Review: Steen Jones, The Lost Door

About a year ago, I reviewed Steen Jones’s debut novel, The Door Keeper. There was a lot to love about it: the characters were great, the plot was tight, and the story kept me engaged from the very first line. So I was pretty excited when, a few weeks ago, she released the sequel with little-to-no-fanfare.

The new book, The Lost Door, picks up seven years after the end of The Door Keeper. Life for Eden and her family – both the one she’s made for herself on Earth and the one she rediscovered in the first book on the world of Caelum – is good.

Then mysterious things start to happen with the doors, and Eden rushes off to solve the mystery. Instead, she’s kidnapped by a new foe who wants to use her unique gifts to open up other worlds to allow him to conquer them. Together with her family – especially her daughter, Gabby, who discovers her own gifts this time around – Eden must protect the doors and save the day.

I’m not doing the plot justice. It’s both more complex and much simpler than how I’d describing it. Steen Jones remains an excellent plotter; the action comes quickly but isn’t rushed, and the only lulls in the action are of the “calm before the storm” variety.

Steen splits the first-person point of view between Eden, the protagonist from the first book, and her daughter Gabby. Both characters have distinctive, separate voices, and the trading off of POV doesn’t distract as it can often do. It’s never easy to pull off the multiple POV trick, but it’s to Steen Jones’s credit that she makes it look effortless.

In addition to the main characters carried over from the first novel, there’s a whole host of new protagonists and a new antagonist. Steen manages to set up the new antagonist, Aslek, as both a sympathetic individual and an evil, dastardly villain. She walks a fine line, but sticks the landing on it. I was a bit surprised when his character seemed to disappear about halfway through the book, to be replaced by a secondary antagonist left over from the first book, but Aslek does manage to loom over the proceedings despite receiving very little actual time in front of the reader.

I do have a few points of criticism, though most of them have nothing to do with the story or its characters. I love those things. But it feels like the book needed another round of editing to be ready. Really obvious mistakes – consistently misspelling lightning as lightening, misplaced apostrophes in plural possessive words (making the words singular possessive instead), rod iron instead of wrought iron – cropped up every few pages. Lord knows my own novels have typos in them (there’s probably at least two just in this review, I betcha), but a good editor should have caught these. Most of them are consistent, recurring mistakes, especially the lightning/lightening thing. The errors rarely impeded my ability to understand what the author was trying to say, but it did happen on occasion and I did sometimes have to go back and re-read sentences to make sure I understood what they were trying to say.

Overall, The Lost Door is a fun, adventurous sequel to Steen Jones’s The Door Keeper. It’s fun, fast-paced, and enjoyable. It’s nice seeing characters who make an effort to understand one another, whose relationships are driven by character and genuine emotions rather than what would be narratively convenient. Everyone’s actions make sense, their choices feel genuine, and the story leaves me wanting more. I can’t wait for the final act in the trilogy.

Review: A Fire Under the Skin Trilogy

I was recently followed by comic book writer and novelist Victor Gischler on Twitter, and it turned out his fantasy trilogy A Fire Under the Skin was on ridiculous sale (I got all three of them for, like, $4).  The story centers around Rina Veraiin, the daughter of the Duke of Klaar, a cold and distant duchy in the kingdom of Helva.  When the duchy is overrun by foreign invaders, the Perannese (with the help of an inside traitor) and her parents are killed, Rina is spirited away from the castle and the only life she’s ever known.  On the run, she is sent to a wizard living up a mountain and given the Prime, a tattoo that runs down her back and allows her access to all sorts of magical power.  From there, Rina must seek out new tattoos to increase her powers and new allies to support her in her efforts to retake her home.

The first book, Ink Mage, focuses on that quest.  Rina makes bargains with unlikely allies, including a boozy womanizer named Brasley (the son of a local minor nobleman) and a stable boy named Alem.  Together, they find more tattoos and return to Klaar changed and ready to fight.

The second book, The Tattooed Duchess, sort of gives away the ending of the first book.  Rina and her companions were successful in their battle to retake Klaar, and things have changed for them.  Rina is now the Duchess of Klaar, facing new challenges and seeking new tattoos.  Rumblings of some greater threat are felt, and Rina must decide what is important to her and who she wants to be.

The final book of the trilogy, A Painted Goddess, finds Rina and her allies facing a full-scale invasion, the total power of the Perannese Empire, threatening to overrun the kingdom of Helva.  and Rina is forced to confront her own desire for the power of the tattoos and the fate of the kingdom.  It doesn’t help that something is killing the kingdom’s gods one by one, and Rina and her allies are somehow tied up in that business as well.

The first two books in the series were originally serialized on the Kindle, released as “Episodes” every so often.  If the books didn’t have a page labeling the beginning of each new episode, though, you’d be hard-pressed to recognize where one ended and another began.

The characters are not always easy to love.  Rina especially makes some hard, questionable choices, most often in regards to the tattoos and her pursuit of their power.  Alem seems to lack much agency, bouncing between a love for Rina and for another character, the gypsy and ink mage Mauziran.  There’s also a group of former prostitutes turned warriors, the Birds of Prey, who were consistently my favorite characters in the books.  Most of them didn’t have much “screen time,” as it were, but they were a constant presence, and it was nice to see them making their own choices and not needing rescue all the time.  I will say, while its nice that the women have plenty of agency of their own, and do most of the rescuing, Alem in particular didn’t seem to have much to recommend him beyond a pretty face and some sexual prowess.  Brasley at least

That brings me to another point.  There’s some fairly explicit sex stuff in the book.  Not really a big deal (there’s also a fair amount of cursing and bloody dismemberment, so your feelings on that sort of stuff will determine how appealing you find the book), if you’re expecting it.

Honestly, my biggest issue with the books – and this is consistent across all three novels – is that their endings feel rushed.  There’s a massive amount of build up in each novel, stage setting with armies and rival ink mages and even a god killer, and each time the enemy is dispatched in the matter of a few pages.  It just feels very abrupt, after the solid pacing of the rest of each novel.  The endings aren’t bad, per se, just rushed.

Overall, A Fire Under the Skin is a solid series.  The characters are enjoyably flawed, the magic system is pretty nifty, and the world is diverse and well-realized.  Despite abrupt endings, the books are generally well-paced and quick reads.  They’re adventure stories for adults, and they revel in that.  Definitely recommended.

If you’re interested in the trilogy, you can buy it here.

Seeking Reviews

The success of the self-published author, as many have said, is all about reviews.  We live and die by them.  The Invisible Crown is the most-reviewed book I’ve ever put out, and even it only has *checks Amazon page like he doesn’t know off the top of his head* five reviews.  I need more.

So, here’s the deal: if you’ve read and enjoyed the book, awesome!  Tell folks about it by leaving a quick review on the Amazon page.  It doesn’t have to be a gushing five-star review.  You don’t have to write paragraph after paragraph detailing your favorite bits and how your greatest sadness in life is that you don’t get to spend every waking moment of it with me (that can just be subtext).  Just a line or two saying, “I really enjoyed it, you should totally check it out if you like mysteries with snarky protagonists who drink far too much” is plenty.

And hey, if you haven’t read it yet, and happen to review books for a website?  Hit the Contact page and drop me a line, I’ll hook you up with a review copy!  Just like that?  Just like that.

I want reviews, folks!  Help a guy out!

Steen Jones’ The Door Keeper

When I’m not busy writing, or drawing, or playing music, I’m busy reading.  Or sleeping.  There’s only so many hours in a day, after all, and I love to take naps.

But the book I’m here to tell you about!  I read fellow Royal James Publishing author Steen Jones’s contemporary fantasy book The Door Keeper last week, and I’m gonna tell you all about it.

First and foremost, you should read it.  The Door Keeper is a pleasant, heartwarming novel, filled with believable characters, an intriguing mystery, and clever fantasy elements.  It never feels trite or cliche, even when dealing with well-worn tropes of the genre (the main character has a mysterious past she knows nothing about and a great destiny!  Here’s a brooding man who starts off somewhat combative but comes around and becomes a boon companion and love interest!).  It’s a testament to Ms. Jones’ abilities that the character don’t feel flat or their arcs unearned.  She excels at the little character moments that make their feel real: the way the protagonist’s daughter, Gabby, goes on and on about filming Youtube videos with her best friend, or the way Eden, the protagonist herself, decides to hide information from her daughter to protect her.  It feels natural, as do almost all the character interactions and moments.

I’m not going to go too deep into the plot, as revealing too much does give away some of the twisty surprises Steen Jones has cooked up for her reader.  Folks in this book have ulterior motives sometimes, and not everyone is on the up and up like they pretend to be.

What I enjoyed most about The Door Keeper was the way Ms. Jones played with developing exciting and unique worlds for her characters to visit.  See, there are all these doors scattered across the earth that act as portals to other worlds, if you happen to have a key to the doors.  We see three other worlds in this novel, though the next two books (it’s a planned trilogy) promise visits to other worlds, I hope, because Steen is pretty creative when it comes to these exotic locales.

All of this isn’t to say I didn’t have a couple of issues with the novel.  Ms. Jones has a habit of creating a potential obstacle for Eden, then immediately removing that obstacle without any effort on Eden’s part.  The not-too-conflicting-conflict makes for some resolutions that are a bit too pat, a little unearned.  Eden has all of this internal struggle that we get to see because she’s our narrator, but we don’t really have any external conflict because as soon as she thinks about something being a problem, someone ambles into her path and provides the exact solution she was looking for.  There’s also a few bits where the prose isn’t as polished as it could be, though I’m certainly willing to forgive a typo here and there (lord knows I’ve made plenty of my own).

All in all, The Door Keeper is a solid start to a series.  Steen Jones creates a wonderful world full of sparkling details and then goes on to create several more worlds with even more details.  Her world building is excellent, her character moments are spot on, and the book resolves its central plot in a fairly satisfying way while also setting up the next book in the series.  I’m looking forward to whatever is in store for Eden and company next!