[Review] Ch05en: Ivy – William Dickstein

We’re here today with another review, this time of Ch05en: Ivy, a dystopian superhero novel by William Dickstein! Ch05en is a longer series of novellas and collections, of which Ivy is the most recent entry. I’m more than likely going to slip and refer to this book as Ch05en at least once during this review, so I apologize for that. As always, full disclosure – I received an ARC for free in exchange for an honest review.

This book follows Ivy, a young woman in a world of ‘Capes’, superheros powered by the Ch05en gene. Awakening to her powers on the night of her father’s murder, Ivy is put in a quandary; she doesn’t know what her power is, and no one has been able to help her. All that she knows is she hears voices – voices no one else can hear, voices that seem ready and waiting to help her.

On the opposite side is Lochlan, an android who works for The Control, an organization that handles the collection and recruitment of those who are found to be gifted with abilities. Lochlan is called out to investigate a Cape who has defected from their side, and before long, their paths cross. Mysteries abound, answers are few, and both soon realize there’s more going on.

Check it out on Amazon!

Just to put it out there early – I enjoyed this book xD As always, I’m going to try and remain spoiler-free through this review, but let’s dive into how I felt about this novel!

What about this book worked for me?

First and foremost, I’d like to give a shoutout to the first chapter of Ch05en. First chapters are hard. I’ve had more arguments and debates over story openers than pretty much any other topic among the writers of /r/RedditSerials. It’s a subject that comes up over and over again, and no one has just the right answer.

With that said, then, the first chapter of this book hooked me in a way that, frankly, not many of the books I’ve reviewed have. The book opens with a dark scene, the young girl and her brother fleeing and hiding while their Cape father is murdered in front of them. It does a wonderful job of setting the dark, ominous tone of the book, and it certainly does create a lasting first impression.

And that’s really where I’d like to start with what Dickstein does well – to me, the characters felt totally real and totally plausible. Emotions were conveyed simply and well, and that made the whole thing feel very authentic. When my heartstrings get tugged at, without making it feel like you’re whapping me over the head screaming cry, damn you, it makes the whole thing that much more enjoyable.

To add to that point, dialogue felt extremely natural to me in Ivy. That seems like a little thing, but it’s such a palpable relief to read an interaction and not have it come off stilted. It makes the world that much more immersive, and immersion is very important for me. If I’m getting pulled out of the world because the language didn’t flow correctly, it has a dramatic impact on how much I enjoyed the read. Ivy really impressed me with that.

All of this was tied together with a relatable, plausible central conflict and storyline. I was interested. Ivy’s struggles and questions felt important, and it was easy to put yourself in her shoes. As a first person story, I consider that to be a huge facet of a story’s quality 🙂

All right, was that cheerful enough?

Let’s begin.

What about this book did I struggle with?

Just as a housekeeping bit, since I always talk about it, I felt that Ivy was by and large well edited, with a few notable sticking points. There were a number of places where things were described in present tense, even while the story was in past tense. That was a little jarring. It was not a big deal, considering the majority of the story is in first person, but there were also a few places in Lochlan’s chapter (written in third person) where a few lines of that first person prose slipped in. Now, I think that a lot of this was intentional, but intentional or not, it felt awkward to me. If I have to sit there and hem and haw as to if something was a mistake or what the author wanted, then the effect is lost. Put together, my impression of the book on a technical level was that Dickstein is very capable and it was solidly built, but with a few burrs that could have been smoothed over/spotted.

It’s also worth noting that I’m a notorious grammar nazi, so take all of that with a grain of salt 🙂

But on to the real stuff!

So, one of the first things I struggled with was this. Like I said, the first chapter of Ivy really hooked me in, solidly. I loved it.

After that first chapter, though?

Well, after the first chapter, the point of view changes, and we follow Lochlan the android for a while as he navigates The Control. I…did not enjoy this chapter as much. It wasn’t bad, and I enjoyed the concept of his story and The Control. Little by little, though, something began to become a little apparent to me.

Generally, I found that starting with Lochlan’s chapter, the prose became a little more passive. In short, that generally means that instead of the character doing things, it reads as things happening to the character. It wasn’t a massive concern, but I hadn’t felt that about the opener.

But, on the whole, I found that the passive issue did continue on through the first person sections, even while it wasn’t book-breaking. It was clear that Dickstein had a thoroughly developed world, but at times, it felt as though we spent more time being told about a story than explaining it. There were large sections of exposition, especially early on, and I did find myself struggling not to skim through some of that. There was also a fair amount of story-telling, of people explaining situations, scenarios, and rules to the main character.

Did it keep me from enjoying the book? No, it didn’t. But it made some sections a bit of a slog, and at times it felt like the story was trying to cram all of the backstory and world-specific lore into a few chapters of dense explanation, versus letting it breathe and come out more naturally. That did make it a bit overwhelming.

Final thoughts?

I think that Ivy is a solid, enjoyable take on a superhero story. It’s a little more traditional in the setup as far as it being cape fic, so for those of you who aren’t into that, just be aware – but within that, it really does break away from a lot of the vibes of most superhero fiction. It’s a darker story, with a lot of politics and intrigue. The plot is well crafted, and the characters are solid.

Despite what I’ve said about the passive voice and exposition-heavy sections, I did enjoy reading Ivy. The premise was intriguing and exciting, and the characters were relatable enough to keep me emotionally attached. That nets it the half-point boost upwards to round out its score 🙂

Final score: 3.5/5 (4 for the sake of scoring)

[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] HOPE Engine – Andrew Lynch

A few weeks ago I was contacted to review HOPE Engine, which is a LitRPG novel by Andrew Lynch that was released on the 30th (today) – and is our next book to be reviewed!

HOPE Engine – by Andrew Lynch

HOPE Engine, being a LitRPG, centers around a video game.  More specifically, the novel is based off the idea that conflicts in the broader world were sidelined by the invention of an immersive gaming system which allowed for people to adopt new lives apart from their old struggles.  Without the things that had once divided countries and individuals, a peace was brokered in the continuing form of this game.

Quentin, then, is a young man in the UK turning 16 – the age where one is able to start playing the game, rather than studying.  He leaps in eagerly, opting to play Tulgatha, which is the fantasy game available to him, and creates a warlock (Akuma Severo).

As the game progresses, though, the world starts to feel the effects of an army sweeping across the land, destroying player-owned settlements.  More to the point, they start to realize that something is very, very wrong, and the army is not following the normal rules that it should by the game’s engine.


LitRPG, generally, isn’t my go-to genre.  I’ve read it before, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some of the pieces that I’ve read, but it’s just not normally something that I would seek out.  But, hey, my goal with this was to help some indie authors get reviews and publicity for their name, so I’m always willing to give them a read 🙂

HOPE Engine did a very good job of having a consistent voice throughout the book.  It’s a first-person book, and those can be a challenge at times to have the character come across, versus feeling like a flat, generic self-insert figure.  And that’s something that I think this novel did well – the prose made liberal use of internal monologue and such to allow the character to feel different. At times I think it used a little too much and became a touch overpowering, but it did an effective job of making Severo feel like an actual character.

Additionally, the book is well-polished.  I can’t say that I spotted a single typo, and grammatically, it’s spot-on.  I love it when a book feels like the author invested time into it, rather than popping it out and throwing it onto the market.  It made reading this much easier to have it flow nicely.

Now.  To be perfectly blunt and honest, this book didn’t work for me.  I think that there was a ton of potential here to turn this novel into more than it is now, and that potential wasn’t acted on like it could have been.  

I’ll break down what I mean by that into a few categories here, going roughly from minor to major issues.

Action

Being set in a fantasy world, HOPE Engine’s action should be right up my alley.  And I think it has a lot of potential. Unfortunately, though, in action scenes, a great deal of time is spent detailing how many points of damage are dealt, how many mobs resist his spells, and how many experience points are gained.  That sort of stuff. Mechanics.  And so, what should be a flavor to remind readers that it’s a game becomes a much larger element than it should.

Frankly, I found that it damaged the flow of these scenes, and made them feel unnecessarily drawn-out.  It wouldn’t have been book-killing by itself, but it did detract from my enjoyment.

Character decisions/agency

At a few points, Severo’s actions flatly felt unrealistic.  For anyone, really, but especially when it’s taken into account that this character is supposed to be 16.

For one example, Severo has to decide which game he’s going to play – Tulgatha, the fantasy game, or Galaxy at War, a sci-fi game.  Despite the world having developed completely immersive VR, they somehow haven’t managed to create cross-server communication, which is something World of Warcraft does right now, so going to different games means saying goodbye until you leave the game again (effectively forever).  

Severo is an orphan.  His parents gave him up to the government so that they could spend more time online, which is a common occurrence.  As such, he has one real friend, another young man named Daniel. But where Severo wants to play Tulgatha, Daniel wants to play Galaxy at War.  Rather than, you know, staying together with the one singular person important to each of them, they happily part ways and set off to totally different lives.  It doesn’t seem realistic to how people behave, honestly.

For a second example, Severo at one point has a run-in with something called the N-plague, which is a sort of virus hiding in the game’s network.  If it manages to transition from the server to his pod and to him, it’ll mean a long, slow, painful death, which he knows.

At a certain point in the game, he’s brought face to face with it, and the system does an emergency ejection to, you know, keep him from dying.  After a rude awakening and spending a good bit puking all over his apartment, Severo has to wait for his pod to purge the virus from its systems.  But once it reopens for him, he happily jumps back in and goes straight back to leveling – completely unshaken about the fact that he just literally nearly died.  It seems like an aside, and that’s the sort of thing that should shake someone to their core about a computer system they’re entrusting their life to.

In short, at several points, realistic character reactions or decisions are pushed aside, seemingly so that the MC can get back to the game.  It makes the characters feel more shallow and contrived than they should.

Introduction

After entering the game, Severo goes through a series of quests and events which amount to being Tulgatha’s tutorial.  This begins with questing and combat, and moves forward into settlement building. It goes on for a very, very long time, and a lot of information about how the game world functions is presented to the reader.

That’s really where things go wrong for me.  A lot of the information presented doesn’t really seem to matter, at least not at the moment, and an awful lot of it never really was relevant to any meaningful degree in the story as a whole.  As a novel with 140,000 words, it isn’t as though HOPE Engine needed padding or fluffing out – so putting lengthy sections of tutorial at the very introduction of the novel soured any initial excitement I had for the story

Story

Which brings us to, in fact, the story.  HOPE Engine, by the blurb on the back of the novel, promises us a conflict with this army.  “An unnatural enemy is rising, more glitch than feature, that not even the highest level players can stop. A noob like Severo doesn’t stand a chance! Right? But with his starter village in the enemy’s warpath, he better figure something out!”  It’s laid out as the central conflict, in fact.

Despite this, he had one encounter with one of the army’s ‘soldiers’ relatively early on in the book, and then a meeting with the army’s emissary before the final conflict.  The rest of the book was spent on questing or grinding or building his player-owned settlement or collecting gear.  The story felt very much like an afterthought, something to be brought up just to make sure that the reader didn’t forget a big bad was coming.

To add on another piece – There were a number of logical inconsistencies early on that seemed odd and out of place.  Some of these were covered in the ending and explained away, but it took so very long to actually get there that it felt as though they were simply overlooked.  When the reader has figured something out, and realized something isn’t normal, but the MC is totally unaware and carefree and not thinking about it, it’s extremely frustrating, and feels like the MC is being made stupid for the purpose of facilitating the story.

‘Romance’

God, I really don’t know what to call this section, so I’m going to call it romance.  But with that said, it goes further than that, more into objectification and character growth and what’s acceptable behavior to effectively endorse in a novel.

For most of the book, there’s nothing approaching romance.  In fact, in terms of adult characters, there’s only one female character who has both a name and spoken lines of dialogue.  This is, of course, the romantic interest, Bri.

The relationship kicks off a little awkwardly at around ~60% of the way through, with the main character going from being totally disinterested in the romantic interest to being all-in in the span of literally a paragraph.  It descends from there into him fantasizing about getting her pregnant, then cheating on her with a fire elemental (she’s a water elemental, so, you know, something she’d take personally) while knowing she’d stay with him because there were kids involved and he had money.  Note that at this point he hasn’t actually confessed yet. From there it went even further downhill fast, to him going to finally confess, finding another man in what he thought was her room, and having a mental outburst that he left her alone for a few days and she turned into a ‘literal whore’.  When he hadn’t so much as told her how he felt – she was supposed to either read his mind, or just keep herself waiting around just in case he decided he was interested.

Frankly, it was offensive.  It’s not something I’m normally particularly worried or sensitive about, but this was in-your-face enough to stand out.  And, while this could be an excellent starting point for some character growth and personal improvement, these thoughts and feelings are never portrayed as a bad thing.  At no point does anyone tell him he can’t be like that, and at no point does he realize that he’s being a dick. Rather than being a character arc where he grows and matures, it’s just….let stand.

The ending and some final thoughts

I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers here, but I do feel like this needs to be addressed.

Now, I did finish this book.  I honestly do think that the story is one that has a lot of potential, but it’s badly mishandled.  The most interesting parts of it are skimmed over early on in the book, passed up for grinding and tutorials and leveling, and then crammed in far too quickly at the ending.  At a certain point in the ending, it feels like I’m reading an entirely different book, which is not a good thing. There’s also not really a solid ending – it just….stops. And that left me feeling wholly unsatisfied, even though clearly it’s building to a sequel.  I felt that providing that sense of resolution to book one is important, even if there are more books coming.

Part of me could believe that it was a simple worry that the book would be too long, or go on too far if it was brought to a better ending point.  I’m not sure I give that weight? HOPE Engine is 140k long – to put this in relative terms, Nightsworn, Ascendant, and Silvertongue are 160k, 180k, and 210k long, respectively. Long works, if it’s done for a reason, and this would be a very good reason.  Adding another 5-10k words wouldn’t have broken the camel’s back, and might have brought the story to a plateau that felt more like an ending than “guards are swarming the MC’s location, and he’s walking.”

If nothing else, as I pointed out earlier, the introduction portion of the book has a lot of ‘fluff’.  If length is the concern here, I feel that the tutorial zones could have been trimmed better, to allow for that word count to be applied where it could do more good.

I really do think that this novel has potential, and given another month or two of editing and tweaking and polishing, I think the parts of the book that shine could have been brought out more fully.  I’d like to read that book, down the line. As it is, this was a bit messy for my tastes.

Final rating: 2/5

[Review] The Brotherhood of Sfarr – Mark P. Davies

Thanks for stopping in!  Let’s dive right into the next of the book reviews I’ve got going.  The book I’m going to talk about today is The Brotherhood of Sfarr, by Mark P. Davies.  This is the first book in the Weavers and Wyrders saga, of which according to Goodreads and Amazon there are two books out thus far.

Here is a link, for those interested.

Brotherhood of Sfarr

The Brotherhood of Sfarr follows Jenna and her younger brother Hahn as they arrive in Frethenia.  Their uncle lives there, and Jenna wants to start an apothecary.  Her hopes are dashed when she discovers that women aren’t permitted to do that.  Upon arriving, they’re forced to watch as a woman is Incasted for being a witch, which means she has her tongue cut out.  In their attempts to help the ‘witch’ and find out why she was being punished, they uncover a plot by the local church to eliminate an ‘alternate doctrine’, and begin to see the signs of an ancient prophecy coming to life surrounding their land’s next queen-to-be.

All…right.

Okay.  So.  I will be up front and honest here – I DNF’d (did-not-finish) this novel, at about 30% of the way through the text.  As such, the comments and critique that I leave here can only in good faith apply to that section of the book.  With the cat out of the bag, the question becomes why, and what went wrong for me with this book?

I’ll begin by talking about some of what I think this book does very well, before delving into the critiques.

Above all else, it’s very, very obvious that a great amount of love and care went into this book.  The world is exquisitely developed, with everything down to moon charts created to accompany it.  I’m sure that Davies has put an astounding amount of time into creating the universe and setting, and that shows.

Additionally, I think that the imagery contained within was really exceptional.  If you’re looking for a read that could really engage your senses, then this could be a good fit for you.  A great deal of care is taken to illustrate the scenery, and show the characters’ attempts to find beauty in their world.

As with the scenery and world, the grammar in this novel shows the same level of meticulous care.  Mechanically, the sentences and prose in this book are rock-solid, and the only issue that I’d pick with it on this front isn’t really a grammar issue (I’ll discuss it more below).

So.  That’s what clicked for me.

What didn’t?

First and foremost, the single biggest barrier that I had to reading this book was a powerful concentration of series-specific jargon.  There were new names for everything, from shirts to gowns to meals to days and so on and so forth.  I think that worldbuilding and creating a detailed, intricate world is an admirable goal, and I’m not saying to not have any of that in the book, but there were instances where a single paragraph would have four or five terms I didn’t know in it.  At that point, it became an imposition to my reading, since I had no basis for understanding why those terms were important enough to warrant being different and new.

I think that this problem for me was emphasized with the way each series-specific term was treated as a proper noun – I mentioned a bone to pick with grammar above, and this is it.  The story has creatures called mala, which are akin to rideable birds.  ‘Dinner’ was also renamed to ‘evenmeal’

Now, when these terms were referenced, it would be written as, say,

“Jenna urged her Mala onward with a nudge.”

“Hahn licked his lips, his mind already on the Evenmeal ahead.”

In every instance, these series-specific terms were capitalized, and this in my mind really served to continuously make sure that they stood out to the reader.  Where I might have otherwise grown used to them, as I should have, and blurred over them, instead they were set apart as different and special every time they were used.

In the end, rather than make the world feel unique and alive, they just served to hide what was happening in the story behind dense text and events I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand.

I did feel that especially at the start, there wasn’t enough attention given to characters’ identity/motivations.  I struggled a lot with Hahn especially – He’d wax poetical about the way the water filled up the bathtub, making complicated comparisons to society and learned behaviors, and then turn around and call Jenna “sis” like a child.  In time, I figured out that was because Hahn is supposed to be a prepubescent boy.  Given his ponderous nature, that frankly didn’t come across, and so his character always felt conflicted to me.

It continues on through where he’s ‘negotiating’ with two women to spy for him.  After they agree, one asks if he’d have ‘put them to death’ if they didn’t, and he smiles and says yes.  It feels incredibly out of character with how he’d been established thus far, and it makes him seem more brutal/warriorlike than the ‘cunning’ the audience is told he is.

Likewise, even though we as the readers were told often that Jenna was a warrior, it wasn’t played out as such.  Jenna comments at one point that the locals clearly have gotten ‘witch’ and ‘warrior’ mixed up, since they keep calling her a witch.

Well, at that stage, Jenna has had prophetic dreams, tried to open an apothecary, prepared and administered strange/magical healing remedies, and prayed to a lesser/unrecognized goddess.  And has not gotten in a fight or any such business.  Frankly, the cityfolk are right, and Jenna is wrong.  She certainly presents like a witch more than a warrior.

In the end, telling the audience someone is a certain way isn’t enough.  They have to be shown to act that way, plausibly and naturally.  Throughout the whole opening section, I felt like very little care was given to the decision making process of the characters.  They acted often seemingly without regard for danger, or without even stopping to muse if it was a bad idea before deciding they needed to act despite the risks.  It reduced their agency.

Finally – I’m putting this last because it’s more structural and less story.

I was reading on kindle, through my phone, with the text side pretty small (I don’t like to change pages often).  While I was doing so, there were a number of times when I’d change page, and find that the entire next page was a single paragraph with no breaks.

Situations like that made the book very, very difficult to read, as any points of importance were hidden behind a seamless wall of flowered prose.  I’d recommend that another look be given to the formatting, to try and break some of that up.

And…I think that’s about enough xD

I do think that there’s a ton of potential in this series and from this author.  At the core of the story was a story, which certainly held a lot of promise, and given the obvious care Davies took with his world, I’m completely certain that there were some good and exciting things coming down the line.

My overall rating: 2/5

Would I recommend this story to you: I think this story could appeal to those who enjoy fiction with dense, visually-intensive prose, or those who enjoy a worldbuilding-heavy story.

Percentage of book read: 30%

[Review] A Tribute at the Gates – CJ Aaron

A Tribute at the Gates - CJ Aaron

Well, well.  Something different yet again?

One of the things that I think a lot of people don’t really ‘get’ is exactly how important reviews are, especially to independent authors!  If a book has no reviews, regardless of how many sales that author has made, that book will be viewed poorly. As such, one of the goals that I’ve made for the new year/the future is to start seeking out books from independent authors or small publishers, which have few reviews to their name, and dig into them 🙂

If you have suggestions as to candidates, of course, please let me know!  I won’t be accepting titles from people I know, or from contests I’ve been involved in, for the sake of neutrality.  Just as a disclaimer!

Now!  With this in mind, this morning I read the first book for this goal, and so here’s my first entry into this.

Note: I’m going to do my damndest to avoid spoilers, for any of you who may want to read this – and I do recommend it, it was a fun, engaging read!


A Tribute at the Gates – by CJ Aaron

Tribute at the Gates starts readers off with a dark, foreboding premise.  Certain individuals carry a compound in their blood, alexen, which can be distilled down through an unknown process – implied at the cost of the person’s life – and made into an elixir which grants longevity to the drinker.  The kingdom in question issued a decree stating that all children are to be tested, and the children found with this compound are separated from their families, the rights to their blood auctioned off to a noble family, and are raised as slave labor until they’ve matured enough for the ‘Harvest’.

The book follows Ryl, a young man whose blood contains a particularly special compound.  Where other ‘Tributes’ contain passive quantities of alexen, his is ‘active’. This is something which hasn’t been seen in ages, and makes him quite rare.  In fact, the researchers for the nation know little to nothing about his particular blend of alexen and how it will behave.

The premise of the book, then, is fairly straightforward.  With his Harvest impending, Ryl slowly begins to awaken to his own powers and come into his own, all while the brutality of their captors ramps up and tensions between the guards and him increases.  With his newfound powers in hand, albeit covertly, Ryl sets out to find a way for him and his fellows to escape the Harvest – and survive the situation they’re in.


I have a bit of a hard time reading, of late, partially because I’ve spent so long proofreading and critiquing people’s stories around the community.  As such, I’ve found I really have a difficult time getting into a book if there’s too much wrong grammar-wise for me to stumble over.

I was pleasantly surprised, then, that Tribute flowed very nicely, and was by and large very well structured for an independent novel.  It wasn’t perfect – I think that some of the dialogue could have been touched up with some added commas, and there were many instances of using commas where question marks would have been more appropriate, but it wasn’t an imposition to me reading!  So, that was immediately a huge mark in this book’s favor.

Now.  There were a few things that I thought this book did really, really well.

Ryl as a character was very relatable to me, and behaved by and large very understandably.  I enjoyed the relationships that he had with the other tributes, and I thought that his motivations were one of the stronger parts of the story.  The will to survive is always going to be strong, and the author did a very nice job of making the reader feel constrained, closed in by a fate out of the character’s control.  It was pretty clear that Ryl was going to be the ‘Chosen One’ of this novel/series, given the setup, but I’d say that there’s definitely still a line of interest there for the reader to find out what happens to him and his friends.

Possibly the thing I liked best about this book, though, was the ability that the author had to create tension and strain on the reader.  It’s a sign that I’m well-immersed in a book when I’m getting physically anxious reading it, and that was something that definitely held true here.  Aaron did an excellent job of carrying the line of tension throughout the book, building upon it to heighten the moods around even of the book’s events and action scenes.  The immersion and emotions in this book were done very well, which is huge for me 🙂

With that said, there were some areas that could be worked on and improved upon, in my opinion.  In particular, there were three main areas that I’ll discuss here.

Starting at about 15-20% of the way through the book, and running to about 30-35% of the way through the book, there was a lengthy scene of exposition and conversation between Ryl and a side character, where the magic system and history of the world was rather matter-of-factly laid out.  This side character then leaves, not to be seen again in this book, and most of what is discussed isn’t really…relevant. At least, not in the content covered in the first book. I can see its importance, in that it establishes where Ryl’s powers are progressing to, but I feel it was clumsily handled.  I found myself skimming, to the point I nearly DNF’d the book, but decided to keep going and see if the story picked back up. It did, and I’m glad I kept going, but that was a substantial issue in my eyes.

The second issue that I had is much, much more minor.  There were a few sections where characters would behave inconsistently – Ryl asked the aforementioned side character why he was sitting by and letting the tribute system stand, for example, upon which the character exploded on him to not accuse him of complacency.  The next paragraph, the side character informed Ryl that with powers like theirs, they had to be careful to always remain in control of their emotions. With no apparent signs he was aware of the irony.

There were a few other cases, like Ryl commenting he was glad to be going to a different village because it would be less brutal than being under their Master’s thumb – only to be savagely beaten upon entering.  Much, much later, he asked another tribute what was happening, since the village was supposedly more friendly to them, but up until that point, he never expressed shock or surprise that things weren’t as he’d previously expected.  So on and so forth.

Overall, these inconsistencies were just a passing matter, and unimportant to the actual story.  Simply something that stood out to me, and was a bit jarring while I was reading!

The third issue is something rather more worrisome for me, and does have some impact on how I feel about the first book, even while it doesn’t have any impact on the main storyline.

Through the first book, one of the main antagonists is the master of the compound.  He’s taken a grudge against Ryl in particular, in large part because of the negative attentions from the royalty that have been brought down on the tribute system due to actions Ryl takes.  He seems to blame Ryl personally for this watchful eye being placed on him, and responds with increased violence against Ryl, up to and including assassination attempts.

To me, this frankly didn’t make a lot of sense.  Harming Ryl, as one of the most potent bearers of alexen in the kingdom, would be a death sentence – this is explicitly stated, in fact.  And yet, the Master seemingly doesn’t care? His soldiers are overheard saying to “make it seem like an accident”, sure, but that doesn’t seem like it’d hold water for long.  By and large, this character seemed like a caricature of a villain, without proper development given to motivations.

Now – like I said, in the end, that character really doesn’t affect the main storyline.  It’s more of a passing thing, especially given how the end of the book plays out. It did make me withdraw from the story at points, where something seemed particularly unreasonable, but it didn’t ruin the story as a whole.


So, where does this leave us?

On the whole, I found Tribute to be a fun, engaging read.  Be forewarned. It’s a very, very dark book.  There are some fairly explicit scenes of abuse and violence, and it includes sensitive matters like rape, although not as explicitly depicted.  The characters are young, and it’s definitely a coming of age novel, but it’s not a young adult novel in my eyes.

With that said – I know I’ve listed off flaws here, and it might seem like I’m piling on, but I was serious when I said there were things that this book did really well!  I found the storyline to be a fun, interesting take on an old, familiar storyline. I don’t think it broke out of the mold, but it did a very solid job of telling the story in a way that was enjoyable and catching.  This is only the first book in a series, and the story feeds directly into a hook for book 2. Be aware of that!


Would I recommend this story to you:  Yes, to those of you who enjoy dark fantasy novels.

Will I be reading the next book in the series:  Yes!  My comments on flaws aside, I found the world to be an interesting one, and I’m very interested in seeing where the author takes it.

My overall rating: 3.5/5