A Quick Catch-Up

Been a hot minute, hasn’t it?

In short, I need to reimagine what I want to do with the blog and associated endeavors, but in the meantime, we have some publications to announce!

First off: the PUNK anthology by Black Hare Press. Got one quite short story in there.

Second off: another, longer story in Wyngraf #1, which I’m rather pleased by. I’ve been trying to find a home for this story for a while.

Third: the GRIMDARK anthology, again by Black Hare Press. Got a few different stories here, all of them very very short. Like, 100 words. Seriously short.

Anyway, if you check any of these out, I hope you enjoy. And hopefully I’ll have a new plan for this place soon.

Dragon’s Eye: Quick, Decent, But Not Eye-Catching

This is a bit of a weird one. A while back I was visiting a used book store in a local college town, and, as you do, tried to find something to pick up. I stumbled across the anthology section, went looking for dragons, and boom. There you go. Dragon’s Eye, an old collection published by Baen back in the 90’s.

What do we get in this collection? As anyone who’s familiar with Baen’s library may predict, there’s a heavy emphasis on swords-and-sorcery here, specifically on “knight fights evil dragon” sorts of tales. Too much focus on that, in my opinion. There are a number of stories that don’t fit into that trope, but it’s not a trope that I find interesting, so that poses a dilemma. Although, to be fair, a couple were not badly executed, and added some decent wrinkles to the expected formula.

Some of the other stories were a bit more unique, though. One in particular that stuck in my head is about a family of Welsh dragons trying to find a safe haven in the midst of World War II. There was also one about a bank that… well, I shan’t spoil anything. Point is, there are a couple more unusual titles amidst the more typical fare, and those I appreciate when I find them. There’s so many cool things you can do with dragons, after all. It’s nice to see things getting a bit inventive or weird.

Overall, it’s a decent enough collection, but it’s not a mind-blowing one. It’s a small book, so you can get through it quickly. I”m keeping my copy for the time being — it’s not going straight into the donation pile now that I’m done with it — but I could see myself giving it away sometime in the future. Time will tell.

I’m not sure how easy this book is to find physically. I’ve seen some copies on Amazon, and Baen is selling digital copies of it on their own web store. (I get no kick-backs from this link or anything of the sort; I provide it only for your convenience. Plus, Baen’s eBook store sells DRM-free books, and that’s something I can get behind.) If you feel like reading some more classically-styled dragon tales, maybe check your library or pick up an eBook, and give it a gander.

The Shadow of the Gods: Blood and Gore and Fun

Now that, ladies and gents, is cover art.

I took lat week off from work, to recharge and spend some time with family, and as you do I found myself reading a lot. One title I grabbed off of the stack was The Shadow of the Gods, a book by John Gwynne that came out earlier this year, which I’d bought after YouTuber Daniel Greene basically fanboyed about it for his entire review.

Plus, look at that cover art. Look at it. That is pretty freaking awesome.

Anyway, the book is set in a pseudo-Norse-mythological setting where Ragnarok has already happened. The gods are pretty much all dead, leaving behind packs of monsters and Tainted humans bearing divine blood (and divine powers). Those who still worship the gods are executed. Warbands of mercenaries travel the world slaying monsters and enslaving Tainted to sell or use as living weapons. It’s a pretty grim place, not entirely without peace or joy, but far and away a tough place to make a life.

And it’s a pretty solid book. I think I blitzed through it basically in three days, aided and abetted by a couple hours in the shotgun seat of a car. It’s a pretty fun read, and the interweaving of the three POV characters’ chapters keeps the pacing good. You’ve got an escaped thrall looking to avenge his sister, a mother faced with an unknown threat near her home, and a warrior looking to prove her worth in combat. All of them are smart, all of them are competent, and they all have some measure of weakness to them that they have to deal with. There are some good plot twists, and some good character and magic designs.

Honestly, I don’t really have any problems with the book. (Unless you consider extreme levels of gore to be a problem, anyway, but I didn’t in this case.) The only criticism I can really level is that none of the characters truly clicked with me in a way that others have. It’s not that they’re badly written; they just didn’t reach the same level of engagement as someone like Vin or Kvothe managed to in one book. It’s not an A+ book for me, but it might be an A-, and that’s not bad.

As this is the first of a planned trilogy, I’ll be waiting for the sequels to arrive, and I imagine I’ll be discussing them here when they do arrive. Should be a good time.

A Sample Of “The Claws Of The Hunt”

Following up from the sample of “Gingerbread And Ash” that I provided last month, here’s a sample from “The Claws Of The Hunt,” the second short story I have in the Fairytale Dragons anthology. Enjoy!

“Hail, Sir Lorant of Gelbridge.”

Lorant pulled on Ash’s reins until the warhorse wheeled about. The road he traveled cut through the heart of the Godslost Forest. No towns or villages stood within its bounds. None fit for a mortal, at any rate.

“Who goes there?” His hand fell to his sword hilt.

“One who would speak to you in peace.” The voice came from everywhere and nowhere, echoing from shafts of light piercing the canopy. “Will you give me your word that we might do so?”

Ash whickered, dancing from side to side. Lorant steadied him with a hand to his neck. “I don’t even know who you are. And I have no time for delays.”

Laughter like birdsong rippled around him. “Ah yes. You return home, do you not? But you will not find what you seek there.”

“Show yourself!”

Shadows shifted in the lee of a lightning-scarred oak, and a woman emerged, clad in gossamer and crowned with a circlet of holly. Her eyes glittered gold as she smiled. “I am here. Now may I have your word?”

Drawing his sword, Lorant leveled it at the woman. Her expression didn’t shift, but she leaned back. “Why would I give my word to one of your kind?”

“Ah.” The woman’s smile widened. “So you know of us.”

“The knights of our realm are educated in the ways of the fae. I know your kind all too well.”

Gesturing at him, she asked, “With all your fine steel armor, Sir Lorant, do you expect me to be a threat to you? I wish only to speak.”

Lorant stared at her, grinding his teeth. Every moment spent confronting this creature kept him from home and reunion with Angela, but if the legends were true, ignoring the fae could be more dangerous than humoring them.

He rammed his sword into its scabbard. “You have my word as a knight.”

The faerie smiled. “How gracious. I am Seona, of the Count of the Erlking.”

“And what is it you want of me?”

“Can you not guess? To invite you to come with me to the emerald paths.”

“Then spare us both the bother. You will not tempt me.”

Seona’s eyes glittered. “Indeed. You long for your beloved. Lady Angela, yes?”

“How do you know her name?”

“Why, I’ve met her. In the Erlking’s court. Such fine hair she has, like sunflowers on a cloudy day.”

Lorant froze. “What?”

“And her dancing. Quite lovely.”

Lorant leapt from Ash’s back, whipping his sword free. “You lie! I should cut you down for those words!”

Seona’s eyes widened. “Do you not know? My people cannot lie. I came to offer to help you free her.”

“She is at Gelbridge, not in your court of devils!”

“As you say. But I make you this bargain. Go in peace to your home. See for yourself that Angela is not there. Then return, if you wish to win her back. I will await you here.”

Glaring at her, Lorant mounted Ash and spurred him into a gallop.

When Gelbridge Manor came into view, Ash was staggering along the road, his coat covered in froth. How long he’d been galloping before he lost his strength, Lorant didn’t know. The whole ride was little more than a blur in his mind. He dropped from Ash’s back and walked him to the front door, his hand tight around the reins.

There was no reason to worry. Angela would be there to greet him. The faerie witch was a liar and a temptress. Her words were worth nothing.

Except, what she had said was true. The fae could not tell an outright lie. So said the loremasters, at any rate. And Seona said she had seen Angela at the Erlking’s court.

Fire Above, please, let her be well. Let her be here.

As he neared the door, a groom rushed from the stables to meet him. “Sir Lorant! We didn’t expect you—”

“Where is Lady Angela?”

The groom recoiled. “I—y-you should speak to Mortant. He—”

Lorant shoved Ash’s reins into the fool’s hands and threw open the doors. “Mortant! Where in blazes are you?”

The antechamber was empty, but as Lorant stomped inside, Mortant crept into view. The old majordomo’s face was scarred from the pox and a half-dozen other diseases, but his eyes were still keen.

Or they normally were. Today they were bloodshot.

“Oh, sir—”

“Where is Angela?”

He shook his head. Lorant grabbed him by the arms, holding back from shaking the old fool. “Where is she, Mortant?”

“She—she was out walking the garden paths one night. The sentries saw her run into the forest. Your brother Erdin pursued her, but neither has been seen since.”

“When did this happen?”

“A month ago. We sent couriers, and they told us they left their messages with the royal quartermasters. Did they not—”

“No.” Lorant turned aside, cursing under his breath. King Henrik must have ordered the letters withheld, lest the Butcher of Gelbridge realize he was needed at home. It was just the bastard’s style.

“What about Saul? Where is he?”

Mortant sighed. “He went after her three weeks ago. No trace of him has been seen. Again, we sent missives, but—”

“Damn that bastard!”

“Your… your brother, sir?”

“Henrik.” Lorant closed his eyes as Mortant gasped, forcing himself to breathe, to think. It was hard. He didn’t want to think. He wanted to fight, to kill whoever stood between him and Angela, the people who had killed his brothers. Surely they were dead. If not, they would have returned, either to seek help or with Angela beside them.

He opened his eyes. “Order the grooms to prepare a fresh horse.”

“Milord, if I may—”

“You may not. I will bring her back, Mortant. You cannot persuade me otherwise.”

“You do not even know where to search, milord.”

“I do. Now call the grooms. Immediately.”

Dragons Luck — Rising Spirits

We went over Dragons Wild a bit ago, and I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. “Mediocre” is the word that comes to mind, but it feels a little harsh as I type it out. Oh well. That’s the one I’ll use.

Anyway, despite not being blown away, I picked up its sequel from the library and gave it a look. And I have to say, while it’s far from perfect, it’s a genuine improvement.

The setup here is that Griffen, the first book’s primary protagonist, has been asked to moderate a convention of supernatural entities which is coming to New Orleans. This he agrees to, despite not knowing a thing about what he’s getting into. In addition, a dragon named Flynn who’s near the top of the power pile pays Griffen a visit with the intent to either recruit or depose him, the dragonslayer George decides to meddle with Flynn’s plans, the insane sister of an antagonist from the first book comes into town with her own agenda, and Griffen’s sister Valerie finds out that she’s pregnant by that same antagonist. And that the crazy sister wants to kill her.

There’s a lot going on in this book, but it pulls it off fairly well. As with the first book, Griffen is underwhelming as a protagonist. He’s coming into his own a bit more here, and I was liking what I was seeing, until some of his perceived conniving turned out to be genuine gullibility. He takes on the moderator job with no idea what he’s in for, and while his actions there actually aren’t bad once they get going, he spends most of the book before the convention freaking out about the convention.

The rest of the plotlines are of a higher caliber, though. Valerie continues to be a more interesting character and protagonist than her brother, as she deals with her own position in the city and the fallout from her pregnancy and the murder attempts being made against her. I’d honestly be okay if the series was actually about her, rather than Griffen. Hopefully the rest of the books in the series continue to treat her well, else we might be in for some rocky sailing. The side characters are good too, with some fun interactions between them, but obviously that’s not enough to carry a book. Adds to the quality, but doesn’t sell the product.

Regarding those next books, though, there’s a significant inflection point here in that Robert Asprin passed away between this book and the next in the series. The last two titles were written by Jody Lynn Nye instead, who’s written a number of posthumous additions to Asprin’s different series. It’ll be interesting to see what that does to the style and quality of the books, but for now, I enjoyed this one enough that I’m willing to find out.

If you’re interested in seeing some of my own work, maybe give the Fairytale Dragons anthology a try? My last posting provided a sample from one story in the book, and my next will be from the other. See if they strike your fancy!

A Sample of “Gingerbread and Ash”

This week, I’m going to provide a sample of my short story “Gingerbread and Ash” from the Fairytale Dragons anthology I was featured in late last year. If you like it, consider picking up the book! I might provide a sample of my other story that was included later.

The deer carcass twitched as Marita sliced into its shoulder, its eye glazed with a sheen like oil on water. Some residual magic, perhaps. After three years of famine, magic was the only explanation for how the witch could provide this much meat every day. It was how she snared Marita and her brother, after all.

“Don’t you look at me,” Marita said, rolling the deer over to get at the other shoulder. “She treated you gently, far as I’m concerned.”

The cabin door creaked open on rusted hinges. Footsteps shuffled inside, but Marita didn’t turn away from the carcass. If the witch wanted something, she’d say so. Otherwise, best not to draw her attention.

“Are you not done with your chores yet, child?” The witch’s voice was like a shovel scraping through mud and gravel. “The sun climbs high, and here you are still.”

“I already cleaned the outhouse and swept the floor. I’m almost done.” The chores were pointless—every day the filth returned as if it were never gone—but the witch didn’t seem to care. It was probably her doing that brought it all back each night.

“See that you are faster tomorrow, child.” The rocking chair by the fireplace creaked as the witch settled into it. “Your sweet brother is hungry, I’m sure. I don’t know why you seem so set on starving him.”

Scowling, Marita finished the butchering and rinsed her hands in the basin beside the oven. It lurked against the cabin wall, cold and dark, an iron beast large enough to swallow a whole deer. Or a whole person.

Continue reading “A Sample of “Gingerbread and Ash””

Alita: Battle Angel — An Oil-Stained Gem

We’re venturing off the dragon-beaten path again this week. Although I could see some sort of cyberpunk mecha-dragon fitting into the setting, maybe.

Back in 2019, a little movie called Alita: Battle Angel came out. A Western rendition of a classic manga, it launched to uneven reviews but a ton of fan support, including campaigns to get a sequel made. I remember being interested in it at the time, but never got around to actually watching it.

Well, a bit ago I did get around to watching it, thanks to my local library and my 100 New Things goal for the year. And I have to say, I had a lot of fun with it.

Here’s the setup: in a paradise-city-hovering-over-ruined-city setting, a cybernetics doctor named Ido finds a broken android in the garbage pile raining down from Zalem, the aforementioned city. He gives her a new body and the name Alita, since she’s missing both a body and all her memories (why are there so many amnesiac Japanese protagonists, anyway?), and she tries to find out more about herself and her world, as well as going after the people who start hunting her.

The reviews for this movie had praise for Rosa Salazar’s portrayal of Alita, the setting, and the action, but criticism of the screenplay. Having seen the movie twice now, I have to agree with that. The plot is a bit janky at times, and the movie ends in a weird place. This didn’t present itself as strongly to me the first time I saw the movie, but it came up in conversation after the second time and stood out a little more.

Thing is, it’s not really a breaking issue for me. Maybe all the anime I’ve been marinading my brain in over the last year has helped with that, but it is what it is.

Either way, the acting was indeed solid, especially Salazar and Christoph Waltz — who plays a good guy, shock and awe! — and the action’s also pretty sweet. They don’t have many compunctions about shedding blood or cyber-blood here, and that’s fine by me. The setting is another thing that worked well; the city is full of texture and grime and grit that lends it an air of verisimilitude, even though it’s full of cyborgs. I love that level of gritty detail, and that level of creativity with the details as well.

Sadly, the odds of us getting a sequel to this movie don’t seem great. It was a 20’th Century Fox production, and they’ve been bought out by Disney since, so it falls to the House of Mouse to grace us with a sequel if they so deign. I’m not hopeful about that, but I can see a road to it happening, in theory. Fingers crossed that we do. And fingers crossed they don’t screw it up.

Highfire: Low Humor, High Action

I’ve got fond memories of the Artemis Fowl novels from back my childhood. I got into the series when there was a few out, I think, so for a little bit there it was something where we’d get new books to look forward to every so often. I tried one or two other Eoin Colfer novels back then, but only one of his adult novels before, the frankly forgettable Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sequel And Another Thing.

How forgettable was it, you ask? Well, I forgot all about it until I was writing this review. If I’d remembered my low appreciation for it, I might have had different expectations for Highfire.

Here’s the setup: dragons used to rule the world, but now, there’s only one left: Wyvern, Lord Highfire, who goes by Vern and lives in a swamp shack in Louisiana with only a dragon-blooded man named Waxman and a satellite TV for friends. His life of vodka-fueled lonesomeness gets broken up by a young smuggler named Squib, trying to protect his mother from a crooked cop named Hooke, who’s planning to take over the local drug-running operations. And then things get messy.

To be fair, the book is not completely without merit. I think some of the humor was okay. I have no issue with the setup on paper. The action scenes are actually pretty solid – probably the best bits of the book, since the things that annoyed me about it were in least concentration there.

And some of the characters were all right. Squib had some understandable issues and motivations going on. Him working himself ragged and trying to go legit for the sake of his mother is solid enough, especially given what a piece of human excrement Hooke is. Vern and Waxman had a good setup.

And the plot itself was fine enough. The setup of Squib trying to keep Vern happy, Hooke trying to take over the local crime ring, the ways in which the characters collide and make life miserable for each other, that works. And there are stakes at play too. Not everything works out all sunshine and roses, which is a good thing.

The real problem comes from the book’s sense of humor. So much nastiness, so many crude jokes that weren’t even funny. It’s predictable from Colfer, given the existence of Mulch Diggums, but still. Wasn’t expected, wasn’t appreciated, dragged the book down. Maybe that sounds like a small thing, but honestly, the book was not enjoyable in total, and the worst parts were when everyone was lying around talking.

I still have fond memories of Artemis Fowl, so I’m not trying to rag on Colfer here out of some animus with him personally. I just didn’t like this book, and I’m glad I chose to go to the library for it rather than bookstore. I don’t see myself adding it to the collection. Call it a case of good ideas, spotty execution, and underwhelming totality.

Dragons Wild: Pretty Tame, Actually

This week we have another of those legion of books I burned through back in high school, returned from the grave for new consideration. I’m not sure what I thought of it back then – I only really remembered one particular exchange of dialogue – but revisiting it today, I’m failed to be blown away. More like… led on a idle, occasionally interesting walk.

The book opens with our protagonist Griffen in a meeting with his uncle, hoping to get a job, but instead getting the revelation that he and his sister Valerie are actually dragons. Turns out dragons are hiding amongst the human population of Earth, and while most dragons have some degree of human blood in them, Griffen and Valerie are basically pure-bloods and therefore heavy-hitters in the culture. Since Griffen is old enough to start manifesting his powers, that means that his life of idle gambling is about to grow far more exciting. With Valerie and a friend who turns out to be dragon-blooded, he travels from Ann Arbor to New Orleans to take shelter with a dragon-led gambling cartel, and then plot happens.

The dragons in this setting are weird. It’s indicated in the book that the whole “scaly winged fire-breathing reptile” image doesn’t apply in this case, aside from when the dragons want it to apply. For example, when his shapeshifting kicks in Griffen can manifest scales, but Valerie doesn’t shift like that; she just gets bigger. This isn’t a bad idea, necessarily, just a weird one. The other weird thing about the dragons in this book is how relatively irrelevant their species is. They just… don’t do anything draconic. It’s significant that they have dragon blood in them, but it’s not relevant. Griffen is put on a pedestal for being a pure-blood dragon, but even he can’t actually do much, so the whole plot revolving around him basically amounts to a forward investment with no sign of payoff. So that’s a weird hierarchy.

For various reasons, Griffen and the plot orbiting around him is the worst part of this book. It’s unearned, his reactions to things aren’t terribly convincing, the way people info-dump and bestow power upon him doesn’t make a ton of sense… He just doesn’t work. There are hints of a more active and powerful character there, as he starts to come into his own, but for the rest of the book, he just doesn’t work.

Valerie is actually a better character, although she’s not around very much. She’s got the same dragon bloodline as her brother, obviously, but for her it’s more of a liability. Dragon culture specifically tries not to tell their womenfolk that they’re dragons so that they can better control the bloodlines, and nobody is giving Valerie power the way Griffen’s getting it. She gets a new home in New Orleans, but she doesn’t get much else. So she’s in a much worse position in life, and the way she reacts to her life’s upheaval and Griffen’s ascendance is pretty believable.

Overall, it’s not a terrible book, but not a great one either. Call it a mediocre one. Its characters are its weakest link, and that’s not a recipe for success with me. Despite that, I’m still tempted to pick up the next couple books in the series and see how the franchise develops. Time will tell whether I get there or not.

The Ruin of Kings: Monsters, Dragons, and Assassins, Oh My

I forget why I bought this book, to be honest with you. I think it was for a summer reading program at the library where I needed a specific sort of book to satisfy some condition or other… I don’t know. It’s fine. I don’t have a book-buying problem, you do.

Anyway, The Ruin of Kings is about a noble scion named Kihrin, who’s had something of an exciting life. First he was growing up on the streets, then he was living in a palace with a family with a penchant for idle torture, and now he’s a slave with a chunk of his soul trapped in a medallion, forcing him to obey anyone holding it or die. To top it all off, in the prologue, he’s imprisoned and slated to be sacrificed to a demon, being guarded by a homicidal shape-shifter who wants to have a story-time.

Yeah, he’s got a few problems, you could say.

To me, the most interesting element of what this book does well is the narrative structure of it. As you start the book, you start with a first-person chapter where Kihrin is telling his story moving forward from one point in time, explaining how he got to the present-day revealed in the prologue. But the next chapter is a third-person viewpoint told by his jailer, starting further back in time and explaining how to got to the point where he started. And it continues to alternate as you read further. It’s a clever device and well-executed, with the odd interjection from the characters as they snipe at each other in the present day. Hopefully it’ll be brought back in the next novel in the series in some fashion.

The second thing this book has going for it is the humor. It’s a dark fantasy novel, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a grimdark one. There’s plenty of humor there, swinging from the gallows though it may be at times. It keeps things lively, keeps you from getting too bogged down in all the awfulness.

The third thing is the lived-in feel of the world itself. Without getting into spoilers, Lyons does a great job of making the setting feel like it not only has a history, but like that history is still playing out, rather than just being a dead, static part of the background.

As far as negatives go… sweet pity, but this is a joyless world. And I mean joyless. But it doesn’t create the sort of macabre fascination that 1984 or Warhammer 40k might manifest.If it weren’t for the aforementioned humor levels, this book would be a lot harder of a read.

Also, this setting’s magic system plays kind of loose and fast with the reader’s understanding at times. But the funny thing is, only at times. Some parts of the system are well-explained and comprehended, but other times things happen that come out of left field. It’s not a major issue, but my Sanderson-centric brain tends to snag on such things.

Finally, as far as the dragons in this book go… well, that feels like it might be telling. Suffice to say that what we get here, combined with the fact that the series is named “A Chorus of Dragons,” has me interested to see where things go from here.

All in all, it’s a pretty good read, with some reservations. I’ve got the sequel on order already, and we’ll see how this plays out in the long run.