Preamble

Okay, this is something I’m really excited about. I’ve got a secret project in the works (secret because I’m not quite ready to officially announce it yet), something I think you all will really enjoy. Anyway, my newsletter subscribers and Patreon supporters have already had access to this, but now, the rest of you get to catch this sneak peek into my secret project.

Enjoy!

*****

“Doctor… Lo, is it?”

Amanda Crawford tossed her glasses on top of the overstuffed file folder in front of her. There were so many files and papers crammed into the folder, it was a wonder the thing hadn’t torn yet. Maybe her advisers were right; maybe she should upgrade to a binder. But binders took up space, and space was one luxury her she didn’t have these days.

Well, her new office had plenty of space. Personal space? That was another story.

Sebastian Lo loosened his black tie for what seemed like the thousandth time since he stepped out of the limousine that had dropped him off here. Formal attire didn’t suit him in the best of situations, but with his nerves so shot that he could feel the sweat stains forming under his arms, it was a wonder the woman sitting next to him couldn’t smell him.

“Y-yes.” He gave a curt nod, pushed his black-rimmed glasses back up his nose.

“You have had quite the career,” Amanda offered with a shake of her head. “Normally, I wouldn’t give someone with a dishonorable discharge on their record the time of day, but right now, beggars can’t be choosers.”

Lo’s frown deepened. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t understand…”

The annoyance on Amanda’s face melted away, replaced with an exhaustion and a weariness that typically didn’t befall those in her profession until after a couple years. The bags under her eyes were darker than her brown irises, and in the harsh light of her office, she appeared so pale as to be dead.

But she wasn’t a corpse on Lo’s slab. She was the newly-elected President of the United States. And why she was bothering to meet with Lo, he had no idea. But the nausea told him whatever was in that folder wasn’t good.

“Are you familiar with the attack on D.C. several months ago?” she asked.

Lo’s frown disappeared. He quirked an eyebrow and stole a glance at the rest of the Oval Office. What was pristine in photographs, awe-inspiring, was surprisingly ordinary in-person. Sure, it looked like the Oval Office should, but the mystique Lo expected to feel wasn’t there.

Maybe it was the nerves. Sure, that was what he told himself.

“I’ve heard rumors,” he admitted, again pushing his glasses. “Not sure what to believe.”

“Well, it’s all true.” Amanda stood with a sigh, walking past Lo and staring out the massive windows overlooking the lawn. The American flag flanked her to her left, much larger than the pin she kept on her lapel. “There are monsters in this world, Doctor. Things far more dangerous than any threat we’ve ever faced. And I mean to do something about it.”

Lo blinked. “I don’t recall monster slaying being part of your platform.”

“No one will ever know,” she said, hands clasped behind her back. Her gaze never left the window. “What I’m proposing, Doctor, is completely off-the-books. Unofficial, doesn’t actually exist.” She glared over her shoulder. “That means nothing we discuss leaves this room. Understood?”

Lo nodded.

Amanda’s eyes narrowed.

“Yes,” Lo answered with a placating shrug.

“I’m impressed with your work, moral judgments aside,” she said. “I daresay that in many ways, you’ve honored Dr. Roberts’ legacy. Human prosthetics and cybernetics are as advanced as ever, and something tells me we’ll need that technology and expertise in the coming battles.”

Lo shook his head, removing his tie entirely. For the first time since entering the Oval Office, he could take a full breath. “Are you offering me a job, Madame President?”

“I’m offering you a choice.”

Lo opened his mouth. Amanda turned away from the window and took the large leather seat behind her desk. She seemed to sink into the cushion, crossing her arms over her chest and giving Lo the same sort of look the dean used to give him when he was an undergrad and spent more time chasing bottles and skirts than textbooks.

“I know what you did for David Gregor,” she said. “And I know all about your… other experiments. Rest assured that not only are they grossly unethical, they also break several laws.”

Lo pursed his lips. “I see. I either accept your offer or you throw me to the wolves.”

Amanda offered a thin-lipped smile. “So to speak.”

“What’s the offer?”

Reaching into a drawer to her right, Amanda produced another folder — this one far thinner than the first. It was plain manila, with large red letters spelling out CONFIDENTIAL – EYES ONLY scrawled along the front. She tossed the folder at Lo, and he watched it land in his lap.

“Open it.”

With shaky hands, Lo did just that. He frowned at what appeared to be autopsy photos — only these were no ordinary humans. One specimen had his mouth pried open, revealing fangs. Another looked to be an oversized slug split open down the middle, like it was a middle school science class dissection. A third photo was of a man-sized bat, half of his body scorched and rotting.

“Operation: Hellion is our answer to the growing supernatural menace,” she explained as Lo thumbed through the rest of the folder’s contents. “If the monsters are intent on invading our planet, threatening our way of life… well, what kind of president would I be if I didn’t try to protect my people?”

Lo frowned. “I’m not a monster fighter.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m not asking you to be one.” Amanda leaned back in her chair, hands steepled together. “I could put the most capable military might at our disposal on this team, and they wouldn’t last two seconds against a nest of vampires. No, I need a super team. I need people with… abilities.”

Closing the folder in his lap, Lo sighed and shook his head. “You want to resurrect Project Fusion. Officially.”

“No. I want something better than Project Fusion. And you’re going to give it to me.”

*****

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About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

 

The Best Books I Read in 2017

Well… 2017 was a year.

Not that it was all bad. I got a new full-time job that gave me more financial freedom and the work-life balance I had been looking for. I published two novels — the lifelong labor in Notna and Behind the Mask, the latest in Jill Andersen’s saga. And I read some really good books.

As with last year, this list is not of the best books released in 2017, but the best books I read in 2017.

5. Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

stalking-jack-the-ripperMurder mysteries are a dime a dozen (says the guy who writes his own), to the point where it’s the twist on the genre that can make or break a book. In the case of Kerri Maniscalco’s debut, Stalking Jack the Ripper, the genre is tossed all the way back to 19th-century London, and we’re introduced to a teenage girl who is studying forensics.

That twist brings with it some societal commentary (impossible not to, given what was expected of women and girls back then). Fortunately, Maniscalco doesn’t preach to us; instead, she takes us on a journey where Audrey Rose uses her wit and impressive intellect to track one of history’s most notorious killers. A sci-fi twist at the end punctuates the thriller nicely, and the historic backdrop is almost a character in an of itself.

Stalking Jack the Ripper is an exciting, intense, and surprisingly emotional tale — one that will likely be pigeonholed as YA because of its teenage protagonist. But this is a fantastic book for readers of (almost) any age, and it sets the stage nicely for future adventures (including Hunting Prince Dracula, which came out this past September).

Stalking Jack the Ripper is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

4. Beasts of Babylon by E.A. Copen

Beasts of BabylonI’m already a huge fan of E.A. Copen — her Judah Black series is some of the best mystery/urban fantasy I’ve read in recent years, and she proved she can go dark with the short Kiss of Vengeance. But with Beasts of Babylon, Copen merges the traditional western with the horror genre, and the result is her finest work to date.

Anastasia Throne is dead. Only she’s not. She’s also one hell of a gunslinger, and she’s got a tragic past that still clings to her even as she trudges through what now passes for her life. Beasts of Babylon is dripping with tension, the rare horror novel I’ve read that manages to scare without relying on visuals.

Heroes are not as virtuous as they seem, and the villains aren’t quite the monsters we might wish they were. Copen has introduced us to a vibrant, disturbing world, one I can’t wait to revisit. The monsters and the fights are matched only by deep character moments that give Beasts of Babylon more depth than one might expect at first glance.

A true must-read.

Beasts of Babylon is available in paperback and ebook.

3. Starstruck by S.E. Anderson

StarstruckScience Fiction has a problem. It takes itself too damn seriously.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with gritty, end-of-the-world, dystopian sci-fi. There’s a place for it. But S.E. Anderson has given us a sci-fi romp where the stakes are high, but laughs are still to be had. Sally Webber has her admittedly dreary life turned upside down, and she finds herself knee-deep in aliens and a life change that proves too good to be true.

Along the way, Sally, Zander, and Blayde set the stage for future adventures. Make no mistake: this is not just a frolicking journey through the cosmos. The stakes are high, the risks are real, and when appropriate, the violence is quite bloody. The humor is not here to detract from the overall narrative; instead, Anderson uses that humor to defuse the tension, to remind us that above all, science fiction should be fun.

And fun Starstruck is. The pages fly by, not just because of Sally, because of Anderson’s deft prose, and because of the action, but because all of those elements combine to create one of the most engrossing, most complete books I’ve ever read in the genre. If you’re a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fan, or you’re into Guardians of the Galaxy, this book might just be for you.

Starstruck is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

2. Grave Dealings by R.R. Virdi

Grave DealingsThe 2016 list should’ve made it clear how much I enjoy R.R. Virdi’s writing. Witty, intense, consuming… and the Vincent Graves books are perhaps the best example of his grip on the craft. Grave Dealings, the third installment in the series, takes what made the first two entries great and builds on it.

No, literally — Grave Dealings is twice the size of the first two installments. Graves has yet another murder to solve, only this time, he’s faced with distractions that threaten his safety and sanity… he faces uncomfortable truths he hadn’t confronted in the first two books… and for the first time, the carrot of potential long-term answers are dangled in front of him.

You don’t have to read Dangerous Ways in order to follow along with Vincent Graves, but having done so makes reading Dealings more satisfying. Virdi has not only crafted memorable, easy-to-root-for characters, but we’re watching him construct and round out a vibrant world that’s almost a character on its own. If you’re an urban fantasy reader, and R.R. Virdi’s not on your shelf, you’re missing out.

Grave Dealings is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

1. Floor 21: Judgement by Jason Luthor

Floor 21 JudgementHorror doesn’t get better than this.

Jason Luthor’s brand of horror — on full display again in his third novel, Floor 21: Judgement — doesn’t rely on jump-scares or moments that make you practically soil yourself in fear. Rather, he prefers to toss you into a room where the tension pushes down on your shoulders, the shadows are always just out of the corner of your eye, and the walls always seem like they’re closing in.

There is no rest from the tension in Judgement, the end of the trilogy that also leaves plenty of bread crumbs for future installments. One of Luthor’s strengths is developing a vibrant, all-encompassing world — all housed within one building. The characters continue to grow and develop; not just Jackie, but supporting characters who were but bit players in previous installments.

The simple truth is this: Floor 21: Judgement is the best book I read in 2017, and if you’re new to Luthor’s work, then I suggest you devour all three installments. Few indie authors can weave a tale as expertly as Luthor, with a delicate balance of action, character, and heart. Judgement has all of it in spades.

Floor 21: Judgement is available on Kindle.

Honorable Mention: The Seekers by Cait Ashwood, Black Fall by Andrew Mayne, Alienation by S.E. Anderson, Playing With Fire by E.A. Copen, Steele-Faced by Alex P. Berg, The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig, Finding Home Again by Mary Head

How NOTNA Came to Be

Notna has not just been a labor of love for me, it’s a story that’s been 20 years in the JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (6)making.

Okay, that’s not quite true.

It’s actually a bit longer than that.

I came up with the concept that ultimately became Notna back when I was middle school — a couple years before I created Jill Andersen. We won’t talk about what exactly I created back in middle school — because to call it a steaming pile would be a compliment — but that abomination eventually grew and matured into the foundation of the book that’s now out.

In a lot of ways, Notna’s creation and evolution can simply be chalked up to me growing older, more mature, and improving as a writer (not to mention expanding what I read; in middle school, I would only read X-Men comics… but as I got older, my tastes grew and became more varied; it’s no coincidence my creativity did the same). But for all the false starts, all the reboots, all those late-night sessions in high school where I would brainstorm with my friend Anton (readers know who that is already)… for the years of writing and quitting and frustration to ultimately lead to my first standalone published work…

Writing Notna has been night-and-day from my series. I had no idea tackling a different genre would be so… well, different. The challenge was daunting at times, and there were times I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull this off… but I did (with a good bit of help), and if nothing else, I now know I can tell any story I want, regardless of genre.

I’m speechless. I’m seldom, if ever, proud of myself for anything, but in this case, I’m proud. With Notna‘s publication, both of my childhood stories have now been told for the world to see. Bounty still has a lot left; that series has no definitive end in sight, even as I gear up to publish the fourth book in that series in a few months (and prepare to write the fifth for NaNoWriMo 2017).

When I first created Notna and Bounty, I envisioned myself as a hotshot comic book artist the likes of Jim Lee or Michael Turner. But life had a different path for me, and while the dream isn’t exactly what it once was, the fact remains that as of tomorrow, my dream of publishing both stories will have come true.

That’s not nothing.

So now the dream is to do this — write novels — for a living. Maybe someday, I’ll get that comic book dream back (I do have the inklings of a script for a Bounty graphic novel in my head), but for right now, I’m telling stories. The particulars have changed, but the simple fact remains: the stories I grew up wanting to tell are now out there for the world to see.

One of my biggest fans lives in Germany. Another, who just so happened to design the new Jill Andersen covers, lives in France. I have other people scattered around the world eager for my stories; I have people who have never read a Jill Andersen book who are anxious to get their hands on Notna.

And in just a few more hours, they’ll have it. In just a few hours, this 36-year-old geek will have fulfilled a dream that began when he was 13.

This is not the end. Far from it. But man, what a milestone.

Celebrate with me?

Notna is available in paperback, as well as Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, and Google Play. Check out Notna on Pronoun and Amazon.

EXCERPT: Notna (LAST ONE)

With two days until Notna‘s official release, one last excerpt to whet everyone’s appetite.

Enjoy!JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (6)

Easterwood Airport, College Station, Texas

No matter how many times Cassandra tried to school her features into a neutral expression on the drive to this tiny airstrip, the knowing grin on her face just wouldn’t go away. Even though she was now in her thirties, with a cavalcade of degrees on her wall, Cassandra could never quite embrace the “stuffy academic” role. Her lectures often turned into excited ramblings over subject matter that she had long ago devoured and still revered. She treated students not as subordinates, but as equals who shared in her life’s passion. She grinned at the mere thought of unfolding the mysteries of the past. Her heart raced whenever she was on the cusp of a new discovery, and the prospect of a treasure hunt, unlikely as it was, still made her adrenaline pump.

“You’re thinking about that five million, aren’t you?” she teased.

Jack, who was the more skeptical and guarded of the two, smirked. “Aren’t you?”

She squeezed his hand near the gear shift of their black SUV. A private jet sat on the runway in front of them. A pair of packed duffel bags sat in the rear of the vehicle, stuffed haphazardly with just enough clothes and supplies for a couple of days. Jack had insisted the bags were not an indication that his mind was made up…and neither was the fact that they were at this airfield, staring at a plane promising to take them to Brazil two days after a Smithsonian representative had dangled five million bucks in their faces for an artifact.

The more Jack argued the point, the less Cassandra believed him. He would likely never admit it, but deep down, Jack was just as excited at the prospect of this find as she was. He was simply doing a far better job of managing expectations. After all, they still had no tangible proof the Gem of Notna existed. All they had was Dr. Roberts’ word, and the assertion that the Narazniyan Scrolls, once translated, would shed light on the matter.

Cassandra’s eyes never wavered from the plane. It resembled one of those jets billionaires flew around in: the kind that had bottle service and lavatories lined in gold. Awful fancy for the government dime.

“Would you believe me if I said no?”

“No, it’s…” Jack paused, sucking in a deep breath. “It’s a persuasive number.” He lifted his hand, kissing the back of Cassandra’s. “There’s that dig in the Canadian wilderness I’ve wanted to go on for years. We do this, and that gem’s real…”

The smile on Cassandra’s face grew. “We’ve paid for that dig and then some.”

“But what if we get down there and come up empty?” Jack asked. He was always asking the questions no one else would; it was why Cassandra often argued their field of study was, in fact, a science. Even if other scientists disagreed. “All that wasted time and effort, all because we decided to chase a number. To say nothing of all the class time our students will be missing.”

“Oh, I dunno.” The grin on Cassandra’s face turned cheeky. “Way I figure, this thing’s real, and if and when we find it, we can fund all the digs we want for the foreseeable future. If it’s not? Hey, free trip to Brazil. And I think our students will be okay.”

“Right, ’cause getting stuck in the Amazon is my idea of romance.”

Cassandra pulled her smile into a mock frown. “Hey, wasn’t Brazil where Sam came from?”

Jack bristled at the mention of his ex-boyfriend. The relationship had occurred while Jack was pursuing his Master’s degree at UCLA, and had ended when Sam received a job offer in Australia. The break-up hadn’t been pretty, but time had given Jack the perspective he needed…and was the only reason he let Cassandra tease him over it from time to time.

“I doubt we’ll bump into him where we’re going.”

Cassandra quirked a brow. “So, we’re going?”

Jack glanced out the windshield again, just in time to watch the door to the jet open and the steps lower to the runway. Tricia emerged from the plane and stared at the SUV, a confident smile creeping onto her face before she lifted her wrist and tapped her watch twice.

“I guess we are.”

Cassandra leaned over to kiss Jack’s cheek. “Hey, we got this. Nothing to lose.”

‡‡‡

As the private jet soared over Central America, Jack couldn’t help but glance out the window. He had seen this view countless times throughout his career, but in the luxury of private air travel, he didn’t have to put up with cramped seats with no leg room and all the other inconveniences a commercial flight would keep one from enjoying the sights. For as quickly as this jet was cutting through the air, the ride was surprisingly smooth. The bottles of beer available free of charge were a nice touch. Jack had never been one to turn down a free drink.

Even as he polished off the rest of his bottle, wiping a drop of condensation off with his thumb, Jack couldn’t help but marvel at the price tag. The government was footing the bill for this plane, and the Smithsonian was offering a pretty penny for this trinket. Assuming it existed. Jack wasn’t so sure, but his curiosity was at the point where he had to find out one way or the other.

Jack squinted into the sunset as the plane hovered over Costa Rica. The Hitoy Cerere biological reserve, if he remembered correctly. Jack chuckled to himself, setting the empty bottle at his feet. He had lost count of how many times on commercial flights he had left fellow passengers in awe after pointing out something on the ground and spouting off all sorts of facts about it.

Cassandra, leaning over in the seat next to Jack, broke his train of thought, and they shared a smile when she pulled the tray table down in front of herself and laid the Narazniyan Scrolls flat across the surface. She had been working on them since before the plane took off, and Jack knew better than to disturb her once she got into the zone.

She was as stunning in her sky blue t-shirt and khaki shorts as she was when she dressed for her graduate lectures, and Jack thanked his lucky stars every day that she had fallen for him. Her silver locket, a gift from her mother after she graduated from high school, always hung around her neck.

“So check this out,” she offered, brushing a bead of sweat from her temple; such intense concentration always made her sweat. “Remember back in the office, it looked like there was one passage on this scroll that was a different color than the rest?”

Jack nodded with pursed lips. “I thought I saw that.”

“Right? I thought it was a trick of the light.” Cassandra turned on one of the overhead lights. “But here, you can really see it.”

Jack furrowed his brow as he studied the scrolls as closely as possible without fully leaning into Cassandra’s seat. As many times as he had seen these words, they still held no meaning to them. At first glance, the text appeared to have been scrawled in Hebrew, but a professor at the department who specialized in Hebrew argued otherwise, claiming several different linguistic inaccuracies. Unfortunately, that professor couldn’t tell them what language the scrolls were actually written in.

“The next-to-last paragraph,” Jack said.

“But the rest of it is written in black, like you would expect,” Cassandra pointed out. “I’m not sure what that implies. I mean…I’ve heard of prophecies written in blood before, but that’s fiction. Right?”

“Only way to know for sure would be to physically test the scroll.”

“Which would compromise it,” Cassandra argued.

Truth be told, they should have done this when they first came into possession of the scroll weeks ago. But the hustle and bustle of academia pushed that to the back burner. In fact, Jack had been so busy with his lectures that he had given the scroll little thought until Tricia interrupted his class two days ago. It had always been in the back of his mind, to be sure, but it was always a project for later.

Tricia emerged from the cockpit, standing and watching the two professors talking over the scroll. She cocked her head to the side and bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling. This was the second time she had seen the scroll with her own two eyes, and if everything she had heard about it was true, then this trip was going to be quite the treat.

After all, if she returned to the states with one of the world’s most famous legends in her possession, she could write her own future. Nothing would be off-limits to her anymore, regardless of gender. The Louvre was an option; she could walk into any museum in the world and they would practically bow down to her.

Hell, if Tricia wanted to, she could open and operate her own museum. As prestigious as the Smithsonian was, as great as that name looked on her résumé, Tricia loved the idea of calling the shots herself.

“Any luck?” she asked.

“I wish.” Jack shook his head as Cassandra rooted around in the laptop bag she had in the overhead bin. The scanned version of the scroll had been loaded onto a jump drive—several, in fact—before they packed for the trip. Within minutes, Cassandra had the machine open on her tray table and stuck the drive into the appropriate port.

“With any luck,” she offered, “this program is worth the money it cost.”

“Mind if I see the scroll?” Tricia asked.

Cassandra shot Jack a questioning look, knowing that he’d had a hard time letting the scroll out of his sight since it had come into his possession. They still had no idea what it said, and Jack didn’t believe in the Gem of Notna, but as an ancient scroll, he treated it with the reverence and care he would for any artifact. The lack of time spent on the project in no way shaped Jack’s reverence for a relic of history.

“Look,” Tricia said, fighting the urge to roll her eyes, “we’re pressed for time here. If that scroll can point us in the right direction, I need to know. We need to know.”

“The Smithsonian?” Jack asked. “Funny how we’ve never heard anything from any of them. Just you. You sure you’re not just in this for yourself?”

“Believe me when I tell you that you’d much rather be dealing with me. My boss, Mr. Fletcher, can be a real pain in the ass. But he’s tasked me with securing this artifact, so rest assured that if I’m on your ass, it’s cause he’s on mine.”

Jack quirked a brow. “And if we come up empty?”

Tricia shuddered and closed her eyes. Honestly, that was a possibility she wasn’t willing to consider…mostly because there was no telling what Mr. Fletcher would do if she came back empty-handed. He wasn’t known for being particularly understanding.

“You better hope we don’t,” she offered.

With a quick glance at the parchment, Jack opened his mouth to protest…before shutting it and handing the scroll over. Tricia took it in both hands, careful to keep the material completely flat as her eyes danced over the text. She wasn’t dressed as impeccably as she had been in Jack’s office two days prior, but even in cargo pants and a tank top, she exuded a certain elegance.

Jack raised a brow. “Is this the part where you tell us what that thing says?”

Tricia shook her head. “I wish.” She handed the scroll back. “Of all the languages I mastered in school, this was not one of them.”

“Um…guys?”

Both Jack and Tricia glanced over at Cassandra, who was looking at the pair with a furrowed brow. Her face was bathed in the computer’s backlight, and Jack couldn’t miss the way her throat bobbed up and down when she swallowed.

“What is it, babe?” he asked, sitting up straighter.

“I know what the scroll says.” Cassandra stared at Jack and Tricia, flipping the monitor around so they could see the text shifting right before their eyes. What had been little more than a series of indecipherable marks now appeared in perfect English. Cassandra’s pulse quickened, and she swallowed the lump in her throat.

“It just…doesn’t make any sense.”

Jack leaned in to study the mass of text before him, trying to ignore Tricia hovering over his shoulder. They both mouthed the words as they read them, and the crease in his brow deepened more with each word he took in.

The Chosen One will make himself known when the time is right, when the skies turn red and the Mighty River flows with blood. The gem will select the Chosen One as its new host, bestowing its power upon a noble soul with the knowledge and the clarity with which to use it. The Chosen One will not seek this power; rather, it will be thrust upon him as foreseen by the Gods themselves. Only the Chosen One can prevent the End of Days. The snakes will hiss at the sky, the waters will be cleansed anew, and balance shall be restored. The Primordial will beseech the Chosen One, and He will be like the Gods.

“Why is the Chosen One always a he?” Cassandra asked.

“Because it’s men who write these things,” Jack said as he sank back in his seat with a shake of his head. “What do we know about the Narazniyans?”

“Hardly anything,” Tricia answered, leaning back against the door leading into the cockpit. “No one in my circle has heard of them, and every Internet search brings up nothing more than wild theory and some bullshit about aliens.”

“Maybe they’re a little-known ancient society native to South America,” Cassandra offered. “That would explain why these scrolls, and that temple, were in the Amazon.”

At a loss, Jack returned his gaze to the window. Without any more answers, Tricia and Cassandra followed suit. They really should have worked harder to get a translation back on campus. If nothing else, it would have given them more time to suss out what the passage actually meant. There were colleagues at Jack’s disposal on campus; now, thousands of feet in the air and heading to the Amazon, he and Cassandra were largely on their own.

Ancient societies were often a cause for celebration in their line of work, but Jack was feeling anything but jubilant at the moment. He hated not having concrete answers; even the translation of the scroll had left him more confused than before. Tricia eventually returned to her perch inside the cockpit, while Cassandra continued her work on the translation program. The plane turned to the east, coasting over the waters just north of South America.

As the sun sank toward the horizon, the suddenly choppy water became harder to see. Jack let his eyes wander toward the sky, his heart skipping when he was met with a blanket of red.

It looked like a typical sunset, but in light of the translation…

Preorder Notna today! Notna releases in paperback, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, and Google Play on Oct. 10.

NEWS: NOTNA Available for Pre-order!

JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (6)Notna, my debut foray into urban fantasy and the paranormal, is now available for pre-order across several prominent ebook formats. The book, my fourth full-length novel, will be out in ebook and paperback on Tuesday, Oct. 10.

Pre-order Notna today on Amazon, Apple iBooks, Kobo, Nook and Google Play.

About Notna
History’s most peaceful race created one of its deadliest weapons.

Forged in the Living Flame by a long-extinct alien race, The Gem of Notna is the stuff of legends, on par with Pandora’s Box or the Holy Grail. But once archaeologist Dr. Jack Corbett stumbled upon the crystal deep in the Amazon, he triggered a whirlwind of events and found himself neck-deep in a centuries-old holy war. The Divine and the Underworld have been locked in a virtual stalemate for the past three hundred years, and the Gem of Notna could be the key to breaking it.

With the gem in his possession, Jack discovers a world of monsters and gods, as well as an entirely different plane of existence that watches over our own. Old grudges resurface, fallen warriors are reborn in the most violent of ways, but at the end of the day, the fate of the world may well rest in Jack’s hands.

J.D. Cunegan (BountyBlood Ties) introduces Notna, a supernatural fantasy epic that will leave readers flipping through the pages with every twist and turn. Grand in scale and steeped in the very comic book lore that lured Cunegan to writing in the first place, Notna proves that anyone can save the world – or die trying.

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.
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EXCERPT: Notna

In part to celebrate World Book Day, I present another excerpt from Notna, my upcoming urban fantasy/paranormal book that will be out in paperback and ebook on Oct. 10. Bear in mind, this is a work-in-progress and that any mistakes are my own.

JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (6)

 

Prague, Czech Republic

St. Vitus Cathedral was visible from the Vitava River, towering over much of Prague. With the sun as bright as it was on this bright April morning, the cathedral shined, especially the sea green edifice atop the main tower. The temple of Gothic architecture was housed within Prague Castle, and it was the final resting place of many a Bohemian king.

St. Vitus was a magnet for tourists, dozens of whom were milling about the grounds. Cameras hung from their necks, and many of the visitors stared up in awe at the rose window on the front of the cathedral. Tourists not wearing cameras had instead pulled out smartphones, squinting into the sun as they tried to frame just the right shot on their screens.

One tourist who held neither camera nor phone, a brunette woman, instead sat cross-legged at the base of a fountain with a large sketch pad splayed over her lap. She stared intently at the cathedral, chewing on her lower lip as the pencil tucked in her left hand scratched back and forth over the paper. Pamela Daly occasionally glanced down at her work, making sure she was capturing the church’s architectural elements.

This may have been Pamela’s Spring Break, but she still had to nail her final on Gothic architecture at the end of the semester. These sketches were going to go a long way toward fleshing out that section of her research paper. As much as Pamela detested art history, the fact was she wouldn’t graduate from Syracuse if she didn’t pass classes such as this.

A group of children ran through the square, chasing after a dirty, ratty soccer ball. Their laughs and shouts of glee carried through the square, and Pamela couldn’t help the smile spreading across her face even though she couldn’t understand their native tongue.

A flash of light erupted from the sky, and was gone was quickly as it had appeared. Everyone briefly glanced at the sky, including Pamela. The pencil dangled between her fingers as she used her free hand to shield her eyes from the sun. A flock of birds flew from one grove of trees to the next, crossing St. Vitus on the way.

Everything appeared to return to normal.

With a shrug, Pamela returned to her sketch. The soccer ball skipped along the cobblestone ground. Tourists snapped pictures of the cathedral and took selfies with their smartphones. The sound of Pamela’s pencil scratching against the rough paper was the only sound that filled her ears, even as something in the back of her mind told her to glance at the sky again.

Mouth agape, Pamela stood. Her pencil and sketchpad both fell to the ground. Her eyes widened, and Pamela brought up a hand to cover her mouth.

“Oh, my God!”

The horror in Pamela’s voice caught everyone else’s attention, and as they looked to the sky, they saw a human figure plummeting toward the Earth. Women gasped, grabbing children as the men stared in silent horror. The children watched in wonder, a few of them smiling and pointing.

“Angel!” One of the children jumped up and down like a kid discovering presents under the tree on Christmas morning. “It’s an angel!”

The figure crashed through the top of the cathedral, and the gasps from the onlookers turned into shrieks and cries of horror. The body burst through the main tower, leaving a gaping hole and showering pieces of stone and other debris onto the ground. Tourists scattered to avoid the debris, some of them stopping just long enough to scoop up the children who were still staring.

As everyone else distanced themselves from the cathedral, Pamela ran toward it. Her body began moving before she could stop herself, and she abandoned the sketchpad lying open on the ground. She could hear the body crashing through the buttresses and the ceiling of the main worship hall as she shoved her way into the church. With a grunt, she pushed the heavy double doors open with her shoulder.

Pamela paused for a few seconds to catch her breath and allow the throbbing in her shoulder to subside. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the dim of the cathedral, in stark contrast to the bright sunlight outside. Starting to walk again, Pamela silently thanked herself for leaving the heels in her suitcase.

Pamela weaved her way into the worship hall, jumping with a start when she heard a groan from a pile of rubble near the altar. The stained-glass windows called out to her from the corner of her eye, and in more normal circumstances, she would’ve allowed her curiosity to get the best of her. Even the Mucha window, in all its colorful glory, was begging for her attention.

Pamela passed by John of Nepomuk’s tomb, giving it a passing glance before pained groans again called her attention to the altar. She dropped to her knees, tossing aside a few bits of rubble and waving the dust out of her face, only to gasp when she saw a man lying face-down on the floor. His silver breastplate shone in the sunlight beaming through the hole in the roof. His brown leggings were tattered and covered in burn marks. His dark hair was matted to his face and tied back into a ponytail.

Looking up at the ceiling, Pamela frowned in confusion. Not only was it unclear from where the man had fallen, but he had clearly plummeted a great distance. No one should have been able to survive a fall that far, especially after crashing through stone and wood along the way. In some ways, the man appeared to be in better shape than the cathedral.

But how was that possible?

The man groaned again, rolling onto his back with a grimace. More debris fell to the floor around him, the resulting dust causing Pamela to break into a small coughing fit. By the time it passed, she locked eyes with him; they were blue, impossibly so. Blood ran from his nose and a cut on his right cheek oozed even more blood.

“My God,” she muttered with a shake of her head.

The man erupted into a coughing fit of his own, rolling onto his side. Something silver caught Pamela’s eye, and she looked down to see a blood-soaked sword on the ground. Its gold hilt shined brighter than anything else on the altar, even the candle holders in the center. She squinted; an angel ascending to the heavens was carved on the handle.

“Are you…” Her frown deepened. “Are you alright?”

For the first time, the man acknowledged her. He glanced wearily at Pamela before nodding and rolling onto his back once again. Aside from the cuts on his face, the man didn’t appear to be injured, which was impossible on so many levels.

He sat up, the wounds closing before Pamela’s eyes. His eyes still held a faraway look, and the stubble on his face was at least a week old. Pamela glanced over her shoulder, confident that no one had followed her into the cathedral. Was it because they were off calling for help, or had they gone about their day assuming the man had died?

Probably the latter, which begged the question: how was he still alive? And where did he come from?

“Wow…”

Her eyes went skyward again. The man’s eyes followed.

“That was some tumble,” he muttered. “What happened?”

The man lowered his gaze, fully taking in Pamela for the first time. His lips opened, but no words came out. With his mouth agape, the faraway look returned.

Pamela frowned as dread built in her stomach.

“Well, uh,” Pamela paused. “What’s your name?”

The man furrowed his brow, chewing on his lower lip. For the first time, char marks were visible on his breastplate. Pamela’s heart sank when saw them, resisting the urge to reach out and run her fingers over the marks. If the man didn’t understand how he wound up face-down in a church in Prague, perhaps he didn’t know much of anything else.

“I,” he began, his frown deepening when the words caught in his throat. His eyes widened when they locked on Pamela’s. “I don’t remember.”

NEWS: Find Me on Patreon

I am now officially on Patreon. You can visit my page — and become a Patron — here.

So what is Patreon? Well, it’s like Kickstarter, but it’s not. Whereas people use Kickstarter to fund specific projects on a one-time basis, Patreon is more of a subscription format. For instance, people who pledge to my Patreon page do so on a monthly basis. The amounts people donate don’t have to be anything substantial, and through Patreon, I can offer some really cool goodies for people who decide to pledge.

So why set up a Patreon?

Well, from my Patreon page: “Here’s something no one tells you about being self-published: it can be expensive. Between hiring editors and designing book covers and worrying about promotion, a lot of times, you’ll find yourself spending money you might not necessarily have (especially if you’re not one of the better-selling authors). The purpose behind this Patreon is to help me with the expenses of being a self-publishing author. Indie publishing is a tight-knit community; we’re all fans of each other and we try to help whenever possible.

“Consider this me asking for help.

“Please don’t feel obligated to pledge if you can’t. Money’s not nearly as tight for me as it used to be, but I still remember what it’s like to wonder where your next meal’s gonna come from or how you’re gonna pursue your dream without sinking your bank account into the negative. Even sharing this page with others is a big help.

“No one gets where they want to be all by themselves. If I’m to achieve my dream of being able to write novels for a living — of being a bestselling author — I need to occasionally reach out for help. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it doesn’t happen overnight. This is a long journey, and I would be honored if you’d take that journey with me.”

I will have plenty of updates and other content on my Patreon page, much of it available only to Patrons. So please visit my page, and if you decide to pledge, then let me say thanks in advance!

EXCERPT: Notna

I wanted to share with you another snippet of my current WIP, the fantasy/supernatural epic Notna, coming this fall. Please note that this represents an early draft and has not been properly edited as of yet. Any mistakes are my own.

Present Day, Somewhere in the Amazon…

Dark storm clouds, nearly pitch black, rumbled in the night sky. Flashes of lightning hopped from one cloud to the next. The trees shielded much of the wildlife from nature’s fury, but enough drops from the torrential rain fell through the leaves to give the foliage and the ground the sustenance it needed. Each crack of thunder vibrated through the branches all the way to the roots, causing the ground to shake.

Standing amid the foliage was a temple. Its stone was faded and worn, cracks meandering along the foundation. Chunks of rock and rubble piled up near the entrance, which led to nothing but pitch black. But what the Tomb of Notna lacked in aesthetic quality, it made up for in power and mystique. The temple had an aura about it, and the native wildlife kept its distance.

But the elderly man approaching was no local.

Cian was of Greek heritage, his bronze skin wrinkled with age. His left eye was missing and he walked with a noticeable limp — the result of a hip injury in his thirties that never properly healed. Cian hobbled along the rugged ground, his boots so worn that he might as well have been hiking barefoot. His wooden cane dug into the soft ground, mud caked on the end. He ignored the thunder as best he could, but as Cian paused to wipe the sweat from his brow, he couldn’t help but notice each rumble was louder than the last.

Cian stared at the temple in awe. His life’s work stood before him. He had waited half a century for this moment. Nothing — not the wildlife, not old age, not fragile limbs — was going to prevent Cian from seeing this pilgrimage through to the end. He understood what that possibly meant, but as a man who had dedicated his entire adult life to the mystery surrounding the Gem of Notna, he welcomed the thought.

Striking his cane against the base of the temple, Cian flinched when flames erupted from the tip. The fire illuminated the entrance, but little else. Still, Cian took as confident a step forward as his body would allow; it was almost as if he was being pulled inside.

Cian was almost immediately engulfed in darkness. The flame only extended several inches in front of him — a full foot, if he was lucky. He heard what he thought were faint whispers in the humid, acrid air… but Cian figured his mind was playing tricks on him, exhausted due to the lengthy trip and the muggy conditions. Perhaps he should have refilled his canteen down by the river. Cian’s throat was dry, and it worsened with each step he took.

Cian had studied the legend of Notna dating back to his college days — specifically, his undergraduate years at Aristotle of Thessaloniki in the 1960s. Professors had thought him a fool in those days, told him he was chasing fairy tales. But the prophecies within the Narazniyan Scrolls had entranced Cian — so much so that his marriage to Marta, his lifelong love, dissolved.

In 1985, freshly divorced — or free, as Cian put it — he moved to Brazil and took a teaching job at Universidade Candido Mendes. The locals were a little more welcoming of his theories and his obsession, but Cian still didn’t feel completely accepted.

But that was fine. Genius was rarely recognized in the moment.

Cian never wanted the gem, or its power, for himself. His only vice was curiosity. He had to know if the Gem of Notna did, in fact, exist before he died — understanding that the discovery itself might be what killed him.

After all, they did call this place a tomb.

At this age, Cian welcomed death. Not because his life had been fruitless — quite the contrary. But with the hair on his beard ghost white and far more plentiful than whatever was on top of his head, with every step an exercise in pain tolerance, Cian could feel his body starting to give in.

At this point, the gem was all that kept Cian going.

The deeper Cian traveled into the bowels of the temple, the louder the whispers became. He tried to ignore them, but they pierced their way into his psyche… to the point where Cian was now actively listening for them, hoping to glean some meaning from them. But they were little more than gibberish to the elderly scholar, and he shook his head as he continued his descent.

It felt like hours. Cian had to stop to catch his breath, placing the palm of his hand flat against the stone wall to his left. He felt a cockroach flatten under his palm, ignoring the revulsion of bug guts now embedded in his skin.

He seeks the power. Thinks immortality is his for the taking.

Cian jumped and nearly lost the grip on his cane. But the flame died out, leaving him surrounded by pitch black. The voices continued to echo in Cian’s head, but he could no longer make out what they were saying. Beads of sweat trickled down his temple, and Cian’s hands trembled.

Keeping his free hand against the wall to guide himself, Cian started hobbling down the corridor again. Each step was wobbly, his entire body shuddering with effort and uncertainty. After several steps, sheer exhaustion drove Cian to his knees. His heartbeat thundered in his ears, and a flicker of light finally caught his attention.

It was green, almost emerald. The flickers grew more frequent, until the light was constant, spilling from the chamber into the end of the walkway. Cian’s heart rate nearly doubled, a surge of adrenaline taking over now that he knew he was near the end of his journey.

His muscles ached and his legs screamed for relief, but Cian could not stop until he reached the mouth of the chamber. The light was blinding at this point, engulfing the entire room in its bright hue.

His worthiness has not yet been tested. His presence was not foreseen.

The voices caught Cian off-guard, but his eyes eventually adjusted to the light. In the center of the chamber, he saw the very thing he had spent his life chasing: there, floating several feet atop a stone slab, shaped as four hands with palms raised skyward, was the Gem of Notna.

A tiny thing, not even two inches tall. Oblong and impossibly shiny. It hovered above the stone hands and rotated counterclockwise. The light spilling into the chamber originated from the gem, which seemed to throb with intensity. Cian licked his lips, hoping to combat the dryness in his mouth. The light was uncomfortably warm on his skin. But not even that discomfort could keep him away.

“Dios mio,” he muttered under his breath.

This power is not ours to give.

Cian ignored the voice, instead taking a step toward the display. His knee buckled, nearly causing Cian to fall face-first to the ground. But he kept his balance, even managing two more wobbly steps before the voices returned, louder and more insistent.

This one cannot keep the balance within the universe.

As he closed in on the altar, Cian could see symbols etched into the back of each hand. Having studied every text and scroll related to the Gem of Notna over the centuries, Cian knew these symbols by heart. He also knew the voices were arguing whether or not Cian was worthy of the gem’s power.

He wasn’t here for that. Even if Cian wanted to wield the Gem of Notna, his frail body and his advanced age wouldn’t allow it. The power would overwhelm him to the point of death. But Cian knew this would likely be a one-way trip, and the smile that crept on his face was one of joy, but also peace.

If Cian was to die tonight, his life was now complete.

He is not fit.

Cian studied the symbols once more. Running clockwise, he mouthed what each symbol meant: Strength. Conviction. Honor. Sacrifice. The four tenets of ancient Narazniyan civilization, ranked from least important to most. The Narazniyans valued sacrifice above all else… which was appropriate, considering they created a weapon capable of killing those it deemed unworthy.

He has come far… perhaps he is worthy after all.

“Yes,” Cian whispered before he could stop himself.

Exhaustion, mixed with relief, sent Cian to his hands and knees. He stared at the ceiling in awe, unable to believe he actually achieved the fruits of his lifelong labor. Everything he worked toward for the past fifty years was right in front of him, just out of his physical reach, and the euphoria that came with that was almost enough to override any physical discomfort.

It had not been in vain. He knew he could never tell anyone what he saw; no one would ever believe him. But all the work… the sleepless nights poring over texts… the long travels in search of like-minded academics… watching his beloved Marta walk out the door with two suitcases in-hand.

It had all been worth it.

“Yes, I am worthy,” he muttered. “I am worthy!”

Silence engulfed the chamber. The light dimmed.

No. This one cannot prevent the End of Days. His prime is well behind him.

The admonishment, true thought it was, was still like a kick to the stomach. Cian doubled over and shut his eye, shaking his head. Looking up again, he stared at the gem, watching as black strands of… something swirled about and a low hissing sound filled the chamber.

Cian had come to peace with his possible death. So why was he so scared?

In spite of the gravity of the moment, Cian managed a chuckle. He noticed there were no other bodies in the chamber. No bones, no remains, nothing. If the gem killed all those who were unworthy, shouldn’t the chamber have been littered with dead bodies? Cian wasn’t the first to be rejected, was he?

You are brave, old one. Perhaps, in another time…

The emerald light brightened once more, completely engulfing the chamber and burning into Cian’s flesh. He grit his teeth and his hands clenched into tight fists. This was pain unlike anything else he had experienced before; he could feel his insides burning. A loud crash from behind startled Cian, and he glanced over his shoulder just long enough to see the passage blocked off by a large boulder.

This… this is not The One.

Blood seeped from Cian’s ears and the tear duct in his right eye. His grunts morphed into cries of pain as he rolled onto his back. He reached out for the gem, screaming again when he felt the black tendrils slithering all over his body. The thorns of each dug into his wrinkled flesh, drawing even more blood. Cian’s aging muscles locked up, and his last scream was drowned out by sinews snaking over his face.

By the time the tendrils snuffed the rest of life out of Cian, his entire frame was covered in the living cocoon. He twitched in the seconds following his last breath, the tendrils wrapped around him glowing a bright emerald before a flash overtook the entire chamber. Incinerating Cian and his cocoon, the light burst through the ceiling, through the canopy of the rainforest, and into the night sky.

Storm clouds parted. The rain tapered off. Birds chirped into the night… but now, the chamber was empty, save the altar and the small crystal hovering above it.

There was no evidence Cian had ever been there.

The Best Books I Read in 2016

In many ways, 2016 has been a crap year. So many of our beloved pop culture icons and celebrities passed away. America somehow managed to wind up with an inexperienced reality TV star Nazi as its next president. A personal favorite of TV declined in quality before ultimately being canceled.

But there were some good things about 2016. I published two books, Blood Ties and Behind the Badge. I got the ball rolling on Behind the MaskBetrayed, and the fantasy epic Notna. And I read some damn good books.

Whittling down to the five best books was no easy feat; you’ll see why once we reach the Honorable Mention portion of this post. Note that this list encompasses the five best books I read in 2016, not necessarily the five best books that came out in 2016.

Now, without further ado…

5. Grave Measures by R.R. Virdi

Grave MeasuresWhat do you get when you combine ColumboConstantine, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer? You probably get something a lot like Virdi’s Grave Report novels. Virdi’s urban fantasy detective series is fast-paced, whimsical, and dangerous, and Grave Measures is every bit as good as its predecessor, Grave Beginnings.

Vincent Graves finds himself in a mental hospital this time around, and he only has but so much time to figure out whose body he is inhabiting and what was responsible for that body’s demise. All of the snark and mystery of Grave Beginnings is back in Grave Measures, and along the way, we’re treated to a much larger, richer world than what we saw in the first novel.

I feel like this is the sort of story Joss Whedon would be proud of, and as Virdi continues to establish himself as one of urban fantasy’s best writers, I’m in love with the fact that he’s filling the void left by the Buffyverse. Nothing will ever top the Slayer, but Vincent Graves has certainly carved his own niche in a genre that sometimes feels a bit overcrowded.

Grave Measures is available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle.

4. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneErnest Cline’s geek opus is a fantastic romp through the bastions of popular culture and geekdom over the past 50 or so years, and if that was all Ready Player One had going for it, it would still be a damn fine book. Fortunately, Ready Player One manages to pack enough excitement, adventure, and heart into the story surrounding the plethora of pop culture references that Ready Player One becomes a modern-day classic.

The MMO world Cline created for this book would put World of Warcraft to shame, and Wade is a fantastic protagonist. But more than anything, this book is fun. It’s adrenaline-soaked, nostalgia-fueled entertainment — and ultimately, isn’t entertainment one of the biggest reasons we read? The sort of escapism we often seek is at the core of Ready Player One, and Cline never loses sight of that essential fact.

You cannot divorce the narrative from geek culture; without one or the other, the entire thing wouldn’t work. But it does work, and it is easily one of the best books I’ve read — not just in 2016, but overall.

Ready Player One is available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, and Audible.

3. No Safe Place by Mary Head

no-safe-placeThe romance The Only One might have been Head’s first novel, but No Safe Place was clearly her true labor of love. A fast-paced thriller that follows FBI agent David Cole as he works to rescue his kidnapped daughter Hannah, No Safe Place was published through the Kindle Scout program — and whereas most books of this nature focus far more on what is done to the victim and leave the other details lying in atrophy, Head succeeds in diving into the heart of the story.

Hannah’s kidnapping is not the focus of this tale; instead, we are treated to the way her kidnapping affected not just her father, but characters who are close to both David and Hannah. We’re concerned less with what is being done to Hannah and more with what she does and how she handles herself during the ordeal. No Safe Place is such a subtle twist on the damsel-in-distress trope that you might not notice it until after the fact, but once you do, the story will be all the richer for it.

A sequel is in the offing, a book that will be light years different, but much like No Safe Place, I’m confident it will keep the heart of the characters intact — because after all, that heart was what made No Safe Place work to begin with.

No Safe Place is available in paperback and Kindle.

2. A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

a-torch-against-the-nightThe follow-up to the excellent An Ember in the AshesA Torch Against the Night builds upon Tahir’s dystopian world of Martials and Scholars. Whereas the first book introduced us to Elias, the newly-minted Mask with a heart, and Laia, the slave girl determined to save her brother, Torch builds on them both while also introducing us to the POV of Helene, the newly-named Blood Shrike who is now tasked with tracking down and executing her best friend.

Three different POVs could have been a mess, but Tahir does a great job of balancing them all and making sure Elias, Laia, and Helene each maintain their unique voices and perspectives. The Helene chapters alone make Torch a better, more complete tale than Ember, and this is how sequels are supposed to work: take what was great about the first book and build upon it.

Tahir’s battle scenes are exquisite, and the drama is so palpable that the pages fly by. There is plenty left on the table for future books in the series, and I will likely be at my local bookstore the day the third book comes out to get my copy.

A Torch Against the Night is available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, Audible, and audio CD.

1. Dangerous Ways by R.R. Virdi

dangerous-waysI know, I know… the same author with two slots on this list? Well, when the books are that good, they’re that good. Dangerous Ways takes us to the same universe as the Grave Report novels, but it ups both the scales and the scope. Jonathan Hawthorne and Cassidy Winters treat readers to a fantastic romp through the dimensions — and Virdi treats us to a tale that is at once intense, emotional, whimsical, and engaging.

Even though this opus comes in at a George R.R. Martin-esque 600 pages, it’s among the easiest reads I encountered in 2016. Pages flew by without my noticing it — which is probably the greatest indicator of how good a book can be. Some books that large can be a chore, but Dangerous Ways was anything but.

The amount of time and care Virdi put into Dangerous Ways is evident from the first page, and it is without hesitation that I consider this the best book I read in 2016.

Dangerous Ways is available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle.

Honorable Mention: Floor 21: Descent by Jason Luthor, Dirty Deeds by Christy King, Untamed by Madeline Dyer, The Martian by Andy Weir, Bounty by Michael Byrnes, Sleeping Sands by C.A. King, Tomoiya’s Story: Escape to Darkness by C.A. King, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: R.R. Virdi

It’s time for another Author Spotlight! Today, I bring to you Dragon Award-nominated urban fantasy indie author extraordinaire R.R. Virdi — who as of today has released his latest, the fantasy opus The Books of Winter: Dangerous Ways. It takes place in the same universe as his Grave Report novels, but it’s an entirely new tale that’s sure to be as intense and entertaining and delightful as everything else he has written.

About the Book:

dangerous-ways

Jonathan Hawthorne has lived over a century beholden to one rule: do not meddle in mortal affairs. He’s broken it twice. So when he crosses paths with Cassidy Winters, he’s forced to interfere again.

Strike three. And the third time’s not the charm.

Hawthorne is swept along as Cassidy slips through the cracks in reality.

And being hunted by bands of monsters doesn’t help.

To find the answers they need, they’ll have to play in a dangerous world. One where the odds and rules are stacked against them. They will have to navigate magical courts, queens and lords all while trying to keep Cassidy out of their scheming hands.

If they fail, she will end up a pawn in a plot that will consume them all.

Hawthorne will have to face the consequences of his past, and risk his future to ensure Cassidy can have one of her own.

For a man with all the time in the world–it seems to be running out–fast!

Dangerous Ways is available in ebook, paperback, and hardcover formats.

Let’s talk to R.R.!

What was your inspiration behind writing the Grave Report series and Dangerous Ways?

The Grave Report was initially a CIA thriller series in the vein of Burn Notice/the Bourne books meets Memento. Originally, the urban fantasy series was going another route with another name all too close for comfort to another one. Eventually, something happened and the previous (urban fantasy) thriller was scraped and the two merged, with me needing to move over the character’s name and restart my plot. Eventually, the idea of Vincent Graves starting in a grave from the CIA plotline… needed a more paranormal reason. 😉 From there, well, you know it goes and has gone on to do.

The Books of Winter: Dangerous Ways came as… a dream and desire to expand on my urban fantasy universe in a way that Vincent Graves and his time constraints don’t allow for.

You’re one of my favorite urban fantasy authors. What draws you to that particular genre, and – specifically in terms of the Grave Report series – what made you combine that genre with elements of other genres, such as mysteries?

I’m a mythology buff. Have been since… ever. I love the idea of creating and toying with mythos in an urban setting. The genre allows me to make and play with the everyday — the mundane and make it fantastical. It’s a fun ride. The idea you can look out the window and wonder what happens if there are monsters and magic lurking out there — today?!

When reading your work, I find myself having a lot of the same experiences I have when watching episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not just because of the monsters and demons, but also because you have this uncanny ability to juggle the melodramatic and the whimsical. You strike that balance better than most. Where does that ability come from?

I think it comes from just that. I grew up watching Buffy, Firefly, reading Spider-Man comics and things of the sort. Spider-Man is a character with unending life pressure, horrors, and more. Yet he still cracks jokes and lightens the mood when he can. It’s about being a person. Sometimes, a lot of the times, life is and can be hard. It doesn’t hurt to crack a smile and make others do the same, even in the darkest of moments.

Character vs. plot: the seemingly endless debate over which is more important for a good story. Which side of that debate do you fall on, and how do you approach character when your protagonist’s identity changes from one book to the next?

I normally do have a very loose plot in mind; I’m a pantser, no outlines. But, but, I allow for my characters to lead the story within reason. So far, none have run so far away that I couldn’t save it. Mostly it’s gentle nudging if Vincent and the cast decide to break off the path. But I believe in the letting the characters (people) grow and dictate the story. It’s worked for me so far.

Are you a heavy plotter, or do you just let the story take you where it will?

The most I ever have for a novel is: Book one, Vincent Graves has 13 hours to so and so. Will he do the thing before something bad happens?! (Add in random thoughts as I have them. This is the monster of the week. This is the meta plot advancing stuff. Few scenes I have and I like.)

So far, the formula has worked and led to one award win, one of the largest possible award nominations for an author (the Dragon Award at DragonCon), and I’m selling fine. If it ain’t broke… you know the rest.

You’ve said that Dangerous Ways takes place in the same universe as the Grave Report books, yet it’s still its own entity. What are your plans for this fictional universe going forward? How many other Grave Report books are you planning to write?

Yup. Dangerous Ways is the first in The Books of Winter. They’re larger, more on the scale of epic, urban fantasies set in the same universe. The plan for that series is four to five larger books. The Grave Report books are a tad smaller and faster paced, as they’re paranormal investigator thrillers. I’m aiming for, and have slated in my head, around 20 – not counting standalones and novellas/short stories.

These two, by the way, are at this moment the first of eight or more series in this expanded urban fantasy universe. 😉

You’re almost as famous for your inspiration and positivity toward other authors as you are for your own writing. How important is it for you to lift up other aspiring authors, and do you see it as paying it forward in a sense, given how much support you have among the indie writing community?

I think that’s the most important thing I can do, even more so than writing advice/technique itself. That comes with time and practice to all. But, if you lose motivation, if you give up… it’s over. I want to keep people writing because it’s the only reason I’ve gone on to do the things I’ve done. Without the uplifting and motivational things to come my way, I’d have quit long ago and never have gotten the chance to experience the crazy triumphs I’m enjoying now. And I’m still growing, so there’s more to come I believe.

What are some of your favorite books?

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time books. The Chronicles of Siala by Russian author Alexey Pehov.

Thank you for having me and your work too (if you haven’t checked it out, readers, do so) is wonderful and rather unique!

(J.D.’s note: Thank you for that!)

Now, to recap… my reviews of both Grave Beginnings and Grave Measures, the first two novels in the Grave Report series (which are also now available in hardcover!).

 Grave Beginnings

Grave BeginningsI hardly ever breeze through books anymore. That’s not an indictment of the quality of the books I read, but between a full-time job, writing/editing three manuscripts at once, and several other interests, it takes a bit to hold my interest and focus enough to actually tackle something on my TBR list.

But Grave Beginnings sucked me in immediately, and I found myself reading one of the best, most interesting murder mysteries I’ve read in a long, long time. R.R. Virdi has created a fantastic world and — perhaps more impressively — a protagonist that has no solid identity, yet is easy to root for. I’ve read my share of novels written in first-person that don’t quite measure up, but the first-person narrative is perfect for this book; the nature of the protagonist allows for narrative freedom in first-person that likely would not be present if this were a third-person book.

The marriage of murder mystery and supernatural works far better than it might seem in theory, and the result is a fast-paced, irreverent read. The cast of characters is relatively small, as the book focuses more on moving things along and less on making sure we keep track of all the particulars. In the mystery genre, it is far too easy for a case to either be wrapped up too quickly or to drag on too long, but the case in Grave Beginnings doesn’t suffer from that, and the conclusion of the case itself was satisfying like an old-school episode of Buffy.

(Aside: it occurs to me that, technically, every episode of Buffy can be considered old school nowadays. Yeah, I feel old…)

The best part to me, though, was the teeth the end of the novel provided the character. It was a clear direction moving forward for the series, and it has me looking forward to the next installment. I read the Kindle version of this novel, but now that a paperback edition is available, I’ll be adding that to my collection in the near future.

Long and short of it, Grave Beginnings is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and I wholeheartedly recommend it for fans of mysteries, supernatural stories, both, or neither. This is simply a fantastic book.

Rating: *****

Grave Measures

Grave MeasuresOne of the reasons I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show, not the movie) so much was the seamless way in which the tone constantly shifted. From tense to humorous to heartbreaking and back again, Buffy managed to weave all of life’s great and terrible emotions into a fantastic tale that still felt personal.

R.R. Virdi clearly has that same ability. Grave Measures, the follow-up to the fantastic Grave Beginnings, does the same thing. The stakes feel higher this time, even if Vincent Graves finds himself confined to an insane asylum, tracking down something that’s killing patients. Much like the first book, Grave Measures is whimsical, hard-hitting, intense, and emotional… and every bit the page-turning romp Beginnings was.

One need not to have read the first book to follow along with Measures, but those who have will be rewarded. The return of Camilla Ortiz was a pleasant surprise, and she has quickly made herself a personal favorite — even as great as Vincent Graves himself is.

There are no overly shocking revelations in this book, but a novel doesn’t need to be shocking to be a quality read. There are plenty of breadcrumbs sprinkled along the way, fodder for future novels in the series, and I’m looking forward to seeing how everything unravels going forward.

Virdi is a master at ensuring Graves has a voice all his own — easy enough to do in the first-person narrative with a protagonist with no true identity. Still, Graves has a depth all his own, even with the snark and the one-liners, and his personal code — which has evolved over the course of the first two books — makes him more of a hero than I think he’d admit to.

If you loved Grave Beginnings, you’ll love Grave Measures just as much. Even if you didn’t, Virdi has created a fantastic universe full of rich, interesting characters who are easy to root for. This is sort of Columbo meets Constantine, with a little bit of Buffy sprinkled in for effect… and the result is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Seriously, read this book.

Rating: *****

In addition to the Grave Report books and Dangerous Ways, Virdi has his work featured in three anthologies: The Longest Night Watch: A Charity Anthology for Alzheimer’s DiseaseThe Longest Night Watch, Volume 2: A Charity Anthology for the Alzheimer’s Association, and Stardust, Always: A Charity Anthology for Cancer Research (in memory of David Bowie and Alan Rickman). In supporting these anthologies, you’re not only reading some fantastic work, you’re helping out some worthwhile causes.

Follow Virdi on his (shiny redesigned) website, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter.