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.

An Ode to Buffy the Vampire Slayer

So it’s come to my attention that Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and by extension, the Buffyverse as a whole — is now 20 years old.

First of all, no. I’m not that old.

Am I?

Alright, I am…

Secondly, this seems like an appropriate moment for me to sing the virtues of the Buffyverse, not just on its merits as a fictional universe that spawned two fantastic television shows and lives on in a series of hit-or-miss comic books, but as a creative entity that is almost singlehandedly responsible for where I am today.

To explain, a trip down Memory Lane…

When I was in college, I hit a rough patch. Between 2003 and 2004, my life turned to a dark place… so dark that I was almost a shell of myself. I was barely attending class, I wasn’t spending time with friends, I wasn’t really doing much of anything. I certainly wasn’t writing, and that fact didn’t bother me in the slightest. The days were just passing by, and I cared little for what they brought with them.

But in a fit of boredom one night, I didn’t change the channel after Smallville went off the air… and next thing I knew, I was watching this vampire (with a soul) setting up shop in a law firm, along with his friends — one of whom was a green-skinned demon with better fashion sense than I’ll ever hope to have. And even though I had no idea what was going on… I was hooked.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I was late to the Buffy party. Or maybe it was a shindig. Or was it a hootenanny?

Anyway…

You can thank/blame the movie for that. I saw the 1992 film when I was a kid, and I hated it. So when I heard they were gonna make a TV show based on that property, my first — and only — thought was, “Ugh, pass.” Even as friends kept trying to get me to watch the show, I refused… there was no way in hell I was watching that show.

To this day, I still get the I told you so‘s.

Anyway, I’m hooked. First Angel, then Buffy. I’m devouring these two shows as quickly as the DVD boxset releases will allow me (Netflix and Hulu weren’t quite a thing yet). I fell in love with these characters, I devoured whatever content I could find online. I spoiled the hell out of myself on everything, and yet seeing it unfold on the screen was still an incredibly powerful, moving experience.

I’d never had a TV show make me cry before. These two shows did — repeatedly.

But most importantly… I began living again. I started looking forward to doing stuff. I started going to class more. I began slowly dipping my toe back into the social waters. I eventually got up the courage to start going to therapy. And, slowly but surely, I began writing again.

It started off innocently enough; a friend had invited me to join an online Buffy RPG (or “online writing community,” as we called it) called Birthright. It was set years after the end of both shows, and the vast majority of the cast featured original characters, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I started off with a Watcher in mourning, and before I knew it, I was juggling six characters.

Eventually, Birthright turned into City Limits. New location, new storyline, same great writing and community. Those of you who have read Blood Ties might recall hearing about this community from the Acknowledgments section, and I mention that without this experience, I’m probably not here today with three published books to my name and several more on the way.

That’s not hyperbole. Without the Buffyverse, without the creative kick in the ass Joss Whedon and company inadvertently gave me, I eventually gathered the courage and desire needed to resurrect my long-neglected stories. I’m not quite sure what it was about Buffy and Angel that reignited my creative spark, but they did, and I am forever grateful.

That’s not to say I worship at the altar of Whedon; he’s not the feminist god people make him out to be (seriously, read up on what he did to Charisma Carpenter during Angel season 4), and his work isn’t as unassailable as some might suggest (Agents of SHIELD bored me to death and Avengers: Age of Ultron was one big bag of WTF), but without the shows for which he is best known (Honorable Mention to Firefly), I probably don’t start creating again.

I try to infuse a little of the Buffyverse in everything I write anymore, as my homage to one of popular culture’s most enduring properties and the fictional universe that, on its own, is responsible for the fact that I’m even here typing this. Two decades later, these shows are still personal favorites, and though I’ve seen plenty of great TV shows over the years, nothing has compared to — or inspired me as much as — Buffy and Angel.

(PS: If you’re a Buffy fan and you’re not watching this YouTube channel… you’re missing out.)

Why I Self-Publish

It seems like every time I hop onto social media, I see some version of the traditional-versus-self-publishing debate. People are wondering which route they should take, and others on either side of the debate state their case. I think part of it stems from the stigma that’s still attached to being self-published — a stigma that, while diminished, still exists.

Now, I will say this: the decision of which publication method to pursue is up to each individual author. Different people have different aspirations and expectations, and ultimately, the decision as to which path to follow is up to you and you alone.

But I can offer insight as to why I chose the self-publishing route.

Mostly, it boils down to something I don’t have: patience. I’m not a patient person; I never have been, and I likely never will be. As such, the traditional route holds little appeal to me. I don’t have it in me to submit a manuscript to an agent or publisher, only to wait weeks — if not months — for a response (which, let’s face it, would likely be no). That’s a lot of time wasted on… what, exactly?

As a self-published author, I operate on my own time frame. Yes, I have more responsibilities; as a self-published author, I have to worry about editors and formatting and cover design and marketing — all things a traditional publisher would (probably) take care of for me. But that added responsibility also brings with it a sort of freedom. I have control over the entire process. I control the content, and I control the time table.

By self-publishing, I’m able to tell the stories I want, the way I want to tell them, when I want to tell them. That freedom holds a great deal of appeal to me, particularly as I write stories that are just on the outside of what a mainstream publisher might be willing to publish.

Someday, I might pursue traditional publishing; there’s something to be said for receiving advances, writing stories, and letting the publisher handle all of the other stuff. But I see self-publishing as a trade-off, and it’s one I’m willing to make right now. Yes, I have to secure my own editor and I have to format my manuscripts myself. Yes, I have to either hire a cover designer or find my own cover another way. Yes, I’m the one who has to blow up Goodreads and social media to tell people about my work.

But I get to do all that on my own time. I decide when my books come out. I decide what gets published and what doesn’t. And because of this, if I publish a book, then you know damn well it’s something I really wanted to be out there.

Again, it’s your call which way you go. I just wanted to give you all a glimpse as to why I chose the path I did.

Character vs. Plot

It’s an argument that’s probably as old as storytelling itself: which is more important, character or plot?

More often than not, the answer boils down to personal preference. And I suppose, at the end of the day, there’s no wrong answer. You obviously need both; no story I know of has ever existed solely on the basis of character or plot (if I’m wrong, please let me know; I’d be curious to see how such a story gets told). The question then becomes… how much of each do you use? A 50-50 split? Do you go 70-30 plot? 60-40 character?

I like to think of plot as the backbone of a story, while the characters are the heart, brain, and nervous system. It’s generally true that we need a backbone in order to live, but it’s all of those other things that truly give us life. To me, the character-vs.-plot dynamic is no different.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a character guy. For me, character takes precedence over all else. If you get me emotionally invested in your characters, if you get me caring about them one way or another, then I’ll follow them — and you — pretty much everywhere. You can craft the most carefully nuanced, perfectly paced plot in the history of plotting, but if your characters are as flat and flavorful as cardboard, I’m not gonna stick around for long.

When writing, I always keep my characters in mind. Not just my protagonist or antagonist, either; this is as true for the supporting characters as anyone else. Every decision I make story-wise, I do so only with the characters in mind. How will this affect my protagonist? How will my supporting character handle this scenario? How will Character A react to Character B’s betrayal? My characters are never far from my mind, because to me, they are the pillars that hold up everything else.

Prime example: Cordelia Chase from the Buffyverse. When she moved from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Angel, she blossomed. In the first three seasons of Angel, Cordelia grew in so many ways, because the writers always made sure that character took precedence over plot. Whether she was dealing with the consequences of Doyle’s death or deciding to make herself half-demon to keep the visions or slowly falling in love with Angel, everything Cordelia did, every change she underwent, was always with her character in mind.

This is part of why her ascension as a higher power — which coincided with Angel being tossed into the bottom of the ocean by his own son — so controversial. Prior to that, Angel had been the perfect example of character over plot. But by that point, the plot took over, and a memorable character took a backseat to a turgid supernatural soap opera that we’re still not really sure how to take.

Think of it this way: if character is Bruce Wayne, then plot is Alfred. They’re both important, in their own ways, and while they both can exist on their own, it’s their relationship to each other that truly makes things work. And to me, the specific way in which character and plot interact is of paramount importance. Plot is important, no question, but if it starts taking over your story, it might behoove you to reexamine things.

Two last thoughts:

-Do not mistake emotional investment for liking a character; I can hate a character and still be emotionally invested in what they do and what happens to them. Distaste, hate, and disgust are just as valuable and important as fondness and empathy.

-Don’t plot your story by the philosophy of “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” That’s plot over character. Instead, try asking yourself such questions as “How would my protagonist react if…?” or “What would my villain do if…?” Center your story-related questions around your characters, and you’ll find that many of your story issues will resolve themselves.

I’m sure some of you will read this and be able to craft a wonderful response arguing why plot is more important. And I welcome that; we all bring different things to the creative table, and even if I wind up disagreeing with your point, I do want to read what others have to say and get an insight into how other writers practice their craft. That’s part of the beauty of writing: there’s no one right way to do it.

But in the age-old debate, I’m solidly in the characters’ corner.

BOOK REVIEWS: Part XI

In which I review a pair of fantastic debuts — from Cait Ashwood and Kerri Maniscalco — and a great sequel from Madeline Dyer.

The Seekers by Cait Ashwood

the-seekersI received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

In her debut novel The Seekers, author Cait Ashwood has shown that even in the far future, humanity is not as evolved as it probably should be — particularly with regard to how women are viewed by society. It’s a truth that is, at times, unveiled in an uncomfortable fashion (fair warning, there are a couple passages that are potentially hard to read) — but Ashwood navigates the subject matter without being heavy-handed and without letting us lose sight of what truly matters:

The characters.

Specifically, Audrey. While the book starts off with an ensemble cast, by the time The Seekers reaches the midway point, we’ve shed much of the cast in a variety of ways, leaving us focused mainly on Audrey, Ace, and Hound. While I almost reflexively revolt against anything even remotely resembling a love triangle, I had no such reaction here. I can’t quite account for that, other than the fact that Ashwood creates such vivid, memorable characters that I cared more about them individually — particularly Audrey — than any hint of who might eventually end up with whom.

In some ways, The Seekers is a coming-of-age story. In others, it reads like a future dystopia. But Audrey is at the heart of it all, from the moment we first meet her — fresh out of therapy — until we see her face both her greatest dream and her worst nightmare. The seeds of a vibrant futuristic world have been planted in this book, and there are questions therein, but to think of the world or the Seekers or the Order to be the focus would be a mistake.

While treating us to beautiful twists of language, Ashwood gets us to care about Audrey — and for some other characters I hope to see in the next book. And anyone who knows me knows I’m a character-over-plot guy; get me to care about your characters, and I’ll go on virtually any journey with them. The Seekers accomplishes just that, as Ashwood turns in a remarkable debut effort that succeeds both as a character journey and a commentary on sexist cultures past, present, and future.

This book is highly recommended.

Buy The Seekers on Amazon

 

Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

stalking-jack-the-ripperAnyone who’s read my work knows I’m a sucker for genre mash-ups — specifically, mixing murder mystery with science fiction. But any cybernetic mumbo-jumbo I come up with pales in comparison to Kerri Maniscalco’s debut work Stalking Jack the Ripper, which is a fantastic romp that introduces us to the world of forensic science in 1880s London.

First and foremost, Maniscalco introduces us to the brilliant Audrey Rose (side note: two of the books I’ve read so far in 2017 feature protagonists named Audrey — and they’re both excellent). She’s a forensic understudy, despite what polite society wants for women in that day and age, yet she still maintains her femininity whenever possible. I love female heroes, especially when the simple reality of their presence flies in the face of convention.

Fortunately, this book is more than a period piece making a gender statement. Audrey’s brain takes readers on a thrilling journey as she tries to piece together who Jack the Ripper might be. There are plenty of candidates who make sense as the book goes along, and while I didn’t see the ultimate reveal coming, it makes sense with a healthy dose of hindsight.

The best mysteries don’t necessarily shock you; they simply keep you thinking as you flip through page after page. Stalking Jack the Ripper does just that.

The sci-fi aspect really doesn’t come into effect until the big reveal at the end, but it’s such a deliciously morbid reality that adds such depth to the world Audrey Rose and the other characters inhabit that it’s more satisfying than I had anticipated. I’ve read my share of mysteries that end with the thud, but this book builds to a crescendo.

A minor aside: I love that Maniscalco added a section at the end of the book, detailing the facts she kept from the real-life mystery of Jack the Ripper and where she took liberties. It was a nice little peek behind the curtain that I wish more writers would offer.

All in all, Maniscalco has created a fantastic heroine and a vibrant world that straddles the line of reality and fantasy — and I am thrilled another book is in the works. If you love mysteries, or historical stories, or just a damn good tale, you’d do well to give Stalking Jack the Ripper a read. There are a couple difficult passages for those weak of stomach, but that doesn’t deter from what is a clever, well-written tale.

Buy Stalking Jack the Ripper on Amazon

 

Fragmented by Madeline Dyer

fragmentedWhereas Untamed, Madeline Dyer’s debut novel, was a character-driven YA dystopia, the follow-up Fragmented feels more like a drug-induced mind trip — which is simultaneously frustrating and enthralling for the reader.

This book takes place in the immediate aftermath of Untamed, but before long, we’re left with protagonist Seven and Corin — on the run, on their own. They wind up with a band of people named the Zharat, but what starts as a simple case of finding refuge with potential like-minded allies turns into something else entirely… and for roughly 250 pages, you’ll find yourself thinking you know what’s going on, only to discover you’re nowhere near right.

Along the way, Seven is convinced she’s going mad, and I sometimes felt the same way as I navigated through all the twists. Going back and forth in trying to determine which characters can be trusted and which ones can’t, pushing through the occasional tough-to-read passage (there are a couple of them, fair warning), flipping pages through the ending in which the futility of everything becomes crystal clear… even as the answers became clear, more questions popped up.

Fragmented is an adrenaline-packed read, and Dyer once again establishes her ability to create vibrant, memorable characters. That ability is what makes this a great read, even if you find yourself flipping through pages on numerous occasions asking yourself “WTF?” — and you will be doing just that.

The lack of clarity is occasionally frustrating, and there is a cliffhanger (but it’s abundantly clear going forward that there are two more books to come in this series). Fragmented will keep you turning the pages, will keep you guessing.

And when it’s over, you’ll be asking yourself when the next one’s coming.

Buy Fragmented on Amazon

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

BOOK REVIEWS: Part X

I trust everyone had a great holiday season, rife with plenty of new reads (including my work, perhaps?). I now bring you all my latest crop of book reviews, including a pair of magnificent fantasy books and a new entry into a long-running series that’s not as strong as the others.

Dangerous Ways: The Books of Winter by R.R. Virdi

Why do wedangerous-ways read?

Do we do it for simple entertainment? Do we do it to escape the stress of our lives? Do we do it to learn something about ourselves, about the world in which we live? Or perhaps we do it for all of the above reasons.

Whatever the reason, when we are transfixed by a phenomenal tale, one so well crafted that it grabs us and transports us to an entirely different world, it’s a magical thing. Dangerous Ways, the first book in R.R. Virdi’s The Books of Winter series, is one such experience — as vibrant and evocative and intense as the myriad of gateways leading to other worlds.

This book takes place in the same universe as Virdi’s Grave Report series, and there are satisfying callbacks, but this tome is a being all its own. Its a massive one — not quite troll massive, but close — and yet Virdi’s quick-witted first-person style is so free-flowing that you’ll push your way through hundreds of pages without truly realizing it.

Where the Grave novels are gritty, street-level thrillers with a healthy dose of the freakish, Dangerous Ways is grand, bordering on high fantasy. The numerous worlds are fantastical and well-developed; for all of Virdi’s skill at weaving through the English language, he is equally adept at creating entire worlds — and something tells me he’s only scratched the surface.

Of course, none of that matters if the characters fall flat. But they don’t; Jonathan Hawthorne and Cassidy Winters are a joy to be around; despite the fact that they’re constantly threatened with certain death, you can’t help but be with them step for step. They’re individual characteristics — bravery, determination, sarcasm, wit, and smarts, just to name a few — make them easy to root for, and the supporting cast is equally delightful in its own right.

As much as I’m eager for the next Grave Report book, I’m just as excited at the prospect of the next Book of Winter. There is no cliffhanger here, but there are enough threads to fill several more volumes… and with writing this clean, this crisp, I can definitely see myself devouring more of this genre.

Fantasy fans — urban, high, and everything in between — should definitely add Dangerous Ways to their collection. This is a fun, engrossing, entertaining read — and I would argue, the best book I’ve read in all of 2016.

Rating: *****

Buy Dangerous Ways on Amazon (available in Kindle, paperback, and hardcover)

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

a-torch-against-the-nightIf An Ember in the Ashes was a solid introduction to the horrific and oppressive world of Elias and Laia, then Sabaa Tahir’s follow-up, A Torch Against the Night, is a fantastic follow-up that builds on what we already know and constantly raises the stakes.

Everything that made Tahir’s first book such a hit is back for the second installment, and the biggest change is the fact that Torch features three protagonists: the aforementioned Elias and Laia, as well as Helene. To me, the addition of Helene’s POV was reason enough to give Torch the full five stars; whereas Helene felt a bit one-note and love-triangle-y in Ember, her perspective and character arc add a tremendous layer of depth to both the character and the novel as a whole.

Along the way, all three characters face seemingly impossible odds with varying degrees of success. Nothing is ever truly as it seems, even in the gripping final pages that take place in the dark prison Kauf. I enjoy Tahir’s way with words, the way she can simultaneously paint vast, sprawling pictures with the intimate personality of the characters themselves.

Large though this tome may be, Tahir deftly transports you from character to character, unfolding plot twist after plot twist in such a way that hundreds of pages will fly by before you come up for air — and as an added bonus, I was not nearly as uncomfortable reading Torch as I was reading certain passages in Ember.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments in this book. There are, and they are gutting and fantastic all at once. I’m probably not the target audience for this series, but I’m a sucker for stories in which the heroes refuse to stop in spite of the odds. As a favorite TV show of mine once said: “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.”

That is the guiding philosophy behind Tahir’s books, and it works regardless of the scale of the moment. Moments big and small resonate equally in A Torch Against the Night, and the result is a sequel that surpasses its already impressive predecessor in just about every way.

Rating: *****

Buy A Torch Against the Night on Amazon (available in Kindle, paperback, hardcover, and Audible)

High Heat by Richard Castle

high-heatCastle may be history, but Nikki Heat is still going.

For the uninitiated, a primer: Richard Castle is a fictional mystery writer, formerly portrayed by actor Nathan Fillion on the ABC procedural Castle (which was just canceled this past spring after eight mostly-quality seasons). As part of promoting the show, the Nikki Heat series was published in real-life, along with select stories featuring Derrick Storm. High Heat is the eighth installment in the series, and it will likely prove just as divisive as the TV show’s eighth season.

First, the good: these books have, for the most part, been better than expected. They are essentially little more than promotional material, even if the thing they’re promoting now only exists in syndication and on DVD. High Heat moves along at a brisk pace, unraveling two distinct storylines: the ISIS-style beheading of a journalist, and its resultant threat on Jameson Rook, and Nikki Heat’s continued dependence on and obsession over the death of her mother.

For the most part, High Heat weaves between the two almost effortlessly. There is enough intrigue and action to keep things moving, and this book being less than 300 pages makes it one of the easier reads. There are callbacks to the show — part of the fun of this series has always been playing “Spot the Castle reference — and there are real-life callbacks as well.

Including a presidential candidate who seems to be some freakish combination of Donald Trump and Ross Perot.

Now the bad: This book needs another editor.

For all the crap independently-published books get for poor editing — fairly or otherwise — this is a traditionally-published book that definitely could have used at least one more lookover. It almost feels as if, now that the show itself is over, the people behind bringing these books to life aren’t putting in as much effort as before. Disappointing, but ultimately not that surprising.

Also… for those of you who didn’t like the direction season 8 of the TV show took (specifically, what occurred at the end of the season-opening two-parter)… well, you’re not going to like the end of High Heat either. Without specifics or spoilers, it is almost a word-for-word rehashing. I know these books normally play close to the TV vest, but it’s not normally this blatant.

Still, High Heat is an entertaining read that doesn’t require too much from the reader — which is about par for the course when picking up a Richard Castle book. It’s certainly not the best in the series, and some will despise the direction it takes at the end, but the series has gotten away with much worse.

Rating: ***

Buy High Heat on Amazon (available in Kindle, hardcover, Audible, and audio CD)