Review: Once Upon a Curse

Once Upon a Curse by Anna Kashina

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘Once Upon A Curse’ is a collection of stories and fairy tales by a handful of authors. Some new, some well known, all very capable. Like many fairy tales, these stories are not for children. Some travel familiar paths and some re-invent myth. All feel fresh and original.

The first story, ‘A Necklace Of Rubies by Cindy Lynn Speer, retells the tale of Bluebeard. I have read the story before in another similarly themed anthology and enjoyed discovering it all over again. A young woman is wooed by a mysterious man – already sounds like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? – and after they wed, she discovers not all is as it seems. The writing is spellbinding and the pace perfect. The repetition of several motifs, the foxes, the jewels and the motto ‘Be Bold’, lures the reader into the story and keeps them there. I am not familiar with the original tale, but this interpretation inspires me to read it. I can only hope I enjoy it as much!

‘Come Lady Death’ by Peter S. Beagle is next on the list. Bored with the usual parties and the usual guests, Lady Neville invites Death to her next ball. The invitation is accepted and Death arrives, dramatically, after the last stroke of midnight, in the guise of a lovely young woman. Throughout the course of the evening, she charms many, though few actually lose their fear of her. When she tries to leave, however, the party goers beg her to stay. She does, but there is a price. ‘Come Lady Death’ is a strange, fascinating and compelling story.

There are two versions of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Summer Wind’ by Nancy Kress and ‘Stronger Than Time’ by Patricia C. Wrede. Both are interesting interpretations, but ‘Stronger Than Time’ was a truly moving tale. When an impetuous prince fails to rescue the princess after one hundred years, he must find another way to break the curse. I loved this version of the story; the ending was quite simply beautiful.

Among the other stories, the tales of Rumpelstiltskin and Persephone are both retold with a twist. There are also a couple of stories I had not read before, in any guise. The stand out for me, however, is the last entry, also by Cindy Lynn Speer. ‘But Can You Let Him Go’ re-interprets the story of Cinderella. The origin of the tale is slowly revealed from the perspective of the ‘fairy godmother’. There are hints early on, but as the story dips and weaves, interleaving related tales from other cultures, the reader is left wondering if this time the conclusion will be different. It is and it isn’t; telling you more would ruin the surprise and the utter sweetness of the conclusion. ‘But Can You Let Him Go’ is a wonderful, wonderful story.

All in all, this is a great collection. I would have liked to have seen more variety in authorship, but the stories are varied and all worthy of the reader’s attention and the anthology does a nice job of showcasing the talent of some lesser known authors. In addition, the size of the volume, a slim 250 pages, inspires the reader to start at the beginning and finish at the end rather than pick and choose a few stories somewhere in between.

Written for and originally published at SFCrowsnest.

Review: Darkship Renegades

Darkship Renegades by Sarah A. Hoyt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In ‘Darkship Thieves’, space opera debut by Sarah A. Hoyt, Kit and Thena barely escape Earth. In the long awaited sequel, ‘Darkship Renegades’, they try their luck again. It’s not their choice as returning to Eden alive marks them as traitors. They face trial and the political machinations of a man who would rule Eden, a place that has, until this point, flourished without a ‘head of state’, resulting in a chain of events which culminate in another daring escape from Earth’s orbit. The mission: to retrieve and interpret the technology to grow powertrees, thus freeing Eden from the need to harvest powerpods from Earth’s trees. The complications: Multiple and varied.

Kit is seriously injured before the team of four can depart. Doc Bartholomew, one of the last surviving ‘mules’ (genetically enhanced men designed to rule Earth), performs a risky procedure to save him. The results are not wholly expected and complicate the mission. The ship assigned to the team begins to fall apart shortly after departure and while Thena and the fourth member of their crew, Zen, move from one repair to the other, Kit slowly recovers and changes. When they arrive on Earth, he is not himself.

The success of the mission depends on many factors and Thena has to solve puzzles and fight for her life and that of her husband before she can attempt to deliver Eden from a dictator-in-waiting.

Sarah Hoyt does a really nice job of reintroducing her characters and their world. Though it has been a number of years since I read ‘Darkship Thieves’, Kit and Thena quickly became familiar once more. The introduction of Kit’s ‘sister’, Zen, another clone of Jarl (another ‘mule’), was a nice twist. The complications of Kit’s recovery were truly disturbing and the examination of what it is to be human quite fascinating. The plot is concise and there are hints of further plots waiting in the wings, ideas and directions the author might explore in the next book.

I did have difficulty staying focused, however. The author clearly loves her characters and her world. Unfortunately, she indulges herself in expressing that love a little too often and in the wrong places. Naturally, there is a story behind the ‘mules’ and their relationship with humanity. This is explored and explained in the first novel and further examination is warranted in ‘Darkship Renegades’. It is relevant to the plot. The great swathes of exposition interjected between dialogue and action were distracting, sometimes overwhelming and often repetitive or redundant. I kept finding myself flipping ahead a few pages to get back to the action or conversation and then having to flip back to remind myself what a character had said earlier. A minor quibble as Thena’s voice is engaging. But at four hundred pages, ‘Darkship Renegades’ represents an investment of time. Four hundred pages can flow seamlessly or they can stop and stutter.

Regardless, I am interested in the continuing adventures of Kit and Thena. I’d like to see the fallout of the ‘little’ revolution on Earth and the future of Eden. The romantic within wants to know if they start a family. Of course, they’ve barely survived two trips to Earth, so it’s completely selfish of me to want them to attempt another. But that’s readers for you.

Review written for and originally published at SFCrowsnest.

Story: This Is Home

Iain MacKinnon is an original character (OC) created for roleplay at the Warden’s Vigil role-playing community. I used to be one of the moderators of the board and the profile of another character, Serafina MacKinnon, captured my interest. Serafina had a twin and he was missing, presumed dead. I thought, ‘What if…’ and Iain popped into my head with a back story, a voice and a very cheeky smile.

For those unfamiliar with the setting of Warden’s Vigil, we are role-playing the aftermath of events that occurred during the game ‘Dragon Age: Origins’ by BioWare. Here is a brief description of the game from Wikipedia:

“Set in the fictional kingdom of Ferelden during a period of civil strife, the player assumes the role of a warrior, mage or rogue coming from an elven, human, or dwarven background who must unite the kingdom to fight an impending invasion by demonic forces.”

At the time Iain was introduced to the board, fifteen months had passed since the end of the ‘game’—Ferelden had a new king and the demonic forces had been vanquished. Iain missed the majority of the war. He was captured in one of the first strikes and sequestered in a dungeon. He endured six months of torture before escaping. That torture left him too weak to run far, however, and he was forced to stowaway aboard a ship to avoid recapture. He struck a bargain with the captain and after he regained his health, he served as a sailor to repay his debt. Nearly two years later, he returned to Ferelden.

This is the story of his return.

Iain MacKinnon, his family, the captain and crew of ‘La Stella Cadente’, the residents of Stormgard and the village itself are my creations. They are set in a world which belongs to BioWare. As always, my thanks go to BioWare for allowing fans to play in their sandbox.

The song ‘This Is Home’ by Switchfoot inspired the title of my story and their music is something I associate with Iain as a character.

Continue reading “Story: This Is Home”

Review: The Palace Job

The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I normally start a review with a small plot summary, but so much happened in this novel, my plot summary would not be small. Long story short, Loch and her… I want to call it a ragtag band; her collection of accomplices feel thrown together by circumstances and they are, really. So, Loch and her band set out to steal something, and they do. But a lot of stuff happens along the way. For the long story, you’ll have to read the novel. But, as a review isn’t much of a review without some impressions, here are some clues as to what you’ll find along the way.

There is a death priestess. She used to be a love priestess, but things change. She has a talking hammer who used to be a king. (Things change, eh?) The hammer is a member of this band; it talks, it is assigned a share of the proceeds. So is the sixteen year old virgin with the incomparable name ‘Dairy’. I loved Dairy. I cheered when they took him along and made him a part of the crew. I just had a feeling he’d be important—and he was cute. They have a magician who can spin illusions, a safe cracker and her extremely athletic, talented and lethal sidekick, a unicorn (yes, a unicorn) and Loch’s faithful comrade in arms, Kail.

These are the good guys. Then there are the accomplices and if I start listing the villains, we’ll be here all day. There’s a lot going on, but the beauty of this novel is I didn’t get lost once. We’ve all read long and complicated books with a horde of characters and several intertwined plots where we have to flip back a page or a chapter to refresh our memory of who is who and what on earth is going on, right? Patrick Weekes tosses nine balls in the air (this ragtag band) and keeps them spinning while adding plates and dancing a jig. It’s an impressive feat and makes for a rip-roaring good read.

Loch recruits her band after escaping from prison. On her trail are the prison Warden, who will not be made a fool of (but who is, repeatedly), a justicar, who is justice, and the woman responsible for putting her in prison. Several other parties are interested in Loch, including the man responsible for all the evil, the Archvoyant who killed her family and stole the treasure she wants to steal back. This would be enough to carry a novel, but The Palace Job also includes politics and themes: family, redemption, love. Good versus Evil.

Loch is always one step ahead of her cohorts and enemies, a fact I failed to recognise over and over, meaning I perched on the edge of several seats, knuckles white, wondering how she would extract herself and her companions from this mess. Despite the fantastic setting of the novel, however—a world where the palaces cling to an island suspended in the sky on crystals powered by the sun—the plots and foils all seemed plausible. From my perspective, anyway.

The book is also funny, which comes as no surprise. Patrick Weekes is a writer for BioWare’s Mass Effect games which include a grim and gritty storyline underscored with humour, dark and light, and incredible humanity. So, the fact his characters in The Palace Job all feel very real is no surprise, either. Finally, the intertwined plots and separate quests, the reasons this ragtag band clicks together seamlessly, despite the fact it shouldn’t, work. No thread is forgotten and no storyline is left untended, meaning the conclusion is satisfying for all involved.

The Palace Job is a remarkable first novel. I look forward to reading more from Patrick Weekes.

Written for and originally published at SFCrowsnest.

Review: The Chocolatier’s Wife

The Chocolatier’s Wife by Cindy Lynn Speer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Chocolatier’s Wife by Cindy Lynn Speer is a tale of mystery, adventure and romance. On William Almsley’s seventh birthday, the identity of his future wife is revealed. The ritual, performed by a wise woman every year since his birth, is supposed to choose his best match. His mother is appalled to learn the best match for her son is a hag from the north.

“Tarnia, a place of cruel and wild magic, was the last place from whence one would wish a bride. They did not have Wise Women there, for anyone could perform spells. The Hags of the North ate their dead and sent the harsh winter wind to ravage the crops of the people of the South.”

Tasmin Bey, the ‘hag’, has just been born, hence the seven-year delay and her family is equally disturbed to learn her future husband lives in the south. Apparently, rumours of feasting on the dead are not solely the preserve of the north. Regardless, the two children correspond throughout the years and gifts and stories are exchanged as they prepare for their marriage. These letters form the basis of their friendship and hold clues to the mystery that lures Tasmin south before William formally sends for her.

Eschewing the family trade to strike out on his own, William buys a shop and embarks on a new career. He wants to make and sell chocolates. His aim is simple: to make people happy. When he is accused of murder, Tasmin’s family celebrates as she is no longer tied to the stranger from the south. Tasmin packs her bags and travels south anyway. She feels she knows William, through his letters and believes he is incapable of murder.

As William and Tasmin work together to prove his innocence and solve the murder, they discover their friendship is something more. In a society where arranged marriages are the norm, relationships can still be quite convoluted. Theirs is not. As the mystery deepens, so do their feelings for one another.

Cindy Lynn Speer has captured many voices in her novel and set them in a well-crafted world. The book works as both a mystery and romance, with the developments in both moving at a good and believable pace. There is a lot of humour in the story as well. I laughed out loud several times. I also cheered each success and booed each failure. In other words, I became quite involved. The Chocolatier’s Wife is an enjoyable read and I would be interested in further adventures of William and Tasmin.

Written for and originally published at SFcrowsnest.

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