Score one to this book for having a protagonist who is a bookseller. And bonus points for her being a vampire too. The title of this novel is actually in reference to the bookstore she runs, a quaint little place on a college campus called Night Owls which is open to 3am every night. Now why can't there be something that awesome around where I live? I'd spend all my insomnia-ridden nights there with a big mug of tea and a good book.
Meet Valerie McTeague, sleeping the sleep of the dead by day, providing the students of Edgewood a study haven by night. No more hunting Jackals for her; she's done with that life and has left it all behind, settling into a quiet routine with the help of her human servant Chaz.
But unfortunately for Val, that life isn't done with her. Trouble lands on her doorstep in the form of Elly Garrett, who has a magical book the Jackals want. However, the book manages to transfer its information into the mind of Justin, a Night Owls employee who gets more than he bargained for when he unwittingly trips the wards on the old tome. The werewolf-like shapeshifting Jackals have already killed Elly's mentor, so you can be sure nothing would stop them from killing Justin too. Val and Chaz have no choice but to seek help from the warlock Cavale, who also happens to be Elly's estranged brother.
Overall, Night Owls has a plot that is both clever and brisk, full of windy twists and turns and yet someone all those story threads manage to come together in the end. That said, the flow felt a bit disjointed until I grew more accustomed to the structure and style of storytelling. We have several perspectives in play here and with Val being a vampire, the book almost has this day-night cycle feel going on as one of our main protagonists always has to sleep away the daylight hours. You won't get a lot of rehashing as the main narrative is always picked up by the next POV right where the last one ends, so if you don't keep up you'll feel like you're missing something.
Happily, the book firmly establishes its rhythm once the characters are united and find their synergy. The story picks up considerably at this point, and the different relationships made it even better. There are clearly some serious issues between foster siblings Elly and Cavale, which causes a lot of tension in spite of the obvious love they have for each other. Something also seems to be brewing between Elly and Justin, a future romance perhaps? And unless my eyes deceive me, Val and Chaz seem to have something to work out too, in their complicated vampire-Renfield relationship.
In the end, I liked this one. Because I read so much urban fantasy though, I can't help but be a bit picky. When it comes to this genre, I don't often find myself blown away by "Book 1s", but a lot of my favorite series have started out by hooking me with the first book and only wowing me later on. This book has that feel, and as such it's definitely one I'll want to stick with.
Admittedly, you're probably not going to find anything too new in Night Owls at this early stage, but if the story description interests you and if you enjoy the genre it should settle quite comfortably. An action-filled plot, a "Scooby Gang" type ensemble cast, and a world full of supernatural creatures and beings should make the UF fan feel right at home. All things considered, it has everything to make it a promising start to a new series -- great world, great characters, and most importantly, a great story with lots of potential for more!(less)
Mercy Thompson is a favorite urban fantasy of mine, one of the long-running series that I've kept up with NO MATTER WHAT. Clearly so much has changed in these books since the beginning, not least of all the marriage between Mercy and the werewolf Alpha Adam. I've always thought having the main character tie the knot was a gutsy but smart move -- after all, there's only so far you can take the romantic tension between Mercy and the men in her life, and I can appreciate a series that's not afraid to evolve.
As it happens, I've started enjoying these Mercy books so much more since she formed a mate bond with Adam and was subsequently integrated into the Columbia Basin pack, albeit to some dissent and opposition from the other wolves. Inviting a coyote shapeshifter into a den of werewolves was apparently quite the scandal! It leads to no end of conflict in these books, which is just the way I like it. It's hard to resist tuning in to each installment just to watch the fur fly, er...so to speak.
But wow, Night Broken really takes things to the next level. Let's just put it this way: there's the drama you THINK you know, and then there's the invite-your-ex-wife-to-live-with-you-and-your-new-wife drama featured in this book. Throughout this series, Mercy's faced all sorts of nasty things that go bump in the night, including evil vampires, overzealous fae, a river demon and now a volcano god in Night Broken. But Adam's ex-wife Christy might just give them all a run for their money.
I adore Mercy's character so much which is why in the end I still loved this book to bits, but I have to say I spent most of this book feeling awfully indignant. If Patricia Briggs had set out to make her readers squirm, then she was definitely successful. I wanted so badly to wring Christy's neck, and then maybe go beat up each and every one of wolves in the hopes of smacking some sense into their heads. Whatever respect I gained for Adam in the last book, I'm sorry to say I lost some of it again here. Alphas may have a natural instinct to protect those in need, but letting someone walk all over your wife is also NOT okay. And I wanted to shake Mercy too, for not fighting back earlier and just letting it all happen.
Ironically, Christy the mundane human may have seized the throne as the most loathsome antagonist of this entire series ever. It's not often that a fictional baddie can make me see red, but Christy managed to do it single-handedly. I resent her for rendering Mercy self-conscious and powerless to act in a lot of situations, and I also dislike the effect she seems to have on the rest of the pack. Christy doesn't have any supernatural powers, but she does possess the uncanny ability to manipulate others, and all the werewolves act as if they've taken a bunch of silly pills when they're around her. It's always rankled me how "pack magic" can sometimes override human common sense when it comes to the wolves, and Christy's the dangerous catalyst that makes many of them act out of character.
Despite my roiling emotions, I have to say Night Broken is my favorite Mercy Thompson book yet, simply due to the reactions it invoked from me. I'm mad at a few characters but certainly not mad at the novel, and when it comes to a ongoing series and eight books under my belt, at this point I'd gladly take stories with emotional impact over the same-old-same-old that leaves me cold. It's nice to see I can still be surprised. I would also love to see the return of Gary Laughingdog, Mercy's sort of half brother who was introduced in this book, and given how past characters in this series have a penchant for returning in later installments, things are looking good for me!
This one opened my eyes to how much I am invested in these characters, especially when it comes to Mercy; I felt anger and offense on her behalf even if she was too polite and courteous to show it. In a way, the ex-wife drama even overshadowed the main storyline involving the hunt for Christy's stalker (which was why she had to stay with Adam and Mercy in the first place) but in the end there's action aplenty to complement the social conflict, making this one hell of an entertaining book.(less)
I didn't think I was going to enjoy this book at first. Thank goodness I was wrong! Still, can you really blame me for having my doubts? After being inundated in recent years with the dozens upon dozens of movies, TV shows, video games etc. all featuring the same mindless gory battles against the shambling, moaning hordes of the undead, my initial thought was: been there, done that, now what more can this zombie book offer?
Well, this is the review where I happily eat my words! I should have known better anyway, because Ragnarok Publications has never let me down. As it turned out, Those Poor, Poor Bastards had a lot more to offer than I'd anticipated, in addition to that charming little title. The book did contain some of the usual trappings you'll find in a lot of zombie stories, but there were some twists as well, and I loved how the authors took the familiar and created something new. Also, while I haven't read enough of the Weird West sub-genre to consider myself a fan, a description like "Zombie Western" wasn't really something I could resist.
It is 1868, in the Sierra Nevada. The book begins with Nina Weaver and her father Lincoln riding into Coburn Station only to find that everything has gone to hell in a chuckwagon. The "Deaduns" have arisen and are sowing bloody carnage all over town, forcing the living to band together in order to survive. In typical fashion, you end up with a large, diverse ensemble cast. And like watching The Walking Dead, you just know before you even begin that many of them are going to end up zombie food before this whole thing is over.
Put a big group of people with disparate personalities into a stressful situation and you'll also inevitably get your clashes and alliances within the ranks. There are the good folks like Nina and her pa, the priest Father Mathias as well as the charming James Manning. On the other side of the fence you have the less savory types and troublemakers like the Daggett brothers or the scummy Mister Strobridge. Then there are those caught in the middle who just aren't sure. With tensions this high and a swarm of Deaduns at the door, it's the perfect set up for explosive conflict. Emphasis on explosive.
So far, with the exception of the western setting, things might be sounding rather familiar. But then, the authors work their magic and you suddenly realize there is way more to this story. Bucking tradition, we're actually given an explanation into the Deaduns and how they came to be. Their origins and motives, not to mention the actual reveal itself, were so unique that it completely threw me for a loop -- in a good way! I have to say this ended up being a delightfully fun read, in all its blood-splattered glory.
Those Poor, Poor Bastards also taught me something important about myself -- that I will never be too old or too jaded for a good ol' zombie story! What a fast-paced, crazy wild book. I think I'll just end this review with a suggestion to the potential reader: there are a lot of characters, so definitely try to tackle this novel all in one go if you can, ensuring that the dozen or so identities will always remain fresh in your mind. Besides, it shouldn't be too difficult -- because once you start reading, you just might find it hard to stop!(less)
I don't know what was more intimidating, the size of Words of Radiance when I first beheld it, or the thought of having to write the review when I finished. I took me about seven days to read this giant tome, and then five more just to let everything sink in. So many emotions. So amazing. Even now, I don't know if I can completely separate my subjective feelings for this novel, simply because of the MAJOR soft spot I harbor for this particular series. See, I wasn't always a fan of epic fantasy. I was the type to take one look at the page count and run the other way! Of course, that was before The Way of Kings became one of my favorite books. I guess you could say that I credit Brandon Sanderson and that book for being my gateway into this genre, and I've always been glad for that.
To finally read Words of Radiance was like fist-pumping excitement and all my restless giddiness rolled into one. In this second volume, the world of The Stormlight Archive becomes even more incredible and captivating. My favorite thing about Sanderson's stories are his magic systems, and I know everyone always says that but I don't care! It bears saying again because it's true. Here I thought he was done laying down the ground rules for his world's magic in The Way of Kings, but clearly he was just getting started. It's actually getting so elaborate that part of me is beginning to worry this could become too confusing before long. But if you love Surgebinding, rest assured the storyline continues to build upon basic principles regarding stormlight and its uses in the various types of surges. When it comes to beefing up his magic systems, Sanderson never ceases to amaze.
I've also noticed he has a way of writing inherently good people in the roles of main protagonists. This certainly applies to the important characters here -- Kaladin, Shallan, Dalinar, Adolin, etc. -- all decent folks with decent intentions, natural leaders who always in the end succeed. It took tension out of the story at times, but it's also nice to feel exultant when a character gets ahead. That said, there were still plenty of twists and a couple of big surprises in this book, and of course when bad things happened, the impact of those setbacks felt all the more powerful. Sanderson knows how to pull me in and make me care, even when it comes to his more minor characters.
But what I really didn't expect was how things turned around when it came to the major ones. Kaladin pretty much made the first book for me, so I was shocked to see that his chapters in this one failed to hold my attention the same way. Kaladin himself, the ex-soldier and former bridgeman who has become a Knight Radiant, spirals into self-pity, anger, and impulsion because of his new powers and responsibilities, and I just didn't like the man he was for most of this book. On the other hand, Shallan (who didn't really impress me in The Way of Kings) comes into her own, literally becoming a new woman.
While Kaladin shrank into himself, Shallan branched out, becoming more adventurous and daring. Every time the story focused on her again, I was completely rapt, drawn into her research and personal journey to find the mythical city of Urithuru. I was also impressed by the way Sanderson handled her different relationships with other characters, especially the surprising one developing between her and Adolin. There's no question, Words of Radiance is where Shallan steals the show and gets a lot more of her background filled in, plus the illustrations of "her drawings" do add so much to the narrative (and I agree, Shallan, Adolin is totally *sigh*). I just have to cheer for a fellow artist too, you understand.
As for the story, what can I say? It's moving along, and in a big way. Everything is now converging in on the Shattered Plains, with all the main characters and their plot threads finally weaving together to become more cohesive. There's a countdown to something huge, and while this is the main source conflict in the novel, I like how the side themes continue to play a role. Factors like the infighting between the Highprinces or the social class disparities between Lighteyes and Darkeyes or humans and parshmen only add to the immersion and world building.
I have to say that with Sanderson, you don't often get "epicness for the sake of being epic". Others may disagree, of course, but all I know is with 1000+ pagers like these I always tend to forget a lot due to information overload. However, three and a half years after The Way of Kings, I still find myself remembering almost all the details of Roshar, of its peoples and cultures, lore and magic, the different creatures and spren. My memory's not the best either, so the fact I can remember even the little things means that they really stuck with me, and that simply does not happen with fluff or filler. It tells me the details in The Stormlight Archive are there for a reason, and not just to pad a book. Even the Interludes, which I don't really care for, I can still appreciate because something tells me they will be important at a later stage.
Honestly, sometimes I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that I'll probably be well into my fifth decade by the time the last book of this vast, sweeping series comes out. It's an accepted reality for epic fantasy fans I'm sure, but you can bet your spheres that I'm in this one for the long haul. Premature as it is to say, but I think things are shaping up real nicely, and if you enjoyed the first book then picking up this one will be a must as well. Needless to say, Words of Radiance gets 5 hearty stars from me. Really, was there ever any doubt?(less)
I thought Lumière was fantastic, so much so that I read the whole book in a day. Some parts even made me want to give this one a 4.5 or 5 stars, simply because for an independently published Young Adult novel I thought this was really impressive.
As you know, I'm a pretty picky reader when it comes to the YA category, plus I don't always jump on board with self-pubs or indies. Still, this book's description drew me in when it was brought to my attention; something about the story just struck the right tune with me. Right away, I knew I had something good when the prologue opened with an introduction to the heroine Eyelet (what a charming name!) at age eight at the time, looking upon a brass mechanical steam-powered elephant at a carnival. What else will I find in this world?
Fast forward to the first chapter and we see Eyelet as a seventeen-year-old, nine years after that fateful day at the carnival where a mysterious flash lit the skies and changed the world. Troubled by occasional seizures and desperate to hide her illness from the authorities, Eyelet is determined to hunt down the Illuminator, a fantastical machine that was invented years ago by her brilliant scientist father. The machine may be her only chance to cure herself, but first she has to find it before her father's old nemesis gets to it first.
Jacqueline Garlick made it easy for me to root for her characters by giving them such endearing and energetic personalities. Not far into the story we get to meet Urlick Babbit, the young man who unwittingly rescues our heroine as she escapes capture from her enemies. The poor guy had no idea what he was in for! Even with Eyelet and her total disregard for other people's privacy or some of the churlish questions that spills out of her mouth, I couldn't help but find myself amused by the dynamics between these two, as something deeper begins to develop between them. I also like that they're not a conventional couple. Eyelet has her nettlesome qualities and Urlick isn't your usual drop-dead gorgeous Prince Charming, having experienced injuries during his birth that marred his appearance. I found their relationship very unique and refreshing.
Again, I just can't get over how rich the setting is. It's an original world packed with amazing qualities, flavored with a healthy dose of magic and steampunk. Here and there you will find all sorts of quirky mechanical creations and bizarre creatures -- some that are helpful like Eyelet's ravens, others that aren't so friendly like the zombie/ghoul-like Turned. There's also a good chunk of the book where Eyelet is holed up at Urlick's place, trapped there because of the dangerous Vapours storms, where she discovers all sorts of gadgets and other wonky inventions designed and constructed by the strange boy. Even though this section was a slower break from the action, I was kept interested, never knowing what Eyelet would find next in Urlick's hideout.
I very much appreciated the nice blend of fantasy with the action-adventure elements of this one. And I was honestly surprised with the quality of the writing and storytelling; whatever polish it requires is very minimal, and as a whole the story was presented exceptionally well and flowed naturally. I wouldn't have devoured this book so quickly if it hadn't, and certainly the fun factor of the plot didn't hurt. I knew I was hooked when as soon as I finished the book, I went online and checked if there was an estimated release date for the next book. Alas, it won't be for a while yet, but definitely something to look forward to.(less)
Finishing a series is always a little bittersweet, isn't it? I find this is absolutely the case with Mazarkis Williams' Tower and Knife trilogy. Of course, I'm thrilled to have finally reached the stunning conclusion to find out how it all ends, but I also know I'm going to miss this world and its characters.
It is also a wonderful thing to see an author's skills grow and evolve as time goes on. Though I think I'll always be a little in love with Williams' beautiful writing, I was admittedly much more taken with these last two books in the trilogy than I was with The Emperor's Knife. All three novels had their own individual strengths, but in general I found Knife Sworn and The Tower Broken to have much better flow and greater complexity than the first book.
In fact, I now find myself at a dilemma. The last two books have both been very strong, and I really can't decide which one I liked better. The Tower Broken, having a much darker plot and effectively raising the stakes, obviously appealed to me a lot. After the events of Knife Sworn, the fate of the world is teetering on the edge, threatened by a malignant force moving itself across the land and devouring everything it touches. The storm moves ever closer to the city of Cerana, and Emperor Sarmin finds he is powerless to do anything to stop its path of destruction. Things are definitely heating up in this one.
On the other hand, I LOVED the chapters about Grada, Nessaket, and Rushes from the last novel. Having the narratives of these three female characters was one of the best things about that book, but in this one they have once again faded back into the background, giving other characters the chance to step into the spotlight. Mesema and of course Sarmin both have their own chapters, but this time we also meet the fruit-seller-turned-mage Farid as well as Duke Didryk, whose point of view adds even more mystery to the already shadowy plot line.
While these new perspectives brought a heightened sense of intrigue and tension to the table, I still missed Grada, who has become the Emperor's royal assassin, and even found myself wondering after Nessaket, Sarmin's mercurial mother. But most of all, I missed following Rushes, the poor slave girl who has gone through such an ordeal in the course of these two books. I won't deny I was a little disappointed to see so little of the three of them in this novel, but fortunately I was able to get over it quickly, because Williams does such a good job making all her characters interesting. Much like the series, I felt that many of the protagonists especially Sarmin and Mesema have finally come into their own. The transformation of their relationship was the highlight for me in this one; by the end I could see where the author had wanted to go with the two of them all along.
I also think I would be remiss if I ended this review without making mention of the magic in the Tower and Knife world. The first book introduced us to the complex dynamic between mages and spirits, with the former harnessing their abilities by imprisoning the latter into their bodies, then sucking them dry of the energy required to power magic spells. We get to see a lot more of that here, as well as insight into the concept of "pattern magic" which is central to this entire trilogy. I think it's great how the last book ends with a much more detailed look into the mechanics of this system, because I'd always felt the story needed it.
So the the trilogy may be over, but I would read any future books by Mazarkis Williams in a heartbeat! Pulling off the final installment of a series is always a doozy, but it was done well here, even if everything wrapped up a little too neatly. I would still take a "complete" and satisfying ending like this over an open-ended one any day. Ultimately I think Williams made all the right calls, and at the end of the day served up an impressive conclusion. (less)
Vampires, werewolves, and even faeries and ghouls populate the urban fantasy genre in abundance, but it's not often that I stumble across a series centered around ghosts. Even rarer still to find a one that's told from the perspective of a ghost, which is why I was initially drawn to this book.
Only the Good Die Young is the first of a brand new series by Chris Marie Green featuring protagonist Jensen Murphy, a twenty-three year old woman who was murdered in Elfin Woods sometime in the 1980s. Her death was so traumatic that not only did she lose all her memories of that night, her spirit was also trapped in a time loop and became an imprint until a psychic medium named Amanda Lee came along and snapped her out of it. Ever since then, Amanda Lee has been helping Jensen get up to speed on all that has happened in the last thirty years (unsurprisingly, our protagonist's mind is totally blown by this whole internet thing).
The psychic has been keeping secrets, however. It turns out that one of the reasons she rescued Jensen was so that she could have access to a ghostly assistant, in the hopes that her spirit abilities could help identify the killer of one of Amanda Lee's dearest friends who was murdered a few years ago. The main suspect was the victim's ex-boyfriend. Convinced that he did it, Amanda Lee now wants Jensen to haunt the guy and scare the bejeezus out of him so badly that he will eventually break down and confess his crime.
Putting it that way, the plot sounds rather goofy, I know. I'm actually still coming down from the surprise of how light this book ended up being, since I was admittedly expecting something a lot darker given the brutal circumstances around Jensen's death (someone in a creepy mask, wielding an axe, alone in the woods, etc.) Not that this book is all sunshine and rainbows either, but it definitely contains a lot less horror and bleakness, and instead a lot more humor and energy than I'd anticipated. For a ghost book, that is.
I have to say this one took its time to grow on me. I was so unimpressed by the main characters at the beginning, turned off by Jensen's yielding nature and especially by Amanda Lee's judgmental and cynical ways. Because someone designed a violent video game, he must be guilty of murder? People only adopt children from third world countries because doing it is a symbol of status? Oh my, get as far away as you can from this woman, Jensen, just get away as soon as you can. The fact that she just kept hanging around this Amanda Lee person made it difficult for me to continue reading.
But then, something happened. As Jensen also noted about herself, she grew a backbone. She stuck up for herself, found some new friends to hang out with. And how fun these new friends are! I loved the "ghost budders" Randy, Twyla, Scott and Louis, who teach Jensen what it is to be a ghost and what she can do. Ghosts in this series have some pretty cool powers, actually. They can induce hallucinations, imitate sounds and throw their voices around. They can enter dreams and sift through your memories. These abilities take a lot out of a ghost though, because they are made up of pure energy. To recharge, they have to draw from a source of electricity in order to juice up again. Some really neat ideas in here, and the imagery of Jensen and her fellow ghosts sitting on a power line is pretty funny!
Amanda Lee also didn't turn out to be so bad after all. Of all the characters, she was probably the most invested in the outcome of the mystery, even more so than Jensen. As her character became more and more defined, it grew easier to see where she's coming from even if I didn't agree with her methods. At the end of this, the identity of her friend's murderer comes to light, and the answer may shock you! I certainly didn't see it coming.
So yes, I liked this book a lot more once it got going; certainly my feelings about it were more positive by the end, and I'm glad the plot ultimately sorted itself out. Still, there's a bigger murder mystery to be solved here, that of Jensen's, of course. Somehow, I have a feeling her story is going to be a part of a much bigger arc. Now that I'm fully on board, I'm looking forward to finding out.
Well now, this book was a pleasant surprise. Meet Talus, touted by the book's description as the world's first detective, which is indeed as marvelous as it sounds. The book has the feel of a Sherlock Holmes type mystery set in an icy Iron Age inspired fantasy world, but what really clinches this one that our "detective" is a bard! If you don't know, I have a serious soft spot for those traveling poets and teller-of-tales types.
Written in the tradition of the classics by Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, I found Talus and the Frozen King to be a very enjoyable whodunit complete with all the ingredients that makes a good mystery. Talus, a wanderer and collector of stories, is a clever man and not without his little quirks. Then, because every good detective needs a trusty friend and assistant, we have stalwart Bran, who is the Watson to his Sherlock. And just to tease this book even more, let's just say a true detective also needs an arch nemesis a la Moriarty, but that's all I'll say about that in this review!
I very much enjoy stories like this. Talus and the Frozen King is a quick read, tightly told with a clear direction and goal in mind, but the author still leaves plenty of room to develop the characters and define the world around them. The setup is admittedly simple but still very well done; after all, most of the activity is mainly confined to an island, where the king of the local settlement has been found murdered under bizarre circumstances. No one is above suspicion in this plot-driven mystery, not even the king's six grieving sons, the women who love them, or the tribe's shaman, who all have their reasons to see the old ruler dead.
As the reader, I was given the chance to engage in the very same process of deduction as Talus carries out his investigation, through interviewing suspects or gathering and interpreting the clues. In the interim, I also got to learn more about Talus and Bran individually, discovering the motivations that drive them as well as the details behind their unique relationship. It added an extra layer to this story, rendering the situation more than just another mystery to be solved, because along the way I grew to care about these characters and became invested in them.
Nothing is as it seems. Names are a continually added to the suspect list, then scratched off again as more clues come to light. As death strikes left and right, you can practically feel the urgency in the atmosphere as times begins to run out. Of course, you're not going to be getting a ton of information about the wider world out there due to the tight focus of the plot, but we still get plenty about the culture, traditions and myths of Creyak island and its people, and for such a relatively short novel, I think it packs a lot of emotion and tension.
There aren't a lot of books like this out there, that's for sure. While there's a strong element of fantasy in this one, at it's heart it really is a variety of your good old detective story. The prehistoric ice age setting garners huge points from me, and like I mentioned, so does our protagonist being an eccentric bard. I think both mystery and fantasy readers alike will feel right at home with this one. A very entertaining and fast read.(less)
I've been a reader for as long as I remember, but science fiction is still a relatively new genre for me. In fact, I don't think I started until I well into my high school years, and back then, I remember cutting my teeth on novelizations of the Star Wars prequel movies. There you go, my not-so-secret confession!
Obviously, I've branched out a lot more since those days, but I still retained my love for Star Wars books. To date, I've read a bunch by many different authors, and some of them have been better than others. Media tie-in novels have always been my guilty pleasure, especially when it comes to my beloved Star Wars, but admittedly the bar has never really been set that high. That's why whenever I do come across one that I genuinely like, I can't help but do a little happy dance.
And I'm definitely dancing now. Actually, I'd been excited about Honor Among Thieves for a long time, ever since I first learned that Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck will be working on a new stand alone Star Wars book under their nom de plume of James S.A. Corey. I adore their work on the Expanse series, and to hear that they would be writing a story about my favorite scoundrel was like a dream come true. Come on, James S.A. Corey and Han Solo? You just can't go wrong with a winning combination like that.
So you can see why I am so thrilled to say this book lived up to all my expectations. You can tell right away that the authors are fans of Star Wars and the characters themselves, because the first thing I noticed was how "right" Han sounded and felt in his dialogue and actions. He even felt true to the character in his internal narrative, all the way down to his growing affection for his new friends in the Rebel Alliance. This book takes place after the destruction of the Death Star but before the events of The Empire Strikes Back, so we get a real good look at how those experiences have affected and changed him.
The best part is, this is a Han Solo book through and through, and no doubt about it. Expect lots of his signature seat-of-the-pants approach to solving problems, the usual daring flyboy maneuvers, and of course a healthy dose of roguish humor. The plot is relatively simple, beginning when Han and Chewy are tasked on an assignment to extract a high-level rebel spy deep in Empire territory. Meet Agent Scarlet Hark, whose moxie might just give Han a run for his money. But as it turns out, Scarlet has uncovered delicate information about a new technology, one that can turn the tide of the war if only the rebels can secure it before the Empire gets their dirty hands on it.
I would say it's fairly predictable how things turn out, but then I think that is to be expected. We all know the war goes on in The Empire Strikes Back, et cetera, et cetera, so to an extent you can guess how everything in the story ends. Still, none of that manages to take away from the fun. Another thing I liked about this book is how deftly the plot involved all the main characters. One of my biggest problems with a lot of Star Wars books is how desperately some authors try to squeeze in all the prominent players, sometimes resorting to giving them obligatory sub plots that feel shoehorned in. Not an issue with this one, I can happily say. Despite Han Solo taking the center stage in this, Luke and Leia both also have their parts to play, and they actually are integral to the story.
Sure I may have my biases, being a big fan of James S.A. Corey and having a massive soft spot for Han Solo, but this is probably now favorite Star Wars novel, beating out Darth Plagueis, which is the former holder of that distinction and also another really great story. Star Wars books have certainly come a long way, and I look forward to seeing this trend continue.(less)
I'll admit, I had some serious doubts when I first heard about this young adult novel styled as an epic fantasy. I'm more of an adult fiction reader, so when I think about epic fantasy I can't help but picture vast sweeping sagas in big fat tomes, and I have no doubt it was this bias making me skeptical as I eyed this relatively thin volume.
So you can imagine my surprise when it turned out I quite enjoyed this book. Still, I did don my YA hat as I was thinking about how to rate and review it. And furthermore, you should know that any time anyone anywhere compares anything to George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, I take it with a grain of salt. On several levels, I suppose I can understand the reasons for some of the comparisons, or why a story like this would appeal to fans of Game of Thrones. And yet, to date I've never actually encountered anything else quite like Martin's epic series and I didn't anticipate it would happen now.
As such, you could say I went into Falling Kingdoms with a realistic outlook, along with an expectation for some of the usual YA trappings and perhaps a more delicate, dialed-down version of my beloved epic fantasy tropes. But putting it like that would also be doing this book a great injustice, because it also turned out to be a deeper and more intricate reading experience than thought. Despite having a central cast of mostly teenagers, some of the more mature and darker themes also took me by surprise.
The scope of the story was certainly extensive and far-reaching enough for my tastes; here we have a land where the rulers of three separate kingdoms are locked in a bitter struggle for power, thus creating a hotbed for intrigue, conspiracy, scandal and all that good stuff. I wasn't expecting to see too much complexity, and indeed, the plot felt strained in certain places, I found myself questioning character motivations a lot, and some of the world building and story elements were lighter than what I'm accustomed to. And yet, when I look at the overall big picture, I was quite impressed with what I saw. It's a lot more than I'd hoped to find in a YA novel, that's for sure.
In a sense, this book reads exactly as it is described: an epic fantasy for teens. Since that was how I approached it, I thought it delivered everything that was promised and much more besides. If anything, the plot's overall simplicity and straightforward nature of the narrative actually worked in the novel's favor. It's very accessible, easy to get into even if you aren't an epic fantasy reader, and the story is just layered enough to be interesting but not confusing or overwhelming.
Falling Kingdoms proved to be a highly enjoyable read for me. Keeping in mind it is a YA novel, it's probably not ideal if you're looking for a more powerful, substantial epic fantasy, but I had a lot of fun nonetheless!(less)
You know how some books you just don't realize how addicted you were to them until it occurs to you how badly, desperately, severely you're craving the sequel? Yeah well, this is one of those cases! I even broke away from my February reading list to fit this one in as soon as I received it for review, because I knew I couldn't wait any longer.
I'm happy to report Honor's Knight is just as much fun as the first book. In that, it certainly did not disappoint. But speaking of which, before I go further it probably behooves me to warn readers that this review might contain spoilers for Fortune's Pawn. I don't think there's any way around it when talking about this book, since it picks up right after the events of the last one. So if you'd like to skip this and read my review for the first book instead, I'll totally understand. Better yet, you should just pick up Fortune's Pawn! It was the most fun I've had with a sci-fi in a very long time.
As I'd expected, it was a joy and a treat to catch up with Deviana "Devi" Morris. I've always enjoyed courageous and determined women characters in science fiction, and Devi lends her own brand of cool to this spirited space drama, which in my opinion single-handedly makes this whole entire series. Even though she begins this book with her mind tampered with and her memories wiped, she is still the Devi I know and love. She can't remember how her security team partner was killed or why a single glance at the ship's cook now makes her feel physically ill, but none of that's about to stop her from doing her job.
Nevertheless, the wrench thrown into the relationship between her and Rupert Charkov damn near killed me. These two belong together, and to see them apart pains me, especially when I understood the reason for Charkov's tortured reactions but meanwhile Devi can't even hold on to his name. Can you tell that I'm really into this romance? Because I am. I'm not usually so taken with this much drama in romantic subplots, but I think this an exception because of how candid Devi is with the situation. There's no angst or sensationalism; she handles all her problems with the same direct, no-nonsense way -- with her wits and with her guns. I love it.
If you enjoyed the story in Fortune's Pawn, then you'll definitely like Honor's Knight as well. The first book alluded to a mystery involving the crew of the Glorious Fool, and rest assured everything is revealed here at last. The story also takes us to new places, including a handful of exotic planets as well as a brief sequence in which Devi returns to Paradoxian territory. In fact, I wish we had been able to see more of the world in those scenes; more details about the culture in which she grew up would have been very interesting. Regardless, it was pure satisfaction to watch all the puzzle pieces finally fit together, but there were still plenty of twists and turns. Alliances will shift and secrets abound as Devi becomes embroiled in something huge, something that puts the safety of the entire galaxy on the line.
When Rachel Bach/Rachel Aaron goes for action and thrills, she's clearly not afraid to go all the way. So far this series has been wildly entertaining, but to me it has also become a lot more than just a sci-fi adventure story about Devi blowing away big bad aliens (though there is also plenty of that). Like I said in my review for Fortune's Pawn, what started off as a popcorn read has gotten me more emotionally invested than I realized, and I find myself caring deeply for the story and characters. Will Devi and Rupert end up together? (I hope so.) Will she achieve her dreams of becoming a Devastator? (I'm guessing probably, but after all that she's been through, a life as a Devastator now seems kind of tame!) I'm very curious and eager to see how all of this will play out.
In short, Honor's Knight picks up the energetic pace set by the first book and runs with it, carrying on with the momentum and revving it up even more. If this trend continues, the third and final book should be outstanding. I can't wait.(less)
If there's one thing I learned from reading Seoul Survivors and now Astra, it is that author Naomi Foyle has a remarkable way of making me feel. I have been shocked and disturbed by some of the ideas in her books, but likewise there have been times where the touching beauty of her writing has bought me to tears. Her stories might not necessarily read like heart-pounding thrillers or page-turners, but no matter what, they always pack a powerful punch.
That most certainly describes Astra, a bold dystopian tale about a girl growing up in a closed and isolated nature-worshiping community called Is-Land. The novel is divided into three parts, detailing the journey of its eponymous heroine as she ages from a child to young adulthood. Because of the format in which her story is told, it's probably going to be easier for me to summarize and give my thoughts and opinions on each part separately.
The first part begins when Astra is only seven years old. In this section, we learn a lot about the nation of Is-Land from her perspective. Life seems wonderful and perfect in her little town of Or, where the social structure is highly fluid and everyone lives as naked as the day they are born in harmony with Gaia's creatures. At the same time, advanced technology exists in his world, used to do things like engineer alt-meat for consumption, or to allow children to learn the ways of Is-Land and Gaia on devices called "tablettes". Starting with Astra's generation, children will also be getting the Security Serum, a shot that would make the subject physically stronger, but would also give them a more obedient and pliable personality.
Not surprisingly, many of the details we read about in this section are filtered through the lens of Astra's youth and innocence. She's lively, curious, and not just a little bit impish. It's challenging to write young characters, but I believe Naomi Foyle nailed it perfectly. Astra is good at driving her caregivers up the wall with her unending questions, quick temper and silly antics -- in other words, she thinks and acts like a very active and bright seven-year-old. Just thinking about the possible loss of that precociousness really hits home, which is what I think the author intended. Receiving the "Sec Shot" would be the end of everything that makes Astra who she is, and so her Shelter-Mother Hokma devises and carries out a plan to help the young girl avoid getting it.
Then the book skips ahead to when Astra is twelve years old. This is probably the longest section, but it was also the one I found the most interesting. While the previous part amazed me with the depth of the world-building, this part blew me away with its character development and unique take on the classic coming-of-age tale. All sorts of changes are happening to Astra at this point, both physical and emotional. The theme of sexuality also features heavily in this section, and I felt Foyle's bold and fearless writing style did an excellent job of describing this stage of Astra's life, conveying all the excitement and poignancy that comes with it. Once again, she gives her main character a voice that is both age-appropriate and believable.
This section also introduces Lil, an orphaned child rescued from the woods who comes to live with Astra in her community. An uncannily realistic "frenemy-like" relationship is forged between the two girls, one of friendship but also rivalry. Astra, who has always felt like an outcast knowing that she has not received her Sec Shot like the rest of her peers, takes an immediate fascination to Lil, who also doesn't seem to quite fit in. Eventually, the latter's ideas of the world begin to bleed into Astra's view of the world, and as everything Astra thought she knew begins to crumble, that's when things start getting very interesting...
The final part, which is also the shortest, focuses on Astra when she is seventeen. This is the section where everything comes to a head. For the last decade, she has grown up seeing the world differently than her "Sec Gen" friends, and that fateful decision Hokma made with her all those years ago finally leads to some widespread repercussions. A lot of dystopian novels come to a point like this, where the main protagonist's worldview is shattered by a life-changing event. I can honestly say, however, that there was no way I could have foreseen what happened afterwards. Indeed the conclusion may come as quite a shock.
Like I said, this book isn't exactly a page-turner, and don't go in expecting too much action or a grand adventure because that's not what it is about. But by following Astra through all three life stages, I feel like I've come to know her very well, and the author has managed to make me care deeply about her character. I didn't even realize how completely immersed I'd been until I reached the end, and tears started coming to my eyes while reading a scene that was particularly touching. I don't know if that would have hit me so hard emotionally if the book hadn't been so well-written overall.
The sequel will no doubt focus more on the bigger world, now that Astra has discovered some truths about herself and Is-Land. This book, however, was an intensely deep, complex and thought-provoking narrative of the main character's life. It's a beautiful story, unique and daring, which serves as a solid foundation for everything else to come.(less)
Oh my, this one was SO MUCH FUN. Unexpectedly so. Even when the earliest descriptions came trickling in calling this book a bold, dashing adventure and pure, swashbuckling entertainment, I had no idea! I figured those were just buzzwords, right? Ah, no. In this case, Traitor's Blade really does deliver the great time that all those descriptions promise.
There are so many things I love about this book, but most of all I love how it doesn't take itself too seriously. It was lighter in tone than I expected, which was a huge plus because I always appreciate a bit of humor with my fantasy! The only thing sharper than main protagonist Falcio val Mond's rapier is his own clever wit, and if you don't believe me, all you have to do is read the prologue. (Edit: Actually, TOR has an excerpt here! http://www.tor.com/stories/2014/02/tr...) It had me hooked, not to mention earning a few chuckles from me by page 3.
What strikes me about this book is how well it presents itself. To me, it reads like a medieval fantasy told in the tone of an urban fantasy, mainly due to the narrative style and the of the snappy pace of storytelling. Falcio and his companions Kest and Brasti are the last remnants of late King Paelis' mighty force of Greatcoats, quite possibly the only ones still dedicated to upholding the laws of the land despite their order being labeled as traitors. Before the Dukes took the kingdom and killed the king, however, Falcio was given one last mission. And trying to fulfill it is probably going to get him killed, if his silver tongue doesn't manage to do it first.
A natural born smooth talker (the other characters in the novel even poke fun at this), Falcio's narrative is as delightful as they come. He will endear himself to you with his fierce loyalty and moral compass, but also keep you on your toes with his unpredictability. Here is a protagonist who would just as soon vanquish his foes using his words and cunning, despite his strength and skill with a sword. As Falcio is quick to remind everyone, above all the Greatcoats value justice, not honor, and therefore he shows no qualms about certain unsportsmanlike behaviors such as, er, kicking a lady between the legs (trust me though, that character totally deserved it -- justice, remember!) There is also a darkness within Falcio, and I thought one of the more interesting aspects about him is his goodness warring with that inner pain.
So brace yourself, this is a very fast-paced book filled with non-stop action and tons of obstacles thrown at the characters, one right after another. The humor throughout keeps things nice and light, making this the perfect choice for readers looking for a story with traditional fantasy elements -- like heroes, magic, and epic quests -- but also with the added flair of dash and panache. In other books that have a lot of fight scenes, I'm always tempted to skim, but not so with this one. First of all, as a former fight choreographer, the author knows what great action looks like! And like I said, with Falcio's devil-may-care ways and the unpredictability of his fighting style, you really don't want to miss a thing!
As we all know, very few books are perfect but some stories have a way of bringing you to a point where you're just having too much fun to care. That's the place Traitor's Blade took me. I thought the ending and the revelations therein were a bit predictable, but honestly, that was my only quibble and it is a teensy tiny one at that, considering how much overall enjoyment I got from this book and how much I adored these characters. I cannot wait for the sequel.
In short, I loved loved loved Traitor's Blade. I would recommend it to everyone, and I think fencing and sword fighting types will especially get a kick out of it. Seriously, this is one excellent and remarkably entertaining book! Read it.(less)
The Burning Sky is a beautifully written novel, told in what I feel is a slightly more formal tone than most young adult fiction. The main plot itself -- about a girl who discovers she is the greatest elemental mage of her generation and who now must avoid being taken by enemies that want her power -- is actually quite straightforward, but the classical style adds on multiple layers to this fantasy story.
I have to say the description of the book doesn't do it much justice; for one, it does not mention that most of it is set in Victorian England, which for me was one of the story's main selling points. This is where Iolanthe Seabourne escapes after calling down a bolt of lightning, unwittingly exposing herself as an elemental mage in her own world. With the help of Prince Titus of The Realm, she goes into hiding at the prestigious Eton College, where she masquerades as a male student.
Iolanthe thus spends much of the novel as her alter ego Archer Fairfax. At Eton, Titus tells her of his ultimate plans to bring down an evil magician named Bane, the tyrant who holds both their lands in his grip. Iolanthe, of course, is reluctant to be a part of it. Incidentally, this leads to one of my favorite scenes, in which Iolanthe tells the Prince, "Better cowardly than dead," after throwing a minor fit and accusing him of using her to his own ends.
And you know what? Instead of thinking less of her, I actually agree with her. When you read as much fantasy as I do, after a while you can get so very used to reading about valiant characters eager to step up and be the hero. So when someone comes along with a strong sense of self-preservation and admits she's afraid to die, it's actually quite refreshing. And who could blame her? Iolanthe is a just a teenager and surely a lot of adults would have reacted even worse. I was surprised at how this one little quote of honestly led me to feel closer to her. Of all the characters, I think Iolanthe was the most well written and realistic.
I wish I could say the same about the story's pacing, but the truth is the book lost some of its momentum after a relatively strong start. It comes down to a matter of taste, really. I've read reviews from readers who absolutely adored the romantic subplot, and opinions from others who weren't so taken with it. I'm of the latter camp, but only because I feel the classic, formal quality of the writing (while very nice) just wasn't that well-suited for a Young Adult love story. Personally, I didn't sense much chemistry between Titus and Iolanthe, and so the romance fell a bit flat for me. And since so much of the book is given to fleshing out and growing their relationship, I probably wasn't as engaged as I ought to be. In spite of this, I have to say there are some great tension-building scenes spread through the novel, including a very exciting climax and ending.
The concepts behind the book are incredible though, so much so that I wish Sherry Thomas had given us even more background about the world. We know why Iolanthe has to stay one step ahead of the Alantean Inquisitor, or that Titus has had his own run-ins with the Inquisition as well, but exactly how Atlantis fits into all this is still unclear to me. Also a part of this puzzle is Titus' Crucible, and his own journey to understand the mysteries that his late mother left behind. There's so much going on here, and while the book gives you just enough information to understand, I wouldn't have minded more. I'm sure that's where the next book will come in. It's likely that I'll continue the series, since I'm all for giving the romance another chance to win me over. (less)
I'll start by saying that I've never read James Dashner before this, but I know his name is well known in the world of Young Adult science fiction with his books in the Maze Runner series. Why I chose to tackle this book instead of starting with The Maze Runner is simple: I was initially drawn to the gamer culture aspect in the description, and it sounded enough like Ernest Cline's Ready Player One (which I loved) to make me even more curious.
There are definitely some similarities; the book follows Michael, a young man who spends most of his time in the VirtNet, a virtual reality network that offers total mind and body immersion so that anyone plugged in can experience any one of thousands of fantasy worlds like they are actually there. That's pretty much where the resemblance ends though. In Michael's VirtNet, a new cyber terrorist known as "Kaine" is purportedly hacking the code and trapping people inside games, so that in-game deaths lead to real life casualties and victims becoming brain-dead.
The best part about being in the VirtNet was never having to worry about risking your life, but now all that has changed. VirtNet Security forcibly recruits Michael, a talented gamer and hacker in his own right, to hunt down this dangerous enemy threatening the whole system. From here on out, the rest of the book is laid out in classic action-and-adventure format, where the hero and his two friends set out on a quest to find Kaine, picking up clues and investigating leads along the way.
The beginning had me pretty interested. The VirtNet system is very well described, especially with the setting of the game "Life Blood" serving as the opener. I loved the idea of how realistic and immersive these worlds are, and the infinite possibilities they present. The novel had a great intro, and a quick subsequent build-up to the main part of the story. I really thought this was going to be a winner.
But then something stalled along the way. The tight focus that was maintained throughout the first part of the book gradually unraveled, so that by the time we're in the middle chapters I felt that the story had lost its steam. It almost feels like the author had a clear vision of how the book begins and how it ends, but didn't really plan well for everything that needs to go in between. Michael and his friends' journey felt far too prolonged and lost its direction, leading me to ask myself several times while reading this, "Wait, what are they supposed to be doing again?"
To the book's credit, the ending did indeed hook me back in, but by then it was a little too late for me to feel the full impact. In any case, the big shocking twist at the end was certainly well worth it, though like I said, at that point it did not have the effect that it should have had. I also wonder if this novel would have been better served told in the first person; I think that would have given me a deeper connection to Michael's feelings, especially during that final revelation.
All in all, not a bad book, but I'm still debating whether or not I will pick up the sequel which is slated for a summer 2014 release. I very well may end up checking out The Maze Runner before I get a chance to read book two of this series.(less)
When I look back at Blades of the Old Empire all I can think of is, here is an example of a novel which would've been better served with some major polishing. And did you know this isn't even technically the first book? I didn't. I only found out after I did some digging around, because I couldn't help getting this feeling I was missing something...
Turns out, my instincts were correct. Most of the main characters in here were first introduced in one of Kashina's earlier novels, The First Sword. Information like that should have been made clearer, if only because I may have been more lenient when I was reading this book. This isn't the first time I've jumped in into the middle of a series, or even a spin-off or later novel set in an existing universe without reading the previous books first. The only difference is, all those times I was prepared. Quite honestly, I don't even know how well this book works as the beginning of a new series. Sure, you can read it and still understand the story, but I spent most of the time feeling like I've only scratched the surface, and wondered if so much feels lacking because the author expects you to know these things already.
Hence, polish. I'm afraid the character development needs quite a bit of work, especially if you're going to have multiple romantic subplots. If I can't connect to the characters, I'm not going to feel any chemistry, and then it's not going to matter one whit to me who's crushing on whom. It helps also, if I can get a good bead on your main protagonists' approximate ages right away. Not exactly sure why, but the way this was written, I spent the whole intro of the book thinking Prince Kyth was a young child. Even after I realized my mistake, it was difficult to view Kara as his romantic interest, and not a nanny-type figure.
Needless to say, that was a mood-killer.
For a fantasy novel of this type, there was also nowhere near enough context. By all rights, the story itself should have been quite epic, encompassing a long history and involving several kingdoms hanging in the balance, with conspiracy and corruption threatening to rot the system from the inside out. I knew this, but only because the book told me. I didn't actually feel it. An overall sense of vastness and importance seems to be missing. Despite the characters traveling for days to get from one place to another, the scope of their journey feels small, possibly stemming from a lack of world building.
My opinions notwithstanding, the reason why I'm not giving this a lower rating is because I feel this book has plenty of potential. I enjoyed the premise and it had a lot of good ideas, especially when it comes to the magic. If only it had been explained a little better. Rigorous editing and several more drafts could have perhaps improved things, knocking out some of the redundant phrases (there seems to be an inordinate amount of blood streaking out of the corner of people's mouths, for instance -- the author likes to use this description everywhere, and even three times in one short scene), or toning down some of the more absurd battle sequences.
Being over-the-top can sometimes work in your favor, but this is not that kind of novel. At best, this crazy, overly bombastic martial arts stuff comes off as comical. The Diamonds are too powerful, one fighter taking on dozens of enemies at once, and also somehow surviving the most grievous of wounds. I draw the line when a character can miraculously come back from the dead, and the way it happens makes very little sense. There is no perception of danger or tension, not if every close call can be fixed with a quaff from a magical potion or a touch from a healer.
Giving a middling rating for this, because I neither liked it nor particularly disliked it. To summarize, the book has a raw and unfinished feel, and based on that I can't really recommend it. A shame too, because with some fleshing out and more honing-plus-fine-tuning, this book could have been so much more.(less)
Before we begin, I feel I should make it known that this book is not for the faint of heart. If you know you'll feel uncomfortable with things like brutal violence, ear-bendingly foul language, and extremely graphic sex, then you may wish to reconsider having a go at this ... especially when it comes to that last one. In general, I am not the kind to be bothered by lewd and explicit acts in books, and yet there were still certainly no shortages of eyebrow raises from me with this one! Anyway, it was enough that I feel I should say something. Fair warning!
And now with that out of the way, let's get down to the reasons why this book totally rocks. If you're the kind of person who likes the combination of a good adventure story with the dark and gritty aspects of fantasy (of course, keeping in mind the caveats mentioned above) then you'll love The Barrow! Incidentally, this is exactly the kind of mix I enjoy. The fact that it was even darker than I expected was a nice surprise, though I don't know if I would call it full-out grimdark. In an interview, Mark Smylie described the book as more of an "archetypal Dungeons & Dragons adventure as run through the filter of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" ... and well, yes, actually I suppose that description would do nicely!
Furthermore, the book also takes place in the world of Mark Smylie's Artesia graphic novels. I won't deny that an emotional attachment to the setting was a factor for me, but if you are not familiar with the comics, do not fret! This is a brand new self-contained story, no previous knowledge of the world or characters required -- which is actually great for me too, since I'd only read the first volume and it was quite a while ago. However, you can still tell that writing a story within a setting that has already been established works well in the novel's favor; the world-building is phenomenally robust and very deep, with many layers to the descriptions of the people and places.
As the reader, I felt like I was transported right there -- and that is both a wonderful and terrifying experience, considering the type of world we're thrown into, one filled with dark magics, shady politics, and disreputable characters. Scoundrels and perverts lurk at every corner, and if you're really unlucky, you might even run afoul of demonic horrors and evil gods. The main plot is actually quite simple, deceptively so perhaps; on a routine tomb-robbing operation, Stjepan Black-Heart and his crew stumble upon an ancient map which details the final resting place of a long-dead wizard, who was said to have been buried with a priceless legendary sword.
Here's where the adventure narrative comes in. To find the sword, our protagonists must first gather their allies and go forth to locate this tomb. Of course, epic quests are never so easy or straightforward. But even when a curse placed on the map kills one of the essential members of the crew and ends up transcribing itself onto the skin of a young noblewoman, you think that would stop the Black-Heart? Nope! Whether it's wealth, fame, freedom, or absolution, everyone on this journey has a reason to find this fabled Barrow, which makes this story a riveting one filled with secrets and unexpected twists.
Among these colorful personalities, some of the characters are so disturbing it will make you sick to your stomach, while others are so crazy it will make you laugh; but there's definitely no accusing any of them for being boring. Out of everyone, I think I like Erim the best. A young woman masquerading as a man, Erim is Stjepan's protege, and despite her skill with the blade, in many ways she is as sheltered as her mentor is well-traveled. It's ironic that she doesn't find herself to be very interesting, because she was my favorite with her quiet introspection and fierce loyalty. That pretty much also makes her the most honorable of the lot; we're talking about some rather grim and nasty characters here, after all.
This is a book that pulls you in immediately, starting with an explosive intro that sets the tone and mood of the story quite nicely. It also contains possibly one of the most heart-pounding prologues that has ever graced the pages of a fantasy novel, and my head is still reeling from the events at the end of that chapter. However, the pacing of the novel is a bit uneven, which is probably the only quibble I have about this book. After the introduction comes a middle that slows down considerably as the characters travel towards their destination. There are frequent stops along the way, but the good news is that something interesting happens at every one of them. These encounters often added to the depth of the lore and setting, giving me more of a sense of the world's vastness.
But while it took me several days to read the first three-quarters of this book, I think I devoured the last 150 or so pages in one exhilaratingly intense sitting. Everything that happens after they find the Barrow is pure insanity. Also, I just love twists and surprises! It's a climax and conclusion that goes beyond just being an ending, because more importantly it reveals how all the themes and undercurrents of the novel come together. It speaks much about Mark Smylie's skills as a storyteller. He marks his transition to full-length novels with this incredible debut, and I'm glad to hear we will be seeing more from him following The Barrow(less)