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.”

October 2019: “A Twist of Starlight” by Betty Valentine

Summary (Warning: mild spoilers):

A Twist of Starlight” begins with the tale of three children, the death of a mother, and the childhood of an evil half brother.

A couple hundred years later, we encounter a group of three men, seemingly disconnected from the previous chapters, capturing a scene.

From these flickers emerges a beautiful scene of a loving single father taking his baby boy for a hike up his favorite mountain, where they then take a rest together. Afterward, he picks up his son to find a half acorn clutched in his infant’s tiny hand.

Then we meet David, the infant that was once carried up the mountain. Now living in America, he is at a stagnant point in his life: dead-end relationship and stable but no longer fulfilling career as a doctor. He reminisces about his life, thinking of home with nostalgia and fondness. With these flashbacks, readers are given little hints at a time that link back to the previous vignettes. He receives the tragic news that two people he cares for deeply are suffering from health trouble: his Uncle Marc and Uncle Hugh. These are the men that helped raise him. As he travels back to Wales to surprise his family and give himself a fresh start, he continues to share memories. The wooden toys Marc carved for him as a child. The wooden crib. The lessons Hugh taught him in his garden and the children of another family friend, Bernie, that were his siblings of sorts.

He arrives home to find another family friend, Roy, at the house and that the group traveled up the mountain for the Midsummer celebration before his unannounced arrival. Onward David goes to track down these old men. When he arrives at camp, that’s when things start getting weird.

After the laughter, stories, and booze by the campfire, David’s father, Jon, murders someone on the jetty by the pond. David is taken aback, and the whirlwind truly begins. From here, David learns this his father, Marc, Bernie, and Hugh are more than the people he thought they were. And so is he!

A funeral, a celebration of life, and a battle against evil forces bent on their destruction leads to David’s father finding true love and the loss of more than one significant family member. As time passes, David discovers a sense of purpose in his new community. Most of all, he finds the happiness he never knew was possible.

My Overall Response:

I love the world Betty Valentine spun together in her first book. Fantasy is hard. I hold a lot of respect for authors that take the time to create an imaginary world with different rules, history, and mechanics than our own. At first, she brings readers into a world not unlike their own after first providing beautiful descriptions and submerging vignettes of seemingly disconnected stories. Don’t worry – they’re all connected, eventually. 

I love the story. I love the characters. I love the plot. I love the way the beginning has seemingly discontinuous snapshots of the passage of time that each build on the other. I love the honoring of Icelandic influence. I love that there’s more than one big reveal for the reader. 

The descriptions in the book are phenomenal, and I found myself wanting more. Valentine has a unique gift for combining modern vernacular with fantasy in a poetic fashion that significantly benefits the story. There were times it was impossible to read the book without having an accent envelope my mind as a reader.

My primary criticism is that I felt like the action in the book was way too dense, and I found myself wanting more from the death scenes of characters. I want to emphasize that this is my personal opinion and that Young Adult readers would benefit from the way these death scenes are written.

I want the universe Valentine created to expand, grow, and get published more. I want to have someone else I can play with in this universe because it’s fun, unique, and exceptional. I have often felt as though the LGBTQA audience does not have enough inclusive fantasy, and this book is an answer to that desire. I want people to be inspired to write their own fanfiction that takes place where the train line ends. 

I was excited to hear that Betty Valentine will soon be releasing her next book, Overture and Beginnings (release date November 30, 2019). Please keep writing – I love your voice and what you bring to fantasy literature.

LGBTQA Friendly?

Absolutely! One of the primary themes of the book is self-discovery and coming out. I would definitely recommend for a Young Adult LGBTQA reading list.

Grammar:

Not a criticism, but an explanation for a feature of the book’s composition that gave me some trouble: the soft full-stop. On occasion, a reader will notice that there are full-stops mid-sentence followed by a lower case word. This is to indicate a pause. I love these unique features in writing and am excited to have read a book featuring such a linguistic treasure!

At times I did find the book to take the conversational narrative to an extreme. Still, I do not believe that this would cause too much impedance in a reader’s ability to enjoy the book. I do think that the conversational narrative lends itself really well to Young Adult audiences (13+ for Adult Themes).

Twilight Zone Moment:

This is the first book I am not going to declare any Twilight Zone Moments for. Anything remotely close added to the mystery, fantasy, and intrigue.

Want to know more about the author?

To read more about Betty Valentine you can visit her on Twitter and you can buy the book here. You can also read her profile on her publisher’s website, Green Cat, here. She recommends this publisher for new and emerging authors and I greatly appreciate her sharing this resource with the writing community.

You can pre-order her upcoming book “Overture and Beginnings” (release date November 30, 2019) on Amazon.

October 2019: “Kingdom of the Northern Sun” by Clara Martin

Summary (Warning: mild spoilers):
In a setting parallel to our own, the United States contains independent kingdoms ruled by powerful fae families interspersed with states. A disabled veteran, named Eileen, seeks to find a way to have independence, use her skills, and manage her own disability. She also finds herself fighting for the freedom of human slaves in a time when powerful magic and political conflict are at the forefront of debates in Washington, DC.

In this first book of The Revolution Series, Eileen finds herself caught up in a collection of political plots. While one group seeks to unseat a royal family in a fae kingdom, she is recruited to assist in coordinated espionage to free enslaved humans from these same kingdoms. All the while, she is reminded that everyone has ulterior motives, including the voices in her own head.

My Overall Response:
Clara Martin approaches neurodiversity and mental illness through Eileen’s experience providing the reader with insight often missed but desperately needed. Martin shows the importance of self-care, structure, and examples of the constant micro-aggressions people that choose to be open about their situations face each day. One of the impressive parts of the book is how Martin uses this as a way to share some of her personal experiences with the daily battles she shares with Eileen. Her representation is consistent with other personal accounts of schizophrenia, such as those shared on the Out of My Mind podcast, and adds to an ever growing narrative that breaks down the stigma.

The story has twists, turns, and plenty of fun to keep the reader interested. From double agents to dishonest romantic interests, the characters reveal themselves as distrusting of even the best-intended information due to their own prejudices.

A special bonus for describing the setting in ways that show the author is writing what they know. I much appreciate it when I read about places I know in ways that capture intimate details, such as how difficult it is to park in Washington, DC.

Additionally, Eileen is a strong female character working to overcome her inability to use magic in a world where magic is continuously used. This parallel provides the reader with some insight into the compensation and constant struggle many veterans face after military service when they return home with new disabilities. Martin acknowledges that many wounds are from training exercises, accidents, assault, and other non-deployment related injuries – an often forgotten piece of the daily struggles for veterans. Female veterans tend to be underrepresented in fiction, but Martin succeeds in bringing this perspective to the table while addressing the issue of sexual assault.

LGBTQA Friendly?
This book features an adorable couple as well as other examples, inclusive representation of the LGBTQA community.

Grammar:
This book has an easy reading style with content that is appropriate for ages 12+, but is also very enjoyable by an adult reader.

Overall the few grammatical issues included a couple missing punctuation marks and some inconsistent verb tenses. The punctuation could easily be missed due to formatting and the verb tenses are not inappropriate given common use. These errors do not interrupt the reader’s experience and may not be noticed by most.

Twilight Zone Moment:
Every book has at least one. These are the moments that don’t quite add up and throw a reader rolling down into the uncanny valley for a moment in an otherwise brilliant scene.

  • Charles calls and shows up even though logically, they are much farther away. The main character, perhaps due to exhaustion, doesn’t notice the inconsistency until after the character arrives and turns out to be someone else.
  • Somehow missed by Anna, even though she was already informed, an accused double agent kills someone to prevent anyone from using them for information. This scene seems like it should have garnered more attention than it received.

I don’t use rating scales (for now). I recommend reading this book and look forward to reading the sequel, Kingdom of the Western Wind.

If you’re interested in more information on Clara Martin, please take a moment to check out her blog, Clara Martin’s World or her twitter @WritesClara