Review: Dragma’s Keep by Vance Pumphrey

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.
I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Dragma’s Keep
by Vance Pumphrey

Leaping Wizard Press, 2015

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The verdict: Lighthearted adventure that seeks an audience willing to join the quest.

Much to its credit, Dragma’s Keep stays true to its genre and knows its intended audience. Fans of Dungeons & Dragons will slide right along with the backstory and lore. Each chapter reads like a new level of an RPG. Pumphrey brings heavy action and enjoyable banter, making the novel’s tone more lighthearted than dramatic despite the extended adventure sequences. The plot stays singularly focused on the party’s mission, which is all it needs to do for readers who know what they’re getting into, but those looking for some twists and detours in the narrative might find the opening acts a bit repetitive. It’s a long wait for a truly disruptive wrinkle in the storyline, but Pumphrey eventually deviates from the expected and brings a satisfying conclusion.

Valdaar’s Fist, an ancient weapon of untold power, emerges after 2000 years. In search of it, a five-person party—including sorcerer Sordaak, thief Savinhand, sword-swinging muscle man Thrinndor, dwarf Vorgath, and healer Cyrillis—embarks on a quest following a lore reference to the lost site of Dragma’s Keep. The group must work together to decipher an ancient map, battle orcs, minotaurs, and other monstrous creatures, and unlock hidden passages to plunge deeper into a network of caverns toward the fabled treasure. Yet each member of the posse has his or her own priorities, and their secrets from each other may prove more dangerous than the secrets of Dragma’s Keep.

“Bah,” repeated the caster, even more vehemently.
“Legend has it,” the paladin went on as if he had not been interrupted, “that one day he will return to rule the land that is rightfully his. But first the path must be prepared for him. His disciples must join together and set up a kingdom worthy of his rule. His sword—Valdaar’s Fist—must be found and the power contained within must be released.”

Pumphrey’s language is a bit hard to pin down as he throws in some modernisms that don’t feel native to the fantasy world. In certain moments it almost feels like a parody of the usual archetypes, especially when orcs topple over with video-game quantity and ease. Each of the five main characters also has a good half a dozen monikers that rotate every line of dialogue, and while that might sound like an odd thing to critique, it does take longer than it should to sort out who’s who in the early chapters. Once I had an image of each person, though, I did enjoy seeing the limitations on individual powers. The party’s needed collaboration and slow trust in each other provide depth to the story, even as they reach the different checkpoints in their journey relatively easily. All in all, Dragma’s Keep is an entertaining thrill ride that serves up a full-course meal of lighthearted escapades. Recommended for epic fantasy lovers who are serious about adventure, especially if they can still share a good laugh while swinging a battle-ax.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Vance Pumphrey’s writing, visit his website, or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: On Level Ground by Danny and Wanda Pelfrey

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.
I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

On Level Ground
by Danny and Wanda Pelfrey

Crosslink Publishing, 2017

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The verdict: A clean, inspirational cozy that caters to its niche. 

Local historians just like their main character, the writing duo of Danny and Wanda Pelfrey bring love and charm to their hometown setting. While some parts of it might have been a little too quaint for my taste, On Level Ground presents a heartfelt cozy mystery that’s safe for all ages. This was my first experience with Davis Morgan, but I had no problem understanding the story without reading the previous ones in the series. Weaving moments of prayer, scripture, and clean adventure, the Pelfreys create an inspirational tale about second chances and finding solid footing amid the constant throes of life.

Small-town Georgia preacher and bookstore owner Davis Morgan makes a routine pastoral visit to the elderly Bessie Taylor. Upon arrival, however, he discovers a grisly crime scene. With the so-called Adairsville Creeper making headlines, the assault on Ms. Taylor could be anything from a prank gone wrong to something far more sinister. Meanwhile, Davis’s daughter, Amy, adjusts to married life and her father’s new spouse; policeman Charley considers his future career path while facing conflict as executor of a family estate; a new basketball coach has a fierce and mysterious obsession with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind; and hardworking EMT Tonya is sidelined by injury. Elsewhere, an increased interest in famed local author Corra Harris might have some connection to the Creeper’s trespassing. In the small town of Adairsville, nobody’s business is private, and recurrent sightings of the Creeper soon escalate into a criminal ploy with potentially deadly consequences.

“You’re just a little gullible, Deidre,” Charley retorted. “In my work, you soon learn there are all kinds out there. It’s sad, but I constantly encounter people that wouldn’t think twice about pounding a nice old lady over the head for a twenty-dollar bill. Our world is full of mean and desperate people.”

I wish he were wrong, but that’s not the case, Davis thought. He’s right, as much as I hate to admit it. Satan is alive and well in this world and that sometimes makes it a scary place to live.

At several points in the novel, the characters seem too aware of their audience, making the dialogue a bit stilted and uptight when I wanted more raw and intimate. Much of the novel feels like a lesson with a story attached rather than the other way around. When the Adairsville Creeper comes on the scene, his only distinguishing feature is a black hoodie—perhaps a missed opportunity to unpack some current events around police profiling. As for Davis, he faces pressure on all sides in a humanizing way, although the reader rarely sees chinks in his armor. Thankfully, the Pelfreys unveil more of his natural limitations as the story progresses. In fact, the titular character does very little sleuthing on his own, often being the last to know information or having clues fall straight into his lap. The story’s more about Charley than Davis, and the supporting cast sees the most character development while the mystery itself often feels secondary. The final chapters tie the bow pretty neatly, but the door’s still open for more in the series. All in all, On Level Ground presents clean, inspirational fiction, recommend for Christian readers looking for an upbeat, faith-affirming read.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Danny and Wanda Pelfrey’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: The Color of Fear by Wendy Wanner

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.
I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

The Color of Fear
by Wendy Wanner

Amazon, 2017

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The verdict: A genre-bending tale delivering strong characters, suspense, and just the right amount of occult.

I love thrillers with supernatural twists, and so The Color of Fear piqued my curiosity from the back cover alone. For Wendy Wanner’s debut novel, the book contains an impressive amount of research and thought. The story starts off as a cozy mystery, with Rachel as the uncharacteristic amateur sleuth and nothing especially grisly about the crime. At first, motives feel predictable and dramatic irony comes a bit heavy. Yet Wanner brings new layers as the story progresses, and the supernatural threads mix well with the everyday events, leading to a strange if not thought-provoking metaphysical conclusion.

Following her brother’s suicide in Scotland, Rachel Steerley returns to her Massachusetts home and successful career as an interior decorator. Two years later, the ghosts of her past return to her idyllic small-town life. When long-standing socialite Greta Wallace drowns in her bathtub, only Rachel sees the death as suspicious. Eerie sensations follow Rachel’s every move, and when the body count rises, she determines to discover the truth on her own. Everyone’s a suspect—from antique bookseller Brian and his vicar brother, to ruthless real estate tycoon Gavin and his secretary Daphne, to Rachel’s childhood neighbor and newfound love interest, Douglass. At the center of the mystery lies Rachel’s own fear of drowning, stemming from a horrible accident that claimed her parents’ lives. For answers, Rachel must dive into the past—both the town’s history and her own.

Greta shivered as if the unnaturally icy wind was blowing right through the glass. “I have had the strangest feeling lately, as if everything is closing in on me. This town feels oppressive and I don’t seem to have any privacy or freedom to do what I want.” She paused only a moment then shook her head. “No, it’s silly, let’s go inside.”

While the dialogue feels oddly literary in an otherwise modern setting—more than once is a character “debonair”—perhaps I just don’t spend enough time with old-money New England elite to relate. The page count is a bit high; the first few chapters have a pretty heavy information dump and a large cast of characters. Rachel’s personal history takes a backseat after an emotional opening, and at times I wanted more skin in the game for her. Wanner evens out the pacing as things go along, however, and each character receives enough attention to justify his or her presence by the end. Considering the length, Wanner does a great job extending the suspense without leaving the reader bored. Critical readers might find some of the character head-hopping distracting, while others may enjoy seeing the thoughts and feelings of each member of the suspect pool. As a slight trigger warning, the novel contains a literal sermon against abortion. Full of old mansions and modern decor, Wanner’s The Color of Fear explores what it means to “live in our pasts,” both healing from personal trauma and embracing our family heritage. It’s hard to classify this genre-bending tale. Recommended for anyone who loves Victorian-style drama or country romance, especially those in the mood for a mystery.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Wendy Wanner’s writing, visit her website, or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: Grace Group by Carrie Maldonado

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

Grace Group
by Carrie Maldonado

eLectio, 2017

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The verdict: A deeper-than-usual inspirational romance that’s as much about living as it is about dying.

As a guy who doesn’t normally read romance, Grace Group caught my attention with its supernatural twist. The idea of angels coming to Earth and a character racing against the clock intrigued me, and seeing the content in some of Maldonado’s blog posts told me this would be more than just fluff. Yes, the story hinges on some romance-novel tropes: The male characters of interest are all gorgeous and near-perfect (even with a terminal illness), making them far too good for the stumbling and increasingly self-conscious female protagonist. Yet Maldonado’s message shines in her appeal to the human condition. What starts as a story about one woman soon becomes a story about all people, and readers of all ages and backgrounds can find points of connection with the narrative’s discussion of life and death.

Holly Matthews—workaholic corporate HR director, impatient, irritable, self-proclaimed loner with a crumbling romantic life—receives a terminal diagnosis at age 35. She reluctantly attends a support group for the dying and is surprised by the members’ camaraderie and frankness. Taking a challenge from the group, Holly begins volunteering at a local shelter—where she finds instant attraction to a hardworking (and possibly single) dad of an adorable little kid—and she develops a new openness and healthier sense of self. When a second potential love interest arrives at the grief group, Holly finds herself on the verge of death but with a sudden urge to keep living. After discovering her counselors are actually angels in disguise, Holly’s on a clock to turn from her selfish ways and instead experience the goodness of faith. Trying to unravel her tangled knot of romantic attraction and caught between her old habits and the hope of something better, Holly must reevaluate her priorities and squash the voice of temptation before her time on earth runs out.

“All of the people you are supposed to ‘touch,’ as you put it, are already in your life. Nothing happens by accident, Holly. You’ve always had everything you needed to live the perfect life for you. Your job is to go live it.”

After the first few chapters paint Holly in a miserable extreme, I expected to see a 180-degree, Ebenezer Scrooge-type transformation. Although Holly’s entrance to the grief group happens a little too easily, once she arrives, the angel characters are well crafted and engaging. Despite the enjoyable banter, however, at times the spiritual themes are a bit murky. “Accepting one’s purpose” becomes a catchphrase without full definition, and the angels describe a certain economy of good deeds combating evil intentions in a butterfly effect without much logic or demonstration. Holly’s prognosis is a universal one, though, and Maldonado certainly pulls no punches in exploring the ways life can get messy. Where the storyline starts as a thought exercise, it soon becomes a full-blown reality. Even the characters who aren’t aware of Holly’s condition appear in convenient places and manage to say what they mean, giving the story a parable feel focused on Holly’s internal conflict. Maldonado does a great job showing the confusion of life and the difficulty of deciding which impulses to follow without making the story itself confusing. Holly’s emotional turns are sharp enough to pull the reader along, and there’s a delightful amount of suspense considering readers know about Holly’s disease from the start. Grace Group is both a celebration of life and a challenge for those living it, demanding that every reader look in the mirror to discover what matters. Recommended for Christian book clubs and lovers of romance and inspirational fiction, especially those experiencing grief.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Carrie Maldonado’s writing, visit her blog, or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.


The Diviners
by Libba Bray

Little, Brown, and Company, 2012

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The verdict: Deeper than many YA novels of its type, the first book in Bray’s series delivers a spunky heroine and solid adventure despite its unanswered questions.

If last year’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them created a hankering for more 1920s occult in New York City,  Libba Bray’s The Diviners might be the just the fix. It’s hefty for a young adult book, nearly 600 pages in the first edition, and at times the novel feels bloated with supporting characters, back stories, and wandering side plots. The central mystery, though, creates enough intrigue to keep the reader interested, and the conclusion provides an action-packed finish while leaving the door open for more to come in the series. As a plus, Bray’s extensive research into the setting lends authenticity to the happenings and places, making the paranormal elements all the more chilling.

Seventeen-year-old Evie O’Neil, a wannabe flapper girl with a secret supernatural gift, is sent from her dull Ohio hometown to live with her uncle in New York City. A grisly murder leads the police to consult Evie’s uncle, a curator of a museum dedicated to folklore and superstition, and Evie soon finds herself involved in the investigation. As the story progresses, readers meet a growing cast of teenagers with mystical powers, each with his or her own secrets, history, and ever-unfolding romantic tensions. Told in short chapters with changing perspectives, the novel revolves around Evie’s hunt for the killer, who proves to have otherworldly origins and growing powers of his own. Some of the secondary plotlines drag in the middle without contributing much to the main attraction, and at times the overlap is a bit hard to follow. Yet, despite the bumps, the last act delivers enough suspense and thrills to lure the wandering reader back in and refocus on Evie.

“‘Oh, sure. Of course, they say now that we’ve got Freud and the motorcar, God is dead.’

‘He’s not dead; just very tired.'”

While Bray easily could have left it at just a good old-fashioned ghost story, she doesn’t, and the push into deeper themes of identity adds a welcome complexity to the novel. Interspersed among the clues toward the murderer are questions of race, class, and religion as victims of abuse and personal tragedy take turns on center stage like the different acts of the Ziegfeld revue. Readers see not just the gruesome violence of a ghost-killer but also the human-led exploitation, prejudice, neglect, and lasting calamity of dreams long deferred. As Evie sneaks out to speakeasies and roaring parties, she remains largely naive to the darkness and hardships of those around her, but the reader gets a front-row seat. Evie’s uncle directly voices the question Bray paints throughout the narrative, wondering, “What sort of god would let this world happen?” Where the novel falters, however, is in Evie’s distance from these issues. Her rebellious attitude starts off as endearing but lacks a pivotal revelation to bring about maturity. Evie largely romps through the city without consequence or second thought while everyone else around her suffers, and she needs little personal sacrifice to obtain what she wants. Even in the most perilous moments, she escapes on her own without needing support or admitting any weakness. As a result, the novel falls flat instead of offering strong responses to the questions it raises, and readers are stranded in the same dark world they start in before the rise of a ghost killer. In the final chapters, it’s unclear who the real enemy is or what’s at stake for the many characters other than learning that sometimes the world can disappoint. Still smarter than many of its peers, The Diviners appeals to lovers of urban fantasy and YA romance, especially with a paranormal twist.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Libba Bray’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.
If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.