Saturday, 12 January 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Fulcrum of Odysseus, by Eric Michael Craig; Star Liner, by Scott Branchfield; Glimpses anthology; Broadswords and Blasters issue 1; Murder Most Mundane, by Mad Robot Comics

Welcome back, all - I've been struck by a little post-Christmas bug the past few days, which wasn't so good for cracking on with work, but sure helped me zip through some of my current reading. We have sci-fi, fantasy - and another graphic novel to review this week. 

Star Liner, by Scott Branchfield

There's a classic feel to this deep space tale from Scott Branchfield. It's like one of those smashing 70s or 80s sci-fi tales I used to devour from the library such as Andre Norton or Alan Dean Foster.
The premise is fairly simple - Jan is an entertainer recruited to help guests aboard a luxury space liner pass the time as they face a journey of months between stars.
It's a fairly slow start, as Jan meets his fellow crew members, learns the layout of the ship... and then things unravel quickly, with a murder on board. Suspicion points Jan's way, but that murder is just the beginning as events spiral out of control. Jan starts out having to clear his name, but soon will be faced with a fight for his life itself.
Branchfield really ratchets up the tension as the book goes along, with the tale moving at a real pace after that initial start.
By the end, you're really rooting for the characters... well, most of them. One or two you're happy to see come to a gruesome fate!

AI Rating: 4/5

Star Liner is available on Amazon here

Fulcrum of Odysseus, by Eric Michael Craig

If you're thinking the author's name is familiar, you're right - I reviewed the first book in this series just a week ago. The second book is out already, and the third book coming soon - so I expect you'll see another review soon too! 
Fulcrum of Odysseus picks up where the first book, Legacy of Pandora, left off - with Chancellor Kathryn Roja on the run from the Union fleet and the crew of the Jakob Waltz perched on the edge of a mystery that may be bigger than the conflicts tearing apart human society elsewhere in the solar system. The Jakob Waltz section of the story more and more reminds me of epics such as Greg Bear's Eon - but it's just part of the whole picture. 
You really need to read book one rather than drop into the middle of events here, but the story is all the better for doing so, as characters that seemed to be minor players in the first book come into their own, stepping up into the limelight and the battle for political supremacy engulfing mankind. 
There's a lot to love here - but one thing I particularly have to note is the dialogue, filled with altered future dialect and phrasing that seems odd at first but enriches the setting. 
Roja drops a little into the background of the saga in this book as events elsewhere dominate, but ends up... well, that would be telling. What I will tell you is that I'm very much looking forward to book three. 

AI Rating: 5/5
Fulcrum of Odysseus is available on Amazon here.

Glimpses: 16 Short Fantasy Stories

I do love reading short story anthologies - but I'm afraid this one felt a little undercooked. 
From the start, it hit a stumble - the opening story, The Killing Fields, by Sarah KL Wilson, is little more than a vignette set in her larger universe. Throw in a bit of weirdness in that the empire in the story is very much Oriental in nature but is headed by a woman with a Scottish-sounding name (without any explanation of how the two come together) and it's an awkward read. 
The anthology stays awkward throughout - the fantasy focus isn't always very tight (one story even diving off into Lovecraftian lore), resolutions are a bit too quick and easy, and a few too many are footnotes to a larger universe without really giving us a grasp of the setting in the story itself. 
Some are plain silly - The Wolf of Wool Street starts with a parody of having unwanted religious guests coming knocking at the door before introducing us to a werewolf by the name of... Woger. Who has a grandfather called Wandolph. It's a bit heavy-handed. 
My favourite story from the anthology came quite late on - Dance of Swords by JC Kang is another encounter with Eastern fantasy, but done far better, as a dancer turns would-be assassin, losing herself in the power of her music even as she edges closer to vanquishing a dictator. It's without doubt the highlight of an overall disappointing collection. 

AI Rating: 2/5

Glimpses is available on Amazon here.

Broadswords and Blasters Issue 1

Broadswords and Blasters is a blast from the past in many ways - a two-fisted return to pulp fantasy and sci-fi, and it's jolly good fun. 
As ever with anthologies, some tales find favour more than others, and one or two definitely missed the spot for me. A bit too much wish-fulfilling sex here and there, and one story that if it was adapted into a roleplaying game would plausibly have the title Pincers & Penises. But hey. 
One of the stories is a two-parter, the second part being in issue 2, which was probably a bit of a mistake to include but such are the lessons one learns when trying something new.
I really enjoyed the story The Executioner's Daughter, about a young woman trying to take on the hood of her father, while Dead Men Tell Tales was a clever little sci-fi tale by Dave D'Alessio. 
Perhaps the best tale of all though was the sparkling Saturday Night Science, by Michael M Jones, a full-on interdimensional romp of a first date between two women geniuses with occasional teasing about light bondage included. It's witty, it's joyful and it's really quite touching by the end. 
I like the joie de vivre and all out fun in this magazine - and the team's philosophy as spelled out in the foreword. At the time of writing, I think they are eight issues in - I'll certainly be back for more. 

AI Rating: 4/5

Broadswords and Blasters Issue 1 is available on Amazon here

Graphic novels and comics
Murder Most Mundane, by Ash Deadman, Matt Hardy, Clark Bint, Edward Bentley and Robin Jones

I picked up Murder Most Mundane from the Kickstarter run by its publisher, Mad Robot Comics - and it's a corker of a read. 
Take a dash of Wicker Man, a sprinkling of Midsomer Murders and the slightest smidge of Hot Fuzz and you have the story, in which a big-town police officer fallen on hard times winds up in a tiny, sleepy village. 
And then the killings start. 
Gruesome and witty by turn, the deaths that stalk the streets of the village of Fadfield get progressively more inventive, and come faster and faster. There are hints too that something strange is going on - is this the work of just one killer? Or is everyone in the village in on it? 
The artwork by Clark Bint is great too - and one particular shot of the detective and his sidekick walking up the street while every curtain twitches sets the mood perfectly. 
This is the best I've read yet from Mad Robot Comics - and deservedly gets five stars. 

AI Rating 5/5

Murder Most Mundane is available on the Mad Robot Comics website

Sunday, 6 January 2019

MEET THE AUTHOR: Get to know writer, artist and musician Ian Bristow

Ian Bristow is a talented man. He's an author, and also an artist - the creator behind a number of covers for books that have featured right here in this blog. Add to that being a musician and... well, I might be a tad jealous of such an array of skills! He stopped by the blog to say hi and to chat about his work. Meet Ian Bristow. 

Hi Ian, and welcome to Altered Instinct!

You’re an artist, a writer, a composer… that’s a pretty wide range of talents right there! Many a creator struggles to find time for one thing to do – when you get free time, what’s most often your gut thing to do from those three? 

I think music is my main go-to when I have free time, as I am a freelance artist and part-time author.  So, essentially, music is the only one of the three with no monetary attachments, leaving me free to truly relax when I create.

A time lapse video of Ian's work in progress for his painting Mage

Have you formal training in any of the disciplines or self-taught – how did you come to each of those? 

I’ve had formal training in all three, via college and also one on one tutelage. That said, I self-educate on a regular basis. It is not enough to merely take some classes and expect to grow in any area of life without further exploration and effort. Practice is key to any skill. Take an athlete, for example. Footballers don’t have a great touch on the ball or send a perfect pass to their teammate 60 yards away without training for hours on end. I came to art as a very young child. Colors fascinated me. I came to music as a young child as well. My mom taught me piano from the age of 5 to 10, when I started playing clarinet, which I put down to start playing guitar (I was 13). Writing, however, did not become part of my life until my late 20s. I wanted to illustrate a book for younger children and asked my sister to write one, she never did, so I sort of just wrote it myself. The story evolved into the Conner’s Odyssey trilogy and hilariously, I never ended up using my illustrations in the final version. Funny old world, in’it?

The first book in Ian's Conner's Odyssey trilogy

Tell us a little about your most recent writing project – what is it called, and what is it about? Give us your elevator pitch to make us fall in love with it! 

The title is Instinct Theory: First Contact. It’s about the first mission into interstellar space to study an earth-like planet discovered in another star system. Here’s a brief pitch: Though known by few, Earth’s ability to sustain human life has nearly been exhausted. The Federation’s quest to find a new host planet has finally paid off, and a small team of experts—ignorant to the urgency of their mission—has been sent to explore the new world prior to settlement. But to what lengths will the Federation go to keep their secret? Murder? Genocide? Or is no price too high to pay?

What inspired the story? 

My Cultural Anthropology class was the first inspiration. I thought, how cool would it be to have the opportunity to be the first person charged with studying the culture of another race of sentient beings? And the answer was—write a book…

Without spoilers, what was one of your favourite moments of the story to write? What was it that made you enjoy that section so much? 

One of my favorite moments to write was introducing my MC to the fact that another planet had been discovered with sentient life, and that the federation wanted her to be part of the team to go and study this life. As a cultural anthropologist, there would be no greater accolade. This moment came early in the story and really gave me the opportunity to dig into the MC’s character in a way that made writing her from then on feel unforced.

Ian says: "Prelude to Winter is a piece I did to reacquaint myself with good old fashion landscape work."

What were some of your favourite books to read as a child? Which were the first books you remember falling in love with? 

I really loved the Redwall series. Brian Jacques’ creativity was astounding.  I also enjoyed the Hobbit and LOTR books a ton. Outside of that, I’m a bit foggy on the stuff I read. I actually spent a great deal more time outside as a child. That or building Legos and drawing.

Who are your favourite authors to read? And in a similar vein, who are the artists who influenced you? 

Wow, this is tough. I really enjoy Patrick Rothfuss, Tolkien, Crichton, Rowling (Harry Potter only), and of course, the aforementioned Brian Jacques. There are plenty of others, of course.  The artists who inspired me growing up were any involved in Disney productions, my mom, and Bob Ross. As I’ve gotten older, that has not changed, but others have been added to the list.

This piece was created as an exploration of creature design, and how texture, focus and light can help bring a level of realism to the work.

What has been your favourite reaction to your work – be it writing, art or music? 

Any time I get the sense that I have inspired another person to create, I feel wholly satisfied. And of course, when someone goes out of their way to tell me they loved my book, or music or painting, that never gets old either.

2019 is upon us now - what’s coming up for you this year? Any big landmarks you’re aiming for? 
Publishing my WIP. I’ve been working on it for quite a long time and still have much work to do, so if I can release this year, I’ll be very pleased. I’m working towards a fall release.

Ian's novel Hunting Darkness

What has been your biggest challenge as a writer? What hurdles have you had to overcome, and what helped you to do so? 

My biggest challenge has been recognizing that each time I feel I’ve reached a goal in my craft, it merely opens my eyes to a new set of issues I need to address. It’s as if each time I rein in one writerly issue, I’m awarded a pair of goggles that highlights the next issue with florescent paint. This journey is one with rest stops, and some might even have accommodations like peer approval or fan acquisition, but then you have to get back on the road and keep to the quest, lest you stay there forever and stagnate. The main hurdle I’ve overcome is acceptance of the issue I’ve just spoken about, and the thing that helped me do so was my peers. Other folks who are going through the same thing and able to offer solution-oriented empathy, not sympathy for something they know little about.

Taking art to the streets - Ian Bristow creating some chalk art

Marketing is always a challenge for writers – to share the love, what have you found the most useful tip for spreading the word about books? 

Marketing… A word that strikes fear in the hearts of all who live paycheck to paycheck. I have very little money, and as a result, I am quite dreadful at marketing. I could market my book or eat dinner… It’s like that for many of us indies. But I know what I would do if I did have that bit of financial padding, and that would be to hire a PR expert, set up regular ads on Amazon, and create high-end advertising material, such as professional trailers with industry-leading production, etc. And above all, it’s a rinse and repeat thing. You don’t get the sale the first or hundredth time a potential reader sees your book in the ocean of options. They need to have that opportunity to buy over and over and over again.

Where can readers follow you to find out more about your work? 

They can check out my website or follow me on Facebook and Twitter
And if they have a taste for art, they can look me up on YouTube

A traditional question here at Altered Instinct – what are you reading at present, and what is the best book you’ve read in the past year? 

I am currently reading Light’s Rise by Yvette Bostic. The best book I read in the last year was Mistrust and Treason by E.M. Swift-Hook.

Many thanks, Ian - a delight to have you call by the blog. Good luck with that WIP! 

* A painting by Ian inspired one of my own flash fiction pieces - which you can read, and see the art that sparked it, right here.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Legacy of Pandora by Eric Michael Craig; Somebody Save Me! A Superhero Anthology; In Numina, by Assaph Mehr; Souls and Hallows, by S R Algernon; Sparkly Badgers' Christmas Anthology; Spider-Gwen Volume 1: Greater Power

Having just completed my review of the Best Five Books of 2018, it's time for a new year and a new round of books!

I'm taking part in the Goodreads Challenge again - and people can follow along with my year's reading here. This year is off to a strong start too! There are two books in this latest round of reviews that I'm already pegging as strong contenders for the best of 2019! If this is how the year's reading is starting, long may it continue.

Without further ado, on to the reviews!

Legacy of Pandora: Shan Takhu Legacy, Book One, by Eric Michael Craig

I really enjoyed the Atlas and the Winds series from this author, so it's no surprise to me that this is a great slice of science fiction.
The heart of the story lies in two mysteries - one for the crew of the ice prospector ship Jakob Waltz as they encounter an anomaly that could threaten their lives, and the other for Fleet Chancellor Kathryn Roja, who uncovers a plot to undermine the government and perhaps tilt the solar system into chaos.
Both mysteries are deftly handled, both the hard sci-fi as the ship's crew must fend for themselves to unravel a puzzle that leaves their ship battered and their bodies bruised and worse - and the hard politics as Roja tries to work out who is behind a scheme that could see the construction of a secret fleet of ships.
The author deftly moves the pieces of the puzzle into place - just in time for all hell to break loose!
I really enjoyed this book - Craig has a real talent for not just explaining scientific detail well but to use the science to advance the story itself. This is rollicking, knock-it-out-of-the-park sci-fi, an adventure that sizzles across the stars. It's the kind of writing that stands comparison to Larry Niven or Greg Bear - and would be a great read for fans of the Expanse series.
This is the start of a series, and I'm truly hooked - count me in for the next books!

AI Rating: 5/5

Legacy of Pandora is available on Amazon here.

Somebody Save Me! A Superhero Anthology

As a big fan of the Wild Cards series from George R R Martin and friends, this collection intrigued me. There's something delightful about exploring superhero stories in other media beyond comic books and movies - and it gives an opportunity to really get under the capes of those out to save the day.
Unlike Wild Cards, there's no consistent setting here - it's a range of short stories from different authors, each in their own settings, and some hit the mark, others less so.
I enjoyed Rob Edwards' exploration of the source of powers in his world and both it and Noel Martinez and Christopher J Valin's depiction of the legacy of a hero certainly do show us some of the secret identity behind a hero.
Others feel a little lighter, perhaps fragmentary because of being glimpses of individual authors' larger universes or stories they're exploring elsewhere.
All in all, it's a light read, one that will be ideal to wile away a journey, while dreaming of saving the world.

AI Rating: 3/5

Somebody Save Me is available on Amazon here

In Numina, by Assaph Mehr

Well, goshdarn it. You know that moment when you read an author new to you and they absolutely hook you from beginning to end and you close the book and say to yourself "Hey, I've got a new favourite author"? This book was that moment for me. 
Assaph Mehr tells a story of mystery and magic in ancient Rome. Think Jim Butcher's Dresden Files taken back a couple of millenia. Felix the Fox, a skullduggerous scallywag who alternates between being a troubleshooter and getting into trouble with women, is commissioned to solve a little property problem. Namely, his employer's cheaper properties are having a problem with keeping their tenants, what with the ghosts and terrors and deaths and whatnot. 
So begins Felix's adventure which sees him chart a course through the supernatural and political worlds, and between the affections of his investigative companion and her mother. It's not easy being a fox. 
I thoroughly enjoyed this book - it really hit its stride in a middle section that was utterly gripping. The cast of characters are great too - I really rooted for even minor characters. I even teared up over one character's reaction late in the book. Sniff. Honestly, I prefer it too to the Dresden Files, as it treats its female characters much better. 
A fast-paced thrill of a read, this is absolutely worth adding to your bookshelf. Enjoy! 

AI Rating: 5/5

In Numina is available on Amazon here.

Souls And Hallows, by S R Algernon

Gosh, this is a hefty collection of short stories. S R Algernon presents a collection of flash fiction and short stories. I'll confess, I wish the longer stories came further towards the front of the collection - we start with a run of flash fiction that slip away before you can get a good grip on them. Enjoyable - but that's the nature of flash fiction, it's like a flash of a shooting star across the sky and then it's gone. 
It's the story Rosetta that first grabbed me with both hands, pushed me into a chair and told me to listen up - it's a tale of linguistics and, perhaps, ancient hands guiding our world. It's deftly, delicately handled, and sumptuous in its ending. 
After that, I was hooked, be it to visits to The World's Fair, or dalliances with distant artificial intelligences; tales of dragons or tales of the stars. I did feel that the shorter flashes were a bit too light perhaps, but there is weight elsewhere. 
It's perhaps fitting that, for me, Rosetta formed the key to it all.

AI Rating: 4/5

Souls and Hallows is available on Amazon here.

Sparkly Badgers' Christmas Anthology

I picked this up over the Christmas holiday - and it's a sweet little anthology of festive tales, written to raise money for charity. 
With just enough stories to cover 12 days of Christmas with one more for luck, it makes a good family read, touching on a reimagined Christmas Carol with badgers, to Santa visiting mermaids and a scientific theory behind how Santa really gets round all those houses at night. 
It's fun, it's light, and it makes for a pleasant way to share Christmas. 

AI Rating: 4/5

The Sparkly Badgers' Christmas Anthology is available here.

Comic books and graphic novels

This year, I'm going to aim to include in each review section a review of a comic or graphic novel. It might be a classic, it might be brand new - but we start with...

Spider-Gwen Volume 1: Greater Power, by Jason Latour, Robbie Rodriguez, Chris Visions, Rico Renzi and Clayton Cowles

I swing in and out of the Marvel comics these days, so Spider-Gwen had passed me by a little - so it was a nice treat to see the first volume available for free on Prime Reading to get a taste. 
Essentially a way of reframing the Spider-Man origin story with a different perspective, we see the Gwen Stacy of a different dimension take on the powers of Spider-Man, with the world upended in different ways in her dimension. 
She fights beside a female Captain America, Peter Parker succumbs to the potent power of the Lizard injections, and Frank Castle becomes the cop on the trail of the spider vigilante. It's a nice twist on the regular Marvel 616 universe - where Spider-Gwen is a sometime visitor too. 
Without preaching, without heavy-handed storytelling, we get a strong female line-up of characters and an interesting tale of secrets, regrets and friendship. It's good stuff. 

AI Rating: 4/5

Spider-Gwen is available on Amazon here.