The Painter: A fantasy psych thriller and epic

In The Painter, Banner Caygeon introduces us to a nameless artist tethered to the small village he lives in, as well as his own tragic past. As the story progresses, we are gradually introduced to the world around the painter and the past that haunts (perhaps literally) his every waking moment. I won't say too much of the plot since almost anything I reveal would be a spoiler, but at its kernel lies a lost child, a strange curse, and a mysterious benefactor.

Style: The Painter is told in an exacting, deliberate prose reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, and it is both ponderous and beautiful. The stifling claustraphobia of the painter's small village, the moment of rage that ruined three lives, the lonely, desperate voyages between isolated towns. The style of The Painter matches its environs and the characters that inhabit them. One cannot escape the impression that the prose is not written so much as crafted.

Grammar: There are no major issues with the grammar and very few minor ones. Every story can use an assiduous editor, but the editor here wouldn't find terribly much to do.

Story: The story thus far is simple, the chapters often punchy and short, and occasionally langorous (as befits the situation). The emotions strike true, and there are moments of drama. I would characterize the story to date as an impressionist's canvas, but it is shades of brown and green with only small flecks of yellow's glint and yet to be brought into bloom. Hopefully, the author can make something great from a solid outset.

Character: Most of the characters in The Painter exist in isolation, drifting like icebergs in an empty sea, occasionally colliding on their lonely way. The characters we're introduced to with any real length - the painter, Grelda, the nameless ranger, and several more - each have their own unique feel and harbor their own kernel of barely-concealed desperation, whether it's the desire to undo a past mistake or the desire for human connection.

Overall: The Painter isn't the punchiest or most action-packed story, but it's one of the more moving and expertly-crafted ones you'll find here - or in your bookstore, for that matter. If you enjoy the first chapter, the rest won't disappoint! 5/5.

Tales of Cultivation

Cultivation action/political drama

Tales of Cultivation is the story of Wu Jian, the scion of an almost-mid-sized water cultivation clan who is suddenly thrust into a position of leadership when his dying father entrusts him with the Wu clan on the eve of a great battle. In Tales, R.L. Grey starts right in with the drama, action, and political intrigue and keeps it at a churning pace. If you're a fan of cultivation/xianxia novels, you should give it a shot!

As I mentioned, ToC starts right in with the action and keept its action scenes tight and easy to follow... if you're well-familiar with the xianxia drama and its tropes. If you aren't, you may well be confused with the terms and concepts used, as little explanation is given for them (i.e. what a Nascent Soul stage cultivator is and where they stand relative to Core Formation and Body Reinforcement stages). This is to say, the style may be inscrutable if you aren't familiar with xianxia, but shouldn't present a problem to those who are.

There's little to complain about here. The grammar is better than the vast majority of RR stories, and there's little in the way of typos or incorrect wording. Any corrections that I would make are largely stylistic choice.

The story is action-packed and lacks only insofar as it focuses on action and political drama without pulling back much. Unlike most cultivation stories, our protagonist, Wu Jian, starts out pretty powerful (though not, thankfully, cartoonishly all-powerful), which places limits on the drama. Rather than Jian needing to combat impossible odds to advance toward the elite stages of cultivation, he must navigate clan politics and ensure that the ascendent Wu clan is not destroyed by enemies, bad actors, and more powerful rivals. Jian is imperious and aloof, at least in his bearing as his clan's patriarch, which means we don't see a lot of interpersonal drama, but we see plenty of action and politics.

The only character we spend significant time with in the early story is Wu Jian. One might be tempted to call him a fairly flat character, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that he's not simply an aloof and virtuous scion, but a man with Machiavellian instincts and an attitude that the ends justify the means. Hopefully, more characters will be fleshed out as the story progresses.

Overall, I give this story 4.5 out of 5 and recommend it for fans of the genre.

My Clone in an Another World

Mindtrip cultivation with a splash of sci-fi

My Clone in an Another World [sic] is an interesting take on cultivation stories. The story starts out slow and is a bit confusing at first, and I'm glad I powered through the first two chapters because it improves significantly after that point. First off, the prolog starts with a strange science fiction scenario of a godlike being intercepting our protagonist moments before death and sending him to a new world... and, shortly thereafter, he finds himself being reincarnated by an older, wiser, far more powerful version of himself and into the body of a recently-deceased girl. If this sounds a bit off-kilter, I can assure you it is. Akten Dreams also made the interesting choice of not having the protagonist pretend to be the original, but rather offer some vague semblance of the truth to the girl's family and guardians. Throughout the beginning of the story, there are frequent flashbacks to the protagonists original self interacting with him and, in effect, informing the reader about the nature of the world. Like I said, it's an interesting take. I'd break the story down as follows:

Overall 4: After a rough start (I'd skip the prolog altogether), the story picks up and, while the narrative is never easy and linear, a studious reader will enjoy an interesting tale with some novel takes on an often-pidgeonholed genre.

Style: The narrative style is fairly advanced, with multiple points of view, time shifts, and first and third person narratives - but the shifts are generally indicated in the text, so it's not too hard to follow along. Paragraphs are short, and for the most part the language is pretty simple.

Grammar: The technical grammar is pretty good, but the diction is all over the place. While the sentences generally make sense, they don't read like the writing of a native English speaker. This gets a bit better as things go on, but here's a particularly egregious example from the first chapter:
With a male cry and a mighty kick, the foot that belonged to the footsteps that just arrived kicked the boy in the guts and back into the lake.

Like I said - the technical grammar is there, but a good editor would completely rearrange the sentence.

Story: The story itself is pretty solid, probably the best bit (which is, obviously, important for stories and why I gave this a 4 average overall). The story considers points of view from multiple characters, develops some interesting ideas internally, and overall shows great creativity.

Character: The story is slow to start, and characters other than the protagonist are extremely slow to develop. The protagonist himself/herself (depending on the time of POV) starts out as fairly flat and only gradually acquires some semblance of a fully-realized character. At first, the protagonist is highly stereotypical while the protagonist's original self has a more fully-realized character, and only gradually does character develop. Not terrible, but could use some work in the early chapters.

Overall, My Clone is enjoyable, and I'd recommend giving it a try if you enjoy Chinese cultivation novels.

Colonial History

Enjoyable found footage experimental sci-fi

Colonial History is an alien history that starts out as a sort of "found footage" narrative of events leading up to an alien crash-landing and encounter on earth (I assume we'll get to the colonization bit eventually, but it hasn't happened yet). The story is essentially an alien historian's attempt to piece together a history surrounding a first encounter between humans and a spacefaring species that finds itself crash-landed after a nuclear-assisted bumpy landing while flying through a wormhole. The narrative is sketchy at first, with sparse news articles and background history before resolving into the interwoven narratives of a team of alien explorers and some plucky anti-establishmentarian Earthlings. This story isn't the easiest to traverse, but it can be fun picking apart what different alien interpretations of Earth are, as well as the first awkward attempts at communication. Overall, I give the story 4.5 out of 5.

Style: The style of Colonial History is quite creative, including mixed media from news sites, personal communications, newspaper articles, etc. to give it a "found footage" feel and making it clear that the historian providing the story is very much working from incomplete data. The different narratives have a sufficiently different voice that it comes across as genuine rather than a cheap device.

Grammar: Not much to critique here - there are some hiccups in wording or sentence structure, but nothing that a light edit wouldn't fix. Better than the average RR story.

Story: The story is coherent but can be a chore to pick apart because of how the narrative is written. As a reader, you have to work to make sense out of the information, which will be annoying to some readers. On the other hand, it also gives you the sense that you might be a fellow historian working to parse the mystery that is the colonization of Tir-Torzor.

Characters: The characters here show promise, but because of the style of narrative, we haven't gotten enough time with any given set of character to have them be well-established or have much in the way of character arcs. Their personalities are plausible and there are no obvious shortcomings in characterization - we just aren't given much insight into the characters yet.