Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Indie Book Review: Asatru For Beginners

A few days ago I got a new review query, this one had a book in it called Asatru For Beginners.  Asatru is a recreated version of the ancient Norse religions.  Now, I was a religious studies major in college.  I've got friends in the Pagan and Wiccan communities.  I'm pretty well versed in the various New Age magickal philosophies.  I read fantasy. I write fantasy. I'm up to date on my European mythos.  No one needed to point out to me who Wednesday was in American Gods.  So this looked like a fine addition to the vast pile of religious information in my arsenal.  I was happy to accept it for review.

Now, I'm not, by any stretch of anyone's imagination, an expert on Norse mythology.  I can identify Odin, Freya, Midgard, Thor, etc... and because of my RS background concepts like a multipartite soul was  already something I'd run into, but given all of that, I found Asatru For Beginners to be confusing.

First off, the formatting was doing nothing to make the reading easier.  The Kindle sample I downloaded had real issues.  On the most basic level, if you start the book off with a FAQ, doing something to differentiate the questions from the answers (indenting, starting them off with Q: or A:, putting the questions in bold or italic, anything) would have made the reading easier.   Maybe post FAQ the formatting improved.  But the author sent me a .doc version, so I don't know if the Kindle version improved.

Secondly, beginning with a FAQ was a bit odd.  Not just because of the questions asked (Did the Vikings wear helmets with horns on their heads?  Are all Asatuars white?) and not asked (Who are the main gods? What is Ragnarok?) but because if you really are a beginner a quick overview before getting into the FAQ would have been helpful.  Beyond a FAQ, what this book very much needed was a glossary.  For every question the FAQ answered there were at least three terms with no definition or a definition that occurred much later in the book.  Likewise, a pronunciation guide would have come in handy.  Terms like: Fjorgynn, Ljossalfheim, fylgia, have no sound in my mind.  I have no idea how to pronounce them.

Thirdly, it is very clear this was written by someone who knows absolute scads of information on the subject, and has known scads of information for so long that she's forgotten what sorts of things a beginner doesn't know.  For example: there's a section with a list of gods, in this section we learn of the god's hall and where the god has influence.  Now, while I'm sure this information is useful to someone who already knows something about the subject, if you don't really know what a hall is or where these places are supposed to be, it's confusing.  Likewise the term Ragnarok is used something like twenty times before it's defined.  In effect this book would more correctly be called Asatru For Already Conversant with Norse Mythology, or Asatru For the Low Intermediate.

Fourthly, the organization of this book left a lot to be desired.  It's laid out in sections: Frequently Asked Questions, History, The Gods, Other Beings, Beliefs and Morality, Rituals, The Three Kinds of Magic, and Resources.  Now, as a logical flow goes this didn't flow all that well.  There were often bits where I'd want more information, and that information would be in a later section.  As I understand a religion it's the beliefs that are the core.  I would have started there, moved into rituals (as we learn in the beliefs section Asatru is a religion of actions, not belief), then gods and other beings, slid from there into history, finished up with magic, and then wrapped up the book with the FAQ, Glossary, and list of resources.  

So, now that we've gotten the book as a device for the transmittal of information out of the way, how about the quality of that information?  Now, as I said earlier I'm not an expert on this subject, but from the very brief bit of independent research I did, everything in the book looked fine.  Other Asatruas might have different opinions on the subject, but to an outsider it appeared to be complete.  The writing was engaging and fairly easy to follow.  It was a quick and pleasant two hour read with a good deal of information I had never run into before.

As a religion Asatru had things I appreciated, and bits I was less than thrilled with.  I'm a fan of religions based on actions rather than beliefs, and Asatru is a religion of action.  You do not have to believe in literal land spirits to be an Asatruar, but you do have keep the folkways.  Likewise the idea that works of both men and women is of value held appeal.  And the very intense affection for freedom struck a resonant chord.  However, as a moral framework, Asatru did nothing for me.  But, as the author pointed out, it's the morality of a pirate culture.  These were not pacifistic farmers living in harmony tilling the soil.  This is a recreated version of the faith of the Vikings, and the Vikings were not known as easy neighbors. There appears to be no idea that a human is of value because he is a human.  Anything that improves the lot of the (family, clan, tribe, country, the unit gets bigger as populations grow) is good, anything that harms that is evil.  Rape, murder, theft, those are all fine and dandy, as long as not done to members of your group, meanwhile oath breaking is considered just as bad as killing a member of your group.  And, while I'm a massive fan of keeping your pledges, I'm also a fan of the idea that humans are of value, and harming outsiders for personal gain is not appropriate.       

In effect Asatru is a religion where the actions of the Nazis can be seen as honorable.  They were, after all, out conquering their neighbors to improve the lot of their own (narrowly defined) group.  The Jews, gays, politicals, mental and physical defectives were all defined as "others."  They weren't part of the master race.  Killing them and confiscating their goods to enrich the race is, by Asatru thinking, a moral good.  The great irony here being that the Asatruars were also rounded up, classified as politicals, and killed by the Nazis.  Now, the author points out that she personally considers fascism evil, but she also points out that's her own personal interpretation of their morality, and that others disagree.  Obviously, I may be missing some of the subtleties of the religion, and I'm going off of just the one book here, but I'm not seeing anything besides a sense of personal disgust that would condemn the Nazis or any other group before or since that decided to destroy the "other" to enrich itself.

At the same time, there is an elegant and unapologetic simplicity to the morality of Asatru.  The rules are exceptionally easy to follow.  There is no existential angst, no worries as to the nature of salvation or forgiveness.  Sin is a matter of breaking the law, and the laws are few and far between.  Live well, enrich you and yours, keep your word, die fighting your enemies, and you too shall dwell in the halls of your gods, feasting and practicing combat until the end times come and you once again pick up your sword and fight for your kind. 

All in all, if you really are a beginner, I'd suggest heading over to Wikipedia and searching Asatru.  Not only will you get about the same amount of information (about 20k words) but the Wiki article is easier to understand and better organized.  Then, once you've read that, go get Asatru For Beginners to start filling in the holes and rounding out the picture.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Blog Tour: Elements of the Soul

This week I'm hosting a blog tour by Walker Author Toursfor Elements of the Soul.   Here is a collection of questions/answers by the authors of the various short stories in the collection.

How has having a book published changed your life?

When you tell people you are a writer they always ask if you have anything published. If you don't they give you a skeptical look and patronizing smile. Having a book published adds credibility to my writing. Having a book published means being able to actually hold my dream in my hand. It allows me to hand that dream to those who supported me and tell them, "Look, you helped me create this, this is my dream." It is a wonderful way of saying thank you. – Rissa Watkins

Is there an established writer you admire and emulate in your own writing? Do you have a writing mentor?

While I don’t really emulate his writing, my mentor has been Timothy Westmoreland. I was lucky enough to have him as a professor for a couple of creative writing classes during my undergraduate days, and he did more towards helping polish and refine my writing than I had even guessed was possible. – Thor Gunnin

It's rare today to find an author who does nothing but write for a living. Do you have a 'real' job other than writing, and if so, what is it? What are some other jobs you've had in your life?

I actually do write full time, although I also teach ballroom dancing on the side. I do freelance work through Walker Writing Services, where I write anything people need—press releases, website content, or articles. I just started a new company called Your Document Professionals ( to provide writing services to small and medium businesses. – Jennifer Walker

Have you ever won any writing awards? If so, what?

As a reporter, the writing and reporting are sort of tied together, so the writing awards I have received were all called reporting awards. In 1988, I was named journalist of the year for the Rocky Mountain College Press Association for a combination of feature, editorial and hard news writing. The contest is conducted at the annual conference for the RMCPA. I also won various awards for my content while writing for my college newspaper. – Lucinda Gunnin

How did you feel the day you learned you would be published?

I was on cloud nine! There’s really an amazing feeling to know that your name will be on a book, and that people might buy it and read it. I have received so much support from my friends, family and many strangers who read and loved my stories. It’s a huge amount of satisfaction. – Jennifer Walker

The main characters of your stories - do you find that you put a little of yourself into each of them or do you create them to be completely different from you?

How can you not put some of you into your characters?  I don’t do it consciously, but if there is no deep connection, nothing you can look at and say, “I feel that. I understand,” I’m not sure how you can write believable characters.  M. Lori Motley

What compelled you to start writing?
I have always loved writing. As a child, I would come up with stories and plays and perform them for my family. Of course, I had grandiose ideas of sets, costumes, and charging for tickets to the production, but unfortunately the product wasn't quite worth the price of admission. Books played a large part in influencing my love of writing. I constantly had my nose in a book, and was always fascinated when a book held me so captive that I felt as though I was the main character of the story. – Lindsay Maddox

The main characters of your stories - do you find that you put a little of yourself into each of them or do you create them to be completely different from you?

Yes, I find I put myself and other people into stories but I tweak the characters to better fit the storyline. – George Kramer

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Since I was old enough to realize that there were people behind the books that I loved to read, that they didn't just appear on shelves, I have wanted to write. That is what I wanted to do. I wanted to create those worlds of words for people to get lost in...if only for a short time. – Susan Weaver Sosbe

Do you have any pets? What are they? Tell us about them.

I have a dog; Mocha is a Chow/Shepherd mix. I adopted him from an animal rescue that I was writing an article about. I saw his face and had to have him. He is my writing companion during the day and follows me everywhere I go. – Rissa Watkins

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Indie Book Review: Death Has A Name

Death Has a Name by Jerry Hannel is a lovely bit paranormal mystery.  Several other reviewers of this book claimed they couldn't put it down, and while that wasn't literally true for me, it was as close to being true as I ever get with a book.  

So, what is so wonderful about this little gem?  Brodie Wade. 

There's a term from fan fiction that has crept into the world of original fiction: Mary Sue (or if male, Gary Stu).  A Mary Sue is a character that can do anything.  She's got amazing powers, gorgeous looks, a winning personality, there's no problem she can't solve, and she's probably kind to animals as well.  She's just perfect.  And, she's annoying as hell.  Unfortunately she has a tendency to show up a lot in fantasy because it's just too easy to write a story where Mary Sue has the magical power that just saves the day.  Now, in good storytelling, if a character has some sort of great power, it also has to have some sort of flaws or weaknesses.  Brodie is an example of good storytelling.

He is described as a psychic.  The Truth (not an Obi Wan Kenobi-your-point-of-view-my-point-of-view-truth, but the literal, Platonic Ideal, imagine it standing next to the rest of Neil Gaiman's Endless, TRUTH) is real and wants people to know it.  Brodie, for whatever reason, can see the Truth, and it can see him.  It's very insistent about getting its message across.  To the point of beating it into Brodie when need be, and it defines need as pretty much whenever Brodie doesn't immediately hop to and do whatever it wants.  So, Brodie has great power; he knows what's really going on, even when he doesn't want to.  He knows he's sane.  He knows what he sees is real.  But he's jumpy, nervous, and constantly on the edge of institutionalization.  Every day of his life is a struggle to hold onto a thin veneer of normal.  And, of course, as a result of this, he doesn't exactly have a booming social life. 

Characters like that make me especially happy.  When I see real world set paranormal/fantasy I want to see characters struggling with the fact that the rest of the world doesn't believe in what they see.  I want to see a cost to great power.  Brodie is a broken mess of a man, but he's a very appealing mess.  The kind of character that encourages a desire to take him home, clean him up, and try to protect him from the big, bad world.  If Hannel had marketed this to the YA world, Brodie would have a huge collection of devoted teen girls swooning over him.  

Okay, before I get too far into fan-girl-mad-crush squeeing, let me get back to being a critical reviewer.  In addition to Brodie, is Detective Phil Dawson.  Brodie uses his skills to freelance investigate cold cases.  Detective Phil is actually a member of the LAPD.  We don't get a lot of backstory, (Actually, we get no backstory on this.) but somehow these two are friends.  Maybe they worked a case together and just clicked.  Maybe Phil also finds Brodie's mess of a life appealing.  For whatever reason, Phil actually likes Brodie; believes, as much as he can, in Brodie's talents; and supports him.  Phil is the guy Brodie calls when he's missing his cat and jonesing for a cigarette to deal with the stress.  (Brodie is very attached to his cat.  If he's got a love of his life, it's the cat.  Hear that sound? It's a thousand teen girls sighing.) 

Brodie wakes up in the middle of the night, his cat is covered in blood, and the Truth wants him to investigate a murder.  The next morning, Phil gets a call: a horrible murder has just happened.    And thus the plot is set in motion, because, of course, those cases are one in the same.       

The pacing is quick, hence the 'couldn't put it down' reviews, and the dialog is sharp.  Without dialog tags you can tell Phil from Brodie.  The plot is interesting, but not overwhelmingly complex, which also aids in keeping the pacing quick.  Though this isn't the greatest comparison, not the least because they spend no time in a lab, this book reads a lot like an episode of CSI.  There's not a ton of background on the characters, the case is the primary motive aspect of the plot, and the writing is tight. 

The lack of background is my main quibble with this story. I would have liked to have seen a deeper backstory.  I would have liked to know why Phil believes in Brodie.  I would have liked more information about The Apprentice (the bad guy), Contego Veritas (the mysterious organization protecting the world from Death), how the whole Death thing worked (Death is trapped in a box kept safe by Contego Veritas, and trying to get The Apprentice to get him out.)  You've probably seen someone say a book is only as good as its villain?  Well, that's not necessarily true.  This is a good book, but the villain is very sketchy.  An extra fifty pages spent following him, showing us how he got to where he was, what was motivating him, how he was finding his victims, all would have been welcome.  More than welcome, that would have made this very good book a great one.

Brodie is the only character we get any real backstory on.  I would have liked to know more about him as well, but I think the level we got was appropriate.  There are mysteries left to solve and quirks left to discover for later novels. 

My other quibble with the book was the ending seemed rushed.  Phil's storyline gets dropped.  We leave him hanging, having to prove his case is right under penalty of losing his job.  The reader knows he's correct, but we never find out if he's able to convince his supervisor he was right, soon enough to not get fired.  I understand why it was left out, after all, we already know how the story ended, but a bit of extra wrap up on him would have been nice.  Likewise Brodie's storyline also felt a little rushed.  Not bad, but very quick.  All the plot lines converged in a matter of minutes (literally, in story time the climax takes maybe fifteen minutes tops) into the climax of the story. 

All in all Death Has a Name made me very happy.  I'll call it an extremely well recommended four star.  Brodie will be back soon, and I'm looking forward to it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Indie Book Review: The Summoner

Spoiler alert: read at your own risk!

So, what do stories and chocolate have in common?  They both come in different levels of darkness.  Some days you want light creamy white chocolate, sweet with just the scent of chocolate.  Some days you want black, bitter, barely sweet with hints of the land it grew in 80% cocoa chocolate.  The Summoner is a dark story.  This is not a light, cute, or fun little read, but when you're in the mood for a dark story, it satisfies like Dagoba Eclipse (87% cocoa) chocolate.  

For a little self revelation here, Paranormal Thriller is not my first choice genre.  Not that I don't like it, but I don't seek it out either.  But if it's yours, The Summoner is an excellent example and well worth the reading.

This is the first book in a series, and as such the story arc gets the characters together and gives them a reason to stay together.  In a weaker writer's hand this becomes the main focus of the story, and the plot suffers for it.  This is not true of the Summoner, the plot, although neatly accomplishing this goal, is not overpowered by it.  Also, unlike other several other ensemble stories, where it seems like the only reason the group could possibly stay together or function is the author wants it that way, these characters actually work together well.   

And who are these characters?  Dominic is the leading man.  He's working diplomatic security for the American Embassy in Harare Zimbabwe, and watching his career fizzle like the last ember of a campfire with a wet towel tossed on it.  As he puts it, his moral compass and the moral compass of his bosses do not agree on what direction north is.  He values everyone's life.  They'd prefer he did his job, making sure the (American) people around him are safe, ignoring whatever chaos and danger might be around unless it threatens them. 

Then a friend of the American Ambassador, a man called William Addison, goes missing.  He and his girlfriend visit a religious ceremony in the bush.  William walks into the center of the ceremony and vanishes.  Because he's a friend of the Ambassador there will be an attempt to find him.  Dominic gets called in to investigate (Why him specifically is a little fuzzy.  We're left with the impression that he was available.  He wasn't a cop or missing persons investigator in his pre-security life, and most of his current investigations are in visa fraud.)  But this is Zimbabwe, so it's not like he can just go off and John Wayne it.  The Zimbabwean government wants him to have someone from the Government with him at all times. 

Enter Nya.  We don't ever find out what specifically she does for the government, but we do know that investigating missing Americans isn't part of her usual tasks.  She's reserved, mistrustful of the Americans, and has a vaguely sinister air about her.  After all, she works for the Zimbabwean government, not an entity known for its justice, competence, or its dedication to providing the best possible outcomes for anyone who isn't the government.   She's wary of Dominic, unsure if he's a colonial lay about, out to abuse the locals, or an ineffectual do-gooder.  He's wary of her, seeing a woman willing to work for Mugabe's thugs. 

Between them: the professor.  Victor is a religious phenomenologist.  He studies how people understand the things that happen in relation to religious experience.  He's the guy who wants to know how people react to a bleeding statue of the Virgin Mary, not the guy who tries to figure out why it's bleeding.  He's also my favorite of the characters.  The fact that I've got a degree in religious studies and did some course work on phenomenology may have something to do with this.  The fact that we're not given much background on him, and he's left a mysterious and complexly dark character is also part of the attraction.

And so the story begins, these three are going to find William and learn to trust each other.  Of course, it's not a simple disappearance.  Like the X-files at it's best, this is dark, creepy, and by the end you don't know if magic actually happened or not. Both Scully and Mulder could have walked away from this case satisfied that their own personal truths had been vindicated. 

The setting is Harare, Zimbabwe, and the surrounding suburbs and bush.  Before reading this story what I knew about Zimbabwe could be summed up like this: it was doing its best to make North Korea look competently governed.  After finishing The Summoner, I want to get more books on Zimbabwe and it's religions to learn more about it.  Reading The Summoner I feel like I was there, that for a little while at least, I got to spend some time in a beautiful country ruined by ugly men.  The setting also works as a metaphor for the religious ceremony at the heart of this case.  The dark Juju ritual is exotic and terrifying.  It, like Zimbabwe, is far outside the experience of most westerners, and tinged with a vague sense of discomforting awfulness.    

I liked the romance, but it's a men's romance.  There's basically only one spot in the story where a bit of lovin' fits in, and it's right there.  I don't know if it's common enough to be a cliché, but I've certainly seen it in a lot of stories written by men.  The hero gets beaten to a pulp.  The heroine patches him up.  They've got a few hours until it's time to move onto whatever the next step it.  Sex ensues.  The romance makes sense and is in character for the characters, but as soon as you see Nya going for the first aid equipment, you know what's coming.  What I did find especially refreshing (though this might be a side effect of being written by a man) is that Dominic and Nya certainly like each other, and are tentatively moving toward something solid and permanent, but they don't start spouting declarations of undying love.  Characters that fall in love in three days turn me off.  Characters that value each other and are willing to fight for each other in that short of a time make me very happy.  

I have one fine quibble with The Summoner, on several occasions the plot is forward by the characters doing stupid things.  They have a tendency to wander off and investigate on their own, without telling the others what they're up to.  Now, I get these aren't bosom buddies who have long ties to each other, but still, people are getting killed, the bad guys are really bad, with torture and fates literally worse than death on the menu, and still, keeping each other in the loop is haphazard at best. 

In storytelling there is the meta story, the story as built by the author.  Characters acting stupid to keep the plot going is the kind of thing where the meta story starts to show to the reader.  If the characters do a good job of checking in with each other, then the death-defying, last-minute, out-of-the-blue rescue can't happen.  If everyone keeps everyone in the loop, the mystery of what happened to Nya doesn't work, and the reveal of the bad guy happens a bit sooner than Green wants it to. 

Another example of the meta showing is Dominic is a jujitsu master.  He's a match for any two guys, and often more than that.  He was a Marine.  He's got deadly force down.  But, when going to the rescue, when he has the advantage of both range and surprise, instead of pulling out a gun and blowing the bad guy away, he closes in for fist fight. (The careful reader will mention here, but he didn't have a gun to pull out.  He'd lost his gun by that point.  To which I'd reply, why didn't he get a new one or find his old one earlier?  He had time and opportunity to do both between losing his gun and getting into the position where he could have shot.  He doesn't have a gun because the author wants it that way.)  Victor, also in perfect sniper position, opts for creeping in unarmed, and taking his chances instead of shooting the N'ganga (The Summoner, the alpha bad guy) from afar.  Now, a few clean bullets don't make for good storytelling.  They don't ratchet up the drama.  They don't allow for more last minute saves and tension filled fights where Green gets to show us how good he is at writing combat (and he is good at it.)  They do however, make a whole lot of sense if you believe the set up, that Nya is being horribly tortured, her skin ripped off a few inches at a time, and that every minute they delay is another minute in excruciating pain for her.  If you believe in that set up, and supposedly those characters do, they should be doing everything they can to move as fast as possible to get her out of there.

This is not a perky little read.  There is no happily ever after here, especially not for William.  The mystery of what happened to him is solved, but everyone is left with scars, physical and or mental, from this case.  I found the ending is all the more satisfying for it's reality.  Dark, gritty, stories where horrible things happen and then the main characters skip off into the sunset are like walking in too small shoes to me: irritating and painful.  While I'm sure Dominic and Victor will be back, I'm less certain about Nya.  She may be too broken to have much of a role in the coming stories.  Or not.  We're left with some hope, but no certainty with her.  The one thing I do know with certainty, when Dominic Gray II comes out, I'll be there to read it.