January 2020: “The Engineer: A Chronicles of Actaeon Story” by Darran M Handshaw

Summary (Caution – Mild Spoilers Balanced with Extreme Vagueness):
Actaeon of Shore comes to the Pyramid in search of his future. He hopes to establish his profession as one of importance to his people because he sees its value. But others don’t – that’s the first hurdle. What is a capital “E” Engineer? Actaeon must prove what that is to the aristocracy to earn his place. And thus, our hero begins this life journey. The reader tags along as he defeats various threats to the great capitol city, houses refugees, prevents invasions, and discovers the potential good and evil technology brings to the world of Redemption.

During these many adventures Actaeon grows from a young man without ties to the owner of his own workshop. He takes on apprentices and employees, extending the benefit of his knowledge. He forges alliances of diplomatic importance by association with his homeland as a consequence of his own good humor and drive for success rather than political gain.

More importantly, Actaeon grows from a young man into a mature adult that is in love with strong values that were not shaped, nor present at the beginning of the book. He falls in love and finds that his entire life shifts as he has to rebalance his own priorities on multiple occasions to better suit these new circumstances. One this is certain: every action is not without consequence.

Overall Response:
First off, I need to address 2 pachyderms currently hanging out with me while I write this review: LitRPG and pacing. Let’s hand pacing the first peanut. This is a long, slow paced book. The language and pacing is similar to that of the Charles Dickens serial story telling style. This is not for everyone. It may frustrate some readers, though I think it works well for a book that needs slow, deliberate pacing and language that detaches a reader from the present day. That said, readers should go into the book knowing it is a slow paced 600 pages broken up into short segments filled with every aspect of life.

Next peanut – the book is LitRPG. As far as I’m aware, this is the first LitRPG book I’ve read. I had to read up on the genre, and previously I boycotted reading Ready Player One because the concept annoyed me. I read more and as it turns out, I definitely did this with NeverWinter Nights as a preteen. If I had skipped the forward, I would have never thought of the book as a “video game” and instead thought of it as fantasy. The details and mechanics of Redemption are built upon in such a way that I would never have known or had to have looked for more information.

The pacing works because this is a modern bildungsroman for a mature audience. The entire overarching story is Actaeon’s life and character growth as he develops his profession and falls in love – then learns what both of those things mean. Life changes and character growth don’t happen overnight, so the speed is realistic. I found myself having epiphanies with the Engineer as he watched his inventions be used for good and evil. There are moments where the most painful tragedy in a scene is the loss of innocence a young adult must face as a result of their own naivety. Who can’t relate to that?

Handshaw approaches serious topics including neurodiversity, politics, religion, love and death with a sense of humor and the friendly detachment of a fictional setting. ‘The Engineer’ is a deep and thought provoking read.

On a separate note, I found myself in awe when I realized that this book truly is a love letter. I admit it’s really romantic.

Grammar:
While at times confusing or frustratingly passive, the pace is purposeful. The book meets or exceeds the <1 error/10,000 word industry standard.

LGBTQA+:
There were no major characters that overtly fell into this category. That said, there is distinct discussion of “otherness” and being separated and outcasted. Additionally, there is a touching coming out scene for a character experiencing otherness and revealing this to someone they love and trust. Based on the presence of a coming out scene, otherness, and constant challenging of what gender means, I think this book lands potential inclusion. I would love to hear what others think.

Twilight Zone Moment:
Every book has at least one. There are a couple strange religious groups that show up in the background and some loose ends from super minor characters that disappear. These aren’t necessarily Twilight Zone Moments as much odd details that melt into the background without knowing more about the game the book is based on.

Want to know more about the author?
To read more by Darran M Handshaw’s author page on Amazon or buy the book here. You can follow his new writing and wit on Twitter as well. A man dedicated to his engineering and family he did share with me that his wife, Stefanie Handshaw, has a book of poetry and photography recently released called “My Ephemeral Light” also available here.

January 2020: “MORNNOVIN: The Way Of The Falling Star Book 1” by Alyssa Marie Bethancourt

Summary (Warning: Mild Spoilers):

Elves living in hiding. Humans oblivious to their continued existence. What could go wrong? The humans of Asrellion live under the false belief that they eliminated all elves in a genocidal war centuries ago until a prince encounters one in the forest and she saves his life. From that moment their lives are intertwined, even as she disappears and the human nations go to war. At least he is comforted by the dreams they share together in each other’s absence.

Seven years into the raging war between human nations, the prince becomes suspicious and discovers that humans are being manipulated – pitted against one another by a mysterious force. The elf princess too must face this same mysterious enemy. When reunited by a common threat, there is no time to dwell on the realization that they know each other’s worlds or that their dreams were shared.

But the world is so much more complicated when hidden siblings with language barriers emerge and necrophiliacs are watching.

Amidst the lore of this book and the implications of the mythical bond, lies a story of love and self discovery twisted by outside forces. As we follow our adventurers around the amazing world of Asrellion the reader witnesses a race war unfold.

Overall Reaction:

Holy Crap. I mentioned that I had previously met the author, but I had never before read anything she has written. I love this book and the world of Asrellion. Where’s Sir Peter Jackson?

Think: The Princess Bride meets The Lord Of The Rings (and The Hobbit) with more genocide balanced with artfully crafted dialogue for each individual character’s voice and way fewer song breaks.

The world of Asrellion has an attribute I will from here on out refer to in reviews as “other laws of physics.” Magic and other mythic properties are consistent and comfortable and don’t take on illogical cause and effect relationships. A reader can wander around and learn Asrellion in their own head as they choose and based on the MORNNOVIN fanfiction, I am glad to say it appears many are!

I love that all of the characters are deeply flawed in complex ways. Characters are irrational, emotional, arrogant, petty, in denial, self-serving, and some are extremely out of touch with the reality other characters around them are seeing. There’s also character growth. These flaws are chipped away at, little by little, so they morph and change, but never fully go away.

In regards to character presentation and point of view: I don’t call it head hopping and based on everything I’ve read, this doesn’t actually fall into the definition. One perspective per scene (from third person) is used to reveal limited information to the reader, even with an omniscient narrator and the perspective is always logical and clearly presented. This tool is used to follow intense emotions (example: we follow a character that leaves the room instead of staying to hear what another character says that’s painful for them to hear). I haven’t encountered this before and it made it possible to focus on emotional aspects of the story without having to use words to talk about the emotions.

Each kingdom of elves or humans has unique cultural practices that play out through dialogue, dress, and mind games between characters. Culture clashes and language barriers are constantly explored through observations and reactions unique to each character’s personality making each reaction feel genuine to a reader without ever feeling heavy handed.

Overall, I loved the story of war strategy, fighting an enemy, and how the author allowed adversity to exist beyond the main plot in numerous ways I can’t get into here without spoiling the book. If you love fantasy books about elves, humans, culture clashes and genocide this is probably the book for you.

LGBTQA?

Major characters are represented as having diverse relationship types. Absolutely belongs on any LGBTQA Fantasy Book list.

Grammar+

The few items I found were not noticeable enough to interrupt the flow of reading and are within the 1 error/10,000 word standard.

Twilight Zone Moment

Every book has one. Without going into detail or spoiling anything, there is a scene where a character shows up beaten to a pulp to execute a secret plan to take down an enemy, but I was very confused as to how the character got beat up.

Learn More About The Author

To learn more about Alyssa Marie Bethancourt check out her interview as part of the 2020 Author Interview Series. To keep up with future projects, you can visit her website and follow her on Twitter here. You can buy the book direct from the publisher here or on Amazon here. There is a Kickstarter for the second book, Trajelon: The Way Of The Falling Star Book 2.

Author Interview Series 2020: Alyssa Marie Bethancourt

I first met Alyssa in 2011 while living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the time I could not fathom the fantasy world living within her brain that I would read from the pages of MORNNOVIN 9 years later and it was not a primary topic of our conversation. Over first first few of those 9 years Alyssa’s life turned upside-down and inside-out as I watched an acquaintance go through what must have been one of the most difficult periods of her life. Like a phoenix, Alyssa rose up. In my opinion, she is living proof that the dream of publishing a book can come true even in the most difficult of circumstances with the support of a community and, most of all, if you believe in yourself.

You can visit Alyssa Bethancourt’s website here to keep up to date on her current projects and you can purchase your copy of MORNNOVIN here.

  1. What are a few of your favorite things? How did these influence your book?

“Elves, swords, trees, dogs, music, wordplay, water, and the freedom to be odd. I feel like, for the most part, my interest in these things is almost immediately evident to anyone who reads my writing. MORNNOVIN doesn’t have as many dogs in it as I would like, though. I could also say that indirectly, through the writing process, the book was shaped on a molecular level by my exposure (or lack of) to these things as the work progressed. And many scenes only came together because of the music I was listening to as I brought them to life.”

  1. Do you have any inside jokes with friends and/or family members that you like to sneak into your content?

“Eh, not really? There is exactly one inside joke in MORNNOVIN, but the only person who understood it has since made a dramatically terrible exit from my life. Perhaps a sign that I’d better write to please myself alone from now on. At the risk of sounding maudlin, writing is a solitary endeavor and I’ve always done it in spite of the people around me, (especially family,) not with or for them. I do have some support now in the form of a writing critique group and a wonderful spouse who is my biggest fan, but that’s a very recent development.” 

  1. What do you find is the hardest part of the writing process?

“To quote writer Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing. I love having written.” 

This probably sounds boring, but the hardest part of the writing process is literally just figuring out and writing down what happens. I mean, broad strokes are fine, but then you have to sit in front of the blank page and answer the question of how to show that taking place, scene after scene, for an entire novel. Elf princess saves the world from certain doom, but like, how? Where? What does she do? What are the scenes you have to write? She has to get from here to there, but how much of that do you talk about? Do you talk about the actual steps? (No, obviously not.) How much do you describe? How much do you cut away from because it’s unnecessary? Just thinking about this is giving me Book Three stress. lol”

  1. How long did it take you to write this book from the first idea to publication date?

“There are two answers to this question.

The short answer is that I scribbled down the first exploratory scenes sometime mid-2008, and I wrote the very last scene of the final chapter on December 16th, 2014. So 6-and-a half-ish years to write, then I took some time off before editing, edited for a year, queried for a while, and finally published last year in 2019. Eleven years. Damn.

The longer answer is that I started writing the very first stories about Loríen when I was ten years old, back in 1989. It didn’t take long for those stories to become a novel; I think I finished the very first version of proto-MORNNOVIN (it had a different name back then, but the broad strokes were the same) within a year or so. It was awful, naturally. On top of that, I lost my only copy. I’d rewritten it completely by the time I was sixteen. That version, too, was embarrassing, but by that point I was deeply committed to these characters and their struggles. I rewrote it again in my early twenties. That draft sat in a chest in my house for more than a decade until I gave it one final chance to be the sweeping epic I knew it could be, when I started working on the now-published rewrite in 2008. So… from first inception in 1989 to publication in 2019? That’s thirty years. I don’t know if that’s a wow or a yikes.”

  1. What advice do you have to other new authors?

“Oh, I think other people have already said just about everything that’s worth listening to on the subject of writing. I doubt I have anything to add other than listen to those guys, then do your own thing. But above all, you can’t be a writer if you don’t write, so write. On the subject of publishing? Like, being an author? Shit, I still don’t know anything there. The only advice I can really offer is to find your own path and try not to let the fear paralyze you.”

  1. Who do you think the biggest unexpected allies in writing a book are?

“All of the authors of all of the stories you’ve ever read in your life – and I include fanfiction authors in this. You can attend all the creative writing courses in the world, but until you’ve really absorbed a broad spectrum of what other storytellers have tried out in the wild, you can’t internalize the reality of what works and what doesn’t. And you should always be reading more, always trying to learn something new either about writing, or about people and the world, or about who you are as a writer/reader. Authors who say they never read are not to be trusted and certainly not to be taken seriously. There’s no reason to pretend you’re inventing the craft when every storyteller from the beginning of time is out there ready to be your guide through the darkness.”

  1. Who do you think the biggest unexpected enemies in writing a book are?

“That’s easy: 1. yourself, and 2. everyone else.”

  1. What was your biggest inspiration?

“Without question, J.R.R. Tolkien. I wanted to write my own fantasy stories from the very first time my mom read THE HOBBIT aloud to me, when I was a toddler.”

  1. If you could send a letter back in time to yourself when you were first starting to write this book, what would it say?

“Hm. I may be a fantasy author, but I’m also a sci-fi reader. I know better than to try to affect the timeline. The most I could safely say to Past Me would be something generic like, “Believe in your words and don’t give up,” because it’s been a hell of a rocky road getting here.”

  1. Why do you write? (Optional)

“Because I have to. Sharks have to keep swimming, and writers have to keep writing. 

Honestly? I just can’t imagine not writing. There have been several points in my life where I’ve melodramatically declared that I’m never writing again, and it never sticks. I could just as easily declare that I’m not going to eat anymore, or breathe, or have red blood cells. I don’t get to decide any of that. I’m a writer, and that’s just how it is. I write because I need to.”

January 2020: “Emma’s Fury: The Last Winter” By Linda Rainier

Summary (Warning: Mild Spoilers):

In a modern world under the rule of Greek Gods, the Fury are the judges, jury, and executioners of justice for supernatural crimes in order to bring balance to the earth. The Fury, protected by their Gyges, follow orders passed down from the Mothers. Except, the Fury are dwindling – as their numbers decrease questions begin to arise, especially when one of those murdered is a Mother.

Emma and her Gyges, David, become caught up in a bizarre and terrifying mystery involving vampires, werewolves, fae, secret identities, Titan cults, and a plan that could end the world. In order to save each other and the power structures preventing the collapse of the unseen modern world, they must face their trauma, their emotions, and worst of all, the truth.

When every character has something to hide, come along on a dark supernatural adventure as we hope Emma and David can find a way to save the world.

Overall Response:

“Emma’s Fury: The Last Winter” is one of those books that captivated me from the first chapter. The descriptions engulf the reader in the scene, and the hand to hand combat scenes are some of the best I have ever read. If I was a better artist these fight scenes could so easily translate to a comic book format in the best possible way. For those that enjoy fiery scenes between villains that are the most extreme form of frenemy with benefits with each other with the added tension of knowing how wrong everything happening is – this is definitely the book for you.

Rainier succeeded in doing two things that made the book so much fun to read. First, She succeeded in keeping the reader a step ahead of the characters as they tried to solve a mystery while still providing plenty of twists and turns that took a reader off guard. Second, her characters have moods that change in very human-like ways corresponding to exhaustion levels and internal states. Moods are often missed by authors for the sake of consistency, and I do understand that it is difficult to balance a character’s voice with dynamic moods, but these characters have unique voices. Well developed characters are essential and I love it.

I often find myself identifying with Emma on a very personal level throughout the book and this is unusual for me as a reader, particularly with such an emotional character. I find myself wanting to do psychological analysis on many of the characters in similar ways that I have seen readers attempt to diagnose characters with a variety of disorders as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition. In order for the characters to be at the level a reader could do that an author has taken the time to truly develop each individual personality. I am not an expert on this and hope that someone who is will read this book because this is brilliant.

For those that enjoy what I will call, with the utmost love and respect intended, “Greek Mythology Lite” with a variety of supernatural lore thrown in this is a fantastic read. There were times I couldn’t put it down and in the end I was so excited that this is book one of a series because it means the story isn’t over. I cannot wait to dive back into Emma’s adventures and see where the aftermath of this book takes these characters as we continue to explore the modern underworld.

LGBTQA?

There are some hints and references to a variety of types of relationships that are inclusive, though as part of the story romance is very specifically excluded. This does not impact my recommendation that anyone interested in modern dark fantasy should read this book.

Grammar

There were a few minimal concerns that I brought up directly in an email to the author. These did not interrupt the reading experience.

Twilight Zone

Every book has at least one. In this case, I think it may have been me – “Emma pauses briefly as she becomes keenly aware of a distant yet familiar presence. It is akin to a fragrance that is unrecognizable as it dances along her skin.” This sentence really confused me, but at the same time I imagined a cartoon cat going into an extremely alarmed posture with electricity. I’m not sure how to interpret it and maybe it’s too trippy of a synesthetic experience for me to fully grasp.

Want to learn more about the Author?

You can buy the book here. I had the pleasure of interviewing Linda Rainier as the first installment of my 2020 Author Interview series. Please take a moment to read her responses to my questions on her writing process. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.