character Teyr in a way that I haven't been to any character in some of my recent reads.  Teyr is one of the strongest female characters you will ever come across and this was incredibly refreshing and a joy to experience.  There's no Mary Sue in Teyr Amondsen, that's for darn sure.  Strong female characters should be celebrated and Selby has given us one here in Teyr.  Read this book if only for that reason, but luckily for us there are many more reasons than that.  The dual timeline storyline worked amazingly well for me as I had a feeling that it would.  Selby makes effective use of this technique and throughout the book as we go back in time, we get snippets and hints of the eventual conflict to come which is handled beautifully.  Then there's the world-building which I thought was some of the best I've ever encountered.  The Circle is a complex and mysterious place and the central forest holds even further mysteries, which really gives the story a sense of foreboding and suspense that just raises it far above your ordinary fantasy book.  I thoroughly enjoyed THE WINTER ROAD by Adrian Selby and recommend it to anyone who loves their fantasy with a lot of Grimdark but also with a lot of emotion.  I heard someone else describe this book as "Grimdark with heart" and I think that is a very accurate description in many ways.  My advice is to try not to be put off by the violence in the beginning of the book because if you stick with it, you will be so richly rewarded with a tremendous story that checks off all the required boxes.  Pick it up and read it soon, you won't regret it.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Book Review: THE LUMINOUS DEAD by Caitlin Starling

Title: The Luminous Dead

Author: Caitlin Starling

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Publication Date: April 2, 2019

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟

I want to begin this review by pointing out the fact that I'm a sucker for books with this kind of theme.  The plot of THE LUMINOUS DEAD is one that takes place on a planet rich in mineral deposits and a "caver" is exploring one such location while also possibly being stalked deep within the bowels of said cave.  Anything that involves some sort of exploration on a distant planet or an archaeological angle and I'm usually all in.  So when I had the opportunity to receive an advance reader copy of the book from the publisher, I couldn't download it fast enough.  I hadn't previously heard of the author Caitlin Starling before and this is apparently her first novel, so I was excited to see how this story would unfold.  I had seen the comparisons to The Martian in that the story is told mainly through internal dialogue and conversation with only one other main character who serves as "mission control" of the expedition.  You don't see too many books use this type of narrative device, so I was intrigued to get started.  Now on to the book and my subsequent thoughts about it.

The main character in THE LUMINOUS DEAD is Gyre, a caver who signs a contract with a private mining company for what she believes is just another expedition to gather valuable ore deposits.  Gyre is not totally forthcoming about her background and motive when she signs on with the company, which is to score a quick payday so that she can keep looking for her mother who abandoned her years ago.  Gyre has been obsessed with finding out what happened to her mother and she sees this job as nothing more than a means to fund her continuing efforts going forward.  What Gyre doesn't know yet is that her contractor and only lifeline to the outside world Em has motivations of her own that aren't simply mining for ore.  Gyre and Em are connected via a communication device located inside Gyre's suit where Em can also monitor every aspect of Gyre's physical health.  Their relationship starts out as a combative one as Gyre suspects that Em may be hiding something from her and not being completely honest about the job that she has been asked to do.  It turns out that Gyre's suspicions are not entirely unfounded when she is able to access a video from her suit that shows a previous mining party who experience an incredible tragedy while exploring the same cave that Gyre is now embedded deep within.  When Gyre lashes out at Em and threatens to quit and turn back, Em is forced to reveal that her parents were the ones in the video along with a few others.  Something terrible happened to the party that Em has been struggling to discover the answer to.  It turns out that she has sent dozens of other cavers on the same mission as Gyre with most of them dying in the treacherous tunnels trying vainly to reach the area where Em's parents were last documented to be alive.  As Em continues to open up about what happened to her parents and their family business, her relationship with Gyre starts to change.  It begins to become one of mutual understanding as they both are in similar situations: trying to find answers to missing family members.  It also becomes a borderline romantic relationship of sorts.  Eventually things really start to change as Gyre both sees and hears signs that she may not be alone inside the cave.  Could it possibly be someone from the original doomed crew?  Em's mother?  Or could it be something far far worse that is now stalking Gyre as she tries to survive and find a way out of what could be her ultimate resting place?  

My first feeling about THE LUMINOUS DEAD was that the story is of a style that I like based on similar novels that I've previously read, one being The Descent by Jeff Long.  Admittedly that one didn't take place on another planet, but the feel of it was much the same initially and the cave exploration aspect was as well.  There were a few things that I really liked about this book.  One being the mystery behind what happened to Em's parents and also Gyre's mother.  I thought that was handled deftly as well as the additional mystery of whether what was also present in the cave was a person or a monster of some kind.  The suspense of these two questions kept me wanting to read further.  The characters of Gyre and Em were well done with both of them having their own demons driving them to find out what happened to lost loved ones.  I didn't mind the fact that there was only a two-person dialogue for the entire book either, but at times it did get a little draggy for long stretches as the dialogues were quite frequent and went off on some lengthy tangents.  This is ultimately where I found myself not being as into the book as I could have otherwise.  For me the book seemed to take a long time to develop and for about the first 70% of it all we really get are conversations that sometimes are relevant to the story and sometimes not.  I definitely enjoy when a story builds slowly to a crescendo, but I thought that this one took a little more time than most to get going.  When the climax happens, it does so with a bang and it is very satisfying, but unfortunately the journey to get there is fraught with long periods of not much happening.  So I have to say that I liked THE LUMINOUS DEAD, but fell just short of loving it.  That being said, others may have a vastly different opinion and you should give this one a try if you enjoy books with cave exploration and mysterious things that go bump in the dark.  In the end it was a solid book that I think offers a good enough amount for readers to enjoy.  But you'll have to wait until April of next year to purchase it as that is when it is slated for release in the U.S.