Book Review: Asunder by Liz Steinworth

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Length: 257 pages

Self-Published

Genre: sword & sorcery

Asunder is Liz Steinworth's debut novel. She painted the cover a few years ago and then, like so many writers struck by muse, felt the itch and couldn't rest until she'd put the story of the thief, Alden, and the princess, Mayli, on paper. Asunder is a far more developed debut than many, with a supporting world that's deeper than at first glance. I read an ARC of Asunder, so any issues I bring up, especially concerning typos and structure, could be sorted out by the time it hits the shelves, so bear that in mind.

Setting

Asunder is set in a secondary world which I believe is called Vatan. Just as we don't go around talking about Earth by name in real life, the characters don't mention the name of their planet, so for the purposes of this review we'll just call the world Vatan, though I'm open to being corrected. Asunder is set a few years after a war's end, which seems to have completely destroyed one kingdom. There are a few kingdoms relevant to the plot – Brimley, the vanquished nation, whose citizens are considered liars, traitors, and just generally scum. Then there's Ammos, a hot-climate nation who emerged victorious from the war, as well as Dregg, which seems to have annexed Brimley's lands after it fell, Hiore and an island somewhere between Brimley and Hiore called the Cad Island which is basically ruled by anarchist pirates. The setting is fleshed out to a fairly good degree. Some aspects of the political system and geography aren't very clear, but it doesn't detract too much from the enjoyment of the book.

Characters

The story centres predominantly around a thief named Alden, who is a part of the reigning Thieves Guild, and Princess Mayli Drake of Ammos, who is en route to marry one of the royal family of Hiore when the story begins. The book switches points of view many times throughout to include perspectives from Kira, one of the other members of the Thieves Guild, and Prince Briar of Brimley who is serving as guard captain of Dregg after his country's demise. Mayli and Alden get most of the page count from their perspectives. They are developed and reasonably well fleshed out, though both skirt the line of being cliched as often as they don't. Alden's moods are changeable and brooding and often come off as immature or unnecessary. Mayli is mostly portrayed as clever and overall quite likeable yet still grates occasionally. I found myself enjoying Prince Briar the most out of all of them, though even he had his moments. Kira has a fairly dark backstory that alienated me a fair bit due to its overuse against women in fantasy.

Plot

The Thieves Guild is tasked with kidnapping Mayli from her carriage as she travels from Ammos to Hiore and handing her over to an unknown third party. They succeed in the ambush, but when the other thieves are sleeping that night Alden is overcome with honour and decides to abscond with Mayli so as to save her from whatever fate her kidnapper has in store for her. The rest of the plot revolves around Alden and Mayli evading recapture by the Thieves Guild, and the tactics the Thieves Guild employs to thwart them. There is also a fairly major romance subplot, which is tiresome but not entirely uncommon in fantasy like this. Most people probably won't have an issue with it, I'm just a weirdo who doesn't like romance all that much.

Writing

This is the only part of the story that I feel falls a little flat. A lot of the prose is great, but there were significant typos in the ARC (which, again, may be fixed by the time it's released), but many parts of the last half of the story felt like they dragged on a bit, as they centre more around the budding romance than the action plot. There's also far too much foreshadowing of a particular piece of information after around about the halfway mark, to the point that I was frustrated that Mayli hadn't guessed it, as she's mostly quite clever and resourceful, and the clues were hanging thick enough in the air to choke on. The pacing is good in the first half but definitely drags in the second half, and switching between points of view becomes a little tedious, as often each point of view is only granted a few paragraphs at times, though in other parts the character gets longer for us to see through their eyes and it's not so bad in those parts.

Afterthoughts

Overall a good effort. I enjoyed it greatly, as it's not especially heavy or dark in most parts and it was refreshing to read something that didn't hammer home the doom and gloom like many commercially available fantasy novels of late. The romantic dance back and forth was not to my taste at all, as it reminded me of series like The Vampire Diaries and True Blood in the way the characters behaved, but I know that a lot of people enjoy that so I'm not going to rag on it too hard. I do feel that the majority of the issues will be smoothed out as Liz refines her craft and delves deeper into the creative reserves she undoubtedly possesses to find more polished material. I'm happy to give it four stars.

Book Review: The Theater of Dusk by Lizbeth Gabriel

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This time I'm reviewing the short story collection The Theater of Dusk by Lizbeth Gabriel. I don't read a lot of short story collections, so it was nice to read something a little different this time around. The Theater of Dusk consists of thirteen short stories, each self-contained, stand-alone narratives. Technically, everything is on point and professional. I found no typos, the formatting was professional, all that jazz. The cover is pretty good as well – it doesn't necessarily illustrate the content within, but that's trickier with collections versus novels.

I was on the fence about reviewing this one, since not all of the stories are fantasy in the swords and dragons sense of the word. I was also a little thrown by the trigger warning in the book's description on Amazon, as it includes a warning specifically about gay sex, which doesn't seem like it needs a separate warning to all the other types of sex.

As much as there is to enjoy about these stories, there's a little bit to critique as well. It's tricky because it's a collection of short stories rather than a long form novel, which is what I'm more used to reviewing. Most of the stories just felt like Internet fiction writing but in book format. None of them stand out in any way from each other despite having different characters and settings. A lot of the mature content seems gratuitous, and overall it just seems like the stories were better suited to being warm up exercises than short stories.

There's an art to writing good short stories that's quite different to writing longer books, and a lot of it centres on having something unique and easily understandable, whereas these mostly blend into one another. The first story is confusing and relies too heavily on info-dumping. Most of them open as if they're the beginning of a longer piece and only last a page or two, without much pay off by the end. The characters are quite flat and difficult to become invested in due to the short amount of page time each gets. 

I may be marking it more harshly because two of the stories apparently won competitions, and structurally and grammatically it's mostly fine, but overall they're just fairly lacklustre short stories. I am willing to concede that it might be down to taste, but I have read some superb short stories in my time, some of which I still remember in detail, whereas I'm having that 'they're already blending together into nothingness' that I get after reading average stories. Im not the most prolific reader out there, but I've read enough at this point that only the truly spectacular stories stand out in my mind, and the rest fade quickly in my mind.

But I'm interested to know what others think, so drop a comment below if you've read this collection and let me know what you thought of it.