Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Fantasy Review: Shower of Stones by Zachary Jernigan

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this title from the publisher in exchange for review consideration. While I make every attempt to avoid spoilers, please be aware that an ARC synopsis, press release, or review request may disclose details that are not revealed in the published cover blurb.

Like its predecessor, No Return, the second novel of Jeroun follows two converging story lines - the first featuring the triumvirate of Vedas, Churls, and Berun, and the second featuring the scientist/magician Pol. It's a narrative format that echoes the first novel quite nicely, creating a natural flow or connection between the two, but that's really where the similarities end.

As hard as it may be to believe, Shower of Stones is a darker, more complex, more philosophical novel. Zachary Jernigan really takes us beneath the surface of that first narrative to confront what it means to be human, to be in love, and to hold onto hope for a better tomorrow. That's not to say that this is a shiny, happy, hopeful fantasy - far from it! - but we're climbing towards the possibility of a future, rather than towards an end.

The opening chapter or arc of a novel really serves to set the tone for what comes after, and Jernigan sucked me in immediately. He takes us deep into the history of the world of Jeroun, to a time before Adrash was the only god in the sky, and fully fleshes out a mythology that was only hinted at in the first book. We meet the gods (demigods?) whom Adrash created to keep him company and to provide a sense of a family, and witness firsthand as his depression and his madness drive them to wage war upon a world and attempt to drive him from the skies. It's a fractured, damaged, incestuous family dynamic that evokes memories of Greek mythology, but which is something entirely new and exciting.

In the second arc, he takes us deeper into the heroes of the first book, revealing the heart and soul of Vedas, Churls, and even Berun. Whereas No Return was largely a story of mistrust and animosity, Shower of Stones is one of trust and friendship. The seeds of character development planted in the first book are allowed to take root and blossom here, driven in large part by a mysterious new character who announces himself by arriving on the back of a dragon. I won't say much about him, as his secrets are a cornerstone of the book, but I do have to say a few words about Fyra. As much as I liked the mystery and the cryptic nature of her presence in the first book, I was excited to see her become a character here, extending the heroic triumvirate into a quartet. This arc is certainly the longest of the novel, eating up far more pages than (on the surface) seems wise, but somehow Jernigan makes it work. It's a long period of talking and philosophizing, without a lot of action, but the internal conflicts really work to expose the significance of the first arc, and to bring the two of them together.

The final arc involves, of course, the final confrontation with Adrash. Again, there's not much I can say here without spoiling things, but I was pleasantly surprised by how it all played out. I thought I knew where Jernigan was taking the story, but he weaves in some twists and turns that keep you guessing right to the end. Anybody getting a bit antsy over the lack of action in the second arc is well rewarded here, as everything comes together, with gods and heroes carving out a new mythology. What's refreshing, however, is that he doesn't allow the mythology to overwhelm the human element, and doesn't allow the war between gods to push the heroes to the background. It's a delicate balance when dealing with such very different forces, but I loved the way everything intertwined and came together.

Shower of Stones is a very different book from No Return, both in terms of content and pacing, but somehow it all works. It's not as edgy or innovative as the first, but it's deeper, more well-rounded, and more . . . well, significant is the only word that comes to mind.

Hardcover, 256 pages
Expected publication: July 14th 2015 by Night Shade Book

Monday, June 29, 2015

Thriller Review: Pulse by Robert Cook

If it weren’t for the pacing issues and the one-dimensional characters, Pulse could be a blockbuster political/techno-thriller, putting Robert Cook’s name up there alongside Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn, and Dale Brown.

Unfortunately, the characters are so perfect that they’re propelled far beyond the bounds of credibility and into the region of ridiculous. Yes, it’s a nice change of pace from the psychologically damaged techno-thriller hero, haunted by his past, but characters need some soft spots and weaknesses the make them human. It doesn’t help that their dialogue is just as perfect. It’s like listening to a scripted documentary where every sentence is smart, direct, and precisely worded, but there’s no emotion or humanity to make the conversations seem natural.

As for the pacing I mentioned earlier, I’m certainly no stranger to these novels taking their time in getting to the ‘big’ event, but you need a few small events along the way to build the tension. When war does finally come to the world in the last 100 or so pages, it’s certainly a high point of the novel, extremely well-written and wonderfully detailed, but almost too little, too late. Having said all that, this is the third book in a series (beginning with Cooch), so there may be some character building I’ve missed, just as there may be some crucial details in the opening chapters where I missed the relevance to previous storylines. If either were the case, it might alleviate those issues for readers who are already familiar with the series.

The technology is extremely cutting-edge (more than enough to excite any techno-geek), and the level of detail would be perfect – Cook does a fantastic job of educating us without falling into the trap of trying to impress us with how much he knows – were it not repeated so many times. As for the overall military strategy, that’s often where these thrillers lose me, but here it comes across as both innovative and realistic. Politically, some aspects that nagged at me, but not so much that they negated anything that was happening within the wider conflict. It is, however, a refreshing twist to have a man named Alejandro Mohammed Cuchulain as the hero of such a very American thriller, subverting the stereotypical villainization of Arab/Islamic culture.

As a screenplay, Pulse would work extremely well, since those areas where I found it to be lacking would be far less obvious on the big screen. Regardless, I enjoyed the book immensely, despite its flaws - I just wish Cook had saved me so many exasperated sighs and so much eye-rolling along the way.

Paperback, 362 pages
Published December 16th 2014 by Royal Wulff Publishing

Saturday, June 27, 2015

From the Shelf to the Page: This Week in the Ruins

A busy week this time around with some interviews, guest posts, features, and reviews:
While I don't generally pay a lot of attention to stats, I found this interesting enough to share - the most popular post in the ruins this month has actually been my year-old review of The Last Town by Blake Crouch. Apparently, viewers of Wayward Pines are desperate to know how it all ends.


Stacking The Shelves and Mailbox Monday are a pair of weekly memes that are about sharing the books that came your way over the past week, and which you've added to your shelves - whether they be physical or virtual, borrowed or bought, or for pleasure or review.

Okay, so I managed to go cold turkey on requesting any new titles . . . but I did let myself be tempted by two requests. In my defense, the first was a request from Ragnarok (a publisher I always have trouble saying 'no' to), and the second is co-written by one of the guys in Rush (as a Canadian, I feel honor bound to accept).

By C.T. Phipps

Derek Hawthorne was born to be an agent of the Red Room. Literally. Raised in a conspiracy which has protected the world from the supernatural for centuries, he's never been anything other than a servant of their agenda. Times are changing, though, and it may not be long before their existence is exposed.

When a routine mission uncovers the latest plan of the magical terrorist, the Wazir, Derek finds himself saddled with a new partner. Who is the mysterious but deadly Shannon O'Reilly? What is her agenda? Couple this with the discovery the Red Room has a mole seeking to frame Derek for treason and you have a plot which might bring down a millennium-old organization. Can he stop the Wazir's mission to expose the supernatural? And should he?

Clockwork Lives
by Kevin J. Anderson & Neil Peart

In Clockwork Angels , #1 bestselling author Kevin J. Anderson and legendary Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart created a fabulous, adventurous steampunk world in a novel to accompany the smash Rush concept album of the same name. It was a world of airships and alchemy, clockwork carnivals, pirates, lost cities, a rigid Watchmaker who controlled every aspect of life, and his nemesis, the ruthless and violent Anarchist who wanted to destroy it all.

Anderson and Peart have returned to their colourful creation to explore the places and the characters that still have a hold on their imagination. Marinda Peake is a woman with a quiet, perfect life in a small village; she long ago gave up on her dreams and ambitions to take care of her ailing father, an alchemist and an inventor. When he dies, he gives Marinda a mysterious inheritance: a blank book that she must fill with other people’s stories — and ultimately her own.

Clockwork Lives is a steampunk Canterbury Tales, and much more, as Marinda strives to change her life from a mere “sentence or two” to a true epic.

I also picked up a few used books this weekend to fill some gaps in my shelves. Michael Swanwick I want to read in anticipation of his upcoming release; Pocock & Pitt I've been hunting down since learning it was the basis for the TV series Adderly; Graham Masterton is fast becoming a favorite horror author; and Brooke Leimas I've been hunting down forever.


It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is another weekly meme, this time focused on what books are spending the most time in your hands and in your head, as opposed to what's been added to your shelf.

• Shower of Stones by Zachary Jernigan
I was already curious after reading the first book, and excited after my chat with Zachary, but it's the opening bit of mythology building that has already won me over.

• Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson
I was disappointed in The Crippled God, so I passed on this when it was first released, but I picked up the paperback in anticipation of Fall of Light and I'm enjoying it immensely.

• Grudgebearer by J.F. Lewis
I was in a mood for an old-school fantasy novel last weekend, so I started in on this. A bit confusing early on, but a lot of really cool ideas.

What's topping your shelves this week?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Fantasy Review: The Liar's Key by Mark Lawrence

Wow, talk about a lot of pressure going into a book. Due to delays with Canada Customs and Canada Post, I was late (really late) getting my copy of The Liar's Key. By the time I cracked the spine I was already aware of a slew of 5-star reviews, and even if I tried to avoid reading them beforehand, I still knew many readers who were calling this Mark Lawrence's best work to date.

Yeah, as if my own expectations weren't already high enough!

The thing is, early on, I will admit to a few shadows of doubt. It's a bigger book than the first, in terms of both scope and page count, and I felt like the first half of it dragged on a bit too long. I still enjoyed it, but I found it slowly losing that can't-put-down, must-read impetus I remembered from his other novels. By the time I hit the halfway mark a week later, with Jal and Snorri going their separate ways, I actually put it down for a few days.

Of course, this is Mark Lawrence, and I knew that my pause wouldn't be an extended one. Call it an intermission (if you will) or a palate cleanser (if you must), but a few days later I picked it back up . . . and blew through the second half in 2 days. Yes, even if I have to stop shy of calling it his best - Prince of Fools will hold onto that coveted spot for at least a little while longer - it was still a fantastic read that turned out to be just as good as anything in the Broken Empire trilogy. In fact, I'd go so far as to say the final 100 pages rival anything he's written before, with a climax that may not be quite as frenzied or action-packed as in the previous books, but which is infinitely more dramatic, and entirely satisfying on so many levels.

Oddly enough, for a book that I expected to be very much about Snorri and his quest to bring his family back from Hell, this is entirely Jal's story. In fact, Snorri is almost relegated to a background character here, overshadowed by the likes of Tuttugu, Kara, and Hennan. While they're all great characters, each with their own legitimate roles to play in the overall drama, they're most effective in illuminating some of the more noble (and inconvenient) aspects of Jal's character. As much as he likes to style himself "a liar and a cheat and a coward," we see him slowly evolve through those relationships, fighting against his better side every step of the way.

At the same time, his blood-fueled magical flashbacks both expose his heart and scar his spirit, revealing the truth about his mother, the Red Queen, the Silent Sister, Edris Dean, and more. Whereas Lawrence has always used flashbacks to enhance the story, here he tells a significant chunk of it through those dreams. They don't always make sense in the moment, and it's hard to see exactly where they're going, but when the pieces all fall into place, it's magnificent. The moment when Jal realizes the truth of his family legacy, and just how it plays into the Dead King's schemes, is definitely one of the strongest, most impactful scenes Lawrence has ever written.

Of course, Jal's growth does nothing to absolve him of his more selfish thoughts, and those deeper revelations do nothing to interrupt his sarcastic, self-serving, narrative voice. Simply put, he's a fun guy to listen to, especially when he's whining and complaining about his fate. Even in the first half of the book, where I felt the pacing dragged, Jal's voice was sufficient to keep me coming back. As for the climax, it's that voice, and his own internal monologue, that drive so much of the final scenes. It's powerful stuff, and really serves to strip him bare and reveal the truth of his character, even as it brings the key plotlines of this volume to a close.

One final word on The Liar's Key - that final paragraph, those last 27 words, may very well be the greatest cliffhanger I've ever read. I gasped, I laughed, and I threw my first in the air, ready for the promise of The Wheel of Osheim to come.

Hardcover, 496 pages
Published June 2nd 2015 by Ace

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Delving Into Darkness by Jane Kindred (author of Idol of Blood)

Delving Into Darkness
by Jane Kindred

Idol of Blood is a dark fantasy. Let me qualify that by saying I don’t mean it fits in the genre of dark fantasy—it has no horror elements—well, mostly none. (Is that anything like “mostly dead”?) But as an epic fantasy with romantic elements, it has some seriously dark moments. This second book in my Looking Glass Gods trilogy deals with recovered memories of abuse, madness, loss, and revenge. Of course, there’s a fair bit of romance and erotica in the mix, so it isn’t all darkness, but I feel it’s only fair to let readers know what they’re getting into.

Because the original draft of this trilogy was a single volume—written in the halcyon days of just a few years ago when publishers were willing to buy 800-page epic fantasy—Idol of Blood doesn’t have the usual mostly-happy ending that my books are known for. In terms of classical dramatic structure, it’s largely the “escalating obstacles and rising action” piece of the story, with some temporary triumph mixed in with the darkest hour.

Idol of Bone, released this past February, is probably the lightest of the three, but it also has its fair share of dark elements. The story begins some 13 years after the prequel novella, The Devil’s Garden, and focuses on characters that were only peripheral to that story, which set the stage for the world of Looking Glass Gods. This is a world in which the rule of the godlike race of Meer is waning, and the magic of the Meer is no longer believed in.

While I was writing the last third of the original novel, I was reading Darkness, I, the final book in the late Tanith Lee’s Blood Opera series. It’s fair to say that reading Lee’s book colored my mood and encouraged me to go darker. (If you haven’t read her series, and if you like dark, sexy, subversive fiction, I highly recommend it.) I was also dealing with a dark time in my life. The character in Idol of Blood who recovers repressed childhood memories essentially unlocked my own as I was writing it. That element of the story isn’t in any way autobiographical—what happens to the character is beyond anything I experienced—but it was certainly a cathartic way to deal with the events I was remembering.

That catharsis included the revenge portion of the story. It was how I exorcised my personal demons. And I have to confess to having enjoyed writing many of the darker portions of the book—particularly the character of MeerShiva, who became a sort of personal goddess of vengeance and protection for me at the time. One reviewer for Idol of Bone described her as “creepy,” and I’d have to agree. But she channels her darkness, born of her own trauma, into unapologetic power. And that powerful darkness was something I needed to embrace in my own life.

The Looking Glass Gods trilogy starts out weaving—and then slowly unraveling—the threads of a mystery with Idol of Bone. The complexities of the plot and cast of characters can be a little daunting at first, but as another reviewer put it, “it all comes together eventually!” I hope adventurous readers will give it a chance.

 “The second in Kindred’s tempestuous and fantastical series lulls us into a false security... When Kindred rips away the veil, we watch as violence and revenge duel for supremacy when the past rears its ugly head. Kindred does a splendid job of balancing the romance with a rapidly paced storyline and dark, unsettling revelations.” ★★★★ – RT Book Reviews


About the Author

Jane Kindred is the author of epic fantasy series The House of Arkhangel’sk, Demons of Elysium, and Looking Glass Gods. She spent her formative years ruining her eyes reading romance novels in the Tucson sun and watching Star Trek marathons in the dark. She now writes to the sound of San Francisco foghorns while two cats slowly but surely edge her off the side of the bed.











About the Book

Idol of Blood (Looking Glass Gods, Book 2)
by Jane Kindred

Genre: Dark fantasy with erotic and romantic elements/LGBTQ
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Date of Publication: June 23, 2015

Cover Artist: Kanaxa

The price of revenge may be her sanity…and the lives of those she loves.

No longer haunted by memories of her life—and death—as the Meer of Rhyman, Ra looks forward to a quiet existence with her lover Jak in the Haethfalt highlands.

Having made peace with Ahr, her consort from her former life, Ra can finally explore her new relationship, free of the ghosts of the past—until she unwittingly unearths Jak’s own.

Out of instinct, she uses her Meeric power to heal the pain of Jak’s childhood trauma.

But all magic has a price, and Ra’s bill has come due.

Succumbing to the affliction inherent in her race, Ra flees to the mountain ruins where her mother’s temple once stood. As the madness takes hold, she resurrects the ancient city of AhlZel in a tremendous act of magic that seals her fate—and threatens to destroy those who would give up everything to save her from herself.

Product Warnings: Contains dark themes, violence, gender-bending sex, and recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse.

Available at Amazon   BN   iTunes   Kobo   Samhain


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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Waiting On Wednesday: The Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill over at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

The Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley
Expected publication: October 2015 by Angry Robot

When the dark star of the cataclysm ascends, one empire will rise... and many will perish.

Every two thousand years, the dark star Oma appears in the night sky, bringing with it a tide of death and destruction. Tattered rifts open between worlds; great empires are born, and mighty rulers die. Whole nations succumb to madness. And those who survive must contend with friends and enemies newly imbued with bloody powers.

The kingdom of Saiduan already lies in ruin, decimated by invaders from another world who share the faces of those they seek to destroy.  Now the nation of Dhai is under siege by the same force. Their only hope for survival lies in the hands of an illegitimate ruler warring with his consort and former lover for control of the nation's allegiance.

As the foreign Empire spreads across the world like a disease, one of their former allies takes up her own Empress's sword again to unseat them, and two enslaved scholars begin a treacherous journey home with what they hope is the key to the Empire's undoing.

But when the enemy you must overcome shares your own face, who can be trusted?

The Mirror Empire absolutely blew me away last year - it's one of those rare books I'm thinking of giving a reread over the summer - so I'm really anxious to see where Hurley takes the story next.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

On the Borders and In-Between by Alyc Helms (author of The Dragons of Heaven)

On the Borders and In-Between: 
A fox-girl's guide to storytelling
by Alyc Helms

My author bio has changed over the years as I slipped from thing to thing to thing. My interests orbit around a few fixed loci—writing, gaming, theater—but the execution is always shifting. It's the center that remains constant: my fascination with liminality, gender, and foxes.

That's a center hard to unpack. I first became aware of the concept of liminality in my anthropology undergrad days through the work of Victor Turner (and, later, to the source in Arnold van Gennep). Originally used by van Gennep to describe the process of breakdown and reconstitution of social identity in rituals conducted by small-scale communities, the concept of liminality was expanded upon by Victor Turner to describe how any society, large or small, can use these rituals to symbolically expel and then reintroduce members in new roles, thus allowing moments of malleable identity even in rigid social structures, all aimed at building a sense of communitas.

Okay, more unpacking. Marriage is the go-to example of a ritual centered around the breakdown and reconstitution of identities. You start out a single person, which has certain symbolic and material meanings and connotations depending on the society. Through a series of rituals--hen nights, wedding showers, specialized language that marks you as neither single nor married (bride/groom), specialized clothing that marks your status—your identity is broken down. You become something strange. Unfixed. Monstrous. Dangerous. There's a reason we put brides in veils to protect guests, to protect the bride (traditionally, the bride is the most monstrous because she is the one undergoing the biggest breakdown and social transition).

Stories play with this. There's a reason movies and television shows build on the tension leading up to on-screen weddings. We know there's power in that unfixed identity. We know things can go wrong. In that moment of destabilized social order, we're called to examine consciously the social truths we take for granted: what does it mean to be single? To be married? Is she just doing this for the security (if she is, why is that a bad thing?) Is he going to be faithful (if he isn't, why is that a bad thing?) How do our personal beliefs and expectations align with and differ from the norm?

Stories lead us to expect breakdown. The bride runs away. The groom gets cold feet. When the officiant asks if there's anyone present who knows why these two should not be wed, the room hangs on a breath of hope—but are we hoping the answer is 'yes' or 'no'? Hell, the whole, FANTASTIC move to same-sex marriage is a huge, liminal middle finger to people who like their social order to be a particular flavor of heteronormative.

Stories lead us to expect breakdown because breakdown is conflict. Breakdown leads to breakthrough. Stories thrive on that shit. But eventually, whether it be through the expected steps of 'I now pronounce you...' and the reception and the cake and throwing the bouquet/garter, or through more thorny individual trials, the social order is restored. We have man and wife (or wife and wife, or husband and husband), or we have single people once again. Stories have resolution to a new status quo. The powerfully monstrous undefined has been defeated through being defined, shaped into easy understanding, and brought back into the fold.

So. Yeah. That's liminality, and it's some cool shit.

It gets even cooler when you start to think of it in terms of gender, and especially around the idea of genderplay and genderqueer individuals. We've seen recently an example of powerful liminality in the public transition of Caitlyn Jenner, the ritual steps of breaking down her old identity and reconstituting it into a new identity that we find familiar and comforting (I use the term 'we' loosely, recognizing that for transphobic people, she will always be dangerous and monstrous). Social order restored because Vanity Fair has shown us she's acceptably 'passing' in a cis-normative fashion.

But there's another interesting conversation that has been amplified by Caitlyn Jenner's high-profile transition, which is the conversation around queerness and genderplay—the idea that trans people shouldn't have to 'pass' to have their gender identity acknowledged and accepted. Further, the idea that gender doesn't have to be something we are, but rather can be a set of activities and behaviors we engage in. Genderplay is the attempt by some people to remain liminal. To not be reconstituted into the social order. To remain dangerous, powerful, monstrous, and constantly challenging the assumptions we make about gender, sex, sexuality, etc.

Which brings me to foxes. Foxes are worldwalkers. They are twilight creatures. Border creatures. They are ubiquitous, yet also inescapably liminal. My favorite passage about foxes comes from Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter:

Presently he saw rising up all white over the flowers a fox that was facing him with his white chest and chin, and watching the troll as it went. The troll went near to him and took a look. And the fox went on watching him, for the fox watches all things.

He had come back lately to those dewy fields from slinking by night along the boundary of twilight that lies between here and Elfland. He even prowls inside the very boundary, walking amongst the twilight; and it is in the mystery of that heavy twilight that lies between here and there that there clings to him some of that glamour that he brings with him to our fields.

"Well, Noman's Dog," said the troll. For they know the fox in Elfland, from seeing him often go dimly along their borders; and this is the name they give him.

"Well, Thing-over-the-Border," said the fox when he answered at all. For he knew troll-talk.

"Are the haunts of men near here?" said the troll.

The fox moved his whiskers by slightly wrinkling his lip. Like all liars he reflected before he spoke, and sometimes even let wise silences do better than speech.

"Men live here and men live there," said the fox.

"I want their haunts," said the troll.

"What for?" said the fox.

"I have a message from the King of Elfland."

The fox showed no respect or fear at the mention of that dread name, but slightly moved his head and eyes to conceal the awe that he felt.

"If it is a message," he said, "their haunts are over there." And he pointed with his long thin nose towards Erl.

"How shall I know when I get there?" said the troll.

"By the smell," said the fox. "It is a big haunt of men, and the smell is dreadful."

"Thanks, Noman's Dog," said the troll. And he seldom thanked anyone.

"I should never go near them," said the fox, "but for ..." And he paused and reflected silently.

"But for what?" said the troll.

"But for their poultry." And he fell into a grave silence.

Mmm. Chickens...

Ahem. Foxes are awesome! Foxes are anthropologists and folklorists. They're liminal, they're genderqueer. They're monstrous and powerful. I have a fox in my book (I think I was supposed to talk about the book at some point). I have a wedding that remains unresolved and a hero who plays with gender expectations like they're tinker toys. Because, really, almost everything I write comes back to these three themes: Liminality, Gender, Foxes.

Lucky for me, it's a fertile playground, and there's still lots to say.


About the Book

The Dragons of Heaven
by Alyc Helms

Street magician Missy Masters inherited more than the usual genetic cocktail from her estranged grandfather. She also got his preternatural control of shadow and his legacy as the vigilante hero, Mr Mystic. Problem is, being a pulp hero takes more than a good fedora and a knack for witty banter, and Missy lacks the one thing Mr Mystic had: experience. Determined to live up to her birthright, Missy journeys to China to seek the aid of Lung Huang, the ancient master who once guided her grandfather.

Lung Huang isn't quite as ancient as Missy expected, and a romantic interlude embroils her in the politics of Lung Huang and his siblings, the nine dragon-guardians of creation. When Lung Di-Lung Huang's brother and mortal enemy-raises a magical barrier that cuts off China from the rest of the world, it falls to the new Mr. Mystic to prove herself by taking down the barrier.

As Missy prepares to confront Lung Di, she faces a tough decision: remain loyal to Lung Huang and see China destroyed, or side with the bad guy and save the world.

Paperback, 416 pages
Published June 2nd 2015 by Angry Robot


About the Author

Alyc Helms fled her doctoral program in anthropology and folklore when she realized she preferred fiction to academic writing. She dabbles in corsetry and costuming, dances at Renaissance and Dickens fairs, gets her dander up about social justice issues, and games in all forms of media. She sometimes refers to her work as “critical theory fanfic,” which is a fancy way to say that she is obsessed with liminality, gender identity, and foxes.

She’s a freelance game writer and a graduate of Clarion West, and her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, to name a few. Her first novel, The Dragons of Heaven, will be published by Angry Robot Books in June 2015.

You can find Alyc online at http://www.alychelms.com and follow her @alychelms on Twitter.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Talking Sex & Mythology with Zachary Jernigan (author of Shower of Stones)

After I posted my review of No Return last month, Zachary Jernigan and I got to chatting a bit about my review, other comments, and where his story fits into the fantasy genre. It all began with a legitimate question from him regarding my review, and we bonded from there.

With Shower of Stones hitting shelves early next month, he agreed to stop by the ruins and share some of our conversation.

Q: Thanks for taking the time to stop by today, Zachary. For those who haven't yet had a chance to give No Return (or any of your short fiction) a read, please tell us a little about yourself and what we can expect.

Hey! It's my pleasure to be here. Not to seem like a kiss-ass, but these are awesome questions. As an aspiring writer way back when, I always dreamed of someone paying close enough attention to what I wrote to come up with some real probing insights, which is what you've done.

To answer your question, I'm a 35-year-old writer who lives in beautiful Northern Arizona. I was Mormon growing up (family converted when I was a very little kid), but I haven't been a member of the church since the age of 19. This informs a lot of what I write about. I used to say that I read science fiction because I lost religion, and I still think that's kind of true given the influence of Mormonism's weird, sci-fi theology.

As to what I write? Oy. That's a hard question to answer. I tend to be obsessed with a number of ideas. Immortality, certainly. The responsibilities of having power. Impairment is another one -- often as a wage of making bad decisions (a result, probably, of Mormon Guilt, which is very similar to Catholic Guilt).

But mostly, and not to sound too superficial, my main preoccupation is cool people doing cool stuff in cool places. I love science fiction and fantasy that deals in larger-than-life characters kicking butt on massively speculative frontiers. Of course, I want my work to be written well, too. Whether or not I am writing well -- that's up to the reader, obviously.

Q: It's interesting that you mention your Mormon upbringing, because one of the first things that struck me about No Return was the mythology behind it, with Adrash - the last god standing – floating among the stars, idly contemplating the destruction of the world below. How much did your own history, esepcialy as a man with a BA in religious studies, influence that angle?

Oh, a lot. My history with religion -- from growing up Mormon, to leaving Mormonism, to studying religion, to my ongoing development as a humanist -- informs everything I do. Having studied religion formally and informally, I have a pretty big storehouse of material to draw upon -- and draw upon it I do. Religion is the most fascinating (often frustratingly so) facets of human existence.

Of course, this is not to say I'm an expert or that my fiction is even internally consistent. I think it's very tough to map how human beings react to spiritual urges, and all fiction does is reflect the author's biases toward certain interpretations. I'm fairly antireligious (but not angry about it any longer; how could I be, when many of the people I admire most are religious?), and so a lot of what I'm doing in my fiction is offering critiques of religion -- hopefully in a subtle enough way that it doesn't seem like I'm trying to proselytize.

Q: Rather than being a traditional epic or heroic fantasy, you’ve incorporated a lot of science fiction elements into the story, including magical variations on astronauts and superheroes. Did you deliberately set out to bleed across genres, or was it merely how the story developed?

It was definitely deliberate, from day one. My initial idea for No Return was, "space opera without the technology," and though that changed a bit over time and became more planet-bound, the seed of the idea still holds true. I love work that isn't science fiction or fantasy, but both.

Since the turn of the millennium, the term New Weird has been more or less in vogue, but along with that we've also begun resurrecting an older term that I far prefer: science-fantasy. While I like New Weird's emphasis on literary craft, those contemporary authors were never a huge influence. Most of them I'd never read until after I'd finished No Return.

My most direct inspirations are the authors Samuel Delany and Roger Zelazny -- just as I'd bet folks like M. John Harrison or Gene Wolfe or Michael Moorcock are huge influences for someone like China Mieville. (Not that I'm comparing myself to Mieville; it's just that we have some similar preoccupations.)

When you've fallen in love with fiction that daringly refuses to be confined, taking themes and imagery from two wildly speculative genres... it's tough not to try and copy that effect.

Q: There’s also a bit of a steampunk/Frankenstein influence with Berun, the mechanical man of spheres. Where did his inspiration come from, and how do you see him fitting into the larger world?

Well called. I hadn't thought too much about the Frankenstein angle, but of course that's true -- along with a bunch of other, slightly more contemporary comparisons, from Asimov to Star Trek: TNG's Data.

It's a good question you ask. I haven't really consider how he fits into the world. I suppose he's there because I wanted something alien to everything else, a creature more or less a man internally but fundamentally not a man. This allows him to view his companions with equal measures objectivity and naivete.

Q: One thing you and I have talked a little bit about is the sexual aspect of the novel. I loved the oddity of those elements, and thought they really served to accentuate the story, but I know reaction has been mixed. Was it a deliberate choice to ‘sex’ up the narrative, or did it just flow naturally from the story?

Both. To be frank, I'm tired of how many readers are scared of sex -- in and out of the genre, but especially so within the genre. It seems like a very purtitanical, adolescent take on a thing we all think about. I mean, I don't care that much about the occasional mature person saying, "I don't want to read about sex," but when so, so many grown adults do it it starts to feel a little ridiculous.

Sex is a constant. If more of the diehard genre fans read outside the genre, they'd realize how much sex infuses not only modern literature but all eras of bygone literature because of the overwhelming human urge to explore sexuality. To repress that urge, to act as if it's gratuitous simply because of its descriptiveness (especially when such readers will not describe a two page description of a sword being forged as gratuitous), is ludicrous.

That may sound harsh, but I'm beyond the point of offending people when it comes to literature. (I find people in the genre community to be unusually sensitive to "insults" to their taste. Me, I couldn't care less if someone doesn't share my convictions about what I read.)

Given that last sentence, you can imagine that I did write some of the sex I did as a provocation. At the same time, I view it as natural to the narrative. It felt like a story that needed those scenes -- more necessary for the tone than necessary for the plot, arguably, but then again, what's necessary and what's not? That's all fairly subjective.

All that being said, Shower of Stones is not nearly as sexual a book as No Return. For whatever reason, I didn't feel the need to write about it so much, second time round.

Q: Given that you found some early success with stories in the Wired Hard and Up for Grabs anthologies, that sexual element shouldn’t be a huge surprise, but even in those instances it was fantastical and unorthodox. Is it the challenge of finding new ways to imagine the erotic that inspired you, or is it more a logical integration with your love for science fiction and fantasy?

It's the latter, definitely. I mean, science fiction and fantasy provide so many new ways to think about reality, so why should it be different for sex? It hasn't been a huge challenge, but then again I don't write very fast! It could be that, were I quicker at it (and not a day goes by that I don't wish I wrote quicker), I'd soon run out of ideas.

Q: Without getting into spoilers, No Return ends with a pretty significant change for both the characters and the world. Are they are similar surprises in store for readers with Shower of Stones?

I hope so, yeah. It's funny to be asked that, because, in general, I read what I wrote and it all seems pretty awkward, pretty unplanned and... obvious, I guess. Then someone else will read it and see the merit I don't (or hate it; that happens, too). I think, conservatively, that there are things that will surprise readers. I certainly couldn't have predicted some of the decisions I'd make while writing it.

One of the things I wanted to do in Shower of Stones is evoke that sense that the next moment can't be predicted -- and yet, in retrospect, that it seemed like a good decision (or awful decision, as the case may be) to have made. I want readers to have that feeling of satisfaction that is not based on anticipating perfectly what comes next. I feel like that's the best way to attempt to write a story about earth-shattering events. Keep people on their toes.

Q: There seems to be something of a role reversal in Shower of Stones, with Churls taking on a heroic protagonist role. Were you looking to shake things up, or were there long-term character arcs that you’ve been building towards all along?

Wow, you're really making me think. In all honesty, when it came to the final pages of the novel, something happened that surprised me. I made a decision I'd planned on, then decided against, and finally embraced. Readers will just have to wait and see who the final hero is, I guess.

Aw, that's a crappy answer. Apologies. I can shed some light on the question while not giving a spoiler.

I'd always considered Vedas, Churls, and Berun to be equally the heroes, honestly. When my editor called Vedas the hero, I understood -- because, hell, he is the most obvious hero. But on another level, I recoiled a bit from defining him that way. Churls kicks a lot of ass. So does Berun, and he's arguably the most likable (and certainly the most loyal) person among them.

Churls does play a large part in Shower of Stones, but hers is no more central a narrative than anyone else's.

Q: It we can turn our attentions from the pen to the page for a moment, I know you’ve listed Samuel R. Delany, James Tiptree Jr., and Joanna Russ among your influences. What kind of lessons or inspirations have you taken away from their work?

Is "I'll never be as good as them" a lesson? If so, then that's the first lesson. In my eyes, I'm not half the writer each of them were (or are, in the case of Delany). As for Tiptree -- I'm not a quarter the writer she was. It's okay to aspire, of course -- and maybe that's the lesson to take away from this.

Other lessons include:

From Delany, I learned to embrace narrative and stylistic risks. Now and then, you just gotta go for broke and write it the way that feels right even if it's not perfect, or it's ugly, or it's going to polarize people about what you've done. I'm less afraid of people not liking my work than I was before because of him. Even now, I'll read his work and wonder, "Do I even think this is good?" That question is fascinating to me, and it causes me to examine his work even closer.

From Russ, I learned that it's okay to be angry. Another thing I'm tired of in genre circles is the lack of clear and incisive anger. There are things to be angry about in this world, things that should not be shoved under the rug or talked about in polite terms, and it's okay to let those things influence your writing.

From Tiptree, I learned that concision is better than writing on and on. That's not to say I don't fall into going on and on (I do), but the kind of pompous, overblown language that many writers utilize -- or, similarly, the kind of simply overindulgent 1000-pages-to-get-to-the-point narratives that weigh down bookstore shelves -- is just not for me. I neither like it nor respect it. Like Tiptree, I'd rather cut to the bone and leave long before overstaying my welcome.

Q: From a contemporary perspective, are there are author you go to for entertainment, or simply to recharge your own creative batteries?

Oh, so many! I think Brent Hayward is brilliant, dense and psychedelic and just plain mind-boggling. Guy Haley, too, is often incredibly imaginative, especially in Champion of Mars. I just started reading Nina Allan, and she's got an incredibly deft brain, capable of awesome turns of phrases and stellar worldbuilding. Kameron Hurley continues to do amazing things, as does Alan Campbell.

There are other authors who make me feel like I don't know if they're good or not, but who I must trust are simply because people whose opinions I trust regard them so highly. I read Paul Jessup for the first time a few months back and found his work (Open Your Eyes) inspiring, but almost entirely because I couldn't imagine making the choices he did in writing it. That made me reevaluate why I make the decisions I do.

Q: Before we let you go, what can we look forward to from you next? Is there a third Jeroun tale to be told, are you or perhaps looking at something completely different to follow?

There might be more from Jeroun, but for now the tale's finished. I have a short story collection coming out in early spring of next year (title TBA) that features a few tales that loosely link -- or at least thematically link -- to Jeroun.

Following that? I have a few things I'm working on, and we'll see which one becomes something real!

We'll look forward to it. Thanks again for the chat, and for stopping by.

Thanks so much for interviewing me, Bob!


About the Author

Zachary Jernigan works as a journalist in Arizona, a state famous for lovely weather and horrifying political decisions. He listens to music and reads a lot, occasionally venturing outside for a bike ride with his wife and son.

His first book, No Return, is a science-fantasy novel filled with sex, violence, religion, and muscular people in weird skintight costumes living on a world where god exists and is very upset. A hardcover edition came out from Night Shade Books in 2013, followed by a paperback edition the following year.

The sequel and conclusion to No Return, Shower of Stones, is forthcoming in July of 2015, in hardcover, also from Night Shade Books.

His short fiction, which runs the gamut of sf and fantasy, has appeared in a variety of places, including Asimov's Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, Escape Pod, as well as various anthologies. He has been nominated for the Pushcart a couple times and shortlisted once for the Spectrum Award.

His first proper short story collection — title TBA — is forthcoming in the early spring of 2016 from Ragnarok Publications.


About the Book

Shower of Stones (Jeroun #2)
by Zachary Jernigan

At the moment of his greatest victory, before a crowd of thousands, the warrior Vedas Tezul renounced his faith, calling for revolt against the god Adrash, imploring mankind to unite in this struggle.

Good intentions count for nothing. In the three months since his sacrilegious pronouncement, the world has not changed for the better. In fact, it is now on the verge of dying. The Needle hangs broken in orbit above Jeroun, each of its massive iron spheres poised to fall and blanket the planet's surface in dust. Long-held truces between Adrashi and Anadrashi break apart as panic spreads.

With no allegiance to either side, the disgraced soldier Churls walks into the divided city of Danoor with a simple plan: murder the monster named Fesuy Amendja, and retrieve from captivity the only two individuals that still matter to her—Vedas Tezul, and the constructed man Berun. The simple plan goes awry, as simple plans do, and in the process Churls and her companions are introduced to one of the world’s deepest secrets: A madman, insisting he is the link to an ancient world, offering the most tempting lie of all... Hope.

Concluding the visceral, inventive narrative begun in No Return, Shower of Stones pits men against gods and swords against civilization-destroying magic in the fascinatingly harsh world of Jeroun.

Hardcover, 288 pages
Expected publication: July 7th 2015 by Night Shade Books

Saturday, June 20, 2015

From the Shelf to the Page: This Week in the Ruins

A much busier week this time around with some promos, reviews, features, and a couple of solid reads from the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off.
An exciting week coming up, as we'll be having Zachary Jernigan, Alyc Helms, and Jane Kindred stopping by.


Stacking The Shelves and Mailbox Monday are a pair of weekly memes that are about sharing the books that came your way over the past week, and which you've added to your shelves - whether they be physical or virtual, borrowed or bought, or for pleasure or review.

Even after cleaning up the review pile and cosigning a few long-lingering titles to the DNF pile, I still have approximately 30 books waiting for my attention. We'll see how long I can stick with it, but my plan right now is to go cold turkey on requesting any new titles. If I'm good, Goblins will be the last title I request (the disappearance of the Roanoke Colony is too legendary to resist), and Damned Children of Naor will be the last title I accept (having enjoyed the first 3 volumes, I couldn't very well turn down the latest).

Damn, but this is going to be hard! :)

Damned Children of Naor by Justyna Plichta-Jendzio
Evil lurks everywhere and only waits for the opportunity to hunt down and devour the souls of its victims. It is all the same to the evil whether those souls belong to slaves, peasants, monks, nobles or kings. Every mortal must make a choice whether he wants to devote his soul to perdition or save it, even at the cost of life. This battle has been fought for millennia and its arena is every corner of Naor. Anyone can become a warrior and his main arms will not be a weapon forged by smiths’ hammers but faith given by the gods of lightness.

This time the goddess of fate chose Isilai, a merchant’s daughter from the far south, who was dreaming of traveling and leading a free life. The goddess’s finger also pointed to Sainal, a mercenary returning from wars to her lands. Valbern, an aide to a powerful lord Kolbren, has not been spared the test as well. Each of them had to face the evil. Did they decide to sacrifice what was the most precious in their lives to keep their souls away from hell?

Goblins by David Bernstein
They want the children!

Someone is taking children from their homes on Roanoke Island and gruesomely slaughtering their families.

After a small, hideous-looking creature is discovered at one of the murder scenes, Chief of Police Marcus Hale realizes whatever is responsible for the killings isn’t even human. Hale suspects a bizarre link to the past, to the end of the 16th Century, when the island’s first settlers disappeared, leaving only the word Croatoan carved into a tree.

But something far more sinister than he ever imagined is at work. And if it isn’t stopped soon, the entire island’s population will perish. Just like it did so many centuries ago.

My little guy and I did hit the Book Depot warehouse for a little book shopping and train watching tonight. Seriously, they have a track suspended from the ceiling over the kid's section with a model train that takes about 10 minutes to complete it's extensive path, complete with tunnels and bridges. Anyway, after chasing the train (he made us do it twice), I came home with a few new titles.


It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is another weekly meme, this time focused on what books are spending the most time in your hands and in your head, as opposed to what's been added to your shelf.

Wanderlust by by Adam Millard
Wizards, magic, necromancers, and thieves, all in a steampunk turn-of-the-century London.

The Liar's Key by Mark Lawrence
Okay, I've patient, but since my review copy seems to be stuck in the mail, I went out and bought a copy at lunch. I've waited long enough - time to indulge!

What's topping your shelves this week?

Friday, June 19, 2015

WTF Friday: Usu by Jayde Ver Elst

Every once in a while, as the mood strikes me, I like to indulge in those titles that are a bit odd . . . a bit different . . . a bit bizarre . . . and a bit freaky. These are books that don't get a lot of press, and which rarely get any retail shelf space.

They're often an underground of sort of literature, best shared through guilty whispers, and often with embarrassed grins. These are our WTF Friday reads!

Andrew Stanton first conceived the idea for Wall-E way back in 1994, but didn't really know how to develop the story. With other projects on the go, he let it linger for years, and didn't take another serious crack at the script until 2002.

Just for a second, imagine just what might have happened if Douglas Adams had been asked to take a crack at it in the meantime, only to have his darker, weirder, more mature take on the script be shelved upon his death in 2001.

Now, imagine if you will, that a strange writing chap by the name of Jayde Ver Elst got his hands upon that version of script, loved the direction, but decided to make a few changes of his own - such as exchanging the cute little robot for a stuffed bunny, replacing Eve with a very Marvin-like love android, putting a tragic spin on the love story at its heart, and dropping the entire last act where humanity returns to reclaim the Earth.

That gives you a good introduction into the world of Usu . . . but it actually gets weirder and more delightful.

This is the tale of oddly mismatched soul mates with a friendship that has stretched across lifetimes. Usu is a stuffed bunny, very much self-aware and deeply contemplative, but unable to communicate due to the fact his mouth is just a line of stitching. Forced out of his den by hilarious circumstance, he meets up with a frantic, over-excited cleaning droid named Modbot. After an extended series of disasters and misunderstandings, they set off on a journey across their garbage-strewn world to find Rain, the android Usu loves, who has been waiting atop a mountain for him for ages. Once together, and reminded of their shared purpose, Usu and Rain set off for the ruins of Old Francisco to learn about their past and the end of humanity

That's about all I will say about the plot, because it's not something that can be described. Distilled like that, it sounds simple and generic, but experienced through the narrative of Jayde Ver Elst it's complex, entertaining, and surprisingly emotional.

As you might expect, there is a great deal of Douglas Adams and Monty Python style humor to be found here. How you react to the narrative depends on how much you enjoy those influences. This is an author who constantly breaks the fourth wall to talk to the reader, often to point out how he's about to make use of a cliched plot device, almost becoming a character himself. If you like that kind of approach, it's quite clever and amusing, and works well to explain the actions of a stuff rabbit who cannot speak for himself. If that sounds like an annoying sort of taboo . . . well, give it a shot anyway and prepare to be surprised.

Despite the comic narrative and the absurdities of the plot, this is also the story with a heart and a soul. The more we learn of Usu, Rain, and what's come before, the more we share in their melancholy sorrow and desperate need to answer the cruelties of fate. Yes, it's a story of stuffed bunnies, sentient (sometimes crazy) robots, holograms, electronic cannibals, and post-apocalyptic landscapes. Yes, it's a story of fourth-wall humor, horrible puns, slapstick disasters, and nonsensical diversions. Beneath all that - actually, entwined in all that - however, is a story about love, friendship, memories, and the meaning of life.

I wasn't sure what to expect after the first chapter. I wasn't sure if I was amused or annoyed. I'm glad I stuck with it. Usu is a very funny, very clever book that sets out to accomplish what it's author set out to do, and which (most importantly) doesn't overstay its welcome. It's a short read, somewhere between a novella and a novel, but Jayde Ver Elst makes every scene - indeed, every word - count.

Paperback, 180 pages
Expected publication: June 23rd 2015 by Bad Dream Entertainment

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Tough Travels with . . . People on boats

Every Thursday, Nathan (over at Fantasy Review Barn) leads the gang in touring the mystical countryside, looking for fun and adventure. His Tough Traveling feature picks one of the most common tropes in fantasy each week, as seen in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynn Jones, and invites us to join in the adventure. All are invited to take part, so if you're joining the journey late, no worries . . . we'll save you a spot in the caravan.

This week’s tour topic is: PEOPLE ON BOATS

Grab a map of Fantasyland and you are sure to see there is water. Of course not everything important is going to happen on land, right? Sometimes people actually have to get on a boat and hit the water. Where, being fantasyland, anything can happen.

Let's start with my current read, The Liar’s Key by Mark Lawrence. Much of the action in the first half takes place on a series of small boats, with Jalan, Snorri, and Tuttugu beset by rough seas, bitter cold, epic storms, as well as Edris Dean and his Red Viking marauders as they make their way from one fjord to another. Snorri is very much at home upon a boat, even if it's smaller than what he's accustomed to, while Jalan spends most of their voyage getting sick, complaining about the conditions and the fact that you "spend most of each day emptying yourself over the side."

The Corpse-Rat King and The Marching Dead by Lee Battersby are probably the most fun you will ever have with people in boats. There's a particularly prolonged sequence in the first book that involves Marius being thrown out of a canoe in the middle of the ocean, where he sank to the bottom . . . and simply walked home. Yes, he walked across the bottom of the sea, attempted to scale the Mary Tulip (a submerged shipwreck), desperately tried to reason with the skeleton of a dead king, and ultimately fled a hungry shark. The second spends more time above the waters of the Barrier Sea, leading to an encounter with Brys Kenim, the sexy pirate and smuggler queen with the ample bosom who challenges Fellipan, the sexy (dead) bordello mistress with the ample bosom, for Marius' attentions.

Next up would have to be The Liveship Traders by Robin Hobb. This is a typical Hobb trilogy in that it takes its time getting going, makes you wonder if a second book is worth it, but then gets better as it goes. Taking place on the Pirate Isles, south of the Six Duchies that Fitz calls home, this series features extremely rare, extremely expensive ships carved from wizardwood, which ripens magically, bestowing the figureheads with a human-like sentience. It's a series that features everything from ruthless pirates, to magical plunder, to a rather grim look at the slave trade.

King Rolen's Kin by Rowena Cory Daniells spends a great deal of time at sea as well. Fyn spend a great deal of the series on the other side of the world, press-ganged by pirates and slavers aboard the Wyvern's Whelp - a Merofynian ship riding low in the water with treasures stolen from his homeland. Forced to confront his fears, and to sacrifice his future, he comes to take a role in the conflict that his status as a monk would have once forbid. Similarly, young Garzik is captured and sent back to Merofynia as a prize of war, suffering almost as much physical torment as he does emotional anguish, and is left with the barbarian Utlanders.

The Ships of Merior and Warhost of Vastmarkthe second and third books of the Wars of Light and Shadow by Janny Wurts, spend a great deal of the book at sea. Forced out of hiding and hounded by his brother, Lysaer, Arithon takes to his natural element and evades pursuit upon the high seas. It's an interesting series, with brothers pitted against one another by a magical geas, but Arithon is (by far) the more interesting of the two. His journey in these books involves a widow who is afraid of the sea, a disgraced captain, and a mad prophet.There's actually a great deal of time and effort invested here in the building and launching of ships, which actually contributes much of the novel's drama and character development.

It's been a long while since I read it, so I'm kind of fuzzy on the details, but I remember The Death Gate Cycle by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman spending a great deal of time with men in boats. The world here has been split into its four elements, with one book set in each, and then a trilogy connecting them all together. Like I said, I don't recall a lot of details, but Chelestra, the world of water, is (quite naturally) marked by sea-going vessels of various forms, while Arianus, the world of air, is rather surprisingly known for its magical vessels that float upon the air and fly through the sky.