Monday, May 28, 2012

REVIEW: Stormbringer / Daniel DeLacy

TITLE: Stormbringer (Apocalypse Then Part One)
AUTHOR: Daniel DeLacy
PUBLISHER: Self-published
AVAILABILITY: Amazon US (Kindle e-book), Amazon UK (Kindle e-book)
APPROXIMATE LENGTH: 318 pages (97,500 words)

Recommended for fans of non-romanticized historical fiction, spy novels/military thrillers, and stories of World War II intrigue such as the 2008 film Valkyrie

Historical Fiction/Thriller

Stormbringer revolves around a British spy in Nazi Germany during the early days of World War II. Interspersed throughout the book are historical facts and reports from CBS correspondent William L. Shirer, which show the historical context surrounding the primary story.

Stormbringer is the first book of a series and ends with something of a cliffhanger, although one gets the sense that the story is relatively self-contained.

This is a tightly written, plot-driven book that moves very quickly from scene to scene. There are no blow-by-blow action sequences, lengthy dialogues, or detailed descriptions of settings. Instead, the narrative focuses on what’s happening and why, and thus a lot can happen in only a few chapters. The tension and intrigue surrounding the main character’s mission make this book a fascinating page-turner.

First person past tense and third person omniscient. The book is written in the form of a memoir, as though the main character, Robert Leroy Parker, were reflecting back upon his time as a spy. Thus, the majority of the narration is in first person, but every so often the book switches to third person omniscient to describe the bigger picture of what’s going on in Europe during this historical period.

Stormbringer opens with an enticing hook: a torture scene in which the unnamed first person narrator is repeatedly asked, “Who are you?” In this story of deception and duplicity, the answer to that question is anything but straightforward.

Following this prologue, we are introduced to Robert Leroy Parker, a British con man who adopted multiple aliases and pilfered millions of dollars from the Spanish government by his mid-twenties. One day in 1938, he is apprehended by the British government, which is well aware of his activities, and offered a job: to infiltrate the German military as a deep cover spy. Knowing that refusal would mean having to answer for his theft, and perhaps driven by a touch of idealism, Parker accepts.

Adopting the identity of one Michael Krause, a German American supposedly drawn back to the fatherland out of a patriotic desire to aide the Reich, Parker starts out as a translator for the Foreign Intelligence Collection Department but eventually finds himself, ironically, becoming something of a Nazi hero after participating in a number of missions, including the one that started World War II. In watching Parker’s rise, it is easy to forget that he is, in fact, a foreign spy and not and the up-and-coming young officer he masquerades as. Parker himself says that in the propaganda-filled environment he lives in, the ideology is “impossible to escape, even in your mind” and bluntly tells the reader not to “feel too superior.” Nevertheless, the dangers of his double identity constantly loom over him—he is nearly killed as a German spy while in Poland even though he was in that country to rescue two Polish scientists.

Throughout the book, there are several instances in which Parker directly addresses his readers, challenging them for presumably judging him and toying with their expectations. Oftentimes while reading, I felt as though I was in a room with Parker as he recounted his tale, for his voice comes across as genuine and relatable. Irreverent and witty, arrogant and yet and fully aware of his own flaws, Parker really comes alive and engages the reader in a way that makes it easy to forget that he is a fictional character.

At times, Parker comes across as defensive or torn as he tries to remember who he really is even though his life often depends on his complete immersion into a regime he finds despicable and ridiculous. At one point, while dressed as a Nazi officer, Parker is appalled at the sight of several Aryan boys tormenting a Jewish child and intervenes, then buys the child candy and takes him home. Only after the fact does he realize that this well-intentioned attempt to hold on to his own inner goodness might have caused irreparable damage by teaching the Jewish child to associate Nazis with kindness. Parker does not spend a lot of time dwelling on his role in starting a war that would go on to become one of the most unspeakable atrocities in human history, but moments like that give the reader the sense that he nevertheless harbors a lot of regret and add an element of tragedy to his otherwise caper-ish character.

Although Parker is a work of fiction, most of the events detailed in Stormbringer are based on well-researched historical facts, from Kristallnacht to the invasion of Poland. Parker’s “on the ground” close-up view of his life and missions during this tumultuous time is wrapped in concise, textbook-like descriptions of the historical context. Many historical figures make cameo appearances in this story, including Winston Churchill, Clause von Stauffenberg, and the Fuhrer himself.

Like any book, Stormbringer is not without flaws. At times, the third-person historical descriptions feel somewhat lengthy or intrusive, as they take the reader away from the primary story. There are also moments in which Parker’s narration grows distant, simply stating the facts of what happened rather than allowing the reader to get into his head. But overall, the book deftly handles the dichotomy of the character’s personal experience and monumental historical events he is involved in.

Between Parker’s involvement in events such as Operation Himmler, the Nazi operation to create the appearance of Polish aggression and thus justify Germany’s subsequent invasion, and the third person descriptions, DeLacy has created a historical thriller that is at once gripping and informative, surreptitiously educating the reader while entertaining.

Stormbringer is anything but a run-of-the-mill spy story. It takes a realistic, down-to-earth approach to its subject matter and avoids romanticizing the war or Parker’s role in it. The military and political drama juxtaposed with Parker’s tongue-in-cheek sense of humor give this book all the elements of a thoroughly enjoyable read.

There are a handful of typos, but nothing too distracting. The writing itself is polished and fluid, and there are no spelling or grammar issues.

There is no table of contents. The book is organized by chapters, and within each chapter, it is organized by dates and times.

There is some adult language, a handful of violent scenes (such as a description of a battle), and a few sex scenes, but nothing graphic or gruesome. In fact, the sex scenes are largely offhand mentions by the main character. There is one torture scene that some may find disturbing, but the descriptions are matter-of-fact and avoid extraneous detail.

Daniel DeLacy is a British author who was inspired to write about World War II after witnessing the human cost of the Bosnian conflict in the mid-1990s.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

REVIEW: Shadow of the Wraith / Ross Harrison

TITLE: Shadow of the Wraith (NEXUS)
AUTHOR: Ross Harrison
PUBLISHER: Self-published
AVAILABILITY:  Lulu Marketplace (hardcover), Amazon US (Kindle e-book), Amazon UK (Kindle e-book), Smashwords (multiple e-formats)
APPROXIMATE LENGTH:  465 pages (hardcover)

Recommended for fans of space operas/space westerns (Firefly, Star Wars, Star Trek, etc.) and anyone who enjoys adventures with fun moments

Science Fiction—Space Opera/Science Fantasy

Shadow of the Wraith is set in the distant future, in which humans have mastered space travel and settled on a new homeworld, becoming part of an interstellar alliance with a number of alien races, many of which are humanoid. Familiar territory for fans of Star Wars, Star Trek, etc. There is also something reminiscent of Firefly in the character of Travis Archer, a freelance bounty hunter turned rogue starship captain. In fact, in the book, Travis is a fan of the series.

Although Shadow of the Wraith is the first book of a planned series (called “Nexus), the story is self-contained and does not end with a cliffhanger.

This is a plot-driven story, and the bulk of the narrative consists of detailed action sequences—assassin attacks, fast getaways, space battles, etc. There are a number of mysteries, and sometimes the solution to one only brings up more, making it quite the page-turner.

Third person omniscient. The point of view rotates from character to character within a scene, and at times the narrative voice appears to be entirely the author’s own.

Travis Archer is a freelance bounty hunter who accepts an official assignment to hunt down and destroy the Star Wraith, a powerful but apparently unmanned ship with the nasty habit of appearing out of nowhere and destroying ships. He puts together a colorful crew of misfits, the most memorable members of whom are the beautiful but not-very-nice Juni Lien, who is deadly with weapons and not at all forthcoming about her motivations, and the somewhat cantankerous Jay Miller, an old pal of Travis’ with whom he is constantly butting heads.

Although Travis and his crew are the focus of the story, the narrative cuts to other scenes in a cinematic fashion, showing, for example, one of the Star Wraith’s attacks before he gets his assignment. The more fascinating of these scenes reveal glimpses of a shadowy villain called Baorshraak, whose goals and motivations remain shrouded in mystery even as he appears to be the one pulling the strings.

The world-building that takes place in this story is detailed but understated—we are given a good idea as to how this universe works without the lengthy explanations or technobabble. Readers not accustomed to science fiction will nonetheless be able to slip into the universe Harrison creates, which is clearly explained and familiar despite its futuristic setting. Most of the story takes place in the fringes of a highly advanced alliance of alien civilizations or on board starships.

In terms of narrative voice, Harrison writes with a distinct attitude that is very aware of the genre his story takes place in. References are made to the clichés of space opera, which he acknowledges and makes fun of even as he unapologetically takes advantage of them. Many ideas in this book are decidedly familiar—starfleets, space cowboys, humanoid aliens—but they are used well. There is a dry sense of humor that radiates not only from the characters but the narrative itself, as though it isn’t taking itself too seriously.

Travis himself appears well aware of the clichés he embodies, and he delights in them. For example, in the first chapter: “Twenty-six years of glowering at people—and forgetting his sunglasses on sunny days—had given Travis permanent glare lines and the useful ability to severely harden his eyes; reminiscent of a badass space cowboy, he liked to think.”

Although this attitude makes for entertaining commentary, there are a few moments where it seems somewhat intrusive—as though it’s the author speaking and not the character. Nevertheless, it’s what adds an extra bit of sparkle to the already dynamic plot, which carries the reader to unexpected corners of this galaxy.

Other notable points—although the story starts on a small scale, it eventually escalates from one man’s dangerous assignment to a potentially devastating interstellar conflict. Race relations between alien civilizations are touched upon—at one point, an official notes that one of Travis’ alien crew members cannot be paid like a human would. Also, there is an android called Arkuun-Marl with the obnoxious tendency to make lame jokes about everything. His commentary is cringingly facepalm-worthy, and the other characters are quick to tell him to shut up, adding an element of quirky comedy to the story.

Overall, Shadow of the Wraith is a smartly plotted and entertaining space adventure that takes the reader on many twists and turns—the direction the story goes in is quite different from what is expected. But in the end, it’s really the characters’ voices—and Harrison’s—that make it memorable. I ended up enjoying it so much that I suffered from two nights in a row of Star Wraith Insomnia—the inability to sleep due to the fact that I had to keep reading.

Heads up to American readers: Shadow of the Wraith uses British formatting conventions.

In terms of spelling and grammar, this book is well-written and has a natural flow to it. There are a teeny, tiny, barely perceptible number of typos.

The book is organized by location, not chapter numbers, and so there is no table of contents.

There is some adult language and a lot of violence, but nothing gruesome or graphic.

[From's author page] 

Ross Harrison has been writing since childhood without thought of publication. When the idea was planted by his grandmother to do so, it grew rapidly, and after a bumpy ten years or so, here sits the fruit.

Ross lives on the UK/Eire border in Ireland, hoping the rain will help his hair grow back.

Check out his blog, Like his Facebook page, or Follow him on Twitter

Friday, May 11, 2012

And Now It Begins

Hello, all, and welcome to Zigzag Timeline. Here, I will post reviews of indie and self-published books (mostly speculative fiction ones - science fiction, fantasy, and the like) that I come across. Word of warning: most of these reviews will be positive because I only finish the books I like. The opinions expressed are solely my own, and I may also write posts on other subjects related to books as I go along.

Just so you know "Zigzag Timeline" refers to narratives that jump ahead to a scene for dramatic effect and fill in what happened later.