Review #135: Agents of the Crown (The Complete Series: Books 1-5)

•24 January, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Screen Shot 2020-01-24 at 12.13.46 PMTitle: Agents of the Crown, Books 1-5
Author: Lindsay Buroker
Genre: Fantasy
Released: 2018-2019
Located: Audible, Amazon, Apple’s Books
Formats Available: Audiobook and ebook
Rating: PG for suggestive content, mild violence, explosions and mischief.

So, for my first review after years away from the game, I settled on the series Agents of the Crown by Lindsay Buroker. If you’re a longterm reader of View from Valhalla, you might recall I had initially discovered Ms. Buroker due to her Emerpor’s Edge series (which I do recommend). The original version of those books were released as a podcast serial and were read  by someone I was familiar with on Twitter. Boy do times change. I am no longer on Twitter (sorry, it’s morphed into something I don’t enjoy), and I am not part of the same reader/author community I was before. To say I am rusty, well, that doesn’t even remotely describe how I’m feeling. However, I am still an avid reader, and when I can afford it, still love a good story being read to me while I drive.

So, on to the review.

Synopsis: In a far away kingdom, an immensely powerful soul is trapped in a jewel called a dragon tear. Whoever holds it has access to great magical power, but, as in all times and places, power is seductive and dangerous.

And, as with all trapped souls, this one wants to escape.

~

Orphaned at a young age, Zenia Cham has fought and scraped her way into a position of honor as an inquisitor for one of the city’s temples. But an even greater destiny awaits. Impressed by her deeds, the king offers her a prestigious position as one of his elite Agents of the Crown.

The missions will be dangerous, and she’s not sure she wants the partner she’s being assigned—a cocky noble lord from a wealthy estate—but she has the opportunity to distinguish herself as she serves not only the city but the entire Kingdom.

How could she say no?

There’s just one problem. The king gives her a mysterious dragon tear that’s nothing like the other magical gems she’s seen. She may need its power to stay alive in this perilous new job, but dare she rely upon it?

Production/Narrator: The production of this audiobook is topnotch.

The narration is done by Ms. Vivienne Leheny. I’ve never heard Ms. Leheny read a book before, but she does an admirable job. She does a good job of making good use of inflection rather than voice modulation in making the characters unique. What I mean by that is that Ms. Leheny does change the pitch of her voice to a degree, but leans more heavily (in my opinion) on making each character’s word pacing and diction a bit different rather than relying on pitch. I much prefer this because it is always jarring to me to hear men trying to sound like women, or women trying to sound like men. I enjoyed Ms. Leheny’s voice work quite a bit and wouldn’t hesitate in buying another book narrated by her.

The rest of the production shines as well. I don’t recall a single artifact being heard during the roughly 45 hours of audio the five books entail. (I didn’t add each one, but rather took an average of 9 hours per book. If someone wants to do that which I was too lazy to do, I’ll gladly update the review.)

Grade: A

Story: So, if you’re a fan of Ms. Buroker, you know she’s somewhat prolific. I’ve probably read 15-20 books by her in the last year (okay, listened to some too). Yes, her Emporer’s Edge is what starting me down this path, but I’ve enjoyed several of her series (not to be mentioned yet, they might be reviewed later ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ). When I discovered Agents of the Crown on a severe discount several weeks ago, I went ahead and bought all five. (If you’re an Apple user, it looks like the audio version is still cheapest at Apple’s Books.) Since then, I’ve been looking for excuses to be headed down the road, as that’s when I listen to audiobooks.

Setting: The setting of the book is a fantasy world of Ms. Buroker’s creation. One issue you have when listening to a book is you’re never sure of the spellings, and in my case, even remembering the names of places is more difficult without the word recognition. However, it really doesn’t matter to me because this is my favorite kind of world. One with dwarves, elves, orcs, unicorns, trolls, ogres and (yes) dragons. Magic is not easily assessable but not necessarily rare. Firearms are used alongside swords, maces, and hammers. I very much enjoyed Ms. Buroker’s world and would love to visit. At least the human settlements.

Characters: Ms. Buroker might be faulted due to the fact that many of her characters through multiple books share many of the same characteristics. There is often an insecurity that is characteristic of at least one of the main players. Here, it is somewhat apparent in both. There is almost always a love story waiting to jump out of the pages, and Agents of the Crown is no different in that regard. However, I maintain this is only a fault if you don’t like Ms. Buroker’s characters. And this is a situation that has not been an issue for me yet. Zenia and Jevlain, Cutter and Lornish, and the ever present Ree (spellings are mine, sorry) were exceedingly fun and I enjoyed the many hours spent with them.

Plot: In the five stories told in making this series, there truly are five unique stories. Yes, they are connected in a very convincing and important way, but it isn’t one long continuous story. Each of the stories was very good and enjoyed them all. Did I have a favorite? Hmmm… I don’t know. The last, Dragon’s Tear, I enjoyed quite a bit, but it might be standing out the most because I finished it this morning.

I can say this: If you try book one, and it isn’t for you, I don’t feel you have any need to progress. However, if you enjoy it, boy howdy, you’ve got some good hours of reading/listening ahead of you.

Grade: A-

Verdict:  I really did enjoy Agents of the Crown and, along with finding my old review files, these stories were tantamount in making me decide to begin reviewing again. If you like a good fantasy/romance that is well told with sarcastic and fun characters, I have no trouble recommending Agents of the Crown.

Thanks.. and don’t forget to choose joy!

Disclosure: I did not receive these books in return for a review. I purchased them from Apple’s books at a time when they were nicely discounted.

As a reminder, I will review books (in ePub or audio) provided for review, but they will be noted as such.

Podcast Review #134: Tools and Means

•22 January, 2020 • Leave a Comment

originally published June 4, 2012

Title: Tools and Means
Author: John Mierau
Genre: Science Fiction
Released: 12 March 2012 – 22 May 2012
Located: iTunes
Formats Available: podcast
Rating: R – for violence

Yup… John Mierau has put out another novella in his Serving Worlds stream on iTunes. Now, will I only review the stuff I like by John, or will I also review the stuff I hate? Read on dear friends.

So, on to the review.

Synopsis: Tom Brogan. An ordinary guy. With a sister in a coma. Seeing visions of a murderer. Becoming one himself…. and Tom is the hero. (Stolen from the author’s website.. and if I may say.. woefully misleading.)

Production: The production of Tools and Means is right in line with the rest of Mr. Mierau’s podcasts: quite good quality audio with the occasional repeated line (becoming fewer as time goes by) and a single piece of music to open and close each episode. Overall, John creates an environment that is conducive to listening to the story he tells.

Grade: A-

Cast: As always (or at least to date), Mr. Mierau does Tools and Means as a self read. If you’ve never listened to Mr. Mierau read one of his stories, I would have to say, I would put him in the top 5 of self read authors. He does an exceptional job of reading life into each of his characters. Authors considering podcasting their book as a self read should consider listening to Mr. Mierau read one of his stories.

Grade: A

Story: Tools and Means opens as a story that is more of a crime/serial killer novella. It actually takes a while for this one to take a speculative fiction twist. When it does, Mr. Mierau plays to his strengths and does a fine job. My one criticism of Tools and Means is that it ends a little too quickly. Tools and Means definitely sets itself up for a much larger story to follow. And it had better follow.

Grade: B+

Verdict:  As I was listening to Tools and Means, I tweeted Mr. Mierau that after the slow turning of this story into speculative fiction, I now strongly desire a story by him that doesn’t turn into spec/fic. This is a good story. I really enjoyed it and even if you are not familiar with Mr. Mierau’s work, I would recommend it to any that enjoy speculative fiction in line with Puppetmasters or similar works. To answer the opening question: would I review something of Mr. Mierau’s I hated? Sure I would. However,  Tools and Means is not that story.

Disclosure: I do follow Mr. Mierau. He’s a Canadian with a huge interest in the U.S. and writing. He’s an extremely nice guy and fun as well. As nice a guy as he is, he’s still never offered me anything in return for a review. If he did, I’d tell you here.

Podcast Review #133: Tainted Roses

•22 January, 2020 • Leave a Comment

originally published May 28, 2012

Title: Tainted Roses
Author: Mark Kilfoil
Genre: Steam science punk fiction (well you listen and come up with a better genre)
Released: 3 May 2012 – 26 May 2012
Located: iTunes, Every Photo Tells 
Formats Available: podcast
Rating: PG-13/R – for violence

I’ve been a fan of the Every Photo Tells Podcast since it’s inception. I’ve even written for it on a number of times. In fact, I’m a pseudo-member of the staff as the first line editor. However, since this story fell outside of the normal guidelines, I never read it (or heard it) until it was released. The final episode was released earlier today.

So, on to the review.

Synopsis: Pricilla and her mother are saboteurs and assassins. They’ve just completed a job and have stolen a ship to aid in their escape. Unbeknownst to them, the ship carries a stowaway. A young lady named Elizabeth who happens to have a unique set of talents herself. A young lady, that just happens to be the daughter of their last target. Have Pricilla and her mother gained an ally or inherited a whole new set of problems as they continue to their next job? (This synopsis was created by me. I apologize now and implore all authors to make sure your have a good synopsis for your story.)

Production: The production of Tainted Roses is good. Very good. Most of the episodes of Every Photo Tells are stand alone and contain a minimum of effects and production elements. Because Tainted Roses is a novella, the producers of Every Photo Tells (namely Mick Bordet and Katharina Maimer) are given a bit more of a story to play around and have fun on. Though not overpowering, there are a number of special effects and a new theme song that I truly hope Every Photo Tells will consider continuing with.

Grade: A

Cast: The cast for every episode of Every Photo Tells is the same and consists of the aforementioned Katharina Maimer and Mick Bordet. In Tainted Roses these two find a groove and ride it to the end. Mick, in particular, seems to have a lot of fun with the variety and number of characters he is prevailed upon to voice and both do a fine job and provide their audience with a podcast that is a pleasure to listen to.

Grade: A

Story: Mr. Kilfoil made Tainted Roses very authentic, at least in my opinion. His characters were written with an element of fun and the awkwardness of one male character reminded me greatly of .. um.. a friend I had in high school… yeah.. I’ll stick with that story.

Grade: A-/B+

Verdict:  I greatly enjoyed Tainted Roses. I am not overly familiar with Mr. Kilfoil’s writing, but I can honestly say that after having heard Tainted Roses, I am definitely looking forward to hearing/reading more from him. This story greatly combined standard science fiction with steampunk and other popular genres. I enjoyed this blending and I believe many of you will too.

Disclosure: I’m very familiar with all the parties involved with putting this story together. Ms. Maimer and Mr. Bordet are both good friends and supporters of this blog. Ms. Maimer can be found on twitter at @kmlaw, Mr. Bordet can be found @mickbordet. I met and followed Mr. Kilfoil because of Ms. Maimer and have found him to be funny and opinionated. You can follow him @encaf1. Regardless of my relationships with these people, if this story would have sucked, you would have heard it here first.

Podcast Review #132: Paraffin Winter

•22 January, 2020 • Leave a Comment

originally published May 21, 2012

Title: Paraffin Winter
Author: Peter Chowney
Genre: fiction
Released: 12 January 2009
Located: iTunesPodiobooks
Formats Available: podcast
Rating: R – for violence and adult situations

This is another podcast I picked off of Podiobooks.com site on a whim. Authors, I don’t know about others, but be aware, I will choose a book by the title. Quite possibly even over the cover art. I know.. I’m weird.

So, on to the review.

Synopsis: Paraffin Winter is set in the South Coast UK town of Poole in the long, cold winter of 1963. This was a time when the country was still struggling with the after effects of the war, a time of fried spam dinners, starting handles and paraffin oil stoves, a time when the population eyed each other suspiciously across the class divide. Many young men had survived the war with high hopes and experience of killing: not a happy combination. The enlightenment of the nineteen-sixties had not yet begun.

Struggling to keep their heads above the icy water, Ronnie and Jenny Delaney are getting by. But then, when Ronnie allows himself to be dragged into investigating a murder, his past catches up with him and he soon finds that he’s out of his depth, in a mire of protected interests that stretch all the way up to the Government. It’s going to take someone cleverer than Ronnie to get to the bottom of this one. And that someone is closer than he could ever have imagined …

Paraffin Winter is a book about a murder, and tracking down a killer. But it’s also about Britain in the early 1960s, about relationships, about social class, and about how everything was about to change as the 1960s unfolded. For Ronnie and Jenny, for the abandoned heroes of the second world war, for the whole of Britain, nothing would ever be the same again. (Stolen from Podiobooks.com)

Production: The production of Paraffin Winter is quite good with a couple of largish exceptions, the largest being the outro music. At least to me, the music used (which is also the opening music, but there used to good effect) is faded in at a moment where the song shrieks. Perhaps I wasn’t the only one to notice as before the end the music is brought in a few bars earlier which made all the difference. I remember only one repeated line. Perhaps two. In a work this large, that is quite good.

Grade: B+

Cast: Paraffin Winter is a self read by the author. Mr. Chowney does more than an adequate job in voicing the characters in his story. He does both male and female voices in a unique way. Though I’m far from acquainted with accents of the U.K., I expect that Mr. Chowney calls some part of the London area home.

Grade: A-

Story: Paraffin Winter starts out strong with a series of events that are both macabre and challenging. The story is told in the first person perspective of Ronnie Delaney. Ronnie is a simple man that somehow becomes embroiled in the proceedings. This is unique in itself as he is a simple, undereducated delivery man. The story holds your attention and keeps moving forward; until that is, the perspective changes half way through to Ronnie’s girlfriend, Jenny. Once Jenny takes over the story, things slow down dramatically but continues until almost the very end.

Paraffin Winter is also a large story. With 27 eps, many in the 45 minute range, the listener will need to set aside a good amount of time to finish this story.

Grade: C-/D

Verdict: While the story started strong for me, the plodding quality of the plot overall makes me say give this one a pass. The second half of the story slowed the pace to a crawl. Truthfully, if it wasn’t for the pending review, I might have given up on this one. Something I rarely do.

Disclosure: I’ve never conversed with Mr. Chowney in any fashion. Nothing was offered or accepted in return for this review.

Podcast Review #131: Boone Barnaby

•22 January, 2020 • Leave a Comment

originally published May 14, 2012

Title: Boone Barnaby
Author: Joe Cottonwood
Genre: Young Adult non-spec ficc
Released: 12 January 2009
Located: iTunesPodiobooks
Formats Available: podcast
Rating: PG – For mild language and violence

Currently I’m listening to a number of podcasts. A good number. Not a single one had the decency to finish this week. So, as my deadline quickly approached, I pulled up Podiobooks.com and looked at authors I’ve enjoyed. I then realized there was one story by Joe Cottonwood I hadn’t heard yet. That’s all it took.

So, on to the review.

Synopsis: If you liked Clear Heart, I think you’ll like this one too. It’s got great characters, it’s down-to-earth, it’s fun. And better yet, this one’s friendly to children. Boone Barnaby is about three boys testing the limits of life in their scrappy little town. It’s about collecting garbage, climbing trees, catching a criminal, and talking to dragonflies.

Boone Barnaby lives in a small town full of large characters: San Puerco, California. There’s Boone’s father, who loves Studebakers and doo-wop, and who has a habit of walking around the dark streets of town late at night carrying a can of gasoline. There’s Boone’s friend Danny, who has nothing—sometimes not even a home—but who wants everything, even if he has to steal for it. There’s Boone’s other friend Babcock, who finds trilobites and organizes a picket line and looks like a wet coconut. There’s Walt, the soccer coach, who drives a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. And there’s Boone himself, who has a few problems: His soccer team is thrown out of the league. The dogcatcher is after Boone’s dog. The town hoodlum is throwing rocks. Boone’s father is arrested for burning down houses. The adult world doesn’t seem fair, but with the help of his friends—Danny and Babcock—Boone tries to make things right and maybe learn just who he is and what he stands for.

Boone Barnaby is Part One of the San Puerco Trilogy, three award-winning novels that have been loved by adults and children alike, about the adventures of three boys in a town of cranks and dreamers—and adventurous children. “This warmly engaging story is resplendent with humor, irony, thoughtful introspection, and well-paced plotting.” —School Library Journal.

Joe Cottonwood lives in the scrappy little town of La Honda, California, which has its own share of cranks and dreamers—and adventurous children. He has written four award-winning novels for children including the best-selling Quake!, four novels for adults including Famous Potatoes and Clear Heart, a book of poetry, and numerous songs. He has worked as a plumber, electrician, and carpenter and currently makes his living as a building contractor. He recently discovered that he has been writing podcasts all his life, though he didn’t know it until podcasts were finally invented. (Stolen from Podiobooks.com)

Production: Once again, Mr. Cottonwood keeps the production pretty straight forward with the story being read by a handful of people. Each episode contains two chapters opened and closed by a piece of music and a musical interlude between chapters. Uncomplicated and straightforward. And done very well.

Grade: A-

Cast: As mentioned previously, this is a group read. I won’t call it a full cast podcast, but it is far from a self read. If you’ve listened to any of Mr. Cottonwood’s other podcasts, one or two of the other voices will quite probably be familiar. This cast does a nice job of telling the story. Not perfect, but good.

Grade: B

Story: When I listened to Babcock, I had several people mention Boone Barnaby to me. However, no one mentioned to me that Boone Barnaby was an earlier story with many of the same characters that takes place in the same small California town of San Puerco. I hesitate in calling it a prequel, because in reality the stories are unrelated, however, the many of the characters are in both stories, and they are younger in Boone Barnaby.

Grade: A

Verdict: While I definitely enjoyed Babcock more, I still definitely enjoyed Boone Barnaby and have no problem recommending it. This story is more formulaic in several aspects, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. This story is easily suited for children of 10 and above. I believe most would enjoy it.

Disclosure: Mr. Cottonwood did leave a comment on this blog when I reviewed Babcock, but that is the only communication I’ve ever had with him. I was offered nothing in return for this review.

Podcast Review #130: Armand Ptolemy and the Golden Aleph

•22 January, 2020 • Leave a Comment

originally published May 7, 2012

Title: Armand Ptolemy and the Golden Aleph
Author: Mark Jeffrey
Genre: Fantasy
Released: 4 December 2011 – 19 April 2012
Located: iTunesPodiobooks
Formats Available: podcast, ebook
Rating: PG for violence

As most Podiobook listeners will know, Mr. Jeffrey is considered one of the founders of the current podiobook format. His young adult book Max Quick: The Pocket and the Pendant (reviewed previously) was one of the books that got this whole thing started. So when Mr. Jeffrey puts a new book up… well, I – for one – am going to check it out.

So, on to the review.

Synopsis: Synchronicity machines. Difference engines melded with the iChing. Geomancy: the art of making stone float with sound. The hacker collective ‘Anonymous’. Secret societies …

This is the world of ARMAND PTOLEMY, a new action-adventure hero. Facing an enemy armed with the Golden Aleph — a mystical device that allows its wielder to see holographically into every point in time and space, Ptolemy must use every trick of his Oxford-educated mind and circus-trained body to succeed.

But how do you fight an enemy that knows your every move … even before you do?

When Armand Ptolemy is called to investigate strange tremors plaguing an old wing of the New York public library, he finds himself enmeshed in a series of events that began in 1912. Yet Ptolemy himself is rumored to be from the past himself — and the world’s Elite lust after the secret of how he seemingly jumped forward over one hundred years in time. Most keenly interested in this secret is Octavio Veerspike, head of the Veerspike banking dynasty.

When the Commission — a secret society of the world’s most powerful people — suddenly call a conclave in the tropics, Ptolemy has to figure out what they’re up to, and fast.

But the Elites have other ideas. Putting into a motion the capstone of a hundred-years old plan, the Commission wants Ptolemy out of the way. And with the Golden Aleph giving them very potent powers of prediction, they just may succeed … (Stolen from Podiobooks.com)

Production: Ummm… after listening to the first couple of episodes of Armand Ptolemy and the Golden Aleph, I admit, I was asking myself, “What in the heck happened?!”  I admit, it has been a while since I’ve listened to one of Mr. Jeffrey’s podcasts, but I seriously don’t remember them being this bad. Wait… bad? Yes. Bad. There are multiple instances of repeated lines, atmospheric noises (jets, dogs, page turns, etc) and just mediocre production. Armand Ptolemy and the Golden Aleph really has all the earmarks of a first production but without any of the excuses.

Grade: C-

Cast: Mr. Jeffrey does Armand Ptolemy and the Golden Aleph as a self read and for the most part does an excellent job. There was only one issue I had with the reading and that was the pronunciation of “Ptolemy”, which Mr. Jeffrey pronounced phonetically, while I’ve always heard it pronounced “t?l’?-m?”. A small thing, and something Mr. Jeffrey might have done purposefully, but still, it drew me out of the story every time I heard it.

Grade: B+

Story: I’m still not sure whether Mr. Jeffrey intends this Ptolemy from history, a descendent, or a non-relatitve. I’m not sure it matters, but if it is a non-relative, then it kind of confuses the issue. This is a story that does a lot of ground setting and introduces, what I assume, will be the major players in a larger story.

Grade: A

Verdict: I started this story prepared to enjoy it. After the first two episodes and quite possibly through at least three-quarters of the story, I was prepared to blast it. Then I came around and recognized it for what I feel it is: a free introduction to a larger story (that probably won’t be free). And you know what? I have no problem with that. So, listen to the first 4 eps. Listen for the story. Forget the (lack luster) production. Forget the confusion surrounding Mr. Ptolemy’s origins. Be aware that this story is a setup for a larger story, and yes, be prepared to be cliff-hangered.

Disclosure: This is the third time I’ve reviewed a book by Mr. Jeffrey. I still have not conversed with him in any form. I have not received anything in return for this review.

Podcast Review #129: Betrayed: Book 2 of the Turner Chronicles

•22 January, 2020 • Leave a Comment

originally published April 30, 2012

Title: Betrayed – Book 2 of the Turner Chronicles
Author: Mark Eller
Genre: Fantasy/Alternate Universe
Released: 4 April 2012
Located: iTunesPodiobooks
Formats Available: podcast, ebook
Rating: R for graphic violence and sexual situations

Many months ago and many podcast reviews ago, I reviewed Traitor by Mark Eller. I really enjoyed it. I eagerly awaited the sequel. And waited. And waited. Finally, the wait was over and Mr. Eller released Betrayed the second in the series. Now the only question was, was it worth the wait?

So, on to the review.

Synopsis: The War is over. Isabella has won, and the Talent Master is dead. Aaron Turner now lives in N’Ark, Isabella’s capital, where he mourns his murdered wife and son. All he wants is to tip a bottle, stare at walls, and recover.
But they won’t leave him alone.

The Isabellan government and slavers both want him dead. Savages look to him as their prophesied savior. His lawyer wants to control him. His neighbors and friends have been murdered, and a once dead shaman declares him a servant of her One God.

Aaron has to make things right. His honor demands it.

Dusting off his guns, he sets aside his grief, readies his Talent, and declares a one man war against a nation that has betrayed him, the Clan, and itself.(Stolen from Podiobooks.com)

Production: Mr. Eller does a proficient job with the production of Betrayed. There are instances of repeated lines, and I did notice a few places where atmospheric noises leaked in, but I doubt the average listener will have anything to complain about while listening to this story.

Grade: B+

Cast: Mr. Eller does quite a nice job reading his story and has that quality of many of the best narrators that while not overly inflecting his voice for different characters, still completely differentiates them by simply using his voice. I truly enjoyed listening to his reading of his story.

Grade: A

Story: This is a sequel. You really need to read/listen to Traitor, before listening to Betrayed. Don’t jump in on the second story. You’ll miss a lot and Betrayed will suffer for it. However, this is a extremely tight story and is done very well. Where Traitor happened on a very small scale, focusing on Aaron Turner and the small towns he lived in. Betrayed focuses on a larger stage, both in number of important characters and in the amount of traveling. Mr. Eller promises this will continue and the third book will happen on a world scale. The graphic violence and graphic imagery described did indeed make me squirm and I strongly encourage you to listen to this one out of the hearing of small children.

Grade: A

Verdict: Loved it. Much better progression of the story that I had anticipated and am greatly enjoying where this story is going. I encourage those of you that enjoy alternate universe stories to give this one a listen.

Disclosure: I’ve never met, talked or tweeted with Mr. Eller. Nothing was offered or accepted in return for this review.