Review: Chaika The Coffin Princess

Chaika the Coffin Princess [Blu-ray]

In the first episode we get to see a young girl shoot an evil flying unicorn in half with a magical sniper rifle. That’s just the first episode. You eventually get used to the crazy. Sort of. This is the kind of story that keeps you guessing up until the end while you gnaw off your fingernails from the edge of your seat. I have mixed feelings about anime. Shows are hit or miss. This was definitely a big hit.

The story revolves around Chaika, a young woman who claims to be the daughter of Emperor Gaz who was killed by eight heroes five years ago. She hires mercenaries Toru and childhood friend and “sister-in-arms” Akari to gather the late emperor’s remains so that she may mourn properly. They aren’t actually blood related, and the honorifics “brother” and “sister” are usually played for laughs due to Akari’s obvious romantic interest in Toru and Toru’s hilarious obliviousness to it.

The plot gets even stranger once you learn that there are multiple girls all claiming to be Chaika. And all of them are seeking to gather Emperor Gaz’s remains. If that doesn’t sound weird enough, it gets weirder, but I’ll refrain from spoilers.

Thematically, the story’s main thrust was an examination of the psychological effect of constant warfare on societies and individual characters. Emperor Gaz kept the world in a constant state of warfare for 500 years. Some characters have a hard time moving on, but the story never gets preachy. You won’t find any heavy-handed messaging here. This is much more about individuals trying to figure out what is worth living for. Loyalty, love, the power of memories, and sacrifice are all important, but there is a lot more show than tell here so if you aren’t paying attention you might miss a wonderful nuance to character development.

Chaika has an enormous amount going right for it. The art direction is wonderful. The character designs are great, the monsters are perfectly creepy. Even the opening and closing themes are great. Chaika defies genre and does so exceedingly well. There are fantasy elements and magic is pervasive, monsters seem dragged from a horror universe, there is mad science, and there are flying fortresses. Plenty of action is tempered with just the right amount of humor.

I love heroic characters and Toru’s growth was great to see and wonderfully written. His mercenary personality next to Chaika’s girlish innocence was completely charming. Even the relationships between side characters are incredibly well drawn.

As far as content? There are some shocking moments of violence, but nothing truly pervasive. Definitely not for kids, though. Language is pretty mild and PG. There is no sex. There is almost nothing close to fan service. The closest thing is in the OVA and involves Akari bathing and having to sneak up and knock somebody unconscious. Even that is played more for laughs than purely prurient interest.

This is a superb show and if you understand what is going on thematically, the ending is beautiful enormously satisfying. I can’t recommend this enough as it might be my new favorite anime.

Get it here.

Review: Maxwell Cain: Burrito Avenger by Adam Lane Smith

This is the second book by Adam Lane Smith I’ve read, and it was glorious. He claimed he took the action and dialed it up to eleven, causing his editor to try to reign things in. I think his editor must have had his hands full because I’m not sure much got dialed back. In any case, it seemed like Smith kept trying to crank the dial… and broke it off. That’s a good thing.

Smith clearly understands what makes classic action films good and fun and wrote accordingly. This is exactly the sort of story I was expecting to be part of Vin Diesel’s career and never was. It’s teh sort of action story that has been missing since the early nineties. Maxwell Cain: Burrito Avenger seemed like it was designed to fill in the sad space where quality action films used to reign.

Cain is a cop who isn’t afraid to put down violent thugs, even if it means the city won’t get to collect fines criminals would otherwise pay for their crimes. Yes, you read that right. This story takes place in the future, where criminals are basically given free reign to commit crimes as long as they pay the proper fine for their wrongdoing. How ridiculous is this future? Think of a crime-ridden Demolition Man and you come pretty close. There are ads for disgusting food concoctions and other things everywhere. Many of them urging the viewer to tap the ad to have the product drone-dropped to their home. On a train? Ads. Starting your car? Ads.

Max “Bloody Rain” Cain gets fired from his job for taking down a handful of thugs. His chief doesn’t like that kind of policing, so Max is left to figure out what to do next with his life. Little does he suspect that his lunch will be ruined, and his burrito destroyed. What follows is an explosion of almost non-stop violence, cartoonish mayhem, and one-liners. It’s enough to leave one parched. But in the words of Max Cain: “I don’t want water. I’m thirsty for blood.”

Amidst the chaos and piles of dead gangsters, Max meets Kate Valentine. The blonde bombshell joins forces with Max and they weave a tapestry of destruction throughout the city. Their banter and interactions are genuinely funny. Smith has a knack for writing enjoyable secondary characters and jokes that warrant a good belly laugh.

There’s also action. Did I mention that? There are a lot of gangsters, so Max and Kate never run out of targets. Don’t bother trying to keep a body count. You’ll lost track quickly. Explosions, car crashes, shootouts down hallways and in parks, helicopters, train fights, explosions… This book doesn’t let up.

I’ve seen this likened to John Wick, but with a burrito instead of a dog. The biggest problem with that comparison is that this book is way better than John Wick. There’s no angst here and you aren’t going to be tricked into reading about peoples’ feelings. The closest thing you get to that is Kate explaining her backstory. I won’t ruin that because it’s a great backstory.

Fans of 80s action flicks will love this. There are notes of Invasion USA, Delta Force, and Commando, there’s even a touch of Die Hard. This is a love letter written to action movies back when they used to be filled with fun and heroes to get behind and root for. If you miss stories like that, don’t hesitate to grab a copy of Maxwell Cain: Burrito Avenger.

Get your copy here.

Review: Storm Between the Stars by Karl K. Gallagher

Imagine if 1984’s Big Brother were an interplanetary empire run by an inefficient bureaucracy filled with people who are more concerned with following protocol and looking good in front of their superiors than anything else. In other words, a realistic bureaucracy. This is what Niko Landry and his crew stumble upon. And it is creepy as hell.

History is forbidden within the Censor’s reach to the point where an artist’s art dies with them. Star maps are forbidden, and nobody knows how many planets are in the empire. That information is available only to high-level officials and even then, if they want to access it, it gets logged and reported to even higher officials that they’ve accessed it. The people in the Censorate aren’t even allowed to know what year it truly is, lest they think for even a moment that their oppressive government has lasted fewer than a million years.

Landry and his crew can’t simply leave and escape because the planet they land on is racked with violent hurricanes. Also, leaving would be suspicious. What starts out as a fairly Star Trek-esque adventure quickly turns into something far more sinister. They are stuck and the tension is so masterfully written that I found myself almost glad to take breaks and recover. Almost. I also didn’t want to put the thing down.

This isn’t the type of science fiction I usually jump at, but Storm Between the Stars had everything going right for it. Everything I don’t find terribly interesting in science fiction was made interesting and drew me in. There weren’t any tedious, drawn-out explanations or bogs of info dump. Scientific stuff was brief and believable enough.

The vision of hyperspace is intriguing and brilliant. It isn’t hell like in the Warhammer 40k universe. Nor is it the super simple ‘plug in a calculation and go’ that seems to be the standard go-to for science fiction. Gallagher’s hyperspace is a dangerous ocean of color and shifting landmarks. Any wrong move could crash a ship through the aether into a shoal or run it into a violent, deadly storm that could tear the ship apart.

As far as stories with dystopian tyrannical governments go, this is the best I’ve read. Far too many stories like this fall into ham-fisted sermonizing or scenarios that don’t make sense intellectually or logically. Gallagher avoids every possible pitfall. And thankfully, we get a competent, cautious leader in Niko Landry. Nothing in the plot is centered on a character carrying an idiot ball. From the operations of secret societies trying to hang on to history or religion to self-serving bureaucrats, Gallagher crafted a story and universe that holds believable characters. This is probably why the creepy, looming presence of the Censorate was so successfully frightening. This type of story should serve as a warning and not a how-to manual or road map.

Highly recommended for fans of David Weber, Star Trek, and dystopian fiction like 1984 or The Giver. This is top notch science fiction.

Get your copy here

Review: Penance by Paula Richey

I love superhero stories. I’m also very critical of them so I was very pleased that it delivered on the amount of hype that had accumulated in my head. In short, Paula Richey’s novel is awesome.

Penance is the story of Penance Copper. To sum up Penance, think Jubilee from the X-Men as something of a southern street urchin but with powers that are actually fleshed out, interesting, and written well. We get to see some seriously cool use of energy powers here. Penance is basically a living nuclear reactor. This doesn’t mean she’s overpowered, though. There are some scary implications surrounding her powers, as there should be, and her limitations are treated appropriately and interestingly.

The story revolves around Penance trying to redeem herself from being the pawn of abusive psychopath Acid. Acid is, at first glance, a petty thug with a drug problem. He’s also a Prime (this universe’s designation for superpowered individuals) with corrosive touch. The plot jumpstarts right into Acid ordering a hit on The Justice, a superhero. Penance is to be the assassin, but she starts to have second thoughts about where her life is headed.

Things spiral fast into a very fun story that never gets boring and moves along at a comfortably brisk pace. From an alien invasion at a football stadium, to a jailbreak, human trafficking with intergalactic implications, to androids, empaths, jailbreaks, and superpowered fights, Paula Richey treats us to a healthy dose of action and imagination.

Penance is everything a superhero story should be. The heroes are heroic and likable. The villains are nasty and underhanded. The story is uplifting and a lot of fun. The trend in comics and superhero stories lately has been to be murky, grimdark, and subversive. Paula goes the opposite direction and gives us something wonderful and classic that also feels fresh and new.

This is an origin story of sorts, but it is also a redemption story. On her journey, Penance encounters religion. I’ll make a quick note here that the author does not browbeat or smother the reader with messaging. The religious content is tasteful and handled very well. Well, enough that I am confident anybody would be able to read and enjoy this. The encounters help impel Penance toward what she truly desires: A better self and a better life.

This is exactly what a superhero story is supposed to do. Superhero stories were always meant to be uplifting and fun. They’re supposed to be inspirational and show people trying to do their best. Paula Richey does more for the superhero genre than any big comic publisher has done in over a decade.

We’re also given a second protagonist in Kail, an eight-foot-tall alien from an absolutely terrible planet. Think of a society where the people who love taxes are in control of everything. Now, add a god-emperor who believes he owns everything, and an oppressive caste system and you have an idea of Kail’s planet.

His part of the story has the best ‘fish-out-of-water’ element I’ve read in a long time. The cultural misunderstandings and interactions are fantastic. The alien culture feels incredibly well developed without getting bogged down in over-explanation of nuts and bolts. This is top-notch world-building. Kail’s personality and situation serve as a good foil for Penance and their interactions are charming and amusing.

Anybody who likes superhero stores and is tired of the current depressing trends in DC and Marvel will love this. If you liked Sanderson’s Reckoners trilogy but thought it had too much focus on mechanics and had a somewhat convoluted plot, this is definitely for you as it does not have those trappings. It’s also clean young adult fiction, which is as rare as a unicorn, these days. A huge point in favor of this book. The language is tame and there is no sex. I’d be comfortable giving this to a teenager that wants a good superhero story. Or an adult, for that matter.

Get your copy from Amazon here.

Or you can get it direct from the publisher here.

Note: This is part of Silver Empire’s Heroes Unleashed shared universe which features other great authors like Kai Wai Cheah and Morgon Newquist. CHeck out the series here.

Note 2: Penance is eligible for a Dragon Award. Go here for information on how to nominate it and other eligible book suggestions!

Review: How Black the Sky by T. J. Marquis

How Black the Sky by T.J. Marquis is a fun fantasy romp in a strange universe where the sun is red and magic is pervasive. Truly, it’s everywhere. Glowing swords, gems that power gauntlets, thrown lightning, and even color itself can have magical quality. This is an imaginitive world.

At its core, it is a Get the Band Back Together story. The book starts with a bang as a young warrior named Pierce flees a Monstrosity (yes, capital M) in order to deliver very bad news. The news is bad enough that Pierce drags the legendary heroes known as Gorgonbane out of retirement. It doesn’t take much doing. They’re heroes and it’s what they do. It helps that Pierce is earnest and completely free of guile. Gorgonbane sees this and doesn’t hesitate to welcome him along (to his surprise).

The plot revolves around Gorgonbane and Pierce trying to thwart the Underland from invading Overland. The world has multiple layers (not just continents or feuding kingdoms), transversed through portals. Then there is the Chasm, a deep break surrounding the land and populated by flesh-rending, horrible banshees. The worldbuilding is very well done and thankfully Marquis doesn’t bog the reader down with nuts and bolts. We’re thrown into a rich, intriguing fantasy world and given room to wonder at it.

Throughout the story, the author gives a handful of stories of Gorgonbane’s past exploits. We learn of Gorgonbane’s start as a group of mercenaries and get glimpses of their rise to the status of legendary warriors. It was a risky gambit, but it paid off big. Throwing in little stories here and there could have ruined the pacing, but it didn’t. If anything, the intermittent tales helped the pacing along, made the characters feel more fleshed out and established in their world, and aided in worldbuilding.

Also of note is the author’s treatment of religion. There is no flippancy or demeaning of the system the author has created. The characters worship a figure called the Blacksmith. The Blacksmith forged the world and its creatures and, fittingly, the people of the world work toward tempering themselves into their best form and follow the Glorious Path. In this world, that usually means becoming a virtuous warrior. Just about every character is named after a weapon, so the societal dedication to following the Blacksmith is quite present. The current trend in fantasy has been to ignore or demean religion so this was a refreshing change of pace. And a very welcome one.

A warrior society in which the heroes are virtuous was a nice touch. You won’t find the boring “everything is a shade of black-grey” that has permeated fantasy here. Everything as a darkedgy deconstruction is a boring storytelling choice. T.J. Marquis went the opposite route and wrote an interesting story with likeable characters I found myself rooting for. My favorite would probably be Agrathor, the once handsome guy who lost his skin and went around as a magical, lightning-throwing skeleton.

Not everything is all rainbows and smiley faces, however. There is plenty of tragedy, but the characters are capable of overcoming it. It doesn’t define them completely. They have depth instead of soul-crushing ennui. Even the villainous characters had a surprising amount of depth to them. Not everything is as it seems and some of the plot twists were unexpected. One even managed to completely blindside me.

The action is well done and the violence isn’t over the top gory. This is a good, solid fantasy adventure and I have a hard time believing it is a first novel. Fans of fantasy that are tired of depress-fests and anti-heroes will enjoy this. I know I’m looking forward to the sequel (but don’t worry, the ending is satisfying enough in its own right, even if it does leave a sequel in expectation).

Buy your copy here.

Dusklight is Out Now!

Taking place 6 months after the end of Chalk, Dusklight is the second book in my series featuring Raven Mistcreek, a Catholic schoolgirl that can make magical constructs by drawing them with chalk.

You can purchase the paperback here.

You can purchase the ebook version here.

I’m not sure why they aren’t linked together. I’ll be looking into that.

In celebration of the release of Dusklight, the Dragon Award eligible Chalk is on sale! Buy it here and be sure to nominate it for Best Fantasy here. For other suggestions on Dragon Award eligible books, take a look here.

Review: Starship Grifters by Robert Kroese

Starship Grifters is one of the funniest things I’ve ever experienced. It is certainly the funniest book I’ve read.

As a science fiction humor story, comparisons to other science fiction humor stories is inevitable. So how does it compare to the oft-touted science fiction humor novel Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? It is MUCH funnier than Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But, in my opinion, that’s also a very low bar. Robert Kroese has no regard for that bar and instead makes his own bar and beats other bars with his new bar until they ask him politely to stop. Writing comedy is difficult. My experience with humor stories is that they start off strong, but the hilarity tends to fade quickly. Robert Kroese conquers this problem magnificently, and Starship Grifters remained consistently funny throughout.

The protagonist Rex Nihilo is an absurd character who continuously (and miraculously) rolls 20s on every charisma check. The plot revolves around Rex trying to get out of massive debt. En route, Nihilo faces off against an evil galactic empire, a rebellion based in a car park, and Space Apostles who appear out of nowhere. Kroese tips over many sacred cows with finesse and without being coarse, vulgar, or insulting to his readers. Modern comedy writers should take a note. Or several. Star Wars gets several jabs. Bureaucracy, usury, corporatism, stale tropes, and likely many things I didn’t pick up on get jabs. But all of this is done without getting bogged down in painful, unwanted Pop Culture ™ references. Yay! The only thing remotely bog-related is the forest moon, which is mostly swamp.

Memorable characters abound. From the narrator robot Sasha to the beautiful and… er… impressive bounty hunter Pepper and gibberish-spouting Ted there’s a lot to love. Perhaps most memorable is the villainous Heinous Vlaak who seemed to me to be a ridiculous combination of every 1980s dystopian gang lord I’ve ever seen (complete with outlandish outfit and wraparound sunglasses) and Skeletor.

Who would enjoy this? Fans of Larry Correia’s The Adventures of Tom Stranger certainly. Fans of Star Wars spoofs like Spaceballs would also find immense enjoyment within this books many text-filled pages. Who won’t enjoy this? People without a sense of humor will hate it. People who are fans of massive debt and bureaucracy might be offended as well.

In any case this book comes very highly recommended. I do not recommend reading it while eating, however, as there is a distinct danger of choking on said food from laughter. Er… don’t ask.

Buy your copy here!

Review: All Things Huge and Hideous by G. Scott Huggins

Doctor James DeGrande is slave to the Dark Lord. In the Empire of Dread, he is essentially head veterinarian, dealing with dragons, basilisks, dire wolves, wyverns, and other creatures and monstrosities. Most of which are visible.

This is what you get when you filter Terry Pratchett through Blackadder and G.K. Chesterton. The fantasy world is plenty quirky and the situations and side characters colorful and memorable. I actually had to put the book down once because I was laughing so hard. The Chesterton-esque wit comes to the fore in the author’s ability to take a tense situation and cleverly turn it on its head and show that it is not only tense, but also absurd. There is something very Edmund Blackadder about DeGrande frantically trying to stay ahead of the Dark Lord and his minions and keep his head. G. Scott Huggins gives us a book that is often painfully funny.

It isn’t all laughs and jokes amidst the gore and darkness. In this world the Dark Lord won the war, the elves ran away, and humans are largely slaves. Heroism isn’t entirely dead, though, and the story never gets bogged down in its more serious content. DeGrande’s actions are not entirely selfish even if a lot of what he does is struggle to stay alive. He genuinely cares about the veterinary practice he inherited and his almost-witch assistant. There are even moments of subtle defiance when he is able to undermine the Dark Lord’s minions. So, in his own, limited way, our protagonist gets to play the hero. And it is always a joy when he does.

While I didn’t care too much for the plot thread involving a unicorn, this is a very consistently enjoyable read. From surgery inside of a dragon to facing vampires, necromancers, trolls, and an invisible creature that is definitely not a weasel, All Things Huge and Hideous is a hilarious, worthwhile read that left me wanting more. I hope there will be a sequel in the not-too-distant future. Highly recommended for fans of Terry Pratchett, Blackadder, veterinary medicine, and fractured fairytales.

Get your copy here.

Dragon Awards 2021 – Update

The Dragon Awards are closer. This is a list of who I am voting for. You won’t see huge names here. The closest thing is Dan Abnett. Why Dragon Awards? The short answer is that culture matters. Therefore, the Dragon Awards matter. As far as I can tell it is one of very few awards that isn’t a trash heap. When was the last time a good film won an Oscar? And look how viewership of that train-wreck has plummeted. Other awards have imploded badly.

This is a way of fighting back against that trend.

Nominations are open here.

Best Science Fiction Novel

Storm Between the Stars – Karl K. Gallagher

Best Young Adult/Middle Grade Novel

Penance – Paula Richey

Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel

Unmasked – Kai Wai Cheah

Best Alternate History Novel

Educated Luck – Mel Todd

Best Horror Novel

Hussar – Declan Finn

Best Fantasy Novel

Chalk – N. R. LaPoint

Best Comic Book

Soulbound, #2 – Paula Richey

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy TV Series, TV or Internet

Pinkerton’s Ghosts

Best Media Tie-In Novel

Penitent – Dan Abnett

One last addition. A friend suggested adding this and I trust his opinion on comics.

Best Graphic Novel

Kamen America, Volume 1: Stars and Strife – Timothy Lim and Mark Pellegrini, Iconic Comics

Review: Death Cult (Saint Tommy, NYPD #2) by Declan Finn

Superhero Detective Tommy Nolan returns in Death Cult, the follow-up to Hell Spawn. To my mind most sequels don’t deliver on the promise of the first installment. So, does it hold up or is the series dragged into a sophomore slump? Death Cult not only succeeds where many sequels fail, it doubles down on everything I loved about the first book. It might actually be better than Hell Spawn. A very nice surprise.

After the events of Hell Spawn, Tommy “I’m Not a Saint, Saints are Dead!” Nolan is dealing with the fallout: obnoxious legal issues, Internal Affairs, moving to a new house, the media predictably portraying Nolan as a villainous psychopath… and, oh yeah, the death cult that Nolan foiled wants him and his family dead. From the opening home invasion to the final action scene, Declan Finn doesn’t give you the chance to get bored.

Along with the death cult we get a fun take on the zombie genre. I hate the zombie genre, generally, but (thank God) there’s no overdone undead cannibalism here. No, instead we are given a Bond villain-esque voodoo witch doctor and his lifeless puppets. Much better. And that’s not all. Detective Nolan still must contend with normal human villains that seemed ripped from today’s headlines. Seriously, sometimes you feel like you’re reading current events and not an urban fantasy laced with horror.

Nolan loses none of the charm he had in Hell Spawn. He is quickly becoming one of my favorite action heroes. There’s no moping or shoegazing to be had here. Saint Tommy doesn’t do depressing, and his constant incredulity over people being unsurprised by his saint-like qualities is always amusing. We get to see some new developments with his powers, as well as some intriguing limitations. Declan Finn does fun and he does it well. Well enough that this series has become one of my go-to recommendations. Death Cult even leaves you with a fun twist. It left me chuckling and wanting the next installment.

If you like a good pulp / action / horror / urban fantasy story, you can’t do much better.

Treat yourself to a copy here.

If you don’t have the first one yet, try here.