We Ride The Storm – All Prosed Up And Nowhere To Go

51gyn6ucmblSelf-published books are a really interesting conundrum. On one hand, they represent some of the best finds and recommendations a reviewer can make due to their unknown nature. On the other hand, while there are some very good self-published books, there are a lot of really bad ones. What is particularly exciting is when other reviewers, or publishing companies, find great self-published books and bring them into the limelight – doing the work of discovery for you. This is the case with We Ride The Storm, by Devin Madson, a finalist of Mark Lawrence’s self-published blog off and a new acquisition by Orbit publishing. I was excited to dive in when Orbit sent me an early review copy so I could lavish praise on this interesting new series, but I soon realized that would be complicated.

We Ride the Storm uses a classic epic fantasy format: three distinct POVs each tell a piece of a collective story, trading off the narrative lead in succession. First, we have Miko, a princess held captive by her step-father who resents her for her true lineage. Then we have Cassandra, an assassin with a ghost riding in her head with some addiction problems. Finally, we have Rah e’Torin, a warrior exiled to a foreign land who finds himself forced to fight in a war he has no stake in. These characters do a great job fleshing out different parts of the world and slowly building out a world-building tapestry that does a great job painting the Asian-inspired epic as a living and breathing place. The cultures do a nice mix of drawing from multiple Asian cultures, including Mongolian, but don’t rely too heavily on the real world. The various nations and peoples of Storm have their own flavor and flair, and it is a nice mix of old and new. However, while the world is pretty fantastic, the characters that live in it are not.

Each of the three protagonists I mention sounds engaging and exciting on paper, but ultimately they fall flat. As a reader who primarily seeks out character-driven stories, I struggled to enjoy Storm because I disliked almost every character. I enjoyed Cassandra the most, but she was still fairly irritating for most of the story. The other two leads (Rah and Miko) had interesting backstories but felt like they had zero agency for too much of the story. I really didn’t like the side cast members, and some of them did things that were almost offensively dumb. My personal favorite was when a character went into a throne room and committed really aggressive treason when he knew the penalty would be death. When he was asked what his plan was he essentially says “I didn’t have one, I guess I will die,” gets executed, then the book tries to paint it as tragic. No, I will not mourn that dumb-as-bricks idiot. Hard pass. And while I understand that each of the characters lacking control in their lives was a major theme of the story, it led to no one feeling like they had agency on the plot.

But, while I didn’t really connect with any of the cast, I was impressed with the mechanical writing of the story. Madson’s prose is surprisingly good for someone who has primarily self-published. The narrative has a perfect mix of detailed descriptions that aren’t too flowery but really pull you into the rooms, buildings, cities, and outdoor locales that the various characters visit. I was easily able to distract my frustrations with the cast by listening to Madson describe the beautiful and horrible sights you travel through in the course of the book.

We Ride the Storm was very much a mixed bag for me. My frustrations with the cast really hurt the chances this book was going to hit it off with me, but the world-building and prose did an impressive job keeping me invested and intrigued enough to finish it. I likely won’t be going back for a second installment of the series but if you like the characters I can definitely see why some people love this novel. However, it personally wasn’t for me.

Rating: We Ride the Storm – 4.5/10
-Andrew

The Flight Of The Darkstar Dragon – Flight Of Fancy

51qrje8hdulAlright, let’s reveal a fun, embarrassing, personal fact. Ever since I was a young boy I have usually used the same moniker when playing videogames. As you might imagine, being a boy of about seven when I first came up with it, I was not particularly creative. I went with “Darkstar” because I thought it sounded cool as hell. Well, here we are decades later, and I still think the concept of a star made out of darkness sounds cool as hell. The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon is a new self-published book by Benedict Patrick – who is better known for his other self-published book with a really long title: They Mostly Come Out at Night. When I saw a book with the word “Darkstar” in the title, I bought it without reading the back because of a) how bad could it be? And b) look at that kickass cover. This was the largest case of “judging a book by its cover” I have ever experienced… but you know what they say about that…

… That sometimes you make a fantastic decision. Flight is a portal fantasy, a genre I naturally gravitate away from. For those unfamiliar, portal fantasies are stories about individuals going through magical portals to other worlds and strange lands. Usually, they focus on the protagonist becoming instantly important for the unearned reason of having general basic knowledge from a different universe that makes them god-like in their new surroundings. Often, portal fantasies are lazy, poorly written, power fantasies that border on masturbatory – so I tend to give them a wide berth. However, that is definitely not always the case and there are a number of books I have seen that do more with the genre – and Flight is an example of that.

Flight is a fast-paced and well oiled short book that has a very clean plot and not a lot of worldbuilding. The story revolves around a ship that is ripped from their world into a strange parallel dimension with a dark star and a massive dragon. Their new surroundings are confusing, deadly, and fascinating – and the crew must cobble together a solution to get out of this dangerous realm before it kills them. They do this by exploring additional portals out of the ‘Darkstar Realm’ into other realities like interdimensional scavengers. That’s pretty much the whole plot.

On top of having a cut-down plot, the majority of the characters are shallow with the exception of the protagonist and a key support character. The POV character, Min, is great and shows growth – but the rest of her crew are definitely there just to support her story. So, with a thin plot, light worldbuilding, and simple cast – why do I like this book so much? It’s because Flight is a simple book that was written as a pet project out of love to explore one key theme – wanderlust. And it nails it. Flight is a story about how there is joy and fulfillment in making a living out of wandering the stars and seeing new and unknown. It is a story about how the universe is filled with more beauty than you can possibly imagine, and all you need to do to see it is go out and look.

The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon is not an epic fantasy with every detail methodically written out, with epic prose and a once in a generation plot. And that’s ok. It is a short story investigating a wonderful theme with brilliant clarity and execution. I in absolutely no way regret my impulsive decision to pick up this book and I am overjoyed to find another example of portal fantasy done right. If you find joy when you look out at the wonders of our world, or if you want to, this is a book for you.

Rating: The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon – 7.5/10
-Andrew

Construct – The Foundations Have Been Laid

23365568I’ve never had the inclination to read self-published titles. I’m always worried I’ll read into it too deeply or be overly critical, because I can so rarely turn off that portion of my brain. So when Luke Matthews reached out to me and requested an honest review of his self-published book Construct, I was a little hesitant. After thinking about it though, I decided to give it a shot. Construct ended up being something unexpected, and though it certainly has some flaws, the work Matthews put into his world and characters shows a lot of potential.

Construct follows Samuel, an artificial being that has awakened from a terrible memory as the building he is in is burning down around him. He recognizes he is not human, doesn’t know his own name, but feels hunted nonetheless. Deep down he feels his memory is important and puts him in further danger, and so he hides from nearby voices searching the wreckage. He sets off on a journey to find out who and what he is, and why someone would want to kill him. It is a streamlined and clean concept that works for the book.

I want to start off by highlighting my favorite part about this book: Matthews’ writing. He is incredibly thorough with his descriptions, allowing the reader to feel the world. I immediately felt as if I was in some sort of dark fantasy western, where small towns and large cities were miles from each other, and the populace mostly tried to keep out of trouble. People knew each other by their dealings and less by reputation, which was something I rarely notice in other books. Matthews’ descriptions built a good sense of rhythm too, allowing the pace to slow down a little and take stock with more vivid descriptions. Meanwhile, the action scenes and tension heavy dialogues were focused on the characters and their emotions. While Matthew’s prose is his greatest strength, it also shows some weaknesses. Especially when it comes to the emotional range of the characters, they often felt like anime characters, where the most extreme forms of emotion were always on display. It wasn’t bad – especially since he uses a large vocabulary – but once I noticed it, I could not unsee it.

The characters, in general, were enjoyable.. Samuel as the ever-curious and ever-surprising construct was delightful. He has a childlike curiosity that was heightened, not hampered, by the danger he felt. However, this felt like one of the only aspects of his personality and he rarely ever made any character-defining decisions for himself. There often was a lot of telling about how he was different from “other” constructs, without too many comparisons showing how others operate. It became stale fairly quickly as even Samuel began to finish other character’s sentences pointing it out. I do want to point out though that for a decent amount of the book, Samuel did feel out of place, in a good way. The beginning of the book highlighted this the most with his interior narration being distanced even from himself, as he tried to work out who or what he was. It was an excellent beginning to his character that really showed off Matthews’ style.

A lot of the intrigue was dictated by a fairly solid supporting cast. The people Samuel meets along the way, felt like they had their own little lives that were interrupted by his presence. Conversations between Samuel and others were more often revealing of the supporting cast, highlighting their motivations and concerns. They never felt insightful of Samuel himself however, beyond the aforementioned curiosity. There were a few unexplained moments where characters seemed overly reactive to others’ choices, but I think some of that is supposed to be left for another book. The villains felt pretty typical– overly caricatured as headhunters who really loved to headhunt. I enjoyed the dynamic between the villainous duo, their banter being something I looked forward to, but it didn’t really give me too much insight into who they were. Since they are about thirty percent of the book’s point of view, it felt like more could have been made of them.

As far as the plot goes, while it didn’t reinvent the genre it was also clean and direct. In particular, Matthews excelled in his pacing. The book moves fast, but gives some time for the plot and characters to breathe. There wasn’t a single moment that felt wasted, and it felt pretty good to read a plot-heavy book that did not dilly dally. Each stop along Samuel’s path gave him something to consider, and his presence altered characters he encountered in some fashion. The constant feeling of the chase saturated every page once the reader and Samuel were made aware of it. There were a few contrived moments, especially when there were some out of left field point of view switches, but overall I enjoyed the story. It was a fairly typical story of lost memory but executed well in an entertaining way.

Overall, I enjoyed my time with Construct. It is not a heavy read, and it’s fun despite some of its issues. The world is intriguing though I feel like it has not been fully revealed. The characters went through a lot and not everyone comes out okay in the end. Matthews clearly left room for more to be told as there is a lot of character tension left unresolved. I want to thank the author for both the opportunity and the free copy of his book in exchange for an honest review. And In the spirit of that, I can honestly say I’m looking forward to more of Matthews’ work.

Rating: Construct – 7.0/10
Alex

Kings of Paradise – An Epic Beach Read

51pj3ezfyylSelf-published books are a huge mixed bag of quality, but occasionally you can strike gold. Kings of Paradise, by Richard Nell, is one of those books. An epic fantasy novel about a tropical empire, this book has the makings of a modern classic. If you are involved in the self-published fantasy scene, you have probably already heard of this book. It has been gathering its own fan club for a little over a year now and I have been getting more and more recommendations from other reviewers I know. I may be a little late to the party, but let me be the next in what is sure to be a long chain of people to lend my voice to the fact that this book is worth your time. Kings of Paradise has some issues to be sure, but they do little to dampen the great time I had with this book.

Kings of Paradise has a number of POVs, but is focused primarily on the stories of two boys/men: Ruka and Kale. These two are both extremely interesting protagonists, though I favor Kale massively because I find Ruka to be a bit unsavory to read about. Ruka is born malformed and ugly into the southern snow-covered wasteland of the Ascom, where he grows up with only his mother for company. When the strange politics and machinations of the land strip him of his mother, Ruka is consumed with hate for those who’ve wronged him and sets out on a quest for vengeance. Although Ruka was born ugly, he quickly grows into a behemoth of a human with a keen mind. Across a vast sea to the north is the white-sand island paradise of Sri Kon, where Kale is the youngest son of the Sorcerer King. Kale is seen to a degree as the family disappointment and is forced into a series of magical schools to learn discipline. To avoid spoilers I will not reveal what the second two schools are, but Kale starts in the navy and goes to two very different institutions following his naval training.

Our story follows the progression of these two characters, Ruka on his quest for vengeance and Kale on his quest to make something of himself. I found Kale immensely easier to relate to, as Ruka is somewhere between an anti-hero or an antagonist. Although Ruka’s motivations feel relatable, his methods and actions can be brutal to the point of revulsion. A number of the additional POVs in the story are from the perspectives of individuals whose lives Ruka shatters in his quest. However, Ascom and Sri Kon are interesting foils of one another in the story. One is a land of brutal survivalism and the other opulence and wealth as far as the eye can see. The comparisons do a great job of humanizing Ruka and enhancing Kale’s sense of immaturity in the grander scheme of things. You will have scenes where Kale is whining about his crush while Ruka is trying his best not to starve to death as he hides in the woods because he is being hunted for his appearance.

The worldbuilding in the story is fascinating, but I found it a little uneven. Sri Kon is a fascinating land with a number of cool customs and a culture I wanted to immerse myself in. Ascom is a hellish wasteland that I thought had a few interesting ideas but failed to capture my interest or imagination in the same way as Sri Lon. There are only so many dimensions to “survival is king,” and I have seen a number of them in other books before. The magic systems were also a great time, with both Ruka and Kale discovering different talents. However, I do think that magic did not get enough exploration.

My major complaint against Kings of Paradise is that the pacing of the book felt a bit tumultuous. The start of the book, in particular when Ruka is a child, can feel slower than paint drying. You get entire chapters devoted to shattering the naivete of children and I felt the same themes could have been achieved in shorter pages in a punchier manner. On the other hand, the end of the book moves insanely fast. The last 50 pages see a ton of huge climactic events happening in mere paragraphs when I would have liked to see them strung out across entire chapters. The book also ends with a huge shift in tone as well, which leads me to worry that I will like book two less, but I won’t be able to tell until I actually read it. However, I am definitely going to read book two, Kings of Ash, as soon as my schedule frees up.

Kings of Paradise is an impressive debut with a ton of potential. The two protagonists and their mirrored stories add a ton of depth to an already engrossing story that I couldn’t put down. With an interesting setting and memorable cast, this was one of my top books I read this summer. If you are looking for a new epic fantasy, a new beach read, or an epic fantasy about beaches – this is the book for you. We wholeheartedly recommend Kings of Paradise by Richard Nell.

Rating: Kings of Paradise – 8.5/10
-Andrew