Realistic, character-driven fantasy that manages to both sever limbs and warm the heart.


Touch of Iron

In this dark YA fantasy debut, teenage twins are swept up in a prince’s quest for a legendary blade.

Seventeen-year-old twins Noraya and Owen Smith, the adopted children of a blacksmith named Rannoch, have left their home at the Ridge to cross the Plains. Owen dreams of becoming a pilgrim—a scholarly nomad—while Nora simply wants to escape the path of marriage, children, and boredom. With three weeks of travel ahead and winter approaching, they venture forth and soon meet Master Telen Diaz, a half-wight pilgrim with all-black eyes, who’s escorting the exiled Prince Bashan, the seeker of the Living Blade. Bashan, by using a sword that can “meld with its wielder to unleash a power so great it can change the course of the world,” hopes to take the throne back from his half sister. The Kandarin Empire, meanwhile, is overrun by marauders, and the twins see from the road that the Ridge is burning. Owen continues on with the Hunted Company—which, aside from Diaz, is full of thieves and murderers—to the Temple of the Wind, and Nora returns home. She finds the Ridge a charred wasteland, with everyone she knows dead or enslaved. She always carries a knife that brings her a “Touch of iron” and a “Touch of home,” and, with it, she itches for vengeance. Author Whitecastle’s debut offers a rigorous critique of the mythic-quest fantasy trope, portraying Prince Bashan as a sleazy powermonger who’s willing to burn ancient libraries to get the knowledge he seeks. As the narrative gallops between blood-drenched battles and character-driven stretches, Whitecastle conservatively introduces magical elements, maintaining a grim realism throughout. The dialogue, particularly Nora’s, often seems to wink at modern readers, as when Diaz says that “Wights can endure extreme temperatures,” and Nora replies, “That explains why you’re always so hot.” The many genuinely romantic moments between Diaz and Nora are like breaks of blue sky amid the carnage, which aren’t easily found in this genre. The excellent pacing and organic plotting will bring audiences back for the sequel.

Realistic, character-driven fantasy that manages to both sever limbs and warm the heart.

Pub Date: May 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5330-8043-1

Page Count: 354

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2016

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Like a weary yet exultant marathon runner: wraps itself in a flag, totters across the finish line, and crumples in a heap.


The chronological conclusion to both the four-book Fall of Shannara miniseries and the entire Shannara oeuvre established in 1977.

What began as a standard sword-and-sorcery universe has morphed into one where magic and technology coexist, where heroes zoom around in airships powered by something akin to dilithium crystals yet still fight with swords and blast each other with magic. Here, the Four Lands face destruction by the warlike Skaar, invaders driven from their home by climate change. Four groups with dominant female leads operate largely independently and often without reference to the plot's main thrust. Tarsha Kaynin, schooled in wishsong magic by the druid Drisker Arc, faces a showdown battle with the evil witch Clizia Porse. The witch has hurled Drisker into a demon-infested realm from which there's no escape, where he discovers Grianne Ohmsford, an old acquaintance, a long-term prisoner. Young Belladrin Rish, a clandestine Skaar agent working to subvert the Four Lands’ defenses, begins to doubt her mission. And Skaar princess Ajin D'Amphere, now collaborating with warrior Dar Leah and friends, heads toward Skaarland with, just possibly, a technological solution to the climate problem. Familiar Brooks strengths—courage, perseverance, loyalty, and so forth—are prominent, yet it's hard to ignore the underlying exhaustion. Things happen randomly, so the narrative strands never quite cohere into a single satisfying package; events readers might have anticipated from the previous volumes fail to materialize. Brooks' style is easy and undemanding. His characters often resemble fantasy archetypes yet possess just enough individuality to avoid skepticism; plots seldom stray far from boilerplate. His greatest appeal has been to youth, and recent attempts to inject mature themes such as sexual violence have not been a success. As he has pretty much throughout the entire Shannara cosmos, Brooks takes his departure with the contention that science and magic are flip sides of the same coin. They're not. Science works for anybody. Magic works only if you have the gift.

Like a weary yet exultant marathon runner: wraps itself in a flag, totters across the finish line, and crumples in a heap.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-399-17854-2

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Del Rey

Review Posted Online: March 29, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2020

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If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be...


Some very nice, very smart African-Americans are plunged into netherworlds of malevolent sorcery in the waning days of Jim Crow—as if Jim Crow alone wasn’t enough of a curse to begin with.

In the northern U.S. of the mid-1950s, as depicted in this merrily macabre pastiche by Ruff (The Mirage, 2012, etc.), Driving While Black is an even more perilous proposition than it is now. Ask Atticus Turner, an African-American Korean War veteran and science-fiction buff, who is compelled to face an all-too-customary gauntlet of racist highway patrolmen and hostile white roadside hamlets en route from his South Side Chicago home to a remote Massachusetts village in search of his curmudgeonly father, Montrose, who was lured away by a young white “sharp dresser” driving a silver Cadillac with tinted windows. At least Atticus isn’t alone; his uncle George, who puts out annual editions of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, is splitting driving duties in his Packard station wagon “with inlaid birch trim and side paneling.” Also along for the ride is Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia Dandridge, another sci-fi fan, whose family lived in the same neighborhood as the Turners. It turns out this road trip is merely the beginning of a series of bizarre chimerical adventures ensnaring both the Turner and Dandridge clans in ancient rituals, arcane magical texts, alternate universes, and transmogrifying potions, all of which bears some resemblance to the supernatural visions of H.P. Lovecraft and other gothic dream makers of the past. Ruff’s ripping yarns often pile on contrivances and overextend the narratives in the grand manner of pulp storytelling, but the reinvented mythos here seems to have aroused in him a newfound empathy and engagement with his characters.

If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be doing triple axels in his grave at the way his imagination has been so impudently shaken and stirred.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-229206-3

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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