EXCERPT: Notna

I wanted to share with you another snippet of my current WIP, the fantasy/supernatural epic Notna, coming this fall. Please note that this represents an early draft and has not been properly edited as of yet. Any mistakes are my own.

Present Day, Somewhere in the Amazon…

Dark storm clouds, nearly pitch black, rumbled in the night sky. Flashes of lightning hopped from one cloud to the next. The trees shielded much of the wildlife from nature’s fury, but enough drops from the torrential rain fell through the leaves to give the foliage and the ground the sustenance it needed. Each crack of thunder vibrated through the branches all the way to the roots, causing the ground to shake.

Standing amid the foliage was a temple. Its stone was faded and worn, cracks meandering along the foundation. Chunks of rock and rubble piled up near the entrance, which led to nothing but pitch black. But what the Tomb of Notna lacked in aesthetic quality, it made up for in power and mystique. The temple had an aura about it, and the native wildlife kept its distance.

But the elderly man approaching was no local.

Cian was of Greek heritage, his bronze skin wrinkled with age. His left eye was missing and he walked with a noticeable limp — the result of a hip injury in his thirties that never properly healed. Cian hobbled along the rugged ground, his boots so worn that he might as well have been hiking barefoot. His wooden cane dug into the soft ground, mud caked on the end. He ignored the thunder as best he could, but as Cian paused to wipe the sweat from his brow, he couldn’t help but notice each rumble was louder than the last.

Cian stared at the temple in awe. His life’s work stood before him. He had waited half a century for this moment. Nothing — not the wildlife, not old age, not fragile limbs — was going to prevent Cian from seeing this pilgrimage through to the end. He understood what that possibly meant, but as a man who had dedicated his entire adult life to the mystery surrounding the Gem of Notna, he welcomed the thought.

Striking his cane against the base of the temple, Cian flinched when flames erupted from the tip. The fire illuminated the entrance, but little else. Still, Cian took as confident a step forward as his body would allow; it was almost as if he was being pulled inside.

Cian was almost immediately engulfed in darkness. The flame only extended several inches in front of him — a full foot, if he was lucky. He heard what he thought were faint whispers in the humid, acrid air… but Cian figured his mind was playing tricks on him, exhausted due to the lengthy trip and the muggy conditions. Perhaps he should have refilled his canteen down by the river. Cian’s throat was dry, and it worsened with each step he took.

Cian had studied the legend of Notna dating back to his college days — specifically, his undergraduate years at Aristotle of Thessaloniki in the 1960s. Professors had thought him a fool in those days, told him he was chasing fairy tales. But the prophecies within the Narazniyan Scrolls had entranced Cian — so much so that his marriage to Marta, his lifelong love, dissolved.

In 1985, freshly divorced — or free, as Cian put it — he moved to Brazil and took a teaching job at Universidade Candido Mendes. The locals were a little more welcoming of his theories and his obsession, but Cian still didn’t feel completely accepted.

But that was fine. Genius was rarely recognized in the moment.

Cian never wanted the gem, or its power, for himself. His only vice was curiosity. He had to know if the Gem of Notna did, in fact, exist before he died — understanding that the discovery itself might be what killed him.

After all, they did call this place a tomb.

At this age, Cian welcomed death. Not because his life had been fruitless — quite the contrary. But with the hair on his beard ghost white and far more plentiful than whatever was on top of his head, with every step an exercise in pain tolerance, Cian could feel his body starting to give in.

At this point, the gem was all that kept Cian going.

The deeper Cian traveled into the bowels of the temple, the louder the whispers became. He tried to ignore them, but they pierced their way into his psyche… to the point where Cian was now actively listening for them, hoping to glean some meaning from them. But they were little more than gibberish to the elderly scholar, and he shook his head as he continued his descent.

It felt like hours. Cian had to stop to catch his breath, placing the palm of his hand flat against the stone wall to his left. He felt a cockroach flatten under his palm, ignoring the revulsion of bug guts now embedded in his skin.

He seeks the power. Thinks immortality is his for the taking.

Cian jumped and nearly lost the grip on his cane. But the flame died out, leaving him surrounded by pitch black. The voices continued to echo in Cian’s head, but he could no longer make out what they were saying. Beads of sweat trickled down his temple, and Cian’s hands trembled.

Keeping his free hand against the wall to guide himself, Cian started hobbling down the corridor again. Each step was wobbly, his entire body shuddering with effort and uncertainty. After several steps, sheer exhaustion drove Cian to his knees. His heartbeat thundered in his ears, and a flicker of light finally caught his attention.

It was green, almost emerald. The flickers grew more frequent, until the light was constant, spilling from the chamber into the end of the walkway. Cian’s heart rate nearly doubled, a surge of adrenaline taking over now that he knew he was near the end of his journey.

His muscles ached and his legs screamed for relief, but Cian could not stop until he reached the mouth of the chamber. The light was blinding at this point, engulfing the entire room in its bright hue.

His worthiness has not yet been tested. His presence was not foreseen.

The voices caught Cian off-guard, but his eyes eventually adjusted to the light. In the center of the chamber, he saw the very thing he had spent his life chasing: there, floating several feet atop a stone slab, shaped as four hands with palms raised skyward, was the Gem of Notna.

A tiny thing, not even two inches tall. Oblong and impossibly shiny. It hovered above the stone hands and rotated counterclockwise. The light spilling into the chamber originated from the gem, which seemed to throb with intensity. Cian licked his lips, hoping to combat the dryness in his mouth. The light was uncomfortably warm on his skin. But not even that discomfort could keep him away.

“Dios mio,” he muttered under his breath.

This power is not ours to give.

Cian ignored the voice, instead taking a step toward the display. His knee buckled, nearly causing Cian to fall face-first to the ground. But he kept his balance, even managing two more wobbly steps before the voices returned, louder and more insistent.

This one cannot keep the balance within the universe.

As he closed in on the altar, Cian could see symbols etched into the back of each hand. Having studied every text and scroll related to the Gem of Notna over the centuries, Cian knew these symbols by heart. He also knew the voices were arguing whether or not Cian was worthy of the gem’s power.

He wasn’t here for that. Even if Cian wanted to wield the Gem of Notna, his frail body and his advanced age wouldn’t allow it. The power would overwhelm him to the point of death. But Cian knew this would likely be a one-way trip, and the smile that crept on his face was one of joy, but also peace.

If Cian was to die tonight, his life was now complete.

He is not fit.

Cian studied the symbols once more. Running clockwise, he mouthed what each symbol meant: Strength. Conviction. Honor. Sacrifice. The four tenets of ancient Narazniyan civilization, ranked from least important to most. The Narazniyans valued sacrifice above all else… which was appropriate, considering they created a weapon capable of killing those it deemed unworthy.

He has come far… perhaps he is worthy after all.

“Yes,” Cian whispered before he could stop himself.

Exhaustion, mixed with relief, sent Cian to his hands and knees. He stared at the ceiling in awe, unable to believe he actually achieved the fruits of his lifelong labor. Everything he worked toward for the past fifty years was right in front of him, just out of his physical reach, and the euphoria that came with that was almost enough to override any physical discomfort.

It had not been in vain. He knew he could never tell anyone what he saw; no one would ever believe him. But all the work… the sleepless nights poring over texts… the long travels in search of like-minded academics… watching his beloved Marta walk out the door with two suitcases in-hand.

It had all been worth it.

“Yes, I am worthy,” he muttered. “I am worthy!”

Silence engulfed the chamber. The light dimmed.

No. This one cannot prevent the End of Days. His prime is well behind him.

The admonishment, true thought it was, was still like a kick to the stomach. Cian doubled over and shut his eye, shaking his head. Looking up again, he stared at the gem, watching as black strands of… something swirled about and a low hissing sound filled the chamber.

Cian had come to peace with his possible death. So why was he so scared?

In spite of the gravity of the moment, Cian managed a chuckle. He noticed there were no other bodies in the chamber. No bones, no remains, nothing. If the gem killed all those who were unworthy, shouldn’t the chamber have been littered with dead bodies? Cian wasn’t the first to be rejected, was he?

You are brave, old one. Perhaps, in another time…

The emerald light brightened once more, completely engulfing the chamber and burning into Cian’s flesh. He grit his teeth and his hands clenched into tight fists. This was pain unlike anything else he had experienced before; he could feel his insides burning. A loud crash from behind startled Cian, and he glanced over his shoulder just long enough to see the passage blocked off by a large boulder.

This… this is not The One.

Blood seeped from Cian’s ears and the tear duct in his right eye. His grunts morphed into cries of pain as he rolled onto his back. He reached out for the gem, screaming again when he felt the black tendrils slithering all over his body. The thorns of each dug into his wrinkled flesh, drawing even more blood. Cian’s aging muscles locked up, and his last scream was drowned out by sinews snaking over his face.

By the time the tendrils snuffed the rest of life out of Cian, his entire frame was covered in the living cocoon. He twitched in the seconds following his last breath, the tendrils wrapped around him glowing a bright emerald before a flash overtook the entire chamber. Incinerating Cian and his cocoon, the light burst through the ceiling, through the canopy of the rainforest, and into the night sky.

Storm clouds parted. The rain tapered off. Birds chirped into the night… but now, the chamber was empty, save the altar and the small crystal hovering above it.

There was no evidence Cian had ever been there.

An Ode to Buffy the Vampire Slayer

So it’s come to my attention that Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and by extension, the Buffyverse as a whole — is now 20 years old.

First of all, no. I’m not that old.

Am I?

Alright, I am…

Secondly, this seems like an appropriate moment for me to sing the virtues of the Buffyverse, not just on its merits as a fictional universe that spawned two fantastic television shows and lives on in a series of hit-or-miss comic books, but as a creative entity that is almost singlehandedly responsible for where I am today.

To explain, a trip down Memory Lane…

When I was in college, I hit a rough patch. Between 2003 and 2004, my life turned to a dark place… so dark that I was almost a shell of myself. I was barely attending class, I wasn’t spending time with friends, I wasn’t really doing much of anything. I certainly wasn’t writing, and that fact didn’t bother me in the slightest. The days were just passing by, and I cared little for what they brought with them.

But in a fit of boredom one night, I didn’t change the channel after Smallville went off the air… and next thing I knew, I was watching this vampire (with a soul) setting up shop in a law firm, along with his friends — one of whom was a green-skinned demon with better fashion sense than I’ll ever hope to have. And even though I had no idea what was going on… I was hooked.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I was late to the Buffy party. Or maybe it was a shindig. Or was it a hootenanny?

Anyway…

You can thank/blame the movie for that. I saw the 1992 film when I was a kid, and I hated it. So when I heard they were gonna make a TV show based on that property, my first — and only — thought was, “Ugh, pass.” Even as friends kept trying to get me to watch the show, I refused… there was no way in hell I was watching that show.

To this day, I still get the I told you so‘s.

Anyway, I’m hooked. First Angel, then Buffy. I’m devouring these two shows as quickly as the DVD boxset releases will allow me (Netflix and Hulu weren’t quite a thing yet). I fell in love with these characters, I devoured whatever content I could find online. I spoiled the hell out of myself on everything, and yet seeing it unfold on the screen was still an incredibly powerful, moving experience.

I’d never had a TV show make me cry before. These two shows did — repeatedly.

But most importantly… I began living again. I started looking forward to doing stuff. I started going to class more. I began slowly dipping my toe back into the social waters. I eventually got up the courage to start going to therapy. And, slowly but surely, I began writing again.

It started off innocently enough; a friend had invited me to join an online Buffy RPG (or “online writing community,” as we called it) called Birthright. It was set years after the end of both shows, and the vast majority of the cast featured original characters, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I started off with a Watcher in mourning, and before I knew it, I was juggling six characters.

Eventually, Birthright turned into City Limits. New location, new storyline, same great writing and community. Those of you who have read Blood Ties might recall hearing about this community from the Acknowledgments section, and I mention that without this experience, I’m probably not here today with three published books to my name and several more on the way.

That’s not hyperbole. Without the Buffyverse, without the creative kick in the ass Joss Whedon and company inadvertently gave me, I eventually gathered the courage and desire needed to resurrect my long-neglected stories. I’m not quite sure what it was about Buffy and Angel that reignited my creative spark, but they did, and I am forever grateful.

That’s not to say I worship at the altar of Whedon; he’s not the feminist god people make him out to be (seriously, read up on what he did to Charisma Carpenter during Angel season 4), and his work isn’t as unassailable as some might suggest (Agents of SHIELD bored me to death and Avengers: Age of Ultron was one big bag of WTF), but without the shows for which he is best known (Honorable Mention to Firefly), I probably don’t start creating again.

I try to infuse a little of the Buffyverse in everything I write anymore, as my homage to one of popular culture’s most enduring properties and the fictional universe that, on its own, is responsible for the fact that I’m even here typing this. Two decades later, these shows are still personal favorites, and though I’ve seen plenty of great TV shows over the years, nothing has compared to — or inspired me as much as — Buffy and Angel.

(PS: If you’re a Buffy fan and you’re not watching this YouTube channel… you’re missing out.)

Why I Self-Publish

It seems like every time I hop onto social media, I see some version of the traditional-versus-self-publishing debate. People are wondering which route they should take, and others on either side of the debate state their case. I think part of it stems from the stigma that’s still attached to being self-published — a stigma that, while diminished, still exists.

Now, I will say this: the decision of which publication method to pursue is up to each individual author. Different people have different aspirations and expectations, and ultimately, the decision as to which path to follow is up to you and you alone.

But I can offer insight as to why I chose the self-publishing route.

Mostly, it boils down to something I don’t have: patience. I’m not a patient person; I never have been, and I likely never will be. As such, the traditional route holds little appeal to me. I don’t have it in me to submit a manuscript to an agent or publisher, only to wait weeks — if not months — for a response (which, let’s face it, would likely be no). That’s a lot of time wasted on… what, exactly?

As a self-published author, I operate on my own time frame. Yes, I have more responsibilities; as a self-published author, I have to worry about editors and formatting and cover design and marketing — all things a traditional publisher would (probably) take care of for me. But that added responsibility also brings with it a sort of freedom. I have control over the entire process. I control the content, and I control the time table.

By self-publishing, I’m able to tell the stories I want, the way I want to tell them, when I want to tell them. That freedom holds a great deal of appeal to me, particularly as I write stories that are just on the outside of what a mainstream publisher might be willing to publish.

Someday, I might pursue traditional publishing; there’s something to be said for receiving advances, writing stories, and letting the publisher handle all of the other stuff. But I see self-publishing as a trade-off, and it’s one I’m willing to make right now. Yes, I have to secure my own editor and I have to format my manuscripts myself. Yes, I have to either hire a cover designer or find my own cover another way. Yes, I’m the one who has to blow up Goodreads and social media to tell people about my work.

But I get to do all that on my own time. I decide when my books come out. I decide what gets published and what doesn’t. And because of this, if I publish a book, then you know damn well it’s something I really wanted to be out there.

Again, it’s your call which way you go. I just wanted to give you all a glimpse as to why I chose the path I did.

Character vs. Plot

It’s an argument that’s probably as old as storytelling itself: which is more important, character or plot?

More often than not, the answer boils down to personal preference. And I suppose, at the end of the day, there’s no wrong answer. You obviously need both; no story I know of has ever existed solely on the basis of character or plot (if I’m wrong, please let me know; I’d be curious to see how such a story gets told). The question then becomes… how much of each do you use? A 50-50 split? Do you go 70-30 plot? 60-40 character?

I like to think of plot as the backbone of a story, while the characters are the heart, brain, and nervous system. It’s generally true that we need a backbone in order to live, but it’s all of those other things that truly give us life. To me, the character-vs.-plot dynamic is no different.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a character guy. For me, character takes precedence over all else. If you get me emotionally invested in your characters, if you get me caring about them one way or another, then I’ll follow them — and you — pretty much everywhere. You can craft the most carefully nuanced, perfectly paced plot in the history of plotting, but if your characters are as flat and flavorful as cardboard, I’m not gonna stick around for long.

When writing, I always keep my characters in mind. Not just my protagonist or antagonist, either; this is as true for the supporting characters as anyone else. Every decision I make story-wise, I do so only with the characters in mind. How will this affect my protagonist? How will my supporting character handle this scenario? How will Character A react to Character B’s betrayal? My characters are never far from my mind, because to me, they are the pillars that hold up everything else.

Prime example: Cordelia Chase from the Buffyverse. When she moved from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Angel, she blossomed. In the first three seasons of Angel, Cordelia grew in so many ways, because the writers always made sure that character took precedence over plot. Whether she was dealing with the consequences of Doyle’s death or deciding to make herself half-demon to keep the visions or slowly falling in love with Angel, everything Cordelia did, every change she underwent, was always with her character in mind.

This is part of why her ascension as a higher power — which coincided with Angel being tossed into the bottom of the ocean by his own son — so controversial. Prior to that, Angel had been the perfect example of character over plot. But by that point, the plot took over, and a memorable character took a backseat to a turgid supernatural soap opera that we’re still not really sure how to take.

Think of it this way: if character is Bruce Wayne, then plot is Alfred. They’re both important, in their own ways, and while they both can exist on their own, it’s their relationship to each other that truly makes things work. And to me, the specific way in which character and plot interact is of paramount importance. Plot is important, no question, but if it starts taking over your story, it might behoove you to reexamine things.

Two last thoughts:

-Do not mistake emotional investment for liking a character; I can hate a character and still be emotionally invested in what they do and what happens to them. Distaste, hate, and disgust are just as valuable and important as fondness and empathy.

-Don’t plot your story by the philosophy of “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” That’s plot over character. Instead, try asking yourself such questions as “How would my protagonist react if…?” or “What would my villain do if…?” Center your story-related questions around your characters, and you’ll find that many of your story issues will resolve themselves.

I’m sure some of you will read this and be able to craft a wonderful response arguing why plot is more important. And I welcome that; we all bring different things to the creative table, and even if I wind up disagreeing with your point, I do want to read what others have to say and get an insight into how other writers practice their craft. That’s part of the beauty of writing: there’s no one right way to do it.

But in the age-old debate, I’m solidly in the characters’ corner.

I Wish I Knew Then…

You know the old expression “I wish I knew then what I know now.”

Well, in that vein, I want to share a few nuggets with you, things I have learned in the past year and a half of being a self-published author that I wish I had known back when I first published Bounty. Some of these seem like no-brainers in hindsight, but there is no substitute for experience.

But hey, if this post helps you… all the better!

-The cover matters. Yes, I know… don’t judge a book by its cover. But readers do. A poorly-done cover will doom your book right out of the gate — I’ve learned this lesson the hard way, and even though Bounty has a fantastic cover now, you can never get back that first impression. Do not treat the cover as an afterthought; this will likely be one of the more expensive aspects of being an indie author, but the investment is completely worth it (and there are sites like this that offer quality covers for those on a budget).

-Editing is paramount. Another investment that will, without a doubt, help you make that good first impression. It’s true that just about every book — even from the major, traditional publishing houses — will have the occasional error or two, but readers can tell when a book hasn’t been properly edited. And no matter how many times you glance over your manuscript, you will never catch everything; having at least one more set of eyes is so important.

-Keep track of your expenses. Paying for an editor or cover art, investing in book promotion, traveling for an appearance or a convention… you can claim those expenses come tax time. And boy, do they help — especially if, like in my case, you spent more in expenses than you made in royalties. Claiming these expenses can help give you a larger refund or make sure you pay less than you would’ve otherwise.

-The indie publishing market is massive; there are literally millions of books out there, so it could be borderline impossible to get your name noticed — especially if you’re releasing your debut book. Always keep in mind that this is a long-term game, and sometimes, the best thing you can do is just keep writing.

-There will be people who won’t like your book. It’s just that simple. By the law of averages alone, you’re not going to get 100 percent of those who read your book to enjoy it. Even the millionaire bestsellers have their detractors. Easier said than done, I know, but try not to take the negative reviews personally.

-Befriend other indie authors. The sense of community can make the daunting process of writing and publishing a book easier to manage, and you can learn so much from the efforts of others. You can learn what promotion services work and what doesn’t, you can learn new tricks of the trade… sometimes, you just root each other on and find some really great books you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.

BOOK REVIEWS: Part XI

In which I review a pair of fantastic debuts — from Cait Ashwood and Kerri Maniscalco — and a great sequel from Madeline Dyer.

The Seekers by Cait Ashwood

the-seekersI received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

In her debut novel The Seekers, author Cait Ashwood has shown that even in the far future, humanity is not as evolved as it probably should be — particularly with regard to how women are viewed by society. It’s a truth that is, at times, unveiled in an uncomfortable fashion (fair warning, there are a couple passages that are potentially hard to read) — but Ashwood navigates the subject matter without being heavy-handed and without letting us lose sight of what truly matters:

The characters.

Specifically, Audrey. While the book starts off with an ensemble cast, by the time The Seekers reaches the midway point, we’ve shed much of the cast in a variety of ways, leaving us focused mainly on Audrey, Ace, and Hound. While I almost reflexively revolt against anything even remotely resembling a love triangle, I had no such reaction here. I can’t quite account for that, other than the fact that Ashwood creates such vivid, memorable characters that I cared more about them individually — particularly Audrey — than any hint of who might eventually end up with whom.

In some ways, The Seekers is a coming-of-age story. In others, it reads like a future dystopia. But Audrey is at the heart of it all, from the moment we first meet her — fresh out of therapy — until we see her face both her greatest dream and her worst nightmare. The seeds of a vibrant futuristic world have been planted in this book, and there are questions therein, but to think of the world or the Seekers or the Order to be the focus would be a mistake.

While treating us to beautiful twists of language, Ashwood gets us to care about Audrey — and for some other characters I hope to see in the next book. And anyone who knows me knows I’m a character-over-plot guy; get me to care about your characters, and I’ll go on virtually any journey with them. The Seekers accomplishes just that, as Ashwood turns in a remarkable debut effort that succeeds both as a character journey and a commentary on sexist cultures past, present, and future.

This book is highly recommended.

Buy The Seekers on Amazon

 

Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

stalking-jack-the-ripperAnyone who’s read my work knows I’m a sucker for genre mash-ups — specifically, mixing murder mystery with science fiction. But any cybernetic mumbo-jumbo I come up with pales in comparison to Kerri Maniscalco’s debut work Stalking Jack the Ripper, which is a fantastic romp that introduces us to the world of forensic science in 1880s London.

First and foremost, Maniscalco introduces us to the brilliant Audrey Rose (side note: two of the books I’ve read so far in 2017 feature protagonists named Audrey — and they’re both excellent). She’s a forensic understudy, despite what polite society wants for women in that day and age, yet she still maintains her femininity whenever possible. I love female heroes, especially when the simple reality of their presence flies in the face of convention.

Fortunately, this book is more than a period piece making a gender statement. Audrey’s brain takes readers on a thrilling journey as she tries to piece together who Jack the Ripper might be. There are plenty of candidates who make sense as the book goes along, and while I didn’t see the ultimate reveal coming, it makes sense with a healthy dose of hindsight.

The best mysteries don’t necessarily shock you; they simply keep you thinking as you flip through page after page. Stalking Jack the Ripper does just that.

The sci-fi aspect really doesn’t come into effect until the big reveal at the end, but it’s such a deliciously morbid reality that adds such depth to the world Audrey Rose and the other characters inhabit that it’s more satisfying than I had anticipated. I’ve read my share of mysteries that end with the thud, but this book builds to a crescendo.

A minor aside: I love that Maniscalco added a section at the end of the book, detailing the facts she kept from the real-life mystery of Jack the Ripper and where she took liberties. It was a nice little peek behind the curtain that I wish more writers would offer.

All in all, Maniscalco has created a fantastic heroine and a vibrant world that straddles the line of reality and fantasy — and I am thrilled another book is in the works. If you love mysteries, or historical stories, or just a damn good tale, you’d do well to give Stalking Jack the Ripper a read. There are a couple difficult passages for those weak of stomach, but that doesn’t deter from what is a clever, well-written tale.

Buy Stalking Jack the Ripper on Amazon

 

Fragmented by Madeline Dyer

fragmentedWhereas Untamed, Madeline Dyer’s debut novel, was a character-driven YA dystopia, the follow-up Fragmented feels more like a drug-induced mind trip — which is simultaneously frustrating and enthralling for the reader.

This book takes place in the immediate aftermath of Untamed, but before long, we’re left with protagonist Seven and Corin — on the run, on their own. They wind up with a band of people named the Zharat, but what starts as a simple case of finding refuge with potential like-minded allies turns into something else entirely… and for roughly 250 pages, you’ll find yourself thinking you know what’s going on, only to discover you’re nowhere near right.

Along the way, Seven is convinced she’s going mad, and I sometimes felt the same way as I navigated through all the twists. Going back and forth in trying to determine which characters can be trusted and which ones can’t, pushing through the occasional tough-to-read passage (there are a couple of them, fair warning), flipping pages through the ending in which the futility of everything becomes crystal clear… even as the answers became clear, more questions popped up.

Fragmented is an adrenaline-packed read, and Dyer once again establishes her ability to create vibrant, memorable characters. That ability is what makes this a great read, even if you find yourself flipping through pages on numerous occasions asking yourself “WTF?” — and you will be doing just that.

The lack of clarity is occasionally frustrating, and there is a cliffhanger (but it’s abundantly clear going forward that there are two more books to come in this series). Fragmented will keep you turning the pages, will keep you guessing.

And when it’s over, you’ll be asking yourself when the next one’s coming.

Buy Fragmented on Amazon

SHORT STORY: Like a Snowball in Aspen

As a treat for my readers and subscribers, I present a short story I wrote several months ago that I recently came across again. I really liked it, so I decided to clean it up a little, make it more presentable, and post it here for all of you… free of charge. Enjoy!

Okay, this is bad.

It’s pitch black. The kind of dark where I can’t see my hand in front of my face. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I was still unconscious. The pounding in my head and the endless pressure on my chest tell me otherwise.

Wet dirt cakes under my fingernails. The silence is interrupted only by my gurgling stomach. I knew I should’ve grabbed a snack before walking out the door this morning.

Was that this morning? Is it still today? How long have I been out?

Most importantly, where the hell am I?

Okay, playing 20 Questions with myself won’t solve anything. The fog is slowly lifting in my brain, but now I’m dizzy. And nauseous. I choke on the stench of the dirt when I try to suck in a breath. On second thought, I’m glad I didn’t eat earlier.

Last thing I remember, I was tailing the cops. They were downtown, trying to break down the door to a politician’s penthouse. I can’t remember if they were looking for drugs or a body or what, but they broke out the SWAT gear and everything. At the moment, I can’t even remember the politician’s name. In the interest of lying about my age, I’m going to say the lack of oxygen is why I’m so foggy.

Guess this is as good a time as any to mention I’m a P.I. I don’t have the greatest reputation in the world; in fact, half the police force threatens to arrest me every time they see me. The other half threatens to bash in my face. Mess up one murder investigation, and suddenly everyone thinks you’re a hack.

The forged degree doesn’t help either.

Truth is, I’m not a goody-goody P.I. I’m not even the sort they made movies about in the 40s. I don’t have a fedora, my office was shut down last month over some bullshit “building code violation,” and the next time a potential client becomes my femme fatale will be the first.

See, the politician they were after — now I got his name: he’s a high-profile Senator named Wilkins — he’s been linked to underground drug money and sex trafficking for more than two decades. Nothing’s ever stuck to him, though, mostly thanks to me. I’m not tailing him to get dirt on him; I’m tailing him to make sure no one else gets too close.

Well, I was.

Is it a shit job with thankless hours and a bowl full of moral questions? Abso-fucking-lutely. Am I a terrible person for taking this job? If you said yes, I wouldn’t argue. But here’s the deal: I’m set for life. My daughter’s about to graduate from MIT with no debt. My old man beat lung cancer last year and never had to a pay a dime. So while you’re hand-wringing over the moral quandary, I’m thanking Senator Wilkins for the seven-figure salary.

Course, if I’m gonna see my next check, I gotta find a way out of here. The heat and the pressure are unbearable. I can feel the oxygen level depleting. The headache is subsiding, though that may be a response to the adrenaline rush. How am I still alive? Hell, how am I even conscious? The dirt should be pressing down hard enough on my chest that my ribs snap like kindling.

I somehow manage to pull my smartphone out of my pocket and push a button on the side. The screen lights up, illuminating my surroundings. From what I can tell, the only thing missing is a coffin. I notice dried blood on my fingers; with my free hand, I push loose dirt away and touch my temple, then my nose and lips.

The blood’s not mine.

Before I can process that information, I’m startled by the sound of something digging into the ground. I remain as still as I can, trying to ignore the pounding heartbeat in my chest. There’s the sound again. And again. With each muffled shunck, dirt shifts and falls against me. Even as the pressure eases, uncertainty gives way to fear, and my instinct is to curl up against myself.

The shunck grows louder and more frequent. Before I know it, light begins piercing the pitch black. My eyes can’t adjust to the contrast, and all I can see is a pitch-black figure.

“Cole!”

It takes a second for the voice to register. Yeah, that’s my name, and I recognize that voice. But for a few seconds, it just don’t click.

Cole!

I sit up as much as I can before I feel a sharp stabbing pain in my right side. I grit my teeth and recoil before glancing up at the hole. A hand is extended toward me and for the first time, I can see details. The purple nails are my first clue, but once I see the pitch-black hair framing the woman’s face, I know my momentary savior: Chloe van Kempt, a deep-cover detective who specializes in narcotics who’s the only friend I have on the force.

We don’t always see eye-to-eye when it comes to Senator Wilkins, but I trust her. For some reason, she trusts me too.

“Come on, Cole!” she hollers. “We gotta go!”

Don’t have to tell me twice… I grab her hand and, with a strength that doesn’t match her short frame, she lifts me out of the ground. I stumble onto the grass, taking a moment to appreciate how cool it feels compared to the dirt. I gulp large chunks of fresh air as fast as my lungs can take them, hacking and doubling over before slowing myself down.

I don’t really feel like blacking out again.

“What,” I’m still having a hard time breathing, “what the hell happened?”

“You were knocked out and buried alive.” Chloe is so matter-of-fact about it. I lay still as she places a call to the dispatcher, taking a moment to make sure everything’s still attached. My side still hurts, but it’s not nearly as bad when I’m prone like this. As long as I don’t have to bend at the waist or get up or anything, I should be okay. Then again, it’s kinda hard to investigate things while on my back.

“Who?” I ask once she’s finished.

“I think it was someone with the senator.”

I cough in surprise and jolt upright… only to recoil and grunt once the pain shoots up my side again. Sweat coats my forehead, and I can feel the dirt caked into my graying beard. “Guessing you forgot the part where he pays me.”

“No, I’m quite aware of that.” She glances over her shoulder whenever she thinks I’m not looking. Never mind the fact that she’s not the only detective here. My guess: whoever put me in the ground is still close. “This runs a lot deeper than we thought.”

Without warning, Chloe grabs me under my arms and lifts me to my feet. I howl in pain before she hoists one of my arms over her shoulders and leads me to her squad car. I look around for her partner, Ramirez, but it’s just Chloe and me.

“What about the paramedics?”

She doesn’t answer me. She moves with a determination I’ve yet to see from her, eyes focused straight ahead. Something’s going down, something beyond just me.

My roll into the passenger seat will never be considered graceful, but the pain’s so blinding that I can’t even crack a joke as Chloe starts the car and peels out into the night. I lean against the door, swallowing back a combination of bile and fear. Chloe swerves from lane to lane, which doesn’t help the on-again, off-again nausea.

“Who’s behind us?”

“What?” Her eyes dart to the rearview mirror. “No one. Why?”

“Cause you’re driving like we’re being chased.”

“Vincent’s dead,” she announces as the squad car races through a red light. A fire engine whines to life in the distance.

The news doesn’t immediately register. Part of it’s the pain in my side, which flares up again with every bump in the road. Part of it’s the unnerving reality that I was buried alive. When we pass under a street light, I can still see the dirt caked under my fingernails. I don’t think one wash will suffice for my pants. I’m damn sure not gonna get the stench out of my hair for at least a week. But hey, I’m pushing 50, so I’m just glad I still have hair.

But if the Chief of Police is dead…

“Who?”

Her eyes scan the mirror again. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

I force myself to sit up, yelping like a wounded animal when my side flares up again.

The car pulls into a dark alley. Chloe kills the engine but not the headlights. “You’re hurt.”

“No shit.” I grimace, reaching down to hold my side. My fingers find something warm and wet. I frown. It was my blood after all. How did I not notice that before? I must’ve been so preoccupied with the whole being-buried-alive thing that I didn’t notice the wound.

“We should get you to a hospital.”

“And what?” I counter. “Shoot up a flare to whoever put me in the ground, tellin’ ‘em where I am?”

Chloe throws the keys onto the dash and sinks into her seat. She knows I’m right. I know she’s right. If people weren’t being killed and buried left and right, I’d march my happy ass to St. Mary’s or whatever and let them do whatever my insurance would cover. But if Chief DiCicero is dead, then who knows how many other bodies are waiting to be found.

“Who was it, Chloe?”

She’s not sayin’ anything. She doesn’t wanna tell me. Can’t say I blame her. Hell, something tells me I already know.

“It was Wilkins.”

I almost don’t hear her. I grab a handful of napkins from Chloe’s glove box and press them against my side with a grimace. Once the worst of the pain subsides, I give her a sideways glance. “Shit,” I growl. “You sure?”

Chloe looks me dead in the eye. Even in the dark, I see the tears burning the edges. “I saw him do it.”

I stare through the windshield, forcing myself not to look back at Chloe. I hate seeing people cry. I’d rather be shot in the crotch than see someone in tears. I avoided my mother’s funeral for just that reason. I can handle grief. Anger. Sadness. Feel those near every damn day. But crying? I can’t deal.

“Two weeks ago,” Chloe explains, sniffling, “I told Chief our Special Investigations unit had solid, concrete evidence that Senator Wilkins was involved in a sex trafficking ring with ties to the Yakuza. Signed documents, audio recordings, GPS signals, everything. I’ve been working Wilkins for three years and this was the first time we had anything that could stick.”

I frown in confusion. “Didn’t Wilkins help pass a law fighting international sex trafficking?”

“Yeah, but it had no teeth. It was nothing more than a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo bluster that was impossible to enforce — especially on the international level. Total PR move.”

I shake my head. “That way, if word got out of his involvement, he had an easy way to deflect the bad press.”

I’ll admit to not being in the loop when it comes to Wilkins. He signs my checks, he gives me assignments, but I know next to nothing outside of that. He keeps me just out of arm’s reach. Close enough to be of use, far enough away to not be a threat. But I’m obviously a threat to someone; otherwise, I wouldn’t have woken up in a bed of dirt.

“Chief wanted to go forward,” Chloe continues. “He ordered a warrant and everything. Then the FBI called.”

Argument over jurisdiction, probably. More like a “my cock is bigger than yours” pissing contest. Always happens when one of the law enforcement alphabet soups get involved.

“He tried to stall them,” she says. “The FBI. This was our case, our investigation. In Chief’s mind, if anyone brought in Senator Wilkins, it would be us.”

“Why wasn’t I told about this?”

Chloe gives me an emotionless smile. “Didn’t think you’d take kindly to watching the gravy train fall off the tracks.”

Fair point.

“Two days ago,” Chloe added, “Senator Wilkins announced he was forming an exploratory committee to run for president.”

“So now he’s gotta make all that baggage disappear. Can’t run for the White House if people think you fondle kids.”

That explains why the chief was killed. That explains how I wound up in the ground. I always knew I was expendable; Wilkins said so to my face more than once. I just figured it meant I’d be replaced with another P.I. I never thought he’d try to kill me, too much at stake in his career. But if he’s willing to off a police chief by himself…who knows what else Senator Wilkins can do?

Normally, I feel a rush of adrenaline whenever the puzzle pieces start fitting. That jolt has gotten me through many a case in my day, both as a cop and as a P.I. But with this picture getting clearer by the second, I’m not ready to jump off any rooftops. Mostly, I just wanna bury my head in a trash can and retch til I’m inside out. Probably hurt less than my side right now anyway.

“Let me guess,” I groan, “Chief goes to move quickly on this, someone close to Wilkins catches wind of it…”

“…Boom.” Chloe shakes her head. “I was this close to –”

I notice the shattered glass before I see the bullet tear through Chloe’s shoulder and bury itself in the console. She growls in a mixture of horror and pain, clutching her shoulder and doubling over against her seatbelt. I duck, doing my best to ignore the pain as I glance over the edge of my seat. We never heard the car sneak up behind us, and we sure as shit didn’t hear the gun being fired. Another round is fired, missing us both.

“Get the fuck outta the car, Cole!”

It’s Senator Wilkins.

Chloe is too busy applying pressure to her wound to do anything else. Sirens blare in the distance, drowning out her harsh breathing. I reach over and grab her gun, giving her a reassuring nod when she shoots me a look of protest. Hey, if I had my weapon, I’d use it, but for all I know, the Senator took it from me before tossing me in the ground.

“Get out of the car and put your hands above your head!”

I take a deep breath to steel myself, hiding the gun in the waistband of my pants. I open the car door, each movement shooting pain up and down the side of my body. I’m not sure I can even stand upright, but I have no choice. I don’t fancy having my brains splattered on the ground in some random alley.

With tremendous effort, and a fuckload of pain, I stand. I have to lean against the car to turn around, facing the Senator with my hands above my head. Sweat rolls down my temple. I’m trying like hell not to shake. Fear mixes with adrenaline. My body’s telling me it needs help. Chloe’s still dealing with the hole in her shoulder.

And there stands Senator Stewart Wilkins, all 6-foot-4 of him, wire-rim glasses and the build of a linebacker. All-American at Nebraska, had a promising pro career cut short ‘cause of a fucked-up knee. Got into law to make his daddy proud, then ran for public office for… well, no one’s exactly sure why.

“You always were a crap shot, Senator.”

Wilkins sneers, cocking his gun. “I don’t want her dead, Cole… not until I retrieve the file.”

I cast a sideways glance at the car. An overstuffed manila folder cradled in a cardboard box sits on the backseat. Everything Chloe and the rest of the NYPD have to nail Wilkins, no doubt. He knows the file’s in there. He really is tying up all his loose ends.

I can’t help myself. “So I’m guessing a spot on your cabinet’s out of the question.”

“What was your first clue, Cole? Sticking you in the dirt or the bullet in your gal Friday’s arm?”

“Shame,” I tease. “I had my heart set on Secretary of Interior.”

“No,” Wilkins waves the gun at me. “The shame is I kinda liked you, Edward. But you got too damn nosy. Why, Cole? Was I not paying you enough?”

Nosy? I roll my eyes. It’s in my freaking job description — or it would be, if I bothered to sit down and write one. “Can’t be nosy about something I didn’t even know about until she dug me out of the ground.”

I’m leaning against the car again, gulping breaths as the pain in my side becomes almost unbearable. I can feel something throbbing under my skin. My fingers are twitching. I’ve broken into an even more intense cold sweat. I can hear Chloe’s muffled voice. If she’s as smart as I think she is, she’s called for backup.

Hopefully some medical attention too.

“Consider what I did… pre-emptive.”

“So you think it’s that easy?” I warn. “Just wipe out everyone you’ve ever met and stroll into the White House, no one the wiser? It’s 20-fucking-15 now, Senator. Nothing’s private anymore.” He’s squeezing the handle; I can see his knuckles turning white. Good. “You’ll never kill the rumors, Stew. And eventually, one of those rumors is gonna become a report, and that report’s gonna become an investigation… and on and on it goes, like a snowball in Aspen. Killin’ Vince won’t change that. Killin’ me and Chloe won’t change that. You think puttin’ a bullet in my head and throwing me into a hole will help you become president? You’re a lot dumber than I thought.”

Blam! I feel an intense burn in my right knee. I drop in an instant. Suddenly, the pain in my side isn’t so bad anymore.

You ever been shot? I don’t recommend it. I’m not even sure I can come up with the words to describe how it feels. All I know is, I’m hobbled on the ground, my right leg bent in a pool of my own blood. I hear sirens again, and they’re growing closer. I hope it’s an ambulance. I hope it’s backup. I hope it’s the bullet that puts Wilkins out of our collective misery for good. Hell, if I’m really lucky, it’s all three.

But I’ve never been that lucky.

“It’s not about smarts, Cole.” Wilkins stands over me, pressing the warm barrel against my temple. “It’s about power. Haven’t you paid any attention since you’ve been working for me? Money, power… I have it. You don’t. By the time I hit the Iowa caucuses, no one will ever know about Thailand or Indonesia or Santa Monica or any of that.”

He cocks the gun again. I flinch.

“I’m tempted to let you live,” he whispers. “Just to rub it in your face when I finally –”

Blam!

I flinch again, but feel no pain. I open my eyes, eventually dawning on the fact that I wasn’t shot again. There’s a gun at my side… and a dead Senator face-down at my feet. Blood oozes from his forehead and mixes with my own. I can see the hole in the back of Wilkins’ head, brain matter stuck in his ghost-white hair.

Remind me to throw up later.

My eyes dance around our surroundings. There’s no one else here. Just the dead Senator, Chloe, and me. Chloe’s leaning out the driver’s-side door now, cringing and talking on her police-issued phone. She says something about the folder in the back seat, a wry smile on her face. I try to focus on her words, but an ambulance screeches to a halt in the entrance to the alley. I sigh in relief as two medics leap from the ambulance and bolt our way.

No sooner does the female medic reach me, though, I pass out. Like a fuckin’ lightweight.

A Peek Into My Editing Process

One of the questions I hear most frequently from other authors has to do with the editing process. Not what I do when I edit someone else’s manuscript (let’s be honest, that’s pretty straightforward), but rather how I handle my own. Truth of the matter is, no two writers are the same in this regard, because — just as in writing itself — different tactics work for different people.

But what I can do is give you a peek behind the proverbial curtain and take you, step by step, through the process I use for editing my own work. It’s an exhaustive process, but it’s actually far less daunting than it might appear.

Step 1: Finish the First Draft… Then Walk Away.

After I finish writing the first draft, I put the thing away for two weeks. I don’t even look at it for 14 whole days. Part of it is just the desire for a break; writing a full draft can be an arduous task, so taking some time upon its completion makes sense. It also works in this regard: those two weeks give me enough distance from the story so that it appears fresher upon my return, yet I still remember the details and other particulars.

Step 2: First Round of Edits… Spelling, Grammar, Etc.

My first pass-through has a simple goal: find and eradicate the inevitable spelling errors, grammar mistakes, and typos. Every first draft will have them, and my first mission is to hunt down as many of these blights as possible.

Step 3: Walk Away Again… No, Really.

See what I wrote about Step 1. These two-week breaks are paramount for me.

Step 4: It’s the Story, Stupid… Plot Holes, Continuity Errors, Etc.

My second read-through is when things get a little more involved. This time, I focus on the story itself, searching for plot holes, inconsistencies, continuity errors… anything like that. Anything that leaves the narrative weaker than it should be. In this step, I only note the plot issues; I don’t fix them yet. Because…

Step 5: These Boots Were Made for Walking… This Brian Was Made for Thinking

Another two-week break ensues… but this time, I’m using that time to think about the plot notes I made in Step 4. Though I’m a pantser by nature, I have learned the value of jotting down the occasional note or quasi-outline. That’s what I do here, pondering the plot issues I just discovered.

Step 6: Chisel, Hammer, or Bulldozer… or Maybe All of Them

This is where I fully address the plot issues I discovered in Step 4. This involves rearranging chapters, deleting chapters, adding chapters, re-writing chapters… hell, sometimes, I re-write large chunks of the manuscript. This is often the most exhaustive and longest step in the process, yet it’s also perhaps the most important.

Step 7: Formatting… More Important Than You Think

This is the only step for which I don’t take a break first. Immediately after shoring up Step 6, I format my manuscript. I choose my final font, I break up the chapters, I knock out an Acknowledgements page and a dedication. I know other authors leave this for the end, but I’ve found that at this point, having my manuscript look more book-like really helps me push through the ending slog.

Step 8: We’re Off to See the Editor!

I send my manuscript off to my editor (most of the time, it’s the fantastic Becca Bates). Now that I also edit other people’s manuscripts, I try to hand my editor as clean a manuscript as possible… and the time my editor spends with my manuscript is paramount to me. I use this time to address other steps in the book-publishing process. I tackle the blurb that will go on the back cover and the book’s Amazon page. I work on getting a cover (SelfPubBookCovers.com is my go-to). I choose a tentative release date and start reaching out to people about potential promotion and ARCs.

Step 9: Give it to Me Straight, Doc… er, Editor

I study my editor’s notes. While doing this, I correct any spelling or grammar errors I find (because they’re sneaky little bastards). I take note of all the plot suggestions, and I take the time to decide which notes I want to apply to my manuscript and which ones I don’t. This step can also involve re-writing and cutting. As a writer, you don’t have to take every suggestion your editor makes — but I’ve learned that when my editor makes a suggestion or asks a question, it’s in my best interest to actually heed those words.

Step 10: Walk Away… Again

One last two-week break, to give my brain a rest from all that plotting and thinking. Next to Step 6, Step 9 is the hardest to push through. But the finish line is within reach by now, so adrenaline almost always carries me through, even if frustration threatens to have me tossing the whole thing in a dumpster.

Step 11: Read It, Baby, One More Time

Yes, I reached back into the archives for that reference. My last read-through is the same as Step 2. I make one final look for spelling errors, grammar issues, and typos. A note here: Almost every other step at this point has involved reading my manuscript on my computer. I know a lot of authors print out their manuscript, and I totally get why, but I’m not exactly in a position to do that. But, as I work through Step 10, I start the process of having my manuscript turned into a paperback through CreateSpace — and I make sure to order a physical proof copy. That proof copy is key for Step 11. It’s one thing to read a Scrivener or Word document on a screen; it’s another thing entirely to see your work as it would actually look in a book. You’d be surprised how many more issues you’ll find — and fix — with an actual book in your hands.

Step 12: The Finish Line!

Once Step 11 is out of the way, my book is ready to be published!

Again, I understand my method might not work for other authors, just as their methods might not work for me. Just as there are pantsers and plotters and so many variations in between, the same is true in editing. There is also no finite number of edits that can be done before a book is “ready.” Sure, I listed 12 steps above, but some books might need more attention while others require less.

But I will say this… by breaking down the process into steps, and by assigning a goal to each step, I find it makes the entire process a lot less intimidating. If I’m looking at a rough manuscript, thinking about all the work it needs, I’m liable to panic myself right out of doing that work. But if I map it all out like above, and I know that I only have to worry about this one area at a time, suddenly the task seems much more manageable.

So if this step-by-step guide helps you with your work, great! If not, then I at least hope you enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at how I do what I do.

Now, to finish the three first drafts I have floating around…

NEWS: Sign Up For My Mailing List

Alright, dear readers… it took me far longer than it should’ve, but I have finally started up a mailing list. Followers of this blog already receive email alerts when I update this page, but now — thanks in part to MailChimp — you can sign up to receive email blasts from me whenever news warrants.

Signing up is easy. Like, ridiculously so.

Just visit my website, and when the field asking for your email address comes up, simply enter your email address and subscribe. That’s it! You’re signed up, and you’ll receive emails whenever I send them out, no fuss.

So sign up and tell your friends. And, if you haven’t already, buy my books.

The Best Books I Read in 2016

In many ways, 2016 has been a crap year. So many of our beloved pop culture icons and celebrities passed away. America somehow managed to wind up with an inexperienced reality TV star Nazi as its next president. A personal favorite of TV declined in quality before ultimately being canceled.

But there were some good things about 2016. I published two books, Blood Ties and Behind the Badge. I got the ball rolling on Behind the MaskBetrayed, and the fantasy epic Notna. And I read some damn good books.

Whittling down to the five best books was no easy feat; you’ll see why once we reach the Honorable Mention portion of this post. Note that this list encompasses the five best books I read in 2016, not necessarily the five best books that came out in 2016.

Now, without further ado…

5. Grave Measures by R.R. Virdi

Grave MeasuresWhat do you get when you combine ColumboConstantine, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer? You probably get something a lot like Virdi’s Grave Report novels. Virdi’s urban fantasy detective series is fast-paced, whimsical, and dangerous, and Grave Measures is every bit as good as its predecessor, Grave Beginnings.

Vincent Graves finds himself in a mental hospital this time around, and he only has but so much time to figure out whose body he is inhabiting and what was responsible for that body’s demise. All of the snark and mystery of Grave Beginnings is back in Grave Measures, and along the way, we’re treated to a much larger, richer world than what we saw in the first novel.

I feel like this is the sort of story Joss Whedon would be proud of, and as Virdi continues to establish himself as one of urban fantasy’s best writers, I’m in love with the fact that he’s filling the void left by the Buffyverse. Nothing will ever top the Slayer, but Vincent Graves has certainly carved his own niche in a genre that sometimes feels a bit overcrowded.

Grave Measures is available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle.

4. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneErnest Cline’s geek opus is a fantastic romp through the bastions of popular culture and geekdom over the past 50 or so years, and if that was all Ready Player One had going for it, it would still be a damn fine book. Fortunately, Ready Player One manages to pack enough excitement, adventure, and heart into the story surrounding the plethora of pop culture references that Ready Player One becomes a modern-day classic.

The MMO world Cline created for this book would put World of Warcraft to shame, and Wade is a fantastic protagonist. But more than anything, this book is fun. It’s adrenaline-soaked, nostalgia-fueled entertainment — and ultimately, isn’t entertainment one of the biggest reasons we read? The sort of escapism we often seek is at the core of Ready Player One, and Cline never loses sight of that essential fact.

You cannot divorce the narrative from geek culture; without one or the other, the entire thing wouldn’t work. But it does work, and it is easily one of the best books I’ve read — not just in 2016, but overall.

Ready Player One is available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, and Audible.

3. No Safe Place by Mary Head

no-safe-placeThe romance The Only One might have been Head’s first novel, but No Safe Place was clearly her true labor of love. A fast-paced thriller that follows FBI agent David Cole as he works to rescue his kidnapped daughter Hannah, No Safe Place was published through the Kindle Scout program — and whereas most books of this nature focus far more on what is done to the victim and leave the other details lying in atrophy, Head succeeds in diving into the heart of the story.

Hannah’s kidnapping is not the focus of this tale; instead, we are treated to the way her kidnapping affected not just her father, but characters who are close to both David and Hannah. We’re concerned less with what is being done to Hannah and more with what she does and how she handles herself during the ordeal. No Safe Place is such a subtle twist on the damsel-in-distress trope that you might not notice it until after the fact, but once you do, the story will be all the richer for it.

A sequel is in the offing, a book that will be light years different, but much like No Safe Place, I’m confident it will keep the heart of the characters intact — because after all, that heart was what made No Safe Place work to begin with.

No Safe Place is available in paperback and Kindle.

2. A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

a-torch-against-the-nightThe follow-up to the excellent An Ember in the AshesA Torch Against the Night builds upon Tahir’s dystopian world of Martials and Scholars. Whereas the first book introduced us to Elias, the newly-minted Mask with a heart, and Laia, the slave girl determined to save her brother, Torch builds on them both while also introducing us to the POV of Helene, the newly-named Blood Shrike who is now tasked with tracking down and executing her best friend.

Three different POVs could have been a mess, but Tahir does a great job of balancing them all and making sure Elias, Laia, and Helene each maintain their unique voices and perspectives. The Helene chapters alone make Torch a better, more complete tale than Ember, and this is how sequels are supposed to work: take what was great about the first book and build upon it.

Tahir’s battle scenes are exquisite, and the drama is so palpable that the pages fly by. There is plenty left on the table for future books in the series, and I will likely be at my local bookstore the day the third book comes out to get my copy.

A Torch Against the Night is available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, Audible, and audio CD.

1. Dangerous Ways by R.R. Virdi

dangerous-waysI know, I know… the same author with two slots on this list? Well, when the books are that good, they’re that good. Dangerous Ways takes us to the same universe as the Grave Report novels, but it ups both the scales and the scope. Jonathan Hawthorne and Cassidy Winters treat readers to a fantastic romp through the dimensions — and Virdi treats us to a tale that is at once intense, emotional, whimsical, and engaging.

Even though this opus comes in at a George R.R. Martin-esque 600 pages, it’s among the easiest reads I encountered in 2016. Pages flew by without my noticing it — which is probably the greatest indicator of how good a book can be. Some books that large can be a chore, but Dangerous Ways was anything but.

The amount of time and care Virdi put into Dangerous Ways is evident from the first page, and it is without hesitation that I consider this the best book I read in 2016.

Dangerous Ways is available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle.

Honorable Mention: Floor 21: Descent by Jason Luthor, Dirty Deeds by Christy King, Untamed by Madeline Dyer, The Martian by Andy Weir, Bounty by Michael Byrnes, Sleeping Sands by C.A. King, Tomoiya’s Story: Escape to Darkness by C.A. King, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey