Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Review: "Eden" by Phil Rossi

Originally Published at Freshly Ground on April 28th 2009

A few weeks ago I wrote what I have decided, in hindsight, was an unnecessarily harsh review of the Sci-Fi/Horror epic podcast novel Crescent, by Phil Rossi. As I've said before, there is a huge difference between highly engineered audiobooks and works of individual labour, and having now thoroughly doused myself in hours of both, I can say with confidence that Crescent is a standout of the latter species.

On that note, anyone who has gone on to listen to Crescent, or anyone who may not be into audiobooks but loves to read a good bit of sci-fi, the book version of Crescent is going to be available on Amazon soon. Phil would like his fans who plan on buying a copy of the book to hold back until July 9th, and then to descend on Amazon like a swarm of angry hornets, pushing the book up the charts. I'll remind you all again closer to the time.

What I like about Rossi is how he has clung tight to everything about the internet that says "you can do it, if you stick with it." He's put everything out there for free, he's made himself accessible to his ever-growing fanbase, and he deserves to reap the rewards. It also proves that the cream really can rise to the top, and that there is no better weapon at a writer's disposal (good writing aside) than the art of self-promotion.
So, moving on. Eden is complete at 8 episodes and available free either on Rossi's website, or through iTunes, or at It's free in all of these places, and provides a donation service, from which the majority of the money goes direct to the author.

I'm not sure what I was expecting when I started listening to Eden, but I figured out pretty much straight away that this was not going to be a rehash of Crescent, despite my initial impressions. Eden is also set on a space station, but there the similarities with Crescent begin and end. I was expecting another action story, but Eden with its dark mystery delivered a much richer experience, which had me hanging out for each new episode.

Where Crescent is visually evocative and a tour-de-force of action and horror, Eden advances at a more cerebral pace. From the outset, Rossi's writing has improved by several degrees, so much so that I felt like I was listening to a different writer. As the writing has matured, so too has the story. Focused intently on the first-person narrator, Malcolm, who is dispatched to a tiny space station near the planet Uranus, Eden is as much about the enormous, mysterious tree that has been found growing in the void of space as it is about Malcolm, his failings, his self-doubt, and his weaknesses.

Woven into this is Rossi's blend of science fiction and Lovecraftian horror, as the station spirals further from safety and sanity and into the consuming madness of Eden. The first-person perspective also keeps you relentlessly close to the action, which makes listening to this story a painfully emotional journey, in a way that all but the best sci-fi and fantasy fails to do.

Eden doesn't drag you through the chapters with blood pumping in your ears and air rasping in your throat like Crescent. Rather, you find yourself being led, trying to turn away, your stomach a hollow pit, afraid of where the next turn is going to lead you, and cursing Malcolm for his crippling self-pity.

I score Eden 4 1/2 stars out of 5, and I seriously rate the quality of Rossi's writing on this novella. It is a good length; any longer and it would have needed a faster pace, any shorter and it would have felt rushed. Overall, and given that it is not a studio production but an individual effort, Eden is a stunner. Give it a listen.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Review: "DarkAge" by Kirk Warrington

Originally Published at Freshly Ground on April 21, 2009

After finishing Phil Rossi's Crescent and waiting in eager anticipation for the final chapters of Jack Kincaid's Hoad's Grim, my hunger for more good storytelling was ravenous. I took Phil Rossi's advice and headed to Podiobooks to hunt down another great listen, and found a huge list of books that sounded like they might appeal to me.

I spent some time downloading first chapters and loading them into a playlist on my Ipod, then listened to them in the car on the way home. The ones that grabbed me made it as far as being downloaded in full, and one of those was DarkAge by Kirk Warrington.

I would love to rave about how good this was. I'd love to say that it was hilarious and satisfying and well worth the listen, just because I don't really like to sound critical. Unfortunately, for all its good points, DarkAge ultimately let me down as a listener, and I would be hesitant to recommend it.

First and foremost, let me say again that I have a tremendous amount of respect for the amount of work that goes into not only writing a book (I've done that myself - phew!) but also into doing an audio production of any scale, much less the recording of a whole book. I've made short films and worked in the film industry for years, so I know there's no such thing as a "small project". So to Kirk W and Phil R and Jack K (and Derek Gilbert, whose book Iron Dragons I'm currently listening to, and Christoph Laputka, who produces the astounding Leviathan Chronicles) who go to all this effort, and do it all for free, I tip my hat. Sometimes, however, the mark is missed.

DarkAge reeled me in from the first chords of the crunching heavy metal guitar riff that frames each episode. The basic premise is that a group of people - in this case fantasy role-players - are magically swept away into another world where they find they have come to inhabit their characters from the game they were just playing. Suddenly, the risks they were so happy for their paper-based characters to face are more than just a game; they're deadly reality. As the story progresses, the characters realise that in order to survive in this harsh world, they must become their DarkAge characters. If they don't, they won't have those characters' skills that allow them to prosper as they would in the game. The option is penury and shame at best, and death at the worst.

In terms of theme, DarkAge seems to be about the struggle for integrity of one's own self when faced with the challenges of emerging into a world that is more brutal and real than you were ever prepared for. As a teen coming-of-age metaphor, DarkAge bundles up the fears and hopes that we all had and throws them at us in a bloody, bruising haze; responsibilities can be as much a burden as a blessing, and making the wrong choices has real consequences. Sometimes making those choices, even standing up for what you believe in, can be fatal.

The narrative was linear and uncomplicated, which sadly also left the character development sorely lacking. While we knew all the characters and understood their individual motives and desires reasonably well, the need to abandon their old selves to survive tended to force them all in a single direction, even those who resisted that change.

Where this really fell down for me, however, was that the hook in a story of this nature is that you want to know: How do they get home? Without wanting to spoil the book, suffice to say that this question is never answered in a manner that satisfied me, given the hours I spent listening to DarkAge. In fact, there were far too many questions of that nature, questions that are really the guts of a story of this kind, that were never answered. Instead, the story focused on the conflicts between the characters themselves and the people they meet in the world of Merinia, and we never get to really learn about what makes this world tick. Conflict and story are all good of course, but it came at the cost of world-building and character arcs.

While this left the story open to a lot of action and adventure, of which there is plenty, and a good dose of humour, much of it fairly ribald, DarkAge ultimately feels shallow and under-developed, like watching someone else play a hack-and-slash computer game.

Warrington uses the idea that this is not a parallel world but a game world to lampoon many of the ridiculous rules that abound in roleplaying, and in that he well and truly hits the mark. (I think I'm bleeding to death! / You Idiot! Just drink a healing potion!) [Not an actual quote, but you get the idea.]

The other three key elements of the podcast - namely performance, writing, and production - also need work.

Performance-wise, while Warrington's theatrical skills leave much to be desired, he was by no means the worst I've heard. His reading of the script was deliberate and came across as forced, but he was nothing if not clear. He also handled the large cast of characters well, creating unique and distinctive, if not necessarily brilliant, voices for all of them. Some were harder to pick than others, but Warrington's insistence on writing dense lines of verbiage to follow almost every mouthful of speech ensured that we always know who's talking.

Yet it was this verbosity which also made me grit my teeth while listening. I would think to myself, I don't need you to tell me that he said that with annoyance, I can tell from the dialogue and the tone. This over-writing slowed the story down and seldom added any illumination. I think it may have improved towards the end, however. With the help of a brutal editor this book could be tightened up tremendously and be a snappier, more captivating piece of sword-and-sorcery than it currently is.

The sound effects were the real low point. Like I said, good on you Kirk for even getting this far. I've been spoiled by podcasts like Leviathan, Hoad's Grim and Eden, which all have stunning audio production. But the cries of the demons in the last chapters just made me laugh, or at least groan. Any tension that had been built in any scene that those demons squealed in just went down the drain as soon as that noise came through the speakers. Surely there must be better Creative Commons 'Demon Screams' out there for people to use. Kincaid, any suggestions?

Overall, I'll say that I'm glad I stuck with it to the end, but it was getting to be a struggle, and I really wanted to see them get home. Given the ending, however, I guess there is a sequel in the wind. This had the potential to be a good read, but ultimately it failed to convince me. Unless you really love the "whisked away into a parallel/divergent universe" concept, I wouldn't recommend DarkAge. The high point is Warrington's ability to satirise the genre and the RPG world, and worth a listen if you like that sort of thing. I know I laughed more than I usually do reading fantasy or sci-fi, and for that I'm grateful. And while I'd like to know what happens to Kev and Vaughn and Sake and Jer, and James and Hades, I don't think I'll be rushing out to listen to the sequel.

2 1/2 Stars.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Review: "Hoad's Grim" by Jack Kincaid

Originally Published at Freshly Ground on April 4th 2009

Here we are, back again. I'd like to get straight into my review of Hoad's Grim, but first I need to say a few words about the Audiobook market and my previous review of Phil Rossi's Crescent. Mainly, it needs to be said that there are two (at least) very different creatures out there; the audio drama, and the author-read audiobook. Both are performance art, but they exist in different parts of the creative sphere, and I was in error to compare Hoad's Grim to Crescent in the first place.

Crescent was read and produced by the author, and since finishing Crescent I have listened to many more author-read podcasts, most of which I couldn't make it right through the first chapter of, either because of the quality of the performance or the audio itself, or because the story didn't grab me like I thought it would. Of all those I've listened to, Crescent still rates at the top (followed closely now by Eden, Phil Rossi's new podcast novella.).

Hoad's Grim, on the other hand, is a highly polished, magnificently produced audio performance, incorporating fantastic layerings of dialogue, sound effects and music. There are also multiple professional voice talents involved in this production, including the author Jack Kincaid and vocal maestro James "Killer" Keller, as well as the not inconsiderable audio production skills that Kincaid brings to bear on the work. Like The Leviathan Chronicles, Hoad's Grim is a lavish professional production, and needs to be considered as such.

Before you ask, Hoad's Grim is a horror story, so if the genre doesn't appeal, then I imagine that the audiobook won't. Non-aficionados of the horror genre are excused, and for those who are fans and wish to continue reading, I promise there will be no spoilers.

Except to say that this is about a haunted fridge. Oh yeah. Now that is a scary premise, all unto itself. It may sound odd and a bit lame, but I guarantee you it's not. I will never look at an old fridge rusting in an empty lot the same way again.

Before I started listening to this, I was an Audiobook virgin, and Hoad's Grim most definitely popped my cherry, and left me wanting more. As soon as I started listening to the prologue, I was transported to another time and place, and even into another mind. It was nothing like what I had expected, and I immediately wanted to hear more. The story hooks the listener in right from the start, as the multiple layers of speech, music, atmos and effects draw you down deeper into the dark and frankly terrifying world that Kincaid builds.

There is never any confusion about who is speaking at any time, or where the characters might be - unless Kincaid doesn't want you to know. And that just makes it all the more scary. Like a good horror movie, the frights in HG come as much from what you can't see or hear but from what you might sense on the edges of perception; the creeping sense of dread that clings to every darkened doorway and silent television conjured through words and sounds alone.

What really made HG work was its completely immersive experience. I listen to my audiobooks in the car driving to and from work, and when I had HG on, I could drive untold kilometres and only remember being on the windy, weed-choked curb of Saybrook Way, watching Chad "The Hammerman" Hyman struggle with the demons in his mind, and lurking in the shadows of that haunted street. It was like reading a book but better, because the voices were there, and the wind curled around their words, and the chittering of the dark creations that grew out of the shadows actually chittered across the speakers, scraping and clawing as if they sought their own way into the world.

I sat up in bed one night, with most of the lights off, listening, because I was really hooked on the story. I only did that once. I like my sleep.

Based on the folklore of the tommyknockers, HG plays on everyone's fear of unseen things that go bump in the night, and on the fear of being left alone in the dark with those things. The listener is left chilled by what the mind is not just encouraged to imagine, as in a book, but by those conjured horrors which you are forced to see in the darkness behind your own eyes as the audio landscape drags you into Kincaid's twisted nightmare.

If you like a good scare, then this comes highly recommended. Hoad's Grim is complete at 24 chapters and available free from Kincaid's site. I have been unable to fault HG, and I will probably listen to it again. I was going to say that I thought the last chapter had left a few too many loose ends, but then I realised that there was one more that I hadn't downloaded, so that puts a lid on that.

Absolutely brilliant. Whether you're a fan of horror and want to hear just how good an audiodrama can be, or if you love good audiobooks and are willing to dare the terrors that lurk in the Grim, do yourself a favour and listen to this.

Five Stars.

For more interesting info, you can check out this interview with Jack Kincaid and James Keller, by John Joseph Adams of (Part 1; Part 2). This was the article that got me interested enough to listen to a story about a haunted fridge. Yip, a haunted fridge. Brilliant stuff.