Book Review: Deck of Cards by Rebecca Lickiss – D Jason Fleming

Book Review: Deck of Cards by Rebecca Lickiss – D Jason Fleming


Before we even begin the review, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to do two things: ignore the cover, and ignore the title. Seriously. Pretend that somebody who hated the book and wanted to make sure it sold zero copies somehow got control and slapped the cover onto it.

I’ll come back to this later.

Rebecca Lickiss’s Deck of Cards is a space opera, with heavy elements of thriller and comedy of manners thrown in for good measure. Imagine early Lois McMaster Bujold, as this fits very well with Shards of Honor and Barrayar, despite being a wildly different story.

The story is also set in a very complicated world.

Five is a resident of the planet Fenris, and somewhere in the top dozen or two slots for the line of succession to the throne to rule the planet.

As the novel opens, we quickly learn that Five, whose real name is Valor, works with his siblings together to protect the youngest ones from their mutual father, Sigil. There are more than twenty siblings, nearly all called by number by their father, and the protection is needed. The opening scenes have Sigil returning from an audience with the King and taking out his fury, causes unknown, on Five’s right hand, breaking every bone in it. Five’s relative acceptance of this clearly signals that, while this attack was extreme, it was simply of a piece with all the previous treatment by his father. Further, it’s very clear that Five takes abuse on himself so that the other siblings won’t be targeted.

Almost immediately following, Five learns that he has a required audience with the King the following day, and there is a rush with the doctor to get his hand into presentable shape in time.

The audience with the King is, if anything, even more disastrous than his encounter with his father. The King tells Five that he will marry a daughter of the king of Ariel, the mysterious Princess Dedalean Leonargus, as a means of easing tensions between Ariel and Fenris, and encouraging trade.

Which explains Sigil’s vicious attention to Five’s right hand, since that’s the hand that will hold the wedding ring.

Yes, the wedding ring goes on the right hand.

Lickiss’s novel has many, many impressive accomplishments, not least of which is the detailed world-building. In this case, I’m referring to the cultures and histories of the two worlds featured, rather than the climate, geography, or other physical features.

Fenris and Ariel orbit the same star, Ariel having the much larger orbit, and according to legend, they were colonized at the same time, four hundred years ago, in a desperate last-ditch effort not to lose a revolution. We don’t get much more detail about that, but the legend includes the fact that the two worlds will unite again in a hundred years to re-take “Target”, a planet somewhere outside of the system, whose location nobody seems to know.

In the meantime, Fenris and Ariel have been at near-constant war, all the while looking over their shoulders dreading outside invasion, in spite of the fact that many (including five) don’t actually believe the legends. Five’s marriage is publicly part of an effort to reconcile the two cultures ahead of the fulfillment of the forefathers’ plans to re-take Target.

Privately, however, there is another purpose.

Five’s father, Sigil, is a wildly violent, unstable, unpredictable psychopath, as has already been established. And several people in line for the throne have died in mysterious, not-quite-provably murderous circumstances, including the King’s two sons. Sigil wants the throne, and the King knows it, but can’t move against Sigil for unknown reasons, though part of it is clearly fear.

And the secret reason Five is being sent to Ariel, along with his youngest siblings and other children currently in Sigil’s path, is to provide a safe haven for the King’s as-yet unborn son, about whom nobody knows except the King, the Queen, and now, Five. Once established, and the prince born, the child is to be sent to Ariel as a bastard child of a royal cousin, as cover. The real reason is to keep him completely out of Sigil’s purview.

Following all of this so far? Good, because that’s merely a part of the first two chapters. This is all merely set-up. I haven’t even gotten to Arielan culture, the large cast of characters over there, or the delightful interactions between the emigrants and the Arielans.

And it’s all handled magnificently, with only a few minor missteps, none of them relating to the story itself.

Lickiss handles a very, very large cast, with complicated and shifting interrelationships, in a way that makes me jealous. And once you tune into the cultures that she has built, it’s pretty much all crystal clear, except when it needs not to be, to keep the reader in suspense. She also develops two related, but markedly different cultures, almost purely through showing them to you, not lecturing the reader much at all, except when characters truly don’t or wouldn’t know things, and need to be lectured about them.

The story is engaging and interesting all the way through, leads to a very satisfying ending, and leaves the door wide open to further stories in this setting. We never find out much about Target or the circumstances that led to Ariel and Fenris being colonized, for example.

It’s all quite excellent and entertaining, and I recommend it highly.

That said, there are some minor defects, technical things really, in the story itself.

And there is also the cover, and the visual presentation of the Kindle edition of the book.

Within the story, there were a very few times where Lickiss did not signal things quite clearly enough, at least for this reader. It is, as I indicated, a masterful job of juggling a very large cast, keeping all the interrelationships straight in the reader’s head, and showing the different cultures to boot. However, a few times, she slips. There is an important conversation between Five and the King of Fenris, private, that I started out thinking was between Five and his father, because she used the King’s given name, something that had been mentioned once, I think, but hadn’t stuck in my head for some reason. That was the worst example, but there were a few other times in the book where I had to stop for a moment, go back and reread a paragraph or two, to make sure I was oriented correctly within the story. (Also, toward the end, there were a few obvious typos that pulled me out of the story briefly, simply because there had been so few, possibly none, in the early going, so they stood out.)

The title works once you have read the story, because one of Five’s idiosyncrasies is that he uses a deck of cards (unique to the story and world) to play solitaire as a way of helping him sort out relationships and figure out how to solve problems between people. However, it is not a title that indicates “space opera” or “science fiction” in any way, which is why I said to ignore it. It’s not a bad title, but it fails to signal the reader what kind of story it is.

And the cover. Oh, alas, the cover.

Look, within the story, both Fenris and Ariel have strongly feudalistic tendencies, and some primitivism, such that the aristocracy live in castles, and on one planet, they are horrified at the very mention of indoor plumbing, because that might give away their real level of technology should Target attempt to invade. And no, that makes no sense, as characters in the story realize, but it’s a brilliant bit of world-building that rings true.

However, a plain picture of a castle-like structure? That, really and truly, gives you zero idea what kind of book this is. On top of which, it’s bland rather than intriguing. And currently, SF covers still tend strongly toward artwork rather than photographic realism, for obvious reasons.

So, ignore the cover, don’t let the title fool you, this is a fun, exciting space opera of a fairly unique kind, and I want a sequel, or even a prequel, dammit!

This review of Deck of Cards by D. Jason Fleming is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

105 thoughts on “Book Review: Deck of Cards by Rebecca Lickiss – D Jason Fleming

  1. The blurb isn’t much better. 😦

    I think Jason should post this review in the Kindle store.

    1. At the end of today, a copy of this review will be on the Amazon page (or should be). It will be the first review posted, positive or negative.

      The book was first published in 2010.

      That tells me that, while some people like the cover, it’s not convincing people to buy and read this wonderful book. Which makes it a bad cover.

      1. The first review since 2010? Now I’ve got to put it higher on the TRL, if for no other reason than it’s overdue some attention.

        And the cover…I don’t get what’s wrong with it. Looks great to me.

          1. If all I had to go on was the cover, I’d probably guess that it was fantasy, and that’s because the title doesn’t strike me as being historical fiction.

            It’s also assuming that I know I’m looking at a novel and not a travel guide. 🙂

        1. Bob, I am not saying that the cover is ugly or that nobody should appreciate it in an esthetic sense.

          I am saying that it fails utterly to make readers want to read the book, or signal successfully what kind of book it is in even the crudest terms.

          There is nothing wrong with liking it. It’s a nice photograph.

          But, objectively and measurably, it does not sell the book successfully.

  2. I just checked the sample, the name of the king of Fenris was used more than one time before that meeting.

    1. I didn’t go back and look, but the point is, as a reader, it was not clear to me right off, possibly because it was early going and I was still reeling from so many characters being introduced. In a book that juggles a cast of dozens so elegantly and clearly otherwise, it stood out to me.

      1. Yeah. Just in the sample there are an absurd amount of named characters introduced. I want to say forty or fifty, and if thirty is overcounting, it isn’t by much.

        I think there are several issues from an author’s perspective. 1) How do you dump the info the story needs? 2) How often must you repeat to be sure the reader has noticed? 3) How do you cue the reader to pay attention and take mental notes?

        I might’ve been confused if your review hadn’t told me I needed to be very careful about keeping track of things.

        1. Plus the fact that each character has multiple signifiers, which doesn’t help. But again, as a reading experience, it all works remarkably smoothly. I think that one scene wouldn’t have caught me out if she’d just said he was the king, rather than referring to him by his given name.

          Of course, I should note that my mind is crud with names unless they’re perfect to the character, and I tend to remember characters positionally or in terms of relationships to the central characters. In fact, had the cast not been huge (and that’s actually of necessity), I might have written off the confusion as my problem, and not the book’s.

          1. When I was thinking back about the named characters, I remembered three unnamed characters, who could have added unnecessary additional potential for confusion if they weren’t bit parts.

            She really does juggle things pretty well. Those tens of named characters in the sample are pretty essential to both verisimilitude and establishing Five’s motivations.

        2. The huge cast would be a “do not buy” for me. Even if the author managed to make them all somehow relevant to the story, I’m not a “people person.”

          1. Ah, glad to know I’m not the only one who hates the ‘cast of thousands’ approach. Those really only work in Cecil B. DeMille movies…

            (And by ‘cast of thousands’ I mean more in the sense of ‘lots and lots and lots of POV characters’, which annoys the life out of me.)

            1. This was all in one POV. I can’t speak beyond the sample, of course.


              The basic issue is that the POV character is one of twenty kids. Their father is abusive, ambitious, murderous and insane. The father has secretly murdered various relatives, probably including his own children, and is a danger to them all. Our hero has bonded with his siblings, and wishes to protect them. Of the tens of named characters I mentioned, probably less than ten had served any purpose in the sample’s plot. The rest are scenery for Heinleining reasons the hero is worried.

  3. I like the cover. Fascinating picture. Like the title too. Agree it doesn’t immediately signal the content, but neither do a whole lot of other titles (and covers). It would at least get me to look.

    1. Again, I point to the fact that the book has been available since 2010, yet has no reviews save my own, despite its being quite excellent.

      Regardless of how much you like the cover, it has not succeeded in drawing in readers. Which is the entire purpose of a cover.

      1. Agree.

        If I had seen that book before, I don’t remember seeing it.

        The next thing I check about a book is its blurb and as I said earlier that blurb did nothing to make me want to look further.

        1. I would like to point out as well that her price is too high. She’s not a 4.99 writer. She may not even be a 3.99 writer, but I haven’t read it yet.
          She needs to
          1) replace the cover
          2) lower the price to 2.99
          3) put in in KU
          4) do a little promotion.

          1. In my opinion, the book is worth five bucks. It’s not short, and none of the length is padding. Lowering the price to kickstart sales isn’t a bad idea, along with the other points, but the book is definitely — at a minimum — a four dollar book.

    1. We could start a “Review The Review” service.
      Then we could review the review reviews. Then review the review review reviews.
      Then we . . .
      I’ll stop now.

      1. That reminds me of a cartoon I saw in some World Book Encyclopedia yearly update things (My father’s sister’s family had the 1950 edition and kept getting the updates into 1960’s.. in the 1970’s my family got them and the ‘forgotten’ stuff was the most interesting[1]).

        In the cartoon, the world (little man with a globe-head) stood looking at small rocket, ‘The missile’. Then a bigger rocket, ‘The missile to stop the missile’. Then a bigger rocket, ‘The missile to stop the missile to stop the missile’ and maybe again, and then he’s staring way up at a huge rocket, ‘Etc. ad infinitum’. And in the final panel, a technician is running back into hangar or such, “IT’S COMING BACK!”

        [1] The 1950’s were clearly a very optimistic, ‘we can do/try anything’ time at least in the USA. One throwaway blurb was about a guy who chemically processed X-thousand pig ears and synthesized something silk-like from them. Another was the fellow who made three balloon from lead foil and two of them flew (I presume catastrophic failure in the third.) This made the MythBusters bit on lead balloons downright tedious for me.

          1. I also recall them “proving” a steam cannon couldn’t work. They were trying to make like a modern “It fires exactly when I want” device. A few nights later I saw a working version/method on the History Channel… that didn’t care about timing (that wall isn’t gonna run away). It was not theoretical, they showed a working system.

            Of course, the first time I saw MythBusters I was annoyed that it didn’t just confirm or bust the ‘myth’ but turned into “Let’s just blow stuff up.”

              1. It’s long enough ago that I don’t recall the details of the MythBusters’ attempts beyond wanting to fire *now* and not having enough steam pressure to do much more than have a projectile go _plop_. The History channel version was a cannon barrel with water for steam, the projectile(s) plugging things, a long pole/stick down the barrel to hold it back, that being held by another piece of wood across muzzle. Fire heats water, water turns to steam, pressure builds, and when the wood across the muzzle can’t take the pressure, it breaks and releases the projectile which has the full steam pressure behind it. It does not go _plop_. Of course, this fires when it’s good and ready, not at the instant of your choosing.

                1. “We filled a tin can with gasoline and lit it. The car did not move. Therefore we proved that internal combustion engines can’t work.”

                  Throughout its entire run people kept trying to get me to watch that show. I managed to grit my teeth through a couple of episodes. I would never have believed there was more broadcast stupidity than “The History Channel”…

                2. iirc the “Weapons Experts” History has used and one has also worked for Discovery (English fellow, Mike something), have a smaller steam cannon design that does fire “on command” (ball valve and of course once pressure is built) as well as one like the decided upon design used way back when, if actually used. These were built, one as proof of concept (will steam work), the other as “We think it looked like this” well before Mythbusters broached the “Myth”. I have seen another of the ball valve designs done by a Texan Prof also on History.

                  1. If we’re thinking of the same fellow, he’s done a bunch of working replicas of weapons and other historical dohickies. Wish he had his own show.

                    1. Mike whatever had a show with a hipster type in DC where the hipster had to improve weapons of the past. The other guy who makes a lot of those weapons on History does really need his own show somewhere. He is like a weaponized Edd China from Wheeler Dealers, if not as tall.

            1. Yeah, that is one of the ones I saw as well. I knew how the steam cannon was supposed to work and it didn’t take me even Google to figure out several ways of doing it.
              I wonder how much of Jaime’s anxiety issues are exacerbated by allowing the writers and Adam to often go in such stupid directions.

            2. They “proved” that the myth about using a 22 round for a fuse and having it go off was false. To bad my dad and his friend had both had that happen (actually using 22 magnum rounds, apparently the mythbusters had a fusebox that used shorter fuses) and while I wasn’t present to observe either happen, I did see the blown apart fuse box.

              That was the only time I ever recall watching that show, it immediately showed me that they were well proven liars, and made me believe I couldn’t trust any other “facts” on the show that I hadn’t personally verified.

              1. Actually, as I recall, they showed that it CAN go off. The myth had to do with it causing major injury (or possibly even death) to the driver, which is highly unlikely to happen, since there is no barrel, closed on one end and open on the other, to focus the blast onto the bullet and make it move fast enough to hurt anyone badly.

  4. I would think that the cover would be so easy to update to better signal what it was. A castle at middle, or part of one at near, distance, with a spaceship flying overhead, and perhaps a small planet somewhere in the sky with enough color to indicate it’s a living planet and not a dead moon.

    1. Over on Mad Genius Club recently Sarah did up a better cover than this as an example of building hour own cover and what not go do.

  5. And this is why covers are important, I would never have bought that book, and even now, knowing what it is about, I’m still hesitant to read it, because the cover really sucks.

    And the words ‘A Space Opera’ should probably be added to the cover as well.

    She really needs to change that cover, or she will never see the sales she should be seeing.

    1. Also, heck, doesn’t even need to say “space opera”, as some people might still get the wrong idea from that. Deck of Cards: A Novel of Interplanetary Intrigue would do it.

    2. But how do you convey that it’s space opera with an old fashioned medieval level feel in some spots? Make the towers recognizably spaceships?

      1. Main character in a medieval hallway, dressed in flamboyant hose and doublet with a ridiculous codpiece, carring a sword and a blaster. Which would be more or less accurate to the book, as a bonus.

        Just off the top of my head.

        1. The cover of A Cat at Bay – vaguely Earth Asian castle in background with all kinds of antennae and dishes mounted around it, and a force field gate behind a trans-atmospheric transport craft. Sci-fi but with feudal elements, possibly alien, possibly alt-future.

        2. Main character in a medieval hallway, dressed in flamboyant hose and doublet with a ridiculous codpiece, carring a sword and a blaster.

          And I’m not sure why, since that description doesn’t really sound like him, but that image would probably make me think of Dominic Flandry, which would make me more likely to pick up the book.

          1. I love Flandry, and yes, sort of had him in mind when I did the description because Michael Whelan did some excellent covers for those books that, slightly, fit the tone for this one. Very different characters, very different story, but the futuristic anachronisms are common to both.

      2. Bare metal walls and floor, a window out into space, and a man in silken hose and stuff.

    3. I’ve got a work called When the Witch Sings in progress. If it works out — it’s a stubborn one — it will have “A Science Fiction novel” on the cover.

  6. Don’t mean to pile on, but a bit of bouncing around the net – reminds me of all the things I need to get done before I dare to go “live.”

    Rebecca’s Author page – no image of the author. Only three of her books show up there, too – there are many more (yes, some of those have much better covers). Compare Sarah’s page – image. Good biographical blurb. Her page – well, you first see “Results 1-12 of 35.” (Some are, admittedly, the Sarah Marques pen name – which is a good thing.)

    A blog that is “under construction.” (OK, a blog does undergo periodic remodeling – but do not just say “I don’t have the time…”)

    And, yes, the title of this one. “Deck of Cards” is terrible for search engines, way too common. The book will just not show up in a casual search. (I plugged in a couple of older book titles – now, “American Front” comes up after the racist bunch – but it is at least third on the Google results. “Boundary” is a very common word – but it still comes up with the book on the first page.)

    Yep, I have a lot of work ahead of me… (Including my first novel title – “Sins of the Cousins” is not the book that sounds like…)

    1. Re. author images – some of us can’t or do not want to post pictures for various reasons. And posting a photo of your pet, or of an interesting rock from your collection, seems to be passé.

      1. I have seen at least two authors who posted pictures of their personal swords artistically displayed, and I am pretty positive that a lot of the romance authors are overweight, middle-aged women (or possibly men) rather than the sexy twenty-something that is pictured.

  7. And onto the TBR list it goes. Darn it. That list is too long, but it sounds kind of like Dorothy Dunnett with its large cast, and I loved her first series.

      1. Game of Kings is the first one. It’s straight historical fiction, with a very rich universe, a large cast of characters, gentle, wicked humor, and a hero of many talents. Francis Crawford of Lymond is hard to describe. There are only seven, but they are addictive.

  8. I shared this link a little further above, but for covers, how does this look? Because it’s the sort of thing I love. Capturing intriguing aesthetics with a sense of strangeness. I like the image of the small figure in the foreground. Not necessarily action-packed, but it suggests he’s got a long and strange and adventurous journey ahead of him.

    1. That would not be a good cover for this particular book, but it would certainly fit, e.g., Planet of the Apes (though closer to the feel of the original movie than to the book itself).

    2. But the point I was trying to make is that the cover is not essentially a work of art. It is a marketing tool. If the cover of the book does not get people to want to buy the book, it fails. If it gets people to buy the book because they thought it looked like a nifty Regency romance, and the actual story is about space vampires invading an asteroid mining colony, it fails.

      1. I see. I’m thinking now that if I hadn’t had your review to go in on, would I have looked twice at the book? I don’t know. Maybe. Do you think it’s the vagueness of the Deck cover that’s the problem?

        1. Sarah knows this stuff better than I do, but it’s not “vagueness” per se, it’s that the cover does nothing to say “science fiction” or “space opera” or anything close to what the book is. It does not impress any reader’s mind as being the sort of book they might like.

          It’s a photograph, while SF uses artwork of one style or another.

          It’s a photo of a castle, something old, without anything to indicate interplanetary travel, adventure, or anything, really.

          The title doesn’t make up for the picture’s lack.

          The picture, as one commenter above noted, looks like a travel book (not even fiction!) of some sort. And then the title works against even that.

          I don’t think this cover would quite make it to Lousy Book Covers, but in terms of its effectiveness as a marketing tool, it probably should.

          1. I’m less put off by photos for SF than for high fantasy — but that’s not saying much, because I really hate photos for high fantasy unless artistically filtered and stuff out of looking like one.

      2. I don’t pay any attention to covers. As long as it has the author’s name and the book title (and maybe the price) I’m happy. It can be black and white for all I care.

        I know that a huge number of people *do* judge a book by its cover, but to me the cover is a slew of opportunities to fail.

        Bad art is way worse than no art; it tells me the publisher simply didn’t care, and the book is just shelf filler. Some schmuck’s face staring at me from the back cover instead of a proper blurb, back on the shelf. Flyleaf filled with sound-bite endorsements from people or publications I never heard of instead of an inside blurb; back on the shelf.

        Further, any book that has “A Novel” as part of the title, I’ll probably never pull it off the shelf to see the cover. In my experience, those words are a 100% sign of gray goo.

        1. Covers affect judgement on a subconscious level. Doesn’t have to be “art”, it can be pure design, nothing but words, but it has to actually be designed, and convey an impression of what’s in the book.

          As for “a novel”, I consider something like that to be a requirement for digital–only books. Reassures the reader that they’re not ponying up their money for a short story, or novella, or whatever. It doesn’t have to say only “a novel”, but that’s a minimum requirement. Again, my opinion.

          1. While I know we are in the minority I agree with TRX, I seldom look at covers on print books, unless they are a subject in a blog post like this, or I am specifically looking at them in an attempt to learn what signals well to sell, I NEVER look at them in digital format. When you open book up on kindle it doesn’t even show you the cover unless you specifically page back to it, which suits me just fine. I am however aware that a lot of people do look at covers, and that they affect sales, I just find that an exceedingly odd phenomenon. Personally I prefer the old style hardback covers that are a single basic color with the title and authors name on it.

            Also, I confess to having the same reaction to “a novel” as part of the title, as TRX does. That automatically disqualifies the book from consideration as far as I am concerned. I do, however, think it is a good idea, as so many newer indie digital books do, to either add “a novel” or “a novella”, etc. to the end of the description or list the number of pages (actually, I kind of prefer them listing the number of pages, unless they do really screwy things with the font, in order to intentionally mislead the buyers to the size of the book, this is more unambiguous, as there are a multitude of different definitions for each of the common book lengths.

  9. Unfortunately, Changing covers on Amazon can be a real PITA sometimes, taking a week to propagate. And Facebook seems to cache links, because even though I changed covers over a year ago, if I post the usual short link to Kiwi, Facebook posts the old cover and the original Blurb.

    The Moral being: try to get it right the first time.

    1. This book has been available for over five years. Another week or two in changeover is probably bearable, assuming the author actually instigates the changes that would boost its marketability.

      1. The other thing is, don’t edit anything else until the new cover goes live, because it resets the process. And even then, it does NOT force an update on Kindle users. The Kindle program on my laptop STILL shows the old cover (And what’s weird, it was the first to show the new cover, then reverted.)

  10. Holy shit, this review must have really helped, because her numbers on this book have really jumped. Yesterday, it was near either 200,000 or 300,000 overall, but today it’s slightly under 11,500. And her genre numbers went from low 5-digits to low triple digits.

    1. This is me, grinning quite a bit.

      Probably helped her numbers even more than that, since I’d gotten a copy last month, and bullied a realspace friend into buying a copy last week (he enjoyed it, but not quite as much as I did). Those two copies could have taken her from sub-one-million ranking into the above-500,000 realm on their own, and then the review helped boost it even more.

      At least, so I hope. 😀

  11. Just bought the book. Everything the review says is true. AAAAAAAAAAAAAND my replacement Kindle loaded the book, let me read briefly, then went Kaput. Black screen of death.

    I hate having to read stuff on my computer.

  12. And here’s me being even more pleased. The Amazon page for Deck of Cards went from bare, barren, and zero reviews, to three reviews as of today (including a copy of my review above).

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