Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Book Review: FAITHLESS by Graham Austin-King

Title: Faithless

Author: Graham Austin-King

Publisher: Fallen Leaf Press

Publication Date: June 30, 2017

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟1/2

For those who aren't familiar with my blog, I normally only review fairly new or soon-to-be-released titles.  Occasionally though a book that is a couple of years old strikes my fancy.  FAITHLESS was one of those books.  I kept reading great things about it every time I accessed my Goodreads account to look for something else.  For some reason I continually came across it on my timeline and I gradually began feeling like it was a sign that I should really give this book a read at some point soon.  Imagine my surprise when a further sign presented itself, namely author Graham Austin-King reaching out to me and asking if I would care to review one of his titles.  Well, this was the open door that I needed to ask if I could get a review copy of FAITHLESS, which Graham was gracious enough to provide for me.  And now, on to my review...

The story of FAITHLESS takes place in one of the more original settings that I have ever encountered.  A city network of caverns and tunnels named Aspiration lies beneath the Temple of the Forgefather. Within this underground city, novices are forced into servitude by the temple priests in order to mine for the precious metals that are the lifeblood of their religious order.  More a cult really than an actual religion, the priests who serve the Forgefather believe that the only way that they can communicate with the now silent god is through the burning and working of the metals that are dug out daily by the novice slaves. By working the metals in the forge, the priests say that they can speak with the Forgefather and eventually revive their fallen faith. To say that this religion is one of brutality and merciless persecution would be more than accurate as they impose daily tallies that if not met, result in harsh punishment.  Wynn is a 17 year-old novice who is sold to the temple by his father who is left impoverished as a result of the harsh taxes imposed by the corrupt government. He is soon put to work in the mines and joins a team that literally works day and night seeing very little of the world outside. Forced servitude is something that Wynn wasn't entirely prepared for at such an early age and he is quickly disillusioned by what has befallen him.  Kharios is a novice of the temple studying the arts of metal work and the doctrine of the temple priests.  Although his life is somewhat more privileged than Wynn's, he is still every bit a slave, just in a different form.  For the priests of the Temple of the Forgefather are not kind, and in some cases they use their authority to take advantage (both mentally and physically) of their young pupils.  Both Wynn and Kharios serve the temple in their own way, yet both are beginning to doubt the necessity of the work they do and even start to question their roles as it pertains to serving the long dead god who no longer speaks. Worse still, the mines are not wholly safe and there are quiet murmurings of those who have wandered too far and been "taken" by the Utterdark, the pitch blackness in the very bowels of Aspiration that call the young miners to their deaths. When Wynn and Kharios' paths cross, what follows is a revelation of secrets that neither were prepared to discover and a horror far worse in the form of the risen.  What are the risen you may ask?  You will just have to read FAITHLESS to find that out.  

I am a huge fan of dark fantasy and FAITHLESS fits that description to an absolute tee.  This is a book that I devoured completely and voraciously as I found every excuse in the world to steal more time to turn some pages.  The idea of a ruthless religion that puts young miners to work as slaves so that they can gain the materials needed to communicate again with a long silent god is just such a cool storyline and concept.  There are times when this book makes you feel hopeless and even a little depressed, yet Graham Austin-King never leaves you with the impression that all hope is lost, regardless of the dire circumstances that the main characters are placed in.  Yes the priests are about as evil as they come and the mysterious Utterdark is a menace that is to be utterly feared, but Wynn and Kharios are determined to make sense of their situation and overcome it.  We see two characters who don't want to conform to the daily regimented harsh running of things.  To that point, the world building in FAITHLESS is deep and multi-layered with a very intriguing history behind it.  The history of the Forgefather is one that kept me interested because I wanted to find out if indeed this was an actual real thing or if it was just a fairy tale concocted by the priests and religious leaders of the temple for some other nefarious purposes.  All in all I really loved FAITHLESS and am so glad that I read it.  It gave me hours and hours of incredible enjoyment.  If you want to be taken to a deep dark place and have a lot of fun in the process, pick up Graham Austin-King's FAITHLESS and give it a read now.  I promise you that it will be a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  I truly hope that there is a sequel in the works because I need to be transported back to the pitch-black depths of Aspiration in the very near future.  Meanwhile, I definitely have to seek out more books by this author.

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.