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Review: Jennifer Flath – The Black Pearl

Black Pearl Cover
Cover for the Black Pearl

“Will it be dangerous?”
“It is not for the faint of heart, and there are no refunds.”

Rin and Alexander (Jennifer Flath – The Black Pearl)

The right book can take you to a faraway place, where the people are familiar in a hundred different ways. The characters become friends, and even after a journey they’ll keep constant company.

The Black Pearl series, by Jennifer Flath, is one of those stories that I began to breathe and look forward to visiting. I still do. It’s like finding an overgrown stone cottage out in a wild spot of forest. It’s one of those places that feels ancient and mystical and timeless. It feels real and unreal at the same time. It’s lovely.

This review covers two completed books in the series: The Black Pearl and The Memory Spell. A third book, The Destiny Detour is currently being published as a chapter-by-chapter web serial. But these tales are focused on a young woman with mysterious presence named Rin. The epic follows her struggles to save existence from dangerous forces. Along the way, she meets friends and enemies that are crucial to her development as a person and key to her success in restoring order to the world.

Alexander could not decide how this news made him feel. If anyone was brazen enough to attack a camp full of Malum, it would be his sister. Should he be hopeful or terrified?

Characters

Flath focuses almost entirely on her characters, and the result is wonderful. I care about every person, good or evil, ambivalent or invisible, in this series. I want to know all of their stories, past present, and future. They’re all distinct and interesting and have little conflicting bits of personality that become engaging and intriguing. How will this group of people react to this situation, or the next one? I began to read as a way to hang out with these people just as much as I did to follow the plot. And there was never conflict just for the sake of inciting drama. Everyone seems very rational in their irrational outbursts or stupid decisions.

A useful writing exercise for characters is to describe them without referring to how they look. Describe them with motivations and personality and non-physical character traits. Rin is kind and curious and forgiving; she is a nurturing soul with a strength of will to resist anyone’s hope to break the Good within. Alexander is a restless scholar that wants to know everything and share that knowledge with someone he cares about; he is the embodiment of progress and growing beyond past mistakes after coming to new understandings. And Shrilynda is a woman grown distant from humanity through her quest for power and the ability to control her every situation; she is self-serving indifference and the callous disregard of ends-justifies-the-means.

The actions of these characters define them. They are strong representations of character and ideals. It takes some time to get to know some of their motivations, but it is wholly worthwhile. And Flath introduces each of the main players over careful spaces of time and action. Many begin as the embodiment of one specific archetype or set of traits, but they are gradually given depth and flaws.

But this is no Game of Thrones or Dark Knight. There are no major figures of gray ambiguity. For the most part, this story paints groups and people in swathes of light and dark, one side or the other. And that is refreshing. To me, it is more than welcome. Plus, this only adds to the fantastical mythological feeling of the story. I like the stark good and evil presented in these books. Hints at philosophical gray areas are there at the edge of the narrative, and that’s enough.

Rin smiled slightly. “Does your sword often send books or fire flying at you?”
“Not even once.” Alexander shook his head.

Setting

The Black Pearl series takes place on a different planet somewhere. Perhaps it is an alternate universe. Maybe it’s some kind of experimental hologram. It could be a different galaxy. There’s never any concrete explanation, but there are hints. That doesn’t really matter though. What matters is that the stories just scratch the surface of a living world that stands on its own with created elements while borrowing the best parts of comfortable fantastical elements. There are unicorns and giant scorpions and overly-educated panthers. There’s a great crystal palace and orc-like tribes fighting over scraps of riverside real-estate. This is the world many stories have inhabited, but it’s not just some lifeless carbon copy pasted over from Tolkien or Lewis. It’s an incarnation that shows a vivid imagination willing to take ideas and blend them and grow them into something stronger.

And it’s done with careful brush strokes of meaningful detail. There are no long passages describing places or things in this series, and instead Flath chooses to lace world building into conversation and immediacy. This can leave the world feeling somewhat like a blank canvas, but with these stories it’s executed carefully and works well. I always knew where I was and never felt like the story was a series of talking heads, and I was never glancing to the end of the paragraph in want of action. Of course, I’d love to get more info on the world and its cultures, but it really wouldn’t fit with the narrative style or pacing of the story. I’d rather wait for a reader’s companion out there in the future and enjoy the story without infodumps.

Plot

The Black Pearl starts quickly, lingers around in the middle as everyone gets to know one another, and then it rushes forward to a conclusion. The Memory Spell starts out with slow deliberate steps, gradually picks up speed, and then it shudders a little before snapping into its ending. Both are stories of great evils and the fight against catastrophic calamity. Black Pearl’s situation is definitely more dire, but with Memory Spell I cared more and knew more, so there was a feeling of more danger.

As mentioned earlier, the characters are the focus of these books. Their experiences, thoughts, goals, and reactions to the events are what I enjoyed. Sometimes, the focus is entirely on these individuals and their relationships. That slows the pacing, but it deeply enhances the impact of what happens to everyone.

Perhaps because of that focus on characters, neither of these are direct A-to-B novels. They’re winding roads of related events, though the character are always pursuing their goals. Sometimes their goalposts are moved, sometimes the goal is misunderstood, or maybe they have a hard time remembering what they were doing. These are good things. It keeps the reader guessing and nothing feels over-scripted or forced. The progressions of accomplishment are fought for and natural. It feels like Flath writes to share an adventure that happened, and adventures should never be drawn with a straight line.

Now, of the two books, The Black Pearl definitely has more of a straight line. It’s arc, though well drafted and expertly executed, is the bread and butter of Fantasy novels. A powerless, downtrodden, and unknown individual finds something / someone that sparks a change in their life and leads them to power and glory. They had the power within them the whole time. These are fantastic story elements that are fun and a delight to experience when done well. Fortunately, Flath uses tropes as they should be used: They are tools with which she conveys thought and emotion. Once again, the depth of character development pulls everything together.

The Memory Spell has a lot more surprises, but does very nearly veer into a wandering aimlessness. This may be intentional, or it might just be a byproduct of the character focus. Character progress from the first book is lost, everyone is split apart, and the cohesive team of before is shattered. So, aimlessness feels right. In fact, events of the book almost demand a lack of certainty. There was a real feeling of hopelessness and dark times that made the resolution all the more satisfying.

She had conjured a flying sheepskin rug.
At least it seemed harmless and was not currently breathing fire.

Overall

This review likely makes it plain that I am a fan of these stories. My objectivity toward the books is understandably questionable. So, for what it’s worth, I wholeheartedly recommend Jennifer Flath’s series, and I will continue to read her work. She creates satisfying stories that are epic and heartwarming and fun. 4.5 stars.

Clarity and Readability – A star for rating stuff.
Originality and Interest – ratingStarHalf
Cohesiveness and Setting – A star for rating stuff.
Characters and Development – A star for rating stuff.
Enjoyability – A star for rating stuff.

Oceans of Shelter

Story Preview

Oceans of Shelter

Hello, internet! I recently wrote the last chapter of my first full-length novel on the world of Nalan. To celebrate that accomplishment, I’m going to post the first chapter of my next full-length novel on the world of Nalan. The next story is tentatively called Oceans of Shelter and will follow a young girl named Nuette. This is an early draft, so there’s no doubt that this will change a billion times from now. Following, you’ll find the first draft of that story’s intro.

Chapter One:

“Nuette, my Nuette, you’ve shown you knew it. Your answer is right, but now you must prove it!”

The young girl giggled. She often did so at her father’s silly rhymes, especially when they included her name. “No, Daddy!” Her voice squeaked the title. “I’m tired of rithmatec!”

He tapped her on the nose with a scarred brick-red hand. “Arithmetic! You must speak properly as well as show your work.” Smiling, his well-worn fingers set the slate back in his daughter’s lap. “Now, quickly, quick, show me the trick!”

She puffed out a cheek and stared at her problem. The small board had the gray cast of years of chalk scribblings. Her finger tapped the number she’d written as her answer. “But I know it’s right! 64 goes into 1024 just 16 times.”

He winked. “Prove it.”

Pursing her lips, she squinted at him with scrunched eyebrows and golden-yellow eyes. “Prove math? That’s silly! You don’t gotta prove the truth.”

Rumbing laughter made his chest heave and shake. “Oh, clever daughter, how I wish that were true.” He took her piece of chalk and started writing. “64 and 64?”

Rolling her eyes, Nuette went along with the lesson. “128.” They continued and slowly added sums until the multiplication was matched.

“So you see, my little sweetheart?”

She stuck out her tongue. “But it took so much time.”

“But Mrs. Vumon would not accept the partial answer, yes?”

Her grumbled words were agreement enough. “She’s just a mean old lady.”

“Breakfast!” The sing-song voice carried up the stairway.

“Coming!” He stood with a careful slowness and pointed a thumb at his back. “Alright, hop aboard!”

Nuette grinned and set aside her slate. She jumped up and grabbed hold of her father’s shoulders and then hooked her legs around his waist. “Ready!”

Holding her hands as he walked, his head tilted as he spoke, “So, you think Mrs. Vumon is old? Then what does that make me?” The stairs creaked from step to step.

“Um. You’re daddy!” She giggled again. They ducked down under the doorframe into the lower level of the apartment.

“Well! Good morning you two! I see that your lessons were as entertaining as ever!”

“Nope! We were doing ah-rith-muh-tick!”

The man chuckled, “Oh, what pronunciation! Very good, Nuette.” Her father let the girl drop from his back, “Now up we go!”

Nuette squeaked, “Eep!” But then she laughed and pretended she was flying as her father swung her toward a chair. Her arms mimed the wings of a bird’s while he swung her about for an extra turn.

“And now she lands, soft as a feather!” He set her down with a grin, but a hand rubbed at his lower back.

“Beetro, you must be careful! Our daughter has grown far too much for your tired arms. She is thirteen! Let her jump if she wants to fly!”

He kissed his wife on both cheeks. “Ah, Mrs. Syimga, these tired arms are still quite strong! They have years yet of helping Nuette float!”

“Ah huh! Daddy’s real strong! He breaks clay pipes with his bare hands!”

“Hmph! And a silly thing that is to do! He cuts and bruises his hands instead of using the right tools! How is this not a foolish act?”

Beetro dropped back onto a chair and it gave a creaking complaint. “Ah, but sometimes the tools do not fit! Plumbing is not often in a place of great space!”

Nuette laughed and earned a mussing of her silvery-gray hair. “That’s why he likes my hands to help!” She wiggled her fingers. “They’re so small!”

“Mr. Syimga! She is supposed to watch, and to hand you supplies! Will you let a spider nibble at her fingers?” She untied her apron and set it on a glazed clay hook. Her arms were then carefully loaded with three plates of eggs and toast. “Hire a new assistant already! Jotel has been gone for months!”

He waggled his finger at her. “Peyla! Our Nuette will be my new assistant. She is very clever, and has caught on to the profession quite well!”

“Well. It seems that we have much to discuss after she leaves to school.” Peyla set the food on the table. “But no more talk of work. Let us eat and finish our morning.”

“Aw! But school’s so boring! Can’t I stay and learn with dad?”

Beetro narrowed his eyes and shook his head with a mouthful of food. “Mmmnng!” He swallowed. “How can you say something so terrible!? Nuette! School is wonderful! You learn so much!”

She poked at her food with a fork. “But the kids are dumb. They make fun of my gloves.”

Wife and husband exchanged a glance. He reached across the table and pushed aside Nuette’s plate of food. He beckoned with his fingertips. “Give me your hands.”

Her lips tightened together as she followed his instruction.

Taking her hands in his, he turned them palm-up and opened his own for comparison. The scarring on his hand had grown soft and faint, but the branded eye was still visible. Nuette’s mark was still bright and pink. “Darling, these marks are important to bear with pride. With strength. They show our commitment to Kalshen.”

“Then why do we always cover them? You and mama dip your hands in wet clay. I saw it.”

Peyla sighed. “Nuette, the world is ever changing and we must be cautious. To have the marks is necessary, but we cannot always expect acceptance from those who see them.”

Beetro closed her hands into little fists. “And so sometimes we must put away that which makes us most proud. But! You still feel the scars, yes?”

She nodded carefully. “Ah huh.”

“And covering them does not lessen what they mean. You still know they are there. We still know.”

“You cannot change your skin, Nuette.” Her mother smiled. “But different situations alter how it must be covered. Otherwise, why do you put on clothes?”

The hints of a smile touched the girl’s lips. “Well I can’t go out naked!”

Her father chortled, “Exactly!” He drew his hands away and picked up his fork. “Sometimes, we must put on armor against the world! Our clothing protects us, and your gloves protect you.”

Peyla tapped the table. “Now eat up! You have to be ready for helping your father!”

Nuette grinned wide. “You mean I can skip school today!?”

“Well,” said her mother, “If you are to be his assistant, we will have to alter your schedule.”

Beetro laughed, “Oh hoh! Mrs. Syimga! I respect the wisdom of your decision.”

The adults exchanged tight-lipped smiles as Nuette shoveled down her food.

A Day of Minor Inconvenience

Flash Fiction
J.A. Waters
988 Words

A rushing crowd of rain-glistening umbrellas pushed past Theo. He was obtrusive in his slow stroll and enjoyed knowing the fact. Through a crosswalk break in the crowd he spotted his car and almost sighed to know he would soon be out from the rain. His cool walk was a break from long queue lines and sign-your-name-here-please.

Despite those misgivings, he opened his door, sat inside, and flipped on windshield wipers and the radio. As he settled into the stop and go pattern of traffic, the weight of everyday nestled back atop his shoulders, a vague comfort in itself.

At the next stoplight he sat there musing about traffic and automobiles. Roads were just long queues, and everyone was waiting in line to get to their next attraction. A hankering made his next attraction a coffee shop for a bagel. The rain had stopped by the time he stepped outside, but the clouds had begun taking on a huge vortex of motion. It looked like the top of a tornado with no funnel. Through the gaps in angry gray a deepening red had started glowing ominously.

Making sure to lock his doors, Theo pulled out his phone and pointed it at an angle to the heavens. The scene would make a nifty picture, framed so by tall buildings and the budding trees of spring. A horseman, steed charging forward at some insane gallop, moved into the shot just as he pressed the shutter. The image on his tiny little screen was somewhat shocking and he became lost in the wavy image of electrons, forgetting to look up and see the real thing.

Beyond Theodore’s little screen the stallion and rider were causing something of a ruckus. The horse was huge, twice that of a normal breed, its rider similarly a giant. Cars and people and objects of minor-note were crushed and sent flying at the furious contact of hoof and sword. The sword, ridiculously long and wicked, was held by the rider, hooded under a black cloak.

A great pulsing sphere of flame then exploded forth from beneath the rider’s hood. It flew into a very tall building that didn’t offer a hint of resistance and plowed on down the block. Soot and ash and things-on-fire fell from the skies.

Rain started falling again, and it was perhaps this that brought Theodore out of the distant study of his cell phone’s screen. Quite the opposite of that cooling drizzle from before, this rain sparked and smoked, melting away at whatever it touched. It made sense to run into the Pizza Shop near where he’d parked. The coffee shop was a block down.

A pizza, still piping hot, sat on the counter as Theo walked inside. It seemed like a good time to sit down and take things in. Theo nabbed the pizza and found an empty table. Outside, dust and debris scattered in a great cloud as towering skyscrapers tumbled into one another. Theo got up and closed the door. Dust could’ve crept in and ruined his pizza.

Finishing up his meal, Theodore left a decent tip and stepped outside. He jiggled the keys to his car, peering at the twisted hulk of scrap metal that was now parked against the curb in place of his vehicle. A moment of thought, chin scratching included, helped him remember that there was a bike shop nearby with decent prices. Nearby a gryphon, glowing faint blues and whites, stepped over some rubble, rider on its back peering off into the distance.

Theo wondered how a person tamed a gryphon, and why glowing things made anything cooler. While thinking he ducked down an alley that should shortcut across the block toward the bike shop. A glance at the sky showed soft bluish-white light mingling with the festering red, clouds scattered and that massive spiral somewhat broken.

Coming out onto the street, a crosswalk blinked its big red hand. A dozen or so winged beings flitted about the sky in quite the tussle. Presently the crosswalk went green and Theodore jogged across to the shop, groaning to see “Closed” hung on its window. He knocked on the door a couple of times, muttered, and then used a discarded umbrella to whack at the glass.

After the first crack it took a couple of kicks to offer up the building’s insides. Behind him, things exploded and he glanced over his shoulder to look. A squat cyclone of fire raged through several buildings across the street, ridden atop by some figure that was vaguely human aside from the face full of rotating eyes.

There was a vague feeling of discomfort about being in view of the multi-eyed fire guy, so Theodore quickly crawled through the shattered door. He pushed a rack of hats in front of the door to hide his presence. Then he began sitting on bike models to try them out, judging the comfort of the seat and reach of his legs to the pedals and ground.

It took a couple of tries, but finally he found one that suited and rolled it to the section with air-pumps and tools. He tightened bolts, added a horn, and aired up the tires to approximate recommended PSI levels. Theo left with an IOU placed by the cash register.

Riding through the streets took some effort, what with a lot of cracked cement, dead bodies, and fallen buildings, but Theodore managed to avoid running over most. He really couldn’t remember his appointments without the list on his car’s rear view mirror, so he’d have to head back to his office and check. Arriving at a bridge over a wide river, he felt disappointment to see it missing its middle.

Oh well, he thought, maybe it was time to call it a day anyway. Turning around, he started peddling for home. It’d be nice to just relax for a while and check out a movie or two.

Before The Fan

Flash Fiction
J.A. Waters
995 Words

“There’s too much trash in this city.”

Jacob leaned over the roof’s edge, peering down into the alley below, “You’re right, Desconci is considered fifth in the world for street refuse.” He grabbed his helmet and twisted the seal tight for the thousandth time that evening.

Gina counted her steps backward, five from the edge. She glanced at Jake with a scowl, “Why are you even working in this field?” Her body raced forward on its three cybernetic legs. The mid-foot seated on the building’s seam, snapping the woman into space.

Watching a bum burrowing in foil wrapping and trash, Jake glanced up in time to see his partner tiptoe into a perfect landing a roof over, “What do you mean?” He jogged backwards, boots whirring as they picked up a preset. Sprinting for the gap, there was a whirl of air and the thud of miniature impact motors striking the rooftop.

Cybernetic hips cocked to one side, Gi watched the unaltered human’s rolling landing. One tumble and the man was up onto his feet and ready. Gina wasn’t sure Jacob had to roll; she thought he just enjoyed flair, “You’re smart: a fucking genius. Why are you up here following me around rooftops as a copper?”

“Well, I’m not sure why I follow you around rooftops.” Jake walked to the next edge, peering into a street crowded with traffic and people. Road-windows to the subway flashed as trains sped beneath the world. The corporal grinned, “But I like being a cop. I like doing something good; catching shit before it hits the fan. Having a superior that walks on buildings makes it more interesting.” His suit started beeping.

The Sergeant smirked, humorless and bitter, “Are you coming on to me? I know some of you guys like women with nice legs…” Her suit’s arm-display blinked on, message playing across empty air, “All units on alert. Great. Two blocks over, someone’s making a land dispute.” The display closed with a wave of her hand.

Jacob tapped at the air for further queries, arm-display beeping as searches filled the queue, “Land dispute? The guy’s about to blow up a building!” His gaze snapped after his leader’s retreating form zipping down onto the street. A quick gesture saved his queries, and he did a quick double stomp that set his boots into a ticking frenzy of preparation. A curse slipped under his breath as he dashed headlong over the roof’s end. He aimed for the top of a car.

The boots sounded like screeching tires as they gripped the vehicle. Jake spread his arms wide in the landing, then disengaged his shoes with a wiggling big toe. With the driver’s help (they’d slammed the brakes) he arced in a leap over several cars and hit the sidewalk sprinting. A man careened on a tricked-out electroBMX and decided for a quick wall-ride up a building to avoid panicking pedestrians.

Those same pedestrians barreled away from the swathe-cutting knife that was a running Desconci P.E. Policy Enforcers wore practical suits of armor weighing as much as a small motorcycle with several times the power. Diving out of the way was a sensible reaction. Jacob’s helmet blared with shoulders flashing as he trailed behind his superior’s nimble form. Ahead, she sprang off light poles and landed on window ledges. Her feet never touched the ground. Jake muttered into his mic, “You’d be pretty fucking great at Don’t Touch the Lava.”

With one final snap of cybernetic muscle, Gina twisted through the air and barreled into a man wielding a PulseHammer. The advanced jackhammer went flying and the man’s left arm snapped at the elbow. Bone ripped through skin and cloth on his upper arm. Gi’s three legs pinned the offender down by the other three limbs, “You must remain silent and still. You have the privilege of being an offender of Policy 55E.10-Golf and hereby have given up any rights; those paid for or due by your citizenship grade and/or grades.”

The man growled, too stimmed to feel pain, “Fuck you! I got papers from generations ago that I own this land! Screw your damned Policy and the whole book under it!” A tiny spider-bot crawled out of the man’s chest pocket. He was wearing a one-piece flight-suit in a dark gray-blue cloth. The spider skittered down the man’s body and seated itself into a small output terminal at the stomach of the suit.

Gina’s eyes went wide and her third leg kicked at the spider-bot with precise urgency. It missed, the spider ducking into the suit’s connection port too quickly. The P.E. blinked to snap a photo before she turned to run.

Over their comms Gina was calmly reciting a procedural tactic number and sub-note. Jake took a moment to think back to training, “Tactical Response Alpha, Condition B… Ah yeah.”

Landing next to his boss, the two enforcers crouched and readied for crowd control. A long-handled weapon with a smooth spherical end, it was often used to pacify people if they wouldn’t come along quietly. It was nonlethal but gave a headache.

Both officers set theirs to max, jerking the trigger to spread its effects on the nearest pedestrians. Behind them, the spider-bot glowed red and began burrowing through skin. The man began to convulse, beating his chest and screaming.

The explosion was mostly gore, yet the burst had a purpose outside of immediate concussive damage. At the core of the man’s now-pulped body, the spider-bot’s brain sent rapid burst transmissions on a temporary array-antenna of metallic particles formed by and riding the blast. Shrapnel embedded itself in the walls of buildings or on the exteriors of cars and busses.

Gina stood and helped Jake up in one motion, growling at the situation, “So much for stopping the shit from hitting the fan. That manifesto is gonna be on the net for weeks.”

Jake twisted his helmet’s seal tight yet again, shrugging, “Well at least we stopped him.”