Category Archives: Fiction-SciFi / Fantasy

A Dark, Tart Fairy Tale

A girl the rest of the world believes to have been born to be murdered struggles against her fate.

Pretty Little Dead Girls: A Novel of Murder and Whimsy

Pretty Little Dead Girls: A Novel of Murder and Whimsy

From childhood Bryony is the girl everyone yearns–and fears–to love. Her ethereal beauty and bearing mark her as different. Doomed. Only for the longest time, it’s the people around her, those SHE loves, who get picked off in shocking and creative ways. Even the ones who survive, who don’t kill themselves or get snatched by serial killers, are fundamentally changed by their contact with the Star Girl. She makes them better people–draws out the honor and compassion they’ve either buried in response to the harsh realities of their lives or never knew they had.

Now, Yardley is too good a writer not to use these transformations to wreak havoc. Being better doesn’t necessarily charm the lives of these individuals. In fact, several of them end up far worse off. In this life, anyway. There’s always the sense that they’ve gained something bigger, something that overflows the limited container of their mortal selves.

Yardley has a fun, highly stylized voice that lends itself to egregious authorial intrusion and Gothic melodrama. Imagine a Tim Burton nightmare…only in vivid technicolor. Despite the playful tongue-in-cheek, the emotional tenor of this book is strong. Life in Bryony’s world is amusing, sure, but it’s also permeated by loss. The things most of us take for granted–family, friendship, first love–are a leap of faith, an act of bravery.

Bryony, Eddie, Rikki-Tikki…even Peter-the serial-killer… are all sharply drawn and fully realized characters who alternate between shaping fate and being shaped by it. And Yardley’s plotting works them hard. Every time I thought I knew what would happen next, there came a completely unexpected twist. Every time I thought, “HA! Here’s the climax” the tension ratcheted up even more. Until, by the end, even the desert landscape is an active participant in the resolution of Bryony’s drama.

In the end, PRETTY LITTLE DEAD GIRLS leaves readers with one important (if unstated) question: Okay…Bryony IS born to die. But aren’t we all? Isn’t the point then to live as fully as we can for as long as we have?

This book doesn’t just get five stars from me…it also gets a permanent place on my Keeper Shelf.

Micaela Fischer and THE DEMON’S CURSE

Today, Fantasy author Micaela Fischer has popped in for a visit to talk about how she builds a fictional world, creates fascinating characters, and balances her creative work and day-to-day life. Read on after the interview for my review of her novel The Demon’s Curse, book one in The Shadows of the Amazon series.

Fantasy writer Micaela Fischer

Author Micaela Fischer

How did you come up with the idea for The Shadows of the Amazon series?

My husband and I played Dungeons&Dragons for years, still do, but now we play Pathfinder instead. Cora and Percival from The Shadows of the Amazon series were from one of the campaigns we played in for a couple of years. Cora was my Amazon mage, and Percival was actually a character played by a friend of ours. My husband played the character Kalik from the series.



You have another fantasy series as well–The Shadows of Sorban. Do you find it difficult juggling two completely separate fictional universes?

The Shadows of Sorban and The Shadows of the Amazon are actually in the same world, just different areas of the continent I am currently writing about. The two will actually come together with the other two series I am writing, The Shadows of Time and The Shadows of the Assassin. They all meet and work together in a final series, Shadows of the Children.

How do you organize working on each series?

I outline each one separately. I also maintain a separate timeline for each story to ensure that when I do have them meet, they are meeting together at the right time and I can refer to backstory correctly in Shadows of the Children.

Both The Demon’s Curse and Hidden from Destiny feature strong-willed heroines and heroes with deep senses of honor and loyalty. How do you build your characters? Do you create deep backstories for them or let them come into focus as you write?

I spent a lot of time creating my characters when I played them in the role-playing campaigns. While I played them, I was working on their backstories, creating a family, goals, a reason for the traveling and adventuring. I feel strongly that a heroine or hero must have a reason for what they do and, being the hopeless romantic that I am (according to my husband), a strong reason does involve a romantic interest.

Your characters face serious obstacles—internal and external—so there’s lots of action in your books. But there’s also a strong romantic thread in your work. How do you strike a balance between romance and action, so that the story appeals to readers’ emotions while still maintaining necessary suspense?

Like I said, there has to be a reason the heroine or hero is trying to save the world, besides “It’s my destiny”.  Or, “the world needs me”. Who is the heroine or hero coming home to? That’s what I ask myself. Yes, both my heroines have their hero with them, but at the end of the day, we all want someone to talk about our day with. Overall, there is the main reason they are adventuring, so that part of the story still needs to be there.

What sorts of books do you read?

I read a variety of genres, and love most of them equally. I enjoy Fantasy, first and foremost. Unfortunately, finding the classic fantasy, sword and sorcery, books today has become difficult. I am very particular which urban fantasy I read. Too many of them are borderline romantic, and that’s not why I read Fantasy. I do enjoy romance and erotica, as well as paranormal romance, paranormal mystery, horror, and mystery, and occasionally young adult, however I am EXTREMELY particular about which young adults I read.

How has/does your personal reading history impacted your own writing?

With some of the borderline romantic books, they have shown me just how far not to go with the romance. And I have one particular author I read just to remind me how important emotion and movement is during dialogue.

Can you tell us a little about your writing process? Do you sit down and work out detailed outlines for each series, and each novel within that series? Or is it more of a seat-of-your-pants process for you? If you outline, how much room do you leave for spontaneous discoveries and surprises?

I normally write in scenes. So I start with a few scenes for the novel I want to do. As I process the scenes and what I want to accomplish within the novel and the way I want it to end, I will sit down and work out a detailed outline. I put each chapter on a color coded 3×5 card, each color denoting a specific point of view. I always leave room for surprises, which usually come during the editing between drafts. Or while I’m walking the mall.

What is the hardest part of writing for you?

Finding the time and motivation after a hard day. Going into a draft and adding the information I missed the first time and not skipping over the important stuff because I’ve read it so many times.

Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of writing? What activities do you turn to when the storyteller needs a rest?

I read, of course. I also like to cross-stitch, knit, crochet, or quilt, while watching B rate horror shows, or stories about ancient history and civilizations.

Are you working on anything at the moment?

Currently I am working on the first of the Shadows of Time novels. It is currently stuck in the phase of adding information I need to expand on. The hero is very intense and I need to make sure he is still someone readers can like, while making sure he doesn’t lose his intensity.

If you hadn’t become a writer, what career do you think you would have chosen?

I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was younger, then I wanted to be an archaeologist, but I wanted to write since I was really young. If I couldn’t be a writer, I think I would really have liked following through with archaeology or ancient history of some kind.

Read on for my review of The Demon’s Curse:

An Amazon princess falls for a soldier-turned-mercenary who shares his body with a rapacious demon.

The Demon's Curse (The Shadows of the Amazon)

The Demon’s Curse

Unlike most of her race, Cora is a mage rather than a warrior. Her mother isn’t pleased that she’s chosen magic over swordplay, but the Amazon queen did agree to allow her travel and learn all she could about the outside world. When the book opens, Cora and her body guard have been have been in “man’s world” for three years. They work with a small group of mercenaries (humans and elves) who make a living via guarding caravans, rescuing kidnap victims, and other protective services. Cora’s presence isn’t an accident. She’s had visions of a man with a black hand. Percival, the group’s agreed-upon leader, has a black hand. It marks the presence of Stromas, the demon placed in his body when he was a child by his power-hungry father. Early on in the novel it becomes clear that Cora and Percival have a shared destiny, and the bulk of the story concerns them battling the various forces eager to tear the couple apart.

THE DEMON’S CURSE is full of action and suspense, though the first half moves more slowly than the second. The chapters that take place on the Amazons’ islands just shine. Part of me wanted to race through to see what happened next and another part feared what each new chapter would bring. Percvial’s treatment at the hands of one of the more primitive Amazon tribes is unspeakable.

I will say that Cora gets hurt a lot for an Amazon. And her injuries lead to plenty of self-loathing for Percival. His self-doubts and sense of failure can get a little trying. There were times I wanted to shake him and say, “Crap happens. Get over yourself and move on!” Also his monthly confrontations with Stromas aren’t quite as scary as they could be. But Stromas is plenty scary near the end. Readers get a real sense of what he’d be like if he ever gained complete freedom. I like that Micaela Fischer, who has a gift for creating unique characters, gives Stromas plenty of psychological complexity.

Generally, I’m not crazy about open endings, but this book’s conclusion manages to satisfy and at the same time leave the reader excited to learn what happens next. THE DEMON’S CURSE is an action-packed fantasy full of fun characters and shocking plot twists. I’m looking forward to book two.

The Best Kind of Ending: CITY OF HEAVENLY FIRE by Cassandra Clare

The sixth and final installment of Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments urban fantasy series starts off with the evil Sebastian Morgenstern attacking the Los Angeles Institute with a band of his Dark Shadowhunters. He needs to turn more of the angelic warriors to the dark side if he’s going to succeed in his quest to eradicate the Nephilim and destroy the world. His one weakness remains his passion for his sister Clary, who along with the other Shadowhunters of the New York Institute, is determined to stop him.

City of Heavenly Fire (The Mortal Instruments, #6)

City of Heavenly Fire

What follows is 700-plus pages of mayhem. Successes and reversals. Alliances and betrayals. Characters from across the series and its prequel trilogy–the incomparable INFERNAL DEVICES–work to either thwart or enable Sebastian’s insane plot. We also meet a bunch of fascinating new characters–mostly child survivors of the Los Angeles Institute massacre–who will carry Clare’s fictional universe into its next chapter, an upcoming series called The DARK ARTIFICES.

Clare manages to wrap up most of her long and tangled plot threads in satisfying, if unexpected, ways. But there’s also enough darkness on the horizon to leave readers eager to know what happens next. Clare’s world is an ambiguous one, where good and evil tread a fine and often blurred line.

(Warning: Spoilers below)

If I had to point out a few rough spots, the presence of a condom in the bowels of Hell would be one. Sure, it’s politically correct and responsible of a hero like Jace to have one at the ready for his big moment with Clary…but COME ON! No food, no water, no way home…but he has a condom? Also, some scenes in the middle of the book drag a bit as Clare jumps from point-of-view to point-of-view and from realm to realm. Finally, at about 100 pages, the epilogue is a bit dragged out. True, Clare had to write herself out of a corner created when she has Clary and the gang resort to requesting demonic assistance to get out of Hell. Demons do nothing for free and this little favor comes at a huge cost. The kind of cost that leads to enraged readers and authors in fear for their lives. Clare manages to give readers what they want in a way that serves and even enriches her story.

With CITY OF HEAVENLY FIRE, Cassandra Clare provides the best kind of conclusion…one that is the beginning of something that promises yet more excitement.

Gateway to an Epic: THE DARK CITADEL by Jane Dougherty

I am always hesitant about “post-apocalyptic” fantasy novels. The pervasive darkness. The unending parade of grotesque mutants. The elitist, merciless “new regime,” concrete evidence that all the death and destruction was truly for nothing. In my experience, there’s never enough hope at the end of such books to justify slogging through them.

The Dark Citadel (The Green Woman, #1)

The Dark Citadel

THE DARK CITADEL, book one of Jane Dougherty’s THE GREEN WOMAN trilogy, manages to elevate this bitter recipe of joylessness and desolation and create something fresh. The Last War has been fought. Demons have been unleashed and rage across the barren earth. What remains of humanity–most of it anyway–exists within a domed city called Providence. Society is organized as a fanatical theocracy. The focus of worship are so-called “wise Gods,” but there’s an undeniable darkness at the heart of the city. Men rule over women, but even men are subject to the harsh, strictly stratified social classes. There’s a preoccupation with a figure known as the Green woman, a blasphemous, pagan-type figure determined to take the city and hand all the goodwomen and goodmen over to evil. In actuality, the Green Woman is the last keeper of Memory and has the ability to awaken this memory and rebuild the world. But to succeed she needs her daughter, who has been held hostage by the leaders of Providence for ten years. THE DARK CITADEL focus on young Deborah’s discovery of her past, her escape from Providence, and the start of her quest to find her mother.

Jane Dougherty gives us a richly layered, character-driven story. Part I, which takes place exclusively in Providence, reminds me of a Dickens novel. The thick, unhealthy atmosphere, twisted characters, and pervasive corruption is BLEAK HOUSE transported to a dome at the end of the remembered world. As in a Dickens novel, the major players come into contact with one another only tangentially at first. We readers can see the subtle, fateful intertwining of individual stories, while the characters often remain oblivious, caught up in their own struggles.

Part II of the novel takes us out of the dome into the desert, which turns out to be populated by an assortment of living and demonic beings. The action ratchets up as Deborah and her guide Jonas struggle north with only a pack of wolf pups to protect them. Dougherty takes care developing the relationship between these two, but the romance is always subordinate to their fight for survival against marauding desert creatures and the minions of evil sent to intercept Deborah. The farther north the couple gets, the more myth begins to invade reality, as various races of creatures werewolves, centaurs, river gods, etc. make themselves known and begin to choose sides in a coming battle (encompassing the whole of human myth and history) that will decide more than the fate of a couple of teenagers or even the city of Providence.

I have to admit that parts of this book are difficult to read. There is such cruelty, darkness, and loss. Sometimes, I had to put the book down and regroup emotionally. When I returned, Dougherty’s lyrical writing–it really is a beautifully crafted book–carried me through.

Another warning: this is not a stand-alone work. But it’s also not a cliff hanger. I detest cliffhangers. That’s where the action stops dead at a high point and you have no idea what will happen to the main characters. Too often this is a cheap and easy (and artificial) way to manipulate readers into buying the next book. The end of THE DARK CITADEL provides a definite pause. We know exactly where the characters are. It’s a point where choices are made, transformations happen, and then things get quiet in preparation for something even bigger.

THE DARK CITADEL is a breathtaking book, but it’s only the gateway into a deeper experience. In this case, based on the quality of this introductory work, I’m willing to trust that what comes will be everything I expect.

Atmosphere Hooks From Page One: A Review of CLOCKWORK ANGEL by Cassandra Clare

I came upon CLOCKWORK ANGEL by accident. I’d never read anything by this author, nor did I associate the movie trailers for THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS with her. I signed up for the Simon & Schuster e-mail list and got to choose a “free” e-book as a gift. I learned later that this publisher’s idea of “free” does not include the ability to download the book onto my Kindle. I had to read the book on the BookShout! web reader. As I don’t have a laptop or an ipad, this was a huge inconvenience–we’re talking HOURS sitting at my desk. I really only planned to take a cursory look at the first couple of pages and then email the publisher a terse note about misleading innocent consumers.

Clockwork Angel (The Infernal Devices, #1)

Clockwork Angel

But the first couple of pages is all it took.

Cassandra Cass’ stifling, soot-filled Victorian London is beautifully rendered. She manages to create an historically accurate world and then populate it with the most outrageous collection of characters. Shadowhunters, vampires, warlocks, demons…they flit in and out of the swirling fog living right along side the clueless mundanes.

Tessa Gray is a wonderfully reluctant heroine. Cass makes her true to her era–one of limited options for women. Tessa comes to England from America because, being poor and female, she has to move in with her brother. And yet she is strong enough to meet the challenges thrown at her. She’s kidnapped and abused by people trying to exploit an ability she never knew she possessed–she can change into anyone, living or dead, whose personal items she touches.

Her rescuers from the Shadowhunters London Institute are a great group of characters. Will and Jem–Tessa’s romantic interests–are well-developed and engaging, though I think Will is a little more fully realized. Jem is supposed to be a on the ethereal side, creating a foil for Will. This works to a degree. Both of the boys have deep and fascinating back stories. Though, here as well, Will’s story is far more complex and mysterious than Jem’s. Jessamine (another Shadowhunter) and Nate (Tess’ brother) are the least convincing of the author’s cast. Jessamine is quite a cliched version of a spoiled young lady. And Nate is too easily picked out as a cad.

The villains are many and (except for Nate) not so easy to recognize. I certainly had no idea of the true identity of the evil “Magister” until the end. Even so, the final scene between Tessa and the Magister is somewhat anti-climactic. I thought Cass could have strung it out a little longer. As it is, the Magister seemed a pretty toothless predator. Then again, there are two more books in this series. I’m sure Cass has plenty in store for Tess and her friends.

In the end, I’m glad that I went through the trouble of reading this book. I now have two more THE INFERNAL DEVICES adventures to look forward to. And then there’s the entire MORTAL INSTRUMENTS series. I can promise you that I will NOT be reading these on my desktop!

Promising New Paranormal Series: A Review of DYING FOR A LIVING by Kory M. Shrum

Jesse Sullivan dies a lot. She’s what’s known as a Necronite–someone who can die and come back to life over and over. This ability, the result of some genetic quirk, seems relatively new and is not fully accepted by society. The Church (a massive institution formed when all world religions amalgamated into a “we are many and we are one” sort of arrangement) is especially critical of Necronites and the death replacement industry that has grown up around them. Jesse’s participation in this profession isn’t by choice. She has something unsavory in her past, at the start of the book she only vaguely remembers what it is, but it’s bad enough that she’s agreed to work as a death replacement agent for seven years in order to avoid prosecution. Jesse is good at what she does, though she isn’t all that pleasant of a person to deal with. She’s snarky, impatient, judgmental and, well, basically annoying to her clients and her co-workers.

Dying for a Living

Dying for a Living

In this initial installment of the series, Jesse’s comfortable-if-tedious life is blown to bits when a routine replacement turns into an attempt on her life. It’s soon revealed that there’s a serial killer targeting death replacement agents. It isn’t long before Jesse (thanks to that shadowy past of hers) is implicated. In the course of exonerating herself and unveiling the true culprit, she and her friends uncover a shocking conspiracy that has its roots in Jesse’s own origins.

There is a lot to like about this book. Jesse is a strong and unique character. There’s nothing wispy or wimpy about her. She’s not a damsel in distress waiting to be saved by a gorgeous hunk. She has a sort-of boyfriend named Lane. There’s also a could-be girlfriend–her co-worker/best friend Ally. This sexual ambiguity is another unusual twist on the usual YA/NA paranormal. It adds richness to the characters and interesting subtext to the narrative.

Being the start of a planned series, there is a certain degree of world-building that goes on. In general, Shrum does a good job telling a satisfying tale, while also weaving the complex back story that will provide ongoing conflict. There are times, though, where it is hard to keep up with the various plot strands. Jesse, her friends and their immediate challenges are rock solid for readers. The further the author strays from this core towards the larger conspiracy, especially concerning Jesse’s parentage, the more confusion creeps in and undermines suspension of disbelief. I enjoyed the book, but, as the series goes on, Shrum needs to take care not to plot herself (and her readers) into a Gordian Knot.

Overall, though, DYING FOR A LIVING was a great read. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

So THIS is Steampunk! A Review of THE SIX-GUN TAROT by R.S. Belcher

THE SIX-GUN TAROT was my first foray into steampunk, a sub-genre of science fiction usually set in an alternate history version of the 19th century Victorian era or the American West. I wasn’t quite sure if this would be my cup of tea…or, in this case, brand of whiskey. I was worried it might be a little comic bookish for me. As it turned out, I enjoyed myself tremendously.

The Six-Gun Tarot
The Six-Gun Tarot

First of all, it’s hard to believe that this is author R.S. Belcher’s first novel. The richly drawn characters and complex plot demonstrate the skills of a seasoned wordsmith. The tale takes place in Golgotha, Nevada, a tapped-out mining town that seems to attract the haunted and the hunted. Young Jim Negrey, a wanted man at only fifteen, is near death at the edge of the 40-mile desert when Mutt, a Sheriff’s deputy, rescues him. Jim gets a job helping to look after the jail, and it isn’t long before he learns that there’s trouble roiling beneath Golgotha’s cracked and dusty surface.

None of Belcher’s characters is quite what he or she seems. There are plenty of secrets and private agendas, all of which are endangered when the odd new “Reverend” and his Deacon hatch a plot to consign the earth to oblivion by freeing the primordial power stirring in the deepest bowels of the dead silver mine.

What I love about Golgotha is the sense that the impending Armageddon is not the town’s first brush with supernatural trouble and that it won’t be the last. As soon as I finished the book, I found myself wishing there was another one to enjoy. With any luck Belcher is hard at work creating another ungodly denizen of the underworld for Jim and his new-found friends to battle.