Review: A Greater Duty

Publisher Description:

The Galactic Alliance was not ready for war. When it is suddenly invaded by the cold and relentless Tyrannodon Armada, under the command of emotionless, amoral Executor Darkclaw, it is immediately sent reeling.

The invasion was a godsend for some, however, such as Grand Admiral Nayasar Khariah, who had wanted nothing more than revenge on the Alliance following an attack on her homeworld. The arrival of the Tyrannodons presents her with an opportunity, one that she seizes gleefully.

However, Executor Darkclaw, who has been prosecuting the invasion on orders of his master, the all-powerful energy being known only as the High Lord, has started having second thoughts once he unexpectedly starts feeling emotions he does not understand. Suddenly, he finds himself heretically questioning the only purpose he has ever known—irrevocably altering his view of the ongoing war.

Meanwhile, within the Galactic Alliance, Second Scion Dalcon Oresh, member of an order dedicated to preserving the it, struggles to stop the Alliance’s bleeding, the source of which may not be entirely external.

Darkclaw’s newfound friendship with Nayasar will be pushed to its breaking point, Nayasar’s relationships with her closest friends and loved ones will be strained as her quest for vengeance becomes more and more a personal obsession, and Dalcon must determine who he can truly trust.

All the while, the imminent existential threat of the High Lord looms over everything, and the key to stopping him, and saving not just the Alliance, but the entire galaxy, may only be found in the remains of a ancient, powerful race, and the creations they left behind…

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Review: A Greater Duty by Yakov Merkin

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

Disclaimer: We received a copy of this book from the author for the purpose of review. This in no way influences our opinions. (You can request a review here.)

This review contains minor spoilers.

A Greater Duty is a detailed military space fleet novel featuring diverse alien species and exciting battles both in space and on the ground. This self-contained story makes a compelling start to the Galaxy Ascendant series.

Heavy Action, Light Mechanics

A Greater Duty features both detailed tactical battles in space and heart-pounding clashes on the ground. This varied military action keeps the engagements fresh as the war progresses throughout the story.

I particularly enjoyed the ground battles, where the characters’ choices felt more crucial and personal than those made from the command center of a flagship. It also felt more fantastical: Nayasar rides on a battle mount decked out with enough weapons and technology to make it pack the punch of a light tank. These fights also stuck out to me as having greater individuality than the space battles, since the settings and situations differed between them, while the space battles were fairly consistent, conveyed largely through dialogue and shifting shapes on a display.

The science fiction elements of the story are less detailed, preventing the story from becoming bogged down with too much realism. There are a few innovative technologies, but they are only described enough to serve the story, rather than existing for their own sake.

For example, the space ships are mainly military vehicles, and thus described less in terms of the science behind space travel and more along the lines of practicality. This does result in some less meticulous elements, such as their tendency to arrive places whenever it is most convenient for the story, rather than some consistent sense of distance traveled.

However, I can’t help but feel that this is a net gain, as the emphasis resultingly landed on the conflict and the characters, which is consistent for the military science fiction genre.

Suspense

A Greater Duty’s true strength, however, lies in the main character Darkclaw’s emotional journey and the tension that develops as he becomes more sympathetic towards his allies and begins to question his High Lord.

The question of how he can stand up to an all-powerful, mind-reading energy being builds through the entire story. It makes Darkclaw particularly sympathetic, and the climax manages to deliver a satisfying pay-off to this building suspense.

Foils and Emotion

Darkclaw begins the story entirely emotionless: a completely rational character. He believes the Tyrannodons to be superior due to this trait, although others of his species do have limited emotions. His struggle to maintain his composure and hide his emotions as they develop is extremely relatable, and his resolution to then change his behavior once he understands others better as a result of his emotional experiences is admirable.

Nayasar was a more frustrating character for me, though she makes an excellent foil for Darkclaw. She not only feels things very vividly, but she throws herself into her emotions. She dwells on the deaths of civilians that she feels responsible for, and actively resists the advice of others that would help her to find healing. Her quest for revenge ends with a realization that allowing her emotions to control her caused her to hurt others.

Dalcon is likewise an interesting foil for Darkclaw, although perhaps a more subtle one. He begins the story as a character who values rational behavior. Like Darkclaw, he works to maintain his composure. Where Nayasar represents a character willingly ruled by her emotions – and the dangers that involves – Dalcon is a character who intentionally sets aside his emotions in order to keep from alienating people who recognize his species as dangerous. He has intentionally distanced himself from his home world and his inherent fire abilities as a result. In the end, he does not have as urgent a repentance as Nayasar, but he does become aware that he has likewise been isolated, and seeks reconciliation with his people.

Darkclaw manages to walk a middle road between these extremes, and is able to achieve peace and unity with both his own people and the peoples of the Galactic Alliance.

Loyalty, Sacrifice, and Religion

A Greater Duty emphasizes the values typical for the military genre, including loyalty, sacrifice, bravery, and, of course, of duty. However, these values interplay with the thematic thread of emotion in a unique way. When Darkclaw lacks emotions, he retains loyalty and a sense of duty, but they are to the High Lord, governed only by a sterile logic based on the High Lord’s rhetoric. However, as Darkclaw begins to experience emotions, his loyalties and sense of duty change to align with his allies. He is even able to appreciate the religion of Nayasar’s people.

So, then, is the thematic argument of this story that feelings determine morality? Not at all. Nayasar’s emotions steer her to commit condemnable acts. Rather, the note seems to be that emotions breathe life into these values. Camaraderie strengthens the loyalty between characters. Enacting responsibilities leads to fulfillment. Courage is not even possible without fear. Grief deepens the sacrifice of subordinates; love, self-sacrifice.

Merkin delivers a message of emotional balance, neither blindly employing them as a moral compass nor condemning them as solely problematic. Rather, A Greater Duty embraces the reality that, while feelings should not be responsible for structural integrity, their presence alongside virtues turns a plain building into a cathedral.

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A Greater Duty delivers detailed action and a thought-provoking spin on the usual themes of the military sci-fi genre. It is an exciting first foray into the Galaxy Ascendant series!

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Review: Collateral Damage

Publisher Description:

Destructive Battles Rage Between Hellish Kaiju and Giant Mech Protectors

A desperate father must rescue his son when a deadly kaiju rampages across his city.

When opportunists lurk and buildings crumble around him, the battle might be the least of his worries. Each minute means more destruction, and the clock is ticking.

The first in a new kaiju series where the ordinary collides with the oversized, Collateral Damage is based on a short story of the same title originally published in Broadswords & Blasters Magazine. Experience the first taste of this series with a punch to the gut. Mind the shadows — you could be crushed.

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Review: Collateral Damage by Adam Furman

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

Disclaimer: We received a copy of this book from the author for the purpose of review. This in no way influences our opinions (You can request a review here.)

This review contains minor spoilers.

Collateral Damage is a high-speed science fiction thriller about a father’s battle to save his son, underfoot of a kaiju/mech battle for humanity’s survival. This first installment of the series is a wild ride of paternal determination and an intense mashup of the ordinary and the fantastic!

Aggressive Pacing

While Collateral Damage begins with a simple premise: a father of a broken family doing whatever he has to in order to be with his young son. Initially, the goal is to pass an apartment inspection in order to get visitation rights. The common situation provides a moderate amount of tension, stemming from the relatability of the father-son relationship.

The initial obstacles are likewise of the everyday sort, but the situation quickly goes off the rails. When a kaiju attacks the city and his son is unaccounted for, DeShawn hurdles into an epic quest to find him and keep him safe. He meets with one problem after another, but never gives up.

Furman does an exemplary job of utilizing the “yes, but / no, and” storytelling technique. The consistent complications deny the release of tension, pushing the drive of the story even harder with every event. Furthermore, DeShawn is impacted physically at every turn – a tactic reminiscent of Jim Butcher – which continues to amplify the suspense.

Present Tense

Reading a story told in present tense can take some mental adjusting if you aren’t used to it (generally, it is more common in short stories than genre fiction), but in Collateral Damage, the style is used to further emphasize the immediacy and build the suspense.

The effect is one of careening into the unknown. It is not unlike a Crash Bandicoot game in which the character runs full-tilt towards the screen; the player is perched on the edge of his seat, reacting to problems seconds after they appear and trusting that there is a way through to the finish line and to victory.

Biting Visuals

The fast pace and intense emotional investment do not prevent the setting from making an undeniable impression. Images, such as driving a blue convertible through a mech’s legs as it battles a giant monster overhead, stick with you.

Some of the descriptions are quite graphic, emphasizing the “collateral damage” occurring while the battle rages above. The destruction, violence, and even gore further contribute to the rising tension by reducing the control the reader perceives the main character as having.

But it also casts some thematic threads.

Timely Theme

The story works off a simple premise, and the central theme reflects that. The importance of a father figure and the desire for a whole and loving family are threads that lead to the payoff, the feel-good ending the reader craves like water after a gut-wrenching race.

However, there is another theme, more timely than timeless.

There are political events occurring in the world that are intriguingly similar to our own current events. Zenith, a communist group of zealots works to overthrow the mechs, the force established by the government to defend the people.

Zenith has occupied part of the city, obstruct roadways, accost ordinary people on their way home from work, steal and kill, and take advantage of a bad situation to further their own goals. However, they have some valid concerns, including the blasé acceptance of the damage caused and lives lost as a result of the mechs’ battles, and the impunity of the mech pilots for their behavior. Most people seem to love them, though, and watch their battles as a kind of entertainment.

In this situation, DeShawn is once again painfully relatable. He does not mindlessly embrace the mechs, forgiving the carnage and rejecting all criticism of them, and so he is himself rejected by others as “anti-government.” One character even goes as far to call him a monster for his mere opinion. However, he also cannot accept Zenith who stole his wallet, appropriated his apartment, and killed the people he approached for help. As a result, he is labeled a “patriot” by them.

Collateral Damage

He, like so many people in the Western world today, finds himself in a no-man’s land, disavowed by opposite ends of the spectrum as the enemy, and denied the opportunity to find common ground with either of them due to the labels they are so quick to brand him with. He represents the “collateral damage” in this political and cultural war.

The thematic arc resolves with DeShawn’s conclusion that he is happy that the mechs exist. This is not a surrender of his inhibitions regarding them, nor an inconsistent, emotional response to his rescue. It is a nuanced discernment of the good and the bad, one that has been denied to him throughout the story.

I am reluctant to pin any particular, deeper message onto this thread, any call to action regarding our own world’s politics. But the story clearly cautions against the adoption of an “us vs them” mentality, and the satisfying ending is really only possible because DeShawn lets go of some of his own judgement towards his ex and his father, enabling them to become a whole family instead of one divided against itself.

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Collateral Damage is an exciting kaiju thriller with a breakneck pace that will keep you up late reading it and thought-provoking themes to mull over for days afterwards! I am looking forward to seeing where Furman takes this series.

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Review: The Last Ancestor

Publisher Description:

They killed his father, oppress his people, and threaten them with extinction . . . and one of them is his best friend.

The Growlers rule their corner of the planet Yxakh with an iron fist, intent on driving the human refugees from their land. They almost did eight years ago, killing Garrett’s father in the process. Only their guns, and lots of them, keep the Growlers at bay. Now a young man, Garrett burns for revenge, but finds it hard to reconcile this hatred given that his best friend is a Growler youth named Ghryxa.

Desperate to cleanse his land of the invaders, the Growlers’ High Lord dispatches his trusted heir on a mission to acquire the humans’ superior weaponry. The Earthlings barely won the last war . . . but this time the High Lord will leave nothing up to chance.

Garrett and Ghryxa run headlong into the High Lord’s conspiracy and find themselves the only thing standing between their two peoples and all-out war. Now Garrett must participate in an ancient rite with the fate of humanity on his shoulders. It’s a chance to be a hero like his father . . . but only if he makes it out of the Growlers’ forbidden city alive.

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Review: The Last Ancestor by Alexander Hellene

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

The Last Ancestor is a dynamic sword and planet romp of faith and daring. Alien-dog people, the ruins of a crashed spaceship, and a secret church populate this exciting first installment in The Swordbringer series.

Raising the Stakes

Hellene does a great job of ratcheting up the tension throughout this story. The beginning is a bit slow, taking time to introduce the main character Garret’s family and do a bit of exposition, but the events of the story consistently build upon one another from standing up to bullies on a playground, to foiling a kidnapping, to fighting to prevent a war.

Even during the final conflict, a duel to the death with humanity’s survival on the line, the stakes were raised!

The only element that slows down the action is the multiple point of view characters, particularly the politicians. I didn’t find that they contributed much; in fact, they tended to deflate the suspense at certain points.

Strong Theme

The Last Ancestor is built consistently around “doing the right thing,” despite the consequences. This begins with the opening scene in which Garret saves a potential enemy, who becomes his best friend Ghryxa, and ends with the choice of martyrdom over renouncing his faith. In fact, almost each event of the story involves Garret choosing to put his well-being on the line in order to do what he believes is right, usually help someone else.

This theme would be wholesome enough on its own, but it is underscored by two parallel themes.

The first is perhaps less glamorous, or at least less lauded, than being willing to die for a cause, but it is no easier: embracing weakness and any accompanying humiliation in order to do the right thing. While Garret faces death and injury, his friend Ghryxa confronts his desire for his people’s acceptance and chooses to do the right thing at the expense of his reputation.

The other theme that contributes to both of these is the importance of a father’s role in teaching morality to his children and to others through them. Garret’s father died in the war, sacrificing his life to save others. Garret remembers him throughout the story, usually when he is considering what action to take. It is clear that his father continues to have a great impact on his conception of right and wrong and his role in society. Furthermore, Ghryxa’s understanding of these things is largely based on his relationship with Garret.

Honestly, I would love to see a story about this man, who left Earth with his family in a shoddy spaceship, fought to make a home for them, and died to protect others!

Kind Character

Garret is a unique character, and one that I enjoyed following on this adventure. He behaves consistently with kindness and honesty, and while he is not necessarily slow to anger, he is slow to act out of anger. His affection for his younger sister is endearing and refreshing for a youthful lead character, especially a teenage boy.

I appreciated how Hellene built his themes out of Garret’s consistency as a character, rather than a repentance. Cringe in the beginning of a story may set up a character for development over its course, and portray an important moral lesson, but I rarely enjoy it. The Last Ancestor presents another important lesson, one that is not overrepresented in fiction: Garret’s journey is all about persistent diligence, rather than changing behavior.

Planet

I cannot go without mentioning the setting in this review! Hellene has done an excellent job crafting a tangible world with geography, monsters, and alien culture.

The alure of exploring caves for a crashed spaceship filled with treasures of a bygone world, the exhilaration of sneaking into a forbidden city, the resolve of holding firm in your beliefs against fearful pressure – all of these can be attributed to the deliberate worldbuilding and intriguing setting, and they contribute to the plot’s emotional payoff.

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The Last Ancestor is an entertaining adventure on a distant alien planet that does not relegate the Christian faith to a footnote of history, but incorporates its young character’s convictions into the plot in a satisfying way. I look forward to reading the rest of The Swordbringer series!

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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: 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: 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: 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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