Review: The Heights of Perdition

Publisher Description:

Falling in love was out of the question … until it was the answer. 

There is nothing Aeris St. Cloud wants more than to win her father’s love and the acceptance of her family unit by joining the Military Academy at New Hope. But after she is captured by the fearsome space pirate, Captain Chainsword, Aerie is certain falling in love with her nation’s arch enemy is the last possible way to earn their coveted esteem.

Driven by vengeance, Exton Shepherd never set out to save anyone. As he circles the war-torn world in his pirated starship, the Perdition, he only sees his father’s ghost lurking around every corner and the looming darkness on the horizon. When Aerie unexpectedly tumbles into his life, he finds he cannot trust her, anymore than he can ignore her. But just like the raging war down on Earth, it’s tempting to think he can … 

When the war ascends to the heights of the Perdition, Aerie’s loyalty, and Exton’s heart, are put to the test. But will love be enough to save them — and others — from certain destruction?

The Heights of Perdition is the first book in the Divine Space Pirates trilogy, a futuristic romance series where family, faith, and freedom take center stage. 

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Review: The Heights of Perdition by C. S. Johnson

Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed The Heights of Perdition. I encourage you to check it out!

The Heights of Perdition is an engaging science fiction romance that is as much about exploring thematic ideas of freedom and the role of government as it is about blossoming love. Filled with space pirates, futuristic tech, a world reeling from nuclear fallout, and—of course—romance, this first installment of The Devine Space Pirates trilogy rises to the challenge of realizing the expectations of both the science fiction and romance genres!

Romance

It should first be said that The Heights of Perdition is a classic romance novel, and the science fiction elements are definitive of the setting and external conflict, not the romance. That is to say, there isn’t any weird alien sex. In fact, the story could more narrowly be described as deriving from the Christian romance genre, so, while sexual tension is present, actual sex is held in reserve. This is important to acknowledge because I believe audience expectations when it comes to romance novels is diverse and easy to disappoint.  

The romantic tropes in this story—kidnapped, enemies to lovers, forbidden love, revenge, etc.—are pulled off admirably without treading into too cliché. Some might argue that the romance proceeds a bit quickly from enemies to acknowledged attraction, but I prefer that to a drawn-out interpersonal conflict founded only on the characters’ mutual resistance to their relationship. It works in Pride and Prejudice because pride and prejudice are the characteristics that define the hero and heroine, but not all lovers are those two characters.

Aerie and Exton are genuine people who quickly establish that truth and honesty are important to them as individuals, and it is realistic that they apply that to the expression of their feelings. This shifts the focus of the Problem that Threatens to Keep Them Apart away from the two of them and onto the external conflict. As their relationship progresses, the stakes are raised and the tension builds in the action.

Cliff Hanger

The one expectation of the romance novel that The Heights of Perdition declines to meet is the “happily ever after” ending. Aerie is kidnapped accidentally by Exton and his crew when they steal a tree she had climbed. The plot turns around the question of what to do with her, correlating with the subplot of Aerie’s desire for acceptance and belonging.

The external conflict that threatens their relationship is big, too big for a single novel to resolve satisfactorily. It becomes clear that the oppressive government of the URS will need to be brought down. This means that, although all the story beats of a romance novel are present, including realization that each is “the one” for the other and a stated commitment that they will always love one another, their romance does not conclude with the emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

However, it does end with the plot’s central question answered. Aerie belongs with Exton, but the conflict succeeds in tearing them apart right at the end. This results in a cliff hanger ending that is unusual for romance, and may rub the unexpectant reader the wrong way.

I liked it. I felt that the story had me invested enough in the characters and the conflict to carry me through the rest of the trilogy, and leaving the romance unresolved meant that there would be room for romantic tension in books two and three without betraying the happily-ever-after down the line (one of my pet-peeves).

Science Fiction

The setting is nicely realized. Descriptions of the pirated spaceship create a vision that captures the wonder of the night sky and man’s ingenuity without the bland professionalism of USS Enterprise or the dirty penny smell of the Death Star. It is easy to believe that Aerie feels at home there.

Likewise, the URS capital city New Hope feels down trodden and oppressive merely by its situation underground, out of sight of the sky.

All the world-building, the history of how the URS came to be, the laws and regulations that citizens must adhere to, the prevalence of punishments, the existence of resistance, make possible some intriguing thematic discussions worthy of the sci-fi genre.

I felt particularly drawn to the character’s frustrations resulting from the government’s actions in the name of “survival,” as COVID19 has brought similar discussions to the forefront of everyone’s minds. This story plays with the ideals of freedom and safety, the morality of acting for someone’s “own good,” and the regulation of ethics. It also really brought home to me the impact of the Christian heritage (religion, family, and love) on how we view the government’s role in our lives.

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The Heights of Perdition is an engaging romance story set in a thought-provoking science fiction setting. I am keen to see how the love story and the setting develop in the rest of the Divine Space Pirates trilogy!

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Review: The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin

Publisher Description:

Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts – A magic school like no other!

Nestled amidst the beauty of New York’s Hudson Highlands and hidden from the eyes of the Unwary, Roanoke Academy is a place of magic and wonder. It offers everything a young sorceress could desire—enchantments, flying brooms, and the promise of new friendships.

On her first day of school, Rachel Griffin discovers her perfect memory gives her an unexpected advantage. With it, she can see through the spell sorcerers use to hide their secrets. Very soon, she discovers that there is a far-vaster secret world hiding from the Wise, precisely the same way that the magical folk hide from the mundane folk.

When someone tries to kill a fellow student, she investigates. Rushing forward where others fear to tread, Rachel bravely faces wraiths, embarrassing magical pranks, mysterious older boys, a Raven that brings the doom of worlds, and at least one fire-breathing teacher.

Described by fans as: “Supernatural meets Narnia at Hogwarts”, The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is a tale of wonder and danger, romance and heartbreak, and, most of all, of magic and of a girl who refuses to be daunted.

Curiosity may kill a cat, but nothing stops Rachel Griffin!

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Review: The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin by L. Jagi Lamplighter

Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin. I encourage you to check it out!

The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is a delightful magic school tale of fast friendships, secrets, and parallel worlds. Rachel sets out on a quest for knowledge and ends up getting more than she bargained for in this first installment of the Books of Unexpected Enlightenment series.

This review contains minor spoilers.

The Wizarding World of Rachel Griffin

Any book in the magic school genre will inevitably be compared to Harry Potter, and in this case I feel that it is appropriate. Rachel Griffin is a young, enthusiastic protagonist who must apply her limited practical skills against older opponents intent on destroying her world.

Rachel must face bullies, true baddies, and, of course, school work with courage and determination. The magical academy is divided into groups defined ostensively by scholarly interests, but practically they have many of the usual prejudices, conventions, and legacies. This includes Drake Hall, the “bad” group full of uppity rich kids and conniving schemers.

However, Lamplighter’s execution of the genre’s expectations is faithful without becoming tiresome or predictable. The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin delivers all of the wonder of the early Harry Potter books, while presenting something enticingly unique.

Deeper Characters

The young characters in this story are well-developed and possess a pleasant level of depth that goes beyond the simple “smart,” “looney,” “forgetful,” “funny,” or “bully” descriptors. Instead, they become differentiated by their motivations and aspirations. Rachel wants to know and share secrets. Nastasia desires to meet others’ expectations of her, particularly by following the rules. Siggy wants to perform great (and awesome!) deeds of heroism. Valerie Hunt, girl reporter, wants her friends to be able to rely on her as she uncovers the truth. Vladimir Von Dread wants to be able to protect others through his own power.

This emphasis on motivations gives particular complexity to the students in the “bad” group that was never quite fully realized in Harry Potter. Power is a means to an end, and those who seek power are not by necessity evil.

And this point in not merely flavor, but impacts the plot by inserting uncertainty into Rachel’s relationships. This results in greater tension surrounding the mysteries she is trying to solve, since it is unclear who can be trusted, even when there are underlying assumptions about their loyalties, friend or foe. This is much more satisfying than a bully (student or teacher) who merely wants to embarrass the main character due to a personal grudge and who is otherwise relatively flat. Of course, the latter is always good for schadenfreude and is also employed to good effect.

The main character Rachel is particularly well-crafted. I really appreciated her clear thinking and believable emotions. She was by no means a robot, but she exerted more self-control than your typical lead, male or female, reigning in emotional urges to lash out, gloat, and fall in love in a way that made her both sympathetic and worthy of my respect as a reader. I can trust this kind of character to behave in consistent ways, making plot twists so much more satisfying when they flip my predictions and exceed my expectations.

Well-delivered Plot

The storyline of The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is a bit typical. Rachel must use her knowledge and skills to identify the source of a threat—one that easily outstrips any student-level conflict—and face it with courage and a determination to protect her friends.

As in most magic school stories, adults are necessarily too busy, stupid, prejudiced, or evil to be relied upon. It is unfortunate that Rachel’s inner conflict pivoted around the issue of obeying adults, closing in a thematic climax of suboptimal conclusions. Still, that has always been a weakness of the genre.

More positive is the shift away from an epic fate that casts Rachel in a dichotomy of good vs. evil. I’ve always been a fan of stories that depict people holding the line against evil through diligent choices to do the right thing. Rachel consistently chooses to help and protect her friends.

She accomplishes this by making thoughtful contributions within her means. The climax of the story does not have her facing off alone against a villain, but rather applying what she has learned to provide timely and vital assistance to more skilled allies, including older students and adults. The resulting conclusion was satisfying and meaningful without imposing on my suspension of disbelief.

Setting and Sci-fi

The setting of this story also has a crafted feel, with enough details about the world of the Wise to provide context, but not so many that the plot becomes bogged down with worldbuilding. The location of the school is beautifully described and gives it a more concrete sense of place.

There are some really intriguing sci-fi elements, too, including strange, parallel worlds or dimensions and a little alternate history. I am interested to know more about how and why Christianity has been removed from the public’s conscious, leaving only traces in the lexicon such as the word “steeple.”

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The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is a fun magic school adventure that delivers on the expectations of the genre in unique ways. I am eager to read more about the exploits of Rachel Griffin and her friends in the rest of the Books of Unexpected Enlightenment!

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Review: Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves

Publisher Description:

A young radio engineer travels across an alt-history America, encountering primeval gods, mythical beasts, and tall tales come to life, in a quest to build a radio transmitter that can reach the stars.

It all starts in the mountain town of Porterville. Twelve-year-old Philo starts a pirate radio station with his friends, and learns that the world is a stranger place than he ever imagined. The Ancient Marauder, the Bright and Terrible Birds, the Mishipeshu, and other creatures of myth and legend populate this enchanting mixture of science and fantasy.

YANKEE REPUBLIC is an old-school adventure series with traditional values and down-to-earth heroes. Escape from the pessimism and propaganda of modern fiction, and take a journey through a mythic America that might have been.

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Review: Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves by Fenton Wood

Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves. I encourage you to check it out!

Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves is a story of youthful ingenuity set in a flavorful science fiction, alternate history world. This enchanting first book in the Yankee Republic series introduces a tone of wonder in discovery and success in diligent work through the application of the timeless boyhood adventure to the science fiction genre.

This review contains minor spoilers.

Realistic Adventure

In a narrative style reminiscent of Mark Twain, Fenton Wood captures a sense of imaginative wonder. Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves utilizes the best of “children’s literature” realistic fiction, before realism came to mean pessimism. Rather, it means that the events of the story could happen, however improbable they may seem to someone determined to see the worst in the world.

The entertainment value is delivered in the manner of a realistic adventure story: through second-hand pleasure in discovery, the building of something constructive, and success in the pursuit of a clear goal.

In addition to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I was reminded of The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss and Hatchet by Gary Paulson, particularly the enthusiasm of building something from bits and pieces. Wilson Rawls’s Where the Red Fern Grows also came to mind, but more due to the rich sense of place in nature and in community.

Alternate History

Of course, Pirates is adventure fiction, but not actually realistic children’s literature. It is a science fiction blend of weird fiction, folklore, and alternate history.

The alternate history aspect contributes greatly to the overall tone of the work, but little to the plot in this first story. It functions as a switch that allows the reader, whatever their age, to share in the thrill of discovery and imagination led by the enthusiastic boys.

How much reflects reality and how much is true only within the story? How much is tall tale or misconception either by the youthful heroes or the isolated mountain people? All of the questions spurred by casually dropped details help to capture that sense of wonder and infinite possibility characteristic of the boyhood adventure.

The strong adherence to the expectations of the adventure fiction genre suggest a slight variation in my interpretation of the ending, when Philo stumbles into another world/dimension and the first real sci-fi situation of the story. This, rather than the setting of the story, is the true “alternate history.”

In keeping with the established tone, it isn’t our “real” world, either. The reader can anticipate more interesting things to experience and learn, not the pseudo-entertainment of watching someone else be exposed to our own, all-too-familiar world.

Heroic Simplicity

Delivering the delight of discovery is a cast of eager, genuine boys. Their antics in the pursuit of a pure goal require no convoluted life lessons or interpersonal drama to provide thematic commentary on the importance of friendship, hard work, and their own potential.

The themes are developed organically through the events of the story. Representative of this pattern is a scene in which the boys attempt to cross a high bridge via the catwalk beneath and find a section has been removed to prevent people from doing just that. Rather than giving up, the boys devise a solution using the materials they have with them. This solution is daring. It forces the boys to show courage, determination, ingenuity, and camaraderie. When these are diligently applied, they succeed.

Coming-of-age stories too often become mired in the character’s head, over-indulging in the emotions and thoughts that accompany any period of transition. Change is difficult and can be a great catalyst for a story, but it is not entertaining in and of itself. Pirates focuses on the pleasure of the moment for these boys, keeping the story moving with a positive tone even as time passes and friends move away.

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Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves is an engaging tale of nostalgic adventure in a fantastic world. It sets the expectations for the rest of the Yankee Republic series to continue the exploration with sincerity and excitement!

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Review: The Crimson Spark

Publisher Description:

Break the shackles of the mind.

Leo is a boy grieving his twin. Nea is a girl living as a boy to escape her past. Two slaves, carrying the scars of abuse. They form a connection, only to be split apart when their ship arrives in a mysterious and fragmented land, cut off from the rest of the world.

Leo becomes apprentice to a vagabond swordsman and together the two set out to find a stolen weapon locked away in a catacomb city. But what is his new teacher hiding? Tormented by a crippling injury and an anxious heart, Leo must find the strength within himself to keep going despite all that he has lost.

Meanwhile, Nea is conscripted by the Captain of the Royal Guard, who ropes her into the search for a group of men hunting a boy matching Leo’s description. But to Nea’s dismay, the Captain is a woman and Nea must fight past her hateful and damaged mind if she ever hopes to earn her freedom.

When a former child soldier threatens to spark a revolution, Leo and Nea will choose sides. Will they fight to save this cruel land, or punish it? To find the answer, they must confront the horror of the past and fight for the greatest freedom of all, freedom from the fear that rules their hearts.

The Crimson Spark is an emotional and captivating fantasy adventure. A story about innocence lost and righteousness found. A story about how even the most broken souls can be whole together.

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Review: The Crimson Spark by William Hastings

Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed The Crimson Spark. I encourage you to check it out!

The Crimson Spark is a dark fantasy adventure following young characters on their quest for freedom, hope, and healing. Filled with suspense, vivid action scenes, and rich themes, this first installment of the Vagabond Legacy series is an intense coming-of-age story.

This review contains minor spoilers.

Suspenseful Pacing

The Crimson Spark is paced by secrets and discovery. It doesn’t take long to discover that the main characters Leo and Nea have dark pasts that are influencing their decisions and behaviors, but their specifics are obscured by their traumatic nature that disinclines the characters to confront them. This not only creates interest, but also sympathy for the kids, who clearly need relational safety and healing.

But they are not the only mysterious characters. When Leo and Nea escape from the slavers, the initial antagonists, three individuals representing three different groups come forward to offer help. It is clear to any reader that this is a situation that cannot be taken at face value; someone must have ulterior motives!

The potential for the young characters to fall in with people who don’t really have their best interests at heart and people who can hurt them physical or emotionally deepens with every step of their journey.

Vivid Action

When action explodes on the scene it is detailed and fully realized. The edge-of-your-seat situations are varied and frequent, taking full advantage of the story’s fantasy setting with monsters, moving forests, and magic.

A particular favorite of mine is Leo’s flight from a giant centipede through a maze of catacombs full of people like living dead!

Complex Characters

I ached for Leo and Nea, who have been so hurt and victimized by the people they should have been able to trust. Their pasts make them pitiable, but it is their desire to do the right thing that makes them sympathetic and their resolution to fight for both themselves and others that makes them heroic.

The antagonists are fairly nuanced. The king who used child soldiers in the last war and who allows child slavery and other horrors to perpetuate in his county is not without love and value. Likewise, the people hurt by this state have plenty of reason to rise up against him.

This leads to what I believe is one failing of the story. The primary antagonist Belijhar was a child soldier who survived and has gathered similarly victimized people to overthrow the government and the society that turns a blind eye. I find it unfortunate that this stance is given no reasoned response thematically.

Instead, Belijhar is made more traditionally “evil” by expressing ambitions for world domination via conquest and using illusions to try to manipulate others. Once he is defeated and his illusions broken, his followers lose their revolutionary drive and most surrender, as if none of them cared anymore about the evil they believed they were fighting.

In this way, the story neatly sidestepped confronting their worldview. Since the main characters stood in their opposition, alongside the king, I feel that some kind of statement regarding it was warranted.

Rich Themes

Even acknowledging that, however, The Crimson Spark has a well-developed theme centered around the predation of children. I like to reserve the term “dark” to describe stories that present hopeless situations where good people find themselves trapped and often forced to do bad things. This story certainly has elements of that, but they are woven into a greater tale of hope and healing.

There are three specific situations enacted, allowed, or enabled by the government where children are victimized: child soldiers, child slavery, and sexual abuse of children. the society at large also turns a blind eye to these evils. The scene of the slave market, with people going about their day around it, is a powerful one.

Hastings has managed to craft a really smooth theme around this that appears to be more a consequence of the plot as opposed to artificially injected into the story. It certainly isn’t preachy, but succeeds in drawing forward these topics for consideration.

Personal Responsibility

The story avoids a solution at a government level. Instead, Leo and Nea settle on personal responsibility. Leo asks the king to tell the truth about the child soldiers and accept the consequences that come with that. They resolve to help free the children in slavery where they can rather than following their original plan to flee to a country without slavery.

They both begin the healing process by refusing to be defined by the horrible things that happened to them. They do not cling to their bitterness and (self-) hatred, but look to see themselves in the people who need their help. Leo, in particular, is able to see himself in the antagonist and to feel pity for him.

Discussing the presence of theme makes the story sound heavier than it is. Honestly, it boils down to the tried-and-true fantasy motif of good against evil. Hasting’s characters resolve not to back down and to keep doing the right thing!

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The Crimson Spark is an exciting and thought-provoking read. I look forward to seeing where the rest of the Vagabond Legacy series takes me, both in plot and themes!

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Review: The Brand of the Warlock

Publisher Description:

A hooded man, his face marred by a mysterious black brand, walks the Plain of Savlos. Some say he has the power to summon demons. Others say he is the only one who can vanquish them. His name is Konrad, and he has a secret….

Once an ordinary soldier, his life was forever changed by a fateful meeting with a dying sorcerer. Now he is all that stands between civilization and the creeping evil of the shadow world. The Brand of the Warlock is the first book in the fast-paced sword & sorcery series THE COUNTERFEIT SORCERER.

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Review: The Brand of the Warlock by Robert Kroese

Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed The Brand of the Warlock. I encourage you to check it out!

The Brand of the Warlock is a clever and compelling fantasy novel, thick with mystery and suspense, dark magic and demons! A unique dilemma afflicts the main character, who persists through wit and sheer moxie, capturing the reader’s curiosity for what he will do next. This entertaining sword and sorcery story kicks off The Counterfeit Sorcerer series with both magic and intrigue.

This review contains minor spoilers.

Suspense

The pacing of this story is fantastically executed. While I would hesitate to call it “fast-paced,” it certainly never felt plodding. Each event starts with a steady build of tension and pays off with concise, intense action.

The story begins with a simple question: how did the main character end up in prison?

The initial scene creates interest through well-crafted dialogue between the prisoner and the chief prosecutor. They each attempt to manipulate the other in order to get what they want, but their back-and-forth is not without risk. The chief prosecutor has been forced to release this prisoner and fears retribution from the powerful sorcerer he locked up. Likewise, the prisoner fears miscalculating the situation and being returned to his cell. They each are trying to get what they want without tipping their own hand.

At the end of the chapter, the prisoner Konrad is free, but it is revealed that he is not the sorcerer. This revelation deepens the mystery, raising additional questions.

The novel continues in this manner. Dialogue is compelling and never lacks some kind of conflict to create interest. The twisty revelations cause the reader to re-evaluate the information previously revealed. The question of Konrad’s past is slowly answered, but his desire to reunite with the girl he loves continues to draw him into the greater conflict around his mistaken identity until he is fighting demons in their own world!

Wit and Moxie

Konrad’s character delivers a lot of the entertainment value for this story. He is clever and resourceful, and fate seems out to get him. However, no matter the setback, he maintains his stalwart focus on his goals, finds allies to help him, and does the right thing.

His greatest talent is his wit. He devises clever plans and convinces others to participate. While he can certainly formulate a good smart-alecky comeback, Konrad’s character is genuine. He lacks the sarcasm and rude manner popularized by Marvel and Sherlock, whose characters insult their friends just as smoothly as their enemies.

These qualities make him both entertaining and sympathetic. His trials can be attributed to bad luck and not a bad attitude. This is the kind of character I can cheer for!

Setting

The Brand of the Warlock’s setting is not necessarily unique for the sword and sorcery genre. I do not mean to fault this setting in any way, but rather to point out that it, like every element of this story, is carefully constructed without being overbuilt. Veszedelem, the demon world, is interesting in its mechanics, partly because there is no tedious explanations of minor details.

One set that I particularly enjoyed was the haunted ruins. When they were first introduced, I thought it they were simply part of a generic fetch quest – part of developing Konrad’s reputation in his mistaken persona. I was pleasantly surprised to find it return as the stage for the larger conflict!

Every scene, character, and event contributes to this story in a meaningful way. There didn’t appear to be a single element of worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding. There was enough description to create a clear picture in my mind, but it never weighed down the plot.

Everything served the story, and the story was entertaining!

The End

This story did have one weakness that I feel must be addressed. The story laid the groundwork, established settings, built the tension, developed characters, and brought them together. Everything was primed for the climax. Then the book ended.

There had certainly been some big confrontations prior to the end, and Konrad’s quest to be reunited with his love is completed. However, there wasn’t the payoff that the rhythm of the story had led me to expect.

Part of this is due to the presence of too many antagonists, all of which entered the story too close to the ending. There wasn’t time to build the sense of necessity to their conflicts that would provide resolution. So much of the story was driven by the mystery of Konrad’s predicament of a false identity that the information about his antagonists’ characters came too late.

This situation does put the same pressure on a reader as a cliff-hanger, and the rest of the series is available and may provide resolution and live up to the promises this story made. That said, this story certainly has you reaching for the next book in the series!

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The Brand of the Warlock is a well-crafted story, with every element contributing to the driving suspense, and a tone of sincerity. While the abrupt ending is disappointing, it is preceded by a tightly woven tale and promises even more entertainment in the rest of The Counterfeit Sorcerer series!

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Review: How Black the Sky

Publisher Description:

Pierce – a brash young man with rare blessings of strength and really bad news.

Axebourne – the fatherly berserker with infectious laughter.

Scythia – calm and motherly, her Circlet of Knowing reveals secrets.

Agrathor – a mighty spearman with an electric personality
and a terrible skin condition.

Ess – Second only to the First Great Master of Convergent
Reality Theory. Pierce thinks she’s hot.

They are Gorgonbane. Once mercenaries, now heroes, they are the only thing standing between Overland and the horrid Monstrosities of the Underlord. His lust for power has reached its peak, but the coming invasion may not be exactly what it seems…

The world of Chasmgard is a place with endless secrets and a strange cosmology.
A deep red sun crawls across a canvas of black, and nobody remembers why. Landlocked by a depthless Chasm, Overland and the Underlands have always vied for power and land.

In How Black the Sky, we join a band of legendary warriors who may just be at the end of an age.

Multiverse Books

Each novel and short story in the Multiverse comes with a map and basic world statistics for use in roleplaying and other non-commercial gaming scenarios. We have included only basic stats that should be adjustable for any use you have!

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Review: How Black the Sky by T. J. Marquis

Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed How Black the Sky. I encourage you to check it out!

How Black the Sky is a fun, heavy metal romp following a band of warriors through epic battles to defend against an invasion of Underworld monsters! The action-driven plot underscores a refreshing, brawlier representation of Christianity than is typically seen in fiction. This story serves as the first in the Hero’s Metal series.

This review contains minor spoilers.

Heavy Metal Action

Heavy metal is not merely a genre label for this novel. According to his forward, T. J. Marquis intentionally designed his characters around the members of a heavy metal band and drew thematic inspiration from progressive metal.

This certainly comes through in the intense action sequences, which describe not only the efforts of the team, but also focus on the skill of an individual (like a solo) and how they interact with the others in friendly competition, pushing forward the power of the band as a whole.

As a result, the battles are driving and densely choreographed—an entertaining combination of brute force and complex skill, cool people doing cool things. Moreover, the imagery is reminiscent of a heavy metal concert, with grandiose settings, cool weapons, and showmanship.

Post-History Fantasy Setting

The mechanics of Chasmgard are unique and interesting. They certainly go beyond the typical fantasy / post-apocalyptic setting and are deeper than a mere color change for the sky. Underland is not merely beneath Overland—it isn’t underground—but is layered. Underland has its own sky, with a moon that moves across it, and yet it still maintains a physical orientation, below Overland.

Overland itself has a post-history flavor. There are ruins and legends (for example, the sky wasn’t always black, but was once blue) that hint that the world wasn’t always in its present state.

I shy away from the term post-apocalyptic only because it isn’t yet clear that it was a catastrophic event that caused this and the term tends to be applied to settings that are or were the real world. While the latter could be a possibility, this first book makes no explanations, for even the characters themselves do not fully understand their world’s history nor the particularities of how it works. 

The result is a tantalizing mystery for later works in the series.

Plucky Pierce

Pierce, the main protagonist, was my favorite character. While significantly younger than the original members of the Gorgonbane group, he holds his own in both bravery and skill in battle. However, his humility, positive attitude, and inquisitiveness make him fun to follow in the story. I hope to see more of him in future stories.

Pierce serves as a vehicle for the audience to learn about the other characters, since he is the new guy in the group. If Gorgonbane is a band, then Pierce is a fan who has stumbled into a dream-come-true opportunity to work with them. His interactions and the stories that they tell him develop the audience’s knowledge of these established heroes.

This first Hero’s Metal novel does spend a lot of time on this, but as all of the characters are, as I mentioned, cool people doing cool things, I found the stories of valor forgivable since they are entertaining. One weakness that does result is the lack of tension due to half of the tale occurring in retrospect and the other half shaded with the suspicion that these awesome characters will likely survive to the next book.

The Glorious Paths

A most thought-provoking element of How Black the Sky is the Overlander’s religion The Glorious Paths. This is a uniquely executed reflection of Christianity, and I found it intriguing how it put forward a different aspect of God’s character in this depiction than commonly seen by depicting Him as “the Blacksmith.”

While most Christian fiction emphasizes the attribute of love (sometimes to the detriment of all other characteristics), Marquis’s Blacksmith, while loving, is unavoidably sovereign.

In the Great Sanctuary stands a sculpture of the Blacksmith, and on his anvil humanity is being forged: “Their legs were elongated into a tapered shape like the blade of a longsword, and the woman’s arm was stretched out to one side in a partial crossguard.” Everything, including the fighting and conflict, occurs at the Blacksmith’s will to “temper” his servants and prepare them to walk the Glorious Path.

This process is not necessarily pleasant. The people on the anvil grit their teeth, grunt, and scream. But the Blacksmith has a vision for them beyond the immediate process. The Overlander’s God is not only fully in control, he is also intentionally working to prepare them for a purpose beyond this life. His followers are “the weapons that would one day slay Oblivion itself.”

Pierce in particular wonders if he will be deemed fit to serve after “this time of shaping and testing.” I appreciate how this portrayal imparts the biblical beliefs that God’s ways are not our ways and this present life is merely a shadow of what is to come.

The idea of salvation is not touched on in this book, and the morality is rather hazy, but I look forward to seeing how these ideas develop as the series progresses!

Check It Out!

How Black the Sky is an enjoyable adventure full of hardcore action, valiant warriors, and thought-provoking themes. A great start to the Hero’s Metal series!

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Review: Corona-Chan

Publisher Description:

Stuck inside? Quarantine got you feeling down… or even worse, BORED? 

Corona-Chan: Spreading the Love is here to rescue you from the existential horror of indoor life, by offering you a glimpse into other worlds of wonder, whimsy, and warped humor.

Tales of high adventure, escapist fantasies, and thrilling stories of suspense await within, from some of the keenest and most rebellious minds in pulp fiction, with a foreword by the infamous Daddy Warpig.

With 200,000 words of exciting fiction, most never before published, including four books, Corona-Chan is serious about spreading the love!

Read it today!

The complete catalog of collected chronicles:
“Quarantine” by artist Jesse White
Anacyclosis by Brian Niemeier
“A Song of I.C.E. and Fire” by Jon Del Arroz
In the Forest of Wast by Alexander Hellene
“Exiled in the Desert” by John Daker
“Iron and Steel” by KP Kalvaitis
“Someone is Aiming for You” by JD Cowan
Immortal Thunder by Matt Wellman
“Bringing down the Mountain” by Nathan Dabney
“At the Feet of Neptune’s Queen” by Abraham Strongjohn
“Going Native” and “Warrior Soul” by Manfred Weichsel
The Battle of the Turasa Nebula by Yakov Merkin
“An Eye for Eligos” by Alexandru Constantin
Adventure Constant (full-length novel) by Jon Mollison
“Star Support” by Val Hull
“The Age of Petty States” by Rawle Nyanzi
And
The Crown of Sight by David V. Stewart

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Review: Corona-Chan: Spreading the Love organized by David V. Stewart

Here on the Periapsis Project, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed Corona-chan. I encourage you to check it out!

Corona-chan is a fantasy / sci-fi short story anthology spearheaded by David Stewart and featuring 17 authors and their works that delivers adventure in a kaleidoscope of settings, characters, and tones, sure to leave you looking for more! Every tale has something to offer: action, suspense, heroics, and even the weird. This anthology is full of entertainment value. It can “rescue” you from boredom in the ordinary and mundane (no quarantine required)!

Don’t Skip the Forward!

Daddy Warpig’s foreword to this anthology is a gem. It starts off the collection with humor and the very focus on entertainment value that he touts: “Put entertainment first, put the audience first, and stop worshiping things that don’t matter.”

This anthology delivers on that promise of entertainment!

His comments certainly philosophize about writing and its purpose, particularly regarding the stated goal of this anthology, but if you are expecting the boring, puffed-up, academic air of superiority usually associated with traditionally published anthologies, you are in for a pleasant treat!

“Tales” vs. “Short Stories”

In my initial description of this anthology, I called Corona-chan a collection of short stories. However, that is not a term used in the anthology itself. That would be “tales.”

This is, perhaps, a more appropriate label, as the “short story” has almost become a genre unto itself, piling expectations of form and story events on top of those within the primary genre. In particular, it pushes an element of surprise or a “gotcha” moment. I find them disorienting at best, off-putting at worst, and nearly always unsatisfying.

It was such a breath of fresh air to read stories—written for adults—that were each “sized to fit” without also being twisty or gimmicky. Instead, they are complete stories with momentum, build, and even foreshadowing. They just don’t take as long to read!

Jon Del Arroz’s “Song of I.C.E. and Fire” is a particularly good example of this. Reading on my Kindle (with my font size at a reasonable setting), the story was only 26 pages long. But it is undeniably a complete story with engaging action, sympathetic characters, and a satisfying “got the bad guys” conclusion!

Compelling Plots

None of these tales could be accused of wasting my time when it came to getting the plot up and running. They were all fast-paced without skimping out on either character development or immersive settings. Even when the action slowed, there was a momentum that continued, pulling the reader forward with anticipation. This momentum continued to build, never leaving me stagnant or tapped out.

This resulted in a series of very entertaining stories, united by a common, engaging pace.

“Anacyclosis” by Brian Niemeier stands out in this regard. The central drive of his main character is simple, but that allows it to be both sympathetic and quickly communicated. The action that grows out of this drive builds rapidly before falling off. At that point, I was invested in both the character and his situation, and a sense of anticipation pulled me forward. When the action was not there, the story did not stall. I pressed forward, eager to know what would happen next.

Efficient Character Development

The stories in Corona-chan vary a great deal in length. However, even the longer tales were extremely efficient.

Character development is particularly important in this regard. Rather than waste time and space in their stories with scenes that served no purpose except to introduce their characters, the authors threw their characters into action to demonstrate their mettle. This resulted in characters who were quickly sympathetic, especially in those stories which had limited point-of-view characters.

I really enjoyed the character development “Star Support” by Val Hull for this reason. The situation was unique, featuring a woman at a call center for space ship technical support. I found her particularly relatable in her office job, dealing with the public and overbearing management. When she is suddenly thrown into an intense situation a mere six paragraphs into the story, her character begins to emerge and grow beyond her job. I couldn’t wait to see how she would handle the next complication that came her way!

Effective World Building

The stories in this anthology also shared a tendency for effective world building. Not that there isn’t a place for lengthy anecdotes about a world’s system of government or readers who will obsess over details of a magic system, but due to the length limitations there had to be minimal ponderous descriptions of elements irrelevant to the story at hand.

That is not to say that there was nothing to hint at a bigger universe, however. Science Fiction and Fantasy are largely defined by the worlds that they immerse us in! Settings, political situation, timelines, etc. were all hinted at with tantalizing brevity. I finished several of these stories with my appetite whetted for more.

So many of the stories are worth mentioning here, particularly those stories that obviously came out of a larger established concept such as “Someone is Aiming for You” by JD Cowan. The longer, “full-length” novels that the anthology boasts – “Immortal Thunder” by Matt Wellman, “Adventure Constant” by Jon Mollison, “The Crown of Sight” by David V. Stewart, and “The Battle of the Turasa Nebula” by Yakov Merkin – had significantly more space to work in, but I found that they were similarly streamlined.

“The Battle of the Turasa Nebula,” in particular, exposed me to a complex world with characters from opposing factions, who had intricate histories relating to each other and the larger political powers.  However, I never felt like I was being over-burdened with extraneous information. Merkin gave me just the information I needed to understand the characters, their motivations, and the action and only when I needed it. This resulted in a suspenseful story in which both parties were sympathetic and compelling, and when it ended, I was eager for more from both them and the larger scope of the conflict.

Weaknesses

I would like to touch very briefly on a couple of weaknesses in this anthology. I did not find these to be disqualifying in their scope, but in the spirit of complete honesty, I want to acknowledge them.

Thrown Together

It is sadly apparent that this anthology was thrown together in a very short amount of time. This in itself is not bad, but it is the cause of an unfortunate lack of polish. There were many errors that could easily have been caught with a bit of review, even with a word processor. Of course, the number and types of errors fluctuated between stories, some having minimal problems and others having an abundance.

That being said, most of them were forgivable and decipherable. I did not find them so distracting that I could not enjoy the experience.

Lacked an Explanation of Context

I enjoyed Daddy Warpig’s foreword, as I said in the beginning of this review, and the tone of humor and even irreverence it lent to the collection.

However, the anthology lacked the standard formal introduction: a word from the editor to explain why these particular stories were included and in the chosen order. Even the formatting, particularly the attributions and calls to action following each tale, was irregular. Obviously, this also has to do with the haste involved in Corona-chan’s implementation.

I found the tales to be unified in many of the components I have discussed, but I felt this almost coincidental. Perhaps the shared elements could be explained by the term “pulp,” which appears in the tagline, “Infectious Tales of Fantasy and Suspense Designed to Spread the Pulpdemic.” However, as someone who had no context for the term at the time of reading, this only highlights for me the need for some official comment, some explanation of what makes these tales qualify for that descriptor.

Again, I understand that there was not time for this kind of curation, let alone explanation, but perhaps then the claim that it was “designed” to do anything is a stretch.

Check it Out!

Those frustrations being recognized, Corona-chan: Spreading the Love succeeded in delivering entertainment. Furthermore, it is an excellent collection featuring this group of authors, whether you have never read any before or are familiar with all of them.

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Review: For Steam and Country

Publisher Description:

What could a 16-year old girl do with an airship? 

As a an ordinary farm girl, Zaira von Monocle is in way over her head. She’s inheriting Rislandia’s most deadly weapon of war, the airship Liliana. Her modest life couldn’t prepare her for flying the massive vessel, let alone protecting her ship and homeland from invading Wyranth soldiers.

Even as her whole world turns upside down from war, Zaira learns her presumed-dead adventurer father, the legendary Baron von Monocle, might still be alive. It’s up to her to take the Liliana into Wyranth territory and see if the rumors are true.

Can Zaira learn how to command an airship and gain the respect of her new crew? Read For Steam And Country, CLFA Book of the Year Award winner and first book in this #1 Bestselling YA Steampunk series!

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Review: For Steam and Country by Jon Del Arroz

Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed For Steam and Country. I encourage you to check it out!

For Steam and Country is a streamlined tale of steampunk-flavored adventure told from the perspective of a young farm girl who inherits an airship. Air battles, heroic rescues, explosions, and dramatic outfits ensue! A good first installment of The Adventures of Baron Von Monocle series.

This review contains minor spoilers.

Sympathetic Teen

This story is told from the perspective of Zaira von Monocle, a 16-year-old who has been living a sheltered life on a farm, struggling to make ends meet without her parents; her mother passed away and her father has been missing for two years when the story begins.

This story is not limited to Young Adults, per se, but it does hit many of the hallmarks of novels intended for that age group, such as blossoming romantic tension and the transition to adulthood. However, unlike many teenage main characters depicted in modern media, I found Zaira to be a pleasant girl, whose interactions with others, especially adults, are polite, rather than characterized by angst or resentment.

Consequentially, my feelings towards Zaira (as an adult, myself) were more sympathetic. It is believable that the adults around her would want to help and support her, even when she makes grave mistakes. It should also be noted that Zaira is not a Mary Sue. Her struggles and accomplishments are not contrived to make her a vehicle for a statement about women, but feel organic and natural.

It is important for a main character like Zaira to be accessible in this way for readers of any age because she functions as more than the protagonist; she is our surrogate through which to explore Del Arroz’s steampunk world. She begins the story outside the fantastic, in the most mundane (if noble) profession of farmer. We are able to connect with her ignorance and enthusiasm immediately because we are also being exposed to airships and life on board them for the first time.

Too often, I find myself detached from teenage main characters due to poor attitudes. I wouldn’t want to associate myself with that kind of negativity and rude behavior even when I was that age, so why would I want to align myself with a character defined by such conduct or subject myself to that kind of company for the duration of the novel? Zaira is a refreshing change in that regard, and it was a pleasure to join her journey!

Minimalistic World-Building

Jon Del Arroz’s style in this novel is streamlined and minimalistic. I would have liked to see more indulgence in the steampunk aspect of the story, especially more vivid descriptions of the machines and outfits. However, there certainly wasn’t any superfluous world-building intruding upon the plot: a potential problem in a setting so swashbuckling!

I do think this style reflects Zaira’s practical farm-girl outlook. When she is first brought to the airship, she thinks it is a wall. This may convey ignorance or a focus on the down-to-earth functionality that has been her life up until this point. Her excitement while flying the airship, her incredulity over the histrionic outfits, and her unwavering determination even in the presence of royalty or enemy all work together to keep the audience invested in her experience, rather than the specific details.

Furthermore, the lack of explanation on how these machines work, especially the airship, lends an almost magical quality to its operation. Whether or not that is appropriate in a steampunk setting is debatable, but it does permit the story to move forward steadily, without pausing for arduous explanations that not all readers may find interesting.

Off the Rails Ending

I love it when a story ramps up for the climax in an unexpected way!

The war between the two countries Rislandia and Wyranth begins fairly standard, for a steampunk world. There is a particularly interesting element of scarcity with Zaira’s airship being the last one, and therefore indispensable in the war effort for her country. The conflict progresses along a bit predictably, although not necessarily negatively so. Zaira contributes to a victory, the rescue attempt fails when they are betrayed, the Iron Emperor is crazy, etc.

However, that is all deviated from with the introduction of a mythical monstrosity!

Even better is the fact that this element was foreshadowed and not pulled out of nothing to inject the climax with new excitement. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the end brought more intensity to the story with greater evil and higher stakes.

Depicting the Enemy

Jon Del Arroz did not take the easy way out when it comes to the characters from Wyranth, the enemy country. I think parents interested in this novel for their young adult would be particularly appreciative of this, but anyone can find it a wholesome portrayal.

Simply put, Del Arroz treats the enemy characters as people; people who are doing their jobs, fighting for their country, providing for their families. There is the addictive substance the soldiers drink that gives them berserker-like disregard for life, but generally the baddies on the ground are not really baddies at all. The true evil is reserved for the actual antagonist.

This does create some ambiguity early in the story over why the two countries are at war. Especially as Zaira has spent her life on her farm, sheltered from the war and far from the epicenter of the conflict, the motivations and goals of the enemy are not well defined. When the people on the ground, who interact with Zaira, are not indiscriminately malicious, it makes the matter even more unclear.

It would have been very easy for Del Arroz to make the enemy uniformly wicked, and I would have accepted it without question. The matter of why they are at war would be easily dismissed as virtuous vs. vile. Instead, the issue is brought forward.

Now, it could be that it is discussed more in subsequent iterations in the series (I have not read any further at this time), but the answer appears to at least partially lie with the addictive elixir and the monster revealed at the climax. How then do the actions of the heroes at the end impact the conflict? It is a brain worm that makes me want to read more!

Check it Out!

For Steam and Country is an engaging adventure with a refreshing young protagonist. Jon Del Arroz’s streamlined style and subtle conflict development form a solid foundation for all the swashbuckling theatrics. It is a wonderful novel for steampunk lovers of any age!

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Review: Ghostblade

Publisher Description:

Giant monsters roam the land. 

Civilization is frozen in a savage age. For one young hunter named Alden, power and survival are one and the same. The ancient evil that once ravaged his village and murdered his ancestors has returned. At the same time, politics hurls Alden into gladiator pit battles for control of the throne.

When Alden takes possession of a cursed sword promising untold power, the hunter is determined to save his people by slaying every giant monster standing between him and the throne. But the angry ghost trapped inside the blade has other ideas.

The first entry in a thrilling LitRPG light novel series!

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Review: Ghostblade by Adam Lane Smith

Here on the Periapsis Project, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed Ghostblade. I encourage you to check it out!

Ghostblade is an adventure-packed light novel in the shōnen vein that delivers a unique and entertaining spin on some of the best elements of that genre: tenacious characters, dynamic action sequences, and thematic elements of diligence and community. Beautifully illustrated by Ashion. This compelling first installment of Adam Lane Smith’s The Savage Hunters series has certainly whetted my appetite for more!

This review contains minor spoilers.

Earnest Protagonist

Alden is a virtuous main character with a desire for self-improvement, grounded in a strong sense of community. While this is a common character trope in the genre, Smith’s execution, particularly in tying Alden’s character development to a stronger thematic message about what it means to be a man, lends Alden a more mature tone than is typical among shōnen leads.

I found myself rapidly gaining a respect for the young hero. He aspires to become a better hunter in order to protect his village, and it is clear that the needed growth is in experience and not in repentance or common sense. This avoids some of the cringy scenes typical of young protagonists. Alden might make poor decisions, but they were always from a pure motivation that I sympathized with, never from internal flaws or faults inflated for cheap character improvement down the line.

As a result, Alden comes across as a lifelike character, and it is easy to believe that his peers respect and trust him in a leadership position.

Vivid Action

This light novel is chalk full of captivating action sequences. Each conflict is vividly described, with all the involved characters taking active roles against the monsters that they face. Even in the gladiator-style tournament, the battles did not run together monotonously. They were all fresh, through different beasts, tactics, and characters.

Alden’s fights, in particular are always multi-faceted. They incorporate conflict on multiple levels, from the basic struggle for survival in the arena, to the political competition for the throne, to the over-arching clash of order and chaos.

Unfortunately, the complex nature of these conflicts can make the handful of scenes starring other teams and their battles a bit tedious. Although this, too, is a common element of shōnen-style tournaments, I have always found them to drag on a bit too long. Smith successfully hooked me into his story; I was invested in Alden’s team and their objectives. That made it hard for me to find interest in the battles of the other characters. Take that with a grain of salt, however, because I am not a sports fan in real life, either: I never could see the appeal in March Madness, for example.

Gameplay-based System

I enjoyed Smith’s choice to incorporate an RPG-based levels system into his world. I thought the LitRPG concept was well executed and worked beyond the simplistic “give the reader a quick understanding of everyone’s relative power.”

Not only did the clear levels give a sense of objectivity to the character’s abilities, but they also emphasized their need to improve if they wanted to be able to protect their community. In this way, they raised the stakes from the very beginning. Balanced against the character development as they were– particularly Alden’s diligence and desire for self-improvement – meant that, even though the hunters’ levels were not high, I believed they had the moxie to succeed.

Furthermore, the skill trees inserted an additional sense of hope, particularly to the over-arching conflict against the ancient threat, by offering the characters opportunities of growth tailored to combat it. They might not be ready for that just yet, but it offers a tantalizing promise of more epic action to come!

Setting Put to Work

Ghostblade has a very polished feel to the whole work, with a clear attention to detail from plot and character to grammar and word-flow. The setting is no exception here.

Often a story’s setting, particularly in fantasy genres, is more a consequence of plot or an exercise in artistic description than a functional aspect. While I can’t claim to know if Smith intended to put his setting to work in the service of storytelling, it certainly came out that way.

The story has three major settings: the village, the corrupted forest, and the city.

The Village – Order and Vigilance

The early descriptions of the village and surrounding terrain convey nobility in simplicity and hard work. Here is the first glimpse we are given of Alden’s home:

“The front door made of dense, woven wool opened onto a dirt floor and a large rectangular hall.”

This seems relatively straight-forward, and yet it is representative of a consistent picture Smith creates of this setting. Handicraft permeates the scene, from the woven front door to the bone structure of the house itself. Things may be simple, from the dirt floor to the open space, but there is a strong connection between the people who live there, even though none are present in that first scene. Someone made the door, someone – ancestors no longer even living – built the house. A strong sense of heritage exists – a legacy of hard work manifested in every item in Alden’s home.

This generates a sense of belonging, further emphasized by the oversized dinner table and the meal set aside for Alden, and contributes to a feeling of security. This village is a safe place, with a strong wall and competent hunters standing watch. So safe, in fact, that none of the buildings have actual doors.

Not only does this accentuate Alden’s character as we are first introduced to him, but it also sets up the major conflict of the series: the return of the Scourge that nearly drove the village to extinction. The community’s safe and connected lifestyle contrasts sharply with the corrosive and invasive nature of the enemy.

The Forest – Chaos

“Looming skeletal trees seemed to reach for the band from the corner of Alden’s eye. Every so often, the abrupt cawing of a raven would tear through the forest, and the hunters would jerk in their saddles.”

The second setting further emphasizes the dichotomy between order and chaos. Where the village represented the safety, security, and happiness possible within order (particularly demonstrated by the wedding), the forest embodies the constant strife, fear, and loss of self that is perpetuated by chaos.

Alden and his friends must be constantly on guard because the Scourge is not only physically corrosive and viscerally repugnant, but also threatens them on a spiritual level: “The Scourge already burned in Jincra’s flesh and spirit to a degree which terrified Alden.” While it is yet unclear exactly how this spiritual aspect might manifest (assuming the physical corrosion was halted), it is easy to imagine how it could jeopardize the relational security within the community.

Note: I think it is fair to categorize this conflict as order vs chaos, at least in this first installment in the series, rather than the typical good vs evil. Although the characters interpret the corruption as having a malicious intent towards them, I do not see it depicted in this story as having a particular direction to its consumption. It seems more like an invasive sickness that must be driven out before it reaches a vital organ, as it eventually would if left to its own devices.

The City – Laxity

The third setting, Ceralahn City, stands in contrast to the village in a different way. While the village was a safe and secure place, it was not so by chance. The community was constantly vigilant, posting lookouts against outside threats and intentionally working to pass on their traditions and beliefs to the next generation – safeguarding against a different kind of chaos.

However, the city, on the other hand, is not a place characterized by simplicity and a tight-knit community. Smith never faults the city for this, necessarily. There is no a commentary on rural vs metropolitan. Rather, the city seems to represent a society distracted by various affairs. Its people reject the threat of an outside evil, preferring instead to believe their own events, such as the political tournament, are the driving force of all motivations. The people are divided into their own tribes and factions; therefore, the city lacks any sense of unity, even in something as simple as clothing, which is always richly described. Furthermore, the ending (without going into detail) reveals that they are blind to the chaos unfolding within their own walls.

Even Alden and his team must constantly remind one another that their true purpose is not necessarily to win glory and political power through the tournament, but to gain allies against the true threat that they face.

Smith’s skillful composition of setting puts it to work for the story in both plot and thematic avenues. I know I’ve spent a lot of words here, but it was a treat for me to discover such a uniquely integrated setting!

Check it Out!

Ghostblade is a brilliantly entertaining adventure, with compelling characters, vivid action, and subtle setting all in service to an engaging story. Accessible whether you are familiar with light novels or not.

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Review: Combat Frame XSeed

Publisher Description:

The future is over. 

Civilization on Earth has collapsed. Oligarchs have established a new order in manmade space colonies at the Earth-Moon LaGrange points.

A group of powerful colonies form the Systems Overterrestrial Coalition to re-civilize the earth, but grounders view the colonists as hostile meddlers. The Coalition counters the rising violence with giant manned robots called combat frames.

The independent L3 colonies denounce the war on Earth. In response, Coalition Security Director Sanzen takes L3 leader Josef Friedlander’s wife and daughter hostage. Amid the tense standoff, Friedlander’s son Sieg launches an unsanctioned rescue mission to L1’s Byzantium colony.

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Review: Combat Frame XSeed by Brian Niemeier

Here on the Periapsis Project, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed Combat Frame XSeed. I encourage you to check it out!

Brian Niemeier revitalizes the mecha tradition in Combat Frame XSeed, a gritty action novel that blends mecha anime and military science fiction to deliver high-energy combat alongside thrilling intrigue. The dynamic combat frame designs turn dogfight combats into scintillating gladiatorial displays, and political subterfuge threatening to crush the heroes keeps the drive high. An exciting opening for the trilogy!

This review contains minor spoilers.

Mecha Combat

Niemeier has asserted that he intended to move beyond the tired Eastern and the bleak Western aspects of the mecha genre, integrating the best of both in a refreshing return to what makes the mech so appealing. The result is a bold blend of military maneuvers and one-on-one duels, mass-produced combat units and showy customized ones, guns and swords – or any other close combat weapon.

The action sequences are gripping. Early in the story, it is established that there are no guaranteed outcomes, and the combat frames consistently take serious damage or are lost entirely, which kept me on my toes. This made the second half of the novel particularly engaging, when the coordinated attacks gave way to one-on-one combat. These showcased more unique combat frames, weapons, and tactics – leaning into the mech aesthetic more.

Unfortunately, there are not as many antagonists as there were protagonists piloting combat frames. This resulted in many battles against a deluge of mass-produced models, although there is still variety in the execution. It also necessitates the near omnipresence of Metis, the most formidable antagonist combatant for the majority of the story. Still, the manifold multifaceted battles were gratifying.

Mech Design

Mech design is arguably the most important aspect of any entry in the genre. Niemeier does not disappoint in this regard either! The combat frames are varied in form and style, and come armed with all kinds of weapons from over-sized machine guns to plasma swords.

While many of the combat frames are a sort of standard military issue, these do change over the course of the story, so that even the fights against the generic baddies become more difficult as the technology improves.

However, the true pleasure lies in the custom combat frames. These come in a myriad of colors, wield multiple cool weapons, and are under constant repair as they give and take damage. But they also have more of the “organic in the inorganic” design elements that are so iconic to mechs. Instead of descriptions of mere machines, elaborate though they may be, the custom combat frames begin to take on auras of their own.

For example, when Ritter first sees Zane’s custom combat frame Dead Drop, it “carried no visible weapons but exuded menace like a coiled mamba.”

My personal favorite is Jean-Claude du Lione’s custom combat frame: a CF Veillantif. I found the descriptions of its garish design, coupled with its dueling capacity aesthetically pleasing:  “He fought to stifle a scream when a gothic monstrosity of bronze and burgundy crouched down beside the singed hole in the wall and leered at him with a giant, gargoyle-like head.”

Intrigue

An important element of Western military sci-fi – and, of course, present in Western applications of the mecha genre – is intrigue. Combat Frame XSeed applies this technique creditably, using multiple factions with conflicting agendas as its basis. The differing goals, secret meetings, betrayals, information leaks, red herring leaks, and more hype up the tension.

True to political intrigue form, it is not clear in the beginning who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are. Even the two generalized groups – the grounders and the Coalition – are divided and not all the major players have clear motivations. However, Niemeier does not leave us in such bleak ambiguity. As the plot ramps up, disparate factions and characters unite in purpose, and the moral issues around the conflict make it easier to break down into good and evil.

Of course, there is still an element of uncertainty at the end. Not everything is explained, and I wonder if there isn’t information that the reader lacks, sustaining the mystery and incentivizing read-through for the trilogy!

Characters

Combat Frame XSeed does struggle a bit under the weight of so many point of view characters. It can get a bit confusing when changing between them, especially when that switch comes mid-chapter, and the impact of any one of them is diluted.

That being said, I did not find it too difficult to track who was who. I did not even have to reference the “Principal Characters” annotated list at the beginning, although it is a nice resource. It was a tad intimidating to see it sandwiched between “About Combat Frame XSeed” and the Glossary before the story started, but, again, it was needlessly so.

This can be attributed to Niemeier’s skill at quickly developing sympathetic characters. As the cast grows, it does not become bloated with people you don’t care about.

If I had to identity a singular main character, I would point to Ritter, who begins the story as an outsider joining the EGE and ends as a hero. But in keeping with the anime tradition, there are multiple quirky characters that could stand alone in their own right. From Maximus Darving, a software engineer with a weirdly affectionate relationship with his custom A.I. Marilyn, to Zane Dellister, a crazy guy who built a combat frame from scratch using stolen parts, the characters populating Combat Frame XSeed are captivating.

Check it Out!

Combat Frame XSeed is an entertaining execution of the best elements of the mecha tradition: compelling fight scenes, grandiose robot designs, and thrilling intrigue. Whether you are a long-time fan of the giant robot tradition or interested in them for the first time, this is a must read!

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