Indie Spotlight 2: SPFBO 2017

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Hello again. Another week, look at the competition. Er…I mean another batch of fantasy novels from the Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog-Off. A chance to take a peek at the wonderful, diverse world of Indie Publishing and Fantasy. This week: gods, thieves, superpowers, and haunted furniture…

Talent Storm Kindle Edition by Brian Terenna

 Hundreds of years after the Great World War, America is a distant memory. In the ashes, new civilizations have risen up from the Wilds. Locke’s Coalition and Liberty Kingdom, bitter enemies, have been at peace for seven years. War is never far from politicians’ minds, though, especially when one is the tyrant Archduke Goldwater. For all of human kinds’ positive traits, the character flaws of corruption, greed, anger, and revenge are etched into our DNA.
In the new world, little technology remains and advanced weapons are in short supply, but today’s soldiers fight with innate power. They fight with Talent… the psionic powers that develop in a random few.
A young Coalition citizen, Jaden Stone, dreams of graduating, having fun, and falling in love. As if his hard-nosed uncle, schoolyard bullies, and exams weren’t hard enough to handle, he discovers that he wields Talent. He’d now be forced to serve in the military, forced to train and fight, all for an organization that killed his parents.
Will Jaden work hard for his people or will his desire for leisure win over? He’s forced to decide when a tragedy shakes his core.

Joss the Seven (Guild of Sevens Book 1) J. Philip Horne

New powers. Big problems.

Joss Morgan loves joking around, but it’s no joke when he discovers he has superpowers. Those powers may get him killed. Heroes and villains want Joss to join them. Both will use him. Everyone has secrets. And his life isn’t the only one on the line. If Joss can’t figure out who to trust, his whole family could die.

Contemporary fantasy fans will love this action-packed adventure for all ages that get’s 4.8 stars on Amazon!

The Bed by Laura Perry

When she buys an antique bed, Liz gets more than she bargained for: not just the furniture but also the ghost of its former owner plus the nefarious beings who are out to get him, even in the afterlife. When those beings turn their gaze toward Liz, she has to rely on her own courage – plus the magical tools in an antique trunk – to dig her way out of trouble. Because she certainly can’t rely on her best friend, who thinks she’s going crazy, or her family, who all have problems of their own.

A God Among Thieves by Jackson Lear

For the first time in history, an empire of muskets and cannons is gaining ground in the war against living, breathing gods. Entire armies have been massacred in a conflict which, at times, seems to be absurdly worth it.

Thousands of miles away, the principality of Moqara lies on the verge of being crushed by every neighbor around them. At the center of the crisis are reports that the empire has set its sights on acquiring the oasis city at any cost, convinced that its trade lines may be the key to securing victory for the human race.

A former resident, Kes, stumbles through the Moqaran desert, barely alive, carrying a message no one wants to hear: one of the gods wants to defect to the human side. It is not known who the message is intended for, and the only person who can vouch for Kes, Lazden Dadario of the Prince’s Guard, doesn’t trust a word she says.

Red Season Rising by D.M. Murray

A feud between Gods.
A nation besieged by armies of man, and demon.
A man seeking redemption, and peace.

Kalfinar is a grieving addict. Once a decorated and respected soldier, he has been demoted and disgraced.
The relative peace of his half-life is shattered by the onset of chaos and war.
Tormented by visions, he is marked for possession, and hunted by demons.

Amidst the all-consuming ruin of a war between Gods, Kalfinar must lead the fight to defend a faith he has abandoned, and a nation that has disowned him.

Red Season Rising is the debut novel of D.M. Murray and marks the beginning of a new epic fantasy series.

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Book Review: The Postmortal by Drew Magary

Drew Magary’s The Postmortal is an intriguing pre-apocalyptic at a world where science has finally provided the ‘cure’ for old age and near immortality requires only a relatively inexpensive gene therapy. Diseases are still fatal. There are still accidents and murder, but eternal life is suddenly a very real possibility. The novel takes the form of blog posts and diaries written over the 60 years immediately following the discovery of the ‘cure.’

John Farrell is a lawyer with well-connected friends who manages to find a doctor willing to give him the cure while it is still illegal. He doesn’t think through the consequences. He just knows that he wants to live forever. Farrell chronicles the subsequent debate over legalization, the rise of religious cults both for and against, the political battles and the smaller cultural and personal shifts. As a lawyer in the post-cure world, Farrell finds himself dealing with a rise in lucrative divorce cases, as rich couples find that an eternity of marriage is far longer than they had bargained for. Farrell himself proves unable to commit to eternity resulting in a string of personal tragedies.

Magary constructs a compelling world out of these smaller personal consequences. Another character remarks to Farrell that eternal life, frozen at a young age forever, far from freedom may instead mean stasis, working forever with no retirement, nothing. As the novel progresses, the world tips closer and closer to dystopia and apocalypse and the consequences become increasingly dire: Farrell’s sister loses her marriage and his father, having taken the cure and been left in permanent old age, ultimately welcomes death with open arms.

The Postmortal is a dark satire that attempts to extrapolate a world without aging and the ultimately chaotic upheaval that would follow. As a picture of a slow motion apocalypse, the novel is well paced and thoughtful. It is strongest and most original in its smaller moments where this new world is painted in personal moments. John Farrell’s story eventually heads into more clichéd territory and the novel’s climax is more conventional and sudden than the slow build up that precedes it. The result is a thought-provoking novel filled with imagination and ideas that could have been more.

 


 

The Postmortal can be found here on Amazon.

Lincoln’s Bodyguard by T.J. Turner

T.J. Turner’s Lincoln’s Bodyguard is an alternate history adventure story set in an antebellum world where Lincoln survived John Wilkes Booth’s assassination attempt and has presided over a restive South engaging in guerrilla warfare. By an accident of scheduling, I find myself reading and reviewing two alternate history novels in a row. Turner is playing in one of the more common alternate history sandboxes—the US Civil War. It is a period of history that I have read about extensively, in many ways it is the period I know the best. Turner’s setting speculates and extrapolates what the Reconstruction South would have looked like if Lincoln had survived. It is a thought-provoking what-if, and it is one that I, myself, have had conversations about. This makes Lincoln’s Bodyguard a difficult novel for me to see straight.

On the one hand, my knowledge of the period, interest in the premise (and I’ll admit, the cover), made me very excited to read this novel. On the other hand, I have my own, often deeply entrenched, ideas of many of the historical figures that inhabit the novel, and my own vague sense of how I believe events would have gone and Turner’s interpretations and extrapolations occasionally run against mine in a direct and distracting way, usually with regards to small things. His occupied South in the midst of occupation and guerrilla warfare is well realized and feels real. Likewise, his North run by Gilded Age business interests is plausible. Neither tallies with my own ideas, but they are both perfectly reasonable with a firm basis both in history and in current events. Turner, however, is far kinder to Allan Pinkerton than I am. This feels like historical (or alternate historical) nitpicking, which I admit it is, but my more cynical view of Pinkerton ultimately has a larger effect than I initially expected.

The titular bodyguard, Joseph Foster, is half-white and half-Indian, and is Pinkerton’s man through and through. After saving Lincoln’s life, Foster becomes a target for Southern retribution and leaves Washington for many years before being recalled to perform a secret and delicate mission for Lincoln, a mission that could save the country or doom it and their families.

For all my historical nitpicks, Lincoln’s Bodyguard is a fast paced adventure story through a well-researched and grounded historical setting. Foster is an engaging character whose loyalty to Lincoln and to his own broken family makes for a suspenseful drama. Turner had a deft hand at action and deliberately raises the stakes and the tension throughout. There is also a delightful use of real history as a subtext for events—most clearly in the parallels between the climax and John Wilkes Booth’s escape and chase from Ford’s Theater.

There is a great deal to enjoy here for fans of alternate history. Turner has a good grasp of facts, of pacing, and of character. Lincoln’s Bodyguard is an impressive debut. However, I was never quite able to see through my own knowledge of the period, which colored my enjoyment.

 


Lincoln’s Bodyguard can be found here on Amazon

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review

Joe Steele by Harry Turtledove

Harry Turtledove’s Joe Steele is an alternate history of the United States stretching from the Great Depression to the 1950s in which a version of Stalin who had immigrated to the United States becomes President instead of FDR. Turtledove is the prolific master of alternate history having written over fifty novels in the genre in numerous series. I’ve only read a few myself, but Joe Steele is firmly within his established formula.

Turtledove maps actual history onto alternate events. Steele’s American Rise follows Stalin’s Soviet rise fairly closely. Familiar historical figures are placed in similar yet occasionally revealing situations. J. Edgar Hoover as Steele/Stalin’s strong-arm man is particularly compelling and damningly plausible. Unlike in his masterwork, however, where he extrapolated an entire altered 20th Century out of the South winning the US Civil War, Joe Steele remains unexpectedly close to real world events.

The specter of a United States run by a version of Stalin is an intriguing concept, and like many of Turtledove’s best works stems from a plausible change. Turtledove never quite made the most of his scenario, and as with many of his novels, the characters fell a little flat. Joe Steele, nevertheless, is a fast paced alternate history thriller filled with interesting ideas written by the master of the genre. Turtledove knows how to write these kinds of books and that familiarity and ease is both the novel’s great strength and it’s weakness.

 


Joe Steele can be found here on Amazon

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review

The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock’s The Whispering Swarm is part autobiography and part sprawling literary fantasy. Moorcock is a giant of the genre whose contributions stretch, like his fictional counter part, from the pulp science fiction of the 1950s to the New Wave and beyond. His concept of the Eternal Champion has inspired generations of imitators and his writing style has legions of ardent admirers. Despite being aware of him, and having a vague secondhand knowledge of his more famous works and concepts, I had never read any of his novels until now.

The Whispering Swarm with its part factual, part exaggerated, part fictional autobiographical plot line is, perhaps, not the most obvious entry point. However, even on that level I found it fascinating. Growing up in post-World War II London and working his way up through the science-fiction and fantasy publishing community, Moorcock looks back blurring the lines of fact and fiction to create an interesting look at a world, a time, a genre, and the development of a writer, which is exactly the sort of thing I enjoy. Obviously, however, this is not for everyone. There is dryness to these passages, that even Moorcock’s practiced prose cannot always overcome.

The narrative also has more overtly fantastical elements, namely the timeless realm of Alsacia—an alternate world of literary adventures and romance, where heroes and characters from all ages live together untouched by the constraints and concerns of the mundane world. The fictional Michael finds himself torn between the worlds, between a career and family on one hand, and adventures and fantasy on the other.

The Whispering Swarm is a superb technical achievement. Moorcock glides between different genres, and skillfully blends multiple layers of fantasy and reality with deceptive and enviable ease. There is not, however, a great deal of plot. The main character spends much of the novel meandering, and the autobiographical passages were occasionally overlong, even for me. Perhaps a committed fan might have gotten more out of it, or even seen connections with Moorcock’s earlier works. As it stands, I enjoyed the novel, but wanted more.

 


The Whispering Swarm can be found here on Amazon

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review

The Suicide Exhibition by Justin Richards

Justin Richards’s The Suicide Exhibition is the first novel in an alternate WWII, sci-fi romp. Richards is no stranger to science fiction, having edited the BBC Doctor Who line for many years and written a number of Doctor Who books as well, one of which involved aliens and the Third Reich. The Suicide Exhibition is, therefore, familiar and comfortable ground.

Hitler and Himmler’s obsession with the occult has fueled an entire subgenre, and Richards is well versed in the tropes and the history. The usual suspects are all present and he adds ingredients from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1871 novel The Coming Race, as well as British occult figures into the mix. The result is pulp fiction at its most confidently pulpy.

Major Guy Pentecross and pilot Sarah Diamond are lightly sketched, and essentially wander into the plot out of curiosity. British spy, Leo Davenport, and Miss Manners, a secretary with friends in dark places, are more interesting but secondary and the aliens themselves are suitably menacing.

The Suicide Exhibition is a fun and interesting combination of ideas and set pieces placed against a familiar WWII backdrop. The first in a series it is mostly concerned with setting up its characters and moving the pieces on the board. Justin Richards has a practiced hand and gets everyone into position, while telling a fast-paced adventure. Pure silly fun.


 

The Suicide Exhibition can be found here on Amazon

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review

Cannonbridge by Jonathan Barnes

Jonathan Barnes’ Cannonbridge promises to be a fantastical journey through an alternate 19th Century, where a Matthew Cannonbridge is the greatest English literary figure of the age. He’s been everywhere, written everything. He was there when Mary Shelley first dreamed of Frankenstein. He encouraged a young Charles Dickens, visited Oscar Wilde in prison, and went drinking with Edgar Allen Poe. His plays, novels, and poems are acknowledged as peerless even by those great men of letters. And he never seems to age.

The combination of fantasy and a whirlwind tour of 19th Century literature is nearly irresistible for me. This is my genre. This is my period. The notion of an academic desperately trying to unravel a literary, reality-bending conspiracy with a fake 19th Century author at its heart is, more or less, designed to appeal directly to the reader, writer, and 19th Centuryist in me. For me, at least, it conjured vague notions of a Borgean, perhaps even Kilgore Trout-esque, narrative filled with as many well-known and obscure 19th Century literary references as possible. This is not that book.

Barnes has written a fast-paced fantasy thriller that encompasses literature and capitalism. He is playing with fascinating ideas about transhumanism and Matthew Cannonbridge himself is an intriguing creation. Dr. Toby Judd’s efforts to pierce the illusion and expose the conspiracy of Cannonbridge are taunt and filled with compelling, if lightly drawn characters. The passages with Cannonbridge and any number of literary and historical figures are fun, especially as they start to turn towards horror and grotesque.

Cannonbridge is, in short, a fast-paced novel with intriguing ideas. The nature of Cannonbridge is an intriguing mystery with an unexpected resolution. It’s just not the book I, personally, hoped it was. It doesn’t quite come together at the end. I have put myself into this review a bit more than I usually do, partly because I’m experimenting with style, but mostly because this book was so nearly in my wheelhouse that I can’t quite separate myself from it. It’s difficult to be objective and take the book on its own terms, when I really want to read, or even write, the book it isn’t.

 


Cannonbridge can be found here on Amazon.

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review

Emissary by Chris Rogers

Chris Rogers’ Emissary is an odd hybrid of political thriller, murder mystery, and science fiction epic. There are a lot of moving parts with different characters and genres interacting and conflicting. Some elements will be more successful than others depending on the reader. Personally the science fiction concepts and the slow exploration and explanation of the alien Szhen culture was the most interesting and unique.

The titular emissary, Ruell, is from another planet. His people were forced to abandon their planet to escape a catastrophe. Surviving only as sparks of energy, Ruell and his people need living hosts to survive. This classic sci-fi horror trope is ameliorated by the fact that the Szhen are a peaceful people who have no desire to harm the humans. Ruell and his fellow emissaries have been sent out to multiple planets to find the species best suited and set up a mutually beneficial relationship. Unfortunately Ruell arrives during the middle of a crisis. The chosen host is Addison Hale, the first female President of the United States. She is in the middle or her reelection campaign when the Vice-President is taken hostage in Kuhndu, Africa.

Ruell tries to use the situation to demonstrate what the Szhen could offer, but utterly fails to understand human nature. Passing through a series of hosts until finally settling on Kirk Longshadow, a down-on-his-luck cop, Ruell tries to unravel the political conspiracy and possibly save his own people.

In Emissary, Rogers nearly manages the high wire act of seamlessly consolidating these various plots and genres. It is a long book that gives them all time to breath, and the fact that Rogers comes as close as she does is in itself an impressive feat. The presence of Ruell, essentially commenting on the other genres and trying to understand humanity is an excellent trope and helps tie the elements together and breath new life into a number of other plotlines. As a first contact story, it is meandering but promising and often insightful. As a political thriller, it is taunt but overlong. In fairness, that is not my genre of choice and the parts where I lost interest slightly may make the sci-fi elements more palatable for other readers. This is clearly a labor of love by an author who enjoys each of the genres equally. I enjoyed the novel, but parts of it more than others.


 

Emissary can be found here on Amazon.

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review

The Witch of Napoli by Michael Schmicker

Michael Schmicker’s The Witch of Napoli is an engrossing historical tale based in part on the life of Eusapia Palladino, a 19th century Italian Spiritualist and medium who toured Europe and was examined by numerous experts before being dismissed as a clever but fraudulent fake. Schmicker’s fictional creation, Alessandra Poverelli, is a Neapolitan peasant and medium who purports to be able to levitate tables, summon apparitions of the dead, and most chillingly of all, be possessed by the spirit of Savonarola.

When a young newspaper reporter, Tomaso Labella, photographs her levitating a table at one of her séances in Naples, the picture catapults her to local celebrity and accelerates Tomaso’s career. Tomaso’s boss, the editor of a local newspaper, plans to lure the noted psychiatrist Camillo Lombardi, a noted skeptic with a history of debunking psychics and mediums. What he experiences with Alessandra changes his life. Although he remains skeptical of ghosts and spirits, he becomes convinced that Alessandra is proof of some latent telekinetic power perhaps only accessible to hysterics. He pins his reputation on this theory and funds a European tour challenging experts and scientists to test Alessandra’s powers. He sacrifices his marriage in this bid to redefine and rewrite turn-of-the-century science. He offers Alessandra more money than she has ever imagined and the chance for freedom from an abusive husband. She leaps at the chance. Their twin ambitions lead them across the Continent. Ultimately the debonair and arrogant Nigel Huxley, a member of England’s Society for the Investigation of Mediums hatches a plot to expose her as a fraud which culminates in a dramatic séance back in Naples.

Alessandra’s story is told through the sympathetic and besotted eyes of Tomaso Labella. He is instantly infatuated with her and follows her and Lombardi throughout Europe. His involvement with her carries him from lowly photographer taking illicit photographs on the side to the editor of a powerful newspaper in his own right. His relationship with Alessandra is touching, occasionally fumbling and tragic. She is a broken woman with a well of strength and a dark secret.

Schmicker takes the reader across Europe mixing historical figures and fictional characters into an expertly crafted and engrossing world. Turn-of-the-century Naples comes alive filled with politicians, newspapermen, mafia, psychologists, religion and spiritualists. The question of Alessandra’s powers hangs delicately over the text. A Neapolitan peasant himself, the infatuated Tomaso shares Alessandra’s superstitions and seldom doubts her powers. Schmicker is more careful and keeps the reader guessing until the final séance. The Witch of Napoli is an enchanting and mesmerizing novel. Highly recommended.

 


 

The Witch of Napoli can be found here on Amazon.

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts’ Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is, as the title suggests, homage to the world and imagination of Jules Verne. I have a particular fondness for the original Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I’ve probably read it seven or eight times, to say nothing of the movie. Therefore, I was both intrigued and a little worried by the title.

Set in 1958, it follows the maiden voyage of France’s first nuclear submarine. Built and launched in secret, the Plongeur has a skeleton crew, the most experienced submarine captain in the fleet, a pair of Indian scientist who helped design the craft, and a mysterious observer on behalf of De Gaulle himself. On the second day of the voyage, the ship vanished and all hands were lost, presumably crushed to death beneath the Atlantic Ocean. The truth is far stranger. The Plongeur plummets to certain destruction. The pressure should have crushed it, and yet the crew survives. The pressure lessens and the ship continues to sink deeper and deeper, deeper than should be possible.

Roberts creates a perfect sense of claustrophobia. The twelve characters stuck together in inexplicable circumstances are all distinct and begin to crack in different ways. Captain Adam Cloche, a veteran of the World Wars retreats to discipline and a single-minded, hysterical determination to return home. Others turn to the bottle, or science, or religion as one by one they crack. Then there is the secretive Alain Lebret, De Gaulle’s personal observer, whose wartime record is not as patriotic as the others. Roberts does not shy away from some of the uglier sides of the period. There is a barely restrained hostility towards Lebret, who had ties to Vichy France that Cloche and the crewmen do not forgive and do not forget. And the Indian scientists, Amanpreet Jhutti and Dilraj Ghatwala, are regarded patronizingly at best by most of the crew, except Lebret. The politics and bad blood build even as the submarine’s situation becomes increasingly surreal.

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is not a pastiche or, strictly speaking, a sequel to Verne, although Captain Nemo makes an appearance of sorts. Roberts brings his own concepts to bare as the Plongeur sinks even deeper than the titular depth. There are questions about the multiverse and the nature of reality woven into the tale of survival and internal conflict. The climax was, perhaps, more segmented than intended and introduces concepts that deserved to be more thoroughly explored, but deliberate ambiguity is a trait that Roberts has put to good use in previous novels. Ultimately neither as superficial as the pulp fiction pastiche I was half-expecting, or as deep as it strives to be, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is a worthy successor full of incident and grand ideas.


 

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea can be found here on Amazon.

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review