C.T Phipps is a lifelong student of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. An avid tabletop gamer, he discovered this passion led him to write and turned him into a lifelong geek. He is a regular blogger on "The United Federation of Charles".
He's written Agent G, Cthulhu Armageddon, Lucifer's Star, and The Supervillainy Saga.
BLOSSOM AND THE BEAST is a retelling of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST with werebears, magicians, and criminal-corporate syndicates. Generally, I'm a fan of the original fairy tale but it's a story which routinely gets flubbed up in the adaptation. Sometimes the Beast isn't ugly enough, sometimes he's too vicious, sometimes the Stockholm Syndrome elements are too overt, and sometimes people just miss the point of the story completely (specifically, about finding the good beneath someone's appearance).
THE FADING DUSK is a Young Adult steampunk fantasy novel taking place in a world where magic, gods, and more are real but it feels largely like the 19th century. The story is set in the titular city of Dusk where a series of Jack the Ripper-esque murders are occurring. 17-year-old Irina is the beautiful assistant of a street magician named Bantheir who emotionally and financially abuses her while maintaining her love through a manipulative sociopathic personality. Irina "loves" her boss but we know he's a dirtbag from the beginning. But is he a murderer?
That's the question which is raised when Irina ends up arrested for the murders afflicting Dusk and being dragged off to prison for interrogation. As perhaps befitting a YA romance, Irina soon finds herself the object of adoration of at least two of her captors who struggle to find a way to get her free before she is punished for the crimes of her master. Irina, by contrast, is determined to find some way to prove Bantheir innocent despite him giving her no reason to believe in it.
This is an entertaining piece of fiction from start to fiction that, while not without flaws, is one of the better ones I've read in the SPFBO so far. Irina is a likable enough heroine and while she's not exactly very proactive in her actions, she's never annoying either. You can understand why people want to be befriend her and why others are sympathetic to her despite the pile of evidence accumulating against her master.
It's a very easy tool in an author's arsenal to make use of the "Cinderella" motif, where a young woman has an absolutely garbage life and someone offers her the chance to get out of it. In this case, Irina escaped starvation with the help of Bantheir but he's still a pretty awful person. We want her to succeed in getting away from him and forging a new life. The fact she has an inherently interesting job as a magician's assistant (and is a magician in her own right) works wonders.
I was fond of Captain Leonid as Irina's alternate as he is a character who nicely reflects the other ups and downs of Dusk's pseudo-Victorian society. He's a bastard but this still provides him some position and respect in their society even as he's also someone who has been looked down on his entire life. He has a nice Darcy-esque gruffness that you can tell is going to infuriate our heroine while also make her gradually fall for him. I actually liked the character of Aden more but that attitude rather abruptly and permanently changed halfway through the book.
The character of Bantheir is a bit one-dimensional and doesn't get any more developed as the story goes. I would have appreciated a bit more development for such a central figure in Irina's life but he's really just a dirtbag. It's hard to imagine she managed to keep her pleasant idealistic worldview with this grease ball as her primary influence.
The pseudo-Victorian society of Dusk is well-developed and the choice to set it on a different world than Earth worked for me because any of the oddiities for their society are just a result of not being Earth. Still, I would have appreciated a few more British-isms for the reality like having a Prime Minister instead of a President and a monarch. I also think the book spent far too much time with Irina in prison with well over a third of the book being about her locked up in a cell and regularly interrogated.
In conclusion, this was a fun book and I have no real complaints about it. Irina is a great character even if a bit naive. The book is slow to get started but I barely noticed because the characters were entertaining throughout.
SHADOW, SHADOW uses the premise of a Twilight Zone episode called "Button, Button" by Richard Mattheson (of "I am Legend" fame) and combines it with the myth of the Shadow Men. It also, to an extent, could very easily be compared to a Western version of Death Note. The premise of Shadow, Shadow is Harley Fox and two of her friends are invited to a magic shop in town on her sixteenth birthday. All three of them are given a magical box which has a very simple power.
They just have to make a wish on it and they can cause the Shadows to take away anyone they want. It is a perfect tool of murder they can use to disappear anyone they want. Worse, they're also tempted with the return of people who have disappeared in their lives. In the case of Harley Fox, she can possibly receive her mother back if she gets rid of her wicked stepmother. In the case of her best friend Brock, he can get back his baby sister if he trades away someone else. Once one of them uses the boxes, all of them are cursed and will lose a loved one if they don't use it.
What did I think of Shadow, Shadow? Well, I bought the next volume of the series as soon as I finished it. That should tell you what I thought of it in a nutshell. I'm going to read the entire series by V.B. Marlowe and is something I think deserves all the attention it can get from SPFBO. It's not the best independent fantasy fiction I've ever read but it's good without qualification and works as both a Young Adult novel as well as a genuinely affecting piece of urban fantasy.
Harley is a genuinely engaging protagonist who has the rare quality of being believable as a sixteen-year-old girl while also being a likable as well as proficient protagonist. She has the moral fiber to resist the temptations of becoming a murderer for selfish reasons but also becomes aware of the items' potential when other people are in danger or she's threatened by her obsessive ex-boyfriend Nash. She's a three-dimensional character and that's rare enough in mainstream fiction.
Harley's family situation is also incredibly sympathetic. Her father is, bluntly, a complete piece of crap but not in a way which is unbelievable or overdone. He's not a drunk or overtly abusive but having lost his wife and remarried with a new child, he's started to think of his daughter as a burden and as a troublemaker. His profound selfishness is marked in subtle ways that, nevertheless, make it clear he doesn't love his daughter the way a father should. By the time the book was over, I really wanted someone to send him to the proverbial cornfield. Which is another Twilight Zone reference if you didn't pick up on it.
The supporting cast is very good in this book throughout from the magic shop owner to the catty girls in school to her best friends who are tempted to use this evil power simply because it's there. The fact they're being threatened and cajoled into it by an outside force also makes it believable otherwise "good" teenagers might do an unthinkable crime. After all, it's impossible for them to be caught and their lives would be so much easier. It doesn't help you have situations like Harley's father trying to get her doped up by her psychologist and the very obvious fact her stepmother is trying to poison her husband against his daughter.
I like how the magic system is designed in this story as well with the full implications of the boxes and the shadows explored. They operate on rules which are internally logical and don't change, except for the fact the Shadows can change their targets and that's what you should suspect when dealing with monsters. The town of Shadow Pines is also well developed and has a creepy believability to it that reminds me of Stephen King.
Is the novel perfect? No, the writing can sometimes drag and it's not until about halfway through the book it really heats up but I was able to overlook this to enjoy it in its totality. People should pick this one up, I think.