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GRAVEN

A Tale of Astounding Archetypes and Commendable Concision

By ElliottThomasStaude, author of Mourners, Abednego, Persistence

Aug 18, 2019: There is no such thing as a perfect story in this world, for a cavalcade of reasons. Unfortunately, some tales have to compete in a market suffering genre saturation, and Graven – being an outwardly superhero-centered tale – has a lot of at least nominal competition. However, it rises into notability as a very focused work which wants to tell a story about self-evolution, and which seems to lie on the very edge of “precisely enough to tell a tale and no more.” There have been perhaps better stories told in history, but this one ought to be read by virtually anybody hoping to take up writing themselves. It’s a curious yarn: dashes of mystery, a tone and subject between a heist film and a war story, a fantasy tilt, a tremendous amount of violence, some fairly interpretive gender-political discussion, and a take on the apocalypse that doesn’t boil down to zombies or EMPs or EMP zombies, and it’s well worth examining.

As far as flaws go, Graven’s literary status is imperfect but very clearly refined and intentional. Typographic errors, yes, but these are times when the scalpel slips, not when the hand behind it is misguided – occasional omissions of punctuation and other minor issues primarily, but an infrequent homophone substitution or two as well (a la “their” or “there” and so forth). In addition, there are both moments which feel like the author is brushing over one or two things for expedience and which feel slightly disappointing for not going into greater depth . . . but we’ll come back to that momentarily. Just note that this is a story you’ll more probably dislike for what it does than how it does it, because its flaws are not much more than sometimes distracting marks of its creator’s humanity.

Now, Graven is ABOUT characters, and specifically the common theme of man-versus-self. It asks the fairly standard-in-superhero-works question, “How are you going to change the world?” It asks this question in a whole slew of ways. For example, the conceit of Graven’s story is the appearance of numerous ethereal architectural features all over the world, and when you walk into one, either you return after some apparently arbitrary amount of time – armed with variably utilizable superpowers – or you never emerge. Will you take the risk of becoming a statistic? Will you be able to be content if you come back with the ability to, say take a few extra punches and drink unlimited quantities of liquid? On the other hand, supposing that you look back on the many sins of times past, would your inclination be to see betterment of everyone else, or just yourself? Would you even want to see that opportunity extended? And supposing that you have a new and improved lease on life: what weights would you give the valuation of others’ lives versus the improvement of quality-of-life? Graven runs the spectrum of these more-frequently encountered, and many less-frequently encountered, versions of such questions. Agency and opportunity are the twin cores of this work and it rocks them to all sorts of angles for a better view. It’s all about implementing changes for its cast, to the extent that of the superhuman members of that cast, only a tiny portion are even addressed by their birth names; the past itself becomes less of a tether and more a measuring stick.

Now, this is also a work whose presentation eschews nearly anything remotely considered extra. This in fact was, for me, both a wonderful example of supreme focus and a bit of a downer at times. It is quite rare to find a single word whose omission wouldn’t lessen the strength of its respective sentence, or a chapter that would remain just as functionally serviceable with any of its sentences removed. No; if you want to see a machine working with what it needs and no more, Graven is a textbook-worthy paragon. A great deal is concerned with the immediately occurring events of each respective cast member, and there’s little enough time to worry about unnecessary verbiage when the characters are regularly fighting for their lives. This has the added effect of tossing a great deal into the realm of material that the reader must mentally supply, by dint (for example) of not telling them much of anything about the dietary habits of extremely hardy superhumans, or leaving most of the new age’s utilitarian infrastructure an unstated and unexplored wilderness. The eloquent minimalism works to keep things hyper-focused, and reflects a dedication to cutting out the chaff which will invariably improve the successor to this work. However, this is a world which I on multiple occasions thought would be improved by more expansive exposition. It would have been nice to see things like debates among various governments about whether and how to draw up new articles of human rights for the superpowered. Instead, we get a very tightly concentrated journey that focuses on a band of misfits, and very little extraneous time spent idling.

In short, Graven is a cape-wearing motor vehicle stripped down to the bare essentials of what its storytelling actually requires. This is good in most ways, a little overly frugal in others. At its heart is the principle of characters changing their lives toward the ideals each possesses of “betterment.” Two of the maypoles of good storytelling united in one unassuming package. If there is ever to be a class on writing web fiction and the stalwart icons embodying how to do it right, then despite a few blemishes I’d say this one needs to be considered, and considered long and hard. Is it formulaic? Perhaps a bit, but in the same sense that making silver nitrate is supposed to be formulaic – if you try something differently from this example, it might still work, but it might also produce compounds you want nowhere near your face.

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HELL'S KITCHEN SINK

Urban fantasy to be praised! (spoiler-free)

By Rob van den Berg, member

Aug 15, 2019: I have been a follower of hellskitchensink.com for a few years now, since book one. After years of following it, I have finally decided to take the time to write a review. I will keep this review as spoiler-free as I can, because the works are more enjoyable that way. I will use the term Hellskitchensink to refer to the collection of works.

So what is Hellskitchensink? It is urban fantasy, meaning that it is our world, but with extra fantastical elements, hidden under the hood. In this regard, it is similar to Harry Potter. That means that although magic, gods, and other such creatures exist in various forms, there is no public knowledge of this. It is like a shadowy underworld, in a way, though not completely seperate.

The works of Hellskitchensink are all in the same setting, although they start in seperate places, only to join later. There are 6 long books with a seventh being published in parts, and there is a collection of short stories. Some of the later are only for supporters of the patreon, but those are not required to understand the story.

The world of Hellskitchensink is our own, yet with a fantastical twist. Various fantastical creatures, as well as mythical ones, exist within it. Although the same beings are used as characters as in mythologies and folklore, they live and interact within a modern world that has mostly forgotten them. This hiddenness is an important element, but is not perfect, it can be threatened, broken, and ignored in various ways.

I won’t delve too deep into the main plots, because I do not want to spoil. I will say though that the some of the main plots contain the threat of catastrophic events, and the main characters attempts to stop them.

The stories are engaging, and often contain unexpected twists. The colorful characters are interesting, yet believable, at least in the context of the plot and the setting. Most notably to me was the style of writing, that is often entertaining and interesting, even in the smallest details.

The fact that it occurs in our world, means that it it recognizible, and various ideas and ideals do end up being discussed. Values like life, caring, ambition, fairness and sacrifice tend to be discussed and used in the story that makes both the story and the values seem to come alive. This applies not only within the story, but in a larger context as well, in both philisophical and sometimes even political ways.

Is there anything not to be liked? To be honest, there was a moment a few books in that I was worried about the direction the plot went in. However, now I think this has been done in a good way, that also breathed some new life into the setting. There are also many cliffhangers and parts that leave you at the edge of your seat, but feeling actual elements of tension and excitement are good in my opinion, especially in this genre.

So overall it is a very engaging story. It is everything I like about old mythology and folklore, mixed together in a blender, and then given structure again by putting it inside a modern setting pie. I am very much a fan.

Overall: 9.8/10 I just love it.

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ENDLESS STARS

Excellence

By Thedude3445, author of Rainbow Destructor

Jul 18, 2019: Endless Stars is why web fiction needs to exist, needs to be fostered and supported. In a traditional publication situation, this thing is a really tough sell—a fantasy story starring non-anthropomorphic dragons, with chapters that go on for 30, 40 paperback pages, with a story that mixes grand world-spanning struggles with small-scale adventures and slice-of-life character moments, focusing on such small details that the story’s barely begun after over 500 pages . . . Web fiction is where this kind of story works best, and we should be very glad to have it.

As of the end of Book 2, I will go ahead and say this is the best web novel I’ve read by a huge margin. I’ve still got a ton of the Greats left to go, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that Endless Stars is a cut above most everything else.

In this web serial, we follow Kinri, a young, mysterious dragon who follows Hinte, a young mysterious dragon, who is following her alchemical pursuits into dangerous lava-infested territory. As the adventure unfolds, as these two journey through discovery and peril, they grow emotionally close to one another, and we slowly watch themselves unfold before us. Both of these characters are great! The duo starts off at first glance as that kind of "jaded loner meets eager newbie" dynamic you’ve seen plenty of times. But as their characters are unveiled, as they grow closer together, this dynamic shifts considerably, and adds so much depth. Kinri and Hinte are both really good characters.

This adventure our heroes go on quickly turns into something much bigger than they had expected going in, but the story always keeps our two heroes front and center, making sure their journey, and their growing friendship, is never lost in favor of action, romance, or intrigue.

And as for those things . . . well, there isn’t any romance, but there is a lot of action and intrigue. Especially the intrigue. Kinri and Hinte have stumbled into some machinations of the highest order, and are essentially pieces in some greater game trying to figure out what’s even going on. I’m not a fan of excessive intrigue, and I usually avoid "dark fantasy" stories because they overindulge in throne room backstabbing nonsense, but Endless Stars does so well that I actually stay engaged in the story. As far back as I can think, this is the first web fiction that takes itself largely seriously throughout and I haven’t hated. How crazy is that?

Of course, and you may already know this if you’re reading this review, the REAL selling point for Endless Stars is the prose. This is Good Prose. This isn’t Good-for-web-fiction prose. It’s just plain good. Every sentence is packed with intention, every image vivid, every bout of introspection by our heroine Kinri solid. Outside of maybe a few one-off short stories or novellas here and there, you aren’t going to find a story as well-written as Endless Stars.

The "drawback," if you’ll call it that, is that this is not a fast-paced story. This is not for the binge-reader type to consume in one sitting and forget about a week later; it’s meant to be read, not skimmed, and it’s going to take some time to get through. That may turn off some people, but it shouldn’t.

If you want to get absorbed in some real good stuff, if you want characters worth following, if you’re tired of the endless repetitive grimdark fighting stories or shallow anime regurgitations, you’ve got to look at Endless Stars.

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