Book Review: Making Peace by Adam Lane Smith

A romance writer gets embedded as a journalist with a group of peacekeepers on a brutal, technologically stunted though strategically important planet and has to deal with a war between the two most powerful ruling trade families? And there’s magic, assassin’s guilds, and lots and lots of sword fighting? Sign me up.

Making Peace is the debut novel from Adam Lane Smith, and he enters the burgeoning indie author market with a splash. Or given the nature of Making Peace, should I say explosion.

The framing device Smith uses is particularly unique: Belkan Candor is a famous romance novelist from the lush, civilized planet Garden. For some reason, a mysterious and wealthy benefactor pays a lot of money to Belkan’s publisher to send him to the city of Tiers on the planet Sivern to write about the Peacekeepers, a group of dedicated warriors tasked with investigating the crimes among, and preventing a war between, Sivern’s ruling houses.

Sivern is an interesting place, particularly for a foppish dandy like Belkan. Technology is artificially suppressed, leading to a world that’s quasi-medieval, though nano-mages are still allowed. Sivern is also the galaxy’s sole producer of the super-strong ceramic called Sivernite, as well as a decorative plant called Ripplewood. And commerce rules everything, with power held firmly in the grasp of the trade houses. The planet is so vital  and powerful, the fact that slavery exists is tolerated for the sake of commerce.

The houses are constantly jockeying for power, status, and influence, as well as the sweet profits of trade, and this competition tends to grind down the poor and powerless of Tiers between its grinding gears–and in Tiers, “poor” and “powerless” means nearly everybody else. This is where the Keepers come in.

It takes Belkan a while to warm up to his new companions, but slowly he learns about their backgrounds, how they ended up in a place like Tiers in a group like the Keepers, and grows to like and trust them. Which is good, because although he’s supposed to be a mere chronicler of events, Belkan ends up becoming an integral part of the Keepers’ investigation into a string of brutal murders in the First House.

Continue reading “Book Review: Making Peace by Adam Lane Smith”

Reset: Chapter 30: Saturday, September 8, 2001 (3)

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Gwendolyn was the lone figure at the bus stop on Main Street, looking beautiful in the afternoon sun, stylish as always in a pair of flattering jeans and a light white jacket over a gray t-shirt, accented tastefully with a few bracelets. Those ubiquitous large sunglasses seemed to cover half of her face. All of a sudden Joe, in his jeans and t-shirt, felt underdressed. It wasn’t as if his current wardrobe was filled with fine attire, but he hadn’t remembered being such a slob at eighteen.

It was past noon and Joe, still full from breakfast, was glad when Gwendolyn suggested that they take a bus to the mall in Portsmouth instead of getting lunch. A dollar and your student ID was all it took to go nearly anywhere on the New Hampshire seacoast back then.

“Hey,” said Gwendolyn as Joe came near. She gave him a warm hug. “How’s your aunt?”

“She’s great,” said Joe. He was smiling. It felt good and it made his heart sting. Memories of Jason flashed into his mind: At Fenway Park with an oversized Red Sox cap on his little head . . . struggling with his snowsuit on a winter morning . . . laughing in delight as he barreled down a slide, Joe and Sandra waiting at the bottom with their arms around each other’s waists . . . he had traded his son’s life for his aunt’s. And it didn’t feel like a fair exchange.

“Are you sure everything’s alright? If this is a bad time, you can let me know.”

“I’m fine, really,” said Joe. “I’m sorry I flaked out on you, Gwen. Things have just been–”

Gwendolyn raised a finger and put it on Joe’s lips. The urge to kiss it was difficult to resist. “Family is the important thing. I can wait.” Her finger moved to his cheek, lightly touching the angry bruises like two red, round eyes. “Now how did this happen?”

“Like I said, things are crazy. I’ll tell you on the bus. Speaking of which . . . .”

“It’ll come soon enough.”

* * *

Joe let Gwendolyn drag him to Victoria’s Secret. It wasn’t that he disliked the store. But there was a sense of infidelity that he could not shake.

Meanwhile, somewhere Sandra is getting God-knows-what attention from God-knows how many boys, and she doesn’t even know that I exist . . .

“How about these?” said Gwendolyn, holding up a pair of small black booty-shorts that were ostensibly being marketed as pajamas. “I need some new ones, you know.”

Words caught in Joe’s throat as he imagined Gwendolyn in them. His expression must have been comically skeptical, because she started to laugh. “I know, right? Who sleeps in stuff like this? Please.” She dropped the shorts and shook her head, moving on to the shelves where more conventional pajama sets lived. “This is more my style.”

“Right,” said Joe.

“Oh, come on,” said Gwendolyn with a mischievous smirk. “You know I’d look good in that.”

Joe shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Maybe?!” said Gwendolyn. “Maybe? Are you saying there’s a chance that I wouldn’t?

“All I’m saying is that it’s tough to judge what you haven’t seen.”

Joe worried he had gone too far–where had his unnatural confidence come from? But if Gwendolyn was offended, she hid it behind a self-satisfied smile.

They walked out of the store, Joe narrowly dodging a group of preteens careening towards the food court. “Gwendolyn,” said Joe as he caught his balance.

“Gwen,” she replied. “Hey, why don’t we do something tonight? Me and the girls were just going to hang out, maybe go see a movie or something. Are you interested? Something low-key, you know? I’m sorry. I’m not trying to make you nervous.”

“You’re not,” said Joe. He started scratching the back of his head although it didn’t itch. Sandra, who was a shockingly good poker player, called that his “tell.” “You always scratch your head when you’re uncomfortable, or you’re lying.” And then she would invariably add, “So what are you lying about now?”

“I already made plans with the guys,” he said, hating how it sounded.

“Oh.”

Joe couldn’t stop himself; the excuses came unbidden. “Yeah. We’re not doing anything, really. Nothing fun. We just have some stuff to talk over.”

“So is this, like, a school project or something?”

“No,” said Joe. “Well, it’s a project, just not for school.”

“That’s fine,” said Gwendolyn, forcing a smile. “Guy time. I got you. If you don’t want to hang out tonight, you can just say so. I won’t be offended.”

“It’s not that, Gwen.”

“I suppose it’s with your friend Nick?” she said as they continued their walk. “I’m thirsty.”

“Let’s get a drink,” said Joe. “Yeah, it’s with Nick, and . . .” He stopped short, unable to believe whose head he now saw towering above the throngs of diners in the food court.

Gwendolyn elbowed him playfully in the ribs. “Speak of the devil. Maybe now I can find out what your secret meeting is all about! You’re a really mysterious guy, you know.” Continue reading Reset: Chapter 30: Saturday, September 8, 2001 (3)”

Reset: Chapter 29: Saturday, September 8, 2001 (2)

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“Get your goddamn phone!” Nick barked from the top bunk.

Joe sawed out one final snore, his hand flopping to the ringing offender on his nightstand. “Hello?”

“Good morning Joey!” said his mother cheerily. “Where are you?”

“In bed,” he said, sitting up halfway. “Everything alright?”

“Absolutely fine! Your Aunt and I are coming to take you to breakfast!”

“Oh. Is dad with you?”

“No honey, he needs to stay and watch the little ones. We’ll be there in an hour. And Joey?”

“Yeah mom?”

“Thank you again. For everything.”

“Of course. See you soon.” He hung up and swung his legs over the bed. His mom hadn’t invited Nick, which was just as well because Nick had already returned to sleep, dead to the world. He probably had plans with Amy anyway.

Quietly, he walked to his computer. Gwendolyn deserved some kind of closure. She was a nice girl, really. And Joe couldn’t shake the feeling that, by befriending her, he had set her on a course that would irrevocably change her life from the way it was supposed to unfold. Another life ruined . . .

“Hi Gwen,” he typed, “I apologize for not getting back to you sooner. I had some family stuff going on. But my Aunt is doing well. She and my mother are coming to take me to breakfast today. I would like to see you after if you’re free. I’ll give you a call when I get back. Please let me know if this works. Sincerely, Joe.”

He clicked “Send” and sat back, wondering about the email’s tone. Was it too friendly? Too formal? Too dry? He didn’t want to give Gwendolyn the wrong idea. Wrong idea about what? he thought, feeling more confused than he was about the time travel.

Shaking his head, he stripped down and gathered his things for the shower. Before long, he was sitting on a stone bench in the quad, enjoying the sun on his face and trying hard to think of things other than planes crashing into buildings.

* * *

The ringing in his head exploded when he saw his mother’s red SUV pull up to the curb; he almost fell off of the bench , his vision shaking like some malevolent force was using his head as a maraca.

He managed to get back to a sitting position, clinging to the bench with a grip as tenuous as his hold on sanity. It was his mom and his aunt. It had to be. There was something about coming into contact with loved ones he knew so well that was setting his mind off like a bomb. If it didn’t stop, he feared his brains would start leaking from his ears.

Both Mom and Aunt Gina rushed out of the car, followed by ten-thousand after-images. He thought he heard them yelling his name. He also thought he said “I’m fine,” but all that came out was a thin stream of pale vomit splattering on the pavement between them.

He felt a little better after that, glad he hadn’t eaten much lately. The rattling subsided just enough for him to hear the sounds he was making, a meaningless “bar bar bar,” like an ancient Persian trying to speak to an Athenian. He held up a hand, but could not scrape together the equilibrium to stand.

“My God Joey,” yelled his mother, “what’s wrong?”

“Seizure! He’s having a seizure!” said Aunt Gina hysterically.

His mother sat on the bench and put an arm around him, trying to hug him into submission. His aunt did the same on the other side. Joe felt his teeth rattle so hard his jaws hurt; it sounded like a skeleton falling down the stairs. “F-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-fine,” he managed to say.

“Oh my God, you are not fine,” said his mother. “Gina, call 9-1-1!”

“N-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-no!” Joe said, spittle flying. “F-f-f-f-f-f-fever. S-s-s-s-s-s-s-started last n-n-night.” The shaking in his head subsided like an ocean of molasses, but ebb it did. “Th-th-th-th-thought it would g-g-g-g-go away. I’m c-c-c-c-c-cold,” he said. His strength returned enough for him to lift an arm and wipe his mouth. “God, my head . . .” It felt like a bowling ball had been lodged in his sinus cavity and was expanding like a balloon, determined to blow up his face like a Pelean eruption.

He felt his mother’s reassuring hands rubbing his shoulder. “Joey, let’s go to the hospital.”

“N-n-n-n-no. I th-th-think breakfast will do the t-t-trick.” He clenched his jaw to stop the chattering until the muscles hurt. “C-c-c-coffee always helps.

“That’s the Italian side of you,” Aunt Gina said. “The side that never says die. Just look at me!”

Joey did. She was his mother’s twin sister. They looked identical, right down to the reddish hue they dyed their hair, Aunt Gina being slightly thinner. Although Joe looked like a Gallagher, all rounded face and blue-eyes, his mother like to claim he had inherited all of the Rossi common sense and none of the Gallagher temper.

“How are you feeling?” Joe asked his Aunt.

Aunt Gina gave his cheek a strong pinch that made him wince; the woman had a death grip that could rival a C-clamp. “That’s just like you, thinking of everyone else but yourself. I’m doing great, Joey. I couldn’t feel better, now that I’m face to face with my savior.” She took his face with both hands and planted a loud kiss on his forehead.

“Let’s not get blasphemous, Gina,” said Joe’s mother. “I love him, but get a grip.”

Aunt Gina waved a hand. “You know what I mean. But he didn’t just save my life. He saved that other boy’s as well.”

“Oh God, what happened to your cheek?” his mother said.

“What’s on my cheek?”

“Those bruises, Joey.”

“Oh, right. We played basketball last night and I kind of ran into somebody’s elbow.” He managed to stand, steadying himself with a hand on his mother’s shoulder. “Shall we go? Smith’s has the best breakfast in town . . . so I’ve heard. We can walk there.”

“No, let’s drive,” his mother said.

“Lazy!” said Aunt Gina. “I’m the one with cancer, and you want to drive?” She rolled her eyes. Continue reading Reset: Chapter 29: Saturday, September 8, 2001 (2)”

Learn Or Die: Criticism, Setbacks, and Process

If you’re not learning, you’re dying. If you’re not willing to seek out and take criticism, you’re not learning.

And if you take criticism personally, you’ll never learn.

It’s a lesson I wish I learned fifteen years ago. Who knows where I would be? Instead I let my ego get in the way, imagining that I already knew everything, and thereby stagnating. Hey, at least I felt good about myself!

This lesson hit home when I got edits back from Brian Niemeier on one of my many works in progress, The Rust Man.

Brian, an author I greatly admire, was brutally honest, frank, and helpful. You can tell he wants to help.

Anyway, after reading his edits and his notes, I’m going back to the drawing board on the book. The funny thing is that I stared writing The Rust Man (name subject to change) before I started getting into the PulpRev and it’s ethos.

What ethos? How about clarity over cleverness and short and punchy beats “epic” and bloated. A lot of his suggestions, I’d say 85% or so, are things I was planning on doing anyway as I thought about the book in the months since I wrote it, edited it myself, and sent it to him. My goal is getting it down to 450 or so pages from its current 850.

This also ties into process, which we’ll get to later.

See, I was weaned on epic fantasy, brick-sized tomes by authors like Robert Jordan, Tad Williams (a highly underrated author) and George R. R. Martin. Sure I loved Tolkien and Lewis and even enjoyed Lloyd Alexander, but Big was where it was at. More = better.

But you know something? People generally aren’t buying doorstop-sized books, especially on Kindles and other devices, and especially not in fantasy and sci-fi. And if you want to sell books and build an audience, you do have to give them what they want. There is no shame in this. Continue reading “Learn Or Die: Criticism, Setbacks, and Process”

Reset: Chapter 28: Saturday, September 8, 2001 (1)

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What Joe and Nick had come up with, what they had to report to their team, was that their best bet was to board the planes themselves.

It wasn’t an easy decision to make, and Joe, as the de facto leader, didn’t feel good about asking a bunch of young men to risk their lives combating dangerous terrorists. But with so much at stake he had to swallow his misgivings and do what needed to be done. He wasn’t forcing anybody to do this, after all.

“Not like you haven’t faced awful situations before,” Nick had said as they prepared to turn in for the night.

“Like what?”

Through a huge yawn, Nick said: “Your divorce.”

Dealing with an angry woman who had the law on her side wasn’t pleasant, but it didn’t quite approach the level of murderous religious fanatics. And no matter what he thought about Sandra, she was still the mother of his child. Or she will be. He hoped.

Women were on Joe’s mind as his head hit his pillow. He had a few emails from Gwendolyn wondering where he was and whether he was alright, as well as one terse voice message: “Hi Joe. It’s Gwen. Just wondering where you were. I thought we were going to have lunch today. Please call me when you get this. Okay, bye.”

He didn’t know why the message had bothered him; it wasn’t like they were dating, and he owed her nothing. Sure, it was a little clingy, but she seemed more concerned than anything. He probably shouldn’t leave her hanging, but missing opportunities was his thing, after all.

But their predicament was also a huge opportunity. If they could change external events, it stood to reason that Joe could change himself.

Sleep came as he thought about the impossibility of their task. Nick had found over a dozen flight training schools in Florida, but wasn’t able to find out who the students were. Even if he could have, the plan would require that they flag everybody with an Arabic name, something which would narrow down the field but would likely leave them with too many leads and not enough time.

“We’d have no way of knowing which ones were Saudis either,” Joe had said.

“They weren’t all Saudis though, were they?” said Nick, his hands over his face. “The Saudis funded them, right? Isn’t that what they said?”

“Who the hell knows,” said Joe.

“They were from Egypt or Syria or something . . . Lebanon?”

“What’s the difference,” Joe groaned. At least they had figured out where three of the planes had left from, two from Boston and one from Newark, the one that eventually hits the Pentagon eluding them. It wasn’t a perfect plan, but as Zack said, it seemed to be the least-bad. And if successful, they would be heroes, as long as they weren’t “disappeared” for somehow having insider knowledge of the attacks.

Joe stretched his arms over his head, feeling his breastbone pop with satisfaction. Insane. They were flush with the insanity of youth. Perhaps Joe had fallen on the stoop outside of his old house that morning and was lying on the sidewalk with his brains leaking onto the pavement, and this last week and a half was nothing more than the fever dreams of a dying man. Sometimes that made more sense than being thrown back in time with the rest of the silent, unknowing universe.

Chapter 27                                               Table of Contents                                             Chapter 29

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Book Review: The Witch’s Gift: A Tale of the School of Spells & War, Book 4 by Morgon Newquist

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Yes, I review books by other people who don’t have the last name “Newquist.” It just so happens that I’m a pretty fast reader and I like to pass along the word about good stuff I think readers of this blog might enjoy. Which brings me to the fourth book in Morgon Newquist’s The School of Spells & War series, The Witch’s Gift.

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Morgon Newquist

The Witch’s Gift is another of those interstitial character pieces like book two that seem to fall between the more weighty adventuresThe Witch’s Gift picks up after the wizard Alis and the warrior Cahan return from successfully ridding the remote village of Ashfern from the spirit of a malovelent witch. Alis is testing her new powers out on the titular school’s ground when–BOOM!–she causes a gigantic explosion.

It turns out that the witch from Ashfern imbued Alis with her power, and the results are hard to control. Not only that, they’ve caught the attention of the school’s headmaster . . . Continue reading “Book Review: The Witch’s Gift: A Tale of the School of Spells & War, Book 4 by Morgon Newquist”

Reset: Chapter 27: Friday, September 7, 2001 (2)

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They walked back to Paxton in the fading autumn light, Nick with his hands in his pockets and his head held low. Joe felt hopeful for the first time in days. They had allies, confidants, friends. It was exciting to think that something he had planned was actually going to work out. But there was still so much work to be done. Joe was hungry, yes, but more than eating, he needed to think.

“Want to eat something?” said Nick as they approached the student union building, with that psychic power known only to siblings and best friends.

“We don’t have time to eat,” said Joe.

“You can’t think on an empty stomach. At least I can’t.”

Joe looked up at the building on the hill and shook his head. Jonesy and Carlos had said they were going there to eat too, but Joe didn’t feel much like talking to them. “Nah, I’m alright.”

Nick traced Joe’s line of sight. “You can’t avoid them forever.”

“Why would I be avoiding anyone?”

Nick shrugged. “Do you think we can really do this?”

“Just go eat,” said Joe, perhaps snappier than he intended.

“Don’t get all bitchy, man!”

“I’m not getting bitchy!” said Joe. “But if you’re hungry, eat! Don’t starve on account of me.”

Nick hesitated, slowing a half-step behind Joe, wading in thought. “I don’t care if we eat or not. I just want to talk. That’s all.”

Joe nodded, smiling. They walked the rest of the way to Paxton in silent contemplation.

* * *

“Wow, the Internet sucks in the year 2001. I can’t find a goddamn thing.”

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Continue reading Reset: Chapter 27: Friday, September 7, 2001 (2)”