Dark High Fantasy from a Great Indie Author: “Elf” by G.R. Sabian

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After a multi-year absence from blogging, this is an overt but well-deserved review for my best friend’s first(ish) novel. (I say firstish because this friend published a novel before, but took it down after a while for editing purposes. It’s a great book, too, but as of today isn’t back for sale yet.)

 

G.R. and I have been close for most of my adult life. We bonded over our love of writing (and reading) dark fiction with a fantastic slant. This includes everything from straight-up horror to all kinds of fantasy, sci-fi, speculative fiction, and so on. In addition to being a great writer, G.R. is a fantastic editor and I would be a weaker writer without our friendship.

 

Anyway.

 

“Elf” is one of the stranger novels I’ve read. The book takes familiar fantasy tropes – beautiful elves, dire world-wasting threats, quests, dragons, magical creatures, and gorgeous nymphs – and uses them to create a story that is very singular and dark. It’s a combination of high fantasy, dark fantasy, and science fiction.

 

I think the blurb on the page puts it better than I can, but I’m a reviewer so I’ll do my best to summarize. The narrative follows the journey of Euthain Kurowin, a member of a society of elves who are deeply, intrinsically connected emotionally and psychically. One elf’s joy is every elf’s joy; one elf’s pain is every elf’s pain.

 

Euthain is a very privileged member of this society. He’s the son of two renowned leaders and has everything an elf could want. The problem is, Euthain doesn’t want what other elves want. His society is extraordinarily peaceful. They’re so in tune with nature that they can’t stand even to eat meat. Euthain, however, is essentially violent, jealous, and emotionally miserable. As such, he doesn’t have a place in a society that basically reads his mind, a society that recoils from everything he feels and thinks – dark, horrible things they can’t even comprehend. This results in him being effectively shunned, even within his own family.

 

Right about the time he finally gives up and decides to exile himself for the good of his community and himself, an old, forgotten evil emerges. Even as his people panic, Euthain is euphoric: here is his chance! A war is coming, a violence his people can’t even begin to imagine. He sees the chance to channel his violent impulses and callous nature in such a way that he can be a warrior, a defender. But when he comes face to face with this threat, he unexpectedly finds himself beguiled. He has to make a choice: fight for his people, the community that reviles and fears him…or fight alongside the only person who understands him.

 

So, a couple of things. First, “Elf” is not for everyone. It’s violent, dark, and Euthain – while presented in a way that allows the reader to empathize and even root for him – is objectively a terrible man. He tries not to be. He struggles to be a force for good. He wants to be so much more than he is, and he really does work hard in pursuit of that goal. But he doesn’t work hard enough. Thus, he’s not a good person, and does many, many, many things a bad person would do. Some of these are highly objectionable. But it’s part of what makes him a well-rounded, believable character. You may not love him, but you want him to succeed at his ultimate goal.

Second, there’s the portrayal of women. Does Euthain have issues with women? Absolutely. Is his culture and society dismissive and unkind to a subset of women? Yes. Is the story disrespectful of women? No. A lot of what we see, as readers, is through Euthain’s perspective and a lot of his issues are explored, but not in any way condoned. Besides Euthain, the other main perspective is that of a young woman, and I think she’s portrayed not only realistically, but as the story’s only real, true-hearted hero.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let me emphasize that “Elf” is extremely well-written. It’s concise yet poetic, clearly composed, and proceeds at a great clip. The world-building is also exceptional. It’s immersive; from the first page I could see, hear, and feel this world that is by turns utopian and hellish. It wasn’t something I expected, but it was a wonderful treat.

I loved it. If you like a good, dark fantasy, I think you’ll like this too.

Hopefully I’ve piqued your curiosity, and if so, here is the link:

 

Note: I love reading indie books (not just ones my friends write.) I’m getting back into reviewing after a long absence. If you need reviews, then (time permitting) I’d love to help out. No charge, of course, although a free copy of the book would be greatly appreciated because I’m kind of poor. I’m honest but kind, and will let you read the review before I post it if you like.

Second Note: I also do editorials, copyediting, and line-editing. Not for free, but not expensive either. Please understand that my fly-by-night blog posting really is not indicative of my writing and editing prowess; I’m an experienced freelancer and I swear I know what I’m doing.

 

 

 

 

 

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So There’s a Book I Really Enjoyed

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If you’re into great writing, flawless pacing, and horrifying subject matter that may or may not destroy your faith in humanity, you’ll probably like it, too. It’s called “The Wish Doctor“, written by the most likely pseudononymous G.R. Sabian.

 

The book follows the exploits of a crazily rich and seemingly soulless man who, for no discernible reason (other than a near-supernatural compulsion that I suspect is rooted in a traumatic past) randomly grants violent wishes to miserable people – regardless of whether the misery is warranted, the person is good, or the wishes are deserved. As an example, he burns one family alive to satisfy the wishes of a disgruntled young scion.

 

On to other things.

 

Somehow, he crosses paths with a child prostitute named Jamie. (Can you guess where this is going?) Her deepest wish, naturally, is that the pimps and offenders all die. Our hero, Harry, accomplishes this and assumes his work is done.

 

Only it’s not.

 

First off, the child refuses to let him leave. Second, she (understandably) has many issues that make her a danger to herself and others. By necessity, she is a master manipulator and basically, they end up in a twisted, if mostly sincere, approximation of a parent/child relationship. On top of that, the two have some kind of weird, understated psychic connection.

 

I’ll be honest. First, this is most definitely not a book I wish I’d written. Second, I definitely did not write it (just want to throw it out there – I am a professional writer, but I do things like ad copy, product descriptions, and blog posts for small/midsize businesses. I want to be a novelist, but I’m too chicken as of now to put my work out there).

 

Third, the entire novel is extremely disturbing on several levels. Think graphic violence and a lot of implied abuse and memories. It isn’t for everyone. In fact, the entire book is basically one giant trigger. As good as it most certainly is, as fantastic as the writer him/herself is, I can sort of understand why it’s retailing for $1 USD.

 

That said, I’ve been trying to talk people into reading it since I first read it in July of 2014, but my efforts have been in vain (and I can sort of see why, after reading the above endorsement). So, after this, I’m honestly giving up. I just couldn’t let it go without a cursory post on my very own blog. G.R. Sabian, whoever she/he is, is a stunningly fantastic writer. Think the pacing and spare, impactful sentences of Dean Koontz with the eerie lyricism of Cormac McCarthy wrapped around Tarantino-level violence (without the absurdity) and the true-to-life, hard-to-stomach grit of “Taxi Driver”. It’s cinematic and oddly literary at once.

 

If you can tolerate this, please read it – mostly because it’s supposedly part of a series and I want to make sure it continues.

 

In case you missed the link the first time, here it is: The Wish Doctor by G.R. Sabian.

 

It’s just $1, folks. Pleeeeeeeease do this. For me.

Trains

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If you wait at any given train station on a certain date, a train will appear that isn’t on any schedule. If you board the train you will find that the interior, regardless of the exterior, will be very elegant and old fashioned.

Have a seat and enjoy the train ride. The steam engine is beautiful: plush seats, exotic decor, gorgeous windows and elegant color schemes.

The crew are refined and very eager to please. The ticket takers engage you in conversation. Every half an hour or so, a waiter comes by to offer you the most select dishes.

The landscape rushing by outside is incredibly lush and lovely. Lakes and mountains, deep forests and pristine beaches. Don’t try to recognize any of it. Not a single tree or peak or grain of sand corresponds to any known geography.

You are not alone. The train is full of passengers. Some are dressed like you; some are in clothing you recognize as ceremonial and foreign; a few are dressed very elegantly, in luxurious fashions as least one hundred and fifty years out of date. Others sport fashions you do not recognize, and carry items—electronics? accessories?—that you have never even imagined.

When the train makes its fourth stop (this will take several hours), get off.  If you disembark beforehand, you will disappear. If you manage to return—and some do—you will only be capable of speaking a language completely unknown to our world. You will panic, and weep for days on end. You will not eat. You will pine for the world you left behind until you waste into nothing.

If you disembark after the fourth stop?

No one knows.

Just be aware that every once in a while, a hideously dismembered corpse is recovered from the rails near stations. Typically these bodies are rotted masses of meat only vaguely recognizable as human. Despite the decomposition and the mess, they appear very suddenly, often in the time it takes to blink.

Many of the victims remain unidentified due simply to the appalling state of the remains. Those identified, however, all had stained and battered train tickets on their person, dated days, weeks, even months and years prior.

People will tell you the victims tragically fell or even threw themselves into the rail wells.

But surely you know better.

Surreal, Delicate, and Fascinating: “Diving Belles and Other Stories” by Lucy Wood

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Lucy Wood’s “Diving Belles” is the best short fiction collection I’ve read in months, and the best new one I’ve read in years. Each story is inspired by, or a complete retelling, of a fairy tale. I have studied folklore, mythology, and fairy tales for years, so “Diving Belles” was extremely fun for me. Each story had a dreamy, surreal quality that I often associate with borderline-incomprehensible sequences, but one of the main delights of “Diving Belles” was that each story maintained this quality while providing a completely coherent, non-confusing tale. In my experience, at least, this is a rare talent.

These modern fairy tales can, I believe, be enjoyed by readers of nearly any age, but are definitely geared toward adults without being explicitly adult, which is very refreshing. There is a sweet melancholy present even in the darker tales, and that melancholy quality helps to ground each of these stories, however outlandish some may be.

Every story in the collection is well-done and lovely. I can’t pick apart a single piece as the weak link. This is an extremely strong debut by an author I will be following in years to come. It stands on both outright story merits and literary prowess. Please pick it up. This collection deserves a great deal of exposure.

The Familiar Formula With an Entertaining New Twist: Lincoln Child’s “The Third Gate”

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First off, I want to make it known that I read this book in about ten hours. It’s not a perfect novel, but it is still ten hours of incredible, lightning-paced fun.

“The Third Gate” is, to a great extent, the same type of novel Lincoln Child has been writing for a while. A team of explorers enters bold new territory in hopes of glory, discovery, riches, fame, or a combination of these, and is met instead with horror.

“The Third Gate” is different in that it deals not with the sort of monsters that have become Child’s forte, but a curse. Even better, it’s an ancient Egyptian curse. Child pulls this tired cliche with finesse. I was altogether pleased.

When world-famous archaeologist-turned-treasure hunter Porter Stone–who has been credited with the discovery of Camelot and the grave of the Celtic warrior queen Boudica, to name just two of his marvelous discoveries–determines the ancient gravesite of King Narmer. Narmer is the historically invaluable Pharaoh who united Upper and Lower Egypt thousands of years ago. It is literally the discovery of the century.

But there are problems.

The grave, thought to be lost for millennia, is buried deep in the Sudd: a thick, deadly, primeval swamp far along the Nile. The Sudd is treacherous, comprised in quicksand, rot-filled mud, and islands of rotten vegetation that began developing millenia before. It is an ancient and largely uncharted colossus, and presents infinite danger to Stone and his team.

Stone, a mastermind in his way, assembles a team with the ability and material to build a floating city on the Sudd while the site is excavated. There, he runs into more trouble: Narmer’s tomb is hundreds and hundreds of yards below the surface of the Sudd.

While he and his team work on building a way to tunnel safely beneath the surface, he has another team working on definitively pinpointing the exact location of the tomb. Cartographers and scholars work hand in hand with a psychic, who seems to be channeling an ancient spirit. In addition to the information Stone has requested, he receives dire warnings on behalf of the\is spirit, decrying their desecration of the holy site of the tomb, and warning of a terrible death by way of an ancient curse.

“The Third Gate” is so simple on so many levels, but many of Child’s trademark twists and turns in the plot are largely unpredictable. There is literally a surprise in every chapter, a new revelation that makes the mystery more and more difficult to decipher.

Child’s writing is solid. He has a gift for fast-paced action laced with horror, combined just enough (read: “barely”) plausibility and character depth to pull it off. There are no complaints on that front. While Child is not the most clinically adept or brilliant author, he harnesses tension and adventure masterfully. The majority of fans will not be disappointed with “The Third Gate,” and it should lead new fans to the rest of Child’s work.

My lone complaint was with the ending. It was not a poor ending, but it did have a rushed feel that didn’t sit completely flush with the rest of the novel. It was satisfying enough, however.

Overall, “The Third Gate” is a simple novel strongly rooted in older horror and pulp fiction. It handles the cliche of a mummy’s curse with prowess and skill, bringing something sufficiently different to the table. It throws curves endlessly, keeping the reader firmly in its grip, and the final climactic showdown is riveting. Overall, it is strongly recommended, particularly to Child’s fans.

Beautiful, Heartbreaking, and Hopeful: Sarah Porter’s “Waking Storms” (#2 in the “Lost Voices” Trilogy)

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I do not typically find myself captivated by mermaid fiction. I love folklore, mythology, science fiction, urban fantasy, and horror, and have given most of the mermaid reboots a shot. Each novel left me disappointed, however, either in characterization, depth, writing prowess, or story itself.

Sarah Porter’s “Lost Voices” trilogy has none of these flaws, and is, in my opinion, the best new Young Adult series to be published in the last five years. The only contender I can immediately think of is Lauren Destefano’s “Chemical Garden” trilogy, and even then I think “Lost Voices” has the scale tilted slightly in its favor.

“Waking Storms” opens with Dorian, the boy Luce could not bring herself to kill at the end of “Lost Voices.” Dorian lost his family in the shipwreck Luce’s tribe brought about. He is depressed; he is terrified that he is insane (he did see mermaids sinking their cruise ship, after all); he is furious at the creature he believes killed his parents and sister, and on top of all of this, he is horribly sickened with himself for being attracted to the mermaid despite this. He now lives on the Alaskan coast with two distant family members who do not particularly care for him. He is very alone.

Unable to tolerate this any longer, he runs to the beach on a bitter night, yelling for the creature–the mermaid–to face him.

Luce, for her part, has had Dorian on her mind, as well. Not that he’s the only thing on her mind. At the end of “Lost Voices”, (book 1) she and her friend Catarina left their mermaid tribe. Catarina, once queen, was violently ousted by the sociopathic new mermaid, Anais. By the time “Waking Storms” opens, Catarina has abandoned Luce, swimming off early one morning with no explanation or farewell.

Despite her crushing loneliness, Luce can’t bring herself to beg mercy from Anais and return to her tribe. She hates Anais; she is appalled and sickened that the other mermaids follow Anais so willingly; and Luce herself is wracked with guilt over the mermaids’ proclivity to destroy humans. Every mermaid has a beautiful, unearthly voice that literally drives mankind to destroy itself when they hear it. All mermaids were once human themselves, but turned to the sea as a result of horrendous abuse. Thus, most mermaids not only kill humans when they can, but love to do it. (Don’t the abusive monsters deserve it, after all they’ve done to these girls and countless others through the centuries?)

Luce, who herself became a mermaid as a result of attempted rape and a vicious beating, still can’t bring herself to continue killing people. She and her friend Catarina deserted their old tribe for many reasons, not least because Anais wanted to kill both Luce and Catarina. But Luce also dreams of beginning a new tribe, a tribe that will use their incredible song to build rather than kill.

Luce, swimming alone one night, is stunned to hear Dorian’s voice: he is singing, in his poor human imitation, her own mermaid song. It is the song she used to destroy his ship months ago.  Stunned, she swims to the shore to see what is happening–and meets Dorian.

Much to Dorian’s surprise, they bond quickly, their attachment eventually blossoming into a relationship. As their relationship develops, however, it becomes is just as well that Luce abandoned the tribe; as both she and Dorian learn, Anais has been killing people and sinking ships in such a frenzy that the government is aware that something is wrong. Worse, the FBI itself is aware that the continuous loss of life is likely not of natural origin.

“Waking Storms” is gorgeously written, with amazingly deep characters that tug at the heartstrings. It is unusually dark for a young adult release, but not overwhelmingly so. The take on the mermaid myth is different, refreshing, and painful. The quandaries and moral dilemmas faced by Dorian, Luce, and other characters are genuinely distressing. While there are clear answers to most of these dilemmas (though not all), the solutions are never simple, never easy, and bear worse consequences for the people who make those right decisions than the selfish choices would. The relationship between Luce and Dorian is wonderful, yet stressful and ultimately heartbreaking while carrying on a bright beam of hope–just like everything else in the novel.

This is not an easy book, it is a gorgeous one, and highly recommended. I’m already counting down to the release of the third novel.

 

**Because a) so many people are asking; b) it isn’t like a huge spoiler or anything and c) I love spoilers, here you are: CATARINA DID NOT KILL LUCE’S FATHER. Seriously, think about it. Can you imagine a writer as talented as Sarah Porter taking such an easy and maudlin out? I didn’t think so.

This Just Sounds (and Reads) Too Familiar: Jessica Shirvington’s “Embrace”

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I recently had the opportunity to read “Embrace”, the first installment in a new YA trilogy by Jessica Shirvington. It sounded interesting, but overall I was far from impressed. In fact, I was disappointed. While there is nothing new under the sun, I am sick and tired of reading and rereading the exact same story ad infinitum. Occasionally, the familiar story will make a splash through a new twist, interesting characters, or a beautiful literary flair. This was not the case with “Embrace”, and honestly, it is not the case with any of these stories in recent months.

Here’s a quick rundown of the book: Violet Eden is a hard-working, artistic, withdrawn high school student who, by way of an irritatingly vague and cliche letter (penned by a mother who died giving birth to her) presented to her on her 17th birthday, finds out she’s more than human. In fact, she’s a half-angel. And on her birthday, hordes of angels bents on enslaving humanity descend on her because these half-Angels–Grigori, they’re called–were specifically created by the good angels to combat the bad angels. Violet, who also trains in martial arts with a sizzlingly hot trainer who also happens to be a Grigori, finds herself in the stereotypical love triangle. One is the aforementioned trainer; one is an angel. The Grigori is somewhat of a best friend, despite her feelings for him; the angel is (predictably) possessive, manipulative, quick to anger, and (naturally) possessed of an otherworldly beauty.

This is “Legion” meets “Twilight” meets “The Mortal Instruments.”

I’m going to go ahead and insert a lengthy disclaimer here. I called the YA fallen-angel trend five years ago, so I was basically tired of it before it really came along. This might not make me the best reviewer for this book. Further, I have issues with girls like Violet who, for all their superficial awesomeness, are at heart the same whiny, insecure little girl whose most earth-shattering decision has more to do with boys than with the disaster at hand. Also, I have a huge problem with having to read about the same ancient, beautiful, inhuman male character who, for all his long centuries of life, never learned how to treat a girl.

If the above renders my review useless to you, so be it. Stop reading if you haven’t already.

To continue, the characterization was flinchingly awful. Violet sounds great on the synopsis. She sounds refreshing, she sounds unique, she sounds like an interesting person. Artistic, works hard, steadily mastering self-defense, life brushed with tragedy. Sounds a little maudlin, but cool enough to pull it off, yeah?

Nope.

Here’s the thing about Violet. Violet is most deeply torn not over her destiny (instant face-palm: I would love to read a well-written YA novel where an obvious destiny does not lazily dictate the book), or the fact that God is more or less allowing angels to enslave humanity. No, her most pressing issue (of course) has to do with whether she really wants the angel or the half-angel. Violet is, in essence, the exact same teenage girl we’ve been reading about for six or seven years now. Of all of the things she is, all the things she could be–she is pretty much about the boys.

The boys themselves are flat. I’d go so far out on a descriptive limb as to say one-dimensional. Worse, they are the same one-dimensional character. The angel is just a little more talented and lot more curt than the half-angel. They seriously are two halves of the same whole.

Overall, the writing is poor. “Show, don’t tell” is a rule I don’t adhere to exclusively, but there was far too much telling going on in “Embrace.” The sentences are flat. Even when allowing for necessary differences in writing as opposed to speaking aloud, the dialogue was unrealistic and often cringe-worthy. The entire story is hurried–except when Violet’s love interests are concerned. This is a little bit sad, because the actual framework for the story has the potential to be good. The author did craft an interesting framework with the angel types and hierarchy. You also have to give the writer props for crafting a book that is a perfectly typical YA paranormal romance. The story is straight, it is to the point, and it does not pretend to be anything other than what it is. Unfortunately, I do not like what it is.

Overall, “Embrace” lacked. All of the complaints above are (I believe) true, and if they are true, they’re absolutely valid complaints. As obnoxious as they are, though, there is something else. There is a theme in this book. It is by no means exclusive to this book. But there is an implication(in between the oh-so-vital boy problems) that good and evil are interchangeable. That there is, in fact, no true good and no true evil. When you are writing about angels–whatever you personal interpretation of angels happens to be–that’s seriously a major flaw. Judging by the history of science fiction, fantasy, and even horror, you can make the argument that a great work of fantasy can’t exist without good and evil. That fundamental struggle is vital to this genre. At least, it is vital if one wishes to make a mark on this genre. The writing and plotting and characterization could have been beautiful, but without that underlying, universal conflict, the story would be found wanting. In my opinion, at least, “Embrace” was severely wanting.

 

This all said, I am fully aware that tastes differ, and this might be the perfect read for somebody out there. If you’d like to take a closer look or view some differing and well-supported opinions, here you are:

 

http://www.amazon.com/Embrace-Jessica-Shirvington/dp/1402268408/ref=cm_cr-mr-title

 

Thanks, as always, for reading what Miss Beans says.