Neil Gaiman’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties Review

I love Neil Gaiman. Like full stop there. No, I’ll do it one better: I fucking love Neil Gaiman. History will smile upon Sandman as one of the greatest stories ever told, and American Gods is a phenomenal novel from meandering start to meandering finish. Anansi Boys is hysterical, Neverwhere is the most charming kind of wonderful, Good Omens is nothing short of fantastic…I mean, I could keep going, but I think I’ve made my point.

Now enter How to Talk to Girls at Parties, an almost coming-of-age comic book about…well, a shy, somewhat nerdy kid trying to overcome his fear of talking to members of the opposite sex. It’s a cute idea, and it’s a cute execution to be sure, but it’s almost too normal for Neil Gaiman.

Until, you know, it isn’t.

I have these expectations from Neil Gaiman (and Stephen King and George R. R. Martin and H.P. Lovecraft), to get a specific kind of story, and while that is unfair as hell, I’m happy to see those expectations met on a constant basis.

It does, however, take some of the mystery away. HTTTGAP (okay, there has to be a better way to abbreviate this), starts off by diving headfirst into Enn and Vic as our two main characters. The former is the shy person I mentioned above, and the latter is the gung-ho “We have to meet some girls!” kind of guy that all of us shy, nerdy kids are or were friends with at some point. And as the story crept along, I was waiting for the Gaiman moment to spring, for the narrative to get crazy and strange and maybe a little scary. It does because of course it does, and it’s amazing because of course it’s amazing, but damn. Like, I feel bad for demanding such a thing, for hunting for it. It is not a fair way to approach a story.

Regardless, what sets this apart from most other Gaiman stories is the scope. This isn’t Shadow wandering around America or Morpheus wandering around…everywhere; it’s two kids at a high-school party. This isn’t a big story with a giant cast of characters or a strange place to visit but about Enn, the most normal of normal people who is just a bit too shy for his own good.

It’s nice to see something so casual and almost personal here. Even on page one I was already rooting for Enn, and not just because I see myself in him. No, it’s just the way he starts the comic. It’s a memory, a voice over, and you can tell he never believed Vic from the get-go. He’s being dragged by his extroverted friend into a place he deems scary, but this isn’t London Below or wherever the hell Charlie went in Anansi Boys. Yet it is scary, because damnit if we haven’t been there before.

Strangers. Girls. Boys. Alcohol for the first time. More girls. Small talk!

And yet Vic isn’t a bad friend. In fact, he’s a damn good one, that wingman who has your back even though he doesn’t quite get why you’re so strange and shy. “It’s easy!” he’ll proclaim as he effortlessly gets the prettiest girl at the party, and you look at him like he’s speaking six different languages at once. But he does care, and he does want you to have fun, so it’s impossible to dislike him. As I read through this, I pictured my friends and similar situations that I’ve been in. It’s so easy to relate to what’s going on here that it’s kind of spooky.

This is the first area where HTTTGAP (sorry) excels. The second lies within the title of the comic itself. See, talking is only part one; the second part is listening. Enn talks, and seeing just that spark of character development is great, but he also doesn’t quite get to listening. He’s talking to girls about himself, and they talk back, and he misses everything. It maybe becomes a problem.

It’s hilarious. It’s also very Neil Gaiman, but you know, in the best of ways (there are no bad ways to be very Neil Gaiman).

For a book about two underage kids going to a high-school party, there’s this amazing and effortless amount of world building here, if that makes any sense. A lot is said in very little space, enough to establish multiple characters, lore, and a host of other goodies. It’s such a precise art form, and I really hope comic book readers understand how difficult it is to pack so much information into such a little space and not bog anything down.

You know when you run into bad exposition; you do not notice good exposition.

On the art front, because this is a comic book, I really like what Fabio Moon has done. There’s a lot of soft, vibrant colors here, and his expressions are on point. I’ve seen better artwork in other comics to be sure, but his style absolutely fits this story. When HTTTGAP gets a bit surreal and strange, the artwork follows, matching Gaiman beat for beat.

The way he sells the ending here is quite marvelous.

So yeah. HTTTGAP is really, really good, the exact kind of thing I look for in a Neil Gaiman story. It’s got what I want, yet it changes just enough to make it stand apart from his other works. It’s normal until it isn’t, and really, isn’t that what we want from any story?

Warcraft (2016) Review

I have a long history with the Warcraft property. I played the old RTS games when I was in middle school, and I got swallowed into the giant world of Azeroth via World of Warcraft during high school and college. I put more hours into that game than I ever want to think about. I’ve also read the books, which are pretty fun in their own right though not well written. My journey with the property stopped many years ago, long before “Wrath of the Lich King” came to an end, but the world and lore have always held a strong place in my heart.

You cannot break that kind of attachment.

However, from the opening preview of the Warcraft 2016 movie, I knew I was in for a rough time. Out of all the stories to tell, they went with the most boring: Orcs vs. humans. Why not bring on the Scourge? Why not tell of the Sundering? Why not show Arthas’ rise and fall? Or what about Illidan’s rise and fall? There are also like a thousand different dragons—do one of them. Deathwing maybe. He’s pretty awesome.

Nope. We get Orcs and humans, the thing The Lord of the Rings gave us in the mid 1950s. Tolkien did it better too.

And yet…and yet there’s enough here that we could have gotten a compelling story with Orcs vs. humans, as derivative as that is. The lore is capable of giving us more than what we bargained for. “Could have” is the sad qualifier here though. Warcraft 2016 can be broken up into three parts: Orcs, Humans, and Mages, and each one by itself has something fun to it.

The Orcs are fleeing a dying home yet are commanded by Gul’Dan, a warchief corrupted by the Fell. He’s destroying everything in his path, from the good to the bad, and has done away with honor long ago. Those under him only follow him out of a strong necessity, for this corrupt warchief will save the Orc race.

The humans are faced with a new foe, one they know nothing about. Their cities are being raided and burned from underneath their noses, and what’s worse, the Night Elves, Dwarves, and other races who are supposed to be allies aren’t helping. King Llane Wrynn is faced with some tough decisions and political drama, and he doesn’t know what to do. He hasn’t the men to face the Orcs alone.

The mages fear the Fell as a corruptive, unstoppable magical force, and when it shows up, they’re off to figure out where it came from and why. Something like that doesn’t just appear out of nowhere: It had to be invited in. Is there a traitor in the mix? Can a lowly mage who abandoned the Kirin Tor help solve all of these problems despite holding no respect from anyone?

Each one of these stories by itself could make a fun movie. The problem is, Warcraft wants to have all of them. Each of these movie-length plots is crammed into this film to the point of bursting, turning what should have been an awesome flick into a bogged down mess with too many characters, too much exposition, and little to root or care for.

I get trying to give the Orcs and humans equal plotting: You can’t care for both sides if you don’t. Fans of the lore and video games know that Azeroth is not a black-and-white continent—the humans are just as capable of evil as the monstrous Orcs—but this isn’t a video game. It’s fine to not give both sides to this conflict, especially when one side is way more interesting than the other.

Here’s the thing: I full-stop loved the Orcs in this movie. They’re everything they should be: Huge, honorable, slightly cartoonish, fearsome, equipped with giant weapons that border on being silly, ride big wolves, and have stupid-large shoulder armor. They are also surprisingly human. There’s a lot of to connect and sympathize with, and this is all established well before we’re forced to care about any of the humans. Durotan and the Frostwolf clan should have been the entire movie.

I mean hell, focusing entirely on them would have been amazing! Durotan is watching his fellow Orcs succumb to the Fell as they kill innocents to power the portal that will save the Orc race. They want to stop Gul’Dan, yet doing so dooms their people to a blackened, ruined world that can no longer support life. However, not stopping Gul’Dan dooms their people to the Fell.

That is compelling! That is awesome! That is also a fantasy story that has not been told on the big screen. We’ve seen Orcs vs. humans, but we have yet to see sympathetic Orcs. They’re always the bad guys, and other than maybe three in this movie, that remains the case.

Making viewers care about monsters would have been awesome, but it’s just so hard to do that when we only focus on a few of them, and at least two of those are evil.

So let’s talk about the humans. Or we could not because they were kind of terrible. A big part of this was the casting: Llane Wrynn was not kingly, and Medivh was lame. I didn’t buy either as characters. Dominic Cooper l is too young and too scrawny to be the leader of Stormwind, and this version of Medivh is as boring as can be. You’re telling me a hermit mage with so much power he could single-handedly turn the tide of battle is this normal? No. No I do not accept that!

Khadgar is the only saving grace to be found, the runaway wizard who finds himself in way over his head. His backstory is actually pretty good despite being delivered in a chunk of exposition, and his underdog status makes it hard not to root for him.

And then there is Garona (more like Groan-a (see what I did there?)) who is a half Orc, half human, and despised by both. She’s supposed to be this middle character, stuck between two sides with no real home, and while that should have been dramatic and interesting, it came across as ham-fisted and cliché. Everything about her was terrible, from the cringe-inducing dialogue to the long bouts of exposition to the lame romance subplot from out of nowhere, and it wasn’t until the very end that she started to serve a purpose. Other than her last scene, I just wanted her to disappear forever.

She ruined every scene she was in, and I’m not going to fully blame the actress for that either. There’s only so much you can do with a bad script.

Despite being a bogged-down mess with some bad characters, Warcraft 2016 isn’t without its merits. I loved the Orcs as I said, but I also loved the action set pieces. They’re big and fun. Watching an Orc swing a giant hammer at anything is just awesome, made better by some excellent sound design. Every battle reminded me of the video games in the best ways possible, and I’d gladly go see the movie again just for that.

Like I said, you can’t break the attachment I have to this series, problematic film or not.

The magic too is wonderful, bombastic and everything you’d expect from a video game, and it’s not anything I’ve ever seen on the big screen before. Silly mage words plus silly hand signals equals giant fireballs, portals, shields, and lightning storms. It’s awesome stuff, and a big reason why I want more fantasy stories of this sort brought to film. It’s just goddamn fun.

I do wish we had more of it in the movie. We get a handful of big, fun spells, but I’d have loved for a full on mage-vs-mage fight, with counterspells and fireballs flying from every which way as the combatants blink around and toss up temporary shields. It’s a bit of a failing that there are so few mages, especially on the Orc front. Gul’Dan was cool as a warlock, but I wanted more than just one warlock. Orcs can be shamans too! Where’s my chain lighting at?

The fight sequences are also oddly graphic. I guess the cartoon aspects helped the studio get away with cramming more gore and blood into a PG13 movie than is necessary, but it added a lot of weight (and meat, don’t forget the meat) to the fights we get. It’s a good thing.

My experiences with the Warcraft lore did help squeeze a lot more love out of this flick than perhaps was warranted. When Khadgar flew to Dalaran, my jaw dropped. I’ve seen that place before! Hell, I’ve lived there. I recognized places and spires and as cynical as my wretched body is, my face broke out into smiles. So too did I grin when the Blackrock Orcs were mentioned—I’ve ran that dungeon and fought them—or when different places were mentioned in passing, such as the Searing Gorge. Hell, the final battle takes place in what becomes the Blasted Lands!  I’ve been all over Azeroth, and seeing that world come to life in this way was moving in such a thick, nostalgic way that I find it hard to hate this movie.

At the end of the day, Warcraf 2016 is a problematic movie with a few things going for it and a lot of heart to boot. At least a full third of it is a mess, and I’d be hard pressed to recommend this to anyone with little knowledge of Warcraft, but hell, I had some fun. The magic was worth the price of admission, and I got to see someone polymorphed into a sheep. No other movies out there will give you that.

Warcraft is a good bad movie, and its biggest fault is that it could have been a good great movie.

Jodi Taylor’s Just One Damned Thing After Another Book Review

With the exception of the Terminator flicks, I prefer my time travel to be more on the comedic side. There’s something about the premise that I find hard buy into, be it the crazy paradoxes or the thousands of questions that generally come with the idea of, “but if I go back in time and do this, what happens?” Give me Kung Fury instead! I’d rather just laugh than accidentally scrutinize the science behind it (looking at you, Interstellar).

Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor hits my sweet spot then. It primarily wants to be funny and even handwaves the bigger time travel quandaries so we don’t have to think about them ever again. Perfect.

Ms. Maxwell has a bunch of learning in history—the expensive, lengthy kind that will net you a job as either a professor at a fine college or the best darn McDonalds manager in this United States—and gets an invite to a very abnormal historical research facility called St. Mary’s. As luck would have it, St. Mary’s has a bunch of time-travel devices, and their job is to chronicle the nonsense that happened far in the past. Think the battle of Troy or the construction of fancy, super historical walls that I can’t remember the names of.

The problem is twofold. The first bit is that history doesn’t like to be tampered with, so this job is actually very, very dangerous, and the second bit is that time-traveling terrorists exist.

Here’s the thing though: Those two problems don’t make sense when paired together. History does bite back as the novel quickly shows us—and just as quickly forgets about, I might add—meaning that the terrorists can’t really do anything. Events have to happen a certain way, so it’s not like they can go back in time and prevent Hitler from killing himself (hello Godwin’s law in a review).

It sort of makes the latter half of the book a bit nonsensical.

The first half though, that part is great! It reminds me of Harry Potter in a way, where we follow Maxwell down a very bizarre rabbit hole and learn alongside her. There are plenty of characters to get to know, some fun concepts, and while there’s no real sense of danger, the levity of the book makes that unimportant.

Plus, I’ve never seen time travel handled this way. I like it.

I also really like Maxwell. I’ll full-on admit that she’s at least half a Mary Sue, but her sense of humor eases some of the sting of a character whose not only really smart but also solves all of her problems pretty quickly. She doesn’t struggle much through the first half of the book, but that only casually bothered me. I was having too much fun to care.

But here’s the cold, hard truth about our heroine: Her two biggest flaws are she’s a bit of an alcoholic and she’s a bit socially stupid. Normally those would be big problems, but here the first one happens mostly off screen and the second is only ever played off for laughs. I never got the sense of either, especially from a girl who gets drunk off of one margarita. You cannot be a boozehound and get knackered off of one drink (I know from experience).

She’s also very stoic, and while the book tries to play this off as a negative at points, it only ever feels like a net gain on her behalf. It means she can roll with the punches and deal with high-stress environments better than most. It also means she shows no fear in the face of danger.

I really want to upsell the front half of this book though, with its silly drama, crazy cast of characters, and few choice sex scenes that are darn well written, if not a little fictitious in tenacity. Because after the front half, Just One Damned Thing After Another takes a pretty steep dive.

Without hitting any spoilers, the novel tries to create some very strong, very tonally inconsistent drama between Maxwell and another main character. I never bought into it. The character in question isn’t a saint, but what he attempts to do came so far out of left field that I lost all suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t help that Maxwell deals with him very quickly and without any real incident.

From there on out, all of the drama around Maxwell comes off as fake, like the characters aren’t acting like they should. From one turn to the next, I could feel the author manipulating the people she had so painstakingly created, forcing them to do what the plot needed. It really left a bad taste in my mouth.

And hell, that wouldn’t be so much of a problem if there were a point to it, but Maxwell doesn’t suffer all that much. She hits rock bottom at one point, but the brunt of that happens off screen. Call me a sadist, but I do want my protagonists to have a rough time in the books I read. I also want to see it! Neither really happens here.

By the end of the novel, I found myself viewing it rather cynically. Maxwell does some very Mary Sue things because she’s very clever and accidents work in her favor, and we end on a high note. I’m left thinking of this particular comic. Yes, as an English major wouldn’t it be amazing if I could use my powers to save the world! Of course it would. However, I wouldn’t go and write a book about that because no one would want to read it.

This novel never hits those levels, but it makes me think about them. It makes me question some of the characters and the writing, and that’s not exactly a good thing.

It’s a shame too, because the front half really is good and lots of fun. There’s enough here to make me recommend Just One Damned Thing After Another, especially since I tore through it in a few days, but damn does it make some disappointing decisions.

J Patrick Allen’s Dead West: West of Pale Review

J Patrick Allen’s Dead West: West of Pale is a combination I’m not sure I’ve seen before, pairing urban fantasy—magic, monsters, and myth—with a more western setting. The official time period is somewhere after the civil war, perhaps five to twenty years based on what I can quickly find, but hey, that means we’re looking at old-school rifles, pistols, and lots of travel via horses. It also means that the fantastical elements are a bit easier to digest by the characters, since there are no pesky cell phones and Internet to get in the way.

The problem is, the book hardly does anything I’d call “new.”

Charlie’s father is murdered by some kind of river monster, and not one of the nice kinds either. No, this one talks and stalks, and it’s out for Charlie because it’s owed the blood of a first born. It also has no qualms killing anyone trying to help Charlie. Yup, it’s a nasty creature.

Dead West starts off explosively and doesn’t ever really slow down. The first leg of the book is Charlie’s terror-filled run across the United States looking for a mysterious fellow his father promised would help. Each stop he makes lets the monster get closer, and on the whole, it’s all pretty darn entertaining. The book being in first-person past kills some of the tension since we know Charlie isn’t going to die, but his narration sells his fear well enough.

The whole thing is a hair unbelievable though. He’s got few clues to go on, mostly just the name Sam Clayton and the random help of strangers, so that he manages to hike from Missouri to Minnesota and actually find Sam feels too coincidental and plot-demanded than anything else.

That being said, the first third of this novel, perhaps even a bit further, is good. The pacing is maybe a little too quick at times—this isn’t the kind of book that wants to sit down and smell the roses—but it’s fun and I certainly sympathize with Charlie. He knows nothing other than the monster is damn determined to see him dead.

When Sam Clayton is found though, we start getting answers, and that’s where things get a bit dull. Dead West turns from a sort of horror novel into a pretty standard, “there’s monsters out there, Charlie, and people like me hunt them” affair. Sam is of course broken and haunted by a terrible past, and he’s pretty gruff and unfriendly too.

And hell, even that isn’t so bad. The spook the two first encounter is pretty fun and wraps up well enough, though you’ll probably call the mystery well before it’s solved.

I think part of the problem is that Dead West relies heavily on common folklore, and it doesn’t really do much with it that we haven’t seen before. In a way, Mr. Patrick Allen was stuck between a rock and a hard place. If you’re trying to match history and actual fairytales, then you need to do the proper research to get things right; however, to stick with those fairytales too closely treads over plenty of things we’ve all seen and read about before.

He mixes things up somewhat, but I’m not sure he really changes enough.

The other part of the problem is with the writing itself. It’s nothing really special, falling into pretty typical young-adult first-person narration. There’s a good amount of telling, and even when Charlie is being descriptive, most of the descriptions are just dull. Now and then a wonderful set of sentences will show up, proving that there is good writing to be found here, but I wasn’t really engaged through most of the novel.

There are also a pretty notable amount of typos, wrong words used, or outright missing words. There are less of these in the first leg of the novel, but by around chapters eight or nine, they really start cropping up in full force. They seem to fall away a bit towards the end, making me think the first third and last third of this novel were heavily edited while the middle was skipped.

I could take a red pen and spend awhile inking in all the missing comas, too.

Honestly, Dead West: West of Pale reminds me of The Girl With Ghost Eyes in almost every way. Plenty of good bits, some fun characters, and a new setting, yet both novels really just rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m left trying to figure out why. I reread what I’ve written in this review and feel like my complaints are somewhat trivial.

I’ll do what I always do in these kinds of books then: tell you to go read the sample on Amazon. If that sells you on it, then yeah, you’ll have some fun. The novel gets a bit predictable here and there, and it hits a few tropes a bit too hard for my liking, but really, there’s little wrong with it other than some bland prose.

I just could not get into it past a certain point.

Fred Strydom’s The Raft Review

SPOILER WARNING: This is a hard novel to talk about without divulging some plot and thematic details. I very much recommend you stop here and pick this book up, because it’s fucking fantastic and I don’t want to ruin any of the major surprises in any way. Seriously, go buy this.

I’ve always liked the idea of large-scale unreliability in stories, though my experience with them is few and far between. There are one or two shorter tales I remember reading in college when studying unreliable narrators, but I’ve never actually had the pleasure of reading a full on novel with an unreliable narrator. Well, that is until Fred Strydom’s The Raft.

I have been missing out, because this book is absolutely amazing.

The day everyone on Earth lost their memories is referred to as Day Zero. It was a reset, and one that turned a technologically advanced world into a listless series of communes where people amount to nothing. Those that lead the communes—which remind me of a Jim Jones joint—promise to lead humanity into a new stage of evolution: A New Renaissance is coming! In the meantime, people need to think about community in a simpler way, one that forgoes family ties and materialism. Those are bad.

Oh, and if you try to escape, they’ll shove you on a raft and float you out into the middle of the ocean with nothing to eat except some plants that make you hallucinate.

Kayle Jenner lives in one such commune, and unlike most, his memories are somewhat complete. He had a house with a pair of horses, a wife, a son, and a daughter. He was even happy. A tragic car accident and Day Zero put a stop to that, and now he’s stuck on a beach memorizing a philosophy he doesn’t truly believe and wondering why he can’t stop dreaming of his son, Andy. Should he go find Andy? Can he? Will Andy even remember him?

These questions become Kayle’s main fear as he journeys to find his son, though the reader quickly becomes concerned with bigger questions about reality itself. Kayle’s core memories span his entire life, making him more reliable than anyone else in the commune, though there are blanks and oddities that he cannot account for, such as a mysterious figure named Jack Turning. His dreams too are strange. There’s an orb in the sky, one that has a sentience to it that makes no sense. Kayle dreams of this orb every night, and as it turns out, others are too.

While Kayle rightfully frets about his son and missing wife, we are left wondering how sane he truly is and what kind of supernatural being is affecting the world.

It’s a wonderful setup that turns The Raft into an untrustworthy soup with way more questions than answers. As the novel progresses and the world grows in clarity, the questions grow in number and importance.

And all of the above is only the first layer of unreliability. There are two more as the novel goes on, though I won’t spoil either. I’m sure you can guess one of them though.

The Raft is written in the first-person past perspective, with Kayle telling his story (which is actually a fourth level of unreliability now that I think of it); however, the novel doesn’t confine itself to just Kayle, nor does it always care about his story. As Kayle moves through the world, he encounters plenty of other characters who feel—perhaps supernaturally—compelled to tell them stories from their lives. The result is a series of first-person past shifts that make sense within the novel’s framework while also creating quick connections between the reader and strangers.

It’s absolutely wonderful. The writing is superb, and the all the vignettes within are perfectly executed in what they set out to do. Kayle’s story is compelling in its own right, but I never felt upset when perspective shifted to someone else because I knew I was in for a treat. Be it a little bit of horror, a giant heap of scifi and world building, or a mix of both, each of these chapters could stand alone if need be.

Each story ends with Kayle asking a question, and each time he’s given a little piece of a thematic puzzle. He then continues on, because nothing matters as long as he can find his son.

“Nothing matters” turns out to be one of the big themes of the novel. Even from the get-go The Raft is dark, but as it progresses, it submerges itself into nihilism and the deep-rooted fears that come with that philosophy. This is a bleak book, and there are times when it is outright cruel, both to its characters and the reader.

Towards the late middle of the novel, we begin getting some answers, though I didn’t like them much at first. Thankfully our fourth wave of unreliability hits with such a brutal force that it resets every notion I had about the book.

Mr. Strydom played with my expectations over and over again until I had no idea what was really going on. Even now that I’ve finished the novel, I still don’t know what’s really real and what is imaginary.

In that way, The Raft is probably the first book I’ve read with what a video game would call replayability. I want to go back in and see where things line up now that I know how it ends, because I think I’ll discover some amazing secrets I missed on my first go through.

I know not everyone will appreciate a dark-as-hell book that plays with your mind, but if that mix sounds enjoyable, then you really have to pick this book up. It is downright amazing. The Raft is easily the best book I’ve read this year, and one that I’m not sure will be topped.

Kenneth Lamug’s The Stumps of Flattop Hill Review

Note: This review was originally written for WeTheNerdy.com, and my copy of The Stumps of Flattop Hill was supplied by the author. The book releases May 1st, 2016

I’ve uh, never reviewed a kid’s picture book before. As an adult without children, I don’t ever really run into them, though I’m a firm believer that kid’s fiction can and should appeal to everyone. And hell, some of my favorite novels are kid’s books. The Golden Compass, Harry Potter And the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Marlfox, and The Hobbit all spring to mind as amazing stories for kids and adults alike.

The opportunity to read The Stumps of Flattop Hill by Kenneth Kit Lamug came like most of my review opportunities come: an emailed request. In this case, some of my fellow writers at WeTheNerdy recognized the name as a wonderful comic’s book artist and writer and told me to jump on this thing right away.

Here we are.

The Stumps of Flattop Hill is a haunted house story, and one that is actually pretty creepy at points. The house on Flattop Hill has a rather dark history, one where kids venture in for untold reasons and never come out again. Months later, a new tree shows up in the house’s yard. Life then moves on.

Florence, our silent protagonist, is mocked for being too scared to enter the house. After being told what happens to those that go in, I’m surprised anyone would speak of the house openly at all, let alone kids in such a manor. This isn’t some spooky place owned by a creepy old and misunderstood man; kids really do vanish once they enter. The place ought to be burned to the damn ground.

But I digress. Florence is infatuated with the place and like all haunted house stories, she ventures forth.

The Stumps of Flattop Hill is told through visuals and light amounts of poetry. The execution is pretty wonderful and actually reminds me of Mad Max: Fury Road in a way. There’s an elegance to the little wording present and a confidence to let actions speak louder than words. The end result is a story that doesn’t hold your hand as you go through it, meaning paying attention to Florence’s facial expressions and the strange horrors she finds in the house is very important. This may or may not become frustrating for kids, though I’m not entirely versed on how smart children are these days.

The artwork in this story is very, very good. It’s all monochromatic, which already makes it look pretty disturbing, but combine that with some Tim Burton aesthetic, and you have yourself a winner. It’s darn creepy when it wants to be, and that tends to be through most of it. There’s a vivid weirdness to everything, and Mr. Lamug makes great use of the color black.

The poetry too is pretty good for the most part. The story doesn’t stick to one rhyme scheme but lets the words flow more organically, though everything is in meter and there are plenty of rhymes. This lets the text speed up when something tense is happening and slow down when we’re tasked with simple viewing.

Though perhaps the best part with the text itself is how it’s not afraid to be artistic in its own right. Words climb and contort based on what is being said. A cracked floor is paired with the word “floor” being cracked, a leaky door with the word “leak” visually leaking down the page. This gives The Stumps of Flattop Hill a ton of personality and makes the words themselves as visually interesting as the pictures.

Like with the visuals, I’m unsure what the age range of the text is supposed to be. I know all the words, but younger children might not; though any excuse to expand the vocabulary is a good one. The poetry too isn’t afraid to mix and match, meaning a verb might show up at the end of the sentence to fit the rhyme/meter scheme present. This is par the course in adult poetry, but I have no idea where it stands with poetry made for children.

I also have to wonder how appropriate the whole thing is for young readers, but then, I always enjoyed a creepy story when I was a kid (my neighbor introduced me to the Alien franchise at a very young age, so that’s probably his fault). Most fairy tales aren’t exactly without their own horrors either, so this one fits in with those as far as I’m concerned. If witches with candy houses can eat children, then this horror house can make them disappear.

Parents: Use your best judgment.

Honestly, my one complaint with the whole thing–and it is sadly a big one–is in the ending itself. I didn’t like it. It’s…unsatisfying as hell, which is a problem with any story regardless of the age group it’s meant for. I’m fine with a bad ending or an unhappy ending if there’s a good reason or point, but none of those really exist here. It just ends.

I’ve read others say it’s supposed to be an open ending, one for interpretation, but I’m not sure I agree. The book is too short for that. Maybe if there were another ten or so pages to flesh out Florence, the house, and her town; but as it stands, the story just ends poorly.

It is of course possible that I just haven’t paid enough attention to the pictures, but I’ve also read through the thing three times now.

The House of Flattop Hill is an enjoyable 40 pages with some great artwork and visually appealing writing. I think it’s a story I’d have had fun reading as a kid, and hell, I did have fun reading it as an adult. I just wish the ending had been a bit more satisfying.

Martha Wells’ Edge of Worlds Review

Guys, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to jump into another ongoing book series because the last time I did, I wound up being pretty darn confused for the first three or so chapters. That tends to hurt the experience while also not being the author’s fault at all. However, the Amazon description of Martha Wells’ The Edge of Worlds, does call it “the first book in a new series,” so I thought I’d be safe to start here.

It’s the first book in a new arc, not a series, meaning the characters have had three other novels to establish themselves, their personalities, and their back stories. I showed up late to the party.

That being said, the first chapter of Edge of Worlds is such a poor introduction that I’d have been lost regardless of my knowledge of the previous books. Indigo Court is a huge and densely populated place, turning the first twenty pages into an assault of over twenty different character names, a bunch of fantasy species names, and a handful of different location names.

It’s a mess of information, and it makes the driving problem hard to focus on.

I was also pretty confused about the look and size of our main characters. The Raksura are shapeshifters, and in their flying forms, have very dragon-esque descriptions. Turns out, they aren’t dragons; they’re some kind of gargoyle. They are also roughly man-shaped. It took me to around page 70 to finally be fed up enough to Google the darn things to see what they looked like, though in my defense, the review .pdf I have didn’t come with any pictures of the cover.

That’s all the bad news. The good news is that by the end of the third chapter, I was pretty well hooked.

Our plotline is pretty simple, and one you’ve seen before if you’ve played Halo. We got our good guys, our bad guys, and a big, mystery city built by forerunners to compete over. What’s in the city is of course dangerous because stories are very boring when they lack danger. Queue the violence!

While the plot doesn’t break many molds, it’s fun enough for me to not really care. The mystery city/mystery artifact/mystery creatures plotline offers so much to work with, and Mrs. Wells takes full advantage of it. Between the random guesses as to how to enter the city, the battles outside to establish dominance on who goes in, the last ditch efforts, and the little bits of politics, we’re treated to a lot of drama that works. And that’s all before they even enter the forerunner building! Once they get in, we get more drama, outright horror, magic, and more.

Edge of Worlds is a page turner, is basically what I’m saying.

But what the novel really excels at is world building. Edge of Worlds is a massive book, one with tons of different people, places, cultures, and magic. Everything is handled well, with descriptions of people and places taking up just the right amount of space to paint nice pictures while not being overbearing. There’s joy in the little things, from the scholars debating forerunner artifacts to the half-underwater Sealing whorehouse two of our main characters stumble across when looking for information.

Edge of Worlds takes place during a time period where most of the world hasn’t been fully explored, and that opens up limitless possibilities.

It’s also a very vertical world. Between the Raksura’s ability to fly and the steam-punk/magic airships, we spend most of the book above ground. There are large trees so big we never find out what’s on the ground, floating islands, and a few tall mountains for good measure. It’s cool, and when it comes to fantasy novels, somewhat different from what I’m used to. It helps that a lot of the human-esque characters have magical jetpacks so they can keep up. I have to wonder why most fantasy novels with lots of magic don’t have magical jetpacks now that I’ve read a book with them. Like Halo, it’s always better with jetpacks.

Sadly, I do think Edge of Worlds is more of a world-building novel than a character-building novel. There are too many characters from start to finish, and very few get anything remotely akin to development. Moon plays the role of our protagonist, and while he’s alright and enough of a risk-taker to be worth following around, there’s honestly not much else to say about him. He acts as a nice set of eyes, and I suppose I sympathize with him somewhat, but his shtick of, “I was an orphan and have finally found a people to call my own but am an outsider and also there’s a culture clash” comes off as a hair trite.

I’d have preferred the novel follow around his wife, to be honest. Jade is just as much of a badass, and as a Raksura queen, has way more stress to deal with.

This viewpoint extends to almost everyone, because when you have a ship filled with fifteen or so more people, you just don’t have the time to juggle them all properly. I grew attached to maybe four characters, but only found Stone to be worth stressing over when the danger hit. Everyone else? Eh, let ‘em die if need be. There are plenty of others yet.

I do realize that this viewpoint would probably be very different had I started with book one. I’m sure the likes of Briar and Song and Merit are given a reason to exist beyond their one-sentence personalities that, now that I’ve finished the book, I can’t even remember.

Edge of Worlds isn’t a perfect novel, but what it does well it does very well. Once I found my groove, I certainly had a blast. I suppose the best way I can end this review is thusly: I’ll certainly read the next book (those darn cliffhangers), and I’m tempted to go read the first three as well.

I want to know more about this world. I want to know more about some of these characters. I want more of this kind of large exploration, where the first page of the novel feels like a year ago by the time you hit the last.

Those kinds of adventures are special.

Matt Wallace’s Lustlocked: Book Review

The back copy of Lustlocked by Matt Wallace reads, “The Goblin King (yes, that one) and his Queen are celebrating the marriage of their son to his human bride. Naturally, the celebrations will be legendary.” Sounds pretty awesome huh? Goblins and weddings and the promise of all kinds of unpredictable magic? I was eager to dive in, because this story promised tons of fun.

It’s a lie.

Well, that’s a little harsh. Not all of it’s a lie. There is a Goblin King, and his son is getting married. There is a goblin wedding. However, it isn’t that goblin king, the one I was promised. This displeases me. When I think goblins, I think the Lord of the Rings; when Lustlocked thinks goblins, it thinks…I guess Leonardo DiCaprio?

Which isn’t cool at all. Goblins aren’t supposed to be extra pretty people, even if I’m sure their origin in ancient European folklore disagrees with me. They’re supposed to be big and stupid and smelly and ugly, and the Goblin King himself best be at least a ten-man raid boss, one that drops a polearm as a weapon even though he’s only carrying a large club.

But in the case of Lustlocked, goblins are pretty and, funny enough, most are celebrities. And honestly, it doesn’t matter all that much since they aren’t the focus of the story. I’m just still bothered by it is all.

Lustlocked takes place in a top-secret kind of kitchen called Sin du Jour, where they prepare meals for the elite magical folks—or that’s what I gather. There is at least one other novella in this series and probably a few short stories, meaning starting in the middle was a little rough. The story assumes you know the characters ahead of time, which is fair, but also made the first handful of pages confusing.

I didn’t know any of the characters, and damn are there a lot of them.

As a setting, Sin du Jour is brilliant. The whole package reminds me of Chowder meets Harry Potter meets True Blood (minus all the smut). It’s such a fun place that I wish this story were bigger, the characters more fleshed out. I want to know more, and really, I’d like to visit it again.

There’s something inspired about showcasing magic from the side of the mundane. Two of our giant cast are simple line chefs, suckered into their jobs because of some past history with the kitchen and because they need the money. They understand what’s going on to a point, but that point isn’t all that big. This allows them to react alongside the reader, marveling at the idea that rubies can be ground into jam and that there’s a whole set of mind-controlled zombies used to decorate weddings.

This is probably the most creative use of zombies I’ve seen in fiction, by the way.

And hell, I like the characters here, or what I understand of them. There are probably six or seven people to jump around, more if you include the goblin prince and princess who actually get screen time, and I’m impressed they’re all juggled so well in such a short piece of fiction. There’s a lot crammed in here.

That being said, I don’t really remember who is who on basic levels. There’s a reason why I’m not going into any depth about our colorful cast.

Sadly, the package that I really wanted to like begins to falter at the writing style itself. The novella is written in a very choppy fashion, with lots of very short, one-sentence paragraphs. And when I say, “Lots” I mean lots. I’m talking full pages sometimes:

“At first she doesn’t recognize the nondescript man in the black-and-white Adidas running suit, wondering if he’s a jogger who has lost his cell phone or something.

Then a name leaps at her from the shadows of her own mind like a tiger, and Lena almost recoils in the same way.

Allensworth.

His name is Allensworth.

He’s the man who delivered Ramiel, the captured angel, to Sin du Jour.

He’s the man who expected them to serve every part of it at a banquet for demons.

He’s the man who explained that expectation as if he were asking for a cup of sugar from a neighbor.

Lena turns away from the door.

‘Oh, shit.’”

It’s really, really annoying. It kills any flow the prose has, and honestly, it reminds me of a forum or social media post. It took a lot of joy out of the story, and it killed most of the humor for me. This is a big problem as Lustlocked really wants to be funny and probably would be had the prose been less choppy.

Because as someone who loves the overtly offensive humor of Kaptara, the kinds of debauchery going on in this book really should have had be rolling.

Before I start wrapping this up, I should mention that my copy of Lustlocked came with a short story within the Sin De Jour world. It’s tacked onto the end and gives some introduction to a few of the characters you’ll see. It’s good. It suffers from the same stylistic problems, but it’s quick and interesting, and you should read it first if you pick this book up. It’ll help explain a lot.

It sucks when my big complaint is how a story is written, because it’s something I have to put up with for the entire package, and because authors should be allowed to experiment and try different styles. Not all styles will appeal to all readers. That’s just the way of it.

So take a look at that above piece of text, and if you’re okay with that kind of writing, consider giving this one a look.

David Tallerman’s Patchwerk: Book Review

The first thing you should know about Patchwerk by David Tallerman is that I found it hard to finish on my first attempt. I received a review copy of the novella from Tor about three months ago, sprinted through half of it, and then put it aside for an onslaught of video games and comic books which I deemed more worthy of my time. It was only on my second attempt that I managed to finish the story.

The second thing you should know is that the novella relies very heavily on a gimmick to work, and it was one I didn’t quite like on my first attempt. In order to talk about this story, I have to talk about that gimmick, so consider this your SPOILER WARNING.

The third thing you should know is that knowing the gimmick ahead of time made my second attempt at this story much more enjoyable.

Patchwerk is a short science fiction novella (the .pdf I received was around a 100 pages, though Amazon.com is listing the page count closer to 150) about Dran Florrian, a scientist turned spy who is covertly shipping his world-bending invention across the ocean. It’s a gamble, and like all gambles, falls through: A group of…let’s call them terrorists takes control of his machine and attempts to kill him.

As far as plot and character go, Patchwerk isn’t going to break any grounds. It’s a fun little action/adventure scifi story at its core and doesn’t try to do much more than that. However, what sets it apart is that little gimmick I mentioned earlier.

Dran’s invention, Palimpsest, is heavily rooted in the multiverse, and in fact, can glimpse and view other planes of existence. This fact is treated as a somewhat big reveal and mentioned halfway through the novella (around page 50), though how it actually affects the characters within the story starts much earlier, around page 24.

As Dran makes his way through the novel, Palimpsest jumps him through the multiverse, changing him and his surroundings as the story advances. These changes are done abruptly (I imagine in an attempt to be seamless), and I found them very jarring and strange. The first time reality shifted, I thought I was staring at a bunch of typos since all of the names were spelled slightly differently. I also thought I had missed a very big deal of world building since the characters went from human to anthropomorphic insects.

It was frustrating, especially because Dran wasn’t confused at all. Everything was normal, except nothing was normal.

By the third or fourth shift, I figured out what was happening, so when the big reveal arrived, I wasn’t all that surprised. In fact, it made me shrug and think something along the lines of, “short pieces of fiction are great for experimenting, and interesting ideas can be annoying in practice.” It’s never good when a story makes you doubt the editing of an author or publishing house.

However, on my second read, I did quite enjoy this little reality-jumping gimmick. It added some spice to an otherwise obvious scifi story, and looking back, the jumps are all done for very specific reasons. There’s more depth in Patchwerk than had I originally thought.

It also becomes the source of some amazement, since there’s a lot of world building done in a short amount of space. In the span of paragraphs and even well-placed names/nouns, I could garner much of why Dran’s dystopian future was such a dystopia, and this goes from the first version of reality to the last.

It takes a good deal of skill to do that, so bravo Mr. Tallerman.

As far as characters go, Dran is fairly alright and likeable. He’s a scientist first and a spy second, but as it turns out, he’s a pretty terrible spy. He knows just enough to not die, but not much more than that. It adds tension and makes certain sequences either very impressive or very amusing, and his lack of skill certainly makes him more relatable. His goals turn a bit topsy-turvy when he runs into his ex wife, but the relationship subplot going through the book manages to work.

It helps that Dran’s wife, Karen, is pretty cool.

The only character I really didn’t like was the villain, who came off as rather boring and obvious. He’s a bit of a sociopath, but not the fun kind like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. He just exists to drive the plot and be the bad guy.

Perhaps the best part of Patchwerk is how it turns the “mad scientist” idea on its head. Dran isn’t evil or crazy, yet his invention is so dangerous that he might as well be Dr. Evil drilling his way into the Earth’s core to set off every active volcano on our planet. It’s fun, because even though he means well, his authorial intent doesn’t really matter.

Conversely, the villain is as evil as Dr. Evil but not a scientist!

Patchwerk is a bit of a mixed bag. With the gimmick’s frustration out of the way, it becomes a pretty fun little scifi story with solid action and a likeable protagonist, though it also doesn’t aspire to much more than that. The gimmick is interesting in theory, yet in practice I found it kind of aggravating. It is well-written though, so if you’re desperate for this kind of story, you could do much worse. I’d say go for it if you’re willing to spend what Tor is asking for on a novella.