Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme.  These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books that you can’t believe you missed.

This column’s theme:  Power-ups: books where characters find quick shortcuts to enhance themselves. Although quick doesn’t guarantee free or easy…

So if you like

Scavenger hunts

Underdog YA stories, like Ready Player One or Charlie And the Chocolate Factory
Gifts with hidden costs

You might like

Burning Midnight, by Will McIntosh

urning Midnight by Will McIntosh

The Power-up

Unbreakable colored spheres


One day the spheres just appeared. Use two matching colors and you’ll gain that sphere’s attributes – better hearing, strength, intelligence, the ability to sing, or to fall asleep easily.  The trick here is that you need to be lucky or rich to match two up, and some people will do anything to complete a pair.

Sample passage

To Sully’s surprise, she slowed when she reached his stall. She eyed the orbs he kept locked under glass, running her tongue over her teeth. She was wearing loose-fitting cargo pants and zero makeup. Her brown angular face was striking, her take-no-shit scowl a little intimidating. Not your usual flea market customer.

He cleared his throat. “Anything I can help you with?”

She studied him, squinted, as if he was slightly out of focus. She unslung the bag on her shoulder and knelt out of sight in front of his table.

When she reappeared she was clutching a sphere—a Forest Green. Enhanced sense of smell. Sully didn’t have to consult the book to know it scored a three out of ten on the rarity chart. Retail, he could easily get six hundred for it.

“How much?” she asked, holding it up.

His heart was hammering. This one deal could make his whole weekend. “Wow. You find that in the wild?” She didn’t strike him as a collector or an investor.

She nodded. “It was caked in mud. I thought it was an Army Green.” Which was a big fat one on the rarity chart. Resistance to the common cold. Sixty bucks.


This YA novel gets off to a bit of a slow start as McIntosh lays the groundwork for what turns into a really interesting third act. There’s the setup of how our protagonist Sully is selling spheres at a flea market. How he got cheated by a rich sphere seller, and how he meets Hunter, who gets him looking for spheres in a life changing way…and it’s a lot of very believable work before their lives change.  This leads into the book’s third act where the question of what the spheres really are finally gets answered, and all of that set up pays off.

Or if you like

Lighter fantasy, as authored by Lawrence Watt-Evans, or Piers Anthony

A fantasy world that’s complex but not Wheel Of Time complex

Fantasy role-playing games

Authors that write a lot of books

You might like

The Books Of Swords, by Fred Saberhagen


The Power-up

Gods forged swords that can’t be beaten…in certain situations.


The Roman gods forged twelve swords of power and scattered them to watch mortals fight over them. Now, as one boy who keeps encountering the swords is discovering he may play a bigger role in the god’s game than he’d imagined, the gods are discovering they may have made those special swords a little too well…

Sample passage

Again the screaming of the Sword of Fury rose above the eternal whistle-howling of the foe. Again Mark watched Townsaver’s blade carve a dead-wood legion into chunks of mud and flying dust. Again the sword built a blurred wall through which the invaders could not force their way, press forward as they might.

But, again, Townsaver prevailed only where it could be brought to bear.


So Saberhagen introduces a couple of interesting twists here.

First, obviously, are the swords, which all have their particular powers and drawbacks. Townsaver makes the wielder invincible as long as they’re defending others, but doesn’t protect them from accumulated wounds.  Coinspinner provides it’s bearer obscenely good luck, but tends to move from owner to owner. Wayfinder takes it’s bearer to whatever they seek, but never chooses the safest path, etc.

Second is the divine power structure. Yes there are the Roman gods, but there are a few wild cards out there as well. Demons, a giant animal healing god, and some character named The Emperor.  All of these elements help shake up the typical Tolkienesque ‘party on a quest’ format as various factions are playing against each other, without creating a quagmire for the reader.  Things move along pretty quickly, making it a lighter read than the contents might imply, and it’s certainly great source material for anybody running a Dungeons And Dragons campaign.

The first three Books Of Swords are equivalent to one big fat fantasy novel, and tell a complete story. They have been in print for a while, and had a long run in a book club edition so any good used bookstore should have them, or they’re electronically available at Kobo.  If you can’t get enough of this, there’s a few more trilogies, and individual books of swords, to keep you busy, and if you want some background on the setting of the Swords books, that can be found in Saberhagen’s earlier collection Empire Of The East, though it’s completely unnecessary to read that to enjoy the books.

Or if you like:

The long con

Gambling with higher stakes

Shortcuts for self-improvement

You might like

The Gameshouse Novellas, by Claire North


The power-up

Less lucky players


The stakes at the Gameshouse are extraordinary, as pretty much anything can be put on the table. Want to speak flawless Spanish? Have better eyesight? Add years to your life? All of these are up for the taking…or the losing.

Sample passage

“On your eleventh shot, I believe you agreed to a game of hide-and-seek.”


Remy closed his eyes, head rolling back. “Right,” he said. Then thought. Then, “Right.”

Silence again.

“What’s the board?” he asked at last.


“What – all of it?”

“All of it.”

“And the cards?”

“I can’t say what the seeker’s been dealt, but I imagine the resources are substantial. Assume he has some high cards in police, government and the temples. He’s probably also drawn a few mercenaries, ex-spies, ex-cons, maybe a banker or two.”

“How long have I got to beat?”

“You’re asking me Abhik’s form?”

“Yes – you watch everything – yes, I’m asking you his goddamn form.”

“Last time Abhik Lee played hide-and-seek, the board was Palestine. He remained hidden for fifteen months, and when the sides were swapped he found his opponent in eleven days. You don’t have to hide for long if you know you can seek fast.”


The three novellas read a bit more like parts of a book, with each story focusing on one character while the protagonists of the other stories may be present in the background.

  • The Serpent provides an introduction to the Gameshouse and the stakes involved.
  • The Thief tells the tale of a player who has committed to a high stakes game of hide and seek, which was probably a poor choice as he’s a six foot tall white dude in Thailand.
  • The Master builds on the other two stories and tells the tale of one player’s long game to seize control of the Gameshouse.

The interesting thing about this collection is that the middle story – The Thief – was so good that it outshines the beginning and the end. It pretty much stands on it’s own and the idea of gambling 20 years of life in a country sized game of hide and seek was a shockingly original one.


So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column, where the theme will be: Prose and Cons.

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