Thursday, February 9, 2017

Reader's Review: "Dangerous Ways" by R. R. Virdi

Synopsis from Amazon:

Jonathan Hawthorne has lived over a century beholden to one rule: do not meddle in mortal affairs. He's broken it twice. So when he crosses paths with Cassidy Winters, he's forced to interfere again.

Strike three. And the third time's not the charm.
Hawthorne is swept along as Cassidy slips through the cracks in reality.
And being hunted by bands of monsters doesn't help.

To find the answers they need, they'll have to play in a dangerous world. One where the odds and rules are stacked against them. They will have to navigate magical courts, queens and lords all while trying to keep Cassidy out of their scheming hands.

If they fail, she will end up a pawn in a plot that will consume them all.
Hawthorne will have to face the consequences of his past, and risk his future to ensure Cassidy can have one of her own.

For a man with all the time in the world--it seems to be running out--fast!


My Review:

I have been an ardent fan of Virdi's books ever since I read Grave Beginnings--back when I was new to book reviewing and still not sure about the whole thing, since up to that point, I had read mostly classics and books recommended by other people--known and trusted authors. I read that book, though--and it was easily the best book of 2014. Two years later, I eagerly licked through Grave Measures which was every bit as entertaining, if not more so!

That being said.... DANGEROUS WAYS blew me away.
First of all, the tone of the book is so solemn, so mature, that whereas one might feel like Vince Graves invites all manner of snark and eye-rolling--when Jonathan Hawthorne speaks up, you listen. Not just a reluctant "immaterial soul", Jonathan is a Timeless immortal, capable of being wounded, but also of superhuman healing, enabling him to live for at least a century.
Secondly, Virdi has expanded the world to truly Tolkiensian proportions. In Grave Measures, Vince deals with a sidhe and only dabbles slightly in the Neravene. Here, we get to explore more about Ways (the portals to enter the Neravene) and the Fae realm in real, conscious, physical depth. The number of mythical creatures Hawthorne encounters, the ones he knows about and the ones he meets for the first time, far outweighs anything I've read before.
Most of all, I was profoundly enthralled by the prose: The observations by Hawthorne, the various characters surrounding him, the twists and turns their quest takes as they dig to uncover the antagonist (a truly terrifying character you won't see coming!) and all of the heart-wrenching moments, cleverly relieved with much humor and delightfully geeky references! (Joss Whedon would approve!) Badass men and women populate this new world: Tatiana the Norse Shieldmaiden who owns a bakery above Jonathan's living space; George the quirky "doctor" who brooks no complaints from his clients and heals via some rather unorthodox methods; Quentin, the effortlessly British immortal, a Timeless and Jonathan's mentor; Toshiro, the Japanese samurai with a fixation on maintaining balance between the human world and that of the Fae--and Cassie Winters, the girl with more power than she knows what to do with. And those are only some of the human characters! There are trolls, goblins, Gremlins, Dark Elves, dewdrops, and Fae of every sort as well!
There is much careful deliberation behind this story, which makes it all the more compelling! The solemn, heart-wrenching, gallows-humor tale came like "a roundhouse kick to the feels-box"--I laughed at the references, I squealed in delight and in terror, I swore at the characters, and I blew through it in only a few days because I couldn't stop! It's long, but it is so worth it! You do not want to miss this epic journey through a fresh take on urban fantasy!

In all the sixty-plus books I've featured on this blog, there are a handful that, if I could give them more than five stars, I would. This is one of them. But, as matters stand, I must resign myself to giving DANGEROUS WAYS only the fullest *****5 STAR***** rating I can manage, and couple that with an Upstream Writer Certified ABSOLUTELY RECOMMENDED endorsement! Anybody who enjoys a rousing good urban fantasy adventure simply MUST READ this book without delay! Follow the hyperlinked text at the top to order your copy from Amazon today!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

WIP-Of-The-Month: Of Cynics And Cinnamon Rolls

January's WIP-of-The-Month... Still unfinished...

Those who saw my Writer's Resolution blog post at the beginning of the year, when I would normally announce any resolutions (if I have them) are aware that, in an attempt to keep myself focused, accountable, and to improve my record of "actually finishing something", I listed out the six WIP's I have yet to finish, and I resolved to focus on each one for a month in the hopes of actually bringing that first draft to completion.

It is now February, and I have not finished a bloody thing.

January was an almost complete bust. I had 3 chapters left, in The Commander's Courage, and a whole month in which to finish it (not to mention quite a few unexpected snow days I could have spent knocking it out in a relatively short amount of time!) and just how many chapters did I manage to finish?

One. Just one stinking chapter, and every phrase was about as easy as a headache.

At the advice of my "Motivational Team" (it's up to 5 people, now! And at least ONE of them checks in regularly, which is exactly what I need!) I went ahead and set aside January's WIP to move on to February's.
February's WIP-of-The-Month (KartheyM is my Wattpad username, which is where this story can be found)

Yeah, this is going a lot smoother.

I just have one question nagging me:


Why is the new one so much easier? What was getting me so stuck on the Commander's Courage that I just never felt compelled to write it? One would think I would have had an easier time with that one, since it's basically already written and pretty much the only thing I ought to be doing is making it longer and more wordy (something I've never struggled with)... But no, the words just would not come.

I was reflecting on this last night, as I was drumming away at my phone (where I do pretty much all of my writing), plugging away at the next chapter for The Water-Man--

I think it's the characters.

In "A Writer's Tale", Laura tends to be pretty cynical about these amazing worlds, the characters she's interacting with tend to be kind of "downer" folk, especially at this point in this particular installment, there aren't any more "fun" scenes or endearing characters--those happened earlier in the book. She's getting reamed right now by the arrogant Commander, and she's trying to outsmart a particularly devious enemy who has hitherto operated entirely under the radar--but how to expose this impostor, when the impostor holds literally all the cards? And how to do so in a way that doesn't feel forced, rushed, contrived, or obvious? How can I, the writer, make this believable and compelling? No clue.

In "The Water-Man," however, I left off at a really good part. The main character, Celian, is finally getting to develop a relationship with Agatha, something he's waited a long time to do, things are falling into place and once I set things up like a row of dominoes in this chapter, it's going to be really fun to watch them all tumble down in the next chapter which will be full of feels and awesome--but also, Celian has been described by a reader as "a precious cinnamon roll." (For those unfamiliar with the term, here is the definition according to Urban Dictionary: "Someone who is very sweet and innocent, yet has bad things happen to them. Often used in reference to fictional characters.") I couldn't agree more; this is exactly where I was going with this character, and I am very pleased that he has won the hearts of my readers.

Cinnamon Rolls are easier to write than Cynics. Come to think of it, they're also a LOT more fun in general, as real people. The Cynic is the one questioning EVERYTHING, the one who short-circuits if they don't know ABSOLUTELY EVERY TWIST heading their way, the one who just picks apart the people and circumstances around her till everybody's at an equal level of miserable.
By the same token, however, the Cynic is also quite relatable, because--let's face it, there is a Cynic in all of us. We criticize our surroundings, we analyze and judge the differences in people around us, we get uncomfortable with the unconventional. That's Laura; I guess I'm sort of disenchanted with Laura--I could really use something to give me back the mojo for that one, if only just to finish it so I can move on to the next one in that series. I'm ready for a change of tone, of scene--and I'm ready for more Cinnamon Rolls! (Just thinking about it now, there are more Cinnamon Rolls in this series, they just somehow didn't make the cut in this particular installment...) Maybe Laura was who I was a while back, but I've done a bit of maturing and changing since then. I'm only just beginning to realize that now!

Meanwhile, I am pretty confident that I can whip out the next couple chapters to finally finish "The Water-Man" and bring that lovely little fairy tale to a close before the month is up. Celian is quite the Cinnamon Roll! We enjoy having those kinds of people in our life: the ones that perpetually find good and maintain a level of calm in the most chaotic situations, the ones that can watch a tornado rip through their lives that would leave the Cynic catatonic on the floor, and just blink twice, laugh and say "Well... that is a thing that just happened." Most of all, the best Cinnamon Rolls are champion "Triers." They try to find the good, they try to do right, they try to stay sane. And you want to know the key ingredient in EVERY CINNAMON ROLL? Cinnamon. Spicy, kicky, warm cinnamon. While Celian isn't your typical "spicy" personality, he's definitely cute and endearing and Agatha can be the Cinnamon to his precious sweet-fluffy-glazed roll-y self! She's definitely the spicy one, and I love it!

ALSO, I am going to be more proactive about these check-in posts! I completely dropped the ball last month (probably would have helped... maybe) so from here on out, I'll be better at letting you all in on my process!

As always....

Catch You Further Upstream!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Reader's Review: "A Halloween's Curse" by C. A. King

Synopsis from Amazon:

Why do prophecies have to speak in riddles? Willow's destiny led her to a whole book of them. If that wasn't bad enough a gypsy witch shows up and utters words that made even less sense. Was it a curse or another prediction?
With Mike still missing, and Halloween approaching quickly Willow will need all of her friends to help connect the events of the past with the present, or there may not be a future. King Cornelius' plan to dominate every realm is woven into the mystery that surrounds every corner they turn. Following the clues will lead them on a journey through the spookiest time of the year. 

"Be forewarned on Hallows Eve
those who are not of this world shall take to the streets,
blood shall flow and death shall follow.
Your presence attracts what we cannot explain.
Your destiny is written. You best make sure you listen."


My Review:
It's only natural to be wary of sequels. I confess I kind of was. After the definite four-star quality (a case of too many characters and too many plot points almost—ALMOST—riding the story off the rails...) of the first book, I really had to face the fact that it really could be better, just as easily as it could have come off the same, or even a little worse, as sequels are wont to do.

This sequel is better! DEFINITELY better!
It picks up where Keeper's Destiny left off—and keeps right on building! Sure, there were a lot of elements to the first book that made it sort of complicated to follow, but now we get to see WHY all that was necessary! Almost like the first book was more of a prequel, and THIS is where the adventure begins! The group has made it to the place WE know as the "real world"—but their presence has accelerated the activity of their enemies, and now the world and all worlds—namely the portals that once networked them all—are in danger. A creepy "witch tour" through a real-world town (Salem? Can't remember if it had a name or not... it did contain a lot of witch-related history and memorabilia) itself reveals more secrets and answers more mysteries than Willow and her friends expected—and also presents new questions that need answering.
The character development in this story is my favorite part. Now that they have time and "space" in the story to interact and really start to find their places, the "voices" and personalities are more distinct. 
The lore, also, gets an upgrade: now that we have backstory for the concepts introduced in the first book, the explanation doesn't bear repeating, so expansion and application is possible. We see the friends using their powers, working together to try and outwit a curse and find a powerful, ancient witch who might be able to help them—all the while avoiding detection by the singularly powerful King Cornelius and his brood. Old grudges are erased as status and distinction no longer matter; they are, for all intents and purposes, allies in pursuit of survival.

Halloween's Curse definitely accomplished everything a sequel ought to do: the simpler, more focused plot lent itself to a more secure foundation for excellent character development, and I am measurably more excited for the next book, now that I see what an improvement this has been! King has achieved her stride in this series, and it's just going to keep going from here on out!

I give HALLOWEEN'S CURSE a full *****5 STAR***** rating in all categories. If you enjoy witches and magic and dark urban fantasy, unique new takes on traditional legends and lore, and if you're looking for something new to read—Portal Prophecies would definitely fit that bill!
Further Reading: (YA Paranormal Urban Fantasy/"Teens of Destiny"/Female Leads)
The Vemreaux Trilogy--Mary E. Twomey
       -The Way
       -The Truth
       -The Lie
Lord of the Wyrde Woods--Nils Visser
     -Escape From Neverland
     -Dance Into The Wyrd  
   -Puck's Choice--Skye Hegyes

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sunday Musings: Seek The Welfare Of The City

This is a mock cover for a future adaptation of the story of Daniel; click >HERE< for some excerpts!

"The building was on fire, and it wasn't my fault."
 -Jim Butcher, "Blood Rites"

I saw the above quote yesterday, and felt it was profoundly applicable to this post and the state of my world just now.

I don't usually get political; I am profoundly laissez-faire when it comes to politics, mostly because I feel like both sides are screaming at each other--or, to continue the metaphor of the quote, one keeps throwing matches, and the other, gasoline. So my "building" is "on fire"--and it's not my fault. I reserve the right to function as effectively as I can in whatever situation comes my way. I don't feel comfortable being overly vocal about which side I agree with more.

This morning in church, though, I was presented with a situation that I could claim responsibility for: I may not have set the fire, I may not be tossing around accelerants with one side or the other--but I'm not running around looking for the fire extinguisher, either.

Today's passage was from Jeremiah 29, preparing to delve into the book of Daniel--which, if you know the Bible, Daniel was one of those smart, good-looking, "best and brightest" individuals forcibly drafted into the service of a pagan king who held none of the same moral or spiritual values, and in fact didn't value the Israelite/Jewish people as an individual nation at all. 

The Jewish people--God's people--have been taken over in the worst way, by the worst "administration" possible. Their only options are to "put up and shut up" or die. Of course, what else would they think but "This is not what God has planned for His people! This is the opposite of what He promised us! This is a temporary thing. Surely God would never leave us in the hands of the Babylonians, His enemies!"

In the midst of this, God sends Jeremiah with a message:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

Morality In Exile

It's easy to believe that morality in America has officially gone into exile. Since the day the election came down to only two candidates, there have been dangerous allegations lobbed on both sides. Since the day President Trump was elected, there have been full-on riots and numerous protests, and even on a smaller scale, friendships ruined, property damaged, people injured over a difference of beliefs. And now, from the global Women's March on Inauguration Day, to the steady stream of extreme executive orders the President has issued in his first week in office... 

"This country has officially gone downhill," you might say. "Morality in America is dead. It's the Christians' fault for electing this man. He should not be in office. He should not have this much power. He is not my president! America is no longer following God, and now we're being punished for it!"

I would acknowledge that you have ample evidence to say such things. The Jewish people very likely had the exact same thoughts about the king of Babylon--

And yet God said that they were exactly where He wanted them to be. He didn't just tell them to "Stay put and wait for Me." He told them to settle in. He didn't say "Keep the infidel far from you, don't associate with the people who hate Me." He said, "Mingle with your neighbors, get involved with your community, put down roots, make long-term plans for improving the city."

WHAT??? Why???

Why would God want the captive Jews to interact with the very people who desecrated His Temple? Does this mean God actually wants the enemies of His people to succeed and to flourish? "I thought the point of choosing Israel as Your People was so that they would succeed and their enemies--i.e., Babylon--would fail!" 

What kind of message is God trying to send, here? "Take over and oppress the people who believe in God, and you'll get away with it! This God of theirs is weak, the people are weak, nothing can stop you!" Is that it???

The Greatest Nation  
“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:10-13)

Particularly in light of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict that just exploded recently (in spite of the fact that it was continuously happening before, and still going on to this day), it's easy to recognize and even identify with how the Israelite nation felt. What began with Assyria taking over Israel and Judea, led to Babylon, led to Persia, led to Greece, and finally, just before the time of Jesus, Rome took over the large majority of the known world. Since the time of the first exile, the Israelites desperately clung to their national identity. Surely God would let them return to their homes at some point! Surely God had not abandoned the land they had once owned. "Make Israel Great Again!" Could have been their rallying cry. "Jews Alone Deserve Shalom!" After all, what kind of message would it send, if God's people didn't have a kingdom greater than all the other kingdoms?

And yet here was God, telling them to "Seek Shalom (translated in the passage as "welfare, or well-being") for the city"--in other words, for Babylon. 
BABYLON GETS SHALOM?? Why? What would be the point? They wouldn't even know what to do with it!
Look back at verse 7, at the end of the last passage: "In its welfare you will find your welfare." In seeking Shalom for the city that despises you for your beliefs, you will find Shalom. 

The Nation That Prays Together, Stays Together

One week before the election, protesters in Portland marched against now-President Trump--and rioters took advantage of the mayhem, causing thousands of dollars in damage to property, and not affecting the outcome of the election one iota. Nearly every day since then, there has been at least one video or post about people getting kicked out of homes by their parents, based on who they supported, of supporters getting brutally beat by those in opposition. Millions of women marched in protest and blocked traffic on Inauguration Day, some of them even leaving a great big pile of lewd, angry signs for someone else to clean up after them--

In his first 20 days in office, President Trump has issued some very frightening policies with executive orders. Many of them seem targeted at specific people groups, efficiently alienating those groups from any interest in cooperation. The decisions made by the President have prompted a veritable firestorm of backlash all over the place. Sometimes, it does seem that the administration is advancing some kind of political cause in spite of the input of others, rather than in light of it. In some cases, it feels like the administration is trying to legislate a certain moral standard, in what amounts to "retaliation" for it being perceived as "legislated against" for so long. (Such as the areas of abortion and education, for example)


To the professed Christians (specifically them--and that includes me, so us!) on both sides of the issue who express threats or a desire to just move off the grid, isolate themselves, leave the country, and ultimately who deny President Trump's position (because "not my president" isn't just questioning his validity or legitimacy, it's flat-out denying the fact that the election and the inauguration both happened; legally, factually, and realistically, yes he is) because of the choices he's made and the orders he's given; to those who are choosing to just "check out for the next four years"...

Plans For Shalom, Declares The LORD

We dismiss it as a pithy "Someday" statement, a promise that "everything is going to be okay"--but I want to re-emphasize verse 11:

"For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope."

Just as a refresher, what was the "welfare" referring to? "Welfare for Babylon, and for the Jews in Babylon." What "plans"? The exile, which would position the people exactly where God wanted them, with no choice but to be constantly looking for and looking to Him, longing for Him, seeking Him--

So many generations passed without any of those Jews seeing the fruition of God's plans, nor the fulfillment of His promise. Those who know your Bible know that during the Persian rule, at least one of the kings allowed a man called Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple--but Israel has not seen that former glory at any point since then. 

Does that mean it's over? Does that mean there is nothing left? Does that mean God has not kept His word? 
No; as a matter of fact, Christians today should understand that the "future and a hope" lies in the Kingdom of God, and has not nor will ever be an administration or "kingdom" that exists on earth.

In God We Trust

Yes, I voted for Trump. Yes, the decisions he's made scare me, too. Yes, I will be profoundly affected because guess what, I work in a public school in a very high-poverty area, so the district administration relies heavily on outside funding. Everybody I work with is scared of the current Secretary of Education. I've enjoyed four and a half good years of a job I really love--and who knows if I will see a fifth? Anything is possible at this point. It could also be that I am not affected at all and the whole thing just blows over.

But my God says I still need to seek Shalom for my city.

How can I do that? By bringing my best work ethic into the building every day. By welcoming every child who walks through those doors with open arms and validating whatever cultural background they come from. By treating everybody around me with dignity and respect. By not running away and hiding, nor pushing anyone away when things get tough. Most of all, I seek shalom when I recognize the One who is truly in charge, when I choose to honor whoever He has seen fit to place in authority over me, and when I keep focused on the sovereignty of God alone by praying to Him on behalf of the city, on behalf of the current administration. By standing tall and saying the Pledge of Allegiance every morning with the students, and meaning every word of it.

God knows the plans He has for the next four years. It may not look like anything from where we're standing--but our responsibility is not to make sure everything turns out okay, is it? There is not a one of us who has control over the future. President Trump may issue an executive order that gets stayed by the judiciary branch of the American government a few days later. This is exactly how the branches should function, by the way; optimally, each branch should consult the other before making a decision, but in the event of one branch (not just executive branch, but the legislative and the judiciary branch need to be accountable to this as well) wanting to exert too much power, it is up to the other two branches to initiate the checks and balances necessary to keep that branch from getting too long. 

Fellow Christians, I ask you to pray with me.

Fellow believers of other faiths, the word of God is not mandated for you, but I urge you also to pray to whom you will, and seek the welfare of your community as much as you are able.

How much better would it be if we did that instead of marching in the streets, and inviting anarchy, vitriol, and overall strife in this nation we are living in? How much more effective would our message be if we focused on actively benefiting the people around us, instead of passing harmful and negative (note that I do not say all of them are untrue) news bulletins on social media?
For myself, I think praying and seeking shalom are components of the "Upstream" kind of person I want to be. Will you join me?

Catch You Further Upstream!

Other "Sunday Musings" Posts:

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Serial Saturday: "The Clan of Outcasts" Part 13--Trust Me

The Abnormals--Jade "The Angel" and Troy "The Shadow"
Part 13
"Trust Me"

The squadron of soldiers milled uneasily about the camp.
"Trust no one," the Hunter had said. "Don't trust each other... not even your own eyes!"
Justin sighed and took a seat next to the fire. He had two hours before his shift on watch. The Hunter had not yet returned from recruiting Thugs at the Harbor, and they wanted to be ready when she did.
"Hey," a voice grunted, and a bowl of soup appeared at his elbow. Justin glanced up at the person who offered it. Pallon, his eyes sparkling in the firelight, stared at Justin with a blank, worn expression. No attempt at congeniality, Justin thought to himself. He accepted the cup of soup, the Hunter's admonishment ringing in his ears. 
"Trust no one... Trust nothing... Not even your own eyes...."
He never got to taste the soup.
Pallon bounded to his feet and screamed, "FAIRIES!"
Before Justin could comprehend what he meant, somebody slammed into his back, sending the bowl tumbling and splashing to the ground. 
A howl resounded through the air, and suddenly the camp seemed full of rushing, striking bodies. Justin didn't even have room to draw his sword as one after another of his comrades fell, covered in blood. He tried to see what was happening, tried to distinguish friend from foe—
Till a sharp blow to the head knocked him to the ground, and it no longer mattered for him to distinguish anything.

Warmth. Comfort. A soothing melody.
These things tugged Justin back to consciousness. He opened his eyes. 
A fire stood nearby, but well-controlled and not too warm. There was a bowl near his head, and the walls and roof of a small hovel beyond that. He turned his head—slowly, because every twitch of his muscles sent waves of pain into the very core of his being. 
Sitting by his side, crooning a gentle tune, was a woman dressed entirely in white. It had to be his fevered brain hallucinating, or perhaps a trick of the light, but something over the woman's shoulder gave the appearance of wings on her back.
She finished wrapping the bandage around his chest and noticed him staring.
"Good morning," she said softly. "How do you feel?"
That wasn't important right now. Justin tried desperately to convince his mouth to move. "What—who are... You?"
The woman smiled. "My name is Jade. What is yours?"
By now, he had regained enough of his faculties to realize that he was not lying down, but sitting in a reclined position. He tried to speak again, but all that came out was a weak cough.
The "wings" behind Jade's back flinched, and she reached over to retrieve something. "Here." She offered him a white rag. He could sense the coolness of it near his lips. He took the rag in his mouth and let the moisture saturate his tongue and throat.
"Better?" Jade asked.
Justin nodded. "Justin," he said, stronger this time. "My name is Justin."
Jade nodded. "Pleased to meet you."
Justin took a deep breath. He had no recent memory of entering any hovel. He couldn't even picture what the outside of this place looked like.
"Where am I?" He asked.
"The Forest," Jade responded, watching him carefully.
"The forest?" Echoed the soldier. "Then how did I get—" Even as he asked it, the sparse memories came flooding back: he once worked as a palace guard, but he had been assigned to accompany a Hunter, and their camp had been ambushed—
His eyes, keen now, returned to the mysterious woman with the silvery hair. "How did I get here?"
Jade's smile never wavered. "I brought you, of course."
"But..." There were too many gaps in his memory, too many events all crossed and muddled together. He remembered blood and pain. He blinked at the strange woman. "You saved me?" He whispered. "Why?"
Jade blinked. "I need your help," she stated soberly.
Now that Justin was more aware, he noticed little things around the hut: a pitcher of water on the table, a broom in the corner, a second cot. "What do you need my help for?"
Jade seemed to relax. The things behind her back moved too, spreading thicker and looking more than ever like large wings—but that would be impossible! 
"You know of the people called Gifted, correct?"
Justin's mind leaped back to Edri Rodan, a captain in his unit—and the only Gifted person he actually knew. "We were directed to identify them as Outcasts," he remarked.
Jade nodded. "When King Balwyn ruled, he wanted to implement a plan that would integrate the Gifted into society as citizens who use their gifts as they were designed, to help people."
Justin frowned. "The King is dead. The Regents and the Royal Council vie for supremacy."
Jade shook her head and chuckled. "The Crown Prince has returned and claimed his throne. Beren Seramis once again sits on the throne in the White Castle."
Justin wagged his head and put his hand up to feel the bandage across his brow. "How long was I unconscious?" He asked.
Jade shrugged. "A few days."
"Few days?" Justin sat forward and threw up his hands.
As soon as the words left his mouth, the pitcher of water toppled over, sending its contents spilling off the table and onto the floor.
Jade immediately leaped up to clean the mess, and that's when Justin saw: white, feathery wings, unmistakably attached to Jade's own shoulders. He went for his sword, but his scabbard no longer hung at his side.
"Justin," Jade murmured, mopping up the water on the table. "You need to stay calm—"
The soldier caught sight of his sword leaning against the wall, just beyond his reach. If he could just stretch a little further—
The sword seemed to jump off the ground and slide out of the scabbard, coming to rest gently in his outstretched palm.
Jade whirled around to find the angry, frightened young man pointing the tip of his blade at her throat.
"What are you?" He growled, even as his hands trembled in fear at what he had just witnessed. "What have you done to me?"
Jade didn't flinch. "I am an Angel," she said, gesturing to her wings. "I gave you a small gift, the Gift of Telekinesis. You can move things with your mind."
Somehow, she could reach past the sword and close her soft, pale hands around his rough, grimy ones. She released his death-grip on the sword, and Justin stared at it, hanging in the air between them. He turned the blade sideways and brought it to rest across his knees—all without touching it. He couldn't take his eyes off the sword, as his mind scrambled madly to make sense of what seemed to be an alternate reality he had somehow slipped into.
"Why?" He choked.
Jade kept her voice low and calm. "I told you. I need your help. My brother is somewhere in the Realm, and I need to find him and stop him before he causes trouble." She glanced out the window. "It's almost time," she said, looking back at the stricken Justin. "Can you stand?"
It took him several minutes to comprehend what she asked. "I don't know—" He slowly inched his body to the edge of the bed, swinging his feet to the floor. Easing his weight onto them, he stood, and the dull aches faded almost completely. Jade handed him a fresh tunic to wear, and his sword-belt. Justin paused once he was dressed, and experimentally thrust his hand out toward the table. The empty pitcher slowly levitated, and Justin could almost feel its weight in his hands long before it actually rested there. 
"I... I don't understand," he stammered.
Jade took the pitcher. "Trust me, you will," she said. "But right now there are two people you need to meet who will help you. Go! Tell them of my brother!" She prodded him toward the door of the hut. 
Justin stumbled into the open forest. He whirled back to the Angel. "Tell them what?"
Jade and her hovel were gone. When Justin turned back to the path before him, he saw two people heading toward him: an old man with a staff and a talisman, and a young woman wearing a black suit of fitted armor.

The Dockside Tavern rang with the chink of glassware and the murmur of slurred, intemperate voices, filled to the brim with thick smoke and the heavy stench of unwashed bodies.
Hardly anyone noticed the drunken soldier slouched over the table in the corner. He seemed a permanent fixture of the place, though nobody could tell if or when he ever left or arrived. 
Sir Rayne grunted and drained his latest stein. Ten minutes of conversation, that's all it took for his whole world to come crashing down. Ten minutes with that Outcast instigator, Aurelle—Rayne kicked the table leg petulantly. Why did he ever imagine that befriending one of those weird Gifted people would be exactly the same as his other normal friendships? Nothing about those people were the same as the unGifted population. 
He had been so close to getting through to her; if only she had disappeared or run—or, Fate forbid, complied, even, Rayne might have kept his position and his friends and his livelihood. One dishonorable discharge later, and he was nothing but a washed-up, friendless, penniless drunkard.
Damn those Outcasts!

"Careful, my friend," said a silky, deep voice. "You'll hurt yourself on the pieces."
Rayne blinked at the scattered shards of pottery that used to be his mug. When had that happened?
He looked up, but all he could see was black. Blackness in the shape of a man, with a man's face, grinning at him.
"Whazzuwant?" Rayne slurred, pushing the broken shards to the floor.
"Simple," the Man in Black stated. "I have a mission and it needs some muscle. I assume you are still armed, correct?"
Rayne slumped back in his seat, resting his chin upon his chest. "Don'wanna," he mumbled.
The grinning stranger chuckled. "My dear man, you don't have a choice." He slid a piece of paper into Rayne's field of vision. 
With cloudy eyes and swirling vision, Rayne read a list of expenses that seemed to stretch on and on. Most of them comprised the tab he had run up at the bar, but other, larger debts were those from several creditors and gambling houses whom he had managed to avoid.
Rayne blinked. His vision cleared somewhat as the cold shock of impossible debt slammed into him. He glanced up at the man. "What's this?" He spoke a little more clearly now.
The man still smiled at him. "This has been your life till now, I'm afraid. Pulled in so many different directions, driven by the desire to escape one," he gestured to the gambling debts kept at bay with small sums while he worked as a peacekeeper, "only to land squarely in the clutches of another." This time, the finger slid down to the as-yet-unpaid alehouse tab. 
Rayne shook his head. "What's it to you?" He groused.
The man set the paper down and folded his hands. "Like I said, I have a mission, and you are my chosen recruit. I've made thing easier for both of us by assuming all of your debt. Now instead of owing twenty men, you owe just one: me."
Rayne found it humorous; any one of those creditors had a claim on him worth more than he could make in a lifetime. This stranger had just assumed a debt that would never be paid.
"That's one way of looking at it," the man remarked calmly. 
Rayne stiffened, clapping a hand to his lips; had he spoken out loud? He was not entirely aware of himself just yet.
"Or, if you really want to put it into perspective," the man continued, "you, in fact, owe me not just the money, but your life. Therefore, the only way out of this debt," he tapped the long, damning paper, "is for you to do as I say, and only what I say, for as long as I deem necessary. Only when I am completely satisfied that the debt is paid, will you be released from my service."
Had Rayne been possessed with all of his faculties, he reassured himself that he would figure out some sort of loophole.
"Unfortunately," the man seemed to reply to his thoughts a second time, "there is no loophole."
Rayne scowled; he didn't even know the man's name, and he hated him. "You can't do this!" He snarled.
The man waved his hand. "Be that as it may," he said, "the fact is, I already have." He paused, grinning at the defeated drunk across from him. "By the way, you may call me Troy. We are going to have such fun together!" He giggled. "All three of us... right, Miss Firron?" Troy twisted to look straight at an upright person who had been leaning against the wall for so long, people naturally assumed the patron to be sleeping. The form nearly looked masculine, with much of its features obscured, but when Troy addressed it, the figure stood, revealing a woman with bright-purple hair.
She glared at Troy, mimicking Rayne's own expression. "All right, you caught me. What's this job you need a Hunter and a knight for?"
Troy persisted in grinning. "Well, the mission should be obvious enough: I want to catch a dragon, and so I am going to use the best pair in the Realm to do it!" He winked at the Hunter. "Haven't you ever wanted to catch a dragon, Denahlia?"
She remained unmoving, tight-lipped. "I'll tell you when you can use my first name," she seethed. "And what makes you think you could pay me enough to convince me to join your little phony hunt?" She sneered with a snort. "Dragons don't exist in the Realm. Besides, I track people, not animals." Denahlia folded her arms and squinted at the enigmatic Troy.

He still smiled, showing all his teeth. "Oh trust me, you'll want this one!"

"It came from the Laboratory Tower!"
Damaris followed the two Seramis brothers as they dashed down the halls. A thunderous crash and a ferocious roar halted them briefly, as one of the walls caved in, but when the dust settled, they saw the  two women huddled by a wall in a newly-exposed room. Beyond them, a gaping hole in the side of the tower let in sunlight—and the large, winged shape rapidly disappearing in the distance.
"Aurelle!" Damaris cried, dashing forward.
The Illusionist had her arms wrapped around a soldier with three thick scars on her face, and long crimson hair. Both were crying.
"What happened?" Beren asked.
Aurelle swallowed her sobs and answered shakily, "it was the Queen; she lured Erlis and I here because she knew that Erlis knew Edri—and that Erlis was a more powerful healer."
Jaran glanced around the room, but there didn't seem to be any other bodies. "Erlis? Where is she?"
"Queen Zayra," the soldier sat up, sniffled a bit, and answered. "She was going to use me to try and heal her insanity, but Erlis convinced her to receive a transfusion of Dragon's Blood to save me." 
She squinted at the crowned man before her. "I know you..." she remarked, but Beren waved her off.
"So Queen Zayra gets a transfusion of Dragon's Blood," he summarized. "What happened to Erlis?" He glanced at the broken troughs and the hoses still caked with blood hanging between them.
Aurelle shuddered. "One moment, Zayra was raving about feeling the power, and then the next..." she choked and began trembling all over. Jaran had never seen the self-assured Illusionist so shaken. "In the next," Aurelle continued. "Erlis gave this long, loud scream, and started writhing so hard it looked like her body was breaking apart, and then—"
"The scales," Edri continued, as Aurelle lapsed into silence. "I had been unconscious for a while, under Queen Zayra's thrall, but the power surge woke me up just in time to watch the scales on Erlis' body seem to wrap around her completely, and her face changed, she sprouted wings, and—"
Jaran and Beren shared a horrified stare.
"She's a full dragon now," Beren mused hollowly.
"What is more," Aurelle found her voice again, "I don't know if Zayra was actually cured. She and Erlis share a connection, because of the Dragon's Blood. Zayra immediately claimed her as a pet, and they just flew away together!" 
So much blood... Beren didn't like it. He splayed his hand over the streaks and let the water wash it away.
Edri's keen eyes focused on him. "Water..." she mused. 
Meanwhile, Damaris filled Aurelle in on what had transpired in the throne room. "We left the Regents in the throne room with Azelie, the mute InterFace," he said. "She's really pretty. So Beren is King of the Realm now."
Edri gasped. "Wait! The water!" She turned from staring at Beren to glaring at Aurelle. "And you're the Illusionist in the forest! I should have known!"
Aurelle squinted at her sudden change of demeanor. "Known what?" She asked.
"And you should be showing respect for the king!" Jaran declared.
Edri clenched her fist as her right hand glowed blue. "The only friend I had in the barracks was a soldier named Justin—and he was killed in the forest two days ago, with the rest of his unit!"
Aurelle gasped as she recalled that night in the forest with Velora and Beren—only then, he'd had a fairy companion and went by the name Harlock. "Edri, I'm sorry," she said, reaching out to her, "we didn't know—"
"That's no excuse!" Edri jerked away, moving toward the edge of the hole in the tower wall. The ledge stood about twelve feet off the ground. "You killed the only person who understood and accepted me!"
"Captain," Beren stepped forward, "you are not alone; we are all Gifted. Out there, you're still an Outcast; your place is with us—"
Edri stood on the narrow ledge, her jaw set in defiance. "My place is with my queen," she snapped, and stepped into thin air.
Aurelle lunged, but too late. "No!"
Beren grabbed her hand, as she looked about ready to dive out there after the soldier. "Aurelle, don't!"
They peered over the edge. Edri lay sprawled on the pavement in a small splatter of blood, her limbs at odd angles, but as they watched, her body glowed blue and healed itself. A minute later, Edri stood and limped off toward the Wilderness, the same direction they had seen Erlis the dragon heading.
"Let her go," Beren murmured quietly.
Aurelle gazed earnestly at the two brothers. "After all Erlis has done for all of us," she said, "we owe it to her not to leave her at the mercy of that madwoman!"
"And we will!" Beren assured her. "But right now, we need to put this crumbling kingdom back together again."
Just then, a gentle voice reached their ears, seeming to come from inside their heads simultaneously. "King Beren! Prince Jaran! Come quick! They're escaping!"
Aurelle frowned, "Who is that?"
The brothers were already running down the hall, Gifts at the ready.

They reached the throne room too late. The dethroned usurpers, twins Kaidan and Javira Clissander, had vanished, leaving Azelie alone in the room, weeping.
"I tried," she mourned telepathically.
Jaran's shoulders slumped and he gave his brother a wan expression. "Are you sure we are the leaders this Realm needs?" He asked.
"Trust me, brother," Beren said with a deep sigh. "Things are going to get a lot better now that I am in charge."

"Hurry, Javira!" Kaidan chided his sister. It was nearly nightfall, and they needed to find shelter amid the cliffs before it got too dark to travel. A large mountain cast a shadow that looked deep enough. Javira clung to her brother's hand as they raced toward the cliff.

An enormous plume of fire exploded in front of them, sending the siblings cowering in the sand.
"That's far enough!" A woman's voice called to them.
Kaidan blinked rapidly to clear his vision. In the dim glow of the flaming vegetation, the twins beheld a young woman in a tattered silk gown, staring at them while leaning against the side of a dark-scaled dragon.
"Well, well!" The woman cried, staring at the pair with a mad gleam in her eye, "if it isn't my old nemeses who tried to depose me as ruler of the White Castle!"
"We did not depose you!" Javira retorted. "You never had any real power to begin with!"
Zayra glared, and the dragon's head twisted around to peer closely at Javira. "I had more power than you know!" She pointed imperiously at the twins. "You will both kneel in my presence!"
Kaidan glanced at Javira, but neither of them moved.
Zayra stamped her foot. "I WANT YOU TO BOW BEFORE ME!" She screamed.
Kaidan folded his arms, tightening his expression as if exerting great effort against some unseen force. 
"No," he said.
The dragon ducked its head and growled in warning. 
"I don't understand..." Zayra whimpered, cowering against its body. "How... You can't... You aren't—"
"Oh, but we are." Javira held Zayra's mind in check as she glided forward. 
The former queen cringed and sniveled as tears trickled down her face.
"We are not the enemy," Javira crooned softly. "We are not so different as you have been led to believe." She stopped a respectful distance away. "In fact, we share a common enemy, so in that case, we really should be friends."
"But I don't understand!" Cried Zayra. "My Gift should work, even on other Gifted people. I had plenty of control over the Outcasts at the palace!"
Javira nodded. "Such as the telepath?"
Zayra gave a shudder and her face twisted in a sneer. "Yes, especially that one," she muttered. She folded her arms and rubbed her shoulders. "Ugh, I can still feel her presence in my mind sometimes."
Javira blinked wide-eyed. "You can? Would you be able to reach her from here?"
Zayra tilted her head to one side. The dragon fidgeted and stretched its head toward the castle. 
"Not very well," Zayra complained. "It's very faint, and spotty. I would have to be closer to the city to reach her mind."
Kaidan and Javira shared a glance. They thought the same thing. 
"Your Majesty," Javira said in her sweetest voice, "my brother and I can get you the ultimate power you desire."
Zayra's weird gaze fixed on her. "You can?" She gasped.
"If," Javira raised a finger, "you can reach that girl's mind, and turn her against the others."
Kaidan nodded. "The Prince knows her, and both he and the King trust her—they have no idea that she is not infallible."
"Yes! And," Javira jumped in, "if we can listen in through her senses, we will be able to know what they are planning, and without her voice, she will not be able to expose us!"
Zayra looked between the siblings, the tension slowly relaxing in her face as she began to believe in what her new allies were saying. "Perhaps..." she sniffed.
"Trust us," Kaidan assured the young queen. "Getting control of the mute is the first step in returning to the castle. Once we're in, you can have your power back to do whatever you want."
Zayra felt the warm surge as she thought about unlimited power. She leaned forward and stroked Erlis' scales. "And I will have a dragon," she murmured.
Javira stepped forward and placed her hand over Zayra's. 
"Trust me," she said, and Zayra did.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Reader's Review: "Countless As The Stars" by Steve Trower

Synopsis from Amazon:

What if the events of the Bible happened not in the distant past, but some time in the future?
What if instant communication, computers and space travel were commonplace?
What if instead of shepherds in the Middle East, the Patriarchs were space travelers, colonists eking out an existence on a barren world many light years from home?
How would God’s story have been played out in such a world?
In Countless as the Stars, that story begins, taking themes and events from the book of Genesis and re-tells them in a fictional galaxy, giving them a sci-fi twist… 


My Review: 

As a Christian, growing up I read a lot of the classic "good girl" novels growing up, the stuff that passed for Christian fiction--and I grew rather disenchanted with it, because it all seemed to follow the same kind of sanctimonious, milk-toasty, pastel-hued theme that I honestly didn't find at all alluring, much less relevant. Even the Christian fiction intended for adults seemed to follow the same generic theme, the same tired formula. That relevance is what frustrated me the most; why does Christian fiction always "have" to be about romance, or pale-faced orphans overpowering cruel adults with their meekness? Even in trying to develop my own series of "updated Bible stories", the one thing I wanted to preserve was the cultural and spiritual relevance. Because if it's not actually relevant, how then can it be useful?

In the four years since I started putting reviews on my blog, I have had the good fortune to discover several Christian authors whose Bible-centered works I thoroughly enjoyed, because they balanced the principles and God-honoring message with some excellent genre-fiction storytelling.

I am pleased to share with you another excellent specimen! Countless As The Stars tells the story of Abraham--but "updated" and "re-set" far into the ever-popular "terraformed galaxy" of the future. The names are changed, some of the circumstances are adjusted slightly to fit the new setting, but those who are familiar with the original story will recognize just about everyone. For those who don't know the story that inspired this book? It's just a fun, quick, fascinating sci-fi adventure, similar in style to classic sci-fi authors like Isaac Asimov (A favorite of mine). Once I had read far enough to get oriented with the characters and the setting, I quickly fell right into the story and I couldn't stop reading! I thoroughly enjoyed the way it didn't feel like a "Bible re-enactment", but a story, plain and simple, of a young man thrust into an impossible situation, his wife, his pilot, and a whole ship full of people with very little idea of the destiny intended for them. The interactions and quips made the characters spring to life, and the vivid settings set my imagination spinning!

I would whole-heartedly give Countless As The Stars a *****5 STAR***** rating, and add to that an Upstream Writer Certified DEFINITELY RECOMMENDED.  If you're at all interested in re-tellings of Bible stories or fairy tales, and you're looking for something quick and inspirational as well as entertaining and imaginative, certainly check this one out! Here's hoping that this is only the beginning of a whole series!

Further Reading: (Fiction by Christian Authors/Christian-based Fiction)

-For None of Woman Born--S. D. Curran (sci-fi thriller)
The Alexander Legacy--Sophronia Belle Lyon (steampunk)
       -A Dodge, A Twist, and A Tobacconist
       -The Pinocchio Factor
-Thimblerig's Ark--Nate Fleming (the story of Noah told with anthropomorphic animals)
-Out of Darkness Rising--Gillian Bronte Adams (fantasy)
The Therian Way--Kimberly Rogers (urban fantasy)
       -Leopard's Heart
       -Wolf's Path
-Sanctuary--Pauline Creeden (horror)
-Abiding Flame--Pauline Creeden (supernatural sci-fi)
Becoming Nikki--Ashley Elliott (general fiction) 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Writer's Resolution 2017: It's All About Keeping Foc--Uhhh... What Was I Talking About??

Okay, here it goes: I am a scatterbrain. All the books I read, the shows I watch, the half-finished projects laid by the wayside... It was something of a miracle to actually have somebody to work side-by-side with me on getting Princess of Undersea published, because, knowing me, I am fairly certain it would not have happened without somebody telling me, "Okay, if we want to get published by this date, you need to have XY and Z done by this date." Somebody who knows the ins and outs of the process, and who can stay on task and keep me accountable. 

Now that it's done... What next?

"So is this going to be a series? What about a sequel?"
Boy, am I getting this question a LOT! Well, it was technically supposed to be part of a group anthology, so other people are re-telling other fairy tales... So: No, I was not intending this particular novella to be a series all on my own.

However.. The only thing ruling out a sequel right now is the fact that the last thing a scatterbrain like me needs is to start a WHOLE NEW idea when I have so many unfinished already. Because, as anybody who has watched the Suggestion Box series unfold knows, I am fully capable of coming up with a feasible and compelling plot in literally seconds, so no issues there—FINISHING something, on the other hand, only happens when I can convince myself that there is a good reason to focus on that ONE thing, prioritizing it above all others.

Yeah, so that's rare.

"What's Next?"

At this point, all of the half-started projects that I "really ought to get back to" are:

The Prince and The Rose (and various other sundry "flash fictions")

Now, out of those, only a few are actually close to finishing. The Commander's Courage has only 3 more chapters to go. The Water-Man has 4. The Prince and the Rose has 3 more parts, which will certainly be shorter than actual chapters. The Amazon Triangle is possibly the longest, since I am at this point a full 9 chapters from the end, at least according to the plan I made. The Last Inkweaver and Merely Meredith are both needing rewrites, though some part of me just wants to get through the last 6 chapters of the pre-planned plot in the latter before I resort to going back and dissecting it. Then there is also the short story I am writing for a charity anthology this year, somewhat based on a previous story I wrote, but updated with elements from this other story to give it a more sci-fi feel!

Resolution: Finish Forward!
In the interest of accountability and helping myself keep focus and make progress, I believe the best thing for me is to take all these projects and make them the "Focus of the Month," at least as far as the next six months are concerned. For example:
January: Commander's Courage (And perhaps "The Prince and The Rose", if I finish Commander's Courage quick enough)
February: The Water-Man (Sorry to those who are only on my blog and won't really get to actually see the progress on this one... but Wattpad is free and you can have an account and just be a reader, that's fine! We will still appreciate you!)
March: "The Starborn Legacy" (the anthology story I mentioned; this is the only one with a deadline, so I thought I would give myself enough time to get it read and edited before it has to be submitted)
April: The Amazon Triangle (Again, not going to see this one on the blog much, since I have it going on Wattpad...) 
May: Merely Meredith (At last! Man... I will feel so good if I can actually manage this, because that will mean I have FINISHED no less than 4 stories by this point!
So what does this mean for YOU, my followers/readers??  
Now you know what I plan to do--help me stick to it! I want to get back to blogging more often... I sort of stopped doing it over the month of December because of releasing "Princess of Undersea"... Did you miss me? Let me know!
Currently, my plan is to have regularly-scheduled "Writing Check" posts, where I update you all on how the stories are going. Now as for which day that would be, that depends on what else I would be writing in conjunction with these. What else besides excerpts or check-ins do you want to see? More How To posts? Other articles or Top 10 Lists? Would you be interested in seeing the Clan of Outcasts series continue on Saturdays? Give your input in the comments, or on my Facebook page. And please do continue to leave comments, share the posts you're interested in, and help me keep focused and stay faithful to my resolution! I really appreciate the help; I really wouldn't be writing much without your support! 
Here goes everything-or-nothing! 
Catch You Further Upstream!