Friday, October 5, 2012

Book Review: Locked Within

I'm here today with something a little different from the usual. Paul Anthony Shortt, a writer friend of mine from Ireland, is launching his debut novel, Locked Within! I've read the book, and today I'll be posting a review.*

But first I have a few questions I've asked Paul in order to introduce him to you folks:

Tell us a little about where you're from.

I grew up in a town called Bray, not far from Dublin. It's a seaside town, and used to be a pirate hideout centuries ago. I've lived in the Dublin area all my life, except for when I briefly lived in Manchester. My wife and I live in Bray, in a house with two energetic dogs.

So why did you choose to set your book in New York City?

As a kid I was enamored with New York. All the best movies seemed to be set there and it personified what I thought of as America. As I grew up and learned more, I understood the city's historical significance, not least of which in terms of Irish immigrants. A great many Americans have their roots in Ireland and a lot of those arrived through the port at Ellis Island. When it came time to choose a setting for Locked Within, I knew I wanted New York, and nowhere else. It's a melting pot of so many different cultures, yet the city itself is its own culture. People who live there aren't just Irish, or German, or Jewish or African. They're New Yorkers. There's an identity there, a power all of its own, and I wanted to explore how that could play a part in a setting where even places can have an energy of their own.

Do you travel often?

I lived for 5 months in Manchester, as I mentioned above, but beyond that I've been to Canada, London, France, Italy and, of course, my beloved New York. My wife and I honeymooned there and we returned for a week earlier this year. We also travel around Ireland a bit when we feel like a weekend break.

What was your inspiration for Locked Within?

A lot of it came from researching mythology and occultism. I've always been fascinated by reincarnation. It occurred to me that if someone were reborn many times over and could remember past lives, they would find themselves able to pick up old skills more easily. I decided I wanted to see humans back in the forefront in fantasy fiction. There are a lot of stories out there about strong vampires or wizards, so I wanted to try and create a hero who really didn't have much power. Just knowledge and a desire to help people. Nathan Shepherd started out as that.

What do you most enjoy about writing?

Telling stories has always given me a high unlike anything else. I get hooked on the response from someone who's enjoying a story I've come up with. It gets that not writing makes me antsy and even irritable. I can be downright miserable if I don't get to write. Discovering the story for myself is the first kicker, the hit that drives me. But I know I'm really doing it for the end goal, knowing that someone out there is that little bit happier because they've enjoyed my stories.

Tell us about your path to publication.

I've actually been incredibly lucky. Granted, it took me 20 years from my first thoughts of "I want to be a writer" to get here, but it was only about 3 years ago I started writing Locked Within in earnest. I spent a little over a year writing and editing it, though I broke one of the golden rules and started querying before I'd finished my edits! I only had about 3 chapters edited when I started. Anyone at home, don't do that! Finish your book before querying! Believe me, it makes the few days after "we'd like to read more" a lot less stressful.

It was a contest that got me the contract in the end. Karen Jones Gowan, author of Lighting Candles in the Snow and managing editor at WiDo Publishing, hosted a contest for people to send in their queries. Three winners were to be chosen, who would each have the option of receiving a free critique of their manuscript or have their book considered for a contract. I was one of those chosen, and I knew which prize I wanted. I signed my contract in April 2011, almost exactly a year after I finished the first draft of the book. Since then I've been working with an amazing team to get the book ready for publication. It's been a challenge. As scary as it was to send my first query letter, that was nothing compared to the amount of work that went into editing Locked Within.

It's been great working with WiDo. They're very hands-on with their writers, but still give an immense amount of freedom. I was happy to dive into self-promotion and building my author platform, and every step has felt like a partnership. I know they want the best for my book, and my editor and I work incredibly well together.

What are some of your favorite things to read?

At the moment I'm really getting into a lot of Young Adult. For years I was hooked on the Dresden Files and I'm a very slow reader, so that took up a lot of my reading time. Now that I'm caught up on the series I've been taking time to try other authors. I'm particularly fond of Janice Hardy's Healing Wars series.** In general I prefer a good series over a standalone story, because I love spending a lot of time with characters and getting to know them and watch their lives change. That said, if you're looking for a good YA standalone author, check out Hannah Moskowitz. Her Invincible Summer made me cry. I'm looking forward to checking out Linda Poitevin's Grigori Legacy when I get a chance.

What are you working on now?

For now, Nathan Shepherd is firmly entrenched. I'm working on a re-write of the sequel to Locked Within. Originally I was planning a 6-book series (I think that's a hexalogy...) but after discussing things with my editor I decided to shorten it into a trilogy. I'm hoping to have the sequel, Forgotten Cause, sent back to my publisher by the end of October, with an aim to getting started on edits as soon as possible after that. I'm one of those authors who just can't sit still. I need to be working on something, so you can bet that once I've got Forgotten Cause sent, I'll be starting work on the third book.

Thanks for having me, and for reviewing the book. I hope everyone enjoys reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it!

Now on to the review!

Locked Within is the story of Nathan Shepherd, an ordinary New York resident with a not-so-ordinary interest in unsolved crimes. When his insatiable curiosity leads him to investigate a string of murders recurring every decade, he stumbles into the “other” side of reality—the place where vampires, ghouls and creatures yet more nasty dwell.

But Nathan isn't quite as unprepared for this world as the average mortal. For years, memories of previous lives have come to him in dreams. He's fought the monsters before... in memory. Now he must choose—return to an ordinary life or accept the memories and become a warrior once more.

I really love the world Paul has created. It's fascinating. He has pulled pieces from several mythologies but worked them together in a way that feels completely organic, not patched together with the assembly showing through the cracks. Everything ties in seamlessly, centered on this idea of what can happen to a soul both naturally and unnaturally in a reincarnation-based world.

One of the things I especially enjoyed about the world was that, while there was a vaguely good side and a vaguely evil side, the fight between the two wasn't entirely black and white. I liked that the hero was able to act independently of both and choose his own identity.

The villains of the book were a particular highlight for me. They presented a compelling challenge, had sympathetic motives but also acted in a way that made me cheer for the hero, and kept popping up to add interesting conflict to the story. I found the “monster” of the story to be imaginative and deliciously gruesome.

The hero, Nathan Shepherd, was likable and easy to root for, but I found his motives less clear. I had to keep reminding myself of who he was when he wasn't out fighting bad guys and wished that I had more of a picture of his life before the opening incident. His job was a throwaway detail, except when it benefited the plot, and I never felt invested in his relationships. Nevertheless, I enjoyed following him through his discovery of his past lives and full potential. He's smart, he's proactive, and his heart's in the right place.

As for the plot, it was creative and had a lot of fun action scenes. It kept me engaged and was exciting through to the end. The story had a good balance of conflicts, though I thought it could have used some tension between Nathan and his father. I did feel that the plot could have been tighter in places (the story line with Nathan's father's bar didn't go anywhere, for example), but I didn't notice any glaring holes.

My main criticism is with the pacing. In general the writing is good. It sounds American. Aside from vague language in some of the early dialog, the writing didn't get in the way of the story. However, I did find the transitions to be abrupt with very little down time or opportunities for reflection. There were few, if any, “deep breath” moments between scenes. So overall the pacing felt choppy and rushed. I think Nathan's motives would have come across more clearly if the reader had more chance to see into his thoughts. Additionally, though the description that was included was all very well done, I felt that the book needed more description.

All the same, I really enjoyed Locked Within, and Paul is to be congratulated on a strong debut. It kept my interest, and stands solidly on its own merits. I'm looking forward to the next book, and I wish Paul continued success. All the best to him for an auspicious launch!

*Keep in mind that, while I generally focus on young adult novels in the context of this blog, Locked Within is adult fiction and does include some strong language and graphic material.

**As am I!

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