After chilling readers with her debut YA novel The Dead House last year, Dawn Kurtagich is back with another horror tale about two sisters trapped in a house surrounded by a haunted wood…and is it just their imagination or are the trees slowly closing in? Since I had such a good time with The Dead House, when the publisher sent me an ARC of And the Trees Crept In, I just knew I had to give this one a try.
As a girl growing up in London, Silla Daniels had always heard stories about La Baume, the blood red manor that was her mother’s childhood home. It sounded like the perfect place, like a peaceful haven nestled safely in an enchanted forest. So one night, after their abusive and alcoholic father goes a step too far, Silla decides to pack up and escape with her younger sister Nori. Their destination: La Baume, where Silla knows that Aunt Cath, Mam’s older sister, still lives.
When the two girls arrive, Cath welcomes them in with open arms. And for a while, things are wonderful. Things are safe. But then they hear whisperings that a war is coming. The women hunker down at La Baume, where the surrounding woods keep them pretty isolated so they’re used to living off the grid. Not too long afterwards though, a madness seems to come over Cath. One day, the older woman retreats to the attic and never comes down again. Even though Silla still leaves plates of food at the attic door and can hear the constant creaking of Cath’s footsteps overhead, she knows she has lost her beloved aunt forever. Three years pass with only Silla taking care of Nori and Cath, all alone and struggling to survive. La Baume is not the magical place Silla imagined; now she knows it’s cursed. The woods won’t let them leave, and she thinks she can sense someone (or something?) out there, just waiting to take Nori the moment she lets her guard down.
Honestly, I thought The Dead House was pretty weird when I read it last year, but I have to say this one is even weirder. And it’s not just the story; it’s the entire structure and style of the novel. Whereas The Dead House was written entirely in the epistolary format, And the Trees Crept In only has random sections where it tries to include snippets of notes and journal entries, and sad as I am to admit this, it didn’t work nearly as well here. I was frequently bothered by the “creative” formatting and use of font sizes and styles, and together with the disjointed prose, at times it almost felt like reading bad poetry. The only positive I can think to this is the way it shows Silla’s state of mind her slow journey to becoming completely unhinged (unreliable narrator alert!) but on the whole I thought it was needlessly showy and a little gimmicky.
Not gonna lie, but that had an extremely negative impact on my overall experience. As a character, Silla was…problematic. The writing made it very hard for me to understand her, and that also made it very hard to like her. It’s one thing to be unable to connect with your main protagonist, but because most of the book is written in Silla’s rambling narrative, it was impossible to get a good sense of any of the characters either—Nori, Cath, or Gowan, the mysterious handsome boy who just appears out of the woods one day. And speaking of Gowan, there’s also a romance arc that will feel very strange at first. Not long after he and Silla meet, the word “love” gets tossed around like candy, and it just made me want to scream because not once did this book make me feel there was anything between them.
This could have gone very badly indeed, but ultimately I think what saved this book for me was the ending. I admit that for most of the story I was confused, frustrated, and I didn’t even feel it was all that creepy. But the final reveal at the end made everything make sense! In fact, I’m still a little shocked at how well everything tied together. I can’t go into any more detail without revealing spoilers, so I’ll just say that pretty much everything I had an issue with had some sort of resolution and that went a long way in salvaging the overall experience. So much so that I thought this book deserved three stars rather than the two I was prepared to give. I still have major issues with the writing style, and my feelings about that haven’t changed. Story-wise, however, things actually turned out really interesting.
So would I recommend this book? That would depend on a few factors, I guess. Personally, the choppy writing and the style of the novel made my head hurt, but if you’re okay with the wonky use of font design, font size, “sliding text”, and other such formatting devices to portray a character’s descent into madness (after a few chapters of this, I felt pretty insane myself) it probably wouldn’t be an issue. Otherwise, choosing the audio version could be a good alternative, and I can’t help thinking I might have enjoyed this book a lot more had I done the same. In the end, I thought the story outcome made everything worth it though, even if it does take a bit of patience to see it all come together. I think readers who are fans of YA and horror will get a kick out of this, so go ahead and give And the Trees Crept In a shot if you think it sounds like something you’ll enjoy....more
I have a feeling I’m going to be the sole voice of dissent on this one. It’s not that thought Blood of the Earth was a bad book, but quite honestly I was expecting a lot more. However, it should be made known that this was the first time I’ve ever read Faith Hunter; I’ve never read any of the books in the Jane Yellowrock series, and maybe that was part of the problem. A spinoff can be a tricky beast, and though this can be read separately from the main series, I’m guessing that not having the benefit of a previous connection to this world likely had an impact on my overall enjoyment—or lack thereof.
The story stars Nell Nicholson Ingram, who was, as I discovered later, a character first introduced in a Jane Yellowrock short story called “Off the Grid”. She grew up in a cult called the God’s Cloud of Glory Church, and was only a young girl when she was made to marry one of its other members, a much older man named John Ingram. For all his faults though, John had wanted to do right by Nell. So, when she turned eighteen, he also married her legally in the eyes of Tennessee law, which is why when he passed away, ownership of his entire estate was rightfully transferred to her. This, however, did not sit right with the Church. Even after Nell left the cult, its members still kept coming, harassing her about her property, which they considered as theirs no matter what the law says.
The attacks have made Nell nervous, which is why when a group of agents from PsyLED show up at her door one day, she isn’t sure whether or not she can trust them. Turns out though, Jane Yellowrock had referred Nell to the paranormal investigation agency after finding out about Nell’s earth magic and special connection to nature, so now Agent Rick LaFleur and his team of were-cat operatives are here hoping she can help out on a case. There has been a string of disappearances involving young women lately, and one of the missing victims is a member of a very important vampire house. PsyLED suspects Nell’s old cult might have something to do with it, and they believe access to her past and property could be a very useful resource.
As I mentioned previously, I didn’t think this was a bad book. That said, I also found nothing terribly exciting about it. First of all, a “missing girls” story? Urban fantasy isn’t exactly suffering from a dearth of missing-or-kidnapped-kids plots lately, so that ho-hum was one of the bigger disappointments. Second, the first third of the novel with its slow pacing almost did me in. What made it even more frustrating was the constant repetition, what with Nell finding about fifty thousand ways to beat it over the readers’ heads that the God’s Cloud Church wants her land because they didn’t agree with her late husband’s decision, or how some of their men came over and killed her dogs. Yes, Nell, cult goons bad. I got it the first time, and really could have done without the image of the poor dead pups over and over in my mind. The rough pacing continues in the later parts of the book, like when we’re introduced to the vampire family of the missing girl, and for the next hundred or so pages she is barely mentioned again. The story just feels like it’s all over the place.
I also didn’t think there was anything too special about the world. Again, I know I’m at a disadvantage because I haven’t read the Jane Yellowrock series, so I’m probably missing years and years’ worth of relevant world-building which would have helped me gain a better appreciation for it. Still, at this moment I don’t know if I’m jumping up and down to start another series about vampires and shapeshifters, since I’m already following a bunch of them that scratch that itch, though I did find Nell’s nature-based magic fascinating.
The main character’s background is also one of the most intriguing aspects of this book, since a life of growing up in a cult definitely shaped her into a very interesting person. However, I wasn’t entirely convinced of her random Sherlock Holmes moments. The story spends a lot of time painting Nell to be this country bumpkin, but every so often she will get these flashes of genius (all at the most convenient times, I might add) where she will surprise all her PsyLED team members and then proceed to lecture them all about how a lifetime spent hunting and trapping in the woods somehow taught her to become a whiz at deductive reasoning. And then when they all feel bad about judging her, Nell gets to pat herself on the back, all the while ignoring the fact she can be pretty judgmental herself, of course.
So yeah, this one didn’t exactly blow me away me due to a multitude of smaller issues that simply added up, hence the middling, uncertain rating. In spite of this, I haven’t entirely ruled out picking up the next book yet, especially since I still plan on starting the Jane Yellowrock series one of these days. I think there’s potential for Nell and Soulwood to be a lot more, so here’s hoping the sequel will help them grow on me....more
As its title implies, this novel is a bit of an oddball. Even the style of it reminds me a little of a children’s storybook, complete with its own whimsical fairy tale message: Your eyes only see what your mind wants to see, so sometimes all it takes is a change of perspective. Or, if you’d like: Magic is real, if you just look for it.
The book starts with an introduction to the saddest protagonist ever. Wil Morgan is literally the kind of guy who has dreams about coming in second in a World’s Biggest Failure competition. He’s crotchety, cynical and unimaginative—but that didn’t used to be the case. His childhood was filled with hopes and dreams, and his mother the brilliant jet propulsion scientist Melinda Morgan always encouraged him to reach for the stars and believe in the possibility of magic. But the year he turned ten, Melinda died in a laboratory accident, leaving young Wil in the sole care of his father who is as different from his mother as can be. Barry Morgan, who was never an outside-of-the-box kind of man to begin with, became even more paranoid and set in his ways after the death of his beloved wife, fearing that he would lose his only son too. He essentially forbade Wil to have an imagination, setting the boy on a path to a safe and unadventurous life. And so this was the story of how Wil came to be in his boring, miserable, and uninspired existence.
But a part of Wil has never given up hope. He still wants to believe in the possibility of magic. Maybe that’s why he became a private investigator in defiance of his father who wanted him to be an accountant, even though being a PI pays poorly and he is stuck working out of an office building whose elevators smell like rat vomit. One day though, Wil gets a new assignment from a strange man called Mr. Dinsdale, who claims to be the curator of the Curioddity Museum. Even though Wil secretly thinks the man has lost his marbles, he reluctantly accepts the task of finding Mr. Dinsdale’s missing museum exhibit, something called a “box of levity” (as opposed to gravity).
Paul Jenkin’s debut prose novel is a bit of a surprise, to be sure. I’ve been following his work as a comic book writer since his Hellblazer days and Curioddity is quite different from what I had expected when I first heard that he wrote a book. It’s a little hard to describe, since it has some elements from everywhere, including urban fantasy and even a little bit of magical realism. It’s also somewhat off-the-wall and weird. The reader’s mileage will therefore vary, as it’s so often the case with books like this. If you enjoy unusual stories or eccentric humor in the style of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, then you might want to pick this one up.
On the other hand, if you’re not so sure this will be for you, it might be worth checking out a sample of Jenkin’s writing style if you can, which, speaking of, is very distinctive. You can probably get a good sense of what you’re in for within the first chapter. There are certain quirks like random breaks in the middle of scenes, and not a page goes by without a droll one-liner or some kind of cheeky metaphor. Here’s just one example from a random page:
“Wil felt like a nun at a fashion show: he was clearly out of his comfort zone, and would probably be better off sticking to his usual habits.”
Okay, that one got a chuckle from me. But a constant barrage of that can also get a little distracting, I’ll admit. I also don’t typically do so well with wacky plots and characters, and getting into this novel took time. Like I said, parts of this story reminded me of a children’s tale, and at times the book read like one too. There were flashes of cleverness, but also moments where the juvenile scenarios or Wil’s groan-worthy similes made me roll my eyes.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy Curioddity though, because I did. Jenkins is clearly a talented writer and he can spin a good yarn. However, I’m also pretty sure I’m not the ideal target reader for this book. And you know what? Considering how well I did with it in spite of that, I would say that’s a win. Though its style sometimes ran counter to my tastes, the book’s whimsical message is something that will stay with me for a long time, as will its heartwarming conclusion. Bottom line, if you think his style will be a good fit for you, then I think you’ll love this one to bits....more
Ghost meets World War I in this really cool new paranormal alternate history novel by Mary Robinette Kowal. The book stars Ginger Stuyvesant, an American engaged to a British intelligence officer during a period of intense fighting in Europe. Our protagonist herself is a medium stationed in the French port city of Le Havre working for the Spirit Corps, a classified spiritualist project developed by Britain to gain an advantage over the Germans.
In the British army, each soldier goes through a top secret conditioning process to ensure that upon their deaths, their spirits will return to Le Havre so that the mediums there can take their report. It’s their final service to their country, passing on potential valuable intelligence like enemy troop movements and tactics. As a member of the Corps, Ginger’s job is to talk to the ghosts of these slain soldiers, collect their information, and pass it on through to the right people. If the Germans find out about what they’re doing here, the consequences can be devastating. However, Ginger’s fiancé Captain Benjamin Harford, being one of the key figures involved in the running of the Spirit Corps, is already suspicious that their secret may be out due to some recent strange activity. Ginger is soon made aware of a possible traitor in their midst, and while Ben is away at the front, the two of them exchange coded messages to share what they know. Together they work to uncover a spy and put a stop to the German’s attempts to target the Spirit Corps.
There’s also a major plot development that happens near the beginning of the book, and although the publisher description doesn’t mention it, it’s so obvious it’s coming that I’m not even sure it would constitute as a spoiler. Still, I’ll err on the side of caution and won’t reveal it, even if it will make writing the rest of this review more difficult. Without going into specific details, I think it is enough to say that this particular development will lead to some very poignant and emotional moments. Ginger felt very genuine to me, which of course is crucial to my enjoyment of a main character and her story.
I also enjoyed the ideas here. Often, when a book calls to me, there is a specific “hook” to the description that initially catches my attention. For Ghost Talkers, it was unquestionably the concept of a Spirits Corps of mediums working for the army. The idea that the military would find a strategic use for ghosts and isn’t really beyond the pale, and Kowal does a great job developing the ins-and-outs behind what Ginger and her fellow mediums do.
However, while world-building is fantastic on a micro-level, when it comes to relating it all back to the wider world out there and the history of the times, that’s where the seams of this novel start to show. When it comes to historical fantasy and alternate history fiction, atmosphere is always going to be more important than the details for me, and the main issue I had with the world-building here was that even though I knew I was reading a book set during WWI, the story never truly made me feel like I was there. I really liked how Kowal addresses many social issues at the time, such as the systemic sexism and racism, but while I applaud her intentions, in the process of tying her story together she also rushes through convenient resolutions which glosses over the harshness of the reality. It’s also not very clear how the Corps came to be, and the workings behind the huge network of people involved in maintaining its secrecy. For example, the story mentions a couple of famous figures like Harry Houdini or Arthur Conan Doyle who are actually accomplices for the British government, working on their behalf to cover up spiritualism and ghost-talking by actively debunking things like that in public. Without more context on the history of the Spirit Corps and how such a huge endeavor was pulled together though, all this comes across as mere name dropping and a slapdash way to try and connect readers to the historical era.
The story was also entirely too predictable, playing out like a conventional mystery—especially since it wasn’t subtle at all when it came to dropping false leads, so it was just a matter of the process of elimination to identify the traitor.
Still, the characters and their relationships shine, even if the plot and setting are weaker. And truly, I think the ultimate strength behind Ghost Talkers lies in its ideas about the Spirit Corps. Imagine having to interact with the departed souls of thousands of soldiers, many of whom died violently and unexpectedly. All ghosts and mediums know that they have a job to do, but reading about Ginger’s attempts to provide comfort and assurances to the spirits before they dissipate into the great unknown was both tragic and touching.
So if the book’s description catches your interest, I think that’s reason enough to check this one out. I wish the story had been expanded a little to create a more immersive atmosphere or to include some context and background information about the Corps, but perhaps that can be addressed with future books. This was a fast, enjoyable novel, and I’m glad I read it....more
In order to choose one finalist from the pool of 30 books in our SPFBO batch this year, The BiblioSanctum had decided to read partials (approximately five chapters or 20-25% of each entry) to help narrow down our choice and determine a handful of five or six titles that we would want to put forward to the next phase. When I picked up Claire Frank’s Assassin’s Charge though, I didn’t need five chapters to know it was special. I was hooked after only the first few pages, gripped by the author’s smoothly polished and enticing writing style, but more importantly, I knew right away this was a book I wanted to spend more time with because I found myself irresistibly drawn by its enigmatic heroine.
Rhisia Sen is the best at what she does. Known throughout the land as the Reaper’s Bride, she is one of the most notorious and highest paid assassins in the Empire. She’s efficient and disciplined, and the caution she takes while choosing her contracts is a way to guarantee that she will never miss a mark. That kind of dependability is what earned Rhis her success and reputation.
However, all that is about to come crashing down around her. For her latest job, Rhis is only given the name of her target—Asher—as well as where she’ll find him, in a village located in a far-flung corner of the empire. It is a lucrative contract, which originated from the palace, and Rhis has reason to suspect that it came all the way from the Emperor himself. Still, believing this to be an assassination order like any other, Rhis sets off on a long journey across the ocean only to arrive at the designated rural village and discover that this assignment is like nothing she has ever gotten before. Asher turns out to a dark haired, silver-eyed foreigner who lives on a farm. And he is also just a little boy.
Even the most hardened assassins have a line they will not cross, and for Rhis, she draws it at killing a child. This was NOT what she signed up for, and why would the Emperor order a hit on a harmless farmboy anyway? But before she can wrap her head around these bizarre circumstances, Rhis discovers to her horror that she has become a target of the Empire herself. Clearly, someone doesn’t want any loose ends, and now Rhis’ only shot at survival is to take Asher on the run and hopefully convince a few of her old allies to help the two of them stay alive.
From this point onwards it’s a non-stop race around the Empire to avoid Imperial guards, Guild magicians, and even a merciless metal-armed bounty hunter. As enemy forces chase our protagonists across oceans and over mountain ranges, the pacing of this novel never lets up. And even though this cat-and-mouse pattern of events will continue to repeat itself over the course of the story, Claire Frank does a fine job keeping things interesting with plenty of action and mystery. Like, who is Asher and why is he so important? I confess, at first I thought I had the answers all figured out, but as it turned out, I underestimated the story’s potential. While it’s true that for the most part, Assassin’s Charge is an uncomplicated action and adventure oriented novel, I was still delighted to discover it had a few surprises tucked up its sleeves.
But of course, my favorite thing about this book is what drew me in the first place: the characters. Rhis is a wonderful protagonist, complex and well-written. I found her personality and mannerisms very genuine, and in particular her obsession with routine and counting really resonated with me because I experience a similar compulsion, and I remember when the moment of understanding hit me during the beginning chapters when Rhis first showed this behavior. Though she comes off as harsh and aloof in the intro, Rhis has a good heart within her and that gradually becomes apparent as the story unfolds. I liked how that the transformation felt natural, as opposed to a swift and abrupt change in her personality. Her relationship with Asher is similarly written in a way that feels just right, with wariness eventually giving way to trust. And let’s face it: a lot of times, fictional partnerships where one of the characters is a child can potentially be really annoying, depending on said child’s personality and maturity levels in the book. Thankfully, I found Asher very likeable. He reads realistically like a young boy, but he also makes a great team with Rhis.
As for criticisms, there’s the aforementioned issue with the repetitive nature of the story, and I think it’s more noticeable because the action and suspenseful scenes are spaced so closely together. There’s also a romance between Rhis and her old smuggling buddy Rickson (who’s like a roguish, charming piratey kind of character) which I thought was sweet, but could be better developed. Even though the two have known each other for a while, their relationship seemed to go from a spark to a wildfire in almost no time at all. Finally, I thought the ending was left rather open-ended. A couple major conflicts were resolved somewhat conveniently, and even then there were some important questions I felt weren’t answered in full. I’m not sure if Frank intends a follow-up novel about these characters, but I think this was meant to be a stand alone and yet I do get a sense of unfinished business.
I also wouldn’t have minded more world-building and detail about all the exotic places we visit in the book; given the characters’ travel times, I imagine this must be a huge world. However, it wasn’t until after I finished reading this that I learned Assassin’s Charge is actually a separate tale that takes place in world that Frank had already established in a series called Echoes of Imara, so perhaps more background information and history can be found there. What’s certain for now is that I’ve just added those books to my reading list, because Claire Frank is definitely an author that I would read again. I really enjoyed Assassin’s Charge so thank you SPFBO for putting this book on my radar....more
The best description I can come up with for my mind-bending experience I had with this book can be summed up in the words of Jerry Garcia: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” I had initially agreed to review The Hike with no small amount of trepidation, fearing that it might be too “weird” for my tastes. Can you blame me, though? I don’t even how I’ll do my usual novel summary for this review, because pretty sure anything I say will sound like the mad ramblings of someone on a bad acid trip, but here goes nothing:
Ben is a suburban middle-aged family man who takes a business trip up to rural Pennsylvania and books himself into his hotel. Before heading out to his dinner meeting though, he decides to explore around the area with a short hike. He sets off into the nearby woods, following a path he has chosen. Before long, he is beset upon by hulking man wearing the skinned-off face of a dog as a mask. Then there are more of them after him. Or something. Ben ends up running away, stumbling upon a campsite among the trees, and suddenly he is in his twenties again, staring into the face of his old college girlfriend. They sleep together and Ben wakes up. He’s back to his normal thirty-eight-year-old self again, with all his correct memories. But he’s still in the woods, and the girl is gone. All that’s left is a note at the empty camp which reads: “Stay on the path, or you will die.”
Ben stays on the path, all right. The book goes on for a bit longer in this vein. Along the way, he meets a talking crab, who lends him help. Then he’s kidnapped by a man-eating giantess named Fermona, who forces him to fight Rottweiler-men and dwarves in her gladiatorial arena. Up to this point, all Ben wants is to find his way back home to his wife and kids. But soon, he is given a mission: to find someone known as The Producer, supposedly the creator of this crazy world he’s found himself in. The “story”, as it is, keeps going on like this, as Ben spirals deeper into despair, wondering if he’ll ever see his family again.
I don’t usually go for books like this, so in case you’re wondering why I decided to give The Hike a try despite the publisher description clearly indicating that this will be a totally insane and off-the-wall experience, it was because of two words that jumped out at me: video games. Try as I might, I can never resist any novel with a video gaming, and I was also really curious to see how Drew Magary would weave together elements from video game and folk tale as the blurb suggests. Indeed, what we have here is completely unprecedented. Admittedly, the story does play out in a style somewhat reminiscent of those classic text-based adventure computer games, but I have to say unless you’re going into this using Catherine as a baseline for trippiness, this one is going to be WEIRD WEIRD WEIRD.
Typically, I prefer my stories to have a semblance of structure, as opposed to, say, just a random string of events thrown together—which was initially how this book came across. But just as I was starting to really regret my choice, Crab happened. Yes, Crab. To explain would be to give up spoilers, so all I’ll say is that my time with Crab changed everything. By the end of Part I of The Hike I wanted to cry. The revelation revealed there made me understand something about this book, like maybe there’s actually some rhythm to this madness, or maybe the madness is just the point.
At this point in my review, I actually had several more paragraphs planned. After some consideration, I nixed them. It was going to boil down to more commentary on why The Hike was so weird and wonderful, and why despite its kookiness I still enjoyed it a lot. I realized given the circumstances of this book, that’s all immaterial. It’ll either work or it won’t, and I don’t want to run the risk of potentially predisposing would-be readers if I make further attempts to describe its themes or to compare the story to something else, because any more would be revealing and that would remove a lot of the magic.
So throw everything you think you know about this book out the window. Even though it incorporates a number of elements from spec fic genres, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter; it’s going to do its own thing. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the moment I let go of my preconceptions was also when I started really enjoying myself. There is truly no guessing where things will go, and once you relinquish the reins and simply let this baby take you where it will, The Hike will delight you and enchant you and move you. I’m really glad I took a chance on this special gem....more
Meet Arabella Ashby of Mars. The year is 1812 and already humans have been capable of space travel for centuries, thanks to the advances in automata and airship technology made in the 1600s. Our titular heroine is Martian-born and Martian-bred, having been raised on her family’s frontier colonial plantation until the year she turned sixteen, when her mother deemed the red planet too unsuitable for the enrichment of proper young ladies. After saying goodbye to her father, her older brother Michael, and her childhood home where so many fond memories of her wild adventures have been forged, Arabella is whisked away along with her two younger sisters back to London, England on Earth, a planet as alien to our protagonist as Mars is to most English folk.
Growing up on Mars, Arabella’s Martian nanny Khema taught her how to be strong and independent—important traits to have if one hopes to thrive on the world’s harsh surface. But back in England, she is expected to be meek and gentile, following the myriad incomprehensible rules of etiquette expected from a young woman of high birth. Before she’s had much time to settle though, her family receives terrible news from Mars: Arabella’s father has passed on, leaving the ownership of the plantation to Michael, his only son and heir. However, members of the extended Ashby family have other ideas. Arabella’s cousin, Simon Ashby, has long felt slighted over his side of the family’s lack of inheritance, and sees this as an opportunity to seize what he wants. When Arabella finds out about Simon’s dastardly plans to kill her brother, it is a race to Mars in order to try and stop him.
But while she’s still on Earth, Arabella is just a girl with no resources or power, and her murderous cousin has a pretty big head start. In a desperate gambit, she steals a set of men’s clothing and poses as a boy looking for work on a ship bound for Mars, and that’s how she ends up on the Diana, a merchant airship for the Mars Trading Company captained by the handsome and mysterious Prakash Singh.
Ahem, if someone had told me this was predominantly a girl-disguised-as-a-boy story, I would have read this one much, much sooner! I can’t help it; as common and well-used as it is, I’m always a sucker for this trope. As an added bonus, I happen to love nautical fantasy. While the “sailing” here takes place in space instead of upon the high seas, and the airships might not look exactly like the traditional tall ships of history, one look at that gorgeous cover with the sails and rigging and you can probably tell that the general idea is the same. We may be trading ocean currents for solar winds, but you still have the ship crew, sailing lingo, the everyday activities that take place on a trade ship, and even a heart-stopping encounter with French privateers.
I’ve never read anything by the author before this, but I can see the reason for all his accolades and why his short fiction is so widely praised. David D. Levine is an excellent world-builder, imagining an alternate history where, instead of observing an apple fall to the ground, the great Sir Isaac Newton receives his epiphany after watching a soap bubble in his bath rise to the surface, leading him to form the principle of aerial buoyancy. Thus, humankind was able to develop space travel so quickly. Despite the themes of planetary colonialism and traversing the stars though, there’s also a strong fantastical nature to this novel. In truth, the elements of sci-fi are pretty light, making a lot of the “technology” feel practically indistinguishable from magic. This includes the society’s use of automata and other clockwork machinery, giving Arabella of Mars a strong Regency Era-inspired steampunk flavor.
As for the character of Arabella, it was impossible not to be drawn to her immediately. She’s a free spirit trapped by the strict conventions of the early 1800s, especially those placed upon upper class young women. But her Martian upbringing and her time with Khema had shown her see how things could be different (the Martians are a heavily carapaced race of aliens with eye stalks, and it is their larger, more powerful females who are the warriors and leaders) and so she has a much different outlook than her mother and her peers. Although this gives Arabella a “special snowflake” vibe at times (not to mention her knack with fixing automata which surpasses the abilities of even the most experienced adults) it was very easy to feel a connection to her character, and to cheer for her every step of the way on her quest to save her brother.
There are a few other nitpicks, but they are mostly minor. The plot was fast-paced but felt a little “forced” and too convenient, considering everything that could go wrong does go wrong, and at times it got very predictable. The romance between Arabella and Captain Singh also came on a bit too suddenly for me at the end there, especially since the latter spent more than half the book believing the former to be nothing more than his cabin boy. But since this novel appears to be designed for crossover YA and adult appeal, I didn’t mind these stylistic choices too much.
All in all, I loved Arabella of Mars and I couldn’t have asked for a more fun and exciting genre-bending tale. With its intriguing mix of steampunk, fantasy, science fiction and alternate history, readers of every persuasion will likely find something for them in this wonderful, action-packed coming-of-age adventure....more
I wish I had enjoyed this more, but when a novel of just a smidgen over two hundred pages takes me more than a week to read, something’s definitely not working for me, and I think I know what it is. While the premise behind The Kind Folk is certainly compelling, and horror novelist Ramsey Campbell sure knows his stuff when it comes to creating dread and suspense, I nevertheless had a difficult time getting used to his writing style and technique, which ultimately affected my overall enjoyment of the story and its characters. Of course when it comes down to an author’s writing style, each individual reader’s mileage may vary, so you may still wish to give this book a try if the story sounds like something that would interest you.
Imagine finding out you are not who you’ve always thought you were, and for the moment to play out on television in front of a nationwide audience. Luke is a 30-year-old standup comedian who along with his parents Maurice and Freda are called up to appear on Brittan’s Resolutions, a fictional Maury-like British daytime talk show which specializes in paternity tests. Maurice has long held suspicions that his son was actually fathered by his brother, Luke’s uncle Terence, and so the whole family has been subjected to a round of DNA testing. The results? Terence is NOT the father! Queue the collective sighs of relief and tears and joy. But before the congratulations can go around, the host drops another surprise: Maurice, you are also NOT the father! And yet, it’s the final bombshell that stuns everyone: DNA shows that Freda isn’t Luke’s mother either.
Reeling from the news, the family concludes that a mistake must have been made at the hospital when Luke was born, and somehow babies have been switched. Luke thus begins his quest to track down his biological parents, hoping that the knowledge would shed light on his medical history because he and his girlfriend Sophie are expecting their own baby very soon. He begins by approaching Terence for help, since Luke has always been close to his uncle, but Terence’s sudden death puts an end to that plan. Instead, Luke searches for clues in Terence’s journal, which the older man had filled with rambling, disjointed notes on his obsession with mythology and the occult going all the way back to a time just before Luke was born.
Terence had written about going to various locations around Britain seeking something, with the words KIND FOLK cropping up in the journal more than a few times. At first, Luke takes this to mean that the locals Terence met were nice and helpful, but as he traces his uncle’s steps, he begins to see strange unsettling things, and more than once he could have sworn he saw an inhuman creature following him out of the corner of his eye.
The mentions of “Kind Folk” of course were references to Faeries. These are the real scary ones too, and not your Disney-fied versions or even the beautiful, cruel tricksters you often see in urban fantasy. The ones in this book are so, so, so much worse. They don’t even look entirely human, with their elongated limbs and pale shapeless faces bearing a poor facsimile of regular features like eyes and mouths. The book also describes them doing this hideous thing with their hands, and I don’t know why, but there’s just something so hair-raisingly disturbing when it comes to extreme bodily contortions, which is probably why exorcism movies employ this device so much.
While there were times where I wish there had been more “horror” in this story, especially during sections where the plot meanders, this novel definitely had its terrifying moments, and almost without exception those scenes all involved the Folk. Whenever they appear, things immediately become creepy as hell. At the heart of this book is also the Changeling myth, based on old folk tales about how the Fae steal newborn babies by replacing them with a doppelganger who is one of their own. This is obviously relevant to Luke’s situation, but with the impending arrival of his own child, there’s this further sense that time is running out, adding a layer of suspense and dread as the baby’s due date ticks closer and closer.
Now for the main reason why this book didn’t work as well for me: Campbell’s writing has a very stark, bare-bones quality to it, with very little description. Coupled with a heavy reliance on dialogue, certain scenes can be difficult to follow. A character will say something, often without accompanying context, leaving me guessing at what he or she means by that. At the same time, when the author does describe the physical environment, he would sometimes use overly complicated clunky metaphors used to relay very simple ideas.
Hard as I tried, I also couldn’t get into the characters. There’s barely any emotion to them, and they seem to treat major events like any other normal day. A husband accuses his wife of being unfaithful, to the extent they all have to appear on a national daytime talk show to sort it out, and the next day they go just back to being a regular old married couple with all the tensions and marital conflicts forgotten. Luke’s uncle Terence dies, and everyone treats it with the gravitas of a trip to the mall. I also didn’t like Luke very much. He barely had a personality, even though he’s supposed to be a very successful comedian, charming audiences with his talent for imitations. His reaction to the DNA results also made me want to punch him in the face. Blood parents or not, for thirty years they raised him and loved him, but suddenly with the snap of the fingers it’s not “Mum” and “Dad” anymore, it’s “Freda” and “Maurice”—and he even goes as far as to change this for their contacts in his phone! I mean, SERIOUSLY, LUKE?! But of course, Freda and Maurice’s response to all of this is the equivalence of a shrug—no sadness, no anger, no hurt, no nothing.
The Kind Folk could have been a real winner, and certainly it contained all of the right ingredients. Unfortunately, it was the execution that really fell flat for me. With all these great ideas here, this novel could have been one of the most terrifying books I read this year, but while it did indeed have its frightening moments, the horror never really sustained itself due to some untidy plotting and weak characterization. If you can get into the writing, this would be a really fast read though, and might be worth a look if you want a book about some truly terrifying Faeries....more
This was a tough one to rate. I devoured this one, so you know I really enjoyed it and I want to make that clear. It was quite different from what I expected though, perhaps more political in nature than action and adventure-oriented, and calling it “Star Wars-style science fiction” might be a bit of a stretch. Still, Behind the Throne is a special kind of gem, and would appeal to readers who appreciate story structure, unique cultures, royal court intrigue, and subverting tropes. It’s also a fast and fun book, gradually building and hooking you in by degrees until it’s impossible to tear yourself away.
First things first: score one to this book for starring a gun-running smuggler princess. Twenty years ago, Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol ran away from home and took to open space, sloughing her royal identity for a new one in order to hunt her father’s killer. Even though her mission ultimately failed, she’s never looked back, opting instead to travel the galaxy for reasons only known to herself, becoming one of the empire’s most notorious gun smugglers in the process.
However, that life suddenly comes crashing to an end when Hail is intercepted by elite Trackers and forced to return home to her family. Or what’s left of it. It turns out, her sisters and niece are dead, likely victims in an assassination plot, leaving Hail her mother’s sole remaining heir to the Indranan throne. With no other choice, Hail reluctantly takes on her new responsibilities, if nothing else because she is determined to hunt down those responsible for her sisters’ deaths. Later though, she finds that being Heir Apparent is even more dangerous than gun-running. Secrets and shadowy plots and lurk everywhere beneath the surface, and to make things worse, Hail discovers that her mother the Empress has been afflicted by an incurable illness that will soon force her to give up her rule. As Hail struggles to insert herself back into court life, she finds she has become a target of assassination herself, making her quest to uncover this conspiracy all the more urgent.
Despite the publisher blurb describing this as an action-packed space opera, I would caution against going into this expecting lots of space battles, raucous adventures and daring exploits. There is some of that, but it comes mostly at the end. I would say the second part of that blurb promising “courtly conspiracy” is probably more accurate. That’s not to say that the action and all-out galactic war won’t come in the next book, because I honestly feel the story is building towards that direction, but this first installment is primarily focused on politics of the royal family.
Some might hear this and feel reluctant to give this book a try because they think politics are dull. While I concede that some political science fiction can be very dry, I can assure you this is not the case with Behind the Throne. To the novel’s credit, the story is very engaging, featuring the juiciest kind of court intrigue as you can imagine—betrayals, assassinations, secrets, scandals and the like. The world-building is also handled deftly by Wagers, who infuses her universe with enough culture and history to give the conflicts within these pages significant context. Everything feels rich and connected, making me feel that these characters really matter, or that what happens in the story can indeed have a great impact on the rest of the galaxy.
This is also a very character-oriented story, written in the first person perspective so we’re given a front row seat to all that is going on. I confess I did not warm to Hail right away, in part due to her tendency to get overwrought or melodramatic when she reacts to any kind of news. Wager’s exaggerated writing style may have something to do with this, as there were quite a few hammy descriptions in the intro lone where the world always seemed to be crashing down around our heroine, or the air was constantly being sucked out of her lungs. However, I gradually came to look past this as the plot progressed, following Hail back to her home planet with her Tracer escorts Emmory Tresk and Starzin Hafin. I liked how her relationship with the two of them slowly evolved from open hostility to mutual trust, as Hail quickly comes to realize who her true friends are in a court full of hidden traitors and groveling two-faced sycophants. Standing in defiance to all those who doubt her, or think less of her because of her criminal past, Hail proves to everyone that she can be a strong and effective ruler who cares for her people.
Audiobook Comments: I was fortunate enough to be given the chance to review the audio edition of Behind the Throne. As audiophiles well know, one of the biggest downsides to listening to speculative fiction books in this format is the inability to know how to spell any of those crazy fantasy and science fiction names! In addition to the world and characters of the Indranan War series being heavily inspired by Indian culture and mythology, there are also other names of people, places, technology, ideas, and other space-faring societies described in this book that I had to look up in a print version to know how to write them correctly. It’s not really a huge problem for me, but if you know that this is something that frustrates you, it might be worth picking up the hardcopy.
As for the narration, I thought the reader Angèle Masters delivered an impressive performance, especially as she had to maintain an accent through the entire book. That said, it was not always consistent, and there were inconvenient moments where this was distracting. These are definitely things to consider if you have the choice between print and audio, and depending on your preferences, your mileage will vary. As for myself, I found it enjoyable enough, and probably won’t rule out the possibility of tackling the next book in this format as well.
Bottom line, I had a great time with this novel, despite going in with very different expectations. I think the next book will be more in line with what the book description advertises, with more action and adventure featuring our protagonist relying more on her experiences from her old gun running days to save the empire. I look forward to the sequel After the Crown to see what new tale K.B. Wagers has in store for us....more
Just when you think things can’t get any crazier, Rachel Aaron doubles down on the dramatic tensions by throwing us onto the emotional rollercoaster that is No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished. If you aren’t caught up to this series yet, first of all, what are you waiting for? And second, the usual caveat applies for all my sequel reviews: there are potentially spoilery details ahead for the previous two books—nothing too much beyond what’s already revealed in the book’s description, but it’s something to keep in mind just in case you’d prefer to approach Nice Dragons Finish Last or One Good Dragon Deserves Another with completely fresh eyes.
For readers who have been following Julius Heartstriker on this wild, twisting journey since the very beginning though, they’re going to be so proud of our little nice dragon after this book. The youngest Heartstriker of J-Clutch is finally coming into his own. But even after gaining the power to overthrow his mother the great dragon Bethesda, our protagonist still has much more to do. He’s about to introduce a concept that no other dragon in the history of their species has ever contemplated before: Democracy. Refusing to kill Bethesda, Julius decides to put forth the idea of a new ruling Council instead, splitting the power of the Heartstriker into three. With Julius and his mother occupying two of the Council positions, that means only one more seat remains open, and whoever fills it will be decided by vote.
Queue the insanity. Because the rules stipulate that no further major decisions can be made until the Council is whole, both Bethesda and Julius have their own reasons for wanting the election to proceed quickly. However, only the latter has the greater good of the clan in mind, while the former simply wants to get her old power back. Bethesda is pulling out all the stops in an attempt to keep the Council from even happening, backing her own candidate for the coveted seat, and her supporters are also not above trying to kill Julius outright in order to gain her favor. To protect him, his older sister Chelsie is running herself ragged all over the mountain trying to keep the clan from tearing itself apart. Meanwhile, Heartstrikers from all over the country are flocking to the vote, and tensions are high with so many dragons crammed into one place. As they’re busy bickering away though, Algonquin, the ancient spirit of the lakes has declared war on all dragons, and they’re all sitting ducks as long as the last Council seat remains empty. Time is running out, but Julius doesn’t want a quick fix. He has only one chance to change the fate of his clan, and true to form, he wants to do it the right, honest, and good way.
Even after all that, we’re only just scratching the surface. No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished follows a lot of other plot threads, beyond the major one surrounding the Council election. One of these threads are hinted at by that gorgeous cover art, which of course features Chelsie Heartstriker in all her glory. Julius’ scary big sister plays a huge role in this book, and I think her fans are going to be very happy with all the big reveals about her past. There’s a particularly big bombshell that Julius is a little too guileless and innocent to figure out, but for me, it was like WHOOOOAAAAAA.
All of our other favorite characters also return, and then some. I love Marci even more with each book, and she and Julius are just so adorable that I want to melt into sappy puddle every time I read about them thinking of each other. As Julius makes strides in achieving his own potential, so does Marci; she’s set to become one of the most important mages in the world since the great meteor strike that brought magic back to the planet, thanks to her spirit companion, a spectral cat named Ghost. As much as I enjoyed reading about Marci and Julius’ relationship, I had even more fun discovering more about the bond between Marci and Ghost. I’ve always said the world-building is incredible in this series, and Rachel Aaron expands upon it with each book. In the last installment, we learned the true nature of Ghost, but he’s still a big enigma in many ways and this book offers up another key piece of information in the understanding of the series’ magical lore. There’s a reason why everyone wants this ghostly cat, including the UN and Algonquin herself, making Marci’s storyline just as exciting as Julius’.
And of course, how could it be a true Heartstrikers sequel without the rest of the family? Bob, Amelia, and Justin are back, along with Chelsie. But for the first time ever though, we’re also given a good look at just how truly massive the Heartstriker clan is. Feathers fly as the entire family, more than one hundred members strong, are gathered at the mountain. There’s a lot of dragon politics. We’re introduced to the plight of F-Clutch. There are plenty of those who don’t believe in Julius’ vision. Our protagonist pretty much spends this entire book trying to convince his many siblings that killing is wrong, and it’s almost painful at times to watch him try to sell his non-violent approach to those that you know will never come to his side. In several places, Julius’ naiveté made me want to throttle him, to scream at him to “Stick up for yourself!” or that “They deserve it!” Even with killing off the table, without the threat of some kind of punishment, aggressive and manipulative dragons will always try to game the system, and it baffled me that Julius never thought to address that problem. Even with all his blind spots though, I had to admire his conviction. It’s as the title says, no good dragon goes unpunished, and Julius takes a lot of abuse in this book, but he sticks to his guns through even the worst of it. Respect.
All told, this novel is simply excellent, and it’s another incredible installment in the Heartstrikers series. I felt that it was a very different book than One Good Dragon Deserves Another, which featured more action and adventure on a grander scale, whereas this focused more on dragon politics and family ties. This might make the book feel slower, but I personally felt the tradeoff was worth it for the more substantial and meaningful look into the characters’ relationships, not to mention the focus on weightier themes. The author has said that the next book will probably be the final Heartstrikers novel, which makes me sad that the series will be coming to a close but I’m also excited to find out how everything will wrap up. This one ended with a real shocker, and I can’t wait to see what happens next....more
It appears plenty of people are already aware of the awesomeness of A. Lee Martinez, and as usual I’m just way behind. I first heard of the author only earlier this year, when I saw the title and cover for The Last Adventure of Constance Verity. How could I not be intrigued? Is Constance the badass looking woman smiling smugly at the viewer, apparently after having taken down a bunch of cultists single-handedly? And why might this be her last adventure? I wanted to KNOW. If there’s one thing’s for sure, this book caught my attention right away.
Indeed the story does star our eponymous heroine, and things kick off with one hell of an introduction. Going incognito as “Connie Smythe”, our main character attempts to start her “ordinary” life by getting an “ordinary” job. However, the moment her would-be employers find out about her true identity, the seemingly everyday interview takes a turn for the bizarre as they try to dispose of Connie by sacrificing her to the Hungry Earth monster. Just another day in the life of Constance Verity. Trouble just seems to follow her everywhere, much to her annoyance. All she wants to do is live a normal existence, but just how is she to do that when disasters like alien invasions, time traveling supervillains, or space pirates just keep falling into her lap?
This has been the case for most of Connie’s life. Whether she likes it or not, she is destined for heroism and adventure, thanks to a wish granted to her at birth by her fairy godmother. But now Connie has had enough of all of that, and just wants to settle down. Clearly, the blessing (or curse?) isn’t going to let that happen, so she’ll just have to do something more extreme: Constance Verity is going to kill her fairy godmother and take back control of her life.
This book is the latest addition to what I have labeled my “fantasy comedy” shelf. Martinez goes to town riffing on our beloved tropes from classic action-adventure and pulp stories, combining the humor with paranormal elements. There’s even a running joke between Connie and her trusty sidekick Tia, with them always making references to her past escapades, each one sounding more outlandish than the last. Our heroine has seen it all, from foiling evil supervillain plans take over the world to escaping so-called inescapable sure-death situations James Bond-style. Despite this ostensibly cheesy shtick though, it really works. This story deftly toes the line between satire and homage, so that the premise comes off as being more witty than cornball.
And though Constance Verity is meant to be an amalgam representing a number of our favorite larger-than-life heroes and heroines from classic pulp, she’s surprisingly easy to relate to. Of course, no one can claim to have a life quite like hers, but her desire to achieve some balance between work and pleasure is something a lot of people can sympathize with. It’s also clear after a while that Connie is chasing a pipe dream. After having done the extraordinary things she’s done, there’s just no going back to “normal” for her; not now or ever. We’re along for the ride as Connie discovers this for herself through much introspection and surprisingly profound discussions about determinism and free choice. Is Connie destined to live the rest of her life saving the world every day until she goes down in a glorious death as promised, or is it really just a simple matter of her refusal to turn away from a bad situation knowing that she has the power to help? Whether she likes it or not, Connie has the heart of a hero.
The Last Adventure of Constance Verity is sure to give you plenty of good laughs and some deeper themes to chew on. It’s unexpectedly charismatic and offbeat, and I think of all the fantasy comedy novels I’ve tried this year, so far this is by far my favorite. It’s funny and farcical without being puerile, entertaining without feeling forced. All in all, I had a wonderful time with this book, and I will certainly be looking into picking up more books by A. Lee Martinez!...more
With my Pathfinder group currently on summer break, I found myself desperately craving for a good quest narrative adventure. Enter Liar’s Bargain, which really hit the spot. Of course, I’d much rather be playing an RPG campaign, but if that’s not possible, reading a story that feels exactly like one is the next best thing.
This book is actually the follow-up to Tim Pratt’s Liar’s Island, and the third in a sequence featuring recurring characters Rodrick and his sentient ice sword Hrym, but like most of the novels in the Pathfinder Tales series it can be read as a standalone.
This time, Rodrick finds himself deep in crusader lands, the last place you’d want to be caught committing a crime. Lawbreakers in Lastwall are punished harshly, as our hapless hero discovers too late, after being sentenced to death for trying to steal a horse. Intrigued by his magical talking sword, however, Rodrick’s captors offer him another way to serve his sentence: join a covert government program with other seasoned outlaws to carry out missions too delicate (and dangerous) for ordinary soldiers. For one year, he would work under his boss Temple and do the bidding of the Lastwall crusaders. Should he survive after that period, he will go free. In the meantime though, Rodrick and his fellow criminals press ganged into service will be implanted with rubies infused with dark magic. If they attempt escape or try to wriggle out of their punishment in any way, Temple promises to activate the magic in the gems, and the explosion would tear their bodies apart.
For Rodrick, the choice was easy. He’d rather take his chances with a ragtag group of miscreants than face certain death at the hands of Lastwall’s executioners. And that is how he and Hrym find themselves teamed up with the outlaw Merihim and her silent companion Prinn, as well as a thief named Eldra and a mysterious alchemist who only goes by “The Specialist”. For the group’s first assignment, Temple sends them on mission to retrieve a very important person—simple enough, Rodrick thinks. But then, one of the others suddenly decide to go off script, and that’s when things start going horribly wrong.
This is only my second venture into the world of the Pathfinder Tales novels, and it couldn’t have been more different from my first, which was Liane Merciel’s Hellknight, a murder mystery mainly starring a duo made up of a hellspawn investigator and a battle-hardened paladin. In contrast, Liar’s Bargain features a traditional quest narrative plot structure and an ensemble cast, with each character bringing something valuable to the party. Merihim is the “brains” of the operation, much to Rodrick’s chagrin. Our poor protagonist fancies himself to be a good leader, but he and his sword were originally brought in simply to be the team’s muscle. The Specialist, despite his name, is the jack of all trades, playing the much essential support role. And of course, no adventuring group can be complete without its resident rogue, and that’s where Eldra comes in. All told, the cast had all the makings of your classic role-playing group, and the story was definitely more in the vein of what I had in mind when I first tried the series, unfolding like a multi-part campaign.
The plot is not very complex, but it’s every bit as fun as you’d expect it to be, with its fair share of surprising twists and turns. In several places, I even amused myself by picturing an imaginary DM setting the adventures up with a jaw-dropping scenario before announcing in an ominous tone, “Roll initiative”, simply because it was just so damn appropriate. As for the characters, Rodrick himself is somewhat of an arrogant puffed-up blowhard, but he plays the part with plenty of humor and snark. When your book’s protagonist has a best friend that’s a talking magical sword with the ability to ice anyone and anything, you can surely count on getting some excellent banter. I’ll admit to more than a few chuckles when I was reading this book, especially during the witty exchanges between Rodrick and Hyrm.
There were some issues, of course, like the Specialist and his apparent ability to come up with a solution to every problem, which felt much too convenient to me (though who knows, maybe he just rolled high on all his skill checks), or the fact that the story meanders too far off the main track with a couple “side quests” in the second half of the novel. But on the whole, I have to say I was quite pleased with Liar’s Bargain. It was entertaining the whole way through, which was exactly what I signed on for, and in fact, I liked it so much, I’m even contemplating going back to pick up the two previous Rodrick and Hrym novels.
Not a fan or player of Pathfinder or RPGs? No problem. Even readers who know nothing about the game can dive right in. If you’re looking for a fun, fast-paced fantasy read, you simply can’t go wrong with this story featuring the misadventures of a lovable gang of scoundrels and rogues....more
The publisher description for Bite is pretty vague, but I actually think this works in favor of the novel. When you pick up a book set in a post-nuclear apocalypse wasteland and speculate on what the story might be about, probably a whole slew of other things will enter your mind before you think, “cannibals”. But it does make a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
In this ruined world after the bombs fell, survival ain’t easy. Lack of food and lack of clean water can kill you as easily as raiders and crazies. Especially if you’re all alone. Our protagonist, known only as “Kid”, has been traveling by herself ever since her father died a few years back. On a lonely stretch of road, she finds herself weakening due to hunger and thirst, unsure if she’ll make it long enough to reach the next town where she can replenish her supplies. Desperation can make people do stupid things, she thinks to herself as she accepts a ride from two scary strangers who stop when they see her walking and offer her a ride in their truck. It’s probably a really bad idea, but Kid would rather take her chances with Wolf and Dolly than die alone in the desert wasteland.
There was little reason for Kid to suspect that her chance meeting with the two of them would lead to an insane journey of many wild and bloody adventures. Soon, they meet up with Tank and Pretty Boy, who make up the rest of the team. Few people ask for or give real names in this world, as that would make it too easy to get attached, but regardless, the team sees something they like in Kid and decide to welcome her into their fold. That, however, was before Kid learns the truth about her new adopted ragtag family. Known as “Sharks”, they’re despised throughout the wasteland for a certain lifestyle choice they’ve decided to make—like dining upon their fellow human beings. By the time Kid finds out though, she’s already accepted her place in the crew, and cannibals or not, when a new enemy threatens her friends, she will do what she can to fight back beside them.
Author K.S. Merbeth takes us into what would be a familiar setting for sci-fi and fantasy readers, but she also peppers her post-apocalyptic world with some flair of her own. The wasteland is a haunting, desolate, and grey place, but there is also a strange beauty to it, which if you’ve ever played the games in the Fallout series you could probably understand. From savage raiders and paranoid townies to the lonesome wastelanders and megalomaniacs in radio towers, I was getting major Fallout and Mad Max vibes from this one (which is awesome, obviously.)
Bite also does a fine job obliterating the lines between the “good” and “bad” guys, painting our little group of cannibals as the unlikely heroes of this gory tale. Yes, they eat human flesh, but…but…but…they’re just so lovable! Wait, did I really just say that? The character development is excellent in this novel, and I guess it really had to be in order to convince us that these people and their abhorrent dietary preferences are worthy of our time and attention. Merbeth succeeded marvelously, creating a cast of engaging characters that I just couldn’t help but cheer for. Each individual had their irresistible quirks, like Wolf and his devil-may-care approach to leadership, Dolly and her taciturn badass persona, Tank and his surprisingly gentle devotion to his friends, Pretty Boy and the emotional scars he hides under his self-interest and false bravado. And finally, there’s Kid, who certainly isn’t the boldest or strongest of protagonists, but her resourcefulness has kept her alive in this rough world for a long time. She won me over quickly, the same way Wolf and the others were charmed by her honesty and good heart so that even her blundering inexperience and mistakes were tolerated, albeit with some exasperation. In most other books, this rough group of cannibals and killers would be the villains, but thanks to clever use of humor and a healthy dose of surreal sardonic fun, I found it remarkably easy to love and care about these characters and appreciate the fresh dynamics between them.
The plot was entertaining, but also relatively uncomplicated as these types of stories often are. Pacing does seem off in a few places, which can be felt in the rushed ending, or in the glossing over of a major character’s death, plus a few minor hiccups like the sparse characterizations of big baddies like the Queen or the Saint. But are these deal breakers? Certainly not. My overall enjoyment was unaffected despite some of these weaknesses. This book delivered exactly what I was expecting: a fast, fun, explosive adventure.
Audiobook comments: I was fortunate be given the opportunity to review the audio edition of Bite. This is the first audiobook I’ve listened to narrated by Stephanie Willis, and I was very impressed by her performance. At first, I worried that her voice might be a little too mature and feminine for Kid, who is supposed to be a small, mousy sixteen-year-old girl frequently mistaken for a boy. However, all my doubts were erased within the first hour. Willis has an incredible talent for portraying a wide range of emotions, and her narration added a poignant, extra layer to the story. When Kid was trudging through the desert wasteland on her own, I could sense the desperation and hopelessness. During the action scenes, the panic and confusion really came through. Willis also did a phenomenal job on the dialogue, giving each character a voice to match their personality. She was able to emphasize the humor and other nuances in the back-and-forth conversations as well, and there was never a problem distinguishing which character was speaking. I ended up really enjoying this audiobook. If Bite sounds like a book you’d like to check out, I would recommend giving this version a go....more
After my wonderful time with Victor Milán’s The Dinosaur Lords last year, I was understandably quite anxious to take on the sequel The Dinosaur Knights. However, there were some aspects with this follow-up that made me think the honeymoon period might be coming to an end. While I still love the epic-fantasy-meets-dinosaurs premise behind this series, admittedly the magic has faded somewhat due to this book’s uneven pacing and my growing dissatisfaction with a couple key characters.
The Dinosaur Knights continues the narrative from the first novel, following more or less the same handful of characters. In the Empire of Neuvaropa, a fictional land reminiscent of 14th century Europe, everything is in turmoil as rumors of a Grey Angel Crusade lead desperate men to form the most unlikely of alliances. We pick up Rob Korrigan’s story in the pacifist town of Providence, where the dinosaur master and his friend the famed noble captain Karyl Bogomirskiy are on trial for their perceived crimes against the adherents of the Garden of Truth and Beauty. At the same time, Princess Melodía and her maidservant Pilar are on the run after escaping imprisonment in the palace from the traitor Duke Falk von Hornberg. Eventually, their search for a safe haven leads them to Providence, where the fates of our major characters finally converge.
Meanwhile, Melodía’s lover and Karyl’s rival the Count Jaume dels Flors has joined forces with Emperor Felipe, hatching up an insane plan in the hopes of stopping the Creators’ Grey Angels from returning to Paradise. As war erupts across Neuvaropa, even those who just want to withdraw into peace and isolation are swept up in the rising wave of fear and madness. Worst of all, despite the extreme efforts by the Empire, there’s no telling whether the weapons of the Gods can even be stopped.
First, the good news: All this will ultimately culminate into one hell of a climax and ending. The bad news? I felt like I had to plod through more than 200 pages just to reach the point where things start getting interesting. I experienced little to no emotional engagement or suspense for the first half of the book, because it was impossible to shake the pesky feeling that the author was simply biding his time until he could maneuver all his characters into place, after which he can finally usher in the real action.
I was also disappointed with the characters, especially Princess Melodía, the only female POV in a cast dominated by men. She was my favorite from The Dinosaur Lords, and my one regret was not seeing her play a more significant role compared to Rob or Jaume. In a way, I got my wish granted, since Melodía received a lot more page time in The Dinosaur Knights, though I remain unconvinced this was actually an improvement. I didn’t like the way her character was repeatedly set up to be duped or to make mind-bogglingly bad decisions, undermining the hard won admiration she earned from the previous book. Then there was Rob, who frequently displays more respect and compassion towards his dinosaurs than his fellow human beings, which is especially apparent when it comes to his sexual objectification of women. I don’t usually let this kind of stuff get to me, but there were so many unnecessary allusions in this vein that even I couldn’t help but notice. With Melodía being almost useless for the first half of this novel, and Rob going from passably charming to downright insufferable, it was harder to engage with the characters this time around.
Happily, the dinosaurs are still amazing. For one thing, I just love the smattering of chapters we get from Shiraa the Allosaurus’ point of view. These brief glimpses into the dinosaur’s head can be a bit incongruous, but I can’t help but appreciate them for being one of the series’ cooler idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, Milán continues to excel at writing fantastic dino-battle scenes. They’re the real highlights of this novel, with the largescale combat sequences in the final section going a long way in making up for a humdrum first half.
This sequel also delves deeper into the lore of the Creators and their Grey Angels. With dinosaurs and angels, this series is really starting to build into something a lot more complex than I had anticipated when I first picked up The Dinosaur Lords. And while world-building continues to be a work-in-progress and we still don’t have all the answers, I admit I’m curious to see how all the puzzle pieces will fall into place.
It should come as no surprise then, that I still have plans on continuing this series. It’s true that I felt the second book slump with this one, but several promising developments in the last half of the book also give me hope that the third installment will pick things up again. Plus, there’s no dismissing those final climactic chapters, and with the book ending with the Empire of Neuvaropa in even more of a mess than when we started, I’m definitely keen on finding out where our characters will go from here....more
I knew I was going to have fun with this book, but I ended up liking it even more than I expected. I’ve reached the point in my reading where I already have several go-to authors or series I seek out whenever I want my routine Urban Fantasy fix, so for me to jump into a new UF, something has to be unique or special about it to catch my interest. I’m happy to say that It Happened One Doomsday was just that—fresh, original, and extremely entertaining. It’s not every day you come across a magic system based on crystals, minerals and gems, or a version of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who herald in the end of the world driving fast classic cars.
Our protagonist is also not your typical sorceress. In fact, by her own admission, Dru Jasper is barely a sorceress at all. She knows her own magical potential is weak, but she tells herself she’s fine with that. Most folks in the magical community aren’t the most stable, anyway. All Dru wants now is to be a “normal” person, to settle down with her “normal” successful dentist boyfriend Nate, and start a “normal” life together with him. In the meantime, she’s happy enough supporting other more talented sorcerers with her store, The Crystal Connection, supplying them with powerful potions and magical crystals. Every once in a while, a regular customer will also come in asking for some relaxation incense or crystal healing.
Then one day, a hunky mechanic named Greyson rolls up to her store in a black muscle car and walks in with complaints of nightmares keeping him awake. Right away, Dru feels a connection with him. Just being near him seems to amplify her powers, so that she can achieve more magical healing with her crystals than she’s ever managed before. However, despite Dru’s best efforts, Greyson’s symptoms don’t seem to be getting any better. Her worst fears are confirmed when horns start sprouting from his head and his eyes start glowing red: Greyson is turning into a demon. Turns out, an order called the Harbingers are bent on bringing about doomsday and for some reason Greyson has been targeted to be one of their Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. To stop the end of the world, Dru and her friends must recover an artifact known as the Apocalypse Scroll, but first they’ll have to survive long enough to find a way to reverse Greyson’s terrible transformation.
I had a wonderful time with this fast-paced and entertaining story. Laurence MacNaughton’s writing is very engaging and readable, and he has a great touch with dialogue, especially when it comes to snappy back-and-forth interplay between characters. However, for this review, I want to focus on what I thought were the book’s main standout features.
To start things off, Dru’s use of crystal magic is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. The author recently wrote a guest post for The BiblioSanctum which talked about the magic system in It Happened One Doomsday and it is clear he knows a lot about the history and properties of crystals and gems. The main focus of the post was on galena, which Dru uses in the book to fight demons, but there are so many more types of rocks, minerals, and even metals that are featured in this story. Our protagonist’s touch can activate the magical potential in the crystals, which she can then use or channel to so some pretty amazing things. It’s a simple idea, but the possibilities are virtually limitless.
Second, the characters are what makes this book shine. Dru is headstrong and isn’t afraid to step up to do what needs doing, but she’s also far from being the perfect heroine archetype. MacNaughton paints her as something closer to an underdog, someone who doubts her own powers and worth. She’s reluctant to reach for what she really wants, fearing failure and disappointment, so she decides to settle for what she thinks is good enough. Fortunately for Dru, she has good friends who provide her with a daily dose of reality check. Enter Rane, a six-foot-tall Amazonian sorceress who can turn her body into whatever substance she is in contact with, which makes Dru and her extensive inventory of metal and rock jewelry a good ally for her to have. Rane is proof that sometimes you can like a supporting character even more than the main protagonist; I just loved her and her friendship with Dru, and I was happy that she had a big role in this story.
Third, I liked the idea of possessed cars. While I’m not a fan of muscles cars or hot rods, the concept of demons riding them seemed like an apropos, modern-day equivalent of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Greyson’s car, dubbed Hellbringer, was a delight, and much credit goes to MacNaughton for giving an inanimate object such a convincing personality and for making it seem so alive.
The ending ties things up nicely, but also sets the stage for more. Bottom line, even though I’m following way too many urban fantasy series these days, I’ll never say no to entertaining stories and great characters. It Happened One Doomsday definitely sold me, and I know I’ll be waiting on pins and needles until the sequel....more
The Last One is a post-apocalyptic dystopian thriller about the world in shambles. There’s also a big-budget nationally televised survival reality show, with almost no lead time between filming and airing, starring twelve competitors. Only one of them can win.
Some elements of this story may sound familiar to the avid sci-fi and fantasy reader, but debut Alexandra Oliva offers a fresh twist on the end-of-the-world scenario which immediately drew me to her novel. Imagine being a contestant on a Survivor-type reality show, in a remote part of the country with no communication with the rest of the world when a very real disaster strikes. As a devastating outbreak wipes out a large chunk of the planet in just a matter of days, you’re still currently trekking through the woods by yourself on a Solo Challenge, unaware that all your friends and family back home are probably dead. Instead, your full attention is fixated on trying to survive and outlast your fellow contestants, because that’s the only way you’ll win the one million dollars. Even now, you think, hidden cameras are probably everywhere capturing your every move. And the wily show producers have already proven they would do anything for ratings, using cheap tricks and props in an attempt to throw the competitors off their game. You can’t trust anything you see, anything you hear—not when anything can be a hidden challenge or scripted part of the show.
All this is going through Zoo’s mind as she stumbles out of the woods upon car wrecks, abandoned stores, and empty towns. As she tries to make sense of the horror and ruin she sees, the lines between reality and reality TV are blurred beyond recognition. For all she knows, the game is still on.
Zoo is not her real name, of course. She and the other eleven contestants are given nicknames by the show creators and viewers, all based on their professions and stereotypes. For example, our protagonist was designated “Zoo” because of her love of animals and her teaching job at a nature and science center. Her main competition is a man dubbed “Tracker”, a survival expert whose work gives him a clear advantage on this show. The rest of the cast include “Engineer”, “Carpenter Chick”, “Waitress”, “Air Force”, “Black Doctor”, “Rancher”, “Cheerleader Boy”, “Biology”, “Exorcist”, and “Banker”. No real names are given in the chapters that serve as an overview of the show, describing the production process with an almost cold, detached attitude. These sections follow the contestants on their team challenges, but also include behind-the-scenes looks at how the episodes are filmed and put together. We come to realize that all the contestants have their own reasons for being on the show, but the editors try to twist and frame each situation so that they become less like real people and more like “characters”—fabricated personalities to fit the narrative they want shown on television.
But in between these chapters, we also get a more up-close-and-personal perspective. These sections are narrated by Zoo, bringing the only part of this reality TV show that feels REAL. True names are used, humanizing the cast once again. We can finally make the connections and discover who everyone is, such as, Tracker is actually Cooper, who wants to win the money to pay for healthcare for his sick mother, or that Waitress is actually Heather, a recruited actress who secretly hopes this stint will be her big break.
Zoo’s own reasons for applying to be on the show in the first place are more complicated. There’s always more to the truth, which we discover as we follow her on her struggles through the wilderness. There’s definitely an element of the unreliable narrator here as well, as we recall Zoo’s memories and live through her fears, and all the while her resolve (and sanity) continues to break down. As such, Zoo’s willful denial of the true reality was probably my biggest issue with the story. I could appreciate what Oliva was trying to accomplish with this, but I also must have lost count of the number of times I wanted to shout “STOP BEING SO STUPID!” at the pages of this book. Zoo’s tunnel vision was overplayed to the extent that it damaged my esteem for her character, and ultimately kept this from being a perfect novel.
Still, there’s no denying that its premise is unbelievably clever and well thought out. I’m no fan of reality TV myself, but I’ve seen my fair share of them in the early 2000s spending summers with my cousin who was a real Survivor, Big Brother, and Amazing Race junkie. For The Last One, Oliva nails the “Reality TV” angle right down to the tiny little nuances, making it all seem so scarily convincing, capturing that kind of atmosphere so perfectly that it’s uncanny. This juxtaposition between carefully crafted illusion and true reality is also a theme present throughout the novel, as Zoo tries to come to terms with what she sees in the real world. I was so wracked with suspense over what might happen to her once she figures out the truth, several times I almost caved to the temptation of flipping to the last page just to see how it all ends (but I am glad I didn’t).
All told, I can’t tell you how impressed I am that this is Oliva’s debut effort. She’s taken an incredibly unique idea and executed it in a very ingenious and ambitious way—and I think that boldness paid off in spades. I would definitely recommend The Last One to readers looking for a thought-provoking and eye-opening novel, especially if you like the idea of a very different kind of apocalyptic dystopian story. ...more
To kick off this review, I just want to say that I actually didn’t think the first Aftermath was all that bad. As you’d recall all the hubbub, the criticism over that book was harsh, perhaps more so than I thought was warranted. That said, for a Star Wars novel I also thought this book’s predecessor was mediocre to okay at best—especially when compared to such gems in the new canon like Lost Stars by Claudia Gray or Dark Disciple by Christie Golden. While flavorful and entertaining, the story of Aftermath and its characters were completely forgettable. This was evidenced by my chagrin when, as I started reading the first few pages of Life Debt, I realized I could barely recall anything that happened in the first book, or remember any of the main characters’ names.
The good news though, is that Life Debt is a much better book. In my opinion, this sequel improves upon many of the problems that plagued the first novel, giving me a lot more reasons to care about the story and what happens to these characters.
Taking place in the “aftermath” of Aftermath, Life Debt follows the adventures of Norra Wexley and her band of mercenaries across the galaxy, as they continue to doggedly hunt down the remnants of Imperial leadership. The main prize is Grand Admiral Rae Sloane, with whom the team has had run-ins with before. Sloane, however, is trying to hatch up a plan of her own, keeping a low profile as she tries to rally the remaining Imperial forces who regard her as the new de facto leader of the Empire. But behind the scenes, there is another shadowy operator pulling the strings, manipulating both the Imperials and the fledgling New Republic, and his agenda is a lot less clear. Meanwhile, Princess Leia receives a disturbing message from Han Solo before the transmission was cut off, making her fear the worst for her husband. She beseeches Norra and her crew to track him down, which leads them to a prison complex on Kashyyyk where the Wookiees are currently locked in conflict with the Empire over their home world.
I’ve long been a fan of Chuck Wendig’s urban fantasy, a genre which perfectly suits his raw, gritty writing style. But when it came to Star Wars, the fit did not seem quite right. This was made obvious in Aftermath with his use of short, bursty sentences and tendency to include many modern colloquialisms and awkward terms that jolted me right out of the immersion. Thankfully, he’s a lot more sparing with these in Life Debt, which was only the first of many other steps in the right direction. When Wendig isn’t trying so hard to force Star Wars to match his style, instead making it the other way around so that he adapts his writing to the Star Wars universe, the results are actually much, much better.
Another issue I had with the first book was how far removed it felt from the events of Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, especially when the publisher was pushing it as the “bridge novel” between the two movies. To be fair, I don’t really fault the book for the hype created by marketing, but I was a little disappointed by the bare-bones structure of Aftermath, with its fluffy story and what felt like throwaway characters that had no impact on the universe whatsoever. Going into Life Debt, I didn’t have that many expectations, and I ended up being pleasantly surprised. We no longer have to sit through any more origin stories for the characters, so we’re diving straight into the action and getting more opportunities to learn about their personalities and relationships.
The inclusion of original trilogy characters, both major and minor, also helped. For example, Leia and Han were only bit players in this book, but their presence created a palpable connection between Norra Wexley, Temmin Wexley, Jas Emari, Sinjir Rath Velus, Jom Barell, and Mr. Bones with the rest of the Star Wars universe. Watching Wedge Antilles try to romance Norra was also hilarious. The point is, the Aftermath team has finally made their mark on the New Republic through their actions, and it’ll be harder to forget them now. The story on the Empire side was also a lot more interesting this time around, with Admiral Rae Sloane fighting her own secret war within the Imperial ranks. She is the sole beacon of competence amidst the remains of a weakened and crumbling Empire, but she probably has less authority than anyone, including herself, realizes. Her character has come a long way for me since she was first introduced in A New Dawn, and now she’s one of my favorites.
There were some lingering issues, of course. These pesky interludes continue to vex me, packing on a lot more bulk than was necessary without really adding much substance. Clearly, they’re meant to be a defining feature of this trilogy though, so I had suspected that they weren’t going to go away. Certain characters are also very derivative of other Star Wars personalities we’ve seen before. The villain revealed here feels like a new Thrawn, for instance, and reading parts of this book gave me flashbacks to certain episodes of Star Wars Rebels, with their team dynamics being somewhat similar, right down to the mother figure, bounty hunter, a boy and his crazy droid, etc. Not all of these parallels were necessarily bad though, especially when they actually helped me get into the story.
All told, I’m glad I gave this trilogy another chance, though in truth, I probably would have read it anyway, considering my ongoing quest to read and review all the adult novels in the new Star Wars canon. No surprise then that I would recommend this to other Star Wars completionists. But now, I would say even if you don’t consider yourself a hardcore Star Wars fan, but maybe you’re still interested in checking out some the tie-in fiction, then you might wish to take a look at this series. I don’t think I would have said the same after reading just Aftermath, but Life Debt has shown me there is going to be more to this trilogy, and I find myself looking forward to see how everything will play out in book three, Empire’s End....more
Welcome to Deadland is a zombie book, but it’s also kind of…not. The end of the world seems almost incidental in this novel pitched as Lost meets The Walking Dead, but in my opinion, its unique perspective also makes it a deeper, much stronger experience. Rest assured, readers will still get a good dose of the zombocalypse, but the predominant themes about growing up, coming out, and finding strength within yourself are what makes this one shine. If you’re in the mood to try a different sort of zombie story, you’ll definitely want to seek this one out.
The narrative focuses mainly on two major POVs: Asher, a college student from North Carolina, who with his friend Wendy have ended up in a post-apocalyptic Orlando theme park; and Rico, a drug-addicted teenager determined to see himself and his six-year-old brother Jayden to safety through a world strewn with death and destruction. In the “After”, all that matters is survival. But at least half—if not more—of the book also takes place “Before”, in the months leading up to the devastating effects of the zombie plague. With chapters alternating between the past and present, the story provides readers with plenty of backstory allowing us to follow the changes in the characters’ lives.
In the pre-apocalypse, everything changes for Asher on the night he meets Ellis at a house party. A spark immediately forms between the two of them, but there’s only one problem: Ellis already has a boyfriend. Add to that, Asher hasn’t actually told anyone he’s gay, but with the support of Ellis and his friends, he’s finally realizing he can let his secret go and be himself. For the first time in his life, Asher feels free and happy, but there’s also no denying the connection he feels with Ellis, who is already involved with someone else.
Meanwhile in another part of the state, a high school student named Rico is being arrested for drugs and disorderly conduct. As punishment, Rico’s father takes away his car privileges, but this simply becomes an invitation for the teenager to act out even further by skipping classes, dealing drugs, and going to all-night parties. Despite being a juvenile delinquent though, Rico is the hero of his younger stepbrother Jayden, and Rico loves the little boy in turn with all his heart.
Without a doubt, it’s the “Before” sections that constitute the meat of the story, which is why I described this book the way I did in my introduction. Zombie horror takes a secondary role to the trials and tribulations of real life, and just because the world has ended doesn’t mean that the past is erased. If you’re solely looking for the action and thrills of a pure zombie survival story, then this probably won’t be the book for you. There are scenes of blood, violence, gore and tension scattered here and there, but for the most part this one is a heavily character-oriented drama with the most interesting plot developments happening in the chapters before the zombie outbreak.
To keep things moving along though, Zachary Tyler Linville weaves together past and present, jumping back and forth between events that happened when the world was still fine and those that happened afterwards when everything has gone to hell. Still, while it was interesting and ambitious, I wasn’t entirely convinced this was the best structure for the novel because of the overall disruptive effect it had on the flow of the story. “Before” and “After” had a way of stepping on each other’s toes, and the plotting wasn’t quite tight enough to make me feel engaged with essentially four different storylines (pre- and post-apocalypse for both Asher and Rico). The POV switches were also distracting because I had to really make a conscious effort to remember what happened with each character when we last saw them.
Something had to give, and it was the “zombie chapters” that suffered, simply because I preferred the stronger, more compelling character development in the “Before” chapters. Framing it that way, Welcome to Deadland isn’t even a zombie book at all, but rather a narrative about human drama: family life, personal relationships, romance and sex, emotional conflicts, etc. Asher’s story almost had a “New Adult” feel to them, featuring themes like sexuality, leaving home, and college life. In the middle of it all is his relationship with Ellis, which is both a source of comfort and frustration to Asher. Much of his plotline involves Asher trying to sort out where he stands while Ellis carries on an emotional affair with him and then later becomes manipulative, playing with Asher’s feelings. Next, we flip over to Rico, whose story reads like a cautionary tale reminding us of the dangers of drug abuse among teens. The end of the world comes just as Rico hits rock bottom, and puts a whole new perspective on his life. With a young child in his care, Rico re-examines his habits and knows he has to be a better person for his little brother, so at least for him, the zombie apocalypse has a silver lining.
All told, I found Welcome to Deadland to be a welcome change from the typical run-of-the-mill zombie novel, though ironically, it was the non-zombie sections that really stood out for me. Despite the pacing problems and other minor issues like choppy writing and awkward dialogue, I really enjoyed the story overall and was amazed at huge amount of effort put into character development. That’s pretty unusual for a zombie story, and I found it very refreshing. It’ll be interesting to see what else this series has in store for our characters, because yes, Welcome to Deadland has all the trappings of a “book one”. Hopefully we’ll also learn more about how the infection started in the first place, since this was only mildly hinted at in the story. Ultimately, I rate this one 3 stars for being a solid debut effort with room to grow, and I genuinely believe Zachary Tyler Linville has a bright career in writing ahead of him....more
Having read Vicious and the books in the Shades of Magic series (under V.E. Schwab) I’m not a stranger to the writings of Victoria Schwab, though this is admittedly the first time I’ve tried her Young Adult. I was really excited to dive into This Savage Song, and delighted to discover that it was just as unique and engaging as her adult fantasy novels.
The story follows the lives of two teenagers who cannot be any more different. Kate Harker and August Flynn are both the children to the rulers of their respective parts of the city, but being an heir to power is just about the only thing they have in common. Kate is the daughter of Callum Harker, the man who runs the north side of Verity City, while August is the third adopted child of Henry Flynn, who runs the south. Kate is a troubled young woman, desperate to prove to her father that she is a Harker, strong enough to live up to the family name. On the other hand, August isn’t even human. He and his two siblings are monsters known as Sunai, the only three in existence among a sea of other monsters such as Malchai and Corsai.
Outwardly, August appears human, able to hide in plain sight, but inside, he craves to be more than that. Every day he lives with the fear that he will lose control and hurt someone again, when all he wants is to be a good person, like his father, who took August in when he was just a boy and raised him as his own. Henry Flynn is a moral man who could not abide the conditions of the north, where Callum Harker lets the monsters roam free and only grants protection to the human who are able to pay for it. Determined to protect all innocents, Flynn took to the south instead and arranged a truce with his North City counterpart, which was somewhat successful in quelling the unrest. However, that truce is about to break down. When it is discovered that Kate Harker has been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and has now returned home to attend school locally, August jumps at the chance to help his family by gathering information about her. Together, the Flynns hatch up a plan for August to go undercover as a student in order to gain access to the daughter of their enemy.
By far, the most impressive thing about This Savage Song is the world-building. Not surprisingly, it can be a little confusing at first, as Schwab dispenses the information in bits and pieces as the plot unravels, so that the more you read the more you’ll learn about life in the surprisingly rich and complex world of Verity. The most fun part of this gradual revealing process was discovering the different kinds of monsters. We have no idea what the Malchai, Corsai, or Sunai are at the beginning of this story, but the details slowly work their way to us via creative means, such as through overheard songs and nursery rhymes sung by children on the train, for instance. Every time I read one of the author’s books, I’m always amazed at her ability to weave in so much about the world into without resorting to overt info dumping.
I also liked the fresh twist on the forbidden friendship trope. Surprised I didn’t say romance? Not every YA novel starring a male and a female protagonist has to end up with the two of them getting together, and I thank Schwab for not going down that route since the relationship between August and Kate is so much more compelling as it is now. The bond between them comes from a deeper place, forged from a shared desire to vanquish their inner demons, even if they do face very different challenges. August wishes he wasn’t a monster, and tries hard to suppress that part of himself, while Kate surrounds herself in a cold, unforgiving shell in the hopes that her father will finally accept her. Both characters battle with their identity, but finding peace won’t be easy.
Perhaps my only criticism with this book is Kate. Thankfully, August made up for a lot of my dissatisfaction over her character. I tried, but I never did manage to warm up to Kate, even after all the progress made by her character at the end of the book. Strangely, I felt similarly turned off by Lila in A Darker Shade of Magic, and I have to wonder if this is just a weakness whenever Schwab tries to write “badass” female characters. Instead they come off as really desperate and arrogant, as demonstrated by Kate’s approach of using aggression to overcompensate for her shortcomings.
Aside from that though, I really enjoy Schwab’s writing and the way she spins a tale. I had a feeling This Savage Song would be as entertaining and original as her other books I’ve read, and I was happy to be correct. I liked what I saw here, and I look forward to more from this series....more
Out of Tor.com’s big lineup of releases for this summer, City of Wolves was one that immediately caught my eye and I’m glad I got a chance to read it. New author Willow Palecek has written an outstandingly well-developed and complete tale in a brisk 100 pages or so, while still managing to leave me salivating for more. I’ve always had a penchant for paranormal Victorian mysteries and detective stories; throw in werewolves too, and I am totally game.
The story’s protagonist is Alexander Drake, an investigator-for-hire in the bustling Victorian London-esque city of Lupenwald. A former soldier who fought on the losing side for a deposed king, Drake now prefers to stay under the radar, taking on modest opportunities while staying away from jobs offered by the nobility even though they often pay a lot better. He’s forced to reconsider that position, however, when he finds himself ambushed one evening by Lord Colin Abergreen’s hired goons. Cornering Drake in an alleyway and dangling a large purse as an incentive, the nobleman makes our detective an offer he can’t refuse.
Drake, now retained by the Abergreens, agrees to investigate the strange death of the family’s patriarch, Colin’s father. The older man was found dead in the gardens right beneath the shattered window of his chambers, his body completely naked. Old Lord Abergreen was also fond of keeping dogs, a large wolf-like breed that Lupenwald is famous for, and apparently the dogs were fond of him too, as indicated by the canine teeth marks on his corpse. Curiously, the man died without leaving a will, which is rather unusual for a nobleman. The easy thing to do would be to chalk this up to an inheritance dispute, but Drake thinks there’s something more to this case, especially when a werewolf follows him home afterwards and tries to kill him…
I’m impressed with all that Palecek was able to pack into this very slim volume, which features well-crafted characters and a fast-paced plot. Hardly any words are wasted here, as in, blink and you might miss something.
There are both positives and negatives to this, of course. City of Wolves feels very much like other paranormal mysteries of its type, except it accomplishes everything in one third the number of pages. The story is very streamlined, with hardly an ounce of fat on it. The mystery takes off at a fast clip and never falters, and I liked that there was never a dull moment. Still, just because the plot is so efficient, doesn’t mean things aren’t tough for our detective. There are plenty of suspects to consider, and just as many scenarios to ponder in the face of perplexing clues and unexpected twists. There are even a couple scenes of thrilling action and chase sequences to shake things up.
As for the downsides, the world-building feels a bit lean, admittedly. Drake zips from one place to another, and aside from a few cursory observations about his surroundings, we don’t get to see much of the city, and I feel like I’ve been robbed of the opportunity to experience Lupenwald in all its glory. I also failed to get a sense of atmosphere from the writing, which to me is such an important aspect of Victorian-era style fiction.
Furthermore, Drake identifies himself as a Loyalist, something that’s clearly significant to his character and goes back to the War of the Wolves, a fight for the throne between two would-be kings. The book doesn’t dwell much on the conflict, but what little background was revealed about it was very intriguing. If the story could have been a little longer, I would have liked to see more of Lupenwald’s sights and sounds and for the narrative to fill in more of the world’s history—especially since the war was so obviously a defining event for our main protagonist.
Needless to say, I would love for there to be a sequel. I wouldn’t hesitate to read another Alexander Drake novella, especially if future installments will be as enjoyable as this one. City of Wolves was a quick, entertaining read and what I saw definitely left me wanting more....more
I’ll admit, it hasn’t exactly been a smooth year for me when it comes to fiction and humor. Excitement over highly anticipated satire and parodic works have mostly fizzled after finding out they are in fact not what I had in mind. Undeterred though, I decided to leap next into The Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold, intrigued by its “Guardians of the Galaxy meets The Hobbit” tagline and hoping against hope that I’ll finally get the fantasy comedy I’ve been searching for.
The premise sounded promising enough, featuring a tale about an unlikely band of adventurers who’ve gotten it into their addled heads to rob a dragon. Before everything in his world turned upside down, Will Fallows was just another unassuming farm boy from a poor little village (literally called, The Village…the people are too downtrodden to be inspired) in Kondorra Valley, doing his best to make ends meet. However, each year the rising taxes demanded by the Dragon Consortium makes it that much harder to do, until one day, the moment that Will has been dreading all his life finally comes. With no warning at all, the dragon lord Mattrax’s soldiers show up at his door to seize his farm.
Left with nothing to his name, Will suddenly finds himself in the company of two traveling mercenaries, the skilled fighter Lette and her partner the eight-foot-tall lizard man Balur. After recruiting the help of a magically gifted university scholar named Quirk and an old drunkard named Firkin, the five of them conspire together to hatch up a plan to get revenge on Mattrax, the dragon who has been the cause of so much pain and suffering to the humans of the valley. It’s a totally crazy, stupid idea, one that Will knows has almost no chance of success. If they fail, they’ll bring doom upon all the people of Kondorra, and possibly to the world beyond. But if they can somehow pull this off? They’ll all be rewarded with riches beyond their imagination. The promise of gold beckons, and who knows, maybe this time fortune might actually favor the foolish.
Main reasons to check out this book: 1) if you think you’ll enjoy an epic fantasy seen through a modern humorous lens, and 2) if you’re like me and have a fondness for a good heist story. Many times throughout this one, I was reminded of Patrick Weekes’ Rogues of the Republic series, which contains a similar amount of humor, action, snappy dialogue, and creative solutions to unusual problems. Jon Hollins takes the zaniness further though, often putting his characters in ludicrous situations whenever things go wrong—and things actually do go wrong a lot in this story, despite our heroes’ careful planning (or rather, what they naively believe passes for careful planning). But hey, who wants to read about a heist that goes off without a hitch anyway? In this quirky tale, it’s the infighting and the unforeseen circumstances that makes things so entertaining.
Now for the reasons why you might want to take a pass on this book. If you like full immersion into a world, then this would not be for you. The Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold is unabashedly tongue-in-cheek, with exaggerated characters and situations. It’s all done very cleverly, but it’ll be tough to get on board if you already that know fantasy comedy isn’t your cup of tea. Hollins is generous with the use of anachronisms, pop culture references and modern slang, but mind you, these are features, not defects. One only has to take a glimpse at the chapter titles to see what I mean, with hilarious headings like “We’re Going to Need a Bigger Boat”, “What’s in the Box?”, “Hubris is a Dish Best Served Charbroiled”, “Lying Liars and the Lies They Tell”, “The Inevitable Cliffhanger Chapter” and many, many more such examples. It’s meant to be pure fun, and pure fun is what you get. It’s also relatively light fare, which is to be expected. For humor fiction, the book might have run a little longer than I was happy with, but that’s really my biggest criticism, which is in no way a deal breaker in the greater scheme of things. For the most part Hollins does manage to keep the story moving along at a quick pace.
Audiobook Comments: I was also fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to listen to the audiobook edition, and it confirmed one of my long-held suspicions: humor works splendidly well in audio format! Narrator John Banks with his smooth accent and deep tones seemed like an odd choice of reader for this book at first, but I quickly came around. In fact, I think his serious, earnest style only emphasized the humor. More importantly, his performance also moderated some of the more absurd situations for me, whereas if I’d actually been reading the words on a page, I think I might have rolled my eyes at the same scenes. He’s also great with voices, and even his exaggerated ones for characters like Balur or Firkin somehow sounded completely natural and in keeping with their personalities. Overall, I would highly recommend this audiobook.
Bottom line: The Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold is clever, adventurous and entertaining. If you’re looking for a light read with a fun plot and interesting characters, you won’t be disappointed....more
Sarah Pinborough is the author of a couple of my favorite historical horror novels, Mayhem and Murder in the Dr. Thomas Bond duology about the Jack the Ripper, so when I was offered a chance to review The Language of Dying, I didn’t hesitate. This novella couldn’t have been more different than her other work though, and yet I loved it no less. A beautiful soul-rending song straight from the heart, this tiny little book packs an emotional punch by shifting gears instead to look at the turbulent nature of grief and the profound effects it has on one troubled family.
The story starts with a woman, our unnamed narrator, sitting by her dying father’s bedside waiting for the other members of her family to arrive in order to say goodbye. First to arrive is her older sister Penny, who has always lived a charmed life, but for all her successes still hides behind a façade of materialism that she fears can shatter at any moment. Next come Simon and Davey, the twins, who arrive within half an hour of each other even though they live hundreds of miles apart. The narrator notes this uncanny connection between her younger brothers with a heavy heart, thinking where one twin goes the other will follow, even when their lives are spiraling out of control. The last to show up at the house is Paul, the eldest brother, coming off from another failed business venture or financial debacle. With that, the whole family is under one roof again. The children’s mother, who abandoned them so many years ago, is already gone in every sense of the word.
But deep in her heart, our narrator is secretly hoping for one final visitor. Only twice in her life has she seen him; the first time when she was ten, outside her window the night her mother left them all behind, and the second when she was twenty-five, after another painful loss in her life. She can tell no one what she saw, because she’s not even sure what she saw was real. But still, she believes, and now, she waits.
This is a hard book to categorize. Despite its label as a fantasy novella, the ties that bind the story to the genre are light and ambiguous. However, it’s the themes that really come through: pain, grief, death, loss. Family, support, togetherness, love. Death will come for us all in time, and when it happens the living are left to struggle with the loss. But sometimes the grieving process actually starts well before the person dies, as this story shows. For months, the narrator had known that the cancer would kill her father, but it is in the final days, watching him waste away while feeling helpless to stop his pain, that’s when she starts to fall apart. When the rest of the siblings arrive though, their presence and their shared memories offer some comfort. Her brothers and her sister might not be perfect—some of them surprise her, while others disappoint her—but regardless, in them she finds a new source of strength.
I don’t know if I could have read this book if someone close to me was dying, or if I’d just experienced a recent loss of a loved one. I’m positive it would have broken me. I’ve never seen a more transparent, open and honest portrayal about the agony of confronting the inevitable, of letting go of a dearly beloved, and something tells me this is a personal tale for the author. The style in which it was written, narrated by the protagonist in present tense and in the first person but addressing her dying father as “you”, made this book even more moving and intimate. Her memories of her own past are presented as if she is sharing those painful moments directly with him, with us.
Ultimately, it’s this closeness that defines the sweet poignancy of this beautifully crafted novella. The Language of Dying is an astonishingly good read, simple in its approach, but thoughtful and heartbreaking in its execution. It’s not an easy book to read, but you will be glad you did....more
Looks like 2016 is shaping up to be another pretty busy year for Lovecraftian horror or Lovecraft-inspired fiction, with even more titles set to hit shelves later this summer and in the fall. If you read only one this year though, I highly recommend making it I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas. I found this part murder mystery, part dark comedy, and part fandom commentary delightfully odd and cheeky! While it doesn’t exactly read like your typical Lovecraftian novel, a huge bulk of my enjoyment was actually rooted in how refreshingly unexpected it was.
Anyway, I think the setting says it all. The entire story takes place over the course of a weekend at the Summer Tentacular, the Providence-based annual convention for readers, writers, collectors, and scholars of H.P. Lovecraft and all things Lovecraftian. Colleen Danzig is total newcomer, attending the Tentacular for the first time hoping to promote herself and her recently published story by networking with fellow authors and fans. However, doubts begin to fill her mind as she goes around meeting the other eccentric and sometimes socially awkward congoers, many of whom are regulars that are part of a closely-knit group. One thing that’s certain is that they all seem to really despise another writer named Panos Panossian, a rather obnoxious shit disturber who just so happens to be the guy sharing a room with Colleen during the con.
And then Panossian turns up dead, with his face sliced clean off. Scuttlebutt has it that he was murdered because of a book in his possession, and not just any book, because this was an ultra-rare edition of Arkham, one of five copies bound in human skin which could fetch a pretty penny from the right collector. Colleen believes that whoever killed Panossian did it to steal the book, and then took the victim’s face too in order to create their own Necronomicon-type grimoire bound in human skin. She’s entirely convinced that the murderer is a congoer, but who? It doesn’t help that no one else seems to be all that torn up about Panossian’s death; the guy had made a lot of enemies during his time in the community. Where to start investigating, when pretty much anyone can be a suspect?
I Am Providence is a novel with many bizarre characteristics, and most unusual of all is perhaps the fact that half of it is told from the perspective of the dead Panossian himself as his body lies lifeless and faceless in the police station morgue. Somehow a part of his consciousness remained behind in death, but perhaps not for much longer, and now he’s stuck in the black void able to hear but not see anything that happens around his corpse. He can’t really remember who killed him either, and can only rely on his memories farther back to try and figure out who might have done it.
Any way you look at it, I Am Providence is something of strange book, and it took me a while to really get into the rhythm. There were times where it came off sounding like a satirical or even scathing commentary on the subculture of fandom and fan conventions, brutally mocking the extreme personalities or poking fun at the ridiculous wars that spark over controversies on the internet. The fictional Summer Tentacular convention with its esoteric and insular community of Lovecraftians is the perfect setup for Mamatas to present even wilder, more outlandish situations and behaviors. I wasn’t put out by this exactly, but neither did I see the humor in it right away, until I realized what the author was trying to do. Once I got the joke, so to speak, reading this became a lot easier and enjoyable.
Now might also be a good time for me to confess, while I appreciate a lot of Lovecraftian horror and HPL inspired fiction, I don’t necessarily consider myself a fan of the work by Lovecraft himself. I think he’s overly verbose, his prose clunky and heavily strained. When it comes to his stories, however, the man did have a wealth of interesting ideas and I love the body of narrative surrounding the mythos he created. Plus, his influence is undeniable. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy reading books inspired by his work; it’s fascinating to see the various cool things different authors can do with the elements from Lovecraft’s dark worlds and stories. I Am Providence stands out from the rest by doing something a little different because it doesn’t really explore the mythos in a conventional sense, instead taking an almost meta-fiction approach to the genre. I had a great time with this novel, and thought it also featured a very compelling murder mystery, but I think those who are very knowledgeable and savvy with their Lovecraft lore will appreciate the subtle nuances even more.
Bottom line? Whether or not you’re a fan of Lovecraft or Lovecraftian fiction, if the idea of a unique and quirky murder mystery sounds appealing to you, this book could be worth your while. The author’s take on the fringe subset of the sci-fi and fantasy convention scene is also quite interesting, even when it’s not always flattering. What I got from it though, is that love it or hate it, fandom can take many forms. What makes it great is that we’re all in it together. I Am Providence ended up being a smart, entertaining and truly one-of-a-kind experience, darkly funny and unexpected. Not to mention, very tentacle-y. I look forward to more from Nick Mamatas....more
What does a scraggly 1970s punk rocker in New York City have in common with a down-on-luck Hollywood stuntwoman in 2013? In this earthy mind-bending tale that spans time and geography, Robert Brockway takes readers on a strange, scary trip through the dark and twisted underbelly of the paranormal.
The Unnoticeables follows three different points of view. In 1977, Carey is a blithe young punk content with simply hanging out with his friends. But life suddenly gets weird. Disturbing rumors of “Tar Men” in the sewers are being whispered around the Manhattan punk scene, and then these strange kids with unnoticeable, forgettable features start cropping up all over the place. All he wants to do is drink and chase girls, but as the threat looms closer and his friends start disappearing or dying, Carey knows the only way to stop the madness is to bring the battle to the monsters.
Running in tandem with Carey’s storyline is another that takes place in 2013, which follows a struggling stuntwoman named Kaitlyn trying to make a name for herself in Los Angeles. One night at a Hollywood party, she meets a former teen heartthrob named Marco, who was her childhood celebrity crush back in the day when he was still the star of her favorite family sitcom. But when Kaitlyn finds herself alone with Marco in his car later that night, he turns into an inhuman creature and attacks her. Shaken, Kaitlyn barely escapes with her life, but then finds out that her best friend has gone missing after she was last seen at the same party.
The third point of view is much less defined. Interspersed throughout the novel are brief chapters from the perspective of an unidentified character, speaking about their own transformation. The purpose of these chapters will be unclear at first, but as events unfold this person will start providing a lot more context into what’s happening. Furthermore, as connections between Carey and Kaitlyn’s threads start to form, this mystery person will also help us understand and bridge the gap between the present and the past, showing how everything is related.
There’s a lot to love about The Unnoticeables. At first, it’s easy to mistake this one as quirky urban fantasy, with its portrayal of Carey and his group of burned out vagabond 70s punk pals, not to mention the bizarre, almost parodic picture of present day Hollywood through Kaitlyn’s eyes. But as the plot moves forward, the narrative ultimately slips into horror territory, becoming progressively darker and grimmer. The novel’s modest page count belies its heavier, more nihilistic themes and it is certainly not all sunshine and unicorns as more and more we are exposed to the increasingly graphic and gruesome violence in both Carey and Kaitlyn’s storylines.
And speaking of our protagonists, they were marvelous. I especially enjoyed Kaitlyn and her audacity and spirit. I loved her line about not having too many marketable skills, but hey, if you want to know how to jump out of a moving car going at fifty miles an hour, or need someone to fall down a flight of steps without breaking her neck, be sure to give her a call! Then there’s Carey, bringing a fascinating slice of the 70s youth subculture to life with his full-on Johnny Rotten-type persona. A novel starring a kickass stuntwoman and a punk rocker as its two protagonists? Nope, things don’t get much cooler than that.
Carey and Kaitlyn don’t know each other at the start of the book, but of course the best part was finding out how the two of them get together and team up. We alternate between his story and her story, going back and forth between 1977 and 2013, until they meet in Kaitlyn’s time. Carey, now much older, is a vagrant who collects cans in her neighborhood, but his own run-in with the Angels, Tar Men, and the Empty Ones more than thirty years ago makes him a formidable ally for Kaitlyn in her quest to save her friend. I had my doubts about the structure when I first started, but those were dashed as soon as the story picked up, and I saw what the author was trying to do. Let’s face it; so many things could have gone wrong with this format, with the potential to wreak absolute havoc on the story’s overall coherency and pacing, but I was surprised and impressed at how well it worked in the end, with Brockway nailing it without missing a beat.
I’m really looking forward to more of his writing. The Unnoticeables is a great start to a new series, and I’m very pleased that I got to read this just in time to dive into the sequel, The Empty Ones....more
All is Fair is the third installment of Emma Newman’s The Split World series. After two books of introducing multiple threads and building everything, we’re finally starting to see it all come together.
As this is an ongoing series, spoilers for Between Two Thorns and Any Other Name are entirely possible, so beware if you haven’t read the first two books yet. We’re picking things up right where they left off, following Will’s violent ascent to the Londinium throne. Now the consequences of his actions have caught up with him, and there is no telling how far his adversaries will go to see him pay. Meanwhile, Cathy is determined to bring change in the Nether, even as she faces obstacles at every turn. Between the threat of the Fae lords and the Agency, no one wants to stick their necks out for her cause.
In Mundanus, Sam is coming to grips with his grief and dealing with a new reality. In the course of his investigations, he has caught the attention of Lord Iron and the Elemental Court, and what Sam finds out from them turns his world upside down. Max and the gargoyle have gone on to pursue their own case, trying to find out the truth behind all the chapter murders. These efforts lead them to uncover even more disturbing questions about the Agency.
While reading the last book together with the SF/F Read Along group, I likened this series to a soap opera, and more and more I’m finding that to be an apt comparison. There are plenty of twists and turns and more than a few shocks, giving these books the addictive quality that keeps me coming back for more. Things slow down a bit in All Is Fair, but that is more than made up for by the last quarter of the book. There’s a real sense of thread-tying and trying to bring everything together, perhaps in an attempt to streamline the plot for the next installment. If you’ve been crying for answers like I have, then the revelations in this book should make you very happy.
That said, I have some issues with the hasty way things wrapped up, almost like Newman was in a rush to finish the book. After spending two and a half books on all these plot threads, it was disappointing to watch some of them resolve with what effectively feels like a snap of the fingers. Cathy’s solution to her problems with the Agency seemed way too convenient, considering all that she went through. The same goes for Sam’s storyline, where the Fae-related conflicts that have been plaguing him for so long are suddenly made trivial. As for Max and the gargoyle, I wasn’t too crazy about the curveball we were thrown at the end either. I enjoy plot twists when they make sense, but not when there’s absolutely no setup for them, like the one we had here.
Still, it’s good to know that there’s more to come. I hear that the plan is for five books in the series, though in many ways All Is Fair feels like the end of an era for a lot of the characters. Cathy has grown so much from when we first met her in book one, and now she is prepared to take on the next challenge to bring change to the Nether. Sam has gone through a huge transformation as well, discovering his new potential. His story has been up and down for me, but there’s a distinct feeling of peace and closure when we last leave him at the end of this book, so I’m hoping that Sam can start afresh now that his past is behind him. For Max and the gargoyle, the future is perhaps the most uncertain, but they too will have to walk a new path given the way things went down. They may have solved the mystery, but left without a clear direction, where will they go next?
I’m really looking forward to finding out what’s next for everyone, despite some of my misgivings here. I have a strong feeling that book four, A Little Knowledge, will be a new chapter in all their lives and I think it would be a refreshing change of pace to explore some new directions. Can’t wait to dive right in....more
Developed by Portalarium and directed by video game legend Richard Garriott, Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues is a game I’ve been following since it was publicly announced in 2013. In the spring of that same year, the project was also funded on Kickstarter, raising nearly $2 million. While the official launch date is still to come in late 2016, as a backer I’ve been able to dabble in early access, and so far I’ve been really impressed by what I’ve seen. So impressed, that I immediately added The Sword of Midras to my reading list.
(Note: This book is also sometimes known as Blade of the Avatar, which was included in serial format as a pledge reward at some backer levels, but they are not exactly the same as far as I know. The Sword of Midras is an “updated” version that contains some extra content—at least four extra chapters.)
If you want to find out more about the world in which Shroud of the Avatar takes place, then The Sword of Midras is a great place to start. Being relatively new to the game lore myself, I enjoyed learning more about the setting of New Britannia and the people who make it their home. This novel takes place approximately two hundred years before the game. It provides some history, introducing readers to a world that died during a catastrophic event known as the Fall. For a long time, those who survived managed to carve out a living for themselves in a land left wild and chaotic after the departure of powerful beings known as the Avatars. Then, the Obsidians came. Their armies subjugated the people using dark magic, and claimed that in doing so they brought law and order to the world.
The story follows a captain in the Obsidian Army named Aren Bennis. One day, while reconnoitering with a scout named Syenna, the two of them stumble upon a mysterious sword in an ancient ruin. Against the warnings of Syenna, who believes the sword could be cursed, Aren picks up the weapon anyway and is staggered to discover its magical properties—and the fact that he is the only one who can wield it. Unfortunately for him, there are plenty who have theories about the sword’s origins, but even more who want to use it for their own gain. And as the only person who can hold the blade without experiencing the negative effects, Aren finds himself caught in the middle of many conflicting agendas.
If you’re not acquainted with the world and the history from the game, that shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying this book. It might, however, make this story seem somewhat sparse and conventional compared to other high fantasy novels. I’m guessing Shroud of the Avatar fans and lore buffs are the ones who will probably get the most out of this one, and it’s also rather light and reads very quickly. In other words, nothing really sets The Sword of Midras above other tie-ins of its type, so adjust expectations accordingly.
That said though, the authors do a great up keeping up an energetic pace, and I thought both plot and characters were very interesting. The book also sets up the historical context nicely, featuring some places that will be familiar to players of the game. I enjoyed the character of Aren, whom we spend the most time with in this story. He starts off as your typical Obsidian army officer, but gradually, the mysterious powers of the sword changes him, and makes him contemplate other points of view. A strong supporting cast also provides plenty of opportunities for fascinating relationships to develop.
Audiobook Comments: I was also fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to listen to the audio edition of The Sword of Midras. Narrator Derek Perkins is new to me, but I knew right from the start that his voice would be a good fit. His reading made it easy to get into the story, even the slower sections that involve more descriptive detail (and there are plenty examples of this, especially when characters arrive at new places.) His dialogue is also animated and distinguishable, with emotion in all the right places, and I really have no complaints with overall his performance. Overall, this audiobook is one I would recommend, especially if you prefer this format for your lighter reads.
From what I hear, The Sword of Midras is only the first of a planned trilogy. I’m definitely open to checking out the next two books, and hopefully by then the game would be in full swing too, because I really enjoy spending time in this world!...more
If nothing else, this novel gets high marks from me because of how unbelievably addictive it was. On a week night, with an early wake up time the next day, I was still reading with my heart pounding in my chest at 2am refusing to quit this puppy until I was finished. Even though I’ve known about the author’s Wayward Pines series years now, I’ve never read it nor have I watched the TV show based on it. But if those books are anything like Dark Matter, I just might have to go check them out now because Mr. Crouch has a new fan.
But first, how to describe Dark Matter? This is definitely one of those “the less you know going in, the better” kind of novels. It’s enough to say that I was hooked from the first page, and the story’s premise was both intriguing and a punch in the gut. Imagine yourself in protagonist Jason Dessen’s shoes. It’s family night. Jason’s heading out to see a friend, then to pick up some ice cream from the store for his wife and son. All of a sudden, a masked man comes out of nowhere, brandishing a gun and threatening to kill Jason unless he does exactly as he’s told. The abductor makes him take them to an isolated area, then knocks him out by injecting him with some kind of drug. The next thing Jason knows he’s waking up strapped to a gurney, in a sterile room, surrounded by people he’s never met. And it’s the weirdest thing, but all these strangers seem to have been expecting him.
Then Jason returns to his house and discovers everything about it is different. He was never married to his wife. They never had a son. He’s not a college professor, but an award winning physicist responsible for the biggest scientific breakthrough the world has ever known. Years ago, before he met his wife and became a dad, this was the life Jason always dreamed of, but now, alone in a world he doesn’t recognize, all he wants is his family back.
This story was both thrilling and terrifying. Its premise reminded me so much of a recurring nightmare I still have sometimes, in which find myself waking up in the crappy old apartment I had in college and learn that the last six or seven years never happened. The thought that my husband, my kids, my whole life since getting married could be all a dream is the most devastating feeling I could ever imagine, and I’m always filled with a breathless kind of relief when I wake up for real and get all my senses back. It’s probably no surprise then, that I felt an immediate connection to the main protagonist Jason Dessen. The opening scenario in this book really struck a chord with my deepest fears, and I found myself unable to tear my eyes away, wondering what might have happened to Jason, and hoping against hope that he will find the answers he seeks.
Of course, we eventually find out the truth. But since it’ll be difficult to discuss this book further without spoiling, I’m just going to describe my experience with the rest of the story in the broadest of terms. The pacing was great, and other than just a slight slowdown in the middle, Dark Matter was pretty much perfect in its execution. Even in his darkest moments, Jason was a protagonist I found I could root for, because Crouch made it easy for me to sympathize with the character’s desperation and anguish. The best part of the book was probably the last section, with its incredible mind-bending twist. I know it’s a bit of a cliché to call a book “unputdownable”, but in this case, I really can’t think of a better way to describe the ending. Not even the late hour or the unpleasant prospect of spending the next day as a sleep-deprived zombie could stop me from devouring the last few chapters.
It’s been a long time since a book has filled me so much excitement, or that amazing feeling of “Just one more page, just one more I swear…” This was simply fantastic. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, exhilarating read for the summer, look no further than Dark Matter, a flawless blend of science fiction, mystery, and thrilling suspense....more
Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reading Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, which promptly landed him on my “I must read more of this author!” list. So when I found out about his new book Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, I simply couldn’t resist checking it out.
Now that I’m finished reading though, I feel torn. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t think the book was bad, but I also definitely didn’t think it was as good as A Head Full of Ghosts, not even close. Yes, it’s entirely possible that my expectations were way too high going into this, but there were also some pacing problems and other issues I couldn’t ignore, not to mention I also didn’t enjoy the premise as much, which I’m sure played into my overall tepid feelings for this novel.
The book opens with a moment all parents dread. Elizabeth Sanderson, the story’s protagonist, receives a phone call in the middle of the night telling her that her thirteen-year-old son is missing. The caller is her son Tommy’s friend, Josh, who tells her that the two boys and another friend Luis have all been in the woods of Borderland State Park. The three of them had stolen some beer from their parents and had snuck out to do some drinking, Josh says, just hanging out at landmark nicknamed the Devil’s Rock, when Tommy suddenly ran into the trees. This was hours ago, and no one has seen him since.
The next few days are a nightmare for Elizabeth and her daughter Kate as they wait for news. The townspeople are searching the woods tirelessly, police have been called in to investigate, and the media is giving the case national attention. But still, no sign of Tommy. Stressed with worry and grief, Elizabeth starts to think she’s seeing things that aren’t there. That first night, she could have sworn she saw a shadow of Tommy visiting her as a ghost, but believing that also makes her feel terrible because she doesn’t want to give up hope her son is still alive. Then there are the mysterious pages from Tommy’s diary, inexplicably appearing in places for Elizabeth to find. The journal entries reveal a complicated young man who has become increasingly troubled by the loss of his father, Elizabeth’s ex-husband who abandoned his family years ago and died in a drunk-driving accident. Tommy also writes about his experiences in the days leading up to his disappearance, which sheds light on the testimonies of his friends Josh and Luis, indicating that the two boys might not be as forthcoming as they claim. Will these diary pages ultimately lead to the truth behind Tommy’s disappearance?
Like A Head Full of Ghosts, there’s an air of ambiguity that shrouds the story. Paul Tremblay gives just enough to blur the lines between the mundane and the paranormal, keeping readers wondering if there’s more than meets the eye. The book is like a puzzle, providing us with pieces of the narrative from Elizabeth, Kate, Josh, Luis, as well as Allison, the lead investigator on Tommy’s case. Then there are the diary entries from Tommy, words straight from the missing teen himself. Sometimes the different angles reveal answers, helping us fill in the gaps. At other times, they reveal inconsistencies, which is how we later find out some characters aren’t being as truthful as they claim.
I’m aware this style of storytelling usually relies on slower, more methodical pacing. Still, the plodding speed at which this book began was almost unbearable. At one point, I wondered how much of the boys’ shenanigans and their back-and-forth teenage jargon I would have to take before the story would finally get moving. After the initial report that Tommy is missing, the book slows to a crawl and doesn’t pick up again until later, and even then it’s a very gradual escalation without an immediate hook or much suspense.
As I said, I also didn’t enjoy the premise as much. A Head Full of Ghosts was definitely more my bag when it comes to horror, more so than Disappearance at Devil’s Rock which was less “horrific” in the traditional sense. I was unsettled by the story in that I sympathized with Elizabeth’s gut-wrenching sorrow of being a mom with a missing child, but if I was terrified at all, it was more at the idea that one day I’ll be a parent to teenagers, and it scares the hell out of me to read about the kinds of things kids can get up to these days. That left me neither here nor there with this book; it didn’t creep me out the way I would expect from a horror novel, but it was also too slow for me to see it as a true thriller.
That is why I think so much will depend on the kind of horror novel you prefer, and personally speaking this one just didn’t work as well for me—certainly not as well as A Head Full of Ghosts, which I found genuinely clever and creepy at the same time. I also thought that one was a much better book, in terms of writing and construction. Given my high hopes for Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, perhaps it was inevitable that I would be let down, but I suspect I’m in the minority on my feelings for this book. So if the premise sounds like something you’ll enjoy, I strongly urge you to give it a try....more
What would you do if you and your friends were trapped on a wooded island with no way to get off? It is the early 80s, so there are no cellphones to call for help even though civilization is just hops away. The only inhabitant on the island appears to be a homeless woman who is creepy as hell, but she offers you shelter and food and is an excellent cook.
It’s an unsettling situation for sure, but manageable if everyone keeps just calm and waits for rescue. For public health graduate student Karalee and her four companions though, the island may be their last resting place. They are on one of the lonely islands in the Hell Gate section of New York’s East River, where for centuries civilization locked away those they feared the most. The shelter the five friends find is an abandoned old hospital, once used for quarantining victims of infectious diseases. One of its most famous patients was a woman named Mary Mallon—the Irish cook better known as Typhoid Mary.
Karalee didn’t end up at the island by accident. Her great-grandfather was George A. Soper, the sanitation engineer who was the one who discovered Typhoid Mary and finally captured her after she infected and killed people with her cooking. Karalee and her friends were out boating on a beautiful summer day when she spies North Brother Island, and immediately feels drawn to the place because of her family’s history. But when their boat becomes damaged by the unyielding currents of the river, the youths are marooned and are forced to spend the night with the old homeless woman to provide for them. The woman, grimy as she is, proves to be a wizard when it comes to whipping up meals for her stranded guests. She tells Karalee and her friends that her name is Mary, and a slight Irish accent marks her speech. Coincidence? Or is there something more sinister at play here?
Dana I. Wolff’s The Prisoner of Hell Gate is set up like your classic slasher horror scenario: a group of twenty-somethings find themselves trapped in an isolated place with a crazy killer on the loose determined to pick them off one by one. But there’s a twist here. Instead of relying on a copious amount of blood and gore to scare her readers, the author uses our deep-seated fear of germs and gruesome infectious diseases to create horror. And rather than a knife-wielding psychopath, the villain in this tale is a madwoman whose weapon is much more nefarious and repulsive.
Who was Mary Mallon, exactly? The media of the early twentieth century dubbed her Typhoid Mary, for being identified as an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever. Working as a cook, she managed to infect dozens of people and was isolated not once but twice by public health workers, after she changed her name and returned to being a cook even though she was ordered not to upon her first release. I’d heard of her before reading this book, but wasn’t aware of the specifics of her life or the circumstances around her arrest and quarantine. On that front, this book was very informational. I learned about the cat-and-mouse game between Mallon and Soper as the latter traced the trail of infection all across the city in order to finally apprehend her. The story contains many flashbacks to the past, including a recounting of the General Slocum disaster of 1904, when the steamship caught fire and sank in the East River taking with it the lives of more than a thousand men, women and children. The Prisoner of Hell Gate is not a historical novel per se, but those who have an interest in these history subjects will probably find its premise intriguing.
The plot, however, is pretty textbook. The cast is gradually whittled down as one by one they fall prey to the killer. It’s a timeworn device, but to Wolff’s credit she manages to apply it in a quick and suspenseful fashion, even though none of her hopped up, foolish and arrogant characters are all that likeable, which robs their deaths of the desired effect. Karalee is especially annoying with her stubborn defense of Mary Mallon, even though she knew full well all the people Mallon infected and her subsequent lack of cooperation with the authorities. There’s a personal reason for Karalee’s strange sympathies, but they weren’t very well developed. The best character was probably the mysterious Mary. Her narrative is disturbing, but the complexity with which she is written is utterly fascinating.
For my review, I left parts of the story deliberately vague, because I think some of the most unexpected surprises are best left for readers to discover on their own. I wouldn’t go into this book expecting it to shake up the genre, but it had its moments, not to mention some cool twists. It probably could have been scarier it weren’t for the man missed opportunities to play up the terrors of infectious diseases and outbreaks, but there is a supernatural aspect here that I thought was well incorporated. All in all, The Prisoner of Hell Gate was an entertaining read. I would recommend it if you’re looking for a fast-paced, mainstream-type horror read, especially if you have an interest in the history of Typhoid Mary....more