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!

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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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Review: Mortu and Kyrus in the White City

Publisher Description:

Once upon a time, short fiction was the mainstay of science fiction and fantasy readers. Titans like Robert E. Howard and Jack Vance worked their magic on magazine and pulp pages, delighting readers with strange visions and pulse pounding action. In 2016, editor P. Alexander dared to bring those days back with the launch of Cirsova, a magazine of science fiction and fantasy fiction.

DMR Books is proud to present a collection of one of Cirsova’s rising stars, Schuyler Hernstrom. These stories will take the reader across strange and sweeping landscapes of adventure. Life and death, blood and desire, greed and sacrifice, all and more are contained within. Classic barbarians and classic rogues are here, along with Dunsanian knights and witches, sentient computers and savage beasts. This collection includes all of Hernstrom’s stories from the first three years of Cirsova along with three tales that have never appeared in print before.

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Review: Mortu and Kyrus in the White City by Schuyler Hernstrom

This review originally appeared on David Roome’s blog:

https://www.davidroome.com/2020/05/short-story-book-club-mortu-and-kyrus.html

Recently, Alexandru Constantin announced the Short Story Book Club to advance robust discussion and criticism of fiction. I’ve been looking for an excuse to read, review, and blog more, so I thought I would join in. The story is “Mortu and Kyrus in the White City” by Schuyler Hernstrom, which is found in The Eye of Sounnu.

Spoilers below.

Setting

I enjoyed this story quite a bit, and it left me with a lot to think about. The primary thing I admire about it is how developed its setting is given its length. The author does something effectively that I consider a hallmark of good worldbuilding, where he mentions many interesting details in passing (and I’m not talking about just tossing out fantasy-esque names for common things—I hate that) but does not exactly explain the worlds history or many general facts about it. The result is a world that feels very large, since the reader begins asking questions and filling in the blanks.

The details provided, however, are grounded and specific, and the world is easily imagined. One of my favorite images was how one of the nomad warriors wore shoulder armor made from pieces of the exoskeletons of giant centipedes that lived in the desert.

From various conversations, especially between the main characters Mortu (a muscular barbarian warrior) and Kyrus (a Christian monk who has been transformed into a monkey) the historic struggle of humans versus the alien Illilissy can be assembled. The aliens came to the world, interbred with humans creating the northern barbarian race (that Mortu is a member of), and eventually left after being defeated by them, leaving behind technology ranging from Road Warrior style motorcycles and trucks to entire cities with decidedly more advanced technology.

This legend left me with many questions. Were the Illilissy actually extraterrestrials or simply more technologically advanced humans? Did they create all of the technology, or is some of it a remnant from the human side of the war? Is the story set on a future Earth? I assume the answer to the last question is yes, given the fact that Kyrus’s order is specifically Christian, as well as some of the place names lake “Zantyum” (Byzantium?) and “Amerza” (America?).

I love these questions, however, and I’m happy that Hernstrom created them. I feel like a visited a real place, big enough to have mysteries and aspects of its history that are not clear-cut.

Two Moralities

I’m a sucker for setting, but the other notable aspect of the story is the back-and-forth between the pagan Mortu and the Christian Kyrus.

It’s always welcome to encounter explicitly Christian characters in works of fiction, especially in stories like this one. While Mortu always sees things as black and white and acts decisively, Kyrus argues for a nuanced Christian morality between boasts about his intellect.

The conflict reaches a climax when, after discovering the sinister and abusive actions of the citizens of the White City, Kyrus argues that they should get external forces involved, while Mortu decides that justice is best served by killing everyone himself. Of course, Mortu only kills a dozen or two before some actions they took earlier end up killing everyone else indirectly.

The problem is, I’m not sure what the purpose of this moral conflict was, since it seemed like the author portrayed both sides as correct in some way. I could see an argument that the author intended Mortu’s pagan approach of relying on his personal conscience to determine right and wrong and how to deal with it as the correct morality. However, Kyrus is certainly a protagonist, and not an uncharitable caricature. And I think that the author intended him to be a likable character, especially since the narrator often takes his viewpoint.

Perhaps contributing to to this interpretation is the fact that the character Nathia’s role in the White City’s abuse is ignored. While she revealed the problem to the protagonists, she evidently did nothing about it for twenty years, and she furthered the abuse by helping new children into the city via the caravan. One could argue that she was forced to do these things against her will, but she did defy orders in the story to warn the protagonists. Why didn’t she rebel earlier? In the end, Nathia is forgiven Mortu’s wrath because she had a change of heart and because she is a beautiful young woman. A more objective morality would not let her off the hook so easily.

Another possibility is that the author is using Kyrus’s ramblings to depict and argue against an overly-philosophized, stunted morality, while Mortu has the law written on his heart.

Complicating things, I didn’t discern any growth or change in either Mortu or Kyrus’ views. I have no problem with flat-arc characters, but if there’s no development and ambiguous interpretation, the moral conflict seems to serve little purpose other than the occasional joke.

At a higher level, if we take Alexandru Constantin’s view (from his original blog post) that this story is a “direct assault on the moral degeneracy of mainstream science fiction and fantasy,” it’s unclear to me on what basis that assault is being made. With God-revealed morality from Christianity? With philosophy? With arguments from conscience or what is natural? All of the above? Let me know what you think!

Even though this aspect of the story left me dissatisfied, it provoked interesting analysis.

Other Criticisms

In addition to the above points, I have a couple of smaller criticisms, but these are mainly based on personal preference.

I think the story would have been stronger with a single viewpoint character. This might have clarified which side of the moral conflict between Mortu and Kyrus the author intended the reader to take (if he did intend a correct side).

Also, descriptions tend to get in the way of the pacing of the story. As I mentioned above, specific details like the centipede armor really flesh out the world. But more generic observations, like the colors of everyone’s hair and clothing or the appearance of sunlight or starlight in a specific instances, often interrupt the story’s drive and diffuse tension.

Final Thoughts

“Mortu and Kyrus in the White City” is a great story on many levels. If the other stories in The Eye of Sounnu are half as good, it’s well worth picking up for fans of sci-fi and fantasy. It also provides a lot of material for discussion! I’m looking forward to reading what the other #ShortStoryBookClub bloggers have to say about it.

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