Well-crafted fantasy fiction about a team of young trainees tackling dangerous missions.


The Black River Chronicles


From the Black River Academy series , Vol. 1

A novel follows a new student at the Black River Academy of Swordcraft and Spellcraft.

Durren Flintrand, a young ranger (a fantasy analog to a forest scout in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales), is introduced to a diverse group of other beginning students. There is the aptly named Tia Locke, a rogue (a fantasy genre professional thief), the oafish Hule Tremick, a fighter (an equivalent to a mercenary soldier), and Areinelimus Ironheart Thundertree, a tremulous female dwarf (in the Tolkien sense) wizard. Together, the four of them form “Party eighteen,” a sort of trainee adventure squad for fighting monsters, exploring mysterious places, and protecting the weak and helpless. Accompanied by Pootle, a disembodied eyeball assigned to be their observer, they are thrown into perilous operations by the teachers at the academy. With a mismatched set of personalities and diverse skill sets, the members of Party eighteen find themselves frequently at odds and in one another’s way. They must learn to work together and get along, overcoming their weaknesses and growing in confidence, skill, and ability to cooperate. Because of their youth and inexperience, they begin their “studies” with relatively small hazards—their first task is to recover merchant goods stolen by rat-people bandits. Nothing is perfectly safe, not even unicorns in the forest. But the young students’ learning curve is matched by ever-increasing risks, and soon they find their basic training is in the shadow of greater evils than the academy had ever warned them about. Tallerman (Passive Resistance, 2016, etc.) and debut author Wills freely borrow from the pop culture of “Dungeons & Dragons,” “World of Warcraft,” and similar fantasy adventure games, down to the “Level One” in the book’s title. In this way, the text partakes of both the strengths and weaknesses of “gaming fiction” (a notoriously lightweight subgenre of fantasy) as well as the obvious parallels to J.K. Rowling’s famous wizarding school. Familiarity takes some of the wonder away from the fantastic, but the authors compensate with superb pacing, competent writing, well-described action, fun situations, and appealing characters. The first in a series, the book remains a pleasant confection.

Well-crafted fantasy fiction about a team of young trainees tackling dangerous missions.

Pub Date: Sept. 28, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-927598-51-1

Page Count: 294

Publisher: Digital Fantasy Fiction

Review Posted Online: Nov. 22, 2016

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.


High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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