Wednesday, August 17, 2016

“Dark Beginnings, Dark Expressions”: A Review of The Trinity, by K. P. Ambroziak

(Published by the author, 2015). ISBN: 9781519740649
by Joey Madia
Beneath the title of this book appear the words “A suspense novel.”
I had mixed feelings about this. Having read the first two books in Ambroziak’s vampire trilogy, The Journal of Vincent Du Maurier, I was already aware of the author’s facility with suspense but I wondered at the expectations of what such a statement might produce.
No need to wonder… The Trinity lives up to its label. And more.
Some novels are more challenging than others to review, because to say almost anything specific is to give more than a little away, which robs the reader of that which I most savored and for which the writer worked so hard.
So I will have to do a lot of “talking around” plot points here, and give you just the broad strokes of what Ambroziak attempts—and accomplishes—in the book.
At its core, The Trinity is about the Roman Catholic Church… a subject of which I am a student and scholar, both in the sense of having been raised Catholic and, in my early teens, contemplating becoming a priest and as a writer who often uses Catholicism as the basis for my books. It is clear that Ambroziak is well versed in the nuances of both scripture and ritual and in the training and initiation into the priesthood.
On the one hand, the Catholic Church’s secrets and sins have been done to death in books and films—the Exorcism genre remains ever-popular—and as I was finishing my read of this book, I watched Spotlight, a film about the abusive priest scandal in Boston. But before we walk away too quickly as artists and audience, we have to admit that the Catholic Church, having culled its dogma and rituals from such a wide variety of myths and spiritual systems, is ever-fertile ground to explore the thorniest moral matters of humanity.
Ambroziak’s novel is far from the same-old, same-old as far as the darkest aspects of the Church. She conjures new expressions of the myths that have given us the Catholic conceptions of Satan and the Garden of Eden. Through her complicated cast of priests, Church officers, and their targets and agents (all of whom are part of or constellate around the mysterious Order of Eve and, governing it, The Trinity), Ambroziak explores the nature of Love through the cracked, distorted lens of the multi-dimensional world she creates. The Trinity shares this with her vampire novels.
For those who have an interest in how the Catholic Church has (mis)perceived and portrayed women in both its literature and practices, there is much to appeal to you here.
Lest we get too far into the Catholic-ness of the novel, all those who love a good mystery, with plenty of twists, turns, secrets, reveals, and a gruesome, symbol-rich murder or two will find that The Trinity does not disappoint. Out of the tropes of the suspense genre, Ambroziak gleans plenty that is fresh and new.
Like Anne Rice, she weaves impressive amounts of historical–cultural knowledge into her worlds, creating a rich tapestry of image and detail that complements her craftsmanship with structure and facility with language without slowing the narrative down.
Ambroziak must also be congratulated for her skill in marketing her self-published books on both Amazon and social media and her commitment to flawless product. In reading and reviewing three of her books I have yet to find a single typographical error. She is both an example and credit to the small press and self-publishing worlds, whose books are ever increasingly becoming as strong as the books put out by the major publishing houses.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

“Narrative Noir”: A Review of John Gartland’s Resurrection Room: Bangkok dark rhetoric

 (Lizardville Productions, 2016)
“One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster/The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free’You'll find a god in every golden cloister/And if you're lucky then the god's a she/I can feel an angel sliding up to me” (“One Night in Bangkok,” Chess)
There are cities in the world that pulse with a deep mystique: the sleepless dichotomies of New York; the romanticism of Paris for lover and writers; the foggy Victorian mystery of London… the list goes on and on.
Bangkok (Thailand) conjures images of crowded streets full of steaming food, rickshaw drivers, and exotic women finger-motioning from alleyways and doorways… and Resurrection Room takes these images wider and deeper than perhaps your average reader wants to go.
Which makes it essential reading.
Gartland—a true Renaissance man known in writers’ circles as the “Poet Noir”—pulls no punches. In his several books of poetry, his misericordia-sharp Facebook posts, and his Robert Anton Wilson–esque novel Orgasmus (you can read excerpts from my review at the back of Resurrection Room), Gartland strides the barbed ex-patriot boundaries of a Seeker who splits energy between East and West, Occident and Orient, and who shamelessly shares the costs and conditions of such a state of being.
Resurrection Room opens as follows:
“The rain continued, an inescapable tyranny of rain; a venomous hiss of rain, like amplified static on an audio feed; a steady crackle of dread between broadcasts.”
This opening sets both the tone and structure of the book: it unfolds exactly as described, mixing straight narrative with poetry and an almost stream-of-consciousness jazz writing that originates with a narrator who is often as delusional and untrustworthy as those of Poe.
Resurrection Room is an exquisite blend of worlds, where the Comte de LautrĂ©amont’s Maldoror meets Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, spawning complexly cross-cultural, image-laden lines such as: “Orson Welles, sunk in a Rembrandt chiaroscuro; he was Olivier’s doomed Danish prince, beckoning to Jung.”

The dreamscape rendering of Gartland’s Thailand is overrun with Bible-plague lizards who leave their stain (their shit) over everything—objects, rooms, landscapes, and people—while the writer-actors who populate its human pulse plot and plan to keep their souls in an airless university landscape where they must reconcile the lies of why they remain with the dreams that initially drew them.
Gartland must be credited for working from a clear through-line, from which the sparks of the jazz prose and poetry emanate with a life of their own without abandoning the forward momentum of the narrative. This through-line is elegantly simple: An English department at a Thailand university is being moved toward a Business emphasis, dashing the dreams of its transplant professors to teach the Arts to their students (and keep them alive in themselves). The Administration (led by the complicated “Miniporn Soopalek, known to her friends as Grendel’s mother”) is portrayed as cold, heartless, and as caricatured as the bureaucrats of Douglas Adams and C.S. Lewis—making them the perfect foils for the all too flawed heroes of our tale, who are the types of dark truth-seeking messes that would get along great with Hunter S. Thompson’s coterie of foreign-landing journalists.
Amongst this cast are the pointedly named Watson and Holmes and L. Semper Lazarus, a mysterious immortal who tells their tale, all the while intermixing his experiences of his resurrection at the hands of Jesus, the Ostrogoths, the de Medici’s and Macchiavelli (whom he pushed to write The Prince), Hastings, and the gas-gushed trenches of World War I.
“Ypres, Arras and the Somme;
of some infernal triptych
Hieronymus Bosch nightmare
he’d been painted into”
Like Anne Rice's Louie wandering the plague-filled streets of New Orleans, Semper seems to crave this dark and bloody fuel as his reason to (pardon the pun) soldier on. Why wouldn't an immortal crave the death-fields of battle?
The themes of Resurrection Room are far ranging, as would be expected from a Renaissance man like Gartland, who has studied and written in a wide range of styles and subject matter. Resurrection Room touches on vampirism and alchemy, while indicting politics and, especially, education and religion (it is a university founded by monks after all), diving through the layers of a corrupt, off-kilter system where no justice is to be had and everyone is trying to stay one step ahead of getting scammed or exposed by everyone else.
Indeed, the book’s structure is itself out of balance—the “prologue” (the unnamed opening) is about 25% of the book, followed by only two chapters.
One of the main themes in Resurrection Room is the pursuit of creative and emotional freedom, full expression, through the use of ritual and drugs, which serve as a thematic crossroads for lashing all of the disparate areas of examination together:
 “The elaborate progress of a priest through the transcendent pantomime
of the eucharist, the preparations and Ming-glazed equipage
of the Japanese tea ceremony, were no less ornate and stylised than
the ritualised foreplay of this methamphetamine harlot.”
While describing a Thai puppet theatre: “these puppeteers control their subject with the power of ritual, and the lightness of art.”
“Byron, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and, of course, De Quincey, among them, certainly used laudanum and opium. Dickens refers to it in the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood. So many, in fact, indulged, that it is a missing part of the jigsaw in our modern analysis of their work… Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, to dull the pain of his moral decomposition, sought out the oblivion of opium dens…”

I would add to his list Rimbaud and Blake. And, of course, all of the Holmesian imagery and references fit needle in arm with the rest.

Regarding the indictment of education: “The uneducated masses are easily led, and misled. A cynic might say, it is in the interests of the powerful to keep educational standards unimproved. … In the University in which we are employed, where is there any evidence of creativity or independent thought? When does one ever
hear a student offer a radical view? When does one hear the voice of
compassion for the dispossessed?”
And religion: “Hubert of Tours, the dark eminence who fired the
imagination of the Marquis de Sade.” Hubert suffers a drubbing at the point of Gartland’s pen, which draws light into the ebony truths of sexual dysfunction and politics in the Roman Catholic Church. Gartland brings together education and religion in the book through one of the secret-hiding administrators, and locks it up with a smile in a pair of hot pink handcuffs.
In the end, as with so many, if not all, matters of Art, it comes down to Story: who has it, who controls it, who tells theirs the loudest. When the book’s anti-hero says: “he had been looking for a narrative, and I gave him one. I gave him a part in mine. I have so many; I ache with narratives, like old wounds” he speaks for many, if not all, writers and artists. I think of Hemingway, of Fitzgerald, of London, and of Joyce.

Similar to Orgasmus, and the Illuminati tales of R. A. Wilson, the last fifth of the book delivers as expected with a relentless ratcheting up of the tension, interweaving the storylines and exploding—literally—with what has been simmering from the start.

A fitting end to the book, and to this review, are the last lines of the final poem:

“Carl Cutlass, tail-gunner,
spiraling to Hanoi,
finger extended.”

The extension of the finger, coupled with the spiraling artistry of the writing, is what makes Gartland well worth a read in these shit-stained, warped-tale times.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

“A Collaborator in Alleys”: A Poem-Review of Eileen Tabios’ The Connoisseur of Alleys

(Rockaway, NY: Marsh Hawk Press,, 2016)
To mark the occasion of my tenth review of a poetry collection by the prolific and boundary-stretching poet Eileen Tabios, I knew I wanted to do something special—something that would honor Eileen’s ability to take the reader from a position of relative passivity to one of co-creation.
I made an attempt at this before, ending my review of Tabios’ Sumptuous Sculpture (Marsh Hawk Press, 2002) with a poem crafted from another one of my reviews (Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole, same publisher and year).
This review, however, takes things much further. Since beginning her ongoing work “Murder, Death, and Resurrection (MDR),” Eileen has created new poems and published seven books that use re-constituted lines from a database of 1,146 lines from her previous works. The Connoisseur of Alleys is one such work.
Following suit, the following is a poem formed from 27 lines taken from my 9 previous reviews of Tabios’ work (3 lines pulled from each). Using a combination of I Ching–inspired coin tossing and one of my own random generator algorithms that I use for my experimental prose projects, the lines have been reformed in what I hope will be both a testament to not only the form and substance of Tabios’ poetic tapestry as I have written about it over the years and a testament to Tabios’ ability to inspire and co-create from afar, through the power of her words and fearless pursuit of new forms to deliver them.
“dieci da nove”
I forgot the hooks are finely barbed and grab you in the deepest places. I forgot each line begins with the phrase “I forgot” which was inspired by a Tom Beckett poem that began in the same manner. I forgot the condition of the artist and one’s Identity (geographically, sexually, psychologically) are key subjects in the considerable volume of work Tabios has created. I forgot poets have been either continually revising their poems (e.g., Whitman’s Leaves of Grass) or taking found texts, etc. to create works for a long time now…
I forgot, if poetry, like all writing, is a form of autobiography, then the path to the Truth is lined with thorns and nails and broken glass, at the end of which are myriad locks. I forgot the riches to be mined are as endless as the possibilities emerging from Tabios herself. I forgot ancient wisdom says that once you find the moon, you no longer need the finger that points to it. I forgot that we, the Readers, are the locks into which the various and sundry keys are meant to enter.
I forgot there is always counterpoint, yin and yang, light in dark. I forgot “The Color of a Scratch in Metal” and “The Fairy Child’s Prayer” are so beautiful, one could read them in meditation over and over, losing all sense of time and place and gaining new perspectives as doors are thrown wide. I forgot scores do not necessarily reflect Math aptitude, but a slew of other deficiencies in Communication. I forgot that the age of Empire was not overcome and obliterated, but merely morphed into the age of the Multinationals.
I forgot Tabios is not only a talented wordsmith, and visual artist of language—she truly is an innovator.
I forgot Dostoyevsky and Freud put forth the notion that it is impossible for an autobiography to reveal the Truth because of our penchant for self-delusion and both positive and negative exaggeration. I forgot the rich wordsmithed novels of the Victorian and Edwardian age, when books were thick and wordy because they were expensive and had to last the reader a good long while. I forgot how much I enjoy creating narrative from the nigredo of cultural reference and biographical minutiae. I forgot I’ve always admired Hunter S. Thompson and Sebastian Junger…
I forgot Oscar Wilde said that the future of fiction is to “reveal the innermost workings of [wo]man’s soul”… then the coupling of reviewer and reviewed is an essential mechanism for opening the locks. I forgot the source material is reconstituted in exquisite couplets full of enjoyable word play and just the right amount of sexual zing to bring a nearly constant smile to one’s face. I forgot it is up to the reader to find unity in disparity; to be the catalyst in an alchemical transaction (a hieros gamos) that rises beyond Reality into the etheric realms where the nigredo of our art is born(e).
I forgot many of the poems have no end punctuation, leaving the thought, the situation, the moment unfinished, as they so often are

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Review of The Unseen Partner: Love and Longing in the Unconscious, by Diane Croft (Interleaf, 2016). ISBN: 978-0-9967771-0-0 (hardcover)

The source and substance of inspiration are as enigmatic and oft-debated as any of life’s deepest mysteries. Artists in all areas of creativity have been known to undertake ritual, engage in the use of various substances, or conceive of the work in terms of some vast, metaphorical battlefield where the artist must pay in pints of etheric, ghostly blood for the Muses to bestow even the smallest gift of good art upon them. Creativity gurus such as Elizabeth Gilbert (Big Magic) and Steven Pressfield (The War of Art) lead the field with their insights and ideas regarding creativity and inspiration and their relationship to the work.
In Unseen Partner, Diane Croft tells her story of the source and substance of inspiration through the lens of automatic writing: ten years ago she had an experience of this phenomenon that produced, over the course of three years, in excess of 700 poetry verses. The experience would happen “about the same time every morning.” Croft, in an endnote, mentions William Butler Yeats and William Blake, and their experiences with creating through this means, and one might also think of Nostradamus and Philip K. Dick (the latter used the I Ching to write The Man in the High Castle). Croft makes no definitive statement as to whether this was the product of her own subconscious or of an external force from another dimension—which makes Unseen Partner about the poems and their meaning (personal and universal), rather than an exercise in trying to prove from whence they came.
Having two people close to me who communicate with their own Unseen Partners through automatic writing, with profound results of precognition and verifiable details (at times years in advance), I agree that the sooner one moves away from debating the source and concentrating on the messages, the better.
Croft’s journey through this process was not easy (she professes she thought the Unseen Partner could “kill” her and also that hidden aspects of herself came through that produced shame), she persisted, and the result is a beautifully rendered book with a selection of the poems, accompanying artwork (obtained through the copyright-free website Wikimedia Commons), and Jungian and other texts used for analysis of the poems.
As writers, we often struggle to gain the necessary distance from our work to analyze and improve it. It becomes precious to us in the blink of an eye. Given this struggle, I found it fascinating that Croft had the insight to know that these poems were coming from a place—whether interior or exterior—distanced enough from her own conscious background in writing that she was able to analyze them as a critic or reader might. When Croft writes “I take this poem to mean” it cues creators to aspire to a new level of objective detachment from their work. Because of this enforced distance between Creator and Creation, the poems in Unseen Partner are like dreams, begging to be born anew through analysis and the act of sharing them with an audience.
Croft does not settle on one name or definition of what a higher source or “god” might be, which allowed her to pull from a wide range of sources for the epigraph that precedes each poem/image dyad and to center on the relationship of the “I” and the “thou.” We hear from the likes of Rumi, Meister Eckert, Carl Jung, and Jungian “disciple and pioneer” Dr. Edward F. Edinger. Considering the condition of Tat Tvam Asi (“Thou art That,” from the Sanskrit), the lines are further blurred, as the vessel (in this case, Croft), the message (the poem), and the messenger (the Unseen Partner) are inextricably linked.
A quick word about the poem/image dyad before exploring some examples from the book. When a poet uses an image for inspiration (or vice versa), this is called Ekphrasis. The example most often used is Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” It is impossible to know from the book if Croft is aware of this practice (she says in the introduction that she “felt the need” to find accompanying images), but it is a natural fit, and a testament to the power of following our instincts and inspirations in any creative endeavor.
Although this is far more than a collection of poems, the poems themselves hold merit in and of themselves. Like the works of Rumi or Li Po, they contain a simplicity of format, vivid images, and a gentle, peaceful rhythm:
I am the night covering me
in memories of how I was before
I slipped into this mindfulness. (From “Memory”)

The gods grew tired of waiting
and woke me from a heavy sleep
not by shaking my shoulder
but by breaking my heart. (From “Matters of Heart)

At times, they operate like koans, posing contemplative questions:
“Who is this three of thee and me” (From “Holy Ghost”)
Those familiar with the Rule of Three or Gurdjieff’s Law of Three will see that this notion of the new third emerging from two opposites in balance is reflective of Croft and the Unseen Partner collaborating on this book. Croft chose the following quote, from the Tao Te Ching, to precede the analysis section for this poem: “The one engenders the two, the two engenders the three and the three engenders all things.”
As the book progresses, those familiar with archetypes and how they operate will find abundant treasure here. From notions of the Hero’s Journey to the presence of that powerful Trickster totem animal, Crow, the poems are aspects and reflections of numerous world cultures and mythologies, many of which the author discovered as she was writing the commentary for the book. This, again, is a refreshing reversal of the writer’s usual way of working: gathering research and either using it as a starting point or infusing the writing with pieces and parts of the detail.
In the Epilogue, Croft writes, “My own myth—drawn from a universal database of archetypal imagery—is fashioned from my personal complexes.” This is a profound statement to which I think Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung would readily agree. I quote it for two reasons: First, because I believe that this is the well from which all art springs and second, because of the following quote, from the Acknowledgments:  “a book consultant, meaning to be helpful, posed this question: So. You have no credentials in this field, no standing, no platform, no colleagues … and you want to publish a book on archetypal psychology? (emphasis in original). 
I feel fortunate that Croft was not dissuaded by this question, but pursued with increased fervor her 15-year quest to bring this collection to others. After all, what are credentials, standing, platforms, and colleagues when a person’s personal complexes and veiled Muses conspire with the universal database of archetypal imagery?
They are the cold, neutral ash from which the dynamic phoenix of creation takes flight.

Friday, March 18, 2016

A Review of In the Oneness of Time: The Education of a Diviner, by William Douglas Horden

A Review of In the Oneness of Time: The Education of a Diviner, by William Douglas Horden (Burdett, NY: Larson Publicans, 2015). ISBN: 978-1-936012-76-3 (paperback)
By Joey Madia
It is said that, when you are “following your bliss,” as Joseph Campbell would say, or walking the Good Red Road of Native American spirituality, the teachings you most need in the moment will find you. Six and a half years ago, this maxim was made manifest in a book co-authored by William Douglas Horden titled The Toltec I-Ching (also from Larson Publications). When it arrived in the mail with a request for review, I was in the midst of opening an arts education center that would house the social justice theatre company of which I am the founding artistic director. As with any big endeavor, there were endless meetings with political and community leaders, business groups, educators, potential donors, and prospective teachers and it seemed that everyone had a different idea of what the arts education center should be, including its interior design, programmatic content, and even hours of operation.
Looking for answers deep within, in order to honor (and protect) the mission of the theatre company and our other arts programs, I found The Toltec I-Ching to be an invaluable aid.
A great deal has happened with my arts mission since that time, including closing the center and leaving the state where it was founded, and changing the name of the theatre company, all in part to honor the messages gleaned from The Toltec I-Ching. In recent months, I have begun to lay the foundations in our current home to create new material for the company, hire administrative staff and passionate creatives, and set up classes and auditions. Not long after the process was begun, I received for review Horden’s newest book, In the Oneness of Time. It has proven to be just the guide I needed to find clarity and strength for this new journey.
Perhaps, upon reflection, it is more accurate to say this stage of a continuing journey, because this book is unlike any other I have read. It consists of two parts: the first is called Teachings and the second provides Commentary on the Teachings. The interesting thing is that the Teachings are each titled by year, but they are not sequential. At times they are grouped by loose themes, such as geography or stories about specific flora and fauna, although, with each turn of the page, I found my default need to analyze and categorize (to “make sense of”) the structure slipping away, and I increasingly took each Teaching as it came, as its own opportunity for engagement, contemplation, and meditation.
Horden’s Teachings vary widely in their content and also in their style (some report the facts, while others are a poetic prose that recalled to me William Blake), although all share a surface simplicity that belies their true depth, leaving the reader to explore as deeply as he or she will. I chose not to read the accompanying Commentary for each Teaching, instead reading all of the Teachings and then the Commentary section. This allowed me to do the good work of engagement, contemplation, and meditation “on my own” and then, when I felt it was helpful, revisit the Teachings after reading the Commentary for each.
I encourage you to explore the book however your intuition guides you. I plan on re-reading it yearly, taking a different approach each time. As I change, so shall the methods I use to glean the treasures of the Teachings and Commentary.
Although In the Oneness of Time covers many topics, its “spine” or “through-line” as a writer might say, is the bridging of the two Realities: the tonal (“ordinary consensual reality”) and the nagual (“the non-ordinary reality of shamans and mystics”). The methods of moving between them, and of entering the In-Between World, are the most resonant aspect of the book at this point in my focus and learning, and the Teachings reflect the exquisite balance I mentioned earlier that Horden’s writing styles maintain between these two realities. These dual perspectives consistently at work in our lives demonstrate the value of widening the overlap between the tonal and nagual, for this sweet spot of the In-Between World is the creation-space for Meaning and Healing—of ourselves, our immediate community, and our world.
Another aspect of the book that has high resonance for me (and why I think it is prominently compared to Carlos Castaneda’s books about the brujo Don Juan Matus) is the wisdom Horden’s teacher passes down about the nature of teaching and learning. Teaching takes time to be absorbed, before the student can go off and become a teacher him- or herself. Rushing the process creates a great deal of mis-learning that then translates into misunderstandings as opinion masquerading as wisdom is (inaccurately) passed on. This is akin to the idea of the 10,000 hours that one must put in to achieve mastery in any area; when Horden’s teacher, Master Khigh, says that he took a vow to wait thirty years before teaching, it reminded me of what the actor Eli Wallach said about learning the Sanford Meisner technique: it takes 25 years. Perhaps that is the time it takes for the ego to recede sufficiently to not mar the process.
Alongside such powerful books on the nature of living and dying such as Neil Donald Walsch’s Home with God: In a Life That Never Ends and Elaine Mansfield’s Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief, In the Oneness of Time provides comfort and clarity on the nature of the soul and its experiences on Earth and elsewhere. Horden’s experiences with life after death are highlights of the book.
For those interested in this material in a multi-media format, either when deciding whether or not the book is for them, or as value-added after/while reading the book, visit
In this age of divisiveness, Horden’s message of Communication and Communion is a blessing; it will no doubt illuminate many a reader’s path.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Review of Terror’s Identity, by Sarah Maury Swan

(published through Sable Books, 2015). ISBN: 978-0-9968036-3-2 (paperback)

Young audiences (YA) is a hot market. From Maze Runner to Hunger Games, Mortal Instruments to Divergent, stories that can hold interest, empower the reader, and provide a satisfying ending or intense cliffhanger are not only guaranteed to sell (and often secure a film deal) but they serve a much more important purpose: in the age of cyber-tech and video gaming (often the same thing), they keep traditional book-based storytelling alive.
Terror’s Identity, by Sarah Maury Swan, delivers the best of YA in all the right ways. From the very first page, the story of a sixteen-year-old boy’s navigation of a no-less-than life-threatening situation for him and his family kept me engaged and eager to find out what would happen next. The characters, both teenagers and adults, are believable in both their actions and dialogue, and the story itself is told with insistent pace and an elegant simplicity while the plot is rich, complex, and full of interesting clues and misdirection.
The main character, Aidan, is your typical high school kid—struggling to find his place, awkward with girls, into his pets and hot and cold with his family and keen to know about life. His father, however, works for an anti-terrorism unit—a situation that necessitates the family leaving their home in the middle of the night as the book opens as their house burns to the ground and their former life with it.
Have you ever been the new kid at school? Not an easy thing under the best of circumstances. Having started my first day of freshman year in a brand new town 2 hours from where I had grown up after a series of events that, although less dramatic than Aidan’s, were easily as traumatic, I immediately felt for him and his sister Maya as they tried to make the best of their thorny situation. Saying goodbye to the family pets, their father, and their names/identities all in the course of an action-packed night, Aidan (now Brent) and Maya (now Angie) struggle to fit in among queries about where they’ve come from by students and teachers, neither of which are always kind about it.
I particularly appreciated the trouble Aidan/Brent had keeping it all straight. From computer log-ins to lies about his father being dead to mistakes about the little details we don’t think about under normal circumstances, he finds himself almost outing the truth of his situation numerous times. This makes sense, given that teenagers are, by nature, curious about new people who come into their lives and there is nothing that takes more energy and focus than being consistent in your secrets and lies.
Another strength of Terror’s Identity is that Swan has approached Terrorism (a word that has always been a battleground of definition among scholars) with all the complexity that it deserves, which serves the story by keeping the reader guessing about who the true terrorists are—what should be safe harbors often are not and those we are conditioned to distrust turn out to be more like us than we know—and also sends a much needed message to young readers that nothing should be taken at face value when it comes to terrorism, whether it be religious, economic, or political. I also appreciated that the terrorists were so full of their own self-righteousness that they made plenty of mistakes along the way.
Structurally, the book has everything one would expect for the target audience and genre—short chapters that are briskly paced; a mid-point complication that sets up an even brisker pace toward the climax; and an accessibility of language and syntax. There are effective emotional moments and the books dwells on relationships without becoming saccharine.
I recommend this book for early teen to mid-teen reading groups in libraries and classrooms. According to the acknowledgments, the first eight chapters were critiqued by a class of students during the development process, which shows the author’s commitment to being authentic as possible without being a modern-world teenager herself.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Review of The Jack of Souls, by Stephen C. Merlino

 (Tortoise Rampant, 2014). ISBN: 978-0-9862674-1-3

Fantasy writing is in many ways akin to a Jackson Pollock painting—at first glance, it seems like a simple enough art form to execute. Swirl a stick, drip some paint, and let dry. Or, in the case of Fantasy, create some countries (include some islands) engaged in political intrigue; brew some cultural misunderstanding; have some opposing armies; throw in a few dragons and/or magic, a little bit of romance, just a dash of sex and rough language, and publish.
Here’s the problem with these ideas. Have you ever tried to replicate a Jackson Pollock? It’s not at all easy. It’s the same with Fantasy.
Just as Jackson Pollock combined uniquely individual instinct, symbolism, and technique to create canvases rich in meaning, a successful Fantasy novel takes the well-worn tropes of the genre and reconstitutes them through the (hopefully unique and powerful) vision and voice of the genre. Tolkien, Martin, Rowling—perhaps the Triad that will forever be the Standard by which all future Fantasy is judged—all created distinctive works within the confines of the genre.
Stephen C. Merlino’s The Jack of Souls fares well against the Standards of the Fantasy world. His set-ups, characters, and stakes combine to create a rich tapestry of details and plot points that keep the reader turning the pages, chapter after chapter. While starting with stock characters, such as the book’s (anti-)hero, Harric—a young vagabond with a mix of street skills and attitude—he quickly takes them to new places through a universe that mixes black magic, chivalry, and political maneuvering in ways similar to Game of Thrones, but with far different emphases.
Each chapter opens with a quote from a song or book that exists within the world (the Arkendian Isles) Merlino has created with such obvious love and care. This device anchors the action in a much larger, older environment of factional histories without bogging down the plot with Biblical lists of families and war chronicles—a strategy that makes Merlino’s book far more readable than any of Martin’s.
Another area where Merlino succeeds at least as well or even better than the Standards is in his use of magic, which is deeply integrated in the cultures he’s created and rarely used as a Deus ex Machina to get the author out of otherwise inescapable scenarios. This magic-to-Machina ratio is a sure tipoff as to the ability of a modern author to deliver something new and compelling to the reader of Fantasy, and Merlino comes out on the winning end of the equation.
Closely related to the magic is the darkness of many of the characters, including a priest. Pulling from such tropes as vampires, wraiths, and gargoyles, Merlino adds his own dark originals to create a tapestry of evil that goes deep instead of over the top—a device that allows his heroes to be plenty flawed and non-heroic at times, since, by comparison with the forces amassing against them, they are still the group we’d like to see win.
In the final analysis, it is clear that Merlino has practiced his craft and honed it to a fine point. The prose is exquisite and the plotting well-crafted and devoid of filler.

Book One of the Unseen Moon Series, The Jack of Souls is a winner of the 2014 PNWA and SWA Awards for Fantasy. There are two planned sequels:  The Knave of Souls and  The Prince of Souls.