[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)

[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

[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