Bookburners initially landed on my radar around a year and a half ago when it was first announced as the launching project by Serial Box, a publisher with an ambitious new idea to deliver their stories in a weekly serialized medium. The plan was that “Season One” will be a 16-episode run, written by a team of authors made up of Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, and Brian Francis Slattery. Though at the time I was only familiar with Gladstone’s work, it was enough that my interest was immediately piqued.
But as much as the concept of serialized novels intrigued me, it didn’t long at all for me to realize I preferred my books the same way I prefer my TV shows—as in, binge-watching a full season all at once. Sure enough, I tried to follow Bookburners when it first came out and promptly fell behind, which is why I was so glad when I found out that a collected edition was coming from Saga Press. I honestly loved what I saw of the first couple episodes, and thanks to this more convenient format, I finally got my chance to catch up with the full season.
Now, I’ve always admitted a huge weakness for “books about books” but what I liked about Bookburners is its unique take on the subject. You have a kickass lady cop, her wayward brother, and a group of demon hunters from the Vatican, and before you know it the stage is set for an urban fantasy adventure that will make you see “dangerous reading” in a whole new light. For NYPD Detective Sal Brooks, it was just another day on the grind when she gets a strange phone call from her brother Perry asking to hide out at her place. Over the years, Sal has become used to Perry’s idiosyncrasies, but this time, she knows something is seriously wrong. Turns out, her brother has gotten himself into some deep trouble, and it all comes down to a demon-possessed book.
Soon, Sal finds herself entangled with a Catholic priest and his secret team of agents whose mission is to travel all over the world tracking down and securing dangerous books infused with nasty magic. The book in Perry’s possession is revealed to be one such artifact, but the intervention comes too late and he succumbs to its evil. Now in order to save her brother’s life, Sal has little choice but to join up with Father Arturo Menchú and the Bookburners (even though they don’t actually burn the books), relocating to Rome to help fight for the cause. She quickly discovers a whole secret world that the Vatican’s Societas Librorum Occultorum has been keeping from the public, but a recent string of deadly magical threats is about to bring everything crashing down.
At first, I thought the structure of Bookburners was going to be like any other traditional novel which just happens to be released in 16 parts. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that each episode actually contains its own mini-story roughly complete with intro/exposition, rising action, climax and resolution, etc. Together, the 16 sections then make up a more complete and overarching season plot, so that in a sense, the format really does mirror that of a TV show. With Bookburners, I also noticed that the episodes grew progressively deeper and more complex, so for instance, earlier episodes that played more to the “Monster of the Week” trope would gradually give way to ones that contributed more to the overall “bigger picture” storyline.
This definitely affected my experience with the characters. I started the book not really caring all that much for anyone but Sal, but as each episode went on, her relationships with the other team members were explored. Eventually I became a fan of the whole cast, especially Father Menchú, whose portrayal was a breath of fresh air in contrast to the clichéd representations of religious figures I’ve seen in many other books; and also Grace, whose “origin story” wasn’t revealed until an episode halfway through the book, but wow, it was well worth the wait! Grace might have started the season as one of the most mysterious and least developed characters, but by the end of it I was in love and I wouldn’t be surprised if she ends up being a favorite for many others too.
But even though hands down Grace had the coolest and most unique backstory, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll find so many more incredible and creative ideas in here, because every episode offers something different and new. A few of my favorite ones include “A Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (the one where Sal and Asanti go to Scotland and find that an entire town has become crazily obsessed with a restaurant), “Under My Skin” (the one where the Bookburners head to Vegas to investigate the competitors on a tattoo reality TV show, after the people getting inked start dying one by one under mysterious circumstances) and “Shore Leave” (the one where Grace and Sal get to spend some buddy time together on their shared day off). Probably not a coincidence that all three are written by Mur Lafferty, who has certainly gained a new fan in me after this book, but truly, all the authors involved did a fantastic job. Their styles and voices complemented each other very well, leading to seamless transition from one episode to the next, which became all the more important towards the end of the season when everything had to come together for the final showdown.
In case you couldn’t tell, I am beyond ecstatic that I got to read Bookburners in its entirety. With the serialized format, it’s always tough to know whether something will work or not, since a project often takes more than a couple episodes to take off (and I’m not exactly a font of patience either, so having to wait for anything tends to take the air out of my sails). Needless to say, I saw plenty of potential back when the first episode was released, but having this collection and being able to binge read several installments all at once was what ultimately got me well and truly hooked. Bookburners was a lot of fun and now I can hardly wait for Season Two....more
To put it bluntly, I never thought I would read anything else by Terry Goodkind again. After my disastrous first attempt to get into The Sword of Truth series, I almost turned down the opportunity to read Death’s Mistress, but now I’m very glad I didn’t. It’s been years since I last read Wizard’s First Rule, and it seemed a shame to potentially miss out on a good start to a new series especially when the author’s style or my reading tastes could have changed so much since. And as things turned out, I did have a surprisingly good time with this.
I also had initial concerns about jumping in without having read the entirety of the previous series, but that was not a problem. The book follows Nicci, a “Death’s Mistress” and a former lieutenant of Emperor Jagang who has since switched her alliance after being converted to the right side by Richard. Now that the latter has solidified his rule, Nicci travels the world helping spread the word of his benevolence and letting everyone know that the world is free, while accompanied by the ex-prophet and wizard Nathan.
At the beginning of this story Nathan decides to seek out the witch called Red, and Nicci offers to go along with him for protection, knowing they can trust no one and must be prepared for anything. Sure enough, after their visit, the witch imparts upon them the following obscure message: travel to a dangerous place far away called Kol Adair, where Nathan will find the answers to his struggle with his waning magic. Little do Nicci and Nathan know, that by embarking on this adventure they will also be a part of something much bigger, bringing back peace and hope to many along the way. Indeed, before they can even set off in earnest, Nicci saves the life of a young sailor named Bannon on the docks, preventing him from being mugged and killed by a gang of thugs. Grateful for her help, Bannon offers his services to the Death’s Mistress, volunteering to fight alongside her and Nathan while on their journey to Kol Adair.
I must confess, the story’s introduction was a bit of a whirlwind for me, with the bewildering circumstances around Red and her message, as well as the reasons for Nicci and Nathan to head to Kol Adair. It’s clear that I’ve missed a lot of history, not having followed The Sword of Truth. Trying to piece together everything that has happened since the last time I spent time in this world admittedly took up most of my attention, though fortunately once our characters actually begin their adventure, the path ahead gave way to clearer purposes and more exciting and engaging motifs. Death’s Mistress has a strong traditional fantasy vibe to it, with emphasis on the classic quest narrative. The question why Nicci, Nathan and Bannon were on this journey in the first place became less important to me overtime, while the details surrounding where they’ll go or what they’ll do when they get there or who they’ll meet gradually became more fascinating and relevant.
If there’s a bigger story, it hardly matters—at least at this point. Goodkind is starting a new series here, and you can tell he’s doing his best to make Death’s Mistress as accessible as possible. There’s not much history or deep context in play, and no greater conflict to concern ourselves with…yet. Rather, our characters are given a relatively straight forward task (go to Kol Adair, spread the word of Richard’s reign) and while on their travels they encounter various situations in which they can lend a hand or help solve a problem (picking up some side-quests along the way, so to speak). In fact, the structure of the plot can almost be described as “episodic”, the way our adventuring party moves from one place to the next, setting things aright before moving on again to save the next village or help defend the next town.
The results are surprisingly enjoyable. After all, few things are better than being able to explore new worlds, meet new people, and witness epic battles infused with a real sense of excitement and magic. If you’re a fantasy reader, these are the moments we live for, and this book had a way of satisfying all those little pleasures. From our time with our characters on the high seas, to watching them fight alongside a fishing village against a fleet of attacking slavers, to being with them as they try to save a land leeched of life, it’s never a dull moment with this book. The characters are also memorable, with Nicci being a strong protagonist I could sympathize with and root for. Supporting characters are also well-written and fleshed out, leading to some highly emotional and shocking surprises near the end.
Like I said, I’m very glad I decided to give Death’s Mistress a chance. At times, Goodkind’s writing still has the subtlety of a cudgel and some of his scenes can be a little schmaltzy, but on the whole my experience was a lot better than I expected. Nothing too complicated here in terms of plot, but I think in this case, the straightforward and simple approach worked in the book’s favor, offering readers a chance to just sit back and enjoy the ride....more
In the interest of honesty, I picked up Lost Souls without realizing that it was part of the Cainsville sequence, so that probably had an impact on my rating. Still, despite my oversight, I really enjoyed this novella, and I think fans of the series who are familiar with the characters and the subtle nuances in their relationships will no doubt appreciate it even more.
As urban legends go, few are as well-known as the one about the “Vanishing Hitchhiker” or its many variations. The stories all roughly begin and end the same way: A driver encounters a hitchhiker on the side of a lonely road, but after picking them up the hitchhiker subsequently disappears without any explanation. Kelley Armstrong has adopted this motif for the central premise of Lost Souls which stars Gabriel Walsh, a lawyer who takes on a side job investigating the case of a man alleging to have been led astray by a vanishing hitchhiker in the form of a young woman in a white sundress. Gabriel would have been tempted to dismiss the story as a hoax if the circumstances around the incident hadn’t been so strange. For one thing, why would the man risk jeopardizing his successful career and marriage by filing a false report? Also, there have been a string of similar vanishing hitchhiker sightings in recent years, but a suspicious number of them have ended up with the witnesses committing suicide not long after—exactly forty-eight hours after picking up the hitchhiker, to be exact.
Plus, if there’s one thing Gabriel loves, it’s a good mystery. Lately, his relationship with his friend and employee Olivia Taylor-Jones has been on the rocks, and he has hopes too that presenting her with an interesting puzzle like this would help mend fences. In the wake of their rift, Liv has taken off on a vacation and Gabriel finds himself missing her, even if he has trouble admitting it to her or anyone else. Given their shared love for the strange and the weird, this case of the disappearing hitchhiker might be their chance to reconnect again.
Since I have not read any of the main books in the Cainsville series, I know I’m probably missing a lot here, so keep in mind these are the opinions of a newcomer to this world and its characters. The main struggle I had was with the character behaviors and motivations. I found myself exasperated with Gabriel and Liv, namely because all the drama surrounding their relationship is based on miscommunication and misunderstanding—pretty much the oldest trick in the book. While backstories were provided for both, without the deeper context of the series I had a really hard time sympathizing with Gabriel’s excuses for being jerk or Liv’s reasons for being so manipulative. That said though, the story itself was relatively easy to follow, and references to past events were freely provided. Not once was I confused or overwhelmed. So while Lost Souls is clearly intended as a companion novella to the main series, the fact that I was able to follow along just fine is no small feat.
For Cainsville fans, the interpersonal relationships and character development will probably end up being the main draw, though personally I also loved the mystery plot in between these sections. Armstrong adapts the urban legend of the vanishing hitchhiker to great effect, making it a race against time for our characters to find the answers. There are even ties to Gabriel’s past, giving me the chance to know him better. Perhaps my only complaint about the story is the ending, which I thought was anti-climactic and too abrupt, but it’s a minor issue in the big scheme of things.
All told, Lost Souls is probably best tackled only if you are caught up with the main series, though speaking as a relatively new fan of Kelley Armstrong, not having read any of the other novels did not prevent me from enjoying it either. If anything, reading this novella made me even more curious about Cainsville. I also wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Lost Souls if you simply want to read more by the author; she’s an amazing writer who knows all about creating suspenseful drama, and even in this compact novella you will be sure to find all the ingredients of a good urban fantasy mystery....more
Continuing with my ongoing love affair with books about carnivals or circuses, I decided to check out Freeks by Amanda Hocking which features a group of traveling sideshow performers in the 80s as they travel across the country looking for work.
The story stars Mara, a teenager who has practically spent her whole life growing up on the road with Gideon Davorin’s Traveling Carnival. While their show boasts many of the usual attractions, what most folks don’t realize is that many among Gideon’s crew actually possess supernatural powers. For example, they have a telekinetic on staff who helps out with a lot of their magician’s “tricks”. Their trapeze artist has abilities to manipulate the air around him so that he can never fall. Mara’s own mother is a fortune teller who gains insights about her clients’ lives by being able to commune with the dead. However, despite being surrounded by these powered individuals and being the daughter of one herself, Mara has no special abilities. She has sometimes wondered what it might be like to settle down and live like “normal” people, but the carnival is the only family she has ever known, and even though the going can get tough sometimes, Mara loves her life and can’t imagine it any other way.
That is, until Gideon takes up a contract to set up camp in a small southern town named Caudry, and sparks fly between Mara and Gabe, a handsome local boy she meets at a party. Mara likes Gabe—a lot—and he seems to like her too. But how would he feel once he finds out she is a carnie? On the other hand…does he even need to know? By this time in two weeks the sideshow will be on the road again and Mara would be on her way to their next destination; if the relationship is doomed to fail anyway, she sees no harm in withholding a few personal details, especially since Gabe seems to be keeping some secrets himself. Before long though, Mara has more pressing matters to worry about. One by one, members of Gideon’s crew go missing or come under attack, savaged by some mysterious creature. Caudry also seems to be giving off some strange, bad vibes. The carnival came here in the hopes of making some extra revenue, but if the incidents keep up at this rate, Mara fears they’ll run out of performers long before their contract is up.
What I didn’t realize before starting this book was how prominently it would be featuring the romantic side plot. While that by itself isn’t always a negative, it is somewhat frustrating when you get teased all these other fascinating elements in the story, such as the sideshow’s supernatural performers and all the peculiar goings-on happening around Caudry. I wanted more of the carnival life, more details on the backgrounds and personalities of the people working there, and more development into the mysteries of the town. But instead, most of what we got was Gabe, Gabe, and more Gabe. The story keeps shoving his and Mara’s relationship down our throats and I can’t help but think way too many pages were wasted in this area.
Plus, after all this buildup to the grand finale where supposedly huge revelations would be revealed, the results were decidedly underwhelming. When all is said and done, the mystery felt much smaller than it was meant to be, and reasons are clear as to why: there’s actually very little plot in this book. Like I said, most of it is padded by the romance, and I won’t deny that this is somewhat disappointing. Hocking has set up something really cool here, creating a world where people with supernatural abilities live among us, then shining a spotlight on a traveling sideshow run by many of these special individuals. However, instead of exploring this aspect, she has decided to go with the tired and well-trod route of “yet another YA romance” while adding nothing too new or different to the formula. Big time missed opportunity here, which is what gripes me the most.
In sum, Freeks had the potential to be more but ended up being rather average. Too much emphasis was placed on what was arguably a lackluster romance complete with stale dialogue and hints of insta-love, while regrettably the best and most interesting aspects of the story were underplayed. The book wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, just another ordinary middle-of-the-road YA fantasy novel.
Audiobook Comments: I’m glad that I listened to the audiobook version of Freeks, otherwise my rating might have been slightly lower. The performance by narrator Em Eldridge made up for some of the weaknesses of the story, as talented voice actors and actresses are able to do sometimes. For one thing, she’s great at accents—when a character’s description states that they have a southern drawl, for example, that is exactly what she delivers. Her energy also gives life and personality to everyone in the story, especially Mara. I believe this is the first book I’ve ever listened to Ms. Eldridge read, but I’ll definitely be looking for more audiobooks narrated by her in the future....more
Snowed is a story about Christmas, but it is definitely not like your usual schmaltzy Christmas book. It stars Charity Jones, a sixteen-year-old biracial student with a natural talent for all things science and engineering. At her high school in a conservative county of California though, this only gets her mercilessly bullied because she is different. Thankfully, for Charity there’s one bright spot in this bleak situation: Aidan, the sweet mild-mannered teen runaway whom her family takes in as a foster child. No one know where Aidan came from, but it is clear that he is running away from something—something terrible.
Still, despite his reluctance to share much about his past, Aidan and Charity wind up hitting it off and they quickly fall in love. Things actually start looking up for Charity, but of course this respite doesn’t last. The community is shaken one day, when the body of Charity’s worst bully is found behind the bleachers, savaged and torn apart. The authorities are quick to suspect a wild animal attack, but Charity isn’t so sure. After all, unbeknownst to the rest of the school, she was actually the first one to find the victim, and there was something strange she saw at the scene…
First, I want to go into the positives of this book, and there are certainly many. Number one is diversity. Kudos to the author for doing her best to include perspectives from all walks of life, even though her approach can be pretty heavy-handed at times, almost like she was making sure to check off all the boxes on a #diversereads checklist. Having main characters that reflect and honor the lives of all people is always wonderful though, and something to be celebrated especially in the young adult genre.
I also liked how Snowed was a Christmas story for those who might be looking for something other than the usual feel-good and campy holiday-themed books that flood the market around this time of the year. Personally, I love the festive atmosphere around Christmastime, but hey, it’s also okay to have a “bah humbug” moment every now and then. If you ever feel the need to take break from the holiday madness and the constant barrage of holiday-themed music and TV hitting you from all directions, then this book is the answer. Forget the warm and fuzzy feelings, because this is one dark book that likely won’t be filling you with the holiday cheer by the time it’s over. On the other hand, how cool is it that we get a story that explores Krampus lore and presents a darker, more sinister side to the figure of Santa Claus?
And now for the things that didn’t work so well for me. The big one was the extreme-to-the-point-of-contrived stereotypes. All the horrible people at school bullying Charity are of course the jock and cheerleader types, all of them white, bible-thumping and gun-happy ignorant rednecks according to our protagonist. The irony is that Charity frequently comes off as even more judgmental and patronizing as the people she rails against. There are also very few responsible and admirable adult characters, which is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to YA. Charity and her friends paint the police as a bunch of incompetent meatheads, while Charity’s parents are portrayed as a couple of dopes in denial, helpless in stopping her deranged psychopath of a brother hurt her and everyone she loves. The teachers are also apparently too busy planning their own holidays (or worrying about new charter schools opening in their county, threatening their precious hegemony) that they can’t be bothered to do anything about serious problems like bullying and death threats to their students.
In fact, the narrative tries very hard to make you think that Charity and her little “enlightened” group are the only ones capable of getting anything done. Not only was this unrealistic, it just made Charity and all her friends intensely unlikable. Furthermore, Charity also can’t help but remind readers every other chapter that she’s into science, robotics and technology (yet apparently not computer savvy enough to prevent her own email account from getting hacked). I agree we need to encourage girls and young women to enter and succeed in the STEM fields, but there’s no subtlety at all in the way the author is trying to prop up her protagonist as a poster child for the cause.
Finally, I didn’t like the romance. In my opinion, the instalove and Charity’s dramatics actually undermined a lot of what the story was trying to achieve, removing some of Aidan’s mystique. After knowing him for little more than a week, Charity professes to love Aidan so much that she can’t live without him, that she “dies every minute” they’re not together, or that losing him would be like the worst thing that’s ever happened to her (even worse than when Grandma Jones passed away!) In retrospect, the overwrought and sentimental adolescent language probably didn’t help either.
That said, overall I had a good time with Snowed. Ultimately it’s a book with some great ideas but which might be lacking in polish when it comes to execution, though it’s nonetheless impressive especially since we’re talking about a book from a small indie publishing house. Admittedly the story could have been streamlined to bring the horror aspects and Krampus plotline to the forefront while toning down the exposition and romance, but I also have to give it credit for its diverse cast of main characters and the fact that it also explores difficult topics, including a few that don’t get talked about much, like the emotional struggles that families of incarcerated teens go through (and I actually wish this had been given more attention in the book). All told, an interesting read that offers something a little different for the holidays....more
There’s a lot to say about Outpost by F.T. McKinstry. Rich in detail and beautifully written, the book features incredible world-building, taking place in a fantasy setting that breaks the bounds of expectations. The cultures and concepts and creatures portrayed in this novel are also brought to life so vividly that they practically leap off the pages. That said though, if you’re looking for a story that grabs you right away, this one might not be for you; there are many things going on beneath the surface, and McKinstry arguably takes a slow-burn, tantalizing approach in drawing out its mysteries. It’s therefore a book that might require a fair bit of patience, but could be worth it.
Outpost introduces us to the world of Math, an epic fantasy realm steeped in both political and military conflict. Complicating the situation is the presence of unseen immortal warrior creatures called the Fylking, said to have originated from another dimension by coming through an ancient portal. The Fylking themselves are fighting a war with an enemy called the Niflsekt, using Math as a strategic outpost after training a select group of human seers as Wardens to guard the interdimensional gate that leads back to their home world. Wardens also have the ability to see the Fylking, who may take on the avatars of animals when they need to communicate, but generally they are invisible to the rest of the population. After two centuries though, human seers are disappearing, and without the eyes and ears of their helpful Wardens, the Fylking are threatened with the possibility of continuing their war blind.
The story follows three POVs. First is Othin, a Ranger sworn to protect the people of Math. A fierce fighter and a free spirit, he patrols across the land, guarding travel routes and enforcing peace in towns. His fellow Rangers respect and look up to him, and he also receives no small amount of attention from the smitten ladies wherever he goes. Othin’s heart, however, already belongs to a young woman named Melisande. Millie, as she is called, possesses a special kind of gift called Pattern Sense – a type of magic they say is touched by the gods. To the people who live in Millie’s village though, that kind of power is difficult to understand, and she becomes ostracized, distrusted, and labeled a witch. Finally, there’s the seer Arcmael, the disavowed oldest son of a prominent lord. Little did he know, being banished from his home would lead him on the path of becoming a Warden, trained by the Fylking and tasked to guard their gateway, even though Arcmael has sworn never again to take up the sword.
It probably comes as no surprise, one of the most alluring aspects of Outpost was the world of Math. This is high fantasy with a heavy emphasis on lore, highlighting the sense of age and intensity. This is, after all, a story involving a race of beings who have been around for a long, long time. They have changed the face of the world and influenced the culture of its people. Admittedly it’s a lot to take in, but the world-building being far more interesting than most, getting the hang of it was a lot easier than I expected. It might also help to check out the glossary in the back to familiarize yourself with the many names of places, people, and terms before you start, which would make the avalanche of information a little less overwhelming.
I guess in a way, the author’s love for detail can also be considered a double-edged sword. McKinstry writes gorgeously, but despite the excellent prose and the novel’s great setting, her style can take some getting used to. I mentioned the rich level of detail, but at times the overburden of information can come at the cost of potential confusion, as well as plot pacing. I confess I found the story to be on the slower side, and if you have a busy schedule that limits your reading time to short bursts here and there (like it did in my case), it’ll take a lot more motivation to pick up the book again and to keep pressing on.
I also enjoyed the characters, but did not take to them all equally. My favorite was perhaps Othin, whose “classic hero” persona belies a more complicated spirit beneath. He may come across a bold, somewhat rash fighter who works hard but plays harder, if his tavern habits are any indication. The truth is though, he’s a real softie. I liked this mellower, more romantic side of him—which might actually explain my eventual disappointment in Melisande’s character. So much of Othin’s motivations were bound up in his love for her, but I had a hard time feeling it, especially with his initial dismissal of their courtship as casual. They shared very little page time together too, which didn’t help. I also wished Millie had a more active role in the story, especially since her Pattern Sense is so interesting. My least favorite character was Arcmael, however, whose chapters were the toughest to get through, which is ironic considering how much I enjoyed reading about the Fylking (as a Warden, Arcmael’s POV gave us the most information about them). I think most of my problems with his character stem from the fact that we don’t get to know the truth of his origins until closer to the end of the book, and so many of his early motivations are hard to understand.
Despite my issues though, I definitely enjoyed Outpost. To sum up, it’s a solid self-pubbed novel. McKinstry can write, and she has the imaginative vision to create this incredible, fascinating world to stoke the envy of fantasy writers everywhere. To truly grab me though, the story could have used some streamlining to improve the pacing, and the characters probably needed more impetus. But overall, I had a good time....more
Infernal Parade by Clive Barker is a novella containing a series of short stories which, including the illustrations (by Bob Eggleton), comes in at under 100 pages and probably took me less than an hour to read. For such a slim volume though, it held a surprising amount of fascination for me. Thing is, out of context, the half dozen or so tales in here might seem a little random until you know a bit more about their history. Back in the early 2000s McFarlane Toys put out a couple lines of horror action figures which came distributed with portions of fictional pieces about them written by Barker as an added incentive. “The Infernal Parade” was one of these toy lines, inspired by a nightmarish circus filled with monstrous attractions and other gruesome curiosities. It included six figures.
Things kick off with the tale of our ringmaster, the convicted killer Tom Requiem. Hanged for his crimes, he nonetheless returns from the brink of death to head up a literal freak show spotlighting the terrifying and the tortured. From all across globe and even into the mythical realms, Tom scours through time and space for creatures to join his macabre parade, starting with the woman he murdered, Mary Slaughter the blade swallower. The two of them are next joined by Elijah, a bloodthirsty golem that killed the master who created it; the tormented members of Dr. Fetter’s family of freaks; the Sabbaticus, a monster out of the wilds of Karantica; and last but not least, Bethany Bled, the prisoner in the Iron Maiden.
These are their stories, brought together in this one handy collection. They don’t form a single overarching narrative per se, since each tale can be read as a standalone, in any order, as they were meant to accompany their individual action figures. If you think about it, it’s actually rather ingenious, because having glimpsed the actual Infernal Parade toys on comic book and game store shelves over the years, it’s not hard to see why some might be repelled by their disturbing and grotesque nature (as striking and gorgeously detailed as they are)—but if you happen to be a Clive Barker fan, a horror buff, or perhaps you are simply curious about a particular figure’s backstory, I can understand the appeal behind these shorts. The stories in here are each around 6-10 pages long, but there’s a world of imagination packed in every single one. They feel very much like creepy little fables or grisly tales you would tell around a campfire.
That said, even knowing the origins behind Infernal Parade might not not take away the clipped and disjointed feeling of this collection, though in all fairness I don’t typically do well with the super-short fiction format, so this might actually work better for others than it did for me. To their credit too, each story left me wanting more—in the good way. As intended, they feel like snippets in a character’s life story, specifically the circumstances around how they joined up with Tom Requiem and became a part of his parade. As much as I enjoyed these individual tales though, they often left me with the sense that the best is yet to come. For example, I probably had just as much fun imagining in my head everything that would happen in “the after” once this hideous crew got on the road. Where would they tour? Who or what would come out to see them? Think of the sheer potential behind all these crazy scenarios.
Bottom line: those looking for a more substantial read or something that feels more “complete” might not find it here, though if you’re a Clive Barker fan or a collector of rare fiction, it doesn’t get much cooler than this. Infernal Parade is a very special opportunity to get your hands on a unique collection of his short stories that might be tougher to find these days. Even if you’re reading Barker for the first time (like I was) I feel this book would be a wonderful introduction to his dark and distinct style....more
For so long I’ve been wanting to read something by Barb and J.C. Hendee, and with The Dead Seekers being the first of a new series, I figured there’s no better time and place to jump onboard! Better yet, later I was even more excited to learn that the book is set in the same world that was made well-known by the authors’ popular Noble Dead Saga.
Things kick off with a prologue which introduces readers to the story’s two protagonists. What should have been a happy time instead turned to sorrow as Tris, the baron’s only son and heir, was born without breath. But even when the baby was revived, the disturbing circumstances around his apparent miraculous recovery only causes more fear and unease. Thirteen years later in another time and another place, young Mari was in the woods with her family making camp after a long day of travel when they were suddenly ambushed by violent spirits. Being a shapeshifter, Mari was able to take her cat form and escape, but everyone else was killed. Ever since that day, she has been searching for the one she believes is responsible for her murdered family—the mysterious figure known as the Dead’s Man who is said to have the ability to command spirits.
When the main story starts in earnest, both Tris and Mari have grown to adulthood and are living very different lives, though without knowing it, the two are linked by their tragic pasts. Tris had experienced something very similar to what Mari saw in the woods all those years ago, and now he travels to wherever he is called, banishing spirits for a living. While a close encounter with a spirit would usually mean death to any normal person, Tris however possesses a remarkable power enabling him to touch ghosts and destroy them. It is this ability that initially makes Mari suspect that Tris may be the Dead’s Man she is looking for, though at their first meeting she has to admit he is nothing like she expected. Wanting to make sure she has found the right mark before killing him, Mari decides to stick around and observe Tris as he makes his way to his next assignment to banish a particularly troublesome spirit.
The Dead Seekers is perhaps best described as a mystery in three distinct parts. First Tris and Mari travel to a small village, where the ghost of a girl who died under peculiar circumstances has been coming back to haunt the people she knew. But this humble intro soon leads our protagonists to uncover an even bigger conspiracy in the middle section, requiring them to travel to a border garrison where they realize their spirit problem isn’t so simple anymore. The last third of the book is the resolution where everything ties together and ends in a satisfyingly explosive way. As plotlines go, it’s a pretty straightforward and “on-rails” experience even if the story is no less enjoyable because of it. However, this also meant the authors had to rely mainly on flashbacks and memory sequences to explain anything that took place in the past, and these weren’t always integrated very smoothly.
This also might not be a terribly deep or sophisticated fantasy novel, but it will hit the spot if you’re simply looking for a light and fun read. Most notably, I found the book weaker in the areas of world-building, though to be fair I am a newcomer to the Hendees’ work and the bulk of this novel’s audience will probably know the world already from the authors’ previous series. That said, I don’t want to make is sound like world-building aspects are completely lacking though, because I definitely saw enough to make me care and want to know more. I also loved the characters. Mari and Tris are fascinating and memorable, and so easy to root for. I’m really enjoying their dynamic so far (they are a good example of an amazing non-romantic male/female team-up!) and the story even leaves plenty of room for their alliance to grow.
The Dead Seekers is a great introduction to a new series that’s all about ghostbusting, fantasy-style. What the story lacks in impact, it makes up for with pure, fantastic fun. There’s an addictive quality to it that will make you want to pick up the next book and dive straight back into this world to spend time with Tris and Mari. Already I’m looking forward to see what our protagonists will be up to next....more
With the deft touch of a master storyteller, Peter S. Beagle weaves a strong thread of mythology into this gorgeous and emotional tale about love, sacrifice, and courage. Reading In Calabria is like stepping through a veil and into a dream, crossing into that secret and magical place where everyday life comes face to face with the fantastical. It’s an unforgettable, stunning experience.
In a small village nestled in the peaceful and scenic countryside of Southern Italy, there lives a man named Claudio Bianchi. Becoming increasingly aloof and grumpy in his middle age, he prefers to keep to himself on his farm, tending to his crops and animals while writing poetry in his spare time. His only regular visitor is a postman who comes to his place twice a week to drop off his mail. Life is quiet, routine and uncomplicated, and it’s the way Bianchi likes it. But that all changes in an instant, when our protagonist looks outside one morning and spies an impossible creature gazing back at him from his fields. It is a golden-white unicorn—heavily pregnant too, if Bianchi isn’t mistaken—and for some reason, she has chosen his farm as the place to give birth.
All of a sudden, Bianchi is filled with a new sense of purpose and inspiration. He has promised La Signora, the name he has given the unicorn, that he will keep her and her baby safe. His poetry also come more easily to him now, with her in his life. That peace, however, turns out to be short-lived. Eventually, the rumors start spreading that unicorns have made their home on Bianchi’s land. His farm is sudden swamped by media, trophy hunters, and all manner of nosy busybodies. But worst of all, there are the ‘Ndrangheta, an organized crime group based in Calabria who have come to Bianchi with an offer to buy his farm and the unicorns on it, threatening him with dire consequences if he refuses.
Magical realism fans are going to want to take note for this one. It’s a short and simple tale, but packed with some powerful themes. I’ve always loved stories with unicorns in them, especially those that portray them in meaningful ways, and if anyone can be relied upon to write a book that does just that, it is Peter S. Beagle. The unicorn has long been a symbol of purity and healing, and as we watch Bianchi’s life unfold, it becomes clear that he is in desperate need of some of that magic himself, as much as he may want to deny it. His character is taciturn, a little standoffish, but you can also tell Bianchi is a man who takes pride in his independence and accomplishments. Behind that gruff exterior is a kind heart and plenty of evidence that he cares about the people around him, which is why I found him likable despite his flaws.
There was also a romantic side plot in this that I didn’t see coming, nor did I expect to enjoy it so much. There’s a considerable age difference between the protagonist and his love interest, and while in general May-December relationships can be tricky to pull off, I thought the portrayal of Bianchi and Giovanna’s courtship was sweet, sympathetic, and subtle enough that it doesn’t take too much from the main story. It always warms my heart to read about two very different people coming together, finding an understanding and connection that ultimately leads to something more.
The setting is also something that stands out. This story of course takes place in the eponymous southern Italian region in a bucolic community characterized by hills and farms. The world is presented as this almost surreal mix of the modern and the traditional, showing the juxtaposition between things like smartphones and ski resorts to Bianchi’s low-tech farm and his ancient, barely-running Studebaker. In my opinion, it’s the perfect backdrop for a story like this; if you can suspend reality for a moment and imagine the possibility of unicorns just magically popping up somewhere in the world, I can easily picture it happening in a place like this.
Needless to say, I really enjoyed this book. It’s a short, quick read, but despite its novella-length page count, In Calabria will draw you in and make you feel like a part of its breathtaking world. Highly recommended for readers who love genuine characters, evocative settings, and storytelling with a touch of pure magic....more
What an amazing surprise this was! Though to be honest, I had no idea what to expect at first, only that from the moment I saw the book description for The Valiant, I knew I had to read it. I make it no secret that I am fascinated with anything to do with Ancient Rome, and so historical fiction set in this time period is like an instant Mogsy magnet. And secondly, FEMALE GLADIATORS.
The story follows Fallon, daughter of a Celtic king and younger sister to the late legendary warrior Sorcha who fell to the legions of Julius Caesar while fighting in defense of her homeland. Despite a druid’s prophecy predicting that she will meet the same end as her sister, Fallon remains undaunted and determined to follow in Sorcha’s footsteps, hoping to one day join her father’s fighting force. She even turns down a marriage proposal from the boy she loves, knowing she must make her mark on the world before she could make such a commitment.
However, when the big day finally comes, instead of formally accepting Fallon into his war band, her father instead surprises everyone by announcing her betrothal to her true love’s brother, a Roman sympathizer. The king cites political reasons for his decision, and also because he cannot bear the thought of losing another daughter to war, but Fallon is unappeased and furious at what she sees as a betrayal.
At this point, you might think you know how this story will play out, or that all the components are laid out on the table. Within the first handful of chapters, we are introduced to a protagonist who has spent her entire life worshiping her older sister while also growing up in her shadow, and even after Sorcha’s death, all Fallon wants is to live up to her memory. Then there are the two boys around Fallon’s own age who for years have been fostered at her father’s castle, vying for Fallon’s affections. But while Fallon fell in love with one, her father decided to marry her off to the other. “Oh, this is a scenario that feels a little familiar,” I thought. “I have a few guesses about what might happen.”
Well, I was wrong about that. There were definitely plenty of surprises, a couple of which came very early on in the book too. I’m not going to spoil what they are, but suffice to say, they altered my predictions for the story entirely. Fallon ends up being captured by slavers and shipped off to Rome, where her steel resolve catches the attention of a representative for a school for female gladiators, and the rest, as they say, is history.
While The Valiant is marketed as a YA fantasy, in fact gladiatrices did exist in ancient Roman times, though they were very, very rare. They were seen more as novelties, according to the few accounts that have survived. And more than likely, they were not viewed or treated with the same regard as their male counterparts. No evidence either has been found of the training of female gladiators, or schools dedicated to them. So in a sense, this book does fall into the historical fantasy category, in the way it attempts to imagine a picture of what life would have been like if gladiatrices had been a big part of ancient Roman culture, in and out of the arena.
By combining history and elements from her own incredible imagination, the author brings the vivid world of The Valiant to life. Details are noticeably on the lighter side when it comes to setting, but Livingston makes up for it by creating an atmosphere that feels distinctly and authentically “Ancient Roman”, allowing readers to fill in any gaps with their own knowledge or understanding of the time period. I also loved the protagonist. At times, I might have found her a tad too melodramatic, but other than that, I don’t really have any major complaints about Fallon or any of the other characters. As I mentioned before, the story is sufficiently unpredictable and I was taken by surprise by a couple plot points. I might also have bemoaned the lack of gladiatorial fights in the first half of the book, but the second half showed me why it’s important to be patient. Towards the end, the ferocious action and the intense thrills succeeded in blowing me away.
In case you couldn’t tell, I loved this book. The category for my favorite YA novel of 2017 officially has its first contender, folks. If there’s any justice in the world, this book will be huge and it will deserve all the attention it gets. The future of this series promises to be exciting both on and off the arena floor, and I can’t wait to read more of Fallon and her sisterhood of ruthless and tough gladiators.
Audiobook Comments: I was lucky enough to be offered the audiobook of The Valiant for review, and I found it to be another splendid example of a fast-paced and addictive listen. Personally, thought the narrator Fiona Hardingham did a great job voicing Fallon’s story. I love her accent and the emotions she puts into her reading, and I would not hesitate to recommend The Valiant audiobook to anyone considering this format....more
The last couple years have seen me get a lot pickier with my choice of YA reads, the key reason being that originality is such a rare quality in the genre these days. That’s why when I first came upon the description of The Empress of a Thousand Skies, I thought it showed promise—because sometimes, it’s not what a book’s blurb says that seals the deal; it’s what it doesn’t say. Despite the synopsis being rather short and vague, I liked how it mainly focused on the roles of the characters themselves and the way these mini-profiles teased possibilities and potential.
First, we have the Empress—or soon-to-be Empress. Crown Princess Rhiannon Ta’an, affectionately known as Rhee, is the sole surviving heir to a powerful dynasty that has ruled the galaxy for hundreds of years. Today, on her sixteenth birthday, she will come of age and return to her seat of power to take back her rule, which a regent has been holding for her in trust ever since Rhee’s parents and older sister were killed in a starship crash. Everyone called it an accident, but Rhee knows in her heart that it was not. For the last ten years she has been training and preparing for this day, the day she will be crowned Empress so she can finally take revenge on the one who orchestrated her family’s death.
However, the enemy’s reach is long and before Rhee can reach her destination, she becomes the target of a last-ditch assassination attempt. Against all odds she manages to survive, but the official word gets out that she has been killed, with the deed being pinned on a well-known reality show star. Enter Alyosha, the Fugitive. Overnight, Aly goes from being adored by fans to becoming the most wanted man in the galaxy. Now he is on the run, desperate to clear his name and find out why he has been framed. Meanwhile, Rhee teams up with an unexpected ally on her quest for the truth, and together they forge ahead with her plans to expose a Madman and to stop them from plunging the galaxy into all-out war.
So, did Empress of a Thousand Skies meet my expectations? Well…yes and no. While I had a good time with the book, it also didn’t take me long to realize the story wasn’t going to blow me away in the originality department as I’d hoped it would. Books featuring that timeworn cliché of a sole surviving royal character seeking vengeance for their murdered family are a dime a dozen, and I was really hoping Rhee’s story was going to add something more to this, but it didn’t. In fact, the entire book was rather predictable, with a plot that felt heavily formulaic and on-rails like a theme park ride you’ve been on many times before. Overall, the book’s themes and messages were commonplace and relatively bland. Even the “twists” were pretty well scripted in advance, with foreshadowing that’s so obvious that anyone paying close attention will know exactly what’s coming.
There was also this sense that the author wanted us to like her protagonist, and yet the story never failed to drive home Rhee’s many shortcomings every chance it could, with an almost cruel consistency. I wanted to root for Rhee, I really did, but the writing itself made that hard to do when it was constantly reminding me what a spoiled and sheltered princess she was, whose naiveté always steered her wrong or made her plans seem half-baked and ineffectual. Poor girl could never catch a break.
And yet, you know how there are movies you can watch over and over again without getting bored, the ones you can still enjoy even when you can recite all the lines and know when everything’s going to happen? Reading this book was a little like that. No matter how predictable the story got, I never stopped having fun with it. There was also enough to keep me interested, especially Aly’s chapters which offered a more unique point of view. And while world-building was a little lacking, there were a still a number of details that jumped out at me, such as the cool tech or the political relationships between the different cultures. It would be nice to see the next book elaborate on these areas.
For a YA novel, Empress of a Thousand Skies doesn’t bring anything terribly new to the table, but it’s still a pretty solid debut. The book was fun despite its flaws, the main ones being the story’s predictability and the weak development of the main character, but all that can be overlooked if you’re just looking for an entertaining read. It is the first of a planned duology and I am definitely planning on seeing it through to the end.
Audiobook Comments: As an audiobook, Empress of a Thousand Skies was the listening equivalent of “unputdownable”. Because their stories are relatively straightforward, I find that YA novels typically make for very fast and addictive listens, and this one was no exception. I’m also no stranger to the work of Rebecca Soler, one of my favorite audiobook narrators, having been a fan of hers since listening to her read Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles series. Since she always puts everything into her performances, I couldn’t imagine Soler bringing anything but her A-game to this one, and I was right....more
I’m deeply ashamed to admit this, but I had not actually read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin before picking up this anthology. From the moment I saw The Found and the Lost though, I knew it would be the perfect chance for me to rectify the situation. For the first time ever, every novella published by this renowned fantasy and science fiction icon can be found in one place, together at last in this gorgeous hardcover collection.
Here’s the full list of the stories, and what I thought of them:
Vaster than Empires and More Slow – A group of scientists journey to a distant planet on a mission of exploration and research, bringing along with them an empath whose role is to detect the presence of intelligent life once they arrive. However, his sensitivity to his co-workers’ emotions makes him an ornery crewmate to be around, causing much tension among the team. What a great opening story to grab the reader’s attention and kick off this anthology. It is intensely gripping and atmospheric. Fear plays a huge role in this story—fear of the unknown and of what we don’t understand. It’s a subject that carries through well, ultimately culminating into a somewhat abrupt but unexpectedly poignant ending.
Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight – Inspired by the magic of animals and their relationship with humans, this story tells of a young girl who becomes lost in the desert of the American Southwest. She is rescued by Coyote and brought to a community of animal characters who are effectively like people—a perspective I found both fascinating and a bit difficult to wrap my head around. Drawing heavily from Native American folklore, Le Guin creates a world that blends reality with mysticism, and the results are quite often surreal but also breathtakingly beautiful.
Hernes – “Hernes” is not among my favorites in this anthology, but it is nonetheless intriguing and thought provoking. Covering the lives of four generations of women, the story weaves together multiple tales of love, ambition, heartbreak, and self-discovery. It can be somewhat confusing at first to see how all the threads tie together, but I loved the author’s empathetic treatment of her characters’ struggles as well as her portrayal of the mother-daughter relationships by alluding to the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone.
A Matter of Seggri – Seggri is a world where the number of females is six times greater than the number of males. For the most part the two sexes live completely separate lives, with the women making their homes in medieval-style villages while the men dwell in castles. While this story pulls us back into science fiction territory, it also features the author’s none-too-subtle endeavor to explore the nature of gender roles. At first, it may seem that the men on Seggri have it all—they compete in sports games to entertain themselves, later basking in the adoration of the females who want them to sire their children. As it soon turns out, however, the situation is much more complicated. This story wasn’t among my favorites either, but there are certain elements that I think will hit hard emotionally.
Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea – Hideo grew up listening to his mother tell him the legend about the fisherman who was seduced by a sea-princess only to return home afterwards to discover that centuries have passed. When Hideo later on becomes a physicist, he has the opportunity to embark on a journey that involves faster-than-light travel, and thus the connections between the fairy tale and the main character’s own life are revealed. The concept of time dilation or time warping often provides interesting twists in these kinds of stories, and I suppose this one is no exception, though after reading it I couldn’t shake this feeling that something was missing. Later on, I discovered this was supposed to be a companion story to a couple others that were published in another anthology. While I enjoyed this one well enough, I wonder if I would have liked it more if I had gotten the context from the other stories.
Forgiveness Day – Speaking of interconnected stories, I believe these next three were all first published together in an anthology called Four Ways to Forgiveness. They have several themes in common, namely those that surround the subjects of slavery and freedom, suppression and liberation, order and rebellion. I loved “Forgiveness Day”, which tells of an envoy named Solly who travels to another world and is assigned a bodyguard named Teyeo. The two of them are water and oil from the start, though as the story progresses we are given an opportunity to see the situation from both points of view. I liked this one’s message about individual biases and how personal histories are shaped by experience. To sympathize with others we first must change our own way of thinking, and that starts with looking within ourselves.
A Man of the People – The narrator in this story spent his childhood growing up in the rural and sheltered community before heading out to discover all there is in the wider world. This is a tale featuring themes of freedom but also highlights the idea that we should never forget our pasts. I liked how much this one added to the discourse about the importance of empathy and involvement.
A Woman’s Liberation – This story has strong ties to the last, and really should be considered together. Both feature protagonists who have complicated histories and struggle with their individual identities, questioning who they are and what they want. I liked this one a little more, however, due to the voice of the main character—a woman who is born an “asset”, or a slave—as well as her point of view on the issues that were covered in these last three stories.
Old Music and the Slave Women – This one shines a spotlight on Old Music, a character who appeared briefly in one of the previous stories. Here he gets to tell his own tale about slavery, courage, and revolution. While it was nice being able to revisit this character again, truthfully it was hard to get into the narrative because of the slower pacing and muddled presentation of ideas.
The Finder – This one will probably hold more significance for fans of Earthsea since it takes place long ago in that world, chronicling the life of a young shipbuilder boy who manifests magical abilities. Like the other stories, the prose here is richly detailed and evocative, though my attention started waning as we drew closer to the end. It’s a shame because this story has a lot going for it, but it might have dragged on for a little too long.
On the High Marsh – Another tale from Earthsea, I had a hard time getting into this one as well because of a lack of connection I felt to the main character Ged (who I later learned was an Archmage of the Roke magic school, the origins of which were covered in “The Finder”). That said, I don’t often do well with side stories like this that focus on characters or events from the main books of a series.
Dragonfly – After struggling a little with the last few stories, “Dragonfly” was one that swept me off my feet. This third Earthsea story also appears tie into the main series; more specifically, I hear it’s sometimes been called a “postscript” to Tehanu, and again I wonder if I would have gotten even more out of it had I read the book first. I loved the eponymous main character, an earnest girl who is also a bit rough around the edges from being raised by an angry, alcoholic father. Through sheer persistence and courage though, she manages to gain entry into Roke, an all-male magic school. Overall, I really enjoyed this story’s themes, especially its message about the power of women’s magic and how a little determination can go a long way.
Paradises Lost – This one is about a generation ship and explores what it means for the people who are born and raised aboard during the long voyage. These are the generations descended from the original pilgrims, but it is their own descendants that will reach the final destination, not them. Le Guin speculates how this would affect the travelers both emotionally and spiritually, and the kind of society they might create. I love stories about generation ships and colonization, and this is perhaps one of the more philosophical ones I’ve read. There’s compassion and realism in it too as Le Guin gets right down to the issues that really matter to the people in that situation, and asks the questions that many other authors don’t address.
For Le Guin fans, this anthology is a must. But for new readers too, there is a lot to love. It’s true that some of the stories are better than others, and there are even a few that, when taken out of their original context, might be a little confusing especially if you’re unfamiliar with the author’s different worlds and cycles, but overall it serves as a great introduction to her style and the themes she writes about.
More importantly, the stories in here are an excellent showcase of the author’s astounding talent and deepness of thought, proving why her work has remained so beloved throughout the decades. Reading this was an absolute gift....more
The first time I ever laid eyes on The Secret Life of Souls, I actually thought it would be a contemporary feel-good story about dogs. But then again, I’ve also never read a Jack Ketchum novel before, and was completely unfamiliar with his work. A quick search on Goodreads brought me to his author bio (which proudly proclaims that his first book Off Season was once scolded by the Village Voice for being “violent pornography”), prompting a swift re-evaluation of my first impression. Still, nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. Short this book might have been, but sweet it wasn’t. And while it might not have been strictly horror, certain parts of it were certainly horrifying.
The story begins with an introduction to Delia Cross, her twin brother Robbie, their dad Bart, and mom Pat. Talk about your dysfunctional family! On the surface, everything looks copacetic. Delia is a talented child actor, already making a name for herself at eleven years old. In fact, she’s so successful that she’s the sole breadwinner for her entire family. Pat, a former drama student, is now living a life of stardom vicariously through her daughter, pushing Delia hard through her numerous appointments and driving them both to and from auditions and film shoots. Bart on the other hand does nothing but spends his days in the garage obsessing over his muscle car and shopping online for “great deals”, squandering his daughter’s earnings on things they don’t need. And when it comes to quiet and mild-mannered Robbie, it would appear he is happy as long as his family is happy, apparently content to let his sister take all the attention.
But underneath this picture of success is a festering bitterness, and everyone around Delia is too self-absorbed or in denial to see the truth. The only one who seems to have any clue what’s going on is Caity, the Crosses’ two-year-old Queensland Heeler. This gifted dog is also confidante and best friend to Delia, who hasn’t had a chance to make many friends her own age due to her rigorous schedule and being tutored at home. Everyone else seems to have a plan for Delia, not caring how she feels about it. Not surprisingly, all those toxic ambitions finally come to a head on the eve of Delia’s biggest gig yet when a terrible tragedy befalls her and Caity, causing the collapse of everything the Cross family had come to take for granted and leaving their future in jeopardy.
The Secret Life of Souls gave me all the feels—and they weren’t necessarily all good ones either. Believe it or not though, that’s sometimes a positive thing. After all, I would take a story that gives me raw, painful or visceral emotions over one that leaves me cold any day, and say what you want about this book, but it definitely evoked some powerful reactions. Case in point, I wasn’t even halfway through this novel when I became almost overcome by this blinding urge to go berserker mode on nearly everyone in it. In case you ever need a reminder on how much people can suck sometimes, just look to Pat and Bart Cross. I’d be even angrier at them if they weren’t so pitiful, these two clueless, selfish parents who are clearly stuck in the past. Bart is immature and irresponsible, driven by instant gratification and delusions of being a bold “risk-taker”. Pat is even worse, encompassing all the most reprehensible stereotypes of the aggressive, domineering stage mother. Meanwhile, poor Robbie is relegated to the sidelines, an already introverted child further marginalized by his oblivious, materialistic parents.
So many times while reading this book, I just wanted to yell and scream and hit something, but thankfully in the middle of all this darkness there were also many points of light. The story is told through half a dozen or so POVs, switching frequently between them so that we could get into everybody’s heads—including the dog’s. Caity and Delia’s sections were the best—and not just because they were two of only a handful of characters I didn’t want to punch repeatedly in the face. From their POVs, I could sense the pure and uncomplicated love between a girl and her dog. The two of them have a special bond, Caity loving Delia the only way a dog would, without demanding anything in return.
For that alone, I would probably recommend this book to dog lovers, with the caveat that some parts can be very difficult, very disturbing to read. This is a tragic story that’s heartbreaking at the best of times, and yet there is a beautiful, mesmerizing quality to it too, perhaps even a beacon of hope once you look past all the human evilness. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded a bit more elucidation on this point, since everything seems to go to hell in the last twenty pages, with the intended goal of the epilogue coming off as scant comfort after watching everything spiral out of control like that.
All told, The Secret Life of Souls was an eye-opening read—highly emotional and gut-wrenching, even maddening in places, but that just goes to show how deeply, effectively Ketchum and McKee have managed to draw me into their story. This was a book I simply couldn’t put down....more
Over the years I’ve had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Richard A. Knaak. No stranger to his tie-in fiction, I have tried most of his novels for the World of Warcraft franchise, a couple of which were pretty solid, but just as many have been utter disappointments. But still, I was intrigued when I first learned about Reaper’s Eye. While the Pathfinder Tales series comprises the official stories based on the Pathfinder RPG, I also think authors might be less restricted when it comes to exploring their own characters, settings, and aspects of the various peoples and cultures in this world—which often leads to more interesting storytelling compared to other books based on a media property.
Reaper’s Eye follows a team of adventurers on a quest to a lost temple to stop an ancient threat from being released. One of our main characters is Daryus Gaunt, a former crusader who deserted his unit after disagreeing with a battlefield decision. He has been on the run ever since, constantly keeping an eye over his shoulder lest his past catch up with him. However, old habits die hard, and one night he finds himself charging into the thick of battle in response to a cry for help, only to discover later that the victim he rescued is a strange talking weasel named Toy. Taking the little animal at face value, Daryus takes it home and listens to Toy’s disturbing tale of an evil witch with a scheme to unleash disaster upon the world.
Meanwhile, our other protagonist Shiera Tristane is an ambitious archaeologist working on a plan to win herself the glory she feels she deserves. Her hopes are finally answered when she uncovers a mysterious artifact marked with some curious symbols, but translating them only brings more questions. She is soon commissioned to go on an expedition to find out more, and one of her first tasks is to find a bodyguard for the journey, which is how Shiera ends up hiring Daryus. Desperate to get out of the city, Daryus isn’t too interested in the specifics of the mission, happy enough to collect his fee and take himself and Toy onto the road.
Perhaps having several Pathfinder Tales novels under my belt now has made me a lot pickier about them, but Reaper’s Eye was probably one of the weaker ones I’ve read. It also didn’t help that this one followed the incredible Shy Knives by Sam Sykes, which is bar none the best Pathfinder book I’ve read thus far. Knaak’s characters simply didn’t capture my attention the same way. Daryus and Shiera were decent characters, but neither of them achieved greatness as both their backstories and personalities were relatively uninspired. The protagonists’ motivations were also hardly explored, so we only get the surface-level understanding of why they’re doing the things they claim are important to them. Ditto for the villain. In fact, the only one that really interested me was Toy, and let’s just say there’s something seriously wrong when your most engaging character is a talking weasel.
To Knaak’s credit though, he’s incredibly skilled when it comes to writing action scenes, which are good enough to carry the story. The plot itself isn’t overly complex, but it works for providing simple popcorn entertainment. Now also might be a good time for me to clarify that I don’t think this is a bad book—it is fun and it delivers what I think the audience expects—but it’s clear that the newer, better, and more inspiring crop of tie-in novels that have been released in recent years are leaving books like Reaper’s Eye behind. The bar has been raised, and readers like me are expecting a lot more now.
Simply put, if you’ve never read anything in the Pathfinder Tales sequence, this isn’t bad, but compared to some of the other really good ones I’ve read, it falls only in the mediocre range. In sum, I would recommend reading Reaper’s Eye if you’re a fan of the series or the author, but probably not if you’re new to the world of Pathfinder fiction and are curious to pick up your first Pathfinder Tales novel. Since most of the books are written as standalones, you aren’t going to be limited to any kind of strict reading order, and in my opinion there are better ones out there that will make a better and more enjoyable starting point....more
The Mirror’s Truth is a sequel that builds upon everything that made the first book so great and all-consuming, featuring storylines and characters that are grittier, twistier, and even more insane. In other words, it’s even more fucked up than Beyond Redemption…and I loved it.
“War isn’t insanity, it’s the base state for all reality. Plants war for sunlight. Animals war for food and water. Wolves battle to decide who leads the pack. All life is struggle.
Peace, now that is insanity.”
You didn’t actually think it was over for our protagonists, did you? In the world of Manifest Delusions, death is only the beginning. Bedeckt, Stehlen, and Wichtig are back, following the complete and utter bloodbath that was the end of the first book. Only now, they’ve emerged even more brutal, bloodthirsty and psychotic than ever before.
It all started when the old and wretched Bedeckt, filled with the sudden horror of his actions, decided that he could not go through with the plans he had made. Now he must undo the damage caused by his weakness and do whatever it takes to stop Morgan, the mad child who has become a god. And if it takes abandoning his companions to the eternal greyness of the Afterdeath, then so be it.
Not surprisingly, Stehlen and Wichtig react none too kindly to that idea. Livid at being left behind, the murderous Kleptic and the self-styled Best Swordsman in the World decide to make clandestine deals of their own, returning to the world of the living in order track down Bedeckt and make him pay—slowly and painfully.
With friends like these, who needs enemies? At the same time though, it would be a mistake to dismiss these characters so casually. They may be insane, but they are deep. Beyond Redemption would not have been such a wildly successful book in my eyes if our protagonists had merely been the vile, monstrous degenerates they appeared to be on the surface. Instead, Michael R. Fletcher drew me in with the complexity of their personalities and relationships, and I was glad he continued to build upon these in the sequel. While Bedeckt, Stehlen, and Wichtig spend much of this book apart, we are still treated to the fascinating inner workings of their deep, dark scary minds.
In fact, with the chapters basically alternating between their POVs, each of the three are essentially given their own storyline thus giving way to a lot more character development on an individual level. The Bedeckt we used to know has become transformed, no longer just an old jaded thief looking to end his financial troubles once and for all with the score of a lifetime. Now he is a man wracked with guilt and grief, struggling to keep what morals (and sanity) he has left. We also get to see a softer side of Stehlen—and if you’ve read the first book, you’ll understand why I just burst into incredulous giggles while typing that—but believe it or not, it is true; the psycho kleptomaniac woman actually has feelings that go beyond wanting to slit your throat and steal your shit. And finally, there’s Wichtig, perhaps the most complicated of them all. Of the three protagonists, he’s the only one whose past is explored in depth, and I also find the story surrounding his delusion of being the world’s best swordsman to be extremely compelling.
And of course, I am once again floored by the originality and excellence in the world-building. People always complain about the same tired old tropes in fantasy and the lack of fresh ideas when it comes to magic systems and powers. To them I say, “Take some Manifest Delusions and call me in the morning.” Fletcher has done an incredible job creating this world where magic is madness, and those who are the most powerful are also the most unhinged. It’s a premise ripe for all kinds of ruckus and mayhem, and this sequel pushes the envelope even further.
Plot-wise, The Mirror’s Truth is simpler in some ways, but it is also stranger, bloodier, and more violent. The conclusion, however, was the best part. With that ending, Michael R. Fletcher might have just single-handedly redefined the word “insane”. Seriously.
I think it’s safe to say those who enjoyed Beyond Redemption will also love this sequel, and after all this waiting and uncertainty, I’m glad that The Mirror’s Truth has finally found its way into readers’ hands. Manifest Delusions is not so much a hidden gem, but rather an absolute treasure trove of a series to fans of grimdark. By the end of this one you will be begging for more....more
This year, if you’re involved in one or more of the many diversity reading challenges out there or simply encouraging yourself to check out more diverse reads, I hope you’ll consider Dreadnought. Books like this one have a relevant place in our world today for their role in celebrating LGBT voices and spreading awareness, and I think what excited me most was the depth of our protagonist and the way her story was told.
Fifteen Danny Tozer has always known in her mind and in her heart that she is a girl, even if her body says otherwise. The crushing anxiety of trying to keep people from finding out she’s transgender has been building lately, which is why at the start of this book, she finds herself hiding behind the mall secretly painting her toenails—holding onto this one thing she can control. That’s when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the world’s greatest superhero known as Dreadnought literally falls out of the sky and lands right in front of her. Gravely injured by a supervillain named Utopia, Dreadnought knows his time is near, so with his dying breath he passes his powers on to Danny.
In that moment, Danny is changed. Becoming the new Dreadnought has not only granted the amazing superpowers that come with the role, but it has also transformed her body into what she’s always thought it should be, the girl she has always been inside. For Danny, this is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to her, though that happiness is quickly dampened when faced with the hostile reactions of her overbearing father who refuses to accept her new identity. At school, her best friend David is also suddenly treating her differently, saying and doing these awful things. Furthermore, Danny has realized that the mantle of Dreadnought comes with certain responsibilities—like saving the world. Sure enough, it’s not long before the superhero team Legion comes knocking at her door trying to recruit her, and the offer has Danny feeling torn. She knows she wants to help people, but she’s just not sure she wants to be the kind of hero the Legion wants her to be.
At its heart, Dreadnought is a superhero novel—it’s fun, fast-paced, and action-packed. But as you can see, there’s also a lot more to the story, and the conflicts here are complex and multi-faceted. I liked how this book incorporated the superhero elements while at the same time using Danny’s super-powered transformation and the accompanying acquisition of Dreadnought’s abilities as an allegory for a person coming out as transgender. April Daniels has done a fantastic job exploring Danny’s story, especially in detailing her internal struggles, her hopes and joys, fears and doubts. I can’t even pretend to understand how it feels for teens in that situation, but reading about Danny was definitely an emotional journey. Her character is well-written, deeply developed and very real.
Plot-wise, Dreadnought is an entertaining read. Momentum took some time to build, but when Danny meets the Legion, I think that was when the story really hit its stride. I loved Doc Impossible, and the banter between her and Danny during their first major scene together quickly made her one of my favorite side characters. Another thing I loved about this book was the female friendship. While Danny considers Legion’s offer to join up, she meets up with another “greycape” hero named Calamity (and I have a serious weakness for cowgirl-themed heroes) and the two of them take it upon themselves to help those who slip through the cracks of the Legion’s watch. They have a great dynamic together, and the excitement ramps up as the duo decide they have what it takes to take down Utopia themselves.
But for all its strengths, the story also has its weaknesses. There were parts of it that felt a little too clichéd or unconvincing. For example, other than Danny and maybe a couple other characters, no one else was all that fleshed out, and they were treated more like props than real people. Take the Legion—we hear about all their great deeds and how they’re the most powerful superhero team in the world, but of course at the moment of truth they are rendered useless so that our protagonist can conveniently step up to save the day. Portrayal of characters like David, Graywytch, or Danny’s parents are also extreme to the point where they sometimes felt like caricatures of caricatures. While people like that certainly exist, the way they were written in this book felt scripted and done for the sake of pushing the story along. The author also did more telling than showing, with rocky prose in places and pages of info-dumping being a frequent issue early on in the novel. Finally, world-building felt sparse and glossed over, and throughout the book I couldn’t help but experience this disconnect to the wider world beyond.
All told though, I enjoyed Dreadnought a lot. It’s an eye-opening book featuring a wonderfully developed and genuine protagonist. This is the origin story about how she became the eponymous superhero, and it is an unforgettable journey of action and emotion. What a promising start, with much potential for the rest of the Nemesis series!...more
Impending apocalypse. A heart-pounding Space Race. Political thrills. Oceans of Storms has all this and more, and it is also a story made up of many different parts. With scenes and situations reminiscent of movies like Independence Day, Armageddon, or Jurassic Park, the book also felt to me a lot like a Hollywood summer blockbuster in prose form. Indeed, looking back at the notes I took while reading, the thing that kept cropping up in my comments and descriptions was the word “cinematic”.
It all began with the moon. But of course, when the massive electromagnetic pulse ripped across Earth, knocking out power globally, no one knew the cause. It wasn’t until later that scientists determined that the EMP originated from our planet’s closest neighbor, where a powerful explosion had exposed something buried deep beneath the lunar surface. Based on early findings and analysis, at the bottom of this newly created fissure is an extremely large and technologically advanced object that has been on the moon for at least two million years. Which means whatever it is, it couldn’t have been placed there by human beings. Moreover, the discovery was accompanied with a message: coordinates to a location somewhere on the vast lunar mare called the Ocean of Storms.
Not surprisingly, the news causes worldwide chaos and panic. In response, the US vows to launch a manned mission to the lunar coordinates to investigate the source of the power surge. Problem is, budget cuts over the years have gutted NASA’s space program, putting them far behind where they need to be to make that possible. Meanwhile, the Chinese are way ahead, sending rockets to survey the moon from orbit, though they lack the lander technology—technology that the US has. To prevent further widespread unrest, the two countries’ space programs have no choice but to team up amidst the burgeoning cold war between their governments because the answers on the moon are too important to let politics get in the way. Knowing as well that they might find the remnants of an ancient civilization, two American archaeologists and a Chinese forensic anthropologist also join the team in the hopes of finding out who or what might have been responsible for the mysterious signal.
Before I begin, I have a confession to make. Archaeology and Anthropology are my pet subjects and my college specializations so as soon as I saw that a couple of “maverick archaeologists” were among the main characters of this book, I knew I had to read it. Relatively speaking though, neither the scientific or technological aspects were really all that weighty here, but there’s certainly enough to tickle readers’ interests. I also found the story easy to get into, and I very much enjoyed the mashup of sci-fi elements together with the thrills and suspense.
I think if the authors had stayed on this course, the book would have been even more compelling. I loved how things started with a bang, and that burst of momentum was continued by the mystery of the discovery on the moon. As I mentioned before, there was also a cinematic quality to the story that I really enjoyed. Sure, the characters might not be all that deep, and the overall premise might be too farfetched or unconvincing, but I have I to say I didn’t mind too much. I picked up this book for the same reason millions flock to see the big-budget, special-effects laden films that dominate the box office every year—to be entertained. And for the most part, I think Ocean of Storms succeeded. Without giving away any spoilers, I would say the book only stumbled in the second half, when the story shifted away from the big action and suspense to focus instead on convoluted government conspiracies, dubious physics, and going a little too overboard with paleoanthropological theory.
To the book’s credit though, I never once found it boring. Suffice to say, I think the authors wanted Ocean of Storms to be the literary equivalent of the “big-budget, special-effects laden blockbuster” and had a boatload of great ideas to make it so, but ultimately they might have taken it a little too far. There’s just not enough room to make all these pieces fit together coherently, so while the end result is certainly captivating, it unfortunately also feels somewhat disjointed.
Still, in spite of my complaints, Ocean of Storms was a damn fun read and I do not regret the time I spent with it. I loved the concept, even if its execution was a bit off and the science was a little flimsy. Let’s just say you aren’t likely to be bowled over by its literary merits, but if you’re simply looking to kick back with an entertaining, high-octane sci-fi thriller, then you’ve come to the right place. Overall a really enjoyable, if at times flawed, read....more
I’m always up for a good changeling story, and Alison Littlewood is an author I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. Thus when I found out about The Hidden People, I saw this book as the perfect place to start. There’s no doubt that the story is utterly atmospheric, full of the kind of beautiful, exquisite detail that slowly creeps up on you. Littlewood also writes wonderfully and has a flair for bringing a historical setting to life. And yet…I don’t know if I felt as fully engaged as I could be. This book had all the elements of a dark historical mystery or good horror tale, but lacked the pacing of one, and I think that’s where it might have missed its mark.
It is 1851 when a young Albie meets his cousin Lizzie for the first time at the Great Exhibition. It was a grand day of celebration for industry, modern technology, invention and design, but Albie only had Lizzie on his mind, and there she stayed for many, many years even though the two of them never saw each other again.
Fast forward to 1862, Albie is just sitting down to dinner with his wife Helena when his father breaks the horrible news: Lizzie, Albie’s pretty cousin that he met more than ten years ago, is dead. She was burned to death by her husband, who claimed his wife had been replaced by a changeling. Enraged and grieving, Albie takes it upon himself to visit the village where Lizzie had lived in order to pay his respects and seek justice. But upon his arrival, he is shocked and even more furious to see how deeply superstitious the people are. His cousin hasn’t even been buried yet, left in her twisted and charred state. And during the funeral, no one showed up. It appears that all the talk of magic and fairies is more than just that; the villagers actually believe that Lizzie has been fae-touched and is now anathema.
But Albie’s obsession with Lizzie means he is unable to let this injustice stand. He refuses to leave the village, even when his wife Helena comes to join him for the funeral and then tries to convince him to let it all go and return to his own life and family. After all, she reminds him, he’s only met his cousin once and that was more than a decade ago.
But apparently, Lizzie made quite an impression on Albie. The problem was, no one around him was convinced, and to be honest, neither was I. It’s unfortunate that this sets the precedent for the rest of the book, but also not surprising, considering the entire basis for Albie’s obsession rests on this one scene at the start of the book which lasts no more than seven pages. We’re told that Lizzie’s beauty, sweetness and charisma got under our protagonist’s skin and stayed with him for many years, but I never believed it. This huge disconnect made it hard for me to understand a key part of what made the main character tick, and as such it made sympathizing with him throughout the novel an uphill battle—especially when his preoccupation with Lizzie started straining his marriage.
Then there was the pacing. While I loved the dark, haunting, gothic style of The Hidden People, the story itself was very slow to build, taking away from the tensions the author was trying to convey. Littlewood’s prose is gorgeous, and she paints a detailed picture of rural village life in the mid-1800s complete with the different dialects and other cultural nuances, but the meticulous nature of her writing style also makes it difficult to stay engaged. That’s a shame because there’s really an excellent story in here, but I also can’t deny that at times I struggled with the restrained speed at which the plot unfolded.
Still, I’m happy I got to discover Alison Littlewood’s beautiful writing, and despite the book’s flaws I thought The Hidden People was worth my time. There’s a lot of good stuff in here too, a lot to counter the quibbles. If you have an interest in the time period and the subject matter, I strongly encourage you to take a look....more
Children of the Different is the fantasy debut from author S.C. Flynn that has been making some waves around the blogosphere, and I was delighted when I discovered that it was also available in audiobook format. The reality of the busy fall season means these days I find myself with less time to curl up with book; it’s much more likely that I’m bustling around listening to one in my ear, rather than actually sitting down turning the pages. Needless to say I immediately leapt upon the opportunity to review this one, especially since I’ve been curious about it for a while.
The first thing that struck me was the uniqueness of the setting. Post-apocalyptic novels are a big trend these days—especially in the Young Adult genre—but Children of the Different manages to avoid clichés and stand out with its offbeat approach. First, I really like that the book takes place in south-western Australia, in a forest where our protagonists live. Arika and her twin brother Narrah were born after “The Great Madness”, a catastrophic event that happened nineteen years ago, unleashing a brain disease that decimated the earth’s population. Curiously though, many of the survivors were those who had brain diseases or mental conditions from the world before, and came out of the Great Madness miraculously cured. Others, unfortunately, were transformed into cannibalistic zombie-like monsters called “Ferals”.
And now, children born into this new reality are at risk. At the start of their adolescence, all of them must experience a trance called the “The Changing”, a process which sends their consciousness into a dreamscape. At the end of that journey, they either emerge endowed with a special mental power…or they become Feral. After the intro of this book, both Arika and Narrah have come out of their Changings, thankfully with their minds intact, but the things they saw in the Changeland have shaken them, terrified them. A malicious force known as the Echidna, or the anteater, has fixated its attention on the twins. In order to survive, the siblings will have to rely on their newfound powers, and their love for each other, to face and defeat this nebulous new threat.
I’ll admit, because so much of the beginning dealt with the Changing and what our characters experienced in the Changeland, it took me a while to find my bearings and get a feel for this story. I don’t always do well with metaphysical themes in fantasy, and many of the scenes described during the dreamscape sections came dangerously close to being too weird for me to handle.
My initial confusion ebbed, however, once we got past the introduction and into the meat of the story. I liked how the author linked the concept of the Great Madness and the Changing to the post-apocalyptic world, creating a premise which feels at once familiar and but also very fresh. It’s a nice blend of many genres, with themes from both sci-fi and fantasy mingling happily together, and hey, why not throw in some elements from the zombie horror genre as well, or even some survival suspense-thriller?
And no doubt about it, a huge part of the book’s appeal also comes from its atmosphere. I have not been back to Australia in many years, but I still have fond memories of my visit to its cities and wilderness. While the version of Australia in Children of the Different may be a crumbling, lawless place and civilization is virtually nonexistent after the devastation of The Great Madness, S.C. Flynn still retains some of the setting’s charm in the diversity of the landscape, wildlife, and culture of the survivors.
It’s worth noting as well that, even though the book’s description makes no statement whether this is an adult or YA novel, I think it would work well for both audiences. It’s true that this book stars teenage protagonists and has strong coming-of-age vibes, but for readers who are open to those themes, I think this story would have good crossover appeal.
Finally, because I reviewed the audiobook, I just want to end with some comments about the narration. I’m really glad I got to experience the novel in this format, because I the narrator Stephen Briggs was absolutely fantastic. He does amazing accents for the characters, giving readers that extra layer of immersion with his performance. The production team could not have chosen a better reader for this novel, and if you are curious about checking out Children of the Different, I would highly recommend the audio edition....more
What a fun little book! Not to be missed by fans of Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, but even if you don’t follow the series, it might be worth taking a look. When this novella landed in my lap, I briefly debated whether or not I should read it, since I am woefully behind on the main series and I know a lot has happened to the characters since I last visited this world. I worried that I would get too confused or lost.
Well, for readers who might be wrestling with the same doubts, let me put your minds at ease: no prerequisite reading is required before jumping into this one. Of course, if it would help if you know a little of the basic foundation behind the Iron Druid Chronicles, i.e. our protagonist is Atticus O’Sullivan, a 2,000-year-old druid living in modern times with his faithful Irish wolfhound Oberon. Everything else is going to be pretty easy to pick up along the way, not to mention The Purloined Poodle is a whole different animal anyway. Pun absolutely intended.
For one thing, the entirety of the tale is told through the eyes of a dog. That’s right, Oberon fans, urban fantasy’s most popular pooch gets his very own book. In the main series, Atticus’ ancient druidic status gives him access to a full suite of nifty powers, including shapeshifting and having an ability to commune with the natural world. That also extends to being able to talk with his dog, and in every Iron Druid book I’ve read so far, Atticus and Oberon’s conversations always manage to become the highlight. This probably goes without saying, but if you find the two’s psychic exchanges as entertaining as I do, then you will love this.
What I enjoyed most about this novella was how “dog-like” Hearne managed to sound while writing from the POV of Oberon. I was laughing from the very first page, reading about his thoughts on canine butt-sniffing etiquette. Like his human, Oberon is also well-versed in all forms of geek culture, so expect tons of pop-culture references. But humor is only one part of this equation; the story quickly builds into a mystery, as a routine walk through the park leads to Oberon and his owner to discover a string of abductions in the Pacific Northwest involving prizewinning dogs. Local police already have their hands full dealing with people cases, so it’s up to Oberon to convince Atticus to help the victims’ owners to look for their stolen pets.
Right away, I knew I’d missed some key events in our characters’ lives, since the last time I saw them they were still in Arizona. The main cast seems to have expanded a bit too. Happily, these are just background details. This novella is part of the main series timeline, but it’s probably more accurate to call this one a short side-story, a lighthearted little detour. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t caught up anyway, because we’re not going to be focusing on the humans too much.
Not only is this narrative all about the dogs, I simply love how this book portrays the relationship between Oberon and Atticus. It’s clear that the two of them are best friends who dote upon each other, and when latter indulges the former, I can’t help but think of one of my own dogs, who’s also a big, lovable goofball like Oberon. It just makes me want to take this book and shove it into the hands of all my dog-lover friends, because I know they will appreciate the beauty of the human-dog bond that Hearne captures here so well.
And like I said, the story is also entertaining and funny as hell. Knowing what I do about its doggy protagonist, I went into The Purloined Poodle expecting a few chuckles, but Oberon really brought down the house with this one. I was impressed that an entire story told from his perspective would work so well, figuring that being inside his head would start to get on my nerves or his narrative get stale after the first twenty minutes. Not so, though. The novella format was well-suited for a story like this—just long enough to be satisfying, but also short and sweet enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome.
Dog lovers, urban fantasy enthusiasts, and Iron Druid fans take note: if you are one or any combination of the above, I would highly recommend reading The Purloined Poodle. It won’t take long and it’s the perfect escape; a great way to spend a rainy afternoon or a quiet evening in, curled up on the couch with your special fur baby and this wonderful little novella....more
Penric and the Shaman is another bite-sized adventure starring Lord Penric and Desdemona, though four years have passed since that fateful day the two “met” on the road. Our eponymous protagonist has become a full-fledged sorcerer and a divine of the Bastard’s Order, having earned his braids. Now working in the court of the Princess-Archdivine, Penric is content with as a temple scholar spending his days poring over books and scrolls.
However, the peace is broken one day when a Locator of the Father’s Order named Oswyl shows up, hot on the trail of a murder suspect. The wanted man is also purported to be a shaman who has stolen the soul of his slain victim, preventing the dead man’s ghost from being claimed by one of the five gods. After appealing to the Princess-Archdivine for the services of a sorcerer, Oswyl gets assigned Penric, and together with a small group of guards they travel into the mountains in search of the fugitive.
As we soon discover though, nothing is as it seems. This book is told from the points-of-view of three characters: Penric, Oswyl, and Inglis. This last perspective is from the titular shaman himself, the alleged murderer who actually turns out to be a lot more than he appears. When we first meet him early on in the story, his desperation feels different from what you would expect from a truly guilty man.
The three threads here provide a larger picture than what we got from the first novella, which mainly focused on the developing relationship between Penric and Desdemona. This does mean the demon has a smaller role, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly disappointed by her diminished presence. As usual though, Bujold’s characters are her forte, and this book is stronger because of the fascinating dynamics resulting from the increased number of POVs. Penric’s cheeriness, for example, was nicely juxtaposed by Oswyl’s dour and mirthless demeanor. Pen can’t help being the happy-go-lucky nice guy that he is, and half the fun was watching how easily he could push the Locator’s buttons.
Even more groundbreaking were the revelations presented here about shamans and sorcerers, implying strongly that Inglis’ powers may be the flip side of the same coin to Penric’s. We’re also reminded that Penric is more than just a sorcerer; he’s also a divine, and now he’s about to go up against a challenge that will take all his learned skills and abilities. As a sequel, Penric and the Shaman does a first-rate job growing our protagonist and expanding upon his unique role.
Bottom line, this series is a must-read for fans of Bujold’s fantasy, and the best part is, you can even read these two books by themselves, completely separate from the Chalion series. If you’re curious about the World of the Five Gods, this could also be a fine place to start. These charming little novellas feature everything I love about the author’s writing, and don’t underestimate their short length because these compact tales can still pack a lot of punch....more
It’s always a pleasure to return to Lois McMaster Bujold’s World of the Five Gods, which is also the setting of her books like The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls—two of my favorite novels of all time. There’s just so much to love about this world, not least of all the phenomenal world-building featuring some of the richest lore and history I’ve ever encountered in the fantasy genre. One thing of note is the major role that religion plays in this universe. Fate and free will are often recurring themes in the stories set in this world, as well as the question of divine intervention.
The novella Penric’s Demon is a good example of this, following the misadventures of a hapless mortal caught up in the drama of the gods. Lord Penric, our protagonist, is on his way to his own wedding when he suddenly chances upon a halted traveling party on the road. An elderly woman had fallen ill, and like good citizen, Penric decides to lend a hand.
Turns out though, the woman is a Temple divine pledged to The Bastard, one of the five gods in the Quintarian theology, the others being the Mother of Summer, Father of Winter, Son of Autumn, and the Daughter of Spring. As you can imagine, The Bastard is often regarded as the odd one out; His is the domain of all disasters out of season, and though his presence is accepted as a requirement for balance, in some religions he’s even considered to be a demon.
And speaking of demons, the old lady also ends up being a Learned Sorceress—one of those rare individuals who carry within them a sentient spirit with the ability to grant their hosts special powers. These spirits are referred to as “demons” despite them not being inherently evil, though sometimes they can be mischievous and hard to control. The divine ultimately succumbs to her illness and dies in Penric’s arms, but not before bequeathing him her demon, an act that changes the young lord’s life forever.
I admit, my feelings can be real fickle when it comes to novellas. I often find myself disappointed with them because I feel the short format is too limiting, and not enough time is given to the development of the story or characters. However, this one was an absolute pleasure to read. Bujold is a master when it comes to characterization and world-building, and these duo strengths really made this book stand out.
Not only does it offer a closer look at the lore of this world, I also greatly enjoyed the interplay between Penric and Desdemona, the name he decides to give to his new demon. Penric himself is a fantastic protagonist, a kind-hearted and considerate man who realizes he has been given a sacred gift. He also knows he is lucky not to have been destroyed by the entity now riding in his body, because not everyone has what it takes to host a demon. Despite being in way over his head, Penric still tries to do the right thing, striving to learn how to control his powers. His status as an outsider also gives him a unique point of view. For example, even after being with almost two dozen hosts, Desdemona remarks how not a single one of them had thought to give her a name until Penric came along. Their early days together are a source of constant humor and unexpected surprises. The story completely sucked me in, and the ending left me smiling and feeling excited for the next adventure....more
I have to say this series is really starting to grow on me. While it’s still true that the books are more about the entertainment factor over the substance—not that there’s anything wrong with that, I might add—there’s no denying how great it feels to watch a series evolve over time. I for one can always go for a bit of fluffy fun, but I’m also enjoying how the story and characters have all come such a long way, making The Burning Page my favorite book in The Invisible Library sequence so far.
Last time we saw Irene and Kai, our two secret librarian agents have managed to survive a harrowing foray into the worlds of dragons and Fae, even if it’s only by the skin of their teeth. There have been repercussions, however. The higher-ups have placed Irene on probation, relegating her back to grunt work like simple fetch-and-retrieve missions for the great interdimensional library. Everything seems to be falling back into a routine—that is until one day Irene and Kai find themselves stymied when, after completing their latest assignment in an alternate world, their way back home inexplicably goes up in flames. It seems someone has been deliberately sabotaging the portals that lead in and out of the Library, and Irene has a good idea who that person might be.
If you have not read the first two books, I recommend now that you skip to the end of this review to avoid possible spoilers. Still, even from the beginning we’ve been hearing about Alberich, the mysterious arch nemesis of our protagonist. Back then, he may have been nothing more than a “bogeyman” myth used to frighten young librarian agents-in-training, but he has since grown more powerful, becoming a very real and very dangerous threat to the Library. Alberich has been playing the long game, patiently carrying out plans that have been laid down long ago right underneath the librarians’ noses. Now the time has finally come for him to reveal himself, and he will not stop until the Library is destroyed.
All throughout this book I wanted to cheer and shout, “Now we’re getting somewhere!” Genevieve Cogman has been teasing the Alberich angle for the last two books, and The Burning Page is where we finally get to have some answers. I also like how we’re seeing more threads come together. Instead of being presented with more throwaway scenarios, the story here actually builds upon events that came before so that the series as a whole is feeling a lot more cohesive and complete. Cogman is throwing out plenty of twists and surprises as well, definitely raising the stakes. For a “middle book” of a series, this one is surprisingly full of new and thrilling plot developments.
I also felt more invested in this book than the two that came before, and I’m sure character growth had a lot to do with it. While it’s clear Irene, Kai and Vale are still based on literary ideas, they’re gradually filling out their personalities and becoming more than just their archetypes. And it’s not just the characters either. Overall there are steady improvements in every area, including world-building. In my reviews of both The Invisible Library and The Masked City I talked about the lack in the role of the Library itself. Not that I didn’t enjoy zipping to and from all these different, interesting worlds with our librarian protagonists, but at the end of the day I would have liked to learn more about the inner workings of their headquarters. The Burning Page offered a lot more on that front, giving readers a look at the hierarchy and politics within.
All told I’m glad I’ve decided to continue with this series, as it’s only getting better and better. Not gonna lie; being a book lover, I might have initially jumped on board for the cool premise about a secret library and its network of universe-hopping librarian spies, but now I’m staying for the excitement and the awesome characters. It’s a very addicting series, and I can’t be more pleased to hear there are at least two more installments incoming.
Audiobook Comments: Acting on the recommendations of a few audiophile friends, I decided that for this installment to also give the audiobook edition a try. I’ve heard some amazing things about narrator Susan Duerden, and it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized I’ve actually listened to her work before (for the audio of Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook). In my opinion she does an even better job as the narrator for this book because her voice is just so perfect for Irene, and when she reads her dialogue I can even picture the character’s mannerisms in my head. If you get the chance to listen to this series in audio, I can’t recommend it highly enough....more
Edit: Holy crap. HOLEEE CRAP. The following review was based on the ARC, but I just got my finished copy from the publisher, and I just saw the little "note" that was added at the end of the final hardcover. My original rating stands because I still feel the same way for the most part, but I'm not going to lie, this does change things somewhat. I'm feeling a lot more positive about the ending now. Read it, and you will see.
Well, I’ve just finished this book, and now I have to ask, what is up with all your evil series endings, Mr. Sanderson?! This isn’t the first time I’ve had mixed feelings about the way one of his series ended; first it was the original Mistborn trilogy and earlier this year it was the Reckoners. To be fair, the difference is that Alcatraz has been warning about this moment for years—the books have repeatedly told us what a liar, a coward, and all around bad person Alcatraz is, and he’s no hero—so don’t be surprised if he leaves you with an ending that makes you want to SCREAM!
Ahem, my point is, this was still a great book, but hopefully you have been heeding our protagonist’s foreshadowing. You have been warned…
The Dark Talent picks up where things left off in book four, The Shattered Lens, which was originally published almost six years ago, so this concluding volume was a long time coming. Alcatraz Smedry and the gang have just fought off a whole army of Evil Librarians and saved the Free Kingdom nation of Mokia. However, that victory came at a very high price. Mokia now lies in ruins, with many of its warriors in a coma after falling victim to a chemical weapon developed by the Librarians. Among them is Alcatraz’s good friend Bastille, the young knight of Crystallia who pledged to protect him. Even worse, at the end of the last book, Alcatraz did something that left all of his family members’ talents inactive. Yes, he actually managed to break all the Smedry talents with his Smedry breaking talent.
Meanwhile, they still have to track down Alcatraz’s father who is determined to carry out a brilliant plan that, while good intentioned, could still have the potential to ruin the world. They know that he has gone to Washington DC, home of the Library of Congress—or the “Highbrary”, which is what Librarians call their main headquarters. Once again, Alcatraz and his family and friends find themselves preparing to infiltrate a library, but this time the stakes are much, much higher.
On the whole, this book was fantastic, following in the same footsteps as the previous volumes when it comes to the off-the-wall humor and wackiness. Sanderson falls effortlessly back into the tone of this series, and the snark is stronger than ever! Another development is that Alcatraz has discovered footnotes, and has been using (abusing?) them like it’s going out of style, the little scamp. The action is also alive and well as our heroes venture into the great labyrinthine Highbrary to retrieve Alcatraz’s father, and the many twists and turns—both figurative and literal—will keep you on the edge of your seat.
However, I also feel this is the darkest book of the series. The last few chapters or so really drove it home for me, though I suppose looking back, the darkness might have been building up for a while already, as Alcatraz gradually matured and grew as a character. He’s still the boy we first met in Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians, but in many ways he’s also…not. I’ve written in my reviews for the previous books that beneath all the humor and quirkiness, there’s a deeper level to this series. I guess in The Dark Talent, some of that is finally coming to the surface.
Which brings me to the ending. I didn’t really like it, as painful as it is for me to admit. But I had known something like it might be coming, and if you’ve also read all the books, you might be expecting it as well. It was all very sudden, brutally candid and to-the-point, and even a little unpleasant, almost like Sanderson wasn’t sure how to end the book so he just wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. That’s the best way I can describe it. I still love this series to bits, but ugh, that ending still makes me feel like someone hit me over the head with a frying pan.
It’s all done now, though; the Alcatraz series has come to an end. I’m really glad I got to read all of the books this year, as they’ve been on my reading list for a long time. The re-issues of books 1-4 by Starscape finally presented me with the perfect opportunity to catch up, and I’m already looking forward to rereading them with my kids once they’re old enough to appreciate the stories. Until then, I’m going to miss this series, and all the wonderful characters—Alcatraz, Bastille, Draulin, Kaz, Australia, Folsom, Himalaya, even Shasta, and most of all, Grandpa Smedry. What a wild ride it has been. Highly recommended....more
I didn’t really expect much from Iron Cast. It’s one of those books where its cover caught my eye while browsing Goodreads one day, and the description sounded interesting enough that it led me to add it to my to-watch list. Afterwards though, I must admit it’d pretty much flown out of my mind— that is, until one day I read a very positive review from Kaja whose blog I follow, and her praise was enough to put this book on my radar again. When the opportunity to review the Iron Cast audiobook came along, I jumped on it, and I am very glad I did.
The story is a historical fantasy that takes place in Boston. The year is 1919 and the city’s club scene is full of life, even as the country teeters on the cusp of the Prohibition Era. In underground venues all over, hemopaths entertain patrons on stage. They are the “blood afflicted” ones, gifted—or cursed, depending on your point of view—with the ability to create illusions and affect emotions through art. Best friends Corinne and Ada are two such talented individuals, employed at Johnny Dervish’s Cast Iron Club. By night, Corinne recites beautiful poetry while Ada plays mesmerizing tunes on her violin, but by day, the two young women work their magic as con artists.
Our protagonists aren’t exactly proud of what they do, but it’s a rough world out there for hemopaths and they have to take certain measures to keep themselves and their families safe. Ada and Corinne rationalize that they are cheating and stealing only from the people who deserve it, using the funds to hide the secret of their abilities and what they do for Johnny Dervish. Hemopaths using their abilities is illegal, and those captured are taken to institutions where inhumane experiments take place on prisoners under the pretense of rehabilitating them and making them “fit” to enter society again. One day after a botched job, Ada finds herself thrown into one such place, the nightmare that is Haversham Asylum. Corinne manages to break her out, but upon returning to the Cast Iron, the two of them discover to their horror that even worse misfortunes have befallen their friends at their beloved club.
In many ways, this book reminded me of a lot of Lee Kelly’s A Criminal Magic, another novel I read this year about illegal sorcery as a form of entertainment in clandestine nightclubs, which also takes place around this historical time period. While I enjoyed that one quite a bit, I do think Iron Cast managed to handle several elements with a lot more flair and energy. First of all, the setting: Destiny Soria really captured the essence of 1919 Boston in her descriptions of the people and places, from the poor and downtrodden in the urban tenements to the glitz and glamour of the city’s elite. It’s also an era of tumultuous politics, which is subtly but unmistakably reflected in the social climate portrayed in the story. The nature and soul of the time and place is so important for me when it comes to historical fiction, and in my opinion, the author nailed it. As I listened to the audio, I could practically feel the atmosphere oozing from every word.
Second, I adored Soria’s approach to the theme of female friendship. I know that’s a term that gets thrown around a lot, especially in YA where perhaps more readers are seeking out stories that feature strong friendships as a counterbalance to the genre’s heavy emphasis on romance. I’ve been drawn to books before that claim “female friendship” only to be disappointed the moment a guy steps in and overshadows that relationship (Truthwitch is an example that immediately comes to mind) so you can understand why I went into this one with no small amount of skepticism. Thankfully, those turned out to be unfounded. Corinne and Ada are indeed the best of friends and the strength of their bond was apparent from the get go. The two of them come from very different worlds—Corinne’s parents are prominent and wealthy members of the Boston elite and her brother is running for political office, while Ada is the daughter of two hardworking but impoverished immigrants and her father has been jailed for a crime he did not commit.
It may seem like a cliché for two girls from such different walks of life to bond over their shared hemopathy, but there’s so much more to their friendship than that. Corinne and Ada provide each other comfort and support, but each character also shows time and time again that she is willing to put the other’s safety and happiness above her own. That unconditional love means that they are aware of each other’s foibles and they even joke about how they drive each other up the wall—but all it does is make that loyalty stronger.
All told, I thought this was a great novel and a rather happy surprise. The audiobook was a great way to experience the story, with Christine Marshall’s narration bringing to life all the beauty and magic of Boston in the post-WWI era. I enjoyed her accents and intonations for the various characters and the way her smooth reading kept even the slower, more understated parts of the story moving along at a smart pace. A fantastic debut and highly recommended....more
Sarah Pinborough is fast becoming a must-read author for me. Her books, like the Dr. Thomas Bond duology and The Language of Dying are among some of my favorites, demonstrating her incredible writing talent and versatility. Needless to say, my anticipation for her new mystery suspense novel Behind Her Eyes was tremendous, especially with the #WTFThatEnding social media campaign working in overdrive throughout the months leading up to release.
The story opens with an introduction to Louise, a divorced single mom who works as a doctor’s assistant. Having watched her ex-husband move on with a new girlfriend and a baby on the way, she’s understandably feeling a bit dejected and lonely, which is why her spirits are lifted when she meets a handsome man at a bar one night and things end with a clandestine kiss between them. However, that rush quickly fades when she arrives back at work on Monday only to find that the firm’s new psychiatrist is none other than the man from the bar. His name is David Martin, her new boss. And he is also very much married.
The two of them decide to put the night behind them and promise to never speak of it again. But then by chance, Louise runs into Adele Martin, David’s chic, sophisticated and beautiful wife. Try as she might to stay away, Louise can’t help but be drawn to the other woman. Adele may seem perfect on the surface, but Louise senses a timid and broken soul underneath. The two of them strike up a close friendship, keeping their interaction a secret from David, who seems to make Adele nervous and scared. The secrecy is just as well for Louise, since despite their earlier promise to each other to forget the kiss, she and David have become involved in a passionate affair. Louise isn’t proud of what she’s doing, but she also can’t deny that she’s falling for David. And yet, she also cares very much for Adele, a woman who appears to be in desperate need for someone to listen to her and be her friend. Something awful is going on in the Martins’ marriage, and even though Louise is smitten, she also has concerns about David’s angry, controlling streak and wants to know why Adele is so afraid of her husband.
Before one gets drawn into the sense that this is nothing but your usual mystery thriller about a love triangle from hell, I have to warn you that trusting anybody in this book would be a huge mistake. There’s nothing ordinary about this novel, and I mean that on so many levels. Sarah Pinborough is not only an amazing storyteller, she’s also a master of pulling the strings and keeping you guessing. Like a lot of her books, there’s always an element of something beyond the realm of the mundane, and that is all I’ll say to hint at the underlying riddle at the heart of this story.
Here’s also where I’ll be getting a little vague in my review, since I doubt there’s any possible way to discuss plot details without spoiling, so I’m limiting my descriptions to emotions. First, I was intrigued. Most of the story is told through Louise’s perspective, and the author has created a very well-rounded character in her. It’s true that I hated her for her duplicity in carrying on with a married man while being friends with his wife, but at the same time there’s an authenticity to her that made it easier to understand why she couldn’t extract herself from that situation. I felt something similar for Adele, the other major point-of-view character. Her sections were both strange and disturbing. Clearly she’s a damaged woman, and flashbacks to the past reveal tragedy and pain. The scenes she shares with her husband also indicate something very wrong in their marriage. The truth is a mystery, with subtle clues doled out along the way, adding to the growing feelings of unease. These days it might seem like a cop-out to compare any kind of dramatic suspense-thriller novel to Gone Girl, but no joke, I got those same vibes with this one. Tensions reach a peak as we close in on the finale, where Pinborough drops the major bombshell.
That brings us to the ending, where the author clearly delivers on the marketing campaign’s promise of WTFuckery. Still, there’s a part of me that wishes the publisher hadn’t hyped the hashtag all over social media, not only because it raises readers’ expectations but also because everyone knows that surprises always work best when you don’t know they’re coming. Granted it was still a shocking ending, but I think it would have been even better if I hadn’t known ahead of time to prepare for something big. That said, if it drives people to be curious and pick up this amazing book, I can’t complain; just know that this story so much bigger than #WTFThatEnding because it is the twisted, complex and clever build-up which makes the conclusion such a powerful whack on the head.
If you’re fan of psychological thrillers, you need to do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Behind Her Eyes because I really can’t recommend enough. Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.
Audiobook Comments: I was also fortunate to receive an audiobook copy of Behind Her Eyes to review, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The book is read by multiple narrators (Anna Bentinck, Josie Dunn, Bea Holland, Huw Parmenterto) to illustrate separate character storylines, though on several occasions a couple of their voices sounded too similar for me to distinguish right away whose perspective we’re following. There were also a few confusing chapter transitions and moments where I was confused whether we were in the present “Now” storyline or flashing back to the “Then” timeline, so I really had to pay careful attention. These nitpicks aside though, this audiobook was a great listen and I was fully immersed in the experience....more