Review: Dragma’s Keep by Vance Pumphrey

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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: Curses of Scale by S.D. Reeves

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

Curses of Scale
by S.D. Reeves

Riversong Books, 2017

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The verdict: A well-paced, mystical epic packed full of surprises—something different in all the right ways.

Just from the author’s quirky sense of humor on the acknowledgments page, I had a feeling I’d like this book. Curses of Scale will by no means be every reader’s cup of tea. It’s mysterious and odd, full of surreal sequences and shifting points of view. Yet it’s also original and well written, featuring clever dialogue and immersive imagery without breaking the pace. From the action-packed opening to the gradual unfolding of the narrative, Reeves achieves what he sets out to accomplish. I tip my hat whenever an ambitious fantasy writer actually pulls it off, and Reeves delivers a mystical tale about finding purpose, forging one’s path, and time’s relentless pursuit of us all.

The story opens with the druid Calem racing to uphold a bargain with the wisecracking fairy Oberon. Calem’s wife, Niena, is cursed to become a dragon, and only the fairy’s ritual can reverse her fate. Meanwhile, the aspiring musician known as Squirrel wants nothing more than to attend bardic college but must contend with her militant, overprotective grandfather, Marny. Squirrel plots to run away until a surreal experience in a tavern one night transports her off course. When a fire-breathing dragon threatens Marny’s post, he barely escapes with his life. Across the wide path of destruction that follows, Marny seeks his granddaughter just as she discovers her true identity. With fairy magic at hand and a terrifying dragon on the move, Niena must race against time to escape her destiny and break the cycle of the curse.

“They who taught us the three chords.”
The quartermaster clutches his chest. Light begins to creep back into their ruin. But it is queer and evil; flames spread over the great sprawl of Kimbesh in the distance, rolling across the rooftops of the urban menagerie and setting upon them as fast as sunlight in the quiet of the dawn.
“They who gave us music to keep back the silence of the night.”

The first few pages feel a bit like an out-of-body experience, but the story untangles as it goes. Calem’s internal conflict pairs well with the fairy’s cynical quips, although Calem’s magical abilities remain somewhat undefined. He has healing spells, can transform into animals, and sometimes his magic fails due to his own dwindling energy. Niena’s own musical spellcasting feels similarly opaque, which might bother some fantasy aficionados in it mostly for the world building. At points I felt disoriented with the timelines, wondering if a subsequent chapter happened before or after the one before it, but Reeves eventually pieces it all together once all his cards are on the table. In fact, there’s a certain elegance to the disorder, like a song with strikingly different verses that come back to the same refrain. Reeves brings twists and duplicity; he unfolds the story in discrete moments instead of blurring his characters across the years. One must read this novel with eyes open and brain turned on. Curses of Scale works for me, but I can see others not fitting this niche. Recommended as an intelligent, engaging read for those looking for something fresh in fantasy.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out S.D. Reeves’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 Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

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 Hazel Wood
by Melissa Albert

Flatiron Books, 2018

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The verdict: Strange and captivating—as grim as advertised, and absolutely worth the ride.

I’ll be honest: The Hazel Wood hooked me on page one. Readers definitely have to know what they’re getting into here. Albert’s novel is not a fairy tale in any conventional sense, and the plot strays from the typical safety nets of “young adult.” Disclaimers aside, however, Melissa Albert delivers a deliciously refreshing fantasy adventure, managing powerful commentary of our age without feeling forceful or pedantic. It’s creepy and dark but still soft enough to swallow. The story molts a few times, widening the premise and pulling the reader into deeper and more dangerous territory. Well crafted and rewarding for readers who like to follow breadcrumbs and pick up hints, The Hazel Wood makes a worthy destination for those willing to take the journey.

Seventeen-year-old Alice has only known a life on the road with her mother, always outrunning an unpaid lease or long streak of bad luck. When her enigmatic grandmother Althea, the once-famous writer known for her rare and gruesome book of fairy tales, passes away, Alice’s life in New York takes further unwelcome turns. After her mom goes missing from her new husband’s high rise apartment, Alice’s only ally is her classmate Ellery Finch, a lonely, misfit rich kid who happens to be an obsessive cult-follower of her grandmother’s book. The story spirals inward as Alice pieces together each new clue, all with some connection to Althea’s fairy tales and her isolated estate, the Hazel Wood. The bad luck of earlier feels more and more like a curse, and what Alice finds at the Hazel Wood is far stranger than she could have ever imagined.

“Then I got my hands on Althea’s book. And it was perfect. There are no lessons in it. There’s just this harsh, horrible world touched with beautiful magic…They’re set in a place that has no rules and doesn’t want any.”

Notably, Albert has a sincere eye for story and shows patient, methodical craft. Like a modern Through the Looking-Glass (could that Alice be this character’s namesake?), The Hazel Wood plays with time and space, including some delightful quirks and turns. The narrative form intersperses some stories from Althea’s book as readers slowly uncover the origin and context of her bizarre tales. Lines between real and fictional become increasingly blurred as Alice moves forward in her search for her mother. At a certain point, I realized there are no rules in this novel. Nothing’s given, nothing’s expected, and I could take absolutely nothing for granted. This fact will sit better with some readers than with others, especially those who prefer the security of traveling with a roadmap. The last act of the book wanders pretty far from the beaten path, but somehow Albert sticks the landing. Most impressive are the fantastic themes on who writes our stories—and who tells them once written. Dark, eerie, and addicting, The Hazel Wood succeeds in fighting for our power to forge our own futures and voice our own identities. Recommended for lovers of fantasy and magical realism, especially readers willing to step outside their comfort zones.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Melissa Albert’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 Crimson and The Frost by John Williams and James Colletti

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 Crimson and The Frost
by John Williams and James Colletti

CreateSpace, 2013

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The verdict: A modern tale with classic holiday themes best suited for young readers who won’t overthink it.

Kids bored with the annual Christmas specials have something new to look at: The Crimson and the Frost. For whatever reason—maybe the cover art—I expected this book to target a slightly older audience, but it really fits best for middle-grade readers. That said, Williams and Colletti’s novel creates a Santa-Clause-meets-Polar-Express holiday adventure aimed at the gadget-loving, phone-tapping children of the twenty-first century. While the dialogue and conflicts are often trite, the authors mix in plenty of humor to reach their intended audience and keep the plot humming along. The storyline draws on traditional scenery with some creative twists, making a modern Christmas tale with classic themes and messages that parents won’t mind their kids reading.

A 17th-century whaling ship encounters the terrifying and magical King of Winter, but a mysterious and even more powerful force rises to oppose him. In the present day, young Billy Hampton competes for popularity by showing off techno gadgets from his dad’s company to his schoolmates. When Santa’s sleigh lands outside Billy’s window—driven by two bumbling elves who’d left home for a day of New England lobster fishing of all things—he sneakily stows away and winds up in Christmas Town. Along the journey, however, Billy accidentally loses the all-important jewel that powers the sleigh. Billy’s hosts try to hide the news and fix the problem themselves; meanwhile, Jack Frost seizes the opportunity to make his long-awaited move against the toy-building hamlet. While the elves and Billy seek help from Santa, Christmas Town goes on alert as Jack Frost lurks dangerously in the hills.

You see Billy, sometimes the decisions we make seem trivial to us, but can have a profound effect on others.

The light-hearted comedy definitely drives the story, and the elves’ personalities—either endearingly crotchety or hilariously hapless—play off each other to add some laughs. Billy’s tour of Christmas Town approaches something satirical even, which doesn’t mesh with the supposed gravity of the missing jewel and impending danger. Young Billy is a misfit in his own right, struggling to fit in among elves and ruining everything he touches, yet he rarely faces consequences. Even as Frost looms in the distance, the expected catastrophe never truly comes. A later reveal that losing the jewel wasn’t entirely Billy’s fault limits his character development, and the story never reaches the requisite gravitas for a power-packed moral. Still, Billy works toward an others-orientedness, which provides a necessary message for kids of any age. The authors present their take on the true meaning of Christmas directly from Santa’s mouth—a celebration of generosity and joy—but Santa’s own backstory and flashbacks are less interesting than the elves’ present-day conflicts. Critical readers will likely find some editorial issues and mid-section point-of-view shifts distracting, but a thrilling final act uplifts the story to show that even the most unlikely among us can be heroes. The Crimson and the Frost provides a kid-friendly, modern take on Christmas themes. Recommended for young readers looking for a fresh storyline with familiar holiday characters.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out John Williams’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: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

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

Seraphina
by Rachel Hartman

Ember (Reprint Edition), 2014

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The verdict: Original, stirring, epic in scope and intimate in nature, Seraphina pushes beyond the frontiers of dragon fantasy tales.

A friend recommended this book and promised it wasn’t just a typical YA novel, and after diving into the fantasy kingdom of Goredd, I admit that I’m a fan of Seraphina. Hartman’s novel is a true labor of love, showing years of her dreaming and patience in the complex world building and thorough characterization. What struck me even more so was Hartman’s lyrical prose, creating a story that’s not just intelligent but actually beautiful. Seraphina’s musical talent features prominently in the novel, and the chapters themselves contain a sort of melody, adding layers of emotion to a plot already ripe with tension and conflict on many levels.

In a world where dragons can blend into society by taking human forms, Seraphina is a rare half-breed—and she closely guards the secret of her dragon lineage. Her position as a palace music assistant places her in view of numerous characters, including Princess Glisseldsa, sincere yet naive in her entitlements, and her cousin, Lucian Kiggs, a closeted intellectual betrothed to the wrong woman and not quite belonging in the regal world. When a murder in the royal court presents potentially disastrous implications for the long-standing peace treaty with the dragons, Seraphina finds herself teamed up with Kiggs to solve the mystery, and they find more commonalities than first meet the eye. In a strict caste system where the scaly beasts are forbidden to relate too closely with humans, Seraphina’s very existence risks upending the societal detente, but staying silent may be more dangerous still. It’s a story about dragons, royalty, and romantic adventure, but it’s also a story about identity, forgiveness, and the necessary challenge of loving oneself.

“Sometimes the truth has difficulty breaching the city walls of our beliefs. A lie, dressed in the correct livery, passes through more easily.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Hartman’s novel is Seraphina’s “garden,” a mind palace of sorts where she mentally retreats to sort—and contain—the emotions and memories passed down from her dragon mother. In a land steeped in religious traditions, rituals, and moral rigidity, Seraphina’s struggle to belong starts off a bit run-of-the-mill, and readers could quickly tire of sharing her burdens. In the early pages, even her musical talent manages to make her a misfit. Yet several unexpected elements—including the mind palace—save Seraphina from whining too much about her self-imposed isolation, and a strong supporting cast keeps the narrative moving forward. Seraphina’s father is progressive yet cynical; her uncle is peculiar yet instructive. In several clever scenes, dragons must adjust to having not only human bodies but also human emotions, for better or for worse. Where Seraphina soars is in how the reader senses a clear right and wrong while at the same time hesitating to name any one character as all good or all bad. The action slows down enough for readers to form opinions as varied and complicated as the figures in Seraphina’s mind garden, and the challenge of knowing one must act but not quite knowing how to act summarizes the plight of human existence. Thankfully for fans, Hartman already has more in the series. A marvelous exploration of the sacred and profane, the dignified and the ugly, the truth of knowledge and the truth of experience, Seraphina should be on every fantasy lover’s reading list, human, dragon, or otherwise.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Rachel Hartman’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 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.