Monthly Archives: March 2015

False Covenant (Widdershins Adventure #2)

Title: False Covenant

Author: Ari Marmell

Six months have passed since Widdershins brought down a demon and lost two of the people closest to her. Six months since the archbishop’s death caused Davillon to go under sanctions imposed by the Church. Six months of a long, slow decline for just about everyone in the city, including Widdershins herself.

Then a supernatural evil starts stalking the streets, and once again Widdershins is in the center of everything, like it or not . . .

So many sequels flounder after an excellent beginning. This is not one of them. Widdershins is still dealing quite naturally with the outcomes from the first book: attempting to run a legitimate business with the tavern and grieving the loss of her friend Genevieve and father-figure Alexandre. The story here is more linear, but the diverse points of view among the wide cast of characters keeps the plot just as tense.

Widdershins is just as funny as before. Her habit of speaking before thinking causes more trouble than even her god Olgun can fix, and her relationship with him is as lively as ever. I loved the several scenes where she gets to show off the limits of the divine-human relationship they have going.

I also really liked how understated the romantic relationships are. Widdershins falls in love, and remains oblivious to the feelings of those who have loved her all along. The main focus remains on the action, the strain in various relationships, and the way Widdershins is trying to get enemies to become friendly enough to work together before all of them get eaten.

Overall this is still pushing the series in new directions while maintaining everything I loved about the first book. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Chosen Ones (The Aedyn Chronicles #1)

Title: Chosen Ones

Author: Alister McGrath

Peter and Julia have been sent to spend the holidays with their grandparents. But what should have been a boring trip changes utterly as they are swept into another world. Hailed as the Chosen Ones, they enter the kingdom of Aedyn and confront a destiny beyond what either of them would have imagined. Can two ordinary kids stand against the three immortal rulers: Wolf, Jackal, and Leopard?

I have to give this a lot of credit for being a faith-based fantasy adventure that is actually decently written (mostly). The Lord of Hosts is mentioned, but apart from a few probably-helped-by-something-spiritual moments Peter and Julia have to trust others and move ahead on their own. There is a pretty strong link between a few well-known Old Testament stories and the history of Aedyn (and its prophecies for the future) but in general it doesn’t get too much in the way, since it’s more about the past than the present.

And I absolutely love that the powers both kids were granted is basically a sonic boom attack.

On the not so great side, though, the story really has it out for Peter, especially at the beginning. His love of logic and reason is mocked where Julia’s blind faith is uplifted (to be fair, I don’t think her way is necessarily all that much better—she knows nothing about the Lord of Hosts that would incline her to trust him and her main motivation appears to be a more general goodwill towards fellow man than any real faith in God). I was hoping Peter’s initial failures through logic would be redeemed by having him use logic to help solve the problem he created, but he’s definitely second fiddle to Julia.

And some of the plot details are a bit sketchy. The only weapons on this island are the ones brought 500 years ago when everyone arrived. Nobody thought about throwing rocks? Nobody ever looked at the knives they use to chop vegetables and went, I could hurt someone with this (doubly odd because the guards have swords, which are basically big knives)? I also found it funny Peter had only to write down the recipe for gunpowder and it was manufactured that day. I am amused they had the saltpeter on hand, and that no reference was made to its source.

But, overall, this is definitely on the high end of faith-friendly fantasy. The story is simple enough that it would suit younger readers, but contains a fair amount of detail. I do have hopes the rest of the series delves more into the Lord of Hosts—and I rather suspect the Annointed One will show up before the end somewhere too. I rate this book Recommended.


Title: Woven

Author: Michael Jensen and David Powers King

Nels lives alone with his overprotective mother, and he generally follows her wishes—until the day he slips off to the Cobblestown festival and sets in motion a chain of events that ends with his death. Now little more than a ghost, he and the insufferable Princess Tyra strike out on a quest to restore him and perhaps save more than they know.

I knew this was going to be a romance from the jacket description, but picked it up anyway, hoping the fantasy aspects would be solid enough to form an actual story beyond “two people who don’t like each other initially fall in love.” And at that the book does pretty well. I felt that the romance and fantasy were balanced, and the fantasy, at least, captured my interest.

Nels is a bit too perfect (and it’s frankly creepy how his mom keeps referring to him as her “perfect son”), but once he dies everything changes. I adore the scenes where he’s haunting Tyra in her castle and making everyone think she’s insane. I think his character arc is a bit jerky. He’s noble and knightly when he’s nothing but a peasant, and then Tyra annoys him enough to act the way any reasonable person would act around her, and then after a certain conversation he determines to be impeccably noble towards her. I’m still honestly not sure why he liked her. She’s pretty and eventually unbends a bit, but the majority of the book takes place in a two week timeframe.

Going along with that, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Tyra would turn as supposedly decent as she became by the end. It seemed she’d been a brat for most of her life, and two weeks didn’t feel like long enough to change that much. I actually really hoped she’d end up with the arrogant jerk she’d set her heart on in the beginning, because the two would have been a perfect storm.

The romance also falls into the “destined to be together” trap. I did like how it wasn’t completely automatic, but I would have preferred if Tyra had conjurer powers or some other reason to explain why she was the only one who could see Nels.

The magic system was interesting, though. As the title implies, one major branch is called Fabrication, and deals with threads of power. I didn’t like how the various terms kept getting italicized, but it was nice how the story brings in things like slip stitches and seam rippers as actual magic. I was curious about the conjurers and diviners, but they feel more like placeholders for a future book.

Other worldbuilding was a bit vague. The kingdom of Avërand is described as prosperous, but ruled by a completely apathetic and useless king. Strangely, the neighboring kingdoms appear to be fine with just leaving them alone. Then there were other places, like Westmine, with interesting bits of history that would have been nice to see more fleshed out.

So I’m a little on the fence about how to rate this one. If the ghost story sounds appealing, and what I described about the romance doesn’t turn you off, then by all means read it. But if these are tropes that you’d rather never see again, then the rest of the story probably won’t be enough to cover that. I rate this book Recommended (with cautions).

Thief’s Covenant (Widdershins Adventure #1)

Title: Thief’s Covenant

Author: Ari Marmell

Adrienne Satti has had a life of losses and unexpected second chances. She was born into poverty, adopted into nobility, and somehow never far from the life of a thief. But something changed the night she escaped a massacre. Someone wants her dead. And it’s going to take all her wits—and the help of a resident god—to slip out of this one . . .

Fast-paced action, gripping scenes, and multiple layers of mystery start this book off strong. The wry descriptions fit right in with Adrienne’s  (aka Widdershins) personality and add to the humor in the dialogue. Mostly her lines. And her relationship with Olgun consistently cracks me up. He’s pretty involved in her life, for a god, but also has a rather lofty view of himself that Widdershins tends to insult knowingly or unknowingly much of the time. They have the kind of bickering friendship that invokes plenty of laughs.

I liked the way scenes kept jumping around to show different pieces of her life. (Tip: makes a lot more sense when you actually read the text on top of each chapter telling you what time period the following scene is taking place in.) It’s a good way of showing the important details without needing to fill in the more mundane “how we got from A to B” stuff.

I was also pleased with how the swearing delves more into innovative insults than traditional swear words. Again, funny book, which helps balance out some of the darker and more gruesome aspects of the plot.

Overall this is something that went on my to-buy list after reading, and is definitely one I would like to read again. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

The Cloud People

Title: The Cloud People

Author: Robert B. Kelly

I’m going to preface this with a disclaimer that I did not actually make it all the way through the book, but I got far enough that I wanted to jot down a few thoughts about why I couldn’t finish (because hey, I might find this book again later and forget why I never read it).

The book is based on an interesting premise: a floating landmass which acts more like an organism than a chunk of rock. The relationship between the various plants, gasses, and particles that cause the island not only to float but to compensate for things like shifting weight is an unusual dynamic that made a lot of sense.

But the rest of the worldbuilding starts breaking down.

First, a really petty annoyance: names. More specifically, why we have several people with typical Earth names like Paul and Jessie and then other people with names like Dimistre and Kalin, and this doesn’t appear to be different nationalities with different naming schemes.

Second, a point that comes up almost immediately is the lack of metal. On reflection, this makes perfect sense. The floating island is not a landmass lifted from the ground but an organic construct that is constantly rebuilding itself from floating particles. Thus there are no ores to mine, and no metal. But the book repeatedly violates this statement, particularly in the little details. Guards have swords. The way the arrowheads are treated implies they are metal. Syringes. In other words, a lot of things that in our world would use metal are mentioned without ever describing the presumed alternative since their world has no metal. And when various spacecraft are crashing onto this floating landmass, these metal spacecraft, everyone is more concerned that the pilot may be a prophesied messiah-character rather than frantically salvaging the scraps for both the tech and the metal. Especially the metal. That debris would represent a fortune once processed into items that ought to be rare, except nobody actually seems to care about the scrap. Even without knowing how to forge metals, surely they could figure out how to hammer it in shape, or at the least find sharp shards to use in weapons.

Third, the technology mix makes no sense. People live in castles, use swords and bows, and appear to have a roughly middle-ages lifestyle, but then they have a very good knowledge of pharmaceuticals, to the point where one character has a drug designed at the molecular level to induce a specific hallucination. So why are we using swords if biochemical warfare looks like a distinct possibility? And if they could develop that much in the realm of drugs, why hasn’t weaponry advanced? Even if there is some explanation later in the book for how this specific character is able to work around the technical limitations to modify drugs at the molecular level, other characters have access to enough knowledge and raw material to have, say, designed a gun or cannon based on the expanding-under-heat nature of the gas that allows their land to float. Or even a crossbow.

The rest of the plot wasn’t solid enough to pull me over the bumpy worldbuilding, so yes, I quit partway through. I rate this book Not Recommended.

Land Keep (Farworld #2)

Title: Land Keep

Author: J. Scott Savage

Marcus and Kyja have only a few hints from the water elementals about where to find the land elementals, but they’re too desperate to pass up any chance. Gathering the help of the four elementals—water, earth, air, and fire—is vital to opening a passageway between worlds, which would allow both Marcus and Kyja to go back to their world of origin with no ill effects. But this time around they’ve got to deal with the Keepers of the Balance, whose savage devotion to keeping the world in order rivals the Dark Circle’s madness . . .

This was not a bad book, but I struggled to stay interested enough to get through it. Marcus and Kyja are both crippled in their own way, both stuck in a world that doesn’t really suit them, both powerful in ways they don’t understand. They’ve reached that ugly stage of relationship which is mostly picking fights with each other, and the lack of an imminent external threat like the first book means they have the room to bicker nearly endlessly. That’s not the kind of tension I enjoy reading, so I got through the first half pretty slowly.

I did like the land elementals, both how they look and their obsession with knowledge. The cover art is gorgeous. And the threads of deeper mysteries are slowly surfacing, with perhaps the most interesting revelation poorly bombed at the end, where Marcus has no space to react to it (it is a nice hook for a future book, but it’s odd Marcus then has a rather long farewell scene in which no thought of this ever comes up). Oh, and Riph Raph continues to have some of the best lines in the book: “And don’t forget about me,” Riph Raph said. “I am flying death.”

If you liked the first book, this is a good follow up, although I found it slower going. Farworld offers some unique takes on typical fantasy tropes, unusual main characters, and a solid plot. I rate this book Recommended.

The Swiss Family Robinson

Title: The Swiss Family Robinson

Author: Johann David Wyss

After a violent storm wrecks their ship, the Robinson family is abandoned by the sailors to sink with the vessel. But their situation proves a blessing in disguise. The wreck is close enough to a deserted island that the family manages an escape, and from there the story chronicles how they carve out a new life in this wilderness.

I can’t remember how many times I’ve re-read this book. It’s been a staple since early childhood, and I was recently thinking about it, so I dug it out, curious to see how well it would hold up under a re-read this many years later.

This is, in short, the quintessential wilderness survival novel. With several homages to Robinson Crusoe, the narrator relates the saga of building shelter, obtaining food, taming animals, and crafting various implements. The story, in contrast to survival novels like My Side of the Mountain and Hatchet, presents the majority of the trials as a joyous adventure, and it’s the positive outlook that makes this so much more readable. In fact, towards the end when the novel begins to delve more into a variety of misfortunes, it loses some of that charm.

The level of diction is certainly higher than in a standard children’s novel these days, but that being said, I would still encourage kids to read it, as the book rarely bogs down. It’s also an amusing contrast to many of the overly-PC kids books I see these days, as this family is much more interested in shooting new animals for a bit of variety at the dinner table or cutting down trees to use in constructing a house than pushing some “we must preserve the environment at all costs” message (and to be fair, the narrator does mention at one point being reluctant to cut down certain trees for fear of spoiling the beauty of the area around his home; the book has some interesting thoughts about sustainability).

That said, the novel is not without its flaws. The island somewhat magically has all sorts of foreign plants and animals, including lions, tigers, and elephants, with a merry disregard for actual habitat. (Honestly, I was good until the elephants showed up…. that seemed a strange thing to not notice for several years of living on the island and suddenly find out near the end, as elephants are rather noisy as well as big.) I also feel like the end is haphazard. Suddenly the family finds another castaway, but they hardly have time to react to this when the ship they’ve been longing for finally arrives.

This novel, more than any other, influenced so many of my childhood imaginings. Being stranded in a deserted place not only looked possible, but fun. If you haven’t read it yet, and you have any taste at all for this kind of adventure fiction, you’re missing out. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Tales of Rebirth (PS2/PSP, Japanese exclusive)

Tales of Rebirth is one of the many Tales games still exclusive to Japan (sadly), but through the tremendous effort of certain fans, the story and game can still be enjoyed by English speakers. I went through a story walkthrough on Youtube here:

(If you follow the same walkthrough, part 39 shows up at the bottom of the list for some reason, so just scroll down once you get that far.)

Story: Tales of Rebirth follows the kingdom of Karegia, which contains the races of Humas (humans) and Gajumas (beast-people). At the beginning, Veigue is a young man living in the remote northern village of Sulz. He’s been blessed—or cursed—with the Force of Ice since the day the old king died, and because he can’t control it, he ends up freezing his friend Claire in a giant block of ice. But when outsiders show up in the village, his troubles are only beginning. Claire is freed only to be kidnapped, and Veigue vows to rescue her.

Despite obstinately being the main character, Veigue himself takes a long time to get an actual character arc. For the majority of the game, Eugene, the ex-commander who left the army to investigate the strange events surrounding the king’s death, is the driving force. Eugene’s age and experience help him guide the party through the increasingly complex situation unfolding.

So, characters. I loved nearly everyone in the party (except Annie…. she was hard to like even after she stopped embracing her grudge). Eugene is a strong, noble soldier unjustly accused but unwilling to reveal the truth that would clear his name (and he’s also a giant black panther Gajuma). Mao is the young boy with no memories that Eugene has been protecting and traveling with, and Mao is so incessantly cheerful it’s hard not to like being around him. Tytree, like Mao, is another up-beat personality, but his simple outlook and one-track-mind mean he’s generally the butt of everyone’s jokes.  Annie has some ties to Eugene which she resents, and the fact that Eugene is so understanding about the matter and so concerned for her welfare only irritates her more. Hilda initially joins to get revenge on some of the same people Veigue’s party is after, but eventually finds a far more personal journey.

The interactions between the cast are a lot of what make Tales games so strong, and this one is no exception. Whether it’s Mao making up random songs or everyone teasing Tytree about his obsession with his sister, the skits have plenty of humor. Mao and Tytree help balance out the sober Eugene and the downright moody Veigue. And Veigue’s obsession with rescuing Claire is certainly a huge focus for him, but I didn’t find it terribly off-putting (this gets especially fun near the end of the game where Shaorune’s questions start driving him insane).

I also find it amusing this game has the highest number of “beat up your own party members” fights I’ve seen yet. Only Mao doesn’t turn into a boss sooner or later (it wouldn’t suit him anyhow).

The thrust of the story deals with racism, as might be expected, but in a manner more even-handed than games like Tales of Symphonia. I appreciated how both Humas and Gajumas were participating in the problems—it wasn’t a matter of one side being right and the others being wrong, but more a question of how the actions of a few might shift the perceptions of the nation, whether in the direction of conflict or peace. The plot also keeps a pretty strong pace throughout. There were several points later on where Veigue is just not getting what is going on with Claire, but the eventual payoff led to more than I could have hoped for.

I don’t actually have the game, because of the language barrier, but now that I’ve been able to see a plot walkthrough it’s going on the wishlist, because it is an excellent story and I’d like to experience the gameplay as well. If I do get it, I will repost or update this review with the gameplay details. I rate this game Highly Recommended.