Review: Edge of Oblivion (The Chronicles of Sarco, Book One) (Joshua A. Johnston)

Check out my H. Halverstadt Books review of Edge of Oblivion by Joshua A Johnston!

 

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Review: Dragon’s Fire (Beating Back the Darkness, Book 1)

A Shadow has fallen upon the world of Aurion. Slayvin, the Black Dragon, has awakened. His armies now march unchecked across the Darnisi continent, destroying all in their path. The elven kingdom of Trellion, the human realms of Storm Vale and Nashia, the orc clans of the Agremnall Hills and the dwarven mountain of Dar Mar’kren all lay in ruins, their survivors fleeing for the stronghold of Tempour, defended of old by the Brotherhood of the Unveiled Eye. 

But the walls of their refuge cannot keep the dragon’s power at bay forever. The only hope now lies in an ancient prophecy and a promised Champion from on high…


I received a free copy of Dragon’s Fire in exchange for a review. I would describe this book as a Christian allegory within an epic fantasy setting. But it’s much more than Pilgrim’s Progress meets Lord of the Rings. The imagined world and its characters are all self-contained, with their own backstory of Creation, Fall, and Redemption in the manner of Tolkien’s legendarium. Many pieces of biblical imagery (Dragons, Baalim, Magi, etc) are artfully repurposed and literalized within this context – I found the dragon antagonist and his false religious system particularly compelling. The background mythology of the dragon species itself was also fascinating, particularly how they essentially fill the role of demons/fallen angels within this universe. I also liked the fact that the book included some scenes from the point-of-view of the villain and his minions. I have read books where this is entirely absent and results in far less well-drawn characters.

The story world itself contains clear influences from both Tolkien and Lewis, with humans existing along fantasy races such as elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, gryphons, centaurs, etc. There are however, some highly original inversions to the mythology. Orcs, for example, are portrayed as a heroic people allied on the side of light – their more familiar role being filled by “Baalim” Minotaurs in the Dragon’s army. A key character in the story is a wise orcish chieftain who at one point even upbraids his warriors about the dangers of fleshly temptation. Interestingly, the villains even take advantage of the orcs’ negative reputation in order to control their human subjects through fear.

The world-building is richly imaginative and features a wealth of detail. The narrative itself is presented in places as a fragmentary chronicle of past events within the fictional universe. This is both a strength and a weakness, with appropriate exposition sometimes giving way to over-explanation. I also noticed a lot of paragraphs that contained belabored repetition, with a thought from one sentence being restated in the very next one. Some words seemed unnecessary (“though” kept cropping up at the end of a lot of sentences, for example), and there were a few instances of passive voice.

The widespread, epic scope of this narrative means that it embraces from multiple points of view and subplots. This is in keeping with an honored tradition of the fantasy genre and will doubtless appeal to its target audience. The major pitfall is that the book lacked an identifiable main character, which made the narrative feel less cohesive and led to a constantly shifting point-of-view.

The narrative is fast-paced, written in a highly cinematic style with lots of action, and takes place within short chapters. This makes for a quick, engaging reading experience, though sometimes it feels like things are moving too fast. The beginning of the book starts off the conflict immediately, which results in a reduced sense of the status quo ante – there’s little time to gain an attachment to the world and people that are now caught up in the destruction. On the other hand starting the action immediately inserts the reader directly into the story.

Well-written fantasy usually balances out the drama with a degree of humor and irony, and that was definitely present here.  Sometimes, though, it seemed like a bit much, with characters cracking jokes at random moments or during objectively serious serious points in the story. It also felt like the dialogue didn’t always match the setting: casual terms like “OK”, “guys,” etc seem more appropriate to a story set on 21st century earth. A more “elevated” and serious tone might have been more consistent with the quasi-medieval feel of the story.

These criticisms aside, the story is centered around a singularly impressive theme. In keeping with the allegorical tone, there is a clear Christological parallel that is nevertheless fully adapted to its imagined world. Elements of the biblical Messianic prophecies are artfully reordered, literalized, and combined to produce an original character. It reminded me in a lot of ways of how Second Temple Jews pictured the coming of the Messiah – though enough New Testament elements are retained to preserve its essentially Christian character without woodenly transcribing the biblical account.

A final caveat is the presence of light profanity, which occurs only briefly. I mention this just to make more sensitive readers aware. Beyond that, the book contains no other potentially objectionable content beyond some realistic descriptions of war and violence.

All in all, I would recommend Dragon’s Fire to fans of both epic fantasy and Christian allegory – an action-packed take of dragons, dwarves, elves and knights with a biblical message at the core. If you would like to see more of the world of Aurion, be sure to check out the sequel: The Halls of the Fallen King!

 

Review: Dragons and Romans

It is the closing chapter of the final Punic War. The Roman army stands at the gates of Carthage. The city’s days are numbered. 

But victory will not come so easily to the conquerors. A dark ritual has commenced deep within the city walls, the final, mad contingency of the High Priest of Baal. A beastly power rises from the depths of hell and the ancient mists of time. 

Now, a Roman general finds himself in battle against a force beyond anything he has ever known. And the only hope may lie in the power of an Unknown God…

Dragons and Romans starts from a unique premise: what if you took what is effectively a Christian spiritual warfare novel and set it during the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage? The book as a whole is based on true history but not bound by it, with shades of both fantasy and alternate history. Its highly stylized portrayal reminds me of the way 300 represents the Battle of Thermopylae. Some may criticize this approach from the standpoint of historical accuracy, but poetic embellishment is an art form in its own right. Immediate parallels come to mind in the works of Tennyson, Shakespeare and other classic dramatists..

I’ll add that this approach gives the author a great deal of freedom to play with different dramatic themes. The most prevalent in Dragons and Romans is a motif of good vs. evil symbolized by Carthaginian child sacrifice. This is operatically accentuated compared to the real-world Punic War (especially given the incorporation of the story’s spiritual elements) but leaves little doubt that the moral high ground belonged to the Romans.

I also found it particularly compelling to see Roman characters being shown the power of the True God by Jewish ones – this also plays into a love story whose time period and circumstances make it more interesting than the stand “Prince and Princess” romance. While we don’t know if any Jews participated in the Punic War, it’s fascinating to think about – the Carthaginians were literally Baal worshippers. Any Jewish soldiers in the Roman army would have been fighting their own ancient and hereditary enemy.

The story portrays the “mechanics” of the spirit world in a way that raises some fascinating (if somewhat disturbing) questions. Apparently, ancient human sacrifice was (is?) a very real path to power in the demonic realm. At one point, the book refers to a passage in 2 Kings where the king of Moab repels an Israelite army by sacrificing his son. I had virtually forgotten about this passage up to this point and never looked at it in that way before. Seen through this lens, it suggests some fairly chilling implications…

The narrative features vivid imagery, interesting characters, and a wealth of detail regarding both real and imagined Roman military technologies. By and large, this adds value to the story, but it does result in many instances of over-explanation (some of it repeated multiple times) and telling vs. showing. Aside from this pitfall, there is a mild level of profanity, which some more sensitive readers may dislike. That being said, I would recommend the book for readers about age 13 and upward. This was a fun, engaging read that should appeal to anyone with an interest in both ancient history and the Christian fantasy genre.

Review: Bid the Gods Arise

 

Duty-bound as son of the High Priest of Baelon, Maurin has resigned himself to an arranged marriage for the sake of his people. His cousin Aric yearns only for freedom and an escape from the visionary dreams that plague him. A single day of terror changes their lives forever. Now, slaves on a world they never dreamed existed, they find themselves caught up in a quest for freedom and the struggle against a tyrant’s throne.

They call her champion. Blood Goddess. Dania knows she is but a slave. Until the night she claims her freedom in blood. She will never submit to chains again, even if it means her own life…

Valasand Del Sirine is a Warden of the Gates, sent to Argoth on a secret mission. Her goal has been to find and eradicate the man responsible for defiling the Temple’s old colony with the scourge of a vile traffic. But there are whispers of an even greater darkness, gathering strength in the Gray Lands to the north…

Your dead shall rise against you…

All four find themselves linked in a common web of destiny, facing an evil beyond reckoning. Their only hope may lie in ancient prophecy – and in Valasand’s mysterious god…


I received an advance copy of Bid the Gods Arise in exchange for a review. As such, I had the unique opportunity to read this book without ever seeing a synopsis. I almost hesitate to write anything further as it would deprive potential readers here of the same experience. For those who wish for it, you can stop reading. For all others – read on.

The book starts as what appears to be a well-conceived work of “sword and sorcery”-style high fantasy. This on its own was enough to hold my interest as someone who had read and enjoyed other works in this genre. Then the narrative seamlessly transitions into a “Dune”-style space opera. I’ll point out here that these two terms are vastly over-simplified – author Robert Mullin has not just bridged these two genres but transcended them. Bid the Gods arise introduces us to a richly detailed universe – The Wells of the Worlds – that equally incorporates technological and “magical” elements. This world is more advanced than ours in a few, significant respects while behind in some and taking a completely different path in others. I personally would love to see the “tech bible” for his series.

Most contemporary high fantasy suffers from being pure derivations from Lord of the Rings. To a lesser extent, much can be said about the influence of Star Wars and Star Trek on the space opera genre. Mullin’s universe, however, emulates Tolkien’s project while utilizing entirely different source materials. In place of Norse and Finnish mythology, Mullin repurposes UFO and ancient astronaut theories as the basis of his secondary world. The story of Bid the Gods Arise takes place in just one corner of a vastly larger universe still waiting to be explored.

With a few exceptions, the book’s world-building is done organically. There is some exposition, but mostly at appropriate points in the narrative. A constant note of suspense and mystery balanced out the slower-paced passages. I also immensely enjoyed the characterization and chemistry of the two main characters: one is a “rule follower” with fairly rigid habits and beliefs while the other is a restless “maverick” who chafes at restrictions. Each supply something that’s lacking in the other, and their unique relationship drives much of the story.

I was particularly drawn to Maurin’s character arc. His struggle between attachment to his old life and beliefs (mainly an arranged, incomplete marriage vow on his old world) and embracing a new future (mainly a new love interest on his new world) is artfully tied into another central theme of the story: coming out from an old life serving old gods and a new life in service to the True God. I’ve rarely come across a “traditionalist” main character who is struggling with fear of risks and adapting to new circumstances. Most “action heroes” have authority issues and play loosely with the rules. As someone with the former personality type, this was refreshing to see – most authors seemingly regard it as too “boring” to explore in fiction.

Aric’s dream visions were another particularly fascinating part of the book. They were an essential story hook from the very beginning and contributed much of the suspenseful atmosphere. They were poetically mystical in a way that reminded me of Charles William’s War in Heaven (another book I highly recommend by the way). It’s awesome to come across a contemporary writer with a similar style.

There are many themes interwoven throughout the narrative. One central motif is tyranny vs freedom (both physical and spiritual). Parallel to it is the idea of being consumed by desires that grow beyond their proper boundaries: power, self-will, pleasure, immortality, etc. Many are inherent in the structure of the imagined world itself, which is clearly shaped by Judeo-Christian theology. Unlike much “Christian fantasy”, however, it is not a straight series of renamed biblical parallels. It incorporates many thought-provoking concepts that, strictly speaking, would not apply in the “primary world.” This was particularly interesting to me as a Christian author who writes for the general market. It makes the book more than a work of purely “Christian” fiction and gives it a larger target audience.

There are a few big caveats for the sensitive reader. This book contains some infrequent uses of profanity as well as an unvarnished look at the horrors inherent in human slavery. The central antagonist is a murderous psychopath who derives pleasure from raping, torturing and killing his slaves. There’s one scene where a slave, in turn, exacts a particularly brutal revenge against her master. There are also two subplots involving sexual affairs, though these are not portrayed as positive things: in one case, a participant becomes disgusted that they are simply “using” each other; the second leads one of the characters to an extremely unwise but irreversible decision. I’ll also say that these parts of the narrative are non-graphic and tastefully crafted to portray the feelings of the characters without necessarily evoking them in the reader, which is my primary concern. I would, of course, advise strong caution for certain age groups and some will want to avoid these passages regardless.

All this considered, I give the book a solid five stars. An awesome debut from a master storyteller! I look forward to exploring more of the Wells of the Worlds.

 

H. Halverstadt Books

H. Halverstadt Books, where my friend Heather Halverstadt and I contribute monthly, has officially rolled out their new website, complete with reviews, articles and resource pages. Check it below! Featured review is of Severed Signals by Steve Rzasa.

H. Halverstadt Books

Severed Signals

 

 

Review: War in Heaven

 

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We’re all familiar with the works of Lewis and Tolkien, but how many have heard of their fellow Inkling Charles Williams? This book was my first introduction to an exceptional yet largely forgotten Christian novelist whom C.S. Lewis admired greatly and considered a lifelong friend. He once remarked that Williams was “writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, let us suppose that this everyday world were at some one point invaded by the marvelous.”

Fittingly, War in Heaven, as the first of Williams’s published novels, begins with a highly fantastical (i.e. “marvelous”) premise: What if the Holy Graal was found hiding in plain sight in 1930s England – and provided great power for either Good or Evil? This lays for the foundation for a grand, poetic drama of spiritual warfare, Arthurian lore, Black Magic, and divine providence.

The book’s opening sentence begins with a particularly artful “hook”:

The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.

From there, the first part of the book unfolds like a murder mystery, though – unlike most true detective stories – the murderer is revealed to the audience quite near the beginning. The rest of the story is spent uncovering his specific motivations for the murder and how it fits into his larger plans. The closest comparison would be the contemporary thriller genre, though the pacing is quite different and can seem somewhat slow to a 21st century reader – the “action” element, while present, is de-emphasized in favor of characterization and dialogue. This is somewhat understandable, as Williams wrote well before the rise of contemporary cinematic culture (in England, at least, classical and Elizabethan drama largely occupied the cultural space now taken by Hollywood films). The plot, however, is kept riveting by the placement of “hook” revelations at key places in the story. It also has a somewhat unconventional structure that reverses linear time in places – some chapters will end with an event that the next chapter then precedes.

Somewhat unusually from the standpoint of contemporary writing (and sound business practices), the book’s cast of characters is portrayed in a way that makes the antagonist clear from the very beginning but leaves the identity of the main protagonist or “hero” debatable (some clarity comes only at the very end). This approach has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it allows for a wide cast of interesting characters all receiving more or less equal time within the story. On the other, it can sometimes result in ambiguity as to exactly where the story is going – though the plot itself (and the MacGuffin device) mostly compensates for this. Characterization is otherwise fabulous: the villain and his supporting characters, in particular, are drawn in a compelling, operatically heightened fashion that leaves no doubt about their evil nature but avoids caricatures. This is no mean accomplishment in a story about Good and Evil in the very highest sense.

The author’s own classical education comes through in the constantly poetic tone, expansive vocabulary and extensive use of Latin quotations (the average reader will probably appreciate having a dictionary near at hand). The book is also heavy with philosophical and theological concepts that, while they add thematic layers to the story, can seem esoteric to an outsider and require some mental effort to digest – particularly when appearing in the characters’ dialogue. Also, the spiritual elements (predominantly orthodox) are derived from High Church Anglicanism and may appear strange to those outside this tradition (like myself). I nevertheless found the concepts interesting (from a skeptic’s viewpoint), and much of the imagery was genuinely enriching in a poetic sense.

There are, of course, some elements of the book that I would charitably describe as dated. Authors from the 1930s are apt to use “ethnic” descriptions a bit more freely than a 21st-century audience would find appropriate. This book contains no outright slurs, but this sentence is used in reference to one of the antagonists (a particularly nasty individual who practices Black Magic): His bearded face was that of a Jew. It’s hardly overt (or even intentional) anti-Semitism, but it’s clearly something written before such sentiments were considered beyond the pale. 

This book was also written prior to the emergence of “Christian Fiction” as a separate market as well as the associated content standards. As such, while free of sexual content and technically a “Christian” novel, it does make use of profanity in places. This is usually “mild” terms such “d*mn”, “h*ll” etc, but there is also at least one use of the word “b***h” and of the Lord’s name in vain. I will point out that both of these last are clearly intended to illustrate the speakers’ own moral failings or depravity. It is, however, something more sensitive readers may want to keep in mind.

All in all, I would describe War in Heaven as a volume of compelling drama, skillful wit, beautiful language, gorgeous imagery, and ultimately, great literary value – but one can easily see why it has not achieved the lasting commercial success of either Lewis or Tolkien’s works. I would recommend it to anyone currently writing supernatural or spiritual thrillers – it’s an interesting example of how these types of stories were written decades before Frank Peretti. I myself look forward to exploring more of this author’s literary creations.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: The Red Rider


Most of us have probably come across the story of Little Red Riding at some point during our childhood. The Red Rider can be read as a legitimate sequel that takes things in an entirely new direction. Get ready to see the classic tale reimagined as you’ve never seen it before. What if the “wolf” was something else entirely? Something far more sinister – and only one of many?

What if Red Riding Hood hunted werewolves?

The above premise is what instantly drew me in to this book. I consider The Red Rider an outstanding example of what Hollywood screenwriter John Truby calls “undercutting the genre.” Basically, every story genre makes use of a “symbol web” composed of images (symbols) with special power that has value to the audience. Arthurian lore, for example, has the recognizable symbols of the Round Table, Excalibur, etc. A masterful storyteller can take advantage of audience familiarity and twist these symbols around so they defy expectations – in this case transforming a children’s fairy tale into a supernatural action thriller with a Zorro-style vigilante. The idea of re-purposing classic stories is one that has always fascinated me – what if you allowed a reader to simultaneously experience a familiar childhood wonder right alongside the more heightened emotions of the thriller genre? I hope to explore this concept in my own writing someday, and I congratulate author Randall Allen Dunn for blazing the trail.

A “werewolf” theme actually fits quite well with the original Little Red Riding Hood story when you think about it. The Red Rider further expands things by taking the werewolf legend itself back to its original roots. Hollywood has so transformed the concept in modern times that we often entirely forget that the werewolf of historical folklore is not the unwilling victim of a curse but a sorcerer acting out of malevolence. The book is therefore not simply a monster story but an epic clash of good and evil portrayed in overtly Christian spiritual terms. I was reminded at many points throughout the narrative of the following passage from Proverbs:

There is a generation, whose teeth are as swords, and their jaw teeth as knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, and the needy from among men. (Proverbs 30:14)

In my view, a well-written monster or horror story takes the imagery of this verse and portrays it in concrete terms. Taken literally, terms like “teeth as swords” and “jaw teeth as knives” imply an image quite close to things like vampires, werewolves, and all manner of imagined beings. It illustrates a key point – all these things are merely externalized manifestations of the evil existing within human beings.

The narrative itself immediately drew me into the heroine’s story. Haunted by a nightmarish encounter with a “wolf that spoke” Red Riding Hood – “Helena” – carries physical scars marking her as an outcast in her village community. She soon becomes the only one who can defend her home against a monstrous force – the same that devoured her grandmother and marred her own face. The character’s arc is well-drawn and compelling. One can literally feel her frustration and rage at the passivity of those around her in the face of evil running rampant. This actually made the book itself a somewhat frustrating experience due to the constant resistance the protagonists faces from those on her own side. Ultimately, there is only one person with the will to stand up and fight back: Helena herself. It reminded me of a point I’ve made elsewhere: horror is passive – outrage is active.

One other thing I appreciated is that the story avoids reliance on profanity or graphic sexual content (there is one scene where a villain character is clearly contemplating rape, but that’s as far as it goes). There is a high degree of violence, which more sensitive readers might find to be a bit much, but I wouldn’t call it gratuitous.

I do have some quibbles, of course. The characters’ dialogue tends to lapse into 21st century language and terminology, which lessens reader immersion in an otherwise well-constructed setting (18th-century France with some obvious historical liberties). It was clear at times that the characters were taking certain actions because the author needed them to instead of as a natural extension of who they were. Key plot elements were revealed rather quickly, such as the identity and nature of her enemies, which affected narrative tension and drive. The main villain’s plans and motivations came off as slightly cliched. These are all ultimately minor details, however, in the grand scheme of the story. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good action thriller with spiritual overtones and some balanced elements of horror. I look forward to cracking open the next installment in this saga.

Signal Boost: A Light in The Darkness

Greetings, Voyagers! For all of you who enjoy original and well-written speculative fiction, I am taking a moment today to spotlight the Superversive Literary Movement – a movement devoted to heroic and uplifting stories, inspired by the ideas of essayist extraordinaire Tom Simon. They are currently seeking subscribers for A Light in the Darkness, a newsletter of Christian Fantasy and Science Fiction from Superversive Press.

SuperversiveSF

This newsletter offers news of new releases, freebies such as e-booklets and wallpaper graphics, plus announcements of upcoming sales and other intriguing topics.

Seven Deadly Tales: A Collection of Faustian Bargains (Lou’s Bar & Grill)

The free e-booklets (short ebooks) subscribers receive access to include: “Sloth” by Superversive Press contributor Frank Luke. “Sloth” is a Twilight Zone like short story from Frank’s new book: Lou’s Bar and Grill: Seven Deadly Tales — a book of faith and Faustian bargains.

And, for those who are unclear on what the Superversive Literary Movement is, Holy Godzilla of the Apocalypse, a short ebook of popular articles from the original Superversive blog (original post available here), explains exactly what all the excitement is about. Visit their website at http://www.superversivesf.com/!

Click here to subscribe to A Light in the Darkness and get your copy tomorrow!

 

 

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