The Price of Valor is the third book of The Shadow Campaigns, of which five books have been planned so we are officially now past the half-way point. An epic fantasy series is often at its most precarious when we get to this tricky place between the introduction and the ending, where arguably the best action and excitement is usually packed. However, it appears Django Wexler is not content to slow things down or let his story languish. Not only does he succeed in carrying through the momentum for the rest of the series, he’s also transformed this middle book into an important turning point.
So far, each installment of the series has given readers something different. Book one The Thousand Names threw us into the middle of a war and treated us to many scenes of large-scale conflict and sweeping battles. Book two The Shadow Throne reined in the scope, concentrating instead on the politics and subsequent revolution in the capital of Vordan. Now book three The Price of Valor is like an amalgamation of both, so that half the narrative remains in the city in the wake of the successful uprising, while the other half takes us back onto the bloody battlefields.
In the wake of her father’s death, Princess Raesenia is now the queen. After an attempt is made on her life, she suspects that the new leader of the Deputies-General is responsible, and goes undercover to search for evidence. Remaining behind in the capital as the representative of the army, Colonel Marcus d’Ivoire finds himself teaming up with the young queen, tasked to protect her and to help her root out those who want her dead. Little does he know though, Raesenia might have a secret or two up her sleeve which would actually make her rather hard to kill…
Meanwhile, Winter Ihernglass is back out in the east, trying to win the war for General Janus bet Vhalnich. She has been promoted and given her own regiment to command, including the new all-women company called the Girl’s Own, though ironically Winter’s own gender still remains a secret to the army, save for a few individuals who are in the know. Among those who are aware of Winter’s secret is her lover Jane, whose hatred for the contingent of Royals in the regiment is making Winter’s job very difficult. Lurking behind the scenes are also the agents of an ancient order called the Priests of the Black, whose Penitent Damned will harness the power of their demons to do whatever it takes to stop the Vordanai army and retrieve the priceless magical artifact known as The Thousand Names.
I was so pleased to see that the military action is back in full force for this sequel. Taking a break to delve into political intrigue and rebellion in book two was a nice change of pace, but I admit my interest mostly lies in the war campaign and the huge battles. Wexler doesn’t disappoint, throwing in plenty of heart-racing encounters with the enemy. Reading some of Winter’s chapters was a little like watching a session of wargames play out across a vast gameboard, with troop actions directed by a shrewd chessmaster who is aware of every piece’s location at all times. In point of fact, these qualities closely describe Janus bet Vhalnich, the military genius whose presence is actually quite limited in the first half of the novel, which made the wargames analogy that much more apt in my mind.
The general’s craftiness is not lost on Jane either, and Winter’s storyline is also made more interesting by the increasingly strained relationship between the two women. Winter’s loyalties are put to the test when she is made to choose between the two things she holds most dear, and I have to hand it to the author for not making that choice trivial. There’s a lot of development to Winter’s character in this book, and I respect her all the more for the difficult decisions she’s had to make about her lover, whom I’ve taken to calling “Insufferable Jane” due to all the problems she’s caused (and that’s already one of my more polite names for her). The road to the eventual camaraderie between the Girl’s Own and the Royals was also fun to read, and made for a good side plot to lighten up the otherwise heavy narrative focused on intense fighting and the resulting casualties.
Still, I was wrong when I thought the best part about this book would be the military action, because what surprised me was how much I enjoyed Marcus and Raesenia’s storyline back in the city of Vordan. Raesenia really grew on me back when she was introduced in The Shadow Throne and I was happy to see her return as a POV character in this one. To see her partner up with Marcus – who has always been my favorite character in these novels – was a real treat. Together they make a great team (and dare I hope, could Wexler be planting the seeds of something more happening between them in the future?) and their investigations into the corrupt government saw their Vordan chapters culminate into one hell of an epic showdown with the Patriot Guards and the Penitent Damned.
Speaking of which, we’re definitely making some real headway into the overall story. I’ve been wondering since the end of the first book when we’ll see some major advancement into the conflict caused by the discovery of The Thousand Names, and when the Black Priests will show their hand. Looks like this book is where it all happens. I did say The Price of Valor is a turning point, and you’ll see why. Even after three books, the impact of the stories have not dulled a single bit.
Needless to say, I’m very excited for the next installment. It’s easy to get caught up in The Shadow Campaigns. Django Wexler’s riveting world of dark magic and martial action featuring strong characters – and especially strong women – is one I’ll want to visit again and again. Military fantasy at its finest....more
In a small island town on the coast of South Carolina, everyone disappears. The military, scientists, and media are all perplexed. Rewind back to a day before, when everything still seemed hunky-dory. There’s David Ribault, smarting over the arrival of a slick Northerner named Rawson Steele who has come blazing into town looking to buy up property. Davy returns that evening to the home he shares with his girlfriend Merrill, to find her and Rawson leaning close to each other on the porch, talking. Jealousies flare, tempers rise, and Davy and Merrill end up having a huge fight, ignoring the sage relationship advice of “never go to bed angry.”
It’s a decision that both of them will come to regret. Without waking Merrill or leaving a note, Davy wakes up in the dead of night for a meeting and confrontation outside the town with Rawson Steele. However, Steele ends up being a no-show. Morning has come by the time Davy decides to head back to the island, but it is already too late. Everyone in the village gone without a trace, including Merrill.
This mysterious and spooky scenario has the feel of a Stephen King story all over it, starting with an unexplainable paranormal event that disappears the entire population of Kraven Island, eventually culminating into an end with lots of panic, terror and paranoia. But that’s pretty much where my comparison ends, because Where is a very unique novel that does its own very unique thing. Kit Reed’s choice of writing style for this book is interesting, adopting an almost stream-of-consciousness narrative for most of it. Reed also makes a story decision that I personally find very bold, in that she shows both sides of the mystery and lets us see through the eyes of the missing. We get chapters from the perspectives of Merrill, her brother Ned, as well as their overbearing and unstable father, who along with all the townsfolk have been mysteriously whisked away to another plane of existence. Time moves differently in this strange new dimension, and the longer the missing are trapped, the more the feelings of helplessness and fear seem to warp their minds.
Where is a real head-trip, and it’s good at playing on readers’ fear of the unknown especially when it comes to unsolved mass disappearances. Its story even makes references to high-profile incidents like the Lost Colony of Roanoke as well as missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Coverage of such incidents make a lot of us anxious and uncomfortable, particularly when they happen in more modern times when it really hits home that neither science nor technology can prevent or explain every case, and the book is written in a purposeful way to stir up all these unsettling emotions. Through Davy’s chapters I could feel his guilt and frustration, because sometimes not knowing can be even more painful than the truth. Through Merrill’s, I could feel the rising tensions and the collective fear ultimately becoming too much for everyone to bear. Throughout the novel there is a pervasive sense of eeriness that I really enjoyed.
As for where the book stumbles, the aforementioned quirks in the writing style could pose possible obstacles for readers; I personally found the 13-year-old Ned’s chapters very difficult to read because he uses bad grammar, bad punctuation and run-on sentences galore. Where is also a very short novel and I didn’t feel enough time was given to develop the characters or story. Someone like Merrill’s arrogant and power-hungry father was given an intriguing chapter where we were able to glimpse his very disturbed mind, but for the most part he came across like a caricature. I didn’t get a good feel for any of the characters which is a shame, because without the emotional connection in what should be a very emotional tale, this book falls a bit flat. The ending also came very abruptly, leaving me hanging on this mystery that doesn’t really offer a solution or much closure.
Still, right up until the ending, I was really enjoying this book. I wish the ultimate payoff could have been more satisfying, but I also can’t deny that for the most part Where is a very eerie and atmospheric novel. The build-up of tension alone makes this one a worthy read, and be prepared for some chills if you find you get spooked by unexplained phenomena or stories about strange mass disappearances....more
I was actually first introduced to Departure as an audio title (given how often I browse for interesting new titles to listen to, it was pretty hard to miss how often it popped up on the popular science fiction and fantasy audiobook lists). What I didn’t know, was that the book itself was originally self-published. The news of its success must have caught on though, because I just learned recently too that HarperCollins has bought it and will be re-releasing it later this year. Runaway hits like that often have a way of catching my attention, so my curiosity probably got the better of me when I decided to check this one out.
The story begins with the crash of a passenger plane on route to London from New York. Flight 305 ends up somewhere in the English countryside, its fuselage split in two. In spite of this, there are actually quite a few survivors, most of them from first class because their half of the plane went into the trees while the tail section went into a nearby lake. As the survivors treat the wounded and fight to save as many lives as they can, they soon realize that they have crashed into a very different world. Rescue might be a long time coming. If ever.
There’s not much more I say about the story without spoiling it, but suffice to say, the Lost vibes are strong with this one. If you enjoy mind-bending sci-fi thrillers with a slight touch of creepy mystery, you should give this one a look. On the other hand, if you were looking forward to more of a survival adventure, you’ll probably want to alter your expectations like I did. As someone with a fear of flying, I was really nervous and bracing myself for a heart-pounding intro, but what I ended up getting was barely a notch above suspenseful. After the first quarter of this book, the emphasis also rapidly shifts to the bigger conspiracy.
The focus mainly falls on five passengers: Harper Lane writes biographies for a living, but her real dream is to writer her own series of adventure novels one day; Nick Stone is an American businessman, on his way to a meeting with The Gibraltar Project to discuss the building of a dam in the Mediterranean; Sabrina Schröder is a German medical scientist, making her the best choice to care for the wounded crash victims even though most of her experience was in a lab; Yul Tan, a Chinese-American computer scientist, has just developed a quantum internet capable of transmitting more data farther and faster than anything seen before; Grayson Shaw, son of a billionaire philanthropist, is struggling with alcohol problems after finding out some news about his father.
Unbeknownst to any of them, these five characters are all connected in some way and may hold the clues to the reason why their plane crashed, not to mention an answer to where they’ve ended up. The details are gradually revealed as the events unravel, and it was a captivating journey to discover the truth – even in spite of the many confusing moments along the way. To be honest, this book ventured a little too far into hard sci-fi territory for me to feel truly comfortable, and even though I was able to follow the plot just fine, a lot of the themes that came up later in the book are just not topics I find interesting. Be that as it may, I didn’t actually dislike this book; I found most of the story very enjoyable in fact, and even liked how it ended (as opposed to how I felt about Lost!) but it’s difficult to ignore the technology aspects that I personally couldn’t get into.
As for my thoughts that are specific to the audio version, I’m always happy listening to multi-narrator books and I thought both Nicola Barber and Scott Aiello delivered excellent performances. They portrayed Harper and Nick respectively, and voiced their own characters’ dialogue even when they were in the other character’s perspectives, giving this audiobook a quasi full-cast feel without it actually being a full-cast production. With their natural performances, the two narrators also made a lot of the dialogue sound a lot less awkward than the way it probably looked on paper.
In truth, I don’t think I would have fared as well reading the print version of this, given the propensity for my eyes to glaze over when they come upon pages of technobabble, especially when they have to do with subjects like the quantum theories of time travel. My brain has a better time when this stuff is read to me, so I was quite happy with my decision to listen to Departure in audio format. This is a book I might have enjoyed more if it had been the survival adventure I expected, but all told it’s a pretty solid book with a story that will no doubt appeal more to sci-fi thriller fans who also enjoy some conspiracy with their mystery....more
Karina Sumner-Smith’s genre defying Towers trilogy draws to a close with Towers Fall, a series-ender that successfully lives up to the potential promised by the first two books. I remember being impressed when I first read Radiant, surprised that it was the author’s novel debut. I went on to read Defiant and was again blown away by the story’s premise and world building, and it feels deeply satisfying now to have come this far with our protagonists Xhea and Shai.
Things really started heating up in the second book, but now they are at a boiling point. The people of Lower City thought they would be given time to rebuild after the recent catastrophic events, but instead they are handed an ultimatum: Those on the ground will have three days to leave their homes, or the Central Spire will destroy them all.
Xhea and her ghostly companion Shai find themselves in the middle of the conflict again, attempting to rally the people to fight back and defend their homes. Through their experiences together, both have learned much about their special connection and respective magical abilities, but will it be enough? The Lower City has been revealed to be something more than anyone realized, and the Spire will stop at nothing to harness its magical energies. Now the girls will have to find out why, because the secrets of the towers may hold the key to stopping the oncoming destruction.
Once again we follow the structure introduced in book two, with chapters alternating back and forth between Xhea and Shai’s POVs. This is good for balancing the perspectives, especially since Shai’s role has grown to become just as important as Xhea’s after the first book. However, the book also follows this alternating pattern very rigidly, a stylistic choice that also has its downsides. For example, sometimes we’re forced to follow up with a character even when they aren’t doing much on the page to further the story. In these sections they were left there just to spin their wheels, and like the previous book, I felt more often that Shai’s chapters were weaker and had less direction when compared to Xhea’s. We lose some momentum in the middle of the book because of this.
Still, the bond between the two girls remains strong, which is great because their friendship is clearly the theme that defines this whole trilogy. This is in stark contrast to a lot of Young Adult novels these days that mainly focus on the emotional perils of romance. There’s also not enough YA fiction out there with strong female friendships; so many YA novels I read this year featured the female protagonist surrounded by only male friends, and if there is the presence of another prominent female character, often they aren’t the protagonist’s equal or they ultimately become her main rival. It’s very refreshing to see a series like this come along, showing how things can be done differently.
At this point, there’s also really nothing more I can say about the world building, other than it rocks. I’m still having a hard time deciding whether to categorize this series as science fiction or fantasy; after all, the towering skyscrapers and post-apocalyptic dystopian vibes make me lean towards the former, while the heavy emphasis on magic makes me think the latter. But at the end of the day, who cares? This trilogy has elements from a lot of different genres, and even includes ghosts and “walkers” that act very much like zombies. The important thing is finding balance, and I think the author achieved that marvelously.
My only complaint about this book is that the plot doesn’t feel as tight compared to the first and second novels—possibly related to the alternating POV issues I mentioned above. The pacing suffered slightly in the middle where certain chapters dragged on unnecessarily, and there just seemed to be more filler in this one, which made the story run a tad too long for my tastes. But other than that, I can think of little else that detracted from the experience.
All told, Towers Fall finished off the trilogy nicely, wrapping things up with a powerful and thought-provoking ending. If you’re ever in the mood to check out a truly unique series, be sure to give this these books a look....more
King of the Bastards is everything you would expect from…well, a book titled King of the Bastards! Authors Brian Keene and Steven Shrewsbury bring us a rowdy sword and sorcery tale in this novella that harkens back to the traditions of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, decking out its pages with larger-than-life heroes, monstrous villains, evil magics, exotic places, and bloody battles galore. We’re talking pure unadulterated pulpy fun.
“Come, my sons, and I will tell you the beginning of the tale of the bastards of King Rogan!” the wizened storyteller proclaims, and we are introduced to our titular character, who has apparently spilled more than just his blood across the world on his adventures as a pirate, outlaw, and mercenary before conquering the throne of Albion. Shipwrecked and stranded on a strange land with his nephew, the barbarian king must now fight with his newfound allies against a demon and its agents in order to find his way home and reclaim his throne.
A clear advantage with books like this is that what you see is what you get. King of the Bastards feels a lot like an updated version of the pulp outlet offerings from the first half the 20th century, complete with the requisite genre tropes, sometimes even exaggerated for what I feel is satirical effect. Our protagonist is a crude and aging barbarian who runs on testosterone and the blood and tears of his enemies. He’s insensitive and boorish towards women and other cultures, hates wizards and magic, but he sure knows his way around a sword and loves a good fight. Speaking of which, have I mentioned the sexual content and graphic violence yet? Underline it.
If you don’t like the sound of what you’ve read so far in this review, then I suspect you are not going to like this book. But if you’re in the mood for a bit of punchy, gore-soaked entertainment with a taste of retro, then you’re going to be in for a real treat. Personally speaking, books like this have an important place in my reading routine, providing the perfect sort of respite in between some of my longer, weightier reads and giving me a chance to let loose with something light and fun which doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s not something I could take all the time, but in small doses it can be a refreshing change of pace. And coming in at just a little over 160 pages, King of the Bastards was the perfect length, piling on the action and adventure without actually wearing out its welcome.
All told, this isn’t a book out to break new ground, but if you consider it as a “guilty pleasure” read with an aim to entertain, the authors might be on to something here. If you think you are the audience for this, definitely check it out. You could do worse than spend a rainy afternoon curled on the couch reading this rollicking yarn about a real bastard!...more
I spent most of the last week bouncing up and down telling everyone I know about Ink and Bone. In case I haven’t already gotten the chance to corner you with my mad ravings about this book, let me just tell you right now: this is an outstanding novel. Needless to say, it is going straight on my Favorites shelf and on my list of best books of 2015. There’s still almost half a year to go but I already know it’ll be hard one to beat. Books of this caliber don’t come along often.
Ink and Bone tells a tale of alternate history. As we all know, the invention of the printing press had an enormous impact on humanity, revolutionizing the way information is acquired, processed, and spread. But what if that never happened? Imagine a world where Johannes Gutenberg’s creation never came to light, a world where great minds like him were systematically silenced every time a new proposal for a method of printing came close to being realized. Imagine no ink plates, no moveable type, no presses – all innovations that were deemed too dangerous by an all-powerful ruling class that seeks to gather and control all knowledge, deciding who should have access to it, how and when.
Jess Brightwell lives in such a world, where the only books that exist are original works or copies painstakingly written out by hand. By law they are all property of the Great Library of Alexandria, that powerful bastion of knowledge that never succumbed to destruction in this reality. The scholars of the Library strictly govern the distribution of books to the public, using a complex alchemical process to deliver content instantly to an individual’s personal Codex or blanks. As a result, traditionally bound books have become very popular on the black market, as has the illegal trade of smuggling them into the hands of private collectors and other rare book hunters. It’s risky, but the Brightwells have prospered in this business, and Jess’ father has decided to take it to the next level by sending his son into the Library’s service, hoping that having an inside man will benefit the family in the long run.
But being a Library servant is a position of prestige, and as such, the trials used to seek out the best of the best are rigorous, brutal, and not always fair. I’ve always been fond of stories about magic schools, but Rachel Caine took the basis of that idea and made it all her own. Together with about two dozen other hopeful postulants, Jess Brightwell travels to the bright, magnificent city of Alexandria, home of the Great Library. Because knowledge is deemed paramount, training doesn’t just involve learning how to run one of the many daughter libraries present in every major city of the world; postulants are also taught to guard and protect it, keeping original works out of the public’s hands even if it means dying for the cause.
As an avid reader, I of course find it difficult argue with the importance of knowledge. But to place its value above human lives? This should clue you into the kind of place our protagonist has landed in, and even with his book smuggling background, Jess is unprepared to learn about the corruption at the heart of Alexandria, or just how deep it lies.
Despite its secrets (or perhaps because of them), the dark underside of the Great Library was a wonder to explore. Imagine a world where the personal ownership of books is forbidden – what a horrifying thought. But the story also appealed to a part of me that understood all too well why some people would resist the rule of the Library, or risk their lives to own a genuine paper book for the chance to hold a hefty volume in their hands, take in the heady scent of age and ink, as well as feel the hard leather of the binding or the crispness of the pages. Ink and Bone had that addictive and intoxicating effect on the delighted bookaholic in me, and I just couldn’t get enough.
The novel is also so much more than that. I’ve never understood what a book hangover felt like until now, wishing I’m still in Jess Brightwell’s world. What Rachel Caine has created here is a rich and vibrant tableau, filled with beauty and amazing wonders but also no shortage of pain and darkness. Scenes of clean and shining Alexandria are juxtaposed by the ugliness of war in England as well as the destructive Greek Fire of the rebel Burners. The same alchemical processes that bring knowledge to the masses are also used to oppress them, keeping a watchful eye out for sedition or powering the nightmarish automatons that guard the Library from its enemies. All told, the world building is phenomenal but so is character development. Jess and his fellow postulants are part of an unforgettable cast, every one of them endearing themselves to me with their unique and individual personalities. Rare is it also to find an adult character in a YA novel as complex as Scholar Christopher Wolfe, who was not at all what I expected, and he quickly became a favorite.
Once I started reading this book, I just couldn’t stop. It has raised the bar for the YA I’ll read for the rest of the year. But it doesn’t matter whether you’re a teen or an adult. Ink and Bone is for everyone, and a must-read for all who treasure the gift of the written word. A perfect mix of breathtaking fantasy and edge-of-your-seat dystopian fiction, this is a masterfully written novel guaranteed to hook you in....more
So many comparisons have already been made to describe Sorcerer to the Crown, and I’m going to chime in too with “This feels like epic fantasy for fans of Gail Carriger.” Zen Cho has created a world here that’s reminiscent of Austen meets Tolkien, yet at the same time it’s so wonderfully adaptable that pigeonholing this book into any one category makes it feel a bit remiss.
A Regency setting is what you will get though, even if the nature of the style and story is up for debate. “Fantasy of manners” is also a subgenre that frequently crops up in discussions of novels like this, with a focus on a rigid set of expectations within a hierarchical societal structure. One of the protagonists in Sorcerer to the Crown is Zacharias Wythe, the first black sorcerer in Britain who also holds the highest office in his profession, a fact that makes him the target of much opposition and bigotry from many of his so-called “socially-refined” peers who feel that a freed slave should not have risen so far above his station.
Institutional racism and oppression is a real menace in this story, even overshadowing the threats of war from France, the dwindling magical resources of England, and the political entanglements involving the matter of witches and belligerent visiting diplomats. In spite of all that’s going on, Zacharias’ greatest enemies end up being his own neighbors and fellows. Already plagued with ugly rumors surrounding the death of his predecessor and adoptive guardian, now it seems someone has decided to go even further by attempting to murder Zacharias. Just when he thinks life couldn’t get complicated enough, along also comes Prunella Gentleman, a mixed-race young woman of considerable thaumaturgical power, and Zacharias takes it upon himself to mentor her in a society where women using magic is considered anathema.
The fleeting mention of Prunella in the book’s blurb actually belies the huge role that she plays. While I adored Zacharias, to me it was Prunella who stole the show as the star of the novel with the sheer force of her personality. In every proper situation she somehow still manages to find a way to throw expectations back into the scandalized faces of those who naively thought they could use tradition to keep her in line. It was also very entertaining to see how often she bends etiquette to her advantage, wielding it as a weapon rather than letting it restrict her (as evidenced by a particularly hilarious scene where she proposes the use of gossip and rumor as a way to actually deflect potential damage to her reputation). I loved her for her frankness and her thoroughly unbreakable spirit, and because she is strong, ruthless, and determined – in other words, the opposite of everything the small-minded folks in this book say about women magicians.
I was also surprised at how light-hearted this novel was, some of its weightier themes notwithstanding. I definitely don’t claim to be an expert in Regency fiction or books of this type, but it’s my understanding that a particular style of humor is frequently employed and that it could be quite tricky to pull off. For what it’s worth, I thought the author nailed it. There’s some genuine wit in here, subtle but also infused with that certain Austenesque charm. That said, I wouldn’t exactly call Sorcerer to the Crown an easy read, especially if you’re not use to the style, which I’m personally wasn’t. I confess to having a difficult time at the beginning of the novel while adjusting to the writing, which I thought it was a little hard on the eyes and it made reading slow. But eventually I did get into it, as you can see; once I reached a point where I could enjoy myself and start appreciating its cleverness and nuances, this novel was a pure joy.
Zen Cho crafts her setting with much love and care, evoking the Regency era and all its punctilious social arrangements but also manages to seamlessly weave in romance, adventure and political intrigue – and I haven’t even gotten the chance to mention the magic and all the fantastical creatures yet. Dandy socialites, posh boarding school matrons and quarreling politicians share this wonderfully unique world with fairies, dragons and magicians. It is a truly delightful alternate history where magic is an integral part of life.
You really can’t ask for more. Sorcerer to the Crown is a deftly written novel that thoroughly explores important issues, adding further depth to a story already rich with memorable characters and a pleasantly entertaining plot. Zen Cho is a new fantasy novelist who is immediately going on my list of authors to watch, and I’m looking forward to her next book in this series....more
I’m not usually one to pick up novellas outside of a series’ main books, but for The Shadow Campaigns I’d gladly make an exception – which should give you a hint into how much I love this series. A couple of years ago when Django Wexler released the prequel short story The Penitent Damned for free, I snatched it up and read that one too. It introduced us to a young female thief named Alex who possesses a demon inside her that allows her to do some incredible things, giving her an edge over others in her trade.
Now Alex’s tale continues in The Shadow of Elysium, but it is told instead through the eyes of a young man named Abraham, a character who also has a demon inside him. The novella opens with the two of them in chains, traveling on a prisoner wagon to the fortress-city of Elysium to start a lonely and brutal life under the watchful eyes of the Priests of the Black. Every other chapter we get a glimpse into Abraham’s past as he tells of his life growing up in a remote village, the day he discovers his demon and the healing powers it grants him, and the events that led up to his arrest. Eventually things converge into the present, and Abraham has decided to stage a daring breakout. But then, there’s his fellow captive Alex. The young woman’s abilities are a mystery to him, but he has no doubt that they must be dangerous if the guards feel the need to keep her sedated at almost all hours of the day – which means she could be their greatest chance for escape.
The Shadow of Elysium can be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone, no prior experience with The Shadow Campaigns series is required since these characters and events are completely apart from the main story. You don’t even need to have read The Penitent Damned. It’s a great place for new readers to jump on board but also a wonderful experience for fans of the series because it adds so much in terms of world building. This novella’s main focus is Abraham anyhow, a deeply personal tale that does a way better job exploring a protagonist than most short fiction I’ve ever read. We’ve not seen first person narration used in this series until now, but it works extraordinarily well for Abraham’s story and it was probably the foremost reason I took to him so quickly in just a handful of pages. A lot of short stories and novellas have disappointed me in the past because they don’t leave much room for character development (which is why I typically avoid them), but this isn’t a problem here. In fact, I find the storytelling well-paced and very balanced.
Now I realize complaining that a novella is too short is a bit like complaining that ice cream is too sweet, so I’m not going to do it here; but I do, however, want to say I wished it hadn’t ended so abruptly. It was a deflating moment when I turned the page with excitement expecting another chapter to see what became of Abraham and Alex, to discover that the remaining 25% of the book or so was actually a preview for the third novel of the series The Price of Valor. To Wexler’s credit though, he definitely made me want more. And considering how I’ve been looking forward to The Price of Valor for almost a year now, I certainly couldn’t remain glum for long.
What else can I say but if you haven’t picked up The Thousand Names yet, what in the hells are you waiting for, go out and get it, go out and get it NOW! But okay, if you’re still on the fence and not sure if you want to take the plunge into yet another epic fantasy series (I understand, as they do demand a lot of your time), I urge you to check out The Shadow of Elysium. Like The Penitent Damned, it serves as a fantastic introduction to Wexler’s writing and gives a taste of what The Shadow Campaigns has to offer, and it’s an even better novella. A wonderful place to get started....more
Probably the best Star Wars novel I’ve read in a while, and certainly one of the better Star Wars novels I’ve ever read, Lords of the Sith is a story centered on Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader. Defiant against the Imperial forces’ attempts to control their home planet of Ryloth, a group of Twi’leks led by Cham Syndulla the idealistic freedom fighter (and the father of Hera, of Star Wars Rebel fame) plot to bring the Empire to its knees by assassinating the two Sith Lords. What amazes me is that even though we all know the rebels’ efforts are doomed to fail, Paul S. Kemp valiantly manages to keep the suspense up throughout the entire story.
I’m also impressed at the moments we get inside Darth Vader’s head. If you’re a fan of the character, picking this novel up is a no-brainer. The story examines the Sith mentor and apprentice relationship, and does it very well. Vader, portrayed as utterly loyal to Palpatine, is nonetheless not immune to his momentary lapses and brief, emotional flashbacks to the past. Yes, he’s evil. Yes, he’s badass. And unfortunately, that’s the side of him the majority of Star Wars stories like to focus on. But everyone knows Vader is also a lot more complex than most writers give him credit for, and I feel like this might be the first Star Wars book I’ve read that actually does his character justice. Kemp strikes a fine balance, giving us plenty of full-on-Dark-Side force-choking Vader, but those glimpses we get of what little humanity he has left also made me sympathize with his inner conflict.
And finally, if you’ve ever listened to a Star Wars audiobook, you’d probably know that they are in another league all together, complete with sound effects and music (though it might take some getting used to if you’re easily distracted by that stuff). If you’re thinking of checking this book out, I highly recommend the audio format. I’ve heard narrator Jonathan Davis’ work on other audiobooks before, but I never knew he could do such an incredible Darth Vader voice. Short of actually getting James Earl Jones to narrate, I don’t think you can find anyone better than Davis. 5 stars to his performance....more
Imagine living in an ultra-high-tech society, so deeply ingrained in virtual reality and cyberspace that all the actions you make are logged and billed for. Every time you blink, breathe a sigh, shout a swear word, grit your teeth, kiss a loved one, or even just relax in a resting position of your choice – all that information is being recorded into the BodyBank, a computer system implanted in each of our bodies. All your movements are monitored in real time, so that the corporations who own the rights to those actions – whether it be as simple as scratching your head or as intimate as sexual intercourse – can be paid their licensing fees.
Oh, and it’s a perfect process, completely automated and indefatigable, and it doesn’t make mistakes. So don’t even think about cheating the system. You can’t.
Just as you’d expect, living in a world like this ain’t cheap. People go bankrupt or “cash crash” every day, caught unawares by their expensive habits or finding themselves overwhelmed by the incurring charges on everyday actions, i.e. by simply just living. Before that can even happen though, Liquidators like our protagonist Amon Kenzaki are already waiting in the wings, ready to swoop down and capture these “discreditable” citizens, take out their BodyBank, and banish them to BankDeath Camps where they are forever removed from the economy and disconnected from the ImmaNet, a three-dimensional audio-visual overlay that would normally replace our perceptions of the mundane world.
Your life is virtually over if you cash crash, basically.
As someone who knows better than most exactly how this system works, Amon himself lives an extraordinarily frugal life. He scrimps and saves in whatever ways he can, typing messages in nigh indecipherable script so that he doesn’t get charged for using licensed words, even going as far as taking instructional courses on how to blink less or breathe less. His attention to details does not go unnoticed by his superiors, who inform Amon that he is being considered for a promotion. Everything is going well, until one day, Amon notices an incredibly expensive charge called “jubilee” on his BodyBank account, an action he is completely unfamiliar with and is sure he did not perform. But how could this be? After all, the system doesn’t make mistakes.
The whole story behind Cash Crash Jubilee could almost be humorous if it weren’t also so damn scary. Eli K. P. William does a fantastic job here creating his vision of a futuristic Tokyo, a cyber-dystopian society at its most extreme. Apparently it’s not enough just to watch our every move, but they’ve found a way to make it profitable too. Everyone is so obsessed with technology and corporate branding that almost every shred of humanity and emotion has gone out the window. The concept of Free Will has been distorted, for it is not free will at all if you have to think and calculate the cost of every action before deciding to perform it.
On the other hand, might it be possible to find a sliver of a positive side to this gloomy situation? Citizens are probably less likely to do and say things they would regret, if they have to stop to think twice before actually doing it, versus simply acting on impulse. How many wayward spouses might we see, for example, if a pre-nup in your BodyBank authorizes an automatic and immediate transfer of half or all of your funds to your other half the moment you commit infidelity?
Yeah, probably not a lot, is my guess.
Cash Crash Jubilee is utterly fascinating, from cover to cover. The premise is disconcerting, with details that sometimes bordered on the absurd, but it did make me think. Nothing delights me more than a book that gets my brain juices flowing, and I could even overlook the slow introduction to this story, simply because I found myself so completely absorbed in the sights and sounds of William’s dystopic Tokyo. It’s a trove of insanity and wonder, all in one place.
You might also recall a while ago in another review, I wrote about my feelings on cyberpunk. As a subgenre of sci-fi, I’ve definitely experienced more misses than hits when it comes to recent offerings. When I looked at Cash Crash Jubilee though, I saw a very different kind of cyberpunk. The author uses a lot of familiar elements in this story, but the way he rendered the ideas made them unique and stand out. And rather than going through my usual mental gymnastics trying to piece together all the abstract concepts commonly found in this genre, I found William’s descriptions of the ImmaNet overlays extremely intricate and detailed, but at the same time also very easy to visualize. The mystery plot was genuinely interesting, with the suspense and action in all the right places.
In short? This one scored a major hit in my books. It deserves a lot more attention, let’s hope it gets it.
All told, Cash Crash Jubilee is eye-opening, eyebrow-raising, grip-the-edge-of-your-seat read. Good thing I don’t live in Amon Kenzaki’s world, because if I had been charged for all the times I made those actions, I’m pretty sure I’d be bankrupt many times over by now....more
I really enjoyed Seriously Wicked, though feel I should also preface my review with the note that I’m probably not the intended demographic for this book. Young Adult and Teen Fiction is a genre I dip into quite frequently, but I was initially thrown off a bit by this novel’s tone and writing style which felt skewed even younger, maybe preteen (back in Grade Five and Six, we were already reading books about high schoolers, so it’s possible). It took some adjusting, but once I was able to get used to the crushes on “boy-band boys” and girls named Sparkle, I felt I could give this one a shot. And really, it was a lot of fun. If it were possible to go back in time, I probably wouldn’t hesitate a second to hand this one off to my 11 or 12-year-old self.
The story begins with an introduction to our 15-year-old protagonist Camellia Anna Stella Hendrix, whose days consist of figuring out ways to foil her adopted witch mother’s plans for world domination, running around town collecting strange and sometimes disgusting ingredients for her magical spells, and all the while trying to pass her algebra test and not get distracted by the cute new boy in town. However, the witch Sarmine’s latest plot to take over the world by harnessing the power of a dying phoenix on the night of the big Halloween dance might complicate matters slightly.
Actually, scratch that. Matters are complicated by A LOT when Sarmine’s failed demon summoning session ends with the demon taking over the body of Devon, the aforementioned cute new boy in town. Now on top of not flunking algebra, Cam has to worry about getting the demon out of Devon and preventing the school getting destroyed. Can things get any worse? Well, yes, yes they can. Hunting down hidden phoenixes and chasing after demon-possessed boys is just the beginning.
As you can probably tell from its description and cover, Seriously Wicked is a fun, quirky book – emphasis on the quirky. Like I said, the story is probably geared more towards preteens or young teens, which might account for some of the silliness. It’s a very lighthearted and upbeat book, which means it’s probably good for providing some cheerful, innocent entertainment for folks of all ages. Its lightness and YA designation notwithstanding, the story actually has a lot of complexity, quite a few not-very-obvious twists and turns, as well as many instances of Cam finding very creative and outside-the-box solutions to her problems. Readers will adore Cam, whose quick thinking and determination can help get her out of any difficult situation, from dealing with high school mean girl cliques to procuring a source of goat’s blood for Sarmine’s spells.
My final verdict is, if you’re an older teen or adult looking for more age-appropriate reading, Seriously Wicked probably will feel too immature for you. However, yours truly did her best to put herself in a middle-grader’s shoes and was still able to find plenty to like about the book. Those curious about Tina Connolly’s work but aren’t into Children’s or YA fiction could probably check out her Ironskin series which is said to be quite good, and having read the second book Copperhead I can attest to that. If you don’t mind a cute, charming read that clocks out at just a tad over 200 pages though (so it’s also very quick), give this one a go....more
Faces is book three of the Masks of Aygrima, a series about a magically gifted young woman living in a land ruled by the all-powerful Autarch who controls his empire by requiring all its citizens to wear special, magic-infused masks. I talked about this in my review of the last book, but I think it bears mentioning again that this series reads like Young Adult, even though the covers, description or imprint may not strongly indicate that. I just hope this is helpful information for others to know what to expect.
This third and I think final book picks up right from the end of book two, Shadows. Mara Holdfast and the survivors of the now broken unMasked army have been saved the Lady of Pain and Fire, the legendary sorceress who is said to be the only person ever to have challenged the Autarch. And now she has been found.
The Lady takes Mara under her wing, and Mara immediately feels a kindred toward her, since both of them possess the rare gift of being able to see all colors of magic. The Lady offers to train her so that the two of them can work together to bring down the Autarch, but Mara spending all her time with the Lady also means being cut off from her friends Keltan, the boy she has started to grow close to, and Chell, the prince from across the seas. As time goes on, Mara starts to suspect that not all is right. The Lady is driven by revenge, and some her methods start to seem as bad as the Autarch’s. Mara herself also grows increasingly troubled by her own feelings of anger, which seem to get stronger and more uncontrollable each day.
In fact, Faces features Mara at her most angsty. Regrettably, even though her emotions are not entirely her fault, this makes her very exasperating for the first half of the novel. That said though, Mara is also a fascinating character because of all the changes she has gone through over the course of this series: first naïve and idealistic in Masks, then imprudent and foolish in Shadows, and now finally frustrated and angry in Faces. The evolution of her personality has been shaped by the events in her life since the day her mask shattered and she went on the run, and many are experiences that were harsh, brutal and traumatic. In this book, she is also facing hostility from all sides, and while it may be obvious to the reader who is friend and who is foe, to Mara it feels like everyone is out to use her or harm her.
In many ways though, Faces feels like a book with two story arcs. After all, there are two obstacles Mara has to overcome, first the Lady of Pain and Fire and then the Autarch. With so much that needs to happen in this concluding volume, the pacing feels a bit rushed in certain sections. Still, I was impressed with how the plot was able to link both conflicts, and make them play off each other so that I was never sure of how all the problems will resolve. The final results were unpredictable and more than once I was surprised at how things concluded.
That brings me to the ending – which I did not expect at all. It’s a bittersweet one, which are the toughest for me to handle; sometimes they’re great and sometimes I’m left wanting. I’m still unsure how to feel about the one in Faces, because at once I am satisfied but also feeling a little indignant for the fate of our protagonist. Even though I know in my heart that it makes sense, some part of me still wishes for something else.
However, I will say that it is a good lead-in for a sequel series. This chapter of Mara Holdfast’s life has ended, but will there be more adventures for her in the future? The ending of Faces strongly hints that her story is not over, that there those who still need her help which only her powers can provide. Who knows what new places Mara will visit next, or the new characters she will meet if a new series is on the horizon? I’m definitely open to finding out, if that happens....more
Never Never confirms what I’ve always suspected – that Peter Pan is a twisted and evil little psycho! Even as a little kid watching the Disney movie, I always felt something was off about him. Seriously, why does everyone love Peter Pan? He’s kind of a dick.
Actually, now that I think about it, it’s a wonder how I haven’t come across a book like this sooner. I’ve always had a penchant for interesting and imaginative retellings, and Peter Pan stories are my weakness. I can never resist them. There’s just something about the original tale which lends itself to so many interpretations, and the nature of Neverland as a boundary-free and adventurous place in the minds of children, never the same from one person to the next, strikes me as whimsical and yet a bit unnerving at the same time. I find that aspect very interesting, and as it happens, Never Never makes use of it to good effect.
So, clearly I didn’t need much more incentive to check out this book. But the main draw of it and what eventually sealed the deal for me was the fact this story isn’t really about Peter Pan. It’s about James Hook. Never Never presents an intriguing scenario. What if the relationship between Pan and Hook went back much further than we thought? What if Hook wasn’t from Neverland, but instead grew up in London where he was whisked away from Kensington Gardens like all of Peter’s other Lost Boys?
Unlike the others though, James actually wanted to grow up. As a boy, he thought going to Neverland with Peter Pan would be the greatest holiday adventure, but soon discovers that the place is not all it’s cracked up to be. Peter is an arrogant and heartless tyrant, keeping the Lost Boys under his thumb, never allowing anyone to leave, and even the island’s weather is subject to his whims. Worse, the little maniac’s favorite pastime is killing pirates, which doesn’t sit right with James at all. James has always had a soft spot for pirates; in his old life, being the captain of a pirate ship was one of his greatest dreams.
So, James grows up. In a world that hates grown-ups. He manages to escape Peter’s attempts to kill him, after it becomes clear that James is becoming a man. But even after all these years, James cannot forgive Peter’s lies, or the fact that he stole his life away from him, trapping him in Neverland forever. And so begins the eternal game of cat-and-mouse between Pan and Hook.
First of all, I like getting into the heads of villains. The problem is, these kinds of books are always a bit tricky to pull off. However, Brianna Shrum gives us plenty of good reasons for us to understand why Hook hates Pan, and to be honest, after reading this book I probably wouldn’t say no to a chance to strangle the fairy boy myself. The question is though, does Never Never make Captain James Hook a more sympathetic character?
My answer is: it’s complicated. To understand why, you also have to understand how James Hook is portrayed in this book. The character starts off as a twelve-year-old boy, bamboozled into following the older, cooler Peter Pan to Neverland where he is trapped and grows up to become a man. Physically, James ends up being about twenty-years-old or thereabouts. But mentally (at least to me) he stays twelve, still the little boy who misses his home and his parents, who dreams of becoming a pirate captain, and no matter how much he hates Peter Pan, he still has trouble imagining himself taking a life. The story is in essence a giant tug o’ war with itself, because James is constantly going back and forth in his mind, wanting badly to kill Peter but also not being able to bring himself to do the deed. He’s indecisive and unsure of himself, like a little boy. It’s what sets him apart from Peter, the one is entirely unprincipled and has no morals.
This also makes Never Never tough to categorize. It is a Young Adult novel and goes into some mature themes – coalition killing among the residents of Neverland, pirate debauchery, a hand getting cut off and fed to a crocodile, and so forth – but the tone of the writing feels younger, almost like middle-grade, owing to James’ perspective and the fact that, trapped in this place of dreams, his mind never really had the chance to catch up with his body. It’s a very interesting contrast to see some of these horrible things through the eyes of someone who is technically still a child, and interpret a lot of the other situations in this light. For instance, it struck me that a couple of the pirate characters, like Starkey and Smee, were effectively surrogate parents. They berate James and then tolerate his subsequent tantrums, while in truth, deep down the captain craves nothing more than the approval of his first mate and cook. So yeah, not gonna lie, sometimes sharing James Hook’s headspace can be frustrating as hell, but now and then it can also be quite fascinating.
Ultimately, it’s probably easiest to describe Never Never as a coming-of-age tale. This kind of style is not going to work for everyone, but if you’re a fan of Peter Pan retellings, it might be worth checking out for a different perspective. The book isn’t heavy on plot, placing more emphasis on the protagonist’s internal dialogue and growth – no pun intended. Admittedly, the writing and plotting could do with more polish, but it is nonetheless impressive when taking into account the fact we’re talking about a book from a small independent publishing house. Bottom line, this was an enjoyable story and I really liked how there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface than meets the eye, and it’s not just a tick-tock croc! I had a good time....more