Review: Once We Were Like Wolves by M. Todd Gallowglas

Once We Were Like Wolves

(Format Note: I read Once We Were Like Wolves via the Amazon Kindle Select Library, as I am an Amazon Prime member.)

Once We Were Like Wolves is the second book in the Tears of Rage series (see my review of First Chosen here).

Mr. Gallowglas turns everything up a notch in this second entry to his Celtic-feeling fantasy series. The world he has created is rich and vibrant, featuring: tricky gods, warring factions who all increasingly hate one another, ancient history that feels alive, and truly engaging characters that draw you straight into his narrative without letting go until the end.

Being that I am currently writing a ‘Book 2’ of my own, I entirely understand the difficulty involved in that process. One has to pull threads through from the first entry, while raising the stakes and expanding the scope but without sacrificing the feeling that made the first one connect with readers. It’s not just about continuing the narrative, it’s about extending the feelings you forged in Book 1 while simultaneously making everything grander.

I believe that Mr. Gallowglas succeeded on every point. We see our main characters begin to grow into the roles they have been forced into, the story introduces new twists and turns driving us toward the final conclusion while being immersed in frenetic action. Most of the second half of the book is a rocket-powered ride of genuinely enjoyable action, filled with imagery that’s still stuck in my head, slowing down just barely enough so that you don’t break your neck when you arrive at the end.

M. Todd Gallowglas is a writer to watch. Speaking as an author myself, his rich storytelling, excellent characterization and frankly amazing world-building makes him the kind of author that I would love to have a chance to collaborate with.

So, the final score for Once We Were Like Wolves:

For fantastic world-building, an engaging story, haunting imagery and excellent characterization. Also, for addressing (whether purposefully or not) my major issues with Book 1 and providing a story that gets going from Page 1. This is well-worth the read and you would be missing out if you didn’t.

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Review: REAMDE by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson is well-known as one of the near-future sci-fi/cyberpunk masters. I have always liked, if not necessarily loved, the books of his that I have read.

Much like the other books that I have read from his catalogue, REAMDE is an amazing central idea. Being an avid gamer myself, particularly in the massively-multiplayer space, the world of T’Rain is astounding in its implications – if pretty much entirely implausible. There’s never anything mentioned about the monstrous server infrastructure which would be required to run an ‘Earth-sized’ virtual world the way it is described. However, we accept that this is our nod to science-fiction, our central suspension of disbelief, and so it is allowed to carry on.

Around this central idea is a fairly standard modern-thriller plot, replete with many of the cliches we’re used to hearing about if you read or otherwise consume that sort of media. The crux of this plot, though, is the game (played by seemingly everyone in the world, save for a few of our main characters).

In the hands of a lesser author, this would be a snoozefest. Instead, Stephenson delivers powerful, strong and interesting characters which carry us through this suspenseful-thriller-plot without putting us to sleep. It is one of those strange confluences – even though you know as you’re reading that the tropes and cliches invoked by the story should be dull, they end up being engaging instead. This is a testament to the power of Stephenson’s characters, because even in the midst of a story at times burdened by unbelievable coincidences, background-dropping exposition and plot twists that might have come out of a desperate NaNo writer’s quest for more words, you can’t help but care about these characters and want to know what happens to them next.

Don’t get me wrong – I really liked this book. It was long enough that it stretched into three days of reading, for which I am exceedingly grateful. However, for those who are not drawn in by character drama or those who cannot appreciate the central video-game idea, this book would probably not be a recommendation.

If, like me, you love the MMORPG genre and characters are enough to keep you going through stories of the Russian mob and jihadists – or if you’re a massive Stephenson fan, you’ll definitely want to read this one.

Pros: Engaging characters, cool central idea, makes you want to know what happens

Cons: At times exposition-y, improbable plot twists, standard modern-thriller plot sometimes seems tacked on

Final Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Review – The Black God’s War by Moses Siregar III

(Note: I read The Black God’s War as an ePub provided by the author due to a LibraryThing Member Giveaway. The book is available from Kindle and Smashwords and the author’s website can be found here.)

The Black God’s War is, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating epic fantasy books I have read in years.

Mr. Siregar has essentially taken the long route around, making the tropes of world-shaking fantasy feel new again through his fresh vision of world-building and his decidedly non-traditional-Western-European approach.

When one picks up a fantasy novel, there are certain things that you expect. You expect knights, and lords, and castles. You expect princesses and dragons, at least in some form or another. We expect a Western European world which generally has one thing or another in common with the high medieval/Renaissance era which is so familiar to all of us.

Somehow, Mr. Siregar manages to avoid all of that.

My favorite part of this book is not the incredibly strong core story, nor is it the highly believable characters. Those are wonderful things in their own right, of course, and they only serve to make this book better. My favorite part of fantasy is always world-building, and I have never seen a fantasy world like the one constructed for The Black God’s War. It feels fresh, it feels original – and that, my friends, is my favorite part of this book. From the Roman core of the Rezzians to the Indian/Buddhist roots of the Pawleon, Mr. Siregar has chosen an entirely different basis for his fantasy, and it is quite refreshing.

I will not go into plot, so as to avoid spoilers (and besides, the book’s description does a fine job of doing what little summary I could manage anyway) but the characters of Lucia, Caio, their father Vieri and Ilario are all very well drawn; Lucia and Caio especially often seem to leap off the page. Rao, Aayu and Narayani are equally well-done, and Mr. Siregar has done an excellent job adapting stereotypes to make these characters feel like real people, instead of cardboard cutouts.

This is not just one of the best independent books I have ever read; this is one of the finest fantasy novels (period, full stop, etc etc) that I have read in many years. My hat (had I one) goes off to Mr. Siregar for a well-told, well-edited and highly professional independent work that lends credence and credit to independent authors everywhere.

Final Score: 5 out of 5. You must read this book – you will not regret it.

Review – The Hero Always Wins by Robert Eaton

(Note: I read The Hero Always Wins in the Smashwords ePub format. It is available at Smashwords and Kindle, and also in paperback from Createspace, if that’s more your thing.)

Having entered the indie author scene a little over a month ago, I have begun reading more and more works by my fellow independent/self-published authors. I read several through the LibraryThing Member Giveaways, and though I’d found some very good work that I enjoyed immensely, I was beginning to despair that I would ever give an independent book five stars.

This is that book.

If anything, my biggest complaint with The Hero Always Wins is the title. It conveys a sort of irreverent tone; a snarky, ironic title that – given the intense, harrowing tale contained within – gives the impression that the reader is going to be picking up something like a Discworld novel.

This is not a Discworld novel.

No, this is a stunning, genuinely surprising and engaging work which is only revealed in its independent nature by the virtue of the occasional modern colloquialism in the otherwise medieval fantasy world – the kind of thing a professional editor likely would have scrubbed out.

The story itself – the tale of the knight Darcy, son of the Champion of Leorht, is riveting. I was pulled in by the sample, but the story continued to get better from there. When the first major plot twist happened, I had been lulled by the fantasy tropes, and then I got hit in the face with a real, honest-to-god surprise. The last time I was actually surprised by a book was Changes by Jim Butcher, and that is some high praise right there.

Robert Eaton is the kind of writer that, as an author, I would be genuinely honored to collaborate with in some way. He and I seem to think a lot alike, particularly in themes (the price of magic, the true measure of a hero) and even smaller details – like the fact that the magic wielded by his Knights of the Citadel seems to have a fair amount in common with the manna commanded by my Arbiters.

The story came to a satisfying conclusion, but left itself open for a sequel.

Honestly, I can say that I am really looking forward to it.

Pros: Riveting story, strong characters, delicious detail and satisfying ending
Cons: The occasional colloquialism; I wonder if the ironic title might be too snarky for the narrative

Final Score: FIVE OUT OF FIVE. If you like fantasy, you REALLY should read this book.