Monday, March 26, 2012

Arkenberg, Last of the Lesser Kings (2012)

T.L.K. Arkenberg, Last of the Lesser Kings. Silver Publishing, 2012. Pp. 505. ISBN 9781920501884. $7.99.

Reviewed by RJ Blain

In a world torn by war, Neathander plays a pivotal role in the salvation or destruction of the independent human kingdoms. This novel pursues the romantic interests of a magician who wants to escape the wars that he has been participating in for the past thirteen years. T.L.K. Arkenberg’s debut novel, published by Silver Publishing, Last of the Lesser Kings is a story of love, betrayal, kingdoms, and Kings. It is romance mixed with fantasy tied together in a world where kingdoms rise, fall, and struggle to survive against the tyranny of one man who wanted everything, no matter what the cost.

Neathander is many things; cruel yet kind, loving, yet callous. He is wise, yet confused, and falls easily beneath the attraction of strong, powerful men. But, when Janir goes too far in his desire for conquest, Neathander betrays the man he has loved for thirteen years. After the falling out with Janir, a chance meeting with Aorin forever changes the magician. Kindness replaces cruelty, until Neathander isn’t sure who he is anymore. With the hope of redemption little more than a seedling, he remains with the people of Rivensed and the last of the independent Kings. This relationship between Rivensed’s King and Neathander is the heart of the book, as well as the critical focus of the conflict in the novel.

The story has several themes, but the most major ones include love, lust, redemption and jealousy. Neathander’s character is one so realistic that it brings to mind several key stereotypes while reading—character types that fit the book and the character so well that it is the glue that binds everything together. At a first glance, the use of these stereotypes is disconcerting, until one looks deeper at the character and understands that for all Neathander is not a human, he has a human’s nature.

While there are elements of epic fantasy, the story is not about how the world must be saved, or even the kingdoms that are dominated and controlled beneath the cruel hand of the High King. Instead, it is a story of the people that surround Neathander. Some change him; for the better, and in some cases, for the worse. Others are changed by him. But, the underlying theme of redemption is never quite forgotten—not by T.L.K. Arkenberg, and definitely not by her characters. It is brought to the forefront, the desire for redemption so strong in some of the characters that the need for it is capable of extinguishing even the light of hope.

The resolution of the book brings with it the expected conclusion, falling prey to the expectations of the audience. In a way, it has the fairy tale ending that is a little too perfect to be real.

For fans of same-sex couplings, this novel is almost the ideal romance. However, this novel falls short in terms of being an epic fantasy. Depending on where the book is acquired, it may or may not have the epic fantasy tag, which is misleading. The description, which paints the picture of an epic battle of the human realms, also aids to this misinterpretation that this book is of the epic fantasy genre. While there are strong fantasy elements present, the author opts to gloss over the elements that would make it a solid epic fantasy in exchange for pursuing the romantic interests of the men within the novel. Rather than being a full epic fantasy, ripe with culture and kingdom, it is more of a traditional fantasy that bit off a little more than it could chew, donning the cloak of epic fantasy with a thin grasp. However, to make up for that failure, T.L.K. Arkenberg has a very strong writing style suited for pursuing the intimacies of relationships, no matter what gender the partners are.

If I had to categorize this novel, I would classify it as a Homosexual Romance novel with fantasy influences. However, while relating to same-sex couplings, the theme of prejudice is glanced over, and despite the male-dominated, traditional world the characters live in, the expected prejudices don’t really exist. Aorin, who is described as old-fashioned and traditional, is easily swayed to change his original orientation (conveniently) by the book’s end. This gives the world a flat and unrealistic side that made it difficult to suspend disbelief.

One notable downside to this novel is that the ending was just too abrupt. T.L.K. Arkenberg spent a great deal of time building to the climax, but once it arrived, it passed by so quick that it was over before I realized it was even happening. This disappointment was made up for in other regards, but I found that the read was not nearly as satisfying as it could have been, especially considering the care for the characters and plot right up to the end of the book. While Neathander’s redemption is acquired, the price paid somehow felt empty despite the pleasant tone the ending of the book takes.

Arkenberg manages to do a complete about-face in terms of Neathander, evolving him from the extreme of cruelty to something most of us would identify as a kind person with a good sense of justice. Janir’s character doesn’t evolve as much as one would like, stagnating when a strong villain could have made this book much richer in both tone and depth.

That said, Last of the Lesser Kings was worth the read to a point, as the characters are fallible and likeable—including even Janir

However, there was a critical downside that effectively ruined this book for me. This is the inclusion of threats as a part of the copyright notice in the beginning of the book. Instead of the standard notices provided by large-scale publishers, Silver Publishing has opted with threats that are enforced by the FBI in conjunction with South African Copyright Law. The associated fine listed within the book is $250,000, and the warning spans four pages on a standard 6-inch kindle. Unlike other publishers, Silver Publishing does not permit ‘owners’ of the book to transfer the book between devices the reader owns or permit lending of the book to friends or family, essentially granting a one-use license to read the book and store it on one device. Reader and lover of books, beware. The harsh tone of the threat and warning is not pleasant to have to sit through, and will likely leave a sour taste in the mouth.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Olsen, The End (2010)

Nora Olsen, The End: Five Queer Kids Save The World. Prizm Books, 2010. Pp. 270. ISBN 1610401166. $13.95.

Reviewed by Martha Hubbard

The End is a first novel by Nora Olsen, whose goal is “to write fun books that anyone can enjoy”, but she especially wants “LGBT teens to be able to see themselves in [her] books”. It is published by Prizm Books and is young adult science fiction of interest to LGBT teens. Five queer teenagers receive magic amulets that can help them to save the world from nuclear disaster. They must learn to trust each other and work together in order to accomplish this. Ms Olsen tells an engrossing story that is well plotted and moves briskly along to a satisfying and believable resolution.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Christian, Finger’s Breadth (2011)

M. Christian, Finger’s Breadth. Zumaya Boundless, 2011. Pp. 265. ISBN 978-1-934841-46-4. $15.99.

Reviewed by Sheri White

M. Christian is well-known for his erotic stories, as well as editing several erotic anthologies, so I wasn’t surprised to find that his newest novel, Finger’s Breadth, was pretty explicit. This is not a book to read if you are easily offended. Published by Zumaya Boundless, the gay, lesbian, bisexual or transsexual-themed imprint of Zumaya Publications, which has been putting out both e-books and print since 2001.

Finger’s Breadth takes place in San Francisco in the near future—someone is drugging random gay men and cutting off the tip of their little finger. The gay bars in the area are almost empty; men are staying home, scared it might happen to them. The police are baffled; there are no suspects. The first victim, Varney, works for the newspaper and becomes a celebrity of sorts. But his celebrity isn’t exactly earned, and this is eating Varney up inside. He debates with himself whether to confess his sin while still using his infamy to reach out to the public.

Then a gradual change comes over the gay population—those who have been cut are looked at as desirable, exciting. Those who have not been cut now begin to feel left out, even ashamed—aren’t they good enough to be approached by the cutter? Are they unattractive? The bars fill up again; the patrons divided between victims and wanna-bes. It’s rarely said aloud, but those men who are whole are hoping to be the next victim. The internet burns with men in chatrooms, looking for the cutter or a reasonable facsimile. Although the story is seen through the eyes of several characters, quite a bit of the book is written in chatroom format, with the cutter—or supposed cutter—looking for victims.

Those men who have had their fingertip cut off have a certain confidence about them; now that the worst has happened, what else do they have to fear? They feel invulnerable, brave. Those who are still intact begin to take drastic measures—cutting their fingers themselves or even having cutting parties.

So who are the real victims?

Varney is a nice guy who has gotten himself into a situation he’s not sure he can get out of. As a sort of penance, he uses his newspaper column as a format to reach out to the gay community, as well as inviting them to vent to him about the cutter. But even this becomes too much for Varney to deal with, knowing the real truth of what happened to him.

Finger’s Breadth is a suspenseful, erotic and disturbing tale of what happens when the monstrous becomes the desired. While a little slow at the beginning, the pace picks up towards the middle of the book and it's difficult to put down. The characters are well-written and believable; their angst very real. Taylor, who has been traumatized by the goings-on in the city, takes refuge at an ex-boyfriend’s home when Taylor is afraid he is next on the mutilator’s list. His fear of being a victim, and the insecurity over he relationship between him and his ex-boyfriend are palpable. The story is a little hard to follow at times—there are times when I’m not sure who belongs to the chat names—but is overall riveting.

This is not a book for the easily offended; there are many graphic sex scenes. The sex scenes are not gratuitous, however. They are an important part of the story as much as the cutting scenes are. Finger’s Breadth will get to you. It may disgust you and it may even arouse you, but it will definitely get you thinking. Would you change yourself, physically or mentally, in order to fit into the majority of your peers? Teens do this—do the rest of us really outgrow the urge to be one of the crowd? Even if you’re not part of the majority, you may change yourself to fit into a sub-group. Everyone wants to be wanted.

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