The Brave Free Books -- May 2013

Being a semi-regular review of various e-books I've gotten for free.

The Emperor's Knife, Mazarkis Williams
The Written, Ben Galley
The Dirty Parts of the Bible - A Novel, Sam Torode

Two fantasy novels, one mainstream novel set in 1930's Hobo America.

Mazarkis Williams' The Emperor's Knife sets up some intriguing situations, with interesting characters, against some fairly standard fantasy backgrounds: A decadent empire where the royalty have little connection or empathy with common citizens, a Mongol-ish society of plains-dwelling horsemen, a barren desert complete with buried cities.

When young Prince Sarmin's father dies, his oldest brother Beyon becomes the new Cerani Emperor.  To prevent possible power struggles or revolt, all other siblings, even the youngest infant, are slain by Eyul, an assassin tasked with being the Emperor's Knife, the only person able to slay those of royal blood without damnation.  But Sarmin survives, secretly kept in a tower room for nearly twenty years as a last-resort backup if Beyon fathers no new heir.

The empire is also troubled by a strange plague, the Pattern, where geometric marks appear on victims' skins, eventually driving them to agonizing death or into violent madness.  And the marks have begun to appear on the Emperor's own skin.  Court intrigues from several different directions ensue.  A young woman from the plains is negotiated to marry into the Empire, to be Sarmin's bride, causing further complications.  The woman, Mesema, has her own secret; she can sometimes see the Pattern in the movements of grass in the wind or shifting desert sands.

Multiple characters in multiple locations sometimes make it slightly difficult to keep track of all the plot threads from chapter to chapter. (Perhaps that should be called Game-Of-Thrones Syndrome?)  I sometimes had to pause at a chapter's beginning to remind myself of who this chapter's main characters were, and what their situation had been in earlier chapters.  But well-written enough to keep wanting to know what happened next.  Overall a satisfying read.

I read Emperor's Knife free as one of Barnes & Noble's Free NOOK Fridays offerings.  Current price: Barnes & Noble Nook $9.99, Amazon Kindle $11.06.

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Ben Galley's The Written is graced by a spectacularly striking cover.  Rather than trying to dummy up a cover himself, as a lot of self-published writers do, he went to a crowdsourcing site,  Crowdspring, where he was able to offer a precis of his book and have a number of designers submit book cover proposals.  The one he accepted, by designer Mikael Westman and artist Claudia West, really stands out from the crowd of self-published books and would be no surprise coming from any leading publisher.  For $200, Ben Galley got more than his money's worth, and he's used the same team to do the covers for further books in this fantasy series; I believe that's called "branding". Smart move on Ben's part.

Unfortunately, the cover is the best thing about the book.  The MacGuffin of the novel is yet another Evil Book of Evil Evilness.  (See my review of the film Equinox.)  The protagonist is yet another bad-ass warrior-mage.  The background is yet another generic fantasy landscape, with dragons, AND vampires, AND werewolves. 

Other writers have all done that before, and better.  Much better.  The characters, even the main character, feel stereotyped and flat; their personalities seem painted on, rather than arising from inside.  One thing I noticed about Galley's writing is that he tends to over-write his scenes.  A character comes into a room.  He walks over here.  He walks over there.  He picks something up.  He puts something down.  He sits down.  He stands up again.  Et bloody cetera.  Very little of which advances the plot or reveals character.  My fingers kept itching for a red pencil as I read the first few chapters.

Full disclosure:  I didn't get beyond the first three chapters.  I looked at some of the reviews on Goodreads, and a lot of people gave high praise to the book.  (Rule of thumb for ratings on Goodreads: Deduct at least one star to adjust for irrational exuberance.)  I might have liked the book better, and possibly kept on reading, if I was forty or fifty years younger and hadn't, essentially, read books just like it a hundred times before.  For some people, it might be fresh and interesting material; to me, it's just stale.

Read free as author's promotion.  Current prices: $3.99 Amazon Kindle

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Sam Torode's The Dirty Parts of the Bible - A Novel was my favorite of the three books. 

Like The Written, TDPOTB has a very professional cover.  Torode has an advantage in that regard; he's a professional book designer in his normal life.  This even carries over to the interior design, with an old-etching-style illo at the head of each chapter.  He also uses red-colored text on occasion, but I didn't feel it added anything that italics wouldn't have done just as well.

Tobias is the son of a preacher in 1930's Michigan, caught between the demands of a strict father and the raging hormones of young adulthood.  When his father loses his church and is blinded in a freak accident, it's up to Tobias to return to estranged family in Texas and recover a hidden stash of cash his father had concealed on a brother's farm before moving the family to Michigan.

Things get complicated when Tobias loses all his travelling money in his first-ever encounter with a prostitute.  Tobias ends up travelling by rail with Craw, a black hobo and  loquacious dispenser of dubious wisdom.

Adventures ensue.  Tobias learns some lessons from the school of (literally) hard knocks, and falls for a young woman whose last three boyfriends all died, reputedly because of an Indian curse.

The book is breezy and easy and fast-moving.  It's a picaresque bildungsroman set in 1930's small-town America and the rail-riding hobo subculture.  It's fun and funny.  Tobias is the narator of the story, and his "voice" is wonderful.  Some reviewers complained the ending came too quickly.  I felt a bit that way myself, but mostly because I wanted  to read more about Tobias and Craw.

(Note: The book is inspired by the Biblical story of Tobias and the Angel.)

Read free as author's promotion.  Current prices: $2.99 Amazon Kindle

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