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The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

The Emperor's BladesPremise: The kingdom of Annur is thrown into chaos when emperor Sanlitun is murdered, but his children will soon discover that it is a much deeper conspiracy than the normal power struggle. Sanlitun’s sons Kaden and Valyn have both been gone for eight years while the princess Adare has been with her father up until the day he is killed.

Valyn has been training with the elite fighting force known as the Kettral, training to fly one of their namesake giant birds to protect the kingdom from the worst of enemies. As several attempts are made on his life during the training, Valyn begins to suspect there is more danger around him than the normal training everyone else is experiencing. Valyn learns of his father’s death and is determined to reach his brother to warn him before it’s too late. Adare has been raised to Minister of Finance by her father’s decree, but with the kingdom in turmoil she is battling a religious sect who might be the ones responsible for Salitun’s death. And Kaden, the heir to the throne, has been secluded with monks dedicated to the Blank God. It is there that Kaden must learn the vaniate, an ancient ritual used to protect the kingdom from ancient enemies.

With the kingdom at stake and the Malkeenian line threatened, Adare, Valyn, and Kaden must uncover the conspiracy against their lives to protect Annur from foes from every side. There could even be a bigger threat thought long extinct that could have greater consequences than just their lives, but also the lives of everyone in Annur and beyond.

Themes: Family and legacy are at stake as Sanlitun is murdered and the lives of his children are threatened. With his children gone, there would be no heir to the throne of Annur and the kingdom could fall into chaos with no apparent leader to take control.

With many gods and religions in this world, there are many angles taken at religions in The Emperor’s Blades. Faith and devotion are seen at different levels between different religions and even between followers of the same religion.

The Emperor’s Blades also manages to examine what it means to inherit wealth and power compared to those who are born outside of it. It shares a glimpse of what it means to hold power responsibly and of those who would be less responsible with it. It also shows the machinations behind the scenes of people in power and others who would attempt to overthrow them.

Pros: The Emperor’s Blades has some incredible characters. When you don’t care about the characters and one of them dies, you won’t care about them dying. But when you care about all the characters, you want the protagonists to win and it is gut-wrenching when they lose. And those terrible characters become that much more insidious when they do those terrible things to the people you care about. All of this is to say: The Emperor’s Blades has great characters. At first I thought the magic system was too slowly revealed, until I realized I hadn’t even begun to learn what magic there really was in this story.

Cons: Because there are some mean people in The Emperor’s Blades, there is some intense stuff in it. There are some scenes that were hard to handle, containing gore and torture that caused me to put the book down a couple times. It has some sexual talk and innuendo you might find in war stories. And The Emperor’s Blades is full of profanity, although much of it is fantastical swearing using made up words or phrases to the gods in this world, such as “‘Kent-kissing” and “‘Shael take it.”

Recommendations: The Emperor’s Blades felt like it started slow, but as it picked up steam and never let up all the way through the end I realized just how big of a story was being told. In fact, I never wanted it to end, and as soon as it did I was ready for the next book to begin. With action, adventure, politics, religion, assassins, and fantasy elements that felt like they could even exist in this world, Brian Staveley is a name to watch in fantasy. With The Emperor’s Blades, he knows just what buttons to push with his characters and when to push them, but he’ll leave you wanting more. If you like fantasy, The Emperor’s Blades is not one to miss.

Brian Staveley’s website
The Emperor’s Blades on Goodreads
Buy The Emperor’s Blades on Amazon
Download The Emperor’s Blades for your Kindle
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

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Posted by on January 19, 2014 in Fantasy

 

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Heartwood by Freya Robertson

Heartwood (Elemental Wars, #1)Premise: As the people of Anguis celebrate the Veriditas, the ceremonies involved around the holy Arbor proceed even though it seems to be withering more than ever. During the Congressus, there is a surprise attack on the city of Heartwood by mysterious water warriors who lay waste to the city and many of Heartwood’s holy knights. They are repelled, but paid with many losses.

After all of this happens, a cache of lost documents reveals more about the religion and about the Arbor than the people have ever known, and it may change everything they believe. With this new information, the knights form groups to search for and activate the nodes of energy scattered throughout the land, while one group must follow the water warriors to retrieve the stolen Pectoris, the heart of the Arbor.

As the leaves begin falling from the damaged holy tree, the very life of the land is tied to the success or failure of these quests. And there are those besides the water warriors who would see their parties fail, including perhaps one of their own.

Themes: Faith is one of the main themes in Heartwood, as people have worshiped the holy Arbor for centuries, until the time when ancient documents are uncovered that negate everything the people of Anguis have believed. These documents put life as they know it into a new frame of reference, including their origins and the origins of the water people. The Arbor is still tied to what they know, just not in the way they have believed.

Unity between people of different backgrounds and geographical origins, but also between the people and the environment, are given a new perspective as they are united on a single quest to save the land. Generalizations about people from certain places are also questioned when members of these parties don’t conform to the stereotypes of their people.

Family loyalty and friendship are put to the test as character origins are uncovered, new abilities are learned, and romances begin. Dolosus learns who his real father is, but how will it effect his loyalties to everything he has known?

Pros: A few of the characters were interesting and conflicted enough to keep me engaged and there was enough stuff going on that I wanted to see how everything wrapped up (if at all). The story begins as a typical epic fantasy and dives right into the quests for the different parties. There is a lot to chew on to keep readers engaged. At least one of the main character deaths felt noble and not pointless, even if it basically adds a deus ex machina element to the story.

Cons: Heartwood has too many characters and I kept losing track of who is who and what they were doing. Because there are so many characters, some of them lack personality and I found myself not caring if some of them succeeded anyway. There were so many story arcs that I had a hard time telling who was supposed to be the real main protagonist until the very end. There was way too much telling instead of showing in Heartwood, with the omniscient narrator telling us what characters think instead of having them act accordingly. On top of everything, I could’ve done without the raping and torture scenes. The idea that questioning faith isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but to label those who hold to their faith unswervingly as out of touch or outright ignorant is in itself dismissing faith as an ideal. The entire premise of the book is based on this idea that faith can be trumped by random ancient documents that just happen to appear out of nowhere at the most opportune of times explaining exactly how to save the world.

Recommendations: Too much telling instead of showing for too many characters on too many quests made Heartwood hard to follow, hard to swallow, and lacking in the kind of depth that makes good epic fantasy excellent. Characters are everything and Heartwood relied too much upon archetypes to make me care about these characters. The idea is good and with some major changes this had the potential to be much better. There were also too many instances where things occur that just happen to advance the story in favor of the “good guys”. For a first epic fantasy it is a nice ambitious effort that falls a bit flat, especially to dedicate 566 pages of your life to. And there is nothing wrong with believing in something with only faith as your guide.

Freya Robertson’s website
Heartwood on Goodreads
Buy Heartwood on Amazon
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2013 in Fantasy

 

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A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition by Charles M. Schulz

A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a TraditionPremise: A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition is a biographical tribute to the animated television classic. With stories about how the Christmas special came together, readers will learn about producer Lee Mendelson, animator Bill Melendez, musician Vince Guaraldi, and creator Charles Schulz.

The book includes the script of A Charlie Brown Christmas, Guaraldi’s original score and publication notes for songs “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Linus and Lucy,” and original animation art from the special. Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez give their perspective of their relationships with each of the contributors and with the Peanuts characters, along with how the special came to fruition.

Themes: Charles Schultz’s comics tell grown-up problems from the perspective of children. With deep theological and cultural insight, the Peanuts kids share wisdom about life through the simplicity of their story.

A Charlie Brown Christmas shares the true meaning of the holiday in a very literal sense. In sharing in the nostalgia of this Christmas classic, the topics of life, faith, friendship, and love are brought forth through the classic Peanuts comics.

Pros: A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition told me so much about the people behind the cartoons that I didn’t know, but it also revealed to me more about the Peanuts creator. I like how they share how the cartoon eventually came to be, seemingly slapped together and lacking in content, but beloved to this day for its simplicity. I love that the book includes the full script and the original score of “Christmas Time is Here” and “Linus and Lucy.” The way the book is put together, sharing the different perspectives of the cartoon’s creators along with the artwork makes the book more than a keepsake. It really does feel more like a biography.

Cons: Knowing this was only about the Christmas special, I would have liked a more in depth look into Charles Schulz’s beliefs. I think it would have added to the meaning Schulz wanted to create through his work. And though there is a lot of original art, I would also have liked the A Charlie Brown Christmas to include more animation cells and storyboard sketches.

Recommendations: If you’re looking for biography and nostalgia, A Charlie Brown Christmas has plenty of both. I learned things not only about the Christmas special but about the people behind creating it. With a realistic view of how television shows are (or at least used to be) made, this book romanticizes how things came together to develop this classic cartoon loved by many. Great to pick up in bites or to read all the way through, lovers of the Peanuts gang and of the Charlie Brown Christmas special would do themselves well to pick up a copy of A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition to understand how it all came together.

Charles M. Schulz museum
A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition on Goodreads
Buy A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition on Amazon
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2013 in Nonfiction

 

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Manifesto: UF, edited by Tim Marquitz & Tyson Mauermann

Manifesto UFPremise: Strange creatures lurk in the shadows in shady back alleys and street corners, waiting to ensnare and devour unsuspecting victims. Battles between good and evil are being fought by angels and demons out of sight of humans. What we see every day is far from what is actually happening in this world and beyond.

The dangerous and illicit activities of inhuman things are ripe for these fantastical stories. With vampires, were-creatures, ghosts, angels, demons, dragons, wizards, trolls, goblins, and more, the imagination is free to run wild. These are the things that make up the tales told in Manifesto: UF.

Themes: Redemption plays a huge role in this anthology, since many of the main characters have fallen from grace or are making up for shortcomings from times past. In order to regain balance of power or to redeem their previous mistakes, it means helping others who cannot help themselves.

Many characters are also seeking justice for themselves or for the innocent. With enduring conflicts and forsaken people, making up for this becomes possible by conquering the evil at the root of the turmoil. Even if it means sacrificing a piece of themselves, the tradeoff for is sometimes worth the price.

Pros: Strangely, I felt pretty strongly about most of the stories in this collection on both sides of the spectrum of liking and not liking them. There were a few that make me want to go find more from the author, such as RL Treadway’s “That Old Tree” that gives personality into a tree long past its reasonable age, intertwined with the lives of those around it in order to give it an ultimate purpose. I loved the emotion of “Green Grow the Rashes” by William Meikle brought out by a haunting song and the discovery of the joys of existence. Teresa Frohock manages to impart soul into song through a frantic search for a lost thread from the tapestry of Armageddon. There is something in here for most readers, at least if you are willing to winnow through the broad variety of styles and subjects.

Cons: With a few exceptions, most of the stories contain profanity, gory violence, drug use, or explicit sex, with at least one containing all of the above. A few of the stories have an anti-religion slant that is not just indifference toward religions, but intentionally and relentlessly inflammatory that highlights this view in a way is unnecessary, especially since in at least one case I think it actually takes away from the story itself. There were a couple of stories that also felt incomplete, leaving me questioning what was supposed to happen next.

Recommendations: With so many urban fantasy books being written for a younger audience, this set of short stories especially targets adult readers. Manifesto: UF is not for the faint of heart or the thin-skinned. There are several gems in here, such as Teresa Frohock’s enchanting “Naked the Night Sings” and Nikolas Sharps’ humorous “Toejam and Shrapnel” that help to redefine the sub-genre as more than just young adult. While not as seamlessly compiled and unified in voice as Marquitz’s previous Fading Light anthology, Manifesto UF does a better job than most anthologies in showcasing each author’s writing style and will more likely leave you with the knowledge of whether you will love or hate an author’s work. Rest assured this collection contains work from some talented writers. You’ll just have to read through it to find the ones you like.

Tim Marquitz’s website
Manifesto UF on Goodreads
Buy Manifesto: UF on Amazon
Download Manifesto UF for your Kindle
I received a copy from one of the authors to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2013 in Fantasy, Short Story

 

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Boxers/Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Boxers (Boxers & Saints)Saints (Boxers & Saints)Premise: Little Bao is a Chinese peasant tired of the Western missionaries that are infiltrating their country and corrupting it with their religion and ideals. The Westerners are also converting some of the Chinese people to their religion and gaining protection from the Chinese government. Bao creates a rebellion, energized through the visions of Chinese gods, that turns out to be incredibly successful, storming through the countryside and gaining strength as they fight for Chinese values.

At the same time, a young Chinese girl is taken in by some of the missionaries in a search for identity and acceptance. She is the fourth girl of the family but the only one to live, so instead of giving her a real name, her family names her Four-Girl, four being a Chinese homonym for death. It is with the missionaries that she finds love and a forgiveness she dreams for, including a new life with a real name: Vibiana. She faces the Chinese rebellion with an unexpected decision of faith, one inspired by a great Christian follower from the past.

In this two volume series, we see that there are multiple sides to every conflict. When stories intersect, the greatest of decisions are made, and the smallest influence can make all the difference in the world.

Themes: Religion is all over both Boxers and Saints, especially in the way each perspective comes across to the other. Bao sees the Christian missionaries and the Chinese who convert as devils by their corruption and abuse of villagers, while Vibiana converts to become a “devil”, finding the forgiveness and acceptance she was actually seeking all along. When given both perspectives, we can see that it is the individuals who are corrupt or good, not necessarily the religion itself.

With each protagonist being the hero of their own story, perspective becomes key as both Bao and Vibiana experience the conflict with their own histories. How they see people is colored by their past, and when those beliefs are really challenged they learn what true strength, bravery, and compassion are really about.

Pros: Visually, these two books are stunning, with drab browns and grays highlighting the contrasting stunning colors of the Chinese rebels in Boxers and the illuminated gold of the ghosts in Saints. These stories give some perspective on opposing viewpoints that can cause the reader to consider how they judge others. It also emphasizes the damage of war on a country and the terrible things that can be justified on any side of conflict. I liked the way the character stories intersect and come full circle as you read both books, especially mirroring each other in juxtaposition for mercy and compassion for others in the end.

Cons: Compared to Boxers, Saints is a little short. The missionaries come off as unlikeable and evil, even in their own book. The protagonist in Saints has motives that seem genuinely naive for her interest in the Christian faith, though it is hard to believe the missionaries wouldn’t have made it clearer the truths of their religion earlier on in their studies. The connection between Bao and Vibiana seemed a little too open-ended at the end of Boxers, making up for it a little by the decisions they both make in Saints. Most importantly, it’s hard to imagine reading one of these without the other. I’m not sure why these are even offered for purchase separately.

Recommendations: The Boxers & Saints duology infuses an air of fantasy into an historical account of the Boxer Rebellion as we get both perspectives of the rebels in Boxers and the Chinese Christians in Saints. While both of these volumes are interesting on their own, the most impact is made when they are put together as contrasting stories, giving the reader more to consider about worldview and religious beliefs, especially in the context of war. Boxers and Saints are insightful stories that can expand how we perceive the beliefs of others, including for someone with a strong grounding in their own beliefs. If you are going to consider a purchase, make sure you get both books, perhaps in the boxed set.

Gene Luen Yang’s website
Boxers & Saints Boxed Set on Goodreads
Buy the Boxers & Saints Boxed Set on Amazon
Download Boxers & Saints for your Kindle
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2013 in Graphic Novel, Historical Fiction

 

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What God Hath Joined by Mike Lewis

Premise: The zombie apocalypse has hit, but Mike and his wife Samantha are prepared. They have fortified their home, stockpiled resources, and are well-armed against both threats of humans and undead. They are faring better than most.

When strangers are being chased by hungry zombies, Mike’s only option is to let them into his secure world. When he introduces these new people to his wife, their colliding worlds end in simultaneous hope and tragedy, depending on whose perspective you take. It is in Mike’s nature to help those in need, but his faith in God and his vows to his wife are of utmost importance to him, promises that he takes seriously.

Themes: Mike’s marriage to his wife takes on the key theme in What God Hath Joined, especially how he cares for Samantha through the horrible circumstances they are under and the things he must do for her.

This is also a story about faith in God and how that colors how you live your life, helping others and fulfilling promises. The problem is such beliefs are challenged when one conflicts with the other.

Pros: The ending is a bit of a surprise, though the protagonist’s motives make it more believable. The setting is laid out well in such a brief story. All the characters felt like they were behaving realistically in a zombie apocalypse setting, with panic and wariness of strangers, but also with a bit of thankfulness for the human interaction. There is a big challenge to the reader to examine your own beliefs and consider how you might act under the circumstances. The Christian beliefs of the protagonist come across as genuine.

Cons: The dialogue felt stilted, especially as Mike verbalizes his motives. Though it is a short story, cutting out some of the infodumping dialogue of the protagonist and changing it to internal monologue or more natural conversation would probably have helped shape the character personalities and made the whole thing flow a little better. The ending is good, if not abrupt, and apparently there is electricity to watch movies and for an automatic garage door.

Recommendations: A Christian audience might overlook a story like this because of its content, but with it Mike may have single-handedly created a new sub-genre: Christian zombie fiction. But it isn’t overly preachy. What God Hath Joined is a surprisingly fun zombie short story with serious implications for faithfulness to religious beliefs and marital promises. Give it a shot with an open mind about your own beliefs, but you might end up liking it just because it’s a good story.

Download What God Hath Joined for your Kindle
I received a copy from the author to write this honest review. He’s also my brother.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2013 in Horror, Short Story, Theology

 

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Quotes Every Man Should Know by Nick Mamatas (editor)

Quotes Every Man Should KnowPremise: Have you ever been at a party with nothing to add to the conversation? Or perhaps you have been engaged in debate and at a loss for a witty retort. Quotes Every Man Should Know is a collection of quotes that allows you to insert a bit of wisdom or humor into just about any setting. Just don’t be that guy who obviously memorized a book of quotes to randomly throw them into every conversation to make himself appear smarter than he actually is.

Themes: Quotes Every Man Should Know covers topics ranging from politics, religion, philosophy, humor, and even quotes about quotes. With the intent to provide quips for an array of situations, the content can be geared for many occasions.

Pros: There is certainly a good assortment of quotes in this collection. The topics are separated out into chapters and delineated clearly into these groups for easy access. Nick Mamatas even takes the time to point out quotes inaccurately attributed to people on the internet and clarify their true or probable origins. The dueling quotes at the end show us that wisdom can seemingly be found to support any argument, especially on controversial topics. Mamatas does a good job summarizing and providing some commentary in each section.

Cons: Quotes Every Man Should know is in no way a comprehensive selection of quotes, nor is every quote in the book necessarily useful. I point specifically the somewhat sparse and random selection of quotes from the Bible picked from Proverbs, but also include the useless quotes from people such as U.S. presidential candidate Vermin Supreme and comedian Sarah Silverman. There were some places where I felt Mamatas’ commentary was unnecessary, or in the case of some of the competing quotes added his personal bias toward one of the two.

Recommendations: As a gift for a birthday, bar mitzvah, or recent graduation, Quotes Every Man Should know is a fun way to encourage a boy growing into a man to seek wisdom by providing tidbits from others to guide him. Don’t attempt to use it to find wisdom for every situation, but merely as a way in add spice into conversations. As Mamatas points out, the internet is a source of endless inaccurately attributed quotations, so make sure your sources are correct when doing so to avoid putting words into Abraham Lincoln’s mouth.

Nick Mamatas’ LiveJournal
Quotes Every Man Should Know on Goodreads
Buy Quotes Every Man Should Know on Amazon
Download Quotes Every Man Should Know for your Kindle
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2013 in Nonfiction, Philosophy

 

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