Tag Archives: fantasy

Review of Beyond Barlow 1 & 2, by Jason R. Koivu

I received a copy of Beyond Barlow and The Rue of Hope from the author, Jason R. Koivu. I write each review as I finish the book. So they stand alone but don’t necessarily flow one into the other.


Description of Beyond Barlow:

Ford Barlow is banished from his home and the clansmen he loves after a tragic accident forces him into joining a band of thieving boys. Adventure and fun abound and it seems Ford has found a perfectly fine new home until a mysterious massacre chases the boys away from their beloved woodland hideaway, through a magical and dangerous forest, and into the arms of conniving bandits. These vicious men push Ford to the brink of his moral limits in Beyond Barlow.

Review:

Technically, I didn’t agree to review this book. I accepted The Rue of Hope and Koivu was kind enough to send Beyond Barlow along too, so that I could start the series at the beginning. I mention this because I’m pretty much done with Young Adult novels, avoiding the genre when I can. While Beyond Barlow is about a young adult, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a YA book. Despite that, I didn’t go into it excited to read about a 15ish-year-old boy. But I wanted to start at the beginning.

The book is well enough written and it’s not a bad book. However, I took a long time to read it because I kept avoiding it. It’s just unremitting mishap and misery from start to finish, and you feel very early that that is going to be the case. I found nothing in the story to enjoy or look forward to.

While Ford isn’t a bad guy, he’s not all that bright and despite often trying to do the right thing, I found him a little sociopathic at times. He wasn’t a character I could relate to. Similarly, all the side characters are grey at best, most villainous and with a tendency to suddenly disappear or die. Add to this the fact that all the events of the book are sad or anger-inducing or simply unpleasant and the reader is left with nothing to look forward to. One unsavory character said on page 239, “A man needs a bit of fun, and all we’ve had is shit and misery.” And that’s exactly how I felt about reading this book.

Again, it’s not badly written. It’s not a bad book. Some people enjoy such things. I’m just not one of them. All in all, I didn’t hate it so much that I won’t read the next book. But I didn’t enjoy it enough to look forward to it either. Especially since with a title like The Rue of Hope, I can’t really expect any more lightheartedness out of it either.


Description of The Rue of Hope:

Murder in the streets. Murder in the houses of the holy. The violent deaths of prominent figures have the populous on edge. Now, amid fire and flood, the revolt is on. The castle is taken, the lord is on the run, and the city is crumbling. With society on the verge of collapse, impulsive street-fighter Ford Barlow finds himself in just as much turmoil. Not only is he juggling his own problems, but his slippery rogue friend is embroiled in a string of high-profile assassinations. Mercenary work for a mage meant to distance him from his troubles only highlights his selfish ways and drives him back into a crumbling world of scandal and betrayal. Magic, adventure and murder combine in this fantasy-mystery!

Review:

I felt much about this second book as I did the first, there is very little to enjoy in it. Everything is death and despair. But here, more than in Beyond Barlow, I really feel the description (while not inaccurate) is deceptive. All of those events happen, but in such a background capacity as to be almost irrelevant. Ford isn’t integral to any of them. He’s not even aware of most of them. In fact, he has very little volition in the whole book. In my head, I repeatedly thought of this story (series really) as a list of woes that befall Ford, and not as any sort of adventure Ford embarks on, or battle he chooses to fight, or purpose he finds for himself (the things that structure a plot). As such, I felt very much like there wasn’t so much an actual plot as this text was simply the documenting of a certain segment of Ford’s life. Two years earlier or later would and could have read the same. I felt no building toward any climax. Thus, I found it excruciatingly unsatisfying.

Having said that, it’s not badly written and I have complained recently about being tired of reading about the same sort of anti-hero over and over again. I can’t accuse Koivu of that. Ford is an anti-hero, for sure, but not one you see every day. He’s not overly bright (or at least not a deep thinker), he’s built like a brick shithouse, he’s morally ambiguous, and while he often tries to do the right thing, he usually fails. Some of what he does in this book makes me dislike him in the extreme. (Trying to steal bread from a starving child, drunkenly manhandling a woman when she rejects him, hanging out in an alley to creepily watching a young woman through her window, being drunk for a full third of the book, what he does to Addy even knowing she’s fragile, what he does to Elle in an attempt to save her from his imagination.) But he does value protecting the weak, which redeems him a little. If he had been a man with more prospects, he probably could have been a better man. (Which I do think is some of what Koivu was trying to get at.)

Speaking of the author, Koivu himself has a few ‘men writing women’ moments. He sexualizes a 12-year-old girl at one point and almost all of the women who actually speak are prostitutes or in love with/trying to sleep with Ford in some capacity. This seems so avoidable. Why place a child in a sexual position? It didn’t progress the plot any or add anything to the story. Similarly, why include the random gay-bashing scene? Especially if Dunn, the primary perpetrator involved, was never going to appear again? I can kind of see it maybe lets the reader see that there are lines Ford won’t cross (or even understand the appeal of). But I think that was already established, so mostly I thought it added nothing of value.

All in all, I didn’t actually think this was a bad book. I just think it wasn’t really for me.

Edit: The author politely emailed me to address why the gay-bashing scene was included. I won’t repeat it since it would be a spoiler. But he does give a considered reason. I think there might have been a million other ways to accomplish what the scene did, but I acknowledge that Koivu did have a reason beyond titillation, which is what I took it for (not homophobia).

Review of The Half-Assed Wizard, by Gary Jonas

I received an Audible code for a copy of Gary JonasThe Half-Assed Wizard.

Description from Goodreads:

A couple of jerks wake me up at the crack of noon. Seems my clepto uncle stole an ancient deck of Tarot cards from a high-powered wizard, and too many losers want to ruin my day to get them back. 

The cards are cool, so I check them out, but my magic-happy cousin, Sabrina, tells me I’m not supposed to touch them. Oops. Too late. Now the damn cards are tuned to me, and if someone else wants to use them, I have to die. Why couldn’t she have led with that information? 

Magic was never my scene, but my dad is one of the most powerful wizards in the world, so I’ve got unrealized potential if I ever bother to apply myself. I’d rather power nap, but with wizards, gunslingers, and cannibalistic shark dudes coming at me, that’s not gonna happen. 

They say I’m a half-assed wizard, but if I don’t play my cards right, I’m gonna get my whole ass killed.

Review:

This is the third male-led Urban Fantasy, written by a male I’ve read in a row. They all seem to have variations of the same ‘hero’ (anti-hero). They’re sarcastic, misanthropic, invariably powerful, but determined never to be seen trying at anything. I wondered for a while why these characters are so venerated. But I’ve ultimately decided that it’s a validation of the male (white male especially) world view that a true man conquers and succeeds because he is simply and inherently the best. He shouldn’t have to try at anything, because he will still always come out on top. What more, to be seen to be trying undermines the naturalness of their supremacy.

I say all this in order for it to make sense when I say I am tired of this character. Brett is the just one more of an overplayed, unimaginative ‘hero.’ Perhaps he could be king of these men who refuse to even try to live up to their potential (but still expect to be handed the winning ticket). He is after all just as half-assed as the title suggests. His literal goal in life is to sleep all day and live on daddy’s money, while simultaneously refusing to comply or cooperate with the family in any way. I found literally nothing in him to relate to or enjoy. I wanted to spank him like the whiney man-child he was (and not in any sort of fun way).

What makes this whole situation worse is that I couldn’t even truly believe his refusal to use magic. His commitment to never using magic required a dedication I couldn’t imagine him capable of, especially as lazy as he was.

All in all, the book is written well enough. The narrator did a great job. And I can imagine a whole host of Chads enjoying it. But I most certainly did not.

Review of The Other Magic, by Derrick Smythe

I received a review copy of The Other Magic, by Derrick Smythe. I’m not going to lie, I probably would have accepted it based on that cover alone. Isn’t it gorgeous?

Description from Goodreads:

Darkness stirs in a world that is ill-equipped to confront it. A prophesied king is born, but not all will benefit from his foretold conquests.

In a realm where only clerics are permitted to practice magic, Kibure, a mere slave, draws the attention of much more than just his master after wielding an unknown force in a moment of desperation. In a twist of fate, Sindri, the priestess hired to strip Kibure of his power, defies the law, revealing designs of her own. But trust is in short supply in a land ripe with deceit. This wayward pair will have to work together if they hope to evade capture at the hands of the Empire’s most potent wielders.

Halfway around the known world, Prince Aynward’s knack for discovering trouble drives him deep into conspiracies within which he does not belong. Too arrogant to accept counsel, he will have to learn the hard way that some actions have consequences that cannot be undone…

Review:

“I have finished it!” I shouted this while throwing my arms up in the universal victory pose. (Good thing I was home alone with the dog, and even she looked at me funny.) I felt held hostage by this book; determined to finish it but feeling as if it would never end. A full third of it needs to be cut away, in my opinion, probably more. The first 150 pages (in which one character is held in a cage and another is held hostage in a ship for 90% of the time) could literally be condensed to 10, for example.

I feel bad too. When I accepted this for review it had no other reviews. So, I asked the author if he was sure he wanted to send it to me, seeing as I write an honest review. This meant if I loved it we would be fine, but if I didn’t there would be no other reviews to balance my poor rating out. In retrospect, I feel like this might have made it look like I was setting the book up to fail, expecting to pan it. But that’s not the case. I went in full of hope and then just lingered, fell into a malaise of boredom and eventually just had to force myself to finish it, one snippet chapter at a time over almost a month. (A month! It took me—who can start a standard 350 page paperback after dinner and finish it before bed—to finish this book.)

Let me step away from how hard I had to work to force myself to chip away at this tome to say that there is a lot of good in it. I don’t want to leave the impression that this is 625 pages of dreck. It’s not! It’s just that the good (real attempts at grey characters, interesting magic systems, loyalty and character growth) is buried deep in too much verbiage. The story told here simply did not need 625 pages to be told.

What’s more those 625 pages are broken up into 1-3 page chapters, in most cases. So, you get a page or two of Sindri, a page or two of Kibure or Grobennar, and then a bit more of Aynward (maybe 10-15 pages). His chapters tended to be a bit longer, as it’s where the book’s mythos is dropped. But even that felt off. Sindri and Kibure are running for their lives. Grobennar is on a holy quest and Aynward is….looking for his classroom on his first day of university. That was 100% not where the focus of the book felt it needed to be. But more importantly these little vignette chapters never let me settle into the narrative. I was never able to forget I was reading a book and sink into the story. Thus, I was 100% aware of every one of those 625 pages. Tedious hardly does the experience credit.

The story itself isn’t bad, interesting even. I thought the writing a tad pedestrian, but certainly readable. I thought the character growth was handled clumsily, but it was there and I appreciated it. All in all, I have no doubt this book will find it’s audience. It is after all an ok book. But for myself and my opinion (for what it’s worth), I’d love to see it given to a vicious content editor that could hack away at it, tighten it up, and make it a great book.