Review: Penance

Publisher Description:

Penance Copper is tired of being a tool for evil.

She’s been working for Acid ever since she was small. She had no other choice, he owned her. Even with her superpowers, she’s never been able to escape. But at least he only has her steal. Never anything worse than that.

Until he orders her to use her powers to kill the superhero Justice for investigating trafficked girls.

Penance doesn’t want to be a murderer. She uses the opportunity to run away from Acid and make a new life. One where she can make up for everything she did on Acid’s orders.

But events larger than Penance are spinning into action, and soon she is embroiled in an intergalactic encounter with an alien boy named Kail, who is perhaps as lonely and broken as she is. Even if he is infuriatingly arrogant.

The first young adult series in the shared Heroes Unleashed universe launches with the Teen Heroes Unleashed series. Readers will love hardworking, sassy Penance as she tries to learn to use her superpowers to save the world instead of to steal.

Can Penance and Kail find the missing girls and save the Earth from an alien invasion? Or will Acid find her again and punish her for running away?

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Review: Penance by Paula Richey and Thomas Plutarch

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

This review contains minor spoilers.

Penance is an energizing young adult superhero novel, featuring superpowers, aliens, an extraterrestrial sex trafficking ring, and the imminent invasion of earth! This first installment of the Teen Heroes Unleashed series is wholesome and entertaining.

Sympathetic Youths

One of the typical attributes of YA fiction is the age of the main character. It is highly unfortunate that most YA fiction seems determined to reflect the worst of that age group, resulting in unappealing view point characters. Penance is not one of these.

Authors Paula Richey and Thomas Plutarch did not make Penance overly emotional or stupid in order to appear young. Instead, her inexperience is communicated through her eagerness to learn and her tendency to make herself involved in creating solutions to problems as she sees them. This proactive attitude is much more sympathetic than moody or sullen, and much more believable than unexplainably charismatic and rebellious.

Penance does rebel, of course. But once again, her rebellion is mature. It is not the acting out of a child wishing to be acknowledged as an adult as much as it is a young woman becoming an adult by taking responsibility for her own beliefs and behaviors. As a result, she rebels against the evil she had been part of and seeks to do the right thing.

Kail, the male lead, is also sympathetic. His respectful, goal-oriented outlook is easy to understand and like. It is a refreshing change from snarky and rash. He, too, sets an example of working proactively, even when situations are out of his control.

Strong Adults

The non-antagonistic adults in this YA novel are reasonable people. They are not negligent or stupid, rather their understanding of the situation is actively sabotaged. This makes them effective and trustworthy cavalry in the later acts of the story.

They also display a desirable trait: everyone is able to offer help, admit when they need help, and accept help from others. These heroes do not need to take on impossible odds alone in order to be heroic, and this results in more believable conflicts which in turn deliver better emotional pay-offs.

Furthermore, it almost completely avoids the always frustrating and ultimately pointless discussion wherein adults deny teenagers agency by insisting that they cannot help and should remain “safe.” Penance and Kail are sent to a safehouse at one point, allowing for some welcome down-time interaction between the leads, but it was clear that they would eventually return to action.

Punchy Action

The pacing of the story is lively. Even when Penance is bored, the audience is not. There is enough tension and expectation to drive the story forward, and the occasional point-of-view switch to a minor character is tolerable as the emphasis remains on the action.

This is animated and striking, effective without dragging in long sequences. No one character is overpowered, so the stakes remain high for each conflict. Penance has great powers, but she is also inexperienced and doesn’t always fully understand them. Her greatest success is actually not won through physical confrontation at all, but an application of head knowledge and relationship growth.

The action is enthusiastic, and it complements the rest of the story elements, rather than overshadowing them.

Young Adult

On the surface, most books are labeled “Young Adult” fiction due to the age of the main character, but there are two fairly consistent elements that appear in most YA novels.

The first is, of course, romantic tension, particularly of the trials and elations of first love. Penance is charged with the atmosphere of unspoken romantic attraction, which serves to layer additional tension within the story. Its unresolved nature will certainly contribute to readthrough as the series continues.

However, what makes Penance a distinctly YA story is the theme of self-discovery. Both Penance and Kail struggle with self-worth, identity, and belonging throughout the story. These are common for young people moving into adulthood, and thus they have an important place in YA literature.

That being said, Richey and Plutarch use the standard theme to point the reader eloquently towards Christ.

Christianity

Penance converts to Christianity early in the story, but it takes place “off stage,” so to speak. The reader sees her exposure and initial interest, but the actual moment when she takes the leap occurs while the story is in Kail’s point of view, away from his experience.

This makes Penance’s conversion far more tolerable than typical “Christian fiction,” which is generally defined as having a conversion of a main character as a major plot point. Changing hearts is a miracle of the Holy Spirit, and thus difficult to portray convincingly in fiction, especially when the author is preachy and determined to resolve a character’s every doubt.

As for Penance, the reader sees her searching and then trusting. It is enough that she reached a decision in that moment and is determined to see it through. She still has doubts and lots of things she doesn’t know or understand about God, but that is an unadorned, realistic depiction of Christianity, which leaves room for character growth.

The placement of the conversion early in the story emphasizes this. Penance’s faith becomes the answer to her questions of self-worth, identity, and belonging, while Kail’s trust in the false god of his culture is betrayed, leaving him unsure of his place in the world.

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Penance is a fantastic superhero novel for readers looking for congenial young characters to admire and aspire to, who engage in clearly praiseworthy efforts to protect others with their powers. I look forward to seeing more from the Teen Heroes Unleashed subseries of Heroes Unleashed!

This book is also available on Amazon.

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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 Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin

Publisher Description:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review contains minor spoilers.

The Wizarding World of Rachel Griffin

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

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

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

Deeper Characters

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

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

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

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

Well-delivered Plot

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

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

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

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

Setting and Sci-fi

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

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

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

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Review: Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves

Publisher Description:

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

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

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

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Review: Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves by Fenton Wood

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

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

This review contains minor spoilers.

Realistic Adventure

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

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

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

Alternate History

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

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

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

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

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

Heroic Simplicity

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Crimson Spark

Publisher Description:

Break the shackles of the mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Crimson Spark by William Hastings

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

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

This review contains minor spoilers.

Suspenseful Pacing

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

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

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

Vivid Action

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

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

Complex Characters

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

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

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

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

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

Rich Themes

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

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

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

Personal Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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Review: 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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