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Review: “Occupation: Dragonslayer” by Bryan Williams

second_flyer_2aTo put it simply, Isle of Shoals’ latest original production, “Occupation: Dragonslayer” by Bryan Williams, is an astoundingly beautiful and utterly transcendent experience.

I thought it was going to be about 9/11, but I was wrong. That’s the starting point, but it’s actually about me. It’s about you, too. It’s about us – the whole human family – and our shared human condition. It’s about how we can have infinite problems in our lives which can make us seem unique, separate, different, but our pain is always the same. Perversely, it’s that pain which unites us. And after many revelations on this theme and others, Williams inserts a little wisdom about how to lead a better life.  

Paul Chamberlain is Stepanek, an NYPD officer, and he. Is. A. ROCK. Jesus – we’re talking tears – his tears – in the opening number. The opening number! He, with the lovely Erin Clancy-Balsamo as Kiki, fulfill a sort of emotional-straight-man counterpart to the rest of the entire show. They are eminently graceful together.

Cecilia Vaicels plays Harriet, a tough, no-nonsense New York City boss with a motherly tenderness. Vaicels absolutely nails it, and that is not the kind of character that you can fake.

The comic artisan Arthur Lundquist plays the part of Antonio, a bit of an oddball, definitely a goof, with a heart of gold.

Lisa Gwasda plays the hard-nosed Major Beauvine, who leads her three children along on a quest to evangelize Lower Manhattan. The children are played by Benjamin Errig, Theodore Errig, and Ruby Spryte Balsamo, and together they team up to charm the pants off of the audience. The kids are cute, naturally (though the earmuffs help), but it turns out they’re fantastic little actors as well, and extremely effective on stage. They can make you laugh just as easily as cry at the drop of a hat. You are putty in their tiny little hands.

The fiery Kimberly Bello plays Mara, a contrary young lady who might be forsaken, but is resolutely not lost. The show has an ensemble cast, but Mara was my protagonist. She perfectly embodies what we, as Americans, were like in the heyday of American glory – in those days before the Twin Towers fell. She’s cynical, prickly, and beautiful. Slightly damaged, but not from any outward incident. And, true to this mythical characterization, Mara becomes seduced by power, greed, and spiritual hunger, only to put herself in the same unfortunate situation America had put herself in when a band of jihadis hijacked some planes a decade and a half ago….

Steve Walsh reaches down deep into the unspoken depths of his soul to give us the part of Gil, a 9/11 First Responder. He does so with such clarity and honesty that it’s like traveling through time, it feels so real….

Then there’s the Duchess, played by the formidable Judi Polson, a personification of Old New York prestige. She’s whimsical, romantic, perhaps completely insane, but nevertheless in possession of a resounding spirit and indomitable courage.

John Mervini, who plays our primary antagonist, is the proudly-sleazy real estate mogul Damon Slade. Mervini commands the stage effortlessly, as though it were his god-given right. He is sheer force of will in a slick suit, and when his eyes sparkle you want to kiss him and strangle him at the same time.

Lindsey Morgan rips your heart to shreds with her incredibly understated role as “the Forgotten One.” It’s not a huge role, but she does huge things with it.

Kevin F. Rogers, as the under-appreciated Felipe, wraps up his lovable personality in endearing awkwardness, spontaneous rap, and comic relief.

And then there’s this guy with amnesia, Chris, played by Steffen Alexander Whorton, whose only clues to his identity are his odd appearance: a Santa Claus costume with an FDNY shirt underneath.

The dazzling Cait Kelly, who plays the hope-filled Jenny, strips away all of the bullshit of the world and shows us a violently-gleaming slice of her own soul when she belts at us in “Absence,” one the most wondrous songs in the show, and also one of the most strikingly powerful numbers I’ve ever witnessed. I didn’t shed a tear until she yelled “Damn you!” …and then it was all over for me.

I say began, because I would cry several more times in show, and, in fact, afterward I cried myself literally all the way home that night.

But that’s not because this is a sad show. Anything but! I cried because it was supremely beautiful. Triumphant. Soaringly inspirational. A victory for the human spirit, and for the world of art.

Most of Williams’ best songs in the show were followed by utter silence in place of applause. But that stark silence was the sound of reverence.

Stephen Ryan directs this production, and his great theatrical experience is evidenced in myriad judicious choices. On the diner set, you can just barely make out a wall covered in papers… missing person posters. Subtley harrowing.

Ryan uses a scrim like I’ve never seen before, making me feel feelings I didn’t even know I could have.

Ryan coaxes some extreme performances from his actors in this show. There are tears flying, voices trembling, beat and ragged, and the sheer range of emotion goes off the chart at both ends…. This is really a beast of a show, and Ryan has made it look like cakewalk.

In my favorite example, Ryan brilliantly manages to recreate the unparalleled terror and chilling horror of what those poor souls, caught in the wreckage, went through on that fateful day…. And with nothing more than a well-timed blackout, and a flashlight.

The show’s creator, Bryan Williams, does not pull any punches as he dissects the most pressing of America’s current problems: consumer culture, the political plutocracy, the worth of people (particularly broken people), the heartbreak of loss, and more. But when we investigate the root causes of all these problems, Williams has the cruel magnanimity to point out that many of the issues we face are, in fact, our own fault.

That is one supremely bitter pill to swallow, but Williams administers it with heaping spoonfuls of sugar, in the form of humor, humanity, his stunning music, and even magic.

Bryan Williams crafts his music with an artistic precision and élan that goes well beyond being impressive. When the wheels are turning in our character’s heads, they might be singing long, unchanging notes, but you’ll hear the orchestra going crazy behind them. Williams makes you know without understanding why. He makes you feel what’s going on with everything you’ve got. It’s an intense sensation, and an unforgettable experience.

For this show, Isle of Shoals decided to sell concessions at intermission: coffee, cookies, snacks. They should’ve been selling kleenex and whiskey.








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Review: “The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure” by Lawrence Ellsworth

The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure” by Lawrence Ellsworth lives up to its name, and delivers a heaping assortment of derring-do, courageous swordplay, unbridled love, and razor wit, compiled conveniently into one enormous anthology.

swashbuckFlavor is the true treasure to be dug up from these pages. Each story is positively swimming in it. You’ll smell the salty sea air. You’ll feel the hot Caribbean sun tan your face. You’ll work up a sweat fending off saber strikes, and feel your pulse racing while you ride to deliver intelligence that could prevent, or provoke, a bloody war….

By my tastes, most of the stories Ellsworth offers are darling, a few are outstanding, and one or two are merely decent. For the amount of sheer words within this work, however, it’s a steal.

The pirate stories stand out the most, but perhaps that’s due in part to the fact that the two longest selections both happen to be piratical tales.

Awkwardly, the book’s physical size became an issue for me. I do most of my reading in the New York City subway system, and that regularly involves being smashed into a crowded train car. For a two-handed book, as this one is, that meant several trips where extracting my swashbuckling tome was sadly not feasible. If you prefer to ingest your literature digitally, though, or if you tend to read under more forgiving circumstances, then you will avoid such inconvenience.

A great bonus to reading an anthology such as this is that it’s a marvelous way to get introduced to new (at least new to you) and wonderful authors. My two favorites are Rafael Sabatini and Stanley J. Weyman.

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Review: “The Talhoffer Society” by Michael Edelson

The Talhoffer Society” by Michael Edelson is a well-crafted thriller that promises to grab you by the throat and hurl you across its pages.


Using the fledging martial art known as HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts – or, more simplistically, medieval broadsword fighting) as inspiration and backdrop, Edelson has spun a brilliant story of suspense, mystery, love, and redemption.

The central premise is this: all around the world, people are studying the ancient and, for all intents and purposes, completely impractical martial art of dueling with a two-handed longsword. Except: some secret society is hosting a clandestine, live-steel tournament where the best practitioners are invited to use their skills as they were truly intended – and being deadly weapons, well… you get the idea.

Refreshingly, Edelson’s use of violence is superbly tasteful, and consistently tempered by a healthy, human concern for life and subsequent guilt when harm is dealt. For a story about sword-fighting, this is remarkable, and very rare. And it is the sort of writing which expensive workshops the world over struggle to impart to their writers, many of whom have never seriously hurt anyone, let alone killed someone.

Meanwhile, he’s got the obligatory love story woven in, yet instead of being desultory and extraneous, it’s crucial, unique, and beautiful. In fact Edelson dusts off more than one classical trope to tell his story, and normally I would look to them to find fault, except that he executes each one with the élan of a longtime pro. Honestly, it’s a very well put together novel.

Edelson’s greatest accomplishment, in my mind, is his steadfast determination to tell a realistic story, while successfully maintaining interest.

Writing is a record of a series of choices, and at every turn there are infinite possibilities to explore – some more likely than others. Oftentimes writers are confronted with difficult decisions, such as when a crossroads presents itself where one direction is plausible but boring, and the other is far-fetched but much more exciting.

It is easier (and lazier) to try to amp up the tension by making outlandish decisions, but after a point your reader’s suspension of disbelief will fail to sustain them in the world you’ve created. It is far more challenging (and impressive) to stick to realistic choices, and to have your story stay engaging and surprising.

This is because, as a general rule, real life is boring. (That’s probably why we like stories in the first place.)

Turning up the scrutinization dial real high to find something to complain about, I found the use of money within the story to be a bit too convenient to explain certain things, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers I won’t go into detail. I will simply say that while Edelson has done fantastic work accomplishing some very difficult sells, a few of them he appeared to work less hard for. Also I think he could’ve come up with a much better title.

Perhaps the highest praise I can offer is that The Talhoffer Society reads like a Dan Brown book. I’m a slow reader (I read like I speak), and I nearly finished the book in just two sittings.






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Review: “Violet Peaks” by David Parr


In the novel Violet Peaks, author David James Parr tells the story of a person with an overactive imagination struggling to find meaning in their life.

Throughout the course of the book, we watch the titular protagonist grow from a child into an adult – and beyond. Violet finds herself the unwitting captain of her own life, and is constantly amazed to find life’s regular challenges both mundane and incredibly daunting at the same time. Her singular mission is merely to understand who she is – to be able to define herself – and, as Parr shows us, that can be a lot harder than it sounds….

Violet Peaks is a quick and thought-provoking read, and it’s very well-written.

Parr’s style is measured and elegant, yet deeply personal, and an acute brilliance lies in his minuscule details.


The pages of this book are dripping with similes, but it’s in his metaphors where Parr really shines.

One technically impressive feat is what Parr does with time. In a fleetingly smooth paragraph, Parr might walk us through years. A throwaway line might traverse a generation. All the while, the lens of Parr’s narration lends color and weight to it, and transitions both before and after are so smoothly executed that it took me half the book to even realize what he was doing.

Parr gets away with this because instead of tracking events chronologically, he uses emotion as his measure. It ends up effecting the same conclusion, but the journey is different.

Violet suffers from a malaise of Weltschmerz, presumable brought on (or at least worsened) by being an artist without a genuine outlet. This is an intriguing central conflict for a novel, and one which Parr exploits to great effect. While the physical stakes are generally quite low, the spiritual and emotional stakes are life and death.

Most of Violet’s foibles are the result of her searching for meaning in her life almost exclusively through romantic love and sexual conquests. While the feminist within you may cringe at some of her choices, I urge you to hold on until the end.

In many chapters, Parr makes use of repeating choruses, and in some cases it works better than others. As they teach in acting and singing: if you’re going to say the same thing twice, it better not be the same thing twice.

All told, Violet Peaks is a joy to read, and the glimpse into Parr’s worldview is a mind-expanding breath of fresh air.

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Sexual Harassment

As a straight, white male, I never really expected to find myself victimized by sexual harassment.

So when it happened, you could imagine my surprise. Disbelief, really. Sheer denial even for a while. And those feelings served to compound the problem: making it even harder for me to address an issue that was already difficult to tackle in the first place.

Recognizing unwanted physical contact is an easy thing to do. Confronting the perpetrator is a lot harder. Yet, sadly, verbal warnings are very often not enough to talk sense into someone who’s committing harm. In fact, in many cases (indeed in my own case) it can make things worse. Because calling someone out for being a dick, an asshole, or just generally inappropriate is an affront, and few of us possess the required tact to get around that gracefully. So, the abuser feels cornered, and lashes out.

This unfortunate reality leaves the victim with only one recourse: going through official channels to seek the help of some kind of an authority. In my case this was an employer, since the incident was at work. This could have been a police officer in the subway. Regardless of situation, however, this step is even harder than the previous ones. And that’s because to accomplish it, you have to finally admit to yourself – in your admission to someone else – that you are a victim. And nobody likes to face that, however true it might be.

My heart was racing when I finally found the courage to do it, and that was after 24 hours of talking myself out of it. It was only thanks to a trusted friend, an ally, a confidant, who helped to persuade me to “make it official,” shall we say. Encouraging me to take action, this friend reminded me of what I was too ashamed to admit I already knew was true:

that this was real, it was a problem, it had to stop, and there was only one way to fix it (correctly).

Once my eyes were opened to this realization, I knew I had little choice. And – boy howdy! – was it such an incredible relief to have done it! I felt better instantly – better than I even imagined I would or could have felt.

Emotions are deep and powerful things, yet they remain cryptic to us, and are largely unfathomable. It is not often that we, as humans, have an accurate perception of our own emotions in real time. It takes the passage of time (sometimes a lot of time), and the experience which follows, to reveal the true nature of our own emotions to ourselves. But they are so very important to our personhood – emotions underpin everything we do and are.

And so it is with this writing that I hope to encourage and empower anyone anywhere who is made to feel uncomfortable or powerless by anyone else. Or, just as importantly, to encourage and empower the friend of someone who is made to feel that way, to speak to them from their heart and offer a helping hand when they need it.

You do have the power to stop it. There are ways to help.

And the first step is to talk to someone you trust.

I can’t urge you enough.

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Punishment of Villainy (American Criminal Justice)

The American Criminal Justice system is a deplorable and embarrassing continuation of medieval crime-deterrent philosophy that has never worked particularly well, and the more our world grows and thrives in so very many other ways, the more we are continually reminded of our own abysmal failure to regulate and promote a peaceful society through our judiciary system.

(There is also a clear ethnic disparity going on, however that is for another blog.) 

First of all, the name alone is setting us up for failure:

“Criminal” is a euphemism for “villain.”

When someone is caught doing something wrong, we label them a villain. American villains will bear this mark forever, despite the false promise of “Corrections” (which we’ll get into a bit further down), and it shall be a shadow over them for the rest of their days. If it happened to be a Federal crime, then that person also can’t ever vote again, because as a people, we don’t believe in redemption.

Villains are not the same as regular people, and for that reason we are at ease with the idea that whatever foul thing happens to them is just fine. There is no real sense of proportion of “punishment” accorded to any given “crime,” at least not one that isn’t completely arbitrary. If a villain is apprehended, then they probably deserve to be mistreated during the arrest. And if their ride to jail is bumpy, they probably deserved that too. And if they’re subjected to inhuman abuses and horrors once they get to jail, the more the merrier! And at the end of a years-long sentence, how has all that punishment compounded? Who cares! They’re just villains, right?

The “Justice” part is also fraught.

For “justice” sure sounds nice to hear, but what it means in this case is “revenge.”

Our form of Criminal Justice means “if you commit a crime, you’ll go to jail.” That’s not justice. In fact, I would call that the exact opposite of justice. Actual justice would sound more like this: “Nobody wrongs anybody, and everyone lives in a peaceful accord.” THAT’S fucking justice, and that should be the ultimate goal.

The argument I tend to hear in response to this is the ol’: “Well, imagine if someone did [insert heinous act here] to you or someone you love. What would you want then?” Well, probably vengeance like anybody else. But that’s precisely why we have a government-instituted judicial system in the first place: because history has already shown us quite plainly that vigilante justice is very rarely fair or just in any respect. Furthering that truth, we should see that a victim’s initial reaction to a crime perpetrated upon them might well be the last thing we should look to for guidance as to what to do afterward. What should we look to instead? Well, I’m glad you asked….

But to answer that, I have one more issue with nomenclature to address: “Corrections.” Jails and prisons are run by departments of “Corrections,” because it is “correct” to punish wrongdoers, and, once appropriately punished for their crimes, wrongdoers are thereby “corrected.”

Except no, none of that makes any sense at all.

First, a thought on the correctness of correction in the first place:

Jesus Christ and I agree on at least two things; one of them is plenty of wine at parties, but the other is that scorn, wrath, and vengeance all work counter to the purpose of the existence of a peaceful society.

His example was if someone hits you, don’t hit them back, but invite them to hit you again. If someone wants to steal your shirt, don’t fight them, just give it to them. Of course this is difficult in practice – it’s nearly impossible for most people! – but it always was and continues to be the right thing to do.

And it’s not just right because Jesus said it. It’s right because we can prove that it’s right. (Unlike our Criminal Justice system, which is wrong and we can prove that it’s wrong.) If for some reason you require proof of this, the best way to learn about it is to practice it yourself. 

Aside: I find it absolutely stunning that so many think the United States to be a “Christian Nation,” and yet this very basic tenet of Christianity is so willingly tossed out in favor of good ol’ fashioned revenge, mankind’s oldest pastime – now handily administered by the State just like all our other important socialist utilities. 

And now for the notion that corrections “correct” anybody at all:

As I mentioned above, villains are not “corrected,” they are punished. That is a fundamental difference, and it is the root of our problem.

There is certainly nothing at all corrective about locking a person away for years at a time in an abusive environment.

In fact, I would call that destructive – serving the exact opposite purpose of rehabilitation. Just take a look at these harrowing national recidivism rate numbers if you don’t believe me. 

If our present system of laws-and-punishments were any good at dissuading people from wrongdoing, they why do we still have crime? Or, perhaps more fairly-worded: who are we kidding by calling it “Corrections?” 

Imagine what it must be like to be a rational adult, but to make the conscious choice to break a law. I know, you and I have never done such a thing, but take a moment to really think about it. It’s a thought experiment: how could a fully-realized person (legal definition: survived on this Earth for 18 years) ever find themselves in a situation where the choice they made is one which is contrary to our popular laws? Unfathomable, isn’t it?!

That’s because it is!

Rational people do not generally break the law, for, by definition, their faculty of reason can calculate for them the risks associated, and help them come to the best outcome. It’s not been a secret for a long time that people who find themselves chronically incarcerated are suffering from mental illnesses. (And once you’re inside, good luck getting any treatment!) Yet our entire judicial, legal, and penal systems are not designed to deal with the mentally plagued, but rather operate under the almost-completely-incorrect assumption that every poor soul who chances to enter into their cursed domains is a self-possessing, responsible citizen of the world who simply made a conscious choice to join the Dark Side. 

Don’t you think it would take an extraordinary situation for a rational adult to make the choice to break the law? Of course it would! Which is why

every such occasion warrants and deserves the attention of our judicial system to fully understand each individual situation, and to help the person in question (and all other people) to be able to avoid finding themselves in that particular arrangement of circumstances ever again.

The notion that “if we don’t want Crime X to occur, then we’ll just conjure up Punishment Y, and anybody we catch committing X, we’ll give them Y” might help a fringe proportion of the population to not commit crimes, but it does nothing for the vast majority of people who were never going to commit X in the first place, and, furthermore, it does a disservice to all those who were going to commit it regardless of consequence. We’ll just find ourselves constantly doling out Punishment Y for all time, as we have been now for literally thousands of years.

Instead, wouldn’t it be better if we could find all the ways in which people are motivated to commit Crime X, and create nonviolent solutions to prevent them from ever occurring? Isn’t that clearly superior in every way? Isn’t that something worthy of pursuit for the self-described “greatest nation on Earth?”

And none of these thoughts are new; one example is Norway, which has made huge progress on this front, and from whom we stand to learn a great deal, if only we would pay attention.

Now listen: I’m sure there exist people in this world who we cannot help, who are hopelessly violent and are entirely unable to fit within the general scheme of human culture no matter what we do. But for those people, I do believe the limitation lies not with them, but rather with us. If there is a failure, it is ours to understand the problem; not theirs for existing as they do. And, since they’re still people, we owe it to them (and to all future peoples) to do our damnedest to try and figure out a way to help them. Maybe we won’t accomplish that in their lifetime, or in ours. But not to try is to become villains ourselves.

We have to change our entire philosophy around from one that seeks out villainy and punishes it, to one that seeks out answers to people’s problems and finds a way to bring the two together.

That is how Criminal Justice should be administered. That is how to combat future crime in any real and meaningful way. That is how you help people who truly need help. And all of this should be the goal of any society with the compunction to call itself even halfway civilized.

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Review: “Distant Seas” by Bud Sparhawk

Author Bud Sparhawk’sDistant Seas” takes a fascinating look at what the ancient art of sailing might look like …if we set sail on Jupiter and Mars.


This novel, published by Fantastic Books, is told in four parts. The first involves what you might call your standard, earth’s-oceans-going sailboat race. It’s intense and eye-opening.

The second introduces us to the strange and entirely frightening prospect of sailing a craft in the tumultuous and unimaginably gargantuan atmosphere of Jupiter, via the narration of a mineral-fisherman. It’s where things start to get really strange.

The third is a race which takes place on/in Jupiter, during which some extremely exciting events take place, and the fourth brings us to yet another vision of the application of extraterrestrial sailing principles: the use of ultra-weak Martian winds to push specialized buggies across the sand.

All through the book, Sparhawk combines the technical nuances of sailing operation with the scientifically-accurate physical traits of three distinct planets (the first being Earth). Marvelously, a sail can propel a craft in each environment, but the unique challenges which arise between them become the main point of interest. It’s still “sailing,” yet the three experiences couldn’t be more different. You’ll have to read yourself to find out exactly how.

Aside from Sparhawk’s impressive technical understanding, his book, “Distant Seas,” handles emotion and tension extremely well.  

The heartbreaking moments are genuinely heartbreaking, because the characters are vividly real and well-developed. And when things get rough, Sparhawk’s suspense ranks among the most thrillingly nail-biting I’ve ever experienced in book form….

Really, sailors are crazy! Who would ever choose to isolate themselves by sailing into the heart of an almost limitless expanse of a place that is nothing but hostile toward human life?

Well, you’ll have to crack it open to find out.

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Review: “Clash of Eagles” by Alan Smale

clash of eaglesIn a fictional universe wherein Rome never fell, an army of steel-clad legionaries sails across the Atlantic ocean in 1218, landing on the North American continent to seek out fabled golden riches. What they find instead is a “Clash of Eagles” – an inspiringly beautiful tale spun by master storyteller, Alan Smale.

While Smale is keen to deliver all the lovely details you’d expect from such an extraordinary setting, he does it in a surprising way. At first I was afraid it was going to devolve into a more primitive version of “Dances with Wolves,” but Smale is quick to defy expectations, and the story he weaves in this book is wholly unique and utterly compelling.

As you begin reading, you will marvel at his attention to detail – especially historical detail. You can hear the lorica segmentata jingling as the Romans march, and you can taste the sour-bitter tang of Cahokian corn beer as it’s drank during the midwinter feast. Sheepishly I admit, also, that this story, amongst its other aims, takes the premise of SPIKE TV’s “Deadliest Warrior” and runs away with it so far into the depths of historical accuracy it’ll make your head spin.

And as for what history cannot tell us, Smale’s imagination takes flight in tremendous fashion….

Smale’s writing is unremittingly character-driven, which is most often seen as an admirable quality in fiction. However, I tend to enjoy a little more visceral tactility than probably does the average reader, so I found the physicality of “Clash of Eagles” a bit underwritten. Every action he describes exists only in relation to a character and their experience, and while that is impressive to read, Smale has convinced me that sometimes a quick note describing which club has swung where might be the more effective storytelling choice. I suppose it depends.

Along those lines, one very cool map is included with the front matter, which depicts “Nova Hesperia” – what the fictional Romans call North America. Yet before the story was done I was wishing more maps had been included. The lay of the land plays a large part in the story (how could it not in a story about Native Americans?), and that sort of thing is hard to visualize with just words.

Remarkably, Smale’s exposition is the most thrilling I’ve ever read. Yes, that’s right: thrilling exposition. Smale’s expert use of language, paired with the sheer novelty of his material, and ultimately whetted by a genius order-of-discovery all combined to make me devour long sections of background information and thirst for more when I was done. These famously boring parts of most novels shine with gleaming awesomeness in this one. To Mr. Smale I say: well done, sir!

Ultimately, if you’re looking for an enchanting story set in a world that’s at once familiar and totally alien, and that’s equal parts ancient legend and heroic adventure, I can’t recommend “Clash of Eagles” enough.

It is the first book of the Hesperian Trilogy and I shall be waiting with baited breath for the next installments, coming out in 2016 and 2017.


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Review: “A Sword Into Darkness” by Thomas A. Mays

asid 2

The novel “A Sword Into Darkness” is, in a word, shamelessly badass.

If you’re looking for a wonderful hard-military-sci-fi adventure tale, then look no further. Author Thomas A. Mays deploys a literary strategy of scientific realism, highly focused characterization, relentless plot pacing, and gorgeous language to spin a tale of fascinating space mystery.

The story concerns a scarred naval veteran who is called upon by an eccentric millionaire to help him build Earth’s first space navy, based upon the shaky evidence of an object on approach from lightyears away. In grueling detail, no astrophysical conundrum is left unaddressed as Mays, who has a pair of physics degrees and is himself a Navy veteran, clearly knows what he’s talking about. I particularly enjoyed the expert-level techno-babble.

Mays’ characters are constructed subtly, so that by the book’s end you’ve come to know (and fall in love with) a slew of deeply human-feeling fictional people.

“A Sword Into Darkness” is fiction at its most sciencey-est…

treating everything realistically, from photon drives to PTSD. And while any reader appreciates understanding how things in the story are supposed to work, at times it comes across a bit didactically.

As someone who is over-critical of endings, I can tell you that this ending is extremely satisfying. It has true surprises, clever twists, and is brilliantly unpredictable right up until the end.

In only a few places did Mays take a writerly shortcut get a point across too abruptly, or did I encounter a redundancy or the like. Ultimately my greatest technical dispute lies with a few bits of awkward dialogue.

Outside petty technical issues, though, I found the whole novel in general tended toward a distinctly “US Navy” perspective. And while overall that’s not a bad thing in and of itself, I found it odd that seemingly no one in the book espoused much of a contrarian point of view. There are tons of disputes which occur within that naval mindset, but not any outside it. For example, there are radio talk-show hosts, civilian politicians, and non-military science personnel who are all unaccountably well-acquainted with naval terminology and strategic military thinking. Overall I feel the book suffered from the lack of counter-perspective. An opposing viewpoint could’ve helped to strengthen the moral argument of the story, while its exclusion left it feeling a little lop-sided, logically.

But compared with what Mays has done well, this is a small point indeed. I highly recommend “A Sword Into Darkness,” and will look eagerly toward what Thomas Mays puts out next.







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Review: Mad Max: Fury Road


For the non-initiated, Mad Max: Fury Road is one big dusty ball of exploding fun, a successfully satisfying summer action flick.

For the die-hard fans of the series: Fury Road is the second-movie sequel that Mad Max 2: Road Warrior really wanted to be.

The absence of Mel Gibson hurt my soul a little bit, but to have him reprise the role at his present age would have relegated most of the ass-kicking to another, younger character (á la Mutt from the 4th Indiana Jones film), and what Fury Road reminds us is that Max is a top-notch bad-ass in his own right. Ultimately I support the casting decision. Tom Hardy brings his own skill set to the role, which does not disappoint – namely that haunting, rumbling, low basso voice of his….

This past week I’ve seen all four Mad Max films in order (I have not seen 2011’s Renegade), and for the first time.

The original is surprisingly well done, despite having the least amount of the gasoline-fueled, desert-wind-whipped action which has come to define the series. What is has instead is an actual heart, an important point to make, and a character-centered plot line. It’s the kind of backstory-explaining film that nowadays they make after a franchise is successful, such as with X-Men Origins – Wolverine. Max doesn’t even become truly “mad” until the very end of the film. What’s more, Max himself does very little of the fighting. A great deal of it is left for the villains terrorizing innocents, the “police” terrorizing the villains, and various women standing up to defend themselves. From the very start, Mad Max was a feminist apology.

The sequel to that, Mad Max 2: Road Warrior, pushed the throttle hard into “post-apocalyptic dystopian biker-gang-ruled hellscape,” taking the story to a place that was, though arguably foreshadowed, nonetheless a bit of a surprise. The original still had plant life and societal infrastructure – now all of it is gone. But we liked where the story had taken us. It was a gritty, ruthless 80s Sci-Fi action film, and we were all about it. It painted a portrait of Max as a mysterious loner aimlessly wandering the desert, doing anything to survive, yet offering himself sacrificially to basically anyone he encountered who needed help. But for all it had going for it, it was a bit too obviously “the middle film in a series of films.”

The third installment, Beyond Thunderdome, starts off trying to be a bigger budget version of Road Warrior (it was the first film of the series funded by American money). Here’s Max again, aimlessly wandering around, and – oh look! He’s found trouble again. Only now it’s even more ridiculous. And for exactly the first half of the movie, I was with it. Sure, it was ripe with 1985 everything – including a far-fetched plot and hokey characters – but it was still good ol’ Max doing what he does best. Only the director (George Miller, who started the franchise) bowed out for the second half after a close friend of his died, and someone else took over. And the film takes a subsequent nose-dive.

First there’s a foray into a Lord-of-the-Flies-meets-the-Lost-Boys tribe of children who Max inexplicably vows to lead and protect (okay, whatever, I guess that’s kinda what he always does), but then they all end up back in Villain-town for some reason, and of course there’s a silly battle, out of which choo-choos a train from nowhere! All right! A train! This is gonna get good!

…But instead it gets worse. The final showdown is a lack-luster chase, and magically Max finds his old aeronautic buddy at the end of the train tracks, who flies all the children to freedom, leaving Max behind for a really stupid reason. But it’s okay, because Tina Turner – ruthless murderess though she is – decides for no reason just to leave Max alone.

Really, considering how awful the third film is, it’s a surprise anyone ever thought to reboot the whole thing. I’m very glad they did, though. They’ve built a fine film in and of itself, but one which is also loaded with the same cool tropes that started it all: grandma with a shotgun, Max’s trademarks (gimpy leg, leather jacket, double-barreled, sawed-off shotgun, and cool car [the last of the Interceptors!]), sawing through a chain of some sort, high-speed explosions, sheer desperation, inward and outward deformity, the scary politics of sexual dominance, the profound metaphor of human power represented by automotive power, and the struggle within all of us to find our humanity in this indifferent “wasteland” of a world which we are all forced to share.

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