Review of “Sting of the Scorpion” by Evelyn Puerto

An orphaned girl, powerless and destitute. An Endless War, that threatens to consume everyone in its path. Magic amulets, that hold the promise of victory.

After Damira witnesses the brutal slaughter of nearly her entire clan by a roving warband, she resolves never to feel helpless again. With nowhere to go, she, her brother and a friend surrender to a warlord, resigned to becoming little more than pawns in the Endless War.

But when Wei Fang, a warlord wielding magic amulets threatens to destroy anyone who stands against her, Damira must choose. Will she seek to master the power of the amulets and make a stand against the brutal Wei Fang? Or will the power behind the amulets destroy her first? 

Having read the first two books in this series, I had high hopes for this third part of the story. I was not disappointed. Each book has its own main character and unique storyline that can stand alone as a great fantasy read, but there are also elements that connect these worlds within a bigger world. This book feels even more like a stand-alone story than the first two, but there is a brief section where you’re reminded what’s going on in the rest of the…well, world, quite literally. But mostly, you’re reading about this new and before-unknown setting.

Far, far across the sand from that main world we’ve gotten to know, THIS section of the world feels very different. I LOVED how it felt like a real place with its own history and cultures and beliefs and politics, etc. etc. The author clearly had everything mapped out in her head and worked to make each clan and culture distinct. You quickly and completely understand how these peoples have been in an “Endless War,” and the tension and suspense is immediately infused in the story because of how clearly the characters are forced to struggle for survival while living in fear. From the very start of the book, you can feel the weight of this reality on the main characters’ shoulders.

Puerto’s heroines often start a bit naïve and are forced to learn quickly. I’d say that Damira is a bit ahead of the curve because she’s already quite capable as a hunter and horse rider, and she often butts heads with her leader-figure brother. But she is a girl. And in this world, that means she has to do extra to prove herself. I did very much like that, despite his traditional mindset, Syzyan does listen to her and knows she’s smart. And Shagonar is a good balance to Syzyan and also a good love interest – it’s a subtle romance and just the right amount for this story. Although at times these three disagree and take sides, it never feels like you have to side with one over the other because you can understand each of their viewpoints and you root for them all.

The plot has several twists and turns and adventures. The pacing is great. There’s quite a bit of action but also great heartfelt moments of dialogue. I was never bored. (Confession: It took me forever to read this book because of “real life” distractions, but I could pick it back up even after long periods and NEVER forgot what was going on because the writing always drew me right back in.) At one point I feared Damira might go the way of Daenerys from “Game of Thrones,” but in a lot of ways that remains to be seen. The ending allows a lot of room for future books, and WOW has this book covered a lot of ground already.

I highly recommend this book as either a stand-alone fantasy read or as a follow-up for anyone who’s read the first two books in the series. It has adventure, action, excellent world-building, creepy magic, characters worth rooting for, and truly great writing.

See it on Amazon!

Review of “Faster” by Calvin Demmer

In a word: Gripping.

Here’s yet another story from this author that made me want to read an entire novel about the main character. In just a few short pages, Demmer tells the story of a man with a far more interesting past than anyone suspects, a man both cursed and blessed by the choices he has made – and specifically, the deal he has made. I love that this story picks up without exposition but rather sucks you in with intrigue and then far later you discover the big reveal. The disturbing mystery keeps you reading and eager to learn more with every hint of Brock’s secret.

I really loved how you got the feel of what Brock’s post-deal-with-the-devil life has been like, even though he only shares a few details. Each stop, each victim, each encounter with devilish messengers keeps him moving forward, and you understand that this has been a very long, weary, tense, dark journey. For this part of his story, you see only a few brief hours (maybe less) of what that life is like, but it’s clearly a moment he has lived through again and again.

Demmer’s stories always have some twist or play on a familiar horror trope or monster, and I liked the addition of the crystal that Brock’s used to prolong his life. The devil maybe didn’t see that coming. But like Brock is told by the possessed women fated to be his next victim, everyone loses in the end. All Brock can do is move forward, move faster, and hope to last as long as he can. It sounds like a horrible life, but as Brock points out, once you know the devil is real, nothing is as bad as where you know you’re going next.

See it on Amazon!

Review of “The Alchemy Thief” by R.A. Denny

The best review I can give of this book is to tell you the progression of what I thought as I read along:

“Oh, no. Another book with a young woman sorting out her faith versus an Islamic terrorist kid. Guess I know what this is going to be like.”

“Wait, time travel? Ok, I’m back in.”

“Wow, this is really detailed. I wonder how much of this history is accurate. Are these real people?”

“Holy crap. Didn’t see that coming.”

“No! That’s the end? I want the next book now!”

So, yeah. I ended up enjoying this book. A lot. I’m a big fan of GOOD historical fiction, and this book is certainly that. At the back of the book, the author explains her personal connection to these real-life characters, the extent of her research into this complex part of history, and how she traveled to Morocco to get first-hand insight into a very different part of the world from Martha’s Vineyard. I was very impressed by the detail put into fleshing out both worlds in 1657, and I can only imagine the amount of research this took. Huge kudos to R.A. Denny for that alone.

I will say that multiple times I was very annoyed by Peri’s decisions and actions. She’s smart enough to get into Harvard but is extremely naive and sometimes does things that really only serve the plot. And she has a photographic memory for no apparent reason, which is especially weird given how badly she forgets things sometimes. BUT, nearly every other character is quite interesting, and I didn’t have any problems with how Ayoub (the terrorist kid) grows up and somewhat naturally becomes a pirate. That actually worked pretty well without being stereotypical.

The writing itself is very descriptive and gets to the point without being superfluous. The dialogue must have been tricky to write given the time period, but it was believable and helps to drop you right into a different time and culture.

Overall, I recommend this to anyone who likes historical fiction. There is definitely a romance element, but that did not distract from the mystery, suspense, and well-crafted storyline that drops you into two different – but possibly connected – histories.

See it on Amazon!

AuThorsday with Mike Thorn

Photo courtesy of Anita Jeanine

Today I’d like to welcome Mike Thorn, author of the horror novel, Shelter for the Damned, which I recently had the privilege of reviewing.

Can you give us your quickest description of your book?

Shelter for the Damned is a coming-of-age narrative wrapped up in a pessimistic, suburban horror plot. The novel is set in a deliberately ambiguated suburban environment in the year 2003.

Any particular reason you chose 2003?

Initially, I didn’t specify the time period at all (and I still don’t, within the actual body of the narrative). However, close to publication, I had a discussion with JournalStone’s managing editor, Scarlett R. Algee, in which we noted the book’s absence of contemporary details like cellphones and social media. I was undoubtedly writing about a horror-infected version of the suburbs I remember from my own teens. So, we decided to include a page at the beginning of the book stating Suburban Somewhere, 2003 to help situate the reader.

Makes sense. I noted the lack of cellphones. What are you working on currently?

I’m currently reworking a nonfiction, academic book proposal for a project focused on two horror filmmakers. I can’t share any details about that just yet. Wish me luck!

Sounds interesting!  Do you like taking a break from fiction to change things up?

Thank you! I do enjoy slipping into nonfiction/critical mode every now and then (although not as often as I used to). I think writing essays requires a very different cognitive process from writing fiction.

Certainly. What is your favorite scene you’ve written? 

I’m pleased with the third act of Shelter for the Damned, which descends into hallucinatory and semi-cosmic territory. I can’t say too much without giving anything away, but I drew a lot on the kind of imagery that draws me to writers like H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe.

I know exactly the portions you mean.  It gets almost trippy but works perfectly for how the horror of the Shack has unfolded.  I can see the Lovecraft influence for sure.  What are some of your favorite classic stories that bend towards horror?

I appreciate that! In terms of Poe, my favorite story is “The Black Cat,” and my favorite Lovecraft story is probably “The Dreams in the Witch House.” I love so many classic books in the Gothic/horror realm… among my favorites are Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk, Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer,  Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows, Daphne du Maurier’s The Breaking Point, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. Macbeth has always been my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, and I would argue that it leans hard into horror, too.

I’d worry about anyone who didn’t find MacBeth horrific. LOL.  What is one bit of advice you’d like to share with writers?

Read, read, read. Avoid limiting yourself to one genre. Read the classics, but also try to keep up with new releases. Read fiction. Read theory, philosophy, autobiographies, and poetry. Push against your genre biases: distinctions between “high” and “low” art are generally just elitist fabrications. You can learn from the stuff you don’t like as much as you can learn from the stuff you do like.

I agree 100% (as an English Lit nerd myself who loves bending genres).  How do you go about discovering new releases and keeping up with the thousands of books released these days?

I try to stay tapped into the small press horror world, and social media is helpful on that front. In pre-pandemic times, I liked browsing the library and local bookstores, too. You’re right, though, there are so many new releases that it can be difficult to keep afloat.

Who inspires you to write?

I take inspiration from relationships, friendships, and banal daily encounters. I’m often very stimulated by conversations with other writers.

Weirdest thing that’s inspired you?

One of my darkest horror stories, “Long Man,” was partially inspired by a prank my older brother played on me when we were kids.

Ha! Whatever works! In a perfect world where you could cast your book for a movie, who would you pick for your main characters?

It’s hard to say, since my main characters are so young! I’ll just imagine that this imaginary production budget can cover the cost of a time machine with anachronistic era-crossing capabilities. A 13 to 15-year-old Nick Stahl would be fantastic for the protagonist, Mark. A 13 to 15-year-old Katharine Isabelle would be terrific for Madeline. I really love both of those actors.

Time machines are often essential for author answers to this question. LOL.  It’s funny that Madeline in my head looked exactly like your actress pick!  Which is interesting because you don’t give a lot of physical description for many of your characters at all.  Is that on purpose?  I thought it was very effective how you describe Mark really only as he sees himself.

That’s great to hear! Thank you.

Yes, I deliberately minimize physical descriptions for my characters, because I draw liberally on the power of familiarity and memory. In Shelter for the Damned, especially, I wanted my readers to flesh out this space of “Suburban Somewhere” with their own recollections and points of reference.

Mark’s self-image is key to his psychological state, though, so it was important that I apply some description in that case. 

Yes! His self-image was definitely important to the story. When you get stuck in your writing, how do you make yourself keep going?

I usually just charge ahead and remind myself that first drafts are almost always messy and imperfect. 

Forcing yourself, nice.  Do you work with an editor?

Once my work is accepted for publication, I work with press/magazine/anthology/podcast editors. I have a few trusted readers who I consult for my early drafts.

Do you use your personal experiences in your writing?

All my fiction is personal, but I usually write about my personal experiences in abstracted ways. The horror genre offers unique possibilities for expression through excess and metaphor.

Getting into real life issues, I was impressed by how your book deals with the topic of “masculine conditioning” in particular.  The use of the 2 main fathers in particular was subtle but underscored everything happening with the boys.  Was that societal issue something that was important for you to touch on?

Thanks again, Sunshine. I don’t usually set out to write with specific messages or thematic concerns in mind, but there’s no doubt that I was grappling with problems around masculine conditioning here. As I was reviewing later drafts of Shelter for the Damned, it became clear to me that the novel was saying things about addiction, suburban violence, domestic abuse, and certainly masculine conditioning. I tried my best to attribute these issues with as much gravitas and realism as possible.

Thanks for sharing, Mike!

WHERE TO FIND Mike Thorn:
Website
Goodreads
Amazon
Facebook
Twitter

Happy Black Friday! Book Fair Alert

Greetings! I don’t know about you, but fantasy and sci-fi books have been GREAT for escaping 2020. Here are a bunch of free and discounted books for you to check out.

There are also PRIZES to be won including a Kindle Fire, Starbucks gift card, and one-month Owlcrate Gift Subscription!

Click here to visit the Book Fair

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