Starborn is the wonderful debut of author Lucy Hounsom, kicking off The Worldmaker Trilogy in style. I found it elegantly written and imaginative, and there’s also a familiar yet down-to-earth vibe that will make it accessible to a wide audience whether you’re an avid reader of fantasy or new to the genre, and whether you’re a teenager or adult.
In Kyndra Vale’s village of Brenwyn, there is an ancient rite of passage. When a young person comes of age, he or she would partake in a meeting with a relic-keeper to find out their true name and the path they are destined for. However, on the day of Kyndra’s ceremony, she receives a strange vision. And when it is her turn to view the relic, it suddenly breaks, putting an end to a centuries-old tradition. Worse, immediately following the incident, Brenwyn is set upon by a Breaking, an unnatural storm that destroys the village.
Frightened and superstitious, the community is quick to blame Kyndra, but before they can act upon their anger, she is whisked away by two mysterious strangers who had come into town the day before. They are Nediah and Brégenne, a pair of bonded Wielders who can harness the power of the sun and moon to do amazing things, and for reasons unknown to Kyndra, they seem to have their eye on her. But while agreeing to be taken to the Wielder’s faraway citadel of Naris may have saved her life, Kyndra also becomes their prisoner. As her visions become worse, the Wielders suspect Kyndra may have some magic of her own, and she is kept from leaving until she can pass a brutal trial to determine the nature of her abilities.
It was easy to become drawn into this world Hounsom has created. As Kyndra travels to Naris with Nediah and Brégenne, snippets of history and magical lore can be gleaned through their conversations. Learning about the Wielders’ powers was fascinating, and the magic was perhaps my favorite part of the book. Based around the energies of the sun and moon, those who can use the former are known as Solars, while those that harness the latter are called Lunars. Often they travel in pairs while working in the field, so that they can watch each other’s backs. For example, Nediah is a Solar who can protect Brégenne, a Lunar, during the day while her powers are latent, while at night she can do the same for him. This way, a Wielder team is never left helpless.
Hounsom also doesn’t resort to overwhelming the reader with a flood of information. I felt that a lot of the world’s background had to be deduced, which might be a stumbling block for some, especially in the last quarter of the book where most of the big reveals and connections are made in a very short period of time. The pacing is a bit uneven for this reason, with the plot being slower to build in the beginning, but coming in fast and hard towards the end. There’s a lot going on, with multiple characters being driven by different motivations, and it can get confusing if you let your guard down. Still, the many plot threads kept me guessing, especially when it came to the question of whom Kyndra could trust.
In the end, the pleasure and satisfaction are in the details. Past some of the more common tropes in the story, there are a good number of innovative twists on familiar themes, such as the world-building and mechanics behind the magic system. Characters are likeable, even the supporting ones like Nediah and Brégenne (and speaking of the two of them, can I say what a breath of fresh air it was to see a romance sub-plot that actually did not involve the main protagonist?!) There’s a good amount of crossover appeal here that will make this a potentially attractive book to both Young Adult and Adult readers, and despite some minor issues with the flow, this book was intense enough to be very satisfying.
I can definitely see fantasy fans enjoying this novel, especially if the description of the magic appeals you. At the same time, I also would not hesitate to recommend it as a light introduction to the genre. All told, Starborn is an entertaining read and perfect for when the mood for a lighter kind of fantasy strikes you....more
I’ll admit, it hasn’t exactly been a smooth year for me when it comes to fiction and humor. Excitement over highly anticipated satire and parodic works have mostly fizzled after finding out they are in fact not what I had in mind. Undeterred though, I decided to leap next into The Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold, intrigued by its “Guardians of the Galaxy meets The Hobbit” tagline and hoping against hope that I’ll finally get the fantasy comedy I’ve been searching for.
The premise sounded promising enough, featuring a tale about an unlikely band of adventurers who’ve gotten it into their addled heads to rob a dragon. Before everything in his world turned upside down, Will Fallows was just another unassuming farm boy from a poor little village (literally called, The Village…the people are too downtrodden to be inspired) in Kondorra Valley, doing his best to make ends meet. However, each year the rising taxes demanded by the Dragon Consortium makes it that much harder to do, until one day, the moment that Will has been dreading all his life finally comes. With no warning at all, the dragon lord Mattrax’s soldiers show up at his door to seize his farm.
Left with nothing to his name, Will suddenly finds himself in the company of two traveling mercenaries, the skilled fighter Lette and her partner the eight-foot-tall lizard man Balur. After recruiting the help of a magically gifted university scholar named Quirk and an old drunkard named Firkin, the five of them conspire together to hatch up a plan to get revenge on Mattrax, the dragon who has been the cause of so much pain and suffering to the humans of the valley. It’s a totally crazy, stupid idea, one that Will knows has almost no chance of success. If they fail, they’ll bring doom upon all the people of Kondorra, and possibly to the world beyond. But if they can somehow pull this off? They’ll all be rewarded with riches beyond their imagination. The promise of gold beckons, and who knows, maybe this time fortune might actually favor the foolish.
Main reasons to check out this book: 1) if you think you’ll enjoy an epic fantasy seen through a modern humorous lens, and 2) if you’re like me and have a fondness for a good heist story. Many times throughout this one, I was reminded of Patrick Weekes’ Rogues of the Republic series, which contains a similar amount of humor, action, snappy dialogue, and creative solutions to unusual problems. Jon Hollins takes the zaniness further though, often putting his characters in ludicrous situations whenever things go wrong—and things actually do go wrong a lot in this story, despite our heroes’ careful planning (or rather, what they naively believe passes for careful planning). But hey, who wants to read about a heist that goes off without a hitch anyway? In this quirky tale, it’s the infighting and the unforeseen circumstances that makes things so entertaining.
Now for the reasons why you might want to take a pass on this book. If you like full immersion into a world, then this would not be for you. The Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold is unabashedly tongue-in-cheek, with exaggerated characters and situations. It’s all done very cleverly, but it’ll be tough to get on board if you already that know fantasy comedy isn’t your cup of tea. Hollins is generous with the use of anachronisms, pop culture references and modern slang, but mind you, these are features, not defects. One only has to take a glimpse at the chapter titles to see what I mean, with hilarious headings like “We’re Going to Need a Bigger Boat”, “What’s in the Box?”, “Hubris is a Dish Best Served Charbroiled”, “Lying Liars and the Lies They Tell”, “The Inevitable Cliffhanger Chapter” and many, many more such examples. It’s meant to be pure fun, and pure fun is what you get. It’s also relatively light fare, which is to be expected. For humor fiction, the book might have run a little longer than I was happy with, but that’s really my biggest criticism, which is in no way a deal breaker in the greater scheme of things. For the most part Hollins does manage to keep the story moving along at a quick pace.
Audiobook Comments: I was also fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to listen to the audiobook edition, and it confirmed one of my long-held suspicions: humor works splendidly well in audio format! Narrator John Banks with his smooth accent and deep tones seemed like an odd choice of reader for this book at first, but I quickly came around. In fact, I think his serious, earnest style only emphasized the humor. More importantly, his performance also moderated some of the more absurd situations for me, whereas if I’d actually been reading the words on a page, I think I might have rolled my eyes at the same scenes. He’s also great with voices, and even his exaggerated ones for characters like Balur or Firkin somehow sounded completely natural and in keeping with their personalities. Overall, I would highly recommend this audiobook.
Bottom line: The Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold is clever, adventurous and entertaining. If you’re looking for a light read with a fun plot and interesting characters, you won’t be disappointed....more
I’ll admit, I was somewhat torn on this one. On the one hand, there were parts in this book that gave me a real struggle, but on the other, there’s no doubt Ninefox Gambit is one of the most fascinating sci-fi novels I’ve ever read.
Step into the incredible universe of Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate, a civilization whose way of life is entirely dictated by an intricate calendar system. Mathematics is king, the governing force behind everything in this reality including physics and warfare. However, there’s also another side to this— and here’s where the lines between science fiction and fantasy start to blur—because in order for the calendar to function, the Hexarchate also requires belief. Throw enough calendrical heretics into the mix who observe a slightly different calendar, for example, and reality can suddenly go all awry. Say, the people might start acting erratically. Or your weapons might not work. As a result, the Hexarchate enforces its calendar with the utmost ruthlessness, bent on preventing such unpredictability from wreaking all kinds of havoc.
Thus explains how a Kel soldier named Cheris receives her next assignment. Expecting to be dismissed after a misconduct on the battlefield, Cheris is instead given the mission to recapture the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star base recently taken over by a population of heretics. To aid her in breaking the siege, Kel Command has extracted the digital ghost of a brilliant general and tactician named Shuos Jedao, grafting his consciousness to hers so that the two can work as one to deal with the situation. The only problem is, in life Jedao was a madman, recognized for his victories but also notorious for having killed more than a million people including his own soldiers. While the general has never lost a battle, can Cheris really trust this manipulative genius not to make her his next victim?
First, just let me first state unequivocally that this book contains some of the freshest, most inventive ideas I’ve ever encountered in sci-fi. Story concepts rooted in mathematics are often tricky, and they’ve never really been my strong point. But when your math is virtually indistinguishable from magic? Then yeah, I can definitely get behind that. Ninefox Gambit is no doubt breaking new ground in combining elements from multiple genres, and it is extremely clever.
However, I also mentioned feeling conflicted about the novel, and this is in large part due to its inconsistent pacing. In the beginning, the reader is dropped into this strange universe and left to flounder, and it’s easy to become confused and overwhelmed if you’re not paying close attention. It makes this one a rather challenging read, especially since the story goes nowhere fast. After all, we are talking about a siege here, and the fact that it happens in space doesn’t change the basis of this long and drawn out process. Still, bursts of action occur do here and there, probably just enough to keep me going, so that in the end I found myself in the awkward position of alternating between not wanting to put the book down and wanting it to be over already.
Still, irked as I was with this book at times, I have to say both Cheris and Jedao were brilliant. In my opinion, their relationship is where this novel shines, and not least because of their unique psychic connection; both characters come from interesting backgrounds, and their combined strengths and talents make them a force to be reckoned with. However, by that same token, their individual foibles also result in multiple clashes. As a Kel soldier, Cheris has been trained from the start to follow her “formation instinct”, an urge that encourages obedience, loyalty, and conformity. Giving up that compulsion in favor to another authority like Jedao is a challenge to everything she feels is natural and right, and it’s a struggle that gradually threatens her sanity.
Then there’s Jedao, whose mind I find both alluring and downright frightening. It’s no surprise that the story got interesting as soon as he entered the picture. He may spout things about war that make a lot of sense in a twisted and horrible kind of way, but that doesn’t change the fact he’s a merciless, stone cold-hearted bastard. And yet, despite being a complete psycho, the general’s character is also delightfully intriguing and complex. Many of my favorite scenes involve the conversations between him and Cheris, and perhaps against my better judgement, I wanted her to let him in.
Overall, I think I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if the beginning had eased me into the setting more gently, as opposed to throwing all its confusing concepts in my face. While I enjoyed the story itself, my patience was also tested by the pacing, which was all over the place. These issues aside though, I have to applaud the fantastic world-building and character development. Both these aspects were extraordinarily well put together, not to mention the concept of a Hexarchate that uses mathematical calculations and a calendar to govern itself is one of those things that make you gawp in wide-eyed wonder at its ingenuity. Ninefox Gambit might not be an easy read, but there’s also a lot to like if you’re willing to invest in it. As such, I probably wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone, but if you’re a sci-fi fan interested in something more innovative and unusual, then this might be exactly what you’re looking for....more
Lately, several books have made me think a lot harder about the collective memory of humanity and this one is the most recent. What if we lost that memory, or something happened to prevent us from remembering? What if we lost the ability to record our memories and knowledge for posterity?
In Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, this is the reality for our young protagonist Simon. Orphaned and alone, with only vague instructions from his late mother to locate someone named “Netty”, he arrives in London feeling as lost as he could ever be. In the aftermath of a brutal civil war, the London in this alternate world has been transformed into a divided city. Most of its citizens do their best to eke out a modest existence, while the poor live in squalor in the slums. Only a select few are chosen and taken into the walls of The Order’s sanctuary where they stay for the rest of their lives, receiving the best schooling and learning how to compose the beautiful music played throughout the city every morning and night. These are known as the chimes, the songs that suppress the memories of the people of London—because a population that forgets is one that can be easily controlled and contained.
Simon quickly discovers that his task is hopeless. No one is willing to help, and in any case, he can do no more with only a half-remembered promise. Soon, however, he crosses into the territory of a gang of street urchins who end up taking him in, teaching him how to scavenge for the precious metals valued by The Order. This is how Simon meets Lucien, the group’s blind and charismatic young leader.
After a while though, Simon no longer recalls what it was that brought him to London in the first place. Still, like most people in this world, he carries a bag of trinkets and baubles associated with memories that might help anchor him to the past. Handling these objects allows a person to remember, even if it’s just for a short while. Gradually, Simon realizes he is starting to remember things, more and more and from longer ago. He remembers his mother, and the talent that she may have passed on to him. Together with Lucien, whom Simon grows to care for and love, the two of them prepare for a journey to fulfill a promise and to find out more about Simon’s gift.
Smaill has created a wonderful atmosphere in this book. In keeping with the novel’s themes, starting the first few pages of The Chimes felt uncannily like stepping into a kind of fugue state. At first it was hard to figure out what was going on, much like waking up to your surroundings to discover that you have no idea where you are, but your senses detect things that feel vaguely recognizable and familiar. For instance, we are told that we’re in London, but the descriptions of the city and its people feel completely strange and alien. Then there are the made-up words that pepper the narrative, and yet their meanings can often be gleaned from the more common words used to form them. Here and there, musical terms also replace certain adverbs. The list of such dissociations go on and on, which gives this book an almost dreamlike quality. It made getting into the story more challenging than most, I confess, but eventually the fog did clear as more of the world was revealed, and I was able to piece together the novel’s premise.
As you can probably guess from the book’s description, music also plays a huge role in The Chimes, no doubt inspired by Smaill’s own background as a professional musician and violinist. In this world where writing has been banned and the people no longer remember how to read, memories are lost shortly after they are formed, spirited away by the sound of the chimes every morning and evening. But music isn’t the enemy, merely a tool used by the oppressors. In fact, it has multiple other purposes, the foremost of which is to serve as another kind of language. Messages are sung, instructions or maps to places are given in a series of tunes, and as mentioned before, some words are replaced with terms used in musical direction—forte for loud or subito for quick, for example—and clever musical allusions are given to created words like “dischord” or “blasphony”.
The world of The Chimes is also one of the most fascinating and original dystopians I’ve ever encountered. Simply by suppressing the people’s memory, the elites are able to stay in power. However, everyone is aware that memory is important, as evidenced by smalls acts like the carrying around of bags filled with “objectmemory”. Losing that connection is like being lost and untethered, a terrible condition called being “memoryless” that puts fear into people’s hearts.
In the vein of world-building though, I do wish there had been a little more. In spite of the unique concepts described in this book, the details behind them are rather simplistic. Character development was also a bit sparse, though this may have something to do with the fact that Simon spends much of the book trying to piece together his memories and it’s admittedly tough to connect with a protagonist whose sense of self isn’t even entirely complete. In addition, while the prose is gorgeous, there is an abstractedness to it that may pose an obstacle for some. The writing style was what initially tripped me up, though in the end I was able to fall into the rhythm, but it did take me some time to get there.
All told, The Chimes is a novel that may require a bit of patience—but the payoff is worth it. It’s a lovely book with an unusual but spellbinding premise, and readers looking for a different kind of dystopian novel may want to take a look, especially if you have a musical background or a fondness for interesting ways to portray music in fiction. A beautiful story full of imagination and feeling. ...more
Red Queen is the sequel to Alice, Christina Henry’s dark and twisted novel reimagining of the characters and worlds of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Considered to be both a retelling as well as a continuation, the first book impressed me with its portrayal of a whole different side of Lewis Carroll’s classic, and I’m pleased to report this follow-up is a very worthy conclusion to The Chronicles of Alice duology.
After spending ten years in a hospital ward for the insane, Alice is finally free. Alongside her fellow prisoner Hatcher, they’d made their way through the Old City, escaping the evil clutches of the Magician crime lords. But now they’ve come to the outskirts, a land that is supposed to be full of lushness and beauty, only to find that everything—including their hopes—has been burned to ash. But Hatcher still has to find his daughter Jenny, so the two of them decide to press on towards the mountains.
Passing through the forest though, Alice and Hatcher are waylaid by many obstacles—from a murderous goblin to a trio of monstrous giants. Worse, they eventually become separated, and Alice stumbles alone upon a village full of terrified townsfolk, who tell her about the evil queen responsible for all the bad things in this part of the land. Determined to help the villagers and save her beloved Hatcher, Alice decides to harness her newfound magic and head up the mountain, where she will confront this mysterious queen and break her wicked hold on the forest.
While darkness still permeates everything about Red Queen, the book also departs quite a bit from Alice. In spite of this, certain factors actually made me enjoy this sequel slightly more than its predecessor. First of all, it’s clear from the start that Red Queen lacks some of the in-your-face horror which was right at the surface of Alice, and overall the story is also less emotionally traumatic and disturbing. Don’t get me wrong, for I love the horror genre and all its elements, but one of my chief complaints about the first book was its extreme brutal nature and the hollowing effect it had on the characters and story. I likened this to a massive black hole sucking the life out of everything, leaving me feeling ambivalent and distant towards Alice and Hatcher. Red Queen, on the other hand, is still plenty grim and dreadful, but at least there’s room enough to let me care about the protagonists and their predicaments.
Another major difference is that Red Queen is a book mainly about Alice. Contrast that to book one, which featured a lot more of Hatcher, who played the role of her protector and was always there by her side offering his physical and mental support. However, the two of them spend much of the time apart in this sequel, and it’s Alice who does most of the rescuing, rather than the other way around. I truly enjoyed the way she stepped up in this story, taking the lead on facing off against the villain, never letting her doubts get in the way of what is right. Even after all the terrible things that have been done to her, Alice still sees the good in the world, and it’s this goodness in her that ultimately saves her life. On the whole, I also gained a better understanding of Alice and Hatcher’s relationship. It’s not romance, exactly. The two of them care for each other deeply, there’s no doubt about that. But their love is one born of pain and suffering, of surviving through terrors together. The bond between them is complex, and—paradoxically and ironically, perhaps—their separation in this book is what finally allows this intimacy to be explored.
Recent years have seen a marked increase in number of classics and fairy tale retellings, but I believe the uniqueness of Alice and now its sequel Red Queen means that these books will always stand out among the rest. This duology is certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you’re inclined towards the dark fantasy or horror genres I would definitely recommend The Chronicles of Alice, and even more so if you enjoy bleak and darkly imaginative retellings. Christina Henry has transformed this world and reshaped it to her own bold and unflinching vision. I’m really glad to have gone down this wonderfully strange and fantastic rabbit hole....more
The Suicide Motor Club by Christopher Buehlman was actually pretty awesome. Know that the only reason I didn’t rate this book higher is because I’m very picky about vampire books, owing to their particular abundance in fantasy and horror fiction. In truth, as much as I enjoyed this, I think there are better vampire titles out there, including Buehlman’s own vampire novel that was published a couple years ago, The Lesser Dead. I still remember how I felt when I read that book, the sense of fear and dread that filled me when I first encountered the novel’s group of creepy vampire children roaming and hunting in the subways. I wanted badly to experience that again with The Suicide Motor Club, but in the end it just didn’t compare.
The Suicide Motor Club opens in 1967, following a family of three as they drive down a lonely stretch of highway. All of a sudden, another car comes speeding up towards them out of nowhere, overtaking the family, making a snatch at the little boy sitting in the back with his arm hanging out the open window. Just like that, Judith Lamb’s son Glendon was gone, yanked into the other vehicle, a hot rod Camaro occupied by its gleaming-eyed driver and his pale companion. However, before Judith and her husband Robert could catch up and rescue their boy, another car comes up behind them and rams them off the road, causing them to crash.
Robert Lamb dies in the hospital soon after, but Judith survives, heartbroken knowing that Glendon is also lost to her forever. She ends up joining a convent, but two years later when she is still a novice nun, a stranger named Wicklow comes seeking her, claiming to be the leader of a group called the Bereaved. They are hunters, and the targets they hunt are the creatures in those cars that took Judith’s son, killed her husband, and almost killed Judith herself: Vampires. Wicklow tells her about a band of them known as the Suicide Motor Club, who prey on their victims by targeting them on the road, deliberately causing deadly accidents so they can swoop in and feed on the survivors. Because of her past experiences and unique position as a nun, Wicklow believes that Judith can help them. Ultimately he convinces her to join the Bereaved, appealing as well to her intense desire for vengeance.
There are a couple reason why I didn’t think this one was as good as The Lesser Dead. First of all, it’s pretty hard to out-creep creepy vampire children. Creepy vampire children are like the pinnacle of creepiness. Even the sadistic founder of the Suicide Motor Club and his ilk could hardly match that. Second, I felt a distinct aversion for the kind of…unsubtlety that made up the action in this story, like scenes of car chases, horrific crashes, and deadly explosions, etc. To be fair, this is something I should have anticipated, considering that fast cars and highways are the central focus of this novel. If that kind of action strikes your fancy, then chances are you’ll love the hell out of this book. Personally I’m just not that into this kind of bombast, so for me many of the more “exciting” sequences fell flat.
I also enjoyed the characters, even given limited opportunity to really get to know any of them. There are a lot of characters involved, including minor appearances from incidental names and faces whose presence is mainly used to illustrate the destructiveness of the vampires as they make their deadly rampage along the country’s highways. It’s a common enough device (especially in many horror and thriller-suspense novels) but to me it felt like it was slightly overdone here, overshadowing the more important primary characters. I liked Judith, but at the same time I also felt a detachment to her cause. When you consider the main story without all its tangents, the plot is actually quite simple; and at the end of the day, Judith didn’t seem to have much control over her circumstances, nor did she have the means to really influence the direction of the story and the fate of all involved. Still, I don’t deny that I generally prefer more character-driven stories, so this is most likely just a matter of taste.
Lest I start to sound too negative though, I want to emphasize again that this is not a bad book, and I actually liked it a lot! Admittedly I have high expectations when it comes to Buehlman, since I loved the two other books I’ve read by him. It’s just hard not to make comparisons to them, especially since like The Lesser Dead, this newest novel also features vampires, and I’ve even heard somewhere that The Suicide Motor Club was meant to be a quasi-prequel. Knowing that he was tackling vampires as a subject again, I’d merely hoped that the story would be more original, or that there would be something more unique about these vampires. Everything ended up being fairly standard and predictable, but I definitely wouldn’t say I was disappointed either.
Frankly, when it comes down to the enjoyment factor, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book. It might not be perfect, nor do I consider it Buehlman’s best, but he does some pretty neat things with the premise. The Suicide Motor Club also hasn’t changed my opinion of him as a talented author, who writes with such a bold, evocative style. Plus, it’s fast-paced, action-oriented, and it’ll keep you turning the pages. When you’re looking to escape with a thrilling horror novel, sometimes you just can’t ask for more....more