Book Review – C.W. Thomas’s Where Serpents Strike

I think I owe my blog a book review.  I haven’t done (a complete) one yet, and it’s one of the main things I wanted to focus on now that my writing is more in the hands of beta readers than my own.  Because I am striving to be an independent author, I’ve decided that most of my reviews will be on books by other independent authors.

Book Title:  Where Serpents Strike

Author:  C.W. Thomas (www.cwthomas-fantasy.blogspot.com)

Word Count:  Not certain, but page count is 537

Date Published:  February 19th 2016

Sequels/Series: Yes

Cost:  Free on Sale, normally $0.99 for Kindle, $19.95 for print

Plot:  The bare-bones plot is your basic ‘dark lord (Orkrash Mahl in this case) wants to rule over all’ scenario.  Nothing really original (what is these days?), but the set-up is solid and intense from the get-go.  Black vipers, soldiers of Orkrash Mahl, rampage Aberdour and scatter the main characters, who happen to be the surviving royal children of Aberdour (mommy and daddy are killed, of course).   Aberdour, settled in the country of Edhen, is apparently the last stronghold against Orkrash Mahl.  There seems to be other rebellious groups scattered in the world, but these don’t get much attention in this novel.  Instead, the focus is on the children surviving and growing into stronger characters who will one day reclaim their homeland and defeat Orkrash.

There are a few weak points in the plot, the main reason being that there wasn’t enough substance to justify certain situations.  The sore thumb for me is the Montrose scene, which ‘apparently fell months ago’ but its refugees settled less than a day’s walk from Aberdour.  The ruling families of Montrose and Aberdour are related, but Montrose didn’t go to Aberdour because ‘rumor had it’ Aberdour had fallen/betrayed to Orkrash.  My concern is why Montrose would settle so close to Aberdour in the first place, or fail to verify if the rumors were true or not considering the family ties.   It makes even less sense when you consider Aberdour was known for offering refuge to civilians ousted by the black vipers in times past.

From here the sub-plots unfold, and you have different characters facing different scenarios and their own unique challenges.  The main subplot concerns the thief Merek and an item called a regenstern.  What the regenstern does, no one knows, but it’s the device for an underplot where the Dark Lord himself may be vulnerable to something even more devious his own ‘subordinates’ have planned for him.  There is some converging of plot points at the end, but leaves enough space for sequential novels.

However, it’s the sub-plots that each character faces that sealed the plot for me.  Brayden, Broderick, and Dana undergo training in hopes to take back their kingdom; Brynlee and Scarlett start off together, but are then sold to a brothel and royal family, respectively; Lia is trained to become an assassin/street performer by a former viper; and Merek has to decide between the regenstern and the sister who was taken because of his ill judgment.  To see each character react and grow in respect to their challenges gives the reader more than one perspective to keep track of and reasons to keep reading.

Overall, the author keeps the ‘ordinary’ main plot up front while hinting to the underplot (I actually think it could use more hinting), but its each character’s unique subplots that really hooked me and persuaded me to keep reading.  Throw in a few challenges (monsters, Vipers, witches, daddy issues, girls, etc.) and the plot rolls along pretty consistently.  It did drag at a few points, mostly during the training sessions at the monastery, but the slow points didn’t take much away from the overall flow of the story.

Characters:  The main cast consists of the five children of the murdered king and queen: Dana (15), Brayden (13), Broderick (11), Lia (10), Brynlee (7), and Scarlett (5), and the thief Merek.   Three years pass between the start and ending of the novel, so each of the children experience a bit of growing pains and puberty.  Sub-characters are plenty as well, and come in the form of mentors, caretakers, rivals, and, to a lesser extent, abusers.

As far as development, Brayden clearly had the biggest hurdle to overcome.  He begins as an apathetic pre-teen but is thrust into the role of ‘man of the family’ once his father dies.  Because it’s made clear that he is reluctant to grow up, he really shines as he starts to take his role as leader of the group, but the author makes him even more real in situations where Brayden doesn’t want to take the role but pulls through anyway.  He really gives his all, and this makes him my favorite character.

Brynlee also has her work cut out for her as a seven to ten-year-old working as a handmaid in a brothel.  While a bit of a filler character at first, her wits and courtesies prove to be invaluable, but I finished the novel wondering just how far they will get her given the volatility of her environment.

The other characters don’t go through nearly as much development.  Dana is forgettable – I can’t think of any situation in which she takes the mantle, or even where she needs to.  Scarlett (who doesn’t speak) is content with observing everything for now, so her reactions are limited.  Broderick, being a bastard child, has some typical daddy issues for which Brayden takes responsibility, so I’m curious to see how their relationship will develop.  Merek, being a grown adult who knows his place in the world, is already rather developed but is the type of character who takes rather dangerous risks, and faces the consequences pretty harshly most of the time.  At the end I wanted to feel sorry for him, but to be honest he brought a lot of situations upon himself to begin with.  He ends the book with being captured, one piece of regenstern remaining out of the six he was ‘trusted’ with.

My least favorite character was Lia.  She’s unfortunately one of those characters who is likeable/understandable at first, but digresses into a worse version of herself by novel’s end.  Basically, she’s the only character who doesn’t develop over the course of the novel, instead becoming a spoiled, egocentric troublemaker who uses her training to benefit herself, not anyone around her.  She also manages to kill three full-grown, fully trained, slightly injured black vipers, which didn’t pass my test on realism (this actually happens several times in the novel with other characters, and by the time I got to this scene with Lia I was annoyed with it).  While at the end she is abandoned by her trainer and left in the ‘care’ of someone more ominous, I felt as the damage had already been done – she has a steep hill to climb if she wants to be likable.

Overall, most characters had development on some level, with some having more than others and becoming those characters whose stories I wanted to read.  Still, I look forward to seeing how each character grows over the subsequent novels.

Setting/World Building:  The setting is your typical ‘dark ages’ type fantasy with mild magic (there are wizards and witches by they don’t do too much this novel).  The story takes place in several countries and dominant cities, which is a bit confusing at first (it took me awhile to realize Edhen and Effren were different) but that’s usually the case when any story is set in a different world.  By the end of the novel it was pretty clear who was from where and where characters were going.

As far as world building, there were a few situations that described the different regions.  The flag game Brynlee plays with Scarlett is good, if short, and she tells the stories with a sense of intelligence that none of the other characters have.  Other than Brynlee, most of the world-building takes place through the eyes of the characters, and since so many places are new to the characters it makes for a good bridge to link the reader to the world.  Scarlett is probably the best example, as she is far removed from the other characters.

Since there are more novels in this series, I do expect the world to build further – this novel seemed more dedicated to character development.

Grammar/Syntax/Flow:  Unfortunately, the latter half of this novel was riddled with spelling and grammar errors.  I can forgive a few, but when common names are misspelled it distracts from the situation.  While the flow was consistent (good description of senses and situations without being overbearing), the syntax was a little off (some dangling modifiers) and the grammar could have used another combing.

(I think in the future, I will be highlighting these errors in my Kindle so I can give specific examples.)

Recommended:  Yes!  Despite the errors and annoyances, I will likely be reading the next novel on my upcoming trip to Vegas in October, if not sooner.  I look forward to more information about the underplot and how Brayden will take up his role as leader of his group.

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