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Rachel and the Many-Splendored Dreamland – BOOK REVIEW

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"Rachel and the Many-Splendored Dreamland" by L. Jagi Lamplighter

“Rachel and the Many-Splendored Dreamland” by L. Jagi Lamplighter

L. Jagi Lamplighter‘s Rachel Griffin series is a fantastic modern fantasy series for young adult readers. I’ve already reviewed the first two entries here and here. The newest entry, Rachel and the Many-Splendored Dreamland, is available today. As with the second book, I was fortunate enough to receive a free review copy – only this time I was even luckier because I got it in advance!

Like the first two entries, this book is fantastic for the Harry Potter fans in the audience. Mrs. Lamplighter does a wonderful job of capturing the feel of Ms. Rowling’s world without making it feel like it’s just a copy. Roanoke School resembles Hogwarts in feel, but it’s definitely a unique place of its own, and the characters are fresh and interesting, not just retreads of Harry and Friends. Rachel Griffin herself continues to be an excellent and interesting character. Somehow I have now read three books about this thirteen year old girl without once wanting to strangle her. I suppose it is a fantasy book, after all!

For those who haven’t been paying attention, I had this to say about its immediate predecessor:

I do have two complaints about this book, however. First, there is a pretty fair amount of talking rather than doing. It’s engaging talking, and it’s fun. It never gets dull. But at the end of the day it feels like not much actually happens… until all of a sudden there’s a giant confrontation at the end. The first book suffered a bit from “talking rather than doing” syndrome as well, but not to this degree. And that feeds into the second problem, which is closely related. This book is a “middle” book, and it kind of felt like it. It wasn’t anywhere near enough to destroy the book – I still found myself so enthralled that I finished it very quickly. But it is enough that I noticed it.

This book completely fixed both of those issues. Indeed, it went much the opposite direction. The book opens with a bang and it hardly stops to catch its breath. This is definitely the action-packed entry in the series. It’s a wild ride that’s over all too soon and leaves you wanting more.

There is one issue that I will log not so much as a complaint as a note. This book is about a thirteen year old girl, and its target audience is the Young Adult market – specifically, young girls. Parts of the book delve into Rachel’s feelings about relationships in a way that is probably pure crack to that target audience… but it’s not particularly appealing those of us, say, in the “mid 30s and male” demographic. It’s not a bad thing. Teenage girls will eat it up. Me? Not so much. Still, that’s what this book is aimed at, and it fulfilled its goal well.

Even with that, this was easily the best entry in the series to date. Highly recommended for Young Adults, especially girls, who like fantasy books. Highly recommended as well for adults who like fantasy and can enjoy the occasional Young Adult novel. Five out of five stars.

The Raven, The Elf, and Rachel – BOOK REVIEW

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"The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel" by L. Jagi Lamplighter

“The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel” by L. Jagi Lamplighter

August was a great month for me, but it was also pretty rough. So after DragonCon last week, I took a bit of time to just relax. Outside of my day job, which I can’t really shirk, I didn’t do much “real work.” That will catch up with me later. I still have a ton to do. But I did get to read a few good books.

Last week I left a review of Christopher Lansdown‘s Ordinary Superheroes. Today it’s The Raven, The Elf, and Rachel by L. Jagi Lamplighter (aka the Mrs. John C. Wright). Full disclosure: Mrs. Lamplighter sent me a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. I had been prepared to buy it anyway, because I absolutely loved the first book in the series. Thankfully she caught me in time and saved me some money!

Like its predecessor, this book is a very fast and easy read. The language, as befits a young adult book, flows off the page easily and quickly – but it will still give younger readers enough new words to expand their vocabularies. It’s also immediately engaging, and the characters retain your attention throughout. In the first tale, Mrs. Lamplighter introduced us to the rarest of mythical fantasy creatures. Rachel is a believable thirteen year-old girl that doesn’t make you want to strangle her. That continues in this tale, and it’s the strongest part of the series. Rachel herself is immediately recognizable as a true-to-life young girl, and she’s extremely likable. All of her friends are fleshed out even further, and each of them continues to be an absolute joy to read about. The characters are easily the best part of this tale.

In a coincidental bout of timing, Morgon and I also watched the entire first season of Stranger Things last week. These two series shared something that I greatly enjoyed: both featured smart, interesting, and believable children doing heroic things – but heroic things that weren’t actually above their abilities to do as children. In our modern society of helicopter parenting and sheltered youth, it’s refreshing to see children let out of their shackles for a while to grow and thrive.

I do have two complaints about this book, however. First, there is a pretty fair amount of talking rather than doing. It’s engaging talking, and it’s fun. It never gets dull. But at the end of the day it feels like not much actually happens… until all of a sudden there’s a giant confrontation at the end. The first book suffered a bit from “talking rather than doing” syndrome as well, but not to this degree. And that feeds into the second problem, which is closely related. This book is a “middle” book, and it kind of felt like it. It wasn’t anywhere near enough to destroy the book – I still found myself so enthralled that I finished it very quickly. But it is enough that I noticed it.

Even so, the book was a lot of fun, with a little depth to it as well. I’d highly recommend it for any youth into fantasy stories, and most especially to young girls and Harry Potter fans. Adults will enjoy it, too, however. I don’t read a ton of young adult fiction these days, but this was a welcome bit of light fare. All told, this is a four out of five star book and I greatly look forward to finishing the series.

Ordinary Superheroes – BOOK REVIEW

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"Ordinary Superheroes" by Christopher Lansdown

“Ordinary Superheroes” by Christopher Lansdown

DragonCon 2016 was great. I got to spend the weekend with my good friend Dan Baker of Oxide Games. I met a few folks who were well worth meeting, including meeting Declan Finn in person. We enjoyed a few fantastic panels. I photographed some lovely cosplayers. And I finally had some time to catch up on a bit of reading.

In particular, I finally finished Christopher Lansdown‘s Ordinary Superheroes. I must apologize to Mr. Lansdown. He sent me a free review copy of this book quite some time ago. The delay in this review is through no fault of the book. It is merely because August was one of the busier months of my entire life. Merging two already-functioning businesses together is a lot of work.

Quite to the contrary, this is a pretty fun book. As the title and the cover might suggest, it’s a young adult book and should be approached as such. With that said, however, there’s a lot here for adults and parents to like. For one thing, this is a pretty clean book, which is not at all guaranteed in YA these days! As a parent, I’d have no objection to even pretty young children reading this. For another, there’s genuine humor in the superhero banter, much of which will actually leave young readers thinking. The characters are fun, and Mr. Lansdown fleshes them out well.

But the best part of this book is its villain: The Bureaucrat. Seriously, how can you not love that concept? The name alone makes me want to punch him in the face – and it’s rewarding when Mr. Macho, one of the book’s trio of protagonists, finally gets the chance to do so. What’s his beef? He hates living. Not his own life, but all living. Basically, he’s like any other small-b bureaucrat. He just has a lot of superpowers to go with that. I’ll refrain from spoilers here, but the ending isn’t quite what I expected. That’s a good thing. And I liked how the characters found their way into it smartly, thinking their way through.

My biggest complaint about the book is that it bogs down a bit in the middle. If you find this happening, like I did, then note that it’s worth pushing through to the finish. You won’t stay stuck in that bit for long. The short, quick nature of the book helps alleviate this quite a bit.

I give this book four out of five stars. Most adults will enjoy it. But if you’ve got a young teen who likes superheroes, this one is for them.

The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin – BOOK REVIEW

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"The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin" by L. Jagi Lamplighter

“The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin” by L. Jagi Lamplighter

I’ve put up a lot of book reviews this week. In Wednesday’s review of Gorilla Mindset I mentioned that it’s not so much that I’ve read a lot recently as that I’ve finished a lot all at once. The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is the exception.

I started the book earlier this week and finished it very quickly. It was a very fast read for two reasons. First, it’s a young adult book. The language is simple, the story is not overly complex, and it’s an easy read. Second, the book is thoroughly engaging. Once I started it, I didn’t want to put it down.

I’m not a particular fan of young adult books. I have, of course, read my fair share of them – probably hundreds of them. I also graduated past them pretty quickly: I read Tolkien in the fourth grade and Asimov, Herbert, Clancy, and Crichton only a year or two later. Of course, I still devoured a ton of YA books at that age. But even then it wasn’t because I preferred the genre. I simply read whatever I could get my hands on out of sheer boredom.

My young adult reading since high school mostly consists of the Harry Potter series. So you can imagine that I didn’t particularly seek out this series. Furthermore, while I have been interested in reading Ms. Lamplighter’s works for some time, I’ve also eyed them with some trepidation. You see, I know her better as Mrs. John C. Wright, and her husband may well be my favorite still-living-and-writing author. To be fair, I would never expect any author to live up to that. How could they? Yet it still puts an unfair burden on Ms. Lamplighter.

Thankfully, I can report that this work is excellent. The setting and the world borrow very liberally from Harry Potter. If you’re a fan of J.K. Rowling’s, you will enjoy this book. And as you might expect from knowing that and seeing the cover, the book can be somewhat fairly described as “Harry Potter with a girl as the main character.” Some people will be interested in the book purely for that, and that’s fine. If that sounds great to you, skip the rest of my review and just go read the book. It won’t disappoint you.

But the great thing is that the book very quickly establishes itself as far more than that. Not that I’m implying that it’s better than Harry Potter – it isn’t, if I may risk offending Ms. Lamplighter, although it is definitely worthy of Harry Potter. But it’s definitely not just a Harry Potter ripoff that happens to be about a girl. The story involves something akin to our modern world, with a hidden world of magic thriving within it. The witches and wizards of this world send their children to magical boarding schools. Evil wizards attack one of these schools. Sound familiar?

The similarities pretty much end there, however. The story is radically different from any of Ms. Rowling’s. The characters are very different. A danger of writing about thirteen year old girls is that so many of them are just annoying. Rachel, on the other hand, is quite endearing. She’s earnest without being a brown noser, bright without becoming a know-it-all, and feisty without becoming obnoxious. Her friends are just as interesting. I particularly enjoyed Sigfried, the orphan who wants nothing more than to be a valiant knight, and Gaius, the man apart from the group. Yet all of the characters are fun and enjoyable.

I give the book four stars out of five for adults, but I’d give it five out of five if recommending it to a younger reader (which is, in fact, it’s target audience). My oldest son is not yet reading well enough for a book this complex, but in a few years he will be. When he reaches that point, this book will be on his reading list right next to the Narnia and Harry Potter books. If you loved either, but especially if you love the latter, you should take a look at this book.

Gorilla Mindset – BOOK REVIEW

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"Gorilla Mindset" by Mike Cernovich

“Gorilla Mindset” by Mike Cernovich

It may seem like I’ve done a lot of reading recently. In reality, I’ve just finished a lot of reading recently. I’ve had a lot of books (especially non-fiction) spinning all at once, and they’ve all kind of wrapped up.

Last week I finally finished reading Gorilla Mindset by Mike Cernovich. This is one that I’ve been reading since the beginning of the year. That’s pretty odd, because one of the great things about this book is how quick and easy of a read it is.

“Wait a sec,” you say. “How does that work?”

This book took me a long time to finish because I was too busy implementing it. Even before I was halfway done, I knew there were things in the book that I wanted – that I needed to do. For myself, I decided to focus on a few things at a time rather than trying to make every change all at once. I’ve had good results with that.

Let me get this out of the way: I detest self-help books. Most of them are completely full of shit and aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Most of them give you advice that isn’t all that helpful. Which is fine, because most of them are written for people who don’t actually want to change. This book isn’t like that. Mr. Cernovich actually wants to help you. For the typical self-help reader, that will make this a book they don’t actually want. But for those looking to actually improve their lives, this is the rare self-help book that’s actually worth a damn.

In simple terms, this book is largely about how to actually accomplish more and get things done. Not only that, it gives good advice on getting better quality out of what you’re doing. That particular combination is powerful for becoming more successful at basically everything you do.

The frustrating thing about reading this book is how many of Mr. Cernovich’s suggestions are ways that I used to live my life. I’ve let many of them slip. I had good reason to. I had some specific life circumstances that I had to react to. But those circumstances are long over, and it’s well past time that I returned to my old mindsets. This book gave me the boot to the ass that I needed to do that. It also brought some excellent new ideas that have proven to be very helpful.

One other thing that’s truly great about this book is that it’s not wasting space on filler. A great many non-fiction books have a single great idea, cover that idea thoroughly in the first few chapters, and then spend the rest of the book repeating that same idea over and over and over. It’s the reason why I have shelves full of non-fiction books that I’ve never finished. Once I got the concept, the rest of the book just wasn’t worth reading. This book isn’t like that at all. Each chapter is actually covering something different. Each chapter covers the basic concept, gives some examples, and then gives a checklist and some “homework” at the end. A few of them also have some interviews with experts. That’s it – there’s no wasted filler.

As Mr. Cernovich himself points out, not every piece of advice in here is for everybody. There are a few things in the book that I don’t think will actually work very well with my own base personality. Take what works for you and apply it. As for the rest… see if you can apply the concept in another way. But if you can get through this entire book without finding two or three changes that will help your life in a major way, then congratulations on the amazing life you already lead. Keep living that life. For the rest of us, this book is a gold mine.

Gorilla Mindset gets five out of five stars. This book is an absolute must read.

SJWs Always Lie – BOOK REVIEW

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SJWsAlwaysLieI’ve planned to read SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police for quite some time. With one thing or another, I’ve always found a reason to push it off. As a regular and longtime reader of the author’s blog, I had also witnessed firsthand as many of the principles in this book were developed. I already had a basic grasp on the concepts, so the book itself could wait.

A couple of weeks ago, however, something happened that finally forced it to the top of my list. In short, I knew that I needed to read it. The good news is that the book is quite short. I made it through the entire thing in only a few hours. The better news is that I really did have a good handle on the concepts. I handled the situation correctly, and following the principles in this book did indeed shut it down. The bad news is that this book proved decisively that I was indeed dealing with an SJW, a fact that I had previously been uncertain of.

Due to a gentleman’s agreement that I made with the “professional in the room” who helped me successfully deal with this issue, I can’t go into any detail about the exact situation. All I will say is this: the issue began with a baseless legal threat. When I quickly shut that down, it just as rapidly escalated into the beginnings of an internet lynch mob. Using the advice in this book, I shut that down very quickly as well.

The SJW phenomenon is absolutely real, and it’s one of the worst developments in American culture in my lifetime. These people do not believe in politics by discourse – they believe in absolutely destroying the individuals they oppose.

SJWs Always Lie is an uncomfortable book. Many on the left side of the political spectrum will find this book uncomfortable. It is not fun to believe that those whom you might agree with are acting in this way. Moderates – those who actively seek compromise – will find it difficult to acknowledge that some people simply aren’t interested in it. Conservatives will find it difficult to accept the tactics that are necessary to fight back. Those with a libertarian inclination, like myself, will resist the necessity of leaving behind our “live and let live” principles.

Yet necessary it is. This book illustrates the tactics that actually work against these people – the tactics that will prevent them from destroying your life. And I can now say from personal experience that they do work.

This is not a happy book. It’s not a fun book. It’s not a book that you’ll enjoy reading. Yet if you ever find yourself on the receiving end of an SJWs two-minutes-hate, you’ll be glad you’ve read it. In short, this is a necessary book. Sadly, the future looks to make this book more necessary, not less.

And for what it is, it’s done perfectly. It is short. It is concise. It is clear and easy to understand. It lays out the principles you’ll need: how to recognize an SJW, and how to fight back. It doesn’t belabor the point, but it also doesn’t leave anything out. For that, I give SJWs Always Lie five stars out of five. Highly recommended – not because you’ll enjoy it, but because someday you’ll probably need it.

A Pius Man – BOOK REVIEW

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"A Pius Man" by Declan Finn

“A Pius Man” by Declan Finn

Last night i finished reading A Pius Man by Declan Finn. The best way to describe this book is to say that it’s a pro-Catholic version of Dan Brown’s writings. The story begins when a researcher at the Vatican archives finds something he shouldn’t see. Somebody doesn’t want it to get out. Of course they kill him for it. Action and hijinks ensue.

Most modern explicitly Christian fiction, to be blunt, sucks. I mean, it’s really, really bad. Thankfully that is absolutely not the case here. This book is an enjoyable read.

The best thing about this book is the fun characters. I particularly enjoyed Sean Ryan, the Hollywood stuntman turned mercenary action hero. His background may seem to many to be implausible, but I’ve known enough people from really strange backgrounds that it actually felt more real to me for it. I also greatly enjoyed his portrayal of the fictional Pope Pius XIII. His life history rings very true, and he feels like a priest – the best kind of priest.

This is one of Mr. Finn’s earlier novels. I picked it as the first to read and review under the mistaken impression that it actually was his first novel. Unfortunately, some of that shows through. Although the characters are as fun as I’ve already mentioned, there are a bit too many of them for this particular story. It is sometimes hard to keep straight what is happening to whom. There’s also a bit too much expository dialogue. Indeed, even the author realizes this. One character goes so far as to explicitly comment that they’re drifting into “Dan Brown monologue” territory. The comment would sit a little better if the book hadn’t actually drifted a bit too far into that already.

On the other hand, the action flows pretty well – and there’s rather a lot of it. That helps keep the exposition dumps from dragging the book down too far. Some of it is a little over the top. But then we kind of hope for that out of our action novels, don’t we? It never goes so far as to break one out of the story.

A Pius Man is a strong read. I think most people will enjoy it, even non-Catholics. But the strongest audience for this book is definitely going to be those who want good, fun, action thrillers that don’t insult their faith. I give the book four stars out of five and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

IRON CHAMBER OF MEMORY – Book Review

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Iron Chamber of Memory

Iron Chamber of Memory

With Between the Wall and the Fire wrapped up (or mostly so), a major software release just out the door at my day job, and the Memorial Day holiday giving me a long weekend, I finally had a chance to relax for a bit. In addition to catching up on the season finales of my favorite shows, I also had time this weekend to read Mr. John C. Wright‘s newest masterpiece, Iron Chamber of Memory.

And yes, I do mean masterpiece. This isn’t just one of Mr. Wright’s finest works, although it is definitely that. It also now occupies a spot as one of my favorite fantasy works of all time. Yes, this work is really that good. Unfortunately, to say too much about it is to spoil it. So I will dance around the problem as best I may.

First of all, this is one of Mr. Wright’s most readable works. I must beg his forgiveness for that phrasing, and explain carefully what I mean. Although I greatly love the vast bulk of Mr. Wright’s art, some of it is downright work to read. But the work is well rewarded, and well worth the effort. For what it’s worth, I tend to feel the same way about my favorite band, Dream Theater. Iron Chamber of Memory, however, absolutely does not suffer from this issue at all. From the very beginning it’s engrossing, and the reading simply feels effortless – as, indeed, Mr. Wright describes the actual writing of it:

This book has a special and mysterious place in the author’s heart, because the whole thing from start to finish, all the scenes and much of the dialog, came to me in a dream not long after my conversion, and I spent the whole of the next day writing down before it escaped me. Those notes rested on my desk for  decade. Only now did I have the time to compose them into a novel.

The book is a deeply romantic (something that is lost in modern society), and contains a wonderful mystery that will keep you reading. And although I guessed one of the major twists quite early on, I truly didn’t quite see where the story was heading. It’s also a deeply spiritual story, and it reminded me quite a bit of one or two of the stories in The Book of Feasts and Seasons. Most surprising from Mr. Wright, however, is how deeply sensual the story is.

This is truly a fantastic tale, and I can’t recommend it enough. I give this one five stars out of five… and frankly, I find myself wishing for a sixth to give it.

Update: Thank you to Mr. Wright for having the kindness to link back to this review!

SOULDANCER – Book Review

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Souldancer by Brian Niemeier

Souldancer by Brian Niemeier

Last night I finished reading Souldancer by Campbell Award nominee Brian Niemeier. Souldancer is book two of “The Soul Cycle,” and the sequel to his debut novel Nethereal.

I’ll be honest, this was not the sequel I was expecting. There’s a large time gap between the two books that caught me off guard in the beginning. Furthermore, the story spends significant time with characters that simply aren’t in Nethereal. But the two stories are connected, and in a very strong way. I give Mr. Niemeier strong props for weaving the tales together in the way that he does. I can say that it’s not an easy task – but to say much more than that would be to spoil rather important parts of the story.

The world here continues to be something new, unique, and different, rather than just a new spin on the same old generic “space universe” that we see so often in space operas. This installment explores even more of that world, and brings us far more of its history. The new characters are a real joy, especially Xander and Astlin. Meanwhile, the returning characters are even more interesting in this incarnation. Most interesting is the way the finale of Nethereal has repercussions that underlie every page of this novel, from beginning to end.

To put it bluntly, this novel is the rare sequel that manages to surpass its predecessor. I give it 5 stars out of 5, and I highly encourage reading it. There’s a reason Mr. Niemeier received his Campbell nomination, after all.

ARCHITECT OF AEONS book review

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architect_of_aeonsIt has been more than two months now since Mr. John C. Wright surprised me with the delivery of a review copy of one of his latest novels, The Architect of Aeons. Yes, I have had the extreme good fortune to receive not one but two unsolicited works from Mr. Wright now. That is why I must begin this review with a sincere apology to the book’s author. It has taken me far too long to finish reading this book and get this review online.

In my defense, they have been two insanely busy months. We have a new baby in the house (my youngest turns three months old today). In that time, I’ve also planned and hosted a major martial arts seminar, attended a Judo tournament, put editing work into Silver Empire‘s first full length novel (look for announcements on that very soon!), had to find a new cover artist, plugged away at two short stories for our next anthology (more on that project soon as well), had to plow through some submissions for the same anthology (some not so great, some… very, very excellent), had a major software delivery do at work, made a trip to visit my ailing grandmother in Washington, D.C., and, of course, have had all of the normal duties of adult life on top of all that.

A week or so ago, however, I finally hit a nice point. My editing notes had been sent off to Susan, I’d passed the halfway point on my own first novel, seminars and tournaments were done, and I finally had a moment to relax. If it assuages Mr. Wright’s ego in any way, this book was my reward for finishing all of the important things in my life – and I used this book as motivation, telling myself I could not read it until I finished those things. Then, of course, it still took me far longer to actually read it than it should have.

Now that I have finally finished it, I must say that this book is an intriguing read. I have to admit that I struggled a bit with the first half of the book. It’s a difficulty of the format that I’ve had with much of this series. Mr. Wright has adopted the most difficult task of telling the story mostly in “catch up” sessions. Large periods of time elapse with the main character, Menelaus Montrose, either in time dilation from space travel or, more commonly, in suspended animation. Each time he re-enters “normal time” there are large bits of dialogue catching him up on the history (sometimes millennia worth) that happened while he was away.

I can think of no better way to tell a story such as this. And it’s a testament to Mr. Wright’s amazing skill as an author that he makes it work at all. Nevertheless, it can at times be a difficult way to read a story.

The second half of the book, however, really shines. Indeed, I zipped through that part of the book easily. And it is here that Mr. Wright once more touches on the issues that have really defined the series. How does a normal(ish) human survive in a world that is dominated by posthuman intelligences far superior to his? Not just superior, but orders of magnitude superior?

There are moments in the second half that are pure gold:  the duel between Montrose and an entire planet, the Foxes, Montrose forcing a galactic level superintelligence into a deal on his terms.

The work also continues to explore other issues that have been hallmarks of Mr. Wright’s work dating back to The Golden Age trilogy. What is the true nature of identity? If my mind is uploaded in full into another host, which one is truly me? What about when those minds diverge? What if one of them sees its intelligence amplified – or reduced? These questions of identity and intelligence are what continue to make this series fascinating. And despite the somewhat sluggish nature of the book’s beginning, this is why Architect of Aeons still merits four out of five stars. A strong showing from Mr. Wright, and I continue to look forward to the rest of this series.