Here’s a bit of what I’ve been reading recently:
Cruxim – Karin Cox – I got this free on Amazon; I’m not sure if it’s permafree or just a temporary sale. I wasn’t sure what to expect – I don’t read a lot of paranormal fantasy, but I did like that the cover didn’t scream cheesy vampire romance. it’s a particularly lovely cover, I think, especially for having the overdone man-with-wings as the main figure. It’s ranked on Amazon as a gothic romance, and there was romance, but there was plenty of other action too. I thought of it more as action/adventure with a strong romance thread rather than romance with an action thread. I’m not sure how I feel about the story itself. The writing was excellent and the editing much better than usual (I think it’s an indie book, which makes good editing more rare, although no less necessary). By editing here, I mean that not only was the text itself fairly clean, but the story didn’t have long pointless digressions and info-dumps and other annoyances. Amadeo, the narrator, is a vampire hunter, a Cruxim, whom I believe is meant to be a fallen angel. In the text itself, it’s not entirely clear that he’s angelic (fallen or otherwise), although he is immortal and does have white feathered wings. He refers to God and appears to generally want to serve God, but we don’t get a lot of background on him… I think this is meant to be discovered/revealed later in the series. He’s a mostly likable character, and the story is engaging and well-written. It reminds me in some ways of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (which clearly inspired the author) – there is some of the same richness of imagination and language, the same drama, without the over-the-top melodrama that annoyed me in Rice’s novels. Cruxim is good. Yet the idea of an angel (or fallen angel) being so essentially human isn’t theologically accurate at all. Amadeo thinks like a human, he acts more or less like a human (besides preying upon vampires and being mostly unkillable). It makes him easy to identify with as a narrator, and yet distinctly unangelic – not in the sense that he’s particularly bad, but I don’t think the concept of angels being human is accurate at all. Read it as an imaginative, well-written fantasy, but don’t take the identification of Amadeo as an angel as implying anything other than wings and physical power. It’s a dark book, too, both in terms of lots of violence and an outright blasphemous scene (and I don’t say that lightly). But the blasphemy is clearly shown as a horrible thing done by a horrible person (not normalized or legitimized). It’s a good book… I enjoyed it, and I’d recommend it as a fast, entertaining story, with caveats for violence and theological sketchiness. I may continue reading the series, and the religious aspects of it may get more complicated as the story continues.
Cruxim highlights a particularly interesting trend in fantasy and paranormal literature – that of angels and demons and other supernatural characters, in addition to the more standard vampires, werewolves, etc. As a trend in literature, it’s full of fascinating possibilities, most of which are rarely taken advantage of, to my knowledge; I haven’t read a lot of good takes on angels and demons. It’s also rife with theological danger. I realize not everyone reading this is a Christian, so your perspective may be very different. You might not believe that angels or demons are real, so the idea of portraying them “realistically” sounds pretty absurd… I mean, if you take the Bible as fiction, it’s no more the original source on angels than The Lord of the Rings is the authentic source on elves (and thus creative license in portraying them isn’t fraught with danger at all… it’s the mark of a good writer.).
But for me, as a Christian, I feel a responsibility to portray angels and demons in a way that is at least mostly theologically accurate, within the generous bounds of fantasy. What does that mean? Well, angels aren’t just humans with wings – Biblically, humans were made in the image of God, while angels were not. Yet angels are powerful, impressive, supernatural creatures; every time an angel appears to a human in the Bible, he says “Fear not” or something similar, because the natural reaction of a human to seeing an angel is to be terrified. Fantasy is a genre that requires great imagination… I don’t think the stereotypical “shining man with wings and a harp” is as accurate or interesting as a more theologically accurate depiction. For example, Dresden’s Fae are interestingly alien to humanity, yet still human enough to be mostly comprehensible. Truly supernatural beings won’t be entirely comprehensible with human minds, and I think that’s part of the literary appeal.
I’m still thinking about this issue and how it relates to my own writing.
Inquisitor – R. J. Blain – I had some problems with this book. I’d written out a much more detailed review, and then realized it sounded harsher than I’d intended. Basically, I had logical problems with the character and the storyline. The character is meant to be intelligent in some areas of decision-making but also impulsive and stupid in other areas. This is fine… it makes for a realistic character. But the smarts were all implied in background info, while I felt most of the on-the-page stuff was showing me her stupid decisions. It pulled me out of the story because I kept going “WHAT?? No!” For example, she took two recently-orphaned, traumatized kids to the funeral of a complete stranger… because that’s a great way to help them cope? There was a big reveal at the end of the convoluted plot that explained various characters’ motivations, but I didn’t find it entirely satisfying. Despite the explanations, it felt to me more like things had to happen to get the ending intended rather than being driven by actual character decisions. Yet despite the logical flaws, the book was still enjoyable. There was some imaginative magic and the bones of an interesting world to explore later in the series. I’ve kept this review not anonymous because I think the series is worth following and I want to be sure you can find it if you’re interested. R. J. Blain is growing as a writer and I’m interested to see what else she writes. Also, she commissions gorgeous covers for her books.
The Reluctant Prophet (The Reluctant Prophet, #1) – Nancy Rue – This was an interesting Christian fiction book. I expected to have theological problems with it… I don’t know why, but I did. The main character/narrator believes God is calling her to buy a Harley Davidson motorcycle and go do something. She isn’t sure what. Her stuffy-but-genuinely-caring church friends are scandalized. The motorcycle purchase leads to a dramatic story of witnessing to drug-addicted prostitutes and beginning to raise a troubled young boy. It’s the first in a series, so there isn’t complete closure. It was much better than I’d expected; the author seems to really capture the sweetness and the stupid pride and the tittering and gossip and everything else of a staid southern church. I’ve been in those churches. The author also really gets the idea that the gospel is to go out into the dark and ugly places, because those people NEED God, and they may be more open to that need than people who are comfortable (who need God just as much but may not realize it). There is a female mentor character who has previously served as a military chaplain, which may be problematic for some readers (including me); it wasn’t a big point in the book though. To my surprise, my only real objection is the word prophet… I didn’t see anything that could legitimately be called prophecy or prophetic or anything. It was more like The Reluctant Missionary or The Reluctant Evangelist. It’s a story about getting out of our comfortable Christian bubbles and interacting with the messy, fallen world. The narrator actually makes a funny but accurate comment about how she’d be more concerned about the idea of buying a motorcycle NOT being from God if it was something she’d ever wanted to do before. It was something completely unappealing to her, and yet God called her to it. She was intensely uncomfortable on this mission field (even though it was local to her), which is very accurate in my experience. Sharing the gospel is rarely an entirely comfortable thing. It was also a well-written, easy read. I was not familiar with the author before this book, but apparently she’s written a ton of books, both fiction and non-fiction. I’d be interested in reading more from her.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet – Jamie Ford – I’d heard of this but didn’t know what it was about. Turns out it was kind of Nicholas Sparks-ish, which isn’t my favorite. I think it was well written, but there were some problems for me. The parts set in WWII, when the main character was young, were fairly entertaining and interesting. The modern parts… not so much. There were a couple anachronisms too (the main character’s son says he was in an internet grief support group in the late 90’s… yeah, it’s possible, but hardly likely. There were some other more egregious ones that others pointed out), but they didn’t really pull me out of the story. They were little things that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story. The modern parts I think were meant to be slow and thoughtful and contemplative and deep… but to me they read more as slow, boring, unemotional (rather than subtle), and kind of ultimately pointless. The repair of the man’s relationship with his son loses the emotional impact because we never really saw the pain it caused him in the first place. His wife feels like a character who really got the short straw… she loved him, he was a good caring husband to her… but he barely grieves her death. He just moves on, back to this girl he’d been missing for their entire marriage, the one in the earlier portions of the story. She was like a non-entity, present in the story for the sole purpose of NOT being the girl he really loved. It just didn’t feel entirely right to me. A good story feels to me like it pulls me in to experience a story and all the resulting emotions of that story… grief and loss and love and jubilation and everything else. This felt just a little too obvious to me, which made me feel like I was being emotionally manipulated. But… that’s me. If you’re a Nicholas Sparks fan, you’d probably really enjoy it. It was well done… It just was not my kind of book.
Balanced on the Blade’s Edge (Dragon Blood, #1) – Lindsay Buroker – This was exactly like Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge series in feel, although the world was nominally different. The mix of steampunk tech and magic was similar, the feel of the characters was similar, the writing was similar… if you like the Emperor’s Edge, you’ll like this. Buroker writes spunky heroines and masculine heroes in a generally fun way; her books have a “fun caper” feel to me, even when the stakes are pretty high. Even when the plot could go very dark, she doesn’t dwell in ugliness. It’s currently free (possibly perma-free), as is The Emperor’s Edge (the first book in that series). One caveat: There is a sex scene in this book, unlike the Emperor’s Edge books. It’s not erotica or anything, it’s just one scene, but I still thought I’d give you a heads-up.
Of note: I write extremely spare first drafts, and my editing is generally filling in the holes (additive editing, rather than subtractive editing). Even after editing, I tend toward the spare and concise. I suspect Buroker is the opposite; her characters are all pretty verbose (except the extremely laconic Sicarius from the Emperor’s Edge world) and the narrative is as well. She doesn’t repeat herself… it’s not a writing flaw of the say-something-and-then-say-it-a-different-way type. It’s more a general style of wordiness. It’s not bad! I’ve enjoyed all her books. It’s just different, and something that made me think about my style and process.