An Alchemist Takes on a Bully and Wannabe King: My Review of the LitRPG Novel ‘Unwritten Rules’

A physically disabled young man experiences newfound purpose and excitement in a virtual reality game world when he confronts an arrogant bully posing as a king. That’s the premise behind Adam Horne’s enjoyable LitRPG novel Unwritten Rules.

While in college, Kevin’s life took a tragic turn when a car struck him and left his body paralyzed. Two years later and still deeply depressed, Kevin is given the opportunity to play a revolutionary computer game – an immersive MMORPG (massive multi-player online role-playing game) called Genesis Online. It’s a game backed by a ground-breaking, state-of-the-art artificial intelligence (AI). He soon finds himself reborn (or at least reimagined) as Kelath, a rogue adventurer in an exciting medieval fantasy world.

Kelath’s excitement turns to anger and frustration when he runs smack into a corrupt guild ruled by a wannabe king named Itrix. The guild, Noblesse Oblige, seeks to dominate all of the Genesis world through extortion, violence, and intimidation. Kelath and his friends must rally together, form their own guild, and fight for the freedom of Genesis.

If you don’t like fantasy stories or role-playing games, you probably won’t enjoy Unwritten Rules. But, in my case, I found Unwritten Rules to be rather entertaining. The first few pages may be a little slow for some, but it gets you into the main character pretty well. Then, when he puts on the gaming gear, the LitRPG story gets going and draws you in. It’s not as heavy on the LitRPG elements as some other novels in this genre, but the story and characters are pretty well fleshed out. Horne definitely succeeds in getting you to root for Kelath and his friends.

The initial premise may be troubling to some. On the surface, it may suggest to some that disabled individuals lack purpose, and need something like the fictional MMO in Unwritten Rules to give them purpose. As someone who has a mentally challenged sister and who has worked with members of the disabled community (both as a pastor and, several years ago, on my county’s Disability Services Board), the value and dignity of persons with disabilities is an important issue for me. Nevertheless, as sensitive as some readers might be to the story’s premise, it is not the author’s intention to suggest that those with disabilities need virtual reality to give them purpose. The author is simply laying out the story of this one character, Kevin, and letting us go on a journey with him. When I reached out to the author on this subject, he was happy to confirm this. As he explains, “What Kevin needed most in his life was a way to feel like he was contributing, and that could have been done in any number of ways: a job, volunteering, outreach programs to mentor other people with disabilities. That’s what I saw as his purpose, and the game was the perfect tool to help him achieve it.” (I’ll be publishing a full Q&A with the author in a few days.)

I plan to continue with this series. And if you at all like fantasy and/or RPG games, I suggest you give Unwritten Rules a try.

 

Is it Wrong to Read Fantasy Literature?

I have a confession. I’m a Christian, and I love fantasy and science fiction. There, I’m out of the closet. So, let me say it plain: I love reading about dragons, monsters, wizards, Jedi, sword fights, epic battles, and more. That’s right. I’m a Bible-believing Christian (and a pastor, no less), and I love reading (and watching) science fiction and fantasy. Some Christians will not approve of this, and my reputation with them may suffer for it. But I believe in telling the truth. And the truth is… I love fantasy and science fiction.

As a kid, I was captivated by Star Wars, practically addicted to Star Trek, and thoroughly enjoyed watching Buck Rogers and the 25th Century. I wrestled with whether I’d prefer to command a starship like Captain James T. Kirk or wield a light saber and dazzle people with the psychokinetic powers of a Jedi. I decided I’d like to do both!

Not seriously, mind you. I can see some Christians (in fact, I can name a few 🙂 ) who will read the above paragraph and say: “Aha! You see? Watching Star Wars leads people to witchcraft!” So, let me clarify. I never actually sought out telekinetic powers or abilities. I knew “the Force” was fiction, and I knew witchcraft was wrong. I speak only of my imagination here. I enjoyed reading about and dreaming about being a Jedi…or a starship captain. (No supernatural powers required with the latter – just a lot of science that’s not quite available yet. Of course, a few aliens that the Enterprise encountered had some impressive abilities, but I digress).

Even as an adult, I continued to enjoy Star Wars and Star Trek, while also becoming a huge fan of Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, The Lord of the Rings, Legend of the Seeker, and more. And…

I began to read more fiction.

For years, I had read mainly nonfiction and got my fiction entertainment from TV and the movies. Yet I believe that reading is far better for the mind than TV or the movies. And I now much prefer reading a novel over watching a TV show.

And when it comes to reading fiction, I enjoy historical fiction (including military history and westerns), science fiction, and fantasy. I’ve enjoyed reading John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series, William R. Forstchen’s Lost Regiment series, alternate history novels (including the Civil War series by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen), several of Raymond Feist’s fantasy novels, and just about every book written by James Byron Huggins! His monster thrillers are crazy fun!

Here’s the thing. Many Christians would say I shouldn’t read any of those books. Anything that involves magic, time travel, supernatural powers, etc. – they would say “Avoid it.” I can hear them now: It’s sin. It’s witchcraft. It’s evil. It’s bad. The Bible condemns it. Stay away. Run away. Flee the appearance of evil.

Since not all of my readers share my Christian faith, I feel I must offer an aside here (as I have in a few of my other blog posts). If you don’t believe in God or the Bible, you’re going to find this article foolish. This is written for my fellow Christian readers, particularly those who struggle with balancing the demands of their faith with the needs and desires of their human nature, including their interest in entertainment.

I’ve met many Christians over the years who see God as stern, always serious, and so demanding of His followers that they (consciously or unconsciously) see Him as wanting to wring every bit of fun and enjoyment out of our lives. Writing for Relevant magazine, Adam and Christine Jeske humorously sum up this unfortunate mindset pretty well: “Go ahead and circle the wagons. Keep your head down. Suck it up, people. Let’s prepare for imminent martyrdom. Put on sackcloth. Sit in ashes. Skip all pleasures. Grit your teeth. Furrow your brow. Let’s hunker down and get seriously disciplish.”

Can you be a disciple of Christ and still go to the movies and eat popcorn?

Along those lines, both the church I grew up in and the Christian school I attended repeatedly condemned “worldly entertainment.” We were told not to go to the movies and encouraged not to watch TV. One of my Sunday school teachers bragged about taking his TV out and shooting it! (I grew up in a rural area).

It’s true that God wants us to love Him above all else. It’s true that He wants us to willingly sacrifice for Him, and to be distinct, in many ways, from the culture around us. We are to love, obey, and follow Him. We are to live for Him. And in so doing, we will be called upon to make sacrifices, and some have sacrificed their very lives to Him. We are to be distinct from the culture around us. As the old saying goes: We are to be “in the world, but not of the world.” Nevertheless…

God is NOT against fun!

On the contrary, God is the One who created fun. Get that. Meditate on it. Let it sink in.

God is not against us having fun. In fact, He’s all for our having fun. That’s an important point to make. And to understand.

So…what about entertainment? God may want us to have fun, but does that mean He endorses all our entertainment choices?

No.

But let’s not go to the other extreme either and assume (or suspect), either consciously or unconsciously, that He is against all fun outside of prayer, Bible study, hymn singing, church attendance, or pot-luck church fellowships!

The Apostle Paul’s references to ancient athletics should tell us that both he and his audience were familiar with the athletic events to which he referred. Are we to suppose that he and his audience were only academically or tangentially aware? That’s quite unlikely. It’s much more likely that Christians of the ancient world shopped in the same stores, watched many of the same plays, and attended many of the same athletic events as everyone else!

Again, I’m not saying that all entertainment choices are the same. I’m saying that we should be discerning rather than knee-jerk.

So what about fantasy literature? How do we discern what’s acceptable and what’s not?

The Bible says we are to avoid contact with “mediums” and “necromancers” (Leviticus 19:31) and that “sorcerers” will ultimately be sent to the “lake that burns with fire and sulfur” for all eternity (Revelation 21:8). And the Bible also tells us to “avoid the appearance of evil” (I Thessalonians 5:22). But are these verses, in principle, referring to even fictional depictions of sorcery and magic? In other words, does Leviticus 19:31 and/or Revelation 21:8 mean we shouldn’t watch Star Wars or I Dream of Jeannie?

This is where discernment comes in, so I hope you will indulge me as I walk us through a little analysis here.

The Bible forbids participation in actual necromancy and sorcery, because their source of power is satanic. Keep in mind that, in the real world, supernatural power – that is, power outside of and apart from the natural realm we inhabit – comes from a supernatural source. Common sense, right? Well, according to the Bible, there are only two supernatural forces at work: God (and His angels) or Satan (and his demons). That’s it. Only two sources.

Those who follow God are told to love, follow, and obey Him — and to have nothing to do with God’s Enemy. If you play on God’s team, you are to have no contact with the other team. According to the Bible, if anyone performs supernatural feats or miracles, either that person is doing so because of God’s power OR they are channeling demonic power.

Make sense?

That’s how things are in our world. And that’s why we are to not have anything to do with witches or those who claim to speak to the dead. But…

That’s in the real world.

JRR Tolkien referred to his character Gandalf as “an angel incarnate.”

In a fantasy world, we’re dealing with the realm of fiction, of make-believe, of imagination. Any “supernatural” feats in the pages of a novel (or in a game or TV show or movie) are….fictional. They are not real. There is no real power at all…except that of the author telling a story.

What’s more, when characters, in a fictional setting, employ magic or perform miracles, it’s simply irresponsible to conclude that the power behind these works is Satan or his demons. Again, we’re talking about fiction. But even within the parameters of that fictional story, it’s not always the case that the author is having her characters channel demonic power.

Let’s take Christian author Donita K. Paul’s DragonKeeper Chronicles series. In that series, magic is represented as a gift granted by God (or, in her world, Wulder). The DragonKeeper stories are definitely fiction, but the protagonist is NOT tapping into demonic power. Quite the contrary, in fact. The protagonist, in Paul’s story, is tapping into God’s (or Wulder’s) power! And this is crucial.

In other worlds or universes (as created by their respective fantasy or science fiction authors), “magic” is merely a part of nature itself. That’s obviously not the case here on planet Earth, but we’re talking fantasy, not reality.

To completely dismiss all science fiction and fantasy entertainment because magic is involved reflects an unnecessary knee-jerk reaction that’s more based on fear than discernment. Some fantasy stories, like C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, are perfectly fine for anyone to enjoy. Indeed, Tolkien (especially) and Lewis (to some extent) are regarded as being among the pioneers of fantasy literature.

Are all fantasy or sci-fi novels acceptable in God’s eyes? Of course not. But that can be said of other genres as well. Christians need to exercise the same amount of discretion when it comes to fantasy as they do when it comes to any literature. Some fantasy stories are clean, fun, and perfectly harmless. Others should be avoided. And the same is true for any genre of literature, including science fiction, historical fiction, romance, westerns, thrillers, mysteries, and so forth. Some books are fine to read; others, not so much.

The key is discernment.

So, yes, I love reading fantasy and science fiction. And I do so, with discernment. If you don’t like fantasy or science fiction, that is fine. If you choose, because of your faith, not to read fantasy or science fiction literature, that is your prerogative. But I hope you will respect those (like me) who make different choices.

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For my previous take on this subject, you may want to check out my post “Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Christianity”

A Janitor Becomes King: My Review of Adam Drake’s LitRPG Series Kingdom

Robert Barron is a widower and night-shift janitor. Still grieving the loss of his wife, the 52-year old cares only about his grown daughter, Anika, and wants to keep the rest of his life as free of stress as possible. And that’s why he traded in the corporate life in favor of cleaning office buildings. With little to no professional ambition left, Rob just wants to live in peace and enjoy as much time with his daughter as he can. Unfortunately for Rob, unseen forces have other plans for him. And the night-shift janitor finds himself running (and defending) a kingdom!

Adam Drake’s Kingdom series is yet another contribution to the rapidly growing and increasingly popular LitRPG genre. A subset of fantasy and science fiction, the LitRPG genre is all about following a character or set of characters as they progress through a virtual reality game setting.

Drake’s Kingdom series isn’t as heavy into the game mechanics as some other LitRPG novels, and his stories are much shorter. I was able to zoom through the first two books of this series, Kingdom Level One and Kingdom Level Two, in just three sittings. While not necessarily superficial, the Kingdom series is also not very deep. The stories tend to be very straightforward. Most of it is hack-and-slash with some hand-wringing and angst thrown in for good measure. The books could also use some additional editing. There were several typographical errors and spelling issues. But the premise is compelling (if highly unbelievable) and I do care about the main character. And that’s what has kept me going through this series.

Most LitRPG stories follow a young protagonist who is a talented, experienced gamer in real life. Not so with Kingdom. Drake’s protagonist, Rob, is older and much less experienced as a gamer. And this is seen numerous times as Rob makes quite a few rookie mistakes.

This is not a Christian fantasy series. That of course is no problem for many of my readers, but since a large portion of my reading audience identifies as Christian, I feel I should point this out. That Kingdom isn’t Christian is made clear by the language, by an early description of the main character’s attitude toward religion, and by the polytheistic nature of the game world. And while the latter would normally be taken with a grain of salt (we are talking about fantasy after all), the premise of the series itself is still not defined – at least not as of the end of the second book, Kingdom Level Two. Is the game world real? Is it man made? It’s clearly a game, given its mechanics, but it somehow is more than just a game. For one, it had the ability – via its “gods” – to reach into the real world and abduct Rob. For my own part, I can easily suspend disbelief and not take fantasy stories like this seriously. But some of my Christian readers may have a different perspective.

I personally enjoy reading fantasy books. And I have grown to really enjoy LitRPG. And, so, despite Kingdom‘s shortcomings, I’m enjoying the series. And I’m looking forward to the next installment. As of this writing, the first two volumes have been written. The third is soon to be released.

If you’re a part of Kindle Unlimited and like LitRPG, I encourage you to give the Kingdom series a try.

Why You Should Love America (In Spite of its Flaws): My Review of Dinesh D’Souza’s Book on America

Today is America’s birthday. Two hundred and forty-one years ago today, John Hancock affixed his famous signature to the Declaration of Independence, the iconic document penned by Thomas Jefferson and then amended and approved by the Second Continental Congress. And on this Fourth of July, it’s fitting that we reflect on what kind of nation we are — a nation worthy of celebration or one deserving of scorn and shame. And for that purpose we look today at Dinesh D’Souza’s controversial book America: Imagine The World Without Her.

It’s been said that books are almost always better than movies. This is absolutely the case with Dinesh D’Souza’s America. Those of you who saw the movie America may be less inclined to read the book. This would be unfortunate, because the book largely succeeds where the movie failed.

The movie tries to accomplish too much in a limited amount of time. It argues for American exceptionalism, while glossing over some of our nation’s past (and present) sins and mounting only a brief (and quite often superficial) defense over others. It then careens into what feels like conspiracy peddling, basically accusing many liberal politicians and activists (including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton) of wanting to commit national suicide. Little wonder liberal critics like Salon’s Elizabeth Stroker Bruenig called the movie “crazy” and a “laughable embarrassment.” But…

The book is not shallow. It’s not “crazy.” And it’s not “laughable.” The book goes much deeper than the film. It provides evidence to back up its central claims, and makes a very persuasive case that, despite her flaws, the United States of America is worthy of our gratitude and respect.

D’Souza alleges that many in the United States are encouraging America’s “decline” by wanting to fundamentally reshape the United States in a manner that (to them) more fairly allocates its wealth and resources and rights the wrongs of its past. It’s all driven by a “moral critique” of America brought to bear by left-of-center progressives. According to this progressive critique, explains D’Souza, the United States of America “was founded in an original act of piracy: the early settlers came from abroad and stole the country from the native Indians. Then America was built by theft: white Americans stole the labor of African Americans by enslaving them for 250 years.” This “theft” continued through American history with America’s wars (such as the US-Mexican War and the Vietnam War), discrimination, segregation, and capitalism. D’Souza claims that, in their way, both conservatives and progressives embrace American exceptionalism. While political conservatives often believe America is “exceptionally good,” D’Souza says that progressives often believe America to be “exceptionally bad.”

The premise of D’Souza’s defense of the United States against the progressive critique is twofold:

1) No country is perfect. Those who attack the United States for its failures of the past and the present, including on matters of race, gender, “social justice,” and so forth, often do so with a barely comprehensible (and often intellectually incoherent) standard in mind. Set aside utopian expectations and deal with the real world. That’s D’Souza’s challenge. And when you do that, you’ll find that the United States comes off quite well.

2) The US has done more than most nations in trying to change reality for the better. For example, slavery predated the founding of the United States. It was commonly practiced by virtually every culture from the beginning of recorded history. It was the founding ideals, articulated by America’s early leaders, that morally indicted slavery. And then over 300,000 Americans gave their lives to fight against slavery in the Civil War. Rather than give the US credit for being the first nation to fight a war to end slavery, left-wing progressive ideologues would rather portray the US as singularly responsible for it. This is similarly the case with just about every other sin that progressives often lay at America’s doorstep.

According to D’Souza, most cultures throughout history prized what he calls “the conquest ethic.” Taking stuff (whether it be land, people, resources, money) was, argues D’Souza, “the natural mode of human acquisition.” He explains that conquest was “how most countries were founded” and that slavery, economic exploitation, and many wars were “simply extensions” of this near-universal mindset. He then claims that the United States, founded not by accident but by intention, was based on principles that refuted this ethic and substituted a new one: wealth creation. “Obviously there were inventors and merchants around before America,” writes D’Souza. “But America is the first society to be based on invention and trade. America is the capitalist society par excellence.”

D’Souza argues that the famed 18th century French observer Alexis de Tocqueville was far more astute in his assessment of the United States than more recent critics such as Michel Foucault, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Saul Alinsky. Tocqueville saw the principles and promise of America in ways that few have been able to grasp since. Tocqueville sees in America “a distinct species of mankind” who embrace principles of freedom, personal responsibility, a strong work ethic, innovation, equal opportunity (but not result), and moral accountability. “It was never assumed in the United States,” writes Tocqueville, “that the citizen of a free country has a right to do whatever he pleases.” Tocqueville saw the churches, despite their differences, as all preaching “the same moral law in the name of God” and thus providing that basis of accountability for the culture.

In one sense, D’Souza and the progressives share common ground. They both believe in progress. But, whereas most left-wing progressives see progress as moving the country away from its founding principles, D’Souza would argue that true progress is encouraging the country to live UP to its founding principles. This mirrors Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass (especially later in life), and Martin Luther King, Jr. — all of whom appealed to America’s founding principles rather than rejecting them.

The United States emerged from a world that largely either embraced or accepted conquest, slavery, and exploitation. It should not be surprising that these things found their way into American history (even at the beginning) because they are part of the natural human condition. But the United States has never been content to stay still. Through its history, the United States has (more often than not) moved in the right direction on its shortcomings and helped lead the way in righting wrongs. This isn’t due to a rejection of its heritage or principles, but rather (more often than not) because of its heritage and principles.

Driven by those principles, the United States has made a positive mark in the world. Though Athens practiced democracy for a couple of centuries and Rome tried making a republic work (before falling into dictatorship), the United States is the first country to institutionalize a stable, prosperous, and (thus far) lasting system of government based on the Rule of Law and democratic participation. The Constitution of the United States remains the longest-serving (and most emulated) document of its kind in world history. And our free market system of economics has lifted countless people out of poverty, not just within our own borders but in other nations who have followed our lead.

The United States ended slavery within its borders (starting with the founding era and culminating with the Civil War and the 13th amendment), elevated the dignity and rights of women, welcomed immigrants from troubled and/or failing nations in its own hemisphere and abroad, protected Western Europe in the First World War, liberated Western Europe and much of Asia in the Second World War, and defeated communism in the Cold War. The United States has invested billions of dollars in fighting poverty, alleviating suffering, building (and rebuilding) infrastructure, and more – both at home and abroad. Hundreds of millions (arguably billions) of people around the world (and especially here at home) live with freedom and hope today because of the United States of America.

None of this is to diminish or downplay the suffering that many people have experienced over the years, including many who have lived under the American flag. And no American should refuse to look in the mirror for an honest self-examination (both as an individual and as a citizen of the country). There is no denying that the United States broke several treaties with American Indian tribes. And there’s no getting around the inexcusable, shameful travesty that was the Trail of Tears. There can be no denying or dismissing of the evils of race-based, chattel slavery or Jim Crow or lynching. And, for all the benefits of a capitalist society (especially in comparison to communism), there’s no question that millions of Americans have, over the years, been victimized by greed and economic abuse. And many have failed within the free market system (sometimes due to circumstances not entirely in their control) and they (and their loved ones) have suffered. Awareness and self-examination are important. But it’s as important to look at the good as it is the bad and, even when looking at the bad, it’s important to understand context as well as cause-and-effect.

The shallow observer, for instance, sees sin in America’s history and concludes that America is about the sin. The intelligent, honest, and constructive observer sees sin as part of the normal human condition and that it’s going to be an inevitable part of any nation’s past and present — but then looks at how the country and its citizens over the years have tried to deal with those sins. Too many Americans have bought into the shallow reading of our past, a view promulgated by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Saul Alinsky. Thankfully, we have writers like D’Souza and books like America to provide a more complete and fairer assessment of American history – one that should leave us humble but at the same time grateful.

The United States of America is not a perfect country. We have our flaws and our sins, as any country does. But the United States is a great country, and it’s good for all of us to be reminded of that fact.

A Founding Father Every American Should Appreciate: My Review of David McCullough’s Masterpiece Biography of John Adams

Two hundred and forty-one years ago today (July 2), the Second Continental Congress voted to approve Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee’s motion for independence. And John Adams wrote his wife Abigail that the “Second of July” would forever be recognized as a national day of celebration. Two days later, the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, making the Fourth of July the birthday that stuck. Adams’ prophetic error may be mildly amusing to some, but it’s a great reminder that this time of year is the perfect time to brush up on your knowledge of and appreciation for John Adams.

With his Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece John Adams (published in 2001), David McCullough almost single-handedly resurrected the legacy and reputation of our nation’s second President and (until then) too-often ignored Founding Father. McCullough’s book earned widespread (and well-deserved) acclaim and was the basis for HBO’s phenomenal miniseries starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney.

McCullough originally intended his project to be a joint biography of both Adams and Thomas Jefferson. And Jefferson features prominently in this tome. As the project progressed, McCullough realized that it was Adams’ story which needed to be told – and which he wanted to tell. Short, vain, combative, and a little on the chunky side, John Adams had one of the most colorful personalities of all the Framers. He was also a force of nature, making his mark again and again locally, regionally, and nationally. Even internationally.

During the founding era, Adams was always visible in the foreground and was generally recognized as one of the leading men of the American Revolution and the nascent American Republic. Farmer, lawyer, writer, politician, diplomat – Adams did it all. Still, he was often (much to his chagrin) eclipsed by others. And as he (somewhat bitterly) predicted, this became more common as the years went on. Benjamin Franklin was an inventor, creative leader, witty philosopher, and charming diplomat. His consummate political skills were legendary. A clever inventor and shrewd politician in his own right, Thomas Jefferson was a great visionary who could be magnificently eloquent with his pen. And then there’s George Washington. How do you follow him? Even second-tier Founders like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton have eclipsed Adams in some ways. Madison is remembered as the “Father of the Constitution” and of course served as our fourth President (during the War of 1812). And Hamilton, the brilliant Treasury Secretary, adorns the $10 bill. Outside of New England and his circle of friends, Adams was often taken for granted, overlooked, and (as time went by) forgotten. And  yet…

As David McCullough makes abundantly clear, it’s difficult to fathom the American Revolution succeeding or the new nation getting off the ground without John Adams. He was the heavy-lifter of the Founders, doing more than all of them — other than perhaps Washington. Adams deserves a lot more recognition and gratitude than he has received over the years, and McCullough appropriately shines the spotlight on him. If you haven’t yet read John Adams, I hope you’ll do so. It will give you a richer appreciation of our nation’s founding and of one of the families right at the center of it.

Though Adams may have been out of sync with when Americans would celebrate their independence, he was at the very forefront of what Independence Day is all about. Remember that when you watch the fireworks this Fourth of July.

An Aging, Soon-to-be Mothballed Spaceship Saves the Earth in this Fun Space Opera: My Review of Nick Webb’s Constitution

In the year 2650, an alien menace returns. Its fleet invades our solar system, lays waste to our outposts on Mars and the Moon, and decimates our fleet. Only the aging, soon-to-be-decommissioned ISS Constitution can save the day. That’s the premise of Nick Webb’s Constitution, the first book in his Legacy Fleet trilogy.

Seventy-five years before, Earth was almost destroyed by an alien race known as “the Swarm.” Hundreds of millions perished. Many of Earth’s cities were utterly destroyed. And yet, thanks in part to the efforts of the Legacy Fleet (now all mothballed, except for the ISS Constitution), the Swarm pulled back. No one knows for sure why. And now, 75 years later, Earth has grown complacent.

Nicknamed “the Old Bird,” the ISS Constitution is the oldest ship in the Earth fleet. Much to the chagrin of its crotchety captain, the Constitution is being decommissioned and refitted as a museum piece.  And that refit is taking place during its final voyage home, despite the grumbling of Captain Tim Granger. A hot-shot, young officer from the fleet is assigned to oversee the refit. And Granger doesn’t like it – or her – one bit.

While many in Earth’s fleet believe that both the Constitution and its captain need to be put out to pasture, it’s Granger’s “Old Bird” that represents the best hope for humanity when the Swarm returns.

A USA Today bestselling author, Webb borrows a great deal of inspiration from Battlestar Galactica in this sci-fi yarn, with a little dose of Star Trek as well. A very dark and depressing Star Trek, that is, where tens of millions of Earth’s inhabitants perish. Think Independence Day set in the future! Granger is the perfect combination of BSG‘s Commander Adama and an aging Captain Kirk (as William Shatner played him in the 1980s and 90s Trek movies). Granger’s cranky XO is a carbon copy of BSG‘s Saul Tigh. Several of the other characters are likewise recognizable.

This shouldn’t be surprising, since it was Star Trek that drew Webb to science in the first place. He has a Ph.D . in Experimental Physics and has worked as a scientist his entire career. When he was much younger, he wanted to build starships like the Enterprise, but settled for designing spaceships for NASA. As his official bio says, he “builds spaceships for NASA by day, and writes about starships by night.”

He’s been very successful as a writer, making the USA Today bestseller list with his debut novel, The Terran Gambit, which launched his 10-book Pax Humana series. The Legacy Fleet trilogy is his second science fiction book series. And whereas the Terran Gambit was about Earth fighting for independence, the Legacy Fleet trilogy has Earth fighting for its very survival.

If you enjoy science fiction and space opera stories, you’ll like Constitution. Go grab a copy today.

A US Navy Destroyer Battles an Evil Reptilian Race in an Alternate World: My Review of Taylor Anderson’s Into The Storm

Taylor Anderson’s Into The Storm, the first book in his exciting Destroyermen series, opens with the US Navy losing World War II. Badly. Three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Navy is unable to stop the Japanese as they sweep across the Pacific Ocean. Having suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of the Java Sea, American ships are fleeing, in Anderson’s words, “the implacable juggernaut that was the Japanese Imperial Navy.”

The retreating American vessels include Destroyer Squadron 29, a group of aging destroyers from the Great War era pressed back into service for what is now the Second World War. One of those destroyers is the four-stacker USS Walker, commanded by Anderson’s main protagonist, Lieutenant Commander Matthew Patrick Reddy, USNR. As the Japanese fleet presses forward, Reddy takes his vessel into a squall hoping to escape certain destruction. When they emerge from the squall, they are in an alternate world with dinosaurs, monstrous fish, and a savage reptilian species descended from the velociraptor. Thus begins Taylor Anderson’s magnificent Destroyermen series.

Taylor Anderson is a historian, gun maker and forensic ballistic archaeologist. He’s been a professor, museum advisor, and Hollywood consultant. He’s even acted himself in movies. Published in 2008, Into The Storm was Anderson’s first novel and the first in the Destroyermen series. He’s now a New York Times bestselling author, having written eleven volumes in his alternate history series.

The Destroyermen series is reminiscent of the phenomenal Lost Regiment series by William R. Forstchen, in which a Civil War Union regiment from Maine is mysteriously transported to a different realm and must fight for its own survival as well as for peace and justice in its new world. The difference of course is that Anderson emphasizes naval warfare whereas Forstchen focused on land. Though, it should be noted that both land and sea battles are featured in both series. And both series are excellent.

Anderson’s Destroyermen series appeals to fans of portal fiction, alternate history, nautical fiction, military sci-fi, and fantasy. Those who appreciate complex world-building and, at times, intricate technical details will likewise be impressed. The characters are all pretty well developed, and the action scenes are gripping.

If you’re a fan of William R. Forstchen, S.M. Stirling, or Eric Flint, you should give Taylor Anderson’s Destroyermen series a shot. And it all starts with Into The Storm.

Happy Reading!

A Modern-Day Viking and Electrician Take on a Genetically Modified Dragon: My Review of James Byron Huggins’ Leviathan

About twenty years ago, while browsing through the fiction section of Reston Regional Library in Fairfax County, Virginia, I discovered James Byron Huggins. The book I picked up that day was Leviathan. It turned me into a Huggins fanboy. Since then, I’ve devoured just about every book Huggins has written, and wish the man would write more frequently! For whatever reason, my wish has not been granted. A couple weeks ago, I re-read Leviathan. It brought back a lot of memories, as I enjoyed the action-packed ride all over again.

Leviathan was Huggins’ third published work. His first, Wolf Story, was an allegorical novel featuring wolves in a titanic battle between good and evil. His second, The Reckoning, is an action-packed thriller that will resonate with fans of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The difference is that Huggins is friendly to Christianity. Huggins made his name in Christian fiction. And, before becoming a bestselling author, Huggins spent years in Cold War Europe, operating often behind the Iron Curtain, to help people facing religious and political persecution. It was Huggins’ commitment to religious freedom that moved him to write Rora, one of the best works of historical fiction ever written.

Huggins places the story of Leviathan on a remote, frozen island within the Arctic Circle. Scientists and government contractors are engaged in top-secret work to create the ultimate fighting machine, a genetically mutated and refined dragon that echoes the creature “Leviathan” found in the biblical book of Job. It’s hopefully not too much of a spoiler or surprise to say that things go horribly wrong, and the facility’s inhabitants find themselves fighting for their lives against a virtually unstoppable killing machine.

Leviathan is Huggins’ first “man versus monster” book, and it’s a theme he returns to again with Cain, Nightbringer, Sorcerer, and Hunter. And it’s where he truly shines. Two of his monster thrillers, Hunter and Cain, have been optioned for film, but continue to languish in what Hollywood insiders call “Development Hell.”

Leviathan isn’t perfect. Huggins takes a while to roll out his main protagonist (which some book critics say is a no-no). With the exception of Thor (and, yes, the character pretty much resembles that Thor), most of his characters are thinly developed. There are long passages of dialogue and exposition. Some of the technical talk gets a little tedious. Of course, fans of Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy will probably like the techno-talk. Huggins’ virulent distrust of the US government is obvious and comes off as a little too heavy-handed. And…

Some readers have objected to the religious themes in Leviathan. Thor, one of the main supporting characters, is a Catholic priest in exile on the island. He’s also a scholar of languages and literature, and he gets a little preachy about God, Satan, the Bible, and…dragons. Huggins’ premise, voiced by Thor, is that many of the dragon stories found in ancient literature should be taken seriously.

Still…even with the above issues…Leviathan is an extremely entertaining ride. Huggins is an incredible wordsmith, especially when it comes to describing monsters and action sequences. Here’s just one passage from Huggins’ book:

“Leviathan began to awaken, rising. A thick tail uncoiled, whipping out suddenly to the rear, revealing the four long, thick-tendoned legs that ended in wicked feet, reptilian claws gleaming darkly to grapple stones softened by the unimaginable heat of its sleep. Then, from a protective position beside its chest, the long neck straightened as it stood, head rising, rising, lifting sixteen feet above the cavern floor on the armored neck, stretching. And then it lowered its head again as the malevolent green eyes opened, glowing eerily.”

Yeah, one of the sentences is kind of a run-on. But if you love monster thrillers, you have to appreciate the image spun up in your mind by Huggins’ prose. And it only gets better.

It is worth noting that the above scene takes place about 38% into the Kindle version of the book. Aside from a brief teaser at the beginning, the story takes a while to build up. But once it gets going…once Leviathan awakens in the scene described above…the book becomes a roller coaster thrill ride. The action at times is breathtaking. And just when you think it can’t get more intense, it does.

If you enjoy science fiction or monster thrillers, you need to pick up a copy of Leviathan. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Be Careful What You Wish For: A Short Story With a Moral Lesson

Antonio walked along the beach, scouring the sands and the pebbles for shells, washed up by the sea’s relentless, ever moving water.  He spotted one, half buried, and bent to pick it up, but it had been broken, shattered by some sea creature or smashed against a rock.  Looking ahead, he noticed the dull sun’s glare glinting off something dull and metallic a few yards down the beach.  He glanced back and forth.  Searchers with metal detectors had combed this area not long ago but they hadn’t found it.  Odd. He rose to his feet to investigate.

He drove his fingertips into the wet sand, scratching against the surface of the rounded object, until he found a handle. He tugged.  Not quite enough.  He dug some more until at last the shape was revealed.  It was a lamp.  An old lamp, of the style a genie came out of in all the stories.  Antonio laughed.  It was almost too bizarre to be real.  He opened the lid of the lamp.  Full of sand.  He carefully poured the sand onto the beach and stared at the thing. What did all the movies say?  Try to clean it?  He rubbed the lamp against the bottom of his t-shirt, only a tiny part of his mind daring to hope a genie would pop out. Nothing happened, of course.

“A thousand pardons young sir, but I believe that is mine.” Antonio turned to see a tall, dark haired man.  Dressed all in white, with sandals and a perfectly trimmed black beard, he looked like many of the rich tourists the boy had seen that day. The boy laughed.

“So, you’re a genie?” He joked.  “And you grant three wishes?”  The man eyed him gravely, his lips pursed in a frown, his eyes hidden behind expensive black sunglasses.   Before Antonio could move, the man made a subtle motion with his fingers. A whirlwind, appearing out of thin air, whipped across the beach. It picked up sand and shells and threw them about, scattering beach goers before it dipped out to sea and disappeared.

“No, and no.” The tall man responded shortly. “Do not mock the Jinn, boy.”  Antonio clutched the lamp, suddenly afraid.  The man’s lips softened a little. “I do not grant wishes,” he smiled. “But I can make you a bargain.”  He pointed to the lamp in the boy’s hands. “I will grant you three requests, for the lamp.”

Antonio nodded. This was more like what he had expected. He tried to think of all the things he could wish for.  The most logical thing seemed to be money. But then he thought of the house his family lived in.  His parents were always complaining about how run down it was, and how it could use repairs.  He could get a new mansion for them to live in!

“I request a mansion, a beautiful mansion for my family to live in.  With a hundred rooms.”  He thought frantically. “And a pool.”  The man nodded with a small smile on his face.

“Done.”

Excited, Antonio raced home. But when he got there, he found it surrounded with police cars, their sirens had been turned off but their lights were flashing.  His mother and father were safe, but the neighbors were in the front yard, screaming at them. His father was trying to placate the woman, trying to explain that he didn’t know how a pool had appeared in her living room, but that he was certain it was all a mistake. Antonio stared at the mansion.

It was bigger than he had expected, filling not only the space where his home had once stood, but also the entire yard as well as the neighbors’ yards on all sides! One by one, they had come home, seen what had happened and called the police — or started to fight.  Antonio’s heart sank.

“This appears less than ideal.” The Jinn’s voice came from behind Antonio.  He whirled to see the white clothed man standing there. A small smile was toying about the edges of his dark beard.

“You did that on purpose!” The boy pointed a finger at the man and shouted.

The Jinn shrugged. “I merely granted your request.” He spoke innocently. “The consequences are your own.” Antonio had a thought come to him.

“I wish…” The Jinn frowned and the boy changed his phrasing. “I request that the mansion be tall instead of wide.” The Jinn pointed a long dark finger, and Antonio quickly added “And all the neighbor’s houses be fixed.”

Before his very eyes, like Legos reassembling, pieces of the mansion moved and changed and set one on top of the other until it became a large building ten stories high. The neighbors, who were still shouting at his parents, watched in awe as their own houses were restored to their previous shapes and sizes. They stopped shouting and meekly returned to their homes.  The police officers, shook their heads, and walked back to their cars, relieved that the shouting was over.

Antonio smiled at the Jinn, who merely nodded in response. The boy started towards his parents, ready to explain to them what had happened, when a long-sleek black car pulled up next to the driveway. A blonde woman with short tightly wound hair stepped out, dressed in a crisp suit, and dark sun glasses.

She called out to Antonio’s parents. “It has come to the attention of the Internal Revenue Service that you have come into the possession of a mansion worth 2.4 million dollars, and yet we have no record of you earning any such money. The IRS and the FBI are both launching investigations.”

The boy’s parents stammered and tried to explain that they had no idea where the mansion came from, but the woman merely held up her hand. “You realize that attempting to defraud the government is a felony, punishable by up to twenty years in prison correct?”

His parents tried to explain that they didn’t know where the mansion had come from, and they hadn’t defrauded anyone but the woman only nodded and demanded to be shown their receipts.  Antonio’s father led the way into the mansion.  The boy turned to the Jinn, sadly. He knew what he had to do.

“You can put everything back the way it was right?” The dark man merely looked at him behind his sunglasses.  His face expressionless as he nodded.

“Okay, I request you put everything back the way it was.” The dark bearded man smiled and nodded once. By the time Antonio turned around his old home was back and the woman from the IRS had disappeared. The lamp had disappeared from the boy’s clutched finger tips and the Jinn now held it in his hands, but Antonio didn’t care about that.

He ran into the house, happy to be home. His home.

****

The moral of this story is as simple as it is obvious. Everything is connected in life. We may think we want something – be it lots of money or a big mansion. But these things can’t just be handed to us by a genie. And even if they could, there would be consequences. You cannot escape the Law of Cause and Effect. Nor can you approach life only thinking of yourself. You must consider how your choices and actions will affect others. 

The dreams you cultivate and the goals you set must be done with awareness, wisdom, sensitivity to others, and a commitment to self-discipline. Otherwise…

Be careful what you wish for. 

*****

For my Christian readers who may object to a story about a genie, please read…

“Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Christianity: Is it Wrong to Read Fantasy Books and Stories?”

Prince of Mangar: An Action-Packed Fantasy Serial (My First Fiction Serial on Wattpad)

Nathan Ransford’s eyes burned with sweat. Real warriors don’t sweat this much, do they? Yet here he was, decked out in full armor, sitting atop a white stallion….and sweating profusely.

The youngest son of the king, Nathan was about to take part in his first battle. Shifting uncomfortably in the saddle, Nathan looked over at his older brother, Philip Ransford, Crown Prince of the Mangarian Federation. Approaching his thirtieth year, Nathan’s oldest brother was both regal and relaxed on his war mount. Strong as an ox, and devilishly handsome, Philip was an objec23t of desire for women and a source of envy for men.

Why Philip wasn’t sweating was something Nathan couldn’t explain. Nathan’s sweat was driving him crazy. Sure, his helmet was open-faced, as were all Mangarian helmets. But he would still have to remove it to get to his forehead. And then there was the matter of his gauntlets. Running a metal glove over his head wouldn’t do much good. And the idea of half-undressing on the battlefield to deal with his perspiration didn’t seem too gallant or heroic. Basically, he’d have to deal with it.

Trying to take his mind off his discomfort, Nathan allowed his gaze to follow a scavenger gliding effortlessly through the cloudless sky. It was as if it anticipated the carnage about to be unleashed below. As if it knew there would be plenty to flesh upon which to feed.

Nathan and Philip, mounted on horseback and resplendent in their silver armor and crimson capes, sat on a hill overlooking the spirited rebel army beneath them. Nathan detected only a slight movement of Philip’s head as the Crown Prince surveyed the field below. Behind them were 1,500 Mangarian footmen, formed precisely in three lines. The Mangarian infantry were bolstered by approximately 300 archers and 500 cavalry. Red Eagle banners flew proudly above them.

Forming up on the lush plain below were bands of Falendor warriors, attired in padded leather shirts, a smattering of kilts or leggings, and the occasional helmet or shield. Their faces painted for war, they raised their swords and pikes in defiance of the army on the hillside overlooking them. They chanted, banging their shields and stomping their feet. Nathan watched as Falendor warlords circulated among them, barking for their warriors to adjust their lines.

“Numbers?” asked Philip.

“Our scouts count nearly 3000 rebels, your highness,” replied the cavalry commander, General Lochlan.

Philip turned to Nathan, said, “Brother, attend to your archers.”

Nathan nodded tightly, betraying his nervousness. He blinked his eyes several times, trying to clear his vision from the stinging sweat.

“Easy, my brother,” Philip said, placing his arm on his younger brother’s shoulder. “Glory and honor.”

Nathan looked on in glowing admiration as his brother cantered forward, whipping his sword from its scabbard in one graceful sweep. He then spun his horse around to face his army.

“Brothers in arms!” bellowed the crown prince. “Today, we restore justice in this province and bring honor to our Federation!”

Cheers echoed from the ranks. Nathan’s heart swelled.

“Places!” shouted Philip. Officers spread out to their respective positions. The army began to ripple with activity, making its pre-battle adjustments.

You can continue reading Prince of Mangar for FREE at Wattpad.