Of Honey and Wildfires

So this is another of those self-published reads that I picked up during my recent bout of “Ooh. Shiny” that came while reading Rob J. Hayes’s ALONG THE RAZOR’S EDGE (EBR Review). The connection is that the author of this book, Sarah Chorn, edited Rob’s book. In fact, she edited his entire series and then, post editing, proceeded to gush about it on social media, and I just couldn’t say no to it after all the good things she had to say. In addition, I’d come across her previous (first) book, Seraphina’s Lament, multiple times before, but never read it. I’ve since picked that one up as well and stuck it into my TBR pile. This one was hot on the radar though because of the nearness of its publication date, and so I picked up a review copy from her and dove in.

OF HONEY AND WILDFIRES is a stand-alone story set in an alternate western United States that is powered and directed by a magical version of coal and oil, called Shine, that the present world obviously lacks. Amidst this backdrop, an enterprising businessman, Matthew Esco, makes some lofty sacrifices in order to grasp ultimate control over the west and its resources and build an empire that will stand for centuries to come. The people living in the west, among the rich sources of Shine, are separated from those in the east by a magical barrier that is only permeable to those people that first imbibe a strictly controlled elixir, made by Mr. Esco’s company. In addition to this, the western population, because of how intimately Shine is integrated into everything that they do, have evolved somewhat to have very vivid colorings of skin, eyes, and hair.

The main storyline revolves around two characters. The first, Cassandra Hobson, is the daughter of a revolutionist. Her father, Christopher, is fighting against the massive machine that is Matthew Esco’s empire. He can’t abide the way the people of Shine Territory are exploited. Their men, their women, and their children, all, and the only route he has available that will get any appreciable attention is through violence. After losing his wife and two children, he turns to a life on the run, and he can only handle raising his last daughter, Cassandra, for so long before the threat to her life drives him to leave her with another: his sister. Cassandra’s story begins at age 5 as she is left by her father with her aunt’s small family, and takes several 5-year jumps as the book progresses. Her story deals mostly with growing up in a family that is not her own, dealing with the intolerance of others because of who her father is, and finding true friendship and eventually love with a neighbor.

The second POV is Arlen Esco, scion of Matthew Esco, who has been sent out west to learn more about his father’s empire and locate a likely spot for some upcoming expansion. He’s accompanied by two employees of his father’s business, one of them a bodyguard, and is very excited for his first opportunity to see the foundation upon which his father’s empire has been built. His timeline covers a period of about two weeks and the story bounces between his and Cassandra’s POVs, and a few short entries from a few others.

I love when I can sit down and knock out the details of the story as easily as I have done so here. Remembering specifics like first and last names, and story arcs, and relaying the “big picture” kind of stuff without having to go back and lookup any of those details along the way. It means that the author has done something right, and that is definitely the case here. She was able to relay the story that was within her mind out onto the page and into my head in such a way that a large part of it stuck. Which is the job description, in my opinion, but isn’t always the case.

While reading the story, it was immediately apparent how talented the author is as a writer. The prose is elegant and complete, frequently drifting into what I’d term “beautiful” prose. Although, where beautiful prose so frequently ends up distracting me from the important parts of the book — the characters and their storylines — that wasn’t the case here. In fact, it made the reading experience all the more enjoyable because of it, which, I find, is a rare talent to have. Especially when it comes to stories that have been self-published. Although, with her long-time experience as an editor, this fact is somewhat less surprising.

The world portrayed is well-wrought and well-enough detailed around the story of interest that I seldom felt myself needing more. It’s obvious, for instance, that there is an entirely different type of society that lives in the east, where Arlen Esco is from, but we don’t end up getting a lot of detail from his life there. I count this as a good thing, as the important part of the world is in the west, where the story takes place and what it is concerned with. We see the pieces that affect Cassandra’s life and build Arlen’s perception of his father’s empire, and that is enough for now.

The characters and their journeys were the strongest points of the novel for me. There are developments and turns to the story that were just solid. I did frequently feel like they could have been somewhat better. Some tweaks to the backstory or the development of the scene that could have really enhanced the character moments and made them even more powerful, but the fact that they were there and as affecting as they were was satisfying for me.

The weakest aspect of the story, for me, was the world-building surrounding Shine. There seemed to be so many different aspects to what Shine was used for, and what it would do, and how it would affect people, that I lost most of my interest along the way. It felt a little too generic. Too catch-all. Almost like a version of DMSO or Snake Oil that actually did the things that the salesmen always claimed it to do. So instead of being a high point of the story, it became just another part of the background and I took what I got from the story at face value.

At this point you are perhaps wondering why I rated the story so low when such a large part of my review has been positive. I have to admit to a decided split in my perceptions of this book. On the one hand, it’s a very well-told story about two individuals living in this alternate American west as they learn so much about themselves, their families, and the world that has been built around them. But I didn’t really feel like the major storylines were ever strongly dependent upon the fantastical elements. In other words, it felt like the main story could have still been told without the fantastical elements. So, while the story itself was very good and contained some really great character moments, the *fantasy* story told was only rather mediocre. This is, perhaps, somewhat harsh, but it is who I am, and I have to stick to my guns, yeah? (Corny wild-west reference notwithstanding.)

The fact of the matter is that for those readers that aren’t as picky about their fantasy fiction as I am, I think they’ll find a very satisfying read here. Especially those that are looking for a well-written LGBTQ+ fantasy story. Very well-done and very impressive. I’ll definitely be looking forward to reading more from this author in the future.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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