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
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
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
It has taken me far too long to read the first Zombie Fallout book by Mark Tufo. Tufo is one of the most prolific zombie writers out there, with nine books in this series plus spinoffs including a series of werewolf stories that take place many years after the zompoc. Naturally, I’ve heard of Tufo for years. This particular novel has nearly 1800 reviews on Amazon, which is a staggering number considering it was self-published.
This book has some similar characteristics to other notable books in this genre. It is in a journal format, though the author strays from sticking with the main character’s perspective for certain portions of the book. While this isn’t a major issue, it does point out the flaw in this type of storytelling-things the main character doesn’t know must be shared by other characters or in third person and it feels like a bit of a disruption when another voice jumps into for a chapter or two.
The prologue makes it clear the zombie apocalypse is about to get into full swing when a vaccination for a new strain of flu ends up bringing the dead back to life. From there we switch over to narrator Mike Talbot, ex-Marine and family man, while he is getting ready to take a shower in his house. This is interrupted when zombies show up on his front lawn and his family starts to freak out. Mike is sort of a prepper/gun nut who has been fascinated by the idea of zombies for a long time, but it’s clear he isn’t prepared for the sudden all-out assault taking place on his neighborhood and threatening his family’s existence.
Things move pretty fast from the get go, with rescue trips to save family members and friends while Mike and his neighbors work to barricade the walled-in neighborhood from impending doom. The story is, in many ways, pretty routine zompoc stuff, though the author throws a few curve balls into the mix. This includes the idea that these zombies perhaps aren’t undead, but infected and still with a spark of life, and more importantly, perhaps a spark of intelligence. There is also a hint of the supernatural, including a bit of prognostication and mental telepathy thrown in to give things a bit of mystery.
Overall, I can see why this series has been so popular. Tufo uses snarky humor and heavily descriptive verse to describe the gore, the smells, and the overall madness engulfing his character’s life. Despite some of the more odd things about Mike, he is, for the most part, just a family man trying his best to protect his loved ones in a time of ultimate danger-something very relatable.
That isn’t to say that I didn’t have some issues with the story or how it’s told. Many of my complaints have been pointed in other reviews. Though the story is fun and I’m intrigued as to how some of the more unique elements the author introduced here will be expanded upon in future volumes, I felt that many characters outside of Mike are somewhat one-dimensional. This is in part due to the fact that a diary format is somewhat limited in stepping away from the single perspective it showcases.
Women in particular are given short shrift in this book. Mike’s wife is somewhat of a stereotypical shrew who naturally is the only person on the planet he is afraid of, yet at the same time she appears to be helpless and lacking in common sense. Despite having lived with a prepper for many years, she has no idea how to even load a weapon. Neither does Mike’s daughter, for that matter, who, like her mama, has a mean temper and a stubborn streak a mile long. Another woman who agrees to go a supply run outside the safety of the walls of Mike’s neighborhood does nothing more than cower in the truck while everyone else takes care of business. All I could remember about the wife of Mike’s best friend was that she was a lousy shot-there is little else shared about her.
Mike is a funny character and his internal monologues and flashbacks are sometimes very amusing as he tries to make light of a desperate situation. At other times his perspective is best described as a bit…off. Comparing the horror of possibly being forced to shoot a loved one who has been attacked by a zombie to the more meager fear of speaking in public for the first seemed somewhat dismissive. The obsession Mike has with his Jeep Wrangler and not using this durable off-road vehicle during the zombie apocalypse because it might get scratched plus having his family be fearful of his wrath if they use it even under desperate circumstances seemed a bit lacking in focus. Mike would do anything for his family, and that comes across on almost every page, but there are occasional lapses in perspective like those above that seem a bit disjointed given the situation.
Despite the criticism I have, the book is fun and certainly does a good job of paving the way for future installments. Without leaving things on a cliffhanger note, there is enough mystery hinted at to keep a reader guessing and wanting to know what is next-in particular related to the supernatural elements of this tale.
Zombie Fallout can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Zombie-Fallout-Mark-Tufo-ebook/dp/B003A022YO/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1473094523&sr=8-1
Holiday of the Dead is a rather sizable volume of zombie short stories that mostly stick to the theme of being on holiday, though a few seemed to stretch that concept a bit. For us Yanks, a holiday means a day of festivities, while with the Brits it is what we call a vacation. There is a pretty healthy mix of both types of tales to be found here. It isn’t just a mix, but a mixed bag, with a few stories forgotten as soon as I finished them. Fortunately, quite a few others were memorable and demonstrated the author’s ability to have some fun with the theme and with zombie fiction in general. When you have a book filled with nearly forty short stories, things are going pretty well when you come away feeling that at least thirty were worth the price of admission.
Often I try to provide a mini-review of each story in an anthology, but not with a tome this size. There are far too many to recount in detail. Suffice it to say, you will get an assortment of traditional and inspired here. There are some very recognizable names in the table of contents, well know writers of zombie and horror fiction, including Iain Mckinnon, Eric Dimbleby, Tonia Brown, David Dunwoody, Eric Brown, William Meikle, Joe McKinney, and Wayne Simmons. A couple of special guests, John Russo and Tony Burgess, add tales of their own at the end of the book.
Perhaps Holiday of the Dead could have been pared down a bit, but overall it was an entertaining read with only a few minor speed bumps. The most inventive tales should more than make up for any issues you may have with the handful that don’t resonate. Stories like Change Is As Good As Rest, Naked Fear, Daddy Dearest, Home Is The Sailor, Home From The Sea, Burj, The Day The Music Died, Where Moth And Rust Destroy, and Crossover kept things popping, though quite a few others were just as fun to dive into.
Solidly entertaining zombie shorts with a few misfires, but more than enough undead goodness between its pages.
Holiday of the Dead can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Holiday-Dead-John-Russo-ebook/dp/B004XJ7HZK/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=#navbar
Instead of two separate posts, since I read these two books one after the other, I thought it would make more sense to combine their review into one post.
Breathe is a collection of short stories from Layden Robinson that are very difficult to pin down. Surreal horror with a perhaps bizarre slant might describe some of this work, though even that perhaps doesn’t quite encapsulate what these twelve shorts are all about. Free form poetry? Perhaps. The utterings of a madman? Quite possibly.
There is a preponderance of adjectives and adverbs slathered freely throughout these tales of nightmare and perhaps waking dreams. Perhaps there are too many-some jarring and disruptive, as is the flow and pacing in much of these tales. These are not stories for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. Vampires, assassins, mannequins, giant tarantulas, and serial killers abound in stories of failure and perhaps redemption, though there are as many uncontrolled laughs bursting forth as there are profound meanings, or so it seemed to me.
It’s fair to say that this probably isn’t a book that will be everyone’s cup of tea. It is something you have focus on, glean and decipher as you can, and determine what meaning there is for you. I won’t lie and say I was satisfied with every story-on the contrary, some left me frustrated and exasperated. Perhaps that is the point. I wasn’t quite sure where to go with some of these tales. Certainly, there is meaning to be found, but whether it will resonate for you will be determined if you are receptive to letting your mind get bent a little, then a little more, with each written word.
Check it out for yourself here: https://www.amazon.com/Breathe-Layden-Robinson-ebook/dp/B00LD8JYLE?ie=UTF8&ref_=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top
Chameleon is a standalone short by Layden Robinson that is as surreal and trippy as his short story collection, Breathe, though it is more cohesive and compelling from my perspective. It is a magical journey of discovery-a quest, if you will, that is perhaps partly dream and partly reality, or maybe entirely acid trip. Regardless, it is an adventure that challenged the main character at every turn and did the same with me the reader. Demons, the devil, loss, tragedy, hope, peace, and redemption are things that come to mind here, though interpretations will vary. This isn’t an easy story to review or even describe, except perhaps as an enchanting fever dream that pokes and prods at you because as soon as you think you have a fix on where it is going, it jars you and changes course. The pace is brisk but the taste of each section, or compartment of this short story, leaves a flavor on your mouth, whether it be bitter or a vague hint of sweetness. And then the taste changes when you turn the page once more.
Chameleon can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Chameleon-Layden-Robinson-ebook/dp/B00KHB71QI?ie=UTF8&ref_=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top
From the title of this book, Badass Zombie Road Trip, I had a vision of an apocalyptic ride across undead highways in a classic car (maybe a convertible Caddy or a hot rod like an old Road Runner). Even the picture used on the cover reinforced that vision. Alas, it was not meant to be. What I got instead was a tale of Jonah and Dale, best buddies, on the run to chase down a lost soul before the devil does them in. Not a bad trade off, especially when Candy, a beautiful hitchhiker, is added to the mix. She adds a bit of spice to the testosterone mix, especially since Dale, the Lothario of the duo, has his sights set on her as his next conquest, while Jonah, the meek and mild member of the pair, is falling hard for her in his own modest way.
The threesome has to make it cross country after a poorly thought out (and devilishly influenced) detour into California, where Dale soul is taken from him by Lucifer himself, collecting on a debt incurred during his childhood. To save his friend, Jonah ups the stakes and tosses his soul into the mix if Satan will give them a chance to reclaim Dale’s soul. Unfortunately for both of them, the Devil doesn’t play fair, so Dale is not only soulless, he’s lifeless too-though he can move around and talk…and he’s hungry for a bit more than junk food.
Jonah and Dale’s relationship is an interesting dynamic. Dale is overwhelming, loud, obnoxious, and a letch, while Jonah is quiet, intelligent, sincere, and innocent. They seem to fit together well, though Dale’s bullying tended to rub me the wrong way and I wanted Jonah to stand up for himself a bit more. And that is where Candy, the intriguing hitchhiker who gets the boys into even more trouble, comes in. She is beautiful, somewhat mysterious, and triggers strong interest from both of them. Plus, she adds her own brand of trouble to the story that keeps things hopping.
Overall, the journey is an entertaining one, though it grinds through a few scenes. Dragging a zombie across country that needs to feed on something…substantial…every now and then is definitely a cause for concern and plenty of misfortune. The Devil is cunning and likes to cause as much woe for our road warriors as possible, which keeps things popping. The dark humor here works and so does the relationship between the three main characters, who seem to mesh well, even when they’re causing each other major grief. This is a quick read, and a fun one.
Badass Zombie Road Trip can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Badass-Zombie-Road-Tonia-Brown-ebook/dp/B006ZAJ4M4/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8