Monday, March 26, 2012

Book Review: Earth Mother's Grace by Anthony Baus

Earth Mother's Grace by Anthony Baus is a swords and sorcery fantasy featuring a demon and a shaman who fall in love, and their fight against an evil god.

Update: The author has since removed their book and is rewriting it, so look for a new and improved version sometime... sometime!

It's definitely a bit choppy at the start, and is entirely swords & sorcery fantasy, so it won't be for everyone. But by the time I was half way through, I was happily getting into the story and had upgraded it from 'does the job' to 'I'd recommend this to someone that I thought would like this sort of book'. So, if you're looking for a reasonably solid, fun fantasy read with magic and fighting, gods and heroes, good and evil, then I do recommend it. The strong lesbian main characters are a bonus, and the main story is worth sticking around for.

Hassaket is an escaped demon-succubus-winged being type, known as a Herald, who has escaped from a terrible God, Lord Irikiti, who revels in suffering and death. She's decided to raise rebellion against him, and first assists, and then enlists the aid of, the shaman, Fire Shrike. Together they devastate the encroaching army that is menacing Fire Shrike's nomadic tribe, but Hassaket is rejected by the Skiras and the two of them set off into an enslaved province, bringing back the previous God and overthrowing the priesthood, before attempting to free other cities and the Skiras people. Naturally, Lord Irikiti objects to this.

 This is a fun book, full of magic and some pretty good fight scenes, with two strong, powerful, and very much in love, female leads. There are plenty of male characters throughout the book, and they range from noble to monstrous to ... well, human, so it doesn't come across as deliberately over the top women's rights; it just read as an book that happened to have female leads. Who are also in love. And that is pretty awesome.

The characters, and the way they slotted neatly into quests, swords and sorcery, as well a relatively smooth love, was highly reminiscient of Swords & Sorcery RPG style games and stories. Many of the elements were similar, with priests, magic, good and evil, healing, boss battles and a worshipful populace all feeling like they'd stepped out of various Dungeons & Dragons style settings. This isn't exactly a criticism, it's just a strong theme. Many of the apparently miscellaneous cultures, roles and magical rules later settle into slightly complicated and original patterns.

The mythology and the characters also reminded me of the whole RPG genre; a mishmash of religions and cultures, from the tribalistic Skiras, with elements of Native American mythology (shamans, nomadic, the Wendigo and Earth Mother, being named after animals), to the Egyptian, slightly more complicated, or advanced, gods and peoples (with human sacrifices, temples, cities, and names like 'Hassaket', among other things). Gods ranged from powers of nature, to specific personalities aligned somewhere along the spectrum of good and evil. Generally, the cultures seem to be primitive; Bronze Age is probably the best description.

The shakiest bits are in the beginning, which is choppy and often confusing. The writing in the middle is often very good, or at least gets out of the way as I read enough that I don't notice it anymore (which is always worth mentioning when someone's reading with their critic-brain turned on!). And noticeably, there are hardly any typos or 'spellchecker corrections' (e.g. loose instead of lose). I found two in the entire first half of the book. The writing gives the feel of having been edited to death, and possibly a little over zealously, where sentence length is concerned.  It was frequently a bit stilted, with many, many short sentences. It was easier to cope with than the alternative sin of rambling over-description all in one sentence, though, and the writing does relax more as one reads.

The worst plot points and story telling moments tend to feature an assumption that we know where the characters are coming from. The story fails to unpack all the motivations and viewpoints of the characters,  especially - mostly, actually - at the beginning. Which is fine, except when it's the main plot points that are confusing, so we don't understand where characters are coming from or why they're doing certain things.

The most glaring cases were:
  • when Fire Shrike's people were reacting to their going off together, it was often very unclear which was upsetting them; the lesbian aspect, or the 'demon from hell' part. They seemed to pick and choose which to react to, and it was never both.
  • Their whole relationship right at the start was equally confusing from the outside; are they pairing up because they are attracted to each other or are they seeing a good (or the only possible) partner for vengeance, etc, and then later fall in love? Or both? 
  • When the pair sweep in to start a revolution and help the oppressed Lasrah people... suddenly they're demanding the right to rule in exchange for their assistance? That never came up before and seemed to come out of nowhere, and definitely threw me out of the story for a while. It wasn't really necessary either, as the story sorted itself out anyway.
Later, most of these issues stop mattering - when Hassaket enlists the aid of the god, and becomes a hero, it makes sense for the city to follow her; the two of them are clearly in love and the reactions start to be about 'eep, scary demon' and 'our great saviours', and make much more sense. And we run into another lesbian, and it's made clear that they're pretty rare, and generally not accepted, which helps anchor past and future reactions. There's character, plot and world development, and we're overall much more interested in, and able to visualise and enjoy, what is going on.

The magic is a good example of both the cultural mishmash and the initial shakiness that works itself out. At the start, we have 'random demoness meets Earth-power shaman' and I was wondering if there was any logic behind their respective, wildly clashing, powers, or if the story was working solely under the Rule of Cool (i.e. it makes awesome explosions! What other justification do we need?). But by the end of the story, when we've met different cultures and gods in action, and seen quite a lot of our two main characters, the magic settles into consistent types, which are familiar enough to grasp easily, but original enough to be interesting (e.g. that Fire Shrike's magic works with the dead, is heavily spiritual, and includes healing and nature). I found some of it quite fascinating. And the first few scenes weren't inconsistent, they just lacked context, so looking back, I rate them higher than I did on a first read through.

It also has some of the most best cover art I have ever seen in a self-published book, by the illustrator Xi Lu. Though the characters I ended up seeing in my head were quite different; earthy and strong and real and scary, rather than ethereal fashion-skinny types (but then, I tend not to get on with manga-style art. There's a reason that the Other Reviewer does most of the manga reviewing).

It reminded me a lot of Gary Gygax's books; generally considered terrible, formulaic writing by critics, but I found them fun to read, and I think they sold pretty well. He nailed most of the fantasy archetypes and quest elements very well (he was the guy behind Dungeons & Dragons, if you don't recognise the name). So I would be careful who I recommended them to - but if you do like fun fantasy stuff with recognisable heroes, quests, RPG-ish characters, gods, and good and evil - and would like to have lesbian leads, for once! - then this is a good book for you.

You can download Earth Mother's Grace from Amazon

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  1. Thank you so much for the insightful review! I really appreciate it as a newcomer to writing! I would like to copy and post this on my Amazon page. If that is ok, how many stars am I authorized to rate Earth Mother's Grace?

    PS, I went to the Amazon select program, so I had to take my Smashwords version down.

    - Anthony

  2. Hi Anthony!

    Thanks for the heads up on Smashwords, fixed that.

    I'm glad you found the review worth reading (hopefully potential readers will too!) and my apologies for taking so long to get it up.

    I hate giving star ratings :D I gave it a 3.5/5 (i.e. a respectable better than average, but not up in the Greats that I throw at everyone). We keep a running list of ratings on this page if you want to see how we rate other books. And I appreciate you double-checking; we've had a couple of average-slightly-positive reviews described as 'five stars', which left me shaking my head a bit!

    Grabbing quotes from reviews is fine and common practice, putting the entire thing up elsewhere isn't so good (if you didn't mean that, ignore my clarifying). If you're going to add this to your product page, I suggest excerpting a couple of whatever you judge to be the most relevant paragraphs (less if a snappy quote looks good); partly because blog reviews like this one tend to be a bit too long for Amazon and readers will skip it, partly because if they do want to read the whole thing, we'd like the traffic!

    Muahaha. I can never write a short reply. And rarely a short review, either.
    - Cat

  3. I am just appreciative for the review. There is a huge cloud of self-published fantasy out there, so any attention is great. Can't seem to get Amazon to register half a star, so I rounded up to "4."

    - Anthony

  4. Ha, yeah, I'd probably rate it a 4 on Amazon, come to think of it. Amazon stars are more about whether something's worth buying, than an objective/subjective rating of the work on its own merits.

    Hope you get some sales out of it!
    - Cat