book review

The Chronicles of Otherworld: Season 1 by A. S. Aramiru

otherworldThis was an interesting and unusual ride through an interesting and unusual fantasy world.  The story itself—and the way the story is presented—is odd enough that I think I’m still kind of processing how I feel about it.  The Chronicles of Otherworld by A. S. Aramiru is decidedly unique, however, and that could give it an enviable ability to stand out among the largely indistinguishable hordes of self-published fantasy books.

The Concept:  B

The premise here is something that a casual fan of fantasy (like me, for example) has probably seen before.  There’s another world that inhabitants of our reality can travel to.  This world has all the best trappings and staples of fantastical fiction:  a mostly medieval setting, sword fights, sorcery, monsters, powerful gods, richly violent histories of the kingdoms in play, and so forth.  It reminded me a little bit of Everworld, a series I loved to pieces when I was a teenager.

But what sets Otherworld apart from similarly-conceived stories is the way it’s dressed up. For example, when a native of our world travels into Otherworld, his hand is adorned with a stamp-like wound.  The wound fills with color as its owner kills people and a fully-filled stamp can grant him superhuman strength and ability.  If it sounds strange, that’s probably because it is strange, but it helps keep Otherworld from becoming bland and forgettable fantasy fare.

There’s also a bit of a horror angle to the story, especially in the chapter during which Camilla is held captive by a hideous, pig-like man.  There’s a visceral atmosphere of dread and a shocking level of unabashed gore that should give this novella some serious genre crossover appeal.

The Execution:  D

I feel bad giving the execution of the concept such a low grade because it’s clearly ambitious and I admire the attempt.  But Otherworld is a little confusing and needs to be read extremely carefully.

Each chapter (or episode) focuses on a different narrator than the last, but it also focuses on a completely different story than the last.  I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be reading this as a collection of short stories that all happen to take place in the same fantasy world or if it was a collection of plotlines that would eventually converge.  I think it’s neither.  Or maybe it’s both.  The emergence of recurring characters and plot devices helped slowly tie things together, but for presenting itself as a “season,” this novella doesn’t feel as cohesive and as tautly helmed as a season of a typical television show.  I get the sense that there were a lot of mysteries about Otherworld that the reader is supposed to wonder about for a while until the author chooses to answer the burning questions, but for me it was a bit too heavy on the mystery and a bit too light on the exposition.

I’m also not sure I understand the rules of this new world well enough to grasp all the implications of the exciting finale, although it’s obvious that the ending is of major significance to the characters involved.

My other issue with the execution is that there are a lot of grammatical errors.  They’re not the clumsiest of mistakes because in almost every case it’s quite easy to tell what the author meant to say, but another careful pass with an editor’s pen would do wonders for the book’s presentation.

The Writer’s Voice: A+

love Aramiru’s voice.  His style seems to rely a lot on the dry observational humor of his first-person narrators and on short, meaningful sentences that aren’t technically complete sentences (although that’s not what I counted against him when I was whining about grammar because in these cases it was clearly done intentionally to achieve a specific effect).  Otherworld also contains plentiful profanity, but it’s not done in a way that makes it sound like the author crammed as many cuss words in as possible in an attempt to seem edgy.  It’s very organic swearing, and that’s honestly the best way to do it (if you ask me).

The other thing I like about the writer’s voice is that, on occasion, A. S. Aramiru sneaks in some slyly profound lines:

We rarely get what we deserve.  But there’s a comfort in the idea that what happens to us has nothing to do with what we deserve.

The X-Factor:  A

The special ingredient here is the plot.  It can be obtuse and difficult to pin down, but when Aramiru throws a curveball, he throws one hell of a curveball.  As ambivalent as I felt while reading parts of this book, there were a couple of surprises that, when I stumbled across them, demanded that I read on.  The overarching plot of the series is still emerging, but it’s emerging as one with some killer twists.

The Season Wrap-up:  B

For all of its rough edges, this novella is a promising start to what could be an epic fantasy series.  The world seems detailed, with its complexity merely hinted at in this first installment.  The characters are varied.  The initially unrelated plot threads started to come together slowly over the course of the book, and it gives a final sense of unity heading into what I assume will be referred to as Season 2.  And the presentation is unusual enough to inspire enough curiosity to keep me reading.

It’s not a platitude to say that I’m really interested to see where this series is going.

A Murder of Crows by Reed W. Huston

murder of crowsWith this short story, I discovered a tale with what seemed to be an overused premise erupt into something far creepier than I’d ever expected.

The Concept:  C+
A sweet young couple and their adorable little cat move into a new home, which the husband becomes convinced is being watched by swarms of creepy, telepathic crows.

It’s not the most original horror premise out there, but the author’s blurb made it sound just eerie enough that I figured it was worth a shot.  I didn’t know this when I started reading, of course, but it’s not the beginning that makes this story special—it’s the deliciousness of the ending.

The Execution:  B+
How exactly does one go about trying to make a horde of crows give a reader chills in a world in which Hitchcock’s The Birds is so well-known?  Huston gives it a surprising amount of justice, buffeting the reader expertly back and forth between scenes of cute banter between Danny and Rebecca and scenes of bewildering avian menace.  The tonal whiplash from the idyllic romance and the inexplicable dread serves to emphasize the crescendo of sinister elements in the story.

The Writer’s Voice:  B
Huston can certainly turn a phrase, and he clearly has a knack for spookiness.  There were a few little things that bothered me—a few overused words and a lack of delineation between official narration and direct thoughts of the narrator, for example.  But the first-person narration helped smooth over a lot of those minor quibbles, allowing me to get into Danny Jackson’s head and feel his dread.

The simplistic, sometimes awkward phrasing to represent the telepathic communication of the crows was a nice touch, as well, adding to the confusion and the creepiness.

The X-Factor:  A
The ending, the ending, the ending.  The ending!  It’s all about the ending!  I was interested as I read, and my interest grew steadily as the situation escalated, but during those last few pages I was reading so fast I kept accidentally skipping lines.

It’s not a perfect ending, I suppose, but it was so messed up and so unexpected that it hit me pretty hard.  It has to take a good amount of skill to pull off such a great twist in the conclusion of such a brief story, but Huston demonstrates that he’s up to the task.

The Sentence for Murder:  B+
This is a quick sample of tautly wound horror.  It starts off as nothing earth-shattering, but I’d be surprised if A Murder of Crows doesn’t surprise you in a few ways by the time you finish it.

Seventeen and Turning Into a Non-Mormon Secular Humanist Zombie by Scott Erickson

Well, there’s a clickbait book title if I’ve ever seen one!  Especially for me, who suddenly sits up and pays attention whenever the word Mormon appears onscreen—in particular when secular humanist zombiepaired with the prefixes ex- or non-.  I just happened to find this novella while lazily perusing Amazon’s humor category, and once I saw the title and weighed in the fact that it was free, there was no going back.  I had to download it.  So, obviously, I did.

Concept:  B-
The premise here is pretty straightforward.  Janet is slowly turning into a zombie and her strict Mormon father has, due to her self-identification as a secular humanist, decided to ship her off to a Minnesota camp for troubled youth.  There, she meets a surprising number of Swedes, including the handsome if lunkheaded Sven, with whom she falls in love.

As far as plot goes, that might not sound that interesting.  But it’s all in the delivery.  See, this is basically the written version of a Jason Friedberg/Aaron Seltzer spoof, except it’s a little cleaner, a little cleverer, and seems to have no particular target in mind.  It’s a very nonspecific parody.

The Execution:  C+
There’s plenty of goofiness to be found here, but there isn’t a whole lot of depth to the characters and the plot isn’t particularly engaging.  Of course, the plot really isn’t intended to be the focal point, as it merely serves as a setup for more jabs at melodramatic teenage whirlwind romances and more mockery of tired storytelling.  There are several solid running gags that never fail to elicit a chuckle and there are a few running gags that run their courses too soon and tend to elicit a rolling of the eyes.

Every time Janet mentions St. George, Utah, though…prepare for a laugh.  Every time.

The book’s saving grace is that it very obviously doesn’t take itself too seriously:

It had been sunny all morning, but suddenly the skies changed to overcast as the clouds moved in from the North.  If clouds could talk, they would have said, “Hey, we’re clouds from the North, eh?  It’s aboot time we got here.  Good day, eh?”

(They were Canadian clouds, get it?)

It’s all quite clearly tongue-in-cheek.  So when the narrator spends a surprising amount of time discussing whether Janet is better at ambling, meandering, or walking, it comes across as endearing instead of just plain weird.

The Writer’s Voice:  A
I’d be willing to bet that Erickson had a blast writing this, cackling with glee to himself as he inserted a mostly irrelevant commentary on a classic film or an amusing and unnecessarily detailed description of a high-quality fishing rod.  The fun shines through and it makes Seventeen and Turning into a Non-Mormon Secular Humanist Zombie a light, breezy read.  The self-aware jokes and the intentionally cheesy dialogue and the general absurdity of it all make for an engaging narrative, even if the actual events on the page aren’t particularly riveting.

The X-Factor:  D
I was kind of disappointed.  There wasn’t a whole lot of talk about the zombie thing.  It came up a few times, but it was kind of an everpresent but unaddressed plot point for the majority of the story.  There wasn’t a whole lot about secular humanism, either—in fact, there might have been more Buddhism involved.  And there was next to nothing about Mormonism.

The Mormonism thing bothered me because it was cursory and not well-researched.  The rare bit of Mormon dialogue is inauthentic.  There’s also a mention early on of someone’s Mormon parents attending a weekend prayer conference in Las Vegas.  As someone who spent 20 years as a Mormon and has never heard the term prayer conference thrown around in Mormon circles, I found that to be somewhat inaccurate.  And I realize that this is just one line in a whole book and not even an important aspect of the story, but considering that the word non-Mormon in the title is what drew me to this in the first place, it was kind of annoying to find such little treatment of the religion and such a poor depiction of it.  Although, at one point, someone says that Joseph Smith “got horny so he decided God told him it was cool to have multiple wives.”  So there’s that.

I suppose it’s not really fair to call a title that poorly represents the content of the book the X-Factor, but without it, there isn’t much of an X-Factor.  There’s some good stuff and a little bad stuff, but there isn’t one aspect of the book that really stands out to me as the distinctive wild card…other than the fact that its name led me to expect something quite different from what I got.

The Epiphany:  C+
Seventeen and Turning into a Non-Mormon Secular Humanist Zombie is certainly a hilarious novella.  I feel like I’ve had a lot of negative things to say about it and I think maybe those negatives have been given a disproportionate representation in my review.  But I think that might all stem from the fact that what I read wasn’t what I’d expected based on the title.

It helps not to take the book seriously and it probably helps a lot if you’re going into it with the intent to find some solid humor instead of fascinating characters or a complex plot.  Not every piece of fiction has the same aspirations.  This one aspires merely to make its audience laugh, and I think it accomplishes exactly that.