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Review of Tim Long’s “Shards of Reality”

Shards of Reality is a story written in a new fantasy subgenre that I haven’t been exposed to previously called LitRPG.  Given that I spent several years buried in the world of Norrath via Everquest, the Sony Online Entertainment massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG for short), this seems like a natural extension into the realm of literature for me to check out.  This of course means I haven’t been exposed to other LitRPG works before reading this book so I don’t know all the tropes or rules involved.

Of course, if you’ve read fantasy, you are at least somewhat familiar with the concept of leaving our reality and entering an alternate fantasy universe, whether it be something along the lines of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever or Magic Kingdom for Sale.  Those are tales not attached to any sort of game, though Joel Rosenberg’s Guardians of the Flame series took that step with a Dungeons and Dragons type game where the characters/players are involuntary thrust into the world where they role played warriors, wizards, and rogues.  LitRPG takes this a step further, at least with Tim Long’s new series (this book is Enter The Realm Book 1) by making it so those entering the realm realize they are still actually in the game, not some alternative universe, and this game is an MMORPG, similar to the likes of Everquest or World of Warcraft.  Furthermore, the game elements stay intact.  There are still levels, experience to gain, stats to get from weapons and spells, mana pools to be used when casting spells, hit points, and all the lingo gamers are familiar with, like ‘Ding!” when a character gains a level, “mob” which is short for mobile, or a non-player character that you can attack, or in many cases, a monster, and plenty of other bits and pieces of jargon.

Our main character, Walt, is a game tester and slacker who has been thrust into a version of the MMORPG his company made and runs, Realms of Th’loria.  He has no idea how he got there, and when he discovers another co-worker, Oz, is there with him, they set out to figure out what the heck is going on.  While Walt is intrigued by the idea of being in the game he has played for years, he isn’t his favorite high level character that took him years to build up, he is instead a “noob” or a level one character with no skills or weapons.  Oz, who is even less happy with this situation, is in the same boat.  Being familiar with the game environment and monsters gives them some advantages, though they quickly realize that this is a rundown, grungier version of the world they have played in their virtual reality helmets back in the real world.  After hooking up with another co-worker who is stuck in Th’loria with them, they discover that this isn’t just a different version of the game they’ve played, but that there is plenty more mystery involved with this place, and why they’re here.  Of course, this is the first of a series of books, so more questions are posed than answered as these unwilling heroes of the realm are forced to venture forth to gain the experience needed to provide them with a few answers and the skills they need to survive.

I’m not sure how much I like the comparison and contrast between LitRPG and the more immersive, for lack of a better word, fantasy realms that people from our world end up stumbling into.  The idea of looking at a weapon and knowing its stats because they are emblazoned on the hilt, having a HUD inside your skull that shows your health, mana, and how much experience you need to hit the next level does take a bit away from the fantasy aspect of it for me, though I appreciated being in the know as a former gamer, as it were.  Reading this book made me nostalgic for those times, a decade ago, when I was grinding experience and was the leader of my own guild of players in Everquest, all of us striving to get better loot and gain levels so we could unlock new skills and go on even tougher adventures.  Of course, we weren’t trying to escape the game like our main characters here, and their whining complaints, especially Oz’s, was a bit annoying, though realistic; a character on a screen getting hit and taking damage is a whole lot different than feeling it when a dagger gets shoved into your back.

Overall, this story was fun. Someone who hasn’t gamed in an MMORPG may feel a bit confused at points, and for those who want full-fledged escapism from reality, they might find this type of book a little bit too self-aware, but if you enjoy the idea of being thrust into an adventure and a mystery to boot, the LitRPG subgenre and Shards of Reality in particular is something to check out.

Shards of Reality can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/SHARDS-REALITY-LitRPG-novel-Enter-ebook/dp/B075RSCJZ3/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8

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Review of Stephen A. North’s “Like A Man” and “Purchase Order #2113-21A”

Like a Man and Purchase Order #2113-21A are a couple of quick, tightly written shorts by Stephen A. North, who has bounced back and forth between apocalyptic fiction and science fiction with his prior novels and shorter works.  These two tales fit in well with his other stories, both with rough and tumble main characters coping with nightmarish circumstances and impending end of the world doom.

Like A Man takes place in Rio De Janeiro set in the present, and appeared in an apocalyptic anthology the author contributed to several years ago.  I’d read the story then and enjoyed it for it’s surprising, startling transition from a sun drenched flirtation between a body guard and his boss’s girl to the sudden, abrupt, and brutal end of the world sequence it proposes with the alien creatures burrowing up from the depths of the earth.

Purchase Order #2113-21A could be an addendum to the universe Stephen created with his Drifter novel.  A future filled with enslaved soldiers doing the bidding of others, it has a flavor of Blade Runner/techno near future gloom, though with an even darker glimpse of how ugly humanity can potentially become then either of the Blade Runner movies.

These are two quick shorts that definitely speak of larger worlds and potentially more involved stories if the author chose to expand them.  As they are, they are good, quick bite-sized bits of apocalyptic goodness for those looking for a quick fix.

Like a Man and Purchase Order #2113-21A can be found here:  https://www.amazon.com/Like-Man-Purchase-Order-2113-21A-ebook/dp/B0756W8NXG/ref=la_B002K8VVMG_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1507757852&sr=1-1

Review of Stephen A. North’s “Tusk and Sedation Dentistry”

Tusk and Sedation Dentistry are two horror short stories with dentists as their main characters.  Tusk has us sitting down next to the young, beautiful neighbor of an older dentist who enjoys regaling her with tales of his adventurous youth.  You see, he has countless trophies from trips abroad adorning his office walls.  But one particular trophy, an oddly elongated tooth, has caught her eye and she is insistent on hearing how the good doctor came across this strange artifact.  Though reluctant, the dentist begrudgingly shares his journey of dark discovery.

Sedation Dentistry is like the sickly sweet dessert after devouring a darkly delectable meal.  Weighing in at only a couple of pages, this tidbit reveals how tremendously horrifying dentistry might be.  Spending every day starring into the deep, dank abysses that are people’s bacteria infested mouths and then being forced to stick your fingers inside those vile maws must be a nightmare for some.  Even worse must be the secret fear that those horrible ivory pillars could come slamming together at any second to grind the flesh off the bones of your fingers…

These two ‘toothsome tales’, as the author describes them, are a quick, painless read, poured through faster than it’ll take you to go through your next six month checkup.  Tusk leads us into a chultun-an underground chamber on the Yucatan Peninsula where our dentist friend is hunting for treasure with a couple of comrades.  This dark lair shares some disturbingly similar characteristics to the open, steaming holes that are the mouths he deals with as a dentist, including the sharp, pointed teeth.  Sedation Dentistry fooled me in the first couple of sentences, with its description of a cavernous, plague infested mouth that was as ominous as the caverns found in Tusk.

Quick easy reads for those chomping at the bit for a taste of horror.

Tusk and Sedation Dentistry can be found here:  https://www.amazon.com/Tusk-Sedation-Dentistry-Stephen-North-ebook/dp/B074PTDDJD/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1504145557&sr=8-1&keywords=tusk+and+sedation+dentistry

Review of L.M. Labat’s “The Sanguinarian Id”

The Sanguinarian Id introduces us to Hael, a child found abandoned and left for dead in the woods outside of an asylum in England in the late 1800s.  Taken in by the doctors there, they are fascinated by this little girl who remembers little of her past and appears to be supernaturally resilient and strong.  They search for but fail to find anyone who knows who she is, which is completely satisfactory to Dr. Strauss and especially Dr. Mendelson, who run the asylum.  They have spent much of their time experimenting and torturing their mostly female patients and have devious plans for Hael as well.

This story combines elements of gothic horror with a journey of self-discovery.  Hael doesn’t truly understand what she is, but begins to grasp the truth while doing her best to escape her nightmare existence.  Despite her efforts to escape the clutches of the mysterious and purely evil Mendelson, it appears that their destinies are firmly intertwined long term.

The first part of the book takes place in Hael’s childhood years, and the author has given it a strong flavor of gothic horror like we get from the classics of the era: Dracula and Frankenstein.  The latter half of the book leaps forward a half century when we are thrust into the middle of World War II Germany, where Hael continues her lifelong quest for redemption and revenge.

The story is intriguing, pulling us deeper into the dark underworld Hael both lives in and tries to make sense of-she has been abused, beaten, terrorized, and violated throughout her life.  In turn, she has worked to extract revenge on those who have done this to her and those she cares for, while trying to find some sense of self.  She lives both in the real world painted black with despair and misery the Nazi’s have unleashed, and in the supernatural world-a world filled with pure blood and half-blood vampires and other monsters far worse.

This is the author’s first novel and in many ways is an impressive bit of storytelling, especially for someone who is barely into adulthood.  The depth of research and understanding it must have taken to develop this world and underworld filled with supernatural characters and creatures must have been substantial.  The author has developed a vibrant, bloody, dark, grim world and a character that successfully manages to give the reader someone to both respect and care for, while also fearing them and the dark acts they are capable of doing.

There is a fair bit of tell vs. show in this story and the dialog, at points, is a bit awkward.  The main character’s use of the word “bitch” on multiple occasions as an insult to her male enemies in the World War II era felt a bit out of place, though that is a minor complaint.  There are some awkward turns of phrase here and there while some of the story transitions are abrupt.  We go from knowing little to nothing about the monsters that inhabit this world early on in the story, to Kael having extensive knowledge of them later on.  We did not get to join her on that journey of discovery and it felt a bit like an opportunity lost.

Despite these quibbles, this is a strong first entry in this potential series of books and a very promising start to the career of the author, who will continue to refine her writing style and sharpen the dialog with the more stories she creates.  Her foundation in storytelling is solid and I look forward to seeing more from L.M. Labat in the future.

The Sanguinarian Id can be found here:  https://www.amazon.com/Sanguinarian-Id-L-M-Labat/dp/1937769445/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

Review of Stephen A. North’s “Dead Tide Rage”

Dead Tide Rage continues the saga Stephen A. North started with Dead Tide back in 2008.  This is the fourth installment in the series, which tells the stories of a wide assortment of folks in the days following the start of the zombie apocalypse in the Tampa Bay area.  There is no telling if this is the actual end of the road for the saga-while some characters disappear from the tale here (and have been doing so since the first book), there continues to plenty more to carry things forward.  This isn’t any sort of spoiler.  The author has never pulled his punches when it comes to the fate of those who inhabit the pages in this series.  And of course, if you are reading this review and haven’t checked out any of the prior installments, I would suggest you start with Dead Tide, or DTR won’t make a huge amount of sense.

The author changed the tense with the third installment of this series to past vs. present and he sticks with past tense with DTR.  Regardless of the tense used, there is an immediacy found in each book of the series-things move at a fast clip.  You are in deep in the action, regardless of what character’s perspective you are subjected to in that moment.  Many of them are familiar by now, but there are a few new additions to the cast.  If it has been a while since you’ve read Dead Tide Surge (the third book), the author has provided a dramatis personae at the beginning of the book as a quick refresh.  Keeping up with everybody can get a bit confusing, but if you have made it this far, you likely have a good handle on who is who.  There are plenty of folks that have survived long enough that you probably have your favorites, and the ones you are hoping die an ugly and brutal death.  It should be noted, there is plenty of diversity-women, men, and children of different races and socio-economic classes, coming together or falling apart on a daily (and hourly basis) regardless of who they were before the zombies rose.  No one comes away clean in this tale.  Of course, this means the story isn’t locked into any single group’s survival-there really are no permanent groupings anyway-things change far too quickly and the ensemble cast drifts on and off each other’s radar unless they make a conscious effort to stick together…and even that doesn’t work out all that well too often.

The reality of a review of a fourth book in a series is that you, the reader, likely have made up your mind about this series by now and you are reading this because you want to see if this book matches up well with the others that came before.  My answer to that is yes-this book fits seamlessly with the others, like a new puzzle piece.  Again, there is no telling if the puzzle is complete-the outer edges aren’t quite straight.  I almost feel as though the author could call it a day with this book or write four more books in the series if he chooses.  As with most apocalyptic tales, the idea of a happy ending is pretty subjective.  Orson Welles once said “If you want a happy ending that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”  I’m not sure Stephen A. North has decided where to end his story, or if he is all that interested in a happy ending for his characters.  But the ride, so far, has been a pretty interesting one.

You can find Dead Tide Rage here:  https://www.amazon.com/Dead-Tide-Rage-Stephen-North-ebook/dp/B073HR3TFL/ref=la_B002K8VVMG_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1499300622&sr=1-1

Review of Stephen Kozeniewski’s “Hunter of the Dead”

Hunter of the Dead does its best to shed new light into vampire mythology with a story spanning the ages from the early days of vampires and the inquisitors who wage a constant war with them to today, when a strange monster, shrouded in mystery, has come forth, slaying both vampires and inquisitors alike.

The story passes through multiple time periods, flashing back into the history of characters both significant and petty, while the main story focuses on events occuring in present day Las Vegas.  Cicatrice, the strongest immortal in the world and leader of the most powerful house of vampires, is locked in a war with all other rival houses, including house Signari, led by Father Otto, Cicatrice’s greatest rival.  Cicatrice has just found his true heir, Idi Han, a freshly turned but incredibly powerful young vampire who shows remarkable skills and control over her powers.  We are also introduced to Nico Salazar, night manager of a convenience store who is thrust into the world of night dwellers when his store gets attacked by a strange, vampire-like creature and only by luck and the assistance of an employee does he manage to survive.  It turns out that his ragged compatriot is Carter Price, an inquisitor who looks like he’s been run through mill a few too many times to be classified as much of a vampire slayer.

There is a lot going on in this story, with the authors own unique take on the world of vampires and immortality being shared on its pages.  Kozeniewski does bring some fresh takes to the genre, with his own brand of dark humor steeped in heavy doses of gore drenched horror.  The main characters are solidly developed-in particular Idi Han-the young vampire whose powers are growing at a far more rapid rate than normal, along with her resentment toward being seen as some sort of savior of her kind.  Also intriguing is Carter Price, the washed out, rough and tumble inquisitor that likes to go it alone in a profession that typically requires massive teamwork to survive given how much power immortals wield.

This story is jam packed with characters and flashbacks that lend a healthy appreciation for the history of the immortal bloodlines and the wars they’ve waged with one another and humankind.  The advantage with that is that the story moves at a very fast clip-there is very little downtime in its pages.  Unfortunately, this also means that some of the flesh on its bones I would have liked to have seen within the pages is hard to find.  This is a tale that could have been further developed with a much larger work, or perhaps sliced into multiple novels about the diverse characters populating its pages.  The Hunter, a malignant and yet fascinating monster, could have garnered for more pages and storyline here, but so to could have Idi Han, Cicatrice, and Carter Price.  It is clear that there is more to tell with each of them and given that the author has left the door open for a sequel (or a series of books), perhaps we will see a great deal more of each of them in later works.

Overall, the writing here, as is typically the case with Kozeniewski, is rock solid.  He knows how to weave a creative, darkly funny, and diabolical tale.  Perhaps it isn’t much of a criticism that his story could have been more fleshed out-after all, leaving the audience wanting more isn’t the worst sin in the world.

Hunter of the Dead can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Hunter-Dead-Stephen-Kozeniewski/dp/1944044310/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1491760206&sr=8-1&keywords=hunter+of+the+dead

Review of Travis Adkins “Mists of the Dead”

Mists of the Dead, by Travis Adkins, takes the tradition of high adventure and adds a liberal helping of modern day zombie horror to bring something to the page that is both familiar and yet fascinatingly unique.

We are introduced to Warrel, a roguish charmer of a bard who has it made being the house balladeer in a tavern run by man of questionable means.  Still, Warrel yearns for a life of adventure.  His chance for something more occurs when Kogliastro, the most famous wizard in the world, decides to leave his fortress behind and venture out into the wide world once again.  With a bit of finesse, Warrel is able to convince the magic user of his potential usefulness as a scribe on his journeys, and thus begins a saga that will take the old mage and young, impetuous bard (along with their dwarf warrior companion) to a strange new land filled with both mystery and the eponymous mist.

Being someone who grew up on Dungeons and Dragons, this tale has much that was familiar to me, from the magical items and spells the character’s use and discover, to the chosen professions of not only the three adventurers but others they meet in their travels.  The world the author has created is filled with gods and monsters of his own creation as well as those taken from the pages of the manuals I devoured as a fanatical fantasy gamer in my youth.  Adkins puts his own spin on the mix, in particular related to the gods of Erda, the world in which Warrel lives, and how his characters communicate.  Warrel in particular uses an entertaining mix of the classic ‘ye olde’ common tongue and modern vernacular that put a smile on my face at is creativity.

While the story can be easily classified as traditional fantasy, Adkins does not forget his own history, which includes at least two traditional modern-day zombie apocalypse novels.  The zombies our adventurers meet don’t share the traits of magically enchanted undead, raised up by dark priests and necromancers, but adhere in many ways to the zombies we are familiar with these days-those who die within the mists rise up and are compelled to devour the brains of the living.

Naturally, given my own life-long fascination with both fantasy adventure and the undead, I am probably a biased reviewer of this tale, but I must say that the characters are solidly fleshed out, as is the world(s) the author has created.  If perhaps there is an area I would be critical of, it is the length of time it takes for Warrel to go from committing to leaving his home behind to travel with a famed wizard and actually doing it.  While the detail the author commits to Allswell, the city that Warrel calls home, and the cast of characters he has relationships with is tremendous, it perhaps takes a bit too long for the real adventure to begin. With that said, for me, Mists of the Dead was both an exciting journey into the unknown and to places I am very familiar with and love returning too.

Mists of the Dead can be found here:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06XC5Q794