Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Fantasy Book Critic Reviews ESOTERRORISM

I'm very pleased to say one of my favorite websites has chosen to do a review of my book, ESOTERRORISM. The Fantasy Book Critic, a great website for news and articles as well as reviews about all the best fantasy on the internet.

What did they think?

They loved it!

Overall I very much enjoyed Esoterrorism as it was written with few things in mind, if you are looking for a fast-paced, action heavy thriller, then Esoterrorism will hit the bullseye. If you are looking for a change from the usual urban fantasy smorgasbord then Esoterrorism might do it for you. As for me, I was looking to read something new and exciting and Charles T. Phipps provided that in spades. I can’t wait to read the sequel volumes Eldritch Ops, and Operation: Otherworld. Give this book a try, I’m sure you will be hooked as well. 

I hope you'll check it out!

Read the review here

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Grimdark Magazine 5# has two articles by me

I'm pleased to say Grimdark Magazine, a great fanzine I have a lot of respect for, has seen fit to include two articles by me in their latest publication. These are, "WHO IS THE GRIMDARK HERO?" which analyzes what sort of protagonist is found in those types of books as well as a review of THE WITCHER 3. There's also some really great interviews with folk like PETER ORULLIAN and JAMES A. MOORE.

Hilariously, Peter Orullian references our review of BLACKGUARDS: TALES OF ASSASSINS, MERCENARIES, AND THIEVES. Why is it hilarious? He was one of the few negative reviews I gave about the short stories therein. Oh well, Peter, we still love you and your work.

Available for purchase here and on

Monday, September 28, 2015

Sea of Quills review

    Sea of Quills is the sequel to the extremely successful Mountain of Daggers book by Seth Skorkowsky. Both are part of the Tales of the Black Raven series, which follows the adventures of Ahren, a sailor turned cat burglar who has managed to become the world's most infamous rogue. The books are set in a Hyborian-style fantasy setting distantly related to the Renaissance but including many qualities from other time periods as well as both monsters and magic.

     I became aware of Seth's work when I first contracted my work with Ragnarok Publications and surveyed their back catalog to see what other author's work was like. I purchased a copy of Damoren before picking up Mountain of Daggers then this volume sight unseen. While some were not to my taste, I found some real gems like Seth's, Rob J. Hayes, and Kenny Soward's work. I have yet to read anything I dislike by Seth Skorkowsky and consider this series to be his best work.

    Tales of the Black Raven is a retro sword and sorcery story which manages to invoke Lankhmar, Conan, and Elric while maintaining its own unique style. Given Conan, Fafhrd, and the Gray Mouser were all thieves at various points in their career, the combination of heist story and adventure drama works surprisingly well. The books are collections of short stories loosely tied together by chronology but, really, read quite well independently.

    Sea of Quills picks up not long after the events of the first book, following the Black Raven at the height of his career. He's achieved the pinnacle of his fame but the result of this is he's now directly hunted by bounty hunters who are getting more and more talented. Worse, Ahren's reputation is proving to be a fragile thing and he must constantly strive to prove himself in order to remain the world's most famous thief. You know, something most thieves are sensible enough to avoid becoming. We also get hints of the fact the Tyenee, the secret mafia-like organization he is a member of, is exploiting him rather than serving as his patron.

    One thing I liked about the book is it places a greater emphasis on the sea than previous volumes. While never actually getting to the point of Ahren being a pirate, given he's been established repeatedly as a cat burglar who is a sailor rather than a combination of the two, the importance of the ocean to his trade gets more emphasized this time around. We get journeys to foreboding islands, smuggling, sea-voyages, and individuals who manage to rob the Tyenee before escaping due to having better ships.

    Another thing I appreciated is Seth Skorkowsky is very good at writing femme fatales and female characters. While Ahren's love interest was murdered in the previous books, something I think unnecessary, there's a large number of capable but lovely women in each of the stories. There's even a return of his most persistent foe/love interest, who I wish had been in more than just one story this volume. Skorkowsky's women are sexy as well as capable, those who choose to be with Ahren doing so on their own terms, which is a nice change of pace and showing how values have changed since the days of the old pulps.

    The world of the Black Raven is well-realized and vivid in its descriptions. Its a setting of endless coastal cities filled with traders, foreign cultures, and exotic goods ruled by corrupt merchant princes Secrets, lies, and intrigue go hand-in-hand with mystical curses as well as bizarre artifacts. Given the Black Raven blasphemes against one of the very-real gods this book, I wonder if we're going to see him suffer a magical punishment in future volumes. We've already seen our hero isn't immune to the dangers of magic and pride when dealing with the gods is a common foible for Sword and Sorcery heroes.

    I'm interested in the progression of Ahren's story because while all of the stories are self-contained, it's fairly obvious the overall narrative is progressing. Much like Conan eventually progressing to become a King or Elric's looming dark fate, things are starting to happen to Ahren and it's going to be interesting to see how this all comes together. In the meantime, these are just very fun fantasy stories for both fans of traditional as well as grimdark fair.

    Does the book have flaws? Well, it doesn't really resolve any of the outstanding plots related to Ahren's feud with the demon-worshiping cult and witch's pregnancy from the previous volume. That plot doesn't seem so much as abandoned as un-referenced, which is strange given the life-changing effects it had on him. Ahren's emotional development also tends to consist of "badass, mysterious, and concerned with his reputation above all other things." If you're looking for epic characterization, this isn't the series for you. Still, I was able to appreciate the book for itself rather than wanting it to be, say, George R.R. Martin.

    Of the stories within, I've got to say I preferred "Treasure of Bogen Helm" best as its a subversion of the typical treasure map tale, which takes note of the very real reason WHY you don't bury your treasure versus spending it. I also liked the story "The Second Gift" which sets Ahren against an opponent with an insurmountable magical edge. None of the stories are bad, though, and have a nice combination of villainous nobles, rival thieves, evil pirates, and semi-justified lawmen after Ahren this time. There's even an homage to The Princess Bride, I believe, with a bunch of screaming eels menacing our hero.

    In conclusion, this is yet another great collection of short stories by an author whose work I love and I recommend it to everyone who likes roguish fantasy heroes. If they ever do another volume of Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Thieves, they had better include one of Ahren's adventures.


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 review

If you want to read about the Social Satire of this game, go here.

    Modern Warfare is a series which is far smarter than it has to be and often gets far less credit than it deserves. The premise is, five years after the events of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the Ultranationalists have won the civil war against the Loyalists. They have lionized Imran Zakhaeve and raised him up as a martyr to the cause despite the fact he was a monstrous psychopath. The Ultranationalist-ruled government isn't pressing its advantages against the West, however, which has offended the hardliners.

War in the suburbs has never been so fun or serious.
    One of Zakhaeve's former followers, Vladimir Makarov, has taken up his cause and seeks to incite the government into a war wth the United States. With your help, he succeeds, and an invasion of the United States results.

    It falls to Task Force-141, now including the SAS group from the first game, to see if they can bring a quick but decisive end to the war. Along the way, there will be betrayals, revelations, and heartbreaking deaths along with much-much shooting.

    The campaign mission of the game is quite entertaining and is an excellent example of "show, don't tell" storytelling. There's almost no cutscenes in the entire game but what few exist are all extremely concise and manage to get the plot across very quickly. The Call of Duty franchise has always been very visual and, were this a movie series, would be an extremely good one for its cinematography.

It's like 1812 all over again!
    The plot, of course, is ridiculous. Whereas the first game had the vaguest veneer realism, roughly two-thirds of the game is taken up with the Ultranationalist invasion of the USA. While slightly more realistic than, say, North Korea defeating the United States, it's still a case of both being logistically impossible. It fulfills an excellent story point, however, of making the Americans in the audience feel uncomfortable.

    Even if you're deeply suspicious of nationalism in general and jingoism in particular, it's hard not to be moved seeing Washington D.C, in flames. I was reminded, strongly, of the scenes of a burnt-out Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3. You sympathize with the soldiers who want to retaliate and burn down Moscow in revenge but nothing is going to be accomplished by that other than continuing the endless cycle of war. It's a surprisingly effective anti-war game despite being a very effective war game.

A more misunderstood level there has never been.
    The level "No Russian" was very controversial at the time of the game's release but I think it's a very good twist on traditional protagonistism. Spec Ops: The Line received critical praise for its white phosphorous scene but No Russian has almost the exact same choice. You can either choose to kill the civilians in the airport to preserve your cover or choose not to. Either way, the results will be the same but it doesn't present the choice as an actual "choice" and is all the stronger for it.

Not the most memorable level but one of the most fun.
    The villains of the game are a bit lacking as I felt the "twist" regarding who was goading the war into existence was a bit out there even for Call of Duty. I do appreciate the attempt to show both sides of the conflict, though, as well as how America can produce its own Makarovs.

    As for Makarov, himself, we don't get to see enough of him outside of the Terminal Massacre to really get to know him this time. That level, though, goes a long way to establishing his villainous identity.

    There's little point about talking about the game proper since everyone who is likely to buy it has but the graphics still stand up well, the Capital levels especially, and I very much enjoyed the sections making use of a Predator drone. The Special Operations missions are rather boring done solo and I would have appreciated a longer campaign (maybe an hour) rather than the extremely compressed one we got. The multiplayer is what made this game a record breaker in video game game history but that's not my bag so I have very little to add on it.

    Either way, if you like shooting, this is a fun shoot-em-up with a good, albeit short (five-to-six-hours) story.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Social Satire of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Warning - This will contain spoilers for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

    I've got to say, I don't know what is wrong with people. Just about every forum I go, people are always taking pot shots at Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and calling it a violent jingoistic power fantasy. Which, of course, means these people have never played Modern Warfare 2 since the game is about how jingoism and rampant militarism ruins people's lives.

    I mean, it's a story about America getting completely smashed in a war by the Russians until an Englishman and a Scotsman save them from annihilation. World War 3 is a senseless waste of life conducted in revenge by the Russians for a massacre conducted against them with a direct parallel being drawn between the United States being invaded versus their presence in Afghanistan to avenge 9/11. Oh and the main villain is an American. Are most reviewers just frigging stupid and miss this is an incredibly subversive story?

    Don't answer that.

    Of course, the game draws a lot of inspiration from the movie Red Dawn (1984 version) and that's bound to also muddy the waters some as well. Red Dawn is, certainly, a right-wing gun nut's dream movie in some ways but it's also surprisingly philosophical in others. It's a movie where the ludicrous premise of a Soviet invasion of America is used to illustrate the dehumanizing effects of war, the horrific consequences thereof, and the senseless waste of life on both sides.

A level in Modern Warfare 2 homages this scene.
    People who have seen the movie know the Russians are humanized and a lot of the heroes die because the movie doesn't shy away from the fact war is not a game. If you can get past the Russians invading, you'll find both Red Dawn and Modern Warfare 2 are more than just their trappings.

    The premise of the game is a CIA agent inserted into the terrorist organization of Vladimir Makarov is murdered after he partakes in a massacre at a Russian airport terminal. The infamous "No Russian" level sparked endless amounts of controversy regarding violence in video games but almost no discussion about what the damned thing is about--which is making the player character party to something horrible because someone told him to do so.

    People sing the praises of Spec Ops: The Line for making killing people feel bad but that's the whole damn POINT of "No Russian."  Your character is part of something nightmarish because of Makarov and you are guilty for involving yourself in the violence. Even if you don't partake in the massacre, Private Allen kills a bunch of FSB operatives (cops, basically) which damns him anyway.

"No Russian" asks one simple question: "Do you pull the trigger or not?"
    The Russians, having suffered their own version of 9/11, immediately blame Private Allen since Makarov left his body there to "frame" the United States for the atrocity. Having been taken over by their own flag-waving jingoistic band of nutters, the Russians hit the United States with everything they've got to kill "one thousand Americans for every Terminal victim."

    Now, the Russian army getting to the United States East Coast is ludicrous. It's as realistic as the sixty-foot-snow mobile jump you partake in at one point--which is to say, not at all. However, it works at its intended purpose and that's to make the American players feel vulnerable.

    There's a really clever bit where the opening levels of the game take place in Afghanistan where you fight a bunch of guerrillas in the middle of a school surrounded by a neighborhood full of civilians. It's the kind of scene which wouldn't normally be questioned in a first-person shooter but just a few levels later, you're fighting an identical bunch of highly-armed invaders through Washington D.C's neighborhoods surrounded by civilians.

Yes, Russia, this is going to make the Americans pay! Not at all want to kill you.
    The difference is "us" versus "them" with Modern Warfare 2 asking what the real difference is. Of course, there's a severe difference between the Taliban and the United States but the larger issue of what constitutes an invader is a question which should be asked.

    The Russians see themselves as waging a righteous war but are motivated by vengeance every bit as much as a desire to stop further attacks against their people. The result of their retribution is, of course, massive deaths on both sides and United States now motivated to kill MORE Russians. One particular line from the game stayed with me (paraphrased): "When are we going to Moscow, Sarge? I want to burn it to the ground."

    The cycle of revenge being a self-defeating loop is hardly a new idea but that's because it keeps happening in history over and over again. The Russians blame America for the Terminal Massacre, the Russians murder a bunch of Americans, the Americans now want to murder a bunch of Russians, and this contributes to sparking the events of Modern Warfare 3. We won't touch upon that game's events here but the reciprocal nature of violence is a strong undercurrent throughout the game.

    This is followed up in the later half of the game where Captain Price and General Shepherd both play large roles in affecting the war's outcome. Captain Price was captured after the events of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, surviving somehow, only to be locked away in a gulag by the Ultranationalists. Having been tortured and abused for five years, he's half-insane but his primary goal is not revenge against the Ultranationalists but to end the war immediately.

A hero who lets other men do the dying.
    Price does this in the deus ex machina way of using an EMP (which both real-life American and Russian equipment are hardened against) across the United States East Coast. Still, it is his desire to bring an end to the war in the most direct and decisive manner possible. In that respect, Captain Price embodies the ideal of a soldier, a man who protects his country (or allies of his country), versus living for conflict.

    This is a contrast against General Shepherd who we find out is responsible, at least in part, for the Terminal Massacre. General Shepherd assisted Makarov in some way in order to force the Russian Federation and United States into conflict.

    Having suffered the loss of 30,000 men during the events of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, he's become disgusted with both the American public for not honoring their sacrifice as well as the Russians for lionizing Imran Zakhaeve (who supplied the nuke which did this). General Shepherd believes an invasion on American home soil will galvanize the people into becoming fiercely patriotic as well as vengeance-filled. In short, General Shepherd is an American Ultranationalist.

    The mirror image of Makarov.

    I'm torn about the revelation General Shepherd was involved in the Terminal Massacre in order to give the Russians casus belli for invading the USA. An act designed to force America to re-militarize and become more focused on fighting wars against its enemies. It runs dangerously close to the point of 9/11 Truthism that a terrorist attack against American soil would be the first step to the New World Order.

    On the other hand, General Shepherd isn't a figure who is entirely out of history. Real-life General Edwin Walker (a.k.a the other guy Lee Harvey Oswald tried to kill and inspiration for General Ripper from Doctor Strangelove) had some absolutely insane ideas in hopes of "winning" a war against the Soviet Union. Likewise, there's Operation: Northwoods which made it all the way up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Need I mention "weapons of mass destruction"?

    In truth, General Shepherd is a right-wing nutjob's paranoid nightmare come true yet he's also the kind of guy who would think he's fighting the very same paranoid nightmare. Given the way the United States reacted after 9/11, I can't help but even feel a bit of sympathy for the pixellated lunatic since 30,000 troops being killed under your command would weigh on anyone's conscience.

"Do you want to take them out or move past them?" I always choose the later.
    So, I'm going to forgive the paranoia and state I like the character. I just wish we could have shown him to be the bad guy in a way which didn't require him to commit treason against his own nation.

    Well, sort of. I'm not sure it qualifies as treason when you help someone commit terrorism against a foreign nation in hopes they'll attack yours. They may need to invent a new legal classification for that.

    Ugh, I'm going off topic.

    In any case, the game draws a parallel between both General Shepherd and Makarov. They are both warmongers who hate the state of their country and will do whatever is necessary to transform it. They contrast against Price, who is a man who wants nothing more than to bring an end to the fighting. We also get multiple perspectives from other kinds of soldiers caught up in the fighting. Private Allen is a man who follows orders blindly, only to be killed for it and, worse, result in the near-destruction of his nation. Gary "Roach" Sanderson is a man who is betrayed by his superiors because he's become a political liability. Ramirez is a just another boot on the ground who witnesses all the horrors first hand.

    There's even parallels between General Shepherd and Osama Bin Ladin as we see the former hiding in a cave in Afghanistan after having carried out all of his terrorist attacks. Shepherd, for all of his bluster about being a warrior, is a coward who sends his men on suicide missions he never participates in and betrays them at the drop of a hat. Much of the final mission is chasing down the armchair despot, who only chooses to fight once you've cornered him. The death of Shepherd at the hands of a knife he's stabbed into you is nicely poetic, symbolizing turning his act of betrayal against him.

A ruined city, millions dead, and still more fighting to go.
    World War 3 is an utterly unnecessary war which is brought about by a failure of communication between the two sides as well as the war-hawks pushing them into conflict. It is a conflict with no victors, only survivors, as the two sides eventually return to their Pre-War state with no difference in either borders or leadership.

    It is a conflict which never needed to happen and, rather than extol the glories of war, Modern Warfare 2 is a five hour campaign of showing its costs in an action-movie format. Even the quotes given in-between loading screens tend to be on the anti-war side or, at least, highlight the heavy costs of it.

    In short, this is a very smart game and I wish it was given the credit it deserves.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare review

    I mentioned in my review of Black Ops 2 that, until that game, I had never played one of the Call of Duty franchise. As such, I had an enormous hole in my video game review credibility. It, like my complete unfamiliarity with the Halo games, marked me as someone who had let a cultural milestone pass me by. Having run out of Xbox One games I wanted to play, I decided to give the series a try. Having very much enjoyed Black Ops 2, I've decided to give the Modern Warfare trilogy a try.

    As I mentioned in my previous review, there's no sense in my reviewing this like a regular video game. If you haven't played Modern Warfare, you're probably not going to play it now and if you have played it, there's very little I can add to the subject. As such, I'm just going to talk about what I liked about the games and disliked in a more conversational tone. I'm still a newbie to the series and given my general dislike of multiplayer, maybe my readers will find it entertaining to hear how I think it stands up eight years later.

    The answer? Really-really well.
All the level graphics hold up well.

    I think part of the reason this game stands the test of time is the graphics are good enough to pass for "real enough" while the relative open freedom of the levels means that there's a staggering amount of re-playability.

    The story is surprisingly good, which is something I'll get into later but makes me wonder if the people who've dismissed these games as military power fantasies are divorced from the community which has actually played them.

    This is the sort of game which could be ported with almost no changes whatsoever and it would still be popular, albeit nowhere near as revolutionary as it was in 2007. I feel like I've cheated myself as I really would have loved this game back then and been blown away by all the things other games have since ripped from it.

Game over. Except not.
    Before I get into what I thought about playing it, I'd like to state I really love the bait and switch which is at the heart of the game. The premise on the surface seems to be a gung-ho heroic action movie: Evil RussiansTM have armed their Evil Arab TerroristTM allies with nuclear weapons and its up to both the SAS as well as US Marine Corps to stop them. This is both true and misleading as what really sells the narrative is the game doesn't flinch from the consequences of war. In the one medium where you can honestly say, "war is a game" this is a game that nicely say "war is not a game."

    The use of multiple perspectives, including individuals who are scripted to die is something which is both simple as well as highly effective for causing the player to lose his general sense of invulnerability. Games with inescapable script-deaths for heroes are often highly criticized because they're escapist entertainment where, after being invincible for the entire game, it feels cheap to suddenly have your character killed for drama. Here, the sense of life's fragility may not be "realistic" given you're able to reload to checkpoints but it's a hell of a lot more so than in most stories.

    This isn't just because of the infamous nuke scene but also because of subtler satire as well. The sections where you play as the SAS portray them as highly professional, ruthless, focused on stealth, and always operating behind enemy lines. They're outgunned, outmanned, and forced to do questionable things in order to get their job done. The Marine Corps, at least at the start, is focused instead on winning the war through superior firepower. They're loud, proud, and taking on a much-much weaker force than themselves. It is an error in intelligence as well as the desire to do the "heroic" thing which results in the biggest tragedy of the game.

    I also think those who accuse the Call of Duty games of xenophobia miss a lot of the nuance to the game. In a game which doesn't take time to explain the plot points to you, instead letting you figure them out for yourself, it still manages to convey things with a pretty deft hand in my opinion.

    Yes, you're shooting at Arabs and Russians the game but the biggest victims of both are their own people. Al-Asad spends much of the level he first appears in killing civilian Iranians (or whatever country he's supposed to have taken over) while Loyalists help you throughout the Russian levels. The nuke detonation kills, as I understand it from later games, 30,000 American soldiers but how many hundreds of thousands of Arabs did it kill? There's even an achievement for rescuing a Russian farmer from execution.
One of the most haunting images in gaming.
    The campaign energy and deconstructions rather fizzle after the nuke scene, however, with a return to a more traditional story structure serving as the finale of the campaign. There's no plot less subversive, really, than preventing a bunch of renegade Russians from nuking the entirety of the Eastern Seaboard only to stop them at the last minute.

    The fact the campaign continues with a disappointing last level thereafter makes me think they could have ended the game after saving the world or had something a bit more final on the bridge. Given there were sequels, I can't help but wonder if it might have been better to just let the nukes drop too (or, at least, explode in the atmosphere delivering an EMP to the Eastern Seaboard).

One thing I will say. I love to *HATE* the main villain.
    While we don't get much characterization for our squadmates or player characters, I think the game makes good use of what little we do get to know about them. Captain Price and MacMillian, of course, are stand-outs as is the contrast between the U.K. vs. USA forces.

    I was genuinely shocked when the SAS killed the sleeping Russian freighter crew, I shouldn't have been but I was. That was my first indication I was playing in a very different game than the kind I was used to.

    Are there areas the game could be improved? Yeah, I think so, at least narratively. It might not have made the game more popular with the general public but I would have appreciated a little more downtime and storytelling between scenes. Limitations of the technology at the time or not, I think it would have benefited from some more cutscenes too to fill out the story. Likewise, the final half of the game could have used some of the game's more subversive elements on the 'game-y' elements of war. Saving the United States from destruction doesn't really fit with the narrative the first half of the game established and I would have liked something a bit more ambiguous but I'm not going to quibble with something I still enjoyed a great deal.

    I've got to say I love Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It's a gritty, enjoyable, and still very fun action game. It's not nearly as innovative as it was seven years ago but the fact it stands the test of time shows it was a good game in addition to being innovative. The storytelling is top notch and I actually enjoyed every single level but the final one.


Spirals of Destiny: Sorceress review

    I really enjoyed Jim Bernheimer's Spirals of Destiny: Rider, which was far more enjoyable than any book about a sixteen-year-old unicorn riding battle-maiden had any right to be. The premise of the books is they follow the adventures of a young woman named Kayleigh, who discovers she has the magical gift to bond with unicorns as well as wield magic far in excess than what a normal woman her age possesses. Living in a high fantasy world where war is between her kingdom and the local desert nomads has just broken out, it falls to her to do her part to prevent their takeover.

    Part of what I like about the series is it isn't afraid to go in odd directions. Last book, Kayleigh and her beloved unicorn, Majherri, "broke up" when the latter's former rider, Deanna Lynch, severed their bond before claiming him as her mount. This is a bad thing because said rider is completely insane and corrupted by black magic into a monster. Kayleigh has to adapt to this situation as well as the revelation she's the daughter of the insane Count who is responsible for this war. This fact has the potential to turn all of her allies against her as well as result in her execution by the Not-As-Nice-As-He-Seems High King.

    Much of the book is devoted to Kayleigh attempting to step into the grandiose shoes required of her as being a junior Battle Maiden means she's left behind to die in a city doomed to be captured, used as a political pawn against her own father, and is being exploited left and right by her allies. Kayleigh's attempts to make the best of her situation despite this is inspiring, really, as if the fact she's increasingly aware she doesn't have to take the habitual abuse of slime like Captain Lynch or her sister. My favorite moment in the book is when Kayleigh finally calls the abusive rider out on her behavior and while Captain Lynch doesn't back down, it felt positively cathartic. It says a great deal about these books that I cared enough about their relationship to want to see it resolved.

    Majherri's situation is nightmarish by comparison as the unicorn is both tempted as well as revolted by the effects being exposed to Nether-Beast (demonic) energy is having upon him. He's now capable of seducing any female of his species, something he's only coming to realize isn't willing and horrifying.  Yes, this book deals with Majherri becoming a unicorn version of a sexy vampire. Likewise, he has come to hate his rider as Deanna's insanity has grown to the point it can't be justified simply by corrosive energy. If she's anything like her sister, she was probably rotten to the core anyway.

    The politics of the book are surprisingly subtle for what seems, on the surface, to be a conflict between good and evil. Instead, Jim Bernheimer shows the noble kingdom protected by unicorn riders is brutalizing the desert folk and denying them resources while the latter have almost no understanding of the city-dwellers. It's a fairly realistic set of causes for a war and the fact the Battle Maidens are being used as champions for one side over the other rather than anything more noble is a clever subversion. This is a war story wrapped in the glamour of a high fantasy novel and I like that.

    I'm not a big fan of the revelation Kayleigh is the daughter of the big villain since this is a plot device I feel is somewhat beneath Jim Bernheimer. Despite this, it's integrated well into both Kayleigh as well as the environment's growth. While I feel the plot device is somewhat hackneyed, it only reduced my enjoyment by the slightest bit. This is a good book and I recommend it to lovers of high fantasy who want a fun, light, but not-too-light adventure.