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.

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!

Flash Fiction: The Coat, Part 2

Part 1 can be found here!

Krober Pass was a few hours west of Halftown, a narrow, rocky pass through the Reeven Mountains.  In years past, it had been part of a major trade route to the west, to the Kingdom of Marrowdowns, but the kingdom had fallen to goblin raids decades ago, and the goblins were pushing further and further east with every year.  That they’d reached the Krober Pass – so close to the adventurer’s haven of Halftown! – was a sign that things in Marrowdowns were bad.

But it also meant there was plenty of work for folks like Valeria and Garric.  The two adventurers were more than a match for anything the goblins could throw at them.  Valeria didn’t take any chances, though, performing a ballad designed to improve their endurance and damage resistance before they entered the pass.

Things were quiet as they entered the Krober Pass, the only sound the wind as it whistled through the rocks and thin grass.  Valeria had her axe ready, and Garric’s daggers were loose in their sheaths, ready to be deployed at the first sign of trouble.  The two had worked together for so many years, there was no need for conversation between them as they moved through the pass.  Valeria took point, twirling the axe in her hands and humming an old song under her breath that her mother had taught her years ago.

The only warning they had was the faint sound of rocks skipping down the rock wall, dislodged from above by an unseen foot.  Valeria pivoted on her heel, bringing the axe around in a wide arc.  The blade caught the first goblin raider under his arms, cleaving him in half and spraying hot blood across the rocks.  The short, knocked blade the goblin had held over his head clattered to the ground from nerveless fingers.

Suddenly, the air was alive with goblin war cries and crude weapons waved by cruder creatures.  The goblins attacked in waves, falling from above like a deadly rain made of equal parts vile intent, sharp teeth, and rank body odor.  Valeria’s axe carved arcs across through the air, chopping goblins down two and three at a time.  Garric’s twin daggers flashed, picking out vulnerable points in goblins’ defenses, a throat here, under an arm there, the hamstring and femoral artery of a goblin winding up to take a swing at Valeria.  The two adventurers hacked and slashed their way through a small army of goblins for what seemed an eternity, but was really about half an hour.  At the end of the carnage, they were still standing, their arms and legs covered in small nicks and cuts, Garric’s left eye swelling shut where he’d caught the edge of a wooden shield in the face.  Valeria’s arms were heavy, and she felt drained.  Garric was breathing heavily, his barrel chest heaving from the exertion.

“Think that’s all of ’em?” Garric asked, wiping his blades on the edge of his coat and slotting them back into their sheaths.

Valeria shrugged, her shoulders announcing an aching protest at the movement, and stowed her axe on its strap across her back.  She pulled out her lute and strummed a few chords, humming a lilting counterharmony to the melody.  Garric immediately felt the song’s effects: the ache in his muscles eased, his wounds stopped seeping blood, and he felt generally better than he had a few moments earlier.  Valeria put away the lute and took in the terrain of the pass.  “No sign of their warren,” she said.

Garric nodded.  “Think it’s up in the mountains?”

Valeria nodded.  “Of course it is.”

It took them half an hour to pick their way through the massive boulders and shifting gravel of the pass, up the side of an almost sheer cliff face to the cave system the goblins called home.  The place was mostly deserted as they entered, though Valeria could feel unseen eyes on her from the moment they slipped into the cool darkness of the cave’s entrance.

Half an hour of exploring the twisting warren of tunnels and caves finally spit them out in a massive, cathedral-esque cavern festooned with candles and bioluminescent fungi.  The edges of the cavern were surrounded by massive columns of stala-whatevers – stalactites or stalagmites, Valeria could never keep them sorted in her head – and at the front, like an altar, rose a platform of limestone with a wooden rack taking the place of prominence.

On the rack hung the coat.  It had been placed there reverently, as if it were a great, holy relic.  Small bundles were heaped at the foot of the rack.  On closer inspection, Garric identified them as goblin religious fetishes.  “Effigies for the fallen,” he said, stroking his beard.  It was the patchiest beard in dwarven history; the mustache, thin and wiry, didn’t meet up with the beard itself, which was more the suggestion of where a beard could be than an actual, fully-realized collection of facial hair.  It was an aspirational beard, a beard in potentia, but he was terribly attached to it, as all members of his kind were to their facial hair.  Valeria didn’t have the heart to tell him it made him look like wire mesh jutting out at odd angles from his cheeks and jaw.

“I think…they’re worshiping the coat,” Garric said.

Valeria frowned.  “Why?  It’s an ugly old coat.”  She allowed her magical senses to open up to the world around her.  Information flooded into her senses.  “There’s nothing magical about it.  It’s just a plain ol’ coat.”

Garric shrugged.  “Damned if I know.  The old bastard did kill a lot of goblins in his day.”  Valeria nodded.  Everyone in Halftown knew, if there were no other jobs available, you could always kill goblins.  The man in the coat had been well-known for taking that job even when other, more worthwhile endeavors were available.  An idea, a terrible notion, formed in her mind.  She didn’t care for it, though it made a certain amount of sick sense.

“They started thinking of him as a god of death, didn’t they?” she said.  Though the tone was one of question, it was really more an uncertain-at-worst statement.  “They think they killed a god, and they took a holy relic as a sign.”

Garric shrugged again.  “Stranger things have happened.”  He glanced around the cavern.  Like Valeria, he couldn’t shake the sense that they were being watched from every dark corner.  “So, what do we do?  We takin’ the coat back?”

Valeria shook her head.  “No.  There’s no point.  It’s just an old damn coat.”  She stretched, arching her back, and turned back to the entrance they’d come in through.  “Let’s get back to the Giant’s Barrel.  I need a drink.”

Garric grinned.  “That’s a damn fine idea!” he said in agreement.  “We’ll hoist a tankard to…um…”  Garric scratched his chin.  “Say, what the hell was the guy’s name, again?”

Valeria shrugged.  “I dunno.  Dave?  Saunders?  Caulder?  Who knows?  Better, who cares?  I need a damn drink.”

Flash Fiction: The Coat, Part 1

It was black leather, faded with years of neglect and abuse.  It hung heavy across his broad back and shoulders, the hem of the coat hanging down to mid-thigh.  It slapped against his legs as he took each step, as though the edge of it was weighted somehow.  The coat was festooned with pockets, though no one knew quite how many or what their contents might be.

It was worn in a patch around back, where the leather had scrapped against booths and benches and the rough brickwork of city alleyways for years and years.  It was a hard-worn coat, full of secrets and dried blood.  He’d been stabbed three times while wearing the coat; shot with arrows at least twice as many times as that.  He survived, and so did the coat.  Some new stitching, and each were patched up again.

Folks around the city recognized the coat and its wearer.  They became something of an institution, a familiar, mobile landmark in the city that wandered the streets in search of work and adventure.

Some coveted the coat, not because it was a particularly appealing piece of sartorial splendor, but because it represented something primal and daring and great: the coat was as much an adventurer as its wearer.  The coat had survived just as many narrow escapes and famous last stands as the man who wore it.  The coat was a piece of history, one that could be passed on like a torch or a crown or a family heirloom.  The man had no children – none he knew of or was in contact with, anyway – so the coat would just be buried with him when he died, assuming he was buried and not just left on some desolate battlefield or deep in some dank dungeon to rot.  It would be a damn shame for that coat to not go on, these folks reasoned, and so they tried to steal it and discovered the man who wore the coat was not an individual to be trifled with.

No one could say for certain how old the man was, or when he’d first appeared in the city, but everyone agreed they’d never seen him without the coat.  It was as much a part of him as his arms or his eyes, as important a tool in his arsenal as any sword or dagger.  He wore it during the defense of Halftown, and the brawl in the Giant’s Barrel that followed the glorious victory in that battle.  He wore it when he explored the fabled Catacombs of Meril Catharak, where he defeated the Lich Lord of the same name.  He wore it when he wooed the beautiful princess of Dorivo Tower, though he declined to ravish the princess in favor of ravishing her brother, the tower’s defender.

The man wore the coat everywhere, regardless of weather or circumstances.  It was like a uniform, a second skin, an indispensable garment by any measure.

So it came as some shock to everyone when he died without it on.

It came in the fourth month of the Year of the Notional Serpent, deep in to the sweltering summer season in Halftown, the city of heroes and adventure.  The man came stumbling into town one evening near dusk, blood matting his hair and the coat nowhere to be seen.  He collapsed in front of the Giant’s Barrel, bleeding from more wounds than any living person could reasonably expect to survive, and the life ebbed out of him as adventurers stepped over and around his prone form to reach the bar inside the Giant’s Barrel.

Only two individuals stopped to check on the man: Valeria, a tall woman from the great northern barbarian tribes, and her stout dwarven companion, Garric.

“He’s dead,” Garric said, straightening up from a stoop next to the man, though it hardly seemed worth the effort given how minor the effect of standing was on his overall stature.  Garric was, to put things bluntly, short.

Valeria nodded.  She’d assumed as much.

“No sign of the coat,” Garric muttered, eyeing the dusty street.  No one else was around; even at dusk, the city was so stiflingly hot that most people were quietly suffering indoors.

“That damn coat is more trouble than it’s worth,” Valeria said.  She didn’t put much stock in the legends and stories surrounding the coat.  Many thought it was enchanted, spelled against blades and blows.  Valeria was convinced it was just an old, ugly coat, but she also knew you couldn’t discount an item’s magicalness when so many people believed in it.  Belief had a power that was hard to beat.

“What job was he on?” Valeria asked despite herself.  She didn’t want to try to find the coat, but she could see the shape of the narrative forming around her.  Someone was going to go out and find the damn thing; it might as well be someone competent.  It might as well be her and Garric.  The man in the coat had always been known for taking on challenging jobs, and it was better that professionals take up the task than some amateur with delusions of grandeur.

“Clearing out the goblins in the Krober Pass,” Garric said immediately.  His memory for little details – like who had taken what job on the Adventurer’s Community Board – was sharper than most.

Valeria hefted her axe over one shoulder and her lute over the other.  There weren’t too many barbarian bards out there, and she was easily the best of them.  Garric rested his hands on his daggers, arching his back until the vertebrae popped one after the other.  “Right, then,” the dwarf said, a grin splitting his bearded face, “let’s get to it.”

Continue on to Part 2!