The Firedragon: A Flynn Nightsider Tale by Mary Fan

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The Firedragon: A Flynn Nightsider Tale by Mary Fan
Publisher: Glass House Press
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Length: Short Story (67 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Almost a hundred years ago, the Enchanters defeated the Lord of the Underworld in one of the most fearsome wars the world had ever seen. The public thinks that this victory means the people are safe. But they’re wrong. The supernatural beasts the Lord unleashed remain on the earth, multiplying and ravaging what’s left of civilization. As long as these monsters exist, mankind will be in danger. And though the government, ruled by the magic-wielding Enchanters, seeks to protect their people, they are too few in number. They need the Defenders – a special class of non-magical humans – to fight the monsters. The Defenders are an elite force, and mankind’s only hope against the horrors that live beyond their gates.

Fourteen-year-old Aurelia “the Firedragon” Sun has been training since she could walk to become a Defender, and her extraordinary combat skills have earned the attention of the powerful government. In fact, she’s been tapped to represent her nation in an international monster-fighting competition, which pits champions from across the globe against creatures of the Underworld in a violent spectacle. If she wins, she will become a full-fledged member of the Defender force.

But as Aurelia moves deeper into the competition, she realizes that all is not as it appears. There’s something sinister behind the competition, something that could change the way she sees everything … and the Enchanters, it seems, are not the heroes she thought. Aurelia begins to ask questions. But before she can discover the truth, she is pitted against the most dangerous monster in the competition – one that will take her life if it can.

It’s never easy to crush stereotypes, but that’s what Aurelia will need to do if she has any hope of becoming a Defender.

The monsters Aurelia encounters during the competition made my skin crawl. Some of them were introduced without any explanation at all of what Aurelia was facing. This made figuring out why they were such a threat even more intriguing. Their abilities – magical and otherwise – are a big reason why the age recommendation is 14+. Some of the scenes that describe them would definitely not be appropriate for younger readers, although older teens and adults will find a lot of creepy stuff between these pages.

It would have been helpful to have more world-building as the plot progressed. The glimpses into Aurelia’s society were fascinating, and I hope they will be more fully explored in the full-length sequel that will be published early next year from what I’ve read. I understand why the author wouldn’t want to give everything away so early, but there were a few times when I really could have used slightly more detailed explanations about exactly how their institutionalized discrimination affects the daily lives of everyone who isn’t born with magical powers.

While I’m looking forward to seeing what Aurelia does next, I was quite pleased by how well everything was wrapped up in her first adventure. The Firedragon is most definitely a standalone story, and that’s something that matters a lot to me when I’m debating whether or not to continue on with a series. My appetite has been whetted for more!

I’d heartily recommend The Firedragon to anyone who loves science fiction that’s set in the distant future.

Ever Lost by Melissa MacVicar

LOST
Ever Lost by Melissa MacVicar
Publisher: Red Adept Publishing
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary, Paranormal
Length: Full Length (212 pages)
Age Recommendation: 16+
Heat Level: Sensual
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

New town, new school, new ghost.

Jade has a dedicated boyfriend, an overprotective mom, and a full scholarship. Uprooted from Nantucket, Jade is installed off-island at her dad’s new house so she can attend snobby Layton Academy. Leaving Charlie behind is sheer torment, but living with her father has plenty of dangerous distraction—in the form of a terrifying spirit haunting her new school. Hottie classmate Mateo Fernandez can’t see the ghost, but he knows its story. He’d like to know hers, too, but Jade still misses Charlie, even though distance seems to be changing him.

With support from Mateo and the mysterious Noemie, Jade commits to helping the agonized spirit cross over. As she delves into the ghost’s past, the disturbing secrets Jade learns draw her into a deadly confrontation with a desperate man. If she can’t play his demented game, the spirit’s harrowing fate could become her own.

Moving to a new community might change whom you meet along the way, but it can never change your destiny.

It was fascinating to see the relationship between Jade and her father develop during the course of this tale as he wasn’t part of her daily life in the first book in this series. Her connection to his side of the family hasn’t always been that strong, so she has a lot to learn about them. There is plenty of unexplored territory between them, though, and I hope that this series will spend even more time exploring this part of her life in the future.

A few chapters were written from the perspective of a secondary character. The first time it happened I was surprised, and when it happened again I wondered why the author made the decision to show her audience these scenes from someone else’s point of view. The secondary character has an interesting perspective, but the story would have been stronger if it had only been told from Jade’s point of view due to how much scarier some scenes would have been if I’d known only what she knew.

There were a few plot threads in the first book that never quite found satisfactory endings in it. I was pleased to see them picked back up again in the sequel, especially when it came to a romantic relationship that I found bizarre due to how the individuals in it knew one another. While they technically weren’t breaking any laws, it was cathartic to finally have this topic addressed in a more realistic manner.

The most important details from Ever Near are briefly alluded to from time to time. There have been some major changes in Jade’s life since then. Readers who are familiar with those adventures will discover a few surprises along the way, but it’s not strictly necessary to understand all of those references in order to enjoy this sequel.

Ever Lost was a wild ride. Anyone who likes ghost stories should give it a try!

Camille’s Capture by Evanne Lorraine

CAPTIVE
Camille’s Capture by Evanne Lorraine
New Eden Chronicles 3
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Length: Full Length (184 pgs)
Other: M/M/F, Ménage, Anal Play
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Waratah

Camille, a plump, sweet-natured breeder, is caught in New Eden’s endless war with Baldor. Her mates, Jaxon and Aegis, need cunning and courage to rescue her. They need a miracle to capture her heart.

Warning: This story contains two searing hot alpha males and a sweet, but very determined and lushly curved woman. There’s also plenty of violence, red-hot sex, alien naked naughty bits, male/male intimacy and multiple partner interludes.

Camille is a Sister of the breeding order…taught to believe in one thing and when things don’t happen as planned; Camille takes her destiny in her own hands. It’s not very often that I pull that strongly for the heroine in a story, but with Camille, I couldn’t help myself. Her personality was contagious.

This is a pretty quick read. It’s the third book in the series but even though I hadn’t read the others before it, I couldn’t tell that it was part of the series. It felt like a complete story that wasn’t relying on prior books to prop it up.

The male characters where hella hot and awesome. Aegis and Jaxon are both total alphas but each has his own unique personality. The story line along with the characters interaction with each other just made this a fun read. The hot scenes were an added plus. The way the author came up with the “demon” parts was wow… interesting, loved it!

Watching how quickly the characters melded together for each other was enjoyable. It’s what made me really like the book. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a sweet sci-fi love story with some serious heat.

Enter at Your Own Risk: The End Is the Beginning by Dr. Alex Scully, editor

RISK
Enter at Your Own Risk: The End Is the Beginning by Dr. Alex Scully, editor
Publisher: Firbolg Publishing
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror, Contemporary, Historical, Paranormal
Length: Full Length (428 pages)
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Human beings—the undisputed top of the food chain, the long-standing masters of planet earth. Or are we? What may be crawling out of the sludge to take our place? What monsters have we created in our labs, factories, and our very own genetic code? In the fourth installment of Firbolg Publishing’s Enter at Your Own Risk series, which pairs Gothic masters such as Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, and H.P. Lovecraft with modern authors of the dark and macabre, the theme is environmental horror. As mankind’s tsunami wave of progress, industrialization, and technology reaches spectacular new heights, sinister things are churning beneath the surface. An unfamiliar stench on the wind. Waters a bit too murky. Soil a bit too red with blood. Progress at a price. A terrible, terrible price. Will we survive? What strange new worlds will emerge from the chaos? With an introduction from Holly Newstein, Enter at Your Own Risk: The End is the Beginning explores both the horror of the end and the hope of new beginnings for our planet and ourselves.

Not everything that goes bump in the night reveals itself right away.

I couldn’t help but to chuckle at the creativity of some of the titles in this collection. By far my favorite one was “The Dreaded Hobblobs: A Heavy-Handed Fable for Short-Sighted Times.” It follows the increasingly disturbing interactions Daniel has been having with the Hobblobs that his parents always warned were about to take over their home whenever it got too messy. Daniel’s childhood impression of these grotesque creatures was so vivid that it sent a shudder down my spine. What really enamoured me, though, was how Daniel reacts to them when they make a sudden reappearance in his life much later on.

“Lily’s Daughter” is told from the perspective of Alexander, the teenage son of an archeologist who has disconnected from family life. The two of them live such separate lives that they rarely even speak to one another, so it’s a huge surprise when Alexander’s dad invites him to dinner. The premise was fantastic, but a slow start in the beginning made this reader restless due to the faster pace of stories that were placed just before it. So many important pieces of the puzzle were held back until later that I began to lose interest in Alexander’s journey despite being enthralled with it in the beginning.

This pattern repeated itself over and over again. It’s impossible to please every reader, of course, but I did momentarily wonder if it would have been better to group everything by the time period in which they were written instead of by theme. There were times when it was absolutely fascinating to see how authors who lived decades (or even centuries) apart approached the same subject, but sometimes it was also a little odd to jump from the fast-paced plots that tend to be favored today with the often slower styles that were popular in the past. I definitely appreciate Dr. Scully’s attempt to draw parallels between authors that aren’t normally compared though.

Luckily there were entries like “A Fine Day at the Zoo” that kept me on the edge of my seat. In it a single father named Shane has decided to take his son, Robbie, to the zoo with the hope of getting the boy to speak. Robbie’s disabilities shouldn’t affect his speech this much, but ever since Shane and his wife split up their son has been eerily quiet. The imagery in this father-child outing was so vivid that I felt a prick of disappointment when their adventures ended. It’s hard to say anything more about it without giving away spoilers, but had every short story been this provocative this anthology would have easily earned a 5 star rating.

Enter at Your Own Risk has something to offer to just about everyone. Nearly every type of science fiction is represented here, and that makes this book a good choice for anyone who enjoy this genre!

Justice, Inc. by Dale Bridges

INC
Justice, Inc. by Dale Bridges
Publisher: Monkey Puzzle Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary, Horror
Length: Short Story (65 pages)
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Imagine a future where orphan children are adopted by international corporations and forced into indentured servitude, where zombie viruses are spread through heterosexual intercourse, where Osama bin Laden is cloned by the thousands for public execution. Welcome to the world of JUSTICE, INC. No one is safe. Nothing is sacred. And all sales are final.

Will the world end with a bang or a whimper? So much depends on who is paying attention when it happens and whether or not they realize what they’re witnessing.

The first scene in “Welcome to Omni-Mart” made me gasp. Leonard, a lifetime employee of Omni-Mart, has been instructed to destroy an aisle full of lifelike dolls that grow and learn the same way that human children do. Digging into Leonard’s complicated, sad backstory made me wish his tale could have been expanded into a full-length novel. He’s fascinating character who lives in a world I’d never want to visit. Reading about it, though, made me shudder.

There were very few missteps in this anthology. “Texting the Apocalypse” records the conversation between two oblivious teenage girls as their world begins to fall apart. The premise of their chat is a great one, but it was too short to convey everything that was going on around them. As much as I wanted to enjoy it, I had trouble getting too deeply invested in what was happening to them due how little they had to say about it.

Sometimes unforgettable things come in small packages.“The Villain” follows two young boys who are arguing over which one of them is the hero and which one is the sidekick. It’s difficult to say anything more about them since the whole thing takes places in one short page of dialogue, but the ending caught me by surprise in the best way possible.

Don’t skip the introduction to this collection. Mr. Bridges had a unique reason for writing all of these stories, and knowing what it was made me enjoy them even more than I might have otherwise. This section also gives the reader a glimpse of the author’s occasionally cheeky sense of humor. I wasn’t expecting to laugh as much as I did, so having a hint about what to expect ahead of time was nice.

Justice, Inc. is a fantastic choice for anyone who loves the dystopian side of science fiction.

The Toothless Tooth Fairy by Shanelle Hicks

TOOTH
The Toothless Tooth Fairy by Shanelle Hicks
Publisher: Mirror Publishing
Genre: Childrens, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (28 pages)
Age Recommendation: 3+
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Bella had it all. The hair, the dress, and the smile. One day, her most important asset was missing…her tooth! Will Bella find the perfect tooth in time for the contest? Will Zelda, the meanest of the fairies, destroy Bella’s chances of winning the crown? Take a journey onto Cloud Nine as Bella searches for a new tooth only to discover the tooth…I mean truth…behind her true beauty.

What does it mean to be pretty? Bella thought she knew the answer to this question, but now that she doesn’t have the same smile she isn’t quite so sure.

What I liked the most about Bella is how she’s described early on in her adventures. Yes, her physical features are mentioned, but so is her kindness. It’s easy to overlook such a small detail, especially while reading something so entertaining. This reader appreciated it, though, and knowing that the main character is a good role model made me want to share Bella’s adventures with my niece!

The age recommendation for this story was a little tricky. Most kids don’t begin to lose their teeth until early elementary school, but the illustrations do seem to be geared toward readers a few years younger than that. I suspect that the subject matter will be more appealing to older children, although there is nothing here that is inappropriate for preschoolers or sensitive readers.

With that being said, the illustrations are beautiful. They complement the storyline quite well. I was especially amused by the picture of Bella after she lost her tooth. It was very cute. There were actually a few times when I stopped reading to get a better look at the other faeries as well. Every one of them was beautiful, and I loved the fact that so many different ethnic groups were represented in this tale.

I’d recommend The Toothless Tooth Fairy to anyone in the market for something new and fun to read at bedtime.

A is for Apocalypse by Rhonda Parrish, editor

A
A is for Apocalypse by Rhonda Parrish, editor
Publisher: Poise and Pen Publishing
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror, Contemporary, Paranormal, Holiday
Length: Full Length (295 pages)
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

What do you get when you take twenty-six amazing writers, randomly assign them a letter of the alphabet and give them complete artistic freedom within a theme?

A is for Apocalypse

A is for Apocalypse contains twenty-six apocalyptic stories written by both well-known and up-and-coming writers. Monsters, meteors, floods, war–the causes of the apocalypses in these tales are as varied as the stories themselves.

Some apocalypses can be predicted ahead of time. Others not so much.

The reason why I’m not mentioning any titles in my review is that they all give away gives major spoilers about what kind of apocalypse to expect from them. The introduction explains why Rhonda Parrish decided to create such a unique collection, and I highly recommend reading it first. In order to avoid confusion, I’ll use the names of the authors who wrote them instead.

I didn’t have a clue what Ms. Cato was doing at first. Rick, her protagonist, is paying close attention to every beep from his dosimeter, but his reasons for doing so with such a calm demeanour aren’t immediately apparent. He remained a fascinating character to me even after I figured out why he wasn’t panicking due to how well this behavior fits in with the rest of his personality. It’s impossible for me to pick a favourite in this collection, but I recommend beginning with Ms. Cato’s entry to anyone who likes skipping around.

When I first started this book I thought I knew more or less what to expect from it because I read so much science fiction and horror. The authors’ imaginative twists on common apocalyptic themes genuinely caught me by surprise, and that isn’t an easy thing to do! With that being said, certain apocalypses would have worked much better as novellas or full-length novels due to how many characters they required or the complexity of their plots.

Ms. Taylor’s tale is a good example of this. In it Dr. Surya Johansson is studying the remnants of human civilization for reasons that are gradually revealed as the plot continues. Figuring out the doctor’s background and motivation for travelling from one tattered colony to the next kept me guessing, but so many characters were introduced that I had trouble keeping track of all of them. It would have also been helpful to have more information about the events that led Dr. Johansson to conducting this study. The tidbits sprinkled throughout the plot provided tantalizing clues about the backstory, but some of them never quite gelled together for me.

Mr. Aldin’s story begins with a flashback to the narrator’s childhood. Eric’s parents always reassured him that monsters aren’t real, but they were dead wrong. For a long time Eric believed that he was the last human left alive on earth, but when he finds evidence of a woman travelling through his terrority he knows he has to do anything he can to meet her. The character development in this piece was well done, especially once Eric’s risk-taking tendencies begin to show up. I had an inkling of what might be happening with this character, but seeing everything unfold through his first-person perspetive made the rest of the plot even better.

A is for Apocalypse is a clever anthology that I’d recommend to anyone who is a fan of hard science fiction.

The Travelers by Keith Wayne McCoy

TRAVELERS
The Travelers by Keith Wayne McCoy
Publisher: Burst Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary, Historical
Length: Short Story (138 pages)
Heat Level: Spicy
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Two time lines. One mystery. Sometimes the most intense journeys are not geographical.

In 1947, the Queen Mary transmits a message which is intercepted by extraterrestrial intelligence. This errant radio signal serves as a beacon for a North Atlantic encounter between James and Jess Bennett, a GI and his war bride, and an otherworldly, desperate mother and her two small children.

In the present day, Guy Turner, a melancholy, black filmmaker, finds himself at the center of a supernatural mystery after a haunting prelude with the now elderly mother in a corridor aboard the retired liner in Long Beach, California. Standing at the edge of eternity, the old woman and the Bennetts have the complex task of setting certain aspects of the past in order as the doors to their lives are closing.

Guy is thrust into an unexpected and unwanted voyage of self-discovery as he is solely enjoined to bring the three together one last time.

Many things are dulled by the passage of time. Love isn’t one of them.

The character development in this tale was strong, especially when it came to Guy’s personality and backstory. He has a complicated and sometimes contradictory set of motives that made me wish there will one day be at least one sequel dedicated to his personal evolution. Guy felt so real to me that I scrolled back up to the beginning to make sure this was a work of fiction. It was just that hard to believe that he wasn’t based on an actual human being.

The cast of characters is a little larger than I would have expected for something length. Had it been a little longer I don’t think I would have ever noticed this, but so many important people are introduced in the first chapter or two that I had a little trouble remembering who was who at first. This is a minor criticism, though, and as soon as I sorted everyone out I was quickly lured back into the enthralling plot.

Mr. McCoy wrote such detailed descriptions that I felt as though I was experiencing everything alongside the characters. From a sun-baked alien world to a retired transport ship, every single scene was so compelling that I ended up reading this story in one sitting. This was my first introduction to his work. Based on how impressed I was by his writing ability, I’m eagerly anticipating his next project.

The Travelers is an excellent choice for anyone who loves time travel in their science fiction. Be prepared to read it more than once though. I know I will!

Hell on Earth by Ally Blue

HELL
Hell on Earth by Ally Blue
Hellscape #2
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Length: Full Length (280 pgs)
Other: M/M, Anal sex, Rimming
Rating: 4.5 stars
Reviewed by Cactus

Two prisoners. One forgotten planet. A secret that twists justice beyond all recognition.

Hellscape, Book 2

All Sandman wants is to get away from his violent past on Hell’s End, but trouble follows him, leaving him with more blood on his hands and a one-way ticket aboard a crewless prison transport on a pre-set course for Deimos.

By the time he realizes the transport’s actual destination is a mystery, there’s only one other prisoner he can trust. He doesn’t like it, or the things Vijay makes him feel. Caring makes you weak. Makes you easy to hurt. And Sandman’s never been easy, or weak.

Vijay is focused on what he’s always done best. Survival. But Sandman is an enigma, fearless in battle yet terrified of tight spaces. Vijay finds himself longing to break through the fierce young warrior’s shell.

After crash landing on an uncharted planet, they stumble on the justice system’s dirty little secret—the Farm, where prisoners go in but never come out. When the Farm’s threat gets personal, Sandman and Vijay each test the limits of endurance to protect the man at his back—and in his heart.

One’s man hell can be another man’s paradise. Sandman is eager to leave Hell’s End behind for a new start on Mars. Except before his new life can begin, he becomes embroiled in a political tug-of-war and ends up crash-landed on Earth. The only other survivor is Vijay, a man who’s presence in the same craft is kind of Sandman’s fault. However, they both have to put aside their feelings of mistrust to navigate a new and scary world on Earth. With no one to trust and rely on besides each other, Sandman and Vijay must learn to survive and maybe even thrive in the new and hellish world.

Hell on Earth is book two in the Hellscape series by Ally Blue, however, newcomers to the series do not need to read the first book to understand this one. The first book in the series introduces the main character Sandman but focuses more on other characters and the political climate of Hell’s End. In this book the same world building applies but it’s used in much more general ways. It’s still a dystopian/futuristic world where politics are too confusing to follow, though the general vices of greed, cruelty, and heinous acts to the poor still apply. The focus on this second book is the relationship between Vijay and Sandman as they navigate through unfamiliar lands and people. The plot keeps the tension high and action nearly constant to help cover some of the holes in the world building.

If the world building isn’t as strong as it was in the first book, the characterization is better this round. Both Sandman and Vijay leap off the page with their complexity and hot passion. There are a couple of scenes that threw me, mostly because I am not a fan of rimming and I couldn’t stop thinking about how hygiene in a post-apocalyptic world is simply non-existent so… we’ll just say that didn’t work for me. Other than that I really quite enjoyed the couple together and was quickly invested in their outcome as individuals and a couple. They are very nuanced characters with a lot of depth. Thankfully the same can be said of the supporting cast. Although quite large, I identified most of the secondary characters and could remember them as well.

I actually liked the second book in the series more than first because I connected with the protagonists as a couple much more. Plus the non-stop action really kept the pages turning and my attention nearly glued to the story. I would sit to read for 10 minutes and not look up for an hour or more, unaware of the time flying by. To me, that’s a great story. I always look for those stories that I can engage and immerse myself in the created world. I personally love post-apoc fiction so keep that in mind but science fiction fans would probably really enjoy this offering. You don’t need to have read the previous book to catch up and follow along on this one and arguably; this is actually a better book to start. At least in my opinion.

Dreams, Fiction and Me by Agostino Scafidi

DREAMS
Dreams, Fiction and Me by Agostino Scafidi
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary, Action/Adventure
Length: Short Story (127 pages)
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A collection of short stories based entirely on dreams the author recorded in his journal. Over a period of almost three months he used techniques learned from various sources (Castaneda, Thelema, Occultism) to record his dreams. The author goes into detail about this process in the Introduction. Mixing fiction with the journal entries, intent on entertaining the reader as well as heightening awareness of the role of dreams in our lives, here is Dreams, Fiction and Me. A paranormal fiction suitable for all ages.

We all have deeply private hopes and fears that sometimes pop up in our dreams, but not everyone is willing to reveal these things to the entire world.

All of the stories in this collection have dreamlike qualities that make it difficult to discuss them without giving away spoilers because they’re so short and often jump into the most important scenes right away. It was fascinating to compare their occasional haziness and plot twists with what I’d ordinarily expect from science fiction, though. It was the perfect genre to pick for such a unique method of storytelling.

Certain plots jumped abruptly from one scene to the next in ways that occasionally left me in the lurch. While this isn’t surprising given their origins, there were a few cases in which it would have been really helpful to have a smoother transition from one idea to the next. At times I actually wondered if I was reading about two separate dreams because their various sections were so different from one another.

I really appreciated the explanations that were included after each tale. Apparently some of the dreams were edited in order to make them flow more smoothly. The unconscious mind doesn’t always follow the same narrative structure one would expect from fiction, so these changes were necessary and good. It was helpful to know that the author made this decision, though, as I would have assumed everything was written exactly as it occurred otherwise.

Dreams, Fiction and Me is the most creative anthology I’ve read so far this year. Give it a try if you have any interest at all in dream interpretation or experimental science fiction.