Book Review: Sufficiently Advanced Magic by Andrew Rowe

Book Review: Sufficiently Advanced Magic by Andrew Rowe

Book: Sufficiently Advanced Magic
Author: Andrew Rowe
Published: 2017

Synopsis:

Five years ago, Corin Cadence’s brother entered the Serpent Spire — a colossal tower with ever-shifting rooms, traps, and monsters. Those who survive the spire’s trials return home with an attunement: a mark granting the bearer magical powers. According to legend, those few who reach the top of the tower will be granted a boon by the spire’s goddess.

He never returned.

Now, it’s Corin’s turn. He’s headed to the top floor, on a mission to meet the goddess.

If he can survive the trials, Corin will earn an attunement, but that won’t be sufficient to survive the dangers on the upper levels. For that, he’s going to need training, allies, and a lot of ingenuity.

The journey won’t be easy, but Corin won’t stop until he gets his brother back.

Review:

Sufficiently Advanced Magic is a charming and intricate coming of age adventure story by fantasy author Andrew Rowe. With its own original and complex system of magic, the world Rowe creates is both believable, and intriguing. This first novel of the series follows young Corin Cadence, the black sheep son of a noble house. His family has been devastated by the loss of Corin’s ‘golden child’ brother, Tristian. While Corin’s goals are centered on finding out what happened to his brother, the plot quickly expands to include his witty half-sister, a mysterious foreigner, an old childhood friend, and a rough around the edges talented young woman. Much of the story takes place in a university-like setting, with students learning about their magical abilities, similar to Harry Potter, only less whimsical.

I found all the characters to be endearing, and rather likable, especially Corin, who struggles with social anxiety and human contact in general (we learn more about why in the next book). His underdog dynamic meshes well with the other characters in the story, making for some very entertaining exchanges.

While the plot pacing can be somewhat deliberate at times, with Rowe expounding upon potential magical affects and implications in depth, it never became boring. The action scenes (though few) were well written, suspenseful, and easy to follow.

My only qualm with the book has to do with how it begins. The first few scenes involve a rather complicated venture into a magical tower, where Corin must face a series of challenges, both of the puzzle, and monster variety. There are semi-complex room descriptions, different colored keys, varying doorways, etc. While this wasn’t at all a deterrent to me, I felt that it didn’t give an accurate portrayal of the true emotional depth of this novel. The risk is that it might end up turning some off at first, but I recommend you power through—it’s well worth it!

The thing that stands out most to me about this series (and the reason I gave it 5 stars), is the personality shining through on every page. Rowe has breathed such life into Corin Cadence, making him a truly unique and resourceful character that I would be happy to know in real life.

If you’re a fan of complex world building, rational magic, and young characters discovering their true potential, then this book is one you will not want to miss!

The Verdict: 5 stars

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Book Review: Viridian Gate Online by J.A. Hunter

Book Review: Viridian Gate Online by J.A. Hunter

Book: Cataclysm
Series: Viridian Gate Online (Book 1)
Author
: J.A. Hunter
Published: 2017

Synopsis:

October, 2042

An extinction-level asteroid, 213 Astraea, is cannonballing toward Earth. Collision, imminent. An international team of scientists is working around the clock to avert the cataclysm—few are optimistic. World governments are preparing for impact with deep earth bio-dome bunkers, but only a select few lottery winners will be saved.

Jack Mitchel, a thirty-two-year-old EMT living in a tiny studio apartment on the West Coast, isn’t one of those winners.

Still, there might be a way for him to survive Astraea: a slim chance, requiring a radical leap of faith. Through a connection at Osmark Technologies, Jack’s acquired a NexGenVR capsule and with it, a one-way ticket to the brand-new, ultra-immersive, fantasy-based VRMMORPG, Viridian Gate Online. Taking that leap of faith, though, means permanently trapping his mind in the game, killing his body in the process.

Worse, one in six die during the transition, and even if Jack beats the odds, he’ll have to navigate a fantastical world filled with vicious monsters, domineering AIs, and cutthroat players. And when Jack stumbles upon a secret conspiracy to sell off virtual real estate to the ultrawealthy—transforming V.G.O. into a new feudal dark age—the deadly creatures inhabiting Viridian Gate’s expansive dungeons will be the least of his concerns.

If Jack can’t game the system, he’s going to be trading in a quick death for a long, brutal one …

Review:

A brilliantly self-aware LitRPG adventure that keeps you guessing.

“There’s always someone bigger, faster, stronger. So, you need to be smarter. Misdirection and a well-placed blow can fell even the most imposing warriors.”

What is it that makes the Viridian Gate Online (VGO) series so compelling? True, the premise is interesting—millions of people fleeing to a digital online fantasy realm in order to survive an impending cataclysm—but the bones of the series are not all that dissimilar from many of the other LitRPGs out there. There’s just something about this one that draws you in and doesn’t let go.

I ended up binge reading the six books currently available in a matter of weeks, and will therefore will be offering a birds-eye view of the entire series.

While the setting and mechanics are those of a LitRPG (Literature Role Playing Game), at its heart, Viridian Gate Online is a fantasy book about friendship, adventure, and overcoming impossible odds. Grim Jack takes the permanent leap into this new world, where he must carve out a life for himself with very little knowledge of what to expect.

Hunter does a fantastic job immersing you in the story from the very beginning. You’re right there in the driver’s seat with Grim Jack, learning the rules of this world, discovering his strengths, weaknesses, fears, challenges, and abilities.

Mechanics

Since this is a LitRPG, I think it’s important to take a look at the mechanics of the story—how this virtual world works. Without going into too much detail, I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of effort Hunter put into the transition between real life, and the Viridian Gate world. Grim Jack is both thrilled and dismayed to discover that every physical sensation he experiences in the game—be that eating, exertion, injury, etc.—is indistinguishable from real life. For the most part, these logistical details were explained in a satisfying way that left me with no lingering questions about how it all works. As hinted at in the description, the permanent transition is not a pleasant one, which somehow left me even more invested than I would have been otherwise. Within VGO, players can die and respawn (though not without big consequences), while NPCs (Non Player Characters, as in, not humans) once dead, are gone forever.

The RPG (Role Playing Game) elements of this book are impossible to miss. Hunter includes graphics with character stats and abilities throughout, however it is important to note that these are not essential to the story. While they are likely to be appreciated by the gaming enthusiast, they can be ignored by those more interested in the story.

The world itself is held together by eight Overminds—beings of artificial intelligence that manage things like weather, time, order, chaos, and conflict.

Story and Themes

Grim Jack begins his adventure inside VGO with an act of mercy, which ends up setting on a path toward his greater destiny. Much to the chagrin of Cutter, his NPC companion, Jack consistently chooses the moral option, as opposed to the profitable one. This goes a long way to make Jack a likable character, and creates entertaining tension between him and his stealing, drinking, and gambling companion. Jack’s talents and ingenuity take him on a journey that ends up impacting the millions of human players who have transitioned over, and the NPCs.

Side note: The millions of NPCs in Viridian Gate are a curiosity that have yet to be fully explained by the author (though it appears this mystery is intentional). There are main character NPCs who are key to the story, and essential in creating the dynamics that make it so enjoyable. The main difference is, if the NPC dies, it’s gone for good. All of this begs the question – what ARE the NPCs? Are they beings of artificial intelligence like the Overminds? Perhaps we’ll find out eventually.

What makes Viridian Gate Online exceptional?

These books hooked me. Why?

First off, they’re wicked clever. Throughout the series, Grim Jack is faced with challenges that require him to defy seemingly insurmountable odds. Hunter has a knack for making things look particularly hopeless, then delighting you with an unforseen solution. I was regularly surprised by the inventive ways in which Grim Jack overcame the obstacles before him.

The second reason I loved these books is the character cohesion. There’s such enjoyable contrast between Jack and Cutter. Even the NPCs possess a fantastic history and depth. There’s a pretty good mix of diversity, though Hunter describes some non-white characters as “dark-skinned,” which, in my humble opinion, could have been handled with greater eloquence. There’s a love interest, Abby—”a short, dark-skinned curvy woman with an intricate pile of brown curls,” and an Overmind named Sophia who is “a dark-skinned woman in a flowing white toga.” Fortunately these characters don’t embody any racial tropes, as far as I could tell. Other characters/races include big green ogre-types, elves, dwarves, and wodes/imperials (regular old humans). There’s no indication as to Grim Jack’s ‘real life’ race, but within VGO he’s a murk elf with “dusky gun-metal gray” skin.

The third reason I was drawn in so completely was because the story itself never became boring or redundant. In each book, the stakes are raised, new characters come into play, and Jack gains new interesting and exciting abilities.

What could have been better?

I have a few minor gripes, though none that detracted from my enjoyment of the series in any significant way.

It’s somewhat obvious in book one that J.A. Hunter is a debut author. The grammar was by no means atrocious or distracting, but if I’m being picky, I felt it could have been more refined. For example, certain phrases were repeated multiple times (e.g. “after a beat”). This was perhaps made more obvious by the contrast with the later books in the series. His progression is notable, and the professionalism of the books grows as the series continues. By the time I was on book six, these issues were virtually non-existent.

My one other complaint is the over use of certain gamer culture acronyms and phrases. I specifically remember being put off by the phrase “pwnd” (internet-speak for “owned,” or thoroughly defeated). These occasional instances drew me out of the story, albeit briefly.

The Verdict

Overall I found this series to be highly enjoyable. While gamers might get a little more out of it, I truly believe this is a series that can be enjoyed by gamers and non-gamers alike. The wonderful character chemistry, clever problem solving, and vivid world building make for a satisfying adventure fit for any fantasy fan.

Five Stars

Book Review: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Book Review: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Book: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Author
: Jules Verne
Published: 1870

Synopsis:

Professor Aronnax, his faithful servant, Conseil, and the Canadian harpooner, Ned Land, begin an extremely hazardous voyage to rid the seas of a little-known and terrifying sea monster. However, the “monster” turns out to be a giant submarine, commanded by the mysterious Captain Nemo, by whom they are soon held captive. So begins not only one of the great adventure classics by Jules Verne, the ‘Father of Science Fiction’, but also a truly fantastic voyage from the lost city of Atlantis to the South Pole.

Review:

“With its untold depths, couldn’t the sea keep alive such huge specimens of life from another age, this sea that never changes while the land masses undergo almost continuous alteration? Couldn’t the heart of the ocean hide the last–remaining varieties of these titanic species, for whom years are centuries and centuries millennia?”

Some Context
What must it have been like to be alive in 1870s? New empires and militarism were arising in Europe and Asia, and the United States was recovering from a grueling civil war. Despite the political instability, it was a time of revolutionary innovation. The windmill, the telephone, and motion pictures were all invented in this decade. It was also the decade in which Jules Verne published 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Whether it’s necessity, or imagination that is the mother of invention, Jules Verne was ahead of his time. When 20,000 Leagues was published, submarines were small, primitive devices, prone to sinking and largely untested. This book brought submarines to full public consciousness, spurring on innovation and experimentation. In addition to being imaginative, Jules Verne was impeccable in his research, even computing the compressibility of seawater.

The Story
It’s obvious from the first page that this is a story from another era. The language, phrasing, and sentence structure are not what you’d find in most modern day novels. In addition, the pacing was noticeably different. Instead of a gradual climb to the climax, this storyline was subject to regular up and down intervals (like a sine wave):

Discovery/Action -> down time -> Discovery/Action -> downtime -> etc.

As opposed to today’s more common 3 act structure

The action and discovery components of the book were detailed, gripping, and entertaining. Giant sea creatures, secret underwater passages, and incredible treasures of the deep—all with an undercurrent of danger and mystery. Who is captain Nemo? Will Professor Aronnax, Conseil, and their Canadian harpooner friend ever escape his incredible submarine? These questions, along with the excitement of their adventures are what kept me reading on.

My single biggest complaint about this novel might also be viewed by some as a strength. Jules Verne was known for being incredibly thorough with his research. The extent to which he went to include the scientific name for every creature under the sea was exhausting. There were literally pages comprised of laundry lists of species, genus, and family names for all the sea life they encountered. While this may have been interesting and relevant to a marine biologist, I found myself glazing over these unnecessary details.

The character development was solid, if not limited. Unsurprisingly (for a book from 1870), the cast was comprised only of white males. Professor Aronnax was likable for the most part, though the relationship between him and his manservant was a bit odd. Conseil, who I interpreted to be a scholarly apprentice, never complained, and essentially lived to please his master. To Aronnax’s credit, he never took advantage of his young protégé. I can only imagine how much more interesting this book would have been with a strong female character in the mix. What if Captain Nemo had been a woman?

Another somewhat dated—and therefore difficult to digest—element of this story was the characters’ attitudes toward hunting sea life. There are multiple episodes of killing animals for sport. It is (for the most part) accepted, sometimes glorified, and overall portrayed in a positive light. To be fair, there are some half-hearted attempts to put a moral spin on it, such as this quote from Conseil:

“If that is the case, this dugong may well be the last of its race, and perhaps it would be better to spare it, in the interest of science.
Ned Land: Perhaps it will be better to hunt it, in the interest of the kitchen.”

The categorization of this book is “juvenile fiction,” yet I found myself searching for definitions nearly every time I sat down for a reading session. Did children of the 1870’s simply have a larger vocabulary that we have today? Or perhaps authors were less afraid to challenge young readers? Either way, this read most certainly had an educational element to it.

Lastly, I felt the conclusion of the book to be strangely abrupt. Not all of the mysteries were solved, and certain characters underwent what I thought to be somewhat uncharacteristic changes.

In summary, I had a hard time finishing this book, and likely would have set it down before the end if not for its reputation as a classic. The adventures were gripping, but they ended too quickly, and the down time was often dry and protracted. It was harder for me to appreciate the artistic prose, given it was sandwiched between pages that could have been pulled directly from a biology textbook. The characters were fine, but they were all male and white.

I apologize in advance to all readers who have a nostalgic place in their heart for this book. I really wanted to enjoy it, but some things are best left at the bottom of the sea.

Pros: adventure, excitement, suspense, accurate research/computations, artful prose
Cons: all white males, excessively wordy (scientific names for things), abrupt ending, hunting for sport
Of note: plot pacing was up and down (like a sine wave), categorized as juvenile fiction, but vocabulary is higher level

3 stars

Book Review: Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Book Review: Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Book: Foundation
Series: Foundation Series
Author
: Isaac Asimov
Published: 1951

Synopsis:

For twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Sheldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future–to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save mankind, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire–both scientists and scholars–and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the Galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for a fututre generations. He calls his sanctuary the Foundation.

But soon the fledgling Foundation finds itself at the mercy of corrupt warlords rising in the wake of the receding Empire. Mankind’s last best hope is faced with an agonizing choice: submit to the barbarians and be overrun–or fight them and be destroyed.

Review:

“The sum of human knowing is beyond any one man; any thousand men. With the destruction of our social fabric, science will be broken into a million pieces. Individuals will know much of exceedingly tiny facets of what there is to know. They will be helpless and useless by themselves. The bits of lore, meaningless, will not be passed on. They will be lost through the generations. But, if we now prepare a giant summary of all knowledge, it will never be lost. Coming generations will build on it, and will not have to rediscover it for themselves. One millennium will do the work of thirty thousand.”

Isaac Asimov is considered one of the most influential sci-fi authors of all time, and not without good reason. He published the first book in the Foundation series in 1951, at the shockingly young age of 21. Let that sink in a moment. A 21 year old author wrote a book that nearly 70 years later, is still considered a cornerstone of the sci-fi genre.

The first thing that struck me about this novel was the timeless quality it possessed. Had I not observed the publication date as being 1951, I could easily have placed it in the past decade. Asimov writes with intelligent prose and an expansive scientific vocabulary, while somehow managing to maintain accessibility.

The book is broken up into five sections, beginning 12,000 years in the future. Under the rule of the Galactic Empire, humanity has spread to the far corners of the Milky Way Galaxy. Brilliant scientist and psychohistorian Hari Seldon discovers through complex probabilities that the empire is crumbling, and will soon fail, plunging much of the galaxy into chaos. In order to preserve the advancements of humanity and prevent thirty-thousand years of barbarism, Seldon formulates a plan. The book then leaps forward several decades to the newly established Foundation world on the edge of the galaxy – the result of Seldon’s efforts. The prescient scientist is long gone by this point, but he leaves behind curious clues as to how the foundation world should overcome the inevitable crises it must face.

Asimov continues the story along this vein, describing the difficulties the varying foundation world leaders must face. Each new section leaps forward in time, presenting new characters, challenges, and a crisis. One of the most redeeming qualities of Foundation is its unpredictability. Asimov creates challenges with insurmountable odds, which his intractable characters navigate in the most clever and unexpected ways.

The characters themselves are all highly unique and interesting, which is why it is such a shame that each section is so short. I would have loved to have read more about Mayor Saldor Hardin, or Master Trader Hober Mallow. The ending, while satisfying, felt somewhat abrupt.

Despite the short length of this book, Asimov does an incredible job creating a vast, expansive galaxy in which anything can take place, effectively setting the stage for the rest of the series (and then some).

Foundation is a quick, enjoyable, and intelligent read that will take you on a journey with twists and turns you likely won’t see coming. With this being his early work, it’s easy to see why Isaac Asimov is considered one of the greats, and I look forward to continuing the series.

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Book Review – Battle Mage

Book Review – Battle Mage

Book: Battle Mage
Author: Peter A. Flannery
Published: 2017

Synopsis:

The world is falling to the burning shadow of the Possessed and only the power of a battle mage can save it. But the ancient bond with dragonkind is failing. Of those that answer a summoning too many are black. Black dragons are the enemy of humankind. Black dragons are mad.

Falco Dante is a weakling in a world of warriors, but worse than this, he is the son of a madman. Driven by grief, Falco makes a decision that will drive him to the brink of despair. As he tries to come to terms with his actions Falco follows his friends to the Academy of War, an elite training school dedicated to martial excellence. But while his friends make progress he struggles to overcome his doubts and insecurity. Even Queen Catherine of Wrath has her doubts about Falco’s training.

While the Queen tries to unite the Kingdoms against the Possessed, Falco struggles to overcome his fears. Will he unlock the power trapped inside of him or will he succumb to madness and murder like his father?

Review:

Demons, Dragons, and Betrayal.

I must admit, when I first picked up Battle Mage, I was not expecting anything extraordinary. A fairly generic title, and a nice looking, but also somewhat generic cover. As I delved in however, I found the story to be anything but. It begins with Falco Dante and his best friend Malaki. Since a young age, Flaco has been afflicted with a lung disease, putting him at a great disadvantage. He’s got lots of room to grow, and Flannery makes use of every inch. Malaki, the son of a blacksmith, is quite the talent with a sword. While his character goes through less of a metamorphosis, he’s still enjoyable to get to know. Both characters are entirely likable, and I found myself rooting for them from the beginning.

In this coming of age fantasy adventure, the world is afflicted by the presence of the “possessed,” a demonic force from hell that is determined to overtake humanity, ensnaring it in eternal, permanent suffering. The bigger demons emanate an aura of fear that cripples regular soldiers, unless under the protective shielding of a battle mage. When a battle mage completes his (or her) training, they may attempt to summon a dragon. If it answers their call, then they are bonded with it, and together they stand in battle against the demons and their armies of possessed. I really enjoyed the concepts and premise of this book. It achieves a balance between original ideas, and familiar fantasy concepts that you don’t always see in this genre.

Really my only criticism (and it’s a minor one) is the occasional uncomfortable perspective shift. While a little confusing, this was rare, and very easy to forgive given how enjoyable the book was overall.

This is a novel that is easy to get lost in. It builds steadily, and doesn’t skimp on character development. Flannery does an excellent job of creating suspense, crafting a story with a myriad of twists and unexpected outcomes. It has something for everyone. There is martial combat, romance, internal struggle, magic, mystery, betrayal, politics, and grand scale battles. Each aspect is written with great care, fitting together like a giant, intricate puzzle.

If you are a fan of the genre, then this is one book you will not want to miss.

The Verdict: 5 stars

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Book Review – Quantum Series: Quantum Space

Book Review – Quantum Series: Quantum Space

Book: Quantum Space
Series: Quantum Series (Book 1)
Author
: Douglas Phillips
Published: 2017

Synopsis:

Dr. Daniel Rice is a government science investigator, brought in on a mission to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the Soyuz, a capsule transporting astronauts from the International Space Station, back down to earth.

With his partner, Marie Kendrick, a NASA operations analyst, Daniel begins an investigation that has them pondering the very real existence of additional quantum dimensions. What they discover will have consequences not only for the lost astronauts, but for the entire human race.

Review:

Quantum Space is a mind-bending ride; one that demands just as much from its reader as it gives – and that’s a good thing. Phillips begins the book solidly in the real world (though many might not realize it), incorporating scientific concepts such as the standard model, string theory, and particle acceleration.

With the aid of a few helpful illustrations, Phillips does a fairly good job explaining these concepts in a way that a standard non-scientist can understand. That said, there were certainly chapters that required pause for consideration, and took some time to sink in.

Adding balance to the scientific elements of the story, Phillips includes interesting personal relationships that allow characters to play off of each other, both personally, and professionally. Overall, their interactions were satisfying and believable, though there were a few brief moments of dialogue where I found myself questioning whether the character would ‘actually say that.’ This, and the occasional point of view confusion are the only reasons I deducted one-half a star. The interactions between Dr. Daniel Rice and Nala Pasquier—another scientist Dr. Rice is led to investigate—were by far the most interesting human elements to the story.

Quantum Space is above all, a sci-fi mystery, rife with insightful discoveries, and delightful surprises. It takes a few chapters to build momentum, but once it does, it grabs you and does not let go.  Phillips expounds on provable and theoretical scientific concepts, then takes them to the next level, bringing readers to a world that puts the galaxy at their doorstep. It may require a bit more mental energy than a purely pleasure novel, but those who put in the effort will be greatly rewarded with a believable sense of awe and wonder.

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