Thursday, February 21, 2019

Third Time's a Charm: Jeffrey Bardwell's Rotten Magic

Title: Rotten Magic
Series: The Artifice Mage Saga (#1)
Author: Jeffrey Bardwell
Genre: Fantasy / Steampunk 
Publisher: Twigboat Press
Pages: 336

What Goodreads has to say:

Destiny in one hand. Doom in the other. Which will destroy him first? 

Artificers are the gilded princes of the Iron Empire. Mages are violent criminal outcasts. Devin competes to become the best artificer in the empire . . . but he's secretly a mage. 

Devin, a young skilled apprentice, dreams of becoming the master of his craft if he can only resist the sinuous allure of magic. His secret grows heavier as he claws his way to the top of his competitive, cutthroat guild. Friends and rivals start taking notice when Devin glorifies in the persona of the dragon and builds mechanical armor to match. He's also started hearing voices in his head: the stout words of the being he calls 'the artificer' and the sly, oily voice of 'the mage.' How long can Devin be satisfied with fake dragon armor when the promise of true arcane power whispers in his ear? 

Embark on Devin's dark, epic journey in Book One of The Artifice Mage Saga. Join the fantasy steampunk brawl of metal vs. magic where sorcery is bloody, science is greasy, and nobody's hands are clean.

What I have to say:

I don't usually talk about my own writing on here, but I'm gong to make a brief exception right now.

It took me a few years to realize how my writing process works. It's like this:

1. Write a book.
2. Read through it and make a few edits.
3. Decide it's probably the next great American novel.
4. Wait several months.
5. Read it again.
6. Realize it needs a complete rewrite.

As such, it's easy for me to understand why author Jeffrey Bardwell has rewritten Rotten Magic twice (well, at least twice, as far as I know).

I'm also happy to say that this third (and, as he tells me, final) incarnation of Devin's story is not only the best yet, but a more complete, satisfying story than either of the previous two versions.

First of all, I LOVE LOVE LOVE that the story starts in Devin's village before he gets accepted into the Artificer's Guild. He's still a poor, innocent country boy with stars in his eyes. Reading the first few chapters of the story, I just kept thinking, "Yes! Yes! Yes! This is where Devin's story starts."'

It's soooo much more interesting and satisfying to start here when he's an ignorant young bumpkin who wants nothing more than to study at the Artificer's Guild. He's never seen the Iron City: he has no idea what he's in store for, or what the Artificer's Guild is really like.

It gives the tragedy that follows (in this book and the sequels) so much more weight. And it makes Devin's character arc so much more compelling.

I equally loved getting to see Devin's first encounter with Drusilla, Benny, and all the other students. The first two Rotten Magics started with Devin already in his last year of apprenticeship--at which point he'd been living in the Iron City for a few years and was already enmeshed in the tangled web of the Artificer's Guild, with Benny as his nemesis and Drusilla as his best friend.

In those other two drafts, I never realized what I was missing. It's so fun to see these relationships take shape. It's so fascinating to see Devin transform from his first to final year as an Artificer.

For anyone who hasn't had the benefit of seeing this story slowly take shape (and it's been so interesting to see), I'll stop talking about the changes and just dive into the story itself.

Magic. Steampunk. Characters so complex you cheer for them one moment and cringe for them the next. You love them, hate what they're doing, and find the whole thing so utterly fascinating you can't look away from the impending train wreck. WHAT'S NOT TO LOVE HERE? THIS IS EVERYTHING I WANT IN A BOOK.

Devin is such a fascinating character, and perhaps equally fascinating is Drusilla. Though I'm still perplexed by her actions in the final chapter (how does she think turning Devin over to the Black Guards is going to free him?), I so love Drusilla's character and her inner monologues:

And of course you're only doing this for Devin's sake, I told myself. Because his behavior has grown so bizarre, his inventions so dangerous. Not from any sense of jealousy? Not because never in your craziest dreams could you have imagined such an awesome flame-throwing device? And you, the lamper's daughter, no less!

As for Devin himself, he's your ultimate troubled hero. I love the boy to death and want nothing more than for him to succeed. But from the moment he first kindles a fire from his fingertips--not even a fire, really, just a faint, fleeting warmth--you know where this is all headed.

Oh, did I mention? Magic is forbidden in the Iron Empire. Devin's not only a crazy brilliant artificer--he's secretly a mage.

Also, he's unstable as heck. Is it something to do with the magic? Does magic make a person unstable? Dangerous? Is Devin really--like the mages on all those propaganda posters--a monster?

I love it, I'm here for all of it--even the train wreck at the end.

And writing this, the spirit of my former English major (writing her senior thesis on Frankenstein adaptations) just resurfaced. Because what screams Frankenstein's monster like a troubled boy--cast out by his fellows and denied fellowship until he's desperate--igniting a room full of innocent bystanders (well, admittedly, they are Black Guards who are probably going to arrest him, but still....)?

Whenever the Artificer's Guild students play Knights and Dragons--a bit like Capture the Flag, but the Flag is the Dragon and once you find him, well let's just say it's a bit more violent than Capture the Flag--Devin is ALWAYS the Dragon. Dragon Boy. That's his nickname. Why not just call him a monster and have done with it?

But somehow, like Frankenstein's monster, Devin may be the least monstrous of them all. He's so innocent. And yet--he's anything but innocent. It's complex, it's fascinating, it's beautiful. It's Rotten Magic 3.0.

This is where I break into applause.


(Y'all saw that coming, right?)

Until tomorrow.

P.S. -- Now you all know how to bribe me into giving a great review. Just write a book with Frankenstein parallels.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Book Fairs happening in 2019

Hello lovely readers! It has come to my attention that a lot of you are kind of into books.

The folks at Kotobee have put together this awesome chart of every book fair happening in 2019--all over the world. Below, you can see the line-up for America, but if you want details or info about book fairs happening in other locales, head over to the site and browse by continent.

2019 North America Book fair Calendar

Seen anything you like? (The New York International Antiquarian Book Fair sounds pretty sweet to us).

May you discover many new literary adventures in 2019. And when you do, keep us posted!

Happy reading,
Erin & Anna

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Here there be mermaids: Bo Wu's 'Mermaids are Real'

Title: Mermaids Are Real: The Mystiq Prong
Author: Bo Wu
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy 
Published: 2018
Pages: 342
Buy: Amazon

What Goodreads has to Say:

"'Crabs talk?' asked Benji.

'Everything in nature speaks. Not everything in nature listens,' said Octavius nodding Topside."

Benji Fisher has spent the first twelve years of his life growing up in a small fishing town, Topside. He’s gotten used to the gang of dolphins who follow him on his surfboard and the voices he hears under the water; odd things that have, in their repetition, become part of normal everyday life. 

However, none of that prepares him for the recruitment speech he gets from an octopus named Octavius and three of the dolphins the night before his thirteenth birthday.

What would you do if your ‘calling’ in life required you to take a leap of faith? Would you take the plunge?

What I have to say: 

Mermaids are awesome. Which brings up a valid question: why aren't there more books about them? And why is is that all the books about mermaids I've ever read are so dull?

Now, I'm sure there's some mermaid book out there that's super awesome; but at the moment I can't think of a single non-picture book about mermaids that actually held my interest long enough for me to finish it. (Anyone read The Water Babies?)

Bo Wu's Mermaids Are Real isn't bad as far as books about mermaids go. The author has conjured up a rich undersea world and a story enthused with contemporary issues (like pollution).

It's not the be-all, end-all mermaid book we never knew we always wanted, but whatever.

First, let's talk about the good stuff.

Great quote: "The ocean always talks to those who are willing to listen to it."

There were moments in this book that really soared--and hinted that the author has a natural spark for world-building and storytelling. For example, Aquari--the home of the merpeople--is colorful, imaginative, and wondrous. It's beautiful, exciting, and holds plenty of still undiscovered secrets:

"The ocean's a big place.... I suppose it would take you hundreds of years to see all that Topside has to offer. It would take you thousands more to see all that Aquari has hidden amongst its various nooks and crannies. I see things I've never seen before every single day."

This is spoken by the main character's water fairy mentor, Montal, who happens to be my favorite character.

One of my favorite scenes was the one in which Montal's daughter, Payton, grows some high-speed coral by shooting multi-colored sparks from her wings as she spins. The moment captured that childlike wonder often associated with mermaids (and, I suppose, fairies).

Another of my favorite moments was when our hero, Benji, confronts all his insecurities and finds the strength to move past them, guided by his mother's healing spirit. That scene was beautifully played and left me with an appetite for more. (Benji's mother is dead. So is his dad. It's basically a Harry Potter situation where Hagrid is an octopus who says, "You're a merman, Harry.")

There were also some characters I thought were very fun. Montal was awesome, and I loved Octavius (which is the only acceptable name for an Octopus). Eke and Zeke--young, headstrong dolphins-- were also fun. And Joe, Benji's adopted dad, was great.

But elsewhere, I could have used a little more layering in the characters. I feel like Benji could have been a lot more complex, especially considering that awesome, transcendent scene I just mentioned: it was wonderful, but it came out of nowhere and then sunk back into the ocean never to be seen again.

And what's up with Benji and Meena (the beautiful/terrifying mermaid who first makes contact with Benji and gives him a kiss--strictly for oxygen purposes--early on in the story)? I kind of thought they'd get together. They don't have to--that's totally the author's prerogative--but it seemed like the story was setting us up for that and then never delivering. If they don't end up getting together, I at least want a really deep friendship or something. I didn't feel like I got that. They were just kind of thrown together and I guess they're friends now or whatever.

But the main thing that kept me from fully enjoying this book was its style. I've thought long and hard about how to describe it and I'm still coming up short. It's not passive voice, but it kind of feels like that. It's like the sentences are too long, or they try to do too much, or they need more punctuation or something. I'm still not sure what the issue is.

I also found some of the dialogue off-putting: it didn't sound natural. Natural-sounding dialogue is a hard thing to achieve, so I'm definitely sympathetic. But stilted dialogue is also kind of a story-crasher. So yeah.

At the end of the day, Mermaids Are Real didn't quite live up to my expectations, but it definitely holds promise. I think there's a great spark here, and I think the author is capable of doing great things in the world of storytelling.


P.S. - if you've read the be-all, end-all mermaid book, feel free to leave a comment so I can experience this magic.

Until tomorrow.