[Review] Projection – Tabatha Shipley

Check it out on Amazon!

Projection is a young adult novel with strong scifi vibes and backing. It follows Emma, a young woman going through high school, who begins to have problems with a unique piece of technology this universe has developed. Specifically, they’ve created a chip implanted in one’s arm that hooks into the central nervous system, and allows individuals to interface with ‘plates’ placed at key locations. Through this, they can do things like project memories, videos, and fantasies.

That’s all fine and dandy – except, something begins going wrong, and Emma finds herself projecting randomly and seemingly without control. Her innermost thoughts wind up shown to classmates and total strangers. Not exactly ideal, when you’re trying to cope with an ongoing love triangle situation!


I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review, as part of the TBRindr program for independent author reviews.

Okay.

So.

Moreso than probably any of the other books I’ve read through this program, this book took me on a rollercoaster of ups and downs in terms of how I felt about it. I’m trying to work through exactly how I wound up, in the end. Because of that, this review is going to look a little bit different from a lot of the other ones I’ve done.

To start us off – what worked for me with Projection?

I think the big thing that really stands out to me was the innovative way they laced a serious story in alongside what amounted to teen drama. I think there was a definite Black Mirror element in play, and I don’t mean that as a bad thing. This, in my eyes, was very much more of a YA spin on how technology would interface with our culture, particularly when technology goes badly.

Once the story got moving, additionally, there was basically no fluff or filler. I really appreciated that. It did take a little bit to reach that point, but once I did, it was every bit as fast-moving as I’d expect from a YA novel.

To get some of the nitty gritty laundry list stuff out of the way –

I think that Projection was pretty well edited, but I did have some issues here and there. Particularly, there were a fair amount of run-on sentences and comma splices near the front of the book. Those settled down as I went on, but it was noticeable. I’m also a notorious grammar nazi, so take that as you will, naturally. I think the book would have benefited from another read-through, or reading it out loud.

My other main critique before diving into the meat of this would be that occasionally, dialogue didn’t really…work. This was incredibly hit or miss for me. For the most part, I found that the interactions the students had with each other felt pretty plausible and authentic. I think it could be as simple as being more consistent and using contractions more fully – there were a lot of instances where it got really close to what I could see a 15-16 year old saying, but not quite there. It was on the whole a fairly minor complaint as the book went on, though.

I think especially in the first half (I know I said ‘my other’ last paragraph like there wasn’t a third point, but sue me) there were a lot of lengthy physical descriptions which shanked my enjoyment as well. It wasn’t a book-killing aspect, certainly, but it was a bit much sometimes.

Let’s jump into the main stuff I’d like to talk about, then, which is my shifting reaction to the book as it went on.

As a note, I will keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but there will come a point when I will have to discuss the ending to properly illustrate my point. I’ll post a spoiler warning when we reach that 🙂

The first third –

When it opens, Projection is a fairly standard teen drama, to be blunt. Emma just split apart from her boyfriend, Tyler, and has a crush on the resident jock, Alex. It follows her and her friend Bella as they go through their day to day class life, with the whole chip issues very much being a side issue.

I’ll be honest. I was never much for the love triangle teenage bullshit, when I was a kid. It wasn’t my style of fiction. I do take that into account – but I did also simply find this first third of the book to be a little…difficult. I kept going, and I’m glad that I did, but this was definitely the weakest part of the book for me.

Like I mentioned earlier, there were some minor grammatical and dialogue issues that picked at me. For the most part, that was really evident in this first third, and the prose settled down as it went on. Additionally, a lot of it was really spent in some pretty juvenile reactions.

Notably, I was extremely turned off by an early memory of Emma’s we witness, which is an interaction between her and Tyler before they broke up. In it, frankly, Emma is borderline verbally abusive to him, and he’s trying his damndest to keep her happy and win her back. I expected this to be a starting place – the ‘rock bottom’ of their relationship, if you will, which they eventually grow out of and come to move beyond.

This scene was never referenced again, and that really threw me for a loop. I think especially in a young adult book, which is being marketed to children, coming back to an interaction like that and having Emma even apologize or realize that she was being a massive, massive bitch would be meaningful. Emma does improve as a character from that point, but Tyler remains very consistent . All the way to the end, he’s bending over backwards to please her, to help her out, to put himself in physical and legal jeopardy for her. These things are definitely justifiable, in the context of the events that transpire, but it did feel a little bit like he was the dog on her leash from beginning to end.

The middle third –

I was actually really impressed by the middle parts of the book. I’ll still keep this spoiler-free, but basically, Emma starts digging a little more into what exactly is going on that’s causing her to project randomly, and the answers she finds are more than a little spooky. I think this added a wonderfully tense dystopian element, and it edged into horror. I really wasn’t expecting that, and I enjoyed that very much.

Through it all, though, I had little inklings of unease. It seemed incredibly odd to me, for example, that her family was still letting her go to school when she’s randomly blasting her innermost thoughts onto any TV in range. That’s a metric fuckton of emotional trauma to put a high school student through, and it’d be more than enough reason to take some time off or take classes from home. Emma’s reactions also seemed pretty detached – if I was in her position, I’d probably have been a hell of a lot more freaked out about what was happening.

On the whole, though, I was really surprised how much I liked this section. If the opening acts were a 2-2.5 to me, the middle third was a 4-4.5, by and large.

The ending –

I’m…incredibly conflicted about how things went. And, here’s where I’ll give you the spoiler warning.

If you’re considering reading, then this is your cue to stop.

Right.

So, in short, upon digging into the subject, Emma and Tyler discover that Emma’s father was involved in a series of studies with his company, where he developed the chip they’re all implanted with. Specifically, he was working on developing a way to download memories – and upload them as well. They had 50 subjects in the trial, and out of those 50, one of them suffered permanent damage to their chip. It appears that Emma was that one. They get the evidence they need to prove that the studies have been illegally continued and confront him, after which he leaves. End of book. It’s quick and abrupt, but it is YA, so I’ll give it some leeway there.

This is where my issues really begin in full, and where the inklings of doubt I had blossomed into full skepticism.

So, for this premise to work, Emma’s dad would have been essentially experimenting on her, his daughter.

On a fundamental level, as an engineer and person of science, this immediately triggered my bullshit sensors. No researcher would ever, ever be allowed to have their own child as their subject in a clinical trial. That just wouldn’t happen.

Let’s say this is a YA novel, though, and handwave that. We’re left with the fact that the father has zero, zero ethical qualms about experimenting on his daughter, who until that moment he’s appeared to love very much. The family life laid out is very normal. He’s stern, yes, and he’s a techie, but both him and Emma’s mother seem very loving. We’re then told to believe that this loving father toyed and continues to toy with the memories of his daughter and her friends, without a care given to the emotional and physical distress he’s causing her. Because it’s for the greater good!

I had a hard time buying that.

Indeed, in the final act, things seem to change very quickly. Emma, in her infinite wisdom, decides that the proper way to handle this isn’t to go to the police or another authority. No, she’ll confront him at the dinner table. His reaction to that is a very matter-of-fact “So you found the spreadsheet”. His justifications are all very top-level and insincere. And then he gets up from the table and sets his office on fire. His home.

And then he leaves – after grabbing his daughter and physically throwing her out of the way. The same loving father we’ve seen through the whole book.

And that’s really where the book ends.

But how do you feel about it?

I had a lot of lingering feelings about this book and this ending, which is part of why this review is a little more rambling than my normal ones. Sorry xD I didn’t like the opening act, to put it bluntly. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but more than that, it felt clumsier than the rest. I enjoyed the middle third, but I had growing doubts about plausibility.

And then, when the ending hit, I was forced to face the fact that the very premise of the book was built on some pillars that weren’t all that well substantiated. I think that the idea of the father being this mastermind/evil scientist archetype isn’t inherently a bad one, but it needed a lot more work for me to buy into it. As it was, it just felt out of character – and since it was the domino holding the rest of the book up, once it fell, it did leave me with some real doubts about the rest of it.

In conclusion, I think that Projection was on the whole a good, enjoyable book. Despite the fact that it was YA, I was able to read it as an adult and get a fair amount of enjoyment out of it. That’s pretty good. I think the plot is unique and enough to make you think, which is a big plus for me. But, the core of the story needed to be developed a little more. In the end, the highs and the lows balanced out to leave me with a pretty neutral taste in my mouth.

Final score: 3/5

[Review] The Yoga of Strength – Andrew Rowe

Check it out on Amazon 🙂

The Yoga of Strength is the story of Andrew Cardiff, a long-time squire on the cusp of elevation to Knighthood within the Yellow Order of the Kingdom of Thrairn. There is only one issue: he is an abject coward and slave to his baser instincts. Thrust into a world of magic and treachery, Andrew tumbles along a path that threatens devastation at every turn. This unlikely hero must plumb the depths of his soul in search of the courage and strength that have always eluded him. Around him, the world is crumbling. Will Andrew discover his answers at the center of the mystery before it is too late?

Disclaimer – The Yoga of Strength was a book I received for free as part of the TBRindr program for indie authors! In exchange, I was asked to provide an honest review.

All right! The Yoga of Strength is a high fantasy novel that was released last week, written by Andrew Rowe. It follows Andrew, a young, bumbling squire, as he finally ascends to knighthood. All too quickly, though, things go horribly wrong on his first voyage, and he winds up caught in the middle of all of the intrigue and bloodshed.

So, what worked for me with this novel?

One of the first things that I noticed when I started reading Yoga was the prose. It’s frankly very dense, with a lot of exposition and a lot of flowery language.

There is a page missing from the text of my life, though scraps of the words written thereon still come to me unbidden from time to time. I know that this page deals with dissolution, an unraveling of self from semi-formed tapestry of youth to a mess of filament lying disheveled on the tavern floor. More bruises were added to my collection, though I was not sure who the assailant – or, more likely, assailants – were. What I do know is that I awoke to a splash of water on my face that smelt of ancient piss on the morning of my birthday, with a pain in my head like I had been stabbed, groggily blinking my eyes awake to Rolf the Tavernkeeper’s ugly face. He was holding a bucket in his hand and a furrow on his brow.

That’s the opening paragraph of the novel. I read that, and I’m not going to lie. I winced. I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into, but I’ve read enough bad attempts at dense prose that I was immediately put on edge.

Much to my surprise, then, I found that the stylistic language…worked. Mostly. For the most part. What I will say is that Rowe is exceptionally consistent. When you have a really unusual voice like that, it’s very easy to let that slip and slide the longer you go, and to fade back into your natural voice. That didn’t happen, and it really did go a long way to making the book feel consistent from start to finish. I found that within a chapter or two, I was able to blur past most of the outlandish language, and actually sink into the story.

Which brings me to the second point that really did appeal to me – the story. I was a bit shaky on the novel, to be honest – until the first main twist. I’m going to try and keep this reasonably spoiler-free, so I’m going to hold the details close to my chest, but there came a certain moment in the story when the proverbial shit hit the fan, and things changed very dramatically.

The twists and turns in that section really intrigued me. I liked the style of it, I liked the blending of dark reality and morbid humor, and I liked the stakes. It felt very real and very relatable.

And now, we get to the fun part of the review, the part where I get to push all of that aside and say but. Turn your head and cough, please.

What didn’t work for me, then?

Forgive me, author. I tend to get long-winded about specific issues I had, to lay them out clearly and properly. This section will always, always be longer than the “things I liked”. And the fact that I’m being sarcastic means I liked it. Yeah, it’s weird, but that’s how my family works.

I’m going to lay the first part out plain and simple.

The beginning kind of sucked.

Now, now. I understand the concept of it. For some context, at the opening of the story, the main character wakes up in a whorehouse/bar deal, having shit himself and realizing that he’s late for his initiation ceremony. This whole section really goes to establish how much of a fuck-up he is, how much he’s disappointed his family, how much he’s failed at his knightly lifestyle.

The problem is, it sort of does that too well. Or, in my opinion, it goes into it a bit too much. About the fifth time it was stated how fat the main character was, I found myself rolling my eyes. He was supposed to be a bit lazy, yes, and have failed in life. But it wound up feeling very self-pitying at times.

In short, the beginning tried so hard to make the main character unlikeable that the main character was, in fact, unlikeable. It did get better, in time. But I think that it made the opening acts a lot more cringe than they had to be, and when I’m giving the book a test drive, that’s not the sort of thing that would really draw me in and convince me I should read more.

The second half of this meshes with my next point, in fact. Yay, transitions.

The main character, fat and slovenly, has a long voyage by ship. And when he arrives, among other things, he finds that the diet and exercise he had to partake in on board, as part of the crew, left him muscular and no longer fat! Just like that!

I think that for me, this was a case where it didn’t feel like the main character really earned it. It was just…an appropriate length of book had passed, and it no longer served a purpose for him to be fat, so he wasn’t fat anymore. That’s what it wound up feeling like, and so I felt cheated of character development.

And that’s really my largest complaint about Yoga. The single biggest sticking point that I had was that characters felt incredibly impermanent, and I never quite knew what I was getting. Rather than the characters changing as a result of events and development, they changed in fits of unpredictable emotion.

Let’s look at Andrew’s relationship with his taskmaster, just as one illustration of what I mean here.

I felt a small twinge of respect for the elder man then. A small twinge that I soon buried in a heap of impatience.

“Hurry up, Terence.” I chewed the words as I spit them out, relishing that I could now say such things to a man who had humiliated me at the training grounds so many times before, even if my losses of face were always transmitted in the spirit of lessons from teacher to student.

These are back-to-back paragraphs – literally going from respect to harassment in a few breaths’ span. And then-

I could not exchange any further words with him. I knew that if I turned to face him, I would feel the hot sting of tears on my cheeks. I could not allow it. Not here. Not in front of Gerard, my brother whom I could not admit to myself that I loved. Not in front of Terence, the man who was more father than trainer to me.

What?

That’s the same chapter, keep in mind. So the main character has gone from respect to harassment to this man is like my father, just like that. To be honest, I was starting to lose my ability to understand how characters related to each other. It was like all of them were high, and just letting random emotions burst out.

This is repeated with pretty much every relationship Andrew (the main character) has. His brother torments him – No, his brother gives him a prized memento of their dead mother, because he loves him – No, his brother harasses him for being fat and sloppy! His father hates him for being a failure – No, his father has always been proud of Andrew’s success, even if it wasn’t in the way he wanted – No, he’s so disappointed in Andrew he threatens to lock him in stocks for the entire journey if he messes up again!

Each of these cycles plays out within the span of a chapter. It’s dizzying.

I think that trying to represent complex relationships, where, say, a father can both be proud of his son and wish for him to be better, is challenging. I can see what the goal here was, I just found it rushed. What it felt like was that character arcs that would normally take an entire book – or an entire series – were being jammed into a single chapter as though the author was worried he was going to run out of words.

I’ll call out one specific example that I had a big issue with. At one point, the father is upset at Andrew for accidentally killing a man. ‘Upset’. We’ll call it that. But Andrew explains that this man was raping his soldiers (and…kinda sorta turning them gay by doing so. That’s a whole other can of worms that I felt was very badly handled), and so even if it wasn’t okay that this man had died, it wasn’t all that bad because this man was evil! And his father caves and gets all teary eyed.

Just looking at this one example, I felt that this was a classic case of trying to do away with character development. What should have been a long, slow, painful process of mending that wound was instead patched over with a “Well I was wrong but this guy was more wrong.” And that felt cheap. It didn’t make the main character any better, it just made some dead guy worse.

Occasionally, I did have issues with scenes that just made me shake my head and go what? A prime example would be the scene where the king is speaking to his knights and soldiers before they depart for lands foreign.

In this speech, after he’s been all motivational, he takes it upon himself to tell them that he understands if they need to sleep with some whores, but that they need to do it in the list of approved whorehouses they’re given. For their safety!

“One final note,” the King continued, his voice becoming serious. “I ask all of you men to keep the honour of Thrairn in your hearts and minds when you conduct yourselves. While making use of prostitution is a grave crime in our fair Kingdom, an offence against the state and a sin against our Holy Mother Church, I do understand that, ahem, virile men of your ages, good breeding or not, have certain requirements during periods of rest and relaxation. Especially when blood is shed or yet to flow. There may be such quiet moments while we are in Erifracia. King Revanti has graciously offered up a list of brothels and public houses that you will be permitted to frequent.” King Janus held up a piece of paper.

I basically just stared at the book, brow furrowed. It made no sense for this to be something the king said, versus something their medieval drill sergeant said. It felt out of character for someone who’s supposed to be goddamn royalty, and just seemed like the text was trying to over-emphasize that whores were involved.

Just in general, I think that was one of my impressions of Yoga. There’s a definite push for fantasy novels these days to mimic Game of Thrones in the whole ‘war is real’ kick. Murder, death, sex, blood, all the good stuff. Sometimes, I felt like this book went too far in trying to emphasize the sex and prostitution and people soiling themselves. The point was made the first few times the characters referenced it – beyond that, it felt like the book was trying about 20% too hard to fit that niche.

As a minor complaint about the book – At a certain point, I started to feel overwhelmed by all of the names and titles and countries being thrown at me. I think that the book might have tried to bite off too much too quickly.

This is a situation where the fanciful, flowery language worked against it. With everything being long and old-fashioned and a little bit dense anyway, it really hid names and things within it. It was significantly harder for me to pull those things out and match them with their proper context, than it would have been if the text was a little more accessible. That’s just my instinct on it, anyway. Especially once the ship had reached its destination and they were in foreign lands, I was a little bit off-balance with everything being thrown at me.

Finally – I’ll just comment on this in passing, and it didn’t affect my rating for this book, but I didn’t like the use of “Christ-man” for the country’s deity xD I think it’s the -man suffix. It made it feel either like the deity belonged to a culture more primitive than the one the MC lived in, or simply a bit campy. Not book-breaking, but it did make me sigh a little.

Final thoughts

Good lord, it looks like I’ve ripped this poor book apart. In truth, I do think it was a solid book – and one of the reasons I’ve let the sarcasm out more in this review and come off like a bit of a dick is that overall, I do think this book worked. With the indie novels I review, often times I find it hard to switch off my internal reviewer and just sit back and enjoy the story.

With Yoga, I found that I was reading it for its own sake, and I was enjoying it. I think that the world worked and was compelling, and there were complex plotlines weaving themselves in and out of the character’s actions.

And it was written in first person. What can I say. I’m a sucker.

So take my sarcasm for what it is – ribbing of a book that has places it can improve on, but was overall a pleasant and enjoyable experience. If you enjoy high fantasy novels written in a more complex style, I recommend giving it a try!

Final rating: 3.5/5 (4 on Amazon)

Words with Ino #4 – Dialogue Tags, Part 2 (The Said Quandary)

Wew. Moar words. Let’s do it.

So! Way back when, I labeled #1 as being dialogue tags, part 1. At long last, let’s get around to part 2.

Said.

Okay, so, fair warning. This is probably one of the most hotly contested topics I’ve seen online and in the writing community, and people definitely get passionate about it. So, full disclaimer here, all I can do is state my own opinion on it, and there’s no reason you can’t go the other route and still be quite successful in your writing.

What the fuck are you talking about, Ino? Yes, I can already hear you guys back there. So, in short, what we’re looking at is the decision of what verb you should use in your dialogue tag.

In general, there are two basic schools of thought that I’ve seen. The first is to use ‘said’.

“That’s stupid,” Alex said.

“No, you’re stupid,” Casey said.

For this case, ‘said’ will be used primarily as the dialogue tag.

Now, I’ll dive in a little more in a moment, but in short, the second school of thought goes that said should be rarely used, and other dialogue tags should be favored and used in variety.

“That’s stupid,” Alex exclaimed.

“No, you’re stupid,” Casey retorted.

Okay. So, I’ll come right out and say it. With those two as the main ‘options’, I’m here today to urge you to use ‘said’ as your primary go-to.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t always feel this way. I think that a lot of the controversy and conflict comes from a few points – I know that when I was younger and trying my hand at writing things, it was very much a case of “said isn’t descriptive, and writing should be descriptive, right? And wouldn’t using said all the time be repetitive?

To top it off, I had a good vocabulary, damn it. I read a lot of books to learn all the words that I knew, and I wanted to use them. So I did. I used everything under the sun, and I felt pretty strongly about the notion that people who advocated for ‘said’ were just oversimplifying fiction.

And then….something changed. Honestly, at a certain point, when I was reading through conversations and posts at places, and seeing people talking about how said is good, I got curious. I thought, there’s no way this is right. So I went and I found my favorite book by my favorite author, and I flipped it open. I’d prove all of them wrong.

Huh.

Somehow, despite this word being apparently incredibly repetitive and annoying (according to internet experts everywhere), I’d never once noticed it being abused in rapid-fire use throughout my favorite author’s works.

I checked another book. And another. And each time I found the same thing – they were using said almost exclusively. I’d just never noticed.

Once I realized this, once I started paying attention to it, my viewpoint started shifting. It wasn’t an instantaneous thing – it took months of writing and critique, slowly changing my opinions. But in the end, there was a noticeable trend.

Things for you all to look forward to.

When I read a piece someone gave to me to critique and it made a point of using varied and always-changing dialogue tags, I started finding it stood out to me. A lot. It didn’t flow naturally, and it felt choppier – all things you want to avoid as a writer.

Before I realized it, I was in camp ‘said’ – a place I never intended on being. And I was opinionated about it.

Enough, Ino, you say. Get to the point.

The idea behind using said as a dialogue tag, then, is that it’s a ‘nothing word’. When you use said, it has a way of dropping out of sight altogether. It’s repetitive, sure – if the reader is actually paying attention every time it’s used.

But they’re not – or they shouldn’t be. The dialogue tag is only there to inform them of who’s speaking, after all. So when you primarily use said, the reader’s eye will more often than not just skim over it, wiping it away entirely. This is a good thing.

There are of course some exceptions. I’ll start by addressing one of the counter-arguments – that the dialogue tag can be used to inform the reader of how the character is speaking, moreso than just who.

Yes. That’s true.

My counter to that, then, is that if written properly, the rest of the information should already be contained in the context of the sentence and how the character is moving/speaking. Give your readers some credit. If the scene is structured well and they’ve got a good mental image of what’s going on, they really don’t need you to be spelling everything out for them.

Like I said, there are exceptions, naturally. Most authors have a list of words that they’re at least comfortable with tossing in. I use muttered, murmured, whispered, hissed, and snapped, each in turn. But, good rule of thumb, there should be 5-6 uses of ‘said’ for every instance of these words.

To go along with both that and the point before – if you’re worried about ‘said’ becoming repetitive, or you’re trying to include more context in the scene, drop a dialogue tag entirely!

Alex folded his arms across his chest, glaring down at Casey. “That’s stupid.”

A lot of writing is about establishing ‘ownership’ – ownership of dialogue, ownership of paragraphs. You’re conveying to the reader which character is the one taking the actions. If you pair up dialogue with an action or descriptor of the character who has ‘ownership’, then you can drop the dialogue tag entirely. The reader already knows it’s them, after all! And now you don’t need a fancy dialogue tag to establish that Alex is annoyed.

You can also eliminate the need for dialogue tags entirely if you have rapid-fire back and forth between a limited cast!

Now, the ideal situation, then, is to create a scenario where you have a mixture of A) Dialogue tagged with ‘said’, B) Tags dropped where they’re totally unnecessary, and C) Lines ‘tagged’ using character actions instead of dialogue tags at all. Whenever possible, it is ideal to avoid the topic as much as possible!

Something like that.

Why does all of this matter, you ask?

Well, besides for the comments I’ve put above about how it’s damaging to how the story flows, I would say that it’s important to keep in mind that readers can become desensitized very quickly. If you go around using strong vocal verbs for every last dialogue tag, then it’s going to be harder to create an impactful line.

Essentially, you’ve raised the ‘floor’ on your dialogue. Every line is ‘special’ – so none of them are.

When you actually have a big moment, then, when a character is behaving in an extraordinary manner, it’s much more difficult to convey that. The reader is already used to each of those tags being varied and different, and they’re glossing over it. So you lose that extra little oomph.

Again, I know this one’s liable to rustle some jimmies. It’s a hotly debated topic, and I know that everyone’s got their own way of doing it.

Just remember that my way is the right way.

/s/! It was /s, damn it!

[Review] Legends of the Exiles – Jesse Teller

The isolated barbarians of Neather have deep ancestry and strict traditions. Four resilient women defy tribal customs as they fight to overcome their own tragedies. Abuse. Addiction. Assault. Grief. What struggles can they endure to defend their hopes and their hearts?

Helena seeks a love as bold as she, yet finds the men of her village lacking.

Jocelyn fears her strange visions and sacrifices a life with the man she loves for the one her destiny demands.

Torn apart by abuse and grief, Ellen is a brilliant woman who must focus her intellect on finding reasons to persevere.

Rachel, a brash girl of noble heritage, dares all men to challenge her and longs for one who will.

In this set of four interwoven novellas, award-winning author Jesse Teller challenges assumptions and showcases the strength of feminine resolve.

Note – In case the excerpt didn’t state it clearly enough, Legends of the Exiles is structured as four novellas set in the same region and featuring overlapping casts. Just so that you guys understand the structure of this book 🙂



Important – Please read. This book is 18+. The review you are about to read is 18+. The content ranges from consensual sex scenes to rape scenes involving children. If you are not 18, this is your cue to close the review. If you are over 18, please take that warning into consideration and make your decision to proceed or walk away accordingly.


Full disclosure – I received an advance review copy of this ebook for free, as part of the TBRindr program, in exchange for an honest review.


All….right. So. I’m going to skip the usual pleasantries that I would put here. Openly stated from the beginning, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I hoped, and given the very low rating which I gave it, I’m going to do my best to cover the why in a succinct fashion. My intent with this review isn’t to be mean. I think that there’s a lot of potential here, but I felt that the book was mishandled on a few levels that went beyond “I didn’t enjoy it” and really made it actively grate on me.

This review is notably longer than some I’ve done in the past.  Part of that is because with four separate stories and four separate casts, there are a lot of things for me to cover.  Part of it is that I want to be thorough, given the low rating.  I apologize for the wall of text ,and I promise to try not and dwell on minor points needlessly.

As I prefer to do, I’m going to list the central issues that I had with this novel, in loose order from least important to most important. Because of the low rating, I feel obligated to fully substantiate my reasoning, and thus I will include excerpts from the text as needed to demonstrate what I mean.


The Writing

The novel itself was very strong from a typographical perspective. There were very few typos and such to speak of, and it was grammatically near flawless. My issue with it is a little more…particular.

At many points in the text, the language is extremely repetitive, almost hypnotically so. As strange as it sounds, more than anything it often reminded me of bible verses in that it has that rhythmic quality.

Now, see, the issue here for me comes in that the voice of the writing changes often enough that I’m never quite sure if this is an intentional, stylistic choice – or just ‘mistakes’ on the part of the author. It was like the uncanny valley of style. A character would speak formally one sentence, and then turn around and use vernacular the next, which threw all my wonderings about “is this an intentional style choice” to the wind. That sort of thing.

In my opinion, I do feel that this style of writing made the characters and text feel distant and clumsy, when this is supposed to be a character-driven piece. I’m not sure those two things coexist nicely. It didn’t work for me.

>She looked down and slowly turned. She stepped as quietly as she could until she made it to the wall. She eyed the door. She needed to be there when it opened next, needed to slip away when her chance arrived. But she saw a staircase going up not ten feet to her right. She knew where that led. She could not pass up the chance.

Some of what I’m talking about here.


Immersion and Inconsistencies

This section is really more about immersion. It’s still what I’d consider a minor concern, but it was definitely a factor for me. At several points throughout the book, there were inconsistencies within the world, bordering on plot holes, which really pulled me out of things. Take one example – one of the characters, Ellen, creating her own language and learning how to write/make materials to write with.

Now, I’ll first ask how a culture that has wine and beer and social organization and all sorts of artisan crafts managed to reach that level of civilization without creating written language or even paint. I found that incredibly dubious – more so if a lonely outcast girl was able to complete this act in her spare time. But going further even within that one case, there are passages like –

>She had nothing to write it all down on. She tried to use paint, but the paint the village used was too thin and did not show well. She re(con)figured the recipe, thickened it up and made it easier to use. She dried it to a small, tacky brick, and when she dragged it across rock, it wrote. She was not happy with it yet, so kept working. The makeup of the paint made it impossible to wash off, and she needed to be able to correct her mistakes.

Ellen needed a paint that was less permanent. Cool. That makes sense. But then it’s followed later in the story by-

>She became obsessed. She worked every day it didn’t rain. The paints she had changed, and with the introduction of new oils and a bit of sand, had crafted a paint stick that would not wash off.

Making the character reinvent something they already invented in the first few chapters really pulls you out of the story. It comes off as a bit desperate to establish that the character is smart. Another time the text goes to great length to establish that the 5-year-old girl leading the story is naked, without it ever coming up again (picturing her naked through all the important conversations that follow was…interesting). One character’s name varies between Rachel and Rachela paragraph by paragraph.  This might be edited out by the time the final version is published. Just a few examples, but that’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.


Mismatched Expectations

I really like the cover of this book. I think the design of it is eye-catching and professional. Likewise, I think that the blurb for the back of the book provides a nice flavor for what the book might hold, and it’s got a decent hook to it.

The issue that I ran into, then, was that the book that the blurb and cover sold me on wasn’t the same book I encountered within the pages.

That’s a pretty hefty accusation, and I’m not meaning to be offhand about this, so let me be explain a little more. In reading the blurb –

The isolated barbarians of Neather have deep ancestry and strict traditions. Four resilient women defy tribal customs as they fight to overcome their own tragedies. Abuse. Addiction. Assault. Grief. What struggles can they endure to defend their hopes and their hearts?

In this set of four interwoven novellas, award-winning author Jesse Teller challenges assumptions and showcases the strength of feminine resolve.

So, in short, what I get from this is that it’s going to be about four women overcoming societal challenges facing them and doing so as strong, realistic female figures. As a female fantasy author, I’m all for that. I think that’s a laudable goal.

What I found, though, was that the books, in my mental image as I read them, were each centered specifically about the women’s relationships with men and sex. Particularly the first book, which in short order turns into essentially a fantasy romance novel, down to the tee. She meets boy, she hates boy. Then she likes boy. Then she gets told she can’t have boy, because he’s promised to someone else in an arranged marriage.

All of this is punctuated with a lot of pretty explicit imagery and more than a few sex scenes – none of which is noted anywhere on the Amazon/goodreads page, in the book itself, or in the message that was sent to me requesting a review. It was entirely a surprise.

>She felt his mouth, large and desperate, take in her tongue, beckon it in, and his tongue filled her mouth. His arms wrapped around her, warm and drenched in blood, his body trembling as he held her gently, lovingly. He lifted her to his lap and wrapped his hands under her. She entangled her legs around him and felt herself moisten. She suddenly needed him. She had to have him in her and around her, needed to stare up at him as he entered her. She felt his erection, terrifyingly big, raging under her, and she shoved away her fear. She ran her fingers through his wet hair, and she pulled back from him. She needed to see him, needed to remind herself who she had around her. She looked into his green eyes and felt herself go wet.

With this novella presented as the opening act it sets the tone for the whole novel – and given the importance given to the relationship versus any sort of story or character development, it reads as a romance/smut novel. And that’s fine – I think that there’s nothing wrong with that, except for I didn’t sign up for a straight-up romance novel when I opened the book. My expectations as a reader were different from what was provided, which left me feeling irritated and disappointed.

The other novellas go down in much the same vein – book 2 features Jocelyn, who has a destiny. “Jocelyn fears her strange visions and sacrifices a life with the man she loves for the one her destiny demands.” I was hopeful for this. There’s a lot of potential there, about being urged to take charge in a world that doesn’t really respect your right to do so. About facing danger and gaining the bravery to do so.

Turns out that her destiny is to birth the chosen one, and the book is about her picking who to sleep with to be the father to produce said chosen one. Of course, she’s in love with someone else, so it’s like a love triangle with Fate.

Book 3 centers on a girl overcoming the horror and shock of sexual assault. I’ll discuss that more later.

Book 4 talks about Rachel, wilder than the others, who comes to the city and falls in love before herself being put into an arranged marriage she doesn’t want.

With the notable exception of book 3, each of these are fairly standard cookie cutter romance premises (that is not in and of itself a bad thing, just perhaps for the context of this book).  In all of them, I was disappointed that the only way “femine resolve” was explored was through their vaginas (and the dicks being put in them/they wanted to have put in them).  There are so many other topics that could have been explored, even within the single-line summaries listed above.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s Teller’s story to tell how he wants.  But given the way it was billed, I expected something a little different, and at a certain point I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a little insulting that this was the only aspect of feminine resolve that was seriously broached.


“Strong and Proud”

Strong female characters were promised in the blurb – to go back to the ‘audience expectations’ bit I mentioned above. The central theme of the book as a whole, all four novellas laced together, was that of feminine resolve and challenging assumptions.

For me, this book did an awful lot of telling and not much showing. We heard a lot about how the characters were strong. Side characters would refer to the female lead as “my proud daughter” or reassure them that “it was obvious they didn’t really need help.”

Telling us your character is strong is not the same as your character being strong.

Frankly, what I did see of the female characters wasn’t all that inspiring. I hate to say that, and I’m really not trying to be mean, but that’s just how it came across.

Helena opened the novella by punching a prospective (if too-rough) lover in the nose and telling him to try again. She followed it up later with a screaming, overdramatic hissy fit in front of her entire clan because her lover decided to accept the arranged marriage – to the benefit of their entire clan – culminating into her bursting into tears and being carried home.  It was neither mature nor inspiring.

Jocelyn….didn’t seem to do much, really, except have an affair to cheat fate. I guess that’s brave? She did beat the shit out of Rachel with a broom handle, and that was probably the high point of the book for me, so that’s something.

And Rachel mostly went around grabbing dicks (yes) and attacking random men for being men and shrieking that she’s a fighter, she’s a warrior to anyone who would listen.  With her, I fully expected her story to play out as “Look, she wanted to be strong, and so she went too far.  Real strength isn’t crazy overt, it has subtlety” and she would mellow and stop screeching her warrior-ness at everyone as she matured and learned the truth.

She did not.

>“Let me down! I am a fighter!” She screamed

>“You will not order me around, Beastscowl,” she snapped. “I am a warrior.”

>“Where are you going?” she heard a boy ask. She had been lying in the same room as him, and she was furious about it. She stalked to his bed and reached out fast. She slapped a hand over his mouth as she gripped his man parts. She squeezed.

The impression that I got, more often than not, was that “strong, proud female characters” were by and large presented as the brash, aggressive, headstrong type. That’s one sort of female character. In my opinion, it’s an immature one, and it’s more of a starting place than an end goal.

Too often it seemed to be thrust in our face as “look, she’s a strong independent woman, she ain’t got time for no man.”

I had been hoping for something more substantial and complex to sink my teeth into than that.


The Rest of My Issue – Seriously, I meant it when I said 18+

So, my troubles really started with Book 3, Dead Girl.  It talks about a 12-year-old who meets a man at a festival of sorts, gets to chatting, gets to kissing, and then leads him off into the woods to somewhere she knows they can have privacy.  They have sex, he wanders off the next morning, she gets pregnant,  her family casts her out, and she ‘dies’ during childbirth (she’s rescued and whisked away to heal).  The remainder of the book is her finding ways to cope with the trauma of the rape.

Now.

When I read this book for the first time, honestly, I missed the single line of text that established her as 12.  And for the remainder of this novella, every time she thinks about how she shouldn’t blame herself, she’s not at fault, part of me sighed – because she had a very active role in the events leading up to the sex, and she was (for the foreplay) a very willing participant.  If she was of age, I would not have called it rape – and so, in thinking her of-age, it made me irritated.

But she wasn’t of-age. She was 12.

12-year-olds cannot consent, of course.  It is not their fault, they are not to blame, and it is rape.  With that new knowledge, I cursed my inattention, went back to the start with the new context, and began again.

>“Do you want to go back to the feast or stay here with me?” Ghean asked. She looked at the bright lights between the houses and back at him, just a shape in the dark. She did not want to leave. She wanted to start over with the kiss. She stepped closer, and he smiled, teeth gleaming bright in the moonlight.

>Ellen could hear the man or woman coming around the corner, and she turned and ran. She ran for the forest, for the trees. She slipped into the cover of darkness with her Ghean, and led him to a rock she knew about. She would sit with him there until the feast was over. She would let him touch her there.

Honestly, I was horrified.  Giving a 12-year-old that much agency over the situation, even false agency, seemed really dangerous to me.  It was easy for me to read that chapter as her being ‘into it’ – and it was likewise easy for me to see someone seeing that and nodding along, if they had those horrible tendencies.  It would be easy to make that excuse.

To add to that, I felt that the scenes were needlessly graphic.  I really don’t want to read about a grown man ‘entering’ a 12 year old, thrusting, etc.  I didn’t really want to read about them making out and groping and getting in the mood, either.  That was just a step down in terms of horrifying.  It could have been executed differently for the same impact without the feeling of “this is borderline child porn”.

Full disclosure – this was something I’d contacted the author about, prior to writing the review, to share my feelings on it.  I can see the arguments presented in its defense – that these things happen, that it’s important to be blunt and not sugarcoat it.  I can understand that sentiment, even if I still disagree on the execution of these scenes and where that hard-to-spot line falls.

And then I read book 4.

>Rachel stared with hungry eyes at the boy harvesting his arrows and waving to the crowd.
She had to have him.
She shoved her way from the grandstand and down to the walkway where he had to pass. Her twelve-year-old body was reacting perfectly to her approaching womanhood. Her breasts were small but tight, her hips tantalizing. Her neck was long, her lips full. Her brown hair caught flame in the sunlight, and the boys all lamented her beauty as none of them could tame her. She was quickly becoming the prettiest girl she knew. This was just a fact, and if she wanted this boy, she could have him.

Sexualizing a 12 year old is not okay. It’s just not.

What was the reason here?  What was the message?  It looks for all the world like a hypersexualized child, for no better reason than emphasizing how free-spirited or out of control they were.

In case you were curious, that scene progresses to her approaching said boy and enticing him back to her room to fuck.  He’s 15.  He asks her her age – like a reasonable young adult – and she dodges the question because it might put him off having sex with her.  When your characters are drawing the line places you are not, stop and reconsider

The impending sex is stopped when her caretakers interrupt their fun in her room – and threaten to sodomize the boy for being there.  She, on the other hand, is let off scot-free. Because of course she was

If the point was to have a character who thinks way too much of themselves – that’s fine. You can very easily have a girl think of herself as pretty, and as desirable, without making the text overtly sexual. I really don’t know what to say except that I was appalled to see it play out this way here, without even the veil of a message to hide behind.


I find it disappointing each and every time I write a negative review.  This time is no different.

I think that if the book were framed a little differently, and expectations managed closer to what is presented, I wouldn’t have had nearly the issues that I did with this novel, children aside.  I think that it was an ambitious attempt, and there were things it did well – the idea of having interlaced casts and sporadic timelines is intriguing, and I actually got a lot more out of the book when I went back to reread sections.

In the end, though, I found it deeply flawed and deeply unsettling.

Final rating: 1/5

[Review] Occultist (Saga Online) – Oliver Mayes

On to the next novel! This is Occultist – Saga Online, a LitRPG novel by Oliver Mayes which is being published by Portal Books.

For full disclosure – I received an advance review copy of this novel for free in exchange for my honest review, as part of the TBRindr program for indie/small publisher authors to find reviewers.

Occultist follows Damien, a 16-year old who is working part-time as a tester for Mobius, a company producing a VR MMO. He’s also studying intensely to test into a better school, at the urging of his sickly mother. To his horror, though, after an argument between the two of them, she collapses, and is rushed to the hospital. Healing her means buying a new, bionic heart – something they don’t have the money for.

There is, however, a prominent voting-based contest within Saga Online, which has a large enough pot of money at the end to purchase the heart. Damien had, before his mother’s collapse, run into a stroke of fortune when Mobius asked him to participate in a widely-viewed stream in place of a popular player, Aetherius. That luck turns sour when Aetherius comes back for revenge, taking Damien’s newly-remade character and throwing him to the bottom of a PvE dungeon.

Expecting to die immediately, Damien finds himself alive – and face-to-face with the boss. To his shock, the boss isn’t immediately hostile, and in fact offers the level 1 player the chance to become an Occultist – a class which no one in Saga Online has seen before

With his new identity as the game’s first Occultist, and his mother’s life on the line, Damien sets off to win the community’s heart and get his revenge on Aetherius.


I’ll be honest. I was pretty optimistic about this book going into it. To me, the cover was pretty appealing, and while, yeah, they say not to judge a book by its cover, it certainly does help to feel like some value and effort was being put into the novel xD I liked that the cover had a more serious tone compared to a lot of LitRPGS I’ve seen/read, and it was just cool. So, instant points for me there.

And, truthfully, I enjoyed this book. I think that it had its flaws, but I was overall pretty happy with the read it gave – especially considering that this is a debut novel – and I’d certainly read something else by this author in the future.

Let me go into a little more detail, then. I will do my damnedest to keep this spoiler-free, of course 🙂

What worked for me with Occultist?

I think that a lot of Occultist’s strengths come from voice and characterization. By and large, I think that Damien was a fairly realistic/sympathetic representation of a 16-year old, and I liked Bartholomew’s character in particular. I’m a huge fan of sarcasm in writing, and there was just the right amount of it here to make me chuckle without feeling like I was being slapped across the face with it.

To go along with that, the text itself was a pleasure to read. Mayes has a very fluid, easy-going way of writing that meshed well with what I really like to see in a book. There was description, but not too much, and the story was a central focus (as it should be).

To expand more on that in particular, I think that Occultist did a really good job of balancing its LitRPG nature with the need to do more than just be a game. There are in-game mechanics, yes, and they’re a prominent feature in the story, but as someone who, uh…well, they’re not really my thing, and I was able to skim past most of the particularly stat-heavy portions without feeling lost or confused by what the MC was doing.

In particular, I think that the combat scenes did a nice job of not going too far. A lot of LitRPG fight scenes read as very dry to me, due to the overemphasis of in-game mechanics and damage points, and I didn’t get that feeling here. It was an element, but an element there to support the story. Which is, imo, how it should be 🙂

All right, sunshine and butterflies time is done. You had your day.

What were the issues that I had with Occultist?

Please don’t be offput by the fact this is longer – I just like to be very specific about what didn’t work for me. Let’s get down to the meat of it. I’ll sort of split my complaints into two categories – the minor complaints, which by themselves might have been distracting, but passing, and the more major complaint which lingered with me as I read the whole thing.

The little stuff:

To begin with, I had a bit of an issue figuring out the proper tone and audience that this book was aimed towards. Occultist opens with the main character and his mother having an argument – Damien arguing to be allowed to continue playing, and his mother telling him to study and do his homework. It’s exactly the sort of thing that would appeal to a younger audience, and in my opinion, that seems to fit well with the eventual ending, which feels a little more YA in how things resolve.

Now, then, this is contrasted by essentially everything that happens in-game, which features a lot of neck- and chest- stabbing and at least one substantial discussion about the length of Damien’s intestines and their suitability as garland for the home base. When I was reading things that were taking place inside Saga Online, it felt like it was intended for a notably older audience – more like upper high school or college, versus the ~middle school to young high school of the opening segments. Those estimates are just taken from my gut feeling here, mind.

Not book-breaking for me, but like I said, a little distracting.

Going along with that, much of the book read as a dystopian fiction for me, given the strangely dispassionate responses from people Damien interacts with, the cold, ruthless set-up of the world, and the seemingly absurd aggression that the government used in regards to tracking down a lost, scared child. And no one seemed to find any of this deplorable or at all unusual. Then, at the end, it was like a switch was flipped, and this was hand-waved with a single line about over-zealousness. It didn’t add up to me, and it left me doubting the perception that had been crafted throughout the whole book.

My other minor complaint would be regarding the combat – as I’ve said before, I did find the combat to be fluid and overall unburdened by mechanics.

Where I found it lacking, then, was that Damien only really seemed to struggle or face actual consequence at the tail end of the book. Up until then, he happily tore a swath through the other players, in numbers that sometimes bordered on unbelievable. I’ve been a gamer my whole life, and normally PvP games aren’t set up where a single player can 1v7, no matter the element of surprise or their distraction. I never really felt like Damien was in danger, given the ease with which he was killing and destroying, which made the fights seem distant at times.

The more major complaint:

Ok. So. I will probably have some level of spoilers in this section, so if you are considering reading this (and I do consider this to probably be a pretty darn good LitRPG, if that’s your thing) then you should move on from here.

But for everyone else, here we go.

One of the things that really stuck out to me with this book, from very close to the start of the novel and continuing throughout it, was the remarkable way in which things seemed to line up for the young Damien. He found himself whisked out of the starting zone so very quickly that he couldn’t pick a class. Which is absurdly rare. And then he traded all of his rags to another player, rather than just unequipping them, which to me felt odd. I’d feel weird trading greys to a high-level player, and it doesn’t seem like it’d function that way in an actual game. Frankly, this point seems sort of throw-away to me, since a level 1 in rags isn’t much better than a naked level 1. He could have kept his rags and nothing would have changed.

And then he’s thrown down into the one dungeon that just happens to contain a hidden class trainer specializing in PvP – the specific thing that Damien wants to do more than anything, after that whole series of events.

I’ll be honest. I kept watching and waiting for the twist to come in – that the hidden trainer was put there by the devs, and this was all an elaborate set-up by Kevin to get Damien to play-test the new class they just designed. That Aetherius knew the trainer was there, and was trying to use Damien as a guinea pig or set him up to get exiled from the online community, freely killable. Or that Aetherius was himself a hidden class – the notion supported by all of the feeds about his techniques being such a mystery that people were trying to figure out – and maybe these trainers aren’t all that unusual, which the MC could piece together in time.

But nothing came. It was just…a coincidence. And that’s a pretty big coincidence – the situation that led to a level 1 making it all the way into the heart of a dungeon without picking a class or killing any enemies was simply too specific and implausible. And no one seemed to wonder about it, including the main character! It felt like everything was arranged specifically for the purpose of getting Damien to that point, and no one thought that any of this was odd or noteworthy, and it didn’t sit well with me for the entire book.

There were a few other smaller instances of notable coincidence. Probably the next most notable was the fact that Aetherius’s ex-girlfriend was a medical student, putting her in the perfect position to sympathize with Damien and have insider information as to his mother’s condition – and deal with his medical crisis at the end. I did enjoy her character, and I thought that her story was reasonably plausible, but it did seem very, very convenient for her to be there and already willing to jump to Damien’s aid without even having met him first. By itself, it wouldn’t have been such an issue, but at that point I was a bit wary.

Final thoughts

As I said before, I truly did enjoy Occultist. I think that it’s probably one of the better LitRPGs that I’ve read thus far, even despite the flaws that I couldn’t quite get past. The writing is fun, the style is bright, and the characters are relatable. Hell, I laughed out loud at the ending, and that’s pretty rare for me. So don’t take my critique and notes here the wrong way – if you enjoy LitRPGs, or stories that cross over between fantasy and reality, then I do recommend giving this piece a shot. I’ll be watching Mayes in the future to see what else he can come up with.

Thank you to him and to Portal for giving me the chance to take a look at this novel in advance!

Rating: 3.5/5