Steven Montano asked me to read his novel "Blood Skies". The ground is black, the water is brown, and the sky is well, the color of blood. That should tell you all you need to know about the setting: it's not a nice a place to live. On Tvtropes, we call this a "Crapsack World" because life sucks for everybody. Despite that, there are still soldiers like Eric Cross who fight to keep vampires out of human territory. The plot follows his mission to stop "Red" from selling vital human secrets to the vampric Old One.
Setting: The story takes place after "The Black" a mysterious event that transformed Earth into a poisoned and broken world rife with hostile supernatural creatues like vampires, ghouls, and assorted monsters. What's left of humanity has been at war with, well, the entire world really, but especially the vampires. Their weapons range from guns of varying size, to hexed salts, and mages. How magic works is crucial to the plot and revealed slowly so I won't spoil anything here. I will say, however, that it was fascinating and movingly written.
Far more interesting than the mechanics of the setting is the mood created by the setting. It really is a shitty place to live and Mr. Montano has a gift for illustrating just HOW shitty. The state of the cities is dark and gloomy and grimmy. Day-to-day life is a struggle to pull half-way decent food from border-line hostile soil. Vampire attacks are a constant threat and there are only just enough soldiers to avert a tragedy but the cost is regularly high. Most of the humans 'play hard' i.e. (drugs, alcohol, prositution etc) because the possibility they won't be able to the next day is just as high, and even then the tobacco tastes like it had been 'drenched in urine'.
The Plot I like. Bare boned it's a fairly simple Macguffin hunt but there's a lot of meat here. It is charged by the atmosphere and the character's drive to fulfill another, unrelated goal. The history of the world and the nature of the mission is revealed little by little. There's no As You Know here and while it's a little bewildering at first it only adds to the Full Picture. Everybody knows this stuff. They're not gonna recite it for the audience's benefit because there is no audience, hence a sense of realism. Like strands in a coil of rope; there's a lot of them and they're coiled tightly.
The Plot's conflict is resolved, which I REALLY like. This book is the first in a series and there are more problems to come but this book's conflict is fully resolved. I can honestly say the climax is my favorite part of the book. It brings together plot threads, it is suspensful, it is true to the tone and the setting. However, there are two things I don't like about the plot.
1. If "Blood Skies" were a tabletop game then Mr.Montano would be a sadistic dungeon master. If something can go wrong it will go wrong. The tainted world, though great for atmosphere, is not relevant storywise and so its greatest impact is to make the characters more miserable than they would be otherwise. Any time something good happens something horrible is nearby.
2. SPOILER! All I'll say is that Cross' group does something stupid, they acknowledge it as stupid, and the results are tragic. Making it even worse is that it had nothing to do with the plot. The danger comes out of nowhere and has no further relevance than the said tragedy. It works WONDERFULLY for the Setting (to show a wider world with more troubles than the Protagonist's own) but in terms of plot it's an oddball and feels like a device to produce the tragedy.
Now for characters. On one hand, it's hard to judge the characters because so many of them die shortly after their introduction but on the other this itself charactizes all of them. Humans are fragil. There's little in the way of Plot Armor. Cross, the protagonist himself, wouldn't have lived through his introduction without his spirit. All the characters live in a precarious state of life and death which is great for suspense.
Cross himself is a great protagonist. He is set up and developed and ready for the story. No time is wasted making him 'identifiable' to the audience. I always apperciate that but my favorite part about him is his relationship to his sister, Snow. It's the most beautiful thing in this story.
Few characters get Cross' level of development. This is because a lot of them die quickly so I'm willing to give Mr.Montao a pass on them but there is no excuse for the vampires. Despite having their own society with cities and rules and and social stratification they are Always Chaotic Evil monsters who started a war for apparently no reason.
On the whole, this story has a good plot, setting and characters; mared only by a single Idiot Ball.
Trickster Eric Novels gives "Blood Skies" a B+