Category Archives: reviews

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.

Review: Laura Morrison – How to Break an Evil Curse

How to Break an Evil Curse Cover Image
The cover image for How to Break an Evil Curse.

The old lady shifted her gaze from Warren to somewhere off down the street as she launched into a monologue about the impending hunt, and how kids these days weren’t the same as they used to be, and neither were parents, and neither was society, and the whole of Fritillary was going down the tubes. Except Fritillary didn’t have plumbing, so that expression didn’t make sense. But the siblings weren’t listening anyway, so they weren’t confused.

Look, do you like to have fun? Yes? You too? You? Everyone? We’re all in agreement? Fun is good? Great. So start reading “How to Break an Evil Curse.” Lovely.

Oh, some of you believe that fun must be earned? Well, let’s see.

Summary

How to Break an Evil Curse is a ridiculous (good ridiculous) tromp through the land of Fritillary where things happen for no good reason and magic works for no good reason and the king is ruling badly for no good reason. So, essentially this is a world that perfectly mimics reality. And don’t worry, this is the good kind of ridiculous. It’s the same ridiculous found in Rodents Of Unusual Size, 42 being the meaning of life, and turtles going all the way down.

Real quick though, this is actually a review of two books. There’s Morrison’s How to Break an Evil Curse (HtBaEC) and then there’s HtBaEC 2, so called because it appears to be otherwise unnamed. The second of the series picks up fairly directly after the first book, and follows the same characters, and is also part of a larger arc that will lead into a third book. That said, the two have a distinct separation and can be read as completely standalone to one another.

Characters

An image of a raven, wings outstretched.
An image from the book’s insides.

HtBaEC starts with an introduction to a terrible person that is soulless, has way too much time on their hands, and constantly seems to pester everyone in the story. I’m of course talking about the narrator. I lied about the soulless part. This is a voice of humor and idle comments conveying a story with some pretty clear opinions on the world around it. This can be make or break it for some readers, but the narrator is a distinct character that comes off as a jolly family member telling the story to amuse children. I found the narrator’s whimsical storytelling to add a pleasant absurdity to the story, especially in some of its anachronisms and moments skipping boring parts of events.

From there we meet a truly soulless person, Mirabella, and her doting accomplice Farland Phelps. One’s a prisoner in the Forest of Looming death, and the other is a wizard. She’s plotting to get revenge on the king, and he seems half-intent on that but also half-intent on plotting to stay near Mirabella. The first chapter works great to intro these two central villains of the story and an overall conflict, but also connects the audience to these two “villains” in such a way that you kind of root for them. After all, it’s hard not to root for them when the king is pretty much an asshole.

Because that’s who the reader meets next. The royal family in HtBaEC come off as the greater evil for a lot of reasons, and the monarchy becomes a great way for the story to consider ideas of democracy, feminism, wealth distribution, and privilege, all within the hilarious confines of smart remarks and witty retorts. Add in Princess Julianna, a fish-out-of-water heroine, and there are some great examinations of why people aren’t nice and how easy it is to forget what you don’t know.

But the cast doesn’t stop there, oh no. It expands quite a bit in fact, but it never becomes a problem to keep up with the different characters. There are pirates, band members, revolutionaries, ghosts, doctors, and a pool of raven’s blood. Each and every one of them is a unique soul with their own wants, dreams, hopes, aspirations, and other words that mean they come to life. Because they do. I could write a significantly longer review if I went into why I like every character in this story, so to shorten it up I’ll just say they’re all super fun to read about and I’d want to hang out with most of them. I say most only because being killed is not cool.

By the end of book one you’ve been introduced to all of these characters and you’ve also seen many of them undergo pretty significant transformations of understanding or fate. Heck, its the first time a guy named Warren steps foot on land. Additionally, the plot unwinds with some nice twists and wraps things up neatly but not too neatly. It leaves plenty of room open for the sequel, but doesn’t frustrate the reader with “well what about THIS!?” questions.

Plot and Setting

And then everything wonderful about the first book is repeated in the second book, but now it’s even more solid. Throughout the first story the characters still felt like they were developing, but in the second HtBaEC everyone seems more fleshed out and more intent on their goals. Even the villians, the King, Farland, and Mirabella, have new goals and new changes in perspective that increase sympathy all the way around. Except the king, because ugh, asshole.

Most, if not all, of Morrison’s plot lines and ideas from the first book carry through to the second, and they make good progress toward being fulfilled. Some are still left in the air, like the rebellion, but others are quietly (or with a strangled cry at least) put to rest so that focus can shift elsewhere. I was continually impressed with how Morrison juggled so many plots and varied themes without losing the comedic tone or the hinted trails.

Book Construction

A swirl of color
Paper on the inside covers

As a slight detour, let me mention that this book was custom-bound by Morrison herself. It’s lovingly done with a nice hard back and pretty paper used on the inside of each cover. Each page is a nice paper quality and the text came out nice and sharp. It’s always a pleasure to get a book that doesn’t feel mass-produced, so this quality certainly adds to the reading experience.

Overall

Morrison’s two stories that I sped through because they were just downright enjoyable. Nearly every sentence gave me a reason to laugh, chuckle, or at least grin.

Is it perfect? Well, nothing is, but there wasn’t anything that pulled me out of the stories at all. There are some slight editing issues throughout, notably changes in tense earlier on and then some small homophone typos here and there, but definitely nothing jarring. I could see some readers getting hung up on the anachronisms thing and the tone varying between serious and flippant, but like I’ve mentioned I enjoyed that myself. Some of the writing could probably be tightened up / reworded, but that goes for any story.

I suppose it’s hard for me to be tough on these books because I did enjoy them so much, so take that for what it’s worth.

Get it from here:
The Author – Laura Morrison

Score: ratingStarHalfA star for rating stuff.A star for rating stuff.A star for rating stuff.A star for rating stuff.
Half a star for clarity and readability, one for originality and interest, one for setting and cohesiveness, one for character development, and one star for enjoyability.

JukePop Serial Review: Silas Merryweather and the Bottomless Sky

Silas Merryweather and the Bottomless Sky is a story written by Joan Albright that introduces the reader to a kid named Silas that’s afraid of heights. This would be a mild inconvenience to the average person but in this world it becomes slightly more horrible. You see, Silas lives on a floating island.

Surefire ways to hook a reader include giving them a flash of action, introducing them to interesting characters, and creating a world that’s easy to fall into. Silas Merryweather and the Bottomless Sky did all three and made me fall right away. It’s incredibly engaging with its quick pace and a good sense of adventure from the start.

It begins with two distinct characters taking on an everyday task that is anything but ordinary: checking the links of chains that tether floating islands. That alone is a lovely idea: Floating islands in a world without a bottom or top? Chains that somehow keep everything knitted together? Sky-skiffs and magnet guns that allow this world’s people to zoom through the air? I love the ideas and the mental images that come with this story and the two characters that first inhabit its lofty islands. Silas and the intractable Windy are at odds since the first page yet seem destined to crash together repeatedly.

Solid writing makes for an easy read through succinct descriptions and entertaining banter, providing a story that really feeds the imagination without bogging down a reader. At times I do wish there was something more in the way of description. I end up wanting to know more about the world than is offered. Understandably you want the reader to be hooked into learning more, but then it has to be a balance with gradual sips of the setting’s Kool-Aid. Though caught up to the serial I have yet to get as many answers as I’d like, but maybe that’s just me being impatient.

Additionally, the story tends toward character development in a way that makes me think of cartoons and Disney sitcoms. Reading Silas makes me picture something like a Ghibli film where the people are all characters in their own right, not just people but unique textures in themselves. That’s not always a bad thing but I do end up wanting more from the people as I don’t have the rich visuals to complete the narrative for me. Instead of feeling real the inhabitants come off as just a tad shallow. Some of the adults especially remind me of stereotypes rather than parts of the world and that makes it harder for me to care what they think or say. Their weakness reduces the main characters a bit and reduces their struggles as well.

That said, it’s still a really enjoyable read and there weren’t even any typos or errors that I had noticed.

One star for clarity and readability, one for originality and interest, half for setting and cohesiveness, half for character development, and one star for enjoyability.

 

Any thoughts or disputes? Please let me know!

-J.A.