Review: Battle of Will by Sasha L. Miller

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Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Battle of Will coverSkirfallan mage Ackley, newly deposed as one of Prince Taceo’s private guard, is attending the memorial service of those warriors and mages  of both nations killed during the Skirfall/Morcia war when he notices something very wrong.  One of Skirfall’s infamous Interrogators, Daralis Litwick,  is not where he should be, close to their Prince.  Instead the Interrogator mage  is hiding in the woods near the Morcian Royal Prince, Beorn Ealdwin, and his party.  The Royals and their entourages are present for the memorial to honor the dead of both nations and signal the beginnings of the temporary truce.   But Ackley knows Prince Taceo’s hatred of Morcia runs deep after the death of his brother and suspects that the Prince is about to attempt an assassination of the  Morcian Prince during the ceremony.  When the attempt is made by Daralis, Ackley intervenes by trying to block the killing spell.  He succeeds in preventing Prince Ealdwin’s death but the spell goes awry in a manner he never expected.

Now Ackley is not only magically bound to the enemy Prince whose land holds archaic beliefs about the use of magic ,he is also considered a traitor to his country.  With the assassination attempt, the truce is broken, Ackley must travel back with the Prince and royal party back to Morcia, a land that finds magic and its use abhorrent.  Now Ackley must try to break the spell that binds them.  But will success mean his freedom or his death?

The Battle of Will is an imaginative, expansive fantasy story from the mind of Sasha L. Miller.  Miller has created two conflicting nations, battling over everything from territory to their views of magic.  Ackley’s kingdom, Skirfall, has embraced magic in all its uses.  Whether the mage is a battle mage or one that sees to more domestic chores, magic forms the base of the Skirfallan nation. Their long-time enemy is Morcia, a nation that values physical endeavors over the magical ones. In fact Morcia fears the use of magic to the point of outlawing its uses in most instances which has culminated in only a few mages to counteract the battle tactics and mages of its foe.  From such a great foundation, Miller then creates two diametrically opposed characters and binds them together through an act of mercy and a spell gone wrong.  It’s a tantalizing plot and Sasha L. Miller uses it to bring us a whopping great tale of intrigue, misplaced loyalties, treason, magic and of course, romance.

Miller’s descriptions of her universe and warriors are both vivid and intricate in detail.  Her soldiers are rank, caked in blood and mud and her battles and action are as realistic as they come.  And that same rich, graphic narrative  carries over to the mages and the use to which their use their powers, both evil and good.  I love the way the author plays with several levels of her story at the same time, giving it a depth and texture that brings the story and the reader together in an intimate melding of fantasy, suspense, and romance.  On one level we have Ackley and Beorn dealing with not only a binding that ties them together in startling ways but also the fact that they are national enemies with philosophical differences.  It is such a pleasure to watch the men slowly adjust to their situation, learning about each other as their trust and attraction grows.  Beorn and Ackley are great characters, living, breathing warriors who are more similar in outlook than they appear. It’s a joy to watch suspicion and mistrust dissolve into friendship and then something more. Trust me when I say there is no instant love, no fast track to sex and the bedroom here.  For some readers this snail like crawl to the first kiss will be frustrating, but for me and many others when that kiss does occur, it is all the more satisfying for having been made to wait.

And while the men are making their emotional as well as physical adjustments to their state, Ackley and Beorn, as well as other trusted characters, must uncover the person or persons behind the treachery occurring within the Morcian castle as one death after another brings the court closer to shambles and the destruction of a nation.  Miller builds her mystery, with layer upon layer, each so dense that the true traitors are hard to pick out from those just invested in typical court politics.  The anticipation, the suspense is wonderful and the final denouement when it comes is as action packed as you could want.  I loved Miller’s ability to create a dangerous atmosphere everywhere the main characters go, whether to a dusty library full of vile tomes of poison and torture to a dark deserted hallway that should have been full of guards.  She keeps us as well as her characters tense with suspicion and stressed to the max.  There is such an amazing depth to her  plot and characters that all with stay with you long after the story has been finished.

My only quibble with Battle of Will is that I wished there had been a little more of a romantic connection between Ackley and Beorn, not flirting so much as perhaps a little more recognition of the building attraction to each other.  Everything else about this story is colorful, beautifully detailed and rich in layers.  I wish their romance had been equal to the power of the rest.  I highly recommend this story to all lovers of fantasy, magic, and epic battles for power.

Cover Artist Megan Derr.  The cover is the two heraldic flags of each nation, simple but effective.

Book Details:

Approximately 293 pages, 132,000 words

Originally posted as a serialized fiction
Published December 19th 2012 by Less Than Three Press LLC
original titleBattle of Will
edition languageEnglish
urlhttp://www.lessthanthreepress.com/fiction.ph

Review: Captive Magic (Sentinels #3) by Angela Benedetti

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Rating: 3.75 stars

Captive MagicBreckenridge “Breck” Bayes is both a telepath and teleporter.  And it his last gift that brought him to the attention of a demon in search of an object.  Normally Breck would have said no but nothing in Breck’s world was normal at the moment.  His kid sister is dying of cancer and there is nothing the doctors can do for her.  But if Breck agrees to work for the demon, then his sister will be cured.  But the demon’s demands keep growing and each time Breck fails, the demon makes his sister sick again.  Breck is desperate to finish their deal but he can’t find the object the demon wants and he is getting desperate.

Manny Oliveira, owner and operator of the bookstore the Grove, is a seer and Sentinel.  So it makes perfect sense that when someone sees a man teleport in and out of a local shop, the first one they report it to is Manny.  When Manny chases Breck down mid robbery, Breck’s explanations for his thefts tug at Manny’s heart.  Manny understands totally about family and love for the youngest members.  So  he decides to help Breck get free of his obligation while leaving his sister healthy, a huge undertaking and one he is not prepared for.  Because the demon Breck is working for wants Manny’s talents as well.

With both men in trouble and a demon holding them in peril, what happens when you add love to an already unstable mixture?

Captive Magic is the first book I have read by author Angela Benedetti so I was unaware that it was the third book in a series that is five stories deep including this one (see list below). I found out about the series after the fact and that explained some of the lack of back history associated with Captive Magic and the Sentinel group. Clearly the author has provided the Sentinel backgrounds in previous books (or so I assume).  So I am going to exclude that issue from my review except to say I wish that a minor recap had been given and continue on as though it is a stand alone.

I did find much to admire about Captive Magic on its own terms.  Angela Benedetti has a marvelous imagination and ability to craft an ingenious story plot.  Captive Magic combines those elements with terrific and appealing characters and you have the makings of a great story and certainly a series.  I found all the characters here, with the exception of the “demon” likable, realistic, and certainly capable of holding their own against the weight of the wild elements found within this story.

Benedetti supplies both men with heartwarming and recognizable families, from the heartbreaking Amanda, Breck’s sister, who is dealing with her cancer and the strain upon her family, to the bright, and incorrigible Anita, Manny’s niece, and Amanda’s healthy opposite. “Manda” especially tugs on our heart strings with her brave but realistically tough outlook on her illness and her future.  Breck’s mother, weary, strained, and doing what is necessary to keep her family together is a portrait of a mother under incredible pressure and the fractures are beginning to show.  By placing both men within a strong, and loving family structure, Benedetti makes us understand Breck’s agreement and subsequent stealing.  When forced to choose between a child’s life and a theft of an object,, who wouldn’t choose the child, especially when the medical world has failed her?

Less successful is her choice to have Manny assist Breck on his own, without any help from the other Sentinels. Sentinels, who (by the events that occur later in the story), are clearly better equipped to have handled this situation as a group.  Manny has this whole cadre of magic users at his disposal.  One even asks him at the beginning what is going on “with the teleporter” but Manny lies about his knowledge and involvement.  For no discernible reason other than the author needed him to do so for her plot to work.

At one point in the story Breck tells Manny “this is pointless” and so it is.  With so many other incredible elements here, why would you not have a better, more reasonable, more logical explanation for Manny’s actions then the nonexistent one Benedetti supplies the reader and Manny with.  This is a huge missed step, one of several that pulls the story (and the story’s ratings) downward.

Another aspect of this story, that of another dimension brings out the best and the worst with Benedetti.  The best includes a wildly imaginative world that combines elements of math, physics, Harry Potter and the unknown into a simply stunning new dimension.  Here is an excerpt:

 The passages wandered all over, around corners, up and down slopes, through doorways and in and out of huge rooms or caverns or whatever. Breck never spotted an obvious light source; it was like the photons were just sort of bouncing around at random, keeping everything generally lit, with no shadows and no bright spots. It was like a maze full of water; water didn’t pile up in one place or leave a hole someplace else, and the light was behaving the same way. It was weird.

They climbed over a raised lintel, sort of like the hatchways on ships, and into a medium-sized cavern. There was a cluster of… sculptures? growing out of the wall to the left, or maybe they’d been stuck there for some reason? Breck hauled Manny over so they could get a look.

“Is this what you saw?” Manny was squinting at one of the little thingies, then another. “They’re weird, man. It’s like a Klein bottle or something — or two or three of them stuck together.”

Breck decided not to ask what a Klein bottle was; he just checked out all the weird sculpture-things and shook his head, trying not to follow their loops and spouts too far ‘cause they made his eyes water. “No, none of these. It was bigger, I think. Hard to tell size, but there was more to it, and there was a bigger smooth part on one side — these all have handles and knobs and stuff all over them.”

The more she describes it the weirder it gets.  And that’s great because if we are confused it helps us understand what the characters are feeling as they stumble through the passages in this dimension.  But then it becomes too much of a good thing, as they start popping in and out of the action, most of which is occurring back in their original world.  Soon all the little details the author used to embellish this dimension and her story start to bog down the narrative and disconnect the reader from the characters and their mission.  You know the story is in trouble when one character is left to sit on the floor while the other “pops” out to confront the demon and the pov stays with the person on the floor, whiling away the time until the other man reappears to explain things.

At this point several things have occurred to undercut the momentum of the story and the anticipation that the author has built up.  The readers never really get their “aha” moment with the so called “demon”, that just kind of melts away, undeserving of the huge buildup of “dark, nauseating” descriptions of what it feels like when they interact with the demon and its demands. It’s almost like getting Pooh Bear under the sheet instead of Freddy Kreuger.  Instead of giving the first part of her story its due with a satisfactory conclusion, the author manufactures a secondary trauma and expends all her energies and exposition on it, another miscalculation in my opinion.

Mixed in with everything else that is going on is a “instant love” story that lacking a believable romantic time frame gets it own jump start that once again asks that the reader suspend their disbelief and accept the author’s explanations for a deep and abiding love between Manny and Breck.

Unfortunately this is not the first time the author has called on the reader’s goodwill and ability to believe in her story and then treated that gift somewhat shabbily.  Towards the end of the story, Manny (and Breck) easily accepts the aid of the other Sentinels, the same aid he rejected at the beginning, with no reasonable shift in attitude.  For the reader to have accepted Manny’s lying and avoidance of any assistance from his other Sentinels, the author would have had to supply a better justification than the shallow ones given.

In the end, all the great characterizations, wonderfully inventive world building, and catchy dialog have a hard time surmounting the detail overkill, as well as a story that bogs down under its own cleverness and abundance of plots. In fact Benedetti’s inability to bring the major plot to a satisfactory close, sacrificing it to put into motion another more angst driven secondary story line is such a huge error, in my opinion, that it almost negates the goodwill and expectations that came before.

Even with all my frustrations and issues with Captive Magic, I will still recommend it with reervations.  If you are a fan of the series and Angela Benedetti,, I know you will want to pick this one up. If you are a fan of fantasy and the paranormal, then this has enough terrific elements to make it worth reading.  But if you are in it just for the romance alone, then this is probably not the book for you.

Cover illustration by BSClay is a marvel, perfect for the story.

Book Details:

ebook, 307 pages
Published September 4th 2013 by Torquere Press
edition language English
series Sentinels #3
Books in the series include:
A Hidden Magic (Sentinels #1)

 Unfinished Business (Sentinels #1.5)
Reach Out and Touch (Sentinels #1.6)
Chasing Fear (Sentinels #1.7)
Emerging Magic (Sentinels #2)
Captive Magic (Sentinels #3)

Review: Scorpion (Memory of Scorpions #1) by Aleksandr Voinov

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Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Scorpian 2nd edition coverKendras is quite possibly the last surviving member of the only family he’s ever known—the elite fighting force known as the Scorpions. Gravely injured and left for dead during the conflict between the city states of Dalman and Fetin. Kendras has no choice but to accept the coin and offer of service to the mercenary who finds him severely wounded outside the city.  All the mercenary called Steel demands is nothing less than Kendras’ total submission and acceptance of a secret task to carry out.  With no where else to turn and no money to buy medicine, Kendras resignedly accepts.

But Kendras has his own hidden agenda, that of finding if any of his Scorpion brothers survived and bringing the elite team back together again.  It also includes finding the man who holds Kendras’ heart and soul, that of the officer who leads the Scorpions.  But first, Kendras must heal.  His shattered foot and other wounds need time.  Complications arise when Steel becomes possessive of Kendras, wanting more than just his body.  But Steel’s too late, Kendras’ love and loyalty lie elsewhere.  When that becomes apparent, what will Steel do when he realizes Kendras will never be his?

Kendras faces layers of political intrigue, and tests that will strain his loyalties and test his physical prowess as a warrior.But nothing will stand in the way of Kendras achieving his goals, not even the Empire itself.

Scorpion is such a powerful book.  Brutal, grimly realistic in its portrait of a warrior’s life, depicting the violence to body and soul that is the by product of such a life.  It is also equally honest in its scenes of casual everyday brutality that is a way of life for those less fortunate and lacking in status or wealth.  Rape, humiliation, slavery and death lie in wait for all but the most noble or well connected. And even then assassination and mutilation are possibilities for those who would rule.  Aleksandr Voinov has created a universe of exceptional cruelty, where casual viciousness and political maneuvering are daily occurances. Yet it is also a world where love and loyalty cannot be bought and the possibility of  redemption and love is a treasure to be fought for.

In Voinov’s world, a devastating war in the empire of Shara has left the former dynasty broken into three city kingdoms.  In the three hundred years since the sundering of the empire of Shara, the three cities have maintained a delicate balance of autonomy between them.  The author reveals the political tactics within each city and the wars that the failed policies and negotiations have brought to the kingdoms themselves. Kendras and his fellow Scorpions are the latest casualties of a war between Dalman and Fetin, two of the city kingdoms.  From the start, the author brings us into the conflict at the bottom level.  The consequences of the war is everywhere, from the dead to the dying and mutilated.  The mercenaries, needed to fight are just as quickly discarded by those who hired them.  It is a rough, cruel life and Voinov depicts it honestly with gritty descriptions that are almost to vivid to bear.

Equal to Voinov’s world building is his characterizations.  Every character found within this novel is meticulously created from Kendras to Steel to Widowmaker, the assassin whose loyalties are hidden beneath layers of guile.  These are  also not men for the fainthearted.  They take what they want regardless of the frailties and consent of others. In fact, kindness and passivity is looked down on, it will get a person killed or enslaved on this world. Loyalty and brotherhood are to be treasured and love is so rare that it is not easily identifiable.

At the heart of this story is Kendras, an orphan discarded on the streets of Fetin to fend for himself at an early age.  An oddity because of his black skin and blue eyes that mark him as a pureblooded Jaishani (a noble race), Kendras has no idea as to his lineage or history.  A petty thief and sometime killer, Kendras’ life was changed on the day he was set to die, saved by the officer who would train him to be a  Scorpion.  I loved Kendras.  He is such a remarkable character, he perseveres, he is loyal, and amidst his pragmatism, there is an unquenchable desire to love and be loved in return.  Equal in complexity is the officer (his name is revealed later on in the story).  Who and what he is slowly comes to the surface over the course of the story.  While the novel unfolds through the eyes of Kendras, the officer becomes a man who both Kendras and the reader commit to emotionally and intellectually.  But every character Voinov has created has multiple layers, from Selvin a Scorpion who chooses to remain a sexual slave to Steel and Widowmaker, mercenaries with pasts as complex as their characters.   Every one of these damaged people enrich the story with their realism and singular personalities.

I found no quibbles with this incredible story but I must make an admission.  The opening pages are as brutal as any you will find throughout Scorpion.  Initially, I had a hard time with them, especially the non con elements involved.   But they also ring with a terrible authenticity and you will understand why the author not only included them but started off in such a manner as you delve further into the book and Kendras’ life.  It is cruel and sets the tone for the reality of the life Kendras lives and the events that will occur down the line.  Kendras does what he has to in order to stay alive.  It’s a pragmatic outlook and it certainly is one that belongs to a war hardened mercenary.

The narrative of Scorpion was smooth and thrilling.  I couldn’t put it down. The ending of the story was satisfying while leaving the way open for the next book in the series.  Its with anticipation and a little fear that I await the next installment.  Don’t pass this  story up..

Cover art by Reese Dante is gorgeous in the 2nd edition.  The model is perfect for Kendras and the design works in tone and graphics.  Great job.

Book Details:

2nd edition from Riptide Publishing
eBook ISBN: 978-1-62649-013-0

eBook release: May 27, 2013

eBook Formats: pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 978-1-62649-014-7
Print release: May 27, 2013
Word count: 71,000
Page count: 274
Type: Part of a Series
Cover by: Reese Dante
This title is #1 of the Memory of Scorpions series.
– See more at: http://www.riptidepublishing.com/titles/scorpion-memory-scorpions-1#sthash.UsSFLbL9.dpuf
Rewritten, enlarged and redited
First edition 242 pages from Dreamspinner Press 2011