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
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
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
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=
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
Kings of the Dead came out six years ago, and as was quite popular at that time with zombie genre books, was written in a journal format. The popularity of that format has died down in recent years but with my attempts to read many of the books I failed to read in years past, I am reminded once again how many authors chose to go this route. I’ve shared the advantages and disadvantages of this format in prior reviews, and of course, this book is no exception. I do give credit where credit is due, of course. Author Tony Faville remains true to the format, not moving to a third person narrative at any point, which some authors tend to do when they feel the relentless need to reveal things the narrator doesn’t know and thus can’t share with the reader. To avoid this pitfall, Cole’s journal is written in by others when he is not available at certain points in time, which fills in those gaps in the story there would otherwise be if limited to his perspective alone. This adds a few interesting twists to the story as Cole himself reads these entries, left as notes for him upon his return to his journal. It serves as smoother tale because the author didn’t suddenly change writing styles, which I appreciated.
The story is fairly standard zompoc fare, told from the perspective of a man with former military and medical experience, who has prepared with a group of friends for the end of the world as we know it for several years as a hobby. Zombies crop up when the vaccine for a new strain of the flu ends up reanimating those who have taken it. The zombies are mainly the slow shamblers here, with a mix of faster undead joining the fray as the story and timeline moves forward.
This is a fairly personal story. Like some of the other journal written sagas, there is a good chunk of the author’s personality shining through the narrator. This is a story of someone who is a fan of the genre writing a story of survival they have envisioned for themselves and their friends. It does add something to the telling of the tell-a pseudo autobiography envisioned by the author were there a zombie apocalypse. Authors are guided to “write what you know” and Tony does so here, having the personal knowledge related to weaponry, medical skills, and other related topics that would have an impact on survival in an undead world. Credit to the author for not ‘over doing it’ as I have seen a tendency of some to do when it comes to slathering their pages with an excess of demonstrated expertise in a particular area that rapidly turns into overkill. The flow here is more natural and the while the reader will know the author knows his stuff, they won’t be blasted with it on every page.
While the survivors hunker down, attempting to build a new home in their region of Oregon for much of the first half of the book, the story becomes, in time, more of a road trip as Cole, the narrator, ponders the meaning of existence in a dead world and chooses to take a journey of discovery. Cole struggles with the loss of friends and trying to find a reason to carry on, but there are also glimmers of hope that give him, and the reader, reasons to carry on.
There are some rough spots in the story and some of that comes from the format-we don’t get to discovery something happening as it happens, but written as a report done the following day or in the hours following the actual event, which dilutes some of the emotional resonance. Still, there is definite emotional potency here, especially as related to the people Cole deeply cares for and will do anything to try and keep safe, which in the an undead world is a very difficult thing to do.
As is the case with many journal oriented zombie tales, there is not necessarily a main focus outside of survival written on its pages-survival of the body as well as the spirit. As such, it meanders a good bit, but the ending was quite satisfying and unlike many of the books of a similar make and model, the author doesn’t demand that you read three or four more entries in a series to make his point. This book does so succinctly and with quiet grace.
Overall, if as a zombie genre fan you aren’t burnt out on the diary approach to zombie fiction, Kings of the Dead is a solid addition to your library.
Kings of the Dead can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Kings-Dead-Tony-Faville/dp/1934861839/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8
Every once in a while I like to break out of my normal routine and do something a bit different. I watch horror films-quite a few, in fact, but I have only posted a review of a couple of them on my blog. I stick to reviewing horror novels, and primarily independent stuff from independent authors and smaller presses. After all, the “big” stuff gets along just fine whether I review it or not, while the smaller, lesser known works get a boost from every review they receive-good, bad, or indifferent. Recognition and awareness is key to gaining a wider audience. Especially if you are trying to turn your ‘little’ project into something bigger. So I thought I would do my part and check out a short film by a guy named Jim Rothman (twitter handle: @ScytheJim), who is working hard on getting the crowdfunding to turn a fifteen minute short into a full length horror feature. Jim shared his film with me for the promise of a fair and honest review. And unlike so many other reviews I do, where I can only give you the link to go purchase your own copy, I am sharing the link so you can watch the film, in all its glory, for free, right now, without spending another dime! Ain’t that somethin’?
Naturally, Jim is looking for donors to help fund this project, so while you don’t have to pay to watch the short, you might consider a contribution if you like what you see and would like to see more. And Jim tossed in a bit of an extra for anyone who decides to donate $50 at supportscythe.com if they do so on Monday. Whoever pledges $50 for the Baseball Cap and Blu-Ray package (again, ON Monday) will also get an autographed copy of the script. Not too shabby a deal. So, what’s all the hubbub about? Well, you can watch the movie here: Scythe Short Film.
Okay, so we’ve gotten all the promotional stuff out of the way! On to the review:
The setup with Scythe is fairly traditional slasher fare. Two college aged girls are sitting in an apartment, one, Amy, lamenting what kind of impact she’ll manage to have on the world at large while she studies for exams. She fears no one will remember her-that she will leave no impression on anyone else including future generations. The other girl, offering up another hit off the joint they’ve been smoking, gives Amy a pep talk about how she will end up doing great things, just before our main character decides it’s time to walk home. Next, we see the second girl turn on the television to watch a news report that a imprisoned killer has escaped and is on the loose in the local area.
Pretty routine set up, and in some ways, what follows is also pretty routine. Where this film ended up resonating for me, in its brief time on my computer screen, was in the build up of tension that takes place after Amy begins her walk home and is warned, via cellphone by her friend, of the escaped maniac on the loose. The filmmakers allow the energy to build, through the music, the surrounding environment, and through the main character’s expressions and body language. Amy’s fear ebbs and flows based on what is going on around her, and that was what yanked me along with her through her harrowing journey.
In a film like this, even in short form, its as much what you know as you don’t know, and playing the guessing game about what will happen next. We all do it-when will the slasher appear, and when will they administer the coup de grace? If it’s predictable, it’s usually forgettable. But when you guess wrong and you get that adrenaline rush because you’re startled, taken off guard, or even pee yourself a bit…that’s the payoff. And for a short film that was produced in an effort to show the capabilities of these filmmakers and the promise of something greater, the payoff was there for me. Much of it was in the promise of something greater rather than just what happens on the screen. In other words, I took the bait right off the hook (or off the Scythe, in this case, har har).
The production values (I have a friend who always looooved to use that term when describing a film-it made him feel all refined and movie savvy, I suppose) were solid. The acting was decent and the music, as I already mentioned, blends well with what is happening on screen. Whatever the budget they had to make this promotional piece, it didn’t feel cheap, shabby, or hastily constructed.
The bottom line for me is not that this little film was mind altering or in and of itself a great standalone film. It’s fun and entertaining, certainly, but more importantly, serves its purpose. That purpose is to draw you in enough to want to see what the creators could do with the budget necessary to make a full length version of Scythe.
But don’t take my word for it. Check it out yourself. If you like it, promote it. If you really like it, consider tossing a few coppers in the direction of the filmmakers so you can see even more of Scythe. And if you don’t like it…well, it was just 15 minutes out of your life, now wasn’t it?