Book Review – R.A. McCandless’s Company Of The Damned

Back in 2014 the first of RobRoy McCandless’s angelpunk stories dropped and changed the world’s view of angels. That book was Tears of Heaven (check out my review here). In case you’re wondering, every time I use Tears of Heaven as a drink in one of my books, that’s what I’m referring to. Tears of Heaven kicked off the Flames of Perdition series about the Nephilim Del and her ongoing task to rid the world of rogue demons escaped from Hell and tearing up the world.

Since then, two more books in the series have dropped and this time Del the rogue-demon slayer has come a long way from the absinthe-swilling anti-heroine we saw in the first book. She’s been beaten down, seen friends killed, and found herself in a shaky alliance with a hidden group of elves. Hell Becomes Her set up the longer-running story line and Company Of The Damned knocks it out of the park.

This is McCandless at his finest, digging into the action and bringing the character’s to life on the page. Like all good writing, it started with “what if?” question. In this case, what if some of the Biblical elements were right? Maybe not all of them, and Del is certainly not given to quoting Bible verse. But what if demons were a real and constant threat? What if angels were the nigh-undefeatable soldiers of the Throne? What if, stuck in the middle of that, were the Nephilim, struggling to find a safe way for themselves in a world that would be perfectly content to see them dead?

That’s the world McCandless built in the first two books. In Company of the Damned, he takes full advantage of that world and doesn’t hesitate to tear the hell out of it. This is like reading a Hollywood blockbuster – it has battles, and magic, and Norse goddesses, and golems, and even Lucifer himself. With all that, it would seem like a complicated mess of a story. And perhaps it would be in the hands of a less story-teller, but McCandless weaves this stunning menagerie with a deft hand and gives us a rare gem in the world: A Hollywood blockbuster that has a heart. It’s not all style and no substance.

If you like your characters tough, your dialogue sharp as a tack, and your action scenes plotted out as well as any John Woo movie, this is a good series to get into. With a bit of luck, we’ll see Del on the silver screen someday.

Del’s life was supposed to be easier. She had safety, support, and a small army of immortals to help her banish rogue demons. She should have known better. When the Archangel Michael himself orders her to account for her actions and face judgement, Del finds herself at a crossroads. Trapped on an island in the Mediterranean, Del is outgunned, outnumbered, and outmaneuvered. While her shaky alliances are falling apart, old enemies and new traitors appear around every corner. It may take everything Del has to save all she’s worked for—including her own life. \

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Book Review – Warriors of Understone by B.K. Bass

Medieval fantasy was never really my bag. I’ve only read a few books set in the classical fantasy world that caught my attention and those have been few and far between. Terry Brooks’s Shannara series, Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern series (although that almost tips into sci-fi. At the very least, it’s debatable), maybe handful of others. This isn’t necessarily a flaw in the genre itself, it’s just harder for me to wrap my imagination around swords and sorcery than it is to wrap it around some epic battle between giant bugs and dudes in power armor. Even though, when you get right down to it, the differences are mostly cosmetic.

Anyway, I haven’t read much fantasy lately, which is really a pity. Maybe my tastes are changing and I hadn’t realized it, but I really enjoyed Warriors of Understone. Not necessarily because it’s fantasy, but because the genre becomes just the setting instead of becoming a character unto itself. Sure, there are elements of world building – you have to have those when you’re dealing with dwarves – but the world fades nicely into the background and allows you all the free time you need to focus on the characters and the action of the story. That, in my mind, is a hallmark of a great writer. It’s all too easy to spend page after page detailing the intricacies of a fictional world but, let’s face it, that can get tedious after a while.

What B.K. Bass gives us in Warriors of Understone is character-driven fiction that uses the fictional world and all its nuances as a jumping-off point for the actual meat of the story. And the story, for all its fantastical elements, is a very human story about very human things. That’s what makes it special and, arguably, what makes any fantasy story magical: Less time spent describing a feast from a thousand years ago and more time focusing on motivation.

Even if fantasy isn’t your bag, give Warriors of Understone a read. It’s a novella, so it’s not like you’ll have to dedicate the next several years of your life to one story like some other authors I could mention *cough Tolkien cough*, but it’s still a very filling story. You’ve got action, adventure, intrigue, and folk getting swatted in the face with battle axes. Plus, hey, it’s got dwarfs as the main characters and those folk are pretty damned cool.

Durgan must struggle to overcome not only his common birth, but also the prejudices of a stagnant and isolated society to become one of the warriors of Understone. The sprawling dwarven city lies deep beneath the mountains, at the heart of a kingdom that has not changed its ways in centuries. Plagued by threats both within and without, life is a constant struggle to survive and furious battle is around every corner. Durgan may overcome opponents with axe and shield, but can he change the very values of his society with the same tools?

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Book Review – The Magician’s Sin by Alexander Thomas

The strange and wonderful world of superheroes and villains has always been a fertile field for new ideas to take root. From the original mortals that stood up to the gods to the Shadows and Doc Savages to modern mega-blockbusters, the idea of better than regular people fighting evil has been around since we first said, “Man, those gods are jerks. I’d love to kick that Apollo guy right in the balls.” Through those superheroes and villains, though they be better, stronger, smarter, more powerful than us, we get the chance to explore our own humanity.

The idea of flawed heroes is nothing entirely new, though modern mainstream movies are only just beginning to explore it. The Shadow was hardly a nice guy. Doc Savage may not have killed anyone outright, but he had no qualms about letting a temple fall on a bad guy.

It is kind of wonderful to see someone take a powerful character and expose their weaknesses. Not necessarily kryptonite, but those little things inside their heads that slowly break them down. The failures they can’t quite get over, no matter how much they drink.

They say the Golden Age of Superheroes was the 1930s. This was the era that brought us Superman and Batman, albeit slightly different than their current incarnations. This was also the stomping ground of The Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Phantom. It was a vibrant time and the panoply of colorful characters represented that time. But once you strip away the veneer, the world was a mess.

It’s into that world that Alexander Thomas drops us. Organized crime, honest cops, random violence, and very real magic. Our guide is Anson Walker, a stage magician with actual magical powers who got dragged into the role of a hero and found more than he bargained for.

Part superhero story, part love story, part mystery, The Magician’s Sin is a caterwauling romp through the weird and wonderful world of the Golden Age of Superheroes. A time when the ethics of one hero are being supplanted by the twisted ethics of another and right around the corner a magical anomaly is waiting.

This is a well-crafted story that deserves attention. It may be easy to throw a bunch of genres at a book and see what resonates, but it takes a gifted master to weave elements of heroism, failure, magic, detective noir, and romance into a single, cohesive story. And that’s what Alexander Thomas has given us in The Magician’s Sin.

Simply brilliant. Go buy a copy. Now.

Titan City: 1933

Anson Walker is a retired wizard who has spent the last two decades trying to put his past to rest. His cynical retirement is thrown into chaos when the daughter of his ex-wife hires him to rescue her mother from the dark forces who’ve taken her. The kidnapping is only days before the Aberration, a time every century when the rules of magic don’t apply. Anson’s investigation reveals an ancient conspiracy, the return of a decades-old nemesis, and feelings he thought long gone.

Will he rescue his old flame, or succumb to the forces against him?

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Book Review – Copper Pennies by Carrie D. Miller

There used to be a theory that a story should take place over fairly short amount of time – weeks, days if possible. I think most people gave it lip service and went on to do whatever they felt like doing anyway. Besides, there are some stories, especially those that don’t feature Bernie, that can be told over the space of a weekend. Some stories span generations and to condense that into a weekend of action and massive amounts of exposition is to take a dump all over the story. And no one like dump-covered stories.

So, enter Carrie Miller’s Copper Pennies, a story that takes place over around a hundred years, a few generations, and at least a couple of planes of existence. The amazing thing about it is even though it sounds mind-bendingly complicated, Miller does a fantastic job of keeping things simple and concise, so the reader doesn’t have to keep a notebook full of names and what they did so when they pop up a few decades later no one has to flip back through the book.

And, frankly, what a story. It’s easy to whip up a tale of black magick and betrayal; it’s much more difficult to add layered depth, interesting characters, and enough history to make it come to life. Copper Pennies breathes. Its breath isn’t always pleasant, but no good story comes to life when it’s been drenched in mouthwash.

So, if you want something gritty, a story that doesn’t hold back or paint its characters as perfect, try Copper Pennies. It’s one of those books that feels so real the characters and places stick with you after you put it down.

Magda stands in the moonlit cemetery waiting for the spell to work, for her lover to return. But what’s done can’t be undone, and Magda will learn she should have left him in the ground. 

When twins Avery and Chloe Parsons receive a cryptic letter and a sinister-looking book filled with illegible scrawls from their grandmother, the sisters set out for Prague to check on her. 

Drawn to a cracked crystal ball in a curiosity shop, Chloe discovers it harbors the spirit of their grandmother, who tells them a horrific tale of lust, naïveté, betrayal, and… demons.

Armed with a book of dark magick they can’t read and a cracked crystal ball, the twins must stop Magda’s resurrected lover before he releases an unstoppable force that will consume the human world.

Across continents and nearly a century, follow the adventures of three strong-willed women: one seduced by evil, one struggling to withstand the lure of power, and one trying to save her family—and the world.

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Book Review – River by Ryen Lesli

A few fun facts about Ryen Lesli

  • She haunts Twitter as “The Witch”
  • She has epic fingernails
  • She likes the word “Fuck”

All of these are good things in my book. Any witches down with dropping F-bombs are worth looking into.

That said, Ryen recently released her first book, a dark fantasy romance about a young woman who finds herself plucked from the world she thought was home and dropped into a magical new world where things are, shall we say, different. Normally, I’d look at a plot like that and yawn, but Ryen handles it beautifully and introduces her own twists to the genre. It’s true, there really isn’t anything new under the sun, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a story and make it amazing with some sleight of hand and a little supernatural chicanery.

Which is exactly what one should expect from someone who calls herself “The Witch”. So, take that sentence about yawning and toss it away; that was me not paying full attention to the writer telling the tale. There’s new life in this story and a protagonist that isn’t going to headline a Disney princess story anytime soon.

And I think that’s what made it most interesting. I’ll be honest, fantasy and romance aren’t really my genres, but as the saying goes, a setting is just a setting. It’s the story that matters. Take “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus” and set them in video arcades or space stations and you won’t necessarily have arcade-punk and sci-fi, you’ll still have cracking good stories that just happen to have settings in space or 80s arcades.

By the way, arcade-punk is mine. Stay away from it.

And that’s how I started to view River. Rather than being just Fantasy Romance, it’s a good story that happens to be told in a Fantasy Romance setting. If you’re looking for a romantic triangle or a protagonist that doesn’t bend herself to immediately fit into her new surroundings or even a little magic, River is a good (and fun) book to look into. Even if you’re not necessarily into the genre. Perhaps the best part is, we’ve got more of River and her coterie coming down the pipe.

Does she have a secret life? One even she doesn’t know about?

Ever since seventeen-year-old River can remember, she’s always had the sense that she is in the wrong place—that SHE is wrong. Because of this, she battles a constant restlessness that consumes her. Running is the only thing that helps. Another reason she knows she’s wrong? She can see the light around a person. Everyone gives off energy and somehow River can see a bit of it. She instantly knows when someone’s good or bad. She just doesn’t know what a blurry light means, like the light around the scary new kid.

Upon seeing him, something inside her breaks open; a crack along some forgotten wall that frees a painful wave of raw emotion, faint visions, and an emerald-eyed boy that River doesn’t remember, but knows she should. After the new kid reveals his violent, supernatural side, River’s world explodes and everything she thought was real, fades away. Taken from her life in Georgia, River is forced into the dangerous, beautiful, self-sustaining, power-filled, live-in-the-trees-like-Robin-Hood Fair world that has been impatiently awaiting her return.

river-ryen-leslie.jpg

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Book Review – What They Deserve by Sam Hendricks

There’s this running meme that’s been popping up lately about talking on phone in the 50s and being concerned that the line was tapped. Flash forward to 2019 and you’ve got a woman asking Alexa, “Hey, wiretap, what’s a good recipe for pancakes?”

It’s possible to debate the ins and outs of tech like Alexa, Siri, whatever Google’s calling their robo-assistant lately, but it’s not possible to debate the unintended side-effects of having a box sitting in your living room that’s listening to everything you say. Nor is it wise to debate the fact that you just paid good money to give every advertiser on the planet direct access to your house.

Now, I honestly don’t believe big tech has any nefarious plans for Alexa beyond finding new and exiciting ways to sell you shoes and non-stick pans, but what if that weren’t the case?

Sam Hendricks took that scenario, shook it up a little,  and added a hefty dose of mystery and crafted something uniquely terrifying not because of monsters or the existential threat of nuclear annihilation, but because of the extremely close proximity to our own world. A world where tech can provide a sense of security, much like a wall that keeps the bad guys out and controls the sanctity of the Reformed United States.

It’s control that’s the key to the story. Walls can be climbed or flown over or even tunneled under, but a good piece of tech can be even better at keeping people under control. And it’s into that world that Hendricks drops us with a smile and a wave.

What They Deserve is relatively short story, along the lines of a novella, but Hendricks packs it full of information. In the tradition of good writers, she doles out bits of data a byte at a time rather than giving us a full tedious, historical dump. Aside from being a nervous-making tale of technological and tyrannical woe, it’s a fun story that might leave you wondering about the technology we use every day and how it could impact our lives. I’m sure Alexa will have more information about that, though.

Highly entertaining, well-paced, and fun. This could be the start of a great series, if Sam was so inclined to write it.

SEATTLE, WA: 2053.

Summer Wilkins, the official spokesperson for the Reformed United States, is still grieving the loss of her son when a shocking murder rocks the city. After her husband is implicated, she’s drawn into a rebellion that’s ready to do anything to find out the truth behind the new “Inevix patches” being distributed to the public. Murder, mystery, and politics abound as Summer finds out that the biggest secrets are being hidden in her own family.

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Book Review – The Clockwork Detective by R.A. McCandless

Steampunk was never really my bag. It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of detailed explanations of how clockwork and steam power and mold the world. At some point in some Steampunk stories, the tech gets advanced enough that you find yourself reading about how tiny switches bring intelligence to artificial creations. When that happens, I often wonder why the hell the author didn’t just write a cyberpunk story and call it good. Maybe it’s the lusty allure of pocketwatches and good old-fashioned steam-powered cars. You know, all the stuff we see every day, only run by analog water vapor.

Those are the stories where it’s obvious the author was just trying to cash in on the steampunk genre rather than adding something unique to it.

I’m pleased to say The Clockwork Detective doesn’t fall into that trap. There are a few descriptions of a steam-powered world – Aubrey’s leg, the dirgibles that plow the skies like iron ships across an ocean of air – but mostly R.A. McCandless just lets the story be the story. As a result, it’s not the tedious read that some Steampunk falls into.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not knocking the entire genre. There are some great stories out there that use the Steampunk world as a character unto itself, but there are others that just shove a story into that world and describe every gear and steampipe mercilessly while leaving the reader wondering why it was so important that the antagonist drove a clockwork El Camino.

R.A. takes the genre in a different direction. Some stuff clicks and clacks, but mostly the story is about the story. He’s also done something I hadn’t seen before in a steampunk novel.

Urban fantasy, as a genre, tends to blend the mundane world of right now with the magical world you only find when you’re tripping balls behind a 7-11. There are normal El Caminos, there are 7-11s, but there are also magical things like ghosts, devils, and all manner of bugaboos either lurking in the shadows or running hot dog carts on Central Ave down by the university. Again, getting stuck in the details in urban fantasy is easy trap to fall into and the best at the genre manage to make it work.

What R.A. has pulled off with The Clockwork Detective is an effective blend of Steampunk and Urban Fantasy. I’d say Steamfantasypunk, but that’s a mouthful and no one would ever think it’s cool enough to become a thing, so let’s just say it’s a new direction in Steampunk and call it good.

And that’s exactly what this book is: It’s a great fusion of two disparate genres handled with the deft touch of a master who really believes in what he’s doing. That belief shines through in a text that draws you in and keeps you in its world even after you close the book. Well-written, engaging, and flat-out fun to read. This is a perfect summer book that doesn’t shirk its responsibility of taking the reader to new places and letting them wander around in a fleshed out world.

It’s like tripping balls behind the 7-11 without the fear of the dreaded brown acid.

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Aubrey Hartmann left the Imperial battlefields with a pocketful of medals, a fearsome reputation, and a clockwork leg. 

The Imperium diverts her trip home to investigate the murder of a young druwyd in a strange town. She is ordered to not only find the killer but prevent a full-scale war with the dreaded Fae. 

Meanwhile, the arrival of a sinister secret policeman threatens to dig up Aubrey’s own secrets – ones that could ruin her career. 

It soon becomes clear that Aubrey has powerful enemies with plans to stop her before she gets started. Determined to solve the mystery, Aubrey must survive centaurs, thugs and a monster of pure destruction.

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