Category Archives: Reviews

Book Review: The Universal Mirror

Title: The Universal Mirror
Author: Gwen Perkins
Grade: B+

Sometimes you really like a concept and an author’s concept and you want to give the work a really glowing review. But there are just a few stumbling blocks that file a bit of its edge off. The Universal Mirror is like that.

On the island of Cercia, the gods are dead, killed by their followers and replaced with the study of magic. Magicians are forbidden to leave their homeland. Laws bind these men that prevent them from casting spells on the living—whether to harm or to heal. Quentin, a young nobleman, challenges these laws out of love for his wife. His best friend, Asahel, defies authority at his side, unaware that the search for this lost magic will bring them both to the edge of reason, threatening their very souls. The Universal Mirror shows how far two men are willing to go for the sake of knowledge and what they will destroy to obtain it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This is very well-written book. I recommend it for any fantasy fans out there, especially if you can get it free on Kindle. Perkins creates some really good characters. She’s got a nice world and a unique magic system that includes something lacking in more amateurish fantasy: Limitations. It’s easy to end up with godlike characters in fantasy when there aren’t any natural or societal limitations on the magic. Perkins’ world has a set of rules, called Heresies, that limit how magic is used. It’s just that it’s all a bit shallow. And I really want to see deeper into Cercia.

I was nearly halfway through Mirror before I had the two main characters straightened out. The limitations are there and explored to a degree, but never really explained. The city has periodic bouts of a plague, but for most of the book, it reads like it was a one-time deal. From the descriptions of their friendship, I kept expecting Asahel and Quentin to develop some sort of bromance, if not outright romance.

Perkins does a few things really well, however. Interpersonal interactions (aside from some of the awkwardness between the two protagonists) are handled very nicely. Especially between Quentin and his wife. The rigid structure of society is explored and shown to us in great detail via the vehicle of Asahel’s and Quentin’s friendship.

I enjoyed The Universal Mirror. I’ll probably read it again. It just needed a little more depth to be a great book instead of a good one.


Book Review: Chemical Gardens

Title: Chemical Gardens
Author: Gina Ranalli
Grade: C

Having read House of Fallen Trees, I was curious about some of Gina Ranalli’s other works. She’s usually classified as a “bizarro” author — an odd little subset of horror. After reading Chemical Gardens, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that bizarro probably isn’t for me.

It’s a night like any other for punk rock band Green is the Enemy. Having just completed a gig in their hometown of Seattle, they pile into their van, headed for San Francisco to open for their idols Peroxide and with any luck, get signed to Withering Skin Records. Unfortunately, things don’t go exactly as planned. They travel no more than a few blocks when an 8.5 earthquake strikes the city, tumbling buildings and opening streets, and sending the van crashing down into a huge crevasse. Beneath the city of Seattle is another long buried city, known to locals as The Underground and it is here that the band find themselves, trapped and somehow vastly. changed. Join Ro, Pawn, Dose and Whey as they fight to make it back in time for their gig, encounter strange creatures called Kreepkins, a surfer-dude warlock, a vengeful demon and a Metal Priestess who holds the key to their escape from the bizarre subterranean nightmare that is now their lives.

Based on The Wizard of Oz, this book has a predictable plot. Sort of. There are parallels aplenty, although some of them require a great deal of thought (and I still haven’t figured out the whole traveling-through-a-brain thing). The ending is similar to Oz, but also twisted on its head — just like the rest of Chemical Gardens.

It’s not the predictability that bothers me. Given the nature of the story, that’s unavoidable. The language level’s a bit of a turnoff for me, but I should have expected that knowing the author as I do. Story-wise, the biggest issue for me is the ending. I have to admit there’s closure of a sort, and the denial of expectation is nicely handled. But it felt too abrupt to me. I kept asking, “Really? That’s it? But what about…?”

To be fair, I have to admit I think Rinalli is a seriously messed up woman. And I mean that in the best possible way. She is creative and can obviously come up with stuff that sticks with you. In my case, it’s more of a disturbed factor, but it’s still sticking. It’s highly probable I won’t be reading any more bizarro horror. But if she ever does another, more straightforward horror like House of Fallen Trees, I’ll be all over that.


Book Review: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Title: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Author: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll)
Grade: B

OK, I admit this review requires more than a touch of hubris. This story is an icon. It practically defines children’s literature. And, quite frankly, it’s not that great. It’s only because of the work’s iconic status that it even gets a B.

I’d wanted to read Wonderland for some time now. I have used Through the Looking Glass & What Alice Found There as a year-end closer in my British lit class for a few years now. I originally picked it because Looking Glass doesn’t generally get the same level of attention.

Both books are disjointed to varying degrees, reflecting the dream state they rise from. But Looking Glass is much more solid and has a better flow than Wonderland. It’s rare I’ll consider a sequel better than the original, but that is the case here.

It’s not the episodic plot. It’s the fact that each episode is so disconnected from the others that it feels more like a string of badly connected independent stories with a common, central character. So what should be something like the Worthington Saga comes off more like the movie Cat’s Eye.

Looking Glass, on the other hand, is a bit less ADD. It’s just as episodic, but has its own (warped) logic and an actual plot.

Both books are giants in  the world of children’s literature. And they tend to get all wrapped up together in the various film adaptations. But for my tastes, I’ll take chess over card games any day.


Book Review: Dawn of War (Blood War Trilogy)

Title: Dawn of War (Blood War Trilogy)
Author: Tim Marquitz
Grade: C-

Fantasy covers a broad spectrum. You have high (Wheel of Time) and low (much of Memory, Sorrow & Thorn), lighthearted (The Hobbit), dark (Imajica), sci-fi mixes (Coldfire Trilogy) and so on. Some fantasy is so epic as to define the genre (King Arthur, Lord of the Rings). Some is interesting but doesn’t go anywhere (Dance of the Rings). And some is kind of fun but forgettable — such as Dawn of War.

For hundreds of years, the bestial Grol have clawed at the walls of Lathah without success. Now armed with O’hra, mystical weapons of great power, they have returned, to conquer. Witness to the Grol advance, Arrin can abide his exile no longer. He returns to Lathah, in defiance of death, with hopes to save his beloved princess and the child born of their illicit affair. He finds her unwilling to abandon her people. At her behest, Arrin searches for a sanctuary for them only to be confronted by the Sha’ree, a powerful race long thought gone from the world. Through them, he learns it is not just the Grol that threaten the land. Empowered by a magic never before seen, the savage nations spread chaos and ruin across the realm. With Lathah under siege, and the world on the brink of cataclysmic war, Arrin must strike a deal with the Sha’ree to take the fight to the Grol, or forever lose his one true love: his family.

Marquitz has an interesting premise. He’s got an interesting world with a comatose goddess and twin moons that cause all rivers, lakes, oceans, etc to boil every so often. He’s got some cool magical artifacts and a number of diverse characters. Add it all together and what do you get?

A fairly flat story.

Part of it’s the writing style. Marquitz tries to be a little too flowery at times. Instead of clever, however, it  came across as annoying most of the time. Another problem is the scope. Admittedly, Blood War is a trilogy, which allows for some expansive writing. Memory, Sorrow & Thorn is a good example of how this can work very well. But Dawn of War feels like it lacks focus. It’s broad instead of deep. I think the story could benefit from scaling back. Pick a few of the best nations — human and non-human — and focus on those. Most of the rest are so sketchy and similar as to run together anyway. The same goes for individual characters. This is an approach that worked fairly well for Wizards First Rule.

I picked up Dawn of War free on my Kindle. If the other two came free, I might read those, too.

If I can remember to look.


Movie Review: Atlas Shrugged, Part 1

Title: Atlas Shrugged: Part I
Director: Paul Johansson

Rating: **** (out of 5)

Much as I hate to admit it, I have to say I’ve never read Ayn Rand. But if this modern rendition is any indication, I need to remedy that — and soon. While many disagree with its message and have slammed Atlas Shrugged, I have to say I really enjoyed it.

It was great to be alive, once, but the world was perishing. Factories were shutting down, transportation was grinding to a halt, granaries were empty–and key people who had once kept it running were disappearing all over the country. As the lights winked out and the cities went cold, nothing was left to anyone but misery. No one knew how to stop it, no one understood why it was happening – except one woman, the operating executive of a once mighty transcontinental railroad, who suspects the answer may rest with a remarkable invention and the man who created it – a man who once said he would stop the motor of the world. Everything now depends on finding him and discovering the answer to the question on the lips of everyone as they whisper it in fear: Who is John Galt?

I’m more familiar with  Rand’s Objectivism from Terry Goodkind. The Sword of Truth, as bad as some of the later books are, follows many of her ideas, particularly in Faith of the Fallen (one of my favorite in the series).  The basic idea is that the socialist tenet  of  “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is unsustainable and ultimately counterproductive. As Margaret Thatcher put it: “Socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people’s money.”

That’s a message Atlas Shrugged, Part I sticks to very faithfully. And it’s not shy about it. The film just manages to avoid being ham-fisted about it, and isn’t quite as brutal as Goodkind’s series. I happen to agree with much of what they say, which may be why I enjoyed it as much as I did. But even without all that, the acting is, for the most part, first rate (even if the cast is mostly B-list and lower). The production values are wonderful — much better than I expected given that it’s a more or less straight-to-video film.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems aside from the heavy-handed moral. Atlas Shrugged  is a doorstopper of a novel. This movie only covers about a third of it, and the ending is a bit abrupt. It feels more like an intermission; another half hour or so to wrap things up and improve the cliffhanger would have been nice (take a lesson from The Fellowship of the Rings movie). Dagny Taggart comes across as a calculating ice princess at first, but somehow develops emotion without any plot lines that indicate thawing.

Still, I think most of this will be helped by Parts II and III, and I, for one, will eagerly await their arrival.


Movie Review: TrollHunter

Title: TrollHunter
Director: André Øvredal
Rating: **** (out of 5)

The Blair Witch Project was original. Not everyone liked it, but it was original. And it’s been a style other people have tried to copy, with varying success. Some, like Paranormal Activity, have achieved box office success even if they’re not all that great from a story point of view. Others, such as Cloverfield, manged both a measure of popularity and decent storytelling. I know it’s the box office filmmakers are shooting for, but personally, I’d rather see a good movie than worry about whether it made big bucks or not (sometimes, it’s better if they don’t because if they do, we’re subjected to fifteen more, even lamer, versions). And such is Norwegian TrollHunter.

A group of students investigates a series of mysterious bear killings, but learns that there are much more dangerous things going on. They start to follow a mysterious hunter, learning that he is actually a troll hunter.

I’m not saying André Øvredal has created a celluloid masterpiece or anything. But TrollHunter (original title: Trolljegeren) is decent piece of filmmaking that takes the Blair Witch mode and creates a fun, if campy, film. I have seen reports that an American company is working on a remake, but I think I’ll stick with this version. The effects are top-notch, and the plot and acting are well-done.

Of course, one of the problems with any movie of this type is that you know going in that it’s not going to have a real happy ending. It ruins a bit of the mystery along the way. But Øvredal and team have done a pretty good job of putting a few curveballs in there that make up for it, especially the reason for all the trolls acting weird. I did not see that one coming.

With few exceptions, the dialogue is all in Norwegian, so if you don’t like subtitles, this movie may not be for you. Personally, I prefer the subtitles over dub-overs (nearly ruined Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for me). And if it’s a good, fun picture that rises above the general “popcorn flick” you’re looking for, I’d reccomend going hunting for trolls.


Book Review: Seed by Ania Ahlborn

Title: Seed
Author: Ania Ahlborn
Rating: **** (out of 5)

I’m not usually a fan of “indie” (read: self-published) authors. I will check them out on my Kindle sometimes when the books are free. I’m slogging through one right now that I can tell even after a few pages will not have a great review. But then there are the few who really shine. Barry Napier (Masks of Our Fathers) was one. Ania Ahlborn is another. Seed is a dark novel with an even darker ending. I like unhappy endings, and I had a hard time with this one.

In the vine-twisted swamps of Louisiana, the shadows have teeth. Jack Winter has spent his entire life running from something no one else can see. His childhood is his darkest secret, but after a near fatal accident along a deserted road, the darkness he was sure he’d escaped rears its ugly head… and smiles. But this time, he isn’t the only one who sees the soulless eyes of his past. This time, his six-year-old daughter Charlie leans into his ear and whispers: “Daddy, I saw it too.” And then she begins to change. Faced with reliving the nightmares of his childhood, Jack watches his daughter spiral into the shadows that had nearly consumed him twenty years before.  But Charlie isn’t the only one who’s changing. Jack never outran the darkness. It’s been with him all along. And it’s hungrier than ever.

Ahlborn has created a truly creepy, sinister tale that will stick with you long after you get done reading it. We see little of Jack’s job or band aside from references, which I think is unfortunate. But this is mostly a novel about people, and the depiction of the Winter family is top notch. Seldom do characters seem as real as these do. The creepy little girl is especially well done. Ahlborn’s teasing revelations of Jack’s childhood is reminiscent of Stephen King at his best.

Speaking of King, the ending for Seed is one of the best, darkest pieces of storytelling I’ve come across in awhile. I’m pretty sure not everyone will like it, however. In some ways, it’s like the ending of The Dark Tower, which King telegraphed if you were looking hard enough. That didn’t stop it from irritating fans, though. Seed is like that. Ahlborn’s conclusion isn’t all that shocking once you get past the brutality of it, but it’s enough to make you wish you had been wrong about where it was going.

That’s not to say that I think the  novel was perfect. John seemed a little to willing to let what’s happening to his daughter ride without any real attempt to stop it. It’s not like Ahlborn set up a flat character; she put a fair amount of effort into trying to set up this particular character trait and explaining why he’s acting the way he does. But with all the time spent showing how much he loves Charlie, this acceptance kind of fell flat to me.

All told, this is a first-class horror story that scare afficianados should  have in their collections. I’ve got a feeling Ania Ahlborn will be a name to watch.


Book Review: Cinema of Shadows by Michael West

Title: Cinema of Shadows
Author: Michael West
Publisher: Seventh Star Press
Rating: **** (out of 5)

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t much care for fast-paced horror. I grew up with the door-stopper tomes of Stephen King and Clive Barker. I like the way they slowly unfold a story and reveal the terror to come. (Slowly I turn, step by step, inch by inch). That being said, Cinema of Shadows is very much a fast-paced horror story that I very much enjoyed.

Welcome to the Woodfield Movie Palace. The night the Titanic sank, it opened for business…and its builder died in his chair. In the 1950s, there was a fire; a balcony full of people burned to death. And years later, when it became the scene of one of Harmony, Indiana’s most notorious murders, it closed for good. Abandoned, sealed, locked up tight…until now. Tonight, Professor Geoffrey Burke and his Parapsychology students have come to the Woodfield in search of evidence, hoping to find irrefutable proof of a haunting. Instead, they will discover that, in this theater, the terrors are not confined to the screen.

Cinema is a story much in the vein of The Mangler with a touch of Rose Red. It’s got demons, ghosts and psychics. It’s got a parapsychology instructor eager for proof. And it’s got a great setting, well-rounded characters and plenty of scares. West does some interesting things with the trapped-ghost sub-genre, but overall, the book didn’t strike me as overly original. Even the ending in the epilogue (delivered after the “credits” movie-style) is fairly predictable. But you know what? The reader doesn’t care (at least, this reader didn’t). Even knowing the tropes West employs (and some of the ones he subverts), I couldn’t put this one down.

I will say that the story’s pace does harm it somewhat, in my opinion. For example, one character  faces some really weird stuff completely contrary to his rational world view. In a King novel, he’d argue with himself for chapters before finally settling on the supernatural once he ran out of options. A bit of that happens in Cinema of Shadows, but the acceptance comes a bit to readily in my opinion. But that’s a minor point in an otherwise fantastic story.


Book Review: Plague by Bret Jordan


Title: PlaguePlague cover

Author: Bret Jordan
Publisher: Purple Sword Publications
Rating: *** (out of 5)

I’ve got a long, personal history with Plague. Both Bret Jordan’s novel and my own Jennings Grove started as online serials for Graveside Tales. Jordan and I would help each other with plot ideas, copy editing and the like. Due to some upheaval in my life, I never finished reading Plague online, so I was thrilled to see it finally make it into print. This was a phenomenal online novel; Jordan has made it even better for the final draft. Mostly.

Sword and sorcery battle against an unstoppable hunger as the few living residents try and escape the walls of an undead nightmare. Renier is a port city that stands as a glorious gem on the edge of the kingdom. The people are justly ruled by their beloved duke with the assistance of a benevolent wizard and a self-involved priest. Within twenty-four hours everything changes as a small group of strange lepers enter the port and cause a mysterious and deadly illness to rage through the city, killing most of the residents. Violent illness and gruesome death isn’t the end of the horror for the residents of Renier. Not by a long shot, as thousands of dead bodies rise from the cobblestone streets in search of living prey.

Jordan does some fantastic storytelling here. His world-building is tightly focused on Renier, but well done. The characters are, for the most part, well thought out and fleshed out. They fell flat a few times in my opinion, especially the wizard at times, but it worked well overall. His beginning and middle are some of the best fantasy writing I’ve encountered, bar none. His use of zombies is unique…even if he never calls them that (except for one perhaps accidental reference). His sensory imagery is absolutely wonderful. A little too much, in fact. It’s hard to read the passages of people dying of the plague on a full stomach. Jordan shows a flare for the visceral that reminds me of Clive Barker.

It’s at the end that Plague starts to unravel a bit. An undead general who’s played up as a military genius doesn’t get enough air time — nor does his supposedly brilliant strategic mind. The general has a pair of partners, one of which is a wraith that is given a great deal of mysterious potential but either unaccountably dissappears or  is an assassin character that shows up unaccountably later in the book. But if said assassin is the “wraith,” it’s a lot more solid later than earlier. But it’s also rushed. Things not only move quickly, they move so fast and end so abruptly that Plague feels incomplete. The book doesn’t just cry out for a sequel, it demands one. I won’t give the ending away, but I will say that for me it lacked a satisfactory conclusion. It felt more like the midpoint of the story rather than the end.

But even so, Plague was worth the wait and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes good, dark fantasy.

EDIT: Talked to Mr. Jordan today, and he tells me there is a sequel in the works at some point. So while that doesn’t necessarily alleviate all the issues Plague has, it should go a long way to fixing it. 


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