Julie Thompson reviews The Warrior, the Healer, and the Thief by Diane Jean

the warrior the healer and the thief

The Warrior, the Healer, and the Thief (WHT) by Diane Jean is a bite-sized, action-packed adventure across the rugged terrain of the Western United States.  WHT is incredibly fun and entertaining.  It re-imagines the Oregon Trail within the lens of magical realism.  Chase, Mara, and Ari, three women with different motives, join forces against demonic energies and black magic as they head west.  Jean avoids story-stopping exposition, relying instead on character revelation through events and flashbacks.  The pacing is quick and lively, but doesn’t run roughshod over the plot.  At the outset, Chase embodies the warrior, tough on the outside and a bit brisk; Mara, as the sensitive healer; and Ari as the thief, slipping in and out of sight.  However, the women aren’t limited to any one job, emotion, or social category.

Magic, for the most part, possesses a practical nature in this world.  People with any degree of magical ability are referred to as “users”.  Many families have only enough power to aid in simple tasks, such as starting a campfire.  Other people use their magic to attain political power, while others pursue more insidious occupations.  Magic does not prevent drowning or dysentery or any other common ailment on the road.

The mythical creatures that populate this world integrate seamlessly into the rugged terrain of the Oregon Trail, a place that seems almost mystical and unreal to people on the East Coast.  These creatures transform into flesh and blood, beak and claw, among the mountains, sagebrush, and canyons.  They mingle with more familiar animals, such as bison.  Thunderbirds terrorize from the skies; wild hodags threaten from the ground; and herds of bison plow through the fields.  Cue our early season wagon party, featuring the Warrior, the Healer, and the Thief.

Chase Templeton (never, ever call her Chastity) descends from a prestigious line of Old World dragon slayers. Although this is all ancient history by the time Chase was born, this badass shortie still finds uses for her family’s extensive weapons training and magical beast lore.  Early on, Chase recoils from the idea of living a conventional, stay-at-home-and-get-married kind of life.  She loves the rugged terrain and the colorful people who call west of the Mississippi their home.  For her, wilderness and civilization are a state-of-mind, an opinion she shares with her companions.  Every wagon train she guides west is full of people she believes are escaping past lives, their hopes pinned on the shimmering horizon.  Chase’s personal conflicts with the expectations laid out for her by her family and her own beliefs, play out along the trail.

After years of fruitless supplication to the Goddess, Mara (née Aurora Nacht) flees Princeton Seminary and her illustrious family, and hits the open road heading west.  West is the land with all the answers, at least that’s what she wants to believe.  When she signs up for a wagon party leaving Independence, Missouri, she strives to keep a low profile.  Her education and upbringing allow her to pose as a missionary out to spread the word of the Goddess.  She values her faith, but doesn’t push it onto others.  As her fellow travelers risk injury and death, Mara’s resolve to stay silent on her identity and personal mission, weakens.  Mara is a character that, written another way, could have ended up mousy and dry.  Instead, she channels newfound strength, while retaining her empathic qualities.

Enter the third member of this dynamic trio: Ari.  Ari’s jocularity, wide open heart, and special ability, help her survive and thrive.  She wants snuggles, bright lights, company, and sexy good times, not pity and loneliness. Ari doesn’t define herself by the obstacles and sinister forces that seek her soul.  Her journey reflects her struggle to keep dark elements at bay.  Racism and slavery still exist in this alternate Oregon Trail universe. The amorphous evil that follows first Ari’s mother, and then Ari herself, originates on the plantation from which her mother escaped before Ari was born.  After performing a few favors for the New Orleans’ elite, Ari learns from Io, an elderly witch, how slaves were used against each other to enact punitive measures.  Ari’s mother and Io the witch gift her with tools that enable and drive her forward.  The story doesn’t linger on slavery, but it does give you some idea of how it affects the Ari and her mother.

As the narratives of these women unfold, their lives become increasingly intertwined.  The romantic relationships I’ve read about usually involve two people and perhaps a few others known in the novel as speed bumps on the way to some kind of bliss beyond the final page.  Third or fourth persons are regarded as complications, with love as a contest between opposing parties.  Their burgeoning friendship and romance stutter steps over some petty jealousies, but most of those incidents arise from Chase’s initial mistrust of Ari.  I think it’s pretty understandable to reserve trust from a person who pops out from under your wagon.  The women don’t agonize over whether what they feel is “right” or “wrong”.  Instead of stalling the story with introspection, the romance is one of many elements that move the story forward.  The trio becomes closer over the course of events despite differences in their backgrounds and personalities.  All of the elements of a meaningful relationship are present, but the women, apart from Ari, have no frame of reference for emotional and sexual unions among three persons, so they don’t fully recognize the possibility at first.  They help each other grow into the best possible version of themselves.  Nothing about their relationship feels forced or tacked on.  It develops as organically as the rest of the story.

The tale is complete as a stand-alone volume, but has enough leeway for a sequel.  I’m crossing my fingers for a sequel or maybe some prequels!  If you love adventure, the extraordinary mixed with the pedestrian, and history seasoned with magic, then what are you still doing reading this review?  Hitch up your internet oxen and get your copy today!  And then go play Oregon Trail.

Available from Less Than Three Press’s website as an e-book, as well as from Barnes & Noble and Amazon (e-book and paperback formats).

Oregon Trail → Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/msdos_Oregon_Trail_The_1990

Marthese reviews Dare Seize the Fire by Cody L. Stanford

dareseizethefire

“gifts sometimes come with sharp edges”

Dare Seize the Fire is a young adult adventure book with a hint of fantasy. The story is set in Philadelphia and follows Katie Zielinski which is also called Kasia, Katarzyna, Kat and my favourite: cutie-Kat. On her way home, Katie finds an escaped tiger and connects with him. His name, turns out to by Jyoti and he can talk and reason when he is around Katie. In turn, Katie realizes she has some sort of powers whenever she is near Jyoti. Which is good, because Jyoti’s previous owner, Zadornin, wants him back.

Zadornin is a warlock and calls Jyoti, Firebright. He has had him since he was a cub, mistreated him a lot and has very sinister plans for Jyoti which expand to even more sinister. Zadornin is a really, really evil person and probably you will become squeamish while he thinks or tells his past. Let’s just say that it’s not only poor animals that he has killed.

Katie, whose only troubles before were that she was in love with her best friend Laurinda (Lauri) and taking care of her autistic brother Cassie, finds herself dodging the warlock’s attempts at getting the tiger back. She does this with the help of the before-mentioned Laurie and Cassie, Agni and his son and a tiger lady. There isn’t just one confrontation between Katie and Zadornin, but several in escalation.

The story is told from multiple perspectives. I thought the writing was realistic in portraying the characters. Stanford, who by the way seems to know a lot about felines, managed to write an autistic mind, a tiger mind and an evil mind quite well, which was a bit scary. Especially at first perspectives changed in the same chapter without warning and it took some getting used to. I would have preferred to have different chapters per character which was done later on. As well, there were some time or place jumps in a chapter without warning. Lines would perhaps have helped the reader orientate themselves.

Katie’s and Laurie’s relationship is based on cuteness, sharp sarcasm and teasing. All in all, very cute. Reading about an autistic character was hard but much needed and hopefully, this will help other  readers know more about autism.

The writing is very funny at times, especially with the similes and metaphors used. One example which I thought was extremely hilarious was: “Like the mincing of an offended flamingo”. The insults thrown around in this book are also quite funny.

There were some irritating things in the plot.  The parents usually make a lot of mistakes. I also thought that leaving parents on their own when you have a powerful enemy was not safe at all! And of course, when someone is in grave danger of losing their lives, no one can agree on anything.

However, all in all, I highly enjoyed this book which also gave me a break from reading just in the Fantasy genre. The main message of the book, I think, is to let go of secrets to feel much lighter and also to unlock the potential already there. Throughout the book, Katie becomes more confidents to protect both herself and the creatures she loves. After having finished the Engelsfors trilogy, reading about a ‘witch’ and her bond with an animal made me go into ‘fond-mode’ and indeed the friendship between Kat and Jyoti was supportive and quite positive. I recommend this book to animal and felines lovers, people that want to read a cute romance that is part of a bigger plot, to people looking for autistic characters and to adventure lovers.

Marthese reviews The Eldermaid by K.Henderson

eldermaid

“Death is never more than a breath away”

I binge read this book in a day! I had wanted to read this book as soon as I read the blurb, but, well, I was late for my review. It helped that it was a very enjoyable story that made you want to read more. This story is short and is a mixture of Fantasy and Adventure, but not the epic kind, more like the kind where the protagonists are always curious and searching for answers.

This story is told from the perspective of Hedda and spans from her childhood onwards. In this world, most deities left the Earth, but left in their stead countless spirits with different elemental powers. There are three types of spirits: maids, knights and jacks. Hedda bonds at a young age with an Eldermaid, although not the one she thought she would at first. When spirits bond with humans, it is not like a marriage or sexual in nature but similar to having a constant life companion and partner in crime.

Hedda lives with her mother, Augusta and her own spirit: a firemaid named Ember. I loved the names in this book, especially of the spirits! What I loved most about this book though, where the genders (not binary!), the relationships (a mixture! Even poly-relationships were hinted at), the pronouns (a variety, xirself serving as a neutral pronoun and ser as the neutral honourific) and the normalization of different races. This could seriously be a recommended piece of literature for people wanting to learn how to think and speak less binary and learn not to stereotype–for example in the story there is mentioned that not all those that bleed are females. There was also a variety of trans characters in the book and a variety of relationships–and they were not seen as strange.

“mixture of throne room and magpie’s hoard” p.51

Anyway, if I get started on how good it was in terms of representation in such few pages, I won’t be able to stop. Hedda, her Eldermaid, Augusta and Ember leave their village life to go to the city of Firehaven, supposedly to train further Hedda but there are other ulterior motives. We get to learn more about Augusta’s past and the secrets that she kept. It was interesting because I felt that this book did not have one or two protagonists but many: there were Hedda and Leaf, and even Luccia and Augusta and Sofiya.

The mysteries in the plot were tense, but we weren’t kept waiting too long before some pieces started to fall in place. Hedda has to fight, but she’s not the catalyst but just another character. There isn’t the waiting-for-the-saviour cliché. The world building wasn’t too quick or too slow or too much, but just right for the story. As Hedda said, most things were on a need-to-know basis. The chapters were short and the writing got better although I felt that there were too many commas in the prologue.

This book was a hope for literature and diversity for me. I love fantasy and I love discovering new books that cater for a variety of people. I think this book is truly LGBTQI+ because it had a variety of characters from the spectrums. I think this book is good if you want to learn how to use neutral pronouns or want to read about diversity or want to read a feel-good book if you’re queer–this is the book that you should read next.