EXCERPT: Notna

In part to celebrate World Book Day, I present another excerpt from Notna, my upcoming urban fantasy/paranormal book that will be out in paperback and ebook on Oct. 10. Bear in mind, this is a work-in-progress and that any mistakes are my own.

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Prague, Czech Republic

St. Vitus Cathedral was visible from the Vitava River, towering over much of Prague. With the sun as bright as it was on this bright April morning, the cathedral shined, especially the sea green edifice atop the main tower. The temple of Gothic architecture was housed within Prague Castle, and it was the final resting place of many a Bohemian king.

St. Vitus was a magnet for tourists, dozens of whom were milling about the grounds. Cameras hung from their necks, and many of the visitors stared up in awe at the rose window on the front of the cathedral. Tourists not wearing cameras had instead pulled out smartphones, squinting into the sun as they tried to frame just the right shot on their screens.

One tourist who held neither camera nor phone, a brunette woman, instead sat cross-legged at the base of a fountain with a large sketch pad splayed over her lap. She stared intently at the cathedral, chewing on her lower lip as the pencil tucked in her left hand scratched back and forth over the paper. Pamela Daly occasionally glanced down at her work, making sure she was capturing the church’s architectural elements.

This may have been Pamela’s Spring Break, but she still had to nail her final on Gothic architecture at the end of the semester. These sketches were going to go a long way toward fleshing out that section of her research paper. As much as Pamela detested art history, the fact was she wouldn’t graduate from Syracuse if she didn’t pass classes such as this.

A group of children ran through the square, chasing after a dirty, ratty soccer ball. Their laughs and shouts of glee carried through the square, and Pamela couldn’t help the smile spreading across her face even though she couldn’t understand their native tongue.

A flash of light erupted from the sky, and was gone was quickly as it had appeared. Everyone briefly glanced at the sky, including Pamela. The pencil dangled between her fingers as she used her free hand to shield her eyes from the sun. A flock of birds flew from one grove of trees to the next, crossing St. Vitus on the way.

Everything appeared to return to normal.

With a shrug, Pamela returned to her sketch. The soccer ball skipped along the cobblestone ground. Tourists snapped pictures of the cathedral and took selfies with their smartphones. The sound of Pamela’s pencil scratching against the rough paper was the only sound that filled her ears, even as something in the back of her mind told her to glance at the sky again.

Mouth agape, Pamela stood. Her pencil and sketchpad both fell to the ground. Her eyes widened, and Pamela brought up a hand to cover her mouth.

“Oh, my God!”

The horror in Pamela’s voice caught everyone else’s attention, and as they looked to the sky, they saw a human figure plummeting toward the Earth. Women gasped, grabbing children as the men stared in silent horror. The children watched in wonder, a few of them smiling and pointing.

“Angel!” One of the children jumped up and down like a kid discovering presents under the tree on Christmas morning. “It’s an angel!”

The figure crashed through the top of the cathedral, and the gasps from the onlookers turned into shrieks and cries of horror. The body burst through the main tower, leaving a gaping hole and showering pieces of stone and other debris onto the ground. Tourists scattered to avoid the debris, some of them stopping just long enough to scoop up the children who were still staring.

As everyone else distanced themselves from the cathedral, Pamela ran toward it. Her body began moving before she could stop herself, and she abandoned the sketchpad lying open on the ground. She could hear the body crashing through the buttresses and the ceiling of the main worship hall as she shoved her way into the church. With a grunt, she pushed the heavy double doors open with her shoulder.

Pamela paused for a few seconds to catch her breath and allow the throbbing in her shoulder to subside. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the dim of the cathedral, in stark contrast to the bright sunlight outside. Starting to walk again, Pamela silently thanked herself for leaving the heels in her suitcase.

Pamela weaved her way into the worship hall, jumping with a start when she heard a groan from a pile of rubble near the altar. The stained-glass windows called out to her from the corner of her eye, and in more normal circumstances, she would’ve allowed her curiosity to get the best of her. Even the Mucha window, in all its colorful glory, was begging for her attention.

Pamela passed by John of Nepomuk’s tomb, giving it a passing glance before pained groans again called her attention to the altar. She dropped to her knees, tossing aside a few bits of rubble and waving the dust out of her face, only to gasp when she saw a man lying face-down on the floor. His silver breastplate shone in the sunlight beaming through the hole in the roof. His brown leggings were tattered and covered in burn marks. His dark hair was matted to his face and tied back into a ponytail.

Looking up at the ceiling, Pamela frowned in confusion. Not only was it unclear from where the man had fallen, but he had clearly plummeted a great distance. No one should have been able to survive a fall that far, especially after crashing through stone and wood along the way. In some ways, the man appeared to be in better shape than the cathedral.

But how was that possible?

The man groaned again, rolling onto his back with a grimace. More debris fell to the floor around him, the resulting dust causing Pamela to break into a small coughing fit. By the time it passed, she locked eyes with him; they were blue, impossibly so. Blood ran from his nose and a cut on his right cheek oozed even more blood.

“My God,” she muttered with a shake of her head.

The man erupted into a coughing fit of his own, rolling onto his side. Something silver caught Pamela’s eye, and she looked down to see a blood-soaked sword on the ground. Its gold hilt shined brighter than anything else on the altar, even the candle holders in the center. She squinted; an angel ascending to the heavens was carved on the handle.

“Are you…” Her frown deepened. “Are you alright?”

For the first time, the man acknowledged her. He glanced wearily at Pamela before nodding and rolling onto his back once again. Aside from the cuts on his face, the man didn’t appear to be injured, which was impossible on so many levels.

He sat up, the wounds closing before Pamela’s eyes. His eyes still held a faraway look, and the stubble on his face was at least a week old. Pamela glanced over her shoulder, confident that no one had followed her into the cathedral. Was it because they were off calling for help, or had they gone about their day assuming the man had died?

Probably the latter, which begged the question: how was he still alive? And where did he come from?

“Wow…”

Her eyes went skyward again. The man’s eyes followed.

“That was some tumble,” he muttered. “What happened?”

The man lowered his gaze, fully taking in Pamela for the first time. His lips opened, but no words came out. With his mouth agape, the faraway look returned.

Pamela frowned as dread built in her stomach.

“Well, uh,” Pamela paused. “What’s your name?”

The man furrowed his brow, chewing on his lower lip. For the first time, char marks were visible on his breastplate. Pamela’s heart sank when saw them, resisting the urge to reach out and run her fingers over the marks. If the man didn’t understand how he wound up face-down in a church in Prague, perhaps he didn’t know much of anything else.

“I,” he began, his frown deepening when the words caught in his throat. His eyes widened when they locked on Pamela’s. “I don’t remember.”

Bounty and Comic Books: An Origin Story

Before we get started, look at this awesomeness.

I commissBounty-Smallioned comic book artist Kendall Goode (@kendallgoode on Twitter) to draw a piece depicting Bounty, the hero of my Jill Andersen series of novels, and as soon as I saw the finished product in my inbox… well, I’m not sure there are words for the sound I made. But suffice it to say, I love the piece, and it perfectly exemplifies what I think of when I write this character.

I’ve made no secret of the influence comic books have had on my work. Nor have I hid the fact that Bounty, when I first created her back in 1997, was a comic book character. She was supposed to be on your local comic book shop every month, not available on Amazon.

But life is funny sometimes.

These days, I’m a novelist. Not because I’ve outgrown comic books — I still collect them, after all — but because I’ve become a much better writer than artist. It’s an evolution borne out of necessity (as most evolution is), but even as I have morphed Jill and her world into prose, the panels and word balloons are never far from my mind.

As I type this, I’m toying with the plot for a potential Bounty graphic novel. I have no timetable for this project, but I do want to see it through — and the above image is all the motivation and inspiration I need. I love the Jill Andersen books; I love that I’ve matured enough, as a writer and as a person, that I can write these stories. I love that readers love Jill as much as I do.

But I want to bring Jill home. She deserves to be immortalized in a graphic novel. That was where she started. Hell, that’s where I started. Without discovering and getting hooked on comic books when I was in middle school, I doubt I’m a storyteller right now. I don’t know what I’d be, but I don’t think I’d have “published author” among the things about which I can brag.

Who would draw a Bounty graphic novel? Well, that’s one of the hang-ups.

It sure as hell won’t be me (see above). Right now, Goode is my choice… but then there’s the issue of payment. I would never ask an artist to work with me without proper compensation — to say nothing of how much money we’d agree to split on any potential sales. In a perfect world, a comic publisher would pick up my script and all of that would take care of itself. But a Plan B would be nice.

So for that reason alone, the Bounty graphic novel might be way down the road. But it is something I want to do, it is something I’m writing. But for the time being, Jill will have to stick to prose, with only glimpses like the above image keeping the dream of her going back to her roots to spur me onward.

Some readers have compared Jill to Daredevil — a comparison I find flattering after having watched at least some of the latter’s Netflix series. One reader said Jill was like a cross between Lara Croft and Deadpool, and my fans are well aware of all the Batman references I throw into these books. Jill is a comic book character in a novel world — and as great as superhero novels are (there really should be more of them), just once I’d love to sell someone a Bounty comic or graphic novel.

One day, that will happen. One day…

A Female Doctor: Perspective from a Non-Whovian

Geek confession: I am not a Whovian.

I’ve never seen an episode of Doctor Who. Haven’t even wanted to, really.

The premise seemed weird. I didn’t get it. Steven Moffat was a thing.

Mostly the last one.

But now there’s news that the next Doctor — the 13th — will be a woman. After 12 straight white dudes, Whovians will finally see a woman — Jodie Whittaker, to be exact — emerge from the TARDIS.

That’s a big deal, no two ways about it. And to be perfectly frank, I’m now interested enough in Doctor Who as a property that I might give the show a try once the new Doctor starts. What some would call novelty, I call opportunity.

I’ve made no bones about the fact that I love female protagonists; for the most part, I prefer them to their male counterparts. Part of it is, historically, the latter was all we had. For so many decades, the white male hero has been so prevalent in genre fiction that he was ubiquitous.

Even with the deviations from that norm of late, the white male hero still outnumbers all of the other gender and racial identities multiple times over — so keep that in mind the next time some “true fan” gets all whiny on social media about how PC culture and the SJWs are ruining genre fiction.

I don’t need stories that affirm my life experiences anymore. I want stories that push me, make me think and feel in different ways. Protagonists that aren’t the “default” (read: white and male) do that in ways the “default” never can. I’ve been so well represented in genre fiction in my almost 36 years on this planet that I’m… kinda over it.

When I first created Bounty, back in the late 1990s, I did so because I didn’t see a ton of comic books at the time starring female leads. There were plenty of female superheroes, but most of them, from what I could tell, were part of ensemble casts. Other than Wonder Woman and Witchblade, I didn’t see many solo female-led books.

So I decided to change that.

I don’t need to be represented anymore. But there are so many who do, and I want to devour their stories. That means greater diversity in character — but also in writer, in creator, in director.

A female Doctor has so many possibilities. Imagine how much more plentiful those possibilities are if the writing team and those directing each episode are also more diverse.

Diversity is not a dirty word. It is a necessity when it comes to understanding the complicated, ever-changing world in which we live. If a British TV show about a time-traveling alien with two hearts can now contribute to that, then I say all the better.

 

Follow J.D. Cunegan on: Amazon | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Patreon

 

NEWS: Find Me on Patreon

I am now officially on Patreon. You can visit my page — and become a Patron — here.

So what is Patreon? Well, it’s like Kickstarter, but it’s not. Whereas people use Kickstarter to fund specific projects on a one-time basis, Patreon is more of a subscription format. For instance, people who pledge to my Patreon page do so on a monthly basis. The amounts people donate don’t have to be anything substantial, and through Patreon, I can offer some really cool goodies for people who decide to pledge.

So why set up a Patreon?

Well, from my Patreon page: “Here’s something no one tells you about being self-published: it can be expensive. Between hiring editors and designing book covers and worrying about promotion, a lot of times, you’ll find yourself spending money you might not necessarily have (especially if you’re not one of the better-selling authors). The purpose behind this Patreon is to help me with the expenses of being a self-publishing author. Indie publishing is a tight-knit community; we’re all fans of each other and we try to help whenever possible.

“Consider this me asking for help.

“Please don’t feel obligated to pledge if you can’t. Money’s not nearly as tight for me as it used to be, but I still remember what it’s like to wonder where your next meal’s gonna come from or how you’re gonna pursue your dream without sinking your bank account into the negative. Even sharing this page with others is a big help.

“No one gets where they want to be all by themselves. If I’m to achieve my dream of being able to write novels for a living — of being a bestselling author — I need to occasionally reach out for help. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it doesn’t happen overnight. This is a long journey, and I would be honored if you’d take that journey with me.”

I will have plenty of updates and other content on my Patreon page, much of it available only to Patrons. So please visit my page, and if you decide to pledge, then let me say thanks in advance!

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: E.A. Copen

It’s been a while, but it’s time for another Author Spotlight! Today, I bring you all one of my favorite self-published urban fantasy authors, E.A. Copen. She is the author of the Judah Black series, as well as the Fairchild Chronicles, and she has even more projects coming in the next few months.

Let’s talk to E.A.

What was your inspiration behind writing the Judah Black series and its offshoot, Kiss of Vengeance?

They came from two very different places! When I started writing the Judah Black novels, I knew I wanted to have a heroine who was real. She’s got problems. Some are supernatural, bust most aren’t. Most importantly, I knew I wanted to write about a mom because too many stories just end when the female lead gets married or gets pregnant. Stories don’t have to end just because your heroine is a parent. I wanted to write about a mom who could still kick ass and somehow managed to raise a son in the process.

Kiss of Vengeance rose partly out of my frustrations as a writer (mundane things like writer’s block and deadlines), as well as something personal I was going through. I knew I wanted to explore the world of the fae, which Judah doesn’t interact with much, and to also tell a story from the other side of the law. While discussing something completely different with a friend of mine, he uttered the phrase “reluctant white knight” and the idea is sort of born from that.

You’re one of my favorite urban fantasy authors. What draws you to that particular genre, and – specifically in terms of the Judah Black series – what made you combine that genre with elements of other genres, such as mysteries?

Aw. Thank you.

Mostly, I started writing urban fantasy because I love to read it. I write the books I think I’d like to read. As an adult, I watched Supernatural and fell in love with the monster-of-the-week type story, but also with the writers’ ability to use the small plots to create a larger plot.

And they have elements of other genres too, like westerns and dystopia. Mainly that’s my own fandoms bleeding through. I love a good western, and dystopia is my favorite book genre to this day, aside from urban fantasy.

So many of my favorite characters anymore are female – Buffy Summers, Kate Beckett, Sydney Bristow, I could go on and on and on. What drove you to create Judah Black, and what stood out to you about her even from the day you first created her?

I wanted to write about a mom and it wouldn’t be far off to say I was inspired at least in part by my love of Dana Scully in X-Files who could be feminine while still being a force to be reckoned with. She had her career and she was very serious about it.

Judah’s a little different, though. She gets thrown into fighting things way outside of her weight class. Instead of upping her powers all the time so she can go kill all the baddies by herself, I give her a team. The people who love and support her throughout the series is really what makes her unique. Lots of heroines out there can defeat monsters and play the lone gunman. Judah’s strength comes from the people she has in her life.

Character vs. plot: the seemingly endless debate over which is more important for a good story. Which side of that debate do you fall on?

Character, definitely. There are probably hundreds of werewolf murder mysteries out there. What makes a reader stick around isn’t plot. Most plots have been done before. You stay for the characters. When a reader finds a character they connect with, it’s like magic. You’ve got to have someone to root for.

Are you a heavy plotter, or do you just let the story take you where it will?

The only plotting I ever do is a one- or two-sentence summary that names the protagonist, antagonist, and their goals. I used to try to outline, but I found that once I plotted everything all out, I lost interest in finishing. To me, once it’s down on paper it’s done. I like having the excitement of not knowing everything that’s going to happen.

Kiss of Vengeance takes place in the same universe as the Judah Black novels, but it has a completely different feel and sometimes feels like it’s an entirely different genre. How did that book come about, and what are your broader plans for this universe going forward?

Kiss of Vengeance is about finding who you are when your back’s against the wall and everything you’d normally use to define yourself is stripped away. When I was writing it, that’s sort of what I was going through in my personal life. I had to find a way to describe who I was without resorting to my go-to list of mother, wife, writer. Plus, I just love film noir and wanted to see if I could pull it off.

The universe can certainly expand. I’d like to do more Fairchild books, but it is a little harder to write Dal’s stories because he lives in a brutal criminal underworld. Because of some events that happen in upcoming books, I also opened up the possibility of doing another series in the same world set in Alaska and leaning heavily on Inuit mythology. There’s also a prequel novella and some prequel short stories I’m working on to eventually release. One day, I’d love to go back and explore all that happened during and before the Revelation. I hope I get that chance.

Without giving away too much, where do you see the Judah Black series going from here? I understand Playing With Fire’s coming sometime this fall?

Well, there’s always been something of a political sub-plot in the series. As the crimes get more publicity, regulations will get tighter. Eventually, that kind of treatment can only lead to one thing. That is, if the werewolves, fae, and vampires can figure out how to get along long enough to fight back. They are monsters, after all. They just can’t seem to get along. And of course, Judah can’t ever keep out of trouble. Whenever she sees a loose thread, she has to unravel it. It’s going to get her into even more hot water in the highest echelons of government, both on Earth and in the fae.

Playing with Fire is sort of the kick-off book for that. It’s the first glimpse I give my readers into how deep the rabbit hole goes. I’m hoping to have it out in October of this year.

What are some of your favorite books?

In no particular order, my current top 5 books would be:

Dangerous Ways by R.R. Virdi
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
River Marked by Patricia Briggs
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Ask me again next week and I’ll have a new list. Books tend to rotate in and out of it depending on my mood. When someone asks me my favorite book, my answer is always “the one I’m currently reading.”

 

Beasts of BabylonIn addition to the Judah Black series and Kiss of Vengeance, Copen will have a new release on Aug. 1: Beasts of Babylon. This entirely new story is already up for pre-order on Amazon.

Gunslinger Anastasia Thorne won’t stay dead.

Ten years ago, monsters murdered Anastasia and her children. Now, she’s back to hunt down the monsters responsible. She knows their names, their faces, and even where they’re hiding.

There’s just one problem. No one in town believes her.

When the sheriff refuses to help, Anastasia strikes a deal with the notorious outlaw, Jesse Gallagher instead. The pair ride into the mountains in search of vengeance, but the hunters quickly become the hunted. With the sheriff hot on their trail, ghouls on their heels, and werewolves and skin stealing monsters in the mountains, Jesse and Anastasia quickly find out they’re outgunned and in for a long night.

It’s going to take more than silver bullets to put these monsters down.

 

Now let’s see what I think of Copen’s work so far.

Guilty by Association (Judah Black #1)

Three things I love:Guilty by Association

1) Kickass ladies;

2) Genre mash-ups; and

3) Stories that start off as one thing and end up being something else entirely.

Guilty by Association, E.A. Copen’s debut, checks all three of those boxes. Special Agent Judah Black, new to a middle-of-nowhere stretch of Texas stuffed to the gills with the supernatural, finds herself staring a classic whodunit in the face — only this time, the victim is a werewolf. Before long, though, the case turns into something much larger than even the victim, and the result is an entertaining, engrossing read.

Copen treats us to an entertaining cast of characters, and even though I’ve never been a particularly big fan of werewolves, a few of them wound up being personal favorites. Judah Black sometimes reads as a cross between Buffy Summers and Kate Beckett (two of my all-time favorite female ass-kickers), and I can already tell she’s a character who’s going to stick with me.

Part murder mystery, part urban fantasy, part conspiracy thriller, Guilty by Association does a masterful job of creating and laying the foundation for a rich, vibrant supernatural world. Even if the setting makes Sunnydale seem like a bustling metropolis, Copen has done a fantastic job of showing us just enough of the world to get us interested; I’m beyond glad that I already have the next two installments in my collection, and hope there will be even more down the line.

Books like this are why I will vehemently defend independently-published books. Indie authors are some of the most creative, most daring individuals I’ve met, and when they create stories like this, we’re all the better for it. To me, Judah Black is every bit the equal of, say, R.R. Virdi’s Vincent Graves, and I’m glad to count myself among one of Copen’s biggest fans going forward.

Okay, enough blabbing; I’ve got to read Blood Debt. If you haven’t read Guilty by Association yet, do yourself a favor and change that. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Rating: *****

Blood Debt (Judah Black #2)

Blood DebtConsidering how much I loved Guilty by Association, despite my distaste for werewolves, I was chomping at the bit to read Blood Debt given my affinity for (…almost) all things vampires. And as I suspected, E.A. Copen’s second entry in the Judah Black series doesn’t disappoint, offering yet another action-packed mystery and enough character moments to add depth as well as bite.

Yes, that was totally intentional.

To my pleasant surprise, a fair number of players from the first book also appear in Blood Debt giving Judah’s admittedly small world a much larger feel. Even so, there are enough newcomers to keep things fresh, including magick wielder Mara and the mysterious vampire-but-not-really-sorta-kinda Abe. As much as I enjoy Judah as a protagonist, having interesting side characters along for the ride turns an entertaining read into a certified page-turner.

The side stories are plenty — almost too much so, as it felt like one of the side stories got dropped around midway through the book in favor of the main plot — but again, they help flesh out Judah’s character and world.

A common critique of the mystery genre (and a valid one) is that it often feels paint-by-numbers, that it hits all the typical notes without offering anything that would provide depth and/or resonance. Copen’s series doesn’t fall into this trap, and the result is a world that is simultaneously otherworldly and intimate. She’s knee-deep in a world of monsters, yet the reality of her life is so intimately personal that the scope never once overwhelms the reader.

Blood Debt was a fantastic follow-up to Guilty by Association, and Copen has quickly established herself as one of my favorite indie authors. I’m anxious to read Chasing Ghosts and hopeful that the wait for the series’ fourth installment is a short one.

Rating: *****

Chasing Ghosts (Judah Black #3)

Chasing GhostsIf Guilty by Association and Blood Debt, the first two novels in E.A. Copen’s Judah Black series, were worldbuilding affairs, the third book — Chasing Ghosts — puts all the puzzle pieces together in an emotionally fraught, highly intense adventure that wraps up the initial arc and sets up what promises to be an exciting future.

Everything that made Guilty and Blood fantastic novels is back for Chasing Ghosts; Copen is clearly growing and maturing as a storyteller, and she’s fine-tuned each of the characters’ voices. Judah is quintessentially herself, but she is so much more, as she progresses both on her own and with regards to several of the relationships she keeps.

Chasing Ghosts is, fair warning, an emotional gut punch. There are at least three occasions where this book practically moved me to tears, and there’s something viscerally satisfying about that. Yes, we often read to escape, but we also read to feel. Copen gets us to feel for several of the key players in this tale, while simultaneously taking us on a journey that twists and turns far more than I had anticipated.

The depth Copen has given not just Judah, but several of the other important characters, really helps flesh out Paint Rock — a world that, on its own, doesn’t really amount to much. Paint Rock makes Sunnydale seem like a bustling metropolis, but the reservation’s inhabitants more than make up for the lack of scenery.

I’m excited to see where this series goes from here, even though Chasing Ghosts would make a fitting end to a trilogy. Judah Black is one of my favorite characters, and Copen has established herself as one of my favorite independently-published authors. If TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayerand Supernatural tickle your fancy, then this is a series you should be reading.

And if not? Hell, read it anyway. Cause it’s really, really good.

Rating: *****

Kiss of Vengeance

Kiss of VengeanceKiss of Vengeance might take place in the same universe as E.A. Copen’s Judah Black novels, but it is a much different story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the worldbuilding this short story offers alone is worth the price of admission. Fortunately, Copen gives us a solid story and memorable characters to go along with this.

First a caveat: there will be a few passages that might be uncomfortable for some readers. The violence is graphic and there are occasional moments and mentions of sexual violence, both against adults and children. Nothing explicit, but it exists, so it’s worth mentioning.

In short, this is a mafia revenge story with a supernatural flavor. Dal is an enforcer for a fae crime family in Boston, and he finds himself on one hell of a revenge kick after he finds his wife and daughter murdered. The rest unfolds like you would expect such a tale to unfold: lots of blood, lots of anger, lots of angst.

But Copen still manages to weave a satisfying tale, because the characters are what drive everything. Dal is very much a Frank Castle-like figure, and those allied with him and those opposing him are each memorable in their own rights. The characters (even a pleasant cameo from the Judah Black series) make this tale.

If you’ve read Copen’s Judah Black books, Kiss of Vengeance is a chance to revisit that universe and find something different. If you haven’t, this isn’t a bad place to start. It’s a short, quick read, and I’d like to see what comes next. Copen is quickly becoming one of my favorite indie authors, and this is another strong entry.

Rating: ****

All of Copen’s works are currently available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats; be sure to visit her Author Central page to pick up your copies. Also, be sure to check out the new audiobook version of Guilty by Association.

On Passion

“Passion. It lies in all of us. Sleeping… waiting… and though unwanted, unbidden, it will stir… open its jaws and howl. It speaks to us… guides us. Passion rules us all. And we obey. What other choice do we have? Passion is the source of our finest moments. The joy of love… the clarity of hatred… the ecstasy of grief. It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion, maybe we’d know some kind of peace. But we would be hollow. Empty rooms, shuttered and dank. Without passion, we’d be truly dead.”

The above passage, a speech from the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Passion,” is but one interpretation of passion itself. It’s an admittedly dark take, fitting in perfectly with a TV show in which the titular character’s boyfriend had just gone evil and began exacting his unique brand of treachery in a personal way. But I think passion is more than all that.

Though it does bear asking: without passion, what are we?

DSCN1724I have two true passions in life: auto racing and writing. Everything beyond that never really evolves past “interest.” Baseball is an interest. Video games are an interest. They’re great, they bring me happiness, but if I had to go the rest of my life without them, I could do it. Racing and writing? Without those two things, I’m not me. Without those two things, I might as well be little more than a name carved into a hunk of stone.

But how does one differentiate between interest and passion? Well, think about when you get up in the morning. When you crawl your achy, sweaty carcass out of bed, scratching at that itch buried in your dirty, unkempt hair, what’s the first thing that brings a smile to your face? What’s the one thing you have to do? Not in the “if I don’t do this, I don’t get paid” sense; I mean in the “if I don’t do this, I feel incomplete” sense.

The truly lucky among us have the same answer to both questions. I’m not quite there yet, but I’d like to think I’m on my way.

It became clear to me a long time ago that I could never actually be a race car driver or work for a race team. Despite my love for racing, I’m not what you’d consider a car guy. I can’t take apart an engine or change a transmission; I just love watching the competition and immersing myself in the sensory overload that is being at a race. Hearing the roar of the engines, feeling that powerful purr in my ribcage, smelling the burnt rubber and the fuel, feeling the wind rush by as 40 of those ad-splashed suckers roar by at 200 miles an hour… there’s nothing like it, and I’m not sure I can adequately put it into words.

Probably why I haven’t written a story about racing. Yet.

NASCAR is my vehicular poison of choice, though I’m also partial to IndyCar, Formula 1, drag racing, sports car racing… if it’s got four wheels and an engine, chances are I have at least a passing (natch) fascination with it. I can’t go through a weekend without watching a race, nor can I go a NASCAR season without attending at least a couple races. Racing is in my blood, and it will be until the day I die.

As for writing… well, I have a visceral need to tell stories. To take in stories, realize how Me at Comiconthey make me feel, then do everything I can to make others feel the same way. I’ve been a writer, in one way or another, since I was in middle school; by now, writing is such an intrinsic part of who I am that not writing would be an affront to everything I’ve built for the last… almost 36 years.

Every time I read a comic book or a really good novel, or I see an engrossing TV show or movie, I come away with this jolt of adrenaline, this need to plunk my pasty ass down in front of my laptop and make with the typey-type. Every time I write a book, or a short story, or even a blog post like this, I’m scratching an itch buried deep under my skin that never truly goes away.

Every morning, I wake up with one thought: what am I going to write today?

Rarely, the answer is “nothing.” Those days are rough.

I say all that to ask that you all find your passion in life and pursue that. For there lies the route to happiness. If you don’t know what your passion is, that’s okay. If your answer changes over time, that’s fine too. We all grow and change. What you loved at 15 and what you love at 35 doesn’t have to be the same thing. Sometimes, finding your passion boils down to realizing there are only but so many hours in the day, and you have to give up something.

That thing you can’t give up? That thing you refuse to let go of? That’s your passion.

If there’s one piece of writing advice I could give (and only one), it’s to follow your passion. If you’re in the middle of a story you’re not passionate about, stop writing it. Set it aside (but never get rid of it entirely). Find what you are passionate about, and work on that. Time is too fleeting to waste it on something you don’t feel.

Share your passion with others. There is comfort and happiness in numbers. I understand how that sounds, coming from an introverted hermit like me, but few things bring me as much happiness as sharing my joy with like-minded individuals. I don’t even just mean selling books (though that it a kickass feeling, I won’t lie). Fanboying/fangirling over a favorite book, sharing tricks of the publishing trade that worked (or didn’t)… that sense of community only fuels my passion further.

If writing’s your passion, write. If it’s art, then paint or draw or sculpt. If it’s tinkering with the innards of a computer or a 1967 Pontiac GTO, then tinker away. But don’t let the hours and days pass you by without your passion. If there’s one thing you have permission to be selfish about in life, it’s your passion. Indulging in your passion is what gives you the strength and the drive to handle the parts of life you aren’t that jazzed about.

Got a full-time job that stresses you out? Make time before or after for whatever you love. Stressful family life? Tuck yourself away in solitude and take in whatever it is that makes you tick.

Because at the end of the day, Angelus was right. Without passion, we’d be truly dead.

SHORT STORY: The Agency

This might eventually become a novel — because another book to write is exactly what I need right now — but for now, enjoy this short little tale.

Bethany was sweating.

Surrounded by pitch black, enveloped in silence, the bead of sweat trickling down her forehead and meandering between the nodes stuck to her was the only thing she could register. A soft, rhythmic beep interrupted the silence. Her heart thundered in her chest, as if it were trying to break through her ribcage. Her temples throbbed.

A sliver of light burst through from the other side of the room. Once her eyes focused, Bethany noticed a tiny red dot. She was being recorded, and her ears caught the faint whir of the zoom adjusting. That sound, mixed with her heartbeat and the beeping, created a cacophony of paranoia.

Bethany balled her hands into tight fists, her palms slick with anxiety. She tried to count the nodes stuck to her forehead, a feeble attempt at calming her nerves. But she kept losing count. She never got farther than eight. No matter what she tried, Bethany could not quiet her nerves.

The bitter taste of nausea twisted in her stomach. Her heart started beating even faster, as if that were possible. The Director could probably sense her fear without the fancy equipment he surrounded himself with. The giant gray slab housed all of the Agency’s data, and it was a constant reminder that there were no secrets here — not even in someone’s head.

If this was how the Agency treated one of its own… how did it treat its enemies?

The beeping came to a stop. The red light went out. Bethany was once again trapped in complete dark, complete silence. Next to death, this was what she imagined sensory deprivation to be like. Were it not for the constant thump of her heart, the trickle of sweat down the back of her neck, the hitch in her breath, Bethany would assume she had died.

“State your name, please.”

The booming, disembodied voice startled Bethany. She gasped and flinched hard enough that a couple of the nodes tugged on her forehead. The adhesive peeled from her damp skin, and Bethany hissed in pain before closing her eyes. Perhaps if she focused only on her own heartbeat, she could control it.

But why was she so worried? She had faced lie detector tests throughout her entire adult life; they were part of the territory in her line of work. Even before being recruited by the Agency, Bethany had constantly subjected herself to such screenings. But this was more than a mere polygraph. This machine was imprinting itself into Bethany’s brain, mapping her entire psyche and searching for the slightest irregularity. Even if Bethany answered every question as truthfully as possible, she knew there was a chance she would be expelled from the Agency.

Or worse.

In this void, time held no meaning. Bethany couldn’t tell how long she sat in silence, her brain scrambling to decide on a course of action. She uncurled her fists and latched onto the chair, hoping to keep some grip on reality.

What time was it? What day was it?

“I repeat: state your name.”

Bethany’s gasp was a little louder this time, and she instantly cursed herself under her breath. There was nothing more pathetic than being startled by her own boss’ voice.

“Beth,” she said, her voice cracking. “Special Agent Bethany Louise Harmon.”

The beeping returned.

With a deep inhale, Bethany closed her eyes again. She released the air built up in her lungs, feeling her body shudder with the effort. She swallowed thickly, refusing to let the bile tickling the back of her throat to go any further. She suddenly regretted having pasta for lunch.

“How long have you served the Agency, Miss Harmon?”

Again, the Director’s voice made Bethany jump. She could swear his voice was deeper than usual, though that was likely a trick of her surroundings. Here, his voice echoed off the walls. Were it not for the rampant paranoia, Bethany would have called the voice almost divine.

“Um.” She licked her lips, shook her head. “F-four years.”

Bethany cringed. That moment’s hesitation would undoubtedly be noted. That split second of indecision would be seen as evidence of a lie at best — the potential for becoming gun-shy in the field at worst. Bethany’s record in the field was nearly spotless, but any crumb of information the Agency could use against her, it would. The Agency demanded perfection, and loathe be those who consistently fell short.

Silence reigned again, though Bethany thought she heard a sigh. Was the Director disappointed in her response? That split second it took her to answer? The stammer? Had he already given an order?

“During that time,” the voice returned, “have you ever aided and abetted enemies of the United States of America?”

“No,” she answered in a tone she barely recognized.

“Are you sure?”

Bethany opened her mouth, but she was too shocked to form any words. The follow-up had caught her off-guard — which would also be used against her in any future evaluations. Her heartbeat picked up speed again, just as the incessant beeping returned. Her hands curled back into fists. She felt a bead of sweat trickle down the side of her nose. She licked her lips and opened her mouth again, but just like last time… no words.

“Bethany?”

She flinched. The Director had never used her first name before. She had always been Agent or Harmon. His voice had almost taken a paternal quality; in a way, it felt like this interrogation was a personal challenge for him. Did the Director know something? Had Bethany slipped up somehow over the years? Her mind raced with so many questions that she forgot to answer his.

She sucked in another deep breath to steel herself, using the armrests as anchors. “I have never knowingly aided and abetted an enemy of the United States.”

Once again, the beeping stopped. The Director had no response. Bethany’s heart slowed enough that it no longer felt like it was beating itself against her sternum. Her fingers relaxed their grip and her knees stopped shaking. Glancing at the pitch black around her, Bethany counted the seconds.

The count reached sixty. A full minute without another question. This couldn’t be the end of the interrogation, could it? Was it really as simple as stating her name and affirming she had never helped the people she was tasked with bringing down? Something was off; this felt all wrong. This was oddly cryptic, even for the Director.

The room went from pitch black to blindingly white without warning, and Bethany recoiled with a gasp. Squeezing her eyes shut, Bethany curled into herself as much as she could in a sitting position, slowly blinking the stars out of her eyes before they finally adjusted to the light. Two of the nodes tore off her forehead.

When properly lit, the interrogation room was ghost white. Massive databases and digital storage units lined the walls on either side of Bethany. Their secrets were well above even her pay grade, and she stared at the machine attached to her forehead, a black monitor displaying a digital readout of her brain.

The door swung open, slamming against the wall. Before Bethany could react, a tall man in a fine-pressed Italian suit hovered over her. The scent of his cologne, mixed with all of the other sensations bombarding Bethany, almost made her gag. Still, she held her composure as best she could, looking up to see the Director bearing his gray eyes right into her.

His hair was as white as the rest of the room. His nostrils flared and his mouth formed a tight line. The Director’s hands grabbed the armrests on either side of Bethany and he leaned in closer. Bethany had only seen the look on his face once before: five years ago after a mission gone wrong. The next day, over seventy associates of a Korean crime syndicate were dead.

Bethany’s blood ran cold as she once again tried and failed to speak. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the Director’s, despite her brain screaming for her to do just that.

“Then tell me, Agent Harmon… who is Grant Pasch?”

MOVIE REVIEW: Wonder Woman

It should’ve never taken this long for us to get a female-led superhero movie.

But I’m glad this is the first one.

Wonder Woman, on top of being the best DC-based movie since The Dark Knight, is a marvelous film — one that was worth the wait and the hype, and it gives us hope that a) Justice League might actually be good, and b) we can have more diverse superhero movies.

Patty Jenkins did a fine job in her big-budget directorial debut, and Gal Gadot embodies Diana Prince the way Robert Downey Jr. embodies Tony Stark and Chris Evans embodies Steve Rogers. I hate comparing Diana to male heroes, but in the movie landscape, that’s pretty much all there’s been until now.

Can the Catwoman and Elektra jokes (those films did not fail because they were female-led; they failed for the same reason Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern failed: because they were bad movies). Wonder Woman is a fantastic film, a bright spot in the otherwise bleak DCEU, and proof that an iconic character such as Wonder Woman absolutely belongs in what is an increasingly-crowded comic book movie market.

In fact, she stands out. Wonder Woman is easily on par with my other all-time favorites in the genre — the aforementioned The Dark Knight and Captain America: the Winter Soldier. But what makes Wonder Woman stand out, even then, is Gadot. The moment she first appears on-screen, she grabs this film by the… I’ll go with horns here, because I feel like the other analogy would be too obvious… takes control, and doesn’t let go until the credits roll.

She is the epitome of Diana’s strength, conviction, and belief in mankind’s inherent good — even when repeatedly shown otherwise. Her fish-out-of-water arc, which harkens back to the first Thor, is a surprising source of comic gold, and it works a) because of her rapport with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and b) because Diana is never the butt of the joke. Gadot strikes the perfect balance between the badass, the compassionate person, the idealist, and the goofball. Diana is all of those things, and Gadot embraces them all.

The opening chapters (this is a book blog, after all) on Themyscira are beautiful, as is the big fight scene (even in its brutality). Later in the film, when Diana has her first true badass “I am Wonder Woman” moment (those who have seen the film know), it’s remarkable in its intensity, its cinematography, and the fact that Diana is shown to be a badass without throwing a single punch.

That scene brought a tear to my eye. And I know I’m not alone in that.

I bristled at the romance between Diana and Steve, but that’s because I reflexively bristle at any romantic subplot anymore. I’m at a point now where, unless I’m watching or reading an actual romance, keep the love out of it. And dammit, can we stop letting guys named Steve get on planes?!

This film isn’t perfect; it suffers from poor villains (which the vast majority of other comic book movies do), the twist in the third act fell flat for me, and the final battle was a jarring change given the tone the first two acts established. But those faults do not truly detract from what is an otherwise amazing cinematic experience, and Wonder Woman is still one of the genre’s best in spite of those.

It remains to be seen if Wonder Woman can fix some of the damage that Man of SteelBatman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad have done to DC’s cinematic efforts, but as a comic book movie — and as the first such film to star a female hero — it’s a tremendous accomplishment. I will see Justice League this fall just to get more of Gadot’s Diana, and I will be back for however many Wonder Woman movies they decide to make (Gadot deserves at least 50).

Wonder Woman is a fantastic movie, one that every fan of the genre should see, and it proves that diversity of character and diversity of creator need not be something we shy away from.

OUT NOW: The Bounty Trilogy

Bounty trilogy coverHAMPTON, Va. — Where can you get three full-length novels for just six bucks?

Amazon, where you can now pick up The Bounty Trilogy — a Kindle exclusive — for just $5.99. The Bounty Trilogy bundles together BountyBlood Ties, and Behind the Badge, the first three novels in the Jill Andersen series.

In addition, I’ve thrown in the first four chapters of Notna, which will release on Oct. 10.

From The Bounty Trilogy‘s Amazon listing:

Jill Andersen is a war vet. She’s a homicide cop. And she’s a vigilante.

But don’t call her a hero.

When Dr. Trent Roberts’ body is fished out of the Chesapeake Bay, it triggers a series of events that leaves Jill facing the prospect of her darkest secret coming to light. On top of solving that murder, she must decide who she can trust – all while trying to prove her disgraced father’s innocence.

A shadowy billionaire, a mysterious cabal, and an underground cybernetics experiment weave a complicated path to telling Jill’s tale – one that takes an even more dramatic turn when four cops murder a 17-year-old boy in cold blood and a mysterious, powerful figure delivers his own brand of vigilante justice.

With Jill at a crossroads in the upcoming Behind the Mask, catch up on J.D. Cunegan’s adrenaline-packed blend of murder mystery, science fiction, and superhero comic books that one reader called “a delightful mix between Daredevil and Castle.”

EXCERPT: Behind the Mask

Below is an excerpt from Behind the Mask, the upcoming fourth novel in the Jill Andersen series. Please note that this is an early draft that has not yet been subject to strenuous editing. All mistakes are my own. Also, be warned that there are spoilers if you haven’t yet read Behind the Badge.

JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (7)Every time sirens whirred to life, Jill Andersen’s heart skipped a beat.

The two weeks since Jill had marched into the WJZ studios, hacked into the live television feed, and broadcast to all of Baltimore who she really was had crawled by. It was almost reminiscent of when Jill and her younger brother Brian were children, eagerly awaiting Christmas morning. Each day that drew closer to the holiday seemed to drag along slower than the last. The only difference this time was the overwhelming dread that came with waiting. It almost literally pressed down on Jill’s shoulders, the bone-chilling and stomach-churning realization that any night would be the night Jill finally lost her freedom.

And in a way, Jill thought she should. After all, every time she donned the black leather, every time she assumed the mantle of the vigilante, she broke the law. Her day job centered around bringing those who broke the law to justice; if Jill broke the law, wasn’t she supposed to face the same fate?

In a perfect world, she would — but then again, that same perfect world would have seen the four officers who tortured and killed Devin Buckner suffer the same fate. Instead, the Baltimore Police Department aided and abetted them, threatening Jill in the process, and it got to the point where those four wound up in a watery grave thanks to a nameless, faceless vigilante.

That ultimately led to Jill turning in her badge. As for the reveal? Well, that was a much more complicated, much more sordid tale. Jill had kicked herself plenty for her rash decision over the past couple weeks, whenever a close call nearly had her hunched over in the back seat of a squad car with her wrists shackled together behind her back. It was the reason she wore a bulky black overcoat on top of her leather. It was the reason she had chopped much of her hair off and dyed it jet black. It now curled up at the sides around her ears, bangs forming over her forehead. It was the reason she abandoned her apartment and hadn’t so much as spoken to her brother or her former partner, outside of an untraceable text from a burner phone. It was the reason Jill kept her trademark katana hidden in an abandoned warehouse on the corner of Lee and Charles.

It was the reason Jill’s heart just now leapt in her throat and she peered over her shoulder around the corner of the building. The sirens were growing louder, and Jill couldn’t help but wonder if this was the night the cops finally cornered her. To her relief, the warehouse in question still had one of those old-style fire escapes. The metal was rusted from lack of care, and it chaffed against the leather on Jill’s palms when she jumped to grab it, but her enhanced strength made ascending the warehouse’s six stories a relative walk in the park.

As Jill made her way to the roof, she peered over her shoulder again. The police vehicle, which was actually a K-9 SUV, had stopped a block to the north, blue overheads spinning to announce their presence. The light bounced off the buildings in the vicinity, and despite having height to her advantage, Jill crouched down to stare over the ledge. A husky officer named Yancey emerged from the driver’s seat, sauntering to the rear of the vehicle and producing two adult German Shepherds. Jill cursed under her breath and pressed her back against the ledge.

Jill knew almost nothing about dogs, other than her childhood memories of Brian begging for a puppy for his tenth birthday. She had no idea how good their sense of smell really was, if they would be able to sense where she was and when. A side effect of being with the Homicide unit her entire career, Jill hadn’t taken the time to learn how other divisions operated. She wondered if that ignorance would be her undoing, and part of Jill bristled at that. She didn’t want Fido to be the reason she wound up behind bars. She was a superhero, a freaking cyborg… she was so much better than that.

Pushing off the ledge, careful not to let her boots crunch too loudly against the gravel, Jill tried to keep an eye on Yancey’s route. He stuck to the sidewalks, lighting a cigarette and seemingly content to let the dogs lead the way. Their black snouts were pressed to the pavement, their tails remarkably still.

Yancey turned around, giving Jill a full view of his face. He pushed the brim of his cap up, puffing out a drag of his smoke. Even from six stories up, Jill could see the bags under his eyes and the general disinterest on his scruffy features. Pulling the cigarette from his mouth and tapping out a few ashes, Yancey shook his head and glanced toward the sky. His gaze wasn’t in Jill’s direction, yet she still crouched down further in response. Yancey looked as if he was none too pleased with this particular assignment, and he didn’t notice as the two dogs wandered into a nearby alley. Instead, he kept sucking away at his cigarette before finally flicking the spent butt out onto the street without bothering to snuff it out.

The dogs barked in unison and Jill flinched. But Yancey just stuffed his hand into the pocket of his bulky overcoat, producing a flashlight and heaving a sigh before turning around and joining his pooches. It was in the opposite direction of where Jill was, and she released the breath she hadn’t even realized she had been holding. Chances were, Yancey was simply following orders — reluctantly so, if Jill had correctly read his demeanor. So if he was the one to catch her, would she really be able to blame him?

And for all the bravado Jill tried to pump herself up with, for all the times she would catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror and remind herself that there were those in this town who worshiped her… this was wearing on her. When Jill wasn’t actually on the run, she was having trouble eating. She certainly wasn’t sleeping. Her titanium skeleton and enhanced strength weren’t doing her any good when she was this run down. If only Project Fusion had rid her of the need for food or rest…

The barking in the distance stopped. Jill glanced over the ledge again, but she didn’t see Yancey or the dogs emerge from the alley. At first, she didn’t think anything of it, but with each second that passed, and as the traffic lights at the intersection of Charles and Hughes went through three cycles, dread built in her gut. Her first instinct was to go investigate; whether as a cop or as Bounty, that was what Jill’s body was practically trained to do. Yet she kept still, because there was too much at risk. If someone else saw her, if Yancey was, in fact, alright… the last thing Jill wanted to do was fall into a trap.

Minutes passed without any sign of Yancey or the dogs. Jill got to her feet, deciding she could no longer ignore the intuition plucking away at her subconscious. One of the first lessons she had learned as a cop was to trust herself when her gut told her something wasn’t right. A cop’s gut wasn’t gospel, despite what some old-timers had tried to tell her, but Jill had eventually learned that listening to her proverbial spider sense was beneficial more often than not.

But when Jill got to her feet, the sound of gravel scraping gave her pause. Jill held her breath, her hands balling into fists seemingly on their own. She held her breath, training all of her senses to hone in for that sound again. She was met with nothing more than the howl of wind off the bay, her hair fluttering in the breeze, but she could feel the presence behind her. Tightening her fists, Jill turned to regard whoever was now on the roof with her. She wasn’t sure what she expected — if it was a cop, chances were they would have already announced themselves, but once Jill caught sight of the lanky man wearing a black and orange overcoat and a matching baseball cap hung low over his forehead, she frowned. This was not what she expected.

“Erikson?”

“You’re a hard woman to find,” the Baltimore Sun‘s investigative reporter said with a sideways grin. “Though I guess that’s by design these days.”

Reluctantly, Jill unfurled her fists. “Sneaking up on a paranoid superhero’s not a very good idea.”

“Even if I have a tip?”

“Please tell me the next words out of your mouth are that the cops aren’t after me.”

“Not quite, but just as good.” Stanley Erikson glanced over his shoulder and tugged on the bill of his cap. His eyes narrowed when the wind picked up. “Tomorrow night, an associate of David Gregor’s will be awaiting a shipment at the Port of Baltimore.”

Jill’s spine stiffened at the sound of that name. “While he’s across the Atlantic. The perfect alibi.”

“My sources tell me he’s resuming the drug trade,” Erikson explained. “If you’re not too busy playing hide-and-seek with your former employers, might be worth checking out.”

“That it? You could’ve just texted me.”

“There’s also this,” Erikson said, producing a black USB drive from his pocket and handing it to Jill.

She took the device with a frown and a quirked brow, shaking her head. It wasn’t like she had ready access to a computer to read whatever was on here, yet her fingers curled around the small stick regardless. “What’s this?”

“Something I have a lot of questions about,” Erikson said, zipping up his coat and stuffing his hands into the pockets. “Questions I know you have answers to.”

Something about the way Erikson said that rubbed Jill the wrong way, yet she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the flash drive… nor could she ignore the intel he had provided just moments before. If she could corner one of Gregor’s associates while he was out of the country… oh, the possibilities were endless.

“I’m guessing you won’t take a ‘no comment’.”

A rueful smile crept onto Erikson’s face. “Oh, something tells me you’ll have plenty to say about this.”